They were lucky, Gintoki concedes. This time, at least. They managed to secure a shelter in a rundown barn and they were even offered some food.
Not really edible under normal circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances, this was war so Gintoki decided not to complain. At least not too loudly.
Eating his share of stale bread he considered his surroundings. Today’s scuffle ended in one, probably mortal, wound to one of their comrades and two dead. Not bad if you consider last week they lost half of their squad. Since then, Zura made sure the plans for future attacks were scrutinized by not two, but three pairs of eyes, just in case.
“In case of what?”, Gintoki asked.
“In case we are to… be at disadvantage”, Zura replied.
In case of another fuck up, thought Gintoki, but didn’t voice it. Zura looked weary enough as it is.
The rest of the squad was not faring much better. All of them bloodied, exhausted and facing malnutrition. Even Takasugi, the bastard, didn’t feel like lighting up his stinky pipe. Worse, even Sakamoto shut up.
Still, it wasn’t that bad. They managed to convince the owner of the household to bunk here for a couple of days. Or Zura did, God knows how with this little brain of his hiding under the wig. Recently, no one was willing to give them shelter, either out of fear for Amanto troops hot on their tails or out of malice. Commoners had had enough of this war, as well.
But this time, this time, Zura’s persuasion worked. Speaking of which…
“Has anyone seen Katsura-san?” asked one of their, few as they were, new recruits. “I have papers for him to sign?”
Murmurs of ‘no’, ‘nope’, ‘haven’t seen him in a while’ went through their camp.
“Give them to me, I’ll pass it to him when he comes back”, said Takasugi. The recruit looked relieved, probably because, and Gintoki had no idea why, Zura made them feel uncomfortable. Either by being their Commander or, well, by being his own ridiculous self.
They finished their dinner in relative peace and because these moments of lull were so rare Sakamoto decided that it’s a great opportunity to open his hidden stash of sake.
“Why the hell not”, Gintoki concurred.
A couple of hours into drinking revealed exactly why not. Sake was foul, but they drank it anyway and now Gintoki was wobblingly trying to find a good place to take a piss in peace, and puke in peace if need arises.
Staggering behind the back door of the household he finally found a good place to park when he caught voices coming through the open window. That made him stop and even his fuzzy mind was able to discern that tone of voice. Zura was talking with their host and that was weird. They never did that, tried to stay as far away from the people that helped them, as possible. For one, to spare them the unfortunate meeting with starved, half-mad samurai and two, not to cause any more trouble than they already have.
So, naturally, he had to stop to listen, especially that the tail end of the sentence he caught was even weirder than the fact that Zura was even there.
“…what would you require from me then?”, asked the black-haired man.
“Straight to the point, eh, Commander?”, the ‘Commander’ was delivered in a mocking tone which sat uneasily in Gintoki’s stomach.
“I don’t see the point in discussing the matter further. You made yourself clear, before.”
“Have I? That maybe so, but please let’s have tea first, I insist”.
Gintoki shuffled closer to hear better, but that only made him remember his bladder is about to burst. First things first, he decided.
After he relieved himself, the memory of the conversation faded from his mind when he laid himself to a fitful couple of hours sleep. Tomorrow they will probably be told to leave, better not waste the precious time.
Zura explained in his monotone voice that, apparently, the landlord decided to prolong his invitation. No one asked why. You don’t look into a gifted horse’s mouth. Gintoki didn’t ask either, but a thought prickled at the back of his mind, that maybe, something wasn’t right. He ignored it, for the time being, focusing on more pressing matters, like making sure that the other man that was wounded yesterday and dead today, got a proper burial.
Takasugi though looked furious all day for no apparent reason. Sure, he was on his merry way to go mad, all of them were, he more than others, but this behavior was not justified in any way.
The reason got apparent a couple of hours later when he was coming back from the burial covered in mud and dirt, fucking again. Gintoki first heard them before he was able to see. Zura didn’t normally hiss when angry. Worry piqued even higher when he heard and answering ‘tch’ which could only belong to Takasugi. Scuffles were not unheard of, but Zura was never angry with Takasugi, didn’t matter that the latter was an asshole most of the times.
“Let go of me, Shinsuke”, the name was spat in anger.
“Are you fucking insane? Why, the fuck, would you go and do that again?”, Takasugi was livid.
“You know why and don’t you fucking dare drag me away from my people, ever again. This conversation is over. Let me go, now.”
“I’m going to kill this fucking bastard!”, Takasugi bellowed.
“Oi, oi, what is this, a lover’s spat?”, Gintoki asked as he emerged from around the bush. Takasugi had his hands tightened in fists around Zura’s battered kimono, but he turned away from Gintoki so he couldn’t see his face. Zura, on the other hand, looked furious, with one hand on the hilt of his katana, but he flinched and stepped away, when he saw Gintoki.
“Nothing to worry abou,t Gintoki. Shinsuke was just his insufferable self”, he said from under the curtain of black strands and promptly walked off.
That left him with irritated Takasugi trailing behind his steps.
“Care to tell me what it was all about?”, Gintoki asked completely put off.
“Mind your own fucking business, Sakata”, Takasugi spat and stormed away.
He didn’t stop any of them. It wasn’t unusual for Takasugi go rampage over, well, almost anything, but for Zura to lose composure, that just simply didn’t happen.
So he went to Sakamoto, the airhead was not only an idiot, after all.
“I heard something interesting today”, Gintoki started and Sakamoto’s curiosity and hunger for gossips always tramped any other feelings. “Our fearless Commander had his panties in a twist today, enough to raise to Takasugi’s taunts. Any idea where it came from?”, he asked in a deceptively light tone.
“Huh? Weird, they seemed normal to me. Hahaha, but that might be just me not paying enough attention to my surroundings, like you always like to remind me”, apparently Sakamoto didn’t know more than he.
“Aaah, but I heard that this household was haunted. By evil spirits, that are most active at night. Maybe, Takasugi fears them and Zura doesn’t fear them enough.”, he added. That made Gintoki stop, looking back at Sakamoto sharply, who already turned and walked down the path murmuring something about sake hunting.
Well, that was cryptic, but not enough to not ring alarming bells in Gintoki’s head. Because evil spirits did not exist, unless you count humans into the equation.
The night was quiet, but not in a peaceful way. Zura laying on his side next to him was more motionless than usual and Takasugi on the other was turning all the time. He couldn’t sleep because of stupid Kiheitai captain’s tossing, Gintoki kept telling himself. He wouldn’t let himself admit he was worried and that his instincts were screaming at him to get the hell out of this shithole of a place.
Maybe he heard it because, at last, Takasugi stopped squirming and the barn was even more quiet, or maybe he was waiting for it. In silence, in the way only Zura could do, he got up and on soft feet left the barn. Gintoki waited for five minutes before he followed.
Memory served him that a good spot to spy on the main house would be the space next to the window near back door, where he pissed last night. Inside, Zura was talking once again with the landlord. This time he could peek in – Zura was standing in the middle of the room lightened up only by the moonlight coming through the blinds; he couldn’t see the landlord.
“It’s good to see you, Commander”, again with that mocking tone. “Hopefully, you had a good rest, considering the night is long”.
Zura looked impossibly tired when he bowed slightly his head, hair fanning out in front of him.
“I don’t have time or patience for this. We will be leaving soon, so we will be out of your hair”, Zura said.
“My, Katsura-san, depraving me of your companionship so soon? I’m disappointed. I thought you said that you will do everything to ensure your troops safety?”, the landlord moved to stand in front of Zura, his silhouette encompassed in darkness.
Zura’s hand striked forward as to clench around the throat of the landlord. The blow didn’t land, fist falling to his side, fingers forcibly relaxing.
“That’s not what it is and, anyway, we are not here to discuss politics and tactics. How would you like me to serve you tonight?”, he says completely impassively.
Gintoki thinks he heard it wrong.
Landlord clicks his tongue once again and reaches out; his fingers closing on a strand of Zura’s hair.
“That was vulgar, Katsura-san and I do not appreciate the tone. I hoped you’d be more enthusiastic about this, given how eagerly you agreed to it”, suddenly his fist closing over the lock of hair pulling Zura away from the moonlight into the darkened corners.
Zura’s face before he follows, shows nothing.
Fight it, you idiot. What are you doing?
And then, when unmistakable purr of “I really like you hair, how is it possible that it’s smoother than any woman’s I know?”, flows through the air the only thought in his mind left is I’m going to kill you, you sick bastard. Slowly and painfully if you lay your hands on him.
He doesn’t kill the man and he doesn’t interrupt either, rendered motionless under the moonlight, he listens to quiet huffs that sound painful and disgusting noises of flesh on flesh. What he does though, is retch.
When Gintoki wakes up, his world seems to hang upside down for the first couple of seconds, until it rearranges itself back into the ugly reality. He scrubs a hand down his face, trying to regain some composure.
A rational part of him clearly says that sacrifices in the war must be made and given that they have shelter and food for a couple of peaceful days is a miracle in and of itself.
The part that remembers Shoyou-sensei and Zura’s high ponytail at the riverbank mourns the innocence lost, the one that was so fiercely protected.
The part he tries to conceal, the one that starts looking more and more like Shiroyasha, says that the landlord took something that didn’t belong to him and for this crime he needs to be punished.
Overwhelmed, he does something that he likes to call a ‘damage control’. He attacks Takasugi behind the trees, smashing him head first into the trunk.
The bastard recovers immediately, reflexes kicking in, trying to fend off the attacker immediately, but Gintoki doesn’t let up, furious now at this son of a bitch.
“You knew. And you didn’t stop him and you didn’t tell me”, he punctuates it with a shake, but Takasugi doesn’t struggle anymore. He sags against it, defeated. This is not how he envisioned it.
“Let me turn”, he says. Gintoki does, too surprised at this show of mellowness than anything else. Takasugi doesn’t look him in the eyes.
“Sakamoto mentioned yesterday that you might find out, this time”.
“This time?”, he said it out loud.
“Yes, Sakata. This time. Because you don’t seem to notice anything else except the end of your own fucking nose doesn’t mean the rest of us is as blind as you”, Takasugi hisses. “Zura has been doing this since that day we couldn’t find shelter and two of our men died because of the lack of proper care”.
“That was five months ago”, Gintoki manages.
“Fuck, I’m surprised you remember. Remember, also the times when we were kids and mean boys picked on Zura because of his stupid, long hair? Yes? Well, it’s like then, only this time he’s facing boys that a little more mean than…”, Gintoki hits him square in the jaw. Takasugi doesn’t even turn his head, peering at him from under the hair falling into his eyes. “Fucking pathetic Sakata. You think that will help exactly who? Before you ask, he told us not to tell you a thing…”
“Sakamoto knows. He found out around the time you were injured and we had to stash you somewhere, for you not to bleed out. I wouldn’t have fucking cared, but Zura was out of his mind with worry, the fool, so he agreed to another stupid deal to find you a place to stay. He’s usually discreet, that time he wasn’t, so Sakamoto found out.”
Gintoki can only stare, not seeing, at Takasugi’s lips as nothing made sense anymore.
“He asked me and Sakamoto not to tell you anything. I can see why, you are a fucking animal. He’s doing this for all the people we have gathered and you know as well as I do, that someone has to make sacrifices. Fucking pity, this one comes with a very high price”, Takasugi finishes waiting for Gintoki’s reply, the only thing that comes to his mind is, “You’re not bothered by it?”, Gintoki asks.
In that moment, something in Takasugi very audibly snaps and before he knows it, Gintoki is laying on the floor of leaves, sucking in a painful breath as Takasugi pushes his knee deeper into his ribs.
His eyes are mad.
“You think I didn’t try to stop it? Stop him? Kill every each one of them, with my fucking pipe? You think I haven’t seen? Listened? To make sure, he goes out of this as unscathed as possible? What do you think that has been? A walk in the park?!”, Takasugi yells and hits him in the face, once, twice, before Gintoki catches his wrist and throws him off.
“Why the hell didn’t you do any of these things?!”, he yells back.
“Why didn’t you?”, says Takasugi in a voice that is flat and devoid of any emotion.
They stare at each other, breathing hard from the fight when they hear someone closing in through the path. They know these soft footsteps by heart.
“Oi, Shinsuke, Gintoki, food is ready to be served!”, Zura calls. With one last look at each other, they pick themselves up and follow Zura’s voice. They could never not to.
During lunch Gintoki observed keenly Zura’s movements, ignoring Sakamoto’s worried glances and Takasugi’s furious eyes. Nothing was amiss, not a strand of his long hair was out of place. Like nothing happened during the night.
When people finished eating Zura got up to announce that they will be leaving the household the next day as the intel provided information that Amanto troops will be passing an unprotected land which is a great opportunity to set up a trap and, later, if they survive, to move forward, into the West.
Answering groans and whines of the company’s soldiers were promptly dismissed. Zura moved to stand next to Gintoki and Takasugi to, probably, ask them for help in laying out the plans for tomorrow’s attacked when the fucking worm came out crawling from his hole.
“Commander, I happened to hear your announcements a minute ago and was wondering, why the rush? Surely, more Amantos to slay will appear in the upcoming days and maybe your men still need a couple of days rest?”, the landlord said with an obnoxious smile that made Gintoki want to punch his teeth in.
Zura, to his credit, didn’t even flinch, but Gintoki could see his fingers clenching minutely inside his haori.
“Ah, Masaki-san, thank you for your hospitality but as you may well know we are at war and the more Amanto we slay, the better. We have to take the opportunities we are given”, Zura said in a polite tone that gave away nothing. His answer though resulted in quiet disappointed murmurs of the samurai gathered around which were quickly silenced by Takasugi’s glare.
“Well, then, Commander, let me invite you to a farewell cup of tea this evening, to celebrate this… cooperation”, Masaki said which made Zura’s eyes flash for a second with something that looked like rage and murder but ended up being polite resignation.
“Of course, I’ll come by your house later this evening”.
Gintoki heard something snap behind him, it was Takasugi’s pipe, of all things. Well, at least they agreed on something.
In hindsight, it might not have been the best of plans. If you would be bold enough to even call it a plan. Ambush would be a more appropriate word, Gintoki thought. He should know better than let stupid Takasugi talk him into this. As a result of a bad decision-making they were now facing Zura and effectively blocking him from going into the mansion.
“Whatever you want to discuss it can wait Takasugi, I have to meet with our patron”, Zura spoke first, eyes flashing briefly to Gintoki. And because Takasugi is the biggest fucking idiot on this planet he responded with:
“Hoh, in a hurry to meet your patron, Zura?”, which made Zura tense, draw back and shut anything that was not polite professionalism that he liked to wear so much.
“I’m not sure what you mean Takasugi and if you’d excuse me”, he said trying to move past them, when Gintoki found himself saying “I know”. This made the dark-haired man falter in his step, made him slow down, but didn’t stop him.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Gintoki. Perhaps you had too much to drink. You shouldn’t indulge Takasugi, you know…” and this, this, made Gintoki see red and before he knew what he’s doing he slammed Zura against the nearest wall. Maybe that will put some sense into him, because if it doesn’t then Gintoki has no idea how to convince the stupid wig, that nothing, nothing is worth it. Not him, not Takasugi, not this awful war, not even Sensei. He found himself repeating his thoughts, quietly to the silence in front of him. The impact made Zura’s hair fall into his face and Gintoki couldn’t see his eyes. Which was no good at all.
Ignoring Takasugi’s presence whatsoever, he found himself brushing black strands from Zura’s face and lifting his chin, needing to see his eyes. Eyes that looked through him, blank.
Dead eyes. Zura was looking at him with dead eyes that fit samurai corpses on the battlefield. They didn’t fit in his face. The sheer wrongfulness of this made Gintoki take a step back.
“Who else knows?”, asked Zura with blank voice matching his blank eyes. Takasugi took this as his cue to pipe in, “Only us, Zura, but you need to stop this. You are always going on about bushido this, bushido that. Think about what would Sensei say if…”, the abrupt stop of the utter shit that was coming out of the short idiot’s mouth was caused by Zura’s sword pushing at the skin of his throat.
“I don’t want to hear this from a person who kills for fun”, Zura being spiteful was a rare occurrence and clearly the situation was getting out of hand but before Gintoki could react, Takasugi spoke again “At least I’m enjoying myself while killing our enemy, Zura, tell me, do you enjoy it when old men put their cocks…” this time it was Gintoki who reacted first, punching Takasugi as hard as he could. The shorter man crumpled to the floor and all that could be heard was a quiet sigh of Zura’s sword being sheathed again and Gintoki’s heavy breathing.
Without looking in their direction, Zura moved, ready to go, hesitated and without turning, very softly, he said, “You’d do the same, Gintoki, so let’s never speak of this again. Please.”, and Gintoki was on the verge of saying that no, he wouldn’t, he would never do anything like this for a stupid cause, but the vulnerability of the plead, the openness of it, effectively shut him up. Katsura never asked for anything and this at least Gintoki could honor. So, he let him go.
Two days later they left the household equipped with food and arms. No one questioned the hospitality of their patrons.
They never spoke about it again. Not like they had time to do it, as two weeks later Gintoki made an impossible decision, Takasugi lost his eye, Zura screamed himself hoarse and all of them lost their purpose.
They never spoke about it, until they did.