“Have you ever kissed someone?”
Gintoki has come to learn that the boy named Katsura doesn’t beat around the bush. He is quiet most of the time, drawn back further than any of Shouyou’s other students, but whatever he says is always to the point. If he had not once stood by his side and readied himself to fight, Gintoki would have never thought him to be the kind for flashiness.
“Ew,” he replies eloquently.
“So you haven’t,” Katsura says, matter-of-fact. “Taneda was taking about girls earlier. Takasugi started making fun of you in your back and said you’d probably die unmarried.”
That is the thing with Katsura—the thing Gintoki has learned about Katsura. He doesn’t speak up, doesn’t stand out, but when that spark is lit, there is not stopping the fire from spreading.
They are alone now in the old room that Shouyou is occupying more or less legally for the month. Clean-up duty. Gintoki is still on punishment for the last time he punched his opponent instead of ‘respectfully disarming him’, and Katsura drew the short straw.
“What’s it matter to Takasugi if I get married?” Gintoki asks, turning back to his task. His task being to polish the floor until it shines.
“Nothing, I suppose. He was adamant about it, though.”
Gintoki hears the splash of water from behind him before he can sense Katsura move. Wetness spreads past his feet, and soap suds cling to his skin. He grabs the broom tighter and rubs it all away.
Were it up to him, he would have left the topic alone there. It doesn’t matter to him what Takasugi does outside of fighting him directly, and Takasugi isn’t yet good enough to beat him more than one time out of three. So what if the asshole has kissed someone and Gintoki hasn’t? Any wife of his would probably take her own life after a week of having to look at his face.
Were it up to him, Gintoki would have not thought of kissing or marriage again until a long, long time. But Katsura is standing by his side and sweeping the wet floor, and he says, “Takasugi hasn’t kissed anyone either, you know.”
“Of course he hasn’t,” Gintoki replies in boredom. His smile is a little difficult to hide, but he manages. Katsura has never been very good at reading other people’s faces anyway. “Who’d want to kiss him?”
“Some girls used to find him handsome, back home. I think his father said he’d be an easy marriage compared to his brothers.”
Takasugi has brothers? Gintoki thinks.
He’s never spoken about them before.
Katsura seems to guess his thoughts, for he adds: “His family is a little complicated. He’d probably beat me up if he knew I told you about it.”
Gintoki is a little tempted to ask why Katsura told him, then. “Well, he’s not,” he says instead. “Handsome. Those girls must’ve had shit for eyes.”
It’s always a little funny to be crass around Katsura; his face remains unexpressive, but he can’t stop a faint shudder every time. Right now it is his elbow shaking next to Gintoki’s as if hunger is weakening him.
He splashes some more water over the floorboards and lets his broom fall into the puddle, making droplets fly over his and Katsura’s clothes. “His personality sucks and he’s always covered in crap. You’re a lot more handsome than him, Zura.”
“You think so?”
“Sure,” Gintoki replies. “You’ve got nice hair and all that. Girls go stupid for nice hair.” Or at least he thinks they do.
Katsura seems to take his words to heart, and the next while is spent in silence as they sweep the floor clean. They are neither of them good at such menial tasks—Gintoki has never had a house to clean, and Katsura looks the kind to have lived with a least a servant before. Their brooms knock into each other once too many times. Gintoki is half-tempted to engage Katsura in a mock-fight with them. The idea splits his lips into a smile, and he turns to look at the other boy with the suggestion ready, and stops. Katsura’s face is somber.
What now, he thinks.
Katsura saves him the trouble of actually asking. “You think my hair is nice,” he says.
For some reason, Gintoki’s face warms.
“Uh, yeah,” he replies. “I guess so. You know—better than Takasugi’s.”
Katsura looks up from the floor. Because he is shorter than Gintoki and Takasugi both, he always has to bend the head back a little to meet their eyes on the rare occasion he wants to. He does so now a little slow and deliberate; the clear spring light from outside pours over his face and changes his black eyes to brown.
“Would you kiss me?” he asks.
The flux between Gintoki’s brain and his mouth seems to slow. “What?”
“Would you kiss me?”
Like, hypothetically? he wants to ask.
Part of his mind has gone white and silent. Another has bolstered up his blood flow so that his skin turns warm and uncomfortable from the neck up. Through it all, Gintoki can’t quite meet Katsura’s eyes or look away from them—the result being that he stares a little under the line of them, right where the bridge of his nose dips into nothing.
“Kiss you,” he says.
“You’d have one over Takasugi,” Katsura explains very plainly. He sounds nearly logical. “We both would.”
Gintoki doesn’t end his line of thought. He doesn’t know why, but telling Katsura ’you’re a boy’ feels like an insult.
As often when confusion reigns in him and Shouyou is nowhere to help him direct it into training, it turns into decision-making. “Fine,” he manages. “Yeah, sure.”
Katsura suddenly looks very pleased with himself.
He’s the one who crosses the short distance between them, slowly enough that Gintoki has time to reflect on what he just said and wonder—Wait, right now? But then there is a twelve-year-old boy standing right before him, his straight nose a little too long and his brown eyes a little too wide, looking at him in expectation. Katsura smells like soap from his shower earlier. His hair, Gintoki notices, does shine in the sunlight in a very nice way.
It isn’t the earth-shattering revelation that the other boys like to speak of sometimes. It isn’t much of anything, really. Katsura’s nose is way too long, and it ends up knocking into Gintoki’s before their lips are anywhere close to touching. Katsura’s eyes are closed now. He lets out a small sound that could be laughter or pain in equal measures. But Gintoki manages to tip his head a little to the left; he feels Katsura’s exhale over his mouth and chin; he presses their lips together.
That’s about all it is, in truth: the somewhat awkward position of his neck and the feeling of dry skin on his, not at all wet, not any sort of overwhelming. He doesn’t close his eyes—he thinks Katsura may use the opportunity to open his and spy, and he doesn’t know why the thought embarrasses him—but it’s not like he can see anything from this close up anyway. After what he assumes is the right amount of time, he pulls back.
The step he takes to put distance between them almost ends up sliding off the slippery floor. He catches his balance before Katsura opens his eyes. The other boy lifts a hand to his lips and touches them thoughtfully.
How was it? Gintoki wonders.
Katsura says nothing, however, to let him know of his impressions. He nods, satisfied, and goes back to sweeping the floor in contented silence.
Gintoki can’t chase the flush from his face for the rest of the evening. It sits below his skin, warming his cheeks and neck, until the late hours of night.
The following day during practice, Katsura challenges Takasugi to a spar. It is odd enough to see him challenge anyone that most of the other boys stop their own exercises to watch, Gintoki included. What’s more, Katsura eliminates Takasugi in a series of well-placed hits of his bamboo sword, until Takasugi falls on his behind.
“What’s wrong with you?” he spits at Katsura. His hair, sticky with sweat, leans over his forehead in little spiky strands.
Katsura lifts the bamboo sword and replies, “That’s just the difference in experience between us, Takasugi.”
The injury is every kind of ugly.
Gintoki has never been squeamish in any way. A life of erring and feeding from the pockets of corpses beat that out of him long before he engaged in war, after all, and then war itself drained him out of the ability to cringe in the face of blood. He does feel something, however, looking at Sakamoto’s wrist. He felt in when Sakamoto was carried away from victory by their allies, and he feels it now observing the red-stained cloth wound around his hand and arm.
This is Sakamoto’s sword hand. The knowledge twists and turns inside of him and cuts his appetite short.
He has barely touched his meal when he puts the plate away for good. The rest of the wide room is mostly silent except for a few snores here and there; they are now living out of a farmhouse long abandoned by its inhabitants, all thirty of them, and night has fallen over their camp. Most of the men and boys are sleeping.
Nighttime and injury have never stayed Sakamoto’s tongue, however.
“Chiyo-chan will never find me handsome now,” he is bemoaning, Gintoki thinks. He stopped listening something like an hour ago. Sakamoto waves his injured hand around carelessly, almost hitting it to the corner of wall he is sitting against, and the bowl full of broth he his holding in his left spills some of its content over his dirty clothes. “I can never show myself to her house again.”
“She never found you handsome to begin with,” Gintoki replies, thinking not of the fat-bosomed girl Sakamoto fancies himself the love of, but of Sakamoto’s hand under the bandages.
The cut is so very deep. Deep enough to almost sever his tendons. Deep enough to have damaged his muscles irreparably.
Finally, he can’t stop himself. “Stop moving it,” he snaps.
It is hard to see Sakamoto’s face in the penumbra of the house, but enough moonlight filters in that Gintoki notices him blinking in surprise. “Yes, boss,” Sakamoto says. His injured hand falls to his lap once more. “Are you gonna eat that?”
“Listening to you makes me want to puke. Go ahead.”
Sakamoto laughs as brightly as ever. He maneuvers the bowl out of his lap and Gintoki’s plate in its place. His chopsticks shake in the fingers of his left hand; half of the rice he picks up ends up falling back down.
Not that the animal minds. “Zura would offer to feed me,” he complains, rice sticking around his mouth. “You’re so uncute, Kintoki.”
“That’s not my name.”
Gintoki does shift closer and hold the plate for him, though.
Zura and Takasugi are outside the house right now. Their turn to watch over camp. Any other day Gintoki would have come with them, and Sakamoto as well, probably, but Sakamoto can’t walk so well with the fever that weakened him. It’s a miracle it broke last night instead of killing him. Not even he is stupid enough to risk catching a cold now.
Gintoki frowns at the darkness in displeasure. They have been living here for over a week, but tonight the ground feels too hard to sit on, let alone sleep, and the air reeks of blood and warmed-over booze. There is a discomfort sitting tight within him that he doesn’t know how to get rid of.
He thinks, oddly, that if it were Zura or Takasugi lying injured beside him, he wouldn’t feel this way.
Sakamoto finishes most of the rice despite his trembling. The idiotic smile hasn’t left his lips, but nightlight shines off of his sweaty forehead more starkly than before.
“You should sleep,” Gintoki tells him before he can help it.
Sakamoto looks at him for a second. His smile widens. “Aw,” he replies, “you’re worried about me.”
Zura has tried this line on him enough times by now that Gintoki is thoroughly immune to it. It’s fine when it is Zura, who doesn’t care about reactions as much as he does about making others listen to him, but Sakamoto is…
He’s different. How or why, Gintoki doesn’t know; but he is.
“You could talk a dead body into suicide,” he grunts, looking away.
For a blessed moment, silence falls over them. Gintoki uncrosses his legs and rubs the fabric of his pants over his sweat-slick skin. Summer nights here are hot and heavy with wet. Many of the other boys and men complain about it in the languid hours in-between battlefields. When he leans his back fully against the wall, he feels humidity catch at his nape and warm over his skin.
“Hey, Gintoki,” Sakamoto says.
Gintoki hums faintly in answer.
“Do you remember when I asked you to come to space with me?”
Gintoki is not supposed to remember that. That offer was made while he slept, or so he liked to pretend, but it’s not as if he expected Sakamoto to be fooled either. It is so far removed a topic from everything going on in that moment that he finds no words to answer with. His shoulder closest to Sakamoto’s own shrugs helplessly.
“So you do remember,” Sakamoto goes on, satisfied. “Well, it looks like my plans might come true a little faster than anticipated, yeah?”
“You’re leaving?” Gintoki asks.
If he were to believe in that, Gintoki could have thought Sakamoto’s expression affectionate. “Of course,” he says. “No place in a war for a man who can’t swing a sword.”
It is a stupid sentence to start, and Gintoki does not finish it. There are things that non-combatting people could do to help, but to suggest any to Sakamoto would add insult to injury.
Besides, it’s none of his business what Sakamoto decides to do. He only joined their side of the war for profit and, as Gintoki understands, in order to spite his father. He’s not like Gintoki or Zura or Takasugi. Not like the men sleeping around them either.
Sakamoto nods, almost pleased. “I still want you to come with me,” he declares. “Won’t you think about it?”
“Humans aren’t made to fly off the ground,” Gintoki mumbles. “Birds got wings for that. We don’t.”
“Yes, but think about it. Think of all those worlds out there we don’t know! Haven’t you ever wanted to explore?”
Gintoki has never thought about it before. Unlike Sakamoto, who grew up smothered and yearning for freedom, Gintoki has no greater wish than to be earth and home-bound.
He licks his dry lips. They taste of dirt and salt and of the thin broth they drank earlier.
“I’m not coming to space with you,” he says. “Sorry.”
It feels a little short, a little dry, for an answer. It is the best he can do.
“Ah,” Sakamoto sighs. He doesn’t sound surprised. “Well, I sort of expected it. Too bad, too bad.”
For a moment Gintoki thinks that he may leave it at that and finally decide to sleep. This twice-avoided conversation would go back to its slumber and never wake again, and he could perhaps forget that he feels the way he does and forget that he doesn’t know why he does.
But Sakamoto turns to face him frankly and says, “Then do you mind if I ask you for something else?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, however, or even to know if Gintoki has one to give. Gintoki sees him kneel up on the wooden floor and moves bracingly, wondering if Sakamoto intends to stand in his state and hurt himself further. Instead, Sakamoto grabs the back of Gintoki’s neck with his good hand and leans in till their mouths are pressed together.
He pulls back almost immediately. Gintoki barely has time to feel the shape of his smile and the warmth of his fevered skin. Caught still and blank-minded, he watches Sakamoto look over the sleepers around them to make sure none are watching, and then his lips are back, firmer and more present than before, wet from the tongue he slipped over them furtively.
There is a faint hum on the heated air. Gintoki takes a moment to recognize it as Sakamoto himself voicing some kind of satisfaction. The fingers at his nape drag through his sweat-wet hair as Sakamoto fits their faces better; only then does he realize that he is leaning in instead of away and pressing right back.
It’s hard not to echo that hum, that almost-moan, so febrile has his breathing gone and so tight does his chest feel. The kiss lingers between them, hot and awkward and yet not uncomfortable. This time, when Sakamoto pulls away, Gintoki knows his face his crimson.
He feels Sakamoto’s laughter over his mouth and chin. Sakamoto’s fingers rub his hair and nape and seem to drag away with them all the tension of the past week. “Can I get a little more?” he asks excitedly.
Gintoki’s lips, face, body are a wreck. “More?” he manages.
“Yeah,” Sakamoto says. “Yeah, like this.”
He does’t have to pull at all this time around. Gintoki meets him on the way, heedless of the heat and possible onlookers.
More, it turns out, is Sakamoto’s lips aligned with his so that when they open, Gintoki’s do as well. It is the surprising feeling of his tongue dipping between them and making Gintoki’s whole head burn up—the endeared chuckle that challenges him into mimicking it until Sakamoto is as red as he is. His hands find Sakamoto’s waist and grab tightly.
“This is so gross,” Gintoki complains the second he pulls away for air.
He hasn’t let go, however. Sakamoto laughs into his face; his palm strokes down the side of Gintoki’s neck before leaving it.
“I think that was probably the most dangerous thing I ever did,” he muses, pulling back fully. Gintoki has no more excuse to keep holding him, and so he stops and doesn’t think about how wrong it feels. “If that guy saw…”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, nothing,” Sakamoto says. His smile is blinding even in the darkness.
Gintoki doesn’t want to leave it at Oh, nothing. All of his reluctance has vanished and left him with a million questions on his mind. He doesn’t know how to ask any of them—doesn’t know that he wants to ask any of them. He unknots his limbs and falls back against the wall. His legs have bent into a half-kneel while they kissed; he straightens them now and smooths over the fabric of his clothes.
He is tense, he realizes. Something tells him that whatever is left to hover like this over them will come back to haunt him later if he doesn’t address it. But Sakamoto is sighing now against his own corner of wall, one hand over his lips and the other, injured, in his lap.
“I’ll miss you a lot, Gintoki,” he says. His sincerity is nearly tangible. “Think about me sometimes, yeah?”
Gintoki looks over his profile in silence. His messy hair and crooked nose and adamant chin.
“Yeah,” he replies. “I will.”
The one and only time Gintoki thinks about kissing Takasugi, he is holding him in his arms and speaking of the past in flimsy words. The faint breaths that Takasugi lets out are few enough to be counted in the silence of the ravaged building. His skin is cold to the touch but each of his words burns.
Takasugi doesn’t ask to be kissed like Zura once did. He does not make use of Gintoki’s surprise like Tatsuma to take what he wants. He wastes his dying lungs to request a smile instead.
After that, there is no Takasugi to kiss, even if Gintoki wants to.
This is not any kind of ache he can push down and ignore. Gintoki used to be good at this—ignoring. Moving on. Making a small enough effort of living that the rest, the oh-so-heavy rest, can be forgot or looked away from. But either his age has caught up to him or he has become too saturated with grief to continue; for weeks and months after he tells Takasugi to wait for him in hell, he wakes and walks and sleeps with twice his weight in sorrow trying to bend his neck.
The human heart works in odd ways. Gintoki thought for over a decade that nothing could ever grieve him more than the memory of his sword cutting his teacher’s neck. Now this seems faint, almost like a dream, next to the sound of Takasugi’s voice asking not to see him cry.
Then, one day, Kagura comes to fetch him in the bedroom of Yorozuya. He has no time to wonder at the stunned expression she is wearing before she says, “There’s a dead man at the door.”
It is Takasugi. He looks a little smoother, a little younger, and both of his eyes are open; but it’s him, standing on the front step and looking like he is expecting a sword to cut him down.
Gintoki could not have held a sword then if his life depended on it. His fingers shake under the weight of air alone.
The human heart works in odd ways. It isn’t meant to sustain such grief and not meant to let go of it either. Gintoki contemplates the man in front of him and doesn’t know how to feel anything but hurt, anything but sore, muscles and soul alike exhausted with effort. It’s too much, he thinks, dry-eyed and dry-hearted. It’s too much for fate to throw him another curved ball. He would need twice as much blood, thrice as much spirit, to overcome this.
Takasugi—the name alone dries him, with the man standing there—seems to share his feelings. His face is deathly pale in the cold morning light; his skin looks thinned and stretched to the point of breaking.
“I can leave,” he says.
Gintoki knows what speaking like this costs him. It’s the only reason he finds enough strength to reply, “No.”
Moving aside to allow Takasugi in feels like moving a three-ton boulder with his bare hands. He does it anyway.
Kagura leaves the office without another word. Gintoki thinks faintly that she will join Shinpachi on his day off and help Otae out at the dojo while waiting for—for this to be done. Whatever it is.
Habit is what keeps him moving. He can’t look at Takasugi for too long without feeling that his ribs are being pried open, can’t stand breathing in the same air as him without suffocation taking hold, so he gives himself time by escaping to the kitchen. A chilled bottle of sake rests at the bottom of the fridge. He takes it out and warms some of it up.
Takasugi hasn’t moved at all in the time he takes to come back. He is barefoot in the middle of the room, looking straight at the chipped desk Gintoki once fished out of an alleyway and has never had the heart to change.
Gintoki feels him breathe in as if the air is crawling through his own lungs.
“I went to see Zura first,” Takasugi says.
The cups click against old wood. It seems to Gintoki that the sound echoes like that of bells. “How did he take it?” he asks.
He finds that the question is sincere. He finds that, for once, his worry for Zura is not tainted with reluctance or wariness.
“He only tried to stab me twice before he started crying.”
Well enough, then.
“Sakamoto was harder to get a hold of,” Takasugi goes on. Air moves with him when he takes a step forward. Gintoki doesn’t have it in him to look at him, no matter that they now stand side by side before the desk. “He cried too. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Gintoki wants to ask him, Did you not expect people to love you?
“What about your old team?” he says instead.
“They were the ones who found me.”
The take unfolds slowly. Takasugi has a talent for story-telling that is near classical in nature, something Gintoki remembers noticing and never commenting upon, a whole lifetime ago.
The dragon veins. The infant body he had to grow out of. The rate of this growth—the same as Shouyou’s, when Gintoki found him—and the slow trickle of memories coming back to him as came back speech and walking. Takasugi tells it all in the way a writer would. He leaves in gaps wide enough to fit entire lives.
Their sake has cooled by the time either of them deigns to touch it. Gintoki can’t imagine being able to lift his cup, never mind drink from it; Takasugi manages the former but not the latter, and for a long time it balances between his fingers to the rhythm of his words.
When silence follows his tale, it is much, much heavier than any Gintoki has known before.
He could withstand it. Grief is like a second skin to him by now; he could mure himself into it and wait for things to pass. He could accept to be just too tired.
But Takasugi is different. He has always been different. Silence is to him like gangrene to a wound. Distance of any kind nurtures and cultivates it. Gintoki knows that silence is not what Takasugi wants, just as he knows that if he leaves him to it, Takasugi will never again break it.
“Takasugi,” he says.
He can’t continue. Words fail him as they always have, as they always will. His body burns from belly to throat.
He thinks of phantom weight of Takasugi’s dead body in his arms. He thinks of Zura’s well-hid grief and Tatsuma’s avoidance.
He thinks of himself and the things that those two did to pull the love out of him.
There is nothing in the way of his hands as he grabs for Takasugi’s shoulders. He can hardly care that Takasugi jumps badly enough for most of his liquor to spill between them, not when the skin he finds in the opening of Takasugi’s yukata is living-warm instead of cold, his heartbeat quick and secure.
He’s not twelve or eighteen anymore; when he leans in to kiss Takasugi, he knows exactly what he’s doing.
It doesn’t stop it from being clumsy. Takasugi holds onto him almost painfully, his nails dug deep into the skin of Gintoki’s arms, and from the way he moves and stutters, Gintoki can guess that he hasn’t much experience. But the pain is welcome. The discomfort is welcome. Takasugi’s chest stills and his face wets almost instantly, and Gintoki tastes salt between their lips.
Thank you, he thinks, is what he is trying to say by kissing Takasugi like this.
Thank you, and Zura, and Tatsuma, for giving me all those first steps.
It isn’t anything he knows how to put into words, but that’s fine. Takasugi sags against him like a puppet with short-cut strings, his body shaking and his wet mouth forming sounds that neither of them know how to decipher.
Gintoki pulls away from the kiss before he falls. Takasugi has leaned so far into him that his back is bent dangerously over the empty space behind him, and now the man is still gripped to Gintoki’s body as if unclawing him would mean cutting off his own fingers. Gintoki wants to smile at this and wants to cry a little too; he replaces his hold on Takasugi’s face with one around his shoulders and crushes him into a hug.
The sobs aren’t long to come. Takasugi shakes against him and can’t draw in a breath without choking on it, each warm burst of his air crashing against Gintoki’s neck and shoulder. He doesn’t let go for a single second. When eventually they part, Gintoki will wear the shape of his fingernails on his skin for days.
He thinks he wouldn’t mind wearing them his whole life.