It was a day of snow and wind over the ragged countryside. Gintoki thought blearily back then that Shouyou must have built a fire somewhere, for his body was hot and cold in turns, the sheets he was wrapped in soaked with sweat and his own damp breathing. The wet cloth over his forehead slid every way he turned.
And then, always, there was a hand to push it back in place.
“Don’t move so much,” Shouyou would say.
For all of his usual chatter, he was oddly quiet that day. His hand on Gintoki’s burning face lingered.
Gintoki replied, “M’not moving,” while turning on his other side.
There came a sigh in the gentle silence of the shed. Shouyou once more picked up the cloth and put it back on Gintoki’s forehead.
That was the most he could remember of that time. The snow outside blanketing every sound; the lengthened hours of night spread over him like a sheen of sweat, tearing groans out of his aching throat; and Shouyou next to him in the light of the fire, reading out of a book with a hand on Gintoki’s face.
It must be uncomfortable, he thought. Shouyou must be tired.
“Where’s everyone?” he mumbled.
“There is no school today. Did you forget what day of the week it is again?”
Gintoki chose to burrow under the cover in stead of answering that he could not, in fact, remember.
Shouyou’s hand followed him and kept the cool cloth over his face.
If Gintoki had focused and thought then, he would have known that this was no day off. He would have remembered his promise of the day before to Takasugi for yet another spar—though it was less that he had promised than acquiesced to Takasugi’s own demands, after over an hour outside swinging their practice swords around the frozen fields.
If Gintoki had thought to remember this, then he could have perhaps imagined Shouyou’s reaction upon waking in the middle of night and finding him shivering in his corner of the shed, his cover kicked away and panting for fresh air. His whole body burning under Shouyou’s shaking hands as his teacher panicked and tried to wake him up, as he ran to the town doctor for help and bargained away every bit of his meagre belongings.
He would have perhaps noticed the footsteps and furious whispers outside in Takasugi and Zura’s voices.
But Gintoki did not know. All he felt under the two blankets covering him was warmth and dampness; all of his relief from discomfort came in the shape of that hand over his face which he wanted to grab with both of his.
Shouyou must be tired, he thought very selfishly, but I don’t want him to stop.
“You should sleep some more, since there are no classes today,” Shouyou said. “Don’t think I will go easy on you tomorrow.”
“You never go easy on me,” Gintoki complained.
Shouyou shifted in his spot of the hard floor and laughed, turning a page of his book one-handedly. His fingers pressed the cold cloth to Gintoki’s forehead and ran through his sweat-damp hair.
Gintoki turned until his side rested on the very edge of the straw mat. From there, he could almost feel Shouyou’s hip and leg against his front. He could almost imagine himself wrapping his arms around them so that the warmth of his body could be added to his fever-hot self, like he sometimes refrained from doing out of deep shyness.
Gintoki hoped for a minute that the feeling would go away. He woke in the early hours of morning with his eyelids pushed shut and his body languid with heat, with cold sweat; he coughed out of his aching throat and shifted over his futon, and he groaned and hoped that it would pass.
He heard Kagura fall out of the closet something like an hour later. In that time he had rolled over his bedding enough to leave it damp with sweat throughout, and every heavy step that the girl took toward the bathroom, in her usual morning grogginess, seemed to ring through his whole head. He thought he heard her snap something at him, but he ignored it.
There was silence for a few blissful minutes as she showered. Gintoki let the sound of running water quiet him until he could almost forget how pitiful he felt.
Then Shinpachi showed up, and his quiet was ruined.
“Get up already,” the boy sighed at him after sliding open the door in a much too loud fashion.
Gintoki didn’t need to look at him to picture him grimacing at the stuffy smell of the room. He buried himself under the blanket as Shinpachi walked to the window and opened it widely. It wasn’t enough to stop his lungs and throat from aching at the intake of cold winter air.
“Honestly, it’s like you and Kagura-chan don’t even notice how unhealthy your living habits are—you’re usually up before her, Gin-san,” Shinpachi lectured. Gintoki heard him walk around the room again, no doubt to pick up the sheets and blankets that Kagura had not bothered to earlier. “This is all stained!” he yelled a moment later. “When’s the last time you washed those sheets? You know Kagura-chan could get allergies if you don’t clean the closet from time to time.”
“She’s too gross to care,” Gintoki cut him off from under the blanket. “She’s already allergic to the sun anyway.”
“You know you can be allergic to several things.”
“I’m allergic to the sound of your voice.”
Shinpachi lost himself to a moment of angry shouting which left Gintoki’s temples pounding with pain. He tried to burrow further into his sweaty nest of sheets, but soon enough even this much comfort was gone from him. Shinpachi tore the blanket from his body and yelled, “Get dressed! We have a customer today.”
So was it that Gintoki ended up rising from the futon: shuddering from the cold air, head pounding, throat dry and aching. He bypassed the table in the office where Kagura was busy inhaling twice her size in rice, grunting in reply to her incomprehensible greeting. Several grains fell out of her nose and landed on the floor.
The shower he took did him some good. Heat and steam soothed his throat and sinuses and washed away the night’s sweating, leaving him somewhat clear-headed when he dressed and stepped out of the bathroom a few minutes later. By then breakfast was almost gone, but Gintoki was not hungry anyway. He grabbed his coat by the front door to wrap himself in it before heading back to the office.
Kagura had apparently decided to occupy the entirety of his favorite couch all by herself; she lay on her front over the length of it with the previous week’s issue of Jump in hand, Sadaharu at her feet. The huge dog whined softly when Gintoki pushed away her legs to make room for himself.
“You didn’t eat,” Kagura said without looking up.
“Good, then.” She sat up and dragged the half-bowl of remaining food to herself. “More for me.”
“You’ll get sick again if you eat too much,” Shinpachi declared, having reappeared from the bedroom with a broom and mop in hand. “Also, you’re welcome. I just cleaned your closet.”
“You’re supposed to say thank you!”
“Who’s our client?” Gintoki asked.
He regretted doing so when an itch immediately manifested itself at his throat. He swallowed back slowly, hoping to clear it away without coughing, his temples aching blindingly in response.
“A friend of Otose-san’s,” Shinpachi said. “Remember? She came yesterday, said she’d be back today to ask us to investigate her brother’s business.”
Try as he might, Gintoki could not remember at all. “All right,” he said anyway. “Turn on the TV, Patsuan.”
“I have a name, you know.”
As Gintoki’s feet were put upon the coffee table, Shinpachi had to walk over them to reach the remote. He fumbled with for a second before the TV screen lit up to the morning news—later than Gintoki liked to catch them and, unfortunately, absent his favorite weather reporter.
Not that he even thought about it right then, because the sight and sound of the monitor made his cranium ache fiercely.
“Actually, turn it off,” he grumbled.
“Will you make up your mind already!” Shinpachi bellowed in return, fists clenched at his sides. “Gin-san, you’re even worse today than usual.”
“Why’re you wearing your coat inside?” Kagura added, kicking him in the thigh.
“I’m more fashionable with it on.”
“You’re never fashionable, Gin-san.”
Kagura kneeled up on the couch to turn and look at him. “You’re all red, Gin-chan,” she said with a scrunched-up face.
Gintoki avoided the finger she no doubt intended to poke into his face. “Sometimes grown-ups get all red and start slurring their words,” he replied. “It means they’re very tired of all the brats they live with.”
“You’re not drunk,” Shinpachi said flatly. “You’re obviously too hot with your coat on—look, you’re sweating. You’ll catch a cold when we go out later, take it off.”
Gintoki was too busy warring with Kagura’s wandering hands to answer him. Eventually, and despite his best efforts to stop her, she managed to land one solid palm in his face with what felt like the strength of three grown men.
“You really are hot,” she said in victory, ignoring the grunt of pain he gave at the blow. “Hot enough to egg on.”
“To cook an egg on,” Shinpachi corrected. But his voice bore faint traces of worry as he added, “Is he really hot?”
“Come and look for yourself, Shinpachi.”
There were too many ways to count for Gintoki to push the both of them away, too many of which could potentially result in one of them hitting their heads somewhere hard and painful, so he decided to sit still. He was not surprised at all to feel Shinpachi’s fingers leave his forehead almost as soon as they touched it.
“You’re burning up!” Shinpachi exclaimed, holding his own wrist as if contact with Gintoki’s skin had truly been enough to hurt. “Gin-san, are you all right?”
“M’fine,” Gintoki replied.
Seeing as both of them were now squinting at him in suspicion from a safe distance away, he pushed himself off of the couch. The world only turned on several axes for a couple seconds before settling enough for him to walk.
“It’s just the Will of Fire burning inside me,” he declared, heading for the hallway. “I must return to Konoha at once.”
“If you’re sick—”
“I’m not sick. Idiots never fall sick.”
“I’ve never been sick before,” Kagura said in deep thought.
Whatever Shinpachi intended to say then was thankfully masked by the doorbell ringing.
“This will be our client,” Gintoki said in the silence that followed. He stepped again toward the entrance. “Shinpachi, make yourself useful for once and get some tea ready—”
Gintoki experienced half a second of free-fall.
It wasn’t as though he had never tripped or fallen before, or never from greater heights than the single step digging into the genkan; only months ago had he run down the side of a mountain to cross blades with his bitterest enemy, and the day before failed to climb up the stairs in his drunken haze, warm with enough alcohol that he had thought to be too hot with his coat on in the freezing winter wind outside.
But it was neither of those two memories he thought of as his foot missed the dip of the genkan and his body swayed forward. Instead he remembered a barren countryside buried under snow, fat flakes liquefying on his face and fingers splintered with bamboo as he hit his training sword to Takasugi’s. He thought of yet another fight which they had dragged out of the stuffy warmth of Shoka Sonjuku’s current place of residence, of his feet wetted with mud and his chest heavy with frustration, as Takasugi lasted much, much longer than usual against him.
It wasn’t snow he fell face-first into this time, however, but the very hard wood of his front door.
“Is he dying, doctor?” Kagura’s shrill voice asked for the third time. She held an embroidered handkerchief she must have snagged from Hinowa to her face and made to sob into it, poised as she imagined a European lady would be by her dying husband’s side. “Tell me—how long does he have?”
“M’not dying,” Gintoki said again tiredly.
“If our estate should fall into the wrong hands after he passes—”
“He’s not dying,” the doctor told her in the same tone of voice. He grabbed the thermometer again and pulled it out of Gintoki’s mouth without ceremony. “It’s probably just the flu. Lots of viruses are going around these days.”
Gintoki allowed some drool to slither down his cheek, unwilling to raise a hand to wipe it with.
The doctor shifted on his behind by the futon. He was an old and wrinkled man whom Gintoki had never seen looking differently than this: rumpled and tired and as solid as steel. If he had not five years ago helped him collect flowers to put by his wife Fuyu’s bed, Gintoki would never have believed him to be a man capable of feeling emotion.
As of now, the man was showing Kagura the electronic thermometer. “Thirty-nine point eight degrees,” he declared. “I’ll prescribe him something to help with the fever and the pain, but for now he just needs some rest. He should be better in a couple days.”
“Thank you, sensei,” Shinpachi said with a curt bow of his head. “Ah, how much do we…”
The doctor looked at him for a long second before sighing. “I’ll just put it on Otose’s tab for now,” he replied. He rose gracefully from the floor, put two bottles of pills by Gintoki’s pillow, and closed his bag with a short, snapping sound. “Take one of each with every meal, Sakata. And as much honeyed tea as you want, if you’re still uncomfortable.”
“I hate tea,” Gintoki muttered.
“Well, I can’t cure that.”
The doctor spared another glance his way, examining him for things Gintoki could only guess at. He would have pulled a face if only his head did not pound so badly from hitting against the door earlier. The cotton stuffed up his nostrils to stop him from bleeding everywhere did not help.
But in the end, the man said nothing more, and left the way he had come in Shinpachi’s footsteps. He was no more talkative now than he had been ten years ago, when Otose had dragged him to Gintoki’s bedside to fix his starved and beaten-up body.
Gintoki groaned and rolled to his side. The cold wipe spread on his forehead slid and fell onto the futon.
Kagura picked it up, her nose twisted as if she were holding one of his dirty socks. “I can’t believe you’re sick and not me,” she said, shaking the wipe around. “I’m a thousand times smarter than you.”
Droplets of water hit Gintoki in the face, making him blink.
“I can fix that if you want,” he replied. He grabbed the cloth from her and stuck it back onto his face haphazardly; it ended up wetting the bandaid covering the cut on the bridge of his nose. “Just get closer.”
Kagura obeyed with bright eyes. Gintoki faked a sneeze into her face.
“You fucking bastard!” she cried out, recoiling.
“Don’t speak like that!” said the returned Shinpachi, who looked for a second like the mirror image of his sister.
Kagura ignored him. She grabbed Gintoki by the collar of his shirt and shook him, scowling, “You think you’re so smart, huh? You think you’re smarter than me? You wanna fight about it, punk?”
“Kagura-chan, you’re really going to knock him out at this rate.”
This was enough to stay her somewhat. Gintoki fell back onto his pillow with dizziness coursing through him and coughed, once and loudly, into his clammy hand. It took a moment longer for his eyesight to adjust and the lamplight above to stop stinging so badly.
Shinpachi took a seat on the floor next to him with a worried crease at his brow. “Are you really okay, Gin-san?” he asked.
Irritated as she might be, Kagura too looked a little lost next to him. Her arms were crossed nervously. Being stared at like this by the both of them made Gintoki feel as though he were truly on his death bed; discomfort squirmed in him and made him want to turn around and chase them off without ceremony.
Instead, he gave them a smile. “Yeah. It’s just the flu. Probably got cold when I came home last night.”
“You are a drunkard,” Kagura nodded. “You cheap little man.”
“I’m glad it’s nothing serious,” Shinpachi added with a sigh. “Kagura-chan, let’s go make him something to eat.”
“I want Korean barbecue.”
“Like we’d have the money for that. Gin-san needs something easy to eat anyway, like soup or mashed potatoes.”
Kagura rose up with a pout, spitting out, “Baby bottles.”
She looked relieved all the same, though no more than Shinpachi himself. His smile was a little shaky when he left the room, dragging her behind him; Gintoki recalled in a second of unease that his father had died of illness.
The room seemed awfully wide without the both of them. Gintoki shifted again, remembering belatedly to keep the cold cloth to his forehead. Holding it in place tired his arm out, however, and when the thing fell again, he had no strength to fetch it up.
Faint sounds came to him through the thin walls of the office. Drawers and cupboard doors and breaking kitchenware and, once, the chilling noise that wood made when it snapped, followed by Shinpachi’s loud voice yelling unintelligible things. Gintoki stared at the wall under his window and tried to wonder which of his belongings had not been Kagura-proof this time.
It seemed to him that the shadows moved all over with every time he blinked. White winter light lengthened and shrank under the bat of his eyelids, harsh even through the closed blinds, striping the floor one second and twisting into moving shapes the next. He heard footsteps through the screen separating his room, as Kagura and Shinpachi left to buy back what they broke or stock up on ingredients, and suddenly, he felt cold.
The front door opened and closed with a chime. Air slithered over Gintoki’s sweaty skin and made him shiver. He tugged the blanket closer around himself and tried not to feel that someone should be sitting a foot away from him, a book held in one hand, the other in Gintoki’s hair.
Otae looked as delighted with the news of Gintoki’s sickness as she would be with being crowned queen of Kabukichou.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she crooned, kneeling by his side with a gentle smile on her face. “I guess even you can fall sick.”
“I feel much better already,” Gintoki told her.
“You look positively dreadful.”
“I think I’ll go play some pachinko. I can feel my luck turning.”
“I was so worried when I saw Shin-chan and Kagura-chan in town and they told me you had a cold,” she continued, ignoring him entirely. She picked up the cloth he had let fall earlier and wetted it again; Gintoki took it from her before her fist could approach his face. “They said your client ran away in a terror when she saw you.”
“That’s because Gin-chan was bleeding from his nose when he opened the door,” Kagura said from her corner of the couch. She had bent over the armrest to see into the bedroom and talk to them, the TV screeching brightly behind her. “All over,” she added, gesturing in a typical gross Kagura way. “He looked like a right perve—”
“I hit my face on the door by accident,” Gintoki said hurriedly. “See?” He peeled away the bandaid stuck to his nose to show her the bruise and cut. “Nothing more.”
Otae’s eyes had taken a menacing glint. “I certainly hope so,” she told him secretly.
Kagura looked back at her TV show, apparently remembering that she was supposed to sulk. Shinpachi had banned her from the kitchen so he could work there in peace.
Unfortunately, he seemed not to be luckier than her in that area.
“Oh my,” Otae said a few minutes later, sniffing the air loudly. Gintoki almost tried the same before remembering that his sinuses were so clogged with snot that they felt close to bursting. “Does something smell like it’s burning, Kagura-chan?”
“My food!” Kagura exclaimed immediately, jumping to her feet.
The following minutes were spent calming Shinpachi down from his panic, saving the stove from melting outright, and putting out the various oil fires spread over the kitchen floor. Otae offered to cook instead, which all of them refused, and Gintoki eventually found himself standing in front of a steaming pot, making food for all of them.
“Some caretakers you are,” he muttered. He had not the voice to shout or even truly talk to them through the door to the office, and he coughed after saying it, the mask over his mouth and nose growing damp and warm with his breathing. “Who lets a sick man cook?”
“It seems fitting for a couple of brats living with you.”
Gintoki looked over his shoulder.
Otose stood in the frame of the door with a cigarette in one hand and a basket in the other. She stepped forward as he looked at her, putting the basket on the counter and leaning to look inside the pot he was stirring.
“I brought some leeks and chicken, since I figured you would be at death’s door,” she said. “But you seem to be doing pretty well, Gintoki.”
“Get your smoke away from my lunch,” he replied, waving a hand between her face and the pot.
“You even have the energy to antagonize me.”
“I’d have to be dead not to. You’re practically a skeleton.”
He did feel a little queasy, however, from standing for so long in the steam. He felt no hunger despite his empty stomach, and no desire to fill it either after cutting vegetables and meat by himself. The sight of food alone made his belly ache.
Otose pushed him away from the stove. “I’ll take over,” she said curtly. “You go lie down for a bit before you keel over.”
“Not before you do,” Gintoki mumbled at her.
But he walked back to the bedroom with uneven steps and slit gratefully under the sheets. He took one glance at the bowl full of cold water next to which the wipe rested before deciding against using them. He would be moving around again soon enough.
Otose hadn’t come alone; Catherine and Tama were here as well, one sat with Otae and the kids in the office, the other dusting the whole apartment at inhuman speed. She rolled into the bedroom with broom and vacuum in hand—with hands turned to broom and vacuum—and finished what Shinpachi had started that morning in a much more efficient way.
“You shouldn’t let dust accumulate so much, Gintoki-sama,” she told him. She lifted him, futon and all, so she could sweep where he had lain. He barely had time to react before she put him down again. “You’ll get allergies this way, and it has been proven that even you can fall sick.”
“Yes,” he replied, muffled by his blanket. “It’s been said.”
“Otose-sama will soon be done with your meal.”
Lunch ended up with all of them sat on the floor of the bedroom, slurping happily at the broth Gintoki had prepared and which Otose had thickened with noodles and meat. Gintoki let Kagura have at most of the chicken while he struggled to down finely-sliced leek and onions past his burning throat. Some of the weakness in his body abated with the food, however, and soon the trembling threat in his limbs vanished. He felt a little more comfortable with his belly full than empty.
Had the others thought to be less noisy and argumentative, his headache might have quieted too.
“I’m tired,” Gintoki announced once only the thinnest of the broth was left in his own bowl.
Otae and Kagura had their chopsticks locked in combat over the last piece of chicken. Otae dared to look at him for a second and reply, “Ah, we should leave you to rest, Gin-san,” and not once did her chokehold on Kagura’s wiggly arm soften to allow her to steal.
Gintoki often wondered why she chose to work as a cabaret girl instead of security. Then again, perhaps she officiated as both.
“They do say sleep is the best cure,” Otose said, rising from her own sitting spot. Tama immediately picked up the cushion she had used as a seat. “Get well soon, Gintoki. Don’t you dare die before paying last month’s rent.”
“Will do,” Gintoki mumbled.
“Illness is too kind a death for you,” Catherine spat in parting.
He gave her the finger.
Otae left a while later as well to prepare for the evening’s work. Shinpachi cleared out the mess that their meal had left behind, singing softly to himself all the while. As off-tune and terrible as his voice was, Gintoki found that it did not bother him so much.
“Your pills!” he said at one point, stopping in his tracks. “Gin-san, you should take them before you sleep.”
“Like I could sleep with any of you around,” Gintoki retorted.
Kagura had been munching for a while on a strip of sukonbu. She took it out of her mouth and looked at him in such a way that he felt all the protests leave him as if scraped right off his tongue.
“All right, then,” he allowed.
He swallowed the two pills under their unblinking eyes, feeling for all the world like a wild cat about to be attacked with hugs.
Shinpachi went back to cleaning. Kagura leaned against the frame of the shogi screen and stared at the TV from afar.
Gintoki lay flat on his back and counted the nerve-like strips of wood in the ceiling.
He napped for most of the afternoon in-between bought of pained coughing and sweaty, damp fever. Childish hands pushed his blanket back up whenever he kicked it away, too hot to do more than breathe out of his mouth and then too cold to move at all. Sickness seemed to be laid under his skin and through his very bones. It ached through the joints of his fingers and knees and flamed under old scars as if tickling them into waking. His back itched from decade-old lashings received in a bleak and freezing cell. He scratched at the biggest wound he had ever received, when a demonic sword had skewered him almost through the belly button. The healed skin there was still pink.
The jagged line under his collar bone left by Takasugi’s broken sword, he didn’t touch at all.
The sky outside darkened before the clock could strike five. With the stripes through the blinds as only source of natural light, it left the bedroom dark and small, and Gintoki soon had to push himself upright and turn on his small reading light. It bathed the walls enough yellow light to see, but not to hurt his eyes.
It was a few minutes later that he heard the doorbell ring again and footsteps echo through the office, and then Kagura’s cheerful voice. The one that answered her was more intimately familiar.
“Zura’s here to see you!” Kagura called, opening the screen with almost enough strength to tear it apart. Gintoki bent the neck backward to see her rather than turn around; she smiled upside-down at him. “Eli came too. Look less dead.”
“Gintoki,” Zura said.
His head appeared next to hers in his field of vision. Gintoki didn’t do more than stare at him for a moment before looking back at the never-ending ceiling.
“Is he in too much pain to speak?” Zura asked Kagura.
“His throat hurts,” Shinpachi said from the office. “He’s been coughing a lot.”
“Ah, I see, I see. You should have some tea, Gintoki.”
“I hate tea,” Gintoki replied under his breath.
Zura sat down next to him without invitation. Gintoki heard the odd sound of Elizabeth’s palms hitting the wooden floor of the office and tried not to look anywhere but at the spider he saw crawling up a high corner of his room. It was no use, however, and soon his eyes strayed to Zura’s profile in the muted light, looking as usual for anything out of place.
He found none. Zura looked as healthy as ever. Gintoki looked away when he saw him move his head sideways, unwilling to be caught staring, no matter that Zura would not question him on it.
“I heard you were ill earlier,” Zura said without further ado. “Of course, I had to check on you.”
“How did you even hear about that,” Gintoki groaned.
“Elizabeth was observing some officials near the supermarket. She overheard Leader there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come earlier, as I was in the middle of important business.”
“You didn’t need to come at all.”
Zura, of course, seemed not to have heard him. “I informed Sakamoto,” he told Gintoki primly, pulling a brand-new flip phone out of nowhere. “He sent me a video message for you.”
The way he said video message told Gintoki that he must have only recently heard of the concept, but as he was in no mood to spend any effort on anything, he simply took the offered device and played the video.
“Kintoki!” came Sakamoto’s booming voice, loud even through the tiny speakers. Sakamoto looked red in the face, which probably meant that he was on firm ground and enjoying a drink. He had brought his camera so close to his face that only his nose and forehead entered the frame. “Don’t despair! You can beat this! Even if you lose all your hair and can never get it up again, I’ll still consider you my comrade—hey, Mutsu, say something too!”
The video moved just enough for Gintoki to glimpse half of Mutsu’s shoulder behind Sakamoto’s hair before cutting ominously.
“What the hell did you tell him?” Gintoki mumbled, trying to go up the message history.
“Only that your health was in peril.”
Well, that would be enough to make a drunk Sakamoto believe that Gintoki was dying.
He gave the phone back to Zura and shifted till he was turned away from him entirely. His chest felt tight for reasons he didn’t like to consider. “I’m fine,” he said. “It’s just the flu. Takes more than this to hurt me.”
“You are rather like a cockroach.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Silence fell over them. Gintoki could no longer see the spider from earlier in its dust-free and half-destroyed web. Instead he stared at the near-vanished stripes of light upon the wall that the window allowed in, and followed with his eyes the stark limit of his reading lamp’s glow. As he was too hot again, he pushed his blanket down. A moment later, he started shivering; Zura pulled it back up to his shoulder without a word.
And it must be the fever addling his judgment and doing away with reserve that made Gintoki ask him, “Were you worried?”
He felt Zura’s hand halt around his arm before drawing away. The lapse of quiet that followed was much heavier than the previous.
“I was,” Zura admitted eventually. Gintoki had enough time to regret asking from the tone of his voice alone, but then Zura added: “But I’m not anymore after seeing you.”
Gintoki could think of nothing to say or think.
“I remember the first time I saw you sick,” Zura said softly. “You haven’t changed at all. You still roll around and kick everything away like a very bothered cat.”
“Zura,” Gintoki said.
Zura breathed out something like a chuckle. Gintoki heard the shuffling of his clothes as he moved and could not help but move in turn, lying once more on his back so that he could watch him, only to find him holding the newly-damp piece of cloth his way.
“You should use it,” he said. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“It’ll just fall again,” Gintoki replied.
His throat ached.
Zura smiled. Het set the cloth onto the rim of the water-filled bowl, letting it drip over the glass and draw little damp spots on the tatami floor. “Someone will put it back in place,” he said.
It was darker inside now than it had been when he came. Gintoki blinked against shadows and light alike, following Zura with his eyes till he stood by the open screen leading to the office. From there, he could heard Kagura’s soft snoring and the crackling sounds of the lit TV.
“Someone always does.”
Dinner was a much quieter affair than lunch. Shinpachi managed to reheat some leftover soup without burning the kitchen down, and Kagura was sufficiently mellowed by manga and sweets not to complain for not having solid food to eat. The meds did Gintoki some good as well: he managed to finish his meal with only some minor pain.
“I should stay here for the night after all,” Shinpachi said after the table had been cleared, hovering by the entrance.
Kagura looked up at him from her spot by Sadaharu’s side. “You’ve been saying this for hours. Make a decision already, manlet.”
“I don’t know if I can trust you to take care of Gin-san on your own.”
“I can take care of myself just fine,” Gintoki said from the couch.
He had moved there after dinner, taking his blanket and pillow with him so he could lie and still watch TV. The sound of it was low enough to be almost inaudible so as not to worsen his headache. Kagura had picked manga again over evening shows, so she hadn’t complained about it.
“I could split you in two so one half of you can stay here and the other half can go home,” Kagura said conversationally. She looked back to her manga. “The upper half can go home. I don’t want to see your face anymore.”
“You just want to kill me, don’t you!”
“Shinpachi,” Gintoki mumbled, glaring dazedly at the TV screen, “I’m fine. Just go home and watch your Ostuu-chan DVDs.”
“No, I’ll stay here,” Shinpachi replied. He took off his shoes and walked back into the office. “Someone has to be there if you get worse during the night, Gin-san.”
Gintoki wondered what it said about him that he felt touched by the intention. Probably that he truly was as tired as he felt.
He only had two futons, both of which were occupied by himself and Kagura, but Kagura shoved the protest away before he could voice it by dragging hers out of the closet and laying it next to his. She and Shinpachi argued in slurred words while they brushed their teeth side by side, and then again when they slid into bed and fought for blanket coverage. Kagura ended up almost stuck to Gintoki’s side, right over the dip between the two mattresses, and complained about it until Gintoki had to turn the office over in search of a spare blanket. Only after setting it under her back did she settle down for sleep. Soon enough, it was her snoring into the crook of his ear that he had to deal with instead.
At least Shinpachi was a quiet sleeper. He sometimes let out a few muffled and incomprehensible words before turning over and falling silent again, but he didn’t snore or groan or move overly much. Gintoki blinked time and time again at the dark ceiling above, counting the children’s breaths and the nightly sounds outside, looking uselessly for sleep.
It must be the fever, he thought, which filled his lungs and heart with such odd longing. It must be the sickness that made Kagura’s arm over his feel so very heavy.
What little sleep came to Gintoki was sluggish and sickly. Like that very morning, he wanted to toss and turn until he found a balance between the choking warmth of his own skin and the cool air outside; unlike that morning, he was not alone in bed to do so. His pushing the blanket down had to be done without jostling Kagura, whose active sleeping had brought onto his own futon and right against his side. His coughing had to be limited, so he would not wake her or Shinpachi.
So for hours he moved his left leg in and out of the cover and swallowed back the itch in his throat. He wiped his damp forehead with damper palms. He breathed deeply out of his mouth, for his nose was clogged, and then tried not to allow his lungs to spasm. His listened to the pounding of his heart through his temples and neck.
When he slept, he dreamed of washed-out images of war. He walked uneasily through empty fields full of bloody arrows; he paced within a cell full of unending walls, the only sound around other than his footsteps that of faraway moans.
He saw the sharp edge of a cliff under the clouded setting sun.
Awareness came to him in increments—with the sound of his own loud breathing and the feel of freezing air on his face, and more belatedly, the realization that his blanket was once more tucked right under his chin.
That was when he heard it: the drip of water against glass, and then wet cloth being squeezed so that excess moisture would leave it.
Shouyou, he thought helplessly, in his most childish of hearts.
But Shouyou was dead. Shouyou had died on that cliff under the bloodstained clouds.
The wet cloth was put over Gintoki’s forehead with less care than was warranted. It dragged over his eyelids, forcing them close, cooling down the burning pain in his head. When Gintoki made to move—though he didn’t know how or why, though his sleep-hazy mind was only grateful for the comfort that this coolness brought with it—the hand holding it pushed down, stilling him all at once.
“So even you can fall sick.”
The open window allowed in the smells of the street. Though Gintoki had not smelled anything all day, his tongue stung with the acridness of exhaust gas, with the frostiness of snow. He tasted pipeweed with every breath he took. He heard a shuffle of fabric much too fine to belong to him.
Kagura squirmed against his side. Her arm crawled over his middle again in an almost-painful hold, slithered under the sheets so that her small fingers could dig into his belly with only the thin yukata he wore to soften up her touch. Over his face, the hand did not move. The cloth dripped into Gintoki’s eyes, thin drops of water sliding down his overheated cheeks and pooling into his pillow.
He didn’t know how long he stayed like this until the world gave way. It could have been only a moment later that he allowed his breath to leave him and life to take its course, or it could have been years.
Time felt like a malleable substance, as it was wont to when he dreamed.
The hand over his eyes shifted. It brushed away the hair sticking to his wet skin, and Gintoki was not, suddenly, on the floor of his Odd Jobs bedroom; he was fifteen years back on the dirt ground of a shed, his master by his side, his friends whispering outside.
“It’s not my fault he fell sick!”
“You should have been more careful.”
Gintoki opened his mouth and said, “This doesn’t count as a victory.”
Silence answered him.
Takasugi drew his fingers out of his hair one by one. Gintoki felt him stand more than he heard him, a soft and silent burst of moving air by the side of his bed, feather-light footsteps onto mats, the clinking of a sheathed sword. A moment later, the window shut again.
Gintoki did not dislodge the cloth from his eyes. He let the warming air settle without moving an inch, suddenly sleepier than he had been since waking up with fever heating up his skin. Exhaustion pushed unto his body until he felt halfway out of conscience. By his side, Kagura and Shinpachi slept on.
He knew he would not dream again.