Summary: Fairytales teach good lessons to recalcitrant children. In which Sakamoto is a fairy, and Gintoki has a hard lesson to learn.
Written for Rebecca! ❤ I hope you enjoy and merry #IsaacSecretSanta!
Deep Roots’ Journey
Once upon a time there was a boy, who liked to water the soil that spread behind his house. He walked out at sunrise with the green can in his hands and stood there, unmoving; until the can was empty and the empty ground was moist and stuck to his shoes and his pants.
“But why do you do it?” asked the man in the house every day. “I have nothing planted there. You have nothing planted there. There is no strength left in me to care for flowers or trees.”
He was an old and wrinkled thing all shrunken by age. His skin hung limply off the bones of his arms. When spring walked over the fields and left in its great tracks the wet mist of April, the old man by the window looked like just another trick of the boy’s eyes.
The boy never answered him. Morning after morning, month after month, he stood behind the house and water the dark earth. “Come out now,” he told it. Naught ever grew there but nettle and dandelions, but the boy persevered. “Come out now. Come out now.”
The dandelions grew, the earth stayed moist, and soon winter came again and covered it in snow. The boy came out anyway: with his green can in hands, and his thick coat around him, he watered the snow dutifully.
Then another April came to shroud the countryside with fog; and the boy walked out of the house, which was as silent as a tomb, and found that a bud was there. A green little bud not as big as his fingertip. It had barely reddened yet with the growth of its petals.
“Come out now,” the boy told it.
And the burgeon opened—
Kagura took a deep breath and concluded: “And it said, GET OUT OF MY DAMN FACE, KIDDO!”
There was a man in Gintoki’s vegetable garden.
“Hi,” said the man, waving to him as if to an old acquaintance. Gintoki had never seen the man before; yet there he was sitting, between tomatoes and carrots, with his feet planted in the ground.
He was smiling beatifically. The arc of his crooked nose was covered in moss.
He waved once more one of his strange and liana-like hands. “Wonderful weather we’ve got here, haven’t we! Hah!” He was laughing now, finding nothing strange at all in sitting there with his feet in the ground. With having hands like lianas and moss growing above his nose.
Gintoki watered his row of lettuce. The odd man babbled on and on uncaringly; there speaking of the weeds threatening the outer rings of the garden, then complaining about the midges slowly eating at the sunflowers’ stalks slowly a few meters away. “They’ll be all over me soon, you know,” he said.
His feet were not feet, but roots. Dark brown roots whose bark he could tear off as one scratched out old scabs. He did so from time to time as Gintoki watched him from the corner of his eyes.
There was no mist today: only the sun high above warming everything but the inside of the house. Quiet reigned there as it had not always done, but as it now always would.
The sun failed to warm Gintoki’s chest as well.
The root-footed man started squirming and moaning once Gintoki walked away.
“Wait, don’t leave yet!” he cried out. “You haven’t watered me yet! I’m thirsty!”
Gintoki looked back with a twist of the neck. The man with the root-legs seemed to have crawled forward as he begged—crushing one of Gintoki’s leek plants on the way. One of his liana-hands was buried in the soil, and the other extended toward Gintoki in some parody of a manga panel.
There was moss on his wrists, too.
“I’m so thirsty…” the root-legged man said with fake sobs in his voice. “I’m only a little plant… I need to drink… I need to drink your—”
Gintoki sprayed his face with water at full strength.
When Gintoki crossed the threshold of his backdoor the next morning, the planted man was still here.
He was wearing a patched-up and dark red yukata, all stained with dirt, and Gintoki could see now that he paid attention that the hair on his head was not all made of hair. The previous day’s sunlight must have hidden them amidst gold-red shine, but there were skinny branches curled like cowlicks around his ears. Or what he must have instead of ears. Gintoki didn’t care enough to check.
“Hello!” the root-wood-liana man greeted. He was all jovial, as if he could not imagine a better place to be than here, planted among Gintoki’s vegetables. “I missed you, you know? Did you come by again while I was closed?”
Gintoki ignored him. He watered his plants and his flowers.
“What’s your name?”
Gintoki stayed silent.
“Oh,” the man said then. “Is it your first time meeting a fairy?”
“Fairies wear leaf-bikinis,” Gintoki replied.
He seemed so very satisfied with having dragged these few words out of Gintoki’s mouth. Gintoki felt only slightly annoyed with himself. Perhaps this was the price of living so long in solitary silence; any word addressed his way made him crave to answer it, as iron craved to rejoin the magnet.
“That’s only in Peter Pan, though,” the man continued. “Those flower-fairies learned long ago to get lost. Thank Earth for that, I can’t stand them, what with the babbling and flirting and shiny little—” he wiggled his liana-hands disdainfully, “—transparent wings. Ugh!”
Does sexism exist in Fairyland? wondered Gintoki.
“Why does a fairy know Peter Pan?” he asked.
“Last garden I grew out of had a TV. Wonderful things. Changed a lot since the first one I saw! I couldn’t hear anything back then, it was all through the window, though I did see that guy step on the moon. Awesome stuff. I wonder if they have fairies there, too.”
On and on the root-wood-liana man went, although Gintoki listened only with one ear.
When it seemed the root-wood-liana man had finished, or otherwise paused, his monologue, Gintoki told him: “I don’t believe in fairies. Shoo.”
He made a vague wave of the hands. It had been a long time since he had a dog, and Sadaharu never obeyed him anyway, but it was worth a try.
“I can’t,” the man moaned helplessly. “You have to water me.”
Gintoki lifted the spray his way menacingly.
“Not like last time! Don’t you know you have to water plants by the roots, not the leaves?”
“You’re not a plant,” Gintoki said.
The man pointed to the roots he had for feet as if to say, Yes I am, duh.
Gintoki couldn’t well deny that. “Plants keep quiet,” he opted for.
“That’s ‘cos humans’ useless ears can’t hear those b— moan.”
“How did you censor that?”
“Anyway!” and now the root-wood-liana man was pointing his finger at him accusingly. “If you want me to leave, you’ve got to water me. I’m so thirsty I’m going to be spitting out sand soon.”
And so Gintoki did.
“My name is Sakamoto Tatsuma, by the way,” the fairy said the next day.
Unfortunately, and despite Ketsuno Ana’s never-right prognostics, it had not rained that day. Gintoki therefore had no excuse to avoid going to the garden and seeing the man. It was in fact very hot, heavily hot, even at this time of the evening when the air was meant to cool down, and which was the best time to water any plants mid-summer. Gintoki went out as usual with the water pipe in hand. The fairy was still there.
Gintoki remembered to pinch his own skin painfully. Nothing changed; the soil beneath his feet was still as hard as stone; yellowing moss still climbed up the brown skin of the cedar tree, dried to a crisp throughout the canicule. It wasn’t a dream.
“Better pinch your nipples,” Sakamoto the fairy said with a grin. “More painful.”
Gintoki sprayed the water in his face once more for the pleasure of seeing him gag.
It served no purpose, since the fairy was still smiling stupidly afterward—with water dribbling down his open mouth in a loud gargle. Was there saliva there as well, or only some sort of sap?
“Ah, that felt good,” he said. “But you have to water my roots!”
“Better let you dry on your own. A quick death is more merciful.”
“But I don’t want to die!”
“I meant more merciful for me,” Gintoki replied.
There the fairy exploded in a flurry of protests which sounded more like begs than actual anger. Gintoki scratched the inside of his right ear with his pinkie and blew away the wax coating his nail. To his disappointment, the fairy was squirming too much, and the wax did not hit his moss-stained face.
The sunset was so slow to come. For hours and hours it stretched, and in its last minutes still lingered; with its long and pink fingers, the sun grabbed onto clouds, as if by the strength of its arms it could hoist itself up over the horizon. Gintoki never felt so lonely as he did during summer evenings. When light there was when already night there should be, his heart ached and ached and ached.
He sprayed Sakamoto’s face once more.
He was spared the sight of the fairy for one day—the clouds had burst open above his house before dawn, and a storm swept over the surrounding fields for hours afterwards. Sitting in an armchair by the window with his glasses perched over his nose and some ecchi manga open in his hands, he watched distractedly as farmers and field watchers ran amok, trying their best to cover the fragiler crops, watching in disarray the wind and rain destroy months of work.
Climate change truly was a hassle, he thought, as the male lead of the manga fell over a female classmate and ended up with his face staring directly below the girl’s skirt.
Kagura should’ve taken her manga series with her. What was he supposed to do? Cheer for the main character? Half of the dialogue was scratched and written over by Kagura’s hand. She had replaced almost all the text with jokes of her own which made sense to no one but herself. He didn’t even know what the story was about.
Today was a Sunday, and as always on Sundays, someone knocked on the door precisely at two in the afternoon.
“Gintoki,” Zura’s voice came muffedly. “Are you inside?”
Gintoki didn’t answer.
A few months ago, Zura would have asked a few more times and stayed a while longer. His voice would have carried through, speaking of the week that had just ended and all that had occured during it. But a year had passed now since Gintoki closed his doors to all, and Zura did not stay long anymore.
“All right,” Zura said. “See you next week.”
I miss you, he did not say.
We miss you, he had stopped saying long ago.
And Gintoki could not help but wonder, as always, if this Sunday would be the last one Zura would come.
And he could not help but wonder why, after so long, he still found no voice to answer him with.
Sakamoto was wearing sunglasses.
“To prevent sunburn, haha,” he explained. “I found them in that bin over there.”
The bin in question was a couple meters away from the edge of the vegetable plot, which was bordered by a little wooden hedge once brought by Otae. Gintoki had made Shinpachi hammer it together while he and Kagura ate sorbet in the shade.
Sakamoto must’ve had to stretch very very hard to reach it. The hedge must have dug painfully into his ribs—if ribs he had. However, the fairy had reached it, and now the bin lay over the grass, spilling clothes everywhere.
Gintoki looked away and replied, “I didn’t ask.”
“I thought there would be trash. How come there isn’t any fertilizer in my spot? I need food too, you know. But, hah!” and he laughed loudly. “There were clothes instead!”
Of course there were.
“Why are you throwing away so many clothes?” Sakamoto asked him.
“I’m considering living the rest of my life nude.”
“You could’ve just given them to me.”
Gintoki eyed the patched-up yukata. It looked a second away from turning into dust, so old was it, with loose threads everywhere and holes the size of tennis balls showing the places where Sakamoto’s bark turned into skin and moss.
“Oh, this?” Sakamoto said. He tugged at the yukata—tearing up the fabric of his sleeve along at least twenty centimeters. “My last garden’s owner threw it all over me before running away, the shy thing.”
Maybe I should’ve just covered him in tarpaulin, Gintoki mused.
“Would you rather I—”
Gintoki watered him in the face.
“Why are you throwing away so many clothes?”
“Fashion comes and goes. I like to look très frais, as the French say.”
Sakamoto smiled at him. There was a kindness to this smile, the same that lit his eyes whenever Gintoki met them, a kindness that said: I know. It’s okay.
Every time Gintoki refused to answer this question, he smiled in such a way.
Sakamoto the fairy was growing. Not in height or width as Gintoki might have expected: his roots simply came out. His legs which had at first been buried to the knees were now free down to mid-calf.
“Can’t you walk out now?” Gintoki complained.
“I’m only just reaching puberty,” Sakamoto replied. “Do I have zits anywhere? There’s something painful just next to my nose.”
“That’s a bug trying to eat the wood.”
Sakamoto squirmed and cried out, chasing the non-existent insect from his face, gullible as always. He stopped only when he saw Gintoki’s sneer. But instead of protesting, he laughed, and his laughter spread through the garden and spread through the fields, riding upon the wind, glistening in the tree leaves. It entered the back door of Gintoki’s house and bounced off of all the walls inside. Then it came back to lose itself to the great openness, and only a thread of it touched Gintoki’s skin.
Only one single thread. Only one thread of the spider’s web: sticky, malleable, unbreakable.
When Sakamoto first asked for Gintoki’s name, Gintoki replied: “My mama told me never to give my name to fairies.”
“That’s only for those assholes up in Scotland. Us dirt-fairies are working to survive, we don’t have time to be trapping humans in eternal orgies.”
Gintoki punched his fist into the air unenthusiastically. “Go, go,” he said. “We’ll take down the fae bourgeoisie one day.”
My mama told me.
But Gintoki had never had one. And Sakamoto’s kind eyes were saying it again: I know. It’s okay.
“I can hear him knocking, you know,” Sakamoto said on a Sunday evening. He was tugging absently at his roots, sometimes scratching the bark off, sometimes pulling at his knee as if to quicken his own growth. It never worked. “Every Sunday,” he added, as Gintoki showed no sign of answering. “Why don’t you let him in?”
“I’m allergic to idiots,” Gintoki replied.
For good measure, he coughed and sneezed fakely in Sakamoto’s direction.
Sakamoto hummed. He was scratching the inside of his ears, a habit he must have picked from Gintoki, although what his nail picked up was not wax but tree sap.
He could even wipe it off directly on his moss-covered hairline. Lucky bastard.
Sakamoto seemed to have picked many such habits over however long he had lived. (Or was it however many times he had lived?) One time he spoke of an old lady whose garden he had grown out of, and as he did, he rubbed his eyes, like the elderly did when their sight weakened. Another, it was a little girl, and Sakamoto balanced back and forth on his behind without realizing it. It was a soothing and habitual movement, but which he stopped abruptly when Gintoki opened his mouth.
There were other strikingly human habits, gestures, and shows of emotions, although none that aligned with Sakamoto’s mood of the time. He would narrate a stay somewhere in the southern islands and weep—fat, clear drops of dew, fallen out of the green leaves which had grown out of the twigs in his hair. He would relate a bad joke that some baseball player had made, all the while nursing a hand as if it were broken.
“Can you give me a hat?” he asked that same day, gesturing to the bin.
Gintoki looked twice in between Sakamoto and the bin. One month had already passed since the fairy had sprouted out of the earth, but the sun was still hot. Sakamoto never took off the sunglasses and often complained of the heat. I was born in early spring, he had explained, as if it meant anything. I was born in the tracks left by spring’s immense footsteps.
Gintoki foraged into the bin in search of something Shouyou might have left behind. He found a wide straw hat. It was all broken and bent at the edges, but it would do, and Sakamoto grabbed it in ecstasy when Gintoki handed it over. Their fingers touched for the first time. Gintoki could think of nothing odder than that touch of supple wood in the vague shape of a hand, although he knew what to expect. How many times had he stared at those hands and those feet? How long now had he wondered what the feel of Sakamoto’s skin was, where it was not covered in moss or bark—at his cheeks and chin and neck, and more importantly, his lips.
There was magic to be found there. Not in the tell-tale frisson or spark or whatever else old stories said, but in that touch of skin on wood. Gintoki had once sworn to live away from all that lived, yet here he was. A fairy was before him with a great love’s smile over his face; and all around them life pulsated in trees and flowers and dirt.
“The first time I was born,” Sakamoto said, “I was called by a little boy. He kept calling every day, you know, he was so annoying. ‘Come out, come out,’ well I have other things to do, you know? I didn’t want to be born. I liked the life before being alive, there was nothing to do but be.
“But he kept calling. His grandfather was dying, and he had no one else. Then one day he stopped. At first I thought, phew, finally, some quiet. When you are one with the earth,” Sakamoto said, melancholic, one of his hands plunged into the moist dirt as if to go back under, “you can’t be bothered, not really. You have no consciousness. But this kid, somehow his voice came through. I could hear it, and I could feel things because of it.
“So when he stopped calling me, at first, I was glad. I wanted to go back to living without living. But there was no being one with all that is anymore, not with that voice in my head always calling for help. ‘Did he get help?’ I wondered. ‘Is his grandfather dead, is someone taking care of him?'”
“And one day I couldn’t stand it anymore,” he continued. “So I was born. The boy was still there. He was all alone with his loneliness. And since that day, there has never been a call that I didn’t answer.”
“I didn’t call you,” Gintoki said.
There came a day when Sakamoto’s ankles began to show above the dirt. Gintoki could see movement under the brown and wet line of above and below, as if the fairy were squirming his toes in delight.
“What will you do when you’re all out?” Gintoki asked.
“I’ll leave, of course,” Sakamoto answered.
Of course. It wasn’t as though Gintoki hadn’t guessed the answer for himself—after all, Sakamoto had alluded to leaving from the start. And even if he had not, the stories he told would have carried the message across.
Gintoki squeezed the limp water pipe a little too hard, and the strength of the spray lessened for a moment. “Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. I’ll go wherever I am called.”
Silence lingered in the never-ending end of day.
“But don’t worry!” Sakamoto suddenly exclaimed. That stupid smile was once more all over his face. “I can’t leave until you let me go.”
“By all means,” Gintoki said, bowing, one arm extended toward the garden gate. “Please go. Destiny awaits you.”
Sakamoto grumbled. “Not like that,” he said. “It would be too easy.”
Sakamoto did not answer. He scratched the moss now growing out of his left nostril and which made him sneeze often. As expected, he sneezed again.
How can you leave? Gintoki thought. A question of many meanings.
“Anyway,” Sakamoto said, wiping the yellowish sap sliding out of his nose. “You should do something about those clothes, don’t you think? They’ll end up rotting under the rain.”
With only his feet buried anymore, Sakamoto could easily stretch his body sideways to reach the metal bin and knock on it.
“Someone tried to put me in a pot once,” he said, deep in thought. “Awful memory.”
“I will put you in a pot if you don’t shut up.”
“How come you don’t eat candy, old man?” Kagura asked Shouyou.
It made everyone in the room lift the head. It made Gintoki’s heart shove forward as if it had been stuck to the wall of his spine for days, attached to tense elastic ropes, gathering momentum.
Shouyou turned vague eyes toward Kagura. Shinpachi had turned off the TV’s sound as soon as he had realized, like Gintoki, that Kagura was speaking. A few weeks ago, the silence would have been enough to make Shouyou groan in askance; a few months ago, he would have spoken.
He did neither. He stared at Kagura.
She tightened her grip on Sadaharu’s fur until the huge dog yelped and roared and tried to squirm out of her hold. He could not, of course—not even when he bit so deeply into her other arm that she started bleeding all over the carpet.
“Old man!” she yelled. She even threw the candy she was sucking on at him, but all it did was slide down his cheek wetly without any response or care from Shouyou himself. “Speak when you’re spoken too, you brat!”
“Kagura!” Shinpachi whispered urgently, looking worriedly between her and Gintoki.
But Gintoki did not berate her. He barely even noticed that glare full of pity which he had felt over him for a year, now, coming out of Shinpachi or Zura or even Otae. At least Takasugi didn’t look at him like that. He was too busy pitying himself to even visit.
“Are you calling your elder a brat?” Gintoki said to her.
She shook her injured arm. Her entire sleeve was now coated in blood. “You’re all brats to me,” she replied, “age is just a thing.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Don’t speak when you’re not spoken to!” She waved the blood-covered arm in Shinpachi’s face, which made him scream, as drops of blood were now gliding down his chin and collar.
Gintoki pushed Shinpachi with his foot to keep him away.
“You don’t need to do that, Gin-san,” Shinpachi said, still red with shame. “I’m not the one who likes punching people.”
“I don’t care about that. I just don’t want you putting blood all over the couch.”
Which, as usual, ended up in more high-pitched protests on one side and incomprehensible retorts on the other.
Gintoki left them at it while he observed Shouyou. He seemed to have forgotten about the prompt Kagura had given him, although he could not have answered it anyway. Not anymore. It was still a good thing to have made him react at all; Kagura always seemed to know when he would, for he always reacted when she spoke to him.
It is good, Gintoki thought. It was good.
Sitting by the rear window, looking out to Sakamoto the fairy, whose body was now closed onto itself in some ridiculous mimic of a real bud, Gintoki wondered why this memory had jumped at him. There was no Kagura or Shinpachi here anymore, after all. Shouyou was dead, the kids were gone, Takasugi had given no sign of life for a year. Zura was the only one to come week after week out of that stubbornness of his which he said could befall mountains.
But even Zura’s visits were fainter and shorter. Perhaps this mountain was too high or this tree too heavy. Deep roots were not meant to journey; and Gintoki was something of a tree himself, perhaps—like Sakamoto whose body grew out of the soil, unlike Sakamoto to whom magic promised departure.
Gintoki had burned the creaking chair Shouyou had refused to leave in the last days of his life, when dementia had sundered whatever was left of him to call ‘Shouyou’. Shouyou’s old clothes were all inside that bin which Gintoki kept next to his vegetable garden. His front door was forever closed.
“Why’re you throwing away so many clothes?” Sakamoto asked him again that night.
September was here. Days were shortening. No longer did the sun try to stop drowning by grasping at the clouds.
Gintoki told him, “I don’t like to look at them.”
“Why are they here then, and not far away?”
“I don’t know how to get rid of them.”
As he did not know how to get rid of so many other things, except by closing the door or sealing down the lid.
Sakamoto hummed. I know, his eyes said. It’s okay.
“I’m going to leave soon,” Sakamoto told him.
“Great,” Gintoki replied.
Sakamoto laughed brightly and loudly. Only his toes were buried in the dirt anymore, and he spent his time wiggling them in the way of earthworms digging out of the cool soil. He had even managed to expose his left foot’s little toe.
“Won’t you miss me?” he asked
“Not as much as I miss the tomato plant you crushed under your butt.”
“Hah, I don’t believe you.”
It was a Sunday night.
Zura had not come.
“You know,” Sakamoto said, brushing dirt with his brown-green hands, looking up with his piercing eyes. “You could just let me go. I know you know you could. So, I think you want to keep me around.”
Red was the light and red was his shape—a suiting color for a goodbye.
“Would that I could,” Gintoki replied. He grabbed the cloth over his chest with one hand and used the other to rub away imagined tears. “But, O Prince of Fae, wherefore art thou a Prince of Fae?”
“I know that one, hang on, hang on—is it Wall-E?”
“Close, but no cookie.”
Sakamoto frowned in deep concentration. “E.T.?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Gintoki replied. “That’s when he’s trying to phone Juliet. She’s cheating on him with Jack Sparrow, though.”
“I just knew that girl was bad news…”
Little by little Gintoki encouraged his mixing up of kids’ movies, until Sakamoto was persuaded, to his outrage, that Ratatouille or whatever his name was extorting money from the little mermaid. The poor girl already had to deal with the shark from Jaws.
Sleeping Beauty turned to ash when her morning alarm rang, the evil stepmother walked in high-fashion vair slippers, and the lion king lost his kingdom to Bagheera.
The phone number in E.T.’s contact list was not attributed.
Gintoki woke up that day with ice gliding up his spine. He jumped out of bed and, although sunrise was yet to come, ran out of the back door and into the garden. Dew wetted his naked feet, and he knocked his toe painfully against the cedar’s raised root. Holding this ankle up and jumping on his other leg, he rejoined the vegetable garden’s corner out of which Sakamoto grew.
There was nothing there, however, save for an empty plot of dirt, slightly crammed down in the shape of a seat.
Gintoki let himself fall on the other side of the hedge Shinpachi had installed. He looked at that low cup-shaped burrow of dirt shown in relief by the moonlight; there was the crushed cherry-tomato plant he had nursed to life for two years. Not even the fruits could be seen staining the leaves with their sweet pulp.
I like those cherry tomatoes, Gintoki was thinking, all the while grabbing grass with one hand next to his thigh. The little blades felt like little blades indeed, and no matter how gorged with dew they were.
It was hours before Sakamoto returned. He was at first just a spot in the darkling blue sky; then a moving shape; then a body all different from usual. A glittering sort of coat watered his skin. Fractured moonlight enveloped him as a halo, and it seemed it carried with it some trapped sunlight, too. He walked like this in the barest hint of dawn. When he saw Gintoki waiting, he waved widely.
Sakamoto sat down next to Gintoki with a huff and a loud giggle. The glittering substance disappeared out of his skin and returned it to the usual patches of bark and moss interweaving with epiderm.
They stared at each other.
“Your eyes are nice,” Sakamoto said. “Did I ever tell you that? Haha.”
“You lied to me,” Gintoki replied.
“You said you weren’t like those fancy Scottish fairies who drink for eternity.”
Sakamoto laughed. “I’m not,” he said, jovial.
Gintoki was not laughing. “What’s with the glitter, then?”
“That’s a very sensitive topic, you know. You wouldn’t believe how much prejudice I’ve faced for glittering only out of the dirt. They call me a fruit for it.”
Gintoki stayed silent for a long while. He examined Sakamoto: the root-like feet now entirely out of the ground, the hands like lianas; the pointed chin and moss-free lips and the crooked arc of his nose.
He said, “You look like a vampire from Twilight.”
“Human! Do you know how insulting it is for a fairy to be compared to vampires?”
“I did miss you.”
Those were harder words to say than any others. Harder than the goodbye he could not give Shouyou before his eyes closed, and harder than it had been to order Kagura and Shinpachi out of the house after the funerals.
On the first day of October, as Sakamoto was taking his usual stroll around the fields and forests, Gintoki baked a cake.
He poured as much sugar as he could into it—way more than what his doctor said should be his limit, when Shinpachi had dragged him to the hospital after a fit of hypoglycemia—and as many pieces of chocolate as he could. Sakamoto didn’t eat fruits, apparently, but chocolate should be fine. Maybe. They weren’t cocoa beans anymore, right? Gintoki was pretty certain butter was involved somehow.
As Sakamoto’s little ballads had become less and less little, Gintoki found himself desperate to occupy his mind. Reading Kagura’s rewritten ecchi collection could only distract him for so long, and he did not like the ache gripping his chest whenever he thought of her or Shinpachi. So he turned to planting more trees in the garden (“A great way of fighting heatwaves,” Sakamoto said) and baking as many overcooked cookies and cakes as he could.
It turned out fertilizer was not the only thing Sakamoto could eat.
He nearly knocked the cake in Sakamoto’s face when the fairy returned to his spot in the grass. Sakamoto stretched his legs forward with all his toes raised, savoring his freedom out of the dirt, no matter that weeks had passed already since he could walk again. He took a great piece of the cake and shoved it whole into his mouth.
“This tastes disgusting,” he said, all the while chewing happily.
“It tastes perfect,” Gintoki replied in offense.
“Maybe I just need another piece to confirm, then.”
Gintoki let him have the whole cake anyway. He was, after all, forbidden from eating too much sugar.
“What’s the occasion?” Sakamoto asked him.
“It’s your birthday?”
“No,” Gintoki said boredly. “But it must be someone’s birthday somewhere.”
Sakamoto hummed approvingly and kept eating the cake.
Piece by piece, the cake vanished. The grey and menacing clouds above split and went each in their own direction. A quarter-moon appeared far in the west, the thinnest of crescents, with sharp needles for ends. Sakamoto took Gintoki’s hand.
“Thank you for baking me a cake,” he said.
Gintoki didn’t answer.
Instead, he examined with his fingers the rough and supple texture of that hand he was holding. Sakamoto let him, amused, as if he were looking at this little boy who had first called to him so many lives ago. He laughed when Gintoki forced his index finger to bend backwards until its tip touched his wrist.
“That is disgusting,” Gintoki commented.
“Are you afraid you will miss me?”
Gintoki looked at Sakamoto. There was nothing to see but that smile and those eyes, and the faintest hint of that liquid glitter; a silvery halo crusted with sunlight.
“I know,” Sakamoto said. “It’s okay.”
They held hands as children would for a long time. The waxing moon above was their only witness. If this were a kids’ movie, fireflies would appear to bathe them in their green glow. Gintoki would point to some fancy star in the sky, and while Sakamoto looked up, astounded, he would brace his waist.
“Where’re you gonna go?” Gintoki asked.
“Mmh,” Sakamoto replied. He was busy picking the last crumbs of cake out of the plate with one sap-wet finger. “Dunno. Wherever someone lonely calls.”
“Do you check resumes and references when several people call?”
“I do,” Sakamoto answered gravely.
“Can’t people just take antidepressants,” Gintoki grumbled.
This would be the time for Sakamoto to make another gleeful comment about Gintoki missing him. Sakamoto chose instead to lift their locked hands to his face. He kissed Gintoki’s knuckles and rubbed them against his cheek.
But Gintoki couldn’t finish that sentence, for he knew the answer.
Sakamoto gave it anyway: “No. I won’t come back.”
Why, Gintoki wondered, did letting go have to be so painful? As Shouyou’s memory finally started to leave him, and sometimes the need took him to open his house again and look for those he loved, he was given no reprieve. Another weight now crushed his chest.
“We don’t all have to come back to be together,” Sakamoto said, patting Gintoki’s hand. “And a person like me never fully leaves. I wasn’t alive before I came out of the ground, not like this, and there will always be something of me everywhere. Here,” he said, burying one hand into the wet earth; “and here.”
He poked Gintoki in the chest.
There was nothing more to say.
Sakamoto rose to his feet and stretched like a cat, his spine all arched and his fingers spread wide into the night air. “Phew, I hope I don’t come out again until spring,” he said. “It’s starting to get cold.”
“Winter is coming,” Gintoki replied.
“Hah, I know that one! Ice Age!”
He remained sitting, as he couldn’t be certain of resisting the temptation to run after Sakamoto if he were standing up. Sakamoto must have understood. He patted Gintoki’s knotted hair with one hand, and then framed his face with both. He lifted Gintoki’s chin upwards, bent down, and kissed his forehead.
As he rose again, leaving only a cold touch of magic in the shape of his lips between Gintoki’s eyebrows, he said, “Thanks for calling me here, Gintoki.”
“Any time,” Gintoki replied. “Tatsuma.”
And Sakamoto took his deep roots with him into the nightly darkness.
Gintoki spent New Year’s Eve buried under three different blankets and zapping between two different TV shows. He kept yawning, although he had slept like the dead. He sometimes looked at the pile of dirty dishes overflowing the sink and which he had procrastinated on washing for days.
A thick layer of snow, at least eighty centimeters high, covered all of his garden. The street before his house had become an infinite expanse of white. Some tractors had come a few days before to try and get rid of it, but the snow was so hardly compressed now that much of it had turned to ice.
Around two in the afternoon—as Gintoki was warring with himself: dishes or shower? instant ramen or soup?—deep clanging sounds started ringing at his front door. Something was shoveling the hard snow.
Or at least trying to.
The loud noises ceased. There came a muffled sound of voices arguing, and then a louder one: “There’s no way he’ll come out.”
Gintoki felt himself turn to ice as well at the sound of that voice, but before he could even make sense of anything, Zura was replying: “Of course not. He’s trapped by the snow.”
“He won’t come out even if we get rid of the snow.”
“Your defeatism is your third worst personality trait, Takasugi.”
Takasugi growled something indecipherable. Zura laughed that proud and ridiculous laugh of his and declared: “I promised Leader that I would get him out, and I will, or she will feed me to her beast.”
Either Takasugi decided to stay silent—an unlikely thing—or he had simply left. But after another moment, the sounds of two shovels scratching hard snow and two voices huffing and puffing in tandem reached Gintoki.
It seemed that desnowing the threshold of his house was a harder task than either of them expected. They were still at it after dark: cling and clanging, huffing and puffing, like the wolf in the fairytales blowing away the little pig’s straw house.
Gintoki’s house was not made of anything as light as straw, however.
Yet they did not stop. And as the clock struck seven, Takasugi moaned in relief and let his shovel fall. Zura’s own shovel was now hitting the bottom of Gintoki’s door.
“Gintoki,” he called. It was neither a yell nor an order. “Gintoki, are you here?”
“I bet he’s not,” Takasugi said bitterly.
“Pessimism is your fourth worst personality trait. Do you want to know the first two?”
Your entire personality, Gintoki thought.
“Your entire personality,” Zura said. “And then your fashion sense.”
Gintoki looked at his ceiling. His eyesight was blurry.
“Gintoki,” Zura called.
Neither a yell nor an order, but rather one of those instances where Katsura spoke the plain truth of something, be it a name or a secret.
He knocked. “Gintoki,” he called. “Open the door.”
Gintoki tried to focus on his earlier worries. Dishes or shower? Instant ramen or soup?
There was a great weight within his chest pinning him to the mattress. The day had died as swiftly as a blown candle died, and there was no lit light inside the house but for the silent TV screen. Yet a white halo came out of the snow-covered windows, as if the moon in its stubbornness had managed to pierce the covered sky.
And suddenly things changed: he no longer felt the dead air of this empty room, but rather the hot beats of his heart. He saw the potted aloe’s shape next to Kagura’s manga shelves and felt that it was breathing too. A spider ran over the blurred ceiling, a snowflake melted against the glass of a window and changed into the oblique path of a clear water drop.
Life pulsated around him, and the cold touch of the fairy’s lips caressed his forehead.
“Gintoki,” Zura called once again.
Gintoki dug out his roots and scratched away the moss climbing over his chest. His feet touched the moist soil that had replaced the floor’s tiling, and as he walked toward the door, dewey grass carried his body and his heart.