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Pandemonium

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"Heel, Sadaharu!" Kagura commanded, but it was too late; by the time she had squeezed through the estate gate and reclaimed the leash, Sadaharu had already raised his leg and liberally watered the rosebush at the edge of the garden. Its pink flowers wilted under the pressure of the pungent yellow stream.

Gintoki and Shinpachi pushed through the gate and caught up with the others in time to witness the aftermath. They looked at the drooping rosebush, then looked across the impeccably tended gardens to the sprawling estate house beyond them, and the old woman in the expensive kimono on the porch, who had stood and was staring at them.

As one they bowed, turned and headed back for the exit at double-time, only to get stuck when the combined width of their shoulders proved greater than the width of the gate.

"Excuse me!" the old woman called behind them, coming down off the porch and making her cane-assisted way down the path of polished stones. "Is that your dog?"

"Sadaharu!" Kagura scolded, tugging on the leash to no avail, as Sadaharu sniffed discerningly at his production, then began digging at the earth at the rosebush's roots.

"O-our dog?" Shinpachi stammered.

"It's hers," Gintoki offered. "Never seen it before. Or her. Let's go, Shinpachi-kun," and they made another determined yet futile effort to simultaneously exit through the narrow gateway.

Before they were free, the old woman's hand, wrinkled and dry as a chicken foot, fell on Shinpachi's shoulder. He shrieked and jumped, bashing his head on the gate's wooden lintel, the old woman's bird-talon fingers still clutching at him.

"That rosebush," the woman said, staring at Sadaharu. Her cloudy eyes were liquid with coming tears. "My late husband..."

"I'll remember you fondly," Gintoki muttered, nimbly ducking around Shinpachi and making his escape out the gate alone.

"My late husband always hated that rosebush!" the old woman wept, laughing through her tears. "I don't know how many times he used to talk of digging it up, but the thorns...oh, thank you so much, for honoring my beloved Yukihito's memory like this! I don't know how I can repay you."

Gintoki stopped midstep, spun on his heel and sidled back through the gate.

Shinpachi looked at Kagura and Sadaharu, adjusted his glasses and remarked, "But we didn't actually do anything—"

Gintoki's elbow to his protégé's ribs was perfectly placed to drive the air from his lungs, silencing him. "He means, it was nothing," Gintoki said smoothly. "All in a day's work for Edo's best Yorozuya. So what kind of repayment did you have in mind?"

"Stay right here," the woman said, and hobbled back to the house. Shinpachi stared after her, dumbstruck and slightly cross-eyed, possibly from the blow to the head.

Sadaharu finished his rosebush excavation, having mostly uprooted the plant; he sniffed at the tangle of roots, whined, then turned away, tail wagging. Kagura pulled him by the leash over to the others, his giant paws leaving lasting impressions on the flowerbeds in between.

"So what did the grandmother want?" Kagura asked. "Is she fining you, Gin-chan?"

"Fining me? It's your dog that did this!"

"Or maybe she's calling the police to arrest you..."

"She's coming back," Shinpachi said, rubbing his head with one hand and his ribs with the other.

Indeed, the old woman was already hobbling back down the path. She had traded the cane for a long, wide leather scabbard; the sheathed sword had a solid steel pommel and a grip big enough for two hands, and was obviously heavy for all that she carried it carefully in her arms, not using it as a crutch or letting it drag on the ground. One of her bony hands was wrapped around the hilt, and Gintoki shifted slightly, stretching his arms and letting them fall at his sides such that his hand was resting on the grip of his bokutou.

But she didn't draw the sword when she reached them; instead she stopped and held it out towards them, laid across her arms like she was presenting a scepter. "This was my Yukihito's last sword," she told them. "He always said it yearned to be wielded by someone with the strength to be worthy of its strength. He would want you to have it."

Kagura blinked. "But Sadaharu doesn't use swords."

"Neither do we; they're illegal," Shinpachi said.

"And that's not a Japanese sword anyway," Gintoki said.

"No," the woman agreed. "It was forged after a European design, a flambard."

"Thanks for the offer, lady, but we'll pass today," Gintoki said, waving his hand in dismissal. "You can offer it to the next dog which discovers your garden."

"But I know this is for you," the old woman insisted. "You could do great things with this sword!" After a brief struggle with its mass and with Shinpachi's assistance she drew the sword partway from the sheath.

Its long, heavy blade was straight instead of curved, but its edge was serrated, the cutting blade forged in undulating waves, glinting sharply silver in the sunlight. Glittering even brighter, however, was the massive diamond set into the blade itself, directly above the hilt, a clear, shining, unflawed crystal as big as a goose egg.

Gintoki's, Kagura's, and Shinpachi's eyes widened to approximately the size of eggs as well, seeing it. "On second thought," Gintoki said, "since possessing a bladed sword is illegal these days, we really ought to take it off your hands..."

"But, Gin-san," Shinpachi hissed, "we can't accept something like this, not for not even doing a job—"

"We carried out her esteemed husband's last eternal wish," Gintoki whispered back, "why shouldn't we get a small reward for our kindness?"

"That's not a small anything—"

"Hey, thanks!" Kagura said cheerfully, and grabbed the sword out of the old woman's hand. Drawing the serrated blade fully from the sheath, she swung it experimentally, inscribing a gleaming arc through the air and avoiding giving Gintoki an impromptu tonsure only thanks to his quick reflexes.

The old woman beamed and nodded, and Shinpachi sighed his oft-practiced sigh of the thoroughly defeated.

 


 

"It's probably a fake anyway," Gintoki said, back at the Yorozuya apartment. "Probably just glass costume jewelry. We did right to get it off her hands before she was disappointed by it. Her husband was probably a toymaker and it's probably only a toy sword."

The flambard whooshed like the howl of a wind through a canyon as Kagura swung it in a circle about her, docking the corner of a couch cushion and carving a groove in the table.

"It doesn't cut like a toy," Shinpachi pointed out, ducking the blade's sweep past his ear.

"A toy's no fun if it's not realistic. Besides, whoever heard of putting a gem in a sword blade? Decorating the hilt is one thing, but the blade, that's too showy for a real weapon. And not with a diamond that big. It has to be fake. Diamonds don't even come in this many asparaguses."

"I think it's carats, actually," Shinpachi said. "And the Star of Africa..."

Kagura feinted, leapt over the couch to stab an invisible opponent, then turned and with a ferocious battle-cry slashed the air behind her, neatly bisecting the issue of JUMP on the table.

Gintoki shrieked like it had been his own heart cleaved in twain, rocketing out of his chair and almost sending Shinpachi sprawling as he dove for the magazine. Kneeling, he helplessly picked up the two pieces, but it was far too late; two rolls of cellophane tape wouldn't be enough to save it. The rent pages rustled desolately. "But I'd only read half of it," Gintoki mourned. "And it's already Friday; it'll be all sold out everywhere."

"You can buy all the tankoubons new, once we sell this!" Kagura proclaimed, brandishing the sword to display the diamond set in the blade.

"It's glass, I tell you, glass!" Gintoki said. "That rock couldn't even scratch the finish of a BMW."

"Oh, yeah?" Kagura said. "Then what about this?" Going to the window, she set the sword against the pane, so the flat of the blade and the cross-guard were parallel to the glass and the crystal's facets rested against the surface. Then she scraped it down the window with an earsplitting screech. Sadaharu, sitting in the corner worrying at the scabbard, whined and put his paws over his ears.

Kagura lowered the sword, so that the deep white score the stone had inscribed on the glass was clearly visible.

Gintoki and Shinpachi took their hands from their own ears and stared at this new and unexpected evidence. "Is-is that a scratch, Shinpachi-kun?"

"It's a scratch, Gin-san."

"Did that rock scratch the glass like a diamond can, Shinpachi-kun?"

"It scratched it, Gin-san."

"Told you," Kagura said smugly. "We're going to be able to buy all the JUMPs and sukonbu we want."

"Forget about that!" Gintoki cried. "Melon parfaits! Swiss chocolate!"

"The new special limited collector's edition Otsuu Live DVD set!"

"Tsukemono pickles from Kyoto for rice!"

"A new Vespa! Or a Harley! Or a Bentley Space-car! Or a yacht!"

"Real beef sukiyaki!"

"I—I could pay off the debts on the dojo. All of them..."

"You could buy a new dojo! And a mansion in the countryside. And a castle!" Gintoki considered. "Well, maybe I couldn't loan you enough for a castle."

"You couldn't loan him anything!" Kagura protested. "It's my sword, so my diamond."

"Ah, you're mistaken, Kagura-chan; that's my sword. But since I do owe you and Shinpachi a little back-pay..."

Kagura folded her arms around the sword and stuck out her jaw belligerently. "The grandmother gave the sword to Sadaharu, and Sadaharu's my dog, so it's mine."

"Ehh? Who pays for seven bags of dog food a day to feed that monstrous canine's monstrous stomach?"

"I believe that's Otose-san, usually," Shinpachi asserted. "Though Catherine and Ane-ue contribute sometimes."

"Well, maybe so, but who drags those heavy bags up the stairs?"

"We should get it appraised," Shinpachi said. "To find out how much it's actually worth."

"Then let's do it!" Kagura started for the door.

"Wait, Kagura-chan!" Shinpachi yelped, wresting the scabbard from Sadaharu's paws and scrambling after her. "You shouldn't go outside without it sheathed—and maybe we could put it in a combini bag—pretend it's an umbrella—"

Gintoki glanced out the window at the dark night sky. "What jeweler is going to be open at nine P.M.?" he asked.

Sadaharu cocked his giant white head and yipped emphatically.

"It was rhetorical," Gintoki informed him, and got up to follow his erstwhile employees.

 


 

It was past eleven when the Yorozuya finally conceded that there were no diamond appraisers available outside of business hours—at least not any that they would want to do business with; Gintoki had a few suggestions about where to look, but Shinpachi vetoed all of them. So, discouragingly poor for one more night, they headed home, with the sheathed sword, wrapped in its plastic bag camouflage, tucked under Gintoki's belt after Kagura had bored of carrying it.

Outside Otose-san's they ran into Catherine, who was standing under their sign shouting up to their window, "Keep it down up there, you good-for-nothing freeloaders! Your racket is disturbing the customers!"

"Whose racket?" Gintoki inquired, leaning over her shoulder.

"Your racket," Catherine said, then looked down at the three of them, before craning her neck to peer up at the window again. "That you were making...up there...?"

"Only we're not up there," Kagura said.

"Sounds like someone is, though," Gintoki said, angling his head to listen to the crash of something breaking overhead. A dish, he hoped, and not a window. Pieces of a dish could just be thrown out, but window panes were work to install, and Otose objected to boards being nailed where windows were supposed to be.

"If it's burglars, maybe we should call the pol—" Shinpachi started to say.

"There's someone in our house!" Kagura cried, and shot up the stairs, two at a time, to wrench open the door—it had been locked, too, Gintoki was reasonably sure, but by the crack of splintering wood it wasn't anymore. "What are you doing here?" she shouted, loud enough to be heard down the block.

"We better make sure no one gets hurt," Shinpachi said. Gintoki was already heading up the stairs. What if that crash had been the TV? Well, after selling the diamond they could get a widescreen anyway, but he had so many memories of watching Ketsuno Ana on that TV...

The door's latch was snapped, Gintoki had time to observe, and then he sidestepped to avoid the body that came hurtling toward him. Humanoid but not human; its legs and arms were augmented by a long lashing tail. With all these five limbs spread it managed to catch itself on the railing of the balcony before it fell over the edge, dragged itself up with a hiss like an angry snake.

It wasn't a race of Amanto he recognized: lanky, oddly jointed body in a dark uniform, and a flat lizard face with no nose or hair, only olive scales. It had a knife in its left talon, a short thing only a hand-span long, but glowing with a peculiar green light through the dark. The alien's round yellow eyes fixed onto Gintoki and it hissed again, a black tongue flicking out of its lipless mouth.

Gintoki raised one hand. "Yo. Welcome to Yorozuya Gin-chan's. We're closed for business tonight, but you can come back tomorrow morning, whenever." Then he brought around the bokutou in his other hand. The wooden sword caught the alien across the shoulder with a satisfying crack and flipped it over the railing. It landed on the street on its feet and tilted up its head to glower yellowly up at him, hissing an Amanto curse that Gintoki hadn't heard in some time, and never off of the battlefield.

Shinpachi was clutching his bokutou as well, trying to simultaneously peer over the edge of the balcony while looking about wildly for other attackers. "Hey, Shinpachi," Gintoki said, setting his hand on the railing to prepare to leap down to the street, "why don't you help Kagura make tea for our customers, while I get out the cakes?"

Shinpachi steadied his grip on his wooden sword and glared at him. "Gin-san, this isn't—"

The scream which cut across the night then was no lizard's—a high-pitched girl's voice. Shinpachi's eyes went wide behind his glasses. "Kagura-chan!"

"Kagura!" Abandoning the lizard-man in the street, Gintoki charged for the door, right behind Shinpachi.

The lights were off, but in the illumination from the streetlamp outside they could see Kagura standing on the table in the middle of the room, facing three more lizard-men in front of Gintoki's desk. The aliens' green daggers glowed eerily, reflecting little creepy points of light in their yellow eyes as they hissed at her.

Kagura was braced in a fighting stance, but her left hand was pressed over her right forearm. She glanced back over her shoulder at Gintoki and Shinpachi, whined, "Gin-chan, he bit me! Right on my arm! With his teeth!"

"What else is he supposed to bite you with?" Gintoki asked, or started to ask.

Before he could finish the question, Kagura fell, suddenly and without so much as a whimper for warning, simply toppling backwards as if she had been cracked over the head, for all that none of the aliens had moved.

"Kagura-chan!" Shinpachi leapt to catch her, barely in time to keep her head from knocking against the corner of the table; they both tumbled to the floor in a sprawl of limbs and dead weight.

The lizard-men went for them, but Gintoki was faster; one sweep of his bokutou caught two of the aliens in the bellies and sent them careening into the wall.

The third was nimble, though; out of range of the wooden sword, it lunged for the already downed prey. Kagura didn't move to defend herself, lying motionless on the floor, but Shinpachi got out from under her and launched to his feet in time to parry its glowing dagger with his bokutou.

Then he yelped like Sadaharu when his tail got trod on, as the knife sliced through the sword's wooden blade as easily as if it were cutting a tomato on a late-night infomercial. He flailed with the remaining stump as the lizard-man advanced on him, backing up against the wall, only to change tactics at the last second, pushing off the wall to throw himself at the alien, tackling it around the midsection.

"Not bad, Shinpachi," Gintoki approved, as he faced off against his own attackers, keeping an eye on their green daggers—having to get a new bokutou would be a pain; even when he ordered them express the mail-order company would dawdle a day or two before dispatching. Luckily the aliens were fast, but not that fast; it was no great matter to avoid their cautious jabs, though it made it more difficult to return the hits.

Shinpachi yelped again, and Gintoki dodged between his two opponents to see the lizard-man facing Shinpachi strike—like a snake more than a lizard, its flat-faced head darting forward, fangs flashing in its open mouth. Its lunge was so quick that those fangs had sunk into Shinpachi's neck before he could block or evade.

Shinpachi shouted, as much from surprise as pain, and swung his stub of a bokutou, but the lizard-man let go and somersaulted away from him, out of reach.

"Gin-san," Shinpachi gasped, his hand pressed to his neck as he dropped to his knees; then his face went slack and he went down, just as Kagura had, slumping forward in a limp heap on the floor.

"Shinpachi!" Two enemies behind him; Gintoki moved without looking, slamming his elbow into one's gut, smashing the other over the scaly head with the butt of his bokutou, then hurtling toward the third alien as it crouched over Shinpachi. Not giving it a chance to do anything more, Gintoki grabbed its skinny tail in both hands, scales scraping his palms, yanked the alien off its feet and hurled it like a hammer throw over the table, into its compatriots.

The bastards were tough, though; already they were scrabbling to their feet, daggers in their clawed hands, snarling at him, "If you have it, you won't keep it from us, samurai—!"

"Samurai, eh?" Gintoki said. "How about I show you a samurai's weapon, then," and he ripped the plastic bags off the scabbard tucked in his belt and drew the sword. The green glimmering of their knives sparkled in the diamond's facets and shone in ragged patterns off its rippled blade. "Will those mini-glowsticks of yours cut through this, I wonder? Or will it cut off your tails first?"

The lizard-men drew back, hissing to one another in sibilant undertones. Gintoki didn't give them time to decide; he charged for the nearest one, swinging the sword to lop off a limb—tail, arm, leg; he wasn't feeling picky. The alien flung up its arm to block—successfully repelling the blade; its outfit must have been some kind of reinforced body-armor, but he heard something crack at the impact and the alien squawked in pain. Leaping backwards, it dove for the window, crashing headfirst through the glass with its armored arms shielding its big yellow eyes.

Gintoki turned to face the others, but they were already scurrying out the broken door, their boots thudding on the wooden steps.

He could have gone after them, but it would mean running through busy night streets with an illegal sword, and he had other things to take care of anyway. Sheathing the flambard, he fumbled for the light switch on the wall, turned it on and surveyed the damage.

One of the couches was overturned, and the lamp on his desk had been knocked to the floor, shards of its broken bulb mingling with the shattered window. Otherwise the room wasn't much different from its usual condition. Even Kagura, flopped there among the wreckage—that wasn't so different from normal, except that usually she would be snoring.

Shinpachi, however, wouldn't so cavalierly stretch out face-down on the floorboards even in the worst summer heat. Gintoki cleared his throat. "Shinpachi? Kagura? Please don't be sleeping eternally; it's lazy of you, and Gin-san doesn't want to be up all night searching for a time machine..."

"No'slee'!" Kagura said, or mumbled, rather. "M'wake!"

"Eh? Kagura-chan?" Gintoki crouched next to her, tentatively poked her shoulder with one finger. "Was that you mumbling? Are you getting up now?"

"'rying!" Kagura garbled. "Can' ove!"

"If you can move, why don't you get up?"

"I 'aid I can'!"

"Ahh...I can' 'ove ei'er, Gin-han," Shinpachi mumbled into the floor.

Gintoki turned around to look at him. "Oi, Shinpachi, when did you become an Osaka man?"1

"Gin-han!"

"All right, all right." Gintoki pulled Kagura up to a sitting position and propped her against the table with her head flopped down, then went and picked up Shinpachi's limp body and deposited him on the couch, on his side facing Kagura. He picked up Shinpachi's glasses, too, and set them on his nose. "You're lucky these didn't get broken."

Sadaharu poked his head out of the bedroom, padded over to nudge Kagura with his big wet nose. "There you are," Gintoki said. "What kind of watchdog do we have here, huh? Hiding when the lizard-burglars come."

"Gin-han, don' 'e 'ean 'o 'adaharu!" Kagura protested incomprehensibly.

The bite-marks on Shinpachi's neck and Kagura's arm didn't look serious, hardly more than a pair of pinpricks and swelling less than mosquito bites. And they didn't have temperatures and weren't sweating when he laid the back of his hand across their foreheads—no signs of poisoning. Gintoki prodded Shinpachi's wound cautiously. "Does it hurt?"

"No," Shinpachi mumbled. "I'sh nu'n. Like 'y 'ody."

"Maybe it's not venom; maybe your legs have just fallen asleep. Like when you've been kneeling on the sidewalk before the cafe begging for a chocolate parfait because one of your hundred-yen coins fell out of your pocket and rolled away, so you can't afford to buy one, even though you haven't had any parfait for a week, and then you can't stand afterwards because your legs are numb."

"Who'd kneel' for tha'!?"

"Wha' are we going 'o 'o, Gin-shan?" Kagura cried, as best she could. "Wha' if we have 'o go to the 'athroom? You can't take me, I'm a girl!"

"Ah, Kagura, you've got more consonants now! And look, your foot is moving!"

"Hey, it is! It's all pins and needles, though—"

"You've got to get up, walk around so the blood moves," Gintoki said, taking her hands and pulling her to her feet.

After a few tottering Sadaharu-assisted laps around the table, Kagura was bouncing about as lively as ever. Shinpachi, however, lacking the supernatural stamina of a Yato clans member, was still inert on the couch. He couldn't even manage a proper glare when he couldn't get his eyebrows to lower, but he made a noble attempt when Kagura poked him in the cheek for the fifth time. "Come on, Shinpachi, don't be lazy!"

"I'm no'! I sh'ill can' 'ove! Sh'ah' tha', Kagura-han!"

"And he's still speaking in Osaka-ben, too," Gintoki observed.

"Gin-chan, what does 'sh'ah' mean in Osaka-ben?"

"Hmm, I think it's 'stop'. Or is it 'shot'?"

"Aren't you getting bored lying there?" Kagura inquired. "Here, how about this?" She pulled Shinpachi upright and pushed his legs off the couch, so he was sitting wedged against the arm. After a moment's deliberation she arranged his hands to be folded in his lap, and adjusted his glasses. Standing back, she eyed her handiwork critically and nodded. "There, that looks more Shinpachi-like."

"Kagura-han," Shinpachi moaned miserably.

"Kagura, Shinpachi's not an action figure to pose," Gintoki said.

"Gin-han, 'hank you—"

"If he was, he'd have more accessories," Gintoki continued. "Maybe we could get some laundry and set it up like he's folding it. Or a feather duster?"

"I know!" Kagura rifled through the pile of old papers under the table, came up with an entertainment magazine from a few months back with a cover article on Otsuu. This she placed in Shinpachi's hands, curling his immobile fingers around the pages, over the idol's photo.

"Kagura-han, don' 'ut my 'inger there! Kagura-han! Ahh, Otsuu-han, I'm 'orry!"

"Hm, you can still say Otsuu's name," Gintoki remarked.

Kagura stepped back again, planting her hands on her hips. "It's still off."

"It's his face," Gintoki said. "It's blank even for Shinpachi—

"Wha' do you 'ean, ''or Shin'hachi'—"

"—It needs more lines to be a proper expression. Where's that marker we write the chores list with?"

It was a good hour before Shinpachi could do more than feebly twitch his fingers, and even after he was recovered enough from the venom to wobble to the bathroom and clean the marker off his face, he was still unsteady. When he made it back to the couch, he flopped down on his stomach, tucked his arms under his head and shut his eyes, without so much as taking off his glasses or muttering good night.

He didn't stir when Gintoki pushed back his hair to feel his forehead again, but he still wasn't feverish and his breathing was even. Gintoki removed Shinpachi's glasses and set them safely on his desk, then went and sat on the couch opposite the boy, putting his bare feet up on the table and folding his arms over his chest.

Kagura went to the bedroom and came back with two blankets, one to toss over Shinpachi, the other to wrap around herself as she sat on the couch next Gintoki, legs curled under her, mimicking Sadaharu's pose on the floor beside them.

"It's late," Gintoki said, "good kids should be in bed."

"It's after midnight, so it's not late, it's early," Kagura countered. "Besides, what if—what if those guys come back and try to steal the sword?" and she pointed to the sheath that Sadaharu had between his paws and was gnawing on contentedly.

"Right, the sword," Gintoki said, nodding. "That's why I'm staying up, to watch out for it. Since Sadaharu's such a bad watchdog."

"He's not! But still, it would be really bad if something happened to that sword," Kagura said.

"Since it's so valuable," Gintoki agreed.

On the other couch, Shinpachi grumbled in cranky unintelligible dream-speech, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders as he rolled over.

"So I think I'll stay up," Kagura said, muffling a yawn. "And make sure nothing's really wrong. With it. The sword."

"Yeah," Gintoki said. "Me, too."