Shinpachi had intended to drop by Yorozuya Gin-chan two weekends ago, but at the last minute one of Edo's most prominent dojos had a school drop out of their children's tournament and invited the Shimura's Koudouji school to pinch hit, and so they'd spent the last two weeks hurriedly preparing. In the end they'd come in third, and the publicity that victory had earned them was well worth the time and effort. But he couldn't help a twinge of guilt when he turned down the street to Otose's and realized it had already been close to a month since he'd last been by.
He'd talked to Gintoki on the phone a few times, and at the tournament this weekend he thought he'd noticed a head of prematurely silver hair in the crowd, but at the time he'd been too busy corralling small children to seek him out, and Gintoki hadn't shown up at the party afterwards. Of course if Gintoki had actually needed him, he could have just called. He had a cell phone; Shinpachi had gotten phones for both him and Kagura a couple of years before. And he'd told Gintoki to call him whenever he got a two-person job—"I'm still a Yorozuya, Gin-san, even if I can't come every day,"—but Gintoki hadn't been getting many of those, it seemed, not in the past year.
He had been working, enough to pay the bills, anyway. Catherine wasn't nearly so patient with the rent as Otose had been. Whether she'd actually evict him was an open question. Shinpachi privately doubted she would—Catherine made occasional snide comments about an Otose Memorial Freeloader Foundation, which when it came down to it wasn't really a joke. In the past couple of years she'd adopted more than a few strays herself, in Otose's name.
But she didn't hesitate to send Tama rent-collecting, either, and had invested in a few special incentives. Most of which were off the robotic black market, and a few Shinpachi suspected would be classified as weapons of mass destruction if installed in something other than a personal maid android.
The door was intact today, however, rather than a smoking pile of charred cinders, so Gintoki must've ponied up rent for the month. Shinpachi called a greeting as he let himself in, and Gintoki's answer came back from the office rather than the bedroom, which was commendable given that it wasn't yet noon.
Of course, while in the office, Gintoki didn't exactly present the image of a consummate professional, being sprawled on his back on one of the couches with his bare feet up on the cushions. He was perusing the latest issue of Shounen Jump, muttering the sound effects aloud as he read over the television droning in the background, and didn't bother putting down the comics when Shinpachi entered.
"Gin-san," Shinpachi said, shaking his head at this display, "what if I'd brought a client?"
"Did you?" Gintoki inquired, licking his thumb to turn the page.
"No, sorry—but that's not the point!" Shinpachi switched off the TV and automatically collected the couple of empty pudding cups and cookie boxes to drop in the trash. Otherwise the place was pretty neat—it always surprised Shinpachi, after the trying and mostly futile battle against entropy that had been much of his teenage years working at Yorozuya Gin-chan, that Gintoki was in fact capable of basic housecleaning. Well, he had managed for some years before Shinpachi and Kagura had joined him, Shinpachi supposed. And one person did make less mess than two—especially when the one wasn't Kagura...
"So do we have any jobs today?" Shinpachi asked, going into the kitchen to put on a pot for tea.
"Nothing scheduled," Gintoki said.
"But someone could always drop in," Shinpachi said. People with desperate situations rarely bothered calling ahead, and Mondays were popular for afternoon emergencies. "My morning classes are done; I'm free to stick around until tonight."
"Suit yourself," Gintoki said, turning another page of his Jump, then making a face and flipping to the next series.
Shinpachi put away the dry dishes in the drainer as he waited for the electric kettle to come to a boil. "Looks like we're going to be starting more classes soon," he remarked. "We've already had half a dozen new students sign up, and it's only a day after the tournament."
"Yeah, congratulations on that," Gintoki.
"So you were there," Shinpachi said cheerfully.
"Eh, nothing better to do. Plus there was some sweet betting action under the table...and I had insider info. Still, third place, against the biggest schools in the city? Some of those little kids of yours are monsters."
"Oh, no, that's just Hedoro-san's daughter. She's actually very sweet, in spite of the horns." The kettle whistled; Shinpachi poured two cups of tea and brought them back to the office, taking a seat on the couch opposite Gintoki.
Gintoki dropped the Jump and sat up to accept the teacup, blew off the steam and asked slyly through it, "And how is the lady of the house?"
Shinpachi, mid-sip, nearly choked and couldn't help but blush, even knowing that Gintoki said it like that just to provoke him. For all that it had been nearly six months since the wedding, he had yet to get over the excited leap his heart gave whenever he remembered that the woman he loved was now his wife. "She's good—she's great, she's awesome, really. You should see her teaching the kids—it's thanks to her that they did so well in tournament. And Kyuubei-san's special lessons, of course, but she's not as patient, even with the slow ones. I don't think anyone could be so..."
Gintoki snorted, shaking his head over his tea. "You're hopeless, Patsuan."
Shinpachi grinned back at him. "Yeah," he said, "completely. So, yes, we're doing well. And so are Ane-ue and Kyuubei-san." He took another sip, then remarked, as casually as he could manage, "Oh, I got another letter from Kagura-chan." A letter and three postcards, actually—Kagura wrote to him faithfully at least once a week, postcards if she hadn't the time for anything else, but the mail service in some systems was less than prompt.
Gintoki shifted his tea cup from one hand to the other, holding the rim lightly so the hot ceramic wouldn't burn his fingers.
"She's on Orion's Belt now," Shinpachi said. "On Mintaka IV—or was it III? Anyway, she and Umibouzu-san are taking on some super-powered dictator or other. Or were, they should be done now; she said the guy didn't even seem to be as strong as Frieza's original form."
"And both of the galaxy's top sweepers are there for him? Poor bastard."
"That's what I thought," Shinpachi said. "Anyway, when I saw Okita-san yesterday, he said that Kagura had told him that she and Sadaharu are probably going to the Nebula next, though her father has an appointment in the Pleiades—"
Gintoki, cup to his lips, paused for a moment. "Okita?"
"Yes, Kagura-chan's been writing Okita-san, too, for the last few months. Emails, mostly, so he can't make fun of her handwriting."
"When does she have time to fight intergalactic monsters, if she's spending all of it writing letters?" Gintoki remarked.
"Well, they're not very long letters...I think she writes them before she goes to bed, usually. The way she used to write to Umibouzu-san." Shinpachi hesitated, debating, then said, "She asked me about you, in her last letter. How you were doing."
Gintoki put his cup down on the table, stretched his arms with a yawn and slumped back on the couch. "The brat can write me one of those not-so-long letters, if she really wants to know. You can tell her the address, if she's forgotten it."
It wasn't the first time he'd said something like that. And he never sounded angry or upset, at most mildly irritated. But it still made Shinpachi want to apologize, if he could have. "She will, Gin-san. She just needs a little more time."
"A year wandering the space trails isn't enough time?"
Shinpachi sighed. "Not for a girl...for a woman who had her heart broken."
Gintoki rolled his eyes. "You need to lay off the girl's manga; you sound like a shoujo heroine. Or is that how Kagura's putting it now?"
"No," Shinpachi said.
That wasn't how she'd ever put it. The days before she'd left Earth it had all been, "That stupid braindead asshole of a silver-permed dickhead," and "Can't I pound him a little bit, Shinpachi? Just a foot or two into the ground?" Once she'd gotten into space and had the chance to pound more deserving monsters and bad guys much deeper into the ground, she'd calmed down a bit. Her letters in the past few months hadn't mentioned it, and Shinpachi refrained from bringing it up himself.
Though he'd been more pleased than he could have said to read Gintoki's name in her last missive. Giving Okita her email address had been a good idea after all.
"She was really hurt, though. You could have been kinder about it, you know," Shinpachi said. While he hadn't been there for the actual confession, he'd heard most of the story afterwards, putting it together through Kagura's tears and screams of vengeance. Gintoki hadn't confirmed or denied anything; he'd avoided the subject as deftly as he avoided most swordfighting challenges.
"Eh, the truth is always going to hurt, isn't it, however it's said," Gintoki said now, carelessly, not looking at Shinpachi.
Even if they hadn't ever talked about it, Shinpachi had a hunch that Gintoki had realized after the fact that he'd made a mistake. Or at the very least, that he hadn't picked the ideal way to respond to a passionate (not to mention monstrously strong) young woman telling him, "I've loved you for a long time, and now that I'm older, I'd really like to go out on a date with you, at least once, and maybe more, if you want to."
Perhaps there wasn't any perfect answer, but an incredulous, "What, just because you've finally grown some breasts you think you're old enough to ask a guy out?" followed by, "And besides, even if your boobs were twice that size I'm not so crazy as to date a violent brat who might kill me if I gave her the wrong flower," had definitely not been the best choice.
Fortunately Shinpachi had shown up in time to keep Gintoki from getting curb-stomped more than a couple of times. And he'd been aware enough of the situation that when Kagura had taken off crying, he had known to go after her; but what he remembered most vividly was Gintoki's face then, his utterly baffled expression under the blood. It hadn't been until that moment that Shinpachi had realized that Gintoki hadn't merely been avoiding the issue.
For a while Shinpachi had assumed it was because Gintoki still thought of Kagura as a kid, a brat like he always called her, rather than a teenage girl on the cusp of becoming woman. Though when Kagura had announced her intention to join her father in space, Gintoki hadn't been surprised—that, he'd been expecting for a while, it seemed like.
It had taken a lot of thought and some discussion with his sister and his then-fiancée and a few others, before Shinpachi had really understood, or understood better, at least. He still wasn't sure if Gintoki did, though. "It's hard to confess your heart, Gin-san—it's one of the bravest things anyone can do, to go up to the person you love and tell them how you really feel. You remember, before I proposed, it took me three days to get up the nerve, and I didn't sleep any of those nights. And I already knew how she felt.
"Kagura-chan, she really thought hard about it—she talked to Ane-ue and Kyuubei-san, and Tsukuyo-san, and even me, trying to figure out the best thing to say. To do that, to put everything into confessing your love, and then to hear that the one you love doesn't love you—"
Gintoki finally did look up at that, pale brows lowered, serious as he rarely became. "I—"
"You love her," Shinpachi said. "I know that, and Kagura-chan knows that—but it's not the same; it's not the way Kagura-chan loves you. And that hurts, finding out someone doesn't feel the same way about you that you feel about them. Even if you knew it already, it's still painful—heck, all the time I cheered on Otsuu-chan, it always ached a little, knowing she wouldn't be returning the feelings I gave her. For Kagura-chan, it was so much worse, because her feelings are so much more. And because she was hoping, at least a little bit of hope, that you might answer them. That you at least might give her a chance—but you didn't."
"So you're saying I should've kindly humored her, gone on a date with the brat and indulged her crush until it wore off?"
"It wasn't just a crush, Gin-san, and you know it," Shinpachi said, irritated. "Kagura-chan really thought—she's always thought it, you know she has, she always thought that she might be here with you forever. Even though she's Yato, and even though she wanted to go out and fight alongside her father—she wanted that; but she wanted to stay with you, too."
"She could've," Gintoki said, sounding just as irritated. "I wasn't stopping her; it wasn't like I was going to kick her out just because she was growing up. She wasn't a damn baby bird who needed to be thrown out of the nest to learn to fly. Hell, it'd have been more appropriate, wouldn't it; little girls shouldn't stay with strange men, but a woman can live with whoever she likes."
"You wouldn't have kicked her out—but you wouldn't give her what she wanted from you, either." Shinpachi exhaled, looking across the table at Gintoki, slouched on the couch with his hands behind his silver-haired head and frowning up at the ceiling. "You couldn't give it to her," Shinpachi said, more quietly.
"What are you insinuating? Are you implying that Gin-san's equipment is inadequate—"
"It's not about your, er, equipment, Gin-san. But you're not in love with Kagura-chan. Or with anybody else, I don't think." Shinpachi leaned forward, clasping his hands over his knees. "Falling in love, having that one special person you're in love with—just thinking about them makes you smile, and when you're actually with them, it's even better. And touching them, being touched by them—your heart will be racing so hard you can't even think. You know you're being an idiot, but you're so happy you don't care..."
Gintoki rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "Seriously, how much shoujo have you been reading?"
"It's not just shoujo, Gin-san; it's really like that. Sometimes. With the right people. With some people."
Gintoki didn't reply, still studying the ceiling, as if the latest issue of Jump had been printed on the rafters.
"But not with you," Shinpachi said. "Even if it might've been easier on Kagura-chan if there were somebody else. You can understand it, when the one you love is in love with somebody else—you can try to be happy for them, even if it hurts. And you can hate the other person, the one who's getting the love you want. Either way, at least you know that they understand how you feel.
"But you don't, Gin-san—you don't know how hard it is to confess to anyone, because you never have."
"Ah, so you know all of my sordid past, now? Have you been reading flashback stories?"
"Is there anyone you've ever wanted to confess to?" Shinpachi asked, point-blank.
Gintoki didn't answer. Shinpachi wasn't expecting him to. "Maybe I haven't known you for all your life, Gin-san, but it's been quite a while now. And just because I'm the glasses character doesn't mean I'm blind. You had a crush on Ketsuno-san, but that was just a crush, not even as big a thing as what I had for Otsuu-chan. And that was nothing like what Kagura-chan feels for you."
"So, what, I should've lied to her?" Gintoki said, eyes still on the ceiling, like he'd finished going through the invisible Jump and now was hoping some answers might appear there next. "Told her I was always bearing a torch for your sister. Or maybe the baa-san. Though she would've figured out the truth—women always can tell, in the end. It's like a rabu-rabu sixth sense."
"You didn't need to lie," Shinpachi said, "but you could've been gentler about your rejection. At least nice enough that Kagura-chan wouldn't have spent her first six months out in space plotting revenge!"
Gintoki shrugged. "Eh, it gave her something to do."
"Yes, but you were the one she was planning on doing, and not in the good way..." Shinpachi stopped, subjected Gintoki to a long, searching look. Gintoki's indifferent expression gave away nothing, though, and it was hard to read his eyes when he wouldn't bother meeting Shinpachi's. All the same... "And you should've known better, since it wasn't the first time. Katsura-san told me about..."
"Zura? You talked about this with Zura?" Gintoki groaned and thumped the back of his head against the couch back. "Don't tell me what that long-haired idiot of a romantic ranted about, I don't want to know."
"He's not angry with you, Gin-san. He doesn't hold any grudge—he said he understands." Which wasn't quite how Katsura had put it, and there had been a lot more besides, but Gintoki never had the patience to listen to Katsura waxing poetical about the human heart.
"Zura's read way more shoujo than you or any man should. He's always understood," Gintoki said, sounding less grateful for that than annoyed. "He forgave me so long ago I hardly even remember what it was for."
"Yes, but I think he's gotten more sincere about it," Shinpachi said. "He knows you better now than he did then, he told me. But you should know better, too—and you do, don't you. What you said to Kagura then—you were trying to make her angry, weren't you."
Gintoki didn't say anything.
"Why? Did you think that it'd hurt her less if she could hate you instead of love you?" Shinpachi shook his head. "It doesn't really work like that, Gin-san; you can't just switch someone's feelings around on them..." But maybe it had been easier for Kagura to leave, when she'd had that anger impelling her. Maybe Gintoki understood more than Shinpachi had thought.
Wasn't that so like Gin-san, to be perceptive when least expected. And so like him, too, to be taking the hard road, while pretending all along that it was the easiest, that he was only doing so because he was too lazy to find another way. "You could have at least said you were sorry, after the fact..."
"I didn't think the brat would take it this far," Gintoki said. "Or go so far, for so long—I thought in a month or two, once she got it out of her system, she'd be back here, gobbling down five pounds of rice a day and fighting with the super-sadist and leaving the faucet running and the lights on and wreaking havoc on the whole damn city..."
Shinpachi smiled in spite of himself. "Yeah, I miss her, too, Gin-san. It's not the same without Kagura-chan."
Gintoki ran his hand through his hair, further tangling its usual curly chaos. "But it's good for her to be out there. Finding her wings, finding herself, like a girl—like a young woman should. Hell, maybe finding true love, too, while she's at it."
Now who sounded like a shoujo manga, Shinpachi thought—and just how did Gin-san know what shoujo manga sounded like, anyway?—but he didn't say that aloud; instead he only nodded. "It is good for her, I think. And Kagura-chan's been enjoying herself, and I know Umibouzu-san is thrilled that she can fight with him. And she's meeting all kinds of people, and not all of them are ones she's supposed to kill, and that's fun for her, too.
"But she's not going to stay out there forever; pretty soon she's going to want to come back here. Maybe not for always, but for a while."
"Eh, who'd remember a little backwater town like Edo, when they've got galaxies to rampage through."
"Galaxies are great," Shinpachi said, "but no matter how much fun you're having, eventually you miss the people you love."
"But she's...isn't that the point of this whole damn grand tour, for her to get over that?"
"Get over it...? Gin-san, maybe Kagura-chan's still in love with you, or maybe she still hates you, or maybe her heart's moved on by now, I don't know. But this, here—Edo, and the Yorozuya—we'll always be important to her. And you, too—however else she feels about you, she still loves you, too. Whatever else she feels, that won't change. And she's not going to 'get over' it, any more than you would—it's not like you stopped caring about Kagura-chan just because she's gone, have you?"
"But I'm not the one who got a heart broken," Gintoki pointed out.
"Broken hearts heal," Shinpachi said. "Mine did, a couple of times. It's part of falling in love, that you can fall out of it—or get thrown off, or pushed onto a spike, or trampled. And it hurts, but it gets better. That's the thing—being in love, all that stuff about your heart racing, and smiling whenever you think about that person...no matter how strong a feeling it is, it doesn't last forever. It couldn't; it'd be too tiring, to be worked up like that all the time.
"But when you've found someone special, if you're with them for a while, it changes. So it's not just about how they make you feel; it's about how you are together, about figuring out how to be together. And if you stay together long enough, you're not just lovers anymore; you're also family. Then you might argue sometimes, and your heart won't always be racing when you touch—but you have a home, and you love someone who loves you, and that's even better."
"That's very mature and insightful," Gintoki remarked, "except that you still turn red anytime anything reminds you of your lawfully wedded wife, Shinpachi-kun."
"That—that's not—" Shinpachi protested, even as he felt his cheeks heat in blatant affirmation. "I mean, we haven't even been married a year! It's still special! But eventually—maybe I'll cook something she doesn't like, or maybe she'll break my second-favorite Otsuu CD—though the last time was an accident, mostly, and she was so sorry—but whatever, something like that—and then someday we're going to be having b-babies, and that's...complicated, though I know she'll make the cutest..."
He shook his head hard to bring himself back on track, took off his glasses and polished the fogged lenses on his shirt. "The point is, Gin-san, falling in love, sometimes it's just a step on the way to loving someone. And Kagura-chan is going about it a bit backwards, but that's our Kagura-chan—and she'll get back to where she started eventually."
"Maybe," Gintoki said. "If she doesn't find somewhere better to put her heart."
"Even if she finds someone out there in space to share her heart with, part of it will still be here," Shinpachi said. "No one can give all of their heart totally over to one person, no matter how deeply or crazily they fall in love. And Kagura-chan's heart is way too big for any single person anyway. You know that already, Gin-san—she's like you in that."
Gintoki arched a silver eyebrow. "Like me? Weren't you the one just saying that I don't feel any of this?"
"I didn't say that," Shinpachi said. "You love Kagura-chan, don't you, or you wouldn't miss her like this. Like you love me, and Katsura-san, and Sakamoto-san. Like you loved Otose-san, like you love Tama-san and Catherine-san, and Ane-ue and Kyuubei-san, and Hasegawa-san, and Hijikata-san and the others even if you're shaking your head at me now—you love all of us, all your friends; we're all precious to you, aren't we? We're all part of your family. You just don't fall in love to do it; you get there by other ways."
Gintoki dropped his head down into his hands with a faint pained noise. "You have been talking to Zura. That hearts-and-souls-besotted moron. I always knew that I should've just told him I don't like cock." He paused for a moment, considering. "Though come to think of it, maybe I could go and tell Kagura-chan I'm actually gay and in love with Zura. He'd probably play along..."
"Um, I don't think that would be any better than the truth, Gin-san," Shinpachi said. "Which Kagura-chan might have already figured out. Once she got over being angry with you, when she considered it more clearly..."
"If she's over being angry, then how come she hasn't written to me?" Gintoki asked. His head was still down, which only accentuated the pathetic whine in his voice.
"Because she's still coming to terms with the rest of her feelings," Shinpachi said patiently. "Give her time. You know it can work out—it has with Katsura-san, right; he's still your friend. And Tsukuyo-san, too, and Ane-ue, and everyone else—well, maybe not Sacchan-san, but—"
"...Everyone else?" Gintoki's head came up slowly, cautiously, like he was half-expecting somebody to take a swing at him. "Just what's that supposed to mean?"
Shinpachi shook his head. "Gin-san, you know this—just because someone doesn't confess to you outright doesn't mean that you don't realize how they feel; you understand people too well to miss it. Even if Kagura-chan took you off-guard—but otherwise..." He laughed slightly. "It's a little ironic—if you did fall in love, whoever it was with, I doubt they'd reject you."
Gintoki snorted, shaking his head. "As long as it wasn't with you, eh, Mr. Happy Husband Straight Man."
"Ah," Shinpachi said. "Hmm."
Gintoki froze, mouth partly open, blinked twice and then said, softly and through a determinedly fixed smile, "You're not implying anything, anything at all, are you, Shinpachi-kun?"
"Well, not now," Shinpachi said with a self-conscious chuckle, rubbing the back of his head. "Obviously not, not since I met her. But before that—maybe I can understand Kagura-chan's feelings a little. Even if I never—I mean, it's not like I ever thought it could really—"
"What." Gintoki wrapped his arms over his head and dropped it back to his knees. "What kind of perverted lolicon—you were just kids—what the hell was I doing, that you both—!?"
"It wasn't like that, Gin-san," Shinpachi said. "It wasn't anything bad, even—we were teenagers, crazy hormones, it's easy to get confused. And it wasn't anything serious, not for me, at least. It's just—you were our hero, and we love you, and that got a little mixed up. It happens to a lot of us, a bit. For Kagura-chan, like for Katsura-san, it's more, but most of us...but it doesn't last, that's the thing. Sooner or later those feelings change, settle down."
"So you don't...now...?"
Shinpachi smiled. "Not now, no. Honest, Gin-san. Like you said, I'm married man now, and I couldn't be happier."
"Thank god." Gintoki exhaled a long relieved sigh, sagging back against the couch cushions. "That would've been too much, having both of you going all...whatever...on me." Then he cracked an eyelid to look at Shinpachi. "But you're sure about that happily married thing?"
"What? Of course I am, weren't you just teasing me—"
"Just making sure," Gintoki said. "Since you're spending your afternoon off here, rather than with the old ball-and-chain—running away from your domestic duties already, isn't it a bit soon? Modern marriages these days..."
"The ball-and-chain—I mean, don't call her that—my wife's teaching classes now. And I'm not running away from anything; this is still my work, isn't it? Even if you haven't called me in on many jobs lately."
"Eh, a respectable dojo master can't really be seen doing just anything around town, can he? What'd you tell your students, if they saw you cleaning sewage pipes or investigating a brothel burglary?"
"I'd tell them I was working hard to help the people of this city," Shinpachi said. "Is that why you haven't been calling me? Gin-san, I told you way back when we started the first class at the dojo, that's my part-time job; I'm still a Yorozuya first."
Gintoki shrugged. "A class of three punk kids in need of some guidance, that's one thing. What you've got now—your father's dojo back in business, debts paid off, folks all over Edo learning self-defense, learning what it means to have a sword, even if they can't own a steel one—that's what you always really wanted, right?"
"It's what my father wanted," Shinpachi said. "Me, I just wanted my family to be happy. My father, my sister, my wife, now—everyone."
"You've got that," Gintoki said. "Your sister and your wife both look plenty happy, whenever I've seen them. And you're doing good work, too. If your father's not damn proud of you, off in heaven or hell or wherever he is, then he's an idiot."
Shinpachi felt his cheeks warm again. "Thanks, Gin-san. That means a lot to me."
Gintoki shrugged again. "So don't screw it up. Put what's important first."
Shinpachi blinked behind his glasses. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that you don't need to keep coming over here." Gintoki picked up his teacup, frowned at the cooling tea and got up from the couch, heading for the kitchenette. "Schedule more classes instead, make some real money."
"But the Yorozuya—especially with Kagura-chan gone—"
"I was working on my own long before either of you brats joined up," Gintoki said. "And I'm managing fine now—I'm paying the rent, aren't I? I don't need half-assed help from a family man with better things to do with his time."
Gintoki sighed, an annoyed huff of breath, and bent down to open the refrigerator. Over the door he said, "Look, I'm not saying beat it, Shinpachi. Keep the keys, and you can visit whenever you want, when domestic bliss gets to be too much. We can have beer instead of tea, and you can complain about your students and your bills and your wife, and your kids, when you have them. But you don't need two jobs, any more than you need two lovers, or two families—"
"You're an idiot, Gin-san," Shinpachi interrupted.
"An idiot," Shinpachi repeated, standing up from the couch. "A total, complete, massive idiot. So I fell in love, so I got married, so there's someone new in my family—does that mean the rest of my family's gone? My sister's still my sister, isn't she? The people I love are still the people I love."
Gintoki shut the refrigerator without getting anything out of it, but didn't turn from it, looking at the closed door. "Feelings change," he said.
"Sometimes," Shinpachi said. "But family doesn't, so much. Once you have one, you're sort of stuck with it. And you can't have two families—you just have the one, one that gets bigger, the more people come into it. Even when you're apart, you're still family."
One of the magnets stuck on the fridge was from Sirius, the dog star's white puppy mascot that looked a little like Sadaharu. It was from Kagura; Shinpachi had passed it on to Gintoki a few months back. Kagura hadn't asked him to do that, but he kind of felt that she'd wanted him to anyway.
"Kagura-chan is going to come back, sooner or later," Shinpachi said. "And maybe she'll bring someone new back with her, or maybe there's someone here in Edo—she and Okita-san have been emailing a lot. But either way, she's still going to be one of the Yorozuya—for everything else she's said, she's never said anything about wanting to quit this.
"And I don't want to quit, either, but you're right, I've got a lot of other work to do, too. So I've been thinking about it, and that's why I came over here today—I meant to talk to you about this before, but then the tournament came up, and there wasn't time... Anyway, Gin-san, like you said, the Koudouji dojo's back in business now. And with the new students, it's getting to the point where we need another teacher. Especially with Ane-ue off at the Yagyuu estate most of the time nowadays.
"But we don't need some experienced master, since we're not really teaching standard forms; they'd just get annoyed with how we do things. It'd be better to have someone who knows how to fight, but isn't devoted to an old style that doesn't make sense now. Someone who's good with kids, and good at teaching lessons more important than what they learn in school. Someone who knows how to be a samurai, even in the Edo we're living in now, with the Amanto and everything else."
Gintoki slowly turned around. Both of his eyebrows were raised high enough to disappear under his curly shag of bangs. "Someone who'd never make it to class on time, and who'd be teaching hung over more often than not? Someone who'd forget to use polite language after about two sentences and call down the wrath of every parent with a kid in the class?"
Shinpachi chuckled. "Sounds like a guy who'd be popular with the teenagers. That would be after-school classes, Gin-san, afternoon and evening. And not too many for now; it'd just be a part-time thing. But it'd give me more time otherwise, for Yorozuya work."
Gintoki crossed his arms, eying him incredulously. "You'd seriously consider hiring me, just to free up your schedule?"
"You'll do fine, Gin-san." Shinpachi confidently met that cynical gaze. He scarcely had to tilt his chin up to do it—though for all his maturity, there was a part of him that was glad enough that his final growth spurt had still left him an inch shorter. It would've been too weird, looking down on Gintoki, after all those years looking up to him. "I'll tell the kids you're my old boss—"
"—That'll get their attention for the first lesson, and once they see you fight they'll listen to whatever you tell them. Also, since you'll be around in the evenings, you could eat with us—it'd be nice to have someone else in on the dinner rotation. And if it gets too late we can lay out a spare futon for you. There's plenty of room, with Ane-ue out."
"What would Mrs. Shimura say to that, having an intruder in your wedded bliss?"
"Actually, Gin-san, inviting you to stay with us was her idea."
Gintoki groaned and covered his face with his hand, parting his fingers enough to peek at Shinpachi through them. "Shinpachi-kun...are you sure your lovely wife isn't one of those...'everyone else' you mentioned, with secret designs on Gin-san's body?"
"No, Gin-san!" ...Well, not that many designs, and not totally secret, but it wasn't as if she expected anything in reality, and bedroom fantasies were perfectly fine in a married couple's bedroom, after all... "To tell the truth," Shinpachi went on hastily, before his ears turned too incandescent, "she likes planning ahead, and since we do want to have children in a few years—neither of us have parents to move in and help out, so it'd be good to have someone else there. Though she told me not to mention that to you, didn't want to scare you off...
"But you don't have to move in, not if you don't want to. The dojo, though, we do need your help with that. And it will only be part-time, so we'll still have time for other odd jobs—at least until Kagura-chan gets back—"
Gintoki took down his hand, but he was still looking at Shinpachi from under his unruly silver hair. "Such a noble thing," he remarked, "a samurai's obligation to his master. What a nice period piece we're starring in."
"Just who ever called you master?" Shinpachi said. "And obligation's got nothing to do with this. Gin-san, I miss Kagura-chan, obviously; but I miss you, too. The Yorozuya, what we used to have here, that's changed, and we can't go back. And I wouldn't want to; the life I have now, it's better than I ever imagined it'd be, and I want to go forward with it. The path I'm on now, I want to continue down it. With my wife, and the family we're going to make.
"But that doesn't mean I have to leave you behind—not if you can walk that path with me. And I want you to. At least for some of the time, if you happen to be going in the same direction..."
Even with Gintoki's eyes meeting his, Shinpachi couldn't read his still expression. It had been a ridiculous idea after all, that Gintoki would be willing to put up with more brat kids, after finally getting the pair of them out of his hair. Maybe he felt slighted by Kagura's abandonment, but even if he missed her, it wasn't as if he weren't perfectly fine on his own, like he'd always been. And Shinpachi wasn't his employee anymore; they were friends now, that was all—was enough.
Shinpachi stepped back with an embarrassed chuckle, turning away as he rubbed the back of his head ruefully. "Ah, I'm sorry, Gin-san, I didn't mean to try to drag you into my business so selfishly. I just thought...never mind. You've got your own life, I understand. We can find another instructor—shouldn't be hard; there's always a lot of unemployed samurai around Edo. And I promise I'll stop bothering you—"
"You can't do that," said Gintoki behind him. "It's an employer's duty to bother their employees. Make them do all the hard work. Didn't I teach you that much, at least?" Gintoki tapped him on the back of the head, not quite a cuff. "So when would these teenage classes start? Tomorrow? Next week? I'll have to make sure the schedule's clear. And what's your dinner rotation look like, anyway?"
Shinpachi turned back around. "Gin-san...?"
"Yorozuya Gin-chan takes any job, don't we? It'd ruin our reputation to turn down a cushy teaching gig like this." Gintoki shrugged. "Though we might have to find a substitute instructor, when Kagura finally gets her ass back here—can't spend all our time idling around the dojo; we'd get soft."
Shinpachi blinked hard a couple of times. Then he cleared his throat, straightened up to look Gintoki in the eye and demanded, "How could you get softer at a dojo than you would lying around here reading Jump and eating pudding!?"
"Don't underestimate pudding, Shinpachi-kun, it's got calcium, after all—"
How are you? I hope this letter finds you and your father and Sadaharu well. The news reports from Mintaka III looked exciting. They're calling you heroes—are they really going to build a statue of you?
The dojo's doing well. Our students won third place in that tournament—and no, of course they didn't cheat, we don't teach stuff like that here! Just because I've got personal experience in how to fight Yato clans members, that doesn't count as cheating.
And Gin-san is well, too. He's started teaching here at the dojo, when we're not doing odd jobs—we've had a lot lately; you know how busy Edo is in the spring. Sometimes he stays over at our place—Catherine-san wants him to move in, so she can rent out the upstairs apartment. Or else convert it into a kitchen; she's planning to open a restaurant in the snack bar.
Maybe you can send some treats from the Orion Nebula? I've been told (loudly and repeatedly) that their candied akuma fruits are delicious.
Catherine can't convert the apartment, 'cause me and Sadaharu need somewhere to sleep. Unless there's room at your place with your wife and everybody. (That jerk Okita said I could sleep under his bed, but I don't think Sadaharu would fit.)
Are the sakura in bloom yet? I can't wait to get there and see them and eat takoyaki and yakisoba and yakiniku and yakitori and see everybody. I've got so much to tell you. It's great to be coming home.
P.S. Oh, yeah, forgot to tell you, we're flying into Edo Spaceport next Friday. See you then!
P.P.S. Tell Gin-chan yes, of course I remembered to get Nebula fruits!