The three of them were never actually left alone, after Shouyo took each of them under his wing. Mornings meant convening in the classroom by the courtyard, sitting with nothing but other chairs full of boys and errant cherry blossoms between them. Afternoons meant killing time by chasing after each other, across vast grassy fields and over winding forest paths, up tall trees and down river banks, under brilliant sunlight or through snow fall, or the pouring rain. And after the end of the day, whether it’s the hottest summer evening or the coldest winter night, they always huddled up against each other, lulled to sleep by the warmth of each other’s bodies, the comfort of a familiar presence.
The passage of time meant them all getting old enough to know the weight of a blade like they knew themselves, and gaining the strength to wield them for what they believed in. Closeness then took a different form, defined by faith in ability of their comrades to make it back home alive and chance encounters on the battlefield, where their enemies pressed them sword-to-sword, back-to-back. They saw each other less and less as the campaign wore on, but that shouldn’t have changed anything. As they fought more and lost more, however, as the will grew weak and the doubt started to seep in, they started to forget the joy of sitting knee-to-knee over a single sake bottle, and remember, instead, how a subtle change in how each of them decided to build the vision of their master were driving them apart.
There were no goodbyes; just each of them surviving the war and forgetting to check if anyone else was alive.
Years later, years after he quietly decided that the world did not deserve to keep on turning, Takasugi’s standing on the deck of a dying ship, far above the beginning of a war that he himself started. He doesn’t need to look for too long in order to single out the figures of the two men who had once been his closest comrades. He’d recognize the way they fight – the way their swords dance – anywhere. Something in him stirs, something beyond the babbling mess of ghosts and memories, somewhere beyond all of that noise. For one split second, it’s his body – not his brain – that remembers what it was like to stand with them, to know, instinctively, what one needed to kill for and how to work towards it, confident in the fact there will always be someone watching your back. For one split second, his mind is clear.
There is a sense of loss, almost, but it is buried quickly, drowned by the remembrance that Sakata Gintoki and Katsura Kotarou abandoned the cause long ago. They walk a different path from his, one that takes them further and further away from the possibility of vengeance. They are content with living in a world that stole everything from them.
There is no greater sin than that of complacence.
So he watches the pair weave through the battlefield, cutting out a new future for themselves n the flesh and bone of their enemies, and he thinks to himself that this is what he’s given up, this is what he’s going to throw away. This is what he’ll destroy, between his own two hands.