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Stars Shine Closer to Heaven

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Gintoki saw stars.

No, not the good kind – the ones someone saw when their head was throbbing, senses were shot, and body was racked with pain. Maybe he had blacked out for a bit, but he wasn’t sure. At the moment, his memory was severely failing him. He couldn’t even hear himself groan as he tried to sit up and when he barely managed to prop himself up on his elbows, a sudden panic overtook him—oh god he couldn’t feel his legs—oh no, wait…false alarm. There was just some kind of weight on his body throwing him off.  His senses were beginning to return as he squirmed sluggishly. For one, the ringing in his ears was fading and he could finally make out the voices calling to him from above.

“Gintoki! Get ahold of yourself!” This one belonged to Katsura – Gintoki could tell immediately by the worried tone.

“Oh, he survived? Damn it.” This voice was Takasugi’s – Gintoki could tell immediately by the automatic feeling of annoyance at the sound of it.

“Fuck off,” he grumbled, mostly directed at Takasugi but also at the world in general. The hell just happened? God, it felt like he’d gotten nailed in the chest by a battering ram…his thoughts were cut short when he heard a soft moan; the weight on top of him moved and he stiffened. Hands pressed against his ribs as whoever was on top of him struggled up – the concentrated weight shot a sharp pain through his already aching bones. “Ow, ow, ow! Stop!!”

This person didn’t seem to hear him at all, continuing to get up. Gintoki gritted his teeth, his eyes trailing down to glare at the culprit. A head of brown perm came into view, then a pale freckled face. Gintoki met the stranger’s dazed blue eyes, and in an instant his failing memory surged back to him. His eyes narrowed further at the unsteady-looking guy (who, by the way, was still pressing all his weight against Gintoki’s ribs; the pain was starting to become difficult to bear), and he reached to yank him by the scarf around his neck.

“You bas—”

BLUUUUURRGEHH!!

And then all Gintoki could focus on was the putrid stench.

 

“Ahahaha! I’m so sorry about that!” The stranger apologized sheepishly, nursing the growing bump on the side of his head. He would’ve gotten so much more than one punch if Katsura hadn’t held Gintoki back, the latter swinging his fists at the air wildly while cursing up a storm. By this time, Gintoki had wiped himself off and calmed down enough to not attack on sight, though he could feel Katsura’s watchful gaze on him.

“For which part? Crashing into me with your hover ride or throwing up in my face?”

The stranger’s face flushed just a little, and he let out another resigned giggle. “Actually, it’s my first time drivin’ one of those things,” he admitted, casting a look at the wreck of a vehicle a few feet away – Takasugi was crouched next to it, assessing the damage. “That was s’posed to be a practice run but, well, ya see how that ended. I’m not so good with motion sickness, either…”

“No shit! Who the hell let you drive at all?!”

“Now, now! No one died, so crisis averted, right? Thank goodness fer shields!”

“’Crisis averted’ my ass!! My shield didn’t block everything, y’know! I’m still hurting all over!”

The stranger tilted his head, a puzzled look in his eyes. “Really? Mine held up just fine…ah, lemme see yours fer a second!” Without waiting for confirmation, he knelt down to get a look at the shield hanging at Gintoki’s belt.

“Hey!! Who said you could-?!”

“Hmm, I see,” he hummed, interrupting Gintoki’s protest. He looked up with a smile. “Your shield looks real worn out, sir! And it’s a cheap make to begin with…but yer in luck. I could get ya a replacement fer a great price!”

Gintoki stared back at him, baffled. “You- are you trying to sell me a new shield?! What’s with this sudden merchant atmosphere?!”

“Gintoki,” Katsura spoke up, giving his friend a thoughtful look. “Maybe you should take up on that offer. You always manage to drain your shield more often than the rest of us, after all. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for the melee fighter to have a more reliable shield?”

“What’s with that strategy game mindset? Why’re you going along with this?! He didn’t even introduce his product yet and you’re already sold! And anyway, I’m not gonna buy a damn shield from a guy who crashed a hovercraft into me! You, don’t try and change the subject!!” The stranger yelped as Gintoki grabbed him by the hair and dragged him back to his feet. This guy was taller than him, Gintoki noticed. This somehow made him feel even more annoyed. “If I had money to buy your shitty shield, I’d hire an attorney instead! You’re gonna pay up for this, asshole!!”

But once again, the stranger didn’t seem to be listening. His expression looked to be one of disbelief, and his eyes darted around as Gintoki spoke; to Katsura, to Takasugi, and then finally back to Gintoki. “Wait- wait a second. The three of ya,” he murmured, “are ya…Vault Hunters?!”

Silence followed after the question. Gintoki and Katsura exchanged a quick look before they both warily gazed back at the stranger. “And what if we are?” Gintoki asked.

The reaction that they braced for wasn’t what they expected. The stranger blinked a few times before suddenly breaking into the biggest smile. His eyes were practically sparkling as he clutched Gintoki by the shoulders. “You’re Vault Hunters? Actual, real life Vault Hunters?!”

“Y…yeah?” Gintoki’s brow was furrowed in confusion. He didn’t want to break eye contact to check, but he knew Katsura probably had on a similar expression. With their short time on this planet so far, they’d grown used to receiving scornful stares, disapproving looks, people whispering behind their backs. It seemed that the residents here weren’t so fond of Vault Hunters…all but this guy, who was excitedly bouncing on his toes and laughing.

“I’m standin’ in front of live Vault Hunters!! Ahaha! Wow, this is-…! I’ve heard so many stories ‘bout you people!”

“Stories?” Katsura muttered, a curious frown on his face.

“What’s up with this guy?” Takasugi had rejoined the group, staring suspiciously. The stranger seemed to realize his own rashness and gingerly let go of Gintoki. Still chuckling, albeit sheepishly, he took a step back.

“Sorry! It’s just that I never thought I’d ever get to meet even one of ya in person—especially in a place like this!” With a bright smile, he bowed his head. “I’m Sakamoto Tatsuma! What’re yer names?”

The three friends frowned at each other, but it was Katsura who cleared his throat first. “I’m Katsura,” he introduced himself. He received sharp looks from the other two, and they hesitated for another moment before following suit.

“Gintoki.”

“Takasugi.”

The smile on this fellow named Tatsuma seemed to grow even more dazzling with each introduction – Gintoki resisted the urge to squint. “Pleasure to meet ya all! Gosh, this is so excitin’!! It’s like meetin’ a legend!”

“Like seeing a unicorn and blah, blah, blah? Yeah, we get that sometimes,” Gintoki huffed, still somewhat glaring at Tatsuma. “All this talk you’re throwing around ain’t gonna get you off the hook, brother. I see through your ploy. How ‘bout we get back to the subject at hand, huh?”

Tatsuma didn’t seem fazed, looking at Gintoki as cheery as ever. “Ah, ya got the wrong idea…Gintoki, was it? I was just gettin’ back to that—no need to worry! Now, since ya turned out to be a Vault Hunter, I’ll give ya an even better discount on that replacement shield! How’s that sound?”

“Uh, no, that’s not the subject I was referring to!!”

“It’s a real good deal, I’ll promise ya that!”

I don’t give a damn!! I already told you, I don’t have the money to buy any kind of shield! Would you knock it off?!”

“Sadly,” Katsura butt in as Tatsuma opened his mouth again, eying the odd, dubious merchant, “Gintoki’s right. We might not be able to afford anything of quality right now, no matter how low your price.”

“Eh? ‘S that the truth?” Tatsuma frowned lightly, studying Katsura – Gintoki knew that look he was giving. It was one that he’d seen on many tricky dealers, a sharpened stare that assessed a customer’s integrity. This guy…behind his airheaded behavior, there was a high level comprehension; one that reminded Gintoki to stay on guard. Tatsuma’s look was fleeting. Not a second later, the light in his eyes changed back to one of docile curiosity. “Are the three of ya havin’ a rough spot?”

“That’s none of your business,” Takasugi growled. Gintoki wasn’t the only one who’d noticed.

Tatsuma let out a soft chuckle, just nodding along. “Yeah, I get it. I was wonderin’ what Vault Hunters were doin’ on this side of the galaxy. This place must be boring for ya…but hey, if yer havin’ trouble, maybe I could—”

“Tatsuma!!”

The young man stiffened at the sound his name, and the Vault Hunters all looked around him in the direction of the voice. An older man was approaching briskly, his back straightened in perfect posture. His aging face was riddled with wrinkles, and gray strands were mixed in with his head of neatly styled brown hair. Though he seemed faultless in his composure at first, Gintoki noticed as he drew near that a hint of concern plagued his expression, plus a breathlessness that he was trying hard to suppress. As Gintoki drew his focus back, he noticed a pair people who looked to be following the man. Two well-groomed men, even taller than Tatsuma, their athletic builds seen through their formal suits – bodyguards? Gintoki felt a smirk tug at the corners of his lips. My, my…what was this, now?

When Tatsuma turned around slowly to face the oncoming entourage, the older man’s mask of composure crumbled further – his quick walk turned into a jog. His bodyguards called to him in protest, but he probably didn’t even hear them. “Father…?” Gintoki couldn’t see Tatsuma’s face, but his voice was laced with confusion.

The first thing the older man did when he got to the group was reach out and firmly clutch Tatsuma by the shoulders. His eyes were wide with worry. “Are ya hurt?!” His son paused, then quickly shook his head.

“No, no, I’m perfectly fine! Father, what’re ya doin’ here—?”

The old man let out a loud sigh of relief, but it was only after he turned Tatsuma a little bit this way and that, briefly inspecting the young man for himself when he reluctantly released his grip on his shoulders. “Thank goodness,” he breathed, relaxing, and it was like another few years’ worth of wrinkles were added to his complexion. Through his weariness, there was a look of exasperation. “Oh, Tatsuma, what am I to do with ya? Yer gonna give yer old man a heart attack one of these days! I called ya on yer ECHO so many times, but it wouldn’t go through!”

“E-eh?!” Tatsuma fumbled with a device on his wrist, examining it urgently. After a pause, he deflated, dropping his arms. “Ah, looks like it broke when I fell.” He let out a nervous giggle, giving the old man an apologetic look. “I'm sorry...”

“Oh~? Maybe you should give yourself a discount on a new ECHO device, huh?” Gintoki just had to blurt out, his voice dripping smug sarcasm. Tatsuma looked back at him with a good natured grin, obviously not taking the comment as a jab.

His father seemed to notice the other young men for the first time. The moment he set his eyes on the three, he stiffened and some color drained from his face. Gintoki stared back with a bored expression, his eyebrows moderately raised. It wasn't hard to tell what the old man was thinking; it was like he suddenly realized he was standing in front of a pack of wolves. Takasugi let out a quiet scoff next to Gintoki, taking a step forward.

“Hey, geezer,” he spoke in a monotone. He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the wreck. “If that hovercraft belongs to you, it's in pieces now. Don't think you'll get it to run for a while, if ever again.” It was a helpful thing to note, though there was always a menacing air to Takasugi, making the atmosphere even tenser as if he had just reached for a weapon. Tatsuma's father cleared his throat.

“Thank you for lettin’ me know,” he said slowly, warily. “I'll have it looked at.” Not taking his eyes off the Vault Hunters, he caught Tatsuma by the arm. “Son, we're leavin'.”

“Ah...” Tatsuma, who had been looking uncertainly between the old man and the three outsiders the whole time, settled his gaze upon his father and hesitated a moment longer. Finally, he gave a faint nod. “Yes, Father.”

The pair turned to leave, when Gintoki had an idea. “Oi,” he called, “Sakamoto-san.” Tatsuma's father froze immediately, and this reaction only boosted Gintoki's confidence. The Vault Hunter grinned, taking a few steps forward. “Your name's gotta hold some weight around here, huh? I mean, you're paranoid enough to have these fools following you around.” He looked to the two bodyguards standing by though they remained stone faced, watching him back. They were ready to stop him if he tried anything, he figured, but Gintoki wasn't worried. “You see, your son here’s committed quite an atrocity, mowing me down with his ride like that. I don’t appreciate these aches and pains. And if you’re gonna just walk away after that, something unfortunate might just happen later on. To you…or to him.” Tatsuma was staring, Gintoki noticed to the side, with an expression he couldn’t quite read. But that guy wasn’t his focus at the moment, so he ignored it.

Tatsuma’s father turned his head, just barely looking back at the Vault Hunter. “What do ya want?” the old man questioned after a pause. Gintoki’s grin grew, coupled with a dark stare.

“No, what do you want? I’m just saying; if you give us a little something-something, maybe we’ll forget this whole encounter ever happened. But that depends on how safe you wanna be. You’d be wise to think it through, old man.”

There was a long, tense moment of silence. It was as if both groups were frozen in time while the rest of the world continued outside their bubble. But at last, Tatsuma’s father exhaled through his nose. He turned around completely and closed the distance from himself and Gintoki – one of his bodyguards followed, as if they were synchronized. On his way, the old man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bound book. He took the pen offered by his bodyguard without looking, and his fingers were surprisingly agile as he opened his checkbook to a fresh page and scribbled upon it. Within seconds, he’d torn the check out and handed it over to the Vault Hunter.

“Much obliged,” Gintoki said with a shrewd smile, plucking the piece of paper from the man’s fingers. The old man let out a short huff and gave a stiff nod before turning back around, evidently happy to leave as soon as possible. Humming, Gintoki examined the check for moment and raised his eyebrows. There were quite a few zeroes—not too shabby. He raised his gaze from the paper, and his eyes met Tatsuma’s.

The young man had been watching him all this time, it seemed. He held the look for just a second longer before he averted his eyes. Gintoki frowned at him. Tatsuma’s expression had been unreadable still. He obviously wasn’t smiling anymore, but there was also no hint of anger, or even dislike, like Gintoki was expecting. What was going on in that guy’s head? …Well, whatever. Like Gintoki gave a damn—he just got money! With a crooked grin, he victoriously strolled his way back to his friends.

 

Tatsuma’s gaze flickered a few times to his father as they walked along. He chewed his lip. That was no doubt embarrassing; now, he could stand his own embarrassment, all the time. But to get his father into that situation…of course he felt ashamed. And on top of that, this awkward silence was really starting to get to him. Every second of it ticking by felt like a cut to his skin. At last, he’d gathered himself to a deep breath, and opened his mouth.

“Father, I’m…”

“It’s alright, Tatsuma.” The young man blinked, shooting his father a confused look. Sakamoto Yahira stared straight forward and though tired, he seemed serene. “I hold some of the blame for this, after all—I did nothin’ to prepare ya for a scenario such as that…just didn’t expect them to show up on Ame of all places.”

Tatsuma frowned, looking to the side. “That was really unexpected,” he agreed, “but there’s no way anyone could’ve prepared for that. Ya don’t have to blame yourself for this, Father.”

Yahira heaved a sigh, shaking his head. “Yer mother told ya too many stories when you were younger. All those tales of vault huntin’ and adventure…I don’t wish that I’d stopped her, mind ya. But I should’ve warned ya about them sooner.” He slowed to a stop and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Listen carefully, Tatsuma,” he urged, giving the young man a firm look. “Commit what just happened to memory. Vault Hunters aren’t heroes – they’re mercenaries who live by no rules.  They’re willin’ to pick up any job, no matter how dirty, so long’s the pay’s good. Some may be decent at heart, but others can be the most dangerous people in the galaxy. Which is why ya must absolutely steer clear of them. I pray that ya never have to hire one in yer life; if ya ever do, state yer policies crystal clear and be very, very careful. Understand?”

Tatsuma hesitated, staring his father in the eyes before dropping his gaze. “I understand.”

Yahira smiled, giving his son a light pat on the arm. “Good. Now, let’s go back to yer workplace.” The older man continued walking, and Tatsuma trailed slightly behind him, silent for the rest of the way.

 

“Gintoki, wasn’t that a bit cruel?” Katsura asked as the group of Vault Hunters wandered down the road. “Taking advantage of a father’s bond towards his son…”

“Pshh, who cares? Guy was loaded,” Gintoki huffed, waving the check in his friend’s face. “This pretty little thing probably didn’t even make a dent in his savings. We sure as hell need it more than he does. I don’t see how the original plan could’ve ever net us this much cash.”

Takasugi smirked, carelessly tossing a small fusion reactor up and down – the one he nabbed from the busted up hovercraft while his friends had covered him. “In any case, that’s two unexpected successes under our belts,” he said, tilting his head as he observed the humming source of energy. “We’ll just have to find the black market to see how much it’s worth.”

“Alright! We’re gonna have a drink tonight-!”

“No, we are not,” Katsura cut in, slapping Gintoki upside the head with a stern look. “First and foremost, we need shuttle tickets off this planet. Get your priorities straight.”

“Tch, you’re such a buzzkill, Zura.”

“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura!”

Gintoki made a face and went back to eying the check. “Hey, can we at least buy some drinks after getting the tickets? Let’s have the rich people experience before we leave! Takasugi, you agree with me, right??”

Takasugi, who had been tucking the fusion reactor away into his bag, looked up with a frown. “Hmph, I’ll take a good drink. Feels like ages since we’ve had anything that resembles a satisfying meal, too.”

“See, see? Takasugi’s on my side! C’mon, Mom, pleaaase?”

“It’s not Mom, it’s Katsura,” his friend answered with a scowl. His expression softened somewhat with a quiet sigh, and Gintoki leaned in closer, grinning with his eyebrows raised as he recognized that contemplative look. “I suppose we can,” Katsura finally conceded. “I’d like us to have some money left over when we land on the next planet, though. Don’t overdo it.”

“Alright!!” Gintoki smacked Takasugi on the back of the shoulder, and Takasugi glared back with a don’t-touch-me look. “Hey, I wonder what the rich man’s red light district’s like. Let’s buy a couple of girls, a couple of guys…?”

“Hey! I said don’t overdo it! Food and drink – that’s the limit!”

But Gintoki wasn’t listening, picking up his pace and saying loudly, “Yeah, yeah, let’s find the bank and cash this shit in already!”

“Bastard, you better not slip an extra portion to yourself again while we’re not looking!” Takasugi hissed, following close behind.

Katsura stared after his two companions and heaved a weary sigh. But when he caught up with them, he had a slight smile on his face. It was an unexpectedly eventful and fruitful first day on this docile planet named Ame, even though they got their earnings at the cost of others. With this rough life, Vault Hunters did all they could to get by. And they’d absolutely done worse before.