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Stars Shine Closer to Heaven

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

A few days later, a door was slammed right in their faces. Gintoki stood bewildered at the wall of metal in front of him. That feeling was replaced quickly as he gritted his teeth and banged hard upon the door, his fists making a lot of noise against the material. “Hey! Open up, bastards!”

“What’s the big idea?!” Takasugi snapped next to him, evidently equally pissed. It’d be convenient if his death glare could cut sheet metal.

“G-get lost! We don’t want anything to do with you bandits!!”

Gintoki’s eye twitched at the muffled voice yelling from behind the door. Usually he was used to being called that word, but the way all the people in this snobby city tossed it around, he was getting real sick of hearing it. “Oh, you’ll get involved with these bandits whether you like it or not! You will give us work, you fucking—”

A hand pulled his shoulder and Takasugi’s. “We’re done here, you two. You’ve scared them enough,” Katsura said firmly, and Gintoki whipped his head around to glare.

“We haven’t even done anything to scare them!”

“That doesn’t matter.” Katsura looked behind them, and his friends followed his gaze to see a few pedestrians frozen in mid stride. Gintoki and Takasugi both narrowed their eyes. So much staring – these people were always staring. No matter where the Vault Hunters went, there were always at least five spectators watching them at one time. And at this particular incident, the audience was growing. With the other two silenced, Katsura looked back towards the door.

“Excuse us for the intrusion,” he called, urging his friends to turn around. “We’ll be leaving now.”

Gintoki exchanged a look with Takasugi – they were both bitterly reluctant, but allowed themselves to be dragged away. They pointed their glares toward the pedestrians instead, and that caused many to avert their eyes, and a few to visibly jump and hurry off. At least the Vault Hunters always had that ability over this crowd.

So, in these past few days, they had yet to make it off Ame. Unfortunately.

It seemed that they had gravely underestimated just how expensive this goddamned planet was. Even with the nice sum of money that they’d been rewarded on the day of their arrival, the trio had discovered at the terminal that their entire savings could only allow them two and a half of the cheapest shuttle tickets. No amount of haggling could get the price any lower.

For the rest of the first day, they had argued about how to proceed. Two of them could’ve bought tickets and gone on their way, but the third member of their party would be left stranded. “I’m not staying or coming back to this bloodsucking planet again,” Gintoki had stated, and the other two shared a similar feeling of distaste. The person left stranded would probably die, from poverty or boredom—whichever kicked in first. And so, they abandoned that option.

Plan B was to look for work. Even small odd jobs with a little bit of pay would help them make money towards their goal of three shuttle tickets. This, the most rational sounding idea at the time, was what they’d decided to do. So, on the second day, they’d set out to find jobs. And on the third day. And the fourth. The next thing they knew, almost a week had gone by and the only things that they received from their searches were the knowledge that the people in this city fucking hated Vault Hunters and the fact that everything was fucking expensive.

Gintoki had complained endlessly everyday about how they should’ve never accepted those cheap tickets to this terrible planet. At least, he complained until Takasugi kicked him repeatedly to shut him up. It was either travel to Ame or die with the incoming supernova. And it was Gintoki’s fault for accidentally spending all their savings back then, rendering them unable to buy tickets for elsewhere. Gintoki then argued with Takasugi every time that part was brought up, until Katsura finally had enough of their bickering and tried to pry them apart, always resulting in even more chaos.

The three of them fought until they got hungry, and then it was a nightmare to scrounge the city for the cheapest food while starving. With no income and their funds starting to dwindle no matter how much they tried to conserve…it was a bad time.

For now, they’d retired back to their cheap single-bed motel room (which was, by the way, the most expensive cheap motel room they’d ever had to pay for), and Gintoki fell onto the hard bed with a loud sigh.

“Don’t—” Takasugi tried to threaten, but his friend’s mouth was already open.

I hate this damn place!! What is wrong with this city?! There’s no way for us to get any work and we’ve gotta pay for everything! Gotta pay for food and shelter, to set a foot on their shitty beach, to leave the city limit?! What’s next, a breathing tax?!”

“I’m pretty sure most cities charge money for those first two,” Katsura muttered, sitting at the edge of the bed next to Gintoki. The comment went unheard.

“We can’t even drink legally yet! The hell’s up with that? And there’s an extra tax for alcohol anyway?! Quit fucking with me!”

“You’re the only one making a big fuss about that,” Takasugi grumbled, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Gintoki’s dangling legs. He opened and searched through his bag. “What about the ridiculous price of Yakulk? That’s true tyranny.”

You’re the only one making a big fuss about that!!” Gintoki aimed a kick at Takasugi’s head, and the latter nonchalantly leaned to avoid it without even looking. Takasugi had found what he was looking for, pulling out the mini fusion reactor. He stared at the humming thingamabob and released a sigh.

“If you really have to complain about something, then how about the fact that we still have this?” he said, shooting an irked glare at Gintoki. “Not a black market in sight. Every city should at least have one of those.” Gintoki let out a groan, not moving.

“This place is like a plastic model! There’s not even a shady alleyway anywhere.”

“You know…that might be the reason why we can’t find anything,” Katsura murmured. The other two looked at him blankly for a second before their expressions grew grim with the realization. Oh yeah, that. They all still remembered that incident clearly—the one they’d all witnessed on day three.

They’d seen the tall robots patrolling the city every day, stomping about on heavy feet as their red photoreceptors constantly scanned the streets. It was obvious what they were, even without the red and blue paint job. For an automated police force, these guys didn’t seem like they’d be able to chase down fleeing criminals at all. Well, the Vault Hunters were perplexed about that until day three when a ragged-looking man on the opposite side of the road, drawing much attention to himself, ran by screaming something like, “You’ll never take me alive!”

By the time the Vault Hunters had turned their heads to look, some kind of searing white beam had shot by, and with a brilliant flash the fleeing man was…gone. He’d been voided from existence, leaving behind nothing but a smoldering heap of ash and a nasty stench in the air that many pedestrians had merely pinched their noses at, faces wrinkled in disgust as they hurried away. The Vault Hunters seemed to be the only ones remotely fazed at this incident, their group standing frozen as the officer bot approached the pile.

“Affirmative. Resisting arrest is punishable by—death,” it deadpanned in a deep, halting voice. “Scanning. Charges have been—dropped—at the account of—vaporization. You are—free to go. Have a nice day.” The robot gave a little bow towards the ash pile that had, at that point, all but blown away. When the officer turned to leave, and in the process turned in the Vault Hunters’ direction, the group of friends couldn’t have hightailed out of there faster.

“That police force is way too goddamn strict,” Gintoki muttered, shaking the memory from his head. Katsura nodded slowly.

“Indeed. We need to be extra careful with our stay…Takasugi,” he called, eying the object in his friend’s hand with a concerned frown. “Since I doubt we can find anywhere to sell it without much risk, maybe you should get rid of that soon, regardless of how. A core like that emits quite a bit of radiation—you don’t want to be exposed to it for too long.”

“Nah, who knows, maybe it’ll make him grow taller.”

“That’s not how radiation works, Gintoki.”

“Tch. Throwing it away seems like such a waste,” Takasugi grumbled, turning the reactor over in his hands and studying it. “Zura, can’t you salvage anything from it? You always manage to make something useful out of scrap.”

“Not Zura, it’s Katsura,” Katsura hummed, as if it were an unconscious remark that escaped him as he pondered. “I can’t build anything without other spare parts. If you want me to disassemble it I could try, but I’m not so familiar with how the tech on this planet works yet. It’s likely that it’ll explode in my hands.” He sighed, crossing his arms. “If only I had some materials to at least contain the radiation…” Takasugi turned his gaze to Gintoki at that, narrowing his eyes.

“And I wonder whose fault it was that Zura had to sell all his junk scraps just to get us those tickets.”

Oh, come on! Give it a rest!! I admitted it already; I fucked up! Now can we just move on?”

“You’re not ducking out of punishment that easily,” Takasugi growled. “Maybe we should’ve taken those two tickets and left you behind, after all the trouble you’ve singlehandedly dragged us through.”

“Screw you!” Gintoki sat up abruptly, glaring back at Takasugi. “If you’re gonna be such an ass about it after all this time, then you stay behind!”

“Why would I have to stay behind? I’m not the one who got us stranded.”

“Obviously ‘cause you’re an ass! Take your complaining and fire starting elsewhere, you whiny little shit!”

“Not until you get your excuses and accident-prone bullshit away from here, shaggy-headed bastard!”

By this time, both of them had stood up and were snarling face to face, looking ready to start throwing punches. Katsura just looked up at them tiredly, steeling himself to intervene yet again before things got messy. But as he opened his mouth, a different, muffled male voice spoke up first.

“Would you bunch please cut it out?” All the Vault Hunters looked around confusedly before they realized that it was coming from the far wall that faced the foot of the bed. “I’m trying to take a nap, here…”

“Shut up!” Gintoki immediately yelled back at the wall. “You don’t know what we’ve been through!”

“Uh, actually I do. You’ve been arguing every single day. The walls here’re paper thin, y’know.”

“Yeah, that guy’s right,” another muffled male voice spoke up hesitantly, and the trio turned their heads towards the opposite wall, where the head of the bed leaned against. “Like, I didn’t wanna say anything either…didn’t wanna mess with no ban- Vault Hunters.”

“Hey, you were about to say ‘bandits’, weren’t you?” Gintoki growled, but Katsura butt in quickly this time.

“Calm down. He was considerate enough to correct himself.” He turned his head back to face the closer wall. “Sir, you don’t have anything to worry about. The last thing we want is to stir up trouble in this city.”

“Yeah, ‘cause the cops, right?” the voice answered with a nervous snort. “I know. Everyone here knows. Everyone in this place, we’re all on the same boat—strugglin’ for money to survive. This place is real hard on the poor.”

“We noticed,” Takasugi said flatly. He seemed a bit more on guard now that he knew that people were listening, as if it wasn’t too late to learn that. Scowling, he crossed his arms. “Hey, if you’ve been listening all this time…what do you think? Would you vote for throwing this guy off the team for the shit he’s done?”

“Hey!!…Next door guy, would you agree that this guy’s a fucking dick?” Gintoki shot back at the wall.

“Why’re you two asking for the opinion of a complete stranger?!” Katsura demanded.

“Well,” closer wall guy sighed nevertheless, “all I can say is I think you’re all lucky to have each other. When my wife left me, I realized true loneliness…”

Gintoki blinked a couple of times at the wall. “Uh, that’s quite the sudden mood changer?? Are you alright, next door guy?”

“Hm, when a woman decides to leave a marriage, more often than not it’s for good reason,” Katsura said with a rather judgmental look at the wall. “What kind of terrible things did you do to warrant this separation?”

“Hey!! Quit it with your bias!” Gintoki snapped at him.

“No, he’s right. I really regret—”

“No one cares,” Takasugi interrupted closer wall guy’s potential story with a firm raised volume. “Don’t waste our time with a subject change, you pathetic has-been.” Gintoki shot an incredulous look at both of his friends.

“What is up with you two?! Would you cut it out?? This guy’s obviously going through a hard time already! Stop the bullying!”

“I’m not going to listen to his sob story,” Takasugi growled back. “And did you forget our situation? We’ve got our hands full figuring out our own problems. As if we’re in any shape to sort through anyone else’s.”

“Agreed,” Katsura added, distaste in his frown. “I’m not interested to hear about this man’s crimes committed against his poor wife. Can you even call yourself a human being?”

“You don’t even know what he did!!” Gintoki yelled.

“Don’t make me file a noise complaint,” far wall guy suddenly spoke up, the interjection after his lack of participation briefly confusing the group yet again. “Trying to nap here? Remember??” Gintoki threw a dirty look in the direction of the voice but said nothing back.

“No, it’s alright, Vault Hunter,” closer wall guy sighed. “I deserve every bit of criticism thrown my way. This poverty is my atonement.”

“Next door guy! You’re a redeeming soul! I’m sure…whatever gods are worshipped on this planet—will shower fortune upon you!”

“Isn’t it too early for you to go labeling this guy a redeeming soul? It took you two sentences,” Takasugi grumbled, glaring at Gintoki who, of course, glared back.

“Shut up! I’m giving him some encouragement, unlike you jerks. Kind words’re free to give, y’know, even when he doesn’t actually deserve them!”

“Uh, so you don’t think he deserves them, either?” Katsura muttered. “That last part you just yelled makes you as much of a jerk as the rest of us.” Closer wall guy cleared his throat.

“Thank you for the encouragement,” he said, blatantly ignoring the rest of that conversation, “though at this point…I honestly don’t care anymore.”

“No! Keep fighting, you dumbass,” Gintoki exclaimed. “I believe in you!”

“No he doesn’t,” Takasugi snorted, earning a punch in the shoulder. He automatically retaliated with a knee to Gintoki’s side. Katsura pinched the bridge of his nose as his two friends began wrestling with each other despite the delay. Closer wall guy coughed again over their squabbling.

“Thank you, really,” he spoke up, this time ignoring Takasugi’s comment. “But er, you know, the point I wanted to make was…don’t end up where I am. I’m just a hopeless old man now, at the end of my line. But you three still have a lot to live for. Honestly, for not being all alone in this cruel world…you young men are blessed.” There was a long pause—Katsura had raised his eyebrows, cautiously turning to gaze at Gintoki and Takasugi. The two of them were frowning, both staring at the wall with blank expressions.

Then, unfortunately, Takasugi narrowed his eyes.

“You’re just saying things to shut us up, aren’t you?”

There was a short stutter from the wall, another moment of silence, and then a defeated sigh. “Y…yeah. I’m sorry, but you people are just too loud.” Gintoki gave a dramatic gasp.

“Next door guy, you lied?! I believed in you, you dick! I was cheering you on!”

“Yeah, look, I’m really sorry, but could you just—”

“Fuck off!” Gintoki spat. “I’m never listening to another word from you!”

“Likewise,” Takasugi growled. “I’m not about to take orders from a washed up geezer.”

“Hey, wait a second, you two—!” Katsura started, but the others had already resumed their squabbling and wrestling. The passive Vault Hunter’s jaw dropped, brow furrowed furiously at his friends’ antics. “Are you seriously fighting just out of spite now?! What’s with you rebellious teenagers?!”

“Oh my god, I made it worse,” closer wall guy groaned quietly, probably into his hands. Katsura threw a quick glance at the wall before scrambling to his feet and pushing himself against his friends.

“Come on, that’s enough! You’re making way too much noise!”

“Can it, Zura!”

“It’s not Zura, it’s KATSURA!!!”

“Oh my god,” closer wall guy complained again, clearly losing all hope. From the far side of the wall, there was the sound of movement, though none of it caught anyone’s attention until far wall guy spoke above all the ruckus.

“Hello, yes, police? I’d like to file a noise complaint.” The Vault Hunters froze in mid struggle, all turning towards the voice that continued to talk. “The address is…”

Gintoki’s body reacted before he could think. He pushed both of his friends off of him and made a mad dash to the wall.  “STOOOP!” he yelled as he jump-kicked the wall where the voice was most prominent. The plaster instantly caved on impact, and Gintoki’s yell turned into a surprised screech as the force of his kick drove him straight into the other room. The other two Vault Hunters quickly shielded their faces from the violent cloud of dust and rubble.

“G-Gintoki?” Katsura coughed once the loud crashing ceased and the cloud began to settle. He and Takasugi exchanged a squinty look before the two of them carefully stumbled forward. Katsura was the one who poked his head through the new crumbling Gintoki-sized hole in the wall. “Gintoki, are you alright?”

A groan came from the other side of the wall and Gintoki sat up amid the dust, rubbing his head and cursing under his breath. “What…what happened?” he mumbled, looking up dazedly.

“You fucked up,” Takasugi answered, glaring daggers. “Again.”

Katsura scanned the room the best he could. “Sir?” he called to the other tenant. “Excuse me, sir, are you…?” His eyes blinked wide, and he swung an arm back to get Takasugi’s attention. The latter grunted when the hand hit him square in the chest, but gave no more than a dirty look in response before following Katsura’s gaze. Gintoki blinked up at his two staring friends, puzzled.

“What?” he questioned. When they didn’t respond, he turned his head as well.

The dust had cleared enough to see a man slouched against the opposite wall of the room. The whites of his eyes were showing, and there was a prominent foot-shaped bruise on his face. Above him was yet another smaller hole, where a wide-eyed woman from the next room over could be seen staring back at the Vault Hunters. For what felt like a long while, there were only shocked looks and silence, disturbed only by the periodic falling plaster and the muffled, concerned voice of closer wall guy asking, “Uh…what was that?”

The trance was finally broken when a faint new voice spoke—one resembling a robotic officer—and all three Vault Hunters turned their attention to the phone poking out from under the rubble. “Caller has been inactive for more than—30 seconds. Dispatching officers to tracked location.” They all tensed up, exchanging frantic looks.

“RUN!” Katsura was the one to shout.

And for once, everyone listened.

 

Gintoki’s lungs were burning by the time they’d stopped. His hands were on his knees as he bowed his head, catching his breath. Katsura touched both of his friends by the shoulder as if to reassure himself that they had all made it, and looked back at the street behind them.

“It doesn’t seem like we were followed,” he breathed.

“Well that’s a relief,” Gintoki sighed only to be kneed in the stomach by Takasugi, instantly losing what breath he had gained back.

“You idiot,” Takasugi snapped, his breaths aggravated. “How many times are you gonna screw us over?!”

Gintoki was wheezing, but he managed a glare in return. “I was just trying to stop him from calling the cops! They would’ve showed up anyway!”

“You don’t know that!”

“Look, we didn’t get caught. We’re all alive; everything’s fine!”

“That’s not the point!!”

Enough.” Katsura wedged himself between the two, giving them each a hard look. “Now’s not the time for this, and you both know it.” He paused to look up at the reddened sky. “It’s getting late. We need to find a new place to spend the night, and fast. I don’t think this city is kind to people who sleep on the streets.”

Gintoki opened his mouth to argue, but thought better of it and quickly shut it again. Takasugi had done the same, and they gave each other a grudging glare before turning their heads away. Katsura seemed relieved at the silence as he produced his wallet from his vest and flipped through it. A thin wad of cash remained, and he breathed a sigh through his nose.

“We’ll just have to spend a little more tonight,” he murmured, and the reluctance in his voice was more than evident. With that, he tucked the wallet away and began to walk, his friends following close behind. Katsura was deep in thought—Gintoki could tell by a glance—and after a bit of walking, the former opened his mouth yet again. “Maybe…we should look for that person again.”

Gintoki raised his eyebrow in question, but Takasugi spoke up with a grimace. “You can’t be talking about that guy, right? That…Saka-whatever.”

“Sakamoto,” Katsura corrected firmly. “And yes, I am talking about him. Maybe if we find him, he would…”

“Call the police on us?” Gintoki nonchalantly finished for him. “Zura, is your brain rotting or something? Why the hell do you think he of all people would lend us a hand after what we did?” Katsura hesitated.

“I don’t know…he seemed eager to help us in the first place. Maybe if we’d been more patient with him…”

“Well, we screwed that up already, so who cares?” Takasugi huffed, crossing his arms. “In any case, I’m glad we haven’t seen that weirdo again. Him and his innocent act—guys like that are bad news.”

“I suppose,” Katsura sighed, dropping his gaze to the ground, “he was quite the suspicious fellow. And there is the very possible risk of him getting us arrested. But…maybe that risk would be worth it. We don’t have many other options anymore.”

Gintoki let out a loud snort. “Oh please, I would rather risk robbing a bank than seeking that guy out!” Katsura gave him a skeptical look.

“It’s that out of the question for you?”

“Uh, yeah! That guy almost killed me!”

“On accident.” Katsura crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow high. “Why are you still so hung up about that, Gintoki? Is it, perhaps, because you’re embarrassed?”

“Hell no!!” Gintoki exclaimed, but his friend continued.

“I understand the feeling of a missed opportunity. Rolling out of the way in time before the crash and striking a cool pose would have been a sight to behold, but botching that is really nothing to be ashamed of. You have to remind yourself that missing one quick time event is alright sometimes.”

“Shut up!! I’m telling you, I’m not embarrassed! And this isn’t Tales! Why would there be quick time events?!”

Before their banter could continue, a shadow loomed over the group and Katsura halted immediately, throwing his arms out to stop his friends from walking straight into a metal chassis. All three of them looked up at the officer whose approach had somehow taken them by surprise, blinking at its bright red photoreceptors that shone in their faces.

“Er…good evening,” Katsura spoke to it hesitantly after a few seconds of silence. “May we—”

“Criminal intent—detected,” the robot talked over the Vault Hunter. “Civilians, you are hereby—under arrest. Please—come quietly to avoid immediate destruction.”

The Vault Hunters all jolted at that abrupt accusation. Gintoki felt his blood run cold, but at the same time felt it boil with a sense of indignation. For a brief moment, he thought the cops had caught up with them for busting up that motel, but…what kind of charge was “criminal intent”??

What?!” he blurted out. “The hell does that mean?!”

The robot was still for a brief moment, then suddenly a recording played in place of its usual robotic tone, and Gintoki jumped when he recognized his own voice.

’Oh please, I would rather risk robbing a bank than seeking that guy out!’ Criminal intent—detected within this phrase. Please—come quietly to avoid immediate destruction.”

Gintoki blinked several times at the robot officer, absolutely dumbfounded. “Th…that was iiiit?! Hey, what kind of crime is that?! You can’t be saying that freedom of speech isn’t a thing here!”

“Affirmative. Any sign of—detected criminal activity—must be eradicated. It is law.”

You’ve gotta be shitting me!!” Gintoki all but shrieked, giving the cop a bewildered glare. There was another pause…and then a recording of that last line, crackling due to the volume, was relayed right back at them.

“Profanity—detected. Your bail has been raised.”

Katsura and Takasugi simultaneously slapped Gintoki in the face in an effort to clamp their hands over his mouth. “Gintoki!” “Shut your mouth!!” Gintoki made a desperate noise back at them, trying to gesture something that resembled a frantic shrug.

“This is your—final—warning. Please—come quietly.”

The Vault Hunters exchanged alarmed looks. Gintoki’s hands were clammy, and his heart had picked up its pace. What were they supposed to do?! Well, they’ve already seen the consequences of trying to escape. They’d ducked away from the cops before on other planets, but this city’s law enforcement was on a whole new level!

Katsura looked back at the cop after a moment and, biting his lip, gave a curt nod. He touched both of his friends by the arm. “Understood. We’ll yield.”

The robot returned the nod. “Thank you for your cooperation. Please—follow me to the station.”

As it turned and began to walk away, Katsura pulled his friends with him to follow along. They both threw him a furious look. “Too risky,” he whispered back, already knowing their thoughts. “At least they have yet to aim for our lives. Just bear with it for now, and we’ll see how this goes. Alright?” Gintoki just huffed a sigh. He was too tired and upset to even try filtering his words. As much as he hated to admit it, at this point they really didn’t have a choice but to play along.

This arrest…wasn’t such a big deal, he told himself. The team of Vault Hunters has been through much more in the past. There was no doubt in his mind that together they’d devise a good plan to get out of this pitfall as usual. Sure, the last few days have been utterly hopeless, but there just had to be a way out of this…right?

Chapter Text

“Gintoki, you’ve really screwed us over. Again.”

“Shut up,” Gintoki snapped at Takasugi, shoving him with his shoulder. The three Vault Hunters sat on the ground in a row, all leaning against the smooth wall. They were in a holding cell in the police station, one that the officer bot had shoved them all into after it had taken their pictures and prints. The robot had told them briefly that they were to stay in there for one day. If no one came to pay their bail, then they would be transported. To where, it didn’t specify. Before any of them could ask, the robot was out the door—returning to its extremely intrusive patrol again, no doubt.

Katsura, sitting on the other side of Takasugi, gave a sniff and then wrinkled his nose. “Hey, this toilet stinks,” he deadpanned, giving the bowl built into the wall a sour look. “One of you switch spots with me.”

“F—hell no! Who would agree to that?!” Gintoki hissed.

“I nominate the perm head. He’s equally as smelly, so there should be no problem there.”

“You wanna die, shrimp?”

“Obviously you’re the one who wants to die,” Takasugi shot back, giving Gintoki a death glare.

Really. Well let’s just see who dies first, then!”

“Both of you, behave!” Katsura intervened. “See, this is also why I want to switch; you children need someone to sit between you. Gintoki, take my spot.”

“Wha—why me?!”

“Because Takasugi’s right. It is your fault that we’re here.”

“You heard him,” Takasugi gloated, smirking at the furiously babbling Gintoki. “Get moving.”

“No! I refuse!” Gintoki crossed his arms, the action exaggerated with defiance, and gave a loud huff. “You’ll have to fight me!” Takasugi growled, making to get up.

Gladly!”

“No! Sit down!” Katsura grabbed his shoulder before he could get out of reach, forcefully plopping Takasugi back down again. “Gintoki, please just move. It’s not like we can ask…them to switch with us.”

Katsura had dropped his volume at that last part, looking past his friends. Gintoki scowled as the three of them grew quiet. He didn’t want to follow Katsura’s gaze, but even if he didn’t look, he could hear it clearly—and it was worse with the silence.

In the corner, there was a woman who had been huddled in fetal position ever since the Vault Hunters got there. Nothing had changed for the past few minutes since they’d sat down—her shoulders continued to shake as she sobbed softly. Right next to her sat a small boy, staring blankly into space ahead of him as he cradled an even smaller child in his arms. The baby was sound asleep. Thank god; Gintoki couldn’t stand the sound of a crying baby, especially on top of all this. Hell, he already couldn’t stand this. He finally turned his head—he knew from one look at his friends that their conversation had completely died, and it’d be difficult to start another one. They’d ignored the elephant in the room for as long as they could bear to. For a moment, he stared at the sobbing woman with her face buried in her arms. Then with a sigh, he leaned his head back into the wall.

“Hey, lady, would you cut it out already? This is embarrassing,” he grumbled. He could feel Katsura shoot him a glare—if he were the one sitting next to him, he probably would’ve punched Gintoki immediately after he spoke. The woman, however, didn’t seem to react at all, though the kid had turned his head, staring at the Vault Hunter with his big eyes. “You’re their mother, aren’t you?” Gintoki continued, sliding his gaze to the woman. “You can’t be like this in front of them. A parent’s life is hard, sure, but that’s no excuse to discourage them. You still have a responsibility right in front of you.”

For a while, no one spoke again. The atmosphere was thick and awkward, and even the baby seemed to sense it, murmuring in its sleep. The boy rocked it gently, but his eyes were elsewhere, looking between his mother and Gintoki.

“Y…you’re right,” the woman finally spoke, her voice meek. She didn’t move from her spot, her breath and body still shaking. “I know this, but I…” She trailed off, curling further into herself.

“Miss, if it would help you calm down, we’d be willing to listen to your story,” Katsura offered after another pause. “Maybe there is also something we can do to help, in any way, after we know the full picture.” Gintoki gave a friend a look. Leave it to Katsura to offer a therapeutic talk with a distressed mother.

“Psh, help them? That’s rich, seeing as we’re in the same situation,” Takasugi muttered under his breath, earning himself a rough nudge and glare from Katsura.

“Th-that’s kind of you sirs,” the woman sniffled, “it really is.” She lifted her head, just slightly, just enough to reveal her eyes, red and swollen. They were filled with despair. “But…there’s nothing anyone can do for us anymore.”

“Hey, don’t go deciding that on your own,” Gintoki objected, but the woman shook her head.

“It’s the truth.” She looked sullenly to the bars across the cell. “There’s no one waiting for us on the outside to pay our bail. After my husband died, we were left all alone. And after that, I made mistake after mistake…the biggest was looking for opportunity in this rotten city.”

The Vault Hunters exchanged looks at her sudden bitter words. “Would you be so kind to elaborate?” It was Katsura who asked gently, and the woman looked towards the three friends.

“You sirs…did you come here from another planet? Maybe it was the same for you—it’s so cheap, almost free, to enter this city, but so difficult to get out. They beckon people here with words of prosperity. They don’t lie, actually. This place is filled with opportunity…if you come with enough money to survive, and a certain charisma that they’re looking for. Most people don’t.”

“So you’re saying this place is a trap for the poor and unwitting?” Takasugi huffed, the indignant gleam in his eyes the only hint of sentiment on his otherwise stone-faced expression. “Unsurprising, knowing most money mongers.” The woman gave a weary sigh.

“The people who are driven to poverty…they get desperate. And when they try to break the rules to survive, well…if you’ve ended up here, I don’t need to say any more.”

The conversation lapsed into silence again. At least the woman had stopped sobbing, instead staring at the ground and quietly sniffling every now and then.

“Hey, lady,” Gintoki spoke up. “There’s one thing you haven’t mentioned yet.” The woman looked to him with a questioning frown. “What happens after this? They take us all to court? To jail? This place is damn vague about their criminal justice system.” At his question, the woman shrunk back, the despairing look returning to her eyes. She looked away quickly, and her voice was shaky when she answered.

“There is no jail.”

“What…?” Gintoki stared at her, but she wouldn’t say any more, burying her face in her arms once again. Her son touched her gently on the arm—he seemed a bit puzzled, turning to Gintoki.

“Mister,” he spoke up for the first time, his words slow and mild towards the stranger, “why would we be going to jail? That’s where bad people go, right? We’re not bad people…Mom told me that we’re gonna go away after this. Isn’t that a good thing? I don’t like this place.”

His words slowly sunk in, and the Vault Hunters stared in stunned silence. “Don’t tell me…” Katsura murmured, mostly to himself. The boy looked to him curiously.

“She said…all of you are?” Gintoki asked, and boy blinked back at him, nodding slowly as he hugged the baby close.

“Yeah, of course! We’re all leaving together. Why…? Mister, your face is kinda scary.”

Gintoki shook his head, turning away for a moment. He shared a look with his two friends. “Well, kid, I guess this means we’re all gonna go away together,” he said in a low growl. “But in a different way than your mom says.”

“Huh?”

The woman looked up, a perplexed expression on her face. “You three…”

“Lady, you were wrong. Looks like there is something we can do for you.” Gintoki looked to her with a grin. “We’re gonna bust—mmph!

“Shut the hell up, moron,” Takasugi, who had hastily clapped a hand against his friend’s mouth, hissed. “Don’t forget, it was your big mouth that got us in trouble in the first place! There’s a guard bot right outside; lower your voice!”

“Gintoki, don’t be rash,” Katsura warned as well, eying him warily. “We’ll need a good plan.”

“Especially after those bots confiscated all our equipment,” Takasugi noted with a grimace. Gintoki pried the hand off of his mouth, giving both his friends an impatient glare.

“Well, think of something quick! I can’t stand this place!”

“And you think that we can?”

“Um,” the woman interrupted, giving them a look of concern. “I…don’t think this is a good idea. Whatever you’re planning, it sounds terribly dangerous. Going against the police bots is…”

“…better than sitting around doing nothing,” Gintoki finished her sentence. He gave a confident smile—as confident he could manage while having no idea how to proceed, at least. “Don’t worry! We Vault Hunters have been through hell and back already. And we’re not gonna let this pathetic city bring us down.”

“Vault Hunters?”

“…What’s a Vault Hunter?” the boy asked, obviously confused by his mother’s surprise.

“Badasses who’ve taken down entire bandit gangs and wrestled with giant alien beasts,” Gintoki boasted, waggling his eyebrows. “We have a knack of helping people in distress. You could even call us heroes if you wanted to.” The boy seemed dazzled, his eyes wide.

“Wow…”

“Yep, ‘wow’ is right. So rest assured! Getting outta here won’t even be a challenge to—”

“Shh!!” Takasugi interrupted, smacking Gintoki in the face. The latter sputtered and opened his mouth to yell when he froze, realizing why Takasugi had shut him up so rudely.

Gintoki hadn’t heard the sound of a door opening while he was talking, but now he could hear the footsteps, crisp upon the hard floor. Clearly, they didn’t belong to a police bot—the mechanical whirring was missing, and whoever this was had a lighter step than those stomping machines. Was it another prisoner? But it was strange in that case, if there weren’t also an escorting officer bot’s footsteps. Gintoki tensed, not sure what to expect. He, along with Takasugi and Katsura, warily stared into the hallway, waiting as the footsteps grew near. In a few tense moments, someone walked into view.

Well, one thing Gintoki definitely wasn’t prepared to see was a face that he recognized.

“You?!” he hissed and Tatsuma jumped—the latter already had his head turned to look into the cell, but his eyes widened in shock at the sight of the three Vault Hunters. They stared back and Gintoki wasn’t sure what faces his companions were making, but he narrowed his eyes into a wary glare. What the hell was this guy doing here? What the hell are you doing here?!

Tatsuma said nothing, blinking a few times with his lips slightly parted. But in a few seconds, he closed his mouth, his expression growing calm. A small smile spread on his face and with that he looked away, continuing down the hall and out of their frame of view.

“Wai—!” Gintoki started, but was interrupted by a nudge to the ribs. He looked over to his friends and they were both staring at him with mixed expressions.

“Do you know that person?” the woman asked in a hushed voice. She received no answer. Further down the hall, Tatsuma spoke, but they couldn’t make out his words. A robotic voice responded, starting an inaudible conversation.

“Hey, what is the meaning of this?” Takasugi whispered, glaring daggers at Gintoki. “Why’s that guy here?”

“How should I know? And why’re you looking at me like that?!”

“You’re the one who swindled him and his old man a few days ago.”

“So?! That doesn’t mean sh—anything! Why’re you acting like I can read his mind?!”

Katsura let out a troubled sigh, looking to the edge of the cell where Tatsuma had disappeared from view. “This can either end well or very, very badly.”

What else could they do except wait and see? It felt like Tatsuma and the guard bot were talking for an eternity, and Gintoki felt he’d chew a hole in his lip at this rate. What was this? Karma? Were they going to be punished for what they did on their first day? This string of misfortune was getting ridiculous. Gintoki was a good fucking person; he didn’t deserve this!

At last, it sounded like the conversation was reaching a conclusive end. There was the sound of whirring, and then the noisy stomping of a robot’s clumsy feet. Both parties within the cell looked on with anticipation as the guard bot marched into view, turning and stopping next to the door. It gazed into the small room with its shining red light optic, pausing for another good moment.

“You three,” it finally spoke, “You are—free to go.”

…Huh?

“R…really?!” Gintoki exclaimed, about to jump up when the bot’s optic swiveled in his direction.

“Not you.” It looked to the woman, who started in surprise. “You. You are—free to go. Please—exit the cell.” The bot worked on the door after it said this, and the cell door slid open.

“I…I…is this for real…?” the woman questioned, as if she thought she were dreaming.

“It’s fer real all right.” Tatsuma stepped into view from behind the robot, giving the woman a warm smile. “C’mon out.”

“Please—hurry up,” the bot urged.

“Mama, it’s time to go already?” the boy asked with a clueless expression. The woman looked to her son and back to Tatsuma, then quickly masked her disbelief and nodded. She touched her son on the shoulder before quickly scrambling to her feet. The boy followed suit, getting up while keeping the baby carefully balanced in his arms and following his mother out of the cell. As soon as they exited, the bot slammed the cell door shut once again and stomped off without another word.

“H-he-whu-bu-…what?!” Gintoki screeched, looking incredulously between all that were present. His friends both gave him sour looks. Obviously, he blew it. Gintoki made a frantically skeptical face at them. No way! This couldn’t be all his fault!! What the hell?! He shot a look to Tatsuma, but found the merchant’s attention to be elsewhere.

“Th…thank you so very much,” the woman was saying, giving a low bow.

“No, no, it’s nothin’!” Tatsuma chuckled. “There’s no need fer all that! Ah, here—this is fer you.” He pat his pockets and pulled a piece of paper out, handing it over. The woman took it uncertainly.

“This is…?”

“A permit outta the city. Children’re free with an adult, so ya should be okay.” Tatsuma gave a sheepish laugh, scratching his head. “I’m sorry, that’s all I can do fer ya…” He received an incredulous look.

“How could you say that?! You’ve done more for us than anyone ever has in this city! I…” The woman hesitated, seeming all sorts of overwhelmed. “I’m really grateful that you’d do all this for us, but…why? We don’t even know who you are…did someone send you?”

Tatsuma smiled and shook his head. “I’m just a helpful stranger, is all.”

“I…I see,” the woman murmured. Lowering her gaze, she bowed her head. “Thank you again. I can’t express how much this means to us…” She looked down to her son, her hand gently brushing his shoulder. “Say thank you to the kind sir.”

The boy who had been looking up at Tatsuma bowed his head obediently. “Thank you…Mister, are you a Vault Hunter too?”

The merchant seemed stunned by that comment, pausing for a good moment. “Why would ya say that?”

“Because, that Mister said that Vault Hunters help people,” the boy answered, pointing at Gintoki who froze when Tatsuma’s gaze once again met his. Tatsuma stared, again with an unreadable expression, before his gaze softened and he smiled back at the boy, kneeling down to his level.

“I’m just a simple businessman,” he answered, and the child frowned, nodding slowly.

“Oh…”

“Is this yer mother?” Tatsuma asked with a gesture to the woman. The boy nodded. “And this is…”

“My sister!” the boy chirped, eagerly lifting the sleeping baby in his hands to show her off. Tatsuma giggled.

“I see, I see. Ahaha, she looks real comfy there. She must really like ya! Take good care of ‘em both, okay?”

“Okay!”

“Loitering detected,” a robotic voice from the other room suddenly spoke, making everyone jump. There was a mechanical whir. “Please—move along, civilians.”

“Ah,” the woman murmured, looking behind her down the hall and taking a nervous step to the side behind her son as if to shield him from the guard bot, urging him along. “We’d better get going…again, thank you so, so much, sir. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“No problem! Stay safe, now!”

Only the boy seemed hesitant. “Wait,” he exclaimed, looking worriedly towards the cell. “What about those people?”

“Yeah, what about us?” Takasugi breathed, once again shooting a glare at Gintoki. Now a bit fed up with this treatment, Gintoki forced a smile at the boy.

“Don’t worry, kid! We’ll be right behind you. Remember what I said—there’s nothing we can’t handle!” As he said this, he flexed his arm, accidentally (purposefully) elbowing Takasugi hard in the face. His friend reciprocated in an instant, punching him in the stomach. Gintoki let out a hard wheeze but somehow managed to keep up his smile, giving the boy a shaky wave. “We’re fine!”

The boy blinked, but a little giggle escaped him. “If you say so…bye then, Misters!” His mother seemed a bit less reassured. She gazed at them hesitantly, as if she wanted to do something, but it was evident that the safety of her children came first. In the end she gave them a simple nod, her expression a mix of gratefulness and apology. With that, she ushered her son away. The family disappeared from view, and the door could be heard opening and closing.

Gintoki closed his eyes and let out a sigh once they left, rubbing the bruise that was probably forming on his belly. Damn, that hurt like hell. He was ready to yell at Takasugi, quite happy to be able to cuss him out now that the kids were gone, but when he opened his eyes again he could only focus on one thing.

Tatsuma was still standing outside of the cell, his gaze lingering on Gintoki. The Vault Hunter’s eye twitched—seriously, what was up with this guy? Why was he always staring at him? It was annoying and honestly starting to make Gintoki a bit uncomfortable. He shot a glare back—this seemed to surprise Tatsuma, the merchant blinking a few times. But then, for once, Tatsuma responded with a clear, comprehensible expression.

He gave the warmest, most genuine smile—one that had Gintoki completely taken aback, breaking his glare for a solid few seconds. The Vault Hunter’s mind was scrambling to comprehend this. In the midst of his confusion, he glared back again—even harder this time. Why? Why was the bastard like this?

Why, when he of all the people on this damn planet had a valid reason to resent him?

Tatsuma began to turn away, and Gintoki’s reflex made him act before he could think. “Wait—!!” he started to shout, but realized a split second later that Tatsuma wasn’t turning to leave.

“Officer,” the merchant called down the hall, “I’ve gotta talk to ya about these fellas, too.”

“Hold on one second!” It was Katsura who spoke up this time, studying Tatsuma with a wary look. “You…what are you up to?” Tatsuma was unfazed, giving a lighthearted laugh.

“No worries! I’m gonna get ya outta here, on one condition.”

The Vault Hunters exchanged looks. “What do you want?” Takasugi demanded, and Tatsuma smiled, leaning in eagerly toward the cell bars.

“Let me hire ya!”

Chapter Text

“The fuck is wrong with your head?!” Gintoki was first to blurt out a response after the uncomfortable silence. He couldn’t have heard right. There’s no way that the smiling merchant could be this out of his mind.

“Gintoki,” Katsura rebuked, throwing his friend a hard look. Gintoki pressed his lips together into a thin line, and Katsura looked back to Tatsuma. “Your name was Sakamoto, correct?” he asked warily. “Do you seriously plan on hiring us?”

“Absolutely,” the merchant answered with a bright grin. “If ya ended up here, I can only guess that’s what ya need—a job. Am I right?”

“Why the offer?” Takasugi demanded when his friends hesitated, his eyes narrowing. “What kind of job are you hiring us for? You can’t just be doing this for our sake.”

“Huh~? Is my admiration fer Vault Hunters not reason enough?” Tatsuma threw his head back and laughed, but obviously no one followed suit. Takasugi’s glare intensified, and the still chuckling Tatsuma waved it off with a hint of nervousness. “Hey now, lighten up! I’m just kiddin’. Truth is, I do have an actual job fer ya…one that only a Vault Hunter can help me with.”

“So what is it?”

“I’ll tell ya after ya come with me.”

“Screw that,” Takasugi hissed, but Katsura elbowed him quickly.

“Is there a reason why you can’t tell us in this setting?” he asked with emphasis, giving both his friends a pointed look. Gintoki blinked and threw a glance forward at the cell bars. Oh right. Police. Tatsuma smiled, seeming glad that one of them understood.

“Maybe,” he said. “Fer now, all I can say about my offer is this: I’ll spring ya outta jail if you let me hire ya. And ya have to agree with any and all of my conditions fer this job.”

“Oh come on, that’s bullshit!” Gintoki snapped. “Why would we agree to something as vaguely absolute as that?! You have all the power in this deal!”

“I do,” Tatsuma answered without missing a beat. Gintoki gave him a bewildered look—the merchant’s expression had grown somewhat solemn. “It sounds unfair, I know. But I’ll tell ya this now—this ain’t just a request. This is your only chance outta here.” His smile was gone as he turned his face away, looking in the direction of the front door. “Do ya know yet, about what will happen if no one comes fer you?” The atmosphere was suddenly tense following his words. Gintoki felt the weight dig into his shoulders.

“If no one comes for us in a day…” Katsura was the one to speak in a murmur. He looked up from the ground, a spark of fury in his eyes. “If the outcome is what I think it is, isn’t that exceptionally harsh? That woman and her children were also…”

“All crimes in this city are punishable by death,” Tatsuma answered softly. “There are no exceptions.”

Gintoki scoffed. “Unless you have money?” His question was answered with Tatsuma’s expression alone. The Vault Hunter felt a humorless smirk grow on his face. “This place is fucked up.”

Tatsuma released a breath, a surprisingly serious air about him. “I hate to pressure ya, but this offer is honestly your only option…if ya wanna avoid casualties.” He glanced to the side. “Their weapons bypass shields. Maybe you’ve seen them in action already?” Try as they might, the three Vault Hunters couldn’t conceal every hint of reaction.

“Hold it,” Gintoki growled, narrowing his eyes. “Why the hell should we believe everything you’re telling us? As far as we know, you’re just scaring us into taking your offer.” Tatsuma’s smile suddenly returned, along with the bright, amused expression.

“Ahahaha! Yer a real sharp one, aren’t ya…uh…was it Kintoki?”

Gintoki!”

“Oh, right.” Tatsuma giggled and then lifted his hands with a half shrug. “You fellas can choose to believe me or not. But yer options are these: you refuse my offer and hope fer the best. Or, ya come with me, take this job, and I guarantee I’ll get ya off this planet. If I somehow don’t, y’can, er, shoot me in the face or whatever ya do when yer real angry with someone. How about it?”

There was a pause—Gintoki was thinking, and he knew his friends were as well. He kept a wary eye on Tatsuma for any hint of a tell. Over everything else, his brain was screaming at him not to trust this guy. The merchant had some innocent charm, but that was only on the surface. Who knew what was hidden behind that spacey façade? Sure, he seemed harmless, and he helped that family out, but he was just…he…okay, Gintoki’s worked for worse people, he’ll be honest. But his strong bias was telling him-

His thoughts were interrupted when Katsura stood up and pulled at him and Takasugi to follow, directing a quiet, “Give us a moment,” towards Tatsuma. Katsura steered his two friends into the corner of the cell and eyed them earnestly. “So?” he whispered.

“No,” Takasugi huffed.

“Hell no,” Gintoki followed up. Katsura sighed.

“Why?”

“I don’t like him,” Gintoki whispered back, and Takasugi reluctantly gave a subtle nod after shooting a grudging look towards his friend.

“That doesn’t matter,” Katsura argued. “The most logical decision is to take his offer, and you both know it. If he’s right about the weapons piercing through shields, considering we even get ours back before one of us gets disintegrated, we’ll most likely all die trying to escape than not. And even if he is lying, there’s too much risk involved, even with our shields working.” When his companions hesitated, he gave them both a nudge. “Come on, there’s no use in being petty now. And in any case, he doesn’t seem upset with us in any way.”

“Emphasis on ‘seem’,” Gintoki grunted, but Katsura stared him down until he finally let out a sigh. Pushing past his friends, he made his way towards the cell’s bars. “Hey,” he called to Tatsuma who was looking at him expectantly, “how risky is this job you’re giving us?”

The merchant gave him a pleasant smile—one that, to Gintoki’s returning frustration, masked some kind of intent that was impossible to read. “It’s a simple one—trivial. Nothin’ I don’t think you could handle.”

“And what do you think we could handle?” Gintoki asked, staring intently to try and uncover any cracks in the merchant’s smooth mask. But Tatsuma’s mysterious smile only widened.

“Yer alive. That says enough, now doesn’t it?”

Gintoki blinked at his words. Somehow…this guy sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Gintoki had taken him for some kind of Vault Hunter fanboy at first glance—the kind that romanticized the job, failed to acknowledge just how brutal the lifestyle was. But that line just now…Gintoki had heard it from several employers in his lifetime—employers who had dealt with Vault Hunters countless times, who had seen them in action. But that couldn’t be right. Somehow, this guy seemed just as experienced as he was inexperienced. How was that even possible?

…Who the hell was this guy?

Tatsuma raised his eyebrows and Gintoki hastily snapped out of his thoughts, trying to suppress the chagrin that threatened redness in his cheeks. Shit, he’d dropped his own guard while trying to break Tatsuma’s. His annoyance only spiked when he saw the hint of amusement in the merchant’s expression. He couldn’t stop the burning in his face that time and turned away immediately. This fucker!! He knew exactly what he was doing! Takasugi was right; the guy was some serious bad news. Gintoki threw a look back to his friends, almost pleadingly, but Katsura gave an insistent stare back and Takasugi just looked beyond entertained. With an exasperated sigh, Gintoki shut his eyes.

“…Fine. You’ve got a deal.”

“Really~? I’m glad! It’ll be a pleasure workin’ with ya.”

“Just get us the fuck out of here,” Gintoki snapped, refusing to face Tatsuma. He could just picture his stupid shitty smile.

“I’m on it! Sit tight.”

Gintoki remained turned away even as the footsteps outside of the cell grew distant. His friends approached him, Katsura giving him an approving smile. “There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“Easy for you to say,” Gintoki grunted. “Whatever that fool has planned, I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Even if it’s dangerous?” Katsura asked.

“That’d be a nice change of pace,” Takasugi admitted with a little smirk. “Feels too long since we’ve had some action.” Gintoki rolled his eyes, staying defiant. He was going to be bitter about this decision for as long as he wanted to be, damn it. If Tatsuma was true to his word (and if he wasn’t, Gintoki was ready to end him), the Vault Hunters had their key out of this place. But the uncertainty of what the merchant had in mind had Gintoki on edge.

There was nothing to do but wait and see.

 

As the four of them made their way through the city, the Vault Hunters trailing closely behind Tatsuma, Gintoki felt the stares of pedestrians intensify. Now, it was coupled by whispering. Gintoki’s wary eyes followed the crowds, suppressing the annoyance that boiled in his stomach. And here he thought the staring alone was bad enough.

Tatsuma didn’t seem bothered, making his way down the street as casually as anyone else. Gintoki turned his gaze to the merchant’s back. Katsura had attempted to speak to that man once they’d stepped out of the station, but Tatsuma had shaken his head quickly. “We’ll talk at home,” he’d whispered, and that was the end of that. Honestly, after what landed them in jail in the first place, Gintoki understood. And now, after all this talk behind their backs, he wondered if this was another reason for Tatsuma’s silence. What were these people whispering about? But Gintoki forced his mind away from this mystery, his irritation levels getting dangerously high. He just wanted to get out of the streets as soon as possible.

Thankfully, after a few blocks Tatsuma made a turn into the yard of a tall apartment building. The sleek skyscraper loomed over them; scattered lights from the windows dotted the surface, but Gintoki couldn’t see the top in the darkness of night. The outside was well lit, at least eight light posts lining the path to the entrance, and the yard was decorated with lush hedges and flowers. Gintoki narrowed his eyes at the scenery as they walked through—this was way too high-end for him. It felt kind of gross being here.

“My father owns this place,” Tatsuma suddenly spoke up, and Gintoki raised his head to see him looking between the Vault Hunters with a small smile. “But I live alone, so don’t worry.” Gintoki just grunted, pointedly looking away. Typical rich boy, he thought.

“You do not live with your father?” Katsura asked, and Tatsuma shook his head.

“Most of my family lives there, so it was feelin’ a bit crowded fer me,” he chuckled. He walked ahead of the group to the entrance and pulled open the glass door, looking back with a smile. “After you.”

Even the elevator was pristine, the walls and floor nearly sparkling. It felt risky to even touch the railing. Gintoki knew his friends were feeling the same type of discomfort, all of them standing in the middle of the lift and away from the walls. Katsura seemed to be admiring the setting just a bit, but Takasugi was just staring off into space, ignoring it all. Gintoki was doing a little bit of both, but when he looked around he was absolutely not doing it out of admiration. The only time he’d seen the inside of a building this nice was on a screen during those snobby Hyperion commercials that snuck their way onto television sets across the galaxy.

The awkward atmosphere was obvious in the small box and it seemed the uncomfortable silence was set to continue a while, Gintoki realized in dismay as he saw that Tatsuma had pressed the button for the top floor. There wasn’t even any music to cover up the Vault Hunters’ fidgeting—every cough or throat clearing was like a gun going off, and every shift in weight sounded like a train car tipping over. Gintoki squinted at the elevator buttons for the first long moments, watching the light lazily travel from number to number. For a nice elevator, this thing sure was damn slow! It wasn’t long before Gintoki let out a heated sigh.

“Hey, you,” he grunted, glaring towards Tatsuma. “Can’t we start talking now?” The merchant frowned, his brow furrowing. Unlike the others, he was leaning relaxed against the railing, as casual as ever.

“About what?”

“The job, obviously!”

“There’s no rush.”

“No, that’s not the point here!”

“Eh? The point?” Tatsuma blinked, his expression growing even more puzzled. Gintoki’s mouth formed a few silent shapes before he shut it with a sharp exhale through his nose and shook his head. Could this guy really not read such an awkward atmosphere?? Tatsuma gave him a curious look, and the Vault Hunter refused to make eye contact once again.

Gintoki couldn’t stand the bastard. It was rare when he couldn’t read people, and Tatsuma really was something else. Experienced or inexperienced? A genius or a fool? An honest businessman or a piece of shit swindler? Though Gintoki really wanted to lean toward the latter labels, he knew they wouldn’t be accurate. This might’ve been the first time he was ever this confused about a person and their intentions…he really didn’t like the feeling.

The chime of the elevator startled him out of his thoughts, and he hastily gathered himself to follow the group when the door slid open at last. The hall stretched out far in ahead of them, lined with doors. But as the Vault Hunters looked down it, Tatsuma took an immediate left to the closest door to the elevator and reached into his pants pocket for a key.

“C’mon in,” he said cheerily when he got the door open, holding it for the Vault Hunters. Katsura was the first to step forward when the others hesitated one last time, disappearing into the apartment without looking back. Gintoki and Takasugi exchanged a cautious look before filing inside after their friend.

They joined Katsura’s side by the entrance. The former stood there, taking in the room. Gintoki did the same—the place was dim for just a moment until he heard the sound of a switch being flipped behind them, and their view was illuminated.

“Go on and relax on the couch,” Tatsuma called, shutting the door behind himself.

Aside from the small kitchen to the right of the entrance, the apartment looked strangely…unlived in. The living room in front of them was large, complete with a couch and an armchair surrounding a nice glass coffee table in the center. There was even a wall-mounted flatscreen TV on the wall. But this room looked like it was hardly ever touched, as if it was a mere display in a store. Only the subtle signs that someone had periodically cleaned the dust off of the furniture disproved the initial impression that it was all brand new.

Beyond this space was a set of glass sliding doors, leading out to a balcony overlooking the city. Surprisingly, even though this was the top floor, all Gintoki could see of the view from where he was standing was the lights from adjacent skyscrapers. Apparently this building was shorter compared to many others, as ridiculous as it sounded. There was a hall to the left, and as Gintoki made his way to the living room following his friends he saw that it led to three doors, one on each wall.

Only Katsura had listened to directions and sat in the middle of the couch. Takasugi continued past it and wandered around the room, looking around with slight distaste in his usual scowl. At that point, Gintoki already decided he’d seen all that could’ve been seen and made his way over to the couch, leaning against the side of it with a huff.

“Want anythin’ to drink?” Tatsuma asked, and Gintoki looked to see that their host had ducked into the kitchen.

“Just get on with it already,” he snapped back. Takasugi didn’t even raise his head.

“Water would be fine for all of us, thank you,” Katsura, the only polite one, answered properly.

“Alright! One moment.” There was some fumbling, and then Tatsuma emerged from the kitchen carrying three cups. Gintoki automatically waved him off when he offered one over.

“Tell us about the damn job already,” he grumbled, and Tatsuma shrugged, offering the drink to Katsura instead.

“One thing at a time,” he urged. “Like I said, there’s no rush here.”

Speak for yourself, Gintoki wanted to argue back, but resorted to quiet glaring instead. It went unnoticed as Tatsuma turned to offer Takasugi a drink. The distant Vault Hunter glowered at the company from the corner of the room, though after eying Katsura taking a sip of his own drink, he reluctantly strode over and took the cup from Tatsuma. With a small smile, the merchant set the spare cup on the coffee table and stood on the other side of it, across from the couch.

“Okay! Let’s talk business, shall we?”

“Finally,” Gintoki muttered, though his comment was ignored.

“Can you safely tell us what this work is about now?” Katsura asked, and Tatsuma nodded.

“Need us to kill someone?” Takasugi questioned immediately, sitting on the free armrest. He was answered with a surprised laugh.

“No, no, nothin’ like that! But, first thing’s first. Here,” Tatsuma hummed, holding out an empty palm towards Takasugi, who raised an eyebrow. “The core. Ya still have it, don’t ya?”

The Vault Hunters all stiffened, and Takasugi narrowed his eyes warily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answered.

“No worries! I just wanna get rid of it fer ya,” Tatsuma said, as relaxed as ever. “You were lookin’ to sell it, right? Yer not gonna find any takers in this city—the police cracked down on black markets recently. If there’s any of them left, they ain’t gonna risk business fer a while longer.” At Takasugi’s reluctance, Tatsuma gave a concerned frown. “That thing’s dangerous, ya know. I don’t know what’ll happen to ya if ya keep holdin’ onto it without proper storage.”

Katsura shot his friend a look, his expression a silent “I told you so.” Finally Takasugi released a breath, pulling open his bag and producing the small reactor. “Take it,” he grumbled, and Tatsuma graciously accepted it.

“Yer welcome.”

“Does your old man know?” Gintoki questioned, trying not to fidget in unease.

“Oh yeah,” Tatsuma answered bluntly with vigorous nods. “Absolutely. Don’t worry, though, I’m not gonna turn ya in or anythin’. And anyway, it’s not like he’s after yer heads—Father ain’t that kinda person. Let’s just say…he understands the struggle.” Gintoki raised an eyebrow, watching as Tatsuma carefully set the reactor on the table before continuing. “So, onto the job?”

“We’re all ears,” Katsura said after a quick glance at his friends. Tatsuma gave a bright smile and leaned in.

“Great! Now, listen closely…”

Gintoki found himself leaning closer too, overcome with a sense of urgency. The merchant looked from face to face, sizing each of them up, and Gintoki stared intently back into his strangely serious blue eyes. After this tense moment, Tatsuma opened his mouth again.

“…How good are you at tellin’ stories?”

“…What?”

“I told ya to listen closely!” Tatsuma exclaimed, pouting at Gintoki who stammered in response.

“I heard you, obviously! But…what??”

“I stand by Gintoki,” Katsura said, giving a puzzled look. “What does story telling have to do with the job?”

“Everythin’! That is the job,” Tatsuma replied innocently.

“Hey, cut the crap,” Takasugi hissed. “You said this job was gonna be something risky.”

“I said no such thing. You implied it,” Tatsuma deflected.

“But- you—!” Gintoki found himself stuttering again before he grit his teeth, jabbing an accusing finger in the merchant’s direction. “You implied it!!”

“I just said ‘maybe’.”

“But why?! Why not just tell us?!” There was a pause.

“Well, it ain’t the type of job I thought you’d be interested in, so…” Tatsuma averted his eyes and for once, surprisingly, Gintoki saw the façade crumble. “I was worried. Thought you’d think…it’d be too stupid.”

“It is,” Gintoki seethed. When Tatsuma visibly flinched, the Vault Hunter pulled back with a blink—that came out a lot harsher than he’d intended. He could feel Katsura staring (or glaring, no doubt) at him. Gintoki bit his tongue but before he could speak again, Tatsuma let out a sheepish chuckle, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Yeah, sorry. If ya don’t wanna take the job, then that’s fine too. Yer free to go on your way.”

The Vault Hunters exchanged glances. “Please, continue,” Katsura urged. “As odd as this request is, we’re in dire need of the reward.”

“You weren’t lying about getting us outta here, at least, right?” Takasugi grumbled.

“I’m tellin’ ya, I never lied!” Tatsuma insisted with a furrowed brow, his disposition seeming to gradually return to normal. “Of course it’s the same! I’ll get ya off this planet in exchange fer this job, as promised. So!” He gave a smile, a bit more energetic than before. “Shall I tell ya the rules?”

“I’m listening,” Gintoki muttered in annoyance as Katsura gave him a firm push to the back.

“Alright, the job is as follows: once per day, one of ya need to tell me a story of your adventures—any story ya want, but it’s gotta be true to what ya remember. That’s about it, actually,” Tatsuma giggled. “Pretty simple, right?” The Vault Hunters stared at him, expecting some sort of catch, though he said no more. What a childish request, Gintoki thought.

“Um, this is just out of curiosity, but,” Katsura spoke up, “the first time we met, you mentioned that you’ve heard stories about Vault Hunters before. Where did those come from?”

“Ah, my mother used to tell them to me,” Tatsuma answered. His cheeriness seemed dampened for a moment. “She…passed away when I was still little. But I still remember all of her stories! My sister and I both do. They were wonderful.” He smiled fondly, gaze dropped to the glass table, and Katsura studied him with a sympathetic frown.

“I see…my condolences. I take it that your mother had met Vault Hunters herself before?”

“She and my father have. They were both travelers ‘round the galaxy before they met each other and settled down, though Father never likes to talk about those days.”

Gintoki blinked at those words, something clicking in his mind. So that was what Tatsuma meant, when he said that his father “understood the struggle.” Maybe this was why the merchants seemed to know more about Vault Hunters than the average rich person as well.

“But anyway,” Tatsuma continued, “‘cause of my mother, I’ve always wanted to meet a Vault Hunter fer myself. And I wanted to hear their stories from their own lips…from your own lips.” He chuckled softly. “As wonderful as Mother’s stories were, I’m positive she’d twisted a lotta details to make it better fer us clueless little kids. So…”

“I understand,” Katsura answered. “You wish to know the truth of what’s out there.”

“That I do,” Tatsuma said with an enthusiastic grin. “I’ve always dreamed about seein’ what’s in space. Alien races, Vault Hunters, the Vaults—everything! It all sounds so excitin’! The ECHO casts we get ‘round here just don’t cut it. I wanna see through the eyes of someone who’s been out there themselves. And treasure hunters like you ought to have a ton of stories to tell, right?”

Takasugi raised an eyebrow, his frown deepening. “And how many stories did you want from us?” he questioned with a hint of impatience.

“Like I said, one per day. As fer how many days, let’s see…how does eight weeks sound?”

“Eight weeks?!” Gintoki just had to blurt out, shooting Tatsuma an incredulous look. “You’ve gotta be shitting me!!” The merchant seemed puzzled at the reaction, tilting his head.

“What’s up? Ya don’t have enough stories fer that?”

“No, that’s not the problem!! How the hell do you expect us to survive that long?! We have no money!”

“Oh! Right,” Tatsuma laughed. He put his hands on his hips, giving the Vault Hunters a reassuring smile. “Rest assured, yer free to stay right here in this apartment! There’s a guest room at the end of the hall over there. Only one double bed, but I’ve got spare futons if ya need ‘em. There’s food and drink over in the kitchen, too, so you can help yerselves. Anythin’ here is free to use!”

“But…wait, really?” Gintoki stared with increased disbelief, but it didn’t look like Tatsuma was joking around. He looked over at his friends to see them wearing similar surprised expressions.

“I-if you’re truly serious about that,” Katsura spoke with a touch of concern in his voice, “wouldn’t it be terribly costly for you, accommodating for the three of us? And on top of that, you’re the employer! That’s a lot of money to sacrifice on your end, isn’t it?” But Tatsuma merely waved it off.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got more funds than I know what to do with! Besides, it’s not about the money to me.” He smiled, and there was that light in his eyes again—the look of excitement. “This is somethin’ I’ve always wanted.”

Takasugi clicked his tongue despite it all, crossing his arms and glowering at Tatsuma. “That’s all well and good, but let me ask you this. Just how do you expect us to sit still for eight whole weeks? We came here expecting some dangerous work, not…the complete, utterly boring opposite.”

“Ah.” Tatsuma blinked, looking like the idea had just dawned on him. He hummed, gazing aside thoughtfully. “I could look fer somethin’ you could do ‘round here. There’re a couple of recreational places. How ‘bout I give ya some tours sometime?”

“Uh, no thanks,” Gintoki grumbled, remembering the stares and whispers from earlier. At this rate, he’d prefer lying around indoors for the entire eight weeks.

“Do these ‘recreational places’ include activities like shooting someone full of holes?” Takasugi asked boredly. “If not, then forget it.” Tatsuma giggled sheepishly and gave a shrug.

“Guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. In the meantime though, if ya need anythin’ else, feel free to ask me! I’ll make sure your stay’ll be comfortable.”

“What are you now, a butler? Hotel room service?” Takasugi huffed.

“More like a performing monkey,” Gintoki mocked, giving a disdainful look. “You gonna dance for us, too?”

Katsura reached out to both sides of himself and pinched his friends hard—Takasugi on the cheek and Gintoki on the arm. “Thank you very much, Sakamoto. You’re too kind,” he said, then threw hard glares at the other two. “We’ll make sure to treat your living space well. Right?” He got two deflated grumbles in response. Tatsuma didn’t seem offended by the rude ones in the least, laughing wholeheartedly again.

“No worries! So long as ya don’t destroy the place, we’ll be fine,” he chuckled. He shifted his weight and let out content sigh. “Well, that about covers it. I’ve got work tomorrow mornin’, so it’s bedtime fer me…ah, are any of ya hungry?”

Gintoki blinked. Now that their host had mentioned it, he suddenly became aware of the emptiness in his stomach. Oh, right. When the hell was the last time they’d eaten? Breakfast? And even then, they’d only had a little snack…he swallowed, and found that his throat was also parched. Damn, he’d been so tense that he hadn’t noticed, even when Tatsuma had offered drinks to them all. He eyed the cups that his friends had set onto the table at some point…alongside the spare that was meant for him. After a moment, though, he forced his eyes away before anyone could notice. He wasn’t gonna reach for it now, that’d be pathetic. Nope, no matter how thirsty he felt, he wasn’t gonna take it until Tatsuma was out of the room. Which was hopefully soon.

His petty inner dilemma was kept strictly to himself, as Tatsuma gave them all an apologetic look. “Sorry, I don’t have time to prepare anythin’ fer ya. There’s some leftovers in the fridge if ya wanna heat those up. Dunno if there’s enough fer all of ya, but…”

“It’s alright,” Katsura reassured, making to rise from the couch. “We know how to make some things ourselves, if you let us use your ingredients. You can go ahead and rest.”

“Oh! Well that’s good,” Tatsuma said with a bright smile. “Alright, like I said, yer room’s at the end of the hall. And before that, the bathroom’ll be to yer left. I’ll set up an extra futon fer ya before I go to sleep. Make yerselves at home!” He started to make his way towards the hall, but paused halfway. “Oh yeah, and I work ‘til 5 on weekdays. We can start tomorrow, so have a story ready by the time I get back, okay?”

Gintoki just grunted in acknowledgement, while Takasugi gave a dull stare.

“Understood,” Katsura answered, nodding. “Goodnight, then.”

“’Night!”

When Tatsuma walked out of view and they heard a door open and shut, Katsura acted the fastest. In just a split second, Gintoki felt a hard knock on the top of his head and let out a loud yelp. “Ow! The fuck was that for, Zura?!” he complained, hands flying to the painful throb. Looking over, he saw that Takasugi had received the same treatment. Katsura was glaring at the both of them, his eyes narrowed dangerously.

“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura,” he hissed. “You two have better mind your manners from here on out. This fellow is the only person in this city capable of helping us, as far as we know it, and I won’t have the two of you harassing our only friend! Especially you, Gintoki!”

“Wha-?! What’d I do?!”

“A lot of things. And you know it.”

Gintoki rolled his eyes. “I can’t help it! He’s annoying! When I don’t like a guy, I act like I don’t like him, alright?”

“The moment he was frank with us, you immediately went and hurt him,” Katsura growled. Gintoki wavered at that, dropping his own glare. He couldn’t suppress that slight feeling of guilt as he chewed on his lip.

“Look, I was gonna apologize.”

“But you didn’t.” Katsura crossed his arms, standing over and eying his friends like a stern parent. “This is the last time I’ll say this—the two of you need to behave. He gave us a simple job. It might be the easiest job we’ve ever had.”

“What about the one where we shot that one guy in the face?” Takasugi muttered, but pressed his lips into a thin line with the other’s glare.

“It might be the easiest job we’ve ever had,” Katsura repeated firmly. “So I expect the two of you to stay out of trouble. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Mom—Katsura-sama!!” Gintoki quickly squeaked as Katsura raised his fist again.

“Good,” the latter huffed, glowering one last time before finally looking away toward the kitchen. “Now, let’s get some food and a good night’s sleep. At last.”

As Katsura made his way to the fridge, Takasugi got up with a weary sigh to follow him. Gintoki grudgingly did the same…though not before snatching the one full cup from the table and downing it. The cold water stinging his throat never felt more refreshing. As much as he hated to admit, those last few words sounded fantastic.

 

Gintoki awoke with a violent jolt, not a breath in him as his hand instinctively flew to the handle of his sword lying nearby. His eyes were wide, darting around but unable to find anything in the darkness. Anxiously, he risked a silent inhale. He’d remembered where he was after the initial shock—his friends had forced him to take the futon on the floor, not that he really cared. Speaking of them, he could hear the deep breathing nearby, with Katsura lightly snoring. That guy was probably drooling with his eyes wide open, as per usual.

Still, Gintoki didn’t relax. What the hell had woken him? When instincts jolted him awake like that, a shotgun barrel pointed to his face was never too far behind. His eyes finally wandered to the strip of pale light several steps away—the crack under the door—and his brow furrowed. There was only one realistic possibility…but what the hell was he doing at this hour? His suspicion roused, Gintoki carefully pulled off the covers and rose to his feet. He was soundless as an assassin as he snuck to the door and cracked it open as gently as possible.

The first thing he noticed was that the door to his left was wide open. It was still too dark to see into it but before he even needed to listen closely, he heard something very distinct down the hall.

The wind.

Narrowing his eyes, Gintoki limited his breathing as much as possible as he stepped out into the hall and sealed the door behind him. His mind was racing toward all the dangerous possibilities as he proceeded down the hall with caution…though after peeking around the corner, he honestly didn’t know what he expected.

Under the pale moonlight, Tatsuma stood leaning against the railing of the balcony. The glass doors leading to it were wide open, letting in the fierce wind. Despite this, he stood perfectly still, even with his hair billowing in the breeze. Gintoki stood frozen in place himself, squinting at Tatsuma’s back. What was the guy doing? Sleepwalking? But as he watched, Tatsuma shifted a little, and Gintoki realized that his head was tilted upward toward the sky.

Was he…stargazing?

For a while, Gintoki kept staring, a bit puzzled. Didn’t Tatsuma say he had work in the morning? Was he lying about that? Why’s he wasting time out there? Isn’t it freezing? But after a bit, Gintoki shook all these questions out of his head. Who cares? Standing where he was in the hallway, Gintoki was already starting to feel the chill blow right through him. He’d already had enough of this.

As the Vault Hunter was about to turn and leave, Tatsuma suddenly twitched, making him stiffen. Oh god, did he get noticed? But Gintoki’s concern was instantly dropped when Tatsuma simply let out a sneeze, which was followed by a shiver as he rubbed his arms vigorously for warmth. Despite the obvious discomfort, the merchant still stood there stubbornly, head tilted up. Gintoki blinked a few times before suppressing a scoff. What a dumbass, he thought as he slipped back into the dark.

The next time he awoke was when the front door clicked shut in the morning.

Chapter Text

By evening, it was almost a relief to hear fumbling at the front door. The television was on though the volume was reduced all the way down to white noise after everyone had grown bored of it about an hour ago. Gintoki, whose eyelids were slowly drooping as he sat alone on the couch, jerked awake again at the new noise.

“I’m home!” Tatsuma announced cheerily as he entered. Gintoki didn’t look over, digging his elbow into the armrest and resting his cheek in his palm as his eyes started the drooping cycle all over again.

“Nuuuh…”

“I bought some dinner!”

Alright, that woke him up. He sat upright abruptly and looked alert towards the door, just like a dog with its ears perked up. Tatsuma was carrying several bags of what looked like takeout in both hands and was evidently trying to maneuver his way inside using just his legs before Katsura, who had been in the kitchen, went in for the assist.

“Welcome back,” he greeted and gave a slight frown as he took some of the bags. “This is a lot of food.”

“Ahahaha! Yeah, I was gonna send ya an ECHO, but I realized I didn’t even have yer numbers yet,” Tatsuma answered sheepishly. “So I just bought whatever in the meantime. Think it’ll last fer a few days?”

“If I’m honest, they might be gone by this time tomorrow,” Katsura said after gauging the contents. Tatsuma laughed again.

“S’that so? That’s alright, I’ll go grocery shoppin’ next time.”

With a nod in acknowledgement, Katsura then looked to the living room. “Gintoki! Go get Takasugi.”

Gintoki groaned—after lying around and sulking all damn day, he felt rooted to the spot. But he had to move, regretfully, so he started pushing himself to his feet, whining in protest and making it seem like the biggest struggle in his life. Katsura was ignoring him on purpose, intently concentrated on unpacking the takeout, and Gintoki quickly dropped the act after making an unseen face at him.

He shambled over toward the balcony—the glass doors were closed, and Takasugi stood on the outside. The lone Vault Hunter was looking down at the ant-sized civilization, just where Gintoki had left him. Both of them had stood out there a little while ago, checking out the view, though looking at how high up they were made Gintoki sick to the stomach and he’d left immediately after that. Sure there wasn’t any fall damage, but if he ever fell from that distance he’d still be screaming the entire way down.

The sky was red now, though that was hard to tell until Gintoki walked close enough to see past the top of the skyscrapers. Stepping up to the glass, he raised his fists up and knocked on it repeatedly with both hands, just to be annoying. When Takasugi turned around, Gintoki wrinkled his nose and made the best stink face he could manage. His friend just rolled his eyes and went to slide open the doors, letting in a brief gust of wind.

“Can’t even see the sunset with all these damn buildings,” he muttered as he walked past Gintoki, who turned and followed.

“Think these people’re compensating for something, making ‘em so high?”

Takasugi scoffed. That was the closest to a laugh Gintoki could ever get out of him with his jokes.

The living room was the best place to eat, it seemed. Each of them held their own box of takeout in their laps, and the remaining ones were stacked on the coffee table in case anyone wanted seconds. It was a lot of food, Gintoki noted. But Katsura was probably right about it all lasting just one day. They went through food pretty quickly when they didn’t have to ration it. Gintoki’s box had neatly separated sections of rice, vegetables, and some kind of red meat—he cautiously sampled some of the latter, and raised his eyebrow. Not bad at all, especially after surviving off of the cheapest food they could find for a week.

“So,” Tatsuma spoke after a few bites, looking curiously between the Vault Hunters, “who’s gonna tell the first story today?” Without hesitation, both Katsura and Takasugi pointed at Gintoki who almost dropped his food.

“Pass!” he immediately objected.

“No passes,” Katsura sighed. “We drew straws fair and square.”

“Yeah, you lazy ass,” Takasugi huffed. “Don’t tell me you haven’t even thought of a story to tell yet?”

“Shut up! I have too!”

“Really? That’s great!” Tatsuma piped up. Gintoki looked at him and leaned away, really hating that hopeful grin he was giving. “I look forward to it.”

“I-I’ll tell it after we’re done eating, alright?! I wanna finish my food first!”

Tatsuma shrugged. “Whenever yer up fer it.” Gintoki glowered at him before quickly scarfing down some rice and ignoring everyone for the rest of the meal. He’d spent the whole day trying not to think about that part…he really didn’t want to go through with this stupid story telling bullshit. He couldn’t stand it. That’s all he kept telling himself as he ate, a dark grumpy cloud hanging over his head.

It was only after they’d all finished eating, cleaned up, and sat down again when Gintoki realized he’d made a mistake. As he sat in the middle of the couch, his friends on either side of him and Tatsuma on the armchair, all of them looking at him expectantly, he felt his stomach sink. Oh, god, why didn’t he just get it over with while they were eating and not all focused on him?! Now the atmosphere was awkward and utterly terrible. This wasn’t fair! He wanted a redo! But obviously, it was too late for that. Katsura nudged him on the arm gently.

“Go on,” he urged.

“Yeah, quit stalling,” Takasugi growled.

“Shut the hell up!” Gintoki snapped back at him. “I’m just thinking about how to start!” He let out a heated breath, sitting back in his seat and crossing his arms. His eyes wandered and accidently met Tatsuma’s curious gaze, and Gintoki averted his look as quickly as he could. Goddamnit. He took a few breaths and chewed his top lip for a moment longer. Just get it over with, he urged himself, though most of his mind rebelled against that thought. At last, after those few beats of silence, he sighed and opened his mouth.

“So…one time I punched a prince in the face,” he said.

…And then he shut his mouth again, still adamant about looking away from everyone. The silence returned, and it was really starting to feel unbearable.

“Why’d ya do that?” Tatsuma broke the awkward pause, blinking a few times. Gintoki shrugged.

“He was being a dick.”

“Ah.”

…And they lapsed into silence yet again. Gintoki scowled and shook his leg anxiously, feeling the tension crawling on his back like an army of ants.

“…This is the shittiest version of that story you’ve ever told,” Takasugi finally deadpanned.

Alright, that was it. Gintoki growled, getting to his feet. “I’m done.”

“That’s it?!” Katsura squawked, throwing his a bewildered look. “Gintoki, that was two sentences!”

“Screw off, alright?! That’s all I can manage!”

“You usually go on and on about that one,” Katsura insisted. “It’s a good story.”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Why not?”

“I’m just not!” Gintoki hissed, trying to edge past Katsura who grabbed the edge of his shirt.

“Gintoki!”

“Let go! I’m leaving!”

“Wait.” Gintoki froze at Tatsuma’s voice. He could feel the merchant’s stare on him, and Gintoki’s gaze flit to his direction several times, but never for more than a second. He didn’t want to look at him. He just wanted to leave, immediately. But Tatsuma opened his mouth again. “Kintoki…are ya embarrassed?”

Gintoki’s face suddenly went red, but he had an excuse to blame it on. “It’s Gin!! Get my damn name right, asshole!!” he yelled, turning to glare at Tatsuma…though he realized a second later that that was the wrong move, seeing that perceptive look in the merchant’s eyes. Tatsuma raised an eyebrow.

“You are, aren’t ya?” He gave a reassuring smile. “It’s alright, there’s nothin’ to be shy about!”

Gintoki narrowed his eyes dangerously, feeling the burning in his cheeks. “I’m not embarrassed!”

“Are ya sure?”

“I’m telling you, I’m not!!”

“Then what’s got ya so flustered?”

“I’m—!” Gintoki clenched his fists, feeling himself snap as he gnashed his teeth. “I don’t want to tell a story to a fucking idiot like you!!” he spat venomously, giving a piercing glare. His heart was pounding in his ears. He felt Katsura’s grip on his shirt tighten, but he didn’t care.

This was stupid. Everything about this was stupid, and he hated it. He just wanted to leave.

“…That’s fine.”

Gintoki blinked, realizing suddenly that Tatsuma hadn’t reacted. The merchant’s expression hadn’t changed—there was no sign of anger, no pain. Instead, as Gintoki stared…Tatsuma smiled warmly, just like he did at the police station. And similarly, Gintoki was once again taken aback with a sense of complete and utter bewilderment.

“If it makes ya that uncomfortable, then that’s fine. Ya don’t have to do it.” He looked to the other Vault Hunters. “Would you two mind takin’ over the stories, if that’s the case?”

“Of course we mind!” Takasugi snapped. “This bastard has no excuse—”

But Gintoki had grit his teeth and ripped his shirt out of Katsura’s grip. “Bye, then,” he breathed, darting into the hall.

“Gintoki, wait!!” Katsura called after him but he paid no heed, slamming the door to the guest room behind him.

For a while he just stood there, glaring at the ground in front of him. Catching his breath, calming his heart. He could still hear their muffled voices through the door, though he didn’t need to actually listen to know what they were talking about. Katsura was probably apologizing for him, Takasugi complaining…and then there was Tatsuma with his lighthearted laugh, gently reassuring them both. With his breaths slowing, Gintoki sat down. His brow was still furiously furrowed as he rested his chin on his arms.

He got out of it somehow, but…he didn’t feel as relieved as he should have. So many voices in his head were nagging at him—why did you say that? It wasn’t such a big deal. What’s wrong with you? Why did you have to go and lose your composure again? He shook his head furiously. Shut up, shut up, shut up!! He grabbed fistfuls of hair, seething at himself. It wasn’t like he was comfortable with this whole gig in the first place. The whole day, he’d been dreading it and thinking about ways to escape. And in the end, he did. But

That warm smile was stuck in his head. That stupid, shitty, ridiculous—Gintoki groaned under his breath. Why? Why was that bastard…so goddamn nice to him?? It just wasn’t logical. Gintoki hadn’t once even acted polite towards him, and yet…dropping his arms limply to his sides, he wearily closed his eyes. He didn’t like Sakamoto Tatsuma. He never did, and he never wanted to. He didn’t want to get along. He wasn’t here to make friends. He just wanted to get off this damn planet. Piling on the excuses, he tried to reassure himself. But nothing could stop him from feeling like garbage.

 

“Gintoki,” Katsura spoke to him the very next evening. Gintoki gave a grunt, continuing to lie around on his futon without moving. After a pause, Katsura sighed. “Look, I understand. Out of the three of us, you’ve always been the least fond of sharing with strangers. Maybe it was a mistake to force you to tell the first story. But…at least come out of the room and sit with us. We won’t make you do anything.”

Gintoki groaned, clutching his futon as if he was expecting someone to try and drag him outside. “No, it’s a pain,” he complained. “Go away.” Katsura huffed.

“Very well, then,” he said, and Gintoki saw him turn around and pause at the doorway with the corner of his eye. “I’m not closing the door for you.” Gintoki whined loudly, but Katsura was already out of the room.

“Is he alright?” he heard Tatsuma ask.

“Yes, please don’t mind him,” Katsura replied.

“He’s just being a whiny bitch,” Takasugi assured.

“I can hear you!” Gintoki shouted, his voice laced with irritation.

“Maybe if we ignore him enough, he’ll disappear for real,” Takasugi said, a little louder. “That’d save us some trouble.”

“Go to hell,” Gintoki snapped back. Tatsuma laughed.

“Now, now! Ya don’t gotta be so harsh to each other.”

“No, this is just how they are,” Katsura muttered. “You can’t stop them. I’ve been trying my whole life.”

“Ahahaha! Challenge accepted!”

There was a scoff, but when Katsura spoke again there was a smile in his voice. “I’d appreciate any help you could give. But all that aside for now, shall I begin tonight’s story?”

Lying down with his eyes wide open, Gintoki could do nothing but listen. Katsura described that one time the team got lost looking for a bandit camp. In the end, Gintoki had accidentally driven their car off a cliff and right into their destination, and the vehicle plummeted on top of a band of hostiles before exploding spectacularly. Exhaling through his nose, Gintoki found himself smirking into his pillow at the story. Ah, good times. He was quite fond of that memory himself.

It sounded lively in the living room—Takasugi was adding some more details from the event here and there, reminding Katsura of the parts that he failed to mention, and Tatsuma was laughing really hard above it all. It kind of felt like the audio version of looking in through the window at a warm family dinner…Gintoki shoved that thought aside before he could even dwell on it. With a rumble in his throat, he rolled over on the futon, wrapping himself tightly in the blanket. Ohhh no, he was not about to make himself feel all lonely about this. He didn’t care—he didn’t need to be sitting out there with those losers to listen to a story! Not that he was even trying to listen, don’t get the wrong idea!

But…secretly, Gintoki curled up, closed his eyes, and opened his ears as Katsura went on about how they conquered that bandit camp. The memory replayed vividly in his head alongside his friend’s words, and he grinned to himself. Maybe story time wasn’t so bad…from a distance, anyway.

 

This system continued smoothly for two more days—Katsura had forced Gintoki to help with preparing food for everyone, but the latter ate early and retreated into the guest room by the time Tatsuma returned home. He still left the door open, though. Listening to his friends tell stories was actually a little entertaining.

The thing was, that was only for a few minutes each day. For the rest of the time, Gintoki found himself getting bored near death. There was nothing to do. Lying around was boring, having nothing to chat about with his friends was boring, the television was boring—there was literally nothing interesting at all. Even outside seemed incredibly dull, not that he would even want to step foot out there ever again with all those judgmental rich assholes. And Gintoki’s heart sunk even more when he remembered.

Eight weeks. Eight weeks of this torturous lifestyle. God, just kill him now.

On one of the evenings, Takasugi had complained, and Tatsuma had promised that they could work out some activities during the weekend. Gintoki had something to say himself. And so on the next evening, instead of hiding out in the guest room like usual, he waited in front of the door. When Tatsuma stepped inside, he blinked at the Vault Hunter’s unexpected appearance.

“Heya, Kintoki!” he greeted with happy smile. Gintoki’s eye twitched.

“You’re doing that on purpose, aren’t you?”

“Huh? Doin’ what?”

“My name! Get it right already!! My hair’s silver, not gold!!”

Tatsuma stared at him for a moment…and then smiled widely with an astonished expression, as if he’d just had a huge revelation. “Ohhh!! Ahaha! That is a good way to remember it—I’ve never noticed!”

Gintoki gave him an incredulous look. How in the hell could—alright, never mind, he had to turn back before the topic got completely derailed. “Look, I wanted to ask you something.” Tatsuma seemed curious, and Gintoki narrowed his eyes slightly. “Do we really have to do this for eight whole weeks? That’s way too extensive, don’t you think? Couldn’t you do something like…cut that time in half, and do two stories every day? That’s the same thing, right?”

He saw a brief hesitation in Tatsuma’s eyes, but then the merchant let out a sheepish chuckle. “Sorry, I can’t agree to that.” Gintoki’s face fell.

“Oh, come on! Can’t we come to some sort of compromise?! I’m gonna be dead by the time we’re finished here—dead ‘cause my heart slowed to a stop from doing nothing all day!”

“Ah, that’s your problem? No worries! I told the others yesterday that we’ll plan somethin’ fun to do durin’ the weekend.”

“Yeah, actually I heard that too, but-”

“Don’t worry! You’ll be just fine!” Tatsuma laughed while patting Gintoki on the shoulder. The Vault Hunter squinted back at him.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Okay.”

Grumbling, Gintoki turned around, trudging back down the hall into the guest room. With his back turned, he didn’t see Tatsuma open and close his mouth before watching the Vault Hunter go with somewhat of a dejected expression. But then the merchant turned away himself, heading into the living room with a new smile.

“So! It’s Takasugi’s turn today, right?”

Gintoki fell on top of his futon with a grunt, face first. God, he was so fucking bored. Honestly, he felt like he was already at the end of his rope—any more of this, and he just might jump off that balcony for the terrifying thrill of it. Looking aside, he traced a senseless doodle on his sheets with a finger. Something fun during the weekend, huh…maybe he could hold off for that long, to the expectation that this “fun” that Tatsuma mentioned was worth it. But after that, what was next? A whole new week of nothing? God, he really couldn’t stand much more of this.

It might’ve been hypocritical to admit that the stories helped occupy his mind, but that was the truth. Maybe they were the only thing that had let him hold out for so long. But the thought of telling a story himself…it still made him cringe. Hard. He seriously didn’t like sharing anything about himself to someone he barely knew, much less any good memories. No, the only people that he’d ever really opened up to were his two childhood friends. And, of course, one other…but that was it. He honestly didn’t give a damn about anyone else at this point. It was too hard to trust new people in this day and age—or in any day and age, really.

It sounded like Takasugi was beginning his story soon, so Gintoki shoved the mess of thoughts away in his mind the best he could. Thank god, he needed a distraction before he started pondering the meaning of life. He heard Takasugi sigh.

“On one hot day, we were out exploring,” his friend began his story, “when we stumbled upon a house out in the middle of nowhere. In it, there lived an old lady and her dog…”

Gintoki felt his hair bristle at the memory in question that came flashing back to him. He clutched his pillow, seething inwardly—that fucking asshole!! That story was a terrible one, why in the world…?! Katsura was apparently unsettled as well, speaking up immediately.

“Takasugi, that one is…” he started, but Takasugi bluntly spoke again like he was expecting the interruption.

“So what? This guy said he wanted to know what’s out there. We can’t just omit all the bad parts, now can we?”

“But-”

“It’s alright,” Tatsuma reassured, and Katsura fell silent. “I wanna hear it.”

No you don’t, you idiot!! Gintoki thought furiously. Takasugi hummed in approval.

“The dreamer’s got some grasp on reality after all, huh,” he said, and Gintoki could just see that bastard’s smirk. “I like that.”

As Takasugi continued on with his story, Gintoki plugged his ears and grinded his teeth. Oh hell no, he was not going to relive that horrible memory. He had tried so hard to forget it before…but even with all of his efforts to keep it down, the memory began to resurface from the mere mention of it. And for a long while, Gintoki lay there not listening, wrestling with his mind to forget it again. But the damage had already been done.

After failing to silence his increasingly intrusive thoughts, Gintoki snapped. He let out a loud, annoyed groan that drowned out Takasugi’s voice, sprang to his feet, and stomped out of the guest room and into the living room. He didn’t care how far into the story they were—he was going to give that bastard a piece of his mind whether he liked it or not. All three of the others watched him confusedly as he marched into view. Gintoki ignored the other two and threw a glare at Takasugi.

“Fuck you!!”

His friend snorted, glaring back. “What’s your problem?”

My problem?! What’s your problem?! You can’t just talk about that day!!”

“Says who? You’re not even a part of this anymore.”

“I am too a part of this!! How the fuck am I supposed to sleep for the next few nights when that memory’s haunting me?!”

“Don’t care. Now shut up or get lost, I’m telling a story here.”

Gintoki was fuming, his fists clenching and unclenching. In his fury, he’d decided. With a few swift strides and a big step over the coffee table, he shoved his friend aside on the couch. “Move over, shithead. I’m telling the story today.” Takasugi clicked his tongue but oddly didn’t argue further for once, letting Gintoki have his seat.

Tatsuma was staring, but Gintoki ignored him. Somehow, none of that stage fright from last time bothered him anymore as he opened his mouth, beginning his own story—the proper story of when he punched that shitty asshole prince with his stupid-ass hawk hair in the face. He opened up that memory completely, poring over all of the details, starting from the top. He immersed himself all the way, enough to push away that other horrible story. Closing his eyes, he let the vivid visuals in his mind flow into words, describing everything as it came to him.

Back then the three Vault Hunters had split up for a while and gone their own ways, individually searching for any lead on the Vaults, and Gintoki happened to land on a certain planet during his quest. He spoke of how beautiful the capital was; the charming brick roads, a majestic looming castle, and the bluest sky he’d ever seen. But as a downside, corrupt politics were all over the place. He spoke of all the emotions that had come to his mind as he wandered that country alone, witnessing beauty and tyranny all in one. Until, finally, one prince and all his actions managed to tip the scale and majorly piss him off. Gintoki left nothing out as he explained how he broke into the fortified castle, rushing past all the guards with nothing but the sword at his side against their heavy artillery, fighting up to the top level where the prince resided…and punching that piece of shit through a wall. He described his daring escape after that, jumping out a window and outrunning an entire army, diving into the spacecraft that Katsura and Takasugi had piloted over after he’d sent them an SOS ECHO message to come rescue his ass. He’d been injured to the point of almost bleeding out, and their spacecraft had almost exploded from enemy fire and killed them all, but somehow it all worked out in the end.

And it was fucking worth it.

Gintoki had no idea how long he talked, but by the end his throat was raw. When his last few words trailed off, a silence followed. Cautiously, he cracked open his eyes, suppressing a cough. The first thing he saw was Tatsuma, staring at him with the widest eyes, and Gintoki blinked a couple of times before the gravity of what he’d just spent possibly hours talking about finally sunk in.

“Now that,” Katsura spoke up, breaking the stunned silence, “was the best version of that story you’ve ever told.” As if the Vault Hunter’s voice broke the trance, Tatsuma suddenly beamed with his brightest smile yet, his eyes full of stars.

“That was amazing, Gintoki!!”

“Ah-…u-uh, well…” Gintoki cleared his throat and looked away, his face burning with a blush that reached his ears. “Th-thanks…I guess?” Tatsuma was a ball of excited energy, leaning in eagerly.

“All of that really happened?! That’s incredible! Yer incredible! How did ya even-?!”

“Hey, could you shut up for a minute and get me some water?” Gintoki groaned, though it came out more like a croak. Tatsuma paused, then let out a giggle.

“Sure, sure! Comin’ right up!”

“Hey,” Takasugi mumbled once Tatsuma had headed over to the kitchen, “you really overdid it, you know. That guy’s practically bouncing off the walls now.”

“And whose fault is that?!” Gintoki hissed, though immediately regretted it with the pain in his throat.

“Don’t go blaming me for this, dumbass.”

“But isn’t this fine?” Katsura hummed after watching Tatsuma for a bit. He smiled to his friends. “He’s the happiest we’ve ever seen him thanks to you, Gintoki. I knew you had it in you to do something nice.” Gintoki scoffed.

“Idiot, I was doing it for myself! Don’t get the wrong idea!”

“Yes, yes, whatever you say,” Katsura sighed. He kept eying Gintoki with a smile though, and Gintoki just rolled his eyes and faced away. When Tatsuma returned with a cup of water, he grabbed it and graciously gulped it down.

“Unfortunately, I’ve decided,” Tatsuma spoke up with a grin, “I ain’t gonna let ya opt out anymore, Gintoki. Not after that.” The Vault Hunter grumbled into his cup.

“That’s fine,” he huffed, surprising himself at how easily those words tumbled out as he gazed at their host nonchalantly. “But don’t expect me to put in that much effort again. I’m tired as hell, y’know.” Tatsuma chuckled.

“Fair enough.”

Gintoki averted his eyes, continuing to hold the cup up to his lips to hide his still-red cheeks. Well…it honestly wasn’t so bad, now that he’d actually done it. And in that moment, he’d realized why. There was something pure about Tatsuma’s starry-eyed smile that washed away the worries plaguing his mind, bringing to him a clear cut reason on why he was so reluctant in the first place…though he kept that thought to himself, tucking it in the back of his head.

Well, on top of that, there was also the fact that the guy was finally getting his name right. Gintoki sighed through his nose. Yeah, maybe he’d survive this job after all.

 

In the dead of night, Gintoki gently pushed the door to the guest bedroom open and squinted in irritation at Tatsuma’s open door. Goddamn it, again? He couldn’t fucking believe this.

Every single night. Every single night so far, he had been jolted awake by Tatsuma going out on the balcony. Gintoki knew this because he couldn’t just go back to sleep with the hair-raising alarm that came with waking—he’d had to sneak out from the guest room to have a look every time just to quell his paranoia. Seriously, what the hell was that guy doing? Was he actually sleepwalking? Or did he just never fucking sleep?

This time around, Gintoki peeked around the corner and yep, there Tatsuma was, out on the balcony. The Vault Hunter suppressed an exasperated groan. Rolling his eyes, he turned away, about to return to the guest room again just like he did for the past two nights…when a sound caught his attention. He blinked, stopping himself, and slowly looked back around the corner.

Tatsuma had his elbows propped atop of the railing, and was resting his chin in his palm. Gintoki heard the sound again. It was hard to catch it under the howling wind, but it was there—the sound of Tatsuma humming gently to himself.

With a frown, Gintoki felt compelled to stay and watch for a bit longer, his eyes glued on the strange man. One thing was for sure now—Tatsuma wasn’t sleepwalking. He was definitely conscious and sneaking out every night to stargaze on the balcony. But…why? When it was so cold and uncomfortable, not to mention late, who in their right mind would do this? Gintoki felt the urge to go over and ask him what he hell he was doing up at this hour every night, but shook his head at himself. No, it was none of his business. And he really didn’t care, anyway, if the guy was getting enough sleep, or if he felt cold, or if anything was bothering him, or if he was having trouble falling asleep, or—Gintoki shook his head harder. He didn’t care!! He didn’t care one bit!! That guy was a grown ass man, living in his own place; he could take care of himself. And anyway, what was with the humming this time around? Gintoki continued to stare and listen, his mind wandering to that evening, when a thought occurred to him.

Was Tatsuma…still in a good mood from his story?

…Nah, couldn’t be. Gintoki felt embarrassed just from thinking that, resisting the urge to punch himself in the face. God, he’d had enough of this! He was going back to bed and never thinking about this ever again. He snuck back to the room…though not until after he gazed at Tatsuma’s back for a moment longer, listening to the faint sound of his voice. It was a peaceful scene, lingering on the Vault Hunter’s mind as he climbed back into bed and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Even soft plush could hurt, given enough force behind it. Gintoki grunted when a pillow smashed into his face at the speed of a rushing car, connecting hard enough to make a loud whump. With his eyes still stubbornly closed, he opened his mouth to start shouting profanities when the pillow connected again.

“Stop, asshole!!” was all he managed to get out before it hit again, and Gintoki sputtered to get the taste of linen out of his mouth.

“It’s lunchtime; get the hell up,” Takasugi growled above him before another pillow hit landed.

“So what?!” Yet another hit got Gintoki in the face, and he hissed and rolled onto his side, away from his friend. “Five minutes!! Five more minutes, Mom!!”

There was a familiar laugh nearby, and suddenly Gintoki jolted awake, eyes popping wide open. “Sheesh, Gintoki, do ya sleep this late every day?” questioned Tatsuma’s voice. “Skippin’ breakfast is bad fer your health, y’know!”

“Sh-…” Gintoki did a one-eighty, flipping onto his other side and then propping himself up to throw Tatsuma a glare. “Shut up!! Why should I be conscious that early when there’s nothing for me to look forward to in the waking world?!” Takasugi whacked him in the face with the pillow again.

“It’s the weekend, dumbass,” he deadpanned. “We’re supposed to plan something, remember?”

“Yep! Just as Takasugi-kun says,” Tatsuma said with a smile. “We’ve discussed a bit already, but we need your input too.”

Gintoki couldn’t help himself from glaring daggers at the merchant. He was in their room. He was in Gintoki’s safe place…which was this room. Tatsuma wasn’t allowed to come in here! Granted, this was his home and he had every right to be anywhere in it, but that was beside the point!! Tatsuma tilted his head at the Vault Hunter.

“Yer squintin’. Did’ja not sleep well last night?” he asked innocently, and Gintoki’s eye twitched. Though the Vault Hunter was obviously just glaring, Tatsuma was right, actually—he hadn’t been able to sleep well any night, and guess whose fault that was?! After Tatsuma kept up his blank look, Gintoki gave an agitated grumble and shoved the covers off of himself. It was no use—this guy would never catch onto subtly like this.

“Fine, I’m getting up. So go away,” he said, eying both of them. Takasugi rolled his eyes, tossing his pillow back onto the bed.

Three minutes, or I’m coming back to kick your ass.”

“As if you could.”

Takasugi’s eyes narrowed and he made to take a threatening step closer when Tatsuma slid in his way and turned him around by the shoulders. “Alriiight! We’ll be waitin’, Gintoki!” he called back cheerily, seeming oblivious to Takasugi’s glare as well. Gintoki watched them go with an irritated frown. Tatsuma was really taking on that pacifist role like he said he would, huh. How brave of him. Not waiting around to have Takasugi come back to start a fight and probably break everything in the house in the process, Gintoki clawed his way out of bed to do his (after-)morning routine.

After he sauntered out of the bathroom, suppressing a yawn, he made his way down the hall where everyone was waiting. Katsura had prepared food this time around—Gintoki could tell because there was a plate riceballs sitting on the counter. He snatched one of them as he passed, taking a big bite out of it. Evidently, everyone else had just finished eating—there were some dirty plates on the coffee table. Takasugi stood by the balcony doors, his arms crossed as he gazed outside. Katsura and Tatsuma were sitting on either side of the couch, watching news on the television. The latter actually seemed mildly interested in the broadcast, while Katsura’s eyes wandered immediately as he sensed movement in his peripheral.

“Good morning,” he greeted with a small smirk. Gintoki grunted and strode over to the couch.

“Move over,” he commanded around his mouthful of food, the mumbled words coming out as gibberish to strangers’ ears.

Katsura blinked. “Why? The middle seat’s free.” Gintoki’s gaze lowered down to the middle of the couch, moved briefly to Tatsuma, then landed back on his friend with a hint of protest. Katsura released an exasperated huff. “Just sit down.”

Rolling his eyes, Gintoki reluctantly listened, plopping down between the two. Luckily, it didn’t seem like Tatsuma had been paying attention to that brief squabble, only reacting as the sofa shifted. “Gintoki!”

The Vault Hunter glanced at his smiling face for a moment before he stared forward at the television screen, avoiding eye contact from anyone. “Hey,” was the only clear thing he got out after swallowing his food before he took another big bite out of his riceball. “So, what’s the plan?”

“We’ve come up with a few activities even you might like,” Katsura, the one who could understand his mumblings, answered. Gintoki raised an eyebrow. Really. In this city? He was as doubtful as he was curious. His friend smiled at his expression and looked to their host. “Sakamoto?”

“Well,” said Tatsuma, “I heard you guys like to go out drinkin’ and partyin’.” Gintoki shot him a look, swallowing down his food.

“Yeah, except you have to be…a thousand years old to drink legally here, right?”

Tatsuma laughed at that. “Not a thousand!” Before Gintoki could snap at him and point out the obvious exaggeration, the Vault Hunter paused in surprise when the corners of Tatsuma’s lips curled to form a shrewd grin. “But technically, yes. We’re all too young to drink here…unless ya know where to go.” Gintoki blinked at him.

“Wait, wait, are you telling me you know a place we can go?! Without getting arrested?!”

“The law ain’t as absolute as ya think it is. No matter how much they try to make it so, people always find ways around it. ‘Specially when there’s a high demand fer somethin’ illegal.” Their host sat up and crossed his arms proudly. “I’ve lived here all my life—I know all the secrets there are to havin’ a good time without gettin’ caught.”

Gintoki stared, his mouth hanging open. Alright, he wasn’t expecting it, but he was actually feeling interested about this. It’d crossed his mind to say a compliment, but he was too busy excitedly standing up and stuffing as much riceball into his mouth as he could. “What’re we waiting for, then?! Let’s get going!” was what he was trying to say, but it all came out a garbled mess. Tatsuma looked to Katsura curiously.

“He said ‘thanks for suggesting this’,” Katsura said while giving Gintoki a hard look, “and ‘let’s go’.”

“Oh! No problem,” Tatsuma spoke cheerily, smiling towards Gintoki who was glaring at Katsura. “Though before we go, we’ve gotta do somethin’ ‘bout those looks of yours.”

Gintoki shot him an irritated stare as he managed to chew up his mouthful. “Hah?! What’s wrong with how I look?!”

“He means all of us, Gintoki,” Katsura sighed. “And, to put it bluntly, we look like a group of bandits compared to everyone else here. You also want them to not stare at us every time we set foot outside, right?”

Gintoki opened and closed his mouth. Oh…come to think of it, yeah. It’d never occurred to him to find a way to blend in—he’d just assumed that those jerks would’ve kept staring forever no matter what the Vault Hunters did. “So…what should we do, get some new clothes? I don’t suppose you have a quick change station in your room? Sounds like something rich people would buy for themselves.”

Tatsuma laughed. “Unfortunately, that’s one luxury I don’t have. Those kinds of things’re saved fer the workplace and such ‘round here. People like to do their shoppin’ the old fashioned way, anyway.” Gintoki’s face dropped.

“Wait, seriously?! Who the hell goes clothes shopping for fun?”

“Boring people with too much time on their hands,” Takasugi grumbled. He’d quietly slipped over to them while they were talking and taken a seat on the armchair.

“It seems like a nice activity,” Katsura argued against his friends, “not much different from us going gun or parts shopping.”

“Except I buy my guns and get out, simple as that,” Takasugi said nonchalantly, leaning against the armrest. “Nothing fun about it.”

“And I don’t even use guns. Sure is fun staring at dirt while waiting for you two to hurry the fuck up and buy your shit,” Gintoki added, wrinkling his nose as he stuffed the last of his riceball into his mouth.

Katsura gave a dull look and let out a sigh. “Well I, for one, can find joy in parts shopping. Surely that feeling is similar for those people.” Tatsuma giggled, giving Gintoki and Takasugi a smile.

“I think I’ve got an easy solution, if ya fellas ain’t so willin’ to shop fer new clothes,” he said. “Y’can try on some of mine instead! I’ve got a lotta choices in my room. If ya find somethin’ that fits, then that’s problem solved.” Gintoki nearly choked while trying to scoff with his mouth full. He held a hand to his mouth as he chewed furiously to regain his ability to say comprehensible words.

Your clothes? Yeah, no, pretty sure they’re not gonna fit us. I mean, maybe Zura, but the rest of us…and anyway, your stuff doesn’t look like anything I’d wanna wear,” he said as he eyed Tatsuma’s clothes with slight distaste.

“Yeah, he’s right, it’s too classy for him,” Takasugi snorted. “This guy only likes to wear rags he finds on the ground.”

“Hey, I do not!! Shut up, you!”

Katsura cleared his throat. “If you’re alright with that, Sakamoto, then it’s worth a try. At the very least, there ought to be some article of clothing we could borrow. It’s either that or clothes shopping.” He gave his friends a meaningful look. “What will it be?” The other two met his eyes for a moment before turning their heads away in different directions and grumbling.

“Then it’s settled! We’ll go take a look when yer all ready,” Tatsuma said brightly. They all looked to Gintoki, who glanced back at each of them and shrugged.

“I’m good.”

 

The first thing Gintoki noticed when they filed into Tatsuma’s room was that it was about the same size as the guest room—quite tidy, and basically as simple as any other room in the apartment. It was void of decorations, save some picture frames on the nightstand and poster of spaceships on the wall. Tatsuma wasn’t one for many embellishments, it seemed. His bed sat against the far wall with a bedside table standing next to it. On the right wall was a closet, and on the left was a dresser. There was another door next to the dresser, open just a crack, and it was enough for Gintoki to see that it was another bathroom.

Tatsuma strode over to the closet. “Feel free to look through that,” he called back at the others, gesturing at the dresser. The Vault Hunters complied after a moment of gazing around.

Surprisingly, it only took a minute of looking through a drawer for Katsura to find something. His eyes lit up as he pulled a shirt out and turned to Tatsuma. “Sakamoto, this…”

Tatsuma turned around and blinked, letting out a surprised laugh. The shirt was a simple white one with a print of some kind of fluffy animal’s face in the bottom corner, with perked up ears and four big innocent eyes. “Ah, yeah, my sister got it fer me a while ago,” the merchant giggled. “I wear it sometimes, but you can borrow it if ya want.” Gintoki knew from the shine in Katsura eyes that he was already dead set on this one, regardless of if it fit well or not.

“Thank you very much!”

Rolling his eyes, Gintoki kept searching. After a long while of digging with increasing disinterest, he and Takasugi exchanged tired looks and just chose something at random to try on. It went about as well as he expected—these clothes hardly fit at all. The shirt was tight on his arms and shoulders, and it felt like if he moved too much he’d rip it apart. Takasugi, on the other hand… Gintoki tried but failed to stop himself from bursting out into hysterical laughter when he saw how the pants Takasugi had chosen were too long to even see his feet. This resulted in Takasugi punching him in the face, and the next thing anyone knew they were wrestling on the floor.

“Hey!! Break it up!” Katsura shouted, scrambling to intervene. He’d managed to pry them apart after a bit of yelling and struggling, and by then Tatsuma had also flitted to their side, a perplexed look on his face.

“What’s gotten into you guys?” he asked. Takasugi glowered at everyone before grabbing his clothes, getting up, and shoving past the merchant.

“I’ll just wear my normal clothes,” he growled as he passed.

“Oh…okay,” Tatsuma murmured, watching him leave the room. Once he’d gone, Tatsuma threw a look to the others. “So, what happened?” Gintoki had to cover his mouth to suppress a loud snort.

“T-too…short,” he managed to wheeze. Tatsuma blinked a couple of times, before he suddenly let out a loud burst of laughter. This almost made Gintoki start right up again, but Katsura sprung up covered both of their mouths in a flash.

“Please don’t,” he breathed. Tatsuma made a couple of muffled noises until he seemed to get ahold of himself. He made an “okay” signal, and Katsura pulled his hands from the both of them. Gintoki continued to snicker quietly to himself, and Katsura sighed and shook his head at everyone’s behavior. He quickly spoke up to change the subject before any full blown laughter started up again. “Gintoki, did you find what you needed?”

Gintoki looked over, confused for a second before his mind got back on track. “Right.” He grimaced as he moved his shoulders. “It’s tight up here.”

“Hmm…” Tatsuma crossed his arms and tilted his head thoughtfully. “How ‘bout a tank top? I know I’ve got some of those. And I think I’ve got a bigger jacket hangin’ somewhere…lemme go look!”

As Tatsuma wandered back to the closet, Gintoki grumbled and pulled off the shirt. “Shouldn’t I just wear my normal clothes too?” Katsura, who had taken up the task of looking through the drawer to help his friend, frowned at him.

“Takasugi’s clothes might pass as neat enough, but yours are quite old and worn by now, aren’t they? I think they would be noticed out there.” Gintoki opened his mouth to complain when Katsura shoved a black tank top into his arms. “Don’t fret, Gintoki! Even if this doesn’t work, we’ll find something that does.”

“Yeah, but it’s a pain,” Gintoki grouched, pulling the cloth over his head. Once he got it on, he wiggled his shoulders. Well…this was a little better, he had to admit. It was a bit more comfortable without anything restraining his movement, and nothing felt like it was going to tear apart anywhere.

“Well? How is it?” Katsura asked. Before Gintoki could answer, Tatsuma spoke from behind.

“Here ya go, try this o-…” he’d trailed off, and Gintoki turned to look at him questioningly. Tatsuma had on somewhat of a blank expression, just sort of staring for a moment. Gintoki blinked—was there something on him? He felt his face then looked down at himself, searching his bare arms and then tugging the tank top a little to check for stains, but found nothing.

“What?” he finally questioned, looking back at Tatsuma. The latter seemed to snap out of it at the sound of Gintoki’s voice, shaking his head. A sheepish laugh escaped him.

“I-it’s nothin’! Here,” he said, averting his eyes as he hastily offered up the jacket in his hands.

“Uh…thanks,” Gintoki muttered, taking it hesitantly. He eyed Tatsuma—he seemed a bit flustered for some reason…but anyway. Katsura was looking back and forth between the two of them but Gintoki ignored his gaze, focusing on the subject at hand. It was a pretty fancy-looking jacket, high-collared and intricately stitched. Surprisingly, he found it a little stylish…just a little, though. He didn’t take long to look at it, pushing his arms through the sleeve holes. It was still a bit tight around his shoulders, but much more bearable than the previous shirt. He adjusted it a little, then turned to Katsura. “How’s this?”

“Not bad,” his friend answered thoughtfully.

“Yeah! You’ll fit right in like that,” Tatsuma exclaimed with a smile, brushing off his strange behavior from earlier as if it never happened.

“Great, so are we done then?” Gintoki questioned. “Can we go?”

Tatsuma paused, then nodded slowly. “I guess ya all can wear yer own pants,” he hummed. “It’s pretty hard to find the right size fer those, after all.”

Now you say that,” Takasugi growled from the doorway, and all three of them looked towards him. He was wearing his regular clothes again, but Gintoki immediately had to press his lips into a thin line to stop a snicker from escaping him. Takasugi narrowed his eyes. “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say shit!”

“It’s a bit early to go out drinkin’,” muttered Tatsuma, clearly still on the same train of thought as before. He looked up at the others with a light in his eyes. “Why don’t we go sightseein’ fer a little while? I did say I’d give ya some tours around this place.”

“Uh, I’d rather stay here and wait,” Gintoki grumbled, but Katsura placed a hand on his shoulder.

“No, this would be a good opportunity to see if we fit in with the crowd like this,” he said, looking each of them in the eye. “Don’t you think so?”

“Hey, yer right, Zura!” Tatsuma exclaimed.

“Not Zura, it’s Katsura.”

But Tatsuma didn’t hear him, already at the doorway and energetically pushing Takasugi out into the hall. “C’mon, c’mon! Let’s head out!”

Takasugi hissed, his voice dripping venom. “Hands. Off.”

“Yeesh, yer both real touchy ‘bout that, huh? Ahaha! Pun not intended!”

“I’ll kill you.”

The two disappeared down the hall, the remaining two listening to Tatsuma’s laughter and Takasugi’s growls. Gintoki raised an eyebrow at Katsura, who was suppressing a chuckle. “Even Takasugi can’t intimidate him. He really seems comfortable with having us around,” the latter noted with an amused smile.

Too comfortable, if you ask me,” Gintoki grumbled. Katsura shrugged.

“He’s an interesting fellow, is all I’m saying,” he said, nudging his friend forward. “Let’s go.”

His words really got Gintoki thinking, though. Why was Tatsuma so damn comfortable around them? They hadn’t even stayed at his house a week yet. They were acquaintances at best, but the relaxed way he’d been acting made it seem like he’d known the Vault Hunters all his life. Tatsuma hardly knew anything about the trio, outside of the little snippets of memories that they’ve told him about thus far. But even before they’d started the job, he was just so…friendly. So trusting of them. Like, why the hell would he give his full name right off the bat to an unfamiliar group of crummy-looking bandits?

Calling him naïve felt like a mistake. After all, the Vault Hunters still didn’t know much about Tatsuma, either. They knew that he had a father. And a sister, apparently. And a mother who was long gone. But, Gintoki realized, they didn’t know much about Tatsuma himself. Somehow the man didn’t seem to express much of himself, despite how…expressive he was. And why was it so damn hard to tell what he was thinking?

Well, it wasn’t like Gintoki was eager to ask him about himself. Though this mix of curiosity and suspicion was really eating at him, the Vault Hunter had no choice but to suck it up.

Chapter Text

“Oryou-chan~!!” The Vault Hunters jumped at Tatsuma’s spontaneous exclamation the moment they stepped into the bar. The man strode towards the counter, his arms outstretched. “I’ve returned!”

The bartender, a woman with a head of light brown hair and rosy cheeks, turned to him with a typical polite service smile on her lips. “Oh my, if it isn’t Sakamoto-san. It’s been a while since we’ve seen ya here.” Tatsuma had on a goofy grin as he leaned over.

“I know! I’ve missed ya so, Oryou-chan! How ‘bout it—will ya marry me this time?”

The Vault Hunters exchanged weird looks, and Oryou’s smile twitched subtly. She leaned forward herself. “No thank you! But if ya ask more nicely next time, I just might consider.” Tatsuma laughed, rubbing the back of his head.

“Aw! Ya always say that, ya tease. Alright, I won’t give up!”

Gintoki scoffed quietly. “Is he for real?” he muttered under his breath before Katsura elbowed him in the arm. Oryou leaned to the side to look past Tatsuma’s head, blinking at the additional guests.

“Oh? Are these gentlemen with you, Sakamoto-san?”

“Sure are!” Tatsuma turned around smiling broadly at the trio as he motioned them over. “Come on in, you guys! I’d like ya to meet Oryou-chan, my future wife!” Oryou kept up her service smile, but subtly shook her head at them while Tatsuma’s back was turned to her.

“Huh, well ain’t this a surprise. Nice ta meet ya all!”

“Pleased to meet you too,” said Katsura.

“Uh, yeah,” Gintoki added. Takasugi made a bored noise.

Tatsuma was beaming, hands on his hips. “Alright, fellas. Drinks’re on me, so let’s have a good time!” Oryou raised an eyebrow at him.

“Really now?” She turned to the Vault Hunters with a more enthusiastic service smile. “Feel free ta order whatever ya want! I can whip up anythin’, ya know.”

“Yeah!” Tatsuma cheered, and Gintoki let out a huff. Yeah, this woman was playing him. Hard. Honestly, it was hard to believe that Tatsuma hadn’t caught on to that already. Or maybe he knew, and just didn’t care. Either way, Gintoki sure wasn’t going to point it out when they were getting free drinks.

The “tour” around the city that day hadn’t been as bad as he’d expected it to be. It was actually nice to get some fresh air from somewhere other than the balcony that was usually accompanied by fierce winds. The biggest factor, he supposed, was that the staring crowds were completely gone. Well, mostly. As they walked around, Gintoki had noticed a few people pause with the corner of his eye. At first, he’d thought that their “disguises” weren’t working well enough. But after glancing at these spectators, it was clear that they weren’t staring at the Vault Hunters.

They were staring at Tatsuma.

There weren’t that many of these people, but every time Gintoki saw one staring, his curiosity rose. What the hell were they looking at? He had the urge to walk up to them and demand an answer. Tatsuma himself didn’t seem to acknowledge the attention—just like that night, when he had first led the Vault Hunters to his apartment. He’d continued on, chatting away about the buildings that the group passed by. Gintoki tried to ignore it as well but every time a person stopped and stared, he couldn’t help but get distracted. A lot of the time, he stayed deep in thought, hardly paying attention to Tatsuma’s tour.

Was it because these people had seen Tatsuma leading the Vault Hunters around a few nights ago? But in that case, wouldn’t they have recognized the Vault Hunters, too? There was no way these nicer clothes made them completely unrecognizable—that’d be worse than how people couldn’t recognize undercover superheroes! And on top of that, Gintoki’s silver hair had quite the reputation of standing out. Like hell people would fail to recognize him after the first encounter.

So what was with the attention towards Tatsuma, and Tatsuma alone? Was he famous or something? That felt unlikely, seeing his lifestyle. If anything, these people were acting more like how they did toward the…Vault Hunters…

For a long while, Gintoki mostly stared at Tatsuma’s back, deep in thought. Why? Isn’t he just another one of you rich people? That was the question he knew he couldn’t just up and ask these strangers. He would’ve pondered for the entire day…but then he spotted a sweets shop that completely derailed his thoughts and replaced them with the urge to run in and grab every piece of candy. It took the others a few steps to realize that he had fallen behind and they turned to find him gawking at the storefront. Laughing, Tatsuma offered to buy him something, though Katsura and Takasugi both warned the merchant to keep it minimal.

Needless to say, Gintoki was too busy happily munching on strawberry chocolates for the rest of the tour to concentrate on his long lost train of thought.

Now, the sky had turned orange and pink as the sun set in the horizon (which was still impossible to see in the jungle of skyscrapers), and the four had decided to settle in a round booth. The place had a couple of patrons lounging about already, even though the bar had only just opened for the evening. Their faces were surprisingly young—looking even younger than Gintoki and the others. One group of what appeared to be teenage boys were staring, their gazes following Tatsuma and the Vault Hunters until the latter group disappeared from view. Gintoki had stared back, reminded briefly of his train of thought. But then he bumped into someone, turned his head to stare at a giggling Tatsuma, and realized that while distracted, he’d scooted in way too far.

“There sure are a lot of young people here,” Katsura noted as Gintoki scrambled furiously to the outer edge of the booth and guzzled his drink.

“Yep,” said Tatsuma, sitting back in his seat. “Actually, it’s ‘cause of them that this place hasn’t been cracked down on. Some prestigious rich kids really like to hang out here.”

“I see, so these brats bribe the cops to look the other way, huh,” Takasugi scoffed in a low voice. “This country just bleeds money, doesn’t it?”

Tatsuma gave a somewhat dispirited hum in response, but looked between the Vault Hunters with a new cheery look. “But hey, enough of that talk! We came here to have a good time, so go ahead and drink up!” On that note, Gintoki slammed down his already empty glass, making everyone jump.  They were all silent for a second as he glanced at each person at the booth, then slowly got up.

“I’m getting another.”

“Hey, Gintoki! Take it slow!” Katsura called, exasperated. His friend waved without looking back.

“Yeah, yeah!”

Oryou was waiting for him at the bar, an eyebrow raised high. “Back so soon?” she teased. Gintoki smirked, leaning over the counter.

“You bet,” he said. “Gimme something stronger this time…and sweeter.”

The woman hummed thoughtfully. “Stronger, huh? The night’s still young, ya know.”

Gintoki scoffed, waving her off. “I can handle it, lady!” Oryou giggled, and her service smile was tinged with slight amusement.

“Whatever ya say. Think I’ve got just the drink for ya—one moment.”

As she set to work, fluidly grabbing a clean glass from under the counter and ingredients off of the shelves, Gintoki stood by and watched his companions as he waited. The three of them were already chatting without him, though Takasugi was sipping his drink more than actually speaking. Katsura and Tatsuma seemed to be hitting it off well. Those two got along nicely somehow…Katsura was the polite one of the bunch, so it wasn’t that unusual. But compared to the start, he seemed to have gained a bit of warmth to go along with his manners.

“Y’know, I’m a little surprised,” Oryou spoke, and Gintoki looked back at her to see that she’d followed his gaze. She gave the Vault Hunter a curious smile. “How didja meet Sakamoto-san?”

Gintoki felt himself break out into cold sweat, but did his best to keep the panic internal. “U-uh, well,” he stuttered a little, wincing at himself, “he kinda just…crashed into me with his hovercraft one day.” Well, it wasn’t a lie, but blurting out something this true made his panic rise. To his relief, it wasn’t at all suspicious to Oryou as she giggled in response.

“Geez, that person really is a magnet for trouble, huh,” she sighed. “Surprised ya ended up as friends after somethin’ like that. I would’a thought you’d sue the pants off’a him.” Gintoki paused a second before understanding. Oh right, suing. The rich people alternative of beating the shit out of someone.

“Yeah, well technically I got him to pay up for it,” he admitted, still feeling a little bit anxious that he may have been oversharing—as long as he stayed vague like this, maybe it would be fine. It seemed to satisfy Oryou.

“Haha! Good on ya,” she laughed. She was looking down now, pouring his drink from the cocktail shaker into a thin glass and working to garnish it. “The point I was gettin’ at, though—I just found it weird he suddenly brought so many friends here with him. That fella always comes ‘round here by himself. Not even one wingman! Ya’d think, with how much he tries ta hit on me, he’d bring some help at some point! ‘Specially since he ain’t any good at it at all!” She giggled, then covered her mouth, giving Gintoki a sheepish look. “Er, don’t tell him I said that. Sorry for blabberin’ so much—here ya go.” She placed the completed cocktail up on the counter.

Gintoki blinked. He opened his mouth and hesitantly formed a few soundless shapes before settling on a standard, “Thanks.” This woman might’ve had answers to some of his confusion, but he didn’t know or trust her enough to ask about any of his concerns. Instead, he just grabbed his drink and went on his way.

“Lemme know how it tastes!” Oryou called after him.

“Did she say anythin’ about me?” Tatsuma immediately asked when Gintoki slid into the booth, interrupting whatever Katsura was saying. It took a moment and a blank stare from Gintoki to get what he was talking about.

“Actually, yeah,” he admitted, and Tatsuma’s eyes lit up.

“Really?!” He leaned in a little, looking hopeful, but Gintoki rolled his eyes and spoke first.

“Can’t tell you.”

As expected, Tatsuma’s face fell. “Aww!! Ya got my hopes up, though!”

“Quit yelling in my ear, you loud idiot,” Gintoki grumbled, pointedly turning his head away and raising his new drink to his lips. Before he took a sip, he threw Katsura a look. “Anyway, were you telling today’s story without me?! Asshole! Start from the top again!”

“You were there, shithead,” Takasugi snapped. “You know exactly how it happened.”

“Shut up, I don’t care!! Point is you pricks started it without me!”

Katsura’s laugh drew his attention. “Gintoki, since when did you get so invested in the stories? You were the most reluctant to participate out of all of us, after all.”

“I-” Gintoki felt his face heat up. “I mean—listening’s fine! Telling a story’s what bothers me!” He was still trying to sound furious while at the same time avoiding everyone’s gazes.

“Evidently, more than ‘fine’,” Takasugi said, glowering at him. “Manchild.”

“The fuck’d you just call me?! Hey!! Quit laughing, bastards!!” That second part was directed to the other two—Katsura was partially muffling himself with his hand but Tatsuma was straight up guffawing, being no doubt the loudest person in the room.

“Alright then,” Katsura spoke when he calmed himself down, though the humor remained plastered on his face. “Gintoki, I’ll start over again just for you.”

Gintoki groaned, not liking the embarrassing way his friend said that, but shut his mouth before he dug himself deeper into a hole. He almost guzzled his cocktail as well, when the first sip caught his attention. The drink seared down his throat, spreading a nice yet intense warmth all the way to his stomach. He raised his eyebrow at the glass. Not bad at all. It really was strong and sweet, just as he requested, and balanced surprisingly well—although, in his opinion it always could’ve been sweeter. He’d have to tell Oryou later, and probably order another one.

Katsura’s story dissolved into pointless banter after a while, and Gintoki was sure that no one knew how or when it happened. They just started shooting the shit—well, it was mostly the Vault Hunters talking. This was what usually happened when they sat around with drinks in their hands. They’d crack inside jokes and tell random snippets of stories (strictly non-Vault Hunter related in this instance, after they’d reminded themselves to save those for another day). Takasugi and Gintoki would stir up a snappy argument here and there, and Katsura would swiftly extinguish it before it’d get out of hand. The topic was changing with every moment.

Even though Tatsuma didn’t get to participate much at all, he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed somewhat fascinated, just sitting back and listening to the three of them talk about things he could hardly understand. Every now and again he interrupted them with a burning curiosity, asking them to explain some things that especially caught his attention. Most of these were about the things the adventurers had encountered throughout the universe—weird alien species, unique biomes, and the like. Gintoki and Takasugi blew him off most the time, while Katsura was a little more willing to clarify. It was still difficult; once the Vault Hunters had had a few drinks, it was hard to pull any of them out of their bubble of fluid conversation.

And it continued for quite some time. Gintoki had lost track of how long they’d been sitting there—all he knew was that the sky had been dark for a while, he’d gotten up multiple times to get more drinks and to take a leak, and he was really starting to feel the booze get to him. So much in fact that he failed to notice when an unfamiliar voice started to speak over their group. But a hand that suddenly slammed down in their table finally caught his attention. He’d flinched and instinctively reached for his sword that he didn’t bring, and all three Vault Hunters fell completely silent.

Some kids had walked over to their table while they were talking. It took Gintoki another second to realize that they were the group of boys who had stared at them earlier in the evening. They seemed even more wasted than the Vault Hunters were, sort of swaying on their feet with most of their faces completely beet-red. What’s more, they didn’t seem happy. The one who had slammed his hand on top of the table seemed to be trying to glare, but it looked more like a squint.

“Hey you,” he slurred, barely understandable and in a mildly threatening tone, “fuckin’…uh…stink…stink person-…?”

“You mean bandit?” one of his slightly less drunk friends whispered behind him, and the kid’s eyes lit up.

“Yeah!!” He exclaimed trying to clap at the revelation but his hands missed each other entirely. He jabbed a semi-threatening finger in Tatsuma’s direction, though it lost all sense of intimidation as his arm swayed unsteadily. “Fuckin’ bandit-lovin’ freak!! Who’re these chumps, huh? Did’ja dig’em outta th’ dumpster er somethin’? Obvs’ly ya did, ‘cause only trash coul’ stand t’be ‘round you!”

All his friends behind him hollered like he just threw the most incredible shade they’d ever witnessed, some of them slapping him on the back as he swayed triumphantly. Gintoki furrowed his brow at them, confused for the most part. Though this group was even younger than he’d first thought them to be and it was basically impossible to take these drunken brats seriously, something about that kid’s stupid insult was…

“Heya, Yuuji-kun!” Tatsuma greeted cheerily, snapping Gintoki out of his thoughts. One look showed that the merchant was much more sober than this screaming pile of monkey children in front of them and that he wasn’t at all bothered by any of this. “How’s life been treatin’ ya?”

But this kid named Yuuji ignored him, too busy getting all up in Takasugi’s face as if he were sizing the Vault Hunter up but having a lot of trouble getting his eyes to focus. And by the looks of it, Takasugi had already finished mentally calculating the best way to snap this kid’s neck. Before Yuuji could get murdered, however, the kid suddenly moved on to Gintoki, squinting his eyes real hard. Gintoki felt the same killing intent wash over him after being forced himself to have this asshole brat so in his face that he could see the snot in his nose.

“F’real, who the fuck’re you bunch?” Yuuji demanded, once again pulling back before he unknowingly got himself killed. He skipped Katsura, possibly because the third Vault Hunter was sitting too far into the booth to lean into, though the kid did cast a sour look in his direction. “Ya’ll look like gross geezers, ‘r ya actually from th’ dumpster?” Gintoki’s eye twitched.

“Who the hell’re you calling dumpster geezer, punk?!” he blurted out, shooting a glare right back at the kid. There were wheezing noises in response to that.

Dumpster geezer!!” some of the other boys cackled.

“Listen, baldy—” Yuuji continued to Gintoki, leaning hard (or rather, draping himself) on the table.

“Baldy?! My hair’s—”

“If ya wanna look less like y’climbed outta th’ trash, y’outta stop hangin’ with th’ moldy freak. You’ll get…like…inspected?”

“Infected?” one of his friends whispered behind him, and Yuuji gave a loud dismissing grunt.

“’S what I said! Inflected!”

Gintoki was only vaguely listening to this banter, still hung up about being called ‘dumpster geezer’ and ‘baldy.’ His fists were already balled, and if he had to listen to this obnoxious snot-nosed brat’s voice one more time…there was a gentle tug on his sleeve, and he whipped his head around. Tatsuma was looking at the group of boys with the same calm smile as always.

“Yuuji-kun…yer gran ain’t gonna be happy to hear that you’re out gettin’ drunk again, is she?”

It was like time stopped—every one of the drunken brats froze at the same time. The background kids all turned to Yuuji slowly—the boy’s eyes were wide with fear. “Y-you wouldn’t,” he breathed. Tatsuma hummed, passively raising his eyebrows. It was subtle, but the light in his eyes had changed.

“Would I?” he questioned innocently.

Yuuji looked like his whole life was flashing before his eyes. He dramatically staggered back a step or two, and his friends behind him stopped him from falling flat on his back. “I…I……I’m sorry!! Please don’t tell her! I’ll- we’ll—” In a panicked frenzy, he turned to his friends and pushed as many of them in the direction of the door as he could, frantically whispering, “Go! Go!!” He was met with complaints and reluctance but within moments, the group had vacated the building.

All three of the Vault Hunters leaned over and stared at the front door as it swung shut. After those loudmouthed kids so abruptly made their exit, the place felt uncomfortably quiet all of a sudden…though the shock of that wore off after a short pause, as the silence was broken by Tatsuma’s laughter.

“They’re just a buncha kids! Don’t mind them,” he reassured the three of them when they looked back at him.

“A bunch of annoying-ass kids,” Takasugi scoffed.

“Aw, they ain’t so bad sober.”

“What was this mention of his…grandmother?” asked Katsura, raising an eyebrow at Tatsuma.

“Oh! Well, last time Yuuji-kun got nasty-drunk like that, my sis ‘n I sought out his gran and tipped her off ‘bout his drinkin’ problem. Apparently she raised all kinds of hell! But it was good fer the kid—he really watches his limit these days. Er, most of the time.”

The Vault Hunters exchanged looks. With a little smile, Katsura leaned against the table. “I think you owe us a proper story, Sakamoto.” Tatsuma blinked, faltering briefly at that.

“Ahahaha! A story from me? That’s…well…”

“Hey, you’ve been making us tell you stories every day,” Takasugi growled. “What’s your excuse?”

Tatsuma laughed again, though his expression appeared somewhat uneasy. “It’s just that—it ain’t really an excitin’ story,” he admitted. “Compared to the stuff ya all have been talkin’ about, it’d probably put ya to sleep, so…” Gintoki let out a loud groan, making the merchant jump.

“Shut the hell up ‘bout all that and tell the story already,” he grumbled into his drink. “I don’t really give a fuck but if it involves that brat from earlier getting owned, I’m all ears.”

“Gintoki…you really have a way with words,” Katsura sighed, his voice dripping sarcasm, but turned to Tatsuma again with an encouraging smile. “Go ahead, Sakamoto. No matter what you say, you’ve got our attention.”

“Heh. Believe it or not, we enjoy listening to petty drama from time to time,” said Takasugi with a light smirk.

“I…if ya all say so,” Tatsuma giggled. It was hard to tell in the dim lighting, but there seemed to be a reddish tinge to his cheeks. He sat up straight and flashed the Vault Hunters a bright smile. “I’ll do my best, then! So, fer the longest time, Yuuji-kun would wobble ‘round drunk every weekend, tauntin’ people left and right…”

 

All Gintoki remembered after that was cracking up at that kid Yuuji’s misfortune, while his head began to throb and the atmosphere of the bar seemed to fade away. At some point when he blinked, he found himself back in Tatsuma’s guest bedroom. The pounding in his head was louder now as he squinted into the darkness. The sounds of soft breathing and blurry sight of silhouettes atop of the bed told him that Katsura and Takasugi were passed out. Gintoki himself lay on the floor with his back against the wall. Did they place him there? Damn, he couldn’t remember a speck of what happened in between being at the bar and getting back “home”. Not that he even had the mental strength to go through with that effort.

Groaning, he struggled to prop himself up by the elbows, but the ground seemed to shift under him and he fell back down chin-first. Hissing random mixtures of curse words under his breath, he tried again. The ground just didn’t seem to want him to stand, shifting all over the place like waves rolling on the ocean, but somehow he got the hang of it enough to finally get to his feet. He stumbled along, not really sure where he was headed. Wherever the wavy ground was leading him, he supposed. Maybe he needed to take a piss, even though he didn’t feel the urge to. Miraculously, he made it to the door and fumbled around with it, becoming irritated fast. Damn shitty knob, why was it on the wrong side? He complained quietly to himself, most of it just coming out as wordless grunts, until he finally got his hands on the doorknob.

The door swung open and he staggered out, squinting at the dim lighting in the room. As his unfocused eyes attempted to adjust, he finally remembered something that had somehow become routine in the middle of the night. Stretching out his arms, he felt around and then found and pressed himself against the wall. Edging awkwardly to the end of it, he poked his head out from the corner, peering towards the balcony.

Sure enough, Tatsuma was there as per usual, looking out towards the view. The lights of the city were blinding, piercing Gintoki’s eyes, and he squinted even harder, trying to calm the intensified pounding in his head. He focused on Tatsuma’s figure instead, the one dark spot amid it all.

Tatsuma really made it out there every night no matter what. How many times in a row had it been? Gintoki sure couldn’t count without overloading his boozed up brain. He never stared at the merchant for long before—no more than a moment or two. But this time was a little strange somehow? With a confused frown, he gazed harder. For some reason, it felt like the balcony was getting bigger…

And suddenly, he had walked right onto the balcony, a harsh gust of wind waking him up a bit. He blinked, his eyes burning worse than ever. What the hell? What were his legs thinking, taking him over here?? But before he could figure out what to do, another gust of wind threatened to tip him over. With a growl, he instinctively fought against it, taking a few forced steps forward and walking right into the railing that he then clutched onto with all his might. Fuck you, wind! You won’t win against—

“Gintoki?”

Somehow, it’d already slipped his mind that he wasn’t alone. He turned his head to see a surprised Tatsuma who’d evidently just noticed the Vault Hunter’s presence. Gintoki wasn’t so fazed, blinking a couple of times.

“…Hey,” he finally answered, and Tatsuma stared blankly for a moment longer before a soft chortle escaped him.

“How’re ya feelin’?”

Gintoki grunted and shrugged, averting his gaze. “The ground keeps moving. You should get that looked at.” Tatsuma snorted a real laugh that time. It rang in Gintoki’s ears and he squinted a glare. “I’m serious!”

“Alright, alright, I’ll fix it later,” Tatsuma chuckled, giving a good natured smile. Gintoki instinctively felt the need to avert his eyes and grumble a whole lot of nothing under his breath.

“You’d better,” he muttered.

“It’ll be normal by mornin’. I promise!”

Gintoki didn’t reply—he fell silent, picked up by the current of his senseless, jumbled thoughts. Tatsuma didn’t seem to mind this saturated pause. A few sneaked glances at the merchant told Gintoki that he was staring at the stars with a gentle smile on his face. Apparently, Tatsuma didn’t mind the surprise company at all. Or at least if he did, he didn’t show it.

“Hey…the fuck’re you doing up at this hour, anyway?” the Vault Hunter found himself asking after a moment.

“I was feelin’ kinda sick—couldn’t fall asleep,” Tatsuma answered without missing a beat, like he was expecting that question. Gintoki glanced at him again before releasing a huff.

“Do you feel sick every night, then?”

This time, there was a pause. Gintoki looked again to find Tatsuma blinking at him with a surprised expression. “Uh…what do ya mean?”

“Don’t play dumb, you fuck. You’re always out here. Waking me up every fucking time. What, you think you’re some kind of sneak-master? Gimme a break.”

“…Oh.” Tatsuma smiled sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head. “Guess I’ve been found out, ahaha…s-sorry ‘bout that.”

“You should be,” Gintoki growled.

Tatsuma gave a little nervous giggle and an apologetic nod. With a short hum, he peered back up at the sky. “…When I can’t sleep, I like to look at the stars,” he said. “Really makes me think about what’s out there. S’hard to imagine how infinite it all is. Er, fer me, anyway. You’ve been all over the place already, huh.”

Gintoki scoffed. “You obviously have no damn clue what ‘infinite’ means if you think we’ve seen it all. Every new place we visit is a complete mystery.”

“Hahaha! I guess yer right—see? It’s real hard fer me to grasp. Hell, everythin’ I imagine about must be way off from the real deal. There ain’t no way I’d get it right. I’m…someone who’s never set a foot off this planet, after all.”

The Vault Hunter didn’t have a reply to that. He just gazed at Tatsuma, who seemed lost to the view, for a moment before looking away. Those last words gave him a faint sense of…loneliness?

The noise in Gintoki’s head was growing. There was a feeling in his chest that he couldn’t describe. Maybe it was something like confusion and realization at the exact same time…that didn’t make any damn sense. Probably more on the confusion side, then—god, his head hurt. This was all the alcohol’s fault, wasn’t it? The feeling of nausea was rising in his stomach, and his mind wasn’t doing him any favors. His thoughts were overwhelming, building, swelling up in his skull as if they’d explode right out of it if he couldn’t find an alternative way to release them. He needed to…open his mouth…

“Tatsuma.”

He heard his own voice utter the name. It seemed to hook the merchant’s attention immediately—Tatsuma probably couldn’t have turned his head any faster without breaking his own neck. Gintoki didn’t look back at him, only noticing him at the corner of his eye. The Vault Hunter was focusing his gaze forward at nothing, staring at a darkened window on the building across from them as if it were essential to steadying his thoughts. Like it was any use. They were still a huge jumble, surrounding and floating by him just out of reach. Everything that was on his mind ever since this whole thing started—every anxiety, every question he held back, every guilty feeling—was mashing together, threatening to smother him. He wasn’t actually thinking straight at all. He couldn’t have been. And yet, words that he once told himself never to say aloud were eager to roll off of his tongue as if they’d been planned all along. He closed his eyes, took a breath.

“Do you…hate me?”

He felt the brief silence dig into himself, struggling to comprehend what coming out of his mouth.

“…What??” He heard Tatsuma all but snort, a little complementary lighthearted laugh added along with the word, as per usual. “Why would I?” It was usually difficult to tell what he was thinking through his tone, but this was a rare exception—his incredulity sounded quite genuine, as if it were ridiculous that Gintoki would suggest such a thing.

“Why wouldn’t you?!” Gintoki blurted out, suddenly shooting Tatsuma a frustrated glare—the other recoiled, blinking in surprise. “Cut the fucking around,” the Vault Hunter slurred, not realizing that he’d mixed up a phrase in his drunken fury. “I’ve been a piece of shit to you since the moment we met! I’m a fucking terrible trashy asshole!! The fuck is wrong with you, you dumbass?! You goddamn shithead!!”

Tatsuma blinked. His smile had dropped for once, and he stared blankly at the agitated man in front of him. “Gintoki-…”

But Gintoki wasn’t done, jabbing an accusing finger in his direction. “Why the fuck are you so damn nice all the time?! Hah?! How do you tolerate all my bullshit?? I can’t even tolerate all my bullshit!! But all you do is smile and laugh as if—as if I’m the nicest person you've ever met! What the fuck do I have to do to make you hate me like I deserve?! Beat the shit out of you?! I’ll fucking do it! I—hey! Stop laughing!!” Without thinking, and failing to detect the nervousness in that laugh, he lunged, grabbing Tatsuma roughly by the scarf. Gintoki was no doubt giving some kind of scary look as he shoved his face into the merchant’s. “You think this is funny?! Hah?! I’ll throw you off this goddamn building, you fucker!”

Tatsuma faltered again, just staring with his lips slightly parted. Then slowly, his brow furrowed. “…Are ya okay?”

Gintoki blinked, taken aback for a brief moment. “Am I-?! You fucking- I am threatening you right now!!” He jostled Tatsuma as he shouted in his face, but the merchant’s worried expression didn’t change.

“Has this been eatin’ at ya this whole time?” he asked, ignoring Gintoki’s last statement.

“Stop dodging the issue-!!”

You’re the one dodgin’ the issue.” His firm words immediately made Gintoki go silent. Tatsuma tilted his head, and that gentle look he was giving…the Vault Hunter hated it so much. “I don’t understand where you’re comin’ from,” the merchant confessed, “but…I don’t mind whichever way ya wanna treat me, really. I did kinda force ya into this job, after all, so ya don’t have a lotta reasons to be nice. Whether ya wanna be friends or enemies, it doesn’t matter. Honestly, the way you’ve been so far hasn’t been all that bad.”

Gintoki was so bewildered as Tatsuma spoke that he slowly loosened his grip on his scarf until he’d completely released him. “…You’ve gotta be shitting me. How have I not been ‘all that bad’?! Would you stop pretending to be some kind of saint already?!”

A surprised and confused noise escaped Tatsuma’s mouth. “I-I’m bein’ totally honest here! Ya really haven’t done anythin’ bad…”

“That’s a lie and you know it!”

Tatsuma averted his eyes and chewed his lip—his distressed perplexity was quite clear, though it was hard to believe. “Well,” he spoke nervously, “if it’d make ya feel better, I could try to not be so nice to ya? I don’t really wanna do that, though. ‘Cause yer a good person.” Gintoki shot him a look—this guy was making less sense by the second.

Hah?! What the hell makes you think I’m a good person?! I’ve done nothing but act like shit to you!”

“That doesn’t matter.” Creasing his brow incredulously, Gintoki opened his mouth to object, but Tatsuma continued. “Y’can be mean to me all ya want. That’s…understandable. But I noticed, back at the police station the other day—ya helped comfort that family, didn’t you? Ya cheered up that kid with a big smile, even with the bad situation you were in.” He looked up and smiled—though he seemed hesitant to share, his warmth was undeniable. “That was when I realized you were good people. And…that’s when I decided I’d hire ya.”

Gintoki stared slack-jawed, and for a while there was an uneasy silence. A twitch of his stomach muscles forced a scoff out of him, and another, and then somehow the sound had developed into a strange laugh. The next thing he knew, it’d become a full blown near-hysterical laughing fit. He couldn’t stop it—there was no way. In times like these, after hearing something so mind-boggling, all one could do was laugh. He almost felt like he was going to cry, even, his shoulders shaking so hard he may as well have been sobbing.

“Th…that’s…that’s it?!” he wheezed, out of breath and hunched over with both his arms wrapped tightly around his stomach. “That’s…all it fucking took for you?!” Tatsuma seemed a bit unsettled, unsure of how to take this reaction. But then, he nodded purposefully.

“Yeah! It was.”

Gintoki was hacking up a lung. All this time, he’d been wondering—all this time, he’d wracked his brain trying to figure out Tatsuma’s seemingly complex, odd reasoning…and this was the stupidly simple answer? “Y…you…f-fucking idio—!!” Suddenly, a huge wave of nausea washed over him, and a choked noise escaped his throat as his hands flew to his mouth. Tatsuma gave a start.

“A-AH! Gin- wait, not here!!”

The bile was rising in Gintoki’s throat at an alarming rate, but he felt Tatsuma grab him by the shoulders and haul him inside. He wasn’t sure how, but he’d managed to hold it off until they’d stumbled into the bathroom, where he’d collapsed to his knees and threw up in the toilet. Tatsuma knelt beside him, rubbing his back.

“There now, take deep breaths…urk—

Before Gintoki could even catch his breath, Tatsuma had moved him aside and stuck his own head above the toilet.

BLUUUUEEGH!!

“W-wait—why’re you throwing up toooo?!

Tatsuma wheezed, pulling back to shakily wipe his mouth. “Th…the smell…”

“Just how weak is your stomach?!” That was all Gintoki could manage to yell before the next wave of nausea hit him. He pushed Tatsuma aside and started the process over again.

The two of them took turns being sick until Tatsuma found the effective remedy of pinching his nose. Unfortunately, Gintoki was forced to endure the wrath of his reckless alcohol intake to the fullest (at some point, he thought he heard Takasugi sleepily grumble, “Shut the fuck up,” from the other room). By the end of the nightmare his throat was raw and he could hardly keep his eyes open, ready to pass out with his face in the toilet. But before he could nod off, he felt Tatsuma’s hands on his shoulders again, steadying him.

“Let’s get ya somewhere comfortable,” the merchant urged. Gintoki could only manage a weak groan in response.

The rest was a blur—in his next and last conscious memory, he remembered lying on his side, staring out the glass doors to the balcony. His body felt warm and comfortable, despite the terrible ache that still resided in his throat. The stars twinkled faintly in the pitch black sky, their light paled by that of the city below. He’d narrowed his eyes and sighed.

“What a shitty view,” he’d apparently mumbled aloud. Tatsuma’s giggle roused him from his daze just a little, and it was just then he’d realized that the merchant was still beside him.

“What makes ya say that?”

But Gintoki had no energy to answer, his eyelids already drooping.

“…Gintoki?”

As the last of his consciousness faded, the voice sounded so distant, like a far-off dream.

 

“……Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Something was tickling his face. That was the first thing Gintoki picked up on as he gradually stirred out of his dreamless sleep. A blurry object cast a shadow over him, he’d noticed, as he slowly cracked open his eyes. With a few blinks, his vision focused on the familiar face above him, peering down intently while long strands of hair brushed against his cheek. Oh, it was just Zura.

“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura.”

“I didn’t saaaaaagh.” Gintoki’s grumble turned into a pained moan when slight movement brought a crashing wave of nausea and a nasty throb in the head. Gintoki ran his hands rigidly through his hair, hissing curses under his breath. He didn’t even have to look up to know that Katsura was giving him ‘the look.’ “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“That’s the last time you get to drink that much in one night while we’re in this city,” Katsura huffed.

“Hey, I never get to drink this much ever,” said Gintoki, stubborn to start an argument even when the head-splitting pain told him that he’d definitely lose. “It’s always ‘too dangerous’ to you or some shit.”

Katsura narrowed his eyes. “While there aren’t any bandits trying to slit our throats in our sleep, I suppose you’ve already forgotten what kind of place this city is. Do you even remember when you tried to jump an officer bot last night while we were walking back from the bar?” Gintoki blinked, peering at his friend through his fingers.

“Holy fuck, really?”

“It took all three of us to hold you back, and you punched Takasugi in the face,” Katsura said with a grim expression—Gintoki felt the urge to laugh but held it back the best he could (it wouldn’t have done his headache any favors, either). “He wanted to punch you for payback this morning after he saw you out here sleeping on the couch. Thankfully I stopped him in time. Point is, you almost got us all killed.”

“It just keeps happening, doesn’t it?”

Katsura glared.

“Okay, okay! I’m sorry,” Gintoki sighed, squeezing his eyes shut as if it’d help the pain go away. “I’ve learned my lesson, believe me. It won’t happen again.”

“I doubt that,” Katsura sniffed at that last part, though there was some sympathy in his eyes now. “You’re obviously suffering the consequences already, so I suppose I’ll spare you the part where I tap you over the head.”

“Uh, yeah, please don’t do that right now,” Gintoki mumbled. After the mention of Takasugi, his groggy mind was slowly beginning to note the lack of their other friend’s presence. “Where’s that bastard, anyway?” he wondered aloud. Katsura leaned back, and Gintoki squinted as the shadow on his face was lifted, bringing a significant increase of light to his tired eyes.

“He headed out on his own. Since we’re free from our voluntary house arrest thanks to the clothes Sakamoto lent us, we can finally come and go as we please. In fact, that’s the reason I woke you, wondering if you wanted to wander the city with me, but…” Katsura gave a wry smile that Gintoki could hardly even see through the light. “It seems you’re in no shape for that.”

“Yeah, pass. Not that I’d ever agree to go window shopping with you anyway,” Gintoki said (Katsura pursed his lips—it looked like Gintoki guessed his intentions to a tee). He shifted a little but stopped, finally noticing the warm blanket that covered him. Silent for a moment, he stared down at it, hazy memories from the night before returning to him. “…And Tatsuma?”

Katsura paused, giving him an odd look. “He’s out as well,” he said slowly. “Mentioned something about there being errands to run.”

Gintoki grunted in acknowledgement. It was starting to get too bright for his eyes to handle so he rolled over to face the back cushion, pulling the blanket over his face. “Alright, whatever,” he huffed, squeezing his eyes shut. “If you’re gonna leave me to die alone here, just go already.”

“As you wish,” Katsura sighed, and Gintoki heard him shift. “In all seriousness, will you be okay all by yourself?”

“Mmm.”

There was more movement, and then Katsura spoke further away. “Then I’ll be off. There’s food in the fridge—don’t burn the building down.”

Mmm,” Gintoki hummed more aggressively this time. With that, the front door opened and closed, and the lone Vault Hunter was left to himself and his terrible headache. He groaned to himself, clutching the blanket tighter. Well this sucked. He’d really learned his lesson this time…though who could blame him? All he wanted to do was indulge himself for a night.

And look what happened. He’d apparently almost got the whole group into some serious trouble, and on top of that…god damn, he’d said some embarrassing shit on that balcony. Gintoki chewed on his inner cheek, wishing he could will the couch to swallow him up. Of all the few things he remembered from last night, why did it have to be that part? He could only hope that Tatsuma didn’t recall all of that though it was unlikely, since that guy had clearly been less wasted than Gintoki as it was. Ugh, just thinking about it was making him queasy.

Oh no, wait…that was the hangover, mostly. And it didn’t want to be suppressed any longer. With a quiet long groan, Gintoki shoved the blanket off of him and clumsily shuffled to his feet. Somehow, he made it to the bathroom in time to throw up.

 

He wasn’t sure how he’d made it back to the couch after that, but the next time he was conscious, golden sunlight was filtering into the room. His eyelids fluttered as he stirred out of sleep. What time was it? That was the first thought that entered his mind as he released a tired sigh and struggled out of the blanket. Inevitably, his head hit the floor followed by the rest of his body, and he spent a minute curled up while still tangled in the blanket and swearing under his breath. Even now his headache was present, and that short fall did it no favors. Once the pain had faded to a bearable level, Gintoki slowly uncurled himself and attempted to push to his feet. He ended up half-crawling over to the balcony’s glass doors, squinting against the light.

Eventually, he got close enough to be able to see the sky behind looming buildings—it was a bright orange hue, streaks of red just barely visible. The sun was setting. Gintoki sat by the door, turning his head carefully to look back at the apartment. It was dead silent around him…apparently, everyone was still out. Getting the most of their newfound freedom, huh? Meanwhile, Gintoki was suffering alone. They probably all forgot about him, didn’t they? Having the time of their lives or something. Damn brats…

His head felt shitty—better, but still shitty. God damn, he must’ve drunk more than he’d thought. With a heavy sigh, he ran his palms up his face, his fingers getting entangled in his mess of silver hair.

Good ol’ pain killers. That’s what he needed. Taking a breath, he cautiously rose to his feet, taking care not to stand too hastily. He’d been in this situation many times before, and he knew the consequences of rushing himself all too well. There had to be some medicine in the bathroom, right? It was worth a look.

While passing by the couch, his bare foot stepped into something soft, and he stopped to look down. The blanket was all sprawled out on the floor from his struggle to get up…he stared at it with a pause, hindered by a small dilemma. He quickly reached a decision and sighed, carefully stooping down again to pick the cloth up. It took just a moment to fold it up neatly and lay it on the couch before he continued on his way.

 

The cabinet in the bathroom was practically empty, to Gintoki’s dismay. In fact, the only things in there were a few extra tubes of toothpaste and packaged toothbrushes—nothing even vaguely resembling medicine at all. God damn it! This guy needed to use his medicine cabinet for actual medicine! Though, Gintoki realized after that thought, this was the guest bathroom after all. Tatsuma had his own personal bathroom…oh, right. Maybe all the meds were in there. While Gintoki wasn’t all that comfortable with invading a guy’s living space (well, a guy he didn’t plan on killing and looting, anyway), he was desperately craving the relief that a pain killer offered. And so he crossed the hall, carefully opening the door to Tatsuma’s room a crack. After he stuck his head in and did a quick scan to make sure there really wasn’t anyone around, he slid inside.

Gintoki made a beeline to the bathroom—looking back, he decided to leave all the doors ajar behind him. It didn’t really matter. If anyone returned home while he was there, he’d inevitably be caught anyway. So all he had to focus on was getting his hands on some pain killers and leaving as soon as possible. That was what he told himself as he turned around, but he quickly found himself distracted.

“Seriously?” he grumbled at the room before him. This bathroom had to be at least twice the guest bathroom’s size. The sink was actually attached to a counter, which housed a cabinet and a few drawers underneath. There was a toilet next to this setup, and at the far end of the room, there was a shower-bathtub hybrid, complete with a nice curtain. The place was bright, neat, and had plenty of legroom. Compared to this, the guest bathroom might as well have been a damn porta potty—though he had to admit, both bathrooms were still much nicer than what the Vault Hunters usually had to deal with. Gintoki sighed. “Fucking rich people,” he muttered to himself.

But anyway. He snapped out of his thoughts, remembering what he was there for. The medicine had to be in one of those drawers, right? At least there weren’t too many storage units to look through. Gintoki quickly went through them, trying to keep the fumbling to a minimum. Hopefully Tatsuma wouldn’t notice…and if he did, hopefully he wouldn’t mind. As nice as anyone was, no one liked getting their belongings searched.

In the second drawer, Gintoki found what he was looking for—a red-capped bottle with a ‘pain relief’ label. With a satisfied sigh, he popped it open and shook two pills out, swallowing them down without another thought. He didn’t care about the proper amount to take or anything, he just wanted the throbbing to leave his head, and two ought to have been enough. After putting the container back in its rightful place and drinking a handful of tap water from the sink, he wandered back out into Tatsuma’s room, feeling better already. The satisfied feeling quickly washed away as he walked, and he frowned, a new thought bubbling to the surface. He slowed to a stop in the middle of the bedroom.

What was he supposed to do now? Despite his accomplishment, he was still all alone in this empty apartment with nothing to do. He really didn’t feel like going outside on his own, especially at this hour—the others were probably on their way back by now. But until they returned, Gintoki had no purpose whatsoever. It seemed like his options were: sleep, stare at the city from the balcony, or watch TV. Boring, boring, and boring. All of those activities had lost their spark since day one. With a groan, he hung his head. Aah, what a pain. How was he going to survive on his own? Maybe he’d give Katsura or Takasugi a call and ask when they would be back…

His eyes began to wander, and he found himself gazing around the room at the sparse furniture. He then raised his head, looking around shiftily to make quadruple sure that no one was around. Still as a statue, he strained his ears…nope, nothing at all. With a mischievous smirk, he crept toward the closest storage unit—the wardrobe.

The urge to commit larceny was basically a required trait in treasure hunters and bandits alike. Gintoki was no different from his kin—when he saw storage units sitting around like this, he couldn’t resist looking through them for anything good. That, and he was just bored and curious. He wasn’t going to make a mess and steal Tatsuma’s savings or anything if he found any. That’d make him feel even more like a steaming pile of shit. But the knowledge of potential loot and where it was stashed in this room could be useful in the future. Maybe. Probably not. Whatever, it didn’t hurt to be nosy unless you got caught. And if he heard any faint signs of fiddling at the front door, he was going to shoot out of the room faster than a spaceship on warp speed.

All he could see in the wardrobe as he cracked it open was a bunch of coats and jackets. Scanning the bottom, he also found nothing. What a disappointment…well, he wasn’t going to go digging through any pockets, so he shut the doors and turned to look for his new target.

The drawers…he’d already searched through there yesterday with everyone else. There was nothing but clothes as far as he could see. Unless…he stooped down and grabbed hold of the bottom drawer, carefully lifting the whole thing out of its slot. Pulling it aside, he blinked down at the base of the container.

Ah. There was porn.

“Amateur,” he muttered. He’d expected a better hiding place—a real man hid his porn in plain sight. But he digressed. Gintoki peered at them for just a moment before reaching for the drawer again. There wasn’t anything worth money here. Towards the back of the box, the Vault Hunter thought he saw some…freakier reading material…but he was already replacing the bottom drawer, shaking his head. No, no, he must’ve been seeing things in the dark. It was just his imagination, surely, and anyway it was none of his business. Moving on.

The only container left to search was the bedside table with its built in compartments. Maybe that was a bit too private and personal for him to stick his nose in, and at this point even he was feeling reluctant…but fuck it, he told himself. Was he gonna get another opportunity like this? He’d just have a quick look and be done with it.

He crept up to the small table—there were two drawers, and he carefully pulled the top one open a crack. The first thing he saw was a small stack of condoms. Well, that was pretty standard, no surprise there. Beyond those, he caught a glimpse of—…

The slam of the drawer resounded throughout the room, and Gintoki shook his head vigorously, feeling himself break out in cold sweat. No, no, no, he must’ve been seeing things in the dark again. Definitely. Just his imagination. Well, like, Gintoki himself was hardly vanilla, either. So he really wasn’t fazed by—no, no, no, no!! He didn’t see anything!! Nothing at all!! And even if he did, he wasn’t flustered in the slightest!! Moving on!

He was much more cautious and slow with the bottom drawer, cracking it open anxiously. He really wasn’t sure why he was still snooping at this point, but he just couldn’t stop his loot-searching itch. Luckily for him, one hesitant peek told him that nothing weird was in this drawer—not in that sense, anyway. Releasing a sigh, he pulled the drawer open all the way. The only thing in here was a stack of small, official-looking papers. They all looked to be the same one. Gintoki frowned when he spotted the title:

DEPARTURE PERMIT

Were these…the permits to leave the city? Gintoki remembered when Tatsuma had handed one over to that family at the police station. Why the hell did he have this many of them? The Vault Hunter stared at the stack for a long moment, his mind wandering. Slowly, though, he closed the drawer again. This was also none of his business, he concluded. Even if he was a little curious about it, it wasn’t the good loot that he’d been looking for. He scowled at the closed drawers. So that was it, huh? Honestly, this room was a pretty big disappointment—he’d expected to find loads of money stashed all around a rich guy’s place. That fantasy sure came crashing down.  And here he was thinking that all rich people loved to flaunt their money in as many places as possible. Was that really just a stereotype? All that work, and all he found were things that made him want to take a shower and forget. Ah well, he supposed he was done here.

As he stood, however, something caught his eye before he could turn to leave. The picture frames on top of the table…he hadn’t noticed when they’d fallen over. That was probably from when he’d slammed the drawer shut, he realized. Shit. He’d better fix them, quick—as he reached for them, he prayed that none of them had cracked.

After carefully examining the glass on all of the frames, Gintoki let out a sigh of relief. There wasn’t a scratch on any of them. Thank god, he thought he’d be busted for sure. That would be embarrassing. He peered down at the one that was currently in his hands. It was a photo of Tatsuma and an unknown brunette; they were both smiling cheerily, and the woman had an arm draped over Tatsuma’s shoulders that made the man stoop down a bit to match her height.

Who was she? It took Gintoki a moment before he came to an idea. Was this the sister that Tatsuma had mentioned before? They did look related after all, with their brown hair and freckled skin, though the woman’s hair was much straighter. The rest of the pictures also looked like pictures of Tatsuma and members of his family, Gintoki realized at a second glance. One of them in particular caught his eye. He replaced the current picture frame in his hand with that one.

Unlike the others, this photo seemed old and worn. A group of people stood together, looking contently toward the camera. An official family photo? Gintoki recognized Tatsuma’s father after a moment, standing near the center of the frame. He definitely looked much younger than he did when the Vault Hunters had their run in with him, his serene face devoid of too many wrinkles. On one side of him was a young man who looked to be in his twenties. He stood with his back straight, in the same proud manner as Tatsuma’s father did. It was obvious that this guy wasn’t Tatsuma himself. His face shape was different—his cheekbones too high, his chin too long. Everyone else in the picture looked to be female—there was a young woman, looking close to the young man in age, standing with poise and a warm smile on her lips. In front of her stood two girls. The older one had a somewhat timid yet dignified smile. And the youngest girl (looking to be less than ten years old), in contrast to the others, was beaming cheerily without a care in the world. Even through a mere picture, the energy from her presence was radiant.

Finally, next to Tatsuma’s father, there stood the last woman, leaning slightly into the man. This must’ve been Tatsuma’s mother, huh. She seemed a little fatigued compared to the rest of the family, her back not quite as straight. But there was something about her eyes. They had a lively look to them, a spark of inner strength. And…in her arms, she cradled a baby wrapped in cloth.

Gintoki stared at this tiny infant. Its face was turned away and difficult to see, but little tufts of brown curls poked out from under the cloth, flattened against its forehead. It wasn’t hard for the logic to kick in. If that young man wasn’t Tatsuma, then…this baby…?! Gintoki raised his eyebrows high. Damn, this picture looked old, but he didn’t expect it to be that old!

So this was Tatsuma’s whole family? Not just parents and one sister, but all these people? He wasn’t sure if they were all siblings, since the young man and young woman already looked like adults in this picture—they could’ve been an aunt and uncle or something for all he knew. But man, if they were siblings, that’s one hell of a family to have around. If Gintoki was in Tatsuma’s shoes, he would’ve moved out too. Their household must’ve been crowded. But then again, they probably lived in a mansion or something with more than enough space for everyone.

For a while, Gintoki’s gaze rested on Tatsuma’s mother. So this was the storyteller, huh. Honestly, that was all he knew about her—that, and that Tatsuma was fond of her and her stories. And until now, Gintoki didn’t even know any of these other people even existed…the reality that he knew almost nothing about their host and his background was really starting to sink in. He’d thought about it before, but now it was actually baffling. From the beginning, he’d always been pretty unwilling to learn more about Tatsuma—he still felt reluctant to. But this guy was so full of mysteries. Gintoki couldn’t help but want answers. He just couldn’t understand anything about him…

Sudden loud beeping made Gintoki jump hard and let out a surprised screech. He nearly dropped the picture frame, fumbling with it frantically to make sure it didn’t tumble out of his grip. He’d managed to get a good hold on it without breaking anything, and sat back and let out a breath. Thank god. Again. His heart was still pounding as he pulled out his ECHO device. Someone sure chose a great time to call…he froze when he saw the caller ID.

He couldn’t have set the frame back onto the table and hightailed it out of the room any faster as he hastily took the call. “Yeah?” he muttered once he was out in the hall and the bedroom door was shut behind him, trying not to sound too shady.

“Gintoki! How’re ya feelin’?” Tatsuma’s cheery voice asked.

“Uh…” It took a split second for Gintoki to remember his hangover. “Better, I guess.” He contemplated telling that he found and took some pain killers, but held off. Unless he was confronted about it, he didn’t have to say shit.

“Oh, great! Are ya at the apartment?”

“I’ve been here all day,” Gintoki huffed as casually as he could, “after everyone ditched me. I’m so bored, I could die.”

“Ahahaha! I see, I see. So Takasugi and Zura aren’t there, huh. I wasn’t sure if they were with ya, but I wanted to call ya first to make sure you were alright, what with yer gut-pukin’ and passin’ out last night.”

Gintoki flinched—he abruptly felt like throwing up out of shock just with that mention. Oh god, this bastard remembered everything, didn’t he? “Let’s not fucking talk about that, alright?” he grumbled, and Tatsuma giggled.

“Okay! So, besides the check-up, I wanted to let ya know—I’ll be home after dinner. So you guys don’t have to wait up.”

The Vault Hunter raised an eyebrow. Did he want to ask…? “Why?” he blurted out before the opportunity escaped him. After all that snooping around he was doing, he was feeling nosier than usual.

“Oh, well it’s just—” Tatsuma cut himself off with a yelp, making Gintoki jump. But before he could react, an unfamiliar voice spoke.

“Heya, Tatsuma! Who’re ya talkin’ to??” It was a bubbly-sounding female. Tatsuma made some incoherent noises, obviously still too surprised to say anything. The female gasped loudly. “Wait, wait!!! Is that—the Vault Hunter?! Hey, it’s the Vault Hunter, ain’t it?! Which one? Oh! Is it the cute one?!”

Sis!!”

The unfamiliar female snorted a loud laugh. “Aw, y’know I’m just messin’! Hey, Vault Hunter! Nice to finally get to talk to ya!”

It took Gintoki a moment to understand that she was speaking to him. “Uh,” was all he could manage to sound out. This was all so sudden; he was having a hard time grasping what was going on.

“…Tatsuma, is he as handsome as he sounds? ‘Cause if so, I don’t think I can approve.”

“Ahahaha! Could ya cut that out already?”

“I’m just sayin’!”

“Um, excuse me,” Gintoki murmured in monotone. He was so coherently lost that he couldn’t even express an emotion. “What’s going on?” There was a pause, and then the female hummed thoughtfully.

“Guess I should’ve introduced myself first, huh? Sakamoto Otome, at yer service! …Er, pretend ya saw the bow I just did.”

“Sakamoto…?” Somewhere in the back of Gintoki’s mind, he’d already expected this answer. Based on this woman’s attitude toward Vault Hunters, it was safe to conclude that this was the sister that Tatsuma had mentioned before. Otome continued on.

“So, which one are ya? I know there’s three of ya runnin’ around…”

Gintoki frowned. He assumed that Tatsuma had been telling her some things. It made him a bit wary that the merchant didn’t consult him or his friends before blabbing about this whole affair. But as bad as the sinking feeling in his stomach was, the cat was well out of the bag by now. The Vault Hunter just hoped that Otome didn’t know as much as he feared she did. “…I’m Gintoki,” he mumbled.

“It’s a pleasure meetin’ ya, Gintoki,” the woman said. “Well, maybe. Ya sound pretty grumpy, is that somethin’ I gotta get used to?”

“Wha-” Gintoki’s eye twitched. What the hell’d ‘get used to’ mean?? Did she plan on ever talking to him again? ‘Cause he sure wished she’d turn the other cheek after this and mind her own damn business.

“Ahaha! Oh, he might just be havin’ a massive hangover,” Tatsuma laughed, and Gintoki felt every hair on his skin bristle.

“H-hey, shut up!!” he blurted out furiously. These were the exact type of details that he’d hoped this woman didn’t know! But Otome gave a hearty laugh anyway.

“Partyin’ hard, huh? That’s the way to go! ‘Cept don’t go too wild, I ain’t gonna bail yer asses out if ya all get in trouble.” No one’s asking you to, Gintoki wanted to grumble, but decided against talking back to this woman he hardly knew or trusted. Thankfully, the next thing Tatsuma said changed the subject.

“Sis, I’ve gotta call the others and let ‘em know about tonight, too. It’s gettin’ pretty late.”

“Oh, right…wait! Does this mean I get to talk to all of ‘em?! Excellent,” Otome cackled. Gintoki felt somewhat sorry for his friends.

“Gintoki! Otome invited me out to dinner,” Tatsuma finally answered the question. “I’ll be pretty late, but don’t worry!”

“Who the hell would worry about you?” Gintoki huffed. His comment went unnoticed.

“Take care of yerself, alright? Drink lots of water and make sure to eat!”

“Yeah, yeah,” the Vault Hunter snapped. Who was this guy, his mother? He already had Katsura on his ass all the time. “I got it, so I’m hanging up now.”

“Okay! See ya later!”

“Bye-bye, Vault Hunter!” Otome chimed in before Gintoki closed the connection. All was silent yet again in the deserted apartment, and Gintoki stared forward at nothing for a moment.

He really wasn’t sure how he felt about this. Someone outside of their circle knew about them…and he didn’t know how much she’d been told. But he knew that Tatsuma wouldn’t blab about this to just anyone—no, even that guy wouldn’t be so careless. Right? Either way, Gintoki was filled with unease.

 

“I’ll be honest, Tatsuma,” Otome sighed as her brother searched through his contacts. Tatsuma paused to look at her—her arms were crossed over her chest, and her eyes were slightly narrowed. “That guy didn’t sound all that nice.”

“Oh, he’s alright!” Tatsuma chuckled. “Like I said, he’s probably got a killer hangover. And on top of that, he must’ve been kinda freaked out—”

“Don’t make excuses fer him.” The woman put a hand on his shoulder, and he had no choice but to meet her intense stare. “Tatsuma…be honest. How has he been treatin’ you? How have they all been treatin’ you?”

Oh, geez. Tatsuma did his best to resist the urge to look away. Hiding things from his big sister was impossible when she confronted him like this. But…he was confident enough in the answer to her question. “They’ve been fine,” he said, staring straight back at her. “It’s no surprise that they’re on edge, but they don’t look like they plan on doin’ anything bad.”

“’On edge’? Didn’t ya tell me they’ve been sittin’ around in yer apartment fer the past week? They’ve had plenty of time to settle down.”

Tatsuma hesitated. “They’re always a little restless. Ain’t that just how people with that kind of lifestyle are like?”

“Maybe,” Otome conceded, pulling away, though the conviction in her gaze outweighed the thoughtfulness. “Still, that doesn’t give ‘em the right to be rude! Especially towards you! You’re savin’ their lives, fer god’s sake! Without yer help, they would’ve turned into dust a long time ago. And you,” She sighed, giving Tatsuma a pinch on the cheek.

“Ow!”

“I don’t even need to ask to know that you’ve been a total pushover to them. Haven’t ya?”

Tatsuma blinked a few times, then laughed out of reflex. “What’re ya talkin’ about?”

“Oh, don’t give me that. You’ve been actin’ all nice and dotin’, even makin’ excuses fer them…”

“You’re overthinkin’ it, Sis,” Tatsuma scoffed. “I’m just doin’ my best to make ‘em feel welcome, that’s all.” Otome gave him an annoyed look, an eyebrow raised high with her skepticism.

“Just now, ya tried to call that guy while I wasn’t around, didn’t ya? What’s up with that; scared I’d hear somethin’ I didn’t like?”

Tatsuma couldn’t stop himself from faltering. “I-…”

“Listen, if that bastard’s been bullyin’ ya,” Otome growled, rolling up her sleeves, “I won’t hesitate to kick his ass, even if he is some hotshot Vault Hunter. Doesn’t matter how many people he’s killed; I’ll destroy him in one fell swoop!”

“No, no, no! Sis, there’s no need fer that!” Tatsuma grasped her by the shoulders. “Maybe he hasn’t been the nicest, but he hasn’t been bullyin’ me. And anyway, we’ve been workin’ things out on our own! So don’t worry, alright?” He gave her his best confident smile. “Just leave this to me.” Otome studied him for a moment with a critical stare. Finally, she sighed, gently shrugging off her brother’s hands.

“Okay, fine. You’re right—I should let ya handle yer own issues. You’re not a little kid anymore, after all…but no matter what, I’m still gonna meet these Vault Hunters face to face as soon as possible!” She pointed a finger at him. “And not just ‘cause I’m suspicious. I’ve never seen a Vault Hunter in the flesh, either, so quit hoggin’ ‘em to yerself!” Otome dropped her serious expression to reveal a wide grin, and Tatsuma couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Alright, alright. But we’ll talk ‘bout that in a second—I’ve really gotta make these calls,” he said, returning his attention to the device on his wrist. The further they strayed from that main objective, the more he felt he’d forget about it.

“Oh, right! Heheh, I can’t wait to hear from the rest of ‘em,” his sister said, leaning into him with anticipation as he found the next contact. As he waited for the call to dial and ring, his mind wandered.

From the beginning, he’d accepted that the Vault Hunters probably wouldn’t like him. Still, he tried. Otome was right about one thing—he was killing them with kindness. He wanted to like them, and some foolish part of him really wanted them to like him, too. It was stupid, he knew. No matter how much he tried, he ultimately couldn’t fit in to their group. No matter how nice he was, in the end, they were going to take their earnings and gladly leave this planet. They’d forget about him and never come back.

And…truly, from the bottom of his heart, Tatsuma was satisfied with that end. Even if they never became friends, even if these Vault Hunters thought nothing of him…that was all fine. Because, even if they didn’t realize it, they’d already made this past week into one of the best he’d had in a long, long time.

The line picked up. “What?” a voice questioned bluntly from the other end.

“Takasugi!” Tatsuma exclaimed with his usual cheeriness. He spoke fast, before Otome could say anything. “I need to tell ya somethin’! But first, don’t be alarmed—”

“Hey there, Vault Hunter!” Otome interrupted, not letting him get another word in as she leaned in further with a big, eager smile. “Nice to meet ya!”

 

Katsura and Takasugi were lounging on the couch when Tatsuma returned. The TV was on, but as always, there wasn’t much focus on it—Katsura was switching channels back and forth, and Takasugi even looked to be nodding off. The former looked up when Tatsuma shut the door behind him.

“Welcome back, Sakamoto,” the Vault Hunter greeted. Takasugi’s brow twitched ever so slightly, and he opened his eyes slowly to peer at their host.

“Heya,” Tatsuma replied, a light frown on his face as he kicked off his shoes and strode toward them. “What’re the two of ya doing, sittin’ around here at this hour?” He was out for longer than he’d anticipated. It was already well into the night, past the time that they all usually turned in.

“What’re you talking about?” Takasugi scoffed, crossing his arms. “We’re waiting to do our job, obviously.” Tatsuma blinked a couple of times. It took a second for him to realize.

“Oh! Ahahaha! It’s alright, we can skip tonight if you’re too sleepy,” he giggled, rubbing the back of his head. “Sorry fer makin’ ya wait! I didn’t expect ya to…”

“To what, honor our deal?” Takasugi asked with a glare, though there was mostly indifference behind his look. “Who the hell do you take us for?” Katsura smiled.

“We always aim for total completion in our jobs,” he said, “no matter how crudely. Otherwise, we’d never get paid.”

“Could’ve left the last half of that out,” his friend next to him grumbled, crossing his arms. He looked back at Tatsuma. “But that’s how it is. So get over here and let me tell you your damn story already.” The merchant had to laugh again, gingerly making his way closer to the couch.

“If ya say so…” He paused before taking a seat, giving the room a quick scan. His gaze rested on the folded blanket that was draped on the couch armrest. “Where’s Gintoki?”

“Sleeping,” Katsura answered, throwing a glance toward the hallway. “He’s been lying on the futon ever since the two of us got back, which is strange. I would’ve thought he’d slept his hangover away a long time ago.”

“Knowing him, he probably did another stupid thing while we were gone and made it worse,” Takasugi said, rolling his eyes. Tatsuma frowned. Gintoki sounded fine when he’d called him, but…

“Is he gonna be alright?” he asked.

“Who cares? If he ends up dying, then good riddance.”

“Takasugi,” Katsura sighed, giving him a sour look before turning back to Tatsuma with a small smile. “He’ll be fine, I’m sure. When we tried to go in and check on him, he told us he just wanted to rest for a while. Just don’t mind him for now.” The merchant made an uncertain noise, but went and sat down in his usual armchair.

“More importantly,” Takasugi said, shifting in his seat to face Tatsuma. The Vault Hunter’s stare seemed to intensify, and Tatsuma blinked in surprise. “About that sister of yours,” Takasugi growled, “she’s not gonna fuck us over, is she?” Katsura elbowed him in the side.

“What he means to say is: can we trust her?”

Tatsuma frowned as they both stared at him expectantly. As he’d thought, they were pretty wary about that. “Don’t ya worry! I trust her,” he answered confidently. “I’ve known her all my life, and the two of us’ve always been on the same page. I promise ya, she won’t mess with our deal in any way.” Takasugi huffed, crossing his arms. He didn’t seem the least bit convinced. Tatsuma made firm eye contact with him. “I promise,” he repeated for emphasis, giving an honest smile. “Ya trust me, right?”

“A little less so now,” the Vault Hunter grumbled. Katsura put a hand on his shoulder—the friends shared a look, and Takasugi sighed. “Not like it matters, though.”

“Sakamoto,” Katsura spoke up, “we just want to make sure that we can trust in your decisions—no offense to you. We’re counting on you to keep us out of trouble, after all.”

“Yeah, I understand,” Tatsuma answered with a nod. “Rest assured, I’m bein’ as careful as I can with keepin’ yer stay on the down-low. ‘Cause if my father ever finds out about this, I’d be in pretty big trouble, too. Ahahaha!”

“Ah.” Katsura rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose I should’ve expected that, considering what we know about him.”

“Otome is the only person I’ve told,” Tatsuma continued, “and she’s the only person I’ve intended to tell. Besides, it’s pretty impossible fer me to hide anythin’ from her, ahaha…she knows me too well.”

“Tch. The least you could do is be selective about what you tell her,” Takasugi sniffed. Tatsuma gave him an apologetic look.

“Can’t guarantee that I can,” he answered. “My sis has a knack fer forcin’ things outta people, especially me. She’s got the intuition of a seasoned informant. You’ll see when ya meet her fer real.”

“I take it that that meeting is inevitable, then,” Katsura said with a frown. Otome had mentioned her intention of seeing them through the ECHOs earlier.

“Yeah…but it’ll be alright! She’s great company, so long as ya don’t get on her bad side. If ya do, er…” Tatsuma hesitated, letting out a nervous giggle. “Just…don’t get on her bad side.”

“What a dangerous family,” Takasugi grumbled mostly to himself, judging by his volume. He sat back, leaning into the couch, and glowered at Tatsuma. “Fine. We’ll just have to see what happens when we meet her. When Gintoki pisses her off, I’m definitely not gonna bail him out.” Tatsuma had to laugh at that.

“’When’?”

“That guy gets on everyone’s nerves. If I had any money, I’d bet all in that he’ll piss your sister off somehow.”

Though Tatsuma laughed again, he couldn’t help but agree to himself that that might’ve been a sound investment. Gintoki had managed to irk Otome a little over a call already. But in any case, the merchant was ready to help him out—because an angry Otome was something he’d wish on no living soul.

“But now that that’s settled,” Takasugi sighed, “I’ll start the story now. Since the whiny shithead’s asleep, how about a darker one this time?” He stared directly at Tatsuma, and it was clear that his words weren’t a mere suggestion. The merchant smiled back, no doubt in his clear conscience.

“Lay it on me!”

Katsura released a huff but uttered no objections, and Takasugi’s expression was smeared with amusement as he smirked. “Alright, then.”

 

Tatsuma’s eyes blinked open, met with the darkness of his room. It was the same time as usual—he knew this even without checking a clock. For a minute, he lay still, blinking up at the plain ceiling. His entire body felt heavy, pleading to him to roll over and go back to sleep for once…but, as always, his mind was wide awake and bursting with an endless flood of thoughts. Before this whole business with the Vault Hunters, the weekends had been his chance to catch up on sleep. But now…

Mechanically, he slipped out of bed and made his way to the door. He liked to pretend that stargazing helped him fall asleep. And it did! Rarely. But in any case, anything was better than lying down and staring at nothing in his book. Rubbing his eyes, he turned the corner…and paused. There was a figure already at the balcony and overlooking the city, the wind tossing his mess of silver hair. Tatsuma hesitated just a moment before he continued forward.

Gintoki heard him coming, evidently, turning his head as Tatsuma stepped through the open door. “Hey,” the Vault Hunter grunted simply before looking back toward the view.

“Hi,” Tatsuma greeted back with a bright smile, radiating enthusiasm despite his fatigue. He joined Gintoki at the railing, gazing up at the night sky. The glow of the stars was as beautiful as ever. With a soft, content sigh, he glanced back at his company. “Are ya feelin’ better now?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s good!”

“Mm.”

Gintoki didn’t meet his eyes, and they lapsed back into silence. This was fine, though—Tatsuma hadn’t come out here expecting to start any conversation, and Gintoki probably wasn’t looking for one, either. He probably just liked to stargaze, too, and didn’t want to be bothered, so…

But as the merchant thought this, the Vault Hunter released a breath.

“Sorry,” he muttered, “about…all the stupid shit I said yesterday.” Though Gintoki still wasn’t making eye contact, his mouth twisted into a grimace. “I know you remember, so could you do me a favor and forget about all of it?” Tatsuma blinked at him. It took him a second, but he found his voice again to give a thoughtful hum.

“I still don’t get what y’were tryin’ to say back then,” he said, and Gintoki made some sort of choked, annoyed sound.

“I told you, just forget it! It was all a bunch of dumb drunken rambling.”

But Tatsuma was already thoroughly going over the conversation from the night before in his head, totally ignoring Gintoki’s request. “It wasn’t dumb,” he objected, “and even though y’were drunk, ya sounded real troubled. I still wanna know what ya meant by all that…so we should work this out!” He remembered what he told Otome earlier, and his determination flared. “Let’s talk about it!” Gintoki sputtered, shooting him a look.

“No, no, no! That is the opposite of what I’ve been telling you to do!” Tatsuma leaned in eagerly anyway.

“C’mon, tell me what’s been botherin’ ya! It’ll make ya feel better.”

“What’re you now, a therapist??” Tatsuma just kept staring, and Gintoki scoffed, pointedly turning away. His face looked a bit red, but it was hard to tell in the dim light. “I…I already told you last night.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t get it. So tell it again!”

“Fuck no!! I’m not gonna repeat myself! It’s embarrassing…” He mumbled the last two words, furiously avoiding eye contact. Tatsuma furrowed his brow, a puzzled feeling bubbling up inside him.

“How? I don’t understand.” Gintoki suddenly turned back at that, giving him a skeptical glare.

You’re the one I don’t understand!”

They both fell silent for a moment, just staring at each other. Gintoki held his expression, but Tatsuma could see more confusion than anger—the Vault Hunter always had this kind of look when he was trying to glare at him. There wasn’t much conviction behind it, and it was just…confusing. It suddenly dawned on him, and Gintoki’s faltering glare told him that they were both thinking the same thing, at last—the realization that they were both just as lost as each other.

“Well,” Tatsuma hummed, a dubious smile growing slowly on his face, “that’s a start, ain’t it?” Gintoki blinked.

“No, it’s not,” he huffed, breaking eye contact yet again. Tatsuma couldn’t help a small giggle, which made Gintoki bristle in annoyance. It was clear that the Vault Hunter wasn’t going to talk like he did the night before as they once again lapsed into silence. Somehow though, this one felt more comfortable than the last. They stood side by side, listening to the faint echoes of traffic below. The wind made Tatsuma’s already tired eyes sting, but he was adamant about keeping them open.

“…Hey,” Gintoki spoke again after a minute. Tatsuma looked over and was surprised to see that the Vault Hunter was looking unwaveringly at him this time. “Was that seriously the reason you hired us?” It took just a second for Tatsuma to realize what he was talking about.

“Uh-huh,” he replied, continuing the conversation that was abruptly interrupted last night. Gintoki scoffed.

“I don’t believe you.”

 “It’s the truth!” Tatsuma insisted with a pout. “I’ll have ya know, I have a pretty good intuition fer people!”

“Oh, yeah? Is that why you gave us your full name after a few seconds of talking to us? And then let us use that to fuck you over?” Gintoki questioned with an arched brow. The merchant’s face flushed at that, and he gave a sheepish laugh. Oh right; that happened…

“I got too excited,” he admitted.

“Yeah, ya think?” Gintoki huffed. He had somewhat of a smug expression on his face, the corners of his mouth slightly upturned with a faint smirk. It seemed like he was proud of himself for making Tatsuma fess up to something. His expression changed back to inquiring. “But you gave us another chance…why? And how the hell’d you find us, anyway? You’re definitely shitting me if you say it was by total coincidence.” It was strange to hear all these questions pour out of the Vault Hunter…Tatsuma wondered if he’d been holding them back this whole time for some reason. Honestly, the merchant was open to answer them all from the beginning if only they were asked.

“Ahahaha, about that,” he laughed at himself, “I actually did go lookin’ fer ya. I realized Father didn’t give ya enough money fer shuttle tickets and figured ya’d end up locked up eventually, if ya weren’t vaporized first. So I kinda…checked all the police stations in the district every day since I ran into ya.” Gintoki squinted at him and he faltered a little bit, nervously scratching his head. Oh geez, was that a weird thing to admit?

“Every day?”

It was weird, wasn’t it. “I didn’t wanna miss ya!” Tatsuma exclaimed. “If I did, then…” He trailed off, averting his eyes though he could still feel Gintoki staring intently.

“…Then we’d be dead,” the Vault Hunter finished for him, and it was surprising to hear his voice so soft and thoughtful. Tatsuma looked back at him and saw the startled realization in his eyes. Biting his lip, the merchant nodded gravely. The pause that followed was far from comfortable—the mood change sunk in like a hot knife. It didn’t last long, as Gintoki opened his mouth again after a few lingering seconds. “You didn’t answer my first question,” he said. “Why’d you look for us in the first place?” Tatsuma relaxed at that question, feeling his smile timidly return.

“Oh, that one’s easy. How many Vault Hunters do ya think pass through this city?”

“Ah.” Gintoki seemed to get it immediately. He looked aside toward the bright city, the lights reflected in his contemplative eyes. “If you wanted to meet people like us so badly,” he continued, “then why didn’t you go out looking for them? You’ve got the money for it. It’d be hard to find one that wouldn’t blow your damn head off in a second, but it’s better than sitting around here waiting.” Tatsuma frowned. His gaze wandered back to the beckoning stars, and the usual faint sense of longing swelled dangerously in his chest.

“It ain’t that simple,” he murmured, slouching against the railing.

“Why?”

Tatsuma tried to laugh and suppressed a wince when it came out worse than he thought it would. Quickly abandoning that effort, he dropped his gaze to the streets below. “There’s a lotta reasons why I haven’t up and left yet,” he sighed. “I guess the biggest one is…it’d break Father’s heart.” He could feel Gintoki’s stare on him again, studying him keenly.

“You can’t let your old man control your decisions,” the Vault Hunter finally huffed. “Like, I know fuck all about how to live your kind of life but if it’s what you want, then you’ve gotta fly the coop someday, right?”

“I s’pose so, but…”

“Yeah, see?” Gintoki interrupted, crossing his arms. “Some parents get way too attached and the next thing they know, their kids’re grown-ass adults who’ll never try to leave for the outside world again. These idiot parents need to know when the time’s right to let their goddamn kids go free! And anyway, besides you, your old man has-…” The Vault Hunter cut himself off abruptly, making Tatsuma turn to him in confusion.

“Huh? What?”

“N-nothing, never mind!” Gintoki said, shaking his head vigorously. The merchant gave him a weird look. Gintoki suddenly seemed really nervous for some unknown reason. It was so strange—the Vault Hunter’s emotions were always easy for Tatsuma to read, but they were practically impossible to understand. He really didn’t get it…Gintoki’s cough drew him out of his thoughts. “But anyway! What I’m saying is: you’ve gotta chase your dreams, man. And quit worrying about your dad—he’ll get over it.” Tatsuma just gave a thoughtful hum in response. Though he knew what Gintoki was getting at…his situation was a bit more complicated. But he really didn’t feel like opening that can of beans at the moment.

“What about you?” he asked curiously, changing the subject. “What do yer folks think ‘bout you bein’ a Vault Hunter?” Gintoki snorted.

“Hah! I don’t have any folks to worry about—thank god for that.” Tatsuma blinked, somehow not expecting that. His mouth formed an ‘o,’ but Gintoki continued before he could properly react. “The only people I could call my ‘folks’ are those two assholes in there,” he said, poking a thumb behind him toward the apartment. “Their constant nagging already makes my ears fall off. If I had to put up with a whole family on my ass all the time, I’d probably end up fucking murdering them all.”

“Ahaha! Havin’ family ain’t that bad.”

“Let’s agree to disagree.”

Chuckling to himself, Tatsuma came across another question surfacing in his mind. “The three of ya are that close, huh. How’d ya meet each other in the first place?”

“Mmm…” Gintoki leaned his elbow on the railing, resting his chin in his palm. He smirked up at the merchant with a mischievous gleam in his half-lidded eyes. “That’s a Vault Hunter story. Maybe if you’re lucky, one of us’ll decide to tell it to you.”

“Aww,” Tatsuma whined, making a face. “Could I make a request?”

“No can do. Like it’d be that easy,” the Vault Hunter shot down. His smugness was practically radiating out of him. Tatsuma twisted his mouth further, but then conceded with a disappointed sigh.

“Fine, fine! I’ll dare to dream.”

“Heh. Damn straight.” Gintoki was making a quiet breathy noise. It took Tatsuma a moment of rapid blinking to realize that the Vault Hunter was chuckling. And not in a bitter or alcohol-induced way, for once. The smirk was gone now, relaxed into a softer smile—one that Tatsuma had never seen on that face before, so gentle and sincere. For just a second, the smile was genuine. It was such an insignificant, fleeting detail, but the merchant felt a faint flutter in his stomach at the sight of it.

And a smile grew on his own face that he couldn’t quite control.

 

The two of them chatted for a while longer—mostly small talk that was forgettable at best. At some point, Gintoki had brought up Otome with an air of suspicion, just like his friends had earlier in the night. Tatsuma did his best to reassure him in a similar fashion. They exchanged more questions here and there, but the merchant was starting to have a hard time following them. He had no idea why he couldn’t retain what was said just one second ago, until Gintoki interrupted the flow of the conversation with a certain question.

“Hey, Tatsuma,” he said (and the merchant subconsciously thought about how that smooth, soothing voice made his name sound so nice), “shouldn’t you be going to sleep?”

“Mm?” Tatsuma rubbed his stinging eyes with his sleeve. Their itchiness was really starting to irk him. It took him another good second to fully process Gintoki’s words. “Don’t…don’t wanna,” he muttered, swallowing a yawn. Gintoki let out a scoff—if he was making a face, Tatsuma couldn’t see it.

“Don’t you have work tomorrow?”

Tatsuma mumbled a dismissal. “’S fine,” were the only intelligible words out of it all as he waved (flopped) a reassuring hand in Gintoki’s direction. He heard an annoyed grunt, and then there was a hand gently grasping his upper arm.

“Go to sleep.”

“What about you?” he huffed back.

“I’ve been sleeping for the entire day, dumbass.” With a displeased rumble in his throat, Tatsuma tried to pull his arm out of Gintoki’s grip, but that only resulted in the Vault Hunter grabbing his other arm. “Go the fuck to sleep.” Tatsuma blinked a bunch of times, but the blurry face in front of him didn’t get any clearer. He wished he could tell what expression Gintoki had on.

“I wanna…talk to ya some more,” he breathed, and could vaguely tell that the Vault Hunter was rolling his eyes.

“I’m here every day.”

“But not forever…”

There was a long pause. At least, he felt it to be long, a horrifying chagrin washing over him as he slowly comprehended what he’d just said aloud. He was paralyzed, his face already burning up. Oh god, how could he blurt out such a thing? It was so childish, so selfish, so stupid. For a second, he wanted so badly to disappear.

But then Gintoki let out a soft sigh, and the moment passed. “C’mon,” the Vault Hunter coaxed, steering him toward the balcony doorway. Tatsuma gave a quiet whine, but knew it was time to give up. He closed his stinging eyes and drowsily leaned his weight against Gintoki, letting him lead. “Guess this makes us even,” he heard the Vault Hunter murmur under his breath. The door slid shut behind them, and the warmth slowly returned to their numb bodies.

Chapter Text

With the first early light creeping into the sky, Gintoki was still lying on the couch trying to fall asleep when Tatsuma strolled into the kitchen. The Vault Hunter, rolling onto his stomach, squinted at his host from behind the armrest. The guy was humming to himself while searching through the fridge.

“Are you alive?” The grumbled question made Tatsuma start and spin around, blinking a couple of times. After he took a moment to apparently process that Gintoki was awake, he gave his usual smile.

“Uh-huh! Why?”

With a scoff, Gintoki propped himself up on his elbows. “What do you mean ‘why’? I should be the one asking ‘how?’! There’s no way a human being can be this chipper in the morning with just that much sleep.” Tatsuma raised his eyebrows.

“Ohh, that’s what ya meant? Ahahaha, don’t ya worry! I’m feelin’ just fine.”

Gintoki gave an annoyed growl, wrapping his blanket tighter around himself and lying flat again. “Like I said, who the hell would worry about you?” Tatsuma just giggled, and there were sounds of rustling as he no doubt grabbed some things for breakfast. With a sigh, the Vault Hunter closed his eyes again.

Man, not even Katsura or Takasugi were even awake yet. Usually when the band was traveling, those two were up at the break of dawn and kicking Gintoki awake. In this kind of luxurious environment, though, they seemed to have relaxed enough to sleep in a little. Not quite as hardcore to get up before first light, but probably still pretty damn early. Gintoki didn’t actually know—for the past week, he’d been sleeping until noon. And after all the resting from the day before, he’d probably fucked up his sleep schedule so much that he was going to sleep for the entire day now. Just great…

“Do ya want some breakfast?” Tatsuma’s voice made his eyes snap open again.

“Fuck no! I just want to get some god damn sleep!” …was what he wanted to say, but the mention of food immediately jolted his empty stomach awake, and it was ready for vengeance after missing last night’s dinner. So instead, Gintoki groaned, throwing the blanket off as he pushed himself from the couch. Well, it looked like he was going with plan B: try to stay awake for the whole day to fix his internal clock.

“I can make my own,” he muttered, shuffling over to join Tatsuma in the kitchen. “Gimme some space.”

“Sure, sure~!”

God, this guy was full of energy. Gintoki glanced over to see that he was cracking an egg into a pan. There was the fragrant scent of bread cooking in the toaster, and it seemed like that was all. A simple breakfast…and also fast and portable.

“You leaving for work soon?” he questioned, and Tatsuma nodded without looking up.

“Yeah, in a few minutes.”

 “Geez, what kind of job makes you get up this early every fucking day?”

“My father’s brewin’ company,” Tatsuma answered. “I work at a branch nearby.” Gintoki huffed, rolling his eyes. Of course. So that’s where the family’s wealth came from, huh? If that’s the case, they must’ve made good stuff.

“Think you could hook us up with some discount booze, then?” Tatsuma looked up at that, his eyebrows raised with good-natured amusement.

“Ahaha! I ain’t old enough to get some legally. Not to mention I don’t really drink our brand—Father would get suspicious right away.” Gintoki made a face. Oh, right. Still smiling, Tatsuma poked at his simmering egg with a spatula. “We could order some the next time we go to the bar.”

The Vault Hunter gave an indifferent grunt in response, but mentally tucked away that tidbit for later. He had knelt to open the cabinet under the counter. Since he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, he figured he’d cook some rice. Above him, the toaster sprung. By the time he stood to place the bag of rice onto the counter, Tatsuma had slipped the egg onto his plated toast and turned the stove off. The merchant didn’t pause, picking up his plate and slipping past Gintoki without a word. He placed his food further down the counter as he passed by on his way to his room, and the Vault Hunter peeked over to see that he’d already taken a bite of toast.

A few minutes later, Gintoki’s rice was cooking and he had his head poked in the fridge pondering what else to cook when he heard footsteps behind him signifying Tatsuma’s return. The merchant only stayed long enough to grab his toast off the plate.

“I’m goin’ out!”

“Okay, see ya,” Gintoki murmured, not looking up until after the front door opened and closed. He didn’t know why he looked toward the door at all, like he expected to see anything but an empty space. With a short huff, he resumed rummaging through the fridge. The moment felt strange to him—he was living such a calm, domestic life as if he was used to it. Tatsuma just made this all seem so natural, somehow. Never mind that the guy was living with three mass-murdering mercenaries. Well, maybe this city had tamed them, as much as Gintoki hated to admit it. They weren’t allowed to be violent here, lest they were met with an abrupt death and no chance to respawn.

Maybe ‘tamed’ was too strong a word, though. While he learned to tolerate this peaceful setting, Gintoki was still itching to get back to the adventurous life of a Vault Hunter. He was sure that his friends were the same. Sooner or later, not even Tatsuma’s attempts to entertain would be enough to sate their needs. For now, though, the system was working. Time would tell how long it was going to hold up.

“Gintoki!” The Vault Hunter snapped out of his thoughts with a jolt to see Katsura staring from the mouth of the hallway. God damn, Gintoki hadn’t even heard his friend coming! Almost made him jump right out of his skin. Katsura had quite the surprised look on his face himself. “You’re awake? At this hour?? And…cooking without my telling you to?!” His expression reached a whole new level of shocked after he spotted the food cooking behind Gintoki. Katsura rubbed his chin, scrunching his eyebrows together as he pondered avidly. “Is it possible…that this whole alcohol incident has finally burned away your disgustingly lazy attitude?”

“Who're you calling disgustingly lazy?! I’m making food for myself—you bastards take care of your own shit!”

There was a sigh from further down the hall and Takasugi emerged, joining Katsura’s side. “Don’t get your hopes up, Zura. Everyone knows that assholes as selfish as this guy can never change.”

“Hmm, I suppose you’re right. I was expecting far too much in such a short time…”

“Uh, hello?? I’m standing right here!”

“Never say never though, Takasugi,” Katsura continued, as if Gintoki hadn’t said a word. “Maybe one day he’ll improve.”

“I seriously doubt it,” Takasugi huffed.

“Alright, fuck both of you and move outta the way, I gotta take a piss,” Gintoki grumbled, storming over to his two companions and shoving past them. Another full day of nothing but hanging out with these obnoxious guys yet again, he thought as he slammed the bathroom door behind him.

 

He did manage to fix his sleep schedule, after Katsura suggested caffeine and Takasugi smacked him awake throughout the day (as annoying as that was, it certainly helped). There was something these people were useful for, Gintoki supposed. With reaching that goal without a hitch, the next few days were totally uneventful. The Vault Hunters wandered through the city a couple of times together, but there really wasn’t much of interest within walking distance—to Gintoki, at least. Just various shops that they couldn’t buy from, what with their lack of money. Katsura made it clear that they were going to hold onto the remains of their savings for after they’ve left this planet. Tatsuma was covering their living expenses for the time being, so there wasn’t anything to complain about. The act of shopping killed time a little bit faster, at least. Browsing through wares didn’t cost any money, and it gave them things (boring but nevertheless new things) to look at. So that was one pro to the otherwise meaningless hobby. The atmosphere outside was also more tolerable—the Vault Hunters didn’t turn any heads anymore, and Gintoki found that being ignored by these rich assholes was much more pleasant than attracting any kind of attention from them. It was surprising, really, that not even Gintoki’s flashy silver hair warranted any significant stares.

So that got him thinking again…how did Tatsuma somehow attract more attention than the three Vault Hunters combined? Why did he, a regular-looking inhabitant, stand out to these people? That night when they went drinking, Gintoki felt like he’d stumbled on a few clues—now, if he could only remember what they were. His memory of the entire event was a haze, and he had a hard time recalling any specifics at all past the point where he really got into drinking. There was something about a group of kids? And they were annoying as hell? Yeah, that was the extent of his knowledge. He really hadn’t been paying attention. This was what he got for going overboard. He found himself tempted to ask about it late at night when he and Tatsuma stood together overlooking the city from the balcony, but that kind of question felt a bit too intrusive to casually blurt out.

Oh yeah, and speaking of that, those late night hang outs had somehow become routine between the two of them. It was like some sort of silent agreement—Gintoki found himself automatically settling on the couch each night, like he’d been sleeping on it this entire time. Since Tatsuma woke him up every time anyway, he figured he might as well join in with the stargazing. Gintoki’s change in routine apparently didn’t go unnoticed, as Katsura pulled him aside once in the middle of the day.

“Gintoki, are the two of you…getting involved?” his friend had inquired hesitantly with a furrowed brow. To which Gintoki, with the most perplexed look, answered immediately.

“Where the fuck'd you get that idea from?”

Katsura had raised an eyebrow, but his next words remained passive. “I thought you really didn’t like Sakamoto. Yet here you are now, on first name basis and spending your nights with him.” Gintoki scoffed loudly.

“First of all, with a whole family of ‘Sakamoto’s apparently running around, it gets damn confusing if I end up calling them all the same fucking name. And second of all, you were the one telling me to be nicer to him, so I am! Just learning how to tolerate him and shit like that. There’s nothing weird going on, you weirdo.”

“Okay, no need to get so defensive,” Katsura huffed, and continued before Gintoki had a chance to yell about how he wasn’t. “I just wanted to clear that up, given your reputation.”

“The hell does that—”

“You know what I mean.” The sharp interruption and leery stare made Gintoki falter, his will to argue vaporizing easily. They held eye contact for a silent moment, until Gintoki could no longer resist the urge to avert his eyes.

“Relax,” he grumbled. “Seriously, nothing’s going on between us. Hell, I’m still on the fence about getting along with the guy. He’s one serious oddball.” Katsura gave a thoughtful hum, and there was that faint smile on his face that he was fond of making.

“It seems to me that you two are already getting along much better now.”

“Yeah, that’s your opinion,” answered Gintoki with his usual attitude. Though if he was honest, after looking back at their stay on the planet, he had to agree.

Since those first two nights, he and Tatsuma spent more time stargazing than talking. Gintoki was done being nosy for the time being—there were still some burning questions, but he was once again reluctant to press for details. There was no rush. They had, what, a ton of weeks together? Gintoki had already forgotten exactly how much longer this job had. He expected Tatsuma to try to chat more than he hardly was, though, given his behavior the other night. Maybe the merchant had the same thoughts as Gintoki did—since they had all this time to spend together, it was fine to spread out the conversations a bit.

Without anything to grab his attention, though, Gintoki grew bored pretty fast. But he still wouldn’t budge from his spot, even when he started nodding off. He sputtered awake when Tatsuma first noticed and called to him, aggressively looking up at the sky again with warmth in his cheeks.

“Y’can go to sleep if yer tired,” Tatsuma had pointed out with a little smile. “I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Hell no,” Gintoki snapped back. “I’m gonna go to sleep the latest! I’ll fight you!” He got a loud, surprised laugh in response.

“It ain’t a contest, y’know.”

“Yeah, but I’m still gonna win!”

Tatsuma just giggled and shook his head, returning his gaze to the stars. He was clearly not at all competitive like Takasugi, who always took this kind of petty challenge way too seriously. Gintoki just found himself puzzled as to how this guy could manage to stay up so late and yet get up so early. It was another one of those irritating mysteries, and Gintoki was determined to test some limits…but sleep inevitably claimed him as his forehead banged against the railing, making Tatsuma jump. They definitely turned in early that night when the merchant claimed that he was ready for bed.

“Don’t take pity on me,” Gintoki mumbled drowsily in irritation.

“I ain’t,” answered Tatsuma, with all the energy in his voice that he’d had since morning.

When they did have a conversation during the night, though, Tatsuma was the one to start it. “Could ya tell me about a planet you’ve been to? Any random one y’can think of,” he’d suddenly say. Or his other question: “Could ya tell today’s story again?”

Gintoki always responded with a complaint first (“Seriously what are you, fucking ten?”) but ultimately he’d oblige. And Tatsuma would take his attention off of the sky a while to watch him with those sparkling blue eyes, listening intently to every word. He’d fire off more questions as the Vault Hunter was talking—sometimes way too many, and Gintoki would tell him to shut up and let him finish—but by the end, he’d always have an awestruck smile on his face.

“I think Takasugi told that story better,” he commented one time. And Gintoki, beyond offended, threw great big hissy fit while Tatsuma did nothing but laugh over him.

Somehow, Gintoki was starting to find it hard to get genuinely pissed at the guy. Sure, Tatsuma was loud and childish at times, but he was also so goddamn cheerful and nice. All four of these features annoyed Gintoki, each in their own different way, but not so much anymore. He supposed that this was how it was like to grow comfortable around someone. It was weird—he was used to either permanently hating someone or permanently…not hating them.

Tatsuma had sent so many mixed signals from the beginning; it was actually a bit fascinating. Maybe Gintoki had been imagining them all this time? His intuition was seldom wrong, but that didn’t mean it was always right. He did tend to overthink things every once in a while. But…no, thinking back, it was clear that it wasn’t just his paranoia—Tatsuma really did avoid mentioning whole lot about himself. But then, even if Tatsuma had some secrets hidden in his character, did they even matter at this point? So long as their deal was honored, Gintoki found himself sweating less and less about the details. Who knows, maybe after all this they’d even become friends, though Gintoki still stood by the decision that after leaving this planet, he’d never come back. They could become ECHOpals or something. And someday when Tatsuma was finally ready to get the hell off this planet, they could hang out in person again. But anyway, they’d cross that bridge when they got there.

Gintoki found it safe to sneak looks at Tatsuma when they weren’t talking—the merchant’s gaze was glued to the stars, though it seemed like he was looking beyond them. It wasn’t hard to figure out that he was spacing out most of the time, completely absorbed in his imagination. That was probably where all the sudden questions came from—he’d turn without warning and eagerly speak his mind. So far, he hadn’t caught Gintoki staring. The Vault Hunter was careful about that, only taking brief peeks.

Tatsuma was always smiling throughout each night. Not once did that expression ever waver or drop. No matter what, that cheery smile and those bright eyes remained constant. What was he so happy about all the damn time? Maybe it was those imaginative thoughts bouncing around in his head. Or maybe…he was content about having someone by him.

Gintoki hadn’t forgotten those words that the merchant had sleepily muttered before. They were…the other reason why he’d started hanging around every night. Apparently this weirdo actually enjoyed Gintoki’s presence somehow, even after all that initial hostility that the Vault Hunter threw at him. Did he really not mind that shitty behavior? It was still real hard to believe. Spending one-on-one time with someone like Katsura instead probably would’ve been so much more pleasant, in Gintoki’s opinion. But instead, Tatsuma chose to hang out with this insult-flinging, trash-talking prick. Maybe he was just a huge idiot. But if this was what he wanted, well, Gintoki didn’t mind. This was a nice thing to do, right? Just stand there and keep Tatsuma company? It wasn’t much effort or anything, but if it made the guy feel happier, even to the slightest degree, then Gintoki could feel a bit better about himself.

Every time Tatsuma came back from work, all four of them dicked around a little bit more than the last evening. The storytelling segments, as they trailed to an end, devolved into a whole bunch of chatter around the coffee table, and the forgotten remains of dinner sat in the middle of their little circle. They’d all talk about a whole array of things, much like their conversations when drinks were involved, except the flow was more relaxed. It was much easier to keep track of who said what, and the slower pace allowed Tatsuma to get more involved in the banter. He mostly asked for more details about whatever they were talking about or threw in a joke from the top of his head. Occasionally, he’d tell a brief story about an amusing thing his sister, Otome, said or did, but otherwise he didn’t bring in any new topics involving his own experiences. When he got excited about something, his voice became louder as the words eagerly poured from his mouth. His energy seemed to affect Katsura, and the Vault Hunter almost rivalled Tatsuma in volume sometimes. The two of them laughed at the same dumb humor—lame jokes and puns that the other two would roll their eyes at. Every once in a while, though, a shitty joke could make even Takasugi smirk in begrudging amusement.

Somehow, Tatsuma fit in surprisingly well. He wasn’t intimidated by anything at all, and was overall just so relaxed around the three Vault Hunters. It was bizarre. Gintoki couldn’t think of a single person in the past who was this comfortable around their group—especially not right off the bat like this. He was used to either being shunned or being put on a pedestal. There was no in between. Well, he supposed Tatsuma had sort of done the latter when they’d first met…while simultaneously trying to sell Gintoki something. Seriously, this guy made no sense. But Gintoki had come to terms with that fact. Maybe in the end, he’d never learn anything more about their confusing host, given how reluctant he was about asking questions. Nothing seemed necessary to learn anymore, now that they were finally getting along.

But one evening, a single moment changed the entire atmosphere of the room.

A beeping noise sounded during their usual conversation, and their voices grew distracted and faded as the three Vault Hunters looked around for the source. The culprit was found when Tatsuma pulled up the ECHO device on his wrist. With a single glance at it, his perpetual smile suddenly dropped. He seemed to freeze up for a couple of seconds, his gaze transfixed on the screen as the device continued to beep. It didn’t look like he’d noticed everyone staring at him.

“Hey,” Takasugi spoke first. Tatsuma jumped in his seat, looking up with a blank, confused expression. The Vault Hunter raised an eyebrow. “What happened?”

After a few blinks, the merchant let out a hesitant nervous laugh. “Ah, someone’s just…callin’ me,” he said unevenly, as if he had to force the words out. With a frown, Gintoki sat back against the sofa.

“And? You gonna pick it up?” he chimed in. Tatsuma looked to him, still with a somewhat dazed expression. But upon making eye contact, he seemed to snap out of it just a little.

“Y-yeah, I probably should, ahaha…” He glanced toward his company, wringing his hands a little. “Er, could ya guys just…d-don’t make any noise, okay?” Katsura looked quite concerned, but nodded.

“We got it! Fucking answer it before they hang up,” Gintoki snapped, earning a nudge from Katsura. He couldn’t help it—seeing Tatsuma this nervous all of a sudden was making him feel a bit antsy himself. The merchant gave another weak, uncomfortable laugh.

“Yeah! Yeah, okay.” He took a deep breath before pressing on the screen—the beeping cut off abruptly. “Hello,” he spoke again, and his voice was normal. “Kenpei? ‘S been a while.” There was a pause, and then a deeper voice spoke back from the device.

“Are ya home right now?”

Tatsuma’s open mouth formed a few shapes before he exhaled quietly. “Yes.”

“Good. I’m headed into your building. Open your door fer me.”

The Vault Hunters shot each other looks—Gintoki felt his hair standing up on the back of his neck. Wait, who was headed in? What the hell was happening?? Despite the rising tension in the room, Tatsuma replied with a great deal of composure.

“Got it. See ya.” Before he uttered those last two words, the device beeped once as the call hung up from the other end. There was a stiff silence, so deafening that it was hard to believe that they were all so relaxed just moments ago. Tatsuma released a flat sigh, still staring at his screen with a deepened frown. Despite everyone else’s alarm, he looked more annoyed than nervous now. “He does this every time…” he muttered under his breath.

“H-hey, what’s going on?!” Gintoki exclaimed, throwing a bewildered look at their host. “Who the fuck was that?!” Tatsuma met his gaze and gave a reassuring smile, though it was clear that his mood had dampened.

“It’ll be alright,” he promised. “I’ll just need ya guys to sit tight in the guest room fer a bit. And be as quiet as ya can, otherwise we’ll all be doomed.”

“What kind of reassurance is that?! I’m even more freaked out now, you bastard!!”

“Understood,” Katsura said, getting up from his seat. His face was solemn. “We’ll sit quietly for a while.”

“We can be as stealthy as you need,” Takasugi added, following suit.

“Yeah right, don’t we suck at that kind of thing?!” Gintoki snapped, also jumping to his feet. “Someone always missteps once and we have three whole waves of bandits to deal with!”

“And that someone is always you,” Takasugi growled, then turned to Tatsuma, poking a thumb in Gintoki’s direction, “so rest assured, we’ll have him bound and gagged immediately.”

“Like hell you will!” Gintoki argued, slapping his hand down. “I can sit still on my own!”

“I don’t think we should risk it,” Takasugi shot back with narrowed eyes.

“There’s no time for this, you two!” exclaimed Katsura, grabbing them both by the shoulder. His two friends made a bunch of protesting noises as he dragged them toward the hallway. “Sakamoto, we’ll leave this to you!” he called over his shoulder.

“Uh-huh! Don’t ya worry; it’ll be fine!”

It may have been because of the sudden stressful situation, but even Gintoki could hear the uncertainty in Tatsuma’s voice. This guy was never so transparent, so this was pretty worrying. Taking a breath, Gintoki looked forward with determination. He’d do his absolute best to keep quiet, for all their sakes. But also…listening in to whatever was going to happen wouldn’t affect how quiet he was being, would it? Don’t get him wrong, he was still content with the lack of information, but this was a giftwrapped opportunity and he was going to take it.

Gintoki stayed by the door after Katsura shut it. Evidently, nothing was going on outside yet—if the front door opened he’d definitely hear it, even at this distance. For once, he was glad that the elevator was slow and that they were on the top floor. That bought them a lot of time in this kind of scenario. Too busy thinking, he didn’t notice Takasugi until his friend had walked right up to him, holding up a sock with both hands.

“Here, open your mouth.”

“Wh—you were seriooooous?!”

Katsura nailed him right in the face with an open palm. “Gintoki!!” he hissed. “You’re already being too loud!”

“See, it is necessary,” Takasugi growled, pushing the sock closer to Gintoki’s face. “Open.”

“No!!” Gintoki whispered aggressively, shoving both his friends’ arms away. “And no one’s even here yet! It’s fine!” Before another argument between them could start, there was a muffled noise from outside, making them all stiffen. It…didn’t sound like a door opening. What was that? Already unbearably curious, Gintoki nudged past his friends and knelt at the door, pressing his ear against it. Closing his eyes, he listened hard. He heard something akin to the clattering of ceramic, and then the sound of running water…his heart sunk with the realization.

Their plates.

Fuck. There was already evidence of their stay out there in plain view! Gintoki also thought of the blanket that he used every night that was always left sitting on the armrest of the couch, and his anxiety worsened. Oh, god. He prayed that Tatsuma would clean everything up in time…there was a sinking feeling in his stomach. They should’ve cleaned the place up earlier! Now they risked getting found out—being doomed, as Tatsuma had so eloquently put it!

“Gintoki, are you planning on eavesdropping?!” Katsura whispered right next to him, making him jump. Gintoki had failed to notice the movement again, too caught up in his thoughts. Looking over, he blinked several times at his friend…who was holding a cup against the door and leaning his ear against the base of it. There was an incredibly concentrated expression on his face. “That’s disrespectful, you know! Don’t get caught up in other people’s private affairs!”

“I’ll say,” Takasugi huffed on Gintoki’s other side. Gintoki turned and saw him doing the exact same thing. “You really are beyond the weakest member of our group if your curiosity can make you stoop so low.”

Gritting his teeth, Gintoki brought both his fists down on their heads—Takasugi blocked it in time, but Katsura took the blow full force, faceplanting on the ground as his cup slipped out of his hand. “Don’t screw with me!! You guys came even more prepared to eavesdrop than I was! Also, why are you two playing the boke role at a time like this?! It just seems out of place, doesn’t it?! Has the tension fried your brains?!” Takasugi swatted his fist away with a glare.

“What I meant was that we’re the only ones qualified to eavesdrop. If you did, you’d be found out immediately. You’re as good at keeping a secret as you are being sneaky.”

“Fuck you! I can be subtle, too!”

Katsura rose back to his knees with a grunt, rubbing his head with one hand and scooping up his cup with the other. “Unfortunately, we only have two of these,” he sighed, “so even if we all wanted to listen in…”

“This idiot didn’t even remember to snag a cup from the table, so I think he deserves to sit this one out,” Takasugi said.

“Shut up! Give me one!” Gintoki grabbed onto Takasugi’s cup but his friend had been expecting that, holding onto it tightly.

“Live with your mistakes, dumbass,” he seethed.

“No!! Hand it over! This scene’s in my POV; I’ve gotta listen!”

“It’s alright, the author can switch it to me or Takasugi,” Katsura insisted. “It’d be a nice change of pace for one of us to have a turn. We can even tell you the details later, Gintoki.”

“As if! Why should it switch over to you guys for just this one scene?!* You just want more screen time, don’t you?!”

Takasugi and Gintoki’s wrestling came to an abrupt halt when a crisp knock sounded at the front door, clear for all to hear. Tatsuma’s voice called out, and right after that was…the loud sound of a plate shattering on the ground. Gintoki shot a look at the door, his eyes wide. Ah, shit…! Takasugi took the opportunity to wrench the cup out of distracted hands and resume his eavesdropping position. After throwing an annoyed look at his friend, Gintoki glanced around and acted fast, grabbing the cup out of Katsura’s hands. He assumed his other friend wouldn’t put up a fight at a time like this, and he was right—Katsura opened his mouth to argue, then pressed his lips firmly together and gave Gintoki a displeased frown before leaving him alone. The three Vault Hunters stayed pressed against the door, still as stone—Takasugi and Gintoki with their cups, and Katsura listening with just his ear to the best of his ability. There was the sound of ceramic being shifted on the hard floor, and the knock came again.

“One moment!” Tatsuma called. There were a few clinking noises, then the loud sound of the plate fragments dropping into the trash bin. Tatsuma let out a heavy sigh.

Footsteps. Then the door swinging open.

“Sorry,” Tatsuma spoke again.

“…It’s fine,” said another voice, resembling the one from the call earlier. There was the sound of rustling. “Here, take this. I got it fer ya.”

“Ah. Okay.” Tatsuma didn’t sound enthusiastic in the slightest as he took whatever was offered. Somehow, even without needing to look at it, this scene felt beyond awkward already. There were more footsteps, along with the front door closing.

“What was that sound just then?”

“I was just cleanin’ up dinner. Broke a plate.”

“…Hm.” Observations stopped there. Gintoki assumed that Tatsuma had noticed that blanket and hid it in time. Either that, or it wasn’t suspicious-looking in the first place. There was another rustle—probably Tatsuma setting the gift down somewhere. There was a grunt from the guest as he sat down on the couch. Tatsuma’s footsteps followed.

“So, what’re ya here to yell at me about this time, Kenpei?” he asked, and it was so strange to hear a bitter edge to his voice. “Must be somethin’ dire if ya came here with a present.” There was a tense pause.

“Hmph. Startin’ with the passive aggression already? Yer childish as always.” With a sigh, Kenpei shifted in his seat. “If ya wanna skip the formalities so badly, then so be it. Take a seat.” That last phrase sounded like an order—one with a great air of authority. For some reason, Gintoki’s stomach turned. His will to listen in on this was withering away quickly. But he didn’t want to move with the risk of making noise, and that nosy part of him just had to know what this was about. After a moment, there was the sound of Tatsuma sitting down in his usual chair. Kenpei spoke again immediately. “I heard from Father that ya had a run-in with Vault Hunters recently.”

‘Father’? Ah. Gintoki was definitely slow to realizing this. Honestly, he should’ve pieced it together just from the accent shared between this Kenpei guy and Tatsuma. And the family photo that he’d snuck a peek at the other day…so that young man he saw was in fact Tatsuma’s older brother, huh? He really believed up until then that that was an uncle or cousin or something. Wasn’t their age gap just a little too wide? But anyway, after this realization, he tensed at the next one—the fact that this guy was talking about the three Vault Hunters right then and there.

“Yeah, we did,” Tatsuma answered impatiently without missing a beat. Apparently, he’d expected this. “What of it? Father already gave me a mouthful. Are ya gonna give me another three?”

There was an annoyed sigh. “Tatsuma, I’m warnin’ ya. Calm that attitude of yours, or yer gonna regret it.”

“I’m just lettin’ ya know,” Tatsuma said coolly, “whatever ya have to say about that, I’ve already heard it.”

“That’s not what I’m here to talk about.” A long pause followed, and Kenpei was the one to break the silence again. “I’m here to talk about a rumor I’ve been hearin’.”

“Rumor?”

“’That wretched son of Sakamoto’s, paradin’ around the city with a group of bandits. As we thought, that child will never amount to anythin’.’ That’s what people’ve been sayin’ about ya. Didn’t ya know?”

Gintoki broke into a cold sweat, his breath hitching in his throat. Wait, what?! Did the whole city find out that the Vault Hunters were staying here somehow?! What the hell; he thought their ‘disguises’ were working! Weren’t they? No one gave them a second glance these days, so what the hell?? He could feel his friends both tensed up at his sides, and he knew they were all silently panicking. His mind was moving a mile a minute. Did people know they were staying there? Were they gonna get kicked out now? Arrested? Vaporized?! Tatsuma seemed at a loss as well, faltering for a couple of seconds.

“Th-that’s…?”

“Don’t try to keep it from me. There were a bunch of people who claimed they witnessed ya leadin’ three ‘bandits’ through the city a couple nights ago. No one really remembered what they looked like, but I had a hunch…y’were leadin’ those Vault Hunters around, weren’t ya?”

It took yet another long, silent moment for Gintoki to slowly realize. Was Kenpei just talking about that first night? When Tatsuma had freed them from the police station and lead them to his apartment…was he only talking about that night? It made sense—the three of them definitely looked like bandits back then, armed to the teeth and wearing ragged clothing. Everyone was staring back then, at all four of them. So if that was the case, then were they still safe? Gintoki relaxed just enough to remember to breathe (as quietly as possible, of course), but he still stayed on guard, bracing for the worst. Tatsuma seemed to be hesitating.

“I…”

“Answer the question, Tatsuma,” Kenpei demanded.

“…Fine. Yes, I was, but it was fer a good reason.”

“I’m listenin’.” There was a shift—Kenpei sitting back in his seat, probably. Tatsuma paused for even longer, but eventually he took an audible deep breath.

“They…got arrested. So I wanted to help ‘em out.”

“And I’m guessin’ ya found them at the police station?” Kenpei’s voice was sharp. There was no voiced answer back, but he spoke again after another moment. “How many times do I have to tell ya, you have no business hangin’ around there? Yer still doin’ it, ain’t ya? Goin’ in there and freein’ all the prisoners ya see?”

“I…I haven’t been goin’ there that often anymore.”

“That doesn’t matter. People still notice—and they’d notice ya walkin’ around with Vault Hunters even more.”

“But all those prisoners are-”

“Don’t start with that,” Kenpei snapped, growing impatient. “How many lives can ya save? Do ya think that makes a difference? There’re tens of thousands of innocent people gettin’ thrown behind bars every day. Ya wouldn’t even be able to save one percent of them. It’s pointless, and it ain’t worth the risk.”

“But I-”

“No more buts. This is unacceptable, and you should know that by now.” Kenpei scoffed. “When will ya ever learn?”

“Learn what?” There was a creak as Tatsuma rose from his seat. His voice was louder now—he sounded upset, almost furious. “Learn to let all those people die?!”

“Tatsuma,” Kenpei sighed—he, by contrast, sounded nothing but weary.

“I can’t just let that happen! Even if I can only help so many of them, so what?! They don’t deserve to die. None of them do!”

“Lower your voice,” was all Kenpei said, but he was ignored.

“It ain’t right. Those people need someone who’ll help. And I won’t turn my back on them!”

“But ya have to!!” There was a loud bang that made the Vault Hunters jump—something had hit the coffee table. “Listen to me fer once in your life, Tatsuma,” Kenpei growled, “if yer so tired of me repeatin’ myself! I’m tired of it too! Y’know exactly why we have rules in this family. Every ridiculous thing ya pull is puttin’ us all at risk! We can’t get involved with those prisoners, much less with Vault Hunters! I’ve said this a thousand times, and I’ll say it again—don’t get involved in other people’s business. I’ll say it however many more times it takes to get it through your thick skull!!”

There was a stunned silence after that, remnants of the yells ringing from the walls, within Gintoki’s cup, within his head. He was more than a little dazed, forgetting all the urgency that he felt from before. There was a flurry of different emotions swimming around in his insides—distress in his lungs, dread in his stomach, indignation in his veins, pity in his heart. He really regretted wanting to eavesdrop now. He caught Takasugi’s eye, and one look told him that they were on the same page. Katsura too, most likely, but Gintoki didn’t want to move to look.

“…’Don’t get involved in other people’s business, even if they die ‘cause of it,’ huh?” Tatsuma spoke softly now, his voice emotionless.

“Don’t try to guilt me on this,” Kenpei replied. The edge had left his tone, but the firmness remained. “Of course I know how upsettin’ it is. I know it’s hard. But every time ya do this vigilante justice-type nonsense, yer pullin’ the rest of us down with ya. I don’t need to remind ya about those other times, do I?”

“...No,” Tatsuma uttered. There was a moment of hesitation. “Ain’t it better now? I’m outta your hairs, and those bodyguards ya hired fer Father are-”

“It ain’t good enough,” his brother interrupted, a little bit of an edge returning.

“Ah…I see,” Tatsuma sighed. It seemed like the fight had totally left him. Another awkward pause; another shift.

“So where were ya leadin’ those Vault Hunters?” Kenpei questioned, forcing the conversation back on track.

“I escorted them to the city gates,” Tatsuma replied flatly. “I…wanted to make sure they weren’t gonna cause trouble on the way and get arrested again or somethin’.” That sounded like an explanation he’d rehearsed in the case of this scenario, and apparently he rehearsed it well. Kenpei hummed thoughtfully.

“Reasonable, I suppose,” he said, “though ya attracted way too much attention that way.”

“What else was I s’posed to do?”

After a beat, Kenpei released a faint scoff, like he’d swallowed a response he was about to give. “Fair enough. Not like we can reverse the damage, but so long as these Vault Hunters’re gone, the rumors should die down eventually. That’ll have to do.”

With that, the silence returned for the longest duration yet. For that time, Gintoki couldn’t hear a goddamn thing. There may have been more shifting around, but it was hard to make out, making him wonder if it was his imagination. It made him nervous all over again—he wanted to press his ear harder against the cup, but was too afraid to move. Glancing over, he saw a relatable puzzled look on Takasugi’s face, scrunched brow and all. Good, so Gintoki hadn’t suddenly lost his hearing. With that cleared up, he found the patience to stay still. Another second passed. Two seconds. Three. When the anxious feeling started to return, Tatsuma abruptly spoke again.

“It’s gettin’ late. Anythin’ else ya wanted to tell me?”

“No. Not really.” Kenpei sounded like he was fumbling with something. “…Yer right, I should head back soon.”

“Alright, then.” It was obvious that Tatsuma was eager for this to end—there were a few brisk footsteps, and the front door opened again. And after a sigh, slower footsteps followed suit.

“I know yer probably not gonna listen if I tell ya to stop visitin’ police stations from now on,” Kenpei said.

Silence.

“Ya need to realize how important this is fer all of us. Just gotta grit your teeth and move on.”

Silence.

“I’m not tryin’ to be the bad guy. I don’t wanna be. But it’s my duty to make sure our family’s safe.”

Silence.

“Just…”

Silence.

Kenpei sighed again.

“…Goodnight, Tatsuma.”

After the click of the door, there was nothing at all. Carefully, the Vault Hunters started to move. Gintoki found that his legs had fallen asleep. He sat back onto his ass and stretched them out a bit, cursing under his breath. His friends stretched similarly—they met eye contact, but none of them spoke. Everyone had a pretty grim expression on their faces. For another while, after they’d shaken the cramps out of their bodies, the three of them just sat there, not doing anything, with their eyes downcast. Gintoki definitely felt hesitant to open that door. Maybe they were better off just…leaving him alone for the night? He didn’t know. This was all too heavy too soon.

But finally, after all that moping around, Takasugi gave a forceful huff. Before the other two knew it, their friend had stood up and thrown the door open. Gintoki and Katsura followed behind him after brief hesitation, cautiously making their way down the hall. Tatsuma was right there in front of them, leaning against the kitchen counter. He didn’t move at the sign of their presence, staring down at the empty countertop. It wasn’t until one of them spoke when he finally looked up.

“Hey,” Takasugi said with his usual indifferent voice, not sounding perturbed in the slightest. The Vault Hunter crossed his arms, tilting his head just slightly to the side. “You good?”

Tatsuma’s expression was blank, save for his subtly furrowed brow. He blinked a couple of times, watching his company, before letting out a wordless hum in response. It was about this time when Gintoki had processed that Katsura had been patting him repeatedly behind the shoulder with increasing intensity. He shot his friend a confused look, and Katsura gestured vigorously, almost comically, with his chin. Gintoki’s gaze trailed down, and when he saw what Katsura was getting at, he immediately froze up.

He was still holding that fucking cup.

Quickly, he tucked it behind his back, but when he looked up he saw that it was too late. Tatsuma was staring at the space where the cup had been. Gintoki felt his face heat up with shame, biting his lip hard.

“Really?” Takasugi grunted, giving him a tired yet unsurprised look. Gintoki could only manage a couple of throat noises back at him.

“Did ya…hear all of that?”

Gintoki’s gaze snapped back to Tatsuma, accidentally making eye contact, and he felt like a deer in headlights. “U-um-“

“We all did,” Katsura cut in, coming clean about it before someone else made the situation worse. “Sorry. We really shouldn’t have…” Tatsuma studied him briefly before looking away again.

“It’s alright,” he sighed. “Figured you’d hear the loud parts, anyway. Sorry ya all had to sit through that. It’s kinda embarrassin’.”

Gintoki opened his mouth. He wanted to say something, anything, that could’ve reassured their host. Desperately he wracked his brain, while at the same time second-guessing the words he was about to put out. Before he could speak, though, Katsura inhaled so loudly it made him jump. His friend slipped past him.

“Sakamoto! Your…!”

Tatsuma looked back, blinking in confusion before Katsura grabbed his right wrist and pulled his hand into view. Gintoki’s eyes widened at the sight of blood. There was a small stream flowing from a cut on Tatsuma’s palm by his thumb. Around it were a couple of crescent-shaped indents, implying that he’d dug his nails into the wound at least twice.

“Oh, wow,” Tatsuma murmured, apparently noticing it for the first time. Katsura took his arm with both hands, completely fixated on the injury.

“One of you! Go get bandages!”

Takasugi was the first to react, darting back into the hall. “I’ve got a kit in my bathroom,” Tatsuma called after him. Katsura was putting on pressure to stop the bleeding.

“Gintoki! Get me napkins—towels—anything!”

“A-aah, r-right!” Being singled out finally snapped Gintoki out of it—if no one had called to him, he would’ve stood by and done nothing, dazedly watching this whole thing unfold. God damn it, what was wrong with him?? Why the hell was he the last to do anything? Moving fast now, he stepped past Katsura and Tatsuma and into the kitchen, searching for and grabbing a fistful of napkins from the cabinets.

“It ain’t that bad,” Tatsuma was saying, letting out a faint nervous giggle. “Ya shouldn’t fret over it.” His words were ignored. Katsura snatched the napkins out of Gintoki’s hands the moment he stepped into range and swiftly dabbed up the blood.

“How in the world did this happen?” he muttered.

“Er…I cut myself a little when I tried cleanin’ up that plate I dropped,” Tatsuma admitted sheepishly. “I was panickin’ so it was pretty careless. But then I guess I fergot about it, ahaha…” Gintoki stared at the blood—the few drops that had made it to the floor, the smear on Tatsuma’s hand, and the bright stains soaked into the once pure white napkins. And suddenly, he was overcome with an uncontrollable anger.

That fucking piece of shit!!” he blurted out, making the other two shoot surprised looks at him. “He saw this and didn’t even stop to ask if you were alright?! What a goddamned asshat! The fuck’s wrong with that guy?! I’ll beat the shit out of him!!” He was shaking—it was hard to breathe. God, why did he feel so pissed?? He knew he was totally overreacting, but he just couldn’t stop those words from tumbling out.

“G…Gintoki?”

The Vault Hunter looked up, meeting Tatsuma’s stare. Behind the momentary confusion in those deep blue eyes, Gintoki could see a dull weariness—those eyes were devoid of the cheerful energy that they always seemed to have. And Gintoki only felt himself grow even more upset. This was all that bastard’s fault. Tatsuma was hurt, all because of that fucking…!!

Gintoki would’ve bust out another set of obscenities if Takasugi hadn’t emerged from the hall in that moment. “The fuck’s this idiot screaming about out here?” his friend scoffed. Gintoki glared at him, and naturally Takasugi glared back. Katsura eyed both of them uncertainly before clearing his throat.

“Never mind that—give me the bandages,” he urged Takasugi, who obliged without another thought.

 

Thus, Tatsuma got patched up and everything slowly returned to normal. It was getting late—about the time where they all usually turned in for the night. There was that gift bag that Kenpei left, sitting right next to the counter. The Vault Hunters peeked into it to find a fancy-looking box of snacks, and Tatsuma told them to help themselves if they wanted any. Gintoki resisted the irrational urge to throw the whole thing off the balcony.

That night, he was even more restless than usual. He stood on the balcony staring up at those twinkling stars, and not even the wind blowing in his face could make his eyes feel like closing. His mind would only replay what he’d witnessed that evening over and over again. He’d never seen—heard, rather—Tatsuma act so upset before. Actually, now that he thought of it, he hadn’t seen the guy act genuinely upset at all until now. He was starting to wonder whether Tatsuma even could get mad but, well, now he knew. And now he bashed himself on how stupid that initial thought had been. All human beings had to feel that way sometimes; it was just natural.

Gintoki wondered if Tatsuma would even join him that night. That whole encounter seemed stressful and tiring. Did it make the merchant restless as well, or did it make him want to crash out of weariness? The answer to that question came momentarily when without a sound, Tatsuma appeared at the corner of Gintoki’s eye. The Vault Hunter didn’t turn right away, sighing to himself. Yeah, he’d expected it to be this way. They stood there together as usual, faces tilted up toward the sky. The silence was a little less comfortable than the previous nights. It was easy to tell why when Gintoki stole a glance at his companion. For the first time, Tatsuma wasn’t smiling. Averting his eyes again, the Vault Hunter shifted on his feet.

“Hey, Tatsuma,” he spoke softly, staring unfocusedly across the way, “do you…wanna talk about it, or something? I’d listen.” Tatsuma didn’t answer right away, and Gintoki almost looked over again until he heard a quiet huff.

“I wouldn’t wanna bother ya with that mess.”

“Don’t sweat about bothering me,” Gintoki scoffed. “Seriously, I don’t mind. Would it make you feel better?” He didn’t get an answer again for a couple seconds—this time, he did look. Tatsuma was staring downward at the railing now, and he seemed to be struggling to think of what to say.

“I dunno,” he finally replied. Gintoki squinted at him. That was the worst kind of non-answer at the moment; it was kinda irritating. The Vault Hunter’s gaze trailed down, settling on Tatsuma’s bandaged hand that rested on the railing.

“…Well let me put it this way, then. I have some things to say,” he assured, crossing his arms firmly, “like: that brother of yours is a total dick. And that’s about it—your turn.” Tatsuma looked up at that, blinking a few times. Then, the corners of his lips twitched, and he gave a low chuckle—drastically subdued compared to his normal laughs, but a laugh nonetheless.

“He kinda is,” he agreed, “but…honestly, he ain’t as bad as he seems.”

Gintoki furrowed his brow. “Uh, how? He seems like the worst person to talk to.”

“He’s alright when he ain’t mad at me,” Tatsuma insisted, then paused before letting out a sigh. “That’s…a rare occurrence these days, though.” With the next beat, Gintoki opened his mouth to say something, but Tatsuma spoke again. “Actually, I was thinkin’ ‘bout what ya said earlier,” he hummed, looking down at his patched up hand. Gintoki grimaced—did “what he said” mean that embarrassing outburst? Geez, if he knew the conversation was gonna head that way, he never would’ve started it. Tatsuma was still smiling faintly as he continued. “I think…even he definitely would’ve said somethin’ about my hand if I hadn’t been hidin’ it.” Gintoki raised an eyebrow.

“Ah,” he uttered. So that was how it went? Well, he supposed he did jump to conclusions too quickly, but… “Why the hell’d you hide it?”

“If he saw it, he’d probably nag about my carelessness again fer way too long. That’s just how he is.”

“Eesh, what an annoying asshole,” Gintoki grumbled. Tatsuma chuckled again.

“Yeah, well I s’pose I deserve gettin’ yelled at by him.”

The Vault Hunter paused, giving him an odd look. “Why?”

Tatsuma looked up at that, blinking confusedly. “Huh?”

“Why would you deserve that?”

The merchant seemed reluctant to answer that, furrowing his brow just a little. He averted his eyes. “’Cause…he’s right, most of the time. Everythin’ I do stresses him out—my father, too, fer that matter.” With those words, Gintoki’s mind went back to the day they’d first met. Yeah…honestly, he couldn’t argue with that. Tatsuma leaned a little more against the railing, frowning down at the city lights. “All Kenpei wants is fer our family to keep a low profile. But somehow, I just…I just keep doin’ stupid things and screwin’ it up fer everyone. Everythin’ I do ends up startin’ some kinda commotion. Wish I could be subtle, like my sis—like Otome. But I ain’t. I’m just…a bumblin’ idiot of a little brother who can’t do anythin’ right.”

Gintoki blinked several times at Tatsuma, who folded his arms onto the railing and gave a dispirited huff. Alright, damn—he really poured his heart out suddenly after just a little nudge of encouragement. The Vault Hunter hadn’t been ready for that. But ah well; he’d asked for this so he’d better commit.

“Okay, back up a sec,” he said. “Why the hell do you have to keep a low profile in the first place?” Tatsuma gave him a confused look, but after a moment it changed to one of realization.

“Oh, yeah,” he murmured, his gaze drifting over to the city below. “I fergot—ya don’t know much about Ame, huh?”

“Nope,” Gintoki answered. Just that it’s a shit place, he added mentally.

“Well the truth is, the people in this city still see us as outsiders—my family, I mean. Otome and I…we’re the only ones who were born on this planet. The rest of us settled in from space. And the people here don’t take newcomers well. Even though Father’s worked so hard to fit in, and the rest of my siblings’ve been playin’ along, everyone still looks down on all of us.” Tatsuma chuckled softly, but there was no sign of humor in his voice. “’S probably all my fault. If it weren’t fer me, maybe the rest of my family’d be treated better by now.”

Gintoki studied him for a long moment, taking it all in. Somehow, the Vault Hunter found himself feeling a bit annoyed. How could Tatsuma talk about himself like that? All this pessimism and self-loathing really didn’t suit him. Usually he was the complete opposite, irritatingly cheery and hopeful all the time. Well, even the happiest of people had to have their moments.

“…I don’t think so,” Gintoki finally replied, also looking down at the busy lights of the city while nonchalantly picking at his nose. “I might not know that much about this place, but I’ve met enough assholes in my life to know how these people think. They don’t give a fuck about how nice you or your family are. If they see you as outsiders, then you’re outsiders. And nothing’s gonna change their shitty opinions ‘til they lie down in their graves.” He flicked a booger at the scenery, hoping that it’ll land on someone’s head, and peered back at Tatsuma. “It’s not your fault you’re surrounded by all these insufferable pricks, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Besides, why would you wanna fit into this fucked up society?”

After holding eye contact for a good few seconds, Tatsuma’s gaze wandered away again and he gave a short, thoughtful hum. “I…my family does—especially Father and Kenpei. ‘Cause it’s safe.” Gintoki gave him an incredulous look.

“This place is a shithole!”

“But it’s safe,” Tatsuma repeated, looking him dead in the eye. “There’s hardly any crime to worry about. And with a steady income, yer all set to survive here.” Gintoki faltered, opening and closing his mouth.

“I guess that’s true,” he reluctantly admitted. Still he didn’t look away, trying to read Tatsuma’s tricky expression. “But…does living like this make you happy?” The question seemed to catch the merchant off guard—he blinked several times, looking strangely surprised, but a glum expression soon crept onto his face as he cast his gaze aside.

“That doesn’t matter.”

“The fuck do you mean ‘that doesn’t matter’?? Shouldn’t it be the one thing that does matter? At this age, shouldn’t you be trying to live the way you wanna live?”

Tatsuma just closed his eyes and gently shook his head. After a little while of silence, it was clear that he didn’t want to talk about this anymore. Gintoki watched him with a puzzled frown. Goddamn, he really couldn’t understand this situation. He just wanted to help out somehow—to make Tatsuma feel at least a little bit better. But Gintoki didn’t know how. Maybe he was making it worse, even. Ugh, what a mess! This was really bothering him. Looking back toward the scenery, he felt the cold wind on his face and took a breath, emptying his head of all these jumbled, troublesome thoughts.

“…I think you’re doing alright, at least,” he finally muttered, “with helping people out of jail and all that. Screw whatever all these mindless rich assholes or your brother think. They’ve never sat behind bars waiting to die like us poor people did. I’m guessing you’ve helped a whole lot of others before us, huh?”

“I’ve…done the best I could manage,” Tatsuma answered with a good deal of hesitation. “But…”

“That’s good enough,” Gintoki insisted, giving a firm look. “Who cares if some assholes judge you for doing it? If any of the others you’ve helped were like that one family, I’m sure they’re all grateful as fuck for what you did for them. I mean, I…I guess,” he faltered a little bit, looking away. “If it weren’t for you, a lot of people wouldn’t be alive—we probably wouldn’t be alive right now. You really saved our asses back then, so…I’m really grateful, too.” He took a silent breath—god, this was sappy. But he pressed on anyway. “Shit. I haven’t even said this ‘til now, but…thanks. For saving us. In my eyes, you’re the best person living on this entire fucked up planet. Y’know, if that means anything at all.”

He lifted his gaze at last with those words. Tatsuma was staring—there was the look of astonishment in his widened eyes, and his lips were slightly parted. As they gazed at each other, the merchant’s brow furrowed and he closed his mouth, the corners slowly upturning. His heartfelt smile radiated a certain fond warmth, unlike any before.

“Ya really are a good person,” he said softly. Gintoki had to scoff at that.

“You’re still going on about that?” he huffed, quickly averting his eyes with mock annoyance. He heard Tatsuma’s giggle—it sounded much better already.

A familiar beeping noise made them both stiffen at once. Gintoki shot a look as Tatsuma, with extreme reluctance, peered down at his ECHO device. Though this time, after catching glimpse of the name on the display, the merchant relaxed immediately with a short sigh, his shoulders sagging. Without even a word of warning to Gintoki, he picked up the call.

“Hey, Sis.”

“Heya,” came Otome’s lighthearted voice from the speaker. “I didn’t wake ya, did I?”

“No, yer good,” Tatsuma hummed. There was a pause from the other line.

“…Are ya on the balcony again? Sounds windy.”

“Ahaha!” Tatsuma gave a surprised laugh. “Ya got me.”

“I should’ve known,” Otome said. She paused again. “…Yer with at least one Vault Hunter right now, aren’t ya.”

“How the fuck?” Gintoki blurted out before Tatsuma could say anything. Otome guffawed.

“I’m omniscient, obviously,” she teased. “Hm, yer Gintoki, right? I ain’t…interruptin’ anythin’, am I?” Gintoki squinted at the screen.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Aw, I thought my wink would’ve translated well with that line.”

“How would you expect us to figure out you were winking without any video?!” Tatsuma laughed again.

“Ya ain’t interruptin’,” he said, answering the question. “What’d ya wanna talk about?”

“Weeell, just wanted ya to know that I’m gonna treat ya to dinner tomorrow night. All four of ya. Lemme know when ya get off work, alright?” Tatsuma scoffed with a pout.

“That’s real short notice, y’know.”

“What, didja have plans already?”

“No, but-”

“See, it’s fine then! Anyway, that’s all—I’ll talk with ya tomorrow. Get some sleep!”

“Alright, we will,” Tatsuma sighed. “G’night.”

“Night!”

With that, the merchant hung up and dropped his arm back onto the railing, turning back to Gintoki. There was a little sheepish smile on his face.  “Haha…I guess that’s happenin’ tomorrow. Sorry, my family really likes bein’ spontaneous.”

“I noticed,” Gintoki snorted. “That’s not a problem, though. Not like we have any plans here, ever.”

“That’s true,” Tatsuma chuckled. He raised his head and continued his stargazing—Gintoki followed suit. “Don’t worry. Otome’s real excited to meet ya all, and she’s nice to be around most of the time. So long as ya don’t get on her nerves. That’d be bad.”

“You’re not very good at reassuring people, are you?” Gintoki grumbled, giving a stink eye. “But anyway, I’m not even worried. I can behave myself just fine in front of someone like her.”

“If ya say so,” Tatsuma hummed. “I’ll be there to back ya up, though.”

“Like I need that! Sheesh, you’re the worried one here, aren’t you? It’ll be fine!”

“Ahahaha! I ain’t worried either, but alright. We’ll just see how it goes.” Gintoki swore that Tatsuma was lying, but as always that smiling face was impossible to read, so he left it alone.

After a minute, Tatsuma pushed off of the railing and rolled his shoulders back. “I should go to bed,” he murmured. “Feelin’ pretty tired.” Gintoki made an acknowledging sound. Yeah, after that stressful encounter earlier, it was only natural. Tatsuma looked to him with a soft smile. “Thanks fer puttin’ up with my nonsense. I really do feel better now.”

“See, what’d I tell ya?” Gintoki huffed, running a hand through his hair. Internally, he felt like he didn’t really do anything to help at all. But as long as he did, he supposed. “Feel free to talk to me about this kind of shit again, I guess. I’m no therapist, but at least I’ll listen.” He turned to fully face Tatsuma, and held up a hand. “’Kay, here.”

Tatsuma gave him a blank look, his eyes flitting back and forth a few times from the hand to Gintoki’s face. “I…thought ya didn’t like me touchin’ ya,” he said, his voice laced with confusion. Gintoki raised an eyebrow, and it took a moment for him to recall what Tatsuma was referring to.

“You remember the weirdest things,” he grunted. “No, I mean, give me my tip.” He was only half joking as he motioned with his fingers. Tatsuma blinked a couple times at him.

“Are ya sayin’ ya actually don’t mind it?” he asked, like he didn’t even hear the part about the tip.

“Uh,” Gintoki paused, not seeing where this was going. It was true that the touching used to bother him, but now… “Yeah? I don’t really care.” Tatsuma smiled.

“Alright! Then, since I don’t have my wallet—”

Before Gintoki could react, Tatsuma pulled him into a tight hug. Soft curly hair brushed against the Vault Hunter’s cheek, and their difference in height seemed enough for Tatsuma to comfortably lean his chin onto Gintoki’s shoulder. Despite the cold air around them, the merchant was unexpectedly warm.

“Thank you,” he breathed again. “I really mean it.” Gintoki did his best to look over without turning his head, raising his eyebrows. Slowly, he relaxed from his initial surprised tension, and after a second his arms snaked around Tatsuma with a gentle hesitation.

“Er, yeah. No problem,” he muttered in response, lightly patting the merchant on the back. This actually wasn’t uncomfortable at all—in fact, the warmth that came with the embrace was definitely welcome after standing in the cold—but Tatsuma did have quite the grip, Gintoki noted.

As quick as it started, the hug ended abruptly. Gintoki was once again left dazed as Tatsuma suddenly let go and took a step back.

“G’night!”

With that, the merchant turned and darted into the apartment, almost as fast as a scurrying mouse. Gintoki, with his mouth hanging open but at a loss for words, watched him go around the corner and out of sight.

“…G’night,” he echoed after finally finding his voice. By then, he doubted that Tatsuma was even in earshot anymore. Well that was spontaneous. Seriously, this guy was a real oddball.

Releasing a breath, Gintoki rubbed the side of his neck. That was a nice tip, he supposed. Not one that he could by some sweets with, but it was nice nonetheless. Somehow, though, standing there alone now made the wind against his back feel even colder than before. With a suppressed urge to shiver, Gintoki stepped inside.

Chapter Text

“Tatsuma!!”

In front of the restaurant that the group of four were approaching stood a woman. She had a huge smile on her face as she waved at them with great enthusiasm. Her appearance was familiar to Gintoki, and it didn’t take more than a second to recall—she was the one in that framed picture sitting on Tatsuma’s bedside drawer. The sun was setting and it was just beginning to get dark, but her features were still quite easy to make out.

“That’s her?” Takasugi muttered right behind Tatsuma, who nodded.

“Uh-huh.” He spoke up, calling out to his sister. “Hey, Otome! Sorry we’re late, ahaha!”

I’ll say,” the woman huffed as they walked up to her, jamming her fists against her hips as she gave a playful pout. “Ya really gotta learn how to drive one of these days. Makes yer life so much easier!”

“I’m workin’ on it,” Tatsuma sighed. Otome was already standing on her toes, trying to peek around her tall little brother.

“So, which Vault Hunter is which?!”

“Uh, don’t you think you should lower your voice a little??” Gintoki blurted. Just like Tatsuma, Otome was loud, too. And on top of that, there were other people on this street beside them. The woman made a dismissing noise, waving it off.

“Don’t worry, most people here don’t even know what ‘Vault Hunter’ means! Everyone’s just ‘bandits’ and ‘not bandits’ to them.”

Most people,” Gintoki huffed, creasing his brow. “But even then, everyone knows about vaults, don’t they?”

“You’d be surprised,” Otome sighed, shaking her head. “These poor well frogs…but anyway, yer Gintoki, ain’t ya? That was my guess even before ya spoke, ha! I’m good!”

“Gee, I wonder how you guessed that,” Gintoki said in a completely flat, sarcastic tone. Otome wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, already looking at the others.

“As fer you two, hmm…ya look like the other grumpy one, so yer Takasugi, right? And yer—hey, that’s my shirt!” She suddenly pointed eagerly at Katsura, grinning ear to ear.

“I’m not your shirt, I’m Katsura.”

Otome giggled. “No, I mean, that’s the shirt I gave Tatsuma!”

“Ah.” Katsura looked down at what he was wearing, gently tugging at the bottom of the cute shirt. “He did mention that, if I remember correctly. You have a very good taste in fashion.”

“Hey, thanks! Nice to meet someone who appreciates it, unlike some people I know.” She shot a look at her brother, who raised his eyebrows.

“I wear it! Sometimes. At home.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Otome huffed, “ya think yer too stylish fer my clothes, huh? Struttin’ around with a nice vest and dress shirts and a cool jacket like a real fancy businessman—ya look good in that, by the way,” she added to Gintoki. The Vault Hunter blinked, only getting it when he looked down. Oh, was this the jacket she was talking about? When he raised his head, Otome’s attention was again elsewhere. Geez, this woman mind went a mile a minute. She was squinting at Takasugi, who gave her an odd look back.

“Ya don’t seem to be wearin’ anythin’ familiar,” Otome noted, “but your clothes’re pretty stylish, too.” Now that he knew what she was staring at, Takasugi’s expression went flat again. That whole incident with him trying on Tatsuma’s clothes popped into Gintoki’s head, and he couldn’t help a loud snort. That earned him a glare from his friend.

“These’re my clothes. From some corporation I worked for a while ago,” Takasugi said. “Got the colors changed to get rid of the shitty logos.” Otome’s eyes seemed to light up.

“A corporation, eh? Now that’s somethin’ I’d wanna hear more about.”

“It’s not as interesting as you’d expect. Or pleasant, for that matter,” the Vault Hunter scoffed.

“That just makes me all the more curious,” the woman said with a wink. Takasugi gave something like a grimace in return, and Gintoki frowned at Otome. Geez, these siblings really were similar, weren’t they? Still smiling brightly, the woman turned around. “But anyway, let’s go in! We’ll continue this chat over a nice dinner.”

Yeah, that was the only thing Gintoki was really looking forward to. Finally, something other than home cooking for once. Not that eating at home was bad, but a change of pace like this was nice. “Good, I’m fucking starving,” he sighed as he followed closely behind Tatsuma. As Otome opened the front door, she turned to look back at the group.

“Oh yeah, and don’t be alarmed.”

All of them stared blankly at her. Wait, what?

“… Sis ,” Tatsuma groaned, sounding suddenly exasperated. It seemed he was quick to realize exactly what she did. The confused Vault Hunters would be on the same page a second later.

“Tatsumaaa!!” Someone in the restaurant called out the moment they all filed in. At a table near a far corner sat two women—the older one was waving in their direction with an elegant smile. The other one didn’t look over for too long before her eyes fell back to the table, her lips seemingly glued to her cup of water. Tatsuma was quick to drop his dismayed expression from earlier, waving back cheerily.

“Sis, ya promised not to tell anyone ,” he muttered to Otome, his voice strangely stern for his expression. His sister gave a subtle shrug.

“I wouldn’t tell anyone I didn’t trust both our lives on,” she replied before gesturing for everyone to follow her. “C’mon!”

“Uh, who the fuck are they ?” Gintoki whispered behind Tatsuma, who made a short hum.

“Don’t worry,” was all he whispered back.

“Too bad, I’m already worried! What the hell’s going on?? Hey!” Tatsuma was already walking away. Gintoki shot a look back at his friends—they both seemed just as hesitant as he was. They’d all prepared for a dinner with just Otome, not a whole posse of women they didn’t know! Who were they, anyway?! Oh god, this was going to be an awkward night. With a short sigh, Katsura pushed his friends, urging them to move forward before they attracted the attention of other customers from their loitering. Gintoki peered back at the front door and considered just getting the hell out of here, but swallowed the fight-or-flight response. With a great deal of reluctance, he trailed behind Tatsuma.

As they got closer, Gintoki realized that these two strangers looked a bit familiar somehow. The realization slowly sunk in as he tried to remember. That family picture that he saw…though he couldn’t remember the faces very well, they certainly seemed much older now in person. The eldest woman looked to be in her mid thirties—maybe she was even older, but it was hard to tell with her well-drawn makeup. The scarce streaks of gray in her neatly tied hair gave a sense of her age, though perhaps they were from stress as well. The younger one still seemed even older than Otome. Gintoki got a bit of a weird vibe from her—she still hadn’t put down her glass, and was eyeing all of them with an unreadable expression. It was getting kinda unnerving.

“Hey Izuru, Kana,” Tatsuma greeted them with a genuine smile. “Long time no see!”

“I’ll say!” The older woman rose from her seat. Her movements were graceful as she glided over to give the merchant a hug. She held him at arm’s length with a warm smile. “You should come visit more often!”

“Ahaha! Guess I really oughta sometime,” he chuckled.

“Tatsuma.” The other woman had finally set her drink down—her voice was so soft that it was hard to hear over the murmur of conversation in the restaurant. She held her arms outstretched. “Me too.” Giggling sheepishly, Tatsuma went over to her. As they hugged, she seemed to whisper something in his ear.

“Ahahaha! Hahaha! Yeah, I got it,” he laughed as he pulled away, scratching the back of his neck. Gintoki squinted. Somehow, he got the sense that she just said something threatening…though that was probably just his imagination. Hopefully.

“What’re ya boys waitin’ for?” Otome pipped up, taking the chair next to that odd woman. “Go on, take a seat!” Katsura pulled up the chair across from the eldest woman, bowing his head politely.

“Thank you for having us.”

“No problem! It’s a pleasure to meet ya,” the woman answered with a friendly smile. “So, yer the Vault Hunters we’ve been hearin’ so much about? I must say, yer quite the handsome bunch!”

“Uh, thanks,” Gintoki said uncertainly. He settled down next to Takasugi, who’d taken the seat next to Katsura.

“I thought they’d be really ugly,” the woman next to her muttered. Gintoki’s eye twitched.

“A…and why would you say that…?” he questioned, trying to resist snapping at anyone here—as friendly as these women seemed, they were all equally as intimidating. The middle woman blinked at him, looking surprised.

“Oh. Ya weren’t supposed to hear that. Don’t mind me,” she answered in a monotone, going back to sipping her water. Gintoki squinted. If they weren’t supposed to hear that, why did she say it at her default volume? Well, he’d let it slide for now. Mostly because her stare was seriously unnerving.

“Please excuse Kana here,” the eldest giggled. “She was real nervous about meetin’ the three of ya.” Gintoki raised an eyebrow. This was her being nervous?? “Ah, that reminds me, we haven’t even introduced ourselves yet, have we? How silly of me!” Smiling, the woman bowed her head. “I’m Sakamoto Izuru. And this is Sakamoto Kana.”

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Katsura said with another nod. “I’m Katsura Kotaro.” Gintoki blinked. Oh great, they were using their full names now? He and Takasugi eyed each other, both reluctant to go next, but after a few seconds Katsura sighed. “This is Takasugi Shinsuke, and Sakata Gintoki.”

“Lovely!” Izuru exclaimed. “Thank you all fer takin’ care of our little brother.”

Tatsuma had sat down next to Gintoki—the Vault Hunter glanced over at him, and found him staring with a surprised expression. “What?” Gintoki asked, giving him an odd look.

“Your last name is Sakata??”

“Uh…yeah?” What the- have they never gone over this?! Now that he thought of it, they’d never fully introduced themselves before…Tatsuma still looked a bit shocked.

“And this whole time, I thought Gintoki was your last name!”

“How the-?! Does that sound like a last name to you?!”

“I just thought ya had a weirder one,” Tatsuma said. His giggle sounded a bit nervous. “Er, sorry. I had it wrong this whole time…” Gintoki rolled his eyes.

“Geez, don’t worry about it! If I gave a shit, I would’ve said something a long time ago.” And honestly, he added to himself, it wasn’t Tatsuma’s fault for assuming that at all. They were on first name basis in the first place anyway so it really didn’t matter much, did it?

“If ya say so,” Tatsuma murmured. He still looked embarrassed, but gave his usual smile regardless.

“Hm~”

Looking across the table, Gintoki saw Otome watching them with raised eyebrows. He furrowed his brow at her. “ What ?” The woman just waved it off.

“Nothin’, nothin’!” Gintoki felt a little bit of annoyance rise up from that look she was giving. Before he could react, though, she’d already turned away. “Hey, Izuru, didja order anythin’ yet?”

 

After getting past the meeting-the-family vibe, the dinner wasn’t as awkward as Gintoki had expected it to be. Otome was plenty talkative, somehow managing to keep the conversation going the whole time while they waited for their food to come. Izuru was also quite pleasant—in an odd way, that made her approachable and intimidating at the same time. She radiated a relaxing aura, though, making the former ultimately trump the latter. As for Kana, well…Gintoki was just trying his best to ignore her staring.

The sisters talked a bit about themselves. Izuru was married with two kids, living away from the rest of the family—she seemed to like telling stories about said kids, dabbling in a few here and there. She stopped herself several times, though. “Look at me, ramblin’ on about my borin’ life to a group of Vault Hunters,” she giggled.

“You may go on, if you’d like,” Katsura urged, totally absorbed in her stories. “We’d be happy to listen.”

You’d be happy to listen,” Takasugi corrected with a grimace.

On the other hand, Izuru did mention how the Sakamoto family had travelled across the galaxy before settling on this planet—she was young back then, but still remembered quite a few things. Now this was a subject that all the Vault Hunters could get interested in. They’d even discovered that both parties had visited the same planet at different time frames—they talked excitedly about how much that place had changed between the Sakamotos’ and the Vault Hunters’ visits. Otome and Tatsuma seemed fond of Izuru’s stories, and Gintoki wondered how much the eldest sister resembled their storytelling mother.

Kana, unlike her sisters, was deathly silent. Gintoki caught her staring multiple times, but whenever they made eye contact, she never flinched. It was the Vault Hunter who always found himself looking away first, feeling very unsettled. Seriously, how was this woman nervous ? To him, it seemed like she had nerves of steel! He wished she wasn’t sitting in between her sisters—she was like a dark, creepy aura that he was forced to acknowledge whenever he looked across the table. It looked like everyone else was ignoring her, though, so he tried his best to follow their lead. The food came shortly, anyway, and the conversation died down for a while.

“So, Tatsuma,” Otome was the first to start it up again, swallowing a mouthful, “Kenpei came home all huffy last night. I’m guessin’ he visited ya, huh?” Gintoki couldn’t help but stiffen up at her words, shocked at how casually the sensitive subject was brought up. He hoped his body language was subtle enough that no one would notice—without turning his head, he tried looking toward Tatsuma. But to his surprise, he heard a lighthearted laugh.

“Yeah, he sure did,” Tatsuma giggled, rubbing the back of his head. “It was the usual stuff…”

“Geez, what a tool,” Otome sighed. “Doesn't he ever get tired of lecturin’ people? Yer real lucky ya moved out this early—meanwhile, I'm still stuck with seein’ his constant stink eye every day. Guess I’m next in line fer him to pick on after you.” She clicked her tongue, glaring off to the side. “What a pain in the ass.” There was a sigh next to her.

“Otome needs to stop gettin’ caught,” Kana hummed, staring down at her food as she picked at it.

“Pssh! Easier said than done! I ain’t like you , Kana.” Otome seemed almost prideful in stating this as she grinned and winked at her little brother. “Tatsuma and I are pros at gettin’ caught. We’re here to make a statement in this shithole, not sneak ‘round like a buncha rats.”

“Are ya callin’ us rats?” Kana’s eyes narrowed, and it looked like she was about to unleash some sort of ancient darkness upon the world. But within a second, her face was suddenly passive again. “I love rats,” she mused as she lifted another bite to her mouth. Gintoki didn’t know he’d tensed up again until he found himself relaxing his rigid shoulders. None of the Sakamotos seemed to even flinch at their sister’s brief threatening aura—were they that used to it? This chick was damn scary!

Not halting the flow of conversation, Izuru let out a giggle. “I s’pose it’s expected that our youngest two would be the ones to cause all the ruckus. But Tatsuma,” she looked over to her brother and though still smiling brightly, there was a touch of seriousness in her eyes, “I probably don’t need to tell ya, but ya better be careful this time. Y’should already know how many lines yer crossin’ in their eyes by doin’ this.” Her gaze swept briefly over the Vault Hunters, and it seemed almost apologetic.

“Yeah, I know.” Tatsuma matched the soberness of Izuru’s tone. He gave her a smile—one full of confidence. “Rest assured! So far, no one suspects a thing. Not even Kenpei!” His sisters’ eyes all seemed to light up at that.

“Don’t tell me, last night,” Otome said with a light frown, looking to Gintoki in particular, “ya all were there?”

“Yes,” Katsura was the one to answer after eying his two friends. “We were, ah, hiding out in the other room. There was no time to slip out unnoticed, so…”

“Makes sense,” Izuru remarked thoughtfully. “Kenpei’s got a nasty habit of droppin’ by without so much of a moment’s notice. Really makes people scramble to tidy up the house.” She was definitely speaking from experience.

“Yep, that’s what happened. And I only broke one plate!” Tatsuma boasted, showing off his bandaged hand.

“Ah. I was wonderin’ ,” Otome murmured, her gaze lingering on it for a moment before flitting back to her brother’s face. “But anyway, ya managed to hide ‘em from Kenpei ? Now that’s impressive!”

“Ahaha! It was a group effort.”

Gintoki silently disagreed. All he and his friends did was hold their breaths behind a door and eavesdrop —he still felt something akin to guilt twisting his stomach at that word. Tatsuma was the one who’d done all the tidying and the talking. Judging by Otome’s words, Kenpei was apparently a tough guy to fool. That also explained why Tatsuma was so nervous back then…but somehow, he’d pulled through for all of their sakes. Maybe they’d dodged an even bigger bullet than Gintoki had assumed.

“At this rate, perhaps you’ll be able to fool your whole family someday,” Izuru giggled. Tatsuma let out a loud laugh at that.

“That’s impossible! I’m no match fer the three of ya.”

“Which is why ya haven’t been keepin’ in touch lately, huh.”

Tatsuma’s laugh turned a little nervous at that, despite his eldest sister’s playful tone. Kana made something of a smirk as she picked up her drink again.

“No secrets,” she said.

“Especially if the secret is Vault Hunters,” Izuru added, giving the three outsiders another interested look. “I haven’t met any travelers in so many years! Bein’ able to finally talk to someone else who’s been ‘round the galaxy is real refreshing.” Her brother paused at that—his lips formed a thin line.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell ya before. Both of ya. I…”

Izuru stopped him before he could say another word. “We understand, Tatsuma. It’s alright. In this situation, it’s better not to tell too many people, right? As much as knowin’ makes me happy, your safety’s most important. That bein’ said,” she gave a supportive smile, and there was something mischievous in her eyes, “your secret’s safe with us.”

“We’d all get in trouble if it got out,” Kana huffed. “Haven’t been scolded by Kenpei in years. I’ll kill him if he tries me now.” There was some genuine malice in those words—was that an actual death threat against her older brother? And for a punishment so minor? Gintoki had a feeling that if this secret got out, there would be something much bigger than a simple scolding waiting for everyone.

“Ah!’ Izuru exclaimed softly, touching her fingertips to her mouth as she blinked at the Vault Hunters. “Anyway, we’ve prattled on fer far too long, haven’t we? We’ve been neglectin’ our guests completely. So sorry ‘bout that.” The three friends exchanged quick looks—frankly, they wouldn’t have minded if the conversation had kept going in this direction for the rest of the meal. Gintoki was even…a bit interested in it somehow? He was okay with learning more about these women that Tatsuma had grown up around—piecing together personalities from their behavior instead of being given a description of them. It seemed like they were all reasonable people and, well, if Tatsuma trusted them to keep this secret, then Gintoki supposed that they could all relax in these women’s presence.

That being said, they couldn’t relax that much. The Sakamoto family seemed like “dangerous people,” defined in a different way than the Vault Hunters were used to.

“Yeah, huh! These boys haven’t had the chance to talk at all,” Otome noted. She leaned forward, elbows on the table and chin in her palms as she grinned brightly at them. “So? How’s your stay been so far?”

Once again, the friends looked to each other uncertainly. Great, now it was time to be awkward. Everyone else was silent—Kana, who seemed to have opened up slowly by talking to her siblings, had returned to giving that uncomfortable stare. She’d apparently forgotten about or disregarded their presence until now.

Katsura was giving a look to his two friends that seemed to be saying, “I can’t be the only one to speak up all the time for everything.” Gintoki tried to convey, “Are you sure it’s a good idea to let me and Takasugi open our mouths in front of people we’ve just met,” in his look right back to him. Takasugi at least seemed to get Gintoki’s pointed looks, if his narrowing eyes were any indication. They were about to start a silent glare argument right then and there.

“Aw c’mon,” Otome unknowingly interrupted something within the awkward silence that could've ended very badly, raising her eyebrows as she looked between the Vault Hunters with an encouraging smile. “Yer free to be as honest as ya like.” Gintoki knew that if Katsura were to speak first, they'd be stuck with some insufferably polite sugarcoating.

“Well,” he blurted out before that could happen. “No offense to you people, but…your city kinda sucks.” He found himself holding back anyway, taken by a bout of hesitation. Otome herself had called this place a ‘shithole’ a minute ago, right? He didn't imagine that, right? Though even if he heard correctly, he didn’t want to insult this place with too much enthusiasm just yet.

“Yeah, it’s a fuckin’ disaster,” Otome hummed, making Gintoki do a double take. Alright, well, it was nice to know that they were on the same page. “Don’t even get me started—at least fifty things that happen in this area alone every day would make anyone with decent morals cry.” She raised an eyebrow, studying Gintoki. “So, I’m guessin’ this city’s been givin’ ya some problems?”

“Not very many, as of late,” Katsura was the one to answer that, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “We seem to be fitting in alright after a change in wardrobe.”

“It didn’t treat us at all kindly before that point, though,” Takasugi scoffed. “Who knew that a community this cruel could be fooled so easily?”

“Fer starters, basically the whole place is populated by sheeple,” Otome said. “Ya don’t even know how many carefree, brainwashed rich kids yer surrounded by.”

“Is the answer ‘all of them’?” Gintoki sighed. “‘Cause that sounds like the safest assumption to make. But anyway besides all that, I’m just sayin’—next to all that upsetting shit that’s constantly going on, your city’s just plain boring.” He waved his hand dismissively. “All they have is ‘luxury cruise’ this and ‘recreational sports’ that. What’s a Vault Hunter gotta do to get some quality entertainment around here?” Otome gave a hearty laugh at that.

“Ah man, I shoulda seen that one comin’. This would be a damn boring place fer you guys, huh.”

“You could always travel outside of the city,” Izuru thoughtfully suggested. “I’m surprised ya haven’t at least once at this point—you’ve been stayin’ here fer quite a few days now, right?”

“Outside the city? Why, what’s there?” Gintoki asked, eyebrow raised. “Isn’t it all about the same in terms of boring shit?” All three sisters gave him a blank stare.

“Yer tellin’ me ya don’t even know ‘bout that?” Otome questioned before she immediately turned to her brother. “ Tatsuma ! Ya haven’t told ‘em??” The Vault Hunters all shot a look at him as well, and Tatsuma flinched at the undivided attention that was abruptly on him.

“N-no, I didn’t,” he admitted, scratching his cheek nervously.

“Why not?! Ya know these guys wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves with this lifestyle fer long!”

“Uh, why’re you talking like we’re some sort of common housepet,” Gintoki muttered, but his comment went unnoticed.

“Well- the permits’re hard to come by,” Tatsuma started, but Otome cut him off with a loud scoff.

“That’s bullshit. Ya always have a buncha those on hand, and I even give ya the spares that I don’t use! And I know ya don’t hand ‘em out that quickly, else it’d be too suspicious. Who do ya think yer tryin’ to fool here?”

Tatsuma seemed at a loss, especially when all eyes were on him. Gintoki was mostly just confused for the time being. He did remember that stack of permits that Tatsuma kept in his bedside drawer—there were certainly a lot of them there, assuming they were legit. But that wasn’t the issue he was focused on. No one had answered his question yet, so he tried again.

“Hey,” he spoke up to grab everyone’s attention back, “so what’s the deal with going out of the city anyway? We haven’t heard shit about how it’s like out there, now that I think of it.” The sisters all exchanged glances, and Otome threw another brief judgemental look toward Tatsuma.

“Well, the outskirts just by the city gates are similar to the city itself,” Izuru hummed, and she looked like she was concentrating on old memories. “Of course, the law enforcement is not as extreme. Crimes are still mild, though they regularly slip through the police’s fingers. Overall it’s quite peaceful, if it’s still the same as it was the last time I’ve visited. As fer beyond that…” She hesitated a moment before shaking her head. “Though I’ve heard things, I’m afraid I personally have not ventured very far past that point.”

“You answer, Tome,” Kana said, eyeing her little sister. “Ya go out there all the time.”

“I don’t go that far out much, either,” Otome huffed, crossing her arms, “though I wanna. Can’t travel a lot when I’ve only got so much time to sneak out. But basically,” she turned to the Vault Hunters, “from there on, the quality of life deteriorates. It’s a gradual descent into slums, the further out ya go. City people who’ve seen it like to call it bandit-ville and, well, they ain’t all wrong. People livin’ there fight fer scraps, and there’s even a couple of ‘bandit gangs’ or somethin’ like that always causin’ trouble.” She gave a little smirk, cracking her neck. “I go all the way out there sometimes when I really feel like shootin’ some people up. It’s some nice me time. And the people there actually appreciate a bit of vigilante justice, unlike this insufferable place we call home.”

Gintoki’s eyes were wide, and he was sure that his friends shared the same kind of numb shock. Not only from the fact that there was in fact a place on this planet that was so much closer to their comfort zone, but also that Otome now seemed even more badass than she initially did. Hell, if her words were true, she’d fit right in with their Vault Hunter group.

“You go out there alone ?” Takasugi was the one who asked, raising one eyebrow high.

“Sure do! Oh, ‘course I gotta get someone to drive me there, but they don’t do anythin’ to help out besides that.” Takasugi clicked his tongue, giving her a scrutinizing stare.

“I don’t buy that. Someone like you who fits in perfectly with this fragile rich kid crowd couldn’t possibly survive out in that kind of place on your own.”

“Hey, didn’t ya say that you fit in too now? It ain’t that hard to dress nice and wash your hair.”

“They call her ‘Deadeye Doku’ out there, or so she says,” Kana said with a laugh in her voice. Otome made a face at her.

“They do! Geez, yer never gonna believe me, are ya? Ya damn non-believers!” She slapped her hand on the table, leaning in with a glower directed towards the Vault Hunters. “Alright, now ya gotta head out there. It ain’t optional—this is a personal request from me. I’ve made quite the name fer myself, y’know? Go out and hear the testimonials! ‘Specially you .” She pointed at Takasugi. “You go out there and let the truth slap ya ‘cross your damn smug face, got it?” The Vault Hunter gave an annoyed grunt.

“Ya want them to go all the way out there ?” Tatsuma questioned, and it was clear by his tone that he was very reluctant to let this happen. “How’re they s’posed to get that far?”

“I can drive,” Gintoki blurted out. Disregarding Tatsuma’s wishes this time, he found himself pretty eager to accept Otome’s request. Anything for a change of scenery—her description alone had his full attention, and his passion for combat was heating right back up.

“We don’t have a car, dumbass,” Takasugi snapped.

“Zura, build us a car!”

“I’m not an auto mechanic, I’m Katsura.”

“I know a guy,” Otome said. “He drives me sometimes—I can make him give ya a ride.” Gintoki could tell just from looking in her eyes that she was already planning this whole thing out. “Tatsuma, give ‘em some money and permits. Ya gotta have more than enough to spare, right? When do the three of ya wanna go there? I’ll contact my guy right away.”

“As soon as possible,” Gintoki said. The Vault Hunters had absolutely no plans for the next few weeks, after all.

“Got it! I’ll-”

“Wait!”

Everyone fell silent as they all turned to look at Tatsuma. He seemed a bit nervous, chewing on his lip. After he stared at the table for a few seconds, his gaze snapped up to meet Otome’s. “If they’re goin’ out there, then…I wanna go, too.”

“Tatsuma,” Izuru was the one to speak first, her brow furrowed, “yer serious? From what I hear from Otome, it’s a very dangerous place!”

“Ya couldn’t handle it,” Kana agreed, and while she was blunt there was a large sense of care in her voice.

“Now, now! Don’t baby him,” Otome huffed at her sisters. “Tatsuma’s all grown up now. He can do whatever he wants.”

“As long as it ain’t stupid,” Kana retorted. “ This is stupid.”

“I’m good at survivin’! It’s my strong suit,” Tatsuma insisted. “‘Sides, I’ve been out there with Tome before.”

“Wasn’t the last time a year or two ago?” questioned Izuru. “And that was with her , and- oh, well I don’t doubt the capabilities of you three fine Vault Hunters, of course,” she hastily added, “but it still makes me worry a bit.”

“Maybe you should worry,” Gintoki grumbled. “We’re not very good at keeping bystanders safe, see. Especially not Spelunker-level weaklings.”

“Hey!! I ain’t at a Spelunker level, I’ll have ya know,” Tatsuma snapped, pretending to be offended. “I can take care of myself!” Gintoki gave a skeptical look. Well, if he was anything like how his sister supposedly was, maybe it wasn’t so farfetched.

“Hah? You sayin’ you can shoot people up, too? Ever kill a bandit before?”

“Nope! But I can hide real strategically.” Tatsuma seemed quite proud of himself—triumphant, even.

“It’s true,” Otome boasted. “Even I can’t spot him whenever fights break out.” Gintoki gave both siblings a look. Uh, so he was good at running away, then? Well…that was something at least?

“Like I said! I’m good at survivin’,” Tatsuma said, beaming. There was a soft sigh from the other side of the table.

“We don’t have the right to stop ya,” Kana said, albeit reluctantly. Her dark gaze traveled from her brother to Gintoki to Katsura and finally to Takasugi. “The four of ya decide fer yerselves.” Izuru looked like she wanted to object, but her lips formed a thin line and she held her peace. Tatsuma smiled at Kana.

“Thanks, Sis.”

She merely gave a short hum, taking another sip of water.

“So, still want me to schedule my guy fer ya as soon as possible?” Otome asked Gintoki, waggling her eyebrows.

“That shouldn’t even be a question,” Gintoki scoffed.

“Great! I’ll tell him to make room fer four,” she said, giving her brother a wink.

With that settled, the conversation topic shifted. In between the forgettable small talk, they each shared little stories here and there that sometimes grabbed Gintoki’s attention. The sisters spoke of their “secret community service” roles—Tatsuma wasn’t the only chaotic good person in the city, it seemed. Like Otome had mentioned earlier, she occasionally visited the poverty-stricken outskirts and hunted down troublemakers, letting the people living there rest easier if only for a while. Kenpei had caught her sneaking out several times which was why he was so wary of her, but she claimed she’d been getting better at going unnoticed. Izuru regularly picked people up off of the streets, offering them her home as a place to stay until she could help them find a well paying job. Her guest room was like a conveyor belt—new people coming and going every day as they tried to get back onto their feet. Apparently she had never been caught doing this, either. Her siblings seemed in awe at her discreteness; they clearly looked up to her. As for Kana, the middle sister remained as cryptic as ever.

“Let’s just say that if not fer me, the streets would be covered in ashes,” she said with a sinister smirk. Gintoki decided that he didn’t want to know.

Other than that, they (mostly Otome) sure liked to complain about their older brother a whole lot. How he was a total stick in the mud, how he was rude and intrusive, how he never smiled or said anything nice.

“If ya can’t stand him that much, then just move out like Tatsuma did,” Kana grumbled at Otome who scoffed in response.

“I missed my chance with that! Ya know Father doesn’t want any more of us to move out without gettin’ married. And I ain’t gonna marry anyone ‘til I find the girl of my dreams.”

“Yer never movin’ out, then? No one on this planet’s suitable fer the likes of you.”

“Y’know what? Maybe yer right. If only I were as lucky as Tatsuma with havin’ some gorgeous Vault Hunters fall from the sky.” She batted her eyelashes at her brother and Tatsuma snorted, though his cheeks seemed to redden.

“Ahaha! Sis, please .”

Otome grinned playfully at him before continuing to muse. “Ah, gorgeous kickass lady Vault Hunters—now that’s my type right there. Maybe even a mystical siren? I’d date the hell outta a girl like that.”

“In your dreams,” Kana huffed. “If ya ever get to meet one of ‘em in any lifetime, ya’d be lucky if she doesn’t make your head explode.”

“Even if she does, it’d be worth it.”

The sisters asked the Vault Hunters some questions about themselves. Things like “Where’re ya from?” and “What made ya wanna start huntin’ vaults?” though after it became apparent that this information was too personal and sensitive to share, the sisters didn’t try asking twice. The three friends did share some bits of stories that they’d told to Tatsuma, however, to humor the women. They all listened quite attentively, and Tatsuma always got a bit excited when he identified the stories that were being told. He blurted out some commentary and sometimes came close to spoiling things—Gintoki lightheartedly told him several times to shut the fuck up.

They chatted for so long, Gintoki didn’t even remember when all the food had vanished or when the headcount in the room had begun to dwindle. But he was fuller than he’d been in months and in pleasant company. The gathering was officially over, though, when Izuru looked at the time and claimed she had to head home. Kana and Otome followed suit, dismissing themselves to other business. Right after that was the start of a fight over the bill, but Izuru shut it down before it could properly take off.

“I paid fer the meal an hour ago,” she revealed with a sly smile. Otome groaned.

“Damn it! Yer unbeatable,” she complained.

“Thank you very much for the meal, then,” Katsura said to the eldest sister with a polite nod.

“Yeah, it was good,” Gintoki yawned, stretching his arms before he got up from his seat to stretch his legs.

“The pleasure is all mine,” Izuru giggled. “It was an honor to meet you.”

“Spare us the formalities,” Takasugi grumbled. “We’re not the type of people you should be ‘honored’ to meet.”

“Oh, no. On the contrary,” the eldest sister said, giving him and his friends a warm smile, “ya don’t know just how much this meeting meant to us. I haven’t gotten to speak to anyone like you fer many, many long years. It was nice—I feel just like an adventurous little girl all over again.”

Gintoki frowned. Suddenly he felt bad, not just for Tatsuma, but for his sisters as well. None of these four belonged to a society like this. Weren’t they all missing out on so many things by wasting away on this planet? Why didn’t they just leave? Why couldn’t they just leave? He thought back to last night, when the subject seemed to have pained Tatsuma so much. Seriously, what was the deal ? But as frustrating as it was, Gintoki felt that he just wouldn’t understand the answer. And on top of that, this was none of his business anyway.

“Perhaps, if there is time, I would like my children to meet the three of you as well,” Izuru was saying.

“Ugh, hell no, keep kids away from us,” Gintoki scoffed. “It’s for their own good.”

“Gintoki’s great with kids!” Tatsuma exclaimed happily, earning an irritated glare. “Though y’know, Izuru’s kids’re in their teens by now.”

“Still impressionable as fuck. So no thanks.”

Izuru gave a lighthearted laugh. “Well if all else fails, I’ll still have some interestin’ new stories to tell them.”

Kana, who had been looking at her ECHO device for a while, tucked it away and stood up. “I’ll be takin’ my leave,” she said. Turning to the Vault Hunters, she gave a little bow. “Nice talkin’ to ya. Please continue to support our brother.” She had raised her head at that last sentence, staring them straight in the eyes, and she might as well have added “or die” to the end of that line with the look she was giving. Before anyone could say a single final word to her, she was gone, walking briskly out of the restaurant.

Izuru followed shortly in excusing herself. “Thank you again fer the company. It’s been a good time.”

Finally, once those two sisters were gone, Otome walked the four guys out. Her hand landed on Tatsuma’s shoulder as they walked through the door.

“See, tellin’ ‘em was the right choice after all,” she said with a grin.

“Ya coulda let me know beforehand,” Tatsuma sighed.

“And ruin the surprise? No way!”

“‘Surprise’? More like heart attack,” Gintoki grouched. “Y’know I was about ready to bolt it right at the start.”

“That makes two of us,” Takasugi grudgingly agreed, staring at Otome. “Surprises aren’t very nice when we’re constantly worrying about being vaporized.”

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry fer scarin’ ya. Yeesh, no one gets vaporized ‘round here without seeing it comin’ from a mile away. Lighten up, would ya?”

“We’re trying ,” Gintoki replied.

“Nevertheless, tonight turned out well in my opinion,” Katsura spoke up, looking to his friends. “What did you two think?” Gintoki and Takasugi both muttered some vaguely positive words.

“Well that’s good! I bet you’ll have an even better time when ya go on your trip outta the city,” Otome said with a wink. “Don’t think I fergot—I’ll call up Okamoto the moment I get home and we’ll see when he’s free.”

“Don’t we still have to decide if we’re bringing this guy along?” Takasugi huffed, pointing a thumb at Tatsuma.

“I’m goin’!” The declaration was firm, and Gintoki could see a stubborn fire in the merchant’s eyes. Takasugi looked at him with narrowed eyes and a raised brow.

“You sure you can handle-?”

“Yes!!”

“Don’t just start screaming out in the open, idiot,” Gintoki growled, pinching Tatsuma on the arm. Even though the streets were still busy as ever, this guy’s voice seemed to rise above everything else.

“Ahahaha! Sorry,” Tatsuma lowered his volume after his laugh, giving a sheepish smile. “I’m still goin’, though.”

“Yeah, yeah, alright. Just know that we’re not gonna watch your back out there, okay?”

“I’ll be fine! Don’t worry!”

“Would you stop saying that all the time?! I don’t worry about you, damn it!”

Otome gave a snort but as Gintoki threw her a look she returned to the original subject at hand, albeit with an amused grin. “So, I’ll let ya know when your ride’ll be ready. ‘Course since Tatsuma has work, it’ll have to be on the weekend. I’ll take you guys shoppin’ fer equipment before ya go—I know all the best places after all!”

Gintoki frowned. Equipment? What was this, a camping trip? The three Vault Hunters already had all the weapons and equipment they needed. Where would they find any useful equipment in this city, anyway? Before he could ask any questions, though, Otome turned away.

“See ya later!”

“Uh-”

“Bye, Sis!” Tatsuma called after her as she walked off, obliviously interrupting what Gintoki was about to say. The Vault Hunter scowled, watching the woman’s retreating back before letting out a sigh. Well, whatever.

“Shall we head back?” Katsura suggested, receiving nods and confirming murmurs in response. They walked leisurely in silence, passing by the bright city lights and weaving their way through crowds when needed. Gintoki avoided eye contact with bystanders, trying not to care when people threw glances in Tatsuma’s direction as usual. The amount of people on the streets lessened as they got closer to the apartment until they only had to adjust occasionally so that a stranger or two had space to squeeze past their group. Spaced out at this point, Gintoki was just looking forward to sleeping off dinner. But then next to him, Tatsuma took a breath.

“I’m sorry,” the merchant said, and Gintoki blinked over at him to see that he was addressing them all.

“For what ?” he all but demanded.

“Fer not tellin’ ya about the outside.”

It took a moment for Gintoki to understand what he was talking about. “Oh, that?” He hadn’t thought much of it, if he was honest. In fact, he didn’t even realize until just then that Tatsuma had technically hid that information from them by simply not mentioning it. “That’s…okay? I don’t really give a shit.”

“R- really ??” Tatsuma seemed uncharacteristically surprised, and Gintoki gave him an odd look.

“Yeah, what’s the big deal?”

“I don’t see what difference it would’ve made if you did tell us earlier,” Katsura pointed out as well. “We would have needed a car anyway to get where we wanted to go, right?” Tatsuma stared at them. A look of realization crossed his expression, followed by a nervous one as he averted his eyes.

“I was worried that if I told ya ‘bout it, ya’d just up and leave, ’cause it’s so boring fer ya to stay here. And…maybe, with your kinda profession, y’could probably take up jobs out there and raise enough money yerselves fer tickets off of this planet, though I dunno how long that would take. The people who need the most help out there don’t have much to offer, but stayin’ out there sounds a lot more excitin’ than stayin’ in the city, huh.”

The trio was silent, watching their host for a few moments. Gintoki pondered over the option that Tatsuma had just explained. He’d imagined that it’d take quite a while to amass all the money they needed—those shuttle prices were steep . Maybe if they’d have gone for work out there right after Tatsuma’s father had given them that hefty tip, they would’ve made short work of getting that last ticket. But then again, they couldn’t have gotten their hands on permits to leave the city back then either.

“Would there possibly be another interplanetary terminal on the outside?” Katsura asked, evidently weighing their newly discovered options. “I’d imagine it would be cheaper if it existed.” But Tatsuma shook his head.

“There ain’t another terminal til the next big city over. Global politics made sure of that. They wouldn’t want tourists to see the ugly side of their utopia, after all.”

He said this so casually, but his words gave Gintoki a harsh realization, like a slap to the face. Of course. This planet was “Heaven” after all, and it had a magnificent image to uphold. An image too perfect for humans to achieve without amassing a mountain of lies behind their backs. Geez, and just when he thought he’d seen it all. Instead of commenting on it, he swallowed the bitterness.

“Well that’s a bust, then,” he said. “But anyway, it’s not like we’d ever up and abandon a job just like that. Who the fuck do you take us for?” With his arms crossed, he threw Tatsuma an incredulous look. “When it comes to work, we get it done. How else would we ever get paid?” The merchant blinked a few times at him. Slowly, an amused smile spread on his face, and he looked aside to the other two.

“Yeah, I feel like I’ve heard somethin’ along those lines before,” he giggled. Katsura gave a little grin back at him, nodding sagely.

“It’s the truth, after all.”

Takasugi scoffed, and Gintoki squinted at all of them. Why did it feel like there was an inside joke here that only he wasn’t in on. He’d let it slide this time, he supposed.

“My point is,” he continued his original train of thought. He gave Tatsuma a big, hearty smack on the shoulder blade and smirked when he yelped in surprise. “Quit fretting over impossible shit already. At this point, I don’t give a fuck if you’re hiding some info from us or whatever.  No matter what happens and how any of us feel about it, you’re stuck with these three assholes for the next eight weeks—er, however many weeks’re left at this point, anyway. We’re not gonna disappear from your life ‘til you pay us the exact amount you promised. Got it, buddy?” Tatsuma looked a little stunned as he stared at Gintoki for a moment, lips slightly parted. But slowly, that familiar smile that the Vault Hunters had gotten used to returned to his face.

“Ahaha! I got it,” he laughed. “What if I give ya an extra little tip, though?” Gintoki snorted, giving him two softer pats on the back before dropping his hand.

“Acceptable, I guess . Maybe if your tip’s good enough we’ll consider autographing your face,” he gloated playfully. That earned him another laugh, and Tatsuma’s grin was as bright as ever.

“What about an autograph on paper?”

“Hmm, I dunno if you’d have the funds for such a valuable artifact.”

As they continued walking, chuckling at each other’s teasing jokes, the other two trailed behind them. Takasugi crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes at their backs. “They’re getting along a bit too well in such a short time, aren’t they?” he muttered to Katsura.

“That thought has crossed my mind before,” his friend mused. “Do you think it’ll be a problem?”

“Yes.” Takasugi sighed at his own blunt answer, a bored look on his face. “Won’t be our problem though, so who gives a shit.” Katsura gave him a thoughtful stare before returning his gaze to the other two. Somehow, he couldn’t help but disagree.