A/n: Uh. I wanted to edit this properly and rewrite some parts, but. I got tired. So here's the raw-ish version.
borrowed from dirt
Winter creeps into the hills early that year. Sakamoto sticks his head out of the tent to find the grass grey with rime and the trees stripped naked, black against the white sky. Behind him, Zura says, unnecessarily, “Don’t go outside; you’re still hurt.”
“Even my idiocy knows its bounds,” Sakamoto mutters. By now he is aware that, aside from funding the war (their war, not his) and fighting in it, he has been charged with another task. Zura knows it, too. Huddling in his scratchy blanket, he watches Sakamoto like a wary judge, gauging his movements, his eyes. Sakamoto finds himself growing irate under the scrutiny, and, with a heavy sigh, flops back onto the ground, careful of his injured ankle.
A cool hand settles light as a veil over his brow, brushes away his curls. “I’ll get you some breakfast,” Zura murmurs.
Sakamoto bristles. He isn’t an invalid; he can limp over to the cooking pot outside himself. “Sure, thanks,” is what he says.
He’s not doing it to swallow his pride; Zura is just the kind of person who always has to be catering to others’ needs, or he becomes frantic. Sakamoto’s not sure why; maybe it’s Zura’s bramble-thicket of a background. Hearsay travels fast among old women and faster among young men. Even now, Sakamoto does not know if Zura was adopted once or twice, or even if his name is actually Katsura. (One night, when Zura was stupid with drink, he had dropped his head on Sakamoto’s shoulder and slurred, “I should tell people to start calling me Kido again.”)
When Zura leaves, Sakamoto folds his own blanket as well as Zura’s, and neatly rolls up their makeshift beds.
Zura does, after all, share his sundry burden.
Sakamoto cannot pinpoint when it was decided that he and Zura were the keepers of an entire army’s compassion. They are soldiers, after all, not missionaries, yet the weight of the category of ‘honourable men’ has been dumped upon their backs. And while Zura may be deserving of that title (if not of the grief it causes him), Sakamoto is not. The kind of money he rakes in cannot be won through honesty.
In the end he concludes it is because of his habitual laughter. He cannot fault people for mistaking him for being happy, but he does not see why it should paint him a fool (it is the audience that laughs, not the jester himself) or as somehow more benevolent than Takasugi, who unlike him is fighting because he wishes to protect something, not because he was forced to by a crotchety old drunkard.
He and Zura are (seen as) the heart of the Joui revolutionaries, and so, they cannot afford to die, or be anything less than headwaters of selflessness.
Sakamoto doesn’t allow the unfairness to rankle. (It will eat him if he does.)
He doesn’t expect Zura to cry, but tells himself it was only a matter of time before it happened. For all his bleeding-heart idealism, Zura remains blank and stony-faced in the presence of the patriots. It’s different behind the flaps of their tiny tent, where they are shielded from the hopeful, trusting eyes of friends and comrades. This cramped, smelly space has become something of a haven, where they can stop being good and pure and vomit out their fetid thoughts. By now Zura’s low, lacquered voice has made a home out of Sakamoto’s ears.
Sakamoto shuffles onto Zura’s makeshift bedroll and makes him roll over before dropping an arm over his slender waist. Zura’s stuttering breath is hot and moist against his jaw. Sakamoto waits patiently for the sobs to subside (he will receive nothing if he speaks and fractures the brittle courage Zura is gathering).
At length Zura whispers, timidly, like a dog cowering under his master’s raised hand, “I’m so afraid you all will leave me.”
Sakamoto draws him closer, slipping a hand into those dark locks. As much as he’d like to say, “Don’t be ridiculous; no one will leave you,” this is war, not high school, and most people here are walking fertilizer. But he also knows Zura cannot confess such a thing to Gintoki or Takasugi. Vocalising the sting of loneliness is a luxury neither he nor Zura is permitted. Except around each other. Their little meetings occur quiet and spectral as frost-ferns amid the rebels' flashy camaraderie.
“I keep waiting for the day,” Zura chokes out softly, guiltily, fisting a hand in the collar of Sakamoto’s kimono. “I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know…How will I live?”
Sakamoto kisses his brow. It’s the only comfort he can offer.
They become beds for each other to collapse in. After a spectacular failure of a battle Zura stumbles off, tripping over his feet, while Gintoki and Takasugi duke it out. Sakamoto finds him curled up against the worm-eaten trunk of an oak, his face tucked into his folded arms.
“You’re already too skinny for a samurai,” Sakamoto says, not bothering to add inflection to his tone. Around Zura the onus of laughter and zest rolls off like water from an oiled surface, and his blankness will not be met with raised brows or a gaping mouth. “Get back to camp and eat something.”
“I’m not hungry,” is the muffled reply.
“And I’m not Gintoki.” He doesn’t have the other man’s gruff carelessness for this (Gintoki would walk away and only come back if you hadn’t returned by the next morning; Sakamoto doesn’t have the heart to leave anyone, even for a moment), and right now, the exhaustion echoes so bleakly in his bones he cannot feign cheer. “If you don’t get up, I’ll drag you back.”
Zura coils in on himself even more, as if trying to disappear. Unacceptable. Zura cannot be this way, cannot abandon his comrades to their misery. Sakamoto is not enough on his own (is not sturdy enough to carry an army on his shoulders).
Sakamoto sighs, grabs Zura’s elbow, and hauls him roughly to his feet. Zura may be the greater swordsman, but Sakamoto far surpasses him in terms of sheer strength, and his height only works to his advantage. He pulls Zura behind him, but not to where everyone is gathered for dinner. Instead he shoves him into their tent.
“Are you getting me food?” Zura asks dryly.
Sakamoto kisses him. He is well versed in what a risk looks like; this isn’t one. He doesn’t know what this…this thing they have is, this festering cesspit of weakness and hurt, but he knows they both need to forget. Zura stiffens for a moment before his arms wind around Sakamoto's neck and his mouth parts, slick and pliant, beneath his.
After that it becomes something of a sporadic routine. Sakamoto yanking Zura onto his lap after the storms have turned their supply routes into rustic tombs, Zura pushing Sakamoto onto his back and straddling him after two of their second-in-commands fall to the alien forces (one's throat sliced neatly, like an artist’s knife through wet clay, the other’s torso blasted off from a canon). Sakamoto doesn’t care whether or not their comrades suspect anything, doesn’t really mind the sidelong glances Zura casts at Gintoki.
"I'm sorry," Zura whispers one night, when they are leaning against each other, their hands clasped together. The filth is fucking everywhere, in their clothes, between their toes, in their eyelashes, blood mingled with dirt and pus and alien guts. Sakamoto knows they reek like something dead, but he can't smell anything anymore.
"I didn't...I don't mean..."
"Zura," says Sakamoto, as gently as he can, "you're just the kind of person who gets hurt."
Zura is handsome enough for both of them, but they do not make a handsome pair (Sakamoto is plain enough for the both of them; they cancel each other out). They don’t fight together. On the battlefield the teams are permutations and combinations of GintokiZuraTakasugi. Sakamoto totters on the edges of their friendship. He almost never glimpses their faces as he hacks and guts and crows his way through the Amanto forces. Part of him aches for the open fellowship of Shouyou’s students, for a back, heaving and solid, against his own. Fighting alone, he at times feels strange, like he’s inside a body he doesn’t recognise.
But when he staggers back to camp, his knees buckling from exhaustion, he catches Zura’s eye and, wordlessly, they hold each other, and Sakamoto remembers who he is.
One evening Zura threads shaking fingers through Sakamoto’s matted hair, like a mother with her child, and says, “Are you hurt?”
Sakamoto tries to laugh to reassure him and ends up doubled over, wheezing and hacking, because it feels like there’s no air left in his lungs and he’s probably inhaled a toxic amount of ash and smoke from the field. Zura rubs his back and murmurs at him. When the fit passes, Zura hunkers down and takes Sakamoto’s face in his hands, peers into his eyes like he’s searching for something. Sakamoto’s treacherous stomach flips, but before he can even form a coherent thought, Takasugi walks by and says, “Geez, Tatsuma, you’re even uglier next to Zura.”
Sakamoto rankles, but not for himself; Zura is more than a mascot, a poster boy for the dwindling samurai class. As skilled as Zura is, people seem bent on folding him up and tucking him into a pretty little box, satin ribbon and all. “He has such small hands,” the soldiers say fondly, even though Zura’s hands are about the same size as Gintoki’s, and far more dexterous.
“Fuck you, man,” Sakamoto mutters, but Takasugi has walked away and can’t hear him now.
Lately he has found himself reaching for Zura even when the loneliness and the guilt and the too-much do not addle his brains. Zura never questions it. He doesn’t kiss Sakamoto first often. But it happens, and Sakamoto can’t help but let such moments of fragile tenderness seep into his heart.
“I’ll scrape by. Stop worrying.”
“I don’t want you to scrape by. I want you to not worry about duty so much.”
A wry laugh. “That won’t happen.”
“I want to make breakfast for you in the morning. I want you to learn the names of the stars so I can talk about them to you.”
“Loud man, when did you get like this?” There is amusement in Zura’s voice – a rare thing these days. Zura tugs at Sakamoto’s hair, his eyes gleaming with something approaching affection. Or perhaps it is only pity; Zura does find it difficult to think of anyone without it. “You’re going to pay, you know. Wanting all these things.”
Sakamoto’s eyes slit to a sheaf of ghostly curls by the temple entrance. “I suppose you’d know,” he says.
Zura raises a hand, briefly cups Sakamoto’s jaw.
He’s still reeling from the pain and the fever-fog, so he doesn’t (can’t) react when he wakes to find Zura gone. Takasugi, too, by the looks of it. It is hard, at this point, to go into shock; the numbness of before is only beginning to shed. Gintoki is tight-lipped and dull-eyed; he continues sewing up a hole in his yukata when Sakamoto asks why his sword's not on his hip.
After they part ways, Sakamoto waits till Gintoki is out of earshot, and then leans against a tree and howls, stifling his mouth with his hand. He can’t remember the last time he cried, so he isn’t really surprised when he sobs himself into hiccups. When it’s over he feels more empty than clean, drained of lashes against his thigh and warmth in his belly and the hope of carrying some good part of the war with him. Then and there he decides he will cast out a net and fill himself with his catch, with stars, and ships, and new things so bright they blind him to the old.
“I’m always afraid that he actually hates me.”
Sakamoto glances up from his sake. Zura’s hands are folded neatly on his lap, but Sakamoto doesn’t miss the faint trembling of his fingers or the way his gaze is fixed on the window. He doesn’t have to ask to know that Zura is speaking of Gintoki. Though his knowledge of what happened after his injury is near nonexistent, he can gather enough from rumours and exchanged looks to understand the gravity of it, and the near-sanctity of keeping silent about it. At times like this he feels as if his lips have been sewn shut. But that’s silly. Sakamoto talks when he wants, not when others want him to.
“Did you know that if two pieces of the same metal touch in space, they’ll join up and be permanently stuck together?” he forces himself to say.
Zura blinks. “Hah?”
“Ahahaha, it’s called cold welding,” continues Sakamoto blithely, pouring more sake into Zura’s empty cup and shoving it under his nose. Zura takes it warily. “The atoms have no way of knowing they’re from different pieces of metal.”
Zura begins to cry, and then laughs through his tears. Sakamoto freezes in his place opposite the table, wondering if he just triggered Zura into a panic attack. Zura continues to sob and laugh, and then draws his sleeve over his face. “Sorry,” he says thickly. “I’m sorry.” He pulls out a handkerchief from his pocket and mops his cheeks and nose. Sakamoto has always marvelled that Zura can so easily slip on his composure, if he so wishes. By the time Zura has finished, his eyes aren’t even noticeably red. Ten years later he still smacks away weakness like flies.
“Zura, I – ”
“No,” says Zura, shaking his head and putting away his kerchief. “No. I…thank you.” He smiles.
Sakamoto wants to ease his head back and press his lips against his throat. He bites down on his finger instead. Remorse sits cluttered on his tongue and pushes against his teeth. “If I…”
“And it’s Katsura.”
Sakamoto can’t resent him, doesn’t even want to. They only ever signed up for a balm for desperation, and there was no end to the contract. No change was ever specified. If he refuses, Zura will back away, silent and unquestioning as ever. So he lets Zura kiss his jaw, his chin, part the collar of his tunic and run his tongue against his clavicle.
Later they lie in Sakamoto’s bed, washed over with pale starlight; the success of the earlier negotiations has nudged them into content lassitude. Sakamoto smokes while Zura leans against him and draws lazy patterns on his chest with his fingers.
“Put that thing out,” Zura says chidingly, though his voice is quiet, uncommanding. “I hate the smell.”
Sakamoto huffs out soft laughter. “C’mon, I hardly ever smoke. Lemme enjoy this. I’m blowing it away from you.”
Zura chews his lip. After a long silence he says tentatively, “Do you…do you still want…”
“Yeah.” He flicks ash onto a newspaper on the bedside table.
Such honesty should be embarrassing, but they have upturned their guts into each other’s hands too many times. ‘Routine’ isn’t the right word (it’s too mechanical, too boring). This just has the normality of switching on television or listening to the radio. “Do you?” asks Sakamoto.
“…No. But I want to.”
Sakamoto laughs. “What?”
“I’m so tired,” Zura says tonelessly. He turns on his back so he’s not facing Sakamoto. “I know. He belongs with those kids. And the new people in his life.”
“I think that’s a little – ”
“When this war ends, and if we’re both alive – ”
“Fuck, Zura, you’ve got the optimism of a black hole – ”
“I might join your Kaientai. If it’s all right with you.”
It takes a moment for Sakamoto to recognise the noises as words. He says, “Uh.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. I know it’s…it’s audacious of me…”
“Fuck, no, Zura,” Sakamoto says vehemently, clapping a hand on Zura’s bare shoulder. “Hell, you’re always welcome in my Kaientai.”
“Even though I – ”
“This isn’t quid pro quo. It’s not like you give me what I want and I give you something in return. My ship is yours. As long as you stay away from the control room and the steering wheel.”
Zura laughs, clear and bright, resting a fist over his belly. Fondness spreads through Sakamoto’s chest, and he grins and brushes back Zura’s hair.
“I’ll be waiting to welcome you, then.”