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The Protagonist Always has to have the Most Tragic Past

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   Pale moonlight streamed through the thin rice-paper door, illuminating the light brown wood covering the floor of the room. Three boys slept on, peacefully dreaming under the full moon shining above them. Silence reigned within the room, the only sound being that of the slow deep breaths of the three children, each at most around ten or eleven years old.

   Earlier that night, the room had been a rowdy mess of yelling boys and thrown practice material. Takasugi was staying at the temple school now after being kicked out of his home, with Gintoki already living there, Katsura had decided to stay the night as well instead of returning to his empty home. Every now and then the trio would have sleepovers like this, staying up late and bantering over this or that, sometimes even practicing their swordsmanship if it came to it.

   This evening had been no different than any other of their frequent nights together. The three had decided to try and stay up all night as they usually attempted to, ending with Takasugi and Gintoki brawling while the longer-haired of the three put together rice balls from out of nowhere as he tended to do. Shouyou-sensei had ended up coming in later into the night, giving them all a whack on the head with a “You’re one-hundred years too early to try to stay up all night under my watch” and shooed them off to bed.

   The silver-haired of them had grumbled a few choice words to his frequent frenemy laying one person away from him once he was sure their caretaker was gone-- out of all of them, Gintoki knew the best to fear the strength of their master. Katsura had been quick to silence that, though, demanding quiet so he could go to sleep and prepare for class tomorrow or he’d call in their teacher again.

   That threat had certainly been enough to sway the lighter-haired child, the boy grumbling but complying as he burrowed into his futon.

   All three were quick to fall asleep, the lights in the temple school disappearing as even Shouyou went to take a rest for the evening. It was a fairly warm summer night, so the children had left their sliding door open just a bit, allowing the cool night air to spill into the room.

   In this otherwise peaceful atmosphere, one of the boys began to move restlessly, face scrunching up as he tossed and turned within his blankets.


   Suddenly and without warning, the child bolted upright, one hand going to his left hip, a frightened yet determined look in his eyes. After a moment of heavy breathing, the boy looked around himself, taking in the environment surrounding him in the waking world, allowing the dream that had overtaken him to melt away. Noticing where his hand had reached for, he quickly snapped his arm back, holding his wrist with his other hand and looking at this companions worriedly.

   Had he woken them up? Had they seen his moment of weakness? Katsura and Takasugi were the closest friends he had at the temple school, loathe as he might be to admit that out loud, but he did not want them to know about this side of him. He didn’t want anyone to know. Shouyou-sensei was the only exception, seeing as the man had been the one to pick him up originally from the battlefield. In fact, for the beginning of his stay with their master he had often woke up in a fright or lost himself in memories of fear and desperation.

   Usually he would go to the man who was like a father to him to try and call down, to reassure himself that everything was alright and he had a safe home now. Gintoki had grown past that, though. There was no reason to go bother their teacher who was most assuredly sleeping, and he was old enough now to not be bothered by stupid things like bad dreams or old dredged up memories. He was learning to become a strong samurai-- he couldn’t let things like that continue to affect him so heavily.

   Shaking his shaggy head of hair to clear his mind a bit, the boy spared a glance at the two laying next to him. A sigh of relief escaped him after a moment of observing their steady breathing, glad not only that he had not woken them up, but that they were still alive and well. This wasn’t a dream, this was reality. The dead were in his dreams, they weren’t real anymore. He was fine. Everything was fine.

   With a huff, the red-eyed boy laid back down, pulling the covers back up over his chin. His eyes darted over towards the partially open door, staring at the serenely shining moon overhead. It was amazing, really. Whether he was among a sea of corpses or in a room with two soundly sleeping friends, the view of the moon never seemed to change. It was almost reassuring, in a way. The sky, that is. If there was one thing he could count on to let him know he was still in reality, it was the sky above, the blazing sun, the brilliant moon, the twinkling stars-- the skies in his dreams were always splattered with blood, either red or monochrome. Only by looking up, could he be certain he was awake and alive.

   Sufficiently calmed now, the child turned his gaze away from the moon, body moving so he was facing the wall once more. It was still much too early to be up, so he might as well go back to trying to get some sleep. In a matter of moments, he was out once again.

   On the end of the trio’s sleeping arrangement, two grassy green eyes peeked open, the young boy turned towards the open door. He had been awoken by his friend’s strangled cry, but chose to remain silent, feigning sleep as to get a better grasp of the situation. Gintoki was difficult to deal with in general and they fought often, but they were still friends. There was obviously something wrong with the silver-haired boy, and Takasugi was going to try and find out what.

   Once he was sure his friend had gone back into the world of dreams, the male slowly made to turn over to face his other two companions. With careful movements, the child turned his body so that he was facing Katsura, eyes widening and holding back a scream of surprise at the brown eyes staring back at him intently.

   “Zur--!” the shorter began, only to be cut off as a hand was shoved over his opened mouth.

   Putting a finger up to his lips and hushing, the other boy whispered, “It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura, and be quiet. We don’t want him to wake up again, do we?”

   A quick glance at the still-sleeping Gintoki and the shorter gave a nod, “I guess…” slowly sitting up so as not to make too much noise, the boy continued, “You heard him too, then.”

   With his own glance towards their friend, noting the dark circles under his friend’s eyes now so prominent with the silver moonlight spilling across the other boy’s face, the more motherly boy gave a nod, “I’d never heard him sound like that before. Do you think we should get Shouyou-sensei?”

   “No, he wouldn’t be happy if we did something like that. You know how pig-headed that idiot can be when it comes to dealing with things,” Takasugi gave a sigh, gesturing for his friend to sit up as well and follow him.

   Silently making their way over to sit by the door as to talk a bit more freely without waking their friend up, the pair now sat with their backs to the moon, two sets of eyes watching the lone sleeping figure.

   For a moment, neither spoke, each unsure of what to do or say. Katsura himself was surprised by his lack of attention when it came to the lighter-haired boy’s obvious lack of sleep. While it was true Gintoki was more than capable of pretending he were alright when he wasn’t, it seemed so obvious now that he could clearly take a look at his friend. How long had this sort of thing been going on? What was Gintoki dreaming of that would frighten him so?

   For his part, Takasugi seemed just as lost in thought as Katsura. The boy seemed well and truly unsure of what to do in this situation, though obviously they would have to do something. He couldn’t very well sit back and let his rival lose sleep like this, it’d make beating him in a match too easy. His pride wouldn’t allow for it, really. That was the only reason. Definitely.

   “You know...once Shouyou-sensei mentioned it to me,” the green-eyed child began, eyes staring forward as he brought to mind the memory from his earlier days at the temple school, before he had moved in.

   “Mentioned what?” the other male questioned, turning his attention back to his friend and away from the worries and thoughts clouding his mind.

   A bit unsure if he should share, but thinking it was a better idea than not to, the smaller continued, “He told me that Gintoki was ‘different’. It was back when I was challenging the dojo all the time.”

   “Oh, you mean back when Gintoki beat you all the time?” Katsura asked with an innocent air.

   Angry at the reminder of his early defeats, Takasugi forcefully whispered, “Shut up! Do you want to know what he said or not? Anyways, he told me that the reason I kept losing was because Gintoki was different, that he’d had to grow up a lot more quickly than other kids.”

   “Had to grow up more quickly…?” the boy questioned, looking somewhat uneasy. He didn’t very much like the sound of that. Sure, Gintoki was tough, and he had mentioned being a nomad with Shouyou-sensei, but what could his life have been with before meeting the caring man they all had been picked up by?

   “Shinsuke, Kotarou,” a familiar voice spoke lightly behind the boys’ turned backs, two fists coming down to rest hard enough on their heads to hurt, but not enough to drive them into the ground as per usual, “What do you think you’re doing? You’re one-hundred years too early to think you can stay up all night with me around.”

   Each holding their now aching head, the pair looked up, “S-Shouyou-sensei…!”

   “Now, what is it you two were talking about...and why is it only Gintoki is still asleep, hm?”

   His frighteningly kind smile paired with the parental tone of voice, that which might make him seem as if he were the most gentle of adults, were enough to scare the two boys still awake into explaining everything in a whispered rush. Tumbling over each other’s words, the children explained how they had, in fact, been sleeping, truly they had, but Gintoki had woken up with a scream at one point and they had been curious and concerned (Katsura admitted it, Takasugi claiming once again it was merely for the sake of fairness in his sparring) about their friend.

   Listening carefully with his arms crossed, the man waited before they were finished before making a move to answer. A small sigh escaped him, the teacher gesturing for the two to come outside with him, “Why don’t we discuss this outside then, so we don’t wake him up, hm?”

   Both children gave a nod, quietly padding after their adult figure and taking a seat on the porch ledge on either side of him. For a moment, they merely sat in the summer night, the two boys looking at Shouyou who was looking down at the small pond in the yard, the full moon reflected clearly upon its surface.

   Although he spoke in more than a whisper, the man’s voice remained far on the more quiet side as he began, “So it still happens, does it? I should have expected a stubborn child like Gintoki to keep it from me. That boy really thinks he can do everything on his own.”

   “What do you mean, sensei?” Katsura asked, urging for the other to continue in his explanation.

   Turning a smile to them, the man spoke, “Although you might not believe me, Gintoki is not my biological son. He was the first child I picked up, we met a while ago before we came to this town,” he began.

   “Uh, no, I think it’s pretty obvious you two aren’t related. You look absolutely nothing alike,” Takasugi cut-in, giving the elder man an incredulous look.

   “Yes, we do have some similarities despite not looking alike, don’t we? He’s been trying to model himself after me, I think,” the teacher continued, now shifting to give the other boy his attention.

   “No, I’m not saying you’re alike in personality, I’m saying absolutely nothing about you is alike.”

   Steadfastly pretending he couldn’t hear that, Shouyou went on, “That boy and I met by chance. The village I was staying in at the time had mentioned there was a corpse-eating demon haunting the nearby battlefield, slaying anyone and everyone who dared to disturb it,” he chronicled, gaze looking off far away. Although he had turned to look across the yard, it seemed as though he weren’t seeing the familiar greenery of their home, but rather the far off days of the past.

   “You’re just ignoring me now, aren’t you?” the green-eyed child questioned, a bit annoyed with how this conversation was going.

   Curious dark eyes looked up at the man, “A corpse-eating demon? You can’t mean Gintoki was--”

   A nod and a small laugh, “That’s right. The people had mistaken a lonely child stripping corpses for food as a demon. It was silly of them, really, but they had probably never seen a child that looks like Gintoki does-- much less one who could use a sword like him.”

   Although he understood why some may be surprised by Gintoki’s hair and eye color, Katsura couldn’t comprehend why the boy’s swordsmanship would cause alarm, “I don’t understand, do they not have samurai schools where you found him?”

   Shaking his head at the question, the adult replied, “No, it’s not that he could use a sword. You see, when I found him, Gintoki was completely alone. He did not have any adult looking over him, there were only copses and crows as far as he could see. He didn’t even have a name, that child...he actually drew his sword on me when we met, shaking but stained in blood…likely from those who had attacked him before...” trailing off, the other seemed to be lost in his memories.

   “Sensei…?” Takasugi prodded, snapping the man from his thoughts.

   Smile returning to his face, the grey-eyed male continued, “Ah, you know, despite how he is now, Gintoki would rarely speak when we first met. I actually thought I’d have to teach him how to speak, even though he could easily understand what I said,” he gave a laugh.

  “Huh, really? How did he go from that into the obnoxious perm-head we have today,” the green-eyed boy questioned, though it was more rhetorical than anything.

   A hand was placed on his head, roughly messing up his bangs with more force than necessary, “Now, now, I’d say it’s a big improvement. It took a lot of coaxing and learning to get him to where he is today.”

   “Ow! Sensei, my bangs-- it hurts! It hurts!” the child squawked, attempting to shove the hand away from his head.

   Katsura was frowning, looking back at their still-sleeping companion, “’re saying before you met him, Gintoki was wandering alone on battlefields, fighting adults who attacked him?”

   Removing his hand from Takasugi’s head, the child now holding the sore hairline left behind, Shouyou gave a nod, “Although I don’t know exactly what happened to him before I met him, I can tell you this: You two are different. Shinsuke, you left your family, but despite being disowned, you had parents for a time. Kotarou, although your family died when you were young, you still had your grandmother for a bit. Gintoki had nothing. He once told me he couldn’t remember having anyone care about him before he met me. He was wandering around battlefields and fighting to survive for as long as he could remember,” he explained, a certain sadness weighing heavily on his words.

    The children remained quiet for a moment, mulling over his words. Takasugi was the first to speak, “Well, then it’s fine now, isn’t it? Like you said, he met you.”

   Surprised by these words, the teacher looked at the two with an unreadable expression, not having expected such a response.

   “That’s right, and he has us now as well,” Katsura agreed, nodding his head.

   Smile breaking through, Shouyou beamed at the pair, “That’s right, he has all of us now, doesn’t he? We’ll have to remind him of that as often as we can then!”

   From inside the room, one red eye opened a slit, staring at the three laughing idiots with something akin to fondness.