The bar was packed, air heavy with drunken breath and sweat. Patrons loud and talkative. The heel of Gintoki's boot drummed a steady beat against the footrest of his high stool. On his mind hung the nagging thought of his broke-ass poverty, the probability of being stood up and, most of all, the likelihood of having to pay for his own drinks. His third beer was on the way accompanied by a small dish of salty appetizers which he sure as fuck wasn't going to pay for.
"There you go."
The barman slid Gintoki his beer and a plate of dried squid. Foam spilled over the rim and trickled down the glass forming a perfect circle on the coaster. Gintoki took a sip of his beer, munched on a bit of squid, the fleeting thought of Kagura crossed his mind, then he reached again for the slippery glass. His brain didn't have the capacity to mull over worrisome thoughts for long so he let the background chatter of the bar creep into his beer-sipping-squid-munching drill.
"Yeah? I heard that too."
"Coughing up blood?"
"I hear it's the first sign."
"Nah, my mate coughed up blood and was fine the next day."
"It's when your hair turns white, assholes. That's when you know you're gone."
There was a beat of silence, the chatter of the entire bar dwindled from boiling point to a simmer, then one man broke into laughter and the collective caper returned.
"That's a good one!"
"Yeah, everyone knows they're fucked when those white bastards start to show up!"
"Worse than your first stiff!"
"Hey, listen I'm serious."
"You're an idiot!"
"My wife works at the hospital, I believe her and you should too."
"No disrespect but your wife wipes the floors. She ain't a nurse."
"Shut up, at least I have a wife! Have you paid your alimony this month?"
"Get off my ass! It's only the twenty-first! You're worse than my wife."
"Guys, guys, we're getting sidetracked."
"Well, I said my piece already," the man whose ex-wife had been insulted stood up, "Remember my words when your bush turns white, you sons of bit-EEEEEEK!"
The group of men screamed in unison as the man caught Gintoki's fish eyes staring back at him. Gintoki had turned around in his high stool to listen to the conversation, legs spread out and elbows leaning on the counter. Although his heavy lidded eyes limited a showcase of emotion, a subtle curl of his lips expressed amusement and curiosity. He opened his mouth to deliver a comeback but his silver hair was too disturbing. The group of chatty men got up at once drawing back their stools and shoving their hands down their pockets to fetch their wallets. They threw loose change onto the center of the table mindlessly, a couple of them missing the target completely, and after a quick goodbye to the barman they scurried out of the bar, feet denting the back of their shoes as they stumbled on their way out.
When the last spooked man closed the door behind him a painful silence spread across the room. The remaining patrons threw dirty looks at Gintoki and the barman eyeballed him with crossed arms and a frown.
"I didn't do anything!" Gintoki cried out outraged.
"Just pay up and leave."
The pink glow of the hotel's neon sign outside cast off the room's pitch dark. A mighty need to piss rose Gintoki from sleep. He clambered out of bed with ease, no sheets to detangle himself from since Hijikata had hoarded them all to construct some kind of solitary cocoon of warmth on his side of the bed.
He lumbered over to the bathroom stepping on their scattered clothes on the floor, knees still weak from exertion. A sigh escaped his lips as he pissed. The neon glow reflected in the bathroom mirror lit the place with the potency of a full moon. Sated and relieved, Gintoki flushed and with sleepy eyes caught a view of his shiny hair in the mirror. Roots slick with sweat, curls messy, yet the same pale silver color. He ran a hand lazily through it, massaging a particular spot Hijikata had pulled a bit too hard hours before. He fell down on the mattress with a moan and wiggled closer to Hijikata, hands digging under folds of bed sheets until he found warm skin. Hijikata winced at the cold touch of his fingers and Gintoki prodded him roughly as he unwrapped the sheets around his body. He got a couple of kicks to the shins as thanks.
"If you didn't drink so much you wouldn't spend the whole night pissing."
"You're the one who keeps buying me drinks." Gintoki said into the crook of Hijikata's neck.
"'Cause you keep calling me to pay your debts."
"And then I show you how grateful I am."
Gintoki kissed the exposed length of shoulder in front of him, lips trailing on the soft skin as he drew back. Hijikata's hand reached for Gintoki's forearm hugging his waist.
"You're no fun, shit cop."
Hijikata shut him up with a sudden fart. Gintoki gasped in shock and jerked back.
"You fucking asshole!" Gintoki exclaimed, flapping the bed sheets to filter the air, though the smell was faint and he did it mostly for dramatic effect. Beside him Hijikata struggled to stifle his laughter, one of Gintoki's favorite sounds.
"You know what, Hijikata-kun?" Gintoki said, voice serious, "Now I'm just painfully hard, and I mean rocklike."
"Funny you should say that. People who fart naked are among the most disgusting people in the world. You learn that from your pet-gorilla?"
If Hijikata still had a modicum of sleep in his body, or the desire to do so, both died out in an instant. He flipped over and climbed on top of Gintoki, hands clenched around his throat. Gintoki smiled wickedly up at him.
"So, round uh…" Gintoki paused, calculating the amount of times the two of them had come that night and wondering how many rounds that totalled, "three?"
Hijikata snickered. A jolt of pleasure ran down Gintoki's spine. Blood rushed south. He really was getting hard.
Hijikata's grip loosened and his hands cupped Gintoki's face as he leaned into a kiss. Gintoki pulled him by the waist, fingers trembling as a pool of heat overtook him.
"What?" Hijikata drew back, smoldering eyes narrowing at Gintoki's strained expression.
Gintoki pressed their bodies together.
"Hot." he mumbled.
"I know, idiot."
Kagura's dangling feet bounced against Otose's counter. After one too many glares, Otose sent Catherine to the kitchen to get the kid some food. Their unspoken communication went unnoticed, though Otose's desire to get Kagura off the counter was blatant. At least if the kid was gobbling up food on the tables she would stop kicking the wooden boards of the counter with her monster strength.
"Look at it, it's all scraped now," Otose sighed, "I'll put it on your tab."
"What? Are you crazy, old hag?" Gintoki sputtered half his drink.
"Don't test me."
"Then why are you testing me?! Getting me more into debt won't make me pay that rent any faster."
"Oh," Otose mused, "That's new."
"I'm full of surprises." Gintoki said proudly, though it sounded way more miserable than he thought.
"I didn't mean the wit, that I know," Otose snorted, "Old as your penniless bum."
Gintoki rolled his eyes and turned to Kagura for support but she only shrugged her shoulders and nodded.
"You're a penniless bum, Gin-chan." she said.
"I meant those white hairs you got there," Otose said, pointing with her cigarette towards a patch of hair above Gintoki's left brow.
"What?" Gintoki's first instinct was to run a hand through his hair to inspect the area.
"Where?! Where?! Let me see!" Kagura cried with excitement and leaned over.
"I'll take that as a good sign," Otose said with relish, "Now you know what it feels like.".
"Shut it, old hag. This is a play of light, I'm not getting old!"
"It does look different, Gin-chan." Kagura said.
"It's that damn shampoo you made me buy last week."
"But my hair is fine, dummy. You're becoming an old man, Gin-chan. Just accept it."
"No, you accept having chosen a shampoo that is ruining my good looks!" Gintoki replied, standing up to take a look at his reflection in the cupboard glass.
"What good looks?" Otose wondered. Kagura shot her a complicit look.
"Could you two stop ganging up on me, I'm having a moment here!?"
"Isn't that perm a wig? It's a wig, right? You always told me the loser wore a wig." Catherine told Otose, pushing a food trolley out of the kitchen.
"You're the fucking loser!"
"That's a great point Catherine," Otose conceded with a big exhale of smoke, "Even though I never said it."
"Shut up, old hag. You're not helping!"
"Don' worry, Gin-chan. We're the only ones who notice because we know you so well," Kagura said cheerfully. She hopped off the high stool and sauntered over to the table where Catherine had stationed the food tray and was currently assessing which leftovers were fit to eat by smelling them. Kagura didn't seem to mind and began gulping down dish after dish without a care in the world, too absorbed in Gintoki's dilemma.
"Besides, Gin-chan, I hate to say it but Catherine is right. No one knows your hair is real, everyone thinks it's a wig. And telling the difference between white and silver is hard, you know? Even I who wake you up every day and feed you and take you to school and read you a story at night didn't notice your hair had gone white before the old hag said it. It's totally fine. You're growing up. It's part of life."
The creases in Gintoki's forehead not only deepened but multiplied at Kagura's speech, too shocked, betrayed and incredulous at the way Kagura had managed to speak more than two words with the amount of food she had stuffed in her mouth.
Otose nodded her head in agreement from across the counter, teeth momentarily biting her cigarette at the words 'old hag', but otherwise taking in Kagura's words like a pious disciple listening to their prophet.
"I hear Gintoki-sama is having health problems?"
Tama's arrival filled Gintoki with relief. The sight of her gave him the strength he needed to raise his chin from the countertop and believe for a second the madness would go away; that someone with reliable brains - and who could be more reliable than a computer? - would finally tell him he was fine and there was no fucking patch of white hair on his head.
"Gin-san, maybe I could offer you a balm of curry leaves? They're known as a natural remedy for premature hair graying. Washing your hair with black tea helps as well. Of course, there's always copper treatments. Low copper levels can lead to premature graying. Here you go."
Tama gargled, a thunderous rattle of metal erupted from her insides and she regurgitated a chunk of copper wires dripping with oil.
"Please open your mouth, Gintoki-sama."
"Thanks, I'm alright. I actually like my white spot!"
"What's that face for?"
"You looking for a fight, asshole? It's just my face."
"Natural charmer," Sougo chipped in two benches away. He was lying on his back, dango stick dangling from the corner of his mouth, "Please kill him, Boss."
"I might." Gintoki groaned, walking past Hijikata to go order his own plate of goodies.
It was a terrible day for dangos. Sky gray and uninviting. Sun gone to who the fuck knew where. The air was damp, always damp and heavy lately. No wind whatsoever. Damned Edo. Gintoki sat on the bench next to Hijikata, one leg crossed loosely over his knee. He was in no mood for trash talking. His spirits were down, haunted by the white spot on his head. He didn't feel sick, but he didn't feel great either, he was afraid of-
"Going bald, Boss?"
Gintoki almost choked on the soft dough travelling down his throat.
"What kind of question is that!?" he cried out, spit trickling down his chin, eyes red from coughing.
"Your head just seems… rounder," Sougo replied enigmatically. He wasn't even looking at Gintoki but facing the clouds amassed over their heads like a thick impenetrable ocean of cement, "Did you go for a haircut? Thinking about a buzz cut? It was very popular a while ago-"
"No, I'm not going bald! I'm not looking for a buzz cut! What do you think this is, Slam Dunk!?"
"Hijikata-san, wasn't your mom's family name Rukawa?"
"Shut the fuck up."
"Wouldn't it be funny if she had named you Kaede?"
"Sougo, I'm serious."
"Serious about dying? You'd make it that easy for me?"
The sound of Hijikata's flickering lighter masked Hijikata's barely contained silence. He lit another cigarette and Gintoki lost his train of thought watching Hijikata's fingers work their magic at the familiar routine.
"So, do you have a job for me or did you two just decide to take the afternoon off to flaunt your tax-thieving asses in my face?
"I don't think we should reveal police information to civilians but Hijikata-san thinks differently when it comes to you, Boss. You should be flattered."
Hijikata scoffed, cigarette in hand. When he turned Gintoki's way there was a soft blush on his cheeks, faint enough that Gintoki believed the entire world might miss it except for him.
"Flattery and generosity. Thanks for the meal." Gintoki said before eating the last piece of dango on his stick.
The soft pink on Hijikata's cheeks turned red, the color of anger.
"We didn't pay for any of your shit."
"I told the old man to put it on your tab."
"He's used to it by now." Sougo noted.
"You two shut up. Let's talk business so we can be on our way. We have work to do."
"Oh, so there is business," Gintoki sighed, "I'm afraid I'm just too busy."
"But you're not busy to hang around until you get freebies, you fucking leech!" Hijikata snapped.
Gintoki shrugged his shoulders innocently, stretched his arms with a yawn and stood up to leave.
"I left the stove on, gotta go."
"Hey, wait a second-"
Gintoki flicked his hand in goodbye and tucked it inside his yukata. He walked until the dango stall disappeared from view. What followed unraveled in his mind like a movie, the old routine of push and pull, so easy.
Cigarette held firmly between thumb and forefinger, Hijikata took one last frenzied drag before tossing it in the astray and following Gintoki. Sougo pulled down his eye mask and folded his arms behind his back.
"Don't take too long."
Hijikata answered with a grunt and picked up his pace. Gintoki was waiting for him a couple of streets down the road by the river, back leaning against the wooden rail of the bridge, smirk expertely plastered on his face, depressed mood gone, teasing tongue at the ready.
"I don't think I counted five minutes. This must be a record for you, Hijikata-kun."
Hijikata rolled his eyes.
"I meant it about having business matters to discuss." He said gravely, looking back over his shoulder to spot a speeding car which he would later hunt down for a ticket.
"Oi, that's too boring." Gintoki drawled.
"I'm serious. There's been a steady rise of people trying to leave the city. Fake ID's, fake permits, people are buying their way out however they can," Hijikata said, closer now, hand clenched over the bridge rail, "The Central Terminal hasn't stopped calling about ships smuggling people out to space. It's not even the city or the country people are leaving, it's the damn planet. Something is going on, it's been gradual, nobody noticed it until we started looking at the big picture. In part, it's our fault, I'll admit that. We didn't give the Terminal's concerns much credit at first, we thought the Immigration Bureau should deal with the ruckus, give those pencil pushers some fucking work. But I can't shake the strange feeling that something is wrong. People fleeing like this, it's like they are running from something."
"What do you want me to do?" Gintoki asked.
Hijikata's eyes faced the ground, gaze inscrutable as he mulled over his own thoughts.
"You're a gossip, I thought you might know something."
Gintoki remembered the men in the bar. Their screams. The conversation which had seized his attention.
It's when your hair turns white, assholes. That's when you know you're gone.
"Does it look different?" Gintoki ran one hand through his hair and ruffled it.
"No, I-" Hijikata reached out to touch it, but then he remembered his place. His eyes locked with Gintoki's. He couldn't notice any unusual patch of hair if he tried.
"Just the same stupid perm."
"You wouldn't blush this hard if I asked you to kiss me."
"Fuck off. Just call me if you hear anything, alright?"
"Only if you buy me a drink."
Gintoki sat in the toilet willing his intestines to work . A clear ray of morning sunlight descended from the small window by the ceiling above his head and fell at his feet at a perfect angle. He could hear the sparkly voices coming from the living room, Kagura's morning shows stealing her focus and keeping her entertained while she waited for Gintoki to wash and dress up.
Bowel movements done with, Gintoki got in the shower. Hot water poured down his frame, warming up his sluggish body but not hot enough. Sleep had him forgetting the feverish pain throbbing inside his skull and now that he was awake he could feel the pain stirring again, the heat rising inside him, withholding his breath and turning hot water cold. He turned off the tap, wrapped a towel around his waist and walked over to the sink. Steam clouded the surface of the mirror. Gintoki wasn't sure if he wanted to take a look. His hair had all but lost its shiny silver glow. He had gone through enough failed attempts at finding his last strand of silver hair. It was hard to admit defeat but harder still to admit the obvious.
He had it. Whatever it was, he had it.
On the streets whispering voices said one month, others reported even less. Official sources said it was just a new stripe of flu, everything was under control. But the government's word had done little to assuage skeptical minds. Mass panic was a few dozen deaths away, yet the same ominous feeling which had urged Hijikata to seek out answers plagued Gintoki now. Maybe it was the fear of dying. The certainty.
Gintoki wiped the steamy surface of the mirror with a cool hand. His pale complexion was reflected in the mirror. Hair white, faded, lifeless. And below his collarbone a bruise. Dark, with jagged outer edges. He touched it lightly. At the absence of pain he rubbed harder, a silly wish to scrub it away. As the steam lifted and the morning light grew inside the bathroom, Gintoki saw the bruise for what it really was. Two characters. One word.
"Don't look down, Ginnoji. This ain't for little kids." Gengai warned before sticking a brutal needle in Gintoki's arm. The pain was acute but fleeting. Despite his deranged looks and overall unrestrained personality, Gengai knew what he was doing - thirty percent of the time.
"Are you done?" Gintoki asked, voice pleading.
"Not yet. Close your eyes and think happy thoughts."
"Don't have much of those with that weapon of mass destruction stuck in my arm!"
"Why, it's just a needle. Stop whining like a child," Gengai chided. His expression was unreadable behind the visor of his hazmat suit and the trademark goggles he insisted on wearing underneath it, "Oh, there we go, all done."
He pulled the syringe out, fastened a bandage over Gintoki's arm and vanished to the other end of the garage. Gintoki remained silent on the customized dentist's chair awaiting his results, studying the array of machines and contraptions towering around him and crammed so tightly together, he couldn't help but feel claustrophobic.
Gengai returned ten minutes later holding in one hand what Gintoki assumed was a flask containing a sample of his own blood, and in the other a strange metal bottle that resembled a thermos.
"I'mma say it straight out," Gengai said, putting down the thermos on the small table by the modified dentist's chair, "It's not good."
"Well, thanks. That one I could figure out." Gintoki replied sarcastically, struggling against a coughing bout.
"I'll show it to ya'," Gengai raised the flask of blood so Gintoki could see it while lying back, "This is the blood I just took from you. Does it look like regular blood to you? Well, pay no mind, it's not like you could have noticed it before, not unless you had some kind of traumatic hemorrhage, these little guys work hard to look like real blood after all."
Gintoki listened to Gengai's explanation in a trance, fevered brain processing the words too fast to ascribe them actual meaning. He looked at his own blood swirling inside the flask, a glittery shimmer mixed with the blood, bewitching yet alien.
"That, my friend, are thousands and hundreds of thousands of nanomachines eating up your blood cells, then copying them and reproducing. Watch this." Gengai put down the flask and brought the thermos bottle to Gintoki's line of sight. He unscrewed the top and twisted it around until a small casement appeared, a little window into the contents inside.
"One of my little inventions, works like a sort of magnet," Gengai explained, "It separates human particles from synthetic ones. The goo you see on the bottom that looks like sediment is what's left of human components in your blood. The shiny dust floating on top are the nanites. Nasty buggers."
Gintoki was silent for a while, mouth agape as he stared at the two halves of distinct matter hovering opposite each other.
"So, this is not a disease? It's robots?"
"Yeah, you could call it robots, but it acts the same as a disease. People are right to call it a plague."
"How long…" Gintoki paused, trying to find the best way to ask the terrible pressing question, "How long have I got?"
A beat. Gengai gave him a kind but nerve-racking ten seconds of silence before responding.
"I dunno, Ginnoji. I'm gonna need more time to give you a real answer. I've only just learned about these machines myself. Maybe there's something I can do about it, maybe-"
"What if I run out of time," Gintoki said, sitting up, "And these marks I've got, I've not heard about anyone else having them."
"I doubt anyone has the same amount of nanite juice in their veins either." Gengai said, and he looked down at the thermos bottle firmly grasped in both his hands.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, by all accounts, you should already be dead."