Chapter 1: PATIENT ZERO
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."
Chapter 2: GHOST
A thin mantle of rain fell over Edo, droplets soft as a lover's caress. Hijikata walked outside well protected. Long overcoat and boots. Scarf wound tight around his neck and tucked perfectly into place. In front of him the soft spray of rain settled over a cold slab of stone. Its surface sleek despite the scarce sunlight that broke through heavy clouds.
"You're at the wrong grave."
Hijikata had not expected company. It wasn't often he met anyone at that place, not when the cemetery housed more dead than visitors.
Sougo's voice had not aged a year, much less five. He delivered his words with a zeal Hijikata oftentimes feared he had lost himself. Perhaps it were the undying feelings of love and hatred that bound them together. Fondness fostered by absence. Whatever it was Hijikata welcomed it. A remnant of times past.
"I wondered if it was you leaving the flowers. You must come here pretty often."
"So do you."
"She was my sister," Sougo replied sharply, "What's your excuse?"
Hijikata had no reply. Not one that paid Mitsuba's memory any respect. He came here because he was weak. Every other week he came, if work let him, like a ritual, a prayer. He didn't talk or address her. But he did try to think of her. To give himself peace. But Sougo saw right through him.
"It's easier isn't it?" Sougo said, "I knew you would get more stupid with age, but not this bashful. It's kinda gross."
He stopped beside Hijikata, shoulder to shoulder. He had grown taller. The high ponytail reminded Hijikata of his distant youth. A time long ago when fighting was all he had on his mind, and, for a while, Mitsuba.
"You haven't gone to his grave yet, have you?"
"Why would I mourn someone who is not dead?"
"It's been five years, Hijikata-san. Nobody disappears for that long without a word. Not with the White Plague around. Didn't you waste enough government hours and resources making sure of it?"
Hijikata grunted and turned his back on Mitsuba's grave.
"Still, if there's anyone who could come back from the dead it's the Yorozuya's Boss."
"Is that supposed to cheer me up?" Hijikata wondered, searching for his cigarettes.
"Well, you'd have to consider what's worse," Sougo started. He bowed shortly towards the grave of his sister, sent her a few words of goodbye and then followed Hijikata out of the cemetery, "There are two possible scenarios. One, the Boss is for-real dead and you have refused to visit his grave for the past five years, or scenario two, he has been alive for the past five years without telling anybody about it. Without you knowing about it."
Hijikata failed to light his cigarette in the rainy weather. He flicked his lighter over and over again, hands repeating a gesture he had done a million times. Sougo's scenarios were both horrible. Both situations Hijikata had considered before. Both reasons why Hijikata came to visit Mitsuba's grave. Her he could grieve. With Mitsuba there was the sense of an ending. He was at peace with his feelings for her and the fact she was no longer there. But not with Gintoki. Not when Hijikata could still remember the feel of their bodies intertwined, the tone of his voice, the taste of his lips, the sweetness, the way he always managed to get on his nerves and step all over him, the way he had become so present in his life.
Grieving him was inconceivable and thinking about his disappearance sent Hijikata through familiar pathways of guilt and anger Sougo had effortlessly conjured with two simple scenarios. How could Gintoki disappear without a trace? Leave nothing behind but the semblance of death? No warning, no cry for help. The selfish prick. Hijikata held on to his anger to cast aside the darker thoughts haunting him, the ones that told him he didn't matter, that he hadn't meant much. The kind of self-sabotaging thoughts which were, nevertheless, better than accepting the truth.
But that Hijikata could not do. He'd rather believe Gintoki was still alive somewhere, in a place tangible enough that Hijikata would be able to find him and beat his ass. Hope was the last to die, they said. Yet, even hope had its enemies and the more Hijikata clung to it the more he was blind to reason, ready to follow every little clue he came upon, every whisper, every rumor that told of a glimpse of a white yukata with a blue wavy pattern.
That day by the cemetery he saw it again. Hem fluttering after steady steps across the street. Hijikata's heart filled to burst at the sight. A natural reflex. Except Gintoki didn't wear his yukata with a big yellow sash. Except it wasn't Gintoki at all.
Hijikata leaned against the roof of the police car as his feelings took over. Rain drenched the sleeves of his long coat. Beside him Sougo shrugged.
"See ya' around, Hijikata-san."
Sougo put on his wide brimmed hat and walked in Kagura's opposite direction. Her umbrella shielded her features but from her posture alone Hijikata could tell how much Gintoki's disappearance had changed her. No trace of the short whimsical little kid she had once been. Just a shadow of her former keeper.
Hijikata got in the car and drove home to the barracks.
The old Shinsengumi barracks had not withstood the civil unrest and gang war that the White Plague had bred on the streets of Edo. Nor had their name after Kondo's arrest five years prior. A ramshackle inn now hosted what was left of the Shinsengumi - the Makotogumi. Their numbers had dwindled considerably and each passing week Hijikata wrote a new entry into his Vice Commander log about a new afflicted, a new casualty, a new defector.
Yamazaki greeted him by the front door, hands clutching a report he was hasty to deliver.
"Welcome back, Vice-Commander. I heard the car coming in," he tucked his report under his arm to grab Hijikata's coat, "I finally have that report you requested on the Eastside Mohawk gang."
"Leave it on my table. First I want you to round up a squad and send them to the Kabuki District."
"She is back."
"Yes. We don't need her and Glasses destroying more public property over a petty disagreement. We already live amidst enough rubble." Hijikata replied gruff.
"I wouldn't call it a petty disagreement, Hijikata-san. You know it's not that-"
"I've given you my orders."
Hijikata turned around and slid shut the door to his quarters.
It wasn't until a few hours later, after much convincing and begging and pleas to the men's better natures, that Yamazaki convinced them to give up their downtime and go to work. The mention of their Vice Commander's avenging wrath if they chose not to follow his orders spared Yamazaki a good thirty minutes and he was knocking back at Hijikata's door in no time.
"May I come in, sir?"
Hijikata was sitting at his desk reviewing reports. Cigarette burning away on the astray. Yamazaki pulled up a cushion and sat a few feet behind Hijikata, eyes roaming the vest hugging his back.
"I've dispatched the men, sir."
"Good. What about the Mohawk gang?"
"What now?" Hijikata put down his pen and turned around to show Yamazaki a frown.
"Our informant. He switched sides. He gave us one last tip about the gang's stash house but when we got there the place was empty. Two of our men were ambushed by the gate. The others managed to get to them in time but they were hurt. Fortunately Elizabeth-dono's people were nearby when it happened and they took them in. We received a note earlier today saying our men were recovering well."
"And no sign of the stash? Nothing?"
"I'm afraid the trail has gone cold, sir."
"A lot of people depend on that medicine." Hijikata sighed. Five years had passed without a cure for the White Plague and, in spite of the tireless efforts of the few doctors and scientists that remained on the planet, all the common folk could cling to was managing the pain, delaying the inevitable. With factories shut down, civilization reduced to its bare essentials - mostly greed, survival and fear - drugs had become more valuable than money itself.
"Is that why our informant switched sides? Because he thought he could get it from them? How foolish."
"If the rumor is true and the Mohawks are getting the medicine directly from a government source it is to be expected."
"They have truly made us look like criminals."
"By the way, Hijikata-san," Yamazaki's tone went soft as he changed subjects, Hijikata recognized it instantly and braced for the worst, "They moved up the date of the execution. It's next week."
Hijikata tightened the grip on his cigarette. He did not notice it breaking in half.
"They moved it up three weeks?"
"We need to send word to Elizabeth-dono as soon as possible." Hijikata said.
Since the existing government had announced Kondo and Katsura's execution the previous month, Hijikata and Elizabeth had begun coordinating a joint mission to save their leaders. However, the constant fights between their groups and the criminal gangs ruling Edo's underbelly made it almost impossible to schedule strategy meetings, as did the faulty telecommunications network that persevered under the crisis cabinet. So far, all they had managed to agree on was the meal course for the celebration party after the release of their leaders.
"I've already sent a note asking for a private meeting." Yamazaki stated proudly.
"It will be faster if we go to them ourselves." Hijikata said standing up.
"No, sir. They changed safe-houses again last week after Shinpachi-kun dealt with the raiders holed up in the mini-market by their place. We don't know where they are right now."
"Shit." Hijikata sat back down and brushed cigarette ash from his vest before lighting up another cigarette. His leg twitched nervously.
"Is that all?"
"T-there's just one more thing," Yamazaki said averting his eyes from the fuming demon in front of him, "J-just one more thing, i-it's not urgent."
"Just spell it out, Yamazaki!"
Yamazaki swallowed his apprehension and took a deep breath before speaking.
"Last night I went to the old Terminal ruins," Hijikata's leg stopped twitching, smoke drifted from his parted lips as he focused on Yamazaki's words, "I know you said we shouldn't waste time with the courier after they announced Kondo-san's execution. I know Kondo-san should be our first priority. I mean, he is!" Yamazaki exclaimed, eyes fleeing Hijikata's intense stare, "But after those news about Shinpachi-kun going berserk again, I couldn't sleep. I thought, why not? I'll go there one last time. I hid at my usual place, second floor bathroom of the old Oedo Beauty Life Magazine's building. I waited a couple of hours and then I saw him again. The man in the suit."
Yamazaki stopped for breath but Hijikata's silence beset him. He rushed to finish his tale.
"He came down the street calmly, not a care in the world. I could barely see a thing. Used to be there were three lamps working in that street but now there's only one so I had to use my binoculars. Good thing I know where he goes otherwise I might have lost him. He entered the Terminal through the south entrance and left a few minutes later. I made sure he had left before I sneaked inside the Terminal. Those ruins really creep me out by the way- yeah, well, I walked in, checked the candy machine and there it was, another note!".
"What did it say?"
"T-this is why I-I said it's not u-urgent," Yamazaki stuttered again, excitement all gone at the prospect of disappointing Hijikata, "It didn't say much and there was no context-"
"What did it say!"
The man looked like a dick. There was no denying it. Absolutely foul and disgusting. Nevertheless, Hijikata noticed the way Kagura and Shinpachi's shoulders eased around him, a nearly imperceptible subtlety which Hijikata might have overlooked had the man not been wearing Gintoki's clothes. His entire outfit. He strutted about in a disconcerting image made worse by crass remarks and a display of rude personality that matched the old Yorozuya's. Even his scent was similar, Hijikata had gotten close enough to check.
Something was definitely up. Hijikata could feel himself approaching the brink of newfound knowledge about Gintoki's disappearance, yet it was as if the final piece kept escaping his grasp. First, when Chinpo ran out of the room after Katsura's retelling of Gintoki's past encounter with the Bakufu's special squad of Planet Destroyers fifteen years ago, a story which, strangely enough, coincided with Hijikata's own research on the White Plague and reckoned the disease to be the work of man-made nanomachines. Second, when Hijikata missed the opportunity to speak to Kondo. There was so much Hijikata wanted to tell him. So much he hadn't been able to fit in the letters he'd sent to him in prison; his woes about the state of the Makotogumi, his doubts about their new alliance with Katsura's rebels, the true extent of Edo's destruction, his feelings about Sougo's withdrawal, the details of Yamazaki's barmy investigations. Hijikata yearned to talk to him about all those things, to seek his guidance, his friendly ear, the warmth of his idealistic nature that knew how to subdue Hijikata better than anyone. Maybe in doing so Hijikata would even be able to open up about his failed attempts at finding Gintoki's whereabouts; to put into words his utter disbelief at the thought of the Yorozuya's death.
But Hijikata's wishes of release would have to wait. Kondo had been imprisoned for five years and undergone no change of personality or heart. His eyes scoured the room surveying his troops but also the ones missing. The absent comrades, dead comrades, new friends and old. Hijikata knew the face he searched for the most. He caught Kondo at his tenderest looking towards the younger Shimura sibling hoping to see in him a sign of his sister. A twinge of sympathy pricked Hijikata's heart at Kondo's looming pain. The last time Hijikata had seen Shimura Tae her brother had been pushing the back of her wheelchair through the corridors of Oedo's General Hospital. Her braided hair revealing ominous streaks of white hair.
Once Kondo slipped away after Shinpachi, Hijikata considered their chance at conversation officially over. He doubted they would have been able to get through any of Hijikata's topics amidst the commotion inside the room. Everyone celebrated the return of their leaders and, though a few faces hid sadness and grief behind drunken smiles, Hijikata did his best to join in. The least he could do was feel some happiness in Kondo's stead, for in a matter of minutes the spirit of his life-long friend would be mauled by the inescapable clasp of death. White and breathless. Hijikata knew it well.
"Pour me a cup."
Hijikata's raised cup found Elizabeth's. They toasted to their leaders with a cheer. Outside a mighty discharge poured from the sky.
The search for the last remnant of the Planet Destroyers, Enmi, was afoot. The strength Tae had shown in the face of her last days had brought everyone together again, Makotogumi, Yorozuya and Joui rebels. The three factions had banded together in pursuit of a common goal: the end of the White Plague. The decimation of Enmi.
Indefinite adjournment besieged Hijikata's soul searching session with Kondo. The morning after Kondo's visit to Otae they exchanged a silent look of understanding which begged no further questions. No words needed. Hijikata left it at that. Having no other choice but to carry on, he focused everything on finding the bakufu mercenary.
The testimonies they had gathered from the population varied. Some described Enmi as a monk, others said he was some kind of wizard, kids told elaborate tales of the ghost in the ruins. Regardless of the excesses of imagination, the accounts all seemed to converge on three graphic details which Chinpo, Gintoki's veritable fanboy of sorts, corroborated by virtue of his own sighting of the mercenary. A robed figure in bandages wielding a staff.
It didn't take long to spread his image all over town. Yamazaki had put together a half-decent sketch of the figure and, with the power of Katsura's Joui propaganda machine behind them, no corner of Edo was left bereft of Enmi's profile.
Hijikata had finished nailing the last slip from his batch of wanted posters when he realized where he was. A street he had visited countless times before. Desolate and shabby as the rest of the city. The signboard wasn't there any more. Yorozuya Gin Chan. Even at dusk the empty space caught his eye. Tiles had gone missing from the roof. The wood paneling creaked with rot. The only light came from the ground floor where Otose's Snack Bar was still open for business. Hijikata considered stopping by for a drink. The men tasked with distributing the posters with him would probably cry tears of joy at the chance. But one look up the stairs towards the second floor of the building had Hijikata clenching his fists. He turned his back on the street and decided he'd better to return to the inn.
"Pack it up, men. We're done for today."
The men grunted in agreement and made for the two cars parked nearby. Hijikata took a drag on his cigarette and glanced back at the Yorozuya's place one last time. He saw a short figure approach. Head round and bald. The goggles gave him away. Hiraga Gengai. The crazy old bastard who had been the main culprit in Kondo's imprisonment. There was only one thing Hijikata regretted about storming his execution and it was the simple fact he had not been able to enact his revenge on the lunatic geezer. Even that small pleasure Chinpo had taken away from him.
Hijikata's hand moved unconsciously to the hilt of his sword. His fingers hovered above it as he deliberated on whether or not to unsheathe his blade but Gengai's cart gave him pause. The old man had stopped it in front of Otose's bar and was doubled over struggling to pull something gangly and heavy out of it. His fussing raised enough racket that Otose herself had to step out of the bar to yell at him. Hijikata heard her gravelly voice as she called for help.
"Catherine! Catherine! Come help this old wretch with his toy! He is going to break his back if he keeps up like this."
"I'm fine, old hag. Leave me be!"
"Shut up. You're giving me a headache."
Catherine appeared a few minutes later but by then Gengai had already managed to get his contraption out of the cart and Hijikata had recognized it. A fitting description.
The man in the suit.
"Sir, we're ready to go." one of the task force men informed him. Hijikata dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
"Go on ahead. I need to check one last spot."
"But, sir, it's late. You shouldn't-"
"I'll be fine." Hijikata's reply was final.
The men got inside the cars and drove away. Hijikata lit another cigarette and rummaged through the pockets of his long coat for his notebook. He flicked page after page in search of Yamazaki's notes about the courier and while he did it he hid himself in the narrow alley beside Otose's bar, in the same spot Gintoki had ushered the two of them from view dozens of times before. The scent of wet cardboard and black tea mixed in the air, nostalgic and familiar. Yet Hijikata's heart thumped alarmingly and the memories couldn't break through the exhilarating advent of discovery. The missing piece. The ghost in the Terminal ruins. The man in the suit. Gengai's toy. Could that mean the man was a robot? If so, why was it delivering cryptic messages at the Terminal? Who were they for? Could it be Enmi? Did Gengai know the mercenary?
So close. Hijikata was so close. Thumb and forefinger held the cigarette between his lips. He sucked in the nicotine desperately. A passing shadow startled him. He pressed his back against the wall in a knee-jerk reaction and extricated a deep breath before testing a peek at Otose's front door.
Hijikata cursed silently. Could he not have two minutes of rest before the fucking clown decided to ruin his peace? His ability to think? He seemed to pop up at the worst of times, assaulting Hijikata with that damned familiar combination of white and blue. Hijikata peeped at the street corner again willing daggers to shoot out of his eyes.
But the most incredible thing happened.
The dickhead lifted a hand to his face and plucked out the mole pinned to the middle of his forehead. The foreskin head blew into a mess of silver curls. Hijikata's foot slipped. He lost the strength to keep standing. The sound of his boot scraping the ground caught the attention of the ghost. Hijikata crawled on all fours and hid behind a dumpster. His heart sprung to his throat. Footsteps approached. Otose's voice saved him.
"Oi, Gintoki, come inside before someone sees you, you idiot!"
"Trying to ruin your own plan, uh?"
"Shut up, hag-duo! I'm tired."
The footsteps drew away. Tension lifted from Hijikata's shoulders and he slumped against the back alley's wall, body limp like a puppet's except for the trembling. He didn't trust himself to stand. Five years of unresolved grief channeled out of him in waves he couldn't battle. He lay by the dumpster in silence while the sound of Gintoki's voice filled his ears.
"Still haven't found Enmi?"
"Not yet." Gintoki replied.
"Otae-chan doesn't have much longer."
"I know that."
"You said you saw him before." Otose said.
"Yeah, he seems to know who I am. Sometimes I feel a shadow following me."
"It's certainly starting to look like he is the reason you died." Gengai observed.
Gintoki hummed in agreement.
"Don't waste time, Kintoki. I'll make sure the Time Thief is repaired so you can go back to your timeline. But don't think you'll have a second try at this. It's now or never."
"I know, old man."
Yamazaki was asleep when Hijikata returned to the Makotogumi barracks in the dead of night. Hijikata yanked Yamazaki from his futon and dragged him to his quarters by the collar of his pajamas.
"Wha-what's going on, Vice Commander? Have you found him? Enmi?"
Hijikata had no time for other people's questions. He sat Yamazaki down in front of his desk and threw him his pocket notebook.
"Your reports on the Terminal courier. How many times did you follow him without my consent?"
"T-the courier?" Yamazaki replied drowsy, massaging his stomach.
"Yes. The man in the suit."
The words flicked a switch in Yamazaki's brain. His favorite subject. The most interesting thing in his life apart from anpan. The side-investigation he prided himself of. The web of mystery and deceit he had uncovered from a simple order given by Hijikata a year before.
I need you to find out why no street gang settles in the Terminal ruins.
Yamazaki couldn't say he had accomplished his mission. In fact his complete failure at finding out why the ruins were deserted was the reason Hijikata had stopped looking into it. But Yamazaki had relinquished too many days and nights of watch to give up the task. He had never stopped monitoring the ruins, nor the strange messenger that left notes in the south entrance's candy machine.
"I've compiled a thorough diary of my investigations, sir. I used to go there daily, but after you told me to stop surveillance I dropped my watches to twice a week, then once a week. Now I go once every two weeks, sometimes on Saturdays when the rest of the guys cancel the evening rec plans and-"
"Describe him to me. The courier. With as much detail as possible."
"Well, he wears a fine dark blue suit. Some people would call it black, but I think I know a dark blue when I see it. The light from the street lamps is a bit orangy so sometimes it looks dark brown, but that's just a play of light. I'd say the suit is dark blue. Once I saw him in the morning and the weather was pretty sunny so I could see him really clearly-"
"You mentioned in one of your reports that he wears a helmet?"
"Yes, sir. You can't see his face. He wears something on his head. Sure, it resembles a helmet, but it looks like someone put a big lens on the front. It's weird, I've never seen a helmet like that."
"You're stupid Yamazaki but you've helped me a great deal."
"Have I?" Yamazaki's voice was full with genuine surprise. His eyes followed Hijikata's frame as he stood up and put his coat back on.
"A-are you leaving, sir?"
"But it's…" Yamazaki glanced at his naked wrist then at the walls of Hijikata's quarters until he found a clock ticking on the wall behind him, "It's almost three in the morning."
"You ever followed the courier to his home?"
"Uh, no, sir. The few times I tried to I lost him near the Kabuki District."
Hijikata snorted. Something like a chuckle.
"Are you alright, Hijikata-san? Do you want me to come with you?"
"No," Hijikata replied calmly, "But I'll give you a tip. Next time you follow the courier home try Hiraga Gengai's garage."
"Don't wait up for me."
The air was thin in the Terminal ruins. Hard to breathe. Although Edo as a whole had been ravaged, the Terminal ruins embodied the crux of its destruction. No wonder kids believed ghosts lived there. The wind blew different. The sun didn't reach the ground. Gusts of wind swerved on the uneven edges of destitute buildings before being swallowed up by gaping holes of concrete. Hijikata advanced by car as far as the road let him despite the immovable obstructions in his way. Overturned vehicles, broken lamps, massive piles of debris that had crumbled down from the surrounding skyscrapers.
He left the car by the south entrance where Yamazaki had reported seeing the courier deliver the letters. The sight of the dusty candy machine recalled a life experienced but unexplained. Hijikata wondered if Yamazaki's obsession with the case had transferred itself to him. He checked the mouth of the candy machine for a note but it was empty. No more hints to guide his future. Only instinct.
The echo of Hijikata's footsteps accompanied him as he pressed forward, meek comfort though it was. In his haste he had forgotten to bring a flashlight so he progressed slowly up the Terminal's many floors. Dawn grew close to break when Hijikata reached the atrium of a carved hangar and heard the jingling sound of metal. His hand flew to the handle of his sword. The effort of climbing a thousand steps vanished as the adrenaline kicked in. A red beam of light pierced the pitch black corner of the upper walkway. Hijikata craned his neck to follow the light as it descended to his level and revealed the face sketched in the wanted poster. Faint morning light blasted into the atrium through the chasm where a spacecraft hangar had once existed teeming with crew and passengers.
Hijikata's eyes roamed the figure committing every detail to memory so he could remember it later, after he had put him under the ground.
"I'm Hijikata Toushirou. Is it Enmi they call you?" Hijikata asked, unsheathing his sword, "Your real name is of no importance to me," he said as his question met with silence, "It is enough that you know mine. A man should know the name of his executioner."
The staff jingled with movement. Hijikata liked the sound. Enmi was rattled.
"This world is not yours to consume and neither is that body. Once you are dead you will return it to me."
The staff jingled again and this time Enmi leaped forward. Hijikata met him halfway. Sword and staff clashed with a clamour that reverberated throughout the endless corridors and hollow spaces of the Terminal. The floor shook under Hijikata's feet but his mind was elsewhere, removed from the dangers of the real word, keen on extinguishing the red light creeping through the bandaged face in front of him. Blow after blow, their weapons sought each other across the expanse of the atrium. Hijikata's sword cut through stone pillars as Enmi dodged his attacks, and the reinforced walls of the atrium cracked as Hijikata deflected Enmi's staff and sent the mercenary flying.
He missed their fights. He missed their arguments. No ghost from the past could quench that yearning. No half-dead lookalike. The truth was in front of his face. That hateful red glint of a brain riddled with nanomachines festering a curse incurable. Hijikata hoped killing Enmi would put a stop to the White Plague. How could he bury Gintoki's body otherwise? How could he do what he was about to? Seek his heart and push his blade right through it.
Gintoki was no more alive than the man in the suit, Gengai's time-machine, broken and lifeless.
Gintoki was dead.
"The only one who can kill me is me."
The blunt end of Enmi's staff hit Hijikata's gut from a blind spot. Hijikata staggered backwards as the air was expelled from his lungs. His back collided with one of the atrium's pillars and though the impact sent his head spinning, the solid column kept him upright and he was able to anticipate Enmi's next attack, the jingling sound of his staff producing the perfect cue.
In a flash Hijikata's blade ripped through the bandages wrapped around Enmi's ear and a patch of white hair sprung from the deliberate cut. Hijikata's heart clenched, gripped by nostalgia and a feeling of hope he hadn't felt so sure of before. He stepped back to dodge another vicious swing of Enmi's staff. His eyes searched his opponent's for one more tiny piece of proof and Hijikata realized belatedly, with staff piercing his thigh, that the entire fight had been proof. Testimony. Not one blow made to kill. Not one swing of Enmi's staff aimed towards a critical area. The fresh wound incited a cry from him but the pain of recognition numbed his entire body. Every movement of Enmi had been carefully measured, precise, like the steps of a seasoned dancer. Hijikata wondered how many times Enmi had rehearsed this. How many old allies had experienced this battle of wills. Enmi's against Gintoki's.
"Are you too proud to ask for help? You?" Hijikata uttered, blood dripping down his leg and soaking around the wound, a color darker than the black of his coat, "Have you lost your hearing too?"
Enmi made to pull his staff from Hijikata's leg but Hijikata's free hand held it firmly in place. He groaned aloud to shake off the excruciating pain and with a deep breath threw his sword aside. Enmi's eyes widened. The gesture stunned him long enough for Hijikata to get close. His hand found Enmi's bandaged face and he pulled at the bandages hard, nails scraping against skin.
"There you are."
The same unintelligible scribbling that was written all over the bandages marked Gintoki's face. The characters crept up his neck towards his eyes which looked as dead and soulless as Hijikata had ever seen them. He only wanted to know one thing.
But he couldn't bring himself to speak. He coughed. The blood oozing from his leg added to the dizzying sensation overtaking him.
"I know you're there." Hijikata said.
A faint smile crossed Gintoki's weary face.
"Was I so obvious?"
Hijikata failed to keep a tear from falling down his cheek. Even though he had heard that voice the night before, hearing it now filled him to the brim. This was him. The Gintoki he knew. The one who had vanished from his life.
"Embarrassingly so." Hijikata replied, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, Gintoki's torn bandages still tightly wrapped around his fingers.
"Took you long enough."
Hijikata had lowered his head for a moment, breath hitching, but the accusation brought it up swiftly. He opened his mouth to deliver a furious diatribe, emotions pressing unchecked, but the staff moved. Gintoki pulled it from Hijikata's leg with a strong jerk. The words died on Hijikata's mouth as he cried out in pain. His good knee gave out and he lost his footing. He stumbled forward into Gintoki's space and Gintoki caught him haphazardly, unacquainted with touch, fearful of it for the deadly curse in his veins. The blunt end of his staff met the floor as he stretched out his arms to catch Hijikata.
"Put me down." Hijikata groaned.
Gintoki let go of the staff. He put his hands under Hijikata's arms and helped him down to a sitting position.
"How did you find me?"
"I know what you've done." Hijikata said out of breath, biting his lip.
Gintoki noticed the way he clutched at his leg. He tied a knot over the bloody wound with a torn piece of his cloak and Hijikata hissed as Gintoki tightened it.
"I saw you. The you from the past. Him being here… it's all your doing, isn't it?" the question didn't beg for an answer and Hijikata carried on, determined to keep Gintoki's red gleaming eyes on him, "Back then… when you went around asking questions about the sick people, you already knew what was going on. It was foolish of me not to see it."
Gintoki didn't reply.
"Drawing back your hand, pulling away from my touch. You didn't tell me shit, you selfish bastard! You just had to go and do everything on your own."
Gintoki closed his eyes and drew another smile.
"You'll find it hard to believe-"
"Shut up. Shut up!"
A pulse beat madly in Hijikata's leg. Despite the tight knot over his wound he could feel the blood pumping out of him, seeping his strength. He had finally found Gintoki and now his body was giving up.
"I could kill you right now," Hijikata groaned, "You've been here… all this time? Alive?"
"Alone," Gintoki said softly, "That's what this curse is all about. The White Plague is just a means to an end. The dead people, the casualties, they're just fodder for these guys," Gintoki pointed to his head, "They whisper to me. All the time. Sometimes I'm not sure I'm even here. But I hear them."
"What do they say?"
"Things I used to say to myself," Gintoki said, "Things I said before I had a blooming business and a home and a bunch of idiots who cared for me. I even went on a few dates. Really had my life made, you know?"
Hijikata leaned his head back against the column, away from Gintoki and his gibberish.
"I don't want to hear about any of that!" he snapped.
"Then what do you want to hear, Hijikata? The clock is ticking," Gintoki's fingers brushed over his leg wound, "You're going to pass out soon."
Hijikata growled like an animal. He looked around for his sword and found it lying on the atrium floor far out of reach. Stripped of his weapon and his strength, all he had left were his wits and a frantic need to keep Gintoki in front of him.
"You said the only one who could kill you was you. Is that why you brought your past self here? To kill you? Is that what those machines are saying?!"
"Very smart, Vice-Commander."
"Is it that hard to split open your own belly?"
"Yeah, this precious body you came to claim is not mine any more."
Hijikata's eyes met Gintoki's. He reached for Gintoki's hand but Gintoki withdrew it.
"The machines command it now. I'm banned from doing anything they deem dangerous to its integrity."
"Then why didn't you ask for help? I would gladly kill you right now." Hijikata said.
"Would you?" the teasing tone faded from Gintoki's voice along with the illusory smile Hijikata had been reveling in from the moment the bandages had come off, "There's more to killing me than you think. Besides, how could I ever ask that of you?"
Hijikata grabbed the collar of Gintoki's cloak. He had lost all feeling in his leg.
"If your past self succeeds it won't matter whether I live or die. I don't care if I'm cursed."
Gintoki's hand was cold as it touched Hijikata's.
"Of course it matters, you idiot."
"Then now you know."
Hijikata mustered what strength he had left and mashed their lips together.
Hijikata woke up in a hospital bed. An eerie silence enveloped his ward and he wondered if the death toll had finally overcome the number of sick people. Maybe his bed was one among many empty. Or maybe the reverse had happened, the plague was over and the curse had been lifted. He could only hope.
His bedside table was empty except for an empty cup of water and his pocket notebook where Yamazaki had scribbled new lines after Hijikata's last entry.
'Found the courier's body at Hiraga Gengai's garage as well as two sets of schematics. Claimed everything for unlawful use. Looking for an expert to see about disassembling and removal of helmet(...)'
Hijikata shut the notebook as the door to his room opened and revealed a sight he despised.
"Take it off."
Gintoki took out the mole and shed his Chinpo disguise without protest. His lack of defiance or dissimulation unsettled Hijikata. His pulse picked up.
"I can't stand the sight of you. What do you want?"
"Nice to meet you too, Asshole-From-The-Future. I just came to see how you were. Shinpachi told me they found you bleeding to death at the inn's front door."
"You've seen me."
"And you have seen me."
"You barged in here."
"No, I meant the old me."
Hijikata turned his head and their eyes met for the first time since Gintoki had entered the room.
Gintoki was bruised from a fight. His yukata hung in taters. Someone had already patched him up, bandages wrapped tight around his arms and torso. His messy state could only mean one thing.
"The only one who can defeat me is me," Hijikata repeated the words aloud, his fingers dug into the bed covers, "You killed him."
"Yeah, that's what I came here for," Gintoki said, eyes cast low, "But he gave me another task before I go. There's one last thing I have to do."
Hijikata went very still afraid of the question he wanted to ask.
"I'm gonna turn everything back to the way it was. Before the White Plague."
"I'm gonna stop the White Plague from ever happening."
Hijikata's eyes widened. Gintoki's train of thought came to him seamlessly and logical. Gintoki was in possession of a time machine after all.
Hijikata sat up and reached for Gintoki's wrist. Gintoki raised their joined hands and examined Hijikata's amused.
Hijikata couldn't stand the levity in his voice.
"Is this you being selfish, Hijikata-kun?"
"You're gonna kill yourself."
"Yeah, I'm getting pretty good at it."
"Hey, you won't even remember any of this. I won't even-"
Hijikata released Gintoki's wrist and reached for the sword Yamazaki had left by his bed. He unsheathed it in a matter of seconds and lunged at Gintoki callously. Reason cast aside. His thigh throbbed with pain as he jumped out of the bed yet the pain-killers assuaged the sensation.
Gintoki barely managed to dodge his attack. He stopped Hijikata's blade with his bokuto and fell backwards. Hijikata perched on top of him.
"You're calling me selfish, you sadistic piece of shit?!" Hijikata bellowed.
"I don't have any other choice."
"You're gonna erase everyone's memories of you just like that?"
"Yeah, at least you get to live!" Gintoki cried out.
"And I should be thankful for that? As if I would ever let a bastard, good-for-nothing, dumbshit, scumbag like you decide my fate! I live by my sword not yours!"
"Then just fucking kill me."
Hijikata brought his sword down over Gintoki. He struck it an inch above his shoulder into the hospital's linoleum floor. The sword clattered to the other end of the room and Hijikata broke down crying. Tears streamed down his face despite the deep breaths he took to stop them. Blood pumped madly through his heart and he clenched his fists as he cried in a fit of rage, utterly powerless.
Gintoki pulled himself up and took Hijikata in his arms, embrace steadfast against Hijikata's struggling. Hijikata pushed his hands against Gintoki's wounded chest and if he saw the bandages soil with blood he ignored it.
"Don't touch me! Get off!"
Gintoki drew back to look into Hijikata's eyes, their faces inches from each other.
Warm lips found Hijikata's and he opened his mouth to scream but there was no stopping the barrage of longing and desire Gintoki had called forth. Hijikata moaned into their kiss unbidden, chest heaving. He pulled back to breathe and Gintoki's thumbs cleared the tears from his cheeks. Hijikata leaned into his touch but winced as the pain in his leg returned reminding him of his feeble state. He thought of the afflicted Gintoki, too scared to touch him, too lost, too consumed to kiss him back.
"What's that face for?"
Gintoki whisked away the hard lines between Hijikata's brows with a touch of his lips.
"It's just my face, asshole."
"I'm still getting used to it, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"The V-shape is gone," Gintoki said tracing Hijikata's forehead with his fingertips, "And there's wrinkles now-"
Hijikata's fingers twitched and he seized a fistful of silver curls.
"Oi, oi, oi, I'm joking! I like it, there's more space to work with now, I mean, that forehead is…"
"Gintoki," Hijikata's voice cut through the light tone of conversation, his grip loosened "I won't let you leave this room to go erase yourself from existence."
"It's not up to you."
"The kids wouldn't want that either."
"I've seen what the plague does. Tae is dying. Kagura and Shinpachi could be next. You too. And it's all on me. I'm the one who carries the curse. It's my job to end it. There's nothing you can do about it."
"Over my dead body."
"You forget how well I know you, Hijikata-kun," a sad smile crossed Gintoki's features and he turned his gaze away towards the door he'd left ajar, "I've given clear instructions to this guy that's been helping me. In case I don't leave this room, he is to hand over Kondo to the government authorities and make sure they carry his execution. You would not let that happen, would you, Hijikata-kun?"
Hijikata crawled back away from Gintoki. Fists clenched against the cold hospital floor.
"You are a bastard. You're rotten!"
"Don't worry. All the hate you feel will be like it never existed. Ain't that great?"
Chapter 3: DEMON
"Bit disgraceful how full this joint is. Ain't the country supposed to be at war?"
The old lady behind the counter shrugged. She set Hijikata's drink down and gave him the evil eye proud country folk turn to strangers when they want to keep their own opinions secret and the strangers' null.
Hijikata threw a couple of coins on the counter. The old woman retrieved them with a swipe of her hand and turned away.
"Don't take my wife's attitude to heart. She has a bad temper that one." a man said beside him. He was well into his years, around sixty, skin wrinkled around his eyes but glistening with sweat and a certain joy that came from hard, fulfilling work.
"I didn't." Hijikata replied.
"Pardon me for saying so, but you don't look like no regular drifter." the old man said. He gave Hijikata a once over, eyes lingering on the long black coat and the sheathed sword at Hijikata's hip.
"You a dog? We don't like dogs here."
Hijikata furrowed his brow. He took a sip of his drink and looked around to catch the feel of the room. Among the twenty or so patrons crammed inside the small bar not one wore more than two layers of clothing. Hijikata stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of plain cotton kimonos. He noticed half a dozen men stare back at him while hanging onto the old man's every word.
"Is your patriotism so cheap you would accept money from a dog?"
A couple of men stood up. Chairs fell back and rattled against the floor. Low whispers and loud cries replaced the thrum of merry chattering.
"Get the hell outta here!"
Hijikata put down his cup.
"You better leave, mister," the old man said, "We don't want any trouble here. Just a quiet drink."
Hijikata snorted unable to stifle his laughter.
"A quiet drink? Half the country is starving and the other is dying on the battlefield, but here you are drinking your worries away. Life is easy when all you have to think about is the price of a drink," Hijikata appraised the empty sake cup with his fingers, "It tasted terrible by the way. Someone should teach you Joui rats how to steal better sake."
Another ten men rose out of their seats. Agile, sandaled feet leapt over flipped chairs towards Hijikata. The dim light of the bar lamps gleamed on their short blades. Hijikata kicked his stool in their direction and reached for his sword but the old man had gotten to it first. He unsheathed it in less than a second, calloused hands weary but familiar with the gears of war.
"I told you to leave."
The tips of half a dozen blades prickled Hijikata's back. He could not move.
"I got the message." Hijikata said.
"Yes, I'm glad you did," the old man nodded. The hilt of Hijikata's sword was secure in his grasp and the tip of its blade awfully close to Hijikata's neck, "But you're a rabid dog and we can't let a dog like that go."
A chorus of voices joined readily.
"Tell him what we do to rabid dogs!"
"We put them down!"
A lazy smile stretched along the creased features of the old man.
"I'm afraid my compatriots are right. You see, if the war has taught us anything is that we can't trust dogs. And rabid dogs go to the slaughterhouse. We eat them right up."
Hijikata reached a hand into the inner pocket of his coat. The swords at his back dug into the coat's smooth fabric as he searched for his pack of cigarettes. He took one out and lit it. The old man's gaze followed his every move but he didn't budge.
"That was a nice speech, old man," Hijikata blew out a long cloud of smoke, "But I'm not gonna leave this joint until you tell me the location of the rebel encampment that's supplying you with all this food and drink. Why don't you tell the missus to run and go get them?"
Before the old man could get a word in, Hijikata flicked the tip of his burning cigarette in the old man's eyes. The man gasped with pain as flaming ashes burned skin and eyelashes. Behind Hijikata the creeping blades froze with surprise. Hijikata yanked the empty scabbard hanging from his hip and struck the old man's hand to retrieve his blade.
"Kill him! Kill the bastard!" the old man yelled as he fell to his knees.
Cries of rage reverberated around the room. The sting of humiliation dug deep but not enough to stop Hijikata as he cut through men like butter. A few men, probably farmers, ran out of the bar screaming. The number of opponents dwindled quickly and Hijikata was soon left alone with the whimpering man behind him.
Moans and sobs punctuated the room's quiet. Unconscious men lay with bloody wounds on the floor, draped over upturned tables and clutching broken stools. A new cigarette held fast between Hijikata's lips as he turned to face his host.
"May the White Demon strike you dead!" the old man cursed him.
Hijikata shook the blood off his sword with a flick of his wrist.
"He can try."
Hijikata followed the old man's wife up a muddy, serpentine path that led him away from the village towards a forest high in the hills where rocky terrain and tall, lush trees hid the rebel encampment from sight. Natural camouflage and a vantage point. Solid strategy. Hijikata could guess the mastermind behind the choice of location, though he had been wrong before. He had roamed war-torn land for two weeks with no sight of any major Joui camp, caught familiar names on the mouths of moralizing fools and whispering dissidents but no clear directions. The sparse leads he had gathered had taken him to a promising village aflame with Joui sentiment but little intel. The running woman was his only hope of reaching his camp, the one where the White Demon slept.
Long shadows filled the empty spaces between the trees as the sun set. Hijikata concealed himself in the underbrush as the camp's walls unfolded in the distance. The rebels had no soldiers posted at the gates but they had eyes on the walls. Sentries patrolled the ramparts, their top knots emerging occasionally above the high walls.
Hijikata watched as the old woman banged her arms against the wooden gates and cried for help.
"Masters! Masters! Help!"
After a moment the gate opened slowly and a murmur of activity escaped from within kindling the air with the scent of smoke and sweat. A man came out the slender opening. Shoulders taut. A soldier.
"What do you want?" he barked.
"Please, help!" the woman kneeled at the soldier's feet and clung to his trousers, cheeks glistening with the tracks of her tears "A dog! There's a bakufu dog in the village! He came into my husband's place looking for you. You have to help us! He must have killed everyone by now!"
Hijikata couldn't see the man's face but he read his body language clearly. The soldier believed her. He helped the woman off the ground and motioned for her to follow him. Hijikata presumed she would go retell her story to whoever was in charge, and thus an indefinite length of time awaited Hijikata with no cigarettes to avail him. He thought of Yamazaki for some reason, the endless nights he had been out on recon missions. At least the fool didn't suffer a nicotine addiction to compromise his position.
Minutes stretched into hours. The sun had set. Despite the cold temperature encroaching with the night sky, waiting left Hijikata drowsy and slow. His eyes were half-lidded and battling sleep when the camp gates burst open and a group of eight men walked out. He recognized at once the one leading them. Long dark hair billowed after him and bright torch light illuminated his features. Hijikata didn't think twice.
Hijikata fled the bushes in a rush. The soldiers took out their swords ready for an attack and the woman shrieked again. She stood next to Katsura pointing frantically in Hijikata's direction.
"That's him! That's him!"
Katsura's eyes steeled with resolve.
"Seize him!" he waved a hand and the men acted on his request with a cry.
"I've an important message to deliver!" Hijikata bellowed, swatting away the soldier's charges with his sword, "I only ask for a moment of your time, asshole!"
He tried to be courteous on account of all the good Elizabeth had done to him lately, but Katsura was still very much a terrorist in Hijikata's book. Not to mention he had been involved in Kondo's imprisonment too. In a way he was very much like his brainless friend. Always showing up when Hijikata least wanted him to, though Hijikata couldn't remember the last time he had felt that way. He wanted to see Gintoki all the time now. Even if only in nightmares.
"Throw aside your sword and I'll let you walk inside our camp in shackles."
The foot of one soldier found Hijikata's side and he stumbled. At Katsura's words the men stopped and gave Hijikata room to breathe. Hijikata spit dust from his mouth and sheathed his sword before throwing it to the ground near Katsura's feet.
"Where are your shackles?" he asked, showing the men his wrists.
Katsura's face yielded no emotion but his intense stare bore into Hijikata's looking for an explanation. The quick subjugation had piqued his interest.
"What are you doing? Why are you sparing him?!" the woman cried outraged.
"The man has surrendered of his own accord. I would like to hear what he has to say." Katsura said.
"But he's a murderer! A traitor!"
"I didn't kill anyone, you hag," Hijikata spat, gritting his teeth as two men tied his wrists behind his back, "If you go back to the bar you'll find your customers bleeding and sore but alive."
"Best if she sees it with her own eyes," Katsura offered. He turned to his men and gestured towards the woman, "Please take her down to the village and see to the injured. If this man speaks the truth we can still save them."
The soldiers nodded while the woman sobbed.
"If not he will die by my sword."
Dozens of square tents occupied the area inside the encampment's walls. Pillars of smoke rose across the colorful expanse of canvas. The acrid scent of burnt wood mixed with the encroaching stench of sweat and mud. Hijikata followed Katsura as he navigated trampled ground towards a tent of peculiar shape which was empty except for two hardy wooden poles stuck in the center.
"Tie him up."
The two men escorting Hijikata forcibly sat him down and bound him to one of the poles, ropes biting into his chest. Once they were done Katsura ushered them away.
Hijikata took deep breaths to regain his composure. He believed a self-assured posture was sure to irk Katsura, but Katsura's face pissed Hijikata more than anything. The idiot had to be some kind of vampire or immortal creature because nothing else could account for the fact that fifteen years separated the Katsura Hijikata had allied himself with from the one pacing back and forth in front of him trying to outsmart him. Both looked exactly the same. Not one crinkle more, not one crinkle less. His hair was the exact same length. If an expert measured it, they would probably find out the length of both hairs matched to the last millimeter. It was fucking crazy.
I'm starting to sound like him. Hijikata thought displeased.
"You step into enemy lines alone," Katsura said aloud, "Call me by my name, which means you definitely know who I am and are therefore well connected with the best government spies. You say you have an important message to deliver, so important you are ready to relinquish your sword, the heart of a samurai, to bring me this message. I want to know what that message is, dog."
"I didn't come here as a government spy." Hijikata replied.
"I came here on an errand from a friend of yours." Hijikata said, skin chafing against the tight rope binding his wrists. His story was built on half truths but he was confident Katsura would believe him. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he believed meeting Katsura before anyone else was the best thing that could have happened. Any other person from Gintoki's past would not have given Hijikata the time of day. Not even blood-thirsty Shiroyasha himself.
Hijikata jutted his jaw towards his chest.
"I can't reveal their name but I brought proof. It's tucked inside my vest."
"A poisoned dagger?"
Hijikata sighed. Of course, the Katsura of fifteen years ago was also a moron.
"If you unbind me I can show it to you."
"Your tricks don't work on me." Katsura said. He bit back a laugh and crouched in front of Hijikata. He slipped one hand inside Hijikata's vest and took out a musty book with a nasty cut on the top. Hijikata's mouth went dry with anticipation.
Katsura flipped through the first few pages and, realizing what it was, dropped it on the ground.
"What kind of foul magic is this! It can't be!" he stepped away from Hijikata and grabbed his sword, "Who are you? How do you have Sensei's textbook in your possession?! This is… this is…"
He was too shocked to put the revelation into words so Hijikata supplied him the rest.
"That's your textbook. I got it from a friend of yours, fifteen years in the future."
Silence befell the sheltered tent room. Katsura's disbelief subsided and he picked up the textbook from the ground to peruse it again. He leafed through page after page, hesitated over his own scribblings on the margins, touched the lips of the garish cut on the cover.
One of the men stationed at the front of the tent interrupted his moment of wonder.
"Katsura-dono, they are back."
Katsura shut the book and stashed it inside his kimono.
"Where the fuck would I go." Hijikata muttered under his breath.
Gintoki trudged to his tent. The smell of iron was bitter and lingering. Specks of blood marred the beautiful white of his kimono, stains so small few of his comrades spotted them, though most didn't want to, preferring instead to feed their fables. Whenever he returned from battle with a pristine kimono the gossiping seemed to multiply tenfold, the myth seemed to span new horrors, 'He cut through the creatures so quickly their blood didn't reach him', 'He shattered a man's sword with his bare hands', 'He split a bakufu dog's head in half and his sword came off clean', 'He slashed through ten enemies and licked their blood from his sword'. Gintoki couldn't say at which point he had started to lose interest in the tales. He had dropped them all together the moment he'd stopped being able to tell truth from lie.
Inside the Joui camp, groups of comrades parted to let him pass. Their gazes studied his figure in awe but averted at the merest turn of his head. He shrugged them off thinking of his bed, the cot in the corner of his tent where he spent his greatest and most terrible hours. Hopefully his body would be too spent to let him rest properly without dreams of demons.
He entered his tent and dropped the heavy bag of loot tossed over his shoulder at the foot of his bed. Goosebumps prickled him as a soft breeze crept through the breaches in his tent and brushed against his damp skin. He took off his chest armor and fell down on the cot with a long sigh. He was expected to give Zura a report having just come from another raid gone wrong, but he ached for sleep. He would be fine with five minutes of sleep, just five. Well, ten. Ten would be perfect. Or fifteen? Thirty? Thirty was good. A round number, quite nice. Almost as nice as a full hour. Yes, one hour was-
"Gintoki! Gintoki!" Katsura stormed into his tent unannounced, yells strident and abnormal. Gintoki rolled over in his cot like a babe. Maybe if he ignored Zura he would go away.
"Gintoki! No sleep now! You must come right away! Right now! You have to see this! You must come!"
Gintoki took a deep breath and propped up on his elbows, a frown plastered all over his place.
"Gintoki-no-sleep-now?" Gintoki repeated Katsura's words in a mocking tone, teeth grinding, "I'm not in the mood, Zura! I'm tired, I'll give you my report tomorrow, alright? Fuck off!"
Gintoki turned around to sleep but Katsura was relentless. Not everyone had the gall to enter Gintoki's tent uninvited, much less disturb his sleep, however Katsura's childhood-friend card gave him liberties Gintoki was very much thinking about revoking.
"What the fuck, Zura!?"
"You have to come with me right now!" Katsura said, kneeling by Gintoki, hands fastened on his collar, "We captured a man from the future. He has my textbook! Sensei's textbook, the textbook Sensei gave to me!"
Katsura reached a hand into his kimono and produced the flimsy book.
"You see?! You see!?" he exclaimed, pupils blown wide.
Gintoki flipped through the book uninterested. Katsura's stupidity had reached a new high that week and he wasn't having it. Perhaps if Takasugi didn't spend half his time away, burning inns and making a show of himself and the Kiheitai, Gintoki wouldn't have to deal with Katsura's fantasies on a daily basis. All those ration proposals and elaborate battle plans Gintoki had no patience for. All those fucking reports. Gintoki might excel in combat but he definitely didn't excel as a military man.
"He got in a fight with some locals. A woman came to us about him. Said he was a bakufu spy. But how could he possess something like this? When I asked him, he said he came from the future. Fifteen years from now!"
"Zura, have you been sleeping properly? Maybe you should take some time to yourself? Kick back and relax a bit? All this planning and bakufu spy nonsense you have been going on about recently has finally got to your brain. It was rotten before but now it's total garbage."
"Gintoki! Listen to me, I'm not kidding! Go talk to him yourself. There's something about him. He said he has a message to deliver. Come see him with me."
"I'll go if you promise not to pester me about this after we deal with him. And no reporting until I take a deserved nap."
"You have my word. But I need that report before midnight."
Hijikata had gotten busy during the twenty minutes Katsura had left him alone in the prison tent. Blood dripped down his bottom lip from an unfortunate bite while trying to get rid of his constraints. He had managed to free himself of the ropes tying his wrists together and was currently struggling to undo the crazy knot binding him to the tent post. The knot was worthy of the world's best boy scouts and Hijikata might have respected them were he not in a literal fucking bind because of them.
Shuffling feet outside the tent interrupted his wriggling efforts. Hijikata returned to his captive position, hands behind his back mimicking his previous restraints. Katsura entered first and held up the tent flap to let a second person inside. When Hijikata saw the bright silver hair his heart burst with a silly fever he was too stunned to name properly.
"Definitely a bafuku dog." Gintoki said as he set eyes on Hijikata.
Somehow hearing him say it angered Hijikata more than hearing it from anybody else. Stupid asshole was still an asshole, Shiroyasha or not.
"Surrendered easy, didn't you?" Gintoki crouched by Hijikata and grabbed a hold of his chin, "I wouldn't trust a dog like you with a whole army behind my back. Especially a dog who still acts captured even though his hands are untied."
"What?" Katsura gasped and circled around the pole to check the ropes on Hijikata's wrists, "You're right, Gintoki!"
Gintoki's eyes scanned every inch of Hijikata's face measuring his reaction.
"Didn't even flinch." he muttered.
Hijikata's heart hammered inside his ribcage as conflicting feelings of longing and dread disturbed him. For a second he had expected Gintoki to recognize him, he had waited for that bated breath, the slight ease of expression at recognition, the smile Gintoki always bestowed upon him through his mask of nonchalance. But the White Demon showed no such thing. A morbid curiosity at a man who claimed to come from the future, perhaps. The cunning apprehension of a general. Hijikata watched Gintoki as he stood up. He was a vision Hijikata couldn't help but bask in. His hair was longer, curls messier than he remembered. The cleavage of his kimono showed firm muscle and sharp collar bones that spread to wide lanky shoulders. His cheeks were thinner too, no parfaits or sweets to round them in times of war. The famed Shiroyasha was nothing but a strange combination of battle hardened edges in a body ravaged by growth spurts.
"Gintoki, what are you doing?"
Gintoki had unsheathed his sword. A faint red gleam shone across the length of his bloodied blade.
"Stand aside, Zura."
He swung down his arm. The blade cut through the ropes tying Hijikata to the post and in the process he sliced Hijikata's coat.
"Sorry about that." Gintoki mumbled.
Hijikata growled displeased. He massaged his bruised wrists and assessed the gash with deft fingers. A long cut had ripped his coat from neck to waist, deep enough to slice through his vest but not so brutal as to touch his skin. The White Demon's swordsmanship had been deliberate in its provocation. Hijikata's hands trembled and he clenched them into fists.
"We'll give you your freedom in exchange for information. I think that's a deal a spy like you can appreciate." Gintoki said.
"I'm not a spy," Hijikata snapped back stubbornly. He was slowly regaining the feeling in his legs and the twinging ache of his sore wound returned, "I thought I gave you enough proof of that."
"This?" Gintoki snatched the tattered textbook from Katsura's grasp and threw it into Hijikata's lap. Hijikata winced.
"Aliens have invaded Earth. Who's to say they can't make a decent counterfeit? Never underestimate the enemy, right Zura?"
Katsura looked at Gintoki disappointed, the flames of his bewilderment waning. Hijikata could see his own loss in Katsura's expression. He had wanted to believe him, badly. It warmed Hijikata's heart to see him fighting for the truth.
"Well, let us hear his message any way." Katsura said.
"No, first I want to know his name."
"If he is indeed from the future it would be bad if he revealed himself, Gintoki."
"I don't care."
"I'm someone you trust. In the future." Hijikata said.
Gintoki and Katsura were unimpressed with his enigmatic answer.
"Is that right?" Gintoki laughed, "Ok, if that's how you want it, I'm gonna call you Oogushi-kun."
Katsura rolled his eyes.
"What? I gotta call him something. Just 'Hey, you' doesn't cut it, does it?"
"Fine, whatever," Katsura muttered, crossing his arms, "Just let him speak. What if his message has something to do with Sensei?"
"It doesn't," Hijikata cut in, "I only brought that book so you would listen to me."
"Fair enough, we'll listen." Katsura replied.
Gintoki slumped on the ground in front of Hijikata, shoulders lax despite the animosity he had displayed. Hijikata couldn't figure him out nor the role he had chosen to play. The bad cop to Katsura's good cop? The White Demon? Hijikata had heard tales of the him, fearless and unmatched in the battlefield, but nothing much about him outside it. Gintoki had never supplied the details and Hijikata had not pressured him into revealing them either. But he wondered now, peering into the White Demon's impenetrable gaze, if anything of the Gintoki he knew subsisted there. Future touching past. Hijikata noticed the dark circles under his eyes, so similar to the ones he had skimmed over with his lips.
"The bakufu has ordered a special squad of Planet Destroyers to crush the Joui rebellion and end the war," Hijikata said, "The weapons employed by these mercenaries can erase entire battalions, cities, countries, planets. Some say they are sorcerers, wiping armies with a single stroke. But the truth is they specialize in nanotech warfare. In the future, common folk call their nanotechnology the White Curse. The nanorobots take hold of a person's respiratory system, turn their hair white and in a month that person is dead."
Hijikata stopped for breath. Memories forced themselves in but he pushed them back. Gintoki and Katsura's stare bore into him.
"A quarter of the planet's population was afflicted. Many fled, and now there are no more ships, no more places to hide. And no cure."
"So you traveled back in time to stop the plague from happening?" Katsura asked.
"Yes," Hijikata replied, once again handing out the truth with a lie, "If possible."
"Why you?" Gintoki's question sounded like an accusation. Hijikata's heart fell to the bottom of his gut. Throat dry, he stood up, clenching his teeth, ignoring the pain.
"That's the least of your concerns. I've already told you all you need to know."
"And a single man is going to stop what the Jouishishi could not?"
"Never underestimate the enemy. Isn't that what you said?" Hijikata spat with satisfaction.
Gintoki's mouth curled into a smile. Hijikata's breath hitched.
"Yeah, I'm glad you said that." Gintoki's hand flew to the handle of his sword and he jammed the hilt into Hijikata's thigh right into his badly healed wound. Hijikata gasped and stumbled back against the tent's wooden pole. Gintoki held him in place as Katsura fetched new ropes and called the two men guarding the tent.
"We will consider your message. Meanwhile you're gonna stay here," Gintoki said, his breath inches from Hijikata's, "So you can get better acquainted with what your masters so desperately wants us to learn," he leaned closer, lips barely touching Hijikata's ear, "The illusion of freedom."
A week passed and neither Katsura nor Gintoki returned to see him. Hijikata's world was confined to the pasty colors of the prison tent and to the minuscules fangs of the hemp rope biting into his pale skin. One of the two guards posted outside would occasionally lift the tent flap and poke his head to check in on him but issuing no word of conversation. They had been forbidden to speak to him. Hijikata heard them talk in ushered tones, making fun of him, calling him a mad dog, a lunatic, asking each other what they would do if they could travel through time. Their incessant, meaningless talk infuriated Hijikata to no end.
He had managed to escape his wrist constraints twice but the guards's routine checks had caught him every time. Poorly nourished and thirsty half the time, Hijikata began to lose spirit, though his anger was ever present. Even though Gintoki had made it impossible for Hijikata to kill him, he would not let him do it himself. No way. He would stop him. He would persevere. It was a matter of time before the Planet Destroyers showed up. The camp would have to dismantle. The entire Joui army would have to march. And Hijikata would be free of the ropes. He would walk outside and feel the sun on his face. He would follow the White Demon to the battlefield and he would protect him.
However, a week without seeing Gintoki was too long. Long enough to summon Hijikata's worst fears. What if Gintoki had gotten to the White Demon first? What if all Hijikata was doing was rotting away in a cell?
No, it couldn't be. Not while Hijikata still had memories of him. Not while he failed to conjure the memory of their last encounter before the White Plague took over and the same questions rang inside his head, Why didn't I say anything? Why didn't I ask? Why didn't I notice? Why? Why? The shame of not remembering what they had said to each other the last time they met, the exact words, ate him from inside. Just like Mitsuba, only worse. Because from her Hijikata had distanced himself. Kept both their hearts safe. But to Gintoki he had given his freely, not accounting the risk. Trusting him too much not to treat it recklessly, even though reckless was all Gintoki was and Hijikata had loved him for it.
Gintoki sat at a small wooden bench in front of his tent washing rags. He had thought scrubbing the blood off them might scrub the red from his vision but so far the task had yielded no results.
Katsura had postponed all incursions after Gintoki had turned in his report a week before. Needless to say, Gintoki had nothing spectacular nor popular to tell. Just another account full of misery. The number of deaths had been too high, comrades and civilians alike, and Katsura had been able to witness it with his own eyes when the rest of Gintoki's squad arrived to the camp a day later with the wounded and the maimed. The camp had thus turned into a giant infirmary. Sleeping quarters had been adjusted to accommodate more sickbeds, straw mats most of them, word had been sent to the village to bring the soldiers sage for burning so bad was the smell of blood and ointment inside the encampment's walls and clogged in the narrow gaps between the tents. Katsura had also prohibited Gintoki to leave the camp in case they took a hit or the scouts detected suspicious activity in the villages nearby, yet Gintoki slipped away for a drink down in the village when the comfort of his cot felt meek and the night too cold.
A commotion by the gates snapped Gintoki from his thoughts. He wrenched the excess water from the last rag floating in the basin at his feet and hung it next to the other rags draped across the string connecting his tent to Katsura's.
"Hey, is Takasugi back?" he asked one soldier sprinting by.
"Yeah, General Sakamoto as well!"
Gintoki waited for the man to disappear behind a tent before following suit. He took his time, steps unhurried, so he could steady himself for Takasugi's raving. Sakamoto's lame jokes Gintoki could abide, but he was sure Zura would get to the short stump of brain-rot first and tell him all about Gintoki's blunders, not out of any sense of malice or revenge but out of pure concern for their cause and the state of their strategic plans. Hell was gonna break loose for Gintoki and if Zura told Takasugi about the mad dog in the prison tent then...
"Shit." Gintoki swerved left from the path leading to the camp's gates and made for the prison tent. He only noticed he had been running when he stopped by the two guards posted outside. They greeted him with a short nod and stood aside to let him through.
Gintoki stopped in front of the tent flap breathless.
"A-are you not going in?" one of the guards asked him.
The answer got stuck in Gintoki's throat. A slight breeze rustled the tent flap and he took a glimpse inside at the man sitting against the wooden pole, ropes wrapped tight around his chest. Water dripped down his jet black hair to his shoulders. An empty pail lay overturned by his feet.
"Why is he soaked?" Gintoki asked.
"He said he was thirsty."
The answer pulled Gintoki's red gaze away from the prisoner to the guards. The eerie silence that ensued had the guards' knees trembling. They shuffled their feet to cover up their dismay.
"Shinsuke and the rest of the guys have returned. Why don't you go welcome them? I'll take care of this."
The guards rushed away without a word between them. Gintoki watched them go and turned once again to the mouth of the tent. He pushed the tent flap aside with two fingers, gaze lingering again on the apparently unconscious man. He still wore the same formal attire rendered with Gintoki's cut. He really had to be nuts. Few people had looked Gintoki in the eye with the same determination he had seen in that man's expression. He had not recoiled for a moment. He had shown no fear, only pain from an injury Gintoki had been too clever not to take advantage of.
I'm someone you trust. In the future.
Gintoki had tried to forget those words but they haunted him in his solitary moments, when he was too drained to relive his failures and regret all the bloodshed. The man's blue eyes, clear and piercing, had fixated on him like a hound's. He had uttered those words to Gintoki exclusively. How could Gintoki wipe them from his mind? Throughout that wretched week he had suffered recurring thoughts of his prisoner. Alone, deranged, fearless. So what if he had been telling the truth? Gintoki was sure he hadn't told them everything and he was sure too that Takasugi would soon see that he did.
Gintoki's cheeks warmed with embarrassment. He shrugged aloud to drive the absurd feeling away and entered the tent.
"So we're chums now, uh?"
The man's eyes hazy blue eyes focused on him as he approached.
"Oh, it's you."
"Damn. That's cruel, Oogushi-kun," the disappointment in his voice offended Gintoki, "I thought I heard you calling me. Strange to hear my name from the lips of a stranger."
Hijikata huffed, something close to laughter.
"How goes the illusion of freedom?"
"Cheap, vulgar," Hijikata replied, tilting his head sideways to flex his neck "I've gone through worse."
"How so? Bound to a post, ropes around your wrists, buckets of water thrown in your face, I don't even know what they have been feeding you. I complain about mushy rice, what about you?"
"I'm fine. This prison is better than being bound to duty."
"Is that what brought you here?"
"Why are you lying again?"
"How can you tell?"
A red flush spread across the man's cheeks erasing Gintoki's snotty smile. He felt his pulse pick up and a wave of emotion wash over him. Sadness and elation echoed between the two of them and Gintoki knew then he could not let Takasugi kill this man.
"The rest of the Generals have come back today. You better spruce up your story."
"I don't need to. I've told you facts not a story."
"But not all of it," Gintoki said curtly, annoyed by the man's obstinance, "Don't you get it? They won't be as indulgent with you as me and Zura were. You're gonna be labelled a spy and Takasugi is gonna execute you."
"You're a stubborn bastard."
The man's blue eyes found his.
Katsura's head turned towards Gintoki the second he entered the war-tent, the largest in the camp, where Katsura and Takasugi spend most of their time studying maps and gathering and filtering intel. A large square table stood at the center of it.
"There you are, Gintoki," Katsura greeted him with urgency, his widened eyes reminded Gintoki of the day he had barged into his tent gushing about a man from the future, "He was right, all this time... he was right."
"The man you imprisoned." Takasugi answered.
Gintoki met his glare with a scow of his own. So Zura had already ratted him out.
"The man from the future? I don't know, it seemed like a good addition to our party." Gintoki replied, teeth clenched. Takasugi stepped in his direction, one brow twitching dangerously.
"Our party? You dare make jokes after your utter failure last week? All you had to do was burn a storehouse, not invade a fucking noble estate!"
"I leave all the burnings to you, little fire-cracker."
"That's 'cause you enjoy acting like a common burglar, you piece of shit!"
"We're not exactly swimming in supplies here, dipshit!"
Katsura cleared his throat and stepped between the two.
"Shinsuke, listen. Gintoki made a bad decision, we know that. The camp is an open wound, there's no need to dig the knife deeper."
Takasugi scoffed and walked returned to the table at the center of the room. His eyes focused on the map stretched on the surface so he didn't have to meet Gintoki's gaze.
"Where is that man? You have to bring him here."
"I admit his story is very original," Takasugi said, "You must have laughed as hard as Tatsuma when he heard it."
"Where is Tatsuma?" Gintoki wondered.
"He had to go lie down. Laughed so much he almost choked when I told him about our prisoner." Katsura told him.
"Oi, why did we allow him to join us again?"
"Money." Takasugi replied.
"He is good with money." Zura agreed.
"Well, bring the prisoner here. I need to speak with him." Takasugi repeated.
Gintoki, however, didn't budge. His plan to save the man from the future had not gone beyond the first stage which had consisted in releasing the captive from his restraints, yet the man had shown no intention to escape. Whether he was still awaiting his fate in the tent, breathing that stale, rank air, Gintoki had no idea.
"I'll go fetch him." Katsura said.
Gintoki stood aside to let Katsura through the tent flap. The few minutes he shared in icy, stifled silence with Takasugi while Katsura went to get the prisoner had him in a cold sweat. He sighed in relief when he saw the man enter after Katsura. There was a slight limp in his walk.
"You the spy?" Takasugi's question met a drawn out eye-roll Gintoki would have laughed at if anxiety didn't have him by the balls.
"I'm not a spy." the man said. His fingers brushed the red bruises around his wrists and Gintoki caught Katsura's sharp look behind the man's back. He knew who had cut the ropes.
"Well, I don't care if you're a spy or if you come from the future. I want to know about those mercenaries you spoke of." Takasugi said.
"The Planet Destroyers?"
"Are they here?" the man's voice quivered.
"Not yet. But strange airships were seen in the south. We saw them too on our way back-"
A long arm wrapped itself around Gintoki's shoulders and Sakamoto's voice warmed the chilled atmosphere of the war-room.
"Never seen anything quite like'em."
"Lotsa' folks on the roads walking with their backs bent. Carrying whatever they can bring with'em." Tatsuma said.
"There's no shortage of people fleeing the war." Katsura reasoned.
"No, Zura," Takasugi shook his head, "You and Gintoki should have seen it. Rows of families, entire villages on the run. They said hooded mercenaries wiped the region's rebel army in one day. Some people refused to bury their dead and others could not even recognize the bodies."
"They were all skin and bone and every single one of them had white hair."
Gintoki looked at the stranger among them. He saw his eyes widen with horror.
The fumes of burning sage clouded the night sky above the camp. Hijikata left the generals' tent after a long interrogation concerning the Planet Destroyers. Takasugi and Katsura had tackled him with a seemingly never-ending supply of pragmatic questions. How many ships did they have? Where was the battle going to occur? At what time? How many mercenaries were there? How did their nanotech weapons work? Who were they connected with in the bakufu? Hijikata tried to answer their questions to the best of his abilities, but his foray into the secrets of such a hush-mercenary group had found its limitations back in his own timeline, mainly the thousands of people dead, the crumbling communications network and the collapse of the Shinsengumi. Documents on the activities of the old Jouishishi had been scant before the White Plague, after it they were almost impossible to find. Hijikata could thank his inconsolable grief the few files he had managed to get his hands on.
Bestowed with freedom, his sword, and the knowledge of the camp's march to war at dawn, Hijikata searched for a secluded way out of the camp. No soldier would let him leave without questioning one of the four generals and what Hijikata needed to do required secrecy. Fortunately, his time in capture had provided him the perfect getaway. According to the wagging tongues of his guards, there was a gap on the camp's wall guys used to slip out from when they needed what they called 'a break'. The snicker Hijikata had heard accompanying that word was reason enough for seppuku.
Enshrouded in darkness, Hijikata walked beside the camp's walls feeling the ramparts for a soft gust of air. He found it much sooner than he anticipated and after one last look over his shoulder he slipped outside into the shadows of the surrounding forest.
Without the sun to guide him or a watch on his wrist, he couldn't tell how long he half-walked, half-limped to the abandoned shack on the outskirts of the village where he had left the Time-Thief. The man in the suit. Exhaustion prevented him from drawing a smile at the stupid looking droid laying on the floor of the shack.
The place was old. A single room with two straw mats, a closet and a pile of wood by the door. A hole had been carved in the center of the room so a small fire pit could be lit. Hijikata's cold shivers stopped as the flames licked his outstretched fingers.
"Are you awake?"
"I am a machine, I cannot sleep. I can only be on or off."
"That answers it." Hijikata muttered gruff. He took off his coat and unbuttoned his vest cursing his sluggish arms.
"Have you found Shiroyasha?" the Time-Thief asked him.
"Yes. The Planet Destroyers are here too."
"What about Sakata Gintoki?"
"Haven't a clue," Hijikata mumbled, "Maybe he isn't even here yet. We jumped in time too early."
He threw his clothes into a pile beside him before pulling down his pants to look at his wound. The bandages were smeared with brown, dried blood. Hijikata scrunched his nose at the smell.
"Knowing my stepsister, Gintoki will arrive just at the exact time." the Time-Thief said. He got up from his static position on the ground and approached Hijikata to take a look at his wound. By command one gloved hand disappeared into his sleeve and reappeared with a strange mechanical configuration.
Hijikata unwrapped the bandages around his thigh and let the droid clean his wound.
"You say droids don't sleep, but they have stepsisters?"
"Yes, that is correct."
Hijikata sighed with relief as the Time-Thief sprayed his wound with antiseptic and the pain lifted.
"I would ask you if she is as dumblooking as you but I've seen you both." Hijikata teased.
"You saw our blueprints but you didn't manage to take out helmets off."
"So?" Hijikata raised one brow and leaned back on his arms to watch the Time-Thief rebandage his wound.
"I'm actually much more beautiful and sensual than her. I have lustrous blond hair, clear skin, a striking resemblance to the Yorozuya's-"
"I'm gonna cut you."
A rustling sound outside startled Hijikata. The Time-Thief drew back his mechanical hand and the gloved hand reappeared. Hijikata jumped to his feet, kicked a mound of ash and dirt into the fire but to his despair it wasn't enough to snuff out the light.
"Shut off, now!" Hijikata ordered. The Time-Thief nodded and returned to his previous spot on the ground, helmet-lens close shut.
Hijikata gripped his sword as the door creaked open. His thumb flicked the sword's hilt but then he saw Gintoki's figure, young, silvery, untouched by time. Shiroyasha.
"W-what are you doing here? Did you follow me?" the words escaped convoluted from his mouth.
"Yeah," Gintoki replied sincere, his gaze moved from Hijikata's face to his bare legs, "I wanted to see the time machine but I got something else instead…"
Hijikata looked down at his pale legs, the hem of his white shirt covered his underwear.
"Caught you at a bad time?" Gintoki teased closing the door behind him.
"Shut up, bastard. I was just cleaning my wound, no thanks to you."
A flush heated Hijikata's cheeks. He turned his back to Gintoki and crouched to relit the fire pit and banish the shivers running down his spine - from the night wind or something else he didn't know. He was glad the Time-Thief had shut down.
"Who is that?" Gintoki's question rang hollow inside the shack as he examined the limp body on the ground, "Why does he have a helmet on? Is he dead? Is he… is this it?" his answer found a courteous silence which was an answer on its own.
"You said I should trust you and you were right. About everything," Gintoki confessed, "Even Takasugi believed you. After you left the meeting I began to wonder if you were actually telling the truth about being from the future. I thought the only way to be sure was to find your time machine and then, guess what? You disappear the minute you're released. I knew that was my chance. I would finally know whether you're a spy or a fantasy."
Hijikata froze. His hands hovered by the fire. He could almost feel his skin burning.
"On my way here I started putting everything together," Gintoki continued, feet roaming the shack, leading him to Hijikata, "You were always very calm and composed, the perfect prisoner. No crying, no demands. Very unrattled for a guy who claims he came from the future. A guy who doesn't bat an eyelid at being captured by the generals of the Joui Rebelion. You know what some folks call us? The Four Heavenly Kings," Gintoki snorted, "Such a rubbish name, Zura would barely pass for court jester, and me…"
Gintoki's eyes found Hijikata's immersed into his, drinking his every word. Gintoki kneeled beside him.
"Who are you?"
"I already told you. I'm an ally." Hijikata said, turning his gaze towards the flames.
"No," Gintoki corrected him, "You said you were somebody I trust in the future."
"Yeah, that's right."
"But that's not everything," Gintoki insisted, voice low and grave. He sat down next to Hijikata and contemplated him from head to toe, "Do you think I don't notice how every time I get close your eyes go straight to my lips? How quickly you avert them when you think I caught you staring?"
He inched closer and Hijikata felt a warm hand on his waist.
"In the future, do I get this close?"
Hijikata's ears and hands burned. Fire consumed his whole body.
"Who are you, really? I must know." Gintoki's pleading tone wrenched out all the fight Hijikata had left.
It didn't matter that Gintoki knew his name. In a few hours nothing that transpired would matter. If Hijikata was successful and if the Planet Destroyers were defeated, Gintoki would never be infected, he would not die alone in the Terminal ruins, Hijikata would not nurse his grief, he would never need to travel to the past to protect Gintoki, and the one before him, sweet, uncouth Shiroyasha would never meet him. Time would realign itself and everything that had happened would be nothing but a dream.
"My name is Hijikata Toushirou. I came from the future to save you."
He grabbed the hand Gintoki had left on his waist and brought it to his lips. He kissed the back of Gintoki's palm and released it back into the narrow space between them. Gintoki's mouth was ajar and his cheeks warm with color. He didn't speak for a while and Hijikata began to regret his stupid indulgence when Gintoki grabbed him by the shoulders.
"When do I meet you?"
It was not the question Hijikata had expected him to ask.
"About ten years from now."
"What?!" Gintoki scowled and lifted both hands to Hijikata's cheeks, "You're lying again!"
"I'm not lying! Look at you, you're just a kid!" Hijikata snapped and tugged Gintoki's hands away.
"I'm eighteen! Old enough to put your ass in jail!"
"You can hardly call that flimsy tent a jail." Hijikata sneered.
"Was good enough for you, old man!"
Hijikata pursed his lips.
"You only had me because I was exactly where I wanted to be, you fucking squirt!"
Hijikata's back met the shack's hard floor as Gintoki lept on top of him, fists tight around his collar. His eyes shone bright red in the firelight and the silver strands of his hair shimmered alive, glowing. Hijikata was looking at hope itself. How could he allow it to be snuffed out?
"Zura said it would be bad if we knew who you were," Gintoki said, eyes fixed with sorrow, "What if we never meet now?"
"Unlikely. You always show up like a sore spot."
"There's only a handful of people I would go back in time to save," he said, "But I can't wait to meet you."
Dawn brought dark clouds like bad omens. The rebel army marched to the barren plains of the battle. Hijikata followed the Joui Generals in silence, switching flanks, covering as much ground as possible, yet there was no sight of Gintoki except the one riding beside Katsura. The army stopped atop a ridge overlooking the plains. Airships hovered in the horizon across the flat expanse. The clouds hung gray and ominous behind them.
A drizzle of rain began to pour as the rebels dismounted and began preparing for battle. Over by the edge of the ridge the generals spoke among themselves, delegating tasks, going over last details. Sakamoto left first to overview the distribution of weapons and machinery.
"The enemy has already sent troops to the ground." Katsura said observing the movements on the other side of the plains. Hundreds of small dots squirmed into place beneath the airships.
"We should hurry then," Takasugi urged, "The Kiheitai will take the left flank."
"Don't forget to take Tatsuma with you."
Takasugi smirked and disappeared amid the bustling crowd of soldiers.
"Gintoki, you know what to do. The charge is yours. See you on the battlefield."
Katsura squeezed Gintoki's shoulder and walked away.
"Do you always take the lead?" Hijikata asked him.
"When I'm feeling generous."
"Hey, you showing up," Gintoki paused trying to find the words, "It was a terrible idea."
Something in his cadence hit Hijikata like a punch to the stomach. He turned his head to look Gintoki in the eye but Gintoki was already facing him, waiting for his reaction.
"Now I'll hurry to find you." Gintoki said.
Hijikata thought about the inescapable choice awaiting Gintoki, the loss of his master, the solitude, the looming nightmare. He thought of himself at that point in time, somewhere in the country following Kondo to a future he couldn't see yet, recruiting fools who didn't know any better, looking over his shoulder towards a girl who would never be his.
"That would be the fastest way to lose me." Hijikata replied.
"So I have you?"
Gintoki smiled and Hijikata smiled back.
A speck of silver glittered in the middle of the battlefield cutting their moment short. Hijikata could not believe his eyes.
"That idiot… what's he doing there by himself?!"
"Let's go save him."