The first time a mark appeared, Shinsuke was seven. It was a rusty old silver blade bathed in red and he’d ran to his Mother, proudly showing what he knew was a soulmark.
He’d been waiting for it to come for over a year by then; ever since the other students at school started getting their marks.
He wouldn’t admit it, but he’d felt jealous every time he saw the pretty patterns on the other kids’ skins. Even Katsura’s mark, despite being strange, looked elegant. He wanted one too.
He was considered a late bloomer at that point, so despite the fact that the mark that branded itself on his skin looked significantly less pretty than the ones he’d seen, he couldn’t help the excitement that welled up within him.
But his Mother had frowned, her lips pursed, and told him to never, ever show it to his Father. Or to anyone else.
He’d taken to hiding his soulmark after that. He tells himself it was because he wanted to be an obedient son to his Mother. But he knew, deep down, that it was the sickening thought of being something wrong. Something that made his Mother frown.
(His Mother who had never frowned at him unlike his Father. His Mother who had only showed disapproval towards his Father whenever she thought no one was looking. His Mother who only passively took what was given to her. His Mother who—)
And so he hid.
Never looking. Never showing. Never thinking. Only really feeling the warm sense of strength that pulses from it at the darkest of nights when he’d feel the crashing hopelessness because of the people around him and the society he lived in.
So he didn’t see when the blade began to shine; forged anew. He didn’t see when intricate patterns began decorating the hilt and the blade. He didn’t see it glow, warm like a comforting friend. Didn’t see the sprawling calligraphy that appeared beside it—a creed. A promise. Unbreakable.
He didn’t see any of it.
But he’d felt the slowly expanding warmth. The persistent endurance. The way it grew into a pillar that pushed him to do better. To find better.
So he might not have seen (might never at all) and he might not have wanted to think of it, but he felt it.
And he knew it was there—an ever present hum.
A green mist-like discolouration wrapped around Gintoki’s torso. It was there even before Gintoki became Gintoki; when he had nothing but the clothes on his back and a grim title given to him by people in the surrounding villages. And aside from the rusty blade he’d later snatched from the field of corpses and the beady eyes of black feathered birds, it was the only constant companion he’d had.
He didn’t know what it was, where it came from, and why it appeared. He just knew that it was there, that it appeared one day with no warning, enveloping the space it wanted and nothing could stop it.
Gintoki would worry that it was something malicious he’d picked up somewhere, but—
But it gave him the feeling of security; something he’d never felt before in his life but he just knew. And that’s all that mattered to him.
It comforted him on particularly bad days; when his stomach growled because he could find no food, when he’d run and run and run, escaping both the villagers and the watching gazes that never seemed to go away.
He’d curl up, hugging himself around it and foolishly think to himself that it was alive. That it had it’s own presence that existed outside his own.
He felt as if it would bite at him if he dared give up. If he’d try and surrender to the fate of those like him. To the gauntness that haunted adults and children alike.
But despite its importance to him, he’d never brought up the green mist. Not when he’d met Shōyō-sensei. Not when he’d met others his age. Zura. Takasugi.
It was his. It was his alone and just the thought of showing it to someone else made him more protective than he’d ever felt over the blade his Sensei gave him.
So suffice to say, Gintoki, after seeing the golden circlet on Zura’s back, had no idea what it was. Because no one had ever taught him about soulmates.
“I didn’t know someone like you would be the type to get a tattoo, Zura.” He’d said after staring at it a few seconds longer than necessary.
“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura!” The other boy corrected automatically before frowning. “And that’s not a tattoo. Don’t be so rude, Gintoki. That’s my soulmark.”
Gintoki blinked. “Soul. . .mark?”
Seeing his confusion, Zura lectured him. “Yes, soulmark! And it’s rude to call it a tattoo. Didn’t Shōyō-sensei tell you this?”
Gintoki shook his head mutely.
Tuning out Zura’s ensuing tangent, he resolved to ask Sensei later about it.
“Sensei, what’s a soulmark?”
The hand carding through his hair stills.
“Ah, why do you ask, Gintoki?”
“I saw Zura’s earlier.”
A considering hum.
“Soulmarks are representations of a person’s other half of their soul.” Sensei continues carding through his hair, “They’ll grow and change as your soulmate gets older. Some marks disappear and new ones would show up, but the very first soulmark you get will never go away—they’ll shift and change, but they’ll never vanish.”
“Oh. So they’re like growing tattoos.”
He gets his nose flicked.
“Calling them a tattoo is rude, Gintoki,” his Sensei chides.
“Tattoos are disruptive, and getting them often means you don’t respect your soulmarks.”
Ah. So that’s why Zura flipped out.
Looking up at the smiling visage of his Sensei, Gintoki’s mind wandered.
“What does yours look like, Sensei?”
Sensei’s smile takes on a faintly sad tinge to it, but he remains silent.
He doesn’t answer.
He never does.
It wasn’t an obsession. Or at least, Gintoki doesn’t think so. But the idea of soulmarks definitely caught his interest.
He still lazed around, disappeared into trees, and honed his skills so that the persistent chibi wouldn’t one-up him.
(They were on 32 - 20 with the score in Gintoki’s favor. He’d be annoyed with the other kid’s never ending challenges because sometimes, Takasugi would even disturb him when he was lazing the day away—“Wake up, lazy idiot! You’re my partner this round!” -but he was too elated by the challenge Takasugi himself posed. He’d never met another kid who could go toe to toe with him before. Never met someone who could meet him blow for blow and give as good as he got.
He’d never met an equal before.)
The only difference that came with finding out about soulmarks is that now, whenever the topic came up, his ears would strain to hear the conversation.
That’s all. Really.
It wasn’t like he purposely climbed up on a tree near the well where he’d seen people gather and talk while getting water to try and hear if they start talking about soulmates. Nor does he try to catch glimpses of the other kids’ marks.
“Oi! Sensei’s looking for you!” A shout comes from bellow. Gintoki looks down to see Takasugi scowling up at him, his arms crossed. He’d always been quicker to get mad whenever Shōyō-sensei looked for Gintoki.
He didn’t understand why, because Sensei treated all of them equally (treated them like they were all his children) but Gintoki figured that it was because Gintoki was the first.
Something like a younger sibling being jealous of an older sibling. Or so he gets anyway, from what he heard of Tatsuhiko’s babbling.
Clutching the sword close to him, Gintoki drops down with a flippant, “Yeah, yeah. Thanks, chibi.”
He runs after that, smirking at the irritated boy behind him.
They grow up.
(Too quick, too soon)
Their Sensei gets taken and they join the war, and all thoughts of soulmarks gets pushed to the very back of their minds.
(Pushed back but still there; lurking and hanging in the edges—never really gone.)
They meet Tatsuma, and Gintoki watches as Zura falls head over heels for him, though everyone knows that they’re not soulmates.
Gintoki once saw Takasugi watch their friends’ interactions with a frown. And when Takasugi caught Gintoki looking at him, he’d flushed and glared angrily.
He wonders if Zura was Takasugi’s soulmate. Or if he was in love with their friend. He wouldn’t be surprised, the two of them had always been close.
(His chest twinges and Gintoki schools his face, throwing an offhand remark that gets Takasugi riled up.
Just when will this chest injury heal? It’s been a month now!)
But it’s war. The men here take any opportunity they can get to feel—to be reminded that they’re alive. That they’re still here. Still human and not alone.
Kami knows Gintoki himself has lain with a few other soldiers. So Tatsuma and Zura’s situation were no rare commodity in their camps.
Mostly, Gintoki has life affirming sex with Takasugi—their rivalry translating over and making their times with each other always heated and challenging. A push and pull like there was an inevitable gravitational force between them.
(And maybe there was)
But despite the fact that they’ve been sleeping together and had been patching each other up for a longer time than that, Gintoki still haven’t seen Takasugi’s soulmark.
Gintoki doesn’t pry. Of course he doesn’t. He might be an asshole, but he knew the lines he shouldn’t cross.
It doesn’t stop him from looking when he touches Takasugi though. When they lie beneath the dim light of the moon, his gaze wanders; trying to see if he’ll get a glimpse of the other man’s soulmark this time.
He wonders who Takasugi’s soulmark would tell the story of, like how sometimes he’d wonder who the mist on his torso tells the story of. But at the thought, his eyes would always automatically linger on the old and new scars littering Takasugi’s body, marks of their own making up a part of the story of him (of survival, bravery, loyalty, and loss) and not someone else’s.
Takasugi would inevitably turn over and push him off every time. Complaining that Gintoki was acting weird and generally being a pervert. But Gintoki knows he doesn’t mean it. Not really. Not with the way that Takasugi would always lean over him moments afterwards and playfully biting at his neck to ‘get even’.
There are times when Gintoki looks at him, at his green eyes always sparking with some emotion, that Gintoki thinks ‘if only—‘
But he never tries to finish that thought. It was dangerous for one thing. And it wouldn’t do anything but raise his hopes.
(It doesn’t matter anyway, a few weeks later, Gintoki is left with a shattered heart and the world crumbling beneath his feet.)
They all separate ways. Broken apart by the death of the man they all loved. The man they all called teacher, but always meant father.
Katsura would go on to create his own group of rebels. Throwing himself in a pit against the shogunate and it’s allies. For the future, he says.
Takasugi, with one eye crying tears of blood at the pain of it all, would seek destruction. Grieving those that they’d lost.
And Gintoki would aimlessly trudge on with life, only really being pulled back together by a thin string masquerading as a promise made with a dead man and his aging wife.
Like he’d promised Sensei.
And so he lives.
He lives and lives and lives.
Even when all he sees are death and pain and the bodies of his comrades (of Sensei looking back at him, of Sensei’s head flying off with the sickening sound of his sword slashing through—the sword Sensei has taught him how to use) whenever he closes his eyes, he lives.
Even when all he hears—
“Stop! Stop, Gintoki!...please.”
Even when all he—
“We’ll get back Sensei!”
Even when all—
“I challenge you!”
“Gintoki. Protect them for me.”
And at some point, the pain isn’t as all-consuming as before. It still hurt as much as it did the day everything went to the point of no return.
But he could focus on other things now. Could focus on the people he’d made family without really intending to.
He doesn’t think about soulmarks anymore. And the only few times he did was when Kagura had proudly declared that her soulmark was the best and when he’d met Tsukuyo.
He’d shaken off that thought as quick as it formed, because Tsukuyo, despite matching the pipe that later appeared on his skin, did not match the green mist that continued to remain by him.
And Tsukuyo is an amazing person (he was kind of flattered she’d even considered him) and whoever it was that she decides to spend her life with would be lucky indeed.
In another world, maybe they could have, but Gintoki—didn’t really want to get in any romantic relationship, because he doesn’t think he can give all of himself and it wouldn’t be fair for her or to anyone else.
(He’s still haunted by Takasugi’s pleas. It was the only time he’d ever heard him sound so desperate, and to this day, he could still clearly remember the way his green eyes widened with the terrible realisation of their hopelessness.)
Shinpachi asked once, if he had already met his soulmate, when Kagura was out and it was only the two of them at the Yorozuya, but he knew that the teen wasn’t really looking for answers. Wasn’t really expecting it.
So Gintoki didn’t answer. Only smiling like how he remembers his teacher once did, and that was that.
They live, they laugh, and they enjoy life.
And then of course, on par with everything in Gintoki’s life, that’s when things go to shit.
The Shogun is dead.
(Their friend is dead.)
The Shinsengumi leaves Edo, and their Sensei (their Sensei he’d killed with his own two hands) was seemingly back to life.
But it couldn’t be him. It couldn’t be him because despite the cold ruthlessness Shōyō-sensei seemed to radiate at times, it was never towards them. It was never towards anyone unless he was protecting. Defending.
This monster parading around with his teacher’s face was someone else. It wasn’t their Sensei. It wasn’t their father. Couldn’t be. It was a walking, talking, embodiment of nightmares.
But if there was one good thing the copy and his puppets brought with them; it was that it pulled the old Joui 4 to fight together again.
It had been so long since all four of them fought like this, and Gintoki almost forgot how easy it was. How seamlessly they seemed to work together.
(It had been so long since the four of them had each other’s backs. And Gintoki had thought that it would never happen again, that if they needed to band together, at most it would only be three. But no, all four of them were here.)
This was bigger than them and their issues now. Bigger than the entire planet itself.
And everyone is scrambling, united against one single foe.
It wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
But they were still alive. It was the only thing anyone could ever hope for at this point, and if they were still alive, it meant that there was still hope. There was still a way.
Step by step, Gintoki thinks.
Step by step.
For a long time, nobody spoke. They both sat and stared at the vastness of space. Looking at Takasugi, Gintoki couldn’t help but snort at his own blindness.
How could he not recognise that shade of green? For a long time, he didn’t see. Or, he wouldn’t see. He refused to acknowledge what he already knew.
For what? Gintoki could only pin it on his own cowardice.
But maybe that wasn’t it either, he thinks as he glances back at the other man.
They were only kids then. Young. They weren’t ready yet. They needed to forge their own paths first, and Takasugi might have taken a detour, but he was right on track now.
Gintoki flusters when he sees Takasugi smiling at him, looking pleased with himself for having caught the other man staring at him.
He lets their shoulders bump together, this being the only physical contact that they would allow themselves.
He knows that, after this, they would part ways again. He would return to Edo and Takasugi would be off with the Kiheitai again.
But Gintoki wasn’t worried.
This time, he knew they would always return to each other.
Fingers traced the lines that made up his mark.
“How’d you hide this?” He’d asked, grudgingly impressed at the feat.
A smug smirk, “Magic.”
A chuff of laughter. “Alright, alright, Chibisugi’s impressive and is not sharing his tricks, I get it.”
An elbow to the gut.
The sound of scuffles.
A breathless sound.
“Stop calling me chibi,”