Takasugi Shinsuke looks pathetic.
Slightly tilting his head down, Gintoki watches how everything that once was imposing about Takasugi now is crumbling down with every cracked, wet cough and stays there laying on the floor near his hunched, tensed body. When has he last seen him in such a fragile and frail state? Maybe when he was looking down at him the same way as right now after their last brutal clash and Takasugi had a far-away, softened gaze like mist at dawn because he couldn't see Gintoki looming over — only the gentle haze of a memory. Back then Gintoki said to him that sensei was no more in this world, and Takasugi bared his teeth at him like a wounded animal he was rising up from his knees and clenching his fists.
But now everything is different. Now Takasugi's telling him that sensei is in this world within their reach and they can bring him back. What is this? An example of human capacity for limitless selfishness or mercy? Gintoki doesn't have answers. Not anymore.
Utsuro's heart... Shouyou's. It lays in his hand as pitiful and small as Takasugi falling to ruin is as Gintoki himself was when he'd raised the dagger above the baby's chest, but couldn't bring himself to cut his heart out.
"You-" starts Takasugi in a hoarse voice, wiping blood from his lips. "Him. Don't you both deserve this after all you've suffered?"
With an odd, obscure feeling, Gintoki watches him stand from the floor, straighten up and take his pipe out.
"So what will you say, Gintoki?"
Familiar appealing languish has returned to him, and his eye lights up with temptation and slyness — this version of Takasugi Shinsuke is far more familiar and understandable, this version of Takasugi Shinsuke doesn't cause any vague urges in his soul. There's no desire to ask this version of Takasugi Shinsuke but wait a second, what about you?
Gintoki turns away.
"Where's Shouyou's body? Where is the boat heading to?"
And Takasugi sneers, not with malice and poison, but with something dark and cold when he says Edo.
The thought of being back home doesn't bring Gintoki anything except the feeling of new heaviness inside his chest.
This heaviness crushes everything — his ribs, heart, lungs. At night, it's keeping him from falling asleep. Fragments of imagination are dancing on the back of his eyelids: Shouyou-sensei bowing his head to offer his neck for Gintoki; Shouyou as a child throwing himself at Naraku's sharp pikes and handing Gintoki his ripped heart; Utsuro telling him with a soft, almost tender voice that no sword of Shouyou's students would ever reach him.
Gintoki splashes some water on his face and tries to sleep again. This time it's Takasugi who's he seeing — a lifeless body at Shouyou's feet, warm smile frozen on his face in an accidental aftersound of his lost young self.
Gintoki opens his eyes and than — the door.
Shinsuke's chamber is dark. Gintoki quietly lights up a candle on the table and sits on a chair, staring at the sleeping, unmoving face in bafflement at himself. Dreaming about the world where their sensei is alive, Gintoki has never tried to imagine it without Takasugi. There are bonds you bear all of your life through pain and blood, and you break them with your own hands. There are people you protect to your last breath as well as fight them to your last breath. Gintoki's used to the fact that Takasugi Shinsuke is on of them. Someone he understands better than anyone else in this world and so will never forgive his sins.
"What do you want, Gintoki?" Takasugi asks warily, making Gintoki flinch in surprise. He opens his eyes, eyelids on the left one just slightly part, exposing a piece of mutilated flesh behind. Takasugi instantly covers one half of his face with a hand, briefly glancing at Gintoki with his good eye.
"If only I knew," Gintoki replies, smile perplexed. "Oi, how long you've been awake?"
Takasugi vaguely shrugs his shoulders which can mean that he's been awake for the last couple of minutes or that he's been awake since Shouyou's head fell down to the ground. He stands up from the bed, walks over to the window and fills kiseru with tobacco. Gintoki silently follows him. For some reason he feels like all of the time around them has stopped, like one step could lead him to the past and to the future simultaneously.
And he steps towards Takasugi's back.
"Shinsuke," Gintoki calls, fingers lightly tracing his shoulder at the spot when his yukata reveals bare skin.
Takasugi draws his shoulder away from the touch.
"Not today," he says. He from the past wouldn't say that just as he from the future won't. The illusion of existing beyond time has shuttered with the loud sound in Gintoki's ears, making him return to reality.
He looks at his hand frozen in the air. It seems so small and pathetic in this poorly lit room because there's nothing in it. Everything there once was is long lost. Everything there will be hasn't happened yet, and will it?
"Not today, but soon," Takasugi adds. He slowly puffs some smoke, turns to him, takes his hand and without looking him in the eyes chastely kisses it. "Gintoki."