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When You're Riding in a Time Machine Way Far into the Future, Don't Stick Your Elbow out the Window, Or It'll Turn into a Fossil

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A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. (Graham Greene)

Zura, I told you to cut your hair. Rip it out. (Sakata Ginpachi)

It's not Zura, it's Katsura. (Katsura Koutarou)

Sougo was slacking off again, and this time Hijikata was going to make him commit seppuku whether the little shit liked it or not. Well, of course he wasn't going to like it -- Hijikata had never met anyone who liked committing seppuku. Even if those people existed, they were too dead to report any incidental pleasurable benefits.

"Man, ever since Gintama ended, it's been pretty boring around here, isn't that so, Pattsuan? That stupid gorilla really let Gin-san down."

Hijikata hadn't heard that stupid voice in a long time. He turned to his left and saw Gintoki sitting at a little table outside a dango shop, a half-finished plate of dango balanced on his knees. Next to him sat a blond-haired mannequin dressed in blue and white, glasses drawn crudely with a marker around its creepily empty eye sockets.

"Main characters really have it tough, Pattsuan," Gintoki said. "Even my sugar level's gone down. After this, we're going to get parfaits, so you'd better leave room. I'll just eat the rest of your dango--"

"How pathetic are you?" Hijikata burst out, unsheathing his sword and slicing the mannequin's head off its surprisingly well-defined shoulders. "You're talking to a dummy."

Gintoki glanced up at him. "Oh, if it isn't Oogushi-kun. You must be very frustrated that you weren't in the final episode."

"You shut up! It's not my fault Sunrise made the final episode an epic showdown between you and the stupid prince."

"Takasugi. It was Takasugi, not the stupid prince. What the hell did you watch, mid-season filler from two years ago?"

So Sougo had lied about that, too. Fucking Sougo. When Hijikata found him... "Yeah, well, I didn't even watch the last episode, all right? I was busy drying my hair while taping a rerun of Ladies 4."

"You're really hurting Gin-san's feelings right now, Oogushi-kun," Gintoki said in a flat sort of monotone that made it difficult to believe he had any feelings at all.

"That's not even my name! Why are you here with a dummy anyway? I should just arrest you."

"For what? The police sure are scary, Pattsuan," Gintoki opined, leaning down to pick up the mannequin's head. He tried unsuccessfully to reattach it to the rest of the mannequin, but it kept rolling down to the dust, looking worse and worse for the wear with each attempt. "Man, how am I supposed to order two parfaits now? I can't order two parfaits if I'm by myself. It would look weird."

"The weirdest thing of all is showing up at the family restaurant with a dummy for company."

"Now you're hurting Shinpachi's feelings, you bastard," Gintoki shot back. "Apologise immediately or I'll complain to your boss. Walking around like you own the place, destroying people's property. Er. I mean, friends. Destroying people's friends."

"That doesn't even look like Shimura Shinpachi," Hijikata countered. "In what world is Shimura blond?"

"It's a brave new post-Gintama world, Oogushi-kun. Anything is possible. Anyway, this was all I could find on short notice."

Yeah, like anything was ever impossible in this ridiculous city in the first place. "What happened to Shimura, anyway? Did he finally get sick of not getting paid and left your sorry ass in the dust?"

"Shinpachi is off on a new adventure. He will sail the high seas in a sukonbu barrel, gather trusted companions and become the next Pirate King."

"No, I'm pretty sure he won't, because there he is with his sister."

Hijikata turned to Gintoki as he pointed, but Gintoki had vanished along with the dummy head. In the past, there would have been at least a "zzzzip" sound or similar to indicate something had happened while the point of view character wasn't looking. Life was just easier with anime sound effects.

"Wait, why am I the point of view character?" Hijikata asked the dummy's headless corpse. It rudely ignored him. "Don't tell me this is going to be another one of those episodes where Matsudaira's daughter decides to chase after me... mayo."

"Was that Gin-san just now?" Shinpachi asked, walking closer with two bags full of Bargain Dash ice cream.

"Yeah. What's his major malfunction, anyway? He said you were going to become a pirate."

"Well, about that...." Shinpachi set one of the bags down and rubbed the back of his head. "It's kind of complicated."

"What are you doing, Shin-chan?" Otae called from across the street. "I thought I told you not to talk to strange men in the street."

"Who are you calling strange, lady?" Hijikata hollered back. "I'm the police."

"Well, shouldn't you be out there protecting the citizens instead of harassing them for no good reason, then?"

Hijikata glowered. "Hey, listen here, you--"

"Why don't we all calm down?" Shinpachi suggested, setting down his other bag and raising both hands. "Gin-san and I made a promise that I wouldn’t show up in front of him until I manage to recruit five students into our dojo."

"Dojo?" Hijikata demanded. "Did they lift the sword ban while I was busy with my hair and Ladies 4?"

Shinpachi made a disgusted face. "Hijikata-san, I'm really not judging you or anything, but I don't think anybody wants to hear about your private entertainment choices."

"That's not the issue here!" Hijikata growled. The little twerp was totally judging him. That was clearly his judging face.

Otae, who had in the meantime armed herself with a naginata -- where the hell did she keep the thing, anyway? -- and crossed the street, set the naginata on the ground next to Shinpachi's ice cream bags and addressed Hijikata with a sweet smile that could only mean one thing: she had decided that the naginata's destination would be one of Hijikata's bodily cavities.

"No one's saying we're training people to carry swords around. Even a kennel like the Shinsengumi is going to need new recruits eventually, right? Wouldn’t it be better if there were some young people to choose from? When you all get too old, who's going to take over for you?"

Hijikata crossed his arms. "We've got our own training camp. We don't need riff-raff from some old dojo."

Kondou Isao, Commander of the Shinsengumi, slid out from under the mannequin, looking up at the three of them. "Now, now, don't say that, Toshi; Otae-san's dojo is not some old dojo. The idea has merit, if you ask me."

"NOBODY ASKED YOU!" Otae screeched, proceeding to bash the butt end of her naginata into Kondou's face. "Who would want a stalker's opinion? Take that! And that!"

Shinpachi coughed demonstratively. "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, Gin-san and I made a promise, and that's why we're not hanging out together for the time being."

Hijikata nodded vaguely, grateful for the distraction. Honestly, why did Kondou-san keep bothering with Shimura Otae? Even in an alternate universe where the two of them ended up together, it had turned out Otae was cheating on Kondou with Hijikata of all people. "As if," he muttered under his breath.

"Oh, but I still come over on Sundays to do Gin-san's laundry, though," Shinpachi added, and Hijikata fell over dramatically. Otherwise some people might not get the joke.

As he lay on the ground, he spotted Okita Sougo watching the proceedings from under the Shinpachi mannequin's hakama. "Sougo!"

Sougo waggled his fingers at him. "Oops, I've been spotted. Were you looking for me, Hijikata-san?"

"WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN, YOU NIMROD?"

"More importantly, what the hell are you doing under that dummy?" Shinpachi interjected. "How much room is there under a dummy anyway; didn't Kondou-san come out from there too?"

"You shouldn't ask questions you don't want the answers to," Sougo returned. "Anyway, Hijikata-san, just before coming here, I was helping a cat out of a tree. Didn't Kondou-san tell you? By the way, Kondou-san's over there being murdered by a crazy person, in case you didn't notice."

Knowing that no matter how violent things became, at worst Kondou-san would have one hell of a shiner -- the commander of the Shinsengumi was not seriously going to be killed by some secondary character after all -- Hijikata looked away from the carnage demonstratively.

He might not have done so had he known what would happen in a few hours' time.

*

Hijikata stuck the fresh cigarette pack into his pocket and started back towards Shinsengumi headquarters. It would be cheaper if he just bought the damn things by the carton, but going out for smokes gave him an opportunity to think without constant interruptions from bosses and underlings. Plus, saying he needed to go buy cigarettes was the perfect excuse to walk away from just about anything short of an actual emergency, and Hijikata had got out of many an unpleasant situation that way.

Like that time Kondou-san had decided to wax his butt hair and quickly realised he was going to need assistance. Yeah, maybe I failed as the right-hand man in that situation, but that kind of work is really best left to those with sadistic tendencies. Sougo had said he would do it only if Kondou-san also let him do his balls, too, and that had been the end of that, so Kondou-san still had a hairy ass.

"What's wrong with a hairy ass, anyway?" Hijikata muttered. "Doesn't everyone have a hairy ass?"

"Not me," Gintoki said, sidling up to him. He was unsteady on his feet and dragging a half-comatose Hasegawa. "Gin-san's ass is as smooth as a baby's. It's the sign of a pure soul."

"I don't want to know anything about your ass or your soul," Hijikata said, eyeing the pair of them cautiously. They didn't look like they wanted to cause trouble, but trouble followed people like them whether they wanted it to or not. "Besides, shouldn't you watch your alcohol intake? Did you forget what happened the last time the two of you got drunk off your faces?"

"Hatsu's ass is like that too, Gin-san," Hasegawa put in. "I sure hope I get to see it again someday."

He started to sniffle, and Hijikata walked on, leaving them behind. He had just wanted some peace and quiet, and he had to run into that sorry excuse for a human being again.

"You're just jealous of my immaculate ass!" Gintoki shouted after him. "I bet yours is hairier than your pet gorilla's!"

Hijikata's eyebrow twitched with irritation, but he refused to rise to the bait. Twice in one day, he thought, glaring at a pair of dirty-faced kids who squatted by the side of the road, watching Gintoki and Hasegawa stagger around. The kids took one look at Hijikata's face and skedaddled.

That made him feel a bit bad. They were just some kids; it wasn't their fault Hijikata got so annoyed every time he had the misfortune of bumping into Gintoki. It wasn't even that Gintoki himself was a bad guy, on the whole. There was just something about him that made Hijikata absolutely furious. Somewhere in the distance, an ambulance siren wailed with a lot of persistence and a little bit of sadness. One could only hope it was coming to take those two drunks to the tank so they wouldn't corrupt public morals any further.

He lit a smoke and let his mind drift as he walked on. Maybe he should have picked up some more mayonnaise along with the cigarettes. He had filled three shelves in the pantry at headquarters just last week, but what if he had to go on a stake-out? Instant ramen without mayonnaise was like -- well, it was like anything without mayonnaise; not worth eating.

Maybe I'll call Kondou-san and find out if there's anything he wants from the store. Then if he wants something, I can go back and get more mayonnaise at the same time.

He took out his cell phone, but it was dead: he'd been forgetting to charge the battery since yesterday.

"Tch. With all their technology, the Amanto can't even invent a cell phone that just works." Oh, well. He'd need smokes again tomorrow; he could top up the mayonnaise then.

He passed through the gates to the HQ building. All the main floor lights were on for some reason.

"Vice-Commander! Vice-Commander!" Yamazaki was sprinting up the path towards him, arms flapping, face pale. "Something terrible has happened and you weren't answering your phone!"

"Stop screaming," Hijikata snapped. "You're breaking the code of ethics. My phone battery died. What happened, did you lose at badminton?"

"It's the commander," Yamazaki breathed, stopping in front of him, hands on knees. "He's been murdered."

"That's not a funny joke," Hijikata said. The ambulance he'd been hearing for a while grew so loud he could hardly hear himself think, which was annoying, because he was trying to think of a brand-new method of Creative Yamazaki Dismemberment.

"It's not a joke, sir," Yamazaki said as the ambulance skidded to a stop in front of the gates and a pair of EMTs rushed past the two of them.

Hijikata threw his cigarette down and chased after them, code of ethics be damned. This couldn't be happening. The commander murdered inside Shinsengumi headquarters? Impossible. Where was Sougo?

He arrived at Kondou-san's quarters in time to see one of the EMTs shake her head and turn to her colleague, who began to unfold the stretcher he'd brought. In the gap between them, Kondou-san lay on his futon, eyeballing the ceiling with utter disinterest, his chest a bloody ruin.

No. This wasn't actually happening, was it? Hijikata had spoken to Kondou-san just before leaving for the store; something inconsequential about adopting the summer uniforms from a couple of years back. That couldn't have been their last conversation in this world.

The female EMT prepared to load Kondou-san onto the stretcher.

"Leave him alone," Hijikata growled. "You leave him right there."

"It's procedure, I'm afraid," the male EMT said, snapping the stretcher open with a loud metallic clang. "He's a government official, so an autopsy--"

The edge of Hijikata's blade was at his throat in an instant. "I said to leave him, didn't I? The men have to pay their respects. You can leave and come back to take him tomorrow or you can die here right now."

The female EMT put her hand on her colleague's arm. "He's the second-in-command: Hijikata Toushirou. We'd better do as he says, or there might be trouble with the military later."

"Whatever," the male EMT said, peering sideways at Hijikata's sword-point. "It's not like I wanted to go to the morgue today, anyway."

The woman gave Hijikata a cold-eyed stare. "We'll be back tomorrow at midday."

Hijikata ignored her, staring down at Kondou-san, whose face still bore the marks of Otae's earlier beating. What had he thought at that time? The commander of the Shinsengumi was not seriously going to be killed by some secondary character. Which made him realise he had been so focussed on keeping Kondou-san just where he was he hadn't even thought about the obvious.

He turned to Yamazaki, who was standing next to him with such a helpless look on his face that Hijikata didn't even want to kick his ass for once. "If you tell me you didn't get the bastard who did this, you will commit seppuku."

"We got him, all right," Yamazaki said, nodding towards the far corner next to the bathroom door. "He's right there."

Hijikata had expected to see just about anyone in that corner except Shimura Shinpachi. He sat with his back to the wall, his clothes bloodstained in an artless pattern, his face a blank mask of incomprehension.

"He killed Kondou-san?" Hijikata snarled, turning to Yamazaki. "You expect me to believe that a greenhorn teenager overpowered the commander of the Shinsengumi? He doesn't even have a scratch on him."

Sougo's spoke up from the shadow of the wardrobe. "That's what I said too." His voice was hollow, and Hijikata was somehow glad he couldn't see his face.

"We found him standing over the commander's body," Yamazaki said, a touch defensively.

"Ask him about the murder weapon, Hijikata-san," Sougo intoned. "The murder weapon."

Hijikata stared at Yamazaki. "Well?"

"Uh, that is, ah, I mean." Yamazaki squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in a deep breath. "A kitchen knife, sir! We've bagged it and put it in the evidence locker."

Hijikata sat down on the floor by Kondou-san's head, folding his legs under himself. "So Shimura Shinpachi walked into HQ in the middle of the day, carrying a knife that was not confiscated upon entry. He came into the commander's quarters and butchered him."

"The commander was going to show him the training camp," spoke Iida, one of Sougo's men. "Shimura showed up shortly after you left for the store, saying they agreed to meet earlier today."

Hijikata frowned. Considering his earlier encounter with the Shimura siblings, at least that much bore out. "And he wasn't searched?"

"Kondou-san told the men at the gates it wasn't necessary," Iida said. "They were going to have tea in Kondou-san's quarters and then walk to the camp grounds. I brought the tea and found Shimura holding a bloody knife."

Hijikata glanced towards the door and saw for the first time the overturned tea tray and cups, a dark puddle still creeping slowly across the tatami. Funny how little details like that faded into the background.

"Oi, Shimura, say something," he murmured, turning to look at Shinpachi's empty-eyed face. "Did you really do this?"

"He won't talk," Yamazaki said. "He's been in that state since we found him."

"Take him to the city jail," Hijikata said. "I'll lay out the case before the general assembly tomorrow morning."

"Hijikata-san, do you really intend to send him to jail without knowing if he really did it or not?" Sougo asked, rising out of the wardrobe like some kind of vengeful skeleton.

"I don't want him in our cells because someone might decide to take revenge," Hijikata snapped. "It's for his protection as much as anything else."

After Iida and Yamazaki led Shinpachi -- still near-catatonic, he had to be pulled along -- away, Hijikata and Sougo stared at each other.

"Where were you?" Hijikata asked. He didn't mean to sound accusing, but there was no ignoring Kondou-san's final stare; it changed the atmosphere.

Sougo's face looked as though it were made of plastic. "I'm going to the city jail to supervise the prisoner transfer." With that, he took off after the others, sidestepping one of the fallen tea cups on his way out.

Hijikata sat alone as darkness crept over the city. Awash in shadows that hid the blood, Kondou-san looked asleep. Men trickled through the door in groups of two and three and four, bowing and praying and murmuring things of disbelief. Hijikata offered murmurs of his own and orders concerning their suspect, orders to inform Matsudaira, orders for medic-types to observe the autopsy tomorrow.

Someone slipped a white cloth over Kondou-san's face. Someone else took the overturned tea things away; the tea itself had long since soaked into the tatami. There was no blood except on Kondou-san, which was odd: for someone to die so quickly from stab wounds, there had to have been crimson fountains painting the walls. But Hijikata couldn't concentrate on any thought-thread his mind took hold of, and that thought too slipped away like dirty water down a wash-drain.

He had expected a flood of bitter-sweet memories to inundate his mind as he sat his silent vigil, but there was nothing except Kondou-san's last words to him, rattling around in his empty brain like marbles in a wooden cup. See you when you get back.

Hijikata sat alone in the dark engaged in the futile attempt to block out reality while at the same time trying to figure out what the hell he was supposed to do next. At dawn, he got up to get the blood moving through his legs and sat back down after just a few steps, this time with his back to Kondou-san. That made it easier to think.

He would be acting commander now, until the shogunate decided on either confirming him or appointing someone else. In a few hours, he would have to face the men and tell them... what? That a pimply, bespectacled teenager had murdered their commander? That they had a suspect in custody and an investigation was under way? That he was going to quit the Shinsengumi and open a mayo restaurant? What the hell was he supposed to tell them?

"You can't, please, danna--" Yamazaki bleated outside. A moment later, the door flew across the room and Gintoki strolled in casually, hand on the hilt of his wooden sword.

"Aren't you the acting commander? Why are you sitting here by yourself; it's worse than a freakin' zoo out there. Shouldn't you be commanding them to stop running around like headless chickens?"

"What the hell are you doing here, Yorozuya?" Hijikata gritted.

"I want to know why I wasn't allowed to visit my friend Shimura Shinpachi at the city jail," Gintoki said, his eyes narrowed.

"If it's you, you'll break him out in a minute if we let you anywhere near the jail, so we gave your description to all the guards and posted double sentries at all approaches," Hijikata said.

"You're holding him without charges, which was against the law last time I checked. That was when I played a lawyer on TV, by the way. I don't need to break him out, because he's not supposed to be there in the first place."

"He was caught over the commander's body holding a bloody knife," Hijikata said. "I'd say that's grounds to hold him."

"Body?" Gintoki asked. "What body? I don’t see a body. Do you see a body? Jimi-kun, do you see a body anywhere?"

Yamazaki stood in the destroyed doorway, engrossed in imitating a koi.

Hijikata turned to gesture to Kondou-san, but the futon was empty. Impossible. He hadn't left the room; he hadn't even felt like taking a piss once during the night before. The futon lay there, empty, a few stray drops of blood soaked into the material, and not even an impression of Kondou-san's body remained. No drag marks, no blood. The corpse was gone.

Hijikata leaped to his feet and pointed an accusing finger at Gintoki. "You did it," he spluttered. "You hid the body."

"Give me a break," Gintoki said, shoving his hand into the hanging sleeve of his kimono. "What would I do with a smelly old man's body? Besides, I just got here."

"You did it during the night somehow," Hijikata insisted. "Yamazaki, look in the closet. I bet he carried the body in there while I wasn't looking."

"Or that big hole in the ceiling might have something to do with it," Gintoki said.

Hijikata followed his gaze and saw the sun through a neat rectangular hole in the roof. "What the--?"

Gintoki turned to him. "Since Shinpachi couldn't possibly have stolen the body since you threw him in jail without even bothering to ask what happened--"

"We did ask him!" Hijikata protested. "He wouldn't talk; he just sat there."

"Oh, and you didn't think that was strange? How many years did Gintama run that you don't even know what is and isn't typical for Shinpachi?"

Hijikata was getting tired of this; it wasn't like he'd wanted to arrest Shinpachi in the first place, for fuck's sake, but he wasn't about to admit that to this guy. "Body or not, he was found at the scene of the crime with the murder weapon, which makes him the primary suspect."

"What murder weapon? The kitchen knife Jimi-kun told me about? A thing like that would never kill the gorilla."

"It's none of your business, since this is officially a police investigation."

"Yeah, well, Otae just hired me to do some investigating of my own. Did you even check if the murder weapon was the murder weapon or some plastic prop covered in strawberry sauce? It's just like you Shinsengumi to decide everything for yourselves. You're not the police, you're just a bunch of thugs with swords."

Hijikata opened his mouth to argue, but Gintoki barrelled right over him. "Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you? Don't you care who killed your commander-san? Are you so fucking fond of your free time that you'll throw the first convenient person in prison just so you can close the books? I thought you respected him."

"Get out!" Hijikata bellowed, drawing his sword. "You don't fucking get to stand there lecturing me about respect, you useless, lazy--"

"Vice-Commander!" Iida bellowed, darting through the doorway and collapsing to his knees. "It's terrible," he breathed. "The jail, it -- a large group of extremely beautiful cabaret girls with naginatas, sir, they easily overpowered the guards and escaped with Shimura Shinpachi!"

"I'll just get going, then," Gintoki said, his face bland again. "Sounds like you've got quite a crisis on your hands, my oh my."

"Yorozuya," Hijikata called after him. "You had something to do with this, didn't you?"

Gintoki smirked over his shoulder. "Who knows?"

Then he was gone, and Hijikata was left with no corpse, no suspect, and certainly no dignity as acting commander.

"I really hate him."

*

In the three days that followed, things went from bad to worse, back to bad, and then they took an express train straight to fucking horrible. Matsudaira had taken the Shogun to Hakone, the shogunate was tied up in an anime copyright brawl with the Centauri -- for D.Gray-man, of all things -- and Kondou-san's body was still AWOL. Analysis of the knife showed that it was covered not in blood, but in a viscous substance of alien origin mixed with red food colouring.

Worst of all, Sougo was turning feral. Following a long tradition of siding with the Yorozuya when it counted, he'd started to spread rumours that Hijikata had arranged for Kondou-san's disappearance so he could take command while no one was looking, and Hijikata didn't even know how to defend against such completely ridiculous accusations, considering that Sougo knew full well he'd no more harm Kondou-san than run around the streets in his underpants while sober.

Shinpachi -- whom Hijikata had decided to class as a witness instead of a suspect following the knife fiasco -- was being moved from house to house every night, and even though they got close a couple of times, they were always too late. Otae and the Yorozuya had too many friends in Kabukichou. Much as Hijikata wanted to put an end to it, issuing a mass evacuation order for the whole town just wasn't in the cards; there'd be anti-government riots, and the shogunate would blame the Shinsengumi as they always did whenever their orders backfired. Only this time, they'd be right to blame the Shinsengumi.

There was nothing for it but to attempt the impossible: Hijikata was going to try and reason with Gintoki. Out of uniform.

When he arrived at Yorozuya Gin-chan, the front doors stood open, but the whole place was eerily quiet.

"Excuse me?" Hijikata called from the entrance, slipping off his shoes. "Anyone home?"

"Not for you," came the reply, and Gintoki materialised in the doorway, fanning himself with a Jump. "Go home."

"Where's China-girl?" Hijikata asked, shouldering past him into the living room.

"She ran off with a bald guy," Gintoki said, occupying the couch and lifting his Jump over his head. "Took the dog, too."

"And you let her?"

"What, take Sadaharu? He's her dog."

"I mean let her run off with a bald guy, you numpty."

"Well, the bald guy's her dad, so it's fine. What do you want? I'm pretty sure you didn't come here to chit-chat about Kagura."

"Let me talk to Shinpachi."

"No way," Gintoki said, flipping a page. "Go home with your dying will."

"Come on," Hijikata said. "I won't do anything to him. I'll come alone. Unarmed, even. I just need to talk to him."

Gintoki sat up and slapped the Jump down on the table. "Of course you would come alone and unarmed and blindfolded; that's not even a question. Problem is, Shinpachi can't talk. He's been hit with some kind of psychoactive mental gizmo that's made him go completely blank. He can't even use the toilet by himself. You threw him in jail in that condition and you think I'm going to let you within a kilometre of him? Go and die, seriously."

"You would've done the same if you found someone standing over the old hag from downstairs with a bloody knife," Hijikata snapped. "Don't even try to deny it."

"No, because I don't have the power to throw anyone in jail. Besides, I fought that guy fair and square; he wasn't drooling all over himself, either."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Hijikata asked. He'd heard of some ruckus among the various underworld factions in Kabukichou, but it had all been hushed up in the upper corridors; the Shinsengumi had been told to keep their noses out.

"Nothing, nothing, just an old war story. You know, speaking of the war, I rarely regret deciding not to fight, except at times like this. Dogs resemble their owners after all, and if people like you are running the country, it's no wonder Takasugi wants to blow the whole thing sky-high."

Hijikata drew. "Listen here, you--"

"Oi, oi, stop waving that thing around like it's a toy," Gintoki said, picking his Jump back up and lying down again. "You're totally in the wrong here, so why would you fight me? I guess for the likes of you, bushido only applies when it's convenient. That's why I hate the Shinsengumi after all."

"I'm not even in uniform, so give me a break," Hijikata muttered, sheathing his sword again. He'd promised himself he wouldn't get angry, and he hadn't even been able to do that. How was he supposed to lead the Shinsengumi? "Sougo thinks someone's trying to frame Shinpachi for Kondou-san's murder."

"See, I knew there was a reason I kind of liked that guy."

"Can you prove it?"

"What? That I kind of like Okita? Are you some kind of pervert? He's underage."

Hijikata's eyebrow twitched, but he kept control of himself. "That Shinpachi's being framed."

It was a gamble, but he was almost sure that no matter how much he hated the Shinsengumi, Gintoki at least had some regard for Kondou-san's memory; more importantly, Gintoki would want Shinpachi cleared of blame. He didn't have to gamble that Gintoki wasn't completely stupid; he had to understand that Hijikata would never ask for his help.

Gintoki sat up and put his Jump aside. "Can you dance?"

*

Hijikata was shoved into a room smelling of powder, baby oil, and cheap perfume, and then the blindfold finally came off. He lit a cigarette as he glanced around.

"This is Saigo Tokumori's bar," he said. Yamazaki had enclosed photos of this dressing room in his report about the place, though he wouldn't disclose how he'd managed to get back there. Hijikata hadn't pressed the issue; he'd been too intent on beating the crap out of Yamazaki for submitting yet another fucking essay. "We know who he was, and we don't care as long as he doesn't cause trouble. You of all people should know the drill with that kind of thing. What the fuck was the point of blindfolding me, you troglodyte?"

"I just felt like doing it," Gintoki said. "Ever since I mentioned it earlier, it sounded like it would be fun."

"I'll show you fun, you--"

"Shut up and strip," Gintoki said, donning a wig with bushy, wavy silver pigtails. "You're gonna become a lady."

"WHAT?"

Gintoki, halfway out of his clothes, turned to him. "Are you really an officer of the Shinsengumi? I thought you lot were prepared for anything for duty and honour. This is the only way you'll get first-hand proof about Shinpachi."

"Why can't I just wear my uniform and look menacing?"

Gintoki threw his boot at the wall and trotted over to the wardrobe snuggled against the back wall. "You have to be a woman. There are no women in the Shinsengumi, last time I checked. What's up with that, anyway? What kind of chauvinist pigs are you?"

"I don't want to hear that from a guy in strawberry-patterned boxers," Hijikata snapped, but he felt blood draining from his face. If Gintoki was serious, he'd have to strip, and then the secret of the pattern on his boxers would be out. He shook his head. "No way, do you hear me? No. Way."

"I thought you said you wanted proof?" Gintoki said, pulling on a handsome cornflower-blue kimono. "Agomi! Come do me."

"With pleasure!" exclaimed a red-haired okama in purple silk, popping out from behind a three-way mirror on the other side of the room. "I thought you'd never ask, Paako-chan."

Gintoki rolled his eyes. "I meant my obi. As always."

"As always? Paako?" Hijikata spluttered. "Is this the kind of hobby you have? I ought to report you to the Children's Aid Society; what have you been teaching those kids of yours?"

Agomi -- aptly named, Hijikata had to concede, for her extremely humongous chin -- busied herself with Gintoki's obi, casting sly glances at Hijikata. "Who's your friend, Paako-chan? Such pretty blue eyes."

"I can hear you," Hijikata ground out, watching with fascination as Gintoki adjusted his wig and wound a string of pearls round his neck. He looks better in his usual get-up.

"AZUMI!" bellowed a deep voice outside the dressing room. "Party of four, get your ass out here now!"

"I thought her name was Agomi," Hijikata said as the okama hastily tied off Gintoki's obi and darted out without another word.

"Agomi, Azumi, whatever," Gintoki said. "Why are you still wearing that? Come and pick out an outfit unless you want me to dress you."

"Oi, Paako, new girl -- what's her name again? Toshiko? -- Toshiko, what's the hold-up?" bellowed the voice again.

"Sorry, Mama, almost ready!" Gintoki hollered back.

"Toshiko???" Hijikata demanded.

"What's wrong with Toshiko?"

"I could at least be Toshie."

"What, you want to wear a lace-up bra and prance around in a black leather cape? This is not that kind of bar, you pervert. And put out your cigarette, it's unladylike. Use a kiseru or something. Now, lipstick, lipstick. If I were lipstick, where would I be? Ah, found it." Gintoki disappeared behind Agomi's mirror, and Hijikata flew to the wardrobe, hastily pulling out a gaudy green-and-gold number with a pre-tied obi. No okama was going to "do him" tonight, especially not that silver-haired one behind the mirror.

He was adjusting the clip on the front when Gintoki re-emerged, wearing pink lipstick and fake eyelashes. He cast a sceptical eye over Hijikata. "Not bad, but that hair will never do. Wear this."

Hijikata caught the long black wig and sat down on one of the benches along the wall to work out which end was which. Gintoki approached him and crouched to examine his legs. "Too hairy. Shave the front at least."

"I am not shaving my legs," Hijikata bit out, tugging the wig over his eyes.

"Would you like me to shave them for you? What kind of woman goes out without her legs shaved?"

"And I'm supposed to be representing the chauvinist pigs here?" Hijikata muttered. "I don't plan on showing my legs to anyone, so back off."

"Is that how hairy your ass is, too? No wonder you've got such a complex about it."

"I don't have a hairy ass!"

"Now, now, girls, no fighting," Agomi cooed, shimmying through the door. "Mama has sent me to do Toshiko's make-up." She batted her fake eyelashes. "Seeing as it's her first time and all."

Soon Hijikata was struggling not to cough inside a cloud of powder as Agomi flitted about him, doing unspeakable things to his face with a bewildering array of brushes, metal contraptions, pastes, gels, and pomades.

"Wow," Gintoki said, staring at him after Agomi was done. "Damn. You made him even prettier than Zurako."

Hijikata blushed. Wait, why the fuck am I blushing? Being stared at with such appreciation by a man was not a time for blushing; it was a time for cutting off the man's head, wig or no wig. And who the fuck was Zurako?

"Aww, Paako-chan, you're such a kidder," Agomi simpered, aiming a punch at Gintoki's shoulder. He sidestepped, holding up a hand-mirror to Hijikata's face.

"Uh," Hijikata offered. He'd had no idea that a bit of powder and rouge could make a person unrecognisable even by himself. He looked like an expensive porcelain doll; his eyes were huge beneath thick black lashes, his cheekbones stood out even more than usual, and his lips were full and pouty. "I look like a girl, God damn it!"

"Oh, she'll be such a hit, I just know it!" Agomi cried, pushing them both out of the door. "Let's go, let's go, Mama's waiting; there's no time!"

"Listen," Gintoki whispered as they were propelled down the corridor towards the bar. "The guys you're interested in will be in the corner farthest from the door. They requested another girl for tonight, but she stayed home sick as a favour to me, so Paako and Toshiko will be looking after them."

"What exactly am I supposed to do?" Hijikata didn't do regular hostess bars, let alone okama ones.

"Just follow my lead. And be grateful Saigo's not making you perform on stage. Face like yours could confuse a straight guy."

Why the fuck did that feel like a compliment?

Then they were out in the smoke-filled bar. The two men in Paako and Toshiko's corner looked human, and Hijikata relaxed. He didn't trust Amanto because he didn't know much about all the different species; any one of them could have special abilities, like advanced cookie-baking, mind-reading, or eye-lasers. Those could really fuck you up.

"Evening, boys; I'm Paako," Gintoki intoned in a falsetto attempt so half-assed that Hijikata had to suppress a snicker.

"I'm Toshiko," he said, still fighting laughter. "I'm new, so please don't be too hard on me."

"Aw, but you're such a pretty thing, I'd love to be hard all over you," said the shorter guy, leering.

Hijikata's fake smile froze; was he allowed to hit this asshole? Otae -- Hijikata's only real point of reference -- would've maimed anyone who said anything like that to her, so maybe he could get away with it.

Gintoki spared him the guesswork: he sat down next to the leering one and elbowed him so hard his eyes bulged. "You're so silly, Mushi-kun; you know that kind of talk's against Mama's rules."

"Sorry, sorry," the guy wheezed. "But my name's not Mushi-kun, it's--"

"Don't be silly, Mushi-kun; of course it is," Gintoki said, waving at a waiter. He squared Hijikata with a glance and jerked his head sharply toward the taller guy.

Hijikata sat down obediently, grinning for all he was worth. "And what's your name?" he murmured.

"Paako-chan, what's my name tonight?" the man asked, amiably enough.

Gintoki pursed his lips and put his index finger to the side of his mouth. "Hmm, let's see... how about Gama-kun? Yes, you shall be Gama-kun. Let's drink!"

Hijikata really wanted to tell him that he seemed way too comfortable entertaining customers at an okama bar, but that wouldn't do if he was pretending to be an okama. He'd never thought he'd miss the ability to talk to Gintoki. But he had no idea what to ask from these weird guys, so he resigned himself to sipping lemon water and attempting awkward conversation while the customers got gradually drunker.

He spotted a woman in a booth on the other side of the bar; she wore a burgundy dress with slits along her shapely legs; silky black hair -- no way that was a wig -- cascaded past her shoulders and obscured half her face as she tapped the fingers of one hand on a champagne flute. Was she a customer or a hostess? And if she was a hostess, why was she working at an okama bar? That was a real woman, or Hijikata had managed to get drunk off lemon water.

"So I says to him, I says, you'll never guess what shipment's arriving in eight days," Mushi-kun slurred, gesturing in Hijikata's direction, and Hijikata grinned so widely it hurt his cheeks. He wanted to slap himself; he was supposed to be gathering intel from these pukes and instead he was staring at a woman. Nothing like an okama bar to make a man take his testosterone levels a little more seriously.

"What shipment is that?" Hijikata asked, glancing at Gintoki, who was nodding vigorously.

"Why, a shipment from the planet Something-or-Other, of course, beautiful."

"You can't even remember the name of a planet?" Hijikata asked, affecting a pout. "What a shaaaaame."

Mushi-kun's eyes widened with alarm. "No, don't get me wrong! That's the name of the planet, see. The creatures who live there don't have real form; they throw their personalities into anything they like. Someone from that planet could be a woman in the morning and a cactus by evening."

"Oh my gosh, like, a cactus, really?" Hijikata chirped, eyes on Gintoki. Was he overdoing it? Was Gintoki smiling like that because Hijikata was asking the right questions or was he laughing? Fuck this not being able to talk like normal people shit, seriously. "So this shipment, is it, like, cactus food?"

"Oh, no, no," Gama-kun interjected, slapping his palm down on the table. "See, these Something-or-Otherians, they've invented these devices that can duplicate what they do. On their planet they're used for folks too old to gather enough energy to move into a new object, but they eventually figured out their abilities could make a mint on the weapons black market. So now they're looking for buyers."

"Waai, that sounds so complicated, Gama-kun," Gintoki said with an I'm-concentrating-really-hard-right-now frown that would have been cute on a schoolgirl but made Paako look like she was trying to take a shit. "Are you saying these machines can move even Paako or Toshiko into a cactus or something?"

Gama-kun nodded with enthusiasm. "Not just a cactus, they can also move you into something like this table, or that sake bottle." He slapped his meaty hand down again, this time on Hijikata's thigh. Thoroughly disgusted, Hijikata picked it up by the wrist and moved it to the man's own leg. "Oops, sorry about that, To-chan."

"But what happens to Paako's body if she's in a sake bottle?" Gintoki asked, leaning forward a bit and shooting Toshiko -- no, he was Hijikata, for fuck's sake -- a warning glance. "Wouldn't it just wander off by itself, lonely and sad?"

"Not at all," Mushi-kun said, seemingly intent on outdoing his colleague on the sharing of information front, probably because this was the first time Paako and Toshiko were paying attention to the two of them. "Paako's real body would just sit there and wait for Paako's personality to return. It wouldn't be able to do anything on its own, not even go to the bathroom. Tee-hee!"

He's been hit with some kind of psychoactive mental gizmo that's made him go completely blank. He can't even use the toilet by himself.

Hijikata met Gintoki's eyes. No doubt about it. These guys were describing Shinpachi's condition.

"That sounds so scary!" Hijikata exclaimed, throwing his arm around Gama-kun's neck and performing a quick sleeper hold, then letting Gama-kun rest his weary head on the table. Mushi-kun did not seem to notice anything amiss; he gazed adoringly at Hijikata's face.

"So that's what's coming in eight days," he said. "There are some potential buyers gathering here on Earth, so Something-or-Other sent a cache of these devices as sample merchandise."

"Mushi-kun, you must be such an important man to know about these things," Gintoki purred, performing a sleeper hold of his own. "Mama, we've got two passed-out customers here!"

Three of the burliest okamas Hijikata had ever seen materialised from the shadows and dragged the hapless Mushi-kun and Gama-kun away. As Hijikata followed their progress, he noticed the striking woman from before.

"Remind me never to drink with you," Gintoki remarked, sidling up to him. "Noticed Zurako, have you? She'll be performing later."

"I see," Hijikata said, still staring. "What's a woman doing here, anyway?"

Gintoki snickered. "Oi, Zura, come over here!"

Zura? Where have I heard that before?

Zurako glided over to their table. "It's not Zura, it's Zurako. What is it? I'm busy preparing for my performance, so make it quick."

"Toshiko here thinks you've got lady parts under that cute dress of yours."

Zurako's eyes widened. "How rude!" she exclaimed, delivering a backhand slap so vicious, Hijikata's ears began to ring. "How dare you think about my private parts, you shameless hussy!"

"My bad," Hijikata said, rubbing his cheek. The voice definitely didn't belong to a woman, though as slaps went, that was weak. Otae could teach this Zurako a thing or two about slapping people.

"Zurako's just really shy," Gintoki said. "Never talk to her about cheese fondue if you know what's good for you."

Zurako leaned in and whispered something into Gintoki's wig; Gintoki whispered something back. Zurako's eyes widened, and she retreated towards the stage without another glance at Hijikata. The exchange lasted maybe thirty seconds, but even with that much, Hijikata could tell the two were close. Where had he seen that face before? Or a face just like it...

"Well, our work here is done, Vice-Commander-san," Gintoki said. "I'm going home. I'm sure you can take things from there."

"Yeah," Hijikata said, following. "Thanks."

He made a beeline for the side door to have a smoke and wait for Gintoki to finish changing. Hijikata was not going to let him see his boxers.

He was on his third smoke, wondering if it was safe to go inside yet, when Gintoki strolled out, wearing his usual sloppy outfit, his hair back to normal and his face scrubbed clean. "There you are. Just so we're clear, this was a favour for Shinpachi's sake, not for yours, so you don't owe me any thanks."

"Sure," Hijikata said, flicking his cigarette aside. "I take it back, then."

"And you can't tell anyone where you got the information. If you put Saigo in danger..."

"Relax," Hijikata said. "It's not like I can seize that cargo without approval from the shogunate, which is impossible right now. Because of reasons. I'll set a tail on the people who bring it and find out who they are, and-- oh, shit."

Sougo was approaching from the other end of the street. An overhead lamp illuminated him clearly, which meant he couldn't see the two of them -- yet. He wasn't going to be fooled by Hijikata's getup for a second, and Hijikata would never live down the shame of being caught in an okama bar. It was too late to run back inside; Sougo would be like a hound on any woman he saw running after seeing him.

"Hijikata-san?" Sougo called into the street. "I swear I heard his annoying voice just now," he added, to himself.

"Fuck," Hijikata muttered, trying to make himself as small as possible behind Gintoki. "Can you block his view of my face? Just keep turning as he walks by."

"I have a better idea," Gintoki said, leaning in. He put his hand on the side of Hijikata's face, blocking it from the side Sougo was approaching.

"Too close," Hijikata hissed, turning aside. Why was his heart suddenly trying to escape through his mouth? "Your breath stinks of alcohol; when did you manage that? I thought you weren't drinking."

"Well, your breath stinks of cigarettes," Gintoki returned, moving even closer, his breath hot on Hijikata's lips. "It can't be helped, so just pretend like we're kissing; he won't bother us."

Hijikata put his hands up to push him away. "It's Sougo, you dumbass, he's probably going to stand there and watch--"

"Shut your trap," Gintoki murmured and kissed him for real, so forcefully that Hijikata's hands on Gintoki's chest went limp. He had nowhere to run: to his right was Sougo; to his left, the okama bar; behind him, the most solid wall he'd ever met. His sword was in the dressing room, and his body was reacting to Gintoki in ways it definitely wasn't supposed to. He couldn't breathe.

Women had thrown themselves at him during his wilder days, but he had held out until he'd found one he could fall in love with. And when he'd found her, his courage had failed him, and then his honour had got in the way. So he had turned aside and became a sword, until training and discipline had sharpened all his edges, leaving no room for useless longings. He had not imagined that those longings had only waited for a moment like this.

"Hey, danna, have you seen-- oh, sorry. You should probably get a room though," Sougo called from somewhere far. Hijikata couldn't be sure if he was walking away or not; his heart was pounding so loudly it was a wonder he heard Sougo's voice at all. Hijikata's eyes found Gintoki's, but Gintoki was looking in Sougo's direction, even as his hand tightened on Hijikata's face, as though to keep him from escaping, even as his tongue set Hijikata's insides aflame.

Gintoki pulled away as though he were a swimmer coming up for air, Hijikata's red lipstick liberally decorating his mouth.

"Whew. There really needs to be soundtrack so I can figure out if this is supposed to be a good moment or a bad one," Gintoki said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Of-- of course it's a bad moment, you prick, you just shoved your tongue in my mouth!" Hijikata spat, scrubbing his lips with his fingers and getting lipstick all over them. "Ugh!"

"You liked it," Gintoki said with a tiny, mortifying smirk. He noticed. Hijikata's face grew so hot he felt like he was giving off more light than the stupid street lamp. "Anyway," Gintoki continued. "I've figured it out: we must be in a doujinshi. Or worse, fan fiction. Because otherwise I don't see why kissing the likes of you would make my dick hard. Man, what a life."

He walked off after Sougo, wooden sword bumping against his hip, and Hijikata shut his eyes, wishing to wake up already.

"Don't take it personally," said Zurako's voice from the direction of the door. Where had Hijikata heard it before? "Gintoki's got too many ghosts to get involved with anyone." Zurako emerged from the shadows and offered Hijikata a tissue.

"Thanks," Hijikata said, scrubbing at his face. The lipstick would come off, but would he ever be able to taste anything but the alcohol on Gintoki's tongue? "Anyway, who said I wanted to get involved with him? He just went ahead and did whatever he pleased. I'm a man, for fuck's sake!"

"So?" Zurako asked, looking genuinely nonplussed.

Hijikata shook his head with disgust. "Is everyone in Kabukichou insane?"

"True love doesn't see gender, you know," Zurako said in lecturing tones. "When Gintoki and I were younger, there was a boy--"

"I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT! IN FACT, I CAN'T HEAR YOU AT ALL, I'VE SUDDENLY GONE DEAF. NICE WEATHER WE'RE HAVING, ISN'T IT."

*

"Vice-Commander? Uh, I mean, Acting Commander? Hello?"

"WHAT?" Hijikata snarled, causing Yamazaki to jump a foot in the air. It wasn't technically Yamazaki's fault that Hijikata had been lost in a completely unnecessary and definitely not the least bit pleasant daydream involving Gintoki and one of those rod-shaped chocolate-covered ice cream sticks, but Hijikata would find a way to make it Yamazaki's fault. Besides, he hated chocolate.

"I, uh, er, I just have a question about this part here," Yamazaki said, holding out a piece of paper that was too far for Hijikata to read. "It says to cancel the APB on Shimura Shinpachi. Um, what's an APB?"

"All Points Bulletin. Don't you watch movies, you asshole? Basically, we don't need to arrest him anymore."

Sougo, who had been menacingly polishing his sword in a nearby corner, looked up. "Oh, did you get scared that everyone would turn against you, Hijikata-san?"

"No, I just have proof someone's trying to frame him."

"Who's trying to frame who, and for what?" came a voice Hijikata never thought he would hear again in this life.

Slowly, he turned towards the sound. The paper sailed out of Yamazaki's hand and landed on the floor with a rustle. Sougo made a soft choking noise.

Kondou Isao stood in the doorway.

He rubbed the back of his head and laughed uncomfortably. "Err, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated?"

"K-K-Kondou...san?" Hijikata managed after about thirty seconds of utter silence. Then he turned to Yamazaki. "Tell me you idiots checked his pulse before writing him off."

Yamazaki proceeded to imitate a koi again. He was getting pretty good at it. Maybe Hijikata could send him to investigate an aquarium from the inside.

"I don't get it, Kondou-san," Sougo said. "You were dead."

"That was just a little joke -- a joke!" Kondou-san said, his gaze darting around the room. "It was to test crisis preparedness, yep. Good news -- you all passed. Well done."

"A test," Hijikata echoed. "So where have you been these past few days?"

"Took a little holiday to recharge my energy," came the reply, so quick it was as though Kondou-san had been anticipating the question. That wasn't like Kondou-san; questions usually made him nervous.

"Where'd you go?" Sougo asked, rising to buckle his sword back on.

"Oh, here and there," Kondou-san said. "Great places, all of them. More importantly, I need a few guys to install a cage for my new pet."

"Sougo, can I kill this guy?" Hijikata asked, only half joking.

*

Kondou-san's new pet turned out to be a gorilla in glasses. He immediately assigned four men from each division to clean the cage and feed the gorilla on a rotating basis, which took Hijikata aback: it was unusual for the commander to concern himself with such petty details.

Still, gorilla or no gorilla, Kondou-san was back, and that meant life was going to go back to normal. Hijikata was sure he would even get over his resentment eventually -- it was, after all, Kondou-san's fault that Hijikata ended up in that okama bar last week, so what had happened with Gintoki was also his fault.

"Well, whatever," Hijikata mumbled to himself on his way to the correspondence room one morning. "I'll just avoid Kabukichou for the time being; it's always worked in the past. Yamazaki, where are the snitch reports?"

"The commander picked them up earlier," Yamazaki said, glancing up from a magazine that looked suspiciously like Jump. "Also, he wanted to see you."

Hijikata made his way to Kondou-san's quarters, scratching his head. What would the commander want with the snitch reports? He had always found them too boring to care about.

"Toshi, there you are," Kondou-san said as Hijikata entered. "Beautiful morning, isn't it?"

"Yes sir," Hijikata said, sitting down in front of Kondou-san's desk. "Chief?"

"Yes?"

"Is there a problem with my work?"

"Not at all, why do you ask?"

"You've been doing pretty much all of it ever since you came back," Hijikata said. "Mess hall duty assignments, sentry rotations, and today the snitch reports."

"Oh, those. I've just come to realise I've been relying on you too much," Kondou-san said. "I was reviewing the timesheets last night before bed, and you haven't had a day off in a year. A year! That's just wrong; everyone should have a day off at least once a year."

Hijikata didn't know what to say. Reviewing the timesheets before bed? Instead of composing bad poetry to meow under Shimura Otae's window? Was it possible that a vacation spot existed where people's entire set of priorities was reset? If so, he was so going to send Sougo there.

"Anyway, the reason I wanted to see you was that I'd like you to restart the search for Shinpachi-kun."

"Why?" Hijikata asked. "You're alive and well, which means he clearly didn't kill you, so we've got no reason to be interested in him."

"I'd only like to apologise to him for the wrongful arrest," Kondou-san said. "I went over to the dojo earlier this morning, but Otae-san wouldn't open the door."

Hijikata frowned. Earlier that morning? Kondou-san had been awake and about town before ten in the morning? What the actual fuck? "Why didn't you just use one of your secret passageways inside the dojo?" he asked.

Kondou-san looked up at him with genuine alarm, but a moment later his face was smooth again. "I... have such things?" His eyes shifted towards the gorilla cage very briefly. "Funny, I seem to have forgotten them all." He gave Hijikata a sly little look. "You wouldn't by any chance know where these passages might be?"

Hijikata was so stunned he took a step back. "Of course not, what do you think I am?"

"Ah well, I'm sure it'll come back to me. This vacation has taken my mind off many things, it would seem. Anyway, Toshi, I'm counting on you to bring Shinpachi-kun here."

"Yes sir."

After that, things kept getting weirder and weirder. At morning assemblies, Kondou-san no longer needed anyone to make the men pay attention; his usual soft-spoken, gentle manner had not disappeared, but somehow he managed to acquire a commanding presence. Before, men of the Shinsengumi would cluster around Kondou-san as overgrown kids around a doting father; now, he walked into a room and instantly dominated it without so much as a word. And he kept his distance. He was suddenly keener on the code of ethics than even Hijikata, who had written the bloody thing.

Most bizarrely of all, Kondou-san stopped walking around naked. Even Sougo was creeped out by that.

"How goes the search for Shinpachi, Toshi?" Kondou-san asked at the assembly one morning.

"No leads yet, Commander," Hijikata said.

"Well, pay a visit to the Yorozuya, would you? I'm sure he'll have some ideas."

"May I arrest him if he doesn't?" Hijikata asked, keeping his face smooth to hide his dismay. Why had he said there were no leads? Couldn't he have lied that he was going to investigate a lead later?

"I wouldn't go that far," Kondou-san said with an indulgent smile. "Not yet."

Not yet? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? But Hijikata knew better than to ask. He wouldn't get an answer. Worse, he didn't even know who he was talking to.

*

Hijikata trudged up the steps to Yorozuya Gin-chan, wishing that he could have sent someone else. But Kondou-san had told him to deal with this, so deal with it he would. He rang the doorbell.

"Just a moment," called Gintoki's voice from inside. A moment later, the door slid open, and Hijikata couldn't bring himself to look at his face, so he settled on the narrow belt at Gintoki's waist.

"Oh, Oogushi-kun. We were just talking about you," Gintoki said, moving aside to let him in. He sounded completely indifferent, and Hijikata wasn't sure if he felt annoyed or relieved. For all he knew, Gintoki kissed men in back alleys behind okama bars all the time, really. Hijikata took off his shoes and followed Gintoki to the living room, keeping his eyes on the belt.

Otae sat in one of the armchairs, a cup of tea in her hands.

"Why were you talking about me?" Hijikata asked, addressing Otae, who gave him a suspicious look. I'm the one who should be suspicious, woman! I wasn't the one gossiping about you. Could Gintoki have possibly told her--? No, no, no, that's completely impossible.

"We were just generally discussing various bloodsuckers on the tax payroll, you know," Gintoki said, moving to the sofa.

"It's even creepier than when he was a stalker," Otae said with an accusing look at Hijikata.

"Are you talking about Kondou-san? I think something's been done to him. He's not himself." The words were out before Hijikata realised what he was saying and to whom.

"Who else could he be?" Gintoki asked. "A gorilla? He was already a gorilla to begin with. A dual existence. Is he a gorilla dreaming he's a man, or a man dreaming that he's a gorilla? That is the question."

"No, it's like he's had an upgrade or something," Hijikata said, wondering why he'd opened his big fat mouth in the first place. "He's not been acting like himself."

"Yeah, well, news at eleven," Otae said with a sniff. "Where I'm from, upgrades are a good thing."

"And this upgrade wants your brother found," Hijikata said to her, deciding that a direct approach would probably work better with these simpletons than any amount of dissembling. Whatever had happened to the commander, Shinpachi was somehow a part of it.

"What did you say?" Otae demanded, setting the tea cup down. "Why?"

"Oi, oi, Oogushi-kun, aren't you committing treason against your employer? Shouldn't you be cutting yourself open right now? Even though we're not friends, I'll happily cut your head off if it gets too tough."

"I work for Kondou-san," Hijikata said. "The one who wants the four-eyes found -- well, I don't know who he is."

Gintoki's eyes met his, and Hijikata cursed inwardly, looking away; he'd forgotten all about avoiding eye contact.

"So why did you come here?" Gintoki asked after a pause. "You want to team up and fight evil together, is that it? Sorry, this hero doesn't need a sidekick."

"Sidekick my ass."

"I didn't know you were into weird stuff like that. How about I just kick your ass normally?"

"Fuck off," Hijikata growled. "I'm not gonna say I'm trying to help you here, but you could at least appreciate that I took the time to warn you."

"I have to go," Otae said. "Shin-chan will have to be moved again. You'll think about what I said, right, Gin-san?"

"Sure thing," Gintoki said, rising to see her to the door. Hijikata had no intention of hanging out here if it was going to be just the two of them, followed as well. Otae was already gone; he pulled on his shoes in uncomfortable silence, wondering why Gintoki was still standing there.

"Hey," Gintoki said as Hijikata prepared to slide the door open.

Hijikata turned. "Wh--"

Gintoki kissed him. For a few endless seconds, Hijikata kissed him back, but he'd already decided this was just not going to happen, was it? Not to him, not with this guy. He shoved Gintoki away, snarling, "What the hell's your problem?"

"Problem? I just wanted to make sure I like doing that even when you aren't a pretty girl."

"You keep away from me," Hijikata said, leaving. He made it as far as the vending machine on the corner, where he slumped against the cool metal, clapping both hands over his mouth, hoping to dampen the burn, to no avail. What was he going to tell Kondou-san? He'd only found out that Otae knew where Shinpachi was, but he'd known that even before he came all the way to Kabukichou. He'd rather have gone to the spaceport and taken a trip to Mars.

Wait. The spaceport.

That's what's coming in eight days. There are some potential buyers gathering here on Earth, so Something-or-Other sent a cache of these devices as sample merchandise.

The devices from planet Something-or-Other. One of them had almost certainly caused Shinpachi's catatonia, and it all tied in somehow with Kondou-san's disappearance. What with Kondou-san's return and trying not to melt down over the Gintoki thing, Hijikata had forgotten all about the mysterious shipment. Eight days. That's today!

*

Hijikata lurked in the empty berth across from the Something-or-Other ship, pretending to repair a bit of rigging while watching his target in a compact hand-mirror. He had made it to the spaceport three hours before the ship docked, so he'd had time to go and change into workman's clothes and grab a pre-signed clearance document from the stack they kept in case the Shinsengumi needed to carry out unspecified activities unrelated to search-and-seizure at the spaceport. He'd judged it would be unwise to hang out near the ship in full uniform, and it looked like he'd been right. He'd already seen two wanted faces in the mirror -- if those guys had seen a Shinsengumi officer anywhere near the dock, they probably would never have approached the ship. There were about five of them running around with luggage carts, moving crates off the ship into the customs inspection warehouse.

A new figure loomed inside the ship's loading bay, and it took every last bit of Hijikata's self-control not to charge the doors. Short guy in an ugly purple kimono patterned with yellow butterflies, bandage over one eye: Takasugi. Takasugi was in Edo and the Shinsengumi weren't on high alert? What the fuck was their Kiheitai informant doing?

"Just take one step off the ship," Hijikata implored under his breath. "One step, and you'll be off Amanto territory. One step, and I can arrest your sorry ass. Please."

But Takasugi vanished into the ship's innards. He did not reappear again, not even after the loading bay doors slid shut and the lights over the berth went out. Hijikata gathered up the work tools he'd scattered around and moseyed off, taking care not to even glance towards Takasugi's ship. What was the meaning of this? The final episode -- Gintoki was alive, which meant Takasugi had to be dead, and yet.

Back at HQ, Hijikata changed into his uniform and tried to find Kondou-san -- weird new habits or not, impostor or not, he was still the commander, and Hijikata had a duty to report to him. But Kondou-san wasn't in his quarters.

"He's taken the gorilla for a walk," Yamazaki said when Hijikata asked him the commander's whereabouts. "Have you tried his cell?"

"This isn't a telephone conversation," Hijikata said. He didn't trust the Amanto mobile networks not to carry word to the Harusame, with whom Takasugi had been most recently allied in some way. "What do you know about Takasugi?"

Yamazaki jumped. "Takasugi? As in Takasugi Shinsuke? Danna neutralised him in the final episode, didn't he? I wasn't there, but--"

Hijikata left him there without listening to the rest. He would have to ask Gintoki directly, as much as he didn't want to see his annoying face. And he hated night-time Kabukichou. So much noise, so much wasted electricity -- it was a town filled with self-indulgence with no regard for morality at any time of the day, but the noise and gaudiness made it feel like hell. As he approached Yorozuya Gin-chan, he spied Gintoki passed out atop a pile of garbage bags not two steps from the stairs leading up to his place.

"Case in fucking point," Hijikata grumbled, squatting down next to him. "Oi, Yorozuya."

"'M tryinna sleep, go 'way," Gintoki mumbled, turning aside. "This pillow's soooo nice. Like Ketsuno Ana's breasts." His eyes fluttered open a crack. "Hijikata-kun, hi. Oh, I must be dreaming. Hijikata-kun is so cold, he won't even give Gin-san a kiss."

"Who'd give you a kiss? You reek of vomit," Hijikata muttered, rising. There was nothing for it but to go back to HQ and face the commander; he'd never get anything out of this drunken lump of a useless subhuman.

"Takasugi," Gintoki murmured, struggling up on his elbows. "The hair's the same, that's what it is. Same as Takasugi. Yep."

"What the hell are you going on about? What do you know about Takasugi?"

Gintoki pointed a finger at him. "I thought I was Takasugisexual, but then I found out that I wasn't. Now I'm Hijikatasexual, but before that I was Madaosexual even though I don't remember that at all, and I was Hattorisexual even before that. That was pretty nice."

"Aren't you just a homosexual?"

"How rude," Gintoki said with an indignant sniff. "It's the hair over the forehead, got to be. Except I'm not Zurasexual. Or Shinpachisexual. That's just gross. Maybe it's the angle of the hair? Maybe I'm foreheadsexual. Ketsuno Ana's got a nice forehead. Tsukuyo too. Fucking foreheads, messing with a man's mind. All foreheads should just die." He slumped back onto the garbage bags, eyes rolling back.

"Pathetic little runt," Otose said, shuffling up to them and taking a deep drag on her cigarette.

Hijikata lit one of his own. "You're telling me."

"I didn't know he went drinking with members of the Shinsengumi," Otose said. "Shinpachi and Kagura leaving must've been harder on him than I thought."

"No way; I wouldn't go drinking with this guy even if he paid me," Hijikata said. "I came to ask him some questions, but found him like this."

"Say, you look strong, officer-san. Mind dumping him upstairs? It's such a turnoff for customers to find a passed-out freeloader right on the bar's doorstep. I'll treat you to a drink later, so do me a favour."

Hijikata shrugged. "Why not? I'm the police after all, so I've got to do my part for public morals."

"Thanks, I owe you one." She went back inside the bar, and Hijikata hauled Gintoki up by his armpits and slung him over his shoulder.

"Heavy bastard of a drunk," he breathed after depositing Gintoki on the living room sofa.

"I'll come back tomorrow," Hijikata said, massaging his shoulder. He noticed the mannequin head from before sitting on the table next to a pile of Jump magazines. Shinpachi and Kagura leaving must've been harder on him than I thought.

"Why am I even thinking about that? What do I care if this idiot is lonely? I'm the loneliest one of all here," Hijikata muttered.

But for some reason he gathered Gintoki up again and dragged him to the futon in his bedroom. Nobody liked waking up on a sofa, especially not with a hangover of the likes this idiot was bound to have tomorrow morning.

As he walked through the living room, fully intending to leave, Hijikata stopped. Tomorrow. He said he'd be back tomorrow, but for what? If he went back to HQ, he'd be duty-bound to tell Kondou-san about Takasugi -- but every instinct, every nerve ending in his body told him that Kondou-san couldn't be trusted. There was something going on with these Something-or-Other devices; he didn't have enough information to understand the situation, but he sensed that Shinpachi's catatonia, Kondou-san's return from the dead, and Takasugi's sudden reappearance all had something to do with one another.

He sat down on the sofa and picked up a Jump, flipping through it with annoyance. He hated being indecisive like this, especially if it made him look at the insipid friendship-effort-victory pap the money-grubbing assholes at Jump fed to unsuspecting young boys. Friendship was useless if it didn't get you ahead; effort was nothing if you didn't know the right people, and victory was meaningless if your enemy wasn't reduced to a bloodstain on the ground, which never happened in Jump.

"Argh, it pisses me off!" He threw the Jump at the wall, unbuckled his sword and lay down on the sofa. "Why couldn't have Kondou-san returned as his usual self? Why am I here at this time of night? Why is this sofa surprisingly comfortable? It just pisses me off!"

He dreamt of a long-ago sunset, a dead girl with hair the colour of damp straw, and the way she had laughed at a butterfly flitting around their heads as they sat together on the very last good evening in Hijikata's life. He had wanted to catch that butterfly for her and keep it alive forever if it kept that smile on her face, but instead he'd broken hear heart and went away to the big city, and never saw her again until just before she became a dead girl. Would it really have been so bad if he'd left the Shinsengumi for her sake? She would have still died too young, but at least the years in between might have been happy for her.

"Who are you kidding?" Sougo's voice boomed through the dream. "She'd have fallen out of love with you within a month if she saw your ugliest sides like we all have. You're nothing but a killer, Hijikata-san, a bloodthirsty killer just like me."

"That too would've been fine," Hijikata whispered. "As long as she ended up happy somehow."

"Oi!" A light slap across his face. "Wake up!" A weight on his chest, almost too heavy to bear.

Hijikata opened one eye. Gintoki was straddling his chest, peering into his face, much too close. At least his breath smelled like toothpaste.

"Get off me," he muttered. "I fell asleep by mistake."

"What were you doing in my house in the first place?" Gintoki asked, not moving. "First you tell me to stay away from you, then you decide to sleep over at my house. Are you just tsundere, is that it?"

"Shut up," Hijikata said, trying to force him off. "Guys who are too drunk to make it up the steps to their houses should just shut up and be grateful someone was kind enough to carry them."

"You just want to have sex with me, don't you?"

"DON'T JUST MAKE SHIT UP ON THE SPOT!"

"Well you keep showing up in front of me, and even if you ran away after I kissed you, you still came back. Therefore you want to have sex with me."

"What kind of twisted logic is that, you stupid perm-head? Did they cut your brain away at the hair salon?"

Gintoki leaned down, placing his elbows on either side of Hijikata's head. "Come on, Oogushi-kun, let's just do it. I mean, the way these things usually go in the naughty comics, we're supposed to circle around each other for pages and pages and do sexy things little by little -- you know, handjobs in back alleys, blowjobs in bathrooms, that kind of thing -- because that's what all the fujoshi expect, but who cares what those perverted women expect? It's been a while since I've had sex with a guy, so I'm a little out of practice, but--"

"Get off me already, you maniac," Hijikata spat, turning his head aside, as much to hide the blush creeping into his face as to stop feeling Gintoki's cool breath across his skin. "I bet you're out of practice because you never get any sex with anyone at all. Anyway, I'm not interested in having sex with you. We're both guys, so where am I supposed to stick my dick, in your ass?"

"That's kind of how it works, Oogushi-kun," Gintoki whispered in his ear. "Only I think I'd like to do the sticking first, if you don't mind. It's only fair: I noticed you before you noticed me. Besides, there's way more to sex than sticking dicks into places." The very edge of Gintoki's tongue caressed the shell of Hijikata's ear, bringing a shiver so bone-deep Hijikata thought he might start hyperventilating. "I can show you."

"Don't be disgusting!" Hijikata hissed. He thrust up and sideways, throwing Gintoki off-balance enough to scramble away from under him. You noticed me before I noticed you? You didn't even remember my name when we met for the second time, you bastard. Wait, wait. Does that mean I've been interested in this guy ever since I met him? Is that why the very sight of him pisses me off so much? "Anyway," he said, shoving the thought away, hopefully never to think it again because it was totally not true. "I had something I needed to talk to you about; that's why I came here in the first place."

Gintoki crossed his legs and tilted his head to one side. "I'll talk to you about sex any time."

"Just give up on the sex, Yorozuya. Tell me about Takasugi. You said you had a showdown with him at the end of Gintama, but I saw him last night at the space station. He's involved with this mental gizmo Something-or-Other thing somehow. I thought you took care of him, so what the fuck is he doing alive?"

Gintoki raised both of his eyebrows. "Wait, you thought I killed him?"

"Obviously! What the fuck's the point of a final showdown if you don't defeat your enemy -- or at least make him switch sides, since we're talking about a stupid Jump series here?"

Gintoki laughed nervously. "Sunrise would string me up by my precious balls if I actually murdered Takasugi. Are you an idiot? Do you have any idea how many fangirls he's got?"

Hijikata dug his hand into his hair in frustration. "He wants to destroy the world and you're worried about his fangirls?"

"I'm not worried about them," Gintoki protested. "Sunrise is! They told me if I dared to kill Takasugi, I could forget about a fourth movie. Look me in the eye and tell me you'd kill Takasugi if Sunrise offered you a whole movie for not killing him."

"I-- Shit. It's a pointless question anyway; it's not like I'd be offered a movie in the first place."

"Right, since you're not the main character and all that."

"At least I'm the main character in this one. More importantly, what happened during your final showdown, then? Did you just slash at each other for a bit, and then he put on some sunglasses, said 'I'll be back' and vanished on his motorcycle?"

Gintoki's eyes widened. "You watched it after all, didn't you?"

"LIKE HELL IT WAS LIKE THAT! Seriously, I should just cut you into pieces right now and feed you to a bear, at least that way you'd become bear shit, which is at least a great fertiliser. Useful, in other words."

"Fine, fine, it was that weird music otaku with headphones who wore the sunglasses. He also showed up on a motorcycle and took the badly wounded Takasugi away."

"Seriously."

"Yeah, it pisses me off, too -- I'm the main character, so I'm the one who should have the cool motorcycle, and instead I just have a shitty scooter that won't even run half the time. What's up with that, seriously?"

"THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT! WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF SHOWDOWN IS THAT?"

"They should've made Henpeita the main antagonist," Gintoki said. "Or the stupid prince. Or both of them! Even if I killed both of them and feasted on their innards like that crazy guy in one of the Togainu no Chi scenarios, nobody would get upset."

"So, basically, Takasugi's alive and kicking."

"You saw him, didn't you? You didn't need me to tell you that." Gintoki frowned and looked away, troubled.

I was Takasugisexual. Gintoki had said something like that last night before passing out for good, hadn't he? So that was how it was. Hijikata wondered if Gintoki went easy on Takasugi because of whatever sordid entanglement in their past, but he couldn't bring himself to ask. He just couldn't. Why was that?

"Yeah," he said instead. "Takasugi's back in Edo, so there's nothing for it now except notify the commander."

*

"Takasugi, you say?" Kondou-san exclaimed. "Where did you see him?"

"On an Amanto ship at the space station, last night. Couldn't do anything because he wouldn't leave the ship."

"What were you doing there? And where were you last night, by the way?"

"I was--" Again, Hijikata remembered that Kondou-san was probably not who he appeared. Maybe it was time to try and confirm that. "I was just taking a walk," he said. "You know how much I love walking around the space station. All those ships bound for the stars; it's the stuff of poetry." He nearly gagged on that last sentiment, but Kondou's failure to laugh incredulously told him lots.

"How come you didn't return to HQ? The men were restless when you didn't show up to threaten to stuff their plates down their throats if they didn't finish their breakfasts."

Hijikata decided to give Kondou-san one more chance to redeem himself. "I was with a woman," he said.

"Oh, nice going!" Kondou-san said, clapping him on the back. "Was she as hot as Otae-san?"

Hijikata wanted to rip out his throat. This creature sounded like Kondou-san, acted like Kondou-san, but it was not Kondou-san. Kondou-san would never believe that Hijikata would fail to perform even the most inconsequential duty -- like being on hand to yell at the men when he was expected to be -- on account of any woman besides Okita Mitsuba. Kondou-san knew Hijikata was basically married to the job and had no interest in women. The impostor was good on the surface, but too far from perfect. But how could Hijikata prove he was an impostor?

If I have no interest in women, given what happened with Gintoki, wouldn't that mean I'm interested in men now that Mitsuba is gone? No, this wasn't the time or the place. He favoured Kondou-thingy with his most mysterious smirk. "Way hotter than Otae-san, sorry Chief. Anyway, let me know what you plan to do about Takasugi; I'm late for training."

He found Sougo napping outside the dojo and kicked him awake. "Get back to work!"

"I thought you'd show up here eventually," Sougo said, rolling over and ignoring a direct order as usual. "You wouldn't skip training for anything, not even if the dojo was on fire."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment? Or are you planning to set the dojo on fire as soon as I step inside?"

"That's not a bad idea at all," Sougo said, scribbling in a little notebook from his vest pocket. "Thanks, Hijikata-san; you're occasionally useful. More importantly, what the hell is that thing inside our commander and how do we get it out?"

"I dunno," Hijikata said. Could he trust Sougo? Could he trust anyone? If there was a way to replace a person the way Kondou-san had been replaced, it could mean anybody could be replaced at any time. Maybe I'm already an impostor, too, that's why I keep thinking about Gintoki-- No. He was not going to go there, at all. Ever. "Ask the Yorozuya; he might know something."

"Is that where you were last night? Playing with danna?"

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I wasn't playing with anyone."

"Well, whatever. I'll go and talk to him later. I'll be sure to give him your warmest regards."

"Do you want to die?"

*

Hijikata stared into the mirror, trying to see if he looked any different. He didn't feel any different, certainly not different enough from usual to have just stood under the shower spray and imagined a pair of strong hands sliding down his hips from behind. Gintoki's hands. But aside from the towel dangling from his head -- not part of the Shinsengumi uniform -- he looked the same as always. Same pair of eyes (Who's your friend? Such pretty blue eyes.), same nose ( Your breath stinks of alcohol. When did you manage that?), same two ears (That's kind of how it works, Oogushi-kun), same straight black hair down his forehead (Fucking foreheads, messing with a man's mind.), damp from the shower.

How did you know if you were actually a different person? Did Kondou-thingy know he was acting suspiciously or did he not even realise it? Had his mind been replaced by something or was he some kind of a machine? How would Hijikata confirm the nature of the switch short of ordering a DNA test on the Shinsengumi's commander?

"Admiring yourself again, how pitiful," Sougo remarked, hopping out from a shower stall on one foot, trying to shake water out of his ear. "Wasn't vanity on your list of seppuku-worthy crimes? Or did you find a pimple on your face? Me, I'd worry about the one right on top of your balls; that looks painful."

Hijikata knew he was being set up, but he glanced down anyway. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"This, I mean this," Sougo supplied, pointing at Hijikata's dick. "But don't worry, if you squeeze it just right, it'll go away in a couple of days."

"Worry about your own pimple, you little shit," Hijikata mumbled, dragging the towel down from his head and slinging it around his hips.

"Ah, so you admit it's a pimple; how refreshingly honest of you."

"I'm really going to kill you one of these days," Hijikata said, leaving.

The sparring session in the dojo -- and the endless bickering throughout -- all but convinced him that Sougo could be trusted after all, but now he was having doubts about his own trustworthiness. He kept thinking back to waking up on Gintoki's sofa, to the things Gintoki had suggested. What if he'd gone completely out of character and agreed? What then? Would that be proof he was not himself, or would it mean that a stupid thing like an unexpected kiss -- two of them -- had awakened something that should never have come to light?

Just before he'd left Yorozuya Gin-chan, Gintoki had told him that some unnamed friend of his had tried to use his past government connections to divert the Something-or-Other shipment to another warehouse, but failed. Knowing that guy's history and his utter disregard for the law, I wouldn't be surprised if he's over at the spaceport right now trying to steal the devices. But Hijikata would've heard about anything like that already, unless Kondou-thingy had kept it from him. Theoretically he had the vast political resources of the shogunate at his disposal, but he couldn't do anything without the commander's approval. What was going to be done about Takasugi, anyway? There had been no call to action, which was what would have normally happened if the Shinsengumi were led by the real Kondou-san.

He went down to the permits desk to get another pass to the spaceport; maybe he could learn something new if he hung around there long enough.

"Can't do it, chief," Harada said, shrugging apologetically. "Kondou-san sent a three-man team to the spaceport earlier to search some ship for some big time Joui ronin -- he wouldn't say who -- but he said they found nothing."

"Huh, that was fast," Hijikata said, narrowing his eyes. "I only told him a few hours ago." Maybe he had been unfair. Maybe Kondou-san had disconnected from reality on his vacation and was finding it difficult to get back into the swing of things around here. "Who were the men? I'm gonna follow up with them just for my own files."

"Erm, let's see, it says here: Kawamura, Yasuda, and Hisamatsu."

"Hisamatsu?" Hijikata asked, frowning. "Are you sure?"

"Yep, no mistake."

"Carry on then," Hijikata said, striding out. Hisamatsu was on leave. Hijikata knew that because he had let him go just before Kondou-thing's appearance: his wife had given birth to triplets. After consulting personnel assignments, he verified that Kawamura was also on leave, visiting his aunt in Gifu. That left Yasuda, whom he found on laundry duty.

"The spaceport? Inspection?" Yasuda asked, scratching his head. "I don't know what you mean, Vice-Commander; I've been here since I finished playing badminton with Yamazaki an hour ago."

"Commit seppuku immediately," Hijikata said, exiting. "Yamazaki too."

He dug out his cigarette pack, but it was empty. What was Kondou-thingy doing? He hadn't even bothered to make a show of sending guys out to investigate Hijikata's Takasugi sighting; was he so sure Hijikata wouldn't question it? But it did make sense, in a way -- normally, Hijikata would never have questioned anything Kondou-san did, because there was no need to.

I can use this to my advantage. He obviously doesn't realise I've figured out he's an impostor.

The problem now was getting on that ship. If he asked Kondou-thingy for permission to board it, his suspicions would be found out, and he couldn't just enter Amanto territory as he pleased. What if he went straight to Matsudaira? No, he was still gallivanting in Hakone.

"Yo, Oogushi-kun. How's the bloodsucking life?"

Hijikata gritted his teeth. The last person he wanted to see was loitering outside the convenience store, cheerful as a pig in shit.

"Don't wave at me so familiarly, it pisses me off," he muttered, pushing past Gintoki and through the store doors. Why hadn't he got his smokes from a vending machine? Sure, they were more expensive, but at least he wouldn't have run into that guy. Wait, what the hell is he doing all the way out here in the first place?

"Oogushi-kun, Oogushi-kun!" Gintoki called after Hijikata as he strode out of the store, cigarettes in hand.

"How many times do I have to tell you, that's not my name!" Hijikata snarled, rounding on him. "What the hell do you want now?"

"I was hoping to ask you a question but I don't want to follow you into your den of evil."

Hijikata lit a cigarette. "Fine, ask."

"Can you get a team of your bloodsucking friends to check out that Amanto ship? The one with Takasugi on it?"

Hijikata glanced around; he didn't see any of his men, but it wouldn't hurt to be discreet. He gestured for Gintoki to follow him into a quiet side-street, positioning himself across from a traffic mirror at a two-way intersection. "I would love to send some men out there, but our fearless commander has already pretended to do it, so if I try to go in there at my discretion, he'll realise I'm suspicious."

Gintoki's features darkened. "Really. He's going that far, is he?"

"Yeah." Hijikata exhaled a long stream of smoke. "I have no idea how I am supposed to investigate my own commander. It's not like I can ask him directly why he's trying to keep Takasugii's return a secret."

"What if we kidnapped him and tortured him for information? I know a couple of ex-Oniwabanshuu types who'd help me out if I asked," Gintoki said. "Er, probably," he added after a moment, looking shifty.

"You want me to help you kidnap the chief of the Shinsengumi? What the hell do you take me for? Just because I told you about some concerns doesn't mean--"

"But he isn't your chief, isn't that what you said to me yesterday? So it shouldn't matter if he gets roughed up a little. If it's even a he. For all we know he's actually a cactus or a gorilla. No, wait, he was always a gorilla."

"But what if it's him, but he's just being controlled by someone? Or he's lost his memories, or whatever. I won't do it, so don't even ask."

"Fine," Gintoki said, rolling his eyes. "Well, I’m all out of ideas, so you want to go back to my place and get freaky?"

Hijikata tossed his finished smoke down and stomped on it. "What's with you and getting freaky? Are you ovulating or something, you perm-head?"

"What did you say? Even if I was ovulating, I wouldn't want to have babies from some creepy mayo-freak!"

"Well, I won't have sex with you unless it's to make a baby, so you're never allowed to ask again, you got that?"

Gintoki stroked his chin. "Well, I could get a sex change for one night; I've heard there's this Amanto powder--"

"JUST STOP RIGHT THERE. How far are you willing to go just to have sex with me, anyway?"

"Pretty far, actually. Once I've decided I'm interested in someone, I won't back down even if they tell me to die."

"Die. Seriously. Just die." Interested? What the fuck does he mean by 'interested'; does that mean he's not just after sex, or is sex the only way he ever becomes interested in anyone? Why am I even thinking about this, for fuck's sake?

"I told you, I won't stop even if you tell me to die." Gintoki stepped closer and put his hand on the fence behind Hijikata, cutting off his escape route to the right. With his other hand, Gintoki lifted Hijikata's chin and forced their eyes to meet.

"Let me go--"

"You have to turn me down properly, Hijikata," Gintoki said. "You haven't really looked at me once since I left you at Saigo's place; isn't that because you're bothered by what happened?"

"Of course I'm bothered by it; who wouldn't be, you dumb shit? You went ahead and kissed me without asking; haven't you ever heard of respecting people's personal space?"

"Yeah, no, I don't think that's the problem in your case," Gintoki said, still forcing Hijikata to look at him. The dead-fish expression was gone from his eyes; they were so intense that for a second Hijikata felt like Tosshi was back: afraid and so lonely. "I know it made you hot when I kissed you. You don't have to be upset by it; it's totally natural. All I wanna do is make you feel even hotter."

He pressed his mouth to Hijikata's, and Hijikata let him, intending it to last just for a moment, but many moments later he was still letting his tongue slide against Gintoki's, his mind foggy and helpless before the warmth in the pit of his belly, before Gintoki's body heat, before the scent of Gintoki's skin filling his head. His hands hung useless and feeble at his sides, as though they had forgotten how to grasp a sword. Gintoki moved his hand from the wall to Hijikata's ass and pulled him in, and Hijikata didn't even care; he wanted the close contact, craved it, hadn't stopped wishing for it since Saigo's.

Then Gintoki moved his hand to Hijikata's belt, and Hijikata lost his nerve. "No!" he managed, wrenching his mouth free. "Not there, don't--"

Gintoki sighed and stepped back, raising his hands in surrender. "Fine. We'll do this your way. I'll keep coming after you, and eventually you'll relent and then we'll have sex. Or maybe you'll be so horrible to me that I'll be convinced you're not interested and I'll leave you alone. Then you'll realise what you've lost and come after me, and then we'll have sex."

He started to walk away towards the main street, and for the first time since Hijikata had met the bastard, he wasn't glad to see the back of him.

"Yorozuya," he called, and Gintoki turned halfway to look at him, still with those sharp, knowing eyes.

"Can we not have sex at all?" Hijikata asked. "Can't we just, I dunno. Go back to normal?"

"No."

*

Hijikata had expected the latest tangle with Gintoki to destroy his ability to think about anything else, but to his surprise, it was as though their conversation had given shape to his feelings, and lust was not a thing to be feared -- at least not as much as the amorphous, vague longings from before.

He would deal with Gintoki -- by turning him down properly, of course -- later; for now, he had Amanto devices to investigate.

The plan was simple. He would obtain permission to inspect a different ship, one that had just docked that morning in the berth Hijikata had been "repairing" the night before. The spaceport officials rarely looked closely at documents; all he had to do was wave the permission in their faces and proceed to the Something-or-Other ship. Even if he was caught, he would pretend he'd made a mistake, but in the meantime, he might find something useful. He just needed Kondou-thingy to sign off on the order.

Kondou-thingy's quarters were empty, though, so Hijikata took a seat by the entrance to wait. The pet gorilla began to gesture at him frantically from its cage, and he got up, sighing, to get closer to it. Had the third squad forgotten to feed the poor beast?

"Uho. Uho uho uho uho," the gorilla nattered, waving its glasses in front of Hijikata's face.

"What the hell do you want from me? I don't speak gorilla, you idiot. And stop waving your glasses around, you'll break them!"

The gorilla shook its head and cradled the glasses gently.

"Wait, you understand Japanese?"

The gorilla nodded enthusiastically. "Uho uho uho uho!"

"Don't uho-uho all over the place, someone will hear you, and they'll think I'm hurting you or something," Hijikata hissed. "How's this -- I'll ask you questions and you can nod for yes and shake your head for no. Understand?"

"Uho."

"Like I said," Hijikata gritted, brow twitching. "Stop uhoing and use your fat head. Literally."

The gorilla nodded, looking weirdly abashed. How can a gorilla look abashed? They have precisely three facial expressions! Hijikata stared, not sure what he's supposed to ask a gorilla. "Are you really that guy's pet?"

Head-shake. The gorilla pointed at Kondou's futon and then at its own head.

"He's controlling you with his mind?"

Vigorous head-shake. The gorilla jabbed its finger into the side of its head repeatedly, then crouched down and tried to scribble on the floor with the same finger.

"Wait, way. You can write Japanese?"

Nod.

"Okay," Hijikata said, looking around for writing implements, but Kondou-thingy's desk was clear. Then he heard Kondou-san's familiar laugh outside. "I'm guessing it would be troublesome if he found out you were trying to talk to me, right?"

Nod. Was that a tear in the gorilla's eye?

"All right, so next time he goes out, I'll bring you something to write with. Until then, pretend like you don't know me."

"Uho." The gorilla made an elaborate show of sitting in a corner with its back to Hijikata.

"Good, just like that."

"Who were you talking to?" Kondou-thingy asked, strolling in. Hijikata turned around with the most innocent face he could muster.

"Oh, your gorilla. Unfriendly bastard, isn't he? Won't even look at me. I like to look at a man's face before I talk to him. Or a gorilla's face, whatever."

"He's just being shy, aren't you, Gori?"

"You named your gorilla Gori? You're pretty uncreative, Chief."

"Yeah well you know me!" Kondou-thingy laughed, but Hijikata did not like that glint of suspicion hidden deep within his gaze. This could be seriously bad.

"Anyway, I'm here about this order," he said, walking away from the cage without so much as another look at the gorilla. "We've got word some Joui ronin are planning to escape to the Mars colony tonight and we need to be there, can you sign off on this?"

"Oh yeah, of course, Toshi, always looking out for those pesky Joui ronin!" Kondou-thingy said. He signed off without even looking on the first page of the order, and Hijikata wanted to kick himself. He could've written the proper ship's name and not even needed to act like there was a mistake. But then again, Kondou-thingy might've looked at the first page, and then he would've been in trouble. No, his original plan was the way to go.

He was on his way to the parking lot when Sougo caught up with him. "Where are you going, Hijikata-san?"

"Spaceport," Hijikata said.

"Why?"

"Joui activity report." He waved the order in Sougo's face. "Routine stuff."

"I'm going with you."

Hijikata hesitated for a few moments, then shrugged. Sougo was still Sougo, and he might need back-up if he did find Takasugi. "I'm not letting you drive, though."

As they waited outside the Something-or-Other ship's berth after arriving, Sougo remarked, "Hijikata-san, that's not the ship from the paperwork. I read it in the car; it said the one across the way. Why are we really here?"

"Don't ask questions you don't want the answers to."

"I hate it when you try to be devious, Hijikata-san; it really throws me off my game," Sougo whined.

The ship's loading bay door slid open, and a gum-chewing fat man with a handlebar moustache stepped out, dry-washing his hands. "Shinsengumi? What business does the Shinsengumi have with us? We're just a cargo vessel, yes'm."

Hijikata waved the inspection order in his face. "Routine sweep," he said. "Step aside."

The man did, eyeing the order with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Too easy.

The loading bay was enormous and empty; if any alien devices remained, they would be further inside. However, Hijikata couldn't continue through the ship unaccompanied. "Get a captain's aide here; I need to see the rest of the vessel." He waited for the man to place a call to crew quarters over the intercom, then asked, "What were you transporting?"

"Um, baby formula... I think."

"You think?"

"I just rotated in from the Centauri quadrant, yes'm," the man said. "Wasn't here on the trip down, see."

"Will the aide you summoned know?" Hiikata glanced at Sougo, who was crouching in corner pretending to look bored, but he was taking in every last detail. That's our Sougo.

"Pretty sure."

"What's going on?" asked a short blond woman dressed in a scandalously high-cut kimono, emerging from one of the hermetic doors to the loading bay. "Did you say Shinsengumi-- oh." Had she blanched? Hijikata couldn't be sure, and he didn't recognise her face. That in itself didn't mean anything; Takasugi's entourage had lots of women.

She rounded on Hijikata. "Why the hell are you harassing my workers?"

"We've got an order to search the ship," Hijikata said, waving it at her. "Some Joui ronin are going to stow away here tonight."

"This ship isn't going anywhere for three more weeks!" she said, putting her hands on her hips. "Lemme see that permit."

Hijikata handed it over with a suppressed sigh. Things had been going too well to hold up, after all.

"Oh, you're on the wrong ship, ya flunky -- you want the Zeta Librae cruiser across the way. Honestly, what the hell are you guys good for except looking sharp in uniforms?"

"We'll take that as a compliment, miss," Sougo said, dragging Hijikata out. They made a show of inspecting the other ship, too, but of course found no Joui ronin, considering the absolutely credible report of Joui activity had come directly from the desk of Hijikata's imagination.

As the two of them got in the car to head back to HQ, Sougo plucked the keys out of the ignition, pocketing them. "Are you going to tell me what you were trying to do?"

"Are you really you?" Hijikata asked. "Or are you like Kondou-thingy?"

"Ask me something only I would know. He seems to have trouble with personal details -- he asked me about my sister's health this morning."

"What did you tell him?"

"That she's doing as well as can be expected."

"Good. The less the impostor learns, the easier it will be to expose him."

"Go on, ask me something only I would know."

Hijikata grinned. "All right, what colour underwear did Mitsuba insist on buying for you when you were a slightly smaller brat?"

"You really play dirty, Hijikata-san," Sougo said, looking away. "Pink. It was pink. With little white flowers along the trim. Happy now?"

"I was never happy to know that much about your underwear," Hijikata said, lighting a smoke as he rolled down the window. "I didn't ask her to show it to me, you know; she just thought it was really cute."

After a brief silence, he told Sougo everything he knew, though omitting the part about his evening at Saigo's. He didn't trust Sougo that much.

"So how exactly did you find out about these Something-or-Other gizmos in the first place?"

You don't miss much, do you? Little bastard. "I have my sources," he said, flicking the cigarette out the window and lighting another.

"Danna told you, didn't he? Otae-san's brother is important to him. He even let you sleep over at his house the other day."

"What the fuck makes you think I would sleep over at that lazy slob's house? I'd sleep in a rubbish heap first. Anyway, never mind the Yorozuya. What do you think should be done? Takasugi is involved in this somehow, but he's in the wind now. I hoped we would spot him -- then I could have gone straight to Matsudaira."

Sougo shook his head. "I wonder if Matsudaira is trustworthy right now. If these gizmos work as advertised, I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of high-ranking officials have been replaced, not just Kondou-san. For all we know Matsudaira is actually Takasugi."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, it's obvious, isn't it? These Something-or-Other gizmos arrived last night, so they could be all over Edo by now, being used on who knows how many people. Just think, if Takasugi replaced the Bakufu with his Kiheitai, he could collapse the government from the inside and start another war with the Amanto. They don't even need to kidnap anybody, do they? They can just bring the gizmo, follow the person, and replace them right there."

"Shit. So what happens to the people they replace? Could the commander already be dead?"

"We have to get our hands on one of those gizmos to find out how they work."

Hijikata chewed his bottom lip. Gintoki had said something about a friend with connections -- ugh, it was so frustrating not to have any power despite his uniform. "I'll see what I can do."

"Don't sleep over at danna's this time; people might start saying strange things."

"You're a dead man, Sougo."

*

"Typical," Hijikata grumbled, descending the steps from Yorozuya Gin-chan. "The one time I need to see the lazy bastard, he's off getting drunk somewhere again." He'd rung the doorbell something like thirty times, and it was loud enough to wake the dead. He'd check out the snack bar downstairs, just on the off chance Gintoki ever drank with his landlady.

"Oh, officer-san, welcome!" Otose called from behind the bar. A maid with unnaturally green hair looked up from polishing glasses near the back of the shop. "Welcome," she echoed. "Please sit anywhere you like."

"I guess you're here for that drink," Otose said, getting out a glass.

Hijikata took a seat at the bar. "Actually, I was looking for the Yorozuya, you have any idea where he is?"

Otose glanced towards the curtain separating the back room from the main area. "No idea. He doesn't tell me where he's going, though he was making an awful lot of noise upstairs today, moving things around. Probably lost the TV remote again, if you ask me. Sure you don't want that drink? I've got the good stuff here, not like the swill you get in those downtown bars near your place."

"Why not," Hijikata muttered. He was off-duty anyway, even though he hadn't changed out of his uniform before coming here. "Don't mind if I do."

He wasn't sure how one drink became ten, but next thing he knew, his head was swimming, his vision blurring, and he was trying to shove money at Otose, who kept insisting that really, it was her treat; how nice to have an upstanding young man in her bar for once instead of the usual riff-raff.

Then he heard Gintoki's voice in his ear, but his brain was too far gone to understand words; he saw Gintoki's eyes peering at his face anxiously as one of his own eyes was held open forcibly. "They really do sparkle in your close-ups," he mumbled, not sure where the words had come from, or if they left his mouth at all.

He was lifted, carried, dropped, then carried again. His clothes came off at some point; he could tell because the cold air against his skin returned him to consciousness for a full minute before he passed out for good.

He woke up bracing against the inevitable splitting headache, but it didn't happen. Maybe Otose hadn't been lying about her sake being excellent. He opened his eyes, squinting against the pre-dawn light filtering through the gap in the curtains, and realised that he was not in his futon, nor was he alone. To his right, Gintoki was snoring softly, lying on his stomach, his face burrowed into the crook of his arm.

Did we? No, no way. We couldn't have.

He was naked except for his underwear -- his uniform lay crumpled by the window -- but there were no weird marks on his body, and he was pretty sure he would feel it if he'd been violated in the worst way.

There's way more to sex than sticking dicks into tight places.

"No, no, no, no, I refuse," Hijikata said, grabbing a fistful of Gintoki's hair and pulling his head up. "YOROZUYA!"

"Ow, ow, ow, don't pull my hair, Oogushi-kun, I know you're jealous of it but please don't pull it!"

"Like hell I'd be jealous of your natural perm, you good-for-nothing, why the hell am I naked in your futon?

"Isn't it obvious? I'll do you again later, so please let me sleep some more," Gintoki said, prying Hijikata's fingers away from his hair. He flopped over onto his side. "I need my beauty sleep."

"Stop lying," Hijikata said. "Why didn't you just call a taxi and send me home? Kondou-san would've paid for it."

"Oh, would he have, really? The same Kondou-san you've been hiding things from? Do you really think it would have been a good idea to send you into Shinsengumi headquarters with all your drunken babble about Kondou-thingy and impostors?"

Hijikata's cheeks heated. "Was I really that drunk?"

"You were worse than drunk, you were delirious. When was the last time you went drinking?"

Hijikata lay down onto his back so he wouldn't keep seeing Gintoki's exposed upper body. How the fuck did the lazy bastard keep so fit? "Dunno, I'm too busy to go drinking, unlike some people."

"You're just jealous of my vibrant social life," Gintoki said, scooting closer. "Your grumpy morning face is unexpectedly cute, though, did you know? That makes me really mad for some reason, oi."

"Quit fucking around," Hijikata said, covering his face with his upper arm. "I know nothing happened, so stop pretending like it did. I'm pretty sure 'rapist' is not part of your job description."

"Give me your hand, Oogushi-kun."

"How many times do I have to tell you? That's not my name."

"If you want me to call out your name, you'll have to do better than lie there being grouchy. It's cute, but not sexy."

"Argh, forget it," Hijikata said, sitting up. "I'm going home."

Gintoki seized one of his hands and pressed it right over his heart. It beat fast and strong against Hijikata's palm, and he really didn't want to pull his hand away.

"Congratulations, you're alive," Hijikata said. "Now that we've confirmed that you aren't a corpse--"

"You weren't this shy when we posed for those fake DVD covers a few seasons back. What happened?"

"That was a completely different situation! Learn to read the atmosphere, fuckwit." He had only got through that photo shoot without running for the hills thanks to some good strong whisky Yamazaki had found on a raid.

Gintoki began to move his hand down. All Hijikata had to do was snatch it away. Simple. There was no strength involved; Gintoki was just guiding Hijikata's hand down his chest and over the soft skin across his belly; forceful yet gentle, like his kisses.

He knew why he didn't want to get involved with Gintoki: it wasn't because he was opposed to having sex with guys; even Hijikata wasn't that old-fashioned. Somewhere along the line -- maybe in the past, maybe recently, who the hell knew? -- he had fallen for Gintoki, which was pretty much inevitable in Gintama; everyone fell for Gintoki sooner or later. And that was the problem. Hijikata didn't want to be just one guy in a sea of faces.

He wanted Gintoki to look only at him. He knew that wasn't going to happen no matter how much he wished for it, and yet he let his hand stay where it was, let Gintoki slide it past the waistband of his boxers, let his fingers curl around Gintoki's hard dick, relishing the silk-thin feel of it and the way Gintoki's eyes focused on his, as if the rest of the world had vanished. Hijikata could take his hand away any time. He just didn't feel like moving away, that was all.

Gintoki pulled him closer. "Let's do something bad."

*

Afterwards, Hijikata still didn't feel any different. Better, if anything. Thinking about doing that again sometime, even. Maybe more than once, even. He wasn't sure if he could ever look at Gintoki properly without blushing at the things they had both said and done just now, but that was normal, probably.

"So why did you come looking for me last night?" Gintoki asked. "I mean, I know you wanted to have sex with me, but--"

"I wasn't looking for you so we could have sex, asshole," Hijikata muttered, turning to lie on his stomach. "I want to know if you can get one of those gizmos somehow. Through your government friend, or I dunno. You've got friends in the Joui movement, maybe they can get you one."

Gintoki's eyes glinted. "I've got no friends in the Kiheitai."

"Well, get Katsura to do it. I know you're friends with him, don't even try to deny it."

"That faction and the Kiheitai have been enemies since the Benizakura arc, don't you know anything? He can't help us. Oi, Sacchan."

A kunoichi in glasses with long purple hair swung down from the ceiling. She was extremely red-faced in obvious embarrassment but managing to glare pure hatred at Hijikata for all that.

"What is it, Gin-san? You've already decided you prefer a woman's touch, haven't you?"

Gintoki threw a sock at her. "Like hell. Stop yapping and find me an alien gizmo. You know the one."

"Yes, Gin-san!" She vanished, and the ceiling panel closed up behind her.

Hijikata pointed at where she had hung. "S-s-she watched us?"

"I can't help it that I have a stalker," Gintoki said, flicking a booger at the curtain. "We can go to a hotel next time if it bothers you. I guess I'll have to find some work first though--"

"What next time?" Hijikata snarled, gathering the covers to his chin unnecessarily. "If it bothers me? Aren't you worried she'll tell people what she saw?"

"Worried? Why? We didn't do anything wrong."

"Don't you care if everyone finds out you're a big homo?" Why am I saying that? That's not what I mean!

Gintoki looked at him with surprise. "Are you really a samurai? Love is love."

Love? "This kind of thing is shameful." Ah, no, that sounds totally wrong too.

"Shameful?" Gintoki returned, mouth twisting. "I'm not ashamed. If you are, there's the door. Take your shame and get out."

*

"Vice-Commander, I've got those reports you wanted."

Hijikata put his pen down and looked at Iida. "What reports?"

Iida dropped his voice. "More people on our side, sir. Names and private details for identity verification."

A week had passed since Hijikata had left Gintoki's place. He hadn't seen him since then, not even when he deliberately went to the Kabukichou branch of Oedo Mart for cigarettes. He hadn't gone there deliberately for Gintoki; he was just extending his patrol area. And even if he had gone there for Gintoki, what of it? He had a right to know if the creepy kunoichi had managed to find that alien gizmo. It had been his request after all.

Big changes were afoot at upper levels of government, but nothing filtered down even to the highest Shinsengumi ranks; there were rumours of mysterious disappearances, but no investigations launched -- even if someone was trying to involve the Shinsengumi, Kondou-thingy was keeping those orders sealed. Sougo's theory had most likely been right. The government was going to start collapsing, and the Shinsengumi would one day soon be disbanded or converted into a military unit to fight the Amanto.

Not that Hijikata would mind kicking some Amanto ass, but he didn't want to do it on the orders of some Kiheitai renegade. If the shogunate wanted the Amanto out, Hijikata would keep trying to make it happen until he died, for Kondou-san's sake. But Kondou-san was not there. Maybe he was dead.

Hijikata watched the news, cringing every time they started on the headlines, waiting for the report of a shocking Shinsengumi Vice-Commander sex tape, but it never materialised. For all that his head should have been full of work, he kept thinking about Gintoki, about how good it had felt to be with him, about the things Gintoki had said to him, about the way Gintoki wouldn't look at him after he'd told him to leave. That walk back to headquarters, with his uniform in disarray and his sword hanging crooked, had been one of the longest in Hijikata's life.

I'm not in the wrong. He went ahead and selfishly misunderstood what I was trying to tell him. Besides, what did he expect, that we'd turn into a stupid couple all of a sudden? Did he think I'd take him to the festival and make him chocolates at Valentine's? We went to bed together once and he thinks I'll want to get married? How stupid.

The clock chimed. It was time for his sparring session with Sougo. The two of them had agreed not to be seen talking together, lest Kondou-thingy become suspicious about them being too friendly, so they discussed their strategies in the dojo. It was the only outlet for Hijikata's aggression, and though he expected his disappointment and anger to fade, they never did, and he actually had to force himself to hold back, lest Sougo start asking what was on his mind. As confused as Hijikata was, as mistrustful of everyone but Sougo, Yamazaki, Harada, and Iida, he was afraid he might just tell him.

"It'll have to be after this session," Sougo panted, parrying Hijikata for the fifth time in a row. "The gorilla's guards are all our people, this shift. I had to play with the personnel assignments a bit, but it should be fine."

Hijikata hadn't been able to make contact with the strange pet gorilla since that one time he'd been alone with it; Kondou-thingy had posted guards around the creature at all hours, and t here was no getting near it. Whatever it was, it knew something Kondou-thingy didn't want anyone to know. "What about Kondou-thingy?"

"I'm going with him to the mess hall. Yamazaki's going to accidentally bar the doors from the outside. You'll have twenty minutes at the most, though."

*

Hijikata pushed the notepad and the marker -- a pen would have been too small for the gorilla's hand -- through the cage bars. The guards were outside, watching for Kondou-thingy's approach.

Toshi, the gorilla wrote. It's me, Kondou Isao. I am in here.

Hijikata was not sure if he was more astonished by the sight of a gorilla writing kanji, however poorly formed, or by what the words meant.

"Kondou-san?" he whispered. "Kondou-san, you're the gorilla?"

Yes. They put me in here and put some other guy in my body. I hope he hasn't made any moves on my Otae-san.

"Would you stop worrying about that woman for two seconds?" Hijikata hissed. "We've got bigger problems here, and no time. What did Shimura Shinpachi have to do with the whole thing?"

Shinpachi-kun was with me when they ambushed us. They stole his personality too with a device and put it inside these glasses. They were going to replace us both with fakes, but they heard Iida coming with the tea so they quickly sucked the other guy out of me and used some other device to make my body look dead. I'm not sure what happened after that, because they took me away through a hole they made in the ceiling.

That must have been the same hole they'd later used to steal Kondou-san's body back to inject it with the impostor. Why would anyone look for a hole in the ceiling above the Shinsengumi Commander's quarters? They'd all been too busy accusing an unresponsive Shinpachi of murder to investigate the crime scene.

They are very well-prepared, Toshi. Takasugi is with them. I didn't see him but I did see Kijima Matako. She's nothing special compared to Otae-san, by the way."

Hijikata glanced at his watch: only seven minutes remained. Gorilla fingers had really not been made for writing. "Listen, there's no time. Do you know how to switch back?"

The same device. It's called a GI-ZU-MO and it looks like a flattened metal rod with buttons. I know how to work it; I saw them do it a bunch of times. Can you find one?

"I've been trying, but they moved the sample shipment before we could seize it. What you need is the device and the fake Kondou, right?"

Yes, and Shinpachi-kun's body too. I feel terrible that he got involved in this. Make sure you get the fake Kondou alive. If he dies, I die.

"What if you die as a gorilla?"

A body cannot live without its soul. Even though the other guy is in my body, I am still its soul. So if I die like this, my body will also die. All the same you have to hurry, Toshi. They plan to replace the entire shogunate like this over time. Luckily they also need time to make sure the fakes can pass for the real things, at least on the surface. That's why he keeps me in here. He asks me questions about everyone to make sure he doesn't

But before Kondou-san could finish his sentence, the four guards swarmed inside, gesticulating wildly. "He'll be here in less than a minute, go!"

Hijikata swiped the notepad and marker back through the bars and darted into the wardrobe, hiding all the way in the back. Kondou-thingy would not stay in his quarters long; he had briefings at the shogunate, lengthier by the day.

"Good afternoon, boys, how's Gori's mood been?"

"Same as always, Commander. Stinky and brooding."

Kondou-thingy laughed, and it was all Hijikata could do not to launch himself out of the wardrobe and at his throat. Now that he knew that was a Kiheitai infiltrator, no more doubts lingered in his mind; he hated the bastard. But he couldn't let Kondou-san's body come to harm, so he waited, swallowing dust and clutching the notepad tightly to his chest.

*

"Danna doesn't have the device yet," Sougo said, blocking Hijikata's strike. "Three days, he said."

A lot could happen in three days, though Hijikata doubted it would be a total collapse -- Kondou-san had mentioned that the Kiheitai weasels needed time to make sure no one caught on. He aimed a vicious side-swipe at Sougo. "Good," he said. "You'll go and get the device and Shinpachi in three days, then."

"What did you do to danna, by the way? He seems to really hate you again. And here you two had been getting along so much better in the past few years."

The shinai flew from Hijikata's hands, and he jumped back just in time to avoid getting upended by Sougo's strike. "He just blames me for what happened to his four-eyed otaku friend," he said without looking at Sougo's face. "Did he say anything useful?"

"No, just that he didn't ever want to see your stupid face again. Can't say I blame him. I don't ever want to see your stupid face again, either."

Hijikata didn't reply. Why did that make him feel like shit? It wasn't like he wanted to see Gintoki's stupid face ever again, either. He'd figured it out earlier that morning: all that love is love stuff was just face-saving bullshit. Gintoki had been after him for sex from the start, so once he'd got what he had wanted, he'd seized the first convenient excuse to get rid of Hijikata. He was a man after all, and it was Hijikata's problem if he'd wanted anything different.

*

On the evening of the third day, Hijikata loitered outside the bullet train station, waiting for Sougo. Kondou-thingy had sent him to Kyoto that morning to make sure a mysterious package got delivered to some Amanto general safely.

Hijikata didn't think Kondou-thingy knew anything about their plans; if he did, they both would have been neutralised already. It so happened that Sougo was the best swordsman in the Shinsengumi, and that meant that he sometimes had to work harder than the rest, to his chagrin.

Still, the timing was fucking rotten. They'd already missed a favourable gorilla guard rotation because of Sougo's absence, and now they would have to wait two extra days to free Kondou-san. And who knew what would happen in those days? For all they knew, that package to Kyoto contained the gizmos, too. No matter how much time the Kiheitai needed, the more infiltrators they planted, the harder it would be to find them all once Kondou-san was back behind the wheel.

"Shit," Hijikata said, lighting his fourth cigarette in less than half an hour.

But there was no hurrying a train; ten minutes remained until its arrival. His phone rang, and he snatched it open, hoping it was Sougo -- he'd been out of range earlier; phones never worked right on the bullet trains because of the speed and all the tunnels.

"Hello? Is this the Shinsengumi-sama?" whispered a woman's voice on the other end. "Okita-sama gave me two numbers, and the other one wouldn't connect even though I stopped all network traffic, so I'm hoping--"

"Yes, this is Hijikata of the Shinsengumi speaking," Hijikata said. "Who is this?"

"It's Tama from Snack House Otose's." The green-haired girl who never smiled.

"What is it? Why are you calling?"

"It's trouble, Hijikata-sama. Upstairs trouble. Otose-sama and Catherine-sama are out, and it is against my programming to leave the bar unattended. I am hanging up now. Please hurry."

Upstairs trouble. Had the Kiheitai found out about Gintoki's kunoichi? What the fuck was that about programming? Hijikata glanced at the timetable, but the Kyoto train was still seven minutes away. That could be seven minutes too long.

"SHIT!" he spat, switching his phone to vibrate and sprinting to the patrol car.

*

His phone buzzed as he began to walk down Gintoki's street. "Sougo?"

"Where are you, Hijikata-san? You said you'd pick me up. I don't wanna walk all the way to danna's."

"I'm on my way to the Yorozuya now. The maid from downstairs called when I was waiting for you and said there was trouble. Call for backup and get here fast." He clicked the phone off. The last thing he needed was for it to buzz when he didn't want to be heard.

Luckily, the street was livelier than usual, so he didn't have to try and be quiet on the steps up to Yorozuya Gin-chan. As he sprinted up, he loosened his sword hilt.

The sliding door to Gintoki's place was open again, though not all the way -- as though someone had slid it open just enough to fit through the opening. Hijikata made use of same and immediately heard the voices. Two deep voices, one of them Gintoki's, though he couldn't make out any words.

He toed his shoes off silently, wishing he knew where the floors in this place creaked; that would've made getting to the living room faster. As it was, he had to feel his way along and pause, but at least he could hear the conversation as he got closer.

"As ever, I only want to destroy everything, Gintoki. And you're getting in my way. Again."

"Eat shit and die, Takasugi."

"My, how formal. Remember when you used to call me Shinsuke? You were so cute back then."

"I was in love with you back then."

Hijikata's heart dropped all the way to the centre of the world. So it was that serious?

He had reached the corner. He pulled out his compact hand-mirror and slid it along the floor quietly. Gintoki was in the armchair, facing the doorway, bloodied hands strapped to the armrests, and Takasugi straddled him, holding a slim dagger to Gintoki's throat. There was more blood sliding down Gintoki's face from a deep cut on his forehead, and Takasugi leaned forward to lick his cheek. Hijikata understood that this was a really bad time to feel like someone was stealing his stuff, but he couldn't help it.

"You do know I was using you as a substitute the whole time, don't you?"

"Of course I do," Gintoki murmured softly. "I knew it back then too."

"So you let me do it. You let me use you because you loved me. Don't you see how stupid that is?"

"Maybe so," Gintoki said. "But if you only try to do all the smart things in life, you don't end up having any fun. I mean, look at you. You're the most boring guy I know. 'Destroy, destroy, destroy'; that's all your imagination's good for after all these years. I've done a lot of stupid things; I regret none of them."

"You'll regret not telling me where your pet ninja hid the device, I promise you that."

Gintoki smirked, his teeth pink with blood. "All you can do is kill me, and then you'll never know."

Hijikata began to feel his way along the living room floor, steadying his sword hilt to keep it from bumping his hip.

"We could've been so good together, you and I. But you had to go and grow yourself a conscience. Now because of your stupid conscience, your little four-eyed friend is going to be a vegetable forever. Isn't life a bitch?"

"Yeah, and then you die." Gintoki was looking straight at Hijikata, his face blank, his eyes expressionless. Hijikata didn't think he could ever have that much self-control, not under these circumstances.

"You're the one who's going to die, Gintoki."

"I don't think so," Hijikata said as his sword knocked the dagger out of Takasugi's grasp. "Get off him."

He pulled the blade towards Takasugi's throat, but Takasugi had time to look up at him. "So the legendary Shiroyasha is in league with the Shinsengumi dogs? You've really fallen low, Gintoki."

"Fuck you and the motorcycle you rode in on," Gintoki said, staring at Takasugi. "I don't care if it's the Shinsengumi or the devil; I'll team up with anyone to protect what matters."

"Are you still spewing that Jump nonsense? You're too old to be reading that garbage, Gintoki."

Hijikata really hated the familiar way Takasugi said Gintoki's name.

Footfalls thundered on the stairs outside; Sougo had arrived. "Who the hell taught you Kiheitai morons?" Hijikata asked, just to fill the silence through which the other two glared at each other. "Never have your back to the door when you're psyching out a hostage all alone. Take him, boys."

The Shinsengumi swarmed in and dragged Takasugi away from Gintoki. "Tie him up, gag him, and put him in the trunk of my car," Sougo barked. "We can't let him into HQ until we get Kondou-san free."

"Yes, captain, sir!"

"What do you mean, your car?" Hijikata demanded, sheathing his sword. "You don't even have your driving license yet, what the fuck are you doing driving? I told you to get backup so they would drive you!"

"Really, Hijikata-san, we've got an injured person here and you're worried about my driving skills?"

"I'm fine," Gintoki said, nodding thanks to Iida, who had undone the bindings on his forearms. "Just a bit scratched up is all; Takasugi does like to play with his food."

"The device, do you have it?" Hijikata asked, addressing Gintoki's belt.

"Yeah behind the TV. Sacchan dropped it off earlier. That's why he showed up; turns out there's a GPS in the things, but it's not precise; he just knew it was somewhere in Kabukichou."

"Where's Shinpachi?" Hijikata asked.

"Otae-san's bringing him now," Sougo said, snapping his phone shut. "They're going to go straight to HQ, so we'd better hurry and grab the fake gorilla. I mean Kondou-san."

Kagura strode through the doorway, wearing a black riding outfit instead of her customary China dress. She had grown taller since the last time Hijikata had seen her.

"Hey, where the hell's my cool soundtrack?" she demanded before spotting Gintoki and darting to his side. "Gin-chan, you're hurt!"

"I'm fine," Gintoki said, ruffling her hair. "Sorry, little girl, looks like I called in the biggest guns this side of the galaxy for nothing. These troublesome puppies followed me home and took care of the feral cat before you could take centre stage."

"Hmph," Kagura said, looking Sougo up and down. "I guess I'll forgive them this time, since you only got a few cuts."

"Did Baldy come with you?" Gintoki asked. "Is he loitering outside, terrified to come in and behold my full head of gorgeous silver hair?"

"Nah, he's with Sadaharu at the spaceport. They wouldn't let Sadaharu through because of some stupid quarantine thing. Anyway, we're going to Uranus to look for unicorn poop right after this."

"Hey, leave my anus out of your adventures, young lady."

Kagura rolled her eyes. "That's not even funny, Gin-chan; do you have any idea how many times that joke's been played for laughs? Besides, it doesn't even work in Japanese at all."

Gintoki collapsed back onto the sofa. "Man, I must be losing my touch for real. I bet it's because all my blood sugar's leaking out of me. Nurse, I'm going to need a triple dose of strawberry milk, stat."

"Coming right up!" Kagura chirped, dashing into the kitchen.

Sougo stared after her as though someone had hit him over the head with his own bazooka, and Hijikata felt very... miscellaneous. He didn't belong here; why had he stayed so long? He should have just left with his men.

"I'll wait in the car," he said to Sougo. "In the driver's seat."

He turned in the doorway out of long-practiced habit to make sure he hadn't left anything behind, and his eyes met Gintoki's by accident. He found nothing but cold indifference there, and the hollow space in Hijikata's chest, not where his heart was but just above it, nearly burst with the ache he'd been ignoring so well up until then. He remembered the feeling; it was the same one from that time he'd left Mitsuba.

Hijikata lowered his eyes and walked out, lighting a cigarette on his way down the steps. Night had fallen over Edo, and Kabukichou was waking up. Laughter rolled from Otose's bar, and a pair of tipsy girls in scandalous outfits skipped barefoot down the street ahead of him, swinging their tiny purses as though for balance. Five Shinsengumi patrol cars were all jammed willy-nilly around Hijikata's vehicle; Sougo must've brought the whole contingent of the men loyal to them.

"Where's the prisoner?" Hijikata asked, and Harada pointed to one of the cars.

Hijikata would drive that one; unintentional or not, this would be the best sting the Shinsengumi had carried out in years, and Hijikata did not intend to lose their prize. Besides, Takasugi would have all the information necessary to return the Shogun's retainers to their proper bodies from wherever they were being kept now -- rocks, trees, lizards, purse dogs, whatever.

He popped the trunk open to make sure Takasugi hadn't slithered away through some hole in the floor, but he was there, tied with triple knots and folded near in half -- good thing he was so short; any taller and he wouldn't have fit -- yet even in that position, his one good eye glinted with amusement.

Why did you throw him away? Hijikata wanted to ask. Did he refuse to compromise with you, too? Or did he let you loose first because it hurt too much?

Instead of asking stupid questions, he slammed the trunk shut with enough force to rock the car. "Hope you get carsick, you bastard," he told the trunk lid and got in behind the wheel.

Sougo appeared shortly and got in beside him. Hijikata didn't ask about Gintoki and Kagura; they'd probably wait for Shinpachi at home. The last thing he wanted was Gintoki's cold stare in his rear-view mirror.

With their sirens on, the ride only took ten minutes, and Sougo sprinted off to find Kondou-thingy before Hijikata could even park the car properly. Hijikata assigned four of the men to guard the Takasugi trunk and headed for the grounds as well. He nearly jumped when he saw Gintoki's kimono pattern next to the gates.

Oh, the scooter. So Gintoki had come after all. It was hard to believe that just two weeks ago, Gintoki probably would have insisted on riding with Hijikata just to sexually harass him all the way home. It was harder to believe that Hijikata wished for that to have happened tonight.

Gintoki alighted from the scooter and threw his helmet over one handlebar without so much as a glance in Hijikata's direction. He gathered Shinpachi up gently from the litter Otae and four other women had used and carried him through the gates, with Yamazaki leading the way.

When Hijikata reached Kondou-san's room, Kondou-thingy was already tied to the gorilla cage. Gintoki stood near him, still cradling Shinpachi, and Otae clutched the gorilla's glasses. Sougo was prodding the gorilla with the device.

"You've got to push the buttons, the buttons!" Hijikata called.

"Buttons? There's three of them. Is it the blue one, Kondou-san?"

"Uho, uho, uho!" Kondou-san said without taking his beady little eyes off Otae.

Sougo pushed the blue button, but nothing happened.

"Wait, let me do it," Kagura said, elbowing her way to the front and grabbing the device from Sougo. "I've seen one of these before; they've been outlawed pretty much everywhere already. Earth is so behind the times."

She handed her umbrella to Sougo and pushed the red button on the rod, aiming it at the glasses in Otae's hands, then she pushed the blue and green buttons together. Shinpachi stirred with a moan, and Gintoki lowered him to his feet carefully.

"Wha--?" Shinpachi asked, swaying a bit. "It worked? I can't believe it worked. Kagura-chan, you're a genius."

Otae hugged her brother so hard something in him snapped. In Shinpachi, not Hijikata. Literally snapped.

"You guys are really useless without me," Kagura said, looking pleased. "Now, let's take care of the gorilla." She looked from the caged gorilla back to Kondou-thingy and added, "Not that there's going to be much of an improvement either way."

A few moments later, the gorilla slumped down to its knees in dejection, and Kondou-san blinked up at them from his proper body. "Otae-san, would you perhaps consent to hug me too?"

Otae consented only to glare at him. "Come on, Shin-chan; we're leaving."

"All's well that ends well," Kagura intoned, looping her arm around Gintoki's. "You'd better treat me to something nice at the spaceport, Gin-chan."

"I'll give you 300 yen, you can buy whatever you want," Gintoki said. "Later, Shinsengumi."

Hijikata stared at their backs, the pain in his chest growing sharper with every step Gintoki took. "Hey, Yorozuya," he called, voice hoarse. "I owe you a drink."

"Drink it yourself," Gintoki said without turning around.

"Are you sure, Gin-san?" Shinpachi asked, looking up at him anxiously. "I don't think he's ever been so nice to you before, not even once." If you only knew how nice I was to him in bed, four-eyes, you'd go catatonic again.

"Never mind the Shinsengumi, Pattsuan; stop looking at me. Did you forget our promise? ♪We are!♫"

Hijikata watched, helpless fury ripping his good sense to shreds, but he just couldn't say it, not here, not in front of Kondou-san and especially not in front of Sougo. He couldn't say it and yet he had to -- he had to, if he didn't want to be "Shinsengumi" to Gintoki. Fuck, he'd even settle for being Oogushi-kun. If Hijikata cornered Gintoki later, alone, it wouldn't be good enough. Apologies made in private would not convince him. They wouldn't convince Hijikata if he were in Gintoki's shoes, anyway.

Then Sougo gave him a hard shove from behind. Hijikata stumbled, nearly tripping over the ropes that had bound Kondou-san, but managed to remain upright. When he looked up, Gintoki and the rest had stopped to turn around and look at him, which was just fucking great. He gritted his teeth, strode up to Gintoki, grabbed the front of his kimono and dragged him aside for at least a semblance of privacy.

"Why do you have to be so unreasonable?" Hijikata growled. "Do these guys really need to know everything about what we do in private? I don't want them to know because I want you to be only mine, not because I'm ashamed of you. Why can't you understand that?"

"You could've said that in the first place instead of acting like a defiled princess. I don’t want to waste my time with a guy who'll treat me like the skid marks on his underwear," Gintoki said. But his eyes weren't cold anymore, and the pain in Hijikata's chest was gone.

"You want me to go all PDA all over you right here, will nothing else do?"

"There's a difference between not being ashamed and being shameless," Gintoki said, leaning closer and putting a hand on Hijikata's shoulder. "We wouldn't want the great Demon Vice-Commander acting shameless in front of his coworkers," he whispered, and his teeth grazed Hijikata's earlobe.

"I'll come over later," Hijikata murmured, starting for the door. His face felt so hot, he figured he might as well go cook supper on it. Stupid Yamazaki had had the good sense to run off a few seconds ago, so he didn't even have anyone to kick out of the way.

"Finally, jeez," Sougo remarked. "I thought I was going to have to handcuff them together again."

"It'll never work. They're both S," Sacchan said, popping out of the trash can. "Gin-san needs an M."

"Yeah, somehow I don't think that's going to be the main issue here," Shinpachi said, pushing his glasses up his nose.

"I've been on standby this whole time," announced Zurako, descending upside down from the hole in the ceiling.

"See, Otae-san? If these two can fall in love, what's wrong with us-- HIDEBU!"

"You'd better not get Gin-chan pregnant, you monkey," Kagura yelled. "I'll break your legs."

"I hate you all," Hijikata said, slamming the door shut behind him. "Fucking bunch of trolls."

[end]