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Antigravity

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Attis is a tiny planet on the furthest edges of the galaxy, and its name sounds ominously like 'attic' for a damn good reason. It's tiny and mostly unnoticed, which of course means that, to all the criminals and people who don't want to be found, it stands out like a beam of light in a pitch-black room.

Besides being filled with fugitives and criminals, the planet is filled with impoverished families and grey streets that match the peeling paint on most of its buildings, as well as underhand dealings and a bad connection to the universal network.

"Tama," Otose says, for the tenth time in two hours. "Can you get that damned hologram to work?"

Tama shakes her head. "It's burnt out," she says, and Otose contemplates throwing a cup at the useless machine because what sort of holographic television gets burnt out? So far from anything on the galaxy, Attis gets three hours of electricity on a good day, so it's not like the damned thing has to work very hard.

Tama, who Otose is very glad runs on batteries and gasoline, holds out a black stick that can only be described as 'fried-looking'. Otose has to stare for a few moments before it clicks that the thing happens to be the television's antenna.

"What the hell," she says, voice rising very close to a screech.

"It was not my flamethrower this time," Tama informs her expressionlessly. She could be lying; Otose wouldn't know, since she's a machine and can easily change the inflection of her voice and cancel all signs of it.

Catherine, cleaning tables around the drunken aliens that have either passed out or become too intoxicated to carry out coherent conversation, mutters what must be a sarcastic comment under her breath, mouth twisting in a smile that looks more like a sneer.

"Catherine, if you're going to say something, say it to my face!" Otose yells.

Catherine chucks the dirty cloth towards her. "It's your own damn fault for smoking all the time! Did you set the damned thing on fire?"

Otose screams at her for being a damned ingrate; criticising one of the few pleasures an old woman has left, the nerve. They're hollering at each other, probably loud enough to hear from halfway across the town, when the door opens.

Two figures step in, faces hidden under wide-brimmed straw hats.

It's surprising to have clients so late, surprising enough that Otose and Catherine fall silent to stare. Otose scans the two with sharp eyes, searching for threats.

The first, taller figure has its shoulders pulled back, one hand resting on the sword by its side. Not threateningly, but casual, natural like breathing - a swordsman, Otose thinks, and a good one at that.

The second figure is easy to identify as a child. It's small and swimming in a too-big cloak, one little hand fisted in the swordsman's clothes.

"What sort of customers visit at two in the morning?" Otose asks. "The bar's about to close."

"I'm surprised that it's not already," the swordsman says. His voice is rough and low.

Otose shrugs and takes a puff from her cigarette, crossing an arm over her chest. "Stuff happened today," she says. "It was more profitable to keep the place open."

"Oh?" He moves into the bar with fluid grace. "What stuff?"

"Some factory collapsed," Otose replies, eyeing him carefully. The child follows at his heels, scampering a little to keep up, and he turns at the sound of hurried footsteps on the chipped wood floor.

"Sorry," he says, voice suddenly gentle, and slows his steps so that the child can keep up. A small hand reaches up and he catches it in a large one.

Then the still-hidden face turns, and Otose feels the his gaze on her, strange and intent. "You had a notice," he says. "A room for rent."

Otose takes another long drag from her cigarette. "I do," she agrees. "But I don't rent out my rooms to people whose names I don't know."

Even as she says it, she watches the gentle way he guides the child onto the tall barstool, the way he adjusts the kid's hat with careful hands. She likes that he's kind to the child, and she's half won over already.

The swordsman pushes back his hat, revealing dark burgundy eyes and curly silver hair. His face is startlingly young, thin and tired but with the barest hints of baby fat still on his cheeks.

A human boy, Otose thinks, vaguely surprised. It's rare to see other humans anywhere, now, after the Amanto got pissed with the war on earth and blew the whole planet to smithereens. The news was everywhere when it first happened six months ago, and now it's common knowledge. Humans are an endangered species.

And this boy is carrying a sword. That's even rarer; the Amanto don't take kindly to humans in general, but they're especially brutal to those with weapons.

"Sakata Gintoki," he says, and he taps the child on the back, twice, with a finger. Small hands come up and pull the hat back eagerly, and suddenly Otose is staring at tired but bright blue eyes and a small, childish face.

"Kagura," the little girl chirps. Then she turns to the boy (he can't be older than eighteen); "I'm hungry, Gin-chan," she says. "Can we get sukonbu?"

 

-x-

 

When Otose quotes her price for the room - the price that was on the sign, and thus a price he should already know - the boy's face stays blank, eyes dead.

"I can't afford that," he says bluntly.

"That's too bad," Otose says, wiping a glass. "It's one of the best deals on the planet."

Gintoki doesn't flinch; she can see that he knows that already.

"I can protect you," he offers, and she almost scoffs at the idea. He doesn't look a day over eighteen.

But she remembers the way he scanned the room as he entered, the fluid grace with which he'd walked, the way he'd kept his hand on his sword, and swallows down her laughter. She was friends with Jirochou, and married to Tatsugorou. She knows a good swordsman when she sees one.

Kagura, well into her third bowl of rice, says a food-muffled jumble of words that Otose must translate wrongly, because what she makes out is "Gin-chan took down a spacecraft, uh-huh", which is absolutely impossible.

Gintoki just tells Kagura not to talk with her mouth full and asks if she remembers what they talked about on the way here.

"Sorry Gin-chan," she says, mouth only half-full this time. Otose can't tell if that's her attempt at being compliant or showing defiance; Gintoki just rolls his eyes.

"I'll be your bodyguard," he tells Otose easily. "Lemme have the room for a month; it'll be a trial run. If I'm not good enough you can kick me out."

Because Otose is an idiotic, soft-hearted old woman - traits that would serve her so much better in places nicer than this dingy little planet, but then she wouldn't be able to help as many people - she gives them the room with a bare minimum of rent and a warning that if he's no good, she's not putting up with any freeloading. By the way the boy's face relaxes by the tiniest degree, she sees that this is affordable, and he flashes her a quick grin.

"Thanks, old lady," he says, something soft and grateful edging into his rough tone.

Otose just smacks him upside the head and asks him who he's calling old.

 

-x-

 

Kagura falls asleep on his arm half an hour later, hat sliding off her head to reveal bright, fiery red hair. Gintoki catches it neatly in one hand and smiles gently at the snoring child.

"She's still such a brat, huh?" He asks, words rough but voice so soft and kind. Otose snorts at his obvious affection for the kid.

"She's still a child," she agrees. It really shouldn't be surprising; the girl's head barely comes up to Gintoki's waist - she looks no older than three, with her round face and tiny, tiny hands. Gintoki had actually tried to cut up her food for her, before she'd snatched the bowl away and said that she could do it herself. (She did not, in fact, cut up the food, just inhaled it like some sort of mutant vacuum cleaner.) "What else would you expect?"

Gintoki just smiles, looking at Kagura and, at the same time, at something very far away.

He says, "I don't know," and the look is gone as soon as it came. He scoops Kagura up with careful, steady hands - she shifts, mumbling in her sleep, and he snorts, readjusting her in his arms.

Kagura curls towards his warmth with a soft sound of contentment and Otose shakes her head; Gintoki cradles the little girl like her hair is made of rubies and her eyes are made of sapphires, like he's holding sunlight and magic and every good thing in the world. He thinks he masks it, with his gruff voice and callous words, and Otose doesn't have the heart to tell him how wrong he is.

"I'll bring her up to sleep first, I guess," he says, moving with easy grace towards the stairs, movements so fluid that the girl doesn't even stir.

"Well," Catherine comments after he's gone. "We could have done worse."

Otose thinks of men who would, on a planet like this, sell a pretty young girl like Kagura to pimps or slave traders, or the men who would have taken wine and given the kid a bowl of rice, instead of ordering four bowls of rice and egg and giving the kid three.

She stubs out her cigarette on the counter and Catherine gripes at her for giving her more work to do, can't she just use the ashtray like a nice, normal old lady.

Yes, she thinks. They could have done a lot worse.

 

-x-

 

Gintoki has something hurting and tired beneath the apathy in his eyes. He leaves the apartment at odd hours of the night and his hand sometimes shakes when he's not careful; there is something haunted in the lines of his face and he is always, always watching.

He scans his eyes over the people in the bar each morning, eyes the door whenever someone enters. Even when he's drunk, there is something sharp in the way he looks over people, eyes lingering over hands, weapons, the arch of their backs; and yes, it's wariness, that split-second evaluation of a potential enemy's skill, but there's also something else in his posture and eyes - the way his gaze stutters over long hair, or cuts over at a certain sort of boisterous laugh. The way it stops on green eyes. He's not just wary - he's searching.

"Who are you watching for?" She asks him one evening. He's had enough sake that he should be drunk out of his mind by now, but his dull eyes are alert in his flushed face.

"A wig and a mop," he slurs. "And a pipsqueak."

Otose snorts and turns away; if he doesn't want to tell her, that's none of her business.

 

-x-

 

"You look tired, punk. Haven't you been sleeping?"

"No. The brat has nightmares." Gintoki leans against the counter, pushing a hand through his hair.

"She looks more well-slept than you."

"She snores. Oi, how do I make the nightmares go away? It's damn hard to sleep when she keeps waking up at night."

"Feed her hot chocolate and sit by her, then. They'll go away with time."

"Really?" Gintoki looks over at her, and it's the hope that she doesn't see in his eyes that brings a faint ache to her chest. She's seen the flashes of emotion in his eyes, joy and warmth and anger and pain - split second flickering sparks that fade out in moments - but she's yet to see hope.

"Sometimes," Otose confesses. Gintoki snorts.

"Some help you are."

He has bags under his eyes and his skin is too pale; Kagura, on the other hand, is bright-eyed and active and made of pure energy.

Otose doesn't think Kagura is the one with nightmares at all, but she's not sure how to make his nightmares go away.

 

-x-

 

"She's a Yato," Otose remarks a few days later. Kagura is sleeping in the apartment and Gintoki should be too - he acts fine, yes, but he looks far too tired for Otose's liking; worn and thin like an old coat. Instead of resting, though, he's drinking at the bar with tension humming beneath his skin.

"So? I didn't take you for one to discriminate against Amanto."

"Stop being stupid, punk. Of course I don't."

"So?"

"She's not related to you."

Gintoki sets down his glass and crosses his arms on the counter, leaning his weight against them. "No."

Close enough, though, is the message Otose can read. It's in the way his voice goes just a little too light, touching the word with deadly gentleness; in the way the tension in his frame has snapped into something focused and still. Close enough that he'll watch out for her, and feed her, and help her through nightmares even when he's running on far too little sleep himself.

Otose knows all about picking up strays and families of choice, so she just smiles. She reaches out, and pours him another drink.

 

-x-

 

Yorozuya, Gintoki calls himself. Odd jobs. He'll do anything, he says, for the right price. Otose isn't so sure. He tells her the stories at the bar, some nights, about lying clients and opponents turned victims, and he changes sides according to his morals and rules the way a shadow changes with the light.

Sometimes, when the jobs don't look dangerous, he lets Kagura tag along. Kagura loves it, comes back with a wide wide grin on her face and stories about helping people. Her eyes are so bright, and she so genuinely wants to help that Otose's old heart goes soft. Gintoki, for all his roughness, is bringing her up kind.

Gintoki, though, is very careful about the jobs he brings her on.

"I don't want to get you killed," he says, ruffling Kagura's hair.

He's not always successful. Sometimes Kagura is hurt in easy, mostly safe jobs - a scratch on her arm that she shows off to Otose ("I got this when I messed up with a nail, but I helped fix the roof!") or bruises from getting into a fistfight with another kid her age ("He was a bastard anyway!" "Was Gintoki the idiot that taught you the word bastard?") - and that's fine, but other times she's in more danger. Bruised knuckles - "I got these punching out the bad guy! Gin-chan said I did really good!" - and gashes on her arms.

Once Kagura came back with a huge bruise across her face. There was a downright ugly edge to Gintoki's eyes, something fierce and protective in the way he kept her close with one too-tense hand.

No matter how beat-up and bloody Gintoki is after the more dangerous jobs, Kagura never has more than a few minor wounds.

And Otose doesn't ask what happened to the ones who hurt Kagura.

 

-x-

 

It's a tired day. Otose was up till four cleaning up the bar, and Gintoki and Kagura were up for a job at five. Otose is aching and exhausted, Gintoki has bruises beneath his eyes, and Kagura is tired and grumpy.

She's clearly ready to pass out, but she's stubbornly, noisily refusing to sleep, clinging to Gintoki's back and whining in his ear. It's the sort of tired, rambling grouchiness that goes on and on, the girl so tired she looks like she wants to cry.

Gintoki, sweeping the bar, returns her grumbling with a few choice retorts. He's less animated than usual, worn like old faded jeans; Otose doubts he's slept much in the last few days at all.

Somehow, though, the litany of exhausted whining trails off, replaced by something slow and rhythmic.

It takes Otose a long moment to realise that Gintoki is singing. She looks up, stares at him for a long moment.

He's not going to be winning any awards for singing, that's for sure. He's somewhat off-key, somewhat hesitant, and his voice comes out rough and low where Otose thinks it should come out high. But it's deep and soothing, Gintoki's voice touching the syllables the same way he handles Kagura - gruff and carefully gentle. The song is something old and time-worn, about age-old mountains and the shifting of the tides; the way the sun rises and falls and rises again, the world going in circles and coming back again.

Gintoki's eyes are very far away.

When the final notes of the song have drifted off, the bar is quiet, and Otose feels like something in her chest has settled.

"I didn't know you sang," she remarks. Gintoki blinks and looks up at her, eyebrows drawing in.

"I didn't know either," he says eventually.

On his back, Kagura stirs. "Keep going, Gin-chan," she whines groggily, half-asleep.

"Okay, okay," Gintoki replies, and Kagura settles down with a drowsy smile. "Brat," Gintoki says. She lets out a little sound of displeasure and wriggles on his back.

When the humming starts again, not quite perfect but decent enough, Otose takes a drag from her cigarette and lets the sound carry her up with the breeze.

It's a few weeks later when the setting sun paints the world crimson from where it shines through dark grey clouds, dipping the planet in an interesting combination of grey and red. Gintoki, humming quietly to Kagura as he goes around wiping the bar's tables, glances out of the window.

Otose can't see his eyes or his expression, but for a moment he just stands and stares. He's a dark shape against the bloody grey backdrop, as if he's been captured in a photograph, never to move again.

His humming falters for a moment, and slowly, like a storm rolling in from the sea, the tune changes. The sound of waves becomes the beat of drums, and the whistling wind becomes the march of a hundred, a thousand feet. It's low and dark and powerful, forcing Otose's heart to match the beat of drums, the sort that makes your blood crackle with fire and adrenaline.

The sort that soldiers play, on their march to war.

Otose just watches and listens, observing how Gintoki's shoulders set and his hand tightens around the hilt of his sword; the way he doesn't move - not as if he's frozen, but as if he's a hunter watching his prey, waiting for the time to strike.

"Gin-chan?" Kagura shifts on Gintoki's back, raising one hand to rub at her eye

The spell shatters like glass. Gintoki's hand drops from his sword and the humming goes silent, the only sound left in the bar the whirring of the fans. "Where'd you learn that song?"

Gintoki shrugs and turns back to the tables, and Otose sees that his expression is just the same as always, dead eyes in a blank face.

"I fought in the war, remember?" He says, and that's all he says; but to Otose, it's enough.

 

-x-

 

It's when Gintoki fights off a gang of ten Amanto in her bar that Otose realises exactly who she's dealing with.

Gintoki fights with devilish speed and devastating blows, his sword a silver blur beneath the lights of the bar. Blood splatters to stain his face and arms; Otose catches his blank expression and realises that he's not even trying.

Then an Amanto grabs Kagura - little four-year-old Kagura, who'd been watching from the corner - and presses a knife against her soft white neck.

And hell, the whole bar goes cold.

Otose feels icy fingers dragging down her spine, and her eyes fly to Gintoki - Gintoki, whose expression is harder than stone, eyes gone steely-hard and ugly, teeth set and shoulders tense. And he's seventeen, he'd told Otose so, looking so damn young, but for all his youth he looks like nothing less than a predator right now, coiled tighttighttight and ready to strike.

"Close your eyes," Gintoki tells Kagura, and when she does the smile that creeps across his face is a cruel, ugly thing - cold and furious and tight with malice, an expression that better suits a demon.

He launches forward with such speed that Otose can barely see him, just colour blurring between two points. The Amanto has no time to blink, let alone react. Bar lights gleam off an arc of steel.

(And a name creeps into her mouth, leaving iron at the back of her throat, rumours of a white demon and a blade faster than light.)

Gintoki and his sword blink out of existence; there's blood spraying everywhere, there's a thump that rocks the bar - and Gintoki's blade is buried deep in the Amanto's throat, pinning it against the wall, his bloody hand steady around the hilt. The Amanto is bleeding all over the wood floor, and its arm has been severed - the limb lies a distance away in a pool of blood, knife lying near limp fingers. Tama says, "Otose-sama-" and Catherine breathes out a quiet curse.

Gintoki skewered the Amanto through the neck, driving it into the wall. But he cut off its arm first, so that the knife wouldn't touch Kagura, so Kagura is now splattered with blood that's not her own.

"Gin-chan?" She calls anxiously, reaching out small hands for him. For once, Gintoki does not take her in his arms. "Gin-chan?" Kagura asks insistently. Gintoki looks up from his bloody sleeves, and sighs.

"Yeah, brat?"

"Can I open my eyes now?"

"Wait." Gintoki pulls the sword from the Amanto's neck, steps back. The Amanto crumples lifelessly to the bloody wood floor. Gintoki wipes the blade off on his clothes, moves with catlike grace around the blood to stand in front of Kagura. "Don't look behind you," he says. Kagura opens her eyes slowly and steps forward, towards him. Two, three more steps and she's wrapped her arms around his waist, clinging tight, like he's a lifeline cast into raging seas. "Oi, don't come so near me, you'll get blood on yourself."

"Don't care."

"It's no good for a brat like you to be covered in blood-" Kagura just hugs him tighter, knuckles going white. "Come on," Gintoki says, his voice a sigh, almost pleading. "Let go."

"No."

Gintoki sighs. "Let go, I'll get you dirty."

"I'm already bloody."

Gintoki shuts his eyes.

The sword slips from his fingers, clanging against the wood floor.

 

-x-

 

"I don't want anyone to die in my bar," Otose tells Gintoki later, after he's successfully sent Kagura up to their apartment to wash off the blood. "It's bad for business."

Nine of the Amanto are unconscious. One of them is lying with its head tipped back, ripped-open jugular still spilling dark blood. Otose is very grateful that all of her customers ran off when the Amanto began getting violent.

Gintoki bends over the corpse. "Sorry," he replies, though he doesn't sound sorry in the least. Otose doesn't blame him; she can't quite muster up sympathy for the creature that threatened Kagura, either.

"At least you can get off with self-defense," Otose comments. It's fortunate that her guard dog won't be arrested.

"He threatened a brat," Gintoki replies absently. "I had no other choice." Otose can't tell if he's serious or not, so she sighs and takes a drag from her cigarette.

"I'm more interested to know how I ended up hosting the Shiroyasha in my apartment," she says. Catherine makes a stifled noise from where she'd been quiet beside her, and Tama's joints creak as she reaches for her broom; but it's Gintoki Otose is watching, Gintoki whose shoulders stiffen under his old, thin yukata. He freezes for a split second, as if panic's a literal ice settling in his bones.

He stands with slow motions, different from his usual careless efficiency. When he turns with a hand on his sword, his eyes are dark and sharp.

"How did you find out, old lady?" He asks, with false calm that's not fooling anyone; not himself and certainly not Otose. She's seen hundreds of soldiers, knows the carefully tamed wildness in his eyes.

Few of the soldiers had fangs like these, though.

With visible effort, Gintoki drops his hand from the hilt of his sword. He keeps his eyes on her, dark and steady.

"I used my eyes."

"Damn," Gintoki says. "That easy?" He smiles, but his grin is brittle and breaking and frayed at the edges, old and tired and worn. "Kagura will be disappointed that we have to move again."

"Who said you had to move out?"

Gintoki blinks. He stares at her, eyebrows furrowed, eyes searching. "What?"

"I got a demon for the price I'm paying for a guard dog. I'm not the sort of idiot that would let this sort of deal go." She looks at him from the corner of her eye; he looks like he's been hit very hard on the head, but he doesn't look unhappy, just very stunned. "If you kill someone in my bar again, though…"

"I won't," he promises, still looking amazed. Catherine snorts, and Otose is suddenly reminded that Gintoki isn't even eighteen. Not yet a man. You wouldn't know it, to look at his eyes and mannerisms and the way he looks after Kagura like a father.

"Otose-sama, am I now permitted to use my flamethrower on Gintoki-sama if he is late paying his rent?" Tama asks.

Gintoki's look of blank amazement disappears quickly after that.

 

-x-

 

Kagura doesn't take well to being taken hostage. The next time Amanto get violent in the bar, she balls one little hand into a tight fist and breaks their leader's nose. Then she kicks it in the crotch and slams her fist into it's kidney before delivering a roundhouse kick to its head, her eyes shining bright and fiercer than fire.

She stands over the fallen creature, triumphant and defiant, levelling a glare at its comrades in a silent challenge, and Otose watches as monsters three times her size back away quickly, dragging their defeated leader in their wake.

Gintoki smiles so proudly it aches, high fives Kagura, and lifts her onto the bar seat for a celebratory drink - "Apple juice, brat, no sake till you're my age."

"But that's old," Kagura whines. Gintoki thwaps her upside the head and she launches a return blow that knocks his chair over and sends him sprawling.

He grumbles and gripes and screams at her, but Otose can see pride in his eyes, warm and bright like the embers of a lit flame.

 

-x-

 

"Why?"

"Because you're a kid and it's important."

"But why?"

"Because there are bastards that won't let you do anything without a certificate."

"Why?"

"Oi, brat, I don't care how many questions you ask. You're still going to school."

"I never had to go to school before," Kagura returns.

"That's cause you were too tiny. Now you can go."

"But I don't wanna."

"Too bad."

"Gin-channnn-"

"No."

"Pleeaaseee?"

"No."

"Why don't you have to go to school?"

"I went already."

"So I just have to go one time?"

"For a few years, yeah."

"Gin-chaaaannnnnn!"

"Sorry, brat, that's how life works."

Kagura glares at Gintoki. "You're mean, Gin-chan," she says.

"So I've been told."

"I hate you."

"Okay."

"If you don't make me go I'll give you all my sukonbu."

"Who wants your sukonbu, brat?"

"Who wants to go to school?"

"No one. But you're going anyway."

"If you make me go I'll run away."

"Where?"

"To a place where no one needs school!"

"Oi, brat, places like that aren't any fun. Remember the war on earth? You didn't need school there."

"I'll go to a good place!" Kagura snaps. Gintoki waves a hand at her.

"Good luck with that."

 

-x-

 

Kagura doesn't run away, and Gintoki enrols her in school.

Kagura is screaming when Gintoki drags her down the stairs. By the legs, of course, because her arms are a whirlwind of nails and hands balled into little white fists.

"Go," he grunts, "to school!"

"I DON'T WANNA!" Kagura claws at the stairs, dressed in a rumpled red shirt and white shorts, and her hair is sticking up at all angles like it hasn't been brushed. Otose suspects Kagura fought too hard for Gintoki to brush it, and Kagura certainly wasn't about to brush it herself.

"Come on, it's just four hours!"

"I'll put you in hell for four hours!"

"You've never even been to school!"

"And I don't wanna!"

Gintoki gives Otose a distressed look, hair sticking everywhere and eyes comically wide. Otose gives him a look back, a look that means "do it yourself", and stubs out her cigarette before her second-hand smoke gives Kagura lung cancer.

("I had to throw her into the classroom," Gintoki says later, sleeve slipping down his arm to reveal long red scratches and welts. "Shit, I have to do this again tomorrow?")

(Otose lights a cigarette and smiles.)

She doesn't say anything when Gintoki leaves the bar too early to pick Kagura up from school - for a punk, he's doing pretty well raising that brat of his.

Kagura comes home with Gintoki somewhat sulkily, but after a bit of prodding and a bribe consisting of orange juice and two bowls of rice, she starts to talk about the friends she met, especially the little girl with black hair who's gonna set the classroom on fire with her tomorrow.

Gintoki gives Otose a look and Otose hides her matches.

 

-x-

 

After that school gets better. Kagura gets up and gets dressed and brushes her teeth and Gintoki makes her breakfast - or, on mornings where he's too tired to get up any earlier, when he's slept badly or just had a tiring job the previous day, he brings her down to the bar and orders them breakfast; he brushes and buns up Kagura's hair while they wait. Kagura actually walks into the school compound on her own. ("As compared to, you know, me dragging her into the damned classroom," Gintoki says, when he's telling Otose about things. He looks pretty damn pleased, despite the grumbling.)

Then Gintoki gets a call and finds out that Kagura and her new friend have been skipping class.

"How the hell does a little brat skip class?" He asks.

The answer is apparently: by hiding in a corner of the school and readying pranks.

("Four water ballon attacks, one paint bomb, and attempted arson in her first week of school," Gintoki says, sounding part disbelieving and part amazed.)

(Otose tells him to stop looking so damn proud, he's the one who's going to tell her off.)

 

-x-

 

He is bad at parenting, that is one thing that can be said about Sakata Gintoki.

Otose has never seen a lecture about not skipping school dissolve into an explanation of how to "play pranks while artfully paying attention in class so that no one suspects her as a culprit". She has never seen a parent eat with as few table manners as a four-year-old Yato.

"Teach her manners, dammit," Otose says, eye twitching as the two of them suck down their rice.

"What the hell did manners ever do for people? Anyway, she's a brat, she can get away with it."

"She won't be a brat forever."

"Eh, I'll figure it out then. If I tell her it's a method of infiltrating high-class places to eat better food, I bet she'll listen."

He is no good at manners or getting Kagura to focus on her education; he can't seem to bring himself to care about either - "What good have they ever done?" He always asks, and Otose can't find an answer to that. Manners save no lives on the battlefield, and sure, they might make your life easier, but so will the other things he teaches Kagura.

Don't pick fights you can't win. Keep your soul alive even if your body's half-dead. Never ever take the weight of a world on your shoulders. Protect the people precious to you at all cost, even if you've gotta destroy a planet or two in the process.

"It's not very moral," Otose tells him one night, and Gintoki snorts.

"I never said I was a good person."

No. He's never said that. He's just a boy who'll give anything to keep the people precious to him safe - Otose can see it in the steel of his eyes. He'll steal and kill and destroy and become a demon to protect them, and it's not righteous or good or kind; he's not righteous or good or kind. Not in most books of the world.

I'll keep them safe - that's his rule, his goal, his driving force. He doesn't give a damn about the other stuff, just his friends, and Otose doesn't know if that makes him a hero or a villain.

 

-x-

 

A few nights later, Gintoki flies down the stairs and into the bar in something that looks a lot like running away. His face is blank, but his skin is pale and grey and his eyes are more haunted than usual.

"Old lady, pour me a drink, will ya?"

Otose obliges, and Gintoki wanders over to sit at the counter. He gulps the sake down and sets the glass on the counter with shaking fingers.

"I can't use my sword anymore," he mutters, staring down at the table. He doesn't seem to mind that, exactly, but whatever brought him to that realisation has shaken him; Otose can see the tremble in his fingers and the way his lips keep trying to curl into a frown while he fights to keep his expression neutral.

He looks up at Otose. "Hey, old lady, any idea where I can get a wooden sword?"

Otose glances over at him. "Did Kagura play with your sword?" It seems unlikely - Gintoki always keeps it strapped to his side, and he'd never let Kagura handle the blade. He shakes his head and his hand tightens around his empty cup.

"What happened?" Otose asks. Gintoki keeps his eyes on the counter and his voice low, so that he's barely audible above the din of the other drunken patrons.

He shrugs, still trying to be casual. "I was asleep," he mutters. "We both had shitty dreams; the brat tried to crawl into my bed." His knuckles are white around the glass. "I didn't know where I was. Had my sword against her neck before I woke up properly."

He lets out a tired breath and pushes a hand through his messy mop of hair, looking about a hundred years old. His shoulders shudder, and he shakes his head as if to shake off the memory, cursing softly. "Drew my sword on a little brat." Gintoki laughs bitterly. "Damn sick."

Otose hums, chest aching for the broken pair, the boy and girl who are at once far too old and far too young, and at the boy who looks like he's got the entire weight of a shattered world on his slumped shoulders. He looks tired - not so much lost as resigned and sickened.

"How's Kagura?" Otose asks. Gintoki glances up.

"Eh, she's fine." He waves a hand in the air. "She's a tough brat. Yelled at me to wake me up then punched me when I lowered the sword." He shrugs. "Still, I'd better find something else to use. She's a lot of trouble, but I don't want to wake up with that brat dead."

Already, the horror is bleeding from his expression, falling away to be replaced with nonchalant laziness and apathy. Gintoki is very good at putting on masks; then again, he'd have to have learnt, as a boy in a bloody war.

It once occurred to Otose that maybe Gintoki wasn't good at putting on masks; that, rather than being a superb actor, he simply doesn't care - that the war killed off his humanity and compassion and conscience. Shiroyasha, after all.

She'd taken a look at Gintoki, who'd been watching Kagura draw, and she'd almost laughed. No one who looked at a little kid that way could possibly be lacking in compassion or humanity.

"I'll look into it," Otose says, and Gintoki nods.

"Thanks, old lady."

Something in his voice tells Otose that he's not just thanking her for helping him look for a substitute sword.

 

-x-

 

A boar Amanto walks into the bar with a group of friends. When they begin to drink and shout and grunt, Gintoki freezes like there's ice in his veins.

Otose blinks at him, waving a hand in front of his face, but he doesn't respond to her words or her calls.

His knuckles have whitened on the counter, and he's shaking, eyes dark, hardly breathing, breaths trembling with something like fear. He just sits there and trembles; Otose has seen others with flashbacks, has seen grown men shout and yell and cry and whine, but Gintoki just sits and shakes with a terrible look on his paper-pale face. Somehow, the desperation and hurt she can feel from him makes everything so much worse, but she's helpless in taking away the pain. All she can do is stand there and watch him shiver, watch his hands clench into fists that shake from the force of his grip.

Otose has seen flashbacks before. She's seen veterans and soldiers throw tables and smash cups and scream profanities over and over, and she seen them break down and plead and cry and beg for forgiveness. Gintoki does none of that; it could be because his memories are nowhere near as bloody, but he's the Shiroyasha and she doesn't think that's possible.

More likely, he's too stubborn, too guilty, to ask for help or forgiveness or even lash out. Or maybe he's just frozen. Otose has seen that, before, too, more often than not.

Gintoki's eyes look like open wounds in his breaking, tired face; dark and bloody and raw and painful to see.

The first breath he takes is a drowning man's gasp - a sound that borders on a sob, a desperate, desperate gulp of air drawn into tired lungs. His shoulders shudder, jerking up and down in a sharp motion, and he shakes his head with what's almost anger, throwing back the rest of his sake.

"Shit," he mutters. He shuts his eyes and takes in a breath that stutters like a sob. "Sorry, old lady."

"You didn't do anything," Otose says, taking a drag from her cigarette. "Just sat there."

"Ah," Gintoki says softly. He pushes out his cup with a shaking hand. "Can I have another cup?"

Otose pours him one without remarking on the cost. Gintoki takes it in his hand and sips it; all at once he looks ancient and exhausted, and Otose is terribly reminded that he is all of seventeen years old. On some planets, on this planet, he's not even allowed to legally drink.

It hits like a punch to the gut; Gintoki looks tired and pale and drawn, a tired soldier at seventeen, a veteran of war before he's a legal adult. He looks haunted, bone-weary.

So Otose begins to talk. Sweet nothings, because that's what brought Jirochou from the bad memories of war - he'd confessed, once, that the little things were the things they'd missed most. Hot food, a soft bed. Safety, mundane peace, people who - and he'd laughed, here - talked without the coarseness of the soldiers, who were gentle and soft the way no one on the battlefield could afford to be.

She talks about how they need groceries, about the weather, about the people who frequent her bar. She talks about the brats on the planet, the way they run around the streets screeching at the tops of their voices and kicking footballs that inevitably break windows, the way they laugh, sometimes, loud and happy, heads thrown back and eyes squinted shut with joy.

Gintoki sits and listens, and slowly, ever so slowly, the tension bleeds from his shoulders. And slowly, he begins to breathe again.

 

-x-

 

Here's the thing about Sakata Gintoki, that makes him more hero than villain, more good than bad.

He cares.

He'll do anything to keep the people precious to him safe. But once he's met someone, once he's seen them or talked to them or even bumped into them on the street, it's become personal.

"I'll pick up the stones in my path," he tells Otose once, as he's working his ass off to help an amanto who came to him for assistance. He's got scratches on his face and bruises beneath his sleeves, but his lazy smile is confident and fearless. "And help those I can."

"That sounds a damn lot like trying to save the world."

"Nah. I can't save the world for shit." He grins. "I know my limits."