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Killing Cold

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The demon is standing by her husband's gravestone, bloodied steel in his eyes and hair as white as her husband's ashes.

"Leave," she tells him. He looks at her and has the gall to look confused; she tastes dust and bitter ash in her mouth.

Of course he'd be confused, it's not like the demon would remember the name of every man he killed.

And yet he looks young, a mess of bruises and blood and too-thin limbs. His hair is matted with dirt and browning crimson, and his eyes are dull and empty, like there's no life in them, like there's no soul. Otose might have felt sorry for him, once upon a time, but-

"I don't need a demon to replace my husband," she says, calm and even. "I know the name of the one who killed him." She looks at him, even, measured, and there's something angry and hurting and sick in the base of her diaphragm, like a festering wound. "I don't need the Shiroyasha in my bar."

He doesn't flinch, not quite, but his shoulders slump and what little light was in his eyes goes out, leaving them dull and empty.

"Oh," he says, his voice a perfect monotone. He lifts a bruised, bloody hand and rubs it through his grimy hair.

This is the demon standing in front of her, the one that tried to kill Jirochou and killed Otose's husband instead, because Tatsugorou was a self-sacrificing idiot that would never let a friend die.

Otose can't even summon anger anymore, just exhaustion, just pain.

I gave my husband's offerings to his murderer, she thinks, and wants to be sick.

"He would have gone to the Joui," she says. "He would have joined you. They had a plan; in two weeks, they'd have made it out of the Bakafu. They could have been assets to the Joui." Otose doesn't spit the words - she says them slowly, carefully, sinking a knife into his chest and twisting, bit by bit, watching for signs of pain. "They could have been Joui spies. But you killed him. You ruined that chance for yourself."

The demon's face is a perfect blank. He looks her right in the eye, his own irises a dull, dried-blood brown. Impossible to read - empty, like there's no life left in him. Like he doesn't feel pain.

Otose feels so incredibly tired, so incredibly resigned. There's a hole in the base of her stomach where rage should be, and she isn't so much resentful as heartsick. "Just leave," she says. "Don't come back."

He nods slowly. She watches him go, his bare feet leaving red-stained prints in the snow.

"Wait," Otose says, and he stops. He doesn't lift his head, doesn't turn around. "Do you remember them? Terada Tatsugorou and Doromizu Jirouchou."

"No," the demon says. "The hell'd I remember everyone I killed?"

Otose thinks he should have fury in his words, mockery - but his voice is just empty, just hollow. She feels like they're just following a badly-written script, the murderer meets the victim, but the emotions are washed-out and worn down. She's too tired to care; she should have expected his words, but she was hoping-

-well. Hope doesn't matter at a time like this.

"Damn you," she says, and he chokes out a tattered laugh, the sound worn thin and fraying at the edges.

"Cheer up," he says. "I'm going to hell for sure."

He leaves for good this time. Otose watches him go.

 

-x-

 

He's so tired.

He should have died in prison, he thinks. At least the old man's kid could have sent him off. He could have died without breaking (another of) his damned promises.

He's thinking of staining a brat's hands with his dirty blood. A laugh stutters from his lips, falling in shreds to the floor.

Every step he takes is more energy than he can afford. He stopped feeling his feet a few hours ago, and there's fever in his cheeks and blood behind his eyes and something tearing apart his lungs in his chest. He can't breathe.

Only humans can save your soul, the old man said, but humans damned it, too, and how was it that he managed to almost forget that, almost believe that the demon could be saved? Their blood was smeared all over his red-crusted hands and dripped from the blade of his sword, and the people he left without their families, without fathers and husbands and brothers and sons-

-he can't breathe.

His chest is too tight, ropes wrapped around it like the day they took Shouyou, like the day Takasugi and Katsura were captured, like the day he lifted his sword and with his own damned hands he-

The stupid old man shouldn't have saved him, releasing a demon just for it to die. If he'd died in there then at least, at the very damn least, he could have died trading his life for a little girl's, made it something like worth it.

He could have died in a stupid parody of Shouyou's own stupid sacrifice. His breath catches in his too-tight throat and he stumbles. His shoulder hits a wall and he can't find the strength to push off; he leans against it and breathes juddering breaths and-

-do you remember them? Terenda Tatsugorou and Doromizu Jirouchou.

Yes, he wanted to say, the words rising in his throat like bile, like fingers reaching up to choke him.

Yes, he remembers them, he remembers them-

Tatsugorou threw himself before the Shiroyasha's blade and took a fatal blow for a friend - Tatsugorou stared the demon in the eye and snarled "Don't you touch him. I don't care what side you're from, touch him and you're dead." over and over until the Shiroyasha (foolishly, foolishly) promised not to hurt Jirouchou (and Jirouchou was standing, staring, blank eyed and shaking the way a child once did on the battlefield, bloody hands trembling so hard he thought they would come apart).

Tatsugourou died for a friend, died smiling a smile like Shouyou's - grinned and told his murderer to go, then, they never liked the Bakafu anyway. He was the man who held back his wild-eyed friend and said "stay with me in my last moments, asshole," when Jirouchou tried to throw himself forward to take the Shiroyasha's head.

And he remembers Jirouchou - how could he not? - that shaking man who watched a friend die in his arms, who lunged fury-wild at the Shiroyasha, eyes harder and darker than obsidian, face pale and strained and absolutely furious. Jirouchou, wide-eyed and angry, looking like someone had just shattered his world in front of him, who held his dying friend in shaking, shaking arms and snarled curse after curse after curse, who begged Tatsugourou to live-

Of course he remembers. Of course he remembers.

How the hell could he forget?

But that's not what that old lady wanted to hear. You don't want apologies from your husband's murderer - you don't want excuses, you sure as hell don't want a demon telling you that he was a good man, he died a good death; and what the hell is a good death anyway? Is there such a thing as a good death at all?

He's so tired. There's something cold and sick in his stomach and he's shaking, shaking like Jirouchou, shaking like the child he once was, shaking so hard he thinks he's going to come apart. His breath catches in his too-tight throat and his knees buckle with every step, and his blood is dripping to the snowy ground to dye ice crystals crimson-pink.

He falls asleep against a cold stone wall, fingers gone stiff with cold, new and old injuries alike throbbing with dull aching intensity. He dreams of blood and screaming and wild-eyed rage, wakes up whispering a shaking, sickened litany of apologies, like apologies were ever worth a damn. He tries to stand and his knees buckle, sending him to the ground. Frigid fingers press against icy stones, and he wants to throw up but lacks the strength to even retch. He wants to sleep and he wonders if it even matters that he might never wake up, wonders if it'd be so bad if the demon simply disappeared.

He pushes himself up anyway, because he's always been a survivor even if he doesn't know what he's surviving for. Picks up the pieces of himself with bloody hands. Walks on.

 

-x-

 

He stumbles, foot catching on his ankle, and he can't catch himself in time. His cheek hits the ground, slamming into concrete with tooth-jarring impact, and he can't summon the energy to move. He feels sick and there's something chewing at his stomach and there's blood in his mouth and he can't breathe, he can't move. He feels like he's underwater, walking in a waking dream (a living nightmare).

There is something warm and wet on the front of his gi. He presses a shaking hand to his stomach; when he lifts it up, trembling fingers are smeared with crimson blood. He must have opened some wound or another; he can't remember where he got it, doesn't know if it matters. There is blood on his hands that will not wash off with water and he does not know how to forgive himself.

Maybe it doesn't matter that he's going to die.

Tired eyes slide shut.

 

-x-

 

"Look, anu-ue, there's a guy on the ground-"

"Don't touch him, Shin-chan, he might be a drunkard, he might be dead-"

"Nah, he's not dead! Look, Tae-chan, Shin-boy, his chest's moving! We'll bring him to the dojo and he'll be fine!"

 

-x-

 

He opens his eyes.

There's a wood ceiling above him - good wood, sturdy, not mouldy or falling apart like the beams of the temples they use as bases.

He's warm, he realises, heavy sheets over his leaden limbs, and he wonders what sort of con Sakamoto and Katsura played this time, to get them into such a great place-

"You're awake!" A little boy's small face looms over his, and he jerks back, startled. He feels a gash in his back pull and bruises twinge, and winces.

Ah. He remembers, now - this is not the war, this is not the prison, this is not the graveyard. Sensei is dead and the executioner released him and the old woman told him to leave.

The kid's eyes are wide behind wire-rimmed glasses. "Sorry," the boy says. "Are you okay? We thought you were gonna die."

He looks around - warm light on wood walls, a vase of flowers to one side, a little boy staring at him with wide wide eyes - and wonders if he is dead.

"I'm Shimura Shinpachi," the boy says, drawing his attention again. The child's brown eyes are soft and wide. "What's your name?"

Shiroyasha, demon, monster, murderer-

-a summer day, years ago, with a gentle, smiling man, sky a deep endless blue and wheat a sea of liquid gold. You need a name. What would you like?

Alright, then, from now on, your name is-

"Gintoki," he says. His voice is cracked and breaking with disuse; he tries to clear it and winces when sharp-edged stones drag their way up his throat. The word feels strange on his lips, foreign and familiar both at once. (Yes, that is his name, that is his name, no one said that he had to be the demon to live.) "Sakata Gintoki."

"It suits you," Shinpachi says, sitting back, smiling big and wide.

He feels his lips curving into a grin (and he wonders how long it's been since he last smiled this wide). "Aa? Does it?"

"Yep!"

Something warm and soft settles into the pit of his stomach, like a blanket over frosted limbs.

"I'm glad," he says.

 

-x-

 

"Stupid brat," he says, two days later, leaning heavily against a wall. His body is still pathetically weak, bruises still prominent on his pale skin, but the dojo is warm and his fever is down. "Don't even think of it."

Shinpachi looks at him like a deer caught in headlights. "But if I don't, then Anu-ue will, and I don't wanna die."

"What about Obi-one?" Shinpachi makes a face. Gintoki wonders if anyone can even cook in this stupid house of theirs. "Your father?"

"He's teaching a class."

Gintoki sighs heavily. "Fine," he says, resigned to his fate. He holds out his hand. "Give me the frying pan, brat, I'm not letting a four-year-old kill himself in the kitchen."

"I'm six!"

"Same difference. Give me that, brat, or your sister's gonna come in and poison us all."

 

-x-

 

When he's a little better, he takes a bokuto from the dojo's wall and practices late at night when no one will see him, flying through practices he hasn't done since he was a child. His technique is different, now - more ruthless, more precise, strokes and movements flowing by like blood trickling through the gaps of his fingers - but it feels good to swing a sword for something other than to kill.

In the mornings, he makes breakfast and teaches brats shorter than his waist how to cook without killing them all.

He lives.