The snow is damp against Katsura’s cheek, and he wipes it away quickly, grimacing at the cloudy winter sky. The cold is bitter and seeps through all his layers, and he wishes dearly that the Shinsengumi would have the decency to quit chasing him out of his hideouts during the winter months. You would think they didn’t care if he were to freeze to death in the streets! Absolutely rotten sportsmanship.
He sighs, hurrying down the street and keeping an eye out for any places to hole up. It takes him a moment, but he realizes that they’ve chased him all the way to the center of Kabukicho, and thinks with relief that there must be a love hotel somewhere close by. Not his first choice, but at least they don’t ask quest–
A snowball collides with the side of his head, nearly knocking him face first into the snow.
“Kagura-chan!” a familiar voice reproaches.
“What? It’s his own fault. He’s the one who says that a true samurai is always on his guard, uh-huh.”
Katsura stands up, brushing the snow from his haori, and clears his throat. “A true samurai also doesn’t sneak attack an unarmed man, Leader.”
“You’re always armed, Zura. I bet you’ve got a dozen bombs in your sleeve.”
“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura. And a true samurai’s soul is in his blade, so he always keeps it on his person.”
“But you don’t have a sword on you.”
Zura pats his side, where he normally keeps his katana, only to find empty air. He must have left it behind when the Shinsengumi chased him out.
“Ah. Well, a true samurai doesn’t sweat the small stuff.”
“I’m sorry, Katsura-san,” Shinpachi sighs, pressing a hand warmer into Katsura’s palm. “Are you okay? Your clothes are practically soaked now…”
“No need to worry,” he says, patting Shinpachi’s head fondly (if a little condescendingly). “As they say, only idiots catch cold.”
“That’s ‘idiots never catch cold,’” says yet another familiar voice from behind him. “But I guess that means you’re safe, Zura.”
Zura folds his arms and turns to face Gintoki with great dignity. “I’ll have you know, I’m more than capable of catching anything I’d like.”
“Yeah, I don’t doubt you.” He shifts a bag of groceries on his hip and gives Shinpachi a swift kick as the boy kneels in the snow, making snow bunnies. “Oi, the hell are you two doing? I told you to man the phone while I did the shopping.”
“We got bored, Gin-chan.”
“Yeah, well, you get a pass for nailing Zura in the face. Shinpachi, you have to prep for hot pot and wash the dishes.”
Shinpachi responds with a snowball launched directly at Gin’s face. He swiftly dodges, and it hits Zura once again instead.
Kagura snorts and smacks her knee. “Zura, your face must attract them, yes? It’s like some kind of Christmas mirac–“
She is silenced by another snowball flying at her head.
“It’s as you said before,” Zura says, wiping his hands. “A true samurai is always on guard.”
Leader’s eyes glint as she presses another snowball in her mitts. “Oh, it’s on , yellow curry ninja.”
It’s a good twenty minutes before any of them remember the groceries.
With a little bit of wheedling and a promise to help with the cooking, Zura convinces Gintoki to let him lay low and stay the night on the office couch. The Shinsengumi seem to respect Gintoki enough not to bother him at home, so long as Zura doesn’t make a habit of staying there. And the kids seem quite eager to resume their snowball fight the next morning, so it’s a win win, Zura says.
“Just pull your weight,” Gintoki mumbles, handing him a knife to help with chopping the vegetables. Strangely, he seems to have forgotten designating the task to Shinpachi.
The knife in Zura’s hands has a certain weight to it, different from the way a katana feels, but somehow heavier. On his right, Gintoki chops away at some mushrooms with a practiced hand, wearing his silly strawberry apron. On his left, he can see Shinpachi and Kagura setting up a kotatsu, laughing and bickering. He wonders what he looks like to them, standing in the middle of it all, awkward and out of place.
He decides it doesn’t matter, since it’s only for a night.
When they finish prepping the vegetables, Zura can’t help but think that Gin’s look much tastier than his own.
As usual, the dinner becomes an absolute madhouse, more akin to a battlefield than anything as they all vie for at least one bite of meat. Zura doesn’t really mind. This part comes naturally.
When all is said and done, the kids nearly fall asleep right there on the floor under the kotatsu, their bellies warm and full. Even Gintoki and Zura start to feel that tug at the corners of their eyes, and waste no time in clearing up the dishes. Shinpachi carries Kagura, already asleep, to her closet and tucks her in for the night while Gintoki drags Zura to the kitchen to help with the washing.
This, too, feels strange. Zura can’t quite understand why. He’s cooked for himself nearly his whole life, and done plenty of dishes. Why does a sponge feel so unwieldy in his hands? Or maybe it’s the dishes that don’t quite fit right. Like they weren’t made for his grip. Not like Gintoki, who scrubs away without even thinking, like he knows every nook and cranny of them.
“Pick up the pace, Zura,” he says suddenly, nudging him with an elbow. “I don’t have all night.”
“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura. And I know perfectly well that you’ll sleep in until noon no matter when you go to bed.”
Gintoki clicks his tongue and rolls his eyes at that. “I have an office to run, asshole. And a kid to cook breakfast for. I’m not fourteen anymore, you know.”
Katsura’s hand slips a little. For some reason, that cuts far deeper than Katsura knows he meant it to.
“...You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Gin blinks, a little taken aback. “Uh… don’t mention it.”
The two of them fall into an uncomfortable silence as they finish the washing. Sometimes, Katsura thinks maybe Gin wants to say something, but when he glances over at him, he thinks he must have imagined it.
When the dishes are dried and put away, Gin yawns, stretching his arms almost high enough to brush the low ceiling.
“God, I’m exhausted,” he mumbles, and he looks it. “I’m gonna hit the sack, Zura.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” When his hands come back down, one of them gives Katsura a pat on the back. He may be imagining it, but he thinks maybe it lingers there for just a moment.
When Gin retires to his room for the night, Katsura lets out a long breath. Shinpachi has already passed out on one of the couches, so Katsura lays down on the other one. In the dark, he feels his hand brush something soft and realizes that Shinpachi must have laid out a blanket for him. When he glances over at the boy, he sighs. He’s entirely uncovered.
Katsura gathers up the blanket in his arms and crosses the room to the boy, who he sees is shivering in the cool winter night.
Typical of him , he thinks. He probably still feels bad about the snowball.
Gently, careful not to wake him, Katsura tucks the blanket around his shoulders. He can’t help but feel that he fumbles with it, but luckily Shinpachi is out for the count. He removes the glasses still splayed crookedly over Shinpachi’s face and carefully sets them on the table.
“Thanks,” he says quietly, and he reaches into his sleeve for the hand warmer that Shinpachi gave him earlier. “But this will do.”
He then curls up on the couch with a shiver, clutching the hand warmer close and ignoring the scratchy feeling in the back of his throat.
“...ra… Zura… Zura .”
Katsura wakes up with a jolt, startled by a rough hand on his shoulder. He blinks and squints blearily, and Gin’s face slowly materializes in front of him.
He tries to speak, but his throat is too swollen and he winces.
“Jesus,” Gin says softly, trying not to wake Shinpachi, still snoring on the other couch. “You were wheezing so bad in your sleep I thought somebody broke in with a really old, shitty vacuum. Where the hell is your blanket? Are you trying to catch a cold?”
Katsura finally manages to clear his throat. “I gave it to Shinpachi-kun,” he says, with as much dignity as he can muster from his raspy voice. “He didn’t have one.”
Gin stares. He walks over to Shinpachi’s couch, squinting in the dim morning light, and bends down to grab something from the floor. When he stands back up, he’s holding a blanket.
Gin rolls his eyes and crosses the room again to tuck the blanket that must have slipped off of Shinpachi around Katsura’s shoulders. “We have more blankets in the linen closet, too, you know.”
“You can help yourself to stuff like that. I thought by now you’d know where we keep everything.”
“God, even when you’re only saying one syllable, you sound awful. Hang on, I’ll make some tea. I’ve already got breakfast cooking.”
Sure enough, Katsura can already smell warm, rich miso wafting from the kitchen.
“I’ll help,” he croaks, standing up.
“Like hell you will. Keep your snotty ass out of my kitchen.”
He would protest if he could, but Gin has already ducked back into the kitchen, and just standing is enough to make Katsura feel dizzy and ill. He feels a chill creep along his skin and wraps the blanket more tightly around himself. That can’t be good.
He realizes he’s still clutching the hand warmer Shinpachi gave him, but it’s fully used up now, clinging to the warmth of his own hands. He sets it on the coffee table and sighs.
The winter sun still hasn’t quite made up its mind to rise, so the apartment is bathed in cool, blue light. On mornings like this, Katsura feels an odd, uncomfortable nostalgia that usually compels him to go back to sleep. He feels it even more strongly here – from the kitchen, he can hear Gin humming quietly to himself as he bustles about with pots and pans and bowls, and across from him, Shinpachi snores just a little. In this quiet winter morning, wrapped in hazy light, it feels too liminal. Like a dream that he’s awoken from, but hasn’t quite shaken off.
Startling him from his thoughts, the closet door rattles open, and Leader shuffles out with a yawn. Sadaharu follows at her heel (or more like her head).
“Mornin’, Zura,” she mumbles, rubbing her eyes.
“Good morning. It’s not Zura.”
She pulls a face the moment he opens his mouth. “You sound terrible, uh-huh.”
“The cold air just makes my throat dry. I’ll be fine.”
She wanders into the kitchen and is immediately shooed back out, glaring over her shoulder. Shinpachi wakes with a start as she plops down next to him, unceremoniously shoving his legs out of her way. Now it’s his turn to glare – or perhaps he just can’t see her very well.
“Good morning to you, too,” he grumbles, feeling around the table for his glasses. “You could have sat with Katsura-san.”
“I don’t want his germs.”
Shinpachi blinks. “Germs?” He rubs his eyes a little, looking back at Katsura with concern. “Are you sick?”
“He’s always sick,” Kagura says sagely.
“I’m fine,” Katsura assures, but his voice betrays him. Shinpachi winces.
“I’ll make you some tea–”
“Already done,” Gin says, carrying a tray with the morning’s breakfast. “Quit your fretting and eat, Nurse Joy.”
“That reference doesn’t even make sense . He’s not a pokemon.”
“Human nurses have surely given up on him by now.”
“I’m not sick,” Katsura huffs, taking a sip of tea. “I’ll be fine once my throat is less dry.”
“If you say so,” Gin shrugs, but Katsura thinks his eyes linger on him just a little too long.
Breakfast passes much the same as dinner, full of bickering and chatter, but Katsura is mostly silent. Despite his reassurances, his throat feels like it’s swelling up more and more every minute, and talking becomes increasingly painful. And what’s more, though he never catches him staring, he feels Gin’s eyes on him for the entire meal.
Something about it pisses him off.
When the meal is done, Katsura stands up to clear the dishes.
“I got that, Zura,” Gin says, motioning for him to sit down.
“It’s fine. You cooked, I’ll clean.”
“It’s no trouble, Katsura-san,” Shinpachi says, quickly gathering up his own dishes. “You look a bit pale. We can take care of it.”
“It’s fine. I told you, I feel fine.”
“Zura?” Kagura says, now looking concerned. “You don’t sound so good.”
“I just said , I… I’m…”
And just like that, the world collapses from under him, and without knowing how he got there, he finds himself on the floor. A great clatter makes his ears ring as the dishes follow him to the ground, and then everyone is standing up and saying something to him, but he can’t quite make out what.
And then a familiar pair of hands cuts through the haze, hauling him back up from the floor.
“Cmon, up ya go,” Gintoki grunts, ducking underneath one of Zura’s arms and wrapping his own around Zura’s waist. “I’ve got you.”
Zura leans against him heavily, too disoriented to feel embarrassed at his display.
“You two, scoot on downstairs,” Gin says over his shoulder. “Last thing I need is for you to get sick again. I’ll handle it.”
Reluctantly, the kids obey, hurrying out the door to the Snack Bar below. Curiously, Sadaharu does not follow them, instead watching the two adults sleepily from his spot by the table.
For some reason, it’s the dog that makes Zura start to feel embarrassed.
“I can walk–” he starts, but Gintoki just gives him a look . The kind that he gave him when they were children and Zura wanted to go just one more round at the dojo.
He relents and lets Gintoki guide him into the other room.
And suddenly, unceremoniously, Zura finds himself lying in a futon. Before he can reproach Gintoki’s boorish bedside manner, he feels a blanket draped over him, and then another futon.
“Rest,” Gintoki barks. “Now.”
Zura’s mouth, open as if to retort, slowly closes again. He scoffs instead and rolls over with his back to Gintoki, curling up a little in the warmth of the blanket. He’s loath to admit that he had been shivering. But of course Gintoki would notice. Damn him.
Zura hears the sliding door and Gintoki shuffling off into the other room, and then all is quiet. Nothing but muffled sounds from the kitchen and Zura’s own stifled cough.
He curls up more tightly, his mood souring by the minute. It’s unbecoming of a samurai to get his ass handed to him by a stupid common cold, he thinks. Even more so to push himself so hard that he collapses in front of kids who (debatably) look up to him. Most unbecoming.
In spite of his unpleasant thoughts, he can feel the exhaustion slowly taking hold and begins to fall into a troubled sleep – when suddenly the door rattles open again and rouses him.
Before he can speak, he’s surprised by a cool hand on his forehead, then his cheek. Its owner lets out a tut, brushing the sweaty hair from his face. “Jesus, Zura, how were you even standing? You’re burning up.”
Katsura meant to say something. He knows he did. But the words have escaped him, and he shivers from something other than fever.
“Fucking hell you’re pale, too. You look like you saw a ghost.”
For a moment, he really thought that he did. But he decides not to tell Gin that.
Probably thinking that Zura isn’t lucid enough to respond, Gintoki reaches into a bowl of water and pulls out a rag. He wrings it out and then gets to work wiping the sweat from his face and neck. Once satisfied, he rinses the rag again and presses it gently to Zura’s temple.
“...You’re good at that.”
Gintoki scoffs. “‘Course I am. I’ve nursed your ass back to health plenty of times.”
“Yeah, but...” Zura lets the sentence hang, his mind still badly drifting from the fever. He wants to say, it’s different , but he doesn’t know how to explain it.
“Leader and Shinpachi-kun... do they get sick often?”
“God, only every cold season. The whole place turns into some kinda convalescent home. Or more like a germ factory. That’s why I told them to scram.”
That would explain it. The gentle hands on his face that, for just a moment, made him think they belonged to someone else. That Zura was someone else.
Zura’s own hands come to rest on his stomach, and he wonders.
“...Sorry about your dishes,” he says, almost too quiet for Gintoki to hear.
“Just dishes,” Gin shrugs. “Nobody got hurt. What was that, though?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“Yeah, I could tell.” He smiles as he says it, a little bemused, a little… well, Zura isn’t sure exactly what. He just knows that he suddenly doesn’t want to look Gintoki in the eye.
Gin ducks out of the room again for a moment, and Zura closes his eyes. Lets out a breath. His shivers are starting to subside, but his body feels heavy and sore. He feels tired enough to fall asleep, if he wasn’t so deeply uncomfortable in almost every way – sore throat, sweaty clothes, aching limbs. And another feeling that’s more difficult to place, and the inability to identify it only makes him more uncomfortable. All he knows is that when he closes his eyes, he sees Gin.
Gin, humming to himself as he cooks breakfast. Gin, absently stroking Kagura’s hair as she naps beside him under the kotatsu. Gin, resting a hand on Katsura’s forehead in the same way Shouyou-sensei would have done when they were children – and yet, not at all like Shouyou-sensei. Not at all like Gintoki. Like Yorozuya Gin-chan. And it isn’t Zura beside him, but Katsura.
He isn’t sure how these two people fit together anymore.
When Gin comes back into the room, he’s carrying a bottle of aspirin and a glass of water. He helps Katsura sit up and take the pill, one hand resting gently on the back of his head. Once Katsura has taken the pill, however, he doesn’t let him lay back down. Instead, he runs his fingers through Katsura’s hair, causing him to go red from something other than fever.
“W-What are you doing?” he asks hoarsely.
Gin raises an eyebrow at him. “Same thing we always used to do when you were sick? Your hair gets all tangled and fucked up if you don’t braid it. I’ve told you a billion times to just cut it.”
Katsura’s heart settles and he clears his throat. “Right. T-Thank you.”
It’s been years since Gintoki braided his hair, but he still works just as deftly, and Zura feels that same sleepy feeling that it always gave him when they were children. Gintoki runs his fingers slowly through each plait, making sure there are no knots or snarls.
“You’re still pretty good at that.”
“Heh, I braid Kagura’s hair sometimes in the morning. But hers isn’t nearly as long as yours.”
Gin pauses, winding one of the plaits around his fingers. “Hey… you seemed kinda tense before.”
Katsura’s breath catches in his throat. “Did I?”
“You know you can… y’know. Talk to me about stuff, right?” Gin resumes braiding, winding each plait around each other. “I know it’s… well, it’s been a while. But if I said something wrong–”
“No,” Katsura says quickly. “No… it’s… no. You’re fine.”
Gin doesn’t respond, just continues braiding. When he finally gets to the end of it, he lets out a frustrated tut and undoes it, starting again.
“...It’s just weird,” Zura says quietly. “I feel weird.”
“It’s… not weird to me,” Gin murmurs. “Or the other two. They like having you around.”
“Yeah, but it’s… god, I don’t know, Gintoki. I don’t know what it is. It just… it’s not… it doesn’t feel like this is… like I’m supposed to be here.”
It doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to be here, either, Katsura thinks, but the thought disgusts him.
“...It doesn’t have to be here,” Gin says softly.
But you could stay, if you wanted, remains unspoken, but understood.
He holds the end of the braid in one hand and loosens any tight spots with the other. “You could… well, you know. You could go anywhere. Do anything.”
If you started everything over. All too well, they understand.
He’s long since lost that resentment that burned in the pit of his stomach the first time he saw Gintoki again. If he ever thought that Gin was taking the easy way out, he knows better now. Starting over is the hardest thing Gintoki could have done. That’s why… Zura can’t do it. All he’s ever wanted to be is Zura. And there’s already so little left to remind him what that means. He just wants… something to remain the same. Even if it’s himself. He has to give Gintoki… Takasugi… something to hold onto.
Or maybe he’s the one desperately holding onto them.
“I… I’ll think about it.”
They don’t talk about it again.
Once Gin’s work is done, he ties off the end of Zura’s braid and runs his fingers along it one last time. He helps him lie back down and tucks the covers around his shoulders. Zura closes his eyes, letting out a long, shaky breath. Just sitting up has already taken a great deal out of him.
“Get some sleep,” Gin says flatly, cleaning up his supplies with a briskness that reminds Zura more of the Gintoki who tended his wounds behind enemy lines when they were teens. “I hope you know that if the Shinsengumi come knocking on my door, I’m definitely gonna turn you in.”
Zura coughs. “I expected nothing less.”
“Heh. So hurry up and get better so you can make your escape.”
Gintoki’s hand lingers as he closes the door. “And, uh…”
Zura looks at him quizzically, but Gin just shakes his head and clicks his tongue. “Nevermind,” he murmurs. “I’ll wake you up for lunch later.”
When he leaves, Zura feels sleep begin to overtake him. The sun finally peeks above the rooftops, warming Zura’s cheek. He can hear the soft swish of Gintoki’s broom against the floorboards as he cleans up the broken dishes. He curls more tightly into the futon and lets it all carry him off to sleep.
“How are you feeling, Kotaro?”
Zura peers blearily up at his teacher. The sun is rising behind him, obscuring his face, but Zura already knows he’s smiling. As always.
“Tired…” he mumbles. “Really tired.”
Shouyou reaches over, laying a hand on his head and stroking his hair affectionately. “That’s okay. You can rest. You’ve done well.”
Zura sighs, warm and comfortable. The sun continues to rise as he starts to drift again.
“I’ll be right here.”
A warm, gentle breeze whistles through the pines and Zura falls asleep, holding his teacher’s hand.
“I always will.”
When Zura awakes, he finds that that warm, gentle breeze smells damned awful. He opens his eyes, but it doesn’t do him much good – the room is dark, lit only by a sliver of moonlight from the window.
But even in the dark, he can see the glint of Sadaharu’s eyes in front of his face.
Zura coughs weakly, waving his free hand in front of his nose to try to diffuse Sadaharu’s dog breath. He has no clue how the dog got into Gintoki’s room, but–
Ah. He suddenly realizes what he’s holding in his other hand.
Through the dark, he can just barely make out the outline of Gintoki’s form slumped against Sadaharu. Zura guesses that Gintoki came in to keep an eye on his condition, but he appears to be asleep, his head lolling forward. Which is good news for Zura, who is now very acutely aware that he is clutching Gintoki’s hand.
He hesitates to move. Is Gintoki really asleep? Was he awake when Zura grabbed his hand? Or did Gintoki grab his? He decides his head hurts too bad to worry about it. Though, he also doesn’t let go.
Sadaharu stirs as he apparently notices Zura’s awakening, sniffing softly and pressing his cool nose to Zura’s forehead. Zura lets out a breath, reaching out to pat his snout with his other hand.
“You’re awfully friendly today, Sadaharu-dono,” he murmurs. “Were you worried about me?”
Sadaharu only thumps his tail a little in response.
“Well, you shouldn’t be, you know. None of you should worry. I’m doing just fine on my own.”
It’s only when I’m around you all that I waver , he thinks.
Zura suddenly realizes that his thumb is trailing gentle circles over the bottom of Gintoki’s palm, the way it might have done many, many years ago. It’s odd, how easily he slips into his old habits around him, even now.
His hand has a few new scars and callouses that Zura doesn’t recognize, more likely from honest work than swinging a sword. But the overall shape of it is still familiar, pressed against his own. He still isn’t sure how Yorozuya Gin-chan and Katsura fit together, but this, at least, feels right.
“You’re all such good people,” he whispers into Sadaharu’s cheek. “I just don’t know how to be like you.”
Maybe he doesn’t have to.
You can rest. You’ve done well.
Zura closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He laces his fingers between Gintoki’s. Maybe his own hands can’t do what Gin’s do, but maybe that’s all right. As long as they can still recognize each other’s shapes, the rest will fit into place.
He drifts back off to sleep, still holding Gintoki’s hand close. If he notices Gin’s fingers just barely moving to fit better between his own, he pretends not to.
“Ta-da!” Kagura proudly holds out a terrible mess of glue and porcelain. “We fixed the bowl!”
“ Tried to, anyway,” Shinpachi murmurs, a little red. “I don’t think we did it right.”
Gin shakes his head incredulously. “What the hell is this?! I told you two to stay the night with Otae! Did you break in to fix my bowl? And you could have cut yourself on the pieces!”
“Gin-chan, you ungrateful jerk!” Kagura holds the refurbished dish close to her chest, looking genuinely offended. “We worked really hard! It’s just shaped a little different, but it’s still the same bowl!”
Shinpachi coughs. “Erm, well, mostly. I’m pretty sure we were missing some pieces.”
“Zura, you like it, right?” Kagura huffs, whirling around to face him with her best puppy dog eyes. “It’s way cooler now, yes?”
Zura reaches out and takes the bowl. He thinks it fits a little better in his grip now.
He smiles. “It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura.”