Title: A Samurai's Barley Tea is Unsweetened
Characters: Takasugi (main), Gintoki, Katsura, Sakamoto (cameos)
Length: 760 words
Summary: Memory is a prison.
Dedication: Written for ferrrox in the Gintama winter exchange (original post is community-locked); prompt takasugi + ???, "ships that pass in the night"
Beta: None. u_u
Concrit: Always welcome and appreciated.
The smell of barley tea does it this time.
One sharp, earthy whisper of long-gone summer heat, and Shinsuke's in the sweltering map room, doffing his overcoat and pouring from a fat glass pitcher.
"I don't know how you guys can drink the stuff," Gintoki offers from underneath what he calls his Personal Air Conditioning Arrangement, which is actually just a pile of cold wet rags. "It tastes like worms."
Tatsuma looks up from the ledger and laughs. "Kintoki, you've eaten worms? How else would you know what they taste like?"
Gintoki sits up a little. Several rags slide down his face and land on the floor beside him like exhausted fish. "I have not. It's a metaphor -- a metaphor!"
Zura turns from the map table and surveys the three of them with an irritated scowl. "Gintoki, if you're smart enough to know what a metaphor is, maybe you could contribute to the attack plan instead of just showing up to complain about the barley tea."
"Zura, your speeches are too long," Shinsuke says. "Besides, this guy's just learned a couple of fancy words in Jump. Doesn't make him smart."
"What did you say, Bakasugi?" Gintoki demands, shaking off the rest of the rags and glowering in Shinsuke's direction.
"I said you're an idiot," Shinsuke returns, setting his glass down. "Wanna make something of it?"
"It's not Zura, it's Katsura," Zura says.
Shinsuke and Gintoki round on him, their imminent fight temporarily forgotten. "What's with the delayed reaction?"
Zura's cheeks turn pink. "I was on standby."
Shinsuke shakes his head, and he is back on the ship again.
A loose panel creaks somewhere in the hull. The air is warmer; those hangers-on of Matako's must have fixed the heating unit after all. The scent of barley tea lingers, but Shinsuke has no wish to remember that pitiful quartet of boys playing at war. They were too old to be playing games, but that was okay, because the war was real.
"The war is real," Shinsuke murmurs and taps the ashes out of his kiseru.
As always, he tries to hear them plop into the brazier. Shouyou-sensei used to say that a focussed mind can perceive the faintest of all things. As always, Shinsuke's mind is not up to the task: the ashes have fallen, but all he hears is the creaky panel and the echo of his own words: the war is real.
"Give me a break," Gintoki says to him. "You're worse than Zura. The war is over; we lost. Get over it."
Shinsuke isn't even surprised any more. Ever since the two of them met again, Gintoki has taken up residence in Shinsuke's mind. Trying to ignore him or will him away doesn't work; nothing does. Every time, Shinsuke has to wait for Gintoki to get bored and wander away.
Shinsuke isn't insane: he understands it's impossible for one person to live inside another's mind on their own. He knows that the Gintoki in his mind is spun from Shinsuke's memories, like the slavering beast in his mind is made of all the things he can't afford to feel.
He likes the beast better. In the beast's estimation, Shinsuke can do no wrong. Gintoki just makes fun of him. In the past, Shinsuke always got the better of Gintoki when they argued, but the man he saw again in Edo was not the same Gintoki who left them behind the day after Tatsuma did.
Gintoki's departure convinced Shinsuke that their little band of outlaws outlived its usefulness. For all their shared history, they were four people with different goals. Gintoki wanted peace, Zura wanted justice, Tatsuma wanted order, and Shinsuke wanted revenge. Despite the pretense of a bond they called friendship, they were nothing more than ships that pass in the night.
"Are you stupid?" Gintoki asks him. "Who's a ship? The only one on a ship is you, and it's always night out here. You're in space, you freak."
"Shut up," Shinsuke growls. "Get lost."
For a wonder, Gintoki vanishes. Shinsuke re-lights his kiseru and blows smoke into the semi-darkness of his berth, waiting for the beast to surface. It never talks to Shinsuke when Gintoki's around. Shinsuke would like to think that the beast merely crouches, waiting to pounce on the intruder, but he knows it's not true. The beast is afraid of Gintoki.
"That's all right," Shinsuke whispers, unsure if he's talking to himself or to the beast. "When I cut him down, he'll disappear."
Hell, he doesn't even mind if the strange gluttonous Yato critter takes care of Gintoki. Once he is gone, pointless memories won't trouble Shinsuke again.
He closes his eyes. The ship hurtles on, towards Earth.
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow