Disclaimer: Sorachi owns Gintama, not I.
NOTE ON THE TEXT: (*) means end of flashback.
How Fools Fall In Love
Chapter 3: Moving On is Like Moving Back
It was half past midnight and they were on their second bar. Kondo was ecstatic, his happiness riding its ultimate peak. Yamazaki was there too, eager to be of service and keeping the drinks coming. Other familiar faces were there as well, mostly guys from the kendo club who knew Hijikata from back in the day and also some new members who, though not very interested in meeting him, were definitely keen on attending his party. Their presence didn't bother him as much as one would expect. Hijikata's return had been spoiled before the celebration had even begun.
Less than a month ago, Hijikata had been promoted to a high-ranking position in the Bureau after years of service in the force as Police Inspector. He had been given the choice to either keep working for Superintendent or go further in the administration and start climbing the executive ladder. Loyal to his ambition, Hijikata had chosen the latter. The transition had been smooth and effortless and he was ready to commit himself to the seas of bureaucratic work, when he was relocated to a suburb of Tokyo he knew only too well. He was put in charge of the district's administrative division and sent off with a pat on the back. The shock had been immense. Torn between rapture and distress, Hijikata had had no idea what to make of his future. He had tried to ignore all possible scenarios such a transfer entailed. Resigning was out of the question and it was beneath him to quit for petty personal reasons. He still remembered the sleepless nights of staring at the ceiling and letting the situation sink in, yet the numbness didn't last. He was aware of the transfer's good aspects and he acted promptly on them, calling Kondo and a few other acquaintances to help him with the move. In less than a week he had packed his bags and said goodbye to his old life.
The train ride to Tokyo had felt like a journey back in time. Hijikata's buried regrets seemed to fuel the engines. More than once did he stand up decided to go back.
Fortunately, his arrival had contrived to keep his insecurities at bay. At the last minute Kondo had been unable to welcome him at the station and a heavenly convoy was sent in his stead. When Hijikata saw Mitsuba amidst the bustling crowd at the train station his heart filled with warmth. He couldn't help but reciprocate the gentle smile on her face. He knew then he had made the right choice. Perhaps it was time to finally give in, he thought. All those years of evading her with work excuses and long distances were over. But there were other emotions at play behind his smile and Hijikata couldn't help but hold her image with worry. He accepted her invitation to tea almost out of guilt. The prospect of meeting Sougo again wasn't the least bit appealing, the horror of adolescence plaguing Hijikata's mind, yet he complied all the same. Indulging Mitsuba seemed to be everything he had left.
Surprisingly, she turned out to be the catalyst to his fears. That or just plain old fate. Hijikata wasn't sure at first. He had been smoking a cigarette by her front door when a crash shut him out of his reverie. Looking behind him, he could almost swear he had glimpsed a heap of silver hair disappearing down the hallway. But for a while Hijikata had remained in ignorance, finding no courage to ask Mitsuba about her neighbor. Besides, he wasn't certain if he really wanted an answer. To him it might as well have been an hallucination.
Alas, a day later he found out is wasn't so. And now here he was, twirling his drink in a haze, unable to stop thinking about his awful luck.
All around him people partied and laughed. They offered him drinks and congratulations but Hijikata couldn't let go of his misery. Of all things terrible in the world, he had to be stuck with the worst, even Mitsuba had to be tainted by that, that...
"Hijikata-san!" Yamazaki interrupted his thoughts with a big smile and hands full. He placed two shot glasses in the table in front of him and nudged Hijikata's arm "One for the promotion and one for the new apartment, come on!"
Hijikata eyed the cocktails with aversion. He gulped one down just to shut him up, after which loud cheers compelled him to finish the other. Kondo appeared out of nowhere with a big sake bottle and gave him an invigorating shake of shoulders. His elation was contagious.
"Now Toshi, you're gonna finish this one by yourself! Let's see how well you hold your liquor!"
Hijikata's prudent nature tried to fight off the challenge but he was too tired from fighting his own demons to start another argument. Pushing Kondo away was more than he could handle. He obliged his friend's request and let the alcohol assuage what his mind could not.
10 YEARS AGO
It was late in the afternoon. Hijikata had been poring over his books for over two hours, not noticing the shadows taking over the room and the sunlight dim to a bare orange glow. His head had started to ache when the words became too difficult to read in the dark, and he swore loudly as he stomped to the switch and flicked on the lights. Once he surveyed the empty room though, a smile came over his lips and he sat by his desk with such relief that it became impossible to further concentrate on anything except his own happiness.
It was unbelievable how in just two weeks he had forgotten what it was like to have some space of his own, some room to actually breathe. Hijikata didn't even want to know where the dunce had gone off to. He might as well never return. Coming home to find a deserted room began to feel like something Hijikata couldn't live without, or at least a big fucking improvement from yelling at Gintoki and shoving him to his side of the room, and keeping his mess from littering the whole fucking place. Snacks, magazines, comics, empty cans, if it was trash it was Gintoki's and Hijikata spent half his time ranting about it instead of studying.
Hence the change felt good, refreshing, ideal. Hijikata wanted everyday to be like this. Even the rest of the dorm seemed at peace when the moron wasn't around.
He climbed down the stairs to the common room, or living room, or whatever it was they all congregated to at some point in their daily lives, and he found Yamazaki watching TV with a bag of anpans on his lap.
"Hello Hijikata-san, wanna watch some badminton?"
Hijikata's eyes turned to the television screen and he sighed.
"No." was the reply, yet he sat down all the same.
"Quiet today, isn't it?" Yamazaki said, fishing for something to talk about.
"Is Kondo at the dojo?"
"Yeah, practice," Yamazaki said. He shook the bag on his lap and offered him some "anpan?"
Hijikata glanced at it just to wrench his eyes away from the stupid badminton game.
"Got some mayo?"
In that moment Katsura came in, feet dragging but silent. He had dark bags under his eyes and slumped on the seat in front of them.
"There's something terribly wrong with you, Hijikata-kun." he wailed while looking at the ceiling.
Hijikata and Yamazaki followed his gaze up and, finding nothing of notice there, turned back to the TV, the former with a scowl and the latter with worry.
Katsura wasn't a third as bad as Hijikata's Enemy, the roomate of hell, but he shared something of Gintoki's aloofness and overall stupidity. When Hijikata had first arrived to the dorm and gone on his quick tour with Kondo, the door to Katsura's room had intrigued him to say the least. He expected another creep to live there, never coming out and never socializing. He wasn't too far off the mark, except Katsura did make an appearance here and there at the most random hours. One day Hijikata had woken up at four o'clock to take a piss and walking by the common room to the toilet, he caught Katsura there watching a rerun of an old TV show about the late shogunate period, all dressed up in accordance too. Hijikata had never asked him about it and he had no wish to, but he could at last connect the screams that every now and then came from his locked room to some reenactment of the bakufu wars. Some nerd he was.
"You look tired Katsura-san, up all night working on your thesis again?"
Another person coming in interrupted Yamazaki's question. He dropped a pack of beer on the low table between them and slumped down next to Hijikata, jostling against him in the process.
"Does he do anything else?" Gintoki's voice rang with sarcasm and he turned slightly to the side addressing Hijikata "Scoot over."
"Watch it!" Hijikata snapped. The ease and content hosted in his lofty ribcage escaped in one long exhalation.
Katsura and Yamazaki flocked over to the table and everyone reached out for a can of beer. Gintoki slapped their hands off and pulled the six pack towards himself.
"Get your filthy hands off my hard labor, you cherry boy get on with your badminton crap, Zura," he paused to examine him and then continued his tirade "last time I saw you was four days ago and you're still wearing that?" the article in question was the white t-shirt with the penguin-like imprint Hijikata had always seen Kastura wear in their few encounters "You think this is Gutsy Frog? Is the duck gonna come out and talk to you in secret? Help you with your thesis? Pfffa!" Gintoki threw his head back in laughter and opened a can of beer. However, his mirth was short lived because as he did so, the beer spewed out and doused him all over. Yamazaki and Katsura broke into an obnoxious cackling and even Hijikata could not contain a loud guffaw.
"Serves you right." Hijikata told him.
Gintoki grumbled indignantly but he no longer prevented their attempts to snatch a beer. He fumbled with his soaked shirt and brushed the foam off his pants. Hijikata was about to take his first sip when he felt the splatter reach him.
"Stop that shit and go take a shower, you stink!" he cried out, crawling away from Gintoki.
"Indeed, you look disgusting Gintoki." Katsura added.
"Shut up Zura, nobody asked you. It's not my fault the beer is defective!" Gintoki growled.
"Your brain is defective!" Hijikata rebuffed.
"Oh yeah?" Gintoki shot him a daring look and grabbed another beer can. He shook it and then aiming at Hijikata, he pulled the tab. The fight that ensued was inevitable. Both reeked of beer by the end of it without having enjoyed the tiniest drop. Yamazaki managed to hold back Hijikata by the arms and Katsura pulled Gintoki by the shirt almost asphyxiating him.
"I swear, we can't have one good thing in this house without this asshole ruining it!" Gintoki said out of breath, pointing an accusing finger at Hijikata.
"Everything was fine until you arrived! Why don't you crawl back to your hole, fucktard!"
The abuse continued and both missed Kondo's strides in the hallway as he ran to the bathroom. Yamazaki tried to nudge Hijikata and give him a hint, but the latter was too blinded by fury to listen. When Gintoki and Hijikata finally managed to move the topic of their argument to who was going to shower first, the sound of running water silenced them. Yamazaki and Katsura released their grips on the howling idiots and Katsura cleared his throat.
"There's always the bath house." he said solemnly. He finished his beer and went back to shut himself in his room.
"He's right, it's just two blocks down," Yamazaki said "and you know Kondo-san. He likes to take a nap in the tub."
Hijikata grimaced. The thought of the bath house annoyed him to no end, though his clothes rank, he was soaked in beer and he refused to spend another minute in that state; not to mention his threshold for taking Gintoki's bullshit was all but spent. He stood up without another word and grabbing a change of clothes, went out. He walked in a furious step, teeth clenched. He could barely remember his happy disposition half an hour ago. Going downstairs had been a terrible idea. He should have enjoyed more of that solitary solace in his room.
With a sigh, Hijikata turned a corner. He glimpsed briefly at the traffic mirror and that was when he caught him. The stalker on his heels. He felt like screaming.
"What the fuck are you following me around for?!" he did scream.
Gintoki was unfazed, his expression as nonchalant as ever. When he wasn't being equally boisterous as Hijikata, his natural apathy towards the world and its inhabitants was perhaps the most infuriating thing Hijikata had ever suffered. Gintoki's indifference might have been shrouded by a luring sense of mystery at first, but after two weeks of living and breathing the same air, Hijikata could assert with all certainty Gintoki was just a careless self-centered fool. Those strange red eyes were just that. Red. Unusual. Hijikata could admit for the sake of the argument he felt disappointed after knowing the guy, but that was it. Gintoki was disappointment, not to mention stupidity, annoyance and worthlessness.
"There's only one bath house around here and it's communal, get that around your hick brain." Gintoki said, walking past him without batting an eyelid. Hijikata growled.
"And you had to come too, right now?! You're a stalker!"
"Do you even know the way?" Gintoki turned around and their gazes met. Hijikata opened his mouth to answer but he had to close it quick before he voiced out his defeat. Gintoki snorted and trudged on, Hijikata behind him with an massive flush of embarrassment.
The bath house was mostly vacant. At that hour only a handful of men were there enjoying the sauna. The old man at the front desk greeted Gintoki as they came in and they proceeded to the changing room. They took off their clothes amid a row of insults, the stench of beer rekindling their earlier fight, and afterward each picked up a towel and a bucket and entered the bathing area. They went to opposite sides of the room and sat down by the faucets grunting. Once the washing was done and it came to bathing, the two stopped by the same tub.
"Oioioi, this is too much." Gintoki noted in disbelief.
"I don't like it too hot or too cold. I'm not stupid." Hijikata said with a glare. There were three bathtubs total and each had different water temperatures. Unfortunately their preferences were very similar.
"I'm not stupid either, idiot."
Gintoki fell in after Hijikata and both submerged with frowns on their faces.
Hijikata tried to close his eyes and forget Gintoki's presence altogether, but not a minute had gone by before Gintoki's big mouth opened to present the world with a stupid pubescent joke.
"Still amazed how half this tub doesn't overflow with my dick in it."
"How about you shut the fuck up?"
"How about you take that stick outta your ass?"
Hijikata opened his eyes ready for another fight. The will to drag Gintoki's head under the water and drown him grew every second. It was ridiculous how Hijikata could not get rid of him anywhere he went.
"Yo, Gintoki how you doing?" a man with brown messy hair and some kind of goatee came out of the sauna looking exhausted. He dipped in the tub next to Gintoki and the latter sidled towards Hijikata.
"Good, how's the wife?" Gintoki replied blandly.
"What are you doing?" Hijikata asked him between gritted teeth. Gintoki's shoulders almost touched his.
"He creeps me out." Gintoki replied in the same manner.
"You creep me out!"Hijikata gasped.
"So I heard you were helping out at the shelter today." the man said. He went by the name of Hasegawa and gave Gintoki a thumbs up.
"They told me they needed some help and I didn't mind the cash" Gintoki replied matter-a-factually. It didn't seem like much to him, but Hijikata was surprised. Gintoki going off to work was the last thing on his mind when he had found their room empty that afternoon.
"By the way, could you go by my house this week and collect some clutter? There's also a sticky door the missus has been nagging me about."
"Sure, as long as you pay me" Gintoki said. Hasegawa replied with a fake laugh and Hijikata finally realized something.
"Is that why they call you Yorozuya?" he wondered aloud. Gintoki looked at him a little smug but it was Hasegawa who answered.
"Yeah, Gintoki does all kinds of odd jobs around town. He doesn't live in that dump for free! Hahahaha!"
Gintoki and Hijikata shot murdering looks at the laughing man and soon decided to quit the bath house. They went back to their shit hole with bitter feelings, though little did they know that in the future Hasegawa would taste a bit of a role-reversal.
After his semi-weekly prowl through the new titles in the bookstore, Gintoki got home just in time to hear the phone ringing. The number ID filled him with pleasure and annoyance. It was work. One of the local moving companies was short on a worker and they were willing to hire Gintoki temporarily as a replacement. He was too broke to decline the offer. After heating up some ramen to quench his empty stomach, he slurped the cheap noodles and left with a pair of worn sneakers on his feet.
"So what happened to Tetsu-kun?"
"Sprained ankle." one of the movers told him.
"It was either that or being squashed by a piano." another pitched in. The three men inside the van laughed.
They were on their way to the customer's house, which was on the other side of town, some good four or five miles away from Gintoki's own humble abode. The back of the van was full with boxes and packaged appliances. According to the chief, there was another load in storage scheduled for pick up that afternoon, yet no matter what was prearranged Gintoki couldn't conceive how they were gonna manage both loads in one day. His arms lost half their strength when the movers opened the back of the van and he saw the actual cargo. A sudden desire to quit and go home blossomed in his chest.
"G-guys, oi, guys, l-listen to me, I'm glad to help but t-this is ridiculous." he stuttered in disbelief.
"Nah! Come on Gin-san, show us some spirit!"
"I have spirit alright, but it doesn't usually carry ten tons of," he gestured towards the contents of the van and shrugged "boxed wrapped crap!"
"Quit your whining and move it, they'll cut our pay if we don't do both loads today. I'm aiming for that bonus." a strong armed man growled, walking past Gintoki and leaping inside the van. He began distributing the cardboard boxes and pulling out small items that could be carried together.
"What the hell!" one of the movers cursed, readjusting his grip on a box "What's inside this thing, bricks?!"
Gintoki laughed and picked one up. The smile on his face disappeared instantly.
"Chief told me it's mostly paperwork." the tough guy inside the van said while reaching out for the next one.
"You mean all of them are like this?" Gintoki gasped, eyeing the mountain of boxes still to be handled.
"Yeah guess so. At least they aren't fragile, we get lots of complaints with those."
The movers grunted in agreement and carried on with their toil. Gintoki took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the money he would get since nothing else was going to help him through that day. He turned around and looked at the building in question. It was fairly recent without a blemish in sight. Gintoki counted one, two, three, fours floors. He entered the lobby with a funny feeling in his gut and then something inside him died. As if the quantity of stuff wasn't overwhelming enough, the customer's apartment was on the second floor and there was no elevator. Gintoki cursed the minute he had picked up the phone.
The sun had begun its descent, three hours had passed and the van was only half emptied. Gintoki tried to loiter a few times by the stairs but after getting caught by the big guy he felt a menace on his shoulders every time he turned his back. He was aware that refusing to carry those boxes wasn't worth being skinned alive by a man with mouths to feed at home. Moreover, Gintoki had his own surplus stomach to sustain, and a monstrous one at that. Kagura should be studied by scientists one day. Details aside, Gintoki was beginning to feel the toll of all the heavy lifting. His shabby t-shirt clung to his back with sweat, his forehead glistened and his hair was a bigger mess than usual with drenched curls dripping sweat onto the floor.
He set a heavy box down by the kitchen counter and leaned over it panting.
"This ain't right." he mumbled out of breath.
He heard loud footsteps coming in, clearly not the ones of the working men going up and down the building with heavy cargo. Gintoki assumed it was the customer and straightened up at once, running a hand through his disheveled hair in a vain attempt to look presentable. However, the person who came into sight was impossible to please. Gintoki's heart nearly stopped from the shock. Before him stood Hijikata in a black suit. He had been loosening his tie when he noticed Gintoki there and froze in place as well. They lacked the words to carry on.
"Yo, mister where do you want us to put this?"
The movers were now coming up with the appliances and they broke the stifling silence that had fallen on the apartment. Their question brought Hijikata back to life and he disappeared from view, leading the men into another room.
Gintoki let out the breath he was holding and leaned back against the counter. He tried to fight the smile spreading all over his face, but the circumstances were too ridiculous. He gave in.
It was sunset when the van returned with the second and last load. Gintoki could barely feel his legs, though they kept going up and down the building. He and Hijikata hadn't exchanged a word, not even to decide where things were to be set down. Gintoki didn't grudge him. In his current mood he wasn't much for talking as he was to collapse on the floor dying. Not that he would do it there. Although it had taken him a while to acknowledge, that was Hijikata's house and the shit he had been moving up and down was the bastard's shit as well.
Hijikata wandered around from place to place, opening boxes and checking their contents. He supervised the movers as they brought in heavy appliances and helped them occasionally when the situation seemed dire. Nevertheless, whenever Gintoki came near he disappeared. The most Gintoki saw of him was his back; the white dress shirt that fitted him so perfectly it actually grossed him out; the sleeves rolled up to his elbows after he had taken off his jacket; the hem of his shirt tucked into his trousers with barely a wrinkle. It wasn't fair how such a wild and violent jackass could look so neat and so... good.
Gintoki shook his head to dispel his less honorable thoughts. He wasn't paying attention to Hijikata. No way. He wasn't. He just couldn't keep his curiosity at bay. He wanted to find the differences in him, though there weren't many to be found yet. Hijikata seemed much the same stubborn idiot of old, keeping to himself and looking grave. There was no resemblance, he was exactly the same. Like nothing had changed. Like all those years had never been there. But he did look older, sharper, inscrutable. Anything he did stirred Gintoki inescapably.
Hijikata bent over to pick a box of papers and Gintoki's eyes lingered for a moment down his back. He had no time to regret the decision. Hijikata failed to notice the shelf behind him move and his eyes widened once he saw Gintoki run towards him in a flash.
Gintoki managed to hold the empty shelf back with the remnants of his strength. Hijikata put down the box he was holding and helped Gintoki push the shelf back to its straight position. Before they knew it they were thanking each other and then more silence followed.
Between feeling awkward and out of place, Gintoki was having trouble getting reacquainted with their proximity. Sure, judging Hijikata from afar and spewing some snide remarks to himself was easy. Playing the same game one feet away from the man was something entirely different. Especially when Hijikata seemed as flustered and off guard as he was. Gintoki had to break the mood, else he was just going to stand there looking at Hijikata's face like a dumb kid who stares at foreigners in the supermarket.
"Nice place you got here." he croaked out.
"Lots of shit too." it seemed pertinent to add.
"No more than you, just not so useless." Hijikata replied.
"You should give me a raise."
"I'm surprised you're even employed."
"I'm not. Just filling in for a while."
Hijikata sneered and reached again for the box he had put down. Gintoki imagined his low expectations had been met. As sad as that might sound. At least he was glad the awkwardness was gone.
They didn't speak much after that. Once the job was done Gintoki left with the movers, eager for his payment. Later, he bought himself a drink and as he swallowed it, he remembered he hadn't even said goodbye. For a while the thought disturbed him, but he got comfort knowing he didn't own the jerk any politeness. Shaking off their eight year estrangement wasn't going to happen over night. Soon they would be back clawing at each other's throats and there was nothing he could do about that.
AN: To everyone who reviewed, read the thing and put it on their lists, thank you so much. It really keeps me going. I know this one has been a little experimental, but I'm enjoying writing it so far. Hopefully it doesn't sound too dumb haha. Thank you again!