trial and error
Disclaimer: I don't own Gintama.
Attempt #2: Bribery (Otherwise known as "The Shinsengumi Go Flat Out Broke All for the Sake of Love")
At the Main Headquarters of the Edo Shinsengumi, it was quiet.
Almost suspiciously quiet, in fact.
And as he aimlessly wandered the halls, First Captain Okita Sougo was one such person to notice the glaring lack of sounds that were usually to be found in a place inhabited by copious amounts of raucous, energetic men. Normally those aforementioned sounds would be things like loud shouting matches over whose turn it was to clean the bathroom, noisy burps and other such rude bodily emissions, and cries of pain from impromptu wrestling competitions.
But there were none.
While normally Okita would have relished in the preternatural peace that had apparently befallen the headquarters, today he was rather missing the lack of distinct distractions to divert his troubled mind.
His mental restiveness and preoccupation with certain…things…was becoming far too commonplace for comfort recently, and when combined with his newfound inability to sleep more than a few intermittent hours each night, as well as his lackluster appetite, Okita's mood was rapidly spiraling downwards into the realm of foulness.
That mood had only further degenerated when he had finally come to a sneaking suspicion of what, exactly, was ailing him.
It hadn't taken much of his considerable genius to arrive at a conclusion as to the source of his irritable temperament, given that the aforementioned source made it a near daily point to bulldoze her way into his life in one way or the other. While this wasn't anything new, given past contests of ultra Jan-Ken-Pon at cherry blossom festivals, beetle sumo matches, and her general love of using him as her own personal punching bag, Okita would have had to been blind, deaf, and utterly dumb not to notice the damnable feelings that had begun bubbling like a freaking ulcer in his stomach anytime he happened upon her now.
The fact that the brush of her skin against his during their commonplace and often impromptu sparring matches could leave a burning trail behind; that her laugh, clear, fearless, and colored by exultation, was enough to elicit a desire to respond similarly; that she infuriated him to the point of simply wanting to press the China girl, pink hair and all, against a wall and kiss the hell out of her—the sudden barrage of these realizations had brought on a resulting bout of deep denial and the desire to punch something very, very hard (usually any unlucky foot soldier who happened to be crossing his path when said desire occurred).
That the cause of his supposed sickness was a short, pink-haired, volatile alien with a mouth filthy enough to make a sailor blush hadn't done much to improve his disposition—just made him wonder if something heavy had fallen on his head in recent past and caused irrevocable brain damage. Perhaps the others had begun to think the same of his erratic, irritable behavior, because in the past few weeks Okita had been on the receiving end of quite a few concerned inquiries as to his mental health.
And considering that he had never quite been the poster boy for sanity, it must have been rather obvious that something was terribly wrong to prompt such intervention.
Kondo-san, despite his best efforts and concern for the man he viewed as his younger brother, thankfully hadn't managed to drag much out of him. Hijikata-san had politely (and with a smirk) suggested that he go and see a psychologist; Okita had politely (and with a smirk) introduced Hijikata-san's face into the wall. While that hadn't resolved any of his inner turmoil, it had vastly improved his day.
Only for a short time of course, because then she had randomly turned up during his patrol with her damnably big blue eyes and challenging smile, and with the return of the stupid gut-clenching feeling that always seemed to accompany the sight of her so too had his day gone straight to hell.
However, Okita had blessedly happened upon the perfect cure to the galling feelings that insisted upon plaguing him: taking it out on the Shinsengumi underlings. Mainly in the form of prolonged and rigorous training sessions, but he wasn't above using one or two for bazooka practice if he was feeling especially temperamental.
Because if he had to suffer from some cruel psychological trick of nature (or, what ordinary human beings normally call love), he was damn well going to make sure that he wasn't the only one suffering.
Hence his current search for the conspicuously absent men of the Shinsengumi.
Okita resolutely shoved each and every troublesome thought of that girl out of his mind as his senses were pricked with the rewarding sound of what were unmistakably voices. Voices which inevitably meant that there were bodies that came attached…bodies that he could exert his recent frustrations upon through therapeutic, relaxing (at least for him) training sessions.
A half-smile, anticipatory and wholly blood curling to anyone that might have viewed it, curved upon his lips.
The steady murmur of voices were emerging from a room several paces down the hall. As Okita approached the doorway with lazy strides, faint snatches of frenetic, heated conversation floated out with increasing intensity, and he paused idly against the doorframe to listen to it.
"Dammit, Ryo, you used it all?"
"My money…my poor, poor money."
"Your money? Those were my life savings!"
"I'm never going to be able to propose to Chiya-chan now…"
"Two tons. You bought two tons of this stuff?"
"Oi, I told you all this was part of the plan, suck it up and stop acting like—ACK! Shin, get off me!"
"S-shin-senpai, don't kill Ryotaro-senpai! He's your best friend!"
"Was, my best friend, Kenji. Was. Past tense."
"Heeey, Shin-san, I think the idiot redhead is trying to say something. Loosen your hands on his neck for a second."
"Hn. Yamazaki-senpai, unless this guy's saying 'Please forgive my unworthy, miserable wormlike existence', I really couldn't care."
"Isn't it tradition to let your opponent have a last request though? Shin-senpai, you really should observe common courtesy."
"See? Even Ryotaro-senpai agrees!"
There was a loud thud, the age old sound associated with a body being unceremoniously dropped onto the floor, and that was when Okita decided to unearth just what the hell was going on in there. While he, personally, could care less about whether or not the underling idiots murdered one another, Kondo-san was rather less forgiving about it.
For some reason, beyond his understanding, Kondo-san was fond of them. And letting Kondo-san down was one of the few things in this world Okita was loathe to do.
Okita propped himself up against the doorway, cocking his head to the side as he observed the spectacle in the room teeming with Shinsengumi in varying states of moping, depression, anger, and abject misery. Behind the rabble of blue suits and flying fists, there was a veritable mountain of boxes stacked nearly as high as the ceiling and halfway across the length of the room. Okita raised an eyebrow as he absorbed all of this, staring blankly at the men who took no notice of their captain's presence at the threshold.
"Yo," he drawled out at last, deriving immense pleasure from the subsequent terror that flickered on every face, the immediate freezing of everyone's bodies, and a hush that was more befitting for a funeral that ensued. The ashen pallor currently coloring each man's visage, Okita decided with only the barest moment of consideration, was the stark hue of guilt.
He took one predatory step into the room, and then another, making note of the way in which each person flinched with every approaching movement. A slow, crooked smile played upon his lips as he stalked towards them, a hungry, restless cat toying with its fearfully spasmodic prey.
One of the uniformed men twitched, as though preparing to make a break for it, before abruptly reverting to his immobile state when Okita's crimson eyes flicked to him with unnerving keenness. The message was clear: anyone who tries to escape finds themselves skewered like a fish on the end of my blade.
And because no one wanted to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of what that felt like, everyone sagaciously chose not to try and escape. It was common knowledge, after all, that their captain had a frightening accuracy and unerring aim when it came to spearing people straight through.
"You guys called a secret meeting without me?" Okita deadpanned, quirking an eyebrow at them as he continued to near. He smiled slightly—and everyone promptly recoiled in response. "I'm hurt."
No one replied.
Brushing past an unabashedly staring young recruit and a petrified redhead, he reached the obscenely large pile of boxes standing out like a sore thumb in the room's center. Ash blonde hair swept back as he tilted his head, wordlessly observing what the members had apparently been squabbling over. Okita removed one of the boxes from the teetering pile with deft hands, gaze skimming disinterestedly across the label. "This is sukonbu."
Once again, no one replied. Talking to Okita-taichou was rather like trying to make it through a mine field without having the misfortune to step on one—you never quite knew where you were in relation to something that was going to explode in your face.
"Anyone care to tell me why the hell there's suddenly a warehouse of his stuff here? This crap's not healthy for a samurai's body, after all." From the blank expression on his face, it couldn't have been more obvious that he really couldn't have cared less about the state of their wellbeing—hence the reason no one was stupid enough to voluntary speak and risk inciting his wrath.
A mock sigh left him as no reply was forthcoming. "Oi, either someone speaks up or I'm volunteering each man here for Hijikata-san's cooking lessons."
Everyone blanched, faces wiped clean of all semblances of careful calm and turning a shaky white in unison. Hijikata-taichou, as everyone well knew from the frequent calls to the fire department, had begun dabbling in the ancient and noble art of cooking, having found an unsatisfying number of dishes including his favorite topping…except unlike the ancient and noble art of swordsmanship, Hijikata-taichou was definitely not blessed with any form of talent, natural or otherwise, in the ancient and noble art of cooking.
Just the ancient and noble art of setting fire to whatever unfortunate kitchenware he set his hands on and the ancient and not-so-noble art of giving food poisoning to whatever unlucky schmuck happened to be his food taster.
Okita stared aimlessly at the ceiling as everyone digested his threat, drawling out, "I'm sure he'll be glad to have a bunch of willing victims…I mean, students. Kondo-san tells me he's becoming quite the adept little cook, especially with all those delicious new mayonnaise recipes he's been experimenting with lately." Red eyes glinted as they fell upon the quaking, nauseated men, a wolfish grin twisting on his lips.
"W-wait!" Kenji's voice penetrated the blanket of fear currently smothering each person in the room who wasn't Okita-taichou. "W-we can explain, taichou!"
And explain he would, because Kenji had a mother, five sisters and two brothers back at home who depended on his pay to keep the farm going—how in the world would he be able to provide that support if he were buried six feet deep, bloated with mayonnaise poisoning? It wasn't as though the Shinsengumi offered any sort of life insurance plan in the event of death, given that when you first joined up they provided you with a waiver to sign that exempted them from all responsibility for your probable death in their service…as well as all fees involved with funeral costs.
The Bakafu, run by aliens and situated in the feudal era it may be, still held true to the golden rule of government: don't spend any more than you strictly need to.
A cold drop of sweat ran down the back of Kenji's neck as he attempted to formulate a plausible response. One that would placate the captain waiting patiently (or at least with the well-acted appearance of patience) before him. "U-um," he gulped. "We have all this sukonbu because…well, you see…because…" His eyes roved wildly around the room for inspiration.
He was saved by a timely interjection from Ryotaro.
"Okita-taichou, we have all this sukonbu because—because…" Ryotaro nearly choked under the intense, boring stare of his captain, his eyes jumping frantically from person to person. Clamping a desperate hand on Yamazaki's shoulder (who jumped and nearly dropped his anpan), he finished in a rush, "Because Yamazaki-senpai's suddenly become addicted to it!"
Yamazaki immediately opened his mouth to protest this cruel betrayal of his anpan-adoration, but the protest morphed into a gasp of pain when Ryotaro helpfully drove the heel of his boot into his foot.
Eyes watering, Yamazaki was unable to do anything more than offer a half-convincing nod towards a poker-faced and unblinking Okita.
"Hm." Withdrawing his attention from the twitchy and, frankly, weird men in front of him, Okita glanced down and turned the snack box over in his rough hands without really looking at it. He was more preoccupied with the image it evoked, unbidden, in his mind: a young woman happily parading down the streets, a white dog by her side and a piece of green sukonbu hanging comically from her lips.
Unbeknownst to him, his stoic, unreadable gaze softened ever so slightly. She loved this stuff, didn't she?
The softness evaporated immediately upon his realization of the direction his thoughts had inadvertently wandered yet again, and his deep red eyes darkened further. Dammit, he just couldn't escape that pink-haired thorn in his side, could he?
His hand clenched almost reflexively around the snack box, the package protesting with a loud crunch of cardboard. All intentions of Shinsengumi-torturing and training were crushed in the exact same instant—if he didn't get out of headquarters now and find some form of mind-engaging distraction, she was going to be stuck in his head for the entire remainder of the day.
And seeing as it was only nine o'clock in the morning, that was a very long time.
Damn Yamazaki and his ridiculous food addictions.
"New rule, effective immediately," Okita said shortly in his apathetic voice, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets and strolling out of the room. "Anyone caught with that green crap commits sekkupu on the spot."
A fleeting glimpse of a scowling face and stormy eyes were all the Shinsengumi men were afforded as their obviously unbalanced captain rounded into the hallway with a sharp turn of his heel and disappeared.
The bunch of flabbergasted Shinsengumi could only stare after his retreating back, before casting panicked looks at the pile of boxes resting innocently behind them. They all wondered if 'effective immediately' meant they had to whip out their swords and fall on them in disgrace right then. But dammit, nobody really fancied ingloriously dying next to a bunch of dried snacks—they'd be the laughingstock of the Shinsengumi even after death.
After a moment of shocked silence, Ryotaro cleared his throat, waking them all from their stupor-like states. "Er…I'm sure Okita-taichou was just kidding guys, ya know?"
That might have been plausible, if Okita Sougo were known for his marvelous sense of humor. As it was, Ryotaro was merely on the receiving end of some very incredulous looks, Shin's the most vigorously disbelieving.
The redhead's shoulders slumped, apparently realizing that no amount of optimism would be able to thrive in this situation. "Alright, alright. We're just gonna have to get this stuff out of here right away then. Phase two of the plan's being enacted just a tiny bit before schedule." He paused, looking thoughtful. "And at least Okita-taichou didn't find out what we're really up to, ya know?"
"True," Shin agreed somberly, all enmity with Ryotaro momentarily forgotten. "Otherwise our entrails would probably be decorating the room right about now. Remember when we had to remove all the bodies of Ito-sensei's factions from the train?"
Everybody shuddered—while being Shinsengumi meant that one had to have an unnaturally high tolerance for blood, the sight of Okita-taichou's gruesome work had haunted each man that had had the misfortune to lay eyes on the scene. Undoubtedly, as Shin had stated, there would be a similar reenactment should Okita-taichou discover exactly what had been preoccupying the Shinsengumi's time lately.
If his reaction to the sukonbu was anything to go by, this girl seemed to be a rather sore spot for their captain, after all.
Ryotaro exhaled noisily and regarded the boxes. "I guess we'd better get this stuff where it needs to be, then. Okita-taichou won't be happy if he comes back and finds it still here."
There were low murmurs of agreement (not so much in support of Ryotaro's latest scheme, but rather in fear of what Okita-taichou would do to them should he come back and find the reminder of Kagura-sama to still be here). Everyone reluctantly scattered about in preparation of proceeding with the next part of the plan.
"Huh…hey, Kenji? Alright there?" Ryotaro asked, having glanced around for him and finally noticed the boy's statue-like inactivity among the bustle of the other members. He waved his hand unhelpfully before the younger recruit's face.
Kenji smiled slightly in response, staring dazedly at the doorway their captain had just departed through after the realization that had just hit him. "Yeah, senpai," he said softly, the grin audible in his voice. "It's just that…didn't you guys notice? Okita-taichou took the sukonbu box he was holding with him."
And so he had.
Sakata Gintoki, ex-Joi patriot and sugar freak extraordinaire, stood on his front porch and wondered when the hell his relatively easy going and laidback life had gotten so damned complicated.
Wait. Scratch that.
He knew exactly when the hell his relatively easy going and laidback life had gotten so damned complicated, down to the exact day:
November 3, over one year ago.
In other words, Kagura's sixteenth birthday.
To this day, Gin had absolutely no idea when that shrimpy little loudmouth had grown up, or when she'd finally gained a few inches in height or actually sprouted something resembling breasts on her flat-as-a-board figure (skeptical accusations of stuffing oranges down her outfits hadn't ended well on his part—he still couldn't remember those two days he'd been interned at the hospital as a result of an insulted teenage girl's wrath).
Clueless as ever, he'd detected this abrupt change about the same time that the rest of the male residents of the Kabuki district had begun to take notice as well, and after that damn birthday of hers he and Shinpachi had been just as busy warding off salivating suitors as often as they were beating up shady Amanto or troublesome yakuza gangs.
To the neighborhood boys, Kagura's Chinese outfits had transitioned from 'outlandish and weird' to 'cute', and her girly cadence and quirky way of speaking had become 'ingratiatingly endearing' rather than 'foreign'. Though not traditionally beautiful, her pale skin rivaled the painted effect most geisha had to utilize powder to achieve; and once she had actually decided to accept Otae's woman-to-woman advice in regards to growing out her hair, it lost its stringy quality and instead tumbled prettily down her back.
Whether she was aware of it or not, all that girl had to do was crook a finger and most men in a fifty-mile radius would immediately fall at her feet to do her bidding.
It was an ability that Gin found rather annoying.
So, thanks to his subordinate's seriously inconvenient choice to suddenly mature, Gin had recently discovered himself being forced into the untried role of the overprotective father. Pulverizing cherry boys who thought to try their hand at obtaining a cutesy girlfriend to rival those in their RPG games, and scaring the fancy pants off the sleazy cabaret hosts and other scruffy locals who found themselves charmed by the pink-haired girl was fast becoming a redundant pastime.
Man, but what else could he do, really?
Because for all of Kagura's blunt, unfiltered comments and brash behavior, innocence radiated off her like geekiness did off Shinpachi. Gintoki made a mental note to ask that balding old geezer of Kagura's if there were any strange, alien pheromones that Yato possessed that he ought to know about, because this entire situation was quickly degenerating into the ridiculous.
He sighed as he stared mournfully at what had once been his front porch, soaking in the new development that was a testament to exactly how absurd his life was becoming as of late. He was determined to put an end to this, and right now he knew of only one person that could inform him about exactly what the heck was going on…
"Oi, Kagura! Come here a minute, would you?"
Her eyes briefly flicked from the television program she was currently engrossed in at the sound of Gin's shout, but she lazily dismissed it.
Whatever Gin-chan wanted could most certainly wait; it was far more important to see how this love triangle between Yu-kun and Hina-chan and Mitsu-san was gonna be resolved (Kagura was betting heavily that Hina-chan was gonna bump Mitsu-san off, and then murder Yu-kun for his vast fortune once she got her claws into him) and find out whose love child Kyoko was (pffft, it was so obvious Daisuke-kun had cheated on his wife with the milk maid…there was always a milk maid).
Kagura gasped at the dramatic scene on the television, where Hina-chan was currently threatening to shave her lovely eyebrows off unless Yu-kun left Mitsu-san and returned her love. Idly, she wondered if anyone would care if she decided to shave her eyebrows off. Gin-chan and Shinpachi would most likely just find it hilarious.
And a certain someone she knew would probably tease her until the end of the world, never allowing her to live it down.
"Yo, Kagura! Gin-chan's going to grow old and die out here waiting! You're gonna have to clean up my smelly corpse, just so you know!"
But once again, his call remained unheeded. Her eyes remained unwaveringly glued to the screen, her fingers pressing intensely into her palm and creating little crevices as she was enraptured further and further with the drama.
"Yu-kun, love me!"
"No, Hina-chan, no! Don't do it!"
"I…I have to, Yu-kun. Otherwise you'll never leave Mitsu-san, and your money—um—your heart shall never be mine!"
"No!" Kagura screeched loudly, her shout overshadowing the swooning Hina-chan's, as Gin, clearly weary of waiting for his cohort to respond, came in and easily lifted a spell-bound Kagura off the floor, tossing her over his shoulder none too carefully. The air whooshed out of her lungs, but she recovered sufficiently enough to holler, "Gin-chan, put me down! Hina-chaaaaan! Yu-kuuuun! Wait, Gin-chan, wait! That vicious bitch is gonna trick him for his dough, I just know it!"
Gintoki's silver brows furrowed as her wincingly high pitched yells sunk in.
"Eh? Hina-chan? Yu-kun? What the hell do you watch these days, Kagura-chan?" He muttered, effortlessly avoiding her wildly flailing hands as she tried to free herself. "Your brain's going to leak out of your ears one of these days. Kids shouldn't watch crap like that."
She briefly paused in her struggling, sending a look of indignant outrage at him. "Hey! Then what's your excuse for reading stupid JUMP all the time, Gin-chan?"
"Oi, oi, don't insult a fine piece of literary art…"
Kagura scoffed, rolling her eyes. "Please, uh-huh. If you're allowed to rot your brain with stupid manga and sweets, then I'm allowed to watch my dramas and eat sukonbu. And…hey! You never say anything about Shinpachi's obsession with Otsu-chan!"
"My brain may be rotting from JUMP, but I'm not that far gone. Don't you remember the last time we tried to stage an intervention?"
Gin and Kagura both paused in a reflective moment of silence, in which both recalled the first (and only) time they had fruitlessly attempted to wean Shinpachi off his beloved music videos and CDs centered around the idol. That day, the famed White Demon of the Anti-Foreigner Wars and the Yato girl with the blood of a thousand mighty warriors running through her veins had learned the true definition of FEAR.
Not that they hadn't been in frightening situations before-they just hadn't known the true meaning of 'fear' was synonymous with a nineteen year old glasses-wearing otaku boy throwing himself into a vicious attack on his coworkers when catching them in the process of trying to sell his precious idol's merchandise on Edo-Ebay (it had been a slow week in terms of work, rent was due, and the electric company was threatening to cut their power off again. Enough said).
The pink-haired Yato and silver-haired samurai gave a collective shudder, hastily pushing the nightmare-inducing incident from their minds.
Giving up her wiggling, which really wasn't serving much use in Gintoki's iron-clad grip (And really, for a guy that did nothing but laze around sucking on sweet things all day, where the hell did he get all of his strength, Kagura grumped to herself) she sagged, boneless, against him. "Gin-chan, what'd ya need me for anyways?" She complained, tone transcending dangerously into the realm of whining. "Hurry up, 'cause if you make me miss the end of the show I'm gonna be reeeeaaaalllly mad."
She only received a muffled grunt for her trouble.
She sighed heavily to herself, deciding to clarify. Gin-chan's wavy-perm hair seemed to affect his hearing sometimes. "Gin-chan, when I say I'll get reeeeaaaalllly mad, I mean the type of mad where I set fire to every single JUMP in your collection, uh huh."
It was with a satisfied air that she watched her captor picking up the pace by quite a margin, though some of the satisfaction drained when she was unceremoniously dropped on the front porch, an unhappy squeak escaping her as her rump collided with the rough floor boards. How dare he treat a delicate maiden in such a way?
Shooting an indignant look at Gintoki as she rubbed her injured bottom, the angry words coiling within her mouth were cut off by her companion's deadpan voice. "So, mind telling me exactly what the heck this is, Kagura?"
Her eyes followed his pointing finger, and Kagura was horrified when her visible world suddenly turned a thick, opaque green. Even blinking her eyes open and shut rapidly didn't dispel the invasion of emerald upon her vision.
A terrified squeak escaped her, her hands immediately flying up to rub vigorously at her defective eyes.
"Aaah! Gin-chan, my eyes! I've gone blind! Except…huh, I thought if I was blind I wouldn't be able to see anything, but for some reason all I can see is green…Aaah! Gin-chan, I've got a new disease, uh-huh! Green-blindness! I can only see in green! So now everything's gonna look green, uh-huh! Your face, and Shinpachi's and Sadaharu's and the sky and the grass and the leaves and flowers and food and…dammit Gin-chan, this is all your fault for making me eat that spinach last night! I told you that stuff is dangerous! Waaaah, this is all Gin-chan's fault—ouch!"
Kagura's rant was swiftly ended with a sharp rap to the top of her head by Gin's fist. Rubbing his forehead wearily, he told the panicking alien girl, "Oi, you idiot, you don't have green blindness or anything stupid like that. It's obvious a freakin' big pile of sukonbu."
Blue eyes blinked in confusion, and then blinked again. Come to think of it…
Kagura looked up at the towering pile of her favorite sukonbu that threatened to topple over at the slightest provocation. It was really no wonder that her entire line of sight had quite suddenly morphed into a world of dark green, considering the wobbling mountain of seaweed snack that was nearly as tall as Gintoki and twice as wide as Sadaharu.
While most people's reactions would have consisted of dumbfounded fainting or frightened wide-eyed stares upon discovering a gigantic heap of their most favored snack food that they could potentially be crushed underneath in the event of an avalanche, Kagura's was comprised of blissful drooling and euphoric panting.
"Waaaah," she exclaimed happily, "I've died and gone to heaven, haven't I, Gin-chan? I mean, I'll be sad to leave you and Shinpachi, but be comforted by the fact I'll spend eternity drowning in sukonbu! Goodbye forever, Gin-chan, goodbye—ouch!"
Gintoki sweatdropped as he smacked her across the head again, trying to bring her back into cold, hard reality. "You aren't dying, idiot."
With a baffled expression and another curious glance at the Great Sukonbu Mountain, Kagura focused on the scowling Gintoki. "Then where'd it come from, Gin-chan?" She suddenly beamed. "Did ya buy all this for me 'cause I'm such an awesome employee, uh-huh? I knew you'd come through one day, you cheapy sugar freak!"
"Hell no. I wouldn't waste my money on this green crap—ouch!" The legendary samurai recoiled from the painful punch bestowed upon his sword arm, courtesy of one annoyed subordinate. And while it hurt his masculinity to admit it was agonizing, he was justified in that punches from Kagura were not quite the same as punches from anyone else, courtesy of that Yato blood inhabiting her veins.
"Don't insult my sukonbu, uh-huh! Gin-chan, you're so…you're so…" Kagura squinted as a formation of neatly arranged sukonbu on the floor caught her attention. "Gin-chan, what's that?"
Rubbing his arm in a wounded fashion (Kagura rolled her eyes at his melodrama—she hadn't hit him that hard…that big silver-haired sissy), he said, "That's what I wanted to ask you."
For upon the floorboards, someone had clearly taken it upon themselves to painstakingly arrange the individual pieces of sukonbu into kanji. It was rather like those messages written in people's blood that they always had in horror movies, except without all the gruesomeness and general grossness. It was a good thing too, since Shinpachi would've had a hissy fit if he'd come back to find his neatly scrubbed floors splattered with red.
And a Shinpachi embroiled in a hissy fit was far scarier than any axe murderer on a third-rate slasher film.
"Why is the sukonbu arranged into words?" Kagura stared at it harder, head tilting this way and that way and lips moving as she made out the green message written upon the ground. "Kagura-sama…please…please…marry…our…captain."
She abruptly halted, her voice shriveling up into nothingness, like water in a desert. A pole-axed look, complete with gaping mouth and widened eyes, stole across her face.
Because seriously, what the freak?
'Kagura-sama, please, please marry our captain?' What kind of stupid, useless message was that?
A dark and foreboding expression, uncharacteristic to Kagura, suddenly pervaded her previously cheerful aura. A cracking noise rent the air as she unconsciously dug her fingers into the floor, paying no heed to Gintoki's mournful wail of "Oi, Kagura-chan, don't go breaking Gin-chan's house, you hear!"
Those bastards, she fumed inwardly, all of the confusion surrounding the situation dissipating quickly. Given the events of the previous day, it really wasn't all that mentally challenging to deduce the culprits behind this heinous scheme. An unwanted image of a bunch of men bowed before her, sniveling for her to be the sacrificial dating lamb for the wolf that was Okita Sougo, flashed through her mind.
So…they couldn't take 'no' for an answer, could they? Had getting their heads chewed on by Sadaharu not been enough of an indication that she was not interested?
Her fingers twitched, and a devious smile lit up her face as she imagined waltzing off to the Shinsengumi Headquarters, purple umbrella in tow, and pounding the clue for them to leave her well enough alone into their thick skulls.
"Um, Kagura-chan?" Gin laughed weakly as he slowly inched away from the deadly atmosphere swirling in the space around the teenage girl.
She was silent for another few moments, unwaveringly staring at the sukonbu pile as though it had personally wronged her. Inwardly, she couldn't believe those baka Shinsengumi men had actually stooped so low. Bribing her with sukonbu, of all things! And after she'd given a huge, resounding NO to their ludicrous request, too! As if a few measly pounds of seaweed snack would be enough to persuade her to be with that…that…irritable, annoying, impossible Sadist who hated her guts with a burning passion and made her insides do funny squelching things when she was near him. Hah!
Kagura's already simmering fury kicked up a few notches into a blue flame of rage.
"Burn it, uh-huh," she advised Gintoki darkly. "All of it. Otherwise we might all come down with whatever plague of evil is in that sukonbu."
Gin raised an eyebrow at her tone, starting in surprise at the refusal of food by the girl with the bottomless stomach. Kagura refusing food was like Katsura working for the Shinsengumi, or Shinpachi using a picture of his beloved Otsu-chan as toilet paper—it went against the natural order of things.
He tapped his chin thoughtfully as he eyed the rejected snack. "Huh…I wonder if this stuff is even burnable?" Then, eyes narrowing, he muttered to himself, "Terrible waste though…wonder how much we could get if we sold it…then again, who else eats this stuff but her…" Sending an exasperated look at the uncharacteristically fuming pink-haired girl next to him, he questioned, "Hey, Kagura, why couldn't you have developed a more refined taste in snacks? Like something we could actually make a buck on, you know?"
"Well, excuse me for being a simple, little girl with childish taste!" She snapped, some of her anger unintentionally making its way into her voice. Immediately she pulled her knees up to her chest, compacting herself until she resembled a pink rubber ball more than a young woman.
Gin's words had echoed that bastard's a little too closely for comfort, renewing the painful twinges of hurt the Sadist had inflicted on her far more efficiently than if he'd simply kicked her through a wall or two. In fact, she might have almost preferred that to essentially being called an immature brat by Okita Sougo—physical pain was easy enough to brush off with her handy healing abilities, but emotional wounds?
Not so much.
She was startled out of her melancholy by a unexpectedly gentle hand that touched upon her hair.
Gintoki had crouched down beside her, sensing that something was terribly amiss—and it wasn't just the ungodly heaping of cheap seaweed littering his front porch.
Gin breathed out in a rather exasperated manner as he knelt on the floor, wondering why his hardheartedness could never withstand looking at Kagura or Shinpachi's depressed faces without causing a sharp twinge of pain in his heart. (Of course, everyone who met the white-haired man quickly figured out within minutes that he had an unbearably soft heart and giving nature, but found that Gin liked to pretend otherwise with his regular façade of blasé indifference.)
Still, though. Sometimes he longed for the days before he'd taken in those two miscreants and been forced into a role of responsibility and caring yet again…but only for an instant, because then Kagura would laugh and hug him with admiration shining in her eyes, or Shinpachi would incessantly lecture him on the evils of sugar but grudgingly smile when Kagura and Gin showed up with telling ice cream mustaches, and Gin would be reminded all over again why he was really better off with these two at his side.
"Hey, come on, Kagura," he grumbled, though without any real grouchiness behind the words. He ruffled her hair in one of his few, rare gestures of affection. "Are you gonna tell Gin-san what this is all about?"
But he could detect the small hint of weakening in her voice, so he tried again. "Am I going to have to have Lake Toya pay a little visit to those blue-coated bastards?"
Her head lifted at that, and she gave him a surprised look. Gin smiled dryly in return. "Give this old man some credit, Kagura—I'm not entirely blind yet."
"You mean all your sugary parfaits haven't done the job yet, Gin-chan?" Kagura quipped softly, some of the good humor returning to her eyes and the vivacity to her demeanor. "Give it a few years, and I'll even lend Sadaharu to you to help you across the street. At an hourly rate of course, yup."
Gin snorted. "You mean help me into the nearest dumpster and press the 'crush into an unrecognizable trash cube' button. I tell you, that dog has it out for me."
"He only bites you cause he loves you, Gin-chan. I would too, but I think I'd die from blood sugar poisoning if I did."
He whapped her lightly on the head for her cheek, before scratching the back of his curly tangle of hair idly. "So then, which one is it?" He yawned out.
She blinked, perplexity stealing across her face. "Huh?"
"'Captain'. Unless you've suddenly developed a secret romance with a space pirate, I'm guessing it's one of those nosy government dogs."
Kagura tensed, her shoulders stiffening and a disgruntled air settling about her. She began trailing idle fingers through the dirt that had accumulated on the Yorozuya porch, courtesy of one giant dog and one lazy samurai who couldn't be bothered to take his boots off before entering the house. Finally she relented, replying softly, "Its the evil blonde one."
Because really, she could think of no better way to describe the human his wretched underlings were attempting to manipulate her into marrying. And anyways, she flatly refused to say that bastard's name out loud. An evil curse might befall her if she did—one that might make her nose swell to twice its size and her bottom fall off, like in that Late Night Scary Stories to Make You Pee Your Pants' tale she and Gin-chan had heard on the radio last week.
Seriously, she wouldn't put it past that Sadist bastard to have such an ability in his repertoire of skills—she had her doubts as to whether that guy was actually human. Not many people could keep up with a Yato warrior in a serious battle, and yet he somehow managed to do it on a regular basis just fine (Kagura was staunchly reluctant to admit that more often than not he even emerged victorious in those fights).
Gin's face contorted into a look of utmost concentration…which for him essentially meant that he raised an eyebrow. No one had ever accused Sakata Gintoki of having open, dynamic facial expressions, and no one was ever likely to either.
"Oh yeah, that guy…what'shisname…Souichiro-kun?" Gintoki distantly recalled, trying to dredge up the proper name of the man that was Mitsuba-san's little brother…the one who had coerced him into acting as his best friend for the day. All Shinsengumi men seemed to blend together after a while, melding into one large blob of navy blue that continually seemed to either be trying to arrest him or seeking out his help.
Dirty tax-robbing hypocrites.
Kagura smirked. "I think it's 'Sadist-kun', actually."
"No, that's not it…Sonohirogata-kun?" Gin said musingly, rubbing his chin.
"Way off the mark, Gin-chan."
"…you read too much JUMP. It's not healthy for a man your age."
"Oi, I'm in the prime of my life."
"Your grandpa white hair says otherwise, Gin-chan."
"Silver, you brat. It's silver."
Caught up in her favorite pastime of 'Gin-chan Teasing', Kagura felt some of the accrued frustration and annoyance that this debacle had literally delivered to her doorstep seep out. She blew out a loud, therapeutic breath, attempting to regain some of her lost composure. Sometimes it was really unsettling how easily any mention of that Sadist bastard could completely destroy her inner calm—which came back full circle to her conviction that that guy had some sort of supernatural powers that he used to affect her like this.
"But a Shinsengumi, eh?" Gintoki snickered lowly after a moment, the childishly mocking sound belying his supposedly mature age. "So they're not just tax robbers anymore, but girl robbers too?"
Kagura's mouth dropped open in horror.
"Hey! There's no 'robbing' of any kind, uh-huh." Kagura exclaimed indignantly, shaking her pink head back and forth with vicious motions and leveling her best friend with a wounded glare. "Do you really think I'd let those bastards make off with my money, Gin-chan?"
The man in question slapped a hand on his face, shoulders shaking with laughter. "That wasn't the type of robbing I was talking about, Kagura-chan."
"Forget it. You're too young to know—I'll tell you when you're thirty."
She scowled. "I'm already seventeen, you stupid perm head!"
Kagura rolled her eyes, feeling too lazy to rise to Gin-chan's purposeful baiting, but appreciating his attempt to withdraw her from her sukonbu-induced glumness. She poked half-heartedly at the sukonbu mountain as she considered what was to be done with it, rather afraid that if she touched it for any length of time she'd contract some deadly disease.
Like stupidity of the Shinsengumi brand.
She shivered at the thought.
"Hey, Kagura-chan," Gin, noticing her preoccupation, effectively caught her attention with his solemn tone of voice. "I hope, if nothing else, you learned a lesson from this bribery ruse—this is clearly an example of a lazy, rude try at currying favor. A samurai should never fall prey to weak negotiations such as these." Red eyes gazed steadily, purposefully, at the girl crouched upon the floor.
Kagura looked at him in surprise, feeling a small rush of pride and awe throughout her at the steely, unbreakable principles that Gin-chan refused to deviate from. It was at times like these she could truly see the samurai others revered, the man everyone admired, the person who—
She was patted on the head. "So Kagura-chan, remember that the first rule of life is not to fall for such paltry bribe attempts. Make sure you tell those bastards to pay in gold next time, ok?"
There was silence. A deep, resounding silence.
"Itai! Oi, Kagura, why'd you hit me so hard?! My nose! My nose!"
"Fresh sukonbu for sale! Fresh sukonbu! Come and geeeeet it, only ten yen a box!"
"Sukonbu! Sukonbu! Get yer fresh sukonbu!"
From the dark shadows of a nearby alleyway, doing what they did best (lurking creepily), a collection of Shinsengumi incredulously watched the oddly matched pair cheerfully ridding themselves of the sukonbu to passer-bys, piece by piece. The man had a bloody, swollen nose, and right beside him was Kagura-sama, shouting out her sales pitch with a jovial voice.
"H-hey!" Kenji exclaimed weakly, his mouth falling open with shock. "They're selling our bribe!" He paused. "Can they do that?"
Ryotaro surveyed the scene through narrowed eyes, cursing softly to himself. "Dammit, she's a worthy opponent. We clearly underestimated her moral character."
"Either that or we overestimated your brain, Ryotaro," his ever-loyal best friend commented.
"Shut up, Shin!"
With an absentminded motion, Ryotaro dragged his fingers through his fiery hair, redirecting his attention onto the white-haired samurai and shorter companion. So, he contemplated, this girl couldn't be swayed through heartfelt pleas, and bribes held absolutely no effect on her either?
If it hadn't been blaringly evident before, it was now irrefutably obvious that Kagura-sama was no human.
Unaffected by his fuming companion, Shin inattentively examined his nails and said, "I have to say, you really fail at kindling romantic feelings, Ryo. Did you actually believe that her favorite snack would be enough to make her confess to the captain?"
Ryotaro pointed accusingly at a mindlessly chewing Yamazaki, who was watching the unfolding spectacle with all of the interest of someone attempting to watch grass grow. "Oi, he was the one who said the girl sucked down that stuff like water! And besides, girls like getting gifts, ya know? I thought it'd soften her up a bit!"
"Hn. I'm beginning to see why none of your previous relationships managed to last beyond a week."
"Wait, wait." Someone else objected. "You're tellin' me that the guy in charge of this romance operation strikes out with every girl he dates?"
"Pretty much," Shin affirmed with a shrug, ignoring the look of outrage that crossed the redhead's face at the perceived betrayal.
The dark-haired Shinsengumi cast an unrepentant glance at Ryotaro. "What? There's a reason why we call you Ryo the Romance Retard behind your back—and not just because it's good alliteration."
"Eh?" Obviously Ryo was unaware of this little tidbit of information.
"I reiterate: we let a guy with a nickname like that orchestrate getting Kagura-sama and Okita-taichou together?"
Shin nodded matter-of-factly, and rather glumly. "There was a reason I said we were doomed. Everyone decided else just decided to ignore it, and now look where we are: stuck in a back alley watching last month's salary being frittered away by a five-foot-four pink-haired alien."
Ryotaro groaned. "Okay, so I made a mistake, ya know? And my past relationships aside, we're getting entirely off-topic here and that's—oi, Kenji, get the hell back here!" Ryotaro's hand snaked out and latched onto the back of the escaping youth's uniform, dragging him back into the shadowy depths with the rest of them. Kenji, who amidst the back and forth squabbling, had been sneakily inching his way out of the alleyway they were all ingloriously squished in, a hungry look on his young face. "Tell me you weren't about to purchase some of the enemy's food."
The brown-haired boy frowned lightly, passing a hand over his growling stomach and giving his senpai a beseeching look. "I can't help it," he mumbled, a little pitifully. "I'm hungry. And besides, it's not even the enemy's sukonbu—I paid my entire month's salary for it! Part of it's rightfully mine!"
"Kid, no fraternizing with the enemy. Eat some of Yamazaki-san's anpan if you're peckish."
Eyes widening, Yamazaki clutched his anpan close to his chest and glowered at Kenji, who wasn't entirely sure that the man wouldn't whack him with his tennis racket if he so much as made a move towards the anpan.
"Um…don't worry, Yamazaki-senpai, I'm not going to eat your anpan," Kenji reassured him apprehensively. Switching his gaze to a brooding Ryotaro, he suggested tentatively, "And…Ryo-senpai? Maybe…maybe everyone else is right." He interlocked his fingers nervously, staring down at them. "Maybe this really is a lost cause. Kagura-sama doesn't look like she's in love—she actually looks kinda mad."
Ryotaro sighed at the words—defeat was not in his vocabulary, and it pained him to even consider surrendering to a teenage girl. It pained him even more to think that the indomitable men of the Shinsengumi had seemingly met their match in someone entirely unexpected.
Ryotaro leaned against the alley wall, folding his arms and honing his gaze on the girl who had thwarted him twice now, with very little effort.
From an outsider's view, the pink-haired teenager, smiling happily at a passerby as they purchased a box of sukonbu, appeared exactly as nothing more than that—a cheerful, naïve young girl enjoying a sunny day with her best friend and her dog. It completely boggled the mind as to how such a tiny, delicate little thing like that could cause even the best-laid (and most expensive) plans to go awry.
Dammit, why couldn't the fiery-spirited young woman have been a docile, giggly adolescent like the rest of the girls who seemed to inhabit Edo in abundance? It would have made this entire job go so much easier…but no, Okita-taichou just had to fall for the only teenage girl in the country who enjoyed beating up aliens in her spare time.
His scrutinizing stare passed over the oddly garbed samurai beside her (who was currently in the process of picking his nose with a blank expression) and meandered over to the white dog protectively stationed next to his mistress, the one that had defeated the undefeatable Shinsengumi with his gaping maw of a mouth and razor-sharp teeth.
A slight scowl formed on his lips, his red brows drawing together. How anyone could find something that freakishly intimidating lovable and cuddly was entirely beyond him…further cementing Kagura-sama in his mind as the perfect match for their equally weird captain. If she could love that man-eating beast, certainly Kagura-sama could find room in her heart for Okita-taichou as well?
Ryotaro stared hard at the dog.
A minute passed.
A terrible, wonderful idea began to form in his mind. A low cackle of laughter and the promise of a plan came from him, alarming his fellow Shinsengumi.
The men surrounding him exchanged uncertain glances, half-convinced that their leader had finally cracked.
"Um, Ryo-senpai?" Kenji squeaked while simultaneously scooting away from him in the limiting space. After all, who knew if craziness were contagious?
Ryotaro directed a sly smile at them, blissfully ignorant of the wary looks he was receiving and face alight with the sense of approaching victory. "Men, desperate times call for radical actions, ya know?" He proclaimed, the beginnings of deviousness shining in his eyes. His eyes shot back to where Sadaharu was standing next to Kagura, rubbing his hands together in the universal sign of evil plotting. "Tomorrow…we make our most drastic move to date!"
"More drastic than thieving all our money and buying two tons of sukonbu?" Shin said with sardonic surprise, his lip curling. "Oh, I can't wait."
Perhaps in remembrance of his earlier throttling at the hands of his best friend, Ryotaro prudently remained silent.
Kenji, however, had no such compunction. Relieved that the matter had been resolved, at least for the moment, he said with no little amount of happiness, "Then now can we leave? It smells like old fish back here, and I think that old lady over there thinks we're stalkers…she looks like she's going to call the police any second now." Anxiety shone in his face.
Everyone stared at him, the troubles of the day temporarily forgotten.
"We are the police."
Eeek! Sorry, sorry—I know this chapter's really late. I'm a pre-med student, so exams and coursework eventually catch up even to the best of us :P.
Thank you so very, very much for all your reviews! I'm sorry I can't reply to them all, since I figure you guys would rather have me spend that time working on a new chapter, but I read each and every one, and take all your opinions and comments into serious consideration. Seriously, if you ever have an idea for improving the story, or maybe a particular character you think might add something to it, drop me a line :) I'm exceedingly flattered that everyone seems to love Ryotaro, Kenji, and Shin so much, since most of you have made a point of telling me so in your review!
And just to clarify a quick point, I had one or two reviewers ask if Ryotaro liked Kagura...in that way. I'm wondering if it really does seem like that to other people as well, since I really didn't intend to write him in such a way. I think all of the Shinsengumi men might feel a certain admiration for Kagura, in the way that one does for a fellow warrior or even a cute girl, but I believe that all of them respect (and fear) their captain enough that it would never develop into anything further than that. Besides, I highly doubt any of those guys would be able to keep up with Kagura's sporadic personality like Okita has proven himself capable of doing on multiple occasions ;)
Anyways, to make up for my absence I wrote an extra, extra long chapter, hope you guys enjoy it :) Leave me a comment on what your thoughts about it are!