III

Gintoki sat on the edge of the porch, the sword propped up against his shoulder the way he liked. Zura was sitting on the ground in front of him, using the porch as support to lean against and Gintoki was becoming more resigned to that. He'd started off on his own, sitting outside to put his favorite part of training – mental preparation – into practice. It was a time where he had a legitimate excuse to close his eyes and do absolutely nothing and call it training. But only minutes after sitting down, Zura showed up with Takasugi on his heels and he wasn't even surprised to see them anymore.

For awhile there, Zura's proximity had been an issue and in many ways it still was. Zura always got closer and closer, scooting nearer during meals, walking closer to his side. Gintoki had kept his distance for a long while, as long as he could since other people made him uneasy, but Zura either couldn't take a hint or didn't care. So, it wasn't all that surprising that Zura had sat down directly in front of him when there was plenty of room around and away from him. Zura had pressed up next to him a few times and Gintoki was just waiting for the day the other boy sat down on top of him.

Not far off, he could hear stupid Takasugi making quiet little noises every so often and he knew the other was bored. The two had come over so they could all do some afternoon studies together and keep each other on task or something. Really, Zura was the only one who actually studied, Takasugi pretended to, and Gintoki didn't study nor bother to pretend to. He was doing mental preparation and so what if that was what he did nearly every single time he 'studied.'

It was a nice afternoon, hence why he'd wanted to spend it outside. It had been really hot for the past week or so, but the heat wave had finally broken to a rush of cooler air and it was finally enjoyable to be outside. Some solitude would have been great, but that was getting harder to come by and being around others was slowly getting easier. Not all people, but certain ones, Sensei most of all.

Now that he wasn't alone, he didn't feel at ease enough to close his eyes and doze. He knew he could if he really wanted to, but Takasugi might try and take his sword again if he let his guard down any. So he looked out across the yard, the grass a light brown instead of lush green because of the lack of rain and abundance of sun. Gintoki had spent a lot of his time inside thanks to the heat. He burned easily and now that he had a place to stay, he didn't have to go outside. Most of the time he preferred to stay inside with his sword and definitely his big blanket that he'd taken a fast and powerful liking to.

Zura made a noise then and Gintoki looked down at the back of the other's head, waiting for a reason for the noise. But Zura kept looking straight ahead and Gintoki... became tempted. He became so tempted and... why not? Why shouldn't he?

Making a decision, he reached out, grabbed Zura's ponytail, and gave it a little yank.

"Ah! What are you doing? Let go!" He gave it another tug, pulling Zura's head back. "O-oi! Stop that!"

"It's long," Gintoki said softly, studying the way the dark strands weaved around his fingers.

"Yeah, I'm growing it out. Now, let go!"

Gintoki didn't let go, he didn't want to, and only held tighter when Zura tried to lean forward. It amused him the way the other wriggled, but he didn't look away from the hair in his grasp. It wasn't like he was just noticing Zura had longer hair, it was something he'd actually been wondering about for awhile. Nearly everyone in their class and in the village had short hair, well, except for the girls. So it was weird that Zura was pretty much the only boy that had long hair. Sensei had long hair, longer than Zura's, but that was Sensei and that just sort of made sense.

"You can stop now," Zura was saying as Gintoki grabbed a fistful of the hair on top of his head to keep him in place and slid off the hair tie.

The mass of raven hair fell loose, pooling around Zura's shoulders and Gintoki was much more entertained than he probably should have been by it. He'd never gotten to mess with anyone's hair before and already he rather liked it. He wasn't sure why, he just sort of did, it was soft and easy to manipulate, there wasn't something to not like about it. He grabbed a fistful of hair in both hands and yanked them up so it looked like Zura had antennae coming out of his head.

"Isn't that sweet," Takasugi taunted, "he's playing with your hair."

"Hai, thanks for letting me know," Zura scoffed, voice slightly strained as Gintoki twisted the hair into shapes. "S-Sakata-san, why don't you try braiding it?"

Gintoki paused in his recreation of a triangle and shifted his weight from side to side, unsure what to do because of course he didn't know how to braid. He'd seen them before, but to actually do one, he didn't even know where to start.

"Yeah, braid it," Takasugi jeered, his small arms crossing. "Put some flowers in there, you'll be the prettiest girl in class."

"No, I wouldn't, no one can take that spot from you."

Takasugi made a frustrated noise under his breath. "At least I don't have someone playing with my hair."

"Right, you only wish you had someone playing with your hair."

"Pft, whatever..."

Gintoki's gaze flicked over to Takasugi, but he remained disinterested throughout the exchange. The other was sitting with his back against the wall wearing a light green yukata and their class notebook was open in his lap. Gintoki couldn't remember where his own notebook was, but Zura's was laying on the ground next to his tan colored bag. Zura was always carrying around books and things, pulling them out when he had the time to read – always with the reading and the being practical nonsense.

He must have been still too long because Zura craned his head to look back at him with one eye through his fringe.

"Do you know how to braid?" Gintoki shifted again and shook his head. "Oh, it's easy! I can show you, but, uhh, you'll have to let go of my hair first."

Reluctantly, Gintoki relaxed his fingers as Zura slowly moved forward, the strands sliding against his skin without snagging a single tangle. He felt like his own hair was full of knots and snarls since he was a natural perm and he shuddered to imagine what it would be like long. It was far easier to keep it short and it was nice having it actually cut rather than the hacking sheer he'd done himself until then. He knew he'd never grow his hair out like Zura or Sensei, he saw it as more of a hazard than anything. It'd get in his face when he moved, blind him when he needed to see, and he just couldn't have that happening, it could cost him too much.

"Are you listening?"

He blinked at Zura, his head once more tilted back to look at him, and ah, right, he should be paying attention, shouldn't he? Nodding, he shifted the sword against his shoulder so he could get into a more comfortable position and sat up straighter, the very picture of attentive.

Looking back to the front, Zura reached up to his hair and divided it into three chunks. "There, you just do this, then alternate moving each outer row of hair to the middle."

Gintoki watched as Zura took the left outer row and pulled it to the middle, then took the right outer row to do the same thing. He did it slowly at first and went faster the farther down he got until there was nothing left to braid. It was smooth with hardly a hair out of place and Gintoki hesitated only a moment before reaching out to touch it, running his fingers along the bumps and curves. It felt as smooth as it looked and his fingers really stuck out when cast against the color of black ink, he liked the way it looked.

"See? Easy," Zura said just before unraveling the braid. "Your turn."

Glancing at Takasugi who had been watching the whole time from over his raised notebook, Gintoki met his gaze and huffed when the other immediately looked away. The second Gintoki turned his attention back to Zura's hair, he felt Takasugi's eyes on him again and though he was tempted to look up, he didn't. Instead, he smoothed out Zura's hair and carefully divided it into three chunks. He wasn't the smartest one in class, but he wasn't so stupid that he couldn't duplicate something he saw a demonstration of. If Zura could do it, he could too... even if his chunks were a little disproportional.

"Pull it tighter," Zura instructed. "Too loose and it'll fall apart."

Gintoki knew Zura was only trying to teach him, but he'd discovered long ago that he didn't like people telling him what to do and Zura had a tone. Every once in awhile the other boy could sound so snooty and that just irked Gintoki, rubbed him the wrong way each and every time. So, when he probably should have just taken the direction and moved on, he ended up yanking the next notch in the braid so tight Zura jolted and yelped.

"Gah! Too tight! Too tight! Ease up!" Zura sputtered and Gintoki did because mission accomplished, the tone was gone.

Takasugi was cackling to himself, but Gintoki ignored him as he undid the middle of the braid and started again from there. Not too loose, not to firm, he found a rhythm and worked his way downward. It got harder as he got to the bottom, the straight strands not wanting to do what he told them to as they frayed outward. He frowned at it, some of the notches looked jagged and out of place, so he released the braid completely and tried again. It was easier the second time and he was faster at it. Zura was holding up a book while Gintoki worked, adjusting himself by trial and error. By the third attempt, it looked like a duplicate of what Zura had done and it was with a soft sigh that he clumsily used the hair band to tie it off.

"Done?" Zura asked, raising a hand back to run it over the braid. He hummed and Gintoki found himself strangely anxious as he waited for a verdict. "Feels good, how does it look?"

He didn't respond and when Zura looked back at him, he nodded, his hands in his sleeves and the sword fitted snugly in the crook of his left elbow. Zura had bangs coming down on either side of his face and Gintoki absentmindedly decided that the other would look odd without them. Actually, Zura would look odd with short hair altogether, not bad, he wasn't sure Zura would look particularly bad with any hairstyle, but odd, surely.

"It's okay to talk, you know."

Yeah, he knew, but it was another one of those things he wasn't used to. Talking, having people to talk to, especially ones that actually wanted him to speak, it was weird. He never really felt the need to say anything, either, he was usually content to just sit back and listen. That was what he'd always done before coming to the village, wait quietly and observe to decide how best to adjust to his environment. Dealing with other people made that so difficult, it complicated and changed his usual habits. It was like being perpetually on guard and the only time he really felt a sense of ease was when Sensei was around.

Zura sighed and turned back to his books, the braid flowing down his neck. "You really should study or you'll fall behind."

"He's already behind," Takasugi scoffed, words muffled by his notebook. "The idiot can barely read let alone write."

"Right, but how many times has he kicked your butt?"

"I – what? None! Zero times!"

Zura didn't look up from jotting something down and hummed. "Yeah, sure. Whatever you say."

They always talked about him like he wasn't there, but he never said anything to correct them. The two were obviously good friends, always bickering, and sometimes he enjoyed listening. Not this time though, he was actually starting to get a little irked and he wasn't sure why. Yawning, he clamored to his feet, the motion silencing both of them for some reason, and headed inside.

"Oi! Where are –"

"Let him go," Zura interrupted, head turned to watch.

The last thing he heard before the door closed was Takasugi's loud bahh of annoyance. He wouldn't be gone long, really he just wanted to grab something that had the power to make him feel better no matter what. He'd left the others in various places before, in the yard, in class, and he didn't view it as ditching them. Sometimes he just really needed to be by himself, but more often than not, he found himself leaving them less. He almost felt guilty up and walking away without a word, leaving them hanging with no explanation.

Moments later, he was walking back outside and caught the look of surprise on both their faces. Either because of his return or the plate of dango he had between his hands, he wasn't sure. Dango was something Sensei typically kept on hand for him since so much of his diet had become sweets once he'd discovered them in all their glory. He set the plate on the porch and plopped back down behind Zura, knowing that if he moved away, the other would most likely follow.

Zura was staring at him, eyes flitting to the plate and back up, and he gently nudged the plate closer with one hand while he devoured a dango ball with the other. It amused him the way Zura looked for utensils, Gintoki never really used them, choosing instead to do what he was used to and eat with his hands. Zura eventually plucked one of the balls from the plate and made a happy noise as he munched and went back to reading, a prayer of thanks mumbled in there somewhere.

"Ah..."

Gintoki glanced over to Takasugi who was practically on all fours, staring at the plate hungrily. His mouth was dropped open as if he wanted to say something, maybe ask if he could have some, but the words weren't coming out. Snorting, Gintoki tipped his head to the food and Takasugi hastily crawled over and snagged a piece, not hesitant when it came to using his hands. See? Gintoki didn't need words to communicate. The irked and annoyed feeling left him the more dango he ate and the other two were quiet, finally giving him the silence he'd wanted. He held his sword tighter now that Takasugi was closer, but the other wasn't paying it any attention and together they ate while the late afternoon sun slowly sank.