It starts, as most incidents often do, with Tanjirou. It’s a cloudless night and the moonlight is almost blinding, reflecting wildly off the lake in front of them and brightening the area with a luminous sheen. The three of them have had an exhausting day chasing down a demon in the sewers and this tiny, lakeside oasis is almost heaven. Taking pity on a worn-out Zenitsu, who sobbed the whole way through yet still managed to kill two high-level demons, and Tanjirou’s poor nose from the stink the demons had on them, Inosuke demands to take first watch.
He doesn’t intend on waking them up.
The night is quiet and the world outside seems so slow compared to the chaos of the day’s events. Inosuke tries to learn how to skip rocks on the lake, gives up after the first throw, and settles for hurling large boulders into it until he realises the deafening SPELUNK of the rocks might be detrimental to their rest. Wrinkling his nose, he wonders when he started to care about the quality of their sleep.
Zenitsu makes a noise and rolls over in his sleep.
Unprompted, Inosuke smiles fondly at him, then realises what he’s done and throws himself into the lake as penance. When he emerges, dripping, he settles himself against the back of the tree they’ve chosen to shelter under, Zenitsu and Tanjirou on either side of him, and watches the disturbed water ripple.
Tanjirou rolls over, making a distressed noise under his breath. Inosuke watches him idly, knowing he shouldn’t wake him or he’d never get back to sleep—Tanjirou is a once awake forever awake kind of guy. Tanjirou rolls over once more, bumping his elbow against Inosuke’s right arm. Briefly entertaining himself with the concept of getting up and letting Tanjirou roll his way into the lake, Inosuke watches his face crumple and crease.
Bad dreams are common for the two of them.
Tanjirou cries under his breath. He rolls onto his side, hemmed in Inosuke’s body, and now both his hands are touching him. The fingers on Tanjirou’s left hand just graze the underside of Inosuke’s arm, but his right hand lands squarely on top of his hand, curling over the edges of his palm, rough and calloused fingers slipping between his thumb and pinky.
Inosuke goes so still another touch might shatter him. A minute passes and he realises he’s forgotten to breathe, his chest tight and painful. It’s another thirty seconds before he realises he still hasn’t taken a breath.
He doesn’t know if he should pull his hand away, but when he does twitch his fingers slightly Tanjirou’s hand tightens on his and he makes a grumbly sort of noise. He should be repulsed, he thinks, staring at Tanjirou’s frown and the warm hand on his. He should pull his hand back and throw more rocks into the lake. Hell—maybe a whole fucking tree.
Tanjirou’s hand tightens again and he whimpers. He looks like he’s about to cry.
It is only in times like this that Tanjirou is anything but strong. Because he’s always so—so put together, so determined, so passionate and battle-hardened that nothing fazes him. A demon could turn up with his head on his ass and he’d just tell them to direct their attacks low to the ground. But at night, when the world is still and Tanjirou is a slave to his dreams, he’s so sad. So burdened.
Against his better judgement, which, to be fair, he doesn’t use a lot, Inosuke turns his hand around so that it’s palm up, and curls his fingers over Tanjirou’s, squeezing in what he hopes is a reassuring way.
Tanjirou’s face smoothens out almost instantly.
Huh—Inosuke feels really hot. He’s damp from the lake and the night should be cold against his skin but he’s burning. Is he falling sick? Is he? He frets over this minor detail. Inosuke has never been sick before, but he knows what it is from when Zenitsu caught the flu and was in bed for three days. He doesn’t want to be sick. he’s stronger than any fucking germ out there anyway, so he couldn’t possibly be.
Tanjirou presses his nose into his arm and curls around him like he’s a lifeline. He seems to have settled, Inosuke thinks faintly. That’s good, at least. A well-rested Tanjirou is another day they’re likely to stay alive.
With his other hand crossing over his body, Inosuke threads his fingers lightly through Tanjirou’s hair. It’s long now, much longer than it had been when they first met. He ties it up regularly, but Inosuke likes it like this, covering his face, sweeping gracefully over his jaw and tumbling in red waterfalls onto his shoulders. Inosuke tugs on his own strands—cut with two uncaring slashes of his katana while staring at a reflection of himself in a polished vase. The uneven strands may not be the most aesthetic of choices, but they work. He’s always put performance over style anyway.
Tanjirou snuffles a bit before settling again. He’s going to hit him when he wakes up in the morning and realises they never swapped shifts. Inosuke squeezes his hand again and decides he’ll deal with it when he wakes up.
A muscle jumps in Inosuke's jaw. “Rulebreaker! Hypocrite! Asshole!” He shouts, waving his arm at Tanjirou menacingly. “You hit me! That’s illegal!”
Tanjirou almost goes purple with rage, and it’s quite amusing to watch. “You didn’t wake us up!” he roars, spurred on by the weight of a full night’s sleep behind him. “How dare you!” The expression he wears looks almost as if Inosuke sold him and Nezuko out to the king of demons himself—in spite of the situation Inosuke laughs, earning a shocked inhale, which he then exhales brokenly. “I trusted you.”
Zenitsu rubs his eyes and yawns. “I don’t mind,” he says chirpily. “I dreamt I was eating a lot of mochi. Insane amounts of mochi. Like,” he spread his arms wide open, smiling benignly at the two of them. “So much mochi.”
“See!” Inosuke scrounges up his trademark roar from somewhere deep inside him. “He doesn’t mind! Unlike some people I can go many days without sleep!”
Tanjirou makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat, hands tearing at his hair. “I know how strong you are,” he chides. “But you don’t have to be strong all the time. Isn’t that why we’re a team?”
“Team!” He barks. “What’s that!”
A muscle jumps in Tanjirou’s jaw. “What we are, you doofus!’
“What’s a doofus!”
“Now you’re just doing this on purpose!”
Tanjioru yells and charges him. Inosuke sticks out his hand and grabs his forehead, barely holding him an arms length away. He’s gotten so strong over the months they’ve been together. Zenitsu glances over at the two of them, rolls his eyes, and starts packing away their meagre belongings. “Tanjirou,” he finally says after a couple of minutes—Inosuke is now bracing himself against a rock, both hands on Tanjirou’s forehead. He’s still gaining ground. “It’s not like you don’t give up food when we don’t have a lot or make other little sacrifices along the way. So,” he shrugs. “You’re as bad as him. Just enjoy your sleep!”
Tanjirou stops fighting against his hand, eyeing Zenitsu suspiciously. “Whose side are you on?” He snaps.
Zenitsu sticks his tongue out at him. Inosuke guffaws and lets Tanjirou go. “Let’s leave now,” he demands, taking off in a direction he isn’t sure is correct but is necessary to make his point. “Forward!”
Tanjirou huffs under his breath and takes off after him, grumbling the whole way. They run quickly through the forest, the hot summer sun merciless on the backs of their neck, grateful for the shade the trees cast onto the ground. At some point they rest—Inosuke puts it at just slightly after midday. Tanjirou and Zenitsu munch on onigiri while Inosuke tears into some bread.
“Hot,” he complains, pulling off the boar’s head, waving his hand in front of his face. “Holy shit, it’s so fucking hot.”
“Swearing,” Tanjirou scolds on reflex. “But you’re right. It really is warm,” he pulls uncomfortably at the edges of his clothes. “If we didn’t have somewhere to go I’d love to have gone swimming in that lake. It looked so nice and cool,” he thunks the back of his head on the tree.
Inosuke watches him, slightly fond. “I did, while someone was sleeping.”
“You didn’t wake me!”
“We’re not starting this again!” Zenitsu stamps his foot in frustration. “My ears,” he sobs. “They hurt so bad. Please shut up. Please please please please I’m begging you. No talking. Permanent ban on talking. Forever.”
Inosuke and Tanjirou look at each other.
“I can hear you!” Zenitsu scolds. “Your heartbeats are unsympathetic! You lack basic pity.”
“I’m sorry,” Tanjirou rubs the back of his head sheepishly, messing up his ponytail. “I’ll yell at him in whisper.”
“No yelling! At all!”
Tanjirou huffs and gives Inosuke a hard look. “Hey,” Inosuke stares right back at him, eyebrows furrowed. “He’s yelling at me in his head! Make him stop!”
“How do you even know that?” Zenitsu grumbles, looking over at Tanjirou. His mild hesitance at the expression the other wears is all the proof Inosuke needs and he leaps for him. The two of them fight it out for a bit, then Tanjirou manages to slam his foot onto the small of his back and send him crashing onto the grassy floor.
“There’s no time to fight,” he scolds. “We’re almost at the village.”
“I’ll eat your toes,” Inosuke promises.
“Mildly disturbing, but not the worst thing you’ve said to me,” Tanjirou gives him a big smile. “But seriously. Don’t wake any of us up for a shift again and I will punch you.”
“Okay okay,” Inosuke waves his hands in the air irritably. Tch. He’d just tried to be nice. “Whatever.”
Ow. His wrist really hurts, but there's something even worse than his wrist being potentially broken, and it is Tanjirou finding out. Barely holding back a shiver at the past memories, he continues to hold his katana tightly, idly surveying the decaying corpse of the demon they just killed.
It takes about five minutes for Tanjirou to notice his hand, and when he does, his eyes glaze over murderously and he marches to him with a foreboding sense of righteousness. Shit. “You’re hurt,” he accuses, hands on his hips.
“Liar,” growls Inosuke. “Not a scratch on me.”
Tanjirou stares at him, unimpressed, then says, “your wrist. It bent weirdly on the katana and now it’s not hanging right. I know you by now, Inosuke,” he rubs the back of his head and gives him a grin. “Come on now, don’t suck it up. Let me set the thing and it’ll heal faster.”
“I have never set anything in my life.”
Tanjirou rolls his eyes. “And that’s why your bones are all wonky. Come on,” with a quick first step, he grabs his good arm and pulls him over to a nearby tree, setting him down and getting to work. The fingers that deftly twist bandage and splint into place are so gentle, compared to how fierce they’d just been—he’d been the one to slice off the demon’s limbs before they got to its neck. “Stay still,” he chides. “You’re making this harder to yourself.”
“Fuck you,” says Inosuke succinctly. “This is a waste of cloth.”
“Uh huh,” says Tanjirou, blatantly ignoring him.
Scratching at the cloth, he bravely resists the urge to rip everything off. “They’re itchy. I don’t like them.”
“Suffer,” Tanjirou replies blandly. His fingers slide down from the bandages, curling around his arm. They trace white lines and pink lines down his arm, stopping at his shoulders. Although normally in total control over his bodily functions, Inosuke shivers and he suddenly becomes quite conscious of his everything. His fingers. His hands. The way Tanjirou looks in bright moonlight, pretty and like marble. “You’ve so many scars. You need to be more careful,” he looks up at him and pouts—Inosuke is thankful for the courage his mask gives him, because without it there’d be no way he could meet Tanjirou’s stare. “I hate it when you get hurt and I definitely don’t want you to die.”
“Dying is not my plan,” Inosuke snaps. “Stop worrying about me.”
Somehow, although it cannot be humanly possible, Zenitsu manages to audibly roll his eyes. “Tanjirou worries about everyone,” he says. “Asking him to stop is like asking demons to stop trying to kill us.”
Inosuke huffs. “Well somehow she doesn’t,” and he points a furious arm into the direction of the box that Tanjirou has stashed up in the branches of a tree. It aggravates his wrist and he hurriedly pulls it backdown.
“Oh,” says Zenitsu, putting a finger to his lips. “You’re right.”
“No,” both Zenitsu and Tanjirou deadpan at the same time.
Inosuke pulls off his mask to stick his tongue out at them. “I hate this thing and I want it off right now,” he whines. Reaching out a hand to pull it off, Tanjirou immediately grabs it and thumps it hard against the trunk. “Fuck you! I only have one good hand! Are you trying to kill me!”
Zenitsu hums idly under his breath, then his eyes narrow at him in a devious sort of way. “Your skin is quite sensitive, isn't it," he muses idly. "Hey, does that mean you're really ticklish?"
Inosuke is instinctively frightened of the word even if he doesn’t know what it means. He’s especially scared of the sudden look in Tanjirou’s eyes—like the devil itself heard a brilliant idea. “I don’t get it,” he yells uncertainly. “What’s ticklish?”
Tanjirou sizes him up, then looks at Zenitsu and Nezuko’s box. “We could take him.”
“Take me?” Inosuke’s grip tightens on his katanas. Take him where? “I will fucking cut your head off.”
Zenitsu spares him an uninterested look. “I’m too lazy,” he rolls over and face-plants the ground. “It’s been a long day.”
“You mean you’ve cried yourself out,” Tanjirou is still looking at him in the way he does when they spar, like he’s calculating every possible move he could make before Tanjirou does whatever the fuck he wants to do to him. Inosuke bares his teeth at him threateningly, but it just makes him giggle.
“Hey,” Zenitsu raises a finger into the air pointedly. “The demon had tentacles coming out of his eyes! Tentacles! In his eye hole! As if just plain tentacles weren’t terrifying enough. The better question is why you all weren’t scared shitless.”
“Oh,” Tanjirou muses so innocently they turn to look at him. “I was terrified. But I had to fight. So I did.”
A moment of stunned silence as the both of them take this in. “I hate you,” Zenitsu rolls back over. “I’ll never understand you. I officially give up.”
Tanjirou giggles and leans back on his palms. A moment of silence, like the calm before a storm. Then the look in his eyes changes and all the hairs on Inosuke’s body shoot up. He leaps to the side, but Tanjirou has anticipated this, because he’s already there even as Inosuke jumps.
Moving in mid-air, there’s nowhere to go. Inosuke’s eyes widen as he collides with Tanjirou’s strong body, sending them skidding back in the grass. Then Tanjirou’s hands land on his stomach and his fingers curl and holy fuck, Inosuke cannot stop laughing.
What the fuck.
“S-stop,” he gasps, but Tanjirou doesn’t let up, the grin on his face bellying how merciless he will be. “Oh my god stop,” he can’t breathe; he’s laughing too hard. The touch of Tanjirou’s fingers on his stomach and sliding across his sides is feather-light and weird, making him lose control over his arms and legs, which flail as though he’s being drowned. His wirst fucking hurts, but somehow the pain is dulled under all the laughter. “Kentaji!”
“That’s not my name,” Tanjirou teases. If Inosuke didn’t know better, he’d think he enjoyed this. The sudden rage he feels snaps him into the right frame of mind to get his frantic breathing under control, and then he’s bringing his fist up to Tanjirou’s cheek, but is dropped before it makes contact. Rolling on the grass, he hits his back against the tree trunk, still twitching slightly and wheezing.
“His laugh is as terrifying as I imagined it would be,” Zenitsu remarks mildly from where he’s perched himself on a tree branch. When the fuck did he get up there? Was he running away? From his laugh? Inosuke tries to dredge up his spirit, but he still feels like his bones took a vacation. “You’re the only one who can get away with doing something like that, Tanjirou.”
Tanjirou has a dumb grin on his face, a dumb grin that grows dumber when he looks over at Inosuke, who has managed to drag himself upright and brace himself against the tree trunk. “Am I?”
“He’d have flung me into the river.”
Tanjirou cocks his head confusedly. “The river’s not for another four miles.”
“Did I stutter?” Zenitsu climbs down from the tree and sighs, squatting down to make a little mound of leaves. “I’m going to sleep,” he yawns. “It’s Tanjirou’s turn for night watch, right?
Tanjirou leans back on his palms and stares at the sky. “Yup,” he says, then his voice turns soft. “Hey, Inosuke, sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”
“It felt terrible,” Inosuke deadpans, crossing his arms across his chest. “Never do that again.”
“No promises,” he sing-songs. A vein bulges in Inosuke’s temple and he lunges for him. They scuffle for a bit but Inosuke gets the upper hand, wrapping his arm under Tanjirou’s neck and holding him in a choke. Ow, his wrist, ow, ow.
No! He must not let it get to him. He's got a mission to fulfil. Slowly, but with a lot of determination, he raises his other hand.
He’s not too sure how Tanjirou did it. His touch was very light, so he’s going to have to be wary of his strength—he doesn’t want to punch the air out of him. And he went for the stomach and his sides—Inosuke brings his hand down and moves his fingers hesitantly against the smooth cloth of his uniform.
Tanjirou giggles and twists in his grasp. “Stop that,” he says, still giggling. “I’m not ticklish.”
“Then why are you laughing?” Inosuke demands. He gives his side a tentative poke and actually hurts himself a little, what with all the muscle in the way. There is no part of Tanjirou, other than his heart, that is soft.
“I’m humouring you,” Tanjirou gasps for air and tries to shove him away. “My siblings tickled me all the time. I can last for hours with you.”
“Oh,” Inosuke narrows his eyes at him. “Did they?”
“What!” Tanjirou blubbers. “Hey! You told me you didn’t remember her name!”
Nezuko’s door opens slightly.
“No!” He yells desperately. “You’re supposed to be resting!”
The demon inside pays him no heed, pushing out and falling, landing perfectly on her feet. She considers the situation with a tilted head and wide eyes—she’s always kind of reminded Inosuke of a tamed beast. Then she walks calmly over to the two of them, grabs Tanjirou’s legs, and forces his boots off him.
“No!” Tanjirou shrieks. “Don’t! Nezuko-chan!”
Inosuke thinks if she didn’t have the bit of bamboo in her mouth she’d be smiling wickedly and quickly decides to not get on her bad side. Her hands descend upon Tanjirou’s socked feet and he squeals, kicking and flailing in Inosuke’s grip, laughing himself silly. “I can’t breathe,” he cries, kicking his feet aimlessly. “Stop!”
After several minutes of what sounds like a hamster getting tortured, Nezuko finally slows her assault on Tanjirou, who heaves and wheezes, going boneless against Inosuke’s chest. “Never again,” he moans, closing his eyes tiredly.
“You started it,” Inosuke scoffs.
Tanjirou gives him a big grin as he tips his head back to look at him and he nearly flinches from how close their faces are. Inosuke flushes a dark red and drops him, sending him tumbling to the floor. “Enjoy first watch,” he snaps, walking briskly away from him to press his back against the tree. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Okay,” Tanjirou gives him a thumbs up and another big smile. Inosuke doesn’t know what to do with the sudden swelling in his heart and chooses to bare his teeth at him instead. Fucking hell, he wants to squeeze him to death. Just—grab him, round the waist and just—fucking—squeeze.
Dropping down hard onto the floor, he turns away from him in a huff to face the darkness of the forest. Tanjirou eventually comes and sits closer to him, his arm brushing Inosuke’s back. Under his breath, he hums a soft song. A lullaby, Inosuke thinks faintly. Must have learnt it from his parents.
He wonders what it was like to have parents. Surely he must have had some.
Thinking about it makes his head hurt, so he stops pretty soon and relaxes into the soft drawl of Tanjirou’s voice. He doesn’t realise when he fell asleep, only that he wakes up when the sky is lightening and Tanjirou is curled against his back, nose pressed between his shoulder blades.
He can almost feel the steam pouring out of his ears as he struggles to comprehend this. Struggling to get his brain to cooperate with him, he finally comes up with three facts. One—Tanjirou feels completely safe around him. This he already knows. He’s still surprised by it, though. Two—Tanjirou actively seeks him out for comfort. This he also knows. He’s also still surprised by it. Three—Tanjirou entered his personal space while he was at his most defenceless, and he didn’t react at all.
What did that mean for himself?
Sitting abruptly upright, he stares at Tanjirou’s sleeping form, then realises that, from his perch up in the trees, Zenitsu is staring at them, odd tilt to his mouth. “For the record,” he says blandly, “I tried to come close to you after he did that and you kicked me in your sleep. Not that I didn’t expect it,” he shrugs. “But Tanjirou’s different, isn’t he?”
“No,” Inosuke says, too quickly to mean it. Zenitsu raises his eyebrows. “He’s too fucking good to do something shitty.”
Zenitsu purses his lips and makes a hmm sort of noise. Suddenly, he accuses, “you have a crush on him.” At Inosuke’s immediate denial, he says, “I’ll have you know I’m an expert on love and the like and I can tell you for a fact that you like him.”
“No you’re not,” Inosuke scoffs.
“I am,” Zenitsu pouts. “Don’t question my authority! You like him. You’d do things for him you wouldn’t do for anyone else.”
“Right,” Zenitsu clambers down from his tree and looks at him up and down. “Okay, I’ll make it simpler for you to understand. Tanjirou is an ideal mate, right?”
Red hot heat flushes through Inosuke’s body, ending somewhere around his ears. Feeling as though he might spontaneously start melting in the cool morning air, he tries not to focus too much on the man sleeping peacefully just centimetres away from him. Uncaring of his predicament, Zenitsu continues blithely, “I mean, he’s strong, he’s family-oriented and he’s trustworthy. That’s perfect, isn’t it? For someone like you? He’s got everything one needs to start a pack.”
“Shut up!” Inosuke wants to scream, but then he realises Tanjirou absolutely must not wake up and settles for a death hiss, hands curling against his sides. Stupid thinking stupid foresight stupid— “I don’t think about those kinds of things. They’re a waste of time. And pack means family.”
“Well a pack doesn’t have to be blood-related, I don’t think,” Zenitsu flops onto the grass and stares at the sky. “I think having someone to love would be a very nice thing to have, you know. The whole—not being alone thing, not being given up on thing.”
There’s so many things Inosuke would say if he had the words or the smarts to say it. “Pah,” he chooses to say rudely. “Fuck you. This guy would never give up on you and would never leave you alone. You’re dumb as fuck when it comes to love.”
Zenitsu’s eyes widen and he sits up again. “Oh,” he says, quietly, as though just coming to this realisation. “I mean, yeah, but he’s not—I’m not interested in men like that,” he sticks out his tongue. “My dream is of a beautiful woman who can protect me and keep me safe. Like Nezuko-chan!”
Inosuke rolls his eyes.
“I bet,” Zenitsu points a finger right at him. “I bet you’ve looked at him before and thought that you’ve just got to grab in your arms and,” he hesitates here, looking at Inosuke up and down, then saying, “squeeze him to death. Right? Just rattle the old body back and forth until the feeling stops.”
Inosuke’s heart pounds in his chest. The sun is rapidly rising over the horizon and he’s worried that Tanjirou will wake up at any time and hear what is going on. “No,” he says unconvincingly.
“Aha! You have! It’s affection,” Zenitsu taps his chin thoughtfully. “Sometimes, the feelings of affection are so strong, especially when you see something cute you can’t have, your body handles the overwhelming emotion by converting it to aggression. Though, ah, I suppose in your case all your emotions just go straight to aggression," he sighs morosely.
“You’re thinking too much,” Inosuke insists. “I don’t want any of that. He’s my partner. I take care of my partner. I’d take care of you too. So that you don’t die. Cause then I’d die. It’s,” he gestures vaguely. “Math.”
“He’s more than partner,” Zenitsu grins at him impishly. “He’s pack, isn’t he?”
Right. That’s enough cheek from him for the day. Inosuke fondly remembers the times when Zenitsu had been more scared of him—how one growl could shut him up for the whole day. Now he knows it’s an empty threat and he just throws the growl back in his face, laughing. “Stop it,” Inosoke hurls a rock at him but he dodges it deftly.
Zenitsu rolls his eyes but nods slightly, spreading his hands wide. “This went well!” He cheers, and claps his hands together. “I should open a love guru business. Don’t you think? As a side-job? Advice, helpful tips, matchmaking services. Your one stop destination for all your love needs.”
“You’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Well they don’t know that,” Zenitsu sticks his tongue out at him before moving to poke Tanjirou rapidly in the stomach. “Tanjirou, get up. It’s morning and we need to be in the next village by sundown.”
So here’s the thing. Inosuke knows Tanjirou like the back of his hand. He understands him about as well as the woods where he grew up in—there, every pebble, every twig, every fish and branch and leaf was under his dominion. He knew whether a pile of leaves had been disturbed by paw or bird, he knew when a tree was sick, he could find his way to his cave blindfolded, deaf, and walking only on his two hands.
So when Tanjirou awakens from his sleep, Inosuke knows he’d never really been asleep at all. His eyes opened too fast. His yawn was too long. His smile a little too bright. He’s not sure how long Tanjirou has been awake, but judging from the awkwardness suddenly in the air, he can tell it’s been long enough.
His face burns. Biting his tongue, Inosuke casts about for anything—anything that can break the tension and just end it—he’s too conscious of Tanjirou’s eyes on him to do anything. Tanjirou opens his mouth to say something and Inosuke does not want to hear it.
“Fight!” He barks. “Fuckin tempura-looking sweet potato pumpkin orange headass. Fight me!”
Tanjirou startles, closing his mouth with a sharp click.
“What?” Zenitsu furrows his brows, eyes wide. “No.”
Inosuke backs up, takes a running start, and leaps right into Zenitsu, sending them crashing into a tree. “What the hell!” Zenitsu yelps, barely avoiding slamming his head into the trunk. “What the—oh, oops. Was he awake?”
“I’m going to kill you now,” Inosuke promises, raising his fist, but then he’s yanked off by the scruff of his neck by Tanjirou, who throws him unceremoniously to the ground.
“I thought we got over that phase,” he tuts.
“Nothing goes over me.”
“Clouds,” Zenitsu offers. “Birds. Common sense. Self-preservation."
“I think he gets it,” Tanjirou giggles in spite of himself. “Fine, come on. We’ve got to go.”
“Whatever,” Inosuke leaps to his feet and points in a random direction. “Last one there takes second watch.”
Inosuke doesn’t know what Zenitsu was thinking. Tanjirou is not special to him, any more than someone else who fought alongside him is. It doesn’t mean anything that he cannot stop looking at him out of the corner of his eyes—Tanjirou’s hair is burnt a luminous red from the fire, his eyes equally bright, like twin suns in the dark night. It cannot mean anything. Why would it mean anything?
They’re quite high up on the mountains, having made camp at the first open ground they could find amongst all the rocks. Zenitsu had already been falling asleep on the way there—he’d had the daylights scared out of him when they were chased by a pack of wolves for several miles, and he falls asleep the second he puts his head on the ground.
Tanjirou watches him fondly before getting up and unravelling his blanket for him, carefully lifting him up so that he lies on top of the blanket, then folding the edges tightly around him, tucking it under his body.
“What are you doing?” Inosuke asks gruffly, roughly pulling off his mask so that he could wash his face in the small stream nearby. “He looks like a handroll.”
“It’s called swaddling,” Tanjirou explains patiently, still fiddling with the edges of the blanket. “It’s a technique used to calm babies down when they’re feeling scared or upset. The baby feels warm and snug, like it’s being held, and so they feel safer. We did it to the kids all the time.”
“Zenitsu is not a baby.”
“True, but you can’t deny it works,” Tanjirou sticks his tongue out at him playfully, the shadows of the fire dancing playfully across his skin. “Look at him. He’s already much calmer. I don’t do it as tight as we did to the kids cause we might need to escape at short notice, but it’s nice just to have it. Like a constant hug.”
Inosuke considers this. When he says, “never had a hug before,” he means it in a perfectly innocent way. He means it in the same way he remarks on the fact that he’s never had sake, that he’s never been on a boat, that he’s never seen the desert. It’s a fact, not a suggestion or an implication. Still, Tanjirou’s mouth drops open, horrified.
“You’ve never had a hug?”
“Is that so fucking surprising!” Inosuke barks, scuttling back from him. “Hey! Stay away from me!”
“No, you need a hug,” Tanjirou has the same zombie look he gets in his eyes when he’s particularly determined. As Inosuke watches, teeth clenched tightly together, Tanjirou drops his body weight into the center and starts to use Total Concentration.
“Fucking hell, you’re serious?” He asks, staring at him with furrowed eyebrows. “You’re crazy. It’s just a fucking hug.”
“Hugs are good for you,” Tanjirou whines. “Come on. Arms up and out—not too up—too low—Ino,” he laughs, coming over to put his arms into place—outstretched and directed at Tanjirou’s waist. He’s so near, Inosuke thinks. The mole near his eyes is such a dark brown. “Okay now, I’m going to step forward and put my arms around your neck.”
Inosuke fights with himself about it. It’s probably clear that he looks constipated because Tanjirou huffs a small giggle. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll go really slowly, okay? Besides, it’s me. I promise I won’t do anything weird. Okay,” he steps forward until their toes bump into each other. Then he slowly reaches up and out, resting both arms on his shoulders, and linking his hands together behind his neck.
He’s even closer now, Inosuke thinks in alarm. He’s got black dots on his nose. Wait—does he have black dots on his nose? What the fuck are they? Get them off his fucking—“Okay, now you wrap your arms around my waist and pull me closer. Press your hands into the small of my back.”
Closer? Inosuke’s brain short-circuits for a moment but he complies, sliding his arms past the sides of his body, pressing his hands into the small of his back and pulling him closer. Their chests knock into one another, the odd material of the Demon Slayer uniforms silky against his skin.
Tanjirou moves his hands, one cupping the back of his neck, the other holding the back of his head, fingers tangling in his hair.
Every single one of Inosuke’s senses only register Tanjirou. He knows they’re in the middle of nowhere. There should be noises, like cicadas, and the whistling of the wind through the barren landscape but all he can feel is the beat of Tanjirou’s heart and all he can smell is the bar of soap Tanjirou brings with him on his travels and all he can hear is Tanjirou saying, directly into his ear, with what sounds like the biggest grin on the planet, “see? Isn’t it great?”
“It’s okay,” he says gruffly, hands holding tightly onto the material of his haori. He supposes it is quite nice, like being tucked up in bed but…standing. “I feel naked. I don’t like it.”
“You’ll get used to it. Hugs are good for the soul.”
“Who told you that?” He snorts, finding it hard to continue to be gruff when he’s being held so tenderly.
“My mother,” Tanjirou says cheerfully. “We were a very affectionate family. I miss them a lot.”
Inosuke remains silent, staring straight ahead into the night sky.
“Listen,” Tanjirou whispers. “I heard what you and Zenitsu were talking about in the morning.”
Inosuke goes so stiff he could topple over at any moment.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Tanjirou hastens to explain. “I—you’re special to me,” he says, his grip tightening on Inosuke. “You’re special to me in the way that I’m special to you. Do you understand?”
“I don’t,” Inosuke whispers back. He feels like he should be whispering this. If there ever was a time for whispering it is now. So he will whisper. “I don’t know why you’re special to me.”
“That’s okay,” Tanjirou says. “I can just be special to you until you figure out exactly why. Though, you don’t really need a reason, and sometimes you don’t figure out exactly why,” he says. pulling back from the hug and grinning at him. With the hand that is still on the back of his neck, he pulls him forward and knocks their foreheads together. “Sometimes people just are.”
Tch. Too much thinking required. Inosuke needs at least a week’s advance notice if there’ll be thinking required. “Why am I special to you?”
“You’re brave, headstrong, determined. You never give up. You protect what is yours,” Tanjirou’s eyes have never been so serious. Inosuke’s fight or flight instincts are kicking into overdrive—he’s got to squeeze him. Got to fucking just—squish—“Also, you’re pretty,” he pulls away and gives him a cheeky grin. “Really pretty.”
Inosuke’s eyes widen, then he’s launching himself at Tanjirou with enough force to bowl over even an Upper Moon, sending them flying backwards into the dirt. “Shut up,” he hisses, shaking Tanjirou’s body like a ragdoll. “Say another word and I’ll kill you.”
“You’re kind and sweet,” Tanjirou says. His entire situation right now completely denies that.
“You’re learning to be.”
“You’re trying to be.”
“AM NOT!” Inosuke bellows.
“Shut up!” Zenitsu roars, sitting up in a furious rush. “God, how many times must I tell you both to just—what the hell?” His face goes a bright pink. Inosuke glares at him. Tanjirou tries to cover his face but his shoulders arms are being held down. “You know what?” He says in a very small, high-pitched voice. “Just ignore me. Carry on. I can’t hear anything. Hearing? What’s that? I’ve never heard of it before in my life. Haha. Heard. Anyway!” He hurriedly throws the blanket over his head and rolls over, curling into a foetal position.
The moment has already been shattered. Inosuke gets off Tanjirou, arms folded across his chest, but as Tanjirou sits upright, he gives him such a wide, toothy smile that Inosuke can feel the positivity hitting him like a katana through the middle. “You’re special to me,” Tanjirou says happily, holding out his hand. Inosuke stares at it like he’s grown a third thumb. Tanjirou waves his hand expectantly and finally Inosuke gets the message that he’s supposed to take it. Reaching out, he grabs hold of the calloused palm, but then is promptly pulled back down to the ground with a yelp when Tanjirou suddenly yanks him.
Their faces are mere centimetres away from each other. Inosuke has no absolute clue what the fuck he’s supposed to do now. There are brown flecks in Tanjirou’s red eyes. His eyelashes are so long.
Tanjirou tilts his head up and presses his lips to Inosuke’s forehead, sending a rush of—something—through his body, ending in his toes. Inosuke can’t help it; he makes a sort of squeaky noise and immediately hates it.
“You’re cute,” Tanjirou giggles. “Don’t worry. I won’t rush you.”
“That was a kiss.”
“I know what the fuck it was!” Inosuke snaps. Zenitsu flinches and he growls under his breath. “Why did you—why—well I can do that too! Don’t think you’re so fucking cool,” leaning down, he clumsily presses his lips to Tanjirou’s cheek, then hurriedly scrambles off him, reaching for his mask and pulling it over his face frantically. “See! Anything you can do, I can do.”
His fierceness is broken by Tanjirou’s dopey smile. “Of course,” he agrees easily, staring at him with fond eyes.
“Right! You go to sleep right now,” Inosuke points a finger at him. “No funny business, or I’ll skin you and roast you.”
“Can I come sleep next to you?”
Inosuke’s face goes bright red. After a minute of silence, he nods once, and Tanjirou claps his hands together excitedly before picking up his things and padding happily over to him. Dropping his head into his lap, Tanjirou folds his green blanket around him and blinks up at him. “This okay?” He asks.
“Yeah,” Inosuke doesn’t meet his eyes. “Go the fuck to sleep, moron. You’re too weak to be awake past whatever hour this is.”
“Okay. But you better wake me for the shift,” Tanjirou warns, twinkle in his eye.
Inosuke rolls his eyes. “Yes yes.”
(It might be his imagination, but Inosuke swears that Zenitsu mutters “finally” under his breath, but there’s no reaction from him even when he sends his finest glare.)