His breath hitched. The stench that reached his nose was one that made his throat clench up. As if he was walking through a blizzard, his lungs felt like it was filled with icy air. His eyes traced the red liquid spattering against the sun-bleached wall. And the pool of red on the wooden floor.
The sight before him was familiar—
The bodies that sprawled on the ground were mostly small. A black-haired teen was curled around a little girl, his short limbs couldn’t wrap around her, but the protective gesture was undeniable. When Tanjirou blinked, he saw Takeo and Hanako. Another blink, a boy, slightly smaller laid on his chest, an arm stretched over another girl who slumped on the wall (Shigeru? Nezuko?).
Trails of blood seeped from all of the children’s body.
—but not quite.
A growl echoed through the walls from the room at the end of the hallway. Tanjirou’s hand drifted across his body, reaching for his nichirin blade, ready to take it out. He made his way to the room, the bottom of his zori dipped in the patch of blood, ignoring the feeling of his eyes burning behind his eyelids.
When he arrived, there was a woman was sinking her fangs into the shoulder of a boy, the smallest one compared to the others. Her eyes were all white and the corners of her mouth stained with blood. Seeing Tanjirou, she took a chunk of flesh from the boy and let out another growl. But her face—Tanjirou’s lungs frosted over—it mirrored the boy she was eating.
At one point, she had been a human. One who had turned into a demon. A demon who ate a human. A human who was her own child.
“I’m sorry,” Tanjirou said, drawing his blade. “You must’ve been suffering. I will… bring you to on the other side so you can be with them.”
And so using his bare hands, Tanjirou dug a grave and buried another family. One that reminded him of his own. One that was six feet under.
Tanjirou heard a strum of shamisen among the sound of rustling leaves in that breezy morning when he came back to the Butterfly Estate. The tune could be heard even from in front of the manor. It quelled the tension in his body. Lulled the weariness that clung to his chest. Strangely, he felt as though the music was calling for him. Trusting his intuition, he made his way around the building and caught a whiff of Zenitsu’s scent. The closer he got to the sound, the stronger the scent. Before he knew it, he was in the garden.
He found Zenitsu sitting on the porch, his slender fingers dancing across the strings. As usual, he was in his uniform and yellow, triangle-patterned haori. Sunlight clung to his blond hair and fair skin while he had his eyes closed and head tilted slightly to the side. Tanjirou’s gaze softened. For a moment, Tanjirou was content with taking the sight and enjoying the tune he played.
In one of the missions they’d done a while ago, Zenitsu told him he’d learned that he could play the shamisen and koto. One day, they passed by a shop for musical instruments and Zenitsu halted his steps. Through the window, he stared at one of the shamisen displayed inside, a scent full of longing wafted from him as he admitted playing it felt relaxing to him. He kind of enjoyed it, he said as he scratched the back of his head bashfully. With blush adorning his cheeks, he also admitted he was able to pick out certain notes of songs after hearing them once.
It was so endearing.
Tanjirou hadn’t got the chance to watch him play, though. As if he was only given a drop of water in a drought, he’d felt the story wasn’t enough to satisfy him. So he dragged Zenitsu into the shop and planned to buy him a shamisen, much to Zenitsu’s bewilderment.
“W-wait?! I-I’ve never said I was good at it, haven’t I?!”
“I wouldn’t know since I haven’t seen you play,” Tanjirou shrugged. “Besides, I’ll be the judge of that!”
“Huh? Why?! Why would you want to see me play? It’s mediocre at best, I’m just copying what I heard!”
Tanjirou pursed his lips. And he flicked Zenitsu’s forehead with a stern look on his face.
Zenitsu let out a yelp as he flinched, and pressed a hand over the reddening spot. “WHAT?! What is wrong with you?! THAT HURTS!”
They were making a ruckus, Tanjirou knew, but he couldn’t accept what the other was saying. Mediocre? Zenitsu wasn’t mediocre at all! He was strong and kind, Tanjirou wouldn’t be surprised if he was talented too. The sound made the shopkeeper raise his head from the book he was reading for a minute, and raised an eyebrow. After Tanjirou sent him a sheepish smile, he only grumbled before going back to what he was doing.
“Don’t talk about yourself that way.”
Still rubbing his forehead, Zenitsu scowled at Tanjirou. He was silent for a while, then he looked away and sighed. “You know you don’t have to, right? It’s not like I can bring it everywhere.”
“It’s okay! Besides, I wanted to.”
Tanjirou hummed and grasped Zenitsu’s hands within his. “I haven’t seen you play. So, will you do it? For me?” He could feel the smile on his face as Zenitsu’s scent got a little sweeter when the blond jerked his head in lieu of a nod, cheeks as pink as cherry blossom flowers.
The image of those flushed cheeks was deeply ingrained within Tanjirou’s mind.
—And so was the image of that demon and the children she ate last night, her face an exact copy of one of the boys.
Upon finishing the song, there were people clapping to his performance. Tanjirou hadn’t even realized Kiyo and Naho were nearby, a laundry basket next to the latter. Then Zenitsu’s eyes fluttered open and greeted Tanjirou with a radiant smile, unwinding the cord that coiled around his lungs. For a moment, Tanjirou could forget the trace of blood beneath his nails. The coldness of soil in his palms.
Zenitsu set aside the shamisen and ran toward him until he crashed into Tanjirou. He let out a small laugh as Tanjirou grunted at the impact. “Welcome back, Tanjirou!”
Tanjirou wrapped his arms around Zenitsu, burying his face into Zenitsu’s hair. He breathed in, sweet and soothing—a home. “I’m back.” A hand gave a few gentle taps on his back and he breathed out—blood and soil. “I missed you.”
Zenitsu’s arms clutched him tighter, his breath hitching. “I-I missed you, too.”
Out of the corner of his eyes, Tanjirou saw Naho biting her lip and Kiyo clinging to her arm. Their worry was palpable. It drifted in the surrounding air, almost stifling Tanjirou if Zenitsu wasn’t there to hold him. He didn’t if he could handle their worry right now. So he sent them a smile. Something that looked reassuring and told them he was alright. Their relief was nearly instantaneous and they bowed, continuing their tasks.
“There’s something I want to show you!” Zenitsu said once he pulled away, creating a space that Tanjirou wished to erase. Though, he was still close enough for Tanjirou to get lungfuls of his scent; excitement and… determination? He gripped Tanjirou’s wrist with a grin on his face, “Come on!”
Zenitsu nodded, beaming brightly like the sunlight. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“The report can wait.” Then he paused, eyes widening and he exuded bitter-sour distress as his hands hovered over Tanjirou. “Wait, are you hurt?! Do you have another mission? Or something planned already? I’m so sorry I—”
Tanjirou held a hand up. “Never mind,” he said. Earlier, he’d intended to get some time to rest. He thought maybe he could sleep off the exhaustion that clung to each and every one of his bones and muscles. “Where are we going?”
But Zenitsu was here. Tanjirou didn’t mind calling off his plan. It was his way of showing his gratefulness for that performance, he supposed.
“It’s a surprise!”
And as though he could see Nezuko from the wooden box she was in, Zenitsu looked over Tanjirou’s shoulder. “What do you think, Nezuko-chan? Is it okay?”
From inside the box, they could hear Nezuko’s excited “Mmph! Mmph!”
So after Zenitsu went back to the porch to put away his shamisen, they headed to the bustling streets of the town. Tanjirou stayed closer than what people would consider as friends: their shoulders brushed against each other, hands tangled one another. Large crowds made his palm sweat, a knot formed in his stomach. The street was jam-packed with people going about their business. Their colognes, body odors, and emotion-laced smell felt like they were clogging his nose. He couldn’t handle so many smells at once. Zenitsu had first noticed this even back when they, along with Inosuke were assigned a mission in Osaka. It had been the first time they held hands before their relationship, though admittedly Zenitsu also held Inosuke’s at the time.
After passing a neighboring town next to the Butterfly Estate over an hour later, they arrived at a small path beside an old house that looked like it would fall apart during a storm.
“Ready?” Zenitsu said, and at Tanjirou’s nod, they walked down the path.
It led him to a forest, Tanjirou realized ten minutes into their journey. The earthy smell of wildlife was hard to miss even if he didn’t have a good sense of smell. They then went up a hill, through evergreens, ferns, and wildflowers that Zenitsu identified for each one they passed. They came across rabbits and a fox darting in their peripherals. Then Tanjirou caught the salt in the air as they stepped a bed of thistles, and the ground leveled out into a clearing, beyond it was a large body of water.
Seeing Tanjirou’s astonished wide eyes, Zenitsu laughed softly. “It’s the ocean!”
White and blue. They filled Tanjirou’s vision. The ocean glittered underneath the azure sky. The sand was almost as white as the clouds above and the seagulls that flew by overhead. Aside from the swish of the waves, everything was quiet—now he could only breathe in salt with a hint of Zenitsu’s sweetness—tranquil.
“This,” Zenitsu spread his free arm, eyes glimmered like the sunlit water before them, “is the surprise!”
“Zenitsu,” he said, mesmerized at the picturesque scenery in front of him, and shifted his gaze to Zenitsu. “It’s so beau…” Like the waves, the rest of his words were swept away. “…..tiful.”
But instead of the waves, it was a blond-haired male who became the sun itself in the vast sky; radiant and warm, shedding his light on Tanjirou.
Oblivious, a grin bloomed on Zenitsu’s face. “Right?” he looked so proud, and beautiful that it made Tanjirou’s breath hitched. “Come on!” He then led Tanjirou to the sandy shore by the hand.
At the shore, Tanjirou crouched down, draping his and Zenitsu’s haori on Nezuko’s box. “I wish you could come out and see this too, Nezuko.”
“She will! We’ll stay until nightfall if we have to, won’t we?”
Tanjirou chuckled, “Yeah.” Standing up, Tanjirou brushed the sand that stuck to his hakama. “To be honest, I’ve only heard stories about the sea. So this is the first time for me to see it.”
“Really?” Excitement wafted from Zenitsu as he slipped off his zori and socks, putting the latter atop his sandals. He tilted his head, “Then what are you waiting for?” he said, which told Tanjirou to do the same.
Soon their bare feet were in the plush sand. Tanjirou wasn’t sure he liked the way it was sticking between his toes even when he tried to wriggle them to brush away the dirt. But the thought vanished from his mind as Zenitsu pulled him to the shallow part of the water. Together they ran around. Their laughter accompanied by the swish of the waves. They sprayed water to each other’s faces, and splashed it everywhere until their clothes were almost completely drenched, until half of the sun sank into the horizon.
With the sky and water fading to crimson with dusk, they discovered themselves sitting side by side at the edge of the water, which sometimes lapped at their feet. Tanjirou found their fingers tangled around each other as he laid his head on Zenitsu’s shoulder, nose buried in his blond hair. It still smelled like Zenitsu despite the salt that clung to it.
He wished this moment would never come to an end.
“Tanjirou,” Zenitsu’s thumb caressed the back of his hand gently, gazing at the darkening sky. “I… know you couldn’t bring yourself up to talk about it, but did something happen in the last mission?”
Tanjirou stuttered a breath.
“I’m not pushing you to tell me. It’s just, you sound so—I’m sorry.”
His mouth opened, but no words could escape him.
When Tanjirou closed his eyes he saw the image of blood pooling around the mangled limbs of those five children as their mother had a mouthful of flesh in her mouth. And the stench. It reeked. As if it had congealed in his lungs, he felt like every breath he took was only blood. He felt like he could even taste it on his tongue.
“I don’t know what happened, but it must be painful, isn’t it?” Zenitsu said softly, almost like a whisper. “You’re always so strong and kind, and I admire you for it,” he pulled Tanjirou into his arms, “but you don’t have to be strong all the time, you know. It’s okay to fall apart.”
Tears trailed down his face, and he hadn’t even realized he was crying until he blinked, drops of tears blurring his vision. Those were such simple words, but they touched him all the same. He didn’t bother to blink away his tears. Instead, he let them flow as he cried and Zenitsu was there to hold him, ran his fingers through his damp hair.
Then he felt another pair of arms around him. Much smaller, slender, yet so familiar. Glancing up, he saw Nezuko whose gaze was tender and seemingly on the verge of tears.
“I—,” his voice broke and he wanted to say, “how can I be able to help anyone if I’m not?” but it only came out as, “Zenitsu... Nezuko…”
As though he could hear Tanjirou’s thoughts, Zenitsu grasped him tighter, anchoring him who felt like he was going to float away. “You worth so much more than your strength and kindness,” he said, voice steady despite his glassy eyes.
As if she understood, Nezuko nodded. She rested her head on Tanjirou’s shoulder. She couldn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. Her piercing earthy smell told him her sadness. “Why are you carrying all your burden by yourself, brother?” it spoke.
“That’s why, Nezuko, Inosuke, and I—even if I’m not much of a help, will always be by your side. To support you every step of the way.”
Tanjirou shut his eyes, “Thank you, Zenitsu.” He reached for Nezuko and slung an arm around her, clutching her close to them. He squeezed her and Zenitsu tightly in his arms. “Thank you, Nezuko.”
Moments later, a breeze picked up, they were laying on the sand. Zenitsu pressed to Tanjirou’s right, their cheeks brushing against each other. And Nezuko to his left, her head placed on his arm. Together, they took a moment to watch the darkening sky.
“I couldn’t hide anything from you, huh?” Tanjirou said to Zenitsu, feeling his heart went lighter.
Tanjirou was buried under the ground. He didn’t realize he was there until he saw a sliver of light, until the sliver became the sunlight itself. And before him, Zenitsu stood there. Arms spread and a smile on his face.
It was Zenitsu who dug him out.
Everyone saw Tanjirou in a particular way: the boy who fought tooth and nail to strive for his goal, the boy who shed tears for demons, protect others without backing down, and owned a heart as vast as the sky. Always smiling so gently. But Zenitsu knew something others never did. The one that would often whimper quietly in his sleep, plagued by demons he couldn’t fight, tears spilling from his closed eyes to his pillows. The one that would yell his complaints in his head as much as Zenitsu would say out loud. The one that carried a shred of insecurity. He wondered why Tanjirou hid that part of himself.
Zenitsu couldn’t do much for him, but—
Under the moonlit sky, the rolling waves carried a wish. Please, if there’s a god somewhere, keep Tanjirou safe and let happiness come to him.