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Moon and Bouquet

Chapter Text

“Breathe, Shinobu. Focus. Then place your strikes.”

“Yes, Neesan.”

Focus. It always has been the mantra of Kochou Shinobu, the Demon Slayers’ Insect Pillar. After all, a split-second lack of attention can get someone like her killed. And the quiet night was supposed to help her focus at the company of wisteria, elm and sakura trees surrounding the backyard of the Butterfly Mansion.

The mantra was not working right now. Her thoughts scattered like the leaves her practice strikes sent flying, the attacks her wooden sword made greeting the wind on this night, making the leaves rustle.

“I want you to investigate something,” Oyakata-sama said.

Today would have been an ordinary break day at the Butterfly Mansion, and Oyakata-sama gave her permission to rest for a day or two. Practicing her form for a short moment was a normal occurrence, and yet…

Kanao nodded as she gave her report hours ago. “Master… that girl… no matter how much I attacked her with my sword… she just evaded. And ran. Also… adjusted her size so my sword won’t hit her.”

“…I see. And you, Aoi? They have been resting for some time, right?”

“Yes. Also, after I fixed her box, she sleeps inside there during the day, trying to avoid the sunlight. At night… she does really strange things.”

“What strange things?”

“She always visits the three boys in the infirmary every night. Sometimes she sleeps with her box there.” Aoi frowned further. “She patted Kiyo, Naho and Sumi on the head the other night! And when I was bringing the newly washed blankets back to the cabinet, she just swiftly took them and even placed them with me! She was very careful with her claws so she won’t tear them!”

“…Now that’s strange.”

“Tanjiro-san says it might be that she remembers helping their family with errands. He adds she treats humans as ‘family’. Are… there really demons like that, Shinobu-sama?”

“She… might be an exception. Anything else?”

“You… you wouldn’t hurt her, right? She… and her brother were very kind. Tanjiro-san always tries to help us with chores these past days despite resting.”

“I won’t. As Kanao said, she never attacked anyone. And it's Oyakata-sama's will not to harm her.”

“Thank you, Shinobu-sama!”

“Thank you too, Aoi and Kanao.”

“Master…”

“After the boys have rested, help them further in their recovery training, will you? Also let… that girl sleep. Oyakata-sama did say she might be recovering her energy from sleeping.”

“Yes!” They both left her in the backyard forest as they went about their duties and Shinobu went with her practice.

That practice isn’t making any headway, Shinobu thought. Grabbing her wooden sword again, she practiced swinging, remembering her sister’s favorite words.

“Breathe, Shinobu. Focus. Then place your strikes.”

She counted her strikes on a single elm tree. “Shinobu, count them the way you count your heartbeat sometimes."

One, two, three. One, two, three.

One, two, three. One, two, three.

One, two, three. One, two, three.

Shinobu couldn’t focus at all.

“That... girl's heartbeat is strange when I checked it yesterday, Oyakata-sama. Most demons either don’t have heartbeats at all. Or they beat too fast in a way no human will ever survive. Yet the rhythm was just like Kamado-kun’s, a steady, slow beat resembling that of a human.”

“Perhaps it may have something to do with her not eating any humans, nor even tasting blood.” Oyakata-sama smiled. “How strange. Giyuu said the same thing, too”.

That guy has?”

“He said her presence is still that of a demon’s, yet at the same time human-like.”

“So that guy can say things like that.”

“Giyuu did place his life on line for her, after all. As well as Urokodaki-dono. I have taken that bet. Won’t you take it for me as well, Shinobu?”

“I…”

“Shinobu?”

“I… I am always at your command, Oyakata-sama.”

“You are really kind. Just like Kanae. And Tanjiro… won’t you say he resembles your sister?”

“…”

“Tanjiro… and Nezuko… they might have the possibility to fulfill Kanae’s dream.”

“Do you… do you really think so?”

“One can hope.’’

One can hope. Another of her beloved sister’s favorite words.

Feeling the strength of her anger rising again, her eyes watered as she gnashed her teeth in frustration.

“It’s not possible, right, Neesan? That dream of yours…”

“Can I entrust you that dream, Shinobu?” Kanae breathed, blood dripping from her mouth.

But there was no answer.

“It might be possible.”

Wha—

Shinobu threw her sword at the direction of the voice as she quickly wiped her tears.

The man wearing that half scarlet, half green-patterned haori and that eternal frown threw the wooden sword back at her, staring at her as if he has seen a ghost.

“Kochou, are you all right?” he said, his face stiffer than it seemed to be.

His timing was always, always impeccable.

Wiping her tears again, she put on that smiling face her sister used to love. “Nice timing, Tomioka-san. Since you’re here, won’t you mind sparring with me?”

He stared blankly back as she got another practice sword—it was a habit of Kanae’s to bring two wooden ones whenever practicing— and threw it at his face. The dratted man caught it perfectly, his reflexes as fast as rushing water.

“Kochou.”

“If I manage to land one blow at you the least, won’t you tell me?” Shinobu said as she prepared her stance. 

“What did you see with Kamado Tanjiro and Kamado Nezuko, I wonder.”

***

A minute or so later, Shinobu’s attacks weren’t making any headway.

“Hey Tomioka-san.”

His reply was simply evading her strikes.

“After all you said it yourself, ‘as long as they kill people, demons and humans can’t get along’.”

He dropped his sword and placed it beside her things quickly, under one of the wisteria trees.

“You can’t do this, Tomioka-san.”

“What can’t I do?” he replied, getting to his own stance quickly as he held the wooden sword.

“If the event that Nezuko does assault a human, Kamado Tanjiro, Urokodaki Sakonji and Tomioka Giyuu will atone by committed seppuku.”

Why?

“What did you see in them, Tomioka-san?”

Sympathy? [1]

She wanted to ask on her first strike that was immediately blocked.

Pity?

She flitted through his parries, though they were hard hitting, trying to find any opening from that defensive stance of his.

The past?

She was about to strike at his back but was met by the rush of his wooden sword blocking hers.

A dream?

She tried to slash at that messy mop of his hair—.

Hope?

Her sword was deflected again, a strike so fast she almost thought it wasn’t there. His silhouette stayed still, and then she heard that whisper like soft sea drops enveloping their surrounds.

“Total Concentration Water Breathing, Eleventh Form: Lull [2].”

Shinobu felt each of her small attacks slowly disappear. As expected of the Breath of Water where her sister’s Breath came from: it was never meant to be underestimated.

She smiled.

And jumped.

“That won’t work on me, Tomioka-san.” [3] What she lacked in arm strength, she made up with speed as she threw further thrusts mid-air, her wooden sword aiming at his neck.

“What the—” he tried to parry again, but Shinobu knew she was faster.

“Insect Breathing, Butterfly Dance: Frolic [2].”

In a half-second, she was behind him, her wooden sword beside his throat.

“You don’t want to talk to me that badly?” [3] She smiled.

Silence ensued.

“You can’t do that, Tomioka-san. I’ll just keep asking about it.”

More silence. His blue eyes lit up, his stiff muscles turning into an inscrutable expression she was not used to see.

“Wait, is this about the two years ago you were talking about? I thought you were just being spiteful back then.”

A deeper frown was all she got from him.

“Don’t you have anything to say?”

Further silence. Sighing, Shinobu was about to put away her sword, when she heard it.

“A miracle… a path [4] perhaps.” He was whispering again, his voice slowly going louder.

“A path?”

“To something the Demon Slayers have been trying to reach.”

Ending Kibutsuji. Killing all demons. Halting the deaths surrounding the two.

“… And how did you reach this conclusion?”

“Kochou… do you remember what you said if you found a demon who refrains to eat any humans?”

If a demon who has never once eaten a human and chooses to starve itself to death exists, I will take them in. And I will give them my cherished love until I die. [5]

Those words are still on her memory, spoken during one of her missions with this stoic man. Kamado Nezuko’s encounter with Shinazugawa-san, a marechi, and her declining to feed on him in disgust, engraved those words deeper.

“At that moment, two years ago… Kamado’s younger sister was injured heavily. He got injured as he tried to protect her.”

She nodded. “Due to you, obviously.”

He continued, ignoring her words a bit. “Despite all the injuries and the blood around them both… she didn’t bite him.” He shook his head, as if still not believing his own words. “Instead that girl… tried to attack me… to protect her brother.”

At that line, Shinobu managed to smile a little.

He raised his eyebrows, as if wondering what she found funny. She giggled.

“Ah, so even Kamado-kun and his younger sister hated you two years ago, is that right?” He flinched in that funny way of his, making her giggle further.

“Seems like you cannot really accept being hated, Tomioka-san.”

“Kochou.” He was clenching his fist.

“What? You want to say you’re not hated? But that’s the truth, you know.”

He opened his mouth in shock and dropped the wooden sword. He’s easy to tease, she thought.

“Here”, she said, throwing him a small wooden case as she moved past him.

He caught it again and peered at the contents. “Huh?”

Picking up that other wooden sword and her things under the wisteria tree, Shinobu shrugged. “Aoi told me you might visit us. After all, effective antidotes for your next mission are vital. Don’t forget to drink only one vial at a time. Two might poison you. Be careful.”

“Kochou, I—”

“You sparring with me and that idiotic face of yours are thanks enough.”

“…Still, thank you.”

“Until our next partnership, Tomioka-san.”

Walking back to the Butterfly Mansion was easy, but her thoughts were more confused than ever.

A miracle. A path. “I hope for humans and demons to get along together someday. The latter were once the former, after all.”

Hey, Kanae-neesan, what would you do when you see those two children? Will you be like him, accepting what was not supposed to be accepted? Would you bet your life too, like him

Will there ever be an answer? 

Will we ever see that path of light in this never-ending dream? She wondered.

A silhouette was on the roof, and she could feel the person practicing… breaths?

The anger in her heart eased a little, seeing that boy and his sister, but it still stayed. Maybe it was for the better.

“You know I love your smiling face the best after all, Shinobu.”

She jumped again. And smiled.

“Hello there, Kamado Tanjiro-kun."

Chapter Text

In his years of being the Demon Slayer’s Water Pillar, Tomioka Giyuu has been used to so many things, including carrying various kinds of items. There were many: crates of fireworks, medicine, pails of water, boxes of fruit, a bunch of futon, bags of rice. He liked carrying the things as they don’t move that much, and his training has assured him he can transport them from one point to another without worries.

He even carried larger moving ones. An old woman crossing flooded waters, chickens, a horse calf, some kids who strayed in demon-infested forests, and sometimes even demons (which earned him a scar or two). He knew he has carried a lot of stuff he didn’t remember them all, but he was sure of one thing.

Never had he carried something as squirming and as annoying as the one he was carrying this night.

“Excuse me, [1] Tomioka-san.” Then a poke.

In fact, she might have raised the most fuss out of all the things and people he had carried.

“Excuse me, Tomioka-san!”

Another poke. She has been doing this for the past what? Five minutes?

“Tomioka-san?” Her voice was shrill now, but the way she called his name wasn’t bad.

Her tone, however, seemed like it was dripping the poison she used to kill demons a lot.

“I keep saying you should put me down, Tomioka-san. Are you deaf?”

He didn’t reply.

“I’m not a sack of rice to be carried like this [2]. PLEASE PUT ME DOWN.”

Of course, she wasn’t, she was lighter.

He shifted her on his arms gently, now supporting her back and knees [3]. For some unknown reason her face turned red and scrunched.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING, TOMIOKA-SAN? PLEASE PUT ME DOWN!”

There was no way he would put her down. It was still a further ten minutes to the Butterfly Mansion, and even if the person he carried was twisting and turning like this, he didn’t want to drop her. Never her. Even if she tried to kill him.

Knowing Kochou Shinobu, Giyuu thought, she might have been currently thinking various methods about the latter.

“PLEASE PUT ME DOWN. CAN YOU HEAR ME? I CAN WALK, TOMIOKA-SAN.”

In fact, if he wasn’t doing Concentration Breathing right now, he might have died due to asphyxiation, just due to the tight way she was clinging on his neck.

“PUT. ME. DOWN.” She wasn’t bothering with polite speech this time [4]. And she was clearly attempting to strangle him, trying to wring his neck with those slender hands.

It was a wonder how she could still move like that despite having a dislocated ankle. He could sense it swelling by now. And based on the smell on the other scratches on her limbs… there was probably demon poison on them. He wasn’t that familiar with poison—it was Kochou’s specialty after all—but he would be damned before he let walk with those wounds.

“TOMIOKA-SAN!” This time it wasn’t a poke, but she elbowed his ribs so hard it almost disrupted his Total Concentration Breathing. “PLEASE, PUT ME DOWN.”

Giyuu couldn’t believe those thin arms of hers could make such a hard hit. He had always known Kochou was always filled with surprises.

In fact, it was a surprise he saw her earlier, stumbling as she moved on the gate of the Demon Slayers’ village headquarters. She was hobbling—the first time he saw her as such—and she would have fallen headfirst if he hadn’t rushed to her side.

She never stumbled, so far as he know. She was the most graceful in the Demon Slaying Corps, and so far he has never known a person as measured, as precise, and as refined as her.

“Kochou, excuse me.” He shifted his hand, brushing the ankle a bit.

“TOMIOKA—” This time her head bowed, and for a minute or two she was silent.

Kochou’s being silent. That’s odd.

“Kochou—”

He then felt something wet on his arms. He continued walking gently.

Why? His mind kept asking. She has never shown tears, and was always known for her smiles, deadly or otherwise.

“Kochou.”

An obvious sniff. “What is it, Tomioka-san?”

He shifted his arm carefully, so as not to drop her, and then brushed his hand to her cheek, near her eyes. There were a sheen of water on them, and it was clear they were still bloodshot.

“Wha—what are doing, Tomioka-san?” She turned red again.

“Don’t cry.” He didn’t know what prompted him to say those words. He only knew he had to say them. I wonder why.

“I’m not crying.”

“Don’t cry.” He knew he sounded like an idiot, but her tears caught him off guard. It was strange, seeing her—of all people—making these expressions.

“I’m not crying,” she repeated, but this time, she burrowed her face on his chest.

Was her injury really that painful?

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have touched that… wound of yours.”

Silence ensued as they fronted the Butterfly Mansion. Her grip on his neck has loosened, and she was using Total Concentration Breathing, probably to dull the pain.

“Is… that why you won’t put me down?”

He nodded. He wasn’t sure how to deal with the current atmosphere between them, so he was grateful she was still speaking to his chest.

Luckily the gates opened, and they were welcomed by one of her assistants, whose name he couldn’t remember.

“Welcome home, Shinobu-sama—” said the young girl. Her blue eyes widened when she saw him, and her face reddened, too. 

“To—Tomioka-sama?”

“Hello, Aoi.” Her voice was a bit subdued, but it wasn’t in the shrill tone she had earlier. “As you can see—,” she pointed to her ankle, “—Tomioka-san kindly brought me here. Can you prepare a chair for me, please? Also some bandages, too. Also…”

“Bu-but… Tomioka-sama was bridal-carrying you—”

Kochou smiled at him. It was a smile that seemed… exasperated or something. “Don’t mind the details. More importantly, prepare a splint, will you? Some of the oak charcoal salve [5] as well. Also prepare a bed for him, too.”

“I… don’t need it. I can return to my—”

“Oyakata-sama’s house is occupied. And I dare you stay in that rundown shack of yours.”

She was back to her usual insults. Giyuu was usually peeved by this, but as of the moment… he didn’t mind it.

“…Where’s the sick room?”

“After that hall, on the right. Ah, here we are.”

He placed her gently on the nearest bed. Three beds away, he spotted the silhouette of a boy wrapped in bandages, with numerous drips attached. His red-black hair was a mess, but he looked simply asleep. A girl in a pink kimono and a bamboo muzzle was seating on a chair beside him, her brows furrowed.

“He… hasn’t awakened yet. It's been a month.” Kochou sat on the bed as she inspected her leg.

“They managed to defeat that Upper Moon, didn’t they?”

“Uzui-san and the others managed to escape alive. Inosuke-kun and Zenitsu-kun—,” she flinched as she touched that swelling, “—is in a different treatment room. I thought you want to see Tanjiro-kun and Nezuko-san, you see.”

“How did you—”

“Oyakata-sama did say to give you free rein to visit him. He’s a disciple of your master, after all.”

“… Thank you.”

“No, it was me who should thank you, after all.”

Giyuu didn’t know what to say after that. Besides he—

“…I’m sorry for elbowing… feel free to stay…”

Huh?

For some unknown reason he couldn’t hear what she was saying.

“Also… don’t say anything about this to others… Tomioka-san?”

His body doubled up. He wasn’t feeling pain, but he was sure a fog was blanketing his mind.

“Tomioka-san?”

He saw Nezuko walking towards them, her hand outstretched. He was still unsure what Nezuko would do to them, so as if on instinct, he stepped forward in front of Kochou, trying to protect her.

“Tomioka-san?!”

The last things Giyuu remembered before blacking out were warm, light scarlet flames, a soft, worried voice, and purple eyes looking at him with concern.

***

“TOMIOKA-SAN.”

The soft, worried voice he remembered last has then transformed to an angry one.

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME YOU WERE INJURED TOO, EH???”

She was now seated in a chair, her right ankle set on a splint. Kochou was still smiling of course, but a tic showed on her forehead as she applied salve on his wounded chest, his Demon Slayer uniform and haori set aside on the edge of the bed where he sat.

“… That hurts.”

“OF COURSE IT WILL HURT.” She pressed her fingers deeper, making the pain sting further. “If it wasn’t for Nezuko-san, you would have died, do you know that???”

The young girl was still asleep besides her brother, probably trying to gain her energy back. Those flames… her Demon Blood Art seemed unique after all.

“I suppose I have to thank her later. I have some resistance to poison [6] after all, but those flames… it’s as what Uzui-san described isn’t it?”

She slapped a bandage on his chest.

“A Demon Blood Art purging demon poison… thanks for being an inadvertent guinea pig to this, TO-MI-O-KA-SAN.” She pressed deeper as she applied salve on a particularly nasty-looking scratch.

He totally forgot his injuries when he saw her hobbling down the village gate. But he would never tell her that. She already has enough weapons against him as it is.

As expected of the salves from the Butterfly Mansion; he could feel his wounds healing, though the way Kochou applied her ointment made them sting a bit.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were injured earlier?”

He didn’t reply. I was concerned about you seemed too awkward to say, especially to her.

She sighed. “I should have noticed those scratches from that mismatched haori of yours. Where are those wounds from, anyway?”

“…A demon who ate a whole village of people in the southeast. It had poisoned claws.”

She looked at him, as if studying his face, and chuckled. “Seems like we both got careless. The one I disposed earlier tried to explode on me. The wisteria poison was faster but as you know, I didn’t escape unscathed. This haori though—” her face darkened as she touched the hem, which now has jagged edges, “—I should get it repaired it along with yours, shouldn’t I.”

“That haori…” the rest of his words went unfinished. She just nodded.

It belonged to her older sister, Kochou Kanae. A powerful Pillar known for her medicinal skills and her kindness. She became a Pillar before Giyuu did, and she has worked with him a few times. Like how he lost his sister, Kochou lost hers due to demons.

Perhaps she was more like him than he thought.

“This haori…” She touched the torn scarlet half of his haori as she folded it, her eyes lingering for a moment on the other green-yellow pattern. “That was what… the person you said before wore, right? Sabito-san [7]. Then who does this—”

“My older sister. It was my family’s colors.” She was safe to tell about this, he knew.

“She protected me from demons. She was about to be married.”

She continued applying her salve at his wounds in silence. It was strange, Giyuu thought, telling her the whole truth that easily, even though he hated to talk. He had never felt comfortable with other Pillars. Just like the mismatched pattern on his haori, he knew deep down he never belonged, as Sabito was supposed to be the Water Pillar, not him.

And yet, for some unknown reason, Kochou always placed him at ease. She might have teased him on their every encounter, but she always talked to him.

Why?

He had always wanted to ask that since their first meeting as Pillars.

“What do you mean by why, Tomioka-san?”

It was almost more than two years ago. He was about to die by then. He was surrounded by the Lower Moon Two’s clones, as well as another large group of demons. Having fought for hours that night, he was prepared to take as much as he could, despite his legs and arms numbing.

Dizzy with blood loss, he tried desperately to reach the demon’s neck—

“Please, jump back.”

It was a soft voice, just like a ringing bell that cleared his head.

He jumped back a safe distance away, beheading around ten demons in the process.

“Dance of the Centipede: Hundred Legged Zigzag, Hundredfold.”

The wisteria powder was like stars spreading above the demons. A fragile-looking figure was spreading the powder, her butterfly-wings haori fluttering as she struck every demon on her reach with those slender arms of hers, their vital points bleeding from that unique-looking thin sword. She hopped each time a demon tried to scratch her, and within a minute or two all of them—even the Lower Demon Two’s real body—were writhing in pain until they no longer moved.

Never had he seen such graceful person in his life before.

“Good evening, Water Pillar, Tomioka Giyuu-san.” The bell-like voice spoke, her violet laughing eyes looking at him without hesitation. And smiled.

“My name is Kochou Shinobu. Please take care of me.”

“Tomioka-san?”

“Kochou.” He had always wanted to say to her one thing. “Don’t push yourself too much, all right?”

“Oh my, you dare say that to me?” She then started slapping bandages on his wounds.

“It hurts.” He then crouched over her and grabbed her hand as she might slap bandages again—

“Shi-Shinobu-sama?!” It was that assistant again. She also dropped several bandages she carried. Her face turned a deeper shade of red as she looked at the two of them.

“I—I’m sorry for disturbing you two!” The girl closed the door immediately, the sliding door shaking.

He wondered what the girl saw as Kochou’s face turned into the same shade of red, too.

Chapter Text

Virtuous people will die one after another. It was the insanity of this world. [1]

It was always like that.

It was always like that and yet…

“Wake up, Sanemi-kun!”

I’m still tired, can’t I get a break?

“Sanemi-kun!”

All right, I’ll get up and help you, as you might have wanted.

“Sanemi-kun!”

Shinazugawa Sanemi stumbled from his bed, the sunlight filtering through his residence’s windows.

“Damn all these colors [1],” he mumbled. It was another day of patrol for the region west of the Demon Slaying Corps’ main village, though the Wind Pillar didn’t regret it. It was the region assigned to him, after all, and demons were around in the area one way or another.

Reading a report sent to him by his crow, he set about preparing his sword, his uniform (there was a new one sent earlier as his previous one was on tatters) and some supplies. A loud knock at the gate, however, interrupted him while he was putting them on a wrapping cloth [2].

“Sanemi! Sanemi!” It was a wavering but familiar voice. As he opened the gate, he was greeted by a colliding… person.

“G-grandma?” To be frank, the old woman outside wasn’t exactly his grandma, but a long-time neighbor of theirs, even before he became a Demon Slayer. She was still a famous ohagi [3] maker, and he wasn’t surprised when she had three bags [2] of them with her, two of them larger than the other.

“I thought I won’t catch up with you brat.” She raised her white eyebrows at him as she fixed her kimono, which has a wisteria sigil [4] on the back.

“My bad, my bad. But why are you here? Did something happen… with Genya?”

“Brat. You know that kid has been staying with the Rock Pillar in the past year or so, right? I would know, ever since you suddenly passed that kid to me all those years ago.” She sighed while putting the ohagi on the ground as she stretched her arms. “And no, that kid’s all right. Shinobu-chan and Gyoumei-chan send me reports from time to time, unlike you.”

“I… see.”

“Both of you are hard-headed brats, really. Endangering your lives like that!” She sent him a soft punch on his stomach. “I’m… sorry I couldn’t prevent him entering the Corps.”

“Don’t mind it.” 

You felt the same as well with Genya-kun, didn’t you? Another familiar voice whispered in his head.

“So why are you—”

“You sent me something with that crow of yours yesterday, right? It’s been weeks since you were last back, I might as well do you a favor, you brat.”

“But still, to rush in here… it’s a busy season for the Wisteria House in the next town, right?”

The old woman sighed. “Just take this ohagi to the Butterfly Mansion. That small bag is yours. And… it’s that lady’s memorial service today. Shinobu-chan invited me to go as well.”

She patted her kimono while trying to get something inside it. “I had to refuse, it’s close to the harvest festival after all, and my son needs all the help managing it from this day.”

She then handed something to him. It was a necklace charm with two pouch-type protection charms [5], the violet one larger than the red , the smaller one having the faint smell of wisteria.

“Here’s what your crow sent. I did replace the wisteria incense inside that first pouch, so demons won’t detect it that easily. I think that lady [6] won’t have minded though, she did teach me the ingredients for it.”

“… Yeah, she won’t.” Sanemi was sure of that. “Thank you, Grandma.”

She then put the bags near him. “Sanemi, don’t forget to give the ohagi to the Butterfly Mansion. Send Shinobu-chan my regards!”

“I will.” He watched her trot away as he picked them up, then walked back to his room in the residence.

As he finished packing, he opened the larger pouch. The green-glass-and-ivory pieces were still undamaged, the pink that lined the edges remaining. The black filigrees were still embossed on the pieces. Before he returned all pieces back in the pouch, he placed them with each other on his hand, forming a butterfly with wings, broken into four parts.

“Still intact. Good.”

He put the charm on the right breast pocket of his new uniform. It fitted perfectly, as expected.

“Memorial, huh.” He then headed out.

Sanemi’s first memory of Kochou Kanae was of embarrassment: he shouldn’t have shouted to Oyakata-sama like that without knowing everything [1] . And yet the second memory was that of comfort. As he read Kumeno Masuchika’s will, the other Pillars kept their distance as he cried, the same pain reflecting on their faces. However, she kept holding on his sleeve that day, never letting go until his tears stopped.

No one had done it before, except his mother. He wondered what was going on with her head as she silently stayed beside him way later when the Pillar meeting adjourned abruptly to give him space, and when he stopped crying, she left silently as well, as graceful as a butterfly flitting away.

He was still wondering during that memorial months after that meeting, when they met for the second time.

The memorial was that of one of Grandma’s actual granddaughter, a Demon Slayer. And her fiancée who died along with her.

Both were informants that was snuffed out by the Upper Moon Two’s underlings, the relatives said. They managed to know a certain cult [7] which had kidnapped countless girls among distant villages. The Flower Pillar managed to recover their bodies and eliminate those demons, but there were still no signs of the cult, nor of its supposed leader, who now they knew were hiding among humans.

“I’m sorry for failing to protect them. I’m sorry.” She told them as everyone, especially Grandma, told her back she was not to blame.

He only attended out of respect of the old woman, but death was already an everyday occurrence to their job. He never understood why her head was bowed, her hands shaking and clenched as the relatives around them wailed.

“Thank you for accompanying me to the Mansion, Shinazugawa-kun.”

“Don’t mind it. Oyakata-sama has earlier called the both of us for a mission of some kind.”

“He does work us to the bone, isn’t he?” She sighed.

As they were walking back to both their residences, he couldn’t help but ask. “Hey, Kochou. Why did you apologize? You’re a Pillar, and they know the risks already.”

Pillars were supposed to be strong, the ones who support the Corps. Oyakata-sama’s speech had made him realized that, and considering Masachika’s death, he has taken great pride in being the Wind Pillar. They have managed to save the region from the Lower Moon One’s death, after all. And everyone of them knew they couldn’t save everyone, no matter how much they tried.

She sighed. “It’s because I’m too weak. If I was only stronger, I would have managed to save them. That girl was one of my tsuguko.”

Weak? Then if you were a Pillar longer than me, what does make me then? He thought.

He would find the answer just a week later from that memorial.

***

“Is there anyone here?” He shouted as he knocked through the gates of the Butterfly Mansion, a place he tried hard not to pass by during the last three years. After several loud knocks, he was about to give up. Maybe they were at the cemetery already.

However, something… or someone bumped to him, making him stumble a little.

“Argh, what the f—,"

“We-we’re sorry, Shinazugawa-sama!” Three little girls were shaking as they saw him, as the two of them tried to help the smallest one who bumped onto him by accident.

Those three girls have grown, though they’re still little. You would have loved to see them grow further, didn’t you?

“Shinazugawa-sama?” One of the girls asked. He couldn’t remember their names—he didn’t remember that much—but he did need to give the ohagi. Might as well do it now.

“Hey, you kids.”

“Yes?” They were still shaking. Your face is kind of scary sometimes, Sanemi-kun, she said with that teasing smile of hers.

“Argh, damn it. Hey you kids, open the gate.”

“Y-yes?”

“You kids know Grandma, right? The ohagi maker from the Wisteria House across town.”

Three heads nodded.

“She wanted me to give this to you. Kanae-san’s memorial is today… so uh… yeah.” He handed the two bags to the two of them while he helped the smallest girl stand up.

“Um… Shinazugawa-sama, would you like some tea?”

“Uh, no, I’ve finished my business here so—”

The smallest girl grabbed his hand as the two others carried the ohagi inside the mansion, where they made him wait inside the Mansion’s dojo.

It was still clean as usual. That ‘Calm State of Mind’ [8] sign was still there, as well as the properly changed tatami mats. It was still a well-aired dojo, all things considered. They must have recently used it for recovery training.

“We’re sorry, Shinobu-sama isn’t here yet.” One of the girls brought him some tea.

“It’s fine.”

“She was still training Tanjiro-kun with Kanao-san—”

A tic raised on his forehead as he almost spilled his tea. “Kochou’s training that brat?!”

The three girls were shaking again. Sanemi-kun, you need to calm down when children are present. “Ye-yes…. He woke up two months after surviving the fight with Upper Moon Six… we were told.”

That brat is in recovery training?

“I see.” He placed his tea cup and stood up.

“Shinazugawa-sama?”

“Grandma sends her regards to Kochou. Tell her I’ll visit the grave at night.”

That brat survived a fight against an Upper Moon? When Uzui lost his arm and eye? While you didn’t survive?

 That brat… he must be as strong as you, he thought.

Staring at the dojo as he walked away, he clenched his fists.

That dojo was the first place where Sanemi saw her true strength.

He wasn’t in a calm state of mind when he went in there, almost breaking the gates of the Butterfly Mansion as he barged in. He couldn’t find Himejima-san in his residence. The north mountains were too large, and he was too angry to comb the whole place.

The Butterfly Mansion, which he knew has his two former disciples, would have answers.

“KOCHOU! ANSWER ME!”

A smaller girl grabbed his arm, trying to stop him from barging to the wards, which were filled with patients.

“Shinazugawa-san, please stop! You’re disturbing our patients!”

“You…” He then faced her younger sister, Kochou Shinobu as he waved her arm away. “WHERE. IS. HIMEJIMA?!”

“What do you want with Ojisan [9] ?” The smaller woman wrung her hand, her eyes looking angrily at him.

“TELL ME WHERE HE IS.”

“Oh my, oh my.” Kochou Kanae went out of the main ward, rolling a bandage on her hands as she fixed her butterfly haori.

“Neesan! There’s another rude guy barging in here!” The younger woman was stretching out her hand this time, her face showing disgust at him.

“Well, this guy is more… rude than Tomioka-kun, I guess?” [10]

“That’s not the issue here, Neesan!”

“Oh my. Please place this back on the drawers, will you?” Kanae threw the bandage to her younger sister, who caught it adeptly. “Also will you please open out the dojo windows, Shinobu? And prepare some of my wooden swords.”

“Neesan?” The younger woman rolled the bandages in place, her eyebrows raised.

“What the fuck are you doing—” He was about to grab her haori when Kanae held his right arm in a grip so tight, he thought some blood vessels would pop out.

“Why don’t we calm down, Shinazugawa-kun? Please don’t take out your anger at my sister.” She was smiling, but her eyes were like steel and her voice sounded harder than the soft-spoken tones he knew of from her. “Shinobu.”

“Yes, yes.” Shinobu scurried out as Sanemi tried to fend off Kanae’s tight grip, which only went tighter.

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS, KOCHOU?!”

She then almost dragged him to the dojo, which was now lit by moonlight as the windows were opened. Wooden swords were on one side of the dojo, and as Kanae released him, she then prepared her stance.

“Wha—” She then threw him a wooden sword.

“Defeat me. I’ve always wanted to gauge your strength, and this might calm you down, too. If you manage to land a blow, I’ll tell you where Gyoumei-san is.”

He threw the sword away. “I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS NONSENSE! TELL ME WHERE HE IS, NOW!!!”

She only smiled at him… before she threw a hurting blow on his neck with speed he didn’t manage to notice.

“Are you sure about that?”

“Damn you—” He grabbed the wooden sword but he wasn’t prepared for another blow, this time from a turning kick on his face.

“Please don’t take your anger at us. He might have written to us about it, but it wasn’t our fault Gyoumei-san introduced Genya-kun to a cultivator and ran away from home.” She chided with that steely voice of hers as her haori fluttered while she managed to avoid or parry his strikes.

“Not your fault? I NEVER WANTED MY YOUNGER BROTHER TO BE INVOLVED WITH THIS SHIT!”

She sighed. “Breath of the Flower, modified: Festival of A Thousand Petals [11] .”

“Breath of the Wind, Sixth Form, Black Smoke Storm!”

Despite him switching to his Breath techniques, she landed blow after blow, this time at his back, his chest, his face. For the first time in their fight he managed to double in pain.

“Please mind your language, Shinazugawa-kun. We have children in this Mansion who might hear you.” She was still hitting him as he stepped back away from her, panting.

He coughed as he stood, contracting his muscles to reinforce himself for future blows. “AND THAT’S WHAT GENYA IS! A KID! YOU DON’T FUCKING UNDERSTAND!”

She then threw her sword away and moved towards him swiftly, slapping him hard on the face.

“You don’t think I don’t understand? How much I fear for Shinobu and Kanao everyday?” She whispered hoarsely as her hand shook.

He suddenly felt terrible for his outburst. He never had liked seeing women cry, as it reminded him of his mother enduring his father’s brutal fists. Seeing Kochou Kanae’s tears, however, felt like his heart was being squeezed out.

She was right, they didn’t deserve his anger right now. 

“I…”

Silence ensued as they stared at each other, her eyes still having the sheen of tears.

“We are cruel older siblings to our younger ones, you know?” [12]

“What do you—”

“We wanted them out of danger, and yet we face danger ourselves. Kanao and Shinobu are talented, and yet I’ve repeatedly tried to persuade them to quit the Demon Slaying Corps. They won’t listen, saying they wanted to keep me safe. Ironic, isn’t it?”

“I… I can’t control what Genya wanted.”

“Neither can I. Sometimes, regret comes in when I made Shinobu that promise to kill demons and keep humanity safe.”

“A promise?” He also made an oath, years ago, ever since his mother died by his hands, to keep his younger brother safe, no matter what cost.

“Yes, a stupid promise, if you think about it. I wanted her to live a normal life, but instead my younger sister turned into an adult in front my own eyes. Kanao too. Genya-kun might have wanted to keep you safe. You wanted the same as well with Genya-kun, didn’t you… Sanemi-kun?”

He nodded.

The wind blew inside the dojo which was lit by moonlight, the petals of various flowers around the Mansion now surrounding them.

Colors. He could now see them under the moonlight, all the pink and violent petals on the wind, despite not seeing colors for the past few years, ever since his mother died. [1]

“I… I’m sorry. For earlier.”

She then held his face gently, as if inspecting her slap. Her pink-violet eyes and her smile reminded him of Oyakata-sama’s kind ones.

“So, before it reaches my siblings, that chain of grief from the demons, I’ll strike it with my sword.” [13]

“Kochou… Kanae-san… what if you fail?”

“Hmm… if I ever fail, one of us will do it. I’m sure of that.”

“I see.”

“Oh my, oh my, you called me by my name!” She grinned at him while he tried to memorize the color of her butterfly pins, the pink edges of the wings, the green-white wings, and lined filigrees as black as her hair.

“You… keep adding -kun to my name as well,” he mumbled.

“Well, I’m a year older than you, you know.” [14]

“EH?!”

“Well, well, Sanemi-kun, I’ll just write to Gyoumei-san to watch out for your brother.”

“… Um, Kanae-san.”

“Yes?”

“Uh… contrary to what you said before… you’re pretty strong.”

“Oh my, oh my.” She grabbed his sleeve again as she led him back to the ward. “Thank you, Sanemi-kun. Now as for that beating I gave you…”

***

Dawn was about to break when Sanemi finished his night patrol in the region. Eliminating ten demons weren’t too hard, as they were too frozen after smelling his blood. The wisteria pouch was a big help as well, paralyzing them immediately as he slashed them one by one.

This is funny, isn’t it. I’m always more wounded than you, and yet I’m still here.

He was surprised by how clean the Demon Slaying Corps’ cemetery when he arrived. The dropped leaves were fixed in neat piles, spread out on the forest canopy. Each grave marker was obviously cleaned, with various incenses lined up carefully.

That brat, Kochou and the others must have cleaned it as part of the recovery training.

He was about to rush to her grave when someone bumped to him again.

“I’m sorry!” A girl wearing a Demon Slayer uniform and a white pinned cloak was bowing to him as she helped him stand up.

The girl’s hair was pinned with a butterfly pin, with pink edges at the wings, the green-white wings, and lined filigrees as black as her hair.

“You.” Tsuyuri Kanao looked at him, her lavender eyes reminding him of her, the pin making bringing more memories back.

“Hey tsuguko kid, isn’t that…”

“What is it?”

“You… that’s Kanae-san’s hairpin, isn’t it?”

“Kanae-neesan… you know her?”

He nodded.

“…”

“Kid… take care of that, all right? For Kanae-san’s sake… and Kochou’s too.”

“…Yes. Well then.” She bowed politely. “Good night, Shinazugawa-sama.”

He didn’t reply as he walked silently in front of her grave.

The first time one of her pins broke, it was during one of their joint missions.

“Don’t be too reckless, Sanemi-kun!” Kanae said as she checked the wounds on his arms. One pin was holding her black tresses, the other now at her breast pocket. They just finished eliminating a horde of demons, almost losing a nearby town to them. Exhaustion lined her eyes as she applied salve on the bandages, which she used to wrap around his arms.

“You know I normally fight like this.”

“I know you’re a marechi [15], and I’m thankful for the decoy, but aren’t you afraid of blood loss?”

“I’m more afraid of us dying than blood loss, you idiot!”

She sighed as she fished a gourd from her belongings. “Drink this.”

After a gulp from the gourd, he coughed. “This taste will kill me more than blood loss!”

“That medicine will help you replenish your blood, you know.” She then fished out another item.

"A protection charm [5] ?" It smelled faintly of wisteria.

"It's yours. I made it. For safety."  Her hair got loosened from the other pin, which she removed, letting the black tresses flow as the wind blew.

The pins dropped from her pocket, and he picked the pieces of the broken one while returning the other to her. "Will you let me help repair this? My swordsmith... is good at fixing pins... and knickknacks... or something."

"Oh my, oh my. Thank you! It's from my parents. I have another one as they thought Shinobu would like the same color, but she chose a pin which resembles her eyes." 

She then stood up and went to the clearing where they killed the demons, her hands clapped, as if in prayer. The smell of ash pervaded, but so was her long prayer.

“W-what are you doing?”

It was a regular habit of hers every time they set out and kill demons.

“Can you shut up for a while? I’m praying.”

He shut up. He heard her mumble repeatedly. “May in your next life, you will be reborn, not as demons.”

 As they silently trudged on to the nearest Wisteria House, he asked her. “Why do you always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Pray. After we killed demons.”

“I had this dream.”

“Dream?”

“I hope for humans and demons might get together. The latter were once the former after all.”

“That’s impossible.” Demons only knew two things: to feed on humans and kill them.

“But what if it is? Or what if there was a method to turn demons back to being human? Or what if there was a demon who won’t hurt demons?”

“Are you mad?” He raised his voice. If that was possible, he wouldn’t have needed to kill his mother to protect Genya. She wouldn’t have lost her parents to demons. They wouldn't lose further colleagues.

“Maybe I’m mad. But if we had to cut that chain of grief… what I said will become possibilities.”

“You’ll laugh out loud if I tell you your dreams have become possibilities, won’t you.” He looked at the characters on the grave marker. Her name, Kochou Kanae was engraved on it, just like on his memories.

That burgundy-haired brat. His presence felt like yours.

His words were too much like yours.

His sister, too, had eyes that resemble yours. Her mental strength was like yours, too.

I’m sure you would have liked that brat and that sister of his. Especially with that unreachable dream.

Kochou is sure of that too.

I hated those kids, and that’s why I won’t raise my sword at them ever again.

I hated that.

“Do you even hear me, though?”

He held his breast pocket, the pouch with her hairpin in it.

The wind blew fast, bringing in a shower of cherry blossom petals, the moonlight giving them light, making them resemble something like pink stars. As he stepped away from her grave maker, a pink and green butterfly, with black lines on its thin wings, flew along with the wind and alighted on his shoulder.

Another breeze passed by, and the butterfly hovered by, lingering so lightly on his lips before it flew away, its wings fluttering.

 It felt very much like a kiss.

“Kanae-san.”

As he knelt in front of her grave marker, the water from his eyes wouldn’t stop, and the silent screams from his throat escaped as he keenly felt the absence of that comforting, familiar hand on his sleeve.

***

It was the New Year’s. As they had purged most of the demons in his region, the town decided to celebrate, him included. Kanae was there, too, going back from a mission and retrieving some medicinal supplies from the Wisteria House Grandma managed.

“Kanae-san.”

“Sanemi-kun?”

“Would you… would you go fireworks watching with me? On the hill behind my residence, I mean.”

“Ah, that clearing where we last practiced? I don’t mind.” She smiled, though she raised her eyebrows at him. “I wonder why you are inviting me though.”

“There’s… something I want to tell you.” Each mission they had, he had been gathering courage to tell her the truth.

They went to that clearing behind his residence. It was a hill, and had a good cliff’s view of the town, which had helped in daily patrols. This time, however, the fireworks were in clear view, the night sky making them appear like large, blooming flowers.

“Look, Sanemi-kun! The fireworks are so pretty!”

Lost for words, he managed to grab her haori sleeve as she intently watched the fireworks.

“Hmm? What is it, Sanemi-kun?”

He managed to mumble. “You’re… much more… prettier.”

Her eyes widened. “Eh?!”

“Kanae-san… if this end… if our fight with the demons are over… will you…”

He swallowed.

“Will you… together with Genya… with your younger sisters… live…”

“Live?”

“WILL YOU LIVE TOGETHER WITH ME?” He must have been shouting nonsense by this point, but he didn’t care at all.

“EH?!”

“I… I’m not much of a looker… but I swear I’ll… I’ll be a good husband! I’ll take care of you all!”

He must have been red as a beet by that point, and he could feel his ears ringing.

“Oh my, oh my.” She was not smiling at all.

“Um… please, don’t mind me! It was… an idiotic idea… in the first place.”

“Husband…” She was… giggling?

“I’m sorry. Please… don’t mind my nonsense.”

He was about to go away when she, in her typical fashion, grabbed his sleeve.

And with a rush, brushed her lips to his.

“…Eh?”

She kissed him further, and it was a while before they managed to release each other.

“If this finally end… if our fight with the demons will be over…”

She smiled brightly as she interlocked her hands with his. Hers were a bit fragile looking, but it had the same calloused hand all Demon Slayers had.

She shouted in that happy tone of hers, “Then Sanemi-kun, my answer is YES!”’

Another kiss, this time on his right, scarred cheek.

“Is that a sufficient answer?” She was blushing as she continued to hold his hand while they walked back, the fireworks booming above their heads.

He held her hand back, feeling her steady, faster pulse. “Yes, it is.”

Chapter Text

“My, my, Giyuu-san, I did tell you to not call me that, didn’t I?”

Tomioka Giyuu sighed, trying his best to not to reply. It was probably the hardest quandary the Water Pillar has faced, given the fact there were those fingers inside his opened kimono, fondling his chest while moving with slow circles on his skin (or at least trying to). The smell of perfume and incense was making him dizzy, but there was that flowery scent standing out among them, helping him to breathe a little easier. He stamped the urge to bite his lip or else he might betray something on his face.

Being surrounded by the men and women around them in such a scene [2] didn’t help. He had known the other end of the Yoshiwara quarter [3] had facilities like this. He had been called there once or twice to exterminate some demon of some kind, though he didn’t know what usually happened inside, being focused on missions. It was rather too much to take in: opulent wines in jade flasks laid on the rosewood tables, porcelain plates of gourmet food spread out, and golden crafted pipes of what seemed to be opium [4] lined out neatly, adding to the cloying smell Giyuu disliked. Some of the men and women, too, were locked in embrace, some were couples, some men having two or three women with them, and one of the young women near him had pulled down the hakama [5] of one of the men and her mouth opened to—

“That’s unfair, Giyuu-san, looking at others like that. You should be solely looking at me, no?”

The woman whispered as she straddled him, her purple eyes half-lidded, her hair now almost loose weren’t for that butterfly pin, her obi tied loose in front [6]. Her scent had the hints of flowers, and her low-cut lavender kimono was exposing a good portion of her white skin, her slender neck and even the swell of her breasts—he dared not look further—wasn’t helping either.

“Kochou.” He desperately hoped he didn’t sound like he was begging, trying his best not to look at her.

She had been at this for the past minutes, trying to touch anything as their clothes would allow—he was normally used to her poking him—but her hands on his skin, those calloused fingers spreading on his chest and midriff, her lips skimming his neck, was proving a bit too much on his self-control.

“Call.” A stroke on his left thigh. “Me.” One of her hands on his back. “Shinobu.”

Giyuu stayed still. She caressed his thigh with firm, long strokes, and he knew he shouldn’t wish for it, but his mind begged for her hand to be just a little further to the right, his lips yearning to be with hers, even for a moment.

This is a mission. This is a mission. Focus.

He did try his best, using a fraction of Total Concentration Breathing to restrain himself, though control was proving thin with Kochou Shinobu’s soft lips now so near his own, one of her hands now spread on his chest, continuing that circling motion, this time slower.

The other hand then pinched his thigh.

“Hey, that hurts,” he whispered, bringing his focus back immediately.

“They’re here, Tomioka-san,” she whispered breathlessly. “We must put on a show, right?”

“What now—” Giyuu knew his voice sounded a tad too harsh, “—Shinobu?”

She smiled that no-good smile of hers, something he had seen on the missions they accompanied each other… and then cupped his nape, bring his lips close to the smooth curve of her neck.  

“Tomioka-san, two in front… and one at the ceiling, I think?”

He knew she would have noticed immediately. Two of those they were searching for were surveying the scene in front of them, rife with moans, drunken jokes and calls for more pipes, wine and food. The other was creeping silently on the ceiling—her judgment was always right, after all—waiting for an opportunity to strike.

As he pretended to focus on her neck—her skin was surprisingly smooth there—he took note of those two in front of them, both resembling men. The smaller one was clad in a red silk kimono, its head shaped like a ball, and was licking its lips. The larger one openly stared at Kochou and the other women, its eyes narrowing with hunger.

“You both seem preoccupied with each other.” One of the attendants there—an old man—silently handed two long, clothed packages near them, refilling the wine cups they had so far refused to touch. He gave fast hand signals. Get ready, you two.

A scream pierced the air as the smaller one lengthened its arms to pierce the arms of one of the men, spreading splashes of wine and blood into the air—

“NOT ON MY WATCH!” Kochou jumped using Giyuu’s midriff as a springboard as she unsheathed her sword, cutting the demon’s arm which was still writhing.

“Demon Slayers?” The smaller one shifted and grew his arm in a few seconds. Giyuu prepared his stance and unsheathed his own sword, aiming both at the ceiling and the larger demon.

“Breath of Water: Eight Form, Modified, Wide-ranging Waterfall Basin!”

There were further screams as Giyuu destroyed the ceiling and the doors. The other men and women scrambled outside, the large demon in the ceiling before now in a bloody mess on the floor trying to regenerate.

“Die!” The larger one lunged at Kochou as Giyuu swiftly cut its head off. The smaller one tried to attack her with its many arms, grabbing whatever part of her kimono it could reach.

“Breath of the Insect: Butterfly Dance, Frolic.” She only smiled as she struck the demon quickly, and it writhed swiftly to its death.

The larger demon, however, swiftly began to move as it tried to escape. “Douma-sama must—”

She then moved to cut off its mouth with such ferocity.

As they parried the demon’s attacks, he noticed her torn sleeves as well as skirt, trying to avoid staring at the exposed skin of her lithe legs, a small scar of her previous ankle injury showing at her small foot [7]. Focus, Giyuu. Focus.

“Be on guard, Kochou!”

It was a mission, and he knew he has no business calling Kochou beautiful, but he knew with her push to move on with their mission, despite her torn clothes, a narrowed frown on her lips, and those purple, fury-laden eyes, she was that one word right now.

***

“An oiran [8], no, a yobidashi [9] and her regular patron [10] who desire to participate in an orgy [2], I see.” Kochou Shinobu’s face scrunched, as if thinking hard. “Won’t it make them suspicious, Amane-sama?”

“I don’t think so. We assigned Giyuu-san here to help you with the job.” Ubuyashiki Amane announced promptly. “We have an insider from the Wisteria House to help us smooth things, so you both will be fine.”

“How many casualties or lost people have been so far?” Giyuu was alarmed as the number of demon attacks have been increasing recently that even cultivators were tasked in to help safeguard their assigned training places further. He wasn’t surprised that after he killed Lower Moon Five, Kibutsuji and his minions might have been further on guard.

“Around 20 or more, just like in Mt Natagumo. Except some deaths have been disguised as brawls due to some disappearances, which they attribute to a specific brothel recruiting a lot of poor girls. Especially sixteen-year-olds and younger.” Amane-sama folded the letter back to her kimono.

“Sixteen-year-olds?” Kochou raised her eyebrows.

“The brothel is named ‘Paradise’. Perhaps it rings a bell to you, Shinobu-san.”

Upon hearing the word, Giyuu was surprised at Kochou’s reaction. She mostly smiled through assignments, but now a tic on her forehead was growing large like the frown on her face.

“Amane-sama, did Oyakata-sama predicted this?”

A faint smile crossed their leader’s wife’s face. “No, it was my son. Kiriya has been helping Kagaya-sama as of late. That child has predicted that the Lower Moons have disappeared. We aren’t sure of that information, and that brothel might have answers.”

“There has been information about it as well, Amane-sama. Some of the areas where we suspected Lower Moons have inhabited have no casualties these past few weeks, after I killed Lower Moon Five.” Giyuu presented Amane-sama a letter from one of the Wisteria House’s informants in his jurisdiction, where it has been rumored to have a Lower Moon previously.

“Very well. I assign you both to go to the Wisteria House at Yoshiwara immediately.”

“We then wish good health upon Oyakata-sama and your family, Amane-sama.” As they bowed and walked back to the porch of the headquarters, Giyuu was still alarmed at how Kochou shook slightly, her hands clenched.

“What is this Paradise Amane-sama’s talking about?”

Kochou didn’t answer, hurriedly walking to the Butterfly Mansion's direction.

Giyuu grabbed her arm. “You didn’t answer me. I’m with you on this mission, I deserve information, don’t I?”

He was worried as this Kochou wasn’t like the Kochou he knew, though it reminded him of the angry tsuguko he first met around four years ago. But she wasn’t like that anymore.

Or was she?

“Tomioka-san, have you heard of the Eternal Paradise cult?”

He shook his head. There were many cults around the land, and he had encountered some groups who strangely offered fellow humans to demons and praised Kibutsuji and his cronies as gods.

“They manage to hide their traces well, being as small as it is. But they have been responsible for kidnapping a lot of women, mostly from poor villages or populated ones so the disappearances won’t be that noticed. Their leader is said to have rainbow-colored eyes.”

Rainbow-colored eyes? He recalled Kochou Kanae, the Flower Pillar, at the cost of her life, managed to find out the Upper Moon Two had such eyes and a penchant for young women—

“It seems you’re not as stupid as you seem, after all.” She nodded as she gently removed his arm away from her.

“I’m sorry.”

She chuckled, the anger on her face disappearing for a moment.

“Apology accepted.”

She then bowed and smiled.

“On this mission, please take care of me, Tomioka-san.”

***

Kochou Shinobu was still running around the rooms of the Paradise brothel, accompanied by the old man from the Wisteria House, searching for traces of some of the kidnapped girls on every room they can open. So far, they have found two who were still alive but drugged with opium, and the kakushi outside have been arranging for their care. 

“Mister [11], are you sure some of them are hidden here?”

The old man showed her a map of the brothel, the blueprint having X marks on the east and west sides north of where they are right now. “Yes, I’m sure. We’ve been observing this place for a year now, and they normally drop the kidnapped girls here—” he pointed out to the hidden door now in front of them. The old man opened it, and she felt the presence of a powerful demon beyond the steps going down as well as the faint stench of blood.

“Watch out, young lady [12]!” The old man covered her body as they ducked, projectiles coming from down below.

Shinobu stepped away from the open door, assessing the old man’s injuries.

“Young lady, aren’t you injured?” The old man asked as he removed the projectile stuck on his arm and sat on the floor. It’s deeper than usual and the skin is turning blue, Shinobu assessed, getting one of the two boxes of antidotes she had inside her torn kimono.

“You should worry for yourself, Mister.” She put out a vial of antidote and injected it to the old man’s arm, his face flinching. She then tore a part of her already-torn kimono, wrapping it on the old man’s wound to stop it from further bleeding.

“It’s fine, besides, young lady, you’re the Insect Pillar and must be protected. Besides, aren’t you Giyuu-kun’s lover? Or are you his fiancé?”

The old man screamed as Shinobu tightened her makeshift bandage on the former’s arm.

“Please stop saying nonsense.” She tied the bandage neatly while looking back at the door. “Tomioka-san is just a colleague.”

“A colleague?” The man tried to move his arm but failed.

“Yes, a colleague. Besides, Mister, why do you call Tomioka-san by his given name?” Shinobu asked, even if she did manage to overhear the situation.

It was a few days ago. Amane-sama has summoned her to talk with their informant for the brothel mission when she heard voices in Oyakata-sama’s mansion’s guest room.

“It has been a long time, Uncle.”

Tomioka-san’s voice? With such a respectful tone [13]?

“Giyuu-kun.”

She peered into the half open door, using her speed to make her steps as silent as she can.

It was indeed Tomioka Giyuu, wearing that half-and-half haori of his, while the old man in front of him was wearing a haori with the wisteria crest on it. Both were seated in a seiza [14] and were in a deep conversation?

Was it our informant, I wonder?

“To be frank my son believed you. He searched for you at first, but then Urokodaki-san contacted the village, and then transferred papers of your inheritance [15] . The demon attack where he lost his life came a few months after.”

Tomioka-san sighed. “He… he is with Tsutako-neesan now, isn’t he?”

“Yes. We should have believed you by then. By the time the group of demons came… weren’t it for the Demon Slayers…”

His face remained stoic, but a tic formed on his forehead. “Is that why you made your inn a subsidiary of the Wisteria House?”

The old man nodded. “My eldest agreed with it. His wife was from the House’s main family, wouldn’t you believe it? She just gave birth to my first grandson last month.”

Tomioka-san only nodded. “I see.”

The old man stared at Tomioka-san and then suddenly bowed his head. “Giyuu-kun, I apologize. For throwing you [15] that way is…”

The latter stood up as he grabbed the old man up as well. “You do not need to apologize. Instead, please help us well with this mission.”

The old man didn’t reply, and instead bowed low again as he walked away from the guest room.

That was an interesting conversation, Shinobu thought. She was about to walk away as well when something—or someone—grabbed her arm.

“Tomioka-san, have you a fancy to grab my arm or something?”

“It’s rude to eavesdrop, Kochou.”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping. It’s your fault you didn’t close the doors to the guest room well.”

He flinched.

“Besides, that was our insider for this mission, right? Or don’t you think I have the right to know more information?”

He stared at her deeply for probably a minute or so, as if thinking what to reply. Shinobu tried not to stare back, but she was surprised at how blue his eyes were.

“That man… that man’s younger son was Tsutako-neesan’s fiancé. Before she… died.”

***

The stench almost overpowered Shinobu as she entered the door and walked swiftly down the steps, parrying further projectiles with her sword. She felt his presence as well, helping her cut down the projectiles coming from below.

“Have you thoroughly searched the other rooms, Tomioka-san?”

“There were around seven girls, drugged with opium in other rooms. The kakushi and Uncle are now helping them. The others were probably here.”

As they cut down more projectiles, Shinobu clenched her fists at the scene on the large cavern-like room.

There were around ten bodies, all riddled with holes or were torn asunder. They looked like young women, except most were naked or wore tattered clothes. The cavern’s walls were lined with red. A large, porcupine-like demon was in the middle, his claws piercing the body of a young, bloodied girl.

“Kochou, WATCH OUT!” Tomioka-san shouted as he cut off the demon’s arm while she parried further projectiles from the demon’s back.

“Tomioka-san, please guard us as I check on her!” Shinobu carried the emaciated girl gently down on the floor of the cavern. There were several bruises on the girl’s arms, hidden by her tattered yukata sleeve. Two large holes were on her torso, and blood continued to flow steadily as the girl turned paler and paler, her eyes wet.

We were too late. Shinobu bit her lip in anger and got another vial from her box, injecting it on the girl’s thin arm.

“Miss… I… fought well… didn’t I? My body… wasn’t eaten… right? I… fended him off… there was wisteria incense from one of the guests… threw it on the face…”

The blood seeped through the holes at the girl’s torso as she coughed, but the rest of her body was intact.

“Yes, young lady. You fought well. Now rest.”

The girl then closed her eyes and smiled, as if asleep and seeing a good dream. Her face bore no pain, which hurt Shinobu even further.

“Tomioka-san, please guard the girl. I beg you.”

“Kochou, are you mad? She’s—”

“Please.” She begged him as she jumped towards the demon, who lunged at her back—

“Dance of the Dragonfly, Compound Eye Hexagon.” She used her speed as much as she could to attack the demon’s front body, which was as soft as she surmised. It was surprising that the demon’s eyes widened, though there was none of the number she expected from something as powerful as a Lower Moon.

“You don’t have the number on your eyes, demon.”

“What did you—AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The demon failed to move, though its face contorted with great pain as the projectiles fell off its back.

“How was it? The taste of my poison?”

“IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS! DAMN YOU!!!!!!!!!”

She smiled, enjoying the demon’s rage. Anger never felt this good, didn’t it?

“The truth serum I added is working nicely, I see.”

Her voice was pierced by the demon’s screams, which made it shrink into something like a writhing worm at the center of the cavern.

“Now, answer us demon. Who sent you here? And why don’t you have that number from Kibutsuji?”

“As if… that man… will recognize us… nor Douma-sama… that man… killed the Lower Moons… some time ago… AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

“So you kidnapped young girls to offer to them?”

The demon managed to nod as it screamed in pain, which made her elated.

“Thanks for your information, demon.”

“Kill me… please…” The demon writhed further, and Shinobu wasn’t surprised; the poison she used for this demon was one of her famous, slow working poisons which had paralyzed a Lower Moon before.

“Why should I? Your screams are very lovely, you know.” She smiled as she stepped on the demon’s chest. She stabbed the demon multiple times on its body, increasing its pain further.

“Tell me, how does it feel? Being stabbed like this, just like what you did with the numerous girls here.” She felt the rage on her veins as she continued stabbing the demon using her sword as it cried loudly, with its flesh slowly regenerating and then piercing on it again—

The other Demon Slayer with her grabbed her hand again as she almost stabbed the demon’s neck. “Kochou, enough.”

“You really have a fancy to grab my arm, don’t you, Tomioka-san?”

“That demon is dying.” The demon wasn’t moving anymore, and for some reason its face was lined with tears.

Just like the dead girl she failed to save.

I fell short again. I’m so weak. It hurts.

“Kochou, what did you give that girl earlier?”

“I gave her an effective painkiller. Her wounds were too deep, and based on the bruises on her arms, she must have suffered way before this. It was the only thing I can do.”

“I…”

“This girl was the same age as Nezuko-san. And as for Kanao… I’m sure she would have tried to save the girl, no matter what [16].”

The demon has finally stopped screaming, and from it, the smell of ash surrounded them as it turned into dust, the sunlight seeping through a hole on the cavern ceiling. He might have made that while parrying the demon’s attacks earlier.

“Tomioka-san, have you felt an anger so great you want to destroy yourself and the world with it?”

The sunlight shone on the blood on Shinobu’s hands.

Her sister’s pierced chest as Kanae coughed red and closed her eyes, never to open them again. The mangled state of her parents’ bodies. Her other tsuguko failing to survive. The wrath which Shinobu never managed to erase.

Tomioka Giyuu put his hands above her eyes, letting her only see darkness and sense the smell of burning ash, helping her avert her eyes from the now-still body in front of them. Her knees buckled and she knelt on the floor, failing to stop her tears.

Neesan. I’m sorry. Father, Mother, I’m sorry. I miss you. I miss you so much it hurts.

“I… have. With Neesan. With Sabito.”

With a sudden move, he embraced her, continuing to pat her back as she closed her eyes, letting memories awash her.

“I’m sorry, Kochou.”

She knew the calm presence who knelt with her had nothing to feel sorry for her in the first place. And she would never tell him, but she was grateful he stayed as she cried to the heavens, praying those who have passed had heard her.

***

“Tomioka-san told me you have another surviving son, and a new grandson as well. Mister, be careful next time for them and do your best to support us instead.” They were now outside the brothel, most of the kakushi cleaning up. She injected another vial at the old man’s arm, to make sure the demon’s poison didn’t have any rebounds.

The man’s eyes widened and nodded. “Thank you very much, young lady, Giyuu-kun. And yes… I will.” 

As the old man walked towards the kakushi while helping them tend to the girls they have managed to rescue, Tomioka-san then draped his haori on her.

“Tomioka-san?”

“You might be cold. Your kimono’s all torn up.”

As she wrapped herself around it, she smelled the faint smell of bergamot and rosemary [17]. It might be from the incense she saw him buy from the nearby market once.

To distract herself from the scent, Shinobu asked something she had been curious since they started this mission. “I was wondering why you were so stiff earlier, Tomioka-san.”

“Anyone would have been surprised when someone like you latches on them like that, Kochou.”

“Really? I thought you were more popular with women.”

He stiffened. Hmm, am I correct, I wonder?

She tested it. “So even women hate you, Tomioka-san? Are you saying you’re a virgin [18] or something then?”

He flinched. So that means it’s a yes.

“D-don’t speak nonsense.” His face remained that stoic as they walked to Oyakata-sama’s mansion to report, but Shinobu noticed that his ears… were red?

That’s cute.

Maybe if she kept him needling him, will his face turn as red as that in the future?

Such thoughts were a luxury to Shinobu right now, but it was enough to stamp down the embers of the fury she felt earlier.

“Let’s go back, Tomioka-san.”

“Kochou… all right.”

***

Himejima Gyoumei was used to late-night visits on his residence, after all, the Demon Slaying Corps did take in assignments for protection, and it helped with their finances, with him mostly at the helm. The Stone Pillar was also used to other Pillars visiting, especially Kochou Shinobu, who regularly took care of his disciple, Shinazugawa Genya, mainly to his unique constitution of consuming demons and acquiring their abilities, a warrior that has only appeared to the Corps once or twice in its lifetime.

What he was not used to visiting was the solemn, low voice of a man who he last heard of during their last Pillar meeting.

“Himejima.” Tomioka Giyuu spoke as low as he could, and Gyoumei wondered what happened for him to speak like this.

“Yes, Tomioka?”

“Can I go in the waterfall at the back of this residence?” The waterfall? Was he planning to train in the middle of the night?

“I don’t mind… but what for, Tomioka?”

Tomioka’s voice went lower. “I just… I just need to cool down. I was… from a mission.”

Mission? Amane-sama has informed him he might be Shinobu and Tomioka’s mission back-up earlier, which wasn’t really needed: they have finished the case in Yoshiwara without many casualties and eliminated around four demons hiding in the premises.

“Is Sh-Kochou all right?”

“She’s all right in the Butterfly Mansion.” The younger man’s voice sounded… incredibly strained, as if trying his best to stop something. “I…I’m not. Right now. Sorry for the trouble.”

“I see.”

“…”

“The waterfall is at the mountains on the back of my residence. I can guide you there if you need to.”

As they clambered on the stairs, Gyoumei thought it was not normal as he could sense Tomioka was shaking but didn’t ask anything; he wasn’t doing anything wrong after all. When they arrived, he sensed a swift shuffling of clothes, a soft jump to probably the rock on the middle of the waterfall, and Tomioka’s repeated muttering of the words “Do not waver” while the icy cold water ran over the other man’s form.

The Stone Pillar then wondered what ruffled the Water Pillar’s composure so much.