Inosuke was nodding off under his mask. Every time his head dipped, he jolted awake enough to keep following the little old lady through the Wisteria House. His body was aching and tired; charred and singed from the fire demon he’d sliced into pieces. He was even too tired to even bother to eat. If he wanted tempura so bad, Inosuke grumbled to himself, then he’d just have to dream about it until he was awake enough to stuff his face with some.
Inosuke hadn’t even fully let the old lady present him with the room before he’d flopped into the first futon he saw. He dove head first, body dropping almost instantly as he went. A glob of drool dripped out of his mouth, and the jaw of his mask, teetering on the edge of sleep as he went.
Only, something kept shoving at him. Annoyingly. He refused to open his eyes. Inosuke swatted at whatever it was. It swatted back.
“QUIT IT!” Inosuke growled, trying to trap whatever it was against the futon. If they wanted to fight so bad, they’d have to wait until Inosuke was good and ready!
WIth a grunt of displeasure, Inosuke pried his eyes open and looked down. One hand was pinned under his, and the other was futilely pushed at him. Lower down, a pair of legs were squirming around like a trapped mouse. Inosuke blinked, pushing his mask up so he could squint sleepily at what was rustling under his blankets. A yellow head popped out like a weed, gasping dramatically for air. It was Monitsu. His eyes were popping out of his head and his teeth clenched.
“You tried to kill me!” Monitsu screeched. “What did I do to deserve this? Putting me out of my misery because the last demon didn't-?”
Stupid Monitsu, Inosuke thought. What was he doing in Inosuke’s bed? He should be in his bed. Inosuke shoved a hand against his cheek.
“Inosuke, get up! You're crushing me!” Monitsu flailed his arms, knees coming up between their bodies. He pushed at him; Inosuke snorted, dropped his weight and ground his teeth when Zenitsu screeched again. All of his squirming was making it hard to sleep, didn’t the cheese-stick understand? He slung an arm around Zenitsu’s shoulders and settled back down. If Zenitsu wasn’t going to get out of his bed then Inosuke wasn’t going to move either.
“What do you mean ‘no’? I want to sleep!”
Sometimes Chuuitsu was soooo slow. He grabbed him and squeezed, trapping his arms between their bodies. Anything to get him to stop squirming.
Inosuke tsked. “So sleep.”
“Like this?? Together??” Zenitsu made a dying noise, still squirming and complaining. Eventually, he clicked his tongue. “Fine. You can stay but only if you take off the mask.”
“Then get your own!”
Too tired, and too fed up with his complaining, Inosuke complied. He threw the mask down beside them onto the other futon and drew Zenitsu up closer. He tucked the other boy’s head under his chin. Inosuke let himself begin to droop. Zenitsu was surprisingly comfy for a shaky stick of a guy. If he readjusted just a little bit, just a spot over, they could be curled together quite nicely.
“....Honestly. Is this what Tanjirou puts up with?” Zenitsu muttered. He sighed; a long-winded sound that gave way to one last dying noise that petered off quietly. Zenitsu freed his arms from between them. Inosuke could feel the way he hesitated, before he draped them over Inosuke’s shoulders. An unnatural heat bloomed across Zenitsu’s face, spreading almost like a fire around his whole head. Inosuke could feel the waves of it pulsing just there.
Tenderly Zenitsu touched the back of Inosuke’s head. He leaned into the touch, felt how his fingers waded through his hair before beginning back at the top. Underneath him, muffled, Zenitsu said, “Night, Inosuke.”
In the back of Inosuke’s mind, it reminded him of something. Of a warm body in his younger days snuggled up close to him. It felt good to sleep next to something and feel their breathing so comfortingly. Without all the bellyaching done, Zenitsu’s felt nice.
He might have grunted a reply.
Inosuke had learned one thing early long ago: When you live on the mountain, you have to fight for your food.
That’s what his adopted mother had instilled in him, anyway. Food wouldn’t always come easy, and those who aren’t fast enough or strong enough, would always lose in the end. And his mother had been great! Everyone had feared her tusks, and when she walked, even wolves moved out of the way. There were days they ate well. And days that dragged and they had to think, “Next time, for sure!”
Inosuke was strong now. Strong enough to always be fed, to always have food. He’d seen how the old man down the mountain had roasted meats and things, and discovered a whole new way over the years.
Food in the Estates were different, though. Nicer, for one. Freshly cooked and tasty in ways that Inosuke hadn’t known much. Sometimes Gramps down the mountain would share. But there were things even Gramps couldn’t do. Not like tempura or yakiniku or the udon Kentarou really liked. And - As Tanjirou had said - there was even more food to discover all over the country.
Inosuke had slammed his fist on the table. “I want to try! I want that!”
Tanjirou had laughed. “Soon, soon. We have to hunt demons, right? We can try different dishes in the places we go.”
Tonight, it was him and Cheese-stick again. Tanjirou was taking a walk with Nezuko before joining them, apparently. He didn’t understand the purpose, but more food for him. He bit into the food they were presented with tonight. The grilled fish made him shiver all over.
Inosuke slapped his hands against the table top. “Amazing! Amazing!”
“Inosuke, cut it out! You’re spilling the food!” Zenitsu whined. He huffed as he took a bite of his food.
With a snort, Inosuke swiped some of Zenitsu’s dinner. Predictably, he squawked, jaw dropping down to complain. He reached over to try and take it back, only for Inosuke to block him. He tried again. Blocked. Again and again, he tried to snap his chopsticks to snag his food, and each time Inosuke slapped it away. He shoved some of it in his mouth, cackling around a full mouth at the other.
Weak! Zenitsu would never make it on the mountain!
“Too slow, Monitsu!”
Zenitsu gritted his teeth.
“We’re eating! We’re not supposed to go fast!” He cried.
With Tanjirou not around to make him feel bad, Inosuke reached and tried to take more of Zenitsu’s food. “No, no, no!” Zenitsu cried; he tried to trap Inosuke’s hand down. Round and round it went, the food sloshing on the table. Inosuke got close, ever so close, to taking a chomp out of Zenitsu’s tempura before the other boy collided into him and viciously took a bite. They knocked into each other, falling over in a heap.
Hands pushing down at Inosuke’s shoulders, Zenitsu’s bushy eyebrows climbed up his face. Strangely, his face blotted red, and he was chattering on about something Inosuke couldn’t make heads or tails of. His fingers spread against his bare skin; Inosuke felt the adrenaline rush from their points of contact.
A fight, then? Was this feeling for a fight?
So, Chuitsu had some guts after all? Inosuke thought. He could actually scrap! He was getting all fired up now. It had been a long time since he’d gotten to fight over some food; missed the excitement of it. Inosuke grinned.
He pushed Zenitsu over trying to pin his arm to his back. The other boy yelped as they tumbled. He pinned him down and laughed. “Come on, come on!” Zenitsu cried, flailing under him, muttering something that didn’t sound human. “You won’t win your food like that, Monitsu!”
“I don’t want to win, I want to eat!” He moaned like a dying cat.
Zenitsu wiggled. He squirmed in a full body squirm that even Inosuke slipped, just a bit. Zenitsu managed to turn onto his back, fingers reaching out to try and grab at him. When that didn’t work, he pushed at his face, kicked up hell to claw his way out of his grip. With a twist, Inosuke dropped his weight and pinned him in place. He took him by the wrists and pinned them, too, on either sides of Zenitsu’s head.
“I win,” Inosuke laughed. Beneath him, Zenitsu sagged, unmoving, and accepting his defeat.
With arms so wimpy, it was amazing he could wave his sword at all. Still, he had given up more of a fight than Inosuke had anticipated. Sometimes Zenitsu could be surprising. He supposed that deserved some recognition. He released Zenitsu’s wrists and reclined across him, getting comfortable.
Inosuke reached over to the table and grabbed a handful of tempura. One of the girls had learned of his liking for them and had made sure that there was an abundance of them for dinner. He supposed he could share. A few months ago and he wouldn’t have even considered it. Must have been the Monjirou germs.
Inosuke dropped a few onto Zenitsu’s face.
“Here, minion. Lord Inosuke rewards you for the fight. Eat, eat!”
Zenitsu was scowling as he struggled to grab them with his tongue, crumbs all over his face. His wrists had stayed where Inosuke had left them; his cheeks were red. With a flat voice he said, “Thanks.”
Later, Kentarou came in, saw them still eating tempura as they were and smiled. “It’s good you two are getting along so well!” He said.
Zenitsu might have uttered something like “Idiot” under his breath.
Inosuke had been right. There was no way Chuuitsu could survive on the mountain. It wasn't even their first night up on the mountain, and the cheese-stick was scared. They had already taken down the demon - Him, Kentarou, and Chuuitsu. So what was there even to be afraid of?
They were camping out to make it back down the mountain. Huddled under the blanket was the cheese-stick himself. He shook harder than a leaf in winter, only his face peeking out from beneath the blanket. His eyes were hurting just watching him. He was going to chatter into a wisp. Beneath Kentarou’s arm was minion number three, big pink eyes peering up. In the dark of the mountain, she could be out of her box.
“Why do we have to stay up here anyway!” He complained, burrowing further under his blankets. “It’s so dark out here. What if something tries to eat us!”
“Zenitsu,” Monjirou said, in that weird calm way of his. “You have a sword. Besides! There’s four of us here, nothing will happen!”
“Easy for you to say!” Zenitsu cried. “You’re strong!”
Come to think of it...did Cheese-stick not know he could fight so good asleep? To Inosuke’s great displeasure, the glory of cutting of this latest demon’s head had gone to Chuuitsu. He’d done his zappy leg thing and hacked it in one go. Up until that fight in the Red Light District, Inosuke and Tanjirou hadn’t really known much about his fighting style.
The way he’d bounced around reminded Inosuke of the rabbits on his mountain. Countless times they’d slipped through his fingers, powerful legs zipping away at the last second in a blind scurry. He’d felt the charge in the air before he’d fully registered when Zenitsu had struck. The snap of his blade echoing in Inosuke’s head.
The fine hairs on his arms were still tingling even now. A full body kind of feel that made his blood bubble in excitement. Why wouldn’t he fight him! Always crying about not being strong enough. Didn’t he know, didn’t he know?
It was too much to think about to try and understand. And his shaking was getting annoying!
Inosuke stood up and threw himself, falling heavily on Zenitsu with his full weight. Zenitsu screeched, fighting to get out of the blankets and crying for Kentarou to save him. Kindly, Tanjirou peeled the sheet back over his head.
“There you go. Zenitsu, it’s okay. It was just Inosuke.”
“EH? Inosuke? You again!! Why have you been trying to kill me lately!”
Inosuke flopped over him, almost like a blanket. He dug his knuckle into the top of his head and cackled when he wailed.
To his disappointment, Zenitsu wasn’t still charged from before. The way his body had tingled in his vicinity had all but disappeared.
“Tanjirou!!” Gross. He had a string of snot dripping out of his nose. Grooosss.
“That’s enough! You guys are too loud!” With a sigh, Tanjirou reached a hand out from beneath his blankets to grab one of Zenitsu’s. “There, how’s that? You can hold my hand while you sleep.”
Zenitsu frowned. He looked like he wanted to complain some more, or say something stupid. Inosuke knew Tanjirou’s hands were rough and calloused. They’d felt almost like rocks. Regardless, Zenitsu hunkered down under Inosuke and curled a tighter grip on Tanjirou’s hand. A feeling like calm was overcoming the other boy, Inosuke could feel it even through the blankets. Kind of like when they’d shared the bed at the Wisteria House. Inosuke scowled under his mask. He banged a fist on the top of Zenitsu’s head.
“I want to do that, too!” He reached down and took Zenitsu’s other hand.
Huh. Soft. On the tips of his fingers there were callouses, but the palm was surprisingly tender. His fingers were thin. He’d played that stringed thing with surety, too. Maybe that’s why he had been so good. Inosuke pressed on them, watching the tips go white for a moment. He hadn’t cared much for music before, but Zenitsu could surprisingly do things that made you feel. First the zappy-leg thing, then the music.
Inosuke grunted and settled down over him. He pressed Zenitsu’s palm to the ground and wrapped his fingers around from the back of his hand, curling his fingers against Zenitsu’s palm. Yeah, that felt nice.
“Be grateful, Cheese-stick. Now nothing will get to you with The Great Inosuke here!”
Zenitsu didn’t say anything, but he wasn’t shaking anymore either. Nezuko made a funny little sound that might have been a laugh.
Tanjirou laughed, too. “Zenitsu. Your face is red.”
“Go to sleep, you!”
Zenitsu brushed his thumb against the side of Inosuke’s hand. Inosuke gruffed happily through the feeling. He squeezed their hands, and was rewarded again. It was nothing like the zappy thing, but this too made Inosuke shiver to his bones. He wondered if Zenitsu’s germs were contagious; Transferred his quivering to him, or something.
Inosuke had been weak.
He hated to admit. After everything; after fighting the spider demons in the mountain, those weird siblings in the Red Light District, and all the training, Inosuke had been weak. Again . And Zenitsu had paid the price for it.
Stupid Cheese-stick had to leg-zap in front of him and take most of the blow. Between one second and the next, Inosuke could feel the way the electricity danced in the air before he had even seen the other boy. The yellow of his haori flashing before him, and the golden shine of his katana as it left its sheath. He heard the blow the blade took, and everything went slow for a matter of seconds.
A demon that should have been easy work for the two of them on their usual missions, had gone ahead and nearly sliced Zenitsu in half.
The way Zenitsu’s arm had nearly been torn off, and the split second way he had turned to deflect the attack from both of them was still running circles in Inosuke’s mind. He hovered at the doorway to the hospital ward. Aoi and Shinobu wrapping him up in bandages. His friend gave a pained cry; Aoi held him back down, putting in a needle that made Zenitsu waver. The little girls scuttled around, fetching and handing off things. Between the throng of bodies, Zenitsu might as well have disappeared.
Gently, a hand rested to his shoulder. Inosuke looked to his side; Tanjirou smiled at him. The corners of his mouth were tight, and his eyes looked tired. Still, he smiled.
“Shinobu-san knows what she’s doing. He’ll be okay,” Tanjirou said.
Inosuke grunted. “He’s a weed.”
Strong, resilient. Even when cut down, a weed could spring back up again. Tanjirou seemed to understand his words. His smile relaxed more. With a small tug, he let the other boy lead him away. Together they sat at a low table to eat. A few spots across from them notably empty. Kanao and Genya were away on missions, and Nezuko was asleep. Maybe too deliberately, Inosuke kept his eyes away from Zenitsu’s usual spot. With his mind a white fuzz, and his body moving on its own, he ate.
For once, Inosuke wasn’t as excited to eat as he usually was.
It was hours before they could see Zenitsu again. Shinobu had a serene look on her face when she’d addressed them, though Inosuke could feel the threat behind her words.
“He’s in a lot of pain right now, so please don’t be too rough with him,” She said, smiling. She left not long after that.
Inosuke watched Tanjirou resting a hand to Zenitsu’s hair, speaking in a low voice to him. Inosuke faintly caught the words “Good job” and “You’re amazing” in there. Dopily, sleepily, Zenitsu smiled back. He touched Tanjirou’s wrist in response. It almost looked like it was taking all the energy right out of him to do. A pit formed in Inosuke’s stomach, swirling like he’d eaten something terrible. All across his body the feeling took him over. A few feet away from his two friends, he felt like he was a rock in the middle of a lake, unable to come to shore. It was only when Tanjirou called him from over his shoulder that Inosuke felt like his feet could move again. His knees hit the side of the bed.
Inosuke raised his hand and tapped his hand against Zenitsu’s forehead in a gentle chop.
“Stupid, Monitsu,” Inosuke scolded. He had to wonder if Zenitsu was shivering too much why his voice was wavering like it had. He chopped him a few more times. “Stupid, stupid, Monitsu.”
“Hey, be nice,” Tanjirou lightly scolded.
“Stupid Monitsu nearly left us behind, Gompachiro! He’s stupid!”
Tanjirou’s brows raised up.He stared for a long time at the two of them, watching the way Inosuke’s hands wouldn’t stop shivering. It was annoying, just like Monitsu. Quietly, Tanjirou cleared his throat.
“I’m going to go check on Nezuko. Please don’t be too rough with Zenitsu!”
Zenitsu’s eyes tracked Tanjirou’s departure. For a few moments he kept staring at the doorway before his eyes dragged sluggishly up to Inosuke. Slowly, too slowly, probably because of whatever Aoi had given him, Zenitsu parted his sheets with his uninjured hand.
“Get in,” He said.
Zenitsu winced. He scowled despite his exhaustion and pointed as furiously as he could at the small space next to him on the opposite side of his injured arm. When Inosuke didn’t move, he pointed at it more incessantly.
“I said, get in! Are you stupid, pig-face?”
Inosuke grabbed at the hairs of his mask, screeching as he did so. Who was Monitsu to order him around! Who was Monitsu to demand things of him! He huffed, planting a knee to the bed anyway, and made to climb over him. Zenitsu pushed at his chest.
“You already know the drill, no mask if we share!”
Inosuke growled. “FINE!”
He shed his mask and tossed it to the adjacent bed, content when it landed on the pillow as if it would go to sleep as well. He crawled over Zenitsu and dropped down heavily next to him with an annoyed gruff.
Next to him, the other boy shifted. He struggled for a moment to rise up on his good elbow. He turned slowly, hooking one leg over Inosuke’s as he did so. With a final heave and sigh, Zenitsu dropped his cheek down against Inosuke’s chest, half laying on him. On instinct, Inosuke’s hands shot out to cushion the way his injured arm came around with him, and placed it across his bare stomach.
“Stupid, Zenitsu! Are you trying to mess up Shinobu-san’s hard work!”
“I just want to hear your heartbeat,” Zenitsu muttered. “It’s a lot harder with my arm like this.”
A fuzzy feeling raced across Inosuke’s skin. It itched at the back of his throat, and made his whole body feel unexplainable. Like the old lady and Tanjirou’s kindness, Zenitsu’s words made Inosuke a vibrating mess of soft .
Clumsily, Inosuke placed his hand in Zenitsu’s hair, much like he would do when they shared a bed. He stroked, hoping he was doing it right ; comforting in the same way Zenitsu would do it. Zenitsu wasn’t complaining so maybe it was right! He couldn’t help swelling with pride at that. Of course he would do this thing as good (better!) than Zenitsu.
“Hurry up and get better,” Inosuke said. “It’s boring without you.”
“Yes, yes,” Zenitsu said around a yawn. “I’ll do my best to heal fast and be back at your side.”
Fighting the urge to smother the other boy, Inosuke curled around him tighter, careful of the other’s arm. Like his mother had done, like the way the sun could blanket the mountain as it rose, Inosuke drew Zenitsu close, kept his ear pressed against his chest, and fell asleep wrapped in the feeling he gave him.