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Crueler Than Death

Chapter Text

Douma grinned viciously into Shinobu’s ear as she struggled under his bone-crushing grip. Purple eyes bore into rainbow as she cursed violently under her breath. She couldn’t fail. She wouldn’t allow herself to succumb to this vile man who killed her sister. She had to take him out before Kanao arrived. Her tsuguko needed to stay safe. 

But , she thought. She could already feel it. All her poisons failed thus far. In her position, she couldn’t even begin to get out of Douma’s grasp. 

So is this the end?

Thoughts of everybody from the Butterfly mansion filled her mind. Kanao would be sad. Just when she was starting to open up to everybody, too. Oh, and Tanjiro. In all her time, she never met another soul quite as kind as him. She probably understood him on a level far deeper than either of them realized. For if her own sister had been turned into a demon instead of having been killed… Would she have it in her to still hate demons? Would she still call that thing her sister? 

Forcing down the tears, she directed all her anger to the wretched, smiling man before her. 

“Go die, you fucking bastard.”

He only smiled wider.

The door slid open right as she felt her ribs shatter. Bone punctured her lungs, causing her to gasp. She wouldn’t have more than a few minutes at best. Before she passed on, though, she had to leave something behind for her one and only disciple.

With the last of her strength, she formed a hand signal. It wasn’t much, and if it hadn’t been for her tsuguko’s keen and discerning eye, it might have fallen on deaf ears. After all, her own voice had already failed her. But she believed in Kanao--that her sister would avenge them, she was all but sure of.

That last thought brought some comfort to her. Even as she felt her last embers being absorbed into Douma, she’d have no regrets. Kanao always possessed more potential than either Kanae or herself. 

Ah, she thought. Everything felt cold. Her thoughts scattered away, as if they were flower petals caught by a strong breeze. As I thought, I don’t want to die.  

Douma smiled in a benevolent sort of way. 

“You’ll have much more fun on this side, you know.” It wasn’t a question; it was a statement. 

With an easy swoop of his hand that moved faster than Shinobu could see, he pierced her side with his hand. A pain more exerting and mind crushing surged through her body, enervating every nerve until electricity was the only thing coursing through her body. It felt like fire. Breathing became more difficult than when she had been in Douma’s grip. Wait. When had he let her go? 

“Master!”

She only saw glimpses of Kanao’s worried face through her blurry vision. Was she falling? Cast aside? But Shinobu was supposed to get absorbed by Douma. That was what they had planned. 

The ends of her arms and legs felt cold and wet. She looked down. Ah . So part of her did get absorbed. The annoying vermin. He was throwing off her calculations. There was no guarantee that amount of poison would slow him down. It was half her body mass at best.

At last, her mind finally gave way, making room for the emptiness that filled her being. 

Kanao, she prayed. She never prayed. Not since the gods forsook her parents. You can do it

She hit the ground with a sickening thud. 

***

Kanao couldn’t help but let out a strained shriek. Her master… Her master… He’d thrown her away like a broken rag doll as a mysterious door captured her. Her master had disappeared. Where did she go? 

Stop. Breathe. Gripping her helm, she repositioned her sword. She needed to get herself under control. If she didn’t take him down now, then her master’s sacrifice would have been for nothing. The plan was still in action whether it was derailed or not. She’d cut down this demon no matter what. She would not allow a single thing to disturb her sisters in their grave.

Clenching her sword handle, she hurled herself in.

***

“Caw! Caw! Kochou Shinobu is dead! She has been defeated by Upper Rank 2!”

Giyuu stumbled  in his stride but quickly recovered. He heard something like a gasp from behind him. 

“Shinobu-san…” Tanjiro whispered. 

There’s no time for grief right now, he thought. Tanjiro had to pull himself together, or else the demons will strike them all down. 

There’s no time for grief right now. 

Because there is plenty of time for it later. 

Giyuu tightened his grip on his sword, the fingers digging into flesh when it could not penetrate metal. 

There is plenty of time later , he thought bitterly. As long as he gets Tanjiro out alive, Shinobu won’t have to worry about a proper funeral.

***

Where was she? She touched the top of her head. It felt damp. Everything was dark here. Where did Kanao go? Kanae? 

She grasped desperately for anything. Where did everyone go? Where was her sword? She needed her sword. 

Soon, the light came back to her. But it was different. Enhanced. It blinded her. 

Her chest rose with short, gasping breaths. What was happening? The room wasn’t dark--it had been her eyes. And now that her vision came back, everything was crisper , as if something had been injected into her eyes. 

Shaking, she lifted up the hands that were supposed to have been absorbed by Douma. 

No, no, no, no, no, No, No, NO-- NO!

She screamed. 

As if the realization was all it needed, her throat felt dreadfully parched. She clawed at it, slicing through the skin. Blood spilled out, but it wasn’t her blood. It had been tainted with the demon’s.

Why wasn’t the wisteria poison working? She was practically a walking antidote against demonization. She should be dead right now. 

Her eyes caught the glint of her sword. She clambered over to it. 

If she couldn’t die by her own poison, then she’d have to do so by self-decapitation. 

But her sword wasn’t built for that. She’d always been delicate and weak, so she had to resort to taking out demons with her vast medical knowledge. She could only accomplish this by slowly cutting away at her flesh, before it had the chance to regenerate. 

Her body caved in. She desperately wanted blood-- needed blood. 

No. She wouldn’t do that. As long as her mind was still hers, she’d take herself out right now. She wouldn’t force her fellow comrades to undertake the mentally gruel task of beheading her. She’d have to do it right now, while her mind was sane and her body weak from malnutrition. 

Taking the sword, she extended her arm as long as possible to position her sword. The blade part just barely brushed the far side of her back neck. This wasn’t possible. 

But she had to make it possible.

She screamed the first time. She held in grunts the second and third. By the fourth she was whimpering for it to all be over. 

How many demons had she subjected to the same torture? She wasn’t a kind person like her sister. She could be sadistic. She wanted them to feel how hurt she felt when they butchered and slaughtered her family and scores of others. They didn’t deserve a kind death. 

The shrill scream of her voice writhed in agony as she dropped her sword. Blood gushed from her wounds, but none were deep enough to fully decapitate her. 

Please, she thought. Let me die.  

Eventually, the pain of attempting to self-decapitate ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred times, caused her to black out. Her mind lost consciousness before she could die. 

If only that fucking Douma never existed, none of this would happen. If only all the demons would up and fucking die.

Her sister’s words came to mind. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if demons and humans could get along?

No, Shinobu thought. There’d only be more despair, Nee-san.

***

“Giyuu-san! Giyuu-san!” Tanjiro’s frantic voice carried itself through the thick debris as the light of day snuck through cracks on the horizon. His sister, Nezuko, unbound and unmuzzled had an arm wrapped around her brother’s torso, holding him up despite her own injuries. “Over here!”

Giyuu had sustained his own fair share of injuries. But as a result, Muzan had finally been defeated. Scores of casualties had been the trade-off, but they had finally seen the end of it. Looking down at his arm, broken sword in hand, he grimaced. He hadn’t expected to come out of alive.

Slowly dragging himself over to where Tanjiro stood, flailing his arms, he noticed a crowd had begun to form around the boy. Sanemi and Himejima stared wide-eyed, Kanroji was covering her mouth as tears welled up, Iguro looked away with a dark shadow across his face. As he walked closer, he noticed they surrounded the young tsuguko Shinobu had taken in. She was cradling someone, hugging them as if words weren’t enough to express her thoughts so touch became the only way. 

The boar child had run up at the behest of Tanjiro. When he gathered with the rest of the Hashira, he halted. Dropped his twin swords. 

“Shinobu,” he whispered faintly. He fell to his knees. 

Giyuu felt his whole body lurch forward. 

Shinobu? Shinobu’s body had been recovered? What state was she in? Had the demon gotten at her? Was she alright? 

But even as he asked all these questions, racing down the rubble and past the Kakashi and lower swordsmen, he knew. He knew she was already dead and that these questions were pointless. That the girl who smiled whimsically and with deadly rage was gone. Kochou Shinobu was no more.

He had prepared himself to see a broken carcass by the time he made it to the crowd. What he did not prepare for was the nearly pristine state he found her in, as if she had never been dead. 

She looked as if she were only sleeping. Blood covered the top of her head, her neck, and all down her clothes. Where he saw the lines of sword cuts in her clothes betrayed the fact that she was without injury. He could have sworn all of this was her blood considering where it seeped, but the facts didn’t add up. Until he saw her chest rising. 

She’s alive. She’s alive. 

But the crow…

As the sun began rising in full, the skin of her flesh began vaporizing. It seared and melted off like an oil doll. Kanao panicked and quickly began wrapping her master in whatever cloth she could find. Tanjiro assisted as best he could by throwing his own haori on top and got Inosuke to build a makeshift fort. 

Giyuu was stunned. What had happened to Shinobu? Why was her body abrasive to the sun? Why was she breathing? How did… 

His body felt the conclusion before his mind could process it. Nothing but his own repulse pushed him to the ground as he landed with a deadened thud. 

Kochou Shinobu had become a demon.

Chapter Text

Shinobu awoke wishing she were dead. As far as she could tell, she’d been brought to the Butterfly Estate, her clothes having been changed by one of her girls. Why was she still alive? Why couldn’t Douma just finish her off and be done with it? He wasn’t supposed to take prisoners. What even happened to him? Did Kanao finish the job?

Right as she thought that, the young tsuguko entered the room, a tray of cups clattering to the ground, and upon seeing her master’s eyes open, tears welled up. 

“Master,” she said, her voice shaking. Shinobu sat up, not even feeling the pain she’d inflicted to her neck. In fact, everything felt better than before. If it weren't for the hunger ache that scraped her throat like gravel, that is. 

Kanao rushed to Shinobu’s side as Shinobu said, “Stop.” Kanao halted dead in her tracks. 

The tsuguko’s eyes were hesitant, nervous and frightened by her master’s command. Why did she have to stop? She just wanted to cry and be grateful that her master was alive. 

As if sensing Kanao’s distress, Shinobu softened her glare. She said gently, “You did well.” 

That one simple phrase unwound the tight lid on Kanao’s floodgates. This time, against her master’s wishes, she flung herself onto Shinobu.

“Master,” she sobbed. She snuggled her face against Shinobu’s chest as the older girl rubbed comforting circles on her back. “Master, Master.” The sight of Kanao crying for her sake, when she could not produce even a tear for their deceased eldest sister, broke something in her. She pressed her lips tightly together.

Shinobu fought the urge for human taste. If Tanjiro’s sister could do it, so could she. She’d suppress it until there was nothing left but the remnants of Douma’s memory. 

Douma? 

“Kanao,” she said, sitting the girl upright. “Tell me what happened.” 

With a few sniffles, the girl composed herself enough where she could relay what transpired. Douma had been defeated by Kanao and Inosuke’s joint effort; all the Upper Moons had been vanquished; the last of the Hashira, Tanjiro and others, as well as Tamayo, combined their efforts to finally kill Muzan. 

“And what of Nezuko?” 

She shook her head. Nezuko still remained a demon--capable of human thought and speech now, but still a demon. According to Tanjiro, Nezuko recovered most of how she’d been before she transformed. 

So that meant the demons hadn’t all vanished once Muzan did. Shinobu herself was living proof of that. 

Clenching the sheets, she ground her teeth. Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. 

“Um, Master?” Kanao’s eyebrows were knit together in a worried expression. 

“What is it, Kanao?” 

“Are you alright?” She touched the sleeve of Shinobu’s white shirt hesitantly. 

Shinobu’s eyes flashed as an overwhelming desire for flesh consumed her. Bent over, she heaved irregular breaths. Images of a dark haired man with red eyes flashed through her vision. 

“Master! Please hang on! I’ll call someone in,” she said, backing away. Shinobu could barely make out her disappearing figure through the black spots in her vision.

No , she thought. Don’t leave me . But it was better that she did leave at that moment. If it didn’t end in Shinobu accidentally biting her, then it would certainly end with Kanao beheading her own master. She didn’t want her to go through that. She didn’t think she could do that.

Aoi rushed in behind Kanao with the three youngest in the mansion, all of them with frantic and worried expressions. 

“Shinobu-sama,” Aoi said, quickly administering a non-lethal dose of wisteria poison into Shinobu’s bicep. Aoi had always been the quickest thinker, the most brusque, but as she watched in pain, she saw Aoi was shaking. Her movements betrayed her confidence. 

Before Aoi could administer the full dosage, Shinobu shoved the young girl away, wanting to be anywhere but there. If she stayed, she was a threat--a danger. What happened earlier was a rare moment of lucidity, followed by intense, primitive desire. She needed to leave.

She ran out to the hallway, begging for there to be nobody in her way. If she must become a demon, then she’d rather one of the demon hunters kill her. But it couldn’t be Kanao or Aoi. They were far too kind and would petition for her salvation before her demise. 

Sliding open doors, she followed the familiar footsteps she used to trace when Kanae left for missions. 

Please, Sister. 

Anybody would do. A Hashira, Tanjiro, even a Mizunoto with barely passable skill could kill her. She’d let them. 

As she found the exit, she noticed the sunlight. Of course . That was another way. It’d spare everybody the guilt of killing one of their former own. 

She was so close. So close to touching the ground outside. With one tumble, she’d die upon impact. The sun would be her only witness. 

Her hand felt the first sears of the sun’s rays before she was body-slammed backwards into the dark hallway. She struggled against the opponent, but they were strong. 

Growling, her fingers dug into their back and ripped at their chest. That one moment of recoil allowed her to launch the person up and away while she sprung to her feet. 

She was no Nezuko. She wouldn’t be able to live among humans. She would become a demon through and through if she remained alive.

Sorry, Tanjiro.  

The moment she threw herself out into the lawn, taking on the full brunt of the sun, she felt the fire scorch off her flesh. It burned and peeled and boiled. She didn’t want to scream for the house to hear, but nothing less than a deformed shriek escaped her lips. 

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. 

She was nearly weeping when it stopped. 

Stopped? 

Her eyes braced the light of the sun. It was so bright. She looked down. Her skin was perfectly normal. Everything was normal. She was still alive. 

Her hands seized a mound of grass and dirt, clawing lines into the ground. 

“Shinobu.” 

She whipped her head to see where that familiar, cold and distant voice came from. Tomioka stood in his uniform at the exit where she propelled herself from. He clutched his shoulder--holes punctured his half and half haori. 

A pitiful moan escaped her lips. 

The sun didn’t work. If the sun didn’t work...then...then. 

She never imagined her life would be in the hands of the man she so often clashed with, teased, and made fun. Maybe that incited him enough where he’d be willing to kill her for her. 

She reached out to him, but she couldn’t find strength in her arms or legs anymore. The momentary adrenaline from hunger escaped her and she only felt exhaustion. Numbness circulated her body, and she knew that Aoi’s injection was slowly working, despite the amount being halved thanks to Shinobu’s escape. 

Her mouth wouldn’t form the words that rested on her tongue. She was begging, pleading for him to understand her. 

Like a miracle, he stepped down from the door. His one hand clenched his sword as he walked toward her. 

She was a sitting duck. She wouldn’t make a fuss. She’d go calmly. 

He stopped in front of her, his full height seeming monstrous from where she knelt below him. If someone had to kill her, she was glad it was him. 

His hand reached in front of him, and she wondered if she ever really got a good look at him while she was alive. Probably not. Were his eyes always that calming?

She closed her eyes, waiting for the metal to come down on her neck. 

A warm hand brushed the top of her head, rubbing and patting her hair in a comforting way. 

Tomioka...san?

“Kochou,” he said once more, this time softer and kinder than she’d ever heard his voice before. “I’m glad you’re alive.” 

Her veins pulsed, filled by a deep rage that could no longer be quelled. 

No, no, no . She did not want to be alive. Slice her. Mutilate her. Kill her. 

In an act of pure demonic desire, she let herself go. 

She knocked him down right as he unsheathed his sword. She should have done this from the very beginning. Enough with the niceties, if you want a demon slayer to kill, then you have to present a demon for them to kill. She’d become that demon if that’s what it takes.

She dug her nails into his shoulder and collar. He winced as blood leaked. The smell made her aggravated, and she tried desperately to fight off her craving. 

Muzzling her with the sheath of his sword, he held his sword with his right hand. But in order to fend off Shinobu, he had to support the sheath with both of his hands. 

What’s wrong with you?   She thought. He was stronger than her, so he should be able to knock her off. Does he want her to bite him? Is that what it takes?

Tomioka’s face twisted in an unexplainable manner. He looked as if he were reliving something awful. What was more awful than being inches away from a former comrade turned demon? 

She didn’t want to do this. She never asked to become a demon. She never asked for her family to be killed. No one does. 

Nee-san , she cried, as real tears fell from her eyes. Nee-san

A warm hug embraced her from behind and she could have sworn it was Kanae. 

“Master,” cried the young tsuguko. 

Shinobu’s jaw slackened. 

Tomioka whispered something before using that moment to raise his sword hand up to her neck, hitting her with the handle end. Her vision faded as she fell atop him unconscious.

***

Giyuu took deep breaths. One hand wrapped itself around Shinobu and her young tsuguko while the other clenched his sword. His right hand shook as it dropped his sword. 

The two were sprawled on top of him, the young girl having finally caught up to her fast master. He tried to stop Shinobu before she flung herself out into the sun, but when she emerged, she stood absolutely unblemished. It was as if he locked eyes with another Nezuko. 

But then what was that attack? Why did she look so desperate? 

He inhaled. 

If it weren’t for Kanao, he would have killed Shinobu at that moment. 

He was sure it wasn’t the right choice, but something made him draw his sword out when he hadn’t earlier. Could it have been the flashing eyes? The nails that clawed into him like demons before her? 

Or had it been the way she was crying?

Sitting up, Kanao retrieved Shinobu and held her gently in her arms. The Hashira looked so tiny next to her student. 

“Take her inside,” Giyuu instructed. 

The girl glared at him warily. So she had seen him then. 

Hesitantly, she nodded and placed Shinobu on her back, piggybacking her inside to where the other girls of the Butterfly mansion waited worriedly by the corridor. 

Left alone, Giyuu stared down at his sword that laid at his side. He took his sheath, still wet from drool, and slid his sword in. It shut together with a harsh chink.

What was the fate of demons now? Were they all going to become oddities like Nezuko? Would they give up on human flesh? Or would the ability to roam under the sun unleash a new horror for the country? 

The thing currently on everybody’s minds was how they were going to deal with this power vacuum now. It was one thing to deal with Muzan, but now that he was gone, it was possible that somebody would try to claim his spot. Still, it was unlikely they’d ever be as powerful as him, but they couldn’t be too careful. 

But Shinobu…

He hadn’t expected her to become a demon. No one had. If it were up to any one of the other Hashira, he doubted they’d ever desire such a thing. And yet, she had become the very thing they swore to destroy. Is that why? Is that why she was so desperate? Because she wanted to die from the very thought of being a demon? From being alive?

His grip tightened on the tail of his haori. He closed his eyes, as if under a deep, unending slumber. When he awoke, he felt an exhaustion more draining than anything in his life. The closest contenders were probably when Sabito and his older sister died at the hands of demons. He fell into a deep chasm during then, and he wanted to dive even deeper right now. But he had made that mistake once and suffered more because of it. 

He placed a palm on his chest, feeling the regular beat of his heart. It was that of a human’s. He was alive. 

And so was Shinobu.

Chapter Text

“What the fuck do you mean you let her live?” Sanemi’s eyes bulged out his sockets as he forcibly shoved the Water Hashira away. Giyuu stumbled. “She makes a fucking swipe at you, and you let her go? Tell me, did you lose your mind somewhere against Muzan? Huh?! ” Sanemi grabbed a fistful of Giyuu’s collar, ready to throw a punch if he so much as breathed wrong.

The remaining Hashiras sat in a large, tatami mat room provided by Himejima’s estate. Because the previous Oyakata’s residence had been detonated in order to catch Muzan off guard, the new, young master Kiriya and his two remaining sisters accepted Himejima’s kind offer to find their footing there. Until all the demons--this whole mess--and more could be sorted out. And then there was the pressing issue of Shinobu turning into a demon.

Himejima separated the two, placing a bandaged hand on Sanemi’s chest. The latter was also considerably injured and still recovering, but it wouldn’t take much to aggravate him in his state of mind for him to stab his sword through Giyuu’s eye. If he was going to turn a blind eye to something as dangerous as a former pillar-turned demon, then he might as well make the description match. 

“Calm down,” said Himejima. “The both of you.” 

“I’m calm,” Giyuu said. He straightened his clothes. Sanemi glared pincers down at him. 

“Shinazugawa, I know you’re upset about Genya, but-”

“Lay off, Himejima,” he shouted. His back shuddered violently. 

Giyuu blinked. He thought he had heard something from one of the others, but seeing Sanemi react so extremely, he supposed that really was what happened. Suddenly, a lump form in his throat. 

“Shinazugawa, I’m sorry about your brother-”

“Don’t,” he said, his voice dropping to a threatening bass. “You don’t get to say anything about my brother.” Stalking to the opposite side of the room, he took a seat away from everybody--Kanroji, Iguro, Himejima, and Giyuu--and squat cross legged. He jerked his chin, facing the wall. 

Gazing downward, Giyuu realized what he said was insensitive. He didn’t have a right to say anything. Nothing offered would have been right. And Himejima…

He’d heard about how Muichirou sacrificed his life so they could defeat the Upper Rank One demon. Everybody, each and every one of them, fought valiantly until the end. But it wasn’t enough.

Sliding the doors open, the two white haired daughters of the deceased Ubayashiki Kagaya slipped in. The twins, Kanata and Kuina, bowed as the young master Kiriya walked slowly in. 

Without wasting a second, all of the pillars bowed from where they were, even the heartbroken Sanemi. Though, all of them were reluctant. 

It was a hard thing to process considering they lost so many lives--not just the Hashira, but the lower-ranked demon slayers as well. It wasn’t only Upper Ranks they fought against. Even the former Oyakata-sama gave his and his family’s lives up in order to subdue Muzan. 

“Kiriya-sama,” Himejima said. 

It felt odd to hear Himejima be the one to give the greeting. When Giyuu thought about it, it was always the more extroverted pillars that did the greeting. Rengoku loved the previous master; Muichirou respected him. Uzui was always “flamboyantly” late, so he never had the chance to greet him. Of course, Kanroji and Sanemi adored the master, but looking at Sanemi… 

His eyes were bloodshot and his veins pulsed angrily across his neck and features. He was in no physical or mental condition to even be up. But was Giyuu any person to pass that kind of judgment?

Still, there was a sense of lost hierarchy now that the goal of killing Muzan had been accomplished, and the explosive passing of the former master left the transition feeling awkward. It was evident in how Himejima hesitantly addressed the young child as “Kiriya-sama” instead of “Oyakata-sama.” How were they supposed to instantly replace that in their minds?

Kiriya allowed everyone to be at ease. As he sat on a soft, purple cushion, so did everybody sit kneeling before him. 

“I thank you for all you’ve done. Putting your lives on the line-” Sanemi hardened his gaze “-and sacrificing a great deal in order to subdue our longterm foe and source of all evil, Kibutsuji Muzan. If my father were here, he would be proud of you all.” 

It was strange. Hardly any of them have met or even interacted with Kiriya, but for such a young boy, he demonstrated a remarkable display of maturity. In fact, he was raised as such, due to the short lifespans of males in the Ubayashiki clan. Though all of this was hidden by the fact that underneath the confident and eloquent exterior, his sisters and he were mourning their family’s deaths. 

“However, even with Kibutsuji Muzan defeated, demons continue to prowl these lands. They are probably even more dangerous than before, since their leader and source of restriction has been taken out. According to our sources, Kibutsuji’s existence was the reason why demons were unable to band together. Now that he’s gone, we may see more devastation than before.” 

Kanroji gasped. 

“Which is why-” Everybody stiffened as Kiriya bowed his head low to the floor “-I implore you to continue fighting. This is a selfish and unreasonable request, but please, I beg of you. Be the light that extinguishes the remaining shadows.” 

“Kiriya-sama,” Himejima mumbled. Tears trickled like rivers from his eyes as he rubbed his beads together. He dropped his head together in prayer. 

They were all injured or debilitated in some way, but all of them had a reason to continue fighting demons. To see the job through to the end. None of them signed onto this lifestyle so half-heartedly that they’d back out before they saw the summit.

“And?” Sanemi asked gruffly, after Kiriya lifted his head. “We gonna ignore the elephant in the room?” 

Himejima lowered his beads. Kanroji sucked in a breath. Giyuu bore holes into Sanemi’s head. The latter didn’t care at all and just snarled. 

“Kochou’s been turned into a demon. Not only that, but a demon with an Upper Rank’s blood. She attacked Tomioka under the sunlight. She’s immune just like that other brat but with the corroded mind of a demon’s. We just gonna let that go?”

Giyuu was quick to defend this time. 

“I told you, Kochou’s not a threat. She-”

“Then what are those punctures in your haori, huh?! You can’t hide the bandages underneath your shirt, you know. We can still see the blood. I don’t really care what happens to you, but if she’s a danger to humans, then we should just off her now.”

“A similar instance happened with Tanjirou’s sister. But like her, she was able to hold back-”

“You had to knock her out. It’s all in your imagination. You’re deluding yourself into thinking that.” 

“She is our comrade.” 

“She’s a demon.” 

“You’re intent on killing a friend.” 

“It’s called a ‘mercy.’”

“It’s murder.” 

The two were once again at each other’s throats, but this time, Giyuu reciprocated the stranglehold on the other’s collar. He hadn’t even meant to call Shinobu a friend. In all their interactions, he could never bring himself to consider her as anything such and neither could the other, based on her blunt statement at Mount Natagumo. He considered himself level-headed and calm, so what reason could Sanemi possibly see for deluding himself? His heart burned.

“Kochou may be a demon, but the same could be said about…” 

“Huh?” Sanemi snarled at Giyuu, clenching his fistful of fabric tighter. 

Giyuu didn’t want to finish that statement. He knew he started the sentence, but even he wasn’t inept enough to realize a sentiment called tact. But Sanemi was brighter than he gave him credit for. 

“You fucker ,” he breathed, realizing the intent with which Giyuu began that sentence. 

“Sanemi!” 

Giyuu felt the hard impact from the floor before he felt the painful swell of his cheek.

Himejima lifted the wind pillar by the waist, the man howling and kicking at air. 

“Let me go, Himejima! I need to pummel that shitty face of his in.”

“You already have,” Himejima said, raising the man higher into the air. Sanemi’s sword clattered from his waist belt to the ground. 

“It’s not enough!” 

Kanroji helped Giyuu stand, a gesture he once longed for in his distant past. Now he only appreciated the thought from the kind Love Pillar. 

Iguro was slow to snap, but when he did, his was a poisonous seepage.

“Demon or not, if Kochou becomes a threat, we should kill her now before something else happens. Who knows, if she doesn’t end up like that brat’s sister, she could become another Muzan.”

Kanroji flailed her arms frantically before covering her hot cheeks. “N-n-no way! Do we really have to kill Shinobu-chan?” 

Iguro hid his face behind his sleeve. He didn’t respond. 

Himejima was a voice of reason. “For the time being, Shinobu’s been contained under the Butterfly Mansion with Tamayo-san by her side. I think all we can do for now is wait to see what happens.” 

Sanemi retorted. “Yeah, and what if you see her and she’s itching to take a bite outta you, Himejima?” 

“Kiriya-sama?” Himejima looked to the new master for his opinion.

Giyuu likewise waited patiently, the area around his left cheek starting to swell purple. The pain was slowly becoming numbing. 

Of course it was a difficult thing to navigate. If Kiriya’s father were there, he was sure he’d be able to come up with an answer that would smother any complaints and soothe those whose hearts ached the most. But he wasn’t his father. And he would never get to have another moment with him, absorbing his teachings and strict rules while he followed adoringly in his footsteps. In his decision, Kiriya was absolutely alone. 

A former-Hashira turned-demon. To put down or not. What kind of an outcome can he expect from the Tamayo-sama that his father placed his trust in?

Firming his resolve to take on the legacy his father left behind, Kiriya announced his verdict.

***

The room was dark and poorly lit by the orange glow of several candles. It was a space she once used as a place to contain demons to interrogate and experiment, but the practice had more drawbacks than benefits, so Shinobu stopped. Still, it was how she was able to concoct poisons she knew with certainty were lethal enough to kill a demon. But after the first few, there was no more real use. That, and the others often worried about her when she holed herself up in this tiny room for nights on end. It was especially bad after her sister died. 

It then became a storage room to hold medicines and other miscellaneous boxes. Now, the awful room provided a natural place to contain her.

“How do you feel?” The companionship of another voice shocked her, but it was soothing somehow--calming. The timbre was vaguely familiar and she soon recognized it as the demon doctor’s voice--the same one she was resistant to working with when Oyakata-sama introduced her.

“Why am I still here?” Shinobu asked, her tone acrid.

Tamayo’s lavender eyes softened slightly.

Sitting up in bed, Shinobu noticed the room had been cleared out. Only the dust outlining the shapes of boxes were left to indicate they’d been there in the first place. But it was done in a hurry. Likely to put her in a place where she couldn’t escape. Or hurt anyone.

Somehow, that thought alone made her feel heavy. Ever since she woke up in this body, she knew she was dangerous and had to be put down, but they still gave her the opportunity to wake up in a bed above the surface in a place where she lived her life as a human and considered herself human. It was that trust in her, in initially placing her up where everybody roamed, that she felt she broke when she pushed Kanao away. But she had to. She didn’t know what would happen if she had remained there. If the cravings would consume her, or if something else would take over her.

Hmm? Cravings?

She patted herself, then reached for her throat. 

Tamayo clicked open a small, wooden box and set her medical instruments inside, shutting it. 

“Nezuko-san was generous enough to donate more blood. Forgive me, but I took the liberty of injecting you with some of it. I’m glad it was compatible.” 

She’d heard from Kanao that Tanjirou’s sister had remained a demon, but she hadn’t known what Nezuko’s blood could do . The dreadful parch that caused swallowing to feel like sand and needles was gone. She didn’t even feel any desire at all for human flesh--a stark contrast from her eruption earlier. 

Still , she thought as she clenched the sterile, white bed sheets. She was still a demon, through and through. There was no changing that.

Placing her hands neatly in her lap, Tamayo spoke softly. “Tanjirou-san was worried. That young girl of yours, as well. You have many people out there that care a great deal for you.” 

Shinobu couldn’t help but sound ungrateful. “And? Am I supposed to say thank you for saving my life? What has happened to me is a sentence worse than death.” 

Tamayo’s voice was sharp. “If that is meant to be an attack, I have my pride as a demon who lives as a doctor among humans.” Then she quieted, her shoulders relaxing. “But if that is truly what you believe, then that is something to bring up first with those that walk upstairs.”

The lights flickered. A draft from one of the cracks in the paneling must have touched one of the candles. Every so often, they’d hear a creek from the ceiling, indicating that someone was walking above them. That someone was living above them. 

“I’ve heard about what you do. Asking dying people if they’d rather live as a demon. That’s quite a crude deal,” said Shinobu. She could still feel Douma puncture his arm through her side. Though no mark remained, the pain was so intense that it remained vivid in her memory. She shivered. 

“Yes, it’s proposed only under unfortunate circumstances, but if they believe life to be worth living--even as a demon--I would like them to make that decision for themselves.”

“How saint-like.” 

“And we are both doctors, so you must know.” Tamayo sniffed once as she turned her head away from Shinobu. Even after so much time had elapsed, Shinobu could also smell it. The things she performed on those squirming demons. Tamayo must have realized as soon as she entered this room. Still, she didn’t say a thing about it and just kept her head down. Her soothing voice was filled with such wretched pity and sympathy that Shinobu wanted to puke. “Sometimes we do what we must to save those that need it.” 

Chapter Text

Tanjirou and Kanao rushed up to her when she climbed up the steps to the surface. Sunlight streamed in through the cracks in the corridor, and while it bothered her eyes after getting used to the dark for so long, their smiles brought some bit of comfort to her desolate heart. A part of her lifted when she saw her tsuguko again. She smiled.

“Shinobu-san!” 

“Master!” 

Tamayo had left her later that night along with her boy, Yushiro. She gave no indication for where they would go, and Shinobu did not bother asking. She didn’t doubt that’d be the last time she’d see them. Somehow, slayers and demons always found a way to meet in the middle. 

When the days retreated into sunset five nights in a row, she was finally given the okay from the Oyakata’s family to be released. 

That’s right, she thought. Kiriya’s the head now. That was another loss she hated the demons for. 

Rubbing Kanao’s head affectionately, she smiled. 

“My, don’t look so glum,” she said. When was it that she started speaking with that high soprano voice? When was it that she started easily slipping into that placid smile? “I’m not a frail old woman yet.” 

Tanjirou stiffened slightly. Kanao looked down, nervously rubbing her fingers.

Oh? What did she say? 

“Move, move, move! Boar comin’ through!” A cloud of dust trailed the bulldozing train known as Inosuke. Atop his shoulders was a tiny Nezuko.

“Cut it out, you idiot!” Zenitsu struggled to catch up behind him. “Slow down!”

Hyaha! The master of this place stops for nobody! I am-” He stumbled, dropping tiny Nezuko to the ground. Growing several feet in height, she lightly hit him on the bicep. 

“Some master ,” Zenitsu said, “You just stopped-”

“Shinobu?” Inosuke said, his voice a small question, but it was more like a reaffirmation for himself. His body quivered. “You’re okay?” 

She was surprised to hear the slight whimper in his voice. Thinking back, she never really knew him to care for her at all, much less remember her name. Closing her eyes, she smiled. 

“Ha…” Inosuke’s arms shook. He took a deep breath and he bowed his head for a moment before rebounding back up, loud as ever. “Haha! I figured! No way was this angry, lil bitch croaking. But hey! I beat that bastard even you couldn’t take down! That makes me better than you now.” 

“How strong,” she said, murmuring. It really was astonishing. Poison aside, the boar-bearing boy had never made a good impression on her. She was shocked, to say the least, when she found out. “And?” 

“And what?” Inosuke puffed out his chest, arms on his hips. 

“Have they made you a Pillar yet?” 

“A wha?”

“A Pillar. If you’re so strong, have they done that yet?” 

He snorted puffs out of his boar nose, his shoulders rising. “Wha- I don’t need that! They’re just wankers sitting on their asses.”

Shinobu frowned. They were already down three pillars since the last Hashira meeting with the previous master. Well--four now counting her. Was the state of the corps so bad that they couldn’t find replacements for all of them? 

But looking at the children in front of her, she doubted that strength was an issue. 

Raising a hand to Kanao’s face, she rubbed the spot directly underneath her left eye. It was a duller color than her right eye. How had she not noticed this before?

Responding back to Inosuke, she said teasingly, “Well, how strong are you really if you haven’t even been made a Pillar yet?” 

Pointing at her, he shouted. “Fine! I’ll take all the Pillars down and be the king of ‘em all!” 

Zenitsu slumped. “Hold on, that’s not how it works. Are you an idiot? You’re really an idiot.” 

“If you do that, I’ll think you’re super strong.” 

“Then I’ll beat their asses and you’ll see!”

Suddenly, though Shinobu hadn’t really registered her presence before, Nezuko walked up to her. Her back arched straight, and she stood taller than Shinobu--what with her short stature. No muzzle bound her, and though she still had that childish twinkle in her demonic, pink eyes, there was something different about her. Shinobu couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Shinobu-san,” she said, taking the former Insect Pillar’s right hand. She smiled a fanged smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.” 

It took everything out of Shinobu not to swat the girl’s hand away. She’d already made peace with the fact she accepted Nezuko, but seeing this kind of intelligence--this human trait of benevolence and sincerity--shook her. It was so different than before. Was she herself the same as Nezuko? Did they look at her and feel the same kind of horror she felt for the girl? No, their reactions revealed nothing of the sort. They were just...really, truly good people. They were like her sister. 

Nodding, she thanked the Kamado girl, Inosuke, Zenitsu, and everybody for their concern. She asked to be left alone with her tsuguko so that she could talk over some things relating to the Pillars. If they stuck around, she’d see them later when the time allowed it. 

To Tanjirou before he left with the others, she said quietly, “Thank Nezuko for me.” 

Somehow, even though she wanted to mean that thanks from the very bottom of her heart, she knew it was false. As Tanjirou nodded, she felt bad that she had to use him as the grapevine to his sister, who really didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. But any kind of deceitful ignorance was better than the truth she shoved deep into the trenches of her heart. 

The girl would just have to make do with this tiny peace offering.

***

After her meeting with the new head of the Ubayashiki family, she was quaking with seething anger. 

The entire time, she had been accompanied by Himejima and Mitsuri. While they sat behind her, Shinazugawa sat arms crossed behind Kiriya in front of her. If she were more ignorant, she wouldn’t have noticed the deadly glare he bore into her skull in seeing her alive as a demon. Instead, she plowed through it and the consensus that Kiriya made as the new head. 

For the time being, she would be monitored by one of the pillars, if not a high-ranking corps member. If nothing happened in the subsequent weeks, she would be allowed complete freedom and protection from them just as they offered to Kamado Nezuko and Tamayo. Though she never felt this as a human, and while the circumstances were nearly identical except with a human baby monitor, she now felt entirely humiliated. Of course they were wary of her after her actions against Tomioka, and of course they should be concerned about her, but after having been injected with Nezuko’s blood by Tamayo...she felt numb. 

It was a rude awakening. In her current state, she no longer believed she could be a danger to anybody. Even those rampant flashes of a dark haired man had faded. She didn’t feel any thirst or hunger for humans--all that was left was a deep, deep and twisted loathing for the thing she’d become. And no amount of outside protection would help her mind.

So even as she bowed to Kiriya, even as she walked out the room accompanied by Himejima and Mitsuri, even as Shinazugawa glared at her with red nerved eyes, even as her hands clenched tightly enough to leave painful impressions in her skin, she could only feel a pitiful and treacherous anger. 

But honestly, she wasn’t really sure why anymore. 

***

Tanjirou poked at his elder brother disciple as Giyuu blinked. The water pillar looked down from where he sat on the tall wooden fence of his dojo and then to his side. When had Tanjirou gotten there?

“Giyuu-san, are you alright?”

Nodding, Giyuu put Tanjirou’s hand down. He slumped in his spot as he dazed out at the trees. He’d been sitting out there since morning just thinking. Well, mostly blank thoughts came to him, but having a blank state of mind was good every once in a while. It pushed the other thoughts away. 

The bruise where Sanemi had punched him was already starting to fade away. What had initially been a deep purple swell on his right cheek was now a faded pinkish color, splotching here and there. The swelling had gone down considerably, too. 

Still, he couldn’t blame Sanemi. What he said was irredeemable. The sound of a loved one’s name so soon after...Well, it breaks some people. Especially when said by the wrong person. 

Shinobu was right. He was disliked. 

“Hey, Giyuu-san,” Tanjirou said. Giyuu lifted his gaze. “I saw Shinobu-san earlier. She looked well. Spitfiring at Inosuke and talking with Kanao. Have you visited her yet?” 

His eyes widened and his shoulders relaxed. So Shinobu was alright. That was good. He was glad. Ever since that day when his hand was nearly forced to kill her for attacking him, he’d been concerned. But still…

“I won’t visit her,” he said. 

Tanjirou wrinkled his forehead with concern. “Why not?” 

Why not? Well he didn’t really have a right. He wasn’t even sure what he was doing that day in the Butterfly Estate in the first place. Something just forced him to move there that day. And it just so happened that Shinobu was preparing to launch herself into the sunlight to die. If she could stand to see him after that, he would have been relieved, but something would have gnawed at him as well. 

“She doesn’t like me,” he said after a while of thinking. 

Tanjirou laughed. “Do you really think that?”

Giyuu scrunched his nose. Why was he laughing? It was a real concern of his. She spelled it out very clearly back on Mount Natagumo that she, and everybody else, didn’t like him. Though, looking down at Tanjirou’s bright eyed expression, he knew now that there was at least somebody who would be reasonably upset if he ever died. The thought comforted him.

“Kochou has enough to worry about. I won’t get in the way by going.”

Tanjirou sniffed once. He tilted his head, staring at Giyuu. “Are you sad?” 

Hmm? 

“It’s weird. Both you and Shinobu-san always have this unique scent to you. In your case, you always smell really sad. It’s kind of a murky, watery scent.”

How strange. He’d never been told that before. Or asked. Not even after his elder sister die did anybody ask him if he was sad. It’s more of an assumed state of being once you lose your family member, so people don’t take the time to bother assessing further. And when he lost Sabito, he could only curl up in a ball in a dark corner of the room as Urokodaki checked in on him every once and awhile. He didn’t blame him, though. At night, when he was supposed to be sleeping, he’d catch a peek out of the door as his master sat cross legged stoking the fire. Though he was an old man, he had a broad back. But it was in those poorly lit, overly warm nights that he saw that back fade into obscurity as tears flowed freely behind his mask, painting the wooden tiles. When he left early the morning he received his nichirin sword, he noticed the dried tears on the wood floor kind of looked like a crying face. He said barely anything as his master wordlessly saw him off. 

“I don’t know,” he said, truthfully telling Tanjirou. “If you say I’m sad, then I might be.” 

“Giyuu-san, it doesn’t work like that.” 

Though he was a little disheartened when he thought about Shinobu. He hadn’t realized the weight of everything he felt until after he rediscovered her transformed as a demon in the early dusk morning after they defeated Muzan. When he heard about her death, all he could think about was getting Tanjirou out alive; and after the Upper Rank 3 was killed, he only thought about their next obstacle. But what had he felt besides the surprising relief when he saw that she was alive? Did he feel dread that she became a demon? Perhaps a little, but that was quickly subsided by seeing the regular lifts in her chest. The only thing that disturbed him was the fact that she would feel that dread. 

And upon her realization, would she have found life as a demon even worth living?

He hoped. 

Chapter Text

Shinobu watched as the black linen she donned for years curled up and sputtered as flames licked it. The fire ate at the cloth slowly, warming up to the pleasure of new taste after endless dried up logs, and eventually tore at it until the afterbelly saliva of ash fluttered out of the pyre and landed on Shinobu’s cheek. 

A solemn breath rose in her chest as the orange and yellow contrasted starkly against the pitch-black of night. Hardly any stars were there to witness the sight, and if not for the hovering observer Himejima, she’d have been completely alone. 

The white calligraphy on the black uniform was the last to be absorbed by the flames. 

Kill , it read as its edges frayed by flame. It was the absolute word both demon and slayer shared. After a demon killed, there was no going back; after a slayer killed, they could only march forward. 

She didn’t smile; she didn’t frown. She didn’t think of the ones she’d lost or the ones she’d put to rest. Instead, there was only a religious, almost-poetic kind of emptiness lodged in her side--the side that…

Resting a hand on her left abdomen, she shivered. The breeze was picking up tonight. And it carried the last dying embers of who she once was. 

***

Giyuu didn’t really want to return to the Butterfly Estate. Ever since that day when Shinobu flung herself into the sun, he’d been avoiding the place like fire jugglers at a circus. Even with Tanjirou’s insistence, he didn’t think he was wanted. He didn’t have a place there, or anywhere for that matter. But there in particular. 

Yet, somehow when he woke up early that morning in his dojo, he felt a magnetic force bring him there, just like it did that day. And so he pulled on his token haori, slipped into his sandals, and slid the door open. But by the time he got to the estate, he couldn’t bring himself to open the door. 

What was he doing? Standing there, in front of the large gates, he felt like an idiot. He should have just stayed back, waiting for the crows to whisk him away to farther lands. Instead, he went back and forth in his mind, eyes staring confidently forward to shamefully looking at his feet like a quacked rocking bamboo fountain. 

“Why are we just staying here?” 

Giyuu’s ears perked up. They followed the soft, restrained voice and recognized it to be her. She was there, on the opposite side of the closed door.

“The crows have been coming nonstop. Are you planning on ignoring Kiriya-sama’s requests?” Even masked under sweetness, there was a poison to Shinobu’s words. 

“Ah,” said a low voice. It was Himejima. “Do not worry. They are nothing.” 

“I find it hard to believe they’d keep one of their Hashira from going out and killing off the last of the demons now that Muzan’s gone.” 

“Everybody is working their hardest. The demons have no chance.” 

“Really? Then it should be made even easier if the two of us went out and helped,” she said. “Your injuries have healed, and I don’t see a reason for you to babysit me like a child.” 

“I am not a babysitter, Shinobu.” The part where he said her name he spoke gently, as if patting her on the head like a younger sister. “But we will not go.” 

“Is it because of Kiriya-sama’s orders?” There was some bite to her words then. “Or is it because of your own personal feelings? Are you ashamed?” 

“Shinobu?” 

Her voice dropped to a startling low, and Giyuu had to focus hard to hear what she had to say. 

“We begged you to let us become demon hunters. After our parents died, there was no other path for us. And though reluctantly, you gave us the foundations for that path. I think you regretted it when Nee-san died. And you’re ashamed that I am what I am now.”

There was a break in the conversation--a devastatingly long silence hung suspended. Giyuu couldn’t blame Himejima, though. Even as an outside party who had no right to be listening in on this conversation, he couldn’t find the words to respond.

“I am concerned for you,” he said at last. 

“So that really is it, huh? You regret letting me on this path.” It was a bare whisper, and the awe of it combined with a raw tone of grief caused Giyuu to suspect that she partly wished it hadn’t been true. “I refuse to be confined like this under someone else’s microscope. Smother me me if you want, but I’m not just going to sit around and wait for every last demon to be exterminated. I have my own pride as well.” 

Feeling that the conversation had ended, Giyuu hopped above the fence to a high-reaching branch. He stayed in the shadows but watched as Shinobu stalked off from Himejima, who stood still as a rock by the front entrance. He still wasn’t sure why they were talking there in the first place. 

As he watched Shinobu, he realized she didn’t wear her standard uniform with her butterfly haori, nor did she wear the white linens of the patients they took in at the estate; what she wore instead was a maple-leaf, marigold colored kimono with her hair loose on her shoulders, the trademark butterfly pin nowhere to be found. She looked so small, so girlish in her clothes. She looked...like a normal girl. 

This wasn’t a good time, he thought. Well, no time was ever good to plop in and greet the person you were nearly forced to kill. But, even so, he couldn’t find it within himself to try and inject himself into the situation. Whatever magnetic pull had drawn him before was drastically fading in power until it diminished to a faint pulse. 

It was like a muffled heartbeat. 

Ba-dump. Ba-dump.  

It was a little lonely coming all this way only to see himself out before even letting himself in.

Ba-dump. Ba-dump .

The beat was so quiet. 

“Tomioka?” Himejima’s deep voice called out to him from under the gate’s roof.

Giyuu appeared atop the wall of the gate in the next second, gazing down at the large man. 

Himejima rubbed his beads, his eyes shadowed by something Giyuu could not make out. Tears flowed just as they always did--a clear path down the cheeks and falling off at the precipice. 

“Thank you for sparing Kochou,” he said, a grave and pained voice hiding in its undertones. 

Giyuu frowned, staring at the buddhist. What had he ever done to spare Kochou? He made him sound like a saint when all he did was put his blade down. Even if he had wanted to kill her, there was something within him that physically pulled his arm back. The tears, the desperateness, the pain--he could see it clearly even now. No sparing had been involved. He just couldn’t do it.

Ba-dump. Ba-dump.  

It was a quiet hum now. 

He should have never come back. Tanjirou was wrong--there was nothing to welcome him here. He shouldn’t expect to suddenly play niceties. An overwhelming sense of inferiority consumed him whenever he was near these people--he simply couldn’t match up to them. So why would they ever bend down to his level? And he would never be able to reach theirs.

“Namu amida butsu,” Himejima prayed. It was the last thing Giyuu heard before he disappeared from sight, sprinting back to the place he should have never left. 

***

Shinobu noticed Tomioka’s presence the minute he took off, but she didn’t care. She didn’t really want to think about why he showed up or why he left so suddenly. Though the prickling thought of the day she dove into the sun grazed the back of her mind, all she wanted right now was something to hit. Maybe punch around a little. 

Stalking to the back garden farthest from the gate, she stomped up to a maple tree and struck it once with her small, tightly clenched fist. A shudder of leaves immediately fell down. 

Huh?

Where her fist connected with the tree was a medium-sized indent, yellowed and creviced from the bark sinking in. Some of the leaves, the fall orange and brown colored ornaments, fell atop her head. She picked one up from her shoulder. The veins that stretched to the tips of the leaf had already been dried out, as if death had already come and all it was waiting for was a sudden shake to completely break away from its origin. She stared hard at the leaf. It was the same color as her kimono. 

Flicking the leaf to the ground, she crunched it underneath her sandals, stepping atop it as she moved away from the evidence of the mess she made. She’d have to send Sumi or Naho to rake it up later. 

Aoi was running around the house, taking care of the patients left over from last month’s final barrage on Muzan. Few of them remained and most had recovered enough where they could return home--if they had a home to return to in the first place. The rest scattered under orders from Kiriya to extinguish the last of the demons’ breaths.

She halted in front of the steps leading to the backrooms of the estate. 

Kanao had left, too. 

Her tsuguko had been whisked away to the eastern regions of Japan, to the inner city. She wondered how her younger adoptive sister would do. The last time she’d been to a densely-populated area like that was when the two had gone together. Even then, she worried about Kanao. 

She wondered where Tanjirou and the others would be now. 

Or what the other Pillars beside Himejima were up to. 

In any case, she couldn’t just sit around like this. If she was cursed to live forever, she would at least make the best efforts of it while everyone else was still alive. 

Her bottom lip twitched. A loose breath escaped out her nose. Forever… huh? 

A portrait of Kanae smiling, her parents’ arms outstretched as they waited for her to cross over and meet them, flickered in her mind. She shook her head--it wasn’t her time. It would never be her time.

Chapter Text

She felt the hardened gaze drill into the back of her head, twisting and digging itself deeper, so much so that it burned. She didn’t need to turn around to know that Shinazugawa was glaring at her, the heat of pure hatred practically radiating off of him. In their past, the two had never had much interaction. Kanae mentioned him a few times in passing around the time he was made a Hashira, but other than the sight of each other during Pillar meetings, they never bothered to interact. Until today. 

Himejima was requested immediately to a town to the north, the crow having cited its heavy urgency. Initially, he wasn’t planning on leaving Shinobu’s side since he had wanted to watch over her, but when he saw her turn her small back to him in the middle of that empty altar room, he relented. She couldn’t bear it in her to look at him. 

Mitsuri was in the west, while Iguro was to the south. Tomioka’s location was somehow entirely unknown to her. That left Shinazugawa. 

“Oi,” he said, grunting. She was acutely aware of the hand that rested on his sword ever so warily. He wrinkled his nose, pinching disgust. “Shouldn’t you be in a box?”

“Do I look like I’m scorching in the sunlight?” She said, rather poisonously. Tensions had been high since she left the Butterfly Estate. At the manor, Aoi looked troubled and scowled at her older, white haired superior, but said nothing as Shinobu patted her head, smiling as she waved goodbye. I’ll be back soon , she said. 

They walked calmly through a forest path, cutting across the mountain to reach the next town over. There’d been heavy sightings of something unnatural there as people kept turning up missing. Whatever demon lurked there, it obviously was all too happy that the restrictions Muzan kept had disappeared, and it celebrated with a human feast. 

Shinobu was in the front; Shinazugawa in the back. If she so much as lunged one step out of place, she could bet that his hand wouldn’t just be hovering over his sheath. Though she wasn’t really itching to be killed by the man that practically pierced her skull with his dagger glare, she also wouldn’t believe it to be easy should he decide to do so. 

Wearing a simple dark blue kimono, she draped a purple flower-patterned haori atop it. Her former nichirin sword was covered in a cloth bag on her back, bumping into her back from the looseness in regular intervals. Before Kanao left, Shinobu gifted her the haori that she and her elder sister both wore--a token that gets handed down in the Kochou family, she supposed. If only unofficially. Kanao only smiled a small smile before she leaned her head on Shinobu’s shoulder, Shinobu’s arms wrapping ever so gently around the girl’s waist. She prayed she’d be well. 

There were also rumors swirling around in the Ubayashiki household. Rumors, Shinobu thought now, that would be best if they turned out to be untrue.

Lost in her thoughts, she failed to register that a boy child had thrown a moss-made fan at her face. The moist, sticky green plant bunched up on her forehead and slid down ungraciously. Shinazugawa roared as the two boys ran away, giggling. 

“You sure you don’t want that box?” He asked, obviously amused at the situation. Shinobu flicked the slimey plant off of her, making sure to land some on him. 

“My,” she said, straining to hold her temper down. “What precocious little kids. Somebody ought to have taught them better manners.” 

Shinazugawa growled when she got some of the green goo on him. He clicked his tongue as he pushed past her, taking the lead this time. He didn’t really care that they were breaking the formation he made her forcibly follow this entire time; he just didn’t really want to look at her ugly face. 

Wherever they were on the mountain was close to a mountaintop village. Most of the land here lived off selling wood down below in the valley during the day, and trekking up the steep landscape during the evening. There hadn’t been reports near these parts, so they just kept moving, dodging the stray thin branches that cut their vision and sliding down slippery leaves when the mountain started sloping downwards. It was nearing sunset by the time they made it to the village beyond the mountain. 

The orange glow that preceded nighttime calmed Shinobu to a shocking degree. It was always an anxious sensation that consumed her, knowing that she would be facing demons in the dead black of night. The nervous electricity would run up and down her body as the adrenaline at getting closer to Muzan, and keeping others’ lives from falling apart like hers, that kept her flying. But instead, she felt a silent lull wash over her, as if an innate sense told her that this was the time she was safest. Shinobu hated this security. 

They started off by asking the townsmen if they had seen anything suspicious recently--well, more like Shinobu did the asking while Shinazugawa sulked in the background. People thought his scars were terrifying and that the sword on his waist meant he was a ronin. They weren’t wrong on one thing. They should have been deathly afraid of the man. 

One elderly gentleman told her that most of the abductions happened to young couples. They would take a stroll at night and then one--either the male or female--would suddenly disappear. It unnerved the local community and most people were hiding inside their homes. Even as this old man told her this, she noticed how many shops closed up early for the day, despite the use of candles or electrical lighting become more common. 

The old man paused a second, as if hesitating whether or not to say something. She smiled.

The man spoke. “Your eyes are bright,” he said. “The color of chrysanthemums.” 

Hmm?  

She bade him farewell and thanks as he retreated inside his own home. 

“What a shitty place,” Shinazugawa said, arms crossed, as his head tilted overlooking the small little shops and houses on this row. It was a well-established town with an emphasis on mining. It wasn’t large, but it wasn’t small either. Substantial, but quaint. She didn’t see the problem. Still, the white-haired man kicked off the wall he leaned against, jerked his head down, and stalked forward. 

Shinobu followed him, and as they turned a corner down an alleyway leading to the next neighborhood, she looped an arm around his. 

“What the-”
“Shh,” she said, frowning. “I can’t imagine you’re deaf. You heard the man before.” 

He growled, shoving her to the ground. Her hand scraped against the ground as her fingers dug into the dirt.

Don’t touch me,” he said, drawing his sword. He pointed it at her. “I don’t fucking like stickin’ around you and orders or not, I will dice you.”

Shinobu glared at him. Standing up, she brushed the traces of dry dirt from her clothes. Some of it stained her haori, and she rubbed meaninglessly at it. 

“Perhaps if you were the one who met me that day,” she said, grumbling. He raised an eyebrow. 

“Hah?”

But he hadn’t been the one to catch her that day, wrestle her against the floor preventing her from reaching the one thing she thought could kill her. If he’d been the one there, she didn’t doubt that he would have had more steeled nerves and would have been all too happy to do the job. Instead, it had been the dull-eyed Tomioka. And surprisingly, the man looked relieved to see her standing still after throwing herself into the sun. Her heart squeezed. Why?

She ignored Shinazugawa. Instead, they walked once again with Shinazugawa in front and Shinobu in back, about five feet worth of distance to separate them. He obviously didn’t feel like sharing any hospitality, and Shinobu was in no mood to receive any from him. 

At the bridge crossing, Shinazugawa stopped, his sandals thunking against the wood. Shinobu stood on the dry dirt part of the bank. He clenched his fists and took a deep breath, his back rising. 

He turned back around, walking briskly past Shinobu. They took the perimeter around town, forgoing the alleyways and purely sticking to the sides. A group of five or so adult men with lanterns walked down the path from the mountain, serious faces plastered on their expressions. They stiffened when they saw Shinazugawa, eyes narrowing viciously, but quickly relaxed when they saw Shinobu smiling right behind the scowling Hashira. 

As they passed her, the scent grabbed her first. She dug her heels into the dirt but it didn’t help. Falling to her knees, she covered her nose. The smell was absolutely putrid, a rancid bile-like scent that was overwhelming iron in taste. Eyes widening, she coughed into her hand, trying to keep her head from spinning. Saliva pooled in her mouth and she bit her tongue in order to distract herself. 

Those men weren’t the ones, she thought. But they carried the scent with them. She dashed back. She bulldozed through the group of men, catching the front man.

Digging into the lead man’s shoulder, she seethed lowly, “Where did you just come from?” 

He dropped the lantern. “Your eyes…” he said, gasping.

The others backed away slowly, their eyes open wide as they stared mouth gaped. One man had a dagger and tried to hold it steady, but she just grabbed the handle with her left hand and used her right to dig her nails deeply into his wrist, unknowingly drawing blood. 

Where did you just come from?” 

He pointed at the mountain. 

Giving a cursory glance, her grip loosened, and the men took that opportunity to run, dropping the rest of their lanterns and their dagger. 

The mountain , she thought. 

Shinazugawa stalked toward her, twirled her by the shoulder and yanked her collar. 

What the fuck was that?”   

Tendrils of hot air slipped out his nostrils as his eyes splintered red nerves. His pupil had dilated a hundred times until they were mere dots. 

Grabbing one of her wrists with his free hand, he squeezed down hard until she heard a crack. She cried out, pushing him away, but he only held on tighter. 

“Everybody says you’re not like the demons, but here you are,” he said, twisting her arm. He was going to twist it until her elbow broke, she thought. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just slice your neck right now.”

With a sudden impulse for life, she flipped backside up and flung her feet skywards until it connected with his face. She wriggled out of his hold and clumsily backed away, her clothes and hair disheveled. Holding her left arm, the pain still throbbed excruciatingly, but in small, rhythmic waves, she felt the heat slowly dissipate. The bone was mending on its own.

Something sticky coated her left arm and when she looked down, she saw that her right hand nails were dripping with that man’s blood. Her head spun again, but not because of the scent of regular blood this time.

Shinazugawa lifted his head slowly, cackling. Blood dripped from his nose as he smiled maniacally.

“I knew you weren’t different from the other demons,” he said as mirthful satisfaction washed over his expression. “Don’t worry,” he said, unsheathing his sword. “It’ll be quick.”

Shinobu was breathing heavy, erratic breaths. “Shinazugawa-san. We need to head to the mountain.”

As if a gear was switched, his smile faded. 

He didn’t resheath his sword, but he turned around, staring at the mountain in silence. No noise save for the sound of window shutters and moving water was heard. But there was something there, in his steeled gaze forward that made him look like he was trying so hard for something--for an answer. 

“I’ll deal with you later,” he said quietly, leaving her behind, the loudest sound being his running footsteps and her pounding heart.

Shinobu was reeling. Her left arm had repositioned itself back as if he had never twisted it like a corpse doll. Blood still smeared across her skin, and she sprinted for the nearest sight of water. She found a pump on the nearby edge and began scrubbing. 

Get it off. Get it off , she thought, scrubbing until her own skin became chafed. The scent, the blood, the sinking of nail into flesh--why had all of these things felt second nature to her during then? Her mind had blanked as soon as the first whiff of blood from the mountain hit her, and it hadn’t come back to her until Shinazugawa twisted it out of her. Then the scent of his blood…

She stuck her head under the running stream, letting herself drown in the water. 

Was this what it was like to really live as a demon? The scent from the mountain was bearable, as was the man’s blood on her nails, but Shinazugawa was a marechi. Had Nezuko gone through the same during that one conference?

Gasping, she stopped pumping the water. She coughed.

Marechi or not, she was entirely disgusted with herself. The thought of consumption caused her wretch, but because she didn’t eat, she only dry-heaved. 

Where had Shinazugawa gone to? The mountain? Before her mind went dizzy, she meant to tell him something--warn him. 

On wobbly knees, she focused her mind enough to where she could sprint up the landscape. 

***

Sanemi trekked up the muddy mountain, slipping every so often and scraping his forearms. Let it. Let the fucking forest cut him up. His blood would be the thing that drew the demon to him, trip it up, and eventually be the very thing that killed it. 

He stomped on a thin fallen branch, crunching it, snapping it in two. His eyes were filled with deadly rage.

He hated her. He hated her with every last burning ember in his life. He hated that she walked, that she ate, that she breathed, that she lived as a demon while his own... He couldn’t believe the fucking audacity that little snot-nosed brat of the former master had when assigning him to babysitting duty. The girl should have died. If she did, then she wouldn’t have to live with the burning hate of at least one man in this tragic lifetime. 

His fingers tingled. Ducking behind the shelter of a large tree, he peeked out from the side. 

Well, well, well. He considered himself lucky tonight. 

In the clearing nearby a plunging rocky cliff, there was an adult male demon dragging a young boy around the age of thirteen by the ankle. The boy looked to be unconscious, but by the rare lifts in his chest every so often, he was probably still alive. 

Good enough for me , Shinazugawa thought. He cracked a psychotic grin, just itching to slice up that demon. 

Launching himself from his spot behind the tree, he sprinted at hypersonic speed with his blade outstretched. He was hoping to get it in with one fell swoop, but the demon looked up just in time. 

“Oh?” It wondered aloud. Its leg stretched five times its regular length as it swung at Shinazugawa, sending him skidding across the tall grass, leaving a trail of mud marking his passage. 

He was instantly up on his feet, though, and yelled. 

“You little shit! I’m gonna kill you!” 

Activating his seventh form of breath, he tore through the outreaching demon’s limbs and easily sliced through its head. Slowly, the demon began evaporating at its decapitated neck. 

He spat the spit of bile and blood into the grass and wiped his cheek. Damn, his body stung. He must have broken a few ribs in that landing. They never pull their punches, do they?

Looking down at the young boy, he squatted down. The ankle was swollen and it looked like he suffered a few bruises on his collar and face, but he seemed overall fine. Shinazugawa slapped him lightly on the face. 

“Oi,” he said. “Wake up.” 

The boy stirred. 

“Oi,” he repeated, hitting him a little harder. 

His eyes fluttered open. They were a narrow, hard-etched black like Genya’s. Desperately, the boy seized Shinazugawa’s wrist. His voice was a broken plea. 

“My...My brothers…” he said, begging. “My younger brothers…”

Shinazugawa raised an eyebrow. Didn’t the demon only go after young couples? This boy was as young as you could get for that. 

Suddenly, it dawned on him. 

A blood-curdling screech rang behind him, belonging to a female demon that roamed with two other male ones, holding another young boy hostage. Slowly though, the screech slipped into a maniacal crow as her shoulders bounced up and down gleefully. 

“Serves him right for always bossing us around,” she said. 

Something flowed in the air during then, making his vision hazy, his body weighted. It felt like his body were at the bottom of the ocean, tugging, fighting against the weight of billions of gallons of water. 

Shinazugawa didn’t really have the time to react before she was up in his face, ready to swipe. All he could do was try to form a protective shield around the young thirteen year old boy and hope that she didn’t tear through him while he was on the ground defenseless. 

Ah, man , he thought. This was so fucking lame. Something weighed his sword arm down. Was he seriously going to get done in by a demon who wasn’t even an Upper Moon? Was this really the way he was going to meet his family on the other side?

Well, that wouldn’t be too bad, he thought. He could apologize to his mom. To ... 

That wouldn’t be too bad. 

But the nails never came down. Instead, the female demon grunted once and he heard something sticky splatter over the trunk of a nearby tree. 

In a messily tied together kimono and haori, with her hair piece coming loose, Kochou Shinobu’s blood-stained leg shined brightly in the moonlight as she held a tiny five year old boy in her pale arms, her right hand outstretched with her sword glinting under the faint moonlight.

***

Shinobu raced up the mountain as fast as she could—she was surprised by the speed at which she climbed. It was a surreal feeling, being able to see things move at a snail’s pace compared to her. Was this because of the demon blood again? 

By the time she got halfway up the mountain, the thick scent that escaped her nose only hours earlier punched her in the nostrils. She stumbled on some roots but quickly found her footing. Covering her nose, she kept moving. 

It smells like excrement , she thought, but really that was just something she told herself to keep her mind occupied from everything else. She had to continue climbing. She never got a chance to warn Shinazugawa before he left. Her mind had been so dizzy from his blood that she couldn’t focus, but she absolutely needed to warn him. 

“Nii-chan!”

What was that? It was a small, high voice. It belonged to a young boy who was nowhere near puberty and was closer to crawling on all fours. 

“Nii-chan!” 

Against her better judgment, she stooped under a low-hanging branch and swung to land in front of the boy, her eyes like neon in the dark. The boy collapsed backwards on his hands. 

He wore a dark green yukata, and his eyes were wide and dark—as if he’d seen something unnatural. Tears pricked at his eyes as he poured every effort just to sit upright. Somehow, the boy looked familiar to her. He couldn’t have been older than five.

“Young boy,” Shinobu said, bending down. She offered a hand—the hand that she viciously scrubbed the man’s blood from. The scent still lingered. “Are you okay?” She spoke gently, as if she were gaining the trust of a wild lamb. 

Sniffling, the boy continued to gape. 

She pointed at her sword. “I’m a swordswoman, see? I’m here to fight any bad guys. If you’ve seen anybody who looks suspicious, please tell me.” 

And at that, his eyes began clearing up. He began bawling. “My big brother, he got taken by them. We were just with Shizu-chan, but… I was with my other brother, but he… he chased after them and…”

Shinobu frowned. She asked him, “Did they get taken?” 

He nodded, diving into her kimono, clutching at fistfuls of cloth. He really was too young. He should have been a happy little child; instead, he may have just suffered the loss of two brothers tonight. Pushing him slightly back, she said, 

“Don’t worry, alright? Onee-san will save them.” Somehow, the words felt like something Kanae would say. “You wait here,” she said. “I’ll be back.” 

But she didn’t get a chance to take so much as a step before a demon grabbed her by the face from behind. Swiftly, she unsheathed her sword and stabbed it between her armpit. It faltered back a few steps before its presence completely disappeared. 

Raising a protective arm in front of the young boy, she surveyed her surroundings. A demon was able to sneak up on her and she wasn’t able to sense it. How? And then it completely vanished. Was it invisible? 

A voice resounded around them. 

Anee should have grabbed all of them. What was she thinking?”

“What a heartwarming reception,” she said, smiling poisonously. “I had no idea mountain villagers were so violent.” 

“Aren’t you also one of us? Get your own turf.” 

Her blood boiled. It dared to insinuate that she was one of them . Her fingers prickled and she was itching to gut it, make it look her in the eye and ask if she was really one of them. She just needed a clear shot. But where was it? 

The boy huddled closer into her back. The area where he leaned into her felt warm and wet--tears. He must have been so terrified. 

Its claws reached the area where she squatted low to the ground, and she instinctively lunged back, lifting the young boy up and cradled him in her arms. The forest was so dark, and even with enhanced vision, she couldn’t see a thing. Dammit. Did it really possess the power of invisibility? Like this, she was just a sitting duck. She squeezed the boy tightly to her. What was she supposed to do? She still had to get to Shinazugawa. If she didn’t do that, then she—If she didn’t get to the boy’s brothers, then she-

Shinobu, she heard. What? Breathe.

Instantly, she calmed down. Inhaling deep breaths, she took a position. She had to listen for the rustles, smell the lingering scents attached to the demon, and feel the presence of it nearby. 

It slashed her leg, tearing her kimono. It left a deep gash in her hair, knocking her hair piece loose. It sliced down her back, leaving a trail of blood. Every injury left her screaming inside, and she covered the young boy’s eyes as he huddled ever closer despite the pain her tight grip brought him. 

On the fourth and final attack, she opened her bright chrysanthemum eyes and launched her pincer attack. 

Dance of the Butterflies: Frolic.”

It scratched her right cheek before it collapsed next to her. She looked down disgustedly at it. That wasn’t even that large of a dose. 

Breathing heavily, a wave of drowsiness hit her. She stumbled a bit, using her sword as a support pillar. Her hair was disheveled, and her wounds hurt like hell but she could feel them slowly regenerating. Gazing down at the dark, teary eyes of the young boy, she smiled. 

“Now let’s go, shall we?”

She needed to find Shinazugawa fast. Demon slayers were accustomed to fighting one demon at a time. She’d been lucky this time. And the restrictions Muzan placed on them while he was alive may have been a small blessing within a curse. But now… what happens when demons band together?

***

Standing in front of Shinazugawa, she smiled at the other demons, taunting them. The young female demon’s head had been kicked away into a nearby tree and splattered, though she was still energetic enough to shout and spit. 

“Shinazugawa-san,” she said, letting down the young boy. He ran to his eldest brother’s side, the two crying. “You weren’t planning on dying just now, were you?” 

He snarled at her. “ Hah?” She wondered if he really had a sensible vocabulary deep in his meat-head. Shakily standing up, he poked the blunt end of his sword at her. “Don’t talk crap at me.” 

“My, is that how you heard it?” 

Glaring, she furrowed her eyebrows at the line of demons. Two male, one female whose head was lodged in an oak. The taller male was holding another boy. He didn’t look to be responsive. She bit her lip. There was another presence here—something in the air smelled foul and it wasn’t just the presence of these three together. 

Surveying Shinazugawa, she realized his eyes were blurred and his stance wobbly. She tried hard not to breathe around him since his open wounds were known to be more than just a little dizzying, but it was only when she took a breath that she realized. The scent of his marechi blood wasn’t affecting her.

“Shinazugawa-san, cover up your wounds. There appears to be another demon here capable of converting the scent of blood back on humans. Quickly.” 

Within seconds of her saying that, the two male demons leapt at her, bearing down the weight of their claws. She was able to protect Shinazugawa and the two kids by parrying with her sword, but she could only do much against two tag-teaming demons while they hid behind her.

She narrowed her eyes. The third brother hung limp unconsciously behind the second demon male’s back. Noticing her attention, he grinned. He flexed the knobs of his fingers and slashed. 

Jumping out of the way while yanking the oldest brother, she narrowly dodged a sudden slash of wind cutting through the grass. When she touched the ground, she was swallowed into the dirt. 

 

Sanemi stared, eyes twitching, at the spot where Kochou just disappeared. It looked as if the ground had literally opened a hole right as she landed and gobbled her. Where the hell did she go?

The wind cutting demon cackled; Sanemi was barely able to see him through his fuzzy vision. He felt like he was teetering on the balls of his feet, barely able to keep upright. The muscles in his limbs were numb. Covering his nose, he stuffed the snotty, crying brat boy behind him. 

“Ha! I thought demons were all solo murderers! Who would have thought you could stand each other enough to team up,” he said, biting down on his tongue as he tightly gripped the helm of his sword. The ground felt weirdly unstable. As if there was something moving beneath his feet. Was that his imagination?

The wind cutting demon narrowed his eyes. He spoke, his voice a gravelly baritone. “You should be down on the ground already. How are you still standing? Hey. You’re growing rusty.” 

A shiver slithered down Sanemi’s spine. That last statement wasn’t to him. Focusing on limiting his breathing, he felt the shock of his complete bodily stress. This wasn’t how the breathing techniques were done. And it was having a large effect in addition to whatever blood demon art they had placed. 

At the same time the wind cutting demon slashed at him, the female demon who’d been kicked aside flung moss vines at his torso. Leaping away with the little boy in tow, he flinched. A part of the vine scratched him. It stung. 

“Nii...Nii-chan,” the boy cried, burying his face into his hands. Snot dribbled everywhere. 

Sanemi grinned viciously, standing through the blurry vision. He was the wind Hashira, dammit. What good was he if couldn’t save just one brother?

 

Shinobu couldn’t breathe. She floated in a dark, swampy texture that had neither air nor light. She tugged loosely with her left hand and was relieved when she could still feel the cloth collar of the eldest boy within her grip. But he wouldn’t last long in here, and neither would she. 

Waves of murkiness vibrated around her, and she heard something that sounded like muffled laughing--the same as anything conveyed underwater. It was taunting. Leering. It swiped at her where she couldn’t see, prompting her to gasp and waste whatever breath she had available in her lungs. 

But what was she supposed to do? She was a demon slayer equipped for quick thrusts of poison, not a drawn out battle of endurance. If she were at least on land, then she could get them with her speed.

Above all, she just needed this boy to stay alive. 

She covered him with her body--thankfully he wasn’t that large for a thirteen year old boy. Even she could form a protective ball with her small body. She let the demon take swipes at her. Whatever happened, she’d be able to regenerate. But what she needed was a chance. An opening to get at it. By no means was it extraordinarily powerful--had it been a one-on-one fight to begin with, it wouldn’t have been much of a battle. But because it had allies, it was given the opportunity to drag her down to its playing field, and play it did. 

The demon seemed to enjoy toying with her, slashing her bit by bit. She forced herself to count the seconds and swipes, willing herself to feel when the current moved. She only had a little time before all brain function would cease within the boy’s brain. Before too much filled his lungs. 

One. Two. Three. 

It hurt. Even knowing she couldn’t die, it hurt. 

Four. Five. 

She opened her eyes, jutting her right hand out exactly where she predicted its throat would be. 

If she were still human, she wouldn’t be strong enough. 

If she were still human, the little sliver of blade at the end of her sword wouldn’t be enough to slice off its head. 

But she wasn’t human. 

Nor would she ever get the chance to redeem that former, precious quality. 

She smiled spitefully as the muffled sounds of screams vibrated in the murky liquid, the rank blood spreading further and further out from the center point as she tore once, twice, three, four, five times before the nichirin sword fully decapitated the demon. The portal to the surface opened right as the last few seconds of brain deoxygenation registered. She gasped. 

 

Sanemi was breathing erratically, mixing deep breaths in with shallow, meanwhile his arms and torso dripped steadily from open gashes. Every single slice sent his way he moved too slowly. Every vine whipped at him, he took the brunt of to make sure the kid didn’t get hurt. Dammit. If only this brat weren’t here. Why’d Kochou have to lug him along?

But he couldn’t back down now. Even though it was a two on one (he still couldn’t locate the third demon that made him dizzy and heavy) when the circumstances were usually the opposite in terms of slayers versus demons, he kept his sword as steady as he could. 

Fuck it. He just had to chop off their heads, right? Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t he just do it? Why can’t he protect one measly, little twerp? 

He gripped his sword, eyes twisting in raw and demented anger, and screamed. 

He took a step to charge forward. 

And fell to the ground. 

What the…?

His eyes could barely see anything. Everything was just fuzzy shapes and blobs. The trees were shaking, but that was only because the boy was shaking his shoulders. 

“Don’t die, Mister. Please don’t die.” 

I’m not old enough to be called ‘Mister…,’ he thought. 

What the hell kind of set-up was this? Wasn’t this supposed to be the gods’ way of trying to give him a second chance? Of being able to save another family from the fate his own died from? Then why were the gods forsaking him? Why did he go through all of that then? 

He tried to breathe, forcing feeling into his fingers even though whatever blood demon art this was definitely turned his own secret weapon marechi blood against him. 

Come on, he willed himself. Stand up. Fight. 

What kind of brother was he? To let this small boy cry for the fate of his two older brothers? 

What kind of brother was he? To have let Genya die?

Digging his fingers into the dirt, he began breathing calmly. Sight and sensation aside, he just needed to force his body to move automatically, even if all nerves from his brain weren’t connecting to his limbs. By now, he’d done this a hundred times. His body should just move separately from his brain.

Don’t think. Don’t feel. Don’t do anything. 

But it wasn’t enough. His body wouldn’t move. He couldn’t do a damn thing. 

Come on, dammit , he thought, physically tearing up. MOVE.  

Shinobu was successful in resuscitating the oldest boy. He coughed up mud and looked pale, but otherwise, he was alive. Propping him up against the lone oak by the cliff, she scanned the area once before locking eyes on the two demons, the two boys, and Shinazugawa beyond the clearing in the trees.

He couldn’t move. And the demons were closing to finish him. 

Never before had she moved so fast. Against Douma was one rush of human adrenaline, up the mountain was a demonic pinch, but this was a raging fervor. This wasn’t anything human or remotely close to earthly--this was just pure energy flowing along the parallel lines of light as she twisted through the neck of the female demon, kicked clean through the waist of the male allowing the young third brother to finally be freed, before launching herself off a shuddering tree to knee off the head of the female demon. 

Grabbing the unconscious boy, she retreated next to Shinazugawa and the youngest boy, who latched onto his unstirring brother tearfully. She thought he was dead, but then she saw the small lifts in the boy’s chest. He was alive. Thank goodness. 

The two demons she just injured weren’t dead. Not by a long shot. She’d lost her sheath in the scuffle with the dirt demon, so she didn’t recoat her sword in poison. She should have twisted all the way through the female’s neck, but her mind was focused on grabbing the boy first. Now they slowly regenerated while Shinazugawa was useless on the ground. 

But where would that third demon be? Invisible, like that earlier demon? In the ground, like that last one? Or what about…

Her eyes flashed a brilliant chrysanthemum as she whipped her head. 

There, in the tiny nook of Shinazugawa’s collar, clutching a fistful of shirt, was a small demon girl no bigger than an inch. Shinobu was on the miniature-sized demon in a second, snatching her in her hand as she smiled poisonously through her loosened hair. 

The demon squirmed, writhing in her iron grip that only tightened as she struggled more. 

Shinobu’s voice was a deadly whisper. “What an adorable, weak demon,” she said. She squeezed until the girl demon was shaking her head. “Hiding like that isn’t very nice. It makes me upset, you know, to have to kill you like this.” The demon’s cheeks bloated, as if all the blood in their body surged upwards. “It pains me, you know.” With a swift swipe, the tip of her sword sliced off the tiny neck of the girl demon, putting an end to the human-blood conversion. 

She sighed. She hated this. She hated demons. She hated blood. She hated death. She hated everything. 

The marechi blood was taking its toll on her again.

“Anee!” The female moss demon cried out, having reattached its head. “I’ll kill you for that!”

“Like you don’t kill enough to serve you a sentence in purgatory for all eternity,” Shinobu said coolly. Holding up her blade, she positioned the two kids behind her. 

The moss vines came at her, and she easily parried them, but a slash of wind cut through the ground between her and the female demon right as she was hoping to close in. Another slash came from the male demon, but this time Shinazugawa was up and on the offense, pushing the wind slicing demon back. 

Bloody and wrathful, he screamed, “Go to hell, you phony copycat!”

They moved away, toward the rocks nearer to the clearing where the eldest boy rested. 

But Shinobu would have to leave it up to Shinazugawa. Right now, she was focused on cutting through the flesh of this moss user once and for all. 

Leaping branch from branch, she made the demon’s mind dizzy just by the sheer number of after-images. 

“Say,” Shinobu said. “I’ve always wondered this. But you demons never regret eating humans?” 

The female demon roared at her as she tried to fling vines at her, but she succeeded only in knocking down the surrounding trees. 

Shinobu rested momentarily atop a tree branch, glancing over her shoulder, a dark shadow covering her face. 

“What do you even feel when you take a human life? Didn’t you have families, too?”

“Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up!” 

“Did I strike a nerve?” 

“Just die!” The demon manipulated another viperous round of vines to sack the pure afterimage of Shinobu. 

From behind the female demon, Shinobu appeared under the guise of shadow. A somber smile rested delicately on her lips, her slender hands twisting delicately around the demon’s neck. She placed her blade’s edge right at the side of her neck as the demon jolted, stiffening then as it felt its fate sealed. 

“You know, that’d be nice. But I don’t feel like being done in by the likes of you.” 

In an instant, the hands that made wide sweeps to manipulate vines fell limp, penduluming at the demon’s sides until it halted to a dead stop, disintegrating down to its fingertips. 

Even though she did this often with demons, whenever she was met with deceit or a complete lack of remorse, it always left her feeling a little emptier than before. 

She sighed, flicking off the blood from her sword’s tip.

Just empty.

 

Slashing violently, Sanemi was barely able to dodge every cut the demon threw his way. Even though that fucking blood demon had been done in, it didn’t negate all the injuries he’d taken until then, courtesy of this fucker and that other bitch. 

His side bled with deep gashes and his arms and legs were wobbly from the amount of blood loss he suffered. Somehow, he was able to stop any more from leaking out through his refound breathing techniques, but the damage was done. 

Still, now that that blood demon was gone, his marechi blood was taking effect on this demon.

Every wind slash was getting slower and slower, and the demon was diminishing into a complete haze reminiscent of how Sanemi had been earlier. He grinned. He could do this. 

Shouting with pure, guttural rage, he kept delivering blow after blow until it was all the demon could do to keep up. Eventually, he was able to push him back to where the tree lining thinned and where the rocks to the cliff began. 

“What’s wrong? Scared now that you can’t kick around a dying man?” He laughed gleefully, dodging the slow-moving wind slices as he delivered his own breath style attack. He miscalculated due to the numbness in his hands and tore off only an arm. Whatever. He’d finish him with the next attack. 

But as he pushed him back beyond, he saw something stirring in the corner of his peripheral. And just as he took his eyes off for a second , the demon shoved back at him and raced to where the oldest boy was. 

“Fu…”

Lifting the boy, the demon screamed maniacally. “You took Anee. You want this boy? Go and get him.” 

And with a single motion, he threw the stirring boy from the tree lining over the cliff into the deep plunges below. 

NO!

Sanemi dove off the cliff before his mind could process what was happening. All he knew was that he wanted desperately for this boy to remain alive. Actually, it was probably less the boy himself than the family he would leave behind that he worried about. After all, he had two younger brothers, one barely older than a toddler, and one who looked like he should be out flying kites or playing around with mud. Point is, they needed their big brother. They needed their family to stay intact. He couldn’t stand to see a broken family. He couldn’t stand it even more to see someone lose their family any more. 

He grabbed the slender arm of the boy just as his left one caught a jutting rock about two feet below the top. He held his sword in his mouth, struggling to breathe properly. There was a crack, and he knew instantly that it was either his shoulder or the boy’s shoulder that just got dislocated. Maybe both. But he didn’t have time to think about it right now, because that fucking demon was staring at him right in the face. 

You … Sanemi thought, beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. His grip was slipping from the sweat and blood encased in his hand. He didn’t have enough strength to lift both of them up, or even launch this kid up alone. If he did, that demon would just take the opportunity to dice the boy for nourishment. 

Oh crap… His fingers were slipping. He couldn’t hold on for much longer. How far was it to the bottom? Fifty feet? A hundred? Either way, it was a long fall. 

He closed his eyes. 

He tried. He really tried to live. But the gods didn’t discriminate in death. They didn’t look at background or even care about the person. They just took. 

If they were going to plunge, Sanemi would make sure to at least absorb most of the impact. 

He braced himself.

When his fingers finally slipped, he planned on curling his body around the boy’s in order to break his fall. But when the fall never came, he opened his eyes. 

Blood spattered and wincing slightly, the girl he’d come to hate within a few short minutes upon hearing her miracle against death gripped onto his wrist tightly, the veins and sinews readily apparent throughout her arm. She looked like she was in pain or something, but Shinazugawa didn’t really care. 

...Why did she have to be the one?

Why did she have to be the one to come to his rescue? He could handle his own. Screw her.

Why did she have to be the one to defeat them all? He was a pillar, too. He was more than capable.

Why did she have to be the one to become a demon? She hated demons. And he hated her.

Why did she have to be the one to survive? The tears pricked his eyes. She wasn’t his brother

Squirming in her grip, he tried to pry her hand loose. If he had to choose between death and her…  Just fucking take the kid. Leave him. He didn’t want her help. Even if he wanted to speak, he couldn’t cause his stupid sword was lodged between his jaw and teeth. 

Just go away , he thought, twisting out of her grip. She used her other hand to grab his, but when he saw it, he noticed it was only a stump that had yet to regenerate. 

What the…

 

Shinobu was struggling. She’d regenerated one too many times, and it was taking her toll. When she arrived fervently to help Shinazugawa, the wind cutting demon sensed her from behind and sent a warning slash. She dodged this one, but the one he cut in immediate succession she didn’t predict. It took her sword hand and her right leg. Still, she was able to launch herself using one foot and deliver a roundhouse kick so that he flew to the other side of the clearing. It was regretful she couldn’t just decapitate him right away, but she needed to get Shinazugawa and the boy up.

Clutching her left hand desperately around Shinazugawa’s wrist, she fought through the pain, bit down on her tongue until it bled, and tried to summon the strength required to pull them up. 

But the strength she lacked as a demon having consumed no humans left her and focused solely on her regenerative powers. Her leg was nearly back, so she just waited on her arm. But it was taking too long. 

Shinazugawa’s face mangled in disgust. He was squirming out of her grip. 

Flinging her right hand unconsciously, she tried to use the stump of a hand to grab him steady, but to no avail. 

She heard the wind cutting demon get up. He was walking back over. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She couldn’t lift Shinazugawa or the boy up. Yet she couldn’t let go either. She couldn’t defend herself, but she couldn’t just sit there. 

Come on , she thought. Let her hand regenerate faster so she could divert the last ounce of her strength in lifting them up. 

“This is for Anee,” the demon said, standing over her. 

She suddenly wondered if Kanao would be alright. 

The wind cutting demon didn’t do anything. Instead, what she heard was a slice, a gurgle, then a thump. She didn’t care to peek backwards for her hand finally regenerated enough where she felt the power in her legs and upper body again. She heaved Shinazugawa and the boy back up. 

Coughing, her arms shook as she bent over, gasping for breath. Her energy had all but left her. She thought it was over. She thought it was over, but a yank to the collar reminiscent of earlier brought her back to the brutal reality. 

Shinazugawa’s eyes were brutal. “ Why did you… You bitch, you… ” 

Shinobu couldn’t bother with the words to speak aloud, for even that little bit of strength had flown away. 

“You should’ve just left me! Take the kid! Why the fuck were you so-”

The wind pillar’s voice broke then, and in its wake it left a putter of sobs. He stared vehemently, but it wasn’t at her anymore. Rather, it felt directed at something beyond her.

“Why did you help me?” A puddle pooled in his eyes. Never had she seen someone so broken. Even so, she couldn’t feel anything in her body. Finally, Shinazugawa shattered completely, melting down to his barest skeletons. “If I had… been stronger… or accepted... talked to Genya…,” he said, the tears sliding down his cheeks in giant blobs. “Why do you … get to live?”

The white haired man bent over, letting go of the loose collar he roughly took and pressed his arms on the ground around his head. It looked like a dogeza position. 

But it wasn’t for Shinobu, she knew. It wasn’t aimed at anybody in their audience tonight--no, it was a solemn, unforgivable repentance that he sought and never wanted that he performed. For the friends, for the comrades, for the family that all left him behind prematurely while he lived. Did he consider himself lucky for surviving? Shinobu wouldn’t have thought so. 

But she couldn’t bother to feel right now. Everything she felt or thought was just an empty feeling. After the rage, and after the fighting, there was only a hot, simmering emptiness that laid at the pit of her stomach. 

The oldest brother looked okay. The other two were back at the clearing still, probably waiting for the clear signal. But why had that demon suddenly stopped?

Turning her head ever so slightly, she noticed the shadow that stood under the silent streams of moonlight. Just as when she saw him under the rays of sun that one warm day before the tree leaves turned and after she relinquished herself to the blade’s will, she thought his eyes calming. They were soothing in an unspoken, lulling way. 

She mustered up the barest energy for a cheerful, subdued kind of smile. Her voice was soft. 

“Ah. Tomioka-san. The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

Giyuu stared out the wooden window from an inn located in the village at the bottom of the valley. It was nearing noon on the second day since he arrived. In the next room over, Shinobu’s chest rose regularly, peacefully, as her eyes remained shut. He asked a nearby tailor to hem her torn clothes and had the proprietress change her. Not once did she stir awake since the night she smiled at him bloody and messy. 

Sanemi rested on the other side of the sliding doors, in a connecting space to where Giyuu sat in the lounge area of their suite. The man was on doctor’s orders to stay in bed for a few days until his wounds had sealed up enough where they wouldn’t reopen upon moving. He shouted in rankled disgust about sharing a room with Giyuu, that he’d rather lie at the bottom of the lagoon, but the doctor simply ignored him and said he would be back to check up in a few days. 

Giyuu didn’t say anything as the doctor left. There were always kakashi around, so if Sanemi was insistent on moving elsewhere, he could always have one of them carry him to a Wisteria House. But he didn’t. Instead, he just laid in the connecting room, grumbling all day to himself as he waited for each meal to arrive. 

Pushing his floor seat back a little, Giyuu went to crouch by the sliding door to Sanemi’s space. He slid it. 

“Shinazugawa, have some ohagi-”

“Get out!” He flung a pillow at the door.

Disheartened, Giyuu quickly shut the door, but not before leaving a pile of ohagi. Maybe Sanemi just wanted some time alone? 

Sitting cross legged on the floor with his back against the seat, he placed his sword on the low table in front of him. He was initially out finishing a mission near his dojo when he heard the crow say something about what happened the next mountain over. Remembering vaguely Himejima’s request before the older man set out, Giyuu was struck by how magnetic the reaction had been. It was like a spell. It was always a spell. Just like that day he trekked to the Butterfly Estate to find Shinobu flinging herself into the sunlight, he sped the whole way there. His feet were not his own anymore. And when he arrived to find Sanemi battered and bleeding out while Shinobu was disheveled and bloody, he was glad his legs took him. 

After both Shinobu and Sanemi passed out from injuries, he escorted the crying and huddled kids back safely to their homes before bringing both the pillars down the mountain to a lodge that he knew from a previous enterprise. The proprietress was understandably shocked when he arrived with the two in tow. 

Flapping its wings, his crow returned from an adventure outside. It was an old bird and often teetered to the side as it hopped. Giyuu worriedly helped it stand upright as it panted for breath. Finally, it spoke. 

It had some news from the young master Kiriya. 

Giyuu’s eyes furrowed. 

He hadn’t thought such a decision could be made without the presence of the pillars together. Though he wasn’t really affected… He looked out the window, the sun absolutely brilliant and blinding. It was a warm, fall day. 

***

By the third day, Sanemi had regained most of his strength. Giyuu was glad, even if it meant a more impatient and brusque bandaged wind pillar who shouted with more projection than before. 

They sat together in the lounge of their assigned inn room, poking at salted fish, dried pork, rice, and miso soup. For once, Sanemi was neither hurling pillows or biting words at him. Instead, it was quiet save for the chewing and clinking of dishes. Was this improvement?

Giyuu decided to make conversation. 

“How are your injuries?’ 

Sanemi had a mouthful of rice as he snorted. “What? Surprised I didn’t kick the bucket?” 

He picked at a pickle. “Yes, those injuries were extreme.” 

The white haired man’s chopsticks slammed atop his bowl of rice. Angry nerves popped out from his face and neck as he grinned viciously. “Oh? Is that right? Wanna see how close I can get you to seeing the river?” 

“You mean the mountain river? I’ve seen it a dozen times.”

Sanemi hit his right hand on the table. “You’ve got some nerve , making fun of me.” 

Giyuu was placid. “I would never make fun of you.” 

But still there was something gnawing at the back of Giyuu’s mind. He’d thought about it for a while, and regretted it whenever it crossed his mind again. Setting his chopsticks on their placeholder, he looked down. 

“I apologize for mentioning your brother before. It was unwarranted and disrespectful. I shouldn’t have spoken out of turn. Forgive me.” His head was bowed, and he felt a growing cold numb him over. Sanemi wouldn’t forgive him. It was enough just to get it out there, to let him know that he was remorseful. After all, he had a hard time most days forgiving himself. 

Sensing the air had shifted, Giyuu peeked up. Unlike the outrage he’d come to expect by now from the angry wind pillar, he only saw the white haired man gazing down at his lap, his hands clenched in fists on his knees. His eyes were dull as he glanced out the window. A kind of misty shroud took over him, as if he were seeing beyond the bright scene before him.

“Whatever. My sword’s across the room anyways. I don’t feel like grabbing it.” 

This was a man whom Giyuu had come to respect. Unlike him, he was outspoken and wore his heart on his sleeve, for better or worse. He who was an excellent swordsman with virtuous intent, Giyuu could not help wishing that if he were only a little more sociable, or felt himself a little more worthy, that they could be good friends. Even now, he selfishly wished to overcome his own innate sense of inferiority, built by years of closure. 

So he tried to speak. If only a little more. 

“My older sister was a caring woman. She was always so cheerful and strong. The days before she was to marry were the happiest I’d ever seen her,” Giyuu said, remembering fondly. “She was always finding stray animals and taking care of them. She liked to help the neighbors spin clothes for the winter. Even the village chief took a liking to her. Everybody loved her.”

Sanemi raised an eyebrow, his attention still more focused on the window as he leaned his head on an arm resting on the table. He spoke lazily, dimly. “Yeah? What happened to her?” 

“She’s gone,” said Giyuu. It took a lot still to remember her now and not want to huddle in a corner and cry. Every day was an upwards battle, and that was simply within his own mind. But if sharing this information could help him even just a little bit, he’d deal with that struggle. “She protected me. The night right before her wedding.”

Sanemi didn’t need an explanation to understand that Giyuu’s sister had been killed by demons. He didn’t need any more than the somber gaze forward to know that the water pillar had gone through a lot. He supposed they were comrades in that regard. 

Sliding the hallway door open, Sanemi called to one of the workers down the corridor. 

“Hey, bring us some sake,” he said, making a drinking motion with his bandaged left hand. 

Giyuu was confused. Sanemi wordlessly returned to his spot at the unfinished meal mat that sat across from him. Why sake?  

“What? Don’t tell me you got something against day drinking.” 

***

The two were drunk by mid-evening. To begin with, Giyuu could never hold his liquor, and every time Sanemi offered to pour him some more, he’d wave his hand no. But still, his cup was always filled, and still, he always drank it. 

His mind was warm and fuzzy and he stared down at his tiny white cup as if it were some all-seeing eye to another world. He blinked once then twice as his head began to teeter. 

“In the first place, why’re you still here?” Sanemi asked, sloshing around his own small cup. His face was entirely beet red and while his eyes were unfocused now, he was somehow always able to spot the full containers from the empty ones. “You ain’t even injured. Are you ignoring the crows or something?” 

“I’m not…” Giyuu started but then hiccupped. “I’m not ignoring anybody. I’m just * hiccup * concerned for you two.” 

Sanemi slammed his glass down, but it wasn’t in an angry way--it was more of a drunken outburst. “Aw man! I’m weak, alright? I know! I couldn’t save Masachika back then, and what do they do? I’m a pillar now, goddammit. Pillars are supposed to be strong.”

One of the empty containers clattered to the ground and he fumbled around for another. His hand grabbed one and instantly refilled Giyuu’s cup. 

Giyuu slurred, his words tripping over themselves in a slow jog. “You are strong. You’re stronger than anybody I know.” 

“You’re not funny, you know.”

“You are,” Giyuu insisted, his head tipping slowly to the left from drunkenness. “I’m the weak one. I’m pathetic. I let my sister die for me before her wedding night. I passed out during Final Selection while Sabito saved everybody.”

“Who the hell is Sabito?” 

“Who the hell is Masachika?” Giyuu replied back. He felt the bile rise up in his throat and quickly chugged his cup of sake before Sanemi refilled it again. “I’m not like you guys. You’re all amazingly strong. I don’t deserve to be a pillar.”

Sanemi slapped his forehead, a red handprint to match his red face. “The fuck? That’s what you meant this whole time? You’re telling me this whole time you’ve just been shit at talking? Everybody hated you. We thought you looked down on us.” 

Giyuu’s drink dribbled out of his mouth. “Huh? Wha- I didn’t. I never meant- Huh?” 

Sanemi tipped his head back and roared with laughter, slapping his knee.

Giyuu lowered his head into his drink, embarrassed. He looked out at the orange and purple sky outside. “Kochou was right then. People dislike me.” 

Hah? Kochou?” Sanemi stopped laughing and looked down at his tiny cup. He wrinkled his nose, as if having second thoughts. His voice was spiteful but calm as he said, “You were right about her.”

Giyuu raised a half-lidded eyebrow. What was Sanemi talking about? The alcohol was really getting to him. He tilted his head the other way now. 

“Shinazugawa, why haven’t you left yet? I thought you didn’t like it here.”

“Not that,” he said. “I just don’t like you.

“Oh. Right.” 

Sanemi sniffed his alcohol once, squinting at the liquid. Giyuu looked at the pile they stacked next to the door. There were about nine bottles empty. Pretty soon, they’d have enough to fill a quarter of a chess set. 

“Kochou really helped me out back there,” he said finally. His voice was an exasperated sigh, as if he really hadn’t wanted to say it but did anyways. “Whatever demon blood flows through her, it ain’t gonna suddenly cancel out what she’s been until now. Though, it’s not like I trust her all of a sudden since she did take a swipe at you.” 

“She didn’t-”

“She attacked you. And could attack any one of us. Though, after that last fight, I really wonder about that,” he said, his eyes lilting cross-eyed as he raised his cup to eye-level. 

“So the reason you haven’t left yet…?” Giyuu wondered, hoping that maybe Sanemi had opened up a little more to him.

Instead, the white haired man just threw the tenth empty bottle at Giyuu’s face. He was only able to block it clumsily with his left hand, but he dropped his white cup in the process. The sake spilled over the tatami mat. 

“The Oyakata’s son assigned me to babysitting duty!” He shouted, plopping himself back down with a loud thud. He huffed once before reaching around for another bottle. There weren’t any left. “Ah dammit! The moon isn’t even up yet! Oi! Lady!”

Giyuu smiled a little. Sanemi was a nice guy. He was exactly how he thought he’d be, but in a rougher, deeply buried way. They were both weak and had lost their families because of it, but somehow, he found comfort in this little izakaya-like set up. He wished he could do this with all the pillars. Already, he was overjoyed at just having the chance to talk with Sanemi finally. Even if he didn’t particularly like Giyuu.

“Shinazugawa,” Giyuu said, tilting forward now. “Would you like some ohagi?” His face fell flat on the table, unable to withstand the alcohol in his system anymore. Sanemi shook him, agitatedly slapping his face.

“Hey. Hey! You can’t pass out yet. Who’s going to help me finish these? Hey! Where were you even keeping that ohagi? Tomioka. Hey!”   

Chapter Text

In her dream, everything was dark. For the longest time, not even the hand in front of her could be seen. If she walked, she could hear the ripples of water, but she couldn’t feel it. So she continued walking, hoping there would be some kind of a light source further on. 

It felt like the time stretched on. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been walking, only that she was starting to feel weary from the mental exhaustion. Where was she? Could she get out? Where did everybody go? The last thing she could remember was someone bloody, a few warm bodies, a presence that felt calming and familiar. She wanted desperately to see them now. 

She began running. It was hard. Even if she could hear the water rippling, it didn’t feel wet on her legs, but the heaviness of it still weighed her down. She breathed heavier and her pace slowed down step by step until she was bent over on her knees, her hands stuck in whatever her legs had been wading in. 

Her breath came out in rasps, and when she tried lifting herself back up, her hands were stuck. In fact, she was sinking into the lagoon of darkness. Panicking, she tried pulling her arms out, but it was sticky. It latched onto her like molasses, and the more she moved the quicker she sunk. Not a sound was heard as she was swallowed whole. 

Blinking, she found herself once again in a foreign place. This time, light was abundant, as was the reeking stench of decay. 

Whipping her head behind her, she saw the scene she saw that day when all the demon slayers were transported inside the mysterious building constructed by Muzan’s Upper Moon demon. With bodies piled up high behind him, an ice flower encasing his pillow seat like a majestic throne, Douma smiled. Shinobu froze.

“Shinobu-chan! It’s been a while,” he said, standing up. He opened his arms as if expecting a hug. When she didn’t move, he dropped them half-heartedly. “Have you grown prettier? You’re really cute, you know? The eyes suit you.” 

For the first time since she’d awoken as a demon, Shinobu became self-conscious about her appearance. Her hands clenched at her sides. 

“Chrysanthemum-colored. Interesting,” Douma murmured. “I’m surprised they’re not like Muzan-sama’s. But I guess that’s what happens when the blood comes from me.” 

She was quiet. “You’re supposed to be dead.” 

He chirped cheerfully. “I am!” 

“So why are you here?” Her voice was laced with deadly precision, as if one consonant could pierce through him. She wished that were the case. 

He cocked his head, bringing a hand up to his chin as if in careful consideration. When he couldn’t bother to think anymore, he let out an exaggerated sigh and waved his arms out in a large gesture. His eyes approached with a dangerous glint to them. “I’m not sure,” he said truthfully. He walked closer to her. “But since we’re both here and all, why don’t we make the best of it? Join me for a bit?” 

Shinobu took a few quick steps back, crouching into a defensive position. She had no desire to put on airs for this vile man, so she glared at him. 

“Better yet, why don’t I send you to hell permanently?” Her blood was racing, and she was itching to pluck out his so-called “gift from god” eyes. 

“You’re so cold, Shinobu-chan!” He said, clasping his hands together. “But that’s okay. I like that about you as well.” 

Douma was acting so strangely from the apathetic man she’d met before. Affection? Like? Those words felt slimy coming from his mouth. Did he hit his head on the way to hell? Is that why he sounds like an idiot now? 

Flickering faintly behind Douma, there was a shadowy outline. Wavy, dark hair and vicious red eyes. She recognized him right away even though before the Hashira’s separation she only laid eyes on Muzan once, and even then only a fraction of a second. 

“What’s he doing here?” She said, her voice fading into obscurity. Though barely audible, Douma’s ears perked up and caught it. 

He looked behind him. He waved a hand through Muzan’s transparent image. “This? Intriguing, right? I know for a fact Muzan-sama is dead. It gives me the shivers just knowing he’s here like this.”

“You say he’s dead,” Shinobu started, “but you’re also supposed to be dead.”

A little twinkle shined in his rainbow eyes. “True. I’m not sure why this happened, but I think it’s a great gift, don’t you think? Come, let’s sit down and catch up. I want to know all about you, Shinobu-chan.”

“Go to hell,” she said, turning around. If Douma was truly dead, then this must just be her mind messing with her. She was alive; she knew that for a fact. This was just some nightmare that felt all too lucid. Because she was a demon? Because she shared his blood? If he couldn’t hurt her here, she doubted he was capable of getting out there. 

But Douma tilted his head. A slow-moving, dark seepage absorbed the walls and ground where she stood, engulfing it like the black lagoon did with her earlier. She whipped her head, her eyes widening. He walked to her, leaning in as he smiled viciously. As if taken by a cold spell, her legs felt frozen, though she knew it wasn’t because of his blood demon art. 

She was scared. 

For the first time since she’s allowed herself to, she felt scared. 

Was it because he was the demon that killed her sister? Or turned her into a demon? Because Muzan’s shadow hung in his trail? What was she so frightened by? He couldn’t--shouldn’t--be able to do anything to her. This was a dream--a nightmare she was going to wake up from. But if this was just a dream, then why did it feel so tangible? 

Why did it feel like she was losing control? 

Why did it feel like he would be more than capable of controlling her actions?

He grabbed her chin, his rainbow eyes peering into her demonized ones. He looked at her as if she were some kind of a pet, some kind of subservient creature that he could play around with. She felt entirely degraded. 

“Now, now, Shinobu-chan, I told you before, didn’t I? It’s more fun on this side,” he said. 

She swallowed once, willing the sensation back into her arms and feet. Something, just something so she could move or push him away. She was scared. She was so, so scared. 

Please, she thought. Let me wake up from this.

A warm hand touched her shoulder, gently guiding her back as Douma’s hands were removed from her. It was a light, fluttery sensation, and Shinobu could swear she knew this person. She’d known them all her life. 

“Nee...san?”

Kanae stood only a few inches taller than her, and while Shinobu always resented that difference between the sisters, nothing could have stopped her from loving her dearly. She felt the strong facade she so carefully created over the years melt away as her voice broke. 

“Nee-san,” she said, crying. 

Kanae smiled at her--that tender smile that Shinobu loved so much. After a moment’s reprieve, Kanae placed her hand in front of Shinobu protectively as she glared at Douma. The man put his hands up in surrender, a loose, half-hearted smile on his lips. 

“You don’t belong on this side,” she said, eyes narrowing at the demon. 

Douma snapped his fingers together. “You must be the sister! Really, how sad it must be for you two. One’s dead” -  he looked at Kanae then shifted to Shinobu - “and the other’s a demon. You really can’t catch a break, can you?”

Stiffening, Shinobu shouted at him. “Shut up! You don’t know anything!”

“Shinobu,” Kanae said. Shinobu quickly quieted. To Douma, she said, “I wasn’t aware there was even an underworld for demons. And yet, here we are. Please return to where you came from.”

“How polite. The way you speak reminds me of somebody.” 

Shinobu’s glare only hardened. 

Douma threw up his arms, but the black foliage seeped deeper and deeper around them until it encircled the small area on the planks where Shinobu and Kanae stood. Kanae pressed Shinobu close to her. 

“What do you say? Both sisters could be here with me. What a happy reunion! How about it, Shinobu-chan, Kanae-chan?” 

“I’ll rip off your tongue if you say Nee-san’s name again.”

He crossed his arms, sighing. “You were so much nicer when we first met.”

The blackness came at them like arrows darting in on all sides. Shinobu wanted to protect her sister--she’d only just gotten her back, she couldn’t let her die again before her eyes. Plus, she was a demon now. She could survive. 

She wrapped her small body around her sister’s back, but Kanae didn’t so much as flinch as she held up a single hand, blowing away the darkness. With a determined stare at Douma, she pressed her lips tight. 

“I wish you well in Hell,” she said, before the entire scenery changed, absorbed from the inside out. 

Shinobu gasped. As if warped from another dimension, the planks and water became a gentle forest scenery that sloped to an empty village at the bottom. The regular thunk of a bamboo fountain could be heard, and she swore she smelled flowers too. Was this...home? 

Kanae took a deep breath, her shoulders relaxing slightly. Her sister looked so real, so tangible that Shinobu half-believed this was a mirage. But when she turned around and hugged Shinobu, she couldn’t help but hope it was real. 

“Nee-san,” she said, her hands shaking as they rested on her sister’s back. “Why are you here?” 

“Do you not want me here?” 

“No!” Her voice came out a little squeaky and harsh. Quickly, she replaced her fervor with reassuring, soft repetition. “No, no. I’m happy.” And really she was. Leaning into her embrace, the smell of Kanae’s clothes were always like how they used to wash them. The faint scent of wood mixed with local flowers. Scrubbed using the grit of their worn hands. It made her feel safe. It made her feel like home. 

Pulling back, Kanae’s eyes were exactly as she remembered them. Kind, like their mother’s. 

“You’ve worked hard, Shinobu,” she said. “I’m proud that you’re my sister.” 

Shinobu reached her hand out, not wanting the hugging warmth to go away. “Everyday,” she said. “Everyday I’ve missed you. Why did you go? After Mom and Dad, how could you… You should have lived. You should have just given up. Kanao and I- Why did you leave me?”

Kanae shook her head, stepping backwards. “It’s not a question of why. I want you to live, Shinobu.” 

Tears pricked Shinobu’s eyes, threatening to stream down. And when she let them, she waved her arms out in a giant, swooping gesture, shaking her head no. “No, no, I shouldn’t be alive right now. I should have died the night that damn Douma did. I’m supposed to be over there, with you and Mom and Dad. Please, don’t leave.” 

Her hands tried to touch Kanae, but already her sister’s image was receding, fading away. Kanae furrowed her eyebrows, a sad smile curling up at the tips. 

“You know I can’t do that.” 

Why? Just stay here. With me. You don’t need to go.” 

“It’s not your time yet. For now, I’m just happy to be able to see you.” 

“Please. Nee-san.” Shinobu balled her fists in her chest, as if a miracle would happen to cause her sister to say yes if she pressed tightly enough.

Kanae stood straight. Rapidly, her person was fading into nothing as Shinobu chased after empty air. She clawed and ran and tried to catch something that could resemble a tangible body. But just like the mirage behind Douma, Kanae was simple space. 

With a solemn flutter of her eyelids, Kanae took a shallow breath. 

Her sister’s expression was stern as she said, “You’ve worked hard, but I need you to work harder.”

“Nee-san, please!”

Her hand reached for the place where her sister was, and she thought she grabbed something solid. Her heart was joyous for all of a single, ethereal moment until her flickered open and faced reality. 

***

“Kochou?” 

Shinobu’s cheeks were wet as she looked up. Her hand clutched Tomioka’s arm sleeve. With a hesitant, shaky breath, she slowly let go of the article of clothing. Sitting up, she wiped her face as she scanned her surroundings. 

It was a small, tatami mat room with a wardrobe to her left and a small pile of her clothes sitting in the right corner. On the right where Tomioka sat was a sliding door. Were they in an inn?

“Where are we?”

“We’re in the middle of the village at the base of the mountain. Shinazugawa mentioned you guys walked around here before.” 

She placed a pale hand on her head. Her hair was loose and she saw she’d been dressed in the light blue yukatas provided by the inn. “And where is he now?” 

“He’s with the doctor.”

Her eyes widened. “Is he alright? How are his injuries?” She recalled how badly hurt he’d been in their battle against that team of demons. 

“...He’s fine,” Tomioka said, a little too slow for her liking. 

The room felt too small. Though there wasn’t a window in this room, she could hear the raucous market sounds below seep in from the patio door in the next room. The tumble of carts, the shouts of merchants, spinsters ushering people inside to hem their clothes. She was hyper aware of everything around her, from a person swallowing to what the kitchen was making downstairs. 

She hoped those children were alright. The energy to sustain all her regeneration took a toll on her, and caused her to pass out. There weren’t any more demons, so they should have been fine. Gone back up the mountain to their small village. Mended the injuries sustained in their kidnapping. She was glad Shinazugawa was fine. Even if he didn’t like her, she’d rather he stay alive. And her? She could only stay alive. Just like Nezuko, she could only continue living. 

Clutching her bed sheets, her eyes narrowed, the realization suddenly hitting her.

How long had it been since she last awoke? 

“...Six days,” Tomioka replied. 

That long? She was asleep for that long? No, hold on. Considering what she once heard from Tanjirou, it was a miracle she hadn’t been asleep for two years. But still…

Her heart was still wounded from the fact she’d lost her sister for a second time. She didn’t really want to consider the fact that she may never get a chance to see her again. 

Listlessly, she put on a smile as she gazed downward. 

“Is that so? I’m glad you two are alright.” 

Shifting, Tomioka glanced toward the door. She always found him awkward yet somehow charming. It was a reason why she enjoyed teasing him so much. But right now she’d rather he just excused himself from the room and let her wallow in her pain. 

“Did you need something, Tomioka-san?” 

His eyebrows raised slightly, as if he was taken by surprise by that question. Was he an idiot? Sometimes, he could really be an idiot. 

“I heard crying,” he said quietly. 

Oh. She hadn’t realized it’d been so vocal. The fact that she might have been thrashing around or crying out in her sleep upset her. 

“Are you okay?” He asked.

No, she wanted to say. Her sister just told her to continue living even though she loathed this life, fucking Douma pops up out of nowhere with a sudden infatuation with her, and Muzan’s somehow imprinted imself into Douma who has imprinted himself into her. 

No, she wanted to say, shout, cry. 

“I’m fine. I can’t even remember what I was dreaming about.” 

“I see,” he said, nodding his head once. With a single unsure pause in between, he pushed himself back a foot before opening the sliding doors. His hand held the wood panel loosely, and his eyes were furrowed in thought as he stared at the ground. She wondered what was taking him so long when he just said, “I’m sorry for that day at your estate.” 

She thought he was talking about not finishing her off. Honestly, she could care less at this point. Rather, she just wanted him to leave. Step back. Get out. Instead, he finished it the same as how he began it. 

“I’m glad you’re alive, Kochou.” 

Stepping out, the doors finally closed to give her a little privacy. This time, she made sure she couldn’t be heard even a peep through the thin paper as she sobbed silently, mourning the loss of her sister and herself.

Chapter Text

On the seventh morning, they were to head out on the crow’s orders. East, it cawed. Demons were proliferating together like moths to a flame. Scores of slayers were being sent there to deal with the mess that is Eastern Japan. 

On the afternoon before the morning they were to leave, a young boy had traveled down the mountain with his eldest brother limping slowly behind him. They were both dark haired, had narrow eyes, but shone a brilliance on their faces that could only be characterized by a new appreciation for life as they know it around them. Apparently, they had been trekking down the mountain each day - the first day to pay their respects to Tomioka, the second day to Shinazugawa when he awoke, and on the sixth afternoon after days of no luck, they were able to catch Shinobu. 

The youngest brother was ecstatic. 

“Thank you, Onee-san!” He waved his fists excitedly and when he stretched his mouth in a giant grin, she saw he was missing a baby tooth in the front. She felt the bubbles float around her as she smiled. 

Bending down, she patted the boy’s head and asked how his older brother was. The eldest answered that he was still weak, so he couldn’t move around yet. 

With a strange, melancholic look that threw Shinobu off, the boy gazed downward. 

“He’d always been the most frail. If I hadn’t said yes to them coming with Shizu-san and I… I should have just made them stay back.” 

The boy was no older than probably thirteen. The events that unfolded over the course of a single night likely aged him tremendously. For a child that young, he shouldn’t have to think about the prospect of death for a long time, nor the guilt that comes with each one. His youngest brother was probably jubilant only due to his young age. The fact that the boy came out almost entirely unscathed likely also factored in. 

Shinobu retorted. “If you’d done that, what would have happened to you?” 

“If it was just me , I would have been okay with it,” he said, balling his fists. He tightly shut his eyes. He shook. “They can have me, but my brothers didn’t need to get involved.” 

“Then how about Shizu-san? If something happened to you, surely the girl would have come running, right? Or maybe she would have been the one taken. It’s selfish to only think of sacrificing yourself. You’re family, aren’t you?”

Hmm? Those words felt like a double-edged sword to Shinobu. She never thought she would consider herself a hypocrite. 

“But...but…!”

His youngest brother, with his tiny, pudgy hands, grabbed his trembling fingers. 

“Nii-chan,” he said, his eyes furrowed in a tearful gaze. So the young boy hadn’t been all that unaffected then. “Don’t die.” 

As if fighting against himself, the eldest brother shuddered, withholding the torrent of emotion surging through him. Pain, helplessness, anger, and frustration - Shinobu knew all of these well. But while she expected one answer, he surprised her with something else. 

“You idiot! How can I? You can’t even fold your own socks properly!”  

“Why do we need to even fold socks? We just wear ‘em when we need to!” 

“It’s because you always throw them around the house that you need to fold them!” 

“But Nii-chan!”

“No ‘buts!’”

It surprised her then. The banter between siblings. They were so far apart in age that it’d be difficult to argue like that, that it’d always be the oldest one giving and the younger one receiving. But when she saw the younger boy reach up for his brother’s hand, telling him he couldn’t leave them, it became something of a mutual relationship. She wanted to see Kanao. 

It was only some time later that the two stopped arguing in front of the inn, and mostly because the proprietress had come and smacked them both on the head with a sandal. She knew the eldest boy, but she didn’t hold back on the youngest either. Harrumphing, she took a final whack before telling them to pipe down and head on back. The sun would set soon. And as if by royal command, the two of them stiffened at the prospect of night. Shinobu reassured them there were no more bad demons, but they still decided to head up soon. 

As a final point in the conversation, they asked her for her name. 

“Kochou,” she said, smiling softly. “Kochou Shinobu. And what are yours?” 

“I’m Atsuki,” said the youngest. “Nii-chan’s ‘Utahiko.’ You have a really  pretty name, Nee-san.”

She laughed lightly during then. Atsuki was an adorable boy. She waved them goodbye.

Before they fully vanished out of sight, she called out to them. 

“Ah! I won’t be here in the morning. I’ll be leaving the village,” she shouted. But they just kept waving back, so she didn’t think they heard her. Walking into the orange sunlight, their black silhouettes stretched far behind them, elongating their figure until they looked spinely. Soon, she couldn’t even distinguish their faces from their shadows as they blended together. 

She hoped they would be alright. 

***

It was a quiet travel through the rural areas of Japan. Field after field of rice paddies and potato rows were quick to become mundane. For once in her life, she welcomed the monotony of nature and listened to the steady struggle of farmers rushing to pick the last of the food before winter arrived. 

Shinazugawa and Tomioka walked ahead of her a few paces—Shinazugawa at a left front diagonal to Tomioka by only a margin of a foot. When she awoke the previous day, it astounded her the degree by which the two subsided their petty squabbles. She had also detected the faint smell of alcohol in the room, so she wondered if that had something to do with it. Well, most of their fights were started usually by Shinazugawa anyways. 

They stood closer together, as if they were almost like friends. “Almost” because every so often Shinazugawa would shout at Tomioka for dazing off or lagging behind even though he never did. He was always in front of Shinobu, at least. 

But it’s not like she didn’t notice a difference in how he treated her. Rather than the hate and anger that riddled his glare before, it was merely disdainful—but not for the reason she might imagine. If she came near him or spoke to him, he’d scoff once but would otherwise be quiet. It was unusual for the rabid man. She chalked it up to him considering the effort exerted “not worth it.” 

Tomioka was… dismal. Though he stared forward with the same neutral expression he always wore, there was something somber in the way he held himself. He spoke to her briefly last night about the current state of affairs at the Oyakata house and with the corps in general, but when the subject of her tsuguko came up, he became meek. This was unusual for a few reasons. He never brought that up. And why did he suddenly turn quiet? She tried interrogating him more, poking at him, but he was an absolute statue. He seemed uncomfortable by her touch, so she stopped. She stopped trying to talk to him. 

Adjusting the shoulder sleeve of her purple flower-patterned haori, she touched the fabric of her fixed clothes delicately. They’d been torn during the battle—she would have thought beyond repair—but somehow when she awoke it had been neatly piled in a corner in the room ready to be worn. The stitches were somewhat visible, a reminder of that fact that though she lost her leg and hand and suffered large gashes on her person, she found herself in one piece today. Truly, being a demon was terrifying. 

They decided to set up camp for the night in the forest before arriving in the city the next day. They were more than halfway through their journey, and it’s not like the crows calls had been urgent. They could afford to rest. 

Shinobu offered to stay up the night. She didn’t require the rest since she’d already been in a coma. Plus, she added bitterly, nights are like the day for demons.

Shinazugawa narrowed his eyes at her, arms crossed. The tent was already pitched behind him—a medium-sized one that could fit all three if they choose to, but Shinobu wasn’t exactly keen on that and neither was Shinazugawa it seemed. But he wasn’t psyched about Shinobu being the one to watch out for his vulnerable neck.

Before he could argue, Tomioka spoke. 

“I’ll take first watch. Shinazugawa, you rest.” 

“Who said you could order me around?” He growled once but didn’t say anything more as he clicked his tongue. With a hand rubbing the back of his head, he stalked inside the tent. “Whatever. Have fun. We’ll switch later.” 

They hadn’t bothered to start up a fire. They’d all faced worse conditions in the brutal winter and were used to undesirable environments. Shinobu took a seat on a fallen tree, letting her hands spread against the rough bark of dry and rotting tree as she leaned back, head tilting up toward the moon. It was waning tonight and barely in the sky, just above the treeline. 

She heard the shrubs rustle, squirrels and other night animals scurrying across the forest floor. If she listened hard enough, she could even hear their breaths. 

After quite some time, she felt the air shift and knew from sense alone that Shinazugawa had fallen asleep. She doubted he was a heavy sleeper. None of them ever were.

Some minutes later, Tomioka walked up to the fallen tree and leapt up, squatting until he was level and looked up. She raised an eyebrow and scowled. So now he feels like talking to her? 

But he didn’t. For a long time, he just sat there, staring up at the same starry sky she gazed at, silently. The moon had risen to their zenith by the time Shinobu decided to break the silence. 

“It’s a good thing, isn’t it?” 

Tomioka looked at her and blinked once. 

Shinobu continued her thoughts, going off of what Tomioka had relayed to her the night before he turned into a drowning silence. “That the demons are slowly being broken up and killed. A third of the slayers have left and gone back to their families—well, what’s left of them anyways. Some come from a line that present swordsmen to the organization like a boar hide after a hunt. It makes me happy to know they’ll live peaceful lives.” 

“And the rest of them?”

It was a dumb question. More like it was rhetorical. There was no answer for the rest of them, because each of them lived their lives for the eradication of demons. Once they were gone, well… Who knows what will become of them?

“How is Himejima-san?” She asked quietly. If he had been in the area, maybe he would have run into him. 

“He sends his regards.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t expected an actual answer.

A beat.    

“You know,” she said, folding her hands over her knees. “Even though I tell them I want to be their friend, I just can’t let go of the hate. Nee-san’s dream always seemed like a pipe dream. It’s just so silly.”

“A pipe dream?” 

“With the demons,” she said, waving her right hand in the air, as if swatting away at some annoying bug. Out in the forest, all she could see was black. “It’s just not possible--never been possible. Nee-san should have given up that dream. She should have just lived,” she said, finishing quietly

“Oh.” 

For a time, they sat unstirring. Tomioka wasn’t much of a talker--Shinobu gauged that immediately after meeting him. She had to laugh. The first time she’d met him was at the Hashira meeting a few years ago only months after she was introduced as the pillar to take over Kanae’s spot. There was an opening that had gone unfilled for a while, and eventually, he’d been the one appointed by the Oyakata. 

She assumed he would be competent, and he was. But he also grated everybody’s nerves when he announced that he wasn’t like the rest of them, that he didn’t belong on the same level. Inside, she’d been fighting the urge to slap him in the face, but the memory of Kanae’s smile weighed down on her, so she sucked in a breath and plastered a giant, cheesy grin on her face. If she didn’t like him, she could always ignore him. 

But when she’d run into him again, he was different somehow. Unable to communicate with children who surrounded him on a mountain road, he was barraged with a mountain of pebbles. He looked flustered and didn’t even think to put up his hands. He just continued asking about any “bears” in the area. 

She asked him if he needed any help. He replied that he had everything under control. 

The next time those words were echoed was a short time later, when they met on a snowy mountain village. A bear had supposedly killed some villagers and they had run into a girl who was set on finishing it. Tomioka acted distant, aloof, and cruel to the girl when they trailed after her but a part of her wonder if that was his way of keeping people at a safe distance from him so that they wouldn’t get involved. 

She saw him smile for the first time that day when they went out to eat. 

It was a horrendous sight. 

And then when that boy Tanjirou was protecting his demon sister, Tomioka stood in her way. She thought he’d been in trouble, but when he actively took that stance against her, she felt something writhe and burn beneath her skin. Why would he turn the blade back on her? Was he an idiot? Was he truly that inept? An awkward personality got you only so far until it becomes distasteful. 

She made sure he knew that. 

But there was something, something in the way he defended them that made her heart tighten. Was this what Nee-san wanted in life? Is that why she felt disconcerted? Or was it the way he looked like he would defend them until his last that set her hair up? Did she feel… hurt? Was her pride hurt because he pointed his sword at her? 

He visited her once afterwards to talk about training and disciples, wondering if any water students had come her way with grievous injuries. She didn’t ask why he wondered that but simply told him no. She asked rigidly if he would like some tea. To her surprise, he said yes. 

They drank warm green tea from clay mugs as they sat in a deafening silence, the only thing to break up the monotony being scuffles from sweeping every so often. Some time later, Aoi informed her that Kanao had returned from her mission. 

Shinobu planned to cut their meeting right then as she sent Aoi away, but Tomioka looked up, out in the garden where she and Kanao often trained with gourds, and spoke. 

“Your tsuguko is doing well?” 

His curiosity caught her off guard. Had he ever taken an iota of interest in the affairs of anybody? It was hard to imagine a man this dense being capable of interacting with anybody under normal conditions. 

She humored him. 

“Kanao’s training has been paying off. Pretty soon, she’ll be able to surpass Nee-san,” she said cheerfully, though a certain bitterness tainted her words. 

Tomioka nodded. Thoughtfully, he looked down at his mug. It had been empty for quite some time. 

“She’ll need to handle herself out there.” 

A vein popped out of Shinobu’s forehead. Was that a backhanded insult? Was he trying to say that she wasn’t doing a good enough job at teaching her tsuguko? Sometimes she couldn’t tell if he was seriously socially inept, or really just a giant prick. 

Slowing her breathing, she calmed down. What was she supposed to expect? Every single tsuguko she’s trained in has died. Slaughtered or eaten by demons. Kanao, her adoptive sister, was the only one of them to survive up to this point, and mostly all she could do was hope that she would continue surviving until she grew old. Old enough where the prospect of dying wouldn’t be a concern, but a happy welcome. Sometimes, she wondered if it would have been better to keep Kanao out of the corps altogether. Send her to some monastery that took in girls, or keep her in the estate like how Aoi stays around. 

But while the thoughts of anger were quick to arrive, the regret and guilt she kept trapped deep in her heart had to be melted down slowly. It was hard to say anything back. So she only told him, “Look out for yourself,” as she stalked out of the room, leaving him to excuse himself from the premises. 

Shinobu looked up. The moon was a third of the way past the right hemisphere in the sky. Anytime now, it’d be time for Tomioka to switch with Shinazugawa. 

“The crows haven’t been coming to you,” he started. No, she thought. Not since before Muzan. Mostly, they’ve been reporting to him or Shinazugawa. Tomioka continued his thoughts, slowly this time, as if he was debating whether or not to even bring it up. “But there’s been an update in the Oyakata’s home.” 

She raised an eyebrow. Was it something so important that he’d have to tell her now? Or was it unimportant, and that was why the crows haven’t said anything to her? 

“That tsuguko of yours,” he said, stretching the syllables. “Kiriya-sama took it upon himself to announce her as a new pillar.” 

A buzz rang through her ears. Or were they crickets? No, now it was thumping. What was thumping? Was that her heart? She could have sworn her heart was frozen. Dead. Why did it rush blood through her veins and toward her head? 

She struggled for the words. Her permanent smile had fallen quickly, as if it were a sticker that was peeling at the edges. Was this serious? She supposed it was only right considering the trimmed force of the Hashira, but even after Muzan had been defeated? She thought the reason why none were announced was because the demons were slowly being brought down. Was there a need for a new pillar? 

Yes, of course there was a need. Just because Muzan had been defeated doesn’t mean there aren’t hordes of others waiting to snatch his position or wrecking havoc on people’s lives. 

She flexed her fingers, clawing them into her kimono. 

Was she upset that this was a most definite replacement? Of her? That she’d been officially forsaken as a demon to the masses and not a current comrade? Sure, she’d thought the entire time that she didn’t have a place anymore among the corps, but hearing it now was like drowning in the sea while wounds already festered her body. 

No, no, that wasn’t it either. 

Instead, she felt terrified

What did that mean for Kanao? Would she be thrown into more fatal missions? It was hard enough having to go through Douma with her. Through Muzan. What if there was another demon out there equally as powerful and then kill her while she was on a mission? Or what if she was just out and a demon attacked from her right side? She couldn’t even see thanks to her sacrifice during the fight with Douma. 

Shinobu should have forbade her from going out anymore--should have kept her in the estate so that she wouldn’t have to worry about her younger sister dying. Why couldn’t they have chosen Inosuke or Tanjirou or that snotty boy who was always crying? They were more than qualified. So why why why Kanao? 

Thinking about all the regret that’s piled up in her short life, she wished that she could just go numb. 

“You trained her well,” Tomioka said, breaking Shinobu’s thoughts. Her head whipped up, a glint of hope shining in her chrysanthemum-colored eyes. His gaze stopped right at the spot where she was desperately clutching at her kimono, balling it in tight fists. “She’ll be fine.” 

She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Had she been that nervous? Had he noticed that? Is that why he told her this? 

Perhaps it was a bit of a sham, and he was just pulling her leg, but in that moment, she genuinely felt affection and gratitude for the aloof man. She wanted, needed, prayed that this wasn’t a harbinger of what was to come. 

“What your sister said,” Tomioka continued. “I don’t think it was a pipe dream.” 

“Are you saying I’m wrong?” 

He froze, then continued. “Tanjirou and his sister have already shown it.” 

Shinobu felt like clicking her tongue. “Ah, the Kamado’s. But Nezuko’s probably an exception to the rule, I would think.” 

Tomioka’s eyes were an intense ocean blue, like the first sight of a sailor who’d just fallen in love. Something warm sent shivers through her body. 

“No,” he said. “You are, too.”

Chapter Text

They set out early in the morning. Unlike what Giyuu had previously promised, he thought it would be better to let Sanemi sleep. It’s not like his injuries had been fully healed within a week, and he simply wanted to let the man rest. However, when he woke him up at the break of dawn, the white haired man’s hand reached out and strangled him. 

“What the fuck kind of time is this to switch?!”

He shook Giyuu back and forth.

“You looked peaceful," was all the man had to say.

His eyes were like a charging bull. “Does this look peaceful to you?” 

Eventually, Sanemi let go with a scoff and they packed up the equipment, brushing off the dirt and stuffing it into a tiny sack. The white haired man muttered something under his breath about simply tossing the tent, but Giyuu commented how that would be wasteful. 

“Don’t eavesdrop!” 

As they walked, Sanemi plowed through leading the pack, not even caring that bandages still wrapped his torso. Giyuu hung back a little behind the muttering man near but in front of Shinobu. She walked in her non-uniform kimono as her gaze was hazily directed forward at rows and rows of paddy fields. He’d noticed that since he mentioned her tsuguko’s promotion, she’d been out of it. After their conversation arrived at an abrupt halt last night, she just folded her hands calmly over one another as she stared into the gradually brightening sky. 

He had had his doubts on whether or not he should have told her. Everything was still hazy on whether or not she was still considered an official Pillar now that she was a demon, and Kiriya wasn’t exactly a decisive person on that certain topic. But more than that, he wondered if it would have been distasteful to tell her that when even the crows haven’t announced it to her. That, to him, was the most shocking. Despite her transformation, he assumed she was still receiving regular updates from the Oyakata’s house, but it seemed like that had stopped altogether ever since the meeting regarding her situation. What did that mean? Did they consider her untrustworthy? Or was something else holding them back? 

He’d been wondering all this time, too, about her dream. He’d been in the lounge when the seamstresses called him to inform him that they’d fixed the clothes he sent to them. He meant only to enter her room to place them in the corner for when she awoke, but when he heard the violent thrashing and pleas, he rushed to her side. Cowering at the lack of knowledge of what to do, he only sat there, fumbling. 

He saw tears glisten from the corners of her eyes. She looked so small, so weak and vulnerable. This looked nothing like the Shinobu he knew. Where had that cheerful girl, whose words were sometimes poisonous and biting, go to? In her wake, did she leave behind a frail girl whose sadness bloomed, or had the girl been inside her all along? 

Reaching a hand out to brush the tears, he thought it would be nice if he could aleve her of some of the pain. They were all similar in that way. 

But her arm stretched and snatched the sleeve of his haori before he could brush away those tears of sorrow. 

Caw, Caw ,” cried the crow as it came circling around them. Giyuu looked up. He didn’t recognize it as his, so it must have been Sanemi’s. “Head south! Wind Hashira, head south! Demons in the mountains!” 

Sanemi clicked his tongue, snuffing his nose. He muttered. “More mountains? What’s Iguro doin’ down there even?” 

It was only at this time that Shinobu’s gaze focused. They held Sanemi’s eyes as he stared back at her, not glaring or intimidating, but thinking. From what Giyuu had witnessed some nights ago during the battle with the demons, the two hadn’t been on good terms. Even before, Sanemi had gone out of his way to appeal to Kiriya to put Shinobu down. 

For her part, she did well to maintain her composure. The crow had not asked for her. It only asked for Sanemi. She gave him her signature cheerful smile as she said, 

“Stay safe out there.” 

Did he hear a touch of sarcasm? Bitterness? He wasn’t sure. 

Rather than the angry or off-kiltered retort he’d come to expect from Sanemi, the man only brushed past Shinobu, raising a non-threatening fist to bump her on the head as he mumbled, “Whatever.” 

“Shinazugawa,” Giyuu called, as the man continued to stalk away. He stopped for a brief moment. “Look out for yourself.” 

Sanemi roared back with an irritated clip as he began picking up the pace. “Shut up!” 

Soon, the white haired man was out of sight amidst the rows and rows of paddy fields, and it was only those two. 

Shinobu stared at him for a long moment. Her lighter colored eyes studying him with careful scrutiny. What did he do? Had he said something? 

By the time he thought about saying something, she closed her eyes in a soft smile, breaking out of whatever she’d been considering as if the moment hadn’t happened at all. 

“Let’s go, shall we?” 

***

It was mid-afternoon by the time they reached the city, and it was bustling. So different it was from the quiet peacefulness of arid farmland and thick forests. A runner towing a cart with a couple dressed in western clothing flew past them and nearly knocked Shinobu down if not for Giyuu guiding her shoulder gently against him, pulling her out of danger. 

Her eyes widened for a mere second, her expression startled, but when she regained herself, she smiled poisonously at him as she said, “Am I unable to even walk without a babysitter?” 

She stalked away from him, ears tipped red as her small fists clenched like a child’s. 

Babysitter? He thought. Sanemi mentioned that, too. Same at the estate with Himejima. But Shinobu wasn’t a baby. Why would she think he was babysitting her? 

He’d thought this before, but it wasn’t obvious to him what he should look out for in others. 

Grimacing, he exhaled through his nose. Things were so much simpler when he was alone. 

There wasn’t exactly anything “off” per se about this city. For a city as large as this one, it wasn’t uncommon to hear about the disappearances of a few people, whether or not it was due to the demons’ influence. In fact, for a city of this size with two Hashira-level swordsmen, there had been an astonishingly low number of human disappearances. But the crows sent them here. So there must be something lurking underneath. 

They walked down a busy market lane selling meat, cloth, medicine, trinkets, and more when Giyuu decided to start questioning. 

He grabbed a lady wearing beige-colored western attire as he said, “Have you seen anything strange here lately?”

A large purse filled with what he imagined to be bricks clocked him in the face as the woman stomped away, huffing. He reached for his swollen cheek, touching it once with a dumbfounded look on his face. 

What did I do…?

Beside him, Shinobu stifled a giggle. It was rare for him to hear her laugh. The sound was light and fluttery, airy as a flute but as peaceful as a warm, spring day. Still, he was embarrassed. 

Straightening, he tried again by reaching out to another person, but before he could, the small girl lowered his arm. She smiled. 

“You’re as bad as ever at this, Tomioka-san.” It was said sweetly, as if what she stated hadn’t just pierced his ego.

He stiffened. Sulking, he chose to train his gaze elsewhere. Her hand was still on his sleeve. He remembered all too vaguely that time on Mount Natagumo. Was her opinion of him really so low? 

Tipping her chin down with a hand covering her mouth, her amusement seeped through her words. “You look so mean and suspicious I wouldn’t be surprised if she decides to report you as the strange one.” Opening her eyes to a half-lid, she let go of his sleeve, bringing them back down to her sides. “It’ll probably be alright even without questioning. When night falls, that’s when everything begins, isn’t it?” 

Giyuu wanted to respond back that that wasn’t protocol. They had to search for information — that was how things were done when they were up against demons. 

“Though if you’re really worried, this young lady will show you the ropes on basic conversation,” she said, cheerfully raising her fists. 

He frowned. She really was making fun of him now. 

So they did just that. They waited until night time for the demons to prowl — and, if they were fortunate enough, finish it before anybody’s life was lost. 

They walked up and down the city, stalking the busy streets and empty alleyways, peering into corners and bars. The scent of blood caught their attention once, but it was only a street fight outside of an izakaya that got rowdy because one man refused to pay his bill. They ignored him. 

But it was strange. For a city this large, there should have been something. For a city this large, they should have found something. But not a single demon had appeared either by sight or by ear or by scent. So what exactly had they been sent here to find? 

They checked into an inn at early dawn. Regardless of whatever rule Nezuko and Shinobu had been the exception to, it was still a known fact that all demons could not sustain themselves in sunlight. Hiding, they would wait out the day until the sun went down. For now, they’d rest. 

Giyuu hadn’t insisted on two separate rooms, but that is what he told the proprietress. When he returned back to the lounge with two separate keys for them, Shinobu knit her brows. 

“I don’t need to sleep,” she said, sitting on the wooden ledge where patrons took off their shoes. “I’m fine. Although, you refused to allow Shinazugawa-san take his shift and were up all last night, so you’d probably want to rest.” 

Giyuu replied, holding the key in front of him. “And you? Even if you’re fine, don’t forsake yourself.”

She looked at his hand, the key settled nicely on top of his own, a contemplative expression etched onto her face. Her eyes seemed to darken for a moment as she thought. 

People were beginning to wake. Market vendors spurred to life as the regular pounding of hammers into wood began, like a regular rooster at dawn. Winter was coming, so people had to get things done while they still had ample sunlight. 

Finally, swiping the key from his hand, she said, “Well, since you’ve already paid for it and all, I’ll take it. I’m heading out. Have a nice nap, Tomioka-san. 

“Kocho-”

He was cut off by the slam of the sliding door before he could say anything else. What was that look on her face? He hadn’t seen clearly. Frustration? Anger? 

Looking down at his right palm, only one key remained. She really took it. And then she left. Did she dislike him that much? 

Frowning, Giyuu retreated into his room for the day, wondering dismally if he would ever be likeable. 

***

Shinobu wandered the streets. Even though it was early in the morning, shopkeepers were shouting out as if it were midday and everybody had already had their lunch. Women lined the streets in their Western clothes as they peered inside shops with windows made of real glass. Men examined the latest automobile as if it were a new mining cave filled with jewels. The cities were foreign to Shinobu since she’d grown up in the rural areas of Japan all her life, so the tall buildings spooked her. 

Bumping into a small child skirting past her, her eye twitched.  Must it be so crowded? It was better last night when fewer people roamed. Granted, they could arguably be more raucous, and especially more promiscuous than the day. She recalled turning a corner and immediately retreating before Tomioka could ask any questions. 

“No demons,” she quipped as a hard pressed tight smile etched her face. 

But now in broad daylight in a densely packed city, she felt cramped and frustrated. 

Were cities always like this?

Pretty soon she was about to kick a little kid in the head by accident. 

She heard a person whistle low. 

“Those are some nice eyes you got there.” A man wearing a simple, dark brown yukata with thick socks and sandals eyed her. He walked closer to her, and she felt the familiar predacious eyes wander over her. “You don’t often see ones like those here.” 

He stood with one knee knocked to the side; it made him look like he had a gait. His long, black hair was twisted into a braid that he clipped messily to his scalp. Perhaps in his late twenties, early thirties. She felt like retching at the thought of him coming any closer. 

Frowning, she turned from him. 

“Hold on, Missy,” he said, catching up to her through the crowd of people. “It’s rude to ignore me like that.” 

She bit back. “I have no business with someone like you.” 

“It’s only a minute.”

“No, thank you.” 

He grabbed her by the shoulder then. She would have knee-ed him in the groin, but what he said caught her by surprise. 

“I’ve seen those eyes before. They’re a nasty omen.” 

A cold tingle sent her shivering. 

She narrowed her eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”

He cocked his head back, looked down at her with serious and dull eyes, a dimmed anger just slightly seeping through. “It means you’re a bad omen.” 

The space around them felt constricting. People of all ages bumped into her without a single care or apology. She heard one child cry for his mother, and one shopkeeper told him to quiet down. Another bent down to pick him up, place him on their shoulders, and asked what his mother looked like. A woman was shouting for a doctor. They were led away. She smelt the acridness of dried fish, the odor of perspiration from those around her. Everything honed in on her at once as she stared at the strange man. 

He was definitely human. He was definitely human, so how…

Had he lost somebody? 

His grip tightened on her shoulder as he furrowed his eyebrows. He sighed and let go. 

“Probably not,” he muttered. “It’s daylight.” 

With a last scrutinous look, he disappeared into the crowd as if he’d always been a part of it. 

Shinobu let loose a breath. He’d seen it. It had only been a flicker of a second, but he saw that she was a demon. He’d encountered demons before. And it definitely hadn’t been good. How many others? How many others could tell what she was? Did they feel disgusted? Did they feel shame when they looked at her? 

She clenched her fists. Her toes curled in as they dug into her sandals and into the dirt. 

She felt disgusted . She felt humiliated.  

Standing there, in the middle of that crowded market street, she wanted to bend down. She wished that she had never woken up from that coma. She wished she could stay in that dream state with her sister. She wanted Kanae to be here with her. She wanted her family. 

A hand touched her shoulder gently. Whipping her head, she raised her hand to slap them when she paused midway. Her bright, chrysanthemum eyes widened, dilating as if she’d never seen anything brighter than what stood before her. Her mouth quivered only once. 

Staring at her with a worried expression, hands tucked close to her chest in question, was a sister she had wished to see. The familiar butterfly haori draped around her shoulders, enveloping her like it was always meant to be. She tilted her head slightly, her side ponytail drifting one way. In a soft, tender voice, she said, 

“Master?”

Chapter Text

Kanao hadn’t seen her master for only a short time, but to her, it felt like a worn string between them had been soaked then stretched. A fluttery feeling came to her when she saw Shinobu standing in the crowd of dozens in the large city. She hadn’t been made aware by the crows that anyone else was coming here. Having been sent to the urban spaces in this area a few weeks ago, she’d done the best she could. Subduing obvious demons in the closest city 5 km away had been simple, and the one on the port had many scrawling, but they didn’t seem to be as scared of her as they seemed to fear something else. 

Regardless, she did her job and was here in the city of Chomachi (1). Her master was here. Her master was here and alive . The simple thought of life had never seemed so precious to her before. Clutching a closed fist close to her chest, she smiled. 

“Master? Are you alright?” 

Her sister straightened herself abruptly. Her bright, iridescent eyes widened as her mouth formed a tiny ‘o’ shape at the corners. Kanao noticed the stark difference in Shinobu’s person as soon as she found her under all the rubble and debris that day. Long, claw-like nails that had been stained and crusted with blood; fangs that protruded ever so slightly compared to the rest of her teeth. Shinobu had been pale before, but it looked like she was dead when Kanao reached her. Panic and fear swelled through her until she noticed the gentle lulls in her chest, up and down they breathed. 

She knew what Douma had done to her. She knew the person Shinobu had been to her until that point would likely never be the same. She knew all of that, but she couldn’t help but thank the gods that they spared her one and only family. 

Blinking once, her master tensed before smiling softly. Her shoulders relaxed. 

“Kanao,” she said. Her eyes flickered to Kanao’s haori, of which she let the arm sleeves loose like a cape.

Shinobu’s voice has always been calming and beautiful. When she first met her, both Shinobu and Kanae had been there; and while Kanae might have been the one who came to her first, Shinobu was the one who took care of her. Always a watchful and attentive figure in her life, especially following Kanae’s passing, she offered something which Kanao had never experienced before as a slave. Dutiful affection.

“It’s been a while,” Shinobu said, her eyes fluttering half-lidded. The lovely smile she mirrored in honor of Kanae faltered and took on a pained expression. It wasn’t an obvious shift, but after years of studying her master, Kanao was sure of it. 

Teetering on the balls of her feet, Kanao looked down at the ground. What was this feeling? Her master was here, and she was alive, so why did she feel insecure all of a sudden? 

“Master,” she said again, twiddling her fingers in front of her. She looked up bashfully, hoping to find some indication of something besides whatever shift in aura just occurred in Shinobu. She was startled to find that it had disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. “Are you here on mission?” 

“The crows led Tomioka-san and I here,” she said. 

A memory of the day Shinobu finally woke up abruptly flashed through Kanao’s mind. 

She’d gone there. To the sun. To burn. Why? 

And then the water pillar… It’d only been a flex of the wrist, likely out of necessity, but she saw it. If she hadn’t thrown herself on her master, he would have tried to kill her. 

He didn’t, but the fact remains that he tried, and Kanao will never forgive him for nearly taking her master away from her. 

But why did Shinobu run outside? Why did she fling herself from Kanao’s reach in that room and propel anywhere but there? 

Her lip quivered, but she didn’t want to appear weak. She already knew the answer. The answer had been right there in Shinobu’s declaration after Kanae died. She couldn’t bring herself to forgive any demons. 

And that included her. 

But the sun didn’t burn her. Just like Tanjirou’s sister, her master didn’t disappear. She didn’t know if it could be considered a stroke of great luck or misfortune, but it didn’t matter. Shinobu, her master… her sister was still alive. 

Having sensed Kanao’s change in mood, Shinobu raised her pitch a bit, smiling cheerfully. “Let’s move somewhere else, shall we? It’s a little crowded here to catch up.” 

Ah, she thought. That was so like her master. Always attentive to others and about herself. Always focused on retaining Kanae’s image. 

But, she thought as Shinobu took her hand tenderly. Her eyes were locked on Shinobu’s small back. It seemed to shrink further and further each day — has been shrinking since Kanae’s death, and diminishing since she took on this new form. But, she thought, as she was towed gently along by the warm hand of the person who she cherished most in this world. 

It’s okay to let go in front of me

***

It was around midday when Giyuu awoke. His throat was parched and his stomach rumbled. His eyes squinted as he looked around the small, tatami mat room. It was one of the more traditional inns in this city, and he appreciated how it maintained the country’s cultural influences. Still, he couldn’t see. 

Pushing himself up from his futon, he opened the blinds. He hissed slightly, wincing as the bright, piercing sun of late fall entered his vision. 

Sliding the door to his room open, he noticed a large bustle from the inn workers — mostly women — as they ran to and fro carrying bed sheets or plates of food. He tried to get the attention of one woman to bring food to his room, but she just bounded past him, aging worry lines etched into her forehead, shouting, “ Out of the way, out of the way!”  

A dumbfounded look shriveled his features. Was he… a pushover? Did she even see him? 

In the first place, why was it this busy? 

He could ponder the question all day, but one thing was positive. 

He needed some food. 

He chose to walk down the busy market path. At midday, the place bulged with a higher density than it had the previous day when they arrived in the late afternoon. Random bodies kept pressing into him, causing a domino effect to erupt as people shouted at him. He was flustered as he tried to say, “No, I’m not- I didn’t-” 

“Get outta here!”

His shoulders slumped. 

He had only tried to apologize. 

Eventually, he made his way to a noodle shop that was located near one of the delta rivers that opened to the ocean a few kilometers down. It was quieter and a lot more humble than some of the extravagances one could find inside of the inner city, but he didn’t really want to deal with that. 

It was a small shop that hosted only a few high stool booth seats on the outside while the chefs worked from behind the counter. Stepping up, he sighed as he moved the half-curtain designed with a sushi chef octopus. 

“Excuse me, one udo-”

“Another please!” An overeager, airy and feminine voice said. 

His eyes widened slightly as he saw a familiar head of pink and green, whose mouth was stuffed to the brim with noodles. Her face flamed red as she started coughing, desperately pounding at her chest while she pitifully reached for a glass of water. Giyuu only sat down and grabbed the glass for her as she swiftly took it and chugged it down. 

“To-To-To-To-”

“Kanroji,” he greeted, before repeating his order to the chef. His eyes slid over to Kanroji, who sat patting her red cheeks, trembling as she looked down. Was she smiling? No, well, it kind of looked forced. 

“Tomioka-san!” Finally, she was able to calm down enough where she wasn’t stuttering anymore. “What are you doing here?” 

Why? Well, 

“Kochou and I came here-” 

Kyaaa~! Are you two here on a date?” 

“-on a mission.” 

Her eyes widened like dinner plates, and she immediately turned a deep red as she looked meekly down at her lap, her hands squirming in between them. 

She mumbled, “Haha, right right. Please forget what I said.” 

They sat in silence for a time. There was only a single chef at this establishment who worked with the water boiling, flipping and drying noodles as he set them in bowls or plates. Once, a young boy hollered into the stall from the other corner wall about selling herbs, and the chef handed him a few coins. 

Giyuu had never really talked to Kanroji before. Well, it was a given that he hadn’t really spoken to many, if any, of the other pillars in his past. What was he really supposed to talk to her about? He could only speak about ohagi to Sanemi because the pillar secretly enjoyed the treat. And even then, he hadn’t known that until Tanjirou told him. But with Kanroji…

Glancing over, he noticed for the first time a pile of ten wooden bowls stacked atop each other to her right side. 

Did she...Did she eat all of that?

She fidgeted in her seat, glancing at him every so often. Did he unnerve her that much? Should he leave? It’d be better to avoid an awkward confrontation if she didn’t like him. 

But the chef caught him before he could make that decision. 

“Here you go,” he said, placing a massive bowl of beef ramen down. 

“Um, this isn’t-”

“Thanks!” Kanroji said as she picked up her chopsticks and spoon. Her green eyes flickered over to Giyuu’s for a moment, and sheepishly, she laughed. “It’s a lot, right?” 

“Sorry about that,” said the chef, setting down Giyuu’s significantly smaller bowl of udon. He cracked open a pair of wooden chopsticks. They broke unevenly. 

Digging in, Giyuu didn’t reply back. Instead, all he could think of was the stomach that was slowly being filled. 

Kanroji picked at her noodles. She shoved seaweed to one side and beef to the other but otherwise didn’t eat anything. A sad smile caressed her features. 

“We’re never together like this, are we? Outside of Pillar meetings, I mean,” she said. 

“I thought you were in the west,” said Giyuu, his spoonful of soup hovering just above his bowl. “What are you doing here?” 

Again, she turned shy. Rubbing the back of her head nervously, she said, “Haha, about that. My younger brother’s getting married next week. I asked Kiriy-I mean Oyakata-sama about it. I’m from a town a little further north than this actually, but I stopped by so I could get him a present. It’s a little shameful, isn’t it? To want to celebrate a wedding right now?” 

“Is it?” 

“W-w-well, because we’re Pillars, aren’t we? There are probably so many people that need our help, but here I am excited about a simple wedding,” she said, hands on her cheeks. They were warm again. “But, of course I want to see him get married.” 

Giyuu stared at his bowl of noodles. They were hot. The steam hit him in the face when he looked down. He saw his own reflection in the spaces where the pool of liquid hadn’t been interrupted by chutes or noodles. He pushed around the food, stabbing it, erasing the image. 

“It’s your younger brother. Go,” he said, his eyes trailing downward. He couldn’t really make eye contact with Kanroji. How could he?

She was quiet a minute. Another person came in for lunch and placed his order. The cold crept up Giyuu’s back, an icy, prickling feeling. Familiar, but distant. 

“Tomioka-san,” she said, but it didn’t sound right. She seemed to want to phrase things delicately. “Don’t you ever want to get married?”

His shoulders sunk inwards. 

Marriage? A wife? A future? It was a foreign concept, difficult to grasp and come to terms with. All his life, he’d been regretting take that opportunity at life from his elder sister. If anybody should get married, it should have been her. It should have Sabito. If he had to go the rest of his life without ever getting married, he’d prefer it that way. How could he choose happiness when so many others had theirs cut short? 

He touched his left cheek. He could still feel the sting from all those years ago. 

It was easy to say you were going to change, but it’s harder to actually do it. 

He wouldn’t ever get married. In a way, that was a fitting punishment for him. 

He opened his mouth. “I-”

“You see,” Kanroji said, pumping her fists energetically. Giyuu dropped his chopsticks. He clambered for another pair. “I joined the corps so I could find a husband. Nobody wants a wife who’s stronger than them. At first, I tried to be weak. But that didn’t work! Then I tried to not eat so much. But you see this—I love food! So I told myself I was going to find somebody stronger than me. Because everybody deserves somebody, and if you haven’t found them yet, you will soon. I believe in you, Tomioka-san!” 

She ended by slapping him roughly on the back, causing him to drop his new pair of chopsticks. 

He held in a pitiful grunt. 

That hurt…  

He was pretty sure it’d form into a giant welt soon.

Still, how could she be so cheerful about something that she couldn’t even be sure of? When she talked about marriage, her face lit up and her eyes sparkled. He’d known Kanroji for a long time, but it was this girlish side of her that he rarely ever saw. It was silly and kind of ridiculous. What could marriage possibly accomplish for those that were on their side of occupation?

He looked at her, grinning cheeks and all.

Getting worked up over romance and starting a family has never been on his mind, but it seemed like everything she did was part of an effort toward achieving that dream. He felt guilty all of a sudden.

She picked up a large bite of noodles and blew on it. 

Although, finding someone who was stronger than her…

“Have you asked Himejima, Kanroji?” 

Red and angered, she dropped her noodles and gaped. “How could you ask me that, Tomioka-san!”

“Uzui has a few wives, but I’m sure-”

“I want to be an only wife!” Puffing her warm cheeks, she sighed as she picked up another serving in her chopsticks. She mumbled, pouting. “Besides, I still need to find a gift for my younger brother first.” 

“If you need an opinion, ask Kochou.”

“Shinobu-chan…” Kanroji’s eyes were contemplative as she looked down. By this time, her noodles had already cooled and she hadn’t even eaten a single bit. She smiled softly, but it wasn’t a kind expression. “What do I do? I’m not sure how I would even talk to Shinobu-chan.” 

Giyuu raised an eyebrow. Had she ever had trouble before? They were always the only two female pillars, so they naturally gravitated toward each other, and he’d never known Kanroji to be distant either. Yet, as her shoulders slunk down, her head tilted one way as her eyes averted from his, he couldn’t help but think she looked guilty. 

But it’s not like he couldn’t sympathize in some way. After that day at the Butterfly Estate, he couldn’t really bring himself to see Shinobu, much less talk to her. If it hadn’t been for the demons on that mountaintop village, he doubted he’d ever get the chance to ever properly talk to her. Still. 

“Kochou…,” he started. He thought of his sister. His sister who shone so brightly it hurt, whose beautiful smile never failed to cheer him up. Whose strength outdid anything he could ever hope to accomplish. “Kochou isn’t weak.” 

***

They had walked for a while, simply taking in the scenery of the river, the market, the land. They stopped once for some treats, which Shinobu pulled out a few coins to pay the tender. It was odd, she thought, for the two of them to be out like this. A flurry of torrenting emotions raced through her every time she looked at the young girl’s placid face, but still she couldn’t help but well at the sight of her youngest sister there. In person. 

But now she was a Pillar. 

They sat on a stone bench on the river bank, overshadowed by the bare trunks of great oaks and surrounded by fallen and dry orange, yellow, red leaves that littered the ground. The leaves crunched underneath her sandal every time she moved her feet. 

“Kanao,” Shinobu said. The girl’s head perked up. “What’s on your mind?”

“Huh?” 

“Is your right eye still hurting?”

“No, it’s…” 

“How was the city? Are people treating you right?” 

“It’s been fine. I’ve…”

Shinobu frowned. “Are the demons giving you trouble?” 

Kanao jolted. She fumbled with her fingers. Her eyes darted back and forth between her master and her lap. “N-no. No, everything’s been oka-”

“How do you feel about giving up being a swordswoman?” 

She knew it was a cheap shot. She knew she was being unfair. She knew that she was doing something unbelievably stupid and insensitive, but she needed to at least say it. 

“Muzan’s gone. Pretty soon, all demons will be exterminated. There’s not really much of a need for us anymore if you think about it.” 

“But…” 

Shinobu hardened her gaze. “You’ve done enough. You can just stop. Settle down and have a family, Kanao.” 

“Master,” Kanao said, leaning in warily. Shinobu pressed her lips together tightly. “Are you alright?”

Standing up abruptly, Shinobu clenched her fists, biting down on her bottom lip. She steeled herself as she mustered up the best smile she could. 

“I want you to live your life for something else, Kanao. I’m sorry for being so selfish this entire time. Please, you can stop now.” 

The breeze picked up near the river overlooking the ocean. It was chilly, if not a bit brisk. If she’d been here in any other situation, she would have stomped back inside to go warm up by the fireplace, but today, it felt oddly reassuring. 

The cold and her were two sides of the same coin. Never alive but still present. 

She hated winter. 

Kanao whispered. “How can I?” 

Shinobu turned slightly, looking down at the girl whose fists trembled. 

Kanao flung her head forward, gazing directly into Shinobu’s eyes with her one good eye and one partial vision. “How can I? What will you do then? Will you promise to come with me? Will you swear to stay by my side?”

Shinobu had never known Kanao to be vocal about her feelings. Not once since they ran away from the slave trader with her in a messy tow behind them, not once since inviting her into their home, not once since Kanae died or since Shinobu began mentoring her has she ever heard Kanao speak her mind. Only a semblance appeared after Tanjirou arrived, but what of this? What was this determination, this desperation? Swallowing, she found it hard to speak. 

“You should have never been brought into this world of demons. I was selfish in dragging you into this. You’ve just been made a pillar, but you can turn it down. Turn it down, Kanao.” 

“But-”

“Are you disobeying the words of your master?” Shinobu asked quietly. Kanao winced. “As the head of our house and as your master, do you intend to disobey?” 

Kanao didn’t respond. Instead, she lowered her head as she folded her palms, gripping her fingers tightly in her lap. A shudder of wind tore between them. 

She didn’t like this. Not one bit. But if it got Kanao out of any further harm’s way… She’d truly been an idiot this entire time, hasn’t she? Because of her, Kanao’s vision had suffered beyond repair. Because of her, Kanao had been subjected to the mental torture and trauma of demons. She was only a girl. It’s not like she had lost her family to demons. So why did Shinobu ever insist on bringing her into it? 

She wasn’t a good sister. No, she was the furthest thing from it. Kanae was proof of that. How could she ever compare to her kind, lovely sister? She should have been the one to guide Kanao, teach her about life, and stood next to her when she finally got married. Instead, what she had was a failure of a sister and a mentor for ever having brought her into it. 

Kanae once told Shinobu to give up slaying demons. Now Shinobu was doing the same. What a strange, ironic twist of fate. 

It looked like Kanao wanted to say more, but Shinobu had pressed her. She wouldn’t hear of it. 

In the corner of her eye, Shinobu spotted something emerging from the bushes. Black. Spinning eyes. And a single parchment on its forehead. The corners of her lips screwed upwards tenuously, painfully. So they were here. What rotten luck she had.