Born in the Rengoku family, the infamous line that produces generations of Flame Pillar, without exceptional ability to wield a demon slayer sword had put a permanent scar in Senjurou’s soul, even though he does his best to hide it from his ever optimist brother and uncaring father. He still remembers the day he sat frozen, colorless nichirin blade gripped so tight his hands hurt, and the stricken face of Kyoujurou when he found him late in the night. He remembers the way his big, brilliant, amazing brother talked in an uncharacteristic frantic tone to assure him that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change anything, and there are other paths he can choose other than taking up arms against humanity’s old enemies.
Senjurou is sure he’d cried like a baby then, seeking comfort in Kyoujurou’s strong embrace wishing everything his brother said is true, but Shinjurou’s eldest son admitted with troubled look in his eyes, that he’d been worried about the lack of response from Senjurou, whose ashen visage turned down all the time the Flame Pillar tried to get his little brother a bit better from the whole ordeal.
That night had been the first in a long time he’d gotten to sleep with his big brother since he’d been a clueless toddler in the wake of their mother’s death. But it was also the day a part of him had broken into pieces, shattered beyond repair.
Senjurou begins to withdraw from sword training gradually. He never refuses Kyoujurou’s invitation to train together, but aside from that, his wooden sword remains untouched, and the nichirin blade tucked away in the storage room. Sharp with a Pillar’s instinct, Kyoujurou’s bound to notice Senjurou’s diminishing reflexes. Even their father had sneered and threw scathing remarks about how it’s damn time his no good offspring realized the uselessness of it all, that he is doomed from the start, and he should be focusing on becoming a housewife if he had no talent to speak of.
Ever an obedient son, Senjurou collected the biting words and committed them into memories, not unlike lifetime bits of advice all parents liked to bestow upon their children.
Their ancestral house should’ve been impossible to maintain alone, but Senjurou does it anyway. A nice old granny that lives down the street teaches him how to do household chores efficiently, often rewarding his hard works with loads of delicious food to take home and elderly praises. Senjurou always visits without fail, finding the warm atmosphere a coveted reprieve from the daunting silence his own home emits without his brother’s presence to chase it away. In return, he offers a good company and helps in whatever way he could, his throat clogged whenever granny mentioned his similarity to her deceased grandson.
His life settles into a routine, and if Senjurou is a little disappointed with how meaningless it is, no one knows.
He doesn’t mind waking up before dawn, changes into plain clothes and tying up his sleeves before he goes outside to draw water from the garden well, dividing the buckets according to where and how much he needs them (it’s usually ten buckets to fill the giant ceramic water jar in the kitchen, fifteen for bathtub, and three for watering the plants and yard). He cleans the estate as the neighbor’s rooster dutifully crows, and sweeps the dry leaves that accumulate overnight. When the sun is a little higher, Uncle Yato arrives, pulling his cart brimming with vegetables, meat, and other ingredients as Senjurou finishes his morning tasks, and Senjurou enjoys the stories the older man tells while he pondered over his purchases.
Afterward, he bathes and wears his hakama. Father sleeps until noon, so Senjurou is used to have breakfast alone. His small body feels out of balance in the large dining room, but he is accustomed to it, like many other things.
Still, it’s only when Kyoujurou comes home that Senjurou’s view cleared, his steps hastened with spring-blooming underneath, and his smiles curved easier. He hugs and clings to his brother in greeting, wide adoring eyes drink in the sight of Kyoujurou’s state as he assesses the injuries the Flame Pillar had attained in his time away. Kyoujurou indulges him every time he asks and probes, but he gets tickled playfully until he is out of breath when Kyoujurou can’t catch up with his running mouth.
As they head inside, Senjurou would press close to his brother’s side, hand twitching undecidedly before shyly grasps Kyoujurou’s in a loose hold, and the larger appendage would squeeze back, its owner tilted his head down to offer a fond smile.
“Welcome home, Onii-sama!”
There is a school in the village that Senjurou attends every two days. The school teacher is a retired government official who loathes the idea of lazing around in his old age. He had accepted little Senjurou, fumbling and stammering, with strict yet kind attitude, showing indifference to his apparent lineage, and Senjurou admires him a bit too quickly because of that.
At school, he has few friends. He’s not unfriendly, but his meek behavior and strange coloring set him apart from the other kids. Senjurou knows it’s partly because of his family reputation too; Father’s drinking habit and Kyoujurou’s loud character paint a slightly distorted image in the villagers’ eyes, but Senjurou won’t befriend someone who judges him for something like that either.
Kyoujurou always reminds him to cherish everything good in his life, an advice held close in his heart as Senjurou treasures Suzume’s quiet laughter and Hideyoshi’s crooked grin. It’s what he remembers as he’s writing his letters, recounting his school days’ events, what misadventure he’s been roped into at times, and Teacher’s stern scoldings that’s always ended with him caving in to their puppy eyes.
Senjurou can’t stand cold air or weather; even the slightest breeze is capable of rendering him shivering. Donning his black haori often left him with a deep-seated heartache, as it is yet another fact that points out how he has no blazing fire his family is well-known for. Father’s fire had burned so bright before it flickered out, and Kyoujurou’s… Kyoujurou’s razes whatever obstacles in his path.
Kyoujurou is a walking furnace, his fire inside his body not only strengthen his wills but also keeps him immune even against the coldest winter night.
It is no wonder Senjurou never begrudges his beloved brother when he keeps forgetting to close the sliding doors that letting the strong wind in, or stoking fires in the hearth so the hot air could spread throughout the house.
Although it means Senjurou has to go through lengthy measures to stay warm, he loves his brother too much to be mad at him. Besides, such small oversights are hardly unforgivable. It helps that Kyoujurou is a tactile person, another inherited treat, meaning he has no qualms about Senjurou burrowing his cold nose in his chest or slumping over his front or tangling their limbs under thick blankets to share body heat.
Once in awhile, Kyoujurou would buy him a new haori or scarf of the highest quality. Senjurou is uncomfortable having someone spend so much money on him, and he had told Kyoujurou as much, but his exuberant older brother dismissed those protests. He’d gotten on one knee and cupped his round face, saying,
“It’s never too much with you, Senjurou. I want to make you happy, and you shouldn’t feel bad about getting gifts from me!” Because our parents can’t do it for you. “I’ll be happy too if you use them well!”
Senjurou’s breath hitched, and he wondered how could someone be so perfect. And how lucky he is to be his little brother.
Kyoujurou is the sun, and Senjurou never feels cold with him around.
Out of necessity, Senjurou learns how to cook. Before Kyoujurou holds the Flame Pillar position and becomes busy with his duties, their family’d had a helper, but now the kind aunt who helps with laundry can’t spare any more time beyond a brief in and out in the evenings. Seeing his predicament, granny is determined to include cooking in her already extensive list of ‘things-little-Senjurou-has-to-master’. Senjurou finds himself tending to granny’s potager garden or accompanying her to the market because Uncle Yato’s cart is not enough to satisfy granny’s complicated menus. Senjurou learns how to differentiate between herbs and shrubs, their uses, how to make pickled vegetables, and so on.
The first dish he’d mastered is hoto noodles and steamed rice with umeboshi. He’d presented it to Father at dinner, and the only response he’d gotten is a slight pause and subtle nod.
It makes his heart a bit lighter, a welcome change from the uneasy atmosphere created from both males’ inability to connect. In the end, Senjurou is almost startled out of his mind when Father puts his enormous hand on top of his head.
The prized memory motivates him to work harder.
He cooks miso-glazed sweet potatoes when Kyoujurou visits. Senjurou is pretty sure he had burned it a little, but his big brother eats it with vigor, shouting praises and demanding another helping. Kyoujurou demolishes an entire pot’s worth serving and only barely restrained himself from devouring Father’s share. His beaming grin as he thanks Senjurou for the delicious meal is nothing short of the first sunlight after a year-long winter, and Senjurou feels the heat in his cheeks and eyes. He’s only aware he is crying when Kyoujurou’s gentle thumbs are wiping his tears off.
“You are wonderful, Senjurou! You make sure the house stays clean and orderly, your cooking is tasty, you’ve got a big heart and so kind too!” Kyoujurou laughs affectionately; his hands are stroking Senjurou’s cheeks. “I don’t doubt that you’ll be a great person because you’ve already had all the makings!”
Senjurou leans into Kyoujurou’s touch. His bright grin portrays just a small portion of his brimming feelings. “Un! I’ll be a great, kind person like you, Onii-sama!”
Later, bundled up and full of energy, Senjurou and Kyoujurou baked sweet potatoes in the backyard. The moon was particularly beautiful, and as the brothers enjoyed their favorite food, huddled close together, Senjurou found himself praying to the gods to let them stay forever like this.
He would never be an astounding swordsman, but at least he is grateful to know that his family is here with him.
Then, the devastating news came.
His big brother’s crow, which Senjurou loves to spoil rotten, relays the message. Father had been watching pensively as Senjurou falls on his knees, weeping because his entire world has crumbled down, and nothing makes sense anymore.
They said Rengoku Kyoujurou had done his duties gallantly.
They said the Flame Pillar had died honorably.
But they didn’t say that the Rengoku family had lost its light completely.
The day passes in a blur. It’s like everything is underwater, the darkness is suffocating, and the lack of oxygen crushes his lungs brutally. Senjurou lies unmoving in the entryway after he has tripped over his feet, his entire being screaming and screaming and screaming it’s unreal.
It’s so much worse when Kyoujurou’s body is delivered the next day to be cremated. All his belongings returned with words of grievance and empathies. Numb all over, Senjurou forces himself to swallow the bile that rises in his throat just for a while so his big brother can receive the last farewell he deserved. The other Pillars showed up to help and attend the funeral; Kanroji-san is sobbing uncontrollably, but she is still trying to comfort him, Himejima-san is offering to lead the ceremony with tears flowing down his cheeks, and Uzui-san -who is aware of their family’s condition- keeps an eye on Father who refuses to go out of his room. Shinazugawa-san is sitting upright in the corner, yet his hard eyes soften ever so slightly when they land on him. Shinobu-san is holding Tokitou-san’s hand as they settle beside him, her free hand a grounding weight on his shoulder, and Iguro-san’s snake curls on his lap like a guardian. Tomioka-san is a silent silhouette on the other side of the sliding doors, staying vigil to ensure the procession runs smoothly.
Granny comes with Suzume and Hideyoshi in tow. The Pillars give them wide berth when they approach Senjurou, shared pain in their eyes and consoling limbs wrapped tightly around him.
The room is filled with people, but the commotion hardly reaches Senjurou’s senses.
It doesn’t matter anyway.
The moment Kyoujurou’s soul passes on, Senjurou’s follows suit.
God, why don't you take me too?