Aoi is no stranger to tragedy.
She used to have a large family. A father, a mother, and siblings. A family that one day was there and then it wasn’t, all of them killed by demons. A fate that she would have shared if Kanae and Shinobu hadn’t saved her life and taken her as a student. She remembers revenge being the goal, goal that she couldn’t fulfill after realizing that even after all that training she was still a scared little girl that couldn’t fight.
Yet again -- Shinobu had reassured her it was no problem, that medics are important too (her master looked kinda relieved when she told her, to be honest). So she threw herself into it, maybe she couldn’t fight alongside Shinobu like Kanao did. But she could help by getting them back to shape, it is an important job, Aoi knows. Even if sometimes she doesn’t quite believe it.
Aoi is no stranger to tragedy.
It doesn’t make things better when she sees the bodies.
People that she doesn’t recognize, people she does. Tanjirou is barely alive but he made it, same with Zenitsu and Inosuke. The demons are gone, but the evil they have done will last long enough and you never know if they can return. She tries her best to save Kanao’s eye, but it is useless, they both know it. And she wonders why she is so useless that she couldn’t fight alongside her or save her eye.
“It is fine.” Kanao reassures her “Demon slayers are prepared to lose everything in battle, an eye is just an eye.”
“...The little ones are asking.” Aoi knows it, she had known the moment she didn’t see Shinobu enter with the other Hashira, but it had to be asked. Because even with losing their parents, Sumi, Naho and Kiyo are too young to understand “They’re asking where Shinobu is.”
She sees Kanao’s eyes go dark -- similar how the Wind Hashira’s eyes are even when he was unconscious, similar how Tanjirou’s eyes are after losing so many comrades. She has known since she saw Kanao hold onto Shinobu’s hairpin when she thought nobody was looking at her.
“...We couldn’t have killed the Upper Moon without her.” Kanao says, and neither of them speak a word.
Aoi is familiar with tragedy -- she knows demon slayers die all the time. That’s why she stayed behind, didn’t she? To help them to stay on the side of the living. She knew every time Shinobu went on a mission there was a risk, same with Kanao. But part of her was childish enough to believe they were almost invincible -- even if Kanae died against the Upper Moon, it was impossible for it to happen again.
Shinobu was dead.
“I’ll be the one to tell them.” She finally says, and Aoi is stricken by how much Kanao has changed these months “It is only fair.”
She doesn’t fight it. Maybe when she tells them -- maybe when they prepare for the...the funeral, it will sink on Aoi’s bones.
“I must go check on the others.”
“Please do. Please keep Inosuke safe, I -- we wouldn’t have made it without him either.”
And Aoi does, because it is not the time for breaking. Not yet.
There is no body to bury, but her grave is next to Kanae’s, as it would be her wish.
The little ones don’t cry this time, Naho and Kiyo both clinging to each of Kanao’s hands and Maho is clinging on Aoi’s. None of them speak a word as the reality sets in for all of them -- the remaining pillars attend as well, giving them condolences that she doesn’t want. She wants Shinobu, she wants Kanae, she wants her fucking family back and it’s driving her insane.
Tanjirou and the others had been there too, to pay their respects. Aoi was against it -- all their wounds were yet to close and a near death experience needs time to heal, she was about to yell at Tanjirou until Kanao told her to let them pay respects and they’d be back at the nursing room. Tanjirou had shown a genuine smile and was very grateful for the permission, Inosuke stood next to Kanao in an almost silent understanding (like the battle against Douma had somehow made them understand one another) and even Zenitsu was quiet.
“Grandpa -- my teacher.” He tells her “Committed seppuku because my senior betrayed us and became a demon. I faced him, and killed him.”
Aoi can’t help but gasp.
“Was he an upper moon?”
When she first met Zenitsu, she thought he was an annoying, selfish, brat. She wondered how he was an active member of the corps on the first place, now he is -- he has lost someone dear to him. Even if it was a senior who turned his back on the corps. She doesn’t know what to say except.
“I bet your master is proud.”
“I guess.” He answers “I plan to go where I trained to pay respects after I heal.” and then he adds “Kochou-san must be proud of all of you, too.”
It’s somehow the closest condolence she can accept.
Even after the funeral, it doesn’t feel real.
Kanao becomes a Hashira -- as it was always meant to be (but not this soon, and Shinobu should have been here) for killing an upper moon with the help of Inosuke, who alongside Tanjirou and Zenitsu become pillars too. The ceremony is small, and their job as hashiras is more defensive now, helping to rebuild the organization from scratch, giving them time to properly heal.
Naho, Kiyo and Sumi have been given a day off their duties, they’ve been holding up for too long. They need rest and time to properly mourn the death of their mentor. The doctors would do okay without her for a couple minutes.
She finds Kanao sitting alone trying (and failing) to fix Kanae’s hairpin, she’s incredibly skilled in battle and deserves her position as new hashira, but seeing her struggle with glue it’s almost comical -- Aoi would have laughed if had remembered how to. But she must have made a sound, because Kanao stopped her struggle with glue to look at her.
“I’ll fix it for you.” She offers “I’ll combine it with Shinobu’s, if you like.”
The other girl shakes her head.
“I appreciate it, Aoi.” She cleans the glue off the hairpin as she continues “But -- I feel I must do it, I have to fix it.”
“I can’t believe she is gone.” And she knows she must accept it -- it is no good to wait her master to suddenly show up with a smile saying “Kidding~” and Kanao would be in shock and Aoi would yell at her and Shinobu would laugh as she hugged the little ones “She was --”
“She was the strongest person I knew.” Kanao finishes “She never realized -- she was so strong, not everything is physical strength. She was so skilled and warm and kind...I -- I…I’m sorry.”
There is a silence between them that dawns into realization, Aoi knows by the way Kanao is shaking as if she’s trying to hold it all together. Aoi remembers Shinobu looking a little sad last time she saw her, that she ought to take care of the Butterfly Estate while her and Kanao were gone.
“You knew?” And there is no blame on her voice -- she can’t, this had to be a planned by their late master, after all “Did you know she was going to die?”
“I told you before.” Kanao whispers “That we wouldn’t have done it without her -- she said that...she said that in order to kill the demon who killed our sister she would have to sacrifice herself. It was her experiments with poison that made it possible to defeat Douma.” She takes a deep breath “I’m sorry.”
And she started to cry.
She had never seen Kanao cry before -- she didn’t know a lot about her past before arriving to the Estate. But Shinobu had made it clear that she had gone through difficult situations (“Some humans can be demons.” Kanae had said when she asked her, and the topic had been never been brought up again ever since). She had changed a lot for the better, but she still had felt a bit...distant. Not close enough to reach. Seeing her cry -- seeing her cry makes her want to...
Aoi doesn’t even know when she starts crying, but she knows why she’s crying, she cries for Kanae’s kindness, Shinobu’s determination and sacrifice ( “I used to be a lot like you” She would tell her, it makes Aoi cry harder), she cries for Kanao because she was back home and she’s absolutely the one that has suffered the most through all this war, but she cries for herself and the younger ones too.
She doesn’t know at what point Kanao pulls her into a hug, but she doesn’t shy away from it -- if anything it makes her cry harder, it is getting harder to breathe but at the very same time there’s a catharsis to it.
“I’m sorry.” Kanao says between sobs “I-I want-ed to…”
I wanted us to come home together.
“I know.” Aoi replies, and she starts sobbing again.
“Thank you for your hard work, as always!” Tanjirou smiles as her and his friends are ready to depart. Sumi, Kiyo and Naho cry every time Tanjirou has to go -- and Aoi has to admit there are times she’d like him and Nezuko (and Inosuke and sometimes Zenitsu, but only sometimes) to just come visit sometimes, not when they are at the verge of dying.
“Come back soon, Tanjirou-san!” Sumi says.
“Take care girls! Listen to what Aoi has to say, she’s the best around!” And he grins at her and it makes her blush “I’ll see you at the Hashira meetings, Kanao.”
“I suppose.” She gives him a small smile “Hopefully with Muzan gone our job is less difficult.”
Tanjirou takes a step forward to tell her something, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by Inosuke coming from out of nowhere and getting between them, pointing his finger at Kanao who looked as confused as Aoi was.
“YOU!” He begins “NOW THAT I’M A HASHIRA, I’LL HAVE TO DEFEAT ALL OF YOU. EVEN GONPACHIRO. TO PROVE MY STRENGTH”
“Tanjirou.” The boy in question corrects.
“I don’t think that’s how it wo--” Zenitsu says, but he’s interrupted.
“BE SAFE.” He says, and it catches everyone off guard “UNTIL I DEFEAT YOU.” And now he was pointing at Aoi “AND IF YOU AREN’T, THIS ONE…”
“My name is Aoi.” As if I haven’t healed you a hundred times. She thought with irritation.
“IF YOU AREN’T SAFE AOI WILL BE MAD AT YOU AND PUT YOU THROUGH TRAINING OF HELL.”
“Hell!” The youngest ones repeated.
“Hell!” Nezuko said.
“HELL!” Inosuke said, again. As he extended his pinky to Kanao “PROMISE!”
Kanao smiled in a way that reminded her a lot of Kanae when she won an argument against Shinobu as she crossed her pinky with Inosuke, what an unusual friendship “Promise! But if you don’t keep yourself safe, I’ll get angry at you ”
“I WILL!” And now he grabbed Zenitsu by his haori and ran to their possible next adventure, Tanjirou and Nezuko saying goodbye in a less scandalous way before going to catch up with them. Leaving the Butterfly Estate somehow more cheerful than it was after the war. There’s a comfortable silence among them as they walk back to the mansion before Naho says.
“Kiyo says Kanao likes Tanjirou!”
“WHAT?” It’s not that Tanjirou is not a good match, out of those three, he's the best option by far, but it took Aoi by surprise “Really?”
“D-Don’t be ridiculous.” Kanao answers, but Aoi can see a slight blush on her cheeks “Tanjirou is a dear friend and comrade, where did you hear that from, Kiyo?”
“Sumi said it!”
“No, I didn’t! Are you going to marry Tanjirou, Kanao?”
“Is he going to live with us?” Aoi teases and Kanao shoots her a semi-annoyed look “If he is we must prepare Inosuke and Zenitsu to act right.”
After a ten minute give-and-take where they didn’t found if the rumors were true or not (or who spread them in the first place) a very red Kanao told them to go back to their studies as she had to send a crow to the new master. It was clearly a way to make them get over the conversation, which did not work by the way the younger ones were still whispering about Tanjirou.
“It’s going to be interesting next time Tanjirou visits.”
“It will be like every time he visits, then.” Kanao answers as she attempts to fix the hairpin and struggling with the glue again “He’s an interesting person, all of them are.”
“Especially Inosuke.” And she turns to face Aoi “...Aoi, I think I need help with this.”
“Okay, sure. I’ll teach you and you can do it on your own.”
Aoi isn’t strange to tragedy, none of the butterfly girls are.
She misses her parents, her siblings, Kanae and Shinobu, she will always miss them.
‘But’ She thinks as Kanao dodges any possible questions about Tanjirou and half threatens to forbid the topic in the household ‘It’s a good thing that I got people to miss them with.’
“Don't tell Kanao but...” Kiyo whispers, so low that she can barely hear it “Shinobu-sama was the one that told me.”
Aoi laughs for the first time in forever.