The sound that slices their idle banter is loud and grotesque. Tanjiro has heard it before. He's sure Inosuke has, as well. They abandon their spot near the river shore to find its source. Inosuke moves cautiously, impossibly light for his usual recklessness. Tanjiro trails his steps not too far behind. They find it quickly. Across the river, two black bears scream at each other, a mutual warning. Lodged in the mouth of one of them is a rabbit, limbs still kicking desperately. The boys stare, knowing better than to intervene. The bear that has captured its prey attempts to shake its head. Tanjiro knows that move. A violent twist, the sound of a body slamming against gravity, the snap of bone. But what plays in his head doesn't follow in reality. The second bear attacks before the motion can start. A growl. A duet of growls, a crescendo. The rabbit still flails, a crimson creek pours from its neck. In an unfortunate dodge, the hunter exposes too much of its catch and his opponent sinks teeth into a twitching belly. Then it happens too fast, they pull and twist and there's a multitude of screeches and grunts and when Tanjiro processes it, the rabbit has been torn apart. There was no way it wasn't alive before that. No way it didn't feel any pain. He winces involuntarily. Inosuke blinks and turns his back to the scene, walking away.
It was bizarre. Bears didn't often eat other animals. They must have been having a hard time finding food in the area, more so considering they were fighting over meat. Tanjiro advances quietly. Inosuke leads him north to the Wisteria House they are supposed to rest at. For a long while, there's only the sound of the wind and their footsteps.
“We better move faster. There is a storm coming. A big one."
Tanjiro halts and looks at Inosuke. A quick glance at the clear sky, a few passing clouds. He frowns at him in disbelief.
Inosuke stares back, resolute. "The air weighs down, it smells like water. Can't you feel it? In your body, here in your head or ears?" He points at both his ears, confident in his words.
Tanjiro can't. But he smiles and concedes, starting again at a faster pace. He often forgets that his friend would know the ways of nature way better than he could ever aspire to. Inosuke is connected to earth like Tanjiro is connected to family. Her subtle energy is present in his body, staunch like the sun in the leaves of trees.
Inosuke is all about the physical, all about the senses. The raw adrenaline from a sparring session, the pleasure of eating a good meal, fresh water running down your neck on a hot day, knowing exactly what to do to catch and kill an animal without unnecessary suffering. It's some kind of ancient body memory. He knows, simply because he is, and he is in accordance to nature. And he makes that seem like the simplest of things, the simplest of states.
All inosuke knows seems to be present in him instinctually. Sometimes Tanjiro is a little jealous. Tanjiro, who knows everything from within emotion first, and through consciousness second. Who feels rather than senses. Feeling, then processing. Feeling, then acting. The heart was his gateway to the world. And the curious part is that Inosuke was no stranger to emotion. But Tanjiro wishes that, occasionally, he could be a bit more like him. Taking things as they come, being part of the flow of life. Maybe that's why they mesh so well. Sensing and feeling. Feeling giving depth to sensing, sensing easing feeling into letting things be.
A violent gust of wind breaks him out of his thoughts. Dust and twigs whirl around them. Something small and wet lands on Tanjiro’s cheek. Then, on his head. On his exposed ears, on his forehead. Soon, a few drops become rainfall.
Inosuke was right. Of course.
In the blink of an eye the air feels as oppressive as the dark clouds looming above. As oppressive as the feeling in his chest when Inosuke takes his hand, shoots him a wild grin and starts running down the hill they were atop.
The hammering of his pulse in his ears combined with the roaring thunder deafens Tanjiro. He hopes Inosuke can't feel it in his hand as much as he is feeling it in all the veins in his body, conductors for this treacherous emotion. It's electric, breathtaking.
The rain bears down more violently with each dying second and each step forward, every one of them faster than the last. A boisterous laugh escapes Inosuke. Lightning flashes and Tanjiro catches its reflection in those green eyes. His legs are about to give out and his lungs burn, breathing becomes difficult in the curtain of falling clouds. A bit of panic sets in, and Tanjiro can't distinguish what is making his heart beat this fast anymore.
They get to a small cave under a tree by chance. It's filled with the smell of moss and dampness, but the ground is dry enough. The chaos outside makes it look cosy and welcoming. Tanjiro follows Inosuke inside. They sit on the driest spot they can find, facing the exit. The rain is relentless, much like Tanjiro's pulse. Inosuke still hasn't let go of his hand.
Tanjiro observes. He observes Inosuke from the corner of his eye, breathing erratic and loud from running. He observes the pouring rain outside, drumming on the silence the same way his blood does on his temples. Thunder rolls. Fingers interlock.
And Tanjiro thinks. Under cover, with the warmth of contact and adrenaline rushing through him, he thinks of the rabbit. He thinks of how he's safe here and thinks of blood and spilling guts and kicking limbs. He thinks of claws and yellowed teeth and twists and turns.
"Inosuke." His eyes dart to their hands, his friend's falling and rising chest and stop to get lost in the rain. "Do you think nature is cruel?"
There's a scoff and the shuffling of a body next to him. Inosuke lets go of his hand and Tanjiro misses the touch already. A few seconds pass, enough for Tanjiro to stop expecting an answer.
But it comes. Almost like a whisper, uncharacteristic of him. "Nature is..."
Another pause. Tanjiro feels his side burning and finds Inosuke staring when he turns his head. There's introspection in his face, uncharacteristic of him. He's piecing something together, Tanjiro can tell from his expression, can see it behind his eyes.
But this time, the reflection doesn't come. Silence gives way to the clattering of rain.
For everything that they won, much was lost in that eternal night at the infinity fortress. Fingers. Limbs. Eyes. But it all pales next to the greatest loss that could be suffered: loss of lives. And Tanjiro would give the rest of his if it meant bringing everyone else back.
But he knows that of death. He knows it doesn't take any offers. Nothing can be worth enough for a life. Tanjiro discovers that, in that respect, he agrees.
And so they live. For everyone else that gave their life for them. For each other. And when the wounds heal, both visible and invisible, maybe even for themselves.
Fireflies spark up the summer nights, cicadas sing their day time song. Leaves dance in the wind to meet the ground and the forest dresses itself yellow and ocre and orange. The first snowfall is tough and Zenitsu and Inosuke chop wood and they let Tanjiro handle the fire. Nezuko makes sure everyone has something warm to wear to bed. The grass starts turning greener and Tanjiro's arm doesn't hurt from the weather that much anymore. Flowers bloom in pinks and whites and reds, and sometimes he wishes he could still see them with both of his eyes. Just like that the first year flies by.
Brushes and ink and envelopes on the table. Ink drip stains, brush stroke stains on wood. Too many sheets of paper. Inosuke can finally write in hiragana. Zenitsu teaches him kanji with surprising patience. Inosuke carves them in the soil on the clearings he wanders with Tanjiro. Urokodaki visits them often. They visit him at Sagiri too. Giyuu tends to join them and pray at a particular tomb. Tanjiro hasn’t seen any more ghosts.
Sanemi plays chess at Giyuu’s estate every week. He cuts his hair for him and they keep each other company. Tanjiro gifts them tea and they train occasionally, used to their bodily circumstances by now. Tengen drops by from time to time. When his wives are around, food abounds and laughter comes easy.
And just like that, one more year passes.
Kanao spends her days in Shinobu’s library. Anatomy, organs, blood vessels and muscles. Bones and skin layers, neurons and nerves. She keeps wisteria in a vase next to a picture of her sisters there. There are no bodies for her to mourn, nothing to bury, nothing to burn. A soft, unassuming desire settles inside her, between her ribs. She honors it, dives in the herbalism section of the book shelves. Inosuke helps her take care of her medicinal plants. They read the books together. They study cells and photosynthesis, poison and toxins, roots that resemble veins, patterns that flesh and vegetable matter share. Internal and external, they mirror each other. Rivers and blood. Tree bark and nails. Thunderstorms and synapses. Inosuke finds names for what he has known for long.
And a third year slips through their fingers, too.
No more threat of demons. No more irrational danger. Despite still driven to cultivate strength, Inosuke has mellowed out as time has passed. No longer as brash, as reckless. Yet he still keeps a feral quality under his skin. It has always been there, albeit dulled lately. Like a constant undercurrent, flowing like mud beneath the body of a river.
It is now evident in his multitude of scars, most hyper pigmented by the sun he never covers from. It can be seen in his coarse, thick hair, chopped by inexpert hands by force of habit. His face is sometimes indescribable, expression bored at first sight, but always staring ahead, into the present, into the horizon and the days to come.
Tanjiro is not surprised that the smell of the forest still clings to Inosuke like it is his foundation. He has always thought it was peculiar. Not quite pleasant, but not unpleasant either. Moist soil, dry Autumn leaves, the way skin smells when someone's been out in a field all day. The smell of hard work. A hint of wild flowers and herbs. If he keeps at trying to decipher it, maybe a bit of the humid, heavy air before a storm too.
And his eyes. Under the weight of his impassive attitude, his eyes still radiate the intensity of raw passion. Looking into them feels visceral, both imposing and calming in their contradiction.
Nothing could ever wipe that off him, Tanjiro thinks. And that's how he constructs him in his mind. A child of nature, a force in his own right, stabilized and balanced with time, yet still imprinted with the unpredictability the earth lends her animals.
Then, the thought clicks in his mind as he watches Inosuke drink green tea from a ceramic cup the way he always does, pressing his lips a bit too hard on its rim, as if biting. He is fascinated, way too much for it to not mean anything.
The way back from Tokyo is not long, but the late summer heat and dense clouds takes a toll on Tanjiro. His left arm in a sling, as usual, he carries a basket of dried plants with his good hand. Inosuke leads him, walks a few steps in front of him with a basket of his own. Tanjiro glances at his back. Funny how his friend used to walk around everywhere shirtless, he thinks.
Inosuke seems to sense his eyes. He turns his head, still marching. “Are you ok? Want me to carry that for you?”
“No, it’s ok. It’s just really humid, is all.” Tanjiro’s cheeks dust pink. He blames it on the heat.
“Yeah, there’s a storm coming, a big one. We better hurry.” says Inosuke.
There is. He can feel those now. Can feel them in his arm, a prickling warning.
They don’t quicken their pace enough. Half an hour and the sky is overcast. The grey envelopes the mountains in the distance and the nasty air howls in menacing gusts. Tanjiro slows to a standstill, looks up. Something lands on his forehead with a tiny cold burst. Then, on the corner of his mouth. And again, on his nose.
Pieces of a similar memory land in Tanjiro's mind as he takes Inosuke's hand and runs downhill, off the path.
Inosuke laughs and thunder follows. He sprints forward, half dragging Tanjiro along and he catches lightning reflecting off Inosuke’s eyes, tinted green. Like muscle memory, like a primal instinct, Tanjiro's heart blooms into a frenzy in his chest. It gets to his head and his ears, it gets to his legs and thumps at the soles of his feet, reverberating into the softness of the forest ground like roots.
When they take shelter under an ancient tree, the memory of a question flourishes in his mind. He thinks of rivers, of wild currents and fish that swim upstream. He thinks of foxes chasing mouses. He thinks of prey, of moss and fungi and decay. He thinks of sunshine and warm stones and gentle grass on skin on a hot day. He thinks of birdsong and mountain snow, of lifeless bodies in crude winters.
And in an echo of the past, Tanjiro asks again, "Inosuke, is nature cruel?"
He peels his gaze from the distant bushes and pines to study Tanjiro's eyes. He smiles, pensive, fond. The hint of something old and wild dies on his features as soon as it surfaces. It opens up space for something Tanjiro recognizes as wonder instead.
"You’re thinking about it with your feelings, with your human feelings. Nature doesn't care." says Inosuke. "Everything I've ever seen in the wild, nothing has made me think it is cruel. It gives and takes. There is...” He fumbles, decides which words to use. He gestures with his free hand in circles. “It's sanguinary, but not cruel in the way humans can be. No animal, insect or plant does harm for pleasure. They all just want to survive. We all do." His eyes find Tanjiro’s, earnest.
We all do. Tanjiro repeats it to himself. And, Inosuke’s hand still in his, he feels glad the people he loves are safe and sound. Alive.
It's quiet. Birds chirp, the wind blows around treetops, water runs its course and leaps down the rock wall of the waterfall. But still quiet. The kind that comes from within.
The sunshine is tender, nestles in Tanjiro’s hair and lits it red. They sit opposite each other near the edge of the outpouring water. Inosuke busies himself with mixing dry leaves and dosing the concoction into small glass bottles. Tanjiro carves a fox mask with a knife, holding it between his legs, carefully recalling Urokodaki’s instructions. His hand catches on a tough spot and slips. A sudden sharp pain, a droplet of blood. He sets the tool down and presses on the shallow cut on his thigh. It coagulates soon after. His mind drifts off, finding patterns in the foamy currents.
"Inosuke, do you miss it?" Tanjiro asks before he can stop himself, still lost in the way the water sprays up where the waterfall beats down on the rocks. An afterthought.
Inosuke straightens up to look at him, eyes narrowed.
"The forest." Tanjiro blinks. He imagines the tiny drops on his face, each finding a home on the slope of his eyebrows, the dip of his eyelids, the curve of his cheeks. Goosebumps. A chill. "Do you miss it?"
Inosuke lowers his gaze, picks on a strand of grass by the cloth he’s mixing herbs on.
"I do. But it's not somewhere I can go back to." He resumes his activity, pressing corks into the mouths of some bottles.
"Why not?" Tanjiro asks, head tilted.
"It's not for me anymore. But it's ok. I have everyone else."
For a fleeting moment Tanjiro wonders what he means. He thinks he might get it, but before he can inquire further, Inosuke speaks again.
"And you. I have you."
And Tanjiro’s heart swells, overflows his smile, overflows his eyes. And the subconscious wishing works, he finds, because then the sprinkling water reaches his skin and Inosuke’s fingers splay on his cheek.
Today, nature is kind.