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without realising, here we are

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Kanroji Mitsuri was a fun person to be around, Shinobu admitted. She’s bubbly and outspoken, always exuded energy every time she met her. Her outgoing personality made it easy get along well with her, a thing Shinobu was grateful for because they were the only women in the Pillars.

But sometimes she asked the wildest question out of the blue.

It was during her visit to the Love Pillar’s abode, invited by the host for a tea party as a way of relaxing. She promised delicious cookies and fluffy pancakes, and knowing how good a cook Mitsuri was, there was no way Shinobu refused. Maybe she could pick up some recipes from her and bake cookies together with the girls the next time she had a day-off. That sounded fun, too.

After an exhilarating story about how Mitsuri completely owned a demon that had numerous, extendable limbs, a comfortable silence settled between them before Mitsuri called softly, “Shinobu-chan?” almost in a squeak.

“Mm?” Shinobu sipped her cooling tea, pleased at the perfect brew Mitsuri had poured her. “What is it, Mitsuri-san?“

“Can… can I ask you something a liiiitle bit personal?”

“It… depends on your question,” came the Insect Pillar’s reply, confused. Mitsuri might talk and ask a lot, but she was not the type who’s nosy about something personal.

The pink-haired lady cleared her throat before asked, voice more audible than before, “Are you and Tomioka-san… an item?”

It took Shinobu five seconds before answering her, though her reply was only a dumbfounded “What?“

Mitsuri’s face somehow turned redder, like she’s someone caught doing something indecent. “Like… in a relationship! It’s just, you guys are always touching each other—oh god, that sounds so wrong—I mean!” she took a deep breath, and continued, “You two tend to be close… physically.”

The black-haired woman lifted one eyebrow up in confusion. She didn’t remember being that intimate with Tomioka-san? “You mean… how I poke him all the time?”

Suddenly the Love Pillar became more agitated, waving her knuckles in distress. “No! More than that! Once I saw you two under one umbrella and your arms were touching—”

“That’s because if we didn’t do that we both would be soaked,” Shinobu cut her sentence. Mitsuri probably referred to the incident three weeks ago, when rain poured down suddenly when she was out buying fresh bandages. When she was waiting in front of the pharmacy, Tomioka-san passed in front of her like a godsend. And what else she’s supposed to do when her favourite person to tease was in front of her, in the middle of a rain, with an umbrella in his hand while she had none? Jumped under the umbrella, of course, largely to annoy him. Shinobu knew, although he seemed cold and unfriendly, he’s actually really weak when being pressured. So him wearing a stink face but still letting her walk under his umbrella was pretty much as she expected.

But she had not expected him to escort her all the way to the estate despite his house was closer, which was a nice surprise.

“How about that one time I saw you in the shopping district and him carrying your things for you? Also you stand so close with each other your arms were touching again!”

“I bribed him with salmon daikon so he would help me carrying those stuffs,” Shinobu explained. That’s true. Two weeks ago, she needed to buy cooking ingredients for the whole week, and Tomioka-san once again was conveniently in the estate for the monthly health check-up. Remembering how he had… creppily smiled when eating salmon daikon, Shinobu baited him with the meal. That was a pretty easy catch, like a cat being given a fish.

"But that didn’t explain why you stood so close to each other!” Mitsuri countered relentlessly.

Shinobu laughed at the fuss she made. Was it really that interesting, her relationship with the Water Pillar? Knowing Mitsuri, she’s probably just excited because it’s a love discussion. How cute she was, this dear friend of hers. “Trust me, it’s just a coincidence, Mitsuri-san,” she reassured, reaching out to take a checkered cookie and popped it in her mouth.

“Okay, but how about a week ago I saw you holding his arm when walking to your mansion?”

This time, the Insect Pillar blinked twice, and her mouth stopped chewing. “… I did?”

Her reaction brought sparkles to Mitsuri’s eyes. “Yes! Though it’s pretty weird because you’re grabbing his arm,” Mitsuri said as she demonstrated by holding Shinobu’s thin arm just below her wrist, like she intended to drag her, “but you’re still holding him! And I thought—no, I was sure Tomioka-san was annoyed at first every time you talked to him, but now? He doesn’t seem to mind at all!” She clasped the smaller woman’s hands, and continued in excitement, "Shinobu-chan, if you’re together and you want to keep it a secret—”

Shinobu shook her head vigorously. “No, no, no. We’re seriously not together. I just like teasing him, that’s all.”

Mitsuri’s shoulders slumped a bit, a sign of disappointment. She released her hands, before asking her one final time. “Really, really?”

“Really, really.” Shinobu confirmed. Seeing Mitsuri’s dejected expression sprouted an urge to tease her, just to return her to her lively disposition. “Now it’s my turn to ask you something a little bit personal… How do you feel about Iguro-san?”

A blush creeping the Love Pillar’s face and her increase in voice told Shinobu that she had succeeded.

 


 

On her way home, now that she’s alone, her conversation with Mitsuri earlier got her thinking.

Mitsuri was right. Shinobu didn’t want to admit it, but she and Tomioka had been having a lot of physical contact. Every time they walked they would stand so close to each other their arms touched. And they touched a lot. If their hands were free, she would hold his arm, like Mitsuri had described. At first it had been done to prevent him from walking too fast and escaping from her, but now it somewhat had become a habit to her. She never realised that because he never said anything, so she too didn’t think much about it. It’s just felt… natural, and normal.

Shinobu stopped in her track, realisation dawning to her. Oh no, she thought in horror, doesn’t that mean I’m feeling comfortable with him?

Just right when that thought flitted through her mind, the devil came out.

What kind of silly coincidence is this, the woman thought incredulously, as Tomioka Giyuu exited the restaurant where she had bribed him with salmon daikon weeks ago so he would help her with shopping.

And as if he knew she was there, he looked at his side and spotted her. His face indicated that he didn’t actually know, because his eyes widened slightly at the sight of her.

”… Kochou,“ he said, in that low, baritone voice of his.

How ridiculously good her name sounded in his voice, she would never understand

"Tomioka-san,” she replied, throwing him her usual smile. “What a coincidence.”

“Mm,” he just hummed in acknowledgement.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Silence filled the space between them, but he still didn’t budge from his spot. There’s no change in his expression, so maybe he was waiting for something?

… For her… to shorten their distance and stand beside him?

Now? He doesn’t seem like to mind at all!

Mitsuri’s words echoed in her head, and she wondered if they were true or not. However, it was undeniable that he had changed. The old him would just excuse himself and walked in solitude, prompting her to chase him and tease him. The only thing that didn’t change was his lack of words.

Let’s just test it.

Shinobu walked toward him, and once they’re side by side, he started to walk too, and even matched her pace. Okay. He really did wait for her. That tugged her heartstring, but Shinobu didn’t realise it because she was being extremely aware of something else—his right arm, which was nearer to her, hanging loosely on his side. The urge to hold like she usually did was big, but she’s wanted to try something different to test his reaction.

"Having another salmon daikon, Tomioka-san?” she asked, placing her hand on the crook of his elbow, swallowing her mortification from being more intimate with him.

She expected him to freeze, or even more unlikely asked her what she was doing (unlikely because he hated to talk), but what he did was the least imaginable thing she could think of: he bent his arm so she could hold onto him more comfortably, and did it without missing a beat, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“No, not this time,” he answered.

His answer just passed through her ears, because her brain was too busy processing the fact that Tomioka Giyuu just received her advances casually, as if they had been lovers for a long, long time, as well as how right it felt to place her arm on his.

Then her flight instinct kicked in.

“I…” She released her hand, and he stopped. Why did you stop? “I forgot I need to buy something first. I’ll see you around, Tomioka-san.”

“Need help?” came his immediate reply; again, without missing a beat.

Don’t make this harder for me!

Shinobu gave him her polite smile, the one she had practiced so hard to perfect solely because Kanae said she loved her smiling face. “No. It’s only few herbs I run out of. I’ll send you a crow if they’re too heavy for me to carry.”

She threw the last part as a joke to annoy him, but instead of giving her a stink face, Tomioka just hummed, then walked away.

As she watched his back disappear from her sight, Mitsuri’s words replayed again in her mind, but this time they increased her heartbeat because there’s truth in her words. She looked at her hand, which had perched on his arm so perfectly like it’s where it belonged.

No, no, no, she thought, not with him. Not with Tomioka-san.

But what’s so bad about him? a small voice in her head asked.

Actually, now that she thought about it… Nothing. His actions always had reasons backing them up, which he came up with calm and collected observation. He could be difficult at times, but he’s weak when you bugged him relentlessly. She didn’t mind his silence, and actually found his presence comforting. His downsides were things she could tolerate, so maybe—

Don’t forget, Kochou.

We’re Pillars.

Shinobu blinked, then chuckled in irony. How comical; the one who’s plaguing her mind and crumbling her resolve was also the one who’s reminding her of her duty.

“I know, I know,” she replied, though he wouldn’t be able to hear it. Yes. She’s not entitled to the privilege of falling in love, not when demons were still prowling in this world and making hundreds, thousands of people suffer.

Steps becoming more sure, Shinobu resumed her journey back to her home, one last thought on her mind.

I do wonder, though, if you feel the same.

Chapter Text

Giyuu wondered why Oyakata-sama often paired him with Kochou during missions.

Not that he hated her or anything, but Kochou could be… overwhelming to deal with. Giyuu’s well-aware that conversation was not his forte—that’s why he hated doing that in the first place—but Kochou seemed to ignore that completely, constantly seeking to engage in a two-way communication with him. And she’s quick to hold his arm to prevent them from being separated, leaving him no choice but to listen to her. During their early missions she kept mocking him: his face that always looked as bitter as a beverage called coffee she once drank with Kanroji, the fact he was hated by animals, or his appalling social skills that would put a goat to shame. Although it irked him, it was easier to handle; he just needed to completely ignore her, letting her words flow from his right ear to his left one. However, the more time they spent together, she started to talk less about him and more about other things: the moon, the stars, the birds, even the wind—things Giyuu didn’t know that could serve as a conversation topic, and he felt bad for ignoring her. But her chatter was always random, and he simply didn’t know how to respond. Even though he’s listening, guilt still gnawed him for not reciprocating her conversation.

So one day when they’re waiting for the train to depart to their destination for an investigation mission, he asked her.

“Kochou,” he cut her amidst her sentence. She looked positively taken aback, probably didn’t expect him to talk at all. “Do you ever stop talking?”

… Okay. That sounded bad after it left his mouth.

His companion was smiling, but it’s the kind of smile that didn’t tell the feelings of the person. “You hate it when I talk that badly?“ she asked back, and he swore he could hear a tinge of sadness in her voice. Shit, now he felt twice as bad.

Giyuu was contemplating whether he should just glue his mouth shut to dismiss the conversation completely but let the misunderstanding go on, or explain to her although he’s very, very bad with words, but potentially resolving this matter once and for all.

"I just… don’t know how to respond, when you talk to me,” he confessed, choosing the latter option.

Her violet eyes widened at his words. Why was she always surprised when he’s talking?

Then she snorted.

The snort soon turned into one long giggle, her shoulders shaking as she covered her mouth with her hand. Why was she laughing? He’s positive he didn’t say anything funny.

Offended, Giyuu turned his head away from her, looking out of the window and distracting himself with the dark scenery outside.

“I’m sorry, Tomioka-san,” she wheezed, making attempt to stop laughing as she sensed his upset. “I wasn’t laughing at you! I was just… hee-hee! You’re worrying about the strangest thing.”

He still refused to look at her.

“I don’t do it because I want you to respond! I just like to talk, that’s all.” Her finger’s poking him now to get his attention back. “Of course it would be nice if you answer to me, but don’t feel pressured to do so. It’s fine; I know you hate talking.”

Having listened to her explanation, Giyuu felt his irritation dissipating, and he’s finally willing to turn his head and look at her. She giggled again once their eyes met, but he knew she was telling the truth, so he didn’t mind her laugh.

 


 

It became easier after that conversation. Maybe because he stopped feeling obligated to give her a reply, he started to enjoy her constant chirping beside him. And it made him become more aware of their surroundings, too. The wind indicated that rain was going to fall soon. The bright moon with no clouds obscuring its beauty suggested a clear sky for a whole week. The bustling of people reminded him they needed to work harder to exterminate demons, to ensure peace and happiness of everyone. It’s not something he would admit openly, but it’s all thanks to Kochou he noticed all these things.

Without him realising, he started to offer responses to Kochou’s random ramblings, though it’s usually just a simple hum that indicated he agreed with her. The first time he did that Kochou giggled in that girly way of hers, making him forget for a moment that she’s a Pillar with fearsome skills and knowledge of poison.

“A response!” she said with a bright smile. “Much appreciated, Tomioka-san.”

How strange of her to be satisfied with just a hum, but if she’s pleased with that, then maybe he should do that more often.

 


 

“Tomioka-san?”

Giyuu looked away from his rice to his tablemate, Kanroji Mitsuri, who was currently eating her sixth bowl of unagi donburi. One might say this was such a rare pair to be found, and indeed it was, because it’s a total coincidence for them to meet at the restaurant. He had arrived first and was waiting for his meal to be cooked, when Kanroji suddenly emerged into the place and perked up with a curious blush on her face upon seeing him. She greeted him and wondered if they could eat together, and Giyuu thought, why not, we’re going to eat anyway so it’s unlikely for them to engage in a conversation. He was right; up until now Kanroji didn’t try to fish a word out of him, though she excitedly placed a small portion of her meals on his plate, insisting he had to taste them because they’re super delicious, according to her.

At first, anyway. Now it seemed she wanted to talk after all.

He only gave her silence, but fortunately she understood that his pause was a cue for her to continue. “Err, this may sound weird but…” Her eyes darted everywhere but him, confusing the Water Pillar. “What I want to ask is… Are you dating Shinobu-chan?”

That nearly made him choke. Thank goodness he’s not eating his food right now, or else he would’ve spitted it out from astonishment. Where did she get that idea from?

“I’m sorry! Please take my unagi as an apology!” Kanroji quickly swiped the broiled unagi in her bowl and placed it in his before he could object. “But I’m curious because… Um, you two are together a lot. And I often seeing you two holding hands… No, that’s not right. I see her holding onto your arm a lot…”

“We’re not dating,” he replied quietly, taking the unagi she had given him with his chopsticks and placing it back on her bowl. It’s rude, he knew, but her bowl looked so desolated with only rice in it.

“A-ah, is that so?” she said, looking unsure but didn’t press him any further. “Oh, Tomioka-san! I’ve given this to you! It’s alright, I’ve got a plate of karaage coming!”

He’s thinking of returning the unagi back again, but it’s unhygienic and she looked so adamant on giving it to him Giyuu didn’t have any choice but to accept it. Murmuring his thanks, he chomped on it, wondering why her face painted crimson again when she heard his gratitude.

 


 

On his way back, Giyuu wondered about Kanroji’s question at him back at the restaurant.

They’re not dating, that’s for sure—they’re Pillars, for God’s sake. Pillars needed to act like Pillars, supporting the whole organisation by being the strongest swordsmen and women. Dating would definitely stray them away from that purpose, so it’s completely unthinkable for him that Kanroji could devise such thoughts in her head.

Granted, she’s the Love Pillar, but still.

That aside, what made him think the most was her observation that Kochou held onto his arm a lot. Not the fact that she indeed always did that every time they’re together when both of their hands were free—Giyuu knew she only did that to prevent him from escaping from her, and it was simply futile to shake her off—but the realisation that he had come to not minding her presence, even had started to appreciate it. In fact, it felt almost natural to have her beside him, rambling about anything and everything in sight, to the point it’s a bit lonely when he’s walking alone like this. And there’s something comforting about her touch, telling him she was next to him, warm, breathing, and alive. He remembered last week, when they had met in front of the restaurant she’d treated him salmon daikon once, how he’s a bit disappointed when she let go of the crook of his elbow and told him she would see him around, and how he waited for her crow to come and ask for his help, because he wanted to see her again after they went on their separate ways.

Just as he pondered how he could possibly feel this way when she had been an overwhelming force when he first had her in his life, a voice disrupted his thoughts and nearly stopped his heart.

“Oh my, Tomioka-san?”

Giyuu turned around to find Kochou standing behind him, two packages stacked in her hands, face displaying a smile like it always did. “What business do you have here?"

Here?

Her question made him realise that he, without noticing, had walked in the direction toward the Butterfly Estate, and almost arrived at the front gate.

"Ah, a silence today. And here I thought you’re getting comfortable with me,” Kochou laughed, and Giyuu swore his heart skipped a beat or two. “Since you’re here, could you help me carry these packages inside, please?”

Giyuu didn’t need to be told twice. He’s quick to take the load off her hands, worried she might be pushing herself to carry them; they looked big and heavy. But Kochou was wearing a cheeky grin after transferring the boxes to him, which were not in the least heavy, and it dawned upon him that she was tricking him into carrying her things.

Yet curiously, not even a speck of irritation was present in his heart. Instead—

… And just like that, something clicked in his mind.

“Come on, I’ll treat you my best tea as a thank you,” she chuckled, walking past him with a gracefulness that’s akin to a butterfly.

Against his better judgment, he had fallen in love with her.

“Kochou.”

She stopped and turned around, and he realised he had just blurted out her name.

“Hm?” Tilting her head, she waited patiently for him. “What is it, Tomioka-san?”

I love you, he wanted to say, but the weight of his sword and the sight of hers on her hip reminded him that he shouldn’t; a Pillar should act as a Pillar, and especially him was not worthy of the luxury of love, including falling in love and confessing it—not when he’s only alive thanks to the sacrifices of others.

“… These are not that heavy. You should carry them yourself,” he ended up saying.

He could feel his resolve crumbled a little when she stuck our her tongue instead, but he reminded himself again and again of the lives that were given to him so he could live. The least he could do to repay them was dedicating this life of his to exterminate demons and avenging their deaths, and not indulging in trivialities such as romance.

 


 

A week after his realisation, he was tasked by Oyakata-sama to conduct an investigation on a village in the west, where numerous people had been reported to be missing, and to take care of the demons that were lurking in the area. Again, he was paired with Kochou for the mission, and they were set to depart that very night by train. He didn’t really want to face Kochou after acknowledging his growing feelings toward her, but a mission was still a mission, and it’s unbecoming of a Pillar to be incapacitated by something intangible like feelings.

The train brought back memories of when he first asked her about her tendency to talk nonstop, but curiously tonight she had been devoid of words. Giyuu didn’t mind the silence, but her lack of words somewhat worried him, because she had never stayed quiet for this long. However, his worry quickly went away when he saw her yawning behind her hand.

“Lack of sleep?” he asked. Kochou looked surprised—he could figure out why, since it’s not like him to initiate a conversation—but soon she offered him her smile.

“Mm-hm. I was researching a new compound of wisteria poison last night,” she answered before yawning again.

“The trip will take some time. You can go to sleep.”

Kochou nodded, murmuring, “Wake me up when we arrive,” before quickly dozed off. Giyuu spared her one last glance, then turned his head to look outside the window, trying to make out the silhouette of tress in the darkness.

Just when the train started moving, he felt something hit his shoulder; that something turned out to be Kochou leaning on him due to the swaying of the train. And like on that day in front of the Butterfly Estate when she had given him her cheeky smile, something inside him broke upon seeing her sleeping face, so serene and in peace and beautiful.

Giyuu let out an exasperated sigh. He should have known that it’s simply impossible to run away from her.

… I’ll just keep it to myself then, he thought in surrender, scooting closer and positioned himself lower so her head would fit snugly on his shoulder. Leaning his head against hers, Giyuu closed his eyes, the constant rhythm of her breath and the regular swinging of the train lulling him into sleep.

For now, this was enough.

Chapter Text

Everything was normal between them after that particular afternoon in front of the restaurant near her manor.

Well, she had to make sure everything stayed normal, or else it would hinder their missions as demon hunters. Shinobu decided to act the same, although she just realised her actions toward him actually fell between being flirty and being mischievous. However, he didn’t dismiss her at all, even started to be more friendly and approachable. It took her so long to make him like this, so there’s no way she let her growing affection ruin their relationship. Besides, the increasing heartrate when she’s with him was quite enjoyable, a little piece of heaven in this cruel hell of a world, so why should she stop?

But being in love also meant it’s easier to get unnecessarily emotional, she realised.

It was after the emergency meeting after the incident in the Swordsmith Village, where Himejima proposed a training for the entirety of demon hunters led by the Pillars. She probably spent too much time being at his good side, that she forgot he’s actually a very irritable man. Like it’s none of his business, he decided to not participate in the training, despite the taunts of Shinazugawa and Iguro. Even with her urging to make him talk, he just said he wasn’t like the others, which of course rubbed the Wind and Snake Pillars in the wrong way. Under a different situation, she would find his abysmal communication skills hilarious, but this was a crucial time and not a time for a carefree joke.

"Tomioka. Shinobu," Himejima said, stopping them from leaving after discussing the details of the training. "Stay here for a while. I need to talk to you two."

When she was waiting for her turn to talk with the Rock Pillar, Shinobi thought about his words about being different from other pillars. From the tone of his voice and the downward gaze of his eyes, she could tell they were not meant to sound haughty, but rather they hid a scar that was still bleeding until now. While she was furious at his attitude when he was gifted with such enviable physique, Shinobu found herself more curious about the cause of it and wondered if she could somehow help mending that wound.

Just as she wondered about that, Tomioka slid the door open and emerged out from the room. His gaze lingered for a while on her, before turned around and walked away from her.

God, she had to do everything herself.

"Tomioka-san," she called, holding his haori to stop him from leaving. He did. "Won’t you tell me what do you mean by your words?"

She hoped their warming relationship would incite him to talk, but not even once he turned to see at her direction. Instead, he murmured, "I meant what I said," and didn’t offer her anything else.

Okay. That’s it. If that’s all he’s going to say even after she asked for an explanation, there’s nothing more she could do. She had enough on her plate to deal with his difficult ways of communication.

Letting go of his mismatched haori, Shinobu let her hand hung on her side, nails dug into her palm as she clenched it. "Fine. I see you don’t want to talk about it," she spat through gritted teeth, unable to hold her anger from seething out of her mouth. She spun on her heels and entered the room where Himejima was waiting, not noticing his eyes on her as she walked away.

 


 

They didn’t meet at all until one week later.

Not that she could, anyway. Even though she didn’t participate in the Pillar Training, she was busy researching components of wisteria poison and meeting with the female demon who had successfully escaped the clutch of Muzan, Tamayo. Oyakata-sama told her his premonition through Himejima; she’s going to face Upper Moon Two in the upcoming battle, the same demon who had killed Kanae, and proposed to her to conduct a joint research with Tamayo so she could attain a poison that was strong enough to kill the demon. Shinobu was sceptical toward the woman at first—she’s a demon after all, and even ended up asking questions that were quite insensitive, now that she thought about it. However, unlike the demon she had met in Natagumo Mountain, Tamayo didn’t try to shift the blame of her sins to anyone else and looked directly in her eyes when she answered her questions, so Shinobu decided to trust her, just like Oyakata-sama did. While she still couldn’t create a poison powerful enough to kill Upper Moons, it was still a right decision, since Tamayo took her poison one step further by adding the delay effect on her poison to throw off the infected.

However, even if she did have the time, she refused to give it to him. Knowing Tomioka, she had to press him continuously to get the answer, but she simply didn’t have the patience. Her anger had grown too big for her to have one, by no small portion was due to her envy on his strength. If she visited him, she would just end up lashing up at him while he remained indifferent toward the issue. It would be best if she left him alone.

So this meeting of them was purely coincidental. She was going to search for Tanjirou, who was gone despite having a broken leg. Apparently, this was the fourth consecutive day he was out of the estate since morning. Although he’s the epitome of healthy if you ignored his leg injury, Shinobu couldn’t help but worry if the young man would somehow do something rash and prolong his bedrest. However, right after she closed her front door, Tanjirou entered the gate with him on his side, face as stoic as she remembered, and it irked her.

“Shinobu-san!” Tanjirou greeted cheerfully, and her mouth couldn’t help but break into a smile at his chipper tone. “Are you going out?”

“I was going to search for you, Tanjirou-kun,” she answered. But as soon as she laid her eyes on the Water Pillar, her smile disappeared, lips forming a thin line. “I see you were with Tomioka-san all along.”

Tanjirou must have smelled her anger, because he suddenly acted timid and afraid, but she couldn’t care less. How she wished Tomioka had Tanjirou’s sensitivity to anger. “Uh, yeah, I just had lunch with Giyuu-san,” he stuttered.

“I see.” She pulled the corner of her lips by force, already used to executing it flawlessly regardless of her actual feelings. “But what are you doing here, Tomioka-san? You can’t be injured, can you? You’re not joining the Pillar Training, after all.”

Frustratingly, her words did little effect on him, even though Tanjirou was already sweating bullets beside her due to the tension. Instead, he looked at her, gaze as calm as a still sea, and replied, "I’m just sending Tanjirou off. I’m going now.”

“A-ah, thank you, Giyuu-san! Be careful on your way home!” Tanjirou bowed down toward the older man’s direction, but his back was already turned away, not even a hum coming from him.

“… As irritating as always,” she muttered, not noticing Tanjirou flinching from her tone. Clenching her fists, Shinobu turned around and entered the manor without any word, leaving the door open for the boy.

 


 

Another week went by without meeting him. She honestly thought she would never see him again until the end, but he suddenly showed up at the Butterfly Estate just after the sky was painted black and the moon peeked out of the darkness.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, out of confusion rather than anger. This was the first time of him to visit in the evening.

“… I hit my head,” he said. “Can I come in?”

Shinobu tentatively nodded and stepped aside, letting him enter the manor and together they walked to her office. The journey to her room was too quiet for her liking, but she had forgotten what she used to talk about when they’re alone. Then again, it’s not like she could engage in a conversation with him right now without being sarcastic.

Upon inspection, his head had a lump on the right side, which according to him hurt when she pressed it, but his face was as straight as ever when saying that. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, she wondered aloud how he had gotten such careless injury.

“I was training with Tokitou,” he started, though the opening had already surprised her enough because firstly, he answered to her, and secondly, he had joined the training. “After the training, someone’s sword flew and hit my head.”

It was so unexpected that she ended up snorting. That’s quite unladylike of her, so she quickly covered her mouth, but it did little to damp her laughter. 

“Pfft—haha! That’s just like you, Tomioka-san!”

It’s been a while since she laughed like that in his presence, and it felt good—she missed this feeling when she’s with him. But as soon as she noticed his eyes staring at her, her chortle faded out, and got replaced by a confused question, “What is it?”

“… You’re not angry at me anymore?”

That’s the third time he caught her off the guard, but his words reminded her that yes, she was still angry at him, although that emotion seemed to evaporate when she heard about his training.

Sighing, Shinobu punched his arm lightly. “I’m still angry,” she admitted, “because you refuse to explain yourself. But you’re joining the training now, so I guess there’s no point in me being angry anymore.”

Looking out of the window, the woman noted the grey hue of the sky, a sign that the moon was shining in its mesmerising glory tonight. She turned her head to him. “Why don’t we have some tea before you leave?”

 


 

She led him to the veranda that faced the manor’s garden. They sat side by side sipping the green tea she had poured as they talked, enjoying the unusual but calming quietness of the place. The Butterfly Estate was rarely this silent at this hour, since there’s always at least one patient in the ward. But thanks to the Pillar Training, every demon hunter was out of the estate, with exception Aoi and the three little girls.

The topic revolved around the training, like how Tanjirou tried to learn the Eleventh Form of Breath of Water from him but failed, and how he barely deflected Tokitou’s strike during Haze when they were sparring. She had to guide him throughout the conversation, but to her pleasure he responded to all of her questions. So him warming up to her was not only her imagination, she thought.

"How about you?" he asked after a silence settled between them. Ah, she knew he would give her that question.

Her chest rumbled in discomfort as she shook her head and answered, "It contributes little to my breath."

Tomioka didn’t ask any further than that, instead continued to drink his tea in silence. Shinobu looked at her own cup, for once extremely grateful for his distaste for talking. While it’s not technically a lie—her breath was meant to kill right off the bat after all, so stamina training was pretty much useless for her—but still, it weighed her down to conceal the truth: that she was preparing herself to be eaten by a demon.

"I’m going to the restroom," he said, pulling her away from her train of thoughts. Once he’s out of the range, the Insect Pillar sighed, looking at the moon reflection on the pond in front of her. Crazy thoughts flitted through her mind, such as maybe she should tell him how she felt before she inevitably died, but Shinobu quickly dismissed the thought. What’s the use of it? It would just become a burden in the end, for both him and her. She’s completely fine keeping the feeling inside her heart until now, so why did the thought suddenly pop up in her mind?

The shrill caw of her crow cut the silence and made her jump in surprise. It let out the same noise one more time, but no other words came out from its beak.

Time to drink, huh, she thought, looking left and right to make sure Tomioka was nowhere in sight. After ensuring she’s in the clear, Shinobu pulled a paper packet out of her pocket; the scent of wisteria was strong even when the package was still sealed. She had trained her crow to remind her to take her daily portion of wisteria poison every day and night, just in case she got too engrossed in her research or something. Opening the packet, she lifted her chin and poured the content inside her mouth.

But before the compound went inside, a sudden yank on her right wrist stopped her from swallowing, sending some of the compound flying in the air.

"What are you doing?" came the hard voice of Tomioka, who was standing beside her with his eyes narrowed, right hand gripping hers firmly.

In contrast, she went wide-eyed, and mentally kicked herself for being careless. She should’ve not tried to drink it when he’s still in the house. She had thought it would be fine since he was away, but he just had to come back at the exact moment when she consumed the poison.

Her left hand tightened into a fist in panic, and she decided to tell him a lie. "Drinking a medicine.”

"That's not a medicine," he countered in an instant.

Right, of course he wouldn’t be fooled by her lame lie. He had become familiar with her poison from the numerous missions they spent together, and the scent of wisteria had always been powerful, even if it’s already being ground into powder like this. One did not need Tanjirou’s sense of smell to figure out the identity of the substance in her hand.

"It’s not harmful to humans," she tried to reason, giving up on her lie, hoping he would release her wrist so she could organise her thoughts—they were in jumbles because he had discovered her secret.

But he didn't; his hold grew tighter and stronger instead, adamant to stop her from consuming it. "What for?" he asked, voice harder than before, eyes never once looking away from her.

She couldn’t handle the pressure of his gaze, scrutinising and forcing her to tell him the truth; so she turned her head away, breaking the eye contact and whispered, "Let go of me, Tomioka-san."

“Answer me first," he urged, uncharacteristically forceful, his grip started to hurt. "What for?"

And something inside her snapped.

"Because I’m weak!" she yelled, losing control of her emotions. The hand that was held by him balled into a fist, scattering the poison to the floor. "Because I am unable to cut off a demon’s head!"

He looked surprised by her increase in voice, yet he pressed on, "But this is not—"

"But this is the only way!" She jerked her head up, violet eyes ablaze with anger. "You don’t understand—you’ll never understand! I wasn’t born with the strength! Poison won’t be able to kill Upper Moons! This is the only way I can be useful!" Each word was spat out in spite. "Why do you keep asking questions?! You said pillars should act like pillars! Why are you trying to stop me from doing my duties?!"

His eyes widened at her words, probably realising she was repeating what he had said to her once. Slowly, he loosened his hold, and Shinobu yanked her hand hard, slapping his hand out of the way while she’s at it. She stared at the ground again, the anger she thought had disappeared came back like a rapid fire. He thought she picked this option because she wanted to? No! If there were other alternatives, she would definitely choose them over dying. She wanted to watch Aoi, Kanao, and the three girls grow up. She wanted to eat more meals with Mitsuri. She wanted to see Nezuko turn back into human with Tamayo’s medicine, and witnessed Tanjirou’s happiness when she finally shed her demon side. She’s also worried for Zenitsu, Inosuke, and Genya; would they be able to take care of themselves properly? What if they were poisoned and Aoi couldn’t patch them up in time?

Slowly, excruciatingly, her wrath transformed into an agony that burned her eyes and chest. Bowing her head, she covered her face with her hand, trying her best to suppress her sobs, but failed miserably. It’s painful. It clawed her inside and made her bleed. She didn't want to part with everyone, but her sister was dead. How could she be selfish when Kanae had suffered and died because of demons? There’s no way she could live in peace after that; not without avenging her death, not when she knew a way for her to personally contribute in killing that demon. Kanae had deemed it was impossible for her, yet she found a way for revenge, albeit in exchange for her life. And she was prepared for it. She had been prepared for it since the first day she swallowed her first portion of wisteria poison. She’s not that naive thinking she could kill an Upper Moon without sacrificing herself when her sister couldn’t.

Shinobu flinched when she felt she was being pulled, and her breath got caught in her throat when she realised her head was on his firm chest, his arms surrounding her in a tight embrace.

Why? Why are you doing this?

Stifling her cries, she tried to break free. "Let go of—"

"I’m sorry," he murmured, head bowed down and cheek pressed against her temple. She stopped moving. "I've overstepped my boundaries. I just—" his voice cracked, and she could hear something broke inside her chest, "I just don’t want you to die."

Her eyes stung upon his words.

... Hateful. What a hateful man.

“You’re unfair—” she choked, but instead of pushing him away, Shinobu clutched his sleeve and surrendered her body weight to him, seeking comfort and let herself drown in it. However, rather than finding solace, she found herself become more frightened at the prospect of dying. Her instinct told her to flee, to build walls around her and isolate this man out of her life, but she couldn’t find the strength to peel his arms away. The pipe dream of placing her head on his shoulder and holding his arm every time they walk together simply wouldn’t let her.

“I love you, Tomioka-san.” Muffled against his haori sleeve were her words, slipping away even though she didn’t will it. Shinobu felt his body tensed upon her confession and his hold on her body loosened, and regret immediately washed over her. There goes the plan of not telling him about her feelings, but what could she do? Without her realising her feelings had run too deep and grown too strong, to the point it was simply impossible to contain it, not when she knew her death was imminent and was being caged in his strong arms.

In panic, she stumbled with her words, an attempt to remedy her sudden confession, “I know this is wrong, this is so wrong—but I—“

Whatever she was going to say died on her lips and was forgotten as she felt something warm on her cheeks. With tenderness she didn’t know he was capable of, he wiped the tears from her left eye with his thumb, while his lips kissed her right temple, the corner of her eye, her cheekbone, then down and down until there’s no tears left on her face.

Lips trembling, she could feel tears formed again in her eyes. "Why…?” she asked, as he stroked the left side of her face with the back of his fingers. “Why are you trying to mess with my head?”

“I’m not…” he murmured, voice low, like he’s afraid she would shatter into pieces if he spoke any louder. As she noted how the moonlight made his eyes gleam in the dark, she realised how close he was, sharing her breath as their nose almost touched and—

They met in the middle, lips colliding as they declared their love silently. His hands moved to cradled her head, holding her in place as he angled his face and recaptured her mouth in a deeper kiss. It felt like a dream, having the one she yearned for reciprocate her love and kiss her passionately like this, but the fingers flexing on her jaw and the warmth she felt under her fingertips as she held onto his shoulders were unmistakably real. If this was indeed a dream, she hoped she would never wake up from it.

Eventually he let go, though their mouth remained only one breath away when she opened her eyes. His sapphire eyes were right in front of her, half-lidded and darkened and inviting, and she found herself fisting his jacket uniform, pulling him closer as she pressed her lips against him again, used the momentum to bring him down and climbed onto his lap. Despite his surprise at first, to her delight he kissed her back, right hand weaved its fingers among her tresses loosening her hair knot, and for a moment she forgot she was a demon hunter and the Insect pillar. Right now, she was just a woman who was in love in him.

“Kochou,” he groaned as she nipped his lower lip, sending a jolt of electricity throughout her spine. “Wait—”

“I want you,” she breathed against his mouth in a hurry, grinding her hip against his to accent her point.  Grunting, his hold on her head tightened, this time pulling several strands free. “Just for tonight—”

Shinobu gasped when he sat up and pressed the small of her back against him, rubbing their clothed groins together. Her skin prickled as she felt the hardness beneath his pants on her mound, her head touching his shoulder as she let out a moan. The fire in the pit of her stomach burned even stronger—she might combust if this kept going on.

“Tomioka-san,” she whispered in desperation, wrapping her arms around his neck and rolled her hips impatiently.

“Not here,” he hissed. “Hold on tight.”

She hated him for making it look easy, standing up and walking with her latching onto his body as if she were made of feathers. Out of spite, Shinobu turned to his neck and bit, taking the skin right below his ear into her mouth with every intention to leave a mark. Clearly her action disturbed him, since his whole body tensed and he groaned her name in warning. But she kept going, trusting him not to let her fall, lapping the reddening skin with her tongue and nibbled it once more.

It took him a while to arrive at her room, yet it only took seconds to strip them both out of their clothes. The night went by in a blur, but she remembered slightly him pushing and ravishing her against the wall, his scrunched eyebrows and squared jaw when she guided him inside, the feeling of euphoria as she reached her high, and the warmth inside her when he finally let go.

Tonight, it was everything she asked for.

 


 

“How long has it been?”

Shinobu looked at him from the corner of her eyes, then back to the mortar in front of her. Thanks to their little skirmish earlier, she had to make another dosage of wisteria poison for her to swallow. Although Tomioka watched her disapprovingly, he remained silent as he laid down on the bed next to her desk.

“One year or so.” Scooping the well-ground powder, she swallowed it like it’s just a mere medicine and not a poison that could melt demons clean to their bones. It might give off a sweet smell, but the taste was still foul, so she immediately washed it down with a cup of tea she had prepared beforehand.

His left hand sneaked out of the bed to hold her right, thumb brushing where her pulse could be felt. “So you’re going to leave me as well,” he murmured, voice almost inaudible but she still could hear it clearly.

Letting out a sad chuckle, Shinobu sat on the remaining space of the bed. “I didn’t know you’re actually a hopeless romantic.”

The male Pillar didn’t reply, but instead brought her wrist closer to his mouth and kissed it gently and tenderly. While she didn’t regret her confession, it shattered her seeing him like this, eyebrows furrowed with his eyes closed, confirming her existence through touch rather than sight. She had broken his heart, and she was going to break it the second time when she passed on. How she wished they were born in a different world, free from terror of demons and shackles of responsibilities.

She lay down on her side next to him, her butterfly wing patterned-haori resembled resting wings on her body. “Thank you, Tomioka-san,” she whispered softly with a forlorn smile, stopping him from pressing more kisses on her hand, “for granting my whim. And… I’m sorry.”

He scooted closer and pressed his mouth on her forehead, telling her without words that there’s no need for her to apologise. Her eyes burned once again, but what unravelled her was his strong arms around her and his voice next to her ear, whispering the three words she had only ever heard from him in her dreams.

“Can we—“ her breath hitched, and she buried her face in his chest, “can we stay like this? Just for a while?”

A press of his lips on her hair was her answer.

“For as long as you want.”

 


 

Just as the sun splashed the dull blue sky with a tinge of orange, he decided to go home, since he had to go to Mitsuri’s residence later in the afternoon to train with her. Shinobu bid him goodbye at her front porch, folding her arms to prevent herself from holding his arm and stopping him from leaving. She had imposed on him too much for less than one day.

Halfway to the front gate he stopped, head slightly turned. “Kochou,” he called, and she lifted her head. “Try your best to stay alive.”

… How naïve, she thought, but still she chuckled and replied, “I’ll try. Please take care of yourself, Tomioka-san. And Tanjirou-kun as well.”

Like he always did, he just hummed, and soon disappeared from her sight. It was tough to restrain herself from crying, knowing this might very well be the last time they met, but she was so tired and sick of shedding tears. She had probably used up her quota of tears for the whole year last night.

Try your best to stay alive.

His words echoed in her mind as she entered the manor. Despite her fatigue, she made a detour to the library, determined to research a way to increase the lethality of her poison.

.

.

.

“The moon is beautiful tonight, don’t you think?”

Her voice jolted him awake, but curiously he opened his eyes to nothingness. Everything was practically black, and the air felt stiff and cold. Didn’t he just hear Kochou’s voice just now? Where was she?

‘Dead!!! Kochou Shinobu is dead!!!’

The memory of the dread news being delivered by the crow flashed in his mind, as if mocking him for being hopeful—he should have known better that hope barely had a place in this brutal world. Though he had known her days were practically numbered since that day he had discovered her secret, it didn’t make it any easier. No matter how much he had prepared for her death, he knew he would never be ready.

Suddenly a pair of small hands obstructed his vision, and he could hear her playful voice beside his ear, “Guess who?”

Her name tumbled out of his mouth in disbelief. “Kochou?”

When he turned around, she was truly, unbelievably right there in front of him with her usual smile. However, he noted her features somehow were softer than he remembered, like she’s finally free from her burden.

“Did you succeed?” Giyuu asked, reaching to cup her face. How strange. She felt as real as that night when he had felt her pulse on her wrist with his lips.

“Mm-hm.” The Insect Pillar leaned into his touch, and he felt his heart being pierced by thousands of invisible blades. “Kanao and Inosuke-kun were the ones who killed it, though.” Her hand got a hold on his, the one that was cradling her face, and lowered it. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m here for.”

Quirking his eyebrow, Giyuu was opening his mouth to ask what she meant by that, but his words went forgotten when she dived in and hugged him tight, pressing her cheek against his chest. “I’m sorry. I died. I tried my best to stay alive, but I failed.”

It took him a while, but he eventually returned her hug, burying his face on the crook of her neck. “Don’t apologise. That was naïve of me.”

Giyuu could feel his uniform turned damp where she laid her head; she must be crying again. “Will you find me next time?” she asked, voice croaking from tears.

Something slid down his cheeks as well, and he realised he was the same as her. “… Okay,” he promised, even though it was a complete nonsense and an illogical pledge. She had changed him, in more ways than one, and he’s going to miss her with every breath he took.

Kochou let go first, holding his face by the jaw and stood on her toes to kiss the tears away from his face, like he had done on the night when they had shared their feelings with each other. Her lips were warm, an antithesis to her death, but he knew he had to accept the cold hard truth sooner or later.

Like a cruel gust of wind, drowsiness hit him out of nowhere, and Giyuu felt himself being pulled by a mysterious force that urged him to leave this place. It seemed Kochou realise that the world was calling him back, because she sought his lips and pressed one long kiss on them before whispering, “Don’t miss me and try to follow me as soon as you can, okay?”

“That would be impossible,” he immediately replied, “but I’ll try.”

The woman laughed in that beautiful way of hers. “You become talkative after my death. You're making me have regrets, you know.”

Before he could reply, she covered his eves with her palms, signalling the end of their farewell, and he heard her last words—the same three words that had slipped accidentally out of her mouth that night, but this time she said them in confidence.

He promised to say it first when he found her next time. 

.

.

.

.

.

The rays of morning sun streamed through the big window in front of their bed, forcibly dragging him out of the dreamland. Giyuu groaned groggily at the nature’s alarm, rubbing his eyes as he glanced at the clock on the wall—eight in the morning, it said. Looking at his side, the space next to him was empty; his wife was nowhere to be found. Fear pricked his gut, but the distant clattering sound in the kitchen told him there’s nothing to worry at all. How silly of him. This was a different era; demons existed no more in this world.

Waking up from his sleep, he trotted silently toward to where she was, and seized her from behind once she was within his reach. Shinobu’s body tensed as she let out a gasp, but soon relaxed when her back bumped into his chest. Burying his face on her raven tresses, Giyuu basked in her scent—no trace of wisteria flower could be detected by his nose.

“Good morning. What’s wrong?” she asked, dragging him as she walked to the stove. But he didn’t reply, so she nudged his knee with her leg. “Excuse me, Giyuu-san? I am trying to cook here. Can you let go of me?”

He shook his head, and Shinobu lifted her eyebrow. “Giyuu-san? Are you okay?” she asked, voice tinted with worry as she turned her head to her side to look at him.

To her surprise, his hand tilted her chin higher, and he descended to press his lips against her. It didn’t last very long—she had barely registered he was kissing her when he let go, but as soon as they parted he nuzzled her neck and murmured, “I love you," against her skin.

It puzzled her, witnessing him being unusually vocal about his affection, but something clicked in her mind and she caught on what’s happening. He must’ve had that dream of his past again. Sometimes she would wake up after a similar dream, so she could understand why he’s acting uncharacteristically clingy and romantic right now.

With a smile, Shinobu bumped her head against his. “I love you, too, Giyuu-san,” she said, patting his head to assure him she’s right there with him. “But can you let me go? I need to cook right now!”

“Can we stay like this for a while?” he pleaded, arms tightening around her, not showing any sign of letting go.

Sighing in defeat, but still so very much in love, she reached out the stove’s knob to turn it off. It’s getting comfortable being in his embrace anyway.

“For as long as you want.”