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Wisteria Tears and Smiles of Sunlight

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Tanjiro… Tanjiro couldn't remember anything. He couldn't remember who he was or where he was from. He didn't remember anything of his life from when he was human, but he was sure he had been a good person, at least a little. Or rather, he hoped he was.

He didn't eat humans and yet he somehow grew stronger every day, he was kind to people regardless of race or species, he even understood animals somehow (He only realized the last one was odd when Muzan had arched a brow at him when he was having a conversation with an alley cat, then his sire had been both intrigued and amused, the corner of his lips ghosting a smirk and one eyebrow raised minuscule. Most wouldn't recognize any difference between his usual face and the one he had then, but Tanjiro had noticed them after spending nearly every moment he wasn't training with his sire) and he tended to have far more patience than other demons. It was difficult to genuinely anger Tanjiro; enough so that it hasn't happened yet despite the more cumbersome demons trying to find the end of his tolerance.

 

Tanjiro was "unfortunately soft", as Douma would say with his faux smile on his face, staring at the youngest demon with the same curiosity a child would when peeling away the legs of an insect. Sick fascination and psychopathic tendencies that was just a matter of habit now for the blond. Nonetheless Tanjiro would just give his own smile, more genuine than his fellow second's and shrug the back-handed comment off without effort while Akaza would snap like a protective dog over his nonexistent loss of face. Tanjiro honestly couldn't care less, but the pink-haired demon would find any reason to hate the blond. Akaza still saw Tanjiro as a rival, especially since Tanjiro was immediately placed in the ranking of second with Douma as soon as he woke up after his transformation without his memories in spite of him still being in and needing training. He didn't defend Tanjiro for Tanjiro's sake, and the redhead was well aware of that.

Hantengu and Rui, along with several other demons under Muzan's thumb (particularly the younger ones, or the ones missing their families or that were easily scared) saw Tanjiro as a safe place. Even Kokushibo would have him sit right next to him in meetings.

"You remind me of my brother," Kokushibo said when he had asked why the strongest demon in the twelve moons would sit with him when he distanced himself from others. "You remind me of the sun." Tanjiro didn't know what to say to that, or what he could do to help with whatever internal pain the highest moon was trying to keep close and cast aside at the same time. So he simply settled next to the strongest senior and noticed how Kokushibo's broad shoulders lowered ever so slightly, like a great weight was lifted from him. Like he was afraid Tanjiro would have moved away from him.

Tanjiro felt that it must have been absolute agony to lose your family. Just the thought almost made him cry, for some reason.


 

"Tanjiro." Muzen called, walking over to his favorite moon with grace and elegance, as if he hadn't slaughtered his own followers moments ago. Pity them as he did, Tanjiro hadn't known most of them. Muzan didn't like him associating with cannon fodder. But he did know one; a certain spider that tended to stick close to him whenever they would meet, however rare it was.

"It's true then?" Tanjiro asks softly, his burgundy eyes looking up into Muzan's pale scarlet ones without fear, only trust and light sparkling in those dark red orbs that made even the king of demons soften marginally. "Rui... has died?"

Muzan knew Tanjiro had a soft spot for the spider demon. The shorter boy would cling to the redhead whenever he saw him, absorbing the warmth in Tanjiro that was unnatural to his kind and basking in the youngest demon's kindness. He had taken to calling him "Tanjiro Onii-sama" whenever he saw him and told Muzan that Tanjiro was his ideal older brother figure, and he felt safe with him. Perhaps Tanjiro being the eldest, responsible for all of his siblings and protecting his home, had just become ingrained in his instincts despite not remembering anything.

 

"Yes, it's true. Are you sad?" Muzan asked despite knowing the answer.

"Yes." Tanjiro closed his eyes, expression the same with the exception of his brow scrunched up a bit in grief for the boy who so desperately desired a family. "I'm... quite sad."

Muzan had said nothing after that, but he did gently pat the boy's head, noting how his brow smoothed out at his light touch, the softened expression one of complete faith. Was this what it was like to have a son? He didn't know how to explain the microscopic yet still very real warmth in his otherwise dead heart, making it seem bigger than it was. He didn't feel much even for his human family aside from entertainment, them only being a way to pass time. He married a woman who had already had a daughter from her previous marriage, yet he was the one the toddler called "father". And he felt nothing for either of them aside from a vague, detached mirth for the divertissement. Yet this boy who he had, for all intents and purposes, made to be a perfect puppet, had squirmed his way into his cold soul and left behind a warmth not unlike the sunlight he remembered rarely being able to bask in when he was a sickly human. It was an odd sensation that Muzan wanted to explore yet cringe away from all at the same time.

"You are to go in the next mission and kill those hunters on the train." he says, instead of offering further comfort to the boy over his the lower moon's death, lowering his hand from the soft, dark red locks. It would be Tanjiro's first real mission, and a high-stakes one at that. He already knew that Enmu would fail his task, but at least he might buy time for someone of actual use to take care of the rest. For the past few years the boy had been training almost non-stop under the strongest demons at Muzan's disposal. It intrigued Muzan how the boy could get so strong without even a drop of human blood or a lick of flesh. Perhaps he could send the boy on the next mission to put all of the blood he had given the boy throughout the years to use. He would send Akaza as well as his back up. "Consider it your first real mission. I expect you to partake in the extermination this time."

"Yes, Muzan-sama." Tanjiro said obediently, having been given special permission to use his sire's name. He hated the idea of killing humans; hated the sounds of bones snapping and skin tearing and blood splattering, but he owed it to the man who saved him from a painful death with the rest of his family after they had been slaughtered.

Why does that story still feel wrong after all this time?


 

The girl... there was just something about that girl that made Tanjiro's brain itch. Something he couldn't remember but he felt like he should. Did he pass by her in the streets or something? He had half a mind to do what Douma does when he forgets something and stick his finger into his brain. But Tanjiro always considered it disgusting, so he would rather not.

On another note, Akaza was having far too much fun with that poor flame pillar man, Kyojuro Rengoku. No matter how many times he begged, Rangoku-san was unbudgingly holding his humanity. Tanjiro respected him for that. Still, he almost wanted to step in just to end it. The poor man had to be in agony with his eye ruined and his bones broken or cracked. Tanjiro was certain that if Akaza didn't have his accelerated healing that he would be in a similar, or even worse, state than Rengoku-san was. How the human kept clashing without collapsing escaped the second moon's understanding.

And yet, as incredible as the fight was, his eyes kept snapping back to the girl in concern. She was terrified, frozen in fear and awe at the awesome clash of power between the flame pillar and the third moon. Finally, her eyes snapped up to his, pink clashing with dark red. She flinched, only seeing the otherworldly glow of his gaze, shrouded in the shadows and otherwise hidden from view. Poor girl. He thought with quiet compassion.

He was supposed to help kill the humans here, but he couldn't bring himself to. His excuse could be that Akaza insisted on handling everything himself, which was true, so he was content to just be a spectator. Still, not revealing himself would be rude and cause unnecessary strife later when he got back. The last thing he wanted was everyone bothering him for his "cowardice" in not only not participating in this mess, but also hiding. So he leapt from the shadows into clear view, his haori floating for a moment before settling around him, his longish hair doing the same as it tickled his back briefly. He watched her eyes widen in recognition and shock. Did they know each other?

Another one-!? Rengoku nearly choked, still struggling with Akaza. He was already busy against the third moon and the kids were injured. This wasn't looking good at all.

"Don't interfere, second!" Akaza snapped, causing Rengoku to break into a sweat. Second? He was stronger than this guy? Wait, where is his mark!?

Tanjiro almost laughed but settled for shaking his head lightly. Like he had any intention of-

"Nii-san?"

Chapter Text

There was an instant hush between the three demon slayers, the pillar and the two demons. Akaza, who now stood on the other side of the field again, threw his head back and laughed with clear mirth.

"Nii-san? I think you're mistaken, little girl. This is one of the second Demon Moons." Akaza jabbed his thumb at Tanjiro who's eyes were still wide in surprise from the girl's quiet call.

Nii-chan! Nii-chan! Tanjiro heard a sweet, child-like voice echo in his mind and rubbed his forehead slowly, pinching the bridge of his nose in pain. To others though it looked like he might just be aggravated.

"Nezuko-chan, what are you talking about?" the boy with blond hair (Zenitsu, if he recalls right) asked in concern, crouching next to her and eying both Akaza, who chortled with amusement, and Tanjiro, who looked like he was experiencing second-hand embarrassment for the mistaken identity. "Is... is that the brother you told us about?" 'the brother that went missing' was left unspoken.

"Yes! That's my big brother! Tanjiro! It's me! Nezuko!" the girl, Nezuko, called desperately, her eyes almost wild and frantic for him to listen to her, believe her, come back to her.

 

Nezuko. Tanjiro thought to himself, almost shocked at how gentle even his inner voice spoke the name, how soft and almost sacred it felt in his soul, resonating in his very being with fondness. Nezuko… A flash of a little baby, swaddled and tiny, chubby and new and precious being placed in his much smaller arms. He'd been scared he would drop her then, he remembered. She smiled at him, toothless and guileless and so sweet, and he vowed even at his young age to protect her, nurture that smile so she could live a long happy life-

Nezuko… A little girl, small and giggling as she played with an instrument while a man- no, his father watched them both with undeniable warmth, eyes so much like his and a soft smile. "Tanjiro," he heard the man say as he instructed the boy's awkward, clumsy movements. "Breathe, Tanjiro."   How could he breathe when his head hurt so badly? And how did he know the man was his father? How did he know this girl was his-?

Nezuko? A girl mending the same kimono as she had so many times before, insisting to Tanjiro that it was fine, that the pink fabric with star patterns was her favorite and that their money should go into feeding their younger siblings. The soft smile of a girl who worked so hard everyday in her own way for her- no, their family.


 

The girl unknowingly causing such conflict in her only living relative wanted to cry out to her brother again, but Akaza and Rengoku had begun their fight anew, distracting her. It wasn't looking good. Rengoku-san was clearly, unfortunately, losing.

 

Rengoku was struggling obviously now, but Akaza had been careful not to damage him enough that the fight would end too quickly. He only crushed the human's eye and cracked a few of his ribs. Nothing too vital or critical. It was clear that the man with queer fiery hair wasn't entirely focused on their fight though; rather it seemed he was staying in one area to protect the other humans from whatever backlash would occur if he actually dodged(1). It was ridiculous.

"This is a fight to the death, demon slayer!" Akaza said severely as he landed another punch, only about two-thirds his real strength. The Flame Pillar grunted and skidded back, feeling his rib cage bruising. "If you can't bring yourself to fight with everything you've got than you shouldn't fight at all! Quit wasting my time! If you won't fight because of them -" he pointed at the three demon slayer kids, still frozen on the ground. "Then I'll just get rid of the obstacles!"

Rengoku's eyes widened and he jumped in front of Nezuko when he saw how Akaza's fingertips were pressed together like a spearhead, and would have pierced through her head if he had been able to actually get close. Rengoku felt the third moon's nails pierce his side instead of his chest like they should have and it became as clear as lake Mashu that Akaza knew he would take the hit for her, so he only used enough force to incapacitate. He could close it with his breathing technique but if he moved his muscles much at all he would pass out. Akaza wanted him out of the way to get rid of his obstacles so the next time they met up, the kids wouldn't be in the way.

The fire haired man ground his teeth and swung his blade, causing a large gash on the third moon from his right shoulder down to his left hip and making the pink haired demon instinctively jump away from the prone fire-haired man who had to kneel on the ground, his wound tearing a bit just from that one strike. His brain was trying to make him fall into unconsciousness from the blood loss and the pain but he willfully forced his one remaining eye to stay open. The demon's wound was already healed.

Dammit. He cursed from his very heart. This wasn't good. There was a very powerful demon ready to kill his comrades and innocent people, and Rengoku couldn't even move no matter how much he tried. His body knew it was too damaged and was locked in place. Even if he could move by some miracle, he wouldn't be much help with how woozy and off-balance due to blood loss was making him.

He cursed again when he felt the demon slayer kids (because they were just children, they weren't ready to die and they weren't strong enough) ran to him. Nezuko held him in her arms, her eyes wide and terrified as she acted as a shell with her own tiny body, Zenitsu was shaking like a leaf ready to fall in the cruel winds of winter but still kept his sword up, determination and fear intermingling with each other as he vowed to protect Nezuko and the immobilized pillar. Inosuke was shockingly silent, his swords out and his body twisted, ready to use any attack he would need to. He should have been able to defend them!

Dammit , he thought again, feeling utterly helpless. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. These kids shouldn't die protecting him! He tried to stand up but he immediately saw black in the corner of his vision. Dammit!


 

It hurts. Oh god, it hurts. Tanjiro wished his head would be cut off just so he could get rid of the agony pulsing in his skull with each memory, growing so intense the veins on his head bulged. He had a feeling if he just let go of the memories coming into his brain that it would stop hurting but he refused. He knew if he let them go now he would never see them again and he wouldn't let his family be stolen away again.

In the span of what could only been a handful of minutes, he had been born, grown up, taken care of his family, comforted them and protected them only to lose them and he "died". He literally saw his entire life flash in front of his eyes in only a few moments and he wasn't about to let it be snatched away and buried until he couldn't find it again. It was overwhelming and made him hyper aware of everything around him yet also unable to really know what was going on because nothing should matter more than this.

It hurt for reasons far beyond mere physical pain. Oh, that he could have handled. The agony in his heart was unbearable. The love, the warmth, the loss . He was supposed to protect his family and he'd failed.

He managed to get home before the snow storm and everything was normal in their home only for him to knock on the door. Hanako, his sweet little sister, had excitedly headed over to answer the door, a welcoming smile on her face only to freeze as Muzan (the anger and hate he imbued in that creature's name alone should have scared him, but it only made his blood boil) was standing there and sliced her neck with one smooth motion of his hand, his nails cutting through her soft skin like knives. Mother had screamed, and it was just a blur from there. Too much had happened too quickly to keep track of it all.

The next thing remembered being blinded by tears, by rage as the demon slaughtered his family. He managed to bury his hatchet into the man's neck and stun him long enough to push him off of Nezuko. He told her to run and get help, that he'd be alright but she needed to hurry. She hadn't wanted to leave him behind, but she ran and Tanjiro had managed to distract Muzan from following her. Or, more specifically, his earrings had. He couldn't remember what exactly Muzan had said but he recalled something about him "conquering the sun" through him. Then he was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he had remembered nothing and was told his tormentor was his savior. Saved from his family's slaughter by Muzan-sama's whim . both the truth and a lie. Muzan had worded it like he had nothing to do with the massacre when he had been the cause. He had looked at his tormentor like he was his savior, the thought of his blind loyalty in following that monster around like a chick that imprinted on him and doing everything he could to repay the man's nonexistent "kindness" made him want to retch.

 

"Tanjiro." a soft, beautiful voice as clear and soothing as a silver bell that he finally remembered(- he remembered his mother and he wanted to cry because he never should have forgotten in the first place) and he swore she was standing in front of him, removing his hands from where he was covering his eyes and cradling the sides of his face gently in her housework-callused hands, her lilac purple eyes making contact with his burgundy ones, looking at him with fondness and sorrow.

"Tanjiro, it's alright." she assured him. "We know you did your best. We don't blame you at all. You saved Nezuko that night. But Tanjiro, please, she needs you now." she pleaded. Tanjiro felt weight on his clothes as his younger siblings clung to him, Takao grabbing the sleeve of his haori (his haori that his mother had sewn so he was always surrounded with her love and warmth) and Hanako took her spot hugging him around his waist, his hands thoughtlessly pressing into her back and holding her to him but unable to peel his eyes from his mother. 

I'm so sorry, he wanted to say, regardless on her not blaming him in the first place. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Please don't leave.

Kie looked at her son and smiled sadly, gently brushing the tears that thoughtlessly fell down his face in quiet, steady rivers. "You've been through so much, Tanjiro. But Nezuko needs you. Please, please keep protecting her. Even when you can't see us we're with you. Always." she promised him, wanting to cry as well. Oh, her poor sweet baby boy... how much he and his sister had suffered. But they were both so strong, and she had nothing but faith in her children. She was certain they would change the world. But nothing was acquired without sacrifice... and the world thought turning her precious boy into a demon was his own price.

"Please, Tanjiro. Live. Live and love and laugh. Please keep being yourself. You and Nezuko could change the world with your bond." And she truly believed it. The bond Nezuko and Tanjiro had was unbreakable even after all this time separated from each other. He had recognized her even when his memories were sealed away in the deepest depths of his mind and pulled them out on his own, clinging to them in spite of the pain it had caused. She wished she could stay. She wished she could be the one they would go to for their injuries, for their problems, that they'd have their siblings laughter and warmth again to support them. But the most they could do was watch, encourage and pray.

She and the others all disappeared, but Tanjiro still felt their warmth on his clothes and his face, he felt where the tears were now dried but had been smudged by her gentle fingers wiping them away. He might have thought it a hallucination if it weren't for that tidbit of evidence.

 

He wiped the rest of the salted crust from his eyes and turned them back to the battle, just in time to see Rengoku fall to a kneel on the ground and he felt his heart stop when Nezuko tried to cover him with her body as much as she could. There were two other hunters but Tanjiro knew none of the four of them stood a chance against Akaza, especially when the pink haired demon was getting angrier and angrier at the interruption. He hated being challenged by "weaklings" and thought they should all just be slaughtered so they'd stay out of the way when the strong would fight.

"Fine. This just gives me a chance to kill all three of you at once!" Akaza snarled and got into a position, ready to sprint and strike.

"Onii-chan..." Nezuko called and looked at him. Tanjiro felt his heart being crushed as she started crying. He hadn't seen Nezuko cry since she was little, she hadn't called him onii-chan since she felt that she was too old for it and started calling him nii-san or nii-chan when she was roughly seven, and to see her tears and call him that at the same time- in the situation they found themselves in for their reunion, it was so painful that Tanjiro wanted to cry for her and himself.

"Onii-chan, please. Please help." she sobbed, gripping Rengoku tightly, like the wounded pillar was supposed to be a stand in for the brother she thought had been eaten. She remembered how especially cruel it felt to have only Tanjiro eaten by that monster who took everyone from her, how she screamed and cried until her throat was raw and her eyes were swollen. Why him? Had been her thoughts both then and now. Why did Tanjiro onii-chan have to suffer so much? It wasn't fair! Her brother was always so kind and gentle, he always took care of their family and tried to help anyone who needed it, so why was he the only one devoured? And now she wondered why her sweet, kind older brother who she had bonded with to the point she and her other siblings almost saw him as another parent had been turned into a demon. Why? What did Tanjiro, of all the people in the world, do to deserve this injustice? Why did her brother forget her and their family? He was just watching everything with an indifferent, blank face like he didn't care.

"Onii-chan...!" she sobbed in fear, especially when Akaza finally ran at them, ready to strike.

 

Nezuko!

Tanjiro's head and chest still hurt like hell. It hurt so badly and was so distracting that he didn't even notice when he moved. All he saw was red and all he could focus on was eliminating the threat.


 

Tanjiro almost seemed to teleport in front of the group, caught Akaza's fist and punched him in the chest so hard he smashed through a tree, ignoring the cracking sound from both his fist and the other demon's torso. The pink haired demon looked utterly dumbfounded, doubletaking as he stood, feeling and hearing his ribcage rearranging itself back into place. 

"Second, what the hell are you-!?" Akaza stopped, his entire body shuddering and his eyes widened when he saw the expression on the younger demon, the stance he was taking and the look in his eyes. Tanjiro... in all the time he had seen the brat since Muzan nonchalantly placed him in the ranking of second but told them all to train him into the strongest demon he could be, had never shown anything but a gentle countenance. Occasionally he'd get a bit irritable, or flustered, but no one had ever seen him get genuinely angry despite their best efforts. Looking at him now, Akaza didn't understand why they ever wanted to see it.

Tanjiro was an adult now, standing across the field much taller than before, 5'11 if he had to guess, and shoulders broader under his haori, muscles much clearer and hair having grown further(2) until it cascaded down his back like a waterfall of blood. His claws were flexed, ready to slash and tear away at any adversary stupid enough to try him and his lips were pulled back into a snarl, sharp fangs bared. Even his eyes were narrowed, the slit pupils standing out in the glowing crimson/burgundy color they glowed in their rage.

"Akaza," he said, his voice deeper than before, growling as he gave the only warning the other demon would get. "Don't you dare come any closer." Or he would show no mercy. 

Chapter Text

Akaza was stumped. He was standing up again, already healed, but he felt cold sweat fall down his face, a chill trembling down his back. He'd been well on the receiving end of rage; he couldn't have fought all the pillars he had if he hadn't sparked rage in them enough to fight him with everything they had until their last breath, but this was something else. A human could never beat a demon, he was absolutely certain of that, but a demon against another demon? It would be a bloody, violent mess. In addition to that if Tanjiro didn't kill him, Muzan would. The progenitor's attachment to the kid was as confusing as it was concerning. He couldn't kill Tanjiro, but he also couldn't let him escape because, again, Muzan would rain absolute hell down on him. He wouldn't kill Akaza since he could still be of use, but he'd make him wish he had died.

"Tanjiro," he called again, forcing his voice to be calm even through he felt his veins popping in rage. "You know what you're doing is treason, right? Our mission-" he jabbed his finger at the group of stunned hunters surrounding an equally gobsmacked pillar. "Is to kill those demon slayers, and especially the Hashira."

"I know what our mission is," Tanjiro said, his own voice even but still deeper in his adult form, ready to growl again if Akaza stepped out of line. "Why are you reminding me of it when you disregarded it first?"

Akaza opened his mouth and snapped it shut with a click of his teeth, feeling his brow twitch. He couldn't exactly retort because Tanjiro was, unfortunately, right. "If you won't let me finish the mission then you can explain why to-"

"I won't go back."

The pink haired demon did a doubletake, as if the idea of Tanjiro leaving was more ridiculous than knocking the third moon across the field (despite his sudden and extreme display of protectiveness that reminded him of animal mothers protecting their young). "What?" he demands, feeling cold sweat on the back of his neck. He hoped he heard wrong. He hoped this entire thing was just a nightmare; that he somehow got caught up in that lower moon's art and he'd wake up to actually complete the mission instead of everything taking this very bitter turn for a worst case scenarios.

"I said I won't go back. I will never leave Nezuko alone again." the redhead repeats, reaffirming Akaza's fears.

Now he had an entirely different problem; dragging Tanjiro back to Muzan. Muzan's wrath over losing Tanjiro would by far eclipse his anger at the failed mission. So, he decided, fuck the mission. He'd do his best to knock out Tanjiro and drag him back. He had to hurry though; his internal clock was telling him he only had a little over half an hour before sunrise. He'd knock Tanjiro out, drag him off somewhere that they could wait out the sun, then explain to Muzan what happened and hope that the demon would be a bit merciful to him knowing the failure was Tanjiro's fault and not his.


Tanjiro knew Akaza wouldn't back down, but he could hope. He wasn't an idiot, he knew the only reason he did as much damage to the other demon as he did was due to him catching Akaza off guard. An actual fight between them would be very messy. They both had their advantages and disadvantages for this battle; they both had about equal physical strength, but Tanjiro was faster than Akaza, on the downside his healing while he was conscious was slow. He could land five hits and Akaza could heal from every one of them, but a sure hit to Tanjiro could end things quickly if he wasn't careful. If nothing else, Tanjiro was sure he could fight him until the sun came up. A long, grueling experience for sure, but one worth fighting if it meant Nezuko was safe.

"Tanjiro. He will be very angry if you don't come back." Akaza tried one last time to talk some sense into the other, younger demon. Was this some sort of rebellious stage or something? "You don't know what he will do as punishment for this betrayal and disobedience." he warns genuinely. It wouldn't surprise Akaza if Muzan slaughtered the girl and everyone close to her while making Tanjiro watch just to break him so the boy would never even think to leave his side again.

"I don't care what he does to me." because he wouldn't let him anywhere near his sister. Since his sister seemed to have found more members of her family, Tanjiro would do his best to bond with them and protect them as well. If he died fighting Muzan, then he would have died doing his responsibility and privilege as her older brother. He wouldn't let anyone hurt his family, or the family his family chose. "I will not go back."

".... Then I guess I have no choice-" Akaza leapt, causing Tanjiro to snarl and meet him head on, both of their hands locking each other palm-to-palm and fingers slitting together, arms bulging with the strain of their muscles and veins throbbing visibly. "But to knock you out and drag you back!" he finished face to face, feeling deep in his gut that he had made a mistake just from getting this close to that look on the redhead's face.

Tanjiro let out a low growl and slammed his head hard into Akaza's, hearing the crack of the other demon's skull and using his momentary daze to kick him, sending him skidding away. Tanjiro ignored the blood dripping down his forehead and the possible crack in his own skull as he rushed at his opponent with every intention to fight, distract or kill; whatever he had to do in order to get him away from the humans he was protecting faithfully, He landed five consecutive punches to the third moon, ignoring the give of breaking bone under his knuckles that would ordinarily cause him to hesitate and disregarding the blood that flew from the pounded flesh of Akaza's face that splattering on him before he needed to move back when Akaza swung his fist. He was a bit late and was sure there were spiderwebbing fractures traveling along the top two ribs on his left side.

The sight of the pink haired demon's face was disconcerting; his nose was clearly broken, his eye was just beginning to regenerate and his teeth were snapping back into place with audible clicking and he had to manually shift his jaw back into place for it to heal. Even after his face was clear, the blood left over was a clear sign of the one-sided pounding he just received. Akaza ground his freshly healed teeth. It was clear he would lose himself to his anger soon enough and the fight, for however long it lasted, would push both of them hard. Especially since Akaza's instincts were reminding him that the sun would come up fairly soon.

Akaza pounced like a cheetah on a field mouse, anticipating Tanjiro's attempt to dodge and bringing his fist up to smash the younger demon across his face. He didn't do any damage too significant, aside from causing the inside of the boy's cheek to rip and tear on his teeth and maybe fracturing his cheekbone, but the thick line of blood dribbling down the kid's chin gave him some petty satisfaction. Only a little though. This wasn't nearly enough seeing as even Tanjiro's subpar (conscious) healing would fix his cheek quickly.

Tanjiro swung back in response, hitting Akaza's collarbone and undoubtedly breaking it. Soon enough they were a blur, exchanging hits that even Rengoku's trained eyes couldn't keep track of. The sounds of flesh being hit with great force, bones snapping, growls and snarls and even hisses filled the air. It was a battle of beasts now; one fighting to protect his family and the other for self-preservation. Instinct vs instinct where there was no clear winner in sight.

 

Just as Tanjiro had predicted, he landed more strikes than Akaza, but the other demon's were the ones that counted since they didn't heal instantly unless they were shallow wounds. Akaza healed over and over again no matter how severe the injury should have been- even when Tanjiro Kicked him hard enough in his back that the rosette's spine broke with an audible snap. Soon enough even his adrenaline wouldn't be able to keep his body going, and he would start slowing down. Blood loss might not kill him, but it made him sleepy and sluggish. He definitely didn't need to collapse in fatigue when his epinephrine ran out right in the middle of their fight. His head was still pounding from breaking free of whatever hypnosis Muzan had placed on him, and it was so distracting he couldn't scrape up enough focus to use his blood art. He had to end this scuffle soon or it would change to the worst possible scenario. It would be hard to last the remaining fifteen minutes or so until morning.

 

Most of the passengers from the train had all fled to the other side at this point, some taking those too injured to move on their own with them, but the group of hunters barely managed to maneuver the pillar over to rest against the train to stay out of the way without tearing his wound. The closer the fight got to the group- to the girl, specifically, the more brutal Tanjiro got. The type of ferocity he was fighting with, pushing his body despite the several cracked or broken bones, torn flesh, muscle and tendon and undeniable agony he would be in once the adrenaline wore off went far beyond any sibling bond Akaza had ever heard of or seen before. He was more like a mother wolf or bear protecting his cub from any danger, brutally fighting another predator to the death if need be while totally disregarding himself for her safety. When Akaza pushed them back so much as even a foot closer to the group (the girl in particular), Tanjiro turned into something fierce that he never wanted to see again in all his long life.

Tanjiro's lips curled back again in a snarl to show his sharp teeth, his eyes narrowed like splintered ice in a sea of glowing blood and his very breathing were bursts of growls. The younger forewent any defense, taking a hard punch to the stomach that made him swallow back a mouthful of blood that his body tried to vomit out from whatever damages were caused to his stomach and other internal organs and clawed Akaza's eyes, raking his claws down his face and bursting the orbs of fluid in his head so the viscous liquid ran down his face and onto the ground.

While Akaza reeled in pain Tanjiro grabbed him by his shoulder to keep him in place and gave him a sharp, powerful upper cut under the rosette's chin that caused his own hand to give multiple unhealthy pops as his metacarpals and mid-phalanges dislocated. As his fist made contact with the underside of the third moon's jaw, Tanjiro felt the way Akaza's flesh tore with an indescribable wet sound, followed by the sound of his spinal cord breaking and viscera gushing everywhere as the third moon's head was, literally, knocked off. He let go right at that final snap so when the head flew, the body was flung from the force of the impact, Akaza's backbone breaking not too far from his head. The redhead had dislocated a few of his fingers in the process, but that didn't matter. Tanjiro just popped them back into place the same way one would crack their knuckles. His hellish training with the Demon Moons had raised his tolerance for pain substantially. Broken bones and ruptured organs were hardly a burden anymore when he knew he could heal later when he slept. That didn't mean it didn't or wouldn't hurt, but he was used to it. Even so, he was certain that when he no longer had rage coursing through his veins, when the exhaustion settled in and his nerves would cease numbing themselves, that he would be tormented by the injuries, pain and fatigue. And he still had to get Nezuko and her friends to safety.

 

Akaza ground his teeth, repositioning his head back onto his neck. "Are you just going to roast in the sun for them!?" he snapped. They only had- what? Ten, maybe fifteen minutes before the sun rose?

Tanjiro returned to his position he originally took when he first protected the human girl. It was defensive but still full of openings; that is to say, he was leaving himself vulnerable but acting as a meat shield for that girl and the humans. That was his answer. He would absolutely roast in the sun and he would make sure he took Akaza down with him.

"You're insane." Akaza gawked, utterly shocked. "You've lost your goddamn mind!"

Maybe. Tanjiro wouldn't deny it. But he couldn't bring himself to care at all. There were far more important things to worry about, like his sister's safety. He didn't budge at all even as the twilight blue of the sky started lightening when the sun gradually began waking up the rest of the world, answering Akaza's question without the need for words.

Akaza ground his teeth, muttered a curse and had no other choice but to run away, taking his loss in the fight and dreading the report he would give Muzan. Maybe if he was lucky his sire would only dismember him a few times. The shame of fleeing from a fight and in a way losing against Tanjiro was a bubbling vein of humiliation running straight to his heart. Next time it would be different. He'd either kill the kid or knock him out and clear away that mark, depending on Muzan-sama's orders. Damn that boy!


Rengoku had never seen a fight quite like this. A fight of demon against demon was brutal beyond what he could ever have imagined; like animals trying to tear each other apart. He also never thought a demon would fight to protect a human. He wasn't sure what to think of the situation at this point, but it was turning his entire world view on its head. It didn't help matters that he was already dizzy.

As soon as the other moon retreated away from the sun, Nezuko rushed over about halfway to the demon before Rengoku could stop her (like he could actually do anything in the state he was in), who looked at her over his shoulder before turning to her. He was still in his adult-ish form; his hair a messy mane of soft looking red hair like deep, dark red velvet falling down his back, feathery looking and glinting with scarlet at the tips of each lock of hair that would curl at the end. His once fine clothing had been torn and burned in many places from the third moon's strikes, showing the damaged flesh beneath. Rengoku had been prepared to scream at her to get away, because the more injured a demon was the hungrier it got; even if he fought to protect the girl he recognized as his sister it didn't mean he couldn't go feral from starvation. 

 

Yet the boy only reached up one clawed hand to rest it on his sister's cheek, cupping her face in his large, callused but warm hand and holding her there to really, properly look at her. She stared up at him hopefully, flashes of that same face as she grew flooded his mind; babyhood, childhood and so on until he and the rest of their family had been taken away from her. She had gotten stronger, Tanjiro noted. She hadn't grown much taller, perhaps a centimeter or so, but her shoulders were broader and her back was straight. Tanjiro was sure her haori was covering toned arms right now that she never had before. Her once dainty hands were callused, telling him the story of her brutal training to become a demon hunter. Even her beautiful, long hair she had been so proud of had been cut at one point, as it now only reached her mid-back when it had reached her hips before, her bangs tied off to one side out of her face with a pink ribbon. Her pink eyes were still bright, a sparkle of stubbornness that all Kamado children had inherited from their mother and the determination their father had passed to them as well as their will of fire.

She looked so similar yet so different to what he remembered. What had his poor little sister been through while he had been locked in his own mind or two whole years? He wanted to weep for her yet he also, selfishly, couldn't bring himself to be sad when he finally found her again, and she was alive and well and had friends- had made a new family with bonds thicker than even blood forged by fighting together and trust and loyalty like he saw earlier when they had all surrounded the flame pillar, ready to fight for the man's life even as they quivered in fear. He was so happy that she hadn't shut herself off or worse when she was left alone. He was proud of her for becoming such a strong, capable young woman even if he regretted not being there to watch her grow and help her through the hardest parts of her life. He prayed she would forgive him for that, especially since he certainly wouldn't. He had failed as an older brother horribly before, but at least he was stronger now and would only keep pushing his limits for her and the family she had chosen. He would never leave her alone again.

"Nezuko," he called out, almost not recognizing his own voice from the adulation in his tone. He felt his face soften in a way it hadn't since they were taken away, since his memories were stolen. The slits in his eyes seemed to round just slightly and the crimson glow faded away to show soft, gentle burgundy that looked at her with such pure love Nezuko almost cried. Actually, she did. She let out a whimper and hugged him, gripping the back of his haori with urgency like he might be stolen from her again. She sobbed openly into the once fine fabric of his clothes that were riddled with holes and singe marks and cried her poor little heart out like she had needed to do but couldn't for so long. Tanjiro held her, his arms containing a power she had seen but couldn't fear, especially when his touch was so careful as he brought her close to himself and gently pet her head.

"It's alright, Nezuko. Nii-chan won't ever leave you alone again. I promise." he soothed her, rubbing her back as she shook the same way he did so long ago when she would have a nightmare and run to him for comfort.

 

 

(Rengoku fainted after that. Whether it was from the blood loss, pain or just the shock of everything that happened, he didn't know.)

Chapter Text

Tanjiro was distracted from his and Nezuko's reunion when the blond boy (Zenitsu, if he recalled correctly) let out a very terrified "EEEEEH!? RENGOKU-SAN!?" causing him to look up when he had his eyes closed and was enjoying Nezuko's scent, which was now both familiar and a bit different now. Ah, he had forgotten about them. Now he felt a bit sheepish, especially since he didn't make a very good first impression on his sister's friends. It also wasn't good that he had completely forgotten about the flame pillar's injuries. Shame, Tanjiro. He chided himself for his incompetency.

He made his way over, the boy with the boar head moved like he was ready to attack while the blond was staring at him with an indecipherable expression on his face. and Nezuko pattered after him while holding the hem of his checkered haori, unwilling to let go of him for even a moment in fear he would be swooped away again. He ran his gaze carefully along the visible wounds and used his sense of smell to detect the ones he couldn't see before giving a slow nod.

"I'm going to move him somewhere safe and look at his injuries." he warned the other slayers out of curtesy. The blond nodded slowly, staring at Tanjiro like he was a puzzle while the boar was giving off an energy like he was completely suspicious, confused and ready to strike at a moment's notice. Nezuko nodded much faster than the blond, trusting her brother completely despite all of their time apart. Thus, with their permission, he gently picked up the pillar and headed off to a cave he had passed when he and Akaza had ran to the train. He ran quickly enough that they would make it to the cave before the sunlight would touch him, but slow enough that the others could keep up... which was actually quite difficult since he was used to not needing to restrict his own speed.

 

As soon as they made it to their (rather his) destination, Tanjiro set the pillar so he was laying down and took off his own haori, folding it into a rectangle and setting it under the pillar's head. He wouldn't be surprised if the man had a nasty concussion or other damage from all the blood loss and trauma he endured. He heard Nezuko announce that she would go out and look for sustenance, and Inosuke followed after her along with Zenitsu. It was quite a bit of trust they were placing in Tanjiro, whom they had only just met, to be left alone with their injured superior. If it were anyone else, he would think it was a test but after seeing how protective they were of the fire pillar before, Tanjiro doubted it. Perhaps they trusted him because Nezuko did.

There was a bit of water trickling from the stalagmites hanging from the cavern ceiling a bit further back, small pools forming under them and creating a steady, calming drip, drip, drip sound. It would be enough to wash the flame pillar's blood, at the very least. It wasn't Tanjiro's first choice for clean water to tend to his sister and her companion's wounds and thirst, but beggars couldn't be choosers and the nearest body of water was quite a ways away. Tanjiro could get there and back quickly, but he had to wait until night time. A quick but cautious sniff told him that the water wasn't contaminated and that it was safe to use and drink.

He lifted the few layers of the once fine black kimono Muzan had dressed him in until he got to the white under robe and began tearing it into makeshift bandages, keeping them as even and neat as possible, then tearing the left arm of that same under robe and ripping it into squares to act as rags. He hoped the others would find some medicinal herbs, but something told him that they didn't know much about them. Neither did he, actually. There wasn't much point when he could heal on his own with no chances for infections. He did however know how to stitch wounds and reattach limbs with his needlework. He had come to learn it was easier for his body to heal when something was holding the wounds shut or his limbs in place for him. He always made sure to bring it with him along with- wait.

Tanjiro froze. He forgot his sword. Oh kami-sama have mercy. He had left it behind along with the small kit he would use to stitch himself together(1). Now he just felt stupid; that sword would have been damn useful when he fought Akaza. He was better with his blade than his fists, that was for sure. And the human could really use the sutures for his wound.

"Excuse me! Could one of you come here, please?" Tanjiro called out, able to smell that the others were nearby enough to hear.

The pitter-patter of feet sounded quietly on the grass outside before he saw the blond boy's face peek at him. Tanjiro didn't blame the poor guy, the recent events and even Tanjiro himself must be overwhelming for him. "Zenitsu-san, right?" he guesses the boy's name, who jumps like he wasn't expecting to be addressed.

"Uh, yes. That's me." he said awkwardly, never leaving his shield of a rock wall, shuffling his feet in an almost sheepish way. "Did you call for something?"

"Yes. Would you mind going to get something for me? I left a belt behind with my sword and a small kit attached to it. Could you please go and get it? The kit will come in handy for your friend." Tanjiro requests with a light smile, hoping to seem less threatening despite, well, being what he was.

Zenitsu stared at him long enough that Tanjiro felt awkward before the boy remembered what had been requested and then he gave a swift, jerky nod, turning and running off, probably to tell his friends where he was going. It was daylight, so Tanjiro knew he'd be safe. He hoped Akaza never returned and took his things in an act of petty revenge, but he had a feeling he had scared Akaza off pretty well and he was certain that he wouldn't roast himself to take his things during the day.

 

Tanjiro kept himself busy in the meantime, gently cleaning the flame pillar's wounds and looking at them carefully, gauging the real damages. The hole on the man's side from where Akaza had shoved his hand through would definitely need stitches, but it wasn't quite as critical as he thought. At least the man didn't need critical attention once he was patched and stitched up, but it would be best if he had a real doctor look at it and provide a salve to stave off any infections trying to nest in his wounds. There were definitely a few broken bones, and several fractures judging by the man's scent and the nasty bruises already forming. His eye was completely ruined and the gash over it started just under the pillar's eyebrow and down to the bridge of his cheek; short but wide, coming down vertically where the pillar's eye had once been like someone had just decided to shave off a centimeter of skin. Tanjiro had to settle for cleaning it gently with one of the white makeshift rags and then setting another clean one over it as a pseudo plaster. The young demon held in a wince of sympathy; it would be best if the man retired from being a pillar after this, or took lighter level missions. He had a feeling the blonde's spine might have at least a hairline fracture as well from the force his upper body endured at an awkward angle. He'd be able to walk still, if he let it heal properly, but he would probably never get to the level he had been fighting at before. Damage like that could make him lose feeling in his legs for short spurts of time even once it healed.

He wasn't exactly a professional, but... well, Douma had quite a fascination with human bodies and tended to overshare details of his "experiments" with the redhead, probably because he knew it made Tanjiro uncomfortable. The young demon was actually slightly grateful now for the information; it made it much easier to give a more accurate diagnosis on the flame pillar. He still needed a human doctor though, since the only thing Tanjiro could do was give educated guesses from the knowledge he had and with his sharpened senses detecting what was wrong.

 

He smelled Zenitsu as he ran back in after the flame pillar had been cleaned and Tanjiro had bandaged most of the wounds he needed to, leaving the hole in the man's side covered with a damp but clean makeshift rag to keep lower the chance of infection. The blond handed him the belt that had a small box and his sword still attached just as he had left it. It was odd how quiet the boy was with him when he seemed to be very loud with everyone and everything else. Again, Tanjiro told himself to not take it personally. If their roles were reversed, he probably wouldn't want to trust a demon either, regardless on if they acted docile around him. Especially not when the first time they met was when he brutalized another demon.

Tanjiro took the box and opened it, taking out a small spool of silk and then threading the needle. He may have used a bit too much thread but it was better to have a bit extra and cut off the excess than to not have enough. After repairing himself so many times throughout the past two years or so, he was proud to say that the sutures were even and neat enough that he didn't have to worry about the human bleeding out even if he were to stop his concentrated breathing techniques. As long as he didn't exert himself, the man's stitches wouldn't come loose or tear at all. Still, even keeping it clean with water wouldn't do as much for him as having real medicine to keep away the septicity that was everywhere; especially in a damp cavern they had to take refuge in.

He was certain that the Demon Corps had already sent back up as soon as Enmu's plot was revealed before. The cavalry would probably be at the sight of their mission gone both right and wrong soon. Hopefully at night time, when he could lure them back here. He doubted that any demon hunters would listen to him if he tried to talk, but he also couldn't risk sending Nezuko or her friends out; they might not be taken seriously or their superiors would think they were influenced by a demon art, or maybe they had brain damages from the train crash. So, Tanjiro would have to lure them as live bait. He'd probably get blamed for the mess since he saw the messenger crow leave right after Rengoku-san had been injured in the first clash. He wouldn't be surprised if the bird jumped the gun and announced Rengoku-san was dead already. Ahhh, he was going to have some very angry demon slayers after him.

Still, even after their fight, Tanjiro hoped that Muzan would be merciful against Akaza.


 

He was going to be tortured in a way far beyond anything even the most vile, depraved mind could concoct. He felt it in his very soul: just trying to figure out how angry his sire would be had him shaking to the marrow of his bones.

Akaza had arrived to Muzan's current place of stay to give his report in person, knowing that sending a message would make things much worse when his sire next saw him. Failure, to Muzan, was unacceptable. What was even worse than failure was when his subordinates were too cowardly to report those follies to him directly. It wouldn't help Akaza's case that he had ran away, whether the sun was rising or not. He could only pray to the gods he no longer believed in that Muzan would be somewhat merciful when he found out that the fault lies with his most treasured disciple rather than Akaza himself.

Fuck, he also had to report Tanjiro's defection too. Why did he get the worst luck?

 

Akaza immediately knelt to the man who sat in his study, long legs crossed elegantly as he gave the third moon a long look. Akaza didn't have to see him to know his face was almost completely devoid of emotion. He didn't dare to speak first. Muzan would give him his permission when he was good and ready to listen, and until he was given permission to look at him with either words or an indication, the third moon was to keep his head down.

Of course, Muzan had already gathered that Akaza had failed his mission; the fact he even showed up to Muzan directly instead of sending a message told the progenitor everything he needed to know. The lack of Tanjiro's presence even more informative.

"You failed." Muzan states, as simply as one would remark on average weather. No disappointment to be detected, tone nonchalant as if the mark on Akaza's otherwise impressive record meant nothing. That wasn't good.

"Yes," the pinkette confirms, feeling cold sweat sluggishly trail down the side of his face. Akaza knew better than to believe the indifference when he had witnessed just how calm his leader could be even when he was full of dissatisfaction. He had to tread carefully. Groveling and begging wouldn't work since it would be seen as a sign of weakness, he couldn't even ask for forgiveness because his sire would twist it around in his own head and think he was being ordered around. Staying silent and only speaking when spoken to was his only chance to get out of this with a possibility to live, but not without paying for his folly first. Being torn limb from limb isn't so bad compared to what else the sire was capable of: he was certain the lower moons would attest to that.

It was silent for a while, long enough for the fine hair on Akaza's body to stand on end. "Where is Tanjiro?" Muzan asks, voice completely calm. His eyes, however, were a different story. Plum red, slit pupiled and daring him to even attempt to lie to him; a silent storm ready to strike and break down everything Akaza is and has ever been. Those eyes took in the complete lack of his favorite's presence and they were not pleased, even if the rest of his face and body language remained completely unreadable.

Akaza froze and bit the inside of his cheek, ignoring the taste of iron that ran down his throat. This was the worst part. He had been less terrified when telling the progenitor of his failure than he was wondering how he could possibly articulate Tanjiro's sudden disloyalty that came with remembering his human life. How could he possibly word that so the man in front of him would feel the lowest level of rage possible? Fuck it, he'd just say it as it was and hope for the best. Muzan hated it when you dodged a question or divagating.

"I had been fighting with the flame pillar." He begins his explanation, hearing the sound of his sire's long, sharp nail tapping the arm of his chair with sharp yet soft sounds, indicating his impatience. He ignored the fear bubbling in his stomach and continued. "Everything had been going well until one of the other slayers, a girl, recognized Tanjiro." the tapping stopped. That was a good sign; it meant that Muzan was intrigued, or at least curious. Akaza took a deep, silent breath and resumed again: "the girl called him nii-san and he started acting strange. He covered his head like he had a migraine, then the girl and her friends tried to cover for the pillar when he collapsed. The girl called out for Tanjiro to help them and then he attacked me. He didn't even seem like he was fully in control; he was fighting like a wild animal. There was no indication he ever even had training with how he was acting. He didn't even seem to remember that he had a sword or his blood art." he recounts.

 

Muzan gazed at Akaza, his amaranth eyes stared down at the pink haired demon calmly despite not being entirely focused on him. For once the rest of his face showed just how apoplectic he felt as he listened to the third moon's tale; veins pulsing on his forehead and his hands, making his clawed hands twitch with the urge to rip, crush, rend and destroy, his lips pressed tightly together to keep from baring his fangs or making a sound. Tanjiro had somehow managed to dig out the memories he had so carefully and painstakingly buried and had thus defected from his sire's side. A dangerous mixture of feelings flooded the superior being; anger, disbelief, indignance, and even a twinge of amusement. Mirth because of course Tanjiro, who made leaps and bounds in improvements ever since he was first taken under Muzan's wing and learned what would take others decades in only two years (regardless on how grueling the training had to be in order for this to happen), would manage to break his flawless hypnosis and surprise him. He might even say the entertainment he got from this situation was tinted with fondness because really, it was just like the boy to surprise him so perfectly and exceed his expectations. But it still didn't wash out the insult he felt at the boy's betrayal incessantly stung at his pride.

Muzan had the grace to take the boy in, had him train under the strongest demons at his disposal and kept him close to his side with more blood than he had ever given any other demon he had ever created before; essentially giving the boy a new chance at life when he could have eaten him or left him to rot with the rest of his family. And this was how the boy chose to repay his kindness and charity? By becoming a renegade and slapping a target on his back just for the sake of one human girl he hadn't even known existed for two years? This was absolutely absurd! And what made it worse was the person he had absconded for was a demon slayer, which naturally meant he would meet that damned Ubuyashiki who would instantly take the opportunity to snatch Muzan's favorite over to his side. A cacophony of curses, swears and indistinguishable, animalistic noises of infuriation became white noise in his mind despite his silence. Damn the gods and their tasteless games. Muzan was sick of everyone trying his patience lately.

The third moon couldn't help but flinch when the wooden arm of the chair in Muzan's grasp was turned to splinters as the original demon's outrage slipped through his apathetic façade, the polished rosewood crushing easily under the man's unrelenting hold. Good. He should be afraid. This was entirely his fault because instead of focusing on his mission he had chosen to turn into a complete battle fanatic. The red-eyed demon uncrossed his legs and stood in a smooth movement, his incandescent rage hidden once again as he flicked any remains from the poor furniture from his hand effortlessly, the same way one would flick water off their skin after checking the temperature of water.

"We will discuss the punishment for your incompetence later." he says, voice calm, smooth and severe; his face the paragon of equanimity despite the fury coursing through his veins. "I will need time to find a suitable penalty for your revolting insufficiency. Go. Gather the other moons." he ordered, turning his back to the third moon, who couldn't help but stutter his affirmative as he fled.

 

And while he contemplated what punishment would suit Akaza best, Muzan had plenty of time to figure out how to discipline his rebellious child when he dragged him back home. 

Chapter Text

Soon the sun started tucking itself into the horizon, but Tanjiro still couldn't catch any indication of demon slayers nearby. In order to get to the site of the train, they would have had to pass by the cavern, and Tanjiro was certain his olfactory sense wouldn't fail to alert him when strangers' scents would fill his nose. His sense of smell had always been sharp, as he now remembered, and since becoming a demon sharpened all of his other senses, he could catch the trail of any creature nearby.

His sister and her friends all entered the cave, instantly relaxing when they saw that Rengoku-san's injuries had been tended to. He still didn't look healthy, per se, but he looked much better than before since the blood had been carefully cleaned and his wounds seen to and that he was dressed again. Nezuko immediately dropped the wood she had gathered into a dry spot before moving to sit beside her brother near Rengoku-san.

"I was worried." Nezuko said softly.

"You don't need to be; I wouldn't let your friend bleed out if I can help it." Tanjiro assured her with a smile. She stared at him for a minute, ignoring the sounds of Zenitsu and Inosuke squabbling in the background. Her eyes suddenly got glassy and she shook her head, moving her hand to clutch at the fraying sleeve of her brother's kimono.

"No, I mean-" she took a deep breath when her voice started to waver. "I was afraid I'd come in here and you'd be gone... like everything was just my imagination trying to keep me alive. I thought I'd come back and you wouldn't be here- that you'd be dead again or that Muzan took you away while we were gone. So I couldn't go very far to gather wood. I'm sorry."

Tanjiro's heart warmed. Ah, so that's why she wouldn't wander far past the first line of foliage bordering around the cave's entrance. She wanted to be able to run if he needed help. It made sense now, why she didn't follow Inosuke and Zenitsu further out when they were collecting their necessities. "I told you before, right? I won't leave you alone again." the redhead assured her, reaching up to gently pet her head. His eyes softened even further when Nezuko leaned against his side, curling up next to him and watching the two young hunters arguing with fondness and a touch of exasperation. In spite of everything and how strong she had become, Nezuko was still the wonderful, spirited girl he had grown up with. He was grateful to see that her eyes never lost their spark of compassion and strength even after she had been left alone. He heard feint snippets of the duo's argument.

 

"You dropped that stick into the water; of course it won't catch on fire! Just grab a different one!" Zenitsu freaked out, his hair seeming to stand on end, his eyes bulging and veins popping from the stress of dealing with the boar-headed male.

"Ah!? Of course it'll spark! I lived in the wilderness, Monetsu! I know how to start fires!" Inosuke snarled with a loud, aggravated voice, the mask he wore being far too expressive as veins throbbed on the sides and steam burst from its nostrils.

"Your friends are so energetic!" Tanjiro laughed softly, then cut himself off as discreetly as possible. Oh no. Oh noooo… that hurt... a lot. As his adrenaline had been fading, Tanjiro was quite aware of the dull ache in his body but he had been so focused on Rengoku-san that he hadn't paid much attention to it. Now that the situation wasn't severe and Rengoku-san's health was no longer in immediate danger, the prickling stings had turning into piercing torment and exhaustion his him harder than anything Tanjiro had experienced, including his training with the upper moons. Douma forcing him to improve his speed, stamina and agility with one leg broken and the other fractured in four places didn't even hurt this badly, and he'd never been wounded so much all at once since he had more mind to defend whenever he would spar with the others.

The pain was steadily climbing as the severity of his wounds was made more apparent every second. Once again, he used the knowledge he had gained of different types of pain he had previously experienced in his own body as well as Douma's "lessons" to guess what all was wrong him. Out of his twenty four ribs; four of his mid ribs, his collarbone, and sternum were bruised while three lower ribs and his manubrium were fractured. He was also aware that everywhere Akaza had managed to hit had torn muscle and tendons, which screamed at him to lay down. He cracked a few bones in his right leg too, and the bones in his hands were bruised. It would take roughly two whole days, maybe even an entire week to heal all of the aforementioned damages as well as the injuries he sustained to his internal organs. The more his epinephrine drained over each second, the more tumultuous the agony in his body manifested itself.

Thankfully Nezuko didn't notice, and it helped that Tanjiro had gotten good at hiding any discomfort he could have been in.

"Yes! I can't wait for you three to get to know each other, nii-chan! I'm sure you'll be best friends in no time!" Nezuko encouraged.

"I'd like to get to know you," Tanjiro smiles, shoving any sounds of pain that might have wanted to escape somewhere in his battered chest to die in silence. It was fine. He was fine, he'd heal after he fell asleep. "More specifically, I'd like you to tell me a bit about what you've been up to." he shifts his body carefully, sitting up in a position that would alleviate as much pain as possible.

"Really? Are you sure?" she asks, excited but trying to keep it inconspicuous. She couldn't imagine anything she had done being more impressive than whatever her brother had been through. She had seen him fighting, but when Zenitsu left on her brother's request and returned with a sword that belonged to Tanjiro, she wondered what all her brother was capable now. He didn't seem to be entirely in his right mind when he fought the third moon, almost like he was turned into something feral. Nezuko had felt no fear because she knew he was protecting her but... if he was the second upper moon now and he had shown that much raw, brute strength in a fight with someone using what she guessed was a blood art or something similar, just what could he do with a blade? Did he use breath? Could demons also use breath techniques!? Or was it just part of his blood art? Both? She was bursting with her own inquiries, but she was just as excited to share her own adventures with him. Plus if she asked she might be digging into painful territory: it couldn't have been pleasant to be trained by a group of demons.

She might not want to know what happened, even when she did. She had a feeling if she heard everything they did to her brother that she might storm wherever Muzan and his underlings were staying and slay everyone she came across, probably getting herself mauled in the process. But she'd try and that's all that matters! No one was allowed to hurt her brother!

 

So she told him all about what had happened to distract herself and him from whatever he had been through; how she met the Water Pillar, Tomioka Giyuu, when she had run off to get help and how he had taken pity on her in his own way when they had returned to their home and saw Tanjiro was missing, which they interpreted as he had been the only one eaten before the demon sensed they were near and ran. Then the pillar had directed her to a man named Urokodaki-san who wore a tengu mask and taught her the way of the breath of water. She told him on how she had met the old man when she was struggling against a demon, who she managed to pin to a tree with her axe after calling him a pervert and punching him hard enough in the face to disorientate the demon and cut his head off with the axe she brought with her. She had been struggling with the body that continued to attack her when the old man had sliced the remains of the demon's neck-stump, finally killing it. Then after she had begged him to teach her how to be stronger and, after proving herself through his tests, he took her on as his disciple and taught her. She even managed to kill a demon that had killed most of her sensei's other disciples!

Tanjiro felt pride bloom in his heart for her; he always told Nezuko that she could do anything she set her mind to. She doubted him before but, see? He was right!

Then she told him of her difficult training, her struggles that ultimately lead to her meeting Zenitsu who asked her to marry him mere seconds after meeting her. Hearing that last bit made a drop of sweat form on the back of Tanjiro's head but he kept his face gentle and serene aside from the furrow in his brows which smoothened as she continued her recounting. She told him of a swamp demon who could split himself into three separate beings, and a few other demons she had managed to kill. Then she told him of her missions and how she fought the fifth lower moon Rui but how Giyuu was the one who killed him (which did make Tanjiro's heart ache for the spider child, he hoped that the boy and his family could be reincarnated into a happier life some day) and that she had woken up with her two friends in the butterfly estate. Then they were placed on the train mission with Rengoku.

"He cut the girl's face, the one he called his older sister." Nezuko says, voice soft and sleepy as her own fatigue caught up with her. It was apparent that Nezuko was talking about Rui, returning to the topic for some reason. Tanjiro knew the boy usually had a calm temper in most situations, but he demanded absolute loyalty and perfection in those who were meant to fulfil a role in his idea of family. He didn't doubt the spider demon would punish the members of his "family" if they showed any flaw in his image of what they should be.

"I was angry when he said that it was a family matter and that I had no business interfering. All I could think was that our younger siblings would never treat either of us that way. All I could think of was that you would never, ever hurt anyone in our family for any reason. I told him the truth; that his bonds were forced and fake. That a real family loves and protects each other no matter what. That the love of your family should be unconditional. I don't think he could understand, but he got mad at me. I think he already knew that his bonds weren't true, but that he was terrified of being alone. I was angry all through out fight, but I managed to cut his head off. Or, at least I thought I did. It turns out he cut his head off with his own threads before my blade could cut him." She laid down so her head was cushioned on his thigh, Tanjiro gently brushing his fingers through her hair to soothe her when he smelled her sleepy vexation, careful of his nails. She relaxed and continued with her voice soft so as to not bother the three other boys asleep in the cavern. After Zenitsu had gotten fed up and started the fire himself, both he and the boar fell asleep.

"Tomioka-san - he's the water pillar, remember? Tomioka-san saved me. I used up all my strength and was hurt so badly I couldn't move. I wanted to get stronger- and I still do." she peeked up at her older brother, looking sheepish and keeping her voice quiet as she did before. "Especially now. I have to protect you. But even before, when the third upper moon appeared, I was so scared I couldn't move. Then I called out to you and you saved us all. Thank you, nii-chan. I'm going to work even harder from now on. I'll get stronger... stronger..." Nezuko trailed off and finally fell asleep, the emotional strain she had experienced and drowsiness finally claiming her until she fell asleep. Tanjiro noticed she maintained her total concentration breathing even as she slept and smiled.

The warmth his sister brought to his soul was like a soothing balm on the chapped, torn wounds long inflicted on his spirit, left to fester until she soothed the pain away like a gentle, numbing medicine. How selfless and precious she was to him. He carefully removed his haori and covered her with it, eyes softening even further as she snuggled into the fabric. He didn't doubt that Nezuko would get so much more powerful and reliable than she already was. His baby sister was growing up, and it left him both proud and a tinge melancholic. He wished he had been there for her, that she hadn't been left alone for so long after their family had been taken from them. But he could at least remedy that a bit by staying with her now... if the Demon Slayer Corps didn't take his head. Even then though, he'd be sure to protect her as he knew their family did. He'd cheer her from the other side, perhaps communicate with her in her dreams... anything it took to make sure she was never alone again.

 

He felt the familiar fuzziness in his body, which must have been fed up with him fighting the sleep it desperately needed to heal his body in full and restore his stamina. But he wouldn't let himself sleep; and for good reason in his opinion! What if Muzan's influence kicked back up and took him over while he was asleep? What if he woke up with no memories and attacked Nezuko and her friends? Tanjiro was actively fighting to keep his eyes open. I can't fall asleep. I can't hurt my family. I can't let the other humans get hurt either.

Especially since they were family to Nezuko. Since they were Nezuko's family, they would be his as well. But if she hadn't been with Rengoku, Tanjiro wouldn't have known that he was pack and thus wouldn't have saved him. That would have left Nezuko in agony and that was unacceptable. What should he do to make sure that there's no chance Tanjiro would ever attack his sister's (and thus by extension his) family?

"All humans are my family." he whispered to himself with resolve, quiet enough to not wake anyone else. And he would protect his family.

Tanjiro repeated it like a mantra even after he fell asleep; restating all humans are family, so I must protect them and care for them over and over again until they not only felt natural, but they made sense and it would feel abnormal to think any differently. Humans were his pack, and he would protect his pack with his life. This time, this time Tanjiro was stronger and any threat to his beloved family would be dealt with one way or another. He'd prefer it if he could talk his way out of violence, but if he had to swing his sword or use his exhausting blood art, he would. No one, be it demon or even god, was permitted to hurt his family. All humans, no matter their physical ability, were fragile. They could die so easily, as he had seen earlier when Nezuko and their family were threatened by Akaza. They needed to be cared for like children, protected and nurtured and have someone there who would help them heal when they were hurt.

 

Tanjiro fell asleep, at last, with that resolve echoing in his mind, heart and soul, blissfully unaware of a pair of fiery eyes watching him with calculation and curiosity as well as the blonde who looked at him like an anomaly. Don't worry, Nezuko. I won't fail this time.


 

Zenitsu's first thought when he saw Nezuko's brother turned demon was that they were absolutely fucked if the second moon was there, and Rengoku-san was already struggling with everything he had against the third moon. The second thought had been sadness. That Nezuko had to go through the same pain that he and gramps did after his elder disciple brother had changed into a demon made his heart ache, especially when he heard the sound that came off her. It was indescribable grief that he was sure meant that the two siblings actually got along well before Tanjiro had been changed, as apposed to Zenitsu and gramps who despite caring for Kaigaku, could never get close to him for his prickly nature. The third was curiosity because when he listened to Tanjiro's sound at first, it had been muffled. Off. Like someone had thrown a music box into a thick wooden case to keep it quiet and only feint wisps of the melody could be heard. He couldn't even decide if the sound that was muffled was one he would have liked or not. The fourth thing was absolute awe as the previously inactive demon raced into the fight in the blink of an eye and exhibited a strength that would have taken most people, demon or no, a lifetime or two to achieve.

Not only that, the sound gradually cleared more and more until he could make it out perfectly as the demon slept. It was gentle, soft and so kind Zenitsu wanted to cry. The sound that the demon gave off wrapped around Zenitsu with reassurance; it made him feel so protected and important like he was already somehow precious to this boy, who had been through more than anyone he had ever met yet still had so much care and mercy to give to a world that hadn't had any for him. Zenitsu understood Nezuko-chan's grief now. He only knew the boy from his sound and protective actions, yet even that was enough for him to never want to let go of the demon who showed more strength in will and character than Zenitsu thought he would ever be capable of. It must have been agony to have someone like that taken from you and turned into a weapon. To get him back must have been the happiest thing to ever happen to her since the rest of their family was taken.

Just having her brother listen to her had lightened her sound significantly; to have someone you knew you could share your struggles with that would listen and care was a gift very few had, especially in their profession. Zenitsu was happy for her, but he also selfishly wondered if perhaps he could do the same. Would Tanjiro let him complain and whine? Would he still protect Zenitsu even when he was being annoying and clingy, or loud and obnoxious? Somehow Zenitsu thought he would. No, he was certain that that boy with long, blood red hair and eyes that could narrow from soft burgundy to sharp scarlet would still protect him with everything he had if the blonde was in danger. The thought that someone would genuinely care for him if anything happened made him silently choke back tears. He felt safer with a demon than he ever had since gramps died and he was surrounded with humans. Even with Nezuko and Inosuke, Zenitsu felt like he was only a burden dragging them down and he feared that they felt the same. Everyone wanted to leave him, even if they didn't.

Yet with Tanjiro here, Nezuko's previously icy disposition had melted some because for the first time in over two years, she had hope. She had someone to fight for and someone that would fight for her. Inosuke, Rengoku-san and Zenitsu all had someone who would fight to the death for them. Zenitsu had a feeling that Inosuke knew that too, which was the only reason he was asleep instead of staying up to guard as he occasionally would. But Zenitsu also had no idea what to think of the Flame Pillar, who was staring at the demon with an uncharacteristically expressionless face. He couldn't quite pinpoint what Rengoku-san's sound was indicating either, but he was thinking deeply on something as he stared at Tanjiro. Zenitsu couldn't help but feel a bit protective already of the demon that saved them all and had such a genuinely kind sound.


Rengoku was unsure of himself. Or rather, he was unsure of the morals and worldview he had grown up with. He had been taught all his life that demons were the ultimate evil of the mortal realm for humanity; he had seen it first-hand and fought with them frequently enough to know it was the truth. Yet here came this boy, this demon boy, who had been separated from his sister for two years, yet somehow not only recognized her, but had fought a fellow demon- an upper moon no less- and protected both his sister and the other two demon slayers, as well as Rengoku himself! And he had taken them all to a cave, seemingly indifferent to the stench of blood completely permeating the enclosed space, even tending to his wounds without any signs of hunger. Was he even really a demon? Some sort of mutated subspecies? An entirely new breed entirely?

The entire situation was so inconceivable, Rengoku still wanted to believe it was just a scenario his mind made up in its state of blood loss and possible brain trauma; especially when he heard the demon whispering. "All humans are my family", huh? None of this made any sense to the poor hashira, who's head had already been pulsing from the stress and pain assaulting him.

 

… However. The absurdity of the situation didn't take away from the fact that he owed his life to the demon, who slept soundly in their presence, completely calm and defenseless. Well, that wasn't entirely correct. Rengoku had the feeling that the demon was ready to spring back into awareness at the first sign of danger near them. Why was he even asleep? Last he checked, Rengoku believed that demons didn't need to sleep.

The answer on why the demon was asleep soon became apparent. If it weren't for Rengoku's highly trained eyes- well, eye now, and his sharp ears, he wouldn't have noticed the muffled popping of bones resetting or seen the deeper wounds on the demon's body closing. Why was he only healing so quickly now? Rengoku had seen most of the other injuries disappear fairly quickly; maybe not as fast as some demons he had fought like Akaza, but they still healed in mere moments. Why weren't the deeper wounds and broken bones? Why did he sleep to rejuvenate himself rather than just eat humans? He was clearly unaware that Rengoku had woken up sometime when he was being carried, so nothing was stopping him from devouring the flame pillar- hell, even if he knew Rengoku was awake there wasn't much he could do to stop the demon from munching on his bones regardless. On top of that, Rengoku noticed that his blade was close to his body as well.

Was the demon that trusting, or did he simply have no sense of self-preservation? Nothing made sense anymore and it was all thanks to the burgundy eyed demon, who was supposed to be the upper moon two but was acting more like a concerned and gentle mother hen. Rengoku felt completely safe with Tanjiro, who hadn't shown any signs of aggression since driving off his fellow moon, and that was a genuine problem. Contrary to his loud voice and attempts at staying positive regardless on the situation, he wasn't stupid. You should never trust a potential enemy with your life, yet with the boy who slept and looked and acted more human than most people Rengoku knew, the faith in him as a person came as naturally as breathing after mastering total concentration breaths. Something hard earned, but also powerful, true and unwavering.

This boy had been willing to give his life to protect humans. Who was Rengoku to condemn him when he owed his current existence to the boy in front of him? Besides, if he could somehow, by some miracle, convince the other pillars and Oyakata-sama to spare Tanjiro and recruit him, the pros would far outweigh the cons of having him on their side. The issue was how on earth he could convince them of his unorthodox idea.

Tomioka-san might actually be the first person to agree. Cold and stern as he may seem, Rengoku knew that the man was much kinder than most other demon slayers, especially their stubborn group of pillars who were inflexible in regards to demons. Plus the frosty pillar had a soft spot for the girl he had saved and wouldn't want anything that could potentially lead to her breaking down and doing something awful, either to herself or someone else. Nezuko would undoubtedly go to him for help first, seemingly because she saw the water pillar as her own family. Rengoku couldn't blame her, Tomioka-san was a wonderful person even if he showed it through actions rather than words, and he was sure he would be attached to his savior as well. After all, he was.

Mitsuri would listen. She was as soft-hearted as they came and she would rejoice at the idea of someone so young being able to live, even if they had to do so as a demon. Even if she doubted everything they said, she'd at least be willing to give them a chance.

Shinobu was a hard one to peg, but he had a feeling she'd at the very least hear them out on their case before coming to a fair decision. The others, though... they might think he was under some sort of blood art or hypnosis. There was almost no way the others would let the boy live. Hell, if it weren't for his own experience just now, he either wouldn't believe anyone telling him that a demon would protect humans or he'd still insist on beheading him just in case. Maybe if he brought up the fact that Tanjiro would have inside information on Muzan and the moon demons they would let him live? Rengoku was certain it wouldn't take them long to warm up to the boy, whether they wanted to or not.

It was a stretch, but it was worth a shot. Rengoku would fight for the boy just as Tanjiro had protected him. With that resolve, he finally fell asleep, his heart and mind heavy and light at the same time. It had been quite a while since he felt this motivated by another person rather than a sense of duty.


 

 "Maybe we should just leave," Nezuko frets, staring at her brother who was still asleep. She had woken up a few hours ago at dawn, but... were demons supposed to sleep? Why was her brother still resting? He was all healed up, so why hadn't he woken up yet?... was he starving!? Nezuko was fine with cutting out some of her flesh and offering it! Okay, maybe she wasn't fine with idea so much as she was disgusted and grimacing at the pain she'd be in- but she'd do it anyway!

But more importantly, how was she supposed to protect her brother when she was in an organization literally named "the Demon Slaying Corps"?... okay, here's the plan. She'd take her brother and run before the other slayers got here, it was only a matter of time anyway. She'd have Zenitsu and Inosuke swear to secrecy before she took her brother and booked it for the hills with her resignation later sent via wild birds or something. If she couldn't teach birds to deliver her letter, Rengoku-san would probably write off what happened as a figment of his concussed imagination and she'd be counted as a loss in battle, devoured by the third moon without anything remaining of her. See? It's a win-win situation! Maybe she could even get her old sensei Urokodaki on her side and he'd let them live their lives with him. Sabito and Makomo would adore him, she was sure of it!

"Nezuko-chan, you look like you came up with another harebrained scheme that will never work." Zenitsu mumbled with a blank expression. Nezuko felt a drop of sweat slide down the back of her head.

"I don't know what you mean. I'm not thinking of anything." she lies coolly, then squints at him. "And my "harebrained schemes" have save your butt more times than your actual skills have."

Zenitsu clutched his chest in shock like he'd been struck by an arrow. "Nezuko-chan! How can someone so cute be so mean!?" he cried.

Nezuko rolled her eyes but found the usual frustration with his dramatics was missing. Having her brother with her was good for her soul, she realized, not for the first time. Tanjiro had always been a wonderful moral role model, and he made her feel just as safe now than he had before. It helped her unwind a bit from her previous stress, but also the anxiety over his future was weighing more heavily on her heart than her mind.

"I'm just worried." she admits softly, wringing her hands together. Zenitsu was surprisingly quiet and calm as she spilled her anxieties, maybe a caught a bit off-guard since Nezuko tended to hide her thoughts and feelings from everyone. She just kind of... shut down when she was left without their family. It wasn't that she didn't care for or distrusted her companions, but she felt like she'd just be a burden if she said anything. "What if the organization kills him? I couldn't take it, Zenitsu. I already lost my brother once, and I didn't even have to see his corpse. What am I going to do if he's killed because he wanted to stay with me and protect me? I couldn't take it. I mean, they'd probably kill me for keeping him with me, but if they didn't there's no way I could live with the guilt."

Zenitsu listened quietly and thought carefully on the matter. "Then I guess they'd have to kill me with you. And I doubt Inosuke would let either of us beat him, even if it was in dying, so you'd have both of us protecting both of you. Besides, I don't think they'd waste an opportunity like this. Can you imagine the advantages to having the second demon moon on our side? If they can't see them, then they aren't as great as they think. But you don't have to worry Nezuko-chan; Inosuke and I would start a riot if anything happened to you or your brother."

Nezuko blinked at him, utterly shocked by what he said. Zenitsu was not a brave person, she knew that better than just about anyone. She could count all the times he had hidden behind her, clinging to her skirt on both of her hands just in the first few months of knowing him. To hear him essentially offering to die for her and her brother touched something deep in her heart that made it give a strong thump. It made her blink in confusion and put her hand on her chest, wondering if there was something wrong. Was it bruised somehow or something from the train incident? She thought she was fine, but that sudden harsh thump startled her as badly as the blonde's words did. It was nothing, she decides. Just a weird occurrence, nothing more. She had more important things to focus on than whatever was wrong with her heart, such as keeping her brother, and by extension her friends, alive.


It was only a few hours later than Tanjiro abruptly awoke and turned to the entrance of their cave.

"Nii-san?" Nezuko called apprehensively.

Tanjiro stood up and smiled at them. "I'll be right back, all right?" he gently patted his sister's head, who blinked at him before nodding slowly.

"I'll go with you." she offers, getting ready to get up, ignoring how her bruised bones protested.

"No. It's alright, Nezuko. I'll be right back." he promised her, giving the top of her head a little kiss before he headed out, ignoring Nezuko's cute little pout as she begrudgingly conceded, sitting with her arms crossed.

"Fine. But promise to come back soon and unhurt!" she requested. Tanjiro chuckled and sent a little wave over his shoulder before he was gone in a flash, heading to the train sight. He shouldn't be surprised at how quickly the hunters actually got there. As a matter of fact, he was impressed! They must have worked hard to move so far in such a short span of time!

He reached the area quickly, seeing several of the lowest class of the organization cleaning up and tending the wounded. There was a woman there, with a haori that reminded Tanjiro of a butterfly's wings. She even had a pretty butterfly hairclip on the back of her head and was holding a scrap of Rengoku-san's own haori and a pink ribbon that Tanjiro speculated must have fallen from Nezuko's hair. She was just staring at them silently, her back towards the second moon. Tanjiro thought he saw her shoulders shaking, just barely visible even to his trained eyes. Nezuko had told him about her; a woman with a butterfly aesthetic. Kochou Shinobu, the insect pillar. This woman had helped Nezuko train and healed her under her own roof along with her friends. Tanjiro owed her greatly for caring for his sister. What better way than to lead her back to the group that she undoubtedly missed?

"Excuse me." he called politely and watched as she quickly turned on her heel, her hand flying to the hilt of her sword. She looked at him, very analytically before seeming to deem him as a human and relaxing a bit, though she still grasped her sword. Tanjiro couldn't fault her; he looked rather human in the dark since his pupils would blend in with the burgundy color of his eyes until they would change scarlet when his blood raced for battle. As of now, he looked completely human unless you stared at him up close.

"Ah, hello there! Do you need anything?" Shinobu-san asked, a smile on her face that felt completely plastic to the demon.

"Rengoku-san is alive." Tanjiro said and watched her face fall into shock, hope, then apprehension. "He's in a cave nearby, along with three other hunters."

"... How do you know his name and what the three kids are?" Shinobu asks, her smile tighter and her grip viceing around the hilt of her sword to where the veins in her hand were standing out. Tanjiro could acknowledge that it sounded like a very obvious trap; a total stranger who seemed to be completely unharmed aside from his torn and burned clothing standing and essentially offering her what she had been praying for; for her to not have lost anyone else precious to her and especially not all at once. Like a spider luring a butterfly into its shiny, seemingly harmless web.

"Nezuko is my little sister." he says, going for honesty and hoping she could tell. She seemed sharp, and it was proven when she paused to hear him out. "She and the others are wounded. I managed to tend to Rengoku-san and fix his more life-threatening injuries, but he desperately needs proper treatment. You don't have to trust me, but... please." he even took off his belt with his weapon and the box of stitching materials and tossed it to her.

Shinobu caught it and Tanjiro could see the conflicting thoughts, emotions and feelings cross her eyes even as her face remained serious while she stared between the belt and him. Finally she gave a small nod. "Lead the way, then." she bid him.

 

Tanjiro ran, faster than he did with Nezuko and her friends but slower than when he was on his own or with Akaza. He could tell that the insect pillar suspected him even more; supernatural speed along with his very suspicious introduction meant she had to be on edge.

It didn't take very long to reach the enterence of the cave, and Tanjiro didn't waste any time calling into it, announcing he was back and that Shinobu-san was with him. He heard Nezuko's footsteps patter over before she popped her head out of the entrance, then she smiled brightly when she saw the woman.

"Shinobu-san! It's really you!" she stepped out and stood in front of the pillar.

Shinobu looked like she wanted to gather the girl in her arms and make sure she truly was real and not an illusion when she saw that Nezuko was still alive. It was hard not to get attached to the kids you trained and took care of for so long, but she was still able to restrain the urge. "Hello, Nezuko-san. I'm glad to see you're doing well." she smiled, more genuine than before.

"Zenitsu and Inosuke are inside with Rengoku-san. You should take a look at him, Shinobu-san. Nii-san did his best but he still needs a doctor." Nezuko states, looking up at the woman with pinkish-purply eyes that shone with more life than the insect pillar had ever seen. She had a feeling the reason for that shine was the same boy who lead her here where her prayers and silly, childish hopes had been answered.

"Of course. Just lead the way," the pillar bids, gesturing gracefully with her hand for Nezuko to lead her inside. The girl did so, and while Shinobu was glad to see Zenitsu and Inosuke (the boar showing his own excitement by yelling "Ah! It's you!" and pointing at her in his queerly charming manner of greeting), her eyes were more drawn to the pillar on the ground who seemed to be sleeping. Rengoku's own haori was folded and being used by him as a pillow, while a familiar orange haori with triangles patterned into it and a pink star haori was lain over him as makeshift blankets to keep him warm in the cool dampness of the cave. His wounds had been carefully seen to with makeshift plasters and bandages, along with beautiful sutures that would make her caterpillars(1) envious.

None of the wounds were life-threatening anymore, but Shinobu knew that they all should head out as soon as they possibly could. But first...

"Could you kids go out for a bit? I need to see if I can wake Rengoku-san and see how his cognitive functions are." she smiled.

Nezuko nodded and dragged the two boys outside, then had her brother follow her. Shinobu had a feeling he wouldn't stray far from the cave though. It was almost like he was fiercely guarding the three demon slayers, and Shinobu and Rengoku-san. It was oddly endearing and made her feel strangely happy that this total stranger cared enough about them to protect them so loyally.

As soon as she was certain they couldn't hear, she turned to Rengoku-san without changing the easy expression on her face. "You've been awake this entire time haven't you, Rengoku-san?" she asks with her voice quiet but cheery.

"Ah, so you could tell? As expected of our insect pillar!" Rengoku laughed but kept his voice quiet, his usual smile on his face. 

"You were analyzing them, right?" more specifically the boy, they both knew. Rengoku still nodded to confirm her words.

"His name is Tanjiro." he starts, this time causing Shinobu to parrot his head motion. "He's a demon." he says, this time completely serious, his smile exchanged for a somber expression.

Shinobu froze but slowly continued to check him over for more injuries. "I see." that explained it. She knew, instinctively, that Tanjiro was a demon, yet the boy had earned her trust quickly with his honesty. He seemed like someone who couldn't hurt a fly without feeling guilt for it, but there was something both incredibly humane yet inhuman about him. Looking at Rengoku-san, seeing how well he had been cared for, Shinobu could genuinely say that the demon boy had shown more humanity than most people she had ever met. The boy had a beautiful soul, demon or not. If Kanae were still here, she was sure her sister would squeal with joy and victoriously show him to every person she knew as proof that she had been right all those years to see demons as people. The thought made her smile a touch more genuine yet sad at the same time.

"And he is an upper moon. The second, I believe." Rengoku states, seeing how Shinobu almost dropped her medical kit in shock. Dark purple eyes turned to him, wide and her painted lips parted slightly in evident shock. Maybe even a bit of fear and disbelief.

Rengoku understood why; the boy looked incredibly young and seemed infallibly gentle. But he also knew what he saw. The boy had fought like an absolute beast against another demon, risking life and limb to protect humans and Rengoku had felt both apprehensive and awed at his raw strength. It was clear Tanjiro hadn't been completely in his right mind, running on instinct alone, but what did that tell him if the desire to protect his sister was so strong it overcame every other instinct he should have as a demon?

"He fought off a fellow moon to protect humans, Kochou-san. He recognized his sister and fought to protect her, and even protected me and the other two slayers with her. He showed no signs of hunger even when he was injured and exhausted, stuck in a cave with me during the day. Yet in spite of the pain he was in and how easy it would have been to take a bite out of me, he tended to my wounds instead. Ever since the fight he had with the third moon he's been nothing but gentle and kind. He even sleeps, Kochou-san. Have you ever heard of a demon who sleeps to recuperate? And he said "all humans are my family" before he fell asleep."

Shinobu said nothing, listening carefully to his story with a serious expression, nodding slowly as he spoke to show she was paying close attention. Still, Rengoku could see the awe and curiosity light her dainty features.

"He saved my life, and many others by protecting us all from the third moon. I owe him my life, Kochou-san. I know it seems impossible, but it's true. I believe he could be an invaluable asset to the Demon Slayer Organization. Please, will you help me convince the others?" he pleaded.

Shinobu gazed at him calmly, steadily. There were absolutely no signs of hypnosis or a blood art on the flame pillar, and whatever he had seen in the boy must have been indisputable for him to vouch for a demon's life that went far beyond merely having his own saved. Tanjiro had a beautiful soul, from how shortly she had known him, but for him to revive a spark in Nezuko who had been determined to get revenge yet indifferent to whether she lived or died, to have Zenitsu who was a coward immediately see him as safe, for Inosuke to not instantly try to kill him and for Rengoku-san himself to see something human in the boy... well, with all these witnesses who was Shinobu to say the boy didn't have a right to live? Especially when she had been rather unfazed with the realization that he was demon, that she'd been willing to overlook that since he had acted more like a person than most she had met.

So she nodded and smiled at Rengoku-san. "I'll do my best," she promised. "It would be a shame for someone so kind to perish because of discrimination." it would take a while to chip down the other pillars, but she knew they could do it.

Chapter Text

Shinobu and Rengoku plotted together over how best to proceed with Tanjiro's very delicate situation, ultimately coming to a decision together.

Shinobu would call an emergency meeting with the pillars and Oyakata-sama without telling him the full truth, only that it was urgent and that she would explain everything when they all met together. They would convince Tanjiro to "surrender" and bring him in peacefully, being sure to inform the other pillars and their leader that Tanjiro had not only protected Rengoku, but saw to his wounds and kept him and the three other slayers alive, then even risked his life to lead Shinobu to where he was being kept so she could help him. She'd tell them all about how the demon had a perfect chance to kill her while her back was turned and her guard was lowered, yet he had called out to her and announced his presence, even giving his weapon to her.

Rengoku would tell them about his fight with the Third Moon and his certain death if Tanjiro hadn't risked life and limb to save him and the three other demon slayers, that he not only saved him but that Tanjiro had carried him to safety and tended to his wounds without showing any signs of hunger or interest in taking a bite of him. Then maybe, if need be, have Nezuko tell them of how similar Tanjiro was now to how he had been when he was human. Rengoku even told Shinobu that if anything happened, he would take full responsibility and slit his own stomach open to atone for vouching for Tanjiro. The Flame Pillar was completely dedicated to saving the demon boy who had saved him, even if he was only protected because of Nezuko.

The fact a demon would protect any human at all, sibling or not, and even remember his human life without those memories being twisted by his own mind for the sake of survival, or for his very soul to be so unwarped in spite of the undoubtedly gruesome life he had to live as the Second Moon for over two years, was absolutely impossible. Yet here he was, guarding the cave and keeping an eye on the three other slayers, ready to fight someone off if he needed to. Living proof that the impossible could be achieved. If they had him on their side, the odds of having even the slightest advantage over Muzan would skyrocket to making it as possible as his existence wasn't.

 

"Tanjiro-san?" Shinobu called, a hand cupping around her mouth to help her voice travel.

"Yes?" Tanjiro walked in. For the first time, he got a good look at the pillar since waking up. Tanjiro blinked slowly at the spot the fire pillar had been, only to see a small child in his place. Perhaps, he acknowledged, he should be a bit more concerned with the sudden transformation, but it didn't phase him at all. If anything, he had to make sure the child was alright!

The redhead let a soft smile cross his lips, making sure he seemed as unthreatening as possible. The last time this person saw him was when he and Akaza were beating the life out of each other. He knelt down beside the pillar, keeping a few feet of distance for the blonde's comfort. "I'm glad to see you're awake. How are you feeling?" he asks with his voice as gentle as he could get it without seeming condescending.

Rengoku's eyes flickered with confusion but he still smiled nonetheless. "Well enough that I can be in this situation! My thanks for saving me, my boy!" he said, using his usual tone but lowering his voice enough that it wouldn't cause him pain to speak.

"Tanjiro-san," Shinobu called his attention again. "We have a plan but we are a bit pressed for time. I will go back and send a letter to Oyakata-sama requesting an urgent Hashira meeting, and then Rengoku-san and I will do our best to vouch for you there so you can stay with your sister. But, in order to do so, you must surrender yourself to the organization's custody peacefully." she says solemnly.

Tanjiro wasn't stupid, and they both knew she was more or less asking him to walk to his own execution block and hope that a handful of protesters could somehow earn him enough worth in their very biased eyes to be spared. It was a tremendous gamble and in all honesty; it would be safer and easier for the demon to simply run away. But if he did, then the other Hashira would undoubtedly use that to persecute him because he was unwilling to face his own fate and making him guilty until proven innocent; plus the other Hashira didn't know what he looked like and would try to cut him down while using that excuse even if he perfectly fit their descriptions. He had to completely place the fate of his existence in the hands of complete and total strangers.

Surprisingly, the boy only took a few seconds before he smiled at her and nodded. "Alright. As long as I can travel with Nezuko, I will gladly turn myself in."

"You're giving us quite a lot of faith, Tanjiro-san." Shinobu notes, not trying to psyche him out or sound mean, but being truthful. She had no idea why he would place all of this belief in her and Rengoku not cutting him down or luring him into being a guinea pig, let alone why he seemed certain that they would be able to defend him at what was essentially a trial for his life.

"Nezuko told me about you and Rengoku-san. She said you were always kind to her, that you trained her and healed her under your own roof." Tanjiro looked at her with genuine light in his burgundy eyes. "If she trusts you, so will I."

Shinobu stared at him. He reminded her so much of Kanae; both people having beautiful souls and kind, gentle and merciful natures. Both being dealt a very cruel and unfair hand by a world that enjoys cheating and taking advantage of those wonderful people, leaving their population scarce and precious. He and Kanae would have been swift and close friends, she knew from the bottom of her heart. And it was no wonder that Nezuko had brightened up so much from before. Shinobu felt determination swell in her heart. She would defend this boy until her voice failed her and her lungs ran out of breath. She would not let another person lose their family, especially when he was such a genuinely good person that didn't deserve any of this forced onto him. And if she was somehow wrong on her assumption that Tanjiro would remain true and not devour any humans, she would slit her own belly alongside Rengoku.

She would not be responsible for standing by while another young girl losing her beloved sibling not even once, but a second time. She would not watch those soft pink eyes dull as Nezuko's heart shattered beyond repair simply because the Hashira, sworn to defend the innocent, took their rage out and reflected it onto a demon who was completely innocent- if not as much of a victim as they were, but punished nonetheless because of their own prejudice. She couldn't allow that. She wouldn't. Kanae wouldn't stand for it. She would give Shinobu no end of chiding grief if her little sister didn't do everything she could for the anomaly in front of her.

"I will go back and write my letter, then. I'm leaving Rengoku-san and the others in your care." Shinobu says, her voice and face much softer than before as she stood and bowed.

"It will be my honor." he assures her, mimicking her bow. They both straightened up, the air much lighter as Shinobu departed, her silent acceptance lifting the mood substantially.

 

"It's good that you and Kochou are getting along; it's much better to have her as an ally than an enemy!" Rengoku laughed boisterously.

"She uses poison, right?" Tanjiro asks, finally remembering the information he and the other moons were given.

Rengoku blinked at him. "Yes, she does. How did you know?"

"I remember being told about her once." Tanjiro answers honestly. "But I'm afraid I can't tell you how." he could say Muzan's name, but he had a curse where he couldn't tell anyone anything about the full extent of the demon progenitor's power either. He couldn't even if he wanted to, he kept some things a secret from even Tanjiro. The boy had never seen the sire's true demonic form and wasn't entirely sure if he would ever want to. He had seen just how powerful Muzan was when killing off the lower moons, and he had barely put forth any effort into it.

"Fair enough." Rengoku nodded. He would push the subject, but he had a feeling if Tanjiro could tell him about it then he would have, without prompting.

"... I'm sorry." Tanjiro says softly. Rengoku blinked at him, the confusion evident on his face. "That I didn't step in sooner. You wouldn't be so hurt. I'm sorry." the boy looked so deeply and genuinely remorseful that the flame pillar was at a loss.

"What are you talking about, my boy? If you hadn't stepped in I would be dead, and you weren't obligated to save me from the start. I'm grateful to be alive!" he announces.

"But... your wounds-" might be so extensive you never fully heal. You might never be able to fight again. You're so young, still in your early twenties by your smell, and your life will never be the same. I should have stepped in sooner. This is all my-

"Now you had better stop that right now." Rengoku says severely, cutting off the boy's thoughts. "If it weren't for you, I and the other three slayers- including your sister- would be dead. There is little doubt about that. He may have let me live to fight me later, but the other three and most of the train goers would have been wiped out or devoured completely. Better to arrive late to a fight than never. Be proud, Tanjiro my boy!" the man encouraged.

Tanjiro looked at him, astonished, but he still smiled brightly in response, seeming to light up the dreary cave with his expression. Rengoku realized that the boy had another very special and rare ability.

The ability to bond with seemingly anyone.

His genuine benevolence was astounding, not only for being a demon but especially when he knew that the upper moons had trained him and the boy had been stuck beside Muzan for so long. Yet his soul seemed untainted by the darkness of those around him, and drew out humanity from the people who met him. He made you feel safe to where you wanted to talk to him about anything; good or bad, and know he would still accept you and let you ramble as much as you'd like. He seemed like a person who could never reject anyone's request for help... but he also seemed like the type of person to hide his own struggles while crying for someone else's. The more you got to know the boy, the more precious he seemed. Rengoku could already imagine introducing him to Senjuro as their new brother and forcing his father to sign adoption papers while he was too drunk to know what he was doing.

 

He was certain the other pillars would absolutely love him.

Muichirou Tokitou would most likely be indifferent at first, as he was with everything, but he had a feeling his haze would clear a bit when he was around someone who shone so brightly. Maybe they could both bond over their lost memories? Having someone with similar yet different circumstances would be good for both of them. The Mist Pillar could use someone who could treat him with infinite patience that only came with being the eldest sibling.

Mitsuri Kanroji would be head over heels the second she saw Nezuko, and it would only worsen for her when she realized how sweet Tanjiro was. Double trouble for the Love Pillar who was more than ready to adopt every child she came across. Nezuko may just have to switch from Water Breathing to the Breath of Love with how insistent Mitsuri would be in spending time with them. He hoped Tanjiro was ready to be swamped with boxes from the girls' shopping trips.

Tengen Uzui may take a bit, but he knew the "flamboyant" Sound Pillar would warm up to them very quickly after knowing them. Uzui had a habit of becoming very protective of those under his wing, and Rengoku hoped that he would have a mission with the siblings that would melt his inhibitions he may have over the demon boy once he realized he was a sweet boy that was just as much a victim as any human. Perhaps even more-so with whatever he had gone through under the demons' tutelage. Plus his wives would adore the kids, so when that happened Uzui would have his hands completely tied on the matter.

Iguro Obanai… was himself. But! He had hope that the siblings could melt even his cold-blooded heart!... It would just take a while. They had to prove themselves first. Honestly though, most of Obanai's negativity came from him being one of the weakest pillar, only being a bit above Shinobu in strength. Meeting Tanjiro, who defied nature and was most likely going to reach nearly immeasurable levels of power that most humans would never realistically achieve, was going to rub the Serpent Pillar the wrong way. Still, sharp tongued as he was, Obanai only wanted the best for humanity. If the best in humanity came from a powerful demon that was willing to work with them for humanity's sake, then even if he didn't like it, the temperamental snake and Mitsuri lover would at least suck it up and work with it.

Gyomai Himejima was difficult to pin down too, but he had a feeling that once the pillar knew how pure the siblings were, he would soften quickly. The Stone Pillar would inevitably warm to the siblings and become subtly protective and quietly encouraging, the same way he was with the other pillars and the rest of the Demon Slayers and innocent masses of the population that were ignorant of what they were even doing to protect them so they could live to greet the next dawn.

Shinobu Kochou already trusted the boy, and Rengoku was sure she would only grow fonder from here on out. The Butterfly Estate girls would adore him too, the Flame Pillar knew. They needed an older brother figure to bond with and encourage them. Perhaps he would help the little ones come of their chrysalises and spread their little wings into becoming social butterflies.

Sanemi Shinazugawa… was going to be an issue. The man was as stubborn as the boulders Himejima would push through town for exercise. Right was right, wrong was wrong and he wasn't going to change his outlook for anything. Demons were evil, period. They all needed to be annihilated, period. End of discussion. It was that mindset that always made him clash with Kanae. Rengoku wouldn't say that he would warm up to Tanjiro or Nezuko, or even the other two slayer kids, but he had hope.

Giyuu Tomioka, as he had noted before, was much kinder than most of the pillars. He hid it well with his aloof façade, trying to drive his peers away by acting cold... but Rengoku knew, from watching his eyes carefully for reactions, that Giyuu was one of the most sympathetic people in the corps. He, Uzui and Oyakata-sama seemed to be the only ones who realized that though. Nezuko Komado and Giyuu had bonded a bit in her time at the Butterfly Estate when he had visited to check on the girl he had sent Urokodaki's way for training. Maybe they had bonded over their pasts, futures or presents, but whatever it was had given the two some sort of kinship. Giyuu would probably be one of the first to spare the siblings judgement. He was just that compassionate, even if he didn't show it with words. You had to watch his actions, oftentimes very carefully to pick up the silent words that echoed from his heart but never slipped from his tongue. Rengoku had a feeling that the second Nezuko or her brother were in danger that Giyuu wouldn't even think twice about protecting them. Giyuu was a near-instant ally once Rengoku described all that had happened.

It was Oyakata-sama he was most concerned with. While everything he did had a reason, and very good ones at that with indisputable logic backing them, along with his incredible foresight, it made it nearly impossible to guess how he would react. Just because Oyakata-sama was unable to wield a sword didn't mean anything, and no one should be fooled by his serene personality. Their leader held power over everyone in the organization, not only by their vows but with their hearts they had all willingly given him that he cherished and nurtured with his tranquility and understanding. There were both pros and cons of letting Tanjiro live. Rengoku knew that their leader would at the very least hear him out, and he clung to the hope that Oyakata-sama's heart and mind would be open.

"It will be alright, my boy." Rengoku says at last, causing the demon to look at him with confusion. "Even if we have to argue on your behalf for days, we will do our best to make sure that you and your sister live." he promises, his eyes shining bright with the passion he was raised to wield as expertly as any sword.


Shinobu returned not long after she left, perhaps fifteen minutes or so after giving the few slayers and many Kakushi instructions on what to do next, sending them on their ways to clear the area and allow them all to travel back safely without worrying about being accosted on the way back. She had sent the letter to Oyakata-sama, who perhaps had only sent her to confirm their deaths in the first place and officially announce it to the others if need be. The Kasugai crows would occasionally send off false alarms if battles looked too bad from the start or if the demon slayer(s) were too overwhelmed, Rengoku's own situation being proof of that much. There were very, very rare occurrences where the information was a happy misunderstanding (though some cases seemed more like miracles) and those people would often have to explain the situation in person to Oyakata-sama or even the Hashira depending on the information seeing as their crow would have already retreated to the safety of base.

That's when Rengoku would arrive with Shinobu, Tanjiro and Nezuko in tow. The two demon hunter boys would be taken to the butterfly estate and if they needed their side of the story, should they need further witnesses to appease the other Hashira and Oyakata-sama.

"We had best be on our way, then-"

"But Shinobu-san," Nezuko calls, her face twisted in concern. "What about the sunlight?"

"... Ara ara," Shinobu kept her smile but her brows furrowed as well, cheeks also flushing in embarrassment and forgetting such a crucial detail in the midst of the other threats and possibilities. "That's right... and it's still a few hours before sunset. Oh dear."

".... Ah! What if we all use our haoris to completely cover Tanjiro?" Rengoku suggests brightly, face alight in victory.

"He might have a hard time seeing though. We'd have to cover his face too to make sure that he doesn't get burned by the light. And it would be difficult for him to move with so much fabric swaddling him." Zenitsu spoke up nervously, but reminding them of what needed to be said.

Nezuko was quiet but then lit up. "Nii-chan, remember when you got bigger fighting the Third Moon?" she asks, earning a dubious nod. "Can you do the opposite? If you shrank down small enough than I could carry you and you can stay covered!"

Tanjiro was quiet and tapped his lip in thought. That fight had been the first time he changed size since becoming a demon, and he hadn't even noticed when he did it. He hummed shortly in thought and closed his eyes, trying his best to focus on it. Before he knew it he had managed to shrink down to the size he was when he was three to five years old.

......(1)

Thank you gods, for giving me such a precious older brother. Nezuko thought, her hands pressed together in prayer and her eyes leaking tears from how absolutely blinding her brother was an adorable child. She couldn't remember much of how he looked when he was young since, well, she was even younger. To see him like this, regardless of the circumstance, was actually quite a gift. One she had every intention of keeping close to her heart.

"How cute!" Shinobu complimented, her eyes closed and face beaming at the adorable child form of the demon. "This will definitely make traveling easier!"

With that they all removed their haoris, wrapping the boy loosely enough to be comfortable, but not enough for the fabrics to fall. There was no way the sun's rays would reach him through all of the material, plus the clothes he was already wearing that acted as even more layers. Still, it would be uncomfortably hot in all of the fabrics. They'd have to move as quickly as they could without agitating the Flame Pillar's wounds.


Thus they traveled, stopping only at night for Tanjiro to grow again, stretch and continue without being carried. Night time was better for their progress, since her brother could carry Rengoku-san effortlessly instead of having him be supported by Zenitsu and Inosuke, who struggled with the tall and muscular man. Still, even after being wrapped in enough layers to give a normal person heatstroke, her gentle brother never complained or made anyone feeling bad for him needing to carry so much weight after being wrapped up and baked in layers of cloth. 

Rengoku-san was a bit embarrassed at needing to be carried, but her brother managed to deflect that away by asking or commenting something, often even getting Shinobu and the others involved even over something that seemed trivial; "That looks like poison ivy. Rengoku-san, do you know for sure?" or "The moon looks beautiful tonight, don't you think so Nezuko?" Or even "Shinobu-san, if you see any medicinal herbs can you point them out and explain them while we walk? I would love to learn!" Sometimes he'd ask Inosuke what type of wild life he thought lived in the seemingly endless forest, or he's question Zenitsu on his opinions on foods and the like from cities. Her brother managed to keep the mood light and their minds off of the inevitable storm that they dashing to.

Just before dawn they would all rest for a few hours in the thick shades of the trees. It would be annoying to run and maneuver through the forest to get to their destination, so they took an old cart path that existed before the railroad. It was by far less frequented and there was an absolute minimalistic chance that they would run into another hunter here. Her brother was supposed to wake them up after two hours of sleep, but more often than not he would ignore that request and let them sleep as long as they needed to be fully rested, even if it meant they would be covered by their Haoris like blankets as they recovered and he was huddled under a tree being careful to not let the light touch him, his own haori even laid over whoever had been coldest that night while he made sure the fire kept going to keep them warm up until morning when he would have to retreat to safety.

Well, they hadn't lost that much time from resting, in all honesty. He brother's speed made up for it. Any time they lost while resting he could make up at night by gingerly picking up the Flame Pillar and running quickly enough to make impressive progress while still being fairly easy to keep up with for the others. By the time they made it to the where the meeting would be, it was night time yet again, Tanjiro was in his teen form again because he didn't want the Hashira to feel like they were being manipulated by his tiny form, and Shinobu was silently fretting.

 

"I will go on ahead." she whispers to Nezuko, Tanjiro and Rengoku as she had lead the other two boys to a kakushi and instructed they be taken to her estate and seen to. She was immensely thankful that it was night time, so at least none of the Hashira could lose their composure and just toss the demon boy into direct sunlight.

 

She silently cleared her throat and plastered on her usual soft smile before walking out to join the other Hashira. "Hello, hello everyone!" she greeted cheerfully, earning various responses. Most asking what she had found when she was sent to the scene of Rengoku's perceived demise.

"What's the news?" Obanai asks from his perch in the tree, his voice calm and solemn, instantly causing the same resigned, heavy atmosphere to crush the other pillars.

"Well, I'd rather wait for Oyakata-sama before explaining everything. It's quite a tale." she answers, honest but cryptic. She could see the suspicion in everyone's gaze, heard Sanemi's snort, watched the expression of bewilderment paint Uzui's face. She saw it all and she ignored it. Normally she wouldn't keep any information from them and would tell the tale twice, but now she had to make sure everything was timed and performed as perfectly as any theatrical performance. She prayed to Kanae to give her strength, to touch the other pillars and Oyakata-sama's hearts with her compassion and open their minds so their story could reach them and they could see the potential the young man had.

She had to keep her composure and play her part. Keep calm, Shinobu. Oyakata-sama was as fair as a person could be. She had to have faith in him and trust his judgement. Kanae, please, be with me now. Give me your strength.

"Come on, Kochou! At least tell us who it was that killed Rengoku! I'll hunt them down and flamboyantly dismember them a thousand times before killing whoever it was in the flashiest way possible as vengeance for him! I'll send splatters so high towards the sky that our fallen comrade will see them from his glamorous new realm!" Uzui bellowed surely. Rengoku was sure he'd be flattered if he weren't so nervous for the upcoming arguments.

"I'm sorry, Uzui-san, but I simply cannot disclose my information yet." Shinobu says, maintaining her smile so it seemed she didn't feel sorry at all.

"Well-"

"Oyakata-sama is coming." Obanai announces, interrupting Sanemi and leaping from his tree to kneel properly, followed by the other pillars.

 

Kagaya Ubuyashiki soon entered their sight, being walked by his blood children who guided him by holding his hands. "Good night, my children." he greeted, his soft smile set on his gentle features. "Is the moon bright this evening?"

"Good evening, Oyakata-sama. I hope you are well this night." Sanemi greeted him politely, followed by the others.

"I am glad to hear that you all seem well," their leader says with his voice as smooth and gentle as ever. Tanjiro heard a well-hidden tinge of sorrow and mourning in the man's voice when he didn't hear his Flame Pillar's usual passionate response though. It's painful to lose your family, it must be twice as much so when they are your children.

"Shinobu, I am glad you've made it back safely." he turned his smile to where he had heard her voice. "Did your search go well?"

"I am glad to see you are doing well tonight, Oyakata-sama." Shinobu says, polite but genuine. "I have found something that could substantially assist us in our fight against Muzan. Something extraordinary which, since the beginning of demon-kind, should not exist."

"That's quite a flamboyant claim, Kochou." Uzui says, brows arched and ready to be impressed.

Shinobu gave him a smile again, then turned to the side of the building. "Tanjiro-kun, please come out now."

 

A boy with long, dark red hair and burgundy eyes walked out, being followed by a girl with long dark hair baby pink eyes. That wasn't what attracted their attention though. It was the Flame Pillar the boy and girl were helping to the group of Hashira.

A cacophony of chokes, exclamations and bewildered expressions were prominent among the group. Kagaya couldn't make heads or tails of what it was all meant to mean, so he turned to one of his escorts, silently requesting they inform him of whatever is going on. His daughter was just as stunned but just when she was about to tell him, a ruckus kicked up in the courtyard.

"What's the meaning of this!?" Obanai shouted, not sounding indignant or angry, but very confused and lost. "You- you managed to kill the third upper moon? Or was it this boy!? How are you alive, Rengoku, your crow told us all you were dead!"

Mitsuri rushed over to her old mentor's side, blubbering away and hugging her teacher but Obanai couldn't even feel jealous from all the relief and bafflement that flooded through his system.

 

"Rengoku is... alive?" Kagaya asks, doing everything he could to remain calm when he wanted to fall to his knees and thank the gods for returning one of his children to him. The group hushed instantly while the unknown boy and girl helped Rengoku into his usual kneeling position and Mitsuri took her normal spot, happy tears still falling from her face and her soul positively lifted from this stroke of good fortune.

"Oyakata-sama, I am sorry for not introducing my presence from the start. Rengoku Kyojuro, reporting!" Rengoku greeted him with his usual fervor, albeit just a tad quieter to not aggravate his injuries that would cause Shinobu to render him unconscious until he finished healing.

"Rengoku," Kagaya greeted, doing his best not to sound breathless as his mind and heart caught up with the fact that one of his closest children had made it back. He was here, in front of him, alive and speaking. This wasn't a dream. His son had come home. "I am glad you are alive." he says genuinely, his smile less for soothing and gentleness and more of genuine relief, as if a tremendous weight had lifted from the man's already burdened heart. It almost made Rengoku feel sheepish to receive such an expression.

"I am glad I could make it back, Oyakata-sama. I come with incredible, unbelievable news. This boy here," he placed his hand on the shoulder of the boy who had assisted him across the yard and into kneeling. "Is the one who drove away the third moon."

"Then, you have my sincerest thanks for rescuing my dear Hashira, young man." Kagaya smiled gratefully.

"Oyakata-sama, my fellow pillars, I request you listen to what I have to say with your minds and hearts open." Rengoku requests, causing Kagaya to give a soft nod in encouragement. Truth be told, he thought Rengoku would request they make the boy a slayer or even a Hashira. He was not expecting what came next at all.

"Tanjiro Komado is a demon." the fire-haired man says, causing a resulting ripple of exclamatories and disbelief.

"Oyakata-sama, I'm grateful that Rengoku is still alive, but this could very easily be a trap! What if he can control minds and hypnotized Shinobu and Rengoku!?" Sanemi points out, instantly glaring at the innocent demon, who to his credit didn't rise to the bait in the least.

"Tanjiro-kun has done no such thing. He's the reason I'm alive now, Oyakata-sama. He fought off the Third Moon when I would have lost. He saved the three other demon slayers and the many train riders. The reason why he saved us is-" Rengoku pointed to Nezuko, who clung to her brother tightly, ready to take any hits the pillars may throw at her beloved and only living relative.

"... A girl?" Muichirou deadpans, tilting his head.

"I'm his sister. We met once, Oyakata-sama; I'm Komado Nezuko." she introduces herself politely to the man she had to report the incident with the spider demons to.

"I remember you indeed." Kagaya assured her, his face carefully blank aside from his normal soft expression. Not a single thought was given away.

"What does that have to do with anything? Of course his sister would try to protect him. He wouldn't even have to brainwash her. What if the entire train thing was planned out by him to earn our trust, learn our secrets and bring us down from the inside?" Sanemi theorized, grinding his teeth to keep from screaming his disproval.

"Nii-chan would never do that!" Nezuko snipped at him, not caring that the man was a pillar. If he wanted her respect, he had to earn it with more strength in character than just fighting prowess.

"He's a demon. How do you know what he'll do?" Obanai reminds her, his expression almost mockingly curious.

Then began the huge, tumultuous argument that followed. Shinobu, Rengoku and Nezuko were each defending Tanjiro with varying tones and volume, some pillars were very confused and deliberating carefully... or not caring, in the Mist Pillar's case as he stared at the night sky blankly, and other pillars, namely Obanai and Sanemi, were demanding the demon's death while Uzui was shockingly listening to each side as well as he could with everyone talking over each other. Their Oyakata-sama was completely calm, waiting for his children to calm down, and Tanjiro was desperately trying to calm the rowdy group down as much as he could.

"I think," Giyuu spoke, surprising the other pillars and causing the arguments to quiet just to hear him. It was rare for Giyuu to speak at all, so he almost always had something worth hearing when he did. "We should at least hear each side of the story before an accurate judgement could be made. If you wish to do so, Oyakata-sama." 

Kagaya nodded. "We have already heard Iguro and Sanemi's concerns. Let us hear Rengoku's group's stories." he instructed. Sanemi very clearly wanted to keep arguing with the others, and maybe hurl insults at Giyuu as well for daring to come up with a more benevolent idea than splattering demon blood everywhere, but kept quiet out of respect for his leader.


And they told them everything, about how Rengoku had fought the third moon, how Nezuko recognized her brother and called out to him, how Tanjiro acted strangely afterwards and how he must have been forcibly recovering his memories from Muzan's influence, then how he ended up fighting the Third Moon off to protect Nezuko. About how the demon had then carried Rengoku to a cave and tended to his wounds, never once showing any signs of wanting to eat him and even tearing his own clothes to provide bandages for Rengoku.

Then Shinobu gave her own side, about how she found a scrap of Rengoku's haori and no sign of him or the three young hunters and presumed them all to be dead, how Tanjiro had surrendered his weapon and lead her back to the cave, leaving his back open for attack and guarding the entrance of cave and the three young hunters. How he had willingly surrendered in hopes of being allowed to stay with his sister and never showed signs of aggression towards any humans.

It was a fairly lengthy tale, and by the time they finished, everyone was silent. Contemplative.

To think this sweet boy took such a risk and nurtured our slayers and Rengoku-san. How wonderful! Mitsuri thought, almost wanting to cry from how much the story warmed her heart. The power of sibling love can overcome anything! How beautiful, how wonderful. This boy should definitely get to live! How could they let such a lovable person die? Just the thought made her heart tremble in pain! And that poor girl shouldn't have to lose her brother; these are the kind of bonds songs and stories are written of! Love should always win, right!?

 

"I see." Kagaya says at last, then he closes his eyes, his face giving absolutely nothing away. This was a very touchy situation. But not only had a demon saved many humans, he wasn't tempted even when he was fully encompassed by the smell of human blood; blood of a person who was injured enough to not be able to defend himself. It was an easy, no trouble meal and somehow the demon had refused it. He tended to a human's wounds and didn't even seem fazed by the smell of blood.

And there was also the matter on how Giyuu himself would handle it if Kagaya executed those children. Plural because he knew just from how Nezuko reacted to everything that was said and done concerning her brother, the girl would not survive if she lost him.

Each pillar, while still finding death to be quite saddening, used the deaths of others to push themselves forward to ensure their deaths weren't in vain. You can't save everyone. It's just not realistic. You can try, but that's all. Giyuu however, while he understood this, would still allow the weight of every corpse to settle on his shoulders, bearing them with great strength yet unable to realize it. The man could save an entire village but if even one person died, he would sink further and further into the ever expanding sea of self-loathing and silent despair he had created for the soul purpose of drowning himself. Kagaya knew what happened to the unofficial water pillar to hurt him so deeply, and he was grateful to the few other pillars that always did their best to include him in everything and try to lighten his heart. Rengoku and Uzui seemed to be the only active pillars who knew just how much Giyuu treasured the lives of others and the trauma that kindness induced while the others took him as aloof and arrogant.

In that same respect, Nezuko was all but officially confirmed to be Giyuu's tsuguko when she returned before this fiasco; the first and so far only disciple Giyuu had shown interest in taking in during all his time as a pillar... well, an unofficial one. After constantly encouraging the already emotionally scarred water pillar to take in a disciple and teach them his incredible techniques so they would not be lost later, and then take away the one person Giyuu had expressed an interest in teaching, showing he had already formed a familial bond of trust with Nezuko Komado… to have her killed or thrown out would crush the soft hearted and steel gazed pillar into unsalvageable pieces. His poor water child couldn’t possibly stand losing anyone else he cared for.

Kagaya had been so happy when he saw hope shining in Giyuu’s normally still yet deep blue eyes. Not much else changed on the water pillar’s indifferent countenance, but Kagaya knew how to read his children well; especially Giyuu. How could he crush that hope in front of Giyuu after encouraging him to gain it back through the years? How could he be so cruel as to break the poor water child more than he already had been, then expect him to continue on even as a fill-in as a pillar? Killing Tanjiro Komado would murder three people; two of his children and one of them being one of his most precious and beloved children. Giyuu would either die, unable to bare the stress, loss and strain anymore, or he would retire completely and never have anything to do with slaying again. He'd either die feeling alone, or die being alone because he felt it was somehow his fault.

This was indeed a very touchy situation to call. It seemed like they would lose more than they would gain if they killed the demon boy, at this point.

 

"Oyakata-sama, if I may speak, I still can't agree to this." Sanemi speaks up, his voice severe but not entirely angry anymore. "He saved Rengoku and many humans. I can respect that even if he is a demon, but that doesn't change the fact that he's consumed hundreds of-"

"I haven't." Tanjiro cuts in, not rudely but gently correcting. At the confused expressions of the other Pillars, he clarified. "I have never eaten a human."

"... That's impossible." Obanai states, veins pulsing on his head as if he were insulted that Tanjiro would tell such an obvious lie. "If you're so strong that you can drive off the third upper moon, you'd have to have eaten hundreds of people."

"I never needed to." Tanjiro admits, not quite sheepish but certainly not arrogant about it. "I gathered my strength through strict training regimens and sleeping."

"Demons don't sleep." Obanai states, voice calm and deadly.

"I wouldn't say I need it, but it was how I coped without eating." the demon boy informed. "My ability to grow stronger from sleep was fascinating enough that I was never forced to eat anyone." Granted Muzan might have wanted to see just how long the odd ability would last. After a year and a half he accepted the demon boy's odd constitution. It also helped that Tanjiro would be so utterly repulsed even by the idea of eating human beings that Shishou would send anyone running if he caught them trying to make Tanjiro uncomfortable by devouring their "food" in front of him or trying to pressure him into eating.

 

"... Alright, let's say we believe you." Sanemi grunted, choosing not to argue or linger on the realization that the boy might actually not have eaten a human the entire time he was changed. "Who's to say he won't snap at some point and eat anyone? It's too dangerous to let him stay alive!"

"... It is true that we have no guarantee that he will not eat humans." Kagaya grants the hot-headed pillar, opening his unseeing eyes. "Do you have any way of proving he will though?"

"I have a way." Sanemi grinned, feral again at the thought of decapitating another demon. Even if he snapped, at least he'll give the monster a quick and painless death for all of his help and his restraint until now. Sanemi stood up, walked over to the demon and cut his arm along the way, perhaps a bit deeper than necessary just to make sure there was plenty of blood to tempt the demon. "I'll show you his true nature!"

When he heard the demon gasp, his smirk widened, thinking everything would be over soon, especially when Tanjiro stepped towards him... only to be astonished by the demon hurriedly reached into his kimono and pulled out one of the long strips of white bandages he had made before that had been left unused from tending Rengoku. Then Tanjiro gently wrapped the pillar's wound. Everyone else saw a grown, dangerous and accomplished pillar being treated, but Tanjiro could only see a child that needed to be taken care of, that was hurt and needed to be taken care of. His paternal instincts ran amuck. How could he let this child get hurt!?

"I'm so sorry, it must hurt so much." Tanjiro notes mournfully. "I would stitch the wound shut myself but I don't have my kit with me, but Shinobu-san should still-"

"This could still be a trap! He could be acting!" Sanemi hissed at the pillars that deadpanned at the comical site and Oyakata-sama, who's daughter was informing him of everything quietly.

"It must be painful, I'm so sorry. You cut yourself so you could make sure I wouldn't hurt anyone. I'm sorry, this is all my fault." the redhead laments, looking like tears would fall down his cheeks any moment.

"STOP MAKING THAT STUPID LOOK WITH YOUR FACE! STOP TOUCHING ME!" Sanemi yanked his arm from the concerned demon's grasp. "THIS IS STUPID!"

"Please calm down, just sit and relax and let Shinobu-san tend to-"

"SHUT UP FOR GOD'S SAKE! YOU AREN'T MY DAMN MOTHER!" the white-haired man snapped.

 

"... Well, there's your proof, Oyakata-sama." Shinobu says, a bit smugly but pointed towards Sanemi's actions rather than her leader.

"Yes. We certainly can take that as proof he won't eat any humans." Kagaya allowed himself to smile once Sanemi's test was over. The boy was able to withstand Sanemi's scent without a single sign of hunger towards his special blood, according to his daughter.

 

"I have made my decision." Kagaya announced. "Tanjiro Komado may live, but only if he vows to assist our organization in destroying Kibutsuji Muzan."

Chapter Text

There were verying reactions to their leader's verdict.

Mitsuri, for one, cheered, jumping up and down in elation because Yes! Love wins again! She was so happy! She'd have to stop by wherever those kids were staying and deliver a nice big homemade meal! And she'd definitely pack enough for Rengoku and the other two slayers in recuperation; the more you eat the faster you heal! Don't argue with her, it's just science. How do you think she got so strong in the first place? You eat a lot!

"It doesn't matter to me either way," Muichiro states honestly, his voice blunt and uncaring as his minty eyes trailed over to the demon he had no real opinion of. "I'd just forget anyway... doesn't that cloud in front of the moon look like a mustache?"

... Oh, it really does! Tanjiro followed where the mint-eyed boy had pointed and made a sound of confirmation.

"As you wish, Oyakata-sama." Obanai grants, not even glancing at the still infuriated but quiet Sanemi or the very pensive Uzui Tengen. He didn't like the verdict, but he'd deal with it. If only because Oyakata-sama was so certain of his decision and Mitsuri was so happy. "But where is it going to stay?"

"Of course they are welcome to stay at the Butterfly Estate!" Shinobu chimed with a smile, much lighter than the plastic ones she used throughout the trial. Nezuko bit her tongue to keep from reminding the snake boy that her brother was a he, thank you very much.

"Then it is settled. Tanjiro, I hope that you will be willing to share as much information as you can with us on the next meeting we will hold, whenever Rengoku finishes recovering." Kagaya bids with a smile, dismissing the group after all was finally said and done.

"I'd be happy to help in any way I can." Tanjiro agrees, bowing respectfully as he was dismissed along with Shinobu, his sister and Rengoku.

 

Tanjiro then helped carry Rengoku to the Butterfly Estate while he healed, his sister pattering beside him and Shinobu leading them with a scent of victory, smugness and genuine care surrounding her, but... there was always an understated scent of anger. Even when he first met her- no, especially when he first saw her. Her shoulders had trembled minutely in grief but her anger had been rising in her small body so much that she must have wanted to scream. Even Rengoku-san, while he was happy and victorious, he also had an underlaying layer of sorrow and apprehension, but also a bit of excitement.

"Rengoku-san?" Tanjiro called, earning a hmm? in response. "Do you feel alright?"

"Well as can be, my boy!" Rengoku chuckled, quiet only because he knew his mouth was right next to Tanjiro's sensitive demonic hearing. Tanjiro smiled in response but chose not to point out that he knew better. Maybe he could get the pillar to open up later in privacy, but he wouldn't pry when whatever was bothering him was making him clam up. He'd let Rengoku know that he was open to talk at any time.

 

Meanwhile back with the other pillars, Kagaya smiled at his children as they settled down to give their own reports quickly before their own departures, most likely hoping for praise or approval which he would willingly give so long as it was derived from their hard work and to assure them that he was proud of them and appreciated their efforts. What silly children he had, and he wouldn't give up a single one of them if he could help it.

Sending his children into battle, knowing many of them would die by his own orders, hurt his heart in ways he prayed in vain that his own son would never have to bear. He hoped that his generation would end Muzan's existence and allow the remaining precious people to live out the rest of their lives in peace and that his son's only concern would be helping the slayers get settled back into a mundane lifestyle.

It wasn't realistic, but he prayed he would never have to lose any more of his precious children. Allowing Tanjiro to live hopefully meant he had been blessed with another, unexpected but no less appreciated child. And he would always treasure his children.


 

Akaza stood silently in the Upper Moon fortress, dread and anticipation coiling in his veins, making his muscles tense even as he did his best to look unconcerned and relaxed as he awaited his fellow moons and their leader. The only other upper moon was Daki, who was sitting much higher up and swinging her legs boredly over the edge.

The Biwa girl suddenly strummed her instrument, causing Akaza's brows to furrow, wondering who would appear first and hoping it wasn't one moon in particular.

"Hyo!" a familiar laugh echoed from a pot that materialized near him, causing Akaza to relax a bit. Still annoying, but not nearly as bad as a certain someone else.

"Well, well; Akaza-sama! Dear me, you seem to be looking swell! How have you been after ninety or so years? Your missive said you were compromised in your mission! Why, the mere possibility of you dying made my heart leap for jo- erhemhem, made my heart cringe with pain." the fifth coughed falsely to cover his blunder, as if Akaza were stupid enough to not know what he was going to say.

Whatever. Akaza didn't have time or energy to waste on the fifth moon, whom he had pounded into submission many times before. Your precious scales won't do anything when my fists smash you into fish paste again. Why did he have to be surrounded with so many stupid people?

"This is quite terrifying," a shivering voice says, drawing the rosette's attention towards some stairs. Hantengu was hiding behind the railing, rather pointlessly since anyone could see him behind the bars. "Gyokko has forgotten how to count in such a short amount of time. It has only been two years, remember? That was when Tanjiro-kun was introduced to us to train." the old man reminds the artistic moon. Undoubtedly he was waiting for Tanjiro to arrive so he could cling to him; either to hide behind the boy or shrink down and be held. Utterly disgraceful.

"Biwa woman," Akaza calls, turning to the girl holding the instrument and controlling the environment. "Has Muzan-sama arrive yet?"

She played a string before answering : "he has not arrived yet."

"Then where is Upper Moon One? There's no way he'd get killed."

"Ara, Ara! Wait a moment, Akaza-dono! Aren't you gonna show some concern for me?" a familiar friendly voice called before an arm wrapped around Akaza's shoulder, making him forcibly smoothen out his features to keep the revulsion crawling under his skin from showing on his face.

"I was super worried about you after I got your message about your mission going sour! You're my most precious buddy, and I don't want aaaaanything to happen to you!" the platinum blonde says, his eyes right next to Akaza's giving him a perfect view of the pastel-iridescent irises marked with "Upper Moon Two". Akaza used all of his self control to not twitch, his muscles wanting to jerk his body far from the fraud who pretended to feel anything. The only thing this fucking blonde could ever feel, Akaza figured, was a sick sense of satisfaction in making everyone around him uncomfortable. Like a particularly slimy centipede. He was so fake and repulsive Akaza wanted at least twenty feet of distance between them at all times, but this prick clearly hadn't gotten the memo.

"Hyo-ho! Douma-dono!" Gyokko called, seeking attention as usual.

"Hey hey! Long time no see, Gyokko!" Douma chirped, also casting a casual wave to Daki who boredly responded in the same fashion. "Is that a new pot? It looks nice." It really didn't, Akaza thought. It looked poorly made and pathetically painted. He'd seen better done by small children first at the wheel. "The pot you gave me is in my room. I planted a girl's severed head in it for decoration!"

"You can't grow severed heads," Gyokko pointed out the obvious. "But I like the idea."

"I know, you should come visit next time!" Douma invited.

Really? Akaza had very limited patience even as it was, and Douma still hadn't gotten the fuck away from him. "Move it." he warned.

"Hm?" Douma sounded in confusion.

"Move. Your. Damn. Arm." Akaza demanded slowly, punctuating each word with as much icy indifference as he could, then smashed his fist into Douma's jaw, obliterating it without concern or remorse. Or much care at all, really. Unless he was fighting someone, he hated being touched. It made it all the worse that it was the platinum blonde charlatan clinging to him.

Hantengu made a squeak of fear before hiding further behind the rails he had been peeking over (Akaza again didn't understand why he didn't just peek through the slots) but Douma was rather unaffected. As usual. How unfortunate.

"Whoooa." the blond sounded in appreciation. "Hmmm, nice punch there! Have you gotten a bit stronger since I last saw you?"

This fucking fake prophet. Akaza felt his veins throb painfully on his head and the urge for violence squeezing his heart, but before the Biwa girl interrupted, probably not wanting to deal with their noise anymore.

"Upper Moon One was the first to arrive. He has been here the entire time." she says.

Akaza turned in surprise, looking down at another spot in the fortress and seeing the strongest moon sitting properly on his knees, his upper body hidden by blinds.

"I... am here..." he said, voice smooth and strong but mellow and at an even volume despite the slight stall he always seemed to have when speaking for some reason. To Akaza, it always seemed like the first moon was struggling with... something internal. He never asked, it wasn't any of his business, but Kokushibo had always been something of an enigma to him.

"Muzan-sama... has arrived..." The first upper moon announced without emotion.

Just as he said so, Muzan-sama appeared standing directly where they all could see him. It was such a shock it caught everyone, sans the first moon, completely off guard. Hantengu immediately squeaked in fear and kowtowed while the others (again, not including the first moon) looked up at their master with their natural awe and devotion as they knelt.

 

"Tanjiro has defected from us." Muzan announced without preamble, an immediate chill traveling down everyone's spines and wracking their nervous systems. Tanjiro? Muzan's favorite that they all had trained over the course of two years? The one who had become their own artificial sun whenever they saw him, treating them with benevolence since he met them? Who grew stronger at an alarming rate even for a demon? How? He was utterly devoted to Muzan, constantly beside him and doing his best to please his savior!

"He met his sister on his first mission to kill the Hashira on the train and managed to uncover his memories of his human life. Somehow he entered a state of protectiveness over her and the humans she was with. He managed to beat Akaza back despite his regeneration abilities being sluggish as they are by entering a sort of primal state of mind." Muzan announced, explaining a summarized version of the events and situation briefly. How the boy had managed to rip his thoughts out of Muzan's hands was still somewhat a mystery even to him. After pondering for so long, the only conclusion he could form was that him being out of Muzan's line of sight, and just far enough away that Muzan couldn't speak to the boy, he managed to overpower the lock Muzan had placed on his mind. How inconvenient. The thought was provoking his already bad mood into something more volatile.

It was silent, not even Douma dared to crack any jokes or attempt at lighting the situation. The air was almost unbreathable from how tense the atmosphere was as Muzan's eyes narrowed and thick veins revealed themselves through his flawless pale skin.

"The Ubuyashiki family is still alive," he began with a calm, even tone, looking out on them all with a sharp superiority that sent shudders through their bones. "And there has been absolutely no news on the blue spider lily. On top of that one of the most promising subordinates that has been seen in centuries is now in the hands of the demon slayers; a demon who is at least Akaza's level in brute strength if nothing else and therefore is a tremendous threat should he grow stronger as he has." the very, very feint twitch on the demon sovereign's lower lid told them all that his temper was rising at a dangerous degree that promised bloodshed. Whether it be an entire village of humans or torturing his lower moons with the influence of his cells depended on whether or not they could somewhat appease him.

"Why have you all been such miserable failures?" he questioned calmly. "Do you enjoy disgracing me? Why can you not succeed in the most vital tasks I had given you? I... don't understand why I allow you all to exist anymore if you can't do any of the things I tasked you with."

Hantengu immediately squeaked in absolute terror, kowtowing again and pleading for forgiveness, while Akaza and the others all continued kneeling, not daring to raise their heads. Fuck. Akaza desperately didn't want to be here. Not only was the tension making the fine hair on his neck stand on end, he was well aware that he still had his own punishment to receive for his failure.

"I... have nothing... to say..." upper moon one announces, somehow unwinding the tension a miniscule amount with his bravery and calm. The man still hadn't bothered to look at Muzan or even face his direction- something only he could possibly get away with. "Ubuyashiki… cleverly... hid... himself..."

"And I'm not skilled at detective work myself," Douma says with a sheepish look on his face. "What can I say..."

"Muzan-sama," Daki suddenly called, making Hantengu jolt and scramble away as she jumped down from her perch, a respectable distance from her sire as she also kowtowed. "If I may speak?"

Muzan granted it, if only for the sake of his curiosity- which had been causing him quite a bit of trouble lately.

"As you know, I work as an Oiran in the red light district. I can kill many women there and human police would do nothing about it- but it would raise the attention of the demon slayers for certain. If Tanjiro is still alive then I believe the demon slaying corps would send him out with a pillar for the sake of monitoring him. If I lure him into my territory and bind him well enough that he can't move, I can bring him back. Even if I can't, the very least that could happen is we will learn more of any strengths or weaknesses he has developed. If they send him, then they will also send his sister. If I capture her I can lure Tanjiro out and she can be used as leverage to keep him in line."

Daki raised her head, her eyes shining hopefully. "I know this may seem very unlikely, but I promise to do my best so your will be done and he is either returned to you or bring you information on him that can be used in the future!"

Muzan was silent for a while, Daki doing her best to not fidget from excitement and anticipation. Her idea had quite a few holes, such as the assumption that the demon slayers would send a demon at all on a mission rather than keeping him under lock and key, or the thought they would dispatch Tanjiro rather than a simple low-level slayer to take care of the matter. But if enough of those slayers disappeared... and aside from that even if it would take a while for the plan to come to fruition, at the very least it would allow him to gage the demon boy's strength since his departure.

Well, why not? Even if this plan fails, Tanjiro will return to Muzan's side. Whether that was by the boy's own decision to act like an adult and face the inevitability of his fate or dragged screaming and cursing like a tantruming brat would be his own choice. If he was good and relearned his place quickly, he would even be generous enough to spare the girl. In fact, if she proved herself to be as promising as her brother, he would graciously turn her into a demon so the siblings could stay together as they served him. But if he decided to fight Muzan and continuously disobeyed...

Then he'd rip the girl to pieces in front of Tanjiro, alive, and force her flesh down his unwilling throat. You have to punish unruly children after all, or they would never learn to be obediant.