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Giyū’s vision has been flickering in and out for the past ten minutes.

It’s not a good sign, and he grits his teeth, trying to will his eyes to focus, but it’s been more than a week since he had any proper rest, and he’s long pushed past his limits. As humiliating as it would be to die by the hand of such a weak demon, part of him wonders if maybe he should just give up already, let the demon rip open his throat and get it over with, instead of struggling futilely to his last breath.

After all, although they’d managed to kill all of the Upper Moons in the Dimensional Infinity Fortress, in the end, he’d been the only pillar to survive the fight.

“Lucky!” the demon in front of him exclaims, her voice a grating sing-song. “I’ve always wondered what a human who’s slayed an Upper Moon would taste like. Delicious, I’m sure.”

Not that he’s actually slayed an Upper Moon. He just distracted one for a bit while Tanjirō did all the work.

Giyū doesn’t bother to correct her, though, just tightens his grip on his sword and lunges forward, slashing it at her neck. However, the movement is sloppy, and Giyū grits his teeth as his blade bites into her shoulder instead of lopping off her head, his usually fluid form reduced to fumbling desperation.

“Can’t you just hold still and die already?” the demon huffs, gripping at the bloody stump of her shoulder, where her arm had previously been attached. It’s already starting to regenerate, though, and Giyū ignores the ache in his legs as he attacks again, trying to see through the blur of his double vision.

This time, he grazes the demon’s neck.

“Don’t make me use my blood technique,” the demon whines, her nails sharpening and fangs elongating. “I really wanted to eat you.”

The comment barely registers in Giyū’s mind as he tries to steady his breathing, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t stabilize it – not enough to use any Breath of Water techniques, at least.

He lunges a third time, and hopes that his heart doesn’t give out.

“I hope at least someone else gets to eat you, then!” the demon hisses, just as Giyū’s blade pierces her neck. He’s barely broken skin, though, before her blood-covered hand grasps his face, suffocatingly tight, and everything goes black.

Ah, he thinks. It’s finally over

“Hey.”

Giyū’s eyelids flutter.

“Hey!”

He can’t quite find the strength to keep them open, though, and instead he lets them fall shut again, in favor of using the last of his strength to cling to consciousness.

“Seriously?” the person sighs, and Giyū flinches slightly as he feels cool fingers press up against his throat, checking for a pulse, probably. “I’m not a field medic.”

There’s something achingly familiar about the person’s voice, and Giyū musters a little more strength, trying to force open his eyes. He’s unsuccessful, though, and before he can try again, he feels the person slide one arm under his knees and the other around his shoulders, hefting him up in a princess carry.

The person’s chest is firm and warm against Giyū’s cheek, and the proximity lets Giyū catch a hint of their scent: metal and sweat and something else he knows but can’t quite drag out of the depths of his fatigued memory.

It’s soothing, though, and doesn’t help at all with Giyū’s struggle to remain conscious.

It’s hard to tell how long the person carries him for. He drifts in and out of awareness, losing bits of time that could be as short as minutes or as long as hours before his fatigued brain registers the sunlight penetrating the thin skin of his eyelids again. If anything, the only reason he manages to avoid passing out entirely is the strange familiarity of the person carrying him, stirring up anxiety and anticipation in him in equal measure.

And when the person finally puts him down, he loses consciousness immediately.

---

Something brushes up against Giyū’s forehead and he flinches, blinking his eyes open.

“You’re awake,” someone says, drawing back their hand, away from his face.

Giyū’s forehead creases as he tries to focus his vision, turning his head slightly to get a glimpse of who was just touching him. No one touches him so casually, barring maybe Shinobu, but the voice is all wrong, and even if it wasn’t, she’s –

Ah, Giyū thinks, as his eyes finally land on the person next to him. I died.

“For a second I thought you were going to die on me there,” Sabito sighs, slumping back into the chair next to Giyū’s bedside. “I was surprised to find that you don’t even have any injuries. What sort of man dies of sleep deprivation?”

Sabito, Giyū tries to say, but his throat is so dry that all that comes out is a wheezy croak.

“Here,” Sabito says, reaching over to grab a glass of water off the small table next to the bed and holding it out to Giyū.

Giyū starts to push himself up into a sitting position, but Sabito holds him down with a firm hand against his chest, instead guiding the cup to Giyū’s lips to let him drink. It’s an awkward position, and Giyū feels a flush creep slowly up his neck, but he doesn’t have the strength right now to resist, and even if he did, he’s not sure he’d have the mental fortitude to – not when ever glimpse of Sabito’s face sends his heartrate into overtime.

“Better?” Sabito asks, once Giyū’s emptied the cup.

“Yes,” Giyū manages, his voice barely louder than a whisper. He hesitates, but then says, “Where am I?”

“I brought you to a wisteria house,” Sabito replies. “I mean, you’re wearing the uniform of the Demon Slaying Corps, so I figured it’d be okay.”

Giyū blinks at Sabito slowly. He’d been expecting an answer more along the lines of “the afterlife” or “purgatory.”

“Anyway, I’m Sabito,” Sabito continues, and Giyū feels more and more lost with every word. “Although you probably know me as the Water Pillar.”

He looks at Giyū expectantly, as if waiting for an introduction in return.

“Tomioka,” is all Giyū can manage.

Sabito looks a little caught off guard, and he stares at Giyū for a long moment.

“Sabi – ” Giyū starts, but before he can finish, Sabito forces a smile and says, “Sorry, you just look a lot like an old friend of mine, and his surname was also Tomioka, but I guess it’s a common enough name.”

Something deep in Giyū’s chest hurts, but he doesn’t know how to put it into words.

“I should probably call the doctor to check you again, now that you’re conscious,” Sabito continues, standing up from his chair. “He said that you seemed like you’d be fine with just some rest, but I’ve never seen someone almost die purely from exhaustion before, so it’s probably better to be on the safe side.”

With that, he leaves before Giyū can manage another word.

Giyū stares at the empty doorway for a long moment.

This doesn’t seem like the afterlife. Or, at least, it doesn’t seem like what Giyū had thought the afterlife would be. His version of death had involved a much more tearful reunion with Sabito, and although he supposes that it’s possible that spirits don’t retain their memory after they die, that doesn’t explain why he still remembers, or why Sabito had said he looked like “an old friend.”

There’s also the fact that the demon he was fighting before his “death” had said she didn’t want to use her blood technique, because then she wouldn’t get to eat him. If he was dead, there would be nothing stopping her from eating him, and if he were under some sort of illusion, then there still wouldn’t be any reason she wouldn’t be able to eat him, so –

So he’s been transported somewhere.

Somewhere where Sabito’s still alive.

---

“You’re out of bed.”

Giyū’s startled out of his daze as he meet Sabito’s eyes, and he feels his face heat as he wonders how long he’d stood there in the entryway of the Wisteria Estate, watching Sabito put on his shoes.

“The doctor said I’ve rested enough,” he replies, averting his eyes.

“Really?” Sabito asks, and even without seeing his face, Giyū can see the skeptical slant of his mouth, extending from the curve of his scar. “You weren’t in bed for very – ”

“Are you going on a mission?” Giyū asks, cutting Sabito off.

“Yeah,” Sabito answers simply, straightening himself up into a standing position, now that he’s finished putting on his shoes. “I was on my way when I found you and had to take a detour.”

“Can I,” Giyū says, a little haltingly, “come with?”

Sabito blinks at him, looking caught off guard, but then presses his mouth into a firm line and says, “You should rest.”

“I’ve recovered enough,” Giyū replies, setting his mouth in a determined line of his own.

“You couldn’t even open your eyes when I found you,” Sabito huffs, narrowing his eyes.

Instead of replying, Giyū just looks back at him in stubborn silence.

It’s been nearly a decade since he last saw Sabito make this expression, the practiced façade of an older brother trying to exert his authority, and it makes a strange warmth spread through Giyū’s chest. Sabito’s face has changed a little, longer and more angular, less adolescent roundness, but there are far more similarities than there are differences, and the familiarity of the situation just makes Giyū more determined to stick by Sabito’s side.

He’s not going to be left behind again.

“You can come if you can keep up.”

The proclamation has barely registered in Giyū’s mind before he realizes that the door has already closed behind Sabito.

Giyū jolts into action, stumbling forward as he scrambles to put his shoes on. His heart beats fast in his chest as he bursts out through the door, eyes scanning the path for the familiar, bright pattern of Sabito’s haori. It doesn’t take long for him to spot it, the colors dyed into his memory after so many years of wearing it himself, and he takes in a deep breath before putting on a new burst of speed.

Sabito’s moving fairly quickly – probably too fast for most lower-level demon slayers too keep up with – but it doesn’t take Giyū long to catch up, between his well-regulated breathing and the adrenaline giving him an extra boost.

“Not bad,” Sabito says, shooting a grin back over his shoulder.

They maintain the pace for the next couple of hours. Giyū stays a couple of steps behind Sabito, entranced as he watches Sabito move through the forest with easy grace. Even at thirteen, Sabito had a well-developed swordsmanship form, without any wasted movement, and it seems that he’s only refined it as he’s gotten older, taking deep, fluid breaths as he propels himself forward.

Giyū, however, starts to feel the strain of maintaining the pace after the first hour, because although he wasn’t lying when he said the doctor had cleared him, he still hasn’t entirely recovered from his fatigue.

He does his best to not let is show, though. After surviving a fight with an Upper Moon, a bit of running should be nothing.

“You can take a break if you need to, you know.”

Giyū blinks at Sabito, but doesn’t reply verbally.

“Or you can go back to the Wisteria House and rest,” Sabito adds. They’re running fast enough that his hair whips around his face in a wild mess, and Giyū tracks it idly with his eyes.

“I’m fine,” Giyū replies simply.

Sabito studies him for a moment, eyes sharp and intense in a way that makes Giyū want to shiver, but instead of arguing more, he looks away and focuses back on the path in front of them.

However, they only run for another few minutes before Sabito comes to an abrupt halt.

“I’m taking a break,” Sabito announces.

With that, he plops himself down at the base of a large tree.

Giyū watches him for a moment, but then slowly lowers himself to the ground too, not close enough to Sabito to seem overly familiar, but still close enough for easy conversation. He tries not to think about how when they were kids, he never hesitated to sit so close to Sabito that their shoulders would brush.

“Here,” Sabito says, throwing something towards Giyū.

It’s an apple, glossy red and ripe, and Giyū catches it on instinct, blinking down at it for a moment as it rests in the palm of his hand.

“You didn’t bring any provisions, did you?” Sabito asks, making Giyū look up from the apple again.

“No,” Giyū answers, trying to ignore the way the tips of his ears heat. He hadn’t exactly been expecting to leave so soon, and didn’t have the time to ask the Wisteria House staff to prepare him the typical travel necessities.

“It shouldn’t take us much longer to get to the town, so it’s not an issue,” Sabito says, digging another apple out of his bag.

Giyū hesitates, but then asks, “What’s the mission?”

“You followed me this far without even knowing what the mission is?” Sabito asks, but there’s an amused smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

Giyū just looks back at him expectantly.

“There have been multiple reports of young men going missing after passing through the fishing villages just south of here,” Sabito explains, before taking a large bite of his apple. He chews, the apple cracking loudly under his teeth, and then adds, “We sent a few Kanoe to investigate, but they never reported back, and the same happened with a Hinoe who happened to pass through the area around the same time.”

It feels a little strange to think about a pillar being sent out on this sort of mundane mission, Giyū thinks, as he nibbles at his own apple. But then again, these were exactly the sort of missions he’d taken before the Nezuko and Tanjirō appeared, and the Upper Moons started attacking with increasing frequency.

It seems like forever ago since then.

“I’ll protect you.”

Giyū looks up from the small hole he’s been worrying in his apple to find Sabito looking at him with firm, calm eyes.

“The demon must be decently strong if it’s eaten a Hinoe, but I should be able to deal with it,” Sabito says, giving Giyū a warm smile. “Just stick close to me.”

For a moment, Giyū considers explaining that he’s a pillar too, but instead he just nods.

After all, he has no way to prove that he’s been sent here from some parallel timeline, and even if Sabito were to believe him, he doesn’t know how long the effects of this blood technique are going to last. He could be pulled back to his own world in a few minutes or he could be stuck here permanently, filling in the absence of this timeline’s Tomioka Giyū.

But as far as he can tell, this world’s version of him is dead, and the last thing he wants to do is force Sabito to lose him all over again.

At least this way he can watch over Sabito with a bit of distance.

---

They reach the village just before sunset.

It’s probably later than Sabito had been planning on, but despite his claims about leaving Giyū behind if he can’t keep up, he makes up excuses about needing a break whenever Giyū slips up and lets him catch a glimpse of fatigue.

It reminds Giyū of old times, of how Sabito would kick his ass during training and then fuss over all his scrapes afterwards.

“I’m afraid we only have one room open at the moment,” the elderly woman running the only inn in town says, eyeing Sabito and Giyū with skepticism. Giyū shifts his sword slightly in an attempt to hide it under his haori.

“That’s fine,” Sabito replies, giving the woman his most charming smile.

“The room’s rather narrow,” the woman adds.

“I’m afraid my travelling companion’s been in poor health, so I’d really prefer not to make him sleep outside,” Sabito says, giving her an appropriately pleading look, which finally seems to be enough to make the curmudgeon of an old woman warm up to him a little.

“The men’s bath is at the end of the hallway, on the right. Cleaning is first thing in the morning, but it’s open all other hours,” the woman says, starting down the hall. “Your room is right next to it.”

“Thank you,” Sabito replies, slipping out of his shoes and following after her.

The room is, in fact, narrow.

They lay out two futons, but there’s not entirely enough space for both, and the edges end up overlapping slightly, creating something more akin to one large futon than two separate ones. It’s almost nostalgic, though, reminiscent of the days spent in the small house on Sagiri Mountain, the two of them, Makomo, and Urokodaki-sensei all sleeping on futons spread out in the same room.

“You better not kick in your sleep,” Sabito says, the corners of his mouth quirking up into a small smile.

Giyū doesn’t reply. After all, it’s been a long time since he last slept in close proximity to someone, so he has no clue what his sleeping habits are like anymore.

“I’m going to take a bath,” Sabito continues, apparently not needing a response. “Are you coming?”

For a moment, Giyū hesitates, but then he nods. Part of him wants to just collapse on the closest futon and give into the fatigue still gnawing at him, but their run through the forest has left an uncomfortable gloss of half-dried sweat on his skin, and it would be best to take care of that now.

Also, he doesn’t particularly want to let Sabito out of his sight.

There’s no one else in the men’s bath when they enter it, which is a little strange considering the fact that all the rooms in the inn are full, but Giyū appreciates the privacy. The old scars peppered across his body attract nearly as much attention in public baths as his sword does on public streets, and on solo missions, he usually prefers to just clean himself in lakes and rivers.

“You’re not planning on getting in with all your clothes on, are you?” Sabito asks, breaking Giyū from his thoughts, and Giyū blinks as he realizes that Sabito’s started to undress, haori already discarded and his fingers working at the buttons on his uniform top.

The edge of a jagged scar peeks out from under the edge of Sabito’s shirt, and Giyū averts his eyes.

By the time he’s finished undressing and stowed away his clothes, Sabito’s already started washing himself off, scrubbing at spots of dirt with a raggedy cloth provided by the inn. Giyū takes the stool next to him, his hair falling loosely around his face as he reaches down to pick up a bucket, filling it up with water before dumping it over his head.

The water’s hot and he can feel his face start to flush, skin going pink before he’s even gotten into the bath itself.

“You’re not good with heat, are you?” Sabito laughs, and Giyū blinks the water out of his eyes to find Sabito grinning at him.

“No,” he answers simply. His wet bangs cling to his forehead and he wrinkles his nose, wiping them out of his face.

However, when he focuses his eyes back on Sabito, he finds that Sabito’s still staring at him. Sabito’s smile has shrunk, his gaze more intent than before, piercing in a way that makes Giyū wonder if Sabito can figure everything out just by looking at him for long enough.

“Do you have any relatives in Fukushima?” Sabito asks, a little abruptly.

Giyū blinks at him slowly.

“I don’t,” Giyū answers after a long moment. It’s not technically a lie, because although he was raised in Fukushima, none of his family members are still alive.

Sabito studies him for a little longer, long enough to make Giyū’s skin start to prickle, but then he turns back to his scrubbing and says, “I thought you might be related to my friend. You look really similar, and Giyū was bad with heat too.” He pauses. “You don’t seem like such a crybaby, though.”

This time, the flush on Giyū’s cheeks has less to do with the water temperature.

Truth be told, the only reason he isn’t a crybaby anymore is that he didn’t have anyone to cry to, with both his sister and Sabito gone.

“You remind me of an old friend, too.”

The words spill out of Giyū’s mouth before he can stop them, and he looks down into the depths of his now-empty bucket, heart pounding in his chest.

“Yeah?” Sabito asks.

“Mm,” Giyū replies. “He was a very strong person.”

“I’m pretty strong,” Sabito agrees, finally standing up and putting aside his washcloth. He doesn’t hesitate to submerge himself in the bath, despite the steam wafting up off of the water, and Giyū watches as the scar tissue dotting Sabito’s back becomes distorted underneath the sheen of the water’s surface. “But you seem pretty strong too.”

Giyū doesn’t bother to correct him, and instead focuses back on scrubbing the dirt off his legs.

Eventually, though, he has to accept the fact that there’s no more grime left for him to clean, and he has to face the bath. He can feel Sabito looking on with amusement as he sits on the edge of the bath and dips a foot in, grimacing a little as the water makes his skin prickle and turn even redder than before, like a boiled shrimp.

“C’mon, just jump in,” Sabito says, his grin back in full force. “You’ll acclimatize better.”

Giyū clenches his jaw and submerges his other foot in the water.

Getting into the bath is a slow process. He waits until his feet have gone numb to slide his legs in up to his knees, and then his thighs next, followed by his hips and lower stomach, as he takes a seat on the stone bench running along the edge of the bath.

Another reason he prefers to bathe in streams: cold water is much easier to tolerate.

“Maybe you are a bit of a crybaby,” Sabito muses. He’s sunk far enough down into the water that it nearly reaches his chin, and just looking at it makes Giyū’s skin ache.

Giyū narrows his eyes at Sabito in a mild glare.

“Not that that’s a bad thing,” Sabito adds, and there’s something a little wistful about his expression. “Sometimes being a crybaby can make you stronger.”

“Stronger?” Giyū echoes, his forehead creasing slightly.

“My friend, the one you remind me of,” Sabito says, leaning back to look up at the ceiling. “Giyū was strong because he was a crybaby.”

Giyū stares at Sabito blankly.

“I’d drag him into all sorts of things knowing it’d probably make him cry,” Sabito continues, his voice going soft. “But he never gave up and he’d always let me drag him out again next time, no matter how much it hurt or how scared he was.”

The two of them fall into silence for a long moment, Sabito starting off into the distance, lost in thought, while Giyū tries to process what he just said. Isn’t it better to just toughen up and not cry in the first place than to fight your way through tears every time things get a little difficult?

“Sorry, I’m saying weird things, aren’t I?” Sabito says with a little laugh, straightening up his posture again. “We barely know each other.”

“It’s fine,” Giyū replies, his voice soft.

Please talk to me, he thinks, but the words get caught in his throat.

“I should get to bed before I fall asleep here,” Sabito sighs, finally standing up fully, making the water ripple. His normally fluffy hair clings to his shoulders in damp clumps, a few strands stuck to the scar running across his cheek, and Giyū wants to reach out and brush them away.

He doesn’t, though.

“Don’t pass out in here,” Sabito warns, as if Giyū’s still a kid in need of supervision, but Giyū nods in assent anyway. “I don’t want to have to come fish you out later.”

“Okay,” Giyū says, his voice barely above a whisper.

As soon as Sabito leaves, Giyū squeezes his eyes shut, his whole body flushing with a sort of happy warmth he hasn’t felt in a long, long time, and he wonders if he should stay in the bath just to make Sabito come back for him later. Just to prove that Sabito’s still here to come back for him.

In the end he doesn’t, but he wants to.

---

“Alright,” Sabito announces. “First things first, we need to interview people about the disappearances.”

Giyū chews on a senbei that the innkeeper had given them.

“All of the people who have gone missing are teenage boys and young men, between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five,” Sabito continues as he starts down the road, Giyū trailing a couple of steps behind him. “And, of course, all of them disappeared during the night. So far we don’t have any other information, though, so we should proceed with caution so we don’t accidentally end up as bait.”

Giyū takes another bite of senbei, and it crunches louder than he’d intended.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be that bad to use one of us as bait, if it comes down to that,” Sabito muses, apparently unperturbed by the noise. “The only concern is the fact that this demon’s already eaten a high-ranking demon slayer, so it would be better to have a good idea of what we’re dealing with.”

Considering one of them is a pillar and the other is a sort-of-pillar, unless it’s an Upper Moon, there’s really not any reason to worry, in Giyū’s opinion, but he doesn’t say that aloud.

“Are you that hungry?” Sabito asks, breaking Giyū from his thoughts.

Giyū hesitates for a beat, but then says, “We didn’t have dinner last night.”

They’d taken a break for a late lunch and had a few other snacks on their way to the village, but he’d been too exhausted once they’d arrived at the inn to even think about food, and had ended up falling asleep on an empty stomach.

“Well,” Sabito replies. “I guess we can kill two birds with one stone.”

Which, consequently, is how Giyū finds himself perched on a stool at a small restaurant that seems to serve as a lunch hangout at noon and an izakaya in the evenings. The consequences of being in a village small enough that it can’t support just one or the other, Giyū supposes.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until we reopen again in the evening if you’re here for beer, boys,” the waitress says as she leans against the counter in front of them, a friendly smile spread over her lips. “But if you’re looking for gyoza, we’ve got you set.”

“Unfortunately we’re here on business, so I don’t think we’ll be drinking later,” Sabito replies easily, returning the waitress’ smile. “We’ll take the gyoza, though.”

“What sort of business?” the waitress asks, shooting the two of them a curious look.

Giyū glances over at Sabito, wondering what he’s going to tell her, but he just says, “We’re demon hunters.”

The waitress goes dangerously still.

“We heard rumors of young men going missing in these parts and thought we’d take a look,” Sabito continues, leaning his forearms against the surface of the counter. “You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”

For a moment, the waitress pauses, her expression unreadable, and Giyū’s starting to think she’s going to kick them out, when she sighs and says, “I’ll get those gyoza started. Anything else you want? We’ve got good shirasu, and all our fish is fresh from the port.”

“Whatever you recommend,” Sabito answers, his smile unwavering.

With that, the waitress disappears into the back of the restaurant.

“She might be escaping out the back,” Giyū says after a moment.

“Maybe,” Sabito agrees, propping his elbow up on the counter and resting his cheek against his hand. “I probably should have eased her into it a little more, but considering this is the only izakaya in town, there’s a high likelihood that she knows the men who have disappeared. I thought she’d be more willing to talk if we were upfront about it.”

Giyū can’t fault that logic. But unlike Sabito, usually when he’s trying to track a demon, he hangs around in the back of these sorts of places and waits for other people to start talking first, and then goes to talk to the victim’s family directly.

It typically ends with someone crying or yelling at him, though, so maybe Sabito’s method is better, in that respect.

Sure enough, about a minute later, the waitress returns with a tray, two cups of tea and a small bowl of fish perched atop it. She doesn’t say anything at first, just carefully arranges the dishes in front of them, but then she starts to speak, her voice slow and a little cautious.

“You say you’re demon slayers?”

“We are,” Sabito answers. Giyū picks up his tea and takes a sip, the liquid hot and a little bitter against his tongue.

“I heard there were some men here last month saying the same thing,” the waitress replies, eyeing them carefully.

“We’re the backup,” Sabito says. “Judging by how many people have gone missing, it seems like it’s a pretty strong demon. If you have any information that might help us, we’d really appreciate it.”

The waitress goes quiet for another moment.

“By my count, there are at least seventeen men who have gone missing,” she explains. Her voice is steady, but Giyū’s sharp eyes don’t miss the way she clutches her tray a little tighter. “Eight from this village, four from the village to the north, two from the village to the west, and the three demon hunters.”

“That’s a decent number,” Sabito muses, but he doesn’t need to say more for Giyū to understand what he really means.

Not enough to overpower a Hinoe.

“No one here seems to be worried,” Giyū points out, taking another sip of his tea. “The inn was full.”

The waitress hesitates for a beat, but then says, “The only ones who are worried are the ones who need to be. Everyone in these parts knows the story.”

“Story?” Sabito asks, leaning a little farther over the counter, his eyes bright with interest.

“According to the histories of the villages in this area, this sort of thing happens about once every hundred years. A dozen or so young men and one woman are devoured by a demon and then the demon goes back into hibernation,” the waitress explains.

“And no one’s done anything about it?” Sabito presses, his mouth turning down in a frown.

“There’s such a long period between incidents that by the time it cycles around again, people have started to doubt the story, I suppose,” the waitress replies, fiddling with her tray. “And by the time it does happen, people who aren’t a target are too scared to get involved.”

“Why only one woman?” Giyū asks, a little abruptly.

“The legend goes that the demon was once a human who was in love with the village beauty, but was too afraid to actually speak to her,” the waitress answers, with the air of someone who’s heard the story a million times before and still isn’t entirely sure what she thinks of it. “Instead, he grew jealous of any man who tried to approach her and ended up killing all of them, until he finally kidnapped the girl and fled. After hibernation, he’s disoriented enough that he latches onto the girl in the village who looks most like the girl he was in love with and repeats the process.”

“What sort of man thinks that murder is easier than just talking to someone?” Sabito snorts, picking up a couple of small fish with his chopsticks and popping them into his mouth. He pauses, chewing, and then asks, “Who’s the girl this time? Do you know?”

“I’m not certain, but it seems to be the eldest Sugiyama daughter, Sayoko,” the waitress replies. “She’s been secluding herself for the past few weeks, and the first person who died was a young man who was very open about his interest in her.”

“I see,” Sabito says, a contemplative look on his face.

The three of them fall into silence for a moment, considering the situation. If the demon’s been eating people on and off for hundreds of years, it must be quite strong, although at least it doesn’t seem to be an Upper Moon. Or at least, Giyū can’t recall any Upper Moon that spent significant amounts of time hibernating, but then again, who knows what else could be different about this world, in comparison to his own.

“I guess we’ll have to pay her a visit after lunch,” Sabito announces. “Where can we find her?”

For a moment, the waitress pauses, her lips pursed as if she’s not sure if she wants to tell them or not, but eventually she answers, “The Sugiyama house is at the northern edge of the village, near the old shrine.”

“Thank you,” Sabito replies. He smiles, but the waitress doesn’t return it.

“I hope you’ll be luckier than the last demon hunters,” she adds.

“We don’t need luck,” Giyū says simply, and it makes the waitress narrow her eyes at him.

“That’s the spirit,” Sabito laughs, shooting Giyū a grin. His eyes shimmer and it does strange things to Giyū’s insides. “I like a man with confidence.”

It’s less confidence, and more the knowledge that whatever luck he had dried up the day his sister died, but Giyū doesn’t bother to explain that. And with two pillars together, if they need luck to defeat this demon, they’re probably as good as dead.

---

They’re halfway to the Sugiyama house when something occurs to Giyū.

“Do you have a wife?”

Sabito blinks at him.

“No,” Sabito answers. “Do you?”

Giyū shakes his head.

“Maybe if we save this Sayoko girl, she’ll agree to marry you,” Sabito says, reaching over to pat Giyū’s shoulder. The contact makes Giyū’s skin prickle and he has to resist the urge to touch the spot once Sabito takes his hand away. “You’re bad with words, but at least you have a nice face, so I think it could work.”

Sabito smiles, and Giyū feels his cheeks flush.

“I think she’d rather marry you,” he mutters, averting his eyes.

“Ah, well,” Sabito replies. There’s something a little strained about his voice, and Giyū looks back at him. “I don’t really have time for – women.”

Giyū frowns slightly, but then again, he supposes it makes sense. Other than Uzui, he can’t recall any of the other pillars being married, and even Uzui was married before he became a pillar. Of course Sabito would take his duties as a demon slayer more seriously than relationships with women.

Still, it’s a bit of a shame. Sabito’s face has become remarkably handsome over the past eight years, and when added to his strength, kindness, and loyalty, Giyū can’t think of a better marriage prospect.

“What?” Sabito huffs, and Giyū realizes that he’s been staring.

“You’re very handsome,” Giyū says simply.

Sabito’s cheeks color pink, and Giyū’s fascinated by it.

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Sabito huffs. He quickens his pace slightly, and Giyū falls a couple steps behind, no longer able to see Sabito’s face. “It could give people the wrong idea.”

Giyū’s not entirely sure what sort of wrong idea it would give people. He’s always found faces like Sabito’s aesthetically pleasing, the sharpness of his chin and the almost glassy look of his eyes. They’re a little similar to Shinobu’s features, and briefly, Giyū finds himself wondering what they would look like together, Shinobu’s lithe frame lined up next to –

The memory of Shinobu sends Giyū’s mind to a sudden stop.

If Sabito’s still alive in this world, maybe Shinobu is too.

“Tomioka?”

Giyū blinks, broken out of his thoughts.

“We’re almost there,” Sabito says, nodding at the roof of the old shrine, just barely visible through the trees, further up the path. “We should decide how we’re going to approach this.”

Giyū nods in assent.

“Because demons can’t go out during daylight, I’m assuming the demon has some other way to figure out who Sugiyama Sayoko has come in contact with,” Sabito continues, crossing his arms over his chest as he thinks. “My bet is smell, although I can’t confirm it at the moment. But if it is smell, then that means that if we both go to talk to her, the demon will be able to tell when he comes to check on her later tonight. So I think it would be better if I went alone.”

“No,” Giyū says, his voice steady and firm.

Sabito looks a little caught off guard, and frowns, before saying, “If we both make ourselves known to the demon, then we lose our advantage.”

“Then I’ll go by myself,” Giyū replies, stubborn.

“I’m a pillar,” Sabito retorts, his forehead creasing and his frown deepening. “I can’t send you out as bait knowing that this demon is hundreds of years old and has already killed dozens of people.”

And I can’t let you leave me behind again, knowing what happened last time, Giyū thinks, but doesn’t say aloud.

He hesitates, but then says, “I trust you to save me if I’m in danger.”

When he meets Sabito’s eyes again, though, Sabito looks stricken.

It catches Giyū a little off guard, as he takes in the way Sabito’s face has gone a little pale, his eyes watery with some emotion that Giyū can’t even begin to interpret. Although he’s never been very good at reading people, he’d at least thought he knew Sabito well enough to understand his expressions, but this is one he’s never seen on Sabito’s before, and all that he can tell is that it looks –

Painful.

“No.”

Sabito’s voice is more forceful than Giyū’s ever heard it.

“I can’t let you go alone,” Sabito continues. “I will tie you to a tree and leave you here, if I have to.”

Giyū narrows his eyes. Although Sabito is probably stronger than him – definitely stronger than him, now that he’s had the chance to grow up and become the true Water Pillar – he could still give Sabito enough of a runaround to make him give up, or at least reconsider trying to tie him up.

The both of them stare at each other for a long moment, in contentious silence.

“If you’re a pillar,” Giyū finally says, his voice a little soft, “then you’re strong enough that we shouldn’t need to ambush the demon.”

“I’m not invincible,” Sabito replies. He says it simply, like a statement of fact. “If it’s an Upper Moon, then there’s a very real possibility I won’t be able to defeat it. No pillars have.”

You’re different, Giyū wants to say, but the words get caught in his throat.

After all, it’s contradictory, isn’t it? Sabito has always been stronger than him, has always been the one who was meant to become the Water Pillar, could surely defeat an Upper Moon if someone as weak as him was able to slow one down, so –

So Sabito doesn’t really need him, but the thought of letting Sabito leave him behind again ignites a terror in him he can’t even begin to describe.

“I won’t run away,” Giyū murmurs, his bangs falling down over his face, obscuring his expression. “If it’s an Upper Moon, I won’t run away.”

“Are you an idiot?” Sabito snaps. He takes a step forward, into Giyū’s personal space, and reaches out to grasp the front of Giyū’s uniform jacket, forcing him to look up. Idly, Giyū realizes that Sabito’s a few centimeters taller than him now. “If there’s a demon that I’m not strong enough to kill, what are you going to do? You might as well slit your throat yourself!”

“I would rather die alongside you then be left behind to watch!” Giyū replies, and there’s a sharp edge to his tone he hadn’t expected, or ever thought he’d use with Sabito, of all people.

Sabito stares at him for a moment, eyes gone a little wide and his hand still fisted in the front of Giyū’s jacket.

Finally, he loosens his grip, ever so slightly.

“If I tell you to run, you have to run.”

The forcefulness of Sabito’s voice sends a shiver down Giyū’s spine.

He doesn’t reply, though, just clenches his jaw slightly.

“If you don’t agree, I really will tie you up and leave you here,” Sabito threatens, and Giyū grits his teeth harder, fighting the uncommon urge to argue more.

But, well, Sabito’s strong. The likelihood of them actually ending up in a situation where Sabito would tell him to retreat is slim to none.

So Giyū nods.

---

The moon is full tonight.

It bathes Sabito and Giyū in a soft yellowish light as they stand in the small clearing in front of the Sugiyama residence. Sayoko had turned out to be a young woman who probably had been quite beautiful, but she’d spent the entirety of their conversation jumping at shadows, torn between paranoia and exhaustion.

Giyū remembers that feeling, in the days after his sister’s death. He can’t imagine what it must be like to have it dragged out over months, over so many people, and he doubts he could have lasted this long himself.

Then again, he doubts Sayoko will last much longer at this rate, either.

Something in the breeze shifts, and Giyū grips the hilt of his sword.

“It’s here.”

Sabito’s voice is the same cool tone that Giyū remembers from the Final Selection, except perhaps a little deeper, now that Sabito’s body has matured.

The words have barely left Sabito’s mouth when a rain of dark liquid slices through the air. Giyū jumps back, dodging the liquid in a fluid motion as he draws his sword, the dark blue of his blade reflecting the pale moonlight. Whatever the liquid is hits the ground with an unpleasant, acidic sizzle, and Giyū assumes a defensive stance, eyes darting around the clearing in search of their assailant.

A few meters away from him, Sabito does the same, and for a moment, Giyū’s distracted by the vibrant aquamarine of Sabito’s sword.

It’s beautiful. So much prettier than Giyū’s own nichirin blade, so dark it might as well be black.

“How dare you.”

The voice comes from above, harsh and wheezy, like a person trying to talk through a mouthful of blood, and Giyū looks up to find a figure perched high in a tree at the edge of the clearing.

“You think you have the right – ” the demon hisses, trembling slightly. “That scum like you could possibly speak to her when she hasn’t – when I haven’t – ”

Before the demon can finish his rambling, though, Sabito lunges forward, launching himself into the air. His form is just as beautiful as Giyū remembers it – no, even more beautiful – perfectly maintained as he swings his blade at the demon’s neck.

“First Style: Water Surface Slice.”

For a moment, Giyū thinks that’s it, that a single, beautiful slice is all it will take, but then the demon moves, jerky and awkward but faster than Giyū had expected, and Sabito’s attack only manages to take off the demon’s arm.

The arm hits the ground with a splash instead of a thump, liquifying and making the ground sizzle and smoke until the grass and dirt have been eaten away, leaving behind a wide hole.

The acidic stench finally breaks Giyū out of his trance and he jolts into action. The cool midnight air fills his lungs as he breathes in, bringing up his sword for a quick, precise attack as he lunges at the demon, still swearing and hopping around as his arm regenerates.

“Seventh – ”

Giyū cuts himself off.

It’s only thanks to years of training that he manages to change his form mid-attack, transforming it into a quick, shallow slash which misses the demon’s neck but slices into his chest.

After all, as the Water Pillar, Sabito has to know all of the current Breath of Water users. There’s no way he wouldn’t have questions if Giyū were to use his normal techniques, particularly the more advanced ones. So unless the situation becomes dire enough, he’s just going to have to fight without them and hope that Sabito doesn’t look too closely at his swordsmanship style.

“Scum!” the demon hisses, viscous fluid spraying from his mouth. “Trash!”

The fluid hits Giyū’s cheek, and for a moment it just feels wet.

But then it starts to burn.

Giyū’s grits his teeth against the pain and he resists the urge to reach up and wipe at his cheek. The last thing he wants to do is smear it around more, and he’s not about to take a hand off his sword when he’s still well within the demon’s attack range.

The pain dulls his attack time slightly, though, and by the time he refocuses, the demon’s hand is right in front of him, nails sharp and dripping with that acidic liquid, red and viscous. Blood, maybe?

“Third Style: Dance of the Rapid Current.”

The vibrant pinkish shade of Sabito’s hair fills Giyū’s vision. Vaguely, he’s aware of the demon hissing and cursing again, so Sabito’s attack must have done a decent amount of damage, but not enough to actually kill the demon.

“If you’re going to hesitate, you should leave.”

The sound of Sabito’s voice, low and a little cold, breaks Giyū abruptly from his thoughts.

It’s not an order, though, so Giyū says, “I won’t.”

Sabito pauses for a moment, the wide expanse of his shoulders blocking Giyū’s view of the demon in front of them, but finally he nods.

With that, he lunges forward again.

Giyū follows, circulating steady breaths as he increases his speed, until he’s running alongside Sabito. The demon ceases his muttering, looking at them with wide, eerie eyes, clouded with animal rage, and Giyū finds himself narrowing his own eyes in response, bringing up his sword in preparation for attack.

They move simultaneously, Sabito sweeping his blade at the demon’s neck in a forceful arc, a tsunami crashing down on the demon, while Giyū aims for the demon’s stomach. The demon’s just as quick as before, though, and while Sabito’s sword hits its target this time, the demon jerks back in time to keep his neck from being completely severed, and Sabito’s blade has barely lost contact with the demon’s neck before the flesh starts to knit itself together again.

Giyū’s attack, meanwhile, is more successful.

His blade plunges into the demon’s stomach, running through his insides and tearing out his back, so that he’s fully skewered on the blade. Thick, red blood drips down Giyū’s blade, and the demon hacks out a wet cough, even more blood spewing past his lips.

Giyū’s eyes widen, and he starts to jerk back his sword, but before he can, the demon grabs it, the blade digging into his palm and creating an even heavier flow of blood.

The demon’s blood splatters on Giyū’s chest, acid quickly eating away at the fabric of his uniform. He can feel his hands burn, but he doesn’t bother to look down at the damage, can feel well enough the way the viscous liquid oozes between his fingers and coats his palms, burning away his skin and daring him to let go of the hilt.

He doesn’t, though. Instead, he braces his feet firmly and puts as much power as he can into his shoulders, ripping the sword from the demon’s hands and out through his side.

“Did you touch her?” the demon demands, staggering towards Giyū. It’s as if he doesn’t even register the fact that half of his abdomen has been demolished, organs exposed to the open air. “I know you touched her – they always want to touch, even though she’s not theirs, she’s – ”

“First Style: Water Surface Slice.”

The demon never finishes his sentence.

As the demon’s head rolls across the ground, all Giyū’s pain-dazed mind can think is, No wasted movement. As expected of Sabito.

“Gi – Tomioka!” Sabito yells, and Giyū startles a little as he finds Sabito in front of him. Sabito starts to reach for him, but before Giyū can manage to yell out a warning, Sabito seems to realize his error and instead tears off his haori, wrapping it around Giyū’s hands and using it to soak up the demon blood.

The blood that had splattered against Giyū’s cheek has already fizzled out, leaving behind a small burn, but the spray across his chest is still burning, and Sabito doesn’t hesitate to tear off a piece of his haori that hasn’t been saturated with blood yet, bringing it up to dab at the tender skin of Giyū’s chest.

“Tomioka,” Sabito says, his voice heavy with seriousness. “I need you to let go of your sword.”

Giyū blinks slowly, finally registering the fact that his hands are still wrapped in a death grip around the hilt of his nichirin blade.

Tomioka,” Sabito repeats, a little sharper this time.

The muscles of Giyū’s hands won’t obey, though, and a moment later, he feels something soft and warm against them.

Sabito grits his teeth as the blood on Giyū’s hands and sword smears against his palms, but he slowly works Giyū’s fingers loose, untangling them from around the hilt. It’s a slow process, but Sabito never wavers, despite the fact that his hands must be burning as badly as Giyū’s now, and when Giyū’s sword finally drops to the ground, both of their hands are vibrant red.

“Sabito – ” Giyū starts.

Before he can finish, Sabito grabs his sword up off the ground, and then sweeps him up into a princess carry.

“We’re going to get your hands treated first,” Sabito says, his voice dangerously low. “But after that, I’m going to lecture you until you cry.”

With that, Sabito starts off through the forest.

---

Giyū comes to in a strangely familiar room.

He blinks against the sunlight filtering in through the windows, frowning, and starts to bring up a hand to shade his eyes, only to find it wrapped in bandages.

The events of the past few days come flooding back in a rush, and he jolts upright, grimacing as the movement irritates his wounds. Sabito’s nowhere in sight, though, and his heart pounds fast in his chest as he wonders if the blood technique has finally worn off, and he’s back in –

“You’re up.”

When Giyū’s eyes land on the source of the voice, he freezes.

“Almost the entire surface area of your hands was burned,” Shinobu says, a serene smile on her face. “They’re not terribly severe burns, relatively speaking, and you’ll make a full recovery, but it’ll be a while before you can remove the bandages.”

Giyū stares, unsure how to respond.

After all, Kochō Shinobu died barely a few weeks ago in his world.

He never saw the body, of course. Apparently it was absorbed by the Upper Moon she was fighting, and even if her corpse had survived, he doubted he would have been able to recover it, in the chaos that followed the battle of the Dimensional Infinity Fortress.

“Either I or one of my assistants will reapply the ointment on your hands twice a day,” Shinobu continues, breaking Giyū out of his thoughts. “Don’t try to ask for anything for the pain, though, because I won’t give you any. The less inclined you are to use your hands, the better.”

Her smile is just as intimidating as always, and it makes something deep inside Giyū’s chest hurt.

It’s a different sort of hurt than when he’d first seen Sabito, though. After all, although it’s still Sabito, this isn’t the exact Sabito he’d lost eight years ago, the same at the essence, but older and stronger and more mature.

But Shinobu doesn’t have a hair out of place.

“Sabito didn’t say you were mute.”

Giyū blinks at Shinobu slowly.

“I’m not mute,” he replies. His voice comes out a little scratchy, and briefly, he wonders how long he slept for.

“So you’re just bad at speaking,” Shinobu says, a teasing edge to her voice that’s a little to sharp to be entirely friendly. “What’s your name?”

“Tomioka,” Giyū mutters, looking down at his hands. His stomach twists uncomfortably at the thought of having a second chance with Shinobu, and maybe even the other pillars too, but a small voice in the back of his head reminds him that he could just make them all hate him again. It wouldn’t be hard.

Then again, it’s not as if he’s a pillar in this world. There’s no reason for them to acknowledge his existence in the first place.

“I would say that it’s nice to meet you, but I don’t really appreciate you increasing my number of patients,” Shinobu replies. She’s grinding some sort of paste, greenish-brown and fowl smelling, and Giyū hopes it’s not going on his hands.

“I’m sorry,” Giyū finally says, unsure what else to respond with.

The two of them fall into silence for a moment, only broken by the soft scrape of the pestle against the mortar.

“You’re not going to ask my name?” Shinobu asks. Giyū can’t read anything from her tone.

“You’re the Insect Pillar,” Giyū answers simply, hoping that it’s an acceptable reply. After all, anyone who’s been part of the Demon Slaying Corps for a while knows at least a bit about all of the pillars.

However, when he looks back at Shinobu, he finds that she’s staring at him with wide eyes.

Then, she starts to laugh.

“The Insect Pillar!” she snorts, her grin wide and sharp, eyes curving in amused crescent moons. “Sabito sure likes to pick up the weird ones. Is this a comedy routine, or do you always go around giving people new titles?”

Giyū blinks slowly, caught off guard.

“What pillar are you, then?” Shinobu asks, looking at him like a cat playing with a particularly pitiful mouse.

Before Giyū can reply, though, the door opens and another woman walks into the room. She’s taller than Shinobu, her figure a little sturdier, but her hair is the same shade of inky black, adorned with distinctive butterfly clips.

Maybe I really am dead, Giyū thinks absently, as he looks at Kochō Kanae.

“Shinobu,” Kanae says. “There was an accident on one of the training fields, and they need medical assistance.”

“It better not be Sabito again,” Shinobu huffs, her nose scrunching up in annoyance. “He’s even harder on his students than Shinazugawa is.”

“No, I believe it was Rengoku this time,” Kanae answers, her tone light and conversational in a way that somehow only stirs up the chaos in Giyū’s mind more. “He became a little too enthusiastic while sparring.”

“I’ll be there in a moment,” Shinobu sighs, standing up from her chair. She glances at Giyū and then looks over at the door, before raising her voice and saying, “Sabito, get in here.”

There’s a momentary pause, but then Sabito slips in through the door. His cheeks are a little pink, as if embarrassed that he’d been caught loitering out in the hallway, like a guard on the night watch. It makes a conflicting sort of relief flood Giyū’s chest, because on one hand, seeing all three of them – Shinobu, Kanae, and Sabito – in the same room feels like some sort of fever dream, but at least he’s gotten sort of used to being around Sabito, in the past few days.

“Yes?” Sabito says, and his voice is steady, but there’s the slightest hint of sheepishness underneath it. Giyū wonders if anyone else notices.

“He’s your stray, so he’s your responsibility,” Shinobu announces, unceremoniously shoving the mortar and pestle into his hands. “Change his bandages and apply this to his hands.”

“Stray?” Sabito huffs, but he doesn’t try to give back the salve. “He’s a member of the Corps.”

Shinobu makes a noncommittal noise in reply as she heads for the door. Kanae gives Giyū and Sabito a slightly apologetic smile, followed by a polite nod, before turning to follow her sister out the door.

Which leaves Giyū alone with Sabito again.

For a moment, the two of them are quiet, but then Sabito plops himself down in the chair that Shinobu had vacated and says, “Alright, let’s get this over with.”

He sets the mortar and pestle down on the bedside table and reaches out to take one of Giyū’s hands. It hurts a little bit, but it’s not anything that Giyū isn’t used to, and he watches on quietly as Sabito untangles the bandages from around his hands. Idly, he notices that there’s a light layer of bandages over Sabito’s own palms, twisted up around his fingers, and Giyū’s suddenly reminded of Sabito forcing him to let go of his sword, coming in contact with the demon blood in the process.

“I can do it,” Giyū says, and he starts to pull his hand away, but Sabito holds firm.

“My skin wasn’t in contact with the blood for that long, so my injures are light,” Sabito replies, continuing to remove the bandages from Giyū’s hands. “Thanks to Shinobu-san’s treatment, they’re almost fully healed.”

There’s a stubborn set to Sabito’s face that Giyū’s very familiar with, so he doesn’t try to argue, instead relinquishing his hand to Sabito. Sabito’s quiet as he removes the last of the bandages, revealing Giyū’s palm, skin an irritated, painful looking red, slightly black-ish in a couple of spots.

Sabito’s expression doesn’t change at the sight, though, calm and serene as he reaches over to scoop some ointment out of the mortar, before spreading it over Giyū’s hand. The ointment is cool against Giyū’s skin, but Sabito’s fingers are warm by contrast, and Giyū shivers a little as Sabito works the ointment in between his fingers, careful and thorough in the treatment.

Next are the bandages, which he reapplies just as carefully and precisely, and it’s not long before he says, “Give me your other hand.”

Giyū obliges, and wonders if he can ask Sabito to do this for him every time, if he’s going to need his bandages changed twice a day.

Probably not. Sabito’s a pillar, and likely has much more important things to do than play nurse.

“I should have tied you to a tree.”

Giyū blinks at Sabito slowly, processing the proclamation.

“This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen,” Sabito continues. There’s a bit of a bite to his tone, but it seems to be directed more at himself than at Giyū.

For a moment, Giyū hesitates, but then he says, “There won’t be any lasting damage. And the demon was defeated.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you can’t use breaths?” Sabito asks, his lips pressed in a stern line.

Giyū averts his eyes and doesn’t reply.

“Am I that unreliable of a pillar?”

The soft tone of Sabito’s voice catches Giyū off guard, and he snaps his head up to look at Sabito again.

“Am I that unreliable, that you think you need to protect me?” Sabito repeats, his eyes fixed intently on Giyū.

“You’re stronger than anyone,” Giyū replies, simple and honest.

I’m the weak one, he thinks, but doesn’t say aloud.

Sabito studies him for a moment, a deep frown on his face, but finally he sighs, slumping back in his chair.

“Your face isn’t fair,” Sabito mutters, quiet enough that Giyū isn’t sure he was meant to hear.

Not that he really understands what it means, anyway.

“Come on,” Sabito announces, his tone resigned. “We still have to change the bandages on your chest.”

With that, he reaches over to tug Giyū’s yukata down over his shoulders, close enough that there are only a few centimeters between their faces, and Giyū’s heart beats wildly in his chest, so fast he’s afraid it might break free.

Sabito’s eyelashes fan out over his cheeks, his scar accenting his cheekbones, and briefly, Giyū wonders if this is the sort of thing Sabito means by, Your face isn’t fair.

Probably not.

---

Shinobu releases him from the infirmary on the third day, with a dangerous smile and a promise to keep changing his bandages at least once a day for the next week.

As nice as it is to no longer have to lie in bed all day, though, it’s not as if he actually has much to do. Before, he’d always had reports to write or a new mission lined up, but he’s not a pillar in this world – isn’t even technically part of the Demon Slaying Corps – so there’s really no duties for him to attend to.

So he goes looking for Sabito.

The training grounds seem like the best place to start, so he makes his way through the Butterfly Estate over to them. Thankfully, the layout seems to be the same as it was in his own timeline, and it doesn’t take long before he finds himself on the edge of a large clearing, the clack of bokken ringing through the air.

“You’re still thinking too much.”

In the back of his mind, Giyū wonders if he’ll ever stop being surprised by seeing people who are dead in his own world alive and well in this one.

“Breaths are useless unless you’re able to use them naturally,” Makomo says, from where she’s standing opposite of Tanjirō. “Every moment you have to think about it is an opportunity for your opponent to kill you.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Tanjirō replies, his bokken clutched firmly in both hands.

The words have barely left Tanjirō’s mouth before Makomo lunges at him. Her movements are light and quick, even more so then when they were children, and Giyū watches, entranced as she attacks Tanjirō from all angles, bokken expertly targeting even the smallest of opening.

There’s something slightly off about her movements, though, and it takes Giyū a moment to realize what.

“You’re almost there,” Makomo says, her voice soft and encouraging, despite the fact that Tanjirō is lying on the ground in front of her, breathing wheezy after she’d knocked all the air out of him. “Another hour or so, I think, and then you can have a break.”

She resumes her stance, bokken held firmly in her left hand, while her empty right sleeve flutters in the breeze.

“Yes, ma’am,” Tanjirō repeats, as he drags himself to his feet again.

Makomo smiles, and attacks.

Giyū isn’t sure how long he spends watching Makomo train Tanjirō. It’s strange, seeing Makomo wield her sword with her left hand. It changes everything about the way she moves, her balance, her form, what sort of attacks she chooses to use, and part of Giyū appreciates it as a confirmation that this really is a parallel timeline and not just the afterlife, but –

But it further solidifies the notion that this is how the world is supposed to be.

In this world, he died instead of Sabito, and it’s made all the difference.

“Tomioka?”

The voice breaks Giyū abruptly from his thoughts, and he looks over to find Sabito standing nearby, a bokken in his hands and a towel slung around his neck.

He’s also very shirtless, and it makes Giyū’s face heat.

After seeing Shinobu exactly as she was when he last saw her alive, the differences in Sabito’s appearance now are suddenly, painfully obvious. It’s not as if Giyū had been completely oblivious before, but the sight of Sabito’s bare chest makes it particularly apparent, abdominal muscles far more developed than they ever could have been when he was thirteen, sharp hipbones peeking out from under the waistband of his pants.

“Did Shinobu-san clear you yet?” Sabito asks, a frown marring his face as he takes a step closer to Giyū.

The few centimeters of height difference hadn’t seemed like much before, but now it’s all the more of a reminder that Sabito is a very attractive twenty-one year old man.

“You’re not having some weird reaction to the medicine, are you?” Sabito continues, when Giyū doesn’t respond, and he starts to reach a hand towards Giyū’s forehead, but before he can make contact, Giyū jerks back.

“I’ve been cleared,” Giyū finally manages, trying to keep his voice steady.

Sabito studies him for a moment, looking not entirely convinced, but eventually he sighs and says, “Alright. But if I decide you don’t look well, I’m dragging you back there.”

Giyū nods, a little stiffly.

“It’s probably too soon for you to resume training, though, isn’t it?” Sabito says, looking down at Giyū’s still-bandaged hands. “You won’t be able to hold a sword.”

“Shinobu-san said I can start using a sword again in two or three days,” Giyū confirms. He glances down at Sabito’s hands, and asks, “Did she already clear you for training?”

“My wounds were minor, and I heal quickly,” Sabito answers, but something about his tone sounds a little evasive, and before he can think about what he’s doing, Giyū reaches out to take one of Sabito’s hands in his own, turning it over to inspect his palm.

Sabito’s hands are larger than Giyū remembers, palms calloused and fingers long.

Giyū drops Sabito’s hand just as quickly as he’d picked it up.

“Your hands seem fine,” Giyū mutters, avoiding Sabito’s eyes.

For a moment, the two of them fall into awkward silence, but finally Sabito clears his throat and says, “Have you met Makomo and Tanjirō yet?” He nods over to where Makomo’s just knocked Tanjirō over again, leaving him flat on his back in the dirt. “You were watching them train.”

Giyū hesitates, but then shakes his head. It’s not exactly a lie, because although he’d known the versions of them in his timeline, he hasn’t actually met this timeline’s counterparts yet.

“I’ll introduce you,” Sabito says, before turning to call out, “Makomo! Tanjirō!”

The two of them look over, and Sabito waves, beckoning them.

Giyū finds himself frozen, trying to sort out his thoughts and how to react. He meets Makomo’s eyes, and she gives him a considering look, before another gentle smile spreads over her face and she starts towards them, Tanjirō dragging himself up off the ground to follow.

“This is Makomo. We trained under the same teacher,” Sabito says, and Giyū nods politely – not that he actually needs the introduction. “And this is Tanjirō, my student.” He pauses, and the corrects himself. “He’s mainly Makomo’s student, but I beat him in to the ground occasionally.”

“Sabito-san, you’ve helped me with my training very much!” Tanjirō protests, but Sabito just laughs, reaching out to ruffle Tanjirō’s hair.

The sight does strange things to Giyū’s insides, and although he keeps his face carefully blank, it must show in his smell, because Tanjirō glances over at him, giving him a concerned look. Giyū pretends not to notice it.

“Sabito said you name is Tomioka,” Makomo interjects, turning Giyū’s attention back to her.

Giyū hesitates, but then says, “It is.”

For a moment, he thinks she’s going to press for more information, but eventually she just smiles again and says, “It’s a nice name.”

Tanjirō’s expression only becomes more confused as he looks between the two of them, and Giyū wonders how strange the comment must sound, to someone who doesn’t know a thing about this world’s version of him.

“Actually, now that I think about it, you don’t know how to use breaths, do you?” Sabito asks, making Giyū look back over at him. “Maybe you should become my student too.” There’s a look in his eyes that Giyū can’t quite identify. “I’m sure your Breath of Water would look beautiful.”

The statement catches Giyū off guard, and he blinks at Sabito for a moment.

“I,” Giyū starts, haltingly, a little awkwardly, “might be a little old to – ”

Before he can finish, though, a crow swoops down, screeching, “PILLAR MEETING! THE WATER PILLAR IS BEING SUMMONED TO A PILLAR MEETING!” A caw, and then, “TOMIOKA MUST ALSO ATTEND!”

Sabito shoots Giyū a confused look, and cold dread seeps into Giyū’s chest.

---

Although pillar meetings are not unfamiliar, they’re no less intimidating.

Giyū’s long since learned to ignore the stares he gets whenever he joins one, but it’s a little different this time. It’s harder to pretend that Rengoku, Tokitō, everyone else who he’d recently resigned to death, aren’t looking at him, whispering and speculating.

Ubuyashiki Kagaya smiles at him serenely, and he finds himself frozen.

“Oyakata-sama,” Sabito says, dropping to one knee and bowing respectfully. Giyū mirrors his actions. “I apologize for my ignorance, but I have yet to hear what this meeting is about. Is it something related to my last mission?”

“Actually, I was the one who requested this meeting.”

Giyū looks over to watch Kochō Kanae step forward, and although her smile is as polite as ever, there’s nothing friendly about it. Ubuyashiki nods for her to continue, and almost before Giyū can react, her hand darts out to grasp his wrist, holding firm but not painful.

“My sister Shinobu reported concerns about this man’s identity after checking his rank while he was unconscious,” Kanae continues, squeezing Giyū’s hand until his muscles tense and the character of his rank is slowly painted across his skin.

She holds up his hand, and for a moment, Giyū forgets to breathe.

“A pillar?” Iguro scoffs, eyeing Giyū contemptuously. “So he figured out a way to forge his Wisteria Carving. How’s this enough for a pillar meeting?”

“Over the past few days, I have looked into the possibility that it’s a fake,” Kanae replies, her tone just as soft and easy as before, despite Iguro’s disdain. “As of yet, I have not been able to find a method that would allow a person to fake their mark – at least not while unconscious.”

“Isn’t there an easier way to tell if he’s a fake or not?” Shinazugawa says, a sharp, toothy grin spreading over his face as he draws his sword. “If I can kill him easily, then he’s a fake. If he can hold up for more than five minutes, we might as well promote him anyway.”

Idly, Giyū wonders if maybe it’s just something about his face that Shinazugawa doesn’t like.

Before Shinazugawa can start a fight in the middle of the courtyard, though, Ubuyashiki says, “Sabito. What do you think?”

Sabito blinks at him for a moment, looking caught off guard.

“You’ve seen him fight,” Ubuyashiki explains. “Is he strong enough to be a pillar?”

“I – ” Sabito starts, shooting a conflicted look at Giyū. “I’m not sure.”

“And why is that?” Ubuyashiki presses.

“He’s fast. His stamina is good. His swordsmanship technique is superb,” Sabito explains, methodically, carefully. “But I haven’t seen him use any form of Breath.” He pauses. “Yet he was able to fight against a demon confirmed to have eaten a Hinoe without using Breaths.”

“If we’re still undecided, then – ” Shinazugawa snorts, but Ubuyashiki starts to speak again and he cuts himself off quickly.

“Tomioka-san,” Ubuyashiki says, his voice just as gentle as before, just as gentle as it’s always been. “Would you care to explain your side of the story?”

For a moment, Giyū’s quiet.

“I was sent here by a demon blood technique,” he answers slowly, facing Ubuyashiki and trying to ignore the feeling of Sabito’s eyes on his back. “From another timeline.”

“Timeline?” Ubuyashiki repeats, politely inquisitive.

Giyū hesitates, but then says, “Eight years ago, in this timeline, a boy named Tomioka Giyū died in the Final Selection, and a boy named Sabito went on to become the Water Pillar.” He pauses. “In my timeline, Sabito died and I survived.”

“Is this true?” Ubuyashiki asks, addressing Sabito, somewhere behind Giyū.

“Yes, Oyakata-sama,” Sabito confirms, his voice dangerously steady. Giyū can’t muster the courage to turn around and check his expression.

“Is there any way you can prove this?” Kanae asks, and Giyū realizes that she still hasn’t relinquished his hand.

“I can demonstrate every Breath of Water technique, along with one of my own creation,” Giyū offers, although part of him doubts that it’ll be enough to satisfy all of the other pillars.

“Isn’t the Wisteria Carving enough?”

The question, declared firmly in Sabito’s voice, catches Giyū off guard, and he before he can stop himself, finds himself turning to look back over his shoulder.

“And he looks and acts like Giyū,” Sabito continues, staring Giyū dead in the eye. “So much so that I thought I was starting to hallucinate.”

“Although I don’t doubt your memory, Sabito-san, I have to question if this is a new demon technique,” Rengoku says, logical and polite. “Who’s to say a demon couldn’t be manipulating you with an illusion?”

“My sister infused wisteria into the salve she used to treat his wounds,” Kanae counters, and it should make Giyū feel a little betrayed, but at least it helps his case a little. “Unless he’s an exceptionally powerful demon, he would have had at least some sort of reaction. Not to mention that my sister carefully observed the rate of his healing, and found that it matched that of a normal human.”

“Which leads me to believe,” Ubuyashiki says, “that Tomioka-san is telling the truth.” He pauses, then asks, “Tell me, have you ever encountered an Upper Moon?”

The question catches Giyū a little off guard, but he nods, and says, “I have.”

“Which Upper Moon?” Ubuyashiki asks, and there’s an undercurrent to his tone that almost seems like excitement.

“Upper Moon Three,” Giyū answers quietly.

“Wonderful,” Ubuyashiki replies, smiling with a strange sort of warmth, like a parent pleased with their child’s achievement. “And did you defeat him?”

“I assisted Kamado Tanjirō in beheading the demon,” Giyū says, trying to keep his voice steady as he remembers the terrifying moment when the demon Akaza’s head had started to regenerate. “Although in the end, the only reason we won was because the opponent gave up.”

“Kamado Tanjirō,” Ubuyashiki repeats thoughtfully. “The boy with the demon sister.”

Giyū nods in confirmation.

“What about the other Upper Moons?” Ubuyashiki presses, more enthusiastic than Giyū’s ever seen him. “Have any of the other Upper Moons been killed, in your timeline?”

Giyū hesitates, but then says, “All six of the Upper Moons in my world have been defeated, although Muzan managed to escape.” Someone behind him takes in a sharp breath, although he’s unsure who. “But consequently, everyone here right now is also dead. Including you, Oyakata-sama.”

Ubuyashiki doesn’t look perturbed by that notion in the slightest, and it unsettles Giyū, a little bit.

“Tomioka-san,” Ubuyashiki replies, his eyes curving into happy crescent moons. “I would love to hear all about your timeline. Let’s continue this conversation at a more leisurely pace, in private. Perhaps over tea.”

Giyū can’t do much more than nod.

“This meeting is dismissed,” Ubuyashiki announces, turning to address the rest of the pillars. His voice finally seems to break them out of their trances, and they tear their gazes away from Giyū, bowing respectfully to Ubuyashiki.

All except for one.

When Giyū looks back to catch Sabito’s eye, Sabito looks more lost than he’s ever seen him.

---

The conversation with Ubuyashiki is… draining.

Eventually Giyū settles into talking about it as if it were something that happened to someone else, like his timeline isn’t likely in shreds, everyone he’d been even vaguely acquainted with devoured by demons.

Ubuyashiki seems to think that his knowledge of the Upper Moons will give them an upper hand this time around. Giyū isn’t sure, but he doesn’t voice his concerns aloud.

Night has already fallen by the time Giyū is finally released from the Ubuyashiki Estate, and as he steps out the door, he realizes that he doesn’t know where he’s supposed to stay tonight. He no longer has a bed in the infirmary of the Butterfly Estate, and there are barracks there, but he hadn’t thought to ask that morning if there was space for him, and it’s entirely likely that everyone else has gone to bed by now.

However, when he reaches the gate of the Ubuyashiki Estate, he sees a familiar figure waiting, just outside.

“Sabi – ” Giyū starts.

Before he can finish, though, Sabito’s hand hits the flat of his cheek.

It doesn’t hurt really, not compared to the sort of pain he’s used to, but it stings in its unexpectedness. For a moment, he thinks that Sabito’s going to go in for another slap, and he braces himself for it, but instead, Sabito wraps him up in a hug, just as unexpected and tight enough that it makes Giyū’s torso ache a little.

“You didn’t tell me,” Sabito finally mutters, his tone accusatory.

“I’m sorry,” Giyū replies, his voice barely above a whisper. He hesitates, but then says, “I’m not sure if the effects of this blood technique are temporary or not.”

“I don’t care,” Sabito retorts, catching Giyū a little off guard. “Just knowing that you’re out there somewhere, alive and well is – something.”

Maybe not quite enough, but it’s something.

Giyū gives into the urge to reach up and wrap his arms around Sabito, and buries his face in Sabito’s shoulder, breathing in his scent. It shouldn’t be terribly pleasant, a lingering hint of sweat from the morning training session, evidence that Sabito’s been waiting here for who knows how long, but Giyū finds himself relaxing, the last of the tension draining out of him as he melts into Sabito’s arms.

A part of him – most of him – wishes they could stay like this forever.

“Come to the Water Pillar Estate,” Sabito says, breaking the silence. “You can stay there until – as long as you like.”

“Okay,” Giyū mutters against Sabito’s haori.

It doesn’t take long to get to the Water Pillar Estate. Part of Giyū wants to ask Sabito to carry him, like he’d done when he’d first found Giyū, half-conscious on the ground, but in the end Giyū’s pride wins out, and he breaks contact with Sabito, to run alongside him.

It turns out that the layout of the Water Pillar Estate is the same as the one Giyū had lived in, but that’s where the similarities end.

“Both Makomo and Tanjirō are back from missions, or I would offer you their rooms,” Sabito says as he leaves his shoes in the mess of footwear crowding the entryway. Giyū doesn’t think there have ever been these many shoes at the Water Pillar Estate in his timeline. “There are a couple other free rooms, but we’d need to set them up, and it’s already so late. It would probably be easiest if you stayed in my room tonight.”

Giyū makes a distracted noise of agreement, too busy peering around the hallway to really pay attention to what Sabito’s saying.

Which, consequently, is how he finds himself clad in one of Sabito’s yukata, sitting on the tatami floor and eyeing the one futon spread out in the center of the room.

“I could try to dig an extra futon out from one of the other rooms, if you want,” Sabito offers, sitting down across from Giyū. His yukata is slightly loose in the front, revealing a sliver of bare chest, and Giyū averts his eyes.

“It’s fine,” Giyū murmurs. “We used to share a lot.”

Rather, Giyū, used to being spoiled by his older sister, would crawl into Sabito’s futon after a nightmare and Sabito, used to spoiling his younger siblings, would wipe away his tears and tell him to go to sleep so he’d be ready for training the next morning.

For a moment, Sabito hesitates, but then he says, “You said I died. In your world.”

Giyū nods, a little stiffly.

“How?” Sabito asks.

“During the Final Selection, I was injured almost immediately,” Giyū answers, unable to quite meet Sabito’s eyes. “You left me behind with one of the other participants and went around saving everyone else from the demons.” He pauses. “Everyone survived except for you.”

“So that’s how it went,” Sabito says with a sigh, his posture relaxing slightly. “That sounds much more impressive than my Final Selection.”

Unconsciously, Giyū finds himself clenching his hands into fists against his thighs. Although he won’t deny that his timeline’s Sabito was heroic, he prefers this timeline’s outcome a lot more.

“What happened?” Giyū asks, although he’s not entirely sure he wants to hear the answer. “Here.”

Sabito goes quiet for a long moment, his head tipped back to stare at the ceiling.

“I thought I was doing well,” Sabito starts. “All of the demons were pretty weak and I wasn’t burning through my stamina too fast, but then – ” He cuts himself off for a moment. “I ran into the demon who took Makomo’s arm. He kept talking about how he was going to find a way to get out and kill her and I lost control of my emotions. My form was sloppy, my breathing was a mess, and then my sword broke, and by the time I got over the shock, it was too late to block the demon’s next attack.”

He goes quiet for a moment, fingertips digging into the tatami. Giyū debates reaching over to take Sabito’s hand in his, but he hesitates for too long before Sabito continues.

“Giyū took the attack for me,” Sabito says. His voice is a little clipped. “He was nearly ripped in half and bled out in minutes.”

“I’m happy.”

Sabito finally meets Giyū’s eyes again, looking at him like he’s grown a second head.

“I’m happy that you’re alive,” Giyū clarifies, giving Sabito a little smile. “This is how it should be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sabito asks, his forehead creasing and a frown spreading across his mouth.

“You’re much more suited to the position of Water Pillar than me,” Giyū explains, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. “I did what I could in my timeline, but everyone still died. But with Sabito here, everyone’s still alive.”

“Do you need me to slap you again?” Sabito snaps, catching Giyū off guard.

When he looks up, he finds Sabito’s eyes narrowed, angry and intense, and he frowns, wondering what it was he’d said. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d said he wished he were dead – just that Sabito makes a better Water Pillar than him.

It’s easy enough to see from the different timelines.

Before he can find the words to try to explain, though, Sabito drags him over into a tight hug.

“You’re so strong,” Sabito murmurs. “You’ve always been strong.”

Giyū fists his hands tight in the fabric of Sabito’s yukata.

“The only reason everyone’s alive here is that we’ve been lucky,” Sabito continues, his voice low and soothing. “I’ve never encountered an Upper Moon. None of us have. The fact that in your timeline you were able to defeat all of them is amazing, even if most of the pillars died in the process. I honestly can’t say if I could survive if I encountered an Upper Moon right now.”

“You could,” Giyū mutters into Sabito’s shoulder.

Sabito makes a noncommittal hum in reply, and says, “Maybe if I had you to help me.”

The two of them fall into silence for a long moment.

“We’re lucky,” Sabito repeats, breaking the quiet. “We really are lucky in this timeline, that you ended up here. With everything you know about Muzan and the Upper Moons, now we stand a chance.”

“I don’t even know if – ” Giyū starts, but Sabito cuts him off.

“And I’m glad I could see you again,” Sabito says, looking down firmly into Giyū’s eyes.

Me too, Giyū wants to say, but with Sabito staring at him like that, the words get caught in his throat.

---

Giyū has to resist the urge of fidget as he sits in Shinobu’s office.

“Well,” Shinobu says, holding up a vial of what Giyū is fairly sure is his own blood. “I can’t find any evidence of a demon blood technique.”

“Which means?” Sabito demands, from where he’s sitting in the chair next to Giyū.

“It means,” Shinobu replies, with a smile that should be sweet but instead feels icy, “that Tomioka-san is no longer under the effects of a blood technique, and therefore, it is likely that the function of the blood technique was just to send him here, and not to keep him here.”

Sabito and Giyū stare at her blankly.

“He’s not going back to his timeline,” Shinobu sighs. “Not unless he encounters this timeline’s version of the same demon.”

“Oh,” Sabito says, a little awkwardly. “I’m sure Oyakata-sama will be pleased.”

“Does this mean you’re out of a job, then?” Shinobu asks, shooting a sly smile at Sabito. “We can’t have two Water Pillars.”

“It’s fine,” Giyū replies, before Sabito can. “I don’t want to be the Water Pillar.”

Sabito shoots him a look like he’s not entirely satisfied with Giyū’s answer, but he doesn’t press, just says, “It’s up to Oyakata-sama.”

“So when you called me the Insect Pillar, back when we first met, you were thinking of your timeline’s version of me?” Shinobu asks, with her usual teasing aloofness, but there’s the barest hint of true curiosity in her eyes.

Giyū blinks at her slowly, unsure exactly what to say.

“Your sister was dead,” Giyū finally answers. It comes out blunter than he’d expected. “So you became a pillar.”

Shinobu’s smile falters, turning into something a little dimmer, and her voice goes soft as she says, “I see.”

“She was killed by an Upper Moon,” Giyū explains, as if that will somehow help the situation. “You killed him yourself.” He pauses. “The other you.”

This time, he manages to avoid including the fact that she’d also died in the process.

“Well,” Shinobu says, the corners of her lips quirking up. “As long as I got my revenge.”

For a moment, the three of them go quiet.

“You’re free to go,” Shinobu finally announces, turning back to her desk, shuffling through a pile of paperwork. Giyū can’t tell if it’s actually necessary, or if she’s just keeping her hands busy. “I don’t believe the blood technique should have any lingering effects, but if you do notice anything strange, please report it to me.”

Giyū nods, a little stiffly, before he realizes that Shinobu can’t actually see it from this angle, but before he can reply properly, Sabito says, “We will,” for him.

With that, Sabito stands up from his chair, and Giyū hesitates for a moment, but then follows.

“Are you alright?” Sabito asks, once they’re out in the hallway. It catches Giyū a little off guard, and he blinks at Sabito. “It must be hard, seeing everyone who died in your timeline.”

“She died about a week ago,” Giyū replies. He’d barely had time to get used to the idea that Shinobu was dead, along with Tokitō and everyone else who died in the Dimensional Infinity Fortress, so it’s not that hard to adjust back to seeing them alive.

Kanae and Rengoku are harder, but he hadn’t been particularly close to them.

Makomo and Sabito are the hardest.

“Let’s drink.”

The announcement catches Giyū a little off guard, and his forehead creases in confusion as he looks over at Sabito.

“To celebrate all the people you get to see again, now,” Sabito says, shooting a smile at Giyū that does uncomfortable things to his insides. “I think I still have some good sake stashed away in my room somewhere.”

Which, consequently, is how Giyū finds himself back in Sabito’s room, watching as Sabito pours two cups of sake from a fancy-looking jar.

“Here,” Sabito says, handing Giyū a cup.

Giyū accepts it tentatively, eyeing the clear liquid inside. He wrinkles his nose slightly as he catches a whiff of it, unmistakably alcoholic and a little harsh, but he brings the cup up to his lips, parting his mouth just enough to let a little bit of the sake trickle inside

He chokes on it almost immediately.

“Careful!” Sabito huffs, reaching over to slap Giyū on the back. Giyū’s not sure it really helps the situation, but it does make him cough harder. “You’re supposed to drink it, not inhale it.”

Sabito pauses, narrowing his eyes at Giyū and studying him for a moment.

“Have you had sake before?” Sabito finally asks.

Giyū feels his cheeks heat, and he mutters, “No.”

After all, it’s not like he’s ever had anyone to drink with. He’d heard that some of the other pillars would get together after meetings occasionally, but no one had ever bothered to invite him, and he’d never felt comfortable asking outright. Drinking alone hadn’t seemed like a terribly good idea either, not after hearing about what lonely drinking tended to do to people, and instead he’d just never ended up partaking.

It hadn’t even occurred to him until Sabito had brought it up that the same wouldn’t hold true for Sabito.

“I can make tea, if you’d prefer,” Sabito says, breaking Giyū from his thoughts.

“This is fine,” Giyū replies, shaking his head slightly. He can’t say he’d liked the first taste very much, but he wants to try drinking with Sabito, at least once.

Sabito studies him for another moment, and Giyū starts to worry that Sabito’s going to give him tea anyway, but then Sabito stands up and says, “I think I have some plum wine somewhere. You’ll probably like it better.”

Giyū watches him dig around in the cupboard for another few moments, before he makes a triumphant noise, coming up with another bottle.

“Here, give me your cup,” Sabito says, as he sits down across from Giyū again, setting the new bottle down on the low table between them. Giyū hands over his cup and Sabito brings it up to his lips, downing the remaining contents in one easy gulp, and Giyū feels his cheeks heat as his eyes trace the curve of Sabito’s throat.

Now that Giyū’s cup is empty, Sabito refills it with plum wine and hands it back.

Giyū finds himself staring at it for a moment, trying not to think about how Sabito’s lips had just been touching the same rim, moments before.

“Try it,” Sabito urges, mistaking Giyū’s pause for hesitation. “I promise it tastes better than the sake.”

“If it tastes better, then why aren’t you drinking it?” Giyū mutters, peering across the table at Sabito.

“Because I want something stronger,” Sabito answers, before pressing his own cup to his lips.

He downs this mouthful of sake just as easily as the last, and Giyū focuses back on the plum wine, in an attempt to keep his eyes from straying to the bare skin of Sabito’s throat again. The wine certainly smells better than the sake, at least, and Giyū brings his cup up to his lips once more, this sip just as small and wary as the last one.

It’s still not the most pleasant thing he’s ever tasted, and he wrinkles his nose as he swallows, but it’s certainly better than the sake. He takes another small sip, smacking his lips as he tries to decide if he should go for a bigger mouthful next time, but he’s broken out his thoughts as he hears a soft, amused snort.

When he looks up, it’s to find Sabito looking at him, his gaze impossibly fond.

“Your face is already turning pink,” Sabito laughs, and Giyū wants to refute the claim, but he can feel the heat on his cheeks.

Of course, it’s less to do with the alcohol and more to do with Sabito gazing at him like this, soft and indulgent, but Giyū knows better than to admit to that.

They make idle conversation for a while – how long, Giyū isn’t sure. He makes his way through about a third of the bottle of plum wine, a pleasant warmth settling into his body and on his cheeks, the tension draining out of his body with every sip.

Of course, the alcohol only makes him even more aware of how beautiful Sabito is, the sharp cut of his face made more adult by the sake cup in his hand. Briefly, Giyū wonders if it has the same effect on him, but he dismisses the thought quickly, because although he and Sabito might be the same age, he probably just looks like a kid who’s been allowed a few sips of their parents’ drink, childish as he continues to scrunch up his face at the sweet and sour taste of the plum wine.

“Tell me more about your timeline,” Sabito says, a little abruptly.

Giyū blinks at him slowly and then asks, “What do you want to know?”

“I don’t know,” Sabito replies, propping an elbow up on the table and resting his cheek on his hand, leaning a little closer. “Anything. Everything.” He pauses. “Do you really not have a wife?”

The question catches Giyū off guard.

“I don’t,” Giyū answers, looking down into the depths of his cup.

“A lover?” Sabito asks, and Giyū feels his face heat even more.

“No,” Giyū mutters. It’s not as if he’s never thought about it before, noticed the curves of Kanroji’s thighs or the breadth of Rengoku’s shoulders, but it had only made his interactions with them even more awkward, and he’d done his best to stop noticing.

He’s broken out of his thoughts, though, as Sabito’s fingers grip his chin, forcing him to look up and into Sabito’s face, suddenly much closer than it was before.

“Your face is so handsome now,” Sabito murmurs, peering deep into Giyū’s eyes, and Giyū’s heart is beating so fast he’s sure it’s about to burst out of his chest. “Has there never been anyone you were interested in?”

Before he can stop himself, Giyū’s eyes dip to Sabito’s lips.

Apparently Sabito doesn’t miss it, because he leans in to press their mouths together.

Sabito’s mouth is warm and wet, and he kisses with the same confidence he does everything else with. Giyū can taste the sake on his tongue, and it’s still not a flavor he particularly likes, but he’s too occupied by the feeling of Sabito pressed up against him to really register it. Vaguely, he’s aware of the way his breath hitches as Sabito delves into his mouth, noses knocking and lips sticky with saliva, and on instinct, Giyū reaches up to grab ahold of the front of Sabito’s yukata.

In doing so, he drops his cup of plum wine, and it crashes down against the table, splattering liquid across the wood.

Apparently that’s all the wakeup call Sabito needs, because he jerks back, separating their mouths just as quickly as he’d pressed them together.

“I’m sorry,” he mutters, breaking eye contact and standing up abruptly.

“Sabito – ” Giyū says, his voice still embarrassingly breathy as he starts to push himself to his feet, but Sabito cuts him off.

“I need some air,” Sabito announces firmly, brushing past Giyū and towards the door.

Giyū can’t manage to do anything but watch him leave.

---

Over the course of a sleepless night, Giyū comes to two conclusions.

One, that Sabito kissed him because he wasn’t able to conceal his newfound attraction enough, and two, that it’s probably not a good idea for him to stay at the Water Pillar Estate.

There’s no need for him in the timeline, really. There’s already a Water Pillar, already someone to train Tanjirō, already other people to make a better plan of attack against the Upper Moons. At this point, he’s just taking up space, occupying the bedroom that used to be his but is now clearly Sabito’s, hints of Sabito in every corner and not even his worn, old futon to prove that in another timeline, it belonged to him.

Sabito never came back after leaving to get some air the previous night, and Giyū hates the lingering taste of sake on his tongue. He’d rather have never kissed Sabito, than to only get one pity kiss, borne out of guilt over the fact that everyone he was even vaguely acquainted with is dead.

Are you alright? Sabito’s voice echoes soft in his head. It must be hard, seeing everyone who died in your timeline.

Sabito’s always given too much to other people.

Giyū doesn’t have many things to pack. He borrows a spare uniform he finds in one of the storage closets, and for a moment he considers taking the yukata Sabito had lent him too, but in the end he leaves it folded neatly on the tatami, next to Sabito’s futon.

A bit more scrounging in the kitchen reveals some field rations, and he sticks those in his pack as well, before heading for the entryway. In fact, he’s in the middle of putting on his shoes when he hears the front door slide open, and a familiar voice say, “Giyū?”

Giyū looks up to find Sabito standing in the entryway, still wearing the same yukata from the previous night.

“Where are you going?” Sabito asks, his forehead creasing and his frown deepening.

For a moment, Giyū’s quiet, but then he says, “I’m not sure.”

“What do you mean you’re not sure?” Sabito demands, and he starts to take a step towards Giyū, but then stops himself.

“I’m not a member of this timeline’s Demon Slaying Corps,” Giyū replies simply. He finishes putting on his shoes and stands up, hefting his travel pack onto his shoulder. “There’s no reason for me to stay.” He pauses, but then adds, “I’ll stop by occasionally, if that’s alright.”

There are certainly worse ways for him to spend his days then roaming around killing whatever demon he comes across. It probably won’t be that different from what he was doing before anyway, besides the fact that he won’t have to write up mission reports, and this way he won’t have to watch as his relationship with Sabito slowly become more awkward, uncomfortable with the knowledge of his unreturned affections.

Just the occasional visit, to confirm that Sabito, Makomo, and Tanjirō are doing well.

It’ll be like retirement.

He tries to slip past Sabito, out the door, but Sabito catches his arm, holding so tight it’s actually a little painful. As soon as he realizes what he’s done, though, Sabito drops his hold.

“I – ” Sabito starts, and his voice wavers.

Giyū’s never heard Sabito’s voice do that before, or if he has, it was rare enough that it’s long since faded from his memory.

“I won’t do it again,” Sabito says, a little more firmly this time. “I won’t touch you.”

“I know,” Giyū replies.

Apparently it wasn’t the response Sabito was expecting, though, because he gives Giyū a confused look, deep creases marring his forehead. Giyū clenches his jaw and tries to move past Sabito again, but this time Sabito catches the corner of his sleeve, just enough to hold him back, but a clear avoidance of skin-on-skin contact, and Giyū wants nothing more than to flee.

“I’m sorry,” Sabito murmurs, his fingers twisting tight in the fabric of Giyū’s haori.

“It’s not your fault,” Giyū says, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“I know, but I – ” Sabito cuts himself off abruptly, and hesitates for a moment, before saying, “I was happy.”

It’s not what Giyū had thought Sabito would say, doesn’t make any sense for the conversation they’re having, and before he realizes what he’s doing, Giyū looks over to meet Sabito’s eyes.

The sight makes his breath catch in his throat. Sabito’s expression is more intense that he’s ever seen it, determined and hurt and something that Giyū can’t even begin to describe.

“When I heard you couldn’t go back to your own timeline,” Sabito says, staring Giyū right in the eye, his voice impressively steady, “I was happy.” But then it cracks a little, going to barely a whisper. “I couldn’t stand losing you twice, even if I knew you were still out there somewhere. Not if I’d never see you again.”

It feels almost like a confession, but not one Giyū could ever hope to interpret.

“Sorry,” Sabito mutters, dropping Giyū’s sleeve. He reaches up to rub at his face, but Giyū can’t see any tears. “Even if you only come to visit once or twice a year, that’s – I would appreciate it. It’ll be enough.”

For a moment, Giyū’s quiet, but then he says, “I’m happy too.”

Sabito blinks at him, clearly confused.

“I’m happy that I won’t have to go back to my own timeline. There’s nothing for me to go back to anyway,” Giyū clarifies. He takes in a deep breath, gathering whatever courage he can find, and looks up to meet Sabito’s eyes. “And here I have you.”

Sabito frowns and says, “Then why are you leaving?”

“I don’t want you to feel pressured just because I’ll be staying here,” Giyū answers. He’s proud that his voice doesn’t waver. “I would never want you to force yourself to reciprocate my feelings out of pity.”

“Giyū,” Sabito replies, and Giyū startles as he feels Sabito’s warm fingertips brush against his cheek, curling around to cup his jaw. “What do you mean by ‘feelings’?”

Giyū’s chest feels tight and he tries to look away but Sabito keeps a firm grip on his jaw, forcing him to maintain eye contact.

“My,” Giyū says, “romantic attraction. To you.”

He’s barely gotten the words out of his mouth before Sabito drags him in and smashes their mouths together.

It’s a different sort of kiss than the one last night, a little rougher, but less frantic, somehow, almost relieved. Instead of melting into it this time, though, Giyū finds himself conflicted, confused and disoriented and torn between giving into the hot pressure of Sabito’s mouth and pushing him away, telling him to stop forcing himself.

“I love you,” Sabito gasps as he breaks the kiss, and Giyū feels like ground has just caved underneath him.

Giyū stares.

“Last night,” Sabito says, leaning in to rest his forehead against Giyū’s, “instead of facing things like a man, I ran away. You were drunk and I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t taking advantage, so I decided it would be better to go sober up and talk about this in the morning, to avoid doing anything we’d regret. But then I saw you leaving – ”

Ah, Giyū thinks, a little absently, as he looks up into Sabito’s eyes. So there are even things Sabito’s afraid of.

“I’m not leaving,” Giyū replies softly.

It’s a promise.