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Of Smoke and Ashes

Chapter Text

Tanjirou’s father was a frail man.


There were a lot of things Tanjirou wasn’t supposed to do around him. He wasn’t supposed to jump into his father’s lap without warning. He wasn’t supposed to run around him on the tatami mats, because he might fall on him and hurt him. He wasn’t supposed to wake him when he was sleeping, not even if he’d been sleeping all day and Tanjirou wanted to play with him. 


But sometimes, supposed to’s went away for a while. Sometimes there were times where his father was less pale, was just a little less unsteady on his feet. When his father was able to come outside and play ball with him in the grass, or show him how to dance or chop wood, or take him into town. 


Sometimes, when his father was well, Tanjirou would be allowed to spend time helping his father take charcoal into the village, just the two of them. 


And so when the wind began to get cold and blow through the cracks in the door a bit more than normal, when his father woke up looking well rested and full of energy, when Tanjirou was still fairly young but big enough to help— he and his father went into town together to sell charcoal at the big market that was set up when groups of merchants made their way through the valley. 


Tanjirou’s mother had offered to go, to let his father enjoy his day of good health in the peace and quiet of their home, and not trudging a path through the thick leaves down to the base of the mountain pulling their heavy cart. 


But Tanjirou had been so excited to spend time with his Father and to be helpful to his family, that Tanjirou’s father had taken one look at him and refused the offer. 


“With the weather as beautiful as it is, it would be a shame to spend the day inside.” 


He had cheered, his mother had sighed— but had been unable to hide a smile of her own as Nezuko cheered along side him. 


He had waved goodbye as his father had begun pushing the coal loaded cart, Tanjirou safely nestled in a warm cocoon of blankets between baskets. Nezuko had begun crying as they left, gripping his mother’s dress and reaching for them, and he had tried not to feel bad. 


Because he was getting to spend time with his father, all by himself, without having to share with anyone and that was something Tanjirou loved more than almost anything else in the world. 


Warm and safe, with his father pointing out different types of trees and telling him which ones were good for burning, and which ones weren’t, Tanjirou couldn’t be happier. 



That was then. Now— now it's getting colder, it’s dark, and he’s supposed to be going home with his father. 


Supposed to be, but he isn’t . Because it's cold without his father's warmth beside him, it’s been dark since those two men shoved him into this wooden crate. No one has seemed to hear him calling out for help, no matter how much he cries, or how much noise there is outside. 


It’s been so long, and he hasn’t stopped calling out for help for even a second, and he feels like his throat is cracking open like the ice on the pond near their house. Everything feels sharp and jagged, but he doesn't stop calling out. 


He cries for his father. He cries for his mother. He cries for the nice lady who gave him mochi when he handed her back her change. He cries for the two men, begging them to let him go. 


He just wants to go home. He wants to snuggle into his father's haori, wants kisses from his mother, wants hugs from Nezuko, and to hold Takeo in his arms while he walks around on the tatami mats. 


He wants to go home, where the world smells clean and fresh, the smell of smoke and fire burning everything else away. 


This box doesn't smell like home. It smells like wood, under the slick sticky smell of something else, something he’s only ever smelled when he went with his mother to the market. He wishes he had a name for it, because maybe then it would be less scary. 


He smells sweat and cotton, outside the box. It’s the only reason he knows the other two are still outside. They don't answer when he calls out even though his voice, cracked and broken, is still loud enough to be heard. 


His teeth are rattling in his head, making his voice crack worse than before. He can’t feel his feet where they’re tucked up underneath him, and his mother has always said that if that ever happens, he needs to get help as fast as he can. 


He has always listened to his mother, always tried to be the most obedient son he could, but right now he is failing her. He can’t get help, not when no one will listen to him. 


He can only cry, as the numbness spreads up his legs into his uncomfortably folded legs, and hold onto the earring he accidentally pulled from his father's ear when one of the two men yanked him from his father's arms. 


His father, who cried and yelled and begged, as the two men ran away from him, Tanjirou struggling in an ironclad grip, reaching out for his father with the one arm that was free. 


Tanjirou hears that same crying, as he smells the world beyond the box dissolve into smoke and fire -not like home, thicker and darker than that but smoke and fire all the same- as his cries stop for the first time because of the smoke ticking his lungs and making him cough, as the space he’s cramped in begins to move, rumbling like the cart his father pulled him in as they went down the mountain this morning.


He hears his crying, and knows that it’s his father, crying as he’s taken away, and Tanjirou is so cold and numb and confused and his voice chooses that moment to break completely. 


He never gets to say goodbye. 


The last thing he hears before he’s lost forever, is his father begging them to take him instead. 


“As if such a frail, broken man could carry on this legacy with any form of dignity. We gave you the chance to part with this knowledge willingly, but now… well. Best hope your son learned your teachings well, Woodburner-San.”

Chapter Text

“No! You stupid brat!” 


Tanjirou pushed himself back against the wall of his box, trying his hardest not to breath any louder than necessary. 


“I told you we needed five sacks! Five— how hard is that to remember?!” 


There was a muffled response, the salty smell of tears and the bitter sting of fear cutting through even the sticky wood smell of his box. 


“Oh sure, blame it on Genji - can’t even take responsibility for your failure… yo Genji, you’ll never believe what this brat was telling me.” 


Rice and soy sauce and anger Genji-san was outside. 


If anything else was said, Tanjirou didn’t hear it, too busy covering both ears as much as he could, shakily whispering his mother’s lullaby to himself under his breath. 


Fear, anger, blood— 


A cry of pain made it through his self made barricade. Tanjirou sang louder. 


“Oi! Shut up in there!” A sharp blow nearly made the box topple over, and Tanjirou bit his lip as his skin started bleeding where it had hit the wood. 


But he made no more sound, not as anger and annoyance stood threateningly over his box for a moment longer, not as rice and soy sauce went back to where pain, blood, fear was still and crying on the ground— 


Crying, salt and smoke and ash, so much ash— 


He didn’t make a sound. Cramped and small as his box was, no matter how much his skin hurt where it brushed up against rough wood, no matter how many times he lost feeling in his feet and legs, no matter how hungry he got. 


Life was better, whenever the people outside forgot Tanjirou existed. 


Please, please leave me in my box, don’t take me out, don’t make me come out of my box— 




It had been at least four months since Tanjirou had last seen his family. 


He had given up counting the days when he’d woken up and realized that he didn't have enough fingers to count any higher. 


But the smells outside his box had been changing every day until he’d woken up shaking and shivering, the smell of light snowfall tickling his runny nose. 


So he’d know it had been a long time. There had only been a few leaves on the ground when they’d gone down the mountain. Tanjirou remembers, because his father had purposefully run over as many of them as he could, when Tanjirou had mentioned that they smelled better when you did that. 


Crisp and clear and light— the complete opposite of the heavy, thick scent of ash 


But he had only found out for sure last night. He hadn’t realized it had been so long, not when he was shut away in the dark, sometimes for what felt like days, not being let out for anything , as they moved on and on and on, as though running from something— 


But now it was New Year’s. 


He heard them, laughing and singing and yelling at each other. He had smelled candles and torches, warm food and sweet drinks. He all but felt the shift in the mood outside, the men happy for the first time since they’d taken him. 


Back home, dad would be starting the Kagura dance, the family gathering around to watch and wait for sunrise together— 


Last year, Tanjirou had tried to dance with his father, out of the way and out of the circle. His mother had allowed it, laughing lightly when he tripped on piles of snow, or fumbled over his feet. He had laughed too, as Nezuko and Taeko had shrieked their joy at his mistakes. He’d followed along, mistakes and all, for one run of the dance, before he’d fallen to the ground at his mother’s feet, completely spent. 


His father had danced on. 


Two days later, after his father had rested, he’d allowed Tanjirou to sit with him and taught him how to breath. 


So that you can dance for longer next year, without getting tired. 


He’d practiced and practiced and practiced, wanting nothing more than to be able to dance in the circle next to his father. Mother had mentioned making a second set of dance wear, just his size, if he managed it. 


Father is dancing without me. 


All that work, all that time , all the tears and pain and soreness from his practice, and now he had missed his chance. 


I worked so hard at it… why, why did they have to take me, why wouldn’t they let me stay with papa and mama and Nezuko and Takeo— 


There was no answer to his unspoken question. Outside, the party was winding down, the yelling getting more and more slurred and confused. His nose stung from the cold, and the bitter scent of sour grapes. He buried his face in his haori, both of his stiff hands holding tightly to the smooth wood of his father’s earring. 


I miss you— Are you looking for me? Have you forgotten about me? Are you okay dancing with only one earring? I didn’t mean to take it from you… 


He was glad he had though. Even if it was his father’s, and he shouldn’t have grabbed it without asking— and had probably hurt him when he had— Tanjirou was glad to have it. 


“I hope father isn’t angry with me.” He whispered to the soft wood nestled in his hands. 


The painted sun did not answer, but as a flicker of flame outside brightened the streaks of red, he felt a little lighter. 



Zentisu was a useless child. 


Mother had always said so, even if she thought he couldn’t hear her. Father tried to tell her to “ keep your opinions to yourself” but it didn’t make any difference. 


Even if it did, he could still hear the disappointment in her heart every time he came into view. 


Father… Father would tell him different, would tell him he was special , was useful— 


Right before he would ask Zenitsu to “help me with this customer, Zenitsu, it will be good practice .” 


Customers made Zenitsu feel sick inside. They were loud, even when they weren’t talking, their hearts saying things that Zenitsu didn’t understand, didn’t want to understand, hard things that he didn’t want to hear or understand, and he couldn’t understand why his father did—


He tried to avoid helping customers. Even if his father had started correcting his mother less and less when she declared him useless. 


He wasn’t sure she was wrong though. He’d tried to be helpful, tried to be a good son, but the shop his father ran was so loud and the new sewing machines at Mother’s work were even louder , and Zenitsu hated it. He had tried to “ just get used to is, Zenitsu” , over and over again only to run out crying when the world seemed to press in on him and he stopped being able to think and his ears were going to bleed make it stop mom— 


So he knew he was useless. The workers in town might ruffle his hair when he ran things places for them, or picked up bundles to bring them inside the store, the ladies at the booths might coo over him, hearts alight with joy every time he came to buy lunch for his father, but it made no difference. 


Anyone could do those things. I’m not important, and I’m not helpful. I’m useless. 


There was nothing Agatsuma Zenitsu could do, that someone else in the world couldn't do better. 


Or at least, that’s what he thought, right up until there was a boy in a box, and no one else seemed to notice. 

He hadn’t noticed right away either. 


After all, merchants came into town all the time. They brought goods, materials, food and more in giant wagons or tiny carts and hauled away similar but different goods in those same carts. 


So he hadn’t really noticed the boy - littler than him, his heartbeat was light and soft, like the boy who lived down the road- who was sitting inside one of the covered wagons that parked outside of the main store. 


No, Zentisu hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, not until his father had told him to help the men unload their wares, and he’d seen the back of the wagon for the first time. 


There’s no one here… I can hear him, but I can't see him. Is he hiding? 


He wouldn’t have blamed him. Zenitsu wanted to hide from the world all the time. Not that he’d be able to, even animals were loud , but he wanted to. 


But then the wagon had gotten emptier and emptier, and no boy had appeared. 


“Do you have any kids?” 


Asking the question was hard, these men were scary and they had mean, angry sounds hiding behind their polite faces, but he really wanted to know. The boy sounded so sad , and hurt, and Zenitsu might be useless, but he wasn’t heartless. 


The man’s sound went hard at the same time his face did, and he couldn’t stop himself from flinching back. 


“No. There aren’t any kids in this company. Don’t mention it again.” 


And then the man had glared at him, demanding that he comply, and Zentisu could only nod shakily, even as inside his stomach had begun to churn. 


No kids? But he’s right there, and he’s so sad and lonely and he’s crying out inside but no one is helping him, how could you say he’s not there— 


But then, maybe they didn’t know the boy was there. Maybe he was a stowaway, hiding out amongst the crates, trying to get home… or get away. 


Maybe he needs help. 


Zenistu didn’t think he could help him though. He was useless, everyone in his family said so. But then, the man had told him not to talk about… anything he’d asked. 


Why would he tell me to do that? 


He didn’t know. He was only 6, he didn’t understand adult things like the things his parents talked about when they thought he couldn’t hear them. But he knew something was wrong. He also knew that if he wanted his parents to believe him, he needed to tell them more than “ I had a bad feeling”. 


Without allowing himself to give it any more thought, he climbed into the wagon.



His name was Tanjirou. 


He also cried when Zenitsu repeated it back to him. 


“No one has called me that since they took me away from papa…” the words were quiet, choked off in a way he knew meant tears. 


He probably wasn’t supposed to hear them. But he had, and— 


“They took you from your dad?!” 


He knew better than to shout it. He did , Mother was always telling him he was “too loud Zenitsu, please lower your volume” , but this wasn’t something that was safe to shout. 


Even if he really wanted to. Even if he thought it might be a good idea. Even if it would bring people running, make them realize what Zenitsu had, and maybe some of them would help. 


It was the maybe that stopped him. Because Tanjirou didn’t need a maybe


If Zenitsu told, and no one helped, Tanjirou would be the one that got in trouble. He couldn’t let that happen. Even if he was useless. 


Am I though? No one else has noticed that Tanjirou is locked in a crate. No one else is helping him. He’s crying, just because I called him by his name. 


“I just want to go home.” Tanjirou cried, voice louder to Zenitsu’s ears, but still so soft that he doubted anyone else would be able to hear it. Everything about Tanjirou was quiet. Like he was trying to hide. “Please, please I wanna go home.” 


Zenitsu had always been a useless child. He couldn’t do the things his parents asked of him. He was too scared to really help people around town beyond simple tasks. He couldn’t do much that wasn’t met with a frown. 


But Zenitsu could do this. He could sit, and tell Tanjirou that it was going to be okay, that he would get help, “I’ll tell someone and come right back okay? I promise, I‘ll be right back.” 


It hurt him, inside somewhere, to hear Tanijour’s cries get louder as he ran to the guard station. It hurt, but he ran anyway. 


I’ll help you Tanjirou-chan, I promise, you’ll be home soon!



He told them. 


Talking to the guards through his crying and shaking had been hard. It had been hard, but he’d done it anyway, and by the time he’d gotten them to understand, all the guards in earshot had somber looks on their faces. 


“We’ll check it out, okay kid? You go run back home. We don't need any more missing kids.” 


Which was true , but Zenitsu had promised to come back. 


Maybe if they don't see me, it’ll be okay. 


They hadn’t seen him, but that didn’t mean he didn’t see them. 


That guy told. He told them that someone knew, and told them to leave. Why?!


He thought the guards were supposed to be the good guys. That the guards were supposed to help. He had trusted them with Tanjirou, after he’d promised the other boy he’d help him, and then that guy went and— 




There wasn’t time to run back into the wagon. If he got in now, it might leave while he was still inside. They might see him. There wasn’t time to tell Tanjirou that he was sorry, that he had failed, that he’d tried really hard honest— 


There wasn’t time for that, but there was time for something


Zenitsu had always carried around paper, even from a young age. His father needed it constantly, and holding onto some for him was something even Zenitsu could do. 


Der Tanjiro 

I‘m sory I mesed up. 

I will mak shur you go houme. 

Zenitsu AgatSuma

The crumpled note wasn’t perfect. Zenitsu couldn’t write as good as he wanted to yet, even with all the practice he had at the store. But he had to try. 


He never stopped to consider, whether or not Tanjirou would be able to read it. 


Throwing the note into the wagon as it passed was hard, and he nearly cheered when he saw it land inside. With any luck, Tanjirou would find it before one of those other guys did. 


“I‘ll keep trying Tanjirou.” He whispered as the wagon rumbled out of town, as a flurry of guards tried to chase after it. “ I promise, I’ll get you home.” 



Two weeks later, the swordsmen came to town. 


“I don’t want you talking to them Zenitsu, do you understand?” 


The swordsmen were frowning and scary looking, so he’d nodded to his mother, and carried the next box towards the shelves. 


That promise had lasted less than a day. 


He’d been running errands for the shopkeeper next door, taking out a bag of something that smelled gross, when he’d heard one of the guards talking to someone he didn’t recognize. 


His heart beat is so slow—


“Hmm, I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything about any kidnappings in this area. I wish you luck finding them though. What an awful thing to do to a kid.” 


That’s the guy—!


He’d dropped the bag without a second thought before rushing out to hit the guard where it hurt. He was the one who’d ratted him out, who’d tattled, who’d lied - twice !- once when he told Zenitsu he’d help Tanjirou, and again when Zenitsu tried to tell everyone what he did, that it was his fault Tanjirou was still stuck in that awful crate. 


“Woah, hey kid—!” 


Strong arms pulled him up and away from the groaning form on the ground. He swiped another kick out as he passed, and the guard had to hide his flinch. 


Serves him right— as Mother would say. 


Zenitsu might be small as well as useless, but he was just the right height to punch this guy right in the— 


“Kid, you can’t just go attacking city guards!”


Slow, slow and slow— why is his heart beat still so slow? It’s weird. Nothing like the guard, who’s heart beat had sped up even more, now that he had seen Zenitsu. He knew that Zenitsu knew, and he had avoided him since telling everyone that Zenitsu was the liar. 


“It’s all his fault!” The guy finally stopped shaking him, even as the guard tried and failed to pull himself back up. 


He knew punching him between the legs was a good idea. 


“He’s lying to you , like he lied to everyone and I told him, I told all of them and they didn’t fix it! It’s all their fault, I told them—“ 


The guard was crawling away now, or trying to. He didn’t get far before a third man pulled him up from the ground, with one arm pulled tight behind his back. 


His heart is slow too… 


“What did you tell him kid?” 


Only… that guy looked kinda familiar didn’t he? He’d seen him before, but not a lot, so he had to be new— 


“Kid? Kid what did you tell them? What did you see?” 


These guys— these guys were the swordsmen, the ones Mother didn’t want him to talk to, the ones even Father wanted him to stay away from. 


And one of them was still holding him. 


Struggling was more than useless - useless, fruitless Agatsuma, couldn’t even climb a tree- but he tried anyway. It did nothing, just like he’d expected, but the swordsman did pull him around to face him. 


He’d not frowning anymore.


“Kid— Kid listen! Please, I don’t know what people are saying about us, but we’re trying to help!” 


Help— Tanjirou needed help. I needed help, and the guards lied to me—


“—kidnappings in this area— 

what an awful thing to do to a kid.” 


The swordsman grunted in surprise as Zenitsu grabbed at his shirt, but once he met Zenitsu’s eyes, he didn’t seem to blink. 


He’s listening to me. 


Adults didn’t listen to Zenitsu. Not really. Not the way Zenitsu listened, the way he thought everyone should listen. 


He’s waiting. 


Like everything Zenitsu was about to say was important. Like it mattered. Like it would be the absolute truth, just because Zenitsu said it was. 


“Are you guys looking for Tanjirou?” 


There was an energy in the air that seemed to be singing. Zenitsu could almost hear it , in the swordsman’s sudden stillness, in the guard’s breath catching, in the tightening of muscles still holding him down— 


“You guys are trying to find him, right!? Did his dad send you? Are you here to help him!?” 


Please you have to help him, you have to save him—


“You talked to him. You didn’t just see him, you talked to him —“ the voice came from the swordsman holding back the guard, but when he turned to look at them, the man holding him spoke up again. 


“We are looking for Tanjirou. We’ve been looking for him for a long time. His family misses him terribly. Do you know where he is?” 


Everything seemed to be getting louder. The swordsman's heart was beating loudly -fast, it’s beating fast now- against his own, and the guard’s breathing was getting more and more messy the longer Zenitsu listened. 


Everything seemed to drop when he shook his head. 


“I don’t know where he is.” He told them, trying to ignore the pit that formed in his stomach at their sudden disappointment. “But—“ 


And then the disappointment was completely gone. Banished by an even more sudden, desperate hope— 


“But— I know where he was. And I know who took him. Would that help?” 


There was a light, breaking over their hearts. He could hear it, even as the guard’s sunk into a deep, dark hole. He didn’t know what they were feeling, couldn’t describe it with words, but he thought the light meant they were happy. 


Happy. Because Zenitsu knew where they could look to find Tanjirou. Because he had spoken up, even if Mother had told him not to. 


“Kid, anything you could tell us would mean the world to him and his family. We just want to get him home. If you help us, you’ll be his hero.” 


Hero— him? He would be Tanjirou’s hero? 


I just wanna go home— 


And maybe… just maybe, Zenitsu wasn’t so useless after all. 

Chapter Text


There was a world outside of his box. 


He knew this. He hated this. 


The world outside was mean, scary, and evil. It would chew him up, spit him back out, and go in for another bite when it decided it wasn’t done with him. 


That’s what Genji-san would say, whenever he took Hiyuu out of the box and make him carry grain sacks twice his size, punishing him whenever he tripped. 


He would scold him, yell at him for being ungrateful, tell him that he was lucky Genji-san even bothered protecting him at all. Would glare at him and call him a weak little boy, with no training and no means of survival, and no way to make it on his own. 


Genji-san didn’t protect him. He scared him. He hurt him, even when he was doing his best. Nothing was good enough for Genji-san. 


His box though, was safe. Nothing would get him through its wooden walls, and as long as he stayed there, and didn’t come out, nothing would hurt him. 


The world has abandoned you , Kiyoshi-san would tell him. It had left him alone, deserted him, with no one to turn to. No one but Kiyoshi-san. Because, Kiyoshi-san told him, I will never hurt you, Isamu-chan. I want to help you be strong. 


Kiyoshi-san hadn’t ever hurt him, that much was true. And he did train him to be strong. 


Whenever Kiyoshi-san took Isamu out of the box, they trained. Kiyoshi-san taught him how to use blades, taught him to run, taught him to watch people to know how they’d move, taught him how to fight while dancing—


At training, Kiyoshi-san would tell him to breathe. He would sit, and watch him, and when he didn’t breathe the way Kiyoshi-san wanted, Kiyoshi-san would sigh and smell disappointed, before walking away. And he would follow, because he wasn’t allowed to be outside on his own. He wasn’t safe by himself, because the outside world was mean and scary and would chew him up and spit him out and bite him again and had abandoned him with no one to turn to but Kiyoshi-san. 


He would never find Kiyoshi-san after he walked away. But Genji-san would always find him


Hiyuu was always glad to go back to his box after Genji-san found him wandering the camp alone. 


On Good Days though, on the days that he did breathe the way Kiyoshi-san wanted, Kiyoshi-san would smile at him. 


Would smile, and tell Isamu what a good boy he was. That Kiyoshi-san was proud of him , and would Isamu like to eat dinner with him tonight? They could smoke fish on the grill, and he could have seconds if he was still hungry, and it’s still cold at night, Isamu-chan would you like to take a blanket with you to bed? 


He tried really hard at training, even if he didn’t like it. When he managed two Good Days in a row, Kiyoshi-san would pick him up, and hold him as they walked to dinner. 


He liked Good Days. 


He wasn’t sure he liked Kiyoshi-san. 


Because his name wasn’t Isamu. It wasn’t Hiyuu, or Junpei, or Nozomi, or Yuuta— no matter how many times Genji-san or the cooks or the guards or Taicho called him that. 


My name— 


But outside the box, that was who he was. Different names for different people, and different rules for every name. 


Hiyuu was weak. He was ungrateful and lucky, and he was to stand there and take whatever Genji-san threw at him. 


Junpei was quiet. He wasn’t to talk, wasn’t to make a sound, even when asked a question. These rules were the worst to break, because if he did, then he would not eat, and if he didn’t eat than Isamu would have a Bad Day, and Bad Days were the worst thing. 


It was confusing. It was hard. It changed without warning. Names, rules, faces— nothing stayed the same. 


Nothing but his box. Inside his box, he was safe. 


Because inside his box he was Tanjirou. Inside his box, he remembered why he hated Genji-san, and Kiyoshi-san, and the cooks, and the guards, and Taicho. 


Inside his box was a small painted sun, checkered fabric, and a crumpled up paper that smelled like friendship and hope


Inside his box, he was safe. 




From the outside, the little camp had looked almost peaceful. 


Lies, all of it. 


If you didn’t know any better the covered wagons, portable fire pits, and wandering figures would have looked just like any other comfortable, welcoming merchant camp. 


He knew better. He did, and it disgusted him. Demons were honest enough to show their true colors. Demons had the decency to appear as the monsters they were. 


From a distance, the people had looked normal. Boring, ordinary merchants who were taking a break from their long day of traveling. 


These guys though— these guys were worse than demons. They didn’t even have to decency to do that. 


If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t have known what kind of monsters these men really were. 


Their list of crimes was long. Far, far longer than what had brought Kumeno’s group here. Thievery, assault, arson, drug dealing, human trafficking, murder— they’d done it all, and while they hadn’t been punished for it yet, the government had been trying to ferret them out for over three years. To no success. 


Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, their most recent crime had added to the list. 


Kidnapping. Specifically, kidnapping of a minor. 


And while the government still didn’t have any good means of pinning them down, they’d made the very poor choice to take one kid that had more than the law on his side. 


Kumeno didn’t know where this family had been hiding, with a power like that in their bloodline. He didn’t know how they’d managed to escape notice, either from them or from him, for so long but it didn’t matter. 


Kamado Tanjurou had been a desperate, angry man when he’d shown up at the headquarters no one was supposed to know about. Kumeno didn’t need to be a pillar to know that. He was pretty sure everyone in the corps had heard about it by now. 


You will return my son to me or I will burn this organization to the ground, no matter the consequences. 


There had been swords drawn and angry, panicked words on both sides before understanding had been reached. 


In a group like ours, we can’t always afford to be selective. But while we may not be recognized by the government, we still do our best to uphold those basic laws they fight for. Those who do not or will not follow them… have no place among us. Not anymore. 


Kumeno knew that not every Demon Slayer accepted into the corps was a good person. They couldn’t be, not with the events that usually preceded people finding out about them in the first place. But he also knew that even the worst Demon Slayer had a certain level of humanity they were expected to uphold. 


After all, what was the point of fighting off demons, if those fighting them were no better then monsters themselves? 


The men before him were monsters. They had proven that the moment they had taken a five year old boy captive, just because his father wouldn’t share a secret breathing style with them. 


Tanjurou believes they mean to force his son to fight. The boy knows the very basics of the style, but not enough to truly protect himself. They would have destroyed him. 


Finding them had not been easy, but it had been worth it. 


“Return Kamado Tanjirou, and we may spare your lives. Resist, and we will cut down every last one of you.” 


The threat went completely ignored, and Kumeno held back a sigh as he cut down yet another incompetent fighter. The others were fighting the exiled demon slayers farther in, leaving Kumeno to keep the perimeter. 


He wasn’t forced to kill anyone yet, but he knew he wouldn’t hesitate if it came down to it. 


He would not let them escape with the Kamado boy again. 


This time, we will be sure to kill those who are not worthy of their blades. 



Everything was on fire. 


Most of the time, when he picked one of these wooden packs to… borrow things from, sneaking around was more like trying to move through the underbrush when something really wanted to eat him. 


Now though, it was like picking berries from a bush. The smoke made it easy to move unseen, even with the crazy idiots going at each other where the fire was burning hottest. 


Not that diving under the wooden pack beasts and darting around flying blades and blood was easy— he’d seen more people die today than he thought he ever had before in his life. But as such a small target, he was hardly the first thing on the fighters radar. 


Which worked just fine for him. If these guys couldn’t stop him from taking their loot, then they didn’t deserve it anyway. 


It wasn’t true in reverse, but what small beast didn’t mark the bigger threats when they ran through the forest? 


Survival of the fittest was the law of the wild. He didn’t make the rules, but he knew how to follow them. 


He would make it. He always had and he always would. That was his goal. Survival. 


Packs of wooden travel beasts were easy enough to figure out, once you spent enough time around them. They were kinda like magpie nests, cluttered and full, but organized in their own way. You just had to know how to look at them. He grabbed what he needed, what he wanted, and what looked interesting, until he found it. 


That one. That box is the most important. 


He’d already grabbed way more than he usually did. The bag over his shoulder was heavy — not that he was complaining! He didn’t complain! This weight was nothing!


Food, blades, furs, those weird flat things everyone keeps around for some reason that I have to figure out— 


But with all that weight, he wasn’t sure how to carry this box with him. 


And the big box before him that was definitely important. 


It was also making noise. 


With the amount of smells going on around him, he didn’t bother trying to sniff at it. Instead, he got closer, pressing both hands up against the wood and breathed. 


There’s something alive in there. 


Something scared as a rabbit with a wolf on its tail. He’d never heard a heart beat that fast before for anything else. It even kinda sounded like a rabbit, after the wolf had got it, but before it was eaten. 


Fresh meat? But it's doesn’t… it not an animal?  


Deciding to worry about what it was later, he looked for a way to open it. If he couldn’t carry the box with him, he could at least take whatever was inside. The box was nailed shut though, the way all packs seemed to do, which he would normally fix with the right sized rock… 


But that might kill the animal inside. 


Hmmm… how do these guys normally open it? 


The weird tool hanging from the side of it looked promising, but he didn’t know the first thing about using it. Around him, he could hear the fight was moving closer and closer to the pack beast he was crouched in, and he wanted what was in this box. 


How hard can it be? 


The answer was, not hard. Once he figured out which end to use, and how it could slide under the nails holding the lid down, getting the top off was easy. 


If only the contents hadn’t been so disappointing. 


Not meat. Not meat he would eat anyway. People weren’t like animals, you weren’t supposed to eat them. 


And the rabbit like kid before him was definitely a person and not an animal. Which meant no eating. 


Why is there a kid in a box? 


Right outside, two swords clashed together, and Rabbit kid flinched so hard he hit his head on the edge of the wooden box. It looked like it should have hurt, but Rabbit kid didn’t even flinch. 


Why didn’t he flinch? 


Rabbit kid must have been stronger than he looked. Most human kids he ran into were wimps. This was the first one he’d seen that acted… more like him. 


I thought no one was like me. I thought I was one of a kind. This is… cool! 


This box was important. Obviously these people knew how cool kids like them really were, and they wanted to keep this one all to themselves. 


Hehehehehe, to bad they hadn’t counted on Hashibira Inosuke coming and calling dibs. 


Guys like you don’t deserve a kid this cool— so I’ll just have to take him off your hands. He’ll be better off with me anyway, with all this fighting. Whatever that’s all about anyway. 


He wondered if the kid had a name. 



Chapter Text



In Tanjirou’s dreams, his father finds him. 


Even in his dreams, he knows this is impossible. His father can hardly breathe on bad days, let alone follow Tanjirou all over the world. 


But in his dreams, this doesn't matter. In his dreams, his father takes him from his box and into his arms, and Tanjirou goes home. 


In his dreams, his family is nothing special. He is nothing special. He never had anything the men in black clothes wanted, and his father is just his father. 


In his nightmares , he sees fire and his father’s frantic and worried face, black uniforms that are dull and fading, and smells anger desperation fear fire smoke ashes— 


Now, running past the burning remains of yet another life he’s lived, he wishes he knew when his dreams and his nightmares tried to become one. He wishes they hadn’t. Or that if they had to, that he’d been able to pick how


Because it's not his father that took him from his box and away from the men in black faded uniforms. He’s not even sure if the pig faced child is even human, and hadn’t asked. 


He doesn’t know what name he’s supposed to carry after leaving the safety of his box— doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t know what the pig child wants, doesn’t know how to obey when he doesn’t know the new rules— 


In his nightmare-dream, the world is burning. In it, the uniformed men are fighting each other , and he can smell blood and pain and fear and anger even over the overpowering and head spinning smell of smoke-fire-ashes


The smell makes him sick, makes him want to throw up, makes him want to cry, but he can’t do any of those things because the Pig Boy is still pulling him by his hand, dragging him through the fire and fighting, under wagons and around still shapes, and he doesn’t know if crying is allowed or not, but he really wants to. 


He doesn't know why the men are fighting. He didn’t think there were so many of them, but he’s never did see much of the camp, even when Isamu is out practicing or eating or sitting with Kiyoshi-san. 


He doesn’t wonder if Kiyoshi-san or Genjii-san are fighting. He doesn’t wonder if they are any of the still forms he passes. 


He doesn’t think of them at all. 


He’s too scared to think, too scared to breathe, too scared to do anything other than run and hold onto the pig faced spirit-child that is taking him away. In Mother’s stories, spirits always want something from you, always ask for more than they should, but he doesn’t care. 


The Pig spirit boy shoves a bundle at him, and he takes it without question. The sword handles dig into his shoulder, and it's hard to run with the sheaths hitting him in the knees, but he doesn’t dare put them down. The Pig spirit boy has let go of his hand, and he can't afford to lose him. 


There’s fire and smoke, and someone calling out a name, over and over again, though he can’t make out what it is.  He’s running, trying his best to keep up, and the other is helping him, stopping every so often to make sure he’s still following. It makes something inside him feel warm, and he wonders how the fire got inside him when he’s been so careful not to touch it— 


As they leave the fire and fighting behind, he takes one last look back at the men that stole him from his father's arms, took him from his family, and taught him to be afraid of the world. 


Ahead of him, the pig boy is yelling at him to “come on, this way!” 


He follows, and doesn’t look back again. 



The fighting slowly comes to an end. The sheer numbers of bandits had been a pain to deal with, but their skills were subpar at best. It was a far cry from even the easiest demon. At least humans didn’t get back up after you struck them with a nonfatal blow. 


In the end, he hadn’t had to kill anyone. 


He didn’t consider this a good thing. Mostly because he really wants to kill something right now. 


“What do you mean, ‘You can’t find him anywhere?’ He has to be here somewhere!” 


The kakushi was bowing low, not meeting his eyes, and they flinched at the poorly concealed anger in his tone.


It’s not their fault. He reminded himself firmly. This place is a mess after all. 


“I’m sorry, that was unnecessary. Please, continue your search into the surrounding area. He might have run off to avoid the fighting.” Though if that was the case… well he’d need to work on his perception. Then again he’d been watching the perimeter for attacking hostiles, not terrified children. 


The other bowed again, before taking off, leaving him alone in the midst of unconscious criminals. The rest of his squad was working to secure those that would face the Demon Corps justice at last, and the rest were being left for the police to find once they’d departed. 


No injuries, no accidental kills, and no bystanders to appease. The perfect ending… as soon as they could find what they’d come for.  


No point standing around doing nothing then. 


And the camp site might have been burned and damaged, but it was intact enough that a brusque questioning of their new prisoners gave him solid directions to the last known location of Kamado Tanjirou, yes you know who I’m talking about, don’t pretend you don't know his name. 


That several of them really hadn’t, even if they had recognized the description, was nothing short of alarming. 


We need to get this kid home, before something else happens to him. 


By the time he’d found the wagon and the broken box that was far too small to show the signs of being inhabited he’d picked out, by the time the kakushi came back with nothing new to report, he knew it was too late for that. 


Amidst the smoke, blood, and crumbling remains of a terrible situation, there was no sign of Kamado Tanjirou to be found, other than two small sets of footprints that lead into the trees beyond, and no one on his team capable of tracking them. 


His father is going to kill me. 


Wait, two sets? 



Inosuke couldn’t believe he’d been so wrong. 


Before him, the boy he’d rescued -Kampachirou? Monjirou? Probably Monjirou- was puking up everything he’d eaten for the past week. 


“Why would you think that was good to eat?!” He demanded. He’d swiped the rest of the bad berries from Monjirou after he’d recognized them for what they were, but he’d been too late to stop the other from eating enough to make him sick to his stomach. 


Still heaving, the other didn’t answer. 


He snorted through his mask, leaving Monjirou to his business as he worked on disposing of the poisonous little jerks that had wrecked his new partner so badly. By the time he was done Monjirou had finally pulled himself together long enough to look up at him. 


“Not everything that looks like food is actually food, Monjirou.” He watched the others face fall even more, green tinged skin turning pale as the other looked down away from him. 


So he’d learned that his new partner was useless out here. That was… disappointing in a way, but in another it made his heart beat faster. 


I can teach him. I can teach him everything I know, and he’ll listen to it all. 


He was— he was… excited? Angry? Worried? 


He didn’t know, but that didn’t matter. He was going to teach...Monjirou? No,  Kampachirou, how to live successfully in the wild. He was going to make him strong. 


Especially since Kampachirou wasn’t… completely useless. He’d known what half of the things in the bag were, when Inosuke hadn’t had a clue. Like the flat thin things he was finally able to learn was paper and it was used for writing things and he didn’t know what that meant but it was amazing. 


I wonder what else he knows that I don’t. 


“So since you’re better Kampachirou, let’s show you what good food really looks like!” The other flinched as he grabbed his hand, which he ignored because it turned out he did that a lot , and pulled him to his feet before passing the bag to him. 


He picked up his own bundle, the one with the extra long knives that… Dango? Yeah Dango had tripped over, on their way away from the pack of wooden animals. 


Wait, what if they have a name too!? 


“Oi, Dango!” No response, but the other was looking at him at least. “Those wooden pack animals, the ones I saved you from, do they have a name?” 


Dango - that was his name right? Or no, it was something else… whatever- was blinking at him. It was fast, quick little flutters that made him look like the rabbit Inosuke had mistake him for when he’d found him. 


I wish he’d stop that. He’s not some stupid prey animal, he’s my partner now! 


“... the... wagons?”


What? Oh, Tan— Tantotoro had answered his question. 


“Wagons... huh? Interesting. Interesting. I see, I see. Lots of things have names, huh? That’s... awesome. That’s the awesomest.” 


Tantotoro didn’t smile, but he stopped blinking as fast. He felt a bit warmer and lighter, seeing the lightness in his new partners eyes. 


Did I do that? … huh. 


“Ano— most things have names?” Tantotoro was talking to him! Without Inosuke asking him anything! He’d never done that before! 


Inosuke was pretty good at this teaching thing, apparently. 


“Really?! Like what?! Tell me, tell me!” Tan— no that was wrong wasn’t it... Kanko… Kampachirou?… maybe?— didn’t flinch, this time even if his eyes still held that sliver of fear that made Inosuke feel sick inside. 


“... well. Well um, you’re holding swords?” Swords? The extra long knives? They were called swords? “And um, this is called a haori?” 


Swords, haori, zori, hair tie— the list went on and on. As Kampachirou - that wasn’t his name, he’d tried that one already- went on to start renaming the trees, he revised his previous declaration of his abilities. 


If answers those questions than maybe… 


“You’re pretty handy to have around...what was your name again? I forgot.” 



I don’t know what he wants from me. 


The pig boy, who was human as it turned out - Inosuke. His name is Inosuke- had questions. Lots of questions. 


He also had names. So many names, that changed so quickly it was impossible to keep track of them all. 


None of them stayed the same. Sometimes they would repeat, but never with the same rules. 


Kampachirou was useless, but also useful?


Monjirou didn’t know anything about plants, but he knew words that Inosuke-san wanted to know and would ask about constantly. 


I don’t know what the rules are. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do… 


Inosuke-san kept saying they were partners, but he didn’t think that could be true. He called him by so many different names, it was obvious who was actually in charge. If only he could figure out what he really wanted. 


Right up until Inosuke asked him what his name was. 


Why would you ask me that? Is this a trick? What does he want from me?


He gripped tightly to his father's earring, to the slip of paper that no longer smelled like hope and friendship , and asked Inosuke what name he was supposed to have right now. 


That wasn’t the answer Inosuke wanted. Not when he started wondering out loud why Monjirou didn’t even know his own name. 


Am I allowed to cry? 


He missed his box. He wanted to go back to being Tanjirou again. He hadn’t been able to be Tanjirou since Inosuke had saved him. 


Was I saved? Is this better? 


But Inosuke was nice, most of the time. He acted a lot like the boy who sometimes tried to play with Tanjirou, whenever his father had taken him into town. 


Is he just a kid? Just a kid like me? Or is he like them?


If he was just a kid, did that mean he could be Tanjirou again? That he could go home? If he was just a kid then— 


“What was your name again? I forgot— I forgot…” 


—There was only one way to know. 


When Inosuke asked him what he wanted to do, the next morning when they rolled out from under the bush that had acted as their bed, he had only one answer to give. 


“I want to go home.”