She wakes up alone, to a lantern’s low glow in the corner of the room.
Her mouth feels stiff, the rest of her unused. When she finally pulls herself up, she hears the sharp crinkle of paper at her side. She reaches down a hand and it comes back with a sheet steeped with dark stains, nicks of lines and bands that she feels as if she should know. Her name, then the memory of his, become suddenly coherent with some hidden mechanism in her mind awakening, peeled back. Unearthed from the soft timbre of her brother's voice:
If you have awakened and are reading this, I hope you have slept well. Your big brother is trying to become a Demon Slayer, so I won't be able to be with you for a little while. If you feel lonely, Urokodaki-san will be in the next room. He’s the man in blue who cooks delicious soup and carves a lot of amazing things out of wood! Maybe you can watch him if he lets you. I've tried to no avail. Anyway, I'll be back soon! I'll always be thinking of you.
Nezuko glances over the rice paper again, studying the lilt to her brother’s characters, before folding it back into her kimono. She crawls out of the cover of her futon and props open the door.
The old man there, hunched by the fire, must be the one her brother writes of. Upon noticing her with the slightest cant of his mask, he says, "You have been asleep for two years, child,” and beckons her closer. A pair of steady hands pass along her forehead and cheeks, and faintly she thinks that this has happened before, in her sleep. This light touch has not changed. She closes her eyes, warmed by the fire, by the old man who seems to smile behind his tengu mask.
“He will come back,” Urokodaki says. His hand smooths over her forehead one last time. “Let us wait."
She finds a journal on the desk near the door, carefully maintained, its pages written and dried with what she recognizes as her brother's handwriting. Slips of paper aged with the years, the months and days, countlessly smoothed over by the callouses from his fingers. When she drags it out into the open and lies it down on the mats so that the fire can catch it in its brighter shadows, Urokodaki doesn’t pause in his woodworking, chipping into the flames. Only when he adds another log to the pit and the charcoals spit sparks into the air does he carefully nudge the journal away.
All I did was fall today. The ground is hard and it always hurts, but Urokodaki-san gave me an ointment afterwards. He says learning how to fall is key. I will learn everything else after.
We ran out of the ointment. I climbed around the steepest slopes of the mountain today to get the right herbs for a new batch. Then I swung my sword 1500 times. Urokodaki-san really is trying to kill me.
Actually, how old is he? He’s like a stone wall, but also not really. I can’t touch him, or budge him, and I can hardly feel him approach when he knocks me down. When he throws me, I go flying. Flying, Nezuko!
Holding a sword is scary. It’s heavier than a hatchet. The thought of brandishing it at somebody feels strange. I didn't say anything, but I think Urokodaki-san still thinks that I'm ill-suited for what I intend to do.
He says that demons cannot warrant my empathy, for they are no longer human, but what does that make you?
I think my sense of smell has gotten better; I see a thin string whenever an opening presents itself. I just have to get better at following it.
I held my own against Urokodaki-san for five minutes today! He made a special dish for dinner out of the ingredients I foraged. I think he’s proud of me. It tasted really good. When you wake up again, let’s eat it together!
Please wake up soon.
Urokodaki says he has nothing else to teach me and that I'm supposed to cut open a boulder the size of a small giant if I want to take the Final Selection. It's stone and my blade is steel. My first attempt didn't go over too well.
I practiced breathing, kind of, but I don't think I'm doing it right. I tried cutting the boulder again. Nothing happened.
I trained all day today. Still didn't work.
I keep thinking that one day I will wake up and you will be dead.
I keep trying. I should be able to cut it. Why can't I cut it?
I have to hurry.
Urokodaki always cooks dinner. He never says anything, really, but he always sets aside food for me when I come in near midnight, and it reminds me a little of what we had before. Do you remember, Nezuko?
“It’s you,” Urokodaki says, when she stares at the little misshapen wooden block he holds in his palm. He scrapes at it again, a wooden chip flaking off into her lap. Nezuko reaches a hand to touch the small chunk of wood.
Urokodaki makes a dissenting noise, an amused sound, and moves the piece away from her. “Not yet,” he says. “I still have to make your brother’s. You two are a pair, aren’t you?”
I caught Urokodaki making a fox-looking mask in the morning. It's almost the same as the ones Sabito and Makomo wear. When I asked about it, he said nothing, so I guess that's another thing they have in common.
They are so strong. I wish I could help them, but all they do is help me.
I cut the boulder. Sabito smiled when I won. For some reason, it made me sad.
Urokodaki is out for preparations, buying charcoals and spices he can't grind into existence with the herbs he finds in the mountain. The house is quieter. Tanjiro's words turn over and crinkle in Nezuko's hands.
Urokodaki doesn't want me to go, but I think he understands what I need to do. I cried because I can finally do something. I can finally get answers for you.
The Final Selection is tomorrow. I will see you in seven days--I swear I will. Wait for your big brother, okay?
Eight days pass, then nine.
When she slides his week-old letter into the journal he left behind, and leaves her room and moves towards the door, Urokodaki doesn’t stop her.
“Mount Fujikasane.” He says instead, unmuffled by his mask. He is small, almost, fixed and inert where he is perched near the hearth. He has let the fire go out. Urokodaki turns his face toward her, inscrutable behind his mask, voice filled with something she can’t touch. “That is where you must go.”
She runs. Twigs and leaves crackle under her feet. Something vibrates through her throat, rears sharply in her mouth stifled by a bamboo muzzle. A growl. A cry. Closed in by teeth and tongue that she can't use to scream.
Had it been under the cast of the moon or sun when her brother died?
Fear is a scent that she can trace. The wisteria trees glow and sway, as if in unison at the mountain's base.
She reaches up and tears off a branch, petals flaying. She takes off her bamboo muzzle.
Demons burn in the sun.
Her claws sharpen and extend at will and they sink into its eyes, curving, gouging. Blood is water, rushing down hands. Hands to arms that she cuts off one after another. She hardly feels the friction, too slippery with blood and fury and hate.
It had shaken with sheer glee, made a small off-key shriek when it wondered aloud what the old man must've looked like. When it recalled his red hair and his rush to save others.
She tears down its arms that hook and snake across its mutilated body like twisted brambles. Her leg grows four times her usual size and she aims. Half of its body goes flying. The other half shrieks and writhes, angered and frantic and afraid.
Fodder, it sneers, little fox cub. Behind the crackling twigs and tree branches and the cruel scent of wisteria: YOU AREN'T GETTING AWAY. Fear flickers across its newly regenerated eyes. Maybe if the thing had legs instead of arms, it could've run. Maybe if it hadn't touched him, it could've died by her brother's blade, graced with something almost like forgiveness.
Demons perish under the moon.
Nezuko shoves the branch of wisteria into its head, pushing it into flesh and hearing it crackle, feeling everything around give like rubber.
It shrieks. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, it might be saying. She can't hear a thing.
“Nezuko,” a voice says, badly buried in the recesses of her mind. A ghost touch at her temple, her cheek. His charred hands, reaching for her face. “You can stop now.”
She wakes under the densest canopy, shaded and dark and sealed off from sunlight, her brother’s touch fading residue in her mind.
She goes home, back to Urokodaki, who looks at her and her claws and her tattered body and knows, with that unknowable sadness of theirs that makes him pull her in and hug her tightly.
Heat burns down the coldness of her face.
“You came back,” Urokodaki whispers. “Thank you.”
She sleeps. There’s nothing to it, as fathomless and vacant as the night she awakens to. Sometimes, calloused fingers crease over her hair.
Urokodaki is there when she wakes. He is huddled by the fire, tossing wooden shavings into the flames, silent as he finally tucks something small into his kimono over where his heart should be.
"Come," he says to her, lifting himself up. He wraps his head in a shawl and slides open the doors. She follows him out into the moonlight. They ascend the mountain, and Nezuko briefly recognizes it as the one her brother must have trained on, the traps and shredded trees and fallen leaves tinted grey all around. At its peak lies a large boulder split in two.
"Your brother did this," Urokodaki says, in a voice that sounds proud. It is there he bends at one knee and produces a small shovel, and starts digging. Nezuko realizes it's a grave when the old man slips a small, carved wooden figurine into the dirt hollow. Distantly, the way one recalls a dream, she remembers another day of clouds and mounds of snow and soil. She had done something similar, standing next to her brother who had kneeled, his cold and dirt-smeared hands cupped in prayer.
They had buried their brothers and sister and mother that day.
Nezuko sinks to the ground and holds her hands together as she watches Urokodaki bury her last.