“Where is he?” The kakushi attending to him tries to stop him from sitting up. Giyuu's right eye stares around the house. Wisteria crests crowd the walls. “Where is he?” He asks again, sweeping over the haze of bodies, bandaged and unconscious. Injured. Sabito, telling him to stay put. Giyuu pushes forward. Light hair, bright haori. “He had a, a fox mask like mine.”
The kakushi manages to hold him back--he’s so weak, that’s why, that’s how--and says something he can’t hear. “What?” His throat is dry, parched. He can’t see him. What does that mean?
The kakushi shakes their head, a slow motion that sways back and forth like pandemonium.
He makes it to the hilltop from where he can see the Urokodaki’s small lodging, piles of neatly chopped wood near its windows just as he and Sabito had left it. It must be his cries that draws Urokodaki out, the doors yanked open, footsteps thundering in the distance. Strange. There had been no sound to it before.
“You are alive,” spills into his ears, an incessant tremor, and Giyuu stops listening.
He is a coward, with two hands for swinging a sword and two legs for being left behind.
“You should have it,” Urokodaki eventually says, voice as clear as it’s always been from under his tengu mask, and holds out the last remaining piece of Sabito to him. Tattered, and bright, and vivid in a way that almost seems alive.
He needs a place to hide. Urokodaki lets him stay.
“Child,” his teacher calls him. The sound of a tray being slid across the tatami mats. “You must eat.”
But I can’t, he thinks. But I don’t want to. It always turns out like this, with a careful hand that lifts him up. Only Sabito isn’t the one there, staring down at him with gentle, firm eyes.
“Rest for now,” Urokodaki says, deep and sad but steady. He has done this before. “Without a care in the world.”
Giyuu stays until the room grows smaller, the hallways narrower; until the shadows and shapes fade into obscurity and the mountain passes into unfamiliarity. It does not seem that huge, that endless, that place for two boys who never found their way back.
At some point, he pulls out Sabito's haori. He pushes aside his blanket, pulls himself up on his knees and opens this space that's been closed for so long. He feels sick, dizzy as he draws a needle out from its pouch and attempts to thread it through. His hands shake so much that the needle finds his fingertips instead of cloth and the prick of blood seeps awareness and pain and something else that terrifies him awake. Giyuu shoves the haori back and presses his thumb to his lips.
Were you scared, Sabito? He wonders, rust in his mouth and none on the piece of cloth. There’s an unbreakable smile, somewhere, locked into an opaque haze behind his eyes. He blinks slowly, expecting the rush of tears. When nothing comes, he tears his hakama in half.
Giyuu spends hours weaving, his fingers raw, cheeks dry. He falls asleep with a finished mess of a haori fisted in his hands.
When he wakes, his face pressed into the futon and his body huddled under the cover of the haori, he feels a trace of something else. Something briefly forgivable in the absence. Early morning has sun peeking through the panel of a small window in his room, and Giyuu feels it for the first time. A flutter of something not really of numbness. He turns toward the door, as if to make out more openings.
There, folded neatly on the mats, lies the demon slayer uniform. A nichirin sword sits in its sheath, leaned into the black fabric beneath. Giyuu stares at the set, Sabito's and Tsutako's haori pooled at his calves.
Urokodaki sets down the ladle and turns his head towards Giyuu when he emerges from the hallway, fully dressed. “You’re leaving?” He says.
"I'll send letters," Giyuu says, because they both know he isn't coming back. Urokodaki pulls him in close and then lets him go.
His sword turns a feverish color, caught between black and dark blue, and Giyuu thinks that Sabito's would've been brighter. He sees it, so clear it might as well be truth.
Memory is arthritic in his fingers, along the limbs that spill out in tides of quiet rage, rise and fall and swell and bellow, and recedes into him like stone and stays buried there, squeezed into the marrow of his bones so tight and hushed that he doesn't even stop to notice anymore.
He calls it lull.
His haori is never torn. It’s clean, and worn, protective in the chilled air that makes Breaths difficult. It’s old, and frayed at the sides, so Giyuu takes out his sewing pouch and carefully sews another layer of fabric to the red and geometric tiles for support.
His haori gets a little heavier each time he slides it back on.
Little do people ask him, and little does he care to explain. He goes around slaying demons because what else would there be. He cuts and swings and his blade's hilt fits the mold of his palm so well his fingers seem engraved on its sides. Kill demons and leave no exceptions.
No exceptions, as a father beats his children into the ground.
No exceptions, as a mother begs him to let her be eaten alive.
No exceptions, as a small child reaches for his brother who reaches a clawed hand back.
No exceptions, as a man clutches a woman’s ankles and forces himself in between.
Humanity is a thread that no one tends to hold onto. Giyuu carves out what is no longer there and sways unsteadily on his feet.
Amidst the blackness of his sleep, Sabito appears a subtle figure, caught in the low gaze of stars, blade in a fine bow.
“Oh, it’s another one of you,” the thing says, as if it wasn’t just about to pick apart a man with teeth alone.
“Get off him,” Giyuu says, as if someone like him could convince something like that. The man with thin hands and dirty clothes is crying, and the demon is leering.
“Didn't I just kill a black-suit yesterday?” It seems to momentarily forget its grip on the man’s face, claws loosening into fingers and nails and human-like hands. A gnarled strangeness in the transformation. Giyuu has seen the same smile cast across the faces of humans and demons alike.
It must've been beautiful, once. “You’re all so easy. Doomed from the start, like animal feed.”
Giyuu looks at the man shaking behind fingers calloused with years of hard work, his limbs made frail by malnourishment, his body that continues to survive still. “His life is worth more than yours,” he says simply, and cuts through the arm that reaches for him. The demon sneers, shoulder flinching back, blood spilling onto the ground.
“His life means nothing.”
Giyuu cuts off another arm. “Say that again.”
“Nothing,” another limb, “nothing, nothing,” another leg and foot and half its face, half its smile; pain is laughter in its mouth, wet and harsh and ringing. The dim sound of his breath rattles throughout his head. It never manages to touch either of them again.
Dawn finds Giyuu's sword gleaming, the demon in pieces, and the sting of ashes in his nose.
“Thank you,” somebody says. He doesn’t remember who.
He doesn’t speak when Oyakata-sama, a man with a crippled frame and smiling eyes and a sickness that will not leave, beckons him to one of his many estates.
He doesn’t speak when the others, primarily a wild-eyed one with equally crazed hair, demand his name. He keeps his gaze set stubbornly forward, on the wisteria trees and on the gravel, silent. He waits.
When the man with the knowing eyes invites him into their fold, he says no.
“Why?” Oyakata-sama asks.
Sabito, he wants to say, as if that could explain everything. His haori sits on his shoulders, weighed. My sister, he thinks.
“It would be a mistake,” Giyuu eventually says, and steps carefully back, a faint mimicry of a bow, and disappears.
He gets invited back after that. Eventually, it becomes a routine: Ubuyakashi's crow always finds him, and he always goes, enough times for him to wonder if he’s compromising the estate’s location.
Oyakata-sama tells him this isn’t actually headquarters, then offers him tea and crisp silences over shogi. Giyuu doesn’t need to say a thing, and Oyakata-sama seems to know well enough, so Giyuu leaves his sword within reaching distance and rearranges his pieces.
Dust and dirt and laughter bellow into the air. Giyuu's eyes shut on reflex and he forces himself back.
“What’s so important that you gotta wear it all the time, Tomioka?” There’s a certain pattern in its turbulence, a distinct flow to it that he begins to counter. “Remembering a brother?” Through the cloud of dust, there is a sword's shine and a smile with too much teeth. “A lover?” A sheaf of pressure coming towards his side, unleashed. Giyuu imagines the pulse of water rushing, along and around him. Blood roars in his ears.
“You know, cutting yourself free of the past is cathartic. Why don’t you give it a try?”
It’s a feint--a hand rips forward towards his left arm, making to grab his haori.
Giyuu lets go of his sword.
Later, Sanemi will say he can’t win against demons by throwing them over the shoulder.
You toppled easily enough, Giyuu doesn’t say.
Oyakata-sama's gaze is fixed on nothing, but his focus has shifted away from the outside; Giyuu looks up from his cup.
"Pillars are required because things need supporting, as always," Oyakata-sama says into the clear air of the morning. It's impossible to startle at his voice. "Wouldn't you say so, Giyuu?"
"Do you not stand to fulfill that role?"
"Even as Urokodaki's sole heir?"
Giyuu doesn't cringe, doesn't breathe. "I'm not his heir."
"That is a matter of opinion." Oyakata-sama's hands clasp in his lap, a touch of fondness in the incline of his head. "And mine is based upon the fact of your capabilities."
"There is someone better," Giyuu begins to say. Was, his brain corrects. He fixes his eyes to the table, unseeing, feeling an old kind of shame. "There has to be."
Oyakata-sama studies him. "Giyuu," he says. The man is smiling, distant and like the smooth edge of light. "You are more than enough."
His sword lodges at the wrong angle in the demon's nape, and Giyuu thinks: you are wrong about me. The Flame Pillar saves him by distraction, delivering a blow to the demon's front that is predictably infuriating, and Giyuu tries again.
Again, with the slick of blood flinging free of his blade. The creature's head splits off this time, and Giyuu hates how sick he feels when Rengoku steps back, sword already sheathed, unafraid.
Don't, his silence wants to say.
Giyuu is not safety, not surety, no guarantee for anything at all.
I am not angry, Urokodaki writes back, when he says again that he turned down pillarship.
"There are names for this," Oyakata-sama's face is turned outside, again. Giyuu is only here to deliver his report in person since his crow has gone missing again. The porch is open to them, the clouds turning over like grey stones.
"I don't know them," Giyuu says.
Oyakata-sama watches the sky, following the sounds of distant thunder. "You won't have to."
Against the bark of a wisteria tree, he catches sight of his sister for the first time in years. She is wearing her wedding kimono, stamping with her bare feet against the grass, spinning and yelling and dancing. Her hair is twisted up with pins and silver-like clips, but what makes them lovely is her, shining with the redness of her clothes, the loud claps her palms make when she hoists them high up in the air.
There is someone else here, two eyes and one pointed gaze enough to stir him awake. The Insect Pillar smiles down at him, looking into his face.
"Was it a nightmare?" she asks.
Giyuu cuts into the dark water with one arm, and tries to ignore the way the Stone Pillar's eyes never stray, two points on his back.
“You don’t have to wear it into battle,” Gyomei says. “Since it’s clearly precious to you.”
Giyuu looks down at his hands, clenched onto the seams so as to keep the haori from being pulled apart by his movements. A faint sheen of red clouds the shallow surface. It'll stain soon.
“It gives me strength,” he says instead of it’s half of him and half of her and most of me that's not there anymore, and feels the weight of the water when he shoves the haori back under.