It's cold outside. And... wide . So wide that Obanai can run and run until he's out of breath, and then a hundred times more or-
He has never run in his life.
Growing up in a cage was scary, especially after Obanai found out there's something called "Outside". A place that was draped around his cell, that had things like "wind" and "sky" and "sun". Obanai knew these words from the lullabies his mother and aunts and cousins would sing to him when he was smaller, knew that the wind could be warm and the sky could be blue and the sun could rise, bright and gold like a polished coin. But of course, Obanai had never seen these things with his own eyes. And it hadn’t ached inside his chest before he had realized that it wasn’t normal to live in one single room with a lattice, that his family had been “outside”, that they had experienced the wind, sky and sun. Unlike him.
Only a boy he had begun to dream about the outside. Every passing moment just made him long more for it. Wind , what a wonderful thing it must be when it could be warm, and could howl, and carry cherry blossoms. The sky that they said was wide, endless even, and that could miraculously change color in a certain pattern that Obanai didn’t understand, but that sometimes hosted something called stars , and sometimes the sun . Which of all the things Obanai wanted to see himself was the one thing he yearned for so desperately it made his eyes overflow with tears. Because the sun could be warm, but also hot, it was golden, but not always, but sometimes appeared to be red, and it was the source of all life. A heavenly being, that’s what the songs said it was, a deity, good and warm and mighty. How such a being could exist and still leave him trapped in his room, his cage, was incomprehensible for Obanai. He prayed to the sun that he had never seen, that it saved him, that it came and took him away, when he suffered so much, and he begged. But the sun never came.
What came was the slithering sound of something , watching him when it thought he was asleep.
The only thing that made him endure the fear was his imagination. Thinking of the wind, sky, sun. Things so beautiful that people would rhyme songs about them. Things so overwhelming that they made him cry only from imagining them.
When finally he escapes, everything crashes down on him.
It must be luck that he even makes it outside. He has never walked the hallways of the house, has only left his cell to bathe and have his face and tongue sliced open for the demon that rules his clan. With trembling hands he has broken through the bars, Kaburamaru writhing around his neck reassuringly. It has almost felt like the small snake has knowledge of which direction freedom is. A soft tilt of the smooth white head is as good a guidance as any and all Obanai needs. And so he runs.
The floor is smooth under his bare feet. He passes by paper wall after paper wall until at last he runs into a dead end. He is trapped! But Kaburamaru tugs on him and he remembers: just three days ago when they brought him to the demon, his mother and aunts slid a paper wall to the side! Kaburamaru leans towards the one in front of them. He has nothing to lose.
With shaking hands, one still cramped around the hairpin that was his tool of escape, he grabs the wooden frame and shoves.
Like magic the wall moves aside.
And there it is: outside!
But Obanai doesn’t have time to look around, he crosses the narrow way of wooden floor and jumps.
His feet touch something cold and soft: grass. He knows it from the nursery rhymes, he knows that it’s supposed to be green, and that bugs and toads live in it. He apologizes in the back of his head in case he steps on them, then runs.
Kaburamaru guides him, away from the house into the dark. Why is it dark? Isn’t it supposed to be bright outside?
He can’t think about it. Around his neck Kaburamaru urges him forward. It’s like the snake talks to him: Hurry, hurry, you don’t have time, they’ll see that you’re gone and they’ll find you, it will find you ! It might be his own frantic thought. It doesn’t matter.
He runs, every step making the barely healed wounds on his cheeks and tongue hurt from the impact, until the soft grass stops and there’s different things covering the ground. Branches, piercing his bare feet, making him wince and fall. He crashes to the ground, losing the hairpin. A scream escapes his bandaged mouth, the motion making his cheeks burn like fire. The pain makes him see sparks of light, white and blinding, but he struggles onto his feet. He must hurry. And he runs.
In his mouth it tastes like blood and he swallows it, like he has for days since the blade cut his face open. It gives him nausea, and it’s hard to breathe, but he can’t stop running.
Hurry! , Kaburamaru urges him. He wants to, but it’s so hard when you’re thin and weak. They won’t give you another chance. Any night now the demon might come and devour you. If you stop now you’re dead.
In the middle of it Obanai starts crying. He runs between high pillars that part the higher up they go, again and again, black arms that reach into the endless open space above him. The ground is a mess of sticks and weird grass that pierces his feet and ferny, that he knows from a kimono. It hurts so much, and it’s hard to gain ground. He wants to stop and rest his feet, but Kaburamaru won’t let him, and he knows the snake is right. He hasn’t come far enough.
He learns that when behind him, suddenly, there’s a scream piercing through the dark. A female voice, and then many.
They know he’s gone. He’s done for.
Don’t give up now! Kaburamaru tightens around his shoulders. You made it so far already, just keep running, they don’t know yet which direction you went, you still have a chance!
If only it didn’t hurt so much. His legs feel weak and sore, his feet must be bleeding by now. He can’t breathe through the bandages and all the blood in his mouth, his nose is clogged from crying. He falls again, crashes into wiry branches with pointy needles and howls from pain, but again he gets up and fights his way through the thicket until the pillars part and give way to a path. There’s sand and stones on it that make it easier to run. Nevertheless he can hardly move his body at this time. It feels like he’s been running for hours. He’s in so much pain. His eyes are all blurred from tears. He doesn’t look back as he stumbles along on the path, scared of what he will see. The screams faded away in the distance, which is good, because it means that he’s far from the house now. And when he weakly wipes tears from his eyes, he can see lights ahead. Is that what they called stars? Is it the sun? He always imagined it bigger, brighter. Has it finally come to save him?
“My, my~” he hears a hiss behind him.
Run! Kaburamaru screams at him, but it’s too late.
With eyes wide from horror, Obanai turns around.
It’s here. Massive and threatening it towers over him, the colossal body winding all over the path.
“What havvve we here…” it whispers, fangs dripping with blood. “A tasssty little runaway, aren’t you?”
Obanai stumbles backwards, trips over his own feet and falls. His heart beats so fast it might break out of his chest any second now.
He’s going to die.
“If not for your bloody little footprintsss it would have taken me ssso much longer to find you,” it chuckles, leaning closer. “It’s almost like you wanted me to find you, sssweet boy~”
Obanai can’t move. Tears blind him, his heart hammers and his breath races from his escape, Kaburamaru presses against his shoulders. Only when the demon reaches out for him with bloody claws, he realizes: Where did the blood come from? Who died on it’s way here, who was shredded to pieces before it found him? The screams earlier, the death cries, were they only a foretaste of what awaits him?
And his instincts kick in.
He rolls around on the sandy path and digs his toes in the dirt to run again, before he even has a chance to catch his breath.
A strong hand grabs his ankle, making him crash into the dust again. He wails when he’s dragged towards the demon, his elbows scrubbing on the rough ground.
“Where do you think you're going, little one?” the demon slurs. “The human village isss miles away. There’s nowhere to run. No one will sssave you now, not after I killed your entire family. Ah, they ssscreamed and cried and begged for their life, each and evvvery one of them, when I ripped them all to piecesss. But I sssaved the bessst for lassst. No one’sss there to help you.” And as it picks him up from the street, has him dangling from one leg so he’s eye-level to the grotesque face that his own looks so similar to now, it smiles. “You’re mine!”
“BREATH OF FLAMES - FIFTH FORM: FLAME TIGER!”
A flutter of fire and Obanai crashes into the ground. The impact knocks the breath from his lungs and he lies dazed and in pain for a moment, trying hard not to lose consciousness. Above him he hears a terrible screech, and then a voice, a human voice:
“SECOND FORM: RISING SCORCHING SUN!!”
“Cursed ssslayer! The child is mine!” the demon screams, grabbing Obanai’s long hair in a brutal attempt of capturing him.
Then there’s the sound of ripping flesh.
Obanai wraps his arms around his head to protect Kaburamaru - there’s a sprinkle of something on his back, wet and stinking, and all around him. He squints through his lashes and sees it’s blood. With a whine he tries to stand up, moves to get away - is it his own, or the blood of the human he just heard? He doesn’t dare look; as long as he still can he needs to escape! His legs give in under him, his feet hurt as if he’s walking on needles, so he crawls, tries to but-
Suddenly there’s a hand on his shoulder.
Obanai screams in panic, writhes from the grip, only to have it grab him again, firmer this time.
“Girl-” a voice says, deep and rough. “Girl! Calm down! It’s over.”
Panting Obanai turns his head.
On the path, bulky and bloody, heaps of flesh, lies the demon. It’s sliced beyond recognition, scales and claws and just so much blood-
“Don’t look.” A hand on his chin directs his face away from the monstrosity and towards his saviour.
It’s a human, Obanai recognizes. But different from the humans he knows. This person is tall, broad, clad in a white cape with a red hem that mimics flames. Eyes like fire look at Obanai and hair as bright as flames surround a clear-cute face. The human is beautiful in a way so different from what Obanai has seen before. There’s a twitch of the corner of the mouth, almost a smile, but not quite.
“You’re safe now,” the human says. “Can you hold onto my shoulders?” With a swift motion Obanai is lifted onto a broad back, held securely by strong arms.
Everything about this human is different from his mother and aunts. He’s muscular, strong, and friendly. His scent is soothing, musky and rich. He’s nothing like his family, not a girl, not a woman but-
“A man…” he whispers.
The human, the man !, turns his head a little to look at him. “You’re not a girl?” He tilts his head. “I thought the obi sash was tied like a boy’s, but your beautiful hair fooled me.” He starts walking, turning so Obanai doesn’t see the remains of the demon. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Obanai,” he mutters through the bandages. His cheeks hurt. His tongue hurts, too. Everything hurts, frankly.
“Listen, Obanai,” the man says, “I can’t leave you here, but I need to check where that demon came from. Maybe there’s other people who need my help, just like you. I need you to be strong a little longer. Can you stay very quiet and hold onto me? Just a little more?”
Obanai fists his hurting hands into the strange black clothes underneath the cape and hides his face against the man’s neck even though it makes his facial wounds hurt. He smells so good, the man, and Obanai inhales deeply. It’s the scent of a crackling fire and something sweet that Obanai can’t recognize. Eyes closed he tries not to make a sound as the man runs, tries not to cry. Tries not to faint. But he is so tired, so exhausted, now that the shock wears off. He wants to tell the man not to go there, not to return to the house, because he heard the women scream, and the demon said it killed everyone, but he needs to stay quiet.
Kaburamaru feels warm and heavy around his neck. Thank the heavens that he is alright.
When they arrive at the house long moments later, despite the demon’s words there’s someone running towards them.
“They're all dead!” the girl screams. It’s his cousin, Hana.
“I’m here to help,” the man explains, “I’m from the Demon Slayer Corps.” He crouches to let Obanai down.
Standing on his injured feet hurts, but what hurts even more is Hana’s scream.
“You!” She points her finger at him, taking two fast steps and shoves him to the ground. “It’s all your fault!” she accuses him, tears falling from her eyes.
Obanai lies crumpled on the ground, too weak to even look at her, much less to object.
“Everyone got killed because you ran away!! Fifty people died! You killed them!” Every word hurts a hundred times more than the blade splitting his tongue. “You’re just a sacrifice!! You should have just stayed quiet and let her eat you!!”
“Enough!”, the man interrupts and tries to lead her away, but she struggles, until in the end he single-handedly picks her up from the ground and carries her away.
Obanai sits up, watches them. Even when they’re out of sight, he can still hear her screaming and crying.
He knows there’s nothing reasonable about her abusive words, but they hurt, deep in his heart. It’s not like he has never thought about what would happen to his family if he escaped. But he wants to live. He wants to live so desperately.
Kaburamaru winds around him, trying to comfort him.
Then it’s quiet. For the first time since Obanai set foot out of his home, he has time to look around.
It’s cold outside. And wide. And dark. It’s not like they described it in the songs and not like he imagined it. He wonders where the sun is. Wasn’t it supposed to be out here, shining, or setting, or warming, or whatever it is a sun does? He longed for the sun, but it seems that even when he finally made it outside, it won’t show itself to him. He truly is cursed.
He looks up.
The man is back. Now instead of his cousin there are two people by his side that Obanai hasn’t seen before. They wear strange clothes similar to the man, but with hats and a cloth covering the lower halves of their faces, one carrying a lantern.
He learns that they are called kakushi, and suddenly the place is swarming with them. They belong to the Demon Slayer Corps, like the man that they call Rengoku-san. But unlike him they don’t fight. Instead they take care of injured people, coming to the battle field to clean up and to restore order. While Rengoku-san is away to instruct the other kakushi (“There’s a survivor inside, take her away around the other side of the house, I don’t want her to see the boy again!”) they look after Obanai’s wounds, both paling when they unwrap the bandages from his face. They are soaked in blood, moist and red - at least that explains why it was so hard to breathe.
“The wounds opened again,” one of the kakushi, a young woman murmurs. “It’s a few days old, but it hasn’t been treated properly. It’s a wonder it’s not infected, if any food had gotten into the cuts…” She looks from his cheeks up to his eyes. “Have you even eaten since?”
As a reply Obanai sticks his split tongue out. It’s swollen and he has to open his mouth wide to show it, making his cheeks hurt, and the kakushi gasp.
“Buddha give me strength,” the other kakushi, a man, mutters.
“It’s alright,” the woman says, but it doesn’t sound genuine with how her fingers shake when she looks at the two disconnected halves of his tongue. “This one is healing at least.” She gives him water to drink, then cleans the wounds on his cheeks with soft white fabric in the shine of the lantern. “You need to hold still now, even when it hurts,” she says, then stitches up his wounds, the right cheek first, then the left, lastly treats his bleeding feet and elbow.
Rengoku-san is back as the woman wraps fresh, soft bandages around the abrasion on his left wrist.
“He has serious injuries that don’t seem to originate from the demon, slit open cheeks up to his jaw joints and his tongue has been cut with a blade,” the woman kakushi explains a few steps away in a hushed voice while the man kakushi tries to distract Obanai by playing with Kaburamaru, but Obanai’s ears are sharp. “From what I can see it must have been his family… He’s calm, but I suppose aside from his injuries he suffered severe mental trauma, so he needs special care-”
“I’ll take him with me.”
“Rengoku-san, I’m not-”
“I said I’ll take him,” Rengoku-san interrupts her again. “It’s my fault his family was wiped out, if I had been here earlier he wouldn't be in this position. In my capacity as the Flame Hashira it is my responsibility to guarantee the boy’s safety and health. Tell that to Oyakata-sama.”
“Yes, Rengoku-san. Of course, Rengoku-san.”
Obanai looks up when the man steps closer. “You’re coming with me,” he proclaims, his voice gentler than with the kakushi, and holds his hand out.
Obanai takes it without hesitation. It’s big and warm.
Obanai falls asleep in Rengoku-san’s arms on the way.
“We’re going home,” he explained softly, “to where I live and to where you’ll live from now on. I have a wife and two sons, little Senjurou and Kyoujurou. They’ll be your brothers.”
Obanai doesn’t know what “brothers” means, but he isn’t scared. He enjoys the warmth of Rengoku-san’s strong arms and his warm scent.
He’s so fast asleep that he misses the train ride, and the walk home, through the lush green forest of Nikkou. Only when Rengoku-san murmurs in his ear “We’re here, Obanai” he blinks his eyes open disoriented.
It’s still cold, even in Rengoku-san’s warm arms. But it’s not dark anymore.
Instead, overhead there’s colors; violet and pink and orange, blotches of hues on a painting taut across the entire world.
And Obanai understands: It’s the sky.
With wide eyes he looks up, craning his neck to watch while Rengoku-san keeps walking, clutching the seam of the flame-hemmed cape in his thin, stiff fingers.
Where’s the sun though, where is it? Now that it’s bright, shouldn’t it be here? Will it finally show itself to him, after all these years?
“Look,” Rengoku-san says, making Obanai turn his head. “This is our house.”
It’s beautiful, but Obanai has never seen another house from the outside. Still he stares at the building with the wide roof, elegantly curved and surrounded by flowers. They are pastel pink and there are so many of them, sitting on branches and wooden pillars that part the higher up they go, again and again, brown and pink arms that reach into the endless open space above them. Trees .
There’s a smile in Rengoku-san’s voice. “You’re just in time for the cherry blossoms.” He walks through a gate into the garden, rounds the house. There are more trees, crowned with the same soft pink. Once in a while a petal comes loose and tumbles down to the ground, light and still, so beautiful.
Obanai perks up.
“Kyoujurou is awake already, even before sunrise.”
There’s someone in the garden. Rengoku-san’s son, wasn’t it? Truth be told, he looks like a smaller version of Rengoku-san himself. Skin tan like birch wood, hair like fire, just shorter than Rengoku-san’s and messier. He wears a grey yukata with a reddish-brown sash, his feet are in geta that look too large. He stands in front of a flowerbed where little green sprouts grow from the dark soil.
When he hears Rengoku-san’s voice he turns around. “Father! Welcome back!” He comes running over a little awkwardly, the big geta clattering against the stone path melodically, then he stops upon noticing Obanai.
“Kyoujurou, this is Obanai.” He crouches and lets Obanai stand, guiding him forward with a big but gentle hand on his back. “He’ll be living with us from today on. Please treat him with respect and care like you would treat a brother.”
“Of course I will, father!” Kyoujurou answers. His eyes burn like flames.
And suddenly, there’s movement in the air - Obanai can’t see it, but feel it, like the breath of the outside world, playing with his and Kyoujurou’s hair, tickling the tip of his nose and carrying petals from the cherry trees. Wind . It’s all around them, running gentle, cool fingers over his skin and through the grass, making cherry blossoms dance around Kyoujurou.
Never in his life has Obanai seen something so beautiful. He blinks away tears when Kyoujurou, with the warmest eyes, bows, then beams at him, a smile so bright and welcoming that after all big, heavy tears fall from Obanai’s lashes.
“Nice to meet you, Obanai-kun.”
The sun rises.