The morning they received the mission to go to Mt. Natagumo was the same morning that the doctor Hisa had brought them examined Zenitsu’s ribs and Nezuko’s back and deemed both of them fully healed. Tanjirou wondered if Matsuemon set the timing on purpose, but maybe that was giving too much credit to the Kasugai Crow. As they geared up for their next mission, the crow continued to caw, “North-northeast, north-northeast! Your next mission is north-northeast! The four of you are going to Mt. Natagumo. Head to Mt. Natagumo!”
“We hear you loud and clear, Matsuemon-san,” Nezuko assured the crow patiently. It did not stop annoyingly repeating the same lines.
“Head to Mt. Natagumo! North-northeast!”
“Let’s eat it,” Inosuke decided, poking the bird with his sword. Nezuko yelled an offended “hey!” on principle, but even she seemed to be relieved when the Kasugai Crow finally let them be, flying away to save its life from Inosuke’s threats. Inosuke looked smug to see it go. Tanjirou hid a small smile under his muzzle.
“So we’re going on a mission now, huh. I suppose we can’t stay in this manor forever,” Zenitsu said dejectedly as he wore his haori.
“We have to leave anyway. We’re already fully healed, and we can’t leech off their generosity any longer,” Nezuko replied with a shrug. “Let’s go, everyone.”
They said their goodbyes to Hisa, thanking her profusely for all the help she had given them. Even in their last moments with each other, Hisa proved to be a kind and thoughtful old lady, as she had even done a purification ceremony for them— striking sparks for good luck in battle. Inosuke had almost attacked her in her attempt, the boar boy not understanding what she was trying to do, but Nezuko was there to quickly explain it to him. In the weeks they had spent together, the boar boy had started to respect Nezuko as something like a teacher, and Nezuko was more than happy to expound on things Inosuke did not understand due to his upbringing.
The lesson continued on even after they left, as Inosuke started asking what things like “great pride” and “luck in battle” meant, why Hisa was praying for their safety when she had nothing to do with them, etc., etc. Mind you, Inosuke did not word his questions nicely at all. He was actually kind of rude to the old lady. If it was Tanjirou, he probably would have gotten mad and ignored the boar boy for the rest of their trip. But Nezuko was Nezuko, patient and understanding Nezuko, and she did her best to explain all these foreign concepts to Inosuke, even if it was hard.
And just like that, they continued onwards to Mt. Natagumo, and by the time the mountain was in their view, the sun had already set.
“Hold up!” Zenitsu called out. “Would you mind waiting a second?”
Nezuko, Tanjirou and Inosuke halted on their tracks, turning around only to see Zenitsu sitting down on the ground, cradling his knees close to himself with a very serious look on his face.
“Zenitsu-san…?” Nezuko asked, confused. Zenitsu seemed to take that as his cue to wail.
“I’m scared, okay?! Now that we’re nearing our destination, I’m so scared!”
Inosuke placed his hands on his hips judgingly. “Why the hell is he sitting? How creepy is that?”
“Who are you to talk, Pig Face?! Don’t tell me you’re not getting any vibes from that mountain!” Zenitsu said as he pointed at Mt. Natagumo, looming in the darkness before them. The other three glanced at the mountain behind them, and Tanjirou had to admit that Zenitsu kind of had a point. The mountain itself seemed to beget an aura of doom and malice about it— it’s not the kind of place one would want to find themselves in. Unfortunately, that mountain was their destination, their mission, the place where the demons they had to slay reside. Tanjirou understood that Zenitsu was scared, but there was just no way around it. They had to go to Mt. Natagumo.
“I understand that you’re scared, but just sitting there won’t do us any good, Zenitsu-san. We need to move forward,” Nezuko chided.
“Don’t you think I know that?! Of course I do! Just give me a moment, okay?!”
“I told you he’s creepy,” Inosuke commented.
“That’s not very nice,” Nezuko scolded him.
Tanjirou stepped closer towards his friend, crouching in order to go down on his level. He tilted his head questioningly at the scared boy, reaching his hand out as if to say, Let’s go together. Zenitsu let out more scared wails, clutching at Tanjirou’s hand like a lifeline.
“Tanjirouuuuu! I’m not cut out for fighting! I’ll die! You’ll protect me, won’t you? Please protect me, Tanjirou!”
Tanjirou nodded. He still did not know why Zenitsu had such a bad self-confidence (he did not believe that Zenitsu was as weak as he says, there was just no way), but if he needed his hand to be held as they walk into such a dangerous place, Tanjirou was more than willing to do the job. He held Zenitsu’s hand firmly as he stood and pulled him up along with him, the blond boy letting out sniffles as he rubbed away the tears in his eyes. Inosuke seemed to be unimpressed, Nezuko looked worried, but when Tanjirou signed, I’ll handle Zenitsu, she seemed to finally relax.
At least until Tanjirou caught the whiff of it. For just a moment, the sour smell of the demon was so putrid, he immediately turned his head in the direction of it.
“What’s the matter?” Zenitsu asked. Tanjirou ignored the two of them and suddenly ran in the direction of the scent, closer towards the mountain. His companions ran along with him (Zenitsu with a lot of hesitation, but Tanjirou was pulling at his hand so he had no choice), until they found a fallen demon slayer in the middle of the road, lying injured and crying. The scent of the demon clung to him for some reason, making Tanjirou hesitate, but Nezuko was already running past him, hurrying to help her comrade in need.
“Are you alright?!” Nezuko asked in alarm, surveying the man for any injuries. The man let out a grunt.
Something glinted near the man’s back, something that looked like strings, and Tanjirou immediately pulled Nezuko close to him as it seemed like the strings turned taut, pulling the fallen demon slayer up in the air. The poor slayer let out a scream, yelling out, “They were attached to me, too! Help me!” to no avail. It was a disturbing sight to see him get swallowed by the darkness and the foliage of the tall trees, not to be seen again. Zenitsu seemed to think so too, as he was back to gasping in terror, hands on his mouth in horror. Nezuko looked pale, and Inosuke… well, it was always hard to gauge his emotions, especially while he was wearing his boar mask.
The smell of blood wafted in the air. Tanjirou was grateful it was only him who had such a good sense of smell. His companions were spared the knowledge of the poor demon slayer’s demise. His hand shook, eventually closing into a fist.
They had to slay the demon in this mountain. It was the only way they could stop them from causing more deaths.
“N-N-Never mind! I’m not going there after all! This is too much! I don’t wanna! I don’t wanna !” Zenitsu cried out, utterly terrified. Tanjirou felt for him. He was already wary of this mission from the beginning, seeing this kind of terrible display was surely too much for his weak heart. The blonde boy was back on the ground curled up, shivering in fear.
“I’ll go ahead,” Inosuke muttered, walking towards the mountain with a purpose and drawing his swords. “You can follow me, shivering. This is making me hungry.”
Zenitsu whined, “This is challenging enough for you, right?”
Inosuke let out a war cry. “Let’s go!” And with that, he started running towards the mountain.
“Wait— Inosuke-san! It’s too dangerous to go on your own… Inosuke-san!” Nezuko called after him, worried, but the boar boy wasn’t letting anything or anyone stop him. Nezuko turned to Tanjirou, unsure on what to do. Should they follow Inosuke who had continued on ahead, or stay and try to coax Zenitsu into getting over his fear so they could all go together? Tanjirou crouched down to Zenitsu’s level, pulling at Zenitsu’s haori with aggressive ‘mmph’s. While he understood that the blonde truly was terrified, it was no excuse to not go through with the mission at all. And he called himself a demon slayer? Unfortunately, Zenitsu was not budging, shaking his head profusely, begging to be spared.
Tanjirou looked up at Nezuko helplessly. Nezuko’s hand was on the hilt of her sword, her expression anxious. She kept looking back to the path Inosuke had taken, eager to follow after him. Tanjirou was not surprised. Nezuko had developed quite a mentor-like relationship with the boar boy, with the way that she had seemed to take it upon herself to teach him the things his upbringing did not allow him to know. She was younger than Inosuke, but she felt a little bit responsible for him. Tanjirou sighed, coming up with a decision on their current dilemma.
Go ahead, he signed, with no little hesitation. He did not like the idea of the two of them getting separated, as a repeat of the Nezuko’s injuries on the last mission was very much unwelcome, but Tanjirou had gotten quite close with Inosuke and Zenitsu in their long stay in the Wisteria House, and he liked the idea of leaving them on their own even less. Kagaya sent the four of them to this mountain for a reason. Either there were multiple demons in this mountain, like the case with their last mission, or the demon was crazy powerful, and they were all expected to work together to defeat them. It would be foolish, not to mention dangerous, to venture up the mountain on your own. Zenitsu and I will follow after you, he continued.
“Are you sure?” Nezuko asked, worried.
Tanjirou nodded. I’ll find you. I’ll follow your scent.
Nezuko nodded. “Alright. Be careful, Onii-chan!”
And with that, Nezuko ran forward, following the path Inosuke had taken. Tanjirou looked back to Zenitsu, who was still wheezing from the intensity of his crying and wailing. Tanjirou waited for him to stop and regain some of his composure, before he tugged once again on his sleeves and tapped his own temple twice— a sign the two of them had made to let Zenitsu know that he had something to say and wanted the blonde boy to listen to his thoughts.
Zenitsu, Tanjirou tried, but Zenitsu wasn’t listening. ZENITSU! He tried again, tapping his temples with more fervor.
Thankfully, the blonde seemed to finally notice it. Staring at Tanjirou with tears in his amber eyes, Zenitsu stuttered, “T-Tanjirou?”
Tanjirou sighed, staring back at Zenitsu with a concerned gaze. He met his eyes evenly, not angry, nor judgemental or disappointed. Just a kind, gentle expression, filled with genuine compassion. Zenitsu seemed to relax at the sight of it, his shoulders untensing.
Zenitsu, Tanjirou softly chided, once he was sure that the blonde was now listening to him. You’re acting very uncool right now, you know?
“You say that as if I’ve ever acted cool,” Zenitsu replied in a self-deprecating manner, rubbing his damp eyes with the sleeve of his haori.
Of course you do, Tanjirou replied without hesitation. When you threw yourself in front of me and the kids when Inosuke accused me of being a demon, when you told me you knew my secret and asked if Nezuko did, too— I think you were pretty cool back then, you know.
Zenitsu raised his head, looking at Tanjirou doubtfully. Tanjirou sighed.
I know you’re afraid, but isn’t it about time to man up and face the life you’ve chosen?
“I didn’t choose this life, you know!” Zenitsu counterpointed. “Jii-chan forced me to! You have no idea how many times I wanted to give up, how many times I’ve tried to run— he always kept stopping me and dragging me back. Jii-chan—”
— didn’t force you to become a demon slayer, not really, Tanjirou replied thoughtfully. I mean, you’ve mentioned that he forced you to train, but you could have escaped him the day of the Final Selection. He would have just assumed you’ve died in the test if he didn’t hear from you afterward. But you didn’t. You still took the test and became a demon slayer, despite everything. Tanjirou leaned closer and nudged Zenitsu gently, a knowing look on his red eyes. Even though you’re afraid, even though you’re terrified… why? What made you want to push through?
Zenitsu stared at the ground for a long time. Tanjirou patiently waited. Finally, Zenitsu mumbled, “... make him proud.”
“Mmph?” Tanjirou tilted his head, not quite understanding.
“I wanted—” Zenitsu looked away, flushing scarlet. “I wanted to make Jii-chan proud, okay? I wanted to be— someone who deserved to be his student. I don’t want the time he invested in me to go to waste. I want— I want to be stronger, and stand on equal footing with Kaigaku-aniki, and become someone… someone I don’t hate.” Zenitsu’s hands clutched at his black pants, bunching up a bunch of fabric. “But it’s not easy, okay? It’s not easy. I’m weak and cowardly and pathetic! I’m not brave like you or Inosuke or Nezuko-chan! S-So…” he let out a deep sigh, sounding utterly defeated. “Just leave me here, Tanjirou. You want to be with Nezuko-chan, don’t you? Just leave me be.”
Don’t you want to protect Nezuko with me? Tanjirou tried.
Zenitsu laughed humorlessly. “Nezuko-chan can take care of herself. She’s way stronger than me. She doesn’t need someone like me. It’s not like I managed to protect her back in the mansion, anyway. I’m useless.”
Silence. Tanjirou stared at Zenitsu for a long moment, frustration creeping up his chest as he tried to think of a way to rouse Zenitsu to where they ought to go. He didn’t like this part of Zenitsu— the cowardly, self-deprecating Zenitsu who didn’t trust in his own strength, who didn’t trust in the hours he spent training his body to become a demon-slaying weapon. Tanjirou’s nose told him that Zenitsu was strong. Really strong. Which only made the frustration worse, because the blonde seemed to be unable to see it, to recognize his own hard work.
Tanjirou grabbed Zenitsu by the shoulders, determination in his crimson eyes as he stared the blonde boy down with a stern gaze. Listen to me, Zenitsu, he started, his ‘inner voice’ (as he had started to call it) firm in a way that suggested he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Bravery doesn’t mean the lack of fear. It means feeling the fear, recognizing it, and running towards it anyway. Zenitsu seemed to be under the impression that the rest of their group were never afraid. That was simply not true. He didn’t know about Inosuke, but Tanjirou in particular— he had a lot of things he was afraid of. He was afraid of losing his sister, afraid of losing his humanity. He was afraid of demons too, to a degree— they were strong and malicious and had a very good chance of taking away the person he treasured most— Nezuko, his only remaining family. That didn’t mean he was going to give up on fighting them, though. That didn’t mean he was going to cower. They had people to help, people to protect. As part of the Demon Slayer Corps, it was their responsibility.
Zenitsu needed to stop listening to the voice of fear inside him. Instead, he should start paying attention to the part of himself who wanted to make his mentor proud, who wanted to protect Nezuko, who wanted to become the person he had always wanted to be. Tanjirou’s grip tightened against the blonde boy’s shoulders, crimson eyes meeting amber, and Tanjirou continued in a very serious tone. Zenitsu, you can be brave too. I believe in you.
Zenitsu sniffled, unsure. “I-I don’t—”
You can be brave too! Tanjirou insisted. I believe in you!
“I-I don’t think—”
You just have to do it, one step at a time! Tanjirou stood up, putting his left hand on his hip, his right hand reaching out— urging the blonde boy to take his hand and stand up with him. I know you can do it!
Zenitsu didn’t budge. He still looked miserable. “Tanjirou—”
I. Know. You. Can. Do. It, Tanjirou insisted, waving his outstretched hand in front of the blonde boy’s face. Zenitsu hesitated, but Tanjirou kept waving his hand. Eventually, the blonde boy’s expression softened. He reluctantly took the demon’s hand, standing up and dusting off his pants and haori. He looked up at the mountain fearfully, uncertain.
“I-I don’t know, Tanjirou. That mountain… it’s really creepy.”
I’ll be with you every step of the way, Tanjirou reassured. He didn’t let go of Zenitsu’s hand, instead tightening his hold on it. Zenitsu let out a squeak but did not protest. Instead, he smelled comforted.
They started walking towards the mountain.
“Y-You won’t leave me, right, Tanjirou?” Zenitsu whispered.
“You’ll protect me, won’t you?”