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pine and wisteria

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Tengen hadn’t expected much from the three boys he’d recruited for the mission.

He had already sent expert espionage agents into the different houses of the district to conduct the true investigation into the suspicious disappearances of various women. Each gorgeous and talented kunoichi in their own unique ways, his wives had already embedded themselves into their distinct houses, weaving their influence and network amongst the women and staff within the district. From the anticipation in the letters, Hinatsuru and Makio had been closest to identifying the demon and Suma a potential accomplice prowling the streets at night.

When they all soon began missing letter drops and communication thinned, he had scrambled to find corp members capable of simple infiltration to search for them. His initial source had been Butterfly Manor - though Shinobu would have been a perfect candidate herself, Tengen knew the women raised within that household were usually shrewd and intelligent.

He’d hoped to find three young women with enough training to infiltrate quietly and pass undetected by the demon. 

What he had actually found were three girls barely on the cusp of training beyond household chores, one corps member who’d never reached field work, and Kanao, the tsuguko so out of touch with her own personality that she flipped a coin to make decisions (although he had been impressed by her eventual refusal to obey his command.)

His decision to accept the three boys had been more an act of increasing desperation than strategy. They wouldn’t pass for great beauties as his wives would, but they might be brought on by the houses for labor and cleaning. Better still, they’d seen true combat experience against demons and could, hopefully, last long enough for him to arrive and throw them out of danger.

Tengen had had to move fast. Makio, Suma, and Hinatsuru were walking a tightrope in demon territory, and every second spent struggling to find them was potential poison wicking away into their blood and stealing their lives.

The mistress of the wisteria house had looked bemused at the admittedly heavy hand he’d taken to the boy’s makeup. “Esteemed hashira, if this one may offer her assistance in the matter….”

Though he was the god of festivals and flare, Tengen hadn’t ever had a need to invest his skills in powder and blush beyond essentials for disguise. He nodded. “Please do. We’ll be in your care.”

Nearly a mark after the sun had set, she had returned the three boys - and the change in their appearance had been, to put it mildly, night and day.

“Madame, to have painted such a stunning picture from the raw materials,” he murmured appreciatively, his gaze sweeping over the three young ‘women’ perched on pillows before him. “You might be an artist of uncommon skill.”

She blushed. “It is my honor to be of assistance to you.” Her husband, a milksop with a distinctly drab face, nodded peaceably. 

She had managed to find wigs that matched their hair colors as well as robes that would mask their muscled frames beneath the thick fabric.

The wild one with the boar head was, perhaps, the most dramatic change simply by virtue of his transformation to a human face rather than an animal’s (though he had appreciated the look for its flamboyance.) Inosuke’s features were exquisite, his nose dainty, his skin soft and pale around dazzling green eyes. Such a face would have sold for an exceptionally high price in the district, if its bearer could manage to keep the bloodthirsty grin and deep, masculine voice under wraps.

The shrieking blonde boy, Zenitsu, with the screeching voice cleaned up well, too. Madam had braided her hair and wove a red ribbon amongst the tresses. His choppy fringe was pinned back and tucked amongst the wig until he had a look of an attractive girl on the cusp of adulthood, if a bit sickly or weak from his frequent puckered lips and the terror in his eyes. He knew some men were into that, though he didn’t see the appeal himself. He hoped he’d look less ugly to others without the resentful looks he sent Tengen.

The third boy, though.

He had potential.

Tengen stared at him for a long moment. Long enough that he could see the scowl on the blond boy’s face grow even more thunderous than before. 

Madam had dressed him in a deep emerald kimono that hugged his shoulders, paired with a vibrant scarlett obi around his waist. Delicate pine trees were embroidered along the hems and a scenic river within a forest nestled below the nape of his neck, only just visible by the dark maroon wig that flowed down his back. Two gold pins and another red ribbon were tied beneath the crown of his head, smoothly weaving his real hair amongst the wig.

Like with the other boys, Madam had refreshed his makeup, blotting out the excess powder and blush until a more natural look remained. Tengen found himself drawn to the delicate sweep of the boy’s lashes, the brush of blush that dusted his golden skin, and the spot of paint that emphasized his stunning red eyes, the pleasing shade of crushed berries or steeping rose petals in tea.

The only spot on his face that had been blotted generously with makeup was the Demon Slayer mark on his forehead. The madams of the district would refuse him on sight with such a scar. Tengen found that to be one of the numerous lapses in taste from the district’s culture. Such a mark was a sign of strength, perseverance, and unbowed spirit. Immensely sexy in its own way.

What was this one’s name again? Ah. Tanjiro. 

“Oh, not bad.” Tengen tilted his head to the side. “It’ll be much easier to sell them now. My gratitude, Madam.”

He could hear the blond boy’s teeth grinding. 

She bowed and retreated with a quiet, “Please call if you require anything else.”

He hummed and nodded. Once she had left the room, he circled the boys with a sharp gaze before returning to the front of the room for the mission debrief. 

“As I stated before, our goal is to place one of you within each of the houses in which my wives infiltrated: Tokito, Ogimoto, and Kyogoku. I had thought that would be a challenge - even with the appeal of free labor, few houses want to take ugly girls - but Madam’s efforts have significantly increased our chances.”

“I’d rather take another punch to the gut than receive a compliment from you,” grumbled Zenitsu mutinously.

Tengen glared at him. “That can easily be arranged.”

“So we just gotta go in there and find your wife? Why not just find the demon first?” Inosuke asked gruffly, his legs spread unseamly wide for a woman. The collar of his kimono had, somehow, already become much looser than propriety demanded.

“If it was going to be that easy, I wouldn’t have had to rely on the three of you.” Tengen felt the thin thread of his patience rapidly sparking toward destruction. “Your mission is to slip seamlessly into the house, keep your ears open, and find my wife - report back to me with any information you discover. Don’t engage unless absolutely necessary for the protection of yourself or others. If there is ever a time in which your life is in danger - genuine dangers - “ he clarified when the blonde boy’s mouth snapped open, “then retreat immediately and report.”

He pointed to the ceiling. “Next to this estate, there is a sloped rooftop with a crow perched on the weathervane. That will be our meeting point. Report at midnight, every night. Send a note if you cannot come in person.”

Inosuke grunted with approval, his pinky finger digging into his left ear. His hands kept twitching toward the boar head tucked into the corner of the room. Zenitsu hissed beneath his breath but jerked his head in assent. 

Tanjiro nodded firmly, his expression fixed with determination. “Yes, Uzui-san.”

Tengen stared at him again, caught by his pure eyes and resolute expression. You’re my favorite , he thought with an internal sigh. The boy’s manner reminded him a lot of Hinatsuru: dutiful, strong, exuding a gentleness that was rare in such a world. 

Kamado Tanjiro. He’d initially disapproved of the boy and his demon sister - such an arrangement defied the laws of nature and could only end in misery. He’d seen enough bloodshed amongst family. Tengen had thought it would be more merciful, in the long run, to end their journey now while they were still unstained in that way.

He still had his reservations. Not once had he encountered a demon before Kamado Nezuko who had not devoured human flesh, eventually. But he could see a glimmer of what Kyojuro had seen in Tanjiro.

Undaunted spirit. Earnest. Kind. That unusual breath of his: Hinokami Kagura , Dance of the Fire God. Surprisingly flamboyant, this one.

“Get ready. We’ll canvas the street for the house recruiters. Five minutes.”

With that, he quickly stepped into a side room and donned his own disguise, his thoughts mapping out the next ten, twenty steps in the strategy, a hollow weight in his stomach.

Once out on the street, he once again suppressed the urge to throttle them as they looked around, wide-eyed and curious, prone to wander off the path unless he grabbed them by the scruff and dragged them back. Unladylike, the lot of them. Well, Inosuke and Zenitsu.

Tanjiro kept in step with him and managed a modicum of grace, surveying the street with caution. When he spoke, he kept his voice low and controlled. “The letters indicated the demon was someone of high rank, yes? They must be adept at disguise and skilled to have avoided suspicion for so long, even after your wives began investigating.”

“Mmm.” 

“Makio’s and Hinatsuru’s observations seemed to indicate that that position could be a high-ranking geisha, even an oiran. That would certainly give them power over others in the house. Enough control to plant evidence or stop rumors from spreading. Suma was looking into a suspicious night prowler. Perhaps the demon has forced or tricked a human into doing their bidding.”

“It’s possible. There could also be multiple demons, working as a team or separately. The rise in deaths could indicate a battle for territory.”

Tanjiro’s eyes widened before his expression grew grim. “I see. Fighting over - “

“Feeding grounds. Yeah.”

The young man’s face twisted with grief and frustration for a split second before he mastered his emotions and pulled the veil over his expression. Tengen could still see the hint of steel within his gaze though. His hand reached for his belt, likely searching for the comforting weight of his sword now hidden on his back. 

Calm under pressure. Compassionate but holding himself to a rigid core of integrity. 

Hmm.

Without turning around, Tengen sighed and reached back just as Inosuke lurched toward a food stall with roasting skewers slowly turning on a revolving grill. Zenitsu at least seemed to be behaving for now, though his gaze still burned with venom on the back of Tengen’s neck.

“All right, that’s the first house there. We’ll request an audience with the house madam and see if she can be tempted to purchase one of you.” Tengen looked over the three of them with a deadpan gaze before narrowing on Tanjiro. “You’ll go first.”

Tanjiro’s brows rose.

“Eh? Why?” Zenistu balked, indignant.

“His beauty, the gentle demeanor. Good figure, easy deliverable behind. That eager look in his eyes,” he listed off each point with a finger, resigning himself to losing the best subordinate first and begging off the irritating ones to other madams on his own. “They’ll eat him up.”

Inosuke had turned around and begun inspecting Tanjiro, his competitive nature obvious even in a strange competition such as this, searching for the differences between them. 

Zenitsu gaped, horrified. “What did you just - are you - his ‘figure’? Did you say - ‘easy deliverable’ what ?” 

“Hmm? Yeah.” Tengen’s gaze swept over Tanjiro again. “How old are you again?”

He straightened up at the sudden question. “Ah, sixteen.” 

“Mmm.” Tengen nodded. “In a couple more years, you’d make a good husband.”

Tanjiro seemed unsure how to respond to this comment on his suitability in marriage. He blinked several times, his mouth slightly open, his ears turning a light pink. “Ah - you think so?” He asked bashfully.

Tengen considered the pool of warmth in his chest carefully before he came to a conclusion. “Indeed. Once we have rescued my wives and dispatched the demon, you should come visit my estate. You’d be welcome to take your rest period there.”

A hair-raising shriek erupted at their backs just then. Zenitsu was practically frothing at the mouth, his words tumbling out as garbled mutterings of rage and horror. “Are you actually - when you already have three wives - you playboy ! Philanderer ! Beast !” The boy threw himself between them and crouched in front of his friend as though he were a hissing alley cat defending his young. “Gorgeous women aren’t enough for you?! Now you want to take Tanjiro ?! Leave some beautiful people for the rest of us! Get away from him !”

“Ah! Zenitsu, calm down! You’ll spoil our cover!” 

Tengen wished they were still in the wisteria house, where there weren’t crowds of people who would be justifiably concerned if he delivered another punishing punch to the brat’s gut. Still, he’d figured that would provoke a reaction. He was partly to blame for the brewing drama unfolding on the street and the wandering eyes they were drawing. 

“Get it together, brat,” Tengen murmured, throwing his voice so that only Zenitsu would hear. “Focus on the mission.”

“How about you focus on the mission?” he retorted fiercely, sweat bubbling from his brow with the force of his indignation. “Rather than slobbering over a man when you have three wives ?”

Tengen held his gaze.

The brat’s survival instinct must have finally surfaced, because he grew pale beneath the rage spawning blotches of pink color on his cheeks. His lips pressed together so hard they grew white beneath the rouge, but he managed to get his wayward tongue under control. His eyes, on the other hand, continued to spit venom at him, his hands grasping for a sword hidden beneath his clothes.

Tengen sighed. “Let’s get this over with.”

In the end, he’d been correct. The first madam at Tokito house had looked at Tanjiro as though he could drip pearls and jewels from his mouth. She bought him up on the spot, for a price twice what he’d intended to barter the boys for earlier that day. 

He managed to sell the other two nearly as quickly and resolved to hand all the proceeds over to the wisteria house Madam for her efforts and as additional payment for their stay. 

As dawn approached over the drowsy district, Tengen stood watch on the rooftops and listened for any detection of movement amongst the streets. The only snarls to be found that night were the scrabbling of stray dogs in the alleys, and a couple drunks who were reluctant to leave the perfumed embrace of a geisha. 

The boys would report tomorrow after a full day within the houses. It wouldn’t take long for them to come up with something - geisha houses were infamous for gossip, rife with stories of intrigue, scandal, or abuse. Tengen fought against his impatience, his thoughts turning toward Makio, Hinatsuru, and Suma with a fear that increased every day he wasn’t in contact with them.

The thought of Kamado Tanjiro as his husband had been more of an idle curiosity than anything else, but now that he considered it, the thought grew more appealing by the minute. His wives were brilliant kunoichi, powerful in their own right, but they had been trained for conflict with human kind. If they had another demon slayer in their family, one who could participate in missions alongside them, whose instincts would be honed against demon kind… well. 

What a flashy team they’d make.