She blinked groggily as sunlight reached her closed eyelids, making her turn to her side with a small yawn.
"Had a nice nap, Nezuko?" Her mother's voice suddenly sounded.
Slowly opening her eyes, red eyes squinted to see her mother's amused face peering down at her. Her head was carefully settled on her mother's lap as gentle hands combed through her dark locks. What had she been doing again? Oh, after finishing patching up Takeo's scarf and Hanako's haori, her mother had sat down with her and indulged her a few stories about her own childhood. Nezuko couldn't pinpoint the exact moment she'd dozed off.
"I'm sorry for falling asleep," She murmured, curling up further under the thick blanket draped over her as her eyelids drooped. Of course, her mother was always so thoughtful especially when it finally started snowing this winter.
"Now, don't be like that," Kie chided quietly, amused. "You sound like your brother." There was a huff. Of exasperation, maybe.
"Not really," Nezuko let out a long exhale as she slowly opened her eyes.
"Of course," Her mother sighed quietly. "Unlike your brother, you did get that temper from me. I just wished you weren't so hard on him. He's doing his best." There was no reproach in her voice but Nezuko recognized the probing lilt it had taken.
She wanted to pretend that she didn't know what her mother was talking about.
But it's hard. Not when the emotions came crashing back.
(It's okay, it's okay, she'd wanted to scream.)
"Onii-chan's strong, I know that," Nezuko murmured as her fists clenched underneath the blanket. "But so are we. Tou-san's gone, he's never gonna come back. We're still making peace with that. And we can't do anything about it either. Onii-chan can't always apologize for every thing that goes wrong. A-And. And–" Her breath hitched, wrestling her frustrations deep inside because otherwise, she'd be mad at Tanjirou again.
Her mother remained silent, patient.
"He's not tou-san," She whispered softly. And I don't want him to be, it didn't even need to be said.
She loved them both. God, she really did. She missed her father too, so terribly much. But ever since she could remember, their father had always been sick. And with that knowledge came the expectation that he wouldn't be with them for very long. It also didn't help that he prepared them young for that inevitable outcome. Sometimes, this thought kept her up at night. Their father was strong but they lost him too early. That he didn't get to be there enough for her younger siblings.
"And he isn't trying to be," Kie told her gently, a hand on Nezuko's shoulder. "Your brother loves us very much, just like your father. However, you have to understand. Tanjirou, even as the eldest, is still very young just like you. You think he's strong but, even now, he's still heartbroken over your father's death. He'd always been optimistic, hoping that with time, your father would get better. That's why his death hit him hard. And if looking after us makes him feel better, who am I to stop that?"
Nezuko's sight became blurred with tears.
Sometimes, it was easy to forget that he's struggling too with the way Tanjirou shouldered everything. Because he had been too ready for them to rely on him. That was why his apologies frustrated her so much. Because she'd wanted him to realize that he was doing a great job all this time, that just because things weren't perfect didn't make him any less of a brother or son. That he didn't have to try to fill in for their father because Tanjirou had lost his father too.
"Fine," She finally decided with a watery laugh. "I won't scold him too much." She compromised.
"I'm glad that you're always looking out for him," Their mother smiled.
Two weeks later, those were the words that kept her going and it gave her the strength to fight for her brother's life.
Nezuko turned and saw Urokodaki beckoning her older brother to them. It had been eight months since they lived here in Mount Sagiri. Sometimes, it felt strange to think that eight months ago, she and Tanjirou lived with their family back at their mountain. Waking up early to help their mother in cooking breakfast, doing the household chores with Takeo, sometimes visiting the town with the others, trying out new recipes with her older brother and mother–
She blinked back to reality as her brother's face came into view, having padded his way to Nezuko's side.
"I want you to learn as well," Urokodaki spoke quietly, his tengu mask illuminated by the fire. "While this is mostly for Nezuko as a disciple of the Breath of Water, I think that you'd benefit from this as well." Nezuko felt her brother tense beside her, feeling the air vibrating with sudden anticipation.
She felt grateful that he included her brother in some of his teachings. She could tell how much her older brother deeply appreciated the gesture. Especially when it became apparent that Urokodaki knew a lot of things. Not just focusing a lot on knowledge. But about surviving. Not only from demons but from the world in general. It reminded her deeply of their mother. While Kie only had primary school education under her belt, as all Japanese children nationwide were required to attend even now, her mother had never stopped learning and had a lot to teach them.
Unlike their siblings, she and Tanjirou had not attended primary school.
That was not to say they were uneducated but they had been homeschooled by their parents. It was not surprising seeing as their family lived in isolation at the mountain and the only school at that time had been by a dojo two mountains away. Once Takeo had been old enough, a new primary school had opened at the town near them and their parents had deemed it safe for their younger siblings to attend.
Initially, their father had thought to send them as well but she and Tanjirou had instead decided to continue their homeschooling to help more around their home. Even then, the townsfolk, who had always been so kind to their family, had sometimes let her and her older brother sit in on some of the classes.
When Tanjirou became a demon, Nezuko was distraught to discover that he'd lost his literacy as well.
Sometimes, she'd patiently read a story with him while other times, she would catch Urokodaki showing her brother the strokes that made the katakana and hiragana. He was slowly relearning everything.
But, even then, when Urokodaki included her brother in his lessons about fighting, there was always an itch under her skin that refused to settle.
"The Breath of Water is, among all other breaths, one of the easiest to learn for a demon slayer. However, this fighting style requires calm precision in its execution to deliver a blow at its maximum efficiency." Urokodaki explained but Nezuko got the feeling that the entire statement was directed towards her. "That's why users of this breath must be adaptable and have a good head on their shoulders." She fidgeted, now certain this was mainly for her.
Her brow creased when even Tanjirou turned to look at her as the man said this.
Now, that wasn't fair. Nezuko had a temper, even before. There had been a time when she'd scared Takeo and Shigeru that one time she'd lost it when she'd seen a man abusing a child right in front of her. Still, it took a lot to provoke her. However, ever since her family's death, Nezuko was aware that she was now easily overwhelmed by her emotions. It was so easy to slip in and get swept by the tide of her anger.
Even then, not being angry anymore was easier said than done.
"I'm learning," was all she had to offer quietly, put out.
"You should," Urokodaki bluntly replied and her face scrunched up, exasperated. "Also, the Breath of Water is rather common. It's one of the most versatile breath styles out there. This makes it ideal for coordinated attacks. The style meshes fluidly with the other breath styles." The old man suddenly paused, as if weighing his options. "Because at the chance that you're facing an opponent you can't handle on your own, you need to fall back and work with other demon slayers. I mean this, Nezuko. You can't protect anyone if you end up dead."
You can't protect your brother if you die, was what remained unsaid.
She knew that what he was saying was true but at the same time–
"What if there are no other demon slayers around?" She countered immediately, fists clenched. "What if I'm the only one between that demon and other people? I-I can't just stand by and wait for someone to help me finish the job when lives could be lost." Her voice trembled with barely concealed weariness. She stiffened when she felt Tanjirou placing a hand above her fists and she honestly didn't want to see the look on his face.
(All I did was watch–)
"I hope a time like that never comes," The old man sighed but it was a helpless sort of gesture. "But we both know it's unavoidable. When it does happen, survive for as long as you can. Until help comes. Because that's the only thing you can do." Though, he paused, as if just remembering. "But I don't think your brother would let it come to that." Urokodaki said quietly and it was subtle but Nezuko swore he was smiling behind that mask.
That's what I'm afraid of, she thought as she finally turned to her brother, his slitted eyes gleaming with determination.
"Tomioka-san, I've been wondering," Nezuko paused, red eyes fixed on the man to carefully gauge his reaction. "That kid, he's the same age as me, isn't he?" She asked him quietly, her mind wandering back to that scene in the dojo three days ago.
"You have to be more specific," He replied just as quietly, eyes closed as he sat cross-legged on the floorboards of the engawa.
Nezuko's intuition told her that he knew exactly what she was talking about. Right now, Tanjirou was with the other girls of the Butterfly Estate, following them around in his child form. After that spectacle with Maeda earlier about her uniform, she felt that she might not get the chance to ask this again. It had been bothering her for a while. After all, that trial with all the pillars was still fresh in her mind.
"You called him Tokitou," Nezuko murmured, feeling a surge of annoyance just at the thought of that smug jerk. "He's the same age as me and he's a pillar," She was beginning to suspect that unless she spoke straight to the point, Tomioka would just stall.
"Do you doubt his integrity as one of the pillars?" The man questioned, revealing icy blue eyes to stare at her.
Her brows furrowed at his question.
"No, it's just–" She hesitated, suddenly unsure.
"Then what is it?" He raised an eyebrow at her.
"I lost my family two years ago to a demon and right now, I'm a demon slayer," Nezuko said carefully in order to avoid misunderstandings this time. "So, he's the same age as me and he's a pillar. That means he's been a demon slayer for longer than I am." It was the way Tomioka's entire being seemed to still, avoiding her gaze, that told her he finally understood what she was telling him.
"Tokitou is… different," The man replied almost unsurely, as if he couldn't find the appropriate word he was looking for. "He has natural talent. Only the Oyakata is aware of the circumstances of why he became a demon slayer." And you shouldn't pry, his tone told her.
"It wasn't why I even asked in the first place," Nezuko sighed as she shook her head, feeling unsettled. It was easy to be aggravated with Tokitou with the way he'd treated her that one time but just thinking about him as a pillar at that age and what it meant, she found that she couldn't really hold on to that vexation. "But it came up. What did he want with onii-chan?" She wondered out loud.
The other boy, surprisingly enough, didn't seem to be hostile towards her brother.
Still, it wasn't like she expected her mentor to know the answer but–
Tomioka still wouldn't look at her.
Her intuition gave a low hum. Of course, he knows. She thought somewhat exasperatedly. Given that Tokitou didn't care about them during the trial, the only thing that could've changed that was during the pillar meeting after she, Tanjirou and Inosuke had been kicked out.
"He…" Tomioka's voice made her jump, having assumed that he wouldn't answer her. "…has a unique condition. For some reason, Oyakata-sama thinks that your brother will be able to help him." She couldn't tell in his voice if he doubted this but he didn't seem certain of it either.
(Then, she remembered. Gaze flashing with something unreadable.
He's lying, her intuition had said.)
Still, thinking of Ubuyashiki Kagaya, Nezuko got the impression that he was not one to do things without reason. So, there was obviously more to it than she was seeing. While he looked frail and was not obviously built to fight, there was just something terrifying about how expertly he'd handled that volatile situation.
That calm confidence reminded her of someone. A voice of reason, of quiet determination.
Once upon a time.
(Maybe, just maybe, they could help. When they meet Tokitou again.
If he kept quiet enough.)
"Everything seems to be normal," Asahi, the doctor that Urokodaki had finally called in to check on her brother, declared in bewilderment as he shook his head.
Nezuko bit her lip, uncertain if this was something to be worried about. Her intuition was strangely quiet, which was an answer, but the fact that the man's words and actions told them that there was nothing else he could do to change the situation steadily filled her with disappointment. This was the longest time that Tanjirou slept continuously. It was farfetched, especially with her brother's unique condition, but Nezuko had held that small hope that she could finally discover what was wrong with her brother.
As if sensing what she was thinking, Urokodaki laid a firm hand on her shoulder. Probably expecting her to react drastically.
She didn't let it get to her, squeezing her brother's hand and willing him to wake up.
(I have to be strong, she'd told Kitsune. You will, he'd said. Because there's no room for otherwise.)
"Even for a demon?" Urokodaki was quick to follow up.
Another thing about Asahi was that Urokodaki had trusted the man enough to tell him about her brother's condition. In spite of this, even with apprehension clouding his eyes, he'd readily taken on his duties like he would any other patient. And not once had she seen him falter. Despite her inhibitions when Urokodaki had first told her about him, she'd trusted the old man enough to put her faith in his judgment.
(She wasn't always like this. But when she's putting her world into another person's hands, it took every ounce of her goodwill to stand by that decision.)
"I'm not really certain if I'm the right person for this," The doctor sighed wearily as he stared at her brother. "I don't know anything about demons, to be honest. And getting almost killed by one doesn't count, Urokodaki. But if I abide by what I learned as a doctor for nearly a decade, everything tells me that this boy is merely asleep. He hasn't consumed human flesh for sustenance, hasn't consumed anything for sustenance, but we're not really aware how this affects him." His pursed his lips, grim.
"But he's okay?" The words were out of her mouth before she could swallow them. "He's just asleep? There's nothing wrong with him?"
Asahi stared at her in surprise, as if having forgotten that she was related to his demon patient.
Then he nodded slowly.
"That's what it looks like, at least," Asahi spoke cautiously.
Nezuko released the breath that she hadn't realized she was holding.
That was good.
(Then why wasn't he waking up–)
When Asahi was leaving, she excused herself from the house and chased after him. Nezuko asked him how he knew Urokodaki. When the old man had told her that he would be bringing a doctor in, she had not expected him. And, despite it all, her brother was still asleep, they still didn't know why, but Tanjirou was okay. That was all she needed to know. Right now, that knowledge had been enough.
The smile that bloomed openly on his face surprised her.
"You could say I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for Urokodaki," His simply told her, not divulging any details.
And he left it at that.
It was hard to believe in heroes when her family was dead. There was no such thing as glory or pride as it had been emphasized in primary school that came with the era of samurai. There was no glory in dying. Obviously no pride in being a demon slayer when tragedy created them in the first place.
But, if she did believe in them, Nezuko thought that they came in the forms of an old man in a tengu mask and a young man in half-and-half haori.
(In her heart, a hero would also be someone she had called "onii-chan".)
"Inosuke, why do you want to be a demon slayer?" She paused at the hallway and levelled a stare at her loud friend.
He tilted his head at her. While she couldn't see his expression with that boar head in the way, she could feel the incredulity exuding from him. It always amazed her how he could be so expressive. Still, what made her ask was because she'd immediately noticed one thing that separated Inosuke from the rest of the demon slayers she'd met so far. He could yell and swear and insult anything and everyone all he wanted.
But Inosuke lacked anger. And, just maybe, that's what made accepting Tanjirou easier for him.
"A demon slayer intruded on my mountain." He crossed his arm as he said this. "We got to see who's stronger and I kept his sword. Then when I heard about the Final Selection and finally realized that demons are real, I couldn't just pass it up. After all, testing my strength against other opponents is what I enjoy the most!" He laughed rather obnoxiously.
"Is this what you really wanted?" Nezuko couldn't help but ask.
Inosuke didn't answer her right away.
But then, he must've heard something in her voice because he removed his boar head to properly look back at her. He was weighing her words, having sensed that she wasn't asking just for the sake of knowing. She was relieved that, for once, she got her point across and didn't come off as insulting. It wasn't like she was questioning his place in the Demon Slaying Corps. Because she knew very well that he'd earned his place.
"I don't have any parents or siblings," Inosuke eventually shrugged, exhaling loudly through his nose as her chest constricted at his words. "And I don't really have anything waiting for me back at my mountain." He then paused, unbothered before he scowled at her. "You gotta stop always questioning things, Haruko! No one's always gonna give you an answer. Sometimes, you just gotta move because it's the only thing to do. Not everything needs a reason." He then proceeded to pinch her nose, making her yelp.
Slapping his hand away from her face, Nezuko glared, especially when he huffed out a laugh.
(I didn't give up because that's what we can only do, an eight-year-old Tanjirou told her once.
And he was right.)
She'd never thought about Inosuke's circumstance while growing up. He never had a home like theirs that their parents made sure was full of love. He didn't have people who would love him unconditionally. He wasn't angry because he lacked anything to lose.
And that was the saddest realization she'd had.
"I'll take care of you," She declared promptly without thinking.
"Hah?!" He objected loudly, getting in her face with the deepest scowl she'd seen on him. "Were you listening to me awhile ago? Are you stupid? I'm doing fine on my own– Oww! What the hell bitch?!" He glared up at her from where he'd crumpled on the floor as soon as she'd flicked him on the forehead.
Okay, she hadn't meant to put too much power into that. Inosuke's forehead was going to bruise.
Nezuko held her sword in her hands. The one that Haganezuka had left for her earlier, that had been forged for her.
Two years ago, the thought that she would wield one had never crossed her mind.
Becoming a demon slayer had never been an option for her back then. She would give anything for the chance to have her family back instead even if it meant she'd lose this strength. But that had been before. And right now, she'd used what she learned and worked hard for so that other people wouldn't have to lose their family like she did, so she wouldn't have to watch anyone die ever again.
(Never again, her heart throbbed.)
She heard a familiar shuffling from behind her, able to tell instantly who it was before she saw him.
"Yes, onii-chan?" She prompted without looking at him, focusing on folding the haori she'd patched up for Shigeru. The one he'd had last year didn't fit him anymore, having complained how the slots though the sleeves made it hard for him to move.
"I'm so–" He paused, having obviously recalled her admonishment the other day.
"It's okay," She finally turned to look at him with a small smile. "It was unfair of me too to say those things. But I meant what I said. Onii-chan, you take care of us. But we want to do the same for you. We might not be at a good place but we're getting there, aren't we? So, you don't have to apologize for anything. Because you're already the best brother and son we can ask for." She spoke steadily, not letting him get a word in until she finished speaking.
This was something he needed to hear.
Though, her eyes widened when he suddenly started to tear up, staring at her in something like surprise.
"A-Ah, why would you say that?" He choked out with a wobbly smile, obviously trying to lighten up the mood as he hastily wiped the tears that trickled down his cheeks. "I was supposed to come here and tell you that I'll do better from now on." He sniffed quietly, wiping his face with his scarf.
Now, Nezuko was glad that her mother had been thoughtful enough to bring their siblings with her down the river.
"What are you talking about?" She stood up on her feet as she approached him, trying not to cry now too. "I told you, didn't I? What's important here is now. As long as we all have each other, we can face the future together." Nezuko spoke gently as she used the sleeve of her kimono to wipe his face, realizing that their mother was right, and felt her eyes burn at the emotions surging through her at that thought.
Then he pulled her into a hug.
"You really are my sister!" He declared proudly.
"As if there's any doubt about that, silly onii-chan," She hugged him back just as fiercely, tapping him on the back twice, then once because she wouldn't have it any other way.
She and Tanjirou were four and five years old, respectively, as he let her climb on his back to reach for a peach.
Her older brother was so strong.
He burnt the rice again. And they still ate it. The tentative smile they got for it was worth it.
Nezuko called out to her older brother as he ran around with Rokuta on his shoulders, telling him to be careful.
Tanjirou holding her hand so she wouldn't get lost because she was so excited to explore the mountain.
They still got lost. It was their father, frantic with worry, who'd found them.
But she was never scared. Because she had her older brother right there with her.
Tanjirou, now a demon, holding onto her hand tightly.
Because he knew she's feeling lonely.
"It's a promise, okay?" Nezuko smiled at him as they walked away from the Butterfly Estate, on their way to their first mission. "We'll always be together from now on."