passages of water & blood @stanzas
water, blood

ii. something thicker than water

but neither bound by blood

Mother always wore her hair tucked away and ordered. At the start of each day she rose before Father, hours before her or her siblings stumbled out of slumber, already assembling the necessary chores for the day and cooking sweet rice over the wood stove. Her hair was always done first. Nezuko only saw her hair down right before they trundled off to sleep, the motion only caught in the shadow of her mother’s profile beside the lamp and cast high upon the wall.

Mother always wore her hair tucked away and ordered. At the start of each day she rose before Father, hours before her or her siblings stumbled out of slumber, already assembling the necessary chores for the day and cooking sweet rice over the wood stove. Her hair was always done first. Nezuko only saw her hair down right before they trundled off to sleep, the motion only caught in the shadow of her mother’s profile beside the lamp and cast high upon the wall.

Nezuko rises early one morning and feigns sleep with her eyes wide open as she watches her mother’s steady hands thread through her hair and pin it atop her head. Having completed her first task, Mother turns and meets her eyes with a crinkled smile. “Awake so early?” She teases.

Flushing, Nezuko curls deeper under the blanket. The next morning she watches again and waits for her mother to finish. “Do you want to learn?” Mother asks.

“Yes,” Nezuko says, hands already reaching back to twist her hair as she had watched her mother’s hands perform the same movement. “Please show me.”

The people down in the village at the foot of their mountain always remark how beautiful her mother is, although she imagines their memories must be aged by wear and disuse. Mother hasn’t left their house much since Father’s illness. Those trips dwindle into rare visits until the wet season fades into warmth. Sometimes she accompanies Tanjirou and hears it again. How she’s so beautiful, like her mother. How lucky Nezuko is to inherit her kind face and eyes. How proud her father must be to have such a lovely daughter.

Though tired, pale and worn, it is her father’s kind face she remembers clearly. Her mother’s face is delicate and soft, all fair and beautiful traits, but the villagers are surely mistaken. Only her father’s face carries traces of kindness. Her brother Tanjirou bears the same slope of his brow, his nose, and even the gracious curve of his mouth.

“You’ve grown,” Mother remarks quietly, her work-worn hands pulling gently and rubbing against her scalp as she commands Nezuko’s hair into obedience. “Not so little anymore, are you my dear Nezuko?”

“Yes! All grown up,” Nezuko says proudly.

“No,” Mother laughs, a shallow huff of air. “No -- not yet, I should think. A while longer now.” Her lips curve up, higher at one corner than the other, crooked and full of cheer. “You wouldn’t grow up without telling your mother, would you?”

Every morning after, Nezuko combs out her own hair and pulls it back in the stiff bun her mother taught her and begins her day. She shakes her siblings out of sleep. Tanjirou is already gone most mornings, either scouting in the woods for winter fowl or hunting whatever else wanders to their side of the mountain. Winter does no favors for Father, growing weaker and silent in the cold frost even as he continues the ceremony of another season.

The next year of frost returns at full strength while their father does not. Nezuko ties up her hair and wraps it securely in place. She wakes Rokuta and bundles his stubborn sleep-sprawled limbs into the infant sling on her back. He yawns and presses his forehead into the base of her neck, already slipping back into sleep.

A lifetime ago to her -- although she knows all that’s changed has fallen under the eclipse of a year.

Pale red eyes meet her gaze in the water’s reflection. Her hair is loose and tangled and free; drooping down past her shoulders and still carrying bits of leaves and grass from the underbrush. Tanjirou is looking at her when she raises her head, his expression gentle and concerned.

Nezuko raises her hand -- sharp nails, claw-like, unnatural -- and pulls searchingly at the ends of the freed strands. Tanjirou’s expression wavers, surface-level calm, but there’s a flicker of something like grief in his eyes. Mirrored in her own, she knows, even though her eyes look nothing like the warm red-brown embers they once shared.

“It’s alright, Nezuko,” he murmurs, so low and quiet that it’s barely more than an exhale. “Sit with me. I can fix your hair for you.”

She pulls herself closer to the dying coals of Urokodaki’s stove. Tanjirou retrieves a small comb from within the folds of his clothes and parts her hair. His steady hands divide smaller sections and begins from the bottom, removing all of the dirt and everything else acquired from travel. Nezuko allows her shoulders to relax a fraction, slipping into a tranquil calm she hasn’t come close to feeling since that terrible night.

Tanjirou combs her hair until the last embers die and plunge them into full night. He rises and lights an oil lamp and returns to his seat to finish brushing the rest. Satisfied, he pulls her hair back and draws it up with familiar motion. His fingers press against her scalp, leaving the shape in place.

The reflection in the bowl is a stab of remorse she didn’t expect. With her hair raised over her shoulders, mouth drawn closed and tight, she sees the shadow of herself from a lifetime ago. Her mother carding her fingers through her hair and pulling her hair up in a tight bun, for ease of work and play.

That girl is gone. In her place kneels the pale-red eyes glowing in the dark. Grey-hued skin, corpse-like and cold. Even though her lips remain pressed together in a thin line she knows the shape of her teeth that lie behind the deception of a youthful innocent face.

Without meaning to, she lets out a small wounded sound. A hitch of a sob. Alarmed, Tanjirou asks worriedly, “Nezuko--?”

She forces the emotion back. Her throat clenches; a stone lodged so tight she can’t draw air. “It’s not the same,” she gasps out. “It’s not me anymore, Tanjirou. It’s not me.”

He smells of forest, rich earth and tree sap and mountain air. His arms draw her in, strong and sure, even though his chest rumbles like he aches.

“You are,” Tanjirou promises, holding her in his arms like they’re small again, rocking her and wrapping himself around her. A shield of warmth. This, she knows. This, she remembers. This is familiar. Fear scatters, no longer trapping her; shadows skittering away from the light.

Tanjirou murmurs into her hair, as steady and honest as she’s always known. “You’re still my little sister. I know who you are, Nezuko. I know exactly who you are.”

Winter melts way into spring. Giyuu passes through days after their own arrival and chases the sound of new orders from an ill-tempered crow. Urokodaki takes Tanjirou to the top of the mountain to train. Nezuko sleeps away the hours of daylight, sometimes even into the dark, as her body burns -- and learns to ignore the burning entirely.

While Tanjirou continues challenging the boulder on the other side of the forest, Nezuko finds herself with Urokodaki’s full undivided attention. She asks him first. “You said there is a way to control the other half of me that forgets it’s human.”

“I said nothing of the sort,” Urokodaki answers gruffly. “I can promise nothing. It all depends.”

Nezuko tempers her expression, although she can’t help the small frown in her brow at Urokodaki’s reluctance. “Depends on?”

“Your strength,” he replies. “And your determination to do so.”

Nezuko senses there is something more. He says, as though admitting great defeat, "I might be able to use suggestion to redirect your instincts. Or at least lower the amount of will you exert denying yourself from desiring human blood."

Suggestion. Nezuko opens her mouth, closes it, and wonders what more she can ask. Finally she says, “Try it.”

It doesn’t work. She would rather pay the price of control over blind obedience of someone else's will. "Your consciousness is very strong," Urokodaki admits. "Stronger than I anticipated. I don't think any form of suggestion I offer will succeed with what you wish to accomplish. But, perhaps there is something else…”

Tanjirou and Urokodaki are gifted with incredible noses, and as a demon she suffers the curse of enhanced smell for anything with a pulse that smells edible. Sometimes Tanjirou would mention some smells too overwhelming and distracting for his senses. Urokodaki explains it more or less the same; a way to block out one sense and focus all attention to the other senses.

The hunger never goes away -- but it’s easier to ignore when the sweet scent of human blood isn’t there to tempt her.

As a child, her father told her, be kind, Nezuko, when you can, always be kind. Her father also said, but do not allow anyone to mistake you for lacking strength.

“When can I go to Final Selection?” Tanjirou asks.

Sabito glances over, assessing him in a blink and answers, “You aren’t ready.”

Tanjirou straightens. “I think I am. I feel ready.”

“That boulder still looks whole to me,” comes Sabito’s blithe reply.

Her brother’s face flashes with frustration before returning to determined focus. “I can do it.”

Sabito scoffs. “When you can best me in a duel, that’s when you’ll be ready. Only then you can prove yourself a man.”

There are others, Nezuko thinks, who have yet to learn that kindness does not necessarily mean weakness. Sabito has none of that tempered gentleness. While Tanjirou’s always kind. Too kind, perhaps. Far too kind to bear the kind of horror necessary to survive in this world.

“Do you understand?” Sabito demands. “If Nezuko can’t hold back her hunger -- if her resolve breaks for even a moment -- it must be you and your sword to uphold that oath. Any humans she devours will be on your honor. Any innocent blood spilled because of her loss of control will be on your hands.”

“I understand,” Tanjirou replies, sure and firm. But Nezuko, listening quietly inside the shadowed room -- doubts. Sabito, evidently, shares that doubt. He may not like her, but when she approaches him the following evening he yields to the reason of her proposal.

She attacks Tanjirou on his return from the boulder and in the middle of his path to Urokodaki’s cabin. It wasn’t easy to mask her scent but she counts on the element of surprise for her plan to succeed. He cries out with alarm. She sweeps him off his feet with a blunt kick in the knees.

Nezuko, what is--! Nezuko, what are you doing--!?”

If he’s expecting a coherent reply, he won’t get one. Nezuko growls at him. She allows her fangs to peek out through her lips, summons every ounce of feralistic instinct honed in her body and stalks over him. A predator in her natural element.

“What are you doing?” Tanjirou repeats. Nezuko strikes him once more under the cover of deep shadow. Tanjirou deflects her claws with his sword. Good. He’s drawn it.

His voice trembles, although his sword remains raised and steady. “Nezuko,” he begs. “What’s happened? Why are you doing this?”

“You know why.” Nezuko tells him, long after they’ve finished scuffling in the dark woods together. She only withdraws her challenge when Tanjirou falteringly lifts his sword to the vulnerable expanse of her neck and Sabito calls out, “Enough.”

Days pass before Sabito’s ire engulfs him and raises a new challenge. Pick up my sword, he dares, his chin nodding to the blade on the ground between them where he threw it down. You say you are not a demon? That you pledge no allegiance to the King of Demons? Then prove it. Pick up the sword. Learn to use it and use it well. Become a slayer.

Giyuu comes and goes, sometimes staying for days and other times vanishing for weeks at a time with no letters or hint of return. Sabito remains at Urokodaki’s house as he promised Giyuu, that solemn oath together under the pale cover of trees made with their hands meeting halfway. He hears Sabito’s challenge and sends him off, and then says, “You only pick up the sword if you intend to live by it, and that is your choice to make and nobody else’s.”

Huffing and determinedly wearing away his strength, reshaping his muscle and memory into the forms of water breathing, Tanjirou continues to train away his days outside. Nezuko makes her decision.

Urokodaki is hesitant at first despite her insistent demands that he teach her sword forms. I am not sure you will be able to learn as I taught your brother or the others, he confesses. I do not know if demons are capable of the breath forms the slayers use.

Sabito rejects his dismissal outright. “Then you train her.” Urokodaki waves him away with an unsympathetic hand. “Take responsibility.”

Ever his faithful student, Sabito bows, yielding to his master’s wish. The gleam of his eyes speaks of terrifying determination, relentless and furious as the torrent of a flood, but Nezuko meets it and doesn’t look away.

Her determination wavers but remains in place. If anything, her stubbornness intensifies.

The latest of Giyuu’s rare breaks presents a visitor: the Water Pillar, Makomo, another close former disciple of Urokodaki. Tanjirou tells her Makomo and Sabito were raised together by Urokodaki as children; and later Giyuu, too, after his remaining family died at the hands of demons. She observes Tanjirou for a few days, offering advice and criticism in equal measure. Satisfied with his efforts, her focus shifts to Nezuko once she’s made it clear to the Pillar she intends to learn the style of swords as well.

“You have no boulder to break,” Makomo says. She easily parries Nezuko’s burst of desperate lunges. “That isn’t your challenge. You must overcome a different problem.”

If she were human, her lungs would probably burn from over-exertion. It’s muscle memory, then, that makes her voice come out in rough gasps even though she doesn’t need air. “Then what must I do?”

“Tanjirou must break the boulder to prove his strength. He is too controlled. He’ll never be able to kill a demon if he doesn’t learn commitment.” The Water Pillar holds her blade to Nezuko’s chin, hovering over her neck. “When the time comes, do you think he will put aside his gentleness and cut off its head?”

Nezuko stares back at her. She’s much like Giyuu with that unblinking, emptiness in her eyes. Except Makomo is always smiling, while Giyuu wears a mask of indifference, as Sabito wears his fury.

“You have no such limits,” Makomo tells her. Nezuko doubts her tone is out of respect, for it is neither gentle or kind, but it is unflinchingly honest. “You require the very thing your brother has too much of. Before you can master water forms, you must learn to exercise restraint.”

Whispered, as though a fond secret, Makomo entreats her with the question of a Water Pillar’s trial: how does one control the mighty force of a waterfall into soft spring rain?

Whatever the answer to that mystical question is, it eludes her the same as the boulder’s weakness eludes her brother. Makomo stays for only three nights, and on the last she invites Giyuu and Sabito to a three-way even match. Tanjirou races to follow and observe. Nezuko, heeding the slow decline of daylight, joins shortly after. She steps into place alongside him overlooking the fight. “They’re incredible,” Tanjirou says under his breath. Quietly, Nezuko agrees with a soft hum.

Makomo and Sabito are clearly well-matched sword wielders. The similarity and familiar waves of their movements speak of their teachings under Urokodaki. Giyuu weaves between the two of them, each of their silver-blue steel meeting with a thunderclap and fanning out sparks where the blades clash together.

Tanjirou mumbles along with their movements, studying their strikes and blows with full-minded focus. Fourth form, he notes from Makomo. Sixth. Eight. Second. Fifth. A typhoon of movement and rapid swirls of colors as their haoris dance between each other.

“You’ve gone soft, Sabito-chan,” Makomo teases lightly. Sabito scowls at her.

The stiff features she’s grown accustomed to from Giyuu defrosts at the edges. “Probably from eating too much of Urokodaki-san’s cooking. Have you enjoyed your sabbatical so far, Sabito?”

“You’re both terrible and I hate you,” Sabito grouses. Makomo’s laughter rings out like a charming bell through the trees.

“The thirteenth form: Flash Flood,” notes Tanjirou, as Sabito launches over Makomo with intense and frightening force. “An original form created by Sabito-san. It’s very powerful -- the fastest and most powerful of the water style. He’s the only one who can perform it.” Makomo counters with her own blade and sends him sprawling. “Makomo-san has Cloudburst, see?”

Between them, in stark contrast with their quick exchange of blows, Giyuu appears at ease. Entirely unaffected by the fight. “And that’s Lull,” Tanjirou murmurs. “They’ve each adapted their strengths and invented something new. Something their own.”

She catches movement out of the corner of her eye. The now familiar form of Urokodaki’s blue cloud patterns creeps into view, steadily watching his students meet with the clang of steel and taunts in the frosty mountain air.

Breath styles are adaptable, Urokodaki’s voice reminds from the distance. Sword styles are adaptable. It is the necessity of slayers to adapt. To improve. To constantly invoke new ideas in order to continue. We would have died out long ago if we stayed on one path. Stagnation is certain death.

He tells her, you are unique, Kamado Nezuko. His gaze even behind the impenetrable mask is weighted and firm. There is yet to be any demon or human like you. There is no known path available for you. You are a child of two worlds. You do not have the luxury of following any pre-existing path. You must forge your own way.

Just because something is unknown or is yet to be discovered does not mean that it is impossible, he says.

The solution -- now that she arrives at it -- seems obvious. Creeping away into the night, Nezuko steals her brother’s training sword from the rack beside his bed and retreats into the privacy of the dark forest. She takes deep breaths and centers herself. She raises the sword and enters the dance.

The sound of Urokodaki’s voice breaks open the quiet. She doesn’t startle for she expected he would trace her to this clearing. She pauses through her forms, cycling through all of the known forms of water she knows -- but imperfect. Not quite. Urokodaki would know these forms on sight. He must also know her intentions as she drops her weight, shifts away from the traditional form and structure out of the second and third and devolves into something unfamiliar.

“Again.” Urokodaki instructs. “Again.” She practices until she senses the signs of twilight’s retreat. When she lifts her head and steps out of practice she finds Urokodaki is already gone, swallowed away by the dense cover of trees.

The next night she does the same. And the next. And all the nights after. Tanjirou sleeps undisturbed through it all, but in the morning he holds her gaze over his morning meal with a wordless question in his eyes. Nezuko nods off into sleep and curls up in the darkest corner of the house to rest. Tanjirou commits to his daily routine of training and retreats up the mountain to challenge the boulder once more.

This is not Breath of Water, Urokodaki says at last.

It is not, she answers. It is a breath style unique to myselffor I am both human and demon. I can not master Breath of Water. I don’t think I can learn any breath style that already exists for I do not breathe as a human.

Yes, child, he says. You have found your answer. The mask hides none of his pride. What will you call it, he asks.

She bows her head and replies, this is how I will protect my brother. This is how I will fight. This is the Breath of Life.

Tanjirou returns in a cool evening, while Nezuko lounges on the front of Urokodaki’s cabin and watches his shape grow closer. Sabito walks beside him, but for once his scowl is missing in place of a smile. A proud one at that, if she were to name such an expression.

“He is ready,” Sabito tells Urokodaki. Urokodaki nods, but his enthusiasm remains secret. Later, she learns Urokodaki never actually expected Tanjirou to succeed in splitting the boulder.

“You must find it in yourself to forgive him one day,” Sabito says. “He did not want me to go to Final Selection either. He’s...had many children, like you, and like I. And for many years, none ever returned. Until Makomo. And myself. And Giyuu.”

He narrows his focus onto Tanjirou, sharp and keen. Fox eyes in a deep wood, watching, waiting for movement. “I have every confidence you will return as well. Make that promise to return, for your sister -- and if you are a man, you’ll keep it.”

For Tanjirou, his Final Selection on Mount Fujikasane awaits. Urokodaki carves his mask, sun-spot scar over his left brow, and wraps him in a blue and white cloud patterned haori. Sabito declares her prepared and she, too, will follow him in the next stage. Urokodaki carves her mask, a fox face with pink blossoms and wraps her in the same. But as Tanjirou departs she learns she has no place on the wisteria mountain.

“You couldn’t enter the mountain even if you wanted to,” Sabito explains. “And you will not be required to. Tomorrow, you’ll come with me. You have your own Final Selection to face.”

Urokodaki bids them farewell, a quiet and solemn affair. Tanjirou walks with her and Sabito until he can walk no longer, and with a parting kiss on her brow he leaves for the mountain. Sabito watches him leave and turns to her with wary expectation. “Come,” Sabito says. “I’m taking you to Oyakata-sama. He will deliver your trial there.”

Nezuko nods and follows. Sabito walks with her, only stopping at daybreak to return her umbrella and continue walking into the afternoon. They walk until Sabito’s footsteps draw to a halt and he raises his hand.

“From here, you’ll be expected to cover your eyes. We can go no further, should you be able to learn the path here.” Nezuko bites on the inside of her cheek. She’s tired, her feet aching with an almost human weariness.

“What if I were asleep?” Nezuko asks.

Sabito looks back at her, as though that’s not what he expected to hear. She continues, “I have no sense of anything while I’m sleeping. You have seen it for yourself.”

He nods slowly. “But how are you going to --?” Nezuko pulls on the thin thread of vitality keeping her upright and conscious and drops into a dead faint. She hears Sabito’s surprised squawk before she hits the ground.

She wakes in an unfamiliar darkened room, overwarm in a futon, and Sabito scowling over a low lamplight. “A little warning next time would be appreciated,” he says. “Your Final Selection is here, tomorrow, at dusk. Oyakata-sama is accommodating and taking your...affliction into account. You will face the trial there at the Pillars Conference.”

Nezuko is too tired to frown. There’s only one thing she really cares about, and it’s not her upcoming trial. She asks, “Tanjirou?”

“Still on the mountain,” Sabito replies. “You only slept for a day. He has five more nights before he passes.”

Nezuko sleeps through the day. Before the sun sets again, Sabito prods her awake and leads her out of their rooms for the Pillar Conference. He accompanies her as far as the next house, and exchanges her over to Giyuu. Giyuu says nothing except for a slight tip of his head, but his gaze rests on Sabito far longer.

Sabito looks her over and allows a glimmer of approval to fill his expression. “As I told your brother -- always keep your promises. He will be waiting for you, your best.”

Giyuu directs her to the largest of the houses, past a garden and into fine dirt and sand. There, among lanterns hanging from the porch, resides nine slayers. The Pillars. They greet her with unwelcoming wary silence, although she hears their whispers of dissent as she takes her place beside Giyuu.

Their whispers swell to argument. A slayer with heavy scars stalks over to her and Giyuu, while Giyuu keeps his steady gaze in the distance and refuses to rise to his taunts. Nezuko keeps her gaze on all of them, but they seem more uncomfortable by her presence than intimidated. Oyakata’s arrival is announced only by the shift of air, and two small girls guiding him to a seat on the floor.

“Kamado Nezuko,” the leader of the slayers greets warmly, and suddenly all of the tension holding her together falls away. His voice is sweet and honeyed, and she finds herself trusting him immediately. “Thank you for coming. As you are aware, you could not complete Final Selection in the usual way, but with your unique situation, I have found a solution. Are you prepared?”

“I am,” Nezuko says, shoving as much confidence into her voice as she can.

The smile on Oyakata’s face soothes the rest of her lingering discomfort. “Very well. You have two trials, and if you pass both you will be admitted among us. First, you must prove your ability to fight. Your challenger is of the kinoe: Tomioka Giyuu, Breath of Water slayer.”

Nezuko keeps her head facing forward but her eyes move of their own accord and snatch a shared exchange with Giyuu’s unsmiling expression.

The dark haired twin withdraws a clothed sword from within the deeper confines of the house. She offers it to Nezuko, who unveils it and experimentally tests it’s weight. The sword is a deep blue, the sword of a previous water slayer. Giyuu draws his own and settles into the position for the first form.

“Three duels,” Oyakata announces. “You must win one to pass. Begin.”

Giyuu is fast, but she’s been training with Sabito’s rapid and unrelenting duels. The first ends in a draw. Giyuu sheaths his sword at his hip and returns to where he first stepped out. Nezuko feels the human urge to swallow -- a nervous expression of her own anxiety. Two more duels.

The second ends in a draw. Nezuko’s legs tremble. She’s still exhausted from her earlier travels, and a day and a half of rest was nowhere near enough to fulfill her body’s new needs.

“Do your best,” Sabito told her. How would Sabito win this duel? He knows Giyuu far better than her. Their relationship has always entranced her, with soft touches and lingering brushes against their wrists, heads bowing together as they speak in lowered tones and Giyuu summons smiles with his eyes.

Sabito is the fastest slayer she knows -- not that she knows many, but there’s something about the way he moves that speaks of the depth of his skill, as though every move is expected, already mapped out in his head. Something Tanjirou is slowly learning and perfecting as well.

Nezuko knows she is nowhere as skilled, as trained, or as fast. But she can guess how Giyuu moves -- an echo of Sabito’s familiar steps. She will simply have to think another step ahead, an unexpected displacement of expectation. Nezuko watches his footing, waiting, and moves.

She blinks. Giyuu blinks back at her. Her sword is pressed against his throat, not close enough to touch, but the message is clear. Giyuu’s own sword moves slowly from it’s raised position and lowers the tip to the ground.

“The match is yours,” Giyuu says. “You fought well.” His eyes are smiling, and when she turns to face the other Pillars, she finds Makomo’s easy smile among them.

“The first trial is complete,” Oyakata transfers attention from the duel and to her second trial. “For your next, I call another. Your challenger is one of our own hashira: Shinazugawa Sanemi, the Pillar of Wind.”

The slayer who threw insults at Giyuu earlier rises. His face is marred by a cruel smile, with clear hatred burning behind his eyes.

“I am marechi,” declares the Wind Pillar. He draws his sword over thickly scarred patches of skin. Nezuko meets his challenging glare and tamps down the instinctive growl in her throat. “A demon always shows it’s true self when it smells fresh blood. I will enjoy cutting you down along with the rest of the filth in this world.”

At first, Nezuko hardly understands why the trial is necessary. She’s worked for two years with Urokodaki to learn control over her senses. She’s used to ignoring the scent of fresh blood, and passes on mostly unbothered. Until her nose catches the first sweet smelling drops of the Wind Pillar’s blood and her finely tuned control suddenly wavers.

The loss of control scares her far more than the Wind Pillar’s threat. She takes several deep breaths, closing off her senses like Urokodaki’s trained her to do, and steps back. Turns her head away. Says, “No.”

The flash of surprise across the other Pillar’s faces -- besides Makomo, who looks on with untroubled ease -- is far more liberating. Oyakata declares she’s proven herself and her acceptance into the slayer corps. Arrangements are made for her sword, and the other Pillars slip away with deep, thoughtful silence. She journeys back to Urokodaki’s home, Sabito’s proud assurance at her side, and waits for Tanjirou to return.

Loneliness is a human emotion. She doesn’t realize she has it until she meets Tamayo and Yushiro. Proof that she isn’t the first demon capable of rejecting instinct. Although the distinction lies there: Nezuko has never tasted human blood. Tamayo and Yushiro are far older. They’ve crafted a different life.

“We only take blood donations, or buy blood through donors.” Tamayo-san explains carefully. “And never more than they can spare. It’s not perfect, but it is sustainable for the both of us. It is enough.”

Another shred of information gleaned from their encounter: demons live a long time. Many lifetimes. Immortality.

Alternatives, she says. There is always a choice.

"What drives a demon to despair?" Tamayo murmurs. "It is the same for humans. Desire for something unattainable. Something denied of them."

"Muzan seeks to return to the world in full power," she warns. "Demons remain in the shadows because they are offered no alternative.” Her eyes hold a mystery of old grief; a well so deep she knows not how far to draw it from the depths. “Imagine what world we will live in if he succeeds to conquer the sun."

Nezuko dreams of days in darkness. An unflinching shadow over the sun, eclipsing it, blocking out all light. She dreams of the wisteria gardens along the walls of the Butterfly Estate. The grove of peach trees where Kanroji draws out her bunny from a wooden hutch, the smell of sweet sugar and spice. Her hand upon the bark of the bending trees, overwrought with heavy ripe fruit. She plucks the nearest one and opens her mouth, biting down through the skin and tearing into the flesh of the fruit.

Only when she draws her hand away she realizes it is no peach. A human heart, still beating sluggishly and desperate, bloodied. Her teeth marks upon the place where she thought to be tasting fruit.

She wakes up, wondering if the phantom pain in her chest is sympathetic. A heart that wishes it could beat, could race with fear like her mind does.

It was better when she didn’t dream at all.

Until Natagumo Mountain, Nezuko holds true to the belief that her own death doesn’t frighten her.

If her heart were beating, she’s sure it would pound close to bursting. Tanjirou can’t die. He can’t lose this fight. She won’t allow it.

Suspended over their battle, the silk bites into her flesh and cuts deep stinging wounds into her flesh. No matter; the pain can be ignored like the other senses she’s learned to cut away from herself. She finds her strength to twist her arm and release her sword, swiping through the web and cutting herself free. Her body protests her awkward landing, agony racing up her knee and all the exposed areas of her skin where the spider silk lanced through her.

Tanjirou’s sword -- if it can still be called that -- is no more than a stub of steel. The demon raises his hand, silk trappings greeting its master and obeying the call to execution. Tanjirou, bloodied and desperate as he runs to certain death. He wields his blade with the determination of solid steel. He will cut down this demon even if it kills him in doing so.

Her blood burns under her skin. Nobody is allowed to hurt her brother. Nobody is allowed to take his life. Nobody is allowed to take her brother away from her. How dare he. How dare he!

Her vision flickers; her mother’s still body, her little sister, her younger brothers, and she sees Tanjirou among them.


Cool blood drips down her hands and joins her sword; warming, simmering, smoldering.

She bleeds. She transforms. She burns.

Something inside of her breaks open, wings unfurling into flight. Releases; ignites, roars to life with the snap and crackle of an unyielding blaze, drowns out the silence of her own unbeating heart.

Nezuko raises her blazing sword over her head, the red-purple-blue of her blade flickering, blistering red-hot, an inferno of her grief and her rage and her faith;

The bond between us can’t be severed by anyone!

1. veins, heart 5428 2 0 2. water, blood 5881 2 0