They're seventeen, and in the time they've known each other, Inosuke has learned two things.
The first is Tanjiro's name, finally.
The second is that he pretty much always really, really (really really) wants to kick Tanjiro's ass. He wants to kill him!
"I'll kill you!" Inosuke screams, because he's never been one for internalizing.
He lunges at Tanjiro, swinging one of his training swords so fast he can hear it whistling. He hates training swords. They aren't sharp and can't kill things easily. Except if he hit someone hard enough (which he would), it'd probably kill them anyway, so that's fine… maybe. He could definitely kill stupid Zenitsu, at least.
He doesn't kill Tanjiro, because instead of letting his brains get bashed in, Tanjiro simply bends over backwards. The sword nearly skims his nose as he backflips, palms hit the floor, legs whip around, and he's back on his feet. He bursts into a wide grin, eyes alight.
"You'll have to hit me first!" he says, joyful as ever. Like the prospect of Inosuke killing him fills him with glee.
Inosuke's stomach goes fuzzy and tingly with what absolutely must be murderous rage. He knows it's gotta be that, because it's a nice feeling, just like when he wins at things and kills stuff. Rage is comforting to him.
"Ugh," Zenitsu says, from where he is lying in a useless, sweaty lump on the training room floor. "Don't egg him on."
"I'm not!" Tanjiro protests. He shifts his footing and then rockets forward to press Inosuke hard with a flurry of blows.
"You think I can't hit you?!" Inosuke shouts, as he parries, blocks, dodges.
"No, I definitely think you can!"
"I'LL PUMMEL YOU!"
"Let's both do our best, Inosuke!"
Zenitsu lays his cheek against the cool wood flooring as though it will save him. "Right, what was I thinking?" he mutters. "You both live for this."
He's not wrong. A lot of people don't like to spar with Inosuke. Inosuke doesn't know why. They say he takes it too seriously (why wouldn't he), or that he doesn't know when to quit (that's for weaklings), or that he's just too mean (mostly, Zenitsu says this).
But it doesn't matter what other dumb people think, because Tanjiro always takes him up on it. And there's probably no better person he could fight anyway, because Tanjiro is the only person who's almost as strong as he is, barring the Pillars, who won't spar with Inosuke because they're always too busy when he asks. Except Himejima, but that's because Himejima always wins in one move, which Inosuke does not like. So Tanjiro is the best.
Another reason he's the best is because fighting while mad is Inosuke's favorite thing to do—and Tanjiro's face pisses him the hell off.
The way he looks when they trade blows—always on the verge of a smile, breaking out into a real one whenever they exchange a solid volley—makes Inosuke's blood boil. He roars, shrugging off one of Tanjiro's hits with a sudden burst of energy to strike their wooden swords together. Tanjiro is forced to take a step backwards.
"Ohh!" he yelps, voice a mix of singsong and shock. "Nice one!"
The other hunters get annoyed with Inosuke's indomitable nature, even in mundane situations, such as training. Obviously, this means they're afraid of him, which is excellent. Tanjiro, though, always just seems impressed, even excited by it, and it's one of the things that makes Inosuke maddest.
He thinks he's figured it out by now. It used to baffle him before (and still sort of does), but Tanjiro's compliments and bright smile are a ruse, meant to falter Inosuke in the heat of battle. Tanjiro wants to dull his senses, make him lose the upper hand! Even knowing this, he feels his thoughts fog over, becoming strangely soft. His face burns beneath his mask. With determination! It must be that.
He likes it when people tell him he's great at things, because it's true, and they should all acknowledge how powerful he is.
But whenever Tanjiro does it, it makes him feel… weird. All… fuwafuwa, fluffy and fuzzy and light-headed.
It happens every time, and he—he wants to destroy whatever weakness is causing it. But since he hasn't figured out what that is yet, he'll settle for destroying his opponent instead.
"PIG ASSAULT!" he screams, flinging himself forward, off his feet and head first. Tanjiro, mid-strike, twists himself awkwardly to the side with a shout, narrowly avoiding cracking the crown of Inosuke's head with his sword. If it had been a demon, he wouldn't have faltered. But Inosuke's not a demon.
He headbutts Tanjiro in the ribs at full speed. His friend lets out a wheeze like he's dying and they both collapse to the ground in a heap, panting for air.
"INOSUKE!" Zenitsu shrieks. "STOP TRYING TO KILL TANJIRO, YOU MORON."
"Why… did you… lower your sword," Inosuke huffs, trying to get his breathing under control.
"Didn't want… to concuss you… again…" Tanjiro says.
"Haah? As if you could!"
"I've already done it once."
"That time was different."
"How?" Tanjiro asks, turning to stare at him.
Inosuke thinks about this. "Because that was you. You're tougher than one of these things." He's pretty sure if he hit Tanjiro in the head with one of their training weapons, the wooden blade would just break instead. Annoyed, he flings it away from himself and Zenitsu squawks as it narrowly misses him. Damn.
Tanjiro blinks at him, before breaking into a radiant smile. "I'm still not going to risk it." He thuds his fist lightly against Inosuke's head. "No matter how amazing you are. Good fight."
Inosuke stares at the ceiling of the dojo.
Is the shakiness in his legs from the practice session? They were barely at it for an hour.
They're not fighting anymore, so why is Tanjiro still trying to throw him off? Maybe Tanjiro wants to make sure to stay one step ahead of him in their training. If Tanjiro really won't try to hit him seriously, maybe he thinks Inosuke isn't capable of withstanding it. Rage thunders distantly within him; it's dulled, somehow, by the realization that Tanjiro doesn't want him to be hurt if he can help it. Who is Tanjiro, to have a say in something like that? Sure, they're companions, but why should he care? Inosuke has never asked for anybody to care.
"Inosuke," Tanjiro says, "I really like sparring with you. Thank you for always asking me!" His cherry-stained eyes are crinkled at the corners, and there's color high on his cheeks, probably from the exertion.
Inosuke's stomach turns over.
Two seconds later, Zenitsu is fleeing from him and screaming at him to go away, and Tanjiro is watching them bemusedly, and Inosuke is cackling at the top of his lungs as he chases the scaredy-cat around the room.
Their roughhousing around makes a lot more sense to him than the other stuff, and it's a lot easier for him to forget about all those weird quiet feelings.
They're eighteen, and one of their missions takes them all the way back to the mountains Inosuke once called home. It still seems like coming home, he's never really thought of the place otherwise, but it's been so long that all the years he spent there suddenly seem equal to the three he's been a demon slayer.
And things are different. The forested paths that were once his whole world now seem like nothing, insignificant compared to what lies beyond the mountain. When he left it, he was a boy seeking endless strength. Now he knows how pointless it is to crave power and nothing more. So maybe he's different, too.
The old Inosuke would've been affronted at the mere thought of humans prowling around his turf; he would have had to challenge them to a fight to the death immediately. The new Inosuke still challenges everyone within earshot, but the death thing is just for additional flair.
"Gyahahaha!" He stands upon a rock in the midst of his favorite swirling river, head thrown back in laughter. "So! You think you can challenge the King of the Mountain to a fisherman's duel?!"
The demons they had been sent to take care of were handled with ease. The crows have not yet cawed out any new destination for them, yet, so they probably have at least a day or two to do with as they please.
"Get down from there," Zenitsu calls to him from the riverbank. "That rock doesn't look safe!"
"The water should fear me falling into it, then!" Inosuke declares. Zenitsu looks weary.
"What does that even mean…"
"I wasn't trying to challenge you," Tanjiro says, laughing, "but, yes, I do think we should try and catch something if we don't want to go hungry tonight."
"I'll catch a hundred times as many fish as you will!"
"I don't doubt you're a great fisherman!" Tanjiro says. "But I've had to do my fair share of fishing, too…"
"You both have fun with that," Zenitsu says, sprawling onto the sunny grass with a yawn.
"Oy," Tanjiro says. "You can't expect us to do all the work and then give you free food." He discards his haori, before undoing the buttons of his uniform shirt to shrug out of it, tossing it at Zenitsu. It lands squarely on the blond boy's head.
Inosuke, frozen in place atop his rock, stares at Tanjiro through the eyes of the boar mask. It's far from the first time he's seen Tanjiro shirtless. They're around each other a lot, after all. But usually it's when they're training, or more rarely, after training when they go to the baths. This is more rare because Inosuke usually tries to skip that part, but Tanjiro and Zenitsu force him along as often as possible. In most cases, he's too distracted to actually pay attention to things that aren't himself.
Tanjiro rolls his pant legs up and Inosuke continues to eyeball the muscles of his back. In the sun, it's especially easy to see all Tanjiro's scars, crisscrossing his skin.
Inosuke's thoughts whir.
Does he have more?
Does Tanjiro have more scars, more muscle than he does? Is he bigger than Inosuke? He wasn't when they'd first met, but now…
Tanjiro wades into the river, hissing at the water temperature. But they've faced worse, and he shakes it off, cupping his hands beneath the water to splash some on his bare chest and arms. It's like the sun is drawn to him, sparkling off all the crystal clear droplets.
"Y-you should c-come in, Zen-Zenitsu," he says, teeth chattering. "Th-the water's—g-great!"
"No, thank you."
Tanjiro laughs and splashes a handful of water on his face this time, before running both hands through his hair, slicking it back even more than usual. His thick biceps bulge and flex with the movement.
Inosuke quivers in place.
It's here again! The stupid fuwafuwa feeling, except this time it's making his head feel all pinprickly and hot! He hates it!
"Ino… suke…?" Tanjiro says. "You've been quiet for a while now which is usually not a very good…"
Tanjiro and Zenitsu both jump in fright as Inosuke bellows and leaps from the bolder into the stream. He lands with a huge splash and Tanjiro lets out a shrill yelp, wrapping his arms around himself. The temperature is no joke. The water is frigid, stinging, flowing fast enough that the current grapples with his legs and threatens to drag Inosuke off his feet.
It's nothing to him! It feels great! He is the strongest.
"You can't distract me, Sanjuro!"
Tanjiro puts a hand on his hip. "You and I both know you can get my name right by now if you try. Also, what? Distract you from—"
"Fang twelve!" Inosuke raises both swords high into the air. "Fish skewering strike!"
"You just made that up!" Zenitsu accuses, pointing at him from the bank.
Inosuke ignores him, as usual. He plunges both swords into the river at blinding speeds, yelling at the top of his lungs for extra emphasis. The water froths and bubbles around him, and his senses are one with it, with the vibrations below the surface, the silver fish darting and skirting around his legs.
When he raises both swords in the air again, they are lined from hilt to tip with skewered fish, at least twenty per blade.
"WHAT?" Zenitsu shouts, sitting up to gape, eyes bugging out of his head.
"Ha-HA!" Inosuke dances in the river, kicking up water, swords held high. "What do you have to say about that?!"
Even Tanjiro is stunned. "That's impossible!" he laughs. This should infuriate Inosuke, because it's not impossible, he just did it. But then Tanjiro gives him a long and enthusiastic round of applause and any anger he might have experienced melts away. "We'll have a feast thanks to you!"
Mmm, feast. Inosuke starts to nod, looking at Tanjiro's happy face, then shakes his head.
"Not we," Inosuke says. "No fish for Zenitsu. Only me an' you."
Tanjiro's mouth opens in a tiny "O" and he still looks happy, only now his face is a lot more pink. He darts a glance at Zenitsu, sheepish. "W-well…"
"Hey!" Zenitsu glares at them. "You caught more than enough, why can't I have any?!"
"You didn't do any work, so you don't get free food!" Inosuke cackles triumphantly.
"Don't just repeat what Tanjiro said!"
"Then you're annoying and I don't like you."
"You stupid boar!" Zenitsu shrieks. "Tanjiro didn't catch any, either! This is favoritism!"
It's true that Tanjiro didn't actually help with the fishing. But… they catch each other's eye, or at least, Tanjiro seems to see right through the mask.
"Inosuke…" he says, then bites his lip to keep from laughing. He covers his mouth to try and hide it, shoulders shaking, and Inosuke decides— only Tanjiro. He only wants to share this feast with Tanjiro.
"You weren't going to help us!" Inosuke tells Zenitsu. "You just wanted to lay around. No dinner for you, haHA!"
Zenitsu looks murderous for about four seconds, before he rolls over to grab his sword, lying in the grass next to him.
Tanjiro stops smiling. "Zenitsu, hang on—"
"So that's how it's gonna be, is it?" Zenitsu hisses.
Inosuke grunts. "Hah?"
"Thunder breathing, third style—"
The next thing Inosuke knows, he's flying through the air. Then he realizes, that's because Tanjiro has grabbed him around the waist and flung them both out of the water at top speed.
"NOT WHILE WE'RE IN THE WATER, YOU IDIOT!" Tanjiro screams at Zenitsu, as lightning boils the current they were just standing in.
Zenitsu does wind up killing a lot of fish—but the fact that the river carries them downstream almost instantly to become some lucky bear's easy meal, combined with the fact that he nearly fried the other two, leaves Tanjiro far less inclined to be impressed with him than he is with Inosuke. Inosuke is pleased by this.
"Since you caught them," Tanjiro says, "want me to cook them?"
Inosuke nods rapidly. If there's one area he doesn't mind not competing with Tanjiro in, it's cooking. His friend can make anything taste good, even unseasoned river fish.
"I want mine extra crispy!"
Tanjiro chuckles. "Sure. Are you gonna let him have any?"
Zenitsu has been sitting with his back to them for the past few minutes, sulking. Inosuke thinks about saying no, but the prospect of Tanjiro's cooking puts him in too good of a mood. Plus… maybe he doesn't actually want Zenitsu to go hungry.
Tanjiro laughs again and rests a rough, warm hand on Inosuke's shoulder, squeezing it once. "You're a good friend. And a better fisherman." The laughter softens to a smile at Inosuke, and then he's trotting off to get the cookware from their gear.
Inosuke flops onto his back in the grass. He can feel the outline of Tanjiro's fingers on his shoulder, stinging him like the water had.
They're nineteen when Tanjiro does something he's never done before.
He gets sick.
Inosuke arrives back at the Butterfly Estate, where he will be staying until he stops limping due to a shattered leg bone. He insists he'll be fine, but Aoi says she'll get Giyu to tie him up again if he doesn't rest, so he is forced into relaxation.
He does hear shortly thereafter that Tanjiro has been there for several days already, and is about to sprint to his room, when Aoi grabs the back of his furs and digs her heels in.
"No!" she snaps. "He's sleeping!"
"So I'll wake him up!"
"That's exactly why I'm not letting you go," Aoi says. "He has to rest, he's not well."
Inosuke stares at her. "Not… well?"
It turns out Tanjiro has fallen very ill. He's recovering now, but after a run in with a demon, followed by a slog through some of the region's more swampy areas, his wounds had gotten infected and he'd developed a terrible fever. He had been unconscious for several days after barely making it back to the estate.
Inosuke doesn't crash through the window into his room this time, or jump onto his bed, or yell to get his attention. He watches Tanjiro from the doorway at Aoi's side silently. Tanjiro looks sickly and pale, cheeks too thin and closed eyes sunken and ringed with shadows. Normally, Inosuke would berate one of his friends for taking too long to heal from an injury, but this is different. Tanjiro's wounds have closed up, and there's no bruises, no visible battering. There's no waiting for flesh to mend. He should be fine, but something invisible is keeping him away.
Inosuke hates it. He can't see it but he wants it to go to hell. He wants to kill whatever it is.
"Is he gonna die?!"
"Keep your voice down," Aoi hisses. "No! He just has a fever."
"How do I get rid of it?" Inosuke asks.
"You can't just get rid of it," she sighs. "He needs time for the medicine to work. He'll be fine, Inosuke, but not if you don't let him rest. Okay?"
Inosuke stares at Tanjiro even harder. If the problem were a demon, he'd just cut it up. If it were broken bones or pulled muscles, he'd train with Tanjiro until they were both stronger again. He turns back to Aoi.
"How can I help him?" When Aoi squints at him suspiciously, he lets out a frustrated growl, quieting it to a whisper belatedly. "I'm not gonna pummel him or nothin'! Please!"
After a long, hard glance at him, she agrees.
It probably helps that she and the other girls are so busy. He's tasked with sitting (quietly) at Tanjiro's bedside and instructed to change the cool cloth on his forehead every few hours. He's not allowed to wear his mask because Aoi says it's always dirty, and they can't let any germs near Tanjiro right now. Inosuke thinks he may go crazy by the second day, but maybe someone's looking out for both of them, because that's when Tanjiro wakes up.
"Hello…? Is anybody…"
Inosuke jolts awake. He wasn't sleeping! He was just meditating.
"H-hang on!" Inosuke says, much too loudly. He quickly pours a cup of water from the bedside table, almost spilling it in his haste. "Here."
"Inosuke?" Tanjiro's voice is nothing more than a whisper. His finally opens his eyes to squint at Inosuke.
"Can't you smell me?"
"No… I can hardly smell anything with this cold." Tanjiro sniffs miserably. "What are you doing here?"
"A demon threw a horse at me and I used my leg to block it," Inosuke informs him.
"A demon…" Tanjiro's brow furrows very slowly and deeply. "A—did you… say a horse?"
"Yep!" Inosuke says. "My leg broke in four different spots!"
"Are you okay?" Tanjiro asks.
"I'm fine! I didn't want to stay here but they made me."
"…Is the horse okay?"
"It's fine, too!"
Tanjiro closes his eyes again and smiles peacefully. "I'm glad."
"Don't do that," Inosuke says.
"Close your eyes and smile peacefully," Inosuke says. "It looks like you're passing on to the afterlife."
Tanjiro's eyes fly open and then he starts laughing, which immediately dissolves into a coughing fit. Inosuke panics.
"DRINK MORE WATER!"
He nearly drowns Tanjiro, which is probably the opposite of helping, but Tanjiro doesn't seem to mind.
"Actually," he says, as Inosuke helps him sit up to drink properly, "I meant what are you doing here? Did they make you look after me?"
"No, I told that little girl—"
"You know her name is Aoi."
"—that I was gonna take care of you!" Inosuke says. He jams his thumb into his chest. "I made sure you didn't die! I put towels on your face and broke your fever!"
He flexes to show off how strong he is, which is obviously why he was able to break the fever when nobody else could. Tanjiro already woke up thanks to him!
"Ah… I owe you my life, then," Tanjiro says. His voice is still very faint, which makes Inosuke nervous somehow, so he decides he'll be louder to make up for it.
"You do! It's all thanks to me!" He crosses his arms. "I'd never let one of my underlings die because of some stupid sickness."
"I know you wouldn't," Tanjiro says.
"Oh, actually—I'm supposed to tell Aoi when you wake up," Inosuke remembers. "Wait here, I'll go get—"
Tanjiro—weak, frail, ailing Tanjiro—whips his hand out so fast Inosuke doesn't even see him move. Suddenly his hand is just around Inosuke's wrist, fingers gripping hard enough to bruise.
"Wait," he says, in that un-Tanjiro-like rasp, "stay." Inosuke goes still as a statue. Tanjiro must sense his confusion. "The dreams I have, when I'm sick…"
Slowly, Inosuke nods. "Bad?"
Tanjiro swallows. "My… family."
Inosuke sits back down in his chair. "Should I get Nezuko?"
"She needs to rest, too," Tanjiro says. Then he starts, like he's realized something. "And—and so should you. I'm sorry, if you're tired, you should—"
"I said I'd look after you!" Inosuke protests. "I'm staying."
Tanjiro still hasn't let go of Inosuke's wrist. He's sweaty, and his eyes are glassy, and his lips are cracked and pale. He gives Inosuke an exhausted smile. He looks… terrible. It makes Inosuke's chest hurt with a funny sort of pain that seems both real and imaginary at once. He can't tell where it's coming from.
"I'll definitely sleep better with you around," Tanjiro says, and the ache grows even more intense.
"You were probably too scared to wake up before I got here," Inosuke decides.
"I think you're right," Tanjiro murmurs. "I was afraid that… when I opened my eyes…" He trails off, words indistinct and hazy. Inosuke leans in closer.
"When you opened your eyes, what?"
"My mother… she'd always be…" Tanjiro tries to explain, but he's too tired to make much sense. "She used to make okayu…"
His eyes droop closed and his grip around Inosuke's wrist slackens. Quickly, Inosuke puts his ear against Tanjiro's chest, and then relaxes. Tanjiro is not dead. Very carefully, so as not to wake him, he pulls his hand free. Then, as fast as he can, he goes to find one of the girls.
Sumi almost has a heart attack when he crashes into the tea room to shout, "WHAT'S OKAYU?" at her at the top of his lungs.
Fortunately, one of the answers to that question is that it's not that hard to make. Under Sumi's watchful eye, Inosuke is able to make a bowl of the mild rice porridge, with frequent reminders not to get distracted and wander off as it boils. He rushes to get it into a bowl and is halfway out the door as Sumi tastes what's left in the pot.
"Can't! Bye!" Inosuke yells at her. He doesn't have time to waste, Tanjiro might wake up again soon. Inosuke needs to be there when he does!
He's moving so fast he nearly flattens Zenitsu, who has just arrived at the estate. The thunder breath user doesn't appear to be injured; he just likes staying there when he's off duty to try and woo the girls.
"Tanjiro's sick!" Inosuke shouts over his shoulder.
Zenitsu follows him, of course. "Tanjiro's sick?! How sick? Like a mild cold, or deathly ill? How'd he get sick? Is there fluid in his lungs? Did he give his blessings for me to marry Nezuko-chan? What's his temperature—"
"He's gonna be fine!" Inosuke says. "I made him some rice stuff! You can't have any!"
They both tumble through the door of Tanjiro's room, each shushing the other repeatedly, only to find that Tanjiro is already awake.
"Oh," he wheezes, surprised to see them both, "I thought—"
"I'M BACK!" Inosuke yells.
"I see that," Tanjiro says. "I wondered if maybe I dreamed you were here at first."
"Nope!" Inosuke says. "You were dreamin' about something weird. So I made you this!"
He thrusts the bowl of okayu under Tanjiro's nose so he can smell it more easily, since his nose is stuffed up. For a long moment, nothing happens. Zenitsu peers over Inosuke's shoulder with a very suspicious expression, but Tanjiro doesn't move, doesn't say a word. He just stares down at the bowl of rice porridge as though he's never seen food before.
Then his hands raise.
They're shaky, trembling from chills and fatigue. But when he grips the bowl, Inosuke is able to let go, and it doesn't fall.
"You… made this?" Tanjiro asks. His voice shakes as much as his hands.
Inosuke puffs out his chest. "Yep!"
"Is it edible?" Zenitsu asks.
Tanjiro doesn't seem to doubt it. He picks up the spoon and sticks it in his mouth. Another few seconds pass. Then he swallows, scoops up an even larger spoonful, and shovels that into his mouth, too.
His eyes well with tears. They start to roll down his cheeks, splashing onto his hands and into the porridge, but he doesn't stop silently eating.
"Is it that bad?" Zenitsu asks, aghast. He snatches the bowl from Tanjiro and takes a bite. Instantly, his face transforms into a pinched expression of abject disgust, and he gags. "How much salt did you put in this?!"
"I—I put—" Inosuke grabs the bowl back from him. He wants to tell Zenitsu to shut up. He wants to punch Zenitsu, but then he tries a spoonful of the okayu and it is awful.
He can't remember how much salt he put in.
He was hurrying too much.
He messed it up, and it must be the worst porridge anybody's ever made. Definitely not the way Tanjiro's mother used to make it. He failed, even though it was so simple, even though he promised Tanjiro he'd look after him, he couldn't even—
"I wasn't finished with that."
Inosuke realizes he's just been staring into the bowl. He looks up to see Tanjiro holding his shaky hands out to take it back. His eyes are still wet despite the smile on his face.
"Please let me finish it," he says. "I wasn't crying because it's bad."
He's a terrible liar, so Inosuke can tell this is the truth. This is the only reason he gives the bowl back to Tanjiro, who finishes the bowl and asks for seconds. His clammy fingers linger on Inosuke's when the bowl is passed back and forth again, trembling and grateful.
It makes Inosuke feel grateful, too, even though Tanjiro owes him. But the inside of his chest feels warm and soft, like baby ducklings, like Granny's big puffy pillows and feather blankets he'd slept on at the Wisteria House, the softest things he'd ever felt. He thinks he could take on an Upper Moon by himself right now.
"It's the best thing I've ever tasted," Tanjiro says to him, voice wispy with sleep again as he drifts off.
He really is the worst liar Inosuke's ever met.
They're twenty-one, and it's Tanjiro's birthday.
He's the only one of them who actually knows when his birthday is, so they always celebrate enough for three people on that day. Which means, perhaps, that they celebrate a little too enthusiastically.
They're lucky that they tend to get grouped together on missions fairly often. The cycle works out that they are assigned, they complete the assignment, and then they either are sent on the next task, or recover in tandem.
It's rare circumstances that keep Inosuke apart from the others for nearly a year. Different missions in faraway locations, injuries that don't coincide; however things line up it's the longest he's gone without seeing Tanjiro and Zenitsu since he met them. But somehow, whether it's luck, or just the kindness of the ones pulling the strings of fate, they all wind up passing through the same town on Tanjiro's twenty-first birthday.
"Inosuke, stop yelling, you're going to get us thrown out!" Zenitsu is also shouting, but he's laughing, too. "I can't believe I thought I missed you at one point."
"You missed me!" Inosuke says, still at top volume. "I never thought about you at all!"
Zenitsu looks wounded. "Really?"
Inosuke picks him up around the waist and squeezes his pathetically weak body, ignoring the strangled wheezing Zenitsu makes as his golden eyes threaten to bulge out of his head. "No, I missed you too, Renkatso!"
"He's turning blue!" Tanjiro says, voice panicked as he tries to pry Inosuke off. He's taller than the other two, now, but Inosuke still has a grip like an iron vice.
Inosuke dumps Zenitsu back down, and Zenitsu collapses onto the bench at the table they've secured, coughing weakly. "Please tell me I don't have to teach you my name all over again."
"Nyahaha!" Inosuke will let him think that. He turns to Tanjiro instead and drags him in for a hug, cleverly disguised as an attempt to crush him next. "It's your birthday!"
"Ahhh—ow ow ow, Inosuke, I'm happy to see you, too—"
"I'm not happy, I'm testing your strength!"
Inosuke lets him go before Tanjiro decides to headbutt him, but Tanjiro grips his shoulders before he can pull away too far.
Inosuke has never really seen much of a reason to care about birthdays before. He didn't even know what they were, before meeting the other Demon Slayers. But seeing Tanjiro after so many months, he can't help but be amazed. When he was always with Tanjiro, he never noticed, but now he does—Tanjiro looks older, for the first time. His smile's the same, but also different, than it was when they hadn't passed a whole two decades in the world without dying. Inosuke stares at him, trying to puzzle it out. Force of habit makes him forget that Tanjiro can actually see him staring.
"You're not wearing your mask," Tanjiro says. He brings his hand up, fingers trailing through the hair brushing Inosuke's cheek. "You cut it…?"
"Ah," Inosuke says. He feels suddenly, incredibly, naked—which is weird, because when he's actually naked, he doesn't think much of it. He fights the urge to tug on his bangs, which are also trimmed a little shorter. It makes it easier for him to see, but on the flip side, it's easier for other people to see his eyes which now seems stupid and bad. Tanjiro is staring straight into them. "W-well, I was too intimidating, before!"
This is sort of true. In the year he's spent alone, he's learned most people are weak, and not inclined to speak to a muscular half-naked man wearing a boar mask and wielding two jagged swords without Tanjiro's honest face, or Zenitsu's city knowledge, to back him up. No matter how loudly he yelled "I'm Hashibira Inosuke of the Demon Slaying Corps," nobody would take him seriously, leading to him having to figure out a lot of cases with little to no assistance.
People became much more likely to speak to him if he wasn't wearing the mask. Women seemed to like him more, for whatever reason, and sometimes men, too. It had been an old woman he'd saved from a demon who convinced him to cut his hair. She reminded him of granny Hisa, so he let her trim it. Speaking of hair…
"Yours is long," he says to Tanjiro. Dark red locks flow well past his shoulders, now. He has them tied back, away from his face. The longer hair also makes him look older, in a way Inosuke decides he doesn't hate, even though it makes him mad to think that Tanjiro just went about changing so much while he wasn't around.
"What could you two possibly have to talk about for so long?" Zenitsu demands. "Are we drinking or not?!"
He squeals when Inosuke turns to pounce on him, hands outstretched to thrash him, and they order a lot of sake, and it's just like old times. The times where they were all together and happy, that is, not the ones where they were dying.
By the end of the night, he's had enough to drink that he may have to reconsider that statement in the morning. Inosuke doesn't drink at all when he's by himself, but when Zenitsu is around it's a different story, because he has to out-drink Zenitsu. Tanjiro is only moderately better until they provoke him too much, and then he's just as bad, grabbing the whole bottle to down it in one go just to shut them up. The three of them wind up staggering back to their room, where Zenitsu immediately collapses in the middle of one of the two beds, tenderly hugging a pillow that he keeps calling "Nezuko-chan."
The other two observe him for a moment, exasperated but not surprised, before Tanjiro asks,
"Wanna share the other one?"
Inosuke agrees, if only because he does not want to become "Nezuko-chan" in the middle of the night. It's only after they're already in bed, the sheets cool against his flushed skin, that he realizes.
This is the same, but different, too.
He can feel a tingling all over his skin, like when he's being watched, but it's everywhere. He rolls over to look at Tanjiro, and is met by an open gaze, dark eyes staring at him in the moonlight.
"Tanjiro?" he asks. His voice sounds strange even to his own ears, hushed and cracked. He realizes he's nervous. Why is he nervous? There's nothing to be nervous about!
It's just Tanjiro.
"So you didn't forget my name," Tanjiro murmurs.
Their faces are close enough that his breath tickles Inosuke's cheek. He smells like the sake, warm and sweet. He probably would even if they hadn't been drinking, because that's how he's always been. His eyes are hazy from the alcohol, and his speech a little slower, voice deeper.
"I always get your name right," Inosuke says. The outright lie and his indignation make Tanjiro start giggling.
"You haven't changed," he says. "I'm glad…"
Inosuke growls. "I'm not that much shorter than you."
"No!" Tanjiro laughs. "I mean—you're still you. I just worried… I thought about you a lot."
"You don't have to worry about me!" Inosuke tells him. "I'm still stronger than anyone else!"
"I know you are," Tanjiro says. "I was worried you'd get lonely."
Inosuke falls silent.
What is loneliness to him?
He has never been lonely, because he never knew the meaning of the word. He grew up unable to remember a time when he hadn't been alone, save for a boar sow to nurse from, and the haziest memories of an old man with a book of poems. Loneliness had been his constant companion, his comfort. It had allowed him to believe himself invincible.
Then he'd met the others. He'd met Tanjiro. He had people to always be around, until the past year. It was the first time he'd ever been alone and known he was.
"Sorry," Tanjiro whispers. "Don't cry."
Inosuke blinks. "I'm not crying."
Tanjiro just watches him. "You smell sad."
Dammit. Huge, fat tears begin to stream down his cheeks. He blinks again, then tries to wipe them away, but they won't stop coming. It's not that he's sad, exactly. It's just that Tanjiro is here, and it's making him feel so—not alone again.
Tanjiro reaches out and pulls him closer without hesitation. When Inosuke doesn't shove him away, he tucks Inosuke's head under his chin and strokes a hand over his hair. It's like a weight lifts off of Inosuke then, one he'd grown so used to carrying that he'd failed to realize how heavy it was. In its absence, he feels light for the first time in ages; lighter than a dragonfly, carried on some spring breeze wherever the wind wants to take him.
Eventually, his shoulders stop shaking, and he lets Tanjiro maneuver him back gently to wipe the sticky tear tracks from under his eyes.
"I can't believe I forgot…" Tanjiro mumbles, brushing his hardened palm against Inosuke's cheek.
"What," Inosuke grunts. He's hot and squirmy with shame now after crying, but Tanjiro's body heat and solid arms around him are making him too comfortable to move away. His presence is as soothing and calm as ever, like sinking into a hot bath at the end of the longest day. Inosuke could sleep for a hundred years.
"How pretty you are," Tanjiro sighs. "Or maybe you just got even prettier since the last time I saw you."
Inosuke could almost believe the sake has made him more honest—except nothing could make Tanjiro more honest than he already is. All that comes out of his mouth for a few seconds are startled, snuffling howahowa noises, before he manages to croak, "You wanna fight?!"
Tanjiro's eyes crinkle. "Not really… Do you still hate it when I tell you that?"
Unfortunately, Inosuke isn't sure if he ever actually did hate it. What he keeps calling "hate" seems to be the same as that other sensation, the fuwafuwa one, and this time it's making his heart pound.
"My face is normal," he says.
"I didn't say it wasn't."
"You said it's pretty."
"Because you are."
"I'll stop saying it if it bothers you."
He would, too. Tanjiro is straightforward and kind, and if Inosuke says he doesn't like it, that will be the end of it. He won't call Inosuke pretty, anymore.
And who wants that, anyway? What's so great about being pretty? What's so great about Tanjiro thinking he's pretty? Tanjiro isn't like all the people Inosuke's come across this year, the ones who like him more, who trust him only once they've seen he's pretty. Tanjiro likes him fine as he is.
Maybe that's why he doesn't actually mind.
He hunkers down against Tanjiro's chest again, so that neither of them can see each other's face when he mutters,
"Do whatever you want."
"Is this because it's my birthday?" Tanjiro asks happily. Inosuke snorts. "Okay, fine. I do think you're pretty…"
Inosuke resists the urge to punch him.
"Pretty… strong," Tanjiro continues. Inosuke's breath catches, but he doesn't seem to notice. He keeps speaking, tough fingers picking through tangles in Inosuke's shorter hair to gently tuck the strands behind his ear. "Pretty… brave. Pretty amazing—"
"Stop!" Inosuke finally bursts out. Tanjiro quiets immediately. "I'm—dizzy, from the sake. S-so just—"
"Maybe time to sleep," Tanjiro says.
Yes—sleep sounds perfect. Inosuke's head is whirling too much to keep his eyes open. He nods and curls closer to Tanjiro, but the feeling doesn't stop until he finally falls into slumber.
In the morning, Inosuke plans to let Tanjiro sleep in, but throws cold water on Zenitsu to wake him up, and the resulting ruckus rouses Tanjiro anyway. Inosuke feels eyes on him again, but every time he thinks about making eye contact with Tanjiro, his head starts to spin again.
Soon, a crow comes to find them. It tells them they're all to set off together again to the next mission, and the good news is nearly enough to cut through their terrible hangovers.
They're twenty-two when Inosuke receives his first marriage proposal.
They've been directed to a remote village in a valley that has been plagued for many years by demon attacks. The villagers have seen evidence all too often that demons are more than just myths, and they surprise Inosuke and his friends by welcoming them with open arms, a huge feast, and comfortable lodging.
Things become considerably less festive when the demons kidnap the daughter of the most respected family in town, the ones who sent word to the Demon Slaying Corps in the first place. The trap to draw the hunters out of hiding is obvious, and they have no choice but to take the bait.
A very long series of nights follows. Tanjiro and Inosuke track the demons while Zenitsu, Nezuko, and Kanao fend off attacks on the village—but after seven days have passed they have cleared the demons out of the surrounding countryside. Inosuke himself is the one who finally beheads their powerful leader, a demon approaching the strength of one of the Lower Moons, to save the daughter of the village elder.
The girl nearly faints when Inosuke tries to ask her if she's hurt, so (after some very insistent eyebrow motions on Tanjiro's part) he takes off his bloodstained mask so she can see his face. She nearly faints again.
"I think my leg may be injured," she says when she's recovered. When she tries to put her weight on it, it buckles completely and Inosuke has to grab her before she falls. "Oooh, ow ow, I can barely walk."
"Can I take a look?" Tanjiro asks.
She gasps. "That would be improper!"
Inosuke grunts. "S'fine, he's seen lots of girls naked before."
The girl, and Tanjiro, both stare at him. Inosuke doesn't know why. It's true, Tanjiro has had to help patch up Kanao and more of the other women in the Corps on multiple occasions, and it's not like they can predict where the demons injure them.
"That's… it's not like he makes it sound," Tanjiro says. "If you'd prefer to wait until we get back to your village, though, I can carry—"
"I-Inosuke-sama saved me," the girl says, "so I would feel safest if he carried me back!"
"Oy," Inosuke growls, "are you trying to say he isn't strong enough—"
"That sounds like a good plan!" Tanjiro interjects loudly. "I'll watch our backs."
Inosuke frowns at his friend. "All the demons are dead."
"Inosuke, would you please… so that we can have a proper meal and get to bed…"
That does sound appealing, so Inosuke lets the girl climb onto his back (even though she doesn't know what she's talking about; Tanjiro is very good at carrying another person and fighting demons at the same time, although Inosuke bets he could also do it just fine, too, so maybe it's okay to carry the girl just to make sure everyone knows he can). When they make it back to the village, the cries of relief that go up to greet them are loud and joyous, and many people already seem to be talking about another feast. His ears perk up, but it seems that won't happen until the next night arrives, as they need time to prepare. This is very disappointing, but Tanjiro will probably chop him in the neck if he yells at them to prepare faster, so he refrains.
"Thank you for protecting me," the girl tells him. "My father will be so impressed by your bravery."
"Good!" Inosuke says. "That means I get more meat during the feast, right?" It should, at any rate.
"Inosuke!" Tanjiro hisses.
But the girl nods and bows. "Anything you wish, Lord Inosuke! I hope what my family has to offer will please you."
She scurries off, probably back to her father, and Inosuke huffs. At the very least they'll recognize his worth properly. Zenitsu will probably be really jealous, and Inosuke does not plan to share any of his extra feast food with him. He turns to Tanjiro to beam broadly at him, wondering if he's also jealous.
Tanjiro never gets jealous, though, so Inosuke is robbed of that satisfaction. He is, however, watching the girl go with a strange look on his face that Inosuke can't decipher—something that seems close to nervousness. But they have nothing to worry about anymore.
Ah, he knows what it probably is! He elbows Tanjiro hard.
"Worried they're going to give me some of your share of the feast tomorrow?" he asks. "I'll letcha have half back. Well—if it's already a lot of food, maybe less."
Tanjiro turns those wide eyes on him, before he blinks, his expression returning to normal as he smiles. "I hope you're ready to face whatever they put on the table, my friend."
"You bet!" Inosuke laughs uproariously. "The great Inosuke will devour all before him!"
Tanjiro pats his arm. "I'm not talking about the food."
"Huh?" Inosuke grunts. Tanjiro smiles mysteriously again, but he turns away quickly to walk back into the village, the same direction the girl went.
It's only then as Inosuke follows him that he realizes the girl wasn't limping in the slightest.
At the feast the following evening, everything becomes clear. They're midway through it when, much to Inosuke's annoyance, the elder interrupts them all to make a big speech thanking the demon hunters. Inosuke becomes less annoyed when a whole section of it is specially dedicated to his heroics. He'd rather eat while he listens, but every time he tries to sneak more food into his mouth, Zenitsu pinches him. The next time it happens, Inosuke vows to pinch him back so hard he'll bruise. But he's distracted from his plans when the elder begins to speak to him directly.
"Lord Inosuke," the father of the girl he saved says gravely, "will you remain here in the village if I promise you the hand of my youngest daughter?"
Zenitsu chokes on the pork bun he just inhaled, and Nezuko has to thump him solidly before he's able to start breathing again. Tanjiro stares into his bowl of ramen. Kanao stares at Tanjiro.
Inosuke stares at the elder. "What would I need her hand for?! I'm not a demon!"
The elder appears baffled. "I wasn't suggesting—"
"After I saved her, you're going to cut off her ha—"
Zenitsu vaults clear over the table almost faster than the eye can follow, but Inosuke doesn't even think he used a Breath. He slaps his hand over Inosuke's mouth. Kanao, smiling as serenely as ever, says,
"He means marriage."
"He's offering you his daughter's hand in marriage, you buffoon!" Zenitsu hisses in his ear.
Inosuke does not understand what in the hell is going on.
"Inosuke-sama!" the elder sputters. "You have done us a great service—no, an indelible service! Not only is your skill in battle incomparable, but your noble demeanor is unmatched by any! You are truly an amazing warrior!"
Indelible? Incomparable? Demeanor? What do those words even mean? Is he being insulted? No—the man called him an amazing warrior, and Zenitsu looks like someone just shoved a lemon in his mouth, so they must all be compliments. Inosuke looks at Tanjiro, but Tanjiro seems even more fixated on his noodles, bringing the whole bowl to his mouth so it blocks his face from view. He slurps loudly, and Nezuko looks at up at him with her eyebrows furrowed.
Inosuke crosses his arms and snuffles decisively. "Yes!" he agrees. "I am amazing!"
"You are!" the elder says. "Which is why my daughter has begged me to allow a betrothal to you! And I couldn't think of a finer man!"
"Hmph," Inosuke says. "She's right, too."
"Then," the daughter says eagerly, "do you accept?"
Inosuke squints at her. He has felt her eyeballs prickling all over his skin the entire feast as she watches him—in awe, he presumes. But it is an unpleasant itch that makes him want to squirm, like fleas biting at him; not like when someone wants to cause him harm, but not pleasant, either.
A second presence tickles his senses, and he glances at Tanjiro again, only to see the other man look away. He frowns. He often senses Tanjiro's eyes on him in much the same way when they're together, but it never gives him that scratchy sensation. When Tanjiro watches him, it feels the same as Tanjiro himself. Like warm soup, or honey in tea, or sun on a pleasant day. Like battle roughened hands gently stroking his hair.
It's so different than how anyone else looks at him.
"What would I have to do…?" he asks, eventually.
"Nothing!" says the elder. "You'd have feasts just like this all the time, and soft clothes, and a beautiful wife, and heirs to follow you if you lived here."
He doesn't know much about the other stuff, but the promise of more food sounds nice—the chickens the villagers raise are very tasty. Then he realizes something.
"I'd have to stay here? Leave the Demon Slaying Corps?"
Many of the villagers nod. "You wouldn't have to risk your life anymore!" the elder tells him. "Although of course, it would be a great relief to know you could guard the village, should the need ever arise…"
"Please, Inosuke-sama!" his daughter cries. "The entire village would owe you a great debt."
Having so many people ready to grovel at his feet is appealing, but… living a soft, safe life of comfort? Nobody has ever become stronger by being afraid. He's never needed to be sheltered, and never feared the life of a demon hunter, even if it is, on average, short.
Still, though, the food… a whole village that thinks he's amazing…
He glances at Tanjiro, who normally would have something to say, some wise observation to make with a smile. But Tanjiro stays quiet.
Inosuke jams his mask back onto his head. He doesn't want people to look at him right now. He doesn't want people around him right now. He stands from his seat.
"I have to think about it," he says.
His companions—his friends—stare at him.
"Inosuke… wants to think about something?" Zenitsu whispers. Inosuke decides he'll mash Zenitsu to a pulp after he has figured out what he wants to do.
Escaping from the feast is actually a blessing. Normally, he'd try to be the last one sticking around if there was still food left on the table, but tonight is just different. There's too many thoughts in his head. If he has to think about something, then he also wants to decide what to do right then and there. This business with doubt after doubt piling up in his brain, slowing him down and confusing him, is something he violently hates. He'd stick his sword right in his ear if that wouldn't—well.
How is he supposed to know what to do?!
He kicks over the kotatsu in the center of the room, fuming, and immediately feels bad about it. Like his conscience has been given voice, someone says from behind him, "Oy. Don't kick things in the homes of people who've shown you hospitality!"
Inosuke spins around to glare at Tanjiro, who has entered the room so silently he went unnoticed. He slides the screen closed behind him and then starts picking up the kotatsu and everything else Inosuke has scattered about the room in his frustration.
"What do you want?" Inosuke mutters.
"To see how you're doing," Tanjiro says. "You're back to wearing that, huh?"
He means the mask. Inosuke bristles. "I always wear it."
"You wear it much less now than you used to," Tanjiro says. "Now you wear it when you don't want to be seen."
What's he trying to say? Inosuke twitches, seeing red.
"Are you saying I'm hiding?!"
He flings himself at Tanjiro, hunched over to keep his center of gravity low, but Tanjiro has fought him too many times when Inosuke was actually trying to win. The first punch he throws is easily dodged—the second is caught, Tanjiro's hand closing around his fist as he steps backwards, catching Inosuke off balance. He stumbles, almost goes sprawling, but Tanjiro doesn't let him fall.
A hand comes up to rest against the back of his mask, and then instead of trying to fight him, stupid Tanjiro pulls him into a hug. Inosuke blinks over his shoulder, all the anger going out of him, leaving him limp and docile. His head is going all light and fluffy the way it always does when Tanjiro does this, and Tanjiro's arms around him feel more like guidance than all the things his friend didn't say at dinner.
"What do you want to tell them?" Tanjiro asks softly. "It's your decision, either way."
"I don't know," Inosuke says. "No one's ever asked me to marry them before!"
Tanjiro laughs. "It's not usually something that happens to people a lot."
"What about Tengen? It must have happened to him at least three times." Actually, speaking of Tengen… "And he's still part of the Corps!"
"The situations are different," Tanjiro says. "They want someone to protect their village, the same way Tengen protects his family."
Inosuke sags against him, still confused. Protecting people is the whole purpose of being a demon slayer. If that's what they want him for, and he says no, would that mean he wasn't doing his job? Or worse, putting people in danger?
But if he leaves the Corps, does that mean… he and Tanjiro wouldn't see each other anymore? He thinks back to that long year alone, about how the loneliness kept creeping up on him without him knowing, until he was submerged before he even knew it. About how hearing Tanjiro's voice again after all that time, seeing his smile, had made him able to breathe again. He doesn't think he can go back to that, now that he knows what it's like.
He tilts his head back so he can look at Tanjiro, and even though Tanjiro can't see his eyes through the mask, he still manages to make their gazes meet. "You didn't say anything at dinner."
"I didn't think it was my place."
"You always say something, even when it's none of your business!"
"Then… maybe because I didn't think it should be my place."
Inosuke grabs his green haori threateningly. "I want you to say something!" It's making him furious, Tanjiro's lack of—what? Opinion? Interest? Does he just not care?
How could he not care?
Tanjiro pats Inosuke's head soothingly. "I don't know if I can give you an answer that won't be selfish."
"Then be selfish."
"That won't help you."
"I just want to know!" Inosuke bursts out. He stares at Tanjiro so hard it makes him quiver from the force of his intensity. "I want to know what you think! About me getting m-married! And leaving!"
For a long moment, Tanjiro stays quiet. Then he says, "I think you should do what makes you happy."
"Obviously that's what I want to do, but—"
"I think if you want to be with someone, it should be somebody who loves you for who you are, not what you can do for them," Tanjiro continues. "I think it should be someone you love, in return. You've given too much and had too much taken from you, for it to be anyone else."
His eyes are bright while he watches Inosuke, and Inosuke lets his hands slacken, falling away from Tanjiro's robes.
"What if that person never finds me?"
Tanjiro's expression wavers. His mouth draws down and his eyes shadow with something close to sadness… and Inosuke isn't sure why or what he said wrong.
But then Tanjiro raises his hands to put them on either side of the boar mask. He bends down, coming closer, and Inosuke can't pull away—but he doesn't feel trapped, either. No instinct to run, to fight. His arms stay loose at his sides.
"Then I'll be here, like always," Tanjiro whispers, just before he softly presses his lips to the pig snout.
Inosuke doesn't move—he just stares.
He feels like moonlight is flooding through the eyeholes of the mask, blinding him.
He feels like starlight is filling his lungs, sparkling all around him while he floats in a pool of clear, crystal water, the night sky ablaze overhead.
He feels like sunlight has wrapped itself around him, to carry him away and as high as he could ever want to go.
He's never felt this light before.
Tanjiro steps away from him, and Inosuke can see his face getting redder and redder in the lamplight. He bows, one jerky down-up movement, and then backs out of the room without taking his eyes off Inosuke, like he's worried about what might happen if he does. Then he's gone, sliding the door quietly closed behind him again.
Suddenly, Inosuke doesn't need to think anymore. His hands move on their own, raising and lifting his mask off his head, setting it on the little table Tanjiro had righted after his tantrum.
Then he races out of the room, flinging the delicate rice paper screen open with a loud snap. His feet are louder as they thunder down the hall, but it's his voice that is loudest.
His friend, clear down the hallway, turns in shock to see Inosuke barreling towards him at full speed.
"I'm sorry—" Tanjiro squeaks, panic pitching his voice high, "I shouldn't have—"
Inosuke collides with him so hard they spin in a full circle. He flings his arms around Tanjiro's neck and hangs on, so that it feels like they're practically inseparable.
"Would you be alright with it?" Inosuke demands.
"With me leaving the Demon Slaying Corps!" Inosuke yells at him. "With me getting married!"
Tanjiro swallows and Inosuke pushes up onto his toes impatiently, thrusting their faces so close together that their noses are nearly touching. He knows Tanjiro can't lie to him. Finally, Tanjiro shakes his head.
"No," he says. "I'd hate it."
"Ha!" Inosuke crows, before crashing their mouths together so hard it hurts. It feels great.
"Ow, ow, ow—" Tanjiro yelps, covering his mouth with his hand.
Inosuke tears his hand away. "No hiding from you, either," he growls. "If you're gonna do that, don't just run away."
Tanjiro's eyes widen. "You… you want…"
He ducks his head, and Inosuke forgets to breathe. He has to tilt his face up, but then…
Then Tanjiro's hands are on his face, this time, instead of his mask. The calluses feel familiar. And then his lips are on Inosuke's, too, warm and slightly chapped and soft like a summer rain.
Inosuke knows what a kiss is, by now. He couldn't not know after being friends with Zenitsu for this many years. But he's never kissed anyone before, or expected anyone to kiss him. That's what people do when they really, really like someone, in a special way meant only for them. It means the way Tanjiro cares about him is only for Inosuke.
The fuwafuwa feeling inside of his chest explodes. It's so sudden and strong that it makes him gasp, and Tanjiro wraps him up, hands in his hair. Breathing styles flow together, create a new breath—flowing like water, fierce like a wild beast, hot as the sun. Something new and made of the two of them. Inosuke, who has always run toward strength rather than fear it, presses closer, closer, trying to get more.
"Inosuke…" Tanjiro murmurs at the corner of his mouth, voice low in the way it gets when he's serious about something. Inosuke fists his hands into the back of Tanjiro's robe to—stop him from doing something stupid, like running away again! Definitely not to maintain his balance with how dizzy he feels. Not that.
"I ain't gonna marry that girl," he says, glaring up at Tanjiro as though daring him to argue. "I don't know how we're gonna stop the village from getting eaten by demons, though."
"We can write to Oyakata-sama to send the kakushi to the village," Tanjiro says. "They can plant wisteria here and teach the people how to care for it."
"Good idea!" Inosuke yells in his excitement. "You thought that up fast!"
"I didn't think you'd want to leave the Corps," Tanjiro admits. "So I wanted to help with another solution… I just didn't realize you might want to stay because of me."
"Stupid Gonpachiro," Inosuke admonishes him. "I always liked you! You should have figured that out years ago." He grins up at Tanjiro, daring him to argue.
"You're right," Tanjiro says, kissing his forehead instead. Inosuke decides this is also acceptable. "No idea how I could've missed it."
They're still twenty-two. In the seven years they've known each other, Inosuke has learned three things.
The first is Tanjiro's name.
The second is that while Tanjiro does deserve to get his ass kicked every once in awhile, not every strong emotion Inosuke has about him is the ass-kicking kind.
And the third is that the fluffy floatiness that happens sometimes, the tingling in his tummy and the lightness in his head, the way Tanjiro's smile and voice can make him feel so unbearably fuwafuwa he can hardly stand it…
That's called love.
And Inosuke is deeply, truly in it.