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Spiraling Downward, Stars Burn Out

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The air was charged with something heavy and eerily familiar, something that had chills racing down Akaza’s spine as he remained on high alert. It reminded him of the calm before the storm, of the hints of rain one could smell in the wind before a downpour struck, and it left him far more agitated than usual.

Something was wrong. He could not shake the instinctive, chilling awareness that something somewhere had gone horrifically wrong.

Makio was tense too. She had picked up on his unease and knew it was never without reason, so they watched one another’s back as they ran throughout the night searching for the cause of their unease.

So when they saw Nijimaru racing toward them with Hinatsuru and Suma right behind him, grave expressions on their face and tenseness to their frame that screamed of the desire to have a weapon in hand, Akaza could feel his heart stutter to a stop.

“Hinatsuru! Suma! What happened?!”

“They have Tengen.”

Three words could wield incredible power. Whispered ‘I love you’s could slowly mend bone-deep heartache, determined ‘I believe you’s could foster trust in someone who thought themselves incapable of it, and righteous “I’ll protect you’s worked as a promise and a drive in one, restoring purpose to five souls who had aimlessly wandered through life for far too long.

But these three words? They held a different sort of power. They held the same power as ‘he hung himself’ and ‘they were poisoned’, and Akaza nearly buckled under the combined weight of the frantic pressure thrumming in his chest and the memories pounding in his head, screaming at him through the forgetful fog that had plagued him for so long.

He would not let this happen again. He could not let this happen again.

“You know where he is?” Akaza would apologize to Nijimaru for his demanding tone later, but this was too important to waste time.

“Headquarters!” Nijimaru’s answer was unusually curt as well, strained with nerves in a way that made it clear he was just as worried as the rest of them. Without another word, the crow took to the skies, and Yuki did the same, cawing nervously at regular intervals even without speaking.

“Why didn’t he run?” Suma whispered as her breath hitched. She was struggling to keep the tears at bay, they all were, but they couldn’t afford to let the rage and pain loose just yet. It would slow them down. “None of them could have stopped him! So why…”

“Because he was with Tanjiro and Zenitsu,” Hinatsuru murmured with a voice that trembled like leaves in the wind. “And the Hashira can be… extreme when they’re angry. When something challenges their worldview like Nezuko did. He likely feared the kids would suffer in his place if he ran, and I hate that I cannot be sure they wouldn’t have.”

“We’ll get him back!” Makio growled with a wildness to her that spoke of fear and pain just as strongly as the rest of them. “We’ll get him back, even if we have to destroy them all to do so!”

“Damn right. I’ll rip their heads from their shoulders if there’s so much as a scratch on him!” Akaza’s voice was thick with a promise that he would not break, not this time.

They did not stop running. They didn’t so much as slow down, tearing off into the darkness with desperation and adrenaline fueling them. Headquarters was further away than Akaza had hoped, and he wanted to scream when he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise with the looming threat of sunrise fast approaching.

‘No! No no no no no…’ 

“Akaza…”

“How far are we?!”

It was Yuki who answered, perching on his shoulder with a sad caw. “Too far. Take shelter.”

“I can’t! He needs us now!”

“He needs us alive, Akaza.” Makio’s tone allowed for no arguments, though Akaza was sorely tempted to try anyway. “We’ll go. You can catch up with us come nightfall. We already might lose him. Don’t make use grieve for you too.”

That immediately took the wind out of his sails. Akaza couldn’t care less if he got hurt ensuring that Tengen survived, but when he thought of how hurt they would all be if he died in such an unnecessary and meaningless way… Frustrated tears welled up in the corners of his eyes as Akaza clenched his fists so tightly that claws dug into the flesh of his palms.

Hinatsuru was the one to pause briefly as she uncurled his hand, pressing a kiss to his forehead as she murmured, “We’re counting on you. We’ll all be waiting for you, so rest and run faster than you ever have before once the sun sets.”

He lost his battle with tears, shaking as great, heaving sobs tore from his throat. They were all running into danger without him. They were all running headlong into potential death and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. 

‘I guess Akaza and Hakuji aren’t so different after all,’ he thought hysterically. He nearly fell to his knees when Suma wrapped her arms around him in a warm embrace, murmuring promises that he didn’t register but still appreciated.

“Don’t you dare die on me! Not a single one of you! You can’t! You can’t!” he howled, feeling a hint of madness looming over his shoulder at the mere thought. Akaza would lose himself entirely if that happened; he was certain of it.

“We won’t,” Makio vowed, taking his hand in hers and tethering him back to the present. “We’re stronger than that; you know that. We’ll all be alive and well when you get there, I promise.”

“They won’t fight fair.” His voice was barely more than a whisper, eyes going foggy as past and present merged in an unholy nightmare of devastation and death.

Makio’s gaze softened with pity, not that Akaza was aware enough to see it. “Then neither will we. But we have to go, Akaza. Take care of yourself, okay? We’ll see you soon.”

Only he and Yuki were left in the clearing. They did not have long before the sun would kiss the horizon, and had it not been for Yuki’s insistent tugging, Akaza wasn’t sure that he would’ve found the abandoned, dilapidated home within the woods that served to shelter him from the deadly rays.

“I guess you’re protecting me even in death, huh, Koyuki?” Yuki only tilted her head in response, cawing softly in confusion. “Please protect them instead. They’re far more deserving of it.”

“Lead you!” Yuki cawed reproachfully, remaining stubbornly at his side.

Akaza could only hope she wouldn’t lead him directly into the aftermath of yet another tribute to death that he was unable to prevent.

-

When Tengen slowly began drifting into consciousness, it was to the sound of a heated argument between the Hashira. He carefully remained still, ensuring that his breathing was level as he listened in.

“Why is he still alive? He betrayed us, plain and simple. We should execute him and be done with it!”

“Because he’s the only one who can answer our questions, Shinazugawa. This isn’t the same as when we discovered Nezuko; this is bigger than that. When even Waxing Moon Four and Five say they can’t harm him, we have a problem. There are very few demons in the world that could intimidate them, after all.”

“I doubt he will tell us regardless,” Iguro muttered. “He always did keep things close to his chest.”

Shinobu sighed at that. “I know. But what other options do we have? We need to be prepared for what’s coming, and I doubt whichever demon he’s involved himself with will be half as cooperative as he might be. This is war, now more than ever. We cannot afford to be rash.”

“I don’t think he meant to hurt anyone,” Mitsuri whispered, sounding unsure of her own words. “He still helped protect the village, after all. He could’ve just run once he was discovered, but he didn’t. That has to count for something, right?”

“It is our responsibility to put lost souls to rest. It is a shame that one of our own could be tempted to the other side, but that does not mean we can forsake our duty. His actions have doubtlessly caused countless deaths already; he cannot be allowed to continue like this.”

“I just don’t understand!” Tengen almost gave himself away at the sheer disbelief and hurt in Kyojuro’s voice. “How could he do this? Tengen is a good man! There has to be some sort of misunderstanding here! We’ve been working together so closely, and I never even noticed…”

“And if there has been a misunderstanding, then we will find that out soon enough. He would not blame us for taking safety measures in any case,” Shinobu reassured him. Her haori rustled in a movement that had Tengen prepared to fake his awakening in a heartbeat. “I should check on him again. He should be waking soon…”

‘They really make it too easy.’ Tengen bit back a laugh as he blinked his eyes open, groaning softly. “You punch like a demon, Kanroji,” he muttered. “Couldn’t hold back even a little? I was coming along willingly.”

“I’m sorry! In my defense, it was a very stressful situation!” She meant that too. Not that Kanroji was ever the type to lie in the first place, but it was reassuring to know that at least some of them didn’t hate him outright.

‘Though that might change by the end of today.’’ He shook off the thought, plastering a smile on his face as he said, “So, I’m sure you all have several questions. You can ask them! We may as well get this over with.”

“Did you truly grow close with a demon, my child?” The disappointment in Ubuyashiki’s voice fostered a twinge of guilt that Tengen swiftly smothered. He’d made his choice and did not regret it; he would not allow anyone to make him feel otherwise.

“I did.”

“Then why shouldn’t we kill you right now, huh?” Shinazugawa barked, only growing more furious with him when Tengen laughed. “What’s so damn funny?!”

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” he chuckled. “To answer your question, I rather thought you all had more self-preservation than that. If you kill me, then your lives instantly become forfeit. He’d kill you, all of you.”

“Oh? And who is this demon, hm? Must have quite some power if you’re so confident in that…”

“Got it in one, Shinobu.”

“Don’t refer to me so casually. You lost any right to that the second you began consorting with demons.”

“Understood, Kocho.” Tengen heaved an exaggerated sigh before locking eyes with her, and a smirk tugged at his lips as he answered, “And he’s Waxing Moon Three.”

“What the hell did you get yourself into, Uzui?” she muttered lowly. The others often forgot just how keen his hearing was, and Tengen was not about to give such an advantage away now. He remained silent until Kocho asked, “And why are you so certain that this demon cares whether you live or die? You’re no longer useful to him as an informant, so I see no reason why he would come for you at all, much less avenge you.”

“You make the mistake of assuming our relationship is professional.”

Tengen had never heard so many people’s breath stutter in shock simultaneously. Iguro was the one who recovered first. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded.

“Exactly what I said.” Tengen laughed at the sour look that earned him. “Our relationship is about as far from professional as it gets. You want to know why I’m so sure he’s coming for me? Why I know he would destroy all of you if anything happened to me? Because Akaza is extremely protective of whoever he considers his. And I am his, in every way.”

“You’re fucking disgusting!” Shinazugawa snarled, doubtlessly about to spew more vitriol before Kyojuro cut him off.

“But what about your wives? I cannot imagine they would approve of this!”

Tengen briefly considered lying, but he knew that even if Hinatsuru managed to hold her tongue, which was unlikely as it was, Makio and Suma would not. They all loved Akaza too much to let insults stand, and that was very firmly the territory this conversation was heading into.

“They do.” Kyojuro’s eyes blew wide with shock, and he was not the only one to react that way. ‘Honestly, they forget we’re shinobi. Hinatsuru, Makio, and Suma are as far from civilians as it gets. Why would they blink twice at a bit of death?’

He mentioned none of this. If his fellow Hashira hadn’t put it together by now, then they were, quite frankly, lost causes. “They love him as much as I do. He loves them as much as I do. They’ve been involved from the start, and we wouldn’t have even met if it wasn’t for them.”

Kocho latched onto that snippet of information like a bloodhound on the scent. “And how did you meet?” It seemed like her pleasant mask was firmly in place once more, not that her pounding heartbeat ever disguised the rage that plagued her heart. “I imagine it must be quite the story.”

“Yoshiwara. If he hadn’t been there… Hinatsuru would have died. Waxing Moon Six had her, and I would not have gotten there fast enough. But Akaza has morals. He refuses to harm women at all, and he took offense to Waxing Moon Six intending to do so right in front of him. He warned him off and took her away from him. He even fought him when the other demon turned his attention to Makio and Suma instead. He held the bastard in place while I killed him! There would have been, at the very least, far more casualties that night if it wasn’t for Akaza. I could have lost everything… And yet I was fortunate enough to gain something, to gain someone, instead.”

He could faintly hear Kocho whispering to a member of the kakushi to go gather the kids and bring them here to verify that information, but he didn’t focus on that. Tengen focused on the sound of his own heart beating steadily, thrumming with honesty and adoration that was written all over his face. “He’s not the monster you all think he is. Sure, he kills, but never innocents. His hands may have more blood on them, but in the end, they’re still cleaner than mine ever will be.”

“... Because you were a shinobi.” Tomioka’s voice was as steady as it always was, but Tengen could hear the hint of understanding beginning to grow within it. “And you killed too. Innocents.”

“What?! Uzui would never do that!” Kanroji cried out. “Sure, he’s made a mistake now, but…” She turned to face him, voice petering out as she took in Tengen’s grave expression. “You wouldn’t… Would you?”

“I did.” Tears streamed down her face as soon as he uttered the words. “I had little choice at the time but… No, that is an excuse. I could have rebelled. I could have refused to take anything outside of missions I wanted to, no matter the wrath my father would have exacted on me for doing so. To say otherwise is disingenuous. Hell, Akaza stood his ground against Muzan himself and wound up getting permission to basically do as he pleased. There are always other options; I simply didn’t see them at the time.”

“Hold on a moment. What was it you said about Waxing Moon Three?” Himejima’s voice wavered in disbelief. “I must have misheard you.”

“You did not! Don’t let his rank fool you, Akaza is Muzan’s favorite. By far. The Twelve Kizuki are under strict orders to kill any Hashira they encounter, after all, and well…” He gestured to himself with a chuckle. “Clearly he did not. Any other demon would be at least tortured, if not outright killed, for that sort of insubordination, but Akaza declared Hinatsuru, Makio, Suma, and myself as under his protection without fear of repercussion. For good reason, considering Muzan took no offense to this and instead ordered every single demon that they were not to lay a hand on us unless they wanted to die a swift and instantaneous death. Not that it kept Gyokko from running his damn mouth.”

Tengen knew that Muzan would have killed the demon for that stunt regardless, so he wasn’t particularly concerned about his part in slaying him. Had he killed Hantengu, then it might have been a different story.

“That is a powerful foe indeed. To have the ear of the king of demons…” Himejima began muttering prayers under his breath, and the frantic beating of his heart gave away how truly disturbed he was by the thought.

Shinazugawa laughed. “So you’re sure he’s coming, huh? Sounds like the perfect setup for a trap to me! What’s he going to do against all of us?”

“He can be reasoned with, you know? This doesn’t have to turn into a fight.”

“Like hell it doesn’t!”

Tengen narrowed his eyes before sighing, giving it up as a lost cause. ‘Well, I tried. A couple of them look hesitant, but I doubt that’ll amount to anything in the end. Not once a demon is here and they have every excuse to go for his head.’ 

“Then on your head be it,” Tengen muttered darkly. “You can’t say I didn’t try to save you.”

Even Tokito, whose heart rang with a familiar, utter indifference that told Tengen he already didn’t remember what happened between them at the swordsmith village, looked mildly alarmed by that statement.

“Tengen…” Ubuyashiki’s voice trailed off in a disbelieving whisper. “You would truly choose this demon over the life you’ve made for yourself and your wives here? I thought you were happy.”

“I was.” Despite it all, Tengen hated disappointing him like this. Most people would not have given Tengen a chance, but Ubyashiki had taken that risk and was likely regretting it now, regardless of what good Tengen did over the years. “But I love Akaza, and there could never be a place for him here. You’ve all made that abundantly clear.”

“Don’t put this on us,” Iguro hissed. Kaburamaru echoed his owner’s frustrations with bared fangs. “You were the one who went sleeping with the enemy. You can’t have expected this to go any differently.”

Tengen chuckled softly at that, nearly flinching at how despairing it sounded to his own ears. “No, but I had hoped.”

The courtyard fell into silence at that, and Tengen carefully kept himself from reacting in any way when he heard the telltale sound of Nijimaru’s wings flapping and a light, barely audible rustling of grass and leaves.

Evening was slowly approaching, but the sun still burned brightly in the sky. There were only three sets of footsteps running for headquarters. Tengen began preparing himself now for the arrival of a near-catatonic Akaza come nightfall.

“Tengen!”

His wives had their war faces on, the same expression they wore when the four of them fled from their former lives together, though he could see the tinges of fear obscured within it. Suma’s eyes were wet with tears that threatened to fall at any moment, Hinatusuru’s eyebrows were furrowed ever-so-slightly with concern even as she carefully kept the rest of her face neutral, and Makio’s strained smile couldn’t be mistaken for anything less than a baring of teeth.

Moments like these made Tengen remember why he’d fallen head over heels for all of them so quickly despite their marriages being arranged.

“Makio! Suma! Hinatsuru!”

Shinazugawa looked like he had half a mind to keep them from joining Tengen’s side, but he froze in place when they all pulled a pair of kunai on him in clear warning. Hinatsuru’s practiced smile never left her face as she said, “It would only take a scratch for the poison to do you in. I advise you let us through, Hashira.”

Tomioka studied them for several moments before a ghost of a smile tugged at his lips, barely visible at all even if someone was actively looking for it. “... I’m beginning to suspect that Uzui has a type.”

“Fucking crazy,” Shinazugawa muttered, but he didn’t make another step toward them. No one dared to.

“Tengen! I’m so glad you’re alright!” Suma wailed, instantly cutting the rope tied around his wrists so she could throw herself into his arms. “We were all so worried!”

“I take it we’re waiting for sunset before the party starts?” Makio twirled her kunai between her fingers with all the confidence and ease of an apex predator. A wicked smile painted her face, and Tengen barely bit back a laugh at the spiking heartbeats of his former comrades. “Works fine by me, but I can’t believe they think Akaza is the threat among us. Getting him to eat before he’s near-starving is like pulling teeth, the big ol’ softie.” She rolled her eyes with a fond smile. “Though he’s finally getting better about that now that we’ve got a list prepped and ready to go.”

Unseeing eyes blew wide with shock. “A list? How involved in this demon’s crimes against humanity are you?”

“Plenty,” Makio chuckled. “Akaza is very particular about who he hunts, you see. He won’t lay a hand on women, children, or the ill, and it’s very rare for him to go after the elderly either. That only happens if a real monster of a man has managed to keep himself hidden for so long.”

“And it goes beyond even that,” Hinatsuru interjected. “Akaza specifically targets men who abuse their power over others. Men who beat their wives and children, men who starve their villages while they feast every night, men who spit upon the downtrodden…”

“He even prioritizes the ones where lives are in danger!” Suma cried out. “If a man is violent enough to be a danger to his family, then he’ll go after him first. If a village is on the brink of collapse because no one can afford food, then he’ll go after its leader first. If someone is going around poisoning the homeless, then he’ll go after them first. Akaza cares! He’s killed, but we all have! Why won’t you even try to understand?”

“He’s got you all brainwashed.” Iguro looked them over with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “This goes beyond simple foolishness. Could you tell us his Blood Demon Art?”

‘Wait. Does he seriously think…? Oh, this is golden.’ 

“It’s perception-based,” Tengen deadpanned. “Lets him keep track of enemies more easily and make the most efficient attacks possible. Fairly straightforward, really.” He wasn’t about to mention the details, especially not the part where Akaza could literally see souls, but Tengen would happily dangle just enough to let Iguro draw his own conclusions. Anything to draw this out long enough that none of them realized Akaza would come for four dead bodies just as surely as he would come if they were all left alive.

And the bait worked like a charm.

“Could he not alter your perception of him then? Make you see the things he wants you to see? I doubt it’s truly so simple a power if he became Waxing Moon Three with it.”

“What, exactly, are you insinuating?” Hinatsuru’s tone was glacial, and she did not give Iguro a chance to answer before continuing with, “Even if we ignore the insult to Akaza’s character, and we’ll get back to that, believe me, it sounds to me that you think us too stupid to recognize deception when we see it. We are shinobi . We are deception incarnate, and to insinuate otherwise is to disregard all of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into molding children into assassins.”

“Hear, hear!” Makio chuckled, leaning against Hinatsuru with a wide smile. “Besides, Akaza is about as subtle as an ox. He’s the incredibly earnest sort; if he was hiding something, then we’d know it.”

“He blushes so prettily, too.” Tengen snickered at the gag that came from Shinazugawa. “So easily flustered, that one is. Though I suppose the early Edo period was far more modest…”

Suma giggled as a genuine smile tugged at her lips. “I think it’s sweet! He’s way more cuddly than I expected him to be, but I like it!”

“There is something truly, deeply wrong with all four of you,” Kocho muttered lowly. “But thankfully we shouldn’t have to humor your insanity for too much longer.” There was maybe an hour until sunset, and Tengen had no doubt that Akaza would find a way to be here within an hour of that, regardless of how far he was from them.

It was then that he heard six more sets of footsteps, some more familiar than others, being ushered forward by the practiced gait of a kakushi.

“Ah! There you are.” No one was fooled by Kocho’s pleasant tone. Tanjiro, Zenitsu, and Inosuke looked between her and Tengen with wide eyes, only relaxing ever so slightly when he nodded to them. Nezuko seemed mildly concerned, but her emotions were muffled heavily by the haze of unawareness that her hypnosis kept her in. Genya seemed torn between confusion and anger, having heard exactly what the villagers said about Tengen, while Kanao seemed mostly disinterested in the proceedings. “Come along, come along! We just wanted to talk about anything you may have noticed about Uzui here.”

Her gaze rested heavily on Tanjiro, Zenitsu, and Inosuke. “Perhaps something you should have mentioned in your mission report, hm?”

“So we… May have had some help dealing with Waxing Moon Six,” Zenitsu muttered evasively. “But we struggled enough fighting them before Waxing Moon Three came along and helped us; there was no way we could’ve fought him too. We all would’ve died, and he wasn’t the threat or mission that night so… I figured there was a reason Uzui-san told us not to worry about it; I’m sorry!”

Tengen had never been so proud of his tsuguko in his life. The other two were atrocious liars, but Zenitsu was so perpetually nervous and underestimated that his words tended to be taken at face value if they weren’t obviously exaggerated. Even his recent association with Tengen hadn’t changed that, it seemed.

“Hm… That’s understandable. In the future, make sure you still report such a thing though, alright?” Kocho’s smile wielded a hidden dagger that had all three boys nodding quickly. “Good! Just remember that the corps’ rules overrule anything a superior may tell you. Listening to what Uzui told you to do wasn’t a crime, just naivety. None of us expected such treachery.”

Tanjiro shuffled uneasily, watching Tengen with dawning horror in his eyes. “This is the kind of thing that gets people executed, isn’t it?” he whispered. “Like you tried to do with me and Nezuko.”

“He sold us out to fucking demons!” Shinazugawa snarled. “To fuck demons, even. And a Waxing Moon no less?! Of course he’s going to die for this betrayal!”

Kocho was quick to reassure Tanjiro. “It’s not the same as you and Nezuko, Tanjiro. She hasn’t ever harmed anyone, and so long as she does not, you will both be welcome here.”

Her words had the opposite of their intended effect, however. Tanjiro only paled further, likely remembering just how close a call they had in Yoshiwara. He danced on a delicate line, and now he was being faced with the consequences that would come from falling from it.

“... I understand.”

“Is the demon coming here?!” Inosuke exclaimed. “Yes! I never got to fight him!”

“Why are we here?” Genya muttered lowly. “I don’t know anything that’s helpful, at least not anything the villagers haven’t told you already.”

“Oh! We wanted to warn you about something, actually!” Kanroji was completely oblivious to the boy’s sudden shyness when she became the center of the conversation. “I didn’t see much of it myself, but a few villagers mentioned that you took on demonic traits while fighting the demons, right?”

“Uh… Right. I can eat their flesh and gain their strength for a short period of time.”

“Do not use that ability so carelessly.” Kocho’s expression was grave as she gave the order, dropping any pretense of friendliness. “You got lucky that you only ate from the cloned bodies. The Blood Demon Art must have diluted his blood just enough to keep you safe, but any member of the Twelve Kizuki is powerful enough to turn demons on their own. They do so with blood. I’m sure you can figure out what eating their flesh would do to you. Permanently.”

Only the slightest tremble in Genya’s hands gave away his terror at the realization of how close he’d come to execution himself. “Understood.”

“Good, good!” Kocho clapped her hands together with a smile, turning to Kanao with far more genuine softness on her face. “And I just figured you might want to be here. It’s important to learn the inner workings of the Hashira if you’re to become one someday.”

Kanao simply nodded, and they all fell into an uneasy silence as the sun began to dip below the horizon.

‘And now we wait.’

-

Kyojuro could hardly believe what was happening. It felt like he was living in some sort of nightmare, and for a moment, he wished that he was still aboard the Mugen Train so that he could wake from it and return to a world where everything made sense.

The stars twinkled in the darkening sky. He should be preparing for an attack, but Kyojuro could not take his eyes off of who he once considered one of his dearest friends. Tengen was wary and tense, but his eyes spoke of absolute certainty that his demon would come for them. Makio looked ready to tear into them any time she heard someone muttering about Waxing Moon Three and how they were going to deal with him under their breaths, only held back by the need to stand guard over her lovers as she reassured them that everything would be alright.

‘And when did that happen?’ he wondered. ‘I am almost certain that Makio, Suma, and Hinatsuru weren’t involved with one another before.’ 

Suma looked graver than he could ever recall seeing her be. Her kunai had made a reappearance shortly after she threw herself into Tengen’s arms, and blue eyes that were typically as bright and playful as the ocean’s shore had hardened into glaciers. Hinatsuru was the most composed of the group, but her typically pleasant smile had something wild tugging at its edges. She watched the Hashira like she was ready to sink her teeth into them at the slightest threat.

Kyojuro’s hand instinctively reached for his blade when her eyes met his. It was as if he was pinned, frozen in place by the gaze of a predator that he had foolishly stumbled across the path of, and if Kyojuro wasn’t used to facing foes with far more prominent bloodlust, he doubted he would have been able to recollect himself so quickly.

His comrades were too caught up in warily eyeing the borders of the property as they discussed plans with one another to see the moment that the tension melted out of Tengen’s shoulders. A small, vaguely familiar-looking Kasugai crow perched beside Nijimaru in the tree overlooking the courtyard, and that was all the warning they got before Waxing Moon Three arrived.

The demon was tense and shaking, starkly reminding Kyojuro of a pacing, agitated tiger like the one he’d seen at the circus as a child. Despite this, he was suppressing his presence so thoroughly that the others hadn’t noticed him yet. Kyojuro knew he should have said something, should have immediately alerted the others to the danger they were all in and leapt into battle, but something silenced his voice and stayed his hand.

Waxing Moon Three’s eerie, golden eyes were filled with tears. Kyojuro had never seen a demon look so terrified in his life, not even when certain death raced toward them as surely as his blade swung for their necks. The demon took a single, hesitant step toward the Uzuis, almost as if he was afraid to believe that they were real.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Tengen murmured, plunging the courtyard into silence as they took in the scene before them and reached for their weapons. “It’s alright, see? Everything’s okay. C’mere.”

A sob tore out of the Waxing Moon’s throat as he launched himself into Tengen’s arms. Suma made room for him with practiced ease before wrapping one of her arms around him as well, trailing a hand down the demon’s face as she wiped the stray tears away. Hinatsuru’s hand ran through bright pink hair, and the demon leaned into the touch like a starved man. Makio was clearly keeping guard over them all, but even she found a way to press against the sobbing demon’s back as a steady reassurance that she wasn’t going anywhere.

“I thought I was going to lose you!” Waxing Moon Three’s voice sounded utterly broken at the thought of it, shaking and cracking as if it was a window enduring the strain of a brutal storm. “I thought I was going to be too late! I… I… I can’t go through that again, I just can’t!”

Shinazugawa took a step toward them, but Makio snarled so loudly that it was as if she was the demon among them. “It only takes one scratch. Don’t fucking test me!” Nobody moved. If there was any doubt Makio would follow through on her threat, then the rumbling growl emanating from Waxing Moon Three as his eyes pinned them in place would have firmly dissuaded them of the notion.

Kyojuro was beginning to think they may have gotten themselves in over their heads.

“What do you want?” The demon growled, acting as if he hadn’t been in hysterics only moments before. “Quite bold of you to hold my lovers hostage to get it, but I’ll hear you out for Tengen’s sake. Speak. Speak or have your still beating heart ripped from your chest for daring to lay a hand on them.”

‘Protective is something of an understatement, I feel.’ 

Despite the demon’s words and the silence it shocked them all into, he did not make a move toward them. Kyojuro had no doubt that would change if a single threatening motion was made, but for now, Waxing Moon Three seemed content to remain in the Uzuis’ embrace.

“We want your fucking head!” Shinazugawa glared as the Uzuis only tightened their hold on the demon.

“And for you to release our comrades from the Blood Demon Art you’ve entrapped them in. Though your death will do that just as well, I suppose.”

The demon glared at Iguro with a look that could kill. “What kind of monster do you take me for? I do not do anything without explicit consent or there would be several demons who were once Hashira running around. I’ve offered to turn them every single time I fought one; they always say no And I respect their wishes! I let them die as a human if that’s what they want, and I couldn’t care less about how those Hashira feel or what they think of me. I do care about Suma, Makio, Hinatsuru, and Tengen. I would never do anything, anything , without ensuring they were comfortable with it first!”

Kyojuro blinked at the impassioned speech and the hints of a growl he could hear at the edge of the demon’s voice.

“Honestly,” Waxing Moon Three muttered. “My Blood Demon Art doesn’t even work like that.” He then turned to face Shinazugawa with a contemplative expression. “As for you… I suppose I have a question.”

“What?”

“If I let you cut off my head, would you let them go?” The demon tilted his head with a curious hum, acting as if he was not casually discussing his own death.

“Akaza!”

“Don’t you dare!”

“I am not going to let you sacrifice yourself for us, Akaza. No.”

Tengen sighed. “Sweetheart… I appreciate the sentiment, but you’re not dying on us either. We’ll get out of this together or not at all.”

“I will not lose everyone I love again,” the demon vowed. “I could not protect them last time. I will not fail you. I will not.”

“It hardly matters,” Shinobu hummed with a smile. “None of you will be leaving alive regardless. Traitors must be dealt with, and one demon and four traitors are no match for eight Hashira, even the demon does happen to be a Waxing Moon.”

A chill shot down Kyojuro’s spine as the demon started to laugh. “Oh really? And what makes you think I came alone?”

The echoing strum of a biwa bounced around the courtyard. An overwhelming demonic presence blanketed them all, threatening to suffocate them with the sheer weight of it, as three more demons joined Akaza’s side.

Waxing Moon One and Two practically radiated bloodlust, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the demon with no kanji in his eyes at all.

‘That sort of power… There’s no way he wouldn’t be a member of the Twelve Kizuki if he was a normal demon.’ 

As he stared into the blood-red eyes of the king of demons, Kyojuro was quite certain that they were, in fact, in way over their heads.

-

“Ah, Akaza-dono! This is going to be such fun!” Douma’s eager smile tugged at his lips as the most minor stirring of his soul occurred, something akin to the beginning of a genuine emotion attempting to surface before it surrendered to the void of nothingness surrounding it. “And I even get to meet the rest of your pet humans. Hello!”

“Don’t make me regret inviting you.” Akaza’s glare only made Douma laugh, shrugging off his agitation with practiced ease.

“... Any orders?” Kokushibo’s question was clearly directed at their leader, but Muzan only hummed as a smirk tugged at his lips.

“Akaza was the one who brought us here after centuries of fruitless searching. He can decide who is and isn’t off limits as a reward.”

“The children,” he answered immediately. “At least the ones who are not a Hashira. Beyond that… Tengen speaks fondly of the Flame and Love Hashira, so I’d prefer to keep them alive. Maybe keep an eye out for anyone else who seems hesitant to fight?” Akaza muttered lowly, not wanting the Hashira to overhear this and plan around it.

Muzan nodded with approval. “Simple enough. We will endeavor to uphold that.”

“Sounds like a plan!”

“... If we must.”

Their conversation was cut short by the leader of the demon slayers. The previously docile and curious soul had been whipped into a frenzy, and the man’s voice was weighted with barely hidden fury as he uttered, “Kibutsuji.”

“Ah, you must be the current Ubuyashiki head. You’ve got that presence about you.” The simmering rage in Ubuyashiki’s soul burned brighter. “I’d apologize for what we’re about to do, but I’m not even remotely sorry for it. You should have thought better of threatening my favorite demon and his chosen.”

“Ha, I knew he was your favorite!” Douma cried out, utterly unbothered by the exasperated look Muzan shot his way. “So unfair! We’re all stronger than him, so what gives?!”

“He’s not an annoying pest.” Douma pouted at Muzan’s quick response. “Do take this seriously. You’ve seen what recklessness has earned several other Waxing Moons.”

“Yes, Muzan-sama…” Douma muttered with an exaggerated, sullen tone. 

Akaza could see the instant that the souls across from them harmonized and drew a deep breath. A snowflake flickered to life beneath his feet, expanding outward as it expanded his senses alongside it. His eyes glowed just as brightly as the pattern beneath him.

The air grew frigid.

“Careful with that ice,” Akaza warned, leveling Douma with a heavy look. “You know Nakime will whisk you away and put you in time out the second there’s friendly fire.”

“I got it, I got it! You’re always so bossy.”

Kokushibo unsheathed his sword as the demon slayers pulled their own weapons, and the thunder of battle shook the very earth beneath them. A single tilt of the head was all it took for the five of them to ensure they were the ones fighting the Flame and Love Hashira, and though the pair did not know it, none of the weapons Tengen, Makio, Hinatsuru, or Suma were wielding now had even a trace of mild poison on them.

‘The kids aren’t enough of a threat for us to worry about the others being pushed to the point where they defend themselves with lethal force. These two, on the other hand… It’s best not to leave that to chance. We’re allowed to leave them alive and it was suggested that the others do so, but it wasn’t a direct order.’

“Uzui, please… You don’t have to do this!”

A bittersweet smile tugged at Tengen’s lips. “I really do, Kanroji.”

“... Then so be it!” The Flame Hashira declared, though the wavering in his soul made it clear to Akaza that a fight was the last thing he wanted. Despite his reservations, the Hashira swung his blade in a whistling arc that Akaza intercepted with his arm. 

Akaza knocked the blade back, the Hashira only just managing to keep his grip on the sword, as his flayed flesh snapped back together in an instant. “Not bad, not bad at all.” A wild grin stretched across Akaza’s face. “Let’s see what you can really do!”

Hinatsuru chuckled softly as she danced around the Love Hashira’s peculiar blade. “Try not to have too much fun, dear.”

“No promises!” he chirped in response. They fell into formation with steady flares of their battle spirits, and Akaza’s smile softened into something far more real.

‘It’s showtime.’

-

Mitsuri was slow to hate, but she could confidently say that she hated the situation they’d found themselves in. Dear friends stood on the opposite side of her and Kyojuro, weapons drawn, and her plea for them to back down was met by deaf ears.

All of this for the demon standing in the center of them.

He was oddly striking, beautiful in a way that demons usually weren’t. Waxing Moon Two was the same, but there was something colder, more alien about that one; Akaza seemed real. He laughed and smiled as he exchanged blows with Kyojuro, and she watched him fail to take openings her best friend left behind despite clearly seeing them. She watched him soften any blows that were going to land to avoid hurting Kyojuro too badly, and from the way he was gritting his teeth, Kyojuro knew that too.

Akaza could have killed him several times over by now if he wanted to, but he hadn’t. Instead, he was playing defense, acting as a springboard for Makio, Suma, and Hinatsuru to launch themselves off of and jumping in front of any blows that would have hit them or Tengen without hesitation.

“Sweetheart, we really need to talk about your self-sacrificial streak.”

The demon shook off the blow from her whip easily enough. Within a second of his severed hand hitting the ground, a new one had regenerated in its place. “I regenerate, you don’t. Let me protect you.”

Despite Akaza’s exasperation, there was a note of fondness in his voice as well. ‘This is something they’ve argued about before, isn’t it? They’re really that close…’

If you ignored his eyes, Akaza almost seemed human. It wasn’t hard to imagine befriending him, seeing the man behind the monster, and the thought scared Mitsuri more than she cared to admit. She joined the demon slayers so she had a place to belong, and now here they were, turning on one of their own, one of their best, because of who he fell in love with. This had been going on for months with no consequences or real changes on their end. They had been the ones to force the demons’ hands, to draw them out into a battle they had no intention of starting but every intention of finishing.

A harsh gust of wind battered her, carrying the scent of blood and wisteria upon it, and Mitsuri couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder. Her eyes watered as her hands shook, trembling so much that she nearly dropped her whip. Kyojuro intercepted a half-hearted kunai flung in her direction, something that would have scratched her arm rather than truly hitting her, and she faintly wondered if they were trying to prevent her from witnessing the devastation surrounding her. 

As he took in what was going on around them, Kyojuro stuttered to a halt as well. Mitsuri could hardly remember the last time his ever-present smile had dropped so quickly.

The others were not doing well.

Shinobu staggered as Waxing Moon Two dealt a heavy blow to her, and she was losing an alarming amount of blood. Waxing Moon Two only smiled as she continued throwing herself forward, injecting him with poison that was rapidly running out and did little more than mildly inconvenience him.

“You think you’re awfully clever, don’t you?” the demon chuckled, dancing around Shinobu’s blows with ease as she began to slow from the pain. “Poisoning your blood like that is inspired, truly! It might have even worked if it wasn’t for Nakime. See, our transport may not like me, but she’s awfully fond of Akaza. She wouldn’t let tonight go anything but smoothly.”

It took only a single moment. Waxing Moon Two allowed Shinobu to get in close and pierce him with her blade again, and before she could retreat, a pale hand alighted on her shoulder. “I guess it’s time for me to reunite you with your sister, hm?” 

And then Shinobu was utterly engulfed in ice.

Waxing Moon Two pulled his hand back just in time to intercept a distraught Kanao with one of his fans as he gave her a dismissive glance. “I don’t have time to deal with children.”

“The Great Inosuke isn’t giving you a choice!” Genya was right behind him, pulling out his gun with a wicked smirk.

Zenitsu moved to support his friend with a sigh but far less hesitation than he used to have, and it was impossible to miss how much Waxing Moon Two was holding back now. A pair of rainbow eyes flitted over to Akaza with a look that screamed ‘you owe me’.

Waxing Moon One’s fight was even more brutal. Little Tokito was bloody and unmoving on the ground, and Iguro’s right eye was ruined, covering his scarred, exposed mouth with blood as he fought for his life.

Hashira had a hard enough time facing ordinary Waxing Moons as it was. The fact that this one could use a breath style of his own? One that none of them knew or could properly counter? Even if Waxing Moon One’s katana hadn’t been a monstrous abomination, there was no way they could truly fight against that.

Shinazugawa had previously been fighting in the group protecting Ubuyashiki from Muzan, but when he saw Iguro stagger, he leapt into the fray. It hardly seemed to make any difference to Waxing Moon One. He simply leveled another, undoubtedly deadly cluster of crescent blades toward Shinazugawa, and Mitsuri watched with her heart in her throat as a frantic Genya lunged forward to take a bite out of Waxing Moon Two’s arm before practically teleporting between his brother and Waxing Moon One, shielding his older brother’s vitals with his body.

Mitsuri bit back a gag as Genya was cut into ribbons, almost missing the way one of Shinazugawa’s arms landed on the grass below with a dull thump.

“GENYA!!”

“I-I’m fine, Nemi.” Genya trembled as he slowly regenerated, eyes wide and saliva dripping down his chin as his eyes darted between Waxing Moon One and the bleeding stump that remained of Shinazugawa’s dominant arm.

Shinobu’s warning rang loudly in her head. Genya had taken a chunk out of Waxing Moon Two. Genya had eaten the flesh of a member of the Twelve Kizuki, was heavily injured, and his older brother was a bleeding marechi less than ten feet away from him.

Shinazugawa came to the same realization only seconds later with a slight widening of his eyes. In the blink of an eye, Genya was lunging for his brother, and Akaza tackled him to the ground before she or Shinazugawa could move an inch.

“Let’s not do anything we’ll regret, hm?” Akaza chuckled nervously, enduring Genya’s irate snarling, clawing, and biting with remarkable aplomb. “You can eat later, but for now, you’ll just end up getting in the way and causing problems for yourself. I’m sorry, kid.” And with a single strike to the back of the neck that Mitsuri had watched Tengen use hundreds of times, Genya’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he went limp.

Akaza was quick to deposit the newly-turned demon on the outskirts of the battlefield, out of the line of fire, before rejoining their group that had become little more than horrified onlookers at this point. Mitsuri wanted to leap in. She wanted to do something to stop this. But as she watched Iguro get struck down, never to rise again, Mitsuri felt utterly powerless for the first time in her life.

“Why?” she whispered. “Why are they doing this?”

“We are tired of being hunted to the ends of the earth. This had to happen at some point, though I am sorry that it happened during your lifetime. Tengen’s abduction moved up our timeline quite a bit.”

This time, Tengen solidly blocked the swing of Kyojuro’s blade before it could get anywhere near Akaza’s head. “I tried to warn you! We could have talked it out, everyone could have walked away from this unharmed, but–!” His words were cut off as he moved to shield Akaza again, but he didn’t need to say the words for her to understand.

They never had any intention of letting Akaza leave headquarters alive, and the demons had responded in kind. Mitsuri clenched her fists, looking away from the renewed fight surrounding her as she focused on the horrifying visage of the king of demons.

Muzan Kibutsuji was utterly untouchable. Gyomei was slumped and unmoving against a nearby tree with a hole where his heart used to be. Muzan was toying with the others, only leaving minor wounds behind on Tanjiro, Nezuko, and Tomioka as he taunted Ubuyashiki with a wide grin and sweeping arms as he gestured to the carnage surrounding them.

The look that blazed to life in her leader’s eyes almost scared her.

“MUZAN-SAMA!!” Akaza sounded frantic and every bit as desperate as he did when he reunited with Tengen. “Nakime, now! Get everyone out of here!!”

‘It’s funny,’ Mitsuri thought. ‘I never thought that Kibutsuji would be capable of taking orders from others. He looks almost… afraid. Why? Sunrise is still an hour away.’ 

The strumming of a biwa sounded across the courtyard before it was drowned out with a cacophony of noise. Mitsuri felt a burning, intense heat searing her skin as her stomach swooped as the earth fell out from beneath her.

When she regained her footing, Mitsuri found herself in another world entirely.

-

Akaza couldn’t believe it. Cornered men were always the most dangerous, but even then, he hadn’t expected this.

“Hey, what the hell?! Where are–?!” Shinazugawa was cut off by one of Muzan’s tendrils wrapping around his mouth, effectively gagging him.

“Quiet. We have bigger problems than your attitude at the moment.” He gave Akaza a weighted, evaluating look with fear, not that anyone would ever dare point out such a thing, shining in his eyes. “That sound as Nakime teleported us… That was a bomb, wasn’t it?”

“Several bombs,” Tengen corrected idly, looking sick to his stomach. “I could hear the chain reaction. All of headquarters was rigged to blow at any moment. I always heard the faint ticking, but I never thought he would… The only ones who might have survived that were the demons, assuming they managed to completely reform themselves before sunrise.”

“W-wait!” Tanjiro stammered. “You mean that… But why?! Why would he do that?!”

“Because he knew you were going to lose. He was a coward and a traitor to his own people, uncaring of how his tactics would affect you all so long as it meant the end of demons!” Akaza snarled. “And even then, it might not have worked! His last act on earth was nearly a slaughter of his own people!”

“No, that can’t be…” Tears streamed down Kanroji’s face. “I won’t believe it! Oyakata-sama would never do that to us, right?! Right…?”

Nakime gave the woman a pitying smile before plucking the string of her biwa once more. A doorway materialized before Kanroji. “You may inspect the aftermath yourself if you so wish. Just be careful.”

Kanroji didn’t get any further than opening the door. As soon as she saw the rubble and blood that remained of where they were only moments prior, she fell to her knees with a sob.

The Flame Hashira’s battle spirit dimmed until it was barely more than a flickering candle, grief and shock numbing him into silence.

The Water Hashira studied the scene with a slight tremble in his frame, peaking his head through the doorway before swiftly stepping back once he confirmed that it was more than an illusion.

A young girl, the one who had immediately started fighting Douma once he killed that poison Hashira had frozen in place as tears slowly welled up in her eyes. “Shinobu… I need to bury my sister.”

Shinazugawa thrashed against Muzan until he pulled the tendril back, watching the man with a delicately cocked eyebrow. “Come on, kid. We’ll find her. Let's see if Oyakata-sama or any of his family survived that shit while we’re at it.”

Something in the Wind Hashira’s voice told Akaza that he already knew they’d find nothing but corpses.

“Nezuko and I can help! I’ll sniff them out and she can lift the bigger chunks of rubble.”

The four of them stepped out into the ruined courtyard minutes before the rising sun forced Nakime to close the portal so the sunlight didn’t seep through.

“W-what do we do now?” Zenitsu muttered, squeaking in terror when Muzan shrugged in answer.

“Whatever you wish. We have no quarrel with any of you personally, and the organization that once threatened us is in literal ruins. Go, live your life as normally as you can, completely away from demons. Go, pick up your blade again and hunt us until you meet your bitter end. Or… You could stay. Join us and become a demon… But that is up to you, all of you, so think about it.”

“Yeah, we’ll take care of little Shinazugawa,” Makio promised. “You lot don’t have to worry about anything if you don’t want to, not anymore. Everything’s changed.”

A new dawn was on the horizon, and the sun didn’t feel quite as threatening as it once did.