Late at night, when the Butterfly Estate is as still as it can be, both water and flower Hashiras drink a single serving of sake between grim news.
“How’s he faring, then?”
“He’s-- he’s strange, Sakonji. Even after a couple of months. I’ve met my fair share of children who go through shock, but nothing quite like his case.”
The water Hashira sighs, rubbing a scarred hand on the bridge of his nose at the news. He feels responsible and guilty for the silver-haired child, shouldering a world that wasn’t his to carry, as per usual. “What can you tell me, Kushina?”
The flower Hashira clicks her tongue, pensive for a few moments before answering, “Douma-kun is well educated, he knows how to read and write and count. He’s polite, but..”
“Not just quiet , he’s hollow ,” The woman stresses, her face stone cold but her eyes betraying how much this bothered her, “it is as if..as if he doesn’t know how to react to things, how to feel things. The Kakushi keeping an eye on him when I’m on missions tells me he’s like a-- a doll . Plastic.”
“He saw a demon attack first hand, Kushina--”
“I am not speaking about a demon attack, Sakonji, though I’m sure that messed with his psyche, too.” The flower Hashira grumbles something under her breath, worried. “He’s..friendly enough with Kanae, and patient with little Shinobu, but I...Sakonji, he hasn’t truly smiled, raged or cried since his arrival. He fakes all of it.”
The silence that follows is deafening, and then, “He..He was part of a cult, you need to remember that.”
“I know, you told me.” Kushina says flatly, and Urokodaki can smell the telltale of disgust in the air, “He’s so..young, and according to your suspicions, Douma was in a position of high power in that cult. But just how high? What did this cult do to kill a child’s basic emotional response like this?”
Urokodaki grows quiet, and remembers the day he found young Douma in the mountains. The clothes he wore weren’t just robes and yukatas. Paradise wasn’t just a tiny little house for a bunch of nutjobs, but a mansion filled to the brim. “Beg, prostrate to him, tell woes no child is capable of understanding. Someone subject to so many outbursts, do you give in to them, or do just lock yourself away to the onslaught?”
Kushina, fierce, one-woman army Kushina, visibly deflates hearing this, as if something squeezed out whatever fight she had on her, “Why must children be the ones who always suffer, Sakonji?”
There’s no answer to that, there never is.
“Douma told me he wanted to be a Slayer,” Urokodaki says quietly, eyeing his serving of alcohol warily.
“So does Kanae,”
“I told him I would train him, in the future. He’s still too young,” ‘ and too fragile ’, he thinks, but doesn’t say so out loud.
“Looking for a Tsuguko?”
“That would be up to him, if he accepts. If he joins the ranks. It’s his initiative though, I don’t want to snuff out whatever progress he makes,”
“You were always the fatherly sort, Sakonji. It’s kind of you to look out for him like this,”
Urokodaki nods stiffly, bitterly, and drinks his sake without any gusto. He’s lost too many children to be worthy of anything close to a father’s title.
Douma and Kanae train, more or less, and Kanae is absolutely elated knowing the reason why, because it means she and Douma will be comrades in arms in the demon slaying mission. Her thoughts are still naive and full of hope, and the grim reality of her dreams will not appear to her yet. She sees victory and friendship and protection, because now she’s a step closer to eradicate all demons from earth.
They run laps around the estate, and the laps sometimes turn into games of tag. It is basically just children running like children do, but they did so diligently. They run until sweat drenches their browns, their legs tremble and lungs burn. Douma is always a little behind, always just a tiny bit far. He has never played with other children, or played in general, and running is something almost foreign for him. His stamina lacks in comparison to others.
But he is a child, he will grow and train, so it’s okay.
Douma does not know why he wants to be a Demon Slayer.
He supposes it’s because Kanae will be one, and he...likes Kanae? He’s fond of Kanae? Tolerates her? The child didn’t know exactly, maybe because they are...friends, and her presence is something he had grown used to at this point. So being Slayers together made sense. He didn’t know why exactly, so that was good enough for the time being.
There is another reason, something Douma can’t quite make sense of because it makes him feel . And he doesn’t feel, he never felt before, so the new emotion is raw and overwhelming and it made him want to puke.
It happens every time he thinks of demons. Something coils in his stomach, his eyes sting and his blood boils. Every inch of his tiny body would shake, and shake and shake until he had to grip at his hakama with tiny fists to keep his hands from twitching. He thinks of Mioko and the dog-eyed demon Urokodaki-san killed, and the strange feeling grows.
Sometimes, he thinks of Kanae and baby Shinobu, and they replace Mioko in his dreams, and the blood roars in his ears and his breath gets caught on his throat when the demon steps closer to them, and-- was that how it happened?
Behind the serene smile, behind the colorful eyes, his blood boils and bubbles with newfound emotion.
It’s hate. He hates, he’s capable of feeling and it swallows him whole, silently and quickly. Drowning him into a pit Douma didn’t know how to climb out of.
He hates demons, and the thought of slicing them up like Urokodaki had done it’s a pleasant daydream he indulges into more and more.
Time passes, months become a year, and life continues on in the Butterfly estate.
Shinobu learns to walk on her own with tiny, clumsy steps. She can say more words now, too; Kanae is “‘Ana”, Kushina is “Ina” and Douma is “Uma”. She toddles behind her sister and clings to Douma’s hakama when not in the care of the Kakushi.
Kanae learns to read and write, how to grip a wooden sword properly, learns how to distribute her weight and wack away until her arms ache and palms sweat and sometimes blister. She did not learn how to Breathe, not yet. She’s too young and too little. But she wants to, and wants Lady Kushina to teach her.
Douma, he learns to run, to jump and roll. Did so enough that his stamina wasn’t as poor anymore, and even learned how to handle a sword in mock duels with Kanae, whacking swords and giggling.
He learns how to swallow his irate feelings, and learns to soften the fake smile on his face, enough for it to not to be as noticeably fake. And it works, from time to time, but it’s also less hard to fake them, because he did not notice when he was smiling most times.
Douma learns to feel, little by little, and maybe he couldn’t ever learn fully, but it was enough.
One morning, shy of dawn, the Butterfly estate wakes up in a frenzy of shouts and commands.
The children are kept away as an old man comes, being carried by several frantic Slayers. Blood stains the impeccable wooden floors as Kushina-san orders several Kukashi and nurses into a room. Douma peeks over, and can see a bloodied stump where a leg should have been.
They remain quiet, away from that side of the estate. Douma walks aimlessly through the rooms as Kanae spends time with Shinobu, not keen on training then. Someone important is visiting, and they have to be on their best behavior for the sake of the injured.
He opens a door, and a woman with dark hair and dark eyes greets him. She’s pale as the moon itself, and holds a bundle in her arms. Douma blinks at her, between surprise and stale shock, and bows a little before apologizing.
The woman smiles, and his stomach flutters for some odd reason as she beacons him inside. He sits quietly by her side, unmoving and silent.
“Are you from the Butterfly state?” The woman's voice is so silky and soft, Douma had never heard something like it. He simply nods in response, unsure, but his smile is fake and a little less tight. “Good, good.”
“I’m training to become a Demon Slayer.” The child supplies, and the woman makes a little noise at the back of her throat and her hand brushes away silver locks from rainbow eyes. Her smile is soft and genuine and-- Douma feels at ease, something he had never felt before.
“So young,” She says softly, and slowly, gently, her hold on the little bundle shifts. Douma’s attention is caught immediately. He can see a baby, smaller than even Shinobu though not by age, but by sickness. The baby is plump, and soft tufts of black hair sit atop of his tiny head. But the air around him is sickly and sad as it is peaceful. “This is Kagaya, he will help, when the time comes, he will lead the Slayers and Kakushi until demons are no more,”
The babe makes a little noise, shifting into his mother’s hold. There’s a soft movement and Douma finds himself holding the little bundle in his arms, the mother gently murmuring sweet words.
Kagaya gurgles something in his sleep, stretches, and falls back into slumber in Douma’s arms. He has never held something so tiny before.
“You will protect him, will you not, little Slayer?”
Douma nods, gently, mesmerized. The significance of the moment is lost on him, and the woman gently pets his hair with a little smile that would melt anyone under such care.
Time passes, Douma hands the little babe back to the woman, bows, and leaves the room, feeling lighter than when he entered.
“The thunder Hashira...his leg…”
“Oyakata-sama came by, he can’t..”
Words are lost on the children, blissfully unaware of what’s happening. The flower Hashira’s shoulders tense, her hands tremble as she heaves a shaky sigh. Kuwajima-san would not be returning to his duties, his leg unsaveable. Forced to retire by Ubuyashiki-sama’s gentle orders and concern. His encounter with a lower moon went well, more than well considering the situation. Two casualties, several injured, one maimed, and a demon less on earth.
It still stings, that someone so powerful, so reliable, can be put out of commission so easily.
“How many of us will stand in the end?”
No one answers.
A year becomes two, neither Douma or Kanae learn how to Breathe just yet. They can hold their own in mock duels, they can run laps around the estate and not die of dehydration in the process. They don’t know sword techniques yet, but they’ve grown, and it’s time.
Urokodaki comes for him one day, and asks him again if he wants to learn how to Breathe. His voice is serious and grave. Douma’s reply is short and to the point, and once he agrees, preparations are made.
Shinobu cries, holding onto his black and red haori, Kanae’s eyes are shining fiercely but she refuses to cry, and instead, puffs up her cheeks and tries to stand as tall as she can.
“You come back and visit!” She says, voice having the telltale of tears. “Come back, and we’ll be Slayers together!”
“Of course,” Douma smiles, and it’s, for the first time, sincere. He pats little Shinobu’s head and promises the same thing to her, Kanae fiercely hugs him and bites back her tears. Lady Kushina smiles softly at the scene.
“Do write, you’re always welcome at the Butterfly estate, both of you.”
Urokodaki bows and Douma follows suit, they wave goodbye one last time, and walk away from the mansion as teacher and student.