It's big on him.
Zenitsu wonders, sometimes. What it means to have buds growing across your skin that leave your body more petals and leaves than it does unmarked flesh — will he love his soulmate? Will they love him? Will it be a great love?
He doesn't even know what that is.
Zenitsu doesn't have any expectations, either. Nothing to go off of, not from this life.
"Don't worry about it," his grandpa chortles. "You think so much, you'll lose all your hair before I do! What will you do then?"
That shuts him up fast. How's his soulmate to love him if he doesn't even have hair? His inky locks are arguably the one and only thing he’s got going for him, at this icky stage of puberty.
(Then he goes and gets electrocuted, and it doesn't really matter anyway.)
(He still wonders.)
The bud starts under his collarbone, clustered over his heart; it twists and branches out, curling over his shoulders and around his arms, petals spreading thin and to a stop just past his elbows. They’re just lines, waiting to be filled in with colours once he meets his soulmate, who will no doubt be unnerved by the mass that Zenitsu brings.
He learns that he is not just one, big blossom of countless (twenty-seven) sweet honey flowers, but that his soulmark contains more flowers within its gaps — not of his soulmate’s, but his grandfather; a locust tree that grows from his spine, firm and green, and his foster brother, an anemone, weak in it’s outline and size since the day it bloomed across his rib, never once colouring and soon to fade after the the destruction Kaigaku will bring to their small family.
He learns that people will leave a mark on him only if he lets them close, whether he wants it or not, whether they care about him or not, and avoids forming any such bonds after his family ceases. It’s an adventure and a half, with the way Zenitsu so desperately craves all things affection, but the dread of failure isn’t something he’s keen on repeatedly experiencing.
Inosuke is an accident that comes with a cedar leaf already coloured in and spread above where Kaigaku’s mark once was, yet nothing like it used to be. Inosuke’s is sure and permanent and with it the boy brings an entire lack of judgement about Zenitsu’s abundance of marks.
“You just care a lot, don’t ya?” Inosuke says, annoyed when Zenitsu asks how he feels about it for the nth time.
Zenitsu can’t bring himself to regret it.
There is little of his back that hasn’t been inked over by the time he’s eighteen; he’s long since taken to avoiding mirrors by then, and is always, always covered up.
“You just love a lot,” his grandpa had assured.
“You love too much,” Kaigaku had accused.
“What’s wrong with loving?” Inosuke demands.
Zenitsu tries not to, and it happens anyway.
Tanjiro is kind.
Almost insufferably so. Zenitsu wants to yell when he feels the itch on the shoulder, just knowing the blooms on his collarbone have unfurled and sprouted colour. He doesn’t know what shade, though he wonders if it might be the colour of Tanjiro’s eyes, or the faint red that always, always lies under the skin of his cheeks. Tanjiro introduces himself with a firm shake of hands — yes, he holds Zenitsu’s right hand in both of his, and it’s ridiculous because his hands are rough yet so horribly gentle and Zenitsu wants hold them tight and run his fingers over all Tanjiro’s knuckles, but ends up pulling away since his own are so, so clammy —
“Let’s be friends!” Tanjiro beams, and Zenitsu doesn’t even think about telling him no, even as his arm begins to tingle.
Later, when curiosity overcomes the urge to hide, he locks himself in a bathroom, pops the first few buttons of his shirt, and braves the mirror like he hasn’t in years.
The honey flowers sat on his left shoulder are aflame with colour. It's just a patch, instead of his entire mark, and Zenitsu wonders what it means. Maybe it'll colour over completely petal by petal, bud by bud. It's the loveliest shade, because of course it would be: soft, muted orange that grows into a darker red at the edges — like fire, but opposite, Zenitsu thinks faintly — and it's not quite the colour of Tanjiro's eyes, but there's nothing about the boy Zenitsu doesn't already love.
“No biggie,” Zenitsu’s reflection says to him. “I can totally keep this a secret.”
There’s little about Tanjiro that everyone else doesn’t love, too.
Tanjiro transfers to their college in second year with his sister, both of them quickly wiggling their ways into the hearts of teachers and classmates and probably the stickly cafe owner down the street too, charming in a way that’s effortless. Tanjiro’s athletic, maintains his impressive grades, and always has a smile for those who don’t even need it.
It's a nice smile. He does it a lot. It curves gently, dimpling past it's edges at the slightest push, which is almost always, because Tanjiro is almost always smiling. It's the kind that makes you want to smile back, because it makes no sense to not.
Like right now.
“Hi,” Tanjiro says, with a beam that takes over no less than half his face.
Zenitsu’s palms sweat. He puts his chopsticks down. “Hi,” he parrots with a reflexive smile. Inosuke has class during Zenitsu’s free period today, and it seems Tanjiro does not, and there looks to be little escape available. “Um.”
And he’d been doing such a fantastic job at keeping his distance. He’s barely had to put any actual effort into it — he shares a total of four classes with Tanjiro in a week, only one of which allows them to exchange more than two words at a time due to class projects.
“Can I sit with you?” Tanjiro asks, and Zenitsu’s not sure it’s a question at all when he’s already nodding before Tanjiro has finished talking.
Tanjiro doesn’t keep his soulmark covered, Zenitsu had realized quickly. Not everyone does, seeing as most have already met their soulmates by the time they reach their college years and moved on from boring, lined marks to bright, inked ones. But Tanjiro’s is still uncoloured, and it is in no way boring.
Not that it makes a difference. It’s gorgeous, a lovely acacia flower that neatly stretches across the width of Tanjiro’s wrist, regular sized and perfect.
It’s uncoloured, Zenitsu thinks again. Tanjiro hasn’t met his soulmate yet.
Zenitsu has Tanjiro’s flowers spread over his body and Tanjiro’s wrist holds one for someone else, a somebody who, too, probably has a regular sized soulmark and a smile as pretty as Tanjiro’s.
That would be Zenitsu’s luck.
Although — it could just be slow to catch colour. That happens, doesn’t it? It’s not like all of Tanjiro’s flowers on his skin have filled in.
Zenitsu thinks of his mark's enormity versus Tanjiro's lovely average sized one and doubts. Wonders if Tanjiro had felt anything at all when they'd shaken hands.
"No Nezuko-chan today?" Zenitsu tries through the thundering of his heart. Tanjiro looks surprised at the question, then pleased, only to be followed by a slightly depressed grimace, and Zenitsu wonders if he was being counted on to not speak at all.
"She's giving a test," Tanjiro says. Almost mumbles it, except that Tanjiro doesn't mumble. He does, however, drag his gaze to the cuffs at Zenitsu's wrists over and over, and Zenitsu tries not to fidget. He knows the stray honey petals aren’t poking out.
“I met my soulmate,” Tanjiro blurts, having noticed Zenitsu’s stare. "I think." Zenitsu blinks. Blinks at the uncoloured soulmark, and then at Tanijro, and feels a delightful mix of dismay.
“How do you know?”
“It’s just a feeling. This—” he gestures at the acacia on his wrist, “—it’ll colour later.” Tanjiro looks at him imploringly. It looks shrewd. “Have you met yours, Zenitsu?”
Zenitsu. Right, that's his name. Zenitsu resists the urge to rub at his collarbone, where pretty honey flowers lay etched into his skin, the colour of bright, crackling fire.
He doesn’t think this is a conversation you tend to have with someone you haven’t even known a week.
“Dunno,” Zenitsu sniffs. “Maybe.”
Tanjiro looks a little more determined. Zenitsu can’t even begin to imagine what he’s thinking. It doesn’t help that his thoughts scatter when Tanjiro so much as glances his way, anyway.
“Cool,” Tanjiro says.
“Cool,” Zenitsu echoes, and watches Tanjiro tuck back into his bento. He finds himself grinning at the realization that Tanjiro's cheeks puff like a squirrel's when he tries fitting an entire onigiri in his mouth.
The rest of the week is strange.
Tanjiro starts sitting next to him in the few classes they share, and it becomes routine. Zenitsu stops trying to avoid him because — well, he was never going to successfully avoid someone as bright and stubborn as Tanjiro when sought out, was he? Tanjiro makes him happy, and Zenitsu can't bring himself to deny that happiness when it comes in the form of Tanjiro's clicking pen and focused hums at such close proximity. Easily starts returning Tanjiro's smiles without breaking into a sweat, knowing he'll probably regret it.
Tanjiro also starts seeking him out during the free periods they have together. The classes were alright, but the free time spent under the trees on campus are just bad for Zenitsu's heart.
(His flowers start colouring one after the other. Zenitsu doesn’t remember standing before a mirror as often as he does these days.)
(He’s not against the idea of Tanjiro as a soulmate. It’s just— unrealistic, somehow. It's too good.)
"What's the city like?" Tanjiro asks one day. His homework lays before them, full of scribbles and sticky notes that convey Tanjiro's frustration about the subject. Zenitsu looks up from his own assignment, pleased at the distraction but dreading the topic.
“It’s big,” he says after a moment. “Lots of lights.” Tanjiro looks curious, clearly expecting more, but Zenitsu barrels ahead of his memories and asks, “What’s the country like?”
“Big,” Tanjiro grins. He doesn’t stop there; he talks about the mountains he grew up on, about the village that knew his family, about the bakery his family runs a city over, and about his family, who he talks about with so, so much love, that Zenitsu feels lucky to be able to witness this at all.
He could listen to Tanjiro for hours.
“I should help at the bakery more often,” Tanjiro muses. Zenitsu finds it hard to believe that Tanjiro might not be partially running it already. “I’m going to take over it soon.” He looks at Zenitsu then, who startles.
“It suits you,” Zenitsu thinks aloud, and it seems to be the right answer, going by Tanjiro’s pleased smile.
“You should visit, sometime,” Tanjiro beams. A spot on Zenitsu’s back warms. “Do you like muffins? Takeo’s learning to make them still, but I can make some for you.”
“Okay,” Zenitsu agrees in a heartbeat, and doesn’t correct Tanjiro when the boy laughs at what he thinks is Zenitsu’s excitement for free food.
It's a little past curfew, but their dorm regulations are loose come holidays, and Zenitsu can't resist the temptation of the mostly vacated building, poking out of his (lonely, empty) room to head to the roof. Blanket upon his shoulders and clothed in his pajamas, he takes the elevator up and scuffles up the last flight of stairs.
Inosuke’s mother had dragged him home for break, just as so many of their dorm-mates' families have, and Zenitsu doesn’t think very hard about it, like he doesn’t think very hard about anything.
That's not true. He thinks a lot of Tanjiro, but that’s a given.
He opens the roof door to the type of night he loves; clear of clouds, and a million and one stars above him.
Tanjiro sits in the middle of the roof, humming under his breath until he registers the light of the stairwell and turns.
His hair is down, Zenitsu realizes. It’s longer than he expected, running down and past his shoulders, curling messily over his forehead and pink ears. It’s loud, like everything about Tanjiro is, and Zenitsu’s fingers clutch at the blanket so he doesn’t end up reaching out and pushing the strands out of Tanjiro’s face.
“Hi,” Zenitsu chokes out.
Tanjiro flushes. “Hey.” Zenitsu can’t look away. Tanjiro’s hands go up to his neck, wrapping around his hair to tie it.
“You don’t have to do that,” Zenitsu blurts. Tanjiro pauses. Zenitsu wishes he’d never spoken, but it’s better than letting out the thoughts in his head that yell of what he actually feels about Tanjiro and Tanjiro’s stupid gravity-defying hair and how he should always keep it down, because what the heck.
It works, though. Tanjiro lowers his hands with a hesitant smile, a small dusting of red on the boy's cheeks. Zenitsu's fingers itch, wanting to reach over and see if it feels warm to the touch, even though the evening’s wind sends chills through them both. He knows his own face has probably gone blotchy.
“Sorry,” Tanjiro says, nearly sending Zenitsu into a stupor. “I didn’t think anyone else would come up here, because of Christmas.”
“It’s just me,” Zenitsu shrugs, more than a little bewildered at the apology. He sits next to Tanjiro when there’s no objection, keeping a little space between them so he doesn’t lose his mind. “I thought you’d be at home, with your family.”
“Nezuko had to help with an event,” Tanjiro says with an easy grin. “I’m helping her so we can go home together, tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Zenitsu stamps down his disappointment.
Tanjiro says carefully, “Are you going to go home?”
“No,” Zenitsu answers easily. Inosuke’s mother had invited him, but Zenitsu didn’t see how he wouldn’t disrupt their traditional wood-hunt when he could just barely climb a tree. He wracks his brain for a way to keep the frown forming on Tanjiro’s face from growing any more, and drops, “You should keep your hair down more often.”
Tanjiro blinks. The blush from earlier comes back, spreading evenly over his cheeks, and it’s definitely not just from the cold this time. Zenitsu feels his own face go hot. He feels all of his mark go hot.
“Not that— not that you have to, it just— it makes your forehead look smaller,” Zenitsu splutters. Zenitsu regrets. “And— and it just— it frames your face, doesn’t your hairdresser ever tell you?” It’s a little more than just horrifying, especially when Zenitsu pulls his hands from out of the blanket and starts waving them around, making Tanjiro laugh.
It’s the loveliest sound Zenitsu has heard. Has ever been the cause of.
“Thank you,” Tanjiro snickers — snickers, at Zenitsu. “I don’t— have a hairdresser. I trim it myself if I have to, but my dad,” Tanjiro looks down, grin fading to a smaller, heavier-on-Zenitsu's-heart smile, “he had long hair. He kept it tied up, mostly.” He pushes a thick lock behind his ear, gesturing at his earrings. “These are his, too. I— try to honour him. I’m not doing a very good job, though,” Tanjiro says with a self-deprecating smile.
It makes Zenitsu hurt. He doesn’t know, he knows so little about Tanjiro, and it’s his own fault, but he’s overcome with the urge to know every little thing, from Tanjiro’s memories of his father to whether he uses measuring cups when making muffins.
He remembers the callouses on Tanjiro’s hands, from so long ago.
“I think you make your father plenty proud,” Zenitsu says. “Even if you just live in a way that’s true to yourself— he’d be proud. But you do more than that, because you take care of everyone, and you're always helping people who don’t even need it, so— so there’s no way that he’s not. Proud, I mean.”
He looks away from Tanjiro’s surprised gaze and wishes he could filter his words at times.
“Thank you,” Tanjiro breathes. “I think there’s people proud of you, too.”
Zenitsu lets himself think of his grandfather’s smile, and means it when he says, “I hope so.”
A moment passes between them, quiet and full of something Zenitsu doesn’t know how to identify. Tanjiro glances at Zenitsu’s shivering hands, which he’d forgotten to pull back into his blanket after embarrassing himself.
“You’re cold,” Tanjiro murmurs, and covers Zenitsu’s hands with his own before Zenitsu can do anything. Tanjiro sits there, without even a jacket, but with warm, roughed palms that cover Zenitsu’s knuckles. He wants so badly to spread his fingers across Tanjiro’s face, to feel if his face might be warmer than his hands, to push the strands away and trace the shape of his cheekbones.
He wishes in that moment that the petals that peek out of Tanjiro’s sleeve might bloom with colour, maybe the same that paints the tips of Tanjiro’s red ears.
“Thanks,” Zenitsu croaks, and hopes that tomorrow doesn’t come.