Happy Birthday Kyoujurou!
Kyoujurou smiled contently.
Senjurou put his all into his sword swings. Maybe a little too much actually. When the wooden, practice sword was in a lowered position, Kyoujurou approached from behind and put his hands on his brother's shoulders.
"Relax. Don't be so tense or you might hurt yourself," he corrected.
Knk, knk, knk.
"That should be the others. I'll be right back," Kyoujurou told Senjurou while ruffling the boy's hair. He went to the wall surrounding the house and hopped onto it to see who was at the front gate. A smile came to his face at the sight of who was there. Giyuu, Mitsuri, Takayuki, Tanjirou, and Shizuka had arrived, each with a package in hand.
"Good morning everyone!" he called to them.
Everyone's head turned and they all smiled or laughed.
"Big bro Rengoku! Good morning!" Tanjirou waved up at Kyoujurou.
"We're finally here~!" Mitsuri exclaimed, her whole body radiating barely restrained energy.
Giyuu remained silent but the smile on his face was kind and full of affection.
"Couldn't you have answered like a normal person?" Takayuki asked, his tone softer than it would be in a professional setting.
Shizuka nudged Takayuki with her elbow. On her face was an impish smirk. "Big brother Kyou isn't boring like that."
"We still need to be let in, though," Giyuu pointed out.
While everyone was laughing, Kyoujurou jumped down and unlocked the gate. Tanjirou dashed up and got the first hug. Kyoujurou returned the gesture and messed with the boy's hair too. Shizuka threw herself into Kyoujurou's arms and after they let each other go, he pinched her cheek playfully. When Mitsuri and Kyoujurou held each other they both took a turn lifting and spinning the other around. Next, Takayuki stepped forward and the men threw their arms around each other in a tight, intimate embrace; Kyoujurou felt a hand comb through his hair before they parted. Kyoujurou had to yank Giyuu into a hug since the dark-haired man was too shy to initiate but once they were in one another's arms, Giyuu buried his face in the blond's shoulder. Once greetings were finished, Kyoujurou gestured to the front door.
"Come on in, everyone."
Kyoujurou led the group through the house, although his fellow Pillars didn't need the guidance. They soon came to the dining room where a lunch fest was already prepared. Senjurou and Shinjurou were already at the table. Once everyone was seated, they dug into the meal.
"What were the latest missions like?" Mitsuri asked her fellow Pillars and juniors.
"I ended up getting hypnotized by a vampire," Tanjirou answered with a sigh.
"I think they're becoming more aggressive since we learned their weakness," commented Takayuki. "They'd rather hunt than be hunted."
"At least their neck are softer than demons," Giyuu said after swallowing a mouthful.
"Demons feel like they've been getting easier after dealing with Lower Moon One."
"That's a good sign," the Pillars said in unison, with even Shinjurou joining in.
"Have you ever had one try to take a bite out of you while you were up close to attack?" Kyoujurou asked.
"Twice in one night actually!" Shizuka yelled, slamming a hand on the table as she did.
"Sanemi's got a record number," Takayuki said. "A three hundred and forty-seven instances if I recall correctly."
"Who keeps track of this stuff?" Senjurou wondered aloud as he picked at fish bones.
"We have a record book dating back to the Sengoku Era actually," Mitsuri pointed out.
The youths' mouths dropped open and their eyes bugged out. The adults burst out into laughter. Shinjurou reached over and ruffled his son's hair. Mitsuri, from her position between Tanjirou and Shizuka, patted their shoulders.
When the meal concluded, the presents were handed over to the man of the day. Shizuka's gift was a bundle of incense sticks, handmade with "aromas that burn with a similar strength to big brother Kyou's" in her words. The gift from Tanjirou was a bag of coffee beans—"I wasn't sure what to get you but I heard coffee is energizing and thought it would suit you," he bashfully explained—and Kyoujurou was eager to try. Mitsuri and Takayuki's gifts were synchronized: a hand-sewn scarf paired and a thick, winter coat with matching colors and patterns. Although the two weren't the closest amongst the Pillars, they could easily come together for a mission or a small gesture as this. Lastly was Giyuu's present which was a bracelet of lacquered, wooden beads whose reddish hue reminded Kyoujurou of his own eyes.
"I know you don't really wear jewelry," Giyuu muttered, "but something in me wouldn't let me just walk away from it."
Kyoujurou slipped the bracelet on his wrist then smiled at Giyuu.
"Alright, enough with the sentimentality," Shinjurou groaned. He rose to his feet. "Time to clean up this shit."
"You are in no position to be acting like the responsible adult here, drunkard," Takayuki said under his breath.
Shinjurou's face twitched in annoyance. However, he was outnumbered in the situation as everyone else at the table held back snickers. He sighed and bowed his head in resignation.
Kyoujurou let out a hearty laugh. He had nothing to fear that day. Everything would be perfect.
Kyoujurou sat on the engawa facing the mansion's yard. A meter away sat Shinjurou, drinking sake slowly and in modest amounts. Everyone else stood in the yard. Tanjirou had a hand on Senjurou's shoulder and spoke words unheard while the shorter boy blushed bright red. Shizuka, too, was bright red as she listened to Mitsuri whisper in her ear. Giyuu and Takayuki stood shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling and laughing.
The smiling faces of his loved ones. The youths he took under his wing because they had no other family to turn whether by circumstance or choice. His dearly beloved friends. It was a picture perfect, idealistic scene.
Yes, this what I'd love to see more than anything else, Kyoujurou thought with a fond smile on his face. Perhaps next time, the other Pillars can join. Suzume too. Perhaps the boar boy and the yellow one. If I want to invite young Kamado's sister, we should meet at night.
Kyoujurou sighed, feeling relaxed and content.
"Do you really think you can escape reality with this pitiful display?" inquired a raspy, bitter voice.
The sunny sky clouded over, bringing a tinge of grey to the environment. A black form entered Kyoujurou's periphery. Two crimson lights stood out from the living shadow, the hateful eyes of the Eldritch Maiden.
Kyoujurou didn't turn to face the speaker, keeping his eyes on the others. On everyone's smiling faces, unaffected by the sudden gloom. He dared a glance in Shinjurou's direction; the man was unaware of the shadow. With that in mind, Kyoujurou addressed the figure.
"You claim I am the one trying to run from the truth but you are to blame for the fact that I cannot do anything more than dream now," he stated firmly.
"Are you not at all afraid of what is happening to them while you are powerless to help?" the shadow hissed while looming over Kyoujurou. "Do you not wish you could be out there fighting too? Why don't you imagine the horrors they could be facing?"
Tendrils of darkness reached for Kyoujurou's body but didn't touch him. Kyoujurou didn't flinch, didn't meet the her eyes.
"I have faith in my allies. I know my fellow Pillars are capable and will fight harder in my name," Kyoujurou answered, eyes locked on Giyuu, Takayuki, and Mitsuri as they stood in a small huddle. "And the younger slayers have incredible potential." Tanjirou had an arm around Shizuka and Senjurou's shoulders. "Perhaps they wish I was with them—I wish for that very thing—but they can make do without me."
"You fool!" The darkness grew larger, looming over Kyoujurou but still unwilling, or perhaps unable, to reach him. "Detest your miserable state! Give in to despair! Let nightmares take over!"
Kyoujurou finally turned his head and looked the shadow in the eyes. He rose to his feet, standing tall. In response, the shadow shrank back and wilted in size.
"I do not have to listen to your words. Although I may be in the thralls of your curse, my spirit shall not bend to your will," he said, his voice booming. The shadow wavered under Kyoujurou's gaze. "I endured one of your spells and I can endure this one as well."
The specter began to fade but it didn't got without any parting words, "I shall break you, Kyoujurou Rengoku. I shall snuff your light. If I never had it, neither should anyone else..."
When the shadow faded, the scenery seemed to regain its light. Kyoujurou closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths. Opening his eyes, he caught sight of his loved ones smiling in his direction.
"Kyou, get over here!" Takayuki called.
"We're gonna do an arm wrestling contest!" Mitsuri added. "Shizuka wants to see me flip you boys over the table!"
"Hey! That was one time!" laughed Kyoujurou. "Let me grab a table!" He stepped inside, glad to have a moment to himself. So long as this is my dream, none of my loved ones will suffer. He fought the urge to cry. Even in a dream, he didn't want to cause any unneeded worry. I'm sorry that I cannot truly be with everyone at the moment but that is not up to me.
While he was trapped in his own mind and body, Kyoujurou refused to let his spirits be dampened. He would hold out hope, no matter how long it took.
Kyoujurou laid in a hospital bed, his chest rising and falling from slow, even breaths. To an unknowing observer, he would've appeared to be enjoying a normal sleep. In truth, his one good eye had not opened in months. His hair had grown longer and more unruly during his coma.
Senjurou, Tanjirou, and Shizuka sat at Kyoujurou's bedside. Tears filled their eyes but they did their best to smile despite the man being unable to see them.
"You should see how everyone is now, brother," Senjurou whispered while holding one of Kyoujurou's hands. "Father is acting as temporary Flame Pillar until you wake up! He still drinks... But I think that's because he misses you."
"We worked with Uzui-san to defeat Upper Moon Six!" Tanjirou exclaimed before breaking into tears. "And he lived too! You guys will see each other again soon!"
Shizuka wrapped an arm around Tanjirou's shoulders to comfort him. Then, she spoke.
"We're getting stronger everyday, Rengo— big brother Kyoujurou," she said quietly. "I can't wait for you to see how far we've all come. And I hope, once you're awake, you can train us in earnest like you wanted to."
Outside Kyoujurou's private room, Giyuu, Takayuki, and Mitsuri stood together. Fire burned in their eyes. There was an unspoken vow between them.
There would come a dawn where he would wake again.
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