Title: three knocks
A/N: For the KnY Future Zine! I'm grumpy we didn't get any aftermath whump or hurt/comfort in the series.
Summary: Someone knocked on the door. Part of Aoi half-expected it to be Shinobu, bloody and worn from battle. Or maybe Rengoku, a sunny smile on his face as he brought a message. Or half a dozen other people whose ghosts still lingered in the Butterfly Estate.
Someone knocked on the door. It was a quiet sound, barely audible in the yard. The rough scrubbing of dirty clothes drowned out any other noise. Arms deep in soapy water, Aoi wasn't even entirely certain she hadn't imagined it. No one else seemed to have heard it. Not Kanao as she diligently hung every cleaned shirt. Not Sumi, Kiyo, or Naho as they swept the house, the soft pitter-patter of their feet echoing through the hallways.
Just as Aoi went back to work, she heard a second sharp rap. This time Kanao noticed as well, her blank eyes turning toward the entrance. "Someone's there," she murmured, halfway to hanging a pair of pants.
"I'll get it," Aoi replied quickly, before Kanao could move. While her now-blind sister could navigate the butterfly estate without help, Aoi didn't want her to exert herself more than she had to. "It's probably a pillar."
Leaping to her feet, she left a trail of droplets as she hurried to the front door. They used to guess, before it all went down, just who'd dropped by. Nine times out of ten, the answer would have been Mitsuri. She had liked to appear for no other reason than to hug and spread her love. Obanai had lurked in her shadow, begrudgingly taking a cup of tea whenever a nervous Kiyo gave it to him. A rarer visit had been a clueless Giyu, who never understood why Shinobu only offered terse replies and sharp smiles.
Aoi's favourite had been Rengoku, with his sunny smiles and even sunnier disposition. Part of her still expected his golden hair as she yanked open the door.
Instead, a beaming Tanjirou stood at the entrance, and Aoi tried not to let her disappointment show on her face. It had been at least a year since they'd all died. She should have known better than to expect a ghost. "You're late," she huffed, letting the irritation wash over her and mask her emotions.
"Sorry about that." He didn't look the least bit contrite for that. In his hands was a bouquet of sunflowers and he gently held them out. "Nezuko picked these."
"It couldn't have been you," she muttered half-heartedly, carefully taking the bundle. There's no flowery scent when she sniffs, just the usual weak smell of leaves and plants. "They're pretty. Is she coming later?"
"Yep, with Sanemi!" Tanjirou lightly stepped inside, slipping off his shoes and putting on the slippers she pointed at. They were the same ones from when he'd trained here. "He's really nice to her, but he still doesn't seem to like me. I wonder if I did something to him?"
"Who knows?" Scratching her chin, Aoi thought about the scarred wind pillar. They didn't cross paths often, no reason to outside of funerals and memorials, but his sharp edges seemed to have softened. Whatever bark was left in him was brittle, easily cracked. Rumour had it that it was because of his brother's death. She could believe that. Aoi didn't feel like the same person she had been before Shinobu's death, before Kanae's or her parent's loss.
Grief had a way of changing a person.
"Inosuke and Zenitsu are coming soon, they're just getting some more flowers," Tanjirou added, not sounding too bothered by it. Maybe he knew more than he let on. His burn mark was bright in the morning light and maybe, limited time had a way of making problems less important.
"Then they'll be on time for once," she snipped, resting a hand on her hip. Aoi frowned up at him. "Though they weren't the ones who promised to help clean up."
"Right, right." Tanjirou laughed awkwardly, rubbing his neck. His smile was disarming. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry—just don't do it again." With that resolved, she led Tanjirou toward the yard, her arm still laden with sunflowers. The bright yellows contrasted with the dreary walls of the compound, their footsteps loud against the silent backdrop. Everything felt unusually muted and the rooms utterly depressing. It was irrational; the décor hadn't changed since Shinobu's death and the estate had always been some flavour of quiet. With Shinobu and Kanao often out for missions, Aoi had gotten used to a certain level of absence. Though, there had been one exception, one time that the halls had been filled with noise. The time that those three had studied here, when rooms had been filled with Zenitsu's cries, Tanjirou's laughter, and Inosuke's overconfident roars.
The estate had been full those days. Hopeful, even. Aoi remembered believing that they could make it through with a minimal amount of casualties. Now she had more deaths than she had fingers.
"It's quiet," Tanjirou murmured, startling her out of her thoughts.
She glanced at him. Was he thinking of those far gone days too? "Yeah, it is."
"And peaceful," he added, smiling fondly. "I've always liked that about here. I can just sit and think, without worrying."
It was strange, really, how the same thing could appear in two different ways at once. How the same observation could lead to two different conclusions. He wasn't wrong. Neither was she. Before she could reply, they reached the veranda.
"Tanjirou?" Kanao guessed from the clothesline, slowly turning around to greet them.
"Yeah." His expression softened to the same degree that hers brightened, his voice catching slightly. Aoi wondered if he realized just how much his love showed through him, that love that powered him through to save his sister's life and now was focused on the single girl in front of him. Even if Kanao couldn't see it, she must have felt it.
Aoi knew when she was the third wheel. Gently, she pushed him toward her sister. "You two, finish the laundry! We don't have much time before the others get here!"
"Okay, okay, got it." Over his shoulder, Tanjirou smiled at her as bright as the sun, as bright as Rengoku, and she felt a familiar lump in her throat.
Someone knocked on the door. Aoi heard it at the same second Naho walked past, her arms full of blankets. "Someone's at the door."
'Yeah." Naho nodded.
Aoi rested her hands on her hips. Standing on a stool, she felt marginally tall, though she just made Naho's height now. Everyone had to grow taller but her. "Is someone going to get it?"
"How?" Nahro gestured at the blankets with her head.
"And the others…" Aoi trailed off, her cheeks puffing slightly. If they hadn't responded to the door by now, they were either too busy or didn't hear it, and it'd take longer for her to find them than it would to just open the door herself. Hopping off the stool, she grumbled, "Fine, fine, I got it."
With Sanemi, Nezuko, and Uzui already in the house, it wasn't too hard to guess who it was. There were only three people left, after all. Yanking the door open, Aoi wasn't surprised to find a stoic Giyu on the other side, several white lilies in his hand. "Sorry about the wait."
As usual, his countenance was as tranquil as a still lake, his mood impossible to read. Was he irritated she'd taken so long? Did he not care at all? She had known him for several years now and was no closer to the answer than she'd been when they'd first met.
"It's okay," he answered politely. His expression didn't change.
After a few minutes, when it was clear he wasn't going to move, Aoi stepped back and gestured. "You can come in, you know."
Giyu looked at her, then at the entrance. Hesitantly, he stepped inside, as though he wasn't certain if he could come. It had been months since she'd last seen him and she'd forgotten how annoying he could be. Even now, as he pulled off his shoes and placed them, they were a whole space away from the others.
"You can put them right next to the others, you know." When he didn't move them, Aoi sighed and nudged them closer to the others. Things would get messy enough when Inosuke arrived; she didn't need more to clean up. Turning around, she led the way to the kitchen now. "The incense sticks are too high for me to grab. Could you help me with those?"
"Yes," he replied, another monosyllabic response.
"We'll visit Shinobu after lunch." Aoi was proud she made it through that entire sentence without wanting to cry. "We just need to finish cleaning up. You can help."
From the corner of her eyes, she watched him nod silently. Aoi had the urge to apologize—it was insane, that she was giving a pillar an order. But with no demons, there were no pillars, and the people she'd idolized were now just ordinary citizens like her. The thought wasn't as comforting as she'd hoped. Part of her still expected demons every night, that Shinobu would stumble through the door in the middle of the night, tired and bloody.
Maybe she'd never shake of this feeling of unease whenever the sun set. Forcing herself out of her thoughts, she added, "I think it's just moping…"
Giyu wasn't beside her anymore. She spun on her heel. "Giyu?"
Three doors down, he stood at the entrance to Shinobu's workroom. When he didn't reply, she quietly approached him. "Is something wrong?"
Still, he kept quiet. Aoi followed his gaze into the room. The blinds were pulled back, letting sunlight in. Shinobu used to keep them drawn, preferring utter darkness for her experiments. Despite her strict organization of her samples, her books had always been scattered around haphazardly, an accident waiting to happen.
"It's all gone," Giyu murmured.
"Yeah…" Aoi rubbed her arms awkwardly. She had scrubbed the room clean of Shinobu's presence, shelved the books, tossed the samples. It was a simple office now.
"She's gone." His voice was soft, almost too soft to hear. Despite his teary eyes, Giyu didn't break down, just stared into the room with the same emotion she had when she'd finally forced herself to clean it.
Resignation. Acceptance. Aoi had always thought of him as a doll, but that hadn't been fair. Despite how Shinobu ragged on him, she'd often drag him into her workroom. The candles would flicker well into the morning, the two of them quietly sharing a drink as they watched the moon. Whenever Giyu would visit, his shoes used to be on the far end, neatly tucked next to Shinobu's.
Her throat burned, remembering the sight of Shinobu's shoes next to his. She'd almost forgotten what they'd look like, what that space used to be for. Reaching down, Aoi grabbed his hand. His skin was warm. "She is."
Aoi hoped Shinobu had done this once too, reached out and clasped his hand. That she had done something for herself before she died. That Giyu would remember this long after Aoi had forgotten what Shinobu sounded or felt like.
Maybe some part of Shinobu could linger, long after her presence disappeared from the house.
Someone knocked on the door.
"Got it," Aoi yelled automatically, used to the drill by now. She yanked open the door. "Everyone's here already, Shinobu—"
There was no one at the door. Of course, there wasn't, because Shinobu was dead, because this was Shinobu's one year anniversary and Aoi should have remembered that by now. It was irrational, really, the way she kept doing that, the way she kept expecting Shinobu whenever candlelight crept out of a room in the middle of the night.
It had been a year. Only a year. As long as a year. It hurt and Aoi thought she knew how it felt to miss someone. She'd forgotten how much it hurt at first, how dull that pain could get. Behind her, she could hear Tanjirou's laugh, Sanemi's angry growl, Giyu's confused squawk. It wouldn't be long before she lost them too, before she had to go through this all over again.
Death was the constant companion of demon hunters. She didn't know how she'd forgotten that.
As she stared blankly out onto the dirt pathway, a bright purple butterfly lazily floated by. Shinobu, she thought irrationally. It made no sense. That was a butterfly. Shinobu was happy in the afterlife. Yet Aoi couldn't stop herself from chasing after it. Its wings looked like Shinobu's cloak, delicate and ethereal.
What would she do if she caught it? If she didn't catch it? I miss you, I'm sorry, and are you happy ran through her head in a loop.
Yet the butterfly stayed out of reach, away from her questions. As she ran around the corner, she almost ran into Inosuke as he charged past her.
"I made it first," he roared, heading straight for the door.
"S-sorry…we're…late…" Zenitsu panted and she turned back to find him standing in front of her, winded and half-collapsed. He smiled.
"I-it's fine." Aoi glanced around but the butterfly was gone.
"W-we got flowers," Zenitsu gasped, holding out a hand before realizing it was empty. "A-and we dropped them…" He glared over her shoulder at the long-gone Inosuke. "Because someone had to have a race."
It was utterly like them and Aoi laughed. God, it felt good to let it all out, to just feel without remembering anything else. Maybe this was what she'd needed all this time. As usual, Aoi had been over thinking things.
Her present could be shattered in a blink of an eye. Most of her friends wouldn't make it past five more years. But she'd lived through loss before, and she'd learned the most important lesson: there was an after.
There was no need to dwell on the past, to chase after ghosts. Better to just embrace what she had, for as long as she could, and prepare herself for the future.
Aoi could almost hear Shinobu's approving hum.
Shaking herself out of it, Aoi offered Zenitsu an arm. "Come on, let's get going. There's plenty of work left."