Snow crunches loudly beneath his feet, each step a crack of thunder echoing through the lifeless forest. Not even birds call out in the eerie silence, nor does the wind rustle through the trees as the sun sets behind the peak of a mountain. A blanket of darkness, quilted with stars, falls slowly across the sky, beautiful and unfathomable in it's lethal chill.

He shivers violently in his undercoat as he comes to rest beneath a gnarled old tree. This is not how his life was supposed to go; he'd been crossing the mountain pass, on his way to earn the last of the savings required for the dowry he'd need to find a wife in the coming year. He'd worked as a field hand before, and had thought nothing of the journey from his village to the next town over. Until the cliff side gave way beneath his little cart of possessions, his only concern had been the fact that he still hadn't set his heart on any girl in particular.

"At least that means there won't be anyone who will have to mourn me," he says to himself. It's actually a much more comforting thought than he expected it to be; his indecision has at least spared a poor girl from the heartbreak of losing her betrothed.

He sighs, debating whether it's worth using what little strength he has left to work a spell against the cold. It won't work for very long, and it won't keep predators from attacking him, but it would at least comfort him for a little while.

The old language feels heavy on his frostbitten tongue, but he manages enough to bring a small, cat-like form into being. It's made entirely of flame, but safe to touch, and it radiates gentle warmth as it curls up in his lap, purring. He smiles at it tiredly, running his stiff fingers through its strange, not-quite corporeal fur. Magic is his most prized talent; plenty of people can tap into the natural energy of the world, but few have the skill and imagination to manipulate it the way he can. It's a shame he won't be able to pass his skills on to his own children someday.

Exhaustion settles in his bones as the cat-flame melts away the cold. His dark eyes droop closed, his head lolling against the rough bark of the tree, and he thinks it's not such a terrible way to die after all. He'll let the flame sap his remaining strength until he falls asleep, and when it can't feed off his life force any longer, it will disappear and the cold will take him. He won't feel a thing.

But death won't come for him tonight. Instead, he wakes to the sensation of soft, warm hands shaking him vigorously by the shoulders.

"Wake up! Can you hear me?! Please wake up!"

He groans, his consciousness returning with the painful aching of his limbs. It takes some time to blink the frost out of his eyes, but when at last he does, he finds himself face to face with a pair of cat-like eyes, almost like the ones he'd given his flame summoning. But these are not the smoldering eyes of a fire spirit; they're the wide, clear eyes of the wilderness itself.

He cannot reply, but the stranger's voice seems pleased enough by his return to consciousness.

"You're alright," it says, and something thick and warm is thrown around his shoulders. "I was afraid you were dead."

He can say or do nothing as his savior leans in to press their forehead to his, a spell murmured into the air between them, and then warmth flows around them, a current of air like liquid honey, and he recognizes the magic for what it is almost immediately.

"Th-thank y-you, k-kami-sama," he croaks with great difficulty. The god offers him a small, relieved smile, and just like that, the curse of fate repeats itself for the rest of eternity, over and over again.

Yato was woken, not by Yukine, but by the bizarre sound of someone tapping on the tatami next to his head. He groaned, annoyed, and rolled over in his bedding to find a distorted dark shadow looming over him, lit only by the backdrop of a candle burning in the parlor through the open door.

"AHHH!" he screamed, backing away into the wall with a tremendous thud as he smashed the back of his head into the wood. His vision swam with pain as he whimpered, cradling his head, and hardly a couple of minutes later, there was the sound of feet thundering in the hall and Hiiro appeared in his apartments in her nightclothes, slamming the door open.

"Yato-sama, what-?!" she picked up the candle and looked into his bedroom, eyes wide with concern.

"Hiiro-san," he said hoarsely. "That- There's-" he pointed at the shadow, which seemed to have been so startled by his reaction that it had fallen back against the shoji. In the light of the flame, it remained indistinct and smoky, a swirl of darkness condensed into the vague shape of a small person.

Hiiro held up the candle and squinted into the darkness for a moment, then sighed. "That Yukine, for fuck's sake," she complained, clicking her tongue irritably. "It's fine, milord, it's not gonna hurt you," she said, regarding Yato with a mildly contemptuous look in her eyes. "Yukine probably sent it to wake you so he wouldn't have to do it himself. Come on, stop huddling like a child," she said, addressing the shadow impatiently. "At least pretend you know how to show respect in the presence of one of your masters."

Though it had no discernible face, Yato easily understood the creature's body language as it shuffled forward in obvious shame and bowed deeply at him. It straightened up and Yato thought he could sense an apologetic feeling emanating from it.

"It's sorry it scared you, I think," Hiiro confirmed. "Though, it's hard to tell with some of them."

"Oh... uhm, it's okay," Yato said awkwardly. He didn't really understand what the creature was or why it was little more than a shade, but he could certainly empathize with causing someone trouble without meaning to. "I was just startled, didn't mean to scream..."

The shadow cocked its head slightly, which Yato interpreted as reassurance of its own.

"Alright, you've done what you were ordered to do," Hiiro said with a yawn. "I can handle it from here, go back to the kitchens," she told it. The shade gave another bow and quietly left the room.

"What was that?" Yato asked as Hiiro put the candle down on the floor and pulled one of his chests open.

"A sprite," she answered, rummaging for clothes. "They're basically servants for gods."

"Like shinki?"

Hiiro shot him a glare. "No, shinki are more like retainers, we were people once. Sprites are natural manifestations, sort of condensed energy. They don't actually have souls."


"Ever seen a gust of wind blow at just the right time to send a leaf swirling through the air? Or a short rain shower appear out of nowhere on a hot day in the summer?" she asked. "Little things like that, when nature seems to have a mind of its own, that's how sprites are born. They're usually formless, just wisps of light and shadow, but when taken under the wing of a god, they can hold a faint human shape and have enough will and intelligence to do things like cooking and cleaning. At least, they're supposed to," Hiiro sighed to herself. "Ours are pathetically stupid."

"Ours?" Yato asked.

"Mm, the ones the court assigned to our household," Hiiro said, choosing a dark green kimono and holding it up thoughtfully. "We have six, but we might as well have none, considering how much trouble they cause. Since milady is in such bad standing at court, we got all the weak, unwanted ones... most gods have dozens of them, but even just one is supposed to do a lot of housework by itself. Not ours though, Yukine and I end up picking up a lot of their slack."


"Depressing? Infuriating? Unfair?"

"I was going to say sad," Yato said, wincing. "It's not their fault they're weak..."

"Ugh, you sound just like milady," she tsked, handing over his clothes. "'Be patient with them, Hiiro, they're trying their best!' or 'Don't yell at them when they mess up, they'll be upset!' Upset, hah! I'm just trying to keep this place running, it's hard enough without things catching fire every other day!"

Yato barely heard her tirade; he was too busy reveling in the lovely, warm feeling forming in his chest at being told he had something in common with Hiyori. He hugged the clothes in his arms, wondering if it was too impertinent of him to feel so happy about something so small.

Thankfully Hiiro didn't seem to notice his momentary lapse into fantasy. Yato was starting to understand that as clever and observant as Hiiro was, she didn't have much interest in the emotional subtleties of others. She clearly had more important things to concern herself with.

"Anyway, don't worry about them too much," she assured him as she picked out an obi and a pair of sandals and set them down at the edge of his bedding. "They usually keep out of sight, and they're incapable of causing harm on purpose. Yukine isn't supposed to be using them to get out of his responsibilities," she scowled.

"It's okay," Yato said hastily. "I don't really mind, I just wasn't expecting to find someone next to my futon when I woke up."

"Whether you mind or not isn't the point," Hiiro snapped. "Yukine is your caretaker, so Yukine is the one who has to look after your needs. Now hurry up and get dressed, I still have to wake Hiyori-sama, so I can't help with the rest of your preparations, but I'll send Yukine to come get you for breakfast as soon as I get my hands on him. You don't know your way around yet."

She picked up the candle and stalked out of his room, stopping only to return the light to the table and slide the balcony door open. Cold air rushed into his apartments, but it was the welcome, crisp breeze of early morning, and Yato felt considerably more awake now that he could hear birds chirping in the gardens outside.

"Thank you, Hiiro-san," he called as she closed the door to the hall.

"Quit using honorifics with me!" she scolded, snapping it shut.

For the first time since he'd arrived in Takamagahara, Yato was escorted down to the main hall for a proper breakfast in his new home. The meals he'd had so far had mostly been informal, brought to his room or an extremely casual affair in a parlor or outside in the gardens. He felt strangely nervous as Yukine walked him downstairs, grudgingly explaining the etiquette expected of him as a god's consort.

"You sit on the right side of the table," he was saying in a flat, toneless voice. Yato had noted a mark on the Regalia's cheek that made him suspect Hiiro had had her say about his attempt to skive off that morning, and Yukine had definitely been in an even surlier mood than usual when he came to get his new master. "Never the head of the table, that's for her only. You're in the second seat of honor, facing whatever guest is seated in the first seat to milady's left. You're served first, as the Lord Consort, but you can't actually start eating until after Hiyori-sama and the guests do. You also never speak without being spoken to, or get up from the table until Lady Hiyori does. Got it?"

"I sit on Hiyori's right, I don't say anything and I wait for everyone else before I touch my plate," Yato recited, nervous.

"You also kneel when you eat, sitting cross-legged at the table is insanely rude," Yukine added, leading Yato down yet another seemingly endless hall.

"Okay. Anything else?"

"Don't knock anything over or drop food in your lap, don't choke or cough, or make any weird noises when you chew, and always give thanks for the food even if no one else does; you're human so you gotta be grateful. Just, try to be as unobtrusive and invisible as possible."

"That all?" Yato asked, raising a brow. "You don't want me to stop breathing too?"

"Ha ha," Yukine snapped. "If you could, I would. That kind of physiological reflex is instinctive, you can't stop it even if you don't need it. Unfortunately."

They reached the dining room, which was completely deserted. The long table was empty except for two cushions on the floor, one at the very head, in front of the open garden doors, and the other directly on the left side (Yato had to momentarily reassure himself it wasn't a trap, that the left side of the table was the right side in relation to Hiyori's place; he didn't trust Yukine not to spring a test on him out of nowhere). The shinki led Yato to that seat, and watched with a hawk's eye as the human nervously knelt down, back straight.

"Hmph. It'll do," he grumbled. "Milady will be in shortly, just wait there. Quietly."

He left before Yato could voice any complaints.

He sighed, rolling his shoulders slightly while he waited.

At least the doors are open, he thought, watching the branches of the trees in the gardens sway gently back and forth. The damage from the day before was thankfully on the other side of the building, so the area outside the dining room was as lush and vivid as ever, and Yato felt his nerves settle as he let nature lull him into a lazy, disjointed daydream.

I wonder if I could get some wood and a bit of a workshop going if I asked for it... he thought, thinking it would be nice to sit in the shade of a tree and whittle for a while. Yato wasn't used to sitting around in luxury, and he missed having his tools on hand to keep him busy.

His feet were starting to cramp a bit when Hiiro and Hiyori finally came downstairs about thirty minutes later, and their entrance snapped him back to reality.

"Good morning," he said immediately, bowing his head slightly as Yukine'd told him he should. Hiiro raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing as she followed behind her mistress.

"Mm, morning," Hiyori yawned. She was dressed as informally as ever, her pale green kimono thrown over her shoulders and loosely tied at the waist, but today she seemed even more carefree than usual. Her hair was still rumpled from sleep, and she kept smacking the brush in Hiiro's hands away with mild annoyance. Her feet were completely bare, and it was obvious that she wasn't fully awake yet. Anyone else probably would have seemed sloppy and rude for it, but there was a curious grace under it all, some charming quality that made Yato think of a drowsy, ruffled bird or a sleep-heavy cat grudgingly preparing to meet the day. It suited Hiyori so well that it was hard not to smile at the careless charm and endearing simplicity.

She stifled another yawn into her sleeve as she passed him and took her own seat.

"You look tired, Hiyori," he noted. Hiiro immediately stood behind her and began attacking her hair with the brush, and Hiyori only made a small groan of discomfort before giving in, her eyes drooping closed in the morning light. "Did you sleep enough?"

"Hmm?" she asked, turning to him. She stared at him blankly for a good minute and suddenly flushed so red it made Yato's heart pound recklessly in his ears. W-Wow, I didn't know she could look so cute... he thought, filing the image away for when he could think about it later. "Y-Yato?! How long have you been there?!" she asked, alarmed.

"He's been there this whole time, Lady Hiyori," Hiiro answered for him, obviously amused. "You exchanged greetings."

"Wh- but, I'm not even- s-stop looking!" she panicked, tugging her robe closed over her juban as Yato tried and failed to hide his laughter.

"S-Sorry," he apologized, turning away with an unfortunately obvious snigger. "I know I shouldn't laugh, it's just-" he cleared his throat, trying to force some semblance of respect. "I wasn't expecting..."

Hiyori made a noise to let him know it was safe to look, and when he did, he found her looking much the same, though her obi had been fixed and her collar straightened into something more presentable, and her expression was alert now, if flustered.

"I-I forgot I don't live alone anymore," she said, nervously tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

"It's okay," Yato said with a half-smile. "I've been out cold for most of the time I've been here, so it's fine, I understand. Don't worry about it."

Hiiro made a sound in the back of her throat but wisely kept her thoughts to herself as she gathered Hiyori's hair into a loose bunch and secured it with a piece of twine from her pocket.

"I'll be off to the kitchens then, to see how breakfast is coming along," she said a moment later. "Will you need anything else, milady? Or you, milord?"

"N-no, I'm fine," Hiyori muttered as Yato shook his head. Hiiro tossed the brush up into the air and it melted into nothingness without a trace.

"I'll be right back," she said, and vanished down the same hall Yukine had entered earlier. Hiyori fidgeted restlessly with her sleeves.

"Any chance you could forget this?" she asked, her cheeks still pink.

"Forget what?" Yato asked, unable to hold back a snarky remark. "The sleepiness or the state of undress? 'Cause I've already-"

Seen everything, he bit back just in time, a lump forming in his throat at the all-too sharp memory of her body in full view, her toned limbs and supple skin flush against his clothes-

Hiyori seemed to be thinking along the same lines because she suddenly went very quiet and her face reddened, and neither of them seemed willing to address the elephant in the room.

Well... this is painfully awkward, Yato gulped, wishing he hadn't said anything at all.

The silence stretched on for several minutes, and Yato was starting to panic a little when Hiyori finally cleared her throat.

"A-Are you feeling better?" she asked, clearly trying to change the subject.


"Your health," she clarified. "You still seemed very tired yesterday."

"O-Oh, yeah, I am. Feeling better," he finished lamely.

"I'm glad to hear it," said Hiyori, looking relieved. "There's a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it, I'm afraid."

"You mean my studies?" Yato asked nervously.

Hiyori nodded. "Yes. Normally I would encourage you to take your time and learn at your own pace, but that's unfortunately not an option for us."

"Why not?"

She grimaced. "We'll be expected to attend social functions together very soon."

Yato went white.

"What?! H-How soon?!" he asked, his voice unnaturally high.

"A few weeks," she sighed. "This close to Otsukimi, there are a lot of rituals and gatherings I have to go to. There's always a party during the last few days as well."

"Otsukimi? The moon-viewing festival?" Yato asked, surprised. He'd never been invited to the village celebrations, but for the few years that he had lived with Master Kuraha, the pair had held their own private festivities throughout the year. "I thought that was a human festival, for honoring the harvest?"

Hiyori's eyes brightened, clearly pleased by his knowledge and curiosity. His heart started thudding loudly against his rib cage.

"Is that how they see it now? The truth is that humans took to celebrating it after observing us," she explained. "But I very much doubt they really understood the reason we did it. It's not an agricultural festival at all; we celebrate Otsukimi to commemorate the very first full moon, the night Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto first met face-to-face with his sister, Amaterasu-Omikami." She noticed the rather blank look on his face and stifled a chuckle in her sleeve. "The Sun and Moon deities don't actually get along very well, you see," she told him, "so they have always tried to avoid one another despite being siblings. But once in a while, Tsukuyomi-dono will turn to look and catch Amaterasu-sama's eye, and the moon is fully illuminated in her divine gaze. It's an auspicious occasion, and Otsukimi is our way of commemorating that first glance and every one since."

"And here I always thought moon-viewing was just an excuse to get drunk," Yato muttered, thinking of his master and his drunken singing under the stars.

"Well... You're not completely wrong," Hiyori admitted. "We hold a banquet that lasts for three days, and every one of them is spent drinking. I'm not entirely surprised to hear that's all the humans remember, since we did used to drink ourselves into oblivion. I'm sure they felt it much more keenly than us."

"But you don't anymore?"

"Oh no, we do. Thankfully, that's to our advantage," she said as the shinki returned from the kitchens, carrying trays laden with food and bowls. "It's a chaotic enough occasion that as long as you mind your behavior on the first night, before we start getting properly drunk, it won't really matter if you can't keep up with conversations or remember every bit of etiquette later. That being said," she paused as Hiiro ladled hot soup into her bowl. "You still need to learn the proper behavior expected of a consort for the first night, and I don't think it would hurt to start you on the syllabary now either."

"Today?" Yato asked, feeling queasy. Yukine took the opportunity to shoot him a look of pure disdain as he set down the rice basket.

"If you're feeling up to it," Hiyori assured him.

"If this festival is happening that soon, I don't think I have a choice," Yato mumbled into his tea.

"Such is life, milord," Hiiro said flatly as she handed him a pair of chopsticks. "Or death, in your case. Just remind me to teach you tea etiquette as well; you drink like a savage."

Yukine gave a snort but hastily fell quiet as Hiiro shot him a poisonous glare.

The snow is fresh underfoot, cold and unfeeling. He knows this place, recognizes the trees and the mountains framing the heavens above. It surprises him, if only for a moment; he never intended to return, never really had a destination in mind, but some instinct has brought him back home, some longing in his flesh and bones wanting to find...

He's not entirely sure what he expected to find. None of it matters without... without the one thing that means everything. But that's gone, and he can't get it back no matter how many years he wanders the land. Whether it's in this valley or in the world beyond the forest, the only thing he ever wanted is forever lost to him.

He settles on the icy ground, resting his cheek to the snow, and prays... for mercy, for forgiveness. For death.

In the darkness of the moonless night, something answers.

Once breakfast was put away and the shinki cleared the dishes from the table, Hiyori had Yukine fetch ink and paper before producing a beautiful lacquered box from thin air.

"This is a suzuri bako, a writing box," she said as she gently laid it on the table and took the flowery maki-e lid off. Just as she remembered, her old inkstone and calligraphy brushes were neatly stored in their place, and she was pleased to see her younger self had remembered to clean and return the tosu knife she'd once used as an impromptu weapon during one of Take's unannounced visits and subsequent attacks. "This is one I used several hundred years ago, so it's a little aged, but it should be just right for a beginner," she explained as she offered it to him. "The brushes have been broken in, but not overused."

"Wow, it's gorgeous," Yato breathed as he tentatively reached a finger out to touch the smooth side of the box.

Hiyori couldn't help warmth flush through her skin at the compliment. He's talking about the box, not you, idiot, she reminded herself as the hair on the back of her neck tingled at the thought of those gentle, deft fingers slipping snugly into her palms. Another intrusive wave of physical discomfort followed when she recalled how he had pulled away from her the night before.

Yato was thankfully too engrossed in examining the box to notice.

"I think I've made one of these before," he said, gently prying one of the tools loose of its indentation and turning the decorated handle up against the light. "Well... helped make," he corrected himself a second later. "I didn't really know what it was, but my master asked me to make the lid and brush handles. I think it was a commission for the priests' apprentice." He paused, frowning. "Ugh, I bet that snake still uses it too," he added with great distaste. "Probably wrote that fucking blood oath with my own damned brushes-" he muttered to himself, but Hiyori didn't get to ask him to clarify before his expression softened and he gave a small, satisfied sort of sigh. "These are way more beautiful and valuable than anything we ever made, though... are you sure I can have them, Hiyori?"

"As long as you promise to take care of it, it's all yours," she said, warmed by the artistic admiration in his eyes. "But you'll need a couple of other things, a water dropper and something to hold inksticks, I think I lost the original ones." She waved her hand again, focusing hard on the memory of the items in question, and perfect copies appeared on the table before her just as Yukine arrived with the paper and ink.

"Why didn't you just use magic for the ink and stuff too?" Yato asked, surprised. Yukine spluttered indignantly as he set down several rolls of paper.

"Just how stupid are you?" the boy asked incredulously. "You think gods are omnipotent or something?! You wanna get killed messing around with shit you don't understa-"

"Yukine!" Hiyori warned. "Don't speak to him like that, he is still your master."

Her retainer grudgingly shut up.

"Apologies, milady," he muttered and excused himself quickly before she could force him to include Yato in his apology.

Hiyori sighed. What is it about Yato in particular that Yukine hates so much? He was never this openly belligerent with any of the others...

"Never mind him," she assured her noticeably uncomfortable husband. "Yukine lacks a filter sometimes, and he can be very rude without meaning to. Please don't take it personally."

Yato grimaced but said nothing, and Hiyori thought it was best not to pry.

"In answer to your question, some things are easier to form from nothing," she explained instead. "Ink and paper are less solid in shape and essence than, say, a writing knife, since they can take the form of many different things depending on the user's intent. And because you can't reuse spilt ink or marked paper, it's possible to invite unwanted and dangerous energy into their construction, the kind that can't be removed. It's best to avoid creating such materials with divine magic."

Yato seemed satisfied enough with that, so Hiyori began to teach him how to prepare the ink and smooth out the paper using the wooden weights. He was a quick learner, she was pleased to find, though he had considerably more trouble remembering what each character sounded like than he did in learning how to draw them.

"Ha, hi, hu-"

"Fu," she corrected for what felt like the thirtieth time as she instructed him to write the line again. He frowned to himself, repeating the sounds under his breath, his dark hair falling over his eyes. Hiyori found herself staring at it, wanting to brush it aside for him, but she managed to keep her impulse in check as he wrote.

"Fu, he, ho," he recited once he had drawn the characters and submitted them for her approval.

"Your recognition and memory need a little work, but there's nothing I can find to correct in your brushwork. I really can't believe you've never done any calligraphy before," she said, in awe of the smooth, beautiful strokes and his steady hand. "These are practically art."

Yato shrugged, a little red around the nose and cheeks. "I wouldn't say they're that nice," he said, scratching his temple bashfully. "Carpenters just do a lot of detail work. And I have used brushes before, just not calligraphy ones. I can't read and write, but I was taught how to design things on paper as an apprentice. I don't need to do it anymore, but-"

"Anymore?" Hiyori asked, curious.

"You don't really need it once you learn sou," he said simply, as though that explained everything.

"Sou?" she asked when he didn't elaborate.

He blinked at her.

"Uhm... Souzou no Geijutsu? The art of creation?" he asked after a moment. "My master sometimes just called it 'creation magic' or 'sou,' it's supposed to be a divinely inspired skill, so I thought..."

"Human magic is completely different from divine magic," she said, shaking her head. "Gods have no real knowledge of what you can do, especially since we've been living in different worlds for so long."

"Oh," he said, embarrassed. "Uh, then I guess I should explain it," he muttered, mostly to himself. Hiyori couldn't help a small smile; she also had a little bit of a problem with thinking out loud, and it was strangely nice to see they had something habitual in common. "I-It's kind of complicated," he warned. "And I probably can't explain it the way my Master did-"

"Try anyway," she encouraged.

"O-okay, well..." he paused to take a breath and gather his thoughts. "Sou isn't actually magic, not the way most people use it, anyway. It's not based on spells or even a real will to use magic... I don't even know if anyone else in the village could do it. I sometimes got the impression my master was extremely surprised I could, especially since I was... not great... at most magic," he winced, avoiding her eye.

"But what is it?" she asked, brow furrowed.

"It's... almost like a prayer," he said slowly. He ran his finger over the wooden table, never once looking down as he carefully sketched out a series of lines. "You ask the world around you to guide you, to use you as a vessel. You let energy flow into you and through you, let nature work beauty with your hands. You never command magic directly, you just... create, and the magic shapes itself on its own. See?" he said, lifting his hand from the table so she could see the faint etching of a lily in perfect bloom magically carved into the wood.

Hiyori couldn't breathe. She couldn't even think. It was like the world had died as soon as that lily came into view, a violent, screeching halt that reverberated like a physical blow deep in Hiyori's very soul. Excruciating pain exploded behind her eyes, blurring her vision and senses until she could make no sense of the fractured bits of memory flooding through her.

A small... something. Pressed into her palm, smooth and perfect.

"-made for you, so you can always-"

Shadows dappled through trees, voices whispering like water in a creek.

"-Could never-"

"-back to-"

Warmth, contentment... No, it was unbearable grief and remorse.

"-forget me."

"Hiyori?! Hiyori! Are you okay!?"

She gasps, desperate for air despite the fact that she doesn't require it. She's drowning, she's fading, she's going to be devoured. Sharp teeth scrape across her throat, hot, frenzied breath condenses on her skin, hunger and bitter resentment are reflected back at her in the bottomless, azure depths-

"Hiiro! Yukine! Help, Hiyori is-!"

She stands before the court, she cares nothing for her own fate. All she wants is to protect her own, even at the cost of her existence.

No... shehopes they kill her. Shewants them to kill her. She doesn't want to stay in this ugly, horrible world any longer. Not one more second than it takes to see her shinki's safety assured-

"Milady?! Lady Hiyori, can you hear me?! Hiyori!"

"Remember," a voice echoes from the past as she holds a divine blade to her throat in the confines of the beautiful house she has been imprisoned in.

"I can't," she sobs, her hands shaking. "I can't do this, it's cruel, it's horrible, I don't want to do this!"

"Remember," it repeats, and when her eyes close she can almost feel hands cupping her face, almost feel a sad sigh against her eyelids.

When Hiyori woke a moment later, tears streaming down her cheeks and a horrible headache pulsing against the inside of her skull, she found herself leaning against the dining room wall, confused and disoriented as her retainers sighed with relief and reassured the young human panicking next to her that it would be alright, that their mistress sometimes was overcome with migraines so powerful they completely incapacitated her.

"It's a side effect of the corruption," she heard Hiiro say in an undertone as Hiyori tried to focus on her surroundings. "They don't happen that often, but when they do, they can be triggered by anything. It wasn't your fault, milord."

"I-Is she gonna be okay?" Yato asked, clearly frightened.

"Mm, given a bit of peace and quiet, she'll be fine," Hiiro assured him. "Hiyori-sama," she called softly, patting her god's cheek. "We're going to carry you to your room so you can get some rest."

"You mean I'm gonna carry her," Yukine grumbled. "You're tiny, Hiiro-"

"Excuse me?! How dare you say that, you yellow-haired shrimp?!"

"I'm bigger than you, at least, you damned flea!"

"I'm going to kill-"

"Both of you, please, shut up!" Yato snapped suddenly, and Hiyori blinked painfully to find him wearing a similar expression the the one he'd worn when confronting Take. "Hiyori needs us, so quit bickering about every stupid thing! I'll carry her, just show me the goddamned way through this maze of a house before I end up somewhere I shouldn't."

Without waiting for a reply, he gently pulled Hiyori into his arms and tucked her in carefully against his chest.

"Sorry," he said softly as she groaned at the sudden movement. "Just bear with me for a minute, Hiyori, I know it's inappropriate, so you can punish me later, okay?"

Hiyori heard his voice, but found she couldn't reply as she slowly slipped into unconsciousness again, lulled by his strange and seductive scent pressed against her nose. He really did smell wonderful, she had to admit, though Take had been wrong to assume that was normal; Yato's scent was unique, more than just a spell worked to keep her calm. Hiyori wasn't even sure it was keeping her calm. She certainly felt weightless and safe as she let it settle into her lungs, but she also felt oddly restless, somehow unsettled. She breathed deeper, wanting him to stay with her, dreading the moment she'd be parted from the intoxicating scent, wishing she could just dive into it and never surface again.

She was almost asleep when she heard him say something to one of the retainers as he walked, but her ears could make no sense of the words. They melted and reformed, taking new shapes, echoing long-forgotten ancient whispers Hiyori still carried etched deep in the corners of her soul, where her mind couldn't find them.

"Remember thine oath..."

"And come back to me," she breathed into Yato's kimono, and slept.


I have rewritten this chapter so many times I don't even remember what I was originally trying to do with it T-T Literally on a daily basis I'd come in for the last six months, hate everything I put down, and redo it all. In the end I decided I was trying to do too much for a single chapter so I ended up cutting it significantly and focusing on just a little bit at a time. Sorry for the very long wait, I hope it isn't a dull read, at least. As always, I love to hear from you all, so please like and review! Comments make my day. ^^