Yukine watched Yato all the time now, although he wasn't entirely sure what he was hoping to see. While Yato had always been an enigma, Yukine had more or less given up on unraveling it once he'd realized his efforts were going nowhere, aside from nosing around the issue of Nora every now and then.
But Yato's disappearance and subsequent emergence in Yomi had cracked something open. Some of the secrets he kept were dangerous, and Yukine hated being left in the dark to bite his fingernails and wait, unable to help. Oh, he was still quite angry about being excluded from the whole affair as if it wasn't his job to be involved in the first place. And if he wanted to ferret out some of those secrets at last so that this didn't happen again, this was the time to do it.
Yato, usually so good at keeping his secrets close to his chest and distracting from them with his over-the-top personality, had finally opened up just a little. He had told Yukine and Hiyori about his father, and even admitted to the killing they had known about but he had avoided discussing. Yukine wasn't foolish enough to believe it was the full, unvarnished truth, but it was more than Yato had ever told them in all the time they'd known him. Rather than being satisfied, Yukine burned to know more. Yato was still out of sorts, not quite himself even though he wore his usual smile, and this might be Yukine's best chance to pry something out of him before he regrouped and built his walls back up.
What Yukine really wanted to know was why Yato hadn't trusted them with his real name, and excuses about it being a childhood moniker weren't good enough for him. He knew exactly how important names were to people like them. Names provided them with protection and a place to belong, defined who they were. Names gave power too, like for spells and binding, and they had meaning. A name was a shinki's most prized possession, and it was just as important for gods, even if they sometimes had an array of monikers to go with them.
Yukine's name gave Yato power over him, as it should. It also afforded Yukine Yato's protection and bound them together, but there was an element of trust in holding another's name. Realizing Yato had hidden his left Yukine feeling like they were on unequal footing, and he thought he deserved that trust after everything he'd done for Yato, even becoming a hafuri for him.
Yukine didn't expect Yato to be forthcoming about anything regarding his past—he was still surprised Yato had shared as much as he had and assumed the guilt trip must have worked its magic on him eventually—so he knew he would have to choose the one most important thing to him and start there. If he could lay on the guilt and present it as a current issue rather than one of the past, maybe he could shake out some kind of answer.
But until he worked up the nerve to pursue that, he settled for watching. The chances he could glean anything of import from Yato's expression or posture were admittedly low, but he couldn't help the new nagging fascination. Yato was usually good about guarding his expression and presenting a cheerful front, at least until things got serious, but Yukine had glimpsed something else in those few minutes when he reluctantly shared a few details of his past.
So he searched Yato's eyes for the shadows he had seen and his mouth for that bitter twist of the lips and his shoulders for that weary slump. He looked for the melancholy and shame and exhaustion that had been there and gone so fast that he might have imagined it but was sure he hadn't. He looked for any sign that Yato was thinking about the things he didn't want to share, but it was always hard to tell with him. Yukine watched because he had been fascinated by that glimpse he'd gotten of Yato when the walls had come down, but he found little to justify the scrutiny. Whatever Yato felt about it, he had locked it up tight once more.
No, Yato was back to normal, blithely chattering his days away. Yukine thought it unfair, after everything he'd dumped on them and all he'd left unsaid.
Oblivious to a fault, Yato didn't seem to notice the scrutiny. Or if he did, he pretended not to. Yukine assumed Yato was satisfied that he'd said just enough to make up for abandoning them without warning and didn't feel the need to share even one thing more. So he would ignore anything that suggested otherwise, and Yukine was not surprised that he never brought it up again.
Yukine, though, was not so easily put off. He had needled and prodded and poked since Yomi, his anger and betrayal seething just beneath his skin, but he had pulled back after Yato's revelations. It didn't seem right to keep sniping at him when he was so clearly upset about it. While Yato was normally a champion of ignoring Yukine's prodding and snipping until it exploded into a full-on fit, Yukine had felt bad for him when he'd glimpsed that bleak despair on his face for the briefest of seconds.
But that didn't mean he wasn't still angry about being abandoned and lied to, and Yato should know better than to think it wouldn't come back to bite him again. If anything, he should have been wary of the sudden reprieve. Yukine was no good at restraining himself and playing nice calmly when he was upset.
The truce lasted nearly a week. They were walking back home after a simple housekeeping job one afternoon, in no hurry since it was another hour before Hiyori got out of school, and Yato had decided it would be great fun to bully the customer's cat.
"Oh, come on," he said as they took a detour through the park, ambling past Suzuha's cherry tree and across the lawn. "You have to admit, that was the ugliest cat. And its meowing was nails on a chalkboard!"
Yukine glared at him. "That's not very nice. That cat didn't do anything to you. Anyway, he's not ugly, just…"
"Hideous?" Yato suggested.
"Honestly! I don't see what your problem is. Cats are the most innocent and sweet creatures. He doesn't deserve to be maligned like that."
"Innocent and sweet? Cats? No way. You might be able to make a case for dogs, but cats are always looking for trouble. He scratched me, you know. Twice!"
Yukine rolled his eyes. "Cats are smart. Certainly smarter than you. They can sense if you don't like them, and you're being quite mean."
"It's not as if he understands me. Although, in his defense, he is actually not the most hideous cat ever. I have recalled another."
"You are impossible."
"No, no, listen." Yato grinned, eyes gleaming, and Yukine had no idea why he was taking so much delight in slandering cats. Which, as far as he was concerned, were about the most precious creatures in all the world. He had half a mind to adopt one himself, if Yato could grow up first. "Right before I named you, when I'd just met Hiyori and she kept bugging me about fixing her body, I took a job looking for a missing cat. Now, this was the ugliest cat ever, with goofy spots and a weird tuft at the end of his tail. But get this: his name was Ue-sama. Ue-sama! Can you believe it? What a ridiculous name!"
"I really don't see why you keep picking on…cats…" Yukine trailed off, eyes narrowing.
Yato opened his mouth, but caught sight of the look on Yukine's face and groaned. "What now?"
"Nothing," he muttered.
Yukine sniffed. "Fine. Not nothing. Speaking of stupid names, do you want to explain why you didn't trust me–us with your real name? You never exactly answered that."
Yato closed his eyes, and suddenly there was a hint of that old, weary god again in the tight lines of his face. "I already told you–"
"Yes, yes, it's a childhood name that your father gave you. But it never seemed important to share with us?"
"No?" Yato sighed and ran a hand down his face. "That hasn't been my name in a long time. It's not really relevant anymore."
Yukine scowled. "Isn't it? My name is important, even if I picked up a nickname. If you didn't know my real name, that would be kind of a problem, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah, yeah. You're the one who gave it to me, so of course you'd know. But if you whacked your head and forgot some things and I gave you a fake name? That wouldn't be okay."
"…I really don't feel like that would be the same kind of situation."
Yukine could scream with exasperation. "You are the most annoying–"
Yato held up a hand to stop him. "Look, Yukine," he sighed. "It's not… It's not a matter of trust, exactly. Yes, I don't like talking about my past, and I'd be foolish not to worry you'd leave once you knew the extent of it."
"I said I wouldn't."
"There was a time you would have, and one day you might." Yato shrugged and looked away. "But like I was saying, the name thing in particular isn't about that."
Yukine crossed his arms over his chest and drew to a stop in the grass. "What is it about, then?"
Yato stopped beside him and turned back the way they'd come, looking towards the cherry tree behind them. He chose his words with care, not looking at Yukine.
"Yaboku is the name my father gave me," he said slowly. "And Father is…" He shook his head. "Yato is the name a friend gave me. She misread my name, and I never corrected her. It seemed fitting, I suppose. Father always wanted me to kill for him. And my friend… She was different. It didn't take anything so terrible to make her happy. She taught me a better way of living.
"Yaboku was Father's puppet, and Yato was who I became when I was trying to escape him and be something better. I still… I still did terrible things as Yato because Father never would let me go, but I was different. I was trying to be something better. I wanted to leave Yaboku in the past, and I stuck with Yato because that was who my friend had believed in, and I… I loved her. She was a wonderful person, before she died, and I owed her a lot.
"You never met Yaboku." Yato slanted a glance Yukine's way, his mouth drawn in a tight line. "And if you had, you wouldn't have liked him. I haven't been that child in a long time, and I never saw any need to resurrect him. I don't identify as Yaboku anymore. Yato is who I am, and so that's who I introduced myself as. That's who I wanted to be with you. Who I wanted you to help me be. It's not that I didn't trust you with it, but I just don't see how it's relevant anymore."
Yukine chewed on the inside of his cheek. He hadn't expected such an honest answer. He could feel everything left unsaid seething beneath the surface—he just didn't know what that might be.
He trailed off. Yato had already said his friend had died, and it didn't seem kind to pry. Especially not when his eyes darkened with the shadow of an old, crippling pain. That might be something too raw for even Yukine to dare touch.
So he wouldn't ask about what had happened, but he was dying to know what had been so important about her to change Yato's entire identity and lead him to adopt a new name.
Yato blew out a breath, evidently sensing the trail of his thoughts. "She was my first guidepost, of a sort, and the only one I had besides Father for a long time. Names are important because they're part of our identity. Part of what defines a name, even more than its actual meaning, is who gives it to us." He paused, considering his words with a frown. "Father…hurt me. And he still does. He was the only family I had, besides Nora, and I did everything in my power to please him, but… He uses that name to control me. When I don't want to be bound to him, I don't want the name he gave me either. I'd rather be connected to the person who…who actually loved me. I want her influence to shape me more than Father's, and I want that piece of her to hang on to. So I adopted Yato instead, and I never looked back."
Yukine thought he was getting more than he had bargained for here. He hadn't expected Yato's answers to be so open and raw, and he'd been too consumed by his own anger and frustration to really consider Yato's side of the story or how deep his feelings might run. And while he was still hurt by everything Yato had hidden and failed to trust him with, he thought he was starting to understand a little bit better. There was still so much about Yato's past that he didn't know, making it hard to render any kind of judgment, but it was enough for his anger to ebb.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have pried."
Yato shrugged. "Like I've always said, it's better to be open about what's bothering you than bottle it all up. You're a smart kid. Names are very important to people like us, and they bind us to each other. You're bound to me by the name I gave you. Why wouldn't I be bound the same way to the person who gave me my own name?"
Yukine frowned as he considered that. He wasn't sure it was quite the same—shinki and gods were different creatures entirely, and he thought names were everything to shinki in a way they probably weren't to gods—but he could see the parallel.
"I guess," he said.
"You're young still," Yato murmured. "You might understand one day."
Yukine bristled at being dismissed as a child. "I'm not–"
"When you've experienced more, you'll understand more. I know you have an idea of what I mean, but… Someday you might find that you understand it in your bones." Yato turned and began walking again, but slowly. Yukine had no choice but to follow. "Right now, we have a partnership. It's not perfect, but there's enough good to make it worthwhile and we've thrown our lot in together. So you don't mind bearing the name I gave you.
"But there might be a time when that's no longer the case—when resentment keeps building or hatred settles in or we just grow too far apart and you want to leave. When–if that happens, you might find that you don't want that tie to me anymore. As a shinki, you lose your name when you're released and gain a new one when you're named again. It's a little more…black and white. You won't want to introduce yourself as Yukine anymore. You'll go by your new name, even if it might take a little adjustment. You won't want to still be branded by someone you can't stand anymore. You'd rather have a name from someone you cherish and respect."
Yukine recoiled, caught off guard by the turn their conversation had taken. For all his frustration with Yato, for all their disagreements, he had not seriously entertained the idea of leaving. Hadn't he as good as pledged eternal loyalty? Why would Yato talk like that, like he fully expected Yukine to tire of him and move on? He wondered if it was a lack of trust in him, or just some deep-seated insecurity talking. Whatever the case, he hated it.
"I wouldn't do that!" he protested. "I'm your hafuri and guidepost. I said I'd stay with you forever, didn't I?"
Yato shoved his hands into his pockets and smiled a little sadly at the ground. "Forever is a long time," he said. "You wanted to leave in the beginning. Didn't you even ask Tenjin if he'd take you, before your ablution? And you considered Ebisu's offer."
Yukine stumbled to a stop, stricken. "I…"
"It's okay." Yato paused and turned back to him. An air of tired melancholy hovered about him, but his eyes and half-smile were gentle. "You're allowed to have choices, and you should do what's best for yourself sometimes. I value our partnership and your guidance, and I'd like to keep you for as long as possible. But if you decide that it's time to move on, I will let you go.
"My father never understood that. Even when I tried to break ties, he always pulled me back. The name he gave me is just one of the things he uses to control me and bind me to him. It's a chain around my neck. If it were up to me, I'd have him release me and be unnamed. But I'm not a shinki, and Father would never agree to it even if it would work. I just…ask that you leave Yaboku in the past where I put him, because that's my own burden to carry. It's not a matter of trust. That burden is just hard enough to bear without parading it around for everyone to see."
Yukine opened his mouth, closed it again. He wished he hadn't asked the question. He was glad he had. This moment right here was probably the closest he had ever come to understanding Yato and the secrets he dragged behind him like a dark cloud. He wished it had been a happier revelation.
Yato wasn't perfect, but he had saved Yukine and Hiyori and all the others many times. He listened when Yukine was upset and sat with him if the night got too dark. He was silly and absurd, but he could always make them laugh and worked hard when the fancy struck him. Whatever else, he was far more than what his father had created him to be and demanded that he do. If he had chosen a different name to showcase that distance, Yukine could respect that.
There were a lot of things he could say, and also none at all. He had no way to make Yato's father free him from his unwelcome servitude. There was little he could do to soothe such a soul-deep pain, and he was no good at comfort even at the best of times. There were no words to make things right, and he might have been too shy and tongue-tied to speak them even if there were.
He stepped forward, hesitated, and then jabbed a finger into Yato's chest. "I said forever," he snapped.
Yato blinked at him, startled, and then smiled. Yukine scowled and stomped off, cheeks burning.
"Forever," Yato echoed, following behind.