"Where do you think you're going?" Kazuma asked, blocking Yukine's way. "Stay here."

The younger shinki started in surprise, then glared and looked away.

"Kazuma?" Daikoku asked. "What are you–? I thought all of Bishamon's group were Yato's sworn enemies."

Kazuma looked past Yukine, gaze just skimming along Daikoku, Kofuku, and Mayu clustered outside the shrine before coming to rest on Yato. The god did not look good. He had collapsed in a heap on the ground, the corruption coming off him in waves.

"That's true," Kazuma said, approaching and crouching down beside Yato. "But I personally owe him a great debt. And she came all the way to our shrine and made a racket. You should keep a better eye on her. Veena would have her head if she knew."

He let them fuss over Hiyori while he examined Yato. The prognosis was not good. He wasn't sure how aware of his surroundings the god was. Yato's eyes were squeezed shut, and he breathed in ragged gasps. He showed no sign of hearing the conversation or acknowledging everyone gathered around him.

"I don't know what kind of debt you owe him, but that makes three," Daikoku said. "We can do the ablution."

Kazuma shook his head and pulled his sleeve down over his hand before carefully peeling back Yato's jacket. The pale skin of Yato's back bloomed an angry purple like great waves of rolling storm clouds. A chorus of gasps sounded around him.

"It's already spread considerably far," Kazuma said. Yato should know better than to let blight get this bad. He was half a step away from where Bishamon had been so many years ago, straddling life and death. Although it was quite impressive, in a way, that a single shinki had managed to do such incredible damage. "Yato, can you hear me?"

Yato cracked his eyes open just a sliver. They were dull and glassy and ringed in the black-purple of blight, but at least it was some sign of life.

"Listen, Yato," Kazuma said. "Your condition is critical. Revoke Yukine's name and banish him."

Hiyori made a breathy sound of protest from somewhere behind him. Yato squeezed his eyes shut again and shook his head, the air wheezing painfully between gritted teeth.

"He's so stubborn," Mayu said grimly.

Yato was nothing if not that, but Kazuma didn't understand why he was putting his foot down on this particular issue. Yato never kept shinki for long, besides that awful nora. Why risk so much for someone who wasn't going to stay and clearly didn't feel any of the same loyalty? That was the foolishly noble kind of thing Kazuma would expect from Bishamon, but at least she strove to cultivate strong bonds with the shinki she would sacrifice herself to protect.

But Yato had saved Bishamon from corruption once, and Kazuma would do his best to return the favor.

When he saw the state of Yukine's back, the half a dozen ayakashi eyeballs protruding from the skin, he wasn't sure the ablution wasn't a lost cause. He had noticed Yato's blight when Bishamon had run into him a few days prior, but he hadn't realized how far it had spread and how much Yato had endured from Yukine's stinging.

When he saw how fast Yukine began transitioning into an ayakashi during the ablution, there was a moment when he was convinced they would need to slay Yukine or they would all die. But Yato wasn't in any state to do what needed to be done this time, even if he'd agree to, and Daikoku was right that all would be lost if any of them broke their borderlines now.

And for a few terrifying minutes, he was sure Yukine would drag them all over the edge with him and they'd die here, and Bishamon would never understand what had happened to him.

Yukine's breakthrough, when it finally came, was a relief, even if the ablution was still grueling and took until morning.

"Why did you let things get that bad?" Kazuma asked Yato later, when everyone was recovering from the ordeal. "You knew what would happen."

He wanted to curl up and sleep for a week, but instead he was debating the best excuse to give Bishamon for his absence and dreading getting through the day without any sleep. Yato looked like he'd been run over by a freight train, pale and drawn with dark smudges under his eyes and a palpable air of exhaustion radiating from him.

"Ah… I don't know." Yato smiled sheepishly and leaned back against the wall, his gaze drifting across the room to rest on Yukine and Hiyori and the others. "He's a rotten brat, but I think he's a good kid deep down. He just needs someone to give him a chance."

Kazuma gave him a disbelieving look. It sounded contradictory to him. "Is that so?"

"Yeah." Yato frowned a little, gaze distant. "Maybe he reminds me of someone…"


Yato's frown deepened, and he didn't say anything for a long time. "Myself, maybe."

Kazuma's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. "Well, you are a rotten brat, I suppose, although that's the extent of the resemblance I see. Are you going to keep him or release him?"

"I'll keep him. Unless he wants to go."

Kazuma shook his head. Yato and Veena had always been worlds apart, but they seemed more alike in this moment than ever before. It was disconcerting.

"What if the ablution hadn't worked?" he asked.

"But it did."

He blew out a breath. "You're usually better at taking care of yourself than this. I know I've told you to settle down and find a proper shinki, but… Just be careful with this one. He seems…fragile. A loose cannon."

A thin smile curled the edges of Yato's mouth. "Yes, exactly," he muttered. Before Kazuma could ask what he meant by that, he added, "Thanks for helping out. I know your crazy master wouldn't approve."

"I didn't approve either," Kazuma said. "It would have been safer to kill him or leave him to his fate. Still… I'm glad it worked out in the end. Hopefully, he learns something from this little misadventure."

Yato, whatever his faults, deserved a more loyal shinki. Someone who wouldn't stab him in the back when he wasn't looking and sting him all hours of the day. Kazuma couldn't tell if Yukine could be that shinki from what little he'd seen of him, but if Yato wanted to give him a chance, hopefully he'd make the most of it. Most shinki wouldn't have been awarded the mercy Yato had shown Yukine.

"I think he will," Yato said optimistically. "He's a decent kid, just at a difficult age."

"Just be more careful next time."

"Yeah, yeah."

Kazuma sighed through his nose. If he'd learned anything about Yato after all these centuries, it was that the god would do as he pleased. Still, Yato was a good person, despite all the killing he'd done in the past, and he had been a good friend to Kazuma when they'd met on and off through the years. And Kazuma still owed him a life-debt for saving Bishamon and taking the blame. All Kazuma could do was offer advice and encouragement and do what little he could to help from the sidelines. Yato would have to make his own choices and mistakes. But he deserved better, so Kazuma hoped it would work out and wished him the best.

Daikoku watched Yukine scamper to and fro across the shop floor and couldn't help but smile. They'd had a rough few days there, but the kid seemed better already. His careless anger and bitter jealousy had been replaced by fierce determination and cautious optimism overnight. It seemed like the beginnings of a conscience had begun to stir.

Daikoku had had a bit of a soft spot for the kid even when he was causing trouble every time they turned their backs, and he was glad they'd managed to work it out in the end. Whether or not Yukine would stick it out with Yato remained to be seen, but at least he would live. Kids should at least have the opportunity to grow up, even if they weren't able to grow old.

"He's so cute," Yato said with a sniffle.

Daikoku slanted a sidelong look his way, wondering where he'd sprung from. That troublemaking freeloader could slink around as silently as a cat when he wanted to, particularly when he was trying to avoid work.

"You need to step it up," Daikoku said severely. "A kid like that needs someone to take care of him."

"That's why we're here, isn't it?" Yato asked blithely. "You've already–"

"Not me, you fool," Daikoku growled. "Not Kofuku or Hiyori. You. You're his master. Make sure you do right by him."

Yato watched Yukine quietly for a minute, tracking the boy's every move. "I know," he said finally. "Now that he's snapped out of his destructive spiral, we need to figure out how to go forward. Thanks for helping out with the ablution."

"You already thanked me last night."

"Yeah, but I know it must have been a pain scrounging up enough shinki to help out. I'm not exactly super popular."

Daikoku shrugged and looked away. "Mayu agreed right away. I couldn't find a third, but Hiyori brought Kazuma."

"Hm. Admittedly, I was hoping I could get through to Yukine before we hit rock bottom, but he's stubborn and I'm no good with kids. It became a bigger hassle than it needed to be."

Daikoku snorted and began wiping down the counter with a damp rag. "That's true enough. You made a right mess of it. But…it was kind of you to hang on so long and give him another chance. Even if it was a huge pain in the neck."

"Yeah, yeah," Yato sighed. "Sorry."

The rag slowed and then stilled in Daikoku's hand. He frowned down at it.

"Kazuma came because he said he owed you a debt, whatever that is. I think Mayu helped because you had given her a name and place to belong for a short time, even if you weren't compatible. And I owed you for helping us with Daigo. For all you're selfish and a rotten freeloader, it seems like you've done a lot of helping people. Even with Yukine. That's why we found enough people to help."

Yato let out his breath in a long sigh. He looked tired still, from last night's ordeal. He was still watching Yukine.

"You don't owe me anything for Daigo," he said.

Daikoku looked away again and resumed cleaning the counter. He owed Yato everything for Daigo. For cleaning up his mess and saving Kofuku. They never talked about it, but it was always lingering there beneath the surface. He wasn't sure if Yato felt it, but he always did.

"I'd be careful with that," he said. "That's the only reason I put up with you freeloading here too."

Yato snorted, then tilted his head as footsteps pattered on the steps outside the shop. "Oh, is that Hiyori? This should be great. I'm sure she'll give Yukine her old textbooks, and he'll be so cute learning algebra and things like he's in school!"

Daikoku rolled his eyes, but he was pleased to see Yato's enthusiasm. For all of Yato's friendliness, he did not make many friends or keep shinki close. It was kind of him to care about Yukine and give him a chance.

Mayu sighed when Yato came strolling onto the grounds of the shrine, accompanied by his human tagalong and troublesome new shinki. She could already tell that their peaceful morning was about to be shattered. Yato always came through like a whirlwind, upending everything, all noise and chaos.

She supposed she should try intercepting him before he made a scene.

"Hey, Tomone!" he called when he spotted her, grinning brightly and waving. "How are you?"

"Mayu," she corrected. "And I was better before you showed up."

He laughed. "Relax! I only want to thank Tenjin for letting me borrow you for the ablution." He paused and added, less exuberantly, "And you, for helping out."

Mayu shrugged and averted her gaze. "You gave me a name once. It seemed only fair."

Yato had not been the best of masters. He could be lazy and inconsiderate and self-centered, and he was too minor a god to be able to care for his shinki properly. He and Mayu had often not gotten along, and there had been days when she wanted to scream in frustration when he picked at her every last nerve. But now that she'd gotten a little distance and some room to breathe, she could appreciate the things he had done for her. He had been kind, in his own way.

Their partnership would never have worked out. They were just very different people, with different wants and needs and goals. Mayu did not regret leaving, and she had found a cozy place here in Tenjin's shrine that she had quickly grown to love. But she wished Yato the best all the same, even if their paths diverged.

And she might have felt just the tiniest bit guilty that the very next shinki he'd taken to replace her had nearly killed him.

"You don't owe me anything," Yato said seriously. "I'm not your responsibility anymore."

Mayu opened her mouth and then closed it again. She was not used to Yato being serious, and she did not know how to respond.

Thankfully, she didn't have to, as that was the moment Tenjin appeared to greet his guest. Mayu led Yukine and Hiyori away to give the gods a chance to talk. When they asked about the missing shinki, she hesitated only a moment before telling them of her misstep and subsequent ablution and release. Maybe Yukine should know how precarious his position could be if he didn't watch himself, how easily he could fall into corruption again if he wasn't careful. Goodness only knew what Yato had told him about it. Certainly not enough for him to protect himself.

"It's not that uncommon," she added. "Many gods will exile a shinki for stinging them only once. Allowing them to undergo an ablution first is a gift. Otherwise they have to be killed or will turn into ayakashi. At least if they are cleansed, they have an opportunity to look for a new master to serve. Trust me, I know Yato can be a colossal pain in the neck, but…he has shown you more compassion than most gods would in his place. Being blighted to that degree is very dangerous for a god."

Yukine winced and looked away. "I…understand."

"He did not abandon you, despite everything. From now on, take up that name he gave you and serve your master to the best of your ability."

Yukine stared at her for a moment, and then his face hardened with determination. "I will."

Mayu had had her doubts during the ablution, but in that moment, she thought that perhaps Yukine might become well-suited to being Yato's partner after all.

The ablution and following conversation with Mayu had left Yukine unsettled. The thought of always being half a step away from losing himself was terrifying, and the memories of the eyeballs sprouting from his back and pain of slicing them away haunted him.

But as Mayu had said, it wouldn't do to dwell on such things. Yukine couldn't possibly sting or hurt Yato again so soon after last time, not with all that he owed him.

He eyed Yato sidelong, shook the dark thoughts out of his head, and refocused on the present. "That's a stupid idea, bakagami," he muttered, interrupting the god's blathering.

Yato gave him a look of exaggerated injury. "That's not very nice, Yukine."

Yukine sat up straight as another thought occurred to him. "That doesn't…? That doesn't sting you, does it? When I'm mean to you?"

Yato lifted his eyebrows and then smiled. "Nope! You'll only sting me for what you believe is a sin. You seem to have no moral compass at all for insulting me! How cold!"

Yukine glared, but then sobered. "I… Why didn't you just release me?"

"You would have died," Yato said with a shrug. "The posthumous name you bear grants you a measure of protection. Much of your corruption is borne by the god who gave it to you, up to a point. It's enough to stop you from turning into an ayakashi right away. If I released you, you would have crossed the line and I couldn't help you."

"No, I mean why didn't you release me after the ablution?"

Yato's eyebrows shot up his forehead. "Do you want me to?"

"No, it's not…" Yukine blew out a breath and looked down at his hands folded in his lap. "Mayu said that most gods would release a shinki after stinging them once."

"All gods have their own ways of handling things. I know you went to Tenjin and asked him to take you, and he explained to you how noras work."

Yukine startled. "How–?"

"He wouldn't have taken you before anyway, once he realized you were blighting me. But if you want to find a new master now, you could probably do it. I'd release you if you wanted."

"But why didn't you?" Yukine insisted.

Yato frowned at the wall, his brows drawn together. "I think you're a good kid," he said after a short pause. "You just needed someone to give you the chance to remember that. And I'd like to work with you. We have an opportunity to build a partnership. Maybe it would work out, maybe it wouldn't. But we at least have the chance to try."

This did not really answer Yukine's question at all, but he swallowed hard and looked down at the ground again. Yato had been a thorn in his side from the beginning, but he had saved Yukine when he needed saving. He had believed in Yukine when no one else did, when the other shinki were advising him to release or kill him. Even after rescuing Yukine, he had left his door open instead of sending him away. These were kindnesses that Yukine did not deserve after all the trouble he had caused, and he…wanted to return the favor. He had told Mayu that he would accept the name and life Yato had offered him and do his best with it, and he had meant it.

"Okay," he said quietly. "I would like to try."