Yukine stared at Kofuku's shrine in front of him, feet rooted to the ground. A handful of black dots appeared at the edges of his vision and slowly spread inwards, and he had to remind himself to breathe until they receded. His hands trembled in fists at his sides, nails biting into his palms.
It shouldn't be this hard. He had walked up to this shrine and gone inside a thousand times before, even if he'd visited only infrequently over the past year. It was just a building, and Kofuku and Daikoku would be waiting inside, just as kind and loving as always.
He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, gathering his nerve. All he had to do was put one foot in front of the other, grasp the knob, go inside. There was nothing scary about that. Nothing to make his heart squeeze tightly in his chest or his breath come in shallow gasps. But he wasn't scared of what he'd find inside at all—he was scared of what he wouldn't. He was scared to see again what was missing, the hole left gaping wide in a once familiar space. He was scared that the pain of it would bring him to his knees, open every last scar and send him spiraling again.
That hole followed him everywhere these days because it was, in truth, a hole in his heart. But to come back here, where they had been happy and together, where their voices and laughter still rang in cheerful echoes, where ghosts still lingered… He was afraid it would hurt more, that the hole would yawn wider. He was afraid that all the slow, painful progress he'd made over the past year would crumble back to nothing when he was faced again with everything he was running away from.
"Are you alright?" Kazuma asked from behind him.
Yukine nearly jumped out of his skin, his feet springing back to life as he spun around. "You– What are you doing here?"
"Sorry." Kazuma cleared his throat and looked supremely uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot. "I didn't mean to startle you. You were just upset, and I wanted to make sure…"
Yukine looked away. "I'll keep myself under control. I won't hurt Bishamon."
"That's not…" Kazuma sighed and stepped forward to rest a hand on Yukine's shoulder. "I know it's hard. I just wanted to be sure you made it here okay. Do you want me to come in with you?"
Yukine swallowed hard and closed his eyes against the beginnings of tears burning at their corners. He didn't know how he would have survived the past year without Kazuma's friendship and guidance. It was lucky they had worked out their grudges before…everything. Whatever Kazuma's past mistakes, he had stood by Yukine through everything, making sure he found his way.
"Thank you," Yukine managed. "But no. I need to do this myself."
Kazuma squeezed his shoulder. "Of course. But if you want to talk about it once you're done, I'll be waiting back home. Just let me know how I can help."
That was what Yato had always told Yukine to do: talk about what was bothering him to get support or comfort or advice instead of dwelling on it until it spiraled out of control. Yukine had never been able to open up like that to anyone other than Yato and Hiyori, but he still held the advice close to heart. He might not be able to bring himself to share everything with Kazuma, but he could at least acknowledge that he was upset about it. Kazuma already knew that much anyway.
"Sure," Yukine mumbled. "I'll see how it goes."
Kazuma smiled a little sadly and stepped back. "Good luck."
Yukine nodded once and turned away. With Kazuma's gaze boring into his back, he found the willpower to march up to the shrine and knock on the door. Enough procrastinating. He would only make things worse.
The door swung open so fast that he wondered if they'd known he was there all along, waiting on the other side for him to gather his nerve.
"Yukki!" Kofuku chirped. "It's so good to see you. I'm glad you could make it."
She threw her arms around him and hugged him with genuine warmth. When she leaned back, she smiled sadly and brushed her fingers along the sleeve of his jacket before letting her hand fall away.
Yukine tugged his jacket tighter around himself self-consciously. It had been a long time since he had worn the green, hooded jacket that had been his favorite and colored so many of his winter memories, but he had made a snap decision this morning to make an exception today.
"Come in, come in," Daikoku said, ushering Yukine inside. "We have food and…"
He and Kofuku exchanged an uncertain look.
"We aren't sure how you want to do this," Kofuku admitted. Despite her warm greeting, she looked tired and careworn, and her eyes were sad. "If you want to talk about Yato-chan or just…"
Yukine's throat closed up again. "No," he croaked. "Not really."
Kofuku hesitated only a moment before nodding. "Of course. Well, we have lunch ready, so why don't we eat and chat? You can tell us what you've been up to lately. I'm sure we've missed a bunch. You haven't visited often enough."
Yukine looked away, ashamed at the reminder of how he'd neglected his friendships here, and followed her into the kitchen. Daikoku dished out food while Yukine and Kofuku settled themselves at the table.
"So, how have you been?" Kofuku asked, striving for normalcy. "Have you been getting on with the team?"
"Yeah, I guess," Yukine muttered, pushing his food around his plate unenthusiastically. It tasted like ash in his mouth. "I go out with them sometimes, and the rest of the time I'm free to do pretty much whatever I want. I've been getting better at it lately, even if it still feels weird."
After being Yato's one and only, it had been a challenge getting used to being just another cog in the well-oiled machine coordinated by Kazuma and Bishamon. Yukine was not suited to teamwork. He preferred a one-on-one partnership. But he didn't have that luxury anymore, and he had been slowly learning how to adjust. He had refused to even try at all in the beginning, but Kazuma had eventually coaxed him out and become a mentor again, working with him to iron out his kinks and fit into his place in the team. Yukine still more or less hated it, but at least he was capable of doing the job when he needed to.
But he honestly did not want to talk about himself at all, or about his new life. Not here in the ashes of his old one.
"And what trouble have you been getting into?" he asked with a thin smile, his amusement threadbare.
Kofuku bit her lip and exchanged a look with Daikoku, but obligingly chattered away and carried the conversation so that Yukine didn't have to. It was kind of her.
"We wish you would come by more," Daikoku said gruffly as things began winding down and they gathered up empty dishes. "It's not the same…"
Yukine looked away. It would never be the same again. He still found it too painful to come back most of the time, but maybe that would ease if he started coming more frequently. Kofuku and Daikoku had been most obliging about meeting him at other places every once in a while, but he had not kept up with them as much as he should have. And… He missed them too. Maybe his loss was only compounded more by throwing away the people he had left as well.
"Maybe…" He took a deep breath and forged on before he lost his nerve. "I was thinking I might start picking up some shifts in the shop again? I have some free time around whatever I do for Bishamon and…"
He was not sure this was a good idea at all, but Kofuku's and Daikoku's faces lit up like Christmas trees.
"That sounds wonderful, Yukki!" Kofuku said. "It would be nice to have you around more."
"As long as it's not interfering with your work with Bishamon," Daikoku said. "We'd love to have you back. I could use a hand. Kofuku does more harm than good when she tries to help."
"Daikoku, that's mean!"
Yukine looked away and swallowed hard. It seemed suddenly suffocating in here, with their hope and concern and melancholy weighing down on him.
"Can I–? Would it be okay if I…went upstairs for a few minutes?"
He could almost feel them exchanging looks as he stared down at the table.
"Of course," Kofuku said gently. "Go ahead. And… You know that you're welcome to come over any time, right? Even just to visit upstairs. You still have a place here."
Yukine nodded. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Maybe I'll come more. Help with the shop, you know."
"That would be nice. Go ahead, now. But say goodbye before you leave!"
Yukine scrambled for the stairs, but he found his feet dragging slower and slower as he neared the top. He hesitated just outside their old attic room, steeling himself, and then pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The room was nearly bare now. The small table that he used to do his homework on was still there, but most everything else was gone. He had taken his clothing and books and lamp with him when he moved out, and Yato had left very little behind. The futons were hidden away in the closet, ready and waiting in case he ever wanted to stay over again. The table was free of dust, and Yukine wondered if Kofuku or Daikoku still came in here to clean sometimes, or to remember. Or if they, like him, preferred to stay away.
He had come back, of course, on occasion, but only a few times. He usually did not venture up the staircase and brave the empty silence smothering their old room. It felt barren now, and cold. There was little sign of life here anymore, little left of them in it. Yukine could only ever see what was missing, and the space Yato left yawned wide here. Yukine could so easily see him sprawled across his futon, furtively drawing capypers on homework assignments, or perched on the windowsill to look out at the night when he thought everyone was sleeping. Yukine could almost hear the echo of his laughter and teasing and childish whining bouncing around the room.
But those were only daydreams. There was nothing left here for him, and it made him feel lonelier than ever.
The only thing left of Yato here was his shrine, perched on the windowsill where its god used to sit. Yukine had taken the cash bottle and cellphone with him when he moved out, but the shrine had stayed here. It had not been his decision, although he had more or less made his peace with it now. Kazuma had put his foot down about bringing another god's shrine into Bishamon's home, worried that Yukine would obsess over it and drag out the grieving process and hurt Bishamon more than necessary. Kofuku and Daikoku had sided with him, saying it would make it harder for Yukine to adjust to his new life with a new god and family if he was still tethered so strongly to his old one. They had promised to keep the shrine here for him with an open door so that he could visit whenever he liked.
Yukine had not taken it well. It had taken him a long time to forgive them for it.
But now he left it alone here without complaint. It was the single most painful reminder left. The symbol that Yato should have had a believer, should not have been forgotten. And Hiyori was carved into every line. Her hands had touched every piece. They were both gone now, leaving behind this broken promise of what should have been.
As usual, Yukine's heart seized and turned over at the sight of it.
He slipped his hand into his pocket, and his fingers curled around a cool metal disk. He ran the pad of his thumb over every dip and groove of the coin before pulling it out and approaching the shrine. Although he did not come up here often, he always made sure to have a five yen coin when he did. Yato would have liked that.
"I wish you were here," he said, his voice low and husky to his own ears. "I remember you, and I wish that was enough."
As he stepped forward to place the coin at the base of the shrine with the handful of others he had brought over the past year, a plank creaked beneath his foot and seemed to wobble. He looked down with a frown, sliding his foot back and forth along the edge of the board and pressing at it. It rocked slightly under the shifting pressure.
He could have walked away just then and forgotten the small oddity. He had never noticed a loose floorboard before, but it was hardly a grand mystery and nothing that warranted investigation. But because the shrine hurt to look at and he would seize any opportunity to distract himself from the grief lingering in every corner, he crouched down and poked at the loose board. When he worked his fingernails along the side and wedged a finger underneath, it lifted up easily.
Underneath was a small hollow, and inside that hollow was a book. Yukine stared at it for a long time and then shoved the board aside to rest on the floor. The book was small and bound between black covers. No title graced the cover, and Yukine had never seen it before. It could be Kofuku's or Daikoku's. But it surely was not.
Yukine settled into a more comfortable position on the floor and opened the book slowly. The pages were lined and without printing: a notebook. Yato's spidery scrawl peered up at him.
He slammed the notebook shut, his heart pounding wildly in his chest, and closed his eyes. He had never once seen Yato writing in this, or writing much of anything at all besides doodles on unattended homework pages. What could possibly…?
He wished he had never found it. But it was such a gift to find something left over from Yato. He wanted to bury it back beneath the floorboards and never venture here again. He wanted to rip the book open and read it cover to cover this instant, soaking it all in.
Slowly, slowly, he opened the cover again.
For Yukine and Hiyori, who keep whining that I have too many secrets and they don't know me at all. Maybe I'll show this to you one day. Or maybe not. Probably not. But if I do, and if you like a good puzzle, then maybe you can figure out how to jigsaw it all together.
Yukine swallowed hard, and it felt like he was choking. His gaze slid over Hiyori's name like oil on water, but he stared down at his own. For him. From Yato. Something to help him understand. And he had never even guessed.
He flipped through the notebook, his gaze skimming across the pages as he took stock of what he'd found. Yato's handwriting covered the pages, a sentence or two here and there or the occasional paragraph. Just small snippets of things scribbled whenever he had a moment.
Nora was my first shinki. Father gave her to me and I named her Hiiro, and I didn't really understand at the time because I was a child, but I was the one who made her into a nora. Maybe that's why I always felt so…responsible.
I've always known capypers aren't real, but it's just so much fun to watch Yukine rolling his eyes and Hiyori making him shut up so that he doesn't ruin my pure, innocent belief.
I'm supposed to be the strong one, the one who holds us together when we're falling apart. And normally it's fine because they're really just kids and someone has to do it, but it gets so exhausting sometimes. I don't always feel strong, but I can't just fall apart. I don't want to be strong right now.
The purpose of a god is to fulfill wishes. Humans aren't supposed to grant our wishes. But Yukine and Hiyori have granted mine. Yukine has become the companion and guidepost I always wanted, and Hiyori became the believer I needed and gifted me the shrine I never had. They mean everything to me.
I wonder what it will be like to disappear. I was never really all that afraid of dying, although I'll fight to my last breath to avoid it, but disappearing like you never lived at all… That sounds terrifying.
A strange, strangled sort of sound worked its way out of Yukine's mouth. His stomach twisted and heaved, and he thought he might be sick. He pressed his fingers to the word 'disappear' until it blurred and wavered and he had to blink back tears.
Had Yato been terrified in those last few moments before he vanished? Or had it been instantaneous, without leaving him time to be afraid? Yukine would never know, because he hadn't been there. Hadn't even realized the truth until it was much too late.
He had already known Yato was afraid of vanishing, but it was still a knife twisting in his gut. He wished he had been there for Yato. He wished he had been able to say goodbye.
Mostly, he wished that it had never happened at all.
Yukine wished again that he hadn't found the book, but only for a moment. He wanted to sit here and read the whole thing cover to cover, or maybe take it back with him and only read one page at a time, stretching it out over weeks or months to savor these last few pieces of Yato he had left. He was afraid it would break him.
Nearly three-quarters of the notebook was filled with Yato's scribbles, some pages mostly blank with only a sentence or two and others covered margin to margin. Just from skimming, it seemed like there was no rhyme or reason to the things Yato had written. They were in no kind of order, not obviously connected to each other. Just a handful of puzzle pieces Yato had left behind. Yukine didn't know yet if he could fit them together or if there were too many missing.
It hurt. It hurt so much, like Yukine's heart was being broken all over again. But it was also the best, most bittersweet gift Yato could have left behind.
Yukine itched to pore over every last word, but he was also afraid, too paralyzed to flip back to the beginning and immerse himself. Instead, he hunched over himself, curling around this precious, painful book, and cried.