()

The morning of the first of January, Yato shakes Yukine by the shoulder. It takes a few minutes, but eventually the kid manages to peel his eyelids back and shoot Yato a squint of supreme suspicion.

"Get up."

"Where're you going?"

"A shrine. For New Year's. Come with."

"No." Still, Yukine sits up slowly, and Yato has to laugh. The kid's bedhead is legendary. "It's cold outside."

"Come on, don't be a spoilsport." He rattles the wine bottle full of yen coins. "Aren't you curious what this is for?"

()

The streets are crowded, and they're forced to press tight against other people. Out of old habit Yato keeps an eye on Yukine's hands, but they remain firmly ensconced in his pockets. Looks like nobody's starting the year a little poorer.

He steers them away from the big shrines, the flashily dressed ones with electric lights and crowds of selfie-taking girls in kimono jostling around them. He doesn't want to accidentally alarm anyone with what he's planning to do. Instead, he settles for one perched precariously at the edge of a busy intersection, clinging to the wall spider-like—there's a few visitors mingling around, but not too many.

"Here's good." He walks up the steps to the shrine, Yukine trailing behind. He adjusts his grip on the bottle's neck to make room. "Here."

"What?"

"Grab it. On three, we're going to smash. One—"

"Wait wait, what d'you mean smash?"

"I mean what I mean. We're going to break this open right here," he says, tapping the wooden slats of the offering box.

"But you're only supposed to put in one coin!"

Yato laughs. "Oh, even this whole bottle isn't close to enough for me. Trust me, Yukine, none of the gods are gonna be pissed off if you offer a little extra. Now, are you helping me or not?"

Yukine gingerly settles a gloved hand at the base of the neck, while Yato takes the lip. "Okay, ready."

"Ready."

"And one, two—"

They flip their hands like paddles; the fat bottom of the bottle goes sailing through the air and crashes into the wood, glass and coins sailing everywhere.

()

Afterwards, they sit in the park, watching people move by in torrid rivers.

A woman squeezes past, white purse dangling from her arm.

"Your fingers aren't feeling itchy, are they?"

"Shut up."

Smiling, Yato wonders where Hiyori is. Out with her friends, like so many of the young women here? Or perhaps she already paid her wishes at midnight.

Last year, she probably went out with her boyfriend. This year, will there be some other guy at her side? Or…

Well, not like it makes a difference—

"Um, Yato?"

"Yeah?"

"Earlier—when we were at the shrine—you said something about how the whole bottle wasn't enough money. Did you—do something bad?"

Yato feels his chest tighten up, like a screw being compressed. Guilt's a living thing. The first couple years in prison, guilt was anger, hot and defensive and always eager to leap up into a fistfight. That dulled into depression, hopelessness. After that came self-loathing, hot scratches on his legs; he still bears the scars from the worst of them. And for a long while there was numbness.

Now it's just something he lives with, a demon clinging to his back, silent for the most part, but prone to chattering loudly in his ear at the most inconvenient times. He faces it when he can and hides when he can't, and goes on with it draped over his shoulder like a sack of wet concrete.

He looks at the boy.

"I was in prison for eight years."

Yukine gapes at him, and Yato's almost glad of his punishing childishness, because he doesn't hesitate a second before asking, "Why?"

"Because I killed a man," says Yato heavily.

()

He's ten when he loses count of the foster homes, of the doorsteps and bedrooms and faces looming above him.

He's thirteen when he joins the gang out of viciousness and sheer boredom. He's skinny and cold-eyed as a shark, and his fingers fit around the hilt of a knife like he was born with one in his fingers.

Joyous times, then. Leaning backwards out of the sunroof of a car, spine against steel and the stars streaking by at a hundred miles an hour as marijuana smoke streams from his lips. Heart thrumming like a plucked guitar string, and the cop car wailing a jazzy countermelody behind them. Below, the boys cackle and bellow insults, hand him empty beer cans to toss at it. The abrupt crash of glass; lazily, Yato watches upside-down as the cop's window blossoms in a flurry of shards. Not so empty, that one. The car swerves, veers abruptly off the shoulder of the road, tumbles into a ditch. Cheers.

Under his pillow, he keeps a necklace box nicked from one of his previous homes. He flips the lid almost caressingly, licking his lips. There's the little flat set of razors, all shiny and new. Lithe exacto knives. Clunky box cutters.

The other boys nick Red Vines and lighters from the drugstore. Yato shakes his head, smiles, goes to the mall and peels the labels off new Vince Camutos, black leather, low heels, a gold plate like a warning sign over the back of his ankle. Walks out with them on; his old sneakers left behind in the case.

He does go to the drugstore, but alone, with three stolen cans of gasoline and a half-spent pack of matches. He breaks in with a baseball bat. No point in subtlety when five minutes later the place is a bonfire. They ask him why he risked it. He tells them they'll never catch him. "That boy is out of control," they say, admiringly, and he smirks.

He's only sixteen when they approach him, two twenty-something year-olds, right outside the gate of the school he rarely bothers going to. They tell him they've heard good things. He nods; of course. "Time to stop playing around with the kiddies," one of them tells him, and he couldn't agree more. He's done with those imbecilic little league high-schoolers, with their fists and their piss jokes and shaved heads. He's stylish, cruel, ambitious, smart.

He's eighteen when they press the gun into his hand and tell him it'll be easy.

It is—easy.

It's what comes after that's hard.

Not so smart, after all.

()

He's on his way out of the subway station when he hears someone call, "Hey, Yato!"

Right away he tenses.

"It is you, right?"

He turns, reluctant.

"Horada."

"Fucking hell, Yato. Where the fuck've you been?"

Yato laughs, a short bark. "Jail, mainly."

"Oh, yeah? What for?"

A flash of irritation. "Come on, Horada, you remember the thing with Taneguchi—"

It takes him a moment too long, and Yato realizes Horada's high. Of course.

"Oh! Oh, man! Ta-ne-guchi! That little shit!" He snickers; laughs too loud. "You got him good, man. Lemme tell you, you were a fucking legend. Just—boom. You were a crazy kid. Crazy."

"I know," says Yato.

"They just let you out? The justice system in this country's fucked—"

"No, I've been out for two years now."

"Good for you. Fuck the police, those bastards. Two years, though, why haven't we seen you around?"

"I'm done with all that," says Yato, pained-sounding even when he means to sound strong.

"…What d'you mean?"

"I'm going straight. I'm trying to find a job."

"…You're fucking with me."

"I can assure you I'm not."

"But you're Yato. I mean, you were the man. Everyone had you pegged for boss someday."

Yato laughs bitterly. "Oh yeah? Boss of what, the gang? A bunch of criminals? Sure, that'd be great. Listen, I'd rather not spend the rest of my life in jail."

"Whoah, man, didn't know you were such a straight guy all of a sudden. Way I remember it you weren't above cutting a bitch up. You still have your knives?"

"Sure. But I don't use those anymore."

Horada's shaking his head, looking at him coldly. "Look at you. Pinned up in a suit and broke to boot. You were a fucking king. And now you're ready to be some storeowner's bitch?"

"Those're fighting words there," says Yato levelly. "Watch your fucking mouth. I can go straight if I want to, and if you could get your head out of your ass you would too. The street'll fucking get you killed, or in prison—that's all it's good for."

Horada spits. "Fuck that pussy talk. When the hell'd your balls shrivel up? Some guy in prison cut your dick off so you could be his b—"

Yato still does have his knives; one of them is inside the breast pocket of his suit. It takes him all of two seconds to pin Horada against the wall. He always has been good with weapons.

Pressing steel into Horada's jugular, his blood thrums, and he's dizzy with a different type of hunger than usual. Anger sinks its claws into his back, howls at him to press in. You don't have to kill him, it offers. There's more fun things to do than that. And it's been so, so long, and he's tired of always giving in, always bowing his head, yes sir, no sir, thank you sir. Thank you for fucking what? His life is a shithole; he's homeless and hungry and he's fucking sick of being punished, over and over and over again for that one mistake a lifetime ago. He's sick of feeling worn, used, and he's sick of wondering when it's going to be over, when it's going to get better, because, despite everything, he's increasingly sure that it never, ever is. Sick of scraping life off the sidewalk in take-out boxes and cigarette butts, of the fact that he's twenty-eight but feels fifty; that he wasted the best years of his life behind bars and that he'll never taste Hiyori's kiss.

And against that, the simple, simple wish. Just one more time, to feel triumph.

In the rising storm, a small part of him cries out, someone stop me, please, God, anyone. Someone see.

And, miraculously, someone does.

"Yato?!"

He jerks, startled.

She is standing on the pavement, hovering at the rim of the circle of streetlight. Even now she smells faintly of violets, an incongruous breath of spring.

"What're you doing?"

Horada is breathing fast, eyes sliding between the two of them.

"Yato," she says, and now her voice is a warning. "Put him down. Whatever argument you're having, you don't have to fight about it."

"That's right," wheezes Horada. "Listen to your cunt girlfriend, and walk away."

Yato closes his eyes. Breathes hard.

()

He can see Hiyori's hand shaking as she sets her purse down behind the counter.

"Sorry for making you see that," he says.

"No, it's fine," she replies, but she's obviously angry.

He turns, makes to walk away.

"Yato."

She's glaring at him. "I know I don't have the right to say this, but don't ever do something like that again, okay?"

And he, he only has the right to nod.

How lovely she is. It makes him want to cry.

()

Things are a little awkward between them after that.

Not that Yato's going to delude himself into thinking they were best buddies before. But there's definitely a new sort of chill in the air.

It's the worst possible timing, really—his three-month reserved spot at the shelter expired at the turn of the year since he still hadn't found a steady job, so now he's just on the waiting list, like everyone else. Which means any night could be the last the shelter has room; the last he sees of Hiyori.

He does fully intend to find a job, though—and patch things up with her.

In the morning, as always, the sun peeks through its fingers, reaches out over the horizon, and stabs Yato right in the eye. He rolls out of bed, groaning softly. It's one of those days he feels like a grandfather, muscles aching, eyelids clogged with so much gunk that they don't open so much as unstick.

Yawning so massively he hears his jaw click, he stumbles into his nice clothes, fingers avoiding the ragged hole in the back of his shirt with practiced ease.

There's two police, one man and one woman, standing in the front room and talking to Hiyori.

"Hello, Yato-kun," she calls out, casual, shooting him a look.

"Hiyori. Officers," he says, bowing slightly to the little group. Eyes darting around the room. Think of something.

He takes a long drink from the water fountain, then walks straight back into the main hall. He hears Hiyori say brightly, "I don't think I've seen any kids of that age around…"

Steps quick-but-not-too-quickly down the long, long row of mattresses.

Knocking on the stall door, he calls out, "Yukine."

"Hm?"

"There's police here."

Yukine sits up abruptly, like some small animal that's been shocked.

There's a tiny window in the bathroom that hasn't been used in forever. Grunting, Yato eventually manages to lever the damn thing open, although the iron handle he uses to do it snaps clear off in a small cough-cloud of rust.

"Don't worry about it. Go," he orders, cupping his hands. Yukine's sneaker lands in his palms; he manages to get his elbows through the window, and with a little pushing from Yato squirms through the opening like an olive-coated puppy.

Yato pulls the broken window as closely shut as he can, and throws himself down onto Yukine's little pile of things in the stall, tucking the blanket around his legs and fishing his Bible out of Yukine's backpack.

About four minutes later, he hears footsteps in the bathroom.

He pokes his head out of the stall. "Oh. Hey."

"Beds not hard enough for you?" jokes one of the officers. She glances around.

"Don't like the dark," says Yato ruefully. "Is something up?"

"We're looking for a runaway. Have you seen a boy, thirteen years old, blonde hair and orange eyes?"

"A kid…? No, I haven't. There's a couple of, like, teenagers here—but I don't think any of them are blonde."

"Okay. If you do, can you tell one of the staff to contact us?"

"Sure thing. But I've been here a while and I've never seen kids…"

"And, by the way, it's against the fire code for you to be staying in here."

"Why, are people planning to escape through the bathroom?"

They don't seem to appreciate this much. "Just know you can't be camped out in here. There's room for you in the main hall."

"Crystal clear, officer."

He sits there after they leave the bathroom, making sure they've gone for good.

He didn't know Yukine was only thirteen.

()

Yukine's not exactly lingering around the entrance, obviously, but after an hour's gone by, Yato figures he'd better go look for him. He wanders up and down the streets, peering into convenience stores and down narrow alleyways.

Eventually, he finds Yukine sitting on a swing in an abandoned playground, perched among the ice-glazed plastic bones of the thing like the faery ruler of some small, forgotten kingdom.

There is something jarring about seeing a single child, alone, in a playground—something perhaps even more jarring than seeing a child, alone, in a shelter. Maybe it's just that Yato expects sadness, and suffering, and cruelty on the streets, that being alone, out there, is par for course. But even he knows what playgrounds are supposed to represent: happy mothers and cooing infants and mischievous children, shouts of laughter and scabbed knees and wars in which the only casualties are humiliation and victory means simply the chance to stand atop the jungle gym.

Yukine's too old for this, but then again, maybe no one's ever too old.

He crunches up the icy path; leaps onto the swing next to him.

"What are you doing?" mutters Yukine, as Yato plants his foot against the seat and pushes off like he's riding a scooter.

"If you're not swinging standing up, you're not one of the cool kids."

"… you look like a total dork right now."

"Stop complaining and come over here and push me."

Resentfully, Yukine shoves one of the chains. The swing twists madly, and Yato almost loses his footing.

"Cherry bomb!" Yato shouts, and jumps on the seat. There's a loud cracking noise as the shock reverberates through the chains and ice shatters all along the poles, like an animal shedding its fur.

"Oi!" shouts Yukine, ducking as ice shards rain down. "Careful, fatass, you're gonna break it."

"Maybe you're the fat one. Seriously, get your butt off that swing or start swinging, Yukine, so help me god."

"You're so immat—hey!"

"Move those legs, soldier." Yato grabs the chains on Yukine's seat, pulls them as far back as he can, runs all the way forwards. "C'mon, fattie, help me out here, I feel like I'm pushing Godzilla."

"Okay! Okay. Geez."

"Now stand up."

"Like hell! I'm going to fall!"

"You're not gonna fall. Just hold on to the chains."

"I swear to god, you're going to get me killed."

"Just try it?"

Ten seconds of fumbling later, Yukine tumbles straight off the swing.

"Shit!" Yato crouches in front of him. "You okay? Fuck, you've got blood all over mouth."

"I… think I bit mythelf."

"Oh, Christ, Hiyori's gonna give me hell for this. Did you bite your tongue?"

"Don't think tho."

"I guess there's that, at least. Shit. Shit. Sorry about that."

"Th'okay." The smile, although genuine, is bright red and more than slightly horrifying.

"…keep your mouth closed, for God's sake, before you scare someone to death, or get me arrested, or both. Come on. We should go back, they'll probably have something for your mouth."

Yukine shrugs, leans over and spits a glob of blood onto the ground. "'th not that bad. I don' wanna go back. Leth do something fun."

"…don't you think you've had enough fun for one day? Or should we go somewhere and get your arm broken, too?"

Yukine shrugs again, bends over to adjust his shoelaces, and two seconds later there's a handful of freezing snow being dumped down the back of Yato's shirt.

"You—"

After that, Yato figures if that brat's well enough to be chucking snowballs like a madman, he's well enough to get hit by a few.

()

They end up hanging around the city, drying their now-sodden coats beneath hand dryers in the subway station bathroom, flipping through old magazines left on seats, dancing haphazardly across the glazed surfaces of pavements and bridges and steps. Yukine picks dried flakes of blood from his lips and laughs more freely than Yato's ever seen before, pointing out flocks of squint-eyed pigeons fluffed up like cottonballs with childish abandon. In the end, they don't get back to the shelter until well after sunset.

They walk in and right away Hiyori is shaking her head and it's like that moment in the old cartoons, when the wily coyote, running full bore, looks down and realizes he's standing on air.

"Full?" asks Yato, stomach twisting and suddenly leaden. Honestly, he's surprised this hasn't happened earlier. At this time of year, the weather's terrible and nobody wants to stay on the streets.

"Not an inch of space left." Hiyori looks incredibly pained as she dredges something up from behind the counter.

Yukine's backpack. A sudden wash of buzzing numbness closes around Yato.

"I'm sorry," she half-whispers. "The manager got told off by the cops that were here. I barely managed to save your stuff, but if he sees you around there…"

Besides him, Yukine is suddenly a ball of worry. Small and ignorant and very thirteen.

"I'm so sorry," she says again.

"Don't be," he replies, although he can't quite wash the numbness from his voice. He wishes he could reach out and smooth the fold between her brows, ask her, "Haven't you realized you've already done enough?"

Instead, he settles for placing a hand firmly on Yukine's shoulder—"Yukine. Come on, take your stuff"—and steering him right back out the door.

()

Despite his best efforts, Yukine's sick by the end of the third day.

He crouches next to Yato, hugging his legs and coughing into his knees. A painfully wet sound that reminds Yato of a colicky infant.

Underneath the dead press of hunger and exhaustion, a blunt rage struggles along in Yato's chest, like an oil slick burning over deep water. Such a tiny kid, and yet there's not a single goddamn place in the city that has the space for him; it's not a paradox he has the patience for.

The cynical side of him says pityingly, if only you were a pretty woman, if only he were younger, maybe you'd scrounge up some sympathy. The rest of him stirs upwards as the metro arrives; pulls Yukine along and thinks of nothing at all.

They get two blessed hours on the Ginza line, rattling back and forth in the bone-cracking cold, polite announcements in Japanese and English bouncing over their heads like ping-pong balls. Yukine's head is against the window, then on his shoulder, then in his lap. Idly, Yato strokes his hair, like petting a cat. He can feel his pants getting wet with drool as the kid snores. He doesn't find that he minds—he's more concerned with the damp warmth of Yukine's forehead.

Two metro police step onto the line at Toyosu and shoot them a look. Yato rouses Yukine gently. They get off at the next stop.

Stepping out of the train, a coughing fit takes Yukine and shakes him to the floor.

Panic is a dull stab in Yato's chest.

()

Ten days.

That's the wait time he's been handed over the telephone line, like a stale rag of bread that's been worked over by rats, yet it's still the best offer he's had from any of the dozens of shelters he's called.

He clenches and unclenches his fist, breathes through his teeth. Thanks them and hangs up. Outside, Yukine is leaning heavily against the plastic of the phone booth, eyes glazed. The kid is definitely running a fever, and a high one at that. He needs hot food and, more importantly, a warm bed.

Yesterday Yato did manage to find a youth center that had room, but Yukine flat-out refused to go when he was told that the center only hosted people below the age of eighteen.

They fought right there, standing outside the gates. A public scene; well-to-do young couples and harried businessmen averted their eyes. Yato was too pissed at Yukine to care.

"Don't be stupid."

"No. You're not my parent. You can't make me go."

"I'll find somewhere else to stay."

"I don't care."

"Just for tonight. I'll be back to pick you up before you even wake up."

"No. I don't care."

"So you'd rather freeze to death?" snaps Yato. "Quit acting like a dumbass kid."

"So?" spits Yukine, hoarse from the cough. "This is nothing."

Clearly, it's not nothing; unfortunately, neither is Yukine's stubbornness.

Ten days is yet another luxury Yato cannot afford.

He steps outside the booth. It begins to snow.

()

Yato isn't proud of how fast he succumbs to the idea, of how he knows without thinking where to go. He's done this before, and he's not proud of that either.

It doesn't matter, he tells himself. This doesn't matter at all.

He parks Yukine at a café some distance away, although he doubts the kid is aware enough to pick up on what's happening. Shoves him down into a booth and orders a beef bowl. His fingers shake when he pulls the 1000-yen note out of his wallet—his last one.

"Stay here," he orders, sliding out of his clothes. Each layer lost is a brutality. Jacket, sweater, coat. Goose pimples spring up on his arm, hard and cold as barnacles. "Hey. You listening to me?"

"Mmmm?" he slurs.

"I'm leaving my stuff with you for now, okay? Make sure no one takes it. I got some food for you. I'll be back in like an hour or two."

"Where… goin'…?"

"Don't worry about it," says Yato smoothly, and just as he predicted, the kid's too caught up in his misery to make much of a fuss. "Just make sure to watch our stuff. I'll be right back."

When he leaves, the kid's got his head on his arms on the table, falling asleep.

It's not snowing, at least. Could be worse.

He heads to the same bar, out of habit. Even though it's only a few blocks away, by the time he gets there he feels like he'll never stop shivering. Inside it's instantly too hot, rank and loud and dark. Eurotrash techno music grinding in the background; what a cliché. There's a corner for boys and men like him. He throws himself into a ratty plush booth and tries to remember what carelessness looks like, recklessness, fearlessness; squashes his ice-pick fingers beneath his ass to hide the incessant shaking.

He doesn't know whether to be proud or ashamed that it only takes fifteen minutes, that he's standing up and heading to the back with a stranger before his skin has even recovered from its numbness. Then again, Yato thinks, maybe it's better that he's numb.

After that, he tries not to think anything at all.

()

He chooses one of the better internet cafes for them, a big one where the computer cubbies have benches instead of just reclining chairs and there's two shower stalls in the back.

While Yukine is in the shower, Yato trips over nothing and falls to his knees.

It's been over two hours since he left the bar, and he still can't feel his hands. Numbness seeps inwards, like troops slowly invading a fortress. He rubs his calves hard, but it's like touching a frozen wall; he barely feels the pressure from his own hands. He can't stop shaking, and his teeth chatter like they're holding an ovation.

When it's his turn he removes his boots carefully, wincing at the stretch as he bends down. The man wasn't unduly rough, but it's been a long time. He almost falls asleep under the hypnotic beating of the water, jolted to awareness by Yukine's small voice calling out, "Yato, are you still in there?"

Inside the booth he makes Yukine change into only an undershirt and boxers, then lets him sleep on the bench piled beneath both their coats, one of Yato's sweaters acting as a makeshift pillow. He's made the mistake of sleeping with all his clothes on in a heated space before; when he woke up and threw the blankets off he couldn't regulate his own body temperature for hours. Beneath his palm, Yukine burns, but he can no longer tell if that's because the fever's getting worse or because of the corpse-like quality of his own skin.

Flipping open his wallet, he fumbles through the bills, doing figures in a haze, and has to count three times before he manages to reassure himself no one's robbed them. Ninety-five hundred. Not enough for ten days, but hopefully Yukine will get better before then.

Then, Yato doesn't so much fall asleep as get dragged headfirst into it; he wakes up, disoriented and groggy and burdened with a piercing, ear-ringing headache some hours later. Going outside is like taking lashes to the back, but he does it anyway, stares at his stumbling feet and counts steps in groups of ten like a child until he reaches the drugstore. The lady at the counter looks concernedly at him. No doubt she thinks he's buying the medicine for himself.

By the time he gets back (God, it feels like hours and hours, his back aches and his head and he can't feel anything below his knees), he wants nothing better than to pass out in the booth next to Yukine. He pinches himself to stay awake, shakes the boy's shoulder.

"Hey. Yukine. Wake up for a sec."

"Mmmmph."

"I got you s-some medicine." Yato coughs into his hand, freezes. No. Not now… He shakes his head. He'll deal with it later.

"'m…not s…ick."

Yato laughs weakly. A little shit to the end. "Uh huh. Lie to somebody else, little man, you're not fooling me. It's just two pills. Open up."

Yukine swallows like a bird, staring bright-eyed and trusting up at Yato, and it occurs to him yet again how utterly responsible he is for this child. The panic that this fact arouses in his chest reminds him of being eighteen, again, and waking up to the police kicking in his foster mother's door.

Still, he knows which disaster he'd pick anyday.

"Go to sleep. I'll wake you up when you need to take it again."

Yukine's not the only one lying his ass off. Yato has no idea whether he can wake himself up in time for the next dose. He'll just have to try.

He settles in the big reclining chair, one leg tucked underneath him to relieve the pressure, and is out in seconds.

()

He does manage it, somehow. Six hours and two pills, then another six, another two. There's food at the café but the convenience store down the street is a hell of a lot cheaper. It's snowing again. The pizza and soup he buys is cool when he gets back; he heats it in the little microwave at the end of the aisle.

The lights on the display blur in and out. His breath stinks in that arid way it only seems to when you're ill. A small television screen is set to the weather—they're announcing it's the deepest freeze Tokyo's seen in thirty years.

Yukine gobbles down five slices with heartening gusto, shoves the rest at Yato.

"No," he mutters, "'m fine."

"Eat it," demands Yukine.

He manages a slice before he starts feeling nauseous, the smell of grease an insult. His hands are still cold. How long's he been inside?

Rolls back into sleep.

()

This time he can't get unstuck. Raising his eyelids is an impossibility.

He can feel something hard beneath his arms. Lying on the desk then.

He hopes Yukine's still taking those pills.

Black-out.

()

He burns.

Coughing. His breath rasps against his throat like a rock against sand, so painful he expects blood. When he swallows it hurts. It feels like his throat has constricted to the diameter of a ten-cent coin.

He has nightmares. Dreams he's in bed and there's spidery hands at the bottom, and he's trying to crawl away, but the bed stretches out and on and on and he can't move, the blankets are holding him back, and then even the demons are gone and all he knows is he has to keep moving, he has to get to the front, but it's so long. Hot flashes. Shivering spells. Sweat dries on his neck and douses him like ice.

Dreams of blood on sheets, blood on his hands. The voices of prisoners 51 and 53, his erstwhile neighbors.

"Yato?"

No, that's a kid. Yukine.

Freezing hands on his forehead. He tries to jerk away. Something pressed to his lips. He cracks an eyelid. Everything blurry. A glass? Tea. He swallows; it's hard.

It makes him feel better, but only for a second.

He freezes.

()

Blinks awake and panics.

He can't feel his arm.

Looking at it, it's still there, but there's no sensation in it whatsoever, and when he tries to move it it just lies there like a limp fish.

He opens his mouth but his voice is gone, and so, he realizes abruptly, is Yukine.

()

He wakes to aches sitting in every one of his bones, like a hotel at maximum occupancy.

Sits up slowly, in a cloud of sweat-smell.

He's lying in the middle of the largest, softest, whitest bed he thinks he's ever seen. One of those four-post affairs with a real headboard, cresting majestic as a wave of chocolate behind his head. The room is lit by a bay window covered in frost sworls.

"Yukine…?" His voice feels thick, gunky with disuse.

A few seconds later, a girl comes sweeping in through the door.

"You're awake!"

"Hiyori?"

()

She makes him drink an entire bowl of soup before they so much as hold a conversation.

"Last time," she says sternly, "you fell asleep before you could eat anything. So this time you're eating first and talking later."

Bewildered, Yato drinks too fast and burns his tongue.

"Um," he says hesitantly, rattling the spoon around to signify that he's done, "Where are we?"

"My house," she says crisply. "Well, not my apartment—this is my parents' house."

"Your parents?" he squawks, alarmed.

"They're not at home right now, so I figured why not? Anyway, you kind of threw up on my couch at my apartment, so we needed to move you to clean it."

"Oh. Uh, sorry," he mumbles, trying to piece it all together. Hiyori's apartment? He doesn't remember getting there, or here, for that matter. "Wh…re's Yukine?"

"School."

Yato eyes Hiyori suspiciously. "Am I awake?"

She laughs. "Yes, Yato-kun, you are. Finally—you've been out for half a week. You owe Yukine-kun an apology, you know. You scared him pretty badly." She leans in and stage-whispers, "Don't tell him I told you this, but he was crying when he showed up at the shelter. He thought you were going to die."

"He came to find you?"

"I guess he couldn't think of anyone else. Apparently the owner of the café was telling him you guys had to leave because you'd only paid for a couple days. And here you were with a 104 temperature and no money." She shrugs. "Well, there still wasn't room at the shelter, so I just took you to my apartment. We took turns with you, me during the day, as much as possible, and Yukine-kun at night."

"You said he's at… school right now?"

"Don't worry," she says. "It's a special school, for kids who've had trouble. They don't contact the parents as long as there's an adult to vouch for the situation. I signed for him."

"But don't they need proof for things like that?"

Hiyori blinks. "Well. I might have just… gotten one of my friends to sign as his caseworker…"

Yato stares. After a moment, she blushes fiercely and looks away. "I mean, it's not like she's not a real caseworker, so the signature's totally valid…"

Yato can't help grinning. "So we've corrupted you at last."

"Shut up! You'd better not tell anyone!"

"You're a hardened criminal now…" He coughs, catches his breath, continues, "First it's lying to the government, next you'll be evading your taxes and running cocaine—"

"—it's not like that—"

"Uh huh. Keep telling yourself that."

"…this isn't even fair; you're sick, so I have to be nice," she mutters.

"Seriously, though, Hiyori?"

"Huh?"

"Thank you. For everything. You didn't have to do this for us."

"Oh, it's… it's nothing."

There's a little awkward moment, where Yato suddenly realizes he's dressed in clothes that aren't his own, and has an extremely vivid vision of Hiyori undressing him.

"I—"

"Uh—"

"No, it's—I mean, what were you saying?"

"I was wondering if I could maybe use your, uh, shower?"

"Yeah, yeah, of course. Let me—"

"Thanks—"

"—show you, uh, it's over here…"

()

Hiyori hovers worriedly around him as Yato contemplates the stairs, a grand sweeping affair of a thing that goes on for centuries.

He makes it down the first few alright, but on the fifth step his feet catch and he stumbles forward. Hiyori grabs at his arm and pulls him back.

"Thanks. I guess I'm still…"

"You can—lean on me, if you want, I mean, need to…"

It's not as romantic as you'd think, hobbling down the stairs and clutching Hiyori's arm like an old woman and her cane, which Yato supposes is a good thing—he doesn't need for things to be any more awkward than they already are.

Her kitchen is full of vaguely menacing steel appliances that look like they belong on a spaceship. When she throws open the fridge, it's so bursting-full with food that it's mildly alarming. A sour smell wafts through the air.

"Ugh," she scoffs, looking slightly embarrassed. "They always forget to finish their food before going on vacation. Could at least throw it out, geez… Do you want anything to eat? A lot of stuff's spoiled, but we've got eggs, rice…"

"Just, uh, toast? I guess? I don't think I can't eat a lot right now."

"Toast and egg, coming right up!" she says cheerfully.

Slowly, Yato stands, looks out the window. The world outside is quiet and still as the moon; everything in sight is blanketed in white. A universe of paper cut-outs, interrupted only by the clean black line of the road. It's beautiful, if still a bit frightening. For now, at least, he likes it just where it is—on the other side of Hiyori's thick glass window.

From around the corner, a red crayon of a figure appears. Yato watches him approach. It's the first time he can remember seeing Yukine without his army-green coat; he wonders vaguely what happened to it.

He opens the door, calling out, "I'm home."

"Welcome back," says Yato.

"Yato?!"

Yukine skids around the corner and into the kitchen, moving so fast he almost slips in his socks.

"Careful, Yukine," warns Hiyori, setting the toast down on the table with a click.

Yukine just stares at Yato as if he's seeing a ghost.

"Looking good," says Yato, gesturing at Yukine's uniform.

"You're awake."

"Pretty much."

"Okay," he says shortly.

After a second, Yato moves his arm out slightly, waiting.

Yukine barrels into him, digging his fingers into the back of Yato's shirt, hugging so hard Yato half-expects bruises.

"You idiot," he wails into Yato's suspiciously damp shoulder.

I really am, aren't I?

All he can do is hug back, hard as he can with his still-weak arms, and say, "I'm sorry."

()

It's just past midnight; he can't seem to get to sleep.

"Maybe you've been sleeping too much," says Hiyori. She's sitting in the kitchen with him, doing paperwork, wearing pale-pink pajamas with a cat-print on them. Yato can't stop staring at her feet. Her toes are delicate as seashells, each one a miracle; if everyone had feet that looked like that, he thinks, wearing sandals would be a national ordinance.

"Probably," he says. It still hurts to talk too much, but it's getting better.

He pushes himself up.

"Hiyori—"

"What?"

He bows, as deep as he can, holding onto the edge of the table for balance. "You, too. I'm—I'm sorry. For causing you so much trouble. And making you do all of this."

"Yato." Her hands are on his shoulders; gently, she pulls him up. "Don't—you didn't make me do anything. I had to do it."

"No. I'm just—I'm nobody, really. There's no reason—"

"I wish you wouldn't do that."

"Do what?"

She bites her lip. "You always… talk about yourself like you're nothing."

Yato shakes his head. "That's, that's nice of you to say, but you don't get it. I'm really a criminal, you know, like for real. I was in jail. I did things, I even—"

She presses a finger to his mouth. "No. Stop. I do get it. You did some bad things in the past, right?"

He shivers, laughs bitterly. "That's an understatement—"

"But you can't—just—always think about that. You have to keep looking forward, and keep trying to get better. You know?"

"How?"

"Like this. Everything that's happened with Yukine, don't you think that's worth something?"

"I mean, it's not like doing a math equation, where one thing cancels out the other…"

"Of course not. But it's a good sign. And—for what it's worth, no one else helped him. It's not like you were alone in that shelter, but you were the only one who took the time. And after that, you stayed with him. That says something."

"I had to."

"You didn't—but you did. Just like I didn't have to help you, but I did; just like Yukine didn't have to come find me, but he did. Because we're trying to be good people. Sure, maybe we've made mistakes, or maybe we'll never be perfect. But we keep trying. Call me naive, but I think in the end, that's what matters. That's what you told Yukine, isn't it?"

"…more or less."

"See? Baka. You've got to listen to yourself, sometimes."

He closes his eyes. "I really thought I was going to die."

"You didn't, though."

"Yeah."

She looks out beyond him, through the window.

"Tomorrow, Yato-kun, let's build a snowman. It'll be our celebration."

"I don't know if I remember how."

She puts her hand over his, smiles. "We'll figure it out."

()

"—and then Kofuku-sensei told this joke—I don't remember, something about, like, a cactus or something—but it was really funny, and everyone laughed—"

"—I think someone's got the hots for teacher."

"Shut up, you perverted old man. I don't…"

When Yato just smirks at him, Yukine bustles over and punches Yato's head—or, more precisely, the beginnings of his snowman's head.

"Hey, watch it! That's his face!"

"You're not even doing it right. His head's supposed to be round, not, like, blob-shaped."

"…Fine, then, why don't you do it? You can use all those fancy geometry skills that Kofuku-sensei's probably been giving you special lessons on—"

"Oh my fucking god—"

"All right, you two, stop bickering already," calls Hiyori, stomping over in her snow boots. "How is it again that I've managed to finish the whole body and the head's still a pile of snow?"

"Sorry, boss," laughs Yato. "We're trying."

"Not very hard. Have you at least put the eyes in? Oh, god, this looks like something Picasso did."

"…That's supposed to be his nose, Hiyori."

"…What? No, where's the carrot I gave you?"

"We're using that for the horn, obviously."

"…so we're building a unicorn?"

"Snow people are very passé," says Yato as seriously as he can. "Get with the times, Hiyori."

After two whole hours of shouting at one another and Yukine ordering them both around imperiously, the snow… thing ends up being something that's about seventy percent woman ("look, obviously it's a woman, it's even got boobs") and thirty percent unicorn, but what matters is that the thing's a hundred percent ugly.

"There's something only its parents could love," pants Yato, surveying the Frankenstein's monster.

"This is so gross. We're gonna cause car crashes," says Yukine.

Hiyori dusts snow off her mittens. "Great. I'm going to get sued, aren't I?"

"I'm going to go get it a scarf," announces Yukine, plowing determinedly back towards the house.

"Scarf or not, it's really beyond redemption at this point."

"Yeah, nothing's gonna help this now." Hiyori stretches, putting her hands on her hips and arching backwards like an old man. "There's my workout for the week. Gosh, this was so much easier when I was a kid."

"We old folks just can't keep up."

"Tell me about it… It's good that you're feeling better."

"Thanks to you two. Although, I dunno, building this thing might put me back down for a week or two."

"Ugh, count me in. Yukine'll have to spoon-feed us both."

Her eyes, when she looks at him, literally sparkle. How do they do that, he wonders vaguely, how is she—so—

He realizes abruptly that it's been utterly silent for the last half minute or so.

"Sorry," he splutters. "You—look—really good today."

Massive internal wincing. God, how much creepier can it get—an older homeless guy who vomits in your apartment first and then proceeds to hit on you? Oh, god, what if she thinks he's just using Yukine to get on her good side? But it's not like he can bring it up without possibly making her suspect that in the first pl—

"Yato," she says, "I mentioned I don't have a boyfriend, right?"

"Y-yeah, um, you said that."

She sighs, loudly. "What I mean is, if you were to kiss me right now, there wouldn't be any issues."

There's a peculiar whining ring in Yato's ears, like someone just struck a tuning fork.

"Can I?"

Hiyori's eyes flit away. Through his utter haze of confusion, Yato notices that she's blushing. "That's what I just said, isn't it?"

"I just wanted to… make…"

He leans down slightly, testing the waters, and like magic, she turns her face towards his.

"Sure…"

The last part of the word is cut off by impact, the pillow-soft cushion of Hiyori's lips pressed against his own, like landing in a cloud. She tastes faintly of fruit. Somehow, her hands are on his shoulders, and he dares to touch her neck, her cream-smooth cheek, the line of her jaw with its bones fine as birds'. One part of him tells him that nothing he's done deserves this. It marvels that this lovely human being could accept this, could want this from him. But most of him just—marvels.

"What the hell…"

They leap apart like startled cats; the tips of her ears are bright pink and his own face doesn't feel so cool either.

Yukine is standing some ways away, staring at them like they've both personally betrayed him.

"I'm gone for five minutes, and look what happens," he complains.

Yato dashes a glance at Hiyori like a distress signal, but she's avoiding both their eyes—he can tell she's going to be of no help whatsoever.

Brushing brusquely past the two of them, Yukine throws the scarf over the snow-woman-unicorn's lopsided breasts.

"It's about time," he mutters fiercely, flicking the end of the scarf, and turns back around abruptly. Yato gets the acute sense that he's just as embarrassed as the two of them. "I'm going back now. You guys can do whatever."

Looking helplessly at Hiyori as Yukine stomps determinedly away from them, Yato makes a vague gesture that he intends to convey some sort of purposeful message, but just ends up looking like the sort of movement a deboned fish would make.

"Well…"

Hiyori looks at the snow, at him, away again. "I—" She breaks off, then suddenly grabs his hand. A shock of heat clambers up Yato's arm to rest somewhere along his collarbone; he thinks he can feel his pulse in his fingertips.

"Let's—go," she declares jerkily.

Together, they walk back to the house, hands linked like two mittens tied by a string.

In two weeks, the freeze will break, but right now, Yato feels like spring has already come.

()

Part two: fin.