”Blue Night ends today. How about you two sign a contract?”
After En had departed, it had only been moments before the reunited friends had breathlessly agreed to a partnership. They had raced to that little shack in the sky; Shin was perplexed by the difference between its internal and external dimensions. Then there was the bath, and the Blue Night t-shirts (what the hell was that all about?) before the meeting room, filled with more devils than Shin had ever seen until now. They made him uneasy, with their buzzing voices and leathery-looking wings, and it didn’t help any when one yanked open his chest and pulled out an organ he didn’t even know he had. But then he and Noi had signed each other’s contracts (as they were being passed back he’d gently shaken her hand, it seemed appropriate, and it made her laugh) and when it was reinserted he felt different, in a good way. Maybe it was just the first time since the explosion at Flower Smoke that he’d been truly happy.
Now they were back out under the stars. They wandered through the carnival, which was dwindling down to almost nothing as Blue Night drew to a close; Noi had grumbled at the sight of the empty pie carts. They were searching for a quiet spot to talk.
They ended up seated on a bench near a small park, watching the last few Blue Night beetles flitter away into the night sky. Shin could feel Noi thrumming with excitement next to him. She’d slipped her new suit jacket back on over the Blue Night shirt.
He wanted to break the silence, but he didn’t know what to say. After debating with himself for a few minutes, he settled for the obvious.
“So… partners, huh?” Couldn’t sound more awkward if you tried, dumbass. “What does that actually do?”
Noi considered for a moment. “I’ve heard stories that some sorcerers have known when their partners were in danger, even when they weren’t in the same place. Kinda like a sixth sense. But mostly it’s symbolic. Tells everyone else that they can’t lay a finger on your partner without going through you first.”
Shin blushed a little bit. That was exactly how he felt about his best friend.
“And for your partner”, she continued, “it’s a promise that you’ll always be by their side, no matter what. They can count on you for whatever they need. AND” - she fixed him with a stare that gave him goosebumps - “it’s a promise that you won’t avoid them for two days after you save their life.”
He sighed, feeling the guilt come back in a fresh wave. “You failed your exam because of me, Noi. You worked so hard for it! And then I had to go and ruin it.”
She turned towards him, and he thought he saw a look of shock on her face. He supposed he’d never gotten round to telling her his feelings on it. After that devil had winked into existence, vanishing Noi’s horns and tail into puffs of smoke, he had only yelled at her for throwing away her dream before storming off, leaving her in the ruins of the ramen shop. It had only been later that he’d properly reflected on his own role in it.
“I should have just died there -“
She slapped him across the face. It snapped his head to one side and he could hear a faint ringing in his ear as the shock of heat throbbed on his cheek. Apparently she’d kept the inhuman strength the Devil Exams had given her. Despite the difference in their size - he was a clear foot taller and twice as broad - she probably could have knocked his head clean off his shoulders if she’d wanted to.
Shin stared at her, utterly perplexed. “What the hell was -“
He stopped mid-sentence as he read her expression. Noi’s eyes were wide, and there was a noticeable tremble in her lower lip. But although it was uncharacteristically small, her voice remained steady when she spoke.
“Don’t you dare say those things! Not another word. It was my choice to fail, senpai. I did actually think about it before I healed you, you know! And having to give up devilhood was nothing - nothing - to what it would have been like to let you die. Devil or no, I couldn’t have lived with myself. Besides…” She looked down at her knees. “I think I would have been really sad even if I passed. At least this way I can still be friends with you.”
Shin wasn’t sure who was closer to crying, him or her. “Noi, I…” He swallowed down the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry. For yelling at you afterwards and for running away and… I’m glad I still get to see you as well. Probably see you day and night now, eh partner?” He gently bumped her shoulder with his own.
She snorted. “Yeah, you’re not gonna be able to shake me so easily now, senpai.”
Shin made himself picture the guilt breaking into little pieces, like he’d just hit it with his smoke. He watched it vanish into nothing.
“Thank you for saving my life. Again.”
She looked happier, and the silence between them resumed, but Shin didn’t feel uncomfortable this time. A short time passed before Noi spoke up.
“I do miss the horns, though.”
He smiled sadly. He had seen the duct tape she’d shoddily positioned over the holes in her mask earlier. “What about the tail? I thought that was pretty cool.”
Noi huffed. “So did I, until it got caught in a door. Felt like it was gonna rip right off.”
He laughed. It was easy to picture. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Hey, you try walking around with an extra limb hanging off your ass, senpai!”
Shin was still chuckling, but that reminded him of something else. “When are you gonna stop calling me senpai, anyway? You never did before, and I’ve only got a year or so’s experience over you.”
Noi grinned toothily. “Nuh-uh. En told you to show me the ropes. That means you’re my knowledgeable senpai, and I’m your adorable young junior.” She framed her hands around her face in a cutesy heart-shape.
Oh I see, it’s a wind-up. Well, you won’t win that easily.
“Guess I’ll have to be your boss for the time being then. That’ll be fun. Think you would have told me to go fuck myself if I tried to make you do something before.”
“Don’t you worry. I won’t tell you ‘go fuck yourself’. I’ll tell you ‘go fuck yourself, senpai.’” She beamed and he couldn’t help but laugh again. Little devil.
“Seriously though, I do need you to show me what to do. What’s being a cleaner actually like?”
“You didn’t ask En that before you signed on?”
Noi shrugged. “Well, Duston told me I’m still gonna be really strong, and my magic works well for it… plus, you enjoy it, right? I thought it’d be worth a try.”
He thought about it. The only issue was the killing, but Noi’s cheerful exterior hid a surprising capacity for violence, and a need for competition which often spilled over into bloodlust not unlike his own. Occasionally some moron had tried to get pushy with her when they’d been having lunch in Flower Smoke. He’d always ended up wiping what was left of them off the floor afterwards.
“Yeah, you’re kind of a perfect fit, actually. It’ll certainly make it a lot easier for me, having an on-site medic.”
She frowned. “I’ve seen the kind of war wounds you come limping into the restaurant with. You’re not allowed to get worse ones just cos I can fix you up now, ok?”
“Why not? I trust that my capable partner will keep me safe.” She pouted at him, making him grin. “I know my limits, Noi. You don’t have to worry about me; worry about yourself instead.”
Shin considered what he’d use his newly-appointed ‘senpai’ status to teach Noi. Maybe some discipline for all that might .
“First thing I’m showing you is the gym. A good exercise regime is the most important part of the job - it’ll help you get big and strong, like your senpai.” Smirking, he waited for the explosion, which came seconds later as she wheeled round to him, mouth agape.
“I’m stronger than you RIGHT NOW! Come on, arm wrestle, you and me, right here! I’ll beat you!”
“Oh, you are SO on. Come on, let’s go!”
Shin jumped up from the bench, taking Noi’s hand and dragging her towards a picnic table a few metres away. He slid over the table, taking a seat on the far side, and waited for Noi to sit down too. In the glow of the streetlamps, he thought he saw what looked like a slight flush on her cheeks.
“You alright? What’s wrong, afraid of losing?”
“I’m fine, you just… I’m fine.” Her expression suddenly hardened into what he recognised as her game face. It might have made a lesser man flee in terror. He grinned back at her, and they brought their hands up in the centre of the table. Noi’s hand looked tiny in his own as her slender fingers curled around his calloused palm.
“From three, then?” She nodded. “3, 2, 1!”
He pushed against her with all his strength, and was glad that he hadn’t been tempted to go easy on her. Despite her small hands and slim wrists, it was like trying to push down a brick wall. She narrowed her eyes and the pressure on his arm increased, until it was taking all of his strength just to keep her from pushing him down. But he persevered, gritting his teeth, and ever so slowly, their linked hands descended, with Noi losing inch after inch to his force. It was still at least a full minute before she eventually gave out and their hands hit the table with a bang.
“DAMMIT!” she yelled, folding her arms crossly across her chest as Shin whooped in triumph.
He grinned as he stepped back around the table to sit beside her, savouring the victory. “Aw, don’t worry, Noi. I’ll show you how to get stronger. I don’t think I can help you get any bigger, though.” He patted the top of her head, ruffling her neat, straight hair, and he could almost see the steam coming out of her ears.
“WELL, Duston said to me there’s a lot of excess energy in my body right now, from the exam. So I AM gonna get bigger, senpai. I’ll get bigger than you and I will NEVER let you forget it!”
“All the more reason to hit the gym, then. I’m only teasing you, but I’m serious about exercise. If it’s like you say and you’re brimming with devil energy, you should use it to build up those muscles! Imagine how strong you’d get and how hard you could hit someone if you put on as much as I did when I started working for En.” He flexed his arms in an exaggerated strongman pose, making Noi giggle.
“I do like muscles.” She looked thoughtful, tapping her chin. “And then next time we arm wrestle, I’m gonna put you THROUGH the table, senpai.”
He chuckled at the fiery gleam in her eyes. “Hey, if you put in the work, I’ll be happy when that day comes.”
That gleam slowly changed to a mischievous glint. “Anyway, you can't claim it was just the gym that changed you, senpai. You went from eating out of bins to having 3 courses at fancy restaurants.”
“Excuse you, I did not eat out of bins… regularly. I mostly dined and dashed, as you should well know.” He smiled fondly at the memory of their first meeting. “Ok, fine then, exercise AND diet matters. Probably not a concern for you, you’ve always eaten enough for two Nois.”
She pretended to be affronted. “Are you calling me fat, senpai?”
“No, I’m calling you greedy. That’s not an insult. Deep down I’m still a street boy; I can eat whatever’s in front of me until there’s nothing left.”
Noi’s grin widened. “Must be really deep down, senpai. Cos you sure don’t look like a street boy anymore.”
He was confused. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“No! You used to look so cool . That skinny frame, those wild eyes that said I’ll fucking kill you if you touch me , and your lovely long hair… now you look so normal. You have glasses and your hair’s all short. You even wear suits!”
Much to his chagrin, he’d started to flush at the mention of his hair. After En had presented him with his devil-made mask, he’d chopped it all off. Damn thing just wouldn’t fit it all inside it. He was envious of whatever black magic Noi had worked into her mask that kept her long, straight ponytail so immaculate. Now he was the one feeling indignant. “Hey, what’s wrong with suits?! Didn’t you show up tonight in one?”
She snickered at his red face. “I only did it to match you. Your suits are just so… plain. Do you know what En said to me before we came here?” She worked her face into a stoic frown, dropping her voice into a passable impression of Shin’s - no, their boss’s solemn monotone. “Shin is a good teacher and a better cleaner, even if his wardrobe is sorely lacking. That man must have 5 copies of the same outfit.”
His outrage must have shown on his face, because Noi burst out laughing. “Sorry, senpai, but he’s right! En may be a piece of shit, but you can’t fault his fashion sense.”
Shin couldn’t stay annoyed for long. Hearing her laugh like that brought a smile to his face. Then he registered something she’d said.
“You wanted to match me? How sweet of you…”
“No, dumbass, I just said that it’s boring, but as your junior-“
He drowned her out. “As my attentive junior, hanging off my every word, you decided to imitate your senpai totally…”
Both of them were loudly talking over the other.
“If I wanted to imitate you totally I’d start working as an accountant to capture your aesthetic!”
“You’d have to buy a pair of stilts first.” He ruffled her hair again, sending the little blue bow bouncing back and forth, and in retort she punched him in the side. It knocked the air out of his lungs and he had to pause, doubling over and wheezing for breath as she giggled apologetically.
“Well, that’s what you get for being mean about my height. I told you, I’m gonna grow taller than you and then you’ll really be sorry.”
He managed to choke down enough air to straighten up. “Well, at the very least it won’t be long before I’m sorry every time you hit me. I think you cracked one of my ribs.”
She looked mildly surprised. “Oh, I didn’t mean it to be that hard. My bad, senpai, lemme patch you up.”
Noi cupped her hand and exhaled a small cloud of black smoke into it, before raising it back up to her mouth and sending it towards him with a puff of air, almost like blowing a kiss. As it wreathed his face, he felt it enter his body and that itching, burning sensation of Noi’s healing started in his chest, still unfamiliar after her year of abstinence. Seconds later, the pain was gone, and he felt as good as new.
“Ah, it’ll be good to have you at my back in a fight. We make a great team already. I’m excited to be working with you, Noi, really.”
She nodded, eyes sparkling. “We’re gonna have a lot of fun together, senpai. Just you wait and see. The whole city’s gonna be talking about Shin and Noi, the best cleaners in the country.”
Shin chuckled dryly. “That means we’d have to leave enough people alive to be able to tell the stories. I don’t know about you, but I’m not letting a single one get away.”
She grinned. “I bet I get more bad guys than you.”
“Well you’ve got a year of catching up to do first. I’m always gonna be ahead.”
“Head starts are cheating! You gotta start counting from now.”
They continued to bicker and tease, already placing bets and determining competitions. By now, the faint pinks and oranges of dawn had begun to wipe the last of the night away from the sky. Blue Night had passed, but Shin hoped that the partnership he and Noi had forged would last for many more.