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Four Years

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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.”

“No, no…”

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.

Chapter Text

Blue Night felt like it lasted a lot longer than last time, but Shin supposed he hadn’t been as involved back then. Now, as a well-established member of the En family, there were certain duties expected of him. He had spent the last 24 hours inspecting table arrangements (he didn’t even know there were that many types of fork), sampling the buffet (he and Noi had made themselves sick after challenging each other to eat as much as they could in 5 minutes), and his least favourite, sitting through an exhaustive play on the origins of Blue Night. He still didn’t know the story, probably because after a couple of hours he’d begun to find the clouds in the evening sky more interesting. When he’d shot a look at the rest of the group, even En looked like his eyes were glazed over. 

Another reason he was paying more attention this time around was his partner. Noi had started getting excited about renewing their contract (they hadn’t even needed to discuss it, of course they were staying together) weeks ago. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and in the days before the Night he had begun to feel excited himself just looking at the joy on her face. 

The contract process was far less rushed this year; Noi had insisted that they sign theirs towards the beginning of the event, so that they had time to explore the carnival properly. Shin had agreed, happy to close off the possibility of being jumped by one of his many applicants. The devils didn’t make him feel quite as uneasy as the last time he’d been inside that bizarre hut, and soon he and Noi were officially partners for another 4 years. She’d shaken his hand formally, making him recall their first contract, and he couldn’t help but smile at the broad grin on her face. 

Instead of a quiet park, this year they were wandering busy alleys packed with stalls, the sounds of bustling crowds and the smell of hot food enveloping them in a warm buzz. They paused as Noi considered a stand displaying handbags, and at her side Shin looked at his partner, still marvelling at how she’d changed over the last 4 years. 

Gone was the small, slender teenager whose contract he’d signed back then. If anything, Noi had understated how much energy was left over from the Devil Exam - it had been like she’d hit a second puberty, and about a year after they started working together Shin had begun to regret all those jibes about her height. She had shot up, inch after inch, growing from the level of Shin’s ribs to match his 6’5 frame. For her part, Noi had not been content to simply allow her body to grow unsupervised; he was proud of how dedicated she’d become to their gym sessions, and she had steadily built up her physique until her rippling muscles challenged his own. And that was just visually. Noi’s raw strength easily outstripped him now. He thought about that final arm wrestle, nearly a year back, when she’d fulfilled her promise and sent his arm smashing through the wood of the table. It had fractured his elbow, but the pain had felt like nothing as he saw the triumph on her face and her own pride in how she’d grown.

Her taste in clothing had evolved somewhat, to suit her new figure. Along with En, they’d been fitted for new outfits appropriate for prominent, high society sorcerers; Shin had asked for a black dinner suit with a waistcoat he thought looked fancy enough, but En and Noi’s disappointed stares had spoken for themselves. Noi, meanwhile, had asked for her own suit in a fetching shade of lavender which went well with her hair (despite the constant criticism, Shin felt he could appreciate colour combinations; he just didn’t like how they looked on him). That hair, although long as ever, was now tousled and wild. Neither of them were quite sure how it had happened - maybe something to do with losing the little blue bow that had once held it together in a particularly scrappy fight - but one day it had simply refused to lie straight. Perhaps that was devil energy, too. Noi’s jacket was accented with inverted silver crosses, which she’d matched with those dangly earrings she seemed so fond of; how those things never snagged on her mask was a mystery to him. They jingled quietly as Noi stretched her arms over her head, yawning conspicuously. Just like last time, she’d swapped her dress shirt for that silly Blue Night t-shirt, which was now riding up enough to expose a strip of pale skin. She noticed, grumbling as she tugged it back down. 

“Seriously? This was the biggest size they had. How did I fit into a ‘small’ 4 years ago?”

Shin chuckled. “I’m not surprised. Your shoulders must be massive compared to how scrawny you used to be.”

Noi giggled, clasping her hands behind her back. “I don’t think it’s my shoulders, senpai.”

He was confused. Why was she jutting her chest out like… oh, fuck. How had he never noticed those before? Of course he’d seen that Noi’s growth spurt was affecting more than just her height, but her new muscles did a good job of distracting from how… big she was. Until she did something like that. Now he couldn’t look away. 

Shin knew he had absolutely no chance of stopping the surge of heat to his cheeks. I must be lit up like a stoplight.

He hastily cleared his throat, managing to tear his eyes back to her face. There was a broad grin plastered on it. Noi was not unaware of her ability to embarrass him ( how did it happen so easily? It had never been like that before) and made the most of any opportunity to turn him red. 

Then Noi’s eyes seemed to light up, as if a switch had been flipped. “Hang on, Shin-senpai…” Her hands were suddenly on his shoulders, and he stumbled forwards as she pulled him closer to her. Shin wasn’t sure if she was still unaware of just how much her strength had increased, or if she was just incapable of doing anything gently. His momentum was halted by an iron grip as she stopped him a scant few inches from her. 

“Noi, what are you-“

“Shhhh! Stay still, senpai. No, stop slouching, stand up straight.”

She seemed to be studying the top of his head. Shin wished she hadn’t just made him aware of her chest, which was almost brushing against his. He forced himself to focus on her eyes. They were a very specific shade of crimson, one that reminded him of how every Cross-Eye’s blood looked as it dripped from his hammer. It was a shade that tinted his dreams. Wait… were their eyes actually level?

Noi leaned back triumphantly. “YES! Finally! I’m taller than you, senpai!”

He was shocked. “No way. No, your shoes are boosting you up!”

She brought her face close to his, those scarlet eyes smugly narrowed. “Nope, there’s too much of a difference… I. Told. You. So.” 

Shin was turning away before she finished the sentence, shaking his head. The heat had faded a little from his cheeks, but Noi’s teasing ensured they were still flushed. He started walking away and she followed, gloating so much that he was smiling in spite of himself. 

“Oh, I will NEVER forget tonight, senpai… the night I finally overtook you! Is it still right to call you senpai, when you’re soooo much smaller than me? Ooh, perhaps if you eat your veggies you’ll grow up big and strong like me…”

Shin burst out laughing at that, turning round to face her. “YOU don’t even eat your veggies!” 

That made Noi laugh as well. He liked how the sounds of their merriment mingled together, rising above the other noises of the carnival. 

Noi’s giggles eventually faded away, leaving a warm glow in their absence. “Speaking of veggies, senpai, I’m starving. Wanna grab a bite to eat?”

He nodded. “You know I never say no to food. Lead the way.”

He walked at Noi’s shoulder as they meandered in the direction of the buffet area. Although the festival was busy, he noted with satisfaction that the crowds parted to allow them through. Their bloody reputation preceded them, drawing stares and whispers as they went by. Shin noticed that the majority of looks were directed towards Noi, and they ranged from fear to awe to dreamy affection. He suddenly felt oddly protective of his partner. 

If she noticed, she didn’t let on at all. He suspected that her attention was reserved entirely for the impending buffet table. She suddenly stopped in her tracks, raising her head like she’d caught scent of her prey. 

“QUICK, senpai! This way!”

Before he could say anything she’d grabbed him by the hand and nearly pulled him off his feet as she started sprinting towards a side street. 

“NOI! Slow down!”

But Noi was relentless, and it was all Shin could do just to stay upright, her strength constantly threatening to tip him over and drag him the rest of the way. Despite the force of her grip, suddenly all he could focus on was how soft her hand was in his own. What’s wrong with me?

This had been happening more and more as of late. They’d be having a normal conversation, then something tiny would happen - she’d touch his arm lightly or he’d look a little too long at her lips - and his thought process would turn into a flustered mess. He was quietly glad that Noi had no idea of just how easily she could embarrass him. She would have treated it like a game; for him, it was becoming something else. 

The calm, logical part of Shin’s brain reasoned that it was only natural. They’d grown very close over the years of their friendship, their contract and shared job serving to accelerate the process. She was undeniably beautiful; even as her friend, he could state that as a fact. And whilst he would always be the sensible, cautious senpai and she would always be the impetuous, hot-headed junior, the gap in their emotional maturity was rapidly shrinking. The four years between 20 and 24 were a far smaller distance than the four between 16 and 20. 

He gave himself a mental slap to the face, trying to dispel troubling thoughts. She was still Noi and he was still Shin. They were both partners and best friends, and nothing would ever change that; he wouldn’t risk what they had for the world.

Noi skidded to a halt and he only just managed to avoid colliding with her broad back. Her wild hair tickled his face, smelling faintly of vanilla. That was overridden by another scent, which was doubtless what had drawn Noi here in the first place; sizzling meat and rich gravy. The stall in front of them was lined with pies that looked as if they each contained an entire side of beef. He smiled wryly at Noi’s captivated look. Of course. 

She marched up to the counter, and even the vendor grinned at her unbridled enthusiasm. Then she reached for her purse and seemed to wilt, before turning back to Shin slowly. 

He sighed. “You left your purse in your room, didn’t you?”

She nodded morosely. 

“All right, all right”, he grumbled, waving her out of his way before she could turn on her puppy eyes. “I’ll get it.”

That put the smile back on her face. “Thank you senpai!”

He asked for 2 pies, then noticed the array of sweet tarts under the counter. “Get me one of those strawberry things as well.”

He looked to Noi over his shoulder. “My treat, for your… victory today.” She beamed, and he was too late to escape the hand which reached out to ruffle his hair. Should have known better than to try to buy her off.

The vendor handed the food over, winking at Shin as he passed him the cash. “Hope you and your lady have a nice night, sir!”

Oh, come the fuck on. Just as I was starting to feel normal again. “She’s not-“ But the pie vendor had already turned to the next customer, and he could only walk away, his face coloured with that pink tinge which seemed to rarely be far away these days. Noi seemed a little quieter than he’d expected when he handed her her food. Was it his imagination or were her cheeks flushed pink too?

Thankfully, he found it easy to forget when he bit it into the pie. It was fantastic, the meat a perfect balance between chewy and tender. “Nice find, Noi”, he said through a full mouth. “This is fucking great.”

Noi nodded enthusiastically, wolfing hers down as if she hadn’t cleaned up multiple plates of samples at lunch that day. She only came up for air once the last crumb of pastry had been demolished. “Yeah, I saw that stall last time, but everything had closed down. Heard a few people say they’re the best in town, so I wasn’t gonna miss out this year. If you hadn’t bailed me out I genuinely would have leapt the counter and snatched it out his hands.”

Shin laughed, knowing she was fully serious. “I’ve seen what you’re capable of when you’re hungry. En himself could have stepped in and he wouldn’t be able to stop you.”

She scoffed as he passed her the strawberry tart. “I’d like to see him fucking try! No one gets between me and my dinner.” A sharp smile grew on her face. “A growing gal needs her food.”

Shin sighed and Noi cackled as the tart disappeared in two bites. She’d underestimated the amount of filling in it, though, and a large amount of cream and strawberry jam ended up on her face. He laughed at her perturbed look.

“Stay still, you messy bastard…” He pulled out a handkerchief which had come folded into his top pocket; he had no intention of ever using it again, anyway. But as he reached it towards her, aiming for a large smear of cream on her cheek, Noi chose right then to turn her head to him and suddenly he was almost cupping her face. He froze in place for a split second, and his treacherous eyes honed in on her tongue, which was licking jam from her lips. 

With what felt like a monumental force of will, he resumed his motion and wiped her cheek clean. She beamed at him, taking the handkerchief from his hand and using it to clear away the last traces of strawberry, whilst Shin desperately tried to line his thoughts back up in order again. 

He stayed silent as they wandered past more stalls, reaching a quieter area of the festival. The hubbub of voices and sounds of music were muffled here, creating a more peaceful atmosphere. The few vendors that were set up here seemed to be selling teas or candles; one had a row of floating lanterns on their counter. Shin found enough strength to look back at Noi’s face. Her contented expression helped set him more at rest. 

He motioned towards a low bench, past the last stalls, curved around a tiny artificial pond. “Want to sit for a bit?”

She smiled. “Sure.”

Shin still wasn’t used to how much bigger she felt, seated next to him. He had become accustomed to dwarfing most people, both in physique and height, but Noi had an oddly humbling effect on him now that she was so similar in shape. She met his eyes in the reflection of the water. 

“Whatcha thinking about, senpai?”

Shin considered, not wanting to lie but too embarrassed to admit he’d been thinking about her. He settled on a half-truth. “Just how much has happened these past four years, I guess. I don’t think the me of last Blue Night would have ever predicted some of the shit we’ve been through.”

Her eyes were distant, recalling her own memories, but with a happy smile on her face. “Yeah, we sure did a lot together, huh? Changed a lot, too.”

He was a little surprised. “You think? You’ve changed a lot. I feel pretty much the same.”

She tilted her head to one side. “Nah, you’re definitely not quite like how you used to be. Or maybe… maybe I just don’t see you the same way I did when I was 16. I guess four years of partnership does that.”

He pretended to be insulted. “You mean you don’t see me as your wise, kindly senpai any more?”

Noi snickered, looking down at her hands, clasped in her lap. “As if I ever thought you were wise. Nah, I just… I get to see a lot of different sides of you, working this job. And every time you do one of your little things, like… the way you leave your hair sticking up in the mornings, or how you nap in the car when I go get food, or even the way you yell when you’re all hyped up in the middle of a fight… I just think to myself “that’s so you, senpai”. It’s sweet. Makes me more and more glad we signed our first contract, back then.” She looked back up to him and grinned. “That cute little blush, too!”

Shin hadn’t even realised he’d been turning red. He smiled back bashfully, but for once he didn’t care about the heat in his cheeks; what Noi said had touched him. “I… thank you, Noi. That means a lot to me, coming from you. Out of all the sorcerers in the world, there’s no one I’d rather have for a partner.”

That made her look uncharacteristically shy, but the happiness was plain on her face. They sat in a comfortable silence for a while more. 

“What’s your favourite memory since last Blue Night, Noi?” He wasn’t sure what prompted him to ask, but it seemed appropriate to spend the night reflecting on the experiences they’d had together. 

“Hmm…” She giggled. “Remember that night out after the high rise job?” 

Shin laughed too. “Only too well, unfortunately.” It hadn’t been too long after they’d started working together. 

They’d just completed their biggest assignment yet; putting down an entire tower building’s worth of enemies (Shin couldn’t remember what they’d done to piss En off, but it must have been something major). To celebrate, he took her out for dinner; dinner turned into drinks, at Noi’s insistence. Cmon, senpai, have some shots , she said. Bet you can’t drink as much as me . The challenge was enough to drag him in. A number of bars later, he suddenly remembered he was meant to be driving them home. I’m still good , he said, as they stumbled into the car. He lasted until about halfway back, when his eyes suddenly went blurry and he didn’t see the bend in the road until the car was already flying off the cliff. His night ended with him blacking out, whilst a drunken Noi tried to stop throwing up for long enough to heal him.  

She was still giggling. “It took me hours to walk all the way home with you on my back. You have no right to be that heavy, I’m pretty sure that devil armour weighed less than you. And you were snoring all the way!”

“I don’t snore!”

“Well, you definitely did on that night, senpai. Surprised you didn’t wake yourself up with it. It was like a drill going through my skull.”

He snickered at her, seeing the affront on her face even now. “And this is your favourite memory why, exactly?”

Noi ruefully grinned. “Cos it was all just totally what I’d expect from us. That type of bullshit is what we always get ourselves into. Besides, it was fun drinking with you, you don’t come out all that much.”

It had taken him several months of salary to pay off the car. “Wonder why that could be, when it always goes so smoothly.”

She laughed, and Shin reflected that it was good to see her in high spirits like this. It hadn’t been so long ago that they’d had a less pleasant experience, when that Cross-Eyes bastard had nearly killed them both. 

Although physically healed, neither of them took the defeat well mentally; Shin recovered quickly, having had a few close calls over the years, but it was Noi’s first real brush with death. She was noticeably shaken up. It hurt him inside to see his normally bold and enthusiastic partner withdraw into herself, but he didn’t know what to say to her. 

One night, he couldn’t sleep for the worry, and on an impulse he found himself knocking on her door. Despite the late hour, Noi clearly hadn’t slept either, and her puffy eyes told him she’d been crying. Anything he had planned to say went straight out of his head, and instead he wordlessly wrapped her into a hug, squeezing her tight as she sniffled into his shoulder. They spent the rest of the night talking, and by dawn neither of them felt as afraid. 

Noi must have seen his distant stare, because she was smiling quizzically at him. “Something wrong, senpai?”

Wouldn’t do to bring up old wounds now. Shin locked those memories away, and smiled back at her. “It’s nothing. Seeing you happy… it makes me happy too.”

He couldn’t be imagining it this time; her cheeks were definitely pink. He realised just how honest the statement had been and hastily reached for something else to talk about before he became too embarrassed. 

To avoid looking Noi in the face, he impulsively checked his watch. The scuffed face told him it was close to 3am. Have we really been out that long?

A sudden “oh!” from Noi startled him, and he snapped back up to look at his partner. She was rummaging through her suit jacket, finding something in an inner pocket. Shin watched, perplexed, as she drew out a small black box, which she thrust towards him. 

“I almost forgot! I meant to give you this right after we’d signed our contracts, but…”

He took it, vaguely registering that it was slightly warm from being close to her body. With Noi excitedly watching, he lifted off the lid, and understood how he’d reminded her. 

Inside was a magnificent watch, with a golden case surrounding a pristine, almost pearlescent face. Small rubies surrounded the edge in place of numbers. But the crowning glory was a realistic heart, carved in crimson in the middle of the face, the watch’s hands meeting in its centre.  Shin looked up at Noi’s eager face and noted that the engraving was the same precise shade as her eyes. 

“Do you like it, senpai?”

“Noi, I…” He realised there was a lump in his throat and he was dangerously close to tearing up. You’re going soft. “It’s beautiful. What have I done to deserve this? I didn’t get you anything…” Was this some Blue Night tradition he’d never heard of?

Noi giggled. “No, it’s a present just for you. To say thank you, for being my senpai these last four years.” She reached back for the box. “Let me put it on for you!”

He presented his arm, slipping off his old watch as she removed the gift from its packaging. She draped it over his wrist, the metal case cool on his skin, and delicately began to fasten the strap. Shin smiled. “Hm, so you can be gentle after all.”

“What was that, senpai?”

“Nothing.” 

Noi finished tightening the buckle, but her fingers lingered for a moment at his wrist, nails lightly brushing against his stitches. For a brief instant their eyes met, faces only inches apart, and Shin felt a sudden, suicidal urge to lean in and kiss her. 

This is really, really bad.

Before any more stupid thoughts could take hold, the moment passed, and her hand slipped away. “You’re not allowed to wear that on the job, you hear me? I’ve seen the state of your other watches. This is for special occasions only.” Noi’s tone was chiding, and Shin ruefully thought of the old watch in his pocket, dinged and battered.

“No, I’ll take good care of it. I promise.”

He smiled at her, and saw his own happiness reflected on her face. His mind was still whirling, arguing with itself as opposing emotions did battle. Fear, passion, frustration, all boiled within him. He tried his hardest to not let imaginations of the future distract him from the present. 

Noi’s smile was abruptly broken by a massive yawn. She opened her mouth so wide Shin wondered if she was trying to unhinge it. It went on for long enough for him to laugh. 

“Stay like that any longer and one of those blue bugs is gonna end up in your mouth.”

That made her snort and she broke off the yawn. “Gosh, senpai, I’m beat. You mind if we head back home? I’d hate to sleep in and miss tomorrow’s breakfast table.”

Shin stood, feeling the tiredness in his own muscles. “Not at all, partner.”

She rose up too, and side by side they walked back towards En’s mansion, towering behind the carnival. 

“Hey, Shin…”

It was the first time Noi hadn’t called him “senpai” in a long while, years even. That alone was enough to shock him, but before he could turn to her he felt her arm slip through the crook of his elbow, drawing them close together. He thought he might have a heart attack. At the sight of his mortified face, she put a little bit more space between them, but kept their arms in a loose link. She giggled again. 

“Calm down, I’m not attacking you! Geez, for my partner you’re not very affectionate, you know.” Shin could tell she was just teasing, but he forced himself to relax a bit. It’s only your best friend, dumbass. Seriously, what did tonight change?

He thought he knew the answer to that. Nothing had changed; he was just suddenly aware of a lot of things. The tumultuous feelings within him were beginning to settle, as he became more sure of what was going on. Beside him, Noi continued. 

Anyway, I was just gonna ask… what do you think about the next four years, hm? Will they be as eventful as the last four?”

Shin thought about that. “I think… well, anything could happen. We have a very exciting job. But if you grow as much this time you’re gonna leave me in the dust!” They both laughed at that, and he found the strength to look her in the eyes and be genuine. “And I think if anyone - or anything - tries to keep us apart, they will be sorry that they ever fucked with Noi and Shin.”

She smiled, and he turned away, hopeful for the future, but with one small concern gnawing at the back of his mind. 

I think I’m in love with you.

Chapter Text

After close to a year’s worth of anticipation, Blue Night had passed in the blink of an eye - almost literally, in Shin’s case. He had no idea what had been in that bastard Yakku’s needles, but one second he had been watching the chandelier come crashing down on him and the next he was opening his eyes to see Noi’s concerned face. Based on how long she told him she’d been looking for him, he had been out for over a day. 

He thought there were still traces of the sedative pumping around his system, because he felt exhausted as he and Noi bid the others goodnight. 

The fact that there were others was enough to make this Blue Night stand out already. Compared to the solitude Shin and Noi had enjoyed for their previous contract signings, the devils’ hut had felt packed. They’d left the hut as a party, and Shin marvelled at the oddity of it all; the new kids arguing with each other (he didn’t entirely blame Fujita for being angry, given the circumstances), Noi carrying En’s unexpected partner (still bound and gagged) slung over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and En himself in disturbingly high spirits. All the circumstances of his boss’ sudden partnership troubled Shin - so he didn’t think about them too much. You didn’t get very far by questioning the head of the family. 

They were standing at the gates of the mansion. The others were heading for their beds, but Noi had asked that herself and Shin be excused. They’d agreed beforehand to spend at least part of the event alone with each other; it was tradition at this point, and it looked like now was going to be their last chance before Blue Night’s end. En had simply nodded, beckoning two guards forward to take his partner (prisoner?) from Noi, and now things were finally returning to how Shin preferred them; no rowdy companions, just himself and Noi, free to talk as they pleased. 

He started walking away at a gentle stroll, intending to wander the grounds a little. Without looking, he knew that Noi was following close behind. He wondered if the almost physical sensation of her large presence was the same for everyone, or if he was just that in tune with her after all this time. 

Noi didn’t maintain the silence for very long. Her voice drifted over his shoulder in a pleasant murmur. 

“Hey… you know, you’re neglecting a very important tradition, sen-pai.”

She popped the “p” in that way she did when she was trying to wind him up. He kept walking, not looking at her, playing along. 

“Oh yeah? And what would that be, Noi?”

“It’s said that if a partnership lasts for three Blue Nights, then a contract isn’t quite enough to continue it forever. Instead, whichever partner is older has to do something reeeeeally special for the other that takes their breath away. Otherwise, the partnership is doomed to failure.”

Shin smirked. “You’re just making this up.”

Noi harrumphed in exaggerated indignation. “I am not! It was in the play and everything. Weren’t you paying attention, senpai?!”

“No, I was not. I know for a fact you weren’t either, because you fell asleep on my shoulder halfway in. You got drool on my new suit.”

“Well, at least you get to keep your outfit! I got to wear mine for all of an hour before that shithead Bakku blew it up. And I looked hot in it, too!”

“Yeah, that was a shame. It did look really good on you.” Shin quietly mourned the loss of that stunning top for a moment. “Anyway… does this Definitely Real Tradition have a name?”

“It’s-“ A few seconds passed in silence. Caught you out. “It’s called the, uh, Blue Night Surprise…?”

He laughed aloud. “That sounds like a crappy restaurant special. Is that really the best you could come up with?”

She started protesting, but before she could get into full flow he wheeled around, finally facing her. In one fluid motion, Shin took Noi’s face in both hands and kissed her deeply. 

Whatever excuse she’d been trying to get out was cut off into a muffled, breathy sigh of pleasure. Her lips parted against his own and their tongues met. Strong arms wrapped around his body, hands running across his back and through his hair, and he was conscious of just how much he was having to angle his face upwards. Noi stood almost half a foot taller than him now. Any further growth and he’d need a ladder. 

He didn’t want this to end. I almost lost you , he thought, remembering how close their enemies had come to outmanoeuvring them. It could have been the two of them bound and gagged, forced to break their contract, separated so soon after they’d finally realised just how much they needed each other. Those thoughts only made him squeeze Noi tighter, kissing her more roughly. She responded enthusiastically, letting him take control; this was the only situation Noi preferred to not put up a fight in. Even then, sometimes she’d start a battle just for the hell of it. 

Shin finally broke away, red in the face, his heart hammering in his chest. Noi’s lips chased his for a second, wanting more ( she was just as much of a glutton with lust as she was with food ), and he saw with satisfaction that she was just as flushed as him, and her breathing was ragged and heavy. 

“How’s that for your ‘Blue Night Surprise’?” He managed to pant, still holding her close to him. “I definitely seem to have taken your breath away.”

Noi was positively glowing. “That’s a very strong start, senpai. Not enough for me… but a good beginning.” 

He grinned at her. It had been too long since they’d last kissed. He’d wanted to since he’d opened his eyes lying in that bodybag with her kneeling over him, but of course those damn kids had been there, too. Shin was very uncomfortable with public displays of affection. He knew Noi understood, but he tried to compensate for it when they were alone. 

He parted from Noi, a little reluctantly, but reached for her hand instead. They set off walking again, fingers linked together. He enjoyed feeling how her soft skin rubbed against his stitches. 

“You know”, he mused, “a couple years ago, just the thought of holding your hand would have mortified me. Let alone a kiss like that.”

She snickered. “I always used to think it was funny how much you went red. You were like some chaste schoolgirl. I just thought that’s what you were like with sex in general. I had no idea it was just for little ol’ me.”

She latched onto his arm, leaning her head onto his shoulder briefly. Their height difference made it almost comical; Noi was anything but little.

Shin smiled. “‘Chaste schoolgirl’ isn’t so far from the truth.” If he was honest with himself, he had never properly felt the allure of sex before now; back in his younger years, he’d had a few brief flirtations with other teenagers in Hole, but long hours working with his father and the need to keep a low profile had gotten in the way of romantic exploration. Then the upending of his life had pushed any of those thoughts far from his head. He had been content with the idea that he would never have a physical relationship, until his then-crush on his partner began to blossom. And look where that had gotten him. 

Noi giggled. “And look at you now”, she teased, eerily echoing his own thoughts. “You’ve successfully corrupted your innocent young junior, you old pervert.”

Even though he knew it was on purpose, that was full of so many falsehoods that he couldn’t help but splutter with indignation. “Corrupted? Innocent?! Old? Pervert?! ” 

As always, she laughed at his protests, moving her hand to his shoulder and squeezing him in a quick sideways hug. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I’m sure as shit not the innocent one in this relationship.”

Even now, almost a year after they’d finally talked about what they wanted together, it still felt funny to hear her say that. Relationship . Shin felt a happy smile spread on his face. 

“No, you definitely aren’t. You made the first move, remember?”

Noi grinned. “Yeah, I got impatient. I’m not usually a subtle gal, but I thought the hints I was dropping were pretty damn clear… but you just refused to pick them up. Even though you were so obviously interested. The amount of times I pretended not to notice you staring at me, honestly.”

“So you took over.” He had fond memories of that. Their first kiss had been right after a battle, with adrenaline still surging high and the scent of blood in the air. He had seen something different in her eyes as soon as he’d looked at her, but it still didn’t prepare him for the way she lunged at him, locking their lips together and pushing him against the nearest wall. He was only just in time to stop his skull cracking into the brickwork; the fact his reflexes had kicked in at all was no small miracle, given that in that moment his brain felt as if it had been run over by a truck. 

“And good thing I did, too! Otherwise I would still be waiting come next Blue Night.” She bumped his shoulder playfully and he ruefully reflected that that was probably accurate. 

“Hey, but which of us confessed their real feelings first?” 

They’d progressed in an odd, out-of-order way. After that kiss, they’d rushed back home, with Shin nearly crashing the car more than once, and spent the rest of the night together in Noi’s room. By the end of it, Shin was a lot more experienced in physical matters. That had begun a period of them being somewhere in between friends and lovers.

Shin had assumed Noi didn’t want anything serious ( she had had her fair share of flings in the past, and surely whatever they were doing together wasn’t exclusive ), and Noi had assumed that Shin simply wasn’t interested in romance ( understandably ). And so they’d continued in a bizarre situation where sex was normal and regular, but holding hands was a step too far. The agonising tension had almost felt worse than when Shin had thought his crush was totally unrequited.

Then, after another night of debauchery, Shin had felt Noi get up from beside him to leave as usual. Lying there in a drowsy afterglow, he’d felt a sudden wave of sadness come over him, and impulsively reached out to her.

Stay with me.

She’d looked at him for a heartbeat before wordlessly slipping back under the bedcovers and nestling into his side. He’d kissed her, and it felt different to all the previous times; the passion was still there, but this was also gentle and sweet.

Noi ended their moment of shared recollection with a grumble. “Yeah, well it still took you a week after that to properly ask me to be your girlfriend.” Despite her scowl, Shin could tell her cheeks were flushed. It’d taken him a while to realise that his normally shameless partner blushed whenever romance was involved. He found it exceptionally cute, even though he was usually just as red in the face. 

“We still got there in the end, didn’t we?”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “After how damn long? I’ve never asked, actually. How long was there between you realising you…” she scuffed her shoes, showing that rare bashfulness again. “Yknow… that you liked me liked me, and us actually kissing?”

Now it was Shin’s turn to suddenly be interested in the paving stones. “Um… about… 4 years, give or take?”

Noi stopped dead in her tracks, and her grip on his shoulders was suddenly a vice that almost yanked him off his feet. Her expression screamed outrage, her mouth a perfect O. Shin suddenly developed a deep understanding of the feelings of a deer about to get pounced by a tiger.

“Four? Whole? YEARS?”

He grinned nervously. “Almost to the day, actually. I properly came to terms with it last Blue Night…” The parts of his brain which normally warned him when he was about to get shot at were screaming danger. Quick, deflect! “How long did it take you? You don’t have any patience whatsoever. Can’t have been long, right?”

That wiped that indignant fury right off her face. “Uh…” her voice was very small, all of a sudden. “Senpai, I’ve… liked you since we started working together…” 

He was shocked. “Noi, you have the audacity to be mad at me over 4 years, when you didn’t do anything for 8 ?” 

She was redder than he’d ever seen her. “But if I’d said anything, it would have been… embarrassing.

Shin burst out laughing, throwing his head back to the night sky. “Only you, Noi. Hell, I love you.”

That made her cover her face with both hands. Still laughing, he took her wrists and gently pulled them away, kissing her softly on the lips. He felt her smile despite herself.

“Well, no use dwelling on it now. Let’s make up for lost time!” 

He felt her knuckles brush his chin, tilting his face upwards in the way she knew he liked. This time her kiss was fierce, filled with the deep passion that he knew and loved so well. Noi’s hot-blooded fervour, so familiar to Shin from seeing her fight, also came surging to the fore in the bedroom. In some cases they’d both get so worked up that sex was put on hold in favour of a violent sparring session. 

Her teeth nipped into his lower lip, hard enough to make him gasp. As she leaned back, smirking, he tasted the coppery tang of blood in his mouth. 

“Easy, tiger,” he murmured, but he didn’t move his hands from her hips. Glancing around, he was aware of how close En’s sprawling manse seemed, the glow of its windows spilling onto the grounds. “Someone might see…”

Noi huffed. “If someone sees, we’ll kill them, obviously.” She wrapped one enormous arm around his waist, pulling him close. “C’mon, what are you so afraid of?”

“Our boss, mostly. Y’know? Your cousin?” He grimaced at the thought. He had seen firsthand how fiercely protective En was of those close to him. Despite their long history together, Shin shuddered to think of how the boss would react to him sleeping with his only remaining family.

She rolled her eyes. “Fuck him! I’m not some expensive trinket for him to hoard or show off to other high society assholes. Been telling him that for years. I can do whatever I like with whomever I please.”

He couldn’t help but smile at the fury in her eyes that the mention of En had brought. “Be that as it may, you’re not the one who’ll get turned into shiitakes if this ever goes south.”

Noi smiled sweetly. “Oh, senpai… if we ever break up, there won't be enough of you left to turn into a mushroom.”

There was a brief silence before they both started giggling uncontrollably. Shin thought the chances of him wanting to end things now was about as likely as him deciding to join the Cross-Eyes. And yet he didn’t doubt for a second that Noi was deadly serious.

The mirth on her face was slowly replaced by a thoughtful expression. “If you’re worried about En’s reaction, wouldn’t he have said something by now? He was the one who suggested we became partners in the first place, right? Surely he must have at least considered the possibility of this happening. We’ve always been more than just… colleagues.”

Or maybe he expected me to be responsible and look after his little cousin? Shin flushed, not willing to say that aloud; he knew it would only provoke another wave of teasing. 

Noi continued. “Anyway, it’s not like it’s a totally new idea. I’m pretty sure half the city thinks we’ve been together for years. And those that don’t ask us when we’re finally gonna get together.”

That had been terrible to deal with, back when he was still coming to terms with his burgeoning feelings. He’d threatened violence after the first few people had asked, and that had stopped it for good - well, until…

“I take it Ebisu’s been annoying you too?” But Shin knew straight away from the look on her face that Noi had no idea what he was talking about. “No? Really? She has, uh, puppets of us and everything. It’s kinda concerning how much effort she puts in, to be honest.”

Noi chuckled, although her cheeks had gone a little pink. “Oh, senpai… I think she saves that all for you. She knows who she can get the best reactions out of, you see.”

He snorted, turning red himself. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you put her up to it. How does that kid get away with so much bullshit?”

“I think she’s great.” Noi’s expression was uncharacteristically sentimental. “If I’d ever had a little sister, I would have wanted her to be just like that. Even if she is a little shit.”

“You could always adopt her.” Shin started to laugh at his own joke, but it died in his throat as he saw the look on her face. “Oh god, no. I wasn’t serious. Please don’t adopt Ebisu. I’d have nowhere to run from her.”

No’s grin was devilish. “Maybe I’ll do it just to make sure you never have a moment of peace again, senpai.”

“What kind of impure motive is that? Some big sister you’d be…”

They bickered and teased back and forth as they continued to wander, but there was an unspoken awareness that the dawn was beginning to draw close. Shin registered the aches in his back, doubtless from spending a whole day lying in a bodybag, and had a sudden urge for Noi’s bed, with its fluffy pillows and faint smell of vanilla. He yawned, widely enough to hurt his jaw. But there was some energy left in him yet.

“Say, Noi… how about we make our way back to your place, and I can give you the rest of your ‘Blue Night Surprise’?”

She grinned, biting her lip in a way that made Shin’s heart flutter. “And here I thought you might be willing to doom our partnership forever. That’s the spirit, Shin-senpai.”

“Nah, I’m gonna see to it that we’re together for the rest of our lives.” He curled one arm around her waist, playfully squeezing her hip as they headed towards the lights of the manor. “Even if that could just mean next weekend, the shit we tend to find ourselves in.”

Noi laughed. “No low-life Cross-Eye is gonna put an end to us, senpai. You won’t be rid of me as soon as that.”

“As if I’d want to be, moron”, he grumbled, and she giggled.

As they walked, Shin succumbed more and more to the temptation to lean onto his partner’s broad frame, shifting weight off his tired legs. He expected her to complain, but instead she just snickered again, raising his arm to her shoulders and nearly lifting him clear off his feet. “You better get your second wind soon. No way I’m doing all the work when we get to bed.”

“For you, Noi? I could fight an army right now. I just… choose… not to.” Shin punctuated that with another mighty yawn. He saw Noi blush the tiniest amount and felt faintly satisfied. He didn’t think he’d ever get over how good it felt to get his payback for all those years of flustering.  

He felt, rather than saw, her become more distant as they neared the front doors, but he’d known her for long enough to have faith that she’d say whatever was on her mind. No more secrets between us. Sure enough, she spoke up.

“Hey, senpai… do you think as much is gonna happen between now and next Blue Night as in the last four years?”

Shin sighed heavily. “We seem to ask this every Blue Night, don’t we? And yet every single time I could never have predicted how much things change. Only thing I know for certain is that in four years’ time we’ll be renewing our partnership, come hell or high water.”

Noi beamed. “You’re so sweet when you’re tired. Maybe I should tranq you up more often.”

“I think you wear me out enough as it is - get off!” He mimed trying to escape as she crushed him in an immense bearhug. “I tell you what, you better not get any stronger than this. I think I’d die.”

She smirked wickedly. “Just means you gotta get strong too, senpai. Maybe one day you’ll finally be able to beat me in an arm wrestle again.”

“Oh, you are so on. Tell you what, let’s hit the gym after we wake up. I’ll beat my personal record.”

“And if you don’t, you’re buying lunch!”

As they entered the warmth of the mansion, Shin already felt the next four years would be different. For perhaps the first time in his turbulent life, he felt something other than total indifference towards the future; he was genuinely excited for it - and excited to spend it with Noi.