In the middle of the week, En gives Shin and Noi an extensive lecture on the proper etiquette of cordial affairs, mind the tediously balanced glasswares at elbow-height, something about pick-pockets and their improper upbringing, smoke obscuring activities in the upper parlor, blah blah blah. Noi does her best to divide her attention between the assorted mushroom dolls decorating the desk and the obnoxious new portrait depicting her cousin in all his exaggerated glory atop a hill he’s never been, but despite actively ignoring En’s entire speech in an attempt to ward off the boiling irritation, she winds up in a bad mood anyway.
“I’m just so—he makes me—” Noi grasps the air with her fingers, miming the technique she plots to use when she gets her hands fastened securely around En’s neck. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Resentful?” Shin finishes for her, exhaling steadily as he curls the dumbbells off his knees. “Murderous? Antagonized?”
“All of it, actually. Am I that obvious?”
“You? The master of concealing your many emotions beneath a vigilant mirage of stoicism?”
Noi decides he’s fucking with her and returns to her routine of jabbing the punching bag, struggling for the umpteenth time in her life to direct her whirlwind of thoughts into a coherent string of words, but she’s so thoroughly befuddled by En’s escapades from the last month alone that she can’t find a place to start . It doesn’t help her distractible feminine brain that Shin’s biceps bulge with each rep. Why the Hell did she bother coming in here? It smells like sweat and dragged rubber and the way Shin’s chest is ready to breach his shirt any minute now is wholly unprofessional. She can’t focus.
“His schemes are insane, but no one around here says anything because they all owe him something.” She turns to him again. Her hands open and close again, still reflecting her consideration for premeditated murder. “This shit is what I was trying to get away from: the political navigation of upscale parties, the smug look on his face all the time, the absolute ignorance. How do you put up with being his Cleaner?”
“You’re his Cleaner too, Noi,” Shin says flatly.
Shin sets the weights down and stands, casually tossing a towel over his head to rub away the sweat. “I don’t care either way,” he says, “but you wanna tell me what this is really about?”
“I’m your partner. You’re supposed to care!”
“Not the point. And anyway, that’s why I’m asking.”
The length of the room feels disproportionate in comparative proximity to how close they are. There’s too many steps between her and the door and not enough space between their bodies, and Noi realizes only when she reflects on it later that she just wants to run from him. It’s unlike her to be surrounded constantly by all the things she could ever possibly need yet feel so enraged by the emptiness of it.
In truth: she can’t stomach the idea of the next few days. To think that En’s love is conditional, to know he’s sending her back to that cursed fucking place, to realize there’s someone in her life who can see right through her like a window to the inside.
She says, “It’s nothing, Senpai.”
“Bullshit. You’ve been coiled like a spring all week, and I want to know if we’re doing something you’re not going to be okay with.”
Noi searches his face for anything other than apathy. She learned years ago that his shockingly vast array of emotions are reserved for her alone, and his facade is one of total placidity because he simply can’t bother to be himself around anyone else.
She doesn’t actually know how to respond to him, even with reactional indication. The thing is, here stands Shin and Noi or Noi and Shin or whoever they are and whoever they’ll become, carefully picking each other’s layers away like flaky skin, neither knowing where the process begins or ends. It was easier, she realizes, to be herself over ramen bowls, back when she wasn’t worried about burdening him with her questionable methods of selective self-growth.
After a moment, the corner of his lips quirk up.
“Hey,” he says, “it’s all right. You don’t have to tell me anything, then. Just say the word and I’ll run the mission solo.”
He doesn’t know her life the way she started to know his, stories partially uttered between bites of udon, the roughness of his hand in hers when she taught him the importance of lifelines. The metronomic motion of her forefinger against his palm. Reading from him, to him, the story about him. If he were to do the same to her, what horrors would he turn away from?
Noi eventually shakes her head. “I’m just worked up because En pisses me off every time he opens his mouth!”
“Getting pissy won’t do you any good. Lying to me isn’t going to do any good either, though I suppose it’d be cold of me to make you tell the truth. Or guilt you into it. Or whatever.”
She says, “I don’t know if you would understand.”
Shin lays his hand so casually on her shoulder Noi doesn’t think he can be trusted with reliably dispensing comfort. Regardless, she leans into his weight, following the curve of his body. Testing the water. She isn’t angry when she tells him, “You stink,” but she notably makes no immediate motion to separate herself from his careful hold. He’s the only familiarity in her life she can stand to endure anymore.
“Is this what I get for trying to be a supportive Senpai?”
“You get to put up with me.”
“Fine,” he says, pulling her into him. “That’s fine.”
Noi slides her arms around his back and brings him closer. She doesn’t know, not right now at least, if she believes that. He reeks terribly of all his hard work, all the effort he’s exerted rebuilding the shambles of his life into something manageable and cohesive, to such an extent that she feels worn thin keeping up. Was it really so easy, she wants to ask him, going forward with nothing to build from?
Noi doesn’t ask. In the end, she might actually get a proper answer, just one she isn’t ready to accept.
Noi doesn’t speak on it until they’re at the auction house, and it’s not really because she wants to. The place is a tumult of awful memories that comes seeping back into her mind like rising water rapids, swelling over the lip of the land that had, up until now, kept everything on its designated course. She drinks a cocktail and watches the momentum of high-class, silver-spooned sorcerers circumnavigate the main parlor. They come and go, greeting each other by shake or hug or kiss, sometimes more intensely than is socially acceptable. It’s dizzying.
Shin must sense her unease; even if he doesn’t, he comes to stand by her side all the same with a glass of expensive cerise wine clutched between his impeccably careful forefingers and says, “I didn’t realize all of these fancy venues would be so unbearably boring.”
Noi presses out a wrinkle in her jacket and applies that same casualty to her tone. “I don’t care so long as there’s food.”
“Yeah, but is it too much to ask for something a little more lively?”
“Like an orgy!”
“Get your head out the gutter.” He redirects his gaze into the crowd ahead, and gestures to a familiar lick of red hair flared above the normal hair-styles of the other potential buyers. “En’s quite social, isn’t he? I think that woman with the emerald brooch is in love with him.”
“Gross!” Noi looks at her partner and sees for the first time that his face is filled out with a five-o-clock shadow. “What would you know about love, Senpai? I thought you said you never had a special someone back in Hole.”
“I didn’t,” he says too quickly, and takes a long drink. “Love ruins people. Kills them, sometimes. Makes them do...stupid shit. I do plenty of stupid shit on my own, thanks.”
Noi considers pressing the matter, but the lights dim two by two through the room, and silence falls as the auction begins. A sorcerer made unfamiliar beneath his pin-striped attire takes center stage. He recites his lines, bores the occupants into a total state of anoesis, and finally moves out the spotlight to introduce their first piece of art up for purchase.
Noi leans towards Shin and says, “En had opened a network in an effort to track down his living relatives and found me here, up on that stage.”
“Huh? You were being sold?”
“Just my smoke. I guess it was as taboo back then as it is now.” She carefully sips her cocktail, trying to replicate the elegant way Shin drinks his. He makes everything look so simple. “He killed my parents and took me away while everyone else was distracted by the after party.”
“Doesn’t that make them the same as him?”
“En is a frothing maniac with a personal agenda who wouldn’t give a shit about me if I wasn’t such a rare find.”
“And your parents?”
“Hard to say. I don’t even remember their faces anymore.”
The fondest memory of her mother had become, at some point when Noi wasn’t paying attention and by extension of incidental repression, one of the only moments she can recall of her early childhood—right before En appeared in her life to mercilessly purge the auction house of its buyers and sellers, before the world became known to her in all its terrifying, wonderful brilliance; before she took Shin’s rotting hand in a spasm of charitable pity and sealed their fates forever.
Her mother had been a painter. Someone who conveyed the beauty of the world. En broke her hands to remove Noi from them. She recalls the sharp snap of bone, which resonates within her even now, decades later—it comes some days when she breaks a bone, not necessarily her own: the acute, retching sound of it like a lightning crack overhead, and then she’s filled with a sudden understanding that something horrible once happened to the people she loves.
“All because of En and his shitty attitude, and his disregard for my feelings, and all the fucking mushroom spores everywhere—” Her shoulders lower. She sounds venomous, even to her own ears. “He stole me and I’ll always hate him for it.”
The silence settles heavy, but not all at once. It’s a slow, cold, agonizing thing, like snow falling gently upon the soft dirt. Soft enough to slip on, Noi thinks with tragic indifference, and drops her head into her hands. Her fingers thread through untamed, silver hair to scrunch it at the roots. It’s the only semblance of her mother she has left. She wonders if her scalp will come away with her palms when she untangles them later. It would be easy. A lot like removing her mask.
“You know what I think?”
Noi glances back up. Shin isn’t looking at her, instead feigning interest in the various auction pieces on display.
He says, “My father once told me that sometimes we just have to make due with what we’ve got, something about mental integrity—having the will to make the future better for yourself. I think that’s what he was getting at, anyway.”
She downs the rest of her drink and it slips out, “All my endeavors ended with my devil training.”
“Then I don’t know what to tell you. You’re just selfish.”
“By that logic so are you.”
“You can’t make it about me,” he says deflectively.
“Can’t I? You’re the first person I’ve ever cared about this much. If I didn’t have you, I wouldn’t—” She stops, made uncertain by her own words. A memory of Duston creeps up the back of her mind. (Is there something holding you back, Number Four?) “What I mean is...I can’t do any of this by myself. Not anymore. If it’s about me then it’s always going to be about you, too.”
“Fine,” he says. “Whatever.”
He slants away from her. Noi decides it’s not easy being in the same room as him with nowhere to go, especially now, in this horrible place surrounded by horrible memories. It only took them nearly ten years to get to this point. To hit a boundary they never crossed with anyone else before. Noi thinks it might take another ten just to learn something new about him.
The man on the stage talks. They don’t.
En approaches her afterwards. Noi gravitates away from the crowds and towards the vacated corners of the room, moving slowly like an antisocial windmill to avoid earning the attention of anyone she might know, or anyone who might know her, and triggering a subsequent series of unskippable dialogue. En intercepts her path by the punch table with the same precision as a snake in the tall grass, appearing seemingly out of nowhere when she takes the wrong step and comes into full view apart from the carousel-like motion of the crowd.
“I figured I’d give you a reprieve from my presence,” he says coyly, and then adds, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you pass up free food. Has your copious intake of sugary drinks ruined your appetite?”
“What did you expect?” she spits at him. “You forced me to come back here.”
“Is that attitude why Shin’s on the other side of the room?”
Her hands curl, at this point reflexively, into fists. “That’s none of your business.”
En looks at her with the same passive placidity he always projects outwards for the sake of social upkeep, but she knows him well enough to see the curious twitch of his face under his mask. Is he actually considering her challenge? Noi hopes so. She’s always wanted an excuse to beat his ass in front of his acolytes.
“Well,” he says instead, “get over it. I need you two in the field.”
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that? Asshole.”
En gestures across the room and Noi reluctantly follows his extended index finger to see a cluster of sorcerers quietly discussing with a man in a red jacket. “Take out the sorcerer in the red. He’s a leftover from when I first purged this place, attempting a revival of the...family business, I suppose I could say.”
Noi sighs. “Whatever.”
“You can head home after. Clearly this atmosphere is stressing you out.”
“I wasn’t planning on coming back anyway! Christ, don’t you care about anybody but yourself?”
En shuffles in place, turning casually to face away from her. He says, “We can discuss this at a later date.”
Noi wants to pursue it but there’s no point. She’s simply not in the mood. Plus, the mere mention of another inevitable conversation with him induces a splitting migraine, so instead she fishes her pocket for her mask, and leaves to find Shin somewhere in the crowd.
The ride is spent in a pensive silence Noi isn’t used to. She fidgets with the passenger door handle and doesn’t actually know which angle to approach the terse quiet from without tripping some sort of emotional alarm. Shin is just. Just looking at the road. Every part of him meticulously lined up square with the wheel and the pedals and the width of the seat, his unsmiling focus the catalyst to the hole yawning open inside her chest. There’s blood from their hit on her gloves and on the lapel of his jacket.
When she first came to know Shin before he was Senpai, the idea of entertaining conversation with the same person for hundreds of days, thousands of days, sounded so unbearably exhausting she preemptively mapped out a mental list of contingency plans that all became ideal in comparison to spending life in En’s shadow. (Duston had alluded to this too, this life as a failed devil, but she can’t afford to reflect on that at a time like this.) Now though, she thinks the lack of conversation between them is worse, as if, somehow, they can't ever go back to what they were.
“Senpai,” she tries, and soothes down a wrinkle in her pants leg. “Listen, about—” it’s never been this difficult to speak to him. It dawns on her that they’ve never actually fought before. Not like this. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry about anything.”
“You shouldn’t have to take any responsibility for what I did.”
“I owed you.”
They aren’t making the kind of progress she’s hoping for and it’s in the wrong direction. Noi tells herself distantly to chew on her fist for the remainder of the ride but she’s never known how to take her own advice. Maybe En can have this one: she’s a pain in the ass by birthright.
“You know you don’t owe me anything,” she says, but he hasn’t looked directly at her in hours. He’s stiff as a field mouse, trained forward, listening for the intent of the world around him. His stillness makes her wonder if she has any right to offer apologetic appeasement. “Shin. Shin-Senpai.” She wants to reach out, to take his hand. “You’re the most important person in my life. Always have been. You don’t owe me anything and you never will.”
His chin tilts up a bit, his posture relaxes. Noi takes a mental note of this as a step in the right direction, at least.
She asks him, “What would you do if you were me?”
“If I were you in your position,” he says, “or me in your position?”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does.” This time, when he finally looks at her, she holds his gaze, searching for something other than antipathy. She finds a little bit of hope. “And anyway, weren’t you listening to me? I’d make the best of what I’ve got.”
En doesn’t summon her to his office in his usual display of wealth and grandeur, instead opting for a more modern approach by shooting her a text that he signs off on with his initials and a little mushroom emoji. Noi considers snapping her phone in half but it seems like he’s being sincere for the first time in his entire, miserably exaggerated life that she allows her cousin the benefit of the doubt and beelines straight for him. She hammers in the door to find En behind his desk with the new line of mushroom-themed children’s dolls spread out before him like a blueprint.
“Oh, there you are, Noi,” he says with feigned surprise, and upends two of the dolls, one in each hand, so she can behold this marvelous display of magnificent engineering. “Can I get your opinion on the color palette?”
“Why did you do it?”
The office is silent when they aren’t speaking, which is how being quiet technically works, but it’s so fucking uncomfortable with two people in the room. Noi realizes only now that there’s a framed picture of her from her official inauguration into the family on a pedestal in the corner. Her importance to him is understated but real but she can’t understand what she matters outside of being someone to fix his mistakes, especially when he isn't any good at conveying his emotions.
En says, “Because I had to.”
Of course he won't tell her. She’d never been willing to listen to a single fucking word he ever spoke, anyway. But now, no longer the spunky child she’d once thought she could withstand to be forever, with her half-grown bones and mouthful of smoke to heal the burn she’d received from underestimating Shin’s spicy miso, she realizes that’s all her life has been: this conglomeration of everything given to her and taken from her by everyone else for the express purpose of shaping her life to fit theirs. She has nothing to show for herself, nothing to call her own, and she can't even say it's entirely En's fault.
“It doesn’t matter,” she chooses to tell him instead. “I’m one of the family now.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Noi. You were always one of my family.”
She supposes that’s true. (There’s this memory she clings to distantly: the night after being disqualified, the mushroom shape and reddish color of the celebratory cake in En’s hands. Them eating it alone in the ambiance of a room lit by the dimming dusk.) “Let’s just agree to disagree,” she replies thinly. “Can I go now?”
“I’m not keeping you.”
Noi lingers for a minute afterwards, mulling over all the questions she no longer cares to have answers to, except for one, maybe: was it really so easy going forward with nothing to build from?, before exiting the office, not feeling any better or worse. Not feeling much at all, really. The way of the world seems even less and more convoluted when she tries to project herself into the eyes of someone else. She can't make any sense of it.
Hearing him say her name is like shuffling slowly over ice, making progress. Hear someone call out to you. Look up. Slip.
“I'm not forcing you to stay,” he says cooly, “and I'm not going to dissuade you from any decision you choose to make, even if it means leaving.”
She's stopped in the threshold of the doorway. The corridor stretches out with the same appeal as a long road across the hillside, this easy exit, this path away from him. There are things she's never seen that only Shin has and he's told her about them in explicit detail, but the one that haunts her the most is: what rain looks like when it swells up on the edge of a window sill, pillowed so full of itself it begins to fall back apart. He would know what's at the other end of the road. Or he wouldn't, but he'd make it sound like it was something familiar and doable. He'd make it sound so easy.
“I'm,” she starts to say. Swallows. “It's fine, En. I'm not going anywhere.”
Then she's gone.
The door swings shut.
Technically speaking, the last thing she remembers is leaving En’s office. In the middle of the early morning, right before the sun breaches the horizon and the sky is a thin shade of perfect blue, Noi awakens to Shin’s face set soft and stern in his sleep, his hand laid out cautiously on her hip, and realizes she's fallen asleep in the wrong room.
She squints at him, trying to recollect the floating pieces of her memory and tape the events back together. It’s like the time they went over the cliffside: the interstice between impacting the ground and limping with their shouldered broken pride back to the mansion is muddled in a way that reminds her of bending something until it can no longer retain its shape, and then being unable to reform it. It’s originality made unclear.
(She remembers then, going to him. The softness of his jacket against her face. His hand on the back of her neck.)
Noi unconsciously shifts towards him, fitting her head into the valley of his neck. His palm slides lazily, reactively, up the canter of her side and under the shirt she’s wearing that smells like it’s his, over the back of her ribs. She can feel his heartbeat in his throat. That same steady, certain rhythm she came to know years ago, came to rely on when the floor of her life was made unstable by the aftershocks of decisions beyond her control.
Days from now, she’ll struggle to fall asleep in her own bed, already adjusted to the frailty of domestication. Needing something to supplement the coldness she’d never noticed in her room before and wondering at what point she became so dependent on Shin’s presence in her life that a timeline without him seemed so horribly unobtainable? There was never any consideration for it because it wasn’t a luxury she’d ever wanted to know.
For tonight she thinks of nothing of any cosmic importance, just her partner’s enveloping warmth, and the assertion of his incidental existence beside her as the most important thing she’ll ever get to call her own.
When Noi awakens again, Shin is gone.
That’s something he must think she hasn’t noticed, or maybe figures she’s too aloof to bother committing any attention to the finer detail of: he can’t sleep through the night. Though the room is warmed by sunlight, she reaches for his vacant spot in bed and finds it adversely cold to the touch. On his nightstand, his clock reads 07:30. She’s overslept.
Noi gouges the bleariness from one eye with her knuckle and hears a kettle hissing on the stove for a moment before going silent. GuraGura yawns from where he’s spread out on the carpet, sunbathing in the waxing brackets of light through the slotted-open window blinds. Shin’s visage moves across the suite’s kitchen. When he finally comes into view she’s still trying to shake herself awake.
“Morning,” he says levelly, like they didn’t just share a bed last night.
Noi mumbles what should be a mirrored greeting but she’s half-unconscious. He pushes a mug of coffee made up the way she likes into her hands, then moves to sit by her at the edge of the bed and drink his own, which he condemns to reflect his personality; the only people who drink their coffee black have troubled hearts, Duston had once told her, not at all referencing Shin because she hadn’t met him yet and there was no way he could have foreordained this, but it sticks anyway.
They don’t talk until she’s halfway down her cup and coming back to life.
“It feels,” she tells him, “like I can’t afford to be my own person. When we were children, the things I wanted made more sense.” She drums her fingers against the mug. There’s no rhythm to it. “Shin-Senpai, am I really so selfish?”
“Will my honesty make things worse?”
She gives him a wry smile. “I promise it won't.”
“Then, yes. But you’re allowed to be.” He sets his empty cup on the nightstand and says, “Noi, we’re not children anymore. You can still have the things you want.”
She feels as if she’s suddenly healed from a devastating injury, quickly and quietly becoming whole again. Her hand slides under his jawline to angle his mouth to hers and when they kiss he doesn’t immediately pull away. He stays still, growing warm under her touch; she comes apart from him first, her fingertips lingering under the five-o-clock shadow blocking out his face, which gives him the sort of appearance she can’t say no to.
Noi takes up her coffee again. “Thank you, Senpai.”
“Sure.” She reaches over to deposit her mug on his nightstand by his, and he asks her in a very small voice, “What are you doing, Noi?“
“Senpai,” she says, “Shin-Senpai. It’s all right.” She moves into his lap, framing his face with her hands partly just to feel his heat, and his jumping pulse on the underside of his swollen mouth. “Even if it’s just this once, even if it means I’m selfish. I’ve got you. That’s all I know makes sense around here anymore.”
(Maybe that’s the permission he’s been waiting for.)
“Fine,” he says, “that’s fine with me, Noi,” he’s got his hands around her waist, and this time the kiss is slow and full and easy. She doesn’t know anything about whatever it is they’re doing but she doesn’t really care; he’s a good lead, his tongue is possessive, his teeth feel good on her lower lip, and he’d already spent his whole life working with her inexperience, anyway. Showing her with and without words what works, what doesn’t, what might with a little bit more patience.
Always her Senpai, through and through.
In the evening, they meet up to walk GuraGura through the far gardens. Noi expects something to have changed about them, a small but significant thing maybe, like a miscalculation she doesn’t know she’s made and waits, half-terrorized, for the error to bring everything crumbling down. But then Shin casually provides his unoccupied hand and she takes it and the world doesn’t end.
“How are you feeling?” he asks later, when GuraGura holds them up trying to sniff out the perfect pissing spot.
“I’m fine. I’m good.” She absently runs her thumb over his. “You helped clear my head.”
“Least I could do.”
The sun is dying in the distance. The days are growing longer. Shin is looking at her like she's an extension of the landscape, certain yet changing, and she runs her fingers under his jaw to find that he still hasn't shaved.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Senpai? You don’t—”
Shin guides her hand and puts it flat against his chest, her fingers splaying over the divots of his pec by extension of practiced momentum—of knowing by now exactly what he expects of her. His heart thrums steadily under the pressure of her palm.
He says, “I owe you. Do you understand?”
Owes her for everything he’s already given back. His life restored, her altered fate, their souls entwined. When she looks at him she sees a malnourished boy across the table, offering his lifeline to her unscarred fingers, sunlight on their table and in his hair, and she thinks of him then as she does now: as this terrible, wonderful, beautiful thing, this impossible force, an incarnated amalgamation of all the terrible, wonderful, and beautiful parts of the world she had once been so willing to leave behind. It’s not easy, she realizes. It’s not easy to exist, or to build, or to make choices and have choices made for you, but he opens his mouth and she listens and finds beneath his words a timeline of possibilities.
(“You gave me my arms back. My hopes back. My life back. I’ll always owe you everything, don’t you understand?”)
Eventually she nods, then pulls him close because it’s all she wants anymore. Things like this—the softness of another body against her own, his breath on her nape—feel unreliable everywhere else but here. Here. Implying the existence of a there or somewhere else. The only worlds she knows are the places where life has happened to her, grounds full of history, the same rainless sky a witness to every inaction and reaction conjured as she takes what she has and builds upon it. Her heart so full of nearness to his she might come apart under the weight.
This is a life she can stand to endure so long as she has him. The future now hers to decide.
I try to say, I cannot teach you children
How to live.
—If not you, who will?