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Out of the Hole

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The holiday season always makes Shin a, there's not really a good word for it. He doesn't miss the Hole. He's not that dumb. And you can't really call a guy maudlin until he's crying into his beer, can you? Shin's never gotten that bad.

But, you know, it's true that they don't celebrate any of the same stuff in the sorcerers' world, and they don't celebrate things in any of the same ways, so it's always a little weird being reminded. Over on the other side it's time for rum cake and paper lanterns and stuff. Around here, it's business as usual. Today that meant stomping the crap out of a couple of black powder junkies—there's no end to the little jerks; they breed like rats—which is easy work, even if it's messy. One of them got off a half-decent deep freeze attack and took some chunks out of Shin's frozen-solid shoulder before Noi pounded the creep through the floor, so that was a mess to clean up.

Also it means that now Shin is particularly grateful for the hot water in En's mansion (try getting a long hot shower living anywhere in the Hole) as he showers the job off: the heat eases the last aches and twinges out of his shoulder as he scrubs blood and oily powder-smoke residue out of his hair and from under his nails. He wears one of the best masks the devil could spit up, but sometimes a job makes a mess of you anyway. Funny how being a cleaner can get so dirty.

He doesn't hear the knocking at the door until he's out of the shower, and then it sounds like it's been going on long enough to wear out somebody's patience—long enough that it's got a little edge of threat to it, a little hint of this door's going to be splinters if you don't get your ass out here pretty soon.

"Hang on," Shin calls, "I'll be right there!" He rubs a towel through his hair and grabs the first clean-ish clothes that come to hand, casual stuff he really only wears for lounging around the house or working out in the mornings. If it's En with another job for him, already, then he'll just have to cope.

Shin fumbles his glasses on and tugs open the door. It isn't En.

"Surprise!" Noi says, beaming at him. She looks like she hasn't been doing anything more strenuous than reading a book all day, even though just an hour ago they were both in the middle of a brawl. Shin wishes he knew how she does it.

"Surprise," Ebisu agrees—she and Fujita are about halfway hidden behind Noi, both of them dressed up pretty nice. "Let. Us. In."

"Sure, right," Shin says, stepping back from the door so they can tromp into his rooms. "What's the occasion, anyway?"

Noi shrugs. "I don't know," she says. "I grew up on this side. All I know is, you get all mopey about it every year, and as your partner, it's up to me to put a stop to that."

Fujita puts a box down on Shin's kitchen table and coughs into his hand. "Actually—"

"Okay," Noi admits, "actually it's up to all of us. I got some help."

Ebisu nods. "Help," she says, lifting the bag she's clutching in both spindly hands.

Shin drifts over to the table, eyeing the box suspiciously. The cardboard looks damp in a few spots, and there are way too many unpleasant possible explanations for that.

"Help," Ebisu says again, this time a demand instead of an explanation—when did Shin get so used to her that he could start telling the difference?—and Fujita abandons his post at the kitchen table to go to her aid. Shin lifts the lid of the box cautiously.

The smell that wafts out makes his mouth water and his heart clench with nostalgia, both at the same time, which is a bit of a weird combination. "Rum cake?" he says.

"It's traditional, right?" Noi asks. "I asked a couple of different people. And then Fujita didn't have anything better to do today—"

Fujita squawks and sputters at that, but doesn't actually contradict her—

"So I got him to go into the Hole to actually pick up the cake for you."

Shin swallows hard against the sudden, ridiculous surge of mushy feelings. "You didn't have to do anything like this," he says. "I mean, it's great, but I was—"

"You were moping," Noi insists, throwing an arm over his shoulders. "And now you don't have to anymore! And that cake smells pretty delicious, so I'm pretty sure everybody wins."

"And we get to try out a tradition from the Hole," Fujita says. "A lot of sorcerers really never learn a lot about—look out!"

Shin looks up; Noi's already moving, diving to catch Ebisu as the girl teeters and starts to topple backward off the chair she was standing on. "That was close," Shin says weakly. They're hanging paper lanterns, he realizes. Noi boosts Ebisu up on her shoulders so she can get back to the job, pushing thumb tacks into the wall near the ceiling. Shin peers closer. "You didn't pick those up in the Hole, did you?" he asks.

"Ebisu. Made. Them," Ebisu says solemnly.

"Thanks," Shin tells her. "They've got a really nice personal touch." And a definite sorcerers' aesthetic: lanterns in the Hole tend to be decorated with zodiac animals, for luck in the coming year, but these ones have been painted with bats and skulls and eyeballs, and they fizzle gently with smoke as they light up. One look at those and there's no way Shin could pretend that he's celebrating back in the Hole.

But honestly, he's not sure why he'd want to. He's got a good life here. His job's interesting, the benefits are good, and his partner might be a little crazy but she's a pretty great person to have at his back when things get rough. Even looking after Fujita and Ebisu—who are climbing back down to safe level ground now that the lanterns are hung—even that part's not so bad.

"Okay, guys," Shin says, "pull up some chairs, and let's have some traditional new year's rum cake."

"And no moping this year?" Noi asks.

"And no moping," Shin agrees. He can do that.