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Contract Signed in Stars

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Once upon a time:

 

When Aoi was six and Akira sixteen, Akira won them a trip to the amusement park. He had thrown his name into the drawing on a whim- he knew that Aoi would like to go, and it wasn’t as if there was any disadvantage as to entering.

Still, he hadn’t expected to actually win .

The day set on the vouchers was an unseasonably warm one in mid-December- he’d bundled Aoi up in the warmest coat he could find, but it hardly seemed necessary until the breeze blew cold around their exposed fingertips, biting with a telltale chill. He approached the ticket gate with Aoi’s hand in his, the ticket vouchers clasped in his free hand. The line was not long. The sun rose late in the midwinter days, and they’d arrived shortly after daybreak, spurred on by their own excitement.

“You’re the winners?” said the young woman at the gate, looking them over once with a kind smile as they nodded. She held out a sheet of paper on a clipboard and a brightly-colored pen as she took their tickets and Akira’s ID. Akira glanced down at it, then sighed on the bottom line. The attendant took back the clipboard and glanced from his ID card to his signature to his face and back. Satisfied, she handed back his ID.

“Well, I hope you two enjoy yourselves today. But do be careful,” said the attendant with a mysterious smile, “They say that a ghost haunts this park. And if you happen to be lingering aimless at sunset… You may just find yourself spirited away.”

“Thank you,” said Akira, though internally he scoffed. He was not here to pay heed to ghost stories out of season. Aoi at his side, they stepped together into the amusement park.

“That’s not true, is it?” asked Aoi, and Akira glanced down at her- he hadn’t realised that she had overheard.

He shook his head. “Of course not. Just a ghost story to make things exciting.”

Aoi still seemed a little hesitant, but she accepted Akira’s explanation, growing distracted by the towers piled high with plushies at the gift shop near the doors. Akira turned his gaze to the park proper while she looked. A small, decorative moat ran around the edge of the park, with bridges and closely-set flat stones alike allowing them to cross.

As Aoi finally pulled herself away from a display of pastel purple rabbits, a man in a bear suit waddled over to them, bending down to pass Aoi a bright blue balloon. She took it with eyes wide and sparkling, pointing at the bright white wings painted across their sides.

“Thank you,” she said dutifully and seriously. The bear suit, of course, said nothing back, but waved with an oversized yellow paw. Akira tied the balloon around her wrist- so it doesn’t fly away- and together they leapt the stepping stones, one by one into the park. Akira tugged Aoi towards the first ride near the river to spin fast around the teacups, and Aoi’s delighted shrieks pulled a laugh from him. The ferris wheel was next, and Aoi sat with face plastered to the glass as their car reached the wheel’s peak, the park spreading down below them better than any map.

At lunch they sat in the small plastic chairs of the food court, letting Aoi pile a plate high with cakes and sugar candy, with the condition that she picked something healthy for dinner. Though if he let her indulge in caramels bought with their extra arcade tickets, well. He’d already won them enough for matching sets of plastic bracelets from the dueling game as Aoi had cheered him on, spellbound. She was already picking up the rules of the game- in a few years, she might make an even better duelist than him.

After filling themselves on sweets, Akira made a point of dragging them towards the merry-go-round, though he could see Aoi’s eyes fixated on the distant peak of the roller coaster beyond the castle. She might have been a little too short for that one still, and the last thing he wanted to see was her disappointment. The carousel was set behind a plaza with a rectangular pond filled with lilypads and jumping water spouts, a pleasant melody spilling out to fill the air. They wandered around the side, towards the castle rising low behind the small thicket of trees done up in bright decorations and lights.

“Why don’t we stay for the fireworks?” he asked, and Aoi hesitated a moment, looking up at him, then nodded. The sun was only just beginning to set, and the park was full, people heading to and fro around them in uncoordinated streams. Then there was a surge- people pressed in around them, and in the bustle of the sudden crowd, Aoi’s hand fell from his.

“Aoi!” yelled Akira, but was shoved back as a group forced their way past. He landed on his palms as he fell, scrambling up to his feet without a moment’s delay- but that split second of falling was enough. He’d glanced, and he’d seen- the people that pushed him down had eyes of glass and expressions of paint atop porcelain. He cast his gaze around the crowd, head whipping from side to side as he tried to spot Aoi within it.

The park was not as it had been that morning. The sunset that dyed in sky in streaks of deliberate pastel gave way to a skyline pointed with gothic spires and blackened with the silhouette of the roller coaster, rising up with its wooden supports like a wall around the park. Then, off to his left he spotted it.The balloon- the bright blue balloon floated above the heads of the milling crowd, bobbing playfully in the wind. Akira forced himself towards it, pushing through the crowd without regard to whether his hand touched the warmth of skin or the chill of porcelain, towards the gap in the crowd where the balloon had stopped. Akira stumbled over his own momentum into the rounded clearing. “Aoi!”

Aoi’s balloon flew into the sky staining itself with inky darkness bleeding out from behind the clouds. The hand that she had taken was that of a bewitchingly beautiful young woman, strings dancing from the tips of her fingers. They ensnared Aoi’s wrist unawares, tying there sinister where the string had been gentle.

“What are you doing?” hissed Akira, stepping closer to Aoi and the woman.

“Nothing I don’t have the right to,” said the woman with a smile that did not reach her eyes.

Akira took another step forwards, until his legs would move no more. “What do you mean, have-”

And so too did his words freeze, unspoken in his throat, stuck there like crumbs he had no choice but to swallow down. A grimoire did appear at the woman’s call, and lazily did she flip its pages.Then, with a bored expression, the woman threw the contract to the ground between them. The words floated up and off the page, taunting him with spiteful glee- If you stay in the park until the sun sets, your sister’s soul will be forfeit.

“Really,” said the demon, smiling with a sinister grin, “I would have thought someone as meticulous as you would have read the contract before signing away his little sister’s soul.”

And indeed did his signature rise from the page, whirling through the air in characters of his own hand. Akira was so focused on tracking them that he didn’t realize how close the demon had come-

The demon tapped a single finger to his chest. The touch froze him from the bone, his limbs refusing to rebel as his mind demanded. The presence of the demon and her dark magic were irresistible. The demon leaned in close, and with a laugh did whisper-

“Goodbye, Zaizen Akira.”

 

And Akira found himself beyond the ticket gates, blinking away the last of the sunset in the warm glow of the orange streetlights.

No. The sun had not yet set. He still had time. Without even conscious realization, Akira threw himself forwards, back into the park.

“Your ticket!” called the attendant as, against the hands reaching at the back of his jacket, he forced his way through the gate. He had no ticket and no money for which to pay- but it didn’t matter. In his thoughts there was one thing, and one thing only- I need to save Aoi.

The world in his vision turned to bright smears of color and the grasping hands fell away, and though he could still feel that terrible chill creeping up from his feet, he forced himself to step forwards, against that invisible pressure.

And then, suddenly, he was free of it all, stumbling into the park with a sense of balance that had been thrown along with his spinning vision. He blinked away the black spots, keeping himself upright with a clear mind.

The plaza before the moat had been bustling with people in the hours before evening; Akira blinked back to awareness and found the concrete expanse of it deserted, save the yellow bear suit standing with balloons in hand. The suit approached, waddling closer- and only then did Akira see. It wasn’t a suit- it was, indeed, like a cartoon drawn into three dimensions before him, a bright yellow bear.

“Welcome,” said the bear, though its sewn-on mouth did not move. Akira nodded, still trying to take in the fact that there was no one in the suit, that for what all appearances was an oversized stuffed bear was speaking. Maybe, thought a small part of him, he’d passed out there in the plaza- all he’d eaten that day, after all, had been sugar.

“You’re here to save someone?” asked the bear, and again Akira nodded.

“My sister. Do you know where she is?”

“Sitting on the angel’s throne, probably. The park has been without an angel for too long,” said the bear, separating the balloons in its paws. The bear handed him a single red balloon, black wings painted pointed across its surface.

“If you intend on staying human, you’ll need it.” Akira could not possibly imagine what that meant, but accepted it all the same, tying the grey string in a tight knot around his wrist. Continued the bear- “If you can make it all the way to the demon, it will save you. Remember. It’s the only way to leave the park before sunrise.”

“Thank you,” Akira said. The bear nodded, blinking long and slow as he did. Akira wasn’t sure if it was reassuring or disconcerting.

“I try to help,” said the bear, then turned to waddle back into the gift shop. For the first time, Akira noticed a small child clinging to the back of its leg, turning their head to look back at him.

“By morning,” said the child, their voice scarcely more than a whisper. “Remember. Because when the sun rises, everything you care about goes away.”

And then they were gone, vanished into the darkness of the shuttered-up gift shop. Akira wasted no time in watching them go, instead turning down towards the entrance plaza. The water was no longer the tiny moat with artificial current it had been in the daylight. Now it was a great expanse of a thing, its current whipping fast along at its center, bubbling and frothing at its banks. Where there had once been a bridge, there was nothing but crumbled stone, waves lapping hungry over their surface where they jutted uneven out of the water, disturbing the current with white streaks. A sign with gently drifting letters proclaimed in bleeding bold- NO SWIMMING .

When Akira slipped down to the water’s edge, instead of his own reflection, what greeted him there was a blur of color running from the inside of his head. Flicking through and bleeding away without rhyme or reason- his father, wishing him well on his first day of high school. A challenge set before a computer screen, taken of a very particular sort of desperation, the nerves of it still rushing through his pounding heart. His first meeting with Aoi, staring up at him silent behind the protection of a stuffed doll.

Akira stood with a ringing in his ears and a hollowness in his head. He didn’t have any more time to waste. He looked out towards the stepping stones, but they were nowhere to be found- save the jagged remains of the bridge, which looked more likely to be the death of him than any help. But just as he’d resigned himself to having to walk the outskirts of the moat there came a motion, sudden but fluid.

From the depths of the river began to rise a boat. Its boards were rickety as they sliced up through the water, groaning under an invisible weight like a ghost ship across the open ocean.

The girl sitting primly with oar across her lap was much the same, fabric of her dress fading from white to brown and black at their tattered ends. He thought he caught a glint of color, from somewhere beneath, but even that was gone the longer he watched her approach.

“It’s quite rude to stare,” said the girl as the boat stopped at the edge of the shore, her eyes wise beyond their years and seeming to stare into his very soul. Were they, he wondered, made up of stardust the same as the spread of the sky above?

Akira shook his head, averted his eyes. “Sorry,” he said, “I was wondering if you could take me over the river.”

“No human soul could pass without toll,” said the girl, looking him over with cold eyes, “and I’m afraid you have very little left to offer.”

Akira dug through his pockets- he’d taken a job just the previous night, and while what remained wasn’t enough for a ticket, it was surely enough to satisfy a child-

“Unless it’s gold, don’t bother.” She sounded all the part a dismissive, disinterested young girl with a station far above what her appearance would suggest. “Your money has no meaning here. Only the finest of treasures are worthy of the toll.”

The finest of treasures- if Akira had ever possessed something like that, he wouldn’t have had to count on luck to bring Aoi here in the first place. Akira scrambled for something else to barter away.

“And before you try and offer me your soul,” said the little girl with eyes that bore into him with a deathly weight, “understand that it isn’t lovely enough at all. Only beautiful and rare things are welcomed here. Your presence is… unbearably common.”

The thought of offering such a thing hadn’t so much as crossed his mind. But her words then gave him an idea, and he said- “I do have something.”

The girl hummed, playing with the handle of the oar in her hands. She leaned forwards and said, looking vaguely pleased, “Well, don’t keep me waiting. What is it worth?”

Akira considered his words carefully. “It’s the only one of its kind, and it’s as precious as a human soul. But you must let me across before I give it to you.”

For a long moment Akira thought that she would refuse- certainly the gaze she regarded him with was not kind. But she leaned back with a slump of her shoulders- just momentary before she corrected herself back to that impeccable posture again. “Well,” said the girl, “get in then. But I will throw you out if you lie to me.”

Akira moved to step into the boat, but paused at what he saw there.

The girl did not have legs. Rather, hiding beneath the darkest of her rags was a mermaid’s tail, curled and poised like primly folded legs beneath her. The girl laughed as he hesitated, one foot in the boat, one still firmly on the shore. It was not a kind sound- cruelly honest, rather, as if this was the outcome she had expected. “Do you balk at sharing passage with a monster so much?”

“No,” said Akira, stepping into the boat, settling himself onto the plank seat opposite the girl as it rocked in the current. He knew not what would happen if he fell in, only that he had no desire to find out. He doubted the reason swimming across the river was banned was for lack of trying. The boat was far too small, and Akira found himself with his knees curled up uncomfortably close to his chest. He looked her in the eyes and said- “Just wondering why you need a boat if you’re a mermaid.”

Without a move from either of them, the boat slid into smooth motion, crossing the river in a perfectly straight line- as if it was gliding above the water rather than perpendicular to the current.

“Because the river takes,” said the mermaid, looking down into the clear water. Her hands remained neatly folded over the broken oar in her lap, but they twitched, as if wanting to reach out and touch. “Just like the sun. Daybreak takes away the stars, and all the things we’ve ever thought.”

Akira said nothing, and they dropped into silence scored only by the quiet rush of the water against stone and wood. If he asked, he wondered, would the mermaid recall anything at all? The rest of the trip went without a word- for indeed did Akira blink and suddenly find the boat resting against the opposite shore.

“Your fare,” said the mermaid with the shrill confidence of someone that thought they’d caught a liar at their own game. Akira met her with just the same.

“Here,” said Akira, pulling the clasp from the tie of his uniform and holding it out to the mermaid. She stared at it with a frown crossing tight on her lips. Akira explained- “Our parents. They’re no longer alive. All we have left is memories. It’s what remains of their souls.”

The mermaid scoffed, but reached out to take her treasure. When their hands brushed, her small ones were cold as the winter river beneath them. “And so you pull the stars down from the sky.”

Akira glanced up, following her gaze- and indeed were there more dark places in the sky than the radiance it had possessed before he had crossed the river. Something hollow popped like the start of a headache in his temples. Akira stepped out of the boat. The mermaid made no motion to stop him.

“You win,” said the mermaid as she and her ship sank down into the river, “And I must admit. You’re much more clever than you seem. Quite the demon yourself…”

Akira moved to turn away- he was as human as Aoi. The prattlings of a defeated mermaid were as much a fantasy as the creature herself. But. He turned back. “What’s your name?”

“My name?” The mermaid froze, her wide eyes stunned. “She calls me-”

In the space between one breath and the next, with a flutter of wings did the ghost turn golden to fireflies, scattering off to spin galaxies in the air around him, fleeing from the touch of his fingertips as he reached for the brush of them in the wind. Akira watched helpless as they turned circles in the air, floating up into the distorted skyline of the park to dance amongst the spires of the castle towers. Akira blinked, and they vanished from sight. For all he knew, they could have become the stars, glittering in his eyes more numerous than any he’d ever seen, standing bright and stark despite the multicolored electric glow of the park below.

He turned his attention back to the world before him. There were a few different roads embarking from that plaza across the river, but only one that he and Aoi had taken. Thinking to retrace their steps, Akira started down the path. It twisted in a way that was strange and unfamiliar, looping around the shattered teacups and twisting through the arcade, all its machines gone dark and lifeless, rising like a labyrinth from the dark corners of a building whose walls he could not see. He could almost feel the sands of time slipping through his fingers as the dust he trailed his fingertips through, searching for the end of the path. Without so much as a glimpse of another human, it held an air of almost unbearable loneliness, and for a moment, he thought that perhaps he’d chosen the wrong way.

But just as he moved to turn back, a glimmer caught his eye- the flicker of a red neon light, just a weak thing struggling against the dark far in the distance yet straight ahead-

Akira stepped forwards, and it was as if he reached it in a moment, a wide open space, hanging neon sign dying with a final buzz. He could practically feel as the dark fell away with his every step into the impossibly bright starlight again. Beneath the afternoon sun the food court had been a bustling thing, filled with families and friends sitting beside strangers, packed tight into the wooden tables and plastic chairs as lines to the stalls snaked between them.

Now it was as a ghost town, both the savory and sweet smells caught up and swept away by some distant wind-

“Hey, customer! Over here!”

Or perhaps not. Perched at the very edge of the food court was a truck, its side flap opened and vendor preparing something gently sizzling inside. A fold-out table and chair with a single purple balloon tied to its arm were placed at its side, occupied by a young boy.

Do not eat the food of the Underworld - Akira was not sure if the rule held true in the amusement park dyed in starlight, but decided not to tempt fate. Saving Aoi meant nothing if he was not there at her side when they returned. Besides, he thought, with a bit of a huff, he doubted that they accepted coins and bills. Still, he approached the truck. The menu read as any other, though the pictures sizzled and steamed with a faint warmth and the letters danced a playful rondo with each other. If Akira couldn’t already take a guess at what it said, he wouldn’t have been able to read it at all. He shook his head and stepped back- no need to give himself a migraine over something he wasn’t going to eat in the first place.

“Not hungry?” asked the hot dog vendor, waving his tongs across the counter at Akira. It was a little chiding- and indeed Akira found himself hungry as the smell of food wafted over towards him. But it was a chance he couldn’t take. Again he shook his head.  

“They’re good,” mumbled the boy sitting at the table. Before the boy stood a mountain of food impossibly tall- piled higher on the table than the boy himself was tall, perhaps.

“Another time, maybe,” he said, and the two seemed to accept that with a shrug from the vendor and a small munch from the boy.

For a moment they stood in a triangle of silence, save the vendor working at the grill. It didn’t seem that they would offer him any sort of challenge- or perhaps they had, and he’d already passed. So Akira, thinking this might be his only chance, asked, “What happened to the last angel?”

The boy and the hot dog vendor exchanged a glance. There was much weight there that Akira narrowed his eyes at, trying to understand. Finally, said the boy with a quiet sort of flatness- “She died.”

So she’d perished, and it was Aoi kidnapped to take her place.

“What was her name?”

The atmosphere between them suddenly went cold. He’d suspected as much, after what had happened with the mermaid- but for just a moment, it felt as if they were regarding him with something terribly dark.

“We don’t have those, here,” said the boy, breaking the silence. The atmosphere returned to its sparkling whimsicality- almost as if it had never changed- but Akira knew better, and resolved to speak his words more carefully.

Akira remembered the words of the mermaid who had carried him across the river. She calls me - “But surely you’re called something ?”

The boy and the vendor exchanged a glance, then a shrug. “Not particularly,” said the vendor, “There’s only so many of us around, you know? Those of us that did forgot them a long time ago anyway.”

“And you’re fine with that?” Akira asked. The boy at the table, reaching for a pile of sugar stars on the other end of the pile startled, and the whole tower came crashing down around his fingers.

Withdrawing to sit properly at the table again instead of half-slumped over it, the boy mumbled, “It’s fine.”

Somehow, Akira hardly believed that. He approached the table, picking up one of the sugar candies from the spilled-over pile on the table. The balloon, the candies- they were all things that Aoi had tugged his hand and asked for with quiet words and bright eyes. Akira was not one to believe in fate, nor in coincidence- but in this place, cleaved down the center of them both- “Can I take these?”

What had caught his eye were sugar stars, gleaming with hints of gold like their namesake.

“Are you going to eat them?” asked the vendor to the boy. The boy looked at the pile before him, studying it seriously, then shook his head.

“You’re not going to eat either, right?” said the boy, but not to the vendor- Akira peered around the mountain of sweets obscuring his vision and saw, across the table, another boy- or perhaps a young man, sitting with knees drawn up to his chest, shoes resting on the very edge of the chair. Every time Akira’s gaze flicked away, the boy seemed to be a different age- from small as Aoi to not much younger than he himself. If the others thought that he was strange, they said nothing of it. The young man, slowly, gave a half-shake of his head.

The first boy frowned. “You should,” he said, pushing some of the sweets towards him, “they’re good.”

The other boy did nothing, said nothing, just stared at something that none of them could see.

“Well, I guess that settles it,” called the vendor, not without a note of melancholy, “help yourself.”

Akira nodded his thanks and picked up a handful, rolling the small sugar stars around in his palm a moment. He had, at first, thought they way they glimmered on the table a trick of the light. But in his hand too did they shimmer like fragments of stardust. Then, sudden, causing Akira to jump-

“If you take something,” said the second boy, looking at him with eyes suddenly startlingly clear, “you have to give something in return. And if you give, you’ll be granted. This place doesn’t forget a debt.”

Akira thought a moment. Here his coin meant nothing. He searched his pockets absently, fingers brushing against the hint of something plastic and cheap. The prizes he’d won at the arcade- the ones that Aoi had insisted on matching with hers. Akira pulled the bracelets out from his pocket. He held them out, then set them softly on the table with a clink of plastic against plastic. A matching set was a small price to pay, if it was acceptable. The boy just nodded and curled into himself again. It seemed that from him Akira would hear no more.

“Thank you,” he said again, then started off towards the far exit of the food court as he slipped the candies into his empty pocket.

“Good luck!” came the chorus from behind him, and Akira waved over his shoulder as he set off at a jog for the next area. He knew it well, and he ached with a strange sort of anticipation to reach it.

The carousel was at the center of the park, set to overlook a wide plaza with a clear stone pond full of coin, within which rested islands of flowers and rosebushes. Though in the real world there were paths on either side of the plaza in dappled tile, Akira found no such thing in the fantasy. The path that cut through this version of the world was singular, dividing the rectangular pond and rose garden nearly in half, a line straight to the carousel’s gates. There was no sign of the crowd, the demon, of Aoi, and Akira’s heart sank. But the bear had told him as much, and he’d known there was no throne here.

He continued on.

Akira stepped through the strange path cleaved through the center of the pond. Water leapt above his head then vanished- reappearing to land natural in the pond on his other side. As if for the water, the space that he was walking simply didn’t exist. Akira paused a moment, staring down at a rose that had been parted neatly down its center. A lazy bumblebee sat with half its wings clipped- living as half an existence, but seemingly unbothered. It was strange, but he didn’t have time to dwell. He continued his jog towards the path that hit its end at the carousel queue.

Stuffed animals were lined up one after the other between the white picket fences leading up to the carousel gates. A sweet-looking fairy dragon with butterfly wings, and a chunky yellow dragon with a construction scoop for a hand. A pair of pure white dragons with eyes of blue; a pair of dragons with galaxies spinning in their eyes. Akira glanced up to the front of the line, and half-expected them to shift while his attention was away. There was no attendant at the head of the queue; still, with a gleam in the corner of his eye did Akira catch a flash of something nearly thin as air as the gate sprang open and the animals vanished in flickers of dust.

All except one, and Akira approached it with a wary sort of anticipation. This one he knew- it was Aoi’s. It was one of the few things that she had been able to take from their home after… After what, exactly? Akira shook his head, trying to make sense of the empty spaces rattling through it.

Still, Akira did not pick it up. Aoi hadn’t brought the plush to the park, and he had nothing he could leave. Instead he stepped up onto the quiet carousel, devoid both of light and movement. Strange scenes were painted onto the central pillar, scenes of a girl who had wandered alone into a bright wonderland’s open gates. Analog clocks were set above each portrait, each frozen at a different time. He moved quiet through the rows of animals, determined to make it to the other side, but was stopped by a strange sight.

Set into the carousel was a tea table and chairs, steam rising from the cups set chipped but elegant in their places. Sitting at the delicately-carved chair was a marionette, staring at Akira with frozen limbs and dead black eyes, sloppily painted on. It was an imitation of beauty that had at some point been cast away, with its tangled lavender hair and red strings tied up in knots around its limbs. It slumped uselessly over the table as Akira reached out a hand, compelled to try and rouse it.  

The carousel lurched to life, lights dancing in a multicolored whirl as the animals rose and fell in a mockery of a leaping dance- and so too did the marionette, wrapping him up in its strings before he could do more than lift a hand in protest.

The clocks too did begin their own sweeping dance- and with each tick of their hands was he dragged backwards, limbs moving with a will not his own- like the magic of the demon when Aoi’s hand had fallen from his, a body traitor to his own will.

“What’s your name?” asked Akira- if his mouth was the only thing he could reliably move, then he would use it. It would mean nothing if dawn broke while he was trapped here .

“Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to,” scoffed the marionette, looking down at him with those flat eyes. It sent a shiver up Akira’s spine. So clearly were the marionette’s movements stilted, jerky and imprecise. Though she spoke with the fluidity of human words, it only served to accentuate her artificial nature.

“Let me out,” demanded Akira instead.

“And what are you going to give me?” asked the marionette, pulling lazily on the strings of her fingers. Akira felt something in his leg give out, and fell abrupt to a knee between a golden pegasus and pitch-black hound.

Softly did the marionette’s strings begin to curl around his throat, the touch of them almost teasing. Akira swallowed down the panic bubbling up instinctive from his chest. He had to think, to keep his thoughts free of panic. He’d given away something terribly important to get into the park, he knew it- but what he had given he couldn’t recall. Just that he needed to make it to Aoi, to keep the balloon safe, to escape the two of them together-

Aoi was the only family he had.

Family? Ah, thought Akira, and said- “I’ll give you my name.”

The marionette scoffed with an expression that did not change. “A name? What makes you think I want a name?

“Well,” said Akira, forcing himself to his feet against the press of the strings into his knees, his shoulders- “I can’t give you my soul. I don’t have any memories left to trade. So if you don’t have a name, I can at least give you that.”

“What makes you think I don’t have a name?” sneered the marionette, again twirling those knotted strings around her fingers- but the pull of them was nowhere near as strong as it had been when she had first reached out.

“Even if you have it, you can’t use it, can you?” asked Akira, and the marionette had nothing to say in return. But around him did the strings begin to loosen, and Akira pulled against their weakened resistance, propelling himself to his feet and walking slowly towards the marionette, who seemed quite limp on the strings herself. He reached into his pocket, pulling out the candies. As he approached, the marionette lifted her head, eyes drawn to the radiance pooled in his hand.

“Zaizen. I give you the name Zaizen,” said Akira, taking her wooden hand in his and pouring a handful of the candies into it. She lifted her other, brushing a moment against his as he retreated.

“You are strange. So very strange,” said the marionette, her hands full of sugar candies gleaming like galaxies in her upturned palms. Slowly did the light of them reflect in eyes no longer so chipped. “What human would have thought to give a puppet a name…?”

And so there did the marionette unravel, pulling into threads that tied up the candies and vanished somewhere beyond the edges of his vision. The strings binding him went limp, coiled up a ball in his hands to rest harmless as a cat’s ball of yarn. He slipped that too into his pocket, a comfortable weight in the empty space.

Without further ado did the carousel slow to a stop, leaving Akira right before the exit steps. Only then could he hear above the beating of his heart the music. It was an old tune- nostalgic in a way that he couldn’t place. Akira stepped off of the carousel and the melody vanished, lost as its lights went dark and its animals again fell to a lifeless rest. Akira glanced backwards, just the slightest of peeks over his shoulder- but it was a sight almost unbearably melancholy, and so again he set his sights forwards. The path ahead was singular, an unmarked line leading straight ahead into the forest. That, too, was like the river. Certainly in the waking world there had been a few trees beyond the carousel to frame it picturesque, but it was nothing like the grove facing him.

And then, just as he prepared himself to step into the shadowed path- a shifting of the world, the tremendous roar of something rising from the earth. It almost threw him from his feet, but just barely did he keep his balance.

“Really?” asked Akira, staring up at the ghostly tower that had risen from the trees. It was an intimidating silhouette that split the rounded skyline of the forest- to have such a thing in an amusement park so whimsical seemed almost contrary to the point. Its spire was gothic and branched; faintly could he see it descend into the slope of a roof proper. Akira sighed and stepped into the trees. There was no way for him to tell how much time had elapsed, but he doubted that the sunrise was inclined to take its time.

As if responding to his thoughts, it took not a moment before a young man showed himself, standing rigid with back to an ancient fir whose branches seemed to touch the sky itself. Akira did not recoil before him, but certainly was his aura dangerous, a predator perched and ready to leap should he find himself provoked. His mask- though not of devil or demon or monstrous spirit- was quite fearsome in its own way, of how it seemed to make his eyes glow catlike and unearthly behind it.

“Ahead is the home of ghost,” said the young man in the mask. In the shadows it was impossible to see his face, to see what lay beyond save the eyes. “She’ll want a price, of course.”

Unlike the people he had met before, the young man in the mask seemed uninterested in pleasantries. That only made Akira more certain that time was drawing short. He said- “I’d give up my life to get Aoi out of here.”

The young man scoffed. His mask did nothing to hide the derision in his eyes. “There’s no one worth your life.”

Akira surged forwards to argue, just as the young man stepped to his side. The young man passed- like a gunshot echoed a flash of light. In that moment before he was forced to shut his eyes, to throw up an arm to save his vision- in that moment, he saw what the young man had been guarding. It was a line of coffins, lined up delicate at the entrance to a graveyard queue. As soon as it had come the light faded-

And then Akira found himself alone.

He took brisk steps to the coffins in their row of three. The graves had no name, no markers to indicate to whom they belonged or marks of their family before them. Through the transparent covers did Akira see three faces, eyes closed and expressions prim and proper, the resting dead. But they did not, it seemed to Akira, seem at peace. If he had to put a name to the aura about them… Then he’d choose sadness, perhaps. Loss, too, seemed a fitting word.

Thoughts whirling, Akira stepped through the gothic arch between the trimmed hedges rising high over his head to find a red-rope queue. Though the queue proceeded labyrinthine through the cemetery, Akira propelled himself over the velvet ropes one after the other- he had no more time for the facade of following the queue, not when the air around him seemed sparked for a change. Somewhere far in the distance a bell tolled- and the sound rang in his ears long after it had faded, blurring the chimes one into the next, making it impossible to count. Akira could only focus on closing the distance between him and the manor.

Akira was breathing hard by the time he dashed through the garden gate and leapt up the final few stairs to the manor, stumbling at the very top, but catching himself with one hand against the stone and one outstretched to the dark wood of the doors. They swept open with scarcely a brush of his fingers below the steel knockers, leaving him once again stumbling with his momentum inside.

The mansion spun with ghosts, though not of the kind that Akira might have imagined. The setting seemed most suitable for ghosts in the finery of the old days of a faraway country, what with powdered wings and bustle skirts and thick paper fans a pale imitation of a journeyman’s account. But the ghosts that he saw milling about the manor were not so antiquated a thing. Rather they seemed people of his same era, what with business suits and cocktail dresses and hints of what Akira imagined would have been gold jewelry around their wrists.

With a slam did the manor doors shut behind him, and so did another set open. Beneath the curving staircases did open a spectacle, flashing with hints of faded splendor. Akira proceeded through the doors, into the ballroom. The ghosts here danced in luxury to the faint strains of a tune that almost hurt Akira’s head to hear. He fought against instinct to tune out the melody, rushing through the ghosts that vanished as he brushed past. There were no shortage of doors- both on the main floor, and from what glimpses Akira could catch of the balcony past the wide sweep of colors and ghosts spinning through the air as if they had forgotten where the ground was.

All the doors were blocked by that same velvet red rope- except there . Tucked away into the corner of the ballroom was a single open door, and Akira raced towards it, charging through the ghosts who ignored his existence entirely. In the phantom of someone’s laughter, he thought that perhaps he couldn’t be seen by them at all.

Slipping through the opened door, Akira had half expected to find himself in somewhere related to the ball- a library or parlor, buzzing with conversation that he couldn’t hear, or perhaps even a bedroom where someone had snuck away to get a breath away from the festivities. At the very least, he had thought of a kitchen, bustling with ghostly servants cooking lavish meals with no color or scent.

But this room was different.

This room, unlike the entryway or the ballroom, was almost achingly modest with only a few tables scattered about with nothing atop them, a faded old armchair with scratches up its side, and little else. Empty frames hung plentiful on the walls, obscuring the peeling wallpaper that had lost its color to the dirty walls beneath.

Stifling did the room carry with it the weight of the dead.

“Stop,” said the ghost, appearing before Akira dressed in black and long white hair flickering in a breeze that Akira could not feel. “If you want to proceed, then I demand a sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice. Not a deal?” Akira stared up at the ghost with eyes defiant. He’d learned the script of this world well enough, and he didn’t think it likely to change now. The ghost, too, met his gaze without flinching away. Her beauty was something ethereal, carried with her the hints of lavender and ozone.

“How much,” said the ghost, towering over Akira as she floated in the air before him, “are you willing to sacrifice to save that girl?”

My life , came the answer, instinctive as it had in the forest outside. But the words of the masked man echoed through him like a gunshot- No one is worth your life.

Perhaps, thought Akira, that hadn’t been a judgement. Perhaps it had been a clue, given in the only way he could. Akira glanced around the empty room- but what could a ghost want for if not their life? He took it all in again- the empty portraits, the photographs faded beyond recognition, the thin lines that seemed to cross them all. He reached out to pick up the closest one, and clear as day did he hear it- the sound of a sharp inhale from the ghost that needed not air to breathe.

He said, before he could stop himself, knowing it was the right answer all the same- “A body. Souls exist here independent of physical form, don’t they? I’ll trade away a physical form if you tell me how to save her.”

The ghost said nothing, and for a moment, Akira feared that he had offended her in a way he hadn’t understood- certainly there was enough of that still in this world.

“That’s what you want, isn’t it?” said Akira to the ghost, whose focus seemed to be on something far, far away.

“What I want? What I want is-” abruptly did the ghost stop, gaze flickering just over his shoulder, but when Akira glanced behind him, there was nothing there save the empty frames of photos and portraits atop a table that seemed to have shifted without a sound.

“Fine,” said the ghost, holding out a hand, “I accept your offer. Touching the world of the living again wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

He reached out to take the young woman’s hand- and stumbled straight through. The faint strains of music and the ghostly aura flickering through from the ballroom in that moment vanished, plunging him again into the dark.

Akira was completely and utterly alone.

He glanced down at himself, turning his hands over, flexing his fingers, digging nails into his palms- though he still felt it, that phantom stretch of muscle and pressure, it was as if it was through a layer of radio static, like touching a world made of cotton. Akira realized, with a start, that the red string was still tied around his wrist. When he pulled the balloon down by the string he succeeded. When he tried to reach out and scrape his finger alongside the painted-on wings, his fingertips passed straight through. Good , thought Akira, though it was with a puzzled frown- they could still escape. The bear hadn’t said anything about being able to touch the balloon. He’d have to believe it was enough.

A small door swung open soundless while he was considering, and from it Akira could see the outside world again, the forest giving out towards a grand path paved in brick of white and brown.

“The Angel’s Coronation,” said an echo of a voice whose origin Akira could not see, “At the very top of the castle when the night is darkest. Ambush the demon there, and you might yet still have a chance.”

And around him did the mansion disappear, its pieces crumbling down into stardust and raindrops that floated through him gentle as they settled and vanished into the ground.

The castle was not far- Akira could see its towers over the tips of the thinning trees. He ran through the forest path as gradually it widened, each time expecting to feel the familiar weight of his body against the ground and each time feeling nothing- he didn’t dare look down at his feet for the fear that if he did, he’d forget how to move forward like the ghosts dancing stationary through the ballroom air.

Even as the dark silhouette it had become, the castle was a beautiful thing. Its tower windows danced up upon the stars and the shadows of it curled long and enchanting towards the moat around it. Akira climbed the castle steps and declared himself before the doors, calling up his demands- “I want a meeting with the demon.”

For a moment, there was nothing but an unearthly stillness as Akira held the breath he didn’t need to take- and then, with a slow creak did the castle doors swing outwards, passing through him as he squeezed his eyes closed on instinct, bracing for the impact that never came. The hall was dark and wide, its shadows deep around the pillars that supported the ceiling. A grand staircase lined in gold curled its way up to the tower roof behind the throne drenched in radiance. Akira stepped inside, pacing up the red carpet with shoes that made not a sound.

Aoi sat hollow-eyed on the throne, a crown placed lopsided on her head and white wings bursting out from her back. What surrounded them was all the finery that the castle could afford- jewels set into golden vases and tapestries covering the cold stone of the walls- and yet Akira was blind to it all, save the black and white of the demon and the angel.

“So,” said the demon, the lilt of her voice curling with casual amusement- as a master watching a dog chasing their own tail. “You did make it all the way here. Though I’m afraid you’ve come quite ill-prepared.”

Akira had no more sugar candies with which to barter, no more strings- just the phantom of a balloon tied with strange weight to his wrist and his own soul. Neither could he give away, neither could he sell-

And yet he still possessed more than enough. He walked to the throne with head held high, hoping that Aoi’s gaze would track him- but she only stared far into the distance, seeing something invisible to the world.

“I’ve come,” said Akira, taking a knee and lowering his head to the throne, “to pledge you my loyalty. The next promise I make to you will be my declaration of intent to serve you.”

“Oh?” said the demon, curling her way around the throne to stand beside it, rather than behind. One hand stayed possessively on the edge of its gilded crest, as if she couldn’t quite bear to part with it.

Akira watched her with narrowed eyes, upturned with the tilt of his head. “But first. Aoi. You haven’t done anything to her?”

“Of course not,” said the demon, flicking absently through the pages that had risen from the aether to dance around her free hand. “Do remind me of your name again?”

“Akira,” he bit out, and the demon tapped a page from the floating grimoire.

With a crackle and a surge, again did those mocking words of the contract float - damned by his own signature hovering half burned-away in the very edge of his vision. Continued the demon, flippant- “No one would dream of harming the new angel.”

“But-”

The demon silenced him with a mere wave of her hand as the rest of the book vanished into the void. “A contract cannot be written twice by the same hand. I can accept your loyalty, but it will not drag your sister back from her duty. The duty you thrust upon her.” A pause, then- “And I’m still waiting for your promise. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

Slowly did Akira rise, stepping up to the throne to slowly reach a tentative a hand up to Aoi’s cheek- a moment of hesitation, at the very last opportunity. He wiped the single tear away from Aoi’s cheek, and the mark of it smeared from deep blue into the bright green of a clover. He muttered, soft though he knew the demon would hear- “I’m sorry, Aoi.”

The demon watched on and laughed. “Why bother being so sentimental? You have given up everything, boy… Your memories, your name, your body… You don’t even have blood binding you to that girl, anymore.”

“Blood,” muttered Akira, and the demon hummed an interested tone. He let his hands curl around Aoi’s shoulders, pulling her into a tight hug as the demon scoffed. “Have blood binding me to her?”

Akira’s head snapped up, meeting the demon with the challenge of a man on his final gambit.   

“I never did,” he said, and snatched Aoi off the throne. He felt her sharp inhale just as much as he heard it, a sudden sign of life- and he was sure, then, that all had not been lost. With Aoi in his arms, feeling her grip lock instinctive around his neck, Akira bolted from the throne room, up the grand staircase behind it.

“Follow them!” yelled the demon, summoning up fragments of light bright as the sun. From the depths of them did a banshee shriek, clawing her way up into the night that had passed its darkest moment. Akira leapt up the stairs two at a time, unwilling to stop, unwilling to slow, even as Aoi bundled up in his arms began to lose the feathers from her back, melting away with the fragments of the sun.

“It’ll be okay,” he said to Aoi as they ascended the stairs, “Don’t worry, Aoi. I’m sorry for leaving you there so long.”

Aoi blinked once, twice- the dead scales before her eyes crumbled into dusty tears. “Brother?”

Was that what they were to each other? Akira was having a hard time remembering. It didn’t matter. He’d protect her. They’d escape together. That he had promised, even if he could no longer remember why.

The world behind his heels fell to pieces, lost in the darkness of the minutes before the dawn. One by one did the stars begin to streak across the sky, leaving trails of glimmering dust in their wake as they fell to the earth far beyond the horizon. Akira leapt up the steps two at a time, ignoring the sensation of needles passing through the fabric of his soul, punching holes through which no strings could follow.

At the final step, just as they arrived on the rooftop- a final needle, but not through him-

The balloon popped, and it sent a jolt up Akira’s arm that sizzled and crackled with the backlash of failed magic. With scraps of red rubber did black feathers fall to the ground behind them, coating the steps in dappled monochrome. Useless did Akira drag the red string on his wrist behind them as he ran across the tower roof, settling Aoi down on her feet gentle next to the wall.

“Stay here,” he told Aoi, who seemed to struggle to stand, instinctively falling limp. He helped her to sit, and once he was sure she was safe, began to cross the roof again, towards the place where the raised stones at the edge gave way to the sky.

Though it seemed she struggled to form the words, the call came- “Be careful!”

He knew. He would. But if he had to throw himself in danger, he would do so without a moment’s thought.

With a great flap of her dark wings did the demon land at the top of the tower. Akira climbed up onto the outer rim of brick, swaying against the gust of wind, praying that his balance would not desert him. The demon watched him and laughed, derisive. From behind did the first rays of the morning sun begin to throw her in silhouette. “And what do you think you’re doing there? Your wings were clipped. You can’t leave here, and certainly not carrying her.”

Akira shook his head, squinting against daybreak. To the demon, Akira held out his hand. “Let’s save this world.”

“What exactly,” said the demon, “are you proposing?”

Akira smiled more sinister than the demon. “Exactly what it sounds like.”

One step, two- slowly did the demon approach, and steadfast against the wind threatening to blow him off the tower did Akira stand.

Then, before him did the demon stop, looking not at his outstretched hand but level into his gaze. “Over and over you defy my expectations.”

“I’m honored to hear it,” said Akira, looking down at the demon with a glint in his eyes. Whatever she saw there, the demon laughed. A delicate sound, a victorious sound.

The demon took his hand- and with grip ironclad did Akira step back to drag them both off the castle tower.

“Brother!”

Fireworks burst in the air around them, dyeing the vanishing stars in remnants of red and purple and yellow, fragments of flowers and planets and dreams of magic. And together did they fall.

“What have you done?” spat the demon, though her eyes were wide with surprise. She tried to pull her wrist back, to leave Akira to his demise- but Akira refused to let go as they tumbled headfirst towards the ground.

“I promise I’ll come back,” said Akira over the rush of the air around them.

You... ” said the demon, but it was without the venom, the poise of her earlier words. If Akira had to put a name to the emotion that tinged her voice, perhaps he would have chosen touched . Perhaps he would have chosen grateful . As it was, he’d like to get to know her a bit better before he guessed.

“I gave you my word. My promise is our new contract.”

The demon closed her eyes, breathed a quiet breath, and time did so seem to slow as the black bled from the demon’s wings, the shed feathers ripping apart the contract pages, dousing them in the center of a firework of their own making before the former demon righted them, pulling Akira into her arms and setting them gentle on the ground before the castle.

She set him down before the castle gates as brick by brick it began to disappear, dissolving down into specks like fireflies dancing before burning out their life. He faced her evenly.

“When did you realize..?” began the angel, then shook her head. The stars, one by one, were fading fast from the sky. No longer did it seem so jet black, hints of blue creeping its vines deep through the cracks of it. The darkest moments before the dawn had come and gone. “We’re out of time.”

She reached out for his hand; Akira held it out strongly- but instead of reaching to shake on their deal, the angel gently pulled the remnants of red string from around his wrist, his hand cradled in hers.

“I’ll bring your sister to the gate.” The angel glanced up at the tip of the tower, impossibly high above their heads, from where even now the faint echoes of Aoi’s cry fell down to them-

“So go,” said the angel, “and no matter what you do, don’t look back.”

Akira met her gaze steady, but there was no trace of that deception left. He nodded, and turned his back to the sunrise, towards the forest and the park gates.

Against the rising of the sun did Akira sprint, dashing down familiar paths. Fireflies broke from the castle spires, twirling down from the skies to race alongside him, lighting his path through the darkness of the quiet woods, the ashes of the manor whose ghosts had all gone to bed with the first hint of the sun.

“Go,” echoed the ghost, and so did the feeling of his feet against the asphalt return to him as more stars vanished into the grasping blue of the sunrise when he burst from the trees.

“Go,” echoed the marionette, her strings cut as he wove between the carousel’s animals, and so did a weight return to his pocket, the quiet rustle of sugar candies shifting with his every step.

“Go,” echoed the mermaid as stones rose from the river, dry and smooth and spaced exactly with his strides.

And, just as he was about to reach the far bank of the river, Akira drew to a slow halt.

Don’t look back, don’t look back - Why had he been thinking that, again?

Akira glanced down at the river- at the one star still reflected in its depths. It reminded him of something… Reminded him of what? He pulled the sugar candies from his pocket- but one by one did they melt away from his grasp, falling grains of dust into the river below.

The memory came flooding back to him with a desperate certainty, a gasp and a frantic beat of his pulse out of time- a small girl hiding behind a doll almost as big as she herself. Aoi.

Akira stepped over the river onto its bank, and scrambled up back to the plaza, back to the ticket counter. There were no gates to bar his way, but he hesitated a final time at the sound of wings, and the soft tap of a landing from behind him. A final bell tolled, ringing over the park with a lonesome noise to signal the last moments before the day.

“Good,” came the voice from behind, filled with an honest relief. “Go back to your world, and don’t look back until you’ve returned.”

Akira lifted his foot to step through-

“But first…” said the angel, so quiet that Akira almost did not hear, “there is one final thing to destroy.”

Aoi made a soft sound, and Akira almost turned on his heel to demand answers- you said you wouldn’t hurt her! - but only almost. For that sound wasn’t one of pain. It was the quiet sound of a gasp from a bandage pulled from a healed wound, or pressure relieved from around one’s lungs. Akira faced straight ahead and stepped decisively through the ticket gate. The world swam before him, and no matter how he tried to blink away the bleeding world, the colors only blurred into each other more. For a terrible, fearsome moment, there was nothing in the world beyond-

Akira pulled back to himself, ironically, the moment his knees buckled beneath him. He hadn’t taken more than a step or two out from the gates, but already did an unearthly exhaustion come to weigh upon his shoulders, remind his aching legs of how far they had run in the night. The clock mounted atop a lightpost before him read out just after six in analogue. In the plaza he was alone- the park had closed long ago; in the early hour of daybreak even the opening staff had not yet come to ready the gates.

“Aoi-” Akira finally looked back, opening his arms wide- and Aoi stumbled into them as her knees too refused to hold her weight. She sniffled, through she was not sobbing- it was only a single tear that trailed down her cheek, disturbing the clover painted over it.

“It’s okay. We’re back.” Akira used one hand to reach into his pocket for a tissue- but all that was left was a final sugar candy, gone unnoticed in his earlier trance. He pulled it gentle from his pocket, attention still drawn a moment by the way it glittered impossibly, a final fragment of the other world.

In his arms, Aoi shook her head, frantic. “Her name,” said Aoi, wide-eyed and staring back at the ticket gates backlit by the dawn. “Her name. It’s-”

The name, the sugar candy, the promise-

The sun pulled itself over the horizon, dousing the brother and sister in its light, and all was lost.

 

(“That brother of yours,” said the demon to the angel ascendent, “He’s quite clever, you know. Most forget their humanity within a trial or two. I’ll be interested to see what becomes of him.”

Aoi watched the strings drag the players to the stage one after the other and frowned. She knew what the ghost wanted. But certainly her brother didn’t. Maybe even the ghost herself didn’t know.

Aoi turned away from the looking-glass to study the demon standing beside the throne. She was very beautiful, even if her ears were pointed strangely and her wings were so stained with the dark. But it was not her physical appearance that Aoi was wondering about- rather, she wondered about the demon’s heart.

The demon noticed that she was staring, and glanced down at Aoi with an expression that was not unkind, nor full of pity. “Oh? Is there something you want from me, angel?”

“Contract,” said Aoi, with the blithe determination of a child who knew the broad terms of what she was saying, if not the specifics involved, “I want to make a contract with you.”

The demon laughed, but it seemed she was surprised, in the way adults were when they didn’t want to admit they were surprised. She did not protest, and so Aoi continued on.

“I’ll take your strings,” said Aoi, pointing at the threads looped tight around the demon’s neck, “if you answer one of my questions. But you have to tell the truth!”

With a wave of her hand and a whoosh of air did a heavy-looking book appear in the space between them. The book flipped itself open to a new page; with a glimmer and a spark did words paint themselves across the paper. Aoi made a great show of reading the simple words, though they were just the ones she had said a moment earlier. She looked around for something to sign it with, and, finding nothing, waved her hand and conjured up the first thing that came to mind. Aoi signed the contract with rather sloppy letters in friendly blue crayon while the demon stared down at her in surprise.

“What’s your name?” asked Aoi as the book snapped shut, taking the crayon with it.   

The demon glanced away. “I forgot that long ago.”

“You’re lying,” said Aoi, blunt. “You have to tell the truth. That was what the contract said.”

The demon shook her head. “Of all the questions I thought you would ask… Like brother, like sister. Well. It doesn’t matter. You won’t remember it anyways.” The demon leaned in close, and whispered in Aoi’s ear. “My name is-”)

 

When Aoi was sixteen and Akira twenty-six, Akira won them a trip to the amusement park. It was a regular occurrence for the upper brass at SOL Technologies to run a lottery of various trips and prizes to celebrate a year of hard work; Akira had never been so lucky as to win. But this year, it seemed as if one of his subordinates had seen fit to throw his name into the drawing- for the writing on the ticket certainly wasn’t his. Akira shook his head looking down at it. He’d have to thank Hayami later. Certainly she deserved a vacation on her own merit. Well. Something could be arranged once the holidays were over.

Things had changed, in the years since that first visit- Aoi had long since stopped holding his hand as they stepped up to the gates, and she kept her own ticket, though Akira still noted the way her eye drifted over to the gift store plushies as with every year before.

“You’re the winners?” said the young woman at the gate, looking them over once with a kind smile as they nodded. She held out a sheet of paper on a clipboard and a brightly-colored pen as she took their tickets. Akira glanced it over, stopping at a passage slipped in inconspicuous with the rest.

“I’m afraid I can’t sign this,” said Akira with faint amusement. He tapped the pen against a small piece of fine print near the final third of the page. “It says that I’d have to sell my sister’s soul to enter.”

“Oh? That’s strange. I wonder who wrote this... That’s not a joke in very good taste.” The attendant took the contract back, her finger trailing down the page, as if skimming the text for the first time. Akira couldn’t help it-

“Or did you think that I would fall for the same trick twice, Ema?”

Her head snapped up- the attendant, the demon, the angel, and everyone in between. “You remembered?”

From his pocket did Akira pull a sugar candy, shaped like a star and dull as every other piece on the convenience store shelf. Said Akira with a smile, “My apologies for the wait. It seems we’ve never managed to catch you here before.”

“Until sunset,” said Ema, plucking the candy from between his fingers, “you two have until sunset, and then you have to leave.”

She closed her fist gentle around the candy; when she opened it again it glowed with firefly light before vanishing before their eyes. Asked Akira, watching the last of it go- “You can’t give us even a little more time?”

“Do I have to escort you?” asked Ema, and Aoi rolled her eyes beside them.

Akira laughed, ushered her on with a little half-bow and sweep of his hand.

“Lead the way.”