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The passageway close to the Hungry Bug is as dark as it’s ever been. 

 

Overcast even by daylight, full of cloying shadows that cut strange shapes out of Kaiman’s even stranger face while he peers into it. Once the first piece from a giant, terrible mystery that spanned two worlds; now just a tiny part of a very large story- one that most people wouldn’t fully believe, even if Nikaido could find the words to tell it. Strange things might happen around here, but even imagination has its limits.

 

Back then, Kaiman used to stare into the passage while trying his hardest to remember things just out of reach. Nowadays, Kaiman has no shortage of memories- not quite his own, but not quite someone else’s either. (Nikaido is pretty certain he only visits the passage as an excuse to avoid signing into work, now.)

 

The meat Nikaido’s got thrown over one shoulder is starting to attract flies, and Kaiman has a date with the kitchen floors he skipped out on cleaning the previous night. No time for reminiscing, she announces; tugging hard on Kaiman’s spikes and tuning out all of his protests as she walks off. 

 

“I’ll make breakfast with this, if you hurry up.” Nikaido grins over her shoulder, then. Kaiman is jogging to catch up before the words are even out of her mouth. 

 

Things haven’t changed much, despite everything. The central department store might have sunk into the lake of refuse and a monster made from centuries of hatred might have risen from its depths, but Hole is still Hole. It’s still not safe to go out at night without a weapon, the water in Nikaido’s shower still runs a strange colour every morning, the Hungry Bug might be busier nowadays but it’s still nowhere near full. Magic users don’t practice in this area like they did before, but that doesn’t mean it’s become a safe place for a dinner break overnight.

 

There’s been a string of attacks lately- human-made, because while sorcerers and humans might not be made of the same stuff, they still share the same capability for violence- and it’s led to a quiet few weeks. Kaiman loves the lack of customers (less people to eat his gyoza, he’d announced, swallowing five of them down at once. Nikaido had banned him from table service for a reason.) But, as familiar as the empty tables feel, it’s horrible for business. Cutting paychecks might be a necessity, and she doubts anyone would be happy with that- Kaiman included.

 

Hole is still Hole, for better or for worse. People greet Nikaido and Kaiman as they walk the short distance back to the Hungry Bug, a few regulars calling out promises to stop by at some point. There’s a group of people huddled down one of the sidestreets doing very little to hide the beaten-up knives beneath their coats, and Nikaido keeps a tighter hold on her groceries. Kaiman tries to pick a fight over a passing comment about his face, and not much has changed at all.

 

During the months spent in the magic world, through contracts and new faces and devil transformations, Nikaido never thought she’d get to experience routine like this ever again. Opening the shutters, letting the lights flicker to life, marching Kaiman over to the cupboard of cleaning supplies in the corner and telling him that breakfast will be ready in half an hour tops. Some days it feels too good to be true, like she’ll wake up one morning and find herself back in En’s mansion, feeling the contract strip her of everything she once held close.

 

(When Kaiman’s face first changed and he stared straight through her as if she was a stranger, Nikaido didn’t think she’d ever get used to the quiet, the unfilled space beside her. Didn’t think she’d ever get to see the same Kaiman again- the one who drove her up the wall, but who she’d do anything for, regardless. This Kaiman isn’t entirely the same; but he still curses away to himself in the corner, grips the mop almost hard enough to break it, splashes water all over the ground. And, Nikaido supposes, she’s not quite the same either. Change isn’t always a sledgehammer to the ribs- sometimes it walks in, sits itself down at the table, and makes itself at home.)

 

Across the kitchen, Kaiman’s stomach makes a sound straight from the seventh circle of hell, and Nikaido almost laughs hard enough to drop the gyoza she’s shaping. 

 

(Some things clearly haven’t changed at all.)

 

The rest of the day comes and goes as usual- a customer every so often, Kaiman hanging around the kitchen like a bad smell, Nikaido slapping his hands away from the plates of fresh food with a wooden spoon. They take their lunch break together and, while Nikaido’s hands are busy preparing their food, Kaiman makes a lunge for the half-done gyozas already cooking on the stovetop.

 

“Don’t blame me when you get food poisoning.” Nikaido grimaces.

 

Kaiman lets out a loud, sharp laugh. “I’ve never had food poisoning in my life, not even after eating stuff off the ground.” 

 

Nikaido is about to tell him that’s not something he should be proud of, when a door appears in the middle of the restaurant.

 

Just because magic users don’t come to Hole often any more, that doesn’t mean they don’t come at all . It happens every once in a while; sorcerers bored out of their mind and looking for trouble, who quickly get seen off by one of those new Hole statues or something heavy thrown in their direction. The people of Hole are less complacent nowadays, but the panic that sets in upon seeing a door fold itself into existence is still all too real.

 

Smoke floods between the table legs. The sparse few customers in the dining area grab their things and are gone before Kaiman has even had the chance to swallow his food and reach for his knife. Nikaido stares because that door is familiar, something she swears she’s seen somewhere before and-

 

The door is kicked open, bright sunlight spilling through from the other side, and Noi steps into the Hungry Bug. 

 

Nikaido recognises her immediately. She’s not the sort of person that’s easy to forget; white hair, red eyes, strong enough to carry Nikaido under one arm without breaking a sweat. They’ve fought before- more than once- memories of hard muscle under Nikaido’s shoes as Noi grinned through her mask to tell her nice power, I like you. But Noi works for En and if she’s come to drag Nikaido back to the magic world, then she’s not going to let her do so without a fight. They’ve fought before, and Nikaido is fully prepared to fight her again.

 

Across the room, the door dissipates and Noi blinks up at the fly paper hanging from the ceiling, the abandoned plates left on the tables. Although she doesn’t seem hostile, Nikaido did not make it this far through life by letting her guard down. 

 

“Nice place!” Noi grins. She’s not wearing her mask, Nikaido can see the way smiles make her eyes crease up at the edges slightly. Helping herself to a seat at the bar, Noi completely ignores Kaiman’s presence, instead staring straight across at Nikaido.

 

“Did En send you?” Cutting to the chase, Nikaido turns back to the gyoza still cooking away in their pan. Feigning nonchalance- because Noi is strong, but she’s also come alone; with Kaiman and an element of surprise on her side, Nikaido thinks she could probably take her. 

 

“Why aren’t we killing her yet?” Kaiman pipes up- because an element of surprise is never an option with him. 

 

Rearranging herself on the barstool, Noi doesn’t even bat an eyelid. Like Kaiman isn’t there at all, barely an afterthought. “En is full of shit,” she says, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “If he wants to come and get you then he can do it himself.” 

 

The idea that Noi is here on her own accord creates more questions than it answers. Nikaido checks on the gyoza- cautiously, because she can’t quite shake the prospect that Noi might be lying- but if there’s one thing Nikaido remembers about her, it’s that she’s honest. Brutally so, barreling into truth headlong- not out of kindness, but because she’s never been weak enough to have to watch her mouth. If Noi says she’s not here for En, then she most likely isn’t.

 

“What-” Nikaido starts, trying to shoo Kaiman away with a kick to the ankle because he looks like he’s seconds away from trying to sink his teeth into Noi’s head. The bar is stained enough as it is already. 

 

“I wanna fight you!” Grinning from ear to pierced ear, somehow even brighter than before, Noi jabs a finger right towards Nikaido’s chest. Announcing it cheerfully, the same way someone would propose a trip to the supermarket or a night out at the shitty dive bar down the road.

 

“Uh.” Nikaido replies, eloquently.

 

She busies herself with the gyoza instead, sliding them onto a plate and passing them absentmindedly in Kaiman’s direction. With food in his hands, he seems much happier to disregard Noi’s presence, sloping off to eat his lunch at a table in the corner. Easy to anger, but just as easy to placate when good food is involved.

 

Then, steam from the pan sticking in the back of her throat, Nikaido manages to put her thoughts in order long enough to ask why?

 

“I don’t need to kill you now, so we can be friends.” Noi shrugs. She says it simply, punctuated with a wicked smile that’s a challenge and a threat all in one. “Besides, there’s not much to do in the magic world anymore, and I’d hate it if you let that power of yours go to waste.”

 

The sensible option is the one where Nikaido tells Noi to get out of her restaurant- because they might not need to kill each other any more, but this routine Nikaido has settled back into has no room for smoke-made doors and wicked-bright grins. 

 

“You’re strong.” Noi tells her, then. 

 

(With Kaiman around, Nikaido is normally the one who has to play the voice of reason. Right now, Kaiman is across the other side of the Hungry Bug, trying to pick gyoza filling from between his teeth- completely preoccupied. Nikaido’s time spent in the magic world was risky, pitting her fists against powerful sorcerers was a headlong dive off the deep end, but past the danger there was always a thrill, below it all. A reminder that she was strong, more than the smoke and magic in her blood would ever be. Hole is still Hole, but there’s not many magic users to fight, nowadays.)

 

Noi stares expectantly over the bar, through the steam turning the air around her hazy. ( You’re strong- she said. Nikaido wants to prove her right.)

 

“The rooftop should be big enough to spar on.” She announces, inviting danger in while she folds her apron away. Noi is on her feet before Nikaido has even finished speaking. 

 

Kaiman kicks up a fuss, of course- shouting after them as they head towards the staircase. He gestures at his empty plate, the open front door. 

 

“If anyone comes in, tell them we’re closed for a bit,” Nikaido calls back. “There’s a bag of leftovers in the freezer- and finish mopping the floor while I’m gone!”

 

Kaiman’s protests get lost as the door swings shut behind them, but he doesn’t make any attempt to follow.

 

“Why’d you wait till now to show up?” Nikaido asks as they climb up to the roof, sidestepping around the storage boxes stacked outside her room. 

 

Behind her, Noi shrugs. “Wanted to come earlier, but there was too much cleanup to do back at the estate. The rain and the Crosseyes left everything a mess, so En decided to work everyone’s asses off dealing with the damage.” She stretches, almost knocking down one of the light fittings as she goes. “I can’t remember what free time feels like.”

 

Although they once stood on opposite sides of the same fight, Noi’s complaints are lighthearted enough that Nikaido can’t help it when she hums in agreement. (Even when they were against one other, Noi never seemed to hate her personally. Grinning through all their fights, trying to heal her even when she rejected it alongside the contract taking root in her chest. Nikaido pushes the door to the rooftop open, and doesn’t dare wonder if she hated Noi personally, either.)

 

“Thought you said you had roof space,” following her out, Noi frowns; taking in the cracked concrete slabs, the rusted aerials sticking out from the rooftop. Nikaido knows from experience that En’s mansion has extensive training rooms, well equipped and without the constant overhanging danger of toppling over the side and falling four floors down. “I’ve seen balconies bigger than this.”

 

“You either get used to it, or we have to fight in the street!” Nikaido fires back; lowering into a stretch to ease out any lingering stiffness from her limbs. Where she’s kicking absentmindedly at the low barrier around the roof, Noi’s eyes light up.

 

“Here’s fine.” Dropping into a fighting stance of her own, Noi is staring again. She’s an imposing figure against the backdrop of patched-up buildings and dark cloud, and Nikaido can’t deny that she’s feeling more excited than she should ever be. (Realisation comes to her on a three second delay that she’s never finished a fight with Noi before; first she played dead, biding her time until she could summon a door for the first time in years, and second she left after barely a minute, with a slash to the eyes and a hasty escape. Maybe this time they’ll finally see things to the end.)

 

“So-” Nikaido begins. “How do you want to-”

 

Noi lunges for her. The ridge of her knuckles lands squarely between Nikaido’s ribs, strength and fast reflexes the only thing stopping her from flying backwards off the roof. Do your worst- Noi’s grin says; and that’s the only answer Nikaido needs.

 

They spar for what feels like hours; until Nikaido doesn’t think there’s a single part of her body that hasn’t hit solid concrete, and Noi’s hair is a tangled mess from where Nikaido grabbed it more than once. Noi might have her healing magic but that doesn’t make the playing field any less even; Nikaido keeps up blow for blow, and Noi doesn’t hesitate to let her know it. Shouting out encouragement, compliments; you’re strong and keep going and this is fun spoken with her fists and the crack of bone against concrete as Nikaido knocks her flat on her back again.

 

Stumbling backwards and wiping sweat off her forehead, Nikaido can’t remember the last time she felt this exhausted and this full of energy all at once. Her whole body is a live wire; electric-charged, waiting for the next hit, the next strike. Everything else fades to background noise and through the static Nikaido is reminded of jarringly of how it felt to become a devil- bone reshaping, everything feverish and lightning-struck. 

 

Then Noi is back off the ground, taking another swing. Her fingers curl around Nikaido’s arm and toss her to the floor, moving faster than she ever should and the surprise is enough to knock a startled, breathless laugh out of Nikaido’s lungs. 

 

Because, despite everything, it’s fun .

 

More so than she’d ever admit out loud, because Noi is a sorcerer who wears her title with pride and Nikaido is anything but. Any person with a connection to En is, by definition, dangerous- yet here Nikaido is; getting tossed around like a ragdoll, inches away from toppling off the edge of the roof, still laughing. 

 

It gets cut short abruptly, when Nikaido’s head collides with the concrete roof slabs hard enough that she sees stars. Noi has one hand wrapped around her bicep and is hauling her to her feet before the pain even has the chance to kick in.

 

“Let’s go again.” Noi insists, breathlessly. It’s fascinating to watch the way the scrape on her jaw recedes, skin un-breaking itself cell by cell. Nikaido doesn’t even know how she’s still managing to stay upright.

 

“How do you have the energy to move right now?” She stoops over with a wince, voice coming out fractured and half-dazed as she tries and fails to catch her breath. 

 

The question flies right over Noi’s head, getting stuck somewhere between the aerials. “One more round,” she insists. (Against her better judgement, Nikaido almost agrees.) “Just a short one.”

 

“Not a chance,” the first rule of sparring is to push your limits, but know when to stop. Every muscle in Nikaido’s body is aching enough that not even the adrenaline high can mask it any more- a sure sign of the line she knows now not to cross. (There’s a small, devilish voice in the back of her head which tells her to ask Noi to heal her so they can go again, again, again, but she crushes it beneath her heel before it can shout any louder. Sparring with Noi is one thing. Putting herself in her debt over a few bruises and aches is not a risk she’s willing to take.)

 

“You win this one.” Nikaido says with finality, and, by some miracle, that’s good enough for Noi.

 

(Even though she won, Noi tells Nikaido she’s strong again before she leaves, framed by a slice of the En estate garden as the door swings shut behind her.)

 

-

 

“Took you long enough!” When Nikaido makes it back down the stairs, Kaiman is sat in the exact same spot she left him in, the only difference being a stack of plates and an empty can of beer discarded on the table beside him. The floor is somehow even dirtier than it was before, mop and dustpan left completely untouched. He kicks his feet beneath the table, annoyed. “There’s always too many sorcerers in here- first those crosseye guys and now-”

 

“Floor.” Nikaido jabs a finger at the cleaning supplies, silencing him before he can say another word. “Clean. Now.”

 

Nikaido thanks whichever devil must be looking out for her, when Kaiman picks up the mop with little complaint.

 

-

 

When Nikaido looks in the mirror that night, there’s a collection of five evenly-spaced bruises on her arm, blooming purple beneath her skin. Finger-shaped, from that finishing blow where Noi threw her to the ground like she weighed nothing. Craning her neck to get a better look at them, Nikaido can’t help but remember the thrill that came uninvited alongside aching limbs and broken blood vessels- the laugh that escaped uninvited before the back of her skull met hard concrete.

 

Sparring with Kaiman is by no means boring. There’s not a whole lot to do in Hole, and with less sorcerers to hunt down than ever before, training against each other is the only surefire way to keep their skills as sharp as they’ve ever been. Kaiman is fast but predictable- most people who fight him only do so once- and Nikaido could probably block his attacks with her eyes closed, nowadays. They never strike as hard as they could do, either- holding back is a necessity when you’ve got work to do the next morning and the only hospital nearby for non-magic-victims hates your guts for beating them at baseball.

 

Sparring with Noi was something else entirely. She’s predictable but in a different way to Kaiman; a landslide crashing down from overhead, easy to see but impossible to prevent. Holding back is not an option when you verge on unkillable, and Nikaido always gives as good as she gets. She did her worst, and no amount of scrubbing could get the dried blood out from beneath her nails, even long after Noi’s injuries have healed.

 

And so- even if Nikaido wakes up the next morning barely able to scrape herself out of bed- she hopes ( foolishly, dangerously ) that Noi’s door will reappear sometime soon.

 

-

 

Nikaido gets her wish sooner than expected.

 

It’s early morning, the city cracking open its sleep-heavy eyes as Nikaido tidies up the residual mess from a party the night before. She swipes a line of empty cans off the bar and into a bag, and makes a mental note which she will later ignore never to let her friends stay after hours ever again. Kaiman hasn’t arrived yet, probably still hungover if the amount he was drinking the night before is anything to go by, and Nikaido isn’t quite annoyed enough to march over and drag him out of bed just yet. At the very least the crosseyes look slightly more at ease when he’s not around- Nikaido has a brief conversation with Tetsujo about rowdy friends and cheap alcohol while he scrubs at one of the tabletops, and Dokuga doesn’t do that thing where he startles on some half-buried instinct every time Kaiman yells or laughs, then pretends it never happened. 

 

A good employer would probably ask about it, but Nikaido has long since accepted that some issues aren’t made to be spoken about.

 

She’s got plenty of those herself; namely the door making itself out of smoke in the middle of the Hungry bug. Just inches away, Dokuga startles and smacks his head off the table he’s cleaning underneath.

 

It’s been less than a week since Noi first showed up, but she steps out of the door with open arms as if she’s been reunited with an old friend she hasn’t seen in years. Melting back into nonexistence, the door dissipates before Nikaido can even put down her collection of trash bags.

 

“Wow,” Noi starts, grinning like a bad omen. “This place looks like shit!”

 

(Nikaido can’t even bring herself to feel irritated because, really, it’s a fair observation.)

 

After instructing Tetsujo and Dokuga to handle the rest of the clear-up, Nikaido leads the way back up to the rooftop- under Noi’s insistence that punching stuff is the best way to deal with work stress. She’s still got at least an hour until the Hungry Bug opens up for the day, more than enough time for some sparring, and Nikaido would be lying through her teeth if she said she hadn’t been looking forward to it.

 

Noi is shameless, exhausting and dangerous, but she knows how to put up a good fight. And, that’s all Nikaido needs.

 

It’s Noi who gives up first this time around- sliding down with her back to the wall as she announces that she’s starving. As if in agreement, Nikaido’s own stomach growls something fierce; a sure sign that she should get started on breakfast. 

 

She leaves Noi out on the roof while she heats up some leftovers from the night before, grilling some vegetables, taking in the place where her elbow has already started to bruise. It’s a fast breakfast, but Noi isn’t a paying customer or a close friend, so Nikaido’s not going to break out the good ingredients for her. ( Not yet- says that devilish voice again. Hoping; foolishly and dangerously.)

 

They sit out on the roof while they eat, pressed up against the edge to watch people moving by on the streets below. The weather isn’t bad as far as Hole is concerned, thin grey clouds overhead, just warm enough for Nikaido to go without a jacket. Beside her, Noi eats loudly and appreciatively, complimenting Nikaido’s cooking with her mouth full and her words barely understandable. Something about the best gyoza she’s ever tasted, there I was thinking all the food in Hole would taste like crap.

 

It’s a backhanded compliment at best, but Nikaido isn’t as annoyed by it as she should be. ( Everything about Noi- pressed against her side, eating her food, sitting on her rooftop- isn’t how it should be, but life works in strange ways.)

 

Nikaido watches over the edge as an argument breaks out in the street below. A couple of buildings down, there’s a new vendor whose set up shop in one of the abandoned buildings, although what they’re selling Nikaido couldn’t possibly tell. Someone steps out of their door down the street and finally notices the graffiti that’s been sprayed all over their window shutters overnight. Sometimes it’s nice to just observe things instead of throwing herself headlong into them- watching unseen from the rooftops as property disputes and retail drama unfold beneath her feet.

 

“You did this a lot back at En’s mansion too,” Noi swallows around a mouthful of grilled pepper before she continues. “You’d just stare out of the window for hours at whatever was going on in the gardens.”

 

Nikaido blinks. She doesn’t remember much about the time she spent under En’s contract, and the things she can recall are indistinguishable from the fever dreams she’d have come nightfall. 

 

“I had to assume you were just nosey,” oblivious to Nikaido’s confusion, Noi’s expression shifts into something that’s almost a frown. “‘Cause you always ignored me when I asked what you were doing.”

 

Nikaido almost chokes on her breakfast at that. She has some hazy memories of Noi speaking to her once or twice, but she’d long since assumed that she imagined them all. As for staring vacantly out of the En mansion window while Noi tried to engage her in conversation- she has no recollection of that at all.

 

“I don’t remember any of that.” She admits, setting down her bowl.

 

“Huh?” Noi’s half-frown turns into an honest-to-god pout and holding back her laughter is quite possibly the hardest thing Nikaido has ever done. “What do you mean you don’t remember it? What about that time we had lunch together?”

 

Nikaido shakes her head. Noi looks so unreasonably offended at the prospect of Nikaido forgetting her that it verges on comical. She’s practically fuming, gesturing with her hands as she brings up even more events from the En mansion that Nikaido barely remembers, getting more frustrated by the second and-

 

Noi’s bowl topples off her lap, over the edge of the roof before shattering onto the street below. Someone starts yelling angrily up at them with food splattered all over their shoes, and it takes Noi a whole three seconds before she starts laughing. 

 

She’s got a loud laugh, one that fills the whole rooftop- and it’s the last push Nikaido needs before she starts laughing too. 

 

Because it’s a strange situation she’s found herself in; hanging out on the rooftop with a former enemy who she never really hated, talking about days she’ll never get back, laughing till her ribs hurt over wasted food and broken bowls. But Nikaido has experienced stranger things before and will experience stranger things again- and she’s definitely spent time in worse company.

 

When Noi finally pulls on her mask and spills smoke to open up a door in the middle of the rooftop, she promises that she’ll be back soon. Fingers on the door-handle, the magic world opening up in front of her.

 

“Unlike some people, I have a business to run!” Nikaido shouts after her- but the door is gone before she can even finish speaking.

 

-

 

Though not an addition she ever expected, Noi’s frequent visits to Hole become just another part of Nikaido’s routine. There’s no apparent logic behind her timing- sometimes she’ll appear two days in a row, sometimes she’ll go weeks without showing her face, her door can appear at any time of the day and Nikaido has long since learned that there’s no use in telling her to come back later. She’s started to keep spare gyoza in the freezer, prepped and ready to cook just in case she has to leave the kitchen during a busy spell.

 

As irregular as her visits are, Noi’s demands are always certain as clockwork. She’s got two things on her mind at any given time (food, and violence) and she never seems to ask for anything more. Nikaido plates her up some food, Noi never has the right currency to actually pay for it, then they head out to the rooftop.

 

They fight up there- they’re always fighting, because Noi likes to talk with her fists and it’s a language Nikaido has started to pick up with horrifying fluency. A kick to the ribs says you’re strong. The clatter of bone against concrete says keep going. A punch that Nikaido feels right down to the marrow of her sternum says this is fun, fun, fun. 

 

The thrill never quite wears off, no matter how many times Noi’s door makes itself at home between the tables and chairs. Terrible for business, terrible for Nikaido’s energy, brilliant for everything else. You never realise how much you’re improving until you’ve got a foot on a strong opponent’s chest and they’re telling it to your face.

 

When she fights Noi, Nikaido doesn’t have to worry about the leak in the corner of her bedroom, the string of people getting jumped in the area scaring off all her customers, the nightmares of ticking clocks and muddy water that still wake her up a few nights a week. She can pretend things are simple, just for an hour or two.

 

And so, against her better judgement, Nikaido hopes this routine is here to stay.

 

-

 

“Kaiman!” Nikaido manages to peel her head off the kitchen floor, just long enough to glare at Kaiman’s stupid smug lizard face and the stupid Hole statue he’s waving gleefully in the air.  “Get that thing out of here!”

 

“What was that about throttling me if I don’t clean the toilets around the back?” Kaiman does a stupid little dance in the middle of the kitchen- because he might be Nikaido’s closest friend, but he’s also the worst employee ever . Nikaido thinks her head might just split in two.

 

“I’m going to kill-

 

There’s more footsteps behind, and Nikaido doesn’t get the chance to warn Tetsujo and Dokuga before they’re both face-down on the kitchen floor too. Above them, Kaiman looks as if he’s about to pass out from amusement, laughing so hard he’s barely able to keep a hold of his damn statue.

 

“I’m glad one of us is finding this funny.” Nikaido grits out through clenched teeth, right as smoke begins to warp the air in one corner of the kitchen. 

 

Noi doesn’t even make it two steps out of the door before she joins the rest of them on the ground, toppling over with something that’s half a curse, half a groan. Forever choosing the worst times to make an appearance.

 

Nikaido greets her through a faceful of kitchen tile, then makes a grab at Kaiman’s unsuspecting ankle.

 

-

 

Nikaido might have lived in Hole most of her life, but growing up expecting things to go badly on principle doesn’t make it feel any better when it actually happens. She’s staring down at her latest delivery of ingredients- half of them missing and the rest almost unusable, courtesy of an accident with a vat of industrial waste on the drive over. She’d still had to pay the full amount no matter how much she tried to barter, and the supplies she’s got will barely even last her a few days, never mind the full week till her next delivery.

 

Money is tight (although, when is it not?) and paying for extra ingredients out of her own pocket is not how Nikaido expected to be spending the savings she put aside for new halogen bulbs in the dining area.

 

“You know,” Noi speaks up from her seat at the bar. The Hungry Bug is closed for the night and she’s the only other person left in the building, waiting impatiently for Nikaido to finish so they can head out to the rooftop and fight beneath the flickering city lights. She takes another bite of her food before she continues. “You wouldn’t have to deal with this sort of stuff if you just came back to the magic world.”

 

She doesn’t mean it in a cruel way- Nikaido knows this, she’s become well-acquainted with Noi’s penchant for speaking exactly what’s on her mind over the past few weeks- but it still sends a shiver of electric-charged annoyance down the back of her spine. 

 

Taking the silence as a cue to dig the hole deeper, Noi continues. “En’s pretty much given up on having you as a partner ‘cause he found out your magic is useless now, and I bet there’d be space for you to set up a food stall somewhere on the estate! Your gyoza is the best so-”

 

“I don’t want to go back.” Nikaido cuts her off before she can say another word, grip tightening around a bag of ruined flour. 

 

Over by the bar, Noi blinks, before irritation sets into her face like gathering clouds, a promise of rain. “Why? Everything’s shit over here, and it’s not like you’re human.”

 

On some days, Noi’s straightforward shamelessness is a blessing. On other days, it makes Nikaido want to put her head through the bar she’s sitting at. She stands, fast enough that her knees creak in protest, and heads straight for the rooftop. 

 

(When faced with a conversation she never wants to have, Nikaido’s best bet is to let her fists do the talking instead.)

 

-

 

At some point during the night, it begins to rain.

 

It’s the chills that wake Nikaido up in the early hours of morning, the headache coming in like an afterthought as she stares blearily at the raindrops sliding down the glass. Curling back under her covers, all she can do is hope that the storm won’t be a long one.

 

She’s woken again by a knock on the shutters outside, what might be hours, might be minutes later. Nikaido’s attempts to ignore it only make clatter of metal more urgent- the need for it to stop eventually overpowering the way every cell in her body is telling her to stay in bed.

 

When Nikaido finally gets the windows open, the crosseyes are standing on the street below, huddled together under one battered umbrella. They look like half-drowned cats, barely able to stand and completely miserable as they try to keep themselves safe from the downpour. It’s the first rainy day since Nikaido promised the two of them a paycheck and a free meal every once in a while, and through the static-noise of her headache she can almost find the coherency to feel bad for them.  

 

“We’re closed!” She shouts down, the words tasting like sandpaper on the way out. “Go home!”

 

It’s somehow loud enough to catch their attention, two heads turning to stare up at Nikaido in the second floor window.

 

“But-” Dokuga starts. 

 

“Nobody gets paid when it rains.” Nikaido cuts him off with finality. “Just stay at home next time. Perks of the job.”

 

By the time she’s wrestled the windows shut, Nikaido’s headache is a tandem drumbeat in her head and she can’t remember the last time she felt this cold, shivering herself to pieces beneath her bedcovers. Strength is always something she’s been able to rely on, but rainy days don’t even leave her with that.

 

Out on the streets below, the clatter of machinery and the sound of foot-traffic is loud as ever; unhindered by the rain aside from muddy shoes and wet hair. Life moves on uninterrupted, and rain has always served as a reminder that, even if Nikaido can’t produce smoke, even if she’s lived in Hole for almost as long as she can remember, she’s still a world apart from everyone else around her.

 

Because Nikaido is a sorcerer in everything aside from name- rain hurts, Hole statues knock her flat on her back, yet she still calls herself human .

 

Months ago, horns growing from her skull and her teeth elongating into fangs, she made peace with her magic- with the damage it caused, with the good it can do. But that doesn’t mean she’s ever going to call herself a sorcerer with pride. There’s a tiny devil living in her brain which has caused more trouble than it’ll ever be worth; and it’s just another reminder of the life Nikaido left behind.

 

Sat at the bar with a plate of food in front of her, Noi asked her; why? (Why don’t you come back, it’s not like you’re human.)

 

If Nikaido wanted an excuse, she’d say it was about the smoke. She’s got no magic any more- couldn’t even put out enough smoke to make a door if she wanted to- yet there’s plenty of other sorcerers who can’t either. It’d shunt her into the bottom rungs of magic user society, sure, but life in Hole isn’t exactly much better. It’s a terrible excuse at best, totally unbelievable at worst.

 

The truth: Nikaido erased her place in the magic world long ago. The Nikaido who grew up there- with a brother who took her exploring and a sister who taught her to fight- ceased to exist the moment she turned the hands of time and changed everything. The magic world is full to the seams with places that don’t remember her, and Nikaido might be a stowaway in this corner of the world, but at least here she never has to question if she really exists.

 

She doesn’t know when it is that she falls into a fitful sleep. But when Nikaido cracks open one eye, it’s still raining heavily and Kaiman is shouting up from the street below, loud enough that she can hear him even through the closed window.

 

“Nikaido!” He calls up, waving the plastic bag full of groceries held in his hand. “Have you eaten lunch yet?”

 

Nikaido shakes her head. Then, before she even has the chance to protest, Kaiman is inviting himself inside.

 

The gyoza he ransacks Nikaido’s kitchen to make are cold by the time he’s brought them upstairs, a little bit lumpy and a whole lot tasteless; but Nikaido doesn’t hesitate before trying to finish off the whole lot. Half because she doesn’t think she could deal with Kaiman’s complaints, half because she’s genuinely grateful for the gesture. Outside, the rain shows no sign of letting up. Inside, with Kaiman talking up half of her legroom and boasting about kicking Vaux’s ass in a hanafuda game, Nikaido can almost put it to the back of her mind.

 

“He was gonna challenge me to a rematch, but I came over here instead.” Kaiman explains.

 

A voice which sounds like Noi’s asks again through the static; why?

 

“Why?” Nikaido echoes, before she can even think. Across the bed, finishing off the last of Nikaido’s cold gyoza, Kaiman snorts as if he’s never heard a more stupid question.

 

“‘Cause we’re friends,” he replies. “Duh.” 

 

A simple answer to a simple question.

 

(Even through the hammer of rain against the rooftop, Nikaido manages to smile.)

 

-

 

Nikaido is tired. That’s a given when Noi is involved- she’s more exhausting than any person has the right to be, and Nikaido always sleeps like the dead on days she decides to visit.

 

They’re out on the rooftop again, fighting like usual; Nikaido doesn’t know how long they’ve been going for or if Noi has any intention of stopping, but she can tell for a fact that she’s pushing close to her own limit.

 

“You’re getting sloppy!” Noi shouts as she blocks Nikaido’s kick with the side of her arm. “I know you can go harder than that- hit me like you mean it!”

 

The words are gasoline on a forest fire- a clear taunt that Nikaido rises to meet with everything she’s got. She grits her teeth, pivots on her heel, and swings her foot hard enough into Noi’s ribcage that she feels bone shatter beneath her boots. The impact knocks Noi flat on her back, and by the time she’s struggled upright to spit blood onto the concrete, the look on her face verges close to delighted .

 

“So cool!” she grins past red-stained teeth. “You broke at least four!”

 

Energy well and truly spent, Nikaido falls onto the ground beside her, fighting to catch her breath. “I think I won that one.”

 

Noi agrees without complaint- because she’s far from the sore loser Nikaido expected her to be. Sometimes, she could almost say that Noi seems more excited to lose than she is to win, caught up in the thrill of an opponent finally capable of taking her down. She’s still grinning, blood smeared across her mouth like lipstick, when she turns to Nikaido and asks where she learned to fight like that.

 

Nikaido stiffens for a second, prepared to dodge the question, before she forces herself to relax. She still doesn’t trust Noi- so long as she works for En, Nikaido doesn’t think she ever will- but it’s not as if she can talk about these things with anyone else. Kaiman is the world’s worst listener, Asu already knows, and it’s not like Nikaido has a collection of sorcerer friends lining up to hear her talk. She lets out the breath she’s holding; slowly, quietly.

 

“My older sister- Yakumo- taught me when I was a kid,” Nikaido explains, the words hanging heavy around the rooftop. “We weren’t blood-related or anything, but we were raised by the same couple and she had me punching wooden planks in half by the time I was four. She was-”

 

“Did she die?” Noi cuts in, her complete lack of a verbal filter making itself known again. “You used past tense.”

 

“Sort of.” She's already gone too far to backpedal, so Nikaido steels her nerves and continues. “The first time I used my magic, I accidentally created a timeline where Yakumo died as a kid, before I even met her.” She fixates her line of sight on the horizon as she speaks; staring at the steam billowing from a far-off chimney, watching the way it distorts the sky behind it. Anything to avoid the dark-black pool of guilt that still threatens to spill over, some days. (Making peace with her magic was one thing. Making peace with what she’s done with it is another hurdle entirely.)

 

“She’s alive in this timeline,” Nikaido barrels on. Staring through the steam, hoping that Noi has given up on listening. “But I’ve still lost her in a way. I don’t want to meet an older sister who doesn’t even remember I exist.”

 

For a long while, the air is as silent as Hole can ever be. Then-

 

“Time magic kind of sucks.” Noi concludes, her chin propped up in her hands. “Never really thought about it like that.” 

 

“I never expected you to,” Nikaido replies; not bitterly, just stating true facts. “Your magic doesn’t have any downsides like that.”

 

“Like hell it doesn’t!” Noi turns to glare at her, five seconds of fire and anger and you don’t know anything before she burns out entirely and falls back with a sigh. “It’s not like I can heal everything- if someone doesn’t want something fixed, then I can spit as much smoke as I like at it and it won’t do shit. It’s a stupid loophole, but that’s just how healing magic works.”

 

Nikaido doesn’t respond, aside from prompting Noi to continue. She doesn’t think she’s ever heard her speak so thoughtfully before.

 

“Like-” Noi’s eyebrows furrow together, searching for an example. “Senpai’s arms. I’ve healed them more times than I can count, but they’ll never stop being all stitched-up ‘cause that’s a part of him that he doesn’t want to erase.” Her expression relaxes imperceptibly, the way it always does when her partner gets brought up. “Or- I’ve got a scar leftover from where I failed my devil training. It’s the only proof I’ve got that I almost qualified- so my body will never let me get rid of it.”

 

That, Nikaido can relate to- she’s got a similar scar herself, and even if she could remove it, she doesn’t know if she’d want to. Like a souvenir from time she spent as something more than alive . She’s about to ask how holding onto memories could possibly count as a downside, when Noi’s smile slips off her face; replaced by something that’s not quite regret, not quite frustration.

 

“There was this kid that En hired into the family, not long after I got my job as a cleaner,” Noi’s voice takes on a strange tone- almost solemn. Something new, something unexpected. “When the crosseyes boss started killing off family members like flies and there was nothing anyone could do about it, they couldn’t handle the pressure. Jumped out of an upper floor window one evening,” her hands curl into fists beside her, white-knucked and tense. “It still pisses me off. They were only a kid but they didn’t want to be healed so I just had to stand there and-”

 

Frustration lines every word she speaks and Nikaido puts it down as another sure truth: there’s nothing Noi hates more than being helpless .

 

Not long ago, Nikaido thought she had Noi all figured out. An elite sorcerer who verges on unkillable, who punches first and forgets to ask questions after, who likes good food, good fights, and not much else. Here, out on the rooftop as Noi curses to the sky about stupid magic and its stupid loopholes- Nikaido wonders if she’s barely even scratched the surface.

 

“All this talking is making me hungry,” Noi pipes up, then, flinging her arms wide and almost socking Nikaido in the nose.

 

“One plate of Hungry Bug special gyoza, coming right up.” (And, if Nikaido is feeling a little more generous than usual- then only the devils have to know.)

 

-

 

Frequent visitors to the Hungry Bug might be used to doors popping up as part of their regular dining experience, but Nikaido is still fed up of sorcerers arriving unannounced and scaring away her customers. It’s not Noi this time, Asu’s ornate door unfolding itself out of thin air instead as he and Risu step into the dining area. They look more or less the same as the last time Nikaido saw them, although the tiny pair of horns sticking through Risu’s hair is definitely a new addition.

 

Kaiman quickly relocates himself to the same booth as them, tugging on Risu’s horns with a loud complaint about how creepy they are. ( “Have you looked at your face in a mirror, lately?” Risu fires back, and Nikaido knows a fight coming when she sees one.) Tetsujo has just about graduated from cleaning duty to helping out with food prep, so Nikaido leaves him in charge of the kitchen before heading over to the table herself.

 

She greets Asu with a one-armed hug, then tugs on Kaiman’s spikes- a gesture that’s half greeting, half settle down or I’ll kick you out.

 

“How’s the training?” She asks, once Kaiman has finished accusing her of favouritism.

 

“Hellish,” Risu replies.

 

“Nothing new,” Asu says, simultaneously. The exhausted look in his eyes says otherwise.

 

“Apparently I’m struggling to tap into the devil mindset, ” Risu continues despairingly. “Or whatever that means.”

 

“He’s too frugal about everything,” reaching across the table, Asu steals some food off Kaiman’s plate. “But I did catch him barbecuing meat at three in the morning, so I think we’ll make a devil out of him yet.”

 

Leaving Kaiman, Risu and Asu to bicker over the last remaining gyoza, Nikaido heads over to the kitchen to fetch them all some more food. It’s always good to see Asu, and sharing both mysteries and near-death-experiences with Risu left Nikaido feeling a lot more fond of him than she ever expected- alongside the fact that he’s probably the only person she can truly empathise with about just how much of a target rare magic can paint on your back. 

 

Besides- anyone who can embarrass Kaiman with old stories about the past is a friend in Nikaido’s books.

 

When she returns to the table, Risu has Asu in a headlock and Kaiman is cheering them on, making enough of a racket that the few remaining customers look close to packing up their things and leaving.

 

Slamming a plateful of gyoza in front of each of them, Nikaido puts on her best threatening smile. “Settle down, boys.” 

 

That shuts them up in no time.

 

Once they’re placated by their food, it’s fun to spend time catching up with Asu and Risu. They talk about the devil exam, complaining extensively about the heavy armour and the smell of the bats, all the while Kaiman huffs to himself about being excluded from the conversation. He resorts to even more food-theft as payback, and the conversation tips towards Zagan as it often does- spiralling into a long-winded story about a time Aikawa got stuck ass-first through the bathroom window of a high end restaurant while trying to dine-and-dash.  

 

“What the fuck-” Kaiman goes to retaliate. Nikaido shuts him up with a mouthful of food, and tells Risu to please continue.

 

Nikaido heads back to the kitchen after Asu makes one too many comments about the duct-tape holding one of the windows together, a reminder that if she ever wants to save up enough to fix it, she actually has to do her job. Kaiman is supposed to be working too, but with Risu around, getting him to do anything is always a lost cause.

 

It’s late by the time they finally leave, the skies dark and lights flickering on outside while Asu summons his door between the tables again. Nikaido gives him a proper hug for good measure before he leaves, then takes a chance at side-hugging a prickly, tired Risu too. He bristles at first, then relaxes into it, and Nikaido calls that progress.

 

They take the long route back to Kaiman’s place afterwards- Nikaido lured in by a promise of half-decent beer and good company, knocking her elbow against Kaiman’s own as she walks. It’s far too hot in Kaiman’s room like usual, so she switches her jumpsuit for one of his shirts while he’s showering, the hem falling just low enough for it to act as a nightdress. 

 

Ever since things turned back to normal (or- as close to normal as they’re ever going to get) Nikaido has spent more time cross-legged on Kaiman’s floor than she ever did before. It’s a new tradition of sorts- one that always ends with Nikaido passed out on Kaiman’s too-small couch, preparing for the inevitable stiff neck that will come the following morning. They stick a little closer together nowadays, joined at the hip through all of Nikaido’s complaints that Kaiman is the worst employee ever, and Kaiman’s rebuttals that Nikaido will work him to the bone one of these days.

 

It’s an unspoken promise, formed through part-time jobs and time spent in good company. Kaiman might have more memories than he did before, Nikaido might be a magic user (albeit a poor excuse for one, now), but they’re still together .

 

Across the room, Kaiman emerges from the shower and announces that Nikaido is going to have to go without, because he just used the last of the hot water. (Still together- for better or for worse.)

 

Later, with a beer in hand that’s nowhere near as decent as he promised it would be, Kaiman tips his head back against the edge of the bed and asks; “D’you think it’s bad that I still feel weird about talking to Risu?”

 

Covering up her surprise, Nikaido lowers her own drink. A silent push for Kaiman to continue- because they might not talk about this stuff often, but listening well is what friends are for.

 

Spikes digging into his own bedcovers, Kaiman huffs out a frustrated noise.

 

“Like- I know all this stuff about him; stupid things we did back at Zagan, being partners, all that. I know they’re supposed to be my memories, but they don’t completely feel like they are. Feels like I’m eavesdropping on something private instead.” The tap in the bathroom is dripping, a steady sound that punctuates the quiet. “At first I thought that it’d just take some time- convinced myself I’d have a moment of enlightenment and all those memories would feel like they’re mine again- but I still don’t feel as if I’m completely them . Y’know, when I said I wanted my face and my memories back, I didn’t think it’d be this confusing.”

 

There’s no humour behind his laugh, and Nikaido feels terrible.

 

“I’ll go and fix us up a snack, okay?” She offers gently, using Kaiman’s shoulder as leverage to pull herself to her feet. It’s always strange hearing Kaiman so downtrodden, and she knows that this is all she can do to help. “Food isn’t gonna fix anything, but at least we won’t be hungry.”

 

“You’re the best,” Kaiman makes no effort to move from where he’s sprawled out on the floor. There’s silence for a while, filled only by the sound of the dripping tap, muffled conversation from the apartment below Kaiman’s own, cupboard doors as Nikaido uncovers some packet ramen she can make as a snack. Then-

 

“I’m not Aikawa.” Kaiman says, splitting the silence. Stilling her knife over the cured meat she’s chopping, Nikaido lets him know that she’s listening. “Not fully, at least. But Risu sometimes looks at me like I might be.”

 

Nikaido doesn’t turn to look at him, knows Kaiman probably isn’t looking at her either- but his words strike a chord. Another connection, beyond best-friends and shared experiences and the name she chose for him years ago.

 

“It’s not the same,” Nikaido starts, putting small words to a huge, confusing feeling she’s been living with for a very long time. She resumes chopping the meat as she talks, shredding it to tiny pieces while the water boils for the ramen. “But I think I get it, in a way.”

 

It’s Kaiman’s turn to fall silent, this time.

 

“The Asu I know now isn’t the one that was my older brother,” Nikaido continues, leaving the meat to search through the cupboards for wherever Kaiman’s stored his bowls. ( Top shelf, by the bathroom- he calls across the room.) “I remember all the things we did as kids- exploring, learning how to cook, getting into trouble- but they never really happened in this timeline. They’re memories, but at the same time they’re not. I think Asu must see a different Nikaido when we talk, one that’s not quite me.”

 

Even if this Asu looks at Nikaido and sees the younger sister he never had, even if he still lets her call him Kawajiri ; it’s not the same. Through other heads and other timelines- memories are a strange, complicated burden to carry. While their situations might not be similar by any means, Nikaido feels as if a weight she didn’t realise she was carrying has been lifted off her shoulders- because neither of them are alone. Nikaido doesn’t know how to say out loud how relieved it makes her feel to understand, and be understood in return. 

 

So she doesn't say it with words. She heads back to the bedroom with ramen bowls in hand, warns Kaiman to let it cool before he burns his tongue, and that says all the thanks she needs.

 

Sat by her side, Kaiman raises his half-empty beer can. “Cheers to weird memories?”

 

Nikaido laughs, puts the past behind her, and knocks her drink against Kaiman’s own. “Cheers to weird memories.” 

 

And, just for a moment, the night looks a little bit brighter.

 

-

 

Later that night, curled up on Kaiman’s couch, Nikaido thinks she finally understands why she enjoys spending time with Noi so much.

 

There’s nothing complicated about it. No mixed-up timelines or strange things to think about; just the two of them up on the Hungry Bug rooftop. Fighting, eating, sometimes talking- nothing more, nothing less. 

 

Staring up through the dark, Nikaido has built an extensive map of Kaiman’s ceiling; a patch of creeping mould in the left corner, a crack from a metal bowl he threw in frustration once, some flaky paint from a leaking pipe that never got fixed. Someone is shouting on the street below but nobody in Hole would get any rest if they were disturbed by loud noises- that’s not what’s keeping Nikaido up.

 

(It’s the truth that’s making it hard to sleep; that time spent with Noi is simple in the best sort of way. Even if Noi keeps scaring away customers and Kaiman hates her- Nikaido might finally be ready to admit that she wants to keep her around.)

 

-

 

Noi never pays for her food, so Nikaido has to compensate for lost time and ingredients in other ways.

 

It’s early morning, Nikaido decided on a whim the previous night that it’s about time she cleared out her attic space, and Noi showed up just in time to help. An extra pair of arms to carry heavy boxes down the stairs is always appreciated- especially when Noi can probably lift even more than Kaiman can- making light work out of years of clutter.

 

With a box of stuff under each arm- leftovers from the Hungry Bug’s past life as a tea parlour- Noi complains that she came here to spar, not to play home renovations. 

 

“My time is precious- you’ve got to pay for it somehow!” Nikaido grins, patting Noi on the shoulder as she passes her to grab a box of her own.

 

(And, besides, Nikaido is only human. She’s not going to deny that the sight of Noi- hair pulled up into a bun, carrying boxes that probably weigh more than Nikaido does- is an enjoyable one. She’d be lying through her teeth if she said otherwise.)

 

Noi finds the mask about an hour into cleaning the attic space. Nikaido could never bring herself to get rid of it- it might not be the same one Asu gave her years ago, but it’s still important . Hanging in its frame between the rafters, more a reminder of what has been than something she hopes to ever use again. Climbing up the ladder, Nikaido spots Noi staring at it and feels an irrational spike of panic in her gut.

 

Noi turns to face her, frowning. “What’s the point of keeping it if you don’t want to come back to the magic world?”

 

“These boxes won’t move themselves.” Blatantly avoiding the question, Nikaido hoists a crate of moth-eaten tablecloths off the ground, watching as bugs scatter from beneath it. She had a horrible feeling that the topic of the magic world would rear its ugly head again, and she’s no more ready to face it than she was the previous time. Complicated feelings have no place here, and so Nikaido will ignore them for as long as she can.

 

By some miracle, Noi seems happy enough to drop it, grabbing more boxes and following her down.

 

Later, when they’re sparring, Noi breaks Nikaido’s leg. It’s an ugly injury, a compound fracture with a whole lot of blood and a whole lot of pain, and Noi has the nerve to stare at it appreciatively before she finally heals it away. As smoke clears and Nikaido’s leg knits itself back together, Noi grins at her across the rooftop. There’s black particles smudged near her mouth from the smoke, and Nikaido does not stare at them while the pain recedes piece by agonising piece.

 

“Sorry!” Noi tells her, still smiling.

 

“No you’re not.” Nikaido replies.

 

Then, before she can even struggle, Noi hooks an arm around her waist and sweeps her right off her feet. 

 

For a brief moment, Nikaido swears she’s dropped dead; because Noi has her tucked easily under one arm and Nikaido knows she’s heavier than she looks but Noi is carrying her like she weighs nothing. She wonders if this is how it feels to be a cardboard box getting cleared out of the attic and curses herself to hell and back for being stupid because-

 

“What-” Nikaido starts, and almost swallows her tongue when Noi starts moving

 

“Just in case your leg hasn’t properly healed yet!” Noi explains from somewhere above her. Like that makes things any better. “I’m hungry now so I’m taking you to the kitchen.”

 

“You-” Nikaido tries again, before giving up entirely. Telling Noi to stop is like throwing oil on a fire then asking it politely to cool down. 

 

Once they’re downstairs, Noi kicks the kitchen door wide open, almost tearing it off its hinges. Still trapped under one arm, Nikaido wills the crosseyes- over by the sink cleaning plates before opening time- not to say a single word.

 

It takes Noi a good three minutes to realise that Nikaido can’t cook while she’s being carried around like a box of trash. With her feet finally back on solid ground, Nikaido does three things;

 

First she kicks Noi out of the kitchen. Then she reminds Tetsujo and Dokuga that she’s the one writing their paychecks. And, finally, she decides that she’s absolutely, well and truly screwed.

 

-

 

The next time Noi arrives, it’s not through her own door. 

 

Nikaido is still wary of Shin- it’s hard to fully trust someone who decapitated your best friend, once- but she’s confident in the knowledge that he’s unlikely to cause trouble as long as Noi is around. Nikaido has also learned a lot more about him over the past few months than she ever thought she would; he’s a popular conversation topic for Noi, leaving Nikaido with a head full of strange trivia about his favourite fishing spot and the type of broom he prefers to fly. 

 

Despite Shin’s previous claim of having no lingering attachments to Hole, Nikaido knows that this visit is hardly his first. The professor can be scarily persuasive when he wants something done, inviting Shin back for a chat and an impromptu scientific investigation on more than one occasion. This time however, instead of heading straight for the hospital, Shin falls into a seat at a table next to Noi, leaving his mask hanging on the rarely-used coat rack by the door. (Nikaido accepts that she probably won’t be getting many more customers until he decides to leave.)

 

“The food here’s great,” Nikaido overhears Noi telling him while she makes up their order. “Even if it is Hole.” Shin leans in close with a reply that Nikaido doesn’t quite catch over the sizzle of oil, but whatever it is sparks a competitive grin to life on Noi’s face.

 

With his mask off and glasses on, Shin could almost pass for polite-looking- but he keeps up effortlessly with Noi’s boisterous comments and ceaseless enthusiasm, pushing back just as hard when the situation calls for it. They’re partners for a reason, after all. At some point during their meal, while Nikaido is taking an order from another customer, Noi bolts to her feet in response to something Shin said- smacking her forehead hard against one of the low-hanging light fittings. At the moment of impact, Shin raises a hand to his own head in more than just sympathy. Like he’s got a sixth sense for whenever Noi is doing stupid stuff, honed through years of partnership. 

 

The light still swinging overhead, Noi falls back into her seat with a sheepish grin. As Shin tells her it’s entirely her own fault, then taps her on the head fondly regardless, Nikaido wonders not for the first time what their relationship actually is. They’re obviously close- friends seems like too small of a word for them- but she’s not seen anything to suggest that they’re together either.

 

It gets shunted to the back of Nikaido’s mind while she focuses on meal prep, lingering there like the vague beginnings of a headache. She almost forgets about it entirely when Shin slams his plate down onto the table and announces that Noi lost and has to cover the bill- dashing all of Nikaido’s hopes about finally finding a sorcerer willing to pay for their damn food. Then it resurfaces with a vengeance not long after, as Shin tells Noi that he’ll be back to pick her up later, thanks Nikaido for the food, and collects his mask on the way out.

 

The question follows them halfway up to the rooftop, before Nikaido decides to voice it. Beating around the bush has never done anyone any favours.

 

She sits herself down on the stairs, then asks; “What are you and Shin?” 

 

Blinking down at her, Noi couldn’t look any more confused if she tried. “Sorcerers?”

 

“Fucking hell-” Nikaido bites back under her breath, then invites Noi to sit down too by patting the staircase a few steps up. “I mean your relationship.”

 

Noi takes the hint, settling down so her shoes just toe at the small of Nikaido’s back. “We’re Partners.” she explains, like the answer should’ve been obvious.

 

In Nikaido’s limited experience- partners are a signed contract and a parasitic organ taking root behind a door in her ribcage. A judicial agreement made once every four years, a desperate bid for power and control. Noi’s red eyes stare ahead softer than Nikaido has ever seen them, so she knows with certainty that- for them at least- Partners means so much more than that. She’s got that thoughtful expression on her face again; the one she wore on the rooftop when she first talked about the loopholes carved into her magic. When Nikaido asks Noi what she means, it’s out of genuine curiosity.

 

“I can’t think of any other word to describe it,” Noi shrugs, resting her chin against her hands. “It’s like- sharing a piece of your soul with someone. You know that they’ve always got your back, that they’d die for you and you’d do the same for them,” something behind Noi’s smile tells Nikaido that she’s speaking from experience. “If you do it properly, it’s way more than just being friends or being in love with someone.” 

 

Partners- Noi says again, and Nikaido thinks she might be starting to understand.

 

“I assumed you already knew all that, though,” Noi continues, pitched forward on the stairs like she’s planning to topple down headfirst. “I mean, you and the lizard guy are Partners, right?”

 

If Noi wanted to catch her completely off guard, then she could have just kicked her down the stairs instead. 

 

Nikaido goes to protest- sharing a piece of her soul with Kaiman is more than debatable, and the two of them could hardly call themselves magic users anyway- but she stops herself before she can say a word. Because she knows from lived experience that Partners don’t fit one set shape. In one of their rare conversations about something other than cleaning supplies, Nikaido learned that Tetsujo and Dokuga never once attended Blue Night, but are still clearly Partners in every sense of the word- regardless of how long it took them to figure that out themselves. Ebisu and Fujita spend their rare visits driving each other up the wall, but Nikaido still sees the way they care for each other in their own ways; as family, and maybe as Partners too. Sat halfway up the stairs of the Hungry Bug, Nikaido supposes that her and Kaiman being Partners isn’t such a strange suggestion after all.

 

“You might be right,” Nikaido replies eventually, craning her neck to meet Noi’s gaze. “Don’t blame me for not knowing though- I don’t exactly have the best reference point for what having a partner is like.”

 

(She says partners in the loosest sense- because not even a physical, devil-made bond festering into her guts could make Nikaido and En Partners. )

 

“En’s ego wouldn’t be able to fit in the estate any more if you hadn’t shown up.” Noi laughs at that; a loud, sharp sound that echoes through the stairwell. “It was kinda messed up at the time, but seeing him get rejected hard enough that someone would rather die than be his partner was definitely something.”

 

Calling Noi’s statement poorly-timed would be putting it lightly; some nights Nikaido still wakes up terrified of being dragged back to the magic world, sweat sticking her hair to her forehead as she swears she still feels the contract organ rotting away between her ribs. She should get angry at Noi for being insensitive and never thinking before she speaks- months ago, she would have done- but change has crept up on her over time. First slowly, then all at once.

 

Things aren’t the same as they were months ago, so Nikaido shoves Noi in the shoulder lightly, then asks her if she’s looking for a fight.

 

She knows the answer is yes, absolutely before Noi even says a word.

 

-

 

A revelation which changes everything is that Nikaido can convince Noi to do just about anything, so long as she poses it like a challenge.

 

She’s currently got her mopping the floors in the dining area- if Noi isn’t going to pay for her food then Nikaido is just going to have to make her work for it instead. Nikaido promised her a plate of gyoza if she could get the floor looking spotless in half an hour, and Noi seems determined to see it through- going at the dirt and grease with a vengeance.

 

“You missed a spot over by table three!” Nikaido calls from her perch by the stove.

 

Cursing under her breath, Noi doubles back with significantly less enthusiasm. “They should add this to the devil exam.” She complains with a wave of the broom, almost getting it stuck in the pipework overhead. “It’s exhausting enough to qualify.”

 

“Was the heavy armour not bad enough for you?” Nikaido replies. She swears she can still feel the weight of it sometimes, convinced that her shoulders never quite recovered. From the way she winces while she scrubs at a particularly stubborn stain, Nikaido can tell Noi shares the exact same sentiment.

 

They’ve spoken about devil training before- during Noi’s first few visits, it was one of the only conversation points Nikaido could come up with- and by now they’ve just about exchanged every gripe under the sun about the weight of the armour, the smell of the bats, the weird bouts of increased body heat and strange cravings.

 

“It wasn’t all bad though,” Nikaido admits this time, trying to keep the amusement out of her voice as Noi scrubs at the floor like she’s trying to dig a hole through the tiles. “I might not be some sort of magic gyoza-seller supreme any more, but my knife skills are definitely sharper now than they’ve ever been. Muscle memory, or something.”

 

(It’s not by much, just a slight improvement Nikaido has noticed over time, but it’s definitely made a difference. Even more so when her birthday rolled around and everyone pooled together some cash to get her a proper set of cooking knives, wicked sharp and still the most important thing in her kitchen.)

 

Across the room, Noi barks out an amused laugh. “At least you got useful desires- I was just obsessed with punching stuff. My wall was constantly full of holes.” 

 

“Guess it’s a good thing that punching stuff is your job now.” Nikaido grins, just to watch Noi get annoyed and scrub at the floor even harder.

 

“It left me with a super high body temperature too,” Noi continues. Nikaido goes to tell her that she’s noticed- it’s hard to ignore the heat radiating off her every time she’s thrown a punch in her direction. But before she’s even had the chance to open her mouth, Noi has ditched the broom, crossed the restaurant, and thrown both arms around Nikaido’s shoulders. “See?” 

 

At times like this, Nikaido is painfully aware that she’s barely taller than Noi’s shoulder, crushed between her arms and the countertop, completely unable to escape even if she wanted to. She’s not sure how much of the warmth is Noi’s and how much of it is her own ridiculous embarrassment- completely disarmed by what could barely even count as a hug. 

 

Nikaido kind of wants to stamp on Noi’s foot hard enough to break it, or maybe scream, or possibly dissolve into the warmth and never move again.

 

“You’re running out of time to clean the floor,” she wheezes out pathetically, instead. 

 

Nikaido has never been more glad for Noi’s competitive spirit when she’s back across the room without another word.

 

-

 

Noi is nothing if not persistent. The topic of the magic world starts to show its ugly face again just weeks down the line- always catching Nikaido off guard when she’s least expecting it. They don’t often argue seriously, but when they do, it’s always about this .

 

They’re lying on the roof, Noi close enough to Nikaido that she can feel the heat radiating off her, settled into a rare, brief moment of silence as Noi heals her own broken jaw. The click of teeth, enamel on enamel, signals that the bones are firmly back in place as Noi rolls herself upright and says; “You probably would’ve done well as a cleaner.”

 

And that’s how all their arguments start; an offhand comment because Noi doesn’t know when to shut her mouth, a spark of annoyance lighting inside Nikaido’s ribcage that grows and grows and grows. She doesn’t respond, just rolls onto her side and stares at the thick clouds shifting overhead. Perhaps, someday soon, it’ll rain again.

 

“Oh,” Noi mirrors Nikaido’s anger tenfold- reactionary as ever. “So I can’t even compliment you now?”

 

“You know that’s not the problem,” turning her back to Noi feels like asking for trouble, but it’s all Nikaido can do to keep the threads of her composure together. “You’re an open book, Noi. You still think it’s stupid that I choose to stay in Hole.”

 

“That’s ‘cause it is stupid!” A hand clamps down on Nikaido’s shoulder, forcing her to turn and face her. Red eyes, staring angry and bright. “Everything in Hole is terrible. You’re strong even without your magic, but you’re wasting it all here.”

 

Quietly, Nikaido shakes Noi’s hand free. “I think it’s time for you to leave.” Spoken like a threat, like rainclouds gathering overhead. Noi holds her gaze for one, two, three seconds, before stepping away and bringing a door to life on the rooftop in front of her.

 

She steps through to the other side without another word. Noi never says goodbye when she’s angry.

 

When Nikaido returns downstairs, Kaiman is sat at one of the tables, taking his third lunch break of the day. At the very least he’s done as she instructed him to, chopping onions and cabbage into wobbly-looking pieces ready for the next batch of gyoza. Nikaido glances between him and the kitchen, before settling down at the table opposite him with a sigh. It’s not like there’s any customers around, anyway.

 

“Can I ask you something?” Nikaido starts, as soon as she’s sat down. The restaurant feels abnormally quiet when Kaiman nods. “Do you think it’s weird that I want to stay in Hole, even though I’m a magic user?”

 

“Well, yeah!” Kaiman wastes no time in answering, fixing her with a look that would probably involve raised eyebrows if he had any. “Most people want to get out of here as soon as possible- you’re probably the only person who would stick around when given another option.”

 

“Thanks.” The response doesn’t make Nikaido feel any less miserable- but she doesn’t know what else she should have expected.

 

“S’good that you did stay here, though,” Kaiman continues, then, scratching awkwardly at the back of his neck. “I mean, who else would make me gyoza every day?”

 

Nikaido tries to kick him out of his chair for that, laughs that if he likes her food so much then he should try paying his tab for once, then heads back to the kitchen to fix them up something to eat.

 

With gyoza cooking on the pan, the air filled with the sound of steam and oil, Nikaido gets the time to think. About Hole, about the magic world, about Noi- hand on her shoulder, asking her why? She’s asked herself the same question more times than she can count, staring in the mirror at the places smoke once leaked from her fingertips, curled up in bed under the rainfall, in the middle of cooking gyoza because chopping vegetables might be therapeutic but it also leaves plenty of time for thoughts to come creeping in.

 

More than once, Noi has invited her into a world that almost stole her best friend, her family, her sense of self. (the only certain things she has, untouched by magic). A place she gave up on a long time ago, alongside her magic and her devilhood and an older sister from another timeline who will never recognise her face. Despite what the tiny devil in her head might say, Nikaido is not a sorcerer. She hasn’t been for a very long time.

 

She’d be lying through her teeth if she said she liked living in Hole- but at least this tiny place in the worst part of town is her own. It’s not something that Noi- with her veins full of smoke and her head full of pride- would ever understand.

 

She’s not going back. The certain truth is; Nikaido values this life she’s made for herself more than she’ll ever love the strange relationship she’s formed with Noi, between broken bones and rooftop talks.

 

“Nikaido!” Kaiman hollers from the table, then, shouting like the whole world’s about to end. “Is the food ready yet?”

 

-

 

The next time it rains, Nikaido and Noi are arguing.

 

It happens more often than not, lately- always the same topic, always the same ending. They’re out this time when it happens, picking up supplies for the kitchen because it’s easy to carry bigger cuts of meat when Noi is around, worth risking the storm clouds gathering overhead. On the way back, Noi gets tripped up by a Hole statue in the window of a ramen place and immediately takes a faceful of dirt; and that’s all it takes to set her off again.

 

The argument escalates like it always does- Noi says that Nikaido doesn’t belong here, Nikaido pretends she doesn’t hear, Noi gets angry at her for dodging the topic and so Nikaido gets angry at her in return for not knowing when to quit. Nikaido is about to tell Noi that she should leave, when the clouds overhead split in two and rain comes pouring down on top of them.

 

They’re not far from the Hungry Bug so their best option is to run, no time for angry words as they stumble back through the last few streets then collapse in through the doorway; soaked, aching and annoyed. The argument, although cut short, still hangs over them. Nikaido thinks, through the headache threatening to crack her skull into pieces, that this is the fastest she’s ever seen Noi shut up before.

 

Less accustomed to the rain than Nikaido is and completely soaked from head to toe, Noi struggles to put out enough smoke to conjure up a door back to the magic world. The best she can manage is a pathetic cough, and she quickly declares herself stranded- giving up to sit cross-legged on the floor with the wet strands of her hair plastered against her face. Shivering, cold, frustrated; because there’s nothing Noi hates more than being helpless.

 

Nikaido tosses her a towel and tells her that she can stay, just until the rain wears off.

 

(She might still be angry, but she’s not cruel enough to kick Noi out into the storm.)

 

She soon regrets her generosity, because Noi is the worst houseguest that Nikaido’s ever had- even worse than Kaiman, who insists that they just share the bed then nearly impales her on his spikes every time he has a nightmare and thrashes around. Noi decides that she’s too tall for the bed when Nikaido offers it to her out of courtesy, sprawling out on the floor instead- but not before taking all of the covers down with her. Nikaido’s spare bedding got stolen out of a dryer at the laundromat weeks ago, so she’s left huddled under a bath towel for warmth, doing very little to stave off the chill. She’s cold, her head hurts, and she’s still kind of pissed off; back turned to Noi in the hope that the storm won’t be a long one.

 

Time moves by sluggish and painful, minutes bleeding into each other until Nikaido isn’t sure how long she’s been lying there. Noi is mercifully silent too, knocked flat on her back both figuratively and literally by the rain, and Nikaido has never been more glad for the peace and quiet.

 

For a while, it’s no different to her usual rainy afternoons. Then-

 

“I get that you’ve got this whole ‘ I don’t want to be a sorcerer ’ bullshit going on,” Noi says, her voice downtrodden yet still somehow more frustrated than Nikaido has ever heard it before. “But the least that you could do is tell me why.”

 

“I’ve already told you-” Nikaido starts, but Noi rolls over to glare at her before she can say another word. She looks as close as she’s ever going to get to pathetic- damp hair, tired eyes, shivering beneath her blanket- but the look Noi is giving her still stops Nikaido in her tracks.

 

“No, you haven’t! You’ve told me that you don’t want to go back to the magic world more times than I can count, but you always dodge the question whenever I ask why .” Noi moves like she’s trying to sit up, collapsing uselessly back down before she’s even made it off the floor. “Are you scared of En? Bitter that you can’t put out smoke any more? Embarrassed that you lost your devil powers? This whole place wants us dead- what could possibly be worth staying here?”

 

If it wasn’t for the rain, Nikaido thinks she might have just punched Noi, then and there. She curls her hands into fists, nails digging crescents into her palms. “Why do you always assume that things are better over there? Sure, this place might want me dead- but if you stopped to think for a second, you’d realise that the magic world isn’t any more kind.”

 

Finally- finally- that seems to make Noi fall silent. 

 

“You’ve always had a place at the top- you’re a blood relative of En and a powerful magic user to boot- but not everyone has that kind of security.” Talking just makes the headache worse, but once Nikaido has started something, she’s going to see it through to its end. “Your world is cruel too, just in a different way to Hole.”

 

The difference; Hole might not want Nikaido to live in it, but Hole doesn’t want anyone to live in it. They’re all in the same boat here, in a way. Nikaido’s magic has always made her question her place in the world, but despite that she’s carved herself a life here in the mud and the dirt. Through rain and leaky pipes and whatever else Hole might throw at her- she’s not going anywhere.

 

“I don’t like it here,” Nikaido says with finality, and hopes that Noi is listening. “But this place is mine. I’ve fought too hard for it to let it go.”

 

The silence that settles is heavy, uncomfortable, filled with rainfall.

 

“Well, you could’ve just told me all that earlier,” Noi replies, finally. She doesn’t sound angry, and Nikaido lets out a sigh of relief that she didn’t realise she was holding. “I still don’t fully understand- but I do kind of get where you’re coming from.”

 

This time, it’s Nikaido’s turn to stare, as Noi pulls the blanket around her head until all that’s left is a pair of tired red eyes peering out.

 

“When I was a kid, En was always bossing me around ‘cause of my magic. Heal them, fix that, you should start training to become a devil already,” the eyes narrow into something that’s probably a frown. “When I saved senpai and gave up my devil training, it felt like the first important thing I’d done for myself. Even if a devil came down right now and asked if I wanted to try the exam again, I’m pretty sure I’d say no.”

 

It’s probably the most open Noi has ever been about herself, and even through the rain, Nikaido finds herself holding tightly onto it. They’re understanding each other gradually, piece by painstaking piece- and while there might be more than one rift between them, none of their gaps are too large to jump across.

 

“So, yeah,” Noi continues, muffled by the blanket. “Hole is still shit and I don’t get what made you choose here of all places- but I kind of understand why you want to stay.” She pauses, seconds bleeding into each other under the rain. “Besides, I can just keep making doors to visit you. It’s not like it’s hard.”

 

The headache isn’t the only thing stopping Nikaido from summoning up a coherent response. She’s not sure if she should thank Noi, tell her she enjoys her company even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye, get mad at her for hogging the blanket while Nikaido only has a bath towel to fight off the cold- or just smile, because understanding is not something that’s only shown through words.

 

She doesn’t get the chance to do anything though, as Noi rolls flat on her back and complains loudly to the ceiling that her head hurts- clearly done with being thoughtful for the day. Nikaido lets her quiet laugh get lost in the rainfall, and closes her eyes in the hope of getting some sleep.

 

(What might be hours, might be minutes later, Noi decides that she’s tired of the floor and hauls herself up to join Nikaido on the bed. It’s far too small for the both of them and Nikaido ends up squashed flat against the wall- but at least she’s not so cold any more.)

 

-

 

Nikaido re-emerges from the cupboard under the sink to find Noi face-down on the floor. 

 

There’s someone on the table behind with a tiny Hole keychain hanging off their bag despite multiple signs outside warning people to leave them by the door- evidently sat within close enough range to knock Noi clean out of her chair. A little way away, from where he’s mopping the floor, Kaiman looks as if he’s seconds away from laughing himself to death.

 

Then the guy with the keychain moves, just inches to the left. Noi is off the ground and lunging for Kaiman with a vengeance before he even gets to let go of his mop. Nobody around them bats an eye as Noi puts Kaiman in a headlock, trying her best to smother him with a bright, wicked look in her eyes. (People don’t come to the Hungry Bug looking for a peaceful dining experience, after all.)

 

And, perhaps Nikaido cheers Noi on from a safe distance. Perhaps Kaiman calls her a traitor before Noi squeezes him hard enough to shut him up. Perhaps Nikaido enjoys the full-beam grin that Noi shoots her way a whole lot more than she should do.

 

Perhaps she’s also glad that Kaiman and Noi are getting along a little bit better than they did before. Not that Nikaido would ever say that out loud, because Noi would deny it and Kaiman would kick up a fuss and she’d never hear the end of it.

 

(“Magic users are only fine if they’re you.” Kaiman told her a long while ago, sealed with linked fingers like they were little kids again. And, so long as Kaiman doesn’t try to bite anyone’s head off in the middle of the restaurant, that’s good enough for Nikaido.)

 

-

 

Noi likes to talk while they’re fighting, throwing out compliments and taunts like it’s a sport she intends to win. She takes another swing and Nikaido dodges it with a maneuver she knew she couldn’t have pulled off months ago. She’s improving, in little ways that become more noticeable by the day.

 

“If you put as much effort into sparring as you did into talking, you’d have me on the ground by now!” Nikaido hurls back breathlessly as she lands on both feet, because Noi is a terrible influence when it comes to fighting talk.

 

She supposes she was kind of asking for it when Noi lunges forward and punches her in the face, hard .

 

Noi’s fist narrowly misses her nose and Nikaido bites her own lip on impact, drawing blood that she can already taste in her mouth when she staggers backwards. She trips over her own feet, lands hard against the concrete, then rolls her eyes at the self-satisfied look Noi is sending her.

 

“Yeah, yeah- you showed me.” She pokes experimentally at her left incisor with her tongue, knocked loose in her gums by the force of Noi’s punch. “You almost knocked my tooth out.”

 

“Want me to heal it?” Noi offers, lowering herself to crouch opposite her. 

 

Normally, Nikaido would only accept Noi’s smoke for serious injuries; broken bones, crushed organs, one particularly grisly accident with a broken TV aerial. She hates the idea of putting herself in Noi’s debt over a couple of bruises and sore muscles, even if it does mean cutting their fights short sometimes. But, Nikaido kind of needs her teeth, so she accepts just this once.

 

She’s expecting Noi to just blow a cloud of smoke at her from across the roof like she normally does, healing up the rest of her body while she’s at it so they can go for round two. 

 

Nikaido is wholly unprepared for Noi to settle herself between her legs, steady her head in place with one large hand, and tell her to hold still.

 

Noi’s so close that Nikaido could count her eyelashes if she wanted, as she opens her mouth to breathe smoke onto her bloody lip with an expression that’s so focused it’s almost painful to sit still under. Nikaido wonders if Noi even knows what she’s doing, what it means to her, but waiting around for things to happen has never helped people like them and so-

 

Closing the tiny gap left between them, Nikaido kisses her.

 

She immediately regrets it- the smoke tastes horrendous, there’s still blood everywhere and she barely lasts two seconds before breaking out into a coughing fit, throat full of black soot that went down the wrong way. 

 

At least her tooth isn’t about to fall out any more. Small mercies.

 

Noi blinks at her owlishly, then tells her; “Y’know I could have healed it from a distance.”

 

Nikaido isn’t sure if she wants to throw something at Noi’s pretty, dumb face; or kiss her again till she gets the message. She settles for staring at her instead, time dragging over the rooftops excruciatingly slow. Nikaido stares, Noi stares back, then-

 

Oh .” Noi says- before she leans in and kisses Nikaido properly.

 

-

 

After that, nothing really changes.

 

There’s no shift in their relationship, no abrupt realignment, and Nikaido starts to wonder if kissing Noi was just some vivid, adrenaline-charged hallucination. It felt real- she could certainly taste Noi’s smoke at the back of her throat for days afterwards- but other than playing the memory back over and over in her bathroom mirror, Nikaido has nothing to prove it. Noi still sends a full-beam smile when she steps in from the magic world, they still spar out on the rooftop, it’s still ridiculously easy to bribe Noi into household chores with a challenge and a plate of food. They haven’t talked about it, and nothing is new.

 

When Asu shows up near closing time, Nikaido doesn’t think she’s ever been more glad to see an ornate door replacing the air beside table three. She’s been stressed out of her mind all week, and the opportunity to chat about nonsense for an hour or two presents itself like a blessing. 

 

The two of them cook side by side, complain extensively about the struggle of gyoza wrappers tearing while you’re trying to fold them, and in a bizarre way it feels like closure.

 

Because this Asu might not have helped raise her in the same way the Kawajiri she once knew did- but he’s still no less her older brother. Even if time tried to remove Nikaido from his life, they found their way back together regardless. Nikaido doesn’t know if she’ll ever have the courage to face this timeline’s Yakumo- coming to terms with a sister who doesn’t remember she exists is not something she’ll ever be ready for- but the knowledge that she’s out there somewhere, alive and flying and lucky, is more than enough.

 

(Nikaido made peace with her magic, then lost it soon after. All she has left; these tiny reminders that, if she doesn’t let it, not even time can ruin everything .)

 

-

 

It’s getting colder at night- enough that Nikaido can follow the patterns Noi’s breath traces in the air as they walk back to the Hungry Bug through the dark. In one hand she’s carrying an absurdly large stack of egg boxes- courtesy of a late night sale to get rid of extra produce that she just couldn’t miss out on. In the other, she’s leeching off Noi’s body heat, their fingers slotted together neatly in line.

 

Nikaido spots the group of people lingering in the mouth of the sidestreet like a bad omen long before they see her. A gang of some sort by the looks of it- poorly concealed by the shadows, a mugging waiting to happen. She can tell that Noi sees them too from the way her shoulders tense imperceptibly, ever eager for a fight.

 

They’ve got the whole street blocked by the time Nikaido and Noi are close enough to properly see their weapons- sharp things with wicked blades, most likely stolen. They’re probably the same group that’s been attacking people and scaring away Nikaido’s customers, and the realisation puts all thoughts about avoiding conflict right to the back of her mind.

 

One of them steps forward- towards Nikaido because she’s the smaller target- but Noi is lunging for him before anyone even gets the chance to think .

 

It’s over in less than a second- the punch smashes the guy’s eyeball in its socket, there’s blood everywhere and the rest of the group scatter like insects into the night. Noi looks almost disappointed when Nikaido stops her from chasing after them, busying herself with wiping her hand on her clothes instead.

 

“I could’ve handled them myself,” annoyance sits undisguised at the back of Nikaido’s voice once they’re alone again. “You don’t need to protect me.”

 

“I know! They’d be even worse off if it was you,” Noi grins, then looks down at the place where their hands are still connected, warm and secure. “But you would’ve had to let go, so I punched first.”

 

It’s cold, it’s late- and Nikaido is pretty certain that’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to her.

 

Somewhere between walking the last few streets back to the Hungry Bug and shoving the egg boxes into the fridge, Nikaido realises that- maybe- nothing changed because it didn’t need to. 

 

Noi’s bite has always been worse than her bark- actions louder than words, as loud as her words may be- and she’s been a bad influence on Nikaido in the worst ( best ) sort of way. They don’t need pretty words when they’ve got a left-hook and a red-stained grin to say exactly how they feel. 

 

(Everyone meets their match one day, and the two of them are no different. Scissor beats paper, paper beats stone- a game of chance where both of them are winning.)

 

“You’ve got blood all over your face,” Nikaido frowns at where Noi is sat by the bar, then laughs as she makes a futile attempt to wipe it off with her sleeve. “You’re just making it worse, sit still.”

 

The full weight of Noi’s stare is intense even as Nikaido attacks her face with a wet dishcloth, but she doesn’t make any attempt to avoid it now. Noi can look all she wants, ears red under the fluorescent bulbs. Finally satisfied with her efforts, Nikaido lowers the cloth, leans in close, then dodges last minute to kiss Noi on the cheek instead. 

 

It does the trick, the unshakeable stare quickly shifting into a ridiculous annoyed frown; eyebrows furrowed, complaints at the ready. (If she felt like pushing her luck, Nikaido could almost say that Noi was pouting. )

 

“C’mon,” Noi huffs, staring Nikaido down. “We’ve been dating for months and you’ve still only kissed me once.”

 

Getting punched in the face would probably be less of a surprise.

 

“What.” Nikaido replies.

 

Noi’s expression is the picture of innocence- or as close as someone with blood on their clothes can get to it. “What?”

 

“You said we’ve been dating for months.”

 

“Well, yeah,” Noi continues, leaning back against the bar. ( Still pouting- resurfaces that devilish voice, the only part of Nikaido’s brain that isn’t ringing alarm bells.) “Our sparring dates on the roof. I asked you to fight me and you said yes, so-”

 

Nikaido stares. Someone is yelling outside, the dishcloth is dripping lukewarm water down her wrist, Noi is watching her expectantly and apparently they’ve both had very different ideas about the way the land lies between them. Nikaido goes to tell her that they’ve evidently been caught up in one very huge misunderstanding, then stops herself.

 

Because, looking back- maybe they have been dating this whole time. Neither of them have ever been good at conventional , after all.

 

“So, do I get my kiss yet?” Noi pushes, so eager that it’s almost endearing. 

 

The sensible option is the one where Nikaido plays it safe and gives Noi exactly what she wants; because throwing fuel on the fire has never helped anyone.

 

“Win against me next time we fight,” Nikaido grins, instead. “Then we’ll see if you deserve it.”

 

(The sensible option rarely goes as planned, anyway.)

 

-

 

Kaiman is late for work again.

 

Busy reminiscing, he explains once he finally shows up, gesturing in the vague direction of that dark passageway just minutes down the road. Busy dodging cleaning duty, more like- but Nikaido is in no place to complain. She stretches out some lingering days-old stiffness from a punch to the side on her last date, then points Kaiman in the direction of the dirty crockery. They might be best friends (maybe even Partners- but the title isn’t important as long as the feeling is there) but he’s also Nikaido’s employee, and she’s not about to start playing favourites.

 

Kaiman grumbles over the dishes, someone calls out an order as they walk into the restaurant, Nikaido folds a neat line of identical gyoza ready for cooking. And- like the final piece falling into place- the air in the corner of the Hungry Bug becomes filled with the taste of smoke. A door folds itself into existence between the tables; and nobody even looks up from their food anymore when Noi comes barreling out.

 

Because this place Nikaido has carved out for herself is a strange one; none of her friends pay their tabs, her girlfriend keeps trying to fight her, and the majority of her staff get put out of action by rainy days and certain keychains. It’s far from perfect, buried in the mud and the dirt, but it’s also hers .

 

(Hole is still Hole, and it might just have everything that Nikaido needs.)