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Greetings from the Netherworld

Chapter Text

A couple days following graduation, Yusuke received a letter from Akira.

Yusuke was both impressed and flattered by the traditional stationary, but it struck him as unusual to receive a letter from out of the blue.

Its contents were nothing Akira couldn't have simply told him with a text or a phone call. In it, Akira said that he wanted him to visit his hometown to meet his parents. When Yusuke texted him to let him know that he received the letter, he never received a message back, however. The lack of response made him wonder if something had happened to Akira's phone, but nothing like that had been mentioned in the letter.

Its circumstances were strange, but the strangest thing about it was actually its envelope.

On the back of the envelope, where it was sealed, someone had left a kiss mark in pink lipstick.

That couldn't have been from Akira.

There was also no return address. It was like the letter had been hand-delivered.

Having received no word from Akira, Yusuke started worrying that something may have happened to him. He could've been kidnapped. Yusuke knew that he was probably just overthinking things, and he didn't want to start worrying prematurely, but the alternative failed to put him at ease. If he let too much time pass and something bad happened to Akira, he didn't know if he'd be able to forgive himself.

The letter didn't specify a time, but it did mention a place where they would meet.

Akira had shown him that there was nothing he couldn't face. He might've been overreacting, but he wanted to be prepared for the worst. He figured that Akira would've understood.

 

Worrying that he could already be too late, he got on the train that evening.

 

School was out, but no one was going to question the presence of a boy in a uniform with a shinai carrying case over his shoulder. He used to practice kendo, so the case that was left from club practice was useful for disguising a sword.

...Supposedly, it wasn't real. The manager of the airsoft shop swore up and down that he only carried replicas, but the swords Akira bought for him certainly felt sharp enough to function as weapons in the real world. Akira probably worked out some kind of under-the-counter deal with him.

The train ride felt so long, and it was so late...

As the train rolled onward, Yusuke's eyelids became heavy and he imagined the train car as a time machine taking him toward the future. If he let his eyes close, he worried that he'd awaken to find himself in a different place and time, so he fought to keep himself awake.

There were a few other passengers in the car, none of whom attempted to make eye contact with the boy carrying the sword. There was a red-faced salary man, a punkish boy who obstinately chose to stand despite the many open places to sit, and a young woman who sat by herself in the seat nearest to the door, clutching the pole next to her. They were an odd assortment. Yusuke was tempted to ask them what they were all doing out so late, but he didn't want to accidentally invite danger. He was feeling jumpy, and if he felt threatened, he wasn't sure he would've been able to stop himself from flailing his sword.

To keep himself awake, he kept texting Akira.

There had to be a reasonable explanation for everything.

When the train reached his stop, Yusuke stepped out and realized too late that he hadn't brought enough money to pay for his return trip. He'd spent too much time worrying about what he could bring with him to defend himself. If he hoped to return home, he really had to find Akira.

As he walked toward his destination, he checked his phone a number of times. Predictably, there was still no word from Akira. Whenever he finally saw him again, Yusuke decided he was going to give him a stern talking-to for all the worry he caused him.

Walking alone at night on an unfamiliar rode wasn't fun at all. Before he left, the idea seemed so atmospheric and inspiring in his mind...

He hoped that Akira would be there waiting for him. If he wasn't there, he planned on waiting for him all day.

But, really...

What was scarier than the darkening sky or the shadows between the street lights or the fear of meeting eyes with a stranger... was the thought of finding something else waiting for him there instead.

 

From where he was standing, on a road overlooking the rural town, he could smell the ocean.

 

The wind gently blew through his hair and rustled his loose shirt.

 

As he stepped beneath a street lamp and became blinded by its light, he felt the air around him become colder on his next step. Upon the following step, as he moved back into the shadows, he found himself...

 

Somewhere else.

 

Yusuke would have described the sensation as chilling had it not also been so familiar. His phone had been in his pocket the whole time, so he was positive he hadn't accidentally touched something. Moreover, the Metaverse Navigator no longer existed on any of their phones. After the Metaverse had been erased, the app disappeared along with it. Unless he was hallucinating, he didn't have an explanation for the sudden and very drastic change his surroundings had undergone.

One second, he was walking on an ordinary road, the atmosphere very clear to him, and the next, he was in a place that could have reasonably been described as hellish. The road was gone and so was the smell of the ocean. The place around him looked like a distant cousin of Mementos; vast darkness spreading as far as the horizon, its flat, barren ground dotted with gnarled trees and the ancient remains of destroyed architecture.

In front of him, there stood a solitary building.

A twisted castle.

Among the many questions in his head, Yusuke chose to settle the first.

He'd been right. Something strange was afoot. Akira's mysterious silence was likely related to the place he'd stumbled into, and, more specifically, that castle that stood in his way. As impossible as it seemed, it was hard to refute the validity of what he saw with his own eyes. It was like the Metaverse had somehow been resurrected. Without the Navigator, Akira may have become trapped and sent out the message as a call for help.

But... That didn't make sense.

In the letter, Akira clearly said that he wanted him to visit so he could meet his parents...

Unless... the letter itself was fake. The lipstick mark on the back of the envelope could have been the calling card of its sender and true penman. But even if something like that were true, the intimate contents of the letter could have only been written by Akira or someone close to him.

Nothing made sense, and it was difficult to think rationally in such an unthinkable situation.

 

“Akira...”

 

Somewhere in that tower, Akira was waiting for him. Yusuke could feel it. Unlike Akira, he wasn't someone so special to be chosen by fate to guide humanity. He was just an ordinary person who'd been saved by someone extraordinary. That was all. But even so, that was all he needed to be. He fell in love with that person's stubborn kindness.

With no road nor station left behind him, there was only one way forward.

Loosening his bag from his shoulder, Yusuke removed his sword to keep it ready if the need for it arose. Up ahead, in the near distance, he could see a figure guarding the castle gates. Without anyone to watch his back, Yusuke wished to avoid fighting as much as possible, but he was prepared to draw his blade if he had to. As long as there was only one guard, he could handle them by himself. That self-reassurance was enough to help him move his feet.

The guard was a large, red Oni. It was probably just a Shadow, but it seemed strange that it wasn't hiding its true form behind a mask.

It didn't react as he approached.

Belatedly, Yusuke realized that he was still wearing his school uniform. If the castle were a Palace, then at least he wasn't being seen as a threat to its security.

 

Yusuke bowed his head politely as he stood before the guard. “Pardon me. May I ask you where I am?”

Cocking his head to the side, crossing his muscular arms over his wide chest, the Oni gave a short, gruff laugh. “Huh. I thought you smelled different... What's up with you? Did you get lost or somethin'?”

“Something like that...” he said slowly. “What is this place?”

“This? This's the masters' palace.”

“Palace...?”

“Are you deaf? Yeah, that's what I said. It's a palace. Do you need help gettin' back home or somethin'?”

“Actually, I think I have some business with this Palace's Ruler first.”

“You think? You mean you don't know if you have business with them or not?”

“I came here to see someone.”

“Sorry, kid, but I can't let you in if you can't even explain what you're here for.”

The guard was being difficult with him. He must not have chosen his words carefully enough. Like usual, it seemed that the front entrance wasn't going to be an option, but Yusuke didn't like the idea of searching for an alternative entrance. With only one guard stationed outside, there were likely traps laid all around the perimeter of the castle. Getting inside wasn't going to be as easy as slipping through a hole in the fence.

He decided to try again.

“I said, I'm-”

 

“He's here to see me,” a voice interrupted.

 

All at once, that large, intimidating Oni suddenly became meek. He turned around toward the voice and Yusuke followed where he was looking. On the other side of the gate, someone was approaching from the entrance; a young woman with blonde hair that tumbled over her shoulders in magnificent curls. She was strikingly beautiful, but her beauty was otherworldly. A menacing aura surrounded her. As she came nearer, Yusuke realized that what adorned her head was not a crown but a pair of black, spiraling horns. A red bow was nestled under her bosom, but the stripes she wore appeared to not be a part of a garment; the black bands that circled her arms and legs and hugged her chest were made into her flesh.

She looked too human to be a regular Shadow. She had to be the Palace Ruler.

Had the circumstances been different, Yusuke may have wanted to paint such an intriguing-looking person.

With a wave of her hand, the gates opened. The Oni stumbled back, timidly holding his hands together, bowing his head.

“M-Madam... What are you doing out here? D-Does the Master know that a human boy is here to see you?”

She sent him an icy cold stare. “What's that supposed to mean?” she asked.

“I-I just thought, he might be bothered if he found out that you-”

Although she was barely taller than half of his height, her intimidating stare made him cower. He trembled and whimpered pathetically as she raised one of her hands and placed a clawed finger against the center of his chest. “You'd best not finish that sentence,” she said, tracing her finger around his skin, pressing deep enough to leave a thin cut in the surface of his flesh. “I do whatever I want – whoever I want.”

As a bystander to their conversation, Yusuke's questions grew. Before, he thought his ears had been mistaken, but the Oni must have known what he was saying when he referred to the Palace's Rulers. Yusuke didn't know how that was possible, but it sounded like there was more than one.

For a second, he considered the possibility that Akira was its second Ruler, but he quickly discarded that thought. He didn't even want to consider it. The implications of that would have been far too upsetting.

But... Regardless, even if that were the truth, that just meant that Yusuke needed to save him all the same.

“Excuse me,” Yusuke said. He waited. When she turned that stare toward him, he remained firm. “I came to the place stated in the letter. Is Akira here?”

Her eyes narrowed and a grin widened on her glossy lips. “Akira? Yeah, obviously. He lives here, silly. But he's not the one you're here to see. You're my guest.”

“Come again?”

The sound of her voice may have been sweet, but her words were all covered in thorns. “Did you think you could just walk into a place like this? I don't know a thing about you. I'm highly selective when it comes to men – especially the ones who get close to my Akira. If I'm going to let you in, I have to determine whether you're worthy of him first.”

The image of the person Yusuke was speaking to was becoming clearer to him. She was probably a stalker. She was clearly possessive of Akira and probably thought of him as her prince. Anyone who approached the gates of her castle would have been put under the pressure of her strict, personal scrutiny. Trying to satisfy her expectations would have been a worthless effort; it looked like she was prepared to fight off anyone who got close to Akira. With no uncertainty, those eyes of hers said that no one else was worthy of him. She was the only one.

“I see. So you're the jealous type.”

“Huh?” Taken aback, her eyes widened and that arrogant look slipped right off her face. It was gone for just a moment, however. It quickly returned with renewed intensity, her lips curling into a cruel grin. “Yeah... Something like that. You see, Kitagawa Yusuke, true love is something that appears only once in a thousand years. I know what true love looks like, but how could you? It'll be another thousand years before I'm willing to believe that my Akira has found the one.”

She knew his name. So his second guess had to be right, too. She was the one who delivered the letter and sealed it with a kiss.

“What makes you think you're allowed to decide that?” Knowing that he was taking a risk by speaking so boldly, Yusuke also assumed a bold stance, raising his chin defiantly, looking down at her with condescending eyes. “I love Akira... But he isn't mine. Akira belongs to no one but himself. No one else can make decisions for him – that includes you.”

Once again, for just a moment, she looked surprised – impressed, even.

“Oh? You sound chivalrous.” The look in her eyes was that of a predator. She was trying to keep an elegant posture, but her body remained tight and Yusuke noticed the way her fingers flexed in irritation. “Alright then, sword boy. If you think you have what it takes to be with him, then prove it!”

As he feared, she decided to attack.

She flew at him swiftly with an arm outstretched, her black claws raised, going straight for his neck. Yusuke had little reason to doubt her killing intent. If she were able to make contact, she looked ready to dig her nails into his skin. He feared for his throat, but he also feared a fight.

He dodged in time, sending her flying straight past him.

“Stop this at once! I don't want to fight!” he pleaded.

He was in an unprecedented situation. Out of all the Palaces they'd visited, he'd never met a Palace Ruler so aggressive. The other Palace Rulers tried to keep them from reaching their treasure with traps and other security measures. They normally didn't come face-to-face with a Ruler until after every other line of defense had been breached. The woman he was facing was an anomaly; a deviant among deviants.

Was Akira her treasure? He was clearly of some importance to her. If she knew he was coming to take Akira from the start, then it made sense why she would greet him with hostility.

Still... His clothes remained the same.

Was he mistaken about something?

It wasn't worth the risk of finding out. If he changed her heart or accidentally killed her in a struggle, the Palace would crumble with Akira inside. There was only one thing to do...

“Kamu Susano-o!”

He didn't expect that to work, but it did. Kamu Susano-o appeared over his shoulder, scarf billowing, pronged sword held at the ready, waiting for his order.

Looking up at his Persona, she let out an amused laugh. “Oh, you have one, too. It's a lot smaller than his, though.”

His?

She had to be referring to Akira. Yusuke didn't even want to believe that his leader would have fallen against such a crude woman, but he could think of no other reason for her to be familiar with Akira's Persona.

He took a look over his shoulder at Kamu Susano-o. When they disbanded the Phantom Thieves, he resigned himself to the thought that he'd never see his Persona again. While he felt relieved to know that it still existed, its presence only gave him more questions.

“Just what is this place...?” he muttered.

The woman laughed, reveling in his confusion. “You don't know? Oh, that's right. You wouldn't know. Of course you wouldn't know. You don't know anything about Akira, either. He isn't what you think he is. I can just imagine the look on your face when you find out. You're just a pitiful little boy. If you found out what he's really like, you'd probably go screaming back to mommy.”

“Funny turn of phrase you have there. My mother's dead.”

Her laughing ceased and she dropped her attack stance. “Ah-... R-... Really?”

“What's it to you?”

She puffed out her cheeks like a scolded child and crossed her arms. “N-Nothing. You're right. That doesn't matter to me. Y-You're probably just another one of those pathetic men who forces all of their repressed mommy issues onto the girl they're dating.” Lowering her voice, she started talking to herself as she toed at the dirt around her feet. “But that can't be the case, right? Akira's a boy... He does have a strong nurturing side, though. He's so tender and caring... That's probably what this guy's into. He's just using him. Yeah... I won't let him...”

Yusuke held up a hand, willing to forfeit the fight if she'd only listen. “Hold on. I'm not going to refute anything you just said. Those are indeed a few of Akira's strong points, and they're part of what made me fall in love with him. He's gentle and kind... He listened to me and tried to understand me when no one else would, even when I tried to push him away.”

Seemingly caught off guard, she looked at him with her mouth open in dismay. “W-Wait. Are you saying that Akira's the one who pursued you?

“Our feelings were mutual, but I suppose you could say that. I'm not particularly good at understanding other people's feelings. I didn't even know what it really meant to love someone or be loved until he showed me.”

Perhaps it had been foolish of him to think that she'd listen. Shaking her head in disbelief, she curled her hands in the air and started taking a few slow steps toward him, her will to fight rekindled by her desire to blind herself from the truth. “Sh-... Shut up! It doesn't matter if he went after you first! He must have been confused! A limp-dicked little bitch like you will never be worthy of him!”

It was sort of incredible how such a beautiful woman could become so ugly in her rage.

“I know that,” Yusuke said. He needed to prove that he wasn't what she thought he was. He had to show her his seriousness. “He's far better than what I deserve... But I owe him my life. Do you think he'll be happy being trapped here waiting for your approval? I don't doubt that there must be things I don't know about him, but I know that he values the freedom of choice above anything else. He didn't free himself from his chains just to get chained down by you.” With his Persona there to watch his back, Yusuke drew his sword, the sharp blade squealing as it was drawn from its sheath. Locking eyes with the horned woman, he raised it in her direction. “I'll free him from you even if it costs me my life!”

With an audible gasp, she stumbled back a step. “You think he needs saving... from me...?”

With barely three yards separating them, he was within perfect range to strike. Clutching his sword, he lowered himself into a position that would be easy for her to avoid if she chose to surrender at the last second.

“Prepare yourself.”

“Wait... H-Hold on...!” she cried. Her pleas were too little, too late, though. She narrowly dodged Yusuke's attack as he thrust forward. For a split second, mid-attack, their eyes met. “What's with this guy? He's fast...!”

Aware that he would have seriously cut her down had she not moved, her legs wobbled weakly and she fell to her knees.

Yusuke was just relieved that no blood needed to be shed.

“Madam!”

Her guard charged forward, looking to defend his mistress with his bare hands. Having seen the way he stood by ineffectually during their fight, Yusuke knew that the Oni would be no trouble for him. If he wanted to die so badly, Yusuke would let him skewer himself on his blade.

“Stay out of this unless you also wish to lose your head,” he warned, turning to point his sword at the guard.

Staring into his eyes, the Oni recognized him as a man of his word and stood down. Glancing down at his mistress, he silently begged her to forgive his uselessness.

The woman trembled and put her hands around her neck protectively. “'Also'? D-Does that mean you plan on cutting off my head, too?”

Keeping his expression composed, Yusuke went to where she was kneeling in the dirt and looked down at her. She seemed intimidated, so he had a feeling that threatening her was working. He didn't want to actually hurt her.

Putting a foot against her chest, he pushed her onto the ground and leveled his sword at her throat.

“I won't go that far,” he promised. “If I went that far, this whole Palace would collapse with Akira in it. I'll just make you suffer until you're willing to take me to him.”

Her fingers clawed at the dirt as she tried to back away from the tip of his sword. “Hold on. Wait a minute... I think there's been some kind of mistake. L-Listen... Would you really hurt a girl? I'm too pretty, aren't I?” Her legs shifted underneath Yusuke's legs. For a second, he worried that she was going to kick him, but her fear of his sword seemed genuine. She was batting her eyelashes at him and smiling, using her sex appeal as if she thought she could charm her way out of her cornered position. “Why isn't it working on you?” she growled in frustration. “Do you seriously have no interest in women?”

It wasn't that he couldn't see her appeal. He just didn't care.

“Why would I have any interest in a harlot like you?”

As he pressed his sword closer to her throat, she yelped and squeezed her eyes shut. “You're right! I'm sorry. That was stupid. Why would you be interested in Akira's mom, right?”

 

. . .

 

“...What did you just say?”

...What, you didn't know?” she asked incredulously. “I thought it was obvious. Don't you see the resemblance?”

“Not in the slightest. Though you are very beautiful. Perhaps he has your eyelashes...”

“N-Now you're going to be nice?!”

“Me?” It seemed to him like it wasn't his responsibility to apologize. He'd been polite to begin with, but then she was the one who went and... Well. It didn't matter. That was water under the bridge. Getting frustrated with her would've just been a waste of time, and if she were telling the truth about who she was, he didn't want to be on her bad side, whether she was a Shadow or not. “My apologies. I would have shown more respect had I known. Please forgive me, mother.”

Yusuke sheathed his sword and stood aside to let her gather herself. He also dismissed his Persona, feeling grateful that its use hadn't been necessary. His methods of negotiation weren't as sharp and tactful as Akira's, but it all worked out in the end.

M-Mother?!” Her pale face turned a bright red which she quickly tried to hide. She made a big show of dusting herself off as she stood, trying to distract from her obvious embarrassment. “Look. Acting like a gentleman isn't going to get you anywhere with me. I won't be that easy to convince. Once you realize the situation you're in, we'll see if that determination of yours holds up.”

“You'll let me in?” Yusuke asked.

She may have looked like some kind of demon with those twisted horns, but he could tell that she was just a girl who was trying too hard to be something she wasn't. By the look of her, there was no way she could've been Akira's real mother. She was too young and the resemblance just wasn't there, but... The way she looked aside to avoid meeting his eyes, her long eyelashes, her pouty lips...

Maybe she really was his mother. As they'd seen with Morgana, appearances within the Metaverse were sometimes drastically different. Maybe she still saw herself as a young woman. The fear of meeting her son's boyfriend may have triggered her feelings of protectiveness and jealousy, resulting in a Palace.

Maybe.

Without responding, she began walking toward the castle entrance, expecting him to follow.

 

The inside of the castle was nothing like what Yusuke expected. There was a red carpet, candles, and pillars in the main hall, but there was also a modern elevator in the middle where he would have expected to see stairs. The atmosphere was simultaneously like that of an apartment and a castle, as if two opposite worlds had been mashed together. There were some other horned women lounging about the entrance on leather couches, hugging each other, kissing, moaning erotically... When they saw him, they giggled to themselves and looked at him with come-hither stares.

“Ugh. Don't pay attention to those whores,” the mistress muttered.

When they reached the elevator, she turned around to face him and put her hands on her waist.

“By the way,” Yusuke began, stroking his chin curiously. “You seemed to dislike it when I called you 'mother'. Was that too soon? Would you rather I call you by your name?”

“Catherine,” she said. “And what the hell are you calling 'too soon'? You don't have this on lockdown yet, son.

Yusuke nodded. “I understand, Catherine-san.”

Her face turned red again. Jaw tight, she turned her back on him. “Gross. Don't be so formal. Guys like you are so...” She took a quick glance back at him. “...You're actually pretty handsome, aren't you?”

“Hm?”

“I-I didn't say anything!” When the elevator door opened, she dove inside and began jamming on one of the buttons. After Yusuke entered and the doors closed, she remained where she was, stubbornly facing the button panel to avoid eye contact. She looked annoyed with herself for embarrassing herself in front of him.

As the elevator traveled up the tower, Yusuke stood his sword in front of himself and placed one palm over the other. “Is there anything you could tell me about where we are? I've never seen a castle like this. It feels almost like I'm in another world.”

He didn't know how much he should say, unsure whether it was alright to mention the Metaverse outright. Talking about the Metaverse inside the Metaverse with Metaverse residents felt like a taboo, like he'd be violating the laws of the universe.

She turned back around to look at him like he was stupid. “Why are humans so simpleminded? This is another world. You come from the human world. This is the Netherworld where demons live.”

It didn't sound like she was trying to fool him, but Yusuke wasn't sure he could take her answer at face value. He was still too skeptical.

It was possible that there were other worlds besides their world and the Metaverse, though... One time, they'd discussed the possibility. Morgana made it sound like it wasn't a big deal, like it wasn't worth their time to worry about all of the things that were beyond their knowledge. But, when he was being faced with something unfamiliar, wasn't that the perfect time to question the things he thought he knew?

“You're being too quiet,” Catherine said. “Say something.”

The rattling of the elevator made him nauseous. Its hum was suddenly too loud for his ears.

His understanding of the universe and everything in it felt as small as the trembling box he was standing in.

“Where's Akira?”

Her smile made him uncomfortable.

“Oh, that's a familiar look... Are you suddenly starting to understand how out of place you are here?” She took a step closer to him. “You're just a human; a small, small little existence. Akira's not like you. He's strong enough to topple a god all by himself. Did you really think that someone like that could be human?”

“Where is he?”

The bell rang as the elevator jolted to a stop at their floor.

Catherine backed out of the open door, smiling a pleased smile to herself. “I'm taking you to see him. That's what you wanted, right? I hope you're prepared. I'd feel bad for Akira if you couldn't accept him for his true self. It's not too late to turn back, you know. I can escort you home if you want. You won't remember anything that happened here. In time, I'm sure you'll forget all about Akira, too.”

That wasn't what he wanted. He didn't want to forget about Akira.

But if the Akira he thought he knew wasn't the real Akira, then...

“You don't have to step out of that elevator,” she said. “You don't even have to say anything. Just stay where you are and I'll get the idea. I'll think of something to tell Akira so he won't be too disappoin-”

“I'm not leaving.”

She was just trying to mess with him. Even if she were telling the truth, she was just trying to make him rethink his decision. But nothing was going to make him back down after he'd already made up his mind. He went there to rescue Akira. If the real Akira she claimed to know was anything like the one he knew, then he needed to see him. It wouldn't have been right to leave him alone with a person like Catherine.

Even if she were his mother...

No, precisely because she was his mother – he couldn't leave him with her.

Someone so controlling... She was no better than Madarame.

“Lead the way,” Yusuke said. He stepped out and the elevator doors slammed shut behind him like the powerful jaws of a beast.

Catherine's sly sweetness evaporated. The fact that he remained unconvinced seemed to irritate her. There was a murderous glint in her eyes and a flood of vulgar words her clenched teeth were barely able to dam. She tightened her hands into fists and Yusuke could've sworn he heard the splitting of skin as her sharp nails bit into her palms. He could see all of her anger and irritation screaming behind her eyes and it was all still there even as she put a new smile upon her face.

“Okay,” she said. “It's fine. Maybe you are a nice guy. Maybe you really do love him. I'm willing to believe that if that's what you say. But I'm sad to say the two of you are incompatible. You'll see soon enough. If this all doesn't work out as merrily as you seem to think it will, then you better be ready to pay for his heartbreak with your life.”

Yusuke sighed. “I told you. I owe him my life. Those weren't just words to me.”

Catherine also sighed. “You're weird... What kind of human talks that way? Being so willing to throw away your life for someone... You don't make any sense.”

She wasn't the first person to call him weird, but that might've been the first time it really bothered him. He thought for sure that she'd be impressed with his resolve.

She kept walking, leading him down the hallway the elevator had opened out into. There were doorways along the hall, some of them open and leading to other long stretches of hallway, others open, revealing apartment-style rooms with more female demons chatting and lazily lounging about, but most of the other doors were closed. Considering the length of their elevator ride, they must have gone far up the tower, but the amount of rooms and hallways he saw on that floor didn't match with the castle's appearance on the outside.

The Metaverse had its share of unnatural spaces; the sheer size of Madarame's museum when compared to his tiny shack and the maze of counterfeit paintings therein, Kaneshiro's flying bank, the vast expanse of desert they discovered inside Sakura Sojiro's home... All of those places were like something out of a dream, but perhaps that was also what made them so believable. They were the product of someone's imagination.

The space inside Catherine's castle combined the familiar with the unfamiliar. The resulting atmosphere was deeply unsettling. It was human, but not. Just like her.

He watched her back and the swaying of her hips as she walked ahead of him.

If she was really Akira's mother... Yusuke didn't know how he'd handle that. His first impression of her was rather poor. She seemed like a difficult person. If Akira was close to her, though, he'd try his best to get along with her for his sake.

It was sort of strange how easy he found it to accept that Akira's mother could be a demon.

If she were a demon, then Akira was a demon, too. That had to be what she meant when she referred to Akira's 'true self'. Yusuke couldn't even imagine what sort of difference that would make, though. Human or not, Akira was a good person. Akira had pushed his way into his life when he was trying to push everyone away. He helped him reclaim his freedom. He showed him the meaning of hope and love.

When everything else felt uncertain, Akira was the one person he could always rely on.

Yusuke wasn't going to doubt him.

“Is this... the throne room?” Yusuke asked. They'd come to a stop outside a pair of tall, ornate double doors. They looked significant. “I would've expected it to be on the first floor. What a strange structure,” he mused.

“...What floor do you think we're on? We're below ground right now, dummy,” Catherine said. She scoffed at him and gestured a hand at the doors. “Now show some respect, alright? My dear Vincent is behind these doors, too. If you want to make a good impression, you better mind yourself.”

Without further ado, Catherine put her hands on the doors and gave them a push. Despite their size, they opened easily.

Yusuke took a breath and eagerly stepped inside ahead of Catherine, suddenly feeling desperate to see Akira for himself just to confirm that he was safe.

The inside of the throne room was just as large as he imagined it would be, but it was very dark. Shadows spread out to each corner of the high ceiling, a cone of light from a flickering blue candle surrounding the throne at the top of the stairs at the end of the long red carpet. The one who was sitting there upon the throne had to be...

“Akira...!”

It looked like him. It had to be.

Yusuke ran toward the throne, nearly tripping over the carpet in his haste. He dropped his sword at the foot of the stairs as he ran up them, but he stopped halfway, struck by the appearance of the one who was sitting there.

It was Akira... but older. He had a pair of those twisted horns like Catherine's.

Three naked female demons clung to him, moaning and gasping as if aroused by his mere presence.

“Aki... ra...?”

The throne beneath him shifted, and Yusuke realized that it wasn't a throne at all. It was a demon, much larger than any of the others he'd seen. It blinked at him, giving him a curious look.

“Hey, Vincent, some kid's here. I think he's a human.” After a second, he suddenly jolted as if struck by a realization, nearly knocking the others off his back. “Oh, I know! Akira told us about you. You're that pretty-boy he likes. He said you'd be coming to visit.”

“Then...” Yusuke stared harder at the naked horned man sitting on top of the big demon. Without a doubt, he'd heard the demon call him 'Vincent', but he looked so much like Akira, it was shocking. The resemblance was astounding. He had to be Akira's father. Akira must have inherited some of Catherine's softer features and taken everything else from Vincent. “M-My apologies. I thought...”

Yusuke was speaking to him, but Vincent wasn't paying attention to him at all. He seemed to be too busy playing with the girls who were laying on him.

“Ah... Pardon me, sir?” Yusuke tried again. “Akira invited me here to meet you-”

“Huh?” Vincent put his elbow on top of the other demon's head and leaned forward to stare down at him. “Sorry, I'm not interested in dudes.”

He really wasn't paying attention. Or he was intentionally being rude.

Akira wanted him to meet his parents, but was there any point? They seemed like such unbearable people. Talking with them was impossible.

“Mn. Pardon the intrusion. I'll be going now.”

Yusuke turned around and began heading back down the stairs. At the bottom, he picked up his sword and walked past Catherine. She whipped around when he passed her, incredulity written on her face.

“W-Wait! Where do you think you're going?”

Yusuke didn't look back. He just waved a hand over his shoulder. “I'm going to go find Akira on my own. He's around here somewhere, isn't he?”

It sounded like she wanted him to stay, but she didn't exactly do anything to stop him from leaving.

 

Yusuke was prepared to search every corner of the castle if he had to, but he didn't make it very far. As he reached for the doors, they opened as if on their own, and, on the other side...

 

“Akira...?”

“Yusuke?”

 

He conveniently found Akira without even having to look for him.

 

Like his parents, there were a pair of spiraling horns on his head, nestled in his shaggy hair. He wasn't wearing his glasses; his eyes bright and clear, though round with apparent surprise. There were black stripes covering his body, from his neck downward, disappearing into solid black at his hands and feet. A thin, pointed tail uncertainly swished behind him.

Had Yusuke's name not come from that mouth, he would have wondered if the one standing in front of him was finally, really and truly Akira, but, looking into his eyes, for some reason, Yusuke felt absolutely certain that it was him. And he felt relieved.

He'd been so afraid of being there by himself, when Catherine gave him the option to turn around, a part of him had been tempted to do just that. Yusuke was confident in his own strength, but he knew that one of him wouldn't have stood a chance against a castle full of demons. He remembered what it had been like for Akira after he'd been separated from them in the prosecutor's Palace. After he faced those interrogators by himself, he came back in a frightful condition – and those were just regular humans.

With Akira there, Yusuke hoped to finally receive some answers and peace of mind.

For as different as he looked, Akira was still the only familiar-looking thing Yusuke had seen in that whole castle, so he clung to him. He threw out his arms and grabbed him up, holding him tightly.

“Where were you?!” he yelled, all of his fear and relief pronounced loudly in the distressed sound of his voice.

Slowly, Akira lifted his hands and placed them on Yusuke's back, confused but ready to return his embrace. “W-What do you mean? I was here this whole time. I was waiting for you.”

It didn't matter what was different. The warmth of Akira's hands was the same.

Holding Akira tightly, Yusuke shook his head in confusion. “I missed you, Akira... I was so worried when I received that weird letter.” He knew it would be hard for Akira to explain everything at once, but he desperately wanted answers. “Why weren't you answering any of my messages? Why couldn't you tell me about this? You didn't have to hide it. You know I'd always accept you no matter what. Demons, the Netherworld... It doesn't matter to me what you are or where you're from.”

It felt like Catherine had already told him everything he needed to know.

The world wasn't what he thought it was. Akira wasn't exactly what he thought he was, either. But Akira was Akira to him no matter what.

“I... I'm sorry, Yusuke. I wasn't trying to hide anything from you,” Akira said. His hands slowly slipped off his back and he took a step back to separate them, his gaze lowered. “The thing is, I'm only half-demon...”

Yusuke didn't understand what difference that was supposed to make, but it sounded like it was meant to have significance.

Akira stepped away from the doors, letting them close behind him. As Yusuke followed him back along the red carpet of the throne room, he couldn't help but feel like he was being led farther into the unknown. He thought that Akira would finally explain things for him, but he looked hesitant to speak.

So Catherine spoke for him. She seemed glad to.

“My baby Akira's a lot like his father. You see, Vincent used to be human. That means that Akira's part human. Demons like myself can go up to the human world no problem, but the reason we remain such a mystery to humans is because they just can't remember us. Isn't that funny? So when Akira goes to the human world, the human part of him forgets all about the demon part.”

So... Akira hadn't been lying to him. He hadn't been hiding anything.

Akira couldn't tell him about who he really was because... he couldn't remember?

That large demon Vincent was using as his throne spoke up, trying to explain. “We just thought it would be good for Akira to experience what it's like to be a regular human boy for a while. We didn't realize the inconveniences it would cause for him.”

“After I graduated, my mom brought me back here like she promised. If she let me stay up there, I don't know how long it would've taken me to realize what I really am. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you, Yusuke. My phone doesn't even work here, so I couldn't answer your messages, either.” He shook his head, looking so disappointed in himself. “I had to write a letter and have my mom deliver it for me. If I tried to take it to you myself, I would have forgotten what I was even doing...”

“Akira...”

“I'm sorry, Yusuke. As you are now, if you leave here... you'll forget about all of this. You'll only remember me as a human. But... Obviously, the same goes for me. So, what I'm trying to say is... Are you okay with that?”

That was quite a question. Yusuke wasn't even sure what he was really asking.

Was Akira suggesting that he return to the human world and forget about him? That was out of the question. Yusuke would've never agreed to that. Akira was important to him, so he couldn't just give up on him without trying to find a solution first.

Alternatively, Akira was suggesting that they return together, but if they did that, they would both forget about the Netherworld. Yusuke didn't want to make assumptions, but, based on how young both Catherine and Vincent looked, it seemed reasonable to assume that demons didn't age like humans. That would've caused problems for Akira eventually in the human world.

Or...

He was asking him to stay there. In the Netherworld.

Growling in frustration, Catherine stomped toward Akira and stood up to him, trying to pressure him with her proximity. “How can he be okay with that? Isn't that messed up? A human can't stay here. He'll get eaten alive by the demons here who want his magatsuhi. All the girls around here were looking at him like a tasty little snack. Don't even get me started about why it'd be stupid for you to go back to the human world together...”

Akira looked at her, unshaken. “I know. That would cause problems, too. Eventually, I'll stop aging, but Yusuke won't. I'm destined to outlive him if he stays human.”

She faltered and took a step back. “Wait. Akira. Y-You can't be serious...”

“Dear, what's so surprising?” the large demon asked. “Vincent gave up his humanity to be with you.”

That information was news to Yusuke.

He looked at Akira, his chest suddenly feeling tight, his mouth dry. “You want me to... give up my humanity?”

Yusuke's vision swam. Everything was happening so quickly. The answers he received weren't what he was prepared for. Catherine had been right when she told him that he didn't understand the position he was in. In every sense, he and Akira were from different worlds.

Putting a hand on Catherine's shoulder, Akira gently moved her aside. The ease with which he was able to make her calm down made Yusuke jealous. That ability would've been very handy when she was going after his neck at the gate.

With Catherine watching anxiously, Akira turned back to Yusuke and appealed to him with a sympathetic expression on his face. He took both of Yusuke's hands and held them in his own black, clawed hands. His brow furrowed sadly as he ran a thumb over the back of one of Yusuke's hands, his touch gentle yet bittersweet. The contrast between them was so apparent.

“I'll understand if you want to refuse, but... Please listen,” he said. He lifted his chin and looked into Yusuke's eyes. “We can still live in the human world. At the point we stop aging and it becomes suspicious for us to be there, we can return here. We'll forget about the Netherworld while we're there, but we'll be able to live normally in the human world for at least another decade.”

“Only a decade, you say...”

That wasn't much time at all. He'd be losing the majority of his adult life in the human world.

It was strange to hear Akira make such a strong request, though. Normally, he wasn't the type who would ask for much. He always gave and gave and he never expected anything in return. At that moment, looking into his eyes, Yusuke could tell that Akira didn't expect him to agree with those conditions, but his request was sincere. As their leader, Akira never made any decision without thinking it through first, having considered every possibility. Asking him to discard his humanity was no small matter, which meant that Akira must have already determined that there was no better choice.

Akira was always thinking about what was best for others.

Looking at it that way, it made more sense. It didn't make it easier, but Yusuke understood.

He could've gone back to the human world, and, in time, maybe he would've been able to forget about Akira and move on along a new path. But that wasn't what he wanted. Being without him for a year until graduation had been difficult enough, so he could only imagine the kind of despair he would've felt if Akira disappeared from his life without explanation, never to return. He would've always been wondering where he went. He would've always been seeking ways to place the blame on himself.

His art would've suffered. Without even his art to comfort him, he would've suffered, too.

But, if he chose to become a demon, he didn't have to lose Akira. He could retain all of his memories in the Netherworld and paint to his heart's content for centuries.

And... Even though Akira never asked for anything, it was clearly a request made for himself as well. And that was okay. Yusuke had already resolved that he wouldn't leave Akira alone with his controlling mother. Akira needed him to be there.

Catherine laughed out loud, taking his silence as a refusal. “See, Akira? He's worthless. He's just another spineless human. What made you think he would give up his humanity for you? Vincent was the only good one. The rest of them only care about themselves.”

“I didn't say I wouldn't,” Yusuke said.

Catherine balked.

Akira squeezed his hands. “Yusuke, you don't have to decide right away. I want this to be your decision.”

“It's true that I'd miss the human world. My world is the world I want to paint the most, but... What you're offering me is immortality, isn't it? As an artist, how could I possibly reject such an offer? There must be worlds beyond this world and the human world. To be able to draw things outside of any human's understanding...” He lifted Akira's hands and kissed the backs of them. “That would be no sacrifice to me at all. It would be a pleasure to spent that kind of eternity with you.”

Akira looked unspeakably relieved to receive that type of answer. He took a hand away and pressed his palm against the corner of one of his eyes as if he were trying to push back tears.

There was no doubt about it. That was his Akira.

Their happy moment was short-lived, though.

Catherine pushed them apart and grabbed Yusuke by the collar, surprising him with her strength as she lifted him off the ground. He managed to keep holding onto his sword, but he wasn't in the position to draw it to defend himself.

“Wait... Wait, wait, wait!” she screamed, her loud voice magnified by the size of the room. “How can you be so understanding?” She shook him rigorously, making him dizzy. When she stopped, the following silence was cleaved by the slow rise of her sharp, mocking laughter. “Oh. I see. I get it. You only like the sound of being a demon. It has nothing to do with Akira!”

Trying to focus his vision, Yusuke looked down at her. “I'm pretty sure I just agreed to be with him for eternity, though...”

“Grandpa, can't you do something about this?” Akira asked. He seemed to be talking to the big demon Vincent was sitting on.

...That was his grandfather? Just how disrespectful was Vincent? Since the moment they entered the throne room, he hadn't done a single thing to help the situation. He'd barely even acknowledged them. He was too wrapped up in those other girls. If there were anyone Catherine should've had a problem with, it was him. Her priorities were out of whack.

Akira's grandfather sighed. “Honey, what's the problem? Isn't it a good thing that Akira's sweetheart has interests besides him?”

Showing a rare moment of self-awareness, Vincent sat up and looked down at them. “Hey, why do I get the feeling I was just insulted...?”

Akira grasped one of Catherine's wrists and glared, silently threatening her to release Yusuke.

“He's right, mom. I don't want Yusuke to always be focused on me. You and dad might love being obsessed with each other, but I like spending time by myself occasionally.”

She looked hurt. Her grasp weakened a little. “W-What do you mean? You love being with me and Vincent, don't you? Those human children caused nothing but trouble for you. We're the ones who really love you. Nobody else can understand you like your mom and dad.”

“Did you bring Yusuke to this room because you thought I'd be here?” Akira asked. He didn't seem amused by her antics in the least. “I can't stand watching you and dad going at it all the time. Seriously. It's gross. I like being in my room because I can be alone and I like Yusuke because he doesn't demand my attention. We spent a year apart from each other, and as you can see, that didn't change our feelings for each other.”

“It sounds like Akira has a very mature relationship,” his grandfather said, expressing his approval.

She finally dropped Yusuke so she could go back to sulking. “B-Be quiet, daddy! Are you calling me immature?”

That did seem like the perfect word for her...

She ran toward the stairs and looked up at Vincent pleadingly. “Darling, can't you talk some sense into your boy?”

Vincent pushed aside the girls who were clinging to him and looked down at Catherine with a hesitant grimace. “Me? He's never listened to me.”

When Catherine wasn't busy trying to murder him, she was strangely endearing. She and Vincent were like a comedy duo. As he watched the two of them argue back and forth pointlessly, Yusuke thought back on his night and wondered how things had taken such a bizarre turn. He thought nothing would ever surprise him again after experiencing the Metaverse. When he boarded the train, he thought he was being ridiculous and overthinking things, but little did he know...

Apparently, things could always get weirder.

As Yusuke watched them, Akira came over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry, Yusuke. I wanted to fill you in on everything, so I thought it would be a good idea for you to meet my parents, but as you can see, they're...” He trailed off and made a vague gesture at the general scene in front of them. That kind of said it all. “I'm glad you brought a sword. I bet my mom tried to kill you, didn't she?”

“Yes. She gave me quite an exciting greeting.”

“...You don't look too bothered by any of this, though.”

“No, it's just... I think I'm starting to understand what kind of place this is. At first, I thought she was a Palace Ruler or a stalker who was obsessed with you, but now I understand that I shouldn't be judging her behavior with human reasoning. She's a demon. For her, perhaps it's natural to be this possessive...”

Catherine whipped around. “W-Well, yeah. Akira's my precious little boy.”

Yusuke had an idea.

She was an outrageous person, but she wasn't totally unreasonable. She'd already proven that she'd listen to reason if the reason suited her, and Yusuke got the feeling that he knew exactly how he could appeal to her.

“Catherine-san, please accept me as your son as well.”

Akira looked at him like he'd lost his mind.

Catherine also looked surprised at first, but her expression quickly softened. “That's right... You said you lost your mother, didn't you? But... You don't really want me, do you? You think I'm crazy.”

.“By human standards, perhaps,” Yusuke admitted. “But your protectiveness is actually quite admirable to me. I also wish to protect Akira. You can rely on me. When he was in the human world, I stood by his side in battle and defended him with every ounce of my strength. Akira won't want to stay here forever, and you know there's nothing you'll be able to do to stop him from leaving. Wouldn't it put you at ease to know that he has someone who will keep him safe?”

She fidgeted uncomfortably, struggling with an internal battle that she refused to voice out loud It seemed like she'd finally run out of arguments against him. He'd proven that he loved Akira, that he was loyal, and that he was capable of protecting him.

The only thing she could do was hang her head in defeat. “Hey, um... Sorry about what I said earlier. That was real insensitive, wasn't it?” But then that troubling grin returned. “I guess if you're okay with all of this, then I have no choice but to treat you like my own son.”

Scary.

Yusuke knew what he was going to get himself into, but it was the only way to convince her. She was never going to stop being obsessed her son, so, instead of trying to make her change, it was easier to give her a second son to cling to. As long as he stayed on her good side, it seemed like it could work out.

“You're quite beautiful when you smile. I see where Akira gets his charm.”

“Silly, you're just trying to flatter me.”

“No, really,” Yusuke said. “Sometime, would you allow me the pleasure of painting you?”

She squealed like a schoolgirl and wiggled happily. “Oh my! The pleasure of painting me, he said! I've always wanted a portrait of myself. Would you want to draw me... in the nude?” she asked, striking a sexy pose.

She was such a cooperative model...!

From behind, Akira grabbed him by the elbow.

“Yusuke.” That was all he said. That was probably a warning not to get carried away.

Up on the throne – if it could really even be called that – Vincent picked up his lazy self and waved down at Catherine to get her attention.

“Hey, Catherine, I'm getting lonely up here. Let Akira and his boyfriend have some alone time now. If my son's anything like me, he's probably starved for a piece of ass, if you know what I'm sayin'.” There really wasn't any ambiguity to that classless statement, though. “I don't see any reason why we shouldn't trust him if Akira trusts him. Our boy's way more responsible than I ever was. The boyfriend gets my blessing. You do you, Akira.”

Akira stared, reasonably dubious of his father's half-assed manner of approval. “Uh-huh. Thanks,” he muttered.

“Uh... Hm.” Yusuke looked from one to the other, but still chose to bow. Best to remain polite when dealing with family. “Thank you, sir.”

When all was said and done, Catherine pranced up the stairs and hopped onto her father's back to be with Vincent. They were quite the strange sight; Vincent in his naked glory, Catherine's complete one-eighty in personality as she clung to his arm, giggling and fawning over him – not to mention Akira's poor grandfather. He and Akira were going to have to find a new throne for them.

Just like that, it seemed like everything was going to be fine – or, at least, Yusuke didn't have anyone actively trying to kill him. He had no doubt that Catherine would be back at his throat again if he ever did anything she disliked, so he had to be careful.

From out of the corners of his eyes, Yusuke noticed Akira looking at him. Akira nodded in the direction of the door and he followed after him as Akira wordlessly began to head out. When they reached the door, Yusuke turned back one more time to look at Catherine and Vincent and wondered to himself how the heck that produced a person as wonderful as Akira. Physically, they were both very attractive, but... Personality-wise...

“Yusuke... Let's just go,” Akira begged. Being in their presence seemed to wear him out.

Complicated family aside, Yusuke was happy to be reunited with Akira. It'd been a whole year since he saw him. There was a lot for them to catch up on and a lot more with the addition of Akira's past.

Yusuke had much to learn about being a demon. He was just disappointed that he hadn't thought to bring a canvas with him.

Chapter Text

Once they were outside the throne room, halfway down the hall, Akira stopped. His back was straight, his body still, tail limp. Yusuke opened his mouth but held back his words. He wasn't sure why Akira stopped, but his unusual quietness and the tenseness of his posture made Yusuke take pause.

“Yusuke...” His voice came out quiet – almost shy. He looked over his shoulder at him and Yusuke felt something tug at his heart when he saw the worried furrow in his brow. “Be honest with me, please. Are you... really okay with this?” he asked.

It was a relief to hear that that was all he was worrying about.

“Is that why you were so quiet?” Yusuke asked. “I already told you. I'm willing to do what I must to be with you. I... don't really have much else. As long as I can still paint, I'll be content.”

Painting was more than just a talent or a hobby to him. It was his life. But Akira was his source of inspiration. Without Akira, he would've tried to go back to painting the things that were in his own heart, but the landscape of his heart would've been dark and bleak without Akira's light. If he lost the one he loved, then he would've had no love left to paint with. It made Yusuke feel pathetic, but it was really that simple.

Akira had become a vital part of the painting process. He would've been impossible to replace. His color was one of a kind.

Turning around toward him, Akira looked into his eyes, a look of guilt on his face. “I'm just worried that I've made you feel like you owe me something... This is too much to ask. You don't owe me this. To be honest, I can't imagine anyone who would be willing to give up everything they know to-”

“Akira.” The moment Yusuke said his name and took his hands into his own, Akira became quiet. “This is what you wanted, too. Those two... They may be your parents, but they don't seem like good people. I could feel your disdain for them. Deep down, I'm sure Catherine has your best interests at heart, but her love is too aggressive. It's hurting you, isn't it?”

“Yeah. That was kind of obvious, wasn't it?” He tried to smile and laugh it off, but he just couldn't. His expression fell. “But...”

“You asked me here to convince me, didn't you? You didn't have to explain. If you didn't send a letter, I wouldn't have known anything. You did that for me. Now, I'll do this for you.”

“And you aren't... scared of what I look like? You don't think I'm a fraud or anything?” Akira asked, suddenly acting bashful.

“Hm? Why would I think that?” He wasn't worried that Akira was lying to him because Akira had never lied to him in the past. He was cunning and sly, but he was honest with the people he cared about. A change in appearance wasn't going to be enough to change who he was inside. Akira had taught him how to see beyond the surface. And, besides, Yusuke didn't mind what he saw on the surface. Akira didn't look human anymore, but he wasn't scary. It was quite the opposite. Yusuke found his demonic appearance intriguing – beautiful, even.

Akira's tail began swishing anxiously and a light redness appeared in his pale cheeks. “You're giving me that look... I know what that look means.”

“Indeed. Then you should realize that I'm not afraid of you in the least,” Yusuke said. He placed a hand on Akira's shoulder and ran his palm over his arm, getting a feel of the smooth surface of his skin, inspecting the unique markings that coursed all over his body. “These lines. Are they natural? They're so straight and uniform... They would be a thrilling challenge to paint. Your body is incredible...”

“Th-That tickles...” Akira's body trembled slightly beneath his touch, but he didn't seem all that ticklish. After he stole his hand away from Yusuke, he used it to cover his face and turned away as if embarrassed. “Um... Let's go to my room, okay?”

That was strange, but Yusuke didn't try to question it. Whatever it was he was trying to hide, he knew that Akira wouldn't hide it from him for long.

 

As they made their way to the elevator, they passed by the rooms Yusuke had seen earlier when he was on his way to the throne room with Catherine.

“Akira, may I ask? Who are the other people who live in this castle?”

Akira bristled visibly. “They're...” Right before they reached the elevator, the elevator doors opened and three of those seductive-looking women exited. It seemed impossible for them to pass by without flirting with the two of them first. When Yusuke caught up with Akira and looked at his face, he saw just how red he was. “They're succubi... Like my mom.”

“Succubi...” Yusuke repeated slowly. “Do mean like a succubus? I think I know what they are.”

Succubi were female demons who preyed on men in their sleep and robbed them of their vitality through sexual intercourse. They were commonly depicted as alluring yet dangerous temptresses; a one-night stand with high risk and no reward, basically. They were everything men wanted, their very existence made to exploit the foolishness and insatiable lust of the average man. He was sure there was more to it, but those were the basics everyone knew.

A moment passed, then Akira's words sunk in.

“Catherine is a succubus?!”

“Why are you surprised?” Akira gave a small laugh. “All of the women here are succubi. My mom just happens to be the most powerful of them. I've learned a thing or two from them, but, as you might guess, it gets uncomfortable being around them all the time. The human part of me really can't stand them sometimes. They don't know what moderation means.”

He stepped into the elevator and waited to push one of the buttons until after Yusuke had joined him.

As soon as the doors were closed, Yusuke suddenly found himself being pinned to the back wall of the elevator with Akira's face only an inch or two away from his. He could feel his breath, warm against his lips, could nearly feel the heat rising off the two arms that had him trapped. Akira wasn't trying to hide the redness in his face anymore, staring at him from beneath lowered lashes with a hungry look in his eyes.

That had to be what all of Akira's awkward fidgeting was about.

“I don't want to be like them,” he said. “I want to be in control of myself, but I just...”

His anxiousness and exhausted behavior... Those crude comments his father made about being 'starved'... He was like Catherine. Yusuke didn't need to think very hard about it to understand.

“You need sexual energy to keep up your spirits.” Yusuke nodded understandingly.

Akira sighed in relief, shoulders sagging. “G-Good... I was afraid I was going to have to explain. I'm glad you get the picture – but don't worry, okay? I get really agitated and exhausted when I haven't had any sexual contact for a while, but it won't put me in any physical danger. I have the human part of me to thank for that. Y-You don't have to worry about yourself around me. I'll never jump you in your sleep like they would. I have more self-control than that.”

“You're like a vampire. A sex vampire.”

Akira laughed weakly. “Yeah... Something like... that...”

He suddenly lost the strength in his legs and collapsed, taking Yusuke down along with him. Despite what Akira said, he didn't look like he was in good condition at all. He was sweating and breathing heavily, clinging to him like his last hope, rubbing his cheek against chest, eyes glazed, a dazed smile on his face.

“Ah, Yusuke... You smell... so good...” He giggled and nuzzled his nose between the buttons of Yusuke's shirt.

“G-Get a hold of yourself!” Yusuke cried. He grasped him by the shoulders and gave him a light shake, trying to bring him back to his senses.

Breathing hard, forehead damp with sweat, Akira sat up shakily and tried to compose himself. “I'm sorry. I was doing such a good job of holding myself together earlier, but when I get this close to you, I can't help it. Humans produce a lot of magatsuhi and emit it like a pheromone that incubi are attracted to. Just being near you is helping, but it's also making my craving stronger.”

“Will that change when I become a demon?” Yusuke asked. If he wasn't human anymore, then the levels of his magatsuhi had to change too, he figured.

“Maybe,” Akira said. He pushed himself up and offered Yusuke a hand as well. Their hands lingered together for a moment until Akira reluctantly parted from him. “It'll depend on what kind of demon you become. My dad became an incubus because he was obsessed with my mom. You aren't like them, though. I have no idea what you'll turn into.”

“I-I won't turn into something hideous, will I...?!”

With an amused smile, Akira waved a hand to dismiss his concern and laughed. “No way. The form you take will probably reflect your tender heart.” As soon as those words left his mouth, he rubbed the back of his neck, acting embarrassed to have said something like that out loud.

The elevator doors opened and Akira hopped out with Yusuke in tow.

Once again, Yusuke wondered whether they'd traveled up or down. That elevator didn't have any windows, so he was losing his sense of direction – and his sense of time. He hadn't seen the sky in a while, but his body was telling him it was time to sleep. Akira was taking him to his room, so Yusuke hoped there'd be some napping involved.

“Here we are.”

Akira stopped outside of a door that didn't look that different from any of the others on the floor. The fact that he had a room so far away from the throne room had to be intentional.

Akira went in ahead of him and turned on the lights.

His room looked like a modern Japanese apartment. The décor must have been of his own choosing. Yusuke recognized a few things from the attic at Leblanc like the souvenirs he collected on his trips around Tokyo with the others. He was happy to see that Akira had kept the replica statue he got for him at the museum. It was proudly displayed in a corner of his living room.

When Akira took him to the bedroom, Yusuke was greeted by the Phantom Thieves banner, hanging above his bed. ...And what a bed it was. It was certainly large enough for two people. Far too big for one small cat alone.

One small...

Morgana!

“Hm...?” He lifted his head slowly, then instantly bolted upright when he realized who was there. “Yusuke! What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? That's what I would like to ask you.”

Akira made a vague gesture and sat on the end of the bed, casually crossing one leg over the other. “When my mom pulled me back into the Netherworld, he was still in my bag. So here he is. Yay, happy reunion.” He didn't sound too excited, though. He looked like he was really hurting for energy.

Morgana gave Akira a pitying look, then turned his attention back to Yusuke. “He told you why he looks like that, right? I mean, why he looks half-dead.”

“Yes, he did. It sounds like I'm the only one who can fix him.”

“Great. But not while I'm around,” Morgana said. He hopped off the bed and started backing toward the door, one paw after the other. “Seriously, I have all the sympathy in the world for his situation, but I don't plan on being in the room when he needs to 'replenish himself'. I'll let you handle that, Yusuke. Glad you're here.”

Yusuke nodded resolutely. “You can count on me.”

Akira stared at them tiredly. “Hey. I'm right here, you know. I can hear you.”

Regardless, Morgana didn't want to stick around. Once he was at the door, he turned tail and left them to be alone with each other.

After setting his sword against the corner of Akira's dresser, Yusuke came over and joined him on the bed, putting his hands in his lap. “Morgana doesn't have anything to worry about for now. If it's alright with you, I'd actually like to do the ritual for the demonic transformation first.”

Akira blinked slowly, so tired that his eyelids moved asynchronously. “...Ritual?”

“It's a ritual, isn't it? This is the Netherworld and you're a demon, so... You know. A ritual.” No matter how he tried to explain it, Akira kept staring at him like he was speaking another language. “Isn't that how it works? I'll sit on the floor and you'll draw a sigil around me with the blood of a sacrificial animal while reciting a Satanic incantation...?”

“Yusuke, what the hell.”

“W-Well, if that isn't how it's performed, then tell me!”

“You don't really perform anything.” Following one very long stretch and a loud yawn, Akira rolled off the bed and went to the closet on the other side of the room. Yusuke stayed seated where he was, but he leaned to the side a little to have a peek at what was inside Akira's closet. He expected its contents to be more mysterious, but it was just an average-looking closet. Instead of shirts and pants, though, Akira's closet was filled with the weapons and armor he collected in their Metaverse travels. Daggers neatly lined the wall and plate mail was piled up awkwardly on the floor without a proper place to be kept.

After a moment's searching, Akira returned holding a small wooden box. He sat down on the bed and opened it for Yusuke to have a look at its contents.

“These are magatama,” he said.

The glass beads within did indeed have the familiar loose spiral shape of magatama, though Yusuke suspected that the ones Akira produced weren't used for the purpose he was familiar with. Akira plucked one from the plush, red velvet bed they were cushioned on inside the box and held it up to the light. On a closer look, Yusuke noticed that it wasn't actually a bead at all.

It was a tiny creature, curled up like a pill bug. It remained motionless as if petrified or dead.

Akira placed that one back into the box and ran his fingers over the others. “You remember the accessories we used in the Metaverse, right? The ones that improved our strength or made us resistant to certain ailments. For demons, magatama work similarly when ingested.”

“Ingested?” Yusuke repeated. “Did I hear you correctly? You... eat them?”

“That's right. Their effects are temporary, but they last for a long time. It's very useful, not having to worry about mixing and matching cumbersome charms and accessories.” He took the box and set it in Yusuke's lap. “Magatama are filled with dense demonic energy. Different magatama bestow us with different benefits, but they work differently on humans. When exposed to their concentrated levels of demonic energy, they cause humans to transform.”

“So they're like evolutionary stones.”

Akira looked amused by that comparison. “Yeah. Kind of,” he said. “But it doesn't matter which one you choose. The red one won't turn you into a Flareon and the yellow one won't turn you into a Jolteon, et cetera, et cetera. What you become depends on who you are. Though, personally...” He pointed out a blue-and-white one specifically. “I'd pick that one if I were you. It's the best one I have, but I'm not going to cry if you eat it. If any of them have a chance of giving you cool bonus powers, it's probably that one.”

Hesitantly, Yusuke picked that one up and held it in his palm. “Are you sure?” he asked. “What if it doesn't do anything special? Won't you think it was a waste?”

“I just have a feeling,” Akira said with a curious smile, twirling one of his springy locks of hair around a finger. “It's called Wadatsumi, named after the god of the seas. Ice is your inherent element. It might enhance your control of the element. And, if it doesn't...” He shrugged. “I can always buy another.”

Oh. So they could be replaced. That was reassuring.

“Alright. I'm going to eat it.” Yusuke held it up and opened his mouth.

“Whoa, hold on!” Before Yusuke could drop it into his mouth, Akira grabbed his arm by the elbow and gave it a firm yank to make him stop. Bringing his feet up onto the bed, he sat on his knees, facing Yusuke, giving him a deeply concerned look. “Are... Are you really, really sure? Once you do this, there's no turning back. Even if we decide to return to the human world, we'll only be able to stay there for a short time. Are you really prepared to spend the rest of forever here in the Netherworld?”

Yusuke put a hand over Akira's and gently eased it away. “I'm aware, and I accept. There are disadvantages, but none so severe as to make me reconsider. The years in the human world I'll sacrifice are a small price to pay for the eternity I'll be granted with you.”

With a long, deep sigh, Akira leaned against Yusuke, putting his forehead on his shoulder. “I'm sorry for asking. I wasn't questioning your decision,” he said. One of his arms snaked around Yusuke's waist to hold him tightly. He lifted his head and gave Yusuke a kiss on the corner of his mouth. “I think I just wanted to hear what you'd say. I knew it'd be something good, but you always manage to surprise me with how romantic you can be.”

Akira's reaction confused Yusuke a little. He hadn't said anything to be romantic. He was just speaking from the heart.

It was true that his feelings for Akira were something special, though. If the words that came from his mouth sounded romantic, it was because they were picked from his heart where his love for Akira was inscribed.

Releasing him, Akira got up from the bed. “I'll get you some water for that. I'll be back in a sec, 'kay?”

With that, he disappeared from the room.

A moment later, Yusuke noticed Morgana's head curiously poking around the corner.

“All clear?” he asked, glancing here and there.

“We were only talking,” Yusuke said.

Morgana came in and sat down in front of him, ears twitching. “I was kind of eavesdropping. I haven't seen you in a while, so I wanted to know what's up.” For some reason, he seemed tense, like he was holding back something he really wanted to say. It eventually got the better of him and he spat it out. “You're really going to become a demon for Akira? You're going to stay here with him?”

Yusuke could tell that Morgana had his own reasons for asking. He wasn't a mind reader, but Yusuke had gotten a little better at guessing what other people were feeling. “Yes,” he said, smiling. “I'm glad you're here, too. We can keep him company together.”

As Morgana lifted a paw to swipe at his eyes, Yusuke thought he heard a sniffle.

“Th... Thanks, Yusuke. It's real nice to see another familiar face around here. I promised Akira that I'd always stay by his side, but it's unexpectedly tough being away from the others. I... kinda miss them, you know? This place feels like a Palace, but I can't change anyone's heart here. Despite all the depravity that goes on here, it's really just... lonely.” His tail, thumping on the carpet, slowly came to a stop. “The people here gorge themselves on their desires all day and night, but I don't think it ever satisfies them.”

“I think you're right,” Yusuke said, thinking back to Vincent's single-minded focus on the women who fed him their attention. Getting off the bed, Yusuke knelt on one knee in front of Morgana to be there on his level. “But it's going to be alright. Akira told me that he doesn't want to be like them. We're going to go back to the human world, and then we'll go wherever we want. The three of us will make it on our own. We won't idle away our eternity as slaves to our desires.”

Morgana's little furry face brightened. “The Phantom Thieves ride again?”

“I think we might have to come up with a new name for ourselves if it's just the three of us,” Yusuke said, quite tickled by the idea, himself. “The Defenders of the Human World and Netherworld?”

“That's too long...”

Hearing a soft knock, Yusuke looked up to find Akira standing in the doorway with a glass of water in hand.

“What about 'The Demonic Thieves'?” Akira suggested. He must have overheard some of their conversation.

“Too obvious,” Morgana said. “Be more creative.”

Once Yusuke got up and sat back down on the bed, Akira took a seat next to him and passed him the glass. He crossed his legs, clawed foot tapping the air as he looked down at Morgana. It seemed like he was in a good mood despite his lack of energy. “Eh, it's fine,” he said. “I'm sure we'll come up with something eventually.”

Yusuke lifted the magatama toward his mouth, but he paused halfway, stopped by a thought. “...'The Three Musketeers'?”

Morgana sighed. “Do we look like musketeers?” He waved a paw at him to continue what he was doing. “Whatever. If you're going to swallow that thing, then do it. Watching you is making me nervous. I've never seen anyone turn into a demon before, but I get the feeling it's not going to be pretty. If your head starts spinning and you throw up or something, just try not to get any on me, okay?”

Until that moment, Yusuke hadn't been too worried. He'd only been concerned with what would happen after the transformation. Initially, he was under the mistaken impression that it was going to involve a gruesome ritual, but after Akira assured him that no animal sacrifices were going to be made for the sake of his transformation, Yusuke felt so at ease, he abandoned the thought entirely. In comparison, swallowing a magatama-shaped demon critter sounded like a cakewalk. His only concern was about whether he'd choke on its size.

“Morgana, why'd you have to say that?” Akira leaned forward and bopped Morgana between the ears. “Now you made Yusuke worried.”

...Did he look worried?

He felt worried...

Nervously gripping the cold glass of water, Yusuke looked aside, thinking. “What if it fails...? What if something goes wrong and it kills me instead? O-Or worse...! What if it turns me into a terrible, horrifying monster and I'm never able to turn back? Wh-What if I'm not even able to recognize myself anymore?!”

Akira squinted, also taking a second to think, giving him the benefit of the doubt. “I've never heard of a failed demonic transformation... I mean, I guess it's possible, but if anyone could handle it, I'd think a Persona-user like you would have no problem. Spiritually-speaking, you're stronger than the average person. And, if you happen to turn into something that doesn't even resemble a human anymore, well...” He touched Yusuke's shoulder reassuringly and smiled. “I'll still love you.”

Demons were impressive. Akira was even less concerned with appearance than Yusuke'd thought.

...That didn't fully assuage his concerns, though. He could probably get used to looking like a monster, but having monstrous hands would prove to be a problem for drawing.

What if I don't even have hands...

“Yusuke.”

Akira was right – he was stalling and getting himself worked up over nothing. Whether or not he ended up liking the result of the transformation, the alternative wasn't an option for him anymore. He'd already made up his mind, so getting cold feet was pointless.

Staring hard at the magatama, Yusuke regathered his strength and shoved it into his mouth. He hadn't eaten for a while, so, at the least, he thought it would be good to finally have something in his stomach. And it didn't come alive and start twitching in his mouth or anything weird like that, so that was a plus.

Morgana, despite his earlier fear of getting puked on, stepped one paw closer out of curiosity. “Whoa, he's really doing it...”

“The water,” Akira reminded him.

Not letting any further thoughts distract him, Yusuke filled his mouth with water and swallowed the magatama. Its large shape made it as uncomfortable as he thought. It reminded him of what it felt like to accidentally swallow something he shouldn't have, like a chunk of ice or hard candy. That aside, it wasn't that bad-...

“Yusuke...?”

Yusuke turned to look at Akira and it felt like the whole room moved to turn with him. He swayed unsteadily, and Akira took the glass of water from him before it could spill. It was a good thing he saved the glass from tipping, but, with his hands full, Akira wasn't able to save Yusuke from tipping, too.

In his attempt to right himself, as if he'd lost all sense of gravity, Yusuke fell forward and collapsed on the floor in front of the bed. His body felt strange and heavy. It was effecting him a lot more quickly than he'd expected.

He was hot. It felt like his brain was melting...

He managed to drag a hand up to wipe his nose and pulled it away to find blood covering his fingers. He wasn't sure if it hurt or if he'd just lost the capacity to feel the pain. Muffled, Yusuke heard Akira and Morgana saying things, but he couldn't understand their words. Their voices seemed to move farther and farther away as he tried to make out what they were saying.

One by one, each of his senses were fading, until, all at once, they shut off.

Chapter Text

Yusuke felt weightless, floating in a warm, comfortable place. All of his senses were numb and slow to return which caused him a slight panic. Yet, at the back of his mind, from a dark corner of his awareness that he wasn't able to grasp without full consciousness, there was something that told him it was alright. When he tried to chase after the thought, it evaded him and became more distant until he wasn't able to focus on it at all. Eventually – or perhaps very quickly – he forgot about it entirely and once again submitted himself to the darkness behind his eyelids.

In those lapses of consciousness, he imagined himself being rewritten. Wadatsumi had found its place within him and was changing him, turning him into its perfect new home. It probably should have frightened him, as strange as it was, but, even stranger, Yusuke found himself thinking fondly of the magatama. In reality, it was a parasite, but he couldn't help but feel some gratitude towards it for making him stronger.

He could tell. Inside, he could sense its desire to live through him.

That was why, even though it hurt, and even though it was scary, Yusuke knew that the darkness he was being led into wasn't a pitfall into death. It was a tunnel, and he needed to grit his teeth and bear with it until they were able to make it to the other side.

He hoped Akira wasn't worried. He didn't want him to worry.

Eventually, as his consciousness returned and his awareness became sharper, as did the pain in his body. Yusuke felt it all over; in his head, chest, back, and particularly in his extremities, but also in some unfamiliar-feeling places. It was quite a strange sensation, like he'd adopted the limbs of someone else. His sleepy mind unhelpfully provided him with the image of a spider and its many gangly limbs.

Wadatsumi seemed to finally be at rest. Yusuke couldn't sense its activity inside of him any longer. That probably meant that the transformation was complete, but he felt a little lost without the feeling of its presence. The thing he initial feared had become like a guide to him. It seemed a bit too macabre to think of it as a friend. As far as he understood it, it had never even been alive. It was just a thing, and its purpose had been served.

Yusuke was reluctant to open his eyes, but he was too awake to keep avoiding the inevitable.

The air around him was cool and fresh. He could smell water...

For a second, he thought it might've all been a dream. He could've passed out from hunger and been laying on that rural road by the ocean all that time...

But he knew that wasn't true.

“Yusuke?”

For better or worse... Akira was there.

So Yusuke opened his eyes, slowly blinking until his eyes were able to focus.

He didn't know where he was. It obviously wasn't Akira's room. They didn't appear to be anywhere within the castle, either. There was darkness all around them; an ambiguous, unidentifiable place with a disputable connection to the real world. He was sitting in a shallow pool of water, his back resting against Akira's chest. Looking down at the arms wrapped around his middle, Yusuke noticed that his chest and arms were covered in black patterns like the ones he'd seen on Akira's body. When he raised his eyes, he could see the moon or something like it shining down on them, illuminating the water an ethereal green.

He didn't notice anything unusual about himself yet. What he saw looked like what he expected. The scenery around him was thankfully more interesting.

“Where are we?” he asked. He didn't know what he expected, but he was glad that his voice sounded like what he remembered.

“The Fountain of Life,” Akira said. He lifted a cupped palm out of the water and poured some over Yusuke's chest. It was cold and made him shiver, but it felt good. “Well...” Akira paused, reconsidering his choice of words. “We're in one of them. You can find these springs all over the Netherworld. If you're ever injured or fatigued, you can come here for healing. You have to pay, though – in demon currency. If you have money from the human world, it won't get you anything here.”

“Bad exchange rate?”

Akira laughed and leaned forward a bit to give him a kiss on the cheek. “No exchange rate. But, hey, if you really do have some yen, there are some avid collectors around who will probably make a nice trade for it. Your sword could probably fetch a small fortune here, too... But don't sell that. Seriously. Forget I said anything. It's a good sword. I can give you money if you need it.”

His body still ached, but Yusuke closed his eyes with a smile as he let himself relax against Akira's chest. “You bought that sword for me. It was a gift. I wouldn't dare part with it.”

He felt Akira press his cheek against the top of his head, heard him hum happily to himself.

“I'm glad you're alright, Yusuke... You really worried me for a bit there.”

That had indeed been quite a shock. After he swallowed the magatama and his vision started blurring, Yusuke thought it meant he was dying. Even as he kept slipping in and out of consciousness, he thought his dreams were just pieces of memories flashing before his eyes as he headed toward death. The only thing that kept him from succumbing to his fear was that vague feeling of comfort that always stayed there at the back of his mind.

It must have been Akira. Even with his eyes closed, he must have been able to sense him enough to know that he was protecting him.

Yusuke's gaze fell to the calmly shifting water in the dark distance, feeling a slight pain sting his chest. It wasn't like the other aches he felt in his body, but it was worse in some ways. “So... You saved me,” he said.

When he arrived in the Netherworld, he stepped forward with the determination to protect Akira, but he was the one being protected. It seemed unavoidable, but he couldn't help but blame himself for the trouble he caused for him.

“What's that mean?” Akira asked. Placing a hand under Yusuke's chin, he commanded him to turn his head and meet his eyes. The guilt Yusuke felt inside became a little less when he saw the pleased smile there on Akira's face. “What did you expect me to do? I haven't suddenly lost faith in you because you needed my help. I know I can rely on you. I'd continue reaching out my hand for you every time you need my help because I know your hand would be there reaching out for me when I need it.”

Yusuke felt embarrassed for looking weak in front of Akira when he was trying to be strong for him, but he couldn't deny the truth in the things Akira said. That was the essence of love. Love was about give and take. It was irresponsible to think that he could always be strong.

The things he told Catherine were irresponsible, too.

He was glad to give up the remainder of his human years for an eternity with Akira, but it was wrong of him to say that he would've given his life for him. If Akira had been there to hear him say those things, he would have surely gotten mad at him for it. His life was something precious to Akira. It wasn't something he could carelessly bargain with.

He had to choose his words more carefully around Catherine in the future. Being in the presence of such an irrational person forced him to think irrationally. Yusuke wasn't sure if she had some kind of power over him or if he'd simply let her get the better of him.

Catherine's son was important to him, and it was true that there was much he owed him, but it wasn't his life he owed him. That wasn't Akira's expectation. Akira only wanted his happiness. Yusuke was sure that Catherine must have understood the importance of something so simple, but it never would have been enough to convince her.

“I'm sorry, Akira. I wasn't in that castle for a long time, but I feel like it did something to me. It warped my thinking. I felt like I had to do whatever I could to impress Catherine to convince her that I was good enough for you.”

“I know what you mean,” Akira said. His arms tightened around Yusuke slightly. “That's why I want to leave. I want to take all my things and go back to the human world. I love my parents, but I don't want to be their baby forever. I can't let Igor and Lavenza's hard work go to waste by staying here.”

It was so strange to think that Akira had a whole past he'd forgotten. Yusuke was curious to hear about it, but it sounded like it couldn't have been a pleasant tale. As if by fate or coincidence, Akira had found his way into their lives when they needed him. He'd always seemed invincible and a little mysterious, even when he returned to them covered in bruises, but then they came upon that cell where Akira's heart had been locked up all along. In the Velvet Room – in that place separate from the Metaverse and their own world – Igor and his small assistant had been desperately working to free Akira from his prison.

And then, with everything they'd helped him learn, Akira returned to the Netherworld.

“I see this place differently now,” Akira said, his voice a little quiet. “I may have only been there for a short time, but the human world taught me how to be myself. I was more like myself there than I ever was here. I can't blame my mom for what she is, but...”

“It's okay.” Yusuke took one of Akira's hands beneath the water. His fingers felt weak, but he was able to thread them together. “You don't need to make excuses for her. She is who she is, and you're you. You belong to no one but yourself. That moment when the clouds parted and you discarded your chains... That courageous image will forever be imprinted on my memory.”

Yusuke felt like there was more he could've said, but that image in his mind seemed to say it all.

He knew there was strength in Akira because Akira had given it to him.

“Yeah...” Akira breathed in, steadying himself. “Thank you, Yusuke.”

Tiredly closing his eyes again, Yusuke smiled fondly to himself. “You know, a part of me was always worried that I'd never find anything that makes me feel as strongly as the Sayuri...”

“Is that... a compliment?”

Yusuke chuckled. “It is,” he said. “I was always searching to replicate that feeling, but a replica wasn't what I needed. I found something else of equal value in your smile.”

“D-Damn...”

“Hm?” Yusuke cracked open his eyes and glanced over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of Akira's flattered expression.

“You must be feeling better if you're able to talk like that. Well? How do you feel? Have you had a look at yourself yet?”

He hadn't, really. All Yusuke noticed was that his body still felt human and that was what mattered most. His toes felt a little strange when he wiggled them under the water, but he had toes, so that had to be a good thing. Curious, he lifted a foot out of the water and squinted. The shadows and the green light reflecting off the water made it hard to see things at that distance, but... His foot didn't really look like what he remembered, even though it felt about the same. It was a bit... longer. Paw-like. A smoky black color went from his foot all the way up his leg as far as Yusuke could see with the water obscuring the rest of him.

Akira put his hands under his arms and began to lift him up.

“Here,” he said, bringing him up out of the water.

“W-Why am I naked?!” Yusuke cried in embarrassment.

“Nudity is of little matter to an incubus, you know...”

Akira had a point there. There wasn't a single person in that castle who seemed to mind being naked. They all looked quite comfortable laying around in each other's presence without any clothing on. In the human world, such an atmosphere might've made Yusuke feel out of place, but the demons' sheer confidence made it easier for him to accept without question.

The water was shallow enough for Yusuke to stand on his own, so Akira let go of him. “I had to take off your clothes for you when the transformation was taking place, otherwise you might've ripped them – or I would've had to cut you out of them. Either way... They aren't going to fit you anymore.”

It wasn't like he was taller. His feet were a little bigger and his hands had become somewhat elongated as well, his fingers tipped with black claws, but those weren't the parts of him Akira was referring to.

He had a tail.

Tails.

Multiple tails.

“One, two, three... Nine?” Yusuke wiggled them, startling himself with the realization that he could indeed move them if he tried. “Akira, I have tails!” He chased them around in a circle, feeling childishly amused by how fluffy and springy they were. When they got wet, a little shake of his behind was enough to get them dry again.

“That's not all.” Akira made him stop for a second and put a hand on top of his head.

Yusuke brought his hands up to join Akira's and realized with no small amount of surprise that he felt a pair of soft, pointed ears on top of his head. He felt the blood drain from his face, however, when he moved his hands lower and realized that his human ears were missing. Perhaps it would've been redundant for his body to have two pairs of ears, but still...

Noticing his concern, Akira grinned. “Hey, it's not like I ever saw your ears before. Your hair was always covering them. There's nothing strange about how you look now. Can you hear me alright?”

He could. In fact, Yusuke could tilt his ears here and there to hear in different directions without having to move his head. That seemed sort of useful. He twitched them and moved them around a bit to get the feel for them.

“...Cute.”

“Is it?” That suddenly made Yusuke remember one of his other concerns. “What about my face?! Do I still look like me?!”

“I don't have a mirror, but you look like you to me-”

Without a mirror, Yusuke used the next best thing. He sunk back down into the water and anxiously waited for the ripples to stop moving around him, desperate to see his reflection. There were a lot of people who told him he was handsome, but he never cared too much about his looks. What he cared about was whether or not he'd be able to recognize himself when looking in a mirror.

As the water stilled and his reflection became clear, Yusuke released a sigh.

He still looked like himself.

But...

“What are these...?” He rubbed at the red spots on his cheek, but they wouldn't come off. The ones on his forehead seemed equally stubborn. “Looks kind of like...”

“Like your mask,” Akira provided, sharing the same thought. “When they first appeared, they were an ill blue color. Once I got you in the water, they started warming up until they turned red. Seems like you have a handy health indicator.”

Yusuke's stomach growled loudly.

He put a hand over his stomach and looked away sheepishly. “...It seems I have a hunger indicator, too.”

“You always had that,” Akira laughed.

That reminded him... “What about you? You look to be in good spirits to me now. Does that mean the spring was enough to ease your craving, or... Y-You didn't do anything untoward to me while I was unconscious, did you?”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Akira shook his head with a sigh. “I told you, I would never do anything without your consent. All I did was undress you. I promise I didn't touch you or even look at you indecently. Although... The desire to do so was definitely there. I can't deny that. Despite appearances, I'm still very much in need of energy...” He waved around his hands, trying not to give Yusuke the wrong impression. “But like I said, it isn't life-threatening. You also need time to recover, so... Don't worry about me.”

How could he not worry about him? Yusuke could tell that Akira wasn't saying that to make him feel guilty. To him, it sounded more like Akira was ashamed of himself and his need for sexual energy.

They were both going to be vulnerable if Akira didn't receive what he needed. Despite his tiredness, Yusuke was willing to help.

He looked around. The darkness seemed to go on forever, but the faint echo he was able to hear told Yusuke that the area around them was probably much smaller than it appeared. “Are we alone here?” he asked.

Akira gave him a skeptical look. “You can't be thinking what I think you're thinking...”

Yusuke waded closer to Akira and grabbed his hands to pull him down into the water with him. “Would it be wrong?” He began to reconsider once he really started to think about it. “Perhaps you're right... This is a public place, and we would be tainting the water if we engaged in that sort of activity here...”

“I... Actually, no, that wasn't what I was thinking. I was just surprised that you'd make that kind of suggestion. It seemed kind of forward for you.” Akira rubbed the back of his neck. “But if you're willing to do it, uh... I mean, the water won't be effected. Demons come here with all kinds of terrible injuries all the time, but the water stays pure. Whatever we'd do probably wouldn't be worse than any of the other things the spring has endured.”

Yusuke nodded and happily twitched his ears. “Very well, then. It's settled. I admit, I am very curious to experience the specialty of an incubus.” He imagined it wouldn't be much different from what sex with Akira was normally like, but he was prepared to be surprised. He was also curious about how it would feel with his new form. “By the way, Akira, is there anything unique about my body?”

Akira's face reddened. “Wh... What do you mean?”

He wasn't trying to ask him a personal question. “Do I have any unique abilities or specialties of my own? Judging by my appearance, I assume I'm a... kitsune?”

“O-Oh... That's what you meant. Right.” Still blushing brightly, Akira coughed. “Kitsune are tricksters, known for disguising themselves with shapeshifting, but they're also powerful magic-users. Honestly, it's pretty fortunate for me that you took that form. Just like humans, kitsune naturally produce a lot of magatsuhi to use magic.”

Magic...

During their Metaverse travels, Yusuke put most of his effort into learning the sword. He was never as skilled with using his Persona's magic skills as Akira was. Perhaps he had Wadatsumi to thank for that improvement. He couldn't wait to try it out. Akira would probably be impressed if he was able to use magic without having to employ his Persona.

There were so many things for him to learn about being a demon. Yusuke wanted to learn everything he could as quickly as possible. He knew he didn't need to place any more unrealistic expectations on himself, but he wanted to be useful to Akira, so there were things he needed to know.

“You and Catherine kept using that word, but I'm not completely sure I understand what it means,” Yusuke said, tilting his head to the side. “What is 'magatsuhi'? Some type of spiritual energy?”

“Basically.” Akira moved himself a bit closer, slowly putting his arms around Yusuke's shoulders. When their eyes connected, Yusuke could feel the simmering embers of desire in the way Akira looked at him. “It's a product of emotion. Humans experience a very broad array of emotions which make them an excellent source of magatsuhi. Succubi and incubi feed on the magatsuhi that results from feelings of strong sexual desire. Unlike me, you won't have to consume magatsuhi to sustain yourself. You generate a whole ton of it all on your own.”

“But... You experience as much emotion as I do, don't you?”

Part demon or not, Akira laughed, cried, and got angry just as much as any other human.

Once again, Akira looked disappointed in himself for something he couldn't help. “My body consumes magatsuhi at a greater rate than what it produces. It's invisible to humans, but it's the same thing that let us use our Personas. That's why I had to guzzle so much coffee...”

That was true...

Using his Persona always wore Yusuke out in a way that was different from the physical stress of using his sword. Even if they were still in top physical condition, there were times when they just couldn't summon the strength to use their Personas anymore.

“Well then, I'd be happy to share some of my energy with you. Catherine acted smug when she thought you and I were incompatible. Now you probably couldn't find someone more suited to satisfy your needs.”

Mm. Yusuke felt very proud of himself and his new form.

“As long as you don't mind...”

Did Akira think it was a big burden to have sex with him? They'd already done it. He wasn't scared. Akira was always very gentle and considerate. “Of course I don't mind.”

Akira slowly released a breath. “Well... I hope you know that just because I need to have sex as an incubus, that doesn't have to make it any less special. I... want to have sex with you because I love you... not because I have to.”

“Akira.” Lifting his hands out of the water, Yusuke placed his palms on Akira's cheeks and looked at him with a smile of tender reassurance. “You were faithful to me all this time, so I know that sex isn't something meaningless to you. You were suffering, but you waited for me.”

And he realized that Akira would've kept waiting. He showed a remarkable amount of respect with his restraint.

After sitting in the spring for a while, Yusuke felt refreshed and more awake. It might've just been his imagination, but he thought that his transformation made Akira look even more appealing to him. Or maybe his senses had become sharper. He thought he could smell him and his desire to have sex with him; a warm, heady fragrance that was inescapably enticing. Without even thinking, his tails began to wag on their own as if to show his readiness.

Before they began, Akira stood up, water dripping down his body, and placed his hands on his hips, hooking his thumbs under the waistband of the small pair of black shorts he was wearing. The material was so smooth, they practically blended right in with his stripes. He turned around and lifted his tail to show Yusuke the V-shaped dip at the back that accommodated his tail. “You're going to want some of these for yourself now that you've got tails of your own,” he said.

They looked handy. All of his clothes were going to need to have room for his nine tails.

Perhaps a yukata with an opening beneath the sash... That look sounded aesthetically appropriate for a Japanese demon. He found yukata comfortable and easy to wear. It was going to be a shame to cover up the beautiful markings on his skin, but he couldn't imagine walking around without any clothing like the demons in Catherine's castle.

Eyes on Yusuke's, Akira slowly pushed the shorts down his thighs and stepped out of them beneath the water. It was incredible how the removal of one small strip of fabric was all it took to skyrocket his sex appeal. Yusuke wondered which part made it so erotic; Akira's heated gaze, the way he teasingly removed them while maintaining eye contact, or the reveal of his perfectly-shaped arousal.

“Wait a minute.” He took a closer look. “Is that bigger...?”

He was well-acquainted with that manhood. It definitely looked bigger than he remembered.

“Is it? Hmm...”

“It definitely is!”

Giving a shrug, Akira took him by the arm and led him closer to the edge of the water. Yusuke hadn't even been able to tell where the edge was until they were upon it. “You don't have to be too concerned about it,” Akira said. He set his shorts on the ground to dry and dipped back into the water. “You're still recovering. It would be irresponsible of me if I made you exert yourself, so you can just relax and I'll take care of everything.”

A whole lot of question marks appeared in Yusuke's head. He didn't know what Akira was talking about, but the way he said it made his heart suddenly start beating faster.

Everything? He'd take care of it?

Yusuke started to get the picture as Akira rested his arms over his shoulders, his tongue hungrily tracing his upper lip, a glimpse of white, pointed teeth glimmering in the light reflected from the water's surface. Yusuke felt like a cornered animal about to be devoured, which, on second thought, shouldn't have been such an arousing idea. He didn't have any reason to fear for his safety with Akira, so he was treated to the excitement of danger without the threat. He was already embarrassingly hard.

“A-Akira...” He didn't know what to do with himself as Akira reached into the water and wrapped his fingers around his cock. “A-Are you... I've never...I-I-I probably won't be very good at... d-doing it like... like that.”

His words failed him when it mattered, but he felt he was still able to get his concerns across.

He'd never been on top. It sounded like Akira expected him to relax and not exert himself, but Yusuke wasn't sure how that was supposed to be enjoyable for Akira.

...Had Akira's hands always felt that good? Or did the transformation make him more sensitive, too?

“Don't worry.” Akira leaned in and placed a kiss to Yusuke's lips. “I haven't done this before, either, but I know exactly what I'm doing. Remember? This sort of thing is in my nature.”

Putting a leg between Yusuke's, Akira backed him up against the edge. His fingers left him, but his leg stayed, his thigh rubbing against Yusuke's sensitive cock. Yusuke hadn't even touched him yet, but he noticed a flush in Akira's cheeks and a satisfied gleam in his eyes. He was already enjoying himself. He looked like he was possessed with the desire to touch him.

Despite his slight initial nervousness, Yusuke couldn't see any downsides. He was curious to see a real incubus in action, but he was also more than happy to help Akira find relief.

As Akira teased him with his soft thigh, he leaned back in and recaptured Yusuke's lips. Feeling his tongue trace the seam of his lips, Yusuke parted them for him and allowed him to slip his tongue inside. A moan weakly slipped out as Akira's hands settled on the back of his head. The tips of his claws felt surprisingly nice as they lightly scratched his scalp. Yusuke's ears twitched, and he felt Akira laugh against his mouth, taking notice of their desire for attention. He obliged them with a few scratches.

Curious if Akira would react similarly, Yusuke brought up his hands and loosely put his fingers around Akira's horns.

Leaving his lips, Akira backed up and stared at him. “...What're you doing?”

“I thought you might like it,” Yusuke plainly explained, massaging his horns.

“I can't feel anything in my horns.”

Yusuke stopped rubbing and went quiet.

He felt kind of silly.

Akira put his hands over Yusuke's and moved them down a little to the base of his horns. “Around there. That's where the nerves are. You can't feel the ends of your hair, can you? Same deal.”

“A-Ah...” At least it was a learning experience, he reasoned. Once he started caressing his fingers around the base of Akira's horns, Akira seemed to enjoy it a lot more, his expression softening, becoming docile and contented; chin lifted, eyes closed, his features relaxed. It was such a cute face, Yusuke wished he'd thought to bring a sketchbook with him. He looked like a happy kitten.

After a moment, Akira blinked his eyes open and looked at him. “Y-... You're staring at me really intensely, you know.”

“Committing that face to memory.”

Removing Yusuke's hands from his horns, Akira also removed the leg he had between Yusuke's legs and repositioned himself, pressing up against him, chest-to-chest. “I'll make a lot of inspiring faces for you if you'll do me a favor. Just hold onto me and make sure not to drop me.”

Before Yusuke could ask what he was planning to do, Akira pulled himself up and wrapped his legs around his waist. It caught Yusuke by surprise, but, fortunately, his first instinct was to catch him. Akira praised him and reached between them to grasp his cock and nudged it toward his entrance. It seemed absurd for Akira to go that far without preparation, but Yusuke was hushed before he could say anything to try to stop him. With a look of concentration, Akira slowly guided his cock into him.

Yusuke was surprised by how easily Akira's body yielded to him, sweet warmth inviting him deeper, inch by inch, until he was fully consumed by the heat inside of him.

“How's that for your first time on top?” Akira asked, looking down at him with a devilish little smirk.

Yusuke swallowed. It was difficult to answer when his brain was buzzing. It felt like he'd suddenly caught fire, like Akira had ignited something inside him. Akira's body was definitely taking control of him in some way, but he couldn't call it a bad thing. He kind of wanted to submit to it more.

“I... can't even describe it,” Yusuke answered honestly. He raked his eyes over Akira's lithe form and tried to find the words, but looking at him just made him fall even deeper under Akira's spell. “You're gorgeous. Like a work of art. I could look at you forever...”

“Oh? Did you just fall in love with me again?” Akira teasingly giggled and rolled his hips, giving Yusuke the first taste of what it really felt like to be on top. “See, I get the feeling I'd have this kind of effect on anyone, but the thought of that is pretty depressing, to be honest. You fell in love with me long before we touched, so I know your feelings are sincere.”

Moving one of his hands up Akira's back, Yusuke rested his cheek against his shoulder and sighed. “If this is what it's like to have sex with you as a demon, I look forward to the rest of eternity. I hadn't realized that love and eroticism could be this closely entwined.” He could feel Akira's heartbeat pounding against his chest...

“N-Neither had I...”

The more that feeling of sincere devotion deepened, the hotter the air between them became.

They shared another kiss and Akira rocked against him as the kiss deepened. His pointed tail anxiously swished back and forth in the water, fanning out ripples around them. Akira's sloppy movements weren't what Yusuke had expected from a demon who was supposed to be skilled when it came to sex, but the urgent, erratic movement of his hips felt incredible. It felt, perhaps, even better knowing that Akira was finding it hard to control himself. He was just shallowly rolling his hips, but Yusuke could feel the head of his cock rubbing against Akira's tight inner walls. Every now and then, Akira would let out a gasp and he'd feel his insides spasm and contract around him.

Yusuke wanted to speak to find out what Akira wanted him to do, but his mouth was occupied with Akira's tongue. All he could do was moan helplessly as Akira's tongue played with his, emulating the type of motions his hips were producing. The second he saw his opportunity, Yusuke broke away from the kiss and asked between gasps for breath, “Is this... Is this good enough?”

Breathing hard, Akira brushed his hair out of his eyes and looked down at him. “I'm just getting started.”

It sounded like he took what he said as a challenge...

With Yusuke's arms supporting him, Akira brought his hands to his own body. Starting at his hips, he moved his hands up his taut abdomen and over his chest, stopping to pay some attention to his nipples, firmly working them into peaks with the heel of his palms. The black striped patterns across his body made the rest of his skin look particularly pale in comparison. His nipples became flushed with a rosy color as he played with them.

Watching him made Yusuke wish that he could use his hands to touch him, but it seemed like Akira was content to do it all himself. It was like he was putting on a show for him, happy just to have him watch. Occasionally, between quiet gasps, Akira would steal a glance at him to make sure he was watching and his eyes would light up with excitement. All the while, he kept rolling his hips, giving Yusuke a little at a time – just enough to keep him wanting more.

At last, Akira began to focus on him, placing his hands on Yusuke's chest. Curious, he traced his fingers over the markings on his chest.

“It's like a heart,” he said, his fingers following the lines that ran parallel down Yusuke's neck and met at a point at the base of his sternum. The way the lines curled outwardly around his chest did indeed give it the shape of a heart.

While he had his hands there, he give Yusuke's nipples a little bit of attention, rubbing his thumbs over them just to watch the way it made him squirm.

“A-Akira, please...”

“Lemme be blunt for a second,” Akira said, continuing to rub his thumbs in circles. “The hornier you are, the more energy I'll receive. In a way, it's more about you than me.”

“But I want you to feel good, too,” Yusuke said, pulling him in more tightly. He squeezed the hand he had on Akira's hip and finally moved his hips up, giving him his first full thrust. He made himself dizzy with it, but he could also see how much Akira enjoyed it. Akira's heels pressed against his back as his thighs unconsciously gripped Yusuke's waist to bring their hips closer together. “That's alright, isn't it? If you need more energy, you can do it with me again. You don't have to worry about getting it all out of your system at once. Take your time.”

Akira looked moved by his thoughtfulness. “Th... That's true. I'm just anxious because it's been so long. I'm so hungry...”

“Me too.” His stomach loudly growled again.

“...Yeah, I think we're talking about different things.” Akira pet him between the ears. “I'll make you a big meal after this. Good?”

Well, he was referring to his stomach, but he also meant it the way Akira meant it. Looking at his pale throat made him want to give it a nibble – so Yusuke did just that, planting his lips and teeth gently around Akira's throat. His skin was a little salty and warm, and Yusuke could feel his pulse throbbing against his tongue. He smelled good enough to eat; intoxicating in a way that was difficult to describe because of the way it so thoroughly surmounted his senses.

As he lightly nibbled on Akira's neck, he felt Akira's claws grazing the back of his shoulders. He was probably trying not to hurt him, but the thought of wearing marks made by Akira didn't bother Yusuke that much. They would've been a sign that he'd succeeded in pleasing him.

Since Akira seemed to be stable with his hands on his shoulders, Yusuke tried moving his hips again, using both hands to hold his waist. His feet kept slipping on the rocks at the bottom of the spring, so it was difficult to make it consistent. His pace was too erratic, his cock striking different angles every time he thrust into him. Although he felt like he wasn't doing a very good job, it looked like Akira was enjoying it. When Yusuke released his throat, parting from him with a few gentle licks to his bruised skin, he looked up to find that Akira's seductive look had crumbled into something vulnerable and desperate. That look made him seem so different from the Akira he was used to, but it also made Yusuke feel special to know that he was the only person who was allowed to see him that way.

Unable to help himself, he started thrusting harder, his ears flattening against his head as his urgency increased. Hearing Akira release an uncontrollable cry for more, Yusuke eagerly continued, tightening his grip around Akira's hips as he struggled to keep his balance. He wanted to do his best for Akira, to hear him make more sounds like that.

“Y-Yusuke... Good... That's-”

Words of praise fell from Akira's mouth one after another and were only cut short by his need to moan. Hearing Akira giving in to his need made Yusuke feel very accomplished. Akira had begun so confidently, determined to make him be the one to fall apart, but Yusuke felt quite in control of himself despite the intense need that was building up inside of him. At any second, with his cock gripped tightly within Akira's tempting heat, he felt like he could burst, but he held it together, wanting to see more of Akira's exquisite expressions.

He was the image of passion; a true demon of carnal desire. Eyes glazed, hair clinging to his damp forehead, Akira tipped his head back and stared into the darkness above the spring. It was hard to tell whether the droplets on his skin were sweat or spring water. Yusuke couldn't resist the urge to find out, so he dipped his head and ran his tongue along Akira's collarbone to see for himself. His eyes rolled back as the taste of him filled his mouth and spread throughout all of his senses. He ached to touch him more, but he couldn't let him go. So he held on tighter.

“Ach-...! Watch your claws.”

Yusuke's senses instantly returned to him when he realized that he'd accidentally hurt Akira with his nails. Though, like Akira said, they were more like claws. It probably wouldn't have been difficult for him to hold a brush with claws so short, but if he hoped to engage in other types of sexual activities with Akira, it was probably going to be in his interest to trim and file them. He didn't need claws when he had a sword.

In a lull in their manic pace, Akira took a moment to breathe, resting his forehead against Yusuke's. “I don't know if I can hold on much longer at this rate. I'm a lot weaker than I expected...”

“Should we move to the ground?” If Akira was feeling too tired, then it wasn't going to be safe for them to continue in their position.

“Not like that,” Akira said. “I'm not tired. I-I'm talking about... y'know... sexual stamina. I'm already close.”

“O-Oh...” With their faces so close to each other, it was impossible for him to hide his reaction when Akira wiggled his hips. But of course, that must have been what Akira was aiming for.

He moved his hands back to Yusuke's shoulders. “I'm going to take over from here. When you feel like you're going to come, come inside, okay?”

How was he supposed to answer that? All Yusuke could do was nod in acknowledgment.

Then, true to his word, Akira took over and got serious. Keeping his legs locked around Yusuke's waist, hands planted on his shoulders, he relied on Yusuke's strength to hold him as he leaned back into his hands and put all of his focus into the thrusting of his hips. It was immediately better than any of Yusuke's own efforts, utterly putting him to shame. With a sensual, talented roll of his hips, he was able to pull almost all the way back, leaving just the tip of Yusuke's cock inside, then easily slid back down onto him, taking it all the way to the base.

He cried out blissfully, losing himself in his slow yet thorough pace. It was perfect just like that. Looking at the sight in front of him, Yusuke thought he had a good idea of what the future was going to look like for him. He felt like he had to be truly lucky to have such a beautiful and amorous lover. Akira released his desire with such grace...

It was his job to hold onto him, but Yusuke couldn't stop his hips from moving to meet him. When he thrust up roughly, he heard Akira release a startled noise and felt his claws sink into his shoulders despite Akira's own warning. He was going to have to pass him the nail filer...

“Did you like that?” he asked.

When Akira was unable to answer, his words tangling together in an unintelligible jumble, Yusuke took that as a 'yes' and continued to thrust into him with the same roughness. He was rewarded with a few breathless, delirious laughs. It sounded like Akira had lost his ability to speak. He could only respond by showing his eagerness for more.

Like Akira had told him, a little more was all it took. He straightened up, hooking his arms tightly around Yusuke's shoulders, his heels pressing into the back of Yusuke's hips as he came with a restrained groan.

He could hear Akira's rough, exhausted breathing, but Yusuke knew it wasn't over yet. That wasn't enough to satisfy Akira.

It made him feel selfish to continue thrusting even after Akira came, but he seemed to be content to let him do as he pleased. Akira's breaths slowly evened out as he rested his head against his shoulder.

“Yusuke...”

The way he said his name so tenderly, the way he looked up at him with his eyes half-lidded tiredly with a hint of need twisting his brow...

Yusuke clenched his teeth and thrust into him one final time, making sure he came inside deeply like Akira wanted.

As his strength fled, he nearly let Akira fall out of his grasp, but Akira reacted quickly. Pulling himself off of him, he put his feet back down on the spring's bottom and helped Yusuke stay upright, putting his arms securely around his waist. Yusuke leaned against him until he caught his breath, then pulled back to look into Akira's eyes.

“Was that to your satisfaction?”

Akira seemed to know that he was really asking for praise. He put a hand on his head and gave his ears a few approving scratches. “Mm. You did really well. Good job, good job.” He leaned in then and nuzzled his shoulder. With those horns of his, it was more like a headbutt.

Closing his eyes, basking in the afterglow for a moment, Yusuke put his arms around him and held him close. He took a deep breath and committed that whole moment to memory; the cool water, the taste of the crisp, fresh air, and warmth of the one in his arms.

“I feel like I've been reborn – like this was my baptism.” The strangeness of that analogy didn't escape him, though. He paused for a second. “...Is it sacrilegious if I refer to my demonic transformation as a 'baptism'...? W-Was it improper for us to set foot in a church? Will we get chased off sacred grounds with salt and rice now?!”

“I was able to enter the Kanda church in my human form. Don't overthink it. The priest had no idea I was a demon and neither did I.”

“A-Ah... You're right.”

Akira dipped back into the water to rinse off. Unsure of when they'd be there again, Yusuke also took the opportunity to enjoy the water a little more. A spring wasn't a place for swimming, but he enjoyed spreading out his legs and moving around in the water, enjoying the sensation of the cool water between his tails.

When they were finished, Akira helped him out of the water. Standing on dry ground, Yusuke fluffed his tails and flicked his ears to get the water out.

With a displeased grimace, Akira picked up his damp shorts and stared at him, clearly debating whether or not he wanted to put them on. Eventually, he seemed to conclude that, whether he liked it or not, he had no other choice.

Yusuke started to get a bad feeling as he looked around. “My clothes...?”

“Oh. Well, like I said, I had to get you out of them while the transformation was in progress, so-”

You brought me here naked and now I have nothing to wear?

“Do you want to wear mine?”

That was hardly a solution and made Yusuke feel scandalized for a number of reasons that he didn't wish to verbalize, so he kept it to himself. Instead, he settled on holding his tails in front of himself. Fortunately, they were big enough to cover him from the front and behind, so all of his most sensitive parts were hidden. “I'll just go like this for now. Be more considerate next time.”

“There shouldn't be a next time, but okay. You've got my word.” Akira looked him up and down and chuckled at the way he was holding his tails. “Don't sweat it. This place was close, so I used a portal to get us here. It'll take two seconds to get us back to my room.”

“Oh...” He should've mentioned that sooner.

“You can borrow some of my clothes until we get you some new ones.”

That solution wasn't much better. Even if they were clean, Akira's underwear was Akira's underwear. Yusuke didn't know if he would be able to suppress the arousing thoughts that idea gave him. As an incubus, Akira would be able to smell his desire from a mile away.

Predictably, Akira was already looking at him like he was hungry for seconds.

Chapter Text

“So what do we do now?”

Yusuke surprised himself with how easily he was able to ask such an uneasy question.

Perhaps it was because he felt so comfortable, laying in Akira's bed. He had his head resting on Akira's chest, his eyelids heavy as Akira's fingers gently carded through his hair. Occasionally, he was given scratches behind his ears. He felt like a really well-loved house pet.

After they returned to the room, Morgana had decided to leave them alone once he noticed the tension that was brewing between them. That time, they took their time, indulging in slow, passionate lovemaking. Afterwards, Akira looked completely refreshed and restored, his sexual appetite satisfied at last. For his own part, Yusuke was still hungry, but his body didn't feel any different; his new form let him keep up with Akira without any noticeable loss of strength.

Akira's fingers paused as he set his head back into the pillow behind him and looked up at the ceiling. “We should go back to the human world. You want that too, don't you? I'm sure everybody's going to move along and start living their own lives, but we're still friends. We have to be there for them.” He resumed petting Yusuke's hair, stroking his hand down the back of his neck. “I want to get out and see as much of the human world as I can, and I want you to keep painting. I feel like those two things could go hand in hand.”

Yusuke released a comfortable sigh. “Indeed. That plan appeals to me as well.” But... There were some things that he still questioned, things that made him lose his smile. “What will we do about our memory? Once we return to the human world, we'll forget that we're half-demon. I'm not sure how I feel about that. The things I know now affect the way I see the world, meaning that the me now would paint differently from the me who believes he's only human.”

“I hadn't thought about that,” Akira admitted, sounding a bit astonished. “I don't think there's anything we could do about it, though.”

Yusuke lifted his head to look up at him. “Couldn't we send another letter to ourselves explaining the situation?”

“That wouldn't work. Based on my understanding of how it works, even our explanation would disappear from the letter. But even if that worked, do you think you'd be able to believe such a thing? Even if it were in my own handwriting, I think I'd seriously doubt it, especially if I didn't see any evidence to back it up. I went through some crazy stuff while I was in the human world, but I would probably assume someone was messing with me before I'd be ready to believe that I'm part demon.”

They heard a sound and looked down toward the end of the bed to see that Morgana had reappeared.

“I could do it,” he said. He must have been eavesdropping again.

“What do you mean?” Akira asked. He sat up a bit and Yusuke also sat up, attempting to look more proper in front of Morgana in spite of his state of undress.

His tail flicked around proudly. “Well, you see, I'm not human. I'm not a demon, either.”

Yusuke's eyes widened and he excitedly clenched his hands in front of him. “So you'll be able to remember for us?”

“Hey, I was born to be your guide. You should believe in me. If you want me to, I can try to remind you of what you really are when we return to the human world.” He glanced aside. “That is... If you don't mind taking me along with you. Now that you two are like an official couple or whatever, I don't want to just be a third wheel, y'know...”

Even if he put it like that, it was obvious that he didn't want to be left behind.

As if they would even dream of leaving Morgana behind.

Yusuke quickly slid into a pair of black shorts loaned to him by Akira, then hopped back onto the bed and held his arms out toward Morgana. At first, Morgana didn't seem to understand what he wanted him to do, or maybe he just didn't expect him to extend such an invitation. Once he realized that he was serious, he hesitantly came nearer and let Yusuke pick him up. He placed him in his lap and wrapped his tails around him nice and snug.

Morgana stuck his paws out over them. “Whoa, you're soft!”

Yusuke chuckled. “Aren't I?”

“I don't know whether this is cute or weird, you guys,” Akira mumbled as he watched them.

Fur standing on end, Morgana grumbled quietly. “Who're you calling cute? I'm manly!

“Anyway,” Akira continued, dodging Morgana's comeback, “I think your idea might actually work. If you can convince us of what we really are, we might be able to travel between here and the human world without needing help. When my mom returned to the Netherworld, my dad was still able to remember her in the human world even though her presence had been erased.”

“Really?” Yusuke asked. “That's sort of romantic...”

“Ew, please.

 

“Huh? What's so 'ew' about that?” an uninvited guest asked.

 

Akira stared at the doorway, drumming his fingers on top of the bed sheets. “You've heard of knocking, haven't you? How did you get in here?”

Catherine giggled and frolicked into the room. “Oh, my silly boy! I can go wherever I want~”

She did a twirl and hopped onto the bed. Yusuke was suddenly thankful that he'd had the foresight to put some underwear on. It was for Morgana's sake, but he also had to be prepared for unexpected intrusions from Akira's clingy mom, apparently.

For a second, she stared at him, her face blank, making Yusuke sweat. Then, all of a sudden, her eyes went wide and she let out a sound of astonishment. “Oh! You're that boy! Look at you! You look so different!” Without asking, she reached over and touched his tails. Even Morgana stared at her with disapproval. “I gotta say, you look good like this. I should've trusted my baby's judgment. You're still nowhere near Vincent's level, but a kitsune is pretty decent... You'll be a good source of renewable energy for Akira.”

Akira got out of bed and jumped into his shorts faster than his mother's leering gaze could follow. Pointedly keeping his attention elsewhere, he went to his dresser and started looking through the clothes in the top drawer. When he spoke, his voice carried more attitude than Yusuke was used to hearing out of him. “Dad has to suck energy from other women in order to keep his own strength up. All he does is sleep around. If you ask me, that's pretty pathetic. In a contest of raw power, Yusuke would win without question.” He sounded mad, but he was trying to hold back.

“Huh...?” Catherine straightened up, sitting in the middle of the bed on her knees. She glared at Akira's back. “What was that, some kind of threat? Are you thinking about taking the throne for yourself?”

Akira shrugged. A smug smile that could have rivaled one of Catherine's was revealed when he finally turned around. On him, it was a dangerous look. “Me? No thanks. I think grandpa deserves better than to be treated like a footrest. That said... Yeah. I'll give you ten years. Yusuke and I are going to go on our honeymoon. I expect you and dad to have your bags packed by the time we return.”

Yusuke knew that he was probably just speaking metaphorically when he referred to it as their 'honeymoon', but knowing that wasn't enough to stop his heart from pounding excitedly.

Catherine, on the other hand, looked utterly devastated to hear about their plans. “Wait, really? You were serious about leaving? Y-You're going back to the human world?” Her eyes went to the surface of the sheets. She slumped down, shoulders sagging with an air of defeat. It seemed like she had accepted their seriousness before, but she must have gone into denial. Faced with the reality that she wouldn't be able to stop them, she just looked lost. “Do you really hate me that much?”

That sounded like her last attempt to guilt him. Yusuke recognized what that sounded like.

It wasn't going to work on Akira, but he wasn't without sympathy for her. He lost the smile and shook his head sadly as he expressed the truth. “I don't hate you... I just can't keep living like this.”

“I failed you as a mom, didn't I...?”

That time... She was being honest. Even Yusuke couldn't help but feel a little bad for her.

Akira sat down next to her and put his arms around her. He looked awkward about it, but Catherine seemed touched by the gesture, letting out a small sound of surprise when she suddenly found herself in his hug. “I have a lot to thank you for,” Akira said. “It's just time for me to leave the nest. This doesn't mean I'm going to stop being your son.”

“Akira...” She shook her head, holding back tears. She grasped him back and held on tightly. “I love you, you know.”

“I know. I never doubted that,” Akira said softly.

She pulled away from him, wiping her eyes. With a loud sniffle, she directed her attention toward Yusuke and shook a finger at him. “I-I hope you realize how fortunate you are, getting to be with my Akira! Y-You better keep your promise! I'll kill you if anything happens to him!”

“So you've said. However, I've changed my thinking. Akira isn't a child who needs supervision, nor would it make him happy to have someone who's constantly worrying about him. I'm going to do as I've always done. I'm going to trust him.”

“Hmph. Good.”

“Pardon?” He thought he'd impressed her with his earlier talk of self-sacrifice. He couldn't tell if she was suddenly trying to be contrary.

“Only an idiot would give his life for another person. Glad you realized that, sword boy.” She got off the bed and put her hands on her hips. “When you're watching a romantic drama and the guy sacrifices himself to save the girl, doesn't that just piss you off? Like, didn't he think about how that'd make her feel? That's totally what I'm talking about. I hate that kind of cliché bullshit. Sad endings like that suck.”

Huh.

So she wasn't just being contrary. She really did understand what he meant.

Weirdly, he felt like he needed to apologize. “Sorry about what I said earlier. I don't very much care for sad endings, either. This is just the beginning for Akira and I. I'll see to it that our story never ends.”

“You're forgiven,” she said. That came as a surprise. “You're my son now, too. That means I can't stay mad at you.”

“Thank you, Catherine.”

Grumbling awkwardly, she turned away and slowly returned to the doorway. For a second, Yusuke thought she was going to leave out of embarrassment, but she stopped, back turned, and sent a sheepish glance over her shoulder. “Um... I-It was nice meeting you... Yusuke.” Holding her face, she groaned. “B-Bye!”

And, with that, she vanished in a sparking cloud of darkness.

After a few moments of silence passed allowing the atmosphere to settle, Morgana finally released the breath he'd apparently been holding that whole time.

“Phew... Boy, that went better than expected. You two are lucky,” he said. He wriggled his way out of Yusuke's hold and curled up at the end of the bed. “I think Yusuke managed to charm her, but we better get out of here before she remembers the part where Akira threatened to steal the throne from Vincent. That's no laughing matter. Vincent's actually scary-strong despite his looks.”

Yusuke didn't think they really had anything to worry about. “I doubt Akira was being serious. He made it sound like I would be the one to fight Vincent, and I don't know if that would be possible. I didn't have the chance to speak with him for long, but he and Catherine don't seem like the sort who would allow us a fair fight.”

Leaving his drawer open, Akira tossed a few items over his shoulder at Yusuke to wear. “That's why we would have to request a fair fight. Demons have rules.” He found a familiar shirt and pulled it over his head. Half-dressed, he turned back to Yusuke and gave him a cheeky wink. “And if they won't fight fair, then neither will we. I bet the three of us can take 'em.”

Morgana sat up straight. “Wh- Hey...! Don't automatically include me!”

“What, you don't want to have your own castle?” Akira asked, appealing to Morgana's lust for treasure. “Besides, doesn't this seem like a job for the Phantom Thieves?”

“I thought we were changing the name,” Yusuke was quick to point out.

Akira laughed. “We've got at least ten years to think about it.”