Shin awoke to an immense ache in his chest and a distant certainty that his decisions had been made for him while he slept. He breathed deep, intaking the smoldering scent of charcoal and oak, exhaling little streams of smoke that might have been his or the illusion of what this place was attempting to pull from him, and he knew without knowing how that he wasn’t alone. A shadow moved perpendicular to the other shadows in the room.
He tightened his fists and was surprised when he bunched up handfuls of silken bedsheet.
Above him the artificial sky was a black, cavernous maw slipping open to consume everything between the horizons, it’s immensity barreling down on him and the floor beneath, which was simply a modest layout of brick. This place had looked, at least from the building front, like nothing more than a hovel beneath the dirt; Shin wasn’t entirely convinced he was underground either, as most Devil keeps were, but elsewhere.
The shadow in the corner of the room stood. At the same moment the torches on the walls ignited, two by two, breaking the mirage of the night to reveal four corners and spider-web cracks in smoothed stone. The flame illuminated a figure standing poised; a pink-furred tail forked out and curled around devil legs.
“N-Noi,” he said.
Her tail flared out in what he perceived to be agitation, but her tone was adversely placid. “You know they don’t call me that down here,” she told him, crossing the room so he could get a better look at what she’d become.
“Right, sorry. Shiro. I’m sorry.”
From this proximity, he could finally decipher her details: the shaggy white-pink fur on her hide, the long horns arcing from her head. Her hair was somehow wilder than when they last spoke.
She slid a deceptively gentle hand up his chest, claws catching the fabric of his shirt. “No, don’t be. I miss it, sometimes—when I think of you.”
“Sounds like you think of me often.”
Noi didn’t answer him, though he suspected there was a jubilant smile behind her concealing mask. Instead she said, “You came here without an offering.”
“I—I know. I’ll give you anything you want. I just...I needed to see you.”
“Then, might I have you?”
He flushed. “Is that even allowed down here?”
“It’s fine,” she said, not at all reassuringly. “There’s no rule against it, and—it’s a precious gift to give.”
“Do sorcerers normally offer their bodies to devils?”
“Yes. It’s rare that we accept, as most don’t survive consummation.”
“Well, I can't think of a better way to go.”
Noi laughed. Her voice reverberated through the empty room and gave it a wholly different kind of light. “Oh, Shin,” she said, her hand methodically moving up to caress his face, “I would never do such a thing.”
“Ain’t that a shame.”
Her body shuddered. Smoke fell away from her head and shoulders, cascading downwards; when she took her form, she resembled an older version of herself, hair an untamed mess and weight in all the right areas. Shin swallowed the rock in his throat.
“Talk to me,” she said, kneeling gracefully between his knees. “What happened?”
He remained dutifully inert as she undressed his outer layers, removing his jacket and shoes, loosening his tie with deft fingers. His clothes came away without struggle and by extension of her handiwork he cooled down in a room that might have been cursed to rest for all eternity on the stovetop of Hell.
“Stumbled upon a conspiracy to kill En,” he said, shrugging off his unbuttoned shirt.
She wasn’t looking at him, her hands kept working. His belt slipped from the loops of his pants like a snake navigating the underbrush. “I see.”
“I worry that you and the other devils might...” He curled his fists in the sheet again. Desperate to anchor himself to something coherent, to here and now: his reality with her. “I worry.”
“There’s no need. I’m strong.”
“Noi, please don’t be stubborn right now. I’m being serious—”
She looked up at him. “So am I.”
Her shadow was projected onto the wall by the firelight, as immense as the mirage of night she had conjured to conceal herself. He saw the truth of her in it, the flick of her tail, the curl of her horns.
He said, “I want you with me when I go on my next mission.”
“You know I can’t—”
“You have to,” he said. “This isn’t even about En. It’s bigger, it’s worse.”
The silence was unbearable. It had always been so easy to chainsmoke conversations with her in the final year of her training that he’d never once had to consider how stunting a single moment of quiet could be. Yet, she didn’t seem as constricted as he felt. She was looking up at him as if considering the oddity of his existence.
“You need a shave,” she said.
“Jesus Christ in Heaven, Noi—”
Her hand cupped his mouth. “You can’t say those things here,” she whispered, like the walls might hear. Like he was standing on slick ice. A misstep waiting to happen. “Do you want to be evicted from my keep?”
He rolled his eyes but otherwise offered his raised hands in surrender. Slowly, she released her smothering hold. Her palms moved to frame his face.
“Okay,” she relented. “If it’s that serious...I’ll go by your side.”
“Thanks.” He bent his chin down and kissed her. “Thank you, Noi.”
“Now get up,” she said then, her voice softened by what he dangerously suspected to be love for him. “I want you to worship me.”
Shin went obediently. He didn’t know if pleasuring her would be any different from their first time, years ago, when they’d ended the third day prior to her ascension on his couch, and at her request—but she reacted receptively to every motion of his body, of his hands and mouth and teeth and tongue. You’re not like the trainees, she’d said to him back then. The ones who’d died falling from the tower, or were skinned alive to produce smoke for hidden factories in rumored places. Her hands were on his belt, fingers hooked into his waistline to anchor him down. Please, just this once.
He should have known then it wouldn’t be so simple.
For now, he said, “Noi. Even at the end of the world, I’ll find you. I’ll come find you no matter what.”
“Oh, Shin...” She hooked her arms around the back of his neck. “Then I’ll find you too, I promise.”
And she brought him down for a kiss.