Pandora's Necklace by nicksgal
Summary:

A demon shrouded in only shadows. A ceaseless and persistent curse. An evil strong enough to be coveted by the Devil. A necklace ready to ignite. Without the box, what binds and drives demons and priestesses?



The sequel to Pandora's Box!


Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: AJ, Brian, Group, Howie, Kevin, Nick, Other
Genres: Action, Adventure, Alternate Universe, Fantasy, Romance, Supernatural
Warnings: Graphic Violence, Sexual Content
Challenges:
Series: The Legendary Pandora
Chapters: 37 Completed: No Word count: 155142 Read: 52961 Published: 12/10/20 Updated: 08/26/21
Story Notes:
Welcome back to this tale! If you haven't read Pandora's Box, you will probably be pretty confused, so go read it! You can probably read it comfortably over a week or so. It got a nice edit over December 2020/January 2021 and you can now enjoy my full vision for it that I had promised so long ago. If you read PBox originally, a few things have been added in addition to some small re-hauls, but nothing that majorly changes the story as a whole entity, or even the plot of each chapter; this next arc should all make sense. I'll leave notes for you at the bottom for any chapters you may want to revisit if they're relevant to the current plot.

1. Chapter One: Illusory by nicksgal

2. Chapter Two: Kiresaseru by nicksgal

3. Chapter Three: Unbroken by nicksgal

4. Chapter Four: Back to Safaiananpou by nicksgal

5. Chapter Five: The Crater by nicksgal

6. Chapter Six: Alliance by nicksgal

7. Chapter Seven: Melt by nicksgal

8. Chapter Eight: Bewitched by nicksgal

9. Chapter Nine: Misgivings by nicksgal

10. Chapter Ten: Fear by nicksgal

11. Chapter Eleven: Truth by nicksgal

12. Chapter Twelve: Onward by nicksgal

13. Chapter Thirteen: Light by nicksgal

14. Chapter Fourteen: Soul by nicksgal

15. Chapter Fifteen: Confidence by nicksgal

16. Chapter Sixteen: Earthquake by nicksgal

17. Chapter Seventeen: Den of Demons by nicksgal

18. Chapter Eighteen: Centered by nicksgal

19. Chapter Nineteen: Weaknesses by nicksgal

20. Chapter Twenty: Strengths by nicksgal

21. Chapter Twenty-One: Catharsis by nicksgal

22. Chapter Twenty-Two: Feelings by nicksgal

23. Chapter Twenty-Three: Memories by nicksgal

24. Chapter Twenty-Four: Exchange by nicksgal

25. Chapter Twenty-Five: Cost by nicksgal

26. Chapter Twenty-Six: Altair and Vega by nicksgal

27. Chapter Twenty-Seven: Glow by nicksgal

28. Chapter Twenty-Eight: Adapt by nicksgal

29. Chapter Twenty-Nine: Sacrifice by nicksgal

30. Chapter Thirty: Past by nicksgal

31. Chapter Thirty-One: History by nicksgal

32. Chapter Thirty-Two: Ripples by nicksgal

33. Chapter Thirty-Three: Plans by nicksgal

34. Chapter Thirty-Four: Beloved by nicksgal

35. Chapter Thirty-Five: Contract by nicksgal

36. Chapter Thirty-Six: Tomorrow by nicksgal

37. Chapter Thirty-Seven: Honesty by nicksgal

Chapter One: Illusory by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
Chapters 1-10 of PBox were edited/updated this week.

“Minako! Minako! Find me, Minako!” The male voice called through the darkness.

Only silence responded to him. It was an endless suffocating dark with no sound and no movement except for his voice and his body. In the periphery of his vision, he saw the pale color of his skin flailing wildly, trying to push the darkness away with his fingertips, which ended in sharp claws instead of finger nails.

“Minako! Hurry, find me! Minako!” He pawed his clawed hands through the darkness.

This has happened before…

Always calling in the darkness. Always silent in the daylight. Heart wrenching sadness in the darkness. Serene smiles in the daylight. A loud and desperate shout. Always searching and never finding. Awake and half asleep. Broken. Incomplete.

He startled awake. Darkness turns to daylight.

He put his hands to his face and ran his fingers up his forehead and through his blond hair as he blinked several times. As he sat up, he reached out to the bedside table and grasped a ring and a chain with his hand. He gripped them tightly before setting them both in his lap. He picked up the small gold ring and stared at it with a gentle smile before sliding it down his right hand ring finger. He then picked up the chain and let it dangle in front of his face. The golden chain was threaded with a few solitary pearls and a large sapphire gem at the bottom affixed to a golden wing shaped backing a little wider than the sternoclavicular joint. The gold and gems gleamed in the sunlight and reflected on his face like the whispery reply to the screams from his dreams.

Something important from a very long time ago… The immovable power of fate makes me call out in my dreams. But to who?

“Minako! Find me!”

He shut his eyes. Minako… Whoever you are, wherever you are, my heart is calling you in the dark and it seems like only finding you will calm it. If you would only answer, I swear I would never let you go.

He put his hand to his head again. This same dream, I’ve had it before. For months now, I’ve been screaming in the dark. Only a few months, but it feels like something I’ve done for a very long time… Something I did a long time ago… When else would I have screamed in the dark?

He set the necklace back on the table before pulling the white sheet from his body and walking toward the window across from the bed. He threw open the dark gray curtains and stared at the skyscrapers outside leaning against the clouds gently. He rested his forehead on his hand as he pressed his face closer to the window. If I had wings… I could escape from here and be free… Escape that nightmare and…

A knock sounded at the door.

He turned toward it quickly. “Uh, hang on…” He picked up a crumpled pair of jeans from the floor between the bed and the window, then pulled them over each leg as he walked toward a chair between the door and a large closet. He grabbed a gray sweatshirt slung over the arm and pulled it over his head quickly before opening the door. “Kevin…”

The second man leaned on his doorframe, his black button down shirt contrasting against the dark wood. Kevin narrowed his thick eyebrows against his green eyes as he matched the tone of his voice. “Nick…”

Nick crossed his arms. “You’re doing house calls again?”
He smiled and patted Nick’s shoulder. “Just making sure you’re awake and not staring at that necklace again.”
Nick hung his head.

Kevin lips quirked into a frown. “Well, you’re awake at least. Step one.”

Nick put his hand to his head. “It… I… That weird dream again…”

Kevin mirrored Nick and crossed his arms as well. “Do you want to talk to someone about it?”

Nick shook his head. “No, I’ll just sound crazy repeating myself…”

“Nick…”

He raised his hands in mock defense. “You keep suggesting that I talk to someone other than you all, you obviously also think I sound crazy… ‘I keep having this dream where I scream for someone I don’t know.’ ‘This weird necklace I had a death grip on when I woke up four months ago… Also a ring!’ ‘No other updates, still don’t know where anything came from.’ Did I forget a crazy sounding thing I’ve said?”

Kevin frowned. “You know I’m just worried about you…”

“Yeah because it sounds--”

“Because it’s bothering you.” He smirked. “You’ve done plenty of things over the years that seem ‘crazy,’ I’m used to it.”

Nick crossed his arms again and crumpled into himself. “Gee… thanks…”

He smiled warmly. “You know I’ll listen to anything you have to say, crazy or not. But there’s only so much I can do to help after four months of the same thing, other than continuing to support you.”

“Thanks Kevin, really…”

He smiled. “Do you want to get breakfast together?”

Nick shook his head. “No… I might lay back down and try to get more rest… That dream is exhausting...”

“Just make sure that you’re ready to go for our sound check.” He eyed Nick’s clothing. “And maybe not in the clothes you pulled off your floor.”

Nick frowned. “You can text me next time instead of knocking on the door…”

Kevin chuckled. “You can’t ignore me this way.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “Stop being so persistent.”

Kevin shook his head and started to walk away.

Nick grabbed the door frame and whispered loudly, “I’m kidding, I like that you check in on me.”

Kevin turned back and ruffled Nick’s hair. “I know.” He turned back around and gave him a short wave. “I’ll text you about breakfast if you change your mind, but remember, sound check.”

“I know, I know, I know. Sound check.” He closed the door lightly and walked back to the side table. He picked up the necklace and let it dangle in front of his eyes again. Why… Why am I still calling you in the dark? Who are you? Why won’t you ever answer me?

~*~

“Minako… Minako… Find me, Minako…” A male voice called through the darkness.

“Who are you?” The voice seemed distant and far away. Am I the one lost in the dark? Is he calling to me? Or is he shouting for me and I can’t hear it? She clenched her fists, “Where are you!?” Just say your name… and I will find you...

“Minako…. Hurry, find me… Minako…”

This has happened before...

In the darkness, he calls me. In daylight, he is unseen. In the darkness, his voice haunts my dreams. In daylight, he fades into my memory. A quiet and sad whisper. A man who is always and yet never there. Awake and half asleep. Broken. Incomplete.

She opened her eyes. Darkness turns to daylight.

She pulled the covers from her chin and let them unfurl into a cascade of fabric as they fell to the bed. She stood from the bed and reached toward the short dresser before standing in front of the window and pulling the blinds open. As she stared across the campus, she slid a small gold ring down her right hand ring finger and then rose the back of her hand up to her eyes.

Something important from a very long time ago… The immovable power of fate pulls me to the voice in my dreams. Are we only star-crossed lovers who are born again and again to live out a cruel fate? Is that why I hear your voice but can never respond? Is that why I can never see you? How much longer will you look for me in my dreams before you give up? Are you looking for me in the real world too?

“Minako… Find me…”

She shut her eyes. If you would only reach out your hand, I swear I would grab it.

She let out a laugh and shook her head. “I can’t keep thinking about this. I need to pack before class.”

A muffled groan rose from the top bunk. She covered her mouth and tiptoed to the closet between the window and the bunk bed. She slid open the door to the closet and stared into it. What do I need to bring back to New York? She flipped the clothing across the closet rod. Only Renee would beg me to come back to New York early for her birthday for a concert… She shook her head. She’s normally so sensible, but those boys change her priorities so much. Wouldn’t she prefer I go to class? And if it wasn’t her birthday, would she visit me? She lowered her head. Renee is always a secret homebody. Or at least after that day she went missing…

“Minako!” she sprinted up to her in the hallway past endless lockers and classroom doors, the ruffles of her pink skirt flowing behind her. “Did you bring your letters?”

Minako held up a couple envelopes. “My mom is mad you made me save them for you.”

“But doesn’t she know your first choice? It’s exactly the same as opening them with her!”

“Wherever you go?” Minako laughed. “Not that I think we got into any of the same schools. Also it’s not exactly the same...”

Renee snatched Minako’s envelopes from her hand. “Of course we will. We applied to all the same places.” She flipped through the envelopes. “What is this? University of Connecticut? University of Maryland? University of Virginia? Ohio State? I didn’t apply to any of these places…”

“They’re all close… They’re still in the northeast…”

“Mid Atlantic.”

“What?”

“And the Great Lakes.”

“What?”

“They’re not all northeastern. Some of them are in the Mid Atlantic and Great Lakes regions.” She frowned. “Your geography is abysmal.”

“Who really knows that much about US regions anyway? Besides, there’s a train.”

Renee looked up from the envelopes and into Minako’s eyes. “What?”

Minako nodded. “No matter what, there’s a train close by.” She eyed one of Renee’s envelopes and pulled it from the stack. “Unless you were planning on going to Stanford without me? There’s probably still a train, but not an easy one.”

Renee shook her head. “I just applied to similar types of schools. I don’t want to go to Stanford.”

“Well of course not.” Minako handed her back the envelope. “You always wanted to go to Harvard.”

Renee pursed her lips. “No… Not anymore… I want to stay close by… The idea of going far away hurts my heart. What if I can’t come back?”

“Of course your mom will let you come back whenever you want.” Minako eyed her incredulously. “Especially from Boston. It’s not that far!”


Minako frowned. What had been in Renee’s eyes? Heartbreak? Worry? Or was it fear? Is it that Renee is afraid to leave New York?

Minako shook her head and mumbled to herself. “Of course not, why would she leave when they’re having a concert around her eighteenth birthday?”

This was the furthest we have been apart and the longest we have ever been apart. I used to think that we should always be together… But here we are four hours apart all the time... When did we start running apart? Was it during our senior year? Before that? After? It feels like maybe we’ve been apart for longer...

“Stay with me…”

She gripped the dress she had been moving and stepped back. I’m thinking about you, Renee, but that’s not your voice… “Renee…” Should I have stayed with you? Maybe, but… That’s not you… That’s the voice from my dream… He’s never told me to stay… He’s never responded to me at all… But hearing that makes me feel… sad… and guilty... She shook her head. I can’t keep thinking about this. I’ll see you soon… And then we can stop running apart for at least a little while.

~*~

“Minako! Minako! Find me, Minako!”

Why do I need to be found? If I keep pushing away the darkness, will you run through it?

“Minako! Hurry, find me! Minako!” he pawed his clawed hands through the darkness.

Why won’t you find me? No matter how loudly I call you...

Always calling in the darkness. Always silent in the daylight. Heart wrenching sadness in the darkness. Serene smiles in the daylight. A loud and desperate shout. Always searching and never finding. Awake and half asleep. Broken. Incomplete.

He startled awake in the gray and black monochromatic room, rolled off a gray couch, and fell onto a black carpet covering the concrete floor. Darkness turns to daylight.

He put one hand to his head and the other on the ground. Twice… I’ve never had that dream twice in one day… Why do I keep calling you… Minako… Who are you? Are you… close by? Am I dreaming of you because I’m about to see you? Will I finally meet you? Will you finally answer me? If you will… I will never let you go…

“Nick?” A blond head peered into the room and pulled back the black curtain, then stared at Nick on the floor next to the couch. There was one other gray couch in the makeshift room created by black curtains and temporary partitions, but otherwise, it was fairly sparse.

Nick groaned and sat up, his sweatshirt strings dangling against his chest. “Brian… I…”

Brian sat on the couch above Nick and put the back of his hand against his forehead. “Are you sick?”

“No… That dream again…”

Brian frowned and crossed his arms against his gray tee shirt. “Are you okay?”

Nick put his head in his hands. “Why twice? I’ve never had it twice in one day… Should I be doing something?”

Brian laughed. “Instead of sleeping? Getting ready for soundcheck?” He shrugged, “About the dream… What do you want to do?”

Nick groaned and leaned his head against his bare knees as his gym shorts fell around his thighs. “Kevin keeps suggesting I talk to someone… Other than all of you… But it just makes me sound crazy and I…”

Brian put his hand on his shoulder. “We’re all just worried about you. So if there’s something or someone who can make you feel better about things, then we want that for you.” He smiled gently.

Someone who can… If you answered me… Then maybe…

“Nick?”

Nick leaned back and returned Brian’s gaze before shaking his head, “I don’t know… Just thinking…” He lowered his head and stared at his knees. “What if it’s a real person… And I need to talk to them…” He gripped his knees. “I know that sounds craziest of all, but… Why do I keep calling them in my dreams? Unless I need to meet them...”

Brian leaned down and pulled Nick into a hug. “But how would you even find them?” He shook his head. “And what would you do if you did?”

Nick leaned on Brian’s shoulder and reciprocated the hug. I always say I will never let you go… Can I do that? What if you don’t want me to find you? Stay… Is that what I want you to do? I’ve never asked that, but...

As Brian’s pocket vibrated, Brian and Nick jumped out of each other’s arms. Brian pulled his phone out of his jeans and shook it in Nick’s face. “Soundcheck.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “If Kevin put that alarm in your phone…”

Brian laughed. “No, I did. I’m surprised you didn’t if you were napping.”

Nick shrugged. “One of you would have found me here.” He gestured to Brian, “Obviously.”

Brian wrapped an arm around Nick’s shoulder and rubbed his fist in Nick’s hair. “Come on, let’s go.”

Nick shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, let’s go…”

They both stood and pushed aside the black curtain that made up the door of the makeshift room.

~*~

“Minako… Minako… Find me, Minako…”

“Who are you? Where are you!?” If I push away the darkness, will you run out of it? Can I reach your voice if I try to run toward you?

“Minako…. Hurry, find me… Minako…”

Why can’t you hear me? No matter how loud I scream, you never answer me...

In the darkness, he calls me. In daylight, he is unseen. In the darkness, his voice haunts my dreams. In daylight, he fades into my memory. A quiet and sad whisper. A man who is always and yet never there. Awake and half asleep. Broken. Incomplete.

She opened her eyes. Darkness turns to daylight.

A voice crackled over the speaker. “Next stop, Pennsylvania Station.”

Minako rubbed her eyes as she stared out the window at the scenery speeding by in a blur. She shuffled in her seat until she was sitting upright and gripped her backpack closely. I am excited to see you Renee, but I keep having that dream… This is the only time I’ve had it twice in the same day. Are you out there? Does the voice that’s been calling me really exist? Will I meet you soon? Will I see your face? Do you want to meet me? If you reach out, I swear I will grab your hand…

She leaned her head on the window. You keep telling me that dreams are weird, Renee, that I should ignore it… But you also keep talking about reincarnation and past lovers like it’s something I should remember… She put her hand to her head. Should I recognize this voice? It feels familiar...

There was that time at our high school… That stranger with the necklace… That was when the dreams started being nightly… Was that stranger the voice? I think in the beginning, I must have seen your face... I must have known it… but it’s been so long I only remember your voice… What did you look like before you disappeared into the dark? How did I know you? What were we? Would you really know me now if we met?

The train came to a stop and Minako stood. She put her backpack over her shoulders as she exited the train quickly, then rushed with the crowd to the escalators. I don’t… miss this… The bustle, the frantic pace everyone moves to get where they’re going. The way you feel like a speck in the big world, just getting pushed along by the wind and the sea of people… Rising and falling… Endless… So small...

She pushed open the doors and stared up at Madison Square Garden. I… miss this… The bright lights sparkling, the aura of the city. The way you feel like a speck in the big world, just surrounded… Twinkling and buzzing… Constant… So small…

“Minako!”

She whirled around to face a waving blonde woman with her bangs pulled back with bobby pins wearing a Backstreet Boys shirt.

Minako ran toward her and wrapped her in a tight hug. “Renee! I missed you!”

Renee pulled back and placed her hands on her shoulders, studying Minako’s face. “You look… the same, good.” She laughed. “I was worried you would cut your hair or start wearing cargo shorts.”

Minako looked down at her navy shorts as she fiddled with her hair. “No?”

Renee pulled her back into a hug. “How’s Maryland since I last asked?”

Minako smiled. “Fun! Quieter… But it’s fun. Classes are going well too. Same question, but Columbia?”

Renee smiled. “Good, the classes are fun and I get to see my family a lot.”

Minako pulled back. “And friends too?”

Renee nodded. “Yes, I see people besides family and outside of class.”

Minako wrapped her in a hug again. “Good. Happy birthday!”

Renee bounced on her toes. “I am so, so excited! Thank you for coming up to go with me!”

“I would never miss your birthday even if you're more excited about the Backstreet Boys than me.”

Renee shook her head. “So jealous.”

Minako laughed. “I’m not the jealous one!”

Renee motioned to the hotel across the street. “Did you want to change? You said you were wearing a dress... I already checked in.”

Minako nodded. “I did! Because of the train… And then we can go get dinner! Where should we go? What do you want?”

Renee laughed. “You would focus on the dinner aspect of it all.”

Minako smiled. “It’s your birthday, anything you want, but you have to eat!”

“Okay, but we only have an hour for dinner so you have to change quickly!”

“Always so demanding, Renee…”

“I am not!”

The two girls laughed as they crossed the street and entered the hotel.

A shadowed face peered at them from around a darkened corner of the building. “Found you, priestesses…”
Chapter Two: Kiresaseru by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
Chapters 11-20 of PBox were edited/updated this week.

Nick leaned against the partitioned wall as the other Backstreet Boys exited the meet and greet after him. He ran his hand through his hair and stared at the black curtain across from him. I’m exhausted…

Brian and Kevin gave him a brief nod, then continued walking toward their dressing rooms. AJ and Howie stopped in front of Nick.

Howie put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Just tired... “ He shook his head. “I need to focus on the show, that should help. I always feel more like me up on the stage.”

Howie nodded. “Okay… If you need anything, you know where to find me.”

Nick smiled. “Thank you, Howie.”

AJ crossed his arms. “You can sleep it off afterward.”

Nick let out a short laugh. “Sleep, right…”

The room divider behind them rustled and they both turned to it.

“Hey, this is a restricted area,” AJ called.

A hand pulled open the partition and a blond head with blue eyes poked through. “Did you miss me, Backstreet?”

Nick clenched his fist. “Justin… What are you doing here?”

AJ leaned on Nick’s shoulder with his elbow. “Don’t you have something of your own to work on?” He pulled down his sunglasses and leaned forward, “Or are you all done crying rivers?”

Justin scowled and put his hand on the partition’s frame. “There isn’t any point in crying.” He fumbled in the pocket of his jeans as he spoke. “Not when I have this.”

He produced a small, sparkling crystal vial with a bubbling and steaming green liquid inside.

“Juice?” Nick cocked his head.

Justin let out a subdued cackle.

Nick folded his arms. “So not juice… Are you feeling alright? What are you doing here? Crashing?”

He sneered. “Hardly. This is magic.”

“What?” AJ grabbed Nick’s shoulders and the two laughed.

“This world is a lie. The things you think you’ve experienced, the people you know, the places you’ve been. None of it is real.” He held up the vial. “And this will show you that.”

Nick continued to laugh. “I’m sure the rest of NSYNC thinks you’re crazy. Seriously, what are you doing here?”

Justin smirked. “Bringing things back to before her wishes.”

Nick shook his head. Wishes? Whose wishes?

He and AJ turned to each other.

“He seems a little unhinged,” AJ whispered and bobbed his head toward Justin.

“Security?” Nick whispered back.

AJ nodded.

Justin lowered his head and let out a short laugh. “Oh, I almost forgot. I brought a couple guests to enjoy this special show.” He pushed the partition against the wall with a snap. Next to his feet, Minako and Renee sat back-to-back with their hands bound to each other. While Renee still wore her Backstreet Boys shirt and jeans, Minako had changed into a small black dress with ruffled sleeves. “You may recognize them, they’re old friends.”

Minako and Renee looked up to Justin. “Let us go! Why are you doing this?!” Minako shouted as she pulled at the ties.

“It’s not for you, it’s for her. You just happen to be a liability.” Justin mumbled as he kicked Minako in the back forcefully.

Minako and Renee tumbled to the ground. Renee locked eyes with AJ and whispered, “Help us.” Minako's body went limp from the force, knocking Renee’s head against the concrete floor.

AJ stepped forward. “Justin, what are you doing?! Those are our fans!”

“Is that all they are?” Justin screwed the top off the vial.

“Of course they’re our fans! One is wearing our shirt!” Nick shouted as he rushed over to the two girls and pulled them toward where AJ was standing. He kneeled down and began untying the binds from their wrists. Is Justin okay? He seems strange even for him… And these girls… What is he doing? He heard the crinkle of glass shattering and turned toward Justin.

Justin grabbed his throat and crumpled into himself. The vial lay scattered in pieces at his feet.

Kevin pushed back a black curtain across from the partition. “AJ, Nick, are you okay? I heard a crash and Howie said he left you back here...” He stopped. “Justin?”

Justin looked up at Kevin. For a moment, his blue eyes flashed emerald. “Holy Box, as the usurper of memories I call to you!”

AJ snapped his sunglasses from his face and stared at Justin in disbelief. “What?”

Nick narrowed his eyebrows as he went back to untying the girls’ wrists. I have to help them! I can’t get distracted by whatever weird thing he’s doing when he’s hurting them...

“Imbued with the cursed powers of all demons, I return your will and seal!”

Kevin gaped at Justin, then turned and saw Nick struggling with the binds on their wrists and rushed to help him. He kneeled down and caught Nick’s eye quickly as he whispered, “This is insane. We need to leave and get security.”

Nick nodded.

The binds dropped from Minako and Renee’s wrists and the arms of the two girls slumped to the floor. Nick shook their shoulders and whispered, “Hey… Can you hear me?” Only silence answered him.

“For the sake of the Devil and God, ascend from us and rescind your powers to unleash evil into the world!”

Kevin picked up Renee and stood gingerly. “AJ, take her please.” AJ held out his arms as Kevin laid her across them, but he continued to stare at Justin bewilderedly.

A small, rectangular gold box appeared in Justin’s hands. He cradled the bottom with one hand and lowered the matching lid toward the box. His malicious sneer glinting in its silver glow. “Defile our prayers…”

Nick continued to shake Minako until Kevin bent down and slung her over his shoulder. He then stared up at Justin. This seems bad… Weird… But bad…

“...thus be summoned and sealed!” Justin snapped the lid of the box closed. An eerie green aura seeped from the closed lid.

Nick stood and shrank back, but continued to stare. Weird, bad, and creepy!

“Nick, AJ, stop staring! Go!” Kevin’s voice boomed through his thoughts.

AJ nodded and began hurrying toward the curtain.

“Stop!”

The three men froze and faced Justin in surprise.

His eyes glowed a deep emerald. “I need her.” He strode toward AJ and reached for Renee.

“AJ, no!” Nick shouted. He sprinted toward Justin, ramming him with his shoulder and knocking him off balance.

Justin began laughing as he put his hands on the floor to catch himself.

“What?” Nick stepped back in surprise.

Justin shut his eyes. “Kiresasemasu.”

Justin began growing with a bright green light as he was enveloped by a pale smoke.

Nick let out a gasp as he backed toward the curtain.

Kevin pushed AJ through the curtain and AJ disappeared down the corridor. Kevin then turned to Nick and started to push him toward the curtain.

“But…”

“We have to go!” Kevin hissed as he pushed him again.

A silver boot stepped out of the smoke, rising to the knee where it met a metallic emerald plated armor covering his waist and hips. The smoke cleared slowly, revealing the form of a tall man with a billowing emerald cape. As the smoke cleared, the rest of the emerald plated armor came into view. The man’s face remained covered by a silver helmet with an emerald plume at the crown, but his blue eyes could be seen through the slit. They glowed with an emerald tint.

“Justin?” Nick questioned.

He removed the helmet, revealing the blond hair beneath it and the horns nestled among the strands of fair hair. He smirked as he pulled a sword from the sheath at his waist. “Alexander, bring the priestess back! I need her.”

Kevin pushed Nick through the curtain, his voice gravely serious. “Run.”

Justin shook his head. “Why are you making this difficult and running with the priestesses, Kevin?”

Kevin pushed through the curtain, holding one arm tightly around Minako’s waist as he began running from the room.

Justin followed them through the curtain and sprinted after Kevin. He pursued Kevin ruthlessly and relentlessly, his sword pointed in front of him ready to strike.

Kevin scanned the path in front of him. They’re not here. Nick and AJ must have split in different directions, so they should be safe. He rounded a corner and leaned against the wall, lowering Minako so that he carried her in both arms. “What does he want with you?” he whispered.

Minako stirred and opened her eyes. “What?...”

“I’ll find security and get you somewhere safe. Don’t worry.”

Minako’s eyes grew wide. “Look out!” She thrust out her hand quickly.

The flash of a blade interrupted their conversation and Kevin leaped backward, then began running again. The empty corridor seemed endless even though it had been bustling with the movement of concert preparation only moments earlier. Where was everyone? Up ahead, another place to hide. He turned over his shoulder, just moments behind… Is hiding enough?

Justin leaped in the air, his sword towering above his head. “Kevin, do not run with her anymore! I had her!”

Kevin ducked behind the equipment pallet.

“Kevin…”

He looked down at the girl in his arms, her black dress had become white and was covered in gemstones. He winced a little. It hurts… in my heart...

She winced as she touched one of the gemstones at her collar, pulled, and held it tightly in her hand. She shut her eyes quickly and a webbed barrier sprung around them as Justin’s sword swung down on them from the top of the equipment pallet. When it made contact, it flung him backward.

“What?” Kevin’s eyes grew wide.

She winced again, but her weak smile radiated warmth as she grasped his hand at her knee and placed the small, glowing gemstone in it. The glow of the stone brightened and surrounded them, fading her smile into the sapphire light.

As it dissipated, her smile became warm again. “Kevin…”

He reappeared in a short white tunic and white pants with a sapphire ribbon at his waist and sapphire shoes. His pale wings rose behind him and his tail whipped back and forth. His light horns rose from between his dark hair. A warm sapphire glow surrounded his hands.
Minako reached out and touched the barrier, wincing as she did.

“Does it hurt?” His gruff voice filled the barrier. “I can heal it.”

Minako’s eyes began to well up with tears. “Kevin…” In an instant she embraced him. “I thought we would never see each other again.”

He returned her embrace with his arms and cradled her body with his wings. “You said we had somewhere wonderful to go. You had to know it was here and now.”

Minako laughed weakly. “I did, then… I forgot. That was the consequence for making sure you could all stay here.”

“I woke up and I was in a taxi headed to a radio station. Nothing like the castle… It was surreal…” His wings lifted. “And I began to forget, but then today Justin appeared and became his other self with magic or power… or a curse. And a human is no match for a demon.”

“But you saved me…”

Kevin shook his head. “No, you saved me…” He furrowed his eyebrows. “You broke me out with my heart.”

She put her hands to her heart. “I was keeping it safe in here without knowing I had it. The perfect security to keep you all safe.” She smiled.

“But you said you forgot, how did you break?”

Minako raised her wrist to his eyes so he could see it. “With the cut. When I put out my hand and told you to look out... He cut the threads I tied up.”

Kevin touched her heart and ran his hand over her wrist, the blue glow spilling from his hands. “You’re safe.”

She smiled as the cut across her wrist closed. “Kevin, the others… Are they safe?”

Kevin narrowed his eyes and looked to the top of the barrier. “It seems Justin remembers our tactics and has run off. We need to find them soon.”

Minako nodded determinedly. "He had some men corner us outside our hotel. He was after Renee, I was just in the same place. Where is she?"

"With AJ."

"Then we have to find AJ first!" I know we do, but… She lowered her head.

Kevin set her feet on the ground and frowned. "He does a little."

Minako looked up at him quizzically.

"You’re thinking about Nick? He remembers you a little. He's been having a dream for months where he screams in the dark… for you… But he doesn’t remember that it’s you he’s screaming for."

Minako put her hands to her heart. "Then that voice in my dreams… It was his… My wish..." Nick… She shook her head and clenched her fist. "We have to keep Renee safe. AJ first!" The barrier around them disintegrated.

Kevin nodded and pointed away from the equipment pallet. “This way!”

~*~

AJ sat in a gray chair in his dressing room and ran his hands across his face. Like all the other makeshift rooms in this arena, it was made from temporary partitions and black curtains. “Okay… that was weird…”

“AJ, stop staring! Go!” “AJ, no!”

He chuckled to himself, “At least they always have my back.” He peered at the girl on the ground. “What did you do that this is happening?” He clenched his fist. And why do I feel like I’m more involved than it seems?

He stared into the space in front of him. It’s quiet… Did Kevin and Nick find our security? And that other girl… He put his hand to his chest. It hurts to think about her… Why?

A light clanking sound brushed past his dressing room.

Footsteps…

He stood quickly and quietly, like a spectre, and gingerly picked up Renee’s limp body. He tiptoed into the crevice behind his clothing rack. Don’t breathe… Don’t make a sound…

A clawed hand pushed aside the curtain and the emerald plume poked into the room.

Don’t breathe… Don’t wake up…

The curtain closed and the hand and plume disappeared from sight.

AJ quietly let out the breath he had been holding, but remained cowering behind the clothing rack. What if he comes back? What if he’s waiting for me to move or make a noise? What if he’s just outside the curtain? What did he want with those girls?

“AJ?!” a quiet voice whispered.

AJ’s eyes grew wide before he peered back through the clothing.

Brian stepped into the room.

AJ let out a sigh of relief and pushed his hand through the clothing on the rack. “Brian!” he whispered back.

Brian quickly tiptoed over to the rack and nestled in beside AJ as he made room in the space.

Brian turned to him quickly and continued to whisper, “AJ, there was--” His eyes grew wide. “Why are you hiding back here with a girl in our shirt anyway?”

“Brian, there’s--”

“Right! I was in my dressing room and heard suspicious footsteps outside, so I hid behind the chair and when they were gone, I peaked out and there was a… soldier with a sword! Did you see it? What is going on?!”

“It’s not just a soldier… It’s got horns! It was… Justin… But now it’s… horned Justin?”

“Justin? NSYNC Justin? Why?”

“He showed up backstage with two girls and drank this weird liquid and then the horns and armor appeared on him. Kevin made me take one of the girls and he took the other one. Nick knocked him down, but I don’t know where they are now.”

“This is insane. We need to find our security.”

They heard the clanking sound brush past the dressing room again.

Brian rose his finger to his lips.

AJ nodded. Don’t breathe… Don’t wake up…

~*~

“Hey, who are you?!” a male voice called.

Kevin turned around. “Howie!”

Howie stepped back in alarm and confusion. “What are you?!” He turned to Minako. “Who are you?!”

Minako turned to Kevin. “Do we do this the fast way?”

Kevin nodded. “Yes, fast.”

Howie put up his hands and started backing away. “Wait, wait… I don’t want to be involved in… You look like Kevin...”

Minako touched a gem at her collar and pulled it off her dress. It glowed as she held it toward him. “Howie… here…”

Howie stepped back and put his hand to his heart as he let out a small choke. It hurts… Hearing her say my name… Why?

She gently put her hand to his shoulder. “I know it’s hurting and I know it’s hard to explain…” She pulled his hand toward her. “But please just take this, it will get easier.” She dropped the stone into his palm.

It began glowing brightly and swallowed them in a bright sapphire light.

Howie reappeared in his sapphire calf-length tunic, cream pants and sash, and sapphire shoes. He smoothed his tunic, then gripped Minako’s hand. “Pandora…”

“You know we’re past that, Howie…” She smiled. “We always have been to me.”

He pulled her into a hug. “Minako, we are glad that you are safe here.”

She returned his hug. “You too. I’m happy we can see each other again.” She pulled away. “Oh! But we have to hurry and stop Justin! He kidnapped Renee and I, and Kevin said she was with AJ, so we…”

Howie nodded. “Understood. Quickly.”

The three of them continued running down the hallway.

~*~

Nick peered out into the backstage area of the arena from beneath a raised equipment pallet.

He’s gone… What is going on? He had horns after he drank that liquid… And that sword and clothing was weird… Why was he here anyway and with those two girls? I didn’t know he was like that… First, I had the dream twice and then this…

He shuddered.

I wonder if Kevin found our security… Where are they? What if Justin did something to them? What if he stabbed them? Will we be able to get out of this alive? This isn’t how I expected today to go...

He heard a padding against the ground. Footsteps?

He turned toward the noise and saw Minako rushing by.

The girl in the black dress… She’s okay… He breathed a quick sigh of relief. Although her dress is white now? That’s weird...

She stopped and turned back toward the way she had come from. “Where do you think he could be?”

Two other pairs of feet clad in sapphire shoes stopped in front of her. The clothes are strange, but that looks like Howie… Nick focused on the other figure. That looks like Kevin, but… Why does he have wings?! A tail?! Horns?! He looks like whatever Justin turned into! What is going on?!

“What if he went to the dressing rooms?” Howie asked.

“What about Brian? Should we find him?” Kevin crossed his arms.

Minako lowered her head. “I hope they’re both still okay… And Renee… And Nick…”

Nick gripped his chest at his heart and let out a quiet grunt. It hurts…

Howie turned to both sides. “Did you hear something? Perhaps he is close.”

Kevin frowned. “We should hurry.”

Minako nodded. “Right. Howie, where are the dressing rooms?”

Howie and Kevin turned and started running, Minako close on their heels.

Nick lay his head on the ground. Why did it hurt so much when she said my name? It wasn’t like getting injured or having heartburn… It’s like an overwhelming sadness. Why?

The clanking footsteps passed by him again.

He’s heading the way they went. Do I warn them? Or...

~*~

The clanking footsteps brushed past the dressing room again.

“He’s relentless,” Brian whispered.

“Do you think Kevin talked to our security yet?”

“Should we try to?”

AJ shook his head. “I don’t know…”

The clanking footsteps neared the room again.

AJ and Brian froze.

A clawed hand brushed open the black curtain again, but this time, he entered the room. He began pushing items around and stepped in front of the clothing rack. He pushed the clothing aside and smirked. “Found you. Alexander, return her.”

AJ and Brian shrank back against the partition. Justin reached for Renee, grabbed her leg, and began pulling. AJ tried to pull back, but lost his grip and Justin managed to pull Renee through the rack. He set her on the ground and then pulled his sword from its sheath and aimed it toward them. “Now… What to do with you two?”

He stepped toward the rack, but a bright light shot toward him. He gripped his chest and collapsed to his knees. He let out a low growl and turned toward the curtain. “Sapphire Priestess… You’re still holding on to their powers…”

Minako clenched her fist, “Justin, leave them alone!”

Justin stood and grabbed Renee. “I have what I came for. Killing you would just be added joy.”

Minako ran toward him. “Give her back!”

Justin stepped back and growled. “While you have all of your demons’ powers at once, you are a liability…” He smirked and pulled his sword from its sheath then stabbed it into the ground. “Kiresasemasu.” A green smoke began surrounding him again, then burst into a column of green light. When it dissipated, Justin and Renee were gone.

Minako froze at the cut in the ground and clenched her shaking hands into fists. “Renee!”

AJ and Brian stepped through the clothing rack.

“What is going on?!” Brian asked.

“You’re okay... but you changed?” AJ started.

Minako turned to them, a few tears falling down her cheeks. “Brian… AJ… I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Brian and AJ both gripped their chests and winced.

Minako put her hands to her collar. “I know, I’m sorry… I’m sorry it’s hurting you.” She pulled the glistening gems from her collar. “Brian… thank you for letting me borrow your power, but take it back.” She held the gem toward him. “And AJ… I want you here from the beginning so we can all be together. Have this.”

AJ and Brian both stepped back.

“It will be quicker to explain this way, I promise.”

AJ shook his head. “This sounds crazy, but…” He clenched his fist. “I’ll do it. You say my name and it hurts, but I feel… incomplete when I hear you say it… And I think you can change that.”

“AJ…” Brian turned to him.

AJ let out a breath. “Brian, you grab it too. Trust me.”

Brian shook his head, but then nodded. “Okay, I always trust you.”

“One…”

Brian nodded. “Two…”

“Three.” They both grabbed the gems at the same time. They glowed brighter and swallowed them in a sapphire light.

AJ reappeared in his bright red tunic with black pants and shoes. Brian wore his white tunic with the blue sash over blue pants and his tall white boots. Both of their wings flared from their backs.

Brian gripped his staff. “Minako…”

She put her hands to her heart, her dress shimmered and returned to its original black color.

Brian dropped his staff and wrapped her into a tight hug. “Minako, you… survived.”

AJ wrapped them both in a hug. “And found us.”

“I thought I’d never see you both again. I’m so glad!” She held them both close, tears streaming down her face. “I’m so sorry it took so long.”

AJ tightened his grip. “No… It’s okay… You found us here…”

Brian gave her one more tight squeeze and pulled back from their embrace. “Is everyone else… okay?”

Minako lowered her head. “Kevin kept me safe from Justin and we found Howie. And you two are safe, but… Renee’s gone, and...” She looked back up at them. “Where is Nick?”

AJ gripped her shoulder. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

Brian picked up his staff. “Minako, he’s trying so hard to remember you. We’ll find him. Let’s go!”

End Notes:
Readers already familiar with Pandora’s Box probably saw this chapter title that seemed suspiciously similar to PBox’s “Chapter Forty-Nine: Nozomeru” and thought “Something bad’s about to happen,” “Awesome,” or both. Kiresaseru (pronounced: kee-ray-sah-say-roo, you may remember from PBox that the r is more of a soft r sound -- an alveolar flap -- similar in execution to how American English speakers would form the double t in “better” or a Spanish r without the trill) is the plain causative form of the class two verb kire (pronounced: kee-ray, see explanation of r sounds above), “to cut.” In the story, Justin uses “Kiresasemasu,” the polite form (pronounced: kee-ray-sah-say-mah-soo; see explanation of r sounds above; you may remember from PBox that u after s is often muted, and especially at the end of verbs, so you wouldn’t necessarily pronounce the “oo,” but you can). Because, while Justin’s a villain in this tale, he knows he needs to politely ask someone or something to allow him to cut up sacred binds.
Chapter Three: Unbroken by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
If you are enjoying this story, I'm chatting about it and PBox over on the forums on Wednesdays when I update. Ask me anything! Chapters 21-30 of PBox were edited/updated this week.

Minako, Brian, and AJ stepped out of the dressing room. Kevin and Howie ran up to meet them.

Howie patted their shoulders. “Brian and AJ, we are glad you are not injured.”

Kevin turned to Minako. “What happened? Where is Justin?”

Minako lowered her head and gripped her waist tightly. “He made a cut in the ground and took Renee away and…” A few tears dropped down her cheeks. “Where is Nick? Is he safe?”

Kevin put his hand on her shoulder. “We will find him.”

“He wasn’t in his dressing room?”

Kevin removed his hand and shook his head.

Howie patted her shoulder. “Let us retrace our steps.”

They began walking back toward the hall with the equipment pallets.

~*~

It’s quiet… I haven’t heard those footsteps in a while… Should I get out? Has anyone else found our security yet? Is everyone okay?

What if they’re not… Should I stay?

He heard footsteps padding by again.

That’s not Justin’s boots… That’s… He peered out from under the pallet. She’s in the black dress again…

“Nick…”

He gripped his chest and grunted again. It hurts…

She put her hands to her face. “I’m worried about Renee and you… I hope you’re okay...”

Worried about me? Why would she be worried about me?

Eight more feet joined her. Nick stared up at them. Three of them have wings, horns, and tails?! Why are my friends monsters?!

“Where else could he be?” Brian asked.

Are they looking for Justin?

Minako clenched her fist to her heart. “Poor Nick…”

Nick gripped his chest again and made the same sound. Why? They’re looking for me...

AJ scanned the hall. “Did you hear that?”

Kevin shook his head. “It’s completely empty back here other than the equipment.”

AJ shook his head. “No, I heard something.” He scanned the hall again, then kneeled down. “I definitely heard something…” He pressed his hands, knees, and face against the ground and peered under the equipment pallet. “Nick! You’re okay!”

Nick flinched and shrank back.

AJ reached his hand toward him and scraped it across the floor. “Come out, it’s okay! It’s just us!”
Nick flinched again and crawled backward, away from AJ’s reach.

Howie kneeled next to AJ and peered under the pallet. “Nick, we know this is odd, but we promise that it is safe.”

Nick grimaced, but nodded and crawled backward. “Okay, Howie…” You look the most like yourself… I’ll trust you... He slowly rose from under the pallet and stood between it and the wall.

Minako quickly stepped around it and reached toward him. “Nick…”

He gripped his chest, grunted, and backed away from her. It hurts... “Stop." He backed against the wall and rested his hands on it. “I don't know why my friends became these gargoyles, but I don't want to be one.”

She shut her eyes as tears fell down her cheeks. “I'm sorry…”

He glanced at the ground. Crying for me… It hurts… “Just change them back and leave me alone.”

Minako put her hands to her face. “You must think I’ve betrayed you… selfishly left you in one place and now trying to rip you from another one.” She wiped her tears with the palms of her hands. “You’ve been calling me in my dreams for so long, I just assumed you were incomplete without me. Maybe it's just me…”

Nick’s face turned pale as he sank to the ground. His hand shook as he put it to his forehead, then his fingers brushed the small beads of sweat. He pulled his hand away and cupped his hands together, staring at them both before pawing at the space in front of him. “It’s always so dark.”

Minako slowly ran her hands down her face and stared down at him in concern.

His hands twitched a little as he folded the tips of his fingers like claws, before pawing at the air in front of him again. “I claw at the darkness and call out ‘Minako,’ but no one ever answers... No matter how loud I’m screaming...”

Minako sank to her knees and held her hands to her heart as she stared at them. “It’s so far away… but I always asked the voice…” She put her fist at her mouth and glanced back at Nick. “No... it’s your voice… I always asked it ‘Who are you’ or ‘where are you,’ but no one ever appeared. No matter how loud I called...”

Nick fiddled with the small, gold ring on his hand. “I’ve been feeling awake and asleep all at once… and very broken.”

Minako gripped the gold ring on her right hand as well. “I always promised if that voice reached out a hand that I would grab it.”

Nick glanced up at her. “If someone answered… I swore I would never let them go…”

Minako stood. “I won't pretend to know the challenges we’ll face, but I’m here.” She took another step toward him and reached out her hand, “And I’m not afraid, so you shouldn't be either.”

Nick reached up to grab her hand as he shook his head. “This is crazy… But I… I thought maybe I needed to meet you…”

Minako pulled him up from the ground. “Nick…”

He gripped his chest with the other hand and winced. “I was here once earlier this year, that day we were at that radio station… I was late… I woke up with that necklace… And then I stopped at some high school because I felt so drawn to it… I had no idea why… I thought that was crazy too...” He pulled the necklace with the sapphire gem from his sweatshirt pocket. “But I ran into a girl who touched this and jolted my memory... That’s when the dream started.” He thrust it toward Minako. “That was you, wasn't it? That time, we were together and could have answered each other. We could have stayed together…” He shut his eyes. “Take it back!”

Minako gently pushed it back toward Nick. “I needed it once, but I only kept it safe for you to have. It was always yours.”

“Why would I wear this?”

Minako smiled. “You wouldn't. You kept it buried very deep inside.” She picked up the chain and put it over Nick's head. “But you wanted me to wear it where everyone could see it, so they knew that you gave all of it to me.”

“Why? It’s just a necklace...” He gripped it and his hands shook. “Minako… I…”

Minako stared up at him, then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer to her.

“Minako?”

She brushed her hand through his hair, stood on her tiptoes, and grabbed his cheeks, then pressed a kiss to his lips.

The sapphire gem began to glow. The brighter it glowed, the more the sapphire light encased Nick and Minako until they completely disappeared in its gleam. It continued to spread across the arena, and for a brief moment, the entire world was sapphire. But as the world lost its sapphire glow, the details of their surroundings came into view. The walls of the venue became crumbled stone and splintered wood. The high ceilings transformed into the open air. And the tiled floor was replaced with moss, grass, and dirt. The ghost of a once mighty building loomed above them.

Minako stepped back from Nick and removed her hands from his face.

Nestled in his fair hair were his two horns. His small fangs gleamed with his smile. His pale, fleshy wings rested at his back against his sapphire tunic as his whip-like tail emerged from his white pants, wagging in calm delight. Nick pulled her into his embrace, cradling her with his arms and wings. “Minako…” He whispered as he used his clawed hand to pull her head back toward his own. He rested his forehead against hers for a moment before drawing her lips into another kiss.

Minako wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled deeper into the kiss.

“If you two are finished…” A gruff voice cleared its throat.

Minako and Nick turned to see Kevin, Brian, Howie, and AJ standing with them among the ruins.

Nick cocked his head. “Where are we?”

Brian tapped his staff against a few of the crumbled, moss-covered stones. “This place is in shambles, but it feels clean and pure.”

“It makes me feel uneasy…” AJ shifted from foot to foot.

Nick bent down and rubbed his hand in the dirt. Patches of small flowers grew around them. “From nothing comes everything…” He stood abruptly. “The castle beyond the clouds!”

"We're at the castle again?" Brian crossed his arms. "But the miasma…"

"Minako purified it."

Howie rested his hand on Nick's shoulder. "We three were gone. You will have to inform us."

"Minako…" Nick bit back a sob and looked away from her.

Minako lowered her head and frowned. "In the end, what I really wanted… it didn't seem impossible, but… it didn't seem like the right choice…" She laced her fingers into Nick's hand and gripped it tightly. "If everyone was trusting me, I had to make the right wishes for all of them, for all of you like I promised..."

Brian touched Minako’s shoulder gently. “Didn’t you plan on staying?”

Minako put her free hand to her chest and clenched her fist. “When the three of you died… Renee earned the box because all of the emerald demons were returned to God…” She shook her head, “No, he tricked her… And I…”

In the shadowed room, Renee hesitated as her hands shook, then walked toward the cloaked figure and the altar where the box sat nestled between the anguished faces of the Rubiihoppou and Topazuseihou priestesses. When she reached it, she placed her trembling hands on the altar. “My heart is shaking...”

“It is the box’s acceptance.”

Renee reached her hands toward the box, but crumpled as a hot blast hit her back. She landed on the ground and blood splattered across her face.

The cloaked figure hissed. “I thought you were out of commission, Sapphire Pandora.”

Renee’s hands shook as she raised them to her chest. “Minako… You’re the blood and fire?”

Minako grabbed her forearm, slowing the bleeding from the gash across it. She turned back over her shoulder. “Renee…”

A blank expression crossed Renee’s face. “Why?”

“Why? We’re best friends, aren’t we?”

Renee lowered her head. "After everything… Stupid…”

Minako turned back to God and growled. “Why are you still tricking us? This battle is over. The emerald demons are dead! We win this battle royal!”

“Is that what you really believe?” God cackled quietly. “Do you not wonder why the other two Priestesses are chained in this room still?”

Minako lowered her head as she tightened her grip on her forearm, as her hand glowed, the blood seemed to disappear. “They battled each other and lost…”

“What a sad fairy tale that makes!” The cackle grew louder. “Of course you realize that the only victor is me!” He shot another blast from his hand, knocking Renee against the altar.


“Renee was turned to stone, just like the other anguished Priestesses… And you were all gone… I was so angry and scared, but…” She put her free hand to her face and covered her sob. “Then I was alone in the dark, just like in the beginning... Nick and Kevin kept calling for me, but I couldn't reach them, I could barely hear them… I tried so hard… But I was stuck until you all encouraged me and I realized that if I kept you in my heart, I could do anything.” She wiped her hand across her eyes and stared up at Brian as she squeezed Nick’s hand. “I got the box and met the real emperor of the Heavens. Then I…”

“Nozomemasu.” Minako began to glow with the bright silver light.

Nick gasped and clutched her tighter. “Minako!”

Minako thrust the box forward. “Break the seal on the Emperor of Heaven and seal this illusionary God!” She clenched her eyes tightly. Brian, Howie, AJ… Give us strength….

The cloaked figure smirked. “Can your small soul really defeat me?”

Minako’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the box. “You’re right, in the beginning I was small… But I came here and someone else needed me! I learned what it means to be really important to someone… no, to all my close friends!” She opened her eyes, her stare boring through the cloaked figure. “They’re depending on me! So I won’t give up! Even if it shreds my soul!”

Nick growled. “Minako, you can’t! You can’t let your soul get shredded!!”

Minako lowered her head again. “Believe in me, Nick! I’m going to do my best! Even if it hurts!”

“Of course I do, but I won’t let that happen!”

She held the box farther from her body. “BE SEALED!!


“And the false God vanished… So everything could actually be safe... I wanted to stay... I really wanted to stay, but I knew… Nick and Kevin said they didn’t want to be demons anymore and I knew we all had to go back… So I...”

Minako raised her head, but a few tears streamed down her cheeks. “I know…” Of course I want the same thing as you, but I know where you all really belong and that would fulfill that wish… But I’ll also keep my promise to Howie… “Nozomemasu.” Minako glowed with silver light once more.

“Minako!” Kevin reached for her.

“Minako! We can do this outside! The castle is falling apart!”

Minako tightened her grip on the box. “Bring peace to Safaiananpou and all lands, thus releasing the cardinal demons from their duties and sending their souls on their true paths!” She clenched her eyes shut again. Please… Not Nick… Not yet…

Kevin looked at his hands -- they were becoming transparent as they glowed a bright sapphire. He gasped. “Minako! I don’t understand…”

Minako opened her eyes, letting the tears spill from them. “Safaiananpou is safe and your life is yours… So you can go back to where you should be.…”

“Back? I don’t understand…”

Minako smiled, despite the tears falling on her cheeks. “Be happy…”


“And it was hard, but… We all needed to be released… Even...”

“Nozomemasu.” Her voice was only a whisper as she glowed silver light a third time. Renee… For you...

“No! Minako!” His hands tensed as he reached for the box. “NO!!!”

“Release all the priestesses back to their true lives by erasing their memories, ensuring only peace for these lands.”

He thrust his arms back around her and pulled her into his chest. “WHY?! YOU PROMISED WE WOULD BE TOGETHER!! YOU PROMISED!!” He tightened his grip around her, tensing his arms and balling his hands into fists. “I WON’T LET YOU GO!! I’M GOING WITH YOU TO YOUR WORLD!!”

Minako hiccupped and sobbed as she dropped the box back in her lap. “Nick… but--”

“NO! I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE!!” His voice softened as he cupped her head and stared into her eyes. “Except… you…”


“It was hard, but… I made the wishes that needed to be wished… for everyone and not just me… Like I said I would...”

Brian exhaled deeply, his face was a mix of a smile and relief. "You made the right choice. Your wishes were for everyone." He cupped her shoulder tightly with his hand. "You became so strong and made the selfless choices."

Nick loosened his grip on her hand and backed away.

Minako turned from Brian and frowned, her eyes brimming with tears again.

AJ turned to him. “Nick…”

His face paled again. “Everyone… disappeared and I was still here…” He clenched his fist to his heart. “I…” I can’t tell them...

He dropped to his elbows. “Minako…” I’m glad… I’m glad you rescued everyone like you said… But… But… He slammed his fist into the ground. It’s so damn lonely!!! It’s so damn lonely… I want… to see you... But if I can’t… I want to be where everyone else is! Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Please let me go there… PLEASE!!”

It hurts and stings! He wrapped his arms around his shoulders tightly, then his hands began glowing a bright sapphire light as they became transparent. Nick lowered his head. I want to see you… Let me go there… even if it means that I have to disappear… His teardrops continued to fall on the ground. It’s better this way… For someone who’s lost everything to lose themselves too…

He wrapped his wings around his body as he continued to disappear, then raised his face to the sky. “If I can’t see you… At least… let me go to them too… Minako…” The tears fell from his eyes as he vanished.


He lowered his head, hunching his shoulders. “I’m glad we were all together in the other world… And somehow, you found us, Minako… I’m glad…”

“What do we do now?” AJ asked. “We’re back here, but why?”

Howie crossed his arms. “It seems finding Justin again may be our most important task.”

Kevin crossed his arms as well. “So we’ll need to go to Emeradotouhou…”

Minako lowered her head. “Renee…”

Nick snapped back his posture and grabbed Minako’s shoulder as he clenched his fist. “She’s not safe? We should go quickly!”

Brian gripped his staff and shook his head. “Our last journey, we went quickly and everyone was hurt many times… Maybe this time we should head back to Safaiananpou and regroup.”

AJ crossed his arms. “I’m exhausted… Can we stop for the night before we go? Brian, do you think you can transport us back to town instead of walking?”

Brian laughed. “I think if we can get back to that cave, then I can probably get us down.”

AJ clenched his fist excitedly. “Let’s go!”

Kevin turned to Howie, Nick, and Minako. “Do you agree?”

Howie nodded. “We can retrieve our charts and plan for battle.”

“Minako…” Nick turned toward her.

Minako lowered her head. “Anything you all want, I’ll do.”

Kevin nodded.

AJ began walking away from the castle, followed by Brian, Kevin, and Howie.

Nick began walking, but froze when Minako didn’t move. He turned back and gripped her hand. “Minako, let’s go with the others.”

She looked down at her feet and the ground.

Nick shook his head and smiled. “You’re always so quiet here in Rubiihoppou, but we’ll get through it together again. Come on.” He turned and tried to walk.

She held Nick's hand back, her fingers tight around the tips of his.

He turned back to her. "Minako?"

"I want to talk to you… But not here when they’re waiting for us… later… when we get where we're stopping."

He nodded. “Me too… When we get there...” He gripped her hand tighter and began walking again, she followed behind him.

~*~

Nestled beneath the mountain, the city of Akahouseki was calmer than their last visit. The sun shone brightly and the cold was only a whisper. Had the cold surrounding it been an illusion created by the sadness surrounding the box or were the summers actually warm? The air also seemed fresher outside the biting cold and the miasma. At the shrine, the ruby lion in the hands of the statue seemed to glimmer brighter than before. Nick leaned against the side of the statue of the priestess while Minako paced in front of him and the statue’s outstretched hands.

He smiled and turned to the statue. “Do you think there’s one of these in Safaiananpou now?” He ran his hand on the statue’s sleeve. “You would probably look even more beautiful. I wonder if they would put ribbons in your hair...”

Minako continued to pace.

He turned back to her. "Minako… Say something..."

She looked at him briefly, but continued to pace. "You must hate me…"

"Why?" He frowned. “I will never hate you.”

She buried her head in her hands. "I didn't keep our promise… The only one I didn’t keep… I really did want to stay, but I didn’t wish for that... And then I made two very selfish requests when I had the box, even though I didn’t wish for what I promised... I'm not strong at all like Brian said."

"You want me to tell you that you made the best choice…"

Minako stopped pacing and faced him directly.

Nick lowered his head. "Of course I wanted you to stay. When you said you would become a demon to stay with me, my heart had never been so full. I would have left that castle right then if you had asked. Box or no box."

"Nick…"

He ran his hand through his hair. "But you didn't have all the information you needed to make a decision and it wasn't just me who was depending on you... Everyone was depending on you to make wishes that would help them. And not just us, but all the priestesses, all the demons, Safaiananpou, all the countries… Of course that illusionary God needed to disappear..."

She started walking toward him.

"But it hurt so much!" He choked back a few tears.

She stopped.

"It hurt so much that you left me all alone in the end! Why couldn’t I disappear with everyone else? Why couldn’t we disappear together?" He ran his hand through his hair. "And it was almost worse than the stagnant darkness... because I never thought purified light would feel that way..."

Minako lowered her head.

He wiped his cheek with his thumb. "I didn't care if you made selfless or selfish choices, but why were you selfish to me?" He frowned, but still held his arms open, ready to embrace her.

Minako ran toward him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders and neck. "I'm sorry! I didn't want to leave you alone! I didn't want me to be alone either! What would I do without you?!"

He held her waist tightly and leaned his head on hers. "You should have stayed…" He gripped her hand closest to his face and stared directly into her eyes. “Our promise…”

"The whole time, I begged for a miracle to find you again. In this world, in that world, in any world." She gripped his hand. "Refusing to let you go and then forgetting you afterward was probably most selfish. Even our dream was telling me that..."

“Yes.” Nick leaned his forehead against hers. "Why couldn’t you find me sooner?"

Tears streamed down Minako's cheeks. "I came as soon as I could. What can I do?"

"Every night in my dreams, I was panicking. And every day was just normal. I hated it…" He closed his eyes and pulled her closer. "I don't have an answer… I just… I really did want to stay with you…"

Minako leaned her head on his shoulder.

He brushed his thumb against her cheek, catching her tears. "I hope you know that I’m glad we’re together again and I’m glad you found me, no matter how long it took. It still hurts, but of course I still love you... And I don't want you to only feel guilty. I guess, our promise… Stay with me… That’s what I want, the only thing I want. We can figure out what to do next together…"

Minako tightened her grip on his shoulders. "I still love you too. Is there something I can do right now?"

Nick pulled her closer. "I just... want to be like this for a little longer…"

Minako buried her head in his chest as he wrapped his wings around her body. They both stood motionless and intertwined.
Chapter Four: Back to Safaiananpou by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
Chapters 31-35 of PBox were edited/updated this week.
Time seemed to loop. As their journey continued, they found themselves back in Aohouseki where they began, determining their path in Howie’s study. The walls were lined with shelves of scrolls and books and decorated with large maps of the country and the other territories. A large table sat in the middle of a raised platform with a large map strewn across it. Howie sat in a chair on one edge of the table. This time, it also had five empty chairs surrounding the other sides.

Nick stood by the door with his arms crossed, eyeing the walls and the others as Howie placed pins in the map. Kevin, Brian, and AJ stood by the table apprehensively watching Howie work. Minako stood between them and Nick, though her stare remained focused on only Nick.

Howie motioned to the chairs. “Please sit. It causes us distress when you hover nervously around the table instead of participating.”

The other three demons immediately took their seats. Minako walked toward the table and put her hand on one of the empty seats between Brian and Howie and turned back toward the door. Nick continued to scan the room.

“Nick?” Minako fiddled with a strand of her hair.

He jolted and smiled at her. “I was just thinking… About the last time we were here.”

Howie ran his hand on his chin as he held a pin over the map. “That seems so long ago.” He chuckled to himself, “Two demon sorcerers wandered into our capital and attacked our citizens.”

AJ quickly raised his eyebrows and stared at Howie with wide eyes. “You had to deal with that and then leave to get the box? That seems like a lot!”

Nick clenched his fists and stepped toward the table. “We didn’t--”

Howie laughed again. “If we believed our guards, that is.” He smiled at Minako. “We did not.”

Nick tightened his fists, then released them as he grumbled quietly under his breath.

Minako clasped her hands together and stared at Nick again. Back then, Nick was always so angry. He would lash out at anyone or anything for doing something he didn’t like or didn’t understand. But now he’s trying to hold it in and move on. He was always gentle and kind back then, but it’s like he’s letting everyone else see his softer heart too. Is all the anger in him gone because he’s focusing on things besides the box? Is he holding his anger in because of the horror we experienced in the castle? Is it harder to make him angry because his gentle and kind heart is full?She lowered her head. Back then, he would have yelled at me so much during our conversation in Rubiihoppou. I feel even more guilty because he cried and tried talking about it… Is he still mad, sad, or hurt and not telling me? I want to take all those feelings from him and give him back only joy. It feels like an eternity since we had that...

Howie returned his gaze to the map and motioned to the empty chairs. “Nick, Minako, please sit. We need your accounts.”

Nick silently strode to the table and took the seat next to Brian. Minako sat between Nick and Howie, crossing her legs as she placed her hands in her lap. She glanced from the map to Nick. He placed one of his hands on top of hers and gave them a gentle squeeze, then let his hand rest.

Minako’s heart fluttered as she smiled down at his hand. She leaned closer to him until their legs touched, then removed one of her hands from the pile and placed it on top of his, reciprocating the squeeze he had given her. He caressed her hand with his thumb and she smiled again. Even though he’s hurt, he’s still showing me that he loves me and really is happy that we’re back together

Howie passed the pin in his hand to Brian. “Brian, where did you first meet Minako and Nick?”

Minako glanced back at the map and studied it with a fixed gaze. The blue tinted map sat above three others and displayed the land of Safaiananpou topographically. Three pins had been placed into it so far: one in the far corner above a silver quarter circle. Along the edge beneath the partial circle ran a series of jagged spikes that almost certainly should have been the mountainous region Brian claimed to be from. Directly beneath the blue map, a red map poked from under the corner with the quarter circle and had a pin stuck into it. The upper edge closest to Howie was a deep blue with a dabbed look. The mass of land displayed in front of them dipped, curved, and snaked along the remaining two edges. At the furthest edges closest to Minako and Nick, the landmass met a dark, ocean blue hue. The third pin sat in the center of the map above a large rectangle nestled inside an even larger rectangle with thick lines. At one inside edge of this rectangle, another circle had been drawn.

Minako picked up her hand and ran one finger along the swirling edge of the land next to her. “I didn’t know Safaiananpou was on a coast… I bet the ocean is very pretty.” She returned her hand to its place above Nick’s hand.

Nick stared in amazement at the map. An ocean? That does sound beautiful.

Howie chuckled again. “Of course, where did you believe our temperate weather came from?” He removed his hand from the pin.

Brian pinched the pin lightly. “I should clarify. When they met me or when I first encountered them?”

Minako and Nick turned to Brian quickly. Nick frowned. wrinkling his nose as Minako cocked her head.

Brian chuckled. “I’m so sorry to surprise you. I never told you this.”

Minako tapped her finger against her lips. “I know you and I met in Emeradotouhou and I always just assumed that you met Nick at that inn we stayed the night at.”

Brian nodded. “That’s right.” He hovered the pin over the center of the map and pulled it north from that spot, hovering it over a smooth point of the terrain about three inches from the edge closest to Howie and about nine inches from the center of the map. “That inn would be about here, I would think…” He continued to pinch the pin in his fingers.

Nick cracked his free hand against the table. “You followed us?! From where?!”

Brian moved the pin back toward the center of the map and stopped about four inches from the place he had held it previously before sticking the pin into a dense and darkened area. “Here looks about right…”

Nick set his thumb where Brian had originally hovered the pin. “You followed us for a half a day?!”

Brian put his hand behind his head and smiled sheepishly. “I was surprised to see an obvious demon out in the open, but even more surprised that it was calmly interacting with a human girl in strange clothing. I always knew I was a cardinal demon, so I thought, maybe they needed me around...”

Nick slammed his fist on the table. “Why didn’t you say anything there?!”

Brian smiled. “I wanted to observe first and act later. If you recall, I didn’t reveal I was a demon until we were already in Emeradotouhou. And it’s a good thing I didn’t because our first conversation did not go very smoothly!” He laughed, then winked at Nick.

Nick growled and balled his hand into a fist. “You sneaky…”

“AJ, Kevin, Brian, Howie…”

Nick and Brian squared their shoulders and turned to Minako. She pushed her hand into the table with her fingers spread as she leaned toward Howie and over the map, lovingly tapping the top of each pin with the other.

Kevin crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Was it sneaky of Brian? I also remember how you reacted when you met me and when we met AJ. I’m guessing it wasn’t much better for Howie.”

Howie chuckled again. “It was not.”

Nick crossed his arms and sunk into his chair.

Minako placed her hand on his arm as she sat back down and leaned against him again. He exhaled as he straightened his posture.

“Minako, where did you first appear in this world?” Howie passed a pin to her.

She held the pin over the map and leaned against the table again. “I don’t know… It was really dark and damp... The next place I remember was dry grass and dirt littered with bones. It was like a garden of death. And then Nick and I ended up here at the capital.” She tapped the thick rectangular lines surrounding Howie’s pin, then turned back to Nick and frowned. “Where were we?”

Nick shrugged and shook his head. “As if I know, I didn’t even know where we were going to end up. I didn’t have a plan at all. I just walked and we found Aohouseki.” He put his finger next to Minako’s and began sliding it in a straight line toward the edge of the map with the jagged mountain range. “If we went back, it would look like this probably.”

Howie passed a pin to Nick. “Do you remember anything about where you came from at all?”

Nick grabbed it and paused, biting his lip. “Not really, but I know it was up high because when you stood on the edge and looked down, it was surrounded by flat land and trees. And I watched the sunrise light up everything it touched when it came up to me…” He tapped the map and continued sliding his finger until it reached the jagged mountain range. He shrugged his shoulders and stabbed the pin into the map. “So this might be right?”

Minako poked her pin into the same hole as Nick’s. “Wherever Nick was, that’s the first place I was.”

“To the most desperate demon… a priestess appears…” Nick mumbled.

AJ stood and leaned over the map as he ran his hand from the two pins over to the pin representing Howie. “You walked really far.” He ran his hand from Howie’s pin to Brian’s. “And you walked all this too?”

“We had a horse that time.” Nick looked down at the map. “Actually, if you’re really trying to document our journey, it was more like this...” Nick tapped Howie’s pin with two fingers, then slid them diagonally toward his and Minako’s chairs through a darkened and dense dabbed portion of the map before stopping abruptly and curling one of his fingers back into his hand. He then slid the single finger back along the diagonal to meet Howie’s pin again before uncurling the second finger and sliding them both up to Brian’s pin.

“Did you walk that time too?! You must have been exhausted that whole time!”

“Also had a horse.”

“Minako… You left us?” Kevin frowned with a furrowed brow.

Everyone else glanced at Kevin, except Howie, who scrawled some notes on a paper with ink.

“Nick said they went south and then back.” AJ sat back down and crossed his arms as he turned to Kevin.

“Nick indicated that they went south and then removed one of his fingers.” Kevin’s stare bore through Minako. “Why did you leave?”

Minako clenched the folds on the skirt of her dress. “I…”

Brian patted Kevin’s shoulder. “We were all able to meet. Nick added his finger back and obviously she came back. That’s what matters.”

Minako lowered her head, but smiled. “It’s okay, Brian. I’ve been having to confront the person I used to be, the person I was supposed to be, and the person I am since we came back. We’re friends and deserve the truth between each other.”

Howie set his paper on the table and leaned forward.

“You don’t know about this either, Howie?” Kevin asked.

Howie set his hands on the table. “Within a day of departing the capital, Nick returned alone and feverish, then remained withdrawn for days. The day he finally recounted her whereabouts, Minako reappeared.”

Minako stared at Nick. “Sick? Days?” Her eyes bore through him.

Nick slouched in his chair again and hung his head.

Minako shook her head. “I guess we don’t need to talk about that. It was a really long time ago.” She rested her hands on the table and leaned toward them, her gaze sweeping between the demons as she spoke. “At the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was the right choice for Pandora, I still don’t think I was then but... When I appeared here, all I really had was Nick. I was always homesick and he seemed… lost in a strange outside world. I think because we both felt like we shouldn’t be here, we ended up depending on each other a lot but would never admit it then.” She paused and put her hand on one of Nick’s again, giving it a gentle squeeze. “And even though I was depending on him and thought he was this strong, mysterious, commanding kind of presence, he also collapsed in my arms when we first met, like he was broken… ”

Minako put her hand to her head as her cheeks filled with a blush. “But he also smiled at me and held me in this way another man had never done… I was such a stupid teenager. I thought those things were something to build a relationship on, that they were love. I really thought that I could get him to love me and change all the brokenness just because I came here and existed.” She shook her head and laughed. “It was so stupid of me to think that we would fall in love at first sight and not that it was just a crush.”

She glanced at Nick, his gaze remained fixed on his feet and the ground as he fiddled with his sash.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t really ready to be this Pandora everyone believed in and depended on, but I thought, maybe I could be that to someone who really needed it. I constantly worried about him hating me, so I resolved to do anything that would change that. If I could at least be that, then he wouldn’t hate me and we could be in love. But back then, I don’t know if Nick saw me for me instead of a means to find the box.” She squeezed his hand again. “You always thought maybe your memories were the sealed thing, right?”

He nodded and rubbed his hand against his neck, but kept his eyes averted.

“You ended up being right, kind of, but for a different reason.” Minako smiled. “The longer we spent depending on each other, I ended up learning what love really was. It was a little of those things I thought originally, but then it was so much more. I was shown so many times what real love was, and what it wasn’t, by Nick… and all of you, actually. Sacrifice, wanting to build each other up, smiling together even in sadness, recognizing each other's fears and comforting each other, helping each other grow, believing in each other…” She shook her head again. “I’m so stupid still… I shouldn’t have made those decisions alone in the end… It just felt like there wasn’t time to talk about it…”

“Minako, what is this about?” AJ asked.

Minako smiled. “I got off topic, sorry. You talk about one fight and then they all come up somehow…” She lowered her head. “Back in the beginning, we didn’t talk as much about what we were feeling, so I think we made a lot of assumptions about what the other person was thinking. We got in a fight, I admitted that I thought we were in love, Nick said some things that hurt, I missed Renee anyway, so I decided I wanted to leave. Then I did.”

Nick sunk deeper into his chair. His body seemed to deflate before their eyes.

Howie looked up at Nick. “Sit up, Nick.”

Nick bolted his body upright again, but kept his head lowered.

“When I went back home, it turned out that Renee had come here when I left. I wanted to find her, help her, and bring her back with me, so I came back to do that. There was always part of me that really wanted to see Nick again too, just to see his gentle smile And then I met all of you along the way and I wanted to do anything I could to help you all, not just Nick. And maybe that’s when I became that fabled legendary priestess... When we began, I focused on how bringing you all to the box would help you, then more on how our friendship helped us all here. But at the end, Nick and Kevin said they wanted to be free, and I really thought you would all be happiest if you got that wish.””

Howie folded his hands in his lap. “Knowing your relationship now, that would explain Nick’s reclusive silence…”

Nick pulled his hand from Minako’s as he stood, then walked back toward the door. He opened it quickly, exited the room, and slammed it behind him.

Minako put her hands on the table as she stood. “Excuse me, everyone.” She walked to the door and left the room as well. Once she was in the hallway, she turned to find Nick leaning against the wall. “Nick…”

He put his head in his hands and chuckled. “I knew all of that. Why does it still make me feel so many different things? I didn’t know what to say...”

Minako wrapped her arms around his arm. “We all focus on different things, so hearing other people talk about your memories can make you feel all over again, even when you remember it.”

Nick raised his head and glanced at her, then took a step toward her and cupped her hands. “If we had gotten to talk about what you saw with the emperor of the heavens, I think I would have understood.” He frowned. “And I could have supported you better. I know it was probably hard having to try to be a person who only did things for other people. I just spent so long without memories and my own life, that I wanted to be the one to make my decisions. I felt powerless.”

Minako tightened her grip. “I know. I didn’t mean to take that away from you, I really did want to give you anything you wanted… But I knew that the castle was crumbling and time was running out… I was so confused, but it felt like I couldn’t be. I wanted to be with you, but I also only wanted you to be happy, so I tried what I thought would make you happiest overall.”

Nick wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her toward his chest. “It was the same for me. Everyone was dying and you were hurting, but then everything was disappearing but me. I felt chained and trapped… again.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “I didn’t want to leave you behind! I never wanted you to have to feel any of those things ever again! I couldn’t have made those wishes without you holding me up! But I really thought we would disappear at the same time. While I was wishing out loud, inside I begged the emperor of the heavens to let you stay with me and go with me.”

Nick tightened his grip around her. “I just… I wanted that too… To go to the same place at the same time and be there together.”

“I prayed that we would find each other again as hard as I could. I’m glad that we did in both worlds.”

A few tears trickled down his cheeks. “Me too. But our promise...”

Minako cupped his cheek, pushing a few of the tears away with her thumb. “This time, I will really do all that I can to stay with you, in any world. No matter what happens, let’s make sure that we decide together from now on.”

Nick leaned his head on hers. “Now that I know we can go back to the same place and find each other, I’ll take anything for you and do everything I can to stay with you. I’ll always decide with you.”

“What do you think we should do next then?”

Nick ran his hands down her arms as he pulled back his embrace, then held her hands and stared into her eyes seriously. “Justin is the enemy in all this again. Why could he possibly want us back here?” He frowned. “And if we’re back here, I wonder if all the others are too?”

“Should we try to find them to fight Justin together? Can you?”

Nick tensed. “That thing in the castle was nothing like my Master… Maybe if we’re all reborn here, he’ll be more like what he was…” Nick lowered his head again, “Our powers may have to get stronger… I still don’t even know what mine are.”

“When we were in the castle and everyone was fighting, when they became stronger, they had those same sapphire eyes you did. If you still have that same demonic energy, you must know what your powers are somewhere deep inside.”

He exhaled and glanced at the ground. “I wish there was a way to find out.”

“We could go back to Rubiihoppou since you remember being there when you were younger?” Minako pulled his hands to her chest and smiled broadly. “Oh! I remember the first time you released your demonic energy in Rubiihoppou and collapsed, Howie was telling us a story about when he was a prince and Emeradotohou attacked the capital”

“Minako?” Nick cocked his head.

Minako bounced on her heels as she spoke. “He was talking about this huge crater that appeared and how he thought it was another demon! But it was so long ago that it could be anyone! Maybe we can go there and see if you feel anything?”

“A crater?” He pursed his lips.

“That big circle on the map that’s inside the thick lines! Those lines have to be the wall around Aohouseki and so that circle must be the crater!”

Nick blinked several times as he inhaled.

Minako loosened her grip on his hands and stepped back. She smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, I got excited. If you’re not ready or don’t want to, I’ll do whatever else you want.”

Nick chuckled. “You know that I love when you get excited about things.” He kissed her forehead and smiled. “If you think it might help, I’m willing to try.” He frowned again. “I’m just worried. What if we go there and I can’t control my demonic power? What if I hurt you? Or what if nothing happens and we do decide we need to go to Rubiihoppou after all?”

Minako gripped his hands again and brushed his lips with hers. “You and me. Always.”

End Notes:
If you want to relive the joy that is Nick meeting the other Boys in PBox as discussed in this chapter, may I direct you to the following PBox Chapters: ch. 6/7 "The Legendary Pandora"/The Demon King" (Howie), ch. 12 "Disappear" (Brian), ch. 18 "The Gate Guardian" (Kevin), and ch. 28 "The Final Demon" (AJ).
Chapter Five: The Crater by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
Chapters 36-40 of PBox were edited/updated this week.
As always, the walled city of Aohouseki was a bastion of tranquillity in the turmoil of the warring states. Nestled within the bright alabaster walls, it perfectly projected its king’s inclusion of all its citizens within his treasured administrative domain. When viewed as integral to the country, the walls of the city became the castle’s walls and the actual palace became the city’s keep, a refuge for all the citizens including the sapphire demons and the sapphire priestess.

Just outside the castle walls, the capital city bustled with its usual activity: market stalls and passerbys, music and conversation, children playing, and its citizens engaging in their daily life. Their bustling became hazy to Nick and Minako as they focused on each other.

Nick smoothed his sapphire tunic with his palms, then tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “You look beautiful. They’ll say you look like a real priestess, but I wish you were back in your school uniform. That’s what I’ll always think a priestess wears now.” He laughed, but smiled at her warmly as fiddled with the gold chain at her neck and fingered the solitary sapphire jewel that dangled from it.

“Okay… But you have to change back into your uniform too. A cardinal demon must always look like he won a dangerous fight.” She smirked as she gripped and adjusted the high collar at his neck, then trailed her fingers across the gold clasps at his collarbone and down the seam to the tip of the side vents that ended just below his waist.

He ran his thumb against the gold clasps at her collarbone and the high collar of her sapphire dress, then pulled her closer to him by her waist, his fingers brushing against the bow tied at her back with the gold sash around her waist. He laughed again, but then bit his lip. “That was our mistake for wearing too much white. It draws in death.”

Minako brushed her hand against Nick’s gold pants and sash, then brushed his hair back from his forehead, her bell sleeves pooling around her elbows. The most striking difference about Nick’s clothing, other than the brightness of the gold, was its lack of tears and blood stains. Her eyebrows pinched against her nasal bridge as wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned on his chest.

“Mianko? You’re worried?” He bit his lip again at the sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Just thinking about the last time we were in the capital and attacked. We look cleaned up, but we’re still the same…”

He ran his hand through her hair as he grinned. “No, we’re stronger now. They’ll see our confidence shine.” I hope...

Minako grabbed his hand and smiled. “As long as you think so.”

Nick beamed. “I’ll show you.” He pulled her by the waist, leading her through the busy city streets, though they eventually settled into holding the other’s hand as they walked. As before, their steps stirred up the dirt from the path.

A small child ran closely beside them. Nick glanced at them and gripped Minako’s waist again, pushing her toward the edge of the path. A woman hurried over and picked up the child, then bowed to Minako and Nick quickly before turning away.

Nick inhaled quickly, then began glancing haphazardly at the crowd as they walked. As they neared them while passing by, several other townspeople bowed quickly. He pulled Minako to the end of the path and froze as he stared at the bustle of the city.

“Nick?” Her eyebrows pinched again as she reached her hand to his face.

He swallowed quickly, then exhaled as he ran his thumb on her cheek.

“You’re worrying about me again instead of saying what you’re feeling…”

He chuckled, then chewed his lip. “You see right through me. I was expecting them to ignore or avoid us… Bowing was surprising.”

“Maybe word of our exploits got around? Maybe they’re busy building that statue you were hoping for.” She giggled.

He brushed her hair behind her ear again. “Just like in Rubiihoppou… Are we saviors? Only we are able to live instead of dying?”

She smiled and gripped his cheek. “Look, now you’re a hero. Bet you never thought you’d be that.”

Nick shook his head as he wrapped his fingers around her hand. “I don’t want to be a hero. I only started that journey for me and only finished it for you.”

“Nick.”

His pulse raced in his chest as he pulled her hand from his face and continued to grip it tightly. “I love you.” He pushed his thumb against her knuckles, then released her hand to slide the ring from his own right hand ring finger. “I’ve been meaning to put this back in the right spot.” He smiled as he slid it on to his left ring finger. “That’s better.” He gripped her hand again. “Can I?”

Minako nodded eagerly, her eyes sparkling as her smile widened.

Nick slid the ring off her finger and picked up her left hand. “I love you.” He slid it down her left ring finger, then cupped the back of her head and kissed her gently. “I love you forever.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Me too, I love you forever too.”

He pressed a second gentle kiss to her lips, then pulled her tightly into his embrace. As he leaned his head on hers, he glanced down the path behind her. “That forest…”

Minako turned to follow his gaze and stepped out of his embrace. “Oh! A forest in the city? I think that’s where the crater is!”

Nick swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth and stared past her. He clenched his fists tightly. “A crater in a forest?”

Minako ran her thumb across the back of his hand, then laced her fingers through his when he opened his hand. “Whatever it is, we’ll see it together.”

Nick gripped her hand tightly and took a hesitant step toward the forest. They trudged through the darkened grove, trees surrounding them on all sides. Nick’s footsteps were punctuated by the snapping of twigs. Why would a crater be back here? What does it have to do with demons? My fingers feel cold and numb in her warm hands… Has she noticed?

Minako brushed tree branches aside from her face as they walked. “There’s a lot of plants here…”

Nick stepped over a large fallen branch, then gripped Minako’s waist to lift her over it as well. “I wonder why there aren’t any houses near here?”

“Isn’t that a house?” Minako pointed away from the path.

Nick glanced that direction. The structure seemed like it may have once been a house, but the crumbled stone and rotted wood only resembled the edge of two outer walls. What would have been the rest of the house had been overrun with trees and foliage.

“Look, there’s another one.”

Nick’s gaze darted in the new direction to see more wood and stone fragments of something that resembled a house in form, but was no longer a house in function. He put his hand to his chest with splayed fingers. I can’t breathe, my chest is too tight. He took several shaky breaths.

Minako pulled his hand and started running toward it, but slipped.

Nick inhaled quickly and pulled her up from the ground, dusting off her hair and dress. He frowned as he cupped her cheek. “Did you trip on a branch?”

She bent down and picked up one of her tall sandals. “No, these shoes are terrible. I should have known better when Howie said it was in a forest. Also the ground was uneven.” She pointed down.

He glanced down. The ground they were standing on seemed to slope away from them and the fragmentary houses. Nick stepped back toward the houses. His heart caught in his throat and he felt a wave of nausea. I can’t… I want to be anywhere else besides this forest. His breath quickened. This sloped ground, these houses, and the crater they came in search of... Are they dangerous? Worse?

Minako gripped his hand at her cheek. “It’s okay, Nick. We can go back.”

He flinched. “What?”

“Your face looks so pale and you’re breathing so quickly.” She pushed back the hair at his forehead. “We don’t have to keep going today, let’s go back. If you’re up to it, we can try again or go back to Rubiihoppou…”

He clenched his free hand into a fist and ran his thumb on her cheek. “I felt the same way with the shell of my Master and that false God… If I’m this afraid, this must be something important… As long as you’re with me...”

Minako frowned, then forced her lips into a smile. “If you’re sure, I’ll go with you.” She turned to walk in the direction they were going, but Nick stayed frozen.

He pulled her back quickly, but steadied her as she stumbled.

“Nick?”

“No, this way.” He brushed aside some foliage and revealed that the ground continued to slope downward into the darkness. He felt his heart drop into his stomach. How did I know that? He held his hand to his chest, trying to force stability into his quick breaths before leading Minako down the slope.

Once she was completely through the foliage, the hole in the path became pitch black. He brushed away more rough edges of branches with his foot and broke more twigs as he walked. His outstretched hands fumbled in the darkness until he brushed another batch of hanging leaves illuminated from the back with a brief patch of light. He loudly exhaled a pent-up breath.

“Nick… Are you forgetting to breathe?”

Nick clutched her hand and held it to his heart. “My heart is beating so fast. This seems almost familiar, but I don’t know why…”

Minako squeezed his hand. “It’s okay to be worried. I’ll do whatever you want. Whatever you’re okay with…”

Nick inhaled and exhaled deeply and tightened his grip on her hand. “If we’re here, let’s just see this crater.” He drew back the vines and stepped into the sunlight.

Bathed in brightness, the huge crater burst with wildflowers and tall patches of grass that stretched across the entire field and sloped up to meet more trees on each side. The sun illuminated it on all sides like a hauntingly beautiful spotlight on nature.

Minako whirled around, staring at the grove in wonder. “It’s pretty, do you think there were houses here before? What’s that?” She started walking toward a barren patch at the bottom of the slope.

Nick gaped at the overgrown grove. It is beautiful when it’s lit up in the sun, but why are there only remnants of demons or people? His stomach continued to sink. Why am I so terrified of this place? He put his hand to his neck and brushed back the hairs that bristled on it.

“Nick!” Minako waved at him as she stood next to the barren patch at the center.

Nick began walking toward her, his heart and stomach sinking with each step. Once he reached her, he glanced at the barren spot. It’s small, like a large tree stump. Did something lay down and die here? Did all that lingering death poison the grass and soil? He bit his lip and looked up at the edge of the crater then trudged forward a few more feet and sat in the grass.

“Nick?”

I can barely hear her... He hunched his shoulders and his whole body shook as tears streamed down his face. This crater, this cavernous hill is ripping my heart from inside my chest. He gripped his chest again. Why does it feel like I’m being stabbed? Everything… Everything is pain and sadness. His hand trembled. Trapped in the suffocating darkness and surrounded by dying maidens... Abandoned in that castle of death by my Master and God... Stalked and injured by the emerald general... Losing Minako… I can handle those other things… But this feels like that same loneliness and grief as losing Minako… It’s utter sadness... Why? This is a wild field of plants. Why am I heartbroken by plants and holes?

“It was a mistake to come here, I’m sorry…” She wrapped her arms around him as she sat beside him.

He threw his arms around her waist. Please, that’s all I want… Just surround me in your warmth and brightness… In all the pain and sadness, you and our friends are all I have! Nick crumpled into her lap and pulled his knees to his chest. He continued to sob until he was only a quiet and motionless shell with eyes clenched shut, though a few tears still streamed down his cheeks.

Minako shook him, but his eyes remained closed. She cradled his body and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m so sorry…” Is it weakness? Fatigue? Sadness? Some combination of all three? Nick had grown so strong since then, it almost seemed impossible for his heart to waiver or break.

“This is much more vast than Howie indicated.”

Minako’s shoulders jumped at the gruff voice and looked up to meet Kevin’s green eyes.

Kevin scanned the clearing before glancing back down at Minako. “Howie also wanted you to change?” He indicated his upper thigh length white tunic tied with a sapphire sash, gold pants, and sapphire shoes.

Minako lowered her gaze back to Nick and held him tightly against her chest. “I wanted to blend in more and Nick’s clothing was still bloody.”

“You were tired of looking foreign?”

She brushed the tears from his cheeks. “I told Nick that I wanted to be here with him, but if I’m wearing my old clothing, it seems like I’m trying to be half here and half elsewhere. I really do want to be wherever he is, so I wanted to make sure that I look that way.”

Kevin kneeled beside her, his hand glowing sapphire. “Is Nick injured?”

Minako shook her head and brushed his hair at his forehead. “Nothing I think we can heal. He’s been silent and distant since we got here. Something about this place is… broken...”

Kevin closed his hand and the glow disappeared. “That’s understandable. This entire clearing reeks of demonic energy.”

Minako glanced around the cavernous pit filled with wildflowers. “But all the pretty flowers…” She pointed to the barren spot at the center. “That’s the only place that seems poisoned…”

Kevin followed her gaze and nodded. “That’s where the demonic energy stank the worst.”

Minako cradled Nick. “I can’t smell it at all. A demon really did this?”

“Aside from the stench, it certainly seems like a side effect of demonic power…”

“Did you follow us here?”

Kevin shook his head as he sat down next to her. “Not intentionally. Howie mentioned that you wanted to see it and pointed to its area on the map. His description seemed vaguely familiar, so I wanted to see it for myself. And here you are.”

“You’ve been here?”

He smiled. “Not recently. But when I was younger and an apprentice, my Master often healed demons, being a demon himself.”

“Your teacher was a demon?”

“There were far more demons in our youths than there are now. The siege Howie mentioned when we were first in Rubiihoppou… In addition to killing several nobles, Emeradotohou massacred most of the demon population in Safaiananpou, if not all the countries.”

“How did you manage to survive? Is that why you became the gate guardian?”

“During the siege, my Master hid me away with a close friend of his who was an accepting human. Though he intended to reunite, he perished. So, I continued to practice, but was sworn to secrecy on my powers and trained to use only human methods of medicine. I was inevitably discovered, but His Majesty had me placed at the gate, sight unseen. Looking back, it makes sense that Howie would have spared me, but at the time it seemed like a miracle.”

“Kevin…”

Kevin smiled, “It’s okay. Death is a sad, but natural part of life. And it seems my Master knew I was destined for something greater than his practice and needed to survive the siege.”

Minako brushed Nick’s hair from his face again, then turned back to Kevin. “ I’m glad you did.” She bit her lip. “But you’ve been here?”

“Ah yes, we got off topic. As I was saying, this area seemed familiar, so I walked through the woods, passed the devastated houses where I knew there had once been houses, and came to a spot where I remember taking a hidden path through some vines and appearing on the other side of a second set of vines into a clearing… And there’s still a clearing, but no more houses…”

“There were houses here?”

“Just one house. As I said, my Master often had demons for patients because demons typically like to keep to their own kind.”

A house with demons?

Kevin placed his hands in his lap. “I remember that day very well… It was pitch black during the day, ominously dark because the moon blocked the sun. We went under the cover of pseudo night to a house with a rotten door. I remember thinking it must have been abandoned, but inside was a demon ready to give birth."

I wonder what Kevin looked like when he was younger… How did the door work if it was rotten? I wonder where the house was in this clearing?

"My Master and I helped her and at the moment the earth was darkest, her baby was born. And I remember that even though it was dark, a sparkling ring formed around the sun."

"It seems hauntingly beautiful, just like this place. A dark sun with a sparkling ring around it..."

Kevin frowned. "I remember thinking it was an ill omen for that child, that family, maybe me or my Master, maybe all of Safaiananpou… But here we are… Alive."

Minako brushed Nick’s hair back from his forehead again. I wonder why he collapsed here…

"I thought that I would see if the house survived the crater, maybe check on the child, but there really is nothing here anymore." Kevin glanced at the clearing around them again.

Minako frowned. "If it was that long ago, is there a child anymore?"

Kevin ran his hand on his chin. "I suppose if the child survived that first year and survived through the siege, then it would be an adult now."

"What demon do you think made the crater?"

"Not an Emeradotouhou demon, we know all their powers… It could be a demon from Rubiihoppou or Topazuseihou… I can only begin to guess their powers from the shells we faced." Kevin looked down at Nick and frowned. "And I suppose, we can never rule out the possibility that it was Nick."

"But Nick--"

"I know we don't know his powers. But Nick also has only fragments of his memory. And who was more likely to be in Safaiananpou?" Kevin paused and frowned as he removed his hand from his chin. "I wonder…"

"Kevin…"

"Perhaps that baby was Nick and he is familiar with this area… But then, what happened to him in the siege? And is his family still looking for him or were they casualties of the siege themselves?"

Minako looked down at Nick’s still form curled into itself. Whatever demon made this crater was either a merciless creature on the attack or a frightened demon being attacked. Can Nick be merciless? In the beginning, he was always so angry and always jumped into anything. Was that because he had nothing? If you really have nothing, would you attack anything in your path? When first got to Aohouseki and its citizens attacked us, I distinctly remember that Nick flinched, faltered, and shrank into himself. Was his bravado all a ruse? Even when he was quick to anger, was it instead that he was only scared? He really had been like a small child back then, lashing out and bristling. If he was that baby... Is his family looking for him? Or is he really the last of his kind?

Minako frowned and lightly balled one of her hands. “Kevin, what do you think we should do next? I promised Nick that we would always decide together, but I want a few ideas first… It was my idea to come here and it only made him worried. We were deciding whether to go to Rubiihoppou to figure out his powers…”

Kevin shifted his weight between his legs and put his hands back in his lap. “When you both left, Howie pulled out the remaining maps and documented our journey from the gate and your original journey from meeting Brian. He is hoping to retrace our steps and suspects that if we are reborn here, the other nations’ demons may be reborn as well.”

“Do you think the other priestesses are here too?”

Kevin lowered his head and put his hand to her shoulder. “You’re worried about Renee. I know that we lost her originally, so she’s probably still with Justin…”

“We have to rescue her. She hasn’t been herself as much since we went back. I think that being here made her afraid to go anywhere except places she already knew.” Minako growled and tightened her fist. “And if she’s with Justin, then he’s probably preying on that fear again.”

“Howie wants to form an alliance with the other nation’s demons.”

“The emperor of the heavens wanted the priestesses to combine their powers originally, so if we were able to meet, then we might be able to truly save this world from the threat of Emeradotouhou once and for all.”

“And Nick?”

She unclenched her fist and ran her hand on Nick’s cheek. “I won’t guess at what he wants. When he’s back to himself, I’ll talk to him and we’ll make a plan then.” She put her hand on Kevin’s knee. “Do you agree with Howie? Does Brian? Does AJ?”

“I promised you in Rubiihoppou, that I would fight with you until my end. If you want to find the other priestesses, then I will find them with you and anything else you ask. I think that Brian and AJ feel the same.”

Minako lowered her head and hunched her shoulders. “But we’re not searching for the box anymore, I can’t ask you to keep that promise if it’s only for me. What are we working for together? I don’t want you to follow me blindly because of past alliances…”

Kevin cupped her shoulder. “You’re always thinking of us, Minako. We’re fighting for the right to choose our existence. Demon or human, this world or the other world. And by defeating Justin, we’re ensuring that no one can take that from us again.”

Minako embraced Nick. More than me and us, that’s what you want most. The right to choose how and where and why you exist. Demons and priestesses were tied by the box and now that those ties are severed, are we truly free? People without chains can walk the earth and see or do anything they wish. Now that our chains are broken, do we have the same possibilities? And now that we’re not bound, do we have the same connection to each other as we did before? Or is it stronger because we are choosing it? What am I willing to sacrifice for them? What would I sacrifice for you?

Kevin stood. “We should go back. Howie will worry. Would you like help carrying Nick?”

Minako looked up at him and nodded.

Kevin kneeled and scooped Nick into his arms as he stood back up. “He feels so small this way.”

Minako stood and put her hand to Nick’s head. “I worry about him… Now that he’s not able to focus on the box, he’s having a harder time confronting himself… who he is now, who he used to be, and who he might become…”

Kevin tightened his grip on Nick. “I think we’re all worried about that. What do we do now that we can’t depend on the box for answers or change? In Justin’s hands, whatever it is now is a perversion of what it was before. But I think that as long as we’re together, we’ll find the right answer.”

Minako’s gaze remained fixed on Kevin as she gripped the sleeve of his tunic and nodded. The power of friendship really is stronger than the chains of the box, stronger than this world, stronger than the other world, and stronger than death. Together, we’ll create that last miracle.

End Notes:
If you would like to remind yourself about Howie's story mentioning the crater and the siege, may I direct you to PBox ch. 24 "The Endless Ice of Rubiihoppou."
Chapter Six: Alliance by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
Chapters 41-45 of PBox were edited/updated this week.
Only darkness and stillness covered the world. Sickening and terrifying, he clawed at it searching for light, for movement, for another living soul. His heart beat faster as his hands shook. Someone, anyone, save me. Save me! He thrust his hands to his throat. It’s just like the castle and my dream! No matter how loudly I scream, no matter how hard I try, no one can hear me. Help me!

“Nick!”

Who’s there?! He bolted upright and whipped his head from side to side, as the sapphire walls swallowed him.He put his hand to his chest and the other to his head. My heart is racing. I can't see anything… It hurts…

“Nick…”

He smiled as he grabbed her hand. Even when I can’t hear you, you’re always calling me and supporting me. He blinked, trying to get his eyes to focus. When his vision cleared, Minako appeared sitting next to him on the ornate bed. He reached up and ran his thumb across her cheek. “Your voice always brings me back…”

She squeezed his hand on her cheek. “Did I wake you?”

He pushed himself up, then grabbed both of her hands and held them to his chest. “In my dream… Your voice called me back from the darkness…”

She put the back of her hand to his head. “You’re not hot… But your face was so pale back then… Are you… feeling okay?” She brushed his hair back.

His eyes began welling with tears as he held her cheek again. “When we went to that crater, it was overwhelmingly sad… Just like losing you!

“Nick, are you sure you--”

Nick thrust his arms around her and pulled her into his chest. “You’re the only one I can talk about it with!”

Minako frowned, but wrapped her arms around his neck tightly. “Whatever you need, Nick…”

He pulled away and raised his eyebrows. “But how did we get back? Did I walk? Did you try to carry me?”

Minako laughed. “It’s cute that you think I could carry you. Kevin brought you back. He wanted to see the crater and found us there...” She pulled her hand to her chest and glanced down. “ He said he’d been there before when he was younger… Before it was just a hole and demonic energy...”

Nick frowned and rubbed the back of his head. “I couldn’t smell anything demonic… It just felt like… fear and sadness...”

“Maybe you’ve been there before?”

Nick bit his lip and furrowed his brow. Why would I have been there? It’s just a hole...

Minako gripped his hand tightly. “When I tried to keep walking, you pulled me into those vines. And Kevin said he remembered pushing them back too.”

Nick reached out his free hand and mimicked brushing back the foliage. “Brushing away the leaves and the vines felt like the right thing to do when we were standing there. Going forward felt… bad?” He frowned. “And then again inside the darkness, it felt right to push until there was a bright spot… Then walking down a hill… It all felt right…” He squeezed her hand, then pulled back and crossed his arms. “Why was Kevin there?”

“He said he and his master went to a house to deliver a baby… A demon’s baby...”

A house with demons… A very sad and terrifying house? He glanced up at her. “Do you think that I have a baby?”

Minako lowered her head.

Nick rubbed his neck as he frowned. “But Kevin’s older than I am and you said he was young…” I would have been really little when Kevin was young… How long ago did he go to that demon house? A sad and terrifying demon house… He clenched his hand into a fist in his lap and stared at it. “Minako… Do you think I was the baby Kevin was telling you about? Why would I be a baby in a sad and terrifying house?”

Minako glanced up at him as she reached her hand toward him, but quickly pulled it back and lowered it into her lap.

Nick reached into her lap and clenched her hand tightly. I know everything will be okay if I have you. Even if you don’t know the answer either… He laced his fingers through hers. When you’re near me, it makes the unknown feel quieter. He glanced up at her with a shaky smile, as he spoke, his voice echoed his smile. “I wonder why the house is gone… If that valley is where I come from, then why did I end up in Rubiihoppou with my Master? Do I even have a family anymore?”

Minako pulled him into a hug and rubbed his back gently.

As he leaned his head on her shoulder, he exhaled deeply and his subsequent breaths evened. Even if my past is filled with darkness, you’ve always been filling my future with light. If I never know, at least I know that you and our friends will do your best to stay with me. But if I know about my past or my powers, then maybe we’ll actually be prepared for whatever’s next… “My Master must know… I want to find him… If we’re back here, maybe he is too…”

Minako pulled back her embrace. “Kevin said that Howie thinks so too and that he wants to form an alliance with the other cardinal demon tribes. Maybe if we all work together, we can be stronger than Justin...”

Nick cupped her cheek. “What do you want to do?”

“The emperor of the heavens originally intended for all the priestesses to unseal the box. Probably because we’re stronger together… We might be able to undo whatever Justin did if we can work together.” She lowered her head. “I do want to get Renee somewhere safe, but I don’t know that it’s the right time to go to Emeradotouhou… Maybe not until we have help...”

“Rubiihoppou first then? I wonder if Howie would be okay with that… Would Kevin, Brian, and AJ come too?”

“I don’t know that Howie has a preference… Kevin said he was planning on keeping his promise to fight until everything is over, but I feel bad asking them to do whatever I want… Especially when you and I decided to decide together.” She pulled herself toward him and leaned on his shoulder.

He wrapped her into his embrace. “It doesn’t feel like anything’s sealed this time, so maybe we’re fighting for our choices… Whatever we do, I think we all have to choose together. Maybe more than we already did… So I promise that even when it’s hard, I’ll choose you every time. And then we can choose our friendships every time after that.”

“Me too. I’ll choose you and then them every time.”

~*~

The columns of the gate surrounded them and the intertwining symphony of the varied lands stretching in front of them. Minako held her hand to her heart, fixing her gaze on the top of the white bell-shaped structure. Back in the beginning, it felt so magical, but its power had fallen silent and only its faint sparkle remained. Did it actually have its own power or was it radiating with Kevin’s demonic energy? Did Kevin fill it with his spirit to call the other demons? Did it still feel like Kevin’s powers now? I wonder if the demons can call each other too… Kevin said they all smell different, so can they follow each other by smelling? Justin always seemed to find us. Did Nick’s wounds really smell that strong or did he memorize what Nick and Brian smelled like? I wonder if he felt Nick’s pain. Or if all demons feel each other’s emotions. If they all closed their eyes, could they find other demons that way? Is that how Brian had found Nick and I originally?

Nick wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, pulled her into a tight embrace, and rested his chin on her head as he followed her gaze to the red tinted Rubiihoppou. “You’re quiet again. Every time we go to Rubiihoppou, you get quiet...”

“Just thinking about demonic powers…”

Nick’s grip around her tensed.

She hugged his arms. “Not that, just… I wonder if you could all find each other. Even though we got the box, I doubt I could call the other demons… How would we find them?” She frowned. “Will it be any easier to find the other priestesses? Would they really help us? Can priestesses really help this time?”

Nick squeezed her gently and kissed her cheek. “We’ll find them and they’ll help us. Everything we’ve experienced has taught me that we’re stronger together. And if they’re feeling lonely, then we can help. Pandora’s supposed to carry and light the torch of hope, right?”

Minako leaned back against his chest and smiled up at him. “I’ll always do my best for you.”

He leaned his head on hers. “And I’ll do anything I can to help.”

She tightened her grip on his arms. It was always being with all of you that made me want to be someone who could light that torch and carry the burdens of darkness. Back then, I was so worried about losing you and when we came here, I worried that I would never find AJ. I was constantly worried about what would happen if I finally had to fight Renee. And I’m still worried about finding her and convincing the other emerald demons that we really all want the same thing… Why does Justin want this cold and lonely world back?

She glanced at Nick and smiled again when he pressed a light kiss to her temple. We lost each other and still found our way back to each other. I think we were both really lost and lonely when we met each other, but we made each other less broken and made what was hard before seem easier. It doesn’t feel as hard trying to shoulder darkness in this place because you’re constantly trying to take the burden from me. And you and all of our friends promised to carry as much as you could until your ends. I don’t want any of you to have to do that. This time, no matter what happens, I can’t let any of you sacrifice yourselves for me. We all have to make it to the end alive.

I wonder if the other two priestesses are like that? Are their demons? Do they have that kind of relationship or were they more like Renee and the emerald demons? In that empty blackness, they both told me how much they wanted to preserve their happy memories and be together, but they also told me that they wanted to die and that being here turned them into terrible people. I wonder which of those is true… Are we only happy and strong because we conquered the box’s trials? If we lost, would we be sad, filthy, lonely creatures too?

“I can’t believe you really lived here!” AJ’s excitement broke their conversation. He stared in wonder at the tholos with his arms spread wide and a broad grin on his face. “I wonder why they put something so fancy all the way out here!” Even in the dark, his gold tunic buttoned down the center, sapphire pants, and gold shoes gleamed brightly.

Kevin chuckled. “The architecture is stunning, yes.”

Nick pulled Minako toward the center of the gate.

“Did you meet many travelers?” AJ continued to grin broadly. “The other gates were always very busy!”

Kevin shook his head. “No, it was actually quite lonely. I think between the time I met the first priestesses and the time I met Minako, Brian, and Nick…” He ran his hand along his chin. “There were maybe one or two travelers per year.”

AJ crossed his arms and nodded. “It’s not always easy to get the women to leave their homes. War and all. Whenever I heard about it, I always wondered, why did the scale only judge the hearts of women?”

Kevin shrugged. “I never understood myself, though I do have some theories. The stipulations make sense. Men who would sacrifice women should not have a pass between countries without papers and if they had papers, they could use other gates.”

Howie cleared his throat. “We originally gave Kevin the scale in the hopes that he would be able to find Pandora of the Sapphires and bring her to us and the country. That was its main purpose.”

Minako gaped at Howie. How did he come across such a powerful scale with such a specific purpose? Did he inherit it? Did he send out his army to find it? Or… She grabbed his arm. “Howie… did you create that scale?”

Howie glanced away and fiddled with the pommel of his sword. The gold glinted like his golden pants beneath his typical calf-length sapphire tunic and tied at the waist with a golden sash. “An interesting conjecture, Minako… There are many ways to acquire things in this world.”

Minako pursed her lips and gripped Nick’s hand tightly. Howie, I’m used to you saying weird and complicated things… But it feels like you’re avoiding answering. Your powers were almost as mysterious as Nick’s or Justin’s. All three of you use something mundane to fight. You and Justin both use swords even when you have unleashed your demonic powers. And Nick uses his brute strength and physical fighting techniques he learned from his Master. I know he doesn’t know what his powers are, but I wonder why his Master, another demon, would only teach him how to use brute strength and physical fighting techniques... What are all of your real powers if you would rather rely on strength and weapons when you need to fight?

Nick stared at the top of the gate. “You said you made a lot of salves and medicines… Did you do that up here or in the rooms underneath?”

“Below…” Kevin stepped toward the staircase and peered down the steps, then jumped back. “Stand back and be ready, someone is here.”

Brian nodded as he pushed aside his gold cloak and raised his staff. His gold pants glinted with a similar shine against his typical white tunic, white boots, blue sash, and blue beads.

Nick stepped in front of Minako as he raised his hands into a fighting stance.

“Who’s there?!” Kevin shouted down the stairs.

They heard footsteps ascending up the stairs, slowly and laboriously. Was it a demon? A monster? A man?

AJ pinched his hooped earring and Howie gripped the hilt of his sword.

A head of long, wavy, golden hair emerged from the stairs, followed by a silk, ruffled top, jeans, and tennis shoes.

“A woman?” Minako gripped Nick’s shoulders. A strangely dressed woman...

The woman gasped. “I remember your face, you’re the gate guardian! You came back!” She reached toward Kevin.

Kevin stepped back as Brian raised his barrier around the sapphire demons and Minako.

She ran her hands down the barrier. “Please, I’ve been waiting for you. I only wanted your help!”

Minako pulled on Kevin’s sleeve and whispered.“Kevin, look at her clothing, it’s like the other world. She has to be a priestess!”

“What do you think her intentions are?”

“She said she wanted help! But if you’re worried, we know you can protect yourself.”

Kevin took a breath and glowed sapphire. His fangs appeared and his eyes gained their sapphire tint. “Brian, let me out of the barrier.”

Brian nodded and released the grip of a few fingers on his staff, as he did so, a small hole appeared in the barrier. Kevin stuck his hand through it, then pulled at the edges until it was large enough for him to step through. Brian clenched his grip back on his staff and the hole vanished.

“Priestess…”

She put her shaking hands to her chest. “You know who I am!” She stepped back, her eyes wide as she covered her mouth. “But you’re much… bluer than I remembered…”

“I was called into duty.”

She lowered her head and frowned. “By your priestess…” She stared intently at the bubble. “I recognize your face, girl… There was a brief moment when I saw the Ruby demons again in the darkness and you were there.” She put her hands on her hips and scoffed. “The box chose you, so why are we back here now?”

Minako gripped Brian’s sleeve. “Let me out! This is our chance to convince her to join us!”

“Minako…” Nick knitted his brows.

“Kevin will protect me. I promise!” Minako gripped his hand.

“She’s…” Nick stared at her face. Is this really the right priestess? I always remembered her being so tall… Or was it that she was always shadowed because I was smaller…

She touched his cheek. “I can do it. Believe in me.”

Nick smiled at her gently and gripped her hand. “I always believe in you.”

“Minako, be safe.” Brian released his grip on the staff again as Minako pulled open the hole.

“Ruby Pandora, I didn’t fail!”

“I know, I went home! I just want to go back there, but I need the ruby demons to help!” She lowered her head and crossed her arms. “In the end, we were all useless.”

“We need all the demons to help. Justin from the emerald demons…”

She groaned and put her hand to her head. “The emerald country is always making things harder!”

Minako blinked several times. Is this really that same condescending priestess and bewitching beauty everyone’s always talking about? She just seems like the same kind of girl I would have gone to high school with...

She pointed forcefully at Kevin and Minako. “And sapphire, you’re no better! Sleeping during hell! Do you know how many times I had to listen to that tiny brat whine and complain?!”

Kevin and Minako stared at each other. Tiny brat? Does she mean...

Kevin chuckled and shut his eyes. His sapphire tint disappeared and his fangs softened.

“Brian…” Nick snarled and clenched his fists.

Brian shook his head and the barrier disappeared around them.

Howie slid his sword back into its sheath. “It would seem she is not dangerous.”

AJ released his grip on his earring and laughed heartily. “She might not be.”

Nick clenched his fists and glared at her. “How dare you! Tiny brat! Whine?! Complain?!”

The ruby priestess gaped and stepped backward as she put a splayed hand to her chest. She then clenched it into a loose ball and tiptoed toward him. She stopped in front of him and reached out a shaking hand to touch his face. “Nicky…” She pulled her hand back quickly and cradled it at her chest. “You… you let me touch you without flinching?”

“Ruby priestess--”

She gasped and turned her head wildly as she eyed the demons and examined her surroundings. “Is--”

“No.”

She quickly turned back to face Nick.

“No, my Master is not here.”

Her shoulders sunk.

“I haven't seen him since…” Nick closed his eyes and swallowed forcefully. “Since we were fighting for our lives in the castle… But he was only a shell...” He opened his eyes, but lowered his head. “Then the time before that was when you abandoned me in the castle for your fight.”

She clenched her hands at her heart, then held the side of her hand just below her nose.

“Ruby priestess?” Nick looked up at her.

She laughed nervously. “You were so small… You always cowered next to me, but flinched when I would try to touch you… And you would cling to him… You were always so full of anger and sadness, but every now and then you had this vibrant spark. You so desperately wanted to be one of them: big, strong, ruby…”

Nick stepped toward her. “Ruby Priestess, I don’t--”

She closed her eyes and chuckled quietly as she shook her head. “You always asked him why she wouldn’t come and he always told you that she was selfishly sleeping…” She opened her eyes and stared at Minako. “Now she’s awake.”

Nick clenched his fist and snarled. “Ruby Priestess, she--”

She brushed her hair behind her ear. “Your heart seems like it’s stronger than it was then if you’ll let me touch you. Maybe she rescued you after all like you wanted.” She held her hands near her chest and stared at them. “And I…”

Minako put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Ruby Pandora--”

Nick threw his hands up and huffed, then crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders while glowering at her.

“Madeline.” She shook her head and brushed Minako’s hand from her shoulder. “Without the demons surrounding me or worshipping me, am I even a priestess anymore, let alone Pandora? No, Sapphire Pandora, you claimed the box and changed your demons... At least, I feel pretty confident saying that you saved the one that I knew. You are the only Pandora. I am only Madeline.”

“Minako.”

She shook her head and her lips quirked upward as her eyes narrowed. “What?”

Minako smiled. “I’m only Minako. You’re right, they’re sapphire demons, but they don’t belong to me. We’re friends.” Minako brushed Nick’s arm, then reached her other hand toward Madeline. “And maybe you’re right that we saved each other, but only because we grew together and made each other stronger.Let me do that with you too.”

Madeline brushed her hair behind her ear again. "You're too trusting. You don’t even know me."

Minako continued to hold out her hand. "You said you want to find the ruby demons, so do we. So let's work together and find them."

Madeline scowled and wrinkled her brow as she glanced between Minako’s outstretched hand and Nick gripping her hand and smiling at her gently.

"Madeline?" Minako smiled.

She huffed and glanced upward before grasping Minako's hand. "Alright, let's work together."

Minako gripped her hand tightly, then smiled at the sapphire demons. "One down."

Madeline ripped her hand from Minako's. "It's not just me stuck here?"

Howie stepped toward her. "Ruby Priestess, we have reason to believe that all the demons and all the priestesses have descended and are seeking alliances."

Madeline clenched her fist. "I don’t really care about your long term plans, but we have to help Bri!"

The sapphire demons all glanced at each other.

Minako turned back to her. "Who’s Bri? One of the demons?"

"Brianne is my little sister and the Topaz priestess!"
Chapter Seven: Melt by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
Chapters 46-50 of PBox were edited/updated this week. If you were waiting on them to do a reread, it's all there minus some maybe really minor edits (like a comma here or there) now that the whole thing is updated.
With the castle above the clouds crumbled and the miasma of pain and sadness dissipated, Rubiihoppou seemed like an entirely different country. The sun shone a little brighter, the wind was no longer as icy or biting, and the ground defrosted.

Nick clenched Minako’s hand tightly. Minako seems a little brighter this time. Is focusing on Madeline helping her manage her own worries? Can she not feel Renee this time? Am I helping? I hope I’m helping her feel like everything’s going to be okay.

“Nick?” Minako turned to him.

He smiled at her. “Hm?”

“You’re holding my hand really tightly… Are you okay?”

Nick chuckled. “Am I holding it that tightly? I’m sorry. It’s just…”

Minako gave his hand a squeeze. “You’re worried about me?”

He nodded.

Her shoulders slumped as she sighed and leaned against him. “I’m still worried, but… Madeline is also hurting and we need to be strong to support her.”

Nick put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her into his side. “Madeline being sad doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be sad.”

Minako smiled. “I know. But I know that when I’m worried, I have you.”

“You always have me.”

”And you have me. Madeline doesn’t have anyone right now, so I think we should be that person for her.”

“If you two can become friends, she’s lucky to have you.” He kissed the top of her head.

“Nick, what was she like when you knew her?”

Nick bit his lip. “I honestly don’t remember… She was tall, but maybe I just thought she was tall because I was smaller…” He shrugged. ”She had those red light powers like you do. She and my Master fought a lot.”

“Is that why she was condescending? Because she argued with one person?” She giggled. “What a strange reason to call someone condescending…”

“There’s a lot of things people said about her, not just things I remember…” He pursed his lips. “I think bewitching beauty was another one...”

“You had a crush on her. Admit it.” She squeezed his arm as she laughed.

Nick shook his head. “No, she was too involved with my Master, I could never look at her that way.” He smiled. “Besides, it wouldn’t matter anyway. I have you.”

Minako wrapped her arms around his waist. “You’re allowed to have a life before me… Even if you don’t remember it.”

Nick glanced at Madeline. “Honestly, when I look at her, she feels more like a sibling… But I don’t feel close to her like I do to all of you…” He turned back to Minako. “And of course the way I feel about you is different from the others.”

Minako smiled up at him. “If you want to kiss me, you don’t have to flirt with me first, just kiss me.”

Nick chuckled. “I wasn’t saying it to get a kiss, but I will always kiss you when you want one.” He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.

“You always make me smile.” Minako smiled, then kissed him again.

He stopped her and held her closely to his chest. “That’s what I was hoping.” He locked her lips with his.

~*~

After a few days of traveling, the group reached the inn they had stayed at the last time they were in Akahouseki. After settling into their rooms, they congregated in the tavern area. Howie laid his charts and figures on the table to go over their battle plans with Madeline. As Howie spoke, Madeline leaned on her hands as her head and elbows sank to the table. Her eyes fluttered open and closed.

“Ruby Pandora?” Howie put his hand on her shoulder.

She startled and opened her eyes, sitting up quickly. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty… I was never the planner in our group. You would need to find him for that…”

“That is fine. However, it is important that you are abreast of the situation.”

Madeline put up her hand. “I’m not trying to be rude when I say this, but I’m just not interested.” She bit her lip. “Actually… Nicky, can I talk to you?”

“Okay… What about?” He smiled.

She shook her head and stood. “In private?”

Nick turned to Minako and cocked his head.

She smiled as she held his hand. “Whatever you want, Nick.”

He pressed a kiss to her lips as he stood, then gave her hand a quick squeeze before following Madeline to an empty table across the room.

She sat and motioned toward the empty seat. Nick sat as well.

“Nicky…”

“Ruby Priestess, please just call me Nick.” He smiled.

She shook her head and put her hands on the table. “You’ve always been Nicky to me… But I’ll try, if you try to call me Madeline.”

“Okay, R-- Madeline, I will try.”

Madeline leaned forward, stopping inches from Nick's face and lowering her voice to a whisper. “Will she be jealous that we are talking?” She glanced at Minako.

Nick scoffed and leaned backwards in his seat, crossing his arms. “Of course not, she trusts my judgement.” His lips curved into a sweet smile. “And anyway, Minako would be happy that we were friends again.”

Madeline put her hand to her face and smirked as she rested her chin on it. “Is she that kind or did she just make you submissive?”

Nick shook his head. “It’s not forced. She did take a while to come and I had to be patient, but ever since she appeared here, she has only ever shown me how much she loves me, believes in me, and trusts me.” He fiddled with the ring on his finger. “She always found me... in this world… and in the other one. I don’t think we would ever stop trying to find each other.”

Madeline frowned as she tapped her fingers against the table.

Nick put his hand on her arm. “We’ll find my Master, I promise. I’m learning that when you let too much go unsaid, you both end up feeling hurt. But if you love each other, then you’ll get your feelings across. You just need to see each other and talk.”

She pulled back from Nick’s hand and squinted as she stared at him.

“Where do you think he would be?”

“Where do I think…” She crossed her arms and leaned on the table. “He always wanted to travel to different places… I think I only held him back.”

Nick lowered his head. He didn’t see nearly as much of the world as I did after his priestess appeared. I wonder if it would have been safer if we stayed in Safaiananpou… Why was he there? How did he get there? The gate didn’t exist yet then… Or maybe it did, but it wasn’t guarded? Where was he trying to go?

“You didn’t hold him back, Nicky. He decided to bring you along, but I forced him into being a cardinal demon by showing up.” Madeline leaned back in her chair. “I first met him near that grassy hill… Do you remember it?”

Nick clenched his fist, then clapped Madeline’s shoulder as he stood. “With the big tree! Of course he's there! Let’s go!”

She glanced at the sapphire demons across the room looking over Howie’s charts. “Everyone?”

Nick loosened the grip of his fist and released her shoulder. “We’re a team…”

Madeline crossed her arms and smirked. “Can you not do anything without them, Nicky?”

“Don’t--”

Madeline tapped the table again. “See sense. You know he doesn't like strangers… or crowds…” She smiled. “But I know he would love to see you.”

Nick lowered his head. My Master was always so reclusive. It was strange that he wanted to travel and see the world, but not see anyone. It was even stranger that we traveled together for so long. He chuckled. “I doubt he would want to see me now. Would he even recognize me?”

“I’m sure. Don’t you demons recognize each other by smell? Even if you act a little differently, I’m sure you smell the same.” She leaned forward. “But I really think it should just be us.”

“Madeline…”

“What if he hurts them?” She smirked. “Or her?”

Nick clenched his fist and growled quietly.

“Well?”

He shut his eyes and exhaled. “You’re probably right…”

Madeline stood and gestured toward the others. “Go tell your retainers.”

Nick growled. “Friends.”

“Better than being your nanny, trust me.”

Nick stormed back over to the other table. He hastily sat in his chair, gave Minako’s hand a squeeze, then crossed his arms.

Brian intently watched Madeline slowly walk back to the table. “You seem upset. What did you decide to do?”

“We’re going to look for my Master.”

Brian stood. “When should we leave?”

Madeline held the back of Nick’s chair with one hand and waved Brian off with the other. “Just Nick and I.”

Brian frowned. “Is that… alright?”

“My Master was always cautious around crowds… He may consider it an ambush.”

Kevin rubbed his chin. “That would be dangerous…”

AJ stood as well and slammed his hands into the table. “It could be dangerous if you go alone, Nick!”

Madeline batted her hand. “I’ll be there too.”

“It would be a liability for you and us.” Howie chimed in as he stacked a few of the charts on each other.

Madeline waved at the two men. “I’m still definitely going to be there.”

AJ crossed his arms. “Would she even protect him?”

Madeline turned to Nick. “It’s like we’re not even here…”

Nick clenched his fist and lowered his head.

“Nick…” Brian put his hand on his shoulder.

Madeline crossed her arms. “Maybe I’m not here…”

“Of course I want you all to come.” Nick stood and put his hand on Brian’s shoulder as well. “But you remember what happened in the catacombs...”

Brian grabbed his chest and inhaled sharply.

“How could I want that to happen to you again? And Minako…” He put his hand to her cheek as his eyes welled with tears.

Minako smiled and held his hand. “I’m okay, Nick. You definitely protected me.”

“Don’t make another deal with a devil, Nick…” AJ patted his shoulder.

Nick shook his head. “Of course not. So it’s better if only I go… Or maybe…”

Minako smiled. “Do whatever you think is best, Nick.”

Nick crossed his arms and exhaled. “Maybe knowing we could need Brian’s barriers it would be okay if he came… Or Kevin’s healing power…”

Madeline shook her head. “You know it’s a bad idea.”

“What is this demon’s power, Ruby Pandora?” Howie calmly folded his hands on top of his charts.

Madeline glanced at the ground. “I… don’t know… He always seemed to have whatever power we needed…”

Howie stared back to the table. “With even Ruby Pandora unsure, perhaps it is too dangerous for anyone to accompany you… However, Nick, we wish to accompany you.”

“Howie?”

“Your hope was for cavalry. Given the circumstance, we believe we are the correct choice.” Howie stood.

Nick clapped his hand on Howie’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s go!”

Madeline shook her head. “I think this is a terrible idea…”

Nick turned to Madeline and smiled. “I promise it will be okay!”

Her gaze sank to the ground.

Nick leaned down and held Minako’s cheeks with both hands as he kissed her quickly. “We’ll be back soon. I’ll be safe.”

Minako held his hands and beamed. “I can’t wait to meet your Master!”

~*~

Nick walked up to the large fir tree and wrapped his arms around its trunk. The first time I was here, I had my Master. The next time, I had Minako. What will it bring this time?

“Eternities have passed since you and Minako were wed here.” Howie stared up to the top of the tree.

Nick released the tree from his embrace, then fiddled with his ring. “Yeah… I’m glad though. I feel like it connected us to each other this whole time. Maybe that's how we could all find each other again.”

An energy blast hit the tree. Nick and Howie jumped back and scanned the clearing. Madeline ducked and covered her head as she hid behind Nick.

Howie glanced at Nick as he gripped the pommel of his sword. “It seems we are being watched.”

Nick nodded and raised his hands into a fighting stance.

A second blast hit the tree. Howie drew his sword, then reflected a third blast off its blade.

Nick clenched his fists. “Who’s there?!”

A fourth and fifth blast hit the tree in succession. “Who dares intrude on me?” A voice bellowed.

Nick flapped his wings and leapt into the air. He scanned the clearing, searching for the voice. A sixth blast shot toward him. Nick dove beneath it causing it to hit the tree behind him, snapping a branch above Howie and Madeline.

Madeline shrieked and Howie rose his sword above them, slicing the branch in two.

Nick exhaled and put his hand to his chest. He began gliding toward the source of the blast, only to be buffeted away by a gale. He collided with the tree behind him and landed on one of its branches.

"What measly powers do you have if you refuse to fight me?!"

Nick growled as he perched on the branch. "Come closer and I will gladly fight you."

The wind whispered between them.

Nick sprung from the branch and flew back toward the second tree. A similar gale burst toward him, but he vaulted over it and then continued his descent to the tree.

One of the branches stretched from the tree and wrapped around Nick's ankle.

As Nick struggled to free his foot, the branch clenched tighter around his ankle. Several other branches twined around his wrists, legs, waist, and neck. As he struggled, they squeezed his limbs.

Howie clenched his hand around the hilt of his sword and looked between Nick and Madeline.

Nick strained against the branches. "Keep her safe!"

Howie frowned as he scanned the clearing. "Energy blasts, wind, and wood? Is this one demon or many?"

Madeline stood quickly, pushed Howie aside, and ran toward the tree. “Ashley!”

"Howie…"

A shadowed form shot from the tree toward Madeline leaving a cloud of smoke behind it.

Howie narrowed his eyes and leapt toward Nick. He raised his sword above his head and swung it toward the branches. An energy cracked around the branches before they snapped and shattered to the ground in shards.

Nick shook the loosened wrappings from his body, then flapped his wings as he descended to the ground. Howie followed closely behind him.

Nick put his hand on Howie's shoulder. "Thank you." He clenched his fist. “But…”

The smoke cleared and the shadowed form came into view at the edge of clearing. His blond hair fell lightly against his head as his blue eyes dimly glowed red. His wings spread at his back behind his long black tunic and tattered black pants. The cream ribbon tied loosely at his waist swung lightly. His clawed feet gripped the ground.

“Ashley!” Madeline reached her hands toward him.

He put his hand to her wrist and wrapped his claws around it. “Madeline… Who did you bring here?!”

“Ashley… I wanted to see you… and they…” She began sinking to her knees.

Howie raised his sword, clenching his claws around the grip.

Nick put his arm in front of Howie and stepped forward, his head lowered toward the ground.

“You wish to continue our fight? I will tear your limbs from your body.” He tossed Madeline’s arm back toward her, then stepped toward Nick.

Nick’s gold sash swayed in the wind as he took another step toward the ruby demon, then raised his head. “Master.”

Ashley laughed boisterously. “You dare call me, Master?! Then bow at my feet, lowly sapphire demon!”

Nick shook his head and stepped forward again. “What else should I call you, Master?”

Ashley flinched as he stepped back. His nostrils flared. “That scent…”

Nick continued to walk toward him.

Ashley strode toward Nick and the two met in the middle of the clearing. He reached his hand out to Nick’s face. “Impossible… He’s much smaller…” He sniffed. “But this scent is undeniably his… Nicky…”

“Master…”

“Were you brought back as well?”

“Yes and no… We retrieved the box first and then we were brought back by magic.”

Ashley gripped Nick’s face. “You survived all those years. I can feel it, you’ve grown strong.”

Nick lowered his head and chuckled darkly. “Survived, yes.” He pulled back from Ashley’s grip. “Madeline and I came looking for you. We are trying to find all the demons and priestesses.”

Ashley crossed his arms. “Who sent you on this quest? Madeline? You did always enjoy those fool’s errands.”

Madeline shook her head as she stood and walked timidly toward Ashley and Nick. “They found me.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “They?”

“The sapphire demons and their priestess.”

Ashley clenched his fingers around his arms. “So, she no longer selfishly sleeps…”

Madeline quickened her pace, then stopped as she gripped his shoulder. “She saved all of us! But then we were all brought back! Nicky just told you they were able to get the box!”

Ashley tensed under her grip. “So, a selfish priestess is our savior? I refuse to believe that!”

Nick clenched his fist. “Master, we fought through hell and illusions to destroy the false god and restore everyone’s memories. Minako carried the burden for us then and I could only support her then." He unclenched his fist and raised his hand to touch Ashley's shoulder. "But together, we will continue to carry the burden to help everyone survive. This alliance is beneficial for us all.”

Howie strode toward them. "Nick.."

“Nicky… You…”

Madeline clasped her hands together. “I know! He’s gotten so mature. He doesn’t even flinch anymore!”

Ashley’s eyes were wide, but he sneered. “So, you have abandoned us for your own companions’ agenda.”

Nick lowered his head and his hand. “Master, unless Madeline had retrieved the box and ended everything back then, I was always going to find them eventually unless--”

“Madeline?”

“She said she isn’t a priestess anymore and asked to be called Madeline.”

Ashley narrowed his eyes. “And who has accompanied you?”

“Howie.”

“Howie?”

“His Majesty, one of the other sapphire demons!” Madeline continued to smile brightly.

“Oh? A king is a cardinal demon? No wonder Safaiananpou is always so peaceful and removed from this conflict.”

Nick shook his head. "Delayed… More than anything, our enemy wants to kill us specifically. The emerald demons are merciless."

Howie slid his sword back into its sheath. “All countries can be peaceful if we act together. The alliance Nick mentioned --”

The surprised sneer crossed Ashley’s face again. “Nick?”

Nick smiled warmly. “Minako called me it when we first met. It was the name her heart called out and the one I’ve decided that I prefer.”

“King… Madeline… Nicky… Before I decide whether to become your ally, I want to meet her. Take me to this all powerful bewitching sorceress.”

End Notes:
If you want to enjoy Nick fighting his Master's shell in the castle, I'll direct you to PBox ch. 43 "Disciple."
Chapter Eight: Bewitched by nicksgal
As Howie slid open the door to the tavern, nearly every eye in the room flitted toward him. Though many returned to their tables as he entered, several remained transfixed on him as the two demons and the oddly dressed woman appeared behind him. Howie strode toward the table covered in his charts.

Kevin stood from their table, pushing his chair backward. "Howie, Nick, Madeline, you've returned." He gestured to the third demon. "And you found--"

Minako jumped from her seat. "You're back! I'm glad you're safe!" She embraced Howie.

Ashley shrank back.

Minako turned from Howie and wrapped her arms around Nick’s neck.

“Minako…” He smiled as he returned her embrace, wrapping his arms around her waist.

She put her hand to Nick's cheek and ran her thumb across it. "You have a scratch…" She gripped his collar with her other hand and pulled it closer as she examined it. "And your tunic is ripped. Are you…"

Nick placed his hand at the back of her head and stroked her hair. "I'm fine. I promise."

She pressed a kiss to his cheek then turned to Madeline, her grip remaining on Nick. "Are you okay, Madeline?"

Madeline raised her eyebrows as she gingerly touched her wrist. "I'm also fine."

Minako stared at her wrist intently before turning toward Ashley. "And you must be Nick's Master! He actually wore the same outfit when I first met him." She reached her hand toward him and smiled brightly. "I'm Minako. I’m so excited to meet you!"

Ashley sneered. "Madeline. A word." He turned and headed across the tavern.

"Sorry." Madeline shrugged her shoulders and followed him.
Ashley stopped near a section of empty and secluded tables and pulled Madeline close. “I do not trust her,” he whispered, “We have only just met and she already treats me so informally.”

“She’s… very friendly. And she and Nicky are very close; I’m sure she’s heard a lot about you.”

Ashley turned back toward the table where the sapphire demons and priestess stood speaking.

Nick and Minako continued to embrace each other. As she ran her hand through his hair, he leaned his head on hers. Minako smiled at him, eyed Ashley and Madeline briefly, then returned her gaze to Nick.

Ashley growled.

Madeline clenched her fist. “Are you suspicious of her because she’s being nice to him?”

“Humans aren’t that kind to demons,” he hissed.

Madeline frowned, then crossed her arms as she turned away. “Then what am I? Am I not a human?”

Ashley shook his head. “You know Pandoras are different, Madeline.”

Her eyebrows pinched together and her lip quivered for a moment before she turned back to him and scrunched her nose. “Then why are you suspicious of her? She’s Pandora!”

Ashley touched her shoulder. “You’re Pandora. She’s a child.”

Madeline pushed his hand from her shoulder. “We’re the same age Ashley! She succeeded in getting the box after we failed! She’s Pandora!” She pivoted on her heel to walk away from him.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her back. “Madeline!”

Madeline pulled her hand away. “We died! You have to accept that even though we’re back, he kept going without you! She’s Pandora and he’s completely devoted to her! People change!”

“Madeline…”

“If you want to focus on him, that’s fine! You had him around longer than you had me!” She clenched her fist and stomped her foot. “But you never listen! We’re back together and you’re only focused on her and Nicky! Don’t I matter to you?!”

“Madeline… You’re shouting.”

“I’m mad at you! How can you be suspicious about things that are the same for her and me?!”

“I know you…”

“You should at least trust Nicky!” She stormed back to the main table.

Ashley stood staring after her for a moment, then followed her reluctantly.

Minako and Nick turned toward them. Minako frowned. “Madeline, are you--”

Madeline stomped past them. “I’m going for a walk.”

Minako turned back to Nick and smiled. “You catch up with your Master, I’ll go check on her.” They shared a quick kiss and embraced each other tightly, before Minako rushed out after Madeline.

Nick’s gaze followed her out the door as he beamed; once she disappeared from view, he turned back to Ashley. “Master, you’re still fighting?”

Ashley crossed his arms and turned away. His voice was cross. “Some things should stay the same.”

Howie sat back at the table. “Ruby demon, are you the planner that Ruby Pandora mentioned from your party?”

Ashley whirled back toward him and sneered. “Why do you ask?”

“The alliance Nick mentioned--”

“Why should Ruby demons be allied with Sapphire demons?”

Kevin sat next to Howie as well. “Isn’t the best argument that the enemy of our enemy is our friend?” He crossed his arms. “The emerald general has brought us all back, so we will need to ally against him in order to return to the other world or choose to stay here once he is no longer a threat.”

AJ and Brian sat as well.

Howie put his hand to his head. “Nick, you know it distresses us when you hover.” He turned to Ashley. “If you are the planner Ruby Pandora mentioned, we would appreciate your input. While she makes attempts, she is woefully unprepared on our plans.”

Nick and Ashley both sat, leaning back against their chairs with their arms crossed.

AJ shook his head. “Uncanny…”

Nick turned toward Ashley. “Master…”

Ashley put his hand to his chin and shook his head as his arms remained crossed. “Nicky, finish your thoughts without pausing. It seemed like you were past this.”

“Are you well?”

He laughed sardonically. “You’re concerned I’m still injured after dying?”

Nick lowered his head and placed his hands in his lap. “Of course, how foolish of me…”

Ashley peered at him out of the corner of his eye. “So, sometimes you are the same as when you were a child…”
Nick stared at the floor as he fiddled with his sash. His mouth opened slightly and his fixed gaze was glassy.

Brian narrowed his eyes at Ashley, then smiled as he put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, why don’t you tell Ashley about our plans.”

Nick blinked, sat up, and turned back to Ashley. “Right. You met Howie in the clearing.” He motioned to the other three demons in turn. “This is Kevin, AJ, and Brian.”

The other three demons briefly nodded toward him.

Ashley chuckled. “Such strange names for demons… Howie… AJ...”

AJ clenched his fist.

Nick rapped his claws against the table as he gathered some of Howie’s charts. “Like I said, they’re the names Minako’s heart called out when we first met and the ones we prefer amongst each other.”

Ashley snorted.

Nick pulled the map of Rubiihoppou toward him. “We came back to retrace our steps from the mountain and see if any of the other cardinal demons were reborn. It looks like we were right.” He frowned as he tapped the map. “So if you could tell us where you reappeared, we can figure out our next plan.”

Ashley shook his head. “The castle, but that was months ago.”

Howie leaned forward. “You were awakened months ago?”

He nodded. “I reawakened in the castle and escaped as quickly as I could. Something was following me... Since then, I have been going to various places in Rubiihoppou looking for the other demons or Madeline.” He smirked. “Though I was surprised to see her with you, Nicky.”

Kevin rubbed his hand on his chin. “I wonder how long Madeline was in Rubiihoppou looking for any of the Ruby demons before deciding to go back to the gate?”

Brian turned toward Howie. “Does that mean that everyone reawakened at the castle?”

Howie placed his elbows on the table, then leaned on his tented fingers. “That would seem logical as it was the last place we all were.”

AJ frowned. “So somehow Justin came back here before searching for us? Or did he find everyone in the other world?”

Nick clenched his fist and snarled. “Or both. How did he get back here? And that potion? What does he want with us?”

Brian patted Nick’s shoulder. “We’ll figure it out.”

Nick shook his head. “What do we focus on next?”

Howie frowned. “With the confirmation that there is at least one other priestess and one other cardinal demon here, it does seem likely that all the priestesses and demons have returned to this world.” He pulled the map of Rubiihoppou back toward him. “Though, while it also seems everyone reappeared in Rubiihoppou, it was before we arrived.”

AJ crossed his arms, then raised the palm of his hand to his forehead. He leaned on it as he exhaled. “They could be anywhere by now…”

“Precisely.”

Kevin frowned. “I wonder if Madeline still has the ability to call to her demons or would that power disappear with the box gone?”

Howie shook his head. “The powers of other Pandoras may be more mysterious than Minako’s powers, but that is worth including in our strategy.”

Nick leaned his elbows on the table. “She wanted to find her sister. Do we go to Topazuseihou?”

Brian grinned. “If we did, we could stop by my home and spend some time training. That could help us get stronger.”

AJ patted Brian’s shoulder. “That would be helpful!”

Ashley leaned back in his chair. His eyes narrowed as he pressed his lips together. “Who is in charge of your group?”

The five demons turned to him.

Nick cocked his head. “No one…”

Ashley gave him an incredulous look. “Any decision you make, you all have discussions like this and consult everyone’s opinions?”

AJ narrowed his eyebrows at him. “Of course.”

“And you worry about how your priestess feels before deciding?”

Kevin crossed his arms. “Of course.”

He chuckled. “And now that you have accepted Madeline into your group, you consider her wishes?”

Brian frowned. “Of course.”

He smirked. “And should I accept this alliance, you would also consider my wishes?”

Howie rested his hands on the table. “Of course.”

Ashley shook his head and laughed. “How weak. Were you always this weak or only after your priestess finally descended?”

Nick clenched his fist and glanced at the floor. “Master, did it really make you happy to be silent about your own feelings and constantly tell others what to do?”

Ashley stared at him in silence.

“Did it really make you happy to have a relationship with Madeline where you constantly fought?”

Ashley frowned, but said nothing.

Nick shook his head, then fixed his gaze on Ashley. “Because… I grew to be like that because you were like that... and I hated it.” He rested his hands on the table. “Being surrounded and being alone is no way to live and my world became safer and warmer when I let other people matter to me. Being strong is more than beating anything that comes your way. We’re all stronger together and Minako is very important to us because we are all friends.” Nick put his hand on Ashley’s shoulder. “Madeline is ready to be that for you, I think she always has been. And we are ready to let you join us too. Your world can be so much brighter too.”

Ashley snorted and brushed off Nick’s hand as he stood. He stared at him for one moment before turning and exiting the tavern.

The other four demons turned to Nick.

Nick chuckled quietly. “It’s fine. It’s like talking to myself in the beginning. I wouldn’t have listened either.” He shook his head and exhaled before leaning his elbows on the table again. “So when Minako and Madeline return, do we ask Madeline to try calling the other Ruby demons?”

AJ shook his head, but grinned. “You’re something else, Nick. I liked Brian’s suggestion to go train in the mountains.”

Brian nodded. “And it would be kind to help Madeline find her sister sooner rather than later.”

“What do we do about Ashley?” Kevin furrowed his brow.
Nick shrugged. “Not depend on him for now.”

Howie began scrawling some notes on his charts. “We hope that Minako’s conversation is more productive.”

~*~


Minako ran from the inn and out to the open square. The capital was a sea of people bustling, flowing, and cresting from point to point in the square. She scanned the crowd, all faceless citizens of Rubiihoppou. Where is Madeline? We’re in her country now, so where does she go when she wants to escape from the ruby demons? Is it always the same place? Where did I feel her the most when we were here before?

She turned toward the shrine and clenched her first to her heart. The first place we met the false god, the first time Nick was truly lost in his demonic form, the first place he and I came to when we left the mountain, the first place I really met and felt you before I actually met you. She started running toward the shrine. I wonder what this was when you were alive. Is it a place you spent a lot of time? Did it mean something to you? Or Ashley? Or both of you? Was he your Nick? Is it the first place you appeared in this world?

She continued to run up the stairs, but slowed her pace as she entered the shrine. The statue loomed above her with its outstretched arms, and beneath them sat the breathing Ruby Priestess.

Madeline turned at the sound of the footsteps. “Minako…”

Minako stepped toward her. “I’m not who you were hoping for, am I?”

Madeline shook her head. “I wasn’t hoping for anyone.”

“Can I join you?”

Madeline nodded.

Minako sat on her knees next to Madeline, her sleeves falling around her elbows.

Madeline chuckled. “You’re not what I expected from a priestess.”

Minako smiled. “I feel like people’s opinions of me were defined by you, but I think we’re a little different. You’re a very strong-willed woman who paved her own way.”

Madeline shook her head. “You’re too nice. I know what they say. But I don’t see it...” She reached her hand out, seeming to touch the statue as she stared up at it. “This woman looks like a serene angel, like that bewitching beauty they talk about, not the condescending torturer though...”

“You’re more than that.”

“Has Nick talked about me or just Ashley?”

Minako frowned. “A little about both of you… Except... he’s been struggling with his memories for some time, so it’s not detailed stories, just bits and pieces.” She smiled. “But, he did say he feels like you are a sibling.”

Madeline smiled as she shut her eyes. “I tease him, but I really did enjoy having him around when Bri and I were on opposite sides… It was like having a substitute… No… A second sibling when I really needed one.”

“Are you and Bri okay now?”

“Last spring we both woke up one day and it felt like it had been forever since we saw each other, but we didn’t know why…” She smiled as she opened her eyes. “But the first thing we did was hug each other. I was so happy to be able to hug her.”

Minako put her hand on Madeline’s hand. “We’ll find her, I promise.”

“I just want her to be able to go back to high school, graduate, and keep working toward her dreams. She should get all those wonderful things. I just hope she’s safe.”

Minako nodded and squeezed Madeline’s hand.

“Your friend too, right?”

Minako smiled weakly. “I want to get Renee right now, I always do… But if she’s with Justin, that would be dangerous to jump right in. Nick, Brian, and I barely made it out alive the last time we went to Emeradotouhou and I can’t let that happen to them again.”

Madeline gripped her hand. “You care a lot about them… We’ll definitely help her.” She looked back up at the statue. “Is there one of these in Safaiananpou?”

Minako shook her head and chuckled. “Nick wondered the same thing when we first got back here, but we didn’t see one. Time’s a little different here, but I don’t think it’s been long enough…”

“It’s weird to see yourself like this… I never really felt like I could be this… I was just trying to get home, trying to get back my sister… And I just kept becoming this horrible person the longer we were here… And somehow Ashley still seemed to love me…” She shook her head. “But we’re still fighting all the time… So did he really ever love me?”

“Did you think so?”

Madeline shrugged. “I guess…”

Minako smiled warmly. “Then he did.”

Madeline lowered her head, but peeked at Minako from the corner of her eye. “Do you feel like you became horrible?”

Minako looked up at the statue and frowned. “I don’t think I’m like this either. Are any of us really important enough to be immortalized as statues?” She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m still not sure I should have been Pandora… I was just… really insignificant and small.”

Madeline scooted closer to her. “Me too.” She laughed. “I only agreed to do it because I thought it would get me home… But then I met Ashley and I just wanted to be around him. He wasn’t even the first demon I met… It was actually Erik! What about you?”

“I wanted to go home, but… I did it to help Nick.” She put her hand to her heart. “He was really hurting and I promised him when I met him that I would help him get the box. I thought I would be able to give him one of my wishes and he would be really happy.”

Madeline shook her head. “You’re not what I expected at all. Does Nicky know that?”

“He does. He told me he didn’t want it because we had our promise. In the end, I couldn’t use my wishes the way I originally planned. Even though I wanted to stay with him, it wouldn’t have been right; there were so many more people depending on me than Nick.”

Madeline smiled, but shook her head again. “Who are you Minako? You save your wishes for your demons, call them your friends, say you wanted to stay with them, and then in the end, you used your wishes for all of us.”

Minako fixed her gaze on the statue. “Just Minako. Being here taught me what it really meant to be there for the people I cared about.”

Madeline grabbed her hand. “Nicky always asked if you would come save him. He’s… really different from when I knew him. He has this unflinching strength and sage wisdom that I would have never expected. Did you do that? Did you make him stronger?”

Minako laughed. “Unflinching strength… that’s the nice way to say it. Kevin always says he doesn’t consider consequences.” Minako smiled as she fiddled with her ring. “But he was always kind and gentle, even when I first met him… He cares so deeply about helping and protecting others. And I think that he doesn’t want to let anything go unsaid if he thinks it can help. His heart is very strong.” She turned back to her. “But he spent so long thinking he was a monster or that he was unwanted, that he buried all those wonderful things about himself.”

“So you saved him?”

Minako smiled at her ring. “Maybe he saved me. All I did was support him and believe in him. The longer we’ve been walking together, I’ve felt more like I could depend on other people to become stronger and that I could be whoever I wanted and still be someone worth knowing. And during that time, he’s grown to confidently believe that he’s worthwhile and strong beyond physical strength.”

Madeline lowered her head. “Can we be friends? Nicky said that you always show people how much you believe in them and trust them. The more you and I talk, the more I realize that he’s right. I think I can be less horrible if I have someone to support me like that, who also trusts me to support them with whatever I have… I hope that person can be you.”

“Of course, Madeline, I would love to be your friend. We’ll get through this together and support each other. It’s not every day you get to spend time with another Pandora here.” She smiled.

Madeline looked up and beamed at her, then leaned her head on Minako’s shoulder.

The two girls sat with their hands clenched in the shadow of the statue, the ideal priestess. In the outside world, there was only one way to be a priestess, they were all judged by the actions of the others. In the beginning, Madeline’s actions had overshadowed Minako’s. Even the sapphire demons had wondered if a kind priestess could be a strong enough priestess to retrieve the box. But somewhere along their journey, they decided that maybe kindness was a strength beyond their preconceived ideas. In their inner circle, the priestesses and cardinal demons knew that there were many ways to be a priestess: perseverance, faith, intelligence, or kindness. They all seemed to be drawn in by the kindness of the Sapphire Pandora, but did that make her path the one correct way? Or would they be able to combine their perseverance and kindness to become something stronger? Were they more than their supposed powers and strengths? If they combined their powers, could they find the power beyond strength?
Chapter Nine: Misgivings by nicksgal
Minako and Madeline walked back through the crowded capital city. In the cacophonous square, they were vibrant spots among the drably dressed citizens. While similar in construction, Minako’s vibrant sapphire dress stood out among the muted colors of the citizens’ blacks, tans, whites, and browns. Madeline’s seemingly odd clothing was also easy to spot. As they walked through the square, many citizens bowed to them, then stepped aside as they walked.

Madeline scanned the crowd. “Do you think they remember that I was a priestess?”

Minako laughed. “Do people normally bow to you at home?”

Madeline smirked. “They should.” She scanned Minako’s outfit. “Is that how you dress normally?”

Minako shook her head. “No… It’s not… I changed because I kept telling Nick that I only wanted to be here with him, but if I’m still wearing my old clothing, it feels like I’m half in the other world.”

Madeline cocked her head. “But your shoes?”

Minako looked down at her brown boat shoes. “I had sandals before, but I kept tripping.” She laughed. “I’m sure Nick would prefer that I’m safe and it’s easier when we’re walking so far... Actually, he doesn’t wear shoes anyway, so I don’t think he notices.”

“I wore jeans last time too. It was nice because it was cold.”

“Renee and I had our school uniforms. Rubiihoppou was very cold!” She smiled. “I think Nick preferred it to this dress, to be honest… Also it was easier to move and climb mountains. I wish I could make this shorter, but Howie might feel hurt if I changed it.”

“You could just change back into your regular clothing. Nicky would be happy to have you here no matter what you’re wearing or think it says about your feelings.”

Minako smiled. “Maybe you’re right. What about you, will you stick with those clothes?”

Madeline shrugged.

As they reached the inn, a familiar figure leaned on the wall outside. His black tunic blended in with the muted colors of the sea of people, but his large wings distinguished him.

Madeline stopped and whirled back toward the shrine.

Minako gripped her arm. “Just talk to him.”

Madeline sighed, then turned back toward him. She continued walking until she was inches from his face. “Ashley.”

He glanced at her as he crossed his arms. “Madeline.”

Minako motioned to the tavern. “Are they still inside?”

Madeline grabbed her hand and pulled her close. “Stay…”

Ashley narrowed his eyes. “They are having a discussion.”

Minako smiled at Madeline. “Should we find out what we missed?”

Ashley put his hand on Madeline’s shoulder. “I... am happy that you have returned.”

Madeline inhaled audibly and held the breath as she stepped toward him.

“And I am willing to consider your choice in our next steps.”

Madeline squeezed Minako’s hand. “I want to stay with them.”

Ashley’s brow furrowed as he turned away from her. “Is this going to be like our Nicky argument again?”

“That wasn’t about--”

“No, the last one… In the castle.”

Madeline glanced at Minako as she pressed her lips flat against each other, then turned back to Ashley. “Yes.” She brushed her hand against Ashley’s cheek. “You can do what you want. I’m staying.”

Ashley glanced at Madeline’s hand and then turned to Minako, he grimaced as he fixed his unyielding and sharp stare at her face. “Sapphire Priestess… I will tentatively join your alliance because my priestess has wished it.”

Madeline glanced at Minako.

Minako smiled. “Nick will be so happy to hear that.”

Ashley snorted and glanced at the door of the tavern. “Is that true, Sapphire Priestess?”

As if on cue, the door to the tavern opened and Nick stepped out. His brow furrowed as he stared at the shadows on the ground, then raised his head as though he scanned the figures by the door. His expression softened as his gaze settled on Minako’s face, then lit up with a gentle smile. “Minako…”

Ashley snorted again.

Nick glanced at them and his brow furrowed again. “Madeline… Master…”

Ashley brushed Madeline’s hand aside as he moved toward him. “Nicky… a word…”

Nick bit his lip as his hand flinched. “Sure… I was just going for a walk.”

Ashley nodded and began walking away from the tavern.

Nick ran his hand across Minako’s cheek as she frowned “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.” He pressed a quick kiss to her lips.

Minako smiled against his kiss and held his hand. “See you soon.”

Nick quickly embraced her then ran to catch up with Ashley, pushing past the crowd in the square. “Master!” he called after him. When he received no response, he continued to weave through the crowds until he reached the shrine. He stared up at the immense statue and shook his head. Madeline… Always watching over us. He trudged up the hill and back toward the clearing where they had originally found him.

He stopped in the middle of the clearing and clenched his fists. “I know you’re here, Master!” He scanned the trees around him. No sound, no movement… A burst of energy struck against his back and he fell to his knees.

“Pathetic.”

Nick stood quickly and hopped backward before thrusting his foot toward the voice.

Ashley used his forearm for a low block. “Weak.”

Nick jabbed toward his face, which Ashley dodged, then landed an uppercut to his jaw. Nick smirked.

Ashley jumped backward and ran his hand along his jaw. “Passable.”

Nick jumped after him and thrust two side kicks against his abdomen and jab against his cheek.

Ashley jabbed back and Nick dodged. Ashley jabbed again.

Nick dodged and hooked his fist toward Ashley’s cheek. “Master, there’s more than one way to do things.”

Ashley dodged and landed an uppercut on Nick’s chin. He snorted. “Ah yes, sapphire demons who only plan and never act.”

Nick jumped back and shot his foot into Ashley’s thigh. “It’s strategizing!”

Ashley clenched Nick’s ankle and took flight before dropping him from midair.

Nick descended toward the ground, but flipped before he hit it. After reorienting himself, he shot back toward Ashley and jabbed, hooked, and kicked at him.

Ashley chuckled as he dodged. “Predictable.” He descended toward the ground and clenched his clawed feet into the grass. “You have not grown stronger in all these years? Can you only attack me with a punch and not your powers?”

Nick growled and descended as well. “Master, why are you always testing me instead of teaching me?”

Ashley slammed a kick into Nick’s abdomen. “Why should I take on a weak disciple?”

The two demons continued to jab and kick at each other. Some shots they made, some shots were dodged. There was no malice in their fight, only assessment. Had death made one weak? Had life made one strong? Though they appeared the same age now, did the original elder have more experience from age? Or had the original disciple become more experienced because he was forged by fire? They both fought with brute strength, but in the decade since running with each other, they began to seem more different from each other than alike. Their definitions of strength defined their fighting styles. For the master, strength lay in the force of his body. For the disciple, strength lay in the force of his heart. Could one strength eventually overpower the other?

Nick took several deep breaths and sat on the ground, hanging his head toward his lap. Ashley sat next to him, leaning back on his hands and breathing heavily.

Nick turned to Ashley. “Master… what have you and Madeline decided?”

Ashley leaned forward and crossed his arms. “She has decided to stay with all of you. I will tentatively join…”

“Why? You seemed disinterested at the inn...”

“I considered Madeline’s feelings.”

Nick chuckled. “That doesn’t seem like you.”

Ashley smirked. “Maybe I decided to try letting my world be brighter, like you suggested.”

Nick bit his lip as he frowned, then lowered his head. “I wish… I wish there was more I could have done to help you in the end.”

Ashley held his hand to his forehead and sighed exasperatedly. “Nicky, you were a child and it wasn’t your battle.”

Nick glanced at him. “Master… If that wasn’t a fight for me, then what was? Why would you keep me around for so long if I couldn’t fight, especially after Madeline came?”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Nick clenched his fist and growled. “I lived that fight again with Minako and the other sapphire demons, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It was hell. If you didn’t want me to fight, why keep me around? Why would you let me live through that twice? Especially if I could never use my powers?”

Ashley cupped Nick’s shoulder. “Nicky, it’s none of your concern.”

Nick unclenched his fist. “I don’t… I don’t remember a lot of things about when we were together or before that…” He fixed his gaze on the ground again. “I’m trying to get stronger for Minako and my friends so that I can support them, but… I don’t even know my powers… And I can’t remember my past... So whatever you know…”

Ashley patted Nick’s shoulder. “Nicky, you’re fixating on unimportant things.”

Nick snarled, his hard stare boring through Ashley. “I’m not a child anymore! It’s important to me! Why won’t you trust me?”

Ashley chuckled derisively. “Not everything is about trust, Nicky.” He stood and brushed off his pants. “This has alleviated my stress. It was good to see you can still fight.”

“But, Master…”

Ashley began walking back toward the shrine.

Nick stood and followed him. “Master!”

~*~



At the far end of the inn, a clump of rooms held the belongings of the sapphire and ruby contingent. In one of the rooms, Minako sat watching Madeline as she packed a knapsack. The room was sparse, only three mats for beds, but it did have a window.

Minako peered out the window for a moment before turning back to Madeline.

Madeline haphazardly pushed some clothing and a map into the bag. "Your king is super prepared! Extra clothes! Extra maps!"

Minako laughed. "Yes, Howie is definitely a planner." Her eyebrows pinched as she stared at the floor. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

Madeline smiled. “I’ll be fine. I hadn’t even thought of calling for them... I think I forgot how!”

Minako frowned. “I meant traveling alone… Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? Or Ashley?”

Madeline shook her head. “No, but thank you. I just need a break from Ashley and I want to try to remember what my relationships were like with the other Ruby demons…” She pursed her lips.

“Are you worried they’ll be mad at you?”

“A little, I guess, but…” She lowered her head as she scrunched her nose. “Can I tell you something?”

“Of course.”

She stared at the ground. “Ashley and I used to argue a lot. Sometimes it was very vulgar and angry and sometimes it was really passionate, but we… fought about Nicky a lot…” She looked up at Minako. “He was really secretive about two things: his powers and his relationship with him, even with me.” She clenched her fingers around the clothing in the bag. “I’m worried he might do something… mean…”

Minako touched Madeline’s arm. “Thank you for telling me. Do you know anything about their relationship or Ashley’s powers?”

“He always had whatever power we needed; I can’t really explain it. And Nicky had already been with him for five years when I knew them, but that’s it… They aren’t related. I don’t know how they met, or why...”

Minako frowned as she furrowed her brow. “Ashley seems complicated…”

Madeline laughed. “Yes, that’s exactly how he is!”

Minako stared out the window again.

“Oh, but… one more thing… He’s used to being in charge… I don’t know how well he’ll react to the teamwork oriented way you all do things.” She put her hand on Minako’s and smiled. “You look really worried… Just keep supporting Nicky and it will be fine.”

Minako smiled, but her stomach twisted inside her body. Madeline… Why is Ashley so secretive about his own powers and Nick? Would he tell Nick? It’s strange that someone who could illuminate Nick’s past has always kept it shrouded in darkness… Darkness just like where Nick was when I met him. Is that what Nick’s heart and mind feel like when he tries to think about his past? Shadowy? Stagnant? Cold? Secretive? Even when he’s moved and changed so much, it’s like a mire that’s trapped him in the past. Can he go forward if part of him is still stuck? She shook her head. Madeline is right, I promised Nick that I would stay with him. The best thing I can do is continue to support him no matter what happens.

Madeline clapped her hands. “I’m ready! Can you walk me out?”

“Of course.”

The two girls walked down the hall, back toward the main entrance, where they ran into Nick and Ashley as they reentered the front lobby. Ashley stood tall, his chest proud with confidence. Nick hung his head and hunched his shoulders.

Ashley assessed them, then narrowed his eyebrows. “Madeline… I thought you were staying.”

She smiled. “I am, I’m just going to try and find some more of the Ruby demons.”

“I’ll join you.”

Madeline cupped his shoulder. “Stay, so I know what we’re doing next. I’ll be back in a few days.”

Ashley snorted and turned his head away from her.

Madeline touched Nick’s arm. “Nicky, you’ll make sure he’s welcomed into your group?”

Nick nodded, but didn’t raise his head. “Yeah.”

Madeline smiled. “Ashley, let me show you the room I was staying in. We’ve taken up a lot of their time already.” She winked at Minako and pulled Ashley back down the hall.

Mianko wrapped her arms around Nick’s shoulders. Her eyebrows pinched as she leaned toward him. “Nick…”

He raised his head. “Minako… I…” He frowned as his stare fixed on her face. “You look how I’m feeling…” He leaned his head on hers. “Is Madeline…”

She tightened her hug. “She’s been nothing but nice to me, I promise. But your Master…”

“It’s… different. It’s not… The same…” He shook his head, then bit his lip. “Maybe it was always this way and I was too young to notice…”

Minako kissed his cheek as she rubbed his back. “Do you want to go for a walk?”

“Yeah, let’s get out of here.”

They walked back into the bustling square. The people and buildings surrounding them blurred into a haze of movement flowing by them. Nick gripped her hand tightly, pulling her against his chest.

“Nick… You’re worried…” She laced her fingers through his as she frowned. “I am too…”

Nick stopped and inhaled deeply, calming his shallow breaths. “I can’t… He… When you left, he was... “ He chuckled. “He thought we were pathetic because we were deciding things together, like teamwork is a weakness. Do all the other demons choose a leader in their groups?”

“I don’t know… Justin always seemed to be in charge of the emerald demons.” She smiled at him. “But, I like our way better, everyone matters.”

“So many of the other demons we’ve met are focused on how strong everyone is… but over and over again, whenever I feel like I’m not strong, that’s when you’re all supporting me. And when I have that, I feel like I can do anything.” He beamed and pulled her into a tight embrace.

She leaned against his chest. “I’ll always support you.”

“You’ve always been supporting me ever since the first time we met.” He ran his hand through her hair as he pulled her closer to his chest. “I don’t want to be like that… Thinking the only way to be strong is alone. When I was alone, I was at my lowest…”

“Nick, I won’t do that to you again. No matter what happens, I’m going to choose you.”

Nick cupped her cheek. “Minako… I will always choose you too. When I think about the future, I feel like I can be strong.” He lowered his head as he rubbed his hand at the base of his neck. “But when I think about the past… I feel small and confused…”

“Has anything come back with your Master back?”

Nick shook his head. “Just more questions. He was snide about everything while you were gone and I...“ He held his hand to his forehead, then ran it down his face. “My first response was to go quiet so he would stop being mad. That’s so stupid, right?”

Minako’s eyebrows pinched as she brushed back the hair at his forehead. “It’s not stupid at all. It sounds like when you were younger, you were just trying to survive. If he was aggressive when he was mad, what else would you do?” She pressed her hand against his chest and rubbed his back again. “You did survive and you were always strong. You’re the strongest person I know.”

Nick wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. “Why did he keep me around so long? It seems like he didn’t want me there… He wasn’t even happy to see me…”

“Nick…”

“It must be weird seeing people you knew after you died, but… Brian, AJ, and Howie were happy to see us again.”

“Madeline said he likes being in charge… Maybe he feels useless if he’s not…”

Nick leaned his head on hers. “Maybe… But why wouldn’t he tell me? It’s fine if he doesn’t know my powers, but… being a cardinal demon is… hell. It’s difficult, frightening, heartbreaking… and all of you are the only reason I could get through it. Why would you bring a child into that?”

“Nick, you’re worth hell.”

He smiled and kissed her as he ran his hand across the top of her head, then held the back of her head gently. “You are too. It was fine because we were together.” His shoulders slumped. “But, I never felt like his life seemed easier because of me…”

"It seems like he doesn't trust you."

Nick shook his head. "I don't think he ever trusted me."

Minako pulled away. “Madeline told me that she was worried he might do something mean.”

“Mean?”

“I don’t know… She kept looking at me when she told him she wanted to stay, like she wanted to tell me something…”

Nick frowned.

“What do you want to do?”

"Minako… I don't think I can go forward until I know why he let me stay with him all those years."

She brushed her fingers through his hair. “Okay.”

He shook his head and grabbed her hand, pulling it to his chest. “It’s not that I can’t go forward with you. I decided a long time ago that my old memories aren’t as important as my new ones. But the more you and Kevin have helped me heal, the more things come back… and seeing my Master living again… it feels like they’re bursting and calling. What if he knows my powers?”

“Nick…” She leaned her head against his chest. “What if it’s bad? Or it hurts you?”

“I know you’ll help me through it, just like you always have.” He tightened his grip on her hand. “But… I’m worried it might be bad too… There’s no reason not to tell me if it’s not. I’m not sure I trust him…”

“Do you want him to come with us?”

Nick furrowed his brow. “No… But, I know we need all the help we can get. So if he’s any help at all, we should take it.”

“But, Nick…”

“No matter what he says, or doesn’t, we’re stronger together. And together is how we’ll win.”

End Notes:
If you're interested in revisiting the first time you got to interact with Ashley at all, that's ch. 43 of PBox "Disciple" -- it's a fun one (ch. 42 "Wishes" was also originally the beginning of that chapter before I chopped it in half oh so long ago and together they're probably my favorite chapters in all of PBox). As always, if you're enjoying, come hang out with me in the forum.
Chapter Ten: Fear by nicksgal
Nick and Ashley sat in the clearing breathing heavily after a sparring session. Nick leaned his head against his knees and Ashley leaned backward as he stared at the sky.

“Master, why did you keep me with you all those years?”

“Nicky, you’re focusing on inconsequential things again.”

He stood quickly as he growled. “It’s important to me!”

Ashley stood as well, then began to walk away. “We’ll train again tomorrow.”

~*~



The sapphire demons, Minako, and Ashley sat around a table as Howie plotted a route on a map.

“Is it really worth your time to go to Topazuseihou?” Ashley sneered.

“The more demons the better,” Nick interjected.

Ashley shook his head. “Sometimes more is a liability.”

Nick clenched his fist. “Then why did you keep me with you?”

“It’s only trivial…”

Nick growled.

~*~



Ashley stood outside the inn and leaned against the wall.

Nick and Minako approached him as they walked toward the door. “Master…”

Ashley averted his eyes.

“Master…”

Ashley put up his flat palm before walking back into the inn. “Nicky, it’s frivolous.”

“Master!” Nick followed him

~*~



On and on the pattern of asking and being denied answers continued. The longer Madeline was gone, the more suspicious and frustrated Nick became as time seemed to stand still. After finalizing their planned route to the mountains, Howie and Kevin had left for the evening, but the other three sapphire demons, Minako, and Ashley remained sitting in the tavern.

Ashley crossed his arms. “Madeline has been gone for some time. Is it possible the other Ruby demons aren’t out there?”

“I’m sure they’re out there!” Minako smiled warmly. “We just have to keep moving forward, like Madeline does, so that we’re ready to go when she gets back.”

Ashley snorted. “Is it worth it to find them? Other people are a liability.”

“How can you say that about your friends?” AJ clenched his fist.

“They were traveling companions because of Madeline, nothing more.”

Brian blinked and shook his head. “Unbelievable…”

Nick slammed his hand against the table. “Then why keep me with you for so long if you despise having other people around!”

“Nicky…”

He clenched his hand into a fist as he growled. “Don’t tell me it’s not important again!”

Ashley turned away from him and pinched his lips together.

“Master, I was always loyal to you more than anything! Why don’t you trust me?!” As Nick shouted, his face flushed and his nostril flared.

"Nicky, it's none of your concern..."

Nick glowered at him as he stood. "I need to know why you kept me with you all those years, what you know about me. You’re letting me go into a war unprepared!” He lowered his fist and snarled, before glancing at the ground. “But I can't be stuck here anymore… We all need to go forward together! You need to tell me so I can help them!"

"Nicky…"

"Stay with her." Nick cupped Brian and AJ's shoulders, then walked away from the table.

Brian quickly stood, then hurried after him. “Nick, wait!”

Ashley crossed his arms and glanced at Minako and AJ. "Seems he does not trust me either."

"Should he?" Minako cocked her head as she focused on his face.

"Sapphire Priestess?"

"He's only asking you for something simple, he wants to know about your history. Why would you keep something like that from him?"

"You think so highly of yourself, meddling in the discussions of others." His brow furrowed as he narrowed his eyes.

"I only want what will make Nick happy and I’ll do anything I can to see him smile. Your time together is really important to him, but his past is so jumbled in his head and you’re the only one who knows what’s real and what isn’t…”

“He still doesn’t remember his powers?”

Minako put her hand on his shoulder. “You do know what they are!”

“Vaguely…” He glanced at her.

“You’ve seen them?”

“Once.”

“He’d be really excited to hear that!”

Ashley fixed his gaze on the floor beneath them.

“You’re afraid of how he will react? He’s stronger than he used to be.” Minako put her hands in her lap. “When we first met, he was always shouting like that. He never talked about what he was thinking or feeling…” She shook her head. “Except the first time we met, but I don’t think even he knew what he was saying then…” She smiled warmly. “The more time we spent together, the more he would talk about his worries or his struggles. He also started to accept that he might never know his whole past, but he did think of you warmly even though he chose his future.”

Ashley raised his head, a whisper of a smile crossing his face.

“But we’re about to go against the emerald demons again and we barely survived the last time. Howie, Brian, and AJ all died. Nick needs to know what his powers are because he knows even the smallest thing can make a difference, so something that monumental could ensure our victory. Ashley...”

Ashley pressed his lips together as he glanced away from her again. “I’ll tell you. Then you can tell him.”

“I’ll listen to anything, but…” She put her hand on his shoulder again. “I really think you should tell him yourself. It’s his story, but it’s your shared history.”

“He will believe it from you.”

Minako knitted her brows. “Why would he tell you that you’re lying? What are you going to say?”

Ashley eyed AJ. “And him?”

Minako stood and hesitantly offered her hand to Ashley. “Come with me.”

Ashley took her hand and stood. AJ stood as well.

Minako wrapped her arm around AJ’s shoulders and leaned against his ear, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Thank you for worrying. We’ll be over there. Stay close though.”

AJ nodded, fixing his gaze on her as she walked across the room with Ashley. He sat back down after they sat at a table across the room.

Brian sat back down at the table, but continued to stare down the hall over his shoulder.

AJ turned to face him. “Brian… Is Nick okay?”

Brian shook his head. “He said he was mad and wanted some space.” He turned toward the table where Minako and Ashley were sitting. “Is Minako?”

AJ glanced at the table to see Minako’s face blanching as she held her hands close to her chest, gripping her ring tightly. She stared intently at Ashley with wide eyes.

“I’m going to go help her.” AJ stood quickly.

Brian stood and put his hand on AJ’s shoulder. “I know Nick asked us to stay with her. But doesn’t he need this more?”

“I hate this.” AJ lowered his head. “I hate that it’s better for Nick if we don’t help her. I hate that we’re leaving her alone with that jerk. I hate that he’s ignoring Nick’s wishes.” He growled. “Mostly, I hate how condescending he is to us for being friends. Like caring for each other is some sort of weakness.”

“Your heart is in the right place.” Brian shook his head as he pulled his hand back. “The more demons we meet, the more I worry that they’re all like Nick in the beginning… scared and alone...”

“I was so worried about myself back then too. I felt so lost being separated from all of you.” AJ smiled. “But right away, Minako welcomed me with open arms and I knew it was okay to trust you all, like I trusted Joseph. I wonder if the other demons would be more like us if they had that…” He glanced at the ground. “I’d actually like to find him if we’re not assuming the emerald demons would all ally with Justin…”

Brian pat AJ’s shoulder. “I think we should try. If we can make finding Madeline’s sister a priority, we can make finding Joseph a priority too. If you trust him, I’ll trust him.”

A loud clatter rang across the room and they turned toward the noise to see Minako standing next to the table while her chair laid on the floor. She quickly raised a shaking hand and slapped Ashley across the cheek.

“Minako!” AJ and Brian ran over to the table.

“Sapphire priestess, you will regret this.” Ashley gripped his cheek as he growled and stood from his chair.

“You need to tell him!”

“Or what?” He clenched his hands and they pulsed with energy.

“Or nothing! You need to tell him! How could you keep that from him?!”

Ashley’s hands began glowing with red light. “It will destroy him.”

“He’s stronger now! He can handle it! But the longer you keep it from him, it will destroy your relationship!”

“Admit it, you’re only worried about the alliance!”

“Of course not! You were all he had for so long, his whole past! He already told you it’s hard for him to keep going forward, so let him go forward and accept the consequences for your choices! He wants to go forward with you too, unless you let this come between you!”

Ashley closed his hands into fists, causing the red glow to dissipate. “Then you tell him.”

Minako stepped back and held her hands tightly to her chest.

“Haven’t you promised to tell him anything? Tell him.”

“You’re hoping I’ll soften the news.”

“Won’t you?”

“I won’t. He’d be heartbroken if it came from me. You’ll tell him.”

“Is this an ultimatum?”

“It’s not, there are no other choices. Tell Nick the truth and be ready for whatever happens next. You’re in charge of your destiny.”

Ashley growled, but glanced at Brian. “Where did you follow him to?”

Brian motioned down the hall. “Back to the room.”

Minako turned to AJ and Brian as they began following Ashley. “Thank you for coming to help me. I’m really fine.”

Brian stood between Minako and the wall, while AJ wedged himself between Minako and Ashley. As they walked, AJ and Brian alternated between eyeing Ashley and glancing at each other. AJ fiddled with his sleeve, then glanced at Minako. He opened his mouth to speak as they reached the room, but closed it as Minako focused on the door.

She slid it open slowly. “Nick…”

He stood in front of the window, running his claws against the wall. In the space between them, the three mats lined the floor. Against the wall beside the door, Brian’s staff rested lightly on their overcoats and other sparse belongings.

Nick turned, a gentle, but subdued smile on his face. “Minako?” After scanning the other three, he frowned and bit his lip. “Master…”

Minako gave Ashley a small push into the room.

He walked across the room and sat against the wall next to where Nick stood, then patted the floor. “You were right, Nicky. You were always loyal to me. I can’t torture you because I died and you found new companions.”

Nick furrowed his brow. “You were important to me too.”

Ashley smirked, then chuckled. “Were…”

Nick turned back toward Minako and smiled. “Minako… Thank you for talking to him. Whatever you said… thank you.”

Minako fixed her gaze on his face as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, gripping the strand tightly as she pulled her hand away.

Nick lowered his head and sank to the floor. “He already told you...” He glanced at the ground and grimaced. “Were we right?”

Minako rushed across the room and knelt beside him. “Nick… you...” She cupped his shoulder and held her hand against his chest. “Do you want us to stay or go?”

“No. Stay. In case I need you…” He gripped his fingers in her hair and held the back of her head as he pressed his lips together. “But… We promised, no secrets between all of us. Kevin and Howie should be here too.” He glanced at the door.

“I’ll go get them.” AJ backed out of the door, but glanced at Ashley with narrowed eyes as he left.

“You really want all of them to hear this story? Your priestess--”

Nick clenched his fist as he gritted his teeth. “Wife.”

Ashley chuckled derisively and shook her head. “She was pale and slapped me. Your companions had to step in and stop me from incinerating her.”

“Master!” Nick pulled Minako against his chest and held his arms tightly around her shoulders.

“Can your companions really handle this?”

Brian grabbed his staff from the wall and struck it against the ground. “We’re here for Nick, whatever he needs!”

“Thank you for always standing by me.” He smiled warmly at Brian, then leaned his head on Minako’s shoulder, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Thank you.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck tightly.

“Master…” He turned back to Ashley as he bit his lip. “I’ve deserved the truth from you. I wish you told me when I asked.” He swallowed, then held eye contact with Ashley as he elevated his chin. “We make decisions together. Knowing this part of my past can help us find my powers and continue to get stronger together.”

“Why do you trust them so much?”

“I woke up in the darkness with nothing, surrounded by people who only called me a monster. But when Minako appeared, she was a bright light in the darkness. She listened to me, believed in me, and tried to help me in any way she could.” He smiled warmly. “And then we went on this journey where we grew together. And then we met Howie, Brian, Kevin, and AJ. And we all grew together as we overcame obstacles. We supported each other and fought hardships together. Even when we were fighting for the box… It wasn’t for the box at all, it was to continue to be together. It was hell, but they’re all worth hell to me.”

“Nick…” a gruff voice interjected.

Nick glanced at the door and smiled broadly. “Kevin… I’m glad we were still together in the end.”

Kevin smiled. “Me too.”

He bit his lip. “Brian, Howie, and AJ… I’m glad we’re back together now.”

“Me too.” “Us as well.” “Same.” They responded in unison.

“Nicky…”

“Master, I’m ready.”

Minako grabbed his hand. “Nick it’s…”

He glanced at her, but his eyes gleamed as he held his head high. “I thought so… I’m still ready.”

Kevin shut the door as the other three demons took seats against the free walls; Howie sat on his knees beside the mats, AJ sat cross-legged across from him, and Brian sat cross-legged beside the door and the overcoats. Kevin sat on his knees at the other side of the door from Brian.

Ashley set his hands in his lap as he pursed his lips. “Nicky… What do you know about demonic powers?”

Nick shrugged. “Demons have them.”

Howie put up a flat palm. “If you would allow us to explain, Nick. Demonic powers are strengthened and bequeathed through the generations of each demon clan.”

“Our powers come from our families?” Nick bit his lip as he fixed his gaze on Howie.

“Each demon from a clan will have a similar set of powers, though not exactly alike.” Howie glanced at Ashley as he set his hands on his knees.

“So whatever my powers are, my family has them too?” Nick furrowed his brow as he stared back at Ashley, then frowned as he shook his head. “But, I don’t remember being taught them…”

Ashley stood and paced in front of Nick. “You weren’t. Being taught is one way to learn, the simplest… The other is more complicated. What did Madeline tell you about my powers?”

“You always had whatever power we needed.” Nick bit his lip. “I remember that too… lots of very different powers… but you usually just used your hands and feet…”

Ashley crossed his arms, but continued to pace. “My clan’s power is to absorb and use the powers of other demon clans. However, it is notoriously difficult for any demon in our clan, you have to see and know the powers already. That’s why I prefer fighting with my own physical strength; it gives me control.”

Nick ran his hands through his hair. “So you were in Safaiananpou to--”

Ashley sat crossed legged again, his arms still crossed. “To seek out new powers, yes. I routinely moved among the countries to find new demons and new powers prior to Madeline arriving. Unfortunately, that particular visit coincided with Emeradotouhou’s siege.”

~*~



As Ashley ran through the wooded area closest to the capital, his footsteps punctured small twigs beneath his feet; in the distance behind him, the faint sound of clanking armor caused him to hurry his pace as his breath quickened. He brushed to foliage next to him and felt a void inside, then parted the vines and plunged into darkness. He ran through the darkness until a bright patch caught his eye. After pushing aside a second set of vines, he entered a clearing. Trees and grass surrounded him on all sides, but in the center sat a small, dilapidated house with a rotting door -- either abandoned or a secret.

“A hidden house… Not people... What sort of demons live here?”

He crept to the house and peered into the small window. A demon woman cradled two babies as two other young children played on the floor. A large male demon entered from an adjacent room and embraced the two young children as they stood up to greet him.

“A den of demons…” Ashley frowned, then turned back toward the foliage and caught an armored hand brushing away the vines. “This family… They’re clearly poor. Do I lead them away? Or do I see what kind of powers they have?” He smirked.

Two soldiers entered the clearing, grinning broadly as they began scanning it. The first soldier smirked. “This must be where that demon is hiding. What do you think he’s keeping inside?”

“Gold?”

“Other demons?” He motioned toward the house.

They laughed boisterously as they approached the house.

Ashley shut his eyes and his body shimmered with a pale light, then he slipped through the window as his body began disappearing.

The soldiers rammed the door open, causing it to swing loosely. The two men spoke in low tones about gold and treasures; the older demons denied any riches, instead bargaining for the lives of their children. The soldiers drew their swords and after a brief struggle, the only living demon in the house was Ashley.

The soldiers laughed jovially and exited the small house; Ashley began climbing from the window at the same time. A cheerful whistle filled the air of the clearing and all three of them scanned the path, catching sight of a small, blond demon wearing a tan tunic and carrying a small parcel down the dirt path.

~*~



Nick flinched, then stood quickly and dropped Minako’s hand. His hands shook as he tried clenching them. “You… watched them slaughter my family... and you did nothing…”

“Nicky…” Ashley pressed his lips into a thin line.

He whirled to face Ashley as he snarled. “Don’t ‘Nicky’ me! You led them right to my family and let them die! Why?!”

“Nicky…” Ashley examined his sleeve. “You know the world is cruel. Sometimes you need to take drastic measures to ensure your own survival. I did not know these demons. I did not know you then either…”

“I grew up without a family because of you!” Nick continued to bare his teeth.

“Nicky, I’m not your enemy. Your enemies then and now are Emeradotouhou’s soldiers. They’re the ones who killed your family and tortured you.”

Minako and AJ stood. Minako rested her hand on Nick’s shoulder and AJ stepped hesitantly toward him as he spoke. “Nick was tortured? Nick…”

“AJ it’s…” Nick glanced at the ground, but his gaze seemed unfocused and distant. “I vaguely remember that… When we were first in Rubiihoppou and that soldier was attacking that small child that led us to you… In the end, we found you, but… that made me so angry because… I remembered how painful it was being attacked by soldiers… How frightening they were...” He swallowed.

“Nicky, they tried to kill you, but you…”

~*~



The two soldiers laughed uproariously while one held Nick up by the back of his collar while using his elbow to hold Nick against his chest; Nick clenched his eyes shut and thrashed his arms and legs. “Just like the stupid woman, he would rather have his money than his life.”

Nick’s eyes flashed open as he forced his head back from his captor’s elbow before thrusting it forward again to sink his fangs into the fleshy fabric-draped and unarmored inside. The soldier growled and released his hold on Nick; he fell to the ground in a heap instantly.

The two men drew their swords as Nick convulsed at their feet.

“We are too kind to bargain with demons.” The second soldier smirked arrogantly.

“Worthless scum of the earth. They're better off dead.” The soldier who had held Nick lowered his sword toward Nick’s head.

Nick curled into himself, his pale wings draping around his body as it trembled and in that moment, a deep shadow fell over the earth. The wooded area just beyond them became a murky chasm. Animals lay still and silent. Clouds froze. The breeze whispered away. Darkness seeped in on all sides, paralyzing the two men and sealing all sound. Nick’s wings began to flutter, the only motion in the immobile world. He shrieked, piercing the silent darkness as a blazing ball of bright, blue-tinted white light formed beneath his wings and overtook the shadowed world. For a moment, there was only light and then only devastation. A colossal crater stretched in every direction. The rotting house -- vanished. The wooded grove that had surrounded the rotting house -- incinerated. The two soldiers -- eradicated. The homes on the other side of the grove emerged damaged beyond repair, some with only half their structures intact. And in the middle of the destruction, only Nick’s small body remained -- collapsed and lifeless.

Ashley waved his hand and the pale light around him disappeared, then he strode across the crumbling ground toward Nick. When he reached him, he crossed his arms as he leaned over the still body; a grimace covered his face. “Those soldiers had no idea what they discovered. Why didn’t they fight back? To think, I stumbled into a den of solar demons and we all let mere cattle destroy them. Except this young one...”

He kneeled down and patted Nick’s head. “But this young one clearly hasn’t been trained so his powers can only come out when he is in crisis. But… he is still a solar demon… No… more than that… To create so much devastation at such a young age, this young one is more powerful than I could have imagined… The only cardinal demon I have ever seen.” A broad, but sinister smile crossed his face. “But, if I can coax his powers out for myself, then I can become the strongest cardinal demon.”

~*~



Nick stumbled backward against the wall adjacent to the one where he had sat, then slid down to the floor. He put his hand to his heart as he hyperventilated. “H-how… how do you absorb other demons’ powers?”

Ashley lowered his head, but continued to speak calmly and emotionlessly. “Nicky… Your face is so much like when you were a child. Your frightened reaction tells me that you must already know the answer.”

Nick swallowed as his fingers twitched. His face blanched. “You have to kill them?”

The other four cardinal demons stood, ready to strike. Minako rushed to Nick’s side and held his shoulders.

Ashley nodded. “But Nicky, I…”

Nick stood abruptly and clenched his fists, his wings flaring behind him. “No. You let my family be slaughtered, then saved me only to raise me to die so you could grow stronger? Then you reappear and belittle my current relationships? How could you?!”

“But Nicky, your powers never manifested again. And without training… only suffering could bring them out and yet…” Ashley stood as well and began walking toward him. “Losing your family, traveling with me, living the existence of a cardinal demon before your own version of that shared existence… An abyss of suffering, yet somehow the suffering was not enough to make your powers strong, let alone appear at all.”

“My powers… They have… The false God... And my friends… And Minako…” Nick turned to Minako and his hand shook as he cupped her hand at his shoulder. His wings crumpled against his back as he continued to hyperventilate and his gaze darted between her, the other sapphire demons, and Ashley. “I… I have to… I can’t… I’m...” He fixed his gaze on her as his lips and eyebrows pinched, then he turned away from her and started running toward the door. He pushed past Ashley, stopped momentarily to look into the eyes of the other sapphire demons, then shoved open the door and ran into the hallway.

End Notes:
We made it! Ta da! I think I was nervous (and excited) to post this chapter because… well, first, what a monumental chapter in the whole of the epic that is PBox… What kind of demon is Nick?! A solar demon! Squeak! As a card carrying member of Team Dark, I realized that this seems early in PNecklace to make this reveal. And there’s two ways I could have spun it: kept Nick suspicious of his svengali Master for many chapters (he would hate that emotional turmoil) or recognize that at the end of this chunk of the story, he has a place he needs to be, and probably couldn’t get there in time if I dragged this out (more than the 60 chapters I already dragged it out). So, in favor of Nick getting where he needed to be (as a champion of character development), I let it be an earlier reveal.

And now that you know, I have another fun game for you to play with PBox! You may remember that I’ve said that I left many clues if you were paying attention (and maybe you already figured it out), so try going back and looking for every time I described Nick being or doing anything with sun, heat, light, reflecting, or sun/moon or light/darkness dichotomy words, in addition to anything about darkness or cold. Adjectives, verbs, whatever… There’s a bunch!
Chapter Eleven: Truth by nicksgal
Ashley sat on the ground again as he stared through the open door. “Sapphire priestess, is he strong enough after all?”

AJ clenched his fist as he growled. “You knew this for years and didn’t tell him?! No wonder Minako slapped you! I want to hit you too!”

Brian cupped AJ’s shoulder. “AJ… Hitting him won’t solve any problems.”

“But it looked so fun when Minako did it!”

Kevin crossed his arms. “So, Nick was that baby after all…” He shook his head. “The eclipse… It wasn’t all an ill omen…”

Minako brushed by Ashley and walked to the door; she pressed her hand on the door as she lowered her head.

Howie gripped her shoulder. “It seems Nick was the demon who birthed that colossal crater in our story… A solar demon born during an eclipse…”

Brian stood behind her. “Minako, you want to go after him, don’t you?”

“I do… but it felt like he wanted to be alone. What should I do Brian?”

Brian gripped her hand. “If space is what he needs, let’s at least give him a little more time to himself.”

“Sapphire Priestess, did this solve anything like you thought?” Ashley stood and began walking toward them, his hands raised into fists near his chest.

Brian turned, his eyes narrowed as he snarled. He pulled a sutra from his tunic and held it to his face as he whispered. When he threw it toward Ashley, the sapphire webbing snaked around Ashley’s wrists, tightening with the seal; it pulled his hands together and bound them.

Howie stepped forward, his hand grasped on the pommel of his sword. “Ruby Demon, do you intend to slaughter us all as well?”

Ashley turned to Minako and smirked. “Should I, Sapphire Priestess?”

“Hit him again, Minako.” AJ crossed his arms, then gripped his hoop earring.

Kevin flanked Brian, guarding the door.

Ashley flinched and froze.

Minako lowered her head. “Can you? Cardinal demons are designed to be the strongest demons who search for the box. Ruby and Topaz failed. Emerald was defeated by Sapphire, but only two survived… You could kill us, but you could also be killed.” She raised her head, her stare boring through him. “The demons and priestesses were always supposed to be stronger together. So you told Nick…”

“Or I told Nicky so he would continue to suffer and manifest his powers.”

“Ashley…”

He shook his head. “You told me he needed to know so we could be victorious against the Emerald demons, and then claimed he still harbored joy from our relationship. It is clear he does not.”

Minako closed her hand into a fist as she leaned her head on the door. “Those are the consequences for keeping a secret like that from him.” She glanced over her shoulder at the sapphire demons. “Howie, Brian, Kevin, AJ… how did you learn to control your powers?”

“The previous King, our father, educated us.”

“I briefly told you about my Master at the crater, Minako. He was a member of my clan.”

“My clan resides in the border mountains and I’m sure some of them must still be there. We’ll visit when we go to Topazuseihou.”

“My family was also killed in the siege when I was young.” AJ lowered his head. “Many of the men in our troupe were orphaned, but there was an old man who knew of my clan and Joseph’s clan. He continued to teach us how to control our powers.”

“So what can Nick do?” Minako’s eyebrows knitted together as her hand trembled. “Do any of you know how to control solar powers?”

Kevin put his hand on Minako’s shoulder. “As usual, Nick will likely jump into anything without concerning himself with the consequences.”

Howie released his grip on his sword and smiled. “Our father once told us of prophecies that were handed down through our kingdom, though we were always certain that they were merely stories. One was ‘a warrior birthed beneath a shrouded sun shall ignite the kingdom.’ Perhaps Kevin is correct and Nick is strong enough to control his powers on his own.”

Minako slid the door open. “Brian… Can you take me to the castle?”

“The castle above the clouds? Minako… Of course!”

~*~



Nick turned to Minako, his face stricken with panic as he hyperventilated, his wings crumpling against his back. His hand trembled as he cupped her hand on his shoulder and his gaze darted between her, the other sapphire demons, and Ashley. “I… I have to… I can’t… I’m...” He fixed his gaze on her as his lips and eyebrows pinched , then he turned away from her and started running toward the door, pushing past Ashley; he paused to look into the eyes of the other sapphire demons, then shoved open the door and ran into the hallway.

He sprinted down the hallway and out into the square, pushing past the crowds of people without seeing them; his thoughts buzzing loudly in his mind made the busy city seem silent. He ran until he reached the shrine, pausing to glance at the gate before running toward the clearing.

He froze in front of the large tree and stared up at it. Master… When I woke up here, you were so kind and smiling… Were you feeling guilty? Did you smile because you thought it would comfort me into false security? Were you ever genuinely kind to me at all? Was it all fake? The things I thought we had...

He reached out to touch the tree, but quickly drew his hand back. He turned and scanned the clearing. I was happy to share this with you and Minako… Something that bridged my past and my future... It makes me sick… But I really was happy to be here with Minako… To marry her… And it just makes me feel… He swallowed. Why are you still poisoning my happiness? I can’t…

He started running again, then took flight, soaring over the trees, the city, the camps. His eyes locked on the mountain in front of him. No one will look for me there in the land of the dead. I can be alone, just like before…

Alone… Before Minako appeared in the darkness… Before we went on this journey and we all became friends… Frightened and screaming… I don’t want to be like that again… What if they worry that me leaving means I don’t want to stay together… That’s all I want… To stay… Everything we’ve been through… all the pain… suffering… I couldn’t handle it at all without them...


He landed among the dirt and grass, stumbling across it. This place is… the beginning and the end… The false god… I thought it was always the monster in my life who poisoned everything and took my Master from me… Are you even my Master? You taught me to fight with my fists, but there’s this whole other part of me burning inside that you didn’t teach me… That I don’t even know because…

He trudged toward the crumbled door and slumped to the ground in front of it. My family… I had a family… That first time I turned into a horrifying version of myself, Minako asked me about my mother and father and I couldn’t answer her… Did I always know what happened to my family and blockit out of my mind? He raised his knees to his chest and leaned his head on them. I’m sorry… I’m sorry for forgetting you all… Did I see you when you were dead? Was it too much for my heart? Did I block you out on purpose? Or was it on accident because of the crater? Either way… I’m sorry…

What were you all like? What would my life have been like if I knew you? Would I have still met everyone else? Minako… Would you still love that version of me? Would a version of me with memories and a past be better than this? Better for you? Would they love you too?
He stared at his claws. Would I have left my family to go with you? Would I have refused? Could I have still loved you? Would I have become strong enough to survive hell? Would I have ended up in the darkness?

Master… I don’t remember our time together… Only bits and pieces… Would I have ended up in that darkness if we weren’t together? Would everything have been brighter with my family? Would Minako have been in that darkness all alone? Who would have saved you? Minako...

My family… I still don’t…
He lifted his head and squinted, though his gaze remained unfocused. ...Remember all of you… even knowing what happened to you, you’re still only vague shapes and shadows in my mind… What was our life like when we were together? What did you dream for me or want for me or hope for me? Or for yourselves? Did you know I was a cardinal demon or was I just ordinary to you? Would you have let me leave when Minako appeared? Would you have made me stay? What could you have taught me? Would I be stronger if we stayed together? Would I know my powers?

He leaned his head on his knees again. What are our powers like anyway? I… I only ever became a monster when they came out... Do we all turn into monsters? Or is that because I don’t know what they are? What even are solar demons? That crater… How did I make that? I don’t even remember… And the reason it made me feel so sad… Deep down inside… I must have known… I must have known that you had been there and now you aren’t… A sad house… An empty house…

What if I get back all my memories and become something else? What if underneath all of this is a monster? Am I terrible like my Master?
He looked up again. I can’t… I can’t keep calling you that. Because you… you never kept me around to teach me… If I was strong, you could become stronger… All you ever taught me was how to be afraid and suspicious… He closed his eyes and leaned back against the remnants of the door. I don’t want to be like that… I have to accept that there’s this other part of me that’s slowly creeping from the dark… Darkness… Was that all I was? Or was I brighter when I was small? Was my whole world filled with light and joy back then or was it still darkness and sadness… Would I have needed to be found? Would meeting Minako have filled my heart with the same warmth, brightness, and joy?

Master… How did I know that I was like you? That I had my own Pandora to wait for? That I had my own journey to go on? How do other cardinal demons find out they are so much more powerful? Do their families tell them? Do they even know what to look for? When we were back in the other world, Minako said my name when I didn’t remember and it hurt… Did it always hurt even when we were here? Or only the first time? Was I so happy it hurt that I ignored it? Minako…

Will you still accept me when I am this other person? Can you? Can we keep going forward if my memories come back? What if they don’t? What if this story is all that I know about my past now?
He leaned on his knees again. I hope you can still look at me with the same loving smile…

He sighed, but a warm smile crossed his lips. “Minako…” Of course, you’ll look at me with that same bright smile and brush your hand on my cheek or ruffle the hair on my forehead and tell me that I’m gentle and kind… That I’m brave… That my body is strong, but also my heart... That I’m worth hell… That you love me… I want to hear you say those things more than anything. No matter what happens, no matter what I remember or don’t, I’ll choose you. Please choose me…

Brian… Howie… Kevin… AJ… I’ll choose you too. You’re my family... My real family. I can’t replace them with you, but… I don’t think I could imagine my life without you all in it… Whatever happens, we have to go forward together… We have to keep going… I’ll do anything I can to show all of you and Minako that you’re all my everything. No matter what I remember or don’t, I will be and do anything I can for all of you.

Master… No… We weren’t ever close like I thought we were, were we? You were always hiding things from me for your own selfish gains… I don’t… I don’t want you to come with us… What if you hurt them? Me… I guess I can handle it if you still wanted to hurt me... But… We can’t let Justin win…
He clenched his hands into fists. I would rather associate with you then let Justin play his sick games… Because what he’s capable of is so much worse… So more help is better… But I will protect them with all that I have, even if I’m someone different with my memories. They’re everything to me.

A jarring rustle interrupted his thoughts. He raised his head quickly and scanned the castle grounds as he shrank into the shadows. Are there still demons and priestesses who aren’t reborn yet?

“Nick…” A quiet voice pierced the silence.

It’s… Nick’s chest filled with warmth as his face relaxed. The furrow of his brow disappeared and a broad, gentle smile formed on his lips. It’s not someone being reborn… Without me telling you, you knew where I was and you came for me… Minako… He exhaled a held breath as he caught their faces in his gaze. “Minako and Brian…”

They quickened their pace as they walked among the ruins, the ghost of the looming castle, then sat beside him. Minako placed one hand on Nick’s knee and the other at his forehead, brushing his hair back.

His smile grew as his breathing became deep and easy.

Brian rested his staff across his lap, then leaned on it and turned toward him. “Nick, you seem worried that you can only release your powers when you’re in danger.”

“He said you’re taught or you suffer… And the only times I’ve had any sort of powers were the time he described with the soldiers, the first time we were in Rubiihoppou, at the shrine, in the castle with my Master’s shadow… Can I only destroy?”

Minako ruffled his hair again. “Nick, but all those times… You were protecting someone. It was only yourself at first, but then it was that child, then me, then Brian and I… You only wanted to keep us safe. Is that destructive?”

“Nick, it is kind of Minako to reassure you, but I think what is most important in your powers, and what Ashley saw as so powerful, is that space between destruction and calm." He put his hand on Nick's shoulder. "I have never met a solar demon except for you, but I know in my own clan our powers are typically smaller and limited… I also know that I am stronger than most of them in sheer capacity or innate talent. I imagine the other demons in your clan may have only had one power. But since you were born during an eclipse, that must have filled you with the duality of the sun and the moon!”

“Brian… An eclipse?”

“You have turned day into night, turned darkness into light, produced a tone that turned demons mad, and, apparently, can create orbs of light. There must be many things you can do, we just have to help you find those things and learn how to control them.”

Minako wrapped her arms around him. “Even at your darkest, your heart was producing light. Maybe that’s why the false God put you in the darkness… He was afraid of what you could do in the light.”

Nick lowered his head. “There was one other time, I think… In the end, when I defeated Justin… After saving Minako and me, Howie told me he knew I wasn’t a monster… That I was the strongest Sapphire cardinal demon. And when Justin tried to take his heart, I felt myself getting angrier and this power was filling me up…”

“Nick…”

“It made me feel lighter… and I drained his powers somehow… saw into his mind.... and mortally injured him… But I…” He bit his lip. “Brian… How do you call your powers? It’s clear they shouldn’t just burst out on their own...”

Brian clenched his staff. "It's been so long since I've thought of how I was taught… How do I explain? I guess I reach deep inside and feel my powers, then I pull and stretch them until the barriers appear."

Minako leaned around Nick to catch his gaze. "How do you move them?"

"I suppose that is the limit of my powers right now, I left my clan before our elders really had time to test my capacity. Once they’re out, I imagine myself pushing and pulling them. It was hardest when we were in the emerald castle and then getting to this mountain… I imagined it disappearing and reappearing, but taking me and all of you with it. This time was easier because we've been here before and I knew what the place we were going looked like."

"And the sutras?"

"My clan believes words hold great power, so I use the sutras when I need to transfer my barriers away from myself and the words help to bind them even when they’re not touching me."

Nick squinted and clenched his hands.

He chuckled. "I suppose it's different for the others, and probably all demon clans, so it's likely not the only way.” He lowered his head and narrowed his eyes. “My clan believes in pacifism, so we mainly use our powers for defense. I went against that, but I only used my barriers offensively against the general and the emerald demons in the castle. I hadn’t done that before, but I thought I could for all of you." He glanced back at them and smiled warmly.

Nick cupped his shoulder. "No, Brian, this is really helpful. I think I want to try here with you both. We're all friends, but… we've been traveling together the longest, so it feels like we're closer…"

Brian smiled. "Minako, is that why you asked me to come with you?"

"Mostly. But it was also a tiny bit that I knew you could get me here the fastest." She squished her index finger against her thumb. “But only the tiniest bit!”

Brian laughed heartily and patted Nick’s shoulder. "Just be calm and focus."

Nick closed his eyes, settling into silence, and pressing his lips into a thin line as he scrunched his nose and forehead. His eyes flashed open as a smile spread across his face and he put his hand to his chest. "I feel it. It's warm…"

"How will you get it out? Does it feel like it should be pulled or stretched? Or something else?" Brian held his hand to Nick’s shoulder tightly.

Nick closed his eyes again and placed both hands to his chest as he took a deep breath. “It just feels like… it wants to flow out…” His face illuminated as warm sapphire light flickered across his skin. After slowly opening his eyes, he raised his glowing hands to his face, peering at them as he uncupped them; a small glowing orb sat nestled in his palms. "Brian, Minako… I made…"

Minako smiled. "It's warm and bright like sunshine."

"What will you do with it, Nick?"

Nick glanced at both of them and smiled as he pried the orb into two pieces. He held his hands in front of Minako and Brian and the small pieces of light floated toward them, then settled into their chests.

Minako squeezed Nick's hand as she giggled. "It tickles a little! It feels like… a hug, Nick!” She beamed. “It makes me feel safe. Brian?"

"Yes, it feels like warmth and protection. Nick, you're going to gain mastery of your powers even without your clan or suffering."

Nick gripped his knees. "Why is suffering an acceptable way to learn anyway? It makes sense that when we're in crisis, our powers will rise up to protect us, but that seems chaotic and dangerous…"

Minako leaned her head on Nick's. "I don't know that chaotic and dangerous mattered to Ashley, only strong. And it makes sense that they would be strongest if they were the only thing to help you live."

Nick shook his head. "Stronger… Not strongest. Now that I know that they're there, I can feel them trying to burst out now more than I ever have before, even the times they did… and the more we're together the more I want to live, but more than anything I want all of you to stay safe while we stay together." He wrapped his arm around Minako’s shoulder and pulled her against his chest while gripping Brian's shoulder. "Maybe there's ancient practices and beliefs I'll miss without my original clan, but… I'm happy to have my new clan… my family around to teach me."

Minako and Brian both wrapped their arms around Nick and held him close in an embrace. The three sat motionless and silent in front of the castle's remains.

~*~



Nick slammed the door open, followed closely by Minako and Brian.

Three mats covered the length of the room, bathed in light from the window. Howie, AJ, and Kevin’s belongings lined the wall beside the door and a desk sat against the wall across from the mats. AJ and Kevin glanced away from the desk covered with stacks of charts as they continued to lean over Howie’s chair. Howie pushed his chair back and stood as well, then all three of them faced the door completely.

Ashley twitched, then put his bound hands to his chest as he exhaled loudly. "Did that not surprise you?"

Kevin and Howie shared a brief glance as AJ shrugged.

Ashley grimaced as he stood, blocking the light from the window. "Nicky…"

Nick clenched his fists. "Nickolas… Nicky… I don't want to be called them anymore. They are the names of a naive child.” He forcefully pointed at his chest with his thumb. “I am Nick, a sapphire cardinal demon."

"You returned sooner than I expected…"

Nick lowered his head and glanced behind him. “Brian, unbind him.”

Brian nodded and whispered a few words; the bindings slipped and disintegrated from Ashley’s hands.

Ashley lowered his hands. “Nicky, you…”

"I thought about your story and our history… You brought a scared and orphaned child into your world for your own selfish desires, then faked familial kindness when your plans failed… And you would have harmed the people I care about to keep it a secret when you couldn’t leave it in your grave!" He raised his head, holding his shoulders taut, then held eye contact with Ashley. "But Minako and Howie are right, we are stronger together against the emerald demons and will take any help we can get. I'm not ready to forgive you, but I accept your alliance. It is your responsibility to earn my trust back."

Ashley stepped toward him. "Nicky…"

"Nick." His stern gaze bore through the space between them. "Have I spoken clearly, Ashley?"

"Abundantly."

Nick walked until he closed the gap between them, his face inches from Ashley's as he spoke in a harsh, low tone. "One last thing… Make no mistake, while we are friends for a common enemy, if you harm a member of my clan, of my family, I will end you."

Ashley smirked. "With what powers, Nicky? I made you. I know every move you'll make and I can break you."

Nick smirked as well. "You live in the past. In the future, I've grown infinitely stronger."

End Notes:
And the other half of last week's big reveal! Plus me toying with a new layout. Tranquil fury Nick is something else, no? See you all next week!
Chapter Twelve: Onward by nicksgal
In the days prior to Madeline’s departure, their room had been peaceful as the moonlight streamed in under the cover of night, but now the thick and unending darkness settled over the room like a turbulent storm. Nick leaned against the wall next to the door with his arms and legs crossed, frowning while his eyes scanned the room constantly. In the bed directly in front of him, Minako lay curled into a small ball with her hand wrapped around his ankle. In the next bed, Brian’s wings wrapped around his shoulders like a cape while his clenched hands held his staff across his chest. In the final bed beneath the window, Ashley lay on his stomach with his wings folded gently against his back; he stared at the ceiling and pressed his lips into a thin line.

“Nicky… Will you watch me all night?”

Silence answered him.

“I know you’re awake. I feel your eyes on me.”

The silence continued.

“You can stop being suspicious. I will not hurt them.”

Silence responded again.

“Why let me stay in your room if you are suspicious of how they will be treated?”

The silence continued to settle between them.

“It is unnerving to be watched while you sleep.”

“Good.”

Ashley leaned his head against the mat “Will it help you to trust me if I face away from them?”

“No.”

Ashley snorted. “Predictable.”

Nick glared at him, but said nothing.

The silence settled over the room again, but Nick continued to watch over the inhabitants, constantly scanning and scrutinizing. I will always protect them with all that I have. No matter what happens in the end, I will never let you harm them. Even if I never sleep again, I’m going to keep them safe. He looked down at Minako’s hand wrapped around his ankle. Minako… You’re still supporting me even now. He pressed a quick kiss to her lips, even as he kept his stare fixed on Ashley.

Minako stirred and tightened her grip on his ankle.

He smiled. Having you near me is warm and comforting. No matter what happens, I already decided that you’re my future. I don’t need my past. Not when I have you.

~*~



After several hours of silence, the sun began streaming into the room. Brian sat up and stretched, then quickly gripped his staff again as he furrowed his brow. He turned to Ashley -- he faced the window, but breathed evenly as he slept soundly. Brian shook his head and turned toward the door.

Nick still sat next to the door; his eyebrows narrowed and his mouth was a thin line as he kept his unyielding gaze on Ashley.

“Nick? Did you sleep?”

Nick snorted. “Who could sleep?”

“I felt eyes on me and I thought maybe it was Ashley.” Brian shook his head. “Are you mad at Minako and I for sleeping?”

“No, of course not!” As he turned to Brian, Nick’s eyebrows pulled together and he bit his lip, then a small, tight-lipped smile formed. I wanted you to be able to sleep without worrying that...” He clenched his fist and glanced back at Ashley with his previous harsh expression. “I don’t trust him.”

Brian stood and walked over to Nick, then sat beside him against the wall. “I’ll take the next shift.”

“But Brian, if he--”

Brian stared at Nick determinedly. “I will not let anything happen to me, Minako, or you.” He put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “But you need to rest so that we can train and keep going. Don’t let him defeat you with insomnia.”

Nick frowned. “But Brian…”

“I promise. I won’t back down. Don’t let your worry consume you.”

Nick deflated, his shoulders slumping away from the wall. “Okay… Wake me up right away if anything happens.”

Brian chuckled. “I promise.” He clenched his staff as it rested on his crossed legs.

Nick glanced at Ashley harshly, but uncrossed his legs and sighed.

Minako gripped where her hand had been, brushing her fingers against his leg and the floor. “Nick…” she mumbled.

He crawled toward the first mat and pulled the linens from it before wrapping his wings around her shoulders as he settled in beside her. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, then her lips as he pulled her against his chest. “I’m here. You’re safe.” As she snuggled closer to him, he ran his hand through her hair and peered over her head toward Ashley with the same resolute frown. I will keep you safe. I promise.

“Nick…” she mumbled again.

“Nick. Sleep.” Brian crossed his arms as he leaned back against the wall.

Nick inhaled deeply and pulled Minako closer to him, before leaning his head against hers and exhaling. His rigid body softened slightly as he began to relax. With her in my arms, I feel like I can let my guard down, even though… He tightened his embrace around her. Minako… If I’m holding you, you’ll be protected. I promise I won’t let him hurt you. Keep me safe too. His eyes blinked open and closed as they became heavy and he drifted to sleep.

~*~



Nick ran through the darkness; he glanced over his shoulder to stare into the nothingness behind him. What’s chasing me? He faced forward into the nothing ahead of him. A bright sliver of light? No matter what, I have to keep running toward it and away from the darkness! Keep running! He burst through the light and pushed aside some dangling leaves from his face as he entered into a sunny grove covered in wildflowers.

“This place…”

He turned back toward the leaves. I can’t go back to the darkness… But my heart is… He held a clenched fist to his chest. I hate this place, it breaks my heart... The wind whispered against his hair, like a quiet voice beckoning him further into the grove. He stepped forward hesitantly and a small house shimmered into view in front of him.

“The sad house…”

His feet brushed across the grass as he slowly walked toward the house. Why is this here? He stopped in front of the rotting door as it swung back and forth slowly, then reached out his hand, but pulled it back quickly. I can’t… What’s inside there? The rotting door continued to creak. But it’s calling me... He took a breath and pushed it in; it moved easily against his light push. Is it accepting me?

“M-mom?” a small voice called.

Nick looked down and saw a small blond boy wearing a tan tunic sitting on the ground with his hand raised to his face; blood dripped down his palm and his wrist. As the door creaked open, he stared up at it with bulging eyes as beads of sweat dripped down his pale, trembling face.

“Who?” Who is this?

The boy’s palms began glowing and crackling with light

Nick flinched and stepped backward. “Who are you?”

Bright blazing orbs of light filled the boy’s hands as they shook, the blood still dripping down his forearms. Behind him, flickering spirits of light burst into view, then blazed and burned just like the child’s hands.

Nick quickly turned back toward the door, but the child and the spirits shot streams of light toward his back; as the streams of light struck him, he crumpled into himself and shrieked, then sank to his knees. He grimaced as he clenched his eyes shut. Stop! It hurts!

“Nick…”


~*~



That voice! His eyes flared open as he startled awake. His wings flared from his back as he breathed heavily and trembled. He glanced wildly around the room; the bed closest to the window was empty, but Brian was also missing from his post next to the door. Sunlight streamed into the room and danced across his face in the glow of morning. He clenched his hand, gripping the soft sapphire fabric beside his head. He inhaled deeply as he shut his eyes and nuzzled into the fabric. “Minako…”

She leaned against his back as she cradled his shoulders, then ran her fingers through his hair and pressed a light kiss to his forehead.

He opened his eyes slowly. This is just like the first day we met when you let me sleep in your arms. It feels so safe. Your voice always brings me back from the dark. He turned and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Thank you for staying with me.”

“Do you need more sleep? You look exhausted.”

He shook his head as his breathing steadied. “I’m fine…”

Minako frowned. “Brian said you stayed up all night watching Ashley.”

Nick clenched his hand around the fabric of her skirt again and hid his face. “I couldn’t... “ He inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “I needed to make sure you were both safe. I‘ll protect you with everything I have.”

“Are you sure he should travel with us if you’re worried about him? We don’t have to be allies if it’s hurting you.”

“You and Howie wanted all the demons to join us. It’s fine… We need to be really strong when we face Justin.”

“But, Nick, it’s more important that you’re happy.” She shook her head. “If it’s hurting you and you’re unhappy, then I don’t want Ashley around us.”

He pulled back from her waist and held her stare for a moment, before sweeping his gaze across her face as a gentle smile formed on his lips. I have you. I’m grateful every day. It’s always going to be fine if we’re together.

“Whenever you look at me like that, it reminds me of the first time you told me you loved me. It still makes my heart race.” Her eyes gleamed like her smile as she leaned toward him and pressed a small kiss to his lips.

“Just reminding myself how lucky I am to have you.” He grinned. “And enjoying your smile.”

“I love you.” She brushed her hand against his cheek before running her fingers through his hair at his forehead.

Nick reached up and caressed her cheek. “I love you too. You always know just what to say to make me feel safe.”

“You’re always doing the same for me. My worries feel smaller when you’re around.”

He frowned and lowered his head. “Yesterday, after Ashley told me about our history, it was a lot to process at once…” He looked up at her again and smiled broadly. “But remembering you and our promise made me ready to confront it.”

“Nick, I’ll always choose you. No matter what happens.”

“Hoping you would say that made me less afraid.” He glanced at her lap and frowned. “Minako… even hearing that story, I don’t remember anything… Except…” He covered his face with his free hand, then grimaced as he pulled his hand from his forehead to his chin. “I don’t know if this is a memory… but in my dream, there was a boy with blood dripping down his hand. There were some burning spirits too. And they all shot this hot and painful light at me, but I don’t know if that’s actually a memory or just a weird dream…”

Minako gripped his hand at her cheek.

“When I walked into the house in the grove, the door was really loose and creaking… I was so scared to go in, but it felt like it was calling to me.” He furrowed his brow. “The only thing that boy said was ‘Mom,’ but with a scared voice. He wasn’t talking to me though… I wonder why he said ‘mom’?”

“It’s… it’s okay if that’s a memory.” Minako tightened her grip on his hand.

He sat up. “I don’t even know if I want to remember! What if I was horrible? Or what if it was sad? What if I try to remember and can’t?” He lowered his head. “Minako… I…”

She wrapped him into a tight hug. “After we visited the crater, I was worried about what you might remember... how it might change you…” She pulled back and ran her hand on his cheek and smiled. “But you’re still gentle, kind, brave, and strong. So it’s okay if you remember and it’s okay if you can’t. I’ll be here with you, because you’re still you. And even if you were something or someone else, I’ll still stay with you. We’ll figure it out together. I love you.”

He pulled her against his chest and pressed a hard kiss against her lips. As he kissed her, he pulled her body closer to his, his hands clutching her shoulders and waist with fiery intensity. She held his tunic tightly and latched her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, responding to his lips with an equally urgent, electric kiss. He cupped the back of her head, then lowered her down to the mat. She gripped her fingers against his chest as she moved her hand up to his shoulder, pulling him toward her.

“Minako…” he whispered against her lips as he inhaled quickly.

She pressed several quick kisses against his lips. “Nick…”

As he returned her short kisses, he smiled and brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear, then began kissing her deeply again. She arched her back while clutching his shoulder and waist as she bent her knee, pulling her foot closer to her body; her kisses caressed and sparked against his lips. He rested his knee between her legs as he slid his hand under her lower back, then gripped her waist. While he pressed gentle kisses to her neck and collar bone, she kissed the top of his head.

He ran his hand down her cheek until he reached her chin. As he gripped it, he pulled her into another deep and flaring kiss before brushing a few whispery kisses against her lips, then pulling back and smiling. “Minako… That’s all I was hoping for you to say.” He ran his fingers through her hair. “No matter what happens, I want to choose our future. Those memories of my past, even if I remember them, they’re still not as important to me as our memories.”

Minako inhaled deeply as she tousled his hair and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.” She ran her hands along his collar as she gazed into his eyes. The sunlight glistened and reflected in her eyes as she grinned. “Let’s just stay here all day.”

Nick smiled as he pressed another gentle kiss to her lips. “Brian promised to help me train my powers.” He grinned, his fangs glinting in the rays of sunlight. “But we can stay here until he comes looking for us. “Maybe he’ll never come.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him in for another kiss.

~*~



The afternoon sun streamed across the clearing, lighting up each tree and casting large shadows across the ground. Nick stared up at the large tree looming over them. I hate this… My feelings about this place are so jumbled now, when before they were only bright.

Brian clamped his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard, but you’re going to be okay. You’ve already decided to focus on going forward and you know we’re all here for you no matter what happens.”

Nick clenched his fists and exhaled forcefully. “I just don’t want to only be a monster. Do you think I’m a monster because I don’t know how to control them? Or is that just what solar demons are?”

Brian shook his head. “I don’t know, but training will help you to figure it out and we’ll take it as it comes.”

“I wonder if it will be weird to use my powers instead of my fists…” Nick lowered his head.

Brian smiled as he clapped Nick’s shoulder. “You’ll figure out a way that makes sense to you.” He began walking across the clearing, then turned to face Nick when he was a few yards from him.

"Is this alright, Brian?" Nick rolled his shoulders.

"Of course. You need to practice." Brian clenched his staff with both hands.

Nick shook out his hands, clenched his fists, then released them. "Okay… Attack!" He ran toward Brian, hands spread wide as they crackled and glowed.

Brian swung his staff, erecting a spherical barrier around himself.

Nick jumped toward the barrier as he swung one of his hands, but bounced backward after making contact. He landed on his feet, sliding backward as he gripped the grass with his toes, then fell on his back.

Brian loosened his grip on his staff, letting the barrier disintegrate, and walked over to Nick. He leaned down, offering him a hand.

Nick grabbed it and let Brian pull him up to a seated position. "Why isn't this working?" He growled and punched the ground.

Brian sat next to him. "You're trying to fight the way you think you should be fighting based on powers you've seen. Have you ever fought anyone with your arms and hands spread wide?"

Nick put his hand to his head and groaned. "No… I couldn't protect my face and chest that way." He put both hands up in fists, one closer to his chest and one closer to his face, then thrust a light jab into Brian’s shoulder while raising his forearm to his face from his chest. “Your defenses are down.”

Brian chuckled. "This is a friendly fight, defenses aren’t necessary. It seems like you think your powers should only be massive, but that's not your typical mannerisms. Like you just said, you prefer being able to attack and defend simultaneously. Focus on Nick first, powers second, then they’ll come more naturally."

“Okay, ready.” Nick took a deep breath and stood up.

Brian stood as well, swinging his staff and forming the spherical barrier again, but this time it fizzled before disappearing.

Nick whirled in a circle as he scanned the clearing. “Brian, where’d you go?” A slight breeze brushed against his back; he jumped and pivoted while slicing his hand toward it.

A sapphire energy blast froze in mid-air in front of him as Brian reappeared in the same place as before, but without his barrier.

As Nick landed, he gripped his toes into the grass, then raised his fists near his face and chest. “Brian, you surprised me! What was that?!”

“I thought surprising you might help you focus on yourself instead of what you thought you should be doing.” He smiled. “It looked like it worked.”

Nick lowered his hands, then poked at the blast. “It’s so still.” He leaned down to examine it as he continued to poke it, his eyes level with the frozen energy. “I wonder why it stopped… Brian, you--”

The air around the blast rippled and fizzled, then it instantly gained momentum again. It hit Nick in the face, sending him flying back into a tree behind him; he fell to the ground with a crash.

Nick winced as he sat up slowly. “Why did it unfreeze?” He gripped his forehead. “It stings…”

“You’ve been attacked!” a voice called across the clearing.

Nick ran his hand down his face. “Brian, did you--”

“Hang on!” the voice called again.

He stood quickly as the leaves above him rustled. Not Brian! That voice wasn’t Brian! He scanned the clearing quickly, but Brian was nowhere in sight; the clearing was silent besides his quick breathing. He looked up to see that the branches of the trees had stretched beyond their normal lengths, just like when they had found Ashley. Nick scanned the branches, following them from trunk to sky. His breath caught in his throat when he saw Brian tangled in a web of wood from various trees.

Nick clenched his fists and began running toward him. “Brian!” As he ran, he continued scanning the branches, following them across the clearing from Brian to a figure standing in front of him who held the branches like puppet strings. Nick growled, clenching his fists tighter as his stare fixed on the figure as sapphire light flicked against his fists. He skidded to a stop and inhaled deeply as he closed his eyes, then took a few steps backward before flapping his wings and leaping into flight. He spread his claws and slashed at the branches attached to the trees; tendrils of light shot from his claws and sliced through the bark.

He gripped the remnants of light in his hand and flicked them like whips toward the puppeteer. The puppeteer drew back as the branches closest to its hands shattered. The web of branches around Brian snapped and cracked as they began falling to the ground in pieces. Nick wrapped his arms around him, holding him securely moments before the entire web shattered, raining shards of bark to the ground. Nick flapped his wings gently as he and Brian both floated to the ground.

“Nick…” Brian breathed weakly as he cupped Nick’s shoulder.

“It’s okay. You’d do the same thing for me.” When they landed, Nick sat Brian on the ground beside his feet gently, then he glared and fixated on the puppeteer as he growled; his claws pulsed as he held his hands tightly at his sides. “Who are you?!”

Leaves swirled around the puppeteer as it turned to face him.

Tendrils of light began snaking from Nick’s fingers as his claws continued to pulse quickly. He snarled as he continued to growl. “Who are you?!”

“Nicky!” a feminine voice called across the clearing.

Nick clenched his hands into fists as he turned to the voice. “Madeline…” The tendrils of light vanished.

She ran up to the puppeteer and put her hand to his shoulder as she spoke quietly. The leaves floated to the ground by their feet.

Nick stepped forward and unclenched his fists. His claws began pulsing and sparking with light again. “Madeline, you know them?!”

The puppeteer gaped at Madeline, his brown braided hair falling into his eyes. “Madeline, this is really… Nicky? He’s so big!”

Nick twitched and closed his eyes; the glow dissipated from around his hands.

Brian gripped Nick’s arm to pull himself up, then pat his shoulder. “It’s okay, Nick. It was a misunderstanding.”

Nick gripped Brian’s hand at his shoulder and stared back at the puppeteer. “While I appreciate your concern for my safety, it was unnecessary.”

“Are you really Nicky? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen demons attacking each other!”

“It’s Nick, but yes, it’s me. Brian is right, this is a misunderstanding. We’re not attacking each other. We’re training.”

The puppeteer crossed his arms. “Nicky would always leap into his problems with his fist and without thinking. I’m surprised to see you speaking now.” He shrugged. “But children are so susceptible to elders, and what other kind of tutelage would you expect from Ashley?”

“I’ve grown since then, Jacob. I had to become better for my family. And it’s hard to make allies if you attack them.”

Jacob began walking toward them. “Yes, Madeline told me about the alliance your king and priestess have proposed. If you think that can rescue us from this, then I am willing to join you.”

Brian also walked toward Madeline and Jacob. Once he reached them, he smiled and put a hand on Madeline’s shoulder. “You’ve been a big help, Madeline. Now there are nine of us.”

Madeline smiled. “Of course, Brian!” She frowned quickly. “But, why are you and Nicky fighting? Is everything okay?”

Brian shook his head. “Just practice.”

Nick laughed derisively. “Yes, this is fine.”

Madeline cocked her head as she pressed her lips into a thin line. “That’s a weird way to say it. This, but not everything? What’s going on?”

“Ask Ashley.” Nick’s tone was sharp as he turned and started walking back toward the shrine.

“Wait, what?” Madeline blinked repeatedly.

Silence followed Nick as he continued to walk out of the clearing. Madeline ran after him; the other two demons walked closely behind.
Chapter Thirteen: Light by nicksgal
With Madeline’s return, the storm between them became even more turbulent. Nick continued to lean on the wall next to the door with his arms and legs crossed. His unyielding gaze, with narrowed eyebrows and unremitting frown, remained fixed on his face. Minako still lay curled in a ball under the linens of the first mat with her hand grasped tightly around his ankle. In the center mat, Brian still lay facing the ceiling with his staff clenched tightly in his hands as it lay across his chest. In the third mat, Madeline tossed and turned underneath the linens, alternating between facing Nick at the door and the second figure slumped beneath the window with its head on its knees.

Ashley raised his head from his knees and leaned against the wall. “Nicky… do you still not trust me even when Madeline has returned?”

Only silence responded.

“I know you’re awake, your eyes are boring through my mind.”

The silence continued to permeate the room.

“You can stop being suspicious. I will not hurt them, especially not with Madeline here.”

The silence settled between them.

“Nicky, it is still unnerving to be watched as you sleep.”

“Good.”

“Will you really never sleep as long as I am here?” He smirked. “Or will you continue to have your friends watch me while you sleep?”

The silence whispered in the air between them.

Ashley leaned on his knees again. “Good talk, Nicky…”

The darkness seeped back into the room and covered the silence. Nick’s hard stare remained resolute as he continued to scan and scrutinize the movement in the room. His back was rigid against the wall as he breathed as silently as possible.

Minako tightened her grip on his ankle as she curled into her knees.

He ran his hand through her hair. You’ll be safe, Minako.

Brian turned to Nick as he opened his eyes slowly. “Nick… Are you ready to switch?” he whispered.

Nick nodded.

Brian tiptoed over to him and settled against the wall. He crossed his legs and leaned against his staff. “Do you think we should ask the others to join our rotation?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t want to bother them… Plus we’re heading to your home soon, right?” He returned his gaze to Ashley, his brow furrowing. “What are security measures like there?”

Brian shook his head. “While we are very protective of our home in general, I don’t want Madeline or Jacob to feel like prisoners. They’ve been nothing but nice.”

“I know. It’s not them.” Nick tightened his crossed arms as he faced Brian, but continued to glance at Ashley from the corner of his eye. “But if there was someone else who could watch him…”

“I’ll see what I can do so we can spread out and have some space to ourselves. I’m sure you and Minako are tired of being cooped up with me.” Brian laughed quietly.

“No, it’s fine.”

“Get some rest.” Brian clapped his hand on Nick’s shoulder.

Nick snorted as he uncrossed his legs. “Yeah, if I don’t have that dream again.”

Minako stirred slightly and kicked her legs out of the ball.

Nick pulled the linens away from her, pressing a light kiss to her forehead as he ran his fingers through her hair.

She opened her eyes slowly. “Nick…”

“I’m here, go back to sleep.” He kissed her gently, then pulled her toward his chest and let his wings wrap around both of their bodies lightly before laying back down and nuzzling against her shoulder. “I’m here…”

“Me too…” Minako mumbled as she draped her arm around his neck.

Nick’s eyes opened and closed slowly as he relaxed and began to sleep.

~*~



Nick ran through the darkness. This dream again… He parted the hanging leaves in front of him and pushed into the grove. The small house stood in front of him menacingly. “The sad house…”

He trudged toward it, his shoulders slumping. Will you still be in there, small, blond boy? Will you still look at me with those hateful eyes? What do I say so that you won’t hurt me? He stopped in front of the door and clenched his hand into a fist, then shook his head, turned away from the house, and started to walk back up the path.

The house shimmered into view in front of him, blocking his path. He turned quickly, trying to walk the other way, but the house still stood in front of him.

“Of course I don’t have any choices except going in.” His exasperated laugh filled the air as he slowly pushed open the creaking door.

“M-mom?” As the door creaked open, the same small boy stared up at it, his bloody hand trembling as he held it beside his face.

Nick stood in the door for a moment, but then leaned down in front of the child. “Hi.” He waved hesitantly.

The child stared up at him, his palms glowing and crackling.

Nick leaned back. “I don’t want to hurt you, I just wanted to see your house.”

The child shut his hands and then opened his bloody hand again as he reached up to Nick’s face, brushing it against his cheek and leaving a smear of blood across it. Nick reached for the boy’s hand and held it gently as the boy continued to touch his face.

Behind the boy, the spirits of light blazed and burned.

Nick glanced at the spirits behind the boy. “Your house wanted me here, no matter how much I tried to avoid it. Are you angry that I came in? Or are you angry that I tried to leave?”

The spirits burned brighter and shot the same blazing light toward him. Nick crumpled and clenched the boy’s hand tightly before shrieking in pain.

“Nick…”

~*~



He startled awake, clutching Minako tightly and gasping for air as he leaned his head on hers; his glance darted around the room, scrutinizing the bare furnishings and inhabitants. Darkness still settled over them; Ashley still slept slumped against the wall, Madeline still tossed and turned, and Brian still sat next to the door with his staff resting across his lap.

“Nick… Did you have that dream again?” Minako ran her thumb against his cheek.

He pulled her closer to his chest and inhaled deeply. “Minako… That dream...” He glanced at Brian again. “Ready to switch?”

Brian shook his head. “You can keep sleeping if you need to, I haven’t been here that long. Was that the dream again?”

Nick held his face in his hand. “Kind of… It always ends the same way with the burning light. I tried not to go into the house this time, but it kept following me.”

Minako ruffled the hair at his forehead. “We’re here, Nick.”

He ran his hand down his face and then ran it through Minako’s hair again. “I know. Thanks.”

Minako put her hand to Nick’s chest; his heart beat wildly beneath her touch.

“I don’t think I could sleep if I wanted to.” He gave Minako another squeeze, then crawled out from under the linens. He sat back against the wall, crossing his arms and legs again before turning to Brian and nodding toward the empty bed. “Your turn to rest.”

“You’re unbelievable, Nick.”

“I’ll get sleep when I need it.”

Brian pursed his lips, but said nothing. He wrapped his wings around his shoulders as he tiptoed back over to the mat in the center, lay down, and pulled the linens over his body. He grasped his staff as he laid it across his chest and stared at the ceiling.

“Brian, you know you can say something if you want to say something.” Nick gazed across the room; the harsh expression returned to his face as he stared at Ashley.

“It’s fine, we’ll be back in Safaiananpou soon.”

“I can’t wait.”

Minako moved closer to the edge of the mat and gripped Nick’s ankle again. “Nick…”

He ran his fingers through her hair, his voice reflecting his small, gentle smile as he watched her. “I’m fine, I promise.”

The darkness settled over the room as his fingers lingered in her hair. I’m fine, I promise… No matter what, I’ll make sure that you’re fine too.

~*~



The clearing sparkled in the sunlight, bathing Minako and the sapphire demons in the bright light. Howie sat with his back against a tree, pressing his thumb against a few notes on a piece of paper. AJ stretched and stared up at the open sky. Kevin and Brian leaned against the same large tree with their arms crossed. Minako sat next to Brian, staring up at Nick, who stood and stared at the large tree. The wind settled between them like an unsaid whisper.

AJ put his hands into his lap. “This is where you two got married?”

“Yup.” He turned to Minako and smiled at her broadly.

“Even though you were hurting, it felt like the right choice. I think it connected us this whole time.” Minako fiddled with her ring as she stared up at Nick.

Nick stared back to the top of the tree. “It kept me going. It keeps me going, knowing that I have you.” He shook his head. “But I hate that we keep coming back here. When are we leaving?”

“We believe that tomorrow can be our final departure. Madeline has assured us that her affairs are in order.”

Brian laughed. “I’m sure she said it just like that.”

Howie peered at him over his paper.

“Are you sure it wasn’t something more like, ‘Let’s just leave if you want to leave, Your Majesty!’?” Brian continued laughing.

Nick crossed his arms and trudged across the clearing toward the trees where the others sat. “Whatever she said, I’m glad.” He slumped down next to Minako. “I can’t wait to leave Rubiihoppou.” He leaned back and laid on the grass as he put his hand to his head. “Maybe we can all finally relax or focus on something else…”

Kevin frowned as he turned to him. “Nick… You know we will help you with Ashley, whatever you need. Just ask.”

AJ crossed his arms. “I hate him. I say we leave him behind, no matter what Madeline says.”

“More is stronger…” Nick mumbled.

“There is more than one way to be strong.” Kevin stood slowly then settled down beside Nick. “Is it worth it to be strong, but miserable?”

Nick sat up quickly with his arms and legs stretched out. “Speaking of being strong… I’ve been meaning to ask all of you… How do you call your powers? I want to get lots of ideas…”

Minako scooted closer to Nick and gripped his arm. “I’d love to hear too.” She smiled. “You’re all amazing, and I’ve always been curious about your powers.”

AJ jumped up. “Okay!” He gripped his earring. “I just think of what I want to be and--” He pulled the earring and a pale smoke surrounded him. When it dissipated, he was a perfect replica of Nick, from his blond hair down to his bare feet, except for the large gold hoop earrings. He strode over to Minako and picked up her hand, kissing it lightly. “My love.”

Minako smiled and tapped his golden hoop earring. “AJ… Nick doesn’t talk like that.”

AJ pulled back and laughed. “You’re right, I’ll never be strong enough to fool you.” He gripped her hand again and smiled, mustering all of his gentleness into the expression. “Minako…”

“Nick…” Brian batted his eyelashes as he put his hand to his chest, stifling a laugh with his other hand.

Nick crossed his arms and frowned. “We don’t talk to each other like that…” He turned to Minako, catching her bemused smile, then glanced at the ground as he mumbled, “All the time…”

Brian and AJ continued to laugh as AJ pulled his earring, surrounding his body in a cloud of smoke before returning to his regular form.

“I guess I know that you think of what you want to turn into before you shapeshift, but I meant more… what happens inside your body before you shapeshift?”

AJ crossed his arms. “The old man described the body like a vase… You pick it up and pour out the shapeshifting power and it fills whatever container you decide to pour it into.”

Nick frowned and clenched his fist. “Pouring or stretching and pulling…” He turned to Kevin. “What does healing power feel like before it comes out?”

“It feels like… stones is a good approximation, I guess. It’s as if they’re stacking on each other and building.” He shook his head as he smiled. “But when I go to pull them out, it’s more like a binding paste that fills up the injuries. It’s difficult to explain.”

“Howie?”

“Broth.” Howie smiled broadly.

Nick cocked his head and furrowed his brow. “This is confusing…”

Kevin uncrossed his arms and turned to Nick. “Well, what do yours feel like?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know… Burning… But also ripples… It’s like they just want to spill out.” He clenched his fists, then leaned back against the grass again. "But I don't know if they're just bubbling to the surface from disuse… Maybe they’re quieter normally. Or maybe it’s hard to feel them.”

Kevin stood, brushed off his pants, and reached his hand down to Nick. “Let’s see how quiet they really are.”

Nick took his hand and let Kevin pull him up. “Are you going to attack me? Brian’s been practicing with me.”

Kevin smiled warmly as he pulled Nick away from the others and toward the center of the clearing. “No… But it might hurt if you’re not calm…” He gripped Nick’s hand tightly, a warm glow surrounded their palms.

Nick winced as the glow began crackling and shocked him. “It stings.” He tried to jerk his hand back, but Kevin gripped his hand tighter. Sparks began flickering between their hands. Nick stared at Kevin with wide eyes. “What are you…”

Kevin smiled and placed his glowing hand at Nick’s chest. The sparks between their hands flared and danced as they continued to crackle and sting. Nick tried to jerk his hand back again, but each time he jerked it back, Kevin gripped it tighter.

As he gripped, he applied pressure to various places on Nick’s hand. “When you panic and struggle, it will make those sparks. How are you feeling?”

Nick’s wings shot from his back as his face grew pale. “I feel…” He winced. It stings and burns. It’s like being back in that sad house with the spirits of light. I can’t… It feels like Kevin is trying to rip something out of me. Is there even anything to rip out? Or is all of this my power?

“Anxious?”

This is making me sick… I can’t... Nick tried to pull his hand back again, the sparks shot wildly between their hands and the trees surrounding them.

“Everyone duck!” AJ shouted.

Brian spun his staff and enclosed AJ, Howie, and Minako inside of a barrier with him.

Minako stood quickly and pounded on the barrier. “Kevin, you’re hurting him!”

Nick clutched his stomach with his free hand and began hunching his shoulders as he grimaced. It hurts… I can’t… I can’t stand... He continued to try pulling his hand back. “Kevin… What is this?” The sparks continued to shoot wildly.

“Our powers are like an energy inside of us, constantly moving and buzzing.” He smiled. “Yours seem to be upset that I’m trying to touch them.”

Nick winced and curled into his stomach more as his hand twitched. He tried to pull it back again, but each time he pulled back, the sparks burst and flashed. “Then stop…” I can’t… It hurts...

Minako continued to pound on the barrier. “Brian, let me out!”

Brian frowned and reached his hand toward her shoulder. “Minako, but it’s…”

“Let me out! Nick!”

“Focus on your powers instead of Brian’s barrier and pull them back in. Stay calm.”

“I can’t…” He glanced between Kevin and the barrier. It hurts...

“Face them with that strong heart. Be unafraid of consequences.”

Nick choked and struggled as the sparks blazed and ignited as they shot between the trees. I can’t… It hurts...

Minako continued to pound on the barrier.

“Minako--” Brian started.

“Let me out!”

Howie crossed his arms. “Kevin has chosen an interesting method for testing his powers. We wonder if any of ours would react in the same manner.”

AJ glanced between Brian and Minako. “Brian…”

“Minako…” Brian lowered his head and pulled a sutra from his tunic and whispered inaudibly. The sutra glowed brightly in his hand. “If you’re about to get hurt, I will not hesitate to rescue you.” He loosened his grip on his staff and a small puncture appeared in the barrier.

Minako pulled and clawed at it until it spread enough for her to run through. She sprinted toward Nick.

“Minako?” Kevin furrowed his brow.

“Minako…” Nick’s voice was barely audible over his crumpled form.

“Nick!” Minako shrieked as she ran toward him.

“Minako, no… Sparks… hurt...” He continued to shrink into himself.

She wrapped her arms around his chest and leaned on his back as she buried her head against his wings. “I’m here! You’re safe!”

Nick moved his shaking hand from his stomach to grip her clenched hands. Safe… He inhaled deeply; the stinging stopped and Nick’s body began relaxing. For a brief moment, his skin seemed to glow radiantly as the sparks froze and shimmered around his form.

Kevin smiled. “See? When you’re calm, they stop.” He placed his hand to Nick’s forehead and his palm glowed with a bright sapphire light.

Nick gulped air and slowly stood to meet Kevin’s eyes with his gaze. The color gradually returned to his face. “I thought I was going to throw up… Why?”

“You said you thought they were bubbling to the surface from disuse. So, I thought I could help wake them up and calm them down.”

Nick hunched quickly. “No, I’m definitely going to be sick still…” He gagged.

Minako smoothed his hair against his head.

Kevin ran his hand along Nick’s stomach then back to his forehead. The sparks disappeared and seemed to be reabsorbed into Nick’s skin as he continued gagging.

Nick collapsed to his hands and knees as his body shook, then lowered his head between his shoulders and threw up.

Minako kneeled down next to him and continued pushing back his hair as she held her hand at the base of his neck.

“I’m dying...” Nick leaned on his elbows for a moment, then laid down on his side and shut his eyes as he breathed heavily. “Just leave me here for a minute…”

Kevin kneeled down as well, placing one glowing hand to Nick’s chest and the other to his forehead. “It’s strenuous to let them out without a purpose, but you’ll be okay.”

“Then why did you pull them out?”

“I was just touching your pressure points in your hand. Your powers did that on their own, but the more you panicked, the more they tried to protect you.” Kevin pat his forehead. “And since you aren’t used to using them, your body reacted negatively.”

Nick ran his hand down his face. “Okay… So somehow when we’re in the mountains, I need to figure out how my powers work and figure out how to use them while we prepare to go against the emerald demons again… and then there’s Ashley… It’s too much…”

Kevin smiled as the glow in his hands vanished. “You’re not alone. Whether it’s your powers, the emerald demons, or Ashley, we’re all here for you.”

Howie, Brian, and AJ sat beside them.

“Kevin is correct.” Howie smiled. “Together, we are all stronger. We will just need to strategize how to best utilize all of our strengths.”

“What strengths?” Nick sat up and shrugged.

Kevin patted his shoulder. “You have strengths, Nick. As long as you’re trying, that’s what matters.”

Nick lowered his head for a moment, but quickly raised it with a broad smile on his face. “Whatever you all ask… I’ll try. I’ll try as hard as I can for you.”
Chapter Fourteen: Soul by nicksgal
After days of walking, they had settled into a journey routine. Brian continued to lead the group through Rubiihoppou and into Safaiananpou with his staff held high. Howie continued to follow directly behind him, constantly assessing his charts and maps. Kevin continued to keep a quiet assessment on everyone’s health. AJ told humorous jokes and tales to brighten everyone's spirits. Ashley responded derisively to any suggestion the Sapphire demons made; uncharacteristically, he was kinder to their priestess, though only when she could hear his remarks. Madeline served as mediator between the two groups and continued to lean on Minako as a confidant. Jacob spoke extensively about the plant and wildlife surrounding them while gathering edible plants and warning about toxic flora. Nick remained at the back of the group, his eyes alternating between focus on Ashley’s movements and calm observation of Minako beside him.

Minako gripped his hand tightly. “Nick, I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I always worry about you.”

As usual, the two seemed to be worlds apart from the rest of the group. However, each time they fell too far behind, Nick would pull Minako quickly as he filled the gap -- leaving a space large enough for a private conversation, but small enough for a single leap between them and Ashley; afterward, he always flashed a broad smile at her.

“You’re worried too. Let me worry about you instead.” Minako frowned as she slowed to a normal pace again.

Nick gripped her hand tighter. “Of course I’m worried about how you’re feeling, but I’m also just worried about keeping you safe.”

“And what will happen in the mountains, or Topazuseihou, or Emeradotouhou… Whether you’ll be strong enough… Why Kevin’s experiment hurt… What to do about Ashley…” She rubbed his upper back. “Let me worry about how we’re both feeling and you can just take a break.”

“If I’m not busy worrying, what should I do then?” He smiled coyly.

Minako tucked her hair behind her ear as she grabbed his hand again. “Let’s play a game.”

“A game?”

“You tell me a story, I tell you a story.”

“Okay.”

“You go first. Tell me something about our last time traveling that I wouldn’t know.”

Nick crossed one arm as he continued to hold her hand. His face brightened as he laughed. “Howie snores.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, “Don’t tell him I know.”

Minako giggled. “What else have I missed?”

“I thought the rules were I tell you something, then it’s your turn.” He smirked.

“Fine.”Minako crossed her arms and pouted, but smiled as she peeked at him from the corner of her eye.

“Those are the rules!”

They laughed.

“So, tell me something I wouldn’t know.”

“Okay… When you’re sleeping and you’re happy, you wag your tail.”

“Like a dog?”

“More like a puppy, really excitedly.” She giggled as she held her hands to her heart.

"How often does that happen?" He shook his head. "I know… Your turn, my turn."

"Most days, even recently, but especially if you end up sleeping in my lap." She leaned her head on his shoulder as she grabbed his hand again.

Nick smiled and leaned his head on hers.

“Next question…” Minako tapped her fingers against his hand. "Oh, I've got it! Tell me something you've always wanted to try to do."

Nick put his free hand to his chin. "Not power related… I guess… make food…"

“You mean cook?”

“No, maybe ‘grow food’ is what I want to say... It’s more that I want to make sure there’s always enough to eat… And a safe place to eat it at…” He smiled. “With you.”

Minako tightened her grip on his hand and nestled against his arm. “Then I’ll learn to cook better. Or you can cook and I’ll go find wild animals.” She laughed.

“Whatever you want.” He smiled as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to his chest. “Was that your original answer to the same question?”

“No… I was going to say become fluent in a second language! Or maybe…” She glanced at the ground, hiding her face with her hand. “...Go skinny dipping at night? But I like yours, it makes me feel excited for our future and safe.”

“Skinny dipping?” Nick cocked his head.

Minako hunched her shoulders as she slowed her pace.

“Mianko?” Nick frowned as he gripped her hand tighter.

“I’m fine, don’t be worried.” She mumbled inaudibly.

“What?”

“Skinny dipping is swimming naked.” She glanced back at him, revealing her flushed face as she repeatedly brushed her hair behind her ear.

Nick quickly raised his eyebrow then lowered it as his lips curled into a smirk. “Our future doesn’t need to be only wholesome, Minako.” He licked his lips as he leaned down toward her ear, tucking the loose strand behind her ear. “Anything for you,” he whispered, brushing his lingering breath beside her ear before straightening again.

Minako tensed her shoulders as she averted her gaze to the ground.

After pulling her to catch up with the group again, he wrapped his hand around her waist as he smiled. “So you can still look at me like that sometimes?”

“Nick?” She glanced up at him, but kept her chin lowered.

“And that way too…” He pulled her closer by the waist, running his hand along the small of her back. “When we get to Brian’s home… Maybe there’s time for just you and me...”

“We’ll make moments like we always do.” Minako smiled as she nestled between his arm and chest, running her hand along his torso.

“There’s never enough of them.” He smirked. “And I’ve been cheating during this one. I keep asking you two questions in a row.”

She inhaled deeply, then grinned. “Your first impression of one of our friends?”

“Talks too much.”

“I have to guess?” Minako giggled. “Howie?”

Nick laughed. “Oh, him too…”

“Brian?” Minako furrowed her brow.

He lowered his voice to a whisper. “But don’t tell him I said that.”

They continued laughing.

“Your turn.”

“Perverted.”

“AJ?”

Minako shook her head.

“Kevin?!”

While Minako held her finger to her lips, her giggles muffling her shushes, Kevin glanced back at them. “Nick?”

“Nothing, it was nothing,” he sputtered quickly as he lowered his head.

Minako quickly hid her hands behind her back and glanced at the sky.

Kevin stopped and furrowed his brow as he crossed his arms.

Neither said anything as they continued to avert their gazes from Kevin, but inched along the path so slowly that they scarcely moved at all.

Kevin shook his head, then started walking again. Once he had rejoined AJ further up the path, Minako and Nick shared a quick glance, froze, and began laughing loudly. Nick pulled Minako against his chest and buried his face in the slope of her shoulder.

“This game is getting out of hand.” His laughter drowned out his whisper.

She lowered her voice to a whisper as well. “We’ll have to play some other time when our friends aren’t close by… Or ask each other different questions.” She pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.

He straightened, pulling her a little closer to his chest as he locked his gaze with hers. “Can I ask you one more question? Since I keep cheating anyway.”

“Okay?”

“What’s been your favorite part of being back here?”

“Being with you again. Were you worried the answer would be different?”

“No. I just like hearing it.” He smiled as he cupped her chin. “Me too. Being with you again has meant everything to me.”

They both smiled at each other before sharing a kiss.

~*~



Nestled in the valley, the vibrant green of the lush forest surrounded them as the large mountains loomed above them, casting the entire forest in shadow. In the crook of trees, the base of the mountain and the rocks jutting out above them protected their burrow. Howie sat on his knees, tending to a small fire that danced across their faces warmly as Nick alternated between looking at him and turning to watch Ashley who slept against a tree across the crook from the fire; Madeline and Jacob lay on the ground beside him. Closer to the fire, Brian and Kevin also leaned against trees as they slept, while AJ slept on the ground next to Howie, and Minako lay across Nick’s lap. He ran his fingers through her hair and smiled at her briefly, then peered back toward Ashley.

“It is atypical that we remain awake together, Nick.”

Nick shook his head and turned back to Howie. “Yeah.”

Howie smiled. “We do not mind if you are not looking at us while speaking. Would you prefer to face his direction?”

“Yeah… But Minako always wakes up when I move and it’s harder for her to sleep out here.” Nick ran his hand through Minako’s hair again.

“Then allow us to face his direction on your behalf.”

Nick smiled weakly as Howie stood and repositioned himself with his back facing the base of the mountain.

“We apologize for imposing, but Brian briefly mentioned your nightly rituals and nightmares.”

“It’s fine, Howie. We already said no secrets between us.”

“Still… We suppose it must feel quite exposing to have all of your matters shared.”

Nick smiled broadly. “You’re all my family. I trust you no matter what. Besides, you’ve all got more experience dealing with all this anyway, so I’m happy to have the help.”

Howie chuckled. “Practice with our powers, perhaps. Certainly not being betrayed by a mentor.”

Nick put his hand to his face and inhaled, then ran it down his nose and chin. “Was he ever my mentor? I keep thinking that a real mentor, a real master, would want to make all of me better, not just physically stronger.” He frowned and furrowed his brow. “The way Kevin talks about his Master, it sounds like they had this warm and supportive relationship. That he taught him how to get physically stronger and how to use his powers, but also how to navigate the world, take care of other people, and believe in himself and his strengths… The things I’m learning actually make someone strong.”

“Please know that we support you and not Ashley, but at least in regards to your powers, Ashley is not a member of your actual clan. It is likely that teaching you to master your powers would have been extremely difficult for him, especially knowing his own powers.” He glanced at Ashley, then back to Nick. “Though we agree, a master of better caliber would have focused on other forms of strength. Although, we also believe it is a surprise to us all that kindness has become one of our contingent’s greatest assets.”

Nick smiled down at Minako. “I’ve never felt stronger than when we’re supporting each other.” He looked back up at Howie. “All of us.” He peered into the fire. The flames licked the air as they flickered in front of him. “I’ve been meaning to ask… When we were in the castle in the altar room, you said you knew I wasn’t a monster, that I was the strongest Sapphire cardinal demon and... it made me happy because you said ‘I’ and not ‘we’...” He looked down as his smile quirked into the whisper of a laugh. “That’s not the question I meant to ask, sorry…”

“Do not apologize, Nick. We realize that our speech may seem overly formal and even archaic. In that last moment, we hoped to emphasize very personally that we believed in your abilities to find strength in all moments, but especially your most dire moments.” He cupped Nick’s shoulder as he smiled. “We still believe this, even though this particular moment is not so dire.”

Nick glanced toward Ashley again.

“There will be a moment when this ends. You have already told him your parameters, so we hope you are able to find strength in forgiveness and that you do not let your worry consume you.”

“Minako said the same thing.” He shook his head. “I’m trying but… It’s hard knowing someone you trusted is the type of person who could betray you that way. Then you worry what else they’re capable of… Or whether other people you trust could do it too… Not that I think any of you would betray me, but...” He fiddled with Minako’s hair lightly as he shook his head. “What I meant to ask was how do you know what a strong demon is? Are different types of demons stronger than others?”

Howie stroked his chin lightly with his hand. “While individual demons, and even demon clans, have varied powers, broadly speaking, there are only a few types of demons. Demons are said to be the progeny of the sky, ruled by things like constellations and the heavens. However, at their simplest, all demonic powers relate to the concept of the soul: natural soul, corporeal soul, and spiritual soul.”

“Souls?”

“The vital and essential spark of all beings. For demons, this is fundamental to their powers. How does the soul relate to the natural world? How does the soul relate to the body? How does the soul relate to the spirit?”

Nick buried his head in his hands and groaned. “I am so confused. How does a soul relate to those things?”

Howie chuckled. “The unanswerable question.”

Nick lifted his head, but continued to hold his cheeks with his hands. “Okay… Some of those words make sense. Let’s start with an easy one. Kevin’s a doctor, his powers have to do with fixing the body. That's a corporeal soul?”

Howie chuckled again.

Nick threw his hands over his eyes and groaned again. “I hate when you do that! That means it’s not that easy is it?”

“It is not. Stronger demons are able to tap into the strengths of all three. At its simplest, Kevin’s power is corporeal, but there are natural and spiritual aspects to healing and medicine as well.”

Nick exhaled a puff of air, blowing his hair across his forehead. “Okay… What about AJ? His powers have to be corporeal too. He’s literally changing his own body.”

“At their simplest.”

Nick groaned again. “Then it’s too simple to say Brian’s power is only spiritual?”

“Correct.”

“Or yours? Whatever yours is...”

“At their simplest, our clan’s powers are natural. As are yours.”

“Natural…”

“The elemental and physical nature of the sun and the moon as natural entities. And yet… How do the sun and moon affect the body? Or the spirit?”

“I don’t know...”

Howie pressed his lips into a thin line. “We hesitate to say that your original clan would have focused on the natural aspects in their teaching, the clear and simple aspects of your powers.”

“Because yours didn’t?”

“Correct.” Howie smiled. “Based on our own learning, we are instead drawn to the spiritual aspects of your powers, the parallels between creation and destruction that religions are based upon. Or the manners in which the body reacts to the sun and moon.”

“So, what? I walk a line between living and dying? Being someone or a monster?” He stared at the fire again. “I hate this.”

“You are not a monster. We will tell you as many times as you need to hear it.” Howie smiled. “Though we know our insistence does not calm you as much as hers.”

Nick touched Minako’s cheek lightly. “In the very beginning, when she first saw me, it was like she thought I was a monster, but she never actually called me that… like some of the others…” He clenched his hand. “I spent so long thinking I must be a monster… That I did something horrible and deserved nothing...” He laughed quietly.

“Nick?”

“I was so angry at you when we first met.” He shook his head. “No, I was just jealous, but I didn’t understand the difference back then. The world was so black and white for me. I had nothing and you had everything. You were really welcoming to both of us and Minako kept smiling at you and hugging you… I hated it so much. I just wanted something for myself… Not just something, I wanted her to myself… My first friend and my… whole world...” He smiled wistfully. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this now...”

Howie said nothing, but continued to smile at him gently.

Nick sighed quietly. “But that’s just you and Minako, kind, welcoming, and supportive. Of course you would treat each other that way.” He gripped his hand into a fist again. “I think I deserved to be called a monster then. I was horrible to her and drove her away because I was jealous, even though she was all I wanted… I made a mistake...” He brushed her hair behind her ear as he fixed his gaze on her face. “Then she came back and I still wasn’t a monster to her. I was still gentle and kind. I was still just Nick and she still picked me. Having her and being just Nick and not having to worry about being a monster made me so happy.”

“We believe that her kindness gave something like that to all of us, the opportunity to be ‘just Nick’ or ‘just Howie’ as you said.” He chuckled. “We did not intend to make you jealous, but we also appreciated being only ourselves for one moment. We are always grateful that the initial kindness has permeated all of our interactions. Even in those dire moments, it feels as though we can still be only ourselves. Perhaps that knowledge of self is how we all become stronger.”

“You said all demons have the potential to tap into all the strengths of the soul?”

“Correct.”

“But every really strong demon we’ve ever met seems like they have a dangerous power…” He looked back up at him. “I think you’re all strong too, but… Justin and Ashley are both very dangerous, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen them use their real powers… They’re merciless…” He clenched his fist. “If the only way to be strong is to be some kind of dangerous monster… then I don’t want to be strong.”

“Nick…” Howie placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “The truly strong recognize their limits and make difficult choices concerning their strengths. We often make choices to not use our powers for this reason. Only killing to achieve might or to seek prestige is no way to be strong. You will find your own strength without sacrificing being ‘just Nick’.”

“Howie… you never talk about your powers, I’ve only ever seen you use your sword… Are they dangerous?”

“Perhaps in some ways... But they are also complicated in the midst of battle. We believe many demons who become strong could stand on either side of creation and destruction and both paths do contain some sacrifice. We hope that you do not sacrifice becoming your whole self to avoid becoming destructive.”

Nick clenched his fist, but said nothing.

“We have enjoyed this moment, but have grown weary. Are you opposed if we take our leave?”

Nick shook his head. “No, that’s fine…”

Howie stood and began retreating to a tree near Brian and Kevin. “We hope that you rest as well.”

“Yeah…” Nick turned his gaze back toward Ashley.

Strength is sacrifice… Is it only what I’m willing to sacrifice to become strong? Justin and even Ashley seem to prefer killing, sacrificing others to make themselves strong… I can’t do that. I can’t be that kind of monster. But is creating sacrificing yourself so others can be strong? He stared at Minako as he fiddled with her hair. In the end, it felt like you were willing to sacrifice everything we had to help everyone, to create our path to the other world, the place we belonged… I hated that... It’s selfish, but I don’t want that either.

I want to stay with you and our friends, my family… I want to protect what we have… If I can’t do either of those things, then will I always be weak? I just want to be strong enough to protect you and fight alongside them… Is there strength in that? Can it be about what I won’t sacrifice instead of what I will sacrifice? And if I can decide now, will I be able to stay myself instead of being a monster or a martyr in my last moments?
He stared back into the flickering flames.

The strength of the soul… Can I find that without my original clan? Will I always be lacking without their teaching and support? I hope that there’s a way to become strong without them here if I try to remember them. Maybe I have to accept all of these parts of me to become strong, the part that could be a monster, the part that could be a martyr, the part that is an orphan, the part that was raised by a selfish killer and betrayed, the part that was saved by your loving embrace and light, the part that was welcomed into a family of companions, the part that needs to be stronger for all of us, and the part that is just me. He scanned the faces of the sleeping sapphire demons, then fixed his gaze back on Minako. I will always protect our clan, our family, even if that means remaining weak or finding a new way to be strong. That is the one thing I won’t sacrifice, even if I can never be truly strong. I promise.

End Notes:
Another exciting reveal for a long awaited question! PNecklace is full of gems like these.

If you missed the addition of the "you ask, I answer" game in PBox, I encourage you to look at the first one in Chapter Eleven: "To Emeradotouhou" and the second one in Chapter Twenty-Three "Connected" for some fun times!
Chapter Fifteen: Confidence by nicksgal
The next morning, the sunlight brushed against them as it slowly rose into the sky. Nick stared up at it as they walked, his face bathed in brightness. I’ve spent so long comparing myself to the darkness, thinking that was all I was… I wonder if it filled my heart because I couldn’t feel the light. Or did I shut out the light before I was trapped? I wonder if I couldn’t remember my powers because it was too painful to remember my family... I wonder if those spirits of light are hurting me in that nightmare because I won’t remember… Can I make myself remember them? Can I ever really tap into the strength of the light without trying to remember? Will I always be less than I could be if I keep trying to push forward without those memories? I wish I could remember anything about them, even just the way their touch felt or their smell.

He glanced at Minako as she gripped his hand with one hand and rubbed at her eyes with the other. When she yawned, he smiled. Minako… Even when I was comparing myself to darkness, you were always comparing me to light. I want to be the way you see me. And to be that, I have to go forward and get stronger. I can’t trade you for them, especially when they don’t exist in the world anymore. I chose you a long time ago anyway. I know you promised to accept all of me, but…

“Good morning, Nick and Minako.” AJ smiled excitedly as he slowed his pace in front of them.

“AJ…” Minako mumbled as she smiled.

Nick chuckled. “I never pegged you as a morning person.”

AJ continued smiling as he stretched. “It seemed like it would be a good day. And sleeping under the stars reminded me of growing up in Rubiihoppou, so I slept pretty easily.” He frowned. “You look like you didn’t though.”

“I’m fine.”

Minako leaned against him and yawned again as she tightened her grip on his hand.

“Brian and I kept our usual arrangement.”

“I have a funny story that might cheer you up this morning.” AJ’s frown turned into a quick smile.

“Okay?”

“When I was first learning to control my powers, I kept seeing this dog run by our camp. It always looked really happy, so I thought it would be fun to be a dog too.”

Minako reached up to AJ’s head and patted it. “Cute puppy.” She then nuzzled back against Nick’s bicep. “Cute puppy…”

“Our priestess is not a morning person.” AJ laughed.

“No.” Nick smiled. “I used to think she was because she always woke up before me. But she’s not, I was just so on edge from always being worried about being safe when I slept, that when I was finally safe, I was exhausted…” He frowned. “It’s starting to feel like that again…”

“So this happy dog… I decided I was ready to shapeshift on my own so that I could go running and play with it.”

Nick smirked. “You weren’t ready.”

AJ grinned broadly. “I was not ready. When the old man finally found me, it took hours for me to be able to turn back. I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to change back, I think it only made it worse.” He laughed.

Nick furrowed his brow. “That sounds terrifying.”

“It’s funny to think back on it now, because even after I changed back, I still had a muzzle and a fuzzy tail.”

“For how long?”

“Weeks!”

A brief smile quirked on Nick’s lips.

“I think I have to show you so you understand.” He smiled and ran his fingers along one of his hoop earrings before pulling on it. A puff of pale smoke surrounded his face and tail. He brushed it away, revealing a dog muzzle and a furry dog tail.

Minako reached out to pet AJ’s tail as she giggled into the crook of Nick’s arm.

Nick glanced at her, then back at AJ’s dog muzzle and tail, before lowering his head and covering his face with his hand.

“Nick?”

His bright laugh sprang out from beneath his hand.

“See? It becomes funny over time.”

Nick’s cheeks flushed lightly. “It’s a little your story and a little of a story Minako told me yesterday. She said that when I’m sleeping and happy, my tail wags.”

AJ turned back to the dog tail and it responded with a few wags.

Minako giggled again, then Nick laughed loudly again. AJ began laughing again as well.

“That did cheer me up.” Nick smiled broadly.

AJ pulled on his earring again. When the smoke cleared, his face and tail returned to normal.

Minako slumped against Nick’s arm as she walked. He smiled gently as he stopped, then supported her back with one arm while bending down and holding the other behind her thighs as he picked her up. As she nuzzled into his chest and shut her eyes again, his smile grew.

Nick glanced back at AJ as he began walking again. “Do you ever worry that you’ll lose yourself when you shapeshift?”

“No.” AJ shrugged as he smiled. “Not now anyway. When I was first learning how to control it, it was terrifying thinking that I could make a mistake and never come back, like that time.” He fell into step beside Nick and put his hand to Nick’s free shoulder. “I wasn’t that confident in myself when I was younger, I was just someone small in a group of strangers. But when you’re physically becoming something else and changing yourself, you have to be very confident in who is under the transformation. If you’re not, you can lose yourself.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

AJ crossed his arms loosely. “I won’t lie to you and say it’s easy. It isn’t. Back then, I decided that the person I was going to be confident in was the one who existed day to day and I decided to ignore the part of me that was waiting for all of you.” He smirked. “Which is fine, except one day, you stumbled into that decision and bled on it.”

“That wasn’t my--”

“It was mine. I heard her calling and kept walking. I buried that longing in that moment because I thought I would never feel it.” He chuckled. “You quickly let me know that I couldn’t make that choice.”

Nick hung his head.

He tightened his crossed arms. “I’m glad you did, but I felt like I didn’t have time to become confident in myself again.” He tightened his crossed arms. “That’s what I hated the most in that castle. I was suddenly confronted with a part of myself that I had ignored for so long and I wasn’t able to reconcile it before I was thrust into that journey.” AJ stared up at the sun. “All those old feelings sprung up so quickly and I wanted to be useful, but it was hard for me to use my powers because I wasn’t feeling confident in myself. If I wasn’t allowed to be the person I had chosen to be without all of you, then who was I?”

“I feel the same way, but the opposite. With my past staring at my face, can I still be the person I chose to be with all of you?”

AJ smiled. “You can, but it takes time and a willingness to accept all the parts of yourself, good or bad. Then you need to decide how they interact with each other and if you can keep going as you have been or if you need to change things.”

Nick glanced up at him.

“That’s my caution for you, I guess. Don’t spend so much of your time focused on keeping now the same and making the parts of yourself fit together with the path you’ve been envisioning for yourself. Focus on the pieces connecting the way they should.”

A small smile crossed Nick’s face as he looked down at Minako snuggled in his arms. “Minako already said that she’ll accept me and continue to love me no matter what.”

AJ stared at the forest beneath the mountainous path. “I hope it’s that easy.” He glanced at Madeline, then back to Nick and Minako. “But, I’m sure Minako genuinely means that and will do her best.” He cupped Nick’s shoulder again. “In the castle, Minako’s belief in me was what kept me going and gave me the strength to believe in myself again. I’m sorry to have taken some of that from you.”

“Howie reminded me yesterday that we all have our own feelings for Minako for our own reasons.” He frowned. “I was always surprised that Renee thought having another person in Minako’s heart meant that there wasn’t room for her in it. But I guess I understand now because... I also felt that same way at first, I just didn’t want to admit it.” He smiled warmly as he held her closer to his chest. “Once I was ready to accept that she had parts of herself and her heart from before she met me, I just had to hope that I’d left enough of a permanent mark that there wouldn’t be an after me.”

AJ smiled warmly as well. “I wonder if she feels the same way and that’s the reason she said she would always accept you.” He chuckled. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t think there’s an after you for her. When we were first brought back, she was worried about Renee, but she kept asking for you.”

Nick looked down at her again. Minako…

“It was interesting that she was so worried about her, actually. I wonder if they ever talked about what happened here. Probably not if they forgot too. I wonder if there’s part of her that’s still mad at Renee or if she’s already forgiven her.”

“I don’t know…” He laughed faintly. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she forgot, remembered the instant she broke free from forgetting, then forgave her in that moment without regrets.” He held her closer to his chest. “I don’t think there’s an after her for me either, no matter what before her was like. I don’t have a family to go back to and it’s clear that Ashley wasn’t the family I thought, but I also chose her a long time ago. So… I guess I’ll always be a Sapphire demon in love with his Priestess.”

AJ shook his head and laughed. “You’re really convinced you’ll never break.”

“I promised. I’ll try anything I can for all of you.”

At that moment, the ground beneath them rattled and rumbled. AJ and Nick stared at the ground, then each other; Nick cocked his head and AJ cocked one brow. Ahead, the other demons and Madeline’s bewildered stares mirrored their perplexion. Nick gripped Minako tightly as he scanned the ground again. It’s shaking, but everything seems fine... He scanned the treeline beneath them. They’re still standing... He began scanning the mountain above them and flinched when he caught sight of a large rock hurtling toward them.

“AJ! Nick!” Brian shouted.

AJ and Nick sprinted toward them as Brian began chanting his barrier spell. It enclosed around the group moments after they flanked him.

AJ let out a sigh of relief. “That was close.”

The rock struck the barrier, but bounced off and settled on the path.

Madeline ducked.

“It’s fine.” Ashley’s dry tone mimicked his slight scowl.

“Reflexes.” She muttered under her breath as she stood. “Oh, is Minako okay? I didn’t see her run in...”

Nick nodded and hefted her in his arms lightly. “She’s fine.”

“I wish I could nap while someone carried me.” Madeline crossed her arms.

“No.” Ashley replied in the same derisive tone.

“Brian, is this near or far from your home?” Kevin leaned against the edge of the barrier and scanned the mountain above them.

“We’re pretty close, just a little longer that way.” He motioned south.

“Is this area prone to rock slides?”

The ground shook again as another massive rock tumbled down the mountain.

“Not really. Things happen sometimes, of course, but obviously we wouldn’t have created a home in a place that would test our barriers so frequently.”

Kevin frowned. “What do you suppose it is?”

Howie stood beside Kevin and followed his gaze up the side of the mountain. “It is likely this phenomenon is caused by demons if rock slides are atypical.”

Madeline gasped then ran to the side of the barrier beside them. “Ashley, Jacob, what if it’s Erik?!”

“Why would Erik be in Safaiananpou?” Jacob frowned.

“Why would Nicky be in Rubiihoppou? Let’s just go see!”

Howie turned to survey the area around them. “Brian, is this area safe for flight?”

“Perfectly safe. But we should all be ready to dodge any of the rocks.”

Howie nodded, closed his eyes tightly, and drew his sword. A gust of wind surrounded him as his wings flared from his back and his horns sprouted amongst his hair. He opened his eyes and they shone a brilliant sapphire for a moment.

Madeline stepped back and held her splayed hand over her mouth. “You have wings just like the rest of them?”

“But you don’t.” Ashley picked her up quickly and gripped her waist. “Hold on.”

Nick pressed a gentle kiss to Minako’s forehead. “Time to wake up.”

“Are we there?” Minako mumbled.

“No, but there’s a rock slide, so we’re going to fly. I’d feel safer if you held on.”

Minako gripped at his tunic and crawled her arm around his neck lightly.

“Minako…”

She groaned quietly and uncurled herself from between his arms as she raised her head.

He kissed her lips gently, then set her on the ground. “Sorry I had to wake you up.”

She rubbed her eyes, then wrapped her arms around his neck as he picked her up by the waist. She leaned her head against his while wrapping her legs around his waist. Nick laughed quietly as he tightened his embrace.

“Everyone ready?” Brian glanced at each of them, catching their nods, then whispered a second spell. The barrier dissipated around them as the other demons began flapping their wings, and took to the sky.

Nick bit his lip as he maneuvered away from a tumbling rock.

“You look worried.” Minako brushed her hand across the back of his head.

“I just hope this is an odd, but regular rock slide and not a demon like Howie thinks.”

“If it’s a demon, it’s probably scared or hurt.”

“And dangerous in that state… But I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”

As they scaled the mountain, the rocks continued to scatter and roll beneath them, shaking the mountain and rattling the paths through it. Brian gestured to the last path beneath them and the rock face above it. “No rocks slides from above!” He began his descent.

Nick quickly followed him and the other demons also hesitantly began their descent.

When Nick and Brian landed, they began scanning the path and rock face for the source of the rocks. The ground remained eerily still. Brian shrugged and Nick began setting Minako down. The ground began shaking again, scattering small rocks scattered along the path. Nick tightened his grip on Minako as he and Brian sprung from the ground again; the other demons glided away from the mountain.

“Where are they coming from?” Brian continued scanning the mountain and he clutched his staff tightly.

Minako leaned over Nick’s shoulder and pointed., “Look, up ahead over there! That little cave has lots of rocks right in front of the opening!”

Nick and Brian turned to face the small grotto which glowed with bursts of red light.

“Ashley, it has to be Erik!” Madeline shouted.

The ground shook again as rocks shot from the grotto, then began rolling down the side of the mountain.

“We have to get him!” Madeline shouted.

“Absolutely not! He’s dangerous!”

“Ashley!”

“No!”

Nick glanced at Ashley and Madeline, then back to Brian, then to Kevin, and finally down at Minako. He swallowed forcefully several times, then chewed his lip.

“You think it’s the first demon we met in the castle?”

Nick swallowed and continued chewing on his lip.

“Nick, stop…” she held her arms out and stepped toward him, her legs still shaking and bleeding, “I’m keeping you safe...” The streams of blood fell down her legs and fell in small drops upon the ground, splattering back and scattering across her shoes.

Nick skidded to a stop, then turned and ran back toward her. “Minako!”

The room rattled as it filled with musty dirt again, knocking Nick and Minako to their knees. A cloud of smoke billowed across their faces and he coughed as the dust entered his throat. Nick growled as he whipped his head back toward the soldier to see that a jumbled pile of jagged rocks covered their combatant completely. Nick snarled, pushed himself from the ground, and ran toward the demon quickly. If I can rescue him, he won’t become a statue! He quickly lifted and threw the stones from its body. If this even helps a little, I have to rescue him!

While he struggled, the stones began to emanate a ruby glow and exploded into a stream of rocks that hit various parts of his body. A small shard sliced his cheek, making blood flow down the curves of his face. Another hit his abdomen, tearing his tunic and slicing open his haunting wound. His tunic quickly stained red, turning his sapphire clothing into purple clothing. One very large shard impaled his left wing. The force of these shards hurtled him backwards and he hit the ground with a clatter, landing near Minako’s weak body. The stone that had impaled his wing hit the ground behind him as other cascading stones fell and surrounded him. He let out a yelp as he tried to pull himself up on his hands. His left wing fell limp as he tried to flap both.


Nick tightened his embrace on her. “I’ll protect you, I promise!”

“We have to help him!”

I don’t want to put Brian at risk… That hurt like hell last time. But I can always keep her safe… He might remember me, and then Minako... “Do you think you can use any of Brian’s power once we’re close?”

“I can try!”

“Brian! Kevin!” Nick shouted at them as he lowered himself to the ground again.

“Nick, stop being reckless!” Kevin shouted, but still descended toward the path.

Once the four of them landed, Brian rose his staff and whispered his inaudible spell as he surrounded them in a barrier. The rocks bounced off the sides as they continued to shoot from the grotto. “What are you planning to do Nick?”

“This is just like what happened to me in the clearing and that first time you fought with Justin, Brian. Kevin can definitely fix it!” Nick frowned. “But if Erik and the stone soldier from the castle are the same, it’s very dangerous and painful. I can’t let either of you get close to that.” He swallowed. “Erik should recognize me by scent, but strange demons might seem threatening...”

“And Minako?” Kevin furrowed his brow.

“Madeline could probably help the most, but Ashley’s ignoring her. There’s not enough time to argue with him if Erik is like Brian or me. Minako’s a priestess too and she used to be able to make those tiny barriers like Brian. In a pinch, it should work!”

Kevin crossed his arms and frowned. “It’s difficult to argue when you’ve actually thought about it. If you get hurt, I’ll heal you two first.”

Nick pressed his lips into a thin line. “Minako, then Erik. Me last.”

Brian pulled two sutras from his tunic. He whispered a spell and one rippled with a bright sheen, which he handed to Minako. “This will help you.” He whispered again and the second sutra ignited with a sapphire flame. “Meanwhile, if you are about to get hurt, I will not hesitate to rescue you.”

“Understood.” Nick nodded and began inching toward the edge of the barrier.

Brian tightened his grip on his staff as another rock struck the barrier. When they quieted for a moment, he released his grip and a small hole appeared. Minako and Nick pushed it open and burst through before Brian quickly closed the gap again.

As the ground rumbled and rocks shot from the grotto again, Nick ducked and dodged them while holding an arm across Minako’s face and around her shoulders. “Almost there, be ready. I’ll count to three.” He dodged a few more rocks as they entered the grotto. “One… Two… Three!”

Minako held the sutra to her heart, then thrust it into the air; a bright barrier sprung up around them and the demon convulsing at their feet. When the demon glowed with another burst of red light and the grotto shook, causing rocks to break from the mountain, but instead of shooting from the grotto, the rocks rolled off the small barrier and fell to the ground around them.

Nick set Minako on the ground and she held the sutra to her heart as she leaned down beside the demon. “You probably don’t remember us, but we’re here to help!”

End Notes:
If you're having a hard time remembering Nick's memory of the stone soldier, may I direct you to PBox's Chapter Thirty-Two: Stone Soldier and then the aftermath in Chapter Thirty-Three: Abyss.
Chapter Sixteen: Earthquake by nicksgal
The demons hovered in the air as Brian and Nick landed on the path below them. The ground at the base of the mountain continued to shake as the large rocks rolled down the mountain. Among the din of the rocks bursting from the mountain, the other demons followed Brian and Nick’s movements. Minako pointed toward a small grotto over Nick’s shoulder and the two demons turned to it. Each time it burst with flashes of red light, rocks shot from its entrance and began spilling and cascading down the mountain. As Howie predicted, the entire situation was seeped in demonic aura.

“A demon?” Madeline gripped Ashley’s shoulder tightly as she peered at the grotto.

Ashley snorted. “They were bound to be correct eventually.”

“Ashley, it has to be Erik!”

The ground shook again as rocks shot from the grotto and began rolling down the side of the mountain.

“We have to get him!” Madeline shouted.

“Absolutely not! He’s dangerous!”

“Ashley!”

“No!”

“Ashley! He’s probably hurt! He’s our friend!”

“A friend, what a ridiculous thing to call him!”

“Ashley!”

“Brian! Kevin!” Nick’s shout interrupted their argument. The three demons descended back to the path before Brian’s barrier surrounded them.

“Ashley! They’re going to get hurt!”

“Let them get hurt. They made that decision.”

“We can help him!”

“We’re not getting injured!”

“Ashley!”

“No!”

“Jacob! We have to help him!”

“What did Ashley say?”

“Ashley!”

~*~



Minako held the sutra to her chest as she and Nick stood inside the grotto, shielded from the falling rocks by the small barrier. The injured demon wore blood red armor with spherical plates at his chest, abdomen, back, shoulders, and a series of elongated ovals encircling his thighs. An unsheathed sword lay near his hands. As he convulsed, small earthquakes rattled the ground.

“You probably don’t remember us, but we’re here to help!” Minako exclaimed.

“Who?” He opened his eyes slightly and winced as he burst with red light. The grotto shook, but the barrier remained intact.

Minako and Nick kneeled down next to him, then Nick tapped his shoulder. “We’re the Sapphire cardinal demons. We were traveling through the mountains and found you.”

“Sapphire?” Another quick burst of light shook the grotto.

Minako put her hand to his head. “We have a doctor, if you can tell us where you’re injured.”

The ruby demon moved his hand toward his chest, right above his heart. “This scent… Nicky?”

Nick grunted quietly. “It’s me, yes.”

“You don’t sound like--” He burst with light again, shaking the grotto.

“I lived an extra decade, Erik! I know you’re surprised, but we can talk about it later! You’re injured!”

“Is Ashley--” Another burst.

“A--”

“Ashley is here. And Jacob and Madeline too.” Minako interrupted Nick quickly.

A small smile crossed Nick’s face, then he mouthed, “Thanks.”

“Madeline…” Erik stopped shaking for a moment.

“This is our chance,” Minako whispered.

Nick nodded. “Erik, stay calm. I’m going to pick you up to take you to our doctor.”

Erik shut his eyes. “Madeline…”

Nick thrust his arms under Erik and lifted him up. “Minako, you’ll have to move quickly and keep the barrier safe.”

“I can!”

Erik still shook and glowed in Nick’s arms, piercing Nick with a stinging shock. Nick winced as he and Minako rushed away from the grotto and back toward Brian’s barrier.

Brain crumpled the sutra in his hand, then brought his hands together with a loud clap, merging both barriers.

Nick set Erik on the ground quickly, then jumped back as red light burst from Erik’s body. Nick groaned as he gripped his chest. “It hurts. This is what those sparks felt like in the clearing.”

“You were right, Nick, this does look similar to you and Brian. What could have caused it?” Kevin knelt beside him.

“He tried to incapacitate the emerald general when he was only used to using his power defensively?” Brian chuckled.

“Brian, it is an inappropriate time for jokes.”

“We said you were a doctor and Erik said his chest is injured too.” Minako knelt beside Kevin.

Kevin cupped Erik’s shoulder. “Hello Erik, I’m the doctor Nick and Minako mentioned. Stay calm.” He began removing the chest plate from Erik’s torso.

“Doctor…”

“Minako, will you assist me?”

Minako nodded and helped Kevin remove the chest plate. Beneath it, a gaping hole spread across Erik’s bloody chest.

Kevin put one hand to Erik’s chest and the other to his forehead, gripping it slightly. As the sapphire glow emanated from Kevin’s hands, a bright ruby aura sprang up from Erik’s body, without shocking Kevin, then encased Erik’s body as though it were a mold around him. While his eyes remained closed, his shaking body calmed and the tremors in the ground stopped. Kevin stood quickly.

“Kevin?” Minako gripped his pants.

Kevin’s green eyes glowed a bright sapphire as an intense flame of sapphire surrounded his hand for a few moments. The glowing subsided as he clenched his hand into a fist and his eyes returned to their green coloring. “We’ll need to get him cleaned up before I can try to heal his chest. And if he’s anything like Nick, I would prefer to not try to heal it all at once in case the binding ends up weaker and opens again.”

Nick crossed his arms and frowned. “We were fighting for our lives! Would it make you happier if I didn’t do anything?!”

“Yes,” they said simultaneously, though Kevin spoke forcefully through tightly pressed lips, while Brian chuckled, and Minako’s glassy eyes reflected the concern in her voice.

“Fine! I’ll just never help again!”

Brian released his barrier, then put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “You did a noble thing. Continue to help, but be less reckless.”

Nick snorted and turned away from him.

“Kevin, why was your hand all fiery?” Minako pulled on Kevin’s pant leg again.

Kevin opened his hand again and smiled. “I can generally use my healing powers without directly touching a wound. Unfortunately, the one place I absolutely must touch is the heart, and the head if it is an issue with demonic powers. Without sanitary equipment available, I needed to use my healing powers quickly on myself to ensure I remain healthy after touching his blood directly.” He knelt beside her. “Will you assist me in replacing his chest plate?”

After they refitted the chest plate, Kevin furrowed his brow as he began examining the remainder of Erik’s wounds. “Brian, when we were at the base of the mountain, you said we were fairly close to your home. Is that still true? He needs medical attention sooner rather than later.”

“It’s true, we are close.”

The other demons settled on the ground around them, then Madeline pushed herself out of Ashley’s arms and ran toward Minako and Kevin. She collapsed to her knees. “Erik!”

Minako ran her hand along Erik’s dark hair. “It’s okay, we got him out of the tiny cave.”

Madeline wrapped Minako in a tight hug and started sobbing. “Minako, thank you!”

“Of course. We’re friends and a team.”

“Nicky… Kevin… Brian… Thank you for helping Erik.”

Nick glanced back at Brian, but still frowned. When Brian caught the glance, he started laughing. Kevin held his forehead and shook his head.

Nick averted his glance away from Brian as the other two demons gave short nods. “Of course,” Nick mumbled quietly before glancing at Ashley, whose body language mirrored his own. Nick frowned as he glanced at his arms, then relaxed his posture. “Where do we need to go, Brian?”

Brian gestured down the path. “It should be just a little further that way.”

Nick knelt next to Minako and Madeline. “Are you okay walking?”

“I’m fine. Thank you for letting me sleep a little longer this morning.” Minako smiled.

“Anything for you.” Nick smiled warmly, then thrust his arms under Erik’s body again, hefting him against his chest as he stood. “Let’s go. I’m glad we’re almost there.” He started walking down the path.

Ashley stared after him, then turned back to the other demons. “Hang on, we’re just going to start walking again?! Did Erik agree to this alliance? Does he even want our help?!”

“Unconscious people who need medical attention can make decisions about alliances later! Let’s go!” Nick shouted over his shoulder.

Brian and Minako rushed to catch up with Nick; Madeline trekked behind them and Jacob followed her. Kevin, AJ, and Howie hung back. Howie glowed sapphire for a brief moment, concealing his demonic appearance.

Ashley furrowed his brow. “You’re hesitating. You don’t agree with this?”

AJ pointed to the group ahead of them. “Your turn. Go.”

“You’re watching me on his behalf?” Ashley smirked.

AJ tapped his nose, smirked as well, and pointed back to the group.

“And if I refuse?”

AJ shrugged. “I have all day and they’ll come back to look for me.”

Ashley rolled his eyes, but started walking. Kevin, AJ, and Howie followed behind him with enough distance to speak privately, but short enough to leap between the space.

“You all found that solution quite quickly.” Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword as he walked.

Kevin shook his head. “That was all Nick. He’s constantly reckless, but always dependable in a crisis.”

Howie smiled. “Always strong of heart. How can someone so protective believe they are only a monster?”

AJ shrugged. “If all you ever hear is that you’re a monster, you start to believe it. He’ll figure it out and hopefully come out better.” He crossed his arms. “I wonder what Brian’s home is like. Do you think it’s still here?”

They stared ahead at the winding endless path in front of them. The mountains loomed above them touching the sky and towered over the forest below them. Kevin examined the various grottos and outcroppings they passed. “I hope we’re not imposing on his family. Do you think there’s room for all of us?”

“Brian is rather vague about his background.” Howie pursed his lips. “We believe his words were akin to some of them being there still.”

“There’s several of these small grottos. I wonder if further down, they’re bigger Maybe several families of barrier demons live close to each other.”

“Regardless, if he worried the space was too small for all of us, he would have mentioned something.”

“How big is it?” AJ asked.

Howie put a hand on both of their shoulders. “We shall see. If you will excuse us, we would like to continue charting our journey with Brian as our guide.”

AJ and Kevin nodded as Howie made his way to the front. When he passed Ashley, they shared a brief glance before Ashley glanced back at the other two demons still walking behind him.

When Howie had made his way to the front of the group, he clapped his hand on Brian’s shoulder. “Brian, would you be so kind as to indicate how much further this path goes?”

“Whatever helps our journey, Howie.”

Howie pulled a chart from his tunic and unfolded it to reveal the mountain range sketched on it.

“This is where we took flight, up here is where we found Erik, and we are headed here.” Brian pointed to various points on it as he spoke.

Minako smiled back at them as she leaned on Nick’s arm. “It’s different up here, Nick.”

“We do usually walk the slowest.”

“Which is better, you think? The front or the back?”

“The back. Then I have you all to myself.” He smiled.

Minako gripped his arm. “Brian said he would do his best so we could have our own room at his house. I hope it’s big enough.”

“He would have said something if it wasn’t. Just how big is it?” He glanced ahead of them, then frowned. “Minako, someone’s coming. Stay behind me.”

Minako fell into step behind him as the two figures stopped on the path in front of them. Upon approach, their plain colored clothing came into view, with both tunics and pants in the shades of gray and white. The men also wore tall boots, straw hats, and similarly colored capes.

Nick hefted Erik. “We’re in a bit of a hurry to get our friend medical attention.”

“How did you find this path?”

“The rock slide. Excuse me.”

“Woman, your aura feels strange.”

“She’s fine. Move.”

One of the men gestured toward Madeline. “That one is dressed strangely.”

“Why are there so many of you?” The other one asked.

Nick raised an eyebrow and snarled. “You have a lot of things to say, but nothing about us being demons. Why is that?”

Minako tugged Nick’s sleeve. “Nick, they look like Brian.”

Nick glanced back toward Brian, then back at the two men. “They do look like Brian… Why?”

The two men turned to each other. One whispered to the second who nodded, then ran the opposite direction.

“Who are you?” Nick growled.

“Who are you?”

Nick set Erik at his feet, then clenched his hands into fists quickly. “We say our friend’s name and you act suspicious! Answer me first!” Nick’s hands began glowing as he clenched them tighter.

The remaining man clapped his hands together and a barrier sprung around him. His straw hat fell to the ground revealing the horns on his head.

Nick unclenched his fists and stepped backward as he gaped. “A barrier demon?”

Brian looked up from Howie’s chart. “Nick you stopped…” He and Howie turned from Nick to the demon in the bubble, then Brian pushed the chart back toward Howie and walked over to Nick quickly. “Hi.” He waved.

Nick gave Brian a bewildered look. “You’re not surprised there’s another barrier demon?”

“Should I be? I told you some of them probably still lived here.” He turned back to the other demon. “My friend Nick makes snap decisions sometimes, but he always has the best intentions. Come out.”

Nick growled as he knelt down to scoop Erik into his arms again, then leaned over to whisper in Minako’s ear as he stood. “Why isn’t he surprised? I’d be really surprised if there was another demon like me."

Minako smiled, but shook her head and shrugged.

The barrier demon released his hands from each other and the barrier fell around him. “Brian?”

“It’s me. It’s been a while.”

“Did you stop the earthquake?”

Brian put his hand behind his head. “Sort of. That was mostly Nick, actually. It was being caused by an injured demon in our alliance and we need to get medical attention for him. Is my grandfather home?”

The other demon counted the group. “Alliance?”

“Some sapphire, some ruby, two priestesses.”

The barrier demon gasped as he stared at Minako and Nick, then dropped to his knees.

Nick glanced at Brian, then down to the barrier demon as he hefted Erik’s limp body again. “Hey, we were serious when we said Erik needed medical attention. Can you take us to Brian’s grandfather?”

The awestruck barrier demon bolted to his feet, then began running down the path.

Nick gestured after him and started walking. Minako and Brian kept pace with him as they walked.

Brian frowned. “I’m a little concerned they could feel that earthquake that far away. They’re probably on high alert already, but at least my grandfather is home.”

“Your actual grandpa, Brian?” Minako smiled as she grabbed Brian’s arm.

Brian laughed. “Of course my actual grandfather.”

“It’s so nice that your grandpa lives with your family still!”

Nick motioned his head toward the barrier demon. “Should we catch up to him?”

“No, I know where we’re going. He’s probably just telling my grandfather that I’m coming.”

“There were two of them originally. One already took off running when we said their clothes looked like yours.”

Brian laughed again. “Oh no, Grandfather is going to be overwhelmed.”

“Are you related to that barrier demon?”

Brian shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Does your family live near a lot of other barrier demons?”

“Kind of…”

Nick lowered his head and groaned. “Brian, this is irritating. It’s like when we first met.”

Brian laughed again. “I’m sorry, I just haven’t been here in a while, so I don’t want to say something that isn’t true or overwhelm you unnecessarily.”

“Why?”

“The way we do things is different than I think you’re all used to...”

“How?”

“There’s a council…”

“There’s enough of you for a whole council?”

“I’ve told you many times, we’re very defense oriented. There’s probably a lot more barrier demons than other types of demons, especially after the sieges.”

“Is it a couple families in the council, Brian?” Minako asked.

“No, it’s only elders, but not necessarily one from each family.”

“So what?” Nick asked. “Twenty barrier demons?”

Brian shook his head.

“Not less?”

Brian shook his head.

“More?”

Brian turned back to the path, but remained silent.

“A lot more?” Nick groaned again. “This is like when we first met. Annoyingly cryptic.”

He turned back to Nick and smiled. “You’ll see.”

Nick gave Minako another bewildered look, but kept following Brian down the path.

Brian pointed to the other barrier demon waiting beside a craggy portion of rock face. Across from it, a single tree sat on the edge of the path before the mountain sloped down toward the valley again. “There.”

Nick frowned. “Brian, there’s nothing here.”

Brian smiled at the other barrier demon as they stopped in front of him. “Did you already knock, or may I?”

The other barrier demon gestured toward a small crevice in the rock face about the size of a person.

Brian turned back toward Nick and Minako. “Stand closer to me. We’ll wait for the rest of them to catch up before I knock.”

The other sapphire demons and ruby demons caught up to them and stopped.

Howie smiled. “How impressive. We look forward to meeting your clan.”

Kevin examined the rockface. “There’s more on the inside, isn’t there?”

Brian nodded.

AJ crossed his arms. “You wouldn’t even know when you walked by…”

Nick wrinkled his nose and he pursed his lips. “Hang on… When you’re all saying clan here, you don’t mean like parents and children like when we talked about my family or AJ’s or Kevin and his Master… You mean like a massive clan?!”

Brian smiled. “You’ll see.” He turned to the group and performed a quick count of the demons standing around him, then pulled his hands to his chest and laced his fingers together, but kept his pointer fingers pointing toward his face. He lowered his face toward them and a barrier sprang up around the group and the other barrier demon. He pushed his hands forward, pushing the barrier against the small crevice three times.

Nick narrowed his eyes and caught a small shimmer at the surface of the crevice. The shimmer pushed out toward them and tapped Brian’s barrier twice. Nick gaped and flinched.

Brian reached out a flat hand toward the edge of his barrier, then gripped the air like he was pulling fabric toward himself. The shimmer disappeared and the small crevice lit up, revealing a narrow hallway. Brian turned to the other barrier demon and gestured to the crevice. “After you.” He then smiled at the rest of the group. “Let’s go.”
Chapter Seventeen: Den of Demons by nicksgal
Nick froze as he tightened his grip on Erik’s body and stared after Brian as he walked through the crevice. He swallowed several times. This is a door to some sort of home for a bunch of barrier demons? How many are there? Could we get in without Brian? Are they all like Brian? Making jokes, spiritual, concerned with the politics of our countries? Will they accept us like he has? Or will they think we’re useless...

Minako gripped Nick’s sleeve.

“I’m okay… I think…” It doesn’t matter. Brian’s here and Brian does accept us. And I’ve got you…

“Do you want to go first?” She smiled, then lowered her voice to a whisper. “Or maybe I can protect you from whatever’s scary in there.”

He laughed quietly. “No, I’ll go. Just be ready to catch Erik if they ambush us.” He started walking through the small crevice, followed by Minako first and Kevin last, with the others between them.

Ahead of them, the tunnel grew increasingly dark as they walked further through it. Nick glanced back at Minako and caught sight of the shimmer across the entrance again. Water dripped on his head from the stalactites above them. He coughed and stuck out his tongue as the water dripped down his face. Out isn’t an option anymore, but Brian obviously thinks it’s safe here… He stared back ahead, hyperventilating quietly as he tried to conceal his breathing behind Erik in the dark. I hate this… It reminds me of that dark place where Minako found me… He glanced back at her again.

Despite the dark, her smile flashed brightly at him as she gripped the hem of his tunic.

At least… she’s here if this is the same type of trap. And Brian’s here too and I trust him. And Howie, Kevin, and AJ… It’s going to be okay.

The increasingly lit tunnel ended in a small hazy and bright opening.

“Don’t forget to duck!” Brian’s voice echoed through the darkness as he disappeared through the hole.

Nick swallowed, then crouched as low as he could get while holding Erik, sinking his head behind Erik’s knees as he held him forward. As he entered the hazy brightness, he froze, bumping into Minako behind him.

“Ow...”

He turned back to her quickly. “Minako!”

“I’m okay… You just surprised me. Are you… okay?” She rubbed her head.

He stepped to the side, allowing her to join him outside the tunnel. Rather than the hazy brightness, a large cavern loomed around them and stretched further back into the mountain seemingly endlessly. The vibrant cacophony of this place resembled Aohouseki’s marketplace, from the shops and stalls to the crowds to the safety of the towering cavern walls. Several tunnels and smaller entryways jutted out from this large main room like spokes, similar to Aohouseki’s wide paved streets. The only true difference between the two, other than this city being enclosed in a mountain, was that the curious crowds mimicked Brian in their attire and merely glanced with wonder at the horde of demons entering their midsts.

Nick trembled slightly until Minako leaned against him and held her hand at his lower back. He exhaled, then his back relaxed against her touch.

Brian quickly scanned their group, then smiled as he spread his arms wide. “Welcome to my humble home.”

Howie patted Brian’s shoulder. “We appreciate you welcoming us into your humble home.”

“Brian, this is huge!” AJ exclaimed.

Brian shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

Nick bit his lip. “Nothing, huh…”

“We heard your party needed medical attention.” Nick turned toward two male demons in simple clothing resembling Kevin’s attire in more muted colors.

I wonder if all doctors dress like this…

Kevin flanked Nick quickly. “I would like to continue healing him, but he will need some typical medical care and cleaning first. So far, his ailments are related to his powers, from what I can tell, but also a deep chest wound of some sort. Could you show me to your medical facilities to determine treatment and then bring me back to Brian?”

“Fascinating! A healing demon!” The demon grabbed Erik from Nick’s arms.

The other demon patted Kevin’s shoulder and gestured across the cavern. “We’ve always wanted to meet one! We would be honored to show you our facilities.”

Kevin patted Nick’s shoulder. “Thank you for carrying him. I’ll be right back.”

“Y-yeah… Sure…” Nick stared after them, frowning.

“Nick?” Brian pressed his lips into a thin line as he glanced at him.

“This isn’t what I was expecting. It’s like an entire city in here.”

Brian lowered his head. “I know family has been a point of contention lately. I didn’t want anyone to feel bad.”

Nick smiled but slowly reached back toward Minako’s hand. “Your family is your family. It’s okay.”

“Brian!” A deep male voice echoed through the cavern.

Brian quickly turned his head, then the others followed his gaze to an older demon with a long white beard standing further into the cavern. He wore a long sapphire tunic with two wide white stripes descending from the collarbone over white pants and sandals at his feet. Horns protruded from his pale strands of hair and his wings folded gently against his back. He clutched a staff similar to Brian’s.

“Grandfather!” Brian grinned from ear-to-ear as he hurried over to him, then wrapped him in a tight hug.

After reciprocating the squeeze, the older demon held Brian’s face and began examining him.

Nick stared at them, his brow furrowed in concentration. A grandfather… He swallowed, fighting the sinking feeling in his stomach. I wonder what it’s like to have one of those... He scanned the cavern. All of these demons are just like Brian… No wonder he said being a cardinal demon wasn’t the only thing he had… Would I feel the same way if my family was still around? Or would I still think it’s the most important thing I am? He frowned.

Minako tightened her grip on Nick’s hand. “It’s like Aohouseki but filled with demons.”

“Yeah… At least they’re not screaming… Or bowing… Just… staring...”

Minako stood on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear. “It’s Nick and his cute butt! He deserves our appreciation!”

“Minako… stop…” A smile quirked on his lips.

“Okay... wholesome… Nick and his sweet smile?”

“Minako…”

“You’re right, we’re still with everyone else. If Brian can find enough space, I’ll save some appreciation for later.”

“It’s fine, but I know you’re just trying to distract me.”

“Caught me.” She giggled and smoothed out his collar. “Our question game caused too much trouble earlier.”

He grinned. “We can talk about that later too.”

“Other secrets we know?”

“Or you.”

“Maybe there’s a lake in here… It seems big enough… I mean...” She glanced away, then peered up at him through her eyelashes as her face flushed.

I hope Brian can find enough space… I wonder what she would look like at a lake…

“Oh, I wonder where Brian and his grandpa are sending them?”

Nick glanced back toward them as another barrier demon began leading Madeline and the Ruby demons away from the group. He swallowed and frowned. Did Brian ask his grandfather about security?

Minako glanced back at him with knitted eyebrows. “You’re worried because you can’t keep an eye on Ashley?”

“You always know what I’m thinking.” Nick smiled at her warmly as he draped his arms around her waist.

“Brian wouldn’t send them away without making sure they’re all okay. But now it’s like before again, just all of us.” She beamed.

“Maybe it can be… just us again.”

“Now guess what I’m thinking.” Minako grinned as she fiddled with his tunic again.

“This has too many clasps.”

“Nick!” She laughed.

“More wholesome? This is really dirty, let’s take it off and clean it. Sounds the same.” He flashed a lopsided grin.

“Nick!”

He pressed a small kiss to her forehead. “I hope Brian can find more space for all of us.”

Minako smiled up at him. “Me too.” She glanced back at Brian. “Oh, Brian’s talking about us?”

Nick followed her gaze; Brian and his grandfather engaged in an animated conversation as Brian gestured toward them. “I wonder what they’re saying…”

“Grandfather!” Brian’s surprise echoed across the cavern.

Nick frowned. That’s not like Brian...

“All good things hopefully. I can’t wait to meet him.” She beamed again.

“Yeah… Me too.”

~*~



As Brian led them down one of the many long corridors inside the cavern, their footsteps echoed across it like the cavern’s heartbeat, shrouding their silent expressions.

“I can’t wait to meet your grandpa, Brian!” Minako grabbed his arm, skipping as she walked.

“He can’t wait to meet all of you. He was surprised we brought two priestesses.”

“Is it alright to leave Ashley alone for this long?” Nick crossed his arms and furrowed his brow.

“He sent them with one of the guards. And he’ll be able to protect himself if anything dangerous happens.”

“Guards?”

“A portion of the younger demons, the ones around my age actually, work in shifts to uphold the barrier to our home, the one I knocked on when we arrived. Three to four of them are holding it at all times.”

“So you can’t get in unless you’re a barrier demon?” AJ asked.

“Not usually.”

Kevin frowned. “They definitely wouldn’t have let us in without warning then.”

Brian chuckled. “It’s lucky those two were going to check on the earthquakes and the rock slides so they could prepare Grandfather and the other Elders.”

Nick looked at Brian bewilderedly. “They really wouldn’t have let us in without you?!” They wouldn’t accept us after all...

Howie patted his shoulder. “A den of demons does not thrive if they let just anyone into their midst, Nick.”

“They might have still let you all in, but it would have taken some explaining. Definitely Howie once they found out who he was. And probably Minako shortly after that. They probably would have let the rest of you in eventually if you discussed it outside on the path first. None of the Ruby demons, though, and probably not Madeline... Maybe Erik if you brought him, but only in his current state. Really you all had the easiest answer because you were with me.” He grinned.

“I’m glad you were here too, Brian.” Minako clutched his arm.

At the end of the corridor, two large rounded doors loomed ahead of them, decorated with a web of silvery rays resembling the shining streaks of Brian’s barriers.

“Here we are.” He knocked three times. “Grandfather?”

Two knocks responded, then two barrier demons pushed the doors open, revealing a round room surrounding a raised circular pool of water. Five chairs formed a semi-circle around the back edge of the pool. Brian’s grandfather sat on a cushion in front of the pool and a set of wide stairs draped with a sapphire carpet raised to meet him. He glanced at the barrier demons flanking the door, giving them a brief nod. They exited the room quickly as he stood.

Nick stood against the closed door surveying the room. This seems… really ritualistic… Is this what clans used to be run like? I wonder what that council Brian talked about does… Do they meet here?

Brian’s grandfather strode over to Howie, before bowing deeply. “Your Majesty, it honors us to welcome you among our clan.”

Howie gave a brief bow, lowering only his head. “It honors us to be present....” He glanced at the others. “...Your Grace.”

“Your Grace.” Kevin and AJ bowed as Brian put his hand behind Nick’s back, pushing him forward.

Nick stumbled, then bowed and mumbled, “Your Grace.”

Minako glanced at Brian with a raised eyebrow, then bowed as well. “Your Grace.”

Brian’s grandfather bowed again. “Your Graces. Esteemed and Honorable Eminence.” A whisper of a smile crossed his lips. “Lord Brian.”

Brian grinned and bowed with an excessively dramatic air. “Exalted Grandfather!” He laughed as his grandfather frowned. “Too enthusiastic, Grandfather?”

Nick twitched as he stared at Brian, his mouth a lopsided gape. What is going on?

Brian’s grandfather returned to his cushion, then gestured toward the carpeted stairs. “Your Majesty, would you prefer a chair?”

“We appreciate your generosity, however we are pleased to remain with our companions.”

After Howie sat in front of Brian’s grandfather, he glanced at Minako and patted the space beside him. Minako grabbed Nick’s hand and pulled him toward the stairs. Brian sat beside Nick as Kevin sat on Howie’s other side and AJ sat beside him.

"Thank you for welcoming us into your home, Your Grace. We will do our best to respect your customs." Minako bowed again.

“I appreciate the sentiment, Esteemed and Honorable Eminence.” He leaned on his staff. “As we are among peers, formalities are no longer required. Please address me as Elder Virgil.”

“Peers? Graces?” Nick’s hand flinched, then he grabbed Minako’s hand and pulled it toward his lap.

Virgil glanced at Brian. “A very casual clan?”

“A very casual rank of one.” He glanced at Nick and Minako. “Or two, as I mentioned. As far as we know, anyway… and untaught.”

“I see. I assumed as much on your first point.” He rested his hands in his lap. “It has been some time since The Shield has heard word from the other great clans, so we assumed their numbers were decimated in the siege. Therefore…” He gestured to AJ, then Kevin. “The malleable, perpetually moving aura of His Grace of the Shapeshifters and the stitching, building, and glowing aura of His Grace of the Healers.” He smiled. “His Majesty, of course.”

Nick leaned forward. "How do you do that? Is it part of you or your powers?"

"Both. I use my own aura, my barrier, to reach out and touch what radiates off of you."

"That's amazing!” Nick gasped. “Can you do that, Brian?"

"A little, but it takes so much concentration."

"What does your aura feel like? And Brian's?"

"Barrier demons feel immobile, but pliable, a mix of web and shield."

Nick reached out a finger and poked Brian's arm, giving him a sheepish smile as he made contact with his sleeve.

"You probably can't feel it with a physical touch, Nick." Brian laughed.

Virgil fixed his gaze on Minako. “I apologize for misaddressing you, Your Grace, Her Esteemed and Honorable Eminence. I was surprised to hear that you were the Pandora of lore as your aura feels unmistakably demonic."

"Your Grace, it’s really kind of you to think I’m strong at all like them, but I’m not a demon at all, just ordinary. Please call me Minako.”

"Stop selling yourself short, you’re plenty strong, Minako." AJ leaned around Kevin and gave her a thumbs up.

She beamed at him.

Nick tightened his hold on her hand. You’re a person, but not ordinary at all. You’re still amazing to me and plenty strong, like AJ said.

Virgil lowered his head. "Forgive my intrusion, demon women often have additional powers for a short time…"

Minako looked at him quizzically. "I'm really only human." She paused. "Oh! You mean… no. No, no."

"Grandfather!”

"Brian, no. I'm not… Brian, no..."

Nick frowned as his brow furrowed. Something about female demons bothers Brian? Was that the thing he shouted about before?

"Our apologies. If we may interject…"

Minako let out a sigh of relief as she lowered her head, tightening her clutch on Nick’s hand and glancing at the floor. "Thank you, Howie,” she whispered.

Virgil nodded. "You are always welcome without apologies, Your Majesty."

"There is only one Pandora who has completed all the duties asked of her and continues to complete additional duties. Perhaps that completion and continuing existence for the benefit of Safaiananpou has altered her presence in addition to protecting our hearts in her grasp."

"Your wisdom is sage, Your Majesty, as always. Forgive my intrusion, Your Esteemed and Honorable Eminence. I was merely surprised to feel a spark of brightness emanating from your aura." He glanced at Nick. “It is similar to what I feel radiating from you and I made assumptions after Brian described yours as a clan of two. Her Grace for her connection to His Grace.”

“I don’t…” Nick bit his lip. “Have a clan… Or… not a family just like me anyway… It’s only me… and Minako… And Brian, Howie, Kevin, and AJ...” He swallowed. “I radiate something?”

”A strong flickering and flaring brightness, though there is some darkness beside it, yet it reflects the light rather than swallowing it. I have not encountered one of your kind since long before the siege, and never one with such duality, Your Grace of the Celestials."

Brian put his hand on Virgil’s arm. "Actually, Grandfather, we’ve been trying to help Nick learn his powers, so if you have any insight or advice for him, I think it would be incredibly helpful."

“You are quite old to be inexperienced.”

Nick clenched his fist. “It’s complicated, but I was never taught.”

He laughed. “Though Brian left us long before any of us could discover what he was truly capable of.” He gripped his staff. “Our ancestors said that was the fate of cardinal demons, to be eternal wanderers, always searching and calling.”

Nick swallowed again as wrapped his other hand around Minako’s hand in his lap. “How soon do you know if a demon is a cardinal demon?”

“Always. They will show you when they are born.”

Nick lowered his head. “When they’re born…”

He laughed heartily again. “Brian gave his mother quite a scare because he refused to come into the world and then was born inside a barrier.”

Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword. “It seems all the legends are true then, the prophecies we have had handed down to us.”

“Your Majesty also recalls the tale of a demon cloaked in a shield?”

“A mage who shall fortify the kingdom.”

“Howie…” Minako grabbed his arm. “Did you tell me these stories? I can’t remember…”

“No, we never quite believed them ourselves, they were only fascinating tales our father told us in our youth. However, we began to suspect they were true when the revelation of Nick’s powers combined with Kevin’s story about the crater seemed to complete the alignment with each sapphire cardinal demon. Though it seems in addition to the monarchy, the correct clans would have possessed this knowledge to prepare long ago, but as clans faction and splinter, old knowledge is often lost.”

Virgil nodded and gestured toward the doors. “To preserve the knowledge, it is better to remain together.”

Nick swallowed and stared at the ground. Together...

As he clenched his staff, Virgil fixed his gaze on Nick. "I believe I can assist you. Of the light and reflection, the light is stronger, bright and warm. It will be the easier aspect to train. Though at this moment, I feel your aura swirling with darkness and doubt."

Nick laughed sardonically. “Darkness and doubt, huh? Sounds right…”

“It seems you are unaware of methods to center yourself.”

“Center?”

“When demons are not calm, their powers become erratic and more difficult to access. When you are able to center yourself, you can force calm into moments that are not calm.”

“How do you do that?” Nick furrowed his brow. I’ve just always kept pushing through...

“It is different for all types of demons and deeply personal. Centering yourself involves connecting to yourself and your powers at the same time.”

A gentle and serene smile began forming on Nick’s face. “You’ve all been trying your best to help me, even though you didn’t know exactly what to do…” He glanced up at them. “Brian, you tried to help me find them... Kevin, you tried to keep me calm... Howie, you tried to help me connect to them... And AJ, you tried to help me connect to myself…” He beamed at Minako. “Minako… You’re always filling me with this bright light and your support, it keeps me trying. You’re all my real family.”

“It seems you are all very supportive of each other, like a second clan.” Virgil smilied. “Brian, I hope that you are no longer wandering and calling like the legends say.”

“No, I’m doing well, Grandfather.”

He fixed his gaze on Nick again. “I hope you find strength in this second clan, enough to make yourself experienced despite your age. However, some things will still need to be done with the correct methods. If I remember correctly, the celestial clan, especially the demons who draw power from light or darkness, find comfort and calm in the passage of time, things you can measure like the movement of a clock, shadows stretching, a heartbeat, or breathing.” He stood, holding his staff tightly. “Brian, I interrupted your explanation earlier and do not need to hear the details now as you brought Ruby demons with you across borders. It seems you came here for time and space after a long journey, so please use our home to rest and train as long as you all would like. We will provide what you need for you.”

Brian clenched his staff and stood as well. "Thank you, Grandfather! Actually I have one other request. Would we be able to provide some sort of protection for the priestesses?"

"Protection?"

"Just to keep them both safe when they're in their quarters, like when they're sleeping. I trust you and everyone here, of course."

Virgil smiled knowingly. “But not your allies?”

Brian lowered his head.

“All alliances can be fragile. It is meaningful enough that you have allowed them into your childhood home.” His grandfather ran his hand along his chin. "I suppose our clan can provide that for you. Do they prefer their own quarters?"

"The Ruby Priestess would prefer to stay with the Ruby demons like I already asked. If we are here past Erik healing, I’m sure she would want him to join her."

“When all are equal, it becomes easier to protect you unassumingly from the ones you fear are dangerous. And Her Esteemed and Honorable Eminence?”

Brian chuckled. "Minako, correct me if I’m wrong, but is your preference to stay with only Nick?”

“If that’s possible, but we can be comfortable anywhere.” She stood and turned to Virgil with a small bow. “Your Grace, we really appreciate everything you are doing for us.”

“Sweet Esteemed and Honorable Eminence who carries and protects the hearts of the cardinal demons, there is no need to be so formal to me. If you do not consider it an intrusion, Grandfather is fine due to your closeness with Brian.”

Minako gasped quietly and flashed a broad grin at Nick.

Nick shook his head and covered his face with his hand as he laughed quietly. He’ll be calling her Minako before he knows it.

“I would love that, Grandfather, thank you! Please call me Minako too!”

Nick continued to laugh quietly.

“I will choose capable protection details for you both.”

Nick stood as well. “Thank you… Your Grace...”

“Fledgling Grace of the vestigial Celestials who seeks family, you may also call me Grandfather.”

Minako gasped quietly again as she beamed at Nick and cupped her hands at her heart.

Nick flinched and lowered his head. A Grandfather… Brian… is that okay? “Um… Thank you… Grandfather, for your kindness…”

He cupped Nick’s shoulder and smiled. “I feel it flickering out of you, a strong desire to protect. You must be the one who requested that Brian ask for this favor.”

Nick nodded quietly.

Brian smiled. “Thank you, Grandfather. Since that’s already two rooms, the rest of us will be fine in just one different room."

"Absolutely not. His Majesty must have his own quarters at least."

Howie stood as well. “We do not wish to impose. We assure you that we are delighted to share quarters with our companions. While appreciated, this is unnecessary."

“No imposition, Your Majesty. It is our clan’s pleasure to host you with your own protection detail.”

“We cannot refuse you and appreciate your kindness.”

“We will provide these four rooms for you, Brian. Would you like these last three to be close to each other?”

“Please.”

“I will arrange for this protection detail, please meet them in the main room after you have partaken in a meal and they will escort you to your quarters. I will have the guards outside the room assist you in the meantime.”

“Thank you, Elder Virgil, for allowing us in your hospitable home and allowing us access to your medical facilities.” Kevin stood, then bowed.

“Thank you, Elder Virgil, for your kindness.” AJ stood and bowed as well.

“Your Graces, the Sapphire Cardinal demons, I leave the preference to you on being addressed as Elder Virgil or Grandfather.”

Minako gasped again and beamed at them as she held her cheeks. Nick put his head in his hand and laughed quietly, but grabbed her hand when she reached out to him.

Virgil glanced at them, then smiled as he stood closer to Brian and lowered his voice.“Perhaps gravitating is a better term than orbiting.”

Brian chuckled. “Perhaps, Grandfather.” He glanced at Nick. “I’ll adjust the way I speak about His Grace and Her Grace of the Celestials from now on.”

Nick glanced at Brian, then frowned and wrinkled his nose. Stop teasing me, Brian…

“His Grace is displeased with Lord Brian of the Shields. I shall give myself penance for misspeaking around my betters.” He grinned.

Nick groaned and hid his head in his hand as Brian continued to laugh, then glanced up at him from between his fingers. Thanks for helping with my favor, Brian. I’m glad you’re more like this than your grandfather’s formality. I don’t need to be a Grace of anything, but being here with your family has made me happy that we’re also family. Thanks for making me part of yours.

End Notes:
If you forgot how fun Aohouseki was in the beginning, may I redirect you to PBox's Chapter Five: Sorceress.
Chapter Eighteen: Centered by nicksgal
As the sapphire demons and Minako crowded around a door at the end of a curved corridor, Brian knocked three times. Four barrier demons stood behind them against the bare wall across from the door.

Madeline opened the door quickly. “Brian! This room is so nice! Thank you for letting us get settled.”

“It’s yours as long as we’re here, and Erik’s once he recovers if you would like.”

“I would like that!” She pointed at the lidded silver bowls in Minako and Nick’s hands. “What do you have, Minako?”

Minako held out the bowl. “Dinner. It’s a stew.”

“Yum!” Madeline grabbed the bowl. “Jacob, Ashley, come get dinner!”

When Jacob and Ashley appeared beside her at the door, Nick handed them the bowls from his hands.

“Thank you, Nicky.” Jacob smiled.

Ashley took the bowl, but frowned. “Who are they?” He briefly motioned toward the barrier demons with his head as one of them stepped forward.

“My clan wanted to make sure you were all comfortable while you stayed here.” Brian gestured to the demon. "So in addition to the room, he's here to make sure you feel safe when you’re in it, awake or asleep."

“Brian, that's so nice! Thank you for worrying about us!"

Ashley snorted derisively. "Seems like a way to ensure that we're kept prisoner."

Brian shook his head. "Not at all. We are humbled to have two priestesses and several cardinal demons in our humble home. It is our duty to ensure their safety and comfort."

"Does Erik get the same care?" Jacob asked.

"Of course. Our medical staff is working hard to help Kevin heal him quickly."

Ashley crossed his arms. "And your Priestess?"

Brian gestured to the remaining barrier demons behind him. "Our clan is concerned with the comfort and protection of all our guests, including me at the moment." He chuckled. “A guest in your own home.”

“Nice to meet you! Thank you for keeping an eye on us. I’m going to eat now.” She waved. “Thank you again for the food, Minako.”

“Sleep well, Madeline. Enjoy.”

Ashley glared at Nick through the crack between the door and wall as Madeline shut it. Nick snorted and quickly turned back down the corridor, followed by the rest of the group. When they reached a fork in the path, they made a sharp right turn and headed down a second corridor.

Nick peered back and crossed his arms. "Do you think Ashley suspects anything?"

Brian shrugged. "Probably, but who could be that suspicious with Madeline cheerfully accepting everything?" He nodded at the barrier demons behind him. "Besides, when we all have them, it just seems like the proper way to house guests. Thank you all for taking care of us."

The barrier demons nodded, but said nothing.

"Are you sure you don't want to stay with us? It’s really alright."

"No, take the space and really get some rest. Relax. Spend time with Minako, just the two of you."

"Only if you’re sure, Brian." Minako touched his arm and smiled.

“Don’t miss me too much.” Brian laughed. “We’ll have plenty of time to share space with each other soon.”

He stopped at the end of the corridor where three doors formed a circle. Brian opened the center door and revealed a rounded room with three mats on the ground made up with thick linens. The room was fairly bare except for a low shelf with three wash basins and a higher empty shelf on one wall above three trunks. He turned back. “This must be for us, AJ and Kevin. There’s a place to put my staff and any of our other belongings.” He opened the door to his right, revealing a second rounded room with one mat with large and thick linens, two high empty shelves, a low shelf with a wash basin beside a small mirror, an ornate trunk, and a table surrounded by six chairs. “This must be for you, Howie.”

Howie smiled. “We are touched that Elder Virgil would provide us a private meeting area and space to store our charts and maps.”

Brian smiled at Minako. “That means, this room is for you and Nick.” He opened the last door to his left, revealing a third rounded room with two mats with thick linens, a low shelf with two wash basins, two trunks, and a large mirror over a low altar.

“Brian, it’s beautiful. But why?” Minako clenched her hand at her heart.

Brian shrugged as a smile tugged at his lips. “Something sweet for Her Grace, the sweet Esteemed and Honorable Eminence.”

Minako buried her face in her hands. “Brian!”

He laughed as Nick wrapped his arm around Minako’s shoulder.

Minako pulled her hands from her flushed face. “Sleep well everyone. I’ll miss you.”

Howie smiled as he walked into his room. “You as well, Minako. We will see you all in the morning for training.” He closed the door behind him.

One of the barrier demons took the post beside his door.

AJ patted Minako’s head. “Goodnight, Your Grace, Her Esteemed and Honorable Eminence.” He winked.

Minako frowned as she hid her face behind her hands again and groaned. “This is a new joke for you all now, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” AJ laughed as he walked into the room.

Kevin smiled. “As always, Minako, you’ll see all of us in the morning. Don’t spend your time worrying about missing us.” He gave her a quick hug. “But sleep well.” He then followed AJ into the room.

“Brian, are you sure…”

“Very sure.” He laughed as he gave her a quick hug. “But I changed my mind, you should definitely spend time missing me, since you don’t get to do it very often. Good night, Minako.”

“Good night, Brian.” She smiled.

“Good night, Nick.”

Nick chuckled and shook his head as he pulled Minako closer. “Good night, Brian.”

Brian smiled as he began shutting the door. “Now our nightly ritual is complete for me.”

When the door shut, the second barrier demon took his place beside the door.

“Priestess?” the last barrier demon gestured toward the final opened room.

“Thank you for taking care of us.” Minako smiled.

The barrier demon nodded.

Nick gently pulled Minako into the room and shut the door behind them, then leaned against it with his arms crossed.

Minako smiled and held his arms. “You’re still worried?”

“What if Ashley figures our plan out and tries to find us?” He frowned. I’d hate it...

“The barrier demons are outside and you’re in here with me, so I know it will be fine.” She started rubbing his arms gently.

Nick lowered his head and exhaled a large breath. “I just want to make sure you’re safe.”

“You’ve done everything you can to keep me safe.” She rubbed her thumb on his cheek and smirked. “Unless you want to stay awake and watch me sleep all night.”

He gripped her hand and stared into her eyes. “I might.”

“Okay, but only if you’re thinking about just me.”

He raised his other hand to her hair and tucked a strand behind her ear, his fingers lingering on the strand as he slowly pulled his hand through her hair and away from her head. “I am always thinking about you.” He kissed her cheek, then whispered in her ear as his fingers reached the end of the strand. “Anything for you.” He pulled back and smiled.

Minako’s breath caught in her throat.

He beamed. I could worry, or... “You’re right, I should focus on you, since our friends have given us an entire night to ourselves. Wasn’t there appreciation you were saving?”

“Oh sure. Wholesome or not?”

“You pick.” He grinned at her mischievously.

“Applause for Nick who bravely and loyally protects! Also his sweet words and promises. Plus his still cute smile and butt!” She gave his butt a squeeze and giggled. “It was both.”

“Minako!” His grin grew as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, then pressed a quick kiss to her lips. “What about appreciation for Minako who unwaveringly cares for and protects everyone. Her warm words and promises.” He ran his hand down her back and held her hips. “Her gorgeous eyes and body.”

She smiled coyly as she peered up at him through her eyelashes.

His heartbeat rang in his ears as he smirked. “We can go find that lake.”

“When we get there, I think I’ll undo all the clasps on your shirt so slowly.” She fiddled with the top clasp at his collarbone. “Just. Like. This. It’ll be like the night we got married.”

“Just like… no… we’re not going anywhere the others can find us. I want you all to myself.” Nick gripped his hands on her waist as he picked her up quickly, causing her to gasp as she flung her arms around his neck.

“Nick!”

“Keep looking at me the way you did yesterday...” He kissed her lips, then down her jaw, neck, and collarbone.

She tightened her grip around his neck and wrapped her legs around his waist. He grinned against her neck as he moved a hand to her thigh. Then he pulled back and swept a glance over her face as he smiled at her. Her breath caught in her throat again as she leaned against him, threading her fingers through his hair.

“Your heart’s thundering against me. What should I do to make it louder?” He pressed a kiss to her lips, then pulled away and smiled.

She tightened her grip on his hair and his shoulder again. “You’re teasing me.”

He smiled softly. “You don’t like it? I’ll stop. I just thought you would want me to tease you back.”

She pulled him closer to her and pressed an urgent kiss to his lips, gripping at his arm tightly and wrapping her fingers around his sleeve. While running his hand along her thigh, he gave her an equally urgent kiss as he backed toward the mats. When he sat her down gently, she tightened the grip of her legs and pulled his shoulder toward her, her lips pressed tightly against his. He fell forward and landed on his knees, clutching her waist as he pulled his hand from her thigh to brace himself on the ground.

“Nick, are you okay?”

In reply, he pressed a fiery kiss to her lips and tightened his grip on her waist as he ran his hand up and down her thigh, his touch igniting her skin. She arched her back and ran her fingers from his shoulder to his chest as she locked her fingers in the hair at the back of his head. He gripped her thigh and then brushed his fingers against her hip.

“Nick…” She bit his lower lip and gave him a series of heated and urgent kisses.

Every time you say my name… He moved his hand to her cheek and pulled her face closer to him as he responded with equally urgent kisses before running his hand down her cheek and jaw to her shoulder, down to her chest, then waist, then hip, ending back at her thigh.

"This has too many clasps." She grinned as she ran her hand along his chest. "I want them all gone. Do you?" She gripped his tunic as she kissed him deeply.

He inhaled sharply. “Minako… Yeah, get rid of them. Yours too?”

"Yes. Clasps, sash, whatever." She surged back toward his lips, searing an urgent kiss against them as she started undoing the clasps at his chest.

"Same." He hurriedly undid her clasps, then brushed her hair away from her face as he reciprocated her fiery kisses.

After gripping his tunic at his chest, she brushed her fingers up it toward his back. As she began undoing the clasps above his wings, she tightened the grip of her legs around his waist and rocked her hips.

A low grunt escaped his lips and he pressed against her, his wings flaring from his back as his feet slipped and scraped against the ground before gripping the claws on his toes into it. “Minako… I want you… All of you… Be mine...” As he spoke between flaring kisses, he tightened his grip on her waist, pulling her closer to him.

“Me too, I want all of you…" She started pulling his sleeves from his shoulders.

He locked his lips with hers as he alternated between untying the sash at his waist and brushing his fingers on her thighs.

"Nick…"

He hurriedly pulled his tunic and sash off, then began sliding her dress down her shoulders. I want you...

"What if I lose all my priestess powers?” She tightened the grip of her thighs around his waist and ran her hand down his bare chest.

His persistent kisses between words increased as he hurriedly loosened the sash around her waist before tossing it aside. "I'll protect you... We’ll leave together… We’ll build a house... I’ll grow food for you... And always keep you safe…” He rocked his hips against hers. I want you...

She inhaled sharply. “I want you… And the house… And that future… Nick..."

Keep saying my name… I want you… "I love you…" He pressed several unremitting kisses to her lips.

"I love you too." She pulled him closer and ran her hand through his hair. “But what if I can’t stay without them?”

“No... I can’t… I can’t lose you again...” He pulled back from her lips as his wings crumpled against his back. He frowned and caressed her cheek. “I hate this…”

“Nick… I didn’t want to make you sad… I just… We should talk about that first. Especially if they’re some kind of… divine thing...”

What if you’re right? I couldn’t… keep going without you again… “You’re right. I’m not mad at you, it’s just... frustrating...” He ran his fingers through her hair. “I love you. I want you.” He pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “But I need you to stay. It feels… selfish making it all about me though...”

“No, me too. I love you and want you too.” She kissed him back. “And I want to stay with you. I already told you I would, no matter what. I promise.” She ran her hand along his chest. “So we’re not willing to risk it?”

“I… want what you want. But I’d rather wait unless you disappearing isn’t a possibility at all. It would be okay if you could stay, but didn’t have powers… If that’s okay with you… If it’s not, then whatever you want is what I want…”

“As long as I have you, I don’t need any priestess powers.” She kissed him again.

His breath caught in his throat and he swallowed. I still want you… You’re my everything... He fiddled with her hair lightly. “If it’s just you and me here, I might decide I have to have you. Even though...”

Minako gripped his shoulder as she stared up at him and fluttered her eyelashes, then ran her tongue along her bottom lip.

“Especially if you keep looking at me like that.” Nick smirked. ”It’s hard to say no to you wanting me… Basically impossible...” But you have to stay. I can’t lose you… Especially if it’s my fault...

“What if we’re overthinking it and nothing happens?”

He groaned. “I want that… I wish we knew.” He leaned on his elbow as he ran his hand through her hair. “I’m trying to tell myself that you staying is more important. It’s the most important, but it’s hard to focus on it right now.”

“I shouldn’t tease you.” She pulled her sleeves back over her shoulders. “Maybe we can find some other way to want each other for now…”

“Secretly while sharing a room with Brian like usual?” He kissed her neck and laughed quietly. “I’ll go get him.”

She danced her fingers along his hip. “Let’s leave Brian out of it. I like knowing you want me.” After squeezing his butt again, she giggled. “This is how I’ll let you know that I want you too.”

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and waist as he pulled her close, then rolled back on top of her. “I changed my mind, I want you.”

“Nick…”

“You’re teasing me.” He laughed as he hid his face against her shoulder.

She kissed the top of his head. “I’ll stop.”

When he lifted his head, he beamed, but then his eyebrows narrowed in concern as he started yawning.

“You’re tired?”

“I didn’t think I was this tired to show you…” He frowned. “Sorry...”

“Don’t apologize. If you’re tired, you should sleep. That’s something else you don’t get a lot of… And it’s safe here.” Minako wrapped her arms around his neck, brushing her fingers through his hair.

He smiled again. “But how will I watch over you while you sleep to make sure you’re safe?”

“What if you just hold me?”

He yawned again, shutting his eyes quickly and turning his face from her.

She giggled.

“Minako…”

“I’ve just never seen you yawn. You’re always so… guarded... about things your body needs… even with me...”

He frowned. “Sleeping is… very vulnerable… You’re basically defenseless. You don’t want to give anyone a warning that you’re planning on being defenseless...”

“Your friends? The girl you love? Nick… We’ll always support you.”

He pulled her into his arms and gave her a warm kiss. “I feel… safe with all of you. It’s okay to sleep in front of you.”

“But you still don’t want us to know you’re tired?”

He gently wrapped his wings around her as he settled back on the mat, embracing her tightly. “It’s fine if it’s you. I’ll tell you from now on...”

“Everyone else would want to help too.”

“I know…” He frowned. “But I hate them feeling like they need to get involved in my problems when we all have problems.”

“Your problems are always my problems. It’s okay if our problems are their problems, too, because their problems are our problems.”

“I know, but I hated making Brian worry. Especially when he was in danger too...”

“I know you did, but Brian just wanted to help you. Me too..." She ran her hand through his hair again. “How about I watch over you while you sleep?”

“You should sleep.” He yawned again.

She smiled. “How about I watch over you until you fall asleep?”

“How about I watch over you until you fall asleep?” He leaned his head on hers and kissed her cheek.

“You’re mumbling.”

“I’m not…”He smiled. “You can hear me fine…”

“I hope I wake up before you.”

“You just want me to sleep in your lap…” His eyes fluttered open and closed.

“Maybe…” She smiled as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “How about I hold you instead?”

“I’ll hold you…” He tightened his grip.

“I love you, Nick.”

“I love you, Minako… Always…”

She smiled and brushed his hair at his forehead again, then pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. “Goodnight, Nick.”

“Goodnight, Minako…” He responded with an equally gentle kiss, then relaxed in her arms as his eyes closed. “Now our nightly ritual is complete…”

~*~



Nick breathed heavily as he sprinted through the darkness. This dream again… I hate sleeping and seeing this… He parted the hanging leaves in front of him and pushed into the grove where the small house stood hauntingly.

“Okay sad house… I’m coming.” He clenched his fists tightly as he trudged toward it. If it’s not calm, I have to make it calm… I’m going to be centered… The small house loomed over him as he pushed the creaking door open slowly.

“M-mom?” As the door creaked open, the boy stared up at it with wide eyes as his hand shook, flicking flecks of blood onto his face.

Nick leaned down beside him and waved. “Hi.”

The boy’s palms began glowing and crackling.

“I know you’re afraid. Being alone is really frightening… I won’t let you feel abandoned anymore if you let me see your… our house… It’s our house, isn’t it?”

After shutting his hands and calming the light, the boy touched Nick’s face, leaving streaks of blood down his cheek and chin.

Nick held the boy’s hand gently. “I’m just bigger… We’re really the same. Timid and hurting… Sorry I’m not… stronger…”

Nick glanced up at the spirits of light, blazing and burning behind the boy. “Hi spirits. I’m ready to see you and… accept this...” He shut his eyes and held his hand to his heart. It’s beating frantically. Just inhale and exhale. “One…” Inhale, exhale. “Two…” Inhale, exhale. “Three.” He opened his eyes.

Instead of burning brighter, the spirits’ light shimmered and danced.

He stared at the boy as his eyebrows dipped and he bit his lip. “I thought so… this is a memory… This house… Our house... I came home with our food and tripped… on her body... Mom…”

The pale spirits took form into the shapes of demons, light shimmering around their wings, tails, and horns. Their faces remained hazy, but there were two large ones and four small ones. One of the larger ones reached out and touched his face; as it moved, an oval mirror necklace around its neck glimmered in the shimmering light around it.

“Mom… I’m sorry for forgetting you… But it was… terrifying to know that I was all alone in the world… in a day… when it had been fine that morning...”

The light demon’s hand ran along his face, caressing his cheek gently.

“I’m sorry… that morning, you told me to stay safe while I got food for dinner, then when I was leaving, you touched my face just like always and told me…”

“Be valiantly radiant...”

“Mom…” Tears filled his eyes and he choked them back. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help… I could have done something… I don’t know what… But that crater… I didn’t know, but I must have been able to do something… Something that could have helped… Something...”

The light demon touched his hair softly, brushing it back from his forehead.

“Just like Minako, so gentle and warm… I didn’t mean to replace you with her, I just… really wanted someone to love me exactly like I was… And she… loves me so much. I feel like I can finally be someone really strong instead of timid… Like I can finally… heal... Am I even what you wanted me to be? Not this scared creature, but… Did you know I was going to be… That she… And they...” He choked back his tears again as he lowered his head. “I wish I could have said goodbye…”

“My resplendently luminous son…”

“I’ll try… I’ll try to be strong... I’ll try for you… and them… and her… I’ll never stop trying… Being a sapphire cardinal demon is… the most important thing I am… but… you’re all important too… Forgive me...”

“Nick…”

He smiled warmly. “She’s calling me back… Is that okay? Can I take you with me this time?”

The spirits stood behind the boy again, their brilliant light glinting like smiles. He gripped the boy’s hand tighter. “I’m sorry for leaving you here, I wasn’t strong enough to hold on to this back then, but... We’ll be together now. You and me and all of us… I’ll remember, I promise.”

~*~



Nick stirred, the tepid tears plunged down his cheeks. Was I ready...

“Nick, that dream… What can I do?” Minako ran her hand through his hair, a gentle reminder of his memory.

“Did I wake you?” he whispered as embraced her tightly.

“No… I woke up and you were crying… Nick...”

“I saw them... and heard her voice… my mom... She told me to ‘be valiantly radiant’ and called me ‘my resplendently luminous son’... I wonder if she always said those things… Did they know I was…” He shut his eyes as his tears continued to stream down his face. “I’m starting to remember them… How I found them that day… I…” He sobbed, choking on his words.

“I’m here for you, whatever you need.” She rubbed the top of his back gently.

“Just... hold... me…”

“As long as you need. Always. Forever.” She embraced him closely to her chest.

As he buried his face in her chest, he held her tightly. You’re always pulling me back from the darkness. It’s sad, but… When I’m with you, I feel like I can overcome any darkness… We’ll go forward together… I promise...
Chapter Nineteen: Weaknesses by nicksgal
Inside everyone is the capacity for strength and weakness. Sometimes, it is visibly noticeable, like the physical nature of strength or weakness. Sometimes it is bubbling just under the surface, like strength or weakness of heart, mind, or character. The same trait may be a strength or weakness between many. Even more so, detailed aspects of those traits may be a strength and weakness within one entity, such as varying knowledge from study versus life experiences. There are even times that individual strength or weakness is unknown. A strength may be a weakness to others, or the inverse. Often, strength is sought out in others to uplift a weakness in the self. Perhaps recognizing this need is the greatest strength.

The sapphire demons were always quick to commend each other's strengths and build each other up with them. Unfaltering kindness, determination, diplomacy, belief, bravery, compassion, or loyalty. And while they supported each other through their weaknesses, did they give each other the strength to grow from them? Too trusting, brash, hesitant, lighthearted, reserved, timid, or dependent. When they were always together, did they notice their weaknesses? Were they able to grow and overcome or did their weakness compound?

Later that morning, the sapphire and ruby demons met in the fork of the corridors before they converged into the cave’s enormous main room. Brian led the group down the main path in the fork, his staff held high despite the cavern being brightly lit. AJ and Kevin followed closely behind him as AJ adjusted the sleeves of his tunic and Kevin alternated between eyeing Brian and AJ in front of him and Nick and Minako behind him. As usual, Nick and Minako trailed behind; Nick slumped his shoulders and crossed his arms while Minako rubbed her hand on his arm and gave it gentle squeezes.

“Good morning, Minako!” Madeline waved as she caught up to them.

Jacob and Ashley followed behind Madeline closely as Jacob ran his hand along the rocks and Ashley crossed his arms.

Minako smiled. “Good morning, Madeline. Did you sleep well?”

She grabbed her hand as she settled into pace beside Minako and Nick. “So well! It was so nice to have a bed again! Did you have your own room or did you all share? Were there enough beds?”

Minako eyed the sapphire demons carefully. AJ and Kevin slowed their pace. Brian glanced back briefly, but continued walking forward at the same pace. Nick tensed, but said nothing.

Minako smiled. “We were actually in three rooms. Brian’s grandpa insisted that Howie have his own room while we’re here.” She glanced at Nick, AJ, and Kevin again. “Maybe he slept better that way.”

Nick stifled a laugh and whispered a hush at Minako. Brian’s quiet chuckle could be heard from the front of the group as Kevin cocked an eyebrow, but nodded knowingly.

AJ laughed. “I slept better if he didn’t.”

Minako glanced at each of them again before smiling broadly. “And then Brian shared a room with AJ and Kevin instead, so it was a little different than usual.”

Madeline smirked. “Just you and Nicky? How was that?”

Minako glanced away from her toward Nick and lowered her voice. “Cozy and calm...”

“Sounds… fun?”

Brian chuckled again. “I leave and it becomes calm… because I’m the agitated one among the three of us.”

Nick tightened the cross of his arms as his nostril flared. “I’m not agitated!”

“He assumed I was talking about him so quickly!” Brian turned back to them and winked.

Minako glanced back toward Madeline, then hurriedly back to the floor as she caught her stare.

Madeline grinned and tightened her grip on Minako’s hand. “Minako, let’s do something this morning, just you and me! Unless… You all look like you’re headed somewhere… Where are you going this morning?”

“We’re meeting Howie for training. What are you doing this morning?”

“No plans… We were just going to check if we could see Erik. His Majesty is starting training? Are you ready, Ashley and Jacob?”

Kevin leaned over to Madeline. “Erik is stable enough that he can have visitors this morning, but he will likely not be awake yet.”

Madeline smiled. “Minako will you come with me while they’re training? They don’t need you, right?”

“Brian, is--”

Brian pointed down a corridor. “This way for a bit longer, then we’ll be there.”

Nick gripped Minako’s hand. “Minako…”

She glanced at him quickly, then held her hand against his arm again. “Nick...”

“Minako?” Madeline asked again.

Ashley glanced at Madeline and edged closer to her as he spoke derisively. “She’s trying to tell you that we’re not invited.”

Madeline frowned. “She didn’t say that. Also it sounds boring anyway, I don’t want to go.”

“You can’t go. We’re not invited.”

Nick snorted and pulled Minako closer to Brian as he stopped in front of a small crevice in the wall, about the same size as the one at the entrance to the barrier demons’ cave.

Brian patted the wall. “Here we are, the training arena. No knocks necessary.”

AJ grinned. “I’m excited to see it! A whole arena just for training!”

Brian walked through, followed by Kevin, then AJ.

Nick squeezed Minako’s hand and pulled her toward the crevice. “Minako… Let’s go…”

Madeline grabbed Minako’s hand again. “You’re training to get stronger, but we can’t come too?”

Ashley crossed his arms and smirked. “So much for this alliance.”

Nick glared at Ashley, snorted again, and turned back to Minako. “I’ll meet you inside.” He gave her hand a squeeze as he pressed a kiss to her forehead, then walked through the crevice as well.

Minako turned back to Madeline with a concerned frown, but said nothing.

Madeline released Minako’s hand. “Nicky still doesn’t trust Ashley… That does make it hard to be allied. Why can’t you talk to him? I’m sure he would believe you if you told him it was fine.”

“I do talk to him, we decide everything together…”

Ashley sneered. “Like who to be friends with? How to spend your day?”

“Ashley!”

Minako’s shoulders tensed as she clenched her hands loosely and lowered her head. After she took a breath, her hands relaxed and she smiled as she looked back up at Madeline. “For now, we want to begin on our own so we know how to combine our powers with yours in the best way once we’re already a stronger team. We’ve all been together longer, so we’re more familiar with each other’s needs and it should go pretty quickly.”

“Nicky still doesn’t understand his powers…” Ashley snorted. “Is there a best way even with them?”

Minako shook her head. “I don’t know… But we’re going to try. And when we’re strong enough, we’ll work together so we all live and get to decide our futures. I promise.”

Madeline reached her hand out and touched Minako’s shoulder. “Minako… If you could just talk to Nicky…”

Minako glanced at the ground. “Sure… I’ll talk to Nick again and tell him that it’s… fine… Just please be patient...” She waved as she turned and walked down the crevice's hallway. “Have a good day. I hope Erik is doing well.”

“Madeline… You plead with her like she gives a damn about us…”

“Ashley--” Jacob started.

Madeline clenched her fists. “I’m sure she does! And at least I’m helping! What are you doing to help?!”

Ashley shook his head as he peered down the hall. Minako had disappeared from sight.

~*~



Nick crossed his arms as he stood beside the crevice that emerged into the large, round arena. It was entirely encased by rocks on all sides and domed at the ceiling. Along the walls, several rows of torches lit the arena in a bright glow, chasing the shadows from the center. He glanced at the sapphire demons sitting in front of him; Howie, Brian, and Kevin sat on their knees while AJ sat cross-legged. The sound of footsteps echoed across the crevice until Minako slowly entered the arena, gripped the wall with each step until Nick reached his hand toward her.

“They stopped you again?”

Minako lowered her head as she took his hand. “Madeline’s worried…"

He snorted, but still gripped her hand gently. “About Ashley.”

“About everyone. Me too, but I believe in you all, so I know it will be okay.” She put her other hand on his shoulder and smiled at him gently.

“Okay… We’re here, what now, Howie?” Nick rested his hand on Minako’s hip as he sat.

Once Minako sat in his lap, she raised her knees to her chest as he ran his hand along her hair and pressed a kiss to her temple.

“Brian, are you able to create a barrier around this arena?”

“Of course.” He placed his staff on his lap and pulled a sutra from his tunic as he began an inaudible chant.

Howie touched his shoulder, causing Brian to pause. “Without the sutras.”

“But we--”

“Brian… Actually, we have more to ask of you once we are all in here safely.”

Brian nodded determinedly and closed his eyes as he raised his interlocked hands, leaning his outstretched pointer fingers against the bridge of his nose. He took a deep breath and separated his hands slightly; a bright blue web of light began expanding from within his palms. It encircled the demons and spread to the ceiling and walls of the arena, rippling over the crevice they entered through.

AJ stood and poked the barrier at the crevice. “Seems strong.”

Howie patted Brian’s shoulder again. “Brian, are you able to create multiple barriers at once? Are you able to attack and defend simultaneously?”

Brian nodded and pulled out his sutra again.

“Without the sutra.”

“But words are--”

Howie lowered his head as he removed his hand. “We understand that they are important aspects of your clan’s culture, however… In the last battle with the emerald demons, you used a sutra to protect us while you fought. Yet when it tore, it distracted you enough that you were killed. In this next battle, we cannot let that happen.”

Brian clenched the sutra as his eyes clouded. “I don’t know that I can…”

Howie stood, then glanced behind him toward the shadows. “Elder Virgil, is this within the capabilities of members of your clan?”

“Your Majesty, only the strongest members of the Shields can switch between attacking and defending. It is difficult to maintain one strong barrier for an extended length of time, let alone two. That is why we have several members of our clan holding our protective barrier at once and switch them frequently.” After emerging from the shadows, Virgil lowered his head as he stood beside Howie.

“Grandfather! Is it safe for you to be here?” The barrier rippled slightly as Brian clenched his staff tightly and stood quickly.

“We asked him to join this sparring session because we believe his devotion to protect your life is great enough to keep this secret for us. We also hoped to keep this arena protected without burdening and distracting you if necessary.” Howie pursed his lips. “Though we see… We have made a difficult request to a clan that teaches defense.”

Virgil bowed. “Our clan honors your request, Your Majesty. If there is a member of the Shields who is capable of mastering this request, it is Brian. Cardinal demons are said to have powers beyond those of ordinary demons, and if nothing else, an extraordinary capacity to use their powers.”

Howie nodded and clapped his hand on Virgil’s shoulder. “We appreciate your insight. Are you able to assist Brian in holding the barrier and help guide him through this task?”

Virgil sat on the ground and placed his staff in his lap, then patted the ground beside him. Once Brian sat, he laced his fingers together, placing his straight pointer fingers against the bridge of his nose. A silvery web seemed to spring from him and rise toward Brian’s barrier.

"Grandfather!"

"I will help you get stronger. That is my duty as your elder and your kin." He smiled as he reached his palm toward Brian.

Brian nodded in determination and pressed his palm against Virgil’s, causing the barriers to thread together, intertwining the sapphire and silvery strands.

Howie began pacing and stopped in front of Kevin. "Kevin, are you able to use your power to heal and attack simultaneously?"

"I believe so."

"More than your own body? And are you able to increase your power so you are able to heal many times in succession without incapacitating yourself?"

"I will do my best to get stronger." Kevin stood and clapped his hand against Howie’s shoulder.

Howie smiled and clapped Kevin’s shoulder as well, then began pacing again. "Then on to AJ. Before we know how to increase your powers, we must increase your strategy. You are too distracted by the world around you, but you seem to have some control over your powers. If your strategy improves, it will keep you from being killed."

AJ hunched his shoulders, lowering his head toward his chest.

Minako pushed out of Nick’s lap until she was standing, then walked toward AJ and hugged his shoulders.

AJ smiled at her as he wrapped her in a quick hug. "I will also do my best."

Howie paced again. "Nick…"

Nick stood, lowering his head as he shuffled over to Minako and AJ. "I know… Do anything…" he mumbled.

Minako gave AJ another quick squeeze, then wrapped her arms around Nick's shoulders while leaning her head on his. Nick pulled against his chest and held her tightly.

Howie placed his hand on Nick's shoulder as he smiled. "Nick, we believe in you." Howie glanced at the others as well. "We believe in all of you. We hope that was not unclear." He turned back to Virgil. "Elder Virgil, as you are familiar with the celestial clan and we are not, are you able to assist Nick as well should he ask?"

Virgil nodded.

“Thank you... Grandfather,” Nick mumbled, but glanced at Virgil with a small smile.

"And Minako…"

Nick tightened his grip on her waist.

"We agree that your energy has grown increasingly demonic over our time together. The reason is unclear, but if that gives you a shred of our powers, we hope that you can use them in this upcoming battle."

“But, Howie, what will you do to keep yourself safe?”

“Minako, we will also be working on our strategy so that we are not distracted in battle.” Howie began pacing again. "Who shall battle first?"

"Howie, why are we practicing by attacking each other? Aren't you worried about everyone getting hurt?" Minako frowned.

"It is a common military training technique, simulated battle. And since we are practicing in private, it would be disruptive to ask more of our hosts."

"But…" She clenched Nick’s hand tightly.

He cupped her shoulder gently. "We understand. You wish that we remain well and unharmed. Would you feel more at ease with some safety parameters?”

She nodded.

"Only the participants may interact in the battle, unless any of us are specifically called by them. Minako, you are unable to run into the battle for us, regardless of the injuries. This will keep you safe."

She lowered her head, but glanced at Nick as he ran his thumb along her hand.

"However, if any of you wish to stop the battle, call out to Minako. Do these parameters seem safe?"

“Yes.”

"Then, AJ and Nick, you will be first."

AJ and Nick glanced at each other, nodding determinedly. AJ then patted Minako’s shoulder.

“Stay safe.” She pulled him into a quick hug.

He returned her embrace with a bright smile. “I will, I promise.” He released his arms and strode to the center of the arena.

Minako wrapped her arms around Nick's neck tightly. “Nick…”

He pressed a kiss to her forehead as he held her. “I will always stay with you. It’s going to be fine.” He smiled at her broadly. “I promise.” He gave her a quick kiss, then strode after AJ into the center.

Minako clasped her hands at her heart as she stared after them.

Kevin patted her shoulder. “They’ll take care of each other even though they are practicing a fight. Just relax while you watch.” He sat again, then patted the ground beside him.

Minako sat as well and Howie stood behind them with his arms crossed, scrutinizing the preparation in the center of the arena.

AJ stretched his limbs and shook out his wings.

Nick rolled his shoulders and shook out his hands, then clenched and unclenched his fists. Okay… Brian’s grandfather said I needed to center myself… To create calm... With things that can be measured by time… a clock, shadows stretching, a heartbeat, breathing… He peered at AJ across the arena. I wonder what shapeshifting demons use to center themselves? They’re constantly changing their own body, so do they have something that doesn’t change? Something that helps them be confident in themselves? Whenever AJ transforms, he always touches one of his earrings… And he still had those earrings when he mimicked Minako and me… I wonder if they’re his way to center? He blinked his eyes and squinted to focus on AJ again, but he was gone.

A shadow loomed over him and claws raked across his cheek. As Nick jumped back, AJ’s face filled his vision.

AJ landed in front of him. “You’re distracted, Nick.”

Nick stared at AJ, gritting his teeth as he touched his bloody cheek before quickly flapping his wings and bouncing off his foot to take flight. “Why do you guys always attack me when I’m not paying attention?! Can’t we all agree when the battle starts?”

AJ also flapped his wings and bounced on his foot to take flight. “You think the emerald general will agree to a start time?”

“Well, no!” Nick soared to the ceiling of the arena.

AJ shot after him. “Then why would we prepare that way?!”

The two flipped and tumbled over and around each other for a few minutes before Nick settled on a large rock jutting from the wall, squatting and peering at AJ.

AJ dove low and scooped something from the ground.

Nick shook his head. Okay, center… He took a deep breath and exhaled. Inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale… His claws began pulsing and a few small tendrils of light sparked from them. As Nick reached for a tendril, a small pebble hit him in the face, then the tendrils flickered and disappeared. He gaped, then quickly snarled as he began scanning the arena. Why did that disappear? How is AJ beating me with pebbles? He clutched his bleeding cheek, then another small pebble hit his hand. Good aim… Where are you AJ?

AJ flapped his wings to tread air about halfway across the arena from Nick. He had turned one hand into a small slingshot, connecting two fingers by a string. He placed the tiny pebbles in the center, took aim at Nick, pulled back, and released.

Nick dodged the next few pebbles and took a few more breaths. Focus... His claws began pulsing again with the small tendrils of light, but they sparked and disappeared before he could grab one. He growled quietly. Why?

“Nick, if you need to take a break and refocus, we can!” AJ’s voice echoed across the arena. “It’s better if you can figure it out now!”

Nick growled and pulsed his hand again. Focus… The tendrils sparked and vanished as quickly as they appeared. Why? What should I do?

“Nick, do you want to stop?!”

Nick clenched his fists and growled as he leapt from the ledge. Once again, he and AJ flipped and tumbled over each other in midair as AJ shot the small pebbles at Nick while he dodged.

“Nick!?”
Chapter Twenty: Strengths by nicksgal
In the cavernous arena, they were small specks, insignificant against the looming rock at the entrance while they focused on the two figures on the field of the arena. In the center, AJ descended to the ground and picked up more small pebbles from around his feet before ascending again. Two fingers of his hand were connected by a sinewy string, which he placed the pebbles on, then pulled back and launched them across the arena toward the other figure. Nick squatted on a rock outcropping that formed a small ledge. He dodged some of the pebbles, though a few hit his shoulders, chest, and face. He winced as a pebble hit his cheek, where blood still poured out of the claw marks.

He growled and stared at his hands. They pulsed and sparked, but as quickly as the tendrils of light appeared, they abruptly vanished. This isn’t… This doesn’t feel as dangerous as when Brian and I were in the clearing. I know that if I tell AJ I want to stop, he’ll land on the ground, clap his hand on my shoulder, and tell me that we’ll figure it out… But there’s only so much time until we can’t figure it out anymore… Justin wouldn’t give me that luxury. What can I do to make time to think?

“Nick, do you want to stop?!”

Nick clenched his fists causing the sparks to disappear again. No time… I have to make time... He growled, then leapt from the ledge. Once he leapt, AJ soared toward him and shot the small pebbles at him. One hit Nick’s cheek again and he winced. If I hit him, I could make time to get away… Is it okay to use my old fighting techniques now when I’m trying to figure out my powers? They flipped and tumbled over each other in midair as AJ shot another pebble. I have to make time.

“Nick!?”

Nick inched closer to AJ and raked his claws across his face, before kicking him in the stomach. As AJ began falling from the blow, Nick soared to the ceiling and peered below him. He’ll reorient himself and come back… I have seconds, minutes at most… He scanned their friends below, then his face lit up. “Brian! I’m coming to you now!”

Brian nodded and stood as he raised his hands to his face, keeping one flat and lacing the other between it, except his outstretched pointer finger. He then spread his hands, forming a web between them. “Understood!”

Nick stretched out his leg as he neared the ground, dropping into a slide. “And your grandfather too!”

Brian turned to his grandfather, giving him a brief nod, as he enclosed the three demons in the barrier. It rippled lightly as the small pebbles struck against it.

Nick pressed his hands against the ground and pushed himself back onto his feet, then clenched his fists and growled. “I don’t understand… I’ve made those strings of light before, why aren’t they working now?”

Brian clapped his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Are you distracted by Howie’s request for you or Minako? Are you worried about Ashley? Or you don’t want to hurt AJ?”

“All those things are bothering me…” Nick snarled, then exhaled deeply. “But I’m trying not to think about them... I’m trying to focus on the light. I don’t understand…” He lowered his head. “It felt like cheating to kick him…”

“You’re just trying not to get hurt.”

Virgil closed his eyes, inhaled, and then peered up at Nick. “His Majesty has taken an interesting approach to honing your skills, but I am not sure he is considering your weaknesses while trying to improve your strengths.”

“Weaknesses?”

“Truthfully, it is likely he does not know them. All demons have weaknesses, just as all clans have weaknesses. We noticed it with Brian in the past as well, but you cardinal demons rely too much on your auxiliary strengths when you feel threatened rather than growing from your weaknesses. Thankfully, we could still instruct Brian when he was young and more adaptable.”

Nick stared at him and gaped. “Grandfather, I don’t understand…” He clenched his fist tighter. “You’re saying it is cheating.”

Virgil shook his head as he stood. “There are many ways to fight, but relying on what you already know will not help you grow stronger in the way you are hoping. That is not necessarily cheating, but it is a disservice to your growth.” He gestured toward the arena. “You are of the Celestials, but what do you see in this arena?”

Nick scanned the arena. “Lots of rocks… Everywhere!”

“Even above you, where you would hope for the sky. You have been trying to connect to the sun, but it’s extremely difficult when you cannot sense it nearby, especially for a demon as inexperienced as you.”

Nick hunched his shoulders as he lowered his head and Brian clenched Nick’s shoulder tightly in response.

Virgil smiled, but his tone remained critical. “As I said, all demons have weaknesses and all clans have weaknesses. However, you elemental demons are the most melodramatic because your weaknesses are obvious, so you avoid rather than plan strategically.”

Nick flinched. “Grandfather?”

He motioned to AJ. “Consider your opponent.”

Nick leaned against the barrier and stared at AJ, who was now feet from the barrier as he continued to sling the pebbles toward it. “He’s a shapeshifting demon.”

“And his powers?”

Nick ran his hand along the barrier as he locked his gaze with AJ’s. “To turn into anything…”

“But?”

Nick stared at the pebbles striking the barrier. “But only his own body…” He clenched his fists. “So he’s much better at close range combat!” A grin spread across Nick’s face. “Howie is right, AJ does have a pretty good handle on his powers, even how to help his weaknesses! He used a tool to make a longer range weapon because I’ve been avoiding him… Which isn’t typical for me...”

“So then you…”

Nick smirked “I’ll have to find something in here to help! Thank you.” He nodded to Brian. “Thanks! Let me out!”

Brian coughed and released the barrier before pressing his hand to Virgil’s again. As the second barrier vanished, Nick shot back toward the ceiling.

Kevin strode over to Brian. “Can I help? I know you’re not a participant, but it’s good that we all get some practice.”

Brian nodded.

Kevin’s hands began glowing as he placed one at Brian’s chest and the other to his forehead. He clapped his hand to Brian’s shoulder. “Keep working toward it. You’re a strong demon.”

Brian chuckled. “If nothing else, this is testing my stamina.”

Nick and AJ tumbled and soared back and forth across the arena as AJ continued to shoot pebbles at him. Nick passed one of the rows of torches lighting the arena and gripped at the shadows underneath. They stretched like the tendrils of light he had been trying to summon. He tossed them at AJ, but they turned to dust and crumbled once they touched him.

Nick growled. I thought maybe the shadows would be enough… He soared up to the perch again and squatted. Why isn’t this working? He leaned on his knees. If I touch the fire, I’ll get burned, so I can’t use that… There’s nothing here that reflects… That’s the only light… And the shadows crumble when I try to grab them… I could kick him again, but Grandfather is right, that’s only practicing what I already know and that’s not the part I’m trying to make stronger right now...

AJ glided toward the rock outcropping. “We can stop, Nick!”

Nick clenched his fists. I have to find something for now. Until I get stronger… Will I need to connect with it when I’m stronger? Or will I be able to do it on my own? Grandfather said the light was stronger in my aura… Where can I find that light if we’re still in here? Not the fire, not the shadows… Somewhere else there’s light… A strong enough light...

AJ appeared in front of the ledge, his hands glowing and shaping as his wings trod the air.

Nick gasped and vaulted over him.

AJ turned abruptly to follow his movements. “Nick?”

Nick somersaulted in the air back toward the crevice at the entrance. “Brian! Barrier me! But just me!”

Brian raised his hands and stretched the webbing between his flat hand and his clenched hand as Nick dove toward the entrance.

“Minako!” Nick wrapped one arm around her waist and the other around her head as he pulled her close. They tumbled and rolled to the ground as Brian’s barrier surrounded them.

“Nick!” Minako threw her arms around his neck before touching his bleeding cheek. “Are you okay?”

Nick pulled her into a sitting position, holding her close to his chest as he pressed a kiss to her lips.

“Nick?”

He leaned his head on hers and gripped her cheek as well. “Ever since we’ve been together, you’ve been filling my heart with this bright light over and over again and making me feel like I can do impossible things. They keep calling it demonic, but that’s just you.”

“Nick…”

“It was never the box or a miracle, it was just… you…” His smile widened as he stared into her eyes. “You’re my light, forever.”

She pulled him closer. “And you’re mine!”

They began shining with a bright sapphire light as they stood and Nick pulled her into a kiss. He held her cheek and pressed his forehead to hers. “I love you.”

She ran her hand along his cheek as well. “I love you too. But what are you…”

He beamed. “I’m going to light up the darkness.” He knocked the barrier and gave Brian a thumbs up. As the barrier slowly disappeared around them, he pressed another quick kiss to Minako’s lips then released her from his embrace.

AJ landed on the ground in front of them. “Nick?”

Nick clenched his hands to his heart and took a deep breath. He unclenched his hands, revealing a small light nestled in his palms. He smirked and bounced off his foot back into the air, flapping until he landed on the ledge again.

AJ took flight as well. “Nick?”

Nick held the small light between his index finger and thumb, then flicked the orb at AJ, singeing part of his tunic When AJ froze in alarm, Nick put his hand back to his chest and produced more small lights, which he subsequently flicked at AJ one by one.

AJ dodged several of them, but winced as a few hit his arm. He flipped and headed back toward the ground, landing in front of Kevin. He grit his teeth. “Kevin…”

Nick landed beside them. "AJ, are you okay?"

AJ nodded hesitantly as Kevin pushed up his sleeve, revealing several burn marks.

Kevin placed his glowing hand to AJ’s chest and began running his other hand over the burns.

“AJ… I’m sorry…”

"Nick it's fine, but let's stop. I don't want to keep dodging you while I decide what to do next. Buying time is not something I enjoy." He smirked. "But I did enjoy your private meetings in the open."

"I had to help Brian, obviously." Nick grinned and winked.

Brian rolled his eyes as he sat and put a hand to his chest. "Sure… I'm exhausted." The barrier rippled slightly, but he clenched his hands back together and calmed it.

Nick cupped his shoulder. “Sorry Brian…”

Minako ran over to AJ and hesitantly touched his uninjured arm. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m really fine, Minako.” He smiled. “Thanks to you, Kevin.”

Kevin nodded and continued to soothe the burns with his healing glow.

Howie clapped his hands. "Let us stop for the day. That was an interesting turn of events."

When the burn marks disappeared, Kevin closed his hands as AJ slid his sleeve back down his arm.

Nick turned and clasped AJ's hand. "Thank you."

Brian and Virgil released their hold on the barrier, causing it to ripple before disappearing entirely. Virgil placed his hand on Nick's shoulder. "Fledgling of the vestigial Celestials, I expected you to find the shadows from the torches. I did not expect you to rely on Her Esteemed and Honorable Eminence’s odd powers."

Nick clenched his fist. "I may be a… celestial... but that's new to me." He shook his head. "What isn't new is my family. If I'm going to get stronger, I need to draw from the strengths of my family."

"But your family are--"

Nick lowered his head and glanced away. "Long dead... if you're talking about the one I was born into."

Virgil paused and removed his hand.

Nick inhaled deeply and fixed his gaze on Virgil’s eyes. "But this one is very much alive. And… you had to have known it would do things differently. For Brian… for all of us...”

Minako gripped Nick’s arm.

He rested his hand on hers, glanced at her, and whispered, “I’m fine, I promise.” He fixed his gaze back on Virgil. “You said yourself, cardinal demons are supposedly eternal wanderers… Isn’t that only until they find each other? Until they form the clan they told you they belonged to when they were born? The one that uses pale blue light?” He shook his head. “Howie's asking Brian to do things you say your family doesn't do… or at least, not well... but Brian is trying for us anyway. So which one is more important? The clan at the beginning or the clan at the end?"

Brian stood and put his hand on Virgil’s shoulder. “I think both.” He smiled broadly. “Where you come from is just as important as where you end up going. That’s part of why you feel lost, isn’t it? Not knowing what happened before now…”

Nick lowered his head again, but smiled as Minako rubbed his arm, then patted her hand.

“But you’re right. In the end, we’ll all have to bring our strengths together into new strengths. We’re strongest when our strengths compliment each other.”

Virgil smiled. “The progeny of the sky brought to earth to bring peace cannot bring peace to a warring land if they are warring as well. All clans are equally important.” He gripped his staff. “But I acknowledge your point, Fledgling of the vestigial Celestials, there are different types of strength for different types of clans.”

Nick glanced at the ground again. “Just call me Nick, Grandfather…”

Howie crossed his arms. “If we may interject, perhaps this a discussion best held away from the battlefield, especially with our defenses down.”

Nick crossed his arms as well. “Then put them back up.”

Howie shook his head. “The tactics and strategies we practice will be incomplete without all parties, Nick. Eventually, inclusion is necessary. There are only so many slights that alliances will withstand before they crumble.”

“It’s not… safe yet…” Nick clenched his fists.

“Nick…” Minako started.

“Then we should have left him in Rubiihoppou!” AJ crossed his arms and fingered his forearm gingerly. “I can’t stand him either, he’s a monster! But the longer we keep him here without involving him, the more he’ll distrust you!”

“AJ….” She frowned.

Nick snorted. “What trust?”

Kevin put his hand to his forehead as he shook his head. “You’re creating your own enemy, Nick.”

Nick stepped out of Minako’s embrace and closer to Kevin. “What! You want him to take away your powers?! You want him to kill you?!” He growled and tensed. “Why aren’t we preparing for that?!”

Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword. “With more research… There are possibilities to counteract that power, but there is too much suspicion to question the source.”

“And what about Justin’s powers?! We can practice all we want to be stronger than his sword, but then he’s bound to give up on his sword and just use his powers eventually! How do we prepare for that?! We don’t know what they are!”

Kevin continued to rub his forehead. “Nick, we’re not trying to start an argument with you. It’s just facts...”

“We’ll just get stronger, Nick.” Brian cupped Nick’s shoulder. “These things just take time.”

He flinched away from him and frowned. “Then why are we focusing on me?! We have bigger problems!”

Kevin covered his eyes with his hand. “Nick…”

“More is stronger, I get it! But Ashley could turn on us! Let’s solve that first!”

Kevin sighed, then spoke with a frank tone. “Nick, you’re a liability.”

Nick flinched and stepped backward as he gaped at Kevin, then began breathing quickly and shallowly. How could you say that? You think I’m our biggest problem?

“I know you’re frustrated, but fighting with us won’t change any of that. We’ll solve those problems together after you get a handle on your powers, because they’re both prepared for the way you fight now.” He crossed his arms. “And then when we know what to expect, we’ll be able to work together better, like Brian said.”

Nick bristled as his fists shook. “I’m trying my best!”

Kevin put his hand to his head again. “It’s a fact, not an argument, Nick. We need to address these things in order.”

Nick’s wings flared as he tensed again and continued yelling. “Sorry no one taught me anything except for someone we should be suspicious of! I’ll go back and fix that now! Obviously I decided to be an orphan!”

“We all have dead family members, Nick!” AJ clenched his fist as his wings flared from his back as well.

Nick flinched. AJ… You...

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to yell at you, but it’s frustrating.” He folded his wings against his back as he lowered his head. “I’m sorry that it’s something you’re only just now getting to deal with, but that doesn’t make it more important than any of our pain.” He glanced up at him. “We’re a team, remember? We all decided we needed to strengthen our powers, so that should come first.” He shook his head. “And you’re the one who decided to accept his alliance when you didn’t even fully trust him before he told you the truth. You obviously still don’t, but you need to accept the consequences of that choice so we can keep working.”

Nick growled, quickly turning away as he hunched his shoulders again, then stormed through the crevice.

Kevin shook his head. “Let’s take a break. I’m exhausted.”

Minako frowned as she stared at the crevice. “But Nick...”

Brian chuckled nervously. “It’s hard to get a word in when he gets like that.”

AJ patted her shoulder. “Just go after him.”

She turned to him, her face equally concerned. “But AJ, you…”

He gave her a brief hug. “It’s fine. It’s been almost twenty years. I’ve had a long time to process things and grieve.” He shook his head. “He just needs to know that time doesn’t always lessen things. Just like how he’s angry about Ashley. Has a decade changed anything?” He tightened his grip, then let go of her. “I know it’s not quite the same…”

Minako frowned.

He nodded toward the crevice. “I’m really fine. Go after him.”

Minako turned toward the crevice again, but hesitated.

Kevin put his head in his hand. “Minako, go. Talk some sense into him. He’ll usually own up to his actions when you do.”

Brian laughed. “It takes a lot for him to yell at you these days.”

Howie patted Minako’s back. “We will accompany you.” He turned back to Virgil. “We thank you for your assistance today, Elder Virgil. Please know that we are grateful for all you have done for our health and comfort.”

Virgil nodded as Howie gently led Minako toward the crevice.
Chapter Twenty-One: Catharsis by nicksgal
Silence filled the corridors as Minako and Howie walked toward the fork that led to their rooms. Minako lowered her head as she stared at the ground and Howie gave her shoulder a gentle pat.

“We will find him. There are not many places to hide in this cave despite its size.”

“I just… hate it when you all fight.”

“Those who are close often argue. It is the choices they make after the argument that matter.”

“Nick’s… he’s really worried and scared. The more he remembers, the more he goes back to the way he used to be.”

“It is likely he is coping in the ways he is familiar with. While it feels as though our relationships have been eternal, they are quite small in comparison.”

“He’s making a conscious effort to be vulnerable with me. Why isn’t he getting mad at me?”

Howie chuckled. “We assumed you asked him to behave that way while offering eternal acceptance in return.” He shut his eyes and took a deep breath before exhaling, then fiddled with the pommel of his sword. “It is a freeing feeling to know that who you are is enough.”

“I did… kind of…” Minako hunched her shoulders. “There’s a very small part of me that worries about something bad in his past that he doesn’t know yet or that he’ll become more like Justin when he gets stronger...” She held her hands to her chest. “But the part that loves him is stronger. And I’m hoping that all of us supporting him will be enough to help him stay himself.”

“Minako, there are many ways to be strong, not just the way that Justin portrays strength.” He smiled. “Perhaps when Nick becomes stronger, the only difference will be that he will learn to conceal his more demonic aspects and begin wearing shoes.”

Minako laughed. “I wonder if he would choose that, he really hates shoes.”

“We assumed that when he was younger, shoes were not an available choice.”

Minako frowned. “You conceal your demonic aspects and Kevin told me that he can, but chooses not to because he can’t use his powers. Do you think Brian or AJ can?”

Howie crossed his arms. “Possibly Brian, though if he could, he would likely choose against it for similar reasons as Kevin. We are unsure of AJ’s capability.”

“I thought AJ was really impressive today.”

“We did as well.” He glanced at her. “Minako… We have been meaning to ask about the demonic energy that Elder Virgil senses…”

Minako shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t feel it at all! But yesterday Nick asked me if I thought I could still make a barrier like Brian and I felt like I could.”

“Yes, why did you not ask Brian to assist?”

“The person Nick really thought could help was Madeline, but… I think he worried about more people being hurt. And the barrier was what we really needed to stop the rock slides. So I guess I was similar to both Madeline and Brian when he asked.”

Howie frowned. “Do you think you could use AJ’s power? Or Kevin’s? Or Nick’s?”

Minako shrugged and smiled. “Maybe? Brian’s has been the most useful for me so far. I don’t think I’ve really tried out the rest of yours yet… Do you think I could use yours? The power to create things…”

“Minako?”

“Well you made the scale and those orbs too, didn’t you? I’m pretty sure you did. I wonder if I could help you create something...”

Howie paused and held Minako back. Footsteps thundered nearby, but became quieter with each passing moment. Minako squeezed past Howie and rushed down the familiar corridor. As she ran, a figure came into view that flinched, then paused at the sound of her footsteps.

“Nick!”

As Nick turned, he frowned, but it quickly turned into a small smile as he saw her. “Minako?”

She stopped in front of him and reached toward him. “I wanted to…”

He peered over her shoulder and frowned again. “Howie…”

“We were merely headed in the same direction. Excuse us. Minako, let us discuss your question at a later time.” He smiled as he patted Minako’s shoulder, then continued to walk down the corridor toward their rooms.

Nick stared after him for a moment, then turned back to Minako. His smile fell as his eyebrows knitted together.

“Nick…” Minako brushed his cheek with her hand.

“I…”

Minako grabbed his hand and pulled him toward their rooms.

“Minako?”

“This is the way you were headed, right? I’ll go with you.”

He glanced away from her, but fell into step beside her. “It’s fine...”

“Nick…”

He tightened his grip on her hand, but said nothing.

They walked in silence through the corridor until they reached the three rooms at the end. Nick gave a brief nod to the barrier demon beside their door as he opened it. Once Minako was inside, the barrier demon nodded as the door shut.

Nick faced the door in silence, then clenched his right hand into a fist and slammed it into the wall next to the door. He gripped the wall with his claws for a moment, then turned and pressed his back against it as he sank to the floor. After pulling his knees to his chest, he leaned his head against them.

Minako sat beside him and put her hand on his shoulder.

Minako… Why? They didn’t listen to me, but… I’m a liability… And I made AJ sad… I… He crossed his arms over his knees and hid his face under them. And you just… You’re sitting there and accepting me like always… I don’t deserve it… I’m a liability… No… I’m too focused on what I wanted… That was unfair…

Minako ran her hand through his hair and leaned her head on his.

You’re not saying anything… But you’re still here… Why? I’ve been a… I’m not being fair… But… I’m a liability? I’m trying my best… And they… They’re also trying their best… We… I wanted them to… I’m… His shoulders shook.

Minako continued fluffing his hair and pressed a kiss to his head.

You… And my family… Our friends… I wasn’t… I… He lifted his head, revealing the tears streaming down his cheeks, then curled into her lap as his tears hit her legs.

She fluffed his hair again and cradled his shoulders.

“I’m being unfair… AJ’s right… We all have pain and worries… And we’d already decided together…”

Minako leaned her head on his again as she tightened her grip on his shoulders.

“But I… it hurt… I was…”

She ran her hand through his hair.

“Say something…”

“You tried really hard to seem fine today, but this morning you were grieving.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist as he buried his head in her lap.

“You should tell them that… instead of getting angry.”

“But they…”

“They can’t help you if you don’t tell them.” She rubbed his back. “You and I talked about it yesterday. When you need help, we can help right away if we know instead of waiting until we figure it out.”

“But…”

“You’re always worried about what they’re dealing with too, but when you bottle it up and lash out, they don’t see that. They see you fighting with them to get your way.” She leaned back against the wall, shutting her eyes and inhaling deeply. “It’s hard to watch you going back to being distrusting…” She leaned against him again, still rubbing his back gently. “I know Ashley broke your trust and you are allowed to be angry at him. But we’re all still here to help you and none of us have given you a reason to not trust us.”

“I trust you.” He stared up at her.

“I know you do, but our friends aren’t sure.”

“I do.”

“Then tell them instead of yelling at them. Nick…”

“I just wanted them to agree with me… Because he’s dangerous… Because we don’t know...”

“We all agreed that we would work on finding allies, then getting stronger, and then plans for facing Justin. And you’re right, maybe we should be worried about Ashley, but AJ is also right that you decided he should still join us. No was always a choice, but the longer he’s with us, it becomes less of a choice.”

He gripped a fold in her dress as he shut his eyes, blinking a few tears down his cheeks.

“Nick, I love you, but…”

“I know, it wasn’t fair of me.”

“You’re allowed to have bad days and you’re allowed to change your mind, but so is everyone else. We all decided we would decide together and we can if you bring it up, but it’s hard to decide with someone who’s yelling at you.”

He buried his head in her lap again. “I feel terrible,” he mumbled.

She fluffed his hair again. “It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be sad and scared too.”

“But Kevin…”

“Nick… You’re right, it wasn’t nice to say it that way. But he’s right that we all agreed to focus on getting stronger because our previous ways of fighting would be predictable.” She leaned on his head. “But he didn’t mean that you’re a weakness.”

“But I don’t know… I’m not strong enough yet...”

“You’re trying your best.”

He gripped a fold in her dress again. “What if I’m never strong enough? Or too strong? I don’t want to be… a liability or a monster...”

She smoothed back his hair.

“Say something…”

“I just…” She inhaled deeply again. “I do… worry sometimes that if you’re stronger you’ll end up more like Justin…”

He tightened his grip on the fold of her dress and flinched.

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders tightly. “I know, I’m sorry… I’ve worried about it for a long time, but I didn’t want to keep you from trying to be stronger or worry you too…” She took a deep breath. “But when you had your powers before, it’s like they were fixated on destroying… The more I saw them, the more I saw them coming from a good place, wanting to protect… But when they lashed out, they were chaotic… I don’t know that you saw me… Or any of us…”

I’m afraid… I’m afraid of that! You’re always reassuring me, but I never… I never wanted you to worry about that! I always want to see you! If I lost you… He choked back a sob. I couldn’t… Minako…

“I’m sorry, Nick…”

He bolted upright and threw his arms around her shoulders. “I’m terrified of that!” His tears gushed down his cheeks.

She cupped the back of his head and wrapped her arm around his waist, pulling his body closer to her.

“More than anything else, that’s what I don’t want you to ever worry about! I always want to see you! I’d rather have you!”

Minako embraced him tightly as she blinked back a few tears. “I always remember how much you’re wanting to protect before they get chaotic. How much you’re always trying. Maybe if you’re stronger, then the chaos will go away and you’ll be able to be strong in a different way. Maybe you’ll be strong enough to control the chaos.” Her tears fell down her cheeks.

He pulled back and put his hand to her cheek, brushing away her tears. “I hate making you cry. Let me worry for you.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his face, then pulled it away and forced a smile. “It’s okay, I’m…” His expression crumpled, his smile turning into a grimace as his tears began spilling down his cheeks again. “...fine…”

She pulled him closer again, cradling his shoulders. “I’ll worry for you.” She ran her hand along the back of his head. “Even when I’m worried, I always believe in you. That’s why I told you I’ll do anything I can to stay. To be here with you no matter what happens. Just you and me.”

His arms went limp and he sobbed into her chest.

“If you let yourself be sad, I’ll always come help you.”

He inhaled shakily and wrapped his arms back around her as he sniffed back his tears. “I should apologize to them…”

She rubbed his head, then kissed it lightly. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Just a little longer… like this…” He inhaled shakily again and closed his eyes.

Your bright light always pulls me in and makes me feel like it’s okay to be vulnerable… Over and over again since we first met. I don’t know why I told you so many things about me and my feelings back then… Things I wouldn’t have shared with anyone… Maybe I was never hoping for the box… Maybe I was hoping for this… for eternal acceptance… even a monster like me wanted someone to love him… A God who threw me in darkness… A Master who manipulated me… Not selfish acceptance, just… always… Maybe I thought if Pandora knew me, she would just accept all that I was… no matter how bad… no matter how broken… But all the other Pandoras… They’re that same selfish acceptance… I’m glad it was you, Minako. Even when you’re mad, frustrated, sad, or worried, you’ve been accepting me. I’m glad we can talk about it now… That I can always tell you… I’ll really tell you. Every time… Maybe if I can practice it with you, I’ll be able to say it out loud to them. I like having them here with you and me… Maybe I’ll have more space to worry about them if I let them worry about me… He inhaled shakily, then relaxed in her embrace as he exhaled deeply.

She leaned on his head and embraced him tightly in the stillness, stroking his hair gently in silence. They remained that way for many moments as his breathing slowly evened.

“Okay... Let’s go…” He pulled from her embrace and sat back on his knees as he opened and closed his right hand, then rubbed it gingerly.

“Be more careful.” Minako gripped it lightly and smiled at him.

“I’ll try… anything you ask, anything for you…” He smiled at her gently.

She stood, then pulled him up and rubbed her hands on his shoulders gently. “Ready?”

He nodded and opened the door, then walked across the corridor. As he stopped in front of Howie’s door, he started forming a fist to knock, but hesitated.

Minako gripped his shoulder. “It’s okay.”

He made a loose fist, then knocked softly. He inhaled deeply as he stared at the motionless door, then bit his lip. “Maybe he left?”

“We’ll find him.” Minako rubbed his shoulder.

Nick gripped her hand and started to turn as the door opened. His breath caught in his throat.

Howie appeared in the doorway, then smiled. “Nick, we were just discussing additions to our plan.” He stepped out of the doorway and revealed Brian, Kevin, and AJ sitting at the small table. “Come in.” After walking back to the table, he sat in his chair calmly.

Nick stepped into the doorway then froze. He hunched his shoulders and lowered his head, but glanced back at Minako.

Minako gave him a gentle push, then stepped into the room behind him as she closed the door. “Now it’s just us,” she whispered and rubbed his shoulder again.

Nick glanced back at the others and clenched his fists tightly. He glanced back at Minako’s gentle smile and let out the breath he was holding as he stared at the ground. “I’m… sorry…”

“Nick, it’s--” Brian started.

Kevin put his hand on Brian’s shoulder, causing Brian to pause.

Nick looked up at them. “I’m sorry. I was being unfair…” His shaking fists relaxed. “AJ, you’re right. We all have problems, now… and in our pasts… and me being upset isn’t more important than any of your problems. That was selfish of me.”

AJ nodded.

“And you’re right, I told Ashley to stay before we discussed what might happen or how everyone was feeling… I shouldn’t have done that… Especially because I’ve hated every minute of it and you probably would have said that if we’d talked about it…”

AJ laughed. “I definitely would have mentioned that. Thank you for apologizing, I accept.”

“Kevin… I didn’t like being called a liability… I know I’m not very strong right now, but I’m trying not to be our biggest weakness…” He clenched and unclenched his hands. “But I’m sorry for only yelling instead of listening. Being loudest doesn’t mean I get my way…”

Kevin frowned. “Nick, I know you’re trying. I’m sorry for being too blunt. I was frustrated about the way the conversation was going. I will choose my words more carefully next time.”

“I’m sorry for talking over you, Howie. You were just trying to be safe about our conversation and keep our plan going.”

Howie folded his hands on the table. “We accept your apology, Nick.”

“Brian, you were trying to cheer me up and I ignored you. You’re always helping me no matter what I ask. I really appreciate you. I'm sorry.”

Brian beamed. “Nick, it’s okay.”

“It’s… not…” Nick relaxed his hands, but stared at the ground again. “I should have just told you all how I was feeling this morning instead of getting that angry…”

Brian patted the chair next to him and Minako pulled Nick toward it. When they reached it, Nick slumped into it and mumbled something inaudible. Minako sat beside him and gripped his hand, running her thumb over it.

Nick exhaled forcefully. “Sorry…” He sat up, but still hunched his shoulders and lowered his head. "I don't like being vulnerable because you get taken advantage of over and over again. You're defenseless… But when you fight back, you have control…" He clenched his free hand again. “But I’m not actually angry, I’m just… sad... today… Thinking about the way I’d found them that day...”

Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry…” His shoulders shook as his head sank further toward his lap.

“Nick, say what you’re feeling, but don’t apologize for being sad.” Kevin crossed his arms “We’re here to help.”

“I do… trust you all… even though I don’t want to be vulnerable…”

Minako leaned her head on his shoulder. “Like I told you, when you tell us, we can help.”

“I’m… afraid… of what Ashley can do… and… being like him… and that... my chaotic powers will be… more chaotic… when they’re stronger…”

Howie reached across Minako and held Nick’s arm. “There is no certainty, however, they have not flared chaotically as you have been learning here and you still retain your wits.”

“We’ll figure it out, Nick.” AJ smiled, then laughed quietly. “This is better than being yelled at.”

Nick glanced up at them. “I want…”

Howie pulled his hand away from Nick, then spread a few of his charts across the table.“We are prepared to discuss changes to our plans.”

Nick flinched and tightened his grip on Minako’s hand.

Kevin leaned his elbows on the table. “Do we reorganize our plans to address Ashley before training?”

“Is there a way to ensure he’s loyal?” Brian interjected.

AJ crossed his arms. “I say Brian should bind him again and then we can leave him in the forest.”

“Nick?” Howie dipped his brush into the ink beside him.

Nick took a deep breath, then slowly straightened his shoulders and sat up, but held his tight grip on Minako’s hand. “I want… a break...” He lowered his voice. “We’re always moving and our problems keep growing… I’ll keep trying, but… I’m tired…” He lowered his head. “I know we’re all tired, so it’s not fair to complain but… watching Ashley and worrying… remembering my family… controlling my powers… I’m tired… and sad… and scared…”

Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “We came here to train, but we also came here because it’s safe. As long as we are allied with the Ruby demons and Madeline, we are here until Erik heals for them.” He smiled. “And if they want to leave before you’re ready to keep going, then they can leave without us.”

Kevin shook his head. “While your sentiment is where our hearts should be, Brian, time is still critical…” He crossed his arms. “Nick, how long do you think you need?”

“I don’t know… Today… Tomorrow…”

Howie set his ink and brush to the side. “While we do not want to squander the time Erik has given us, that seems reasonable. Will you reconvene with us the following day to discuss our next course of action?”

“I can… but we can finish talking about this first.”

“Nick, just go rest.” AJ smiled. “We won’t decide anything without you.”

Nick exhaled and his shoulders relaxed. “Okay… Thank you…” He stood, then plodded toward the door. “Minako…”

“I’ll come back soon. I’ll bring you dinner.”

He opened the door slowly and turned back. “Okay… I love you…”

“Love you too, Nick!” Brian called.

Minako looked at Brian with a bemused smile, then turned back to Nick with her regular gentle smile. “I love you too, Nick.”

Nick gave her a small smile, then glanced at the ground and mumbled, “Love you too, Brian.”

Brian mimicked wiping a tear from his cheek and grinned at Minako. “Now, tell me you love me, Minako, then I’ll tell you, and our afternoon ritual will be complete.”

“We haven’t--”

“It’s a brand new afternoon ritual, starting right now.” He gripped her shoulders, then winked.

Nick covered his hand with his mouth and turned back toward the door, but his bright laugh sprang out.

Minako smiled and turned to Brian. “Love you too, Brian?”

Brian grinned broadly. “And I love you, Minako.”

Nick covered his face with both hands and continued laughing. He took a deep breath and turned back quickly as he started to shut the door behind him. “Thank you. See you all tomorrow.”
Chapter Twenty-Two: Feelings by nicksgal
Within this den of demons, there was a tranquility that didn’t exist elsewhere in their warring states. While whole populations were slowly decimated and the era of war continued, the demons who should have saved it were picked off until sole members of their clans survived. Once proud clans became defined by their only heirs. Healing demons were methodical and stoic guardians. Shapeshifting demons were benevolent and passionate eccentrics. Howie’s clan seemed likely to be filled with strategic and diplomatic leaders. Was Brian’s clan full of comedic and thoughtful spiritualists? Or was that just Brian? The other members of his clan seemed to have vastly different personalities; his own grandfather, for instance, seemed more like a stoic and diplomatic conventionalist. If this was the case, then it seemed likely that if another celestial demon existed, they would never be the same as Nick, the plucky and gentle knight.

Minako slowly opened her eyes as they adjusted to the dimness of the room. She shifted within his warm embrace and beneath the heavy linens. Though he continued to sleep, Nick reflexively relaxed his grip around her, but leaned his head closer to her. She smiled as she caressed the membrane of his wing wrapping her shoulders, causing both wings to flutter lightly, then smoothed the hair back at his forehead.

Nick, I wanted this too. I wanted to be wrapped up in your arms every day while we did boring things like sleep or cook or run errands. I’m glad we’re together again, but I hate that it’s hurting you. I hate that as more things from your past come up, you have to take time to worry about them as you work through them. But you’re still looking at me with that same gentle smile. I’d do anything to make you smile all the time. Right now, it feels like we’re back where you came from, another really dark cave…

I wonder what you slept like there? When I first got there, you slept in my lap… but you never seemed completely relaxed. And when we first started traveling together, you always fell asleep sitting up, like you were ready to wake up at any second. And if you did sleep better, you always curled in a ball and wrapped your wings around your body. Now you’re constantly wrapping your wings around me as you hold me tightly. I wonder if you’re comfortable or if you’re more worried about what could happen to me… Maybe both?


Nick stirred.

She smiled and brushed his hair at his forehead again as she gave him a small kiss. Can I make you breathe easier if you know I’ll take care of you?

“Minako…”

“Go back to sleep,” she whispered as she kissed him again.

He kept his eyes closed, but brushed her hair behind her ear. “You too…”

“Can’t sleep.” She smiled.

He blinked a few times as he opened his eyes, then held her cheek lightly and gave her a kiss.

“You can keep sleeping if you’re tired.” She rubbed her fingers on his hand lightly.

“I’m awake.” He smiled. “What do you want to do today?”

“Whatever you want.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled closer to him.

He brushed her hair behind her ear again. “It’s a break for you too.”

“You pick.” She grinned.

“Aohouseki seems like it’s far away, so we can’t go there… Brian said the mountains are beautiful, we could go for a walk and see them? We kind of saw them before, but he obviously meant this part...”

“Okay! Do you want to do that now?”

He leaned his head on her shoulder as he smiled.

“Nick?”

“Sometimes I think about when it used to be just us and I wish I felt the same way that I do now. All the things I would do differently back then…”

She brushed his hair back again and gave him a warm kiss.

“Do you remember when we would look up at the clouds? You always tried to tell me they were shapes and I didn’t understand.”

“It’s boring when a cloud’s just a cloud.”

“I’d try harder to see them like they’re magical.”

She giggled. “Of course they’re mundane to you, you’re magical.”

He gripped her chin and kissed her. “You’re magical.” He smiled. “Do you remember when we’d look up at the stars and you would tell me about all the things you wanted to see? Like those falling stars?”

“Do you mean shooting stars, Nick?”

“Falling… shooting… You said they made wishes come true. I would have made quiet wishes with you.”

“They don’t come true if you say them out loud.”

“I know, you told me. I tried to remember everything you said, even back then. I felt like one of those ordinary things you made extraordinary.”

“Nick, you’re always amazing.”

“You are.” He smiled. “Do you remember when we went looking for things to eat? That first time... when your stomach made that weird noise?”

She covered her face in her hands. “You’re making fun of me... Stop…”

He pulled her hands away from her face. “Don’t hide your face, I’m not trying to tease you. I was so embarrassed that you peeked out of your fingers and saw me laughing. Even when I was sulking, I kept thinking about how you were probably still starving. I felt terrible!” He started laughing. “But of course, I was so fixated on the fact that you had seen me cry, sleep, and laugh that I would have never told you that I was worried about you not eating.”

“When did you find the time to process me seeing you yell, worry, smile, yawn, or sneeze?” She giggled.

He grabbed her cheeks as his gaze pierced through the space between them. “You’ve seen me sneeze?” He bit his lip.

Minako laughed harder as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled herself closer to his chest. “You hate that too! I’m sorry for giving you another thing to worry about!” She smiled at him brightly.

He smiled sheepishly. “You always see right through me. It’s okay if it’s you seeing it… even if it was a while ago...” He brushed one hand through her hair, then moved it back to her waist. He continued to rub his thumb on her cheek as he smiled gently. “You’ve always seen me. Even when I hated something, you were still looking at me with that warm smile… like you were telling me it was okay to hate it. But when you smile at me like that, I don’t want to hate things like that anymore.”

“Nick…”

“When I laughed, then sulked, you waited and welcomed me back like it was okay to laugh and then run away… And I thought, I wonder if I could laugh and stay instead… Would she still smile that way, like she was accepting whatever I did? I didn’t think that anyone would do that… just accept a monster...”

“You’re not a monster, Nick. You never have been.” She ran her hand through his hair. “Obviously I prefer when you don’t laugh at my stomach making weird noises, but you’re allowed to laugh at things you think are funny.” She beamed at him. “Any feeling you have, you can show me all of them.”

He gave her the same gentle smile he always did, as though she were the brightest star in the sky that lit up his world. “I always mean it when I tell you that you mean everything to me. I don’t feel like a monster anymore… Or… I guess I’m trying my hardest not to become one if I’m stronger… But you know that.”

She pressed a quick kiss to his lips.

“I think you really made me want to try to be open with them. I thought that if you would accept me, maybe they would too…” He laughed. “They already said meeting me was… interesting... I wonder what it would have been like if you hadn’t smiled at me first…”

“Probably like when you met me.”

He laughed quietly, then glanced away.

“Nick?”

He kissed her. “Brian said the mountains are most beautiful at night when they look like sapphires. That’s when I want to go with you. Just you and me.”

“And until then?”

“I’m still tired…” He yawned, then let his eyes close gently. “I was just awake because you were. Do you want me to stay awake with you? I will.”

Minako kissed him. “Not if you’re tired. Do you want me to go back to sleep with you? I will.”

“Not if you’re not tired…” He smiled. “Hasn’t Madeline wanted to see you? Why don’t you see her? Or maybe Kevin needs help with Erik? I know that you like helping him.”

“Are you sure? I’ll really stay.”

“I’m fine. Just come back and find me when you’re done.”

Minako scooted closer to him and kissed him, then he pulled her into his arms as he kissed her.

“I love you, Minako.”

“I love you too, Nick.”

~*~



Kevin frowned as he sorted through dried ingredients on a high shelf.

The large room seemed ready to accept and combat the ailments of any number of patients, but was filled with an empty silence instead. Several rolled mats lined the corner of one wall, an entire second wall was lined with shelves of labeled and sorted ingredients with a table below them, a third with all manner of medical equipment. At one edge of the room, stained ruby armor had been pushed against the wall. A single mat covered with thick linens held the lone inhabitant of this room, the injured and unconscious Eric. Madeline sat on the ground beside him.

Minako stood on her tiptoes next to Kevin with her hands clasped behind her back. “What are you looking for, Kevin?”

Kevin continued to frown as he pulled the containers from the shelf and set them back gingerly. He mumbled something as he pulled another container from the shelf.

“Kevin?”

“He gets like that in here.” Madeline glanced at Minako, then back at Eric.

Minako beamed. “Of course he does! He’s very dedicated to his craft.”

“Minako, you don’t need to defend my actions, you and Madeline are both right that I am focused on my work.” He furrowed his brow. “It seems they don’t keep a stock of it.”

“What are you looking for?” Minako bounced on her tiptoes again.

“Moringa…”

“What does that do?”

“It keeps the wound from being infected and helps with blood. The plant will also still grow in a drought. It’s very hearty.”

“Does Erik need that?” Minako frowned. “Can’t you just heal him with your powers?”

Kevin crossed his arms and paced around the room. “It’s certainly been helping, but I learned a lot about healing cardinal demons from taking care of Nick.” He glanced back at Minako. “It seems that I’ll have to become stronger for my powers to be most effective; they may also be a bit weaker on ruby demons than sapphire demons.”

“Was that frustrating that Nick’s wound kept reopening?”

“Extremely.” He pressed his lips into a thin line. “At first, I was concerned that my powers were weaker from disuse, but it seems that cardinal demons may be more resistant to the powers of other demons in the same way that a minor injury could be more detrimental to a human or regular demon if it goes untreated.”

“You think that cardinal demons’ bodies have stronger capabilities to heal themselves?”

Kevin glanced at Erik. “Perhaps I should stop reminding Nick to be more careful with his body.”

Minako’s nose crinkled as she gritted her teeth. “Kevin…”

“I don’t intend to use Nick as an experiment for my own strength, Minako.” He shook his head. “Still, it would be helpful to know if that’s the reason.”

A sad smile formed on Minako’s face. “I’m sure if you told Nick that was the reason, he would gladly participate.”

Kevin glanced back at her with a similar smile. “I have considered his possibly favorable reaction, but decided not to ask... especially after our recent conversation.” He knelt next to Erik and began untying the bandages from his chest.

Minako sat across from him and next to Madeline. “Is that the only way to get stronger for you?”

“Training and practice? Isn’t that the only way to get stronger?” He chuckled as he lifted Erik’s body. “Unless, you’re hoping we can all get stronger just by wanting it?”

Minako pressed her lips into a thin line as Kevin passed her the rolled bandage, then unrolled more of it before handing it back to him. “No… But what about using your powers to attack?”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “I don’t like to use them to attack. It’s contrary to how I envision my purpose.” He fixed his stare on hers as he handed the roll of used bandage back to her. “However, I will do what is necessary for all of you.”

“You and Nick are really similar sometimes. Really stubborn, but really devoted to everyone you care about.” Minako smiled.

Kevin knitted his brows and frowned as he narrowed his eyes.

She giggled. “You handle it better because you’re older and have had more practice.”

“Nuance is not for the young.” Kevin chuckled and shook his head as he patted her shoulder. “It’s easier to grow from your shortcomings as you age. You and Nick will both get there.”

“Are you admitting that you also shouted a lot when you were younger?” Minako grinned at him teasingly.

Kevin smirked, but said nothing as he set the bandages aside and began removing the dressing from Erik’s chest wound.

“Kevin… Is there something we could do instead of just sitting in here helping you?” Madeline clenched her hands against her jeans.

“Another member of our group that hates waiting.” He laughed as he glanced at Minako before gazing past her head to the ingredient shelf. “If you could get me some Moringa, I would appreciate it. Their medical staff here have offered to provide a barrier demon to accompany me in a search for any medicinal ingredients.”

Madeline tightened her grip on her jeans. “Is Erik… not okay if you don’t want to go? What are the other demons doing that are normally here?”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “Erik will need more time. The barrier demons that normally staff this wing have exhausted their knowledge and have left direction of his care to me. They are monitoring his overnight care as well as the times I must step away to attend to my other duties.”

“Couldn’t they get this plant you want if you feel like you need to be here?”

“They could, but you offered to help.”

Minako held Madeline’s hand. “We’ll go get it, Kevin! What does it look like?”

“It has a whitish-gray bark, yellowish-white flowers, and brown seed pods.”

“Let’s go, Madeline! You wanted to do something and it will probably be more fun than waiting! Unless you need our help for something here, Kevin?”

“I appreciate your help. Bark, flowers, leaves and seed pods would be helpful. If you can get them easily, roots and sap would also be helpful.”

She gripped Kevin’s hands. “We’ll definitely get them! You can count on us!”

~*~



“Do you think these trees are really tall, Madeline?” Minako clutched her large basket tightly as she brushed away a few stray branches before her dress caught on them. They trudged through the grass at the base of the mountain as a young barrier demon followed a few feet behind them.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I’m not super into plants. I kill everything I touch.”

“Just plants or all living things?” Minako grinned broadly.

“I’m not frigid! I’m just not good at growing things!” Madeline crossed her arms and hunched her shoulders as she glared at Minako with a crinkled nose, letting her empty basket dangle loosely from her hand. “How come I fight with one guy and get accused of being terrible forever? What terrible things do they say about you?”

Minako shrugged. “Nothing. I’ve never heard anything about myself. I didn’t really hear much about Bri or Renee either, so maybe your spirited personality stuck out to everyone?”

“Why couldn’t people just talk about me and Jacob or Erik or Dan or Trevor? Why does it have to be Ashley that determines who I am?”

“Well, what was it like with them? You never really talk a lot about the rest of them.”

Madeline lowered her head. “It was fine. You know Ashley, he was always in charge, rallied the others, and jumped into anything. Jacob was always really calm and went along with whatever anyone else wanted. He was always pretty supportive. Trevor had a bit of a temper, but he was always fun and energetic. Dan was also calm like Jacob, but he was also calculating and strategizing. He always tried to take care of us.” She bit her nail. “Erik was… a lot Nicky.”

“Really?” Mianko pursed her lips. “Jacob talks about Nick like he’s a tiny Ashley…”

“Not the temper or the action over planning… The devotion is more what I mean… No matter what happened, Erik was always willing to stand by me.” She glanced at Minako, then bit her nail again and stared at the ground. “And I liked the attention, but he just didn’t... Ashley drove me absolutely crazy all the time...”

“You liked fighting with him?”

Madeline buried her head in her hand. “It sounds so stupid to say it now. I loved every moment of him fighting with me. It didn’t matter if it was the vulgar and angry fights or the fierce and passionate ones, I loved it.” She straightened her shoulders, then swallowed before giving Minako a shaky smile. “But now I look at the way Nicky watches you… like you’re a sunrise lighting up the dark... and... I’m a little jealous... I wish someone looked at me like that. That sounds selfish too, but I wish that I hadn’t been so selfish the first time.”

Minako pressed her lips together. “Is it selfish to choose someone over someone else?”

“It’s not just that.” She shook her head. “This place… sucks sometimes. Of course all of the death and the killing and the terrible lifestyle sucks… But it sucks that we’re forced to become these almighty goddesses who only think about other people and never ourselves. And it sucks that there’s no one to really share it with.” She groaned. “Not that we’re not sharing it with the demons, but it’s not like I could have asked them who was a better guy to pick and they don’t have that same perspective on everything that we do where we wanted to go home… They’re just still worried about themselves… It just sucks… And you never know what’s going to happen until it happens… And I’m not a goddess at all…”

“I’m not either.” Minako glanced at the ground.

Madeline ran her hand through her hair. “You never felt like you should be selfish? Like everything sucked so you should just do what you wanted?”

“Maybe at the beginning, but I mostly worried about going home… It was really scary here, being surrounded by death…” She clenched her hand at her heart. “But I had Nick to keep me safe… He was all I really wanted. I didn’t want to help everyone, I wanted to help him and our friends… But mostly him… Maybe that’s selfish.” She looked up at Madeline with a hesitant smile. “And in the end, I thought the best way to help him was by helping everyone even though it wasn’t what he said he wanted. Deciding for him felt really selfish, but so did choosing what he wanted... Because all he kept saying he wanted was to stay with me, the same thing I wanted...”

“Minako…” Madeline stopped, dropped the basket, and pulled her into a tight hug. “That’s not selfish! You still made choices because you wanted to help them.” She leaned her head on Minako’s shoulder. “When I say I’m selfish, I did things for me. I chose Ashley because I had a crush on him for his looks over Eric who treated me like the world. I picked fighting with him because I wanted my way all the time, even more than he did. I became a priestess because I wanted to go home. And if I had the box, I probably would have wished for things like that.” She raised her head and smiled as she cupped Minako’s shoulders. “You wanted to give Nicky one of your wishes without him asking. That’s really selfless.”

Minako frowned. “I wanted him to feel like everything was possible for him, but I took that away from him in the end to help everyone… And now, it feels like I’m putting him second again.”

“Because he doesn’t want you to be around us?” Madeline mirrored Minako’s expression.

A gentle smile crossed Minako’s face. “Nick would never say that to me, even if he hated it. He trusts and supports me to make my own choices and respects them, even if they’re not what he would pick for himself. If it’s something that involves both of us, we decide together. It’s not...” She glanced at the ground as she pressed her lips together. “We should keep looking for that tree… But can I ask you something about your relationship with Ashley?”

Madeline picked up her basket and put her free hand in her back pocket as they started walking again. “Yeah, sure.”

“Was it just… Did you…” She hung her head and swallowed.

“Huh?” Madeline cocked her head as she blinked, then a sly smirk formed on lips. “Did Ashley and I ever have sex? Is that what you want to know?”

Minako nodded quietly.

“You and Nicky haven’t? I just assumed you don’t get a lot of alone time from the others to do it that often.”

“You’re right, we’re all together most of the time, pretty much since we met Brian.” She covered her face with her hand. “The day we got married, we probably would have… But that was the day we met AJ and the day we ended up in the castle.” She glanced up at Madeline.

“Probably would have like you planned on it?”

“Probably would have, but AJ wanted to talk before he joined us.” She glanced at the ground again.

Madeline laughed. “He owes you and Nicky one.”

Minako stared ahead of them and ran her hand through her hair. “But then we got in the castle and figured out that the priestesses are sacrifices, so… Knowing that… Even though we want to… There’s a chance I wouldn’t have any of these priestess powers any more… or worse, that I would get sent away… It would be okay if I didn’t have powers anymore, but I don’t want to be separated again. Nick agrees and says he wants what I want.”

“Are we supposed to be virgin sacrifices though? You’re still here and you got the box.” She shrugged. “I don’t understand why virginity is a symbol of purity anyway. It’s not like being a virgin means you’re more likely to hug puppies or help old people cross the street. It just means you made a choice about your body and it’s fine either way.”

Minako pointed ahead. “Look, there’s a tree with brown pods and white flowers. The bark looks kind of gray too!” She ran ahead to the tree and set her basket down as she started pulling the seed pods from it.

Madeline shook her head as she followed behind her. “Maybe getting the box just means that you’re more likely to care about all of the demons being happy. Not sure why you’d need to be a virgin for that either...”

“Madeline?”

She pulled one of the flowers from the tree and cupped her hand around it. “I wasn’t a virgin when I was first here, but not because of Ashley. And I don’t think virginity is a requirement because then Bri definitely would have gotten the box, but you did.” She glanced up at Minako. “I know you want to do things the right way. You’re constantly worried about them, even this errand Kevin asked us to come on.”

“I just… want to help.” Minako smiled warmly as she continued pulling seed pods from the tree. “They feel like family. I would do anything to help them.” She frowned. “And I promised Nick that I would stay.”

Madeline laughed. “Minako, you’re acting like this is some kind of covenant with God. It’s not. You said that a demon brought us back, and if being with the person you love isn’t purer than the grudge of a demon, I don’t know what is.” She shrugged. “So don’t be a goddess, be selfish.”

“But--”

“If I can be selfish this whole time and still be a priestess now, then you can still be a priestess who helps her demons even if you do give all of your kindness, love, heart, and body to Nicky and get the same back from him. I don’t think you’ll get sent away.”

“But--”

“I promise. There’s nothing more pure than love.” She smiled. “But I feel like I should warn you, it’s rough.”

“Sex?”

“Sometimes.” She winked. “Maybe it’s just Ashley, but I assume they all have a similar build, so…”

Minako’s face flushed as she stared at the basket of seed pods in her hands.

Madeline smirked. “Although, since Nicky holds you like you’re going to break, maybe he’s more gentle.”

Minako swallowed as she hunched her shoulders and leaned into her chest. “Did you… have powers in the castle?”

“When they died? Yes, I had powers like them...” She set her basket on the ground, then crossed her arms. “Demonic power is weird… It messes with your head like a poison and hurts… It felt… sort of empty and exhausting every time I used it...”

“I felt okay… But you still got to use the powers you had before?”

Madeline frowned. “Before?”

“Nick said you had powers with a bright red light… I had something similar from the beginning, but blue… obviously...”

She picked up her basket and furrowed her brow. “I guess that didn’t start happening until after Ashley and I had sex… But I was able to use their powers in the castle just fine. And I’m still here just fine. Is that why you’re asking?”

“Can you use their powers now?” Minako pressed her lips together as she pulled leaves from the tree.

“I don’t know… I haven’t tried… It hurt too much… Like I was being ripped apart…” She glanced at Minako as she picked up the basket. “Can you?”

“That’s how Nick and I helped Erik, I made a little barrier like Brian.” Her brows knitted together. “I’m glad you’re okay. I wonder why it hurt so much… The only thing that ever really hurt me was hearing their names for the first time, but it was fine as soon as I told myself that I was going to help them.”

Madeline rubbed her hand on the back of her neck, then shook her head and smiled. “Maybe I’ll try it your way and focus on helping Erik. Maybe that's how priestesses get stronger, by really wanting to help their demons."

End Notes:
So I mentioned over in the forums a while ago that one of the chapters I was writing was getting me thinking about the beginning of PBox and the time skip that I just glossed over in favor of getting to the other Boys, which comprised Nick and Minako's growing friendship as they walked to the capital (the missing part of Chapter Five, really). This was that first chapter that made me really think about it. I'd always had a vague idea of the types of things they did and their interactions, but writing them out here (and a few other times in this chunk of chapters) made me really want to write it down and make it part of the story and their story officially.

I won't post all the changes I've been making to the novel (post-editing the fanfic version; that version is yours to keep here), for obvious reasons, but I'm willing to share this chapter with y'all if it's something you'd want to see. Let me know. I think you can email me on here? But the forums are always the easiest way to reach me whether it's about this or if you just want to chat all things PBox, our Boys, or just writing in general. See you next Wednesday.
Chapter Twenty-Three: Memories by nicksgal
He put his hands to his throat and clawed at it. It’s suffocating. I can’t breathe. He stared up at the immense iron gate wrapped in chains. A monster is hiding in there… No… I’ve been here before... This is… the castle on the mountain… A monster… My body is filling with that bright sapphire light… He clenched his fists. It’s burning. He shut his eyes and the chains rattled against the door. After three knocks, they splintered and shattered. I can get in… Behind this iron gate… The darkness and the mist swirled up to meet him. He choked in a breath. There’s only suffocating darkness in here… It’s empty… Us and the dead… Are we even here anymore? Are they? He scanned the pitch black room as he stepped through the gate. It’s just me… Last time, your shell was in this darkness. Waiting for me… Are you still in here, Ashley? Waiting for me… The echo of his footsteps was deafening as he pulled his legs through the swirling mist and darkness. Ugh, this is impossible… It’s like walking through mud… It’s like breathing mud… Where are you? The monster in the dark…

Through the mist, a lone light lit up the darkness.

Ashley… “You…” He choked.

The lone light shot toward him in an instant and a clawed hand wrapped around his cheek. “This scent…” The shadowy voice reverberated through the darkness.

“I’m not Nicky… Don’t call me that…”

He stared at the figure in front of him. Shoeless feet, tattered black pants, simple black mid-thigh length tunic, cream ribbon. This is Ashley…

“Of course you’re not.” The shadowy voice reverberated through the darkness again.

“What?”

The clawed hand clenched on his cheek tightly, creating deep gashes in his skin as it laughed maniacally. “Nicky is a child.”

Nick stared into the face of the shadowy voice. Horns nestled in its fair hair, just like Ashley. Its wings and tail flared behind its body. But its eyes didn’t glow red like he’d thought he’d see.

Its eyes glowed sapphire.

The shadowy demon smirked. “We’re the monster.”

Nick tried to pull back, but the shadowy demon sank its claws deeper into his cheek.

“Mi--Minako!”

“Scream for her as loud as you can! Scream desperately! It gives me life!” It laughed again.

“Minako!”

“No matter how loud you call, no matter how long, she’ll never hear you!” It pulled its hand from his face and licked the blood from its claws. “Delicious.”

Nick jumped back. “Minako!” There’s a gate in here that we shattered to get to the altar room. I have to find it! I have to find it? Why?

The shadowy demon’s smile grew wide and bright, its fangs curling over its lips. “Back in the altar room with the false God? You won’t find her there.” It sank its claws into his cheek again. “So perfect and delicate… And then I defiled her with our darkness.”

Nick growled and his claws pulsed.

“She was exquisite and luscious, succulent and delectable, divine… ravishing…” It licked its claws again.

Nick clenched his fists tightly and snarled, his fangs curving around his lips. His anger burned and flickered as the sapphire light ignited his skin.

It laughed maniacally as its smile grew. “Come back to the darkness, Nick! Where we deserve to be!”

Nick shut his eyes tightly and pushed the shadowy demon away. “I’m not you! I’m never going back to the darkness!”

The shadowy demon smirked psychotically. “Even with her infected in the darkness? When you swore to protect her?”

Nick clenched his fists tightly again, his rage smoldering and searing in flashes of sapphire light.

The shadowy demon cackled. “You are her eternally predictable champion.” It reached out to his cheek again and clenched its claws. “She isn’t our savior! She’s our undoing!”

Nick growled and pulled away, his blood spilling down his cheek as his eyes exuded sapphire light.

“We can be in the dark together!”

Nick narrowed his eyes. I can’t… I have to find that gate… He kicked the shadowy demon forcefully and it tumbled to the ground in a heap.

“Escaping? You’ll never save her from yourself!” It struggled to rise from the ground, clenching its claws into the aged stone.

He leapt over the shadowy demon and began running to the back of the room.

“This is how it starts… We’ll die in the darkness together!” The psychotic smirk became a psychotic laugh.

Nick came to a stop in front of the smaller gated door. He clenched the bars in his fists and tried to shatter them with his grip, but they remained intact.

The shadowy demon snaked its arms around his waist, then leaned in and whispered in his ear. “Trying to use your physical strength to break them? You’re a useless liability. Are you even a cardinal demon?”

Nick gripped the bars tighter, but instead of shattering the bars, the blazing sapphire light licked at his skin again.

The shadowy demon pulled him back toward the mist and darkness. “In the dark, no one sees that you’re a monster.”

Nick released his grip on one of the bars and put his hand to his heart. It flickered with light, but fizzled quickly.

The shadow demon smirked psychotically again. “A weak cardinal demon trying to call the light in the darkness? Your lack of control poisoned you, me, and her.”

Nick clenched both fists tightly as his wings flared, the sapphire light consuming his sight and engulfing his skin in flames. He turned back toward the shadow demon and thrust his hand around its neck.

The shadow demon began laughing, low at first, but increasingly louder and more maniacal. “Let the darkness consume you!”

Nick tightened his grip on the shadow demon’s neck, then froze, distracted by a brief glint on his hand.

“Succumb to the dark!”

Nick turned his hand and wiggled his fingers, examining the glint. My… He pulled his hand from the shadow demon’s neck and cradled it in his other hand. My ring... He fiddled with it briefly and exhaled as though he hadn’t realized he was holding his breath. Minako… He closed his eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply as he continued to fiddle with the ring. When he opened his eyes, the whites and irises flashed sapphire, then his own blue eyes shone through with a deep sapphire tint. He put his hand to his chest. Calm… I’m… calm? He snapped his fingers and a bright beam of light burst from them, causing him to flinch and jump backward. The beam fizzled and disappeared.

The shadow demon mimicked him, though it gaped as its breathing quickened.

Nick narrowed his eyes. “I’m not you. I will never go back to the darkness.” He turned back to the bars, quickly snapping his fingers again. Once the beam of light burst from his hand, he gripped it and dragged it through them. He then kicked the bars at the fracture, shattering them under the weight of his foot. He ran through the hole in the broken bars and down the endless corridor.

“She’ll never be there!” The voice of the shadow demon shrieked behind him. “She’ll never wake up and save you!”

Nick ran faster, his footsteps pounding down the hall. She will always wake up! She’s been there before! Always waiting to find me! He darted into the endlessly dark and empty room. This is where they turned to stone… Ashley, the Ruby demons, the Pandoras, my friends… He clenched his fists. I won’t turn to stone. I have to keep running. No matter how dark. No matter how far. “Minako!” She will always save me!

“My precious Nickolas, you’ll die here…”

Not the shadowy demon. He froze as he came face-to-face with the glowing red eyes. Not Ashley either… This is that false God… Why is it back here? He turned back the direction he had been running as he leaped and dodged fragments of stone. Ahead of him, a bright sapphire light illuminated the darkness. He flapped his wings and launched himself from the ground, soaring toward the light in the never ending dark. Once he reached it, he perched on top of the glowing casket and peered in. Faint bursts of sapphire light… slowly gathering into the shape of a person? Minako!

“Sweet pet, you have found her again? What can mere children do?”

I’m not… He shook his head. Again… This has happened before… He gripped his fist at his heart. I have to... I have to hurry… I have to hurry and she’ll… He gripped his hands on the casket as they glowed with a bright and vibrant light. He scraped his hands against it, then flattened them, pouring the light into the casket. Minako! Hurry and come out! I’ll give you everything I have! Help me!

“My darling, Nickolas, you are too late!”

A burst of red light pierced Nick in the chest, stabbing him with hot energy and pushing him back from his perch on the casket. As he fell, he reached back toward the casket. Minako! Save me...

He gasped and bolted upright then put one hand to his chest and gulped air as he gripped the thick linens of the bed with the other. He whirled his head from side to side as he scanned the room before collapsing back to the mat beneath him.

He chuckled nervously. “It’s not the castle… We’re still at Brian’s family’s house… That dream felt… Real…” He put his hand to his head. Over and over again, I keep remembering the castle… Because… everyone was there… I’ve been there with us and them… The castle on the mountain… Back when Brian said he was from the mountains in Safaiananpou, I thought I would like to see them. It’s… different than what I expected… But I remembered that word… Mountain… Why? Because I’d already been there? Or did I try to make myself remember it?

“Sweet pet, you have found her again? What can mere children do?”

The false God, always calling me those sickening names… How could I find her again… What did it say when we were there the last time?


~*~



The robed figure put his hand to his hood momentarily. “There is one casket that I think may interest you again...”

“Casket? Again? What do you mean?!” Nick growled.

The robed figure extended its hand from its side and curled its fingers, as though it reached toward one particular casket and pulled it from the wall.

Nick eyed the caskets closest to him. Slumbering bodies resided within the slender boxes: some almost fully formed, some in pieces, some faint glimmers of light shaped like a person. Nick clenched his fists and turned back to the robed figure. “Casket… Are you saying these bodies are dead to this world?!”

The robed figure’s voice seemed to smirk. “Would you like to see the casket I am presenting you with?” In the distance, one of the caskets gleamed with a brief light.

Nick stepped back and growled.

“My precious Nickolas, I am merely trying to do a service for you. Will you refuse my trust?”

Nick growled and ran toward the casket, his left side seemed to limp beneath the strain of his wounds. He stumbled to the ground as he ran, his body collapsing each moment, yet, he continuously pulled himself up as he ran and reached toward the casket.

“Can you not stand, sweet pet?”

Nick growled.

“Let me give you some assistance.” The robed figure extended his hand toward the casket once more, curling his fingers more forcefully. The blackened box cascaded from its shelf and hurtled into Nick. He crumpled beneath its weight and fell to the ground.

“Is that all your strength?”

Nick pushed the casket away from his weak, limp body before examining its contents. He placed his hand atop the clear casing of the lid. Upon peering inside, his eyes grew wide and his heart raced. The innards of the box emitted a faint sapphire glow. Nick’s voice lowered in pitch. “Is this… Safaiananpou?”

~*~



I thought it was for Safaiananpou, but… It was Minako… Again… Did I… did I already know she was there? Did I know the box was there?

Minako! Hurry and come out! I’ll give you everything I have! Help me!

Did I… try to do that before?
He sat up, raising his knees to his chest and gripping them tightly. That dream… it felt as real as that memory… Just like that dream about the sad house… And my dream where I was calling for Minako when I didn’t remember… Are all my dreams memories? Are they seeping from the darkness? He leaned his head against his knees. I… I can’t wallow here… I have to do something. He stood quickly, stomped to the door and pulled it open forcefully before slamming it behind him and stomping to the middle of the three doors in their alcove. As he slammed his fist into it, the banging echoed throughout the hall.

It swung open quickly, revealing Brian standing in the frame, his eyes wide and his hand splayed against his chest. “Nick! Are you okay?!”

Nick pulled his hand back from the door. “How… how far are we from Aohouseki?”

Brian put his hand to his chin. “A two day hike? Maybe three?”

“How far if we fly? Or if you use your barrier?”

“Flying… probably still a day…” Brian frowned. “What do you need there?”

Nick lowered his head. “We can’t be gone for a day… I promised...” He clenched his fist lightly as he looked back up at Brian. “But, I need to go!”

Brian gripped his staff and nodded. “I can try to get a barrier there for you if you need it. What’s going on?”

Nick frowned. “Were you going somewhere? I don’t want to interrupt you…”

“Just using this time to visit some family and friends while we’re here.” He put his hand to Nick’s shoulder. “It’s fine, they’re not expecting me and they’re probably busy anyway. Are you okay though? You look worried...”

“I just wanted to… ” His shoulders hunched. “I wanted to say goodbye… Properly… Can you help me?”

Brian beamed at him gently. “I would be honored.”

“Is… Minako back? She said she would come back to me first…” He fiddled with his ring.

Brian shook his head. “I haven’t seen her. If she said she would come back to you first, she would have come back to you first.”

Nick frowned. “O-kay… I wanted her to… Next time…”

Brian patted Nick’s shoulder, then pulled him into a hug. “There’s always time. We’ll make sure they’re at peace. Whenever you’re ready.”

Nick took a shaky breath and returned Brian’s hug as he closed his eyes. He breathed calmly in his embrace for a few moments before nodding his head. “Ready.”

~*~



Nick and Brian pushed aside the hanging vines and entered the clearing. As they walked, Nick hung his head, cradling a few large, mostly spherical stones tightly in his arms while his hands shook. Brian shrank back and raised his elbow to his face, his hand clenched tightly around a similar stone, as he tightened his grip on his staff with the other hand.

“Say something…” Nick mumbled meekly.

Brian coughed. “Nick…” He leaned against him. “I’m sorry… it just… It’s suffocating here, like the miasma around the castle, even with the flowers…”

They descended down the slope of the crater. Nick shuffled through the grass and flowers as Brian stepped gingerly over the flower patches.

Brian frowned. “Let’s clear the air here for them…” He paused at the floor of the crater and stared after Nick, who kept shuffling up the next slope.

“Brian?” Nick glanced back.

“Nick… this is… massive…”

He stopped and shook his head. “I have no idea how I did it… Can I even do something like this?”

Brian jogged over to him and stopped in front of him. “Nick… You were alone and scared. When we are threatened, our powers are often boundless.”

He exhaled forcefully. “But they weren’t in the castle?”

“It’s difficult to be infallible when all demons involved feel threatened.” Brian shook his head and glanced away. “Or when you’re more worried about protecting others over yourself.”

Nick laughed darkly. “You’re saying I should be dead.”

“Nick…” Brian frowned, but then pursed his lips before chuckling. “You’ve proven many times that you don’t plan on dying.”

Nick tensed and clutched the stones tighter. “Does anyone?”

Brian smirked. “I meant in the face of certain death.”

He shook his head and shuffled past Brian as he spoke with a biting tone. “Justin doesn’t get to decide how I die.” He continued to trudge up the slope of the crater and stopped about halfway up. He set down the stones and sat in the grass.

Brian followed him up the slope and set down his stone as well before putting his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Nick…”

Nick’s shoulders trembled as he turned to look up at him, tears spilling from his eyes. “It still hurts… It’s not like when Minako and I first came here when I had no idea why I was sad, but… it still hurts…”

Brian sat beside him and pulled him into a tight hug.

“Brian?”

“It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by all of it. Just because you understand doesn’t mean you need to feel any less sad.”

Nick wiped his sleeve across his face, though tears still streamed down his cheeks afterward, and reciprocated Brian’s hug. “Thank you for coming with me. Let’s send them on their way. They’re ready.”

“As long as you’re ready.” Brian patted Nick’s shoulder and stood. He tapped his staff on the ground three times, then bowed and clapped his hands before joining them in prayer.

Nick stood as well and mimicked Brian’s actions with his hands. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready, but it’s time and they don’t deserve to linger here.

Brian pulled a small jug from his tunic and removed the stopper. He began pacing over the ground and pouring out drops of water from the jug as he walked and whispered a prayer. When the jug was empty, he returned to Nick’s side, placed the stopper back in the jug and returned it to his tunic. He nodded at Nick.

Nick pulled a small wrap from his tunic and opened it, revealing two small fish and some soy beans. He kneeled down and laid it on the ground, spreading the corners of the wrap flat. “I’m sorry this is late…” he whispered solemnly. He stood and wiped his sleeve across his face again, willing the tears to stop pouring from his eyes. I’m so sorry. If I had been a moment sooner, if I hadn’t left that day… I could have helped. I know this will never be enough, but… I hope it helps you find peace.

Brian bowed, then picked up one stone and placed it on the ground about seven feet from where Nick had placed the offering. Nick bowed, then picked up two stones and placed them on the ground near the first stone, creating a row. They added the last three stones to the row, then stepped back toward the offering. Brian then pulled six incense sticks each tied with a small white banner from his tunic and handed a few of them to Nick. They both bowed, then placed them in the ground in front of each stone before returning to stand beside the offering.

Brian nodded at Nick. “Are you ready?”

Nick lowered his head and fiddled with his ring. “I wish Minako was here…” So they could meet once...

Brian pat Nick’s shoulder. “We’ll make more time again.”

Nick closed his eyes as he fiddled with his ring again and took a few more deep breaths. He then placed his hands to his chest as his palms glowed. He bowed, then walked back toward the incense and pulled his palms out from his chest, revealing a handful of small orbs. He placed one orb on each of the sticks, which ignited and smoked as he walked to the next one. When he had placed all six, he returned to Brian, who bowed, then held his hands in prayer. Nick mimicked him but kept his head lowered.

“Solar demons, the eldest son presents you with offerings to light your way. Find peace.”

The flames on the incense flickered and danced as the smoke whispered into the air.

“Find peace,” Nick whispered solemnly. I hope my small powers are enough to send you on your way, to make this place less horrible. I promise you, I’ll do everything I can to uphold our legacy and become a strong celestial demon. I’ll keep trying… And then maybe I can always light your way in the darkness...

End Notes:
I loved coming up with a list of words that were reminiscent of sex and food. So twisted, haha.

Nick's dream is pulling a little from PBox's Chapter Forty-Four "Disciple" and Chapter Forty-Five "God" if you felt like revisiting them. But then again, it's PBox, so it's possible it's a "dream" and a memory.
Chapter Twenty-Four: Exchange by nicksgal
Minako ran down the hall toward the familiar rooms, then pushed open the door to their room quickly, her pulse racing.

“Nick!”

But when she stepped through the doorway, the only sound in the room was her quick breathing. She scanned the sparse room, only seeing the familiar bedding, altar, shelf, and mirror. But no Nick. She frowned. I wonder where he went? Is he okay?

She turned back to the door and shut it as she reentered the hall. At the same moment, Howie opened the door to his room.

“Oh, Minako. Are you well?” His bright smile lit up the hallway.

She inhaled deeply, then returned his smile with her own. “Howie, how are you? Has your day been fun?”

“It has been quite enjoyable. We examined our plans and then Elder Virgil loaned us a book detailing military strategies through history.”

Minako laughed. “Howie, it’s a day off. You’re working.”

“His Majesty’s work is never complete.” He winked before scanning her quickly, then pressed his lips together. “Though, it seems you also have an agenda today.”

“I just told Nick I would find him when I came back.” Minako quickly stared at her toes as she breathed audibly.

Howie chuckled. “We will not pry.”

Minako glanced up at him. “Since Nick’s not here, maybe we can finish our conversation from yesterday…”

“What was it you called it? The power to create things?”

She nodded.

He patted her shoulder. “Walk with us.”

“Howie--”

As she spoke, he removed his hand and began walking down the corridor. Minako blinked, then jogged to catch up with him. They walked down the corridor in silence, their footsteps against the stone echoing around them.

What are you going to tell me Howie? What kind of power is the power to create things? Is it something you used at the castle? Or can you only use it while preparing for fights? She frowned. Will it be okay if I’m the only one who knows about them?

As they reached the fork in the corridor, she peered down it as they continued walking straight. Madeline’s back with Eric… I wonder what Ashley and Jacob did with their day… Do they know we took a break or do they think they’re still being snubbed? How much longer can we keep working without them? She glanced back at Howie. I wonder why he’s so quiet. What’s he going to say? She held her hand against her chest, trying to stretch out the tightness within it.

As they walked through the bustling main room of the cavern, the figures and movement around her blurred. I wonder where Nick went… Her heart rippled in her chest and she smiled. I didn’t expect to be with Howie after my talk with Madeline. I really thought I would see Nick and we would… She shook her head and glanced at Howie again.

He continued to walk silently through the corridors with his head held high and his shoulders taut.

It’s strange… Howie’s about as tall as I am, but you’d never know it because of how he carries himself. He’s always so calm and collected, no matter what we’re dealing with. Even when Nick’s yelling, he’s always peaceful. Howie, you always do your best to keep us together. I wish I could be more like you… composed when we’re in danger. I’m always in my head…

Howie stopped in front of the crevice for the arena and gestured toward the opening. “After you, Minako.”

Minako froze. “Howie, why the arena?”

“There is some danger in using our powers when others are close. Safety is our utmost priority.”

Minako frowned, but tiptoed through the crevice and Howie followed behind her.

Once they emerged in the large room, Howie drew his sword from the scabbard and raised it in front of him. The flat face of the blade shielded his face as a gust of wind swirled around him. The light in the room glinted off his sword and the bright wind, but when the breeze dissipated, it reflected off the sapphire tint in his eyes. His horns nestled in his dark hair and his wings and tail sprung from his back. He thrust his sword back into his scabbard with his clawed hands.

Minako stepped toward him as she held her hands clasped at her chest. “Howie… I’ve never seen your demonic form before. Your eyes turn blue...” She glanced at his sword. “Does the sword have something to do with your powers?”

He smiled and patted her shoulder again. “It is related to our powers, but it does not control them. Rather, it is similar to AJ’s earrings or Brian’s staff. It assists us in centering ourselves as we prepare to use them.”

Minako pressed her lips together. “Does Kevin have anything like that?”

Howie bent down and picked up a rock from the ground. “Perhaps. He has not clearly mentioned what it might be.”

“Nick doesn’t… does he?”

Howie clenched the rock. “It is unlikely as he still has trouble accessing his powers.”

“I thought they were inside all of you. That’s why Grandfather told Nick to breathe, because celestial demons like the passage of time.”

“That is also correct. An object is not required, but many demons do prefer having an object that connects them to themselves.”

She grabbed his bicep. “I want to make Nick something like that. Something that can help him be stronger and stay himself.” She lowered her head. “When we were in the castle… I was... useless until we actually got the box…”

He cupped her shoulder again and his fangs glinted with his warm smile. “You were ill prepared to battle demons or swords.”

Minako laughed. “Even when you tried to give me your dagger, all I did was drop it once Brian closed us in his barrier. I’m so sorry!”

“That is a price of battle. We own many daggers; they are easily replaced, you are not.”

She frowned as she grabbed both of his arms. “Neither are you! Neither are any of you! And I don’t know why I have this power still… Madeline said she doesn’t.” Her head sank again. “I’d rather use it to help all of you than keep it…”

Howie pressed his lips together as he held both of her shoulders in quiet response.

“Howie?”

“We are pleased that you are interested in our powers, but worry you are ill prepared for possible consequences.”

Minako frowned. “Like getting hurt? Nick will…”

Howie pulled back and walked toward one of the torches lighting the arena. With his free hand, he reached beneath his tunic and pulled a dagger from beside his thigh. With gentle precision, he slit his pinky with the blade as he continued grasping the rock.

“Howie!” Minako rushed toward him.

He hid the dagger back in his tunic, then thrust his flat palm toward her. “Stay back. Do not be drawn into the exchange.”

She froze and hid her mouth behind shaking hands. “Exchange?”

Howie held his empty palm toward the flame and a sparkling sapphire glow surrounded it. He cupped the flame, drawing a small portion of it into his hand. As he turned back toward Minako, he held the rock and flame in his flat palms.

“Howie?”

“In order to use what you called the power to create things, there is a variable cost. Simple things require little cost. Complicated things require great cost.” He hefted both hands to lift the rock and the flame. “Here are two simple things, a rock and a flame. For this demonstration, we will show you a simple thing. You noticed that we cut our finger, that was in order to prepare the cost.” He rolled the rock against his pinky, smearing the blood across it, before shutting his eyes. A bright sapphire glow surrounded his hands as he brought them together, cupping both the flame and the rock between his palms.

A loud pop echoed in the room and Minako covered her ears.

Howie smiled and opened his hands, revealing a small sheet of metal.

Minako stepped toward him. “You… made the metal?”

“For a small cost, rocks and fire make metal.”

“Your finger… Did you guess that cutting your finger would be the cost?”

“We have made metal many times. We are aware that a small amount of blood can be exchanged for a small amount of metal.”

“You keep saying small…” She frowned. “What happens if you need to make something bigger or more complicated out of metal?”

“More complicated things require greater cost.”

“Complicated like larger sheets of metal?” She cocked her head. “So you did create the scale! Did you make bigger sheets of metal and take it to someone who makes things out of metal?”

“The powers of our clan require a cost, but are not limited to the size of simple things.”

“You made it on your own! Did you know the cost for it before you started making it? Was it a lot of blood?”

He glanced away from her and stared at the smooth surface of the small piece of metal in his hand. “Blood is a simple exchange for simple things. Little is required for something small. As things become complex, more complicated exchanges are required. Some things have been passed through the generations, but others have not. Like the orbs we provided for you.”

“Because you never needed to find the demons before? What was the cost for that?”

He smiled, though it was tinged with sadness. “The ability to journey with you and Nick.”

“Howie… But, you joined us at the gate!”

“You traded the orb for my presence."

She pressed her lips together. "And the scale?”

"Our ability to call you into this world and to our location. You needed to find us on your own."

As she walked toward him, she cupped her hands at her heart. “Howie… But those are intangible things. How can an intangible thing be exchanged for something tangible?” After reaching him, she cupped his hands.

He smiled as he pulled back from her, then sat on his knees. He placed the metal beside him and patted the ground next to him.

Minako sat. Her eyebrows knitted together as she furrowed her brow. “We’re about to have a complicated conversation?”

Howie chuckled. “Perhaps.” He grasped Minako’s hand. “Did Nick tell you anything about demonic powers?”

She shook her head. “Just that he thought whatever my powers are could help him control his… I don’t know how though…”

“Demonic powers are tied closely to the soul: natural, spiritual, and corporeal. Stronger demons access all these pieces of the soul when they utilize their powers.”

“But a soul isn’t tangible either… That’s why you like physical things? To tie yourself to your body?”

“Our Pandora’s ability to interpret information is astounding, as always.”

“So… you’re saying…” She held her hand to her face as she pressed her lips together. “When you’re focusing on intangible things, those physical things keep you in the present… And the more intangible the thing you want is, the more it requires an intangible thing in exchange…”

“Correct.”

“Howie! Is there something you could make that would take away all of you?”

He glanced at the metal. “Perhaps. Our clan has not documented such things.” He smiled at her. “However, we would do our utmost to only exchange for things that have finite costs.”

Minako frowned. “Why did you choose your sword for a physical object?”

“The choice of physical object is extremely personal. Why do you suppose AJ chose his earrings?”

Minako leaned back on her hands and stared up at the ceiling. “I guess… since his body changes, he’d want something tangible attached to it… He still had them even when he pretended to be Nick.”

“And Brian’s staff?”

“His grandfather has one too. Is it something his clan ties to their spirituality?”

Howie smiled. “Perhaps.”

She glanced at Howie’s sword. “You said you enjoyed swordplay for fun…”

“We do.”

“And this power to create things doesn’t seem like it’s something that’s always useful in the middle of a fight.”

“That is often the case.”

She leaned toward him. “So a sword is also useful if you learn how to use it… Did your father teach you how to use a sword? Was it something you did together?”

“You are correct, Minako.”

“You mention things you did with your father. Is your mother the one who liked literature?”

Howie smiled, but his gaze was distant and glassy.

She frowned. "Howie… your sword… did you and your father make that together?"

He smiled at it as he gripped the hilt gingerly. "Correct."

"With help from a sword maker... or with your powers?"

As he glanced at her, his eyebrows knitted, but he continued to smile. "Minako… You seem curious about the cost. We do not mind if you ask directly." He leaned his head back and took a deep, wistful breath as he stared up at the ceiling. "To create this sword together with our father, the cost for the exchange was the feelings we both held for our mother."

"You don't remember your mom anymore?"

"She… existed… However, the familial love we feel when remembering our father is absent when we think of her."

Minako gasped and threw her splayed hand in front of her mouth.

He put his hand to her shoulder. "It is a condition our clan prepares for. Our father's sword was created with a similar cost. The women who join our clan typically die young, the cost of a life for a new life takes its toll on them."

Minako pulled away from him as she stood quickly. The women in Howie’s clan always die! And they forget them for swords?! Her stomach churned as she buried her face in her hands.

"If this has placed any doubts in your mind, we suggest you speak with Nick before deciding if this is the correct choice for your powers." He smiled warmly as he stared up at her.

She backed away from him, then turned and ran from the arena. Her surroundings were a constant blur as her thoughts raced like her feet.

In order for Howie to be born, his father knew his mother would die! Every time he creates something, he has to give up something else! Everything has to be exchanged! If I tried to help, I would have to lose something too! All from the very simple want to help Nick! It’s just like the box all over again! Nothing that seems simple is actually simple! And Howie seemed so sad when he was so serious! Like he knew that I would be afraid of everything once he told me! And I just ran away! That has to be why he’s been so secretive! He’s worried about how we’d react! Is he tired of all of it being a secret? He has to know that once I say anything to Nick, he’ll get really upset! Is he trying to keep us going forward? And I’m just running away from him like he’s hurt me! Howie…

Minako collided with something and fell backward. She threw her hands in front of her face. “Sorry!”

“Minako?” The calm, familiar voice seemed to smile at her.

“Brian?”

When she spread her fingers, she stared up into his smiling blue eyes.

“Are you okay?” He reached down to her and when she grasped his hand, he pulled her up. “Your face is really pale…”

Her hand shook as he gripped it. “Brian, I’m--”

“Nick?” Brian frowned and turned over his shoulder.

She followed his gaze -- Nick shuffled toward them, hanging his head. Minako pulled from Brian’s grasp and stopped in front of Nick, reaching a hand out toward him. “Nick…”

He looked up and smiled warmly. “Minako.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her. “Nick!”

“I’m back. Found you.” He smiled as he leaned his head on her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her waist.

She exhaled a shaky breath and nodded against his chest, tightening the wrap of her arms around his neck.

“I just went to say goodbye... Brian really…” He pulled back and frowned. “...helped. Minako?”

Tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Don’t feel guilty! I wanted you to come, but you weren’t back yet. We’ll go again…”

“Nick, I would have gone. I’m sorry…”

“I know you would have. It’s really okay.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “You were already upset before... Did Madeline say something about Ashley? Did Ashley say something?”

She shook her head. “Howie…”

Brian cupped their shoulders. “Howie? That doesn’t seem like him…”

“I told him I wanted to help. Like how I can make those little barriers like you... Nick, I thought maybe I could also try to use Howie’s power to create things and help make something for you like AJ’s earrings or your staff or his…” She hunched her shoulders as she glanced at the ground. Tears dripped down her cheeks again. What if whatever that thing is would take away part of Nick from me? I couldn’t let go of anything from him…

Nick held her chin and lifted her face. “I don’t need anything like that. I have you.” He swallowed. “You think that would help?”

Minako’s heart thudded in her chest. But if the cost… Nick… What will you say?

“The power to create things?” Brian frowned.

“Like that demon finding orb we had… Howie made it, but…” Her voice broke. “But because he made it, he wasn’t allowed to come with us until it was destroyed. He said, ‘The powers of our clan require a cost.’”

Nick bit his lip. “That sounds dangerous like Ashley’s power… When demons are powerful can they only be dangerous?”

Minako pulled him close again. “Nick! No, you’re not dangerous!”

Brian crossed his arms. “Howie rarely uses his powers. It’s unlikely that he’s trying to be dangerous if he’s actively hiding them… A cost…” His brow furrowed.

“But Ashley--” Nick started.

“Is manipulative, Nick. He used you and tried to attack Minako! Howie has only ever used his sword.” Brian frowned. “Minako, did he say what would happen if you helped him?”

"He didn't say for sure…” She lowered her head again. “But when I asked him about his sword he said he and his father did make it together with their powers, but that they had to exchange their feelings for Howie's mom to create it..."

"No." Nick’s hands flinched.

"Nick?"

"No!" He tightened his arms around her waist and held a hand firmly against her back, pulling her tightly to his chest. "Of course I want you to help any way you can, but…"

"Nick…" Brian cupped his shoulder again.

Nick shook his head, then leaned his head on hers as he clenched his eyes shut. "You can't!"

She buried her face in his chest.

"It would be different if it just meant your powers would be gone… But it sounds like his powers make you pay a lot to get anything!"

"But if you get stronger…" She gripped his tunic.

"I don't care! Not if you have to give up anything!"

"But what if it's only…"

"Howie's love for his mother?! His father's love for his wife?! For a sword?!" He wrapped his wings around her as he cupped the back of her head with his hand. "I don't want any object like that!"

"Nick…"

"Feelings for a sword?” Brian frowned. “I wonder why it's an intangible thing to get a tangible thing…"

Tears began streaming down Nick's face. "Dangerous powers like that could change you, Minako… I don't want you to change because something's forcing you to!"

"But Nick…"

He bit back his tears and buried his head against her shoulder. "And what if the cost they wanted was your feelings for me?!"

Brian patted Nick's shoulder. "It's possible the cost could be corrupted like that, but we can't assume it will be that."

"If there's even a chance, I don't want that! Minako..." He lifted his head as he brushed her hair behind her ear.

"Nick… I don't want that either..." She gripped his cheek and fixed her gaze on his.

"You can't… You have to stay!"

"Nick… okay, I promise. It’s always you and I."

Brian's brow furrowed. "I would like to hear more about Howie's powers. Maybe it's for the best that he told Minako." He pursed his lips. "I'll get Kevin, you go find AJ, and we'll meet Howie at the rooms." He patted Nick's shoulder. "See you soon!" He turned and headed toward the medical wing.

Nick hunched his shoulders as he held her tightly. "You're always helping me. It makes me happy, but having you here makes me happiest."

"Nick…"

"Your powers can help, but don't give them up to help. I'll always protect you. I swear."

End Notes:
I told you all that I would be revealing big secrets! Some insight into Howie's powers finally! What do you think? The power to create things seems a little different than Nick, Brian, Kevin, and AJ's powers. If you saw my little chat on the forums, I talked about how Howie would be the Hero role in a "typical" fantasy novel. So... I guess now the question is, what kind of role does Howie play in the bigger story of PBox&Co? Something fun to ponder.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Cost by nicksgal
Pounding rang across the corridor as Nick bashed the door in rapid succession, filling the silence with bursts of urgent noise.

Howie opened the door calmly with his typical warm smile on his face. “Have you enjoyed your time to rest?”

“What did you mean by ‘require a cost’?!” Nick dug his claws into the door and his face grew hot as he growled.

As Howie glanced past Nick to see the others crowded behind him in the corridor, his smile became a frown. Then he pushed the door open wider and turned back toward the table, revealing his wings resting against his back. “We suppose it is time we discussed the full extent of our powers.”

Minako brushed past Nick and followed Howie to the table, then reached out to him hesitantly. “Howie, I--”

He smiled, but his eyebrows pinched together. “An apology is unnecessary. We suggested that you speak to Nick if you felt any doubt, then prepared for this outcome.”

Nick stormed into the room. “Howie! Stop avoiding my question!”

He gestured to the table. “Sit.”

“Don’t calmly tell me to do things! What did you mean by ‘require a cost’?!” Nick bared his teeth, his fangs curling over his lips.

“Howie… I’m also concerned about how you get tangible things from intangible things.” Brian sat at the table and held his hand to Nick’s shoulder. “Nick, I know you’re mad, but you have to give him a chance to tell us. He can’t get a word in if you keep shouting.”

Obviously Brian’s right, but… Nick growled again.

Howie gestured to the table again. AJ tiptoed over to it and sat beside Brian, then fiddled with his sleeves as his gaze darted between the three of them. Kevin glanced at Nick, then sat at Brian’s other side as he folded his arms and pressed his lips into a thin line.

How could he agree if it’s dangerous?! Nick stormed toward the table, then plummeted to the chair beside Kevin, curling into himself and crossing his arms deeply as he bristled. Nothing bad can happen to them! He alternated between glowering at Howie and monitoring Minako. He should have said no!

Howie glanced at his cut pinky as he brushed a pebble on the table into his hand, then smiled at Minako as she finally sat beside Nick.

“Howie…” She reached her hand out to him again.

He smiled warmly as he held her hand gently. “It is time, Minako. Truthfully, we are relieved.” He glanced at the flame on the wall beside the table, then released his hold on her hand and held his empty palm toward the flame. When the sparkling sapphire glow surrounded it, he pinched the flame between his fingers and pulled a small bit toward his body.

“Wait, Howie!” Nick flung out his hand. When he glanced at the others’ surprised faces, he flinched, then yanked his hand back and folded into his crossed arms again. I’m still mad at you, but… you need to stay safe too.

“We are unharmed, Nick, though we appreciate your concern.” He laughed quietly. “Would you prefer we explain first or would you like to see?”

Nick bit his lip, but glanced at the ground as he felt the tips of his ears grow hot.

Kevin glanced at Brian and AJ. “Show us.”

“Unless it hurts you.” AJ frowned as he drummed his hands on the table.

Howie held out the pebble and pinched flame. His eyes glimmered in its light. “We appreciate your concern for our health, but we will be fine. Minako, you have already seen this, would you confirm?”

Minako lowered her head and nodded, peeking at Nick from the corner of her eye.

Kevin patted AJ’s hand. “I would help him if he needed it.”

AJ exhaled quickly as he smiled at Kevin, then fixed his gaze on Howie.

Nick scanned the others’ faces. They’re focused on Howie… He gripped his fingers around Minako’s hand. But you’re only worried about me. That must mean Howie will be okay. He tightened the wrap of his hand around hers.

“As we cut our finger earlier to demonstrate this for Minako, this version will be smaller to avoid further injury.” Howie rolled the pebble against his pinky as he stepped back from the table until he stood in the center of the room. “Simple things, such as this demonstration, require little cost. Complicated things require great cost.” He shut his eyes and a bright sapphire glow surrounded his hands as he pressed the pinch flame into his palm with the rock and closed his hand, then cupped his free hand over it.

Minako yanked her hand from Nick’s, then hurriedly covered her ears.

Nick cocked his head as he continued to stare at her. Huh? A loud pop echoed across the room and Nick flinched, then whirled his head toward Howie with wide eyes.

As Howie walked back to the table, an enigmatic smile crossed his face.

“Howie…” Brian frowned.

Howie sat in the chair between Minako and AJ, then uncupped his hands and set the minuscule sheet of metal on the table. He leaned back, resting his hands in his lap as he surveyed the others.

AJ gaped with wide eyes, leaning his palms on the edge of the table as his gaze darted between Howie and the metal. Kevin leaned forward, but kept his arms crossed. Minako glanced between Howie’s hesitant smile and Nick’s shadowed grimace, then patted Howie’s hand before lacing her fingers through Nick’s again. He squeezed her hand tightly.

“Grandfather didn’t say much about your powers… But I’ve always felt a void…” Brian leaned forward and tentatively reached for the metal, grabbing it after Howie nodded. He held it up to his face, examining it as he brushed his thumb across the smooth face.

“Minako, what did you call it?” Howie cupped her free hand. “The power to create things?”

Minako nodded.

“That is a simplistic way to describe it, rather it is the power to create things from other things, alchemy. However, alchemy requires an exchange for the combined item. For metal, rocks and fire can be combined with a small amount of blood.”

Brian gasped as he clenched the metal tightly. “I’ve heard of that! You can make fantastic things out of ordinary things, like gold from iron!”

Howie chuckled. “We try not to focus our energies on such trivial things, especially when that excess amount of gold would lead Safaiananpou into economic ruin.” He lightly fingered the pommel of his sword. “But when it is not currency…”

Nick snarled as he glared at Howie. “Why don’t you tell them about your sword...” An object more important than remembering someone...

“Our clan tries to only use our powers when necessary. So to compensate, we also focus our attention and energies on physical strength and swordsmanship.” Howie drew his sword and lightly ran the blade against his hand. “All children create weapons with their parents--”

Nick sneered. “And?”

Howie pressed his lips together as he gazed directly into Nick’s searing stare.

He bit his lip as he averted his gaze to the ground. I shouldn’t have interrupted...

“Nick, you seem to be masking your fear with anger. We understand that you are trying and do not mind if you express your concern exactly.” Howie smiled at the sword as he set it on the table gently, fixing his gaze on it. “We created this sword with our father using both our powers, but the price for the sword was the feelings we both held for our mother. She exists in our memory, of course, but we feel nothing, unlike our memories of our father which brim with emotions.”

Nick slammed his hand on the table. “How could you even think of letting Minako participate in that?!”

“Nick…”

“Don’t tell me to calm down! Why would you let Minako help with that?!” He stood quickly, pulling his hand from Minako’s and clenching his fists.

“She inquired, but… You are correct of course.” Howie glanced at the ground.

Nick growled.

“Nick…” Minako put her hand on Nick’s elbow.

His eyebrows pinched as he sank in the chair, then furrowed his brow as he fiddled with his ring. There’s nothing in this world… nothing in any world… more important than remembering you. Forgetting anyone is… He swallowed.

At the same time Minako rested her hand on Nick’s knee, Brian patted his shoulder and set the small metal piece back on the table.

The tension in Nick’s face relaxed as he exhaled, but he continued to fiddle with his ring.

Kevin rested his elbows on the table, then laced his fingers and leaned on his hands. “Have you used your powers recently?”

“Only a few times.” Howie leaned back in his chair. “The orbs I gave Minako... and the scale.”

“I always assumed it didn’t just judge hearts.” Kevin smirked as his eyes gleamed.

AJ leaned forward and glanced at Kevin as he picked up the small piece of metal. “Kevin, you never said… how did you end up at the gate?”

Kevin frowned as he pressed his chin into his hands. “In the midst of the siege, my Master placed me with a trusted friend who was a human. He intended to return, but then he was killed. My Master’s friend only agreed to continue to train me as long as I concealed my demonic appearance. However, by suppressing my demonic aura, I could no longer use my powers to heal.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “While both demonic and human healing methods have been useful in my practice, there are far more limitations to human healing methods. There was one day…” He narrowed his eyes and his gaze became glassy. ”We had a patient who couldn’t be healed with human methods. My new mentor insisted that these things happened, but my heart was breaking for the child’s screaming, begging mother and the child who had only just begun to live… I knew that I could save that child and extend its life…” He shut his eyes. “So I unleashed my powers to give it that small chance to exist in the world.”

“You did a noble thing.” Brian cupped his hand on Kevin’s shoulder.

Kevin smirked again and chuckled derisively. “Ah yes, humans will focus on the nobility and not the demonic.”

“Kevin?” AJ patted Kevin’s shoulder as well.

“After discovering that I was a demon, they planned on killing me, but, thankfully, my new mentor insisted that I was taken to the palace for judgement. The king never saw me and didn’t kill me, of course.” He glanced at Howie. “I thought it was strange at the time, but it makes sense now. Of course Howie would never kill another cardinal demon. Instead, he ordered me to be placed at the gate with the scales to judge the hearts of passersby. But… I was told that the scale was only for women.”

“In order for the item we planned to create to function properly, we needed a demon who could remove a heart without killing and heal a body when the organ was replaced. It was fortuitous, actually, and even more so because the demon that appeared in the palace ‘healed with pale blue light’ according to the citizens.”

“It wasn’t just the power to judge hearts? That would be too simple.” Brian frowned and furrowed his brow. “Did it actually hold the power to seek out the purity inherent in Pandoras? If it was for that and not judging hearts, then of course it would only work for women…”

“Correct.”

Kevin smirked. “I always suspected that to be true, because who else would need a gate without papers? What women would travel across countries? As AJ said, most people, women or otherwise, would hardly leave their homes in a world of war unless they needed to.”

AJ frowned. “But then they would have papers.”

Howie averted his gaze to the ground. “Correct.”

“What was the cost for that?” Nick grimaced as he fiddled with his ring. You and your father were willing to forget your mother for a sword… What would you pay to have something that could find Minako?

“When we provided the orbs for Minako, we gave up our ability to journey with you until they were destroyed. As we said, more complicated things require greater cost. Unlike with our practiced simple things, we often do not know this cost before beginning the exchange unless our ancestors had requested similar things. For the scale, that cost was…” He swallowed and fixed his gaze on Nick. “...Our ability to call and search for Pandora. When we all desperately called together, surely she would hear our prayers and descend. However, would the calling be loud enough when we lost our ability to assist? Suddenly, we depended on one of you to find her and then seek us out in the palace.”

Nick frowned as his stomach sank. “Howie…”

He smiled. “Thank you, Nick for coming to us.” He glanced at the ground again. “However, our Pandora did not descend when Topaz and Ruby appeared, so we fear the calling was merely a whisper.”

Kevin leaned his elbows on the table again and then rested his chin on his tented hands. “I also stopped calling. When I started to suspect that the scale was for finding our Pandora, I put my faith in it and the hope that she would happen to appear to it eventually. When Ruby and Topaz appeared, that only strengthened my belief in the scale, but not my own voice and spirit.”

“Minako… AJ… Nick... I’m sorry…I also stopped calling.” Brian gazed at the stone walls around the room. “I knew that even if it was horrible in the world, it was likely that I would always have a safe and protected home to return to. I was never desperate to be saved…” He swallowed forcefully. ”Which seems callous to say in light of everyone’s tragedies...”

Howie glanced between AJ and Nick. “It seems the strength of our calls only depended on the youngest demons’ hope and prayer.”

AJ briefly glanced at Nick, then fiddled with his sleeve as he stared at the ground. “Minako… Nick... I’m really sorry… With my family gone, I found a new family in the troupe and Joseph… And I believed it when my mentor convinced me you would never come, and that even if you did, that you weren’t interested in me for me, just me as a tool. So I lost hope, stopped trying, and accepted that being a sapphire demon didn’t matter.” He clenched his fists against his thighs. “Maybe if I hadn’t given up, if I kept hoping… You would have come sooner and I would have been stronger in the castle… I’m so sorry!” He clenched his eyes shut tightly.

“AJ, Brian, Kevin, Howie…” Minako clenched her hands at her heart. “It’s really okay. I’m happy that I was able to help and support you. I’m… sorry that I didn’t arrive before you felt like I was never coming. Really… I want to do anything you ask… anything you need.”

Nick clenched his fist and growled as his head sank. Just me… only me… Would I have waited as long if they’d been calling too?

AJ reached across the table and put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “It’s okay if you stopped too…”

Nick hunched his shoulders and swallowed. All alone in the dark… Screaming alone in the dark... “No… It was… all I did sometimes… Knowing you were all out there… waiting… was all I had… sometimes...” He glanced up at Howie. “Don’t… don’t make a single thing that would change any of you, including yourself...”

Minako put her hand to his cheek. “Nick…”

He gripped her hand as he locked his gaze on her eyes. “I can’t wait for you again. My heart would break.”

“Nick, I already promised you.” She brushed her thumb on his cheek. “I’ll always stay. You and me.”

He swallowed and exhaled a shaky breath, the moisture in his eyes glinting with light. That’s all I want. You and me and all of us.

“To the demon most desperate indeed…” Howie leaned back against his chair. “It is good fortune that we all had you to remain vigilant.”

Desperate… Nick’s heart sank into his stomach. I’m desperate when we were all waiting... He snorted, then glanced at the floor as he mumbled. “It’s easy to be the most desperate when no one else is at all.”

Brian stared at him intently and frowned. “Nick… You’re allowed to be mad. Just say so instead of being sarcastic.”

Nick slammed his hand on the table and pulled away from Minako as he stood. “Fine! I’m still angry that Howie would even consider involving Minako in powers like that! When she could forget us! Let alone whatever he would have to give up too! What kind of object is worth forgetting everyone you care about?! And then to hear that you all didn’t care if she came at all! Calling me desperate while you’re happy! I’m so…” He growled. “...frustrated… that we’re even having this conversation!”

“Nick…” Brian stood and reached his hand toward his shoulder.

Nick flinched backward, pushing his hand away. “You said that I’m allowed to be mad, Brian!” He turned away from the table and stormed back toward the door. “I’m going on a walk! Don’t follow me!”

~*~



Across from the craggy rock face, the sunset silhouetted the lone tree at the edge of the path before it met the sharp slope of the mountain. Nestled in its branches, Nick peered at the valley below him as shadows stretched into the vanishing rays, creating a glistening haze over the landscape.

As he held his hand to his chest, a small orb of light formed in his palm; after pulling his hand away, he peered at it, then flicked it to the barren ground beneath the tree. Its embers sparked and flared, then died down against the rock. He put his hand to his chest again, created another orb, then flicked it again. As he watched the landscape slowly fade into night, he continuously repeated this process, focusing on his thoughts filling the silence.

Does every strong demon constantly have to make decisions that affect other people? Do their powers only hurt constantly? I don't want to be that… At least Howie seemed sad that his powers could hurt everyone or himself… Ashley doesn’t seem to care… And Justin even less… If I became something that couldn’t see Minako... something that could hurt them… I would never forgive myself.

Howie said that my clan probably did care about the difference between creating and destroying… I wonder what they said to children who could only destroy… Were they shunned? If I could only destroy, would they accept me? What if I was dangerous when I was destructive? Would they help me? Everyone… Minako… Would you still accept me if my power could hurt you?


"You're just like Ashley, hiding in the treetops." The voice pierced through his thoughts.

He peered down toward the base of the tree and pressed his lips into a thin line. "Madeline…"

"Once you're in, they don't make it very easy to get out, do they?" She gestured to the two barrier demons resting against the rock next to the entrance’s crevice.

He glanced at the demons near the entrance, then stared back into the distance ahead of him. "It's fine. I just wanted some space and some fresh air…"

She put her hands to her hips. "You know your demon buddies can just fly up there and join you. Unless you meant space from your wife." She winked.

"Madeline, stop." Nick’s nose wrinkled as he frowned.

She crossed her arms. "You are touchy right now. Do you want someone to talk to who isn't knee deep in your business?"

Nick stared back down at her.

"You can say no. I just came out for some fresh air too."

"Okay." He jumped from the branch, using his wings to slow his fall, then sat on the ground next to the base of the tree, pulling his knees to his chest and resting his hands on them.

Madeline sat cross-legged beside him. "I'm surprised you all ever want space from each other, you're like grapes… all bunched up together." She imitated squishing her hands together.

"I was angry and it wasn't solving any problems to yell at them anymore." Nick leaned on his knees as he laughed quietly. “It never really does. I just…”

"I get it. We're all cooped up here, so tensions are high. Sorry Erik is taking so long to heal."

"It takes time. You don't need to apologize for that. I’m glad that Kevin can help him." He lifted his head and stared into the distance. "Hey… What was your relationship with Ashley really like? I know what I saw, but..."

Madeline laughed and held her forehead. “You and Minako need to stop talking to me and just solve your problems together.”

Nick cocked his head and blinked as he stared at her.

“She’s lucky. You’re very genuine and open in your feelings whenever she’s involved.” Madeline smiled wistfully, then put her hands in her lap. "I’m starting to think that maybe I always liked him more than he liked me… But I kept pushing so that we would work out. We struggled a lot over who was in charge, but I'm sure you remember that…"

Nick smirked. “Maybe that’s why your legends call you condescending, because you two were always arguing.”

A sad, short laugh escaped Madeline’s lips as she stared into the distance. “There were a lot of times it was bitter and angry, but there were many other times where it was fierce and passionate. To be honest, I loved fighting with him. It meant I got to prove that I was right.” She turned to Nick. “You and Minako don’t really fight, do you?”

“Not really…” He leaned back against the tree. “In the beginning, we argued more, but… No… I argued more. I wasn’t ready to fully trust or hope again… I was still fixated on thinking I was a monster. She just…” He held his breath for a moment, but an adoring smile formed on his lips as he exhaled. “She just smiled at me like I could have any feeling or any reaction and be only myself. I got to stop worrying about being a monster and got to be just Nick… And Nick could be… anyone I wanted and she would still smile at me. Everything felt easier after that, even when things were difficult.”

Madeline remained silent, as she scrunched her nose and cheeks.

“When we first came back here, we did fight... but we weren’t actually angry, we were sad… Once we talked everything out and committed to choosing each other while we kept our initial promise, things felt easier again.” He turned to Madeline and frowned. “You’re very quiet, but you’re making a face. What do you want to say?”

Madeline crossed her arms. “So many things, but I’m mostly happy that you were opening up to me, so I was just going to let you talk as long as you wanted. We’ve never really talked like this.” She put her hand to her cheek. “I guess, what was the promise you made to each other?”

“To stay… To take care of each other and protect each other… To tell each other what we were feeling… We weren’t always good at keeping those promises in the beginning, but we tried. Then, in the end when Minako did get the box, everything happened so quickly and she made decisions without saying why…” He looked down. “It felt like being left behind again. I didn’t know why she was making the wishes she made… It was… devastating. But when we came back and could discuss everything in a calm setting, we recommitted to our promise and agreed to always decide together.” He clenched his fist. “I’m not mad at her, she talked to me right away, but I can’t… I can’t lose her… I can’t wait for her again… It was…”

“That was my other question. What happened after we… left you?”

Nick gripped his knees and swallowed. “I…”

“Do you not remember?”

"I don't know… I kept having this dream about my family that seemed more like a memory than a dream…" He put his head in his hands. "And now I started dreaming about the castle and the false God… and me as a monster, but that seems more like a worry than a memory…"

"Did you tell them?"

"No… I was going to tell Minako, but then everything came up with Howie's powers… I just… don’t think I can tell them until I know for sure the castle dream is a memory and not just a worry." He bit his lip. “I… hated hearing how Ashley found me… His plans… It’s hard suddenly having to accept the things I couldn’t when I was younger… But they're all a really strong support system and they've been helping me through it. I know that when I do tell them anything, they’ll keep helping.” He smiled.

She put her hand to his shoulder. “Have you told them that?”

He exhaled through his nose as a smile quirked on his lips. “Yes and no.”

“Sounds like you’re mad at them with extra information they don’t know…” Madeline leaned back on her hands. “It seems easier for you to start with her, plus you said that you and Minako promised to talk to each other and make decisions together. So?”

“I know.” His smile grew. “I’ll tell her.” He glanced at the sun sinking in the distance. “Actually, I promised…”

“Just go.” Madeline waved her hand as she laughed. “Promise me you’ll talk to her about everything you both have going on. These heart-to-hearts are fun, but only interesting for so long when I’m in the middle.”

Nick frowned as he cocked his head.

“Everything’s fine. Go find her and tell her that you’re not mad at her.”

Nick nodded quickly as he stood, then ran across the path to the crevice in the craggy rock face. I’ll tell her… A lot actually… Just us, Minako.

End Notes:
No Author Talk in the forums this week, but here's a little Author Note.

Now everyone knows about Howie's powers! I'll admit I was only vaguely sure on what they would be when I finished PBox. I only knew for sure that he was the one who created the scale and the orbs from the beginning. When I started writing PNecklace and had a list of everyone's powers, I made a second list of every possible power I could think of and started filling in based on ideas I had for the rest of the story. Alchemy seemed like a perfect fit for Howie's vague power to create things and gave me a reason for him to have a sword in a world of magic powers. Really, Howie originally got a cool sword in my attempts to make him important and badass. I said it in my update thread a while ago, but one of my challenges to myself when starting PBox was to make Howie an important part of the story. And I like to think all the Boys are important (despite Nick being a loud spotlight hog), but I hope that I've successfully made Howie a character who impacts the story just by existing.

Let me know what you think! I'm always in the forums to chat.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Altair and Vega by nicksgal
“Bye! Thank you! We’ll be back soon!” Minako waved back to the barrier demons standing outside the cavern, her warm voice filling the stillness of the night.

Nick fixed his gaze on her as a gentle smile washed over his face. I’m the luckiest. The absolute luckiest. He wrapped his fingers around hers tightly and pulled away from the hidden entrance.

She peeked at him as she continued to wave, then smiled up at him as she wrapped her hand around his arm. “What?”

“You caught me.” He laughed quietly. “You’re just always welcoming to everyone. It makes me happy to be included in it.”

She beamed and held his hand between both of hers as she followed him. “Of course you’re included! I love you.”

“More than happy. Just so…” He paused, cupping her cheek and caressing it with his thumb. “It’s hard to explain with words... I love you.” He leaned toward her and brushed a gentle kiss against her lips. When he pulled away, his eyes roved across her face as his smile widened before pressing a second kiss to her lips.

“Nick…” She smiled against his kiss, pulling him closer with her arms draped around his neck.

As his lips lingered on hers, he slowly brushed her hair behind her ear. When he reached the end of the strand, he pulled back and glanced at the skyline. “I’d kiss you all night, but it’d be too dark and we’d miss the mountains.”

“I told you that you got to pick.” She grinned as she nestled in between his chest and arm. “We can always do both if you changed your mind, there’s plenty of time for just you and me here.”

“Sure. Anything for you.” As he started walking again, he laughed quietly and wrapped his arm around her waist. But that’s now and not then...

“It’s pretty…”

All around them, the mountain shimmered in the twilight. The red and orange light glinted against the clouds, bathing the mountains in an ethereal glow. The honeyed clouds streaked across the sky, spreading into the distance and caressing the mountains with a whispered touch. Above them, the deep night began blanketing the mountain and below them, the mountain eclipsed the valley, shrouding it in shadow.

Minako gazed up at Nick with a smile that glinted like the clouds.

He pulled her close and stared up at the sky as he pointed to a thin cloud. “That one looks like a sunbeam. And that one looks like an untied sash.”

“They all look the same, Nick.” She giggled. “They’re all long and streaky.”

“That one looks like a sword without the hilt. And that one looks like Brian’s staff, but without the fancy part on top.”

“Are you just thinking of all the things you know that are long and straight?” She continued to giggle.

He rubbed the back of his neck as he smiled, then started laughing. “You’re better at that game than me.”

She stopped in front of him and stood on her tiptoes, then held his shoulder tightly as she whispered in his ear. “Always time to practice.”

Can I get you more alone than this? I shouldn’t focus on that, but... His heart thudded loudly in his chest, but he swallowed away the feeling, mustering gentleness into his smile as he brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Always.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her down the path.

“So, what’s next in your plan?” Her voice reflected her smile. “Since we already tried to look at clouds, I’m guessing you’re trying to recreate a time when it was just us.”

He wrapped his arm around her waist and laughed. “Caught me again.”

“Are we going to go looking for food too? Summon a rainstorm? Hire bandits to fight? Should I prepare for anything crazy?”

“No, nothing like that...” He laughed again. Maybe I should have planned this better... “Ummm, but we can eat when we go back... unless you’re hungry now… I could find...” His breath caught in his throat, then he pulled his arm from her waist and jogged ahead.

“Nick?”

Just like in Howie’s garden. After pulling a small cluster of purple star-shaped flowers with large, green oval-shaped leaves from the ground, he continued to kneel as he held it toward her with a flourish. "It's pretty, like you."

"Nick…" Her face flushed and she raised her curled fingers to her heart as she caught up to him.

He pulled a couple of the flowers from the cluster as he stood, then tucked them into her hair."I always see you, even in the dark.” He gripped her hands, pressing the rest of the cluster into them. “I would do anything for you."

“They’re just like in Howie’s garden.” Her eyes glinted in the twilight as she swallowed, then smiled. “That’s all I wanted to hear back then.”

“I was always paying attention to you.” He lowered his head. "I'm sorry I… left… earlier..."

"You were mad. Don't be sorry."

"But I wasn't mad at you.” He cupped her cheek. “It just hurt to know that they didn't need you like I did… I guess I already knew that, but… I just thought…"

She brushed his hair back from his forehead.

"Minako, you're more than just someone who can serve others. You're constantly filling the darkness with your own warmth and brightness." He pulled her close to his chest. You’re always focused on me and worrying about me. I just wanted to show you...

"Nick, you're more than just darkness. You're the one constantly lighting up my whole world." She held her hand against his hair, running her thumb along his forehead.

You always know exactly what I want to hear. He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and brushed a gentle kiss to his lips.

When he pulled back, his fangs glinted in the ethereal glow of the mountains as he smiled. After scanning their surroundings, he ducked into a concave curve in the rock face, pulling her into his lap and wrapping his arms around her tightly as she nestled against his chest.

She smiled up at him. “Star watching?”

“Just in case you wanted to wish on one. Did any of your wishes on regular stars ever come true?”

She hid against his chest. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Always.”

“I only ever wished for one thing… To see your smile.”

His breath hitched as he pulled her body closer to his, then his lips quirked into a bright and bubbling smile that danced in the fading light.

“Just like that.” Her eyes sparkled as she stared up at him. “And then I didn’t have to wish anymore, because you started smiling more often.” She swallowed, holding her hand against his chest. “I was so excited when they became those gentle smiles that were only for me.”

If we could have been like this back then… His smile softened, then he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll give you a million of them to make up for it. I don’t know any star stories or I’d tell you one… Can you think of one you didn’t tell me?”

“Did I tell you about Altair and Vega?” She danced her fingers along his chest.

“Not yet.” He leaned his head on hers as he brushed his hand through her hair.

“You might know it. I probably didn’t tell you before because I thought you would tell me it was silly.” She smiled as they stared up at the sky. “Altair and Vega are two really bright stars in the sky, you can usually see them just by looking, especially in the summer. The story says that a shepherd boy and a weaver girl fell in love, but because he was a child of mortals and she was a child of gods, their parents forbade them from being together and separated them with a huge river, just like Altair and Vega are separated by another galaxy in the sky. But in the summer, the stars get really close to each other and that’s when magpies come to help the shepherd boy and the weaver girl by making a bridge so they can cross the river and be together. When Altair and Vega are closer, only the constellation Cygnus is between them, just like the magpie bridge.”

He laced his fingers through hers and lowered his voice to a whisper. “A demon and a priestess fell in love, but they came from two different worlds. The priestess made a wish to rescue the demons and a bridge got made so he could cross into her world and they could be together.”

“You’ll burst through any bridge if it exists, won’t you?” She giggled.

“I would if it meant I could be with you.” He smiled, then laughed quietly. “I probably would have told you it was silly… not because it was actually silly, but because I was jealous of their loyalty to wait for each other for a year every year.”

“I waited for you until we found each other again. Actually, I think I was always waiting to meet you here.”

“Me too. I think I did everything I could to get you here...” He bit his lip. If that’s really a memory and not a dream, I’ve always been trying to find you... “I--”

“I was talking to Madeline today when we got a plant for Kevin.” She glanced up at him.

His arms tensed around her. “Did she want to talk about Ashley again?” I didn’t want to talk about him… I wanted to focus on you.

“No, I asked her about their relationship.”

Nick blinked then started laughing.

“Nick?”

He kissed her temple and relaxed his embrace. “She ran into me when I left and I asked her something similar. She told me to talk to you instead of her, which makes sense if you were talking too. We ended up talking about a dream I had instead...”

“Your family?”

“No… about the castle… I…” He bit his lip. You probably wouldn’t talk about the castle with her… “What did you talk about?”

“I just… wanted to know if she and Ashley had sex. She said she wasn’t a virgin when she became a priestess.” As she stared up at him, her eyes glinted like the stars.

Of course I want you, but… He swallowed, trying to calm the wrenching in his stomach. “But… she’s a priestess…”

“She said she didn’t have the red light powers until after they had sex, but that she could still use their powers in the castle after they died, just like I can make Brian’s barriers. She said everything was fine… I mean besides them dying…”

Having to wait for you again… “But she didn’t get the box.”

“She said Bri didn’t either, which we know, but that she should have been able to if virginity was a requirement…”

I couldn’t be strong like Altair and Vega… Nick frowned again. “I want to, but if you disappear…”

“But Madeline…” She pressed her lips into a thin line as she paused, then ran her hand through his hair. “We’re not here because of any agreement with God… We’re here because of Justin…”

I really do want to… He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “I love you. What if she’s wrong? Or what if she’s tricking you?”

“I love you too. What if she’s not? She’s our friend.”

He pulled her closer to his chest. “I want you to stay… and... I want you…” He frowned. “And I’m trying to make that first want win, but… it’s been harder here… It feels like getting to do you and me again. Things like when it was just us, but better… with all our feelings now... You know I want to give you everything you want forever, but that would be really hard if we were apart.”

“She was so sure… I thought maybe I could stay and be with you...”

“She said she didn’t have the red light powers until after they had sex?” He bit his lip. I know we already talked about it, but… you’ve always had powers, how can Madeline not have them until afterward? What if it wouldn’t change a thing? I’ve always promised you every piece of me...

“Yeah… you know I’m still okay if the opposite happens.”

“If you are, I still am too. I’ll protect you forever, I promise.”

“Do you think I’d still have the power to find you? Like Altair and Vega?” She held his shoulder tightly and stared up at him.

“You’re my brightest star. I’d never stop trying to find you again. I’ll be bright for you too.” He smiled at her gently. “I’m still not sure what happened before you appeared, but I don’t think there’s anything after you for me. I’ll always love you, no matter how hard or easy anything is.”

“Me too.” She laughed. “Nick, you always say the sweetest things and I can’t think of anything good to say back except ‘me too’.” She brushed his hair from his forehead. “As long as you keep being bright too, we can always cross that magpie bridge. More than once a year.” She swallowed. “I want you to be first.”

First? His pulse raced as he clutched her tighter. "Minako?"

“Not just… my first… I want that too, but…” She swallowed and glanced at the ground as she gripped his tunic tightly. “It just feels like I’m acting like being with you is less important than being a priestess. Just like before when I didn’t wish for what you wanted… what I wanted too… But I really did want that, even though…”

I want you more than anything. He gently lifted her chin with his finger, staring straight into her misty eyes. Not just your body. Your heart, your warmth, your kindness, your strength, your brightness, everything you are.

“You’re enough, Nick. You always have been.”

His breath caught in his throat as his heart fluttered. You always say exactly what I’m hoping to hear, even if it’s simple. I always want to tell you hundreds of beautiful things… trying to get out my feelings, but… “You too. You’re all I want… more than anything else. I just…”

“I know you worry, so let’s stop thinking about any of the other things we have to do. Let’s just think about you and me. When I think about just us…” She swallowed. “I know I want to have sex with you. Anytime or anywhere you want. But I know I also want to stay with you and be together, so it’s okay if you want to wait until we’re done with everything… I don’t plan on disappearing, but…”

“Minako… I don’t want to be in charge of deciding. I want to decide together.” He pressed his lips into a thin line as his chest grew tight. “I just… want to get past only worrying… It feels like I’m stuck when I want to be able to go forward with you and keep giving you everything I have.”

“You can have all of me too.” She smiled up at him. “Even if it feels like we’re stuck, we’re together and we’ll get through it. And as long as I have you, I’m happy.”

“Minako… Me too...” He grasped her cheek and pulled her lips into a gentle kiss. As long as I have you.

~*~



Darkness closed in. Nick clawed at his throat, gasping for air. It’s suffocating. I can’t breathe… The large door loomed above him, stretching taller as he peered at its expanding frame. He tentatively reached out his hand and knocked on the door; it creaked open and a shadowed figure with glowing red eyes peered out.

“Ashley?” Nick snarled.

“Oh? It seems the demons brought a pet… or a snack…” The shadow reached its clawed hand toward Nick’s face. “What is your name, precious pet?”

“Ashley doesn’t control me!” Nick growled. “A pet!”

“Of course not, sweet pet, your Master is gone.”

“God…” Heat washed over Nick’s body, his heartbeat rang in his ears and his blood boiled. As he clenched his fists, they began to crackle and glow with sapphire light that flicked against his skin.

“My precious Nickolas, you are not just any demon, but a fledgling cardinal demon. What are your powers, dear sapphire demon?” The voice cooed as the clawed hand continued to brush against his cheek. “I think I shall keep you here until they come looking for you.”

Nick pushed past the cloaked figure and darted into the dark room.

The figure laughed sinisterly as it followed him into the abyss. “You have chosen a dangerous path, my darling Nickolas. It will devour you! This should be interesting.”

Nick raced through the dark. Just like the air, the silence was suffocating; his heartbeat continued to thunder in his chest and ears, filling the emptiness with sound. Minako! I have to find you! I know you’re in here! Waiting and lighting up the dark! Despite his smooth gait, he abruptly tripped and slammed to the ground.

After pushing himself from the ground, he pulled his leg away from the obstruction. A… foot? This has happened before… He tried to scan it, but darkness fizzled across his sight, blocking it from view. He held his head in his hands as he shut his eyes and grimaced. I can’t… remember… something… vague… and painful… Just like… mom… I have to find you, Minako! He fiddled with his ring, then his claws pulsed as he raised his hand to his chest. When a glowing orb formed in his hand, he pulled his palm away and flicked the orb across the room. It lit up the darkness as it shot away from him and flashed across several vague clusters of darkness, then slammed against the back wall. That was…

He formed a second orb, then flicked it across the room and bolted to his feet. As he chased it, he dodged the vague shadowy clusters and scrutinized the increasingly bright edge of the room. “Pandoras?” The two statuary women reached toward each other as they covered their faces. Chains decorated their stone bodies and torn wings sprouted from their backs.

“My sweet Nickolas, they spared you the pain of dying here. If you wish to honor that action, end your imprudence.”

Were those shadows… demons? Nick formed another orb of light and flicked it again, before running toward it. Maybe, but I definitely know what’s back there behind the throne! The Pandoras and the Box! I know Minako is here too! I’ll get you the box and you’ll always come help me!

“My darling Nickolas, you cannot open it! You are merely a demon and not a Pandora.”

Nick grabbed the box from the altar and held it tightly to his chest. “I’ll wait for her with the box! We already defeated you and she opened it! If Justin can corrupt it and hold it, then I can keep it safe and return it to her!”

A blast of energy hit Nick’s back and tossed him against the wall filled with limitless rows of black boxes from floor to vaulted ceiling. As he hit the wall, he knocked a few caskets loose and they crashed to the ground around his body.

“Sweet Nickolas, demons cannot have the box. It remains here.”

Nick dug his claws into the box as his eyes burned with sapphire and his fangs protruded from his mouth.

“My darling Nickolas, yes, show your powers. Change their raw energy into angered strength.”

A bright sapphire light burst around Nick, surrounding him in a blazing glow. He gasped and scraped the casket beside him; like his skin, it was filled with bursts of a faint sapphire glow. Minako! It’s you! Minako!

“Sweet pet, you have found her in this cavern of death again? She is but a child. What can mere children do?”

Nick growled and flattened his hand against the casket. “She will always come and save me!” Bright sapphire light began pouring from his hand and filled the casket. No matter where you hide her! No matter how difficult things seem! No matter what tragedies we face! No matter the obstacles you lay in front of us! Minako will always come to help me! And I will protect her with everything I have! “Minako! Hurry and come out! I’ll give you everything!”

“My darling, Nickolas, you are too late!”

A burst of red light pierced Nick in the chest, stabbing him with hot energy and pushing him back from his perch on the casket. As he fell and plunged into darkness, he reached back toward the casket. Minako! Save me…

His pulse raced as the shadows consumed him. It’s dark… Where is this? Is it the altar room? He began moving his hand toward his face, but it froze with a loud metallic scrape and clank. The chains… Large metallic cuffs wrapped his wrists and ankles that connected to snaking chains bolted to the wall. They made a grinding groan as he simultaneously pulled on them and growled. “Minako!”

A clawed hand gripped his cheek. “Do you like your new home, my dear sweet Nickolas?” The box glinted with an ethereal light in its other hand.

“That’s Minako’s! You can’t have it! She sealed you! You’re nothing but a fake!” Though he growled, his eyes widened in panic and he began thrashing again.

The clawed hand caressed his cheek, leaving bloody gashes in Nick’s cheek as it pulled away. “Pets need to be kept safe in places where they can follow the rules. Please enjoy this new home, my darling Nickolas. You will be well cared for here.”

“I’ll tell her! You’re a false God who murders demons and turns Pandoras to stone! Give back the box! It belongs to Minako! You can’t keep hiding it in your castle on the mountain!” Nick growled and slashed his claws toward the cloaked figure, but the chains imprisoned his wrists as he pulled them taut.

“You’re safe and far away from that dreadful place, my precious Nickolas. You are protected here.”

Nick breathed heavily as he continued to pull on the chains and hung his head. As his panicked breathing grew louder, the cloaked figure and its voice faded into nothingness. I feel it… The darkness… Surrounding me… Trapping me… Poisoning my mind… All alone in the darkness… Questioning constantly...

His voice was a low whisper as he shut his eyes. “Master, the castle on the mountain… The box… Master, save me… Are you close, Sapphire Pandora… Where are you? Wake up and save me… It’s dark and lonely here, come save me… And we’ll get the box together… And God is…”

He pulled on the chains again, kicking and thrashing. Things I said so many times… Things I tried to scream in the dark… Things I forced myself to remember as long as I could… Then only a shell of myself… Feeling my mind slipping away while repeating my name and Pandora… Over and over again in the dark… Constantly forcing myself to remember you and me… Constantly screaming for you over their whispers...

“Sad creature...” “Pathetic creature…” “Monster…” “Nightmare…”

I couldn’t listen anymore then… Hearing those things over and over was agony, but…
He let the chains fall slack as his limbs became calm. I wasn’t sure then. I’m sure now! His eyes flashed open and his irises gleamed with sapphire light. I definitely know that you will always find me!

“Nick!”

Pure and clear, warm and bright, your voice always illuminates the darkness. His limbs lit with blue light as he pulled at the chains again and they snapped. He fell to the ground in a heap, then gripped his claws into the stone and pulled himself up. There will always be light when I have you! He began running down the corridor toward the distant, but radiant light. “Minako!”

End Notes:
In addition to getting to reference some fun myths in story (it's summarized here, but Minako does a decent job of conveying The Shepard and the Weaver from the Summer Triad), this is another chapter that made me feel like I did PBox a disservice by skipping what Minako and Nick were up to before they found Howie. They give vague allusions to things they did here, that they know and I know, but just picture Nick at the beginning of PBox reacting to cloud watching. It's as hilarious as you're imagining and the offer still stands to share it if it's of interest to anyone.

Nick gets a lot of focus in this middle portion of PNecklace because he's the one that has to grow the most. Sure the others have stuff going on, like we just got to Howie's stuff and AJ has a little something going on; Brian and Kevin are coming soon. But Nick's on a long journey from a "nobody" to a "somebody," so he's trying to work through it all. Why not start with where you go with the one who first started treating you like a somebody? :)
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Glow by nicksgal
Author's Notes:
A little Author Note at the top once you click the chapter link (and at the end as usual). You know I wouldn't normally put one in the text, as y'all also know how I feel about spoilers, but I wanted to be cognizant.

This one gets a little smutty (as you likely expected); if that's not your thing, I encourage you to stop when you've reached your smut threshold and scroll to the line beginning with "After a few moments" as PBox&Co trend graphically violent over sexually explicit, so this isn't typical if you've been reading along and I wanted to make sure y'all still gathered the important bits of the plot if you chose to skip the smut.

Nick jolted, short and fast breaths escaping his lips. Just a dream...

“Nick…” She mumbled, breathing deeply as she snuggled against his chest. “Were you dreaming about your family again?”

“The castle…”

She blinked, but quickly fixed her gaze on his face. “The castle?”

“I kept dreaming about my family and it was a memory… The altar room… I wasn’t just in the castle with them. I was in the altar room afterward.”

“Nick, you saw--”

“I don’t want to talk about them.” With the secure embrace of his wings around her, his breathing steadied. Washed with calm, he leaned his head against her shoulder as he cupped her cheek. “I saw you.”

She pressed her lips together and wrinkled her nose.

“I know, it wasn’t you like you’re here now, but that casket with the blue light... I felt so sure that you would appear and help me if I filled it with light...”

“You know I’ll always help you, but I wasn't in the castle before...”

“I just knew it would be you if I hurried, but... that false God stopped me and that’s when I woke up in the dark.” He lightly caressed her cheek with his thumb. “It was horrifying, but… You filled the darkness with light and warmth. I felt like I finally belonged.”

“Of course you belong, you always have. Nick, you’ve always been enough.”

“You too. You’re all I need… all I’ve ever needed..." If you'll always find me, I shouldn't worry, but... "You said in the end, you wished for any miracle to find me again.”

“Of course I did. I wished as hard as I could and never stopped looking for you.”

“Your wishes work. Just keep wishing and searching for me. I’ll surround you in light and protect you with everything I have. Powers or no powers. You’re my everything.” He bit his lip. “I just… I’ll do anything I can to keep you beside me. To give you every piece of me and have every piece of you...”

“Nick…” She locked her gaze with his, her eyes sparkling and dancing as she parted her lips.

His breath caught in his throat, then he pulled her closer by her waist, pressing a fiery kiss to her lips before trailing a series of urgent kisses on her cheek, jaw, and neck. "I want you. I’ve been wanting you. If I protect you, do you…"

"I already told you I want you. Everything you are. Just you."

"Me too. Just you." He kissed her lips again fervently as he trailed his hand down her waist, hips, and thigh.

She locked her fingers in the hair at the back of his head and ravenously kissed him, closing the minuscule space between them.

You liked that last time too. He laughed quietly as he kissed her, then ran his finger along the inside of her thigh. Tell me you want me... He pulled back and grinned at her, his eyes gleaming.

"Nick…"

He inhaled audibly. Just like that… "Every time you say my name, I want you more. It's the greatest sound in the world when it comes from your lips."

Her bright grin became a smirk as she ran her tongue over her lips. "Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick--"

After surging against them with a hard kiss, he pulled back with a grin of his own. "You're teasing me."

"I can stop…" She batted her eyelashes and parted her lips as she stared up at him with the same glinting smirk. "...Nick…"

Outwardly, he inhaled shrilly; inside, his heart leapt into his throat, undone by her pause and his name. Overtaken in the feeling's frenzy, he clutched her waist, erasing the distance between them as he locked their lips. I have to remember everything about this feeling. Everything you do. Everything you say. How much I adore and cherish you.

In contrast to his closeness, Minako pushed her palm against his shoulder until he pulled back and sat up.

"Minako?" He reached toward her hesitantly.

After brushing her hand through his hair, she draped her hands over his shoulders, running her fingers along the clasps above his wings. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah. Anything you want gone, just take it off.” He embraced her again, then began trailing kisses down her neck. You’re always asking if I’m okay. I wonder if that’s because of when we first met or because you want to keep being asked too. I’ll keep asking anyway, even if you're thinking of me. "Yours?"

“Undress me too." The clasps unhooked with quick pops of her thumb. "Now's good. Or soon."

You’re impatient… That only makes me want you more. He pressed his palm against her back, holding her close against his chest as his kisses continued. But I have to savor this and remember it. Every small moment. So I can make sure to keep doing every little thing you like. He inhaled deeply, his pulse racing. That woody and spicy floral scent is all I can smell. I would’ve begged to be this close to you a long time ago if I knew that.

The light fabric dangled at his back, forgotten amid the quick movements of her fingers. A whispered brush against his tunic. Three quick thumb pops at his collar bone. Gentle pressure down his sides. Nails dug into the knot in his sash. Tearing and pulling until it fell to the linens in a heap.

For a moment, he loosened his embrace, then quickly pulled the tunic from his arms before balling it up and tossing it to the ground. With a quick whisk of his arm, he thrust her back against his bare chest. Each fervent and heated kiss pulled her closer as he threaded and locked his fingers in her hair.

Her body melted beneath his urgent kiss. As she clutched his shoulders, she trailed her hand down his back and stroked the base of his wing at the tip of his shoulder blade.

He grunted, his muscles tightening as his wings unfurled and flared behind him. Stunned with enthralling dizziness, he hid his face against her shoulder as his heart thudded in his chest. Touch me again! He groaned quietly. But what if you thought that was weird… It’s definitely weird. Nothing else touching them has ever felt like that. I want you…

Minako giggled as she ran her hand through his hair. "I didn't know you liked that."

"I didn't either…" The words were almost inaudible as he panted against her shoulder, trying to calm the frenzied buzzing in his head. You think it’s weird...

"Sometimes I do this while you sleep and it makes your wings flutter. Do you like it too?" She stroked the membrane of his wing with her fingertips.

An enthusiastic yelp escaped his lips, then he peered up at her with a flushed face, his erratic breath as quick as his heartbeat. I love that! Do it again! No, it’s weird… No, I... "Minako…"

"You like it, but you're embarrassed? Don't be. You get to decide what you like. It’s your body." She brushed his hair back, pausing as though she considered her words. “But, umm… it’s not… enjoyable when they get hurt… is it?”

“What? No!” He flinched backward and tensed. It is weird… He exhaled deeply and hunched his shoulders, speaking in a low and hesitant voice. “Just… just you... touching them right now…”

Minako glanced at the ground and frowned, but just as quickly, a small smile perked on her face. She lowered her voice to a whisper as she spoke into his ear, her breath across his neck making the hairs stand up. "Can I tell you a secret, Nick?” She pulled back, catching his gaze and fluttering her eyelashes slightly.

“Always.” His pulse raced. Every time you look at me like that and say my name… He leaned back toward her.

Her airy and breathy voice danced across his skin. “I like it too, knowing that I can make you make those sounds… It makes me want you." She brushed her finger against the membrane of his other wing.

After a second excited yelp, his breath caught in his throat. I can’t savor it anymore. I want you. You’re just so… perfect. I have to have you. After pressing a hard and urgent kiss to her lips, he started unbuttoning the clasps at her collar bone.

She grinned against his kiss. "I wonder what else you like… Can I find out?"

“Touch me anywhere you want.” He continued kissing her urgently as he pressed his thumbs against her clasps.

As he worked, her gaze washed over his body, examining every option before beginning her meticulous investigation. A gentle brush of her fingers against his horns after running her hand through his hair. A deep kiss accompanied by a playful caress of his tongue and fangs. A short peck to his lips as she laced her fingers through his free hand. "No horny horns or teeth or claws." Her breathy giggle lingered between their lips.

He lightly brushed his thumbs along her collar bone as he grinned, then pulled her back into a long and lingering kiss. Her gentle kiss became another smirk as she brushed her fingers across his shoulder, embracing his back warmly as she stroked the base of his wing again.

His muscles flexed tightly as he pressed his chest against hers, pulse racing with each urgent, blazing kiss against her lips. Touch me again! He slid his hands beneath the loose fabric at her shoulders, pushing it away from her skin. I want you. I’ll never tell you to stop, but… I really did want to remember every little thing about you…

With a soft, lingering pressure against his back, she trailed her hand across his bare skin until she reached his butt, quickly squeezed, then caressed his tail.

A dizzying moan filled the silence as it stiffened in her hand and he clutched her hair with his clenched claws. In the hazy pleasure, his urgent kisses became unremitting. I have to have you! I have to have you right now! Silken fabric swept from shoulders. Tenacious grip on her arms and sides. Sash ripped from her waist.

When her dress fluttered to the floor around her waist, her sleeves bunched and pooled beside her elbows. In the absence of the deep sapphire fabric, her black bra accented her skin and the glimmering golden chain around her neck. The reflection of the oval mirror charm danced glimmers of light across his face.

He paused, his eyes roving across her nearly bare body as he held an awed breath. Beautiful. More beautiful than I imagined. Just… perfect. I can’t rush. I really do… need to remember every small thing. With a light caress, he brushed her hair behind her ear. Lingering down the strand, his hand gently trailed down her chest toward her waist. So soft… This is probably what it feels like touching those clouds. Though he clutched her gently, he kissed her with a fiery intensity before pinning her body to the mat beneath them.

She reached her hand toward him, but his elbows trapped the pooled fabric from her sleeves, halting her movements.

His gaze roved across her body again as he licked his lips. "Your turn. Ready?" He lifted his elbows, then slowly pushed her sleeves off her arms, letting them gently fall to the linens.

“So ready.” Light glinted and danced in her eyes as she stared up at him, her fingers faint against his cheek as she pulled him in for a kiss.

He picked up the mirror dangling around her neck and fiddled with it, turning it over and running his thumb over the written engraving on the other side. “How about this? You want this on? You want it off? It’s pretty, but kind of heavy. Are you always wearing this?”

“Always, but whatever makes you happy is fine.”

Nick shrugged and set it on the mat beside her shoulder. “Here’s good. I think I’ll keep you just like this anyway.” As he kissed her fervently, he trailed his hand from her chest to her stomach to her hips, then down the outside of her thigh and back up the inside of her thigh.

Her leg trembled as her muscles tightened beneath his touch.

You like that… He grinned and brushed his finger back down the inside of her thigh, then back up. When her back arched, his grin grew. "This is fun. What next?"

"Keep going..." Her fingers grazed his waist, then brushed against his wrist and palm and she gently pulled his hand lingering beside her thigh.

"Minako…" He swallowed and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Tell me anything you want and I’ll do it.” Anything for you. Always...

She pulled his hand up between her legs, brushing his fingers against her underwear and letting them linger on the edge. “ You can take them off if you want or just… move them...”

He pulled aside her underwear and slid two fingers inside of her. As he began building a rhythm with his fingers, her legs trembled again and he inhaled sharply. You like this… I like it too… watching your legs tense while I touch you. What can I do to make you make a noise? Something else that lets me know you like it and to keep going...

She bit her lip and her breath quickened as she gripped his shoulder, then moaned quietly.

A noise! Make more! They’re better than your scent. He locked his other fingers through her hair and cupped her head as he began kissing her fervently again, first her lips, then her neck. But that’s getting stronger too. He inhaled deeply. This is perfect.

"Nick…" she whispered and brushed her fingers against the membrane of his wing again.

He moaned against her lips. Keep wanting me! I’ll give you more! Moan and say my name again! As his wings fluttered, he quickened the pace of his fingers and pressed his pelvis against her thigh, his pants bulging against her bare skin. I want you! Am I doing enough to show you?

She winced and shifted underneath him causing him to pull back and frown.

“Are you okay? I’m sorry.” He brushed her hair behind her ear.

"Too fast... just hurt a little." She whispered into his ear, “Keep going, just gently.”

“I got a little excited...” He laughed quietly as he slowed the pace of his fingers and brushed kisses up her neck. They’re sharp and I’m a lot bigger and stronger. I have to remember to be careful and gentle with you instead of getting carried away.

She moaned quietly, her voice breathy between urgent kisses. "Take them off. I just want to feel you."

“Yeah, me too.” His breath caught in his throat and he lowered his voice to a whisper. "Anything you want, I'll do." Your confidence is so sexy, it makes me want you more. He pulled his fingers back, then wrapped them around her underwear and began slipping them down her legs as she pulled her dress from beneath them, tossing it aside before unhooking her bra. So perfect. Everything I’ve dreamed of. His eyes roved over her body and he grinned as he held her. I have to tell you. "You're beautiful and perfect, like a sunbeam."

"That's sweet... but you're still wearing your pants."

He inhaled an awed sharp breath, his pulse racing as his heartbeat thumped in his ears. When she grimaced and hid her face against his shoulder, he started laughing.

His skin muffled her nervous laughter. “I love when you say sweet things. That was awkward…” she mumbled.

“Don’t be embarrassed either. It’s just you and me. I’ll probably do something else awkward too.” He kissed her head as he ran her hand through her hair, gently holding her shoulders. “Doesn’t matter. All I want is you, just you. Sweet and silly and sexy Minako. You’re perfect. Everything I’ve dreamed of.”

She glanced up at him as she pulled back from his shoulder, then kissed it and smiled. “I’m glad we can laugh about awkward things together.”

As he ran his hand through her hair again, he pressed gentle kisses to her lips.

“You’re all I want too, just you. Gentle, kind, brave, protective Nick. So sexy too. Perfect just the way you are. All I’ve ever wished for.” As her body relaxed in his embrace, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply.

I never thought I could be enough until I had you. I should have told you a million more things I love about you. Maybe I can show you instead.

She pulled back and winked. “Still want you naked though.”

“Good.” After laughing quietly, he brushed her necklace back over her shoulder then began kissing her jaw and neck as he gently pinned her back to the mat beneath him.

When he skimmed his fingers along her chest and stomach, she inhaled quickly. He skimmed his fingers back up, finding quiet pleasure in her delayed exhale. She hurriedly tugged at his pants, pulling them as far down his legs as she could reach, then brushed her hands up his thighs. While she held his hips tightly, he cupped her breasts, pressing fiery kisses to them in response to her lingering touch.

"I can feel your heart beating against my lips." He smiled against her chest as he kicked his pants off, then settled his legs between hers, pressing his hard dick against her inner thigh.

She swallowed and reached toward his hand. “You always want to make it louder… I’ll show you how.”

He nodded eagerly, running his hand down her arm before lacing his fingers through hers. She brushed their hands between her legs, then began rubbing in gentle circles against her clit. She let her fingers linger for a moment, then pulled her hand away. After running her hand through his hair, she held his lips in a gentle kiss.

When Nick began enthusiastically copying her motions, she gripped the linens beneath them as her breath caught in her throat. Her moan filled the silence and his awed inhale was fleeting as he surged toward her lips again. His urgent and heated kisses against her lips matched the eagerness in his touch. He hurriedly kissed every inch of her. Lips, jaw, neck, collar bone, but lingered on her breasts as her heartbeat thundered in her chest. I really want you...

"Nick…" She moaned quietly, then brushed her hands up and down his shoulders and sides. When his fervent kisses returned to her lips, she held his back tightly with one hand and trailed the other down his chest to his abdomen then to his pelvis. “Can I touch you right now, too?”

“Y-yeah.” He swallowed.

His abdominal muscles clenched beneath her electrifying touch as she brushed against the shaft of his dick teasingly, before grasping it in her hand.

"Minako…" As she began stroking it, his breath raced like his pulse. Though he kept his touch between her legs gentle, his hard kisses mirrored his hand tightly wound in her hair. Your intoxicating smell, your gentle touch, how beautiful you look…

She moaned, pulling on him harder as she stroked the base of his wing; he moaned in response, his heart leaping against his chest as he embraced her tighter.

Every noise you make, your lips like honey… I can’t wait anymore! I have to have you! "I want… to be inside you…" he whispered.

"I want that too." She swallowed, holding his cheek tightly, only a whisper between their lips. “Oh, but um…” She paused. “Let me up for a minute.”

“Minako?” He pulled back from her and frowned as she stood. “You okay?”

“Yup.” She rummaged around in her bag on the shelf and pulled out a condom. “Being safe is better, right?” She held it out to him when she sat beside him again.

“Yeah. You know I’ll do anything you ask.” He smiled warmly as he took it from her.

“Good.” She held his cheek and kissed him. “I just want to be with you, but I’m not ready to fulfill some womanly destiny and start giving birth to demon-human hybrid soldiers if that’s even a thing.” She winked.

Nick groaned. “Awkward things now are fine, but old awkward things already happened. I said I was sorry about saying that.”

“I know you did. Just teasing.”

“Help me? Could be more fun.” He ripped it open, then pushed it back toward her and grinned.

Minako grasped his dick again, stroking it gently before rolling the condom down the shaft. “I love you.”

"I love you too.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, admiring the tranquil and ethereal warmth that surrounded her. “I'll protect you, I promise."

"And I promise that I’ll stay here." She brushed back his hair and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips.

He kissed her again as he trailed his hand between her legs, massaging gently. When she moaned quietly again, he moved his hand then settled between her legs and slid his dick inside her.

He inhaled sharply, holding her waist tightly as he thrust against her, slow at first, but more forcefully as he built a rhythm. This is amazing. More amazing than I imagined… But I can’t lose you for this. I have to protect you. I have to do everything I can to keep you here. As he pumped, his skin began glowing with a bright and warm pale blue light.

“Nick, you’re glowing...” She pressed her hand against his chest as the light reflected on his face.

“I don’t know...” He pressed urgent kisses to her collarbone as he thrust, inhaling her intoxicating scent as he massaged again. You’re perfect. Are you enjoying this? Show me...

“Nick…” She moaned, clutching his shoulders tightly.

“Keep saying my name…” He grunted as he continued massaging and thrusting. Keep moaning it!

"Nick!" She stroked his wing again as she began thrusting against him.

Sweat glistened on his skin as he moaned, his frenetic kisses matching his thrusts as he pulled her waist and chest closer to him. She responded with equally energetic thrusting, gripping and pulling his hair as she arched her back. Warm pale blue light from her own skin danced across her face.

"Nick... why am I... glowing?" Between kisses, her voice was breathy.

"Minako!" He panted, thrusting harder and deeper.

As his thrust deepened, she moaned loudly and clenched her eyes shut. Lost in the moment, she clutched his shoulders before grasping every part of his body within reach: butt, tail, wings, hips, back. Her back arched and the rest of her body tensed in pleasure. "Nick!"

He grunted, then began thrusting faster, pressing haphazard kisses to her face while brushing her hair away from it. When she continued to moan and clutch his body tightly, he gripped her thigh and waist, pulling her hips closer, trying to be deeper inside her. Overcome by equal ecstasy, he clenched his eyes shut and moaned against her shoulder.

After a few moments, the only sound in the room was their quick breathing.

“You’re still here…” He panted as he leaned his head on her shoulder.

“I’m still here. Nick...” She brushed his drenched hair from his eyes, a breathless smile spreading on her lips.

“Minako! I’m glad! I’m really glad!” He embraced her tightly against his chest, forcing deeper breaths into his lungs.

She wrapped her arms around his neck tightly, pressing closer to him. “Me too! I told you I’d stay!” The excitement in her tone matched his as she held his cheeks tightly, kissing his lips gently.

He smiled against her kiss. “You’re safe.” His smile grew into a broad grin as he tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, his fingers lingering as he brushed them through her hair. When he reached the ends of her hair at her chest, he pulled back and a frown quickly flashed across his face. “Why are you glowing?”

“I don’t know... You are too...” She pressed her hand to his chest. “I tried to ask you, but you…” She shivered as her breath caught in her throat.

He gripped her tighter and continued to frown. “Are you cold?” He pulled back from her and grabbed the linens bunched at their feet, wrapping their bodies in them as he settled in beside her. His warm embrace mirrored the gentleness in his soft kiss as he held her.

The glowing light reflected and danced in her eyes as she smiled broadly at him, despite the flush of her cheeks. After brushing his hair back, she gave him an equally soft kiss.

He chuckled. “Not cold. If you keep looking at me like that, I'll have sex with you again right now.”

While fluttering her eyelashes, she ran her tongue along her lips.

“You’re trouble.” He smirked. “We’ll have to make more time for just us.” As he held her chin, his lips swept over hers with a simmering kiss, then he tucked another strand of hair behind her ear. “Is it me?”

She danced her fingers on his chest absentmindedly. “The glowing?”

“They all said when I’m not calm, my powers will probably be erratic.”

“It’s not hurting, it’s just... glowing… What were you thinking about?”

“You.”

“Nick…” She giggled.

“You were all I was thinking about. I wanted to make sure I remembered everything. The way you looked, moved, reacted, sounded, touched, felt, smelled… Just you.” He held her cheek as he pressed a gentle kiss to her lips and tightened his arm around her. “And most of all how much I wanted you to stay and still be just you.”

“Me too, every little thing.” She trailed her fingers down his chest to his stomach then to his pelvis, causing his abdominal muscles to tighten before brushing her fingers against the membrane of his wing.

“Minako…” His face flushed as he inhaled a sharp breath and clutched her waist.

She beamed as she snuggled into his chest. “But most of all, I wanted to stay with you… just you. Maybe your powers were trying to protect me and that’s why we were glowing.” She pulled his hand from her waist and laced her fingers through his. “I was thinking about them, actually… What if they were the reason I was able to come back that first time?”

“But the oracle got you…”

“I don’t know how she found me, she just did…” She shrugged. “You said you filled that casket with light... What if your powers stayed with me from that time and they’ve just been here? Maybe they’re that light, warmth, and brightness you feel… Or maybe the oracle searched for that light… Or maybe that’s why Brian’s grandpa thinks I have demonic power…”

“That’s all just you…” Nick scooted down and leaned his head against her chest as he ran his hand beside her collar bone. “I guess I've never really thought about why you radiated with light. I thought maybe that was just what Pandoras felt like… Or what a Sapphire Pandora felt like for a Sapphire demon… But then no one else said that you did… They said warm, but meant more like kind and welcoming.” He smiled. “I guess it feels… similar… Maybe it would make sense if it came from me... But mine just feel warm and bubbly... Your light is warm too, but also loving and bright. It’s always made me feel strong enough to do impossible things. I just want to be surrounded by it.”

“Nick…” She brushed her hand through his hair, embracing his head.

"You asked me that one time what you smelled like… I like it, but maybe that's why I thought you smelled normal… just like how everyone else said the crater reeked of demonic energy and I couldn't smell a thing. Maybe if I let you have some of my powers, it helped me feel you because we smell too similar."

"What do I smell like? You never really said."

"It’s... like being surrounded by lemon trees and raspberry bushes in the morning… when everything’s covered in dew… It feels… comfortable and familiar. But under that is this calming spicy, woody, floral smell that’s… breathtaking. It's always made me feel like everything is okay."

"I wonder what you smell like? That tarty citrus smell?”

“Probably? I can’t really smell myself...”

“I can’t smell anything specific, but I know that you smell like you and I like it."

You like it... Clutching her tightly, he pressed an adoring kiss to her collar bone before scooting back up; he leaned his head on hers again, nuzzling against her neck. “Can I tell you something?”

“You can tell me anything.”

“When you first appeared here, I wanted to borrow a tiny bit of your priestess powers to wish for… a light that could create miracles, something that would destroy the darkness.” He wrapped his arms around her waist. “And when you said you would give me one of your wishes for anything I wanted, it made me happy, but… I was more happy that you were thinking of me than I was about possibly getting my wish. And I realized that I didn't need a miracle when I had you.” He smiled warmly, meeting her stare, before roving his eyes over her shoulders and chest with a wide grin. “And I still have you. All of you…”

She gave him a warm kiss. “You can always have all of me, any part you want.”

“Me too. I’ll give you everything I have.” His lips quirked upward as he exhaled through his nose and tightened his embrace. “Including powers I didn’t know I had, I guess.” His smile grew. "You surrounded me in light when you accepted all that I was and supported me as I tried to become everything I could be. You’ve always shown me that I’m enough. You’re better than any miracle and worth any wait." He shook his head and embraced her tighter. "I don't say it as often as I should."

Minako brushed the hair on his forehead and gave him a second gentle kiss. "Even if you don't say it constantly, I always feel and understand your feelings. You show me every day." She kissed him again. "Nick… I was really glad that you were the first one I met too. Back then, I always thought I was useless, so I clung to the things and people I already had, like Renee…"

"Minako…"

"I don't know if you meant to, but you always challenged me to be more than just nice, to become someone who did anything I could to help lift other people up… You always made me feel like I was strong enough to carry anything on my shoulders. That I could be confident and empowered to really make a difference... But I still…"

He tightened his embrace around her, holding her against his chest. "Stop. We're here together now and I know you made those decisions because you were doing everything you could to support us. You don’t need to feel guilty. You’re constantly worried about me and always supporting me.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “That’s all I need. Let me do that for you too.”

“I just want you to be happy. I’ll do anything I can.”

“I know. Me too. I love all those things about you, so I will do everything I can to keep you with me and you can keep becoming that person. If you need my power to be safe and strong, I will give you all of it."

"I love you no matter what. You’re always trying your hardest to protect all of us and getting stronger to help. It’s fine if it makes you happy, but you need your power too."

"I feel fine. And when I stop feeling fine, I have you." He gripped her chin. "Minako…"

She pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. "You’re all I want too, forever."

He smirked, then licked his lips. “Me too.”

"Nick…" She giggled. “It was supposed to be sweet!”

He pressed searing and urgent kisses to her collar bone, neck, and lips.

"Nick!" She giggled again, but then kissed him just as urgently.

End Notes:
Once I realized it made sense in the narrative, a challenge to myself this year was to write a sex scene -- the one thing I'd never really done (outside of "fade to black" type stuff). And it was a struggle; the amount of editing it took to get it to this point was ridiculous. I pretty much completely rewrote it three times, including a head hopping version that I almost decided I was happy with before ultimately settling on Nick's perspective only -- it being a Backstreet Boys fanfic and all.

But it gave me a new lens to think about character reactions from that isn't always immediately clear to me as I write: trying to convey exactly what other characters are thinking through actions instead of words and/or through words that aren't quite what's running in their heads (as opposed to vaguely thinking, which I usually know). A good example would be that we're in Nick's head a lot and can see it, but the amount of times he's internally spiraling while saying nothing or something simple are really high, for instance, and the other characters don't always know that (though Minako figured it out pretty early on in PBox). It was a fun experiment trying to convey Minako's thoughts in any other way than what they were, but still make them implied to y'all reading along and to Nick who would have to react to them in real time, of course. Like I said, I almost decided "in this sex scene, it's very close to both of them, so you can hear what they're both thinking," but since the head hopping is absent in the rest of this one (Pbox is ishy still despite its big edit), I ultimately decided to avoid it here as well. Anyway, I did something new! Let me know how well it was executed. As always, thanks for reading and see y'all next week.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Adapt by nicksgal
Unlike the previous day, the empty and cavernous rocky training area had only one inhabitant. AJ stood in the center, holding his hand to his chest. Joseph…

~*~



Joseph! You’ve always been my companion! AJ grabbed Joseph by the hem of his tunic and pulled him closer. “Don’t battle me, it doesn’t matter who wins! Camaraderie means more than countries! Being in this castle taught me that we really do need to work together to be stronger!” We should be fighting to protect that!

Joseph slapped his hand away. “Of course I value your companionship, but in this castle our companions need to be the foretold alliances because only one of them can get the box! Camaraderie across countries makes you weak!” He grabbed AJ by the neck of his tunic and pulled him up toward his face, then raked his claws through his chest and abdomen again.

But, we’re--

~*~



After wincing, AJ gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut. The memory of the wound and the betrayal stung his heart. Would Joseph still feel the same way if I found him now? Especially when we’ve made Justin our enemy... I keep hoping that only Justin has planned this, but... Am I being weak when I still think of Joseph as a friend? He exhaled forcefully, then stared at the ceiling. Maybe this is why Nick’s confused too. Ashley is clearly untrustworthy, but it’s hard to erase history and feelings from our memories. If I still consider Joseph a friend, does that make my friendships with everyone else worth less?

I don’t think the castle counts as betrayal. There were hard lines we all accepted in that fight.
He exhaled again as his shoulders slumped. At least Brian doesn’t think I’m betraying them, but... I hope everyone else feels the same way… That they think I’m still… loyal...

He ran his thumb against his earring. I can’t focus on that now. I have to figure out how to defend against those balls of light Nick was flicking at me. The demons we haven’t met could have any powers, so I need to be ready for anything. He stretched, then gripped both his earrings. Dodging only did so much. I have to observe, learn, and adapt.

He leapt from the ground as he began flapping his wings, then pulled his hoop from his ear until it formed a large mirror. The fire dancing on the torches reflected in its sheen as he wiggled the golden frame of the mirror forward and backward. I could keep him busy reflecting the light back at him, but defending isn’t enough. I’d have to attack him, which would be hard if both hands were holding the mirror.

He flapped across the arena slowly, continuing to reflect light off the mirror. As long as the mirror is a distraction, I could try to get closer to him… But he might realize I’m doing that. I could use it as a shield as I got closer, but Nick would definitely see that coming and start to aim away from the mirror.

“AJ?” A deep voice called out across the arena.

After a quick glance toward the entrance, AJ slowly descended to the ground as though he floated. When he landed, he pressed the edges of the mirror together with his palms. Once it shrank, he hooked it back through his ear and crossed his arms. His serious expression became a smile as he eyed the demon in front of him. “Kevin.”

“Training alone?” Kevin smiled.

“Just thinking about my fight against Nick.” AJ stretched out his arm and held his shoulder as he rotated the joint. “I’m trying to figure out how to get close enough to him that I could attack.”

“Reflecting the light back is a good strategy for defense.” Kevin crossed his arms and chuckled. “But I wonder how close he’d let you get doing that?”

“Hopefully it’s close enough that I can attack! I hate being in defensive mode for too long.” A small smirk crossed his lips. “I’d rather end things and get back to normal.”

“I’m sure if you asked Nick for help testing your plan, he would come right away.”

“I know, but he asked for a break!” He grinned. “It would be more fun to surprise him next time.”

A broad grin covered Kevin’s face as well. “Alright, AJ, let’s see your plan.”

AJ stepped back, then turned and leapt into the air.

After giving him a head start, Kevin leapt into flight. Though he continued to smile, his darting gaze reflected the plan forming in his head. They chased each other in the air for a moment, then Kevin landed on the rock outcropping at the far edge of the arena. He squatted as he peered at AJ. “This may look familiar to you.”

“You don’t look worried enough.” AJ continued to flap his wings as he paused in the center of the arena, staring at Kevin, the corners of his lips upticking.

“Should I be?” A bright sapphire light surrounded Kevin’s hand.

“Definitely!” AJ pulled on his earring until it elongated into the shimmering golden mirror.

With a loose clench of his fingers, the airy blue glow became a sphere. Its sapphire light shimmered and swirled in Kevin’s hand as he squeezed it. After catching AJ’s glance, he tossed the orb toward him.

The airy and bright orb seemed like a power that would reflect off the glassy mirror, but when AJ aimed the mirror to deflect, it struck with a loud splat. AJ gaped at it. What?

Kevin threw a second sphere; it clung the reflective surface with a splatter.

“Kevin?”

“Healing powers aren’t meant to be thrown, clearly.” He laughed.

“Maybe I need Nick to practice against him after all.” AJ stared at the gelatinous forms on the mirror and frowned. I didn’t expect Kevin to be able to throw his healing power...

A faint chime rang in the air, chased by a burst of sapphire light. When it struck the mirror, it knocked AJ off balance before ricocheting off of it and exploding against the ceiling. AJ’s eyes flashed open as he gaped at the foggy air above him. A second faint chime twinkled and AJ ducked behind the mirror. After hitting the mirror, the second burst of light bounced back toward the entrance.

Brian swung his staff and a sapphire barrier sprung up around him. It rippled, then absorbed the blast as though it beckoned the power back. A wide grin spread on Brian’s face. “Effective.”

“Brian!” AJ peeked around the mirror as he breathed heavily, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.

“Nick would be really surprised by that.” When Brian tapped his staff on the ground, the barrier vanished.

AJ and Kevin descended to the ground and landed next to Brian.

When AJ shrank the mirror back to its regular size, the healing magic splatters disintegrated, then he placed the golden hoop back into his ear. “Thanks, Kevin. I wonder if there’s a way to use healing power if you toss it.”

Kevin crossed his arms, shrugging as he pressed his lips into a thin line.

“You came at the right time, but why are you here, Brian?” AJ cocked an eyebrow as he fiddled with his earring.

“I asked everyone to come.” Brian sat and rested his staff across his legs.

“Is that why you came, Kevin?”

“When Erik regained consciousness, I decided that it was best to give the ruby demons and Madeline some time before they came here. I thought that maybe I would come sooner and try some training of my own.” He laughed as he sat beside Brian. “Trying to attack your mirror wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”

“Was that why you asked everyone to come here?” AJ glanced at Brian as he sat, then leaned on his crossed legs.

“No, Jacob and I had a conversation earlier, but I just found out when I saw Kevin first. Good timing though, right?” He patted AJ’s shoulder and laughed. “I’m glad you were still here. I wasn’t sure where to look if you weren’t.”

Wonder what his conversation with Jacob was about. AJ shrugged. “I tried to run a few laps first.” His sheepish grin became a loud laugh. “Tried. Then I practiced some aerial dives.”

“You’re really dedicated.” Brian smiled, then glanced at the door anxiously, but quickly relaxed.

Howie strode in, then sat on his knees beside them. “All of you are quite punctual. Brian, why did you ask everyone to gather?”

“Now that at least you three are here… I’ve been thinking about our plans. Jacob and I had a conversation earlier, but...” He gripped his staff and frowned. “...it was mostly after our conversation ended abruptly yesterday…”

Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword. “We apologize for requesting solitude. We were prepared for Nick’s outburst in regards to Minako, but not his concern for our person or our choices.” He swallowed. “We had always intended to speak on our powers, however, the timing was never quite right in our previous journey and within the castle. As you must have assumed, they are a liability in the midst of battle. Forethought creates usefulness.”

AJ frowned, feeling a tightness in his throat. After swallowing and pushing it away, he forced a smile on his face as he clapped Howie’s shoulder. “Howie, it’s who you are. You shouldn’t have to feel guilty because you have a power that could be dangerous.” AJ shrugged. “Unless you were using it thoughtlessly.”

“On the contrary.” He glanced at AJ, then fixed his gaze back on his sword. “It is never a power to use thoughtlessly. In addition, we became increasingly careful after learning the cost for the scale. Perhaps it is a power we will never use again.”

Kevin frowned. “All powers are useful. Together, we can figure out what to do with them in the future. But most importantly, they’re part of who you are. And while we think you are more important, we’ll trust any cost you decide is worth paying.”

As he kept his hand cupped against Howie’s shoulder, AJ nodded while keeping the same smile on his face. Brian mimicked AJ’s expressions.

Howie chuckled. “We spoke similarly with Nick in regards to his powers. It seems that is a truth that permeates all of us. Demonic powers are integral to our existences, but should not be of the utmost importance. We will consult you all before using them on the next occasion they could prove useful.”

After glancing at Brian, Kevin frowned. “What about our plans? You spoke with Jacob?”

“Are we putting off the inevitable?” Brian gripped his staff tightly again.

Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line.

Silence settled in the space between them until the echo of footsteps filled it. When the four demons glanced toward the door, they caught sight of the ruby demons and Madeline entering the arena.

Brian motioned to the ground beside them. “We’re just waiting for Nick and Minako.”

Ashley snorted as he sat.

As she sat next to Kevin, Madeline glanced at him with a hard stare and a scrunched nose. “Ashley…”

“At least one of you sees that this alliance has been meaningless so far.” He sneered.

Jacob frowned. “We found Erik because of their help and they are willing--.”

“Let Erik be grateful for that.” Ashley bared his glinting fangs.

Brian gripped his staff and furrowed his brow as he stared at the entrance to the arena.

This might be our only chance to talk without Nick here… What did Brian and Jacob say to each other? “We can fill them in later?”

“Maybe you’re right.” Brian sighed as he shook his head, but smiled when he caught AJ’s gaze.

Laughter echoed down the corridor, drawing the attention of the four sapphire demons. Nick beamed as he pulled Minako through the entrance before nuzzling against her neck and whispering. Though she covered her face with her hand, a giggle seemed to be her response. After catching AJ’s stare, a small smile formed on Nick’s face, but slowly became a grimace as he scanned everyone present. He hurriedly bit his lip, as though he attempted to hide his expression.

“You’re not late.” Brian smiled.

Nick glanced between Brian’s smile and Ashley’s sneer, then lowered his head. Minako brushed his cheek with her hand, then whispered something in his ear that caused him to smile again. They sat on the ground beside Howie; Nick held Minako in his lap gently.

As silence settled over the group again, AJ swallowed. The feeling with them here is different. We’re barely an alliance...

Madeline gripped her jeans and stared at her hands then clenched her eyes shut as she shouted. “Erik finally woke up this morning!”

“Madeline, that’s great!” Minako smiled. “Kevin, you’re a hero.”

“It’s so great! Really, thank you, Kevin!”

Kevin patted Madeline’s shoulder. “I’m happy that he’s recovering.”

Nick glanced at Brian, then turned to Kevin. “Can he travel?"

"Nicky…” Madeline frowned. “Are you in a hurry to go?"

Nick bit his lip as he laced his fingers through Minako's, then glanced at Brian again.

Brian gripped his staff and furrowed his brow as he caught Nick’s gaze.

Of course Nick would get Brian to tell him everything and then decide he can be late because he already knows. AJ laughed. “What secret aren’t you two telling us?”

“No secret…” Nick stared at the ground and fiddled with Minako’s hair.

Minako glanced at Brian, but quickly averted her gaze as Brian held his forehead.

Weird...

Kevin cleared his throat. “He’s conscious, Nick, but it will still be some time before he’s able to endure long traveling.” Kevin crossed his arms. “Or Brian’s plans.”

Madeline frowned as she cocked her head. “What’s going on?”

Ashley growled. “They’re clearly planning on using us as infantry and avoiding saying it directly.”

“Or they are familiar enough with each other’s mannerisms to fill in the gaps in their conversations.” Jacob held his forehead in his hand. “Ashley, it’s an alliance, not empire-building.”

“Why are you so calm about it?” Ashley growled again.

Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword. "Is Topazuseihou still our immediate plan or do we feel prepared to travel to Emeradotouhou?” He glanced at Brian as well. “Or perhaps… another solution?"

Brian furrowed his brow. “We should split up.”

“I know you said it, but Brian… We’re stronger together...” Minako ran her hand along Nick’s fingers.

“Minako, you want to find Renee in Emeradotouhou.”

“Of course I do…” Her shoulders slumped as she stared at the ground. “We should have gone a while ago…”

“Madline would say the same thing about finding her sister in Topazuseihou. We can’t keep putting off one thing for another.”

Minako nodded her head, but kept her gaze fixed on the ground, as though she refused to look at him.

“AJ, I know you want to find Joseph if you can.”

“I do.” AJ hung his head. I’m happy you remember, Brian, but… what would they say? Are they just being quiet to let you talk?

“It’s clear that not all of the demons and priestesses sought each other out. We would have found all of the Ruby demons in Rubiihoppou if they did.”

“So you think the rest may be in Topazuseihou or Emeradotouhou?” Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line.

“Maybe here in Safaiananpou too. But I would feel confident in guessing that Justin went back to Emeradotouhou eventually.”

Howie folded his hands in his lap. “We have yet to discuss the feasibility of two separate reconnaissance missions.”

Brian gripped his staff. “Emeradotouhou seems like it would be more dangerous, but it’s equally dangerous to keep avoiding it. I’m sure Topazuseihou isn’t easy either though.”

A grimace flashed across Jacob’s face, but he quickly contorted it into a frown. “Do we have enough allies? I know we discussed it and I haven’t met the emerald demons, but… Madeline said they were ruthless.”

We can’t keep grouping them together. Joseph isn’t ruthless. He’s… AJ clenched his fist and growled. “Justin is ruthless. If we keep giving him time, he’ll only get stronger too.”

“How do we split our travel parties?” Howie scanned their faces as though calculating potential battle tactics in his mind.

“I’m going to Emeradotouhou!” Nick pulled Minako against his chest tightly.

“Nick…” She clutched his arms as she stared at his face over her shoulder.

“I will definitely defeat Justin when we see each other!” He smiled down at her. “And I will definitely bring Renee back with us.”

“That means I’m headed to Emeradotouhou as well.” Kevin chuckled.

Nick flinched, then fixed his stare on Kevin’s face. “I’ll really be--”

“Brian’s right, Emeradotouhou seems riskier than Topazuseihou. I’ll be more helpful in the riskier place.”

“Kevin--”

“The plausibility of you getting injured only strengthens the choice.” He smirked.

Nick glanced away from him, but a hint of a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth.

Howie held a splayed hand to his chest. “We possess the necessary navigation tools to lead the reconnaissance party through Topazuseihou. AJ? Brian?”

“I’ll go to Emeradotouhou.” Brian gripped his staff.

AJ held his hand to his chest, inhaling deeply. When I think about where you might be, Joseph… I just can’t picture you with Justin… And you weren’t in Rubihoppou or here... “I think… It feels like Topazuseihou is the right choice. I’ll go with you, Howie.”

“We look forward to accompanying you in your search for your sister.” Howie smiled warmly at Madeline. “Unless you prefer Emeradotouhou.”

“Thank you, Howie. I appreciate your help! Should the rest of us stay together?”

“Either party should be an acceptable choice.”

“I’ll go to Emeradotouhou too.” Minako ran her hand along Nick’s arm. “I’ve been thinking that Lance could help me convince Renee to come back with us. He seemed to like her better than Justin, so maybe they don’t get along.”

Ashley snorted. “Attempting to ally with two of your enemies?”

Howie’s smile fell slightly and he spoke with a commanding tone. “If their alliance is to justice and not Justin, then their intell should prove invaluable. Do you have a preference?”

Though Ashley pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, his narrowed eyes seethed.

“You’re more useful in Emeradotouhou.” Nick glared at him over Minako’s shoulder.

“Nicky…” A quiet smirk crossed his face. “You’ve either decided to forgive me, or…” His smirk grew. “...Is it that you want to keep an eye on me?”

Nick’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing.

“Predictable. I will still go to Emeradotouhou as you have declared.”

“Madeline, do you have a preference?” Jacob gripped her hand lightly.

“No… Pick whatever you want, Jacob.”

“Is it necessary to commit now?” Jacob glanced at the entrance, then back at Madeline and Howie.

Howie scanned the group. “Not necessarily, however, planned reconnaissance parties would allow appropriate training.”

“I will decide shortly.”

“Enough talk.” Ashley stood and crossed his arms. “You have your plan. Nicky, let’s test their training for you and see if it’s been enough to defeat your insurmountable enemy.”

Nick’s arms tensed around Minako as he glanced at the ground.

“Wait!” AJ leapt to his feet. “Nick owes me the end of our last fight!”

Nick cocked his head, his mouth slightly agape as he quickly turned to face AJ.

“I told you I didn’t like dodging while planning, but I’ll take time to plan later.” AJ grinned. “No more meetings with Brian though.”

Nick unwrapped his arms from around Minako, then pressed his hand against her back and they stood. “Okay.” He grinned broadly. “Pretty sure you’ll end it first again.”

“I’ll definitely win if you’re already that cocky.” AJ clapped Nick’s shoulder as he laughed. I’ll definitely distract you!

A bright smile filled Nick’s face as he laced his fingers through Minako’s and leaned toward her. “I’ve got this. You and me.” While wrapping his arms around her waist, he pressed a firm kiss to her lips. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, Nick!” She brushed his hair back and kissed him again.

“Wish me luck, too!” AJ laughed again.

As Nick embraced Minako tightly, she glanced at AJ over his shoulder. “Good luck, AJ!”

Nick flinched and tightened his arms around her.

“Now that I’ve riled Nick up again, let’s start from where we left off.” AJ grinned, then began walking to the middle of the arena, picking up pebbles along the way.

Nick followed after him, then leapt into the air. When he landed on the rock outcropping, he squatted, then peered down at AJ, scrutinizing his motions. “Okay, go!”

After leaping into the air, AJ began slinging the small pebbles at Nick’s face.

Unlike last time, Nick hid his face behind his elbow, dodging the small pebbles as he held his cupped hand to his chest. Once the small orbs filled his hand, he pulled it away, then flicked one toward AJ.

He doesn’t suspect anything! AJ smirked, then descended toward the ground, dodging the stinging light. As he pulled his hoop from his ear, he clenched his other hand into a fist, removing the sinewy string from between his fingers and dropping the remaining pebbles to the ground. He began rising toward Nick again, clutching the earring in his hand tightly.

Nick flicked another orb toward AJ.

The mirror grew in AJ’s hands and he aimed it to catch the orb. When it hit, it reflected off the mirror, exploding into beams of light that shot across the room. An explosion? AJ's gape quickly became a grin.

Though Nick shielded his eyes, the beams of light were more than just bright. One struck Nick’s arm and he yanked it backward, dropping several of the small orbs to the ground. After gritting his teeth, as though biting back the pain, he began flicking the remaining orbs toward AJ in rapid succession.

Keeping the volley alive, AJ caught each one in the mirror’s reflective surface, exploding them into hundreds of beams that shrouded AJ in hazy brightness. Got you. AJ smirked as he slowly moved across the arena toward Nick.

Only Nick’s growl echoed in the silent and bright room.

AJ’s smirk became a gleeful grin as he shrank his earring back down, then returned it to his ear. Kevin and Brian stopping by was exactly what I needed to plan a win! A bright blue glow surrounded AJ’s arm as it transformed into a saber. When he reached the rock outcropping, he landed with a loud thud.

A second growl pierced the bright haze and AJ thrust his arm toward Nick. The sharp point of AJ’s saber stopped inches from Nick’s abdomen.

“Your move, Nick.”

Backed against the wall, Nick continued to growl, then shut his eyes and grimaced.

“Do I win this one?” Barely containing his glee, AJ’s grin continued to grow.

Nick’s eyes flashed open and he snapped his fingers. Nothing happened. Next, he splayed his fingers, but still nothing happened. Finally, Nick lowered his head. “Yeah.” When he raised it, a bright smile covered his face as he clapped his hand on AJ’s shoulder. “A mirror? Impressive! I didn’t think they would explode or sting!”

“I didn’t either. Brian’s barriers just reflected.” AJ laughed as he pulled his arm back, then gripped his earring, reverting it back to normal. “Kevin tried to stand in for you and his healing magic just stuck to it.”

“What?” Nick laughed loudly.

“Splat.”

Hunching as he wrapped his arms around his abdomen, Nick continued laughing as he lowered his chin to his chest.

Though the light surrounding the room diminished, the two demons’s laughter continued to fill it.

AJ cupped Nick’s shoulder. “This is a friendly fight, but Ashley might not treat yours as friendly.”

“He never does.” Nick straightened as he ran his finger under his eye.

“Don’t let him use it against you.”

“Never.” Nick grinned, then pointed at AJ. “And you won’t get so lucky next time either.”

“I don’t need luck.” AJ’s smile grew. “Next time, I’ll beat you before I need the mirror.”

End Notes:
AJ's flashback is from PBox's Chapter Forty-Six: Chaos. I decided to give AJ the POV first in this one (outside of Nick and Minako) because he joined the group so late last time, but he's also always had his own things going on. When I was originally writing this chapter, I'd started it when Nick and Minako walked in, but got stuck. It wasn't until after I added the AJ things at the beginning that the chapter began to flow properly. So, here's a little shout out to AJ. Fun random fact: I also almost named the chapter "Splat" because I thought that Kevin's healing magic making a splat sound was hilarious. See you next week! As always, around to chat!
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Sacrifice by nicksgal
When Nick and AJ landed in the center of the arena, they were met with Ashley’s stern stare.

“Thanks.” AJ grinned and patted Ashley’s shoulder. “He’s all yours.”

Ashley rolled his shoulder back, forcing AJ’s hand from it. AJ frowned, glancing at Nick.

“Shouldn’t we all work together?” Nick pressed his lips into a thin line. “Howie?”

“If there are truly two reconnaissance parties, then it seems logical to separate training as well so that there is no reliance on a tactic that will not be available.” Though Howie took careful steps, he smiled as he walked toward them.

“But…” We’ve been training together...

“We will plan a way to reconvene safely.” He cupped Nick’s shoulder. “That is of the utmost importance.”

Nick glanced at Brian, Kevin, and Minako, then at the ground. “Okay.”

“Remember, do not sacrifice any piece of yourself due to fear. Observe and act, rather than reacting.” As Howie smiled, he cupped Nick’s second shoulder, holding them both tightly. “You are not a monster, you are Nick. And Nick is irreplaceable to this clan.”

“You are too, Howie!” Nick pulled Howie into a tight hug. “I’m… sorry for yelling yesterday! If you think something’s for the best… I trust you!”

Howie patted Nick’s back and lowered his voice to a whisper. “We know vulnerability frightens you, but allowing others to see your worry for them is not a weakness. There is strength in that support.”

As he nodded, Nick tightened his embrace on Howie.

Howie pulled back, then turned to AJ. “We have a route to navigate.”

AJ nodded, patting Nick’s shoulder as he began walking toward the exit.

“Ruby Pandora, will you accompany us or shall we reconvene later?”

“Later…” She stood. “I want to see Erik again.”

After giving her a brief nod, Howie quickened his pace to catch up with AJ. Madeline followed slowly behind them. Once the three of them exited the arena, Nick glanced back at Ashley who crossed his arms and smirked as he fixed his stare on Nick.

“You think it’s a weakness.” Nick swallowed, forcing the frown away from his lips.

“Astute.” Ashley’s smirk grew.

Nick’s hands clenched as they tensed. “What I can do for them is more important than what they can do for me.”

“Wrong. Others are a liability. Especially when you place their importance above your own.”

Nick growled.

Ashley glanced toward Minako, watching her quietly speaking with Kevin and Brian. “Not to mention that your priestess will likely be useless in a fight against demons.”

“She’s strong enough to fight when she needs to.” Nick snarled, clenching his fists tighter. “You’re talking to me, look at me.”

"Are you strong enough to focus on yourself and let her?" When their eyes met again, Ashley’s contemptuous smile flicked with joy.

Nick flinched. What? What is he…

“Jacob, distract him.”

Over Ashley’s shoulder, Jacob held his hands crossed at his chest -- they glowed with vibrant red dust.

Whatever, it’s not like anything grows in here. Nick inhaled deeply and pulled back his arm, ready to strike Ashley.

At that moment, Jacob spread his hands apart, sending millions of spores into the air.

Searching for Ashley, Nick whirled his head in the thick fog. Sight shrouded, he blinked, attempting to clear the stinging and burning from his eyes. He sputtered -- the dense, earthy flavor filling his mouth with bitterness, before forcing a gag from his throat.

“You behave as though these are polite battles where your enemies will exchange witty words with you before choosing one-on-one combat, instead of a war where your enemies will do anything to see you dead.” Ashley’s voice rang through the hazy fog.

Nick coughed, brushing his hands across his face as he stumbled through the thick cloud.

“How will you prepare for a battle you don’t control when your enemies focus on your personal defeat before picking your companions off one by one? Will you be able to protect her then? Or will you focus on yourself?”

A choking growl escaped his lips, growing strong as he pushed through the smoggy haze.

“Nick! Duck!”

Duck? Brian? Nick whirled around, but the spores continued to shroud his sight, blocking any hope of communicating with Brian. Still, he dropped to the ground moments before a stream of sapphire light pierced the fog. It exploded in a bright burst of breezy light, pushing the spores away and clearing the air surrounding his body. He scanned the arena quickly to see Brian, Kevin, and Minako still standing by the entrance. Brian!

Brian swayed, then slammed his staff into the ground, leaning on it for balance. Minako held his shoulders tightly as Brian’s blistering stare crossed the arena and settled on the rock outcropping where Ashley and Jacob squatted, peering over the edge.

“You act like it’s Nick against the world! We’re all still here to fight beside him!”

Ashley smirked. “A priest who can barely stand after assisting is not an asset to your team. Clans who believe in pacifism breed only weakness.”

As Kevin pushed his hands toward Brian’s chest, they began glowing with a bright blue light.

“I’m fine.” Brian brushed his hand away, his stare still fixed on Ashley. “No one thrives when there’s only war. Life is about more than fighting, but I will always fight for them, even when it goes against my upbringing.” Brian glanced at Nick as a small smile quirked on his lips, then stared back at Ashley with his lips pressed in a thin line.

After a brief and minuscule nod, Nick grinned. Understood. He began crawling across the ground toward the outcropping and the edge of the arena.

“War is inevitable in this world.” Ashley’s voice echoed across the arena.

“If we’re stronger, why are we making it inevitable? Might doesn’t make right!”

“The strong win because the strong survive. Consider yourself lucky that your weakness is somehow strong enough.”

“They’re not weak!” Minako held Brian tighter as she stared at Ashley, her hands trembling with her grip. “We’re stronger together!”

“Weak sapphire demons, constantly pledging loyalty to each other.” Ashley laughed derisively. “It will be your undoing.”

Jacob crossed his arms as he frowned. “It’s also easy to strike you when you’re all bunched up. Aren’t you worried about that?”

Kevin clenched his hand, causing the sapphire glow to vanish. “Togetherness is our strength.”

Ashley cackled. “Hardly.”

Brian shot another sapphire blast toward the rock outcropping, which Ashley and Jacob jumped to dodge. As the sapphire light burst against the rock, Nick leapt from the ground and sank his claws into the bottom of the rock outcropping. He dangled for a moment, then swung his feet against it, clenching the hard stone in his claws. When the light dissipated, Ashley and Jacob landed again.

“We’ll have to work on your aim, Brian.” Jacob frowned.

Though his head sank and his shoulders rose and fell sharply with his heavy breath, when Brian raised his head, a broad grin formed on his face. As he gripped his staff tightly, regaining balance, a quiet laugh fell from his lips.

“What?” Ashley sneered.

“Depends on what I was aiming at.”

Now! Nick jumped up onto the ledge, flicking small orbs at Ashley and Jacob that scorched their clothing and singed their skin. As Jacob rubbed his arm gingerly, Nick kicked him swiftly in the abdomen, sending him plummeting toward the ground.

Nick smirked and whirled on Ashley with a quick jab. “I thought our opponents wouldn’t get distracted by talking.”

“You’re still punching instead of using your powers.” Ashley snarled as he blocked it, thrusting an uppercut toward Nick’s face.

“You too!” Nick raised his elbow to block, punching Ashley’s cheek with his other fist -- the force from his ring left a bloody gash behind. He hopped backward as he held his hand to his chest. “Let’s agree that we use our powers or don’t!”

“You’re making a dangerous choice, Nicky.” Ashley sneered and his hand began blazing with a red energy as he walked across the outcropping.

Backed against the wall, Nick flicked small, bright orbs at Ashley’s face, but he merely brushed them aside.. Ashley launched his crackling fist at Nick, knocking him from the rock outcropping. As he fell, Nick thrust a clawed hand into the rock, latching on to it with a crunch.

Though he hung from the rock perilously, he growled and scanned the arena. A barrier immobilized Jacob. Minako sprinted toward him. Kevin and Brian leapt into flight, abandoning their sprints. When he fixed his gaze back on Ashley, Nick glowered.

“It’s sentimental of them to come to your rescue.” He glanced at Jacob’s frozen form. “And ensure that I lack aid.” He squatted and grabbed Nick’s wrist, the electric energy absent from his hands. “Do you think they’re hurrying to protect you because they don’t think you’re strong enough to beat me on your own?”

Nick thrust his free claws toward Ashley’s face as he snarled. Small gashes burst across the bridge of Ashley’s nose, dripping trickles of blood down his mouth and chin as he growled back.

“We always help each other. We’re stronger together!”

“Are you sure they’ll always help you? There’s no shreds of doubt?”

“Of course not!” Nick growled.

Ashley smirked, but said nothing.

What?

As he gripped Nick’s arms, Ashley’s hands began burning with an electric blaze.

Nick winced, trying to pull back, but the wince quickly became a guttural cry as the electric energy snaked up his arms. What is this?! His claws grew slack against the stone.

Ashley forcefully pulled Nick toward him, then thrust his foot against his chest as he let go, sending Nick hurtling to the ground. Moments later, Brian and Kevin landed on the rock outcropping.

“Ashley! This is supposed to be training!” Kevin shouted.

Brian gripped his chest, then jumped from the ledge. “Nick!”

“Nick!” Minako quickened her pace.

Despite falling, Nick unfurled his wings as he flipped, propelling his chest toward the ground, rather than his back. His wings caught the rising air, slowing his descent as he tucked his head to his chest, forcing his knees and elbows to hit the stone as he landed. He winced, letting his wings fold gently against his back as he pushed himself up onto his knees

After landing on his feet, Brian knelt beside him. “You okay?”

The electric blaze crackled against Nick’s skin as it flared, then disappeared. Nick winced again. “The fall? Yeah. Not my first time being pushed from somewhere high.” Nick grimaced. That sting though...

Ashley leapt from the overhang, landing in front of Nick and Brian. For a brief moment, he glanced back at them with a glinting smirk, then fixed his gaze on Minako. His hands flared open as the crackling energy formed in them.

No! Nick jumped to his feet and sprinted toward her as sapphire light flicked against his skin. “Minako!”

“Sleeping priestesses have no right to speak in a battle between demons!”

She has to hear me. She has to keep breathing. She can’t be still. She can’t freeze. She has to respond. She has to smile at me. She has to worry about me.


Though he raced toward her, a second blast of red energy quickly joined the first. They felt eons apart as his blaring heartbeat and rapid breathing filled the void between them, blocking out all other motion and sound -- until her shriek burst through his senses. “Minako!”

Only your kindness. Only your honey voice. Only your gentle touch. Only your sparkling eyes. Only your gleaming smile. Only your warmth. Only your brightness.

Knocked to the ground by the force, Minako cupped her shaking hands to her chest, struggling to stand as she hunched her shoulders with her head curled into her fingers.

I can’t keep going without you! You’re all my strength! He skidded to a stop in front of her, then knelt down and cradled her. “Minako! It’s going to be okay!”

A small sapphire barrier flickered around them weakly as she reached her hand up to his cheek. “Nick... It’s okay. You have to...” She winced.

“Minako!”

“The darkness never made you weak, it was Pandora of the Sapphires!”

Nick held her tightly to his chest as he snapped his attention toward Ashley. His footsteps echoed through Nick’s mind, almost drowning out his own breath and heartbeat.

“As I mentioned, caring for others over yourself is a liability.”

Monster… Nick growled as the light flickering against his skin intensified.

Another burst of red energy shattered the weak barrier surrounding them and the glinting sapphire light cascaded to the ground before disappearing.

“More than a mere liability, it is your most exploitable weakness. Any enemy, useless or formidable, will recognize that.”

How dare you… The sapphire light blazed and rampaged around Nick’s body, but he continued to clutch Minako tightly as a second low growl pressed against his lips. The arena surrounding him blurred, but Ashley’s face remained clear. Though numbness spread across his body, Minako’s shallow breaths remained warm against his neck.

Clarity returned when Brian cupped Nick’s shoulder, then knelt beside him.

We’re stronger together… Nick wordlessly passed Minako’s body into Brian’s arms.

“We’re allies! These methods are too extreme!” Kevin furrowed his brow as he knelt beside them, then pressed his glowing hands against Minako’s chest.

“Hardly.” Ashley smirked. “There is no strength or victory in ignoring blatant weaknesses. You need to learn, Nicky.” A shimmer of light wrapped around Ashley’s body.

Brian gaped and grabbed Nick’s shoulder forcefully, but Nick quickly brushed his hand off and stood.

Nick’s wings flared from his back and his fangs curved over his lips as his growl intensified. Cracking knuckles became clenched fists; the sapphire light glinted and danced in his eyes.

“So, you can reach into your reserves of power?” Ashley’s smirk grew. “Interesting. Can you control it?”

Brian hurriedly pushed Minako into Kevin’s grasp and sprung to his feet, grabbing Nick’s shoulder again.

Nick pulled from his grasp, stare still fixed on Ashley. Slowly, a bright and blazing orb of energy formed around Nick’s hand and he threw a punch at Ashley’s chest. I’ll kill you!

The air around Ashley rippled and Nick’s fist bounced back, sending the light ricocheting around the arena. The same sickening red energy formed around Ashley’s hands as he grabbed Nick’s shoulders and smirked. Sparks flared around Nick’s body, sending stinging shock waves shooting through his veins and causing him to crumple in on himself as he shrieked. Ashley thrust a punch into Nick’s chest, slicing the red energy across it. Nick collapsed on the ground, curling his knees to his chest as he trembled and coughed. His wings folded around his shoulders.

The red glow dissipated as the shimmer disappeared. Ashley crossed his arms as he stared down at Nick. “Remember that your enemies will aim for your more vital organs. Wrath can only make you so strong if you cannot calmly accept that your companions may need to be sacrificed for victory.”

“I would... never... sacrifice them.” Nick winced as his wings unfurled and he leaned on his elbows.

“Then you will always lose, no matter how hard you train or how much stronger you get.” Ashley began walking toward the entrance, then glanced over his shoulder at Jacob’s unfrozen form. “Let’s go, Jacob.” Moments later, the two demons disappeared through the crevice.

Nick snarled, baring his teeth as his face and neck washed in red. He clutched his chest as he winced. Better me than Minako… He growled, his hand shaking as it tensed and clenched before he slammed it against the stone. I can’t let that happen again!

Brian knelt beside him and cupped Nick’s shoulder. “Sorry we weren’t fast enough! You okay? What w--”

“I’m fine!” Nick exhaled forcefully through his nose, then sat up and ran his hand down his face. “Sorry. I’m fine. Thanks.”

“You’re learning, Nick. Even though you were upset, you kept calm enough to stay in control of your powers.” Kevin patted Minako’s hand, then pulled away and moved toward Nick.

“Barely.” He clenched his eyes shut and winced as a residual shock ran through him. “These must be Ashley’s real powers. They’re just like that false god… Stinging…” He growled.

“I tried to warn you, but it looks like he has barrier powers too. It’s probably how he was close to you that day when you were young and still lived.” Brian pressed his lips into a thin line. “It doesn’t look like he can make them any larger than his body though…”

“Howie said he used wind and wood powers when you first encountered him.” Kevin frowned. “How many clans has he stolen from?” He ran his glowing hands over Nick’s wounds.

Minako brushed Nick’s hair back. “It’s okay, Nick. He just took me by surprise this time since we’re on the same team...”

We really are stronger together! This lesson can’t happen again! After a quick glance at Brian and Kevin, Nick fixed his stare on hers as he gripped her cheek. I can’t let there be a chance. You’re my everything.

“...Well, and also that his hands looked that same way the day he told me about what happened when you were younger.”

Nick’s hand tensed as his nostrils flared. I will never let that happen again!

~*~



A grimace crossed Nick’s face as he winced. Though he held his hand gently to his chest, he pulled Minako down the path, running his thumb over his hand as they walked.

“Nick!” Minako hugged his arm and placed her hand on his lower back. “We don’t need to go anywhere if you’re still hurting! Everyone would give you space if you said you wanted it.”

“It’s okay. I like the fresh air.” He smiled gently. “And that’s what you and I said, right? More time for just us.”

“But you should be resting now before we go! If we have time to rest, we should use it!”

“Every moment I have to rest is a moment I can spend with you.” While pausing, he licked his lower lip, then brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh, there it is.” He pulled her toward the concave dip they’d sat in the night before. Though the stone remained smooth, the magic of yesterday’s twilight had disappeared. With a grunt, he lowered himself to the ground, then reached his arms toward her.

Minako settled against his uninjured side and leaned her head against his. “Nick, it’s okay to say when you’re hurting.”

“This reminds me of that day we met the bandits, then it rained. Remember how much I fought with you before I let you wash the cuts on my face and wing?” He laughed. “Always hiding. Quiet or shouting with nothing in between. I don’t know what you saw in me back then.”

“You were the exact same Nick I love, I promise. You’d just been depending on yourself for so long.” She smiled as he brushed his hair back from his forehead. “And bleeding is a kind of vulnerability that you’re not in control of.”

“Glad I stopped hiding when I got hurt.” He laughed again. “I would’ve been really useless the whole time we were trying to get the box if I didn’t.” He brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, letting his fingers linger as he pulled them away. “I think that was the first day that I started to see you as Minako and not just Pandora. Or at least… it was the first day I decided that I would do anything I could to protect you… even if it meant that I got hurt.”

“You were really reckless that day! I know you’re strong, but they had knives!” She gripped his shoulder. “It’s why you need to be more careful around Justin too!”

“So we can get the box?” he mumbled as he shut his eyes, laughing quietly.

“What? Nick, of course not! You mattered more than the box then and you matter more than everything now! You’re always more important than the things we have to do!”

“That’s it.” A warm smile washed over his face as he opened his eyes. “When I was calling the box important, you called me important. Important despite the box we needed existing. And if I was important for just being Nick, then you were important for being Minako and not Pandora.”

“Of course you’re important.” She brushed her hand through his hair again, the same gentle smile on her lips. “You’re the most important to me.”

“Me too. More important than anything else.” His eyebrows pinched as he cupped her cheek. Where do I even start? “I’m sorry…”

“It wasn’t your fault. We all misjudged what Ashley would do in a friendly fight.”

You’d never guess that I mean… He glanced at the ground and swallowed. “I hate that too…”

“Too? Nick?”

“Minako…” While running his thumb on her cheek, he fixed his gaze back on hers. “Go to Topazuseihou instead. Please?”

Her breath caught in her throat as her hand froze at his forehead.

You hate it! But I… “I’ll come back safely!”

“But Renee, and our promise...” She blinked, trying to clear the tears forming in her eyes.

“I know...” Stop crying… He brushed the tears from her cheek. “I want the same thing. You have all of me forever.”

“But if you get hurt and I’m not… with you… and Renee...”

“Renee will come back with us, no matter what! Kevin and Brian will help keep me safe! I’m coming back to you!” He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. I swear… “But…”

She gripped a fold in his tunic, but said nothing.

“Minako…” He swallowed. “Last time in Emeradotouhou, I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell you that I loved you… And then in the castle, when Ashley…” His voice hitched as he blinked away the tears forming in his eyes. “I thought you died! It destroyed me! And then Ashley hurting you today and finding out how he almost hurt you in Rubiihoppou too… I want to have all of you forever, so you being healthy and safe has to be the most important! Even more important than us always being together! I don’t want to take any decisions away from you, but I couldn’t keep living without you!” He gripped her shoulders. "I swear to you that there’s no place too far away! I’ll get back to you safely! I’ll bring Renee back to you safely!"

She threw her arms around his neck. "Nick, no! You have to be healthy and safe too! I want to be where you are!"

"I know! I want to be where you are too!” He thrust his arms around her shoulders tightly and pulled her into his chest. “But the last time we were in Emeradotouhou, I couldn't stand it that you got hurt and I couldn’t do anything!" He ran his hand down her hair. "And even when I figured out what to do, we all got really hurt! Even with my powers, I would do anything I could to keep you safe! Every single thing, even if it was the opposite of what we planned!"

"I’ll keep you safe too!” She buried her head against his neck and chest. “I'll be okay, I'm stronger! I’ll know to be ready to defend myself! I won't be a distraction!"

”You’re not a distraction at all! Minako!” Blinking back tears, he leaned his head on hers. “You deserve all my attention! Because I am your soldier, for who you are, and because I love you!"

She clenched his tunic tightly as she stared up at him, letting her tears fall down her cheeks.

You shouldn’t ever have to cry because of me… As he gripped her chin, he stared into her tear filled eyes. "I will always get to you."

“Nick, but…”

“I will do everything I can to keep every promise I’ve ever made to you.”

“I’d rather have you!”

“I know, me too.” He smoothed back her hair and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “It’s the second most important promise I’ll ever make to you. Everything I am and everything I have is yours forever.”

“Me too! You can have everything!” She pressed her hand against his chest. “But I want to help! I can help!”

“I know.” He winced and furrowed his brow. “I wonder if you can combine barriers from far away…”

“Nick? What does that have to do with anything?!”

“You like Brian’s power the most… Brian and his grandfather combined their barriers and when we came into the cave too… But they’re all really close…” He brushed his thumb against her cheek. “I wonder if you can do it from far away…”

“Asking Brian’s grandpa to come with us seems like a big request.” She frowned.

“I don’t mean that he should come with us. I wonder if you and Brian could combine barriers. Then you could help while staying safe and we could make sure I’ll get back to you.”

“But Nick! Mine are so small and the only time I made a bigger one was with Brian’s sutra. Do his sutras even work from that far away? Maybe if I went to Emeradotouhou and--”

“Go to Topazuseihou. Please? We can practice. You can get even stronger. You can be really helpful. You’ll be amazing. I don’t want to take away any decisions from you. I just...” He bit his lip. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. If Justin and Ashley are in the same place as you, I will constantly worry about you. And you need to be safe.”

She glanced at the ground, but tightly wrapped her fingers around his hand at her face. “Do you… do you really think I can still help from far away? What if my powers only work when we’re all close to each other?”

“Brian can be like Cygnus and help us make our magpie bridge.”

She glanced back up at him, sucking in her lips as though deep in thought. “Nick…” She blinked, then exhaled deeply. “Okay. If we can practice and get it to work, then I’ll go to Topazuseihou with AJ and Howie. But if it doesn’t work, I’m going with you to find Lance and get Renee out of Emeradotouhou.”

It has to work! This has to be what keeps you safe! Nick shut his eyes and inhaled a forceful breath. As he exhaled, he opened his eyes. “Okay. If it doesn’t work at all, then we’ll stay together.” He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly to his chest. “Just… don’t ever worry or doubt… Of course I want to be with you, but even if we’re far apart, you’re more important than anything we have to do. You’re everything to me. I’ll always protect you with everything I have.”

“Me too. I’ll always find you and stay with you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “No matter what. I promise.”

“I know.” He smiled as he cupped the back of her head. “That’s the one thing I’m always sure of. I… I think I have to tell everyone about the castle and the light before we go.”

“Nick? Of course you should tell them if you want to, but...” Her eyebrows pinched as she brushed her hand through his hair.

“I keep thinking that if they know, it’ll help.”

“Sure. We’re stronger together.” She bit her lip. “Do we tell them about how we were glowing?”

“You pick.” He pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “Tell them or let it be something for just us. No matter what, just you and me.”

She returned his kiss, her warm breath mingling with his.

No matter what...

End Notes:
When I originally planned the end of PNecklace, the groups were going to be the same as the end of PBox. But then I realized that knowing what happened in the castle, Kevin would absolutely insist on going to the "more dangerous" place, and was then left with the conundrum of getting rid of Brian or Minako. I ended up picking Minako because it would really hurt her and Nick (Team Dark!), but also because losing each other, their constant, would force some character development for both of them and the possibility of her dying would be enough reason for Nick to want her to go somewhere safer. So... let's see how it goes!

I also researched what happens to birds when they fall out of trees for this chapter. And I never found anything super helpful, but I did find lots of videos of baby birds learning to fly. So, if you want something cute in your life, there's a great video narrated by Oprah that you should check out: https://youtu.be/8BjYZnJEYwI
Chapter Thirty: Past by nicksgal
What will they say? Even Minako only knows the short version. Nick paced the room as he glanced at the other sapphire demons sitting around the table, the walls, the ceiling, and the floor, then hunched his shoulders and hung his head. It feels like sharing this would be helpful… But what if it doesn’t change anything? It’s not like they’ll suddenly know how to help me control my powers… He bit his lip. Maybe I am just a liability after all… A sudden brush against his shoulder ripped him from his thoughts and he flinched before whirling toward the culprit.

“You don’t have to tell us if you’re not ready.” Though his serious tone remained, Kevin’s smile was comforting as intended.

Nick groaned and buried his face in his hands. “No... I used to tell you everything about my mind after you healed me the first time. It feels like it’ll help. But then, what if it doesn’t help? What if it’s just another thing that never actually leads to anything except that one memory...”

“The mind is complicated. There’s always a chance it will only be fragments. But we’re always here to help.” In this moment of panic, Kevin radiated calm.

After inhaling deeply, Nick lowered his hands and a smile spread across his face. “I know. That’s why I want to tell you. Because we’re always here to support each other. Even when we’re upset.” He glanced at Howie as he bit his lip.

“Nick, we have accepted your apology. There is no need to dwell.”

I know, but… That wasn’t fair of me, treating you awfully and you just… You just keep accepting me and forgiving me… Just like… He glanced at the ground, then his gaze began darting around the room again. She agreed, but she didn’t like it when I asked her not to go. But… I’d do anything to keep her safe...

“She’ll be back. Stop worrying. The medical wing is just far.” Brian laughed.

“I’m surprised you’re trusting Madeline though, especially after what Ashley did.” AJ crossed his arms and scowled.

“Madeline isn’t Ashley.” Kevin pressed his lips in a thin line.

“But she’s loyal to him, clearly.”

“And to Jacob and Erik who seem less extreme.”

A quiet knock echoed across the door and Kevin quickly opened it, allowing Minako to pull Madeline into the room. When Minako’s eyes met Nick’s, a small smile filled with gentle encouragement formed on her face.

Always worried about me… That’s all I ever want to see on your face. No matter what, I need to--

“So this is where you’re all hiding.” Madeline laughed. “It’s close, but still pretty far… Did you...” She glanced at the seated sapphire demons, then Kevin, and finally Nick as she bit her fingernail. “I’m… really sorry about what Ashley did. He shouldn’t be treating you like our enemies.”

“We appreciate the sentiment, Madeline.” Howie gestured to the chair beside him.

“Nicky?” Her earnest, but hesitant expression seemed wracked with guilt. During the silence that followed, she sank into the chair beside Howie.

Nick crossed his arms as he exhaled forcefully. “It’s fine. Ashley can make his decisions and we will too. That’s why I...” He glanced at the ground. “I wanted to tell you all, but I don’t know where to start…”

“Wherever makes sense?” Brian leaned on the table.

“Your memories about the castle were helpful. Anything we know can provide clues to inform our plans.” Kevin patted Nick’s shoulder again as he returned to his seat beside Brian.

Helpful… Maybe a little too late last time. As his head sank, he laughed to himself in a tone so low that only he could hear. All I’ve ever wanted was to be helpful. But I...

Minako glanced at the chair between Madeline and Kevin, then pulled Nick away from the table. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You think it will help, that’s enough reason to say it. And you know that they care, Nick.”

“Minako, it’s…” As he trailed off, his gaze remained fixed on the ground.

“It’s okay if it doesn’t make sense right now, maybe it will make sense if we talk about it.” She laced her fingers through his. “We’ll always help you.”

“Me too. I’ll always help you too. Anything I can.” After a brief squeeze, he slowly released her hand. I have to remember, more than anything else… When I’m alone and afraid, you’ll always find me. No matter what. “I promise.”

“I… know.” Her voice hitched in that pause, but a faint and small smile formed on her lips.

Minako...

Radiating warmth, her smile grew and she grabbed his hand again. They returned to the table, Minako’s hand lightly grasping his as she walked in front of him -- a gesture reminiscent of the beginning of their journey, when she would stride ahead into the unknown and he would trudge behind. Just like then, she glanced back at him as she stopped. Unlike then, her bright smile washed away the tightness in his chest and the churning in his stomach. Though he returned her smile, he remained silent as he pulled back his hand, then she sat between Madeline and Kevin.

You can’t tell it for me, so I’ll have to figure it out. Nick inhaled deeply, resting his forehead in his hand as he shut his eyes. “I guess… I still don’t know if this is real or just jumbled feelings, but… I’m sure that dream of being covered in my family’s blood after that slaughter…” He swallowed the lump forming in his throat as he opened his eyes. “...is painfully real… So I feel like this must be too… But I’ve actually always had dreams that felt real, even though they didn’t make much sense… Giant trees. Freezing blizzards. Winding corridors. Glowing red eyes. Really tall demons I didn’t know...”

“After the castle, it seemed clear that you were always dreaming about Rubiihoppou.” Kevin furrowed his brow.

“It felt really jumbled back then, when the darkness was all there was… I always thought I was this abandoned mistake, so it was surprising that you would all be…” He swallowed again. Inside his heart, all the old feelings of inadequacy swirled with the hesitation and doubt he currently felt, creating a howling monster gnawing at his insides. “...important, but then you never treated me like I wasn’t…”

“Of course you’re important, Nick.” AJ frowned and fiddled with his earring.

“You too.” Nick frowned as well. It’s not helping… He swallowed. “When I started feeling like I was wanted, the nightmares stopped.” His head sank as he continued to swallow, in a futile attempt to combat the gale inside him. “But if they’re not nightmares and they’re actually memories… Maybe I wanted to forget, but maybe I also wanted to try as hard as I could to remember all the important things I felt like I needed to know while I waited for Minako… But being alone was…”

Darkness… only darkness everywhere… The darkness is so still, but it feels so loud. Is that me? Am I screaming in the darkness? Box… God… Pandora! I’m Nickolas! Hear me! Help me! Save me!

“...The worst kind of hell.” He raised his head, certain the color had drained from it since his hands and knees trembled.

Minako jumped from her chair, pushing it toward him. When he sank to it, he reached toward her hand and she held it tightly as she sat in the empty space Madeline had made on her chair.

I don’t know why I’m afraid. We’re far away from there. It’s only a memory… A memory I’ve never forgotten… A memory that I… He swallowed again, then inhaled deeply, hoping to quiet his pounding heart. “But even without the nightmares, some things still stuck in my head. ‘Mountain’ was so clear, but I never understood why, even after Kevin healed me. When we went back to the castle, I suddenly remembered that it was dangerous. ‘Mountain’ for the castle…” He glanced at Madeline. “...because I was there with all of you before I forgot it.”

“I’m sorry you had to go there twice, Nicky, that place was terrible. All the traps and that huge room…” Madeline’s eyes glazed as she trailed off.

AJ crossed his arms. “Traps would have been better than angry ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” Madeline’s shaky voice mimicked her trembling fingers gripped tightly against the folds in her jeans.

Brian gently placed his hand on Madeline’s shoulder. “Our traps were the spirits of the Ruby and Topaz demons, but we eventually helped them find peace.”

“Nicky…”

Nick swallowed. “You went into that room without me… The altar room…”

“Ashley and I fought about that. He wanted you to come and… I was adamant that you were still only a child, a kid brother. That it would be dangerous for you to go because you were young.” She laughed nervously. “I won that argument, somehow...”

“I’m glad you did. Now that I’ve had that fight myself, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. That altar room… reeked of death both times.”

Kevin crossed his arms. “So you did go in?”

“I really wanted to… but I wasn’t able to until...”

~*~



“Master! Master! Master!” As Nick slammed his fists on the door, his black sleeves slinked toward his elbows and the pounding echoed throughout the void in the cavernous, bleak corridor.

In response, the door creaked open slowly and a shadowed, cloaked figure with glowing red eyes peered out.

Nick gasped, taking several hesitant steps toward the wall behind him. “Master?”

The glowing red eyes seemed to smile. “Oh… it seems the Ruby or Topaz demons brought a pet… or a snack…” It reached out a clawed hand to Nick’s face. “What is your name, precious pet?”

“Nickolas…” Nick trembled under the figure’s touch. “Where is my Master?”

“My poor sweet pet, your Master is gone.”

After choking back a barely audible gasp, Nick jerked away from the figure, forcing the clawed fingers to leave small gashes in his cheek.

“Where are you going, my dear, sweet Nickolas? There’s nothing out there for you.” The clawed hand pulled him back, thwarting Nick’s attempt to bolt down the endlessly dark corridor. As the figure held Nick up in the crook of its elbow, it released a brief blast of light from its hand, illuminating the corridor as the light hurtled toward a distant staircase. When it hit, it crackled against the stone, chipping off pieces of rock that crashed to the ground, sealing the exit.

Trapped by hands… Nick’s hands shook beneath the cloaked figure’s iron grip as he clenched his eyes shut.

“Just like the stupid woman, he would rather have his money than his life.”

An intense sapphire glow burst from Nick’s eyes as they flashed open, shrouding his whites and irises in the sheen. He kicked and flailed, wrestling his body from the clawed grip until he landed on the ground in a heap.

“How interesting.” The figure laughed heartily as it towered about him.

Danger… Blue flame licked against Nick’s skin as he clenched his hands into fists, funneling the bright flames toward them.

“My precious Nickolas, you are not just any demon, but a fledgling cardinal demon. What are your powers, dear sapphire demon?” The voice cooed as the clawed hand continued to brush against his cheek. “I think I shall keep you here until they come looking for you.”

Nick growled as bright orbs began forming in his hands. Must live...

“Yes, my sweet Nickolas, be angry! Let it consume you and allow me to see your powers.”

Powers? Nick blinked, snuffing out the sapphire light. I don’t have any powers… I have to escape! Nick darted past the figure and through the now open towering doors, sprinting into the darkness of the fabled meeting he had longed to join.

“You have chosen a dangerous path, my darling Nickolas. It will devour you!” The figure laughed sinisterly as it followed him into the abyss. “This should be interesting.”

~*~



Howie leaned toward him, inhaling deeply as he attempted to mask the grimace on his face. “Nick… To be there twice…”

“There wasn’t anywhere else to go. It made sure of that.” He shook his head. “I was sad… In disbelief that they were really dead… But mostly, I was terrified. I just wanted to get out. It wasn’t a way out…”

“Nicky…”

“The second time we were there, it was heartbreaking, but you were all smiling at us and filled with kindness while your eyes were closed so peacefully…” He swallowed, hoping to erase the conflicting memories fighting for control of his body and emotions. “But they… looked tortured...”

~*~



“Are you truly prepared, sweet pet?”

Nick whirled around to see the figure behind him, its glowing red eyes seethed. He growled before running the opposite direction into the endless darkness. How big is this place? In his haste, he tripped over an object on the floor. After clattering to the ground, he pulled his leg away from the obstruction. When he began examining the offending object, his heart raced, beating loudly in his ears. A bare foot? No… a stone statue. He held his hands closely to his heart, trying to calm its erratic beating. When it continued raging, he winced and clenched his eyes shut. This hurts… Like it’s happened before… Why?

Tattered pants, a long tunic from calf to abdomen, an outstretched hand, a chest with a gaping hole, flared wings, face frozen in agony… His Master’s face frozen in agony. “Master!” He reached his hand toward the stony face as tears began pouring from his eyes and he flung his arms around its neck. No! NO! He remained pressed to the statue for a few moments, his heart swirling with anger, sadness, and guilt as the sapphire light flicked against his skin again. But when the echo of footsteps filled his ears, all those feelings were replaced with a single thought. I’m… alone…

He flinched away from the statue and stared forlornly into the slowly illuminating cavern. The contorted statues that littered the ground confirmed his worst fears; he and the cloaked incarcerator were the only breathing inhabitants in the room. He began hyperventilating and the flaring of the flames across his skin increased, but a brief glint pulled him from the panic and his stare fixed on the far edge of the room. Covered in chains with broken and torn wings sprouting from their backs, the two feminine statues reached toward each other and shielded their faces, casting intense shadows on their stone forms. Nick swallowed. Those are… “Pandoras?”

“My sweet Nickolas, they spared you the pain of dying here. If you wish to honor that action, end your imprudence.”

The brief light glinted between them again.

Nick’s whispered gasp was almost still and silent. “Box?”

~*~



Minako grimaced. “They all looked like they were suffering. Madeline, you and your sister…”

“We were both stone… huh…” Madeline hunched her shaking shoulders and tears streamed down her cheeks. “We both wrestled for the box at the same time because… they were all dead and we were the only ones left… And I remember it stung so much when we tried to grab it. Then Bri was screaming as she was bound in chains… I was too worried about her to worry about myself, I just wanted to reach out and hug her, but then everything went dark…”

“I’m sorry Madeline! I’m so sorry!” Minako threw her arms around her, nearly pulling her off the chair and into her lap. “We’ll get her back! She’s going to be okay!”

“Thank you, Minako…” Madeline gripped Minako’s arm weakly with a shaking hand. “I’m sure she’ll definitely be okay.” She swallowed and glanced at Nick before staring at the ground and pulling Minako closer to her. “That’s all I need to know about me, isn’t it? This is… your story, not mine, so keep going...”

“None of us saw you again until you appeared at the gate.” Kevin patted her shoulder. “You’ve done everything you could and there’s still time.”

Madeline sniffled back her tears, but a weak smile tweaked at her cheeks as she stared up at Kevin.

Nick glanced at the ground. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything to help you, Madeline. I didn’t get in until it was too late… Back then, I really thought I could help, but… I didn’t have powers, so I’m not sure what I thought a punch could do…” He swallowed. All I’ve ever wanted was to help... “It wasn’t your statues that made me look over there, though… When I saw the box, I stopped worrying about Ashley or you or me and all I thought was ‘That’s the box. That’s what we’re all supposed to search for and want. That’s the thing we need. I’m going to get it.’ I was so sure that if we already had it when our sapphire Pandora arrived, then no one else would have to turn to stone ever again.” He laughed quietly. “Silly, right?”

~*~



“My darling Nickolas, you cannot open it! You are merely a demon and not a Pandora!”

Nick clenched his fists and whirled to face the figure as he stood beside the altar. “You didn’t know my name, but you keep acting like you know me! Why?”

“I know all demons.” The cloaked figure clenched its fist. “I gave you life and I can take life away from you.”

Nick shuddered. “God?”

The eyes glowed sickeningly in the silence.

“Why would God let the Pandoras and demons turn to stone? Doesn’t God want Pandora to find the box?!” For a brief moment, he hesitated as the color drained from his skin. Were all the stories wrong?

“These Pandoras have failed me, precious pet. They were unworthy.”

She’ll be worthy! “Then I’ll wait for her with the box so she can’t fail you! If she has it from the beginning, she’ll definitely succeed!” His hands flinched as he reached toward the box. It’s warm… but also… it feels clouded by darkness and death… It makes me nervous… But I have to get it for her! Fueled by belief and adrenaline, he yanked the box from the altar.

~*~



AJ bolted to his feet and slammed his hands on the table. “You tried to grab the box?! Are you crazy?!”

Howie chuckled. “It seems we were correct, a sapphire demon with strength of heart to match our Pandora.”

“Strength of heart or that same leaping into anything without thinking of the consequences…” Nick grinned broadly at Howie, then Kevin.

“At least now we all know that you’ve always been always reckless.” Kevin shook his head, but the briefest of smiles formed on his lips.

“At least he’s reckless because he cares, Kevin.” Brian laughed. “We can always count on Nick to try.”

Nick’s smile fell. “God… didn’t like that… Or the false god, I guess… That was the first time I called it God and it didn’t correct me… Why would it?” Demons who want to be powerful will always take that chance… He grimaced. Just like Ashley and Justin... “When I grabbed the box, it shocked me. It hurt, but I still wanted to try… except the false god hit me with one of those bright red blasts and I got knocked into a wall. When those caskets spilled all over me, I lost the box…” He laughed quietly again. “I don’t know why the false god would do that again when we all got there… It gave me that same casket twice… the one with this vibrant blue light piecing itself together… Of course I knew...” He glanced at Minako with the same gentle smile he only gave her. “It was always that same warmth and brightness that surrounds you.”

~*~



“What has happened to you, precious pet?”

As he peered into the casket filled with bursts of sapphire light, Nick’s skin began flickering and flaring with the same light, as though it reared to meet and dance with the glinting glow. He scraped his claws against the clear lid, then flattened them as he continued to crouch on top of it. It’s you! It has to be you!

“So, you have found her in this cavern of death? She is but a child.”

I’ll hurry for you! The vibrant flames funneled toward his hands and began seeping into the casket as Nick emitted a high-pitched tone.

The cloaked figure held its hands beneath the shadowy hood, as though it attempted to block out the sound. “Sweet Nickolas, what can two children do? You are weak and powerless.”

The sapphire light began swirling around Nick and within the casket; it gathered and took shape more quickly than before, solidifying into a mass of sapphire glow that appeared as though it could sit up or breathe. Nick shut his eyes tightly as he held the tone and gripped the surface of the casket tightly. Come out! Come out and help me, Pandora! I’ll do anything to meet you! Help me!

A burst of electric red light pierced through the vortex of sapphire light and struck Nick in the chest, knocking him from the casket. As he fell backward, he reached toward it. I’ve been waiting! I’ve been waiting for so long, Pandora! Save me!

~*~



“...That’s when there was only darkness.”

Brian crossed his arms and furrowed his brow. “You make that sound a lot… That piercing one… Are you trying to? I wonder why it hurts...”

Nick shook his head. "I don’t think I ever mean to… It’s probably the same as when I would become that monster… just instinct... The false god asked me if I was trying to destroy it with lunacy… so maybe it has something to do with mirroring and reflecting who we are in the other world… But back then, none of us remembered, so it only hurt…" Nick shrugged and grinned broadly. “Pretty effective for not knowing what I’m doing. Wonder what would happen if I did.”

“Clueless, unpredictable, and impulsive!” Brian laughed. “At least something always gets done!”

Kevin frowned as he held his forehead. “Brian, stop encouraging his reckless behavior.”

“But it’s so fun.” Brian grinned.

“I don’t know if it was reckless that time…” Nick bit his lip. “I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I was so sure that if I could distract it and hurry to fill that casket with light, then… Minako would definitely come and help me…”

Minako put a hand to her heart. “Nick, you… I’ll always…” She jumped up. “Nick!”

The loud exclamation startled everyone in the room. AJ thrust back against his chair while Howie quickly splayed a hand across his chest. Brian’s gaze bolted toward her and Kevin’s hand twitched before he lowered it to the table and stared at her as well. Madeline grabbed Mianko’s sleeve as Nick sprang to his feet and pulled Minako into a tight embrace.

For those few moments, his heart clenched with worry, until she smiled brightly at him, the light in her eyes glinting and dancing.

You’re just excited again. He exhaled forcefully and pulled her into his lap as he sat back down. Wait, why?

“Brian!” Minako’s grin was as wide as her face as she resituated her body to face the others. “Your grandfather said that celestial demons center themselves with measurable things!”

“He did mention that.” Brian chuckled as he relaxed.

“Celestial demons?” Madeline raised an eyebrow. “You’re all specific types of demons?”

Minako gripped Nick’s shoulders tightly. “Nick! Like a heartbeat!”

Nick gave her a sweet, but bewildered smile. “Or a breath… The easy one...”

“Nick, like the sun!”

“Minako, you know I love when you get excited about things, but...” You can measure the sun… Nick blinked. Combined with the moon… it’s an entire day... “The sun and the moon... going through the sky… is the passage of time…” He put his hand to his head. “I was trying… I tried…” He jerked it away as a wide grin spread across his face, mimicking the airy dancing inside his body. “Brian!”

“I just thought so too!” Brian stood quickly, grinning ear-to-ear as well. “When we were first practicing and my barrier froze when I surprised you, it wasn’t me wanting to help you, it was you!”

“I did that…” Just by wanting it! Nick gripped Minako’s hands again. “In the altar room, I was so sure that if I hurried, you would come help me. I really tried my best.”

“You’re always trying your best.” She brushed his hair back.

His heart skipped a beat. Anything for you.

Madeline put her trembling hand to her head. “Wait, wait, wait, wait… You’re saying... that you can control time?!”

Nick shrugged, but continued to smile broadly as he wrapped his arms around Minako, betraying his nonchalance. “Cardinal demons are supposed to be stronger than regular demons… That’s what everyone says, right?”

AJ hit the table. “Quick! Control time right now! Make it night! Even better, make it dinner!”

Nick laughed loudly. “I have no idea how to do that.” He held his hand toward the table. “Dinner appears!” He shrugged as he laughed quietly. “Nothing.”

“While this news is cause for celebration, you are correct that it is an untrained skill and did not actually solve the problem you encountered.” Howie frowned and fiddled with the pommel of his sword.

Kevin crossed his arms. “He’s right, Minako didn’t come help you. You said there was only darkness.”

Nick’s smile fell as his face blanched, then twisted into a grimace of pain. “No… no she didn’t…” When his chest constricted, squeezing out every ounce of pride he had felt, he pulled Minako closer, focusing on her even breathing instead of his erratic breath. “There was only darkness...”

~*~



Darkness… only darkness everywhere. He opened his eyes slowly and started to move his hand to his face, but it froze with a loud metallic scrape and clank. His pulse raced as his eyes flashed wide, then thrashed his arms and legs wildly. Large metallic cuffs wrapped his wrists and ankles that connected to snaking chains bolted to the wall. They made a grinding groan as he simultaneously pulled on them.

A clawed hand gripped his cheek. “Do you like your new home, my dear sweet Nickolas?” The box glinted with an ethereal light in its other hand.

As panic set in, tears spilled from Nick’s eyes and he began hyperventilating. The chains pulled taught as he thrashed, continuing to imprison his wrists.

The clawed hand caressed his cheek, leaving bloody gashes as Nick struggled against the chains. “Pets need to be kept safe in places where they can follow the rules. Please enjoy this new home, my darling Nickolas. You will be well cared for here.”

“The castle on the mountain has the box! Pandora was sleeping! I have to get her out! Master! God!” The groaning and clanking of the chains almost drowned out his shouting.

The glowing red eyes seemed to smile. “You’re safe and far away from that dreadful place, my precious Nickolas. You are protected here.”

Though he continued to pull on the chains, Nick breathed heavily and hung his head. As his panicked breathing grew louder, the cloaked figure and its voice faded into nothingness.

Darkness… only darkness everywhere… Master, the castle on the mountain… The box… Master, save me… Or maybe, you’re close, Sapphire Pandora… Where are you? Wake up and save me… It’s dark and lonely here, come save me… And we’ll get the box together… And God is…

~*~



“In the beginning, I tried to remind myself of everything I needed to say.” He laughed quietly. “I kept hoping that Ashley would come save me. I think I made myself forget that everyone else died because it was too sad and I wasn’t ready to be alone… Remembering everything got harder over time… I was full of doubts about why I was there and what I did… I was sure I must have been some sort of monster if I got left alone there...”

Darkness… only darkness everywhere… What did I do?! Help me! Pandora! I’m Nickolas! Save me! Please!

“In the end, the only clear memory was that if Pandora ever came to help me, I needed to tell her that I was Nickolas and somehow she would know me.”

Minako ran her hands around Nick’s wrists lightly as she fixed her gaze on his face. “They’re gone and I will never let you go back there. I swear.”

“I know.” He pulled her tightly against his chest. “I wasn’t sure then, but I’m sure now. It’s the thing I’m most sure of. I know that you’ll always find me as soon as you can.”

“Always.” When he wrapped her arms around his neck, he leaned his head on hers.

“It seems that you were imprisoned because it feared you, a Sapphire demon with a strong heart who drew power from the heavens.” Howie ran his hand on his chin as he pressed his lips into a thin line.

Kevin coughed. “And isn’t afraid of consequences to reckless behavior.”

Nick briefly grinned at Kevin and Brian laughed. When Kevin frowned, AJ started laughing as well.

After laughing quietly, Nick cleared his throat. “Howie, I think you’re right. The pitch-black darkness was the only place for me if it wanted to be safe. I’m sure it thought that none of you would ever find me there. I wonder if it knew that those strange women from some other world started appearing… Or maybe it put them there to torture me?” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter… They just called me sad, pathetic, a nightmare, or a monster when I told them my name…” He hugged Minako tighter. “I know I told you all that all I did was call out to Minako with everything I had, but… I almost gave up… once… None of them knew me and I couldn’t handle being broken anymore, but…”

~*~



Darkness… only darkness everywhere… Nick blinked as he leaned his head against the wall, covering his ears. It’s too loud… I still hear their whispers in the dark about the monster and the nightmare… I can’t… I can’t hear it again… It hurts...

He curled against his knees as he pulled them to his chest. I’ve been calling you in the dark for so long, Pandora... You’re never coming, are you? I can’t keep calling you… It hurts too much. I really am a pathetic monster… Constantly screaming and calling for you when you never answer me…

No, I… have to keep hoping… You’re supposed to come.
He clenched his hand against his chest, trying to calm his wrenching heart. It feels… warm and bright… He inhaled audibly, then quickly uncurled his body and thrust his hands against the floor, causing the chains cuffed around his wrists to clank against the hard stone. It’s never felt warm or bright here before! He gripped the wall, pushing himself off the ground to stand. His sharp fingernails dug into the stone as he continued to clutch his chest. It’s really small… it’s really quiet… but I feel it… something other than the dark…

~*~



Minako pulled closer to him, nuzzling her face against his neck.

Always warm and bright… “It’s okay though.” He smiled and ran his hand through her hair. “There you were.” He pressed a quick kiss to her head, then glanced up at the others. “And we got to go on this journey where no one called me a monster and I got to try to be someone who mattered…” He grinned. “And it meant everything to me, even when I got accused of eating people…”

He laughed quietly as he felt Minako’s grimace against his skin.

“Even when a rival for my affections ordered me around. Even when I got an unwanted sidekick. And then a nagging old man. And then a judgmental clown.”

“A sidekick?” Brian laughed. “Obviously you’re my sidekick.”

Howie nodded smugly as he crossed his arms. “We believe we sound the best in this scenario, especially since you are projecting.” He winked.

Kevin furrowed his brow as he muttered under his breath.

“You know, I was pretty judgmental.” AJ shrugged as he laughed. “I’m not even mad.”

“Howie’s right, I’m kidding.” Nick’s smile grew. Mostly… “It meant everything to me because I found my family. No matter what happens, if we get the box back or don’t, if we defeat Justin or don’t, if things go back to normal or don’t… All of that’s in the past and together we’ll make the future.”

End Notes:
So, a fun fact about this chapter. When I originally had the idea for it, I only wrote it as the version where Nick told the story and everyone reacted. Then, sometime after that, I was playing around with the possible prequel, Pandora's Legend, and wrote two scenes. The first one was where the soldiers visited Nick's house, which became the story Ashley tells about Nick's family and the origins of the crater (probably why I wanted to put it so early, that and it had been 60 chapters since Nick was introduced and I was ready to share, ha!). The second one was what happens to Nick right before the events of PBox, which is this story. So, whenever I got around to editing this chapter (March or April, I can't remember), I ultimately decided to splice those two scenes together to get this version (minus any eventual pre-posting editing that got it to this version) -- so you get the best of both worlds, really. Full disclosure, the end of this chapter is fairly close to how OF PBox begins, so those of you that keep track of everything I say may now know the last line of the entire series. But maybe not!

In this week's Author Talk, I discussed the Pandora's jar myth (I needed to eventually) and though I vaguely alluded to it there, I hope you enjoyed the additional information this chapter gave on the lore of our favorite MacGuffin and just how Minako got demonic powers. But there's more to come still! This mystery isn't quite unraveled yet! Thanks for reading along and see you next Wednesday! :) Always happy to chat. Let me know what you think! :)
Chapter Thirty-One: History by nicksgal
After setting a small mortar and bowl on the table against the wall, Kevin scrutinized the shelf above it. As he fiddled with the various jars and packets of herbs and medicines, Erik watched him from the lone bed.

"Doctor, I've been meaning to ask…" Erik frowned as he sat up.

"Just call me Kevin." He pressed his lips into a thin line as he pulled a jar from the shelf and placed it beside the bowl.

"I couldn't. It's important to respect professionals."

Kevin chuckled. "That’s appreciated, but unnecessary."

"Anyway, Doctor, I didn't want to ask with Madeline around because she likes you, but I’ve been wondering why you tried to heal a ruby demon. Don’t our countries make us enemies?"

Kevin glanced at him, but quickly fixed his attention back on examining the shelf. "My clan had always promised to heal the sick, regardless of faction."

"Clans…” Erik furrowed his brow. “It's strange being in this den where it seems like clans still matter in this world."

"We're all demons. Isn’t that a type of clan these days?"

"Madeline did say that you sapphire demons act less like a convenient alliance and more like a family. Why is that?”

"Yes, my four younger brothers and sister." Kevin’s lips quirked into a smile. “This world is filled with loss, but fate has given us an opportunity to fill that void. Demons aren’t meant to be solitary.”

“Tell that to Emeradotouhou.” Erik laughed derisively.

“Those were humans.” Kevin frowned, trying to convince himself as much as he attempted to convince Erik. “Their king is a human and their army is mostly humans. We need to stop defining each other based on the choices of humans.”

“Interesting.” Erik smirked. “Madeline said that you considered the emerald demons to be your enemies.”

Kevin pulled a few more jars from the shelf. “You’re right. That’s only because we were forced into an unwinnable competition. Or at least, a pyrrhic victory in our case. I assume you feel similarly toward the topaz demons.”

Erik swallowed repeatedly as a lopsided grimace crossed his face.

“Is your throat hurting?” Kevin glanced at him.

“No. The others… did… Madeline wanted to save her sister so badly that I was never sure they could be only bad…” He swallowed and frowned. “An unwinnable competition, like you said…”

“Since being back here, only one emerald demon has truly acted against us.” Kevin crossed his arms. “I’m trying to see him as the enemy and not the others, but it’s difficult to separate the past from the present.”

“A soldier with an emerald cape…”

Kevin flinched and stared at Erik. A soldier with an emerald cape… Could he be describing Justin?

“Erik, you’re still awake!” Both demons turned to the entryway as Madeline quickly froze, then stepped back from the entrance to the medical wing. “Were you talking about me?”

“No, of course not, Madeline.”

When Erik smiled warmly, she traipsed into the room and sat beside him. As she returned his smile, she held his shoulder gently.

It’s weaker than Minako’s demeanor and less ardent than Nick’s reciprocation, but there’s a fragile kindness between them. Kevin laughed quietly. It’s unfair of me to make blanket judgements about humans, especially when so many demons are calmed or even undone by a Pandora’s care. A bewitching human indeed.

“Doctor?”

He glanced away, then busied himself with the shelf again. “I was just thinking about someone.”

Madeline glanced at Erik and slowly removed her hand from his shoulder. “You’re thinking about Nicky, aren’t you?”

“Among other things…” Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line as he grabbed a jar from the table. “Erik, you mentioned a soldier with an emerald cape.”

“A demon…” He furrowed his brow. “Is that who you’re hoping to find in Emeradotouhou?”

“Hoping… That’s an interesting way to put it.” He set the jar on the ground as he kneeled beside Erik, then began undoing the bandages at his chest. “Madeline, assist me.”

Madeline took the bandage from him and began rolling it as she helped remove it.

Erik grimaced and shut his eyes. “I met that demon in the mountains. He’s unhinged and dangerous.”

We’d only ever seen Justin use his sword… Kevin frowned as he placed the rolled bandage on the ground beside the mat. After twisting the lid off the jar, he applied the salve to Erik’s chest wound. The deep claw marks had left gashes that bubbled with blood. The crisp, dried edges seemed charred and expanded from the slices in pitch black streaks that snaked across Erik’s skin toward his shoulders and waist. “What did he say?”

Erik groaned and ran his hand through his hair. “I can’t remember our exact conversation, but the message was clear. Refusal meant death.”

What could he have possibly asked? And why would he use his claws now? Does this wound have something to do with his powers? Kevin began layering a fresh set of linens over Erik’s wound, letting the silence fill the room as he worked.

“I’m glad we found you.” Madeline hugged Erik’s arm and leaned on his shoulder. “I would have…” As she swallowed, she quickly glanced away and loosened her grip.

“Would you face him again?” Once the initial layers were set, he pulled a fresh roll of linen from beside him. After wrapping as far as he could reach, he handed it to Madeline for assistance.

Erik furrowed his brow.

“If you’re not sure…” Madeline glanced at the ground. “I’d really like it if you came to Topazuseihou with me.”

Erik swallowed, then a small smile crossed his face. “Whatever my Priestess asks, I will obey.”

“You don’t need to obey me, Erik, I’d just… really like you with me… but only if you want to be with me.”

“I already told you that I would.” He laid his hand across Madeline’s after she handed the last of the linen roll to Kevin.

Kevin chuckled again as he took it and secured the ends. I wonder if Nick would behave so graciously in a world where Minako didn’t choose him.

“Doctor…”

“Hmmm?” Kevin stood, attempting to conceal his expression from their scrutiny as he walked back over to the table. After setting the salve on it, he mixed the herbs he had pulled from the shelf into the mortar. First he crushed them with a pestle, then transferred the contents into the small bowl before pouring hot water into it, and finally mixed the concoction with a spoon.

“Are you also going to Topazuseihou or would I be able to travel without you?”

“Topazuseihou is probably safer than Emeradotouhou in general, and probably easier to navigate while recovering even despite the desert.” He walked back over and handed Erik the medicine. “If you feel confident traveling, that would be my suggestion. I can provide specific instructions on your recovery care for Minako and Madeline.”

“I trust you to take care of me, Madeline.” Erik smiled, then began drinking from the bowl.

Madeline hurriedly averted her gaze to the floor.

The silence settled around them again as Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line. “Why were you in Safaiananpou?”

“Safaiananpou was always purported to be a sanctuary in a warring era. I was hoping it would provide a safe haven from the shadow pursuing me.” Erik frowned.

“The demon soldier?”

Erik nodded. “But when I arrived, I was turned away without being able to speak to the king.”

“When we returned, it didn’t seem as though they knew what happened in the castle. But even assuming their king was still alive, his advisors would probably prefer not telling you that he was away.”

Madeline glanced at the door. “It would be hard for His Majesty to see you when he’s away… I wonder how long they wait before they assume that you’re… dead…”

“Are demons involved in the monarchy in Rubiihoppou?” Kevin walked back to the table and began placing the jars back on the shelf.

“No, the king was a person too. They said that Pandora was supposed to save them from the demons.” Madeline grimaced, continuing to pause each time she reached a word that seemed offensive. “They called you all… murderous and vengeful creatures that… poisoned the world. But they also said finding the box would cleanse the world… from evil demons… and evil in general...”

Judging all demons… Kevin growled, clenching his hand tightly around the jar he was holding.

“But you’re not all like that. What did His Majesty say about the box?”

“You would have to ask him or Minako for exact details, maybe Nick. I didn’t hear the story from him, but when I was younger, I was always taught to believe that the box gave demons the power to give the world peace.”

“I wonder why it’s different?”

Erik set the bowl back on the ground and snarled. “Prejudice? Jealousy? Fear?”

“Humans would speak about demons differently than demons would speak about demons.” Kevin crossed his arms. “Also, Aohouseki is a southern walled city. Akahouseki is a northern city constantly battling weather, at minimum.”

“Do you think all the countries used to have more demons?” Madeline asked.

“Of course they did, Madeline! Then Emeradotouhou sparked the siege!” Erik growled. “Scoundrels…”

“Did you all used to be… like this?”

Kevin frowned. “Howie speaks of five demon kings, brought forth from the sky to create peace in a warring land. However, he doesn’t speak as though we’re all descended from them.” He furrowed his brow. “When we arrived here, Elder Virgil treated us as the leaders of fallen nations, but still revered Howie as king. It’s possible that all demon clans once resembled this place, but it’s difficult to tell.”

“Erik! Are you a leader of a fallen nation?”

“Hardly.” Erik huffed. “It’s hard to believe there are even demons in the monarchy. Fallen nations…”

“I just thought…”

“You’re probably both right.” Kevin’s voice remained firm as he spoke. “I wonder if it depends on how our clans allied in the past. Rubiihoppou, Emeradotouhou, and Safaiananpou are fairly different. The emerald demons treat each other like necessary evils while all of you seem to treat each other as a coerced alliance. You already mentioned that we treat each other like a family, but Howie, Brian, AJ, Nick, and I still aren’t completely similar. It sounds like Safaiananpou may have approached our early alliance as a suzerainty more than a true alliance.”

“Kevin?” Madeline glanced back up at him.

“Internally autonomous, externally dependent. But the barrier demons are the only remnants of what it may have been like when all clans thrived, at least here in Safaiananpou.”

“You’re all boys… Are there places with female demons? I’ve never seen one…”

“They’re around, they’re just not as common as males.” Kevin leaned against the wall. “When I assisted my Master with births, it was about one girl for every ten babies. When I assisted with human childbirth after the siege, it was much more even.”

Madeline furrowed her brow and counted on her fingers. “That doesn’t seem sustainable.”

“It’s not. Hence leaders of fallen nations.”

Erik snorted. “With the addition of Emeradotouhou trying to kill us.”

“They seem really dangerous…” Madeline frowned. “Why would they want to kill all the demons?”

Kevin pursed his lips. “Probably the same reason Rubiihoppou saw Pandora as a savior from demons. I wonder if it was originally a demonic legend corrupted by human influence?”

“Why would demons need to be saved?”

“Of course you know what our situation is currently like.” Kevin shrugged. “In the past? It’s difficult to say for sure.” But in a place where clans thrive, there may be answers… He straightened as he glanced at the door. “If you would excuse me for a moment. Erik, please rest until I return.”

“Absolutely, Doctor.”

“Kevin, are you okay?” Madeline bit her lip as she stared up at him.

“I’m fine.” He smiled. “Thank you for worrying, Madeline.” He exited the medical wing and began walking down the corridor.

It is strange that we were meant to ally, but had never been in contact before. I wonder if it’s possible that we were close before, but some external factor forced us apart. And if the Pandora legend is originally a demonic legend, why would humans assimilate it and pass it on to a strange foreigner when she arrived? Why would demons be so welcoming to a strange foreigner? I’m sure all of us were taught to ally with her for the box, but what did our ancestors say? Since Brian’s clan seems largely untouched, they may have preserved this history.

As he entered the main room, he spotted Brian standing to one side of it. The female demon he spoke with laughed, covering her face with one hand and touching his arm with the other. When Brian glanced up at him and waved, Kevin began walking over to him. Brian frowned, then patted the female demon’s shoulder before brushing by her. Eventually, he and Kevin met in the center of the room.

“You look like you’re having a great day.” Brian grinned.

“I’d like to speak with your grandfather.”

“Sure…” Brian frowned. “Is everything okay?”

“Why don’t you come with me?”

“Okay…” Brian furrowed his brow, then motioned for Kevin to follow him.

~*~



“Elder Virgil, thank you for meeting with me.” Kevin slowly sat on the carpeted stairs.

After glancing at the doors as they slowly latched, Virgil smiled at the two sapphire demons. “Of course. How can I assist you?”

“Kevin, what’s this about? Should we get everyone else?” Brian furrowed his brow and frowned as he sat beside Kevin.

“No, it’s fine.” Kevin rubbed his chin methodically. “I had a few history related questions. I’m not sure of the implications yet and don’t want to trouble them.”

Brian’s forehead continued to crease as he leaned on his staff.

After setting his hand in his lap, Kevin turned back to Virgil. “What did your relationships with the other clans used to be like? And do you know where the Pandora legend came from?”

“On the whole, democratic.” Virgil laughed and gestured to the five chairs behind him. “So much so that we originally modeled our internal structure after the ancient interactions between our clans.”

“Did we choose Howie’s clan to be kings?” Kevin furrowed his brow. Is that why his powers are more complicated?

“It is likely the powers associated with the monarchical clan held some fundamental importance to our early history that the other clans could not provide.”

But what?

“I wonder why alchemy is fundamental?” Brian clapped his hand over his mouth. “Grandfather! That’s a secret! Don’t--”

“I see, he told you.” Virgil smiled broadly, his eyes moist. “Were he not young in our clan’s eyes, Lord Brian is being treated in the ancient way, as a confidante and equal, a king with fealty.”

Brian exhaled deeply. “Howie would be really upset… or… relieved?” He cocked an eyebrow, gripping his staff tightly. “You already knew…”

“It is a secret we have passed down among our council, though we do not know the ancient purpose of the monarchy’s powers. I believe that I have something that may interest you both.”

In this time of loss, their preservation of history is admirable. Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line. I may need to consider if I have other questions he may be able to answer.

After walking past the pool of water, Virgil stopped at the center chair and pulled it aside. He knelt and lifted the sapphire carpet, revealing a small door hidden beneath it. He slowly opened it, pushing aside some objects inside before unearthing a scroll. He quickly reset the door, carpet, and chair, then returned to Kevin and Brian. Once he sat, he rolled open the scroll and held it toward them. “It is old, but not ancient back to the original progenitors.”

The scroll depicted five chairs surrounding a recessed pool, though instead of containing water like in the council room, fire sprang from it. Unlike the chairs that stood empty in this room, five demons filled the chairs depicted in the drawing. In the center, a demon wearing a dark colored, long, flowing gown with large sleeves and a beaded crown atop his head. A sword with a swirling hilt rested upon his lap. To his left, a demon dressed in a dark colored long cape over an equally dark colored and long tunic with light wide stripes descending from the collar bone. He held a staff similar to Brian’s in his right hand. Beside him, a demon with a light colored short tunic over light colored pants. An undetailed handle of some sort rested in his lap. To the right of the king, a demon dressed in a cuirass over a tunic and pants. His unfinished left hand grasped a long, but incomplete pole; however a rather detailed angular helmet with large curved eye slits, a long nose bridge, and a rounded crest at the crown covered his face. Beside him, a demon in a loosely fitting dark colored tunic with buckles across the center and pants. He held a length of rope in his partially completed outstretched left hand.

Virgil smoothed the edges. “A depiction of our clans involved in some sort of council.”

Kevin frowned. “It’s interesting that the clothing for the king and the barrier demon is quite detailed, but the other three lack a lot of defining characteristics, things they probably considered important at one time. That helmet is just as detailed, though, for some reason.”

“An unreliable memory on the part of the original artist, perhaps.” Virgil chuckled quietly. “The Shield would likely have had more intimate knowledge of themselves and the monarchy than the other clans throughout our history.”

“I’ve never seen Howie in finery, but I’m sure he still wears similar clothing. This barrier demon seems to be a compilation of what you’re both wearing. It’s hard to tell with AJ and Nick looks nothing like this, but this is definitely similar to my clothing.” Kevin smiled. “Is this why your health-related members dress like me?”

“Healers would know the best attire for healing.” Virgil’s enigmatic smile quickly became a frown. “More than the other clans, the Celestials have been silent for some time. I have not seen any since I was younger and preparing my ascension into our council. If they were extremely factioned or extremely decimated, many of their traditions or treasures are likely lost. However, I do remember that they were always prepared for a fight, so armor may have been necessary for their role in the past.”

Brian peered at the drawing as he laughed. “A fist fight, maybe. What did Howie say about those legends? Didn’t he call Nick a warrior? I wonder if they were fairly militaristic originally.” He ran his hand under the figures. “There’s writing on this.”

“Writing? Of what?” Kevin leaned closer to the scroll.

“Can I, Grandfather?” After Virgil nodded, Brian picked up the scroll, holding it close to his face. “It’s old script…” He squinted, as though he scrutinized the writing. “This part under the king says ‘He who rends and forges’… That’s a weird epitaph…” Brian frowned as he glanced at Kevin.

“Something to do with Howie’s powers?” How is alchemy related to rending and forging?

“Probably.” Brian peered at the scroll again. “This part under the barrier demon just says ‘humble me.’ Clearly.” Brian chuckled to himself. “The healing demon says ‘stoic and merciful, but just.’ That seems about right.” He smiled at Kevin.

“Thank you Brian.” It’s nice to know that even when I feel unsure, they see me that way as well.

“The shapeshifting demon says… ‘unpredictable and unusual, but helpful.’ I guess that’s like AJ’s powers…” He laughed quietly, then squinted as he pulled the scroll closer to his eyes.

“Brian?”

He began laughing uncontrollably.

Virgil laughed as well. “Yes, that last one is rather endearing.”

Kevin leaned closer to the scroll as Brian held it toward him.

“It was hard to read, because it’s written much smaller, see?” He ran his finger under the minuscule writing. “I wonder if this barrier demon worried about the others seeing it… Or just this celestial demon in particular. It says ‘ILL-TEMPERED’ larger, then ‘but also bright and loyal, a treasured confidante’ in even smaller writing.”

Kevin laughed. It’s good to know Nick comes by it honestly.

“Yes, we were supposedly quite close before the silence.” He pursed his lips. “I believe the missing weapon of the Celestials was a two-pronged pole weapon of some sort. The Healers had some sort of knife and the Shapeshifters had some sort of sling.”

A knife would be useful from a medical standpoint and in a world of war. Kevin furrowed his brow and glanced at the ground. It is interesting that we all possessed weapons. Though he doesn’t use it that way, even Brian’s staff is a weapon. “What do you think caused the silence from the other clans?” Kevin glanced up at Virgil.

“Of course the siege, but it began happening before that. The other clans began shrinking, then there was… an illness… that couldn’t be cured by the Healers that led to decimation. Demons attempted procreation with humans, but all the children were born…” He glanced away. “...Unwell… They lived very short lives, their mothers died soon afterward, and the fathers within days. Many demons went into hiding and we lost contact between clans.”

“I’ve seen that!” Kevin clapped his hand over his gaping mouth. “Sorry for shouting, Elder Virgil.”

“That sounds horrible…” Brian grimaced. “You’ve seen that, Kevin?”

“It was…” Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line as he paused. I’d tried to block that from my mind... “...A while ago. Before the siege, but after I saw Nick’s birth. I helped my Master deliver a baby that seemed demonic, but animalistic. It growled constantly and had completely black eyes. It lived for maybe an hour, overcome by fever, then died. Then the same thing happened to the mother moments later. The demon father had begged us to stay as he began exhibiting signs of the poisonous fever as well. Maybe he thought we could do something for what he already expected to happen. It was…” Kevin swallowed. “...heartbreaking.”

As Brian glanced at the ground, his eyebrows pinched together.

“Brian?” Kevin frowned and put his hand on his shoulder.

“I’m fine... That… does sound… very heartbreaking…” Brian kept his gaze fixed on the ground as he spoke.

“What you described was the illness. Unlike female demons who have no powers, but gain the powers of the unborn offspring and male demons during gestation, the humans did not and the offspring were not hearty.” He gripped his staff. “Actually, the very last time I saw any Celestials until you all arrived was when a Celestial who was my age came to beg my father to arrange for a bride for his son, who was the same age as my son, Brian’s father.”

“Arrange for a bride? Why would they come here?” Brian frowned, but did not lift his head.

“You know that the females are rare and do not live long compared to the males. We have been treasuring and pampering them since ancient times in order to keep our population diverse enough to be sustained. The clans would often arrange marriages in the past for this reason. But while we hid, the other clans did not, and suffered.”

“What do you remember about that request?” Kevin ran his hand on his chin.

“My father carefully selected possible choices who wanted to go. The Celestials remained with us for a short time and the son chose one. I asked my father why he was so careful in his selection and he said that he had requested volunteers that were the heartiest and most spirited females we had because the Celestials were hoping for a warrior.”

“Howie’s legend… A warrior and a shrouded sun…” Brian slowly rolled the scroll, fixing his gaze on the turning paper.

“I remember that the two demons in that small hidden house in the clearing cried so joyfully that day. I had no idea why then, but maybe I could have helped them more if I knew that the baby was Nick and that we were waiting for him too.” Kevin frowned. I wonder where those prophecies originated from…”

“It is… unclear.” Virgil frowned as well. “Though they are as old as the Pandora legend, that a woman would appear from elsewhere to gather demons surrounded in sapphire, one from each great clan. And together, they would open the sealed box, then bring peace and harmony back to this land. They likely all have the same origin, though it is long forgotten.”

Brian handed the scroll back to Virgil. “I’m… going to go… Thank you for sharing this with me, Grandfather. I enjoyed it.” He hurriedly exited the room.

That’s not like Brian… He’s acting strange… Kevin gazed at the closed doors.

“Did you have any other questions?” Virgil glanced at Kevin as he held the scroll tightly in his lap, but his gaze trailed back to the door.

“No, that was everything for now. Thank you for the information, insight, and help.”

“Please let me know if I can assist you in other ways.”

“I appreciate it.” Kevin bowed, then quickly exited the room as well. Once he was on the other side of the doors, he rushed down the corridor. “Brian!”

Brian froze, then turned back toward him. “Kevin, what’s wrong?”

Kevin caught up to him, then cupped Brian’s shoulder. “Are you okay? You seem upset.”

“That story about the sickness was…” Brian glanced at his feet. “...very sad…”

“You’re thinking about something else.” Kevin frowned, then crossed his arms. “Tell me.”

“It’s not my…” Brian furrowed his brow. “I’m just… It’s fine...”

“Brian…”

“I’m not sure if it’s anything yet… Can we talk about it later?”

Kevin tensed and swallowed as he paused. I shouldn’t push. Brian’s being very quiet when that’s normally not the case. “We can.”

“Minako wanted to try to make stronger barriers to help get us out of Emeradotouhou. Do you want to come and help me teach her?”

When a hint of a smile appeared on Brian’s lips, Kevin felt his body relax in the comfort of the typical. “I should see to my patient, but come find me in the medical wing if either of you are having trouble.” A small smile quirked on Kevin’s lips.

“Of course.” Brian clapped his shoulder. “See you later, Kevin.”

“Bye.” Kevin waved as Brian hurried down the hall. After confirming that he was alone in the corridor, he leaned against one of the stone walls and exhaled forcefully.

Have the demons in Safaiananpou always been more connected than the other countries or did those alliances only crumble when humans displaced demons? That drawing was clear, though, our clans were once deeply connected. I’m glad they are again, but that sickness… and the siege… We need to be worrying about what happens after this fight. Can we go back to the way things were? Or will we always be called back here until there is a new generation to fight these battles? How do we make that? Are there even enough females here for all the clans to repopulate? What if the sickness returns? He held his hand to his face. I wonder if those prophecies are the answer to ending all of these fears? Maybe that’s why the humans also latched on to the Pandora legend. But it’s very old… Why would it take so long to come true?

End Notes:
This chapter is very focused in the lore of PBox. What came before, what could come afterward, what could happen to our heroes because of it. As a lover of myths and legends, building this backstory to PBox&Co has been my favorite part of world building in this tale. And there's this dichotomy here between our buddy Nick having to face his personal past to grow compared to everyone having to face the shared past of history to grow.

Other fun things to note: I've mentioned that I do a lot of research and "suzerainty" is a fun vocab nod to some of the research I've done for this story, which includes systems of government. I also called specific attention to this helmet and it is inspired by a myth (or a couple, technically). I did not change the description much from actual depictions of it, so you may be able to figure out another myth that inspired a lot of PBox from it if you're up on your mythology (aside from the titular "Pandora's box" of course). I won't say what yet, but you know that I always like to leave you little fun clues. On that note, see you next Wednesday! Wonder what Brian's acting so weird about...
Chapter Thirty-Two: Ripples by nicksgal
“Brian!”

As Brian entered the otherwise empty arena, he glanced up at Minako waving with a broad smile on her face. You don’t look sick, but… He furrowed his brow.

“The demon father had begged us to stay as he began exhibiting signs of the poisonous fever as well. Maybe he thought we could do something for what he already expected to happen. It was… heartbreaking.”

It would be heartbreaking if you and Nick were sick like that...


When Brian neared, her smile vanished from her face instantly. “Brian, are you okay?”

I’m worrying her again… Brian inhaled deeply, then fixed a smile on his face. “I’m fine. Are you feeling well?”

“Just fine, Brian.” She cocked her head to the side as she swallowed, then glanced at the floor. “I guess I’m a little worried this won’t work at all... But I didn’t want to disappoint Nick. He’s still hurting and really worried already...”

I hate that he’s listening to Ashley, but it’s true… Nick focusing on Minako instead of Justin would be very dangerous for both of them. Especially if Nick’s injured and Minako’s sick… It’s good to have an escape plan too… But what if I can’t teach her? Then she’ll go with us and Kevin and I will have to take care of Nick, who will keep fighting anyway, and Minako, who might be too weak from being sick...

“Brian? Brian? Brian! BRIAN!” She shouted over his thoughts and grabbed his shoulder with a forceful shake.

Brian flinched and stared at her. “Just… thinking. Sorry.”

Minako covered her face with her hands and groaned. “Can we just talk about it?”

“Minako, I--”

“I knew it would get really awkward if it was just us together! If Nick was here, he’d make sure we were focused on the barriers… He would just keep smiling if it was going well or frowning if it wasn’t and tell us to keep working… I just didn’t want him to worry more…” Her groan continued to be muffled behind her hands. “It would have been fine if we told you... later though, not right then…”

We’re worried about the same thing for different reasons… Brian exhaled.

~*~



“Nick? Minako?” When Brian knocked on Nick and Minako’s door, only silence responded to him. He paused, then knocked again. “Nick? Minako?” Maybe they’re not there… He started to walk away and the door swung open behind him.

“Hi, Brian?” Nick stood in the doorway wearing only his pants, brushing his sweaty hair out of his eyes. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I wanted to talk to everyone about--” As he spoke, Brian turned back toward the door.

“Nick…” Minako’s voice called into the hall from behind him.

“What?” Nick glanced back over his shoulder. “Oh, right… Hold on a second?” Nick beamed as he handed Brian the ajar door.

“Sure?” Brian glanced in the room as he grabbed the door from Nick, spotting Minako sitting up and bundled in the linens while holding up her dress.

“Brian!” Minako pulled the linens over her head quickly. “Nick! Hold on a second with the door closed!”

Brian quickly averted his eyes and turned his back to the room.

“You didn’t see anything, right?” Nick’s mumble sounded slightly perturbed.

“I didn’t, I promise.” Brian held his hand over his eyes.

“Okay, good! Hold on a second!” Nick’s voice went back to the cheerful tone of his broad smile. “Minako, I’m sor--” The door closed quickly behind him, cutting him off.

~*~



“I’m sorry. I didn’t see anything, I promise.”

“That’s just not how I wanted anyone to find out… Madeline’s been dying to know and I haven’t told her. I was kind of hoping to talk to Renee about it first...” Her voice broke. “Whenever that is…”

“I didn’t tell anyone. It’s your business, not mine.” He put his hand behind his head. “As long as you’re both… safe, healthy, and happy, that’s what matters.” It’s probably better to focus on her worries and not my worries. I don’t want to scare her… Or upset Nick when she told him…

She lowered her hands from her face. “Thank you, Brian. We’re both good. It’s been really nice being here, even though Nick’s hurting and still trying to get stronger, but… he’s doing a lot better with our support and some time to himself. And you know him… he’ll just keep going forward.”

Regardless of the consequences. Brian chuckled.

“And we’ve also gotten some time to ourselves that we needed. Made plans and decisions… Relaxed and had fun… Lots of things… Thank you for letting us have that.” She smiled. “Of course we miss having you around and all our little daily rituals.”

After inhaling to calm the brief flutter of his heart, Brian patted her shoulder. “We’ll miss you too if this works. If you and Nick need time to yourselves, just say so. I know we didn’t have that luxury before in the castle and while we were traveling as much, but we’ll all give it to you when we can.”

“I know, but Justin won’t leave us alone forever. I’m… surprised we haven’t run into him or anything… It makes me a little uneasy. You too, right? That’s why you wanted to go?”

“It is. I wanted to give Nick the time he needed to process things, but the longer we wait, the more likely it is that Justin will come to us. And if we’re here with my family…” He swallowed. “I’d rather not put them in danger.”

“No matter what happens, your family will stay safe!” Minako clenched her fist and grinned. “I’m ready to try to help!”

“Channeling Nick?” Brian laughed.

“Yup! I can definitely keep going!”

Brian laughed again as he sat cross legged with his staff against his knees. “You sit too.” After Minako sat beside him, Brian breathed deeply, trying to calm the loud beating of his heart and the buzzing in his nerves. “I talked to my Grandfather and I think I’m ready to teach you… There’s a couple of things that I probably can’t share, but… We’ll figure it out together.” He stretched and inhaled deeply again. If I stay calm, she’ll stay calm. “Right now, your use of the barriers is pretty similar to all children before they learn, they come out when you need them.”

“After I’m already hurt.” She frowned.

“Children don’t always know that something will hurt, but they know that once they are hurt, they want to avoid further injury.” He patted her shoulder and smiled. “It’s okay. That’s the first step, knowing you can control them at all. Now you just need to find and call them.”

Minako wrapped her arms around her legs, then leaned on her knees.

“First, you have to turn your body into a fortress. Not a literal building, but sturdy and ready to defend against anything. Hard as stone. We learn to think of something absolute, that can’t be moved in the wind.”

“Like a rock?”

“You could if that helps.” Brian laughed. “It’s easier if it’s more personal. It’s not normally what I tell myself, but in the castle I kept repeating that I would be strong for you and Nick. It felt… more appropriate at that moment.”

“Do I tell you what it is?”

“You can, but if it’s only something you know, it will be easier for you.”

Minako furrowed her brow and held her hands to her heart, then exhaled deeply. “I think I’m ready.”

“Okay, I’ll do it with you this time. After you think of that absolute and unmovable thing, that’s when you’ll reach inside and search for the part that feels mobile. Then stretch and pull at that part until it comes out.”

“What does it feel like besides mobile?”

“A squishy web? A thin net?”

“I think... that helps… Let’s try it.” As Minako spoke, she wrinkled her nose.

“Okay.” Brian laughed and closed his eyes. “Think of your absolute thing.”

“Oh, wait!”

Brian opened one eye. “Minako?”

“You always tent your fingers, like this. Why?” She pressed her outstretched pointer fingers together and held them to the bridge of her nose.

“I like having a place for the barrier to go. We can talk about that next. Right now, just focus on trying to bring it out on purpose.” He shut his eye again. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

I am Brian of the Shields. He opened his eyes and smiled at the small barrier around him, then glanced at Minako and his smile grew. There’s a little shimmer around her. I knew she’d get it. The barrier around him shrank and vanished. “Can you feel this?” He poked her arm.

“It feels like a poke… but not on my actual arm…” Minako frowned. “But I can’t see the barrier… I don’t think it worked?”

“It did, the barrier’s just really close to your body.” Brian furrowed his brow, pressing his lips into a thin line before speaking. “This is what Ashley was doing with the barrier power, but it doesn’t give you a chance to react, it just protects your own body.”

“You can’t protect other people either.”

“Exactly and we teach that a barrier’s true strength is in protecting others. Try it again, but this time, try to stretch it once it’s out. Even just a little wider than your skin is enough for now. I’ll watch and make sure it looks right.”

Minako closed her eyes again.

I wonder what she picked.

The little shimmer appeared around her skin, then expanded about an inch.

Probably something about Nick if she’s catching on this quickly. Anything that helps her is fine. “That’s good. Try making it as big as you can.”

The barrier continued to expand until it brushed against Brian’s outstretched hand, then quickly shrunk and disappeared. Minako held her head and stared at Brian with glassy eyes.

“I know it’s tough. I wouldn’t normally ask this much of anyone first learning.”

“No, I get it. We have to be quick. Can I try it again?” Minako blinked several times, then smiled at Brian.

“If it dissolves again, we’ll stop.”

Minako closed her eyes and the small shimmer glinted across her skin, then expanded about an inch again.

“Perfect. Try holding that for a minute first.”

Minako clenched her eyes tighter and her hands shook in her lap as the barrier flickered.

“I know you’re trying to concentrate, but this might help. If it gets hard pulling or holding the mobile part, try repeating your absolute thing in your mind. It should help calm you and keep solidifying your body.”

“No, that helps, Brian. Thank you.” After a few moments, the barrier steadied around her body as she smiled. “What about your staff?”

“That would help too. I know you asked Howie about making something like it for Nick.” He glanced at his staff and held it tightly, calm washing over him as he ran his thumb along the metal. “For barrier demons, having a staff is both something we can physically feel and something deeply entrenched in our history. It connects us to all those powerful demons before us. It’s likely that Nick’s family had something similar in the past.”

“Is yours an heirloom?”

“Mine isn’t. It’s just made to look like the original. We still have it, but it’s mostly used by my Grandfather for ceremonial purposes, not everyday things. The one he carries every day is the same as mine.”

“What about your dad? Or your mom?”

“My father is currently preparing for ascension to the council, so he is…” This might be helping her concentrate, but I don’t think I can share details... “...busy with everything that entails. My mother is dead.”

“Brian, I’m--” The barrier around her flickered.

“It’s okay. All female demons live for only a short time compared to male demons. Some clans, it’s a little shorter, some clans, it’s a little longer. It’s sad, but we’re used to it.”

The barrier steadied again. “Is your grandpa in charge of the council?”

“Ritualistically speaking? A little. Not in the politics of everything though, that’s all equal.” He shook his head. “We can talk about all of this later though, including what kind of object might help you if you want. Try to make the barrier as big as you can again, then try to hold it.”

Brian reached out his hand and the barrier expanded to meet it, but flickered and shrank back toward Minako after a few moments.

Minako breathed heavily and gripped her chest, then stared at Brian with the same glassy expression. “Brian, I want--”

“We’ll keep trying later.” He clapped his hand against her shoulder. “Our time constraints will make it especially tiring, more than it already is. You’re doing great, but... “ He frowned. “Don’t tell Nick things you think he wants to hear. Not yet, anyway.” He glanced away from her. Actually, I’d prefer it if he wasn’t involved in this at all. Then you can make sure you’re depending on yourself.

“He’ll just worry…” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Or… He’ll want to do anything he can to help, but I don’t think he can… Brian… Do you think I’ll be able to learn enough to help?”

“I’ve never taught anyone before, demon… or human… So who can say for sure? What you’re learning isn’t very complicated for a barrier demon, not until you add the distance to it.”

“Brian, would an object really help?”

“More important than anything else, it has to be something that fills you with immediate calm and reminds you of who you are. Something personal that touches your skin directly is best. A lot of demons choose jewelry or weapons for that reason. A gift can be good too if it’s from a person who brings you calm or if it’s an heirloom from your family. Your ring might be a good choice unless you can think of something better.”

Minako fiddled with the ring as she stared at it.

“Just keep practicing and let’s plan on the same time tomorrow…” He frowned. “Unless you’re not feeling well…”

“Brian, I’m really fine, just tired. I promise!”

Hope so… I might have to keep checking on my own just in case. He tried his best to put a reassuring smile on his face.

~*~



The next morning, Brian and Minako stood in the arena again while Kevin watched them as he sat beside the entrance.

“How are you feeling today, Minako?” As Brian swallowed, his nerves remained tense, causing his smile to become a frown.

“Okay, just kind of exhausted…” She smiled. “It’s hard learning new things.”

“Are you getting enough rest?” Kevin stood up and brushed off his pants before walking over to her.

“Oh, you know… mostly…” Minako glanced at Brian, then quickly glanced at the floor and brushed her hair behind her ear.

Brian crossed his arms and held his head in one hand. Minako, I don’t need to know any of this.

“Um… It’s hard when there’s not real sunlight in here, so I’m just guessing when it’s time to sleep if I feel tired.”

Kevin ran his hand on his chin as he scrutinized her face. “Sleeping is an important and often overlooked part of training. You also need to give your body time to recover.”

“I’ll remember that, Kevin.” Minako smiled as she hugged Kevin’s arm.

She seems fine, but… Brian frowned. I’m just going to check. I hope she doesn’t notice. Minako has to be safe. As he held out his palm, a miniscule barrier formed in it then he flicked it toward Minako. It brushed against the air surrounding her and a dazzling light burst around her, then the tiny barrier bounced off of it. That’s… very bright. Like Nick. She’s probably fine, but...

“Okay, what am I doing here today besides reminding Minako to sleep?” Kevin crossed his arms and a small smirk quirked on his lips.

“I’m going to try to teach Minako to make barriers big enough for more than one person.” Brian gripped his staff tightly, hoping to hide the energy surrounding him.

“Nick didn’t want to volunteer?”

“Nick deserves a break, don’t you think, Kevin?” Minako winked, then grimaced before hiding her face in her hand.

“Nick would also try to be really involved, don’t you think, Minako?” Brian snickered, grateful that she couldn’t see it. “That’s why he left with Howie and AJ.”

“I regret bringing him up when he’s not here.” Kevin chuckled. “Okay, Brian. Let’s make some barriers.”

Minako uncovered her face and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

Brian cleared his throat as the warm smile returned to his face. “I thought having Kevin here would be helpful so you can try to get used to his aura. It might be easier for us to connect if you have a feeling for everyone that will be with me.”

“I need to be able to make the barriers bigger, don’t I?” Minako lowered her head.

“Exactly. That’s why I tent my fingers, so I can concentrate on my hands and pretend I’m pulling the barrier out from them.” He demonstrated the motions loosely.

After swallowing, Minako fixed her gaze on his face. “I’m ready to try my best.”

“Ready?” Brian tented his hands and held them to the bridge of his nose.

“Yup!” Minako copied his motions.

“Think about your absolute thing, focus the mobile part against your hands, then pull it apart and stretch it over yourself and Kevin. If it’s close to your skin, it won’t work.”

“Can I watch you do it first?”

Brian shut his eyes as he held his tented pointer fingers against the bridge of his nose. I am Brian of the Shields. As his powers sprung up from him, he pulled apart his hands so subtly that only his thumbs and pinkies moved fractions of an inch. Afterward, a barrier surrounded the three of them. Brian pulled his hands from his face and smiled. “Like that.”

“Brian, your hands barely moved!”

“A true expert.” Kevin nodded approvingly.

Brian chuckled as the barrier dissipated. “I’ve had a lot of practice. When I was first learning, I pulled my hands as far from each other as I could to visualize a larger barrier.” He mimicked his words, hurriedly spreading his hands apart while keeping his pointer fingers touching as long as possible. “If you need to make bigger motions that make sense to you while you’re learning, you should do it. But if big doesn’t make sense, don’t do it.”

“Okay, I’m ready.” After inhaling deeply, Minako tented her fingers and pulled them apart as a barrier formed inside them. She continued to spread her hands until the large barrier surrounded her and Kevin.

“Hold it as long as you can.” Brian scrutinized the barrier as he walked around it, scanning its entire surface area.

Minako grimaced as her hands shook, but the barrier continued to hold.

“You’re doing great, Minako.” Kevin patted her shoulder.

“Okay, let it go, then do it again.”

Minako closed her hands and exhaled loudly. “It’s tough, Brian.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He frowned. “I wouldn’t normally be pushing you this much if you were just starting to learn, so just do your best.”

Minako swallowed, but responded with a firm nod. As she shut her eyes, she inhaled deeply and tented her fingers again.

I know you’re trying as hard as you can. You’re afraid of disappointing us. He furrowed his brow. What if I’m too harsh of a teacher? There’s just… no time. I have to keep testing you. Brian quickly tented his fingers against the bridge of his nose, then thrust the barrier forward as he pulled them apart and flung it toward Minako.

Her eyes shot open and she jumped backward as a shimmer of light appeared around her skin.

Good… He exhaled forcefully and glanced away, hiding the relieved smile on his face.

While breathing quickly, she cupped her trembling hands over her mouth and stared at him. “Brian…” The barrier surrounding her skin vanished.

Brian hurriedly averted his eyes. Don’t look at me like that… I did what I had to do. You and Nick wanted this. But...

“Are you hurt?” Kevin began scrutinizing and examining Minako’s skin.

“N-no…” She cupped her hand over her forehead as her face paled. “Still… just tired…”

“I can heal you if you want to keep practicing today.”

“Don’t.” My voice sounds too harsh…

“Brian?” Kevin furrowed his brow.

“We wouldn’t be together until the end. Minako shouldn’t be relying on you to heal her each time. She has to fight through it and get stronger.”

Minako glanced at the ground as her hands continued to tremble. “I’ll… keep going…”

Brian covered his face with his hand. “Let’s do one more thing, then we can stop for the day. We have to try combining barriers.”

“Just… tell me what to do… and I’ll do it…”

I scared her. Minako… I’m sorry, but we have to keep going. If this is really what you want, then I have to push you. And then it will work… or you’ll break… Brian grimaced, but quickly screwed his face into a more cheerful expression as he spread his legs wide to brace himself. “We’ll do it close first. Make a barrier, slightly larger than your skin and hold it. Then thrust your hand forward when I do.”

“Like a high five?”

“Sure?” Brian quickly surrounded himself in a barrier.

“Okay…” Minako lowered her head as she held her hands to her heart until a small barrier sprang up around her. She hesitantly glanced up at him.

“I’ll count to three, be ready. One. Two. Three.” He thrust his hand forward toward hers and their barriers combined into one.

Minako breathed heavily as she shifted her weight to her heels.

“You can let go of it.”

Minako exhaled loudly and crumpled into her hands at her chest. Her face beaded with sweat.

“One more time, but you stay by Kevin. I’ll stand further away. Do the same thing when I count to three.” He began walking toward the center of the arena. “Make your barrier as big as you can and pull towards you with your other hand, like wrapping yourself in cloth.” He glanced back at her. “Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, I think so...”

Brian walked a few more feet, then turned to face her as he formed a barrier around his body. “Go ahead and start. I’ll count to three.”

Minako tented her fingers again and pulled them apart as she formed a barrier around her body. It flickered and danced as her hands shook erratically.

It probably won’t hold. I could pull her into mine, but we’re practicing so that we can get out of Emeradotouhou… I can’t tell her that I can do that. “Keep breathing and stay calm. One. Two. Three.” Brian thrust his hand toward hers as Minako began motioning the pull.

As she pulled, the barrier continued to flicker, then vanished. Minako huffed and her hands trembled.

“It’s okay. We can stop for the day.” Brian swallowed. I pushed her too hard.

“Minako, are you--” Kevin started.

Minko nodded, then began running from the arena. She stumbled, but recovered quickly and disappeared through the crevice.

Kevin frowned as he stared after her.

She was too shaken up… If this even works at all. Brian held his hand to his forehead as he swallowed again. Is Nick asking the impossible? She’ll tell him and he’ll… act like I’m a monster...

Kevin crossed his arms. “She’s a human, not a demon. You’re asking too much of her in too short of a time.”

“I know. But it seems like the right way to split up and the only way she’d do it.” Brian gripped his staff tightly as he walked toward Kevin. “If Ashley is really dangerous, then we’ll all be able to focus on him more.”

“Brian…”

Brian clapped his hand on Kevin’s shoulder as he reached him. “Sorry, I’m going to speak to my grandfather. Thank you for coming today.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “Any time.”

“I’ll talk to you later.” Brian exited the arena and hung his head. I’m not trying to avoid you, Kevin. I just need more personal advice this time.

~*~



“It doesn’t make sense that Pandoras can use demonic powers, but can’t train to make them stronger just like demons do!” Brian groaned and leaned back on his hands. “Grandfather, am I just a terrible teacher?”

Virgil leaned on his staff as he stared at Brian, then resituated on the cushion, glancing at the pool of water behind him.

“You can say it’s true, it’s fine.” Brian stared at the ground. I wanted to impress you, but...

Virgil stood, then leaned over the pool behind him. “Brian, what would happen if I dropped a pebble in this pool?”

“It makes ripples. Grandfather, maybe people aren’t supposed to--”

“Brian, what would happen if I dropped many pebbles in this pool at one time?”

“It would make lots of ripples. Grandfather--”

“However?” Virgil’s stare bore through Brian’s heart.

“But they would bump into each other and some of them would disappear.” Brian swallowed and glanced at the ground.

“You are teaching many simultaneous things to someone who is essentially a child in terms of how she can use demonic power. Some ripples are bound to overpower the others.”

“But Grandfather, we don’t have time to slow down!” Brian stood quickly. “We have to go to Emeradotouhou and Topazuseihou! We’re fighting a war! And if this is our best chance to keep everyone safe, we have to take it!”

“Brian, you are like the pool with many pebbles.” Virgil frowned. “This is unlike you.”

“Grandfather, it’s just…” Brian lowered his head. “I’m worried about all of them. Can I do enough to keep all of them safe? Defending might not be enough… But, that’s fundamental to our teachings...”

"You are feeling uneasy about what has always been absolute."

"No, it's still true, but it's not the only thing that is anymore.” Brian rubbed the back of his head. “Sometimes it feels less important, but then I feel terrible about that."

"There is nothing in our teachings that says only one absolute thing is allowed. It may evolve and change as you evolve and change." Virgil sat beside him again.

“Today I…” Brian swallowed away the guilt bubbling in his chest. “...shot a barrier at Minako, just to make sure she could make one without preparing. She looked at me like I had broken her heart, but I couldn’t warn her or...”

“In a battle, a shield is essential, but prolonged fighting with only a shield never ends with victory. To be truly strong, you must be willing to attack when attacking becomes necessary.” He grasped Brian’s shoulder firmly.

“I don’t know if I did the right thing… It made me feel like I betrayed her…” He stared at his staff as he gripped his fingers on it tightly. “And she’s not my everything, but I do really care about her and all of them.” He swallowed again. “Knowing Nick would feel betrayed hurt the most.”

“You promised her that you would prepare her, not that it would be simple or without danger. If she can create a barrier when a threat approaches and remain safe, then you have kept your promise.”

Brian stared at Virgil’s staff. “Grandfather, am I going against everything we are?”

“The primary purpose of a shield is defending, it is not the only purpose.” Virgil removed his hand from Brian’s shoulder.

“That’s not exactly what I meant… Togetherness is something we value above all else, but I left as soon as I could. I’ve been practicing attacking and creating barriers without words, even though those are two important aspects to our teachings…” As hard as he tried, his swallows did not settle his churning stomach. He shut his eyes tightly. “Grandfather…” How can I still feel like being in this clan is most important to me?

“Brian, do you know why we allowed you to leave?”

“Because you knew I was a cardinal demon?” Brian opened his eyes, but frowned as he stared at Virgil’s calm face.

“You had a calling beyond our clan. And when the clans were disconnected, it was less likely that they would think to look for you here. His Majesty did not even know where this cavern was until you brought him here. Do you remember why you wished to leave originally?”

Brian glanced at the ground. I do, but...

Virgil smiled as he walked back to the ring of chairs. After moving the center one again, he pulled up the rug and leaned down to the small door nestled in the floor. “Would you like me to remind you?”

“No. I remember. Grandfather, I really did…”

Virgil opened the small door and pulled out a long, wooden box. “There is no need to defend the choice. I support your decisions.”

“It’s safe here and I do… cherish having this home and our family to support me. But…” Brian pressed his lips into a thin line and swallowed. “...it always felt… empty.”

“Does it feel empty now?” Virgil closed the door, lowered the rug, and pulled the chair back over it.

“No. With all of you and them here, it feels safe and whole. It’s a place I would want to stay with all of them, but we have a mission and a purpose. So my loyalty to them...” Brian gripped his staff tightly as he trailed off.

Virgil sat back on the cushion and set the long box between them. “You are allowed to treasure both callings. They are not mutually exclusive.” He gestured to the box. “Go ahead.”

Brian reached toward it, then pulled his hand back. “Grandfather…” Is this...

Virgil pushed the box toward him, then rested his hands against his staff.

Brian pressed his hands against the edges of the box and lifted the lid. As he ran his hand along the plush sapphire linen that lined the box, he swallowed again. The staff inside resembled Brian’s, but also featured a webbing of sapphire strands spread across the golden discs that hung from the center. Brian pulled his hands back quickly. “Grandfather!”

“Take this with you. Let it serve as the reminder that you are Brian of the Shields and Brian of the Sapphire Demons. Decide what that means.”

Brian clutched his own staff tightly. “Grandfather, I couldn’t! You have earned this! My father is trying to earn this!”

“There is one thing I did not mention about the Celestials’ visit here. My father said that they inquired about our mage and ancestral weapon. They implored him to give it to him when the time was right.”

“How did they…” Brian furrowed his brow. Why would they know our clan’s prophecy?

“As I said, we were once quite close.” Virgil gently pushed the box toward him. “And unlike your companion, their memory was quite long. I am humbled to follow their urging and honored to have you bear this.”

Brian bowed his head as he clutched the box. “I humbly accept your honor, Grandfather. I will bear this with pride on behalf of our clan.”

Virgil reached out and tousled Brian’s hair. “My grandson, you are worthy because of your calling and because you are Brian.”

Brian gently set the box back on the ground, then wrapped Virgil in a tight hug. “Thank you, Grandfather! I love you.”

“I love you too.” Virgil patted Brian’s back as he held him in a warm familial embrace beside their ancestral heirloom.

End Notes:
...And now we know why Brian was being so weird! That was the first scene I had planned for this chapter and the one I would have added into Chapter 27 if I'd cut the sex scene. The idea of Brian walking in on the aftermath made me laugh for days when I initially thought of it, so it had to stay in the story in some shape or form.

This chapter came from both the need to get Minako up to speed on demonic powers, but also to put Brian in a position where he wasn't just support and comic relief. I've said it before, everyone has their own things going on. And as Nick's foil, Brian's always been sure of who he was. Now he's questioning it. That's a big PBox question... how do you define yourself? The answer is different for everyone. And more that that, it's something that defines all their character arcs across the story. Anyone have any guesses on what these definitions might be? Or maybe share yours.That's all I have today, see y'all next Wednesday!
Chapter Thirty-Three: Plans by nicksgal
Outside of Aohouseki’s gleaming white walls, Safaiananpou was a lush, but strange and abandoned, natural wonder. Wide valleys, looming mountains, dense forests, miles of deserted beach on its coastline. Inside Aohouseki’s sturdy defense, most of its civilization thrived in their day-to-day vocations, unaware of the untouched beauty just outside its walls.

To the sapphire demons, the city below seemed equally strange and abandoned. Not because they had never seen its citizens, homes, streets, businesses, arts, culture, or history. Rather, because it has been so long since they inhabited it. Inside the palace, the sturdy defense of Aohouseki’s white walls multiplied. Yet, it was not unknown or untouched. From within the palace’s keep, the moon viewing room provided a perfect vantage point to survey everything above and below. A large, ornate wooden desk with curved detailing provided a focal point inside the room, like many of Howie’s favorite rooms within the palace walls. Behind it, a full wall featured shelves lined with books, scrolls, and various instruments for observing and charting stars. To one side of the desk, a large painting of a star chart hung above two plush, equally ornate chairs. The wall opposite it featured a large doorway, as though it provided additional space for masses of hopeful celestial viewers to stand. The final wall opened to a large, full length balcony, open to the heavens above.

AJ leaned on the railing, staring at the busy city below him. It’s been so long since I’ve been here… I can barely remember what it was like to live in this country… other than knowing that I was happy and healthy. He glanced over his shoulder. “Howie, did Aohouseki always have those tall walls?”

“No…” Howie glanced up from the scroll he was examining beside the desk. “We had them built after the siege. Our father treasured the peace in Safaiananpou, so we made it our purpose to uphold the safety of his prized city and country. When the citizens sought the refuge of the city, it enabled us to monitor their well-being and prosperity more regularly.”

“How do you feel being away from here?”

Howie glanced back at the scroll. “It is refreshing to focus on foreign relations in a more intimate manner, rather than border disputes and military campaigns. Though truthfully, we do miss the citizens. However, we trust our advisors to keep them prosperous and content while protecting our borders.” He rolled the scroll back up before walking toward the balcony. “Please be assured that we do treasure the moments we all have together. We had always hoped to be reunited with the other cardinal demons and fulfill the visions our father had held for our future.”

“I wasn’t worried.” AJ turned back to gaze over the bustling city. “I wish I hadn’t given up hoping to meet you all. I wonder if we could have avoided all of this if we were ready to be connected the first time. Or if we’d all been more prepared if the siege hadn’t happened.”

“It is simple to dwell on regrets, but history is behind us all. It is our duty to reflect on it and continue forward.” Howie leaned on the railing beside AJ. “That is the reason we had the walls constructed, to better defend against seizure in the future.”

“Don’t you worry about having everyone in the same place? Another campaign like that would wipe them out.”

“Perhaps a bit, but we do keep the borders heavily guarded in order to avoid that predicament.”

AJ frowned. “I haven’t seen any soldiers around…”

“They are well-hidden to maintain the image of tranquil peace. Though they are always aware of our traveling party inside our borders.”

AJ cocked an eyebrow as he stared at Howie. “You keep in contact with them?”

Howie winked, but said nothing.

“What did you tell them?” AJ swallowed as his bemused expression became a frown.

“Sapphire demons are trusted allies to be protected at all costs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” His warm tone contradicted his vague words.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera? Is that why Howie has been less worried about the ruby demons being here? Did he order a kill on sight for betrayal? That’s a whole new side of him. AJ laughed. “You’re something else, Howie. They would all worry less if you mentioned that.”

Howie smiled. “There is strength in believing that you are the last bastion, though we do worry that Nick and Brian are beginning to fixate on that belief.” He frowned. “And that this alternate defense will be unavailable once we all depart Safaiananpou.”

“Brian, Kevin, and Nick have each other. They’ll figure out a way to be fine, no matter who tries to fight them.” He sighed. “Jacob and Erik seem less dangerous than Ashley, but do you think we should be worried about them? Erik’s wounded, but… we don’t know where Jacob is going or what the missing ruby demons are doing. And we don’t know anything about the topaz demons at all.”

“They are largely more silent than we would have expected.” Howie unrolled the scroll, holding it in front of AJ. “After hearing Elder Virgil’s recount of the tales our father passed down, we decided to research some of the history between the countries. It seems as though the northern countries were always more war-like than the more southern countries. This scroll describes a potential alliance between Topazuseihou and Safaiananpou as a ‘crossing that would cut through to truth,’ but laments that it is perilous when ‘bound and separated by the wars of the aggressors.’ It seems we both prize personal safety over potential alliances fraught with peril.”

“Those stories all sound like odd and vague metaphors.” AJ groaned. “Why can’t prophecies just specifically say things like ‘you’re going to meet the emerald demons and probably die unless you do this specific thing’ instead of poetically alluding to them? You would think whoever made them would want you to know exactly what to do. Who made them anyway?”

“It is unclear. It is possible that enough foresight existed to create a warning, but not to predict the outcome. Though that does create questions about the tangibility of fate.”

“Why we’re bound to this at all?”

“Whether our duties are sealed.” He closed the scroll again. “Though it seems abundantly true that the prophesied demons would use pale blue light in their powers as we all do and that Brian’s clan had yet to see a demon with pale blue light until Brian appeared.”

“They’re pretty devoted to preserving history.”

“Personal history at least. Otherwise, the vague records of the capital exist.” He gestured to the wall of books and scrolls behind them.

AJ laughed again. “Elder Virgil would love this. Walls of history. Minako probably would too, she’s always asking about our pasts.”

“And uniquely demonic characteristics.” Howie pressed his lips together as he surveyed the walled city below them.

“Are you worried about Brian’s request?”

“No.” Howie leaned on the railing again. “The effects of any item are typically negated once the item is destroyed.”

I wonder if the same thing would happen with Howie’s sword. AJ briefly glanced at the hilt and scabbard, then fixed his stare on the ground.

“We could… never part with our sword. It is an extension of ourselves…” Howie fiddled with the pommel. “We assume your earrings are the same.”

AJ ran his thumbs on them, exhaling through his nose as a bright smile crossed his face. “I hated them when I first got them. The thought of having holes in my body horrified me when I was young. It didn’t matter how many times my father explained that it was tradition.” AJ laughed. “It’s hard… being a kid and not understanding that you come from this… history that’s bigger than you. That you’re only a small piece.”

A longing smile crossed Howie’s face as he stared at the city below them. “A small, but integral piece.”

“I still think it’s really vague… Demons who use pale blue light…”

“We understand.” Howie exhaled deeply. “When we created this sword with our father, our mother had been dead for some time, but we were still quite young. Young enough to still long for a mother. And yet, to be told that it is tradition to forget mothers in order to forge objects was extremely difficult…”

“You didn’t mention that before, Howie.” AJ frowned, but wrapped his arm around Howie’s shoulders.

“We presumed it was assumed.” He laughed quietly. “A mistake on our part. However, though it seems quite cavalier, the exchange that was distressing then is merely a fact now. Perhaps it was this indifference that frightened Minako initially. And despite that, we are trying to maintain an air of calm regarding our upcoming journey so that there are no further worries.”

“What worries you about Topazuseihou?” AJ slowly pulled his arm back from Howie’s shoulder.

“Primarily, whether we will be able to cross the desert successfully. If so, whether we will battle with the topaz demons and fail to ally.” A small, but comforting smile crossed Howie’s face as he turned to AJ. “Do you have worries as well?”

“I wish we weren’t splitting up…” AJ glanced at his feet. “But then I also worry what happens if Joseph isn't there or doesn’t want to join us? Or the topaz demons? We’ve been pretty lucky so far, but… Even with the ruby demons, we’re only one fight away from making new enemies…”

"And Nick is adamant that Ashley is untrustworthy."

"Honestly…” AJ fiddled with one of his earrings, then hunched over the railing. “I hate that we allied with them, but don't really pay attention to what they're doing. They’re probably feeling the same way."

"We agree. Though we cannot fault Erik for his injuries, it is disheartening that they did not join us in the capital to prepare."

"But sometimes I wonder, what if Nick's right, but it isn't only Ashley?"

Howie ran his hand on his chin. “We suppose that is always a concern. Do you have suggestions?”

AJ shrugged. “I don’t even know where we’d start planning for that possibility. But it’s just like those prophecies, they’d never come out and say it. I’d rather just know and get it over with.”

As they both stared at the city below, Howie laughed quietly. “We agree.”

~*~



Later that evening, the jubilant recognition for Howie’s return created the pretense that any personal worries remained nonexistent. The vast dining table had been decorated as though they expected to receive many guests with its immense spread of meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, and an assortment of other delectable foods. Each empty chair featured its own lavish place setting, complete with untouched luxurious crystal glassware. Howie held his head in his hand as he surveyed the table. I should have been more persistent in insisting that this is unnecessary…

He glanced up at Nick and AJ, happily tearing into equally piled high plates, more focused on the food than each other. Howie laughed quietly to himself. At least I can ensure that these two continue to eat something more balanced.

Nick glanced up at him. “What?” His speech was muffled by his half-full mouth.

Howie leaned back and took a sip from his goblet. “We were merely hoping that these portions were adequate.”

“Everything’s great, Howie. Thanks!” Nick shoved another mouthful in as he finished speaking.

AJ leaned back as he swallowed. “It’s really good, but what are you going to do with the things we don’t eat?”

Nick said something inaudible as he chewed.

AJ leaned closer to him. “What?”

Nick swallowed forcefully. “You don’t waste food, AJ.”

“I know that, Nick, but it would be pretty impossible for the three of us to eat this. I’d be impressed if you tried!”

Howie laughed quietly again. “We assume it will not be the last time Nick makes an attempt in order to ensure all the prepared food is consumed.”

Nick frowned. “Minako needed to make sure she ate everything on her plate.”

“As we said the first time, Nick, we will always ensure that you have food if you are hungry. However, if you are no longer hungry, we always ensure the palace staff distributes uneaten and fresh food to those who need it so that it is not wasted.” Howie took another sip from the goblet. Perhaps I should have ensured that more of this food started as that, rather than being placed on this table.

Nick glanced at his plate. “I remember you said that. Actually… I…” He squinted. “...vaguely... remember that being true outside of you saying it… but it… wasn’t allowed... Time or payment were the only acceptable trades for food. Or catching or growing it yourself, obviously.”

“Yes, that had been assistance our father had begun and we enjoy continuing and expanding his more citizen focused plans most of all. Happy citizens keep the country prosperous.” Howie swirled the cup. “Would it be of interest to you to assist with that this evening?”

Nick swallowed, blinked a few times, then stared up at Howie and smiled. “Yeah, I want to.”

“I’d love to help too!” AJ grinned. “Things were okay when I was here, but there were definitely some tough times in Rubiihoppou. And even though some things are hard now, each day is pretty easy. You’re always taking good care of us, Howie.”

Nick glanced at his plate again. “Thanks for that, Howie.”

“Think nothing of it. We enjoy assisting our friends.” Howie smiled, then took another sip. “Eat your fill and we shall all assist with distribution once you have finished.”

Nick started eating again as AJ fiddled with his utensils.

“AJ?” Nick asked with his mouth full.

“You’re starting to remember things from before in more detail. What do you remember about the ruby demons other than Ashley?”

Nick swallowed. “What about them?”

“Their powers… What else do you think would be good to know, Howie?”

Howie ran his hand along his chin as he set his goblet down. “Perhaps how they interacted with each other in the past.”

Nick pressed his lips together. “They’re a lot… simpler than Ashley… Erik’s is rocks or earth and Jacob’s is plants, which you know… Trevor’s is fire and Dan’s is water…”

“They are all elemental powers. It is interesting that they would be combined with a demon that removes powers…” Howie tented his fingers. “And their interactions?”

Nick frowned. “He seems like it here, but Ashley wasn’t really the boss of anyone… except me… Overbearing seems like a more accurate way to describe him…” He exhaled as a small smile quirked on his lips. “A teacher of many terrible qualities and decent hand-to-hand combat.”

“Madeline acts like he’s in charge of all their choices…” AJ crossed his arms. “But you’re saying he didn’t make decisions?”

“Not really…” Nick leaned his elbows on the table. “She wanted one thing and he wanted the opposite, so it probably felt like he was in charge of whether she got what she wanted… I wonder if she feels lonely seeing all of us make decisions…”

“During the journey, it seemed they were less argumentative than we expected.” Howie grabbed his cup again and stared at the liquid. “We wonder what has changed that they are no longer explosive?”

“Knowing you died probably does some weird things to you.” AJ shrugged.

Nick frowned. “Are you… okay?”

“I’m mostly mad that I wasn’t feeling like myself in the castle.” AJ smiled. “But I really believed that all of you would make some miracle where we’d be together again. And you did, eventually.”

“Yes, we would make that sacrifice as many times as it was needed. We believed in the possibility for a miracle beyond our imaginative powers. There is no bitterness in our heart, nor is there a desire to change because of death.” Howie’s smile was warm as well.

“It’s the same for me. If I have another chance, I want to make sure that I do what I can for all of you.”

“Precisely. We are sure Brian feels similarly.”

“Me too…” Nick glanced at his plate again. “Not that it’s reflecting on death, but…” He swallowed. “If there’s something I can do for my family… I can’t wait until it’s too late twice…”

Kevin would likely say the same. It seems all our hearts are synonymous. Perhaps it will be simple to reunite across the desert. Howie continued to smile. “What else do you remember?”

Nick ran his hand on the back of his head. “If I had to say one of them was in charge… It was probably Dan? He was always quiet when they were fighting. Then he would usually offer a strategy that followed Ashley or Madeline and then everyone did that.”

A demon whose thoughts and opinions ebb and flow like water? That does sound dangerous… He glanced at AJ, who nodded in response.

“Trevor was… fiery seems like the right word to describe him… I know he has fire powers so that sounds stupid. He wasn’t angry though, but he was energetic and loud. Jacob was quiet and did what everyone else wanted, like you’ve seen. And Erik was…” Nick pursed his lips. “I don’t really know… He was always doing whatever Madeline wanted… I’m sure he’s not only like that, but that’s what I saw. Always focused on Madeline.”

“That doesn’t remind you of someone else you know?” AJ laughed.

Nick shoveled in another mouthful of food and said something inaudible.

AJ leaned closer to him. “Was that a ‘me’ I heard under all that food?”

Nick swallowed. “Me? No. I didn’t say ‘me’...” He shoveled in more food and glanced away from AJ.

AJ laughed and began eating again.

“We appreciate you joining this preparation journey and acquiring some of our supplies even though you will not be joining us.”

Nick swallowed forcefully. “Sure thing, Howie. Brian really wanted me to leave and I’m happy to help you if I can. It was… weird running errands for you by myself though. Minako and I talked about doing that here after we got the box… I guess I’ll have to come back here with her after we’re back together again so we can.” He fiddled with his ring.

“What was that, ‘me’?” AJ laughed, then took another bite.

Nick wrinkled his nose and frowned as he stared at him.

Howie laughed quietly again. We must all make sure to appreciate these quiet moments when we have them. It is something I will miss when we separate.

~*~



Once the sun fully set, the three of them arrived at a gate behind the palace’s keep. Away from the lush gardens and finery at the entrance, this back gate was shrouded in the shadow of the colossal central building. Outside the palace walls, many citizens eagerly waited near the gate: all ages, all genders, families of all sizes, and lone people. As Howie approached, guards opened the gate and the citizens began to bow deeply.

“Stand. The gifts are bountiful today.” Howie stood in the center of the gate and picked up a package from the basket beside him. He touched the arms of the adults of the nearest family, then handed them the portioned food. “We hope this provides good nutrition for your family.”

AJ scanned the crowd, then adjusted the hood on his head as he walked toward Howie and began handing out food as well. Beside them, additional palace staff assisted with distributing the donations.

Nick watched them for a few moments, then scanned the crowd and frowned. You wouldn’t know it from the way Aohouseki… no... all of Safaianapou seems, but it’s not only a shining city. This world of war has created misery for so many… Howie does his best, but can he really combat so much sadness?

“Nick?” Howie glanced back at him.

Nick shook his head, tugging the opening of his hood down his forehead as he walked toward the gate. He scanned the crowd again and caught sight of adults pushing past a young girl with their hips as they formed a line. He kneeled down and waved to her. “Hi.”

The young girl trembled.

Nick smiled and cocked his head to the side. “Is your family here too or just you?”

She stepped forward hesitantly. “My mom is sick and can’t work. My brothers and sisters work, but doctors cost a lot of money.”

“I have a friend who’s a doctor and he takes care of me a lot. I hope the doctors who take care of your mom are nice too.” Nick picked up a package of food. “Do you have a few brothers or sisters? Or a lot?” He bit his lip. “Your mom is sick, so…” He picked up a second package. “Better take two to help her get stronger. Unless you need three?” He held them toward her.

The young girl’s face scrunched as tears welled in her eyes. She began crying, then threw her arms around Nick’s neck.

Nick flinched, holding his elbows wide as he clutched the food packages.

“They never ask about my family! They just give me a little for me because I’m usually last!” Her voice was shaky as she spoke through her tears.

Nick smiled as he set the packages down, then gave her a hug. “You’re very brave for coming here for your family and doing what you can for them. I’ll talk to How…” He paused. “...His Majesty and see if he can find a way to make it easier for children to get food for their families.”

The young girl tightened her arms around his neck and leaned toward his hood as she swallowed, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Everyone says demons are scary, but you’re not. You’re very kind.”

Nick laughed quietly. “Someone I love very much says the same thing. What gave it away?”

She leaned her hand in front of her mouth. “Your feet.” She hugged him tightly one more time, then pulled back with a wide smile on her face. “But I won’t tell anyone.”

Nick picked up the packages again and shrugged. “It’s just me. The cloak’s really for all of you.” He held the packages toward her. “I hope your mom gets better.”

“Thank you.” She bowed and skipped away from the gate.

As Nick stood, Howie leaned over. “A separate, earlier time for children may solve that issue, Nick. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.”

“Tell His Majesty that I was supposed to talk to him about that.” Nick grinned.

“We will make sure he is aware.” Howie winked, then turned back toward the line and beckoned an old woman toward him.

Nick picked up another package of food and stared at the line. I’ve been so focused on my own problems, but… there’s a lot of suffering here that has nothing to do with demons. When I’m so focused on the box… Justin… Ashley… Am I really doing enough? He bit his lip, then continued handing out food for some time.

As the crowd dwindled, Nick glanced across the dark road at a boy shrouded by the shadows of a building, but visibly tall enough to likely be a pre-teen rather than the age of the younger girl. I see it so clearly... Drenched in rain, staring across the dark road, watching palace staff hand food to the people waiting at this gate. Always thinking the same thing… “They're hungrier than I am. I don’t really need it. We’ll get food some other way.” Pride is… hard to let go of, even when you need help.

Nick glanced at Howie, AJ, and the palace staff engaged with citizens, then strode across the road toward the boy. As Nick neared, the boy turned to bolt, so Nick put his palms up. “I don’t have anything, but I think I need your help.”

The boy froze and stared at him quizzically.

When he reached him, Nick leaned down so he was eye level with the boy. “You look like someone who knows everyone in Aohouseki. Is that true?”

The boy glanced away, but nodded.

“I’m leaving tomorrow and I’m not sure where to start looking. Is there someone skilled in town who can carve words into small things, like jewelry?”

The boy furrowed his brow, then nodded.

“Think they can do it before I go?” When the boy glanced away again, Nick smirked. “For the right price, I know. If you are willing to allow me to hire you for this errand, meet me here tomorrow morning so you can get to them when they open for me.”

The boy nodded.

“Thank you. By the way, what does your family do?” Nick smiled warmly.

“My mother is a seamstress and can launder. My father is a carpenter.”

“I see. Thank you for sharing that with me.” Nick stood. “I hope you will help me with this errand tomorrow.” He strode back toward the gate, then glanced over his shoulder and caught sight of the boy peering at him from behind the building. Nick laughed quietly to himself as he neared the gate, then grabbed a few more packages of food and handed them to a woman with small children still waiting in the crowd. He glanced back at the boy, smiling as he continued to hand out the food.

~*~



The next afternoon, Nick stood waiting at the back gate with his arms crossed beneath his cloak. At the sound of pounding footsteps, he glanced up to see the boy from the previous evening running toward him. A broad grin crossed his face. “Did they give you too much trouble?”

The boy held out the envelope of money. “They charged a reasonable price.”

“Good.” Nick took it. “And how does it look?”

“Good craftsmanship, as promised.” The boy held out a small parcel.

Nick opened the parcel and peered inside. As he closed it, his grin became a gentle smile.

“Why the rush?”

“My wife and I will be apart for a little while and she deserves nice things when I can give them to her.” Nick opened the envelope and dumped several coins into the boy’s hand.

“This is too much.”

When the boy motioned his hand forward, Nick quickly pushed it away and stepped back.

“She’s pretty great, that’s why I needed it fast. You made that happen for me.” Nick crossed his arms again. “You remind me of myself when I was younger. Staring at the gate, knowing I was never allowed to go over and ask for food I didn’t earn. So, I hired you for your knowledge of Aohouseki, the skill I assumed you had in bartering for what I wanted, and for protecting my gift in transport.”

“I could have just taken your money.” The boy mirrored him, crossing his arms as well.

“Children who remain loyal to their family’s wishes and don’t take unearned food are not thieves. Unearned money is the same as unearned food.”

“Why are you telling me this?” A frown crossed the boy's face as he stepped backward.

“It may not seem like it now, but you are making a difference for your family. Continue to support them the best way you can. I hope this helps.” He turned back toward the gate, then glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, the palace is expecting your mother first thing tomorrow morning for work as a seamstress. I believe they are looking into work for your father too. Thanks again for the errand.” Nick waved and began walking away.

The boy clutched the coins and gaped at him.

With his head held high, Nick smiled as he entered the palace grounds and the gate closed behind him. Maybe Howie’s right, the smallest things can make a difference. I’ll have to keep finding small things along the way.

End Notes:
So this chapter changed a few times from my intention over the course of writing it. The first was that part of AJ's and Howie's conversation was written for a later chapter, but I realized that it wasn't a new conversation, it was more of this one that they already had, so I scrapped it and moved it earlier. I hope you enjoyed Howie's "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." I was encouraged to include an "and stuff like that" the best way I was able.

The other major change for this chapter was... Nick was not originally in it. I'd planned on using this middle stretch to deal with some of the other things going on and was just going to ignore Nick for a little while. But, the second scene I started writing was the scene focusing on some of the other things going on in their world and realized that AJ and Howie didn't really need the lesson that the world is bigger than their own problems, but Nick did. So I brought him into this part of the narrative even though he wasn't originally going to be in it. Nick's motivations throughout the story are a lot closer to his person than everyone else and I've talked before about how he's in The Hero role, but isn't much of a hero. Things like this help him get to that point. I've also always talked about how way back when I originally wrote PBox, it was fairly cemented in its status as a Never Gone era AU, but Nick never actually read 25 to me, he always read 17/18. "The world is bigger than me" is a pretty typical lesson for a 17/18 year old to learn. I've also since made the timing for everything slightly more vague for this reason; not sure if anyone noticed.

Anyway, that's all this week! Head over to the forum if you want to talk prophecies with me, since like AJ says, they're never that specific. ;) See you next Wednesday!
Chapter Thirty-Four: Beloved by nicksgal
Minako hugged her knees as she sat on their bed, smoothing the skirt of her black dress with the ruffled sleeves against her legs as she thought about what to tell Nick. I keep trying, but… Nothing’s working… What if I can’t ever make the barriers like Brian can? What would I do in Emeradotouhou anyway? I just want to stay with you and find Renee, but… I might not even be able to help Howie and AJ... I’m going to be so useless. But I can’t disappoint you… If I could fight like you, then I could help… If I asked you, would you agree?

The door opened and she glanced up to see Nick smiling as he stood in the frame. After shutting it behind him softly, he closed his hand around a small parcel and clutched a pile of clothing against his chest.

“Hi, Nick, welcome back.” She stood up and swallowed.

“Thanks, I missed you. Howie said you wanted some pants because it’s harder to walk in your dress. Too bad he couldn’t find you a shorter skirt instead.” His smile turned into a frown as he set the clothing and the small parcel on the low shelf. “You changed already?”

Minako smoothed out her skirt again as she stared at him. But when she tried to answer, the words caught in her throat and she hurriedly glanced at the ground.

“Are you okay?” As he reached her, he held her shoulders gently, peering at every inch of her as he bit his lip -- concern washed over his face when she refused to look at him.

“Teach me how to fight.”

For a few moments, he remained silent and she dreaded looking up to see his reaction. After several deep breaths, she built up the courage to look at his face. At first, his only response to meeting her gaze was to cup her jaw in his hand and lock his gaze with hers, as though he begged her to say something more. She remained silent, so he finally spoke.

“Minako… I’ll definitely protect you. Don’t worry.” He ran his thumb along her cheek as he smiled, but his eyebrows remained pinched. “But... Why do you want to learn?”

I can’t tell you that Brian shot a barrier at me. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but you’ll be upset. I can’t tell you that it’s not going well. Because you’ll… She brushed her hair behind her ear.

Nick frowned again. “Minako, you’re worried. Just tell me.”

She glanced at the floor as tears welled in her eyes, despite his gentle touch, she remained stuck in her sadness and guilt. But it’s not what you were hoping for…

“I… worry more when you don’t say anything.”

I wanted to help, but I’m absolutely useless. I can’t… A couple of tears trickled down her cheeks as she swallowed forcefully and pulled away from him. I can’t do it anymore...

“Minako…” He grabbed her hand. “Say something.”

She glanced back at him, then flung her arms around his neck and buried her head against his chest. “I can’t do it! I’m trying so hard, but I just can’t!”

He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her tightly against him as he leaned his head on hers.

Within his warm embrace, every thought bubbled to the surface of her emotions. I didn’t want to tell you like this. I wanted to surprise you with everything being great. I wanted to see your huge grin. I wanted to celebrate. But now it’s only disappointing. She swallowed, nuzzling against his tear-soaked tunic as she continued to cry. I don’t want you to be disappointed. I want to carry all of these bad feelings for you, but it’s exhausting. I’m tired… I can’t…

Continuing to choose action over speaking, he brushed his fingers through her hair gently as he embraced her.

I want you to say something too, but I’ve needed this. I’ve needed you. It’s hard trying to hold everything by myself and disappointing Brian. He keeps pushing and I have to keep going if any of it’s going to work, but it’s… Tears streamed down her face as she finally forced the words from her lips. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, Nick!”

He inhaled audibly and leaned his head against hers again, pulling her closer. “Tell me what you need. I love you.”

“I love you too. I didn’t want to disappoint you.” She held his shoulder tightly and tried to unsuccessfully sniff back her tears as she continued hiding against his chest.

You are never disappointing. If something is disappointing, we’ll handle it together. Just you and me, just like always.” He kissed her head as he continued to hold her tightly. “I was trying not to be involved because Brian asked, but I’ll do whatever you need instead of what he wants. I’m sorry if it felt like I wouldn’t be there for you.”

“It’s not… Today…” She swallowed, even more exhausted after finally breaking down into tears. “Can we sit down?”

“Yeah, sure.” Nick released his hold on her and sat on their bed, then pulled her back into his lap.

Minako stared at her hands as she leaned against his chest. Where do I start? What’s the most important thing I can say? “I’m trying my best… but… it’s not going well… I guess certain things are okay, but… It’s hard to make the barriers bigger than my body. And then today Brian tried to hit me with one of his barriers and we couldn’t get them to connect unless we were standing right next to each other.”

“Brian attacked you?!” Nick’s arms tensed around her.

Convinced that holding her would only be his first reaction to that news, she hurriedly explained, “It was just a test. He wanted to see if I could make a barrier without preparing for it. I think he waited to do it until Kevin was there in case I couldn’t. I did, so nothing bad happened, but… it was still pretty scary.”

“I hate that.” Nick frowned and leaned his head on her shoulder. “But AJ did the same thing to me and he’s right, we can’t always take time to prepare. I’m glad you’re okay.”

As she nestled against his chest, his arms relaxed around her, returning to their comforting embrace. “It made me think about Ashley doing it too… And… more than not being able to make the barriers or be with you… I’m most afraid that I’ll be a liability if I go with you, Brian, and Kevin. And we’re assuming Topazuseihou is safer, but what if it’s not? Then I’ll be a liability for Howie and AJ too.”

“You’re not a liability. Minako…”

Tears dripped from her cheeks again. “I was useless when we went to the castle. Brian and Howie died shielding me. And AJ died in his own fight, but only because Renee was using me as a hostage to keep you all from helping him when he needed it.” She glanced away from him. “I can’t let that happen again. It broke my heart.”

“Minako, you did plenty for us too. You were always willing to stand in front of us. You’re more important than things. We’ll all do our best to support each other.” As he spoke, he ran his hand through her hair.

“But I’m not more important than AJ, Brian, and Howie! They’re important too!” She hid against his chest as she gripped a fold in the fabric tightly. “I can’t lose any of you again! You’re all my family too. And I know that you always say that you’ll protect me, but… I don’t want you getting hurt because you’re protecting me.”

“I’ll always protect you. That’s the first promise I ever made to you.” He spoke in a calm, comforting tone as he wrapped his wings around her shoulders.

“I want to protect you too, but staying away or making barriers like Brian won’t help all the time. I want to be close to you…” She ran her fingers along his chest as she glanced up at him.

“I want that too. I’m sorry I asked you to go to Topazuseihou. I just wanted you to be safe.” He bit his lip, then pressed a kiss to her head.

“I want you to be able to focus. It’s… okay. I want to do anything I can to help and make sure that you’re all safe too...” She gripped his tunic. “But I’m not as good as Brian. I don’t think I can ever be as good as Brian, even if we had years to practice and even though Brian is where the barrier power comes from.I think what we really need for it to work is another Brian… or maybe for Howie to make something…”

“Minako… something that could hurt you, Howie, and Brian seems really dangerous.” He frowned.

“I know, I don’t know if I want to do that either if it could hurt them... But we don’t have years or multiple Brians and we’re running out of options.” Her heart beat loudly as she stared up at him. She swallowed and held his arm tightly. “That’s why I want to learn how to fight. It’s what our family does to stay safe and I can protect you all better if I fight too. I thought about asking Howie to teach me how to use a sword, but I’d rather--”

Nick hurriedly embraced Minako against his chest, his quick and shallow breaths brushing against her ear. “Swords are dangerous!”

“You’re afraid of me being stabbed...” She held his shoulders tightly and leaned against his chest.

“Of course I’m afraid of you being stabbed!” His wings arms tensed around her tightly, as though he was shielding her body at the thought.

Minako smiled up at him and fluffed his hair. “That’s why I want you to teach me how to fight. So it’s something we share and because… it’s clear Brian’s powers aren’t going to be as effective as I was hoping… Something else might waste them and make them even weaker, so I don’t want to use them unless it’s to help give him a connection point to get you all out… if I can even learn to do that before we have to leave.”

“I won’t hit you.” Nick grimaced, then frowned again.

“I don’t want to hit you either, I just want to learn. Please?” Minako ran her hand through his hair, hoping that her touch would help convince him.

“I won’t hit you. It’s easier to learn if you can spar to practice.”

“I just… want to help. I think I can be more helpful if I can fight instead of watching. I trust you not to hurt me. I don’t think Madeline would want to learn and you wouldn’t want any of the others to practice having a fight with me…” She glanced at the ground, slowly pulling her hand from his head.

“I don’t want anyone to hit you, including me.”

“Please?” Minako peered up at him through her eyelashes, fluttering them slightly. I really thought he’d say yes…

He glanced away quickly as he unwrapped his wings and loosened his embrace around her. “Minako, stop.”

“You’re right, that was unfair. You said no. I’ll... stop asking. I just wanted to help and keep you all safe with any little power I do have.” She tried to blink back the tears in her eyes, but they spilled out like the disappointment in her voice.

“I know you do.” He sighed and pulled her close again. “I know it’s hard when everyone is fighting and you… don’t have the same kind of strengths…”

“Just say that I’m comparatively squishy since I’m a human.”

He laughed quietly. “I love you exactly this way, even if you are squishy.” He leaned his head on hers. “I meant that… and also that… I get it. I… also felt useless in the castle. I was sure I had real demonic powers somewhere, but… they were never a thing I could call or control, not like everyone else. And now I’m only starting to figure it out, but I’m constantly worried that it’s never enough. I don’t want you to feel like that too. You are always enough.”

“Nick… So are you.” She held his cheeks with her hand gently. “It’s not your fault that you didn’t have the right people around to teach you.”

He inhaled, then exhaled deeply. “I’ll teach you… I’ve never taught anyone before, so I can’t promise it will be any good, but I’ll do my best. Just like what you are Brian are doing though, it will probably be hard and it takes time.”

“I didn’t think I’d be able to beat you anyway.”

“Maybe in a few years.” He grinned. “Let’s go outside. I like the fresh air better.” He pulled her up, then grabbed the small parcel from the low shelf before pulling her toward the door.

“What’s that?”

“I’ll tell you soon.” The broad smile continued to dance on his lips, as though he enjoyed holding the secret.

~*~



When they reached the outside of the cavern, Nick trotted toward the tree across the path. For a moment, he paused to gaze at the moon, then smiled at her broadly.

Beside the entrance, Minako watched him in silence then lowered her head. This is another thing I don’t think I’ll be able to learn in time, but… Every little thing will help. I have to get stronger for all of them. I have to be more dependable. I have to… When she glanced back up at Nick, calm washed over her. He’s still smiling at me. I don’t know what I was so worried about...

As she walked toward him, he set the small parcel down beside the tree. They met in the middle of the path and he grabbed both her hands, running his thumbs across them gently.

“You always asked me what I thought was fun back in the beginning… This is what I've always had fun doing. It keeps me calm.” He smiled sheepishly. “I thought about teaching you back then, but I didn’t think you’d be interested… And then everyone else said they enjoyed things that had nothing to do with fighting and I thought maybe I was weird for practicing all the time…”

“I would have done it with you if you wanted.” After pulling her hand from his, she brushed his hair back from his forehead. The soft strands of hair caressed her fingers as her hand lingered against his head. “Anything to see you smile.”

“I’ll add it to the list of things to go back and do differently.” He laughed quietly. “Ready?”

“I’ll do my best.” She brushed her hair behind her ear, then grinned. “Teach me how to knock someone out who’s bigger than me.”

“Okay.” He smirked. “Let’s run.”

“I thought you were teaching me how to fight?” Minako swallowed and cocked her eyebrow, but Nick’s expression remained the same.

“I am. Let’s run.”

“Nick, this sounds like gym class…”

“Huh?” He wrinkled his nose, then laughed. “It’s just easier on your body to practice when it’s already doing things, like running.”

“That’s what they say in gym class.”

“Then they’re telling you the right things? I’m going to run. If you want me to teach you, you’ll have to catch me before I get back here.” His lips curved into a large grin, then he sprinted down the path away from the tree and the cavern, back toward where they had found Erik originally.

A tiny pout formed on her lips as she realized he refused to relent, but after a brief groan, she ran after him. Like her pounding feet, her thoughts raced through her mind. This is just like gym class. It’s like all I’ve been doing lately is exhausting gym class. But… I want to help. I can’t keep relying on them to protect me anymore. And Ashley showed us that words might not be enough to solve our problems. This is what our family does, it fights to protect. I have to do the same thing to really support them. That’s what I want, to be a really strong member of this family. I don’t want them to feel like they always have to protect me first. I want to protect them too, with everything I have.

While he gritty rocks and dark night sprinted by her, Nick leaned against the rock with his arms crossed like a beacon further down the path. A light breeze danced along his hair, picking it up and tossing it against his horns, making it look as though she had repeatedly ran her hands through it. Though he stared into the distant night sky, he smiled gently at the sound of her footsteps beating against the ground.

When she reached him, Minako leaned on her knees, catching her breath. “These aren’t the right shoes for sprinting.”

“This might hurt then, because now we’re running back.” The same smirk grew on his face.

Minako groaned, then gulped in several breaths of air. “You’re teasing me.”

“I would never tease you.” He leaned down to kiss her head, but a playful grin formed on his face. “Stretch and then I’ll teach you some basics.”

First she flashed him the largest pout she could muster, then Minako quickly stretched out her arms and legs in all the positions she could remember that could be completed while standing. After a few minutes, she bent over to touch her toes. This feels like gym class. Thankfully, the position hid her grumble.

“If you’re tense, it’s easier to get hurt.” The sensation of his fingers tickled down her sides, then he held her hips gently with one hand and pressed against her lower back with the other.

“Now you’re definitely teasing me.” Minako giggled, grateful that his hands only felt her hips and not her quick pulse. Yet, the gesture, clearly intended to distract her, actually succeeded in calming her. Slowly, she raised from the stretch then turned over her shoulder to smile at him.

Hands still on her hips, he leaned forward until his face was mere inches from hers. After letting his breath fill the space between them, he flashed his lopsided grin again. “Yup.”

After brushing his hair back, she kissed him. “This was your plan all along. Distract me so I’d forget about wanting to learn.”

He laughed quietly. “No, I just thought you’d feel more relaxed this way. If you don’t like it, I’ll stop.”

She kissed him again, letting her flirty grin linger against his lips. “What if I just keep kissing you?”

“Just don’t disarm all your opponents this way.” For a moment, Nick’s quiet laughter filled the minuscule space between them. He pressed a quick kiss to her lips, then pulled back to explain proper stances during a fight. While he used simple words and descriptors to explain the positions of various body parts, the detail in each position indicated his rarely spoken expertise. As he guided her movements, he continually emphasized three things: strong core, bent knees, stable feet.

Depending on the position of her legs, he lingered his hand on her hip or thigh between each stance, causing her head to spin with dizzying ecstasy. More than fighting with him, she preferred kissing him. Especially this new facet of Nick -- someone who remained assuredly confident in everything he did and knew. She leaned against him, pressing another playful kiss to his lips.

“Straight through my heart.” Nick grinned as he ran his hands down her arm. “But if you really want to get me, you should make a fist, pull back, and strike.” With a whisper of a touch, he gently adjusted her fingers and thumb, closing them toward her palm. After placing her thumb on her first two fingers, he pulled back and scrutinized her stance.

“What do I do with my other hand?” Minako cocked her head, but kept her body perfectly still.

“Keep it ready to block, usually.” He quickly moved his forearm up to block his face. “I like to keep my fists closer to my chest, but Ashley always kept his fists closer to his hips. Whatever makes you happy as long as you can move both quickly when you need to.” After a quick demonstration of a punch and a block, he smiled. “Why don’t you try? I’ll keep an eye on your form.”

“I’m sure you will.” Minako winked. After he laughed, she attempted to copy his movements, though her hips rocked with her quick jabs.

“You’re moving your hips too much.” Nick held them again, motioning to her core as he spoke. “Keep this part really stable so you don’t get hurt. Try it again.”

She repeated the motions as he held his hands against her hips. This time, her stance remained flexibly solid. “Oh. That does feel better.” An excited smile lit up her face as she held her hands against his. “Is this how Ashley taught you too?”

“No. I guess it could get things fixed faster, but I’d ask anyone else first and let go sooner. This is a lot more physical correction because it’s you and me. I’ll stop if you don’t like it.”

“I love it.”

Nick beamed, clearly loving each moment of closeness as he taught Minako something he enjoyed. Before releasing her again, he described and demonstrated the proper stance for a basic kick. When he finished explaining, he held his hand flat. “I’ll hold my hand there, practice hitting it, then push your foot back to the ground behind you.”

Following his instructions, Minako pulled her knee up to his hand a few times, bouncing against it lightly.

“Try the full kick without me.” He pulled back, scrutinizing the slow and methodical kick she produced. “Good. Accurate form’s really important. Do it again.”

Though she appreciated the praise, her heart sank and she frowned. “This is easier than the barriers, but I know it’s not easy either.”

He held her shoulders, kissing her as he pulled her closer to his chest. “It can get harder when things get more complicated, but you’re doing great.”

She relaxed in his embrace. I just needed to be close to you again. You always know what to do to make me feel calm. She held his cheek gently. “I just wish it could go better.”

“You’re probably right... You’d need to be more like Brian if you wanted to make those hard things easier. This is all basic stuff. Did you have any trouble with Brian’s basic stuff?”

“No? Or at least, not until he wanted me to hold them for a long time or make them bigger.”

“Stamina is hard, but I’m not trying to get you to go a whole fight with me right now. I’d win because I have more practice and you’d get tired faster.”

“And because you’re bigger and stronger than me.” Minako giggled quietly, running her hand along his chest.

“That too, but that matters more if everything else about us is the same. Speed, accuracy, and stamina are more important in a fight. If you were better at those things and skill than me, you’d probably still win even though I’m bigger.” He glanced at their surroundings. “Since nothing else here is soft… Try to hit me in the same spot twice.”

“I don’t want to hit you.” Minako swallowed, then frowned again.

“I know, but I don’t want you to practice on rocks like I did just because they were the only thing there. It would hurt your hand.” After a quick glance at the ground, he pulled away from her and patted his chest with a grin. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Minako hesitantly bopped her knuckles against his chest twice. Though accurate, it dealt little damage.

“Ouch.” Nick’s smirk complimented his deadpan monotone. “That looked right. You can do it faster and harder, so I can see what it looks like then. Throw in a kick too. I’ll be okay.”

After a deep inhale, she punched him quicker then threw out her foot, wobbling as she sped through the motions.

Luckily, he caught her hips and pulled her closer. “The arm was better, but you’re moving your hips too much again. Do you want to go back and do something else? Maybe with less punching and more hip holding?” After he kissed her, he brushed his hand against her cheek, locking his gaze with hers. A mixture of concern and quiet longing filled his eyes.

“Maybe that’s my problem with Brian.” Minako frowned and stared at the ground, avoiding being lost in his eyes. “I just want to keep getting better, so I keep pushing ahead. But that could be dangerous in a real fight.”

“You’re going to be okay and we’ll figure it out.” He tilted her chin up to scan her face before pressing another kiss to her lips. “Do you want to keep trying?”

“No, let’s go back.” She swallowed, forcing away the gnawing feeling inside. I’ll focus on you instead. “Also, what’s in that little package?”

Nick grinned, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “If you want to find out, catch me before I go back inside.” He kissed her one more time, then pulled away and ran back toward the cavern entrance.

Just like the first time he sprinted away from her, Minako groaned and chased him. Of course you’re faster when you get a head start! She smiled as her heart beat with the dizzying excitement from his flirty teaching. But, it makes me happy to see you feeling so playful. You always say that you’ll try your best, even though you’re worried. Trying your best is enough for me, so maybe I should start accepting that from myself too. I should tell you that so that you stop worrying too. Trying your best is always enough, no matter what happens.

At the end of the mountainous racetrack, Nick leaned against the tree holding the small parcel as he stared up at the moon. When she reached him, he hurriedly emptied it into his hand and quickly hid his clenched fist behind his back.

“You could have gone inside. You’re faster than me.” Minako leaned on her knees, breathing heavily between her words.

“I was always going to wait for you.” He bent down beside her and grabbed her hand, then pulled her back toward him. “Anything for you. Anything you ask.”

Minako brushed her hair behind her ear, then Nick laughed quietly and cupped her cheek.

“I love you,” he whispered.

“I love you too.” She glanced at his hand behind his back. “So what’s this big secret?”

“Hold out your hand.”

“Okay?” Minako pressed her lips into a quizzical expression as she held her palm toward him.

“When I went with Howie and AJ, they were busy getting ready for Topazuseihou and I went to get some supplies they wanted. Do you remember when Howie gave us money at our wedding?”

“Yeah?”

“He gave it back to me, so…” He pulled his hand from behind his back and dropped a small envelope in her palm, but kept hand tightly clenched as though it contained more surprises. “Take the rest with you if you need it for something. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Whatever. Or just keep it safe for us.”

“Okay? What if you need it?” Minako frowned, still curious about whether this was the big surprise or not.

“I’ll be fine. I promise.” He smiled. “I did spend a little of it and I got you something… Here.” He held out his hand and slowly opened it to reveal two small, golden hair pins resting in his palm. Each pin featured two slender metal prongs protruding from a fiery half crescent reminiscent of the sun. The center of the crescents contained an etched word.

“Nick, they’re pretty. Thank you.” As Minako stared at them, her pulse raced, filling her with warmth from fingers to toes. She brushed her hair behind her ear again.

He laughed quietly. “I know you don’t normally wear anything in your hair, but…” Slowly and methodically, he brushed a second chunk of hair behind her ear. As he lingered, his fingers caressed her ear and neck sending a shiver of pleasure through her. “I started doing this because it was something you always did when you were worried or nervous. I thought if I could do it for you, then you wouldn’t have to feel those things and that maybe I would make you smile.”

“Nick…” She cupped his hand as he continued to hold it in her hair. I’ve always loved it, but I didn’t know you noticed that.

“But once I started doing it, you would also do it when you wanted me to touch you.” He flashed his lopsided grin at her, clearly hoping to woo her. “And since it made you smile, I kept doing it then too.”

“I don’t…” Though she frowned as she considered it, her expression quickly became a bright smile. “No, you’re right; I do that.” She giggled quietly. “Nothing I do is subtle to you, is it?”

“I told you, I’m always paying attention to you.” He leaned closer to her.

Minako giggled again, brushing her hand through the hair at his forehead before kissing him. “That’s yours. Every time you get close to me, I know you want to be held, which is big for someone who always wanted their own space.”

He laughed quietly. “It’s okay if you say that I hated being touched. I did back then, because I wasn’t sure what was coming. But with you, it was always gentle and loving… I didn’t hate that at all.” He frowned. “Since we... won’t be close for a little while… I didn’t want you to be worried or nervous and then miss me too. I thought if your hair was already pulled back, it would be like me being there and supporting you.” He caressed her cheek with his thumb lightly as a small smile tweaked at his lips. “And I always wanted to be able to get you an actual gift, something you could hold and see instead of just my words and feelings.” He tapped his ring with his thumb. “Especially since you gave me this.”

“Nick!” She flung her arms around his neck and leaned against his chest. “Just knowing you love me has always been enough!”

His smile grew as he brushed her hair back and pinned it with one of the hair pins, then kissed her temple. “That’s always been enough for me too. I love you.”

“I love you too.” She kissed him gently, then picked up the other pin and ran her thumb across the etching. “What’s written on this?”

“Saiai. It means… beloved.” He smiled sheepishly as he took the hair pin from her hand and pinned it into her hair. “Just in case you forget that you are.”

“I would never forget!” She pulled him closer to her, pressing a heated kiss to his lips.

“I know,” he whispered, then kissed her again. “I was hoping this would be your reaction, so I could have you all to myself when I got back today.”

”Definitely! Let’s go! All the hip-holding you want!” She started pulling him toward the cavern.

“Good. Then I can make sure your form is right.” He laughed quietly.

“Nick!” She giggled and pulled on him even harder. “Maybe I’ll make sure your form is right.”

“I hope you do.” He flashed his lopsided grin at her as they entered the cavern.

End Notes:
I took inspiration for the feel at the beginning of the chapter from a conversation I'd had with my husband around the time I wrote this (obviously we weren't talking about training to make barriers or fighting the forces of evil or anything like that, lol). I changed very little about the beginning of the scene from when I originally wrote it. It still feels like a good conveyor of Minako's emotions and also Nick's support even though they don't say much to each other at first. And that's pretty beautiful.

I did change more in the middle portion of the chapter. The longer I go on editing this, the more I realize that I forgot how to novel over the years. It's cool. We're back and things are getting better around this point. Hope you enjoyed this week's chapter! See y'all next Wednesday!
Chapter Thirty-Five: Contract by nicksgal
“Almost!” Brian’s voice rang out across the arena as Minako’s barrier shrank away then disappeared.

“It’s still not holding long enough to connect. Aren’t you worried?” Near the entrance, Minako leaned on her knees and breathed heavily.

As watched her, Brian gripped the heirloom staff tightly. In the two days since he shot a barrier at her, she had seemed less exhausted, but their progress remained at a standstill. Without any hopeful moments, the chance to meet across the desert seemed even more fleeting. Brian shook the negative thoughts from his mind and finally smiled. “I am, but I want to keep supporting you instead of focusing on my worries and pushing you. It was driving me crazy.”

“I’m worried too, Brian.” Though she stood up, Minako kept her gaze fixed on the ground. “I really don’t want to separate if it’s not easy for us to reunite. But you’re right, it probably does make the most sense.”

He pursed his lips, then began striding across the arena toward her. I promised myself that I would just talk to you instead of being secretive. Now’s the time. Once he reached her, he gently held her shoulder. “Even if it takes weeks or months, Nick will make sure we can meet. I hope you know that.” After a deep exhale, he clenched her shoulder. “But, I also don’t want it to take that long, especially if it’s an emergency. How would you feel about asking Howie for help?”

“I do, I believe all his promises.” Minako rubbed her arm as she continued avoiding Brian’s stare. “I suggested asking Howie for help too, actually. Nick hates it because it puts you, me, and Howie at some risk, plus we don’t know the cost.”

“If it was made of metal, blood is probably part of the cost.” Brian frowned. The rest of the cost, though...

“And then something intangible…” She crossed her arms and rested her hand on her chin. “We have to think about what Howie has already made where we know the cost and maybe we can try to predict it. He made his sword with his father…”

Brian ran his fingers along the staff’s cold metal shaft. The concept was familiar to him. “To share something with his father with such intense patrilineal history, they had to give up their feelings for Howie’s mother, the matrilineal line. He acted like that was an expected cost, but I wonder how you convince a child that it’s worth it...”

“It sounded like Howie’s mom died when he was really young, a long time before they made the sword… But… when you’re missing a parent… I know I wanted to hold on to anything I could…” Minako swallowed, then finally looked up at Brian. “Anyway... the scale was the ability to call…”

“But the scale could bring him right to it once you did appear. What about that orb he gave you?”

“The ability to go with Nick and me to look for all of you.”

Brian ran his hand along his chin. “Matrilineal for patrilineal… And the other two seem to be something like giving up personal action to provide extra help. Are they opposites?”

“We want to get back together, but we’ll already be separated…” A hint of a grimace formed on Minako’s lips. “So that can’t be the opposite…”

“No, they’re inherently intertwined…” Brian pressed his lips into a thin line. “Would it be about the connection?”

Minako lowered her head. “I would hate to lose any of my feelings for you all just to get us back together sooner.”

“Me too. I wonder if what you ask for makes a difference in the cost.” Brian furrowed his brow. No matter what, we need to find something that won’t take feelings...

“Howie describes it like a contract, so exact words are probably a pretty big part of that…” Minako swallowed, then raised her head to catch Brian’s stare. “He’d be the one to ask though. Are you willing to take that risk?”

“I am. I think a fast exit strategy would benefit us. Are you?” His tone was resolute. Above all else, they had to find a way to meet again.

“I don’t think I can ever be as strong as you are, no matter how much time we have, so I’m willing to try anything that would help. But...” She glanced at the ground again.

Minako agreed, but we have to stop hesitating. Brian exhaled as he held the bridge of his nose. “I’ll make you a promise now. I will do my best to not let anything jeopardize our friendship, with each other and Howie or with AJ, Kevin, and Nick.” He lowered his hand and stared straight at her, hoping the weight of his words was enough. “I will do my best so that you can stay with us. I won’t let you forget Nick if I can help it. If my actions make any difference, we will get out of Emeradotouhou safely and we will reunite. Please believe me.”

“I believe you. I’ll do the same for you and Howie as best as I can too…” Minako grabbed his hand, then smirked. “Maybe less of the Nick stuff though.”

That did it. I hope I can keep that promise. We’ll have to be careful, but I also have to keep her focused on these happier thoughts. He smiled, but clutched his heart as he gaped at her. “How could you betray me like this! You’d let me forget Nick? We don’t have to be rivals for his affections, Minako! We can share him!” He started laughing.

“Does he want to be shared?” Minako giggled.

“Think of all of our rituals, worthless without me! Who else would tell you and Nick goodnight before you go to bed or that they love you in the afternoon? What about when the sun is up in the morning?”

“Sure that first one, but you just decided that the second one is a ritual after it happened a few days ago.”

“Length of time doesn’t matter!”

“And is that last one even a ritual, Brian? You poke me with your staff and say ‘the sun is up,’ then I hide under the blankets and groan. So you poke Nick and he either says ‘Bri-an…’” Despite laughing, Minako attempted making her voice deeper as she spoke for Nick. “...or does nothing because he’s still sleeping!”

“That’s a terrible impression of Nick’s voice! It’s obviously ‘Bri-an.’” Contrary to Minako, Brian made his voice higher pitched. “And of course it’s a ritual. We do it every day. You know, I miss that one most of all while we’re apart.” He brushed a pretend tear from his eye and grinned at her. “Should we stop reminiscing about it and go see Howie?”

Minako continued to laugh as she pushed Brian toward the crevice in the wall. “Yeah, yeah, Brian. Let’s go.”

~*~



Without the others, the meeting space in Howie’s room was an abyss of silence. Various papers and supplies covered the table in a thick, jumbled pile. The lanterns above the table glowed with the light from the flickering fire within them. Howie leaned his elbows on the table as he unearthed a cloak from within it. With nimble fingers, he folded it absentmindedly, lost in his thoughts. Will these supplies be enough to cross the desert safely? We will need some sort of shelter… Does that exist in the desert or is it barren until Kihouseki? Should palace horses have accompanied us even though the terrain would have been difficult for them? Perhaps palace guards should have accompanied this journey to ward off potential dangers...

A light rap sounded against the door. Howie glanced up, then set down the half folded cloak and walked over to it. A smile crossed his face when he found Brian and Minako waiting on the other side of the door.

“Howie, about our conversation from a few days ago…” Brian started.

“We considered your request while we were in the capital and have a potential solution.” He gestured toward the table. “Come sit.”

Once the three of them returned to the table, Howie pushed aside the cloaks and supplies. After gently pulling two daggers and a pile of stones from the pile, he set a small paper beside them and smoothed his hand over the intertwined circles depicted on it. A strategy table is useless in solitude. This is preferable. “We thought perhaps bracelets with magnetic attraction may solve the problem created by the distance.”

Brian picked up the page. “A physical item made to bind together... “ He glanced at Minako. “That could work, what do you think?”

“Something endless that connects…” Minako ran her finger along the circles, then brushed her hand against one of her hair pins. “Howie, do you have any idea what the cost for creating these might be?”

Doubt may make this more difficult. He pressed his lips together, then smiled. “We envisioned metal bracelets, so some amount of blood from each of us. However, the exact cost for the bind is unknown to us.”

“Do you find out when you start or can you guess by what you say? Like a contract?” Brian set the paper down and leaned on the table.

“As with your clan, words do carry weight.” Howie frowned, considering the implications of Brian’s request. “Are you hoping to find something that lessens the cost?”

“Every cost you’ve mentioned seems like an opposite, but being together is already the opposite of being separated. So just saying that we wanted to reunite wouldn’t do much of anything, would it?”

Howie rubbed his chin. “We cannot say for certain.”

“Brian and I made a promise to each other. We won’t give up anything that we share to make this happen.” Minako reached toward Howie’s hand. “Not for you either.”

Howie cupped Minako’s hand gently, both to reciprocate her feelings and ease her worries. “We appreciate this sentiment and will do our best to create a request that abides by that. Perhaps something that erases distance between our physical forms?”

“What’s the opposite of that?” Brian frowned. “Or will we not know until we try it?”

“The exchange must be started to know the exact cost.” Howie pulled his hand from Minako's and fiddled with the pommel of his sword, a pesky, nervous habit he adopted any time he felt uncertain.

“Can you stop it if you feel like the cost is too high? Erasing something feels like it would make something else appear...” Brian furrowed his brow, as though he considered possibilities without being able to name any specifically.

“It depends.” Howie glanced at the drawing on the table. “We have never attempted it, but our father did mention that if it is an exchange between demons, the other demon may be able to negate it.”

Brian crossed his arms. The serious expression remained on his face. “Do I just tell you that I want to stop?”

“It is unclear. As we said, we have never made an exchange involving another demon.” Howie frowned as well. Would only Brian have this power or would Minako’s increasingly demonic energy allow her to negate it? Or would she be powerless to the exchange? Though Howie rarely voiced his concern, he often acted in a manner intent on protecting those less powerful than him -- Minako remained one of his chief charges.

“What do you think?” Brian glanced at Minako.

Minako ran her hand across the hair pin again. “We’ve all decided that we’re willing to pay a cost to reunite quickly, so let’s just try it and see what happens.” She held out her palm up in front of Howie. “I’m ready. Do what you need to. If I don’t like it and Brian hasn’t said something yet, I’ll tell you both.”

Howie nodded and fiddled with the pommel of his sword again. Father, give me the strength to protect them from this. He pulled the sword from its sheath and held its flat face in front of his profile as a gust of wind circled around his form. The fingers clutched on the grip grew their long claws and his wings sprung from his back. His horns sprouted among his hair and his fangs poured from his lips. When he opened his eyes, the sapphire sheen glinted on his irises.

After thrusting his sword back into its sheath, he grabbed two of the rocks from the table as a bright blue aura surrounded his other hand. “When we request, be prepared to pay the cost for the metal. Use those daggers to draw blood, then spread it on a stone and hand it to us.” He leaned down and pulled a basin from beneath the table and set the rocks beside it.

“This is…" As he swallowed, Brian furrowed his brow. "How much blood is enough?”

“At minimum, a few drops. At maximum, enough to coat the stone. Slicing a finger should be sufficient unless we request more.”

Brian inhaled deeply, then sliced his pinky with the dagger before setting it on the table with a punctuated clink. After grabbing one of the small stones with his injured hand, he cupped his undamaged hand beneath the cut finger. He winced as he exhaled, then stared at Howie. “Ready.”

Minako inhaled as well and copied Brian’s actions. As she cradled her hand gently and held it to her chest, she exhaled slowly, keeping the stone pressed tightly against her cut finger.

Rather than Brian and Minako’s hesitant and stilted movements, Howie possessed a rehearsed grace. He quickly cupped the flame from one of the lanterns and drew it into his hand. After unsheathing his sword again, he sliced the tip of his ring finger as it pressed against the flame. Once the blood trickled down his finger to his palm, he knelt and lowered the flame into the basin. With a deep exhale, he bowed his head and thrust his sword into the flame; it sparkled and danced until it swirled around the sword and became a blazing blue fire. Howie shut his eyes as he finally began to speak. “Venerated ancestors, esteemed and fearsome alchemists, your disciple Howard seeks our revered power for an exchange. Is my blood adequate to begin?”

The ethereal and majestic flame sparked, surging as it licked against the sword. Then a deep voice crackled to life in the flame, rising and falling with the words. “Your blood is accepted, disciple Howard. Request the exchange.”

Minako gaped and stepped backward, but Brian quickly caught her arm and held her in place beside Howie and the basin. Despite his focus on her, the wide whites of his eyes gleamed in the fire’s glow.

“To create a metallic and magnetic bind to erase distance between the physical forms of a demon and a Pandora using the power of the Clan of Shields,” Howie replied as the others remained silent.

“This shall be yours with blood from all parties and stone placed in this sacred fire. Once the metal is shaping, all parties must pay the cost with the unbreakable connection of spirit.”

Brian tightened his grip on Minako, as though he sensed her growing hesitation. “Will you clarify, Howie? Are we allowing our friendships to be vulnerable and fragile when faced with danger?”

Minako gasped and yanked her arm from Brian. A bright sapphire sheen sprang up from her chest and pierced the sacred fire in a beam of light.

The flame recoiled down the sword as the fire sputtered. “Disciple Howard, the cost has been refused by demonic power that does not belong to the aforementioned Clan of Shields. This exchange is negated.” As the fire fizzled, the sapphire glow seeped from it before the flames died entirely.

Howie stood quickly and hastily set his sword on the table. The ancestors are correct, that was demonic power! Is that part of Minako’s priestess powers? “Minako!”

Brian grabbed her arm again. “What was that, Minako?! Are you okay?!”

Minako’s hands shook as she dropped the stone and quickly gripped the chain peeking out from beneath her tunic. “I… I just thought… ‘no’... Or actually... it was more like... ‘NO!’ Then the light just sprang out… I… don’t know…” She sank into the chair beside her, then hid her face with her hand as she continued grasping the chain tightly.

“We are relieved that you are unharmed.” Howie knelt beside her and placed his hand on her knee. “We apologize for shouting, we did not mean to frighten you.”

“I’m glad you’re okay too.” Brian sat beside her and patted her shoulder. “We all agreed we wouldn’t pay a cost like that, so I’m glad it got stopped. But… Are you feeling well?”

“Y-yes, just… surprised and… I really didn’t want to lose either of you… or… any of you…”

Howie stood, then sat at the table as well. The erasure of physical distance would have created spiritual distance. He frowned as he leaned on his tented hands. As Minako and Brian said, this is contrary to our agreement. Are there exact words that could change this purpose?

“I’m sorry I’m not strong enough to be more like Brian… Then we wouldn’t have to worry about that cost…”

Brian clenched his hand around the stone in it, then pulled her into a tight hug. “It’s okay. Like you said, you’re not a barrier demon. I’m happy that you were able to learn to be strong enough to do it at all…” He froze, then pulled away from her. “Howie…”

Strength… Howie quickly leaned back and set his hands in his lap, mulling the word over in his mind. “I agree, Brian. Perhaps the request is for strength.”

“Minako, are you okay if being able to do it makes you weaker for a little while?” Brian’s eyebrows pinched together. “You’re sure you’re feeling well?”

Howie patted her hand. “Were you feeling ill?”

Minako wiped at her eyes with the palm of her hands as a small smile crossed her face. “I’m really fine. You don’t have to keep asking, Brian. How about I tell you if I’m feeling sick instead?”

“Yeah, sure.” He patted her shoulder. “Okay, Howie, what do you suggest for the request?”

“Increasing the strength of the barrier users so they can connect the barriers across great distances... It seems centering the request on the ability of your powers or Minako’s powers would attach the cost to that rather than what the barriers are doing.”

“I’ll do that.”Brian nodded. “Kevin can help me if I need it. Minako?”

“Me too, that’s fine.” Minako held her splayed hands in front of her as she answered. “I don’t want this power for me anyway, so I’ll do anything I can with it to help all of you.”

Howie stood as the sapphire aura surrounded his hands again. As he cupped the flame at the wall, he pulled his sword from the table with a flourish. “Are you prepared?”

Brian stood and examined his pinky. After gritting his teeth, preparing for the inevitable pain, he grabbed the dagger and made a second cut beside the first. When he set it on the table, he held his uninjured hand beneath his bleeding finger.

Minako leaned down and grabbed her stone from the ground, then pulled her dagger from the table and made a second cut in her pinky as well. Once she set the dagger down, she gripped Brian’s arm with her uninjured hand.

The determined faces of his friends gave Howie the resolve to continue forward. First the cut, then the flame, and finally his sword thrust into the fire. After it reared again with the blue flames, Howie shut his eyes. “Venerated ancestors, esteemed and fearsome alchemists, your disciple Howard seeks our revered power for an exchange. Is my blood adequate to begin?”

As the flames rose and fell, the deep voice sparked to life again. “Your blood is accepted, disciple Howard. Request the exchange.”

“To increase the strength of a demon and a Pandora using the power of the Clan of Shields via metallic and magnetic bracelets so their barriers meet across vast distances.”

The flames flickered and waned for a moment then surged up the sword again. “This adjusted exchange shall be yours with blood from all parties and stone placed in this sacred fire. Once the metal is shaping, all parties must pay the cost with demonic power now and loss of strength later.”

“What do you think?” Brian glanced at Minako.

Minako nodded and wiped the blood from her finger on the stone before dropping it in the fire. “I accept this cost.”

Brian smeared his blood on the stone in his hand and dropped it into the fire as well. “I also accept this cost.”

Howie ran his fingers over the stones in his hand, then held them in the fire. “We are bound to this exchange.”

The fire burst into thick tendrils and snaked up Howie, Brian, and Minako’s arms before piercing their chests. Howie inhaled sharply as he deepened his kneel, sinking toward the ground. Brian gripped his chest as he gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut. Minako curled into herself, clutching the chain and her chest tightly as she shrieked, clenching her eyes shut. The tendrils pulled from their chests and snaked back toward the fire. Howie’s tendril spun in a bright, flickering sapphire corkscrew. Brian’s alternated between flaring and quelling with a bright sapphire web. Minako’s glistened with braided strands alternating between gold, silver, black, and sapphire.

Once the tendrils reabsorbed into the fire, it burst into a column of flame. “Disciple Howard, the cost has been paid and accepted. To create the magnetic effect you desire, the bracelet bearers must switch auras. This exchange is completed. The effects are negated when the bracelets are destroyed.” As the fire fizzled, the sapphire glow seeped from it as the flames died, revealing two bracelets in the basin: one thick and silver with a bright sapphire web wrapping it and the other thin with the metal braided in wide gold, silver, black, and sapphire strands.

Minako sank to the chair again and held her hand to her head. The glisten in her eyes had vanished, leaving behind a glassy void.

“Does it always hurt like that, Howie?” Brian exhaled forcefully as he reached into the basin and pulled out the bracelets.

“It becomes less arduous over time.” Howie stood and wiped off his sword with a cloth. Though he did not verbalize it, the pain of the exchange gnawed at his chest. Truthfully, the pain of each exchange mimicked this one, but he chose not to focus on it.

Brian frowned as he stared at each of them for a few moments. “Minako, should we test them while we both still have Kevin around to help?”

“S-sure… Can I lay down for a little while first?”

“Why don’t you keep yours until then and we’ll trade before we try?” Brian held out the braided bracelet toward her.

“Thanks… See you soon.” Minako grabbed it from his hand, then stood unsteadily and left the room.

Brian frowned as he stared after her. Once the door closed, he turned to Howie. “I need your help. Will you keep a secret for me?”

“We will always help you, but you seem uneasy about this secret.” Howie furrowed his brow as he sheathed his sword, then pushed the basin back under the table.

“Kevin and I were talking to my grandfather a few days ago…” Brian slid the bracelet on to his wrist, then crossed his arms. “Do you know anything about the sickness? They both brought it up.”

“Unfortunately, there have been many illnesses in Safaiananpou. Could you…” As Howie picked up each dagger from the table, he wiped it with the cloth before returning them to the wood. An illness both Kevin and Elder Virgil mentioned… “Do you perhaps mean the one where children are born feverish to a demon and human coupling?”

“Exactly, that one.”

“We have not seen it ourselves, merely heard about it. What secret about that illness do you need help with?” Howie frowned. “Are you well?” It is strange that Brian would bring this to my attention. The illness has not been prevalent for some time.

“I’m fine. Just…” Brain rubbed his forehead. “Minako doesn’t know about it. She seems fine and keeps saying she is, but… I won’t be able to keep an eye on her since we’ll be apart. Can you do it for me?”

“Is there cause for concern?” An uncharacteristic smirk accompanied Howie’s raised eyebrow. “Nick will be in your traveling party and not ours.”

“Howie…” Brian’s nostrils flared slightly as he spoke with a deadpan voice.

I did not want to know this secret! Howie quickly covered his face with his hand and turned away from him. “We see… We did not expect that to be the secret... Are they aware of our knowledge?”

“I didn’t want to know either, it was an accident!” Brain held up his hands while laughing. “They know I know. He doesn’t know, but Kevin is suspicious because of how I reacted to learning about the sickness. I’m only telling you because I’m worried about her... and Nick. I wouldn’t otherwise.”

Howie crossed his arms as he furrowed his brow. “But her demonic aura…”

“I know. It’s definitely there, I tested it. But she’s not a demon, she’s a human.”

“Perhaps being Pandora negates that?”

“I don’t know, I just…” Brian held his head in his hand. “Will you keep an eye on her health for me? Especially if these bracelets make her weaker?”

“We will do our utmost to ensure that she is well.” Howie patted Brian’s shoulder and his typical comforting smile returned to his face. “May we request a favor of you now?”

“Sure, Howie, what do you need?”

“Refrain from requesting we keep secrets on your behalf.” Howie continued to smile in contrast to his flat and biting tone.

“I’m sorry! I swear I didn’t want to know either!”

“We must continue to prepare for the journey to Topazuseihou.” Howie motioned to the door. “Please inform us when you and Minako attempt to ensure the bracelets serve their purpose.”

“Howie, I’m really sorry!”

Howie motioned to the door again, but remained silent. He hoped that Brian understood his meaning perfectly.

Brian lowered his head and slinked toward the closed door. “Thanks for agreeing to help me. I’ll let you know.”

When the door closed behind Brian, Howie sat at the table and began folding the cloak again. He furrowed his brow as he contemplated ramifications for his actions. Did I inadvertently allow Minako to pay a cost that would severely weaken her health? Have my powers injured my friends? I cannot be responsible for this danger! If that is the case, I must do everything I can to protect her while we are all separated!

End Notes:
Howie's powers in action! They're interesting, no? I always envisioned them as this mysterious ancient thing and I'm very excited to share this vision with you all now.

I laughed so hard at the first scene with Brian joking and teasing. That's the Brian we all know and love, right? Anyway, this Author Note is short; I am literally falling asleep at my desk. Let's chat Howie's powers in the comments. See you next week!
Chapter Thirty-Six: Tomorrow by nicksgal
“Brian, aren’t you worried that if this works, they’ll get pulled into Emeradotouhou instead?”

At the sound of Nick's voice, Brian set the scroll he had been reading down on the desk in the palace's moon viewing room. When he glanced over his shoulder, he watched Nick lean on the balcony railing and fiddle with the braided bracelet. First Nick slid it on to his wrists one after the other, then he lifted it to his nose and sniffed it before pursing his lips together as he stared at it. When Brian laughed, Nick frowned and glanced over his shoulder.

“Nick, are you worried that it won’t work or everyone will end up in Emeradotouhou?” Brian continued grinning as he crossed his arms.

“Of course I am.” Nick lowered his head. “I wish you’d told me before the three of you made these.”

“Nick…” Kevin held his head in his hand as he sank into one of the ornate chairs beside the desk.

Brian shook his head and laughed. “So you could do what? Yell until it didn’t happen? This is the solution we came up with for your request.”

Nick flinched. His surprise was short lived as he reacted in the typical way: crossing his arms, hunching his shoulders, and glancing away.

Refusing to yield, Brian fixed his stare on Nick -- who glowered at him in response. After smoothing his eyebrows, Kevin began to stand up. However, Brian held out his hand toward him. His confidence was undeniable. In response, Kevin shook his head and sank back into the chair.

Nick exhaled loudly and glanced at the ground. “You’re right. I did want us to get back together quickly and I thought it could help.”

“Then let it help,” Brian replied dryly.

“I know…" Nick swallowed, keeping his gaze firmly on the ground. "I trust your decisions and want Minako to feel like she can make decisions she feels are right, even if I’m worried about them… I just…”

Brian strode over and clapped his hand against Nick's shoulder. “Of course I’m worried, but it doesn’t happen automatically and I didn’t explicitly teach her that I could pull her barrier into mine even if she was trying to pull mine into hers.” He furrowed his brow. “I don’t think that I can force my barrier to go to hers, the person taking it on has to be ready as far as I know. So, that probably is something we should talk about. What do we do if it doesn’t work?”

“Exiting safely should be our first priority.” Kevin stood again, then joined them on the balcony.

“Yeah.” Nick frowned and stared out over the city. “Fly as far away as we can... Come back here... or back to your home if we can make it…”

“Is that alright with you, Brian?” Kevin raised an eyebrow as his stare bore through Brian.

“If that’s the safest thing we can do, then we should do it.” My family will always guard us. Brian leaned on the railing. “We should also probably tell Howie, AJ, and Minako to make that their escape plan as well. Getting away quickly with Minako might be difficult...”

Nick grunted quietly as he leaned on the railing beside Brian. “What do you think is in Topazuseihou that’s dangerous?”

“Aside from the desert?” Brian shrugged. “We don’t know where the rest of the ruby demons are or if all the emerald demons are in Emeradotouhou…”

“It seems likely that the topaz demons would be there as well.” Kevin crossed his arms and leaned on the railing beside Nick.

“Well, at least we know where Justin and Ashley are…” Nick bit his lip, though his stare still seemed empty and far away.

“It’s alright to be worried.” Kevin patted Nick’s shoulder. “It’s like Howie said, there’s likely not a truly safe path, but we’ll all probably be fine as long as we’re keeping each other safe.”

“I hope Howie is right…” Nick grimaced.

“It’s time.” Brian pointed up to the setting sun. “Ready?”

“Whenever you are, Brian.” Kevin smiled in the supportive manner he always did.

“Here.” Nick handed Brian the braided bracelet, slowly pulling his hand from the metal.

“What’s it smell like anyway?” Brian grinned. “Beloved priestesses?”

“Metal.” Nick frowned, wrinkling his nose. “Stop teasing me, Brian.”

“I’m not sure what else you wanted me to do when you smelled it.” Brian slipped it over his wrist as he laughed, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Though I’m guessing you wanted it to smell like beloved priestesses.”

Nick tensed and crossed his arms. “Just make your barrier already.”

Brian’s laughter filled the room as he placed his tented fingers on the bridge of his nose. After his laughter subsided, he shut his eyes tightly. I promise you and Minako. I will do everything I can so that we can meet.

The familiar webbed energy sprung up around him. As he exhaled slowly, he visualized the barrier spreading and growing around him. It encompassed the bright and stacking auras beside him, but remained immobile.

I don’t feel anything… Brian opened his eyes and furrowed his brow.

“You look worried.” Kevin’s voice dipped in concern, then he passed Nick to stand behind Brian.

“I can’t feel her barrier.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Something that’s far away that feels a little like Nick… Bright and warm…”

Nick lowered his head and cupped Brian’s shoulder tightly. At the same time, Kevin rested his hand on Brian’s other shoulder and squeezed gently.

In an attempt to concentrate, Brian shut his eyes again. I feel it radiating off of Nick… More than just bright, his aura is bursting with the desire to meet her. And instead of just stacking, Kevin’s is swirling to meet mine. He wants to keep me safe. Maybe this will help… Maybe it will take more than strength... There! Brian’s eyes shot open. “It’s far and faint, but I feel it! A barrier that feels a little like Nick!” He thrust his hand forward and shut his eyes again. Please work!

Sapphire light exploded within the barrier, filling it with hazy brightness. It swirled around the room, clouding their sight and shrouding the city below.

“Is this supposed to happen, Brian?” Concern filled Nick’s faint voice.

“I’ve never done it from this far away, so I hope so!” Brian clenched his hand on his staff. Just a little more! Instinctively, he cupped his thumb forward. Rather than the empty air, something warm and small met his touch.

“Brian?” A quiet voice asked.

I’m absolutely sure! We made it and that’s… “Minako!”

The swirling light flickered and flared slowly, then began seeping from the barrier. As it disappeared, the craggy rock face of Brian’s ancestral home replaced the palace and Aohouseki beyond it. Their barriers had merged.

Brian cupped her hand tightly and stared into Minako’s eyes. Relief washed over him. We did it! Thank goodness!

“It worked!” AJ shouted as he ran toward the barrier.

“Brian!” Minako threw her arms around his shoulders and the barrier popped.

Brian hugged Minako tightly, then Nick threw his arms around both of them. Tears started streaming down Minako’s cheeks; Nick sniffed, then buried his face against her hair.

“You’re both so emotional. We don’t need to get so worked up.” Brian laughed, but blinked back the tears in his own eyes. We did it!

“We are relieved that the bracelets could make the difference.” Howie lowered his head and held his hand to his chest as he exhaled.

A spark pricked at Brian's chest. It began as a twinge, but flared into a sharp pain similar to a stab. He gripped it and winced. This must be that weakness…

At the same moment, Minako slumped in his arms. “Brian…”

“Are you hurt?!” Nick pulled back, gaping as his eyebrows pinched together.

Howie quickly flanked Nick. “This must be the cost! Has it injured you?”

“No, but…” Brian grimaced. “It feels like that first time in Emeradotouhou.” He gently pushed Minako toward Nick, then pulled back as he took several deep breaths. Though oxygen filled his lungs, the pain refused to subside.

Minako slumped in Nick’s arms. “Nick…”

“Minako!” Nick held her tightly against his chest. Unable to control his quickened breathing, his voice wavered. “K-Kevin…”

Already at Brian’s side, Kevin held his glowing hands to Brian’s chest and forehead. “I’m glad you both tested it out before we left. Now we know that it works and what to expect.”

AJ peered over Kevin’s shoulder, jittering between crossing and uncrossing his arms as he touched his face in various places.

The glowing sapphire webbing sprang up around Brian, but flickered as it settled against his skin. Kevin pulled his hands back and frowned.

Brian inhaled deeply. “It doesn’t hurt anymore, but it feels like I haven’t slept in days…”

While Nick continued to hold Minako steady, Kevin ran his glowing hands over her chest and forehead as well. Like Brian, the healing proved ineffective. Kevin furrowed his brow. “It seems my powers may not be as effective since this is the result from a contract for those bracelets. Minako, is this helping you at all?”

“It’s making me… happy that you’re… helping me…” As always, her smile remained warm and bright.

Kevin pulled back his hands and shut them, causing the sapphire glow to disappear. Though he attempted a neutral face, his frown forced through. “You should both rest and I’ll check on you before we leave in the morning.”

“Yeah, sounds good.” Brian rubbed his head. “Thanks, Kevin.”

“Thank… you… Kevin…” Minako continued to smile, but clutched Nick’s arms tightly.

“We apologize for this hardship.” Howie fixed his gaze on the ground.

“Howie… no…”

“Minako’s right.” Brian cupped Howie’s shoulder. “We agreed knowing that something like this would happen.” He glanced at Kevin, Nick, Howie, and AJ. “I appreciate your concern, but don’t feel bad.”

“Me… too…”

Brian motioned toward the cave. “We have doctor’s orders to rest. Let’s stop worrying about it.”

Nick picked up Minako, holding her tightly to his chest as he stared at Howie. Despite his usual outbursts, he remained silent.

Howie patted Brian’s shoulder gently, but said nothing.

After one of the barrier demons standing guard opened the barrier, Brian glanced back at the others as they began walking into the cavern. He winced again, pressing his hand to his chest. Starting tomorrow, we’re definitely on a path that demands some sacrifice. Hopefully mine will be enough for all of us.

~*~



“Minako, are you sure you don’t need anything?” AJ crossed his arms and hovered outside their door.

“We apologize again.” Though Howie maintained eye contact, he fiddled with the pommel of his sword.

“I’m really okay… just tired…” I can’t let them know how much it’s hurting. They’ll just worry…

After briefly nodding to the barrier demon standing guard, Nick shoved their door open with his shoulder. “We’ll let you know. See you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight…” Minako waved over Nick’s shoulder as he kicked the door closed. When it shut, she brushed her hand against his cheek. “Glad you’re back... I love you.”

“I love you too, but… Minako.” Nick’s frown reflected his stern voice. “Just tell me how you’re really feeling.” His expression softened as he gently set her on their bed.

She nuzzled against him. “It stings… and everything… feels like it’s draining… but…”

“You have to take it off! Minako!” He quickly pulled the bracelet from her wrist, then slammed it on the low shelf with a crack.

“You’ve defeated it…” She giggled, but winced afterward as the pin pricks streaked across her chest. After taking a deep breath, she reached her arms toward him. “Come back… our plan...”

“Minako…” Nick slumped beside her, his eyebrows pinched tightly. “I hate that it’s hurting you…”

“I only wanted… you tonight…” She ran her hand in his hair.

“Minako, you’re hurt…”

“Our last night… Nick…” She hoped her words were enough to convey her longing.

“You know I always want you, but if you’re hurting…” He rubbed his hands on her shoulders, then cupped her cheek.

“Just protect me… like always…” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him quickly. “It’s not hurting… so much… that I would… break a promise… with you…”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. So sure.”

“I’ll always protect you.” He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer.

“And I’ll always…” As she kissed him, Minako ran her hand down his chest to his abdomen, then squeezed his butt. She giggled, letting her actions fill in her words.

In response, Nick simply grinned against her lips as he pulled her sleeves from her shoulders.

Minako pulled him closer, pressing heated kisses to his lips. I can’t let this change anything. I have to keep all my promises to you and all of them. I only ever wanted to help them with this power. I don’t even need it! But this is our last night together, so I have to stop worrying about it. Tonight you get all of me and I’ll worry about everyone else starting tomorrow.

~*~



Kevin leaned on the table in the medical ward, staring absentmindedly at the shelf above it. Why couldn’t I heal them?

“Doctor, you seem troubled.” Erik’s voice pierced through his thoughts.

“I’m sorry for asking that you stay one more night in here.” Though he remained hunched, Kevin stared at the lone inhabitant in the room. Erik’s condition had only marginally improved with his assistance.

“I can see Madeline and Jacob tomorrow.” For a moment, Erik met Kevin’s gaze, but quickly returned to staring at the ceiling.

“Yes… tomorrow…” Kevin furrowed his brow and scanned the shelf of medicines before pulling some of the jars down.

“Are you concerned about running into the demon soldier?”

“To some extent. I am mainly concerned for my friends’ safety.”

“If Topazuseihou is dangerous, I will do what I can to assist them. You have my word.”

“I appreciate that.” Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line and stared at Erik again. “Why?”

“We are different factions, yet you put aside factions to honor an oath your clan made, to heal the sick. I owe you a life debt and honoring that is more important than any ties to factions.” Erik ran his hand through his hair. “You seem to place equal value on your life and theirs, so since I will be with them, I should treat them with that trust.”

“Erik, you are very honorable.”

“It’s important to honor our words with our actions.”

“I agree.” Kevin poured the herbs in a bowl, then began mixing them. “I’m relieved to hear you say that. I’m actually concerned about being separated. I know it makes sense when we have multiple and opposing objectives, but working together makes each of us stronger.”

“One day at a time, right, Doctor?” Erik closed his eyes and began breathing steadily.

“Yes, one day at a time…” Kevin glanced at him, then continued to mix the herbs before pouring them into a canister.

Have I honored my words with my actions? Why couldn’t I heal them? Were Howie’s powers blocking mine? Just like Erik’s wound isn’t fully healing… Just like Nick’s abdomen wound in Rubiihoppou... Can my powers not heal wounds caused by other demons’ powers? How do I become stronger to combat that? Minako’s powers seemed even less responsive than Brian’s… Does that mean they aren’t something that’s inherently part of her? Then where do they come from?

I can’t wallow or doubt. I need to turn these worries into training. I promised to stand beside them. They’re counting on me to be strong and focused. I must replace my doubt with strength. Starting tomorrow, I must ensure that my words always match my actions.


~*~



AJ leaned against Howie’s door. With a scrutinizing stare, he watched as Howie ran his hand along the supplies on the table. “You okay?”

“Why would we not be?” Howie’s gaze remained on the table.

“You just hurried in here after Minako and Nick said goodnight.” After swallowing, AJ glanced at the ground. “I’m worried too. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Are the bracelets your concern?” Howie fiddled with the pommel of his sword.

“You guys wouldn’t have made them if you didn’t think it was going to be okay. I’m sure it will work out…” AJ frowned. “I am worried about the ruby demons we haven’t met…”

“Yes, the water demon with a similar personality. We hope the desert proves scorching for him, as we are unlikely to be able to make it frigid.”

“Do you think we’re right in thinking of their powers simply? There’s probably not a lot of water out there either...”

“There are very few plants, at the very least, and if Erik follows Madeline’s wishes, then his likely control of sand would benefit our party.”

“Do you think we’re making the wrong choice listening to Nick’s suspicions?” AJ crossed his arms.

“We find value in being prepared for all possibilities.”

AJ glanced at the door and frowned. “Do you think we’re wrong for not telling Minako yet?”

“Our plan is more likely to succeed if she behaves naturally rather than acting as though things have not changed.”

Remaining silent, AJ continued to stare at the door. She’d hate knowing we kept a secret from her… Even if it’s to keep her safe…

“We will both tell her when the time is right, when we know which ruby demons are trustworthy.” Howie sat at the table. “Would you care to join us for the evening to finish preparations?”

“Howie…” AJ swallowed again. “Are we assuming that there’s a chance that every other demon is untrustworthy?”

“As we said, we find value in being prepared for all possibilities. However, we do wish to believe that old companionship holds value.”

AJ stared at the ground as his hands trembled slightly. “I think I’ll go lay down. You get some rest too, Howie.”

“Rest peacefully.” Though AJ refused to look at Howie’s face, his voice carried the same gentle tone as always.

“You too.” In one fluid motion, AJ opened and closed the door so quickly that he scarcely had time to exit through it. Once he was in the hall, he exhaled deeply and hung his head. I thought so… For a moment, guilt gnawed at his heart and he raised his hand to knock on Minako and Nick’s door. Instead, he waved to the barrier demon standing guard and opened the door to the last room in the hallway. She needs to rest.

After closing the door, AJ slid down it and sat on the ground. His heart rang in his ears, but his thoughts drowned out the sound. With all these different alliances, this feels like a war… Can we really win this war? We were able to win against the emerald demons once, but… We don’t know if Justin is gathering allies too…

Now that we know the box isn’t some magical miracle, will Joseph choose them? Or will he accept all the parts of himself and realize that keeping past ties with Justin is dangerous?
AJ leaned his head against the door, exhaling deeply as he shut his eyes. I have to be ready to fight beside my friends and accept either possibility… starting tomorrow.

~*~



In the council room, Brian leaned on the heirloom staff spread across his knees, breathing heavily as he stared at Virgil. “Grandfather, do you know a way to pull our power back in when we use too much of it? I was relying on Kevin, but… That doesn’t seem to be working…” He swallowed, fighting the knot in his throat.

Virgil’s body language mimicked Brian’s, except for his hard scrutinizing expression.

“Grandfather?”

“Do you have any regrets about making this sacrifice?”

Brian gripped the heirloom staff tightly and pressed his lips together. “None.” He ran his hand along the back of his neck. “I’m actually hoping that if I can make this sacrifice that none of them will have to do anything like it. But…”

“But?”

“I should let you know.” Another swallow forced the knot down. “It worked when we weren’t in a crisis, but we’ll be even further away the next time we try, plus whatever danger we’re escaping from.” He glanced at the ground. “If it doesn’t work, we decided coming back here would be our safest escape route if we can make it. I don’t want to put any of you in danger, but I know it would be more difficult for our enemies to get in here than inside the palace.”

“I see…” Virgil pressed his lips into a thin line, but his stare remained fixed on Brian. “So we should only allow entry to His Majesty, Her Esteemed and Honorable Eminence, the Celestial, the Healer, and the Shapeshifter unless the others arrive with any of them.”

“Please? I’ll teach Minako how to knock before we leave.”

“We will provide this sanctuary if they promise to assist should crisis arrive on our hearth.”

“I don’t think you even need to ask.”

“The ability to pull your powers back into your body is something we train before ascension to the council. It is not taught prior to this because there is typically nothing strenuous enough for it to be a necessary skill for most of our clan.” Virgil lowered his head and inhaled. “However, because you do have this need and His Majesty treats you as though you do hold a position among our council, I will teach you. I must warn you though, it requires practice, focus, and strength to complete.”

Brian held his head high and nodded.

“Close your eyes, then create and hold a barrier. It does not need to be large, but larger than your own body.”

Brian took a deep breath, then followed Virgil’s instructions. The webbed aura sprang from his body, surrounding him in its familiar protectiveness.

“Keep your eyes closed and feel your powers inside you, but also your powers forming the barrier outside your body. Rather than allowing the barrier to simply disappear, pull it back in.”

Brian took a deep breath again. I feel it surrounding me, like a soft and pliable cage. If I normally think about pulling and stretching it, this must be similar to when I create holes in it, then close them. I have to imagine the barrier squishing and shrinking. Brian clenched his hands on the heirloom staff. Keep the shield and return to me. Become one with the power resting inside again.

Brian pressed his hand to his chest. It’s small… But I feel… fuller… “Grandfather…”

“It flickered slightly, but settled among your skin, then absorbed. Did you feel it returning?”

“I did.” Brian’s eyes shot open. “Thank you, Grandfather! I will continue to practice this. You’ve helped me a lot!”

“Remain safe in your journey.” Virgil gave him a perfunctory nod.

This time, Brian mimicked Virgil’s body language. Definitely. I definitely have to stay safe so I can keep them safe. Starting tomorrow, I will become strong despite my sacrifices and become a shield for all of them.

~*~



AJ’s words lingered in Howie’s mind as he stared at the closed door.

“Howie… are we assuming that there’s a chance that every other demon is untrustworthy?”

Today, I have hurt five of my friends… Howie leaned on his hand. AJ, I absolutely believe in your loyalty and would like to believe in your companion’s loyalty as well, however… It would be dangerous to assume any of the other demons are always trustworthy. Just as it is dangerous to assume that they are always untrustworthy. Does preparing for both possibilities make me callous? I do want to support my friends in their choices, yet, they are only prepared for extremes.

With a deep inhale, Howie unsheathed his sword. The metal glinted in the light from the candles as he twisted his wrist. The moment I saw the weakness, I knew that Nick would hate it. I was surprised that he did not shout. Perhaps in the moment, he chose to focus on the outcomes rather than the origins. I did not expect a weakness that Kevin could not heal or aid. We all accepted the cost, and yet I remain unharmed because I am not creating a barrier. Have I inadvertently created death for Brian and Minako with my powers?

Dangerous powers are not to be taken lightly. Is there never a moment when they are truly helpful? Are costs and exchanges always their downfall? I cannot let my powers be responsible for injuring them or let them be injured further. I must be strong enough to ensure that they remain strong. Starting tomorrow, I must be their greatest protector even if I never use my powers again.


~*~



“Let’s do this first thing when you’re done in Emeradotouhou.” Minako brushed Nick’s sweaty hair out of his eyes, grinning as she pressed a kiss to his lips.

“I always want you. Anything for you.” He tucked her hair behind her ear and kissed her. "You were so tired, but you kept saying you wanted to… Are you sure you’re okay?” He felt his eyebrows pinching as he scanned her face.

“Nick, I’m fine. I feel a lot better now, actually.” She held both of his cheeks and pressed a lingering kiss to her lips.

“You’re glowing again…” He pushed the mirror necklace away from her chest and kissed her bare collar bone. “And you promise you feel better?”

“I promise.”

“Am I helping? Everyone keeps saying that you feel like me… Am I still giving you more of my powers?”

“Maybe.” Minako shrugged. “Or whatever you gave me before is happy to be back near you, so it appears. If it is something you’re still sharing with me, it makes me happy.”

“If it makes you happy and makes you feel better, I’ll give you as much as you want.” He kissed her neck.

“It’s our last night together for a little while… Give me whatever you want.” Minako winked.

Nick licked his lips, then laughed. “You’re trouble. I love you.”

“I love you too.” She smiled and brushed his hair back again. “Actually, can we just… be together?”

“What do you mean?” As he leaned on his elbow, his cheek squished against his hand when his smile grew. Then, he reached out and cupped her cheek, letting the heat of her face settle against his skin.

“The sex is fun and teasing you is fun too, but now I just want to be close to you and hold you for the rest of the night until we have to leave tomorrow.” More than the warmth of her skin, her smile drew him in every time.

“Yeah, me too. Our last night together in each other's arms...” With a quick pull, the linens bunched at their feet settled at their waists. When her head leaned against his chest, he wrapped his arms and wings around her shoulders securely.

“That day you hugged me in the rain, I never wanted you to let me go. It was… the safest I’d ever felt.” As she spoke, she danced her fingers across his chest.

“With a monstrous breathing blanket?” Nick laughed quietly.

Minako giggled, then smiled that warm, inviting smile. “With a boy who thought I was scarier than bandits and still promised to protect me.”

“Bandits are easy. They fight, they pick-pocket, they scavenge.” He leaned his head on hers. “I wasn’t prepared for you. A person who would hug a monster… A girl who would befriend, then love, a demon...” Back then, his heart would have rang in his ears if he tried to tell her this truth. Now, the memory filled his heart with warmth.

She brushed his hair back. “I love a boy I befriended… who happens to be a demon. Of course it’s part of who you are, but it’s not all you are.”

He smiled and held her chin. “What will I do without you in Emeradotouhou?”

“Focus on your objectives and slay our enemies?” Minako laughed.

His lips quirked upward into a half smirk. “Have Kevin teach me how to be tranquil and stoic?” Nick swallowed. “I know it was my idea, but… I will miss you… I’ve been trying not to think about it and focus on Topazuseihou being safer, but…”

“I know… it’s always been you and me, and then all of us.” She frowned. “Madeline always seems so bitter about being here and feeling forced to be a person she’s not… And everything Renee went through too… But I never felt that way... because I had you with me the whole time. And everything always felt like it would be okay if we were together.” Though Minako brushed his hair back, the gentle touch scarcely matched the frown that formed on her lips. “I guess I felt that way once... when you told me you didn’t care what I did after we got the box. That made it feel like maybe it wouldn’t be okay, because you didn’t care if we were together or not.”

“I cared a lot,” he mumbled as he leaned against her shoulder. “You know I used to say the wrong things all the time...”

“I know. What did you say? That I should marry Howie after we got the box?” Minako smirked. “Think that’s still an option?”

“You’re teasing me. I want to say whatever makes you happy, but you already married me and I want it that way.” Nick laughed. “I’ve already admitted to you that I was just jealous. Actually, I finally told Howie that too… But, I’ll tell you hundreds of times if you want to hear it.”

“Only if you want to say it.” Minako gave him a short kiss. “I told you that I thought I loved you then. I married you. And I love you even more now than I did back then.” She smiled as she brushed her hand through his hair. “I know that everything will be okay as long as we’re together or as soon as we’re back together.”

“You’re all I ever wanted. More than the box or anything else.” He cupped her cheek. “Everything’s always okay when I have you. I will get back to you, no matter what, I promise.”

"I wish I had something I could give you while we're apart…"

Nick laced his fingers through hers, then pressed a light kiss to her ring. "This has always been enough. But I'll think of something while you're sleeping if it makes you happy."

Minako nestled closer to his chest and shut her eyes. "You should sleep while I'm sleeping."

“The last night I have to watch you and think about what you’re dreaming?” He nuzzled against her hair. “That won’t happen.”

“I don’t need to dream about anything. I have you.” She danced her hand along his chest. “Nick?”

“Hmm?” He ran his hand through her hair.

“I’ll miss you. But I’ll always be thinking about how much I love you.”

“Me too.” He grinned. “That’s the first time I’ve gotten to tell you that. It’s usually the other way around.”

Minako giggled quietly. “I love you.”

“I love you too. It’s okay if you sleep, I know you’re tired.”

“Just a little bit... then I’ll keep you company again if you’re still awake.”

“Sure.” He ran his hand through her hair again, then kissed her head before leaning against it. Meeting you and getting to go on this journey with everyone is the most important thing I have. More important than my past, more important than my powers. Being in this family is the most important thing that I am, so I will protect it with everything I can and get everyone back here safely. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can see you again, starting tomorrow.

End Notes:
When I wrote this chapter, it felt like the end of a first act of a musical. So I thought about "One Day More" from Les Miserables and decided that the thread between everyone in the way I planned the chapter were their thoughts about "tomorrow" so I made "starting tomorrow" a refrain for everyone.

Also Brian got lucky and got two POV sections. Not sure why. Anyway, see y'all next Wednesday!
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Honesty by nicksgal
Outside the cavern, morning sunlight streamed across their faces, glinting across the hair pins. Just one more time… “Minako…” Nick fiddled with a strand of her hair, then laughed quietly. “I should have waited to give these to you. Now all I want to do is touch your hair.”

Minako reached toward one of the hair pins, but Nick cupped her hand before she touched it, lacing his fingers in hers. After inhaling audibly, Minako smiled as she stared up at him.

“No, leave them,” Nick whispered.

“Okay. How about this then?” She pulled a bobby pin from the bow tied at her back. “Break this.”

“Okay?” Were you going to ask me to break those? Nick swallowed as a quick frown crossed his face, mimicking the tightness in his chest. “Why?”

“Just do it.” She smiled, pushing it closer to him.

Nick snapped it in half and held the pieces out in his palm. The tightness remained in his chest, but it was impossible not to be taken in by her smile.

“I pick…” Minako wiggled her fingers over the pieces, then pulled one from his hand. “This one.” She held it up, still grinning. “They match each other. Now you have something of mine to take with you. And we can make it whole together when you come back.”

“I will always get to you.” Nick pulled her into a tight embrace. “I’ll treasure it until then. Can I ask you for one more favor?”

“Anything.”

“Can we trade sashes? I just want… anything that smells like you.”

Minako quickly pulled the tails of the bow at her lower back, unfurling the sash from around her waist. As she held it up to him, she giggled. “For my treasured husband and soldier, his devoted lady’s favor.”

The lopsided grin flashed on his face as he pulled his own sash from around his waist. “For my beloved wife and priestess, her stalwart knight’s belt.” He draped it over her hips as he wrapped his arms around her waist. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” She brushed her hand through his hair, then ran it down his cheek, holding it as she pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. “I’ll see you so soon that you won’t even be able to miss me.” A warm smile formed on her lips.

“Hope so.” His grin widened as he leaned toward her for another kiss.

~*~



Nick startled awake, glancing at the dark abyss of night blanketing their campsite. The raised roots of the shadowy trees snaked around them, shrouding their small fire from sight. Ashley slept nestled in a hollow at the bottom of a nearby tree. Also deep in sleep, Brian leaned against another tree, clutching his staff tightly. Kevin remained awake, tending to the small fire.

While wrapping his wings around his shoulders, Nick curled into a tighter ball and reached for the fallen sash. After gently brushing it off, he bunched it into a ball and held it to his face, inhaling deeply.

It’s not the same… Nick swallowed. It’s the same way her clothes are soft, but… not soft like her warm skin… At least it still smells like her… He nuzzled against it, pressing it into the crook of his arm and hiding his face against it. Minako… We’ve never really been apart since you got here… Except for when I went with Howie and AJ to Aohouseki… Tightness spread across his chest. That was miserable too… even though I knew I was going right back… I just wanted to hold you and tell you about my day... I’ve gotten so used to you sleeping in my arms, I didn’t think I’d sleep at all… I must be exhausted. He held the broken bobby pin half in front of his eyes, grimacing at the sinking feeling in his stomach. I wish I could see you.

“Nick, are you awake?” Kevin’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

Praying sleep would wash over him, Nick tried curling into a tighter ball. When the attempt failed, he sighed and sat up. “Yeah.” After quickly tying the sash back around his waist, Nick plodded over to Kevin, then slumped beside him and the fire. “Are you ready to switch?”

“I’m fine, but I thought you might like some company if you were awake.”

“I’m okay…” Nick pulled his knees against his chest and leaned his head on them.

“This reminds me of traveling to Rubiihoppou. Brian holding his staff tightly like he’s ready to hit someone, you and me awake by the fire.” Kevin grinned. “It’s quieter without Howie snoring.”

“Yeah…” Nick fiddled with his ring. I never really paid attention to it… But the silence feels so much louder without your breathing. Nick held his outstretched hand near his waist and slowly curled it into a fist, then leaned it on his knees again. “How was switching with Ashley?”

“Fine. I woke up a little early when I felt the fire being blocked out on my face.”

“Are you okay?” Nick gripped Kevin’s arm tightly as he frowned. “Sorry, I…”

“I know, you fell asleep. It’s okay.” Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line. “Ashley was standing over you, but had his arms crossed the whole time. He just watched you.”

Nick bit his lip. “Why?”

Kevin shrugged. “I stayed awake and kept an eye on him since you were sleeping. He kept watching you for a few minutes, then went back to the fire.”

Nick furrowed his brow. That’s definitely something I would have woken up at normally…

“I checked on you again when I woke up to switch him. You were still sleeping, curled in a ball and clutching Minako’s sash near your face.”

Nick frowned and glanced away. You probably both saw that…

“You should sleep. It’s hard on your body when you don’t.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“Her breathing and scent keeps you calm. I avoided mentioning it before, but it’s written on your face. So I know that bringing it up won’t suddenly make you think about it if you were trying not to.” Kevin cupped Nick’s shoulder. “You have Brian and me, but it’s okay to miss her, and Howie and AJ. We all spent a long time alone or surrounded by others we couldn’t really confide in. Having those relationships and suddenly parting is difficult.”

“I’m glad we’re together. I hope you know that. I just… wish I hadn’t asked. I was too busy thinking about the best way to protect her that I didn’t think about how anything else would feel...”

Kevin patted his shoulder. “Sometimes it’s important to make difficult decisions. AJ and Howie will take good care of her.”

“I’m never worried about that. I just want you all to stay safe…” And I wish we could do that together…

“Do you think there’s anything Brian and I should know? We’re prepared to meet the emerald demons, but…”

“Dan’s power is water and Trevor’s power is fire.” He stared into the dancing flames. “Howie and AJ asked too. Brian and Minako haven’t… I guess for us, it would depend on how they’re feeling when they see Ashley. And for them, it would depend on how they’re feeling when they see Madeline.”

“Is one better than the other?”

Nick shrugged. “I’m sure Dan came up with his own plan a long time ago. If he wasn’t really into this alliance either, he could probably convince Ashley to leave with him. I don’t know if they’d become enemies to us or just indifferent. Ashley and Trevor would probably argue about something, but it might not have anything to do with us.”

“So Ashley wasn’t in charge?” Kevin cocked an eyebrow.

“Not really… only in charge of me… To them he was more overbearing... Their dynamics are just off without the other three around. Jacob’s kind of a follower, so he’d obviously follow Ashley and Madeline since they were the ones around. And Ashley and Madeline argued with each other to get their way.”

“And Erik was injured, but he is concerned with Madeline.”

“Pretty much…” I wonder what it feels like to be the one who’s not picked… If Minako had picked Howie… I would have hated that so much. Would I have kept worrying about her? Nick bit his lip and stared into the fire, watching the flames flicker and dance as the heat brushed against his skin. Probably…

Kevin glanced at Brian and then fixed his gaze back on Nick. “What do you want to do when it’s time to switch?”

“You can stay up with me if you want, but I’m not going to wake up Brian until it’s time to go in the morning unless he wakes up on his own. He really needs the rest.” Nick glanced at Kevin. “Be honest with me. You’re worried about your powers too.”

“Nick, I’m not--”

“Kevin.” Nick’s voice was firm as he stared at Kevin intensely, then grinned. “Was that close? I thought maybe you could teach me how to be tranquil and stoic while it’s just us and Brian.”

Kevin pressed his lips into a thin line. They quickly quirked into a smile, then he began laughing and tousled Nick’s hair. “You smiled too soon. You’re too willing to share your emotions to be really stoic.”

“I didn’t used to be like that…” Nick laughed. “Or maybe I did, but I really didn’t want to. Honestly, Minako accepting all of them made me feel like it was okay to share. Not that she didn’t react to them, just...” Nick frowned. “You’re distracting me from what I tried to talk to you about.”

Kevin glanced at Brian again. “Erik wasn’t easy to heal either. And I thought you weren’t because you kept getting hit in the same place, but… that false god who wounded your abdomen originally was a demon. It might be difficult for me to heal wounds caused by other demons' powers.”

“What exactly happened to Erik? I thought Justin attacked him…” Nick’s stomach sank, then he grimaced. “...with his sword.”

“He did, but with his claws.”

Nick flinched and shrank back from Kevin. “When did you find that out?!”

“Lower your voice. We both agreed that Brian should get some rest.” Kevin stared into the fire for a few moments. “A few days ago. Erik never clearly explained what he did or what his powers looked like. It’s possible the attack he remembers was with the sword.”

“But?” Nick crossed his arms and leaned on his knees as he frowned.

“But once I cleaned up the blood, underneath were deep claw marks with black streaks spreading from the edges.”

Nausea rolled through Nick’s stomach. “Black streaks?” Nick furrowed his brow. Minako had that… Way back when I first met her, but… The more time she spent with me, it went away… Is that the same? “Is that important?” He mumbled.

“It could give us some insight into what Justin’s powers actually are, but since we don’t know what it might do…”

“Well, yeah, that… I was thinking out loud…” Nick brushed back his hair. “Minako… had something like that on her hip when we first met. The black part was really little though and it… went away before we met you. Not just the black part, but the whole thing…”

“Minako had something like that?” Kevin’s eyebrows rose slightly.

Nick frowned. Kevin’s much better at hiding how he’s feeling. If that was me, I’d be so tense. I didn’t think that was a thing that was important, since it went away, but… “Do you think it’s the same thing?”

“It’s possible… Do you?”

“I don’t know, maybe… Minako seems fine from that. And it healed on its own... I wonder what it does… Would it do something different to a human and a demon if it was the same?”

Kevin poked at the fire and furrowed his brow. “I don’t know. It seems that Justin’s powers are complicated like Ashley’s and Howie’s… We don’t really know what any of them are capable of aside from what they tell us.”

“Are you worried that Howie’s still hiding something from us?” Nick bit his lip.

“No, not unless there’s something he’s unaware of. Brian described the process for making the bracelets in a fair amount of detail and most of it was similar to what Howie showed us initially.”

“How do you think he talks to his ancestors?”

Kevin shrugged. “It’s a mystery.”

Nick groaned and held his head in his hand. “This is frustrating. It feels like the more things we learn, the more problems we have. And things that don’t seem important at all end up being really important. I wish there was a way to know what was important and what wasn’t.”

“Maybe it’s better if we stop assuming that things aren’t important.”

“Okay. Tell me everything else you think is important.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “The claw marks from Justin and Erik’s wound only partially responding to my powers seem like the most pressing things to say… There’s a couple other things I’m thinking about, but I don’t have explanations for those yet. I’ll tell you later.”

“Kevin.” Do we all have our secrets?

“You keep pressing me for more information. Are you also hiding something?”

“No…” Nick glanced away and bit his lip. “Kind of… But I told Minako she could decide whether to say something or not. And she decided not to… so...”

Kevin set his hand on Nick’s shoulder.

“Just say ‘Nick’ already. I know you want to.” Nick smirked as he glanced back at Kevin.

Kevin laughed. “Nick.”

Nick ran his hand through his hair again. “Well, you know how Howie and Brian’s grandfather keep talking about how Minako’s aura feels demonic?”

“And Brian.”

“Brian’s saying it now too?” I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing we are? “Well anyway… We umm… and… ummm… yeah…”

“Nick?”

I don’t know why I’m embarrassed. Nick glanced away as he rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re having sex. Anyway! What you should know is that my chest starts glowing with this pale blue light and then hers starts glowing too. And it happens every time and stays that way for a while…”

Kevin glanced at Brian.

“Yeah, Brian knows. He found out on accident, but he and I talked about it later. He keeps telling me to be careful.” Nick bit his lip as he stared at Kevin. “You should tell him about Erik’s wound too. Oh, but um, back to your powers and Minako’s powers… Yesterday when she was really weak, she felt better afterward, like back to her regular self and not tired at all anymore. We’ve been thinking that maybe she has some of my powers from a while ago for some reason or that I’m giving them to her somehow and that’s making the glowing happen… But…” Should I have said any of this? I know she didn’t say anything, but if Kevin’s powers couldn’t help her and I could, maybe he should know… She could be really mad though, she was already upset Brian found out… He ran his hand through his hair and stared at the ground. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything… I’ll apologize to her when I see her. I hope that’s soon...

“She smells like you.”

Nick glanced up. “Hm?”

“There used to be these other scents mixed up with it, but she’s always very distinctly smelled like you. It’s grown stronger and covered up those other scents over time... that dewy tart and citrus scent.”

“Something creamy and nutty in her hair… and that calming spicy, woody, floral smell.” He ran his hand on the sash and laughed quietly. “So that stronger smell is what I smell like too…” And she likes it… that smell we share… He smiled warmly, then frowned. I want to see her and smell that floral scent while I hold her. He leaned his head on his knees again.

Kevin patted Nick’s back. “We’ll make it back soon. That’s what the bracelets are for, right?”

“I guess, but…” I was trying to help Kevin and he’s comforting me about the same thing again… “Are you okay? I’m sure all of this is frustrating.”

“It is frustrating, but we’re all growing and challenging our powers. You’ve given me some new things to think about, so I appreciate that.” Kevin furrowed his brow. “Is there anything else you’re keeping to yourself?”

“No, that was it. I hope it can help… I know it bugged you when my wound kept reopening.”

“It did. It’s frustrating when your powers don’t work like you think they will.” Kevin crossed his arms. “But, I’ve made it my goal to make sure that I do everything I say I will.”

“You’re always doing enough, Kevin. You’ve always taken really good care of us, so if you need anything we can help with, just say it.” Kevin always seems like he’s got everything together, but… I always hope he’ll say things like that to me, so maybe he’ll like it too if he’s feeling unsure…

Kevin smiled. “Thank you, Nick.”

“Yeah, sure. Hey do you have a thing like Brian’s staff or Howie’s sword or AJ’s earrings?”

“I do.”

“You’ve never mentioned it. What is it?”

“Just something old from my family.” Kevin reached into the breast of his tunic and pulled out a small onyx coin with a hole through the middle. A snake eating its tail was depicted on the face of the coin. Kevin turned it over revealing the same symbol on the back. “It can be worn if it’s strung, but I like to keep it close to my heart.”

“Is that why you don’t show it to us?”

Kevin laughed quietly. “None of you have ever asked to see it. I know it’s not as physically imposing as Howie’s sword or as impressive as Brian’s staff or even as distinctive to my appearance as AJ’s earrings, but it’s important to me because it’s something I share with my family.” He put it back into his tunic, carefully sealing the pocket again. “Are you still searching for something? I know Minako wanted to make you something.”

“No, I’ve figured it out.” He bit his lip. “It would be nice having something like that though, something passed down.”

“You can always start some new tradition.” Kevin patted Nick’s back again. “I hope you know that you’re always doing enough for this family.”

Nick glanced up at him and beamed.

“Focus on that until Brian wakes up.” Kevin smiled, then stood. “You can always mention when you need something too.”

“Yeah, I know… I’m trying to be better about it.” Nick brushed his hair back again. “Goodnight, Kevin.”

Kevin stretched as he walked toward a tree away from the fire. “Goodnight, Nick.”

Nick poked at the fire, watching his ring glint against the flames. It’s what I’ve been constantly telling myself… I never wanted a miracle, I just wanted you… a light that was bright enough to burst through my darkness. He pulled his hand back and gripped the ring. When I remember that I have that, I remember that I’m more than darkness and I can light it up too.

End Notes:
So as I've been working on de-fanficing this story, I've had to come up with more lore and these black streaks became something I introduced much earlier. But here you get to enjoy some reveals of older missing information instead.

I hope everyone enjoyed seeing Kevin's special object and this nice Kevin and Nick bonding moment. Wonder what will happen to the Nick, Kevin, and Brian trio next! Share your thoughts below and see you on Wednesday.
This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=11583