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?”
“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?”
“Brian’s saying it now too?” I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing we are? “Well anyway… We umm… and… ummm… yeah…”
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?”
“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.