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.”