“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.”
Ashley leaned his head against the mat “Will it help you to trust me if I face away from them?”
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.
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!
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.