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.”
“You tell me a story, I tell you a story.”
“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!”
“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.
“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.
Minako shook her head.
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Or yours? Whatever yours is...”
“At their simplest, our clan’s powers are natural. As are yours.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.