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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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...”
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...