“We will find him. There are not many places to hide in this cave despite its size.”
“I just… hate it when you all fight.”
“Those who are close often argue. It is the choices they make after the argument that matter.”
“Nick’s… he’s really worried and scared. The more he remembers, the more he goes back to the way he used to be.”
“It is likely he is coping in the ways he is familiar with. While it feels as though our relationships have been eternal, they are quite small in comparison.”
“He’s making a conscious effort to be vulnerable with me. Why isn’t he getting mad at me?”
Howie chuckled. “We assumed you asked him to behave that way while offering eternal acceptance in return.” He shut his eyes and took a deep breath before exhaling, then fiddled with the pommel of his sword. “It is a freeing feeling to know that who you are is enough.”
“I did… kind of…” Minako hunched her shoulders. “There’s a very small part of me that worries about something bad in his past that he doesn’t know yet or that he’ll become more like Justin when he gets stronger...” She held her hands to her chest. “But the part that loves him is stronger. And I’m hoping that all of us supporting him will be enough to help him stay himself.”
“Minako, there are many ways to be strong, not just the way that Justin portrays strength.” He smiled. “Perhaps when Nick becomes stronger, the only difference will be that he will learn to conceal his more demonic aspects and begin wearing shoes.”
Minako laughed. “I wonder if he would choose that, he really hates shoes.”
“We assumed that when he was younger, shoes were not an available choice.”
Minako frowned. “You conceal your demonic aspects and Kevin told me that he can, but chooses not to because he can’t use his powers. Do you think Brian or AJ can?”
Howie crossed his arms. “Possibly Brian, though if he could, he would likely choose against it for similar reasons as Kevin. We are unsure of AJ’s capability.”
“I thought AJ was really impressive today.”
“We did as well.” He glanced at her. “Minako… We have been meaning to ask about the demonic energy that Elder Virgil senses…”
Minako shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t feel it at all! But yesterday Nick asked me if I thought I could still make a barrier like Brian and I felt like I could.”
“Yes, why did you not ask Brian to assist?”
“The person Nick really thought could help was Madeline, but… I think he worried about more people being hurt. And the barrier was what we really needed to stop the rock slides. So I guess I was similar to both Madeline and Brian when he asked.”
Howie frowned. “Do you think you could use AJ’s power? Or Kevin’s? Or Nick’s?”
Minako shrugged and smiled. “Maybe? Brian’s has been the most useful for me so far. I don’t think I’ve really tried out the rest of yours yet… Do you think I could use yours? The power to create things…”
“Well you made the scale and those orbs too, didn’t you? I’m pretty sure you did. I wonder if I could help you create something...”
Howie paused and held Minako back. Footsteps thundered nearby, but became quieter with each passing moment. Minako squeezed past Howie and rushed down the familiar corridor. As she ran, a figure came into view that flinched, then paused at the sound of her footsteps.
As Nick turned, he frowned, but it quickly turned into a small smile as he saw her. “Minako?”
She stopped in front of him and reached toward him. “I wanted to…”
He peered over her shoulder and frowned again. “Howie…”
“We were merely headed in the same direction. Excuse us. Minako, let us discuss your question at a later time.” He smiled as he patted Minako’s shoulder, then continued to walk down the corridor toward their rooms.
Nick stared after him for a moment, then turned back to Minako. His smile fell as his eyebrows knitted together.
“Nick…” Minako brushed his cheek with her hand.
Minako grabbed his hand and pulled him toward their rooms.
“This is the way you were headed, right? I’ll go with you.”
He glanced away from her, but fell into step beside her. “It’s fine...”
He tightened his grip on her hand, but said nothing.
They walked in silence through the corridor until they reached the three rooms at the end. Nick gave a brief nod to the barrier demon beside their door as he opened it. Once Minako was inside, the barrier demon nodded as the door shut.
Nick faced the door in silence, then clenched his right hand into a fist and slammed it into the wall next to the door. He gripped the wall with his claws for a moment, then turned and pressed his back against it as he sank to the floor. After pulling his knees to his chest, he leaned his head against them.
Minako sat beside him and put her hand on his shoulder.
Minako… Why? They didn’t listen to me, but… I’m a liability… And I made AJ sad… I… He crossed his arms over his knees and hid his face under them. And you just… You’re sitting there and accepting me like always… I don’t deserve it… I’m a liability… No… I’m too focused on what I wanted… That was unfair…
Minako ran her hand through his hair and leaned her head on his.
You’re not saying anything… But you’re still here… Why? I’ve been a… I’m not being fair… But… I’m a liability? I’m trying my best… And they… They’re also trying their best… We… I wanted them to… I’m… His shoulders shook.
Minako continued fluffing his hair and pressed a kiss to his head.
You… And my family… Our friends… I wasn’t… I… He lifted his head, revealing the tears streaming down his cheeks, then curled into her lap as his tears hit her legs.
She fluffed his hair again and cradled his shoulders.
“I’m being unfair… AJ’s right… We all have pain and worries… And we’d already decided together…”
Minako leaned her head on his again as she tightened her grip on his shoulders.
“But I… it hurt… I was…”
She ran her hand through his hair.
“You tried really hard to seem fine today, but this morning you were grieving.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist as he buried his head in her lap.
“You should tell them that… instead of getting angry.”
“They can’t help you if you don’t tell them.” She rubbed his back. “You and I talked about it yesterday. When you need help, we can help right away if we know instead of waiting until we figure it out.”
“You’re always worried about what they’re dealing with too, but when you bottle it up and lash out, they don’t see that. They see you fighting with them to get your way.” She leaned back against the wall, shutting her eyes and inhaling deeply. “It’s hard to watch you going back to being distrusting…” She leaned against him again, still rubbing his back gently. “I know Ashley broke your trust and you are allowed to be angry at him. But we’re all still here to help you and none of us have given you a reason to not trust us.”
“I trust you.” He stared up at her.
“I know you do, but our friends aren’t sure.”
“Then tell them instead of yelling at them. Nick…”
“I just wanted them to agree with me… Because he’s dangerous… Because we don’t know...”
“We all agreed that we would work on finding allies, then getting stronger, and then plans for facing Justin. And you’re right, maybe we should be worried about Ashley, but AJ is also right that you decided he should still join us. No was always a choice, but the longer he’s with us, it becomes less of a choice.”
He gripped a fold in her dress as he shut his eyes, blinking a few tears down his cheeks.
“Nick, I love you, but…”
“I know, it wasn’t fair of me.”
“You’re allowed to have bad days and you’re allowed to change your mind, but so is everyone else. We all decided we would decide together and we can if you bring it up, but it’s hard to decide with someone who’s yelling at you.”
He buried his head in her lap again. “I feel terrible,” he mumbled.
She fluffed his hair again. “It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be sad and scared too.”
“Nick… You’re right, it wasn’t nice to say it that way. But he’s right that we all agreed to focus on getting stronger because our previous ways of fighting would be predictable.” She leaned on his head. “But he didn’t mean that you’re a weakness.”
“But I don’t know… I’m not strong enough yet...”
“You’re trying your best.”
He gripped a fold in her dress again. “What if I’m never strong enough? Or too strong? I don’t want to be… a liability or a monster...”
She smoothed back his hair.
“I just…” She inhaled deeply again. “I do… worry sometimes that if you’re stronger you’ll end up more like Justin…”
He tightened his grip on the fold of her dress and flinched.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders tightly. “I know, I’m sorry… I’ve worried about it for a long time, but I didn’t want to keep you from trying to be stronger or worry you too…” She took a deep breath. “But when you had your powers before, it’s like they were fixated on destroying… The more I saw them, the more I saw them coming from a good place, wanting to protect… But when they lashed out, they were chaotic… I don’t know that you saw me… Or any of us…”
I’m afraid… I’m afraid of that! You’re always reassuring me, but I never… I never wanted you to worry about that! I always want to see you! If I lost you… He choked back a sob. I couldn’t… Minako…
“I’m sorry, Nick…”
He bolted upright and threw his arms around her shoulders. “I’m terrified of that!” His tears gushed down his cheeks.
She cupped the back of his head and wrapped her arm around his waist, pulling his body closer to her.
“More than anything else, that’s what I don’t want you to ever worry about! I always want to see you! I’d rather have you!”
Minako embraced him tightly as she blinked back a few tears. “I always remember how much you’re wanting to protect before they get chaotic. How much you’re always trying. Maybe if you’re stronger, then the chaos will go away and you’ll be able to be strong in a different way. Maybe you’ll be strong enough to control the chaos.” Her tears fell down her cheeks.
He pulled back and put his hand to her cheek, brushing away her tears. “I hate making you cry. Let me worry for you.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his face, then pulled it away and forced a smile. “It’s okay, I’m…” His expression crumpled, his smile turning into a grimace as his tears began spilling down his cheeks again. “...fine…”
She pulled him closer again, cradling his shoulders. “I’ll worry for you.” She ran her hand along the back of his head. “Even when I’m worried, I always believe in you. That’s why I told you I’ll do anything I can to stay. To be here with you no matter what happens. Just you and me.”
His arms went limp and he sobbed into her chest.
“If you let yourself be sad, I’ll always come help you.”
He inhaled shakily and wrapped his arms back around her as he sniffed back his tears. “I should apologize to them…”
She rubbed his head, then kissed it lightly. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Just a little longer… like this…” He inhaled shakily again and closed his eyes.
Your bright light always pulls me in and makes me feel like it’s okay to be vulnerable… Over and over again since we first met. I don’t know why I told you so many things about me and my feelings back then… Things I wouldn’t have shared with anyone… Maybe I was never hoping for the box… Maybe I was hoping for this… for eternal acceptance… even a monster like me wanted someone to love him… A God who threw me in darkness… A Master who manipulated me… Not selfish acceptance, just… always… Maybe I thought if Pandora knew me, she would just accept all that I was… no matter how bad… no matter how broken… But all the other Pandoras… They’re that same selfish acceptance… I’m glad it was you, Minako. Even when you’re mad, frustrated, sad, or worried, you’ve been accepting me. I’m glad we can talk about it now… That I can always tell you… I’ll really tell you. Every time… Maybe if I can practice it with you, I’ll be able to say it out loud to them. I like having them here with you and me… Maybe I’ll have more space to worry about them if I let them worry about me… He inhaled shakily, then relaxed in her embrace as he exhaled deeply.
She leaned on his head and embraced him tightly in the stillness, stroking his hair gently in silence. They remained that way for many moments as his breathing slowly evened.
“Okay... Let’s go…” He pulled from her embrace and sat back on his knees as he opened and closed his right hand, then rubbed it gingerly.
“Be more careful.” Minako gripped it lightly and smiled at him.
“I’ll try… anything you ask, anything for you…” He smiled at her gently.
She stood, then pulled him up and rubbed her hands on his shoulders gently. “Ready?”
He nodded and opened the door, then walked across the corridor. As he stopped in front of Howie’s door, he started forming a fist to knock, but hesitated.
Minako gripped his shoulder. “It’s okay.”
He made a loose fist, then knocked softly. He inhaled deeply as he stared at the motionless door, then bit his lip. “Maybe he left?”
“We’ll find him.” Minako rubbed his shoulder.
Nick gripped her hand and started to turn as the door opened. His breath caught in his throat.
Howie appeared in the doorway, then smiled. “Nick, we were just discussing additions to our plan.” He stepped out of the doorway and revealed Brian, Kevin, and AJ sitting at the small table. “Come in.” After walking back to the table, he sat in his chair calmly.
Nick stepped into the doorway then froze. He hunched his shoulders and lowered his head, but glanced back at Minako.
Minako gave him a gentle push, then stepped into the room behind him as she closed the door. “Now it’s just us,” she whispered and rubbed his shoulder again.
Nick glanced back at the others and clenched his fists tightly. He glanced back at Minako’s gentle smile and let out the breath he was holding as he stared at the ground. “I’m… sorry…”
“Nick, it’s--” Brian started.
Kevin put his hand on Brian’s shoulder, causing Brian to pause.
Nick looked up at them. “I’m sorry. I was being unfair…” His shaking fists relaxed. “AJ, you’re right. We all have problems, now… and in our pasts… and me being upset isn’t more important than any of your problems. That was selfish of me.”
“And you’re right, I told Ashley to stay before we discussed what might happen or how everyone was feeling… I shouldn’t have done that… Especially because I’ve hated every minute of it and you probably would have said that if we’d talked about it…”
AJ laughed. “I definitely would have mentioned that. Thank you for apologizing, I accept.”
“Kevin… I didn’t like being called a liability… I know I’m not very strong right now, but I’m trying not to be our biggest weakness…” He clenched and unclenched his hands. “But I’m sorry for only yelling instead of listening. Being loudest doesn’t mean I get my way…”
Kevin frowned. “Nick, I know you’re trying. I’m sorry for being too blunt. I was frustrated about the way the conversation was going. I will choose my words more carefully next time.”
“I’m sorry for talking over you, Howie. You were just trying to be safe about our conversation and keep our plan going.”
Howie folded his hands on the table. “We accept your apology, Nick.”
“Brian, you were trying to cheer me up and I ignored you. You’re always helping me no matter what I ask. I really appreciate you. I'm sorry.”
Brian beamed. “Nick, it’s okay.”
“It’s… not…” Nick relaxed his hands, but stared at the ground again. “I should have just told you all how I was feeling this morning instead of getting that angry…”
Brian patted the chair next to him and Minako pulled Nick toward it. When they reached it, Nick slumped into it and mumbled something inaudible. Minako sat beside him and gripped his hand, running her thumb over it.
Nick exhaled forcefully. “Sorry…” He sat up, but still hunched his shoulders and lowered his head. "I don't like being vulnerable because you get taken advantage of over and over again. You're defenseless… But when you fight back, you have control…" He clenched his free hand again. “But I’m not actually angry, I’m just… sad... today… Thinking about the way I’d found them that day...”
Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry…” His shoulders shook as his head sank further toward his lap.
“Nick, say what you’re feeling, but don’t apologize for being sad.” Kevin crossed his arms “We’re here to help.”
“I do… trust you all… even though I don’t want to be vulnerable…”
Minako leaned her head on his shoulder. “Like I told you, when you tell us, we can help.”
“I’m… afraid… of what Ashley can do… and… being like him… and that... my chaotic powers will be… more chaotic… when they’re stronger…”
Howie reached across Minako and held Nick’s arm. “There is no certainty, however, they have not flared chaotically as you have been learning here and you still retain your wits.”
“We’ll figure it out, Nick.” AJ smiled, then laughed quietly. “This is better than being yelled at.”
Nick glanced up at them. “I want…”
Howie pulled his hand away from Nick, then spread a few of his charts across the table.“We are prepared to discuss changes to our plans.”
Nick flinched and tightened his grip on Minako’s hand.
Kevin leaned his elbows on the table. “Do we reorganize our plans to address Ashley before training?”
“Is there a way to ensure he’s loyal?” Brian interjected.
AJ crossed his arms. “I say Brian should bind him again and then we can leave him in the forest.”
“Nick?” Howie dipped his brush into the ink beside him.
Nick took a deep breath, then slowly straightened his shoulders and sat up, but held his tight grip on Minako’s hand. “I want… a break...” He lowered his voice. “We’re always moving and our problems keep growing… I’ll keep trying, but… I’m tired…” He lowered his head. “I know we’re all tired, so it’s not fair to complain but… watching Ashley and worrying… remembering my family… controlling my powers… I’m tired… and sad… and scared…”
Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “We came here to train, but we also came here because it’s safe. As long as we are allied with the Ruby demons and Madeline, we are here until Erik heals for them.” He smiled. “And if they want to leave before you’re ready to keep going, then they can leave without us.”
Kevin shook his head. “While your sentiment is where our hearts should be, Brian, time is still critical…” He crossed his arms. “Nick, how long do you think you need?”
“I don’t know… Today… Tomorrow…”
Howie set his ink and brush to the side. “While we do not want to squander the time Erik has given us, that seems reasonable. Will you reconvene with us the following day to discuss our next course of action?”
“I can… but we can finish talking about this first.”
“Nick, just go rest.” AJ smiled. “We won’t decide anything without you.”
Nick exhaled and his shoulders relaxed. “Okay… Thank you…” He stood, then plodded toward the door. “Minako…”
“I’ll come back soon. I’ll bring you dinner.”
He opened the door slowly and turned back. “Okay… I love you…”
“Love you too, Nick!” Brian called.
Minako looked at Brian with a bemused smile, then turned back to Nick with her regular gentle smile. “I love you too, Nick.”
Nick gave her a small smile, then glanced at the ground and mumbled, “Love you too, Brian.”
Brian mimicked wiping a tear from his cheek and grinned at Minako. “Now, tell me you love me, Minako, then I’ll tell you, and our afternoon ritual will be complete.”
“It’s a brand new afternoon ritual, starting right now.” He gripped her shoulders, then winked.
Nick covered his hand with his mouth and turned back toward the door, but his bright laugh sprang out.
Minako smiled and turned to Brian. “Love you too, Brian?”
Brian grinned broadly. “And I love you, Minako.”
Nick covered his face with both hands and continued laughing. He took a deep breath and turned back quickly as he started to shut the door behind him. “Thank you. See you all tomorrow.”