Madeline scanned the crowd. “Do you think they remember that I was a priestess?”
Minako laughed. “Do people normally bow to you at home?”
Madeline smirked. “They should.” She scanned Minako’s outfit. “Is that how you dress normally?”
Minako shook her head. “No… It’s not… I changed because I kept telling Nick that I only wanted to be here with him, but if I’m still wearing my old clothing, it feels like I’m half in the other world.”
Madeline cocked her head. “But your shoes?”
Minako looked down at her brown boat shoes. “I had sandals before, but I kept tripping.” She laughed. “I’m sure Nick would prefer that I’m safe and it’s easier when we’re walking so far... Actually, he doesn’t wear shoes anyway, so I don’t think he notices.”
“I wore jeans last time too. It was nice because it was cold.”
“Renee and I had our school uniforms. Rubiihoppou was very cold!” She smiled. “I think Nick preferred it to this dress, to be honest… Also it was easier to move and climb mountains. I wish I could make this shorter, but Howie might feel hurt if I changed it.”
“You could just change back into your regular clothing. Nicky would be happy to have you here no matter what you’re wearing or think it says about your feelings.”
Minako smiled. “Maybe you’re right. What about you, will you stick with those clothes?”
As they reached the inn, a familiar figure leaned on the wall outside. His black tunic blended in with the muted colors of the sea of people, but his large wings distinguished him.
Madeline stopped and whirled back toward the shrine.
Minako gripped her arm. “Just talk to him.”
Madeline sighed, then turned back toward him. She continued walking until she was inches from his face. “Ashley.”
He glanced at her as he crossed his arms. “Madeline.”
Minako motioned to the tavern. “Are they still inside?”
Madeline grabbed her hand and pulled her close. “Stay…”
Ashley narrowed his eyes. “They are having a discussion.”
Minako smiled at Madeline. “Should we find out what we missed?”
Ashley put his hand on Madeline’s shoulder. “I... am happy that you have returned.”
Madeline inhaled audibly and held the breath as she stepped toward him.
“And I am willing to consider your choice in our next steps.”
Madeline squeezed Minako’s hand. “I want to stay with them.”
Ashley’s brow furrowed as he turned away from her. “Is this going to be like our Nicky argument again?”
“That wasn’t about--”
“No, the last one… In the castle.”
Madeline glanced at Minako as she pressed her lips flat against each other, then turned back to Ashley. “Yes.” She brushed her hand against Ashley’s cheek. “You can do what you want. I’m staying.”
Ashley glanced at Madeline’s hand and then turned to Minako, he grimaced as he fixed his unyielding and sharp stare at her face. “Sapphire Priestess… I will tentatively join your alliance because my priestess has wished it.”
Madeline glanced at Minako.
Minako smiled. “Nick will be so happy to hear that.”
Ashley snorted and glanced at the door of the tavern. “Is that true, Sapphire Priestess?”
As if on cue, the door to the tavern opened and Nick stepped out. His brow furrowed as he stared at the shadows on the ground, then raised his head as though he scanned the figures by the door. His expression softened as his gaze settled on Minako’s face, then lit up with a gentle smile. “Minako…”
Ashley snorted again.
Nick glanced at them and his brow furrowed again. “Madeline… Master…”
Ashley brushed Madeline’s hand aside as he moved toward him. “Nicky… a word…”
Nick bit his lip as his hand flinched. “Sure… I was just going for a walk.”
Ashley nodded and began walking away from the tavern.
Nick ran his hand across Minako’s cheek as she frowned “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.” He pressed a quick kiss to her lips.
Minako smiled against his kiss and held his hand. “See you soon.”
Nick quickly embraced her then ran to catch up with Ashley, pushing past the crowd in the square. “Master!” he called after him. When he received no response, he continued to weave through the crowds until he reached the shrine. He stared up at the immense statue and shook his head. Madeline… Always watching over us. He trudged up the hill and back toward the clearing where they had originally found him.
He stopped in the middle of the clearing and clenched his fists. “I know you’re here, Master!” He scanned the trees around him. No sound, no movement… A burst of energy struck against his back and he fell to his knees.
Nick stood quickly and hopped backward before thrusting his foot toward the voice.
Ashley used his forearm for a low block. “Weak.”
Nick jabbed toward his face, which Ashley dodged, then landed an uppercut to his jaw. Nick smirked.
Ashley jumped backward and ran his hand along his jaw. “Passable.”
Nick jumped after him and thrust two side kicks against his abdomen and jab against his cheek.
Ashley jabbed back and Nick dodged. Ashley jabbed again.
Nick dodged and hooked his fist toward Ashley’s cheek. “Master, there’s more than one way to do things.”
Ashley dodged and landed an uppercut on Nick’s chin. He snorted. “Ah yes, sapphire demons who only plan and never act.”
Nick jumped back and shot his foot into Ashley’s thigh. “It’s strategizing!”
Ashley clenched Nick’s ankle and took flight before dropping him from midair.
Nick descended toward the ground, but flipped before he hit it. After reorienting himself, he shot back toward Ashley and jabbed, hooked, and kicked at him.
Ashley chuckled as he dodged. “Predictable.” He descended toward the ground and clenched his clawed feet into the grass. “You have not grown stronger in all these years? Can you only attack me with a punch and not your powers?”
Nick growled and descended as well. “Master, why are you always testing me instead of teaching me?”
Ashley slammed a kick into Nick’s abdomen. “Why should I take on a weak disciple?”
The two demons continued to jab and kick at each other. Some shots they made, some shots were dodged. There was no malice in their fight, only assessment. Had death made one weak? Had life made one strong? Though they appeared the same age now, did the original elder have more experience from age? Or had the original disciple become more experienced because he was forged by fire? They both fought with brute strength, but in the decade since running with each other, they began to seem more different from each other than alike. Their definitions of strength defined their fighting styles. For the master, strength lay in the force of his body. For the disciple, strength lay in the force of his heart. Could one strength eventually overpower the other?
Nick took several deep breaths and sat on the ground, hanging his head toward his lap. Ashley sat next to him, leaning back on his hands and breathing heavily.
Nick turned to Ashley. “Master… what have you and Madeline decided?”
Ashley leaned forward and crossed his arms. “She has decided to stay with all of you. I will tentatively join…”
“Why? You seemed disinterested at the inn...”
“I considered Madeline’s feelings.”
Nick chuckled. “That doesn’t seem like you.”
Ashley smirked. “Maybe I decided to try letting my world be brighter, like you suggested.”
Nick bit his lip as he frowned, then lowered his head. “I wish… I wish there was more I could have done to help you in the end.”
Ashley held his hand to his forehead and sighed exasperatedly. “Nicky, you were a child and it wasn’t your battle.”
Nick glanced at him. “Master… If that wasn’t a fight for me, then what was? Why would you keep me around for so long if I couldn’t fight, especially after Madeline came?”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
Nick clenched his fist and growled. “I lived that fight again with Minako and the other sapphire demons, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It was hell. If you didn’t want me to fight, why keep me around? Why would you let me live through that twice? Especially if I could never use my powers?”
Ashley cupped Nick’s shoulder. “Nicky, it’s none of your concern.”
Nick unclenched his fist. “I don’t… I don’t remember a lot of things about when we were together or before that…” He fixed his gaze on the ground again. “I’m trying to get stronger for Minako and my friends so that I can support them, but… I don’t even know my powers… And I can’t remember my past... So whatever you know…”
Ashley patted Nick’s shoulder. “Nicky, you’re fixating on unimportant things.”
Nick snarled, his hard stare boring through Ashley. “I’m not a child anymore! It’s important to me! Why won’t you trust me?”
Ashley chuckled derisively. “Not everything is about trust, Nicky.” He stood and brushed off his pants. “This has alleviated my stress. It was good to see you can still fight.”
Ashley began walking back toward the shrine.
Nick stood and followed him. “Master!”
At the far end of the inn, a clump of rooms held the belongings of the sapphire and ruby contingent. In one of the rooms, Minako sat watching Madeline as she packed a knapsack. The room was sparse, only three mats for beds, but it did have a window.
Minako peered out the window for a moment before turning back to Madeline.
Madeline haphazardly pushed some clothing and a map into the bag. "Your king is super prepared! Extra clothes! Extra maps!"
Minako laughed. "Yes, Howie is definitely a planner." Her eyebrows pinched as she stared at the floor. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
Madeline smiled. “I’ll be fine. I hadn’t even thought of calling for them... I think I forgot how!”
Minako frowned. “I meant traveling alone… Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? Or Ashley?”
Madeline shook her head. “No, but thank you. I just need a break from Ashley and I want to try to remember what my relationships were like with the other Ruby demons…” She pursed her lips.
“Are you worried they’ll be mad at you?”
“A little, I guess, but…” She lowered her head as she scrunched her nose. “Can I tell you something?”
She stared at the ground. “Ashley and I used to argue a lot. Sometimes it was very vulgar and angry and sometimes it was really passionate, but we… fought about Nicky a lot…” She looked up at Minako. “He was really secretive about two things: his powers and his relationship with him, even with me.” She clenched her fingers around the clothing in the bag. “I’m worried he might do something… mean…”
Minako touched Madeline’s arm. “Thank you for telling me. Do you know anything about their relationship or Ashley’s powers?”
“He always had whatever power we needed; I can’t really explain it. And Nicky had already been with him for five years when I knew them, but that’s it… They aren’t related. I don’t know how they met, or why...”
Minako frowned as she furrowed her brow. “Ashley seems complicated…”
Madeline laughed. “Yes, that’s exactly how he is!”
Minako stared out the window again.
“Oh, but… one more thing… He’s used to being in charge… I don’t know how well he’ll react to the teamwork oriented way you all do things.” She put her hand on Minako’s and smiled. “You look really worried… Just keep supporting Nicky and it will be fine.”
Minako smiled, but her stomach twisted inside her body. Madeline… Why is Ashley so secretive about his own powers and Nick? Would he tell Nick? It’s strange that someone who could illuminate Nick’s past has always kept it shrouded in darkness… Darkness just like where Nick was when I met him. Is that what Nick’s heart and mind feel like when he tries to think about his past? Shadowy? Stagnant? Cold? Secretive? Even when he’s moved and changed so much, it’s like a mire that’s trapped him in the past. Can he go forward if part of him is still stuck? She shook her head. Madeline is right, I promised Nick that I would stay with him. The best thing I can do is continue to support him no matter what happens.
Madeline clapped her hands. “I’m ready! Can you walk me out?”
The two girls walked down the hall, back toward the main entrance, where they ran into Nick and Ashley as they reentered the front lobby. Ashley stood tall, his chest proud with confidence. Nick hung his head and hunched his shoulders.
Ashley assessed them, then narrowed his eyebrows. “Madeline… I thought you were staying.”
She smiled. “I am, I’m just going to try and find some more of the Ruby demons.”
“I’ll join you.”
Madeline cupped his shoulder. “Stay, so I know what we’re doing next. I’ll be back in a few days.”
Ashley snorted and turned his head away from her.
Madeline touched Nick’s arm. “Nicky, you’ll make sure he’s welcomed into your group?”
Nick nodded, but didn’t raise his head. “Yeah.”
Madeline smiled. “Ashley, let me show you the room I was staying in. We’ve taken up a lot of their time already.” She winked at Minako and pulled Ashley back down the hall.
Mianko wrapped her arms around Nick’s shoulders. Her eyebrows pinched as she leaned toward him. “Nick…”
He raised his head. “Minako… I…” He frowned as his stare fixed on her face. “You look how I’m feeling…” He leaned his head on hers. “Is Madeline…”
She tightened her hug. “She’s been nothing but nice to me, I promise. But your Master…”
“It’s… different. It’s not… The same…” He shook his head, then bit his lip. “Maybe it was always this way and I was too young to notice…”
Minako kissed his cheek as she rubbed his back. “Do you want to go for a walk?”
“Yeah, let’s get out of here.”
They walked back into the bustling square. The people and buildings surrounding them blurred into a haze of movement flowing by them. Nick gripped her hand tightly, pulling her against his chest.
“Nick… You’re worried…” She laced her fingers through his as she frowned. “I am too…”
Nick stopped and inhaled deeply, calming his shallow breaths. “I can’t… He… When you left, he was... “ He chuckled. “He thought we were pathetic because we were deciding things together, like teamwork is a weakness. Do all the other demons choose a leader in their groups?”
“I don’t know… Justin always seemed to be in charge of the emerald demons.” She smiled at him. “But, I like our way better, everyone matters.”
“So many of the other demons we’ve met are focused on how strong everyone is… but over and over again, whenever I feel like I’m not strong, that’s when you’re all supporting me. And when I have that, I feel like I can do anything.” He beamed and pulled her into a tight embrace.
She leaned against his chest. “I’ll always support you.”
“You’ve always been supporting me ever since the first time we met.” He ran his hand through her hair as he pulled her closer to his chest. “I don’t want to be like that… Thinking the only way to be strong is alone. When I was alone, I was at my lowest…”
“Nick, I won’t do that to you again. No matter what happens, I’m going to choose you.”
Nick cupped her cheek. “Minako… I will always choose you too. When I think about the future, I feel like I can be strong.” He lowered his head as he rubbed his hand at the base of his neck. “But when I think about the past… I feel small and confused…”
“Has anything come back with your Master back?”
Nick shook his head. “Just more questions. He was snide about everything while you were gone and I...“ He held his hand to his forehead, then ran it down his face. “My first response was to go quiet so he would stop being mad. That’s so stupid, right?”
Minako’s eyebrows pinched as she brushed back the hair at his forehead. “It’s not stupid at all. It sounds like when you were younger, you were just trying to survive. If he was aggressive when he was mad, what else would you do?” She pressed her hand against his chest and rubbed his back again. “You did survive and you were always strong. You’re the strongest person I know.”
Nick wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. “Why did he keep me around so long? It seems like he didn’t want me there… He wasn’t even happy to see me…”
“It must be weird seeing people you knew after you died, but… Brian, AJ, and Howie were happy to see us again.”
“Madeline said he likes being in charge… Maybe he feels useless if he’s not…”
Nick leaned his head on hers. “Maybe… But why wouldn’t he tell me? It’s fine if he doesn’t know my powers, but… being a cardinal demon is… hell. It’s difficult, frightening, heartbreaking… and all of you are the only reason I could get through it. Why would you bring a child into that?”
“Nick, you’re worth hell.”
He smiled and kissed her as he ran his hand across the top of her head, then held the back of her head gently. “You are too. It was fine because we were together.” His shoulders slumped. “But, I never felt like his life seemed easier because of me…”
"It seems like he doesn't trust you."
Nick shook his head. "I don't think he ever trusted me."
Minako pulled away. “Madeline told me that she was worried he might do something mean.”
“I don’t know… She kept looking at me when she told him she wanted to stay, like she wanted to tell me something…”
“What do you want to do?”
"Minako… I don't think I can go forward until I know why he let me stay with him all those years."
She brushed her fingers through his hair. “Okay.”
He shook his head and grabbed her hand, pulling it to his chest. “It’s not that I can’t go forward with you. I decided a long time ago that my old memories aren’t as important as my new ones. But the more you and Kevin have helped me heal, the more things come back… and seeing my Master living again… it feels like they’re bursting and calling. What if he knows my powers?”
“Nick…” She leaned her head against his chest. “What if it’s bad? Or it hurts you?”
“I know you’ll help me through it, just like you always have.” He tightened his grip on her hand. “But… I’m worried it might be bad too… There’s no reason not to tell me if it’s not. I’m not sure I trust him…”
“Do you want him to come with us?”
Nick furrowed his brow. “No… But, I know we need all the help we can get. So if he’s any help at all, we should take it.”
“No matter what he says, or doesn’t, we’re stronger together. And together is how we’ll win.”