Howie sank back on his throne. “Pandora… You wish to desert us?”
Minako clenched her fists weekly, “Howie… No… But, I…” She shook her head, “I can’t tell you with all these people watching.”
Howie nodded, putting his hand to his head as he rose the other arm toward the entrance of the throne room and gave a dismissive wave. “Leave us.”
The nobles and councilmen began leaving the room, though the guards remained.
“All of you.” Howie’s voice boomed across the room.
The guards bowed and held their weapons high. Nick began slinking behind them.
Howie put his hand up. “Stop. Cardinal demons, Oracles, and Priestesses will stay.”
Howie turned his hand and curled his fingers, beckoning them. “Each of you will come closer.”
Nick tiptoed closer to the throne and sat on his knees, resting his hands in his opposite sleeves. Britney followed his action and sat before the king. Minako remained standing between them.
Howie motioned his hand toward the other two and nodded, “Pandora, sit.”
Minako backed up and sat between Nick and Britney.
“Minako…” Nick whispered.
Minako turned to look at him briefly, her eyes brimming with tears, before turning back to Howie.
“Pandora, you are forsaking us?”
Minako lowered her head, “Howie, no. I don’t want to leave you for Emeradotouhou… I promised you that I would help you.”
Howie lowered his head as well, “But then you returned to your own world.”
Minako looked up to him, the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I didn’t know I could go back. It hurt so much to be here and my friend Renee called me back. That was all I’d been wanting…” She wrapped her fingers around the folds of her skirt. “But when I was back, she wasn’t…” Minako lowered her head. “I had to come back for her.”
Howie stood. “And Safaiananpou?”
Minako looked up into his eyes again. “But when I came back and saw your worried face… I made you a promise that I would help you and ran away the first time I could. That’s not like me, I’m so sorry.”
“Pandora…” Howie’s sad eyes smiled.
“No matter how sad or angry I feel… No matter how hard it is… I will always keep my promise, Howie.” She looked at her hands again.
Nick turned toward her quietly. It was me… I drove her away. And His Majesty was so quick to forgive me. Can he sense that? Can she? “Minako…”
Minako’s shoulders tensed, but she did not turn to look at him this time.
Howie sat again. “And yet, you still wish to travel to Emeradotouhou?”
Minako clenched her hands into fists. “Because Renee is here too… Because I went back. And I can’t let her feel sad or angry or do anything that’s hard for her…” She looked back up at him after glancing at Britney. “There’s an oracle there too… Are there also demons?”
Britney turned to her. “Pandora…”
“In that room with the tapestry, you said there were lots of demons and Nick told me that there were already priestesses… But Emeradotouhou didn't have one yet, I don’t think… But they have demons that want one?”
“All cardinal demons desire a priestess.” Britney patted her shoulder, “To them, it is fortunate that she took your place.”
“She can’t be there, especially because of me. I have to go save her and fast.” Minako stood, her hands still clenched. “And I promise you that after I help her, I will come back and I will find the other cardinal demons so that you can all still have the box.”
Howie lowered his head, “The Oracle is correct, you have chosen a narrow path.”
Minako lowered her head, “You’re worried I will get hurt and won’t be able to get the box? I know it’s more important than me, but I promised.”
Nick’s head sank.
Howie shook his head, “No, time moves swiftly. We worry you are ill prepared for unforeseen outcomes.”
Minako shook her head as well, “I made Renee a promise to always hold her close, to always be together. So I will do whatever it takes to keep it no matter what happens to me or if she doesn’t want me around… She knows I always mean what I say.”
“Pandora…” “Minako…” Both demons stared at her. One directly, the other from the corners of his eyes. One proud and confident, the other a whisper. One looking toward the future, the other toward the past.
Howie nodded, “We will provide you a horse. Nick will accompany you in our place.”
Nick’s shoulders tensed.
Minako glanced at him briefly before turning back to the king. “Howie, I’ll be fine and he shouldn’t have to worry about this. It doesn’t have anything to do with the box or the promise I made to you.”
Howie turned away briefly, “Then, we implore you to wait until tomorrow.”
Minako nodded, “Okay, I will wait until tomorrow.”
How could I have been so stupid? Even now, when I should be worrying about Renee, I’m only thinking of him. Nick… He kept saying I made him happy, so why did he say he only used me for the box? Am I really some sort of dog who only exists to sniff it out? Why did he hold me so close and smile at me so kindly if I wasn’t a person to him? Why did he treat me so gently? Am I really just a means to an end? She leaned on her knees. I shouldn’t have fallen for him so quickly. That was my mistake.
A knock sounded at the door. Minako’s heart leaped in surprise. She shook her head. It’s probably just that handmaid with my clothing. “Yes?” she asked politely.
“Minako?” a male voice asked quietly.
Minako’s heart shuddered, “Nick…”
Minako buried her face in her knees again, “Go away.”
“I’m not looking for the box until after I bring Renee back. We’ll talk after that.”
“That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about…”
Minako looked up from her knees. Not the box? Then what?
“Can I come in?”
Minako looked toward the door.
“I’m coming in.” The door opened slowly. Nick stood in its frame, his broad shoulders and proud stance silhouetted within the door, a truly formidable demon until he lowered his head and his form deflated, “You’re still angry.”
Minako turned away from him.
“You must hate me…”
She buried her head against her knees again. “I’m glad we’ve reached an agreement. Go.”
Nick clenched his fist, “I won’t go. You have to listen to me--”
He stepped back and flinched. “You’re right. You don’t…” He put his hand to his head. “I never say the right thing…”
Minako looked up.
“Just… listen to me… Please.” Nick trotted over to the bed and sat beside her. “Will you?”
Minako turned away from him again. “I know you’re impatient, but this is important to me.”
Nick looked away from her, “Don’t act like that…”
“Aren’t I just a dog? A box retriever? What do you care, as long as you get your box?”
Nick put his hands in his lap. “I really do only say the wrong things… I guess I should start with ‘I’m sorry’.”
Minako snorted. “You’re only saying that because Howie wants us to stay together. I told him, you didn’t need to think about me at all. You’re welcome!”
Nick put his hand to his head, “Just… Just let me explain, then you can yell at me all you want.”
Minako crossed her arms, “Fine.”
“I'm sorry… I was always alone, no family, no one to talk to... I’m sure I was born alone… Probably right there in the darkness all alone… A monster… Then those maidens started appearing, saying how they woke up from a splendid dream to a world full of darkness and nightmares…” Nick swallowed, “It hurt… They only saw me and the darkness, so was I the nightmare or was the darkness? Maybe both... I’d never been that surrounded before, but I only felt more alone.”
Minako let her hands fall against her knees.
“I don’t remember much from before the darkness, but there was once... I must have heard about Pandora. That story I told you, I don’t know how I heard it…” He looked up. “There was only one of them at first, I thought, maybe she was Pandora, but she didn’t recognize my name… When I told her I was Nickolas, she called me a ‘sad creature.’ When more of them appeared, they said the same thing, ‘sad creature,’ ‘pathetic creature,’ ‘monster’... Pandora was supposed to be special, she was supposed to know I was more than a monster…” Nick swallowed again, “Until then, I’d been all alone. Was I always in that darkness? If I knew about Pandora, there must have been some time I wasn’t there, but then, what did I do? Why was I imprisoned… chained… alone… What had I done wrong to God? Why was I sent away and forgotten?”
Minako reached out to touch his shoulder.
Nick shrank back under her touch. “You…”
“I meant what I said back then, being alone is a frightening way to live and I really was sorry that you spent so long waiting for me. I didn’t know…”
Nick untensed his shoulders. “When you appeared, you suddenly filled me with light. And you called me Nick… You knew me… But more than knowing me, you listened to me and comforted me and helped me…” He brushed his hair back from his forehead. “Then we came here and you said I had a good heart…”
Minako blushed as she removed her hand from his shoulder, then used it to brush her hair behind her ear.
“I yelled at you, I’m sorry… I was surprised, but… hearing someone say that really did make me so happy…” Nick chuckled a little, “I really am pathetic… I’m like a small child, trying to grasp things for the first time. I must have learned these things once, but I fumble with my emotions… I just didn’t understand. No one had ever told me that they loved me…”
Minako lowered her head. “I just… The way you held me…”
Nick pulled Minako to him and held her tightly in his embrace, “I mistook the warmth in my heart for hope… Hope to get my powers back or hope to return to my life outside of the darkness, whatever that was, but… I was wrong. Whenever you were with me, I was so happy, my heart radiated heat… When you smiled, I wanted to smile… I always thought I was hideous, those girls saw me as a monster, but… You held me close and told me everything would be okay…” He folded his wings loosely around her.
Minako looked up at him, her cheeks continuing to darken.
“The truth is when you were gone, my heart almost shattered… I didn’t know what to do… I thought… I thought I would break…” Nick held Minako to his chest, tears began falling from his eyes. They landed on her face like the first rainstorm of spring. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you… When you went away, I realized that I really did want you near me…” His tears fell harder and hit her face like hail.
His voice shook violently, “You… said that… I could…” He choked for a moment, “could… finish… Please…” Nick shut his eyes, hoping the tears would dissolve, but they refused to vanish. They were the first rainstorm in spring that never wanted to end. His arms continued to grip her tightly. “I don’t… know if… I’m happy… or sad right… now…” He choked through his tears once again and struggled to breathe evenly, “But… I want you… to stay… close to me… I want… to hear… you breathe… And see… you smile… Forever…” Nick laughed a little and smiled through his tears, “I’m still fumbling… I didn’t know… Minako… I’m sorry… You're not like a dog… a box retriever at all... Stay with me...”
Minako stared up at him and blinked. She felt like she had stopped breathing, her heart beat wildly and frantically -- the beat of a dance pop tune.
Nick took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves, then leaned toward her, his gentle smile growing, “Will you?”
Minako blinked once more. She couldn’t speak, every time she tried to form words, she choked -- her mouth refused to release them.
Nick put a hand behind her head and pulled her face toward his, then rested his forehead on hers. “I only thought of you while you were gone, not the box at all… So if you stay...” He brushed his hand against her hair. “I’ll do anything I can to see you smile at me again.”
Minako lowered her head, trying to hide her scarlet cheeks.
Nick pulled away. “I understand… You’re still mad.” He released his wings and arms from around her before standing.
“Nick…” she mumbled.
He lowered his head. “Please stay safe in Emeradotouhou and…” He turned away, “I’ll keep trying to find a way to show you how sorry I am when you come back…” He reached toward the door.
Minako stood quickly, leaping clumsily toward the door. She wrapped her arms around Nick’s chest and buried her face against his back.
He cupped her hands in his fingers. She’s crying again… Crying for me? “Minako… Do you want me to stay?”
Minako tightened her grip around his chest and blinked away her tears as she nodded hesitantly.
“Yes?” He gently pulled out of her grip, then turned to face her.
Minako stared up at him, then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close to her again.
She brushed her hand through his hair, stood on her tiptoes, and pressed a kiss to his lips.
Nick stared at her, eyes wide in surprise as his hands flinched slightly. “Minako…” his voice wavered.
She stared into his eyes, they were beautiful blue sapphires, more gorgeous than the oracle’s. They looked so content, but below that they still shone sadly.
He held her cheek and closed his eyes as he pulled her in for another kiss. “Minako…”
She tightened her grip on his neck and met his lips for a short kiss again. “Nick… I’ll stay with you. I still...”
“You’re still falling in love with me?” He fiddled with a strand of her hair.
“I don’t know…” She glanced at the ground.
“I hope so.” He smiled, “I want to try to become closer to you.”
Minako glanced back at him, “You do?”
Nick pulled her back as he wrapped his arms around her waist. His wings folded around her as well. “You have always been looking inside of me, calling me kind and gentle. I want to stop being afraid and be those things instead.”
She touched his cheek, “But you are those things already. You just have to let yourself be them instead of worrying whether or not you’re a monster.”
He smiled broadly, “I think, the more time I spend with you, the more I can do that. But also, I want to be able to see inside of you too. Even more than the brightness inside you, I want to learn about your world and care about things you care about. I decided that I don’t want us to only be near each other because of the box. I want to stay with you too.” He leaned his head on her shoulder.
She ran her hand through the hair at his neck. “Are you worried I’ll be like the Rubiihoppou priestess? Condescending?”
Nick straightened and shook his head, “No, you’re too warm and bright for that... But if there’s legends about us, I want them to say we took care of each other…” He brushed her hair behind her ear, “I want to take care of you.”
She leaned her head on his chest. “Can I take care of you too?”
Nick nuzzled into her neck and whispered, “Please?”
Minako leaned her head on his. “But you have to make me a promise and you have to keep it.”
Nick stepped backward as he held her arms. “Okay…”
“When you’re upset, tell me. I want to help you.” She pulled her hands into her chest, “And it hurt when you called me mean names…”
Nick embraced her tightly again, “I’m sorry. I won’t say things like that to you ever again. I’ll learn how to be better.”
Minako smiled. “Thank you.” She gripped his hand and pulled him back toward the bed, then sat before patting the space next to her.
Nick sat as well and crossed his arms. “Are you sure you want to go alone to Emeradotouhou?”
Minako pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them before leaning her head on her knees. “I have to protect Renee and bring her back here. I have to go alone.”
He uncrossed one arm and ran his hand through her hair, “Then is there anything I can do before you leave?”
“Just stay here with me.”
Nick pulled her close. “Like this?”
Minako leaned her head on his chest and closed her eyes.
Nick leaned down and kissed her cheek, “Or like this?”
She lifted her head and kissed his lips gently. He ran his thumb along her cheek and returned her kiss. The gold in the room continued to sparkle, continuously lit by the light in their hearts. The next morning, Minako would leave the safety of Safaiananpou and enter the unknown darkness. Nick tightened his grip on her, trying to fill her heart with safety before she left. Her promises reverberated through her thoughts. In words, she had already agreed to fulfill two promises: one to Renee to always be beside her and one to the sapphire demons to find their precious box. Just now in her heart, she had made a third, to stay with Nick. Was it possible to keep the first two or were they mutually exclusive? Was it possible to keep the third if she completed the first two? How much longer could she continue to make promises before she was unable to keep them?