A/N: Here's another chapter, which if you can tell by the huge time lapse between this chapter and the previous one, this should give you an idea of the extremely sporadic update schedule of this story. Not much to say about this chapter...I felt there was a lot of introspective on Ken and not so much on Minako, so I thought to amend that with this chapter. Not sure if I succeeded. Oh, also, since people asked for it, I tried to incorporate the lollipop idea into the story...once more, not sure if I succeeded.
Thanks to all these kind people for their reviews: smileintothechaos, Animefreak8810, phoenixdaughterAM, Ivan, Thegoldenlock, Deidara'sgirl19, blazblue-domo, Fayneir and one Annonymus reviewer. Thank you very much for your continued support.
Leader: a person who rules, guides, or inspires others; a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group.
Leader; it was a term they always tacked on to her, but honestly Minako had no idea what a good leader was supposed to do. Mere months ago, her biggest concern had been moving to yet another new school and having to make new friends. Now, she was charged with protecting and directing a rag-tag band of her friends that fought against an insurmountable darkness in an unknown hour.
Minako had somehow been thrown into the role of leader and most of the time she lived up to her expectations and led the group effectively. But when she had time to herself, she couldn't help but question the actions she took when she acted as leader.
She could understand that she was supposed to direct her teammates, but how exactly? Was she supposed to trust their decisions or should she direct their every move to form her perfect strategy? Was she supposed to protect them or allow them to protect themselves?
Minako felt her mind drift further and further from the lecture she was supposed to be listening to as her thoughts flew about in a jumble. Her eyes swept across the school grounds as her questions drowned out the lecture all together.
Am I doing a good job? Would they even tell me if I wasn't? Do they follow my orders because they have to or because they actually believe what I'm telling them to do is the right thing to do? …This is stupid! I shouldn't be worrying about this! I should be paying attention.
Quickly shaking off her questions, Minako managed with no small effort to tear her eyes away from the window to look at the blackboard in front of the room. It didn't do her any good; the jumble of math equations on the board could have been in another language for all she understood. Resigned to the fate that she was going to fail her next math test, she felt her mind begin to wander once more.
This time her mind settled on the topic of Ken Amada.
What was a good leader supposed to do about a ten year old boy being on the team? Was she supposed to allow him to fight as he continued to insist he was able to or did she keep him out of the fighting for his own safety?
"It's not like he hasn't climbed Tartarus before…" Minako mumbled under her breath.
The shadows in the tower had been growing steadily stronger and most nights not even Akihiko, their boxing champ, could make it out unscathed. Minako couldn't help but feel that it was irresponsible to take Ken into Tartarus when the closest person they had to a professional fighter was getting hurt pretty badly.
"Earth to Mina-tan! Anyone alive inside there?"
Minako was pulled forcefully from her daydream by the sound of a male voice directly in front of her. When she refocused her eyes back to reality, she saw Junpei standing with his hands on her desk and a wide grin plastered on his face.
"Junpei?" She asked confusedly as she looked up at him, "What are you doing?"
"In case the space cadet didn't notice, school is over for the day. Although, I suppose you were too busy staring dreamily out the window to notice that the bell had rung." Minako could tell by the way that his smile spread even wider that he was enjoying teasing her.
"I may be wrong," Minako said with a smile of her own as she quickly recovered from her initial confusion and stood up, "but I thought I might have seen someone else sleeping in class." Without waiting to see Junpei's reaction, she headed towards the door of the classroom.
"Ouch, that's cold. I think you've been hanging out with Yuka-tan a little too much," She heard Junpei say as he fell in step with her.
"I think you deserved that one," Minako responded with a smile.
"Just because I happened to notice that you were daydreaming?" Junpei asked before he lightly nudged her in the arm, "So, who's the lucky guy that has captured our leader's heart?"
"Girls don't always daydream about boys you know," Minako said as the two of them proceeded to the shoe lockers at the front of the school.
"Or you could be conveniently dodging the question," Junpei replied with his goofy grin still plastered to his face.
"Or maybe I don't want to tell you because it's you," Minako teased with a smile as she opened her shoe locker and began to swiftly change shoes. Minako's smile spread as she saw Junpei's face also grow a slight red. But her victory was short lived as Junpei quickly recovered and stroked his chin with a wide grin on his face.
"So you've fallen for the ol' Junpei's charm also, eh? Well, I hate to break your heart, but I've got another."
"Yeah, Chidori, I know."
"Speaking of which, I'm gonna go to the hospital and visit her today so I gotta get goin'. See you later Mina-tan!" Junpei shouted as he ran out the door.
Minako waved to him as she watched him practically sprint down the walkway that lead to the school. She let her hand drop as she watched him round the corner. The smile that was on her face was replaced with a concerned frown.
Is…this the right thing to do? I know he's getting close to Chidori…if his feelings for her continue to develop it could greatly endanger our mission. Is it my "duty" as a leader to try and keep him away from her because of the danger?
Minako violently shook her head to clear the thought away. All this thinking was just weighing her down and causing her head to hurt. She quickly gathered her few belongings and headed out the front door of the school. Before long, she reached the train station where she dutifully bought her ticket and boarded the train just like every other "normal" student.
She couldn't help but feel that she was anything but normal.
As she sat by herself on the train, she listened to the general murmur of the conversations between her fellow classmates that sat nearby. They seemed all too carefree as they chatted about anything that came to mind, ranging from tests to family to the coming weekend. No one mentioned shadows or the very really possibility of dying or managing a relationship on top of fighting for your life every night.
Minako felt her face flare bright red as that last thought crossed her mind. She could barely manage balancing being in charge of the group and juggling school activities; there was no way she had time for a relationship!
Stupid Junpei and his stupid talking about relationships… Minako thought to herself as she stared moodily out the window at the world passing by.
But her logic couldn't help her from hoping someday…if she found the right boy…once things settled down…
"Ow!" Minako yelped as she bit down harder than she intended on her tongue to stop herself from daydreaming. She felt a few eyes turn to look at her due to her outburst. In response, she quickly turned to rummage in her bag as a means to hide her cheeks which burned with embarrassment. Everyone soon lost interest in her and she felt a sigh of relief escape her lips.
"Ah! You're Arisato-san, aren't you?"
Minako looked up at the person who had spoken to her and found a girl standing close to her and smiling. Her face was vaguely familiar, but Minako couldn't quite place it.
"Uhm…yes I am."
"Mind if I sit down next to you? The train is annoyingly crowded but my parents are harping on me to be home early and I wouldn't have been soooo late if I had waited for the next train." Not even waiting for Minako's answer, the girl sat down next to her and continued her chattering. Minako stared at her bewildered for a moment and waited for the girl to pause so she could get a word in.
"Excuse me," Minako said quickly when the girl paused to take a breath, "This is going to sound bad…but do I know you?"
The girl stared over at her as if Minako had just asked the oddest question in the world. Minako couldn't help but feel guilty as she studied the face of the girl, trying her best to place her. She did look vaguely familiar…
"My name is Naomi Tanaka; I'm in your class. I sit in the way back. We've talked sometimes after school before, remember? I mean, just the other day I was telling you about this really cute new line of clothing."
"Oh!" Minako said suddenly as realization dawned on her face, "You hang out by the stairs all the time after school, don't you?"
"Yup! That's right!"
Once Minako was able to place the girl's face, she began to relax and fall into a regular conversation with the girl. The two of them talked about everything from school to boys to clothing they wanted to buy. Minako found herself laughing and enjoying the normalcy of the situation. As she got more involved in the conversation, she almost forgot about her responsibilities as leader…almost.
The train came to a halt at the last stop and both girls got off the train still talking animatedly to one another. The two of them quickly parted ways once they got off the train and Minako felt her responsibility settle on her once again as she found herself alone. In that moment she really didn't want to go home.
If she went home, someone would be waiting to greet her and ask if she wanted to go to Tartarus; they would warn her that the full moon was slowly was approaching; there would be another decision for her to make as leader. As Minako continued to wallow in her desire to avoid her duties for a little longer, she quickly made the decision to hang around the strip mall and waste away a few hours. At least there she was viewed as nothing more than an average teenager.
Now… Minako thought to herself as her footsteps drew her closer to the strip mall What should one do when depressed?
The answer came instantly to her; she had to drown her sorrows in sweets.
With her decision made, Minako climbed one of the spiraling metal staircases and made her way up to the sweet shop. She had visited it a few times, but it wasn't one of her "usual" places like Hakagure. She hesitated a moment before she opened the door decorated with overly colorful posters and was greeted with the happy tinkling of a bell that hung over the door.
"Welcome!" A voice called cheerily from the counter, "Can I help you find anything?"
"No thanks," Minako replied as she turned to look at one of the shelves lined with candy, "I'm just kind of looking at this point."
"Alright, let me know if you need anything!"
Minako gave a small nod of her head as she continued to peruse her options. There were rows upon rows of candy of all shapes and sizes. All the obnoxiously bright colors attacked her eyes at once demanding to be noticed. Minako wasn't quite sure what kind of candy she wanted, she only knew that sweets had always helped her out in the past when she was in a rut.
As Minako continued to casually look at the options the store had to offer, she ended up near a large display in the front. It advertised loudly that there was a sale on lollipops; buy one get one free.
Of course, Minako thought with an ironical smile, The moment I'm feeling weighed down by my responsibilities as an adult is the moment that the most childish candy in the world goes on sale.
Well…I suppose I can get one now and save one for later… Minako thought as she reluctantly gave into the childish voice inside her and picked two lollipops off the display at random. She took a moment to look down at them and notice that they were both some sort of extremely sweet blend of fruits; something that only a child could truly love. Giving in to whatever fates decided to have her pick these two particular lollipops, she headed toward the counter to make her purchase.
A few moments later, Minako headed out the door with the lollipops in tow and her face a little bit brighter. Maybe today wouldn't turn out to be so bad after all.
Minako turned at the unexpected sound of someone calling her name and found Ken standing not far off. He had just exited from the shop next to the sweet shop and he was currently clutching a bag to his chest. When he noticed that Minako's eyes had settled on the bag in his hands, he quickly shoved it behind his back as his face flared red.
"H-Hey Ken-kun," Minako replied nervously. She wasn't quite sure why, but she felt like she had been caught in the act of not living up to her duties as the leader of SEES. After all, leaders don't spend their time in sweet shops buying lollipops, right?
"W-What are you doing here?" The young boy asked as he shoved whatever bag he had further behind his back.
"Well, I was just…uhm…ya know…" Minako stumbled over her words as she tried to look for an excuse. She didn't want to seem like an incompetent leader in front of their youngest member; he needed someone to look up to. "Oh! I was just…getting a present for you!" Minako finally managed to string together coherently as she held the bag out towards Ken.
There, that works perfectly! Now I wasn't going into the sweet shop for myself, I was going in there to help a teammate and it makes sense why I was buying candy for him, he is just a kid after all, Minako thought to herself, proud of the story she had spun even if it took her a few moments of awkward mumbling to reach it.
"…Minako-san, it's not necessary for you to give me special treatment."
Right…this is Ken-kun we're talking about.
"Maybe you're right, but I already bought you your present so it would be a waste to just throw it away, don't you think?" Minako asked with a smile on her face.
"I suppose you're right…" Ken responded quietly.
"So what are you doing here Ken-kun? Don't you usually head right back to the dorms after school?"
"I…I was coming to this bookstore to purchase something," Ken responded as he refused to meet Minako's eyes.
"What did you buy?"
"...It sounds childish…" Ken said in a quiet voice as he slowly produced the bag that carried whatever he was trying so desperately to hide.
Her initial reaction was to point out the fact that he was still indeed a child, but it took all of two seconds for Minako to discard that idea. She knew that Ken tried relentlessly to prove that he wasn't a child; he wanted to be just as "grown-up" as everyone else on the team.
"Don't worry," Minako said with what she hopped was a comforting smile, "I won't tell anyone as long as you don't tell anyone that I was in the sweet shop; Akihiko-senpai has been getting on my case about eating well recently and he would kill me if he heard I was eating sweets."
She watched as Ken gave a slow and deliberate nod as he gripped his bag tighter in his hands. "It's a…Featherman R manga…" Ken said guiltily as he carefully averted his eyes from Minako's face.
"Well what's wrong with that?"
"It's…not something that an adult reads," Ken responded as he ground the toe of his shoe into the concrete beneath his feet.
As the two of them stood there in an awkward silence, it struck Minako for the first time how stupid it all was. Ken was trying so desperately to be an adult; she was trying so desperately to be a leader. What was wrong with a sixteen year old buying lollipops or a ten year old buying manga?
"Hey Ken," Minako said impulsively before she really had time to think out her plan, "I don't really want to go back to the dorm yet; do you want to go to the park with me?"
"The park?" Ken echoed as he finally looked up and met Minako's eyes, "Minako-san, if you feel any obligation to comfort me due to my age, I should-"
"This has nothing to do with your age," Minako said as she cut him off, "I'm just running away for a little bit and I'm looking for a partner-in-crime."
"…Very well, but only for a little bit," Ken finally conceded.
"Alright then, I'll race you there!"
Without waiting for a response, Minako took off running and she couldn't help but laugh to herself as her quick footsteps echoed off the spiral, metal staircase. The combined feeling of the laughter and the whipping of the wind on her face caused the dark cloud of responsibility to lighten around her heart. Her feet touched down on the ground level sidewalk, but she still didn't slow her run as she turned herself in the direction of the park.
"Wait, Minako-san!" She heard a voice call vaguely from behind her. When she turned around to look, she saw Ken just starting his descent down the stairs. Minako gave another laugh as she cupped a hand around her mouth.
"Come on Ken-kun! You're gonna have to run faster than that if you want to catch up!" She yelled as a silly grin dominated her face. She gave another carefree laugh as she returned her attention once more to whatever was in front of her as the bag containing the two lollipops swayed in time with her movements.
Minako gave a contented sigh as she playfully kicked her legs. She looked up at the sky and couldn't help but smile to herself. Siting on the very top of the jungle gym allowed her to feel like she could reach out and touch the sunset that painted the sky.
"Minako-san, don't you think we should be heading back to the dorm soon?"
Minako's poetic thoughts were broken by the sound of a young voice next to her. She turned to look at Ken who was also balancing on the very top of the jungle gym. The two of them had spent the afternoon at the park playing any sort of childish game that came to mind. In the beginning, Minako had to almost force Ken to do anything he considered "childish", but by the time the sun began to set, the two of them were both laughing off their separate worries.
Just like Ken-kun to get right back to business, Minako couldn't stop herself from thinking as she gave a small smile. But as she turned once more to look at the progressively darkening sky, all she could think was that every second brought her closer to the hour when she would have to play at being leader.
"I think we can hang here for a little longer," Minako said as she turned once more to look at Ken, "Besides, we still have to take care of one small matter."
"One small matter?"
"Yup!" Minako reached into her pocket and triumphantly pulled out two lollipops. She smiled as she handed one to Ken who took it after a moment's hesitation.
"Is this…the present you were speaking of earlier?"
"Actually, that was a complete lie," Minako admitted as she spun the colorful treat in her hand, "I was just feeling weighted down by my duties as a leader and I wanted something to cheer me up. When I saw you I guess I panicked because it's not 'normal' for a leader to buy lollipops and stuff; guess I didn't want to disappoint your image of me."
Minako wasn't quite sure why she admitted this to Ken, but the moment it was off her chest, she felt so much better. The silence that hung between the two of them was heavy with awkwardness, but Minako tried her best to diffuse it as she began to un-wrap her lollipop.
"Well guess it doesn't matter now since I told you the reason I was at the candy shop," Minako said with a half-hearted laugh. She quickly stuck the lollipop in her mouth as she felt her cheeks burn slightly with embarrassment; the overwhelming relief that had come from spending an afternoon not being in charge of anything had caused her to admit more than she wanted to.
"…You don't disappoint me Minako-san," She heard Ken say at her side, "I find it amazing that you can be both a great leader and well…yourself…You're really-" Ken's string of consciousness cut off abruptly as he became keenly interested in unwrapping his lollipop, "W-Well, that's what I think anyways…"
Minako turned to look at the young boy with cheeks that were currently burning red. He was too busy looking with heated interest at the now unwrapped sucker in his hand to raise his eyes and acknowledge her gaze. She gave a mild sigh and an exasperated smile as she reached out her hand and ruffled the young boy's hair. She could feel Ken's figure stiffen under her touch, but she didn't remove her hand.
"I think you're the one that deserves praise here Ken-kun."
"I-I don't see what I've done that's exceedingly praiseworthy."
"But that's exactly what I need." It was at this point that Ken's eyes rose to meet Minako's. She read the clear confusion in his eyes and continued with a smile on her lips. "What I mean is that today when I hung out with you, I didn't feel like a leader; I felt like I was just Minako. All the other members of SEES make me feel like I have some sacred obligation to fulfill, but when I'm with you, I guess I just have…fun."
Minako completed her speech by turning and smiling at Ken. Her effort was rewarded by Ken looking away instantly and turning over the lollipop in his hands.
"I could say the same for you Minako-san…" Ken said so quietly Minako wasn't even sure he spoke the words, "When I'm with you, I feel like it's alright to be myself; I feel like you'll accept me as I am. Thank you so much for that Minako-san."
This time it Minako's turn to divert her attention back to the sucker in her hand as she felt a warm glow of happiness lite in her chest.
"Guess we just go together huh? The leader that wants to be a child and the child that wants to be an adult," Minako said aloud before she could stop herself. She instantly regretted her choice of words; she knew Ken hated being reminded of his status as a child. She shoved the sweet tasting lollipop into her mouth and tried her best to ignore the awkwardness that hung in the air.
"…I guess you're right Minako-san."
Minako turned to find Ken looking at her and smiling sadly. Minako felt herself frown. She didn't come to the part to remind Ken about what he viewed as a shortcoming. Frustrated with herself, Minako stood and balanced precariously on one of the bars of the jungle gym.
"Ah! Minako-san, be careful!" Ken called as he looked up at the older girl.
Minako took in a deep breath, pulled the sucker from her mouth and cupped her hands around her mouth.
"My name is Minako Arisato! I like cute things and shopping and lollipops!" Minako's voice boomed through the park and she gave a satisfied grin as she sat down once more on the jungle gym.
"There! Much better!" She said as she smoothed out the pleats of her skirt.
"M-Minako-san, what was that?"
"My mom once told me that the best way to get rid of your worries is to shout it to the sky," Minako said with a wide grin, "This is only the second time that I've tried it and I've got to say that it felt really good."
"You're really brave Minako-san…I can't be that brave…" Ken said quietly as he looked down at his hands.
"Well, I bet that one day you'll be able to get rid of your worries the same way and when that time comes I'll be here to see it," Minako said with an honest and unstrained smile. As she smiled at the young boy that refused to meet her eyes, all the worries of the day just seemed to melt away. She realized that what she had said earlier was entirely true; when she was with Ken she didn't feel the need to be a leader, she could just be herself.
"…You'll be there…no matter how long it takes…?" Ken mumbled into his shoulder.
"Of course, because we're friends!" Minako responded with the widest grin she had managed in weeks.
"Friends…" Ken responded quietly.
"Yup, now come on, if we don't hurry back to the dorm Mitsuru-senpai will be most displeased," Minako said as she began to scramble down the jungle gym. She was half-way down before she looked up to see Ken standing at the top of the jungle gym and mumbling to himself. Minako felt her eyes go wide in surprise as she realized that although he wasn't shouting them, Ken definitely was voicing his worries. Minako smiled to herself as she finished her descent and waited for Ken to finish.
A few moments later, Ken scrambled down and stood next to Minako. His face was as serious as always but a light smile was on his lips. This only caused Minako's smile to spread more.
"We better hurry on home now. Let's make it a race! Last one there has to buy the winner a lollipop!" Minako said with a smile as she took off running much like she had earlier that day.
"M-Minako-san be careful! It's not safe to run with a lollipop in your mouth!"
"Blah blah, you sound like an old man and unless you start running, you're gonna owe me a lollipop," Minako called back behind her as she intentionally slowed her pace to allow the young boy to catch up. She watched as Ken gave a shake of his head and began to run after her.
Minako picked up her pace once more as the child that tried so hard to be an adult tried his best to catch up to the leader that just wanted to be a child.
As Minako slowed down once more to allow Ken to catch up, she smiled to herself as she realized that maybe it wasn't so important for her to figure out exactly what a leader was.