Notes: Finally, I got the chance to write again! This is a side-story to my previous story, "Alluring Mystery," and while reading it is not quite necessary for this story, it would certainly fill in some areas this one only skims over. Either way, I hope you enjoy this story too.


Chapter 1 – The Wound

If there was one thing Ken Amada disliked about SEES's treks in Tartarus, it was how Minako always lead the group. His opinion wasn't based on jealousy or anger at always being ordered around by the same girl. Certainly not, he respected Minako as a leader and thought that she was perfect for the job. Her Persona were always so powerful, she gave clear directions during battle, and she always kept the safety of the team as the top priority. So many reasons to want her as the leader, except for one: Minako was always the field leader, throughout the entire Dark Hour.

They all agreed it was safer and more productive to explore in groups of four. That way, when the first group got tired, the second could continue forward and climb more floors in Tartarus. That in itself was fine, but Ken didn't like how Minako was the one who lead both groups. Why could he take a rest halfway through the night while she couldn't? Why did she have to take so much responsibility? Why did she put herself at risk of tiring herself out every time they fought?

He asked her that once, a few months before. She told him it was her duty as the leader, and that she liked doing it. She didn't mind fighting during their entire stay in Tartarus. She wanted to be strong enough to protect the people she loves. It was where she found her purpose, her reason to belong in SEES.

Ken could understand what she meant by "purpose." He too had a purpose when he first started fighting alongside her. Of course, that purpose changed after October 4th. Shinjiro Aragaki, the man he once wanted to kill to avenge his mother, now laid comatose in a hospital bed, and no one knew when he would wake. Ken's reason to join SEES, to infiltrate and kill Shinjiro, was completely shattered that night, and his whole purpose for fighting changed. Now, instead of fighting for vengeance, he fought to protect the future his mother wanted him to have.

And maybe, he thought to himself as he climbed the stairs to the next floor of Tartarus, he fought to protect the girl right in front of him.

That night, Ken was part of the second group, along with Akihiko and Yukari. Minako, of course, was leading them through what was supposed to be the last floor they would explore that night. They were all tired, and as always, Minako was the most exhausted of their group. Her exhaustion wasn't to the point where she was overdoing it or they would insist they go back home or anything, but it was enough to make Ken worry. He's watched her fight for a long time, and he knew this was the point where Minako's strategy was planned more carefully in order to save everyone's energy as long as possible. But it was also the point where she healed herself the most often, so Ken would have to keep an eye on her. He had to protect their precious leader.

He had to protect the girl he liked.

"There's a Shadow!"

At the sound of Fuuka's voice, everyone immediately set his or her weapon into an offensive stance. Four of those strange cupid Shadows appeared, floating around joyfully and making strange high-pitched sounds. As annoying as they were, they weren't very difficult to defeat. If everyone struck hard and fast, the battle would be over quickly, as long as they didn't—

"Watch out! That's Marin Karin!"

Everyone immediately braced themselves. Getting charmed was easy to avoid as long as you concentrated, and had a little luck of course. Ken shut his eyes, trying hard to focus on not letting the Shadow's skill affect him. He couldn't get charmed. It would trouble everyone. It would put him against his friends. Ken had to focus. He had to overcome this. He had to prove he was strong enough to deflect it.

He had to-

Wait.

…What did he have to do?

Ken looked around, confused and momentarily unsure of what was going on. But once he saw the three people standing near him – all of them seemingly worried – Ken suddenly remembered what he was doing: he was fighting. These three people were his enemies. His grip on his spear tightened and he took his offensive stance once more. His eyes scanned each one of the people that looked worriedly at him. Good, they should be worried. He wasn't going to let them walk away from this battle. Then, his eyes landed on the girl nearest him, the one holding a naginata. Her stance was neither offensive nor defensive; she just stood there staring at him, and Ken didn't understand why.

"Ken-kun?"

Why did she speak with that tone? As if she were his friend. She's the leader, Ken realized. If he took her down, the two with her would fall easily. With well-practiced precision and speed, he raised his spear and raced towards her.

"Ken-kun! Wait!"

"Ken!"

The voices of the leader's companions. Why did they all sound worried for him? It wasn't like he was on their side.

"Ken-kun!"

He slashed his spear at the leader, but like he expected, she was a capable enough fighter to block his attack. She predicted from which direction he would strike and swung her naginata to push his spear out of the way. In fact, she swung her own weapon so hard that Ken thought his spear might have taken damage of its own. She's good…

"Ken-kun, snap out of it! You've been charmed!"

Lies. She was trying to confuse him. With he sharp end of his spear trapped, there was only one thing Ken could do. He swung the sharp end backwards, towards himself, and used the other end to knock the naginata out of the leader's hands. His strategy surprised her enough to make her let go, and her weapon clattered to the floor several feet away. Ken quickly glanced at her comrades. They were too preoccupied fighting the Shadows to help protect their precious leader. He grinned to himself. Perfect. Ken swung his spear back to its offensive position. With nothing to protect herself with, the leader had no chance. He swung his spear once more, and all she could do was bring up her hands to protect herself.

"Stop it, Ken!"

A huge force tackled Ken to the ground, interrupting his attack. But he could feel that his spear still made contact, so even though the one with the red vest might have prevented any serious damage, he still managed to land a hit. So he didn't mind the pain when his body crashed to the ground or when his body was momentarily crushed by the weight of the older man in a red vest. Their leader was certainly injured. They would soon go into a panic.

But then Ken heard it, a scream so agonizing that he couldn't help but look up. The man in the red vest got off of him and quickly ran over to the leader's side. The other girl followed suit; it seemed they managed to defeat the Shadows.

"Hey, Minako!"

"Are you alright?"

It was difficult to see at first with her companions crowding around her, but they eventually moved and Ken could see what he had done. A huge gash, running between her right elbow and wrist, so severe that blood was already dripping onto the floor. The girl…Minako had fallen to her knees, her face was scrunched up in pain, and tears started to form at the edges of her eyes. Her friends were so worried about her, Yukari did her best to heal her, and Minako held her wounded arm to her chest, trying to keep too much blood from escaping.

But the wound was so large, so deep, blood still soaked through her clothing and dripped to the floor with a hideous plip sound.

Plip…plip…plip…

He did it.

"…Minako-san?"

He gave her that wound.

"Minako-san!"

Ken dropped his spear and quickly ran to her side. How could he…how could he…? Akihiko moved aside so Ken would have room, and Yukari was still using her power to help Minako heal. But Minako…she was still in pain. Her eyes were still shut tight, and she wouldn't let go of her wounded arm. Then suddenly, she opened her eyes and looked right at Ken, as if she had sensed that he came. Ken could see in her eyes that she was still in pain, and yet a smile appeared on her face.

"Ken-kun…you're alright now?"

Ken stared at her incredulously, speechless for a moment. How could she still smile at him? He was responsible for what just happened to her. "I'm sorry…" If he had been more careful, if he didn't let himself get charmed so easily… "I'm sorry…" Minako's pain began to subside and she finally let go of her arm. Immediately, Ken grabbed her free hand and held it tightly to his own chest. He was shaking, and he was certain that Minako could feel it, that everyone could see it, but he didn't care. All that mattered was the wounded girl in front of him, his friend that he hurt.

"I'm sorry…I'm so sorry, Minako-san!"

Ken repeated his apology many times, but Minako never said a word. She only looked at him with a serene smile. Ken knew what that smile meant; she was more concerned about him getting back to normal than the gash on her arm. Despite her pain, she smiled because her friend had returned.

But it made Ken feel worse. He wanted her to blame him for it so he could apologize, to find some way to make up for it. But if she wouldn't blame Ken…who else could blame him but himself?

And forgiving yourself of your own stupid mistakes is one of the hardest things to do.

{00}

After that fight, the group immediately left Tartarus. Once outside, Yukari bandaged Minako's arm temporarily until they could give it proper first aid later. Mitsuru said she'd handle it and took Minako back to the dorm ahead of the others on her motorcycle. That left everyone else to take the slower walk back home, and they were all quieter than usual, trying hard not to make Ken feel worse by staring at him.

Yukari assured him that Minako's wound wasn't as bad as it looked, and Akihiko kept saying that nothing was Ken's fault, and if anyone was to blame, it was the Shadow that charmed Ken in the first place. But Ken rarely responded. He was lost in his own thoughts, and the image of the blood and the plip sound followed him all the way back to the dorm. And even when he tried to sleep that night, he could still see it clearly when he closed his eyes.

He didn't see Minako the next morning. She had already left for school by the time he came downstairs, and for the first time, Ken really hated how he and Minako didn't go to the same school. He wanted to look after her today; it was the least he could do. Aigis was still home at the time, and she said Minako looked fine when she left for school, but Ken was still worried. He couldn't remember anything he was supposed to have learned in school that day. All he could think of was how Minako was getting along with such a wound. He slashed her dominant hand, surely that would bring her lots of troubles, and she it'd be difficult to participate in her sports club. Would she be able to go to her part-time job?

Throughout the school day, Ken anxiously watched the clock, waiting for school to end so he could go see if Minako was really okay. He wished he could distract himself, or pay attention to his lessons, but nothing they talked about seemed as important. Ken was dealing with a much more serious, adult problem; simple math or writing about something he liked seemed so inappropriate. All he could do was stare at the clock and hope the monotonous kid stuff would be over soon. But staring anxiously made time seem to pass much slower, and Ken couldn't help but think that time itself was mocking him by purposely slowing down.

Ken ran out of his classroom the moment he was excused, not caring how strange or desperate he looked, and he didn't stop until he reached the front gate of Gekkoukan High School. He made it just in time; the school had just let out and only a few students were outside. It was unlikely he missed Minako, and he would wait as long as he needed to. He had to see her. Even though he apologized multiple times that night in Tartarus, it still wasn't enough. Even now, he still felt the need to say, "I'm sorry."

Sorry that he hurt her.

Sorry that he failed to protect her like he wanted.

So Ken waited at the gate. A huge crowd of students soon filed out of the building, and a lot of them sent confused glances in his direction, but Ken didn't care. He patiently scanned each face searching for Minako. He waited…and waited…the crowd eventually thinned and still no sign of her. Even though he shivered in the cold winter air, he didn't move from his spot. She would have to leave school eventually; it was all a matter of patience, and Ken would wait as long as he had to. But despite his resolve, Ken looked sadly to his feet. Where was she? Why hadn't Minako left school yet? Should he call her cell phone?

"Oh, hi Ken-kun. Why are you here?"

Ken looked up to Fuuka's familiar face, slightly disappointed it wasn't Minako's. It was obvious why he was here, wasn't it? But Fuuka was a kind girl; she didn't want to bring up a topic she knew Ken was bothered about. He understood that, so he couldn't hold it against her. "I'm waiting for Minako-san," he answered, "Did she leave school already?"

Fuuka looked up, trying to remember. "I think she's still here. I saw her go into the health office before I left."

"I see…" Ken said sadly, suddenly feeling a heavy pain in his chest. The health office; of course she would go there. Was he expecting anyplace else?

Fuuka looked worried for him, but there wasn't much she could do. They both knew Ken had to resolve his guilt on his own. "I'm sure Minako-chan will be out soon, Ken-kun," she said, smiling warmly, "She only wanted to change her bandages."

Slowly, Ken smiled back. "Right… Thanks, Fuuka-san." She was indeed a very nice girl.

After Fuuka waved, she left Ken at the gate to wait for Minako. He felt much more relieved after talking to her; his patience would pay off eventually. Ken was sure of it, so he waited some more, but this time with a small smile. Fuuka didn't seem worried about Minako's condition; a good sign that she was okay. And now that the initial crowd of students was mostly gone, he would be able to talk to her without worry of being overheard. He will properly apologize, beg her to somehow let him make up for it, and maybe…offer to do his best to protect her properly from now on.

He felt confidence swell inside him. Protect her…and I can always stay by her side.

Suddenly, he could hear the conversation of the remaining crowd get louder. All at once, every group started talking to each other, staring at the building entrance and some pointing fingers. The girls, especially, seemed very upset. They were talking about someone, but Ken couldn't make out any names. Curious, he decided to peek around the gate, and what he saw made his earlier confidence quickly fade.

His patience paid off. Minako was finally leaving school, but she wasn't alone. Nor was she with anyone Ken recognized from the dorm. She was with someone else altogether, another guy. He was taller than Minako, pretty good-looking, distinctive by his yellow scarf, and a bit pale-skinned, but he seemed very kind, and Ken could see the worry in this stranger's eyes. This person constantly glanced at her arm; he also knew about Minako's wound. Minako herself was walking next to this person, and she looked as if she were lost in thought. Ken could see her new bandages peeking out from the cuff of her sleeve. Fuuka never said anything about a guy going into the health office with Minako, but…did he help her bandage her wound? Is he a classmate? A friend? Or maybe… The whispered gossip around him suddenly seemed louder.

They were getting closer, but did Ken want to call out to her anymore? "Minako-san?"

She stopped and immediately looked his way. "Ken-kun?" She looked genuinely surprised to see him there, and her friend looked confused. "What are you doing here?"

Her friend looked at Ken oddly, as if he were trying to figure out who he was. Sadly, Ken had a pretty good idea what he was thinking. Why was he, an elementary student, someone six years younger, talking to Minako if they weren't even related? High school girls don't normally associate with someone his age, and he felt the age gap between them get bigger. Once again, he felt inferior, especially to her friend who seemed much more suited for her than him.

"Um, I-I uh…" Why couldn't the words come out? He waited anxiously all day for this chance to properly apologize, and now, in the face of some stranger, his confidence is shot down flat? Maybe so. His confidence lost to inferiority. Even though Ken could fight, this stranger seemed perfectly capable of protecting Minako without hurting her like he did. And his obvious worry for her arm; Ken knew he cared deeply for her. Compared to this stranger, he was...

"It's nothing," Ken burst out, "I'll see you back home."

The words escaped before he could stop them, and he ran away as fast as he could without looking back.


Notes: One chapter down, two to go. This story wasn't written as I normally do, with the entire plot planned out before writing. This was planned with only the scenes that I wanted, and me trying to link them all together as I write. It's a bit difficult, but I hope that doesn't lower the story's quality. Anyway, I hope you still enjoyed it.