"Do you like them?"
I regard Akihiko with a pair of warm crimson eyes. My senpai is currently eating the pancakes I made for him a moment ago. He looks up at me, still chewing, before he swallows with a deep sigh. I tilt my head to the side as I stand leaning against the desk in the front of the home economics room. We decided to meet here after school rather than at the dorm since it would be less crowded at this hour. I asked Fuuka if it was okay since sheīs the president of the cookingclub using the classroom and she allowed us to use it. The happiness Iīm feeling makes it impossible for me to stop smiling but I try to stop when I realize my cheeks will hurt later if I don't.
"Itīs sweet." He answers me truthfully.
"Oh…" My smile fades even though I thought it was impossible a moment ago.
"Eh..!" His eyes widen at my reaction and heīs quick to explain himself. "Sweet in a good way! I like them, really." A small blush cover his pale cheeks.
"Oh, I see…" The smile returns to my lips. "I was really worried since I know that you dislike too sweet things."
I turn around to put away and wash all the dirty dishes. The smile doesnīt leave my lips. Who would have thought that I would make pancakes for Akihiko some months ago? Not me. Some girls would kill to be in my shoes, and some have tried, so I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I wonder how long I can stay this happy though, because a strange change is occurring in Tartarus at the moment. It seems like the shadows are getting stronger; that theyīre waiting for something. I shrug my shoulders. I canīt let that ruin my moment with senpai! Itīs harder to stay relaxed when you know about the dark hour though.
"How is your training going?" I ask him to get my mind out of the hidden hour.
"Good since that Shiranaka quit." He answers bluntly.
My eyes widen a little at this because I notice the distaste in his voice. Akihiko is a person who openly shows if he dislikes a person but not the kind to tell the world about it. This Shiranaka must have done something to get to him because some rumors say that Akihiko punched him out of the blue. Sure, rumors are just rumors… but not all the time.
"He was a jerk." Is Akihikoīs explanation.
"What did he do to enrage you like that? I heard that you punched him…outside the ring." I ask him carefully.
Akihiko glances at me with a serious expression before he averts his eyes. A strange feeling tells me I should know more about this Shiranaka but Akihiko doesnīt give me any other information about what happened.
"He just got under my skin." He exhales. "And I used my fists to tell him that."
He leaves it at that and something about the kind of voice he uses makes me unable to ask him for more. It seems that he has been going through a hard time too lately. I nod to myself as I continue to clean. The sound of metal touching a plate makes me happy though because I know heīs eating my pancakes and likes them. I need to cherish this feeling so I wonīt let the hardships around me break me down.
"We need to make sure to keep our calm." I tell him. "I believe things are going to get worse from now on."
"Yeah…" He agrees.
A silence surrounds us for a while but Iīm not disturbed by it. I dry the bowl and clean the sink carefully. I donīt want Fuuka to get mad at me over a dirty kitchen. I turn around to smile at him brightly and it seems like it surprised him because his face turns slightly red. Was he watching me? I wonder as he averts his gaze quickly. Iīm not confident enough to believe that.
"Weīll be able to win if we work together." I tell him. "No mountain is too high to climb!"
A somewhat cocky smile appears on Akihikoīs lips and he nods.
"That sounds like you, leader." The way he utters my nickname makes the butterflies in my stomach flutter their wings like crazy.
I smile nervously. "But letīs talk about some other stuff, I donīt want to ruin the mood. Ehm…"
He smiles at me and it makes my insides melt just like that and I find no words. I need to find a subject to talk about! What? Ehm… Akihiko seems to understand what Iīm trying to do and helps out by taking the initiative.
"Yeah…" He agrees. "Iīll help you finish the dishes and then we can go somewhere before we return to the dorm?"
We took a long walk, prayed at the shrine in a silence before we headed back to the dorm.
Things are going well at the moment and Iīm happier than before. The girls at the dorm noticed and asked me about it but I couldnīt say anything because Iīm not certain about Akihikoīs feelings. He has a lot of fans and Iīm not the prettiest girl out there… but a gut feeling tells me that he has given me a chance to get closer to him. I believe he acts differently around me because Iīm the leader of SEES, because Iīm not acting like a fan around him and because I somehow managed to gain his trust. It doesnīt have to mean that he likes me more than a friend, maybe that he just…regards me as someone he can trust and be with without feeling troubled. My cheeks hurt from all my smiling.
Even though everything goes smoothly between us something happened one day, out of the blue. Something that changed everything.
"Senpai, do you have time today?" I ask Akihiko on a Monday after school when Iīm certain of that heīs free from clubs and other activities.
The young man looks at me for a moment before he averts his gaze. He looked bothered by my presence. My body tenses and eyes widen at this. Something isnīt right, I tell myself as I continue to look at him while waiting for an answer.
"Ehm… I…" He starts in a very tense manner before he declines. "I canīt today."
His voice and body language tells me he couldnīt come up with an excuse fast enough. My eyes widen even more but I canīt bring myself to ask him about it. I unconsciously take a step backwards to create a distance between us and it proves my theory; itīs only when I give him more space that he dares to look at me. A terrible weight grows heavier on my shoulders and my happiness disappears without a trace.
"Oh, alright." I smile weakly, still waiting for him to explain things to me even though I know he wonīt. "I guess Iīll see you at the dorm later then."
"Yeah." He answers shortly with a nod.
"Bye." I tell him in a slightly surprised tone when he passes me by quickly.
My heart grows cold as I watch his back while he slowly disappears down the stairs. It gets hard to breathe and I feel slightly sick in the stomach as I recall his words and facial expressions. He lied to me. Why? If he didnīt …want to hang out he could have told me that. He has declined before but not like this.
I feel like throwing up and then I feel silly for letting something like this affect me. I hold back a sob.
Akihiko started to avoid me and my happiness slipped through my fingers just like that. I tried to talk to him about it several times but he always used the excuse that he couldnīt meet. It hurt me because his eyes told me that he could but didnīt want to meet me. I started to avoid him as well since I couldnīt handle my emotions well enough to act cool about it. Tartarus is something else though; I still need to act as the collected leader all of them know me as. Akihiko is a member of SEES too and itīs my responsibility to look over him.
The thoughts of him made it harder to sleep, to eat and to socialize with my friends. People have noticed the change in me but I continue to act ignorant of their knowledge. Iīve lost some weight, I have dark circles under my eyes, my skin looks a little dyer and I donīt have the energy anymore. All of this is slowly starting to affect my fighting style. Iīm desperately trying to find where things went wrong, if I said something to piss him of or anything like that but it only makes me remember my happy moments with him. Iīm lying in my bed with the lights turned off, just thinking about him without being able to fall asleep.
I recall the time we ran to the shrine together and he taught me how to do a back hip circle on the horizontal bar. I was nervous because I knew that it wasnīt a good idea since I still wore my school uniform but Akihiko didnīt peek at my junk when I tried. That made him grow as a person in my eyes! He helped me out and showed me how it was done, the memory of it makes my heart ache a little. Someone like Junpei would have looked, I just know that! But Akihiko isnīt a perv like Junpei.
My lips move into a weak smile.
Or like when we met the noisy child at the burger restaurant. I thought they child acted in a very spoiled manner but Akihiko saw it from a different angle. It was a child with a lot of energy. His mature point of view surprised me in a good way. Guys who are mature and likes children is really good. The blush that covered his face when I told him he was charming makes my insides burn. He thinks heīs strange but being different is not a bad thing. I like being different, It attracts me.
We have something in common like…both of us doesnīt have any parents. Maybe that made us more comfortable around each other? That fact created a deeper respect and understanding between us. We have been through the same things: loss of loved people but I still canīt grasp the pain of losing a sibling. Maybe itīs my inability to grasp that pain that pushed him away? No, things changed earlier I think.
He started to act strangely one day when he invited me out to eat ramen. He said my fighting style irritated him. Akihiko said he didnīt want me to fight at all and it either mean that he thinks that Iīm unreliable or…that heīs worried. A deep sigh leaves my lips as I yawn. I think that was the first time I noticed a change in him. He turned distant towards me and didnīt talk as openly anymore. His thoughts were all about his younger sister Miki and I couldnīt blame him.
Sadness well up inside of me and I hug my pillow tightly. I wanted to be the one to comfort him but I canīt understand the pain of losing a sister. She was the most important person to him since his parents died when he was so young…I tried to console him but I think I said all the wrong words. He looked over Miki but I was only used to be looked over by my parents.
I turn over to the side so I can look out through the window. The moon is shining beautifully and the light creates a yellow glow on the floor. I donīt have time to let my relationship with Akihiko bother me or slow me down. Red eyes stare at the moon for a long time. Itīs soon full moon again and the activity in the tower has grown as usual. I close my eyes while mentally preparing myself for hell tomorrow.
Shadows are everywhere so I tell everyone to stick together and be extra cautious when proceeding in the labyrinth. We try to avoid the shadows as much as we can in our search for the stairs but it doesnīt work that well.
"A shadow!" Mitsuru shouts as she charges.
Sheīs a woman who thinks offence is the best defense and I agree from time to time. I cover her with a frown on my face and fights off a weaker shadow by myself. Weīre on a new floor and none of us recognizes the new kind of shadow that lingers here. I stare at one shadow that looks like a monster taken from one of my nightmares but my sight it slowly getting blurrier. I squint but it doesnīt get any better. The creature attacks me and gives me no chance to wait for my eyes to function so I attack without really seeing anything. A Bufu attack hits me from behind and a painful grunt leaves my lips as I lose my balance and hits the floor. Iīm just about to grab my weapon and shield myself when someone calls my name.
"Minako! Wake up dammit!"
Junpei jumps forward to kill a shadow that was close to hit me. My eyesight gets better and I notice that it wasnīt one enemy but four. I stare at him wide-eyed while holding my breath. Junpei glares at me from under his cap as he offers me his hand. I accept it and he pulls me up to my feet. I feel so weak. I feel even sicker when I notice how Akihiko stares at me from the corner of my eye.
"That shadows weakness is fire, use Berith to knock them all down! Do I need to spell it out for ya?" He shouts at me.
I flinch before I act. "Sorry! Berith!" I pull the trigger without hesitation and one of my many loyal persona appears and attacks. The fire hits three of them so I use the same attack again so we can use an all out attack to win the battle. The shadows disappear after the collision and leave me breathing hard. Everyone tries to regain their strength in silence but I can feel how theyīre looking at me strangely. Itīs Junpei who approaches me about it first.
"Hey, are you really fit to be our leader?" He asks me in a harsh voice, probably harsher than he originally wanted.
My eyes widen as guilt washes over me. I avert my gaze and looks at my shoes. Eyes widen and I open and close my eyes several times: Iīm seeing two pairs of feet below me. Dizziness makes me feel like losing my balance and fall down again but I take a deep breath and leans backwards to prevent that. It makes me stare into Junpeiīs eyes though. He looks pissed.
"Junpei…" Yukari complains.
I glance at her when she gently touches my shoulder in her own way to give me some sort of comfort. My face gets paler when every member of SEES gathers because I know theyīre all judging me. Iīve always been a perfect leader who made no mistakes but Iīm different now and I canīt focus when I feel Akihikoīs eyes on me. I canīt focus on an empty stomach or when Iīve not slept enough either.
"No." Junpei looks at me seriously. " I was ok with a girl being the leader since youīre my friend and stronger than me but… pull yourself together, or Iīll seriously take your place."
Ouch. That hurt. I know Junpei always wanted to be the leader and that he was jealous but I feel like shit now and his words doesnīt make it less hurtful. I know I should pull myself together but I had no idea that love could do this to a person. Make you this weak and miserable. Iīm letting Jupei down now, just as I let Akihiko down in a way I donīt understand.
"Iīm sorry." I look at them while fighting my tears and trembling lips. "Everyone, Iīm sorry. A lot has happened and I canīt focus. I think Iīm going to be sick."
"Donīt worry about it." Mitsuru smiles gently."You always carry everyoneīs problems on your shoulders so take it easy and rest for some days, I can take over."
"Special treatment, huh?" Junpei comments.
"Shut up Junpei." Yukari growls at him.
"Whatever!" Junpei walks off.
Junpei, Shinjiro, Ken, Koromaru and Akihiko walks off and my heart grows colder. Canīt Akihiko just approach me, tell me whatīs wrong and then comfort me? Canīt he just let me into his heart again? The said teen glances at me from a distance but I canīt read his expression at all. My expression darkens. I just want to scream, curse and punch something.
"It might not look like it but he cares about you." Yukari tells me gently, referring to Junpei. "Heīs worried."
"I know and Iīm…sorry. Mitsuru, can you take the lead for a day or two?" I swallow my frustration.
"Yes, of course." She seems a little surprised.
"Thank you." I bow slightly before I ask Fuuka for an escape route.
The training continues without me but no one feels right about it. Junpei is frustrated, Yukari and Fuuka are worried, Ken is affected by everyone elseīs feelings and Koromaru whines. Mitsuru tries to keep them all together and her years of experience make them all regain their energy again. They take down shadow after shadow and climb up several stairs but decide to stop when fatigue is closing up on them. Fuuka teleports them back and everyone returns to the dorm.
Mitsuru grabs Akihikoīs shoulder when he is about to pass him buy. He stops and looks at her with a dazzled expression.
"Akihiko…" She murmurs his name.
"What?" He seems kind of wary of her.
"What did you say to Arisato-san?" She asks him bluntly.
His eyes widen for a moment but heīs quick to regain his indifference. Mitsuru knows him well enough to see through it though but that doesnīt stop him from trying to deceive her. He feels like sheīs intruding on his private life and it makes him put up a defense even though theyīre close friends.
"I…I didnīt say anything." He tells the truth but he feels like heīs lying.
Mitsuru gives him a long stare before she gives up with a sigh.
"Just make it work, ok? Someone will get hurt if this continues. Your defense was down today."
Mitsuru passes him by quickly and leaves Akihiko to his own thoughts. The silver haired young man walks towards the dorm by himself. I thought my heart was about to burst. He closes his eyes and remembers how hot flames hit Minako from behind, knocking the air out of her lungs violently. The feelings that entered him when the hurtful fry left her lips makes him even more confused. I want to protect her so why am I doing the exact opposite? Akihiko grit his teeth. Why is she making me feel so weak and defenseless all the time? Why is she…?
Iīm losing control. Akihiko sighs deeply. A frown makes his expression darkens as he recalls the sad expression she showed him every time he declined her invitations to hang out. He declined until she stopped asking, why he donīt know but he felt like shit when she started to stop greeting him in the hallway even though he asked for it. Maybe Iīm scared? He asks himself. Akihiko wanted to distance himself from her because the emotions she triggers within him made him weak and shy. Is it because she reminds me of Miki? Is that why Iīm so worried about her? She makes me do strange things…like, hitting…Shiranaka. Akihiko frowns.
He canīt find an answer yet.
I decided to start training again some days after the incident in Tartarus but things doesnīt go as smoothly as I want them to. My senses are not the same anymore and the feelings of guilt makes my dizziness and feelings for Akihiko affect me more than before. There are things that are more important to me than love and one of those things are my friends and beating the Shadows once and for all. Thatīs why I try to ignore my feelings and fight once more. I act as the leader I am and guide them towards the stairs. But something goes wrong, terribly wrong when we reach the higher floor.
Red eyes widen as something hits me with full force. I donīt get a chance to protect myself and everything turns black.
"Oh no, youīre separated!" Fuukaīs voice echoes.
Being separated when moving up a floor is something the party is used to so no one gets as frightened as Fuuka. Akihiko looks at his surroundings and notices Yukari further ahead of him and gives her a quick nod of his head. Yukari seems to be relieved. The thought of being alone scared her more than she wants to admit. Akihiko gets up on his feet and prepares himself for action.
"Can you locate the others?" Akihiko asks Fuuka with a grunt.
"Thereīs some kind of disturbance…" Fuuka sounds hesitant. "I can see Ken and Shinjiro further ahead."
"What about the others?" Yukari asks nervously.
"Something isnīt right.. itīs like I canīt get through to them." Fuukaīs voice trembles.
"Keep trying." Akihiko tells her sternly."Weīll proceed and try to find Ken and Shinji but be prepared to make an escape route for us if things get ugly."
Akihiko takes the lead as he and Yukari continues on. There arenīt a lot of shadows on the floor so theyīre able to find some usable items on their way . Akihiko knows that a floor without shadows either mean that the floor is empty or that a much stronger shadow lingers in the darkness, a monster that scared the smaller shadows away. Yukari canīt help but worry about her friends when the time passes by. She knows something is wrong and is waiting for Fuuka to inform her of an accident of some sort. Akihiko feels it too, that something is different but he keeps himself calm until his thoughts are proved correct.
"Oh no!" Yukari grows cold when Fuuka suddenly gasps.
"What happened Fuuka?" Yukari asks her slowly, she is not sure if she wants to know the answer.
Akihiko stops exploring as he listens to Fuuka. Her trembling voice makes his uneasiness grow tenfold but his pokerface is intact as he waits for an explanation.
Akihikoīs eyes widen as something takes a hold of his heart and squeezes it tightly. He feels like heīs about to suffocate. Fear hits him like a violent hurricane as he starts to imagine what could have happened to the younger girl. A deep and dangerous looking frown grows as he starts running. Yukari gasps as she dashes after her senpai.
"Spit it out, Yamagishi." Akihiko fails to sound indifferent this time. "Where is she? What happened?" He yells as he continues to move deeper into the labyrinth.
The sudden change in Akihiko scares Yukari but she continues on like always. The archer is more afraid of her friend being hurt than Akihikoīs rage.
"Sheīs hurt! Hurry, turn right, then left then right again! "Fuuka shouts desperately with fear. "…Thereīs blood everywhere…"
Yukari cries out in fear as she and Akihiko dashes through the narrow corridors towards the area Fuuka knows Minako is. All he can hear is his rapid heartbeat and the quick rhythm thatīs created when his feet hits the ground as he runs. He fears the sound will break his eardrums before he reach Minako.
"Sheīs on your right!" Fuuka cries. "Watch up, thereīs a –!"
The sound of rubber gliding over a hard surface echoes when Akihiko turns quickly but his movements stop as he finds what he searched for. Eyes widen in an inhuman way. Their leader is lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood motionlessly with a large shadow towering over her. The monster leans over her like it tries to devour her in one bite.
"MINAKO!" Yukari screams with all her might.
Akihiko canīt move as he takes in the scene before him. Heīs frightened in a way he never experienced before and Yukariīs scream make everything turn into a way too realistic horror movie. A shaky breath leaves the boxerīs trembling lips as he regains the ability to breathe. Move. Nothing happens. Another breath leaves him as he looks down to realize that his knees are shaking terribly. Eyes widen even more. I need to stop shaking…Whatīs wrong with me? Akihiko looks at Minakoīs pale face. She looks so sick but peaceful at the same time. What if sheīs already…?A sharp growl can be heard and the shadow turns to look at the two intruders. Akihiko doesnīt notice because all he can see is his kouhai.
Sheīs not supposed to get hurt. Minako is strong and careful, she wouldnīt be knocked down like this. This is not supposed to happen! Akihikoīs thoughts both scares and confuses him. Legs, move! A grunt leaves his lips as he takes one wobbly step forward towards the girl he needs to protect.
"Move for Godīs sake!" He screams with everything he got.
And he starts moving.