Akihiko's stomach started to churn when he couldn't find Minako by the practice building that Friday. I know she's busy, but usually, she at least checks in by now. Unable to stay still, he started to roam the hallways to find her.
He discovered her with a sour expression on her face, cornered by someone from the student council. Odagiri I think...what's he blabbing her ear off for? Her typical easy smile was missing, and she seemed to be biting the inside of her cheek, so he was compelled to interrupt them.
"I'm closing in on the culprit, Arisato. It's like I can smell it!" Odagiri said with a definite nod.
"Ha, good one!" she laughed, plastering on a grin.
"Oh...oh right! Yeah, that's right." Odagiri said, flushing a bit as he turned to Akihiko. "Sanada-senpai, how can I help you?"
"Hey. Just looking for Arisato is all."
"Well then, I'll leave her to you then." He looked back at her. "Hopefully I'll have a solid lead we can chase down by tomorrow. I'll talk to you then."
"Good luck!" she replied, giving him a thumbs-up.
"Never needed it, just good detective work." He left with a small wave.
Minako took a deep breath. When he was out of earshot, Akihiko asked. "Is everything okay? You looked uncomfortable back there."
"Oh, no I'm alright! Or I will be in about twenty minutes. I wasn't feeling so hot this afternoon, so I swung by the nurse's office for one of Mr. Edogawa's medicines. It's a bit rough going down, but I'll be right as rain soon!" She flashed him a smile that made him frown.
"If you're not feeling well, we should go straight back to the dorms! You shouldn't push yourself." In a low voice, he added, "We've got no reason to go to Tartarus tonight."
"I've got a lot of other errands to do! Nothing strenuous, mind you, but it's all over town." She dug in her bag and pulled out a notepad. She tapped it with her pen. "My master list."
He balked at the several lines scribbled on it. "Well then, let me help you. I can carry some bags or something. At least make sure you don't pass out from that so-call 'medicine'."
She gave him a soft smile. "Fair enough. First stop, Bookworms!"
Her energy did seem to improve on the walk to the strip mall, so he didn't feel compelled to try and delay the errands. By the time they neared the shop however, a skinny, orange cat crossed there path with wary eyes. "There you are!" she exclaimed with delight. She dug through her backpack and pulled out a small bag of cat food. She offered it to Akihiko. "I have to go talk to Bunkichi and Mitsuko, can you pleaassee try and feed that cat? I've been seeing it around a lot and it just keeps getting skinnier and skinnier."
"Okay. Just this once." He took the bag reluctantly and for the next fifteen minutes tried to avoid getting scratched.
"Sorry," he apologized when she returned. "I even poured some out, and he just ran."
"Thanks for trying," she said with a grateful smile. "I'll get him sooner or later." She accepted the bag back and crossed an item off of her list. She then wrote "pick up 2h sword" on her palm.
"Isn't that what the list is for?"
"I juuust remembered it, and I really can't afford to forget going to Shinshoudo, so the palm is always for items like that," she explained with a wiggle of her fingers.
"Right...next stop?" he asked doubtfully.
"The shrine," she declared. "Let's go!"
She ended up adding two more items to her paper list on the way, but fortunately she explained they could be handled next week. "Just can't forget is all."
When they arrived at the shrine, a young girl with braided buns and a sickly looking man were there. The girl was hanging from the jungle gym, the man sleeping.
"Are they... siblings?" he asked.
"Nah, just both enjoy this area," she explained. She waved, and the girl dropped from the bars and ran over.
"Minako!" she exclaimed, instantly looking to the sleeping boy to see if he woke.
"Hi, Maiko-chan," she said, pulling a soda out of her backpack and offering it to the girl.
The girl took it gleefully. "Thanks! Akinari said you can wake him when you got here, but just you." She eyed Akihiko suspiciously.
"This is Akihiko Sanada, my senpai! I live in his dorm, too. He knows a thing or two about this playground as well. Would you want to play with him for a bit?" She gave Akihiko a pleading look.
Maiko blushed. "I...I wouldn't want to bore you."
"Bore? I doubt that. Show me what you can do on the monkey bars!" Akihiko answered with a smirk. Maiko smiled wide as Minako mouthed him a silent "thank you" and made her way to the bench. Maiko climbed up as Minako sat by the frail boy and put a gentle hand on his arm. The boy awoke and smiled serenely at his human alarm clock.
"So you and Minako go to the same school?" Maiko asked as she climbed.
"Yeah, we do," he said, watching her carefully as she strained to reach for the next bar.
"I can't wait to be in high school," she said with a groan. "I'll be way taller then." She managed to hook the next bar. "And then, I can go wherever I want. And I'll have money for snacks, too!"
"I thought the same thing when I was your age, until I remembered I'd have to study for exams."
She frowned as she reached for the next bar. "Are they hard?"
"They can be. School was really hard for me until I got in to boxing. Exercise helped me clear my head and focus."
She thought about that as he grabbed the next one. "That might work...but I don't know what I'd be good at."
"That doesn't matter," he explained as he caught a glimpse of Minako and Akinari. She smiled softly and replied the same. It struck her just at how sweet she seemed in that moment - a tenderness he'd never seen from her. She was kind, but her kindness was generally full of volume and big gestures.
"It doesn't matter what you'd be good at," he explained. "Just try some things, and pick which one you enjoy. You'll get better if you like what you're doing."
As she grabbed the final bar and started her climb down, she said, "You sound just like Minako!" She jumped to the ground. "Your turn!"
Akihiko grabbed a bar and started with a few pull-ups to warm up his muscles. He noticed the girl go red, and then she asked, "So, do you come to the shrine often?"
"Not unless I'm walking the dorm's dog, generally," he explained. He swung his legs up over a bar and hooked his knees. He dropped his arms and hung upside-down. "You? And...that guy?"
"I'm usually here after school. Akinari can't come out very often because he's really sick."
"That's...unfortunate. It's really kind of you to keep an eye out for him." Akinari flipped to a page in his notebook and pointed. Minako leaned in and studied it intently.
Maiko started fidgeting with one of the buttons on her shirt. "It's no big deal. He just sleeps and watches me play. Or talks to Minako."
"Do you know what they talk about?" Akihiko pried, a sour taste forming in his mouth.
"She's helping him write a story," she said. "He says she's his 'muse'. What...what's a muse?"
He realized his stomach was starting to feel upset. "An inspiration. She inspires him." I shouldn't have done this on an empty stomach, he thought, and flipped right-side up and dropped to the ground.
"That makes sense," she said with a nod. "He asked me not to tell her he calls her that, so can you keep that a secret?"
"Not a problem," he said, and Maiko flashed him a big smile.
Minako stood from the bench and gave Akinari a small wave. Akinari returned it, and gave a polite nod in Akihiko's direction. He closed his eyes again.
"You haven't even opened your Mad Bull, Maiko-chan!" Minako scolded. "Don't listen to Akihiko, a soda every now and then won't kill you."
Maiko giggled. "We were just talking! I...he's helping me figure out what sport I wanna play!"
Minako smiled approvingly. "Good topic! I'm personally biased towards tennis, but I know you'll work hard at anything you do."
"That's what he said!" she complained.
"Well that just proves that he's a good senpai," Minako teased back. "I've got to head to the mall now. I'll see you in a few days!"
"See ya!" Maiko said with an enthusiastic wave. "It was nice to meet you, Sanada-senpai!"
"Take care, Maiko-chan."
On there walk, Minako crossed a few more items off of her list. "Okay! I need to go drop my availability schedule off at Chagall, pick up some recovery items at the pharmacy, and..." She frowned at her list. "I'm missing something."
He pointed at her hand. "The antique store?"
Her eyes lit up. "Yeah! You're a life-saver. I promised Junpei a new weapon so I figured something creative would be in order."
The owner already had the weapon in case that could have easily been mistaken for some sort of shinai bag, which he promptly insisted on carrying. He waited by the fountain while she darted into the coffee shop and dropped off her schedule. When she returned, she pulled out her list and started crossing items off and making notes, when a voice hollered. "Minako-chan! Fancy seeing you here on your day off."
A man in a suit with a shifty look in his eye approached them. "President Tanaka!" she greeted, ever-chipper. "It's good to see you."
"You as well. Who is this?" he asked with a gesture and an appraising look.
"This is my senpai, Akihiko Sanada. He's helping me with some errands today."
"How...kind," he said with a knowing nod. "Are you finished? My company just finished up a transaction that will make an excellent lesson for you."
"Just about finished," she said. "But the pharmacy is still open for a couple of hours, so - wait!" she called, spying what looked like a drunk monk stumbling out of Club Escapade. "Give me just ten minutes - Mutatsu!" She chased after the drunk man, and quickly redirected him and started coaxing him to the exit.
"Busy, busy, that girl," Tanaka said with a click of his tongue. "Helping that blasted monk get a cab home, again. What a waste. Him, wasting his money on alcohol at a club, and her, stressing herself out over a drunk. She's going to get wrinkles early."
Akihiko squinted at the man, partially trying to place his face, and partially at the comment on her appearance. He clearly didn't understand the latter and addressed the former. "President Tanaka. From Tanaka's Amazing Commodities? Successful businessman, and your kohai's mentor. A beauty like that needs to make sure she has brains, otherwise she'll be eaten alive. Or worse, become some simple housewife."
"What...are you teaching her?" Akihiko asked, his temper starting to simmer.
Tanaka rolled her eyes and sat on the bench. "Business, boy, business! The heart of business is making and keeping money. Not hoarding it, mind you, but you have to invest it properly." He crossed his legs and strummed his fingers on his knee. "I see her running around this mall all of the time, spending her money on God knows what, and she only works at that coffee shop? It can't make her that good of money."
"Are you...a customer of hers?" he asked, trying to keep his fist from clenching.
"Absolutely not. I don't waste my money on overpriced coffee. I just happen to take my breaks here, and so does she. I'm still trying to convince her to quit that job and model for my company. Considerably more lucrative, and it'll help her stay looking young." He nodded to himself in approval. "It'll get her away from the cakes and sweets they serve at the coffee shop too. They'll do her no favors in the future."
Akihiko clenched his jaw. "And what favors are you concerned about? She's doing just fine on her own."
"Bwa! Fine? How is 'fine' acceptable? She's an orphan, which means she's got no one on her side. She needs to be able to take care of herself and rise to the top, otherwise, she'll be taken advantage of for the rest of her life." He gestured the way she had left. "She could be properly smart once she focuses on herself. And that'll let her work on her appearance so she's ten times prettier than she is now."
"She's already pretty," he growled, his growing frustration tying his tongue from saying more.
Tanaka barked a laugh. "Any prettier and she'd be waaay out of your league, buddy. I'm no creepy old man, but I'm not an idiot. Kids like you will hound at her heels and suck her dry. She's got to know she deserves better than that."
He sighed and mulled over the singular grain of truth in his statement. "You...you underestimate her," he finally managed as she reentered the mall, giving an apologetic wave.
"Sorry senpai, president! Anyway, the transaction?" she asked, sitting on the bench at the opposite end of Tanaka. Akihiko stood next to her armrest and listened intently.
"Well, I'm running short on time, so I'll keep it brief," Tanaka said, brushing his knee off. "We were attempting to acquire a smaller company to absorb into ours, however, the president of that company kept asking for more and more. Quite frankly, the bickering back and forth got annoying, so I ended it. While we would have been able to earn some additional revenue, my time is also valuable, and I wasn't wasting a single cent of my time more on them. You have to decide what your time is worth and budget it accordingly. And don't feel guilty about reallocating it to something worth your time." He nodded decisively and stood, straightening his tie.
"Back to work! Take care, Minako-chan." He gave a nod to Akihiko. "Sanada." He left.
"Minako," Akihiko began, attempting to find the words to voice his concerns.
She chuckled to herself and looked up at him with a reassuring smile. "I know, I know. He's... a lot. And selfish. And very concerned about my sugar intake. But...he grew up poor, and his entire life has been spent trying to not be that again. And I think...I think he wants to make sure I'm not broke, too. He sees something in me that he identifies with, and maybe...maybe some of my tendencies will rub off on him." She shrugged. "It's a long shot, I know. But, in his weird way, he really cares."
Akihiko nodded thoughtfully. "I think I see that. But why...you do have so many irons in the fire at all times. Can't you take a break?"
She sighed and rested her head in her palms, giving him a glimpse at her fatigue. "It's hard. It's hard to do it all, but it's also hard to not. And I mean...we're fighting to save the world, right? So that means all of this. And that means this has to be around to exist once it's saved. And it still feels like there's stuff I'm missing." She sighed and bit her lip.
He took a seat next to her and nudged her arm with his elbow. "I know one thing you're missing, and it's dinner. It's way past time to eat."
"Seriously! Let's go eat, my treat. Including dessert," he said with a smile, the promise helping ease some of the discomforts Tanaka made him feel.
They ended up compromising to loading up a bag full of snacks at a convenience store. As she grabbed a drink from a cooler, her eyes went wide in panic. "Shoot," she swore, and the notepad came back out of her backpack. "The pharmacy," she sighed. She flipped to the next page and scanned the list.
"Is that the list of things you need to get there?" he asked, leaning over her shoulder. Citrus? he wondered to himself. Why do I smell oranges? Oh...her...perfume... He could feel his ears burning.
"Yeah, and we can't go to Tartarus until I get restocked," she rubbed her forehead, trying to mentally rework her schedule.
"Let me see," he asked, and without a second thought, she handed it to him. He ripped the shopping list out of the notebook, and the sound of the paper tearing seemed to snap her back to reality.
"Hey!" she groaned and reached for the list. Feeling his face cool down, he gave her the notebook back instead and folded up the list, putting it in his front pants pocket.
"I will get them tomorrow. Trust me, I won't forget. I'm the last person who would give us any reason to postpone going to Tartarus." He raised an eyebrow that challenged her to argue differently.
She wrinkled her nose at him, and appraised him, determining if there was any way for her to retrieve the list. Deciding not if she were to maintain status as a proper Japanese woman, she relented. "Fine. Thank you." She took a deep breath. "And thank you for coming with me today. I was really bummed when I realized I was going to have to miss hanging out with you today, so it really made it a lot better that you joined me."
He felt his mouth go dry. "Well...well maybe this needs to be a more regular thing. If you have any errands to run on the days I don't have practice, just assume I'll come with you."
"Really?" she asked, hope audible in her voice that tore at him.
"Yeah, today was fun. It's good to change things up." He paid for their food and led their way out. "Plus, if it keeps you from taking any more of Edogawa's experiments, it's worth it."