Minato is not perceptive.
Granted, he doesn’t have to be — Fuuka handles that on her own, really, when it comes to the field, and Mitsuru handles that on a home-front and all-encompassing levels, and Minato is mostly there to make knee-jerk decisions based on facts given to him by the team. And, truthfully, he’s only as independent as is convenient for him; on the occasions that Mitsuru asks him to play counselor for the others, he does so without complaint. He seems to attract this kind of attention regardless, considering his Social Links at school and otherwise, even if he doesn’t always feel like it’s fair to ask him to do a job he’s never been particularly great at.
(“You’re their — our — leader,” Akihiko says one night, hand flicking to adjust his paddle. Between them, the ping-pong ball creates a steady rhythm of click, click, then paddle, then retreat. From both overhead lights and the natural glow of the setting sun from the window, multiple shadows of varying opacities splay themselves as bouncing round spheres.
Minato lightly grinds his teeth together and avoids a hiss of annoyance, tone carefully absent as he corrects, “Mitsuru is the leader. I’m the field leader.”
“Exactly!” Akihiko’s grin is crooked and charming, and Minato feels mildly irked that any lingering feelings of irritation dissipate at that completely unhelpful answer. “Mitsuru is the leader — the one who has to make a lot of those big, tough calls that make her all demanding and stern — she feels like you won’t trust her to make those serious decisions otherwise.” He points the flat of his paddle at Minato briefly before dropping it to deflect. “But you are the field leader. People have to trust you as a teammate, as a friend, to know and understand them. Mitsuru is setting herself up to be the bad guy to the others — hey, just look at Yukari —, but you’re her operative in the field. You gotta get out there and WHAM! Kick those negative feelings in the ass!”)
So while Minato is not perceptive, he doesn’t mind helping out the others so much anymore — not like he would have a few months ago, probably — if they give him a point in the right direction. He does it for the same reason he comes home late every night, with Rank-Ups under his belt and many, many nights at karaoke. Because it’s easier.
In a way, he feels almost… bad. Maybe others might feel some sort of accomplishment or pride, but as he slides into bed each night, he just thinks about how his feet hurt. How he almost made himself sick again from studying too long, and how that would be such a pain in the ass with the way it interferes with his schedule.
There’s a knock at his door that draws him from his thoughts, and he can almost guess what it is before he knows who.
“Yes?” He doesn’t bother dropping his stare from the ceiling or raising his voice much; this late in the night, the second floor of the dorms is deathly silent — a whisper is enough to carry.
Still, when the door cracks and the yellowed light spills in, it’s almost impossible not to look, so he flicks his eyes towards Mitsuru’s frame in his doorway. The shadows and fluorescence of the bulbs in the hallway turn her vibrant hair to a murky brown, and although her stance doesn’t falter, her cheek caves slightly where she’s biting it.
Minato blinks. Tenses, just a hair. It’s rare to see Mitsuru lose her composure outside of Tartarus, even in the smallest ways.
“Arisato,” she says tightly, and her voice betrays little in comparison to the thousands of words her minor falter had told him. The two of them had always understood each other in a way — their leadership positions, their outward poise and self-control. The difference was still stark, in moments like these: Mitsuru tried hard to obtain it. Minato tried hard to escape it. “It’s Amada, he — I would like to request your assistance with an important mission.”
Shoptalk was always easier for her. Minato sits up and nods stiffly, feet treading lightly on the wood floor, allowing himself to be led the few feet to Ken’s room, all formality.
Stopping right before knocking, Mitsuru glances his way, mouth tight. “He needs – he appears to be— “
“It’s alright,” Minato tries to say kindly, but the words feel all awkward in his mouth. He goes to shove his hands in his pockets when he forgets he’s wearing his pajama pants, tries to play it off by wiping his palms along the fabric. “I’ll figure it out.”
With a clenched jaw, Mitsuru offers a grateful nod and click-click-clicks her way back downstairs, still in her heels and skirt and ironed blouse, and Minato wonders when she finds the time to sleep. Maybe she doesn’t.
A muffled groan. “Go away,” says the groaning voice, so Minato opens the door to let himself in.
Minato is not perceptive – really, he’s not --, but there are a few things he knows about Ken Amada regardless, picked up from a handful of weeks together:
1) Ken drinks his coffee black. This, in and of itself is no major realization on his part, as Ken is sure to always have some sort of mug or paper cup in hand, and he’s just as sure to tell anyone and everyone, prideful, that yes, he is drinking black coffee, as it’s the best -- a far-cry from the meager, “Although… I wouldn’t mind something sweet…” addendum that would occasionally follow. Which leads Minato to his actual realization: Ken doesn’t like black coffee. Even when the beans are over-steeped or poorly filtered, he acts like it tastes perfect, a megawatt grin in place as he swings his legs from his perch on the barstool. And later, Minato would find that cup still sitting on the counter, barely touched, with more Sprite cans from the fridge having gone mysteriously missing. (And if he starts buying more, whose fault is that? There’s some mysterious soda thief about; he’s just adapting like any good field agent.)
2) Ken carries something… heavy with him. All of S.E.E.S. does, Minato supposes, but there’s something undeniably fresh about the turmoil inside him. He reminds him of Yukari, in this way – that volatile grief, that sense of life-fulfilling ambition. Minato marvels at it, that sense of purpose. Wonders what it must be like, to have such emotion bubbling in him, even the destructive ones, just to feel so much.
3) Ken is independent but doesn’t want to be -- the opposite to Minato’s own predicament. Sitting away from the group but longingly staring. Like he’s always waiting for an invitation in, only to refuse it when it’s extended. He’s desperate for that maturity, not yet old enough to realize that doesn’t require isolation.
Ken is lonely but doesn’t want to be alone. “Go away,” he says.
So Minato goes in.
In that moment, when he sees the scene inside, he wonders briefly how much Mitsuru knows, if it’s a coincidence or if this is a favor that extends beyond team leadership, if his two-way mirror is exactly that: him, staring endlessly back at himself, unable to see anything past that, while others are able to know him intimately more than he anticipates.
Minato hesitates, hands hovering awkwardly at his sides without his pockets. The door clicks quietly behind him when he shoves it back with his heel. “Hey.”
Ken, knees to his chin at the side of his bed, simply ducks his head behind his legs, bare and pale where the pajama shorts leave them exposed, bruises and scrapes typical of childhood – but Minato knows better, sees a burn tucked low on his calf from a Shadow, something that has yet to heal. “Hi,” he mumbles from behind his barrier. Quick to bite when someone tries to reach out, but easily turned passive at a persistent hand.
Around his torso, strips of loosening bandages hang limply, held tight under Ken’s arms. Minato ghosts quietly next to him, sliding onto the floor.
“That’s not safe,” Minato says, more statement than slap-on-the-wrist. He knocks his shoulder into Ken’s lightly, bony and small beside him.
“It’s not that simple,” Ken sighs into the skin of his legs, all self-importance and resignation. World-weary.
“Is that why you’re upset?” Minato asks, head tilting slightly. “We have plenty of funds from Tartarus, you know. We can figure something out.”
“It’s not that simple,” he repeats, though he looks a little lighter at the support, and Minato is already planning on calling Keisuke, telling him to cancel their plans this Sunday for a much-needed shopping trip with Ken. “I don’t know... It’s hard to explain. You wouldn’t understand.”
Biting his lip, Minato shifts, fingers fumbling at the hem of his shirt. He’s never come out, not to anyone – he’s never had to. And although he would have thought himself passed that sort of insecurity, there’s an undeniable sense of trepidation as he slides his shirt up. The binder around him suddenly feels too tight; he’s been wearing it too long, he knows, but he hangs on until the last minute when he can – unsafe but… it’s not that simple.
“Try me,” he says, and it betrays nothing – no hesitance, no sweating palms, no shaking fingers.
Peeking finally from behind his knees, Ken turns to Minato, eyes bright and amber, confusion turn to hope turn to elation. Minato finds the same feelings deep within himself, this quiet sense of belonging.
“Do you--” Ken blurts, suddenly eager, and then seems to think better of it just as quickly. He looks away and chews at his bottom lip.
Minato says nothing, just gently bumps against his shoulder again, silently gesturing for him to continue, that it’s alright, that there’s probably nothing this kid can say that could phase him.
After a moment, he does. “Do you ever wonder what your parents would have thought?”
It’s… not the question that Minato’s expecting – though he doesn’t know what exactly he was expecting --, but he ponders it regardless, letting his head fall back heavily on Ken’s mattress. “Not really,” he settles on, bluntly honest. When Ken stares at him expectantly, he continues. “I guess, for me, my parents are just generally something I don’t think about. I was really young, but...” A rare moment of vulnerability for him: “I do think it’d be nice to have memories of them saying my name.”
That seems to satisfy Ken, who nods vigorously and scrubs his red cheeks. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.” Tears, hot and bubbly, spill from seemingly nowhere, and he scrubs harder at his face, like he’s trying to sand away the roundness underneath. He hiccups out a laugh, wet and strangled. “I just wish – I wish she could have known before… but it’s stupid. I’m too old to need her acceptance, but I want it anyway.”
Minato nods, somewhere on the precipice of understanding and not. Shared experiences do not necessarily mean shared feelings, but they do allow for an easier access to the perspectives of others; he doesn’t feel the same, but he easily could. It’s just a different way of thinking – of dealing with it all.
“She may not…” he trails off. Clears his throat. “She may not have known she had a son, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less true.” An attempt at comforting from someone who deals mostly with discomfort – it feels bulky coming from his own throat.
Suddenly, Ken’s arms wrap around his torso, tight and unyielding, and he buries his face the fabric of Minato’s shirt. “I know,” he rasps, little hiccupping sobs muffled in the cotton. “Not all the time, but…” He sniffles a little, and Minato settles his hands on Ken’s back, patting gently. “Thank you.”
“Yeah,” he whispers, something a little slack-jawed and uncertain, tracing spirals around Ken’s spine. And they stay there like that, long after their breathing evens out, long after their eyes shut, long after Mitsuru peaks in and shares a secret smile with no one, a warm curve of her lips, a pleasant lightness in her chest.