“I believe,” said Aigis, “that you are malfunctioning right now, Minako-san.”
Minako opened one eye. Aigis peered back at her. From the couch on the other end of the common room, Yukari looked up from her magazine, rolled her eyes, and then went back to reading.
“I have been observing you for the past six hours,” said Aigis. “And you have not moved from this spot on the floor except to breathe and change the song on your digital musical player.”
“That’s creepy,” Yukari said. “I’m pretty sure you only came downstairs just now.”
Aigis tilted her head. Gears clicked, little, nearly inaudible sounds beneath her skin. Then she said, “If you were to acquire wireless headphones, then I would be able to stream pleasing music directly into your ears.”
“What?” Yukari said.
“I would like to run a hundred-ten point test,” said Aigis. “To check your mental and motor functions. Please sit up, Minako-san. What day is it?”
“Sunday,” Minako said. “August. Two thousand nine. Should I go on?”
“Please sit up to answer the question.”
“Can I have a pillow? I’m getting a crick in my neck. Yukari-san won’t get one for me.”
“You can reach it yourself,” Yukari protested.
Aigis took a pillow from a nearby sofa, and eased it beneath Minako’s head. Minako smiled in thanks, then patted the ground next to her. Aigis stared, and then sat beside Minako.
“I am waiting for a point,” she said.
“It’s warm,” Minako said. “See how warm it is?”
“Yes. It is approximately thirty-six degrees in direct sunlight.”
Not the approach Minako would have taken to it, but that was fine, too. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“You will get cancer. I didn’t see you put sunscreen this morning. I have been observing your every movement since you returned from Tartarus last night, and at this rate the mole on your left breast—”
“Okay! Okay,” Minako said. “Geeze.”
On the couch, Yukari covered a smile. “I’m going to get something to drink from the machine,” she said.
“Can you get me some Moonkist?”
“Aigis will have a Dr. Salt.”
“You’ll rust her out,” Yukari said, with a laugh.
Minako shrugged, and put a hand on Aigis’ shoulder. “I’ll drink it for her. I don’t mind.”
Yukari gave them a strange look. Then she went up the stairs. Her footsteps were light, but loud. She was wearing kitten heels today. Aigis watched her leave, and then said, “She does not like me.”
Well, what to say about that? It was Yukari. She was prickly and aggressive and sometimes selfish. A good, well-intentioned person, despite that. But, on occasion, difficult to get along with. She and Yukari had hit off well enough; the last time they went out together had been right after the final exam results came out. Yukari said that they should check out the new crepe place at Iwatodai station. Not what Minako wanted to think about on a Sunday, though. She didn’t want to think about going on dates or people’s problems now.
“She’ll warm up to you,” Minako said.
Aigis didn’t seem to process it, though, and was instead squirting a tube of 50SPF onto her hands. The metal at the very tip of her fingers clinked against each other as she smoothed the cream out.
“Please stay still while I apply the protective coating onto your exposed skin.” And with that, she began to rub the lotion onto Minako’s face. Her hands weren’t as cold as Minako thought they’d be, but the way they moved—it wasn’t human. Or at least, it wasn’t flesh. There wasn’t as much give. She squeezed her eyes shut as Aigis, gently, applied some sunscreen onto her eyelids, the bony ridge of her brow, the long curl from cheekbone to jaw. It felt nice.
Aigis was working on her neck when Yukari came back with the drinks.
“Must be nice having your own personal maid,” she said, setting the Moonkist and Dr. Salt on the floor. She was dressed to go out. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“It’s pretty nice.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Yukari said. She adjusted her choker. “I’m going out with Mitsuru-senpai. She says she’s never gotten takoyaki from Octopia.”
Maybe it’d be better if she never did, Minako wanted to say. Instead, she said, “Have fun on your date.”
“I wouldn’t call it a date… Maybe I should invite Fuuka-chan, too.” She went back up the stairs, a perplexed expression on her face. Aigis rubbed lotion into her shoulders, and Minako felt a little shiver skitter from Aigis’ fingers to Minako’s own fingers and toes.
“Turn over, Minako-san,” Aigis said. “I cannot reach your back.”
“Maybe you should let me return the favor later,” she said, joking.
“There would be no point. I am not human. I am not at risk of cancer or premature aging or wrinkling when exposed to UV rays. You should be more careful, Minako-san. Have you considered consulting Mitsuru-san for advice on optimal skincare?” The skin—was it skin?—on Aigis’ knee looked supple, almost leathery. Different, she thought, from the synthetic wrap around Aigis’ palms. She wondered, briefly, if she could touch it. It probably wouldn’t be worth it.
Aigis worked the lotion into Minako’s arms and hands. She was applying it to her calves when Mitsuru, Fuuka, and Yukari came down the stairs.
“You two are sure touchy-feely,” Yukari said. “It’s pretty cute… I think. Don’t you think, Fuuka-chan?”
“Yes, of course,” Fuuka said. “Although I didn’t know Aigis could do that…”
“It is,” Aigis said, “one of the many ways that I can protect Minako-san.”
Mitsuru had, initially, stopped at the stairs, as though embarrassed, but she had wrapped her composure around herself again, drawing it around her like a coat or a shield. “Yes, good work,” Mitsuru said. “We should all aspire to be as proactive as you. We won’t be out long, Arisato. Iori says he’ll be at the hospital tonight with Chidori, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on going to Tartarus tonight.”
“Sure thing, senpai,” Minako said.
They three of them were nearly out the door when Minako heard Fuuka ask, “Um, where are we going, exactly?” She was visible through the window, dark hair between Mitsuru’s auburn and Yukari’s dyed shoulder-length sweep. Curiously, they all seemed to be looking in different directions.
Aigis’ fingers left cool trails down her leg. “You should go with them,” said Aigis. “Junpei-san was kind enough to tell me that ‘girls just want to have fun.’”
“This is fun for me. Lying around all day, doing nothing.”
Aigis stared at her blankly. Then she said, “You are very unusual.”
“This is how I relax,” she said as Aigis’ palm worked around her knee.
“I am always available to you,” she said. “If you need more help relaxing.”
“No, definitely,” she said with an easy laugh. But she felt as though she was slowly becoming distant from herself. Aigis who looked nearly human, Aigis with the blunt-end feet. Aigis’ fingers, gripping her knee and thumb pressed into her thigh—the feeling wasn’t longing, exactly, just a sense that with someone else this would have been a signal or a sign. And with Aigis—it was something, she knew that. She wasn’t sure what, but it was enough to make a little part of her uneasy.
Aigis set her hand on Minako’s other leg. Minako curled her leg into her body and said, “I think I got it.”
“Very well,” Aigis said. She settled herself next to Minako as Minako put sunscreen on herself. Her hands felt as though there was a film of grease on the palms. Aigis stared out the window, head perfectly straight on her head. The metal in her hair and on her ears gleamed in the sun, the rivets in her neck glinted, the red bow on her neck looked soft and pale, and her shoulders were bare metal, gears visible around the brass-colored frame.
Minako found herself reaching. When her fingers were mere centimeters away from the metal shoulder, Aigis’ eyes snapped into focus on her hand.
“Sorry,” she said. “Right. I should have asked.”
“You may touch,” Aigis said.
“Is it uncomfortable?”
“Irrelevant,” Aigis said. “’Comfort’ is not a measurable quantity.” Much like fun, she seemed to be suggesting. Aigis’ pupils worked, tirelessly, as Minako stroked the supple, suede-like texture of her arm. “I am capable of reacting to a wide variety of stimuli from all parts of my chassis. When stimuli is received, there are certain protocols that must be followed. For example, you may be an engineer from the Kirijo group, which would require me to stand down and make myself available for inspection. Or you may be a malicious figure who must be dealt with.”
“That sounds like a lot of trouble,” Minako said.
“Irrelevant,” Aigis said, again. “I am here to protect you. You should not concern yourself with such matters.”
“I know,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I know.”
Aigis’ gaze was long and blank and an impossible, long question, as though she had gone for a long walk and left her body behind. This was, of course, how she always looked. Minako fit the headphones over her ears, and turned the volume up. Halfway through the album, Koromaru came and curled next to her.
An album and a half later, Aigis said, her voice dim over the wave of noise, “I approve of your relaxation techniques.”
“I’m glad you do,” Minako said. The Dr. Salt was a little warmer than she would have liked. She should have drunk it sooner. Maybe she could give it to Koromaru. As though reading her thoughts, Koromaru’s tail thrashed into her leg in displeasure.
Aigis’ lips parted. Minako eased her headphones off. Koromaru stretched towards Aigis.
“Having fun would mean neglecting my primary duty,” she said. She reached for Koromaru’s head. There was a tenderness in her gaze as she brushed her fingers against the soft hairs between his ears. “It’s a contradiction, isn’t it, Minako-san? I must be by your side at all times, but in order to protect you, I cannot be like you, even as I strive to mimic human reactions in order to be near you when you are interacting with other humans.”
“Yeah,” Minako said. “How does that make you feel?”
“I have no feelings.”
“There must be something,” she said. “Certain scenarios or things you find more objectionable than others.”
It took a moment for Aigis to answer. Koromaru was mostly in her lap by that point. The tenderness had faded away, leaving behind a face grinding through calculations and algorithms. “I like spending time with you,” she said. “I like protecting you. I do not like Shadows.”
“Well,” Minako said. She stretched out in the sun. Koromaru’s legs kicked out, and bopped against the crown of her head. She rested her hand on his stomach, and said, “That’s something.”
“What are things you like, Minako-san?”
What things? Volleyball. Traveling. Cities. Going out with friends. Staying in and doing nothing all day. Music and movies and eating and playing.
“Many things,” she said.
“Many things,” Aigis said. There was a calm, considered look on her face. “I would like to do those things with you someday.”
“Sure,” she said. She slid her headphones on again. So many things to do, with so little time. So many people to take care of. It'd be fun, she thought. “Sure.”