It had vaguely occurred to Ryuu that something was not quite right. He glanced up from the text messages he'd been perusing and looked around the room, trying to work out what seemed off to him. The teacher wasn't there yet, but this particular teacher was always a little late for class, so that was all right. Io was at his desk, getting in a few last trades before class started. His other assorted classmates were doing what they usually did, chatting with each other or scrambling to finish last night's homework. Except... wait...
"Hey," said Ryuu, leaning over to nudge Io. "Where's Gero?"
Io glanced up from his stock tickers. "Now, how would I know that?"
"Because you two get along. Did he say he wasn't going to be here today?"
Io shrugged. "I haven't seen him since Saturday. He was looking a bit wan, though, now that I think of it. Perhaps he's sick."
"Nah," said Ryuu, shaking his head. "He'd never get sick. Not with the way he avoids getting dirty."
"Well, if you're going to be persistent about it, I'll find out," said Io. He flicked a few icons on his screen and began sending out text messages. A few seconds later, there was a response, and Io nodded in satisfaction. "It's as I thought. Arima says that Gero is unwell and he's staying home today."
"Huh," said Ryuu. He supposed if Arima said it, it must be so. Now that the Earth Defense Club and the Student Council were more or less on friendly terms, Ryuu'd had the opportunity to learn that while Arima occasionally said some very strange things, he rarely said anything he didn't mean.
"Boy," he said at last. "I bet Gero makes one hell of a lousy patient."
Io smiled a little at that. "I think I know what you mean."
The teacher arrived at last, and everyone settled down to start pretending to learn things. Ryuu reluctantly put his phone away, but he didn't pay much attention to the lesson. He'd never had much of a scholarly bent to begin with. He wouldn't have expected that not having Gero around would make a difference, but somehow it did. The man had a certain presence, and not having him sitting a few chairs back and occasionally shooting glares his way was as distracting as if the room were missing a wall or the ceiling.
When the group began to gather for lunch, the first thing Ryuu said to his friends was, "Did you know Gero's out sick today?"
"Oh, that's too bad," said Atsushi, with what sounded like genuine sympathy. "I wonder if I should send over some soup or something."
That was Atsushi all over, Ryuu thought. He just had to take care of everybody.
"He's got his own five star chef," Ryuu pointed out. "He can get his own soup."
Atsushi blushed a little. "I know, but still."
"If you really want to do something, I guess you could send over a card," said En.
"That's a good idea," Atsushi agreed. "I'll pick one up after school, and we'll all sign it."
"And a plushie!" Yumoto interjected. Everyone looked at him.
"Why?" En asked.
"So he'll have something to cuddle," said Yumoto, as if this were self-evident. "It will make him feel better."
The team began discussing the finer details of their mission of mercy. Ryuu listened with bemusement.
"Boy," he said. "I hope you make this much fuss over me next time I get sick."
In the end, the team decided that once school let out, Atsushi would be dispatched to the nearest store to choose a suitable card and a few other small gifts. Arima even offered to throw in a box of his own home-grown herbal tea and some flowers from his garden. Once everything was collected, the Defense Club and Student Council would sign the card and send someone over to deliver the presents. Ryuu watched the plans unfold with faint disapproval.
"You guys are doing it all wrong," he pointed out.
"What do you mean?" Kusatsu asked, narrowing his eyes. He still didn't take well to being wrong.
"You're all just doing normal sick-people stuff," said Ryuu. "But this isn't normal people we're talking about. This is Gero."
Arima laughed. "I'm going to tell him you said that."
"You know what? I'm not even going to try to explain it," said Ryuu. "The teacher's going to want someone to drop off his assignments. I can volunteer and take everything over myself. That way it'll get done right."
"I thought you didn't like him," Io said, looking amused.
"I don't," said Ryuu. "But somebody's gotta make sure the job gets done right, and it looks like I'm the only one who knows how."
"Well, I wish you'd clue me in," said Atsushi. "I don't see what we did wrong."
The bell rang, warning everyone it was time to finish their lunch and leave.
"I'll tell you later!" Ryuu said, and sprinted off to class.
He had to shake his head a little. His friends were good people, and they meant well, but they obviously had no idea how to handle someone like Gero when he was sick. It was a good thing Ryuu knew how. He'd have to teach them. After all, he might get sick someday himself, and then he'd want to make sure someone knew what they were doing.
It takes one to know one, he thought wryly.
Akoya was utterly miserable. If it was one thing he could not stand, it was being sick. Illness made his nose run and his eyes go red and puffy, made him feel sweaty and sticky and utterly unlovely. He huddled under his blankets, trying to hide from the world. Occasionally, he'd extend a tentative hand from beneath his nest of blankets to reach for the glass of water at his bedside table, only to burrow back under the covers as soon as he'd had his drink. His only comfort was that no one outside his household would see him like this.
There was a knock on the door.
"Who's there?" he croaked.
"It's me," said a familiar and unwelcome voice. "I brought your assignments from school, and the rest of the guys sent over some gifts and stuff."
Akoya vacillated. On the one hand, he didn't want to see anyone just now, and he particularly did not want to see Zaou Ryuu. On the other hand, he knew he'd have to do his homework eventually. Also, the promise of potential presents was alluring.
Maybe if I let him in, he'll catch whatever I've got, he thought hopefully.
"Oh. All right," he said. "Come in."
The door swung open, and Zaou came in, arms full of odds and ends. Akoya, peering out from beneath his blankets, could see a stack of papers pinned between a colorful gift bag and more prosaic cardboard box. A paper-wrapped bouquet stuck out of the top of the bag.
"Don't worry, I'm not planning on sticking around," said Zaou, setting his burdens down on the table, within easy reach. "Anyway, the flowers and tea are from Arima and the rest of the stuff in the bag is stuff we all chipped in for."
"What about the box?" Akoya asked, curious in spite of himself.
Zaou grinned. "That's from me. Don't thank me - I don't think my nerves could take it."
"I'll be very certain not to," said Akoya, as dryly as he could under the circumstances.
Zaou said a perfunctory goodbye and ambled out of the room again, making sure to shut the door firmly behind him. Akoya sighed. At least he'd had the grace to make a speedy exit, rather than hanging around to annoy him.
And at least he'd brought presents. He appreciated the flowers, even if his nose was too clogged to actually smell them at the moment, and the fact that anyone had bothered to send him a card and presents at all was reassuring. He found it difficult, at times, not to keep even the people he liked at arm's length. It was nice to have evidence that they still felt warmly towards him.
He just wasn't sure about the box. It sat there, glowering at him, its battered cardboard looking entirely incongruous in his otherwise elegant room. He wondered what was in it, and was afraid to find out. Given that it was from Zaou, it probably contained something inappropriate or downright vulgar. The best thing to do would probably be to throw it away without opening it. He would ask one of the servants to do it the next time they came to check on him.
With his mind firmly made up, Akoya closed his eyes and settled more comfortably under the blankets, intending to go back to sleep for a while. He fluffed the pillow a few times. He shifted positions, first turning on one side, then the other. He sat up and blew his nose, then lay down again.
The box was taunting him.
Finally giving up, Akoya laboriously dragged himself out of bed and went to retrieve the box. Things shifted inside as he carried it over to his sofa. What on earth could be in it? Bracing himself for the worst, he closed his eyes, turned his head away, and pulled open the flaps.
Nothing exploded or made rude noises. Faintly encouraged, Akoya opened one eye and risked a cautious look. He opened the other eye. Amazed, he leaned forward and peered directly into the box.
Whatever he'd been expecting, this was not it. Bewildered, he began taking things out of the box and piling them on his coffee table: a tube of lip balm, a bottle of lavender-scented ultra moisturizing lotion, a can labeled "Volumizing Dry Shampoo", two boxes of tissues ("Now with aloe!"), a lavender-scented rice bag, and a half a dozen aromatherapy bath bombs whose labels described them as being intended for the clearing of sinuses. Akoya stared at this bounty, unable to process what he was seeing. It wasn't that he didn't already have these things - he did, in one form or another. It was that if he had known in advance that he was going to get sick, these were exactly the things he'd have laid in a supply of: things to soothe his fevered skin and dry lips, things to keep himself feeling at least a little clean and well-groomed even when he hardly felt like dragging himself out of bed... Zaou had even remembered Akoya's passion for aromatherapy and made his choices accordingly. Akoya hadn't expected that level of consideration and understanding from anyone, least of all him.
I don't understand this at all, he thought.
For a moment, he simply frowned at everything, as if suspecting that it was booby trapped. He held one of the bath bombs up to his nose and took a labored sniff. The head-clearing scents of mint and tea tree oil greeted him, even through the foil wrappers. He sighed with relief, enjoying the first time in hours he'd been able to smell anything. Maybe everything was all right, after all. Even Zaou couldn't have tampered with all of these things while they were still in their wrappers. Why he would choose to give these perfectly nice things to Akoya was a mystery, but Akoya was, for all his love of frills and fripperies, a practical man in many respects. Pondering pointless mysteries was not his style.
I'll find out all about it when I get back to school, I suspect, he told himself.
With that settled, he put the puzzle out of his mind. Instead, he took the bath bomb he'd been toying with and carried it towards the door of his bathroom. If people were going to give him presents, he was going to enjoy them.
"Hey, look who's back!"
"Welcome back! How are you feeling?"
"We missed you in class last week!"
Akoya smiled and bowed his head in acceptance of this well-deserved attention. It was nice to know his absence had been noticed by his classmates. And why shouldn't it be? Surely he brightened up their days just by being in the room with them. It was almost worth the bother of being sick to enjoy the warm welcome he got when he came back.
"Well, look who finally decided to crawl out of bed."
And then there were people who reminded him why it wasn't worth it. Akoya scowled.
Coming up the path behind him was Zaou himself, looking irritatingly cheerful at seeing him. Not even Akoya's scowl seemed to dampen his mood - if anything, seeing the way Akoya glared made him smile more sunnily than ever.
"See, that's what we all missed about you," he said. "Your bright, cheerful disposition."
"I was perfectly content before you came along," said Akoya with a sniff.
"Geez! What did I do?" said Zaou. It was hard to tell if he were genuinely offended now, or merely feigning it to get a rise out of him. "All I did was say hi."
"You did not," said Akoya, "but I don't care to discuss it."
"Touchy, touchy," Zaou replied. "And after I got you those nice presents, too."
Akoya tossed his hair. "If you're trying to bribe me into ignoring your offensive mannerisms, I'm afraid it's going to take more than that."
"Who said anything about that?" Zaou replied. "I just gave you stuff, that's all. No ulterior motive."
"As if I believe that," said Akoya. "You don't have to pretend. I just want to know what the joke is."
Zaou began to laugh. Akoya stared at him blankly. All right, so he'd said he'd wanted to know the joke, but he hadn't thought there was anything actually funny going on.
"You're a piece of work," said Zou, sounding almost affectionate. "Seriously, there's nothing going on. What you see is what you get."
"Well, why?" Akoya demanded. "I know you don't like me, so why would you even...?"
Zaou shrugged. "Hey, you're one of the guys. I don't have to like you to know that. Anyway, somebody had to."
"I don't follow."
"Well, everybody else was getting you stuff," said Zaou, "but it was all regular sick people stuff. You're not regular people. I figured somebody had better make sure you got the stuff you actually needed."
Akoya continued to stare. "But how did you know?"
"You're not exactly hard to figure out," said Zaou. He laughed. "Besides, it's the same stuff I'd want if it were me."
"I find that extremely hard to believe."
Zaou fixed him with a look. "Really?"
Akoya thought about that for a long while. Thinking about what other people needed or wanted was not something he did very much of, but now he paused to give that question some serious thought. If this cocky, vain little person - the boy who routinely tied with Akoya himself for most attractive person in school - were ill, what sorts of things would he want? Akoya reluctantly concluded that Zaou might just be telling the truth.
"Well, perhaps so," he murmured.
"Right," said Zaou. "Like I said, I didn't expect you to thank me, but you could at least not be rude about it."
With that, he started walking towards the school again. Akoya watched him silently for a moment, then started walking swiftly until he caught up to Zaou. For a moment, they simply walked, not quite side-by-side, Akoya a few uncertain steps behind.
"Thank you," he said at last. "It was... surprisingly considerate of you."
Zaou stopped walking. For a moment, Akoya thought he was going to laugh again. Instead, he simply looked at Akoya as if he'd never seen him before, blinked a few times, then shrugged.
"No problem," he said. "Any time."
Then he walked back towards the school building. Akoya let him go. He felt they'd had about enough conversation for one morning.
It was funny, he thought, the way viruses behaved. When he'd woken up that morning, he'd still felt a bit sluggish and run down. He'd told himself that he'd probably shake it off once he got up and got back inot the swing of things. He'd been right, too. For some reason, just now, he was feeling so much better.