When Masha Met Masaya

"Watch my bag, will you please?" Ichigo had said, leaving it on the park bench as she went to get a soft drink from a nearby vending machine. Masaya was not one to pry into a lady's purse, but since it was already half open, the temptation was difficult to resist. It was the mascot on her cell phone that caught his eye – the little furball looked familiar. In fact it looked exactly like the flying creature which accompanied the Mew Mews' missions. Given that she hadn't told him about her secret identity, he knew he shouldn't look for clues behind her back – but as a born scientist, sometimes his curiosity got the better of him. Such as now.

Masaya touched the pink synthetic fur with a gentle finger – then drew back, as it doubled in size with a pop and a puff of smoke.

"Aoyama-kun!" it squeaked, floating at eye level.

"Er … hello," said Masaya, bowing cautiously.

The furball was too small to bow, but it bobbed up and down in the air, flapping red wings and blinking its enormous eyes. How did it float? How did it change size? And how in Heaven's name had Ichigo managed to keep it a secret for so long?

"I knew you weren't a regular cell phone toy, but … wow. What are you?"

"Mew Project Assistant Robot, Model R200. Name: Masha."

"Masha, eh? That's cute. Does Ichigo call you that?"

"Yes!" Masha's mechanical chirp of a voice rang with pride.

"Who created you?"

"Shirogane Ryou. Akasaka Keiichiro."

Ichigo's employers. Masaya knew they were brilliant, enough to cross human and animal DNA to transform girls into fighting machines, but to see the evidence up close was rather overwhelming.

"Fascinating," he said, picking up the furball between his hands.

"So you're Ichigo's assistant? What do you do?"

"Masha collects." Its eyes flashed a video recording of one of Ichigo's battles: the beam of energy hitting the Chimera, transforming it from a giant monster into a harmless rat, then a Masha's-eye view of the jellyfish-like entity extracted from the rat's body, which Masha appeared to eat.

"Parasites," Masha explained. "Danger for humans. But good for Masha to recharge. Help Ichigo."

"For a robot, you sound very loyal to her. Were you programmed this way?"

"Protect Ichigo," Masha declared, ignoring his question. "Aoyama-kun, Blue Knight, Masha – we all protect Ichigo."

Masaya was alarmed. How sophisticated was this robot? Had it been scanning him all along? Did it know his secret when Ichigo did not?"

"Can you keep a secret, Masha?"

"Masha keeps all Ichigo's secrets," the robot replied, with a sudden gravity of manner at odds with the chirpy demeanor it had shown so far. It showed a recording of three aliens, the Mew mews' enemies, looming over it with a thick orange fog and broken columns in the background.

"Aliens catch Masha," said Masha. "One time, in alien dimension. Big pain. But Masha never tell. Masha keeps secrets very good. Aoyama-kun's secrets too, yes?"

Masaya had never in his life heard of a computer which would behave this way. It was incredible. The model child he had been for thirteen years thought that Shirogane and Akasaka must have prorammed Masha with exceptionally strong firewalls. But the boy he was becoming – the one falling deeper in love day by day with a redheaded catgirl – knew that there was nothing more natural than that Momomiya Ichigo should inspire the fiercest loyalty in anyone who knew her. Including robots.

"Good for you, Masha," he said. "Ichigo's lucky to have you."

Masha blinked, twittered, and popped back to the size of a cell phone toy just as Ichigo came bouncing around the corner, a can of Sprite in each hand.

"You have the most adorable little mascot on your phone," said Masaya, with a look of perfect innocence. "Where did you get it?"

Ichigo froze in place, blushing redder than her hair. "I, uh, I don't remember. What were you doing with my phone?"

"Nothing. Just looking."

She collapsed next to him with a sigh of relief. "Well, keep doing nothing then. It's not polite to look into a girl's purse."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"You really think he's cute? My … phone toy, I mean? Not, you know, too childish for my age?"

"Absolutely. You shouldn't feel ashamed of the things you really like, Ichigo."

He put his arm around her and drew her close. You shouldn't feel ashamed of what you are, Mew Ichigo, owner of a wise and caring robot, protector of the Earth. Someday I pray there will be no more secrets between us.