Junji was still mulling over the dilemma as he returned to his dorm room, paying little attention to his surroundings, even when he was confronted by Minako.
"Hey Junji-san, how do you like it?" She asked cheerfully.
"Like what?" He responded, still distracted by the earlier events at school. He was finally snapped out of his subconscious brooding by the sharp sensation of a flick on the forehead.
"Ow! What was that for?" He asked, annoyed, until he saw Minako standing with her arms crossed, and finally realized what she was talking about. She was wearing a new outfit, one he had never even seen before, consisting of long, white stockings, a pink miniskirt, and a white tank top.
"Oh, sorry," he apologized. "Yeah, it looks really nice." He wasn't lying - she did look incredibly attractive in it. "Where did you-"
"I ordered it online, along with a bunch of other clothes," she explained. "I was getting tired of having to wear spare clothes from you and Hitomi-chan, and I wanted some of my own."
"I hope you're not expecting me to pay for them," Junji replied, irate.
Minako laughed. "Don't worry about that. I forgot to tell you, but about two weeks ago I created a small social media website, spread the word around the net to help it increase in popularity, and sold some ad space on it. It provides me with a modest income."
"Wow," Junji said, impressed. "You continue to amaze me."
The green-haired girl laughed again. "It's just a matter of taking some initiative, which most other persocoms seem to be afraid to do." Her face took on a more somber expression. "Our position in society is really unfortunate."
"Yeah, um, speaking of that," Junji said, figuring he might as well express his concerns to her, "I'm a bit unsure about our, uh, relationship..."
Minako jerked backwards as if he had struck her. "But Junji-san, I thought you really liked me..." she said, looking sad and afraid.
"I do!" He reassured her, walking forward to embrace her in his arms. "But I'm just worried about what other people might think."
"Who cares what they think?" She said angrily, pulling herself away from him.
"I care! Call me petty or selfish or whatever, but what people think of me and how they treat me is actually important to me. I don't want to become a social pariah."
Minako glared at him for a bit, then turned away, showing only her back. After a few awkward seconds of silence, she spoke.
"I understand. You care more about your reputation than you do about me. I suppose that's to be expected. After all, I'm only a persocom." She spoke those last three words in a mocking, heavily sarcastic tone.
"That's not true, Minako, and we both know it!" Junji objected, as he reached over to put a hand on her shoulder, but she quickly spun around and knocked his arm aside. Undeterred, he continued. "I do care about you! I was just hoping that maybe we could come up with some kind of compromise here."
Minako sighed and sat down on a nearby chair.
"Maybe I am being a bit unfair to you," she said. "After all, you have given me a lot more freedom than most persocoms enjoy, even if I did have to work for it at first."
"Thanks for listening," Junji said, as he sat down across from her on the couch. "Hopefully we can discuss this issue rationally."
"Exactly what I had in mind," she said, starting to smile again. "You're afraid of people finding out we're... involved-" she blushed slightly at this point, "because these kinds of relationships are socially unacceptable. But let's get to the root of the problem - why are they unacceptable?"
"Well - because, it's... not normal, I guess," Junji tried to answer.
"That's not all, is it though?" Minako asked, steering the conversation in the direction she had planned.
"What do you mean?"
"One of the most common criticisms leveled at people who choose a persocom as a partner is that they are just living a fantasy, instead of actually dealing with the real world. They view a relationship with a 'com as merely a form of wish fulfillment, requiring none of the actual social skills and qualities needed to attract and maintain a romance with a human partner."
"Yeah, that sounds about right," Junji said, surprised at how clearly Minako had summarized the position of the group at school.
"But that's not true, is it, Junji-san? I'm certainly not your servant, I believe I've made that clear many times by now, and if I didn't want this relationship I'd end it myself - that decision is completely in my hands. So, given those considerations, how is a relationship with me any different than one with a human girl?"
"It's not, I guess," Junji said. "But the guys at school don't know that!"
"Then it will be up to us to explain it to them," Minako continued. "And if they don't get it, then they can just sit and stew in their own ignorant bigotry."
"Well that all sounds good on paper, but I still-"
Minako interrupted him with a sigh.
"Junji-san, I don't like the idea of hiding this from people, but I'll tell you what. When we're in public, I won't bring it up unless directly asked. I won't deny it either, but I guess we can keep it on the down - low if you want. Deal?"
"Minako, you don't have to-"
"It's okay," she said, smiling. "For you, I don't mind." She got up and playfully stroked his chin, as they started to kiss. Before they were finished, however, the door opened.
"Minako-chan, you wanted me to come see your new clothes- oh..." Hitomi began, cutting her sentence short as she saw what was going on.
"Aack! Uh, Hitomi-san, I can explai-" Junji began, but he was interrupted by a high-pitched shriek so loud and shrill that it nearly cost him his hearing.
"I had no idea that you two were dating! That is so cute!" The black - haired girl exclaimed, now going into full fangirl mode.
"Hitomi-chan, you'll disturb the neighbors!" Minako scolded her.
"Sorry, I just get carried away sometimes," she said, blushing a bit. "But how long has this been going on? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Since yesterday evening, and we just didn't get around to it yet," Minako answered her questions.
"I'm so happy for you two!" Hitomi continued. "I knew it was just a matter of time."
"Wait, you knew?" Junji asked, confused. "How?"
"Call it a woman's intuition," she said, winking. "I could tell there was something between you two since the firt time I met Minako-chan."
Junji wasn't sure if he believed this or not, but he decided not to press the matter. "So you're... okay, with this then, Hitomi-chan?"
"What, are you asking if I'm jealous or something? I thought I made it clear that I never liked you in the way, Junji-kun," she replied.
"What? No, I meant, you know, the fact that Minako is a persocom."
"Why would that matter? You both have feelings for each other, don't you? So that's all that really counts!"
"A very refreshing perspective," Minako said, smiling. Junji smiled too. Hitomi's response had reminded him of Dr. Mihara's thoughts on the subject as well.
"You're wrong about one thing, though, Hitomi-san," Junji said, finally getting over the shock of being discovered in such a compromising position.
"What's that?" She asked.
"We're not technically dating, since we haven't actually been on a date yet."
"Actually, I was just thinking that we could do something about that," Minako said.
"But Minako, I thought you said-"
"That we'd keep our relationship subdued in public? You won't have to worry about that, with the plan I have."
Junji just stared at her in bafflement as she went off to the back of the room and pulled something out of the box of clothes she had ordered. It was a white wool cap with a cute, stylized pink cat design on it, which she carefully pulled down over her pointed ears.
"You're going to disguise yourself as a human? Smart thinking," Junji said. Minako just grinned at him deviously - he wasn't sure he liked the expression on her face.
"That's not all, Junji-san," she said, snickering as she pulled something else out of the box. "Here, put these on."
"What? Why?" Junji asked, staring at the pair of catlike ears connected by a thin vertical headband. Hitomi started giggling uncontrollably in the background.
"I figure a little role reversal will give you a better appreciation of what it's like to be me. Hopefully you'll understand more about how I feel about the way society treats me. And I might learn something too."
"Besides, I bet they'll look cute on you, Junji-kun!" Hitomi said, still doubled over in laughter.
Junji frowned. "What if someone we know recognizes us?"
"Don't worry, we'll drive way down to Ibaraki. The chances of running into someone we know there are about..." Her eyes glazed over for a fraction of a second, flashing with streaks of light. "628,391 to one."
"Guess I can't argue with that," Junji said, reluctantly taking the cat ears and putting them on. Hitomi reached into her pocket and took out her mobile phone, preparing to take a picture.
"Don't you dare," Junji said, glaring at her. The black-haired girl reluctantly put the phone away, but still laughed at Junji's appearance.
"Make sure to tell me how it went when you get back," she said, as she left the room.
"Can I take these off until we actually get there?" Junji asked, feeling very self-conscious.
"Of course," Minako said, laughing, as she took the odd accessory off of his head. "Hitomi-chan was right though, you do look cute in them."
Junji blushed. "Come on, let's just go."