Original novel writer Fujino Omori is on record as wanting to have as many characters as possible fall for Bell, and he’s proven that statement to be at least half-serious; while some female characters have fixed romantic interest elsewhere (most notably Tiona, Mikoto, and Chigusa) and others are either neutral (Asfi), merely admirers (Tione), or otherwise have interest that isn’t specifically romantic (arguably Ais), Bell has quite the unofficial harem in his orbit already. After episode 21, you can all but officially add Ryu to that list, too. She might not be ready to admit it yet herself, but it’s as plain as day to the audience that she is falling for Bell.
As eye-rolling as this may seem, such turns don’t feel quite as gimmicky in this franchise as in many others. One of Omori’s strengths as a writer is the time and effort he devotes to establishing character feelings and motivations, and that has generally translated very effectively into anime form. Ryu’s growing sensitivity to Bell doesn’t come from nowhere; based on the way she was herself in her Astrea Familia days, she doubtless finds his purity of soul and intent appealing, and he has proven time and again that he’s not willing to give up on her even when she’s been willing to give up on herself. As he shows in this episode, he can simply and cleanly cut through her overwhelming survivor’s guilt with an innocent, reassuring reminder that this isn’t at all what Ryu’s familia would have wanted for her, and that she does have purpose in surviving. He’s also able to acknowledge her as a woman (something she apparently didn’t have much confidence about) while being considerate and non-threatening as possible. And, well, Bell has become pretty ripped in the last few months, too, so he’s got the manly stud factor going for him as well. It would be stranger if Ryu wasn’t falling for him by this point, no matter how much she might feel that betrays Syr.
I also have to give kudos to the production team here for not playing up the fan service angle here. Some was unavoidable, but emphasizing Ryu’s sex appeal too much would have been out of place in a mostly-serious scene that was aiming more for a feeling of warmth and security than prurient appeal. The little bit of humor that was worked in here – namely, Ryu’s uncertain assertion that she’d even hug a dwarf if necessary in a crisis – didn’t disrupt the mood at all and gives Ryu possibly my favorite expression for her to date.
But this is the penultimate episode, so the storytelling cannot dwell on Ryu’s building emotions too long. A bit more world-building precedes the long-expected return of the Juggernaut, who has been quite busy himself finding replacement body parts and going all chimera, hence adding extra dimensions to a creature who was already plenty deadly. Though this provides a fresh angle on the conflict, Ryu losing hope again as she goes unconscious near the end of the episode feels a little retread. But she does do everything she can to get Bell back on his feat before she passes out, giving him one more chance to play hero.
With only one episode left, will Bell defeat the hybrid Juggernaut before help arrives? And how will Ryu deal with feelings that she probably wished would go to the grave with her? Return next week for the big finale, which looks like it will safely round out novel 14.