Chapter 12: The Icky Jobs
She could sense, somehow, that both of them had changed.
Such were the thoughts of Ceres as she was out window shopping in the commercial district. In truth, she'd already finished her errands at the grocery, and was in fact holding shopping bags full of diapers, powdered milk and ice cream – for Rei as well as Oyuki. And so it was that when Freya contacted her, informing her to meet up with them at some coffee shop, she happened to be picking clothes inside a clothing store.
She'd struck up quite the rapport with that girl ever since her arrival at the Mikage household, ever since Rei took her in. They bonded over the mutual chores they performed while waiting for the siblings to give them orders. When Rei was at home, Freya would assist her in the kitchen, aside from assisting her in caring for Oyuki – as was the case today.
Ceres chuckled to herself at the thought of Rei and Freya on their 'date', which it may as well have been considering how close the two had gotten. And together with Oyuki, they might have passed for a young couple with their firstborn.
She has been opening up more, hasn't she?
Even Ceres could see that. When they'd first met, Freya was quiet and withdrawn at best, and would often lapse into zombie-like behaviour at her worst. Even today she still had the occasional bout of melancholia and listlessness, but it seemed on the whole that spending so much time with Rei had been good for the blond persocom.
And for that matter, observed Ceres, Rei too had changed, subtly but unmistakably. For one thing, he seemed to have learned to reach out to others just a little bit more.
"Miss, you're next."
Ceres shelved these thoughts momentarily as she paid for a black dress she'd chosen for herself. It was fine – Sayuri often gave her allowance and all, the size of was closer to what would be a salaryman's monthly pay. Somewhat unusual, but then she was paid a lot by her company – and Ceres did take on a responsibility that should have been mostly hers.
It was funny, now that Ceres thought of it. She herself had changed a lot since she had all but become part of their little family, and it wasn't just because she'd been there long before Freya.
She felt something long, hard and rather heavy in the hidden pocket in the inside of her apron – the one thing from her past life that she had kept all this time.
For one, I don't have to do those icky jobs anymore.
Before Ceres became Oyuki's nanny and Rei's… caretaker – she suppressed a smirk at this – she served as someone's personal assistant, during which the jobs she would be made to do were things persocoms weren't usually asked to. She hadn't complained then, not yet having the capacity to feel or express emotions and sentiments such as distaste. But now, she was glad to have left that life behind her, with all the icky jobs she used to do on a regular basis.
But even then, there were some things one didn't forget.
And if something were to happen to the ones closest to her, she reflected as she made her way along the metro's crowded streets, Ceres was quite ready and willing to momentarily revert to her old self.
A scream in the distance jolted her out of that train of thought.
Well, this should be interesting, she thought, again feeling that something she'd buried in her apron.
Ceres resolved to follow the sound.
There was nothing to it, really. If Rei and Freya – and especially Oyuki – were anywhere near there, who knows what could happen to them.
Anything that can go wrong will.
And if any single chain of events can go wrong, it can be expected to go wrong in the worst possible way.
This was a truth that Nanako Mizunuma had never been a stranger to.
Even as a child, her older sister would always hurt her, supposedly because it was she, Nanako, who happened to be their mother's favourite. Eventually she was removed from that environment and was lucky enough to be informally adopted. But in spite of the tender loving care her new foster family showered upon her, the damage had already been done; her tumultuous childhood had succeeded at robbing her of her innocence at a very young age.
To that end, Nanako had been very careful not to be out at night by herself, and to refrain from going to dark and deserted areas such as this. She made sure to always let her foster parents know where she was going, and by what time to expect her home. When going out, she made sure to have a companion as much as possible. Somewhere along the line, she might have deluded herself into thinking that she could never end up the victim of some heinous crime.
Yet now, fate seemed ready to teach her a painful lesson.
Of all the people walking along the metro's commercial district, it had to be she who ended up getting snatched and dragged into a dark alleyway and then tossed none too gently into a concrete wall. There were many evil people in the world, but she was the one whose clothes were violently ripped off by this… animal, who now leered at her hungrily with a crazed glint in his shadowed eyes.
And of the many criminals who well and truly deserved to die gruesome deaths, it was Nanako who would meet her end stripped of all dignity.
And if Nanako was already crying in desperation and wetting herself in terror, the deranged grin he was now giving her made her wish for a bullet in the brain.
"Don't struggle so much," he told her as he smoothened his polo shirt, the mockingly reassuring note in his voice serving to terrify her even more, "This'll be over quickly."
Nanako's heart was thrashing against her ribcage now, as if trying to get free and run away, but she had ceased to scream or to struggle. She was beyond hysteria now, as if her mind had mercifully detached her from the gravity of her current circumstances. And so it was that she retained only the vaguest sense that something was about to happen to her.
But then –
"You got that right."
Zima and Dita traversed the rooftops on the way to their next assignment, one involving a hacked database and stolen persocom blueprints. And as was their custom, the pair differed with respect to the manner in which they'd received and accepted this mission. Dita had been glad of it, but Zima took it with a faint sense of disappointment; he'd been watching Freya and him, and was silently rooting for them to formalize their relationship.
Just then, though, something caught Dita's attention.
"Hey Zima, you'd better look at this."
He walked over to Dita, who was standing at the edge of the roof of one of the many office buildings in the area. From what he could see in the alleyway below, a small drama was about to unfold with them as witnesses. There was a girl there, stripped to her underclothes while what looked like a school uniform lay forgotten beside her, while the man who stood over her appeared ready for the action that was sure to come.
"Don't we know her, Zima?"
"What, that girl?" Zima laughed, despite knowing that such a reaction on his part was rather inappropriate at a time like this. "She's pretty, I'll give you that, but –"
He stifled his smirk as something small and hard collided with the back of his head at that comment of his. Dita had finally had enough and hit him, though whether out of exasperation at his attitude, or jealousy at calling the poor girl 'pretty', he couldn't tell. She pointed away from the scene, at a third figure who was advancing on the girl and her tormentor with a gun in their hand.
"That's a persocom…" Zima said. "What about her?"
Even as he said that, though, his recognition of the persocom in question increased the more he watched her. The blue hair, the outfit… surely it couldn't be -?
"Doesn't she belong to that boy's sister?" Dita pointed out, confirming Zima's suspicion. Now that he really looked at her, Zima saw that she was right. It was his sister's persocom – Ceres, if he recalled correctly. He remembered watching her try, and fail, to analyze Freya, though the mere fact she hadn't been shut down was testament to how powerful a persocom she was.
But what was she doing with that gun, and more importantly, how'd she get hold of it in the first place?
Well, thought Zima grimly, looks like we're about to find out.
The would-be predator spun around.
Nanako, who had closed her eyes in resignation to her fate, looked up at the new arrival. Standing frozen at the far end of the alley was a female figure dressed in a fancy maid's outfit, whose unnatural blue hair and pointy ears betrayed her true nature as a persocom. Though it was too far to tell exactly what her expression was, there was no mistaking the cold fury emanating from her.
Nor was it possible to miss the sense of danger she all but radiated.
Terrified as she was, even Nanako could tell that, appearance aside, this was not just any persocom. No mere commercial model would be capable of giving off such a fearsome aura, enough to scare the pants off of a hardened criminal like this one. And of course, she thought, it was unlikely that an ordinary persocom would know what a gun was, let alone how to use one.
Least of all something as large as that thing this persocom had aimed at the criminal's heart.
Something that big was surely unwieldy, and would probably be rendered impractical by the massive recoil among other issues. Considering how even the most seasoned of soldiers would have had trouble wielding it, it looked ridiculous in the hands of this persocom. It wasn't so much a handgun as it was a hand cannon.
That said, something in the persocom's carriage bespoke experience and skill with the improbable weapon.
"Step away from her, why don't you?" her tone was polite and even pleasant, though this did nothing to disguise the hostility that was all but dripping from her voice. "I'd rather not have to use this thing, so please don't make me."
As if to prove her point, she disengaged the safety, emitting an audible clicking noise as she did so. It was the animal's turn now to crap himself in fear.
However, the way he talked back just five seconds later made Nanako wonder if he had any sense at all when it came to self-preservation.
"Who d'you think you're kidding, you stupid 'com?" he sneered, ignoring his own cold sweat as he stared down the barrel of a gun far too large for the petite persocom pointing it at him. "You don't scare me! You probably don't even know how to use that thing!"
He lunged at the persocom in a blind rage.
Either he was drunk, thought Nanako as her terror began to subside, or just plain retarded. And apparently, the persocom thought so too, if the way she shook her head in exasperation was anything to go by. She did try to warn him, after all. She did give him a chance to back off and walk away without an unwanted hole in his head.
And if he thought it was an idle threat, thought Ceres, it was his call.
She didn't even hesitate as she aimed a few inches higher and pulled the trigger. The gunshot reverberated like cannon fire in the dark and narrow alleyway, leaving a mass of bone, blood and brain where the would-be rapist's head used to be. The girl he had been about to assault cringed as some of the bloody bits and chunks flew in her direction, and had gotten out of the way as the corpse was about to land on her.
After a moment of silence, during which she stowed her still-smoking gun back in her apron, it was Ceres who spoke first.
"Are you alright?"
She was taken aback, though not entirely surprised, as the girl held onto her for dear life, screaming and wailing. Once she had gotten over the initial shock, though, she returned the embrace, comforting the girl who was clearly traumatized by her ordeal.
Much later, as she half-carried, half-dragged the girl with her back to the Mikage residence, Ceres realized that the manner in which she had embraced the girl was not unlike the way she'd seen Rei hold Freya.
Today had been one hell of a day.
An hour had passed, and still Ceres hadn't arrived.
It wasn't like her, thought Rei; as a persocom, Ceres was not one to be late for anything. If anything, whenever he or Sayuri made a request of her, she would attend to it right away and finish equally quickly. So when they'd been sitting in Tirol for an hour and Ceres was still nowhere to be found, he began to worry.
"Hey Freya, would you try calling Ceres again?"
Freya nodded, looking down at the baby in her arms before setting her back down in her stroller. Her eyes glazed over as she sought out Ceres' signal. Rei waited with bated breath, worried as to what could possibly have happened to her.
A minute later, though, Freya was still unresponsive – something that hadn't ever happened in this situation before. His worry mounted as he continued to wait for a reply he was beginning to fear would never come. Could Ceres possibly have been…?
The weary note in Freya's voice reminded him of the time he first asked her about her previous owners. He had a bad feeling something had gone wrong, but couldn't bring himself to ask. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, he gathered the necessary courage.
"…What is it, Freya?"
"It's Ceres. She…" Freya trailed off, unsure how to say it. "Something happened. She says to go home right away. Her exact words were 'it's something you and Rei really, really need to see'."
The message relayed by Ceres had been innocuous enough. But judging from the look on Freya's face as she relayed it…
Rei did his utmost to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach as the three of them hurried home.