Chapter 18: To Protect Her
"I'm Zima. It's nice to finally meet you."
Whereas the look on Hideki's face clearly betrayed mingled shock and outrage, Rei just tilted his head ever so slightly to the side, his own subtle way of expressing his puzzlement and confusion at the sudden appearance of these newcomers. These guys are weird… still, I like their outfits.
Ueda hoisted a welcoming smile on his face, indicating that Zima and his partner should take a seat somewhere in the shop. Likewise, Chii and Yumi gestured toward a table nearest to them, even as they realized that persocoms wouldn't have any use for anything they sold at Tirol.
Among them, it was Freya whose reaction was most telling. She stood up straight, but from the tension evident in her posture, not to mention from the way her arms were trembling, it was evident that she was contemplating whether or not they were potential hostiles. Apparently the newcomers also took notice, as Zima's partner's eyes were focused on the bracers she knew concealed Freya's weapons.
And when Zima turned to smile indulgently at Rei, it was his turn to freeze up and wonder just what the hell was going on here.
"It's nice meeting you too, Rei Mikage," Zima offered as he extended his hand. "I can see the two of you have become rather close since meeting each other. Why, if I didn't know better, I'd even say that you were newlyweds enjoying an afternoon date!"
I think he's telling you the truth, dude.
Rei drew back like he'd been slapped. Whether or not he'd come to terms with his attraction to Freya, the fact remained that this Zima guy was too perceptive for his own good. That that troll at the back of his head somehow spoken out of turn again didn't help his mood, either. He gritted his teeth in irritation at the nerve of the guy right in front of him.
"Alright, out with it," Rei snapped. "Just who are you and what do you want?"
Zima's partner moved as if to advance toward Rei, but he restrained her simply by gently gripping her shoulder. And as she slowly took a step back toward his side, he spread his arms wide as he addressed the youth.
"Come now, is that any way to thank me? I mean, really! I'll have you know it's because of me that your dear girlfriend," his emphasis on the last word earned him hateful glares from both Rei and Freya, both of whom also happened to be blushing violently, "hasn't been spotted by her evil former owners up till now!"
Rei's eyes narrowed at this. Though his distrust for these two was a long way from disappearing, the implications of what Zima had just said were not lost to him. They'd been helping them… from behind the scenes?
"That post on the internet? I mean, really, dear Rei? Forgive me, but it's not exactly the smartest thing you've done, is it? I had to delete it so they wouldn't be able to trace it back to you!"
Now Rei understood what he meant. He remembered having made that inquiry on the BBS the other day, the one that directly led to his meeting with Minoru and to Freya's little family reunion. In hindsight, it really wasn't a good move on his part at all. But this guy –
"You've been spying on us, then?" Rei demanded, his distrust rising again even as he took a deep breath to calm himself down. "Is there anything else, or should we assume you just came here to piss us off?" He rarely if ever reached this point, but the revelation that a complete stranger was keeping tabs on every move they made was disgusting, if not downright infuriating.
Everyone else in the shop was shocked at this point. Zima's partner was quite notably speechless, which was unusual as she would have been the first to verbally spar with anyone who talked to him that way. Even Freya, who was closest to Rei among them, was wordlessly gaping at the scene, the shock written all over her features clearly indicating that she'd never seen this side of him either.
And behind Rei and Freya, Chii and Hideki could be noticed tightly clasping hands at what they were seeing. Finally, after a long and tense silence, Zima smiled thinly and once again offered a hand in friendship, a placating gesture on his part.
"Sorry about that." Oddly enough, he sounded unusually sincere; at any rate, the tone of snide amusement he'd used on a near-constant basis was notably absent at the moment. "That was just me getting carried away."
Rei's ire didn't quite evaporate at the apology, but he did give a curt nod in reply. "…Right, then. In that case, could you tell us what information you can?"
As night fell outside the coffee shop, Zima and his partner felt a mild disquiet at the ease with which Rei's mood shifted. Nevertheless, he cleared his throat as he prepared to share the one bit of information he was certain they didn't yet know.
"Tell me, Rei, Freya. Have either of you heard of Project Nephilim?"
Rei tilted his head to the side as before, this time to indicate a reply in the negative. Likewise, Freya confessed her lack of knowledge on that particular subject. Zima nodded at them, offering a conciliatory smile as he prepared to relate his speculation and conjecture as to what Abstergo's latest project could possibly be.
"Alright, then. You guys might wanna sit down."
Zima started off by mentioning the project that had turned Freya into what she was now – Project Seraph. The Seraph, he explained, were the ninth choir of angels, who in the Abrahamic religions were said to surround God's throne, singing his praises as they flew on their six wings. These angels, he said, featured most prominently in the Book of Enoch, as well as in the Book of Revelations – the final book of the New Testament sometimes called the book of the Apocalypse.
"Interesting," Rei remarked as Zima finished the lecture. "But what does this have to do with this so-called 'Project Nephilim'?"
The black-clad persocom threw up his hands defensively. "Easy kid, I'm getting there. Now, the Nephilim are angels, too. But if the Seraph are the highest of God's chosen, the Nephilim are what you'd call fallen angels: monstrously beautiful, but still monstrous. They're said to be what resulted when angels came down to earth and fell in love with humans."
By now, Zima couldn't help but smile slightly as his audience listened with rapt attention. Hideki and Rei in particular stood out, having found this lecture to be more interesting than most of the lessons their teachers had imparted to them at school. Freya, too, was attentive, but for the most part she already knew all this. And she did have an idea as to what Abstergo's latest project had to do with her, but…
Ironically, that was precisely what Zima would cover next.
"Now, basically, the Seraph and the Nephilim are on opposite extremes when it comes to the angels' hierarchy," he pointed out with the air of a professor explaining simple mathematics to middle school students. "On one hand, you've got the Seraph, the highest choir of angels; on the other, the Nephilim, angels barred from heaven for the crime of falling in love with mortals. So similar, yet so different."
"And in the same way, Project Seraph was meant to create the ultimate assassin, but the persocom in question," he spared a moment to gaze meaningfully at Freya, "already happened to be human in every possible way. In that case, then Project Nephilim's result…?"
Freya didn't bother listening any further. As far as she was concerned, her worst fear had come true.
Later that night...
"What's on your mind, Freya?"
Rei couldn't help but note how quiet Freya had been ever since Zima's 'lecture' earlier at Tirol. No doubt that she was worried. Not that he blamed her; the details on Abstergo's latest project were undoubtedly interesting, but were also a cause for worry and trepidation. She didn't answer his question as she sat, head bowed, at the foot of his bed.
"Freya. You're scared too, aren't you?"
Freya looked into his eyes, nodded, then looked back down at the floor. She knew this was bound to happen; as she'd reflected before, Abstergo was bound to try to come up with something with which to take her on, given how their Agents weren't doing very well. But in this case, being proven right did nothing to satisfy her; if anything, she had a terrible sinking feeling something bad was coming their way.
And when it did, she might not be able to stop it.
And so it was that when Rei held her, she embraced him in return. She wanted to believe, to hope against hope that things would turn out alright.
"Don't worry, Freya."
"I'll protect you, as I always have."
Rei's tone was firm, with more conviction and confidence than he actually felt. The truth was that he too had a bad feeling about things, but his awareness of how he had all but become Freya's emotional crutch compelled him to at least try to comfort her. To reassure her.
To protect her.
I'll do what I can, at least.
I couldn't forgive myself otherwise.
Daniel's eyes widened at what he was seeing.
How… can this be?
It was rather incredible, he reflected as he sat in front of his laptop in the quarters he currently shared with Pinocchio and Mancini, both of whom were sleeping very soundly. From what they knew of Regenschirm's science project, it had only one result. His departed subordinates had also told him the same thing, in their desperate pleas for backup as they were being massacred at headquarters by the monster herself.
And from what his men had told him, Project Seraph had yielded but one result.
Only one Platinum Angel.
There are… two of them!
The video footage, expertly acquired by both Mancini and Pinocchio, did not lie. The high magnification had rendered the resolution grainy to the point of being pixelated, but not enough to obscure what had happened in the coffee shop that afternoon a week ago.
One of them was standing beside a young man while cradling a baby in her arms, while the other, dressed in a uniform of some sort, stood exactly across her counterpart. However impossible it seemed, there was no mistaking it.
Against all odds, Regenschirm had somehow managed to create two.
Not only that, mused Daniel, but it also seemed that the prey he'd been hunting for weeks now was not, in fact, devoid of a heart or a soul. One look at the way she cradled the child in her arms was enough to prove that, as was the way her free hand clasped that of her male companion. Ironic as it was, he knew it was no lie; by some miracle, the monster that yet had his comrades' blood on her hands had somehow grown a heart.
Daniel, you dumbass! What about your men, huh!
You're not supposed to sympathize with her!
Daniel Cross couldn't help but grimace at his weakness. Yes, he told himself, that persocom was his enemy and his prey. That wouldn't change. After all, she had his comrades' blood on her hands, and he did owe it to his men to make sure their deaths would not be in vain.
The child, however, was a different story.
As was the boy.
Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent.
The first tenet of the Assassin's Creed came to mind now. This was the one belief of the Assassins Daniel had never, and would never forsake, whether or not they were the enemy: that those who had not volunteered to fight their war should not be involved in it. Dangerous though the persocom was, those she had come to love were a different story.
Do they even know what she's done? What she's capable of?
Apparently not; the footage had showed earlier how the persocom had unleashed her hidden blades right in front of them, and neither the young man nor the child so much as batted an eyelash at the sight.
Well, well. So our dear little angel's a star in her very own love story now?
As his second-in-command let out a sudden snore, Daniel snorted in mingled amusement and disgust at himself. Now, of all times, his love of trashy romance novels had decided to make itself known again. And to him, it seemed now that that persocom and the young man at her side were the star-crossed lovers of that particular tale.
And I suppose that makes me… what, the villain?
This should be interesting.
By all rights, he mused, it was the persocom who was the villain. She was the one with all the blood on her hands, after all, having killed not only his elite but Regenschirm and his colleagues. Did that boy even know what his girlfriend had done? Didn't he wonder at all why she acted so strangely, as if she was being hunted?
And if he did, wouldn't he want to protect her?
That's just it!
Daniel's face cracked into an evil grin at the idea that just hit him.
While his prey would definitely fall at his hands eventually, there were certain lines that he wouldn't cross, even if Vidic and the rest had no compunction about doing so. If nothing else, he still held fast to the first tenet of the Creed of the Order whose fall he had all but brought about.
No matter what happened to that persocom, no harm would befall either the boy or their child.
On the contrary, he'll likely want to thank me when it's all done.
Daniel Cross had to stop himself from laughing that uncharacteristic evil laugh that was fighting to get out.