Chapter 23: Because I Love You
The commercial district was bustling with activity, having come alive at sundown as it always did. Teenaged schoolgirls frequented the many karaoke bars, their own little celebration at the end of yet another demanding school day. Salarymen sat down at restaurants and coffee shops as a way to unwind after a hard day's work.
And at a certain bookstore, a handsome, yet somewhat roguish Caucasian man sat contentedly on one of many comfy chairs, reading yet another of those romance novels he'd taken an unusual liking to.
They'd made an arrangement that night, just after their rather late dinner. If Rei decided to accept their offer, he was to meet him here at the bookstore, after which they would meet up with Mancini and Pinocchio at a local fastfood joint. From there, they'd all go to the compound together.
A glance at his digital wristwatch told Daniel it was now 6:29 PM.
You coming, kid?
Daniel was very sure that Rei had, in fact, decided to take him up on his offer. He, Daniel, had seen how Rei was with that girl, and the authenticity of what existed between them was unquestionable. He loved her, and it was that love that would decide whether or not Rei would join Daniel and his crew.
Likewise, Daniel had been spot-on with his guess that the boy felt rather inadequate at his own lack of strength to protect her. That inadequacy was only bound to have intensified following the accident at St. Benedict's. After all, how could he protect his loved ones, if he couldn't even react in time to some punk sending him crashing down a flight of stairs?
Something vibrated in Daniel's pocket, causing him to abandon both his rambling thoughts and the paperback novel in front of him. Whistling to himself, he extracted his mobile and then unlocked it as he read the text message he'd just received.
The smirk on Daniel's face put even the Cheshire Cat's famous grin to shame.
He'd expected this, true enough, but he could just as easily have been wrong. His prey was smart, after all, and she did know Rei best. No doubt she would have sensed something was going on. Even if she didn't know exactly what was troubling the boy, there was no doubt that she would try to dissuade him from whatever he was planning.
But now that he had chosen to join them, that was a moot point, wasn't it?
Welcome aboard, Rei Mikage.
Rei sat at his desk, writing a letter to someone. He looked up at the bulb illuminating his bedroom, as if somehow expecting it to provide him with a stroke of inspiration, before returning to what he was working on. It was imperative that he finished it now, as he had other matters to attend to as well.
And if anyone else found out about those other matters, there would most certainly be… complications.
Shana. Reiko. Kyo.
My dearest sister.
As he struggled to find the right words, Rei thought of the most important persons in his life. The journey he was about to embark on would likely be his most difficult and arduous one yet, and it would be their faces that would carry him through it. After all, he didn't want power purely for himself; it was for them, so he could protect them and the smiles on their faces.
And yet, when it was her face that he saw in his mind's eye, Rei couldn't help but hesitate.
Even telling himself that he wasn't technically breaking his word did little to reassure Rei. However much he tried to rationalize and justify himself, telling himself that he'd at least held true to the letter of his promise, there was no shaking the thought that he was betraying the one he loved. And no matter how clearly his letter would explain his motives and reasons behind his decision, he'd still inevitably end up hurting her.
And don't you forget it, jackass.
Rei winced inwardly as his conscience made itself known.
The worst part of it all was that he couldn't blame Freya if she were to end up mad at him or even hating him. The only problem was, this decision on his part was a necessity brought on by circumstance. After all, as Daniel had so kindly pointed out, there were those who would use Freya as a tool for their own selfish ambition, and it was Rei's duty to protect her.
But while his will was unquestionable, the reality was that he lacked the power to do so.
Reality is harsh, is it not?
In writing this letter, Rei was admitting things he had never been able to say aloud before, no thanks to a combination of foolishness and his own petty pride. And he did realize that these words wouldn't be able to completely justify what he was about to do, but he saw no other way. Because he loved her, he wanted to protect her. And to be able to protect her, he needed power.
And the best way he saw that led to power lay with Daniel and his crew.
I love you, Freya.
Hate me if you must, but...
I'm doing this for you.
Rei took a small knapsack, packed with clothes, a bath towel and various toiletries, then dropped them from out the window to fall to the ground below.
I'm doing this because I love you, Freya. Don't ever believe different.
A minute later, Rei himself was down there, picking up his pack as he set off to join Daniel and his comrades for a month of training.
"Well, well. Glad you could make it, kid."
Daniel flashed Rei a wild grin as he caught sight of the youth, standing outside the burger joint that was to be their meeting place. He still wore the same outfit as when they'd met up the night before: a hoody with matching cargo pants. The knapsack he was carrying was new, though – as was the somewhat forlorn expression he wore.
"What's the matter, kid? Why so down?"
Rei looked up at him for all of ten seconds, but said nothing. And as he did so, Daniel understood; the boy felt guilty for betraying her, as if he had gone back on a promise they had made. After all, she was the reason he wanted more power in the first place. How ironic that in his quest to gain power for her sake, he'd unwittingly joined up with the ones hunting her.
But then, it was to be expected.
Superpowered persocom assassin or no, even Daniel Cross couldn't blame Rei for wanting to protect someone he loved.
It's alright if you won't be able to forgive us, kid.
This way, at least, you'll be able to live on.
"Well?" Rei prompted, his face taking on a mask of determination despite the doubt and guilt that yet plagued him. "Shouldn't we be going?"
Daniel looked up at the younger man. This was a surprise; he really was willing to go through with it. He'd expected him to change his mind, to back out at the last minute, but all he could see was resolve and determination. Despite his inner conflicts, Rei was actually willing to join up with them.
Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
"…Right. C'mon, kid."
Daniel led the way to their compound, Rei following shortly behind him.
"Rei, open up! Dinner's ready!"
Freya had been knocking on Rei's door for what seemed to be the ninth time now. Nine times she'd called his name, but no answer. Even if he'd been sleeping, there was no way he could have slept through that.
This wasn't like Rei at all. It was rare for him to keep her waiting like this, and even then, he'd at least warn her in advance. Freya continued to knock, but as she did so, she was beginning to consider just taking the alternate route.
Freya stopped abruptly at the sound of Ceres' voice. The bluenette had no doubt heard her calling for him from downstairs, and so went up to see what was going on.
"He's not answering the door," Freya explained. "I've been knocking and knocking, but…"
Ceres nodded, before reaching into her apron and withdrawing a set of keys. Freya wasn't surprised; she was the Mikage family's caretaker, after all, and so she pretty much had unrestricted access to this house. "Step aside, I'll take care of it."
"Rei, we're coming in, alright?" Ceres called. She turned her key once, then opened the door as it unlocked.
The room was completely empty. The chair in front of the desk was pulled back, suggesting it had been used recently. Likewise, the bed looked as though someone had slept in it, but Rei himself was nowhere to be found. The sliding glass door that separated to the balcony was open as well, which probably meant…
Damn you, Rei!
"There's a note here," Ceres said as she stopped at the desk, picking up the piece of paper that was left there. She opened and read it, eyes narrowing with each line, before she handed it to Freya.
"…It's for you."
Freya's heart tightened, almost as if it was being crushed in an iron grip.
...Rei, how could you?
Tears welled up in her amber eyes as she read his message to her.
Please forgive me for disappearing on you so suddenly like this.
I'll be spending the coming month with Daniel Cross, a friend of mine who I met on the day of my accident. He says he can train me to get stronger, so I can have the power I need.
It's funny, isn't it? The girl I care for very much happens to be a badass killer robot who could wipe out an entire army on her own. Still, I can't stomach the feeling of my own weakness and powerlessness. There are evil men after you, and as I am now, I won't be of much use other than serving as a meatshield, if that. I want to be able to protect you if necessary, but as I am now I'm not good enough.
I'm not strong enough.
I know you're probably angry at me for this, not least because you made me promise not to just up and vanish like in your dream, but I didn't have a choice. It was just like Daniel told me – normally it's the guy who protects the ones he loves, but how can I do that if I can't even stop myself falling down the stairs? And besides, regardless of whether or not you happen to be the deadliest persocom in the world, I want to be able to live up to that standard.
All this time I've cared for you more than I've ever had the guts to admit, no thanks to my own foolish pride. I don't know if Ceres told you, but I'd been living with my head stuck up my ass until I met you. You changed me, Freya, you saved me. And it's because of you that I can go down this road, even knowing what lies ahead. If I become strong enough to protect you, not to mention Ceres and Oyuki, this'll all be worth it in the end.
Regrettable though it may be, even I can't blame you if you end up hating me because of this. But if you hate me, please at least know that I do this for you, Freya. Because I love you, and I want to be more than just an emotional protector to you. Love, Rei.
Freya had gone quite still, her head bowed with Rei's letter squeezed tightly in her left fist. From the way she was shaking, it was painfully obvious that she wasn't taking it very well. Ceres herself felt a mixture of alarm and outrage, having read his name there. It wasn't enough for him to have betrayed their Order; now he had to go and endanger her family as well.
And damn you especially, Daniel Cross.
It was all Ceres could do to hold her fellow persocom as she let out a scream of mingled anguish, heartbreak and fury.
I've got to let the master know about this!
At that moment, Demeter was busy attending to household chores, cooking dinner for her master and their guest who happened to be occupied at the moment. The recipe was something she and Ceres had found on the internet, back when they still lived together with their master, and had managed to perfect since then. In fact, they used to go about their day-to-day tasks together, housekeeping being one of the things both of them loved to do and had bonded over.
At the same time, recalled Demeter as she laid the pot on the dinner table, they had their differences.
While she and Ceres were programmed with the same abilities, and had undergone the exact same training in their first year of activation, they still had their individual preferences and specializations. For instance Demeter often took the role of controller or operator during missions, while Ceres showed preference for fieldwork. Where she showed inclination towards research, recon and information gathering, her sister's forte lay in what both of them referred to as the 'icky' jobs.
Even in combat, the twins each favoured a different approach. Ceres was fond of firearms of all shapes and sizes, while Demeter was a fan of blades. Lorenzo, too, had noticed their individuality in this regard, and even encouraged it by training them further.
These days, though, Demeter hadn't had much opportunity to show off the results of her training, unlike Ceres who –
Demi, it's important.
Demeter's eyes glazed over for a second as she received her sister's message. No sooner had she read and confirmed it than she went straight to Lorenzo who'd just logged out of the Animus.
"Rei's been kidnapped."