Chapter 24: Under Her Skin
This really isn't the time for this …
Even as she took off from the edge of one rooftop to land on another, she still hadn't gotten over how she'd been talked into this.
I mean… really, Ceres? Are you serious?
Demeter made her way to St. Benedict's Academy, where her dear sister's girlfriend waited. Strictly speaking, it went against her master's orders, too. Given how Rei went and got himself kidnapped by the traitor Daniel Cross, she'd been ordered to work with her sister to do all it took to get him back.
But Ceres asked her to take a detour here instead, to escort dear Nanako home, as a favor. She said she and Rei's persocom – with whom Ceres said he had a special relationship – would get to it in the meantime.
It was obvious enough to Demeter, who knew her other self very well – inside, and out. If Ceres didn't have romantic feelings for the girl, she at least regarded Nanako as being very special to her.
The way her sister reacted when their paths crossed that night made that all too clear to Demeter. But even then, it wasn't exactly something she saw coming. Who could have guessed that she would end up developing feelings for someone, let alone another girl? And if that priceless, flustered look on her face was any indication, even Ceres herself didn't see it coming.
Which, thought Demeter, was deliciously ironic.
In her personal life, as well as in her affairs, Ceres was rarely if ever caught off-guard, a side effect of her training as a sharpshooter. She prided herself on the ability to see things coming from a mile away and then pick them off at her leisure. It was unsurprising, then, that while she was adept with firearms of all shapes and sizes, Ceres was at her best when in the role of a sniper.
She dropped down from one of the campus buildings to land in the waiting area. But no sooner had Demeter stood up from her landing than…
With only a split-second's warning, something – or, more appropriately, someone – hurtled into Demeter, wrapping her arms around the persocom such that she was sure she would have suffocated right there had she been human. Barely managing not to fall over, Demeter hesitantly returned the hug while patting the girl on the head.
"Nice to see you too, Nanako," she whispered, chuckling. "But I'm not Ceres. She did ask me to bring you to her, though, and she did tell me good things about you."
Nanako wasted no time pulling away from 'Ceres' – or, at least, her doppelganger. She wore a completely gobsmacked look on her face as she goggled the persocom. "But – how…?" she began. "You – two of you?"
Now that she looked closely, there was something different about the girl in front of her.
For one thing, while their outfits were very similar, Ceres preferred light colors, as opposed to the midnight black dress worn by her double. Where Ceres preferred to roll up her sleeves, her twin appeared to disagree, instead happy with them hanging loose. Last but not least, Ceres' giant waist ribbon was nowhere to be seen on her doppelganger, who instead wore a belt with lots of notches she guessed had something in them.
Otherwise, though, they were exact duplicates.
Same blue hair, same deceptively cold blue eyes, same elven ears…
She nodded, grinning. "Yes, that's right."
"My name's Demeter, dear Nanako," she introduced herself, giggling mischievously even as she curtsied. "I can't lie, y'know. I'm really happy to finally meet my dear sister's girlfriend."
"Tell me, Nanako. How did the two of you meet?"
Demeter and Nanako made their way to the Mikage house, side by side, the former carefully scanning their surroundings as they walked. While she doubted anyone would want to target her companion, Demeter – and Ceres, for that matter – had been trained since day one to remain constantly vigilant. This had become more important than ever in recent years, especially since their enemies had evolved enough to effectively use their own tactics – Assassin tactics – against them.
In fact, there were those among the enemy ranks that had once been their comrades. Daniel Cross was probably the most infamous among them in the modern era, but Abstergo's ranks would undoubtedly have been bolstered by more Assassin turncoats.
And judging by the intelligence, not only Cross, but his team, too, had been spotted in the area. And it stood to reason that he would have passed on his skills to his men…
"…she rescued me, Demeter," Nanako replied dully after a long silence, distracting Demeter from her contemplation. "If she hadn't been there, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."
"Demi," the persocom corrected her. "It's what Ceres calls me, dear. The way I see it you'll end up becoming part of the family eventually, so I don't see why you shouldn't call me that, too."
Demeter was unsurprised as Nanako flushed bright red, such that she could have been spotted from a satellite in orbit. At any rate, she no longer needed to guess exactly how this girl felt about her sister. Regardless of how it had happened, she'd quite clearly fallen hard for Ceres.
"P-part… of the family?" Nanako repeated, spluttering even as she tried to effect an unconvincing tone of cluelessness. "W-what do you mean, D-Demi?"
But Ceres' twin only laughed at this. "C'mon, dear, there's no need to be so shy about it. …you're in love with my sister, aren't you?"
Before Nanako could answer, though, she heard the sound of something heavy falling through the air, followed immediately by multiple dull thuds around them.
She looked up to see no less than half a dozen identical women blocking their way, all with the same long, platinum-hued hair and creepy, blue-green eyes, all clad in the same gray tunics. Even their weapons, a pair of long katars each pulled out from the holsters on her thighs, were exactly alike.
Demeter didn't know what it was exactly, but something about them gave her the creeps.
Like they weren't human somehow…
Demeter half-glanced at Nanako, warning her to stay back. Her hidden blades extended as she flicked her wrists, detaching themselves from their bracers so as to allow their owner to use them as daggers.
But even as Demeter did so, she doubted she'd be able to take them down all by herself.
If these… things… were the product of the so-called Project Nephilim, she and Nanako might very well have to run for it.
Freya was in ruins.
Her mind right now was unresponsive, falling through empty space as she yet struggled to come to terms with what Rei had done. He'd promised that he wouldn't disappear, and yet he went and did it anyway.
As if that promise he'd made meant nothing.
Freya stared once more at the letter he'd left for her, her hands still shaking as a torrent of mingled fury and sorrow took hold of her. She crushed it in her right hand, crumpling it into a small, tight ball, before tossing it out the window as hard as she could.
"I hate you, Rei Mikage!"
She'd said this aloud, not that she meant it.
Not that she cared, not right now.
The truth was that Freya didn't know what to feel right now. On one hand, she wanted to rage at him, hunt him down and smack him around in fury at the promise he'd broken, exact words be damned. If he really did love her as he said in his letter, he wouldn't have done what he did. She didn't care that he couldn't protect her, she could do that for the both of them, so why –?
"Freya," Ceres said gently, "you did say he hasn't been himself lately?"
She didn't answer, not seeing where this was going. If he was planning this from the very start, it made sense for him to have been acting that way over the past few days. Ever since his accident, to be more precise –
"I think he's being manipulated."
That caught Freya's attention. "Yeah? You think so?"
Ceres nodded in confirmation, her eyes narrowed grimly as she explained. "Think about it. A few nights ago he snuck out, something he hasn't done even once ever since the two of you met. He's been unusually moody and secretive over the past couple of days, as the both of us have noticed. And then he starts worrying about having to protect you, even knowing perfectly well how deadly you are and what you did to them."
She placed a hand on the blond's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"Surely you must have some clue what's happened? I for one don't believe he did this entirely of his own free will, and I'm not sure you do, either."
Even without the letter, Freya could tell that Rei cared for her quite a bit, only hesitating to tell her how he truly felt for fear of being wrong. The blatant disregard for her feelings she'd displayed in his sudden disappearance was very much out of character, which was exactly why she was so upset about it. She knew for a fact he was better than this.
She scanned the information programmed into her, browsing for any files she had on him.
"Daniel Cross, designated Animus Subject No. 4." Freya recited suddenly, surprising Ceres. "Acquired by Lineage as a child. Under the programming of Dr. Warren Vidic, was made to experience symptoms of the bleeding effect at random moments throughout his life, before being released into the wilderness."
Despite herself, Ceres couldn't help but relish the irony of it. Abstergo had gone out of its way to program Freya with all kinds of information, up to and including data on its operatives and its own clandestine activities. In a way, such information could have treated as a deadly weapon in its own right, possibly even more so than whatever enhancements she now possessed.
If nothing else, it would be karmic justice for Freya to use what she'd been given to destroy them.
"Found by the Assassin Order in his early adulthood, becoming one of their most talented and promising rookies by the year 2000. Kidnapped and then brought to a private audience with the Assassin Mentor in their headquarters at Dubai, who was assassinated as per his programmed orders. Made his way back to Abstergo soon after, providing information directly leading to the Assassin Order's collapse."
There was much more information that followed, but most of it was superfluous and irrelevant. What Freya had read was more than enough for her to come to a conclusion; Daniel Cross had manipulated Rei into falling in with them, using his feelings for her as a weapon against him. The thought of it made her insides pulse with rage.
I will find you, Daniel Cross, and I will kill you.
Just then, Ceres gasped, startled as she received an incoming call.
"Good evening, Miss Ceres."
Were she human, Ceres would have ice in her veins right now.
Daniel's voice was light and friendly as he addressed Ceres, Rei's caretaker, courtesy of a number he'd obtained from fiddling with the youth's mobile as he slept.
They had no landline, and their compound was designed in such a way that mobile phones would have no signal – a way of discouraging calls from outside – but Daniel and his crew still maintained a link to the outside world in what they referred to as their 'conference room'. Right now Rei was either still sleeping, or being guided through his first session in the Animus by Mancini and Pinocchio.
Either way, he wasn't around to hear this.
"Don't worry, Rei's safe here with us," he mentioned as if offhandedly. "We're gonna train him, actually, get him in the Animus and turn him into possibly the greatest Agent we'll ever be lucky to have… besides me, of course."
Daniel paused for a moment, the better to hear the girl's reaction, before continuing. Regardless of how she felt about him, the only one among them who she had any bad blood for was that monster that slaughtered his men. Part of him had never wanted to betray the Assassins in the first place, and it was that part of him that was speaking now.
He chose his next words carefully, the better to get the message across that he at least meant Rei no harm, but in such a way that he'd be able to get under her skin as well.
"He came with us willingly, by the way. Said he wanted the power to protect his loved ones. Poor kid… I wonder if he knows that the one he loves most is really a mindless killing machine…?"
"Bastard…!" growled Ceres. "Just what do you want!"
"Simple, really," he replied, still in the same patient, faux-affable tone. "That girlfriend of his has my men's blood on her hands, and I intend to pay her back. I owe them that much, at least."
"Give my regards to dear Freya, won't you, Ceres? There's really no need to worry; we've grown quite fond of him already, and you've my word, at least, that he won't be harmed in any way."
Smirking to himself at the outraged hiss from the other end of the line, Daniel severed the connection.