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Rise of the Unholy Trinity

Chapter Text

It all starts with C.C. But then, most things start with the blasted witch, and Suzaku can't even bring himself to blame her for it any longer.

They're only weeks away from the Requiem. Everything is in place. Lelouch is making the final arrangements for Nunnally's eventual rule.

Technically speaking, Suzaku should not be in the palace at all, but all the guards of the Imperial Wing are under Geass. The only ones who can see him come and go are Jeremiah, Cecile and Lloyd, and they'd never say anything. They know what is at stake.

Suzaku is sitting in front of Lelouch's desk, listening to his friend drone on something about the future organization of the Black Knights. A headache is pounding at his skull. He is not happy with the fact that he's going to be forced to work with people who apparently betrayed Lelouch, but it's not like he can point fingers given what his role in the Requiem will be.

C.C. stalks in, manifesting out of nowhere, like she usually does. "You know," she says, "you work too much. At this rate, you'll be a virgin when you die."

Lelouch's eyes widen and he cuts himself off mid-sentence. "C.C.!" he exclaims. There's more life in his voice than there has been for weeks, and more color in his cheeks than Suzaku has seen for ages. Suzaku doesn't know if he's grateful, or if he hates C.C. for that.

"You know I'm right," she answers, her voice as stoic and flat as always. "Come on. Come with me."

Lelouch flails as she grabs his collar, but he's always been terrible at saying no to the people he loved. Much to Suzaku's dismay, C.C. now falls into that category. He is still protesting when she drags him toward the bedroom, but they disappear inside regardless.

C.C. doesn't bother to fully close the door, and soon, Suzaku can hear Lelouch's soft moans, accompanied by the distinctive sound of naked bodies sliding against one another.

He flees before he can eavesdrop further, but the memory haunts him.

He returns to Lelouch's quarters a few hours later. Lelouch is still in bed, sleeping, and for that, Suzaku is grateful, because he knows his friend has slept poorly in past weeks.

C.C. is next to him, petting his hair almost absently. She instantly notices Suzaku loitering in the doorway and gracefully releases her hold on Lelouch. The sheets slide off her naked body, but she doesn't seem to mind. She is beautiful—almost as beautiful as Lelouch—and Suzaku has never hated her more.

"You don't need to be jealous, you know," she tells him. "He'd kiss you too, if you asked."

"I'm not jealous," Suzaku snaps. It's a lie, and they both know it. She snorts, but doesn't bother to comment further. Instead, she curls around Lelouch, pulling him closer. It's a strangely loving embrace, and it doesn't fit the lack of expression on her face.

Suzaku leaves them, feeling empty and aching for the days when he could take refuge in simple hatred.

Under different circumstances, he would have probably avoided Lelouch for a few days, but nowadays, he can't afford that luxury. The next morning, he is at breakfast, like clockwork, with both C.C. and Lelouch.

"I was thinking of having my body burned," Lelouch says as he butters his toast.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," C.C. says, adding another lump of sugar to her tea. "Being burned alive is horrible."

"Yes, but I won't be alive," Lelouch argues. C.C. says nothing, but even Suzaku can feel the weight of her disapproval. The entire conversation is morbid, and Suzaku wants to stab himself in the eye with his fork if only to make it end. Alas, the Geass Lelouch has cast on him keeps him from an easy solution. Idly, he finds it odd that C.C. can even eat anything other than pizza. He thinks he may be losing his mind if he's worried about that at such a time.

"Maybe we can find another option," he grits out, just because he needs to do something to end the whole debacle.

"It's a little complicated though." Lelouch sighs. "By then, everybody will hate me, and I don't want my limbs to be strewn out in the streets. Nunnally doesn't deserve to see that. This whole thing will be hard enough for her."

Suzaku can't help but feel irritated for the fact that even now, Lelouch is still thinking only about the grief he will cause his sister. But at the end of the day, his pain is of no consequence. The Requiem is not just Lelouch's way to atone. It's Suzaku's too. He is a dead man walking, and he will forever wear a mask, meant to protect Lelouch's legacy of peace.

He wishes that were a comfort.

"What do you want to do then?"

In the end, it's Jeremiah who comes up with a solution. They discuss the matter with the Knight of Orange and he promises to spirit away Lelouch's body after the Requiem. "It will be my honor to protect you, My Liege, even after death," he says.

Somehow, Suzaku finds that fitting, that one of Lelouch's knights would guard Lelouch's wishes, and the other his remains. Lelouch seems satisfied too, and the matter is set to rest. But the whole conversation drives the inevitability of the Requiem even closer to home. That evening, Suzaku slips into his emperor's bedroom. Miraculously, C.C. is not there. Perhaps she went to get some pizza.

"Suzaku?" Lelouch asks. "What is it? Is everything all right?"

Suzaku can't help but let out a bitter laugh. "No. Nothing is all right. Nothing about this is all right."

Lelouch looks confused, and Suzaku can't take it any longer. He stalks to the side of the man who had been the center of his life for so long and kisses him.

It is just as C.C. said. For about two seconds, Lelouch goes rigid. It doesn't last, and he melts into Suzaku's arms, parting his lips for Suzaku's kiss. It's a little clumsy at first, since neither of them have that much experience, but it doesn't matter. Suzaku is working on autopilot, peeling Lelouch out of those ridiculous white robes, draping him over the silken sheets. He lets his body do the talking, because he can never say what he wants to through words, and if he started speaking, he would probably say something they would both dramatically regret.

Lelouch welcomes every touch. He whispers Suzaku's name against his lips like a prayer. He clutches Suzaku's shoulders, grinding his heavy erection against Suzaku's.

They falter only once, as Suzaku readies himself to enter Lelouch. "Do you want me to turn around?" Lelouch asks.

The question holds more weight than it should. Suzaku clutches Lelouch's hip so hard he will undoubtedly leave bruises. Maybe it's selfish, but he shakes his head. "No. Like this. I want to look into your eyes."

There's a flash of understanding on Lelouch's face, followed by something undecipherable, like resignation. It vanishes quickly, and then Lelouch is pulling him closer. Suzaku wonders if maybe he imagined it, and then, he doesn't wonder anything anymore. Lelouch's body is hot and welcoming around him, and Suzaku clings to his friend as he thrusts, desperately wishing that this night would never end, that they could stay like this forever.

He is crying when he comes, and as he collapses by Lelouch's side, Lelouch pets his hair and kisses his forehead. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Suzaku wants to tell him not to apologize, but the words won't come. Euphie's memory is still between them, even now,  so he says nothing and simply clings to Lelouch.

He doesn't remember falling asleep, but he must have, because when he comes to, C.C. is in the room with them. She slides out of her white clothes—and why in the world is she still wearing that ridiculous straightjacket now?—and joins them in bed.

Lelouch stirs awake as she climbs in bed with them. "C.C.?"

"Mmmhm," she hums. "Lie back, boy. Let us take care of you."

She really is a witch, because Suzaku finds himself complying with her wishes. He did not expect this when he entered Lelouch's bedroom the night before, but he doesn't complain when she positions Lelouch between them. She follows her whispered orders like he did Lelouch's when they were on the battle field. Together, they take Lelouch apart, and as his emperor's cries escalate, Suzaku wonders just how much grief C.C. will feel after the Requiem.

In the end, their budding love affair changes nothing. Lelouch remains as determined as ever, and Suzaku cannot go back, not now.  He takes the mask Lelouch grants him and stands tall in front of the crowd, now as Zero.

The peaceful smile Lelouch gives him grants him the strength to drive the sword through Lelouch's heart. This is for Lelouch too. If nothing else, the Requiem will give Lelouch peace. Suzaku can carry the burden of the world. It is better for Lelouch to rest.

He tells himself that even as his emperor caresses his mask with bloody fingers. He clings to that hope as he watches Lelouch's body slide down the platform.

But his head is already starting to spin, and the scent of Lelouch's blood is fresh and cloying in his nostrils. He feels like he's about to throw up, like he's ten again and he just killed his father, or like after the disaster with the FLEIJA in Tokyo. It should not be the same. Lelouch planned this himself. It's for a purpose, and one life can hardly compare to all the blood they have spilled so far.

It hurts regardless, more than anything he has ever felt. He wishes he was the one lying at the base of the platform in a pool of his own blood. As the crowd starts chanting Zero's name around him, one question pops into his head.

How did it come to this?

****

It takes a month for him to be able to leave Pendragon. He's busy with guarding Nunnally, introducing her to everything Lelouch left behind, making sure Schneizel obeys him and that Cornelia won't use the chaos to make yet another mess.

When he finally manages to sneak away, he makes his way to the orangery. Jeremiah's home is a gift from Lelouch, both their inside joke and a safe place for the Knight of Orange. Jeremiah nods at Suzaku in welcome, and Anya waves at him from one of the trees. Suzaku is glad that she's managing to rebuild some semblance of life after what Marianne has done to her.

Guided by Jeremiah, he makes his way to Lelouch's grave. It's hidden well, in the shade of the trees. Nobody will ever find Lelouch here. It was a good choice.

Jeremiah leaves him at the grave site, and Suzaku kneels on the ground, brushing his fingers over the stone. It has no identifier, nothing to show this is the last resting place of Lelouch vi Britannia. "I miss you," he whispers, even if he knows Lelouch can't hear him. "I'm sorry."

"Touching, but it's too late for regrets."

The voice is so sudden that he shoots to his feet and pulls out his sword. He stops seconds before he can stab C.C. through the stomach. C.C. stares at him, as impassive as always.

Frustrated, Suzaku sheathes his sword. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to see him, of course," she replies, her tone clearly suggesting that she thinks he is an idiot.

"Now of all times? Forgive me if I think that's a pretty big coincidence."

"You're right." C.C. sits down on the grass, leaning against the trunk of a tree. "I came to talk to you."

Suzaku forces himself to not turn away from her. "Why? I think we've said everything that needed to be said."

"Not quite." Suddenly, her voice shifts, and it's filled with something thick and malicious. Suzaku has never heard her sound like that before. Her eyes burn with vitriol. It's more emotion than he has ever seen her express, outside her brief moments with Lelouch. "I came to tell you something."

Suzaku tastes dread in his mouth. "Tell me what?"

"You know... I always thought that the Requiem was a mistake. But I thought that maybe, after the world of C, Lelouch would have managed to take Charles's code, and he'd survive your stupidity. Apparently, I was wrong."

Well, now it makes sense why C.C. insisted on them not burning Lelouch's body.

"But that doesn't matter anymore," C.C. continues. "He's dead and so are the promises I made to him. So I will tell you this now. What happened to Euphemia was not his fault."

Suzaku feels like he's taken a hit in the solar plexus. He did not expect her bringing up Euphie. It was one of the things they stopped talking about, much like they never spoke about C.C.'s own betrayal of Lelouch. "W-What?" he stammers.

"The Geass went out of control. You know he had no way of turning it off at the end. That's the moment it started. It was an accident. He fully intended to join his sister, but instead, he ordered her the kill all the Japanese. A stupid joke, apparently."

That can't be right. It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Lelouch make such a joke anyway? It has to be a lie. Lelouch admitted to having deliberately placed Euphie under Geass. He said so, with his own mouth.

Then again, Lelouch has always been a great liar. Back at the Kururugi Shrine, Suzaku would have never believed such an outlandish and unlikely thing. He did realize something wasn't right during that fateful conversation, but the incident with Kanon quickly wiped away any chance of Lelouch pursuing the avenue of truth. Suzaku himself should have pressed, should have asked again... But he never bothered to even try. 

As he stands there, in front of Lelouch's grave, he can't help but believe every word that came out of C.C's mouth. She is definitely petty enough to make up the story, but he knows she is being honest.

"Shirley Fennette was similar." She smiles bitterly. "In fact, I never did get why you blamed him for that. It was Rolo who killed her."

Rolo. The assassin assigned to replace Nunnally. Suzaku should have been more surprised. Instead, he's wondering why he never realized it before. How could he have ever believed that Lelouch killed her? 

"Why tell me this now?" he croaks out. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

"He didn't want you to know," C.C. replies, her voice once again toneless. "He thought that it would make things more difficult for you... after."

Lelouch was right of course. Suzaku did not even realize how much Lelouch's involvement in Euphie's death helped him until now. The image of Lelouch shooting his own sister will never leave his mind, nor will the memory of Euphie's last moments, but just the knowledge that he had not cold-heartedly planned it is earth-shattering.

He cannot find his voice to reply. C.C. gets up and brushes past him. She briefly places her hand on the grave, then walks away without looking back.

Suzaku falls to his knees and screams.

Chapter Text

After that, the days start to blur. He continues his work as Zero, but half the time, he feels like he's underwater. Sometimes, he doesn't even know how he manages to keep up coherent conversations with the people around him. Perhaps he doesn't, and it's the Geassed Schneizel who fills all his silences.

Schneizel always was very useful. He's even managed to answer many of the questions Suzaku bothered to ask after the Requiem, filling in the blanks that Lelouch, C.C. and everyone else left. But the answers give him little satisfaction, and the thought of revenge just makes him feel empty. As satisfying as it would be to hurt the people who did the same to Lelouch, those weren't the orders he was given. The mask of Zero doesn't mean revenge.

For a while, it's the mask that saves him. At first, it seemed like a burden, a symbol of all the responsibilities he now has, as the guardian of the Requiem. It seemed to swallow him whole, to wipe away the remaining traces of Suzaku Kururugi. Soon, it becomes more than that.

It is among the few things he has left from Lelouch. As long as Zero lives, Lelouch will never be truly gone.

And he has something else. Lelouch's Geass, the wish Suzaku hated for so long.

He clings to the mask for as long as he can. He desperately tells himself that regrets are pointless, that Lelouch's accidental Geass on Euphie changes nothing, that the Requiem still has a purpose, that he has his orders from his emperor. But in the end, he succumbs.

It's on the first anniversary of Lelouch's death that he cracks. Seeing everyone celebrating in the streets is too much for him. He stays for as long as he can, and is grateful that the empress is not expected to linger at the feast thrown in the honor of her brother's death. As soon as Nunnally retires, so does he.

He takes off his mask and his cloak and pulls his sword out of its sheath.

It's very easy to bring the sharp tip to his flesh. And when the Geass starts buzzing at the back of his mind, it feels like an embrace, like a hope and a dream. He closes his eyes and remembers Lelouch's eyes, the way they were before the grief and guilt extinguished their fire. Blood trickles down his blade, but he doesn't mind the pain.

He is forced to pull the sword back before he can do too much damage, but the sensation remains. He mends his wound on autopilot, and when he goes to bed that night, he dreams of laughter, sunny days and kisses that taste like tears.

****

The next time he sees C.C,  he is visiting Lelouch again. Two years, three months and four days have passed since the Requiem. She is sitting in front of the grave when he arrives, eating pizza.

He feels strange, coming here at such a moment, but he doesn't want to go either. Instead, he walks around her and kneels on the ground, keeping a fair amount of distance between them.

They don't speak and Suzaku allows himself to relax. He doesn't feel comfortable talking to Lelouch while C.C. is present, but it doesn't matter. Just being here is enough.

When she reaches for him, he is unprepared. He shoots to his feet and tries to pull back, but she always was faster than she seemed and the element of surprise makes all the difference in the world.

She isn't a threat to him, not really, but what she does is perhaps worse than an outright attack. She grabs his wrist and lifts his sleeve. The marks of the countless cuts are there, branded into his flesh, a clear sign of his weakness.

He extracts his hand from her grip and pulls his sleeve back. "The Geass?" she asks.

He nods. "Sometimes, when I feel it... It's like he's with me."

For the longest time, C.C. is silent. Suzaku would think she didn't hear him, but he knows she has. It's just that C.C. acknowledges only the things she wants to. He wonders how in the world she even knew about his scars. Damn witch.

"You are lucky then," she says at last. "All I have left is the hole where the contract used to be."

The unexpected words melt away most of his anger. Suddenly, he just feels tired.

"I hate you," he says even as he kneels again, this time next to her.

"I know," she replies, leaning against him. "I hate you too."

Their hands entwine on the grass in front of Lelouch's quiet grave. For the first time in ages, Suzaku takes off his mask in a place outside his quarters. He buries his face in C.C.'s shoulder and cries.

She cries too, although her tears are silent, like everything else about her.  He can tell anyway, and his guess is confirmed when he pulls away and sees it, the crystalline drops sliding down her cheeks.

She is as ageless as always, but that just makes her grief truer and more powerful. She is the only person who can ever truly understand. Even if other people mourn Lelouch—Nunnally, Jeremiah, Kallen—none will ever be like C.C.

He kisses her and she kisses him back.

Two days later, when he is back in Pendragon, he receives a present. It's a simple thing, a vial filled with liquid and a vaporizer. He is suspicious at first, but the item doesn't trigger his Geass, so he sprays it on a piece of material.

His eyes widen.

It smells like Lelouch.

No matter how hard he's tried, he's never managed to capture the exact essence of Lelouch's scent. As he remembered it, at Ashford, Lelouch smelled like the herbal and slightly sweet shampoos Nunnally favored—he never bothered to buy different things for himself, so he ended up with the same cosmetics—mingled with the wax he used to clean his chess pieces. Later, his scent changed as he threw himself into the smoke of war and machinery, into the ink on paperwork meant to safeguard a world that would celebrate his death.

This is all that, and more. Suzaku doesn't cry, but he comes very close. He makes a mental note to thank C.C. properly when he sees her next time.

****

They don't set up a routine. In fact, nothing really changes. C.C. will sometimes find him, mostly when he visits Lelouch's grave. A few times, she'd even pull him deeper into the orangery, and they'd take comfort into one another. Slowly, they start talking more. She tells him stories of her time with Lelouch, the days she had spent at Ashford or when he had been Zero. He narrates brighter memories, of the summer he and Lelouch met, of the strange friendship they struck despite their differences.

It's not something they can afford to do too often. C.C. is still on the run, and he has his duties. Still, this strange thing that they share helps, as does C.C.'s gift. He brings his sword to his wrist less often.

That makes it all the stranger when suddenly, around five years after the Requiem, the Geass starts acting out on its own.

The first few times, he deems it an anomaly. Maybe he pushed it a little too hard during his last... moments.

It doesn't take him long to realize this is not the case.

Zero seems plagued by constant accidents and misfortunes. Stray bullets from untested Knightmares almost hit him. Decorative busts, bricks or vases almost fall on his head. A statue of Charles zi Britannia, currently in the process of being dismantled, nearly crushes him.

On one memorable occasion, he blanks out for a whole day. It's the first time since the FLEJA in Tokyo that he has lost control of the Geass, and he wakes up two miles away from Pendragon, in a knightmare he doesn't recognize.

When he returns to the settlement, he goes over the surveillance tapes. Apparently, he was trapped in the hangars which were then flooded by toxic smoke. None of the knightmares worked. He assumes Gefjun disturbers must have been planted around the location. The weaponry of the machines was not functional.

To escape, he tore a limb off one of the machines through sheer strength and used it to make a hole in the walls. Suzaku stares at the sight of himself literally ripping through tons of metal and is torn between awe, disbelief and confusion. "Huh. That's new. I didn't know I could do that."

The Geass was not supposed to be able to make anyone do things their bodies aren't capable of. Then again, his was always a little different, and he's been using it as a tool for so long he's forgotten what it's like to truly be under its influence.

In the end, it doesn't really matter. The whole thing just confirms what he already knew before. Someone is trying to kill him.

When he sees Nunnally at dinner that day, she is pasty white and cannot look at him. Well, that answered that.

He doesn't really blame Nunnally for it. Suzaku may have been granted the role of Zero by Lelouch, but he doesn't have to be the one to wear the mask. If Suzaku is killed, someone else will take over. He is not strictly necessary to the Requiem. And he did kill Nunnally's brother. Even a person like Nunnally, who was once the epitome of gentleness and kindness, cannot be expected to forgive that.

Besides, it doesn't bother him. The whole-day Geass put him in a good mood, kind of like he just had a vacation, a day off with Lelouch. He acts normally and pretends he doesn't notice anything different about Lelouch's sister.

He wonders what she will try next.

****

When he meets C.C. next, he is coming off two inventive assassination attempts and his head is slightly spinning. He suspects the one involving electrocution was not Nunnally's idea. It just doesn't seem like her style. Perhaps Cornelia. She never did get over the fact that Euphie fell in love with a Number.

This time, C.C. comes to him. They are in front of the discreet mausoleum Nunnally has built for her brother, where Lelouch's ashes are supposedly kept. The place is well guarded to prevent any vandals from sneaking in. Somehow, C.C. has still managed, but it's a surprise that she's taken such a risk.

"You look a little... peaky," she comments as she enters the crypt.

"Nunnally is trying to kill me. The Geass keeps turning on and off, like I'm on a roller-coaster."

C.C. takes off his helmet and passes her fingers over his cheek. The strangeness settles into a more familiar, comfortable sensation. He smiles. "Thanks. But you really shouldn't be here. They still have a watch on you."

After all, the Black Knights knew her as Lelouch's mistress, and while she kept out of the public eye during their time in Pendragon, some people still saw her.

"I know. I needed to speak with you and it couldn't wait. It's about Lelouch."

Of course it is. Everything between them is about Lelouch. But she already knows that, and she wouldn't say it if it didn't mean something special.

"What would you say if I told you I could bring him back?" she asks, confirming his guess.

Suzaku's breath catches. He opens his mouth to ask if she's serious, but closes it when he realizes it's a stupid question. Of course she's serious. C.C. wouldn't joke with something like this.

"I'd ask what you needed," he replies. As soon as the words leave his lips, he knows they're true. There's nothing he wants more, nothing he wouldn't do, if it meant getting Lelouch back.

"Even if it means scrapping the Requiem?" C.C. insists.

"Even then."

There's no hesitation left inside him. Deep inside, even if he carries the mask of Zero, Zero is not the person he sees when he looks in the mirror. It's just an abbreviation of his true identity—that of the Knight of Zero, his emperor's knight.

"Anything," he adds.

C.C. smiles. It's an unsettling smirk, but it also holds an edge of fondness. She presses a brief kiss to his lips. "Good. I'll be in contact. I'm still making preparations, but I'll tell you when."

She slides out of his arms like smoke and disappears. Suzaku almost thinks he imagined the whole encounter, but his lips are still tingling and he can still smell the perfume of her surreally colored green hair.

He leaves the crypt in a daze. He dodges a rushing car on his way to the palace and wonders how long he is supposed to wait now.

Chapter Text

A few months later, the assassination attempts stop. It's been almost seven years since the Requiem now. He's gotten used to the routine of his Geass acting up, so he immediately notices the change.

He wonders is Nunnally has finally given up and made her peace with the fact that she can't kill her brother's murderer. The thought is strangely disappointing.

As it turns out, that's not the reason for the change. He finds out the truth when Nunnally summons an unexpected meeting with both the Black Knights and her closest companions.

He is startled to see Kallen present. She returned to Japan after the Requiem and started a new life with her mother. Why would she be here now?

The strangeness doesn't stop there. Cornelia's expression looks almost as grim as during the anniversaries of Euphie's death, and Viletta has also joined them. That's even more startling than Kallen's situation, since Viletta has a child to worry about.

There are others, Guilford, Schneizel, Kanon, some of the senior Black Knights—other than Ohgi, who must have stayed in Japan. Fortunately, Cornelia doesn't prolong the suspense. "We found C.C.," she says.

Suzaku has never been more grateful for the mask than at that moment. He's a far better actor than he used to be, but he knows that, if they saw his face, they would realize the news doesn't make him happy at all.

"What?" he asks, proud when he manages to keep his voice level. "Where?"

"Euro-Britannia," Viletta replies. "She appears to have restarted the Geass order."

"But why?" Kallen cries. "Lelouch hated the Order."

"Zero, do you know what her reasoning might be?" Nunnally asks.

Suzaku shakes his head. "Nothing in her demeanor prior to Lelouch's death suggests that she intended such a thing."

Todhoh narrows his eyes at Suzaku. "You haven't seen her since then?"

Suzaku hesitates. He probably should not have, but most of the people here are aware of his true identity and know that he and C.C. worked together in the months before Lelouch's death. "I saw her once, a few weeks after," he says. "At Lelouch's grave. She expressed her disdain for me, I nearly stabbed her. She didn't say anything that would imply such plans."

There is a long pause. Perhaps they blame him for not having captured her then. Nobody says it, though. In those days, they were too busy worrying about ensuring Nunnally's coronation and reign went well and did not really focus on C.C. all that much.

"Wait, she hated you?" Chiba asks.

"Yes, of course," Suzaku replies. "She blamed me for the failure of many of his plans and especially the incident with the emperor." Not to mention the fact that he'd killed Lelouch, but he doesn't want to point that out in present company.

"That doesn't justify what she's doing," Kallen shouts. "How dare she jeopardize everything Lelouch worked for?"

Several of the people in the room look uncomfortable at the evidence of Kallen's enduring loyalty toward Lelouch, but she doesn't seem to care. Suzaku can appreciate that, but he has no intention of sharing the truth with her.

Somehow,  he suspects that Kallen might not be on board with whatever C.C. has in mind. If it involves bringing the Order back, it is likely very questionable.

He finds he doesn't really mind. Certainly, much of what happened can be blamed on Geass. Euphie's death, for example. For that reason, he once hated it, and C.C. more than anything in the world. But without it and without the immortal witch, Lelouch would have never survived Shinjuku to begin with. C.C. has given Suzaku all the details and he understands that very well. If C.C. can use the Order to bring Lelouch back, so be it. He has long since stopped being the man who argued that results acquired through unethical means have no worth.

"I take it we're going to capture her then," he offers, already knowing he won't be on the same side as them.

There are nods all around. Suzaku falls in line with them, and as always, Schneizel follows his lead. They plan to corner C.C. at her current headquarters in Euro-Britannia. Nunnally expresses her desire to use non-lethal methods on the rest of the members of the Geass order, which Suzaku finds mildly humorous given her attempts on his life. He supposes the comparison isn't fair, and she truly does not want any more bloodshed.

"We will try," Cornelia decrees, "but we don't know what kind of foul powers they have."

"If we stay in our knightmares, we should be fine, right?" Chiba asks.

Suzaku shakes his head. "Not all Geasses work the same way. Lelouch's needed eye contact, but others are not like that."

It's true. Rolo's had been different, and he'd been able to affect a whole range of people he wasn't looking at, including some in knightmares. Viletta nods, obviously aware of it as well.

In the end, Cornelia says that they will try gas at first, but should that fail, they will go in guns blazing and eradicate everything that moves.

Nunnally is unhappy with the conclusion, but she has no choice. Like all of them, she believes the Geass Order must stay dead so that Lelouch's legacy can be safe.

"Very well. Bring C.C. to me once you secure her. I want a word."

They are set to leave at once. Cornelia rallies a large part of her troops, while Todhoh is meant to lead the Black Knights. Suzaku will be with him and presumably work side by side with Kallen, to hunt C.C. down.

"Be careful," Nunnally tells him before they depart. "The Geass Order is dangerous, Zero."

It occurs to Suzaku that they could have easily gone to chase C.C. without him. After all, his role is to guard Nunnally and assist her in everything that she needs. He did offer to participate, in a way, but they must have wanted to include him to begin with.

Friendly fire is a very easy and convenient way to take someone out. Suzaku remembers a certain encounter, between Jeremiah and the rest of the purist group, so many years ago.

Behind his mask, he smiles. "Don't worry, Princess Nunnally. I will always do my duty."

Her hands clench around the handles of the wheelchair, but she doesn't acknowledge the slight. As he leaves, Suzaku wonders if he will ever see her again.

****

When the operation starts, Cornelia doesn't even try to use gas on the Geass Order like she told Nunnally she would. "It is pointless," she says. "As long as there is even one of them left, we are all in danger."

Suzaku doesn't refute her and leaves the Witch of Britannia to her work and her revenge. As the knightmares invade the chambers of C.C.'s new headquarters, he rushes ahead, fully intending to find her, like he was supposed to. Sadly, Kallen, Todhoh, Chiba and five others follow.

C.C. isn't even trying to hide. She appears to be waiting in front of something that looks an awful lot like a thought elevator.

"So... Here you are," she says.

"Surrender, C.C.!" Kallen shouts. "You're completely surrounded."

"Oh, am I?" C.C. smiles, that same expression from the crypt. "You know, I always found you odd, Kallen Kozuki. You were so loyal to Zero, but not so when it came to Lelouch. It's like you never saw they were the same person. Why is that?"

"It's funny that you should speak of loyalty, witch, given that you're spitting on Lelouch's grave with what you've been doing," Kallen shoots back.

It's a good retort, but it doesn't really address what C.C. has said, probably because C.C. is right. Not that Kallen's loyalties are all that relevant now. To Suzaku, the two sides are clear. It's him and C.C. vs. everyone else.

He points his Varis at the witch. It's an empty threat, and she knows it. "Kallen is right. It's time to end this."

"It is. I'm ready when you are."

"What?" Chiba asks.

They never get the chance to say anything else. Suzaku has already turned his weapons on them. Chiba is dead before she can even figure out what is going on.

"Kururugi!" Todhoh bellows. "Traitor!"

"Oh, please." Suzaku snorts. "Half the reason you are here is to kill me."

After that, the only thing that remains is the battle. Fortunately, this version of the Shinchiro is only similar to the original in name and general structure. It operates like the Lancelot, and Suzaku moves as fluidly as he did in the frame he lost to his fight with Kallen.

Just as before, Kallen's rebuilt Guren is the most dangerous one. "Stop this, Suzaku," she screams as she attacks him, her claw ablaze with the fire of the Radiant Wave Surger. "Lelouch wouldn't have wanted this."

"No, he wouldn't have," he agrees. "But Lelouch is dead, and I want him back."

That gives her pause, and it's an opening he exploits to sweep through the rest of his opponents. Meanwhile, he catches sight of C.C. activating the thought elevator.

Kallen rushes at him again as he decapitates Todhoh's knightmare with his Slash Harken. She is beyond words, and as fierce in her fury as always.

Maybe she doesn't believe him. Maybe she thinks it's not worth it. It's beside the point.

Once upon a time, he had a lot of trouble beating her. He still isn't sure which of them was the better pilot during the Rebellion. Now, though, things have changed, and he has an unfair advantage.

His Geass buzzes at the back of his mind. He moves faster than ever before. When she hits him, it's only with glancing blows. He dances out of the range out the Radiant Wave Surger, idly wishing the area was high enough to allow him to use his wings better.

In the end, he collapses a massive wall onto Kallen. She manages to extract herself, but the Guren is damaged, the claw sparking. She still fights back, but it's a losing battle.

He separates the limbs of the knightmare from its body and leaves it there. He has no desire to kill Kallen. Despite everything, Lelouch cared about her, and that, at least, he can respect.

By now,  more knightmares are approaching. Cornelia and her forces must have received news of his treachery.

The doors of the thought elevator open. Jeremiah comes out. "Everything is ready, Lady C.C.," he says.

"Excellent. You have done well, Jeremiah. Suzaku, come."

Suzaku doesn't hesitate. He opens his hatch and jumps out of the machine. Jeremiah takes his place and salutes. "Good luck, Knight of Zero. I shall see you on the other side."

Suzaku has no idea what that means, but he nods. "And good luck to you too."

As he follows C.C. inside the thought elevator, the last thing he hears is Jeremiah shouting, "For my loyalty!" and then everything goes silent.

****

They are in the world of C. Suzaku expected this. It looks just like he remembers it, a wreck of blackened ruins, the same place where Lelouch killed both his father and the mother he once loved so dearly.

As he and C.C. approach, a woman manifests from the ether. Suzaku is immediately struck by her resemblance to C.C. It's not just physical. They do share the same stoic expression and an almost identical hair cut, although this stranger's hair is shorter, and black through pink instead of C.C.'s green. These similarities pale compared to the aura she exudes, so much like C.C.'s.

"You have made your decision then," she says as they reach her. "You're going through with this."

"It is the only way," C.C. replies.

Suzaku is sorely reminded of his own last exchange with Lelouch. He is tired of secrets and he just wants to understand.

He removes his mask and clears his throat. "Excuse me, but what does this exactly entail?"

The woman gives him a blank look, and for some reason, Suzaku feels she doesn't like him very much. It doesn't matter. He's used to that, so he meets her gaze without flinching.

There's something frightening and endless in her eyes, something that goes beyond even C.C.'s power. He holds his ground regardless. He's come this far. He refuses to back down.

"Time travel," the woman says at last.

Suzaku gapes. "Wait... That's a possibility?"

"Normally, it would not be," C.C. replies. "Going back in time to avoid a specific event is impossible, as without event occurring, you would not have left your original timeline to begin with. It is too risky and temporal paradoxes can unbalance the entire world of C."

"Then why are we here?" Suzaku tastes despair in his mouth. "You said there was a chance."

"There is," the strange woman replies. "Upon close consideration, we have decided to make an exception."

Suzaku frowns. We? Is that a royal we, or something else? "Who are you exactly?" he asks.

"You may call me the Dimensional Supervisor," she answers. "I am the manifestation of the collective consciousness of the Universe."

Her voice suddenly sounds different, like she's speaking through a million different mouths, not just one. Suzaku is crushed under the realization that he is standing in front of what is basically a god. Since his experience on the world of C, he's more or less seen that name as a metaphor, but clearly, his interpretation hasn't been correct.

"I... see," he manages to say.

"We heard Lelouch vi Britannia's call to not stop the march of time. We felt his loss in the earthly world was... unnecessary. Thus, we will grant you and C.C. this one chance to fix things."

The spark of hope in Suzaku's chest comes back with a vengeance. "Thank you. We will not waste it."

"Understand this," the Dimensional Supervisior continues without acknowledging his gratitude. "There will be consequences. Certain events cannot be changed, and even we have no way of knowing when and where you will awaken. It could be when you were born, or when one of you met Lelouch vi Britannia. It could be when he received his Geass, when it evolved or when it was awakened. It could be ten seconds before his death. There are no guarantees."

"That is a risk we must take," C.C. answers. It's clear that she has made her decision, and will not turn back no matter what.

Suzaku doesn't say anything. To be able to go back into the past seems like a dream. He's afraid that if he speaks, it will shatter, or the Dimensional Supervisor will change her mind.

She doesn't. Instead, she waves a hand, and another figure appears from the void. It is another woman, but she appears to be unconscious. She more or less floats their way, her long blond hair trailing over the surreal floor.

"Leila Malcal," C.C. says, caressing the side of the woman's cheek. "One of my contractors."

Once again, Suzaku is confused. "Why is she here?"

"Sacrifices must be made for all things," C.C. answers. "I rebuilt the Geass Order in attempt to find a contractor powerful enough for this project, but it didn't work. Then, I finally found Leila. She is an older contractor, from before Lelouch, and I found her power is exactly what we need."

As C.C. speaks, Leila cracks her eyes open. "W-What... What happened? Akito?"

C.C. ignores her. Both she and the Dimensional Supervisor stare at Suzaku. "You are here because your Geass still ties you strongly to Lelouch," C.C. explains. "I don't have that any longer. Our contract was severed when he died. You are the only one who can do this."

Leila tries to struggle. Her eye burns with a Geass—blue, not red, like Lelouch's—but she is no match for the Dimensional Supervisor. Suzaku knows what he must do.

He retrieves his sword once again. It's Zero's sword, the same one he used to kill his lover and brand his regret into his own flesh.

Gods willing, it might be the last time he'll have to use it.

Suzaku braces himself. C.C. sets her hand over his. Her hair starts to float, exposing the Geass mark on her forehead.

The Dimensional Supervisor disappears, and around them, the world of C starts to spin. Leila continues her struggles, but even now, it is futile.

She is so much like Euphie, down to the way she wears her hair.

It doesn't matter. He takes a deep breath and plunges his sword straight right through her chest.

Her shocked look reminds him of Lelouch's expression during the Requiem. Her face becomes a blend of Euphie and Lelouch's, the two people he loved most in his life. Her eyes look so much like his, and her tears become an expression of his repeated betrayals. When she screams, it's Lelouch's voice he hears, from the time he himself held Lelouch down in front of his father.

It's agonizing, but Suzaku holds on. A part of him is shouting that Kallen was right, that Lelouch didn't ask for this. Lelouch's last words and orders were clear, and they did not involve what he is doing.

But what is one more betrayal after everything he has on his list? Besides, if Lelouch knew about this possibility, he may have wanted to take it too.

Unlike Lelouch, Leila doesn't bleed out in front of him. Instead, her body shatters in a million shards of white glass. Suzaku has enough time to wonder what will happen to her if they go back in time, and then the spinning of the world of C intensifies. The bridge beneath his feet cracks.

Suddenly, C.C. is gone, the warmth of her palm on his vanishing into the cold emptiness. He is falling through empty space, choking, dying, screaming and unable to hear himself utter one single sound. Flashes of incomprehensible images scroll through his head, and he wants to claw his eyes out to at least try to hold them back.

His Geass is a painful buzz at the back of his mind. He scrambles for it and clings to it like it's a lifeline.

He must have done something right, because the next thing he knows, a voice shatters the ominous silence. "Live on!"

It's Lelouch's voice, so familiar, so dear, so true and full of emotion. He desperately follows it, and just like that, he stops falling.

He opens his eyes to the sight of clear, blue skies. The sound of waves reaches his hearing and the bright sunlight caresses his exposed face.

Where is he? Since the Requiem, he's only felt sunlight at the orangery, and he's clearly not there. With a groan, he starts to get up and looks around.

It only takes him seconds to identify his location. The Island of the Gods. He would know this place anywhere. It changed so many things in his life. It's where he allied himself with Lelouch, only to agree on their mad plan he would later regret so much.

Has he traveled back in time? He can't tell.

Suzaku stares down at himself. He's wearing... his devicer uniform from his first days as Lancelot's pilot, back when he was Euphie's knight.

Suzaku's breath catches. Live on. Of course! He must have traveled to the moment when he first received Lelouch's Geass.

If memory serves him well, Kallen is somewhere on this island, and so are Lelouch and his sister.

The thought freezes the breath in his lungs. Where does that leave him? What is he supposed to do now?

He really should have asked C.C. more questions before he agreed to this.

Chapter Text

In the end, Suzaku decides to follow through with what happened in the original timeline. Too many variations would be risky, given that Schneizel's force isn't very far from his current position. Trying to find Lelouch now may put the entire plan in danger.

It hurts to have to wait, but he has no choice.

Like before, he finds Kallen taking a bath in the waterfall. Like before, she tries to stab him.

She's strong, stronger than she ever seemed at Ashford, but she was never a match for him in hand to hand combat, not when he was actually putting up a fight. He pins her down with ease.

This time, he does not ask her if she knows Zero's true identity. He decides to remain as discreet as possible.

If things goes the way he hopes, he may eventually join the Black Knights, at least until Lelouch leaves them behind like the dead weight they are. Until that happens, he will need Kallen's help. Her loyalty to Zero will come in handy.

"Come on," he tells her. "We should get something to eat."

Like the first time, he makes sure she is dressed and manhandles her to her feet, keeping her hands bound and pocketing her weapon. She peppers him with questions, but for the most part, he ignores her.

"You're quiet," she says at last, as he is in the water, fishing.

"I'm thinking," he deigns to answer.

Predictably, Kallen takes the chance to get a good dig in. "Oh? That sounds like a change compared to what you usually do. Following orders like a good Britannian dog."

Once, that may have offended him, but these days, few words can get to him, and uttered by even fewer people. He suspects the list is down to two—Lelouch and C.C., three if he included Euphie. "Following orders is not shameful. You should know that. You take orders from Zero, don't you?"

"It's not the same!" she angrily shouts at him. "How can you even make the comparison? Britannia has taken everything from us!"

"We still have our lives," he replies. "As long as that is the case, Japan is never truly dead."

It's one of the things Lelouch said in his past speeches, that Japan is not just a country. It goes beyond its territories, buildings or any of the material things Britannia has destroyed.

Japan lives still in its people, and it is those people that must be protected.

Suzaku didn't really do a good job the first time around, although the situation massively improved after the Requiem. Ohgi was many things, but as a Prime Minister, he managed to rebuilt much of what was lost.

Lelouch can do it better. Suzaku is convinced of that, and it's why he is here, foregoing the oath he made to his dying emperor.

Well, that and the fact that he wanted Lelouch back. Still, he can multi-task.

Kallen doesn't seem to know what to make of his reply. "Is that what you think? That Japan can endure under Britannian occupation?"

Answering that question would open a whole different can of worms. Suzaku is relieved when he doesn't have to, because he finally catches the fish he's been hoping for.

"Let's leave that aside for now. We can argue about it later, once we're off the island, okay?"

"Okay," Kallen reluctantly mumbles, "but just so you know, I'm watching you. I don't trust you. I haven't forgotten you tried to kill Zero."

Suzaku stares at his own reflection in the water. "Yes. I suppose I did."

If only Kallen knew. But she must never know. Hopefully, she will never have to mourn Lelouch again, nor will she be forced to face him in battle.

This plan must work. It can't have all been for nothing.

****

The next day, Suzaku follows the same path as in his first life. Of course, he runs straight into Lelouch and Euphie.

For a few seconds, Suzaku almost loses his grip on Kallen. It's surreal to see Zero again in front of him, after he has been wearing that costume for years. Not to mention that Zero is standing next to Euphie, who remains one of Suzaku's biggest failures and regrets. It's kind of like he's looking in a twisted mirror, and he experiences a dreadful moment during which he fears all this might be a nightmare, intended to torture him with false hopes.

Then, Lelouch moves, and just like that, Suzaku snaps out of his trance. Seeing him point the gun as Euphie makes him break out in cold sweat, but he knows Lelouch does not intend to shoot her. Nothing should happen here. They're fine. They're safe.

"I'll take back my subordinate you have there," Lelouch says. "We'll exchange prisoners."

Suzaku clenches his jaw. The last time, their exchange ended in argument, but there's no point for that now. "Deal."

Lelouch jerks slightly. He's clearly surprised by this turn of events, not that he lets it show beyond that brief moment. "I see there's hope for you yet," he says with a brief laugh. "Your mistress is more important than your misguided ideals. Good."

He takes a few steps forward. Suzaku mimics him. The first time, he was distracted by Zero and lost track of Kallen, who freed herself and attacked him. He will not make the same mistake again. He has to remain in complete control of the situation.

There are soldiers beneath them. Suzaku wishes he could have avoided them, but he does not know how to find evacuation options that would keep both Euphie and Lelouch safe. The Gawain remains the best option. He has to hope things will stay the same and they'll all get out of this debacle alive.

"Now, let my subordinate go and I will do the same for your princess."

"Can I trust you to not attempt to attack us?" Suzaku asks.

"Yes, of course," Lelouch says. "You have my word."

He lets go of Euphie's arm. Now that Suzaku is paying attention, it's obvious that Euphie isn't in the least bit frightened. He always suspected Euphie knew Zero's true identity and C.C. later confirmed it. He was blind not to see it before. It's clear that even while she has a gun pointed at her, she believes her brother would never hurt her.

The tragic irony is that she's right. If Lelouch's Geass hadn't gone out of control at the SAZ...

But that hasn't happened yet. Suzaku can still change things. Euphie and Lelouch are alive. He can save them both.

He releases Kallen and she runs toward Lelouch. Euphie moves forward as well, intent on rushing to Suzaku's side.

Suzaku should have known Kallen would never be just a passive participant in anything. Instead of retreating to Lelouch's side as she seemed to intend, she tackles Euphie to the ground. Even with her hands bound, she is still an enemy to be reckoned with, and Euphie cannot free herself from her hold.

Perhaps Kallen thinks this is the Black Knights' chance to gain an advantage over Britannia. He supposes he can understand that, but the angry beast of his protectiveness still stirs when he hears the pained cry Euphie makes upon hitting the ground.

"I have her, Zero," Kallen calls out. "I have the puppet princess."

Suzaku takes a few angry steps forward. "You..."

Lelouch quickly points the gun at him. "Keep your distance, Kururugi. We don't want any accidents."

Yes, that is the last thing Suzaku wants. He despairs at how situations always seem to escalate around him and Lelouch, even when he is deliberately trying to not antagonize his friend.

Lelouch crouches by Kallen's side and helps her out of her bonds. "All right. Let the princess go."

"But Zero..."

"No, Q1," Lelouch says, his voice stern, like a sentence. "I gave my word. We're going."

She looks confused, but she complies, allowing Euphie to return to Suzaku's side. She gives him a wide smile far too reminiscent of the one she offered him on her death bed. He wants to hug her, but he never gets the chance.

The ground beneath them lights up with the familiar mark of Geass. He doesn't remember seeing it in his first life, but back then, its power paralyzed him with flashes of the past he regretted.

This time, it doesn't work. His Geass snaps around him, almost like a protective embrace. It hasn't changed. It's just as powerful as it was before he entered the world of C with the witch.

Other things have, though. As the red light intensifies, Lelouch clutches his chest and lets out a choked cry. Suzaku's eyes widen in shock. Oh crap. This could be a huge problem.

"Suzaku..." Lelouch grits out. "What... What have you..."

Kallen kneels next to him, trying to help him up, but the platform is already collapsing. Suzaku doesn't think. He only has one chance to keep them all safe.

He shoots forward, dragging Euphie along with him. He hates using her as a shield, but the soldiers won't risk hitting her. They didn't when this happened in their original timeline. Although the details of the incident are still blurry, he thinks he remembers that much. After all, if they'd wanted to take the chance, they could have probably gunned Lelouch down on the spot. So he just needs to make sure things happen the same way, to give Lelouch time to recover.

Euphie stumbles, but goes along with it anyway. They end up standing right in front of Lelouch and Kallen, essentially blocking the soldiers' view of their foes.

"Suzaku, what...?" Euphie tries to ask.

"Shh," Suzaku tells her. "I'll explain later."

As the platform comes to a grinding halt, voices erupt from the darkness. "Major Kururugi?" Lloyd. "Princess Euphemia?"

"Euphie?" Schneizel asks. "Thank goodness. We were all so worried. Are you all right?"

Behind them, Lelouch gathers his breath. "Zero, there's a knightmare over there," Kallen whispers. "We can make our escape."

"Good thinking, Q1," Lelouch replies, his voice thick with tightly suppressed pain.

Suzaku and Euphie are still blocking the soldiers' view. Suzaku has never been more grateful for Euphie's propensity to wear voluminous dresses.

Of course, he and Euphie can only provide a delay for so long. Lelouch gets up, and just like that, chaos explodes.

"Is that... Zero?"

"Don't shoot, you fools!" General Bartley barks out. "You'll hit Princess Euphemia. Capture them. Capture them."

Lelouch runs toward the knightmare, and it's only because Suzaku knows him so well that he notices the slight shakiness in his stance. He can't do anything to help now, and making the attempt would just endanger them all.

He shoves Euphie out of the way, hoping and praying he can rely on Kallen to act like she must have the first time, when he was paralyzed by the Geass. Should the worst occur, he is prepared to incapacitate or even kill the guards. There is also the option of taking Schneizel captive, but he isn't sure if that is wise or if it would change things irreparably and destroy their chance to stop the Ragnarok Connection.

Thankfully, he is not forced to interfere. Kallen takes out the guards and delays them long enough to allow Lelouch to start the knightmare. She climbs on, and Suzaku stands there and watches as the Gawain rushes toward the exit of the cave.

There must be something wrong with him, because all he can think about is that he should be the one on the Gawain's shoulder, not Kallen.

****

After that, things progress just like they did the first time. He's almost arrested and confronted with the evidence of what he did when Lelouch placed him under Geass.

He acts shocked, but inside, he finds he feels little resentment over the whole episode. If not for Lelouch's actions, Suzaku would have killed them both, just to follow orders.

Later, he returns Euphie's pin, but when she looks at him and argues, he struggles with providing the explanation. He should probably give her the same story, his argument about dishonor. But on the other hand, he never did explain his actions in the cave, and Euphie is clever. She knows something is wrong that he isn't saying.

"The truth is... Princess Euphemia..."

"Euphie," she corrects him with a gentle smile.

"Euphie... Well, the truth is... I don't know if I ever told you about... about my last summer as a Japanese citizen."

Euphie blinks, having clearly not expected that. She shakes her head. "No, no, you didn't."

Suzaku takes a deep breath. He's nervous about this. There's a reason why he and Lelouch kept their past under wraps. Even at Ashford, they were never upfront about how far back their acquaintance went. In their first life, Euphie did know about his and Lelouch's friendship, but he never really went into detail about his past beyond telling her he killed his father.

It's necessary to tell her now, to make her understand. She deserves that much, at least. "That summer... My father was the Prime Minister of Japan and we received two guests. A Britannian prince and princess. Against all odds, we became friends. The best of friends."

He doesn't say the name, but he doesn't have to. Euphie's eyes widen. She is beginning to understand.

"I have reason to believe that he may have gotten himself into a situation he cannot fully control," he continues. "I feel like... I feel like he may need me. And... I can't.... I deeply apologize for what I did in the cave, but..."

"I understand," she cuts him off, cupping his cheek gently. "I wondered about it, but I didn't know how to ask. You did the right thing. They wouldn't have shot me."

"Still... The fact remains that I can't..." He swallows around the knot in his throat. This is it, the moment when he has to utter his choice. "I can't be a knight for two people."

Euphie's fingers jerk slightly. He half-expects her to slap him.

He really should have known better.

All of a sudden, she wraps her arms around him and pulls him close. Her soft perfume tickles his nostrils. She is so very warm, and he hates himself a little for all the deception he will have to put her through.

"Thank you, Suzaku," she whispers. "My brother really does need someone by his side, and there's no one better than you to watch his back. I was so worried, but now, I know he will be safe."

Suzaku's eyes fill with tears. Of course she would say and do something like this. It is why he once loved her so very much.

It's also why the two of them can never be. She is a pure soul, and he is so very selfish. He's always been a murderer, desperately looking for redemption and just digging himself into a deeper hole by making all the wrong choices.

He has a chance to undo that now. While he would love to remain by her side, he knows the dream they once shared is just that, a dream, a naive illusion. At this stage in world history, peace can only come through the kind of methods Lelouch employs.

And in truth, it goes beyond that. Any romantic love he felt for her seems to have disappeared. It's disconcerting. He loves her still, so very much, but it's more similar to the affection he feels for Nunnally than the all-consuming passion Lelouch stirs inside him.

"I don't know what will happen," he tells her. "I still need to talk to him, to understand. It's all very confusing. But under the circumstances..."

 He can't seem to eager or too sure of his place by Lelouch's side. His past self rejected Zero's approach, and while he is basically telling her he is doing this for his friend, his ideals would not have changed overnight. He is not Euphie's Suzaku any longer, but she doesn't know that, and she must remain in the dark.

"I understand," she says as she releases him. "Don't worry. I won't say a word."

Of that, Suzaku is convinced. She died still keeping Lelouch's secret. This time, it will not be necessary.

It is with that decision in mind that he boards the Lancelot, ready for the Kyushu mission. He just has to do this one thing, this one last thing, and then he will see Lelouch. This is one of the few battles where they fought together, side by side, before he became the Knight of Zero. It felt odd at the time, but now, it's his purpose.

Sure, he knows that he will unavoidably meet with Lelouch at Ashford, but that does nothing to put a damper on his anticipation.

As he flies toward the enemy base, he crushes all the resistance in his path. This version of the Lancelot is nowhere near as dangerous as future models are, but it does the job. It helps that, despite the fact that he is in his younger body, he appears to have preserved most of his speed and muscle memory, if not all of his physical strength.

The Geass he now uses at will makes an even bigger difference this time than it did in the past, although he is reluctant to do too much damage on his own. He wants Zero to show up, after all.

He pretty much tunes out much of the conversation with Sawazaki. He's a non-entity, already a part of the past, and he will soon be eliminated, if not by him, by Cornelia. The end result of this mission is set is stone, and Suzaku will not lose to him of all people.

It's immensely frustrating to have the Lancelot's power down on him again. This time, at least, he's not surrounded by enemy troops. He was careful to take them all down so that he wouldn't end up in the same situation as before. Just the same, it's never pleasant to be stuck in enemy territory in a dead knightmare.

When his coms alert him of incoming transmission, Suzaku accepts the call. He's expecting the conversation with Euphie, since it's not over open coms. Instead, what he sees is Lelouch.

He is in his Zero outfit, but without the mask. The cockpit of the Gawain is visible behind him. His eyes both burn with the red of the Geass sigil. "Well, well. It would seem you've finally manage to acquire some self preservation, Sir Kururugi."

Suzaku chokes on his own spit.  "Lelouch."

"Yes, it's me," Lelouch drawls. "Don't tell me you're surprised to see me."

As he speaks, the Gawain descends from the sky. Suzaku wants to cry. Lelouch always was so dramatic. Now that he can't destroy the enemy units surrounding Suzaku, he has to compensate by being unnecessarily verbose.

Suzaku has missed him so much it hurts. "How did you even get this com frequency?"

Lelouch gives him an exasperated look. "You do realize it's the same one you used for the Albion. I simply remembered it. And speaking of which, you still owe me an explanation."

At that, Suzaku manages to muster a degree of coherence. "Hasn't C.C. explained?"

C.C.'s soft laughter sounds over the coms. Right, she's the one piloting the Gawain. "Don't think you'll get out of this one so easily. He is convinced I blackmailed you or forced your hand somehow. Besides, we didn't get much chance to talk. Kallen was ever so concerned when they learned of Zero's apparent heart attack on the island."

Heart attack? She must mean the moment when Lelouch clutched his heart on the island.

"You should have seen it, Suzaku," C.C. continues. "Everyone fussing over poor Zero. Kallen was ready to wrap him up in cotton wool."

"Damn witch," Lelouch mumbles, rubbing his eyes in clear exasperation. "This isn't funny."

"It may well be, for her," Suzaku points out.

It's a familiar exchange, the biting banter reminding him of the time they'd spent together before the Requiem. But at the same time, it's different, no longer shrouded by the knowledge of imminent death and loss. It gives Suzaku a heady feeling. He wonders if this is what taking Refrain is like. If so, he is not surprised so many people were addicted on it.

The Gawain offers Suzaku an energy filler, which Suzaku accepts with no hesitation. "Come on, Suzaku. Let's finish this mission already. Let's take out the enemy base. Leave Cao to me."

The orders are clear and stern, but the softness in Lelouch's tone eases something tight in Suzaku's chest. Until now, a part of him feared Lelouch would be angry at them for destroying his Requiem. He clearly isn't. Therefore, even if he broke his promise, even if he went against Lelouch's last wishes, he must have made the right decision.

"Yes, Your Majesty."

As he and Lelouch once again storm the Kyushu base, Suzaku feels freer than he has in many years. C.C. has managed the impossible. This is real, not a product of Suzaku's fevered dreams. He truly does have another chance, and he will make good use of it.

Chapter Text

Lelouch once thought he understood at least on some level what happened after death. He thought that, after the Requiem, his soul, tainted as it was, would return to the world of C and blend with the common consciousness of mankind.

The idea of losing all individuality scared him more than that of physically dying, but he figured it would be worth it.

At any rate, before the Requiem, he was pretty sure the afterlife didn't involve physical pain in any way. 

He should not be so surprised that he was wrong.

The pain from the stab wound doesn't fade. Better said, it returns with a vengeance. A numbness set in once he fell to the bottom of the platform, so he barely felt anything at all, but now, it's back.

For a few moments, his brain cannot process what is happening.  Then, his mind makes some adjustments and finally processes what is going on and where he is. Kaminejima, with Euphie, Suzaku and Kallen. It feels like it's been an eternity since then.

He would deem it a cruel illusion or a flashback, but there are strange differences between what he remembers and what is going on. Everything about Suzaku is different. Even with his chest throbbing, his mind assaulted by strange images and his eyes burning, he can tell that much.  

He honestly isn't sure how he manages to drag himself to his feet and repeat his actions from the first time he did this. It must be the knowledge that there's only so long Suzaku can stall Schneizel and his soldiers. Or maybe it's spite, confusion, anger. Either way, he reaches the Gawain and blasts his way out of the cave, with Kallen on his shoulder.

"Zero?" Kallen cries over the rush of the wind.

Lelouch cannot focus on whatever else she is saying. "Just hold on," he tells her. He needs to think. He needs to understand what is going on.

He needs to find the witch. She must have something to do with this, he just knows it.

When he reaches the Black Knights, he fully intends to do exactly that—go in search C.C.. That is made difficult when Kallen blurts out what happened on the island, apparently in a complete panic.

It's not a huge surprise. As Zero, Lelouch actively tried not to show any weakness. He pretended he didn't feel pain and fear, that he was beyond trivial things like human necessities. The illusion was perpetuated by the fact that he never ate in front of them and when he slept, he did so at Ashford. When he did receive injuries, C.C. usually helped him to hide them.

Sure, they must have been aware he was human like them, but being intellectually aware of something isn't the same as acknowledging it to your innermost self.

That image of invulnerability helped him gain power quickly. He now suspects that in the long run, it may have been one of the factors behind the Black Knights' betrayal.

It hardly matters now, since Zero has apparently received an injury serious enough to nearly cripple him in front of the enemy. In hindsight, he should have spoken with Kallen and told her to keep her mouth shut about it. Too late for that now.

"I don't have a heart condition," he tells Rakshata, irritated. "I assure you I'm perfectly fine."

Rakshata looks unconvinced and Kallen gives him a pleading glance. "But Zero..."

"Zero, if you are afflicted by a health-related matter, we should be aware," Diethard insists.

Tamaki nods anxiously, and seeing those two agree on something is eerie enough that Lelouch has to wonder if he has in fact fallen into some sort of weird hallucination. Maybe Suzaku failed to kill him, and he's in the hospital, imagining this whole thing.

Fortunately, before the situation can escalate or he can panic further, they are interrupted by the incident with Sawazaki. Lelouch directs his forces to head toward the Kyushu base, leaves Rakhshata to calibrate the Gawain and drags C.C. away. She's the only one who can answer his questions.

"What the hell is this, witch?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," she says.

Her tone is as dead-pan as ever, but that's where the similarities stop. As soon as they are behind closed doors, she pounces on him, pulls off his mask and kisses him on the mouth.

The uncharacteristic enthusiasm makes him think that he must be missing more than he originally realized. He and C.C. were never lovers until the last months of his life. Lelouch appreciated the support and comfort, even if he knew it probably came from the guilt over having kept so many things from him.

He never really blamed her for her deception. C.C. had never made him any promises, beyond that of keeping him alive. Lelouch jolts. Is his sudden resurrection connected to that? C.C. is certainly resourceful, but... What could she have done to turn time back?

"Don't play games with me, witch," he tells her as he pulls away.

"Not playing games," she replies, this time completely serious. "Not this time. This is real, Lelouch, I promise you. It wasn't easy, but we're really back."

The "we" immediately catches Lelouch's attention. He would think she is referring to him and herself, but somehow, he knows that's not the case.

A flash of the island crosses his mind, of the way Suzaku protected him, even putting Euphie in the line of fire to do so. It seems such an uncharacteristic thing to do. Something isn't right.

He narrows his eyes at C.C. "Suzaku. How did you get him involved in this whole thing? What did you do to him?"

"Believe it or not, I didn't do anything to your knight. He was very willing to contribute." She lets herself fall on the couch, draping her legs over its sides. "You're so ungrateful, boy. Here we are, saving your life, and you keep questioning our reasons."

Lelouch wants to ask if she can really blame him for that, but something stops him. There's a strange vulnerability in C.C., kind of like the time she suffered from amnesia. It makes him feel awkward and uncertain. He doesn't understand how this is possible and why they would have done it to begin with.

"It's not that I'm not grateful. I just need to know why. Did the Requiem not work?"

"I suppose it depends on what you mean by that," C.C. offers, completely unhelpful. "Does it really matter though? It's done and gone."

"It matters," he says. "We've kept enough secrets for a lifetime."

"Fair enough."

She never does get the chance to explain, because a knock sounds at the door. It's Kallen. He puts his mask back on and lets her in. Apparently, they have to make further preparations for the Kyushu operation, and she's still not reassured after the debacle on the island.

"Are you sure about this, Zero?" she asks. "You still need to rest."

"I'll rest when I'm dead."

It's probably not the best thing to say when he literally just came back from the dead, but they don't know that, and C.C. is good at pretending she isn't affected by his comment. Kallen winces, but doesn't question him again. She can probably tell he's reaching the limits of his composure.

It doesn't help him at all that he has to force himself to call Nunnally. His overnight stay on the island concerned her even the first time around, so as soon as he can get a signal on his phone, he contacts her.

She replies after only one ring. "Big brother?"

Her soft, gentle voice is like a dagger to his chest. It's so easy to remember how she looked at him the last time they truly spoke, on the Damocles, when she called him a demon. "Hi, Nunnally," he says, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "I'm sorry about the delay. I hope I didn't worry you too much."

"Just a little, but Sayoko said you were surely all right, but this whole thing with the Chinese Federation has made a mess of everything. Communication lines are down, right?"

"Yes, that's right," he replies, mentally thanking Sayoko—for a second time—for coming up with an excuse. "Don't worry, though. I'm coming back for sure tonight, and I'm not in a dangerous area at all."

The lie falls easily from his lips, even easier than before. It's strange, but that helps him. Slowly, the pieces start to slide into place.

By the time he finds Suzaku again in the Kyushu base, he's a little more clear-headed. He still cannot understand how time travel of this magnitude was possible, but he is beginning to grasp both C.C. and Suzaku's reasoning. Suzaku undoubtedly wants Euphie back. Of course he was willing to contribute. That doesn't explain the incident in the cave, but then again, Suzaku could have easily pushed Euphie out of the way had Schneizel's soldiers done anything stupid. The risk to her was slim to none.

As for C.C., she must still be trying to end her life. Certainly, she could have snared another contractor, but given what he knew so far, it seems that it's not so easy to find someone willing and able to take a code.

As he pulverizes Sawazaki's forces, it occurs to him that he may have come back in time just to lose two of the people he cares about most. But it's all right. He will grant both Suzaku and C.C. their wishes. Suzaku will have his happy life with the woman he deserves and C.C. will have peace, even if Lelouch needs to carry her curse instead.

He supposes it's only fair. It was cruel and presumptuous of him to think he deserved the mercy of rest while the rest of the world continued on, suffering the consequences of his actions. The Requiem must have failed, but this time he will do it better. This time, he will not fail.

When they finish the mission in Kyushu, he and Suzaku go their separate ways, just like before, although they do make arrangements to speak more when they go back to Ashford. Lelouch is once again left alone in the Gawain with C.C.

"I can hear you thinking, you know," she surprisingly says, breaking the silence. "Ask me again."

"All right," he replies, feeling that strange mix of exasperation and fondness he did when she played her games. "Why? What happened? What went wrong? Schneizel?"

It's his best guess. His brother always was very resourceful and there are ways to break the Geass or work around it. The one he cast on Schneizel was absolute and not as vague as Suzaku's "live on", but in his heart, Lelouch always feared that one day, Schneizel would force himself to no longer acknowledge Suzaku as Zero.

"No," C.C. says, much to his surprise. "Your plans worked. Perfectly, in fact. It's almost funny, if you think about it, that everything would turn out like you meant it to only when it involved your death."

She laughs, but the sound holds no humor. He isn't sure what to say, so he just stays silent.

She places the Gawain on autopilot and turns in her seat. "I don't care about world peace, Lelouch," she says. "I've lived through to many regimes to place any stock in something so transient. I never wanted the Requiem, but I hoped until that last day that you would survive it. When I noted the mistake I had made, I took steps to fix it."

Lelouch stares at her. "Took steps?" he repeats dumbly.

She leans in closer to him, her lips twisting into a small smile. "You make my life more than a series of experiences. I wanted that back, and I refused to let anyone—even you—keep it from me."

He should be angry with her, but all he can feel is a strange spark of warmth and hope. "Your wish..."

"Can wait," she cuts him off. "I don't want to die, not when I finally have something worth living for."

That's the biggest compliment someone like C.C. can ever make. Words of love would sound strange between them, but he can hear it anyway.

It's the same odd love that made him cling to her, even at a time when logic stated he should have pushed her away.

Her eyes shine golden in the dim light of the knightmare. He wants to kiss her so very badly. She pulls away and sits back down before he can do so.

Clearing his throat, Lelouch tries to compose himself. "Selfish woman," he mutters.

"You know it," C.C. says with a laugh. She pauses, and her voice turns serious again. "You know... What I did... There were no guarantees. Suzaku and I had no knowledge of when we would return. It could have very easily been after your sister's death."

"What."

It's not even a question. It's a statement. The only reason why Suzaku would go so far and scrap the Requiem is Euphie. They both agreed on the necessity of their plan, for the sake of the world, to atone for their sins, but also to save Euphie's memory, at least a little.

Even when the two of them were lovers, Suzaku only touched him out because of his loneliness and because of the slight resemblance between him and Euphie. The two of them were only half-siblings, but when he wore his contacts, his eyes were the closest Suzaku could ever find to Euphie's, closer possibly than Cornelia's.

He definitely seemed pleased at their reunion, but Lelouch cannot allow himself to read too much into it. Suzaku isn't C.C. He has never loved Lelouch, not like that.

He must have said that out loud, because C.C. snorts under her breath. "You underestimate him. Just don't jump to any conclusions and talk to your knight. You might be surprised at what you find."

He takes a deep breath, but nods. Like he has told C.C. it is time to leave all the secrets behind. He will speak with Suzaku and make a decision then.

After all, he needs to know if Suzaku remains his knight, or if he is Euphie's.

"I suppose I can't complain," he says, his mind already running over all the things he can change. "Who else knows about this? Orange? Can anyone else remember? Is V.V. aware?"

C.C. laughs again. "Setting your chess board in place, are we? The Dimensional Supervisor was right. Your loss would have been such a waste."

"Who?"

****

For the better part of his life, school meant nothing for Lelouch, a useless chore intended to be only a part of his cover. He did come to fear certain aspects of it, largely because of Milly's wild ideas and her irrational tendency to sic the whole school on him, but in his heart, he also treasured those memories.

That only makes his return to Ashford stranger.

It's actually a minor miracle that he even managed to get back here. His Geass is back as it was during the last days of his past life, and without C.C.'s help, he may not have been able to make the trip. It's necessary, though. He's already been away for too long, and he still needs to keep his cover.

They do make a brief pitstop at an occulist and instruct the man in question to make him some contacts. As soon as Lelouch is safely behind the walls of the Academy, C.C. goes back there to hopefully pick them up.

As for Lelouch, he drags his tired, sore body into the Student Council Building.  It's very late and Nunnally is sleeping. He's grateful for that, because he doesn't know how he could have explained what happens next.

Suzaku ambushes him within two seconds of him entering his bedroom. His breath catches as his knight pins him to the door. He tries to come up with something to say, but his mind is drawing a blank. He ends up blurting out a question that isn't that relevant in the big picture. "How did you leave the military base?"

"After all these years, I have a lot of experience sneaking around," Suzaku says. "I couldn't wait to see you any longer."

He's pawing at Lelouch, frantic, his hands shaking as he rips open Lelouch's shirt. There is something feverish in his gaze, something dark and wild, as fierce as the anger that once led him to drag Lelouch in front of his father. Lelouch isn't afraid, though. If anything, he's concerned.

For the first time, it occurs to Lelouch that he never asked C.C. how long it took her to find her time travel solution. Her deal with the embodiment of the Gods still has Lelouch slightly terrified, because something like that can only come with serious consequences for all of them.

"It's all right," he says as Suzaku smoothes his hand over Lelouch's unblemished chest. "I'm here. I'm okay."

"Yes," Suzaku murmurs. "You're here. You're fine. You're alive."

His strength seems to fail him as that thought processes and he slides to the floor on his knees. Lelouch kneels next to him and Suzaku buries his face in his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Lelouch."

"You don't need to apologize, Suzaku, not to me." Never to him.

They both wronged each other so very much, but at the end of the day, Lelouch was the one who started their circle of hate. He was the one who killed Euphie. He was the one who took Suzaku's will away and forced the "Live on" Geass on him.

Looking at Suzaku now, Lelouch wonders what the Geass did to him after the Requiem.

Suzaku lifts his head, as if hearing Lelouch's thoughts. He doesn't seem happy about Lelouch's refusal to accept his apology. "I should have expected that. After all, you never blamed me for supposedly killing your sister. You only ever blamed yourself, and I allowed it."

"Suzaku..."

"C.C. told me, you know, that it was an accident. I won't ask you why. I know why. Just... Never again, Lelouch. Don't lie to me again. Don't push us away. This time, let's do it right."

In the darkness of his bedroom, Lelouch nods. "Yes. We'll do it right."

He doesn't know who leans in first. Maybe it's him, or maybe it's Suzaku. Either way, they're suddenly kissing. Suzaku's uniform flies off and so do Lelouch's remaining clothes.

Feeling Suzaku inside him once again is just as good as the first time—no, better. The bitter taste of dread no longer tinges their kisses, and if they cry, it's because of hope and release.

At some level, Lelouch still doesn't understand why Suzaku is with him and not with Euphie, but he isn't an idiot. He's not going to question it. He clings to Suzaku's shoulders, clawing at his skin and allows himself to fall into the pleasure only two people could ever give him.

As always, Suzaku's stamina is insane and he fucks Lelouch until he's a puddle of incoherent goo. When it's finally over, they collapse together on the pillows, covered in sweat and semen.

 "Suzaku, I have a plan."

It's not the best example of post-coital conversation, but then, that never was Lelouch's area of expertise. Suzaku doesn't seem to mind.

"What do you need of me, Your Majesty?" he asks, suddenly in his Knight of Zero mode.

"Many things... But for now, we have some people to retrieve. Last time, I put my faith in certain individuals I should not have trusted. This time, it will be different."

Chapter Text

Finding Jeremiah is easier than expected. The Knight of Orange told C.C. exactly where he had been kept at this stage of his life. Infiltrating Bartley's scientific facility is easy with C.C. and Suzaku by his side.

Suzaku rushes forward, a whirlwind of anger and aggression. For the most part, Lelouch doesn't even have to use the Geass to kill anyone. Suzaku's presence and speed makes it unnecessary. Impossibly, he seems even faster than during their first life, but he displays disappointment toward his performance. "I'm still getting used to this younger body," he explains as he makes his thirteenth kill. "Apologies for the delay, Your Majesty."

"Not a problem, Suzaku," Lelouch replies. "We're making good progress."

What else could he possibly say?

C.C. stays by his side, shielding his body with hers. Both she and Suzaku insisted on this the moment he brought up this plan. Like before, Suzaku would be his sword and she would be his shield, only this time, it would be a little more literal. Of course, he has no desire to see her die for him, but he does see the sense in the approach.

The precautions prove to be unnecessary. Bartley's guards are a pathetic bunch. Within half an hour, Lelouch, C.C. and Suzaku have taken the facility, and Bartley is on his knees in front of Lelouch, under an absolute Geass to serve him. Much of his staff—those who aren't dead at least—are in the same situation.

Lelouch stares at the tank where Orange is still floating and narrows his eyes. He dislikes seeing Jeremiah like this. At one point, he has become fond of the man, despite the strange, rocky beginnings of their relationship, and he appreciates the help he gave C.C. and Suzaku.

He can only hope this will work, but if it doesn't, he can always fall back on him being Marianne's son which had convinced Jeremiah the first time. He hopes it will not be necessary, for more than one reason.

"All right," he tells one of the scientists. "Let him down. Carefully."

"You should keep your distance, Your Majesty," Suzaku says, "just in case. The last time, he was quite unstable after the first experiments."

Lelouch complies, if only because Suzaku has been looking jumpier the closer they got to meeting Jeremiah. Besides, he knows full well how strong Jeremiah became after being turned into a cyborg. At this stage, he doesn't have all his enhancements yet, but that doesn't change the fact that he's dangerous.

Predictably, as soon as he opens his eyes, Jeremiah zeroes in on Lelouch's presence. "Zero!" he screams, half-mad with hatred and pain.

He tries to leap toward Lelouch, but Suzaku is already there and pins him down with surprising ease. His Geass seems to have evolved a shocking amount since the Requiem and it apparently makes Suzaku strong enough to compensate for Jeremiah's enhancements.

Just the same, Lelouch has no intention of prolonging the situation. As Orange tries to free himself from Suzaku, Lelouch removes his mask. "Yes, I'm Zero," he says. "But I'm also someone else.  Lelouch vi Britannia."

Jeremiah freezes, no longer attempting to shove Suzaku off. "N-Not possible. You and Lady Nunnally... You died... I failed you."

"Not yet, Jeremiah. I am willing to give you another chance."

Jeremiah nods, looking dazed and desperate, still not completely in his right mind. "Thank you, Your Highness." He moves forward, as if intent to kiss his hand. Suzaku grabs his collar and keeps him pinned to the floor.

"There's one more thing we need to do before." He waves C.C. forward. "This is C.C. She is here to help you clear your mind a bit after what was done to you."

Jeremiah acquiesces, but Lelouch has no doubt that he doesn't really understand. He'd probably agree to anything right now. Oh well. It couldn't be helped.

Suzaku forces Jeremiah to his knees and C.C. glides closer, silent as a cat. She kneels next to Lelouch's two knights presses her lips to Jeremiah's forehead. The Geass mark on her own flashes and Jeremiah's body starts to seize. He's contorting so badly Suzaku is forced to let go of him. It looks painful and he screams as he clutches his eye.

Lelouch doesn't flinch. He knows very well that Orange consented to this in the previous timeline. He would not be able to help even if he tried, not until Jeremiah's mind and body get accustomed to his current form.

He wonders how bad it was for Suzaku and for C.C., and the thought makes him ache.

Finally, after what seems like forever, Jeremiah stops jerking. He stills on the floor, breathing heavily, slight tremors still coursing through his form. A sudden realization seems to course through him and he shoots to his feet, facing Lelouch.

His eyes—now clear of madness—fill with tears as he catches sight of Lelouch. "Your Majesty. It worked. It really worked."

"Yes, Orange, it worked. I have returned, and I thank you for your enduring loyalty. How do you feel?"

"Odd..." Jeremiah rubs his chest with a thoughtful expression. "Not quite right. Like I'm not in my own body."

Suzaku mentioned this discomfort was a strong possibility, so Lelouch is not surprised at the comment. "What about your eye?"

"The Geass? I'm not sure... I haven't tried."

"Wait," Suzaku curtly says before Jeremiah can do exactly that.

He puts distance between him and Orange, clearly not wanting to lose his Geass. After how much Suzaku hated it in the first timeline, it's very disconcerting to see.

Once Suzaku is at a satisfying distance, Orange tries his power on one of the scientists. Despite the fact that Jeremiah still has his human eye, his reverse-Geass still works.

Lelouch smirks. All the conditions are now cleared. He will soon have all his people by his side, and after that, he can proceed with his plan.

****

 Rolo is both easy and difficult to find. The headquarters of the Code R Research Team—coupled with their knowledge from the first timeline—provide him with all the information he needs. The OSI does not exist yet, so Rolo is still with the Geass Order.

Sneaking into V.V.'s base is unwise at this time, and would destabilize all of their plans, so instead Lelouch decides to wait until Rolo is out in the open. He sends C.C. to track Rolo down and turns to the other issue that he has pending. His little sister.

 He has delayed this conversation, precisely because he is aware it will be the most difficult one of all. He has no intention of giving her back her memories. She doesn't need to remember pressing the button of the FLEJA or watching him die.

Still, he acknowledges now that he made a mistake in trying to shelter her from the truth of what he was doing. It backfired so very badly, and how could it not? He should have trusted her more, given her more credit.

He doesn't know what to do with the knowledge of her trying to kill Suzaku, but Suzaku doesn't seem to blame her for it. If anything, he speaks of it with approval. Lelouch sort of understands, even if it does unsettle him. He did not want that life for Nunnally, but he's happy she still loved him enough to want to avenge him.

Perhaps that's exactly the point and they were always more alike than he wanted to acknowledge.

He finds her in the living room of their quarters at Ashford. "Big brother. How are you?" she asks as he comes in.

She smiles sweetly at him, cradling an origami in her palms. The same protectiveness surges in his chest, and he almost chickens out. Surely there must be another way. Surely he can still keep her safe from all the bloodshed and the war.

Memories of the past timeline flash through his mind. Her fierce eyes as she faced him and declared herself his enemy. C.C. holding his hand in the dark and his own admittance that he could no longer give her special treatment.

That was true then and it is true now.

After everything that happened, after all the sacrifices and the insanity of C.C.'s stunt, he cannot afford to make the same mistakes.

"Fine. I just... I came to talk to you about something."

Her smile fades at his serious tone. "Does this concern the reason why you've been absent for so long?"

Lelouch flinches as he realizes she must have long ago realized he was doing something crazy and possibly dangerous. After all, they do live together and his excuses weren't always that believable.

Has she been waiting for him to come to her all this time? He's humbled at the thought, and it gives him the courage to go through with what he needs to do. He kneels in front of her wheelchair.

"I have a confession." He takes her hand and squeezes tightly, willing her to understand, to not spurn him like she did in the first timeline. "Nunnally, I... I'm Zero."

Nunnally's breath catches. "What? What do you... Zero? But... Brother Clovis..."

"Clovis was not the man you may remember from Pendragon. He slaughtered innocent Japanese citizens just to cover up his own mistakes. He experimented on C.C." He tempers his tone at the memory, not wanting to scare his sister. "I did not enjoy killing him, but becoming a viceroy ruined him."

Now that he's said out loud, he realizes how right he is. The artist who painted portraits of him and Nunnally when they were children became a twisted parody of his former self, all because of Britannia. Lelouch doesn't know if he really has the right to judge Clovis, after everything he's done, but in his heart, he believes that he did do the right thing.

"But, big brother... Why? Why go so far?"

"Originally, it was because of you," he admits, "to build a kind and gentle world for you."

She opens her mouth, perhaps intending to protest, but he stops her. "Then, after founding the Black Knights, I realized I had a lot of people relying on me. A lot of Japanese are placing their hopes in Zero. I have a responsibility to them, to the world, to make this work. I'm sorry, Nunnally. I'm a failure as a big brother."

He can't completely hide his self-disgust, not when the memory of Nunnally in chains is still so close to his mind. Nunnally must realize it, even if she can't see his face, because she throws herself at him.

It's difficult for her since she can't brace herself using her legs, but he's close enough that he manages to catch her.

"No, no," she shouts. "You're the best brother ever."

She buries her face in his shoulder, and he holds her as she cries, feeling a mix of guilt and relief. She doesn't hate him or blame him, and hopefully, she never will.

"Listen, Nunnally. With what I'm doing, it might become a necessity for us to leave the Academy. I may even bring in another guard to help Sayoko. But I promise you, I'll keep you safe, no matter what."

"I believe you, big brother," Nunnally says, slowly starting to calm down. "And don't worry about me. Just please... I know I don't... I don't have a lot of power, but if I can do anything, anything at all to help..."

Lelouch's first instinct is to refuse, but he thinks about another sibling he lost, a sibling not by blood, but by bond. He has a tentative plan about how to handle his relationship with Rolo, but he also knows he made a lot of mistakes there, and he needs to fix them.

Nunnally can help him with that.

"There might be," he tells her, "but not yet. I'll tell you when, all right?"

She  nods at his tentative agreement, but she doesn't release her hold on him. "Big brother..." she whispers. "Are you... Are you safe? Are the Black Knights protecting you?"

"I have a lot of people protecting me," he says, not wanting to lie. "Suzaku and C.C. first and foremost."

Nunnally cheers up immediately, her trust in Suzaku chasing away her fear for Lelouch's life, at least for now. "So Suzaku knows... I'm so glad. So glad. You should stick together always."

"We will, Nunnally," Lelouch replies as he pets his sister's hair. "Rest assured that Suzaku and I will never be parted."

If she understands the underlying romantic meaning, she doesn't show it. Maybe she's can't really focus too much on that right now.

"Neither will we," she offers instead, her voice filled with the same determination he remembers from the first timeline. "Even if you're Zero and you have to protect the Black Knights, I'll always be by your side."

Lelouch closes his eyes and doesn't reply. Any words he could utter feel inadequate. He just holds her close and swear to himself and to any gods that may be listening that he will not fail her again.

That night, he receives a call. "We've found him," C.C. says. "He's in the Chinese Federation."

The Chinese Federation. Perfect. He needed to go there anyway.

One sibling down, one to go.

Chapter Text

Rolo makes his way through the immobile people in the busy street and slides into an alley, away from all indiscreet eyes. He hasn't had a good day, or a good month for that matter. The last assassination he was assigned was irritating, because it took far too long. He should have been able to walk right up to the target and take him out, but there were unexpected complications, far too many cameras. He's finally completed his mission, but he's frustrated with his inefficiency.

He pulls off his gloves and stained clothes and quickly finds the stashed outfit he placed here beforehand. Once he's done, he will be able to make his way to the airport and return to the Geass Order.

He's just about to leave the alley, when a figure manifests in from of him, blocking his way. Instinctively, he reaches for his knife, but then, the mysterious person steps into the light. "Rolo."

Rolo narrowly manages not to gape. "Mistress C.C."

Mistress C.C. has been missing for a while. Rolo doesn't even know her that well, since his memories of the years she was with the Order are sketchy. What is she doing in Shanghai of all places? Master V.V. has been looking for her, but none of them expected her to be so close.

As he stares into her unfathomable gold eyes, he struggles to come up with something to say. "Are you coming back to the Order?" he asks.

"Not exactly. That's not why I'm here."

"Why then?"

"Because I asked her too."

A second figure emerges from the shadows. Rolo assesses him clinically. Tall, but skinny. Unlikely to be a physical challenge. Then again, Rolo himself doesn't look like much, and he's one of the best assassins the Order has produced. He can't afford to underestimate anyone.

"You don't remember me right now," the man says, "but I made you a promise. I'm here to keep it."

There's something in his voice that makes shivers course down Rolo's spine. It's not scary, not exactly. It's... fond? Affectionate?

He isn't sure. He has never felt fondness before, although he faked it once or twice, for missions. It unsettles him, and he takes a step back.

He catches himself before he can display further weakness. What is he doing? He should be eliminating the threat, not cowering from it.

He activates his Geass, intent on rushing at the man.

Of course, he's forgotten a very important thing. C.C. is immune to his Geass.

It's a bit embarrassing, but Rolo has never been the fastest assassin in the Order. Sure, he does his best, especially since the limits of his Geass mean that he does need to be quick to fulfill his missions. However, the repeated use of his power has left him with a lingering heart problem that keeps him from reaching top physical fitness.

When fighting C.C., he's at a distinct disadvantage.

As it turns out, it's not an issue at all, because a second man jumps him from behind. Rolo gasps and loses control of the Geass. In desperation, he activates it once again, but the man holds onto him just as tightly, unaffected. "That won't work on me," he tells Rolo calmly as he pins Rolo to the ground.

C.C. nods. "You should always remember that there are other people with gifts out there."

Another Geass user? But who could he be? Rolo has never seen him before, in person or in surveillance files.

He's forced to stop suspending time and the dark-haired man—the only one who was affected by Rolo's Geass—begins to move again. "Be careful, Jeremiah. I don't want him hurt."

"Of course, Your Majesty," the man, now identified as Jeremiah, says. He still keeps Rolo pinned down, but his hold is a little less tight. Still unbreakable, but it doesn't hurt anymore.

The dark-haired man walks up to them.

"I am sorry about this, Rolo. I wouldn't do this if there were any other way. Please know it's for the best."

He nods at C.C., and that's the only warning Rolo gets before she approaches him and presses her lips against his forehead.

Rolo's world shatters. Conflicting images swirl around him, confusing memories of blood and pain, sometimes his own, others not. But there are also memories of warmth, of a lie that turned into a truth, at least for Rolo.

Memories of Rolo's big brother, Lelouch.

The time they spent together is chased away by fury and agony, and Rolo screams as his heart skips a beat, then another, over and over. He feels like he's back in his brother's knightmare, trying to pilot the far too complicated machine and using his Geass over and over to compensate for his inability to use it to its full potential.

When he comes to once again, he's no longer in the knightmare, but back in Shanghai. Jeremiah has released him, and Lelouch kneels in front of him, extending his arms. "It's all right, Rolo. I'm here now. Big brother is here."

Rolo doesn't understand how this is possible. He distinctly remembers escaping with his brother in his grasp after the betrayal of the Black Knights, then blacking out and... presumably dying?  

He doesn't regret it, not at all. He just... doesn't understand. Why is he back with the Order? Was it all some sort of dream, or is it something else? Is it some plan of C.C.'s?

He collapses against his brother, dazed and confused. "H-How is this possible?"

"It's a long story," his brother says, "but things didn't work out as well as we'd hoped. C.C., Suzaku and Orange managed to find a way to turn back the clock."

Time travel. Well, he supposes that makes as much sense as anything in Rolo's life. If anyone can do it, it's probably C.C.

But what was that his brother said about Lord Kururugi? He was big brother's enemy. Why would he want to help?

He doesn't get the chance to express his doubts and confusion. Lelouch grips his chin and forces their eyes to meet. "Rolo, look at me. Do you trust me?"

Rolo knows the answer should be "no". His brother used him the first time around, turned him into a tool.

But this is different. His brother came for him. He remembered their promise. He didn't have to. He could have abandoned Rolo to the Order, or killed him if he was in the way.

Certainly, Rolo's abilities are useful, but Zero doesn't strictly need them. Jeremiah is a good assassin in his own rights and isn't limited by a weak heart. Obviously, he still has his Geass and he can easily complete any mission Rolo would be assigned.

It is that knowledge that makes him nod. "The first time, you and I made some mistakes," Lelouch says. "I lied to you and you hurt people I cared about."

People he cared about? Rolo flinches. Right. Shirley Fennette. He never realized that he made a mistake in killing her, not until his brother's explosion of temper, after Nunnally's death.

"I know it's your training, though, and you mean well," Lelouch continues. "You're only trying to protect me. So I'm going to protect you too."

The next thing he knows,  his brother is releasing him from the embrace and getting up. There's a slight disconnect in the air, a shift of not-quite right that reminds him of his time suspension skill. "You used your Geass on me, didn't you?" he asks.

"Yes," his big brother says. "You're more than a tool for killing, Rolo, but given some of the unpleasantness of the last timeline, I have to take some precautions. I don't want you to do anything regrettable."

Rolo decides to trust his brother knows better in this. Killing always served him well, but if he wants to fulfill his part of the promise, to build a future with his brother, he can't always rely on it as a crutch.

He isn't sure what kind of command Lelouch put on him, but it must surely help him with that.

"You're right, big brother," he offers with a smile. "I understand. Thank you."

His brother stares at him with an undecipherable expression. Rolo stares back, unsure what to make of it. The moment doesn't last. Lelouch blinks, and it shatters like glass.

"We should go," Lelouch says, already turning away. "It will take us some time to get back home."

Rolo knows he should just agree outright, but something is still bothering him about this whole situation. Suddenly, he needs to know, to understand properly. He can't go anywhere until he does.

"Big brother... What exactly happened?"

Lelouch doesn't answer. C.C. does so in his stead. "Lelouch died," she says, her tone flat and emotionless. "Suzaku killed him."

Rolo freezes, his mind going blank. Oh.

His brother sighs. "Don't worry about that now. It was all a plan."

Lelouch narrates a convoluted story of his Zero Requiem and the way he planned his own assassination at his own knight's hands. Fury fills Rolo, hot and bright, but he knows there is nothing he can do. It's over and done with. Besides, judging by his brother's expression when he speaks of Lord Kururugi, he would not be thrilled if the former Knight of Seven suffered a sudden accident. That is, if Rolo can even arrange it, now that he is under Geass. Damn it.

"I know this is upsetting, Rolo, but I promise that won't happen again. That's why we're here, remember?"

"Yes, big brother. Of course."

And that's why Rolo is here too. He needs to protect his brother better this time, so that Lelouch isn't forced to rely on people who clearly didn't do a good job.

They dump all of Rolo's remaining equipment—everything that can be traced—and while he's relieved, he's also still angry. He only snaps out of it when they reach Ashford Academy.

Seeing the academy again is strange. He was happiest at Ashford. In fact, it was the only place where he ever felt happy, where he learned the meaning of the word.

Ashford is different now. He no longer has a place here. That place is taken up by another person, and he is cruelly reminded of this when he is hustled into the quarters he once shared with Lelouch.

Nunnally is in the living room, waiting for them—well, for Lelouch. Jeremiah and C.C. disappear... somewhere, giving them privacy. "Big brother, is that you?" she asks.

"It is. I want you to meet someone."

She lifts her head, facing Lelouch even if she can't see him. "Oh? Who is it?"

Lelouch ushers Rolo along. He follows, because he knows he has no choice.

Lelouch takes his hand and places it on Nunnally's smaller one. "Nunnally, this is Rolo. He's our brother."

Nunnally jerks, but doesn't pull away. "Brother?"

"Not by blood, but by bond," Lelouch explains. "He saved my life more than once."

"Oh. I see." She perks up and gives Rolo a bright smile. "Then he's my brother too."

"Yes, he is," Lelouch confirms.

Rolo doesn't know what to do with this. His last conversation with Lelouch prior to their escape from the Ikaruga made it clearer than ever that he can never hope to replace Nunnally in Lelouch's heart. He once hated her so much and fully intended to kill her like he did Shirley.

He can't do that now. Even without the Geass, he still remembers how much her death must have crushed his brother.

He has no choice but to accept this strangeness.

Besides, they may not be siblings, but they could be allies. It's something to consider, at least.

"Can I touch your face?" she asks.

"Yes," he replies.

When she cups her cheeks with her gentle hands, he finds that he doesn't really mind it. Something inside him seems to crack and all tension drains out of his body.

"The three of us, we're a family," she tells him.

"Yes," Rolo hears himself say. "Yes, we are."

He's still uncertain about his role in this new timeline, but he has a chance, a chance for a real life and a real future, just like he dreamed. He's not going to waste it.

Chapter Text

Suzaku balances his sword on the tip of his finger, idly watching Cecile and Lloyd move around the HQ of the ASEEC. He knows he's sulking and he shouldn't really be doing this sort of thing in the open, but he can't help himself.

Technically speaking, he should have lost his sword when he gave up the position as Euphie's knight, but nobody came to ask him to hand over his weapons. Suzaku suspects it's because of the imminent founding of the SAZ. He may not be assigned as her knight, but it's impossible to create something like that and exclude him.

He wishes things were going a little faster, or at least that he could get involved more. Case in point, today. He insisted on going with Lelouch and C.C. after Rolo, but Lelouch said no. It makes sense, of course. Suzaku can't just leave of his own accord. He still has to be at the disposal of the Britannian army. He may be able to dodge their inquiries and eyes to go to Ashford, but he wouldn't get away with a trip to Shanghai. Proof in point, the fact that Lloyd called him in to do some adjustments to the systems of the Lancelot.

The knowledge that Lelouch was right doesn't mean he isn't irritated with the situation. It's hypocritical of him, but he doesn't trust the murderous brat. Lelouch does, though, and that's what matters. Suzaku will just have to deal.

He feels better at noon, after he gets a message from Lelouch. He's supposed to come in to Ashford as soon as possible.

It's not the ideal meeting spot, since neither of them want to involve the Academy too much. However, for the moment, the only other option is the Code R Research Facility, and the distance makes it impractical.

It's certainly not difficult for Suzaku to excuse himself after work and claim he promised to meet his friends. Cecile beams at him, clearly pleased he has friends to begin with. Lloyd mumbles something about parts and waves him off without looking away from the monitors.

Suzaku gives them both fond smiles and flees before Cecile can offer him a snack to go.

They meet underneath Ashford, in the exact place where Mao once held Nunnally captive. It's him, Lelouch, the Knight of Orange, C.C. and Rolo.

The moment he steps into the light, Rolo zeroes in on him, his nostrils flaring and his eyes flashing with unconcealed anger. It's a remarkable lapse for someone with a poker face as good as Rolo's. "Lord Kururugi."

Well, then, that answers one question—how much Rolo knows about Lelouch's death. Interestingly, though, his Geass isn't screaming, so Rolo is apparently not a danger. Hmmm.

"Please don't try to stab me," he says calmly. "I'm not sure Lelouch wants to test my Geass against yours."

Rolo twitches, but surprisingly doesn't move. "It's fine, Suzaku," Lelouch says. "Rolo understands the situation."

Suzaku shares a look with C.C. He highly doubts that. Rolo always was very prone to eliminating people he considers threats, so the only explanation as to his sudden reticence to attack Suzaku is... Geass.

Of course. Lelouch would not take any chances, not now, not again.

He nods at his emperor's words. "We will proceed to the next step of the plan, then, Your Majesty?"

"Yes." Lelouch gives them all a serious look. "This will take all of us. I need to be sure of your cooperation. We can't afford to make any mistakes."

Suzaku doesn't hesitate for a second. He kneels. "I am yours to command."

Orange follows his example. Rolo doesn't kneel, but he rushes to assure Lelouch of his agreement.

C.C. just leans against Lelouch, her long hair brushing against his hand. She doesn't have to say anything at all. They all know where her loyalties lie.

Lelouch leaves C.C. at the Academy to keep an eye on Nunnally. The rest of them change in less noticeable clothes and pile up in a car Lelouch has appropriated from... somewhere.

It's late afternoon by the time they get to the ghettoes. They leave the car at the very edge, since it would be far too eye-catching.

It's not easy for three Britannians—one of which is a known Purist—to sneak through the place, but Rolo is very good at infiltration missions and Suzaku is not all that conspicuous out of uniform. There is a slight hiccup when Rolo offers to just hijack a car and Geass them through, but Lelouch goes very pale and shakes his head. "No. We're not doing that."

In the end, they come up with a system. Rolo does use his Geass, but Suzaku is careful to stay out of range and mostly manages to make sure that isn't necessary. Slowly, they reach their destination, a nondescript apartment building, just one of the places where the Japanese take refuge in the ghettoes.

There's not much movement here, so Lelouch leads them up a few flights of stairs. Rolo picks the lock of the apartment that is their target and they go in.

Viletta Nu is seated on the couch, absently staring out the window.

Ohgi's relationship with Viletta always seemed a little strange to Suzaku. Back in the past timeline, he learned that Ohgi saved her life at one point, although when and how was never clear beyond that it was before the Black Rebellion. Between that, and the information Schneizel has given them, Lelouch has managed to draw some conclusions, and that provides them with the opportunity to forestall possible problems.

Viletta shoots to her feet when she sees them approach, but she doesn't get to do much else. Jeremiah rushes forward and grabs her before she can try to scream, make her escape or anything similar. His eye flashes, the range of his Geass missing Suzaku and Rolo and focused on Viletta alone.

Dazed, Viletta shakes her head. The moment of confusion doesn't last long and she jerks, trying to free herself. "Lord Jeremiah?" she asks as she takes in the identity of her captor. Clearly, remembering whatever Lelouch made her forget the first time he used his Geass shocked her enough to recall everything else.

Jeremiah doesn't bother to say anything. If there was a bond of fellowship between them, it has long since vanished. He forces her eyes open and Suzaku watches with no small degree of satisfaction as Lelouch approaches and places her under Geass once again.

Suzaku is very tempted to kill her now and let that be the end of it, but there's time enough for that. Besides, this is better. This way, the people who betrayed Lelouch will know how betrayal feels like.

He looks forward to it so very much.

After Lelouch is done, they leave Viletta—now again in her amnesiac persona—and sneak out of the apartment. It's easy enough for Lelouch to procure another apartment nearby that will allow Rolo to keep an eye on her until the time comes for her to play her part.

Lelouch is clearly reluctant to go through with this part of the plan, but Rolo just smiles at him. "It's fine, big brother. It'll be perfectly safe, you know that. Someone needs to watch her and I can defend myself."

"Yes, I know." Lelouch sighs. "I just wish it wasn't necessary. It won't be for long, Rolo. I'll bring you to my side soon."

After Rolo disappears inside the apartment, Jeremiah heads out as well. He needs to go back to the Code R base, since his improvements are still not completely stable and they can't risk anything going wrong.

Once it's just the two of them in the stolen car, Suzaku finally approaches the topic he wanted to discuss. "His death was not your fault, you know."

"No, it wasn't," Lelouch agrees quietly. "It was theirs." He laughs, and the sound holds little amusement. "You know, Suzaku, I never really knew, in my past life, what actually made them turn against me. I never really found out what ultimately caused their betrayal."

Suzaku nods. He's aware of that. Lelouch didn't bother investigating the matter of the Black Knights's betrayal. The Requiem took precedence over the past. Both of them believed that.

" And after everything that's happened... Is it hypocritical of me, Suzaku, to want revenge for us? For all of us? Even if none of what happened then has happened yet? Even if you and I have done far worse things?"

"I suppose it might be," Suzaku replies, "but when has that ever stopped us?"

Lelouch smirks, his eyes glinting with something angry and fierce. "Quite right, my knight. Quite right."

Suzaku can't help himself. He leans in closer and steals a kiss from his emperor's soft lips.

This is the worst possible place to make out, and they don't have time for it. Suzaku ends up giving Lelouch head anyway. He loves feeling his emperor's dick in his mouth and he rarely gets to do it, since C.C. so often hogs it.

As for Suzaku himself, it doesn't take him much to come. He jerks himself off and comes against the back seat of the car, his groan stifled by the dick still in his mouth. Lelouch follows him shortly after.

"You know," he says after a few moments of breathless silence, "we should probably stop getting distracted."

"Probably," Suzaku offers, "but I can't help myself."

It's not just lust, although that certainly plays a part. Suzaku sometimes still expects opening his eyes to the old timeline, to having to wear Zero's costume and pretend he isn't falling apart under the mask. He still looks at his arms and wonders why they are no longer scarred.

Sometimes, he fears that this is all a dream and he will wake up to find Lelouch dead all over again, dead by his hand.

Maybe Lelouch realizes this, because he doesn't chastise Suzaku again. When Suzaku leans against his shoulder, he allows it and even pets his hair.

It's a strange mimicry of the time they spent in the cell in Euro-Britannia, when Suzaku was so maddened by grief and betrayal he almost strangled Lelouch. He wraps his arm around Lelouch's waist, holding him tighter, closer. Never again.

"It's all right," Lelouch murmurs. "We're going to be fine. You'll see."

Suzaku nods. "We've gone too far for anything different."

With that, he regains his composure. Lelouch starts the car and drives them away from the ghettoes.

Amusingly, they end up returning the car to its Geassed owner.  It makes sense, since stolen vehicles can be traced, and while abandoning it would work fine once or twice, it could lead to discovery. Better to return it and make sure its original user eliminates all traces of their presence.

Including that of their... indiscretion.

From the Tokyo Settlement, they take the subway. It's as they reach the Academy that Lelouch provides him with his next and most important task, possibly the one he was truly necessary for today. He passes Suzaku an USB stick. "You know what to do. Don't get caught."

"Don't worry, Your Majesty," Suzaku replies as he pockets the device. "I won't."

He isn't. It takes a day for Lloyd to call him back. From there, it's as easy as distracting Cecile—by demanding a snack, the things he does for his emperor—when Lloyd isn't paying attention. There are cameras, but not many down here, and they have blind spots. It's easy to insert the USB stick in the slot of the nearest computer.

He leaves it in for a few minutes, as long as it takes for him to painstakingly eat the sandwhich Cecile makes for him. Halfway through, his cellphone buzzes in his pocket. Suzaku hides a smile in the next bite of the weird meal and when he's done, pulls out the USB.

One more step complete.

****

Things settle down within the Black Knights after the debacle on the island. Urabe is relieved. While he's fundamentally a soldier, that just makes him all the more appreciative of the brief interludes of peace.

He spends a lot of time with Rakshata and he thinks they're beginning to form a bond. She's not like any woman Urabe has met before, so much smarter and more surprising than he ever expected. Still, he's tentatively hopeful that they may be able to have more.

The sensation of peace doesn't last. Zero leaves them with tentative orders to stand by, and both he and C.C. disappear to parts unknown. His long and unexplained absences always make the Black Knights restless, and Urabe is no different.

He trusts his leader. He's sure Zero will return to them. He's the only one who has been able to give the Japanese people hope when all seemed lost. Zero will not fail them. Urabe believes that.

Still, he inwardly rejoices when Zero makes his appearance once again, his mistress by his side, and announces they need to have a meeting. They're all eager for news and for action, for the next step in the quest to free Japan.

"I've finally managed to crack the security around the systems of the Britannian army here in Japan."

Urabe can't help but gape. He wasn't even aware Zero had been trying to do that. "What? How?"

"I wish I could claim all merit, but I have an inside source," Zero replies. "The bad news is that the more confidential data appears to be off the Intranet and it's harder to get to. I'll look into trying to get closer, but for now, there's still a lot of data I didn't get the chance to focus on. The most important thing is this."

Zero turns on the monitors behind him and a title shows up on the screen, first in Britannian, then translated into Japanese. The Special Administrative Zone of Japan.

"What is this?" Todhoh asks.

"A new project from Britannia. The idea is to create a zone where the Japanese people would be allowed their own national identity, where they would be able to live together without fearing persecution."

He passes over the next slides which detail the main points of the document. Urabe has mixed feelings about it. On one side, it seems like a step forward, on the other... He's just not sure. Would taking this offer mean giving up their real dream? "The full document will be available after this meeting, but these are the main points," Zero says.

"What do you think about it, Zero?" Todhoh inquires. "You don't seem convinced."

"When it comes to Britannia, nothing is what it seems," Diethard points out in Zero's stead.

"Is it really a bad idea, though?" Ohgi asks. "I mean, isn't that what we've been fighting for?"

"Well, yes, but if we do this, we're going to have to disarm," Rakshata points out.

Zero nods.  "This project is Princess Euphemia's brainchild, and I believe she is genuinely trying to help stop the conflict. However, she is not a politician, and she doesn't truly understand the depth of the issue. Furthermore, her project would have been refused outright had it not benefitted Britannia. But Schneizel knows very well that this is a minor concession to make compared to how much trouble we've been. It's the perfect solution for him, but not so much for us. To put it plainly, the SAZ will be a glorified cage."

"What do we do then, Zero?" Kallen asks, her voice trembling with concern.

 "What do you mean?" Tamaki explodes. "We're going to say no! We're not gonna accept to be Britannia's slaves! Right, Zero?"

"Sit down, Tamaki," Zero says. "I'm not done.

"We can't exactly refuse," he continues after Tamaki complies. "Most civilians only support us because they see no other solution. If they have another alternative that is safer, they're going to take it. We'll lose their faith in us either way, and that's already disastrous. Therefore, we can only say yes."

Chaos immediately explodes. Tamaki is shouting once again. Ohgi ends up arguing with him, and Chiba joins in, seemingly against the whole idea. Kallen bristles, predictably taking offense at the sight of anyone daring to go against Zero's orders.

"Enough!" Zero shouts, and his voice is filled with such authority that it freezes them all in their tracks. "We can't afford to bicker amongst ourselves, not right now.

"I understand all of your concerns, and no one here is wrong. But there is a very important thing we must keep in mind. It's highly unlikely that such a project would work as a long-term solution. Having only seen the first draft of the project, I cannot afford to make too many speculations, but it is very vague on how exactly we would provide the necessities for all the people inside. Not to mention that I can't imagine the Britannian populace will be thrilled with having space they see as theirs claimed by a group of Numbers. There will undoubtedly be threats, and it's unclear who would be required to deal with them. Presumably, it would be funded by Britannia, but how long will they be willing to do that and will the funds they provide even suffice? Food, healthcare, education—all these things cannot be arranged in a handful of months—especially not in a hostile zone and with the threat of war dangling over our heads. I have no doubt that the SAZ will fall apart within months of its incipience. Our job is to make sure the civilians don't get hurt because of it."

Nobody can disagree with that. Zero is, of course, right, and any argument they may have put up is irrelevant.

"This isn't a bad thing. It'll buy us time to strengthen our position. We will continue recruitment and outfitting in secret. I'm sure I can wriggle some concessions out of Princess Euphemia, so the SAZ may even help us grow. But you all need to be prepared for what this project will mean. It will leave us exposed in a way we haven't been before. Now... Any further questions?"

"When is this project supposed to start?" Urabe asks.

"The timeline is uncertain at this point, but it's likely that we'll see an official announcement soon, perhaps within the next month. I've already started accumulating funds to prepare."

Of course he did. Zero is like that, always a step ahead.

"What about your inside source, Zero?" Diethard inquires. "Can't they tell you more?"

Right. In the shock of the announcement, Urabe completely forgot about the fact that Zero had a spy feeding him intel. Trust Diethard to remember.

Their leader shakes his head. "There's only so much he can do without risking his cover more than he already has."

"I don't suppose you can tell us who he is," Todhoh says.

"Not yet, but you'll find out soon. You'll probably be working closely throughout this whole SAZ debacle."

Zero turns off the monitors and the slides vanish. "That being said, there's always the chance that the project will be scrapped. I find it highly unlikely, but it's something worth keeping in mind. While we wait for the official announcements, we'll comb through the rest of the data we can take from Britannia's servers without being noticed."

"Oh, are the plans for the Lancelot there?" Rakshata perks up. "I'd love to take a crack at the Earl of Pudding's work."

"Yes, most of his work is on it, including the plans for the Lancelot, the Gawain and the float system the Lancelot used at Kyushu. I'll leave that in your capable hands."

The meeting starts to wind down after that. As Zero dismisses them, Urabe approaches the rest of the Four Holy Swords. "What do you think?"

"Zero's way makes sense," Senba says.

"I hope it will work," Asahina offers. "The last thing we need is more civilian casualties."

"Damn Britannia," Chiba mutters.

"It will work," Todhoh finally intervenes. "We need to trust Zero. He has never failed us before."

Urabe couldn't have put it better himself. He doesn't know what this whole SAZ thing will bring them, but he will support his leader, no matter what.

Chapter Text

The day of the school festival dawns bright and sunny, just like in the first life. Lelouch wakes up sandwhiched between Suzaku and C.C. and feels reluctant to leave his very comfortable spot. He is even more reluctant when Suzaku starts to nuzzle his neck while C.C. kisses down his chest.

His morning just improves from there, even if he's slightly late for breakfast. He and his lovers rush through a shared shower—which would have probably led to more if they had has the time—and meet Nunnally and Sayoko for breakfast.

Sayoko smiles at him like she isn't completely aware he spent the night with two different people. "Good morning, Master Lelouch."

"Good morning, Sayoko, Nunnally. Sorry for being late. I overslept."

"That's all right, big brother," Nunnally replies. "I know you're always so busy. You need your rest."

C.C. smirks and Lelouch can practically hear her thinking that he hasn't been doing much resting this morning. Come to think of it, he should probably start exercising more if he wants to continue this whole threesome thing. It was never an issue in the first timeline, but if he doesn't improve his stamina, he'll just be unable to satisfy them, which will be an embarrassment.

Sigh. He's going to have to stop avoiding PE classes. The things he does for sex.

"How have you been, Nunnally?" Suzaku asks, seamlessly sliding into the conversation.

"Very well, Suzaku, thank you. I'm excited about the festival. Did you stay over last night?"

"Yeah. It would have been useless to go back to the barracks and return today for the festival, so I asked Lelouch if I could crash here and he said yes."

Nunnally tilts her head, perhaps confused as to where exactly the three of them all fit in Lelouch's room. Fortunately, at her age, her mind is unlikely to reach the real conclusion. "I see. Well, it's very nice to have you spent more time with my big brother. I really appreciate everything you've been doing for him."

"You don't have to thank me, Nunnally. You know Lelouch is important to me."

It's a good breakfast, and Lelouch feels warm inside as he shares the meal with some of the most important people in his life. He wishes Rolo were here too. Then again, there's still a lot of tension between him and Suzaku. Lelouch is going to have to work on that.

It's on this note that he and Suzaku head out to see Milly for the school festival proceedings. She, Shirley and Nina are already in the Student Council Room, flailing about in a panic.

"Lulu!" Shirley huffs as they enter the room. "Where have you been? It's already so late."

"Sorry," he says with a smile. It's always so good to see Shirley. He may not love her like she wants, but that doesn't mean he doesn't love her at all. "Got a little sidetracked at breakfast."

"Sidetracked?" Milly intervenes.

She pops up from behind Shirley and zeroes in on Lelouch—more specifically on Lelouch's neck. "Ohh... Is that a hickey on your neck?"

Lelouch's mind goes to Suzaku's earlier attack and he freezes, his face heating. He wonders why he's always excellent at keeping his calm in life-or-death situations, but faced with comments on his love life, he's incapable of providing a coherent reply.

"Oh, it is." Milly cackles in obvious glee. "Our little Lulu, all grown up. Tell us, who do we have to blame for your sexual awakening?"

Shirley looks stricken, and Nina's face goes very red. Rivalz is looking at Lelouch with a mix of awe, interest and betrayal. They're all focused on Lelouch, which is probably a good thing, because Suzaku has gone very still by his side.

"Milly!" Lelouch says, not even having to fake his outrage. "Now's not the time."

"Oh, come on. Don't be such a spoil sport!"

"Who is being a spoil sport?"

Lelouch turns, only to note that Kallen entered the room at one point. What is it with her and her timely arrivals? "Lelouch," Milly explains. "He won't tell us who his new girlfriend is."

Kallen blinks in confused surprise. "New girlfriend?"

Nina mumbles an explanation about the bruise on Lelouch's neck. Lelouch is too busy calculating his timeline for the day to care. God, he hopes he hasn't delayed things too much because of his recklessness. If he did, the consequences could be dire.

"Do you know, Suzaku?" Milly asks, oblivious to Lelouch's rising panic.

Suzaku scratches his head, doing the perfect impression of his regular Ashford self. It seems he's a far better actor now than he once was and the delay Kallen provided helped him gather his composure. "I sort of thought it was... Well..."

He looks at Shirley, who begins to shake her head violently. "No, no. It wasn't me."

Lelouch clears his throat, having had quite enough of this conversation. "Okay. We'll discuss this another time. I think we've already established we're late as it is."

Fortunately, they aren't as late as Lelouch thought, and things fall into place pretty much the same way they did the first time. There's a lot of running around while Lelouch coordinates the stalls and makes sure everything is in order. Suzaku is still in charge of the pizza, under dire threats from C.C. to not drop it this time.

Most importantly, they run into Ohgi and Viletta, which was what Lelouch wanted to begin with.

This time, he doesn't get involved. He has to stay out of it for his plan to work properly. Instead, he goes to the control room, keeps an eye on Kallen and contacts Suzaku when he sees her moving toward the supply room with Ohgi and Viletta in tow.

Suzaku quickly makes his excuses and runs off, this time not taking Shirley with him. He ends up intercepting Kallen, Ohgi and Viletta right in front of the storage facility.

Lelouch can't hear their conversation, but he can see their faces through the cameras. Kallen's shock and panic is actually pretty funny.

Suzaku narrows his eyes and leans forward, as if to look at Viletta better. Ohgi tenses. Lelouch picks up his phone and dials.

Suzaku takes the call within seconds. "Hey, Lelouch."

"Suzaku? Have you gotten those spare fuel tanks for the pizza?"

 "Umm. I'm going now. Sorry. Guess it's one of those days for distractions."

By the time Suzaku hangs up the phone, Ohgi and Viletta have vanished. It doesn't matter. So far, everything has gone exactly as planned.

Then comes the harder part.

Euphie's visit.

He hasn't seen her since the island. At the time, he didn't remember shooting her, seeing her hopeful eyes turn shocked and desperate. The sight of her standing behind Nunnally almost makes him crack right then and there.

He doesn't, though. He's prepared for this. Besides, all he has to do is mimic the events in the first timeline, and all the conditions will be cleared.

He still can't help but be a little warmer to her than he was in the past. Suzaku has already told him about her reaction to his refusal of the knighthood, and Lelouch loves her even more for it, for her complete and utter selflessness. He knows he would not have been able to do the same in her place. He is still fundamentally a selfish person, no matter how much the grief and loss have changed him.

Lelouch leads her and Nunnally outside and they sit together on the stairs. Together, they watch Suzaku spin the pizza. He's even better at it now than he was before.

"Last year, it was my turn," he comments, "but I can't compare to a real pro."

Euphie giggles. "I wouldn't underestimate your talents." She takes his hand and squeezes it. "But you know, Lelouch, I was very happy to hear you and Suzaku are friends. Very happy and very relieved to know you have him."

"You're too kind to me, Euphie," he replies with a sigh.

"I'm really not."

"Ignore big brother," Nunnally pipes up. "He beats himself up over the craziest things."

"I know, right? Maybe we can cheer him up together."

"You can count on me," Nunnally replies with a bright smile.

"Don't worry, Nunnally," Euphie reassures her. "I found a solution for everything."

On cue, the highly opportune gust of wind blows off Euphie's hat. Her bright pink hair instantly draws the crowd's attention.

Lelouch can do nothing but run away with Nunnally. Any divergences at this point could be disastrous.

They take shelter in one of the stalls like before.  By some sort of miracle, Suzaku manages to set the pizza down instead of dropping it before rushing in to pick Euphie up. Once again, Lelouch watches his sister announce the forming of the SAZ.

He remembers the day the Massacre Princess was born and tastes bile in his mouth. It will not happen, not this time. "Big brother?" Nunnally asks from behind him. "This plan of Euphie's... What will it mean?"

"Nothing good," he admits. "She means well, but unfortunately, it will never work."

"But..."

"Trust me on this, Nunnally. I'd only ever do what is best for the Japanese people. Not to mention that her project will draw a lot of attention and our identities and location may be compromised."

Nunnally pales. She doesn't really remember what happened to their mother, but she knows enough to fear such a disastrous event.

"Don't worry. I'll keep you safe." Her and Euphie both. There are no other alternatives. He can't lose loved ones again after everything that happened in his first life.

The SAZ will not be a safe place, but he will build a haven for everyone he loves.

Despite the emotional roller coaster of the meeting with Euphie, the day goes well. Lelouch returns Nunnally to their quarters while everyone is distracted. Eventually, Euphie's staff herds off the people and the press and the agitation begins to die down. Suzaku escorts them out. He may no longer be Euphie's knight, but most people aren't actually aware of it.

Once Euphie is gone,  they manage to get back to the original project of making the giant pizza. Most of the excitement over it has faded, but the batter is right there and still usable, and Milly insists. Lelouch ends up spinning it around a few more times, and then they're finally back in business with the cooking part of the process.

C.C. emerges from the Student Council Room as the pizza is cooking. She is far more discreet than she was in the past and sticks to the shadows, but she's still carrying her plate dutifully.

Lelouch doesn't bother to chastise her. He just provides her with a giant slice of pizza once it's done.

Suzaku finds them under the shade of a tree, carrying some more of the meal. "So... That went well. I think."

Lelouch nods. "As well as it could go. I..."

C.C. grabs some pizza from Suzaku's plate and shoves it into Lelouch's mouth. "Eat. You're far too skinny."

Lelouch starts to chew, if only because he doesn't want to die choking on pizza after being brought back to life by time travel. Suzaku laughs at him, the traitor.

It feels just like this morning, and the ominous dread brought back by Euphie's visit is chased away. Yes, they'll make this right. Together, the three of them can do anything.

They changed the world once. They can do it again.

Chapter Text

The confirmation of the forming of the SAZ leaves the Black Knights in a state of uproar, but less so than in Lelouch's first life. Most of them trust him to make the right decision about the situation and are almost relieved that it's happened, since it confirms that the information they got was accurate.

Others remain leery and upset, and Ohgi is not always subtle about his restlessness on their approach—which is exactly what Lelouch wants.

He actually considered putting the man under Geass, but he doesn't even have to—not yet, at least. Ohgi is already playing right into his hands. The Geass will come later.

Of course, the Black Knights are not always his focus. He can't afford to meet Euphie again face to face, but he does provide Suzaku with an untraceable phone which he gives to his sister. They have long conversations, and Lelouch explains his concerns and demands.

Euphie admits that she didn't consider everything he did, but that she will be very happy to work with him on this when he is clearly so many steps ahead.

If only she knew.

A week after the announcement, when it becomes obvious that the construction for the Zone has indeed begun, Zero sends out a message.

"Princess Euphemia has made us an offer, and has extended a hand of friendship to the Black Knights," he says. "We will not refuse this hand. We are knights of justice, and we wish to ensure the safety of the Japanese. To this end, I demand negotiations over the exact structure of the SAZ and its organization. If the Special Administrative Zone is to be a refuge and a safe haven for the Japanese as Princess Euphemia claims, we are the only ones who can protect it."

Cornelia grants his request with as much grace as can be expected. After all, Lelouch may not have killed Euphie but he has still killed Clovis.

"Zero, what are your requests?"

"Always so efficient, Viceroy Cornelia. Very well. As I said in my message, I am not convinced by the vagueness of your sister's promises. I require more details before I commit to anything. The Black Knights must be involved in safeguarding the Japanese inside the SAZ."

Cornelia cooperates. It's almost suspiciously easy. Lelouch would like to blame it on Euphie's influence, but he knows the hard part will start only after the SAZ is actually up and running.

It still takes a while for them to reach a tentative agreement on something Zero would actually be on board with. Everything from the budget to the exact living space intended for the Japanese is under scrutiny. The area originally assigned to the SAZ becomes larger because its original dimensions are unsuited to everything they need.

While he's in charge of negotiations with Cornelia, he assigns Todhoh with taking over recruitment. During a brief break, he sees Urabe and finally manages to go through with something he's long ago planned on.

Lelouch likes Urabe, insofar as he likes any of the Black Knights at least. He remembers his sacrifice and respects him for it. It is entirely possible that he too would have turned against Lelouch if he'd lived, but that was not the case, so Lelouch cannot judge him the same way he does others, not when it was so obvious that Urabe did not care about Lelouch's civilian identity as a Britannian student.

Besides, he needs to pull a few more people in. He may have Kallen's loyalty and Diethard's, for now, but that's not enough. Urabe will make a good starting point to prepare for the storm that will soon shake the Black Knights. Besides, he has picked Urabe for a reason.

 "Urabe. A word with you."

Urabe looks befuddled at being singled out, but he follows Lelouch—and C.C., who is always with him these days—regardless. When they reach his office, Lelouch turns to face him. Urabe may not be able to see beyond the mask, but that doesn't always matter.

"Urabe, I've asked you here for a very important reason. There is a slight chance that this SAZ project may have other consequences and my... civilian identity may be compromised in the future. We have to prepare for that too."

Urabe freezes. "Are you in danger, Zero?"

"Don't worry," C.C. replies flatly. "That's what I'm for."

Urabe doesn't look very convinced, but to his credit, he doesn't comment on it. Lelouch supposes he doesn't really blame Urabe. Most of the time, C.C. doesn't look all that threatening.

"C.C. is right. My security is not the issue here." He pauses for effect. "The information I am about to give you is very sensitive, Urabe. I must have your word that it will stay between us, no matter who asks."

"Yes, of course, Zero," Urabe rushes to assure him.

Lelouch believes him, enough, at least, to go through with his idea. He nods. "Someone very important to me will join us soon. My little brother. While I am protected by many people, the same is not true for him and I need to know there will be someone to watch his back should it be necessary. Can you do this for me?"

Urabe's agreement in the matter is important. Rolo doesn't like the Black Knights, but Urabe is not included in that. In fact, given that Urabe died protecting Lelouch from Rolo himself, Lelouch would hazard a guess that Urabe is the only Black Knight whose presence Rolo would stomach. 

Urabe doesn't disappoint. "It would be my honor. But... Can I ask, Zero... Why me?"

"I trust you," Zero says. He doesn't elaborate, and Urabe stares at him, clearly trying to figure out his reasoning.

"Does that mean that you don't trust everyone here?" he finally asks.

Behind his mask, Lelouch smirks. This is going even better than he expected. He doesn't reply, but he doesn't have to. Silence is an answer too.

Urabe's eyes widen. "Zero... We would never—"

"Even people who are generally trustworthy can make mistakes," Lelouch cuts him off. "Perhaps I am merely jumping at shadows. I suppose we shall see. It doesn't matter that much. My brother needs a guard either way. Fair warning, there may be times when these duties will take precedence over your work with the rest of the Four Holy Swords, so I won't force you to agree."

"I understand, Zero. I'm sure the others will be able to make up for my absence, should it ever be necessary."

"Excellent."

With that out of the way, Lelouch is free to slowly plant the seed of distrust within the Black Knights. Urabe doesn't seem to share his news with anyone, but Rakshata wriggles something out of him and starts giving the rest of the Black Knights considering looks. Chiba is uncomfortable with the idea of any of the Four Holy Swords having a separate duty, and that shows. It also doesn't help that Lelouch has been running the Black Knights ragged with increasingly demanding preparations—all of which will be necessary after the SAZ starts.

Things finally come to a head when he leaves two days to stay at Ashford. He mostly skips his classes and goes out to procure funding. It's not all that difficult. Once upon a time, he would have relied on gambling, but now, all he has to do is hunt down a particularly obnoxious noble and convince him to donate a generous amount of money for their cause and wave it off later. It's still not an ideal method, but it cannot be traced down, and Lelouch needs the liquidities.

When he returns to the Black Knights, he runs into a tense-looking Kallen. "Q1? What's wrong?"

"It's nothing..." Kallen rubs her eyes in clear exhaustion. "Everyone is really tired."

"Things will get better, I promise. I wouldn't push you all like this if it weren't necessary." He knows the situation must be particularly difficult for her, since she has to juggle her double life on top of the preparations for the SAZ, and they can't afford to give up her cover yet.

"I know that, Zero. I didn't mean to sound ungrateful. There's just been... some tension."

Tension is putting it lightly. When he steps onto the main deck of the submarine, all eyes turn to him. He is reminded of a different time, when most of them pointed guns at him on the orders of a man who was their enemy.

He's never been more grateful for having C.C. by his side. Should things go wrong, she knows what to do and how to step in.

"Good morning all," he says. "Updates?"

"We've received some information from Kaguya on possible developments in the Chinese Federetion," Todhoh reports. "Nothing urgent to address. The recruiting process is still going strong, and nobody seems to be suspecting anything."

Lelouch nods. Suzaku would have sniffed something like that out. At this point, it seems unlikely that Cornelia will try to interfere with Euphie's project anyway.

"The number of people who are set to join the SAZ is both encouraging and midly worrisome," Diethard adds.

"That's not a surprise. We were prepared for that."

"Zero, if I may?" Minami intervenes hesitantly. "We did want to talk to you about something else."

"Of course, Minami. What is it?"

"We were just wondering..." Minami swallows, and he seems to already regret having spoken up to begin with. "I mean... This has been a difficult time for everyone and we were wondering where you... Where you were. Where you go."

Several of the Black Knights seem surprised at the comment, having probably not expected Minami to say it outright. Inoue actually elbows Minami, and several of the others seem very uncomfortable.

"I'm sure Zero has his own duties and tasks," Todhoh offers, narrowing his eyes at Minami. "It's not necessary for us to know every single detail."

Lelouch appreciates the words, but he knows that, in his heart, Todhoh does foster doubt. How can he not? His main loyalty is not to Lelouch, but to the JLF and the general Lelouch secretly killed. The rest of the Black Knights are similar, if not for the same reason.

"Todhoh is right," Diethard adds. "There is no reason to poke into the private affairs of our leader."

Tamaki looks like he wants to say something—probably unwise, offensive and still somehow unexplainably supportive—but he never gets the chance. "That's fair, but how can we trust our leader, when he doesn't trust us?" Ohgi asks.

And there it is. The issue in the open, like Lelouch wanted, and probably the reason why Minami dared to ask his question to begin with.

"I think you'll find, Ohgi, that the reverse is also valid. Why should I trust you, when you don't trust me?"

Ohgi's nostrils flare and he shoots to his feet in fury. "Don't tell me that. That's not an answer, it's just another mind game."

Lelouch can see several of the other Black Knights agreeing, and he's not surprised. Ohgi is an influential figure and led the cell that was the base for their current group. That's why Lelouch must tear him to pieces like this, visibly, to expose his treason in a way everyone can see.

Well, that, and the fact that he's enjoying himself.

In his heart, he always asked himself why the Black Knights jumped to obey Schneizel's word like they did. It made no sense to him. His brother was exceedingly good at manipulation, and Lelouch did make his fair share of mistakes, but still, a piece had been missing from the puzzle.

That piece was Ohgi—or rather, Ohgi and Viletta.

It was Suzaku who revealed the whole mess to Lelouch. C.C. never even knew it, since she'd been wandering around as an amnesiac at the time. She never even realized it in the first life, since Ohgi and Viletta weren't much of a factor for her at all. However, Schneizel did know. In hindsight, it should have occured to Lelouch to ask during the pre-Requiem months, but at the time, he focused on the future and not the past. The fact that Suzaku later investigated the issue comes in handy. After all, he needs to know who his enemies are in order to eliminate them, and his quest is finally paying off.

"All right," he says slowly. "Let's leave all mind games aside. If our aim here is honesty, tell me, Ohgi... Who is the Britannian woman you're living with?"

The very air in the room seems to freeze. "Britannian woman?" Minami asks. "What Britannian woman?"

Ohgi goes very pale, his mouth opening and closing like he's a gaping fish. "Do you want me to say it for you?" Lelouch drawls. "I'll help you out since it appears you lack the ability to offer the explanations you demand."

He steps toward the computers and presses a few keys, bringing up Viletta's military photo on the screen. "Does this woman look familiar?"

"I recognize her," Diethard says, his eyes widening. "Her name is Viletta Nu. She's a member of the Purist Faction in the Britannian Army and she fell into disgrace after the Orange incident. The last I heard of her, she was investigating Zero."

"I think I caught a glimpse of her file while collating the data," Inoue pipes up. "She's officially declared dead."

"She 's not dead. She was with Ohgi at Ashford," Kallen whispers. "Her hair was different, but it was definitely her."

"Quite right, Q1. Viletta Nu is alive.  She was also one of the people involved in the Shinjuku massacre, which is why she had some leads on me to begin with. So tell me Ohgi... What exactly have you been doing with a woman who is an enemy of the Black Knights?"

"I-I didn't know," Ohgi stammers.

"Oh, didn't you?" Lelouch asks coldly. "So you had no idea she has knowledge that could lead to you learning my true identity. No idea whatsoever that she has been investigating me since Shinjuku."

That was a stab in the dark and more of a guess on Lelouch's side than anything else. The fact remains that Ohgi always hated the secrecy Lelouch enforced, as proven by the fact that he jumped at the chance to unmask him when Kirihara insisted on it.

His guess proves to be right on the money, and Ohgi doesn't have the benefit of a mask, or a good poker face for that matter.

"Y-You... collaborated with a Britannian to learn Zero's identity?" Todhoh hisses in fury. "Ohgi!"

"It's not like that!" Ohgi tries to defend himself. "Chigusa doesn't remember anything. Yes, I thought I could draw information from her at first, but now... It's not like that. She's a good person."

"And we're expected to just believe that?" Chiba asks in disbelief. "What makes you think she's not fooling you and working with Britannia behind your back?"

"I have monitors installed in my house. She's harmless, I swear."

"I don't even want to address the stupidity of that latter claim," Lelouch says. "Harmless is the last adjective I'd ever use for Viletta Nu."

"But she's not that person now!" Ohgi insists, digging himself deeper into his hole. "She even said it herself, that she doesn't want to return to who she was before. I saved her life. We're in love."

Awkward silence. Lelouch manages not to cackle maniacally, but it's a close call.

He did want to bring up the fact that Ohgi is sleeping with the woman, but it's better for Ohgi to do it himself. Now, if only he can take advantage of this opening without revealing that he's about to roll on the floor laughing.

C.C. saves him from his predicament. She bursts into laughter, but hers is cruel and bitter, holding no trace of amusement. "Oh, this just keeps getting better and better. Let me get this straight. You found a Britannian officer and you took her in because you thought she had info on Zero. Then, she turned out to not have any memories, and you decided to sleep with her instead. You do realize that she's in no condition to consent, right? Congratulations, Ohgi, you're a rapist."

Kallen recoils and looks at Ohgi like she's never seen him before. Several Black Knights look disgusted. If Todhoh's lips were any thinner, they'd disappear entirely. Chiba seems seconds away from throttling Ohgi.

"It's not like that..." Ohgi tries to defend himself weakly. "I would never hurt her."

"Ohgi, don't be absurd," Lelouch finally says. "Our memories are what define us. If she's a completely different person without them, it's because she was a blank slate when she woke up wherever you had her. She probably attached herself to the only person she knew and who showed her kindness, but don't lie to yourself. You used her." He waves a hand. "At any rate, while these ethical considerations are important, it doesn't eliminate the fact that her true self remains a danger for our organization."

"Right," Kallen says. "You're right, Zero. Of course."

"Are we even sure that Britannian bitch is not lying to Ohgi?" Tamaki blurts out. "She could easily be tricking him into thinking she has amnesia."

"Give me some credit, Tamaki. You didn't really think I found out about this and just sat on the information, do you? I have someone of my complete trust keeping an eye on her."

Diethard looks relieved. He must have realized how risky it was for Zero to allow Ohgi to continue his game, but didn't want to bring it up in front of the others under these circumstances.

Lelouch may just give him the benefit of another chance. Maybe. After all, Schneizel did say Diethard tried to come to his defense during the original timeline.

This new information seems to trouble the others. Todhoh gives him a serious look. "Zero... Can I ask... How long have you known about this?"

"Since the day of the official announcement of the SAZ," Lelouch replies. "I found about it from a reliable source, but I didn't want to jump to any... unfortunate conclusions. I've been waiting for Ohgi to come to me. Alas, it seems we've reach a stalemate."

Just like that, the last piece falls into place. Ohgi zeroes in on the provided information like a bloodhound and blurts out, "Ashford Academy. Kururugi. He's the one who told you."

He's probably trying to direct the heat away from himself, but it won't work. Lelouch smiles behind his mask. "Yes. Yes, he did."

"That's right..." Kallen whispers. "He was there that day. He seemed so suspicious of... Viletta, but he never mentioned it again. I thought I'd imagined it and it wasn't important..." She looks at Lelouch with pleading, betrayed eyes. "But why, Zero? Why would Suzaku even give you that information?"

"Q1. I trust Suzaku Kururugi with my life. As for why, I'm pretty sure you can draw your own conclusions."

Kallen is smart. She's not just an ace pilot. She's also a girl who manages to keep her grades up at top level while leading a double life. Lelouch knows that and he knows there's no way he can fool her forever. He has no intention of even trying. He's already decided to reveal his identity to her. This will just have to be the trigger.

There are only so many things that can lead Suzaku Kururugi to have a change of heart about his allegiance. One option would be that he worked with them from the very beginning, but Kallen would naturally doubt that. The Suzaku from the previous timeline—the one she knows—was far too guileless. Not to mention that it makes no sense that he would try to kill Zero if he was on their side.

So, the natural conclusion, at least for Kallen, is that he must have turned at one point, something which he would only do for a very good reason.

Coupling that with Kallen's original suspicions of Zero's identity, it's not hard for her to make the leap. He sees the moment realization dawns.  "We'll have a conversation about it another time," he says before she can blurt out anything that can give him away. "Suzaku is not the issue."

"He's the one who provided you with the way into the Britannian files, right?" Rakshata says with a laugh. "I should have known. There are only so many people who can get close enough to the Earl of Pudding to manage that sort of thing."

"But why not tell us about it sooner, Zero?" Asahina asks.

"Don't be ridiculous." Diethard snorts. "A double agent would not have much value if everyone knew about him."

"Quite right. As Todhoh has said, sometimes a commander must keep secrets for the well-being of the organization. And on that note, we must return to the original point. I've left this issue hanging for far too long.

"Kallen, Urabe, I want the two of you to go to Ohgi's apartment. Retrieve Viletta and return here."

"Wait!" Ohgi shouts. "You can't just—"

"I can and I will," Lelouch cuts him off. "You had your chance to come to me with this information. I won't risk prolonging this debacle any longer. As of right now, you are dismissed from your position."

Nobody protests. They all saw this coming. How could they not?

"Kallen, someone will meet you there," Lelouch continues. "He'll greet you by name. Follow his instructions. He can be trusted."

"Someone? Do you mean Suzaku?"

"No, not him. My younger brother, Rolo."

Everybody stares at him. Urabe alone is unsurprised, having already been informed about Rolo's existence. "Younger brother?" Inoue squeaks.

"Why so shocked? Yes, I do have family, yes, I have loved ones. Proof in point, C.C. here."

"Flatterer." C.C. says blandly, leaning against him.

Lelouch shakes his head. "Moving on. First off, Rolo will need a quarters of his own. Inoue, deal with that. Yoshida, Sugiyama, secure Ohgi in a separate room. Kallen, Urabe, you have your orders."

Yoshida and Sugiyama look conflicted, but comply. Ohgi goes without comment. Perhaps he is entering a state of shock. Kallen and Urabe follow them out, intent on completing their mission.

"As you can imagine, this unfortunate incident will bring about some changes. Until further notice, C.C. will take over Ohgi's previous role. Kaguya will have to be informed. If neither of us are here, command falls to Todhoh, and he'll coordinate with Diethard in administrative matters." He sighs. "I know it's not ideal, especially at this delicate time, but we must adapt. We will go over the issue again at a later date. Questions?"

"What will happen with Ohgi?" Chiba asks.

"We'll have to figure out just how compromised he is," Lelouch replies. "I don't want to lose him entirely. I am considering a position as a regular pilot, but it is too soon to tell. In the meantime, we'll set a guard on him and the woman. I don't trust her in the slightest and there is no telling when her memories will return."

Chiba nods, satisfied by the response. Lelouch is a little surprised at her easy acceptance. Then again, he hasn't lost the Black Rebellion yet, so her natural distrust of him isn't as pronounced.

"We'll continue operations as previously set up. Rakshata, my latest trip was fruitful. We'll have funds for a new shipment of knightmare parts and supplies. I'll need you to set up a Burai for Rolo with Britannian controls. Until we can find another frame to cater to his strengths, it'll have to do. I'll have him speak to you after he's here."

"Oh, another ace pilot, I take it?" Rakshata laughs, clearly interested. "I'm always willing to take on a new challenge. Why didn't you bring him on board before?"

"Rolo is only fourteen. I suppose I wanted to protect him, at least a little. There's no more time for that now, and if things go the way I think they will, there will be no safer place for him than here."

"Zero... What do you think will happen?" Todhoh asks.

"The SAZ will fall, Todhoh. When that happens, we will be prepared, and we will take Japan back. Britannia will not easily let it go. In other words, Todhoh, we'll soon have war on our hands, and this is a battle we can't afford to lose."

Just like that, the fire of patriotism is lit under the Black Knights, and their feeling of regret over losing Ohgi is forgotten. It's only temporary and there are still certain things Lelouch needs to do to truly win this battle, but for the moment, he's satisfied.

Ohgi is gone and Suzaku's place in the Black Knights has been secured. C.C. will have a better position too. The Black Knights are not very likely to question him again in the near future. An excellent result, if he does say so himself.

Once the meeting ends, he and C.C. retire to his office and he sends Rolo a message. After that, he allows himself one simple luxury. He brings up the video feed from his confrontation with Ohgi and laughs until he cries. It's still far too easy to remember how the Black Knights turned against him, and seeing that distrust and anger directed at Ohgi is very satisfying.

"We'll have to show it to Rolo and Suzaku," C.C. says. "They'll love it."

"Oh, I'm sure they will. I certainly did."

Chapter Text

Kallen is grateful for being given the mission to retrieve Viletta Nu. It gives her time to process everything she just learned.

As she makes her way through the ghettoes with Urabe, she muses over her new realization. She supposes she should be angrier about the fact that Zero obviously lied to her, but thinking back, the whole incident with the phone was before the Black Knights existed properly. He couldn't have trusted her then. The important thing is that he seems to trust her now. After all, he could have certainly avoided mentioning things that made her suspicious if he really wanted to.

No, he clearly trusts her not to say anything, and so she will not. She's the only one out of the Black Knights who has this information, his Q1. She will not fail.

Besides, the problem isn't Zero's true identity. Him being a Britannian student and Suzaku's friend is beside the point. Ohgi's betrayal is the issue right now. She still can't believe he did all those things and had the nerve to speak to Zero like he was the one in the right.

When did things go so wrong? When did Ohgi become a stranger?

"Are you all right?" Urabe asks her.

"As well as I can be. It's just... such a shock. Even if I saw them together, I never expected something like this to come of it. What does that say about me?"

She should have said something to Zero about it. She should have questioned Ohgi a little more, done something to stop him from this insanity.

"Kallen, you can't blame yourself," Urabe tells her. "There was nothing you could've done."

"I should have told Zero about what I saw at Ashford."

Urabe shakes his head. "You couldn't have known it was relevant, and we all have the right to our private lives. Besides, it's not like it's a sin to date a Britannian."

"Yes, I suppose that's true." Kallen tastes bile as she realizes they may have never found out about it if Suzaku hadn't happened by and recognized Viletta.

The Purist group was the one in charge of his supposed execution. No wonder he'd seen right through the disguise. What a mess.

"I just don't know what is going on anymore. Ohgi betrayed us and Suzaku is apparently on our side. I'm confused."

"I'm sure a lot of people are, but we just have to trust Zero. I believe in him."

"So do I."

Zero's true identity may be of Lelouch Lamperouge, but he's never failed them. The Black Knights would not exist without him. Yes, Urabe is right. They just have to trust Zero and everything will be fine.

It's on that reassuring note that she and Urabe reach Ohgi's apartment. A young man pops up by their side as they reach the first floor of the building. "Kozuki, Urabe."

Kallen almost laughs when she sees him. If she wasn't already convinced Zero was Lelouch, Rolo's physical appearance would have settled it. He looks just like a male version of Lelouch's little sister.

She nods at him. "Rolo."

"She's been quiet," he reports. "Big brother tells me that we're to bring her back to base?"

His Japanese is a little clumsy and strongly accented, so Kallen replies in Britannian. "Yes. Do you think she's dangerous?"

"Right now, no. If she regains her memories... It's an entirely different matter."

They go up the stairs to Ohgi's apartment. It's eerie to be here without him, but she has already decided not to dwell on that, not now. She also doesn't know what to make of Rolo. He's small, almost frail, definitely not someone she would deem a threat, but there's something about his calm demeanor that makes it clear he's more than what he seems.

Lelouch would not have left him in the ghettoes if he didn't know how to defend himself. How did a Britannian teenager even stay under the radar for so long in this place?

She wants to ask, but breaking the silence seems like a bad idea. It's just as well that they have a job to do and conversation is not a part of it.

It's only when they're at the door that she realizes she forgot to ask Ohgi for his keys. As it turns out, it's not a problem. Rolo picks the lock, gesturing for them to remain very quiet.

The precautions are unnecessary since they find Viletta asleep. They sedate her and are on their way within minutes.

Returning to the transport goes just as smoothly and Kallen takes the driver's seat, more than a little ready to leave the settlement and go back to the submarine.

Urabe and Rolo stay in the back of the mobile base, keeping an eye on Viletta. She reports in, conveying the fact that they have successfully retrieved Viletta, and then focuses on the drive.

They're halfway through their trip and out of Tokyo when Rolo slides into the seat next to her. "Every all right back there?" she asks.

"Yes. Everything is fine. She's sedated still and Urabe is watching her." He pauses. "I wanted to speak to you about something, Kozuki."

"About Zero," she guesses. It makes sense. She's the head of his security team and he is Zero's brother.

"Yes.  My brother... He's very good at taking care of other people, at giving orders and winning battles, but... He's not so good at taking care of himself."

"That's what I'm for, right?" she replies.

Seconds later, she berates himself for her far too dismissive comment. Rolo doesn't seem to find it offensive. "In some ways. You're certainly competent in your role, which is why I'm talking to you. There will probably come a time when all of us, the people who love my brother, will have to fight together side by side."

What is he trying to say? She knows that. It's not like it's not obvious. "I will protect Zero with my life."

He doesn't seem happy with the reply. "Even knowing who he really is?"

So that's what this is all about. He must be worried she's going to give Lelouch away. "It doesn't matter to me. Well, it does, but in the big picture, it's Zero's actions that count, not his identity."

She still isn't sure how to fit her image of Lelouch Lamperouge the lazy student with that of Zero the leader, but she knows a few things about using masks. She still wants an explanation, but she's sure Zero will provide it like he promised.

Rolo says nothing else, and the rest of the drive goes by in silence. Kallen feels awkward around him. She wants to ask why he isn't at Ashford like Nunnally, but she can't come up with a way to phrase it that wouldn't sound invasive.

By the time they return to the submarine, she's ready to tear her hair out. She drives into the waiting vessel, focusing on not jostling the mobile base too much. Rolo disappears in the back, presumably to help Urabe with Viletta—not that he needs it.

Zero—or rather, Lelouch, because it's clear enough that he's the one behind the mask—is waiting for them in the hangar when they emerge, with C.C. by his side, as always. "Rolo, Kallen, Urabe. I take it there were no problems."

Rolo's demeanor changes entirely when he sees Zero. "No, big brother. Everything went well."

"Nobody saw you?"

Rolo shakes his head. "All clear."

Lelouch squeezes his brother's shoulder. "Excellent. Come on. Let's secure Viletta and then we can introduce you to everyone."

He turns away and starts to walk toward the elevator. Rolo follows. He's not exactly a bundle of joyful enthusiasm, but it's a clear change from his attitude toward Kallen.

It's sort of... sweet.

Zero has already established a rotation of guards on the cell that will be Viletta's. Currently, Tamaki and Kagesagi are the ones in charge. Tamaki seems proud at finally having an important role. At least somebody is happy at these developments.

Lelouch leaves Tamaki with brief orders to watch her carefully and let him know when she wakes up, and then they return to the deck.

The introductions are brief.  "Everyone, this is my brother, Rolo. Please introduce yourselves."

There's a brief moment of pause while the rest of the Black Knights adjust to the sight of the tiny slip of a boy next to Zero. Finally, Inoue gives Rolo a welcoming smile. "Naomi Inoue. I deal with logistics."

The rest of the Black Knights follow her example. It's pretty easy, since it soon becomes clear to Rolo is already familiar with most of them, probably from personnel files, and they're only doing this for the sake of the Black Knights themselves.

Once everyone is done, Lelouch moves on to the important part. "Rolo, you will occupy two roles in Black Knights. On the battle field, you will be part of the Zero Squad. The rest of the time, you will work with Diethard in Intelligence."

"Yes, big brother. I understand."

"Speak with Rakshata about your knightmare, then report to me in my office."

Rolo rushes off, and Lelouch gestures for Kallen to approach. "Come on. You and I have a conversation pending."

Kallen happily complies. She isn't so happy with the fact that C.C. remains by Lelouch's side, but it doesn't really surprise her either.

Despite his usual cryptic nature, Lelouch is strikingly straightforward. Once they're inside Zero's office, in privacy, he just removes his mask. Kallen considered herself ready for it, but she can't help but still be shocked by the sight.

"So... Here we are, Q1," he says.

"Here we are," she repeats, a little dazed.

"I owe you an apology for deceiving you at Ashford," he tells her, setting the mask down on his desk. C.C. picks it up and pets it. Lelouch ignores the weirdness of the gesture and keeps looking at Kallen. "However, I believe you understand my reasons for it."

Kallen nods. "You couldn't have been sure of my loyalties then. I understand."

Lelouch smiles. It's strange to see that, to acknowledge the fact that Zero is actually human. Kallen has grown so accustomed to the mask that seeing Zero without it is... disconcerting.

"Excellent. I knew I could rely on you."

His smile fades into a more serious expression. "Now, Q1, I don't believe I have to tell you that this incident with Ohgi may have dire repercussions. The last thing we need right now is dissension among the ranks, and being disorganized could lead us to fall apart entirely. There's also the chance Viletta may have jeopardized my civilian identity, in which case I'll have my sister to worry about. Unlike Rolo, she can't protect herself, so she is a vulnerability our enemies can easily exploit."

Kallen stands a little straighter. "What are your orders for me, Zero?"

"For now, you will continue your work as Commander of the Zero Squad. While you're at Ashford, I'll require you to work with Suzaku. Eventually, I may change your position, depending on how things progress."

Kallen blinks, taken aback by his words. "Change my position? But Zero..."

"To tell you the truth, Kallen, I find myself in a bit of a predicament. Ohgi's indiscretion has left me with a vacant spot I need to fill, and I have few people I can trust to occupy it. Now, I like Kaguya, but she isn't always here and she'll be needed for international diplomacy. C.C. can do it, but her role will be different—not to mention that she's not Japanese and people don't trust or know her too well. Do you see where I'm coming from?"

Yes, Kallen could understand his point of view. Everybody knows he is Britannian, so he needs someone Japanese to act as his second in command. Still, she isn't sure she is the best person for the role. "Zero, I'm a pilot, not a leader. My role is to watch your back."

Lelouch waves off her concern. "You don't need to worry about losing the Guren or anything like that. You'll still fight in the front lines. You just won't have to watch me. I'll have Rolo for that, and Suzaku will eventually join us. And C.C. will never leave my side. Believe me, we're not taking any chances."

Kallen gives the woman in question a dubious look. C.C. smirks. "I'm more than I seem."

Kallen supposes that's fair. A lot of people in the Black Knights are not what they seem, and that includes her.

"I appreciate the trust you place in me, Zero," she finally says. "I will not fail you."

"I know you won't. You'll be notified about the official change in role when the moment comes, of course. In the meantime, any questions?"

Kallen considers his words carefully. She has many questions, but she doesn't know how to voice half of them. In the end, she settles on the one that bugs her most. "Do you really not have a heart condition?"

C.C.'s lips twist into a little smirk. If she'd been anyone else, she would probably be laughing.

Meanwhile, Lelouch stares at Kallen. Clearly, he thought she forgot about the incident on the island. After everything that happened, the Black Knights sort of set it aside, but she can't let it go, not after seeing him clutch his heart and collapse like that.

"No, Kallen, I don't," he says finally. "It's just..." He purses his lips, as if considering his words. "Phantom pains. An old injury, acting up."

"Old injury?" Kallen repeats. She didn't expect that.

This time, when Lelouch smiles, it's dark and bitter. "You're not the only one who's had bad experiences with Britannia. Don't worry. It's not crippling or anything like that. I'm fine."

Kallen believes his explanation, but isn't so certain about his assurances. A part of her always wondered about his reasons for fighting Britannia. It makes sense that he would have clashed with them before. But she still remembers Rolo's words about his tendency to not take good care of himself, and she wonders if maybe he's brushing off the old injury as irrelevant when he really shouldn't.

She doesn't get the chance to delve deeper into the topic, as there is a knock on the door. C.C. passes Lelouch the mask, but he doesn't put it on.

The reason why becomes obvious when C.C. goes to open the door and Rolo is the one who steps in. "Everything go okay?" Lelouch asks.

"Yes, big brother," Rolo replies. "Everything went fine. I'm going to be outfitted with a Burai, but I've already given Rakshata a few details on what I work with best."

Lelouch nods. "I'm sure she'll come up with something good for you. Take your time to familiarize yourself with the machine. Use the simulators once you're ready. You'll have full authorization for that."

"Will there be a mission for me soon, brother?" Rolo asks.

He sounds eager, and Kallen is strikingly reminded of herself, at his age, begging for Naoto to give her a chance. Lelouch's response is similar. "Not yet. For the moment, we're still waiting. But it will happen."

Rolo looks disappointed, but unsurprised. "All right."

"There's one more thing I wanted to ask both of you. Keep an eye on the rest of the Black Knights and let me know if there are any problems. We need to prevent any issues like the one Ohgi from arising."

Kallen doesn't hesitate for a second. She's already made the mistake of not reporting information to Zero once. She won't make it again. "Of course. You can count on me."

"I understand."

Lelouch dismisses Kallen after that, but Rolo stays behind. Kallen leaves Zero's office feeling both shaken and determined.

The whole structure of the Black Knights has changed overnight. One of her oldest and dearest friends has betrayed her. A man she considered an enemy—Suzaku—turned out to be secretly an ally. She has no idea where they're all going to go from here, but she does know one thing.

She will remain loyal to Zero and she will help him in whatever position he needs her to occupy.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Suzaku hates being in the Britannian army. It's a bit of a paradox, since his loyalty is to the man who will hopefully be the future emperor of Britannia, but that doesn't make the current situation any less frustrating.

His constant inability to be at Lelouch's side continues to annoy him, especially now that Viletta is on board the submarine. Sadly, it's not easy to assuage the doubts of the people he works with. He's not known for his guile, although his years as Zero have helped. He wishes he could just fast forward time and they could all go to Pendragon and have Lelouch take the throne, without all the pain and bloodshed in between.

But he knew what he was getting himself into when he agreed to this, so he waits for orders from his emperor and follows the orders from his official superiors. He is relieved when he learns the Black Knights have finally been informed of his future role. Things are finally falling into place.

He's just as happy when, one day, Euphie asks him to come see her. It's actually pretty surprising. She is quite busy these days and he isn't always with her, since she has been assigned a new knight by Cornelia. When he goes to her office, he finds David Darlton hovering by her side, eyeing Suzaku with visible suspicion. Suzaku wonders if Darlton will do a better job at protecting her than Suzaku did in his first life.

The anniversary of her first death has already been and gone, but that doesn't mean they're entirely safe.

Euphie dismisses Darlton with a smile and a wave, and Darlton's gaze darkens even more as he departs. Suzaku ignores him.

"You wanted to see me, Princess Euphemia?" At her mock-serious glare, he corrects himself. "Euphie."

"Actually, yes, I wanted to ask you about something. Speaking to my brother, these past weeks, I noticed he's been... different. And maybe... So have you, a little."

Suzaku struggles not to recoil. He hasn't realized he's been in any way obvious about his feelings for Lelouch. But he supposes it makes sense. Unlike before, Euphie never ordered him to "love her", nor did she mention her own affection toward him. He's an idiot for not realizing there must be a reason.

She doesn't seem upset when she asks, "You and my brother... What is your relationship exactly?"

Suzaku swallows around the sudden knot in his throat. "I think that, if you're even asking me, you already know."

Euphie nods. "I suppose I did. I just... I needed to be sure."

Suzaku doesn't know what to say to this. The last thing he ever wanted to do was hurt her, but he was always aware that it would happen. He just isn't good with this sort of thing. Even with Lelouch, they don't much talk about their feelings. If not for C.C., Suzaku would have probably never done anything about them to begin with—which is saying a lot, given how emotionally removed the witch tends to be.

"I... Uh..." He wants to say he's sorry, but the apology dies in his throat. He can't apologize for the way he feels for his emperor.

Euphie laughs lightly. "Don't look so upset." She gets up and sort of dances to his side. "I think I'm glad for that. When I met with him the first time, he was so angry. He hated us so much. I was afraid for him. And when he said the SAZ wouldn't work, I was afraid that I would never get my brother back. But I'm not afraid anymore." She cups his cheek gently. "Suzaku, I want to see the people I love smile. Do you think that's selfish of me?"

"No," he whispers. "It's not." He's the one who is selfish, but telling her that wouldn't help the conversation any.

She presses a brief, barely-there kiss to his cheek. "Well, I'm not sure if that's true," she says as she pulls away, "but I'll let you indulge me anyway." Her expression turns serious. "Suzaku, I want you to make me a promise."

"A promise? What about?"

"No matter what happens, I want you to stay at my brother's side."

"Of course," Suzaku replies. "That will be my role and my goal. But... Why are you telling me this?"

"I don't know... I just... I have this bad feeling. Maybe it's just nerves. I want to believe that everything will go well, but the more I look at everything that's going on... I just... I don't know."

She sounds so uncertain, and for a few dreadful moments, Suzaku considers the possibility of her actually remembering what happened in her previous life. Then, he realizes that can't possibly be the case.

No, this is the result of something entirely different, the fact that this time, Lelouch got actively involved in forming the SAZ.

"Euphie, you're doing great," he tells her. "None of this would even be possible without you."

"I suppose... It was a little arrogant of me, to think I could make something like this work so easily." Her shoulders slump. "I don't know why Schneizel even allowed it to begin with."

There's no reason to point out Schneizel is using her. That would just upset Euphie more.

"Prince Schneizel always preferred solving conflicts without bloodshed," he says, "and he did it because it's a good idea. I know it can be overwhelming project, but everyone will be there to help. For you, and for the Japanese. The Japanese people finally have hope, and that's because of you."

That earns him a small smile. "Well, technically, because of me and Zero."

"That too. Now, don't worry so much. I promise I'll protect him, no matter what. I've already given him my sworn word, as a knight. We'll be fine. You'll see."

Euphie cheers up a little at that. "Thank you, Suzaku. I honestly don't know what I'd do without you."

He puts on a brave face and smiles back, but when he leaves her office, a part of him is still shaken. They are doing the best they can to make sure nothing will go wrong... But what if their best won't be enough?

****

C.C. will never admit it, but sometimes, she still struggles with experiencing regret. She has not felt much in so long. Regret was an emotion she pretty much left in the past.

Up to a point, she mourned Mao, but did she really regret leaving him and then shooting him? Probably not.

She would definitely not have come back in time for him.

Lelouch is different, though. C.C. wonders when that started, when he became so special to her. Maybe it was when he asked her not to die without a smile on her face. Maybe it was when he collapsed the Sword of Damocles using his "request" to God. Or maybe it was after, when he and Suzaku put together their insane plan for a better world.

C.C. has seen so much that it's impossible to surprise her, and Lelouch always surprises her. His ideas, his dedication, his tendency to sabotage himself for his loved ones, his ruthlessness... They create a mosaic of a person more fascinating than she ever met in her long life.

After all, who else could have determined God to go through something so crazy and make such a huge exception—just through the act of dying? Only Lelouch.

Yes, regret and guilt have been alien to her for many years, but she feels them now,  knowing that she had a direct hand in his ultimate fate, simply because by the time she cared, it was too late. But she is trying to do better now. They all are.

But the thing is her good intentions don't change who she is, which leaves her very frustrated at having to withstand the presence of the Black Knights and actually share Lelouch with them. More often than not, she ends up clinging to Lelouch in a way she wouldn't have in the first timeline.

Things settle down after Viletta's capture, and while there's still a lot of restlessness, she easily slides into Ohgi's place and takes over his role. She hasn't gone through life without learning a thing or two. She's just usually too lazy to put her knowledge into practice, but she can make an exception. Besides, she knows the position will eventually be occupied by Kallen, as she is meant for more.

Not to mention that Lelouch has promised her a lot of pizza if she does this, and he tends to keep his word.

She is therefore very annoyed when the situation is once more distrupted by the arrival of one Sumeragi Kaguya.

In the first timeline, C.C. didn't particularly care about Kaguya. She found her attempts to win Lelouch's heart amusing, mostly because he's an idiot about anything resembling romance and he never would have had a sex life of any kind if she and Suzaku hadn't taken the bull by the horns. Kaguya's approach is simply not good enough.

That, and she's still a naive child.

It's unclear to C.C. if Lelouch blames her for her role in the debacle of his first life. She thinks that maybe he understands that she acted with what information she had at the time, but he's still sore over it.

Either way, that leaves Kaguya out in the cold and with no chance whatsoever to win Lelouch over—which is just the way C.C. likes it.

But C.C. finds that she's a little more vengeful than Lelouch, so when the door of the main deck opens and reveals Kaguya,  she drapes herself over Lelouch's lap.

She's actually done this before, many times, but they were in private then, or only with Suzaku present, and he doesn't count, because he's Suzaku. He gets it.

She's taking advantage of the situation, of course. Lelouch is reading something on his tablet and he hasn't even heard the door open. In fact, he is so distracted by what he's doing that he takes it in stride. Amusingly, he ends up combing his hand through her hair in a sort of absent-minded caress that so often characterizes the interaction between him, her and Suzaku these days.

Kaguya doesn't really react to C.C.'s actions, but that's not surprising. She always insisted on being one of his court ladies and didn't seem to mind sharing him.

She bounds over toward them, a bundle of overenthusiastic concern. "Zero. I heard what happened with Ohgi. How dreadful."

Lelouch looks up from his work and faces her. "Kaguya. Yes, it was most regrettable. Given the circumstances, I decided a few changes are necessary."

Yet again, Kaguya doesn't even blink. "I've heard," she said. She turns toward C.C. with a smile. "It will be my pleasure to work with you, C.C."

Ironically, C.C. believes her. Too bad she isn't as generous as Kaguya.

Kaguya's presence does help soothe some of the Black Knights, especially those who didn't trust C.C.'s abilities all that much. Not that she allows Kaguya to take over, but for the moment, appearances are what count. In some ways, Kallen is more trustworthy and more likely to unquestionably defer to Lelouch as a second in command, but for the moment, the situation isn't stable enough to allow her to take up the position. There are still pieces Lelouch needs to slide into place.

There is a delicate balance they're currently relying on. This prompts Lelouch to take one more step. Bringing his knight to his side.

Suzaku is clearly overjoyed when Lelouch makes the offer. C.C. knows he hates being a double agent. He was never built for the life a spy. He far prefers acting in the light, being his emperor's sword without hiding his true allegiance. Besides, being apart from Lelouch makes him jumpy in the same way he was back in their first life. He's been even jumpier since his strange conversation with Euphemia.

Suzaku's mental health is still a work in progress, but C.C. can't exactly point fingers. Besides, neither of them particularly mind. They might all be broken beyond repair, but the shattered pieces of their souls fit together like a puzzle.

She never thought she would come to care for Suzaku too. She's getting soft in her old age. She blames Lelouch.

They drag him off from Ashford one night, after school. Technically speaking, they should be headed back to the Black Knights, but instead, they drop by Pizza Hut. They buy pizza to go and drive to a secluded spot so they can eat in privacy. The night is cool, but pleasant, and C.C. enjoys the soft breeze as it passes through her hair.

 "This will be interesting," Suzaku says as he finishes a slice of pizza. "I've repeated a lot of stuff I've done before, but I'm curious about the submarine."

"I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to get accustomed to it. We'll have to see what we do about the Ikaruga later."

"How long will the SAZ last, do you think?"

"Half a year, maybe more? It depends on a lot of factors. We have to see how the weather will be this winter. I don't really remember."

Suzaku flinches. It's not an intentional dig on Lelouch's part, but it's still a reminder of what the emperor did to Lelouch's mind.

Lelouch notices immediately. "Hey. I didn't mean it like that. Relax."

"It's over and done with," C.C. declares. "Besides, it will never happen again. That's our main goal and that's why we're here."

"Right. I know that." Suzaku falls silent. C.C. and Lelouch let him have a moment. Lelouch doesn't speak too much about it, but C.C. is aware the whole incident was very painful for him, in more than one way, and it's not so easy to let go of it.

"I've been thinking," Suzaku finally comments. "The mask... You should probably make some changes to it if we're going to go through with this."

"Changes?" Lelouch repeats, embracing the change in topic despite its suddenness.

Suzaku nods. "It gets very uncomfortable after extended periods of time, and you really can't breathe properly. I get that it was never built to be worn for long, but we have to consider practicalities. Also, I suggest some sort of sliding mechanism so you can eat and drink without having to take it off."

Suzaku would know, having worn the blasted thing for longer than Lelouch himself did.

"I suppose that's a good point. I'll look into making the change."

Suzaku smiles, although it's still a little tremulous around the edges. "Great. You're skinny enough as it is."

Lelouch mumbles something about "working on it" and C.C. leans against him. Slowly, the tension between them dissipates and C.C. feels content. Sometimes, she wishes she did have the power to stop time like she planned with Charles, if only because she never wants to leave such moments.

Unfortunately, peace—like pizza—doesn't last forever, and so they are soon forced to be on their way.

"Is it strange that I'm looking forward to this?" Suzaku asks as they head toward a more secluded part of the Tokyo settlement.

C.C. laughs. "Not really. Just try to keep the bloodshed to the minimum, will you, White Reaper?"

Suzaku rolls his eyes, not offended in the slightest. "Yes, yes, witch."

Lelouch snorts. He's already in his costume, ready for the new stage in their game. "Behave, you two. We're almost there."

The mechanics of getting Suzaku on board are actually a little elaborate. They don't have personal transports for people which they can afford to take whenever Lelouch needs them. With the exception of the former mobile base, most of their equipment is focused on transporting knightmares. Lelouch and C.C. tend to use the Gawain to travel from the submarine and regular vehicles—now permanently and discreetly appropriated—in the city. Tonight is no different. Lelouch has comandeered the usage of a warehouse, making sure everybody who might approach would not accidentally stumble onto their operation. They leave the car there, and slide into the knightmare. The submarine isn't far, but it's not practical for it to approach the coastline whenever Zero leaves, so they still need to fly the rest of the way there.

Fortunately, the Gawain is a very spacious frame, and C.C. ends up seated in Suzaku's lap. They fit without too many problems, and C.C. even wriggles around a little to tease him. "Witch," Suzaku mumbles again. Lelouch just laughs at him.

C.C. ignores his frustration and pilots the Gawain to the awaiting submarine. As soon as they reach the vessel, a veil seems to fall on Suzaku's face. It's no longer surprising, not for her, or for Lelouch. By the time the Requiem happened in their first life, Suzaku went through enough mental trauma to nearly crush him entirely. After, he had the burden of his role as Zero and the duty Lelouch left him with. The mask did offer him some protection, but at the same time, he lived in almost complete isolation for years on end. These days, he's only ever open and happy around her and Lelouch, but he turns to ice whenever anyone else—except perhaps, Euphemia—enters the equation.

Personally, C.C. finds it a good thing that he can open his heart to them. At the end of the day, the three of them are the ones that matter anyway. Everyone else is secondary.

Suzaku's poker face and thick skin helps them tremendously, because the reaction of the staff is... mixed. It's sort of amusing really. They welcome her and Lelouch with wide smiles, but when Suzaku emerges from the knightmare—last—they freeze like deer in the headlights. It makes sense, since most of them were completely unaware of Suzaku's double agent role to begin with.

Rakshata is in the hangars, though, and she takes his arrival in stride. "Oh... This is a surprise. The devicer of the Earl of Pudding. I suppose I owe you some thanks for all that data."

"I'm sure you'll find some way to make it up to me," Suzaku replies. "I'll probably need someone to work on the Lancelot pretty soon. I can't imagine Lloyd will follow me here. Come to think of it, I'll probably need a new knightmare."

"We'll make sure to have something for you," Lelouch says nonchalantly. Turning toward Rakshata, he asks, "How is everything, Rakshata? Any updates?"

"I'm currently working on customizing a Burai for your brother, although I have a new project based on specifications he mentioned on the list."

"And everyone else?"

"Most everyone is still awake and on deck. You're turning all of us into night owls."

C.C. is relieved, because she doesn't want to wait until morning to wrap this up. Besides, she's looking forward to this almost as much as Lelouch is, if not more. She enjoys their discomfort and frustration.

She wonders if the Black Knights can even handle Suzaku. Thinking back at the last time Suzaku met any of them, she thinks the answer is a definite 'no'. She wonders how he feels about facing people he once killed. Does he even care? What is she thinking? Of course he doesn't. He was called the White Reaper for a reason.

Lelouch thanks Rakshata and leaves the hangars. Suzaku and C.C. trail after him. "Want to make a bet on who will try to attack me first?"

Lelouch snorts. "That's a fool's bet, Suzaku. If Tamaki doesn't say anything regrettable, I'll eat my helmet."

The imagery amuses her and she suspects Suzaku would have actually laughed if not for their location. They don't have much time for jokes. In no time at all, they reach the deck.

"Anything to report?" Lelouch asks as he comes in, repeating the inquiry he made to Rakshata.

"Nothing much, Zero. We..." Inoue trails off as she looks up from her monitors. "Oh."

By the time she finishes the phrase, everyone has already noticed the same thing she did. "I'll make the introductions," Lelouch says, "even if they're largely unnecessary at this point. Everyone, this is Kururugi Suzaku. At present, he is working as my spy in the Britannian army, but he will also be acting as my personal guard in the near future and coordinate with Todhoh for military operations. Further instructions will be available at a later time."

"Good evening everyone," Suzaku says blandly. "It's a pleasure to be here."

Diethard nods, accepting the command. It's like he's forgotten that he once suggested to assassinate Suzaku. But then, Diethard always was very practical. "Welcome."

Kaguya walks up to them next, scrutinizing Suzaku with keen eyes. It's pointless, because there's nothing she can discern from his expression. "Hello, Suzaku. How have you been?"

"Not as well as you, I expect. It's nice to see you, Kaguya."

"Wait, the two of you know each other?" Tamaki shouts.

"We're cousins," Suzaku explains. "We were also engaged to be married when we were younger, before the invasion."

Todhoh coughs awkwardly. He was of course aware of Suzaku's history with Kaguya, but he kept it under wraps for understandable purposes. Most of the Black Knights look befuddled, like they're not even sure how to react anymore.

"That's not an issue right now," Lelouch says. "I wanted to have Suzaku here since he will be deeply involved in the SAZ project, and in what comes after."

Despite the awkwardness, it's easy for them to fall into a conversation over practicalities. Suzaku pipes in with his own observations on where Britannia will likely post their people around the SAZ and the extent of their involvement. Todhoh occasionally gives him long looks, but he doesn't interrupt the meeting to address whatever is bothering him.

As expected, it doesn't take long for Tamaki to become unable to keep his mouth shut. "Wait just a minute. How will we even work together? Kururugi is Euphemia's knight!"

"Actually, I'm not any longer," Suzaku says. "I returned Princess Euphemia's pin, as I couldn't serve her when my loyalties lay elsewhere. I am, after all, the Knight of Zero."

Trust Suzaku to say something like that with a straight face.

Despite their name, the Black Knights don't have a system of ranks similar to the Britannian one. They do have the Zero Squad, which is, in a way, like a royal guard, but the concept of a personal 'knight' is still very much Britannian. Suzaku very clearly doesn't care. In fact, C.C. would hazard a guess that he prefers it this way. He wants to make them uncomfortable as much as she does.

Lelouch doesn't leave Suzaku hanging either. "The official title will be present in the revised version of the attributes of our members, which is in process of being completed," he says calmly.

"Is that really necessary?" Senba asks carefully. "There's already  Kallen and the Zero Squad. How will it work?"

"I've already spoken to Kallen about it and we'll be moving things around a bit. On the battlefield, watching my back will primarily be Rolo's job. Suzaku and Kallen will be our main firepower. The rest of the time, either C.C. or Suzaku will be with me. But again, you'll receive the finished diagram soon."

Asahina shoots Lelouch a hesitant look. "But Zero..."

"Enough," Lelouch cuts him off. "This incident with Ohgi has made it clear to me that we do need a little more transparency in the Black Knights. While I cannot remove the mask at this time, for my own reasons, I believe it's fair to provide a little more information into what we will be doing—as evidenced by Suzaku's visit. This does not mean I will allow you to question my decisions. Clear?"

"Yes, Zero," Asahina says quickly.

"Excellent. Now, if there isn't anything else, I have some paperwork to catch up on."

This time, there are no questions, and they leave the Black Knights to adjust to this new information. C.C. finds that she enjoys rocking the boat like this. Ohgi has given them the perfect opening for Lelouch to mold the Black Knights better than he did the first time. It's almost karmic, given the extent of the damage Ohgi and Viletta did to Lelouch's plans.

That doesn't mean she doesn't look forward to just retire with Lelouch and Suzaku. She's eaten her pizza. Now, she wants some sex.

She has two lovers in their prime. It shouldn't be so difficult to find enough time to squeeze in an orgasm, even if Lelouch's stamina still isn't the best.

She must be cursed, because they don't get very far before they're stopped by Inoue. "I forgot to ask you something, Zero," she calls out as she comes rushing down the corridor. "Where will Kururugi be accommodated?"

"There's no need for a separate room, Inoue. He'll stay with me and C.C."

Inoue's expression is priceless, and she looks at Suzaku with wide eyes. Suzaku doesn't waste the occasion and smirks.

Lelouch seems oblivious to her shock, but C.C. knows better than to believe it. She would bet her immortality that he's smirking too behind the mask. He likes showing off Suzaku. It's his... thing. He's always been possessive and obsessive about the few people he loves, and Suzaku's obstinate insistence to be a Britannian soldier crippled many of Lelouch's plans—much like his love for Nunnally did. C.C. knows for a fact that one of the few things Lelouch enjoyed during his time pre-Requiem was having Suzaku as his knight, dressed in his colors and in the somewhat... revealing uniform of the Knight of Zero. In fact, she highly suspects he's planning to have him wear something similar now. It probably won't affect the Black Knights very much, since their dress code isn't as formal and stiff as that of the Britannian army, but their reaction may still be amusing.

Also, it may distract them from the more complicated matter—the exact way Suzaku and Zero became lovers. It's no secret that Zero is Britannian, so they may naturally conclude that they met during Suzaku's time as an Honorary Britannian. However, there is a small chance that somebody will remember Suzaku and Lelouch's friendship as children. It wasn't an issue in the first life at all, but at the time, Suzaku's loyalty to Britannia was never in question and his relationship to Zero always hostile.

Just the same, Lelouch isn't willing to hide their relationship, so they've decided to act normally and enjoy themselves. After all, Lelouch would give up on the Black Knights before he gave up on Suzaku.

As for C.C., she will take her entertainment wherever she can, and right now, the source is Inoue.

"Oh.." the woman says, her eyes very wide. "Umm... I... uh... see."

She looks between the three of them again, and C.C. keeps the placid expression on her face, knowing very well it just confuses Inoue more. "By the way," Lelouch adds, "you don't need to worry about uniforms for him and C.C. I'll handle that privately."

C.C. almost bursts into laughter, because she totally nailed it. Suzaku shoots Lelouch an inscrutable look. She wonders if he's realized Lelouch's reasoning by now. He could be very obtuse too, and while he's changed since the days of the Requiem, it doesn't necessarily mean he will always understand Lelouch's silliness.

She'll have to make it clear to him one way or another. He'll probably enjoy the idea. He has a thing for... belonging to Lelouch too.

The sound of approaching footsteps interrupts their amusing exchange. They all turn, just in time to see a female figure burst into the corridor.

It's... Viletta.

Everything happens so fast. Viletta points her gun and shoots.  C.C. shoves Lelouch down and they hit the floor with a jarring thud, with her covering his body with his own. Suzaku is already moving, pulling his sword out of its sheath. C.C. can see his Geass flaring around him like a wave. In fact, if not for the brightness of the Geass, she may not have been able to see him at all.

He catches the bullet with his sword and diverges it from its path. Then, he shoots forward, faster than any projectile.

His sword goes straight through Viletta's chest.

The light is already going out from her eyes when Inoue snaps out of her shock and starts to scream.

The corridor is now flooding with people, all alerted by the sound of the gunshot and the screaming. Suzaku seems oblivious to their arrival. He pulls out his sword from the wound and rushes back to Lelouch and C.C.

"Are you okay?" he asks, pawing at Lelouch with frantic, shaking hands. His palms are stained with Viletta's blood and he gets it all over Lelouch's Zero cape and suit. That just makes him more agitated, since the sight is eerily reminiscent of the time Suzaku himself killed Lelouch. His own black uniform is stained, but he doesn't seem to see it at all. "Are you okay?" he repeats.

"Just a little shocked," Lelouch says, clutching Suzaku's wrists. "And maybe I bruised my hip when I fell. C.C. is heavy."

It's a bit of a joke, perhaps not the best one, but as good as Lelouch can ever manage. It still helps Suzaku calm down. "Right. You're fine. You're alive."

"Yes. I'm fine. You kept me safe."

Suzaku is still buzzing with adrenaline. C.C. brushes her fingers over his cheek, slowly getting his Geass to settle. She's aware that there are currently a lot of eyes on them, but she doesn't care.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Lelouch had plans in place, specific plans that weren't supposed to come into fruition until further along the line.

"What happened?" she asks, unable to keep her anger from her voice. "Who was supposed to keep an eye on her?"

"Sugiyama and Yoshida," Lelouch replies, finally releasing Suzaku. Of course he would remember. His voice is already calm again, and Suzaku helps him up.

By now, the alarms have already been sounded and Todhoh has proven that he is in fact worthy of his job and has alerted the guards on the inferior levels. They make their way there anyway, with Lelouch leading the way and Suzaku hovering by his side, still in over-protective Knight of Zero mode.

He makes quite a picture, especially since he hasn't bothered to clean his sword of blood. C.C. does her very best to not look at him and Lelouch. It's bringing back bad memories for her too.

On the scene of Viletta's cell, they find two glum-faced guards carrying a body out. It's Ohgi, and his neck is hanging at an awkward angle.

"He must have tried to free her and got himself killed for his trouble," Todhoh murmurs.

"What about Sugiyama and Yoshida?" Lelouch asks between gritted teeth. "Report, damn it."

"They're fine," one of the guards says. "They were sedated. We had them sent to the infirmary."

Well, C.C. supposes that's a good thing. She doesn't care about the Black Knights, but Lelouch can't afford to lose people, not yet, at least.

Lelouch lets out a slow breath. "Thank God for small mercies." He steals a look at Ohgi's body, silent. After a few moments, he finally says, "Carry on. Everyone else, meeting on deck in ten minutes."

He turns on his heel, his cape flaring dramatically as he leaves. C.C. and Suzaku follow him to his quarters.

As soon as he's there, he starts to remove his stained clothes. A part of C.C. wants to help him out. It's unlike her, but she decides not to question it too much. She pulls off his neckerchief and tosses it aside, feeling irrationally resentful of the white material. It's not his blood on the thing, but it easily could have been.

Suzaku only finds his voice once the cape and jacket have been replaced with clean ones. "What happened? What went wrong?"

The Geass Lelouch placed on Viletta was elaborate. She wasn't supposed to get out until the SAZ was up and running, until they could control the aftermath without too much trouble. Lelouch also made sure she would not be able to say a word about his true identity, and that she would remain the harmless Chigusa until Ohgi stepped in. She was eventually supposed to attempt an attack on Zero, but only under specific circumstances, so that whoever was with him could eliminate her without them actually risking her escape.

"I don't know. Ohgi was meant to..."

He trails off, as if he's just had a realization. Then, much to C.C.'s surprise, he starts to laugh. "I Geassed Ohgi to free her during the SAZ, at which point her Geass was supposed to activate and she would kill him. But... I didn't tell him not to do it before."

Suzaku stares at him. "So... He did it himself? Out of his own initiative?"

"It seems like it."

"Free will," C.C. drawls. "Don't you just love it?"

"Not so much now, I admit," Suzaku offers with a frustrated sigh. "We have to be more careful, Lelouch. I can't lose you again."

Lelouch's amusement instantly fades. "I was never in any danger. She couldn't have killed me. She'd have missed if you hadn't been there. You know that, Suzaku."

"I know that's what you planned, but plans go wrong," Suzaku insists. "Promise me. We won't do anything like that again."

Suzaku sounds so lost, in pain, like in the days when she still hated him, when he would cut himself just out of the need to feel Lelouch close. Lelouch must sense that too, because he hugs his knight close. "All right. I promise."

C.C. ends up joining in on the embrace. It should have been strange, but by now, it's their new normal.

They don't have too much time to linger on their embrace. Lelouch has to doctor the video of Suzaku in the corridor to keep the Black Knights from seeing anything suspicious. As she watches him work, C.C. leans against Suzaku, closes her eyes and tries not to think about the Dimensional Supervisor's warning.

Some things are simply meant to happen. Some things cannot change. What if they've come all this way for nothing? What if she'll lose him—lose them both—all over again?

Chapter Text

Diethard stands in the corner of the main deck, struggling not to tap his foot nervously. He's never been one to easily panic, but today is a day for exceptions.

The core members of the Black Knights have already assembled on deck. The only one missing is Kallen Kozuki, who is currently at Ashford.

It's silent. Most of them are still in shock. Losing Ohgi is a huge emotional blow, moreso because of the way it occurred.

It's not unusual for someone to die on the battlefield. They all know that, and they're prepared for it. But Ohgi didn't die fighting for Japan. He died on board their submarine, in what is essentially their home, after he turned on them for a Britannian woman.

Diethard doesn't care about Ohgi, though. He cares about Zero, about how close they came to losing him.

If Kururugi hadn't been there... Maybe C.C. could have protected Zero, but it's doubtful that she could have done it so efficiently. Does she even have a weapon? Diethard has never seen one on her.

To make matters worse, Kururugi's behavior after eliminating the threat alarms Diethard. He hasn't forgotten about Zero's apparent heart attack on the island, and the way Kururugi pawed at Zero's chest suggests there is a problem there, something Zero's inner circle is aware of.

He carefully watches everyone in the room, wondering if there is anyone here who would know. His eyes fall on Zero's little brother.

Rolo is strikingly still, but in that way that means he's vibrating with tension inside. He hasn't looked away from the door since he first came into the room. He's leaning against the wall, waiting and watching, ignoring everyone else.

It would be unerving if everyone wasn't too distracted by recent events to care.

Diethard approaches the young man, knowing this may be his one shot to find out if Zero's health is in peril. He joins Rolo, but Zero's brother doesn't acknowledge him. "Can I ask you one question?" Diethard inquires after a few long moments of silence.

Rolo still doesn't look at him. "You can, but I may not answer."

That's fair. "Zero... Is his heart okay?"

At that, Rolo finally faces Diethard. "His... heart? What do you..."

His nostrils flare, and his eyes fill with a sudden realization. It quickly vanishes, but Diethard has already seen the surge of fury. "So there is something."

Rolo doesn't reply. He's even tenser than before, clenching and unclenching his fists. He retires to one of the corners of the room, and the aura of "do not approach" is so strong it's practically palpable.

Diethard wonders why Rolo didn't go to find his brother in his quarters. Too late to ask now.

In the end, it's irrelevant, because Zero does show up eventually. It's been a little longer than ten minutes, but nobody calls him out on the delay.

Both he and Kururugi have changed out of their stained clothes. They look as put together as they did earlier, before the entire debacle. The Black Knights uniform isn't the best fit for Kururugi, but it's still a better option than the student clothes he was wearing before.

Rolo practically runs to his side. "Big brother, you're okay."

"Of course, Rolo, but you already knew that."

Rolo doesn't say anything, but some of the tension drains out of his stance. He shoots Kururugi a long look, then takes position by C.C.'s side.

Zero delves right into the topic. "Do we know what exactly happened? I had Ohgi watched precisely to avoid him doing anything stupid."

"We've procured the surveillance files," Diethard replies. "Minami was with him, but it would appear Ohgi got him drunk and knocked him out. Then, he procured the sedatives from the infirmary, which he used against Sugiyama and Yoshida."

He brings up a series of videos on the screen. They all watch the sequence of events, starting with Ohgi's escape, to Viletta's attack on him. There is some understandable flinching when she breaks Ohgi's neck, and the tension only increases when she finds a gun in his jacket, leaves, then runs into Zero. The life-changing event is over very quickly. She attempts to kill Zero, but C.C. pushes him down and covers his body with hers. The bullet never reaches them, as Kururugi deflects it with his sword and proceeds to eliminate the threat.

Diethard has already seen the videos once before, and going over them again makes him realize something about the one with the attack on Zero seems a bit... not right. No one else notices. Diethard himself probably wouldn't have if not for his experience in video editing. He can't tell what is actually wrong with it, but something about it niggles at him.

Just one more mystery on the list of numerous ones surrounding Zero.

Zero is notably displeased upon reviewing all the footage. "Why did no one notice this? Security should have been monitoring the cameras."

"That's usually how it's done, but... There was some commotion during Kururugi's arrival," Todhoh replies. "People got distracted."

Kururugi narrows his eyes. Clearly, he doesn't appreciate the excuse.

"If it hadn't been Kururugi, it would have been something else," Diethard says. The last thing they need right now is an argument about whose fault it is, especially not if the rest of the Black Knights decide to point fingers at Zero's savior.

Surprisingly, there are nods all around. "He was just waiting for his chance," Rakshata says. "He knew his girlfriend would never escape."

"He may have planned to take her once we were in the SAZ," Asahina muses.

"It doesn't matter anymore," Zero cuts them all off. "It's done. We need to tighten security and make sure such mistakes don't happen again. Distractions are no excuse."

Nobody argues with that. They're all far too aware of the massive mistake that has been made.

"Technically speaking, this is our base, and it's understandable that our guard shouldn't always be up," Zero continues. "However, we can't afford to be lax, especially not at this time. I realize I have been pushing you all very hard. I will review the rotation of the guards and see where we can make adjustments.

"Next item on the list. Ohgi's funeral. As far as I recall, he has no family. The closest one to him would be Q1, correct?"

"Yes, Zero," Yoshida replies. "Ohgi was a good friend of her brother's."

"We will notify her of the incident. In the meantime, do you know if he had preferences or arrangements on a final resting spot?"

Nobody replies. It simply wasn't something either of them had the time to worry about.

"Perhaps we could take him to the Kururugi Shrine," Kururugi surprisingly suggests. "Technically, it's not my place to offer, given that it's long stopped being mine, but it's a peaceful location and nobody would think to disturb the site."

"That's a good idea, Suzaku," Kaguya answers.

"We'll discuss it with Q1, and if she's for it, we'll do that," Zero decides.

"What about the woman?" Chiba inquires. "What will we do with her?"

"We're going to have to bury her in the same place."

Diethard can see the protests already forming in the minds of the Black Knights. Zero stops them before they can say anything.

"I know. I realize it's not ideal. But we have no other choice. She's cost us a good man and I still don't know how many Japanese she may have killed in the past. Even so, abandoning her body is not an option. It would stir suspicion among the Britannian ranks. Dumping it in the water is out of the question. We simply do not have the facilities to burn it, and finding a different spot to bury it would be far too time-consuming. Besides, we're not Britannia. We don't desecrate the bodies of the fallen. An enemy she might have been, but she's dead. We will let the matter die with her."

Diethard listens to the speech and hides a smile. Even now, Zero manages to be as charismatic and convincing as ever. The Black Knights don't always take into account practical considerations, but honor? Yes, that is something they understand.

This is why Zero is important. This is why they need him, why they can never exist without him. Zero's genius shines even in dark moments like these.

It is humbling that such a man could have been so easily extinguished tonight. But no, Diethard cannot believe that.

He wonders now... Could Zero have planned it all? It would make sense. Ohgi had been a big problem, since dealing with him in a way that wouldn't stir the anger of the rest of the ranks seemed next to impossible. Zero could have had him assassinated in secret, but he chose not to. He chose to expose his treason.

Why?

There's something Diethard is missing, some piece of the puzzle that he doesn't have. Kururugi. Rolo. C.C. How do they all fit in?

Zero surrounded himself with his people. He must have known that he would be attacked at one point. Could he have arranged it? But how? It doesn't make any sense. Could it have something to do with the doctored video?

He shelves the thought for a later date. It suits Zero's MO better than his new model of transparency, but he's not going to share that realization with anyone.

Besides, there is still the heart attack, which again, seems unusual. Diethard doubts it was faked. He can't see a reason why Zero would display vulnerability at such a delicate time, on the island, as reported by Kallen Kozuki. That's more important right now.

He doesn't mention that either, but as it turns out, he doesn't have to. Inoue brings it up in his stead. "Zero, if I may ask... How are you feeling? I mean... How's your heart?"

Zero turns toward Inoue. So do C.C. and Kururugi. Diethard can't interpret the expression on Kururugi's face, but it's not a stretch to say the question upsets him.

When he speaks, Zero sounds exasperated. "Not this again... I've said this several times already. I'm fine. I do not have a heart condition."

"Forgive us if we are skeptical," Todhoh answers. "I understand why you would be reluctant to share such details with us, but we all saw Kururugi's reaction to the attack."

Kururugi goes very still. His face is like stone. Perhaps he did not expect to be called out on his actions.

"Suzaku tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to my safety. He may be at times... overzealous. It's true that I did suffer from a serious injury in the past, and I do experience phantom pains. But it's a very rare occurrence and not something of concern."

 "If you're sure, Zero," Kaguya says slowly. "But you know, you don't have to hide things like that from us."

"Of course not!" Tamaki says, suddenly having a surprising amount of fire. "You're my best bud."

Zero clears his throat. "I appreciate your words. Rest assured that I'm not being reckless."

"That's what Suzaku and I are for," C.C. pipes up. "To make sure he's safe."

Kururugi nods silently. He's calming down, and that appears to calm everyone else.

After all, if there truly had been an issue, Kururugi would be panicking. That much was obvious from the earlier scene.

Kururugi's reasons for becoming a double agent are unclear. Diethard isn't certain as to how that whole thing came to pass. Nevertheless, his loyalties do lie with Zero, and for now, that's good enough.

"Moving on," Zero says, "I have decided that it is time to review the personnel files. This could have all been avoided had we had more information about Ohgi's home life. I have always believed the Black Knights had the right to their privacy, especially given my own situation. However, we may have to make some sacrifices for the safety of everyone here. I will devise a form and we will all have to fill it in and hand it over to the Intelligence Department."

"So you will be completing this form too?" Asahina asks, clearly surprised.

"Yes, of course," Zero replies. "I don't have anything to hide in that regard. My significant others are right here."

He extends his hands toward C.C. and Kururugi. Diethard finds that he isn't as surprised as he should have been.

The air in the room seems to freeze.

"Wait, you're gay?" Tamaki screeches.

Inoue elbows him in the stomach. "Tamaki!"

"The word for it is bisexual," C.C. drawls. "Problem?"

"No, of course not," Todhoh says quickly. "We were all just surprised."

Diethard clears his throat. "I believe that for the purpose of this conversation, Zero's sexual orientation is irrelevant." In Britannia, that sort of thing doesn't matter, but the Japanese are a little more restrained, so he isn't actually sure what their take on it would be.

As it turns out, it doesn't seem to be much of an issue. If anything, a lot of the people there steal a look at Kururugi and seem to relax. They didn't understand his reasons either, but now, his actions make sense.

"Now, if that is everything, this meeting is adjourned," Zero declares.

He retires shortly after, and his lovers and Rolo rush after him. Following his departure, conversation immediately explodes.

"Wow," Chiba says, "I didn't see that coming."

"Well, it's a good thing," Kaguya offers. "It means he's very open-minded. And Suzaku will make a great addition to our household."

Diethard suspects he's fooling herself if she thinks there's room for anyone else in Zero's bed, but it's not his business to say that.

"To be fair," Rakshata pipes up, "he always was very..."

She makes a sort of hand gesture, trying, but failing to mimic Zero's persona. "Dramatic?" Asahina suggests.

"Fabulous," Rakshata corrects him. "And always so surprising."

"I suppose that's true," Todhoh replies. "And it does make sense that Kururugi decided to join us if they're involved."

His practical comment is set aside by Tamaki's irreverent one. "How does that even work, though? The three of them together?"

"I suppose it depends if C.C. and Kururugi are together too, or if they're just with Zero, but separate," Diethard replies, unable to keep himself from fueling the fire.

At this point, he is proud that he is managing to keep himself from laughing. Somehow, Zero has succeeded to turn the whole mood of the Black Knights around by dropping the bomb of his sexual orientation on them.

Undoubtedly, they will remember the issue with Ohgi, but their lost comrade will soon become nothing more than an unfortunate footnote in the history of the Black Knights. Diethard has absolutely no doubt that this is exactly the way Zero planned it.

Chapter Text

As planned, Ohgi and Viletta are buried at the Kururugi shrine. All the Black Knights are present, grim-faced, but respectful. Kallen is quiet, but C.C. can tell it's a kind of silence that doesn't hold just grief. It holds fury.

As she looks at Ohgi's grave, there is something akin to hatred in her eyes. She cannot forgive the fact that Ohgi's actions almost caused Lelouch's death.

C.C. sticks to Lelouch's side and remains silent. Suzaku isn't here, since he couldn't absent himself from work. Rolo is on Lelouch's other side, quiet and watchful. The whole thing is clearly bothering him a lot. It's not just Viletta. The Black Knights' insistence to dig into Lelouch's heart issues have made him even angrier at Suzaku. C.C. hopes it won't become a problem at a later date.

For the moment, his job is to keep an eye on Todhoh and make sure he isn't suspicious. They are testing his memories, to make sure how likely it is that he'd remember the young Britannian prince who once lived here. So far, there's been no sign of anything.

 Should push come to shove, Lelouch can use his Geass on the man, but he doesn't want to waste it. After Viletta, it's become obvious that they need to be even more careful with its use.

Sometimes, C.C. wonders why Lelouch refuses to simply enslave the Black Knights like he did to the Britannian soldiers in the Requiem period. She supposes that's one of the reasons why he's special. He may have the power of the king, but he's never truly abused it, not until he became emperor, at least. She suspects that's part of the reason why the Dimensional Supervisor gave him a second chance to begin with.

Lelouch holds a small speech for Ohgi, praising his work in the service of the Japanese people and studiously ignoring the way that service ended. It should have been awkward, given that Ohgi almost caused Lelouch's death, but Lelouch's true gift is inspiring people and making them believe what he wants them to. Amusingly, more than one Black Knight is touched. Tamaki even tears up a little at Zero's 'generosity'.

Viletta is buried with little pomp, and her gravestone carries the name Chigusa Ohgi, in Japanese writing. Ironically, it was Kallen's idea. "She would have hated it, I think," she explained.

They're all relieved when the grim affair is over, but the mood of the Black Knights is still dark as they return to their base. Lelouch sets up a guard rotation and orders everyone else to take a day off.

"Tomorrow, we have to return to work, but a break will perhaps do us all good."

The Black Knights are visibly relieved. They are surprised when they learn Zero does not intend to leave the submarine as he usually does, but he waves it off. "Paperwork," he explains.

C.C. carefully watches their faces as Lelouch turns to leave. They're finally understanding that he is just as human as them, but he holds himself at a far higher standard.

"Don't worry," she says. "I'll sit on him and get him to eat and sleep."

She doesn't wait to assess their reaction and instead rushes after him. As soon as they're in his quarters, Lelouch takes off his mask and lets out a long breath. C.C. plops down on his bed with her arms extended like she's a starfish. "It's a little surprising, isn't it? Their reaction."

"A little." Lelouch laughs. "I half-expect them to distrust me while I'm in the field, just because I don't look superhuman anymore."

"You tried that once and it didn't work. Who knows? Maybe this will turn out better."

"If it doesn't, I have plenty of contingency plans."

He does. After all, there's a reason why he needs so many funds, and it's not just because of the SAZ. "Making progress on the safe house?"

"Everything will be ready soon. I've already wiped all the records of the existence of the house from electronic files, and had the physical evidence destroyed."

"I honestly can't believe it was so easy to get General Cao under Geass." It is through Cao that Lelouch is setting up everything he needs done in the Chinese Federation. His jurisdiction over Liaodong makes him ideal as a pawn in Lelouch's new chess game.

"It's Cao's own fault for working with Sawasaki," Lelouch says. "Anyway, I don't want to resort to that just yet, not until we see what happens with the SAZ and get it up and running."

He's already starting to boot his laptop, no doubt intending to go over the reports he had pending. C.C. knows she should probably help, but she's bored. They've done enough work for the day. Just dealing with the stupidity of the Black Knights should warrant a prize.

"Lelouch, come to bed."

Lelouch shoots her a bemused look. "Witch..."

C.C. arches a brow at him. "It's hardly fair that they'd be the only ones to have a day off, now is it?"

She can see him succumbing already and mentally pats herself on the back. She's half-regretful, half-relieved Suzaku isn't here. This way, she can have Lelouch to herself for a change, but at the same time, it would be nice to have their little triad complete.

Ah, well. Suzaku is sure to compensate for it at a later date.

Before Lelouch can go through with her completely reasonable request, a knock sounds at the door. Left with no one to cuddle, C.C. grabs Cheese-kun and holds him close.

"You should probably get that," she tells Lelouch.

Lelouch grimaces, but puts his mask back on. C.C. leans against the pillows, watching the door with little interest. She hopes whoever it is will leave quickly. They should understand who Lelouch really belongs to.

As it turns out, their unexpected and unwanted visitor is Diethard. Lelouch lets him in with little fanfare. "My apologies for interrupting you in your private time, Zero, but I wanted to discuss something with you."

"And what's that, Diethard?" Lelouch asks.

"It's about your recent health issues." Lelouch goes very still, but Diethard faces the blank Zero mask without flinching. "I want to understand how you wish to... present this information to the rest of the Black Knights. This new approach you have been taking is different from what I've seen in the past, but I doubt you would let something like this slip if you didn't intend to."

C.C. analyzes Diethard closely. Other than Kallen, he was always the Black Knight with most confidence in Zero. His strange idea, his idealization of Zero's image, could easily backfire on them. Or it could help them.

She wonders what path Lelouch will take. He's less resentful over Diethard betraying him over Schneizel in the first life since the man did make an honest attempt to support him. But is it enough?

"Tell me something, Diethard..." Lelouch says. "Who are you loyal to?"

"You, Zero," Diethard replies without missing a beat. "You know that."

"And who am I to you? What do you expect of me?"

Diethard almost seems surprised at the question. "What I expect? I expect you to destroy this world order and rebuild it in your image. It's my dream to document these momentous events as they occur."

"I see. All right, Diethard. I will give you this chance, to document Zero's true story. But for now, it must stay between us."

A manic light shines in Diethard's eyes. "Yes, of course, Zero. I understand."

Lelouch sits down on his couch and crosses his legs. Making the sacrifice of abandoning Cheese-kun, C.C. leaves her spot on the bed and plops down next to him. She leans against him and Lelouch idly pets her hair. "Did you ever learn, Diethard, what was in the canister I opened that day, when I released Suzaku?"

"I believe, officially, it was supposed to be the poison gas the terrorists stole," Diethard replies.

"It was never poison gas. That canister held C.C."

Diethard stares between Lelouch and C.C. "Pardon?"

"For a while now, Britannia has been involved in human experimentation. C.C. was one of the subjects. So was I. I won't bore you with the things that were done to us, but I will tell you this. The reason behind my chest pains is that I was stabbed in the heart. It was a lethal wound... But I lived because of C.C. and Suzaku."

C.C. is beginning to understand where Lelouch is going with this. Diethard always did want to turn Zero into a god. He betrayed Lelouch when it became obvious that his god was falling, but with this revelation at this point in time, his loyalty would be assured.

"Britannia's aim is to create a form of superhuman, but so far, their results are very random," she says. "Allow me to demonstrate."

She gets up and retrieves a letter opener from the table. Without hesitation, she stabs herself through the arm.

It hurts, but after all the physical deaths she has experienced, it's largely irrelevant. She's been burned alive, crushed by oceanic pressure, suffocated and tortured. A tiny stab wound leaves her cold.

She pulls the small knife out of the wound. Lelouch retrieves his handkerchief and wipes her arm clean of blood.

The wound heals before their very eyes. "I want pizza," she demands.

"Sure," Lelouch offers. "I'll see what I can do."

They look up at the other occupant of the room. Diethard seems torn between shock and manic glee. "And you... You're like that too, Zero."

Lelouch shakes his head. "My power is different. I can order anyone to do whatever I want them to. I could order you to die right now, and you would take your gun and shoot yourself. I've done that to many people in the past. Britannians. My enemies."

He gets up, and there's something about him, an aura, that seems legitimately terrifying. Not to her. She knows him to well for that. But all the blood on Lelouch's hands has left a mark on him too. She's sure he's smirking behind the mask, that mad little smile that always heralds unfortunate events for the people around him.

"Are you scared, Diethard?" he asks, sounding strikingly calm.

Miraculously, Diethard finds his voice. "Yes. No. I'm not sure." A pause. "Is that how you killed Ohgi?"

Lelouch laughs. "Ironically, no. I did plan for something similar, and Viletta was ordered to kill him, but he freed her of his own accord. But unexpected things happen all the time."

"That's why Suzaku and I exist," C.C. adds. "I am his shield and Suzaku is his sword."

"The video," Diethard whispers. "That's why it was edited. One of you did something, something the rest of us weren't supposed to see."

"Precisely. I can't tell the rest of the Black Knights any of this. I've never used this power to acquire their loyalty. I could, but I have no desire to surround myself with zombies. That doesn't mean my ability wouldn't cause fear. Inoue might have witnessed the whole episode with Viletta, but anything she saw can be set aside as influenced by shock. Video evidence is entirely different."

Diethard is already convinced, but Lelouch must want to drive the final nail in the coffin. "I am not just a terrorist, Diethard," he says. "I am the future emperor of the world." He pulls off his mask. "Lelouch vi Britannia."

"Le-Lelouch... vi... Britannia... The... lost... prince..."

Diethard is shaking, and C.C. is vaguely disturbed by his expression, wondering if he's having an orgasm on the spot. Lelouch ignores the weirdness. "So Diethard. What are you willing to do for me?"

"Anything," Diethard blurts out, dropping to his knees. "Anything, Your Majesty."

While Diethard is on his knees and looking away, Lelouch puts on his contacts, to keep himself from accidentally using the Geass on him. "Good."

When Diethard leaves, it's with orders to monitor the information flowing between the Black Knights and make sure it doesn't undermine Zero's position as a leader. C.C. isn't surprised when Lelouch doesn't Geass him to keep the revelations a secret. Sometimes, the most powerful Geasses are the ones you place on yourself, and Diethard's loyalty has been completely assured.

"That was amusing," she comments. "Human experimentation?"

"It's close enough to what happened, and it's a logical explanation I can provide should the truth ever come to light. This is just the beginning, C.C. You know that."

"Yes. I suppose I do."

And because of that, because she knows all to well what is at stake, Lelouch's paperwork is once again delayed, just like C.C. wanted.

Chapter Text

Summer is quickly approaching, and with it, final exams. School hasn't changed much. Lelouch dozes off in the classroom as always and wakes up to Suzaku elbowing him in the side.

Life is so simple at Ashford, but at the same time, so complicated. He hates the mask of Lelouch Lamperouge even more than he did when he was pretending to still be an amnesiac.

Still, there's a part of him that will always love this place, this refuge. Soon, he will have to leave the Academy, perhaps permanently. He will miss it. It is a paradox.

But some things are more important than others, and it is this simple fact that leads him to the Council Room on what should have been a normal afternoon. He's sent Suzaku to make sure Shirley, Rivalz and Milly remain out of the way. Nina is alone, typing away at her computer.

"Hi, Nina," he greets her as he goes inside.

She lifts her head from the screen and gives him a small, shy smile. It's difficult to believe that this girl was the one to create the most destructive weapon in the history of the world. "Hi."

Lelouch smiles and removes his contacts. "You will never create anything that can be used to hurt people in any way. You will delete all the work you've done so far on your current project and dedicate your life to peaceful pursuits. You will think this is your decision."

The Geass takes and Nina's eyes glaze as she accepts the command. "Yes. I understand."

It takes a while for the rest of the Student Council members to show up. Suzaku is holding Arthur, who is biting him, as always. "Thanks for helping me find him," he says. "He keeps running off."

"No problem," Shirley replies. "It was our pleasure."

"You should have just let me alert the school like last time, though," Milly adds with a huff.

"There's only so many times you can disrupt classes, Pres," Lelouch offers.

Milly pouts. "If you want to be boring."

Suzaku sets Arthur down and meets Lelouch's gaze. Lelouch looks back, wordlessly telling his knight that the problem has been dealt with. Suzaku smiles and sits down. Now, for the next item on the agenda.

"I wanted to talk to everyone about something important," Lelouch says, setting aside all amusement.

Milly's expression immediately turns serious. "Oh? That sounds serious."

Lelouch nods. "Starting next year, Nunnally and I will be leaving the Academy."

There's only so long he can divide himself between his two lives, and continuing to keep up the pretense of Lelouch Lamperouge is useless. His father already knows about this identity, so there is no point in trying to hide here. No, it's time to make sure Nunnally is away from danger, even if that means leaving their friends behind.

For a few seconds, there's nothing but stunned silence in the room. "Leaving?" Rivalz repeats at last. "Leaving where?"

"St.  Petersburg. There are some new medical developments in Euro-Britannia." He doesn't need to elaborate. Everyone knows he'd do anything for his sister.

Shirley's lower lip trembles. She looks like she's about to cry. Lelouch hates hurting her, but this is for the best. His life is not compatible with someone like Shirley.

A part of him wishes he could have shared more with her, or at least spared her some of the confusion and torment. He's not sure exactly what she's thinking now, since he has wiped her memories of everything pertaining to him, but their friendship has been reignited nonetheless. Either way, her grief is genuine. He will miss her, but she is safest as far away as possible from him.

"Lulu," she says, sounding a little lost.

Lelouch doesn't say he's sorry. "I'll miss everyone here very much. You have no idea how much my time here has meant to me and Nunnally."

"Did you know about this, Suzaku?" Rivalz asks. It's weirdly reminiscent of the time he asked about Milly dating Lloyd.

Suzaku nods. "Lelouch told me a while back, but it wasn't a certainty at the time."

Milly takes a deep breath. She probably knows there's a little more to the situation than he's saying, but she'll never reveal it. She claps her hands and sets her face in a determined expression. "Well, you know what that means? We have to throw you, Nunnally and Suzaku a farewell party!"

By now, everyone is aware that Suzaku won't be staying at Ashford either, since he'll presumably be with the SAZ.

"Oh, all right, as long as it's just us. I don't want the whole school to make a fuss about me. It would be distressing for Nunnally."

"Just us then. That sounds perfect."

And so it is that, one week before the scheduled opening of the SAZ, the Student Council members all gather on the roof of their building. There was pizza, drinks and laughter, and now, there are fireworks.

Even Kallen is here, as always under her Kallen Stadfeldt guise. She seems sad, but if that's a genuine emotion, it's definitely not because of Lelouch's departure from Ashford.

Lelouch sits with his friends and launches fireworks, idly remembering a time he'd done something similar, when the group had been very different.

"You will write, won't you?" Shirley asks him.

"Of course," Lelouch promises—lies. After he leaves Ashford, his whole life will become dedicated to Zero. The old Lelouch will be no more.

"It won't be the same here without you," Rivalz says with a sigh. "No one to drive around to illegal chess matches."

"I'm not sure you should be complaining about that," Suzaku pipes up.

"Still, the important thing is that Nunnally will be better after this, right?" Nina points out. "Right, Nunnally?"

Nunnally shows no sign of being disturbed by the deception, even if it concerns her own disability. "I have high hopes that it will be so. Thank you, Nina."

The evening ends on that optimistic, if sad note. Slowly, but surely, everyone starts to leave, returning to their dorms.

Milly is the only one who stays behind, and Lelouch is glad for that. "Thank you, Milly," he tells her when they catch a moment alone. "For everything."

"You don't have to thank me," Milly replies. "You're my friend. But you know... You never did tell me who your girlfriend was."

Lelouch gulps. Trust Milly to not forget about that, even if he had done his best to dodge her previous inquiries. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you with the curiosity, at least for now."

"Oh... Mean! You know what? I'll ask Nunnally if you don't tell me."

"Don't you dare!" Lelouch shouts, flailing. "She doesn't know anyway!"

"Who doesn't know what?" Suzaku asks, popping up from behind them.

Lelouch steals a glance at Suzaku, then looks at Milly. There must have been something on his face that gave him away, because Milly bursts into delighted peals of laughter. "Oh! I see how it is now. Of course. I should have known. Poor Shirley never had a chance."

Lelouch doesn't bother to correct her. "Goodnight, Pres."

Milly kisses Lelouch's cheek. "Goodnight, Lelouch. Sleep well. Have fun exhausting him, Suzaku."

Lelouch watches her go with a small smile. "You know," Suzaku says, "I'll miss them. I didn't think that I would, but..."

"I suppose you never realize how much something means to you until you have to give it up."

He's referring to Ashford, but Suzaku takes the words in a different sense. He grabs Lelouch's hand and pulls him closer.

As Suzaku kisses him, Lelouch lets go of all of his fears and misgivings. He will miss Ashford too, but as long as he has this, the truth of what he shares with Suzaku and C.C., he will be fine.

****

A few days before the SAZ is set to start, Rolo receives a call from his brother, asking him to join them at the Academy. Rolo eagerly complies. The Black Knights are a buzz of activity, but these days, they rarely question Lelouch's absences or the orders his inner circle receive. They're aware that Zero has a civilian identity and presumably needs to wrap up loose ends before he can ensconce himself in the SAZ, so they don't much comment on it, or on Rolo's departure.

It's easy for Rolo to sneak into the quarters he once shared with Lelouch. He doesn't have to bother to pick the lock. Sayoko is there to let him in. By now, she has been made aware of the situation and she's eagerly accepted the role Lelouch has assigned him.

She greets him with a nod and silently gestures him to the living room. Lelouch is waiting there with his sister.

It's honestly strange to see Lelouch without one of his permanent shadows. Rolo doesn't know if he's relieved or grateful for that. On one hand, he doesn't much trust C.C. and Kururugi, on the other, they do seem dedicated to his brother's safety. He thinks he prefers having them around, rather than not, which is an odd thought to have.

"Rolo," Lelouch says with a smile. "Glad you could make it. I thought we could spend the day together."

Nunnally nods and shoots him a wide smile. "The three of us, like a family."

Rolo blinks. He still doesn't know what to make of Nunnally's response to him, and this strange feeling he gets when he looks at her. Nevertheless, he will never be able to refuse such an offer. "I'd like that."

He and his brother end up baking in the kitchen. Nunnally can't much contribute, but she doesn't seem to mind. She sits with them, folding paper cranes, laughing and joking with them when they fool around.

Rolo will never understand how she can even smile at all, but every moment they share feels like a gift.

The thing is, Rolo has done this before with his brother, in the first life. It was different then. Nunnally wasn't there, of course, but it's not just that. Rolo had been an undercover agent, replacing Nunnally and always aware that he's living a lie. His brother's affection had been fabricated by Geass.

Those beautiful memories became the reason why Rolo chose his brother instead of his duty, but he was always aware that a part of them had been a lie.

There's nothing deceitful about today. Rolo doesn't have to pretend. Even when he feels awkward or doesn't know what to say, Lelouch and Nunnally never blame him. Nunnally pets his cheek and tells him not to worry, and Lelouch is always there, always solid, so strong.

At one point, C.C. drifts in and steals some batter, but she doesn't stay. She grabs an extra snack and retires to Lelouch's room. Rolo suspects Kururugi is there too, but decides it doesn't matter.

"One day," Lelouch promises, "we'll be able to do this more, and out in the open. You'll see, Rolo. One day."

After lunch, Lelouch gets a call. He retrieves his cell phone and grimaces. "Just a moment. I'll be right back."

He leaves the room already in Zero mode. Before the door closes behind him, Rolo hears him ask, "Yes, Todhoh, what is it?" He wishes he could do more to help his brother carry the burden he bears.

"Big brother Rolo?" Nunnally calls out, startling him from his contemplations.

Rolo turns toward her. He hasn't realized it until now, but this is the first time the two of them have actually been alone together. "Yes?"

"You know, big brother Rolo... Sayoko once told me a legend. She said that if you fold one thousand paper cranes and make a wish, your wish will come true."

Rolo think that's a very naive concept to have, and when he looks at Nunnally, he realizes she must be aware of it too. "I used to wish for the world to be a kind and gentle place," she says. "But now... I just want for big brother to be safe." Her voice drifts into something sad. "I know he's doing the right thing, fighting for the Japanese, but I still worry."

"I'll be with him, Nunnally," Rolo says. "I'll never leave him." He pauses and reluctantly adds, "And C.C. and K... Suzaku will always help."

Nunnally perks up. "Yes, that's true. That does make me feel better." She squeezes his hands with her warm, smaller ones. "And I believe in big brother."

"So do I, Nunnally," Rolo replies. "So do I."

Lelouch comes back to Nunnally teaching Rolo how to fold paper cranes. Rolo smiles at him over Nunnally's shoulder. "Everything all right?"

"Yes, just a minor detail. Nothing that can't wait until tomorrow."

Rolo isn't sure that's true, but it doesn't really matter in the end. His brother has prioritized them over the Black Knights, and that's what counts.

A little while later, Nunnally grows tired and Lelouch tucks her in for an afternoon nap. Once she's asleep, the two of them go back to the living room. Lelouch produces a package and offers it to Rolo. "For you."

Rolo's heart start to race. He recognizes the box. How can he not? It's related to one of the most prized memories he has.

With trembling hands, he takes the box and opens it. Surely enough, nestled within it is the heart-shaped locked he once wore attached to his phone.

"I know I originally meant it for Nunnally, but it's yours now," Lelouch says. "It was always yours, I think."

Rolo barely manages not to burst into tears. "Big brother..."

"I would have given it to you sooner, but I had some trouble finding the same one, especially with the craziness that's been going on." His deep eyes grow darker, harsh with emotion. "Keep it close. And most importantly, take care of yourself. I never want to hang it over your gravestone again."

Realization dawns for Rolo. Oh. Today was the anniversary of his death. One year from now, in the last timeline, he'd given his life to save his brother.

He'd honestly forgotten. Since this whole time travel craziness started, he's been doing his best to focus on the promise he and his brother made—that is, on building a future. It doesn't always work. All he has to do is look at Kururugi, and he feels a murderous anger building in his chest. He thinks he's doing a fairly good job at withstanding Kururugi's presence, if not hiding his hatred toward the former Knight of Seven. The same goes with some of the Black Knights, although not quite to that extent. But within all that, he's completely forgotten about the date of his own death.

How like his brother to remember. But then, his brother always was very smart.

He briefly wonders if this whole thing today is solely out of misplaced gratitude before discarding the thought. That's not the kind of person Lelouch is. Sure, Lelouch has always been an excellent liar, but there's only so far he's willing to go for a lie. If it were just gratitude, he would have never included Rolo in the family unit he shares with Nunnally alone. That has always been sacred. Rolo understood it before on some level, but not like he does now, when he's finally gotten to know his sister.

"Thank you, big brother," he says. "I will remember and I will be careful."

Lelouch nods, acknowledging his promise. "Our last life wasn't great, Rolo, but we'll make new memories," Lelouch tells him, "better ones, ones that will never fade. With all of us."

Rolo can't think of anything to say to that. He clutches the pendant in his fist and makes another silent, vow. No matter what he has to do, he will protect his family.

Chapter Text

It's finally happening. After months of preparations, the day of the SAZ inauguration has arrived.

Suzaku is vibrating with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. He still remembers far too well how it all went down the first time. It's one of those memories that will never blur, the sight of the Japanese gunned down by the Britannian knightmares, Euphie shot by Zero (by Lelouch, by Lelouch), her death. Then, shortly after, the Black Rebellion and his own horrible confrontation with his best friend.

For so long, it was these events that stood between them. They've been careful so far and it's been going well... But after Viletta, he can't help but wonder... Will things continue on the same vein?

He's standing on the Britannian side, like he did the first time, next to Euphie. On her other side is David Darlton. His presence is probably a good thing, even if having him here may bring about some tension.

The exact structure of the SAZ was always a cause for friction, as evidenced by Euphie's increasing panic. Suzaku has no idea how Euphie planned it in the first timeline, but Lelouch has created several separate divisions. Euphie is meant to manage things like Social Affairs and Education, while Lelouch handles everything pertaining to the Security of the SAZ, as well the general management and infrastructure of the zone, with involvement from Kaguya. For obvious reasons, Euphie and Lelouch share the responsibility of dealing with Britannia. Finance is mostly meant to be handled by Kirihara.

Suzaku's official job is supposed to be in Euphie's department, but in practice, he'll be heading a lot of the security of the SAZ. On paper, that would be Todhoh's job, but he'll be required to train new recruits and continue the development of the Black Knights.

It's all very complicated, but it's solid and it shows. There are even more Japanese citizens than before. Zero's participation encouraged them. They trust him, believe he will keep them safe. Suzaku believes that too. The Black Knights are already here, framing all entrances and exits. They haven't disarmed and are instead in their knightmares, keeping a close eye on the Britannian soldiers as ordered by Zero.  Rolo is somewhere there, which is a relief since he's been giving Suzaku the evil eye even more as of late.

This time, Lelouch doesn't arrive dramatically on the shoulder of his knightmare. He's already here and has been since the night before, making the last checkups.

C.C. is, as always, with him, but Suzaku will still be relieved when the whole thing is finally up and running without any problems.

Zero emerges from the depths of the building to the cheers of the crowd. He takes position on the stage, nodding at Euphie.

Euphie takes her cue. She's the one who started this, so the next part is up to her. "To all Japanese, welcome to the SAZ!" she says. "It is my hope that this day will herald a new dawn of peace and togetherness for everyone, no matter what their blood might be.

"I'd like to thank Zero for accepting my invitation and offering his help in building the SAZ. I am convinced that without him, the Zone would have never been possible."

It's true, if not something Lelouch would have liked her to say. "Thank you, Princess Euphemia. As for myself, I appreciate your kind words and generosity. It is our shared goal to make sure the Japanese people are safe from oppression, and I trust that we will work together for a better, brighter, future."

They shake hands to the exuberant cheers of the crowd. All the while, Suzaku acts as Euphie's guard. Once again, he has the feeling that he's standing on the wrong side.

The formalities take less than expected. The members of the Six Houses of Kyoto are all asked to say a few words, but not even Kirihara is all that verbose. They may not be as jumpy as Suzaku, but they're not happy with the presence of all the Britannian knightmares either.

Finally, the agreement is signed and the SAZ is officially up and running. "I now declare the SAZ officially open!" Euphie announces.

After all the stress and the buildup, it's almost anticlimactic. Suzaku counts his blessings for it and remains at Euphie's side as the Japanese trickle into the space actually assigned to them.

Slowly but surely, the Britannian forces begin to leave. Suzaku is pretty sure many of them are reluctant to just leave their princess there, but Euphie has made her choice. She's abandoned her title for the happiness of the Japanese and the only reason why she still has some protection is because of Cornelia's affection for her.

Of course, Lelouch has no desire to leave Euphie unsupervised either, so as soon as he can spare a moment, he approaches Euphie again.

"Princess Euphemia, if you will allow me, I'd like to supplement your guard with a Black Knight."

Darlton opens his mouth to protest, but he doesn't get the chance to say anything. "Thank you, Zero," Euphie replies sweetly. "I appreciate your concern and assistance."

Lelouch assigns Minami as an addition to Euphie's guard. Suzaku is pretty sure the assignment is also a punishment for Minami, since he was the one who messed up and allowed Ohgi to escape.

The day passes quickly as the Japanese are assigned living quarters and introduced to their new homes. While it's strenuous, it's also a relief for Suzaku, because all he has to do is to take orders from his emperor and the pretense is irrelevant.

Around mid-afternoon, a surprise arrives. The mobile unit of the ASEEC makes its way into the SAZ under the astonished glances of the Japanese.

"Earl Asplund?" Lelouch asks. "What are you doing here?"

"Well, there's no point in having a knightmare without a devicer, and we were given permission to relocate here."

Suzaku resigned himself long ago to losing the Lancelot, so it's a huge surprise to have Lloyd and Cecile here. It's also a welcome one.

Lelouch seems both pleased and mildly suspicious. "Welcome then," he says. "I'm sure your talents will come in handy."

Suzaku can already see him reshuffling some of his assigned people in a new position. Part of the problem with consolidating the Black Knights while keeping the SAZ in working order is the fact that a lot of people have too much to do. Rakshata is one of these people. With Lloyd and Cecile here, things will be easier, especially since it's not in their character to stab anyone in the back. Still, their direct superior is Schneizel and that's something that needs to be taken into account.

Suzaku is personally glad to have them here. Cecile was once his only emotional support, and Lloyd was the one to give him a chance as a pilot to begin with. He hasn't forgotten that, although he does wonder how Lloyd will get along with his rival. More importantly, he wonders what Schneizel was even thinking to send the ASEEC here—if he was even the one to give the command.

Despite the little incident, the day ends well, and soon, they all retire to the official living quarters of the superior ranks. On paper, Suzaku has a separate room assigned, but he doesn't bother going there. He goes directly to Lelouch's room.

C.C. lets him in. She's wearing only her underclothes and holding a slice of pizza. Lelouch is currently half-way out of his suit too.

"I don't know what's more appealing," Suzaku comments, "the food or the two of you naked."

"Your priorities are skewed, Knight of Zero," C.C. replies blankly. "Obviously, the pizza is better."

Lelouch rolls his eyes. "I wonder if we should be insulted, Suzaku."

Suzaku grabs a slice of pizza and bites down. "It is good pizza, I suppose. I don't know... Maybe we should just leave it all to her and I can have you all to myself."

He wraps his arms around Lelouch and pulls him against his chest. Lelouch stumbles and almost falls as Suzaku manhandles him. "Hey!"

C.C. gives them both an unimpressed look. "Boys. What am I going to do with you?"

Suzaku wriggles his brows and C.C. sighs. "Okay. But we'll still finish the pizza first. It'll get cold otherwise. Besides, Lelouch is still skinny. You keep saying you're going to eat and exercise more, but you never do."

"It's not like it's my fault, witch. There's only so much time I have and going to the gym hasn't been a priority."

"We'll make sure you have time to exercise," Suzaku says teasingly.

Just then, Arthur decides he's had enough of the humans arguing and emerges from his hiding spot. Naturally, Suzaku only notices this when he feels the now familiar pain of the bite against his ankle. It is weirdly lighter than in the past lifetime.

"You know, sometimes I wonder about that cat," C.C. comments. "I feel like he used to hate you far more."

"Maybe he knew I was on the wrong side all along," Suzaku replies.

He still doesn't lean over to pet Arthur—that's just asking to be bitten. Instead, he continues to keep his emperor captive while C.C. takes over the task of handling the cat.

They're too tired to do much of anything that night, but Suzaku is still content. He holds Lelouch tight in his arms and allows himself to believe that this time, they won't be separated by any massacres.

****

 Living in the SAZ is... strange. Much like Zero said, it is a cage, and Urabe never loses sight of that. Still, that doesn't mean it's not nice to walk around freely, talk to happy civilians, see Japanese people smiling for a change.

The project is not without its challenges. They've had to divide their forces into a group meant to protect the civilians and one that would boost the recruiting. The latter actually goes in and out of the SAZ through the underground supply lines set up by Zero and don't spend much time in the SAZ at all. Urabe and Asahina are both involved with protecting the Zone, even if Todhoh is in charge of the recruiting.

It is a little strange to not work all the time with his longtime companions, but he's dealing with it fine, and he understands the logic. After all, Zero only has so many people he can assign important positions to.

It is in the course of his job that Urabe gets to know Kururugi Suzaku a little better.

Technically, Urabe did know the Kururugi heir as a child, but they never had much contact. Now, Urabe can safely say that Kururugi has grown up to be an interesting man. He's young, but sometimes, he doesn't seem like it. He takes charge of the group under his command with ease, as if he has a lot of experience doing it, even if Urabe knows that's not the case. Zero trusts him implicitly, which makes sense given the fact that Kururugi shares his bed.

Interestingly, they're discreet when they're in public and Kururugi always keeps a respectful distance, treating Zero like a superior officer. It's probably the only reason why their relationship remains something known just by the Black Knights.

He also seems close to Princess Euphemia, although the princess's feelings toward him are unclear.

Kururugi's real introduction to most of the SAZ is more eventful than Urabe expected, though. It happens around a week after the inauguration. People have seen him walking around, but usually he is with Zero or the princess, and the rest of the time he always seems in a hurry, so nobody knows how to approach him.

For this reason, it's all the more surprising when, on what should have been a normal day at the SAZ, Kururugi bursts out of a building at lightning speed, making his way through the crowd. "Coming through! Excuse me! Coming through!"

He's moving quickly, but he's hindered by the large number of people walking around the SAZ.  "Catch the cat!" he shouts, visibly frustrated.

That's when Urabe sees it. There is a blur of black running his way, with the Zero mask on its head.

What even.

Several Black Knights attempt to stop the cat, but the feline is cunning and manages to elude their grasp. They still delay it enough for Kururugi to extract himself from the crowd—by doing a weirdly acrobatic leap in the air—and reach it. With a huff of triumph, he finally grabs the cat and removes the helmet from its head.

"Oh, Arthur. What am I going to do with you? We're in so much trouble."

As if on cue, Zero emerges from a building, his cape fluttering dramatically. Princess Euphemia and C.C. manifest behind him. "Suzaku!" Zero bellows. "Where is that damn cat of yours?"

Kururugi rushes off to meet Zero, pointing out the cat like a prize. "Got him. Got the mask back too."

"I'm starting to think he has a fetish for it," Zero mumbles. "This is the second time he's stolen it."

"Third," C.C. corrects him.

Zero groans. "Right. At this rate, I'll need another spare."

"Oh, I'm sure he doesn't mean any harm," Princess Euphemia says as she retrieves the cat from Kururugi. Immediately, the feline turns into a purring mess.

Kururugi doesn't seem surprised at the display. He just rolls his eyes. It's more emotion than he usually shows in public.

Zero seems just as exasperated. "Everybody, this is Suzaku's cat, Arthur. Do not trust him. He will insinuate himself into your home and then proceed to steal your objects of value. Especially if they're helmets."

Urabe doesn't know what's funnier, the fact that Zero appears genuinely angry at the cat or C.C. and Kururugi's reaction to it. "There, there," C.C. says in her regular emotionless tone. "If it makes you feel better, he likes you best out of the three of us."

Confirming this, Princess Euphemia passes Zero the cat. It doesn't protest the treatment, and instead starts to play with the high collar of Zero's cloak and the ruffles of his neckerchief.

"This is undignified," Zero mutters. He still doesn't put the cat down. "All right. Back to work everyone."

He departs, with his small entourage trailing behind him. Behind him, everyone—both civilians and staff—erupt into excited conversation. "Did that actually happen?" Asahina asks. "I'm not dreaming, am I?"

"Pretty sure it was real," Urabe replies.

One little black cat shouldn't be a big deal. But the cat is just the beginning of a larger thing, or at least, another step in something that was already happening.

Prior to the forming of the SAZ, none of them really knew Zero that well. Even his goals and reasoning seemed mysterious and vague. His only close companion was the strange green-haired woman who originally kept insisting they were accomplices and nothing more.

But that's all changed now. Zero is very much a human being, an extraordinary one with a great deal of leadership abilities, intelligence and charisma, but a human nonetheless—and one with a very strange life.

On one notable occasion, as Urabe is about to report to work, he runs into Kururugi again. He has a struggling Zero drapped over his shoulder and is effortlessly carrying him despite the fact that Zero can't be that light. "Suzaku!" Zero protests, his voice barely audible because his cape is over his head. "Put me down right this instant! This is insubordination!"

"Sorry, My Lord, but I have other orders," Kururugi says, completely unruffled.

Urabe would be alarmed at this development, except C.C. is following them. "Stop whining, boy. You promised you would exercise more. Since you're not about to do it out of your personal will, we'll just have to coerce you."

Zero huffs, muttering something about undignified circumstances and traitors. C.C. winks at Urabe. "Don't worry. He complains a lot, but he knows we wouldn't do anything that won't benefit him."

There's something in their interractions that has always niggled at Urabe, and that's when he finally realizes what it is. Zero is young. Very young, maybe as young as Kururugi. The Black Knights haven't really discussed the obvious fact that their leader is sleeping with a minor, but that is in large part because Kururugi acts so much older than he actually is. It would seem it may not be an issue at all.

Then comes the unavoidable day when Zero takes the mask off. Well, sort of. It's one of those exhausting days that seem to have no end. They're all tired and have been stuck in a meeting for hours because Kirihara and Todhoh keep trying to pull the budget in their directions, and Kaguya often steps in to do the same. At one point, C.C. picks up her phone and starts to fiddle with it.

Urabe half-suspects she's playing some sort of game on it, but as it turns out, that's not the case. A half hour or so later, the doors open, revealing Kururugi carrying several boxes of pizza.

"Pizza delivery."

"C.C.," Zero says slowly, "did you get my knight to bring you pizza?"

"I got him to bring us pizza," she corrects him.

Kururugi dutifully hands over two boxes, which are apparently for her. Then, he shoves one at Zero. "I hear you haven't eaten all day."

"I ate at lunch."

"He had an apple," Rolo pipes up.

This appears to be a recurring conversation between them, so Zero gives up on the argument and takes the box. Under everyone's astonished glances, he presses a button on the mask and it slides open half-way.

There's another mask made out of textile material underneath, and he rolls that down too. Finally, he opens the pizza box and takes out a slice. "Thank you, Suzaku," he says.

It's actually the first time Urabe has heard Zero's voice out of the mask. He's always wondered how it would sound. He knows Kallen and some of the others heard him when they went to see Kirihara, but that just piqued his curiosity more.

He sounds just as proud and majestic while eating pizza. It must be some sort of secret ability.

"I didn't know the mask could open like that," Inoue comments.

"The original one didn't," Zero explains. "But after it became obvious I'd have to wear it for extended periods of time, I had this version made."

"Don't lie," C.C. mumbles. "It was Suzaku's idea."

Zero turns toward her, his lips curling into a half-grimace. Urabe suspects that the Zero behind the mask must be very expressive, which makes sense given his tendency toward flashy gestures. "Are you going to gang up on me again?"

"We wouldn't dream on it," Kururugi says with that eerie calm of his. Urabe would almost believe it if he didn't know for a fact that it's false.

Kururugi steals a look at the others. "Oh, and by the way, I got a few things for everyone else too."

The Black Knights cluster around the boxes. "Where do you even get Pizza Hut in the SAZ?" Chiba asks, befuddled.

"I stole the Lancelot to get it," Kururugi replies, as if that's the most normal thing in the world.

Everybody stares at him. C.C. nods approvingly. Zero simply continues to eat his pizza. "He didn't," he says when he finishes his slice. "Suzaku knows better than to waste energy fillers like that."

Kururugi just smirks. "Some things are more important than others. Oh... Before I forget..."

He produces a chocolate shake from... somewhere, which he offers to Rolo. For a few seconds, Zero's brother just stares at it. Zero finally gives him a nudge, and Rolo takes the shake. "Thank you, Sir Kururugi," Rolo replies.

"Just following orders," Kururugi drawls.

Urabe never does find out if Kururugi did in fact hijack his own knightmare for a pizza run, but it makes about as much sense as everything in his life. He is interested in the strange tension between Rolo and Kururugi, but nobody seems to know anything about it either, so it's safe to say that Zero will always have his fair share of secrets.

Still, things are going fairly well at the SAZ, at least from his perspective. He knows that Zero is really struggling to keep it aloft financially, especially since they need to maintain the growth of the Black Knights too. There are protesters, Britannians who show up sometimes to cause trouble, but their numbers are pretty low. The sight of the Lancelot, the Burais and the Gekkas is usually enough to chase them off and Britannian patrols actually do help. Perhaps they're meant to monitor the Black Knights, but they must have received orders to keep civilians away from the SAZ too, because it's pretty rare for vandals to manage to approach the Zone.

He supposes he shouldn't be all that surprised. If Prince Schneizel really did want this place to work, even on a temporary basis, he would make at least some effort to ensure its safety. Cornelia would do the same, given that her sister is here. Earl Asplund's relocation proves that much.

And so it is that, most of the time, Urabe doesn't have much to do. After a while, he finds himself keeping Rolo company. Rolo still keeps his distance from the Black Knights. He displays a clear dislike toward Kururugi, but he's not very warm to the rest of them either. Urabe makes it his business to occasionally engage him in conversation, at least a little. Maybe they'll work together better if he does.

Rolo doesn't seem all that thrilled with his efforts, but doesn't ignore him either. "You know, you don't have to talk to me because big brother told you to," he comments one day, when they're watching the SAZ, out of their knightmares.

"Zero never instructed me to socialize with you, just to watch your back on the battlefield," Urabe explains. "But perhaps you will resent me less for doing that if we speak."

Rolo gives him a blank look. "I'm not sure what you expect of me."

"Nothing, really. Maybe that you don't hate me as much as you hate Kururugi."

Rolo's eyes flash with something angry and dark. "Few people can top Sir Kururugi on the list of people I hate."

"Can I ask why? What did he do?"

Rolo's expression turns flat again. "More than enough."

Urabe wonders if maybe this has something to do with Kururugi being part of the Britannian army and fighting against them. Zero never did tell them when Kururugi changed sides. They've all been assuming that Kururugi must have been a double agent from the beginning, but that can't be right either. He repeatedly stood in their way in Shinjuku, at Narita, even when they went to free Todhoh. Todhoh never seemed to begrudge the boy for his choices, or for the fact that he was apparently the one supposed to carry out his execution. These days, he seems a little relieved at not having to fight his own student, although he'd never say it outright.

That doesn't mean Kururugi's loyalties were with them from the beginning.

He brings it up with Todhoh later that evening, when the shifts change and he can meet up with the rest of the Four Holy Swords. Todhoh doesn't seem surprised.

"Kururugi puzzles me too," he says. "I would have sworn on my sword that he was truly fighting for Britannia. There's just one problem with that." He presses his lips together and falls silent, as if considering something.

"Colonel Todhoh?" Chiba asks. "What is it?"

"Chiba, I looked into Kururugi's eyes when I fought him that day. When I look into his eyes now... I don't see the same person."

"So it's entirely possible that he faked it from the beginning," Asahina concludes.

"Besides, loyalty like Kururugi's doesn't show up over night," Senba points out.

Todhoh nods. "Whatever reasoning he may have when it comes to his actions, he is loyal to Zero now. That much we can all agree on, and that's what matters in the end. We won't discuss this again. Right now, Zero is Japan's best hope, and Kururugi his protector. We'll leave the past where it is, in the past."

Urabe doesn't know why, but he gets the feeling Todhoh knows more than he's saying. Still, he has already made a vow to follow Zero's lead, and the colonel's support reinforces it. Nothing is perfect, and soon, they will probably have to leave these days of general contentment behind. But as long as they have Zero, Japan has a chance to achieve its freedom. Like Todhoh said, that's the only thing that counts.

Chapter Text

July dawns hectic and sunny. During his first life, Suzaku had already become a Rounds by now and had been well on his way to becoming the White Reaper. He has no real regrets about it. Mostly, what he regrets is the reasons for him ending up in that position to begin with. Euphie's death, then him dragging his best friend in front of the emperor and keeping his eye open while Charles zi Britannia raped his mind.

He doesn't think about it much—or at least, he tries not to. It's easier than expected. The SAZ keeps him busy, and he always has something to do, either for Lelouch or for Euphie.

It's sort of strange, because when he agreed with C.C.'s crazy plan, he expected to ditch the Black Knights as soon as possible, and that doesn't seem to be in the cards now. There are times when Suzaku isn't sure what to make of it.

All sorts of strange things keep happening. After the first few times Arthur makes his escape from the quarters Suzaku shares with Lelouch, Lelouch unilateraly decides to just bring the damn cat to the offices of the Black Knights. They have staff there that is mainly stationary, and they don't mind watching the errant feline.

Inoue becomes particularly fond of it, and is often seen giggling with other members of the Black Knights whenever Arthur attacks Lelouch's cape or neckerchief. The cat quickly turns into a mascot for the Black Knights, and the light-heartedness Arthur brings is always welcome, especially in a place that is so difficult to run. And all the while, Suzaku remembers that he was the one to originally kill most of these people.

He doesn't really care, but still... It's an interesting realization to have.

Meanwhile, Lelouch is incredibly busy keeping both the Black Knights and the SAZ in working order. There have been few attacks on the Zone, but Suzaku fears that as time passes, people will get more organized and may find ways to bypass patrols. Plus there's the biggest problem—the fact that getting supplies for the SAZ is increasingly difficult and expensive. They have greenhouses where they manage to grow some produce, but that is a slow process.

The funding they receive from Britannia soon trickles down to almost nothing. What little is sent is probably just because Cornelia still wants to help Euphie, but it's not nearly enough. As a result, they're already struggling to balance their budget. They're forced to risk leaving the SAZ a few times to go procure more liquidities, and it's a risk Suzaku isn't very happy to take.

On the other hand, his relationship with his two lovers is going great. He and C.C. have managed to convince Lelouch to finally do something about his physical fitness, but Suzaku suspects that part of the reason why Lelouch accepted is because it means that, every morning, the three of them will be together. It doesn't matter what duties Suzaku has after—he's required to be Zero's personal trainer in the morning. It may not be exactly true, since C.C. is perfectly qualified to bully Lelouch into exercising, but that doesn't mean they don't all enjoy their bonding time. And it does actually help Lelouch with everything he has to do, which is a bonus.

Then, about midway through the month, Suzaku wakes up to C.C. on top of his chest and Lelouch mouthing his naked cock.

The fact that Lelouch woke up before him is unusual in itself, but Suzaku doesn't get the chance to express his surprise. Lelouch really starts to get serious on his dick, while C.C. focuses on the rest of his body. It doesn't take long for him to come down his emperor's throat.

Of course, they're not done with him yet. Suzaku's stamina has always been excellent and he's hard again mere minutes after Lelouch's excellent blowjob.

C.C. straddles him and impales herself on his shaft. She's tight and wet around him and his eyes roll in his head as he feels her pussy clench around his erection.

He flails, badly needing to touch his emperor too. Lelouch doesn't leave him wanting. He climbs on top of Suzaku and feeds his cock into Suzaku's waiting mouth.

It's perfect, everything Suzaku wanted and more. He comes again with the taste of Lelouch's spunk on his tongue and C.C.'s cries echoing in his ears. He thinks he blacks out a few minutes.

When he finally recovers, he's still between the two of them. Lelouch is on his side, watching him with a soft expression. C.C. retrieves a small package and places it on his chest.

"Happy birthday, Suzaku."

Suzaku blinks. Right. Today is his birthday.

Lelouch must have remembered. He himself had disregarded it completely in his last life. He had wanted to die so much that celebrating a birthday seemed ridiculous. The last time he'd actively thought about it was probably during the summer he spent with Lelouch.

The memory brings a smile to his face and he picks up the package. He opens it, only to find a strange pendant inside.

The pendant itself is beautiful, black and sculpted like a triangle. Each side displays a different chess piece—the king, the queen and the knight.

Suzaku appreciates the symbolism very much. Their little triad, complete. He opens his mouth to thank them, but C.C. stops him.

"It opens with a password. My true name."

She brushes her thumb over the queen side of the triangle and whispers a word. That in itself is a gift. C.C.offerd her affection to few people and her trust in even fewer, and to have that bestowed upon him leaves him humbled.

The triangle opens. Inside, there is a small screen with numbers on it.

"I had Rakshata make this for us," Lelouch explains. "It connects to a bracelet I'll wear at all times. It monitors my heartbeat and my location and transmits it to your pendant. That way you'll always know where I am and be sure I'm alive."

He lifts his hand, and indeed, Suzaku sees that he is now wearing a black bracelet. Suzaku is dumbstruck. To have something like this on his person at all times... It's a safeguard, his own personal piece of Lelouch.

"It's only fair," C.C. says. "I always know he's alive, but you don't have that certainty."

Suzaku remembers a different time, when they'd held hands in front of Lelouch's lonely grave and C.C. had confessed 'all I have is the hole where the contract used to be'. He wonders how he went from hating her more than anything in the world to loving her. "Thank you," he says with a trembling voice.

"No, thank you," Lelouch replies, wrapping his arms around him. When he pulls away, he retrieves another package from under the bed.

"And now, for your second present."

The second box is larger than the first. Upon opening it, Suzaku's breath catches. It's his uniform... The uniform of the Knight of Zero. It has some minor modifications, in that it holds a little more black and the red accents and Britannian symbols have been changed to Zero's mark. Nevertheless, it's still very distinctively the same one. A cape is included. It's more reminiscent of Lelouch's current cape and not quite as fancy as the original Knight of Zero cape. For one, it lacks that completely useless hood. Nevertheless, he hopes he won't have to use it a lot, since it would still hinder his line of sight. He always did hate that about Britannian capes.

"I have mine too," C.C. says with a grin. "But I did warn him I don't ever want to see him in those ridiculous white robes."

"Noted, witch."

C.C. smiles melts into her familar, blank expression. "Finally, the third present. Well, it's more like a selfish offer from me. I'd like to give you Geass."

A strange feeling stirs in Suzaku's chest. It's a mix of apprehension, excitement, dread and need. "I already have the Geass from Lelouch," he argues.

C.C. shakes her head. "That doesn't count. It's an order, not a power in itself. The fact that you managed to twist it for your own benefit... To be honest, it's an anomaly. I've never seen anything like it before. Nevertheless, it wouldn't conflict with having your own Geass."

"Are you sure?" Suzaku asked, still on the fence.

"Absolutely. I wouldn't have offered if I hadn't been sure."

Right. Of course she wouldn't have. She knows how important Lelouch's Geass is for him.

Suzaku doesn't hesitate further. It's half out of practicality—whatever power he will have will surely come in handy—and half because, as much as he hates to admit it, he always was a little jealous of Lelouch's connection to C.C. This way, their little triad will be complete.

"I'll take it."

C.C. grabs his hand, and just like that, Suzaku is plunged into a world that makes no sense. It's the world of C.C., but flickering around him in a kaleidoscope of images that confuses him. C.C.'s voice rings out in his head. "I offer you the Power of the King. It may condemn you to a life of solitude. Do you accept this contract?"

Just like he once did, a little more than a year from now, Suzaku says, "This Geass, I do solemnly accept."

The light flashes and settles. A heartbeat later, Suzaku opens his eyes. He flexes his fingers and stretches his muscles. A little taken aback, he meets C.C. bright golden gaze. "Did it work? I don't feel any different."

"It worked," C.C. confirms. "But it doesn't always manifest immediately."

Suzaku is really curious about what his power will be, but he shelves the thought for later. They don't have time to linger in bed after that, but they do have breakfast together. Lelouch cooks, which is great, because he's still excellent at it. Sometimes, Suzaku thinks that Lelouch should just stop being Zero and take over the world with his cooking.

They emerge from their room a little later than usual and they skip their regular gym session, but nobody seems surprised. Lelouch must have notified them of a change in schedule. He gets a few long looks because of the clothing, but he can't be bothered to care.

He doesn't expect anything from anybody else. He couldn't have been more wrong. Euphie receives him with enthusiastic congratulations, a warm hug and a package she advises him to open later. When he goes to see the Black Knights, Kaguya ambushes him. "Happy birthday, Suzaku!"

The Black Knights are still a little awkward around him, but they do offer their sincere congratulations regardless. Arthur rubs against his ankles, as if sensing the celebratory mood. Suzaku shares a look with C.C., who just shrugs. "Don't look at me. I didn't tell them."

As it turns out, Todhoh had been the one to remember. He isn't at the SAZ, but he did tell Urabe about it, and Kaguya later confirmed it. "He was there when you got your first sword," Urabe tells him. "Of course he hasn't forgotten."

Suzaku thinks about Todhoh's final words to him in the last timeline. 'Kururugi, you traitor!'. He wonders what Todhoh would think of him if he knew the truth. He probably wouldn't be nearly so generous.

"I'll remember to thank him later," he says with a light, Japanese bow.

"I like what you're wearing," Kaguya says. "Is it a gift?"

"Yes. From Zero. C.C. and I match."

They don't have the time—or the budget—for an actual party, but it's still overall an enjoyable day. When he reports for duty at the ASEEC, Cecile receives him with cookies and a hug. He accepts the hug, but declines the cookies with the excuse that he's already eaten. And all the while, his mind is always on the pendant he now wears around his neck.

As he patrols the outskirts of the SAZ, Suzaku finds himself smiling. It's the first birthday in forever during which he hasn't wanted to die, and it's all because of Lelouch. Maybe it was arrogant of him and C.C. to turn back time, but it's still the one choice he will never regret.

****

A few days after his birthday, Suzaku finally gets the chance to meet with Todhoh. Actually, it's the other way around. He's in the ASEEC hangar, waiting for Lloyd to finish his work on the Lancelot. It's a nice day and a slight breeze is blowing through the air.

He's been thinking about approaching Rolo for a serious conversation since he doesn't want the tension between them to linger, as justified as it may be. But Todhoh shows up before he can track Lelouch's adoptive sibling down.

Since he's in charge of recruitment, it's rare for Todhoh to be in the SAZ to begin with. He does come by, but he spends most of his time in meetings with the Black Knights. He's never once come to the ASEEC before.

The fact that he's made an exception today doesn't bode well. "Kururugi... Can I have a word?"

"Todhoh-sensei. Of course. What is it?"

He's already guiding Todhoh aside, to a private spot where Cecile or Lloyd won't be able to hear and the cameras won't be able to see them. Todhoh doesn't speak until Suzaku stops.

"You told me once that you hated the fact that I wanted to live so badly I would compromise my principles. You told me that you believed a society needs to accept you so that you can change it. I don't think any of that was a lie."

Suzaku doesn't bother to argue. It hadn't been a lie, not at the time. "Todhoh-sensei... You remember what I did, don't you? That summer."

He was never really sure one way or another, and his memories of that time are fuzzy. He used to remember killing his father so very well, but now, even that has faded to the background of his mind, replaced by the memory of killing Lelouch. Anyway, mentioning it does come with some risks, but it is better to compromise that secret and give Todhoh a real explanation than have the man continue digging into Suzaku's motivations and create friction or doubt within the ranks. Not to mention that it should help them figure out what Todhoh does know and remember.

"What you did?" Todhoh repeats. "As far as I recall, you managed to escape the ruins of the Shrine and made your way to us. After your's father's death, I believe Kirihara-dono..."

"That's not what I meant."

Todhoh stares at him. "Yes," he finally says, his voice like a sentence. "I do know. I remember."

Suzaku nods. "I was a child," he continues, "but I could still hear the arguments, how the generals would say that it was hopeless, that there was nothing we could do and Britannia would take Japan either way. And Father would say that regardless of that, the Japanese would fight until their last breaths, until the last man.

"But I thought..." He pauses, staring out into the distance. "I thought that the rest of the Japanese didn't deserve to die for the sake of my father's pride. I went to talk to him. He wouldn't listen. And then..." A flash of a knife. Flesh yielding to his strength. Suzaku always had been very strong, for a child. "Before I knew it, he was dead."

There had been a little more than that involved. His father had been planning to kill Nunnally, and that was what had finally made Suzaku act. But he has no intention of mentioning that part, since he doubt Todhoh is aware of it.

He faces Todhoh once again. "When I realized what I had done, I came to believe that surely there must have been another way. I believed that I had taken the choice away from the Japanese because of my selfishness."

"And you don't believe that now, Suzaku-kun?" Todhoh asks quietly.

"I don't really know," Suzaku replies. "But the thing is, Todhoh-sensei... I can't go through that again. I can't kill another person I love, not again. No matter what I must do, I will stand by his side."

"I see," Todhoh murmurs. "So it really is about Zero's true identity."

Todhoh pauses and Suzaku knows without being told that Todhoh has figured out who Lelouch really is. Interestingly, though, Todhoh shows no sign of being alarmed by it. In fact, he doesn't even seem surprised. He must have figured it out ages ago but decided to not reveal it.

"Tell me something, Suzaku-kun," he says instead. "Does Zero truly fight for Japan?"

"He fights against Britannia, for freedom, for the wellfare of the weak. You must know why."

"Yes. I suppose I do."

They look at each other for a few more moments. Todhoh is the one who breaks their stalemate.  "Suzaku-kun. Genbu and I had our differences. However, we all believed in him, believed that we should stand against Britannia, fight just like he said. But we never truly thought about the rest of the Japanese, not until you did. I think  that was our biggest failure. Zero once told me that without Genbu's suicide and Japan's following surrender, the JLF and the resistance would not exist. He's right. I do not blame you for the past. I never did."

It's strange to be told something like that by his old teacher. Todhoh is the last person Suzaku would have ever thought would make this argument.

Then again, Todhoh is a leader, not only a warrior, and he understands the meaning of hard choices. He's also known Suzaku since childhood. He must realize what his father's murder had done to Suzaku. It's probably why he never seemed angry with Suzaku for being his would-be executioner.

Todhoh squeezes Suzaku's shoulder. "You've become an excellent young man, Suzaku-kun, and you do your family name honor. I will tell you this once again. Stick to the path you have chosen and fight to the end. I am pleased that our goals no longer put us at odds."

Suzaku watches his old teacher go in silence. He's tentatively satisfied with the way that conversation went, although Todhoh's reaction did take him aback a little. Either way, Lelouch needs to be informed about this, so as soon as Todhoh is gone, Suzaku reaches for his communicator.

Lelouch isn't surprised when Suzaku tells him Todhoh has figured out the truth. "It's not unexpected," he says. "Should push come to shove, I'll use the Geass on him to make sure he doesn't say anything."

"Why not do it now?"

"It's precisely because he has kept silent that I'm willing to wait for a while. He's useful as he is. I'll give it a few days and have Diethard keep a close eye on him. You and Rolo will keep an eye on Urabe and Asahina, since they'll be among the ones who'll find out first should Todhoh ever be decide to be loose-lipped. In the meantime, I'd rather not waste the Geass if I can help it. Besides, if things progress the way I think they will, my identity will probably revealed eventually, and having him stumble over knowing it or not could hinder me rather than help me."

"You think the Black Knights will..."

"We always expected that, Suzaku. The problem is not them finding out, but how they find out and when they do it. It's actually good for us that Todhoh knows, but isn't planning to say anything."

That makes sense. Ultimately, if Todhoh ever doubted Lelouch, it wouldn't be because of him being a prince. That doesn't seem to matter to him at all. It's Lelouch's actions that count, and Todhoh always respected Zero. And having the support of Miracle Todhoh will mean a lot when the mask will finally fall. Certainly, Lelouch could force that too, but it's better to keep the Geass for emergencies rather than rely on it all the time.

"Besides," Lelouch adds, "there is no telling what kind of Geass users V.V. has at his disposal. We think Jeremiah is the only one with a Geass canceler, but if that's not true and V.V. sends someone like that after us, the consequences of forcing Todhoh to obey me would be disastrous. Should something occur, we can intervene in a more forceful manner."

That's true. Suzaku looks forward to the moment when they won't have to look over their shoulder because of V.V.'s shadow.

"I understand, Your Majesty," he says. "It will be as you wish it."   

Lelouch ends the call and Suzaku goes back to the hangar. Absently toying with his pendant, he wonders if he will soon have to kill his old teacher all over again.

Chapter Text

As the temperature escalates, so do problems in the SAZ. Britannians are found trying to sneak into the water supply system—by Cornelia's patrols, no less. They're harshly fined, but Lelouch can't touch them, which leaves everyone feeling both sour and ironically relieved.

The thing is Lelouch did anticipate problems in that regard. For this reason, the water they all drink is not actually linked to the Britannian public supply system at all. It's only the sewage they have in common. The fact that one more of his theories has been proven correct cements the Black Knights' trust in him.

He would be happier about it if it didn't get him swamped with more work and more odd interractions.

Ever since Suzaku's birthday, some of the Black Knights have been acting strangely. He'd have thought it was because of Todhoh, but it's not the kind of strangeness that comes with the news that their leader is a member of their enemy's family.

He has mentioned it to Suzaku and C.C. and Suzaku has confessed to being just as confused. C.C. has given them both unimpressed looks and proclaimed them to be idiots.

Diethard sheds some light on the subject during one of their regular intelligence meetings. "It appears that Sir Kururugi's new uniform has garnered some attention."

Suzaku stares at Diethard. "My uniform? What does that have to do with anything?"

C.C. mumbles something around the mouthful of pizza she's currently eating. Diethard coughs into his fist and fidgets in an uncharacteristic display of uncertainty. "There's been some... discussions on your private life. People are wondering about the... dynamics of your relationship."

Ah. Lelouch finally gets it. So it's the fact that Suzaku looks good in the uniform. Well, he definitely can't blame the Black Knights for that opinion.

"Also," C.C. adds, "I'm pretty sure there's been some talk about wanting to sneak into your gym sessions. It appears more than one Black Knight is curious about how you look like sweaty."

Lelouch remembers a different life, when Sayoko accidentally scheduled countless dates for him with every girl who was interested, and blanches. "Oh, God, no."

"Don't worry," Suzaku says, narrowing his eyes. "I'll make sure they keep their distance."

C.C. chortles and pats Suzaku's head. Damn witch is always getting a kick out of their frustrations.

In the end, Lelouch decides that when it comes to C.C., discretion is the better part of valor, and ignores her behavior. He doubts the Black Knights would actually sneak into his gym, anyway, since it would involve seeing him without his mask, and they respect his desire for privacy.

 "Okay then," he says to a befuddled Diethard. "Any other... more dangerous discussions to report?"

"There is still a slight level of confusion on when exactly Sir Kururugi agreed to join our cause. I've noticed a pattern of resurgence of these questions when Sir Kururugi interacts with Your Majesty's brother."

Lelouch sighs. "I'll talk to Rolo. We'll figure something out."

"I wouldn't call it dangerous per se," Diethard adds quickly. "The general belief is that the timing doesn't really count. Sir Kururugi has already proven his worth and his loyalty, and that's what counts."

Suzaku smiles darkly. Undoubtedly, he's remembering just how he did that. Even if it was an example of how things can still go wrong, killing Viletta was still somehow satisfying for him.

"In any case, the Black Knights are confident in your leadership and your new approachability seems to cemented their loyalty."

"Excellent. Keep up the good work, Diethard."

He's about to dismiss the former reporter when all hell breaks loose. It's as sudden as all the disasters that have occured in Lelouch's life. One moment, C.C. is giving Suzaku that little infuriating smirk of hers, and the next, she suddenly collapses.

Suzaku shoots up from his seat and catches her before she can hit the ground. Lelouch joins them, slapping her face gently as Suzaku sets her down on the couch.

"C.C.? What's wrong?"

The witch groans, but doesn't reply. The Geass in the center of her forehead flickers. Lelouch feels his own buzzing in response.

Suzaku gives him a confused, panicked look. Lelouch's hands start to shake. He wonders if his mother has finally realized C.C. is no longer on their side. C.C. has claimed they don't need to worry about that, since she's perfectly capable to keep Marianne unaware of what they're doing simply by repeating the same exchanges they had before. Marianne and Charles can't actually monitor C.C. or see anything of what C.C. is doing. Or so C.C. said. Lelouch is no longer so convinced.

Furious knocking suddenly sounds at the door.  "What?" Lelouch bellows.

Yoshida barges in, his face white and his hair astray. "Zero, there's something you should know."

"Now really isn't the time..."

Rolo pushes past Yoshida, and his clear alarm gives Lelouch pause in a way Yoshida's didn't. "Brother, we've just intercepted a communication from Britannia. Pendragon has been attacked. A large part of it has been destroyed."

Lelouch's mind goes blank. Surely not. Surely the SAZ couldn't have made such a big difference in the history of Britannia. And what could have possibly done such damage? The FLEIJA Schneizel originally shot at Pendragon doesn't exist yet, and the Geass on Nina guarantees that it may never be invented at all.

"What? What happened?"

"It... It was a missile. It came from... It came from Europia."

****

After everything he's been through, one would think Suzaku would be immune to shocks. Apparently, that's not at all the case. The news of what happened in Pendragon leaves him mute in surprise and horror.

"Europia? " Lelouch repeats. "But..."

He trails off as he makes the connection. Lelouch will never say it, but Suzaku suspects Lelouch's memories of the time they spent in St. Petersburg are still blurry and unfocused due to the two memory Geasses the emperor placed on him. As for Suzaku, he never really believed the two of them made that much of a difference then. Lelouch's plan as Julius Kingsley did create instability for Europia, but they hadn't actually been too involved in the military coup of Shin Hyuga Shaing.

The volatility of the emperor's Geass on Lelouch had caused him to break his cover and led to Shaing discovering his true identity, which in turn caused Suzaku to attempt to assassinate him. Shaing's guard seemed to have been on standby, to the point that one of the knightmares had caught the bullet meant for Shaing. Therefore, one can only assume Shaing must have been planning to act the same way before Suzaku and Lelouch even stepped into the picture.

Suzaku does know that Shaing was killed later, but the hows and the whys of that particular development were lost in the aftermath of the coup. Out of the four Grandmasters of the Knights of Euro-Britannia, only Andreas Farnese survived. The knights corps themselves was decimated.

After the incident, Suzaku had been relieved to be recalled to Pendragon, because he hadn't wanted anything to do with the mess. He wishes now he'd stayed a bit longer, or had shown more interest in the incident.

He can already see Lelouch's mind working furiously as he mentally adjusts his pieces on the chessboard. "Diethard, Yoshida, give us a moment," he says. "Assemble everyone and wait for us."

"Yes, Zero. Right away."

The two Black Knights leave and the door closes behind them. "This is about what happened when the two of us were in Euro-Britannia," Lelouch says once they're gone. "It has to be. Rolo, do you know the details of what happened after Suzaku and I were imprisoned?"

Rolo shakes his head. "I was never told much. I did learn of the death of Shin Hyuga Shaing, but beyond that, the situation in Euro-Britannia had nothing to do with what I'd come there to do."

That's pretty much what Suzaku expected. Lelouch doesn't seem surprised either. "Well, clearly, something must have gone differently. As I see it, there two options. Perhaps without my interference and plans, Europia was able to deploy this weapon at Pendragon. On the other hand, it may also be related to Shaing's coup. Without us there, he may have had more time to prepare it."

That's true. It was Lelouch and Suzaku who triggered the coup at that specific moment. If not for them, who knows what could have occurred?

As Lelouch finishes his sentence, C.C. finally cracks her eyes open. "Well, that was unexpected."

Lelouch jumps at the chance to learn more. "C.C., what happened?"

"Charles is dead. So is your mother."

Well, that's good news. At least they don't have to worry about the Sword of Akasha any longer.

On the other hand, that means Anya Alstreim is dead too. A shame, since it means she will never get the chance to live out her life, unlike in the past timeline.

To top it off, if that is the case, it's possible that the rest of the Rounds suffered the same fate. Suzaku thinks about the one real friend he had during his time as a Rounds. Gino Weinberg. Despite himself, a pang of grief courses through him.

He never wanted Gino to die. Even when they became enemies on the battlefield, he had tried to spare his friend.

Still, when he turned back time, he was prepared for the sacrifices he'd have to make and the possible losses he may have to endure. If Gino is dead, so be it. Also, there's a chance that Gino may not have been in Pendragon at the time of the blast. After all, the Rounds are dispatched on the front all the time. The only ones the Emperor tended to always keep close—or at least send on shorter missions—were Anya and Bismark. During their first lifetime, he'd actually deemed Anya's stay in Area 11 strange, until he'd found out about Marianne, of course.

He pushes back the thought and focuses on the conversation.

"What did we do to make that much of a difference?" Lelouch asks. "Was it the Ark Fleet plan?"

C.C. shakes her head. "Not really. Your involvement did influence the situation on the front, yes, but at the end of the day, this is because of Leila Malcal. She is the one who changed the course of things."

"Leila Malcal?" Lelouch asks. "Who is she?"

"A commander from Europia and one of my contractors," C.C. replies. "She was in charge of a special squad in the EU war. She's also part of the reason why we could turn back time to begin with. She had a very powerful Geass which we sacrificed for the plan."

Suzaku remembers the blonde girl he'd killed so many years from now. "So me killing her there had the same effect in this timeline?"

"No, she lived. But from what I understand..." C.C. hesitates, her gaze flickering uncertainly. "She didn't have her Geass. She must have done something during your time in Euro-Britannia, something that involved the Geass I originally gave her. But without it..."

Suzaku supposes that makes sense, more sense, at least, than he and Lelouch having inadvertedly changed the world while sitting in a cell, cuddling. Not that Lelouch's crazy bluff and his own interventions couldn't have made a difference, but it just didn't seem feasible.

"Leila Malcal," Lelouch muses. "So if Europia is actually the culprit, does that mean Shaing's coup isn't related at all?"

C.C. shakes her head. "Shin Hyuga Shaing was still behind it. The Dimensional Supervisor told me when I blacked out. Europia had some sort of device that allowed them to transport their machines behind the front, and Shaing used it to attack Pendragon. Shin Hyuga Shaing has Geass as well, so V.V. will know about most of this and he won't be happy."

"A Geass?" Suzaku asks, remembering the man who almost killed Lelouch in Euro-Britannia. "What does it do?"

"It appears to be similar to Lelouch's Absolute Obedience one, but its sole purpose is to kill. His Geass in particular was cursed, an anomaly caused by a distortion in the world of C. The Dimensional Supervisor believes it must be eliminated at all costs, but it's likely V.V. will be able to do that for us. In the meantime, we are to remain watchful."

"Is he liable to attack us here?" Lelouch asks.

C.C. shakes her head. "Shaing is very dangerous in that he feels that life itself is a curse that must be eliminated, but it's not within his means to target everyone, and he doesn't see Japan as a point of interest at this time, so in that respect, we're safe. We can monitor the situation using my connection with the world of C, but for now, we are to stay out of it. If our intervention becomes necessary at a later date, we will step in."

Before they can continue their conversation, the phone rings. Lelouch takes the call and Euphie's face pops up on the video screen. "Euphie, what happened?" Lelouch asks without preamble. He doesn't even bother to hide the fact that he knows about the explosion and Euphie doesn't call him out on it.

"Pendragon... Oh, Lelouch, it's so horrible. Father, Odysseus, everyone... They're all gone."

"Schneizel too?"

"No. He was at a conference when it hit."

"Thank heavens," Lelouch says.

Strangely, Suzaku has the feeling that he means it, although Suzaku doesn't really understand why. He expects his emperor will eventually tell him.

"I need to talk to my men," Lelouch says. "Stay with your knight and your guard. Do not go anywhere unaccompanied for any reason. I have no doubt that this will affect us too."

"Cornelia said... Cornelia said that I should leave the SAZ."

Lelouch shakes his head. "Euphie, no. That won't help you. In fact, that's the last thing you want to do right now." Euphie looks conflicted, so Lelouch says, "It's for the good of the Japanese too. Cornelia and I can reach an agreement as long as you're here, and we'll need to work together to keep everyone safe."

Just like that, Euphie is convinced. "Oh, of course. I understand. I'll stay here."

Lelouch ends the conversation with a promise to go see Euphie as soon as possible. Once he hangs up, he dials another number. "Jeremiah... Have you heard?"

"No, My Liege. What's happened?"

"Pendragon has just been attacked. You need to be on full alert. Make sure you're ready to evacuate Nunnally at any time. And be ready. I'll have a mission for you and Rolo."

"Big brother?" Rolo asks. Suzaku had almost forgotten he was there. "What mission?"

"It's likely that V.V., Schneizel and Shin Hyuga Shaing will keep each other busy, at least for some time. This leaves us with a chance, and a whole new set of problems. In fact, I very much suspect war will be coming to Japan within the next couple of days."

Chapter Text

The mood among the Black Knights is dominated primarily by confusion. They've all heard about the missile attack and have no idea what to make of it.

Diethard is uncertain as well, but he's also a little excited. He does know Zero has nothing to do with it. His shock in the office was genuine. However, he cannot help but wonder how Zero will use this chance. The world has already been thrown into chaos, and that can easily become Zero's playground.

Zero finally emerges from his office twenty minutes or so after they first received news, his inner circle flanking him and looking glum. He doesn't bother to explain the delay. Instead, he just gets down to business.

"Everyone, as you all know, a missile has recently hit Pendragon. We are as of yet unsure on civilian casualties, but we do know the royal family has been decimated. Charles zi Britannia is dead. First news suggests that the next emperor will be Schneizel el Britannia."

"What does this mean for us, Zero?" Kallen asks.

"This complicates our situation seriously. While the attack came from Europia, its actual source may be related to an internal threat in Euro-Britannia. I have been unable to reach all my sources to double check. Even if this is not the case, I have no doubt that Euro-Britannia will want to use the chance to secede from the motherland. Grand Duke Velaines, who is the official leader of Euro-Britannia, has long since believed they shouldn't have to bow to the emperor anymore. Naturally, this means Schneizel will be sandwiched on the continent between Europia and Euro-Britannia, which will leave him unable to pay much attention to many of the Areas, including Japan."

"But that's good, right?" Tamaki asks, scratching his head.

"Yes and no. The world order has been seriously imbalanced. Prior to this, Britannia had a treaty with the Chinese Federation, but now, I have no doubt that the eunuchs will want to take advantage of the chaos and come at Japan."

"But they've tried that before and it didn't work," Chiba argues.

"The force they sent then was minimal," Zero replies. "They couldn't afford to show too much support to the Japanese government in exile. Now, it won't be about pretense. It will be about occupation."

"The invasion all over again," Todhoh murmurs. "For sakuradite."

Zero nods. "Among other things, yes. Schneizel doesn't like to fight battles he can't win. He may order Cornelia to abandon Japan altogether. Our main goal now is to keep Princess Euphemia here and safe. As long as we do that, Cornelia will want to work with us, against the Chinese Federation, to secure the Area and keep her sister from harm."

"Work with Britannia?" Chiba asks. "But..."

"Cornelia is very protective of Euphemia," Zero cuts him off. "She will ignore orders for Euphemia's sake. We can use that and, if needed, throw the Britannians at the Chinese forces that come at us. I'll handle Cornelia."

It's a brilliant plan, and Diethard is in awe with how quickly Zero is adapting to these unexpected circumstances. Of course, it probably helps that he does know these people personally. If he remembers right, Cornelia was once close to Prince Lelouch's mother, Marianne. 

Either way, the Black Knights seem satisfied by the logic, not that Zero bothers to wait for anyone to protest. The decision has clearly been made, and they're already moving on.

"Now, other than the Chinese Federation, there is another factor to consider. There is a slight possibility that the emperor's older twin brother, Victor, may step up to take the throne in Schneizel's stead, either now or in the future."

"I've never heard about Charles zi Britannia having a brother," Senba says.

Diethard scowls, trying to remember his history lessons. "No, he did... But as far as I recall, he died when he was very young. Carriage accident or something similar."

"He didn't die. He merely stepped out of the limelight. Britannian succession has always been very brutal, and during the days of Charles zi Britannia's childhood, this caused most of his closest relatives, including his mother, to be killed. As a consequence, Victor decided to leave the throne to his younger sibling and become the chief of a special unit that serves Britannia. Most people don't even know this unit exists. I've had the misfortune of finding out about it, the hard way."

Several Black Knights exchange uneasy looks. This is new information and the way Zero presented it seems to worry them.

Zero doesn't give them the chance to ask questions. "Victor is even more brutal and crueler than his brother. He is a madman who revels in the suffering of others. Should he take the reins of Britannia, the results would be most unfortunate. But at this point, it is unlikely that he will want to focus on politics. He will lash out at the people who killed Charles zi Britannia."

 Diethard wonders if Victor zi Britannia has anything to do with the experimental procedures that gave Zero and C.C. their abilities. It seems likely. If so, their lives have just gotten exponentially harder.

"For the moment, I want the intelligence department to focus on the Chinese Federation, but keep a close eye on developments in Euro-Britannia," Zero continues. "We are preparing for war with the Chinese Federation and as far as I know, Victor has been known to be active there. Keep both aspects in mind."

"So... Zero... If you're worried about the future emperor, you think we can beat the Chinese?" Senba asks.

"I don't think we can. I know we can."

And he's off, shooting orders right and left. The base becomes a hive of activity as everyone rushes to fulfill Zero's commands.

It doesn't take long for Zero to receive the call he foresaw. He takes it in the presence of everybody else. Cornelia's face pops up on the video screen, and from the very first moment, it's obvious that she's not happy. "Princess Cornelia," Zero says. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?"

"Cut the pleasantries, Zero. You know what I want."

"Princess Cornelia, Princess Euphemia has already made her choice. She has decided to stay here, with us. I have no influence over that."

Cornelia grits her teeth in obvious frustration. "As if I would believe that. I don't know what you've told her..."

"It doesn't matter what I told her," Zero cuts her off. "What matters is the truth. And you and I both know where Japan stands at present. The Chinese Federation is coming and you don't have the forces to keep them at bay."

Cornelia twitches. Diethard has noticed this about the Witch of Britannia before. She's excellent on the battlefield, but her poker face isn't that great. Often, when she loses her temper—which seems to happen a lot around Zero—her thoughts are all over her face.

"Oh I see. Are you running with your tail between your legs?" Zero shakes his head in disappointment. "How unlike you, Viceroy Cornelia."

"You know nothing about me, Zero," Cornelia snaps.

"Perhaps not, but our personal opinions of each other don't matter that much. What matters is that Princess Euphemia is within my reach and not yours."

Cornelia takes a deep breath, clearly trying to control her temper. "All right, Zero. Let's stop the pretense. What is it that you want to let Euphie go?"

"I want what I've always wanted, freedom for Japan. I will not allow the Chinese Federation to step up and crush us. You can work with us, Cornelia, or you can stay out of the way. I will have no qualms to remove you should you interfere."

Without further ado, Zero ends the call. The Black Knights are frozen. "Was that wise, Zero?" Asahina asks.

"Princess Cornelia is an excellent commander, but contrary to popular belief, she isn't a goddess. She did just lose family. She might not have been fond of all of them, but they were in their own way important. The entire Britannian chain of command has been torn asunder. She and Schneizel would be able to handle it, but with Euphemia's life hanging in the balance, Cornelia will not want to take the chance. After all, she knows that if she tried to come at the SAZ with Britannian forces, the Japanese would turn against Euphemia in an instant."

Diethard isn't so sure about that. It's been a while since the beginning of the SAZ, and the Japanese citizenry has become fond of the young and idealistic princess.

"But Princess Euphemia is on our side, right?" Tamaki asks.

"You don't have to worry about Euphie," Kururugi says. "I'll deal with that. She does want to help the Japanese and she trusts me. She'll do what we say. She won't be an issue."

Diethard highly suspects that the entire situation is not so much about the trust Euphemia places in her former knight, but rather, the affection she feels for her brother. He isn't sure if Euphemia knows the truth about Zero's identity, but it would make a lot of sense. After all, she wouldn't have been so willing to work with Clovis's killer, unless that person was another sibling, one she had presumably mourned for many years and who needs her help.

"I expect Cornelia will go to Schneizel with this," Zero continues. "Normally this kind of bluff would not work with him, but with the state of things in Britannia as it is, Schneizel will not want to alienate Cornelia by endangering Euphemia. He always was more prone to diplomatic talks that war, and that will help us, at least for now."

Yet again, Zero is proven correct. It takes a good couple of hours, during which they're all running around to fulfill Zero's orders, but finally Zero gets the second call they've been waiting for.

Diethard doesn't get the chance to witness this one, but he is present when Zero makes the announcement. "Schneizel has agreed to return Japan to the Black Knights in exchange for a peace treaty that would be beneficial for both sides. We'll work with Cornelia to hold the Chinese Federation at bay, and once their forces are repelled, Japan will be free."

"Do you believe that, Zero?" Todhoh asks.

"Of course not. Peace treaties are as easily broken as they are signed. But by doing this, Schneizel buys time to handle his problems in Europia, leaves the Chinese Federation to us and makes sure he doesn't turn his sister into an enemy. It's win-win for him. He can always take Japan later, if he needs it. Or so he thinks."

"We won't fall this time," Kallen says decisively. "This time, Japan has you."

The entire room erupts in cheers. "Zero! Zero! Zero! Zero!"

They're all so busy celebrating their good news they don't notice the dark expression on Kururugi's face. Diethard wonders what that is all about. It vanishes as quickly as it comes, once Zero resumes their preparations for the imminent battle with the Chinese Federation, but Diethard notices. And he wonders why, if Zero is so confident in their success, his brother is now nowhere to be seen.

****

It doesn't take long for Lelouch's theories to be proven correct. The day after his conversation with Schneizel, news comes of Chinese forces already heading toward Japan. Lelouch is surprised they even waited that long, but he supposes it must have taken some time to gather their forces. Not to mention that they would have wanted to figure out how these new developments would affect the balance of power before they made a decision. The eunuchs are arrogant, power-hungry and cowardly, but they're not complete idiots.

He actually believes that their decision to come at Japan has a lot to do with the possibility of capturing Cornelia too, since that would give them leverage against Schneizel. But while he and Cornelia have had their differences in the past, he has no desire to sell her out to the eunuchs, and even if he did, it would ultimately still end in war for Japan.

For the first time since the inauguration of the SAZ, Zero officially leaves the Zone. As always, he is accompanied by Suzaku—who makes no attempt to hide his new allegiance and is wearing his Knight of Zero outfit—in the Lancelot and C.C. who is still piloting the Gawain with him. He has an additional escort of Black Knights, but he doubts it will be necessary. He's left most of his people in the SAZ, to make sure the Zone and the people inside are safe.

He meets with Cornelia at her own headquarters. Technically speaking, it's a risky move, but he's confident Cornelia won't try anything stupid or rash. Besides, the alternative would be allowing Cornelia into the SAZ and that is just not the best idea. It may give him access to her, but it's still far too risky to have Britannian units so close to so many Japanese civilians. He still remembers the original SAZ massacre, after all. He's not about to take any chances.

Cornelia is clearly very unhappy with him, but she doesn't try to attack him. Their meeting is held in public, in front of cameras, which is unfortunate because he can't use his Geass on her, but somewhat reassuring, in that it does appear that Britannia won't be trying to double-cross them anytime soon.

The first thing Cornelia does is hold a press conference. By now, rumors have already reached the Britannian citizenry of the events in Pendragon. Most of them don't actually know what happened, but there are those who have loved ones in mainland Britannia, so the disaster can't be kept under wraps.

"Yesterday, at 11:25 a.m, the capital city of Britannia, Pendragon, was the target of a cowardly attack. My father, 98th Emperor Charles zi Britania, is dead, as are many others.

"I am aware that some of you may still have connections to Pendragon. All the civilian casualties have not been identified at this time, but you will receive notifications regarding the situation as soon as it is possible, and once the communication lines are clearer.

"Unfortunately, these recent developments have caused a resurgence in the hostilities between Britannia and the Chinese Federation. It is likely that Japan may be the target of an attack in future days. Our purpose now is to keep them from succeeding. To this end, Britannia has decided to cooperate with the Black Knights."

She nods at Lelouch, and Lelouch takes the stage. "Citizens of Japan, Britannians and Japanese alike. This is a moment of great sorrow. The attack on Pendragon is mourned all across the Empire, and the countless deaths of innocents stirs my anger. The Black Knights will stand against this injustice and protect Japan from all those who threaten it.

"I have spoken with His Majesty, Schneizel el Britannia, 99th Emperor of Britannia, and he has guaranteed his support in the matter. He has also agreed to a future peace treaty between Japan and Britannia, one that would safeguard Japan's rights and liberties as a nation.

"Britannians and Japanese alike must stand together for this to be possible. I urge you to remain in your homes and preserve public peace. We cannot afford to turn on each other at this time.

"You need not fear. We will protect the Japanese shores from all foreign intrusion. As knights of justice, we will triumph once more!"

Naturally, the Black Knights from his escort instantly burst into applause. "Zero! Zero! Zero!"

By Lelouch's side, Cornelia twitches in irritation.

After that, the formalities are quickly wrapped up. Lelouch has already made most of the arrangements with Schneizel. The document is ready to be signed. All Cornelia has to do is put her name on the piece of paper.

She does so with little grace, but that's the most they can expect. Lelouch signs next to her name, then has Suzaku add his own signature. It's for more than one reason. He is technically affiliated with the Six Houses of Kyoto and the Japanese government, both due to his relationship to the Sumeragis and the fact that he is the Kururugi heir. As an Honorary, that only brought him problems and made him a bigger target, but he's not just an Honorary now.

Most importantly, as the knight of a Britannian royal, he can occupy the role of attorney-in-fact under special circumstances. Following the guidelines of Britannian legislation, Suzaku has actually become the only person who can act in Lelouch's stead in a legal, official capacity. It's kind of funny to think about, given Lelouch's past choices and the Requiem plan. Should Schneizel ever make noises about Zero not being a legal name, they'll be covered.

Suzaku signs in both Japanese characters and Britannian letters. He even adds the Knight of Zero title. Trust Suzaku to be thorough.

Once the paperwork is out of the way, they reconvene behind closed doors, in a meeting with Cornelia's inner circle.

"I'm not sure that was wise," Andreas Darlton says. "Aren't we advertising the extent of our forces to the enemy?"

"On the contrary, General Darlton," Lelouch replies, "it will make them underestimate us all the more. The eunuchs are very much aware of the enmity between Britannia and the Black Knights. The fact that we would agree to work together would suggest to them that we are individually weak. And while this isn't necessarily false, it's not the truth either."

"I take it you already have a plan to defeat them," Cornelia says. She's still pissed, but she's not petty enough to not cooperate with him for the purpose of military victory and still aware of him dangling Euphie's life over her head.

"Indeed."

Reaching an agreement with Cornelia takes a bit longer than Lelouch would like and there's some predictable shouting involved. He uses a spare moment during one of Darlton's rants to type up an email to Milly and assure them he and Nunnally are fine and unaffected by the unrest in Europia, but his productivity does little to improve his mood. By the end of the meeting, Suzaku has started looking... stabby, C.C. is irritable and Lelouch has a headache. Cornelia's hand keeps going to her gun and Guilford's stance is almost as rigid as Suzaku's, which should have been an impossibility.

They're all greatly relieved when they have a coherent plan in order, even if a lot of it hinges of Lelouch's stratagems.

When they return to the SAZ, they're received with great enthusiasm by the Japanese. If they are afraid, they don't show it. They seem completely convinced in Zero's ability to protect them.

In his past life, Lelouch failed at that. In his past life, Lelouch failed at many things. He spilled rivers of blood for his Requiem and destroyed countless lives. This time, he will make sure that won't be necessary. For the sake of everyone he loves, he will build a peaceful future, one they can all share.

Chapter Text

The force of the Chinese Federation reaches Japan that very same day. By now, V.V. will have already mounted an attack against Shin Hyuga Shaing. Hopefully, it will keep him busy long enough for Lelouch to go through with his plans.

The eunuchs do not send Cao again, but Lelouch actually prefers it that way. He's still using Cao as a sleeper agent in the Federation and his presence will keep Nunnally safe despite the restlessness that it sure to follow and the fact that the headquarters of the Geass Order is there. He trusts Sayoko to watch Nunnally, but reinforcements never hurt in this kind of situation.

He's already spoken with his little sister and told her not to worry, that he will be able to handle this. He can tell Nunnally is very concerned, but the only thing that she says is, "I know. I have complete faith in you."

He really should have told her the truth sooner in his past life.

As expected, Euphie fully understands the situation and has no qualms with putting herself at risk for the good of the Japanese. "I wish we didn't have to lie to Cornelia, but I know how she is," she says. "As long as it will help you, I will do whatever I must."

Her knight isn't nearly so pleased, so Lelouch places a Geass on him, just in case. It wouldn't do for David Darlton to attempt to extract her from the SAZ sooner than Lelouch planned. Cornelia may have signed their agreement, but her cooperation still hinges on Euphie regardless.

The moment of the decisive battle finds Lelouch calm.  The main advantage of the Chinese troups is that they've come in high numbers. The fleet alone is enough to give Cornelia pause. But he's faced far worse odds and has even flown in the direction of a FLEIJA missile, with an infinitesimal chance to disarm it. He is completely convinced they will succeed.

The enemy fleet is not coming from the exact same direction as the Britannian navy did in the last lifetime, but the ground is similar. He sends Rakshata in the submarine and has her direct the torpedos at the right angle. Bubbles erupt from the water, consuming the approaching vessels.

"You know," Suzaku tells him through the comlink as they watch the ensuing chaos, "that's far funnier when it's not happening to me."

Cornelia is baffled, and so is Todhoh, although they both make a valiant attempt at hiding it. Enscoced in his knightmare with C.C., Lelouch cackles.

Of course, the bubbles don't actually destroy everything the Chinese Federation wants to throw at them. They have other forces, coming from a different direction, where Lelouch cannot so easily wipe them out. They have flying units, that are all probably carrying knightmares. And they have the Shen Hu. Li Xingke.

Lelouch had actually been counting on that. His absence from the Forbidden City will make Rolo and Jeremiah's mission easier. Besides, the man may be excellent at what he does, but he will never be able to defeat Suzaku.

The current version of the Lancelot isn't nearly as good as the Albion, but Lelouch did have the foresight to make Lloyd and Rakshata improve on it during their stay at the SAZ. The largely inefficient float system has been replaced by energy wings similar to those of the Gawain's. They're draining on the energy filler, but Suzaku knows how to pace himself.

The Guren is a bit more problematic. The Radiant Wave Surger is a powerful weapon, but it also requires a lot of energy to use. They've managed to improve on it too, but they ultimately decided to use a float system for it rather than energy wings, at least until they can improve on the technology—which would take a little more time and resources than they had available at the SAZ.

Either way, both their knightmares and Lelouch's own are vastly superior to what the Chinese Federation is using. The Shen Hu is an excellent frame and Xingke an excellent pilot, but in the end, he's just not good enough.

Lelouch's calculations prove to be entirely correct. He hovers over the field of battle and directs his Hadron Cannon at the flying vessels, so he can't fully focus on the battle between Xingke and Suzaku, but he does realize it's over almost embarrassingly fast.

Suzaku goes at him at full speed. He's probably using his Geass—the one given to him by Lelouch—because he moves so quickly Lelouch becomes unable to track him. When Lelouch sees Suzaku again through the chaos, he already has Xingke at a clear disadvantage.

"I was expecting a bit more of a challenge," Suzaku says. He almost sounds disappointed. Knowing him, he probably is. The meeting with Cornelia has left him with some anger to let out.

"Oh, well. I'm sure you'll get your chance from someone else at a later date. Take him alive if you can. He may come in handy. And if you can incapacitate him and leave the frame still useful in the near future, do so."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Trusting Suzaku to follow his orders, Lelouch directs his attention to the rest of his troops. Kallen is causing beautiful destruction, as always. While not as fast and superhumanly efficient as Suzaku, she is still easily superior to her opponents. 

Since the three of them are so destructive, the rest of Lelouch's flying units, which are primarily Britannian in nature are on standby. Rakshata hasn't had the chance to build their flagship yet, but for the purpose of this battle, it doesn't seem that it will be necessary.

The Chinese troops attempt to sneak past them, but they are intercepted on the ground by Cornelia and Todhoh, whom he has deployed in the areas most vulnerable to attack. 

Suzaku follows his orders to the letter. He cripples the Shen Hu, forcing an automatic eject of its pilot. The frame is badly damaged, but Lelouch estimates that they will be able to fish it out of the ocean eventually and use it in some way.

It's a shame that the Shen Hu didn't conveniently run out of energy like Kallen's knightmare in their first life, but ah well.

Suzaku intercepts the escape pod, dumps it on the submarine, then goes back to his destruction spree. To their credit, the Chinese don't give up so quickly and many seem interested in going to rescue their general. It's of course, a futile endeavor, since Lelouch easily blocks their path.

Then, his final plan comes to fruition. His communicator buzzes, and when Lelouch takes the call, it's Rolo's voice that sounds in his ear. "Big brother, we're done here. We've managed to accomplish all mission objectives."

"Excellent, Rolo. I knew I could count on you and Jeremiah."

"Sending you the video feed now."

A few minutes later, the open coms connecting to all channels flare to life with Zero's image. "To all Chinese Federation forces. This is Zero. I have a message for you."

The image shifts, displaying an entirely different person. It's the Empress, and she is tied up and in the hold of a man dressed in a Black Knights uniform and wearing a bright orange mask. The video goes back to Zero. "The eunuchs are dead. Your empress is in my grasp. Surrender now."

In the wake of the crushing defeat and the capture of their empress, the Chinese can do nothing but comply. Behind his mask, Lelouch smirks. He really does love to win.

****

Trapped in a cell in the belly of the submarine of the Black Knights, Xingke paces. He never expected to be defeated like this. He didn't underestimate Zero—the man is clearly a military genius—but the superiority of their forces alone should have given them enough of an advantage to compensate.

The whole reason for his presence was removing Zero and his black nightmare, the one that had done the most damage during the original attempt of the Chinese Federation to intervene in Japan. With Zero gone, the Black Knights would have fallen apart, Cornelia would have folded and left, and Japan would have been theirs.

He'd seen the red knightmare, the one supposedly led by the Black Knights' red ace, and he'd deemed it a threat. But that machine, while spectacular, hadn't been the one to take him out.

The Lancelot. Suzaku Kururugi. Euphemia's knight. How had it been possible for Kururugi to move so quickly?

It doesn't matter anymore. He's trapped. He's failed the Tianzi, and the eunuchs were clear. If he didn't kill Zero, the Tianzi would pay the price. 

Can the rest of his forces win without him and the Shen Hu? It's doubtful, if not impossible. His only hope now is that it seems unlikely that the eunuchs will attack the Tianzi in the wake of their defeat at Zero's hands. Perhaps they are bluffing. He's never wanted to take chances with her safety, but now... He's all out of chances, out of time, and out of allies.

In front of his cell, there are a few Black Knight guards who are watching him carefully. They don't seem too alarmed, though, which doesn't bode well. He tries not to feel like an animal trapped in a cage, but he utterly fails.

When something actually happens, Xingke is both relieved and not. His guards stand to attention and Xingke watches as Zero appears within his line of sight. A green-haired woman is with him, walking behind him with soundless footsteps. Like the others, she's dressed in a Black Knights uniform, a pilot suit, but hers is far more ornate.

Zero waves the guards away and they leave with a silent salute. As they depart, Zero approaches the cell.

"Li Xingke. Truly an honor to meet you. I've heard a great deal about your exploits and your famed loyalty to the Tianzi. It is regrettable that our first meeting has to be under these unpleasant circumstances."

"Regrettable indeed," Xingke says between gritted teeth. "Although I have to wonder why Zero would bother to visit a humble general now of all times."

"You are many things, Xingke, but humble is not one of them." Zero laughs. He produces a tablet from his coat and places it in Xing Ke's line of sight. The images on the screen make Xingke's blood boil.

It's the Tianzi, captured, at the mercy of Zero's forces.

"No."

He rushes forward, furious, but of course, the secured glass between them keeps him at bay. Zero doesn't even flinch. "Yes," he says. Xingke has the feeling he's smirking behind the mask. The woman stares at Xing Ke impassively, like he's an uninteresting insect.

"Now, don't look so upset," Zero says. "It's not like she was free before. Her former captors are dead now. She simply has different ones now."

"You have no right to treat her like this," Xingke hisses. "She's not an object you can buy or barter."

"Indeed not," Zero replies. "Now, I have no desire to hurt the Tianzi. She is but a child, after all. However, in the context of current international developments, we will need the strength of the Chinese Federation. Your support and loyalty would be appreciated."

"My support? My loyalty? That only belongs to the Empress."

"I thought you would say that." Zero's mask snaps open and Xingke's attention is drawn to his lone, visible eye. "But you will trust me nonetheless. You will trust me no matter what I say. You will trust me with The Tianzi's safety, with your future, that of the Chinese Federation and every other problem that may come up."

A few seconds later, when Zero explains Xingke his plan for the United Federation of Nations, Xingke is more than happy to agree. Of course he will help. Zero will clearly take care of the Tianzi. He is far more trustworthy than the Eunuchs and her being in Area 11 will fulfill his promise to her to see the world. Not to mention that she will have friends here, Kaguya Sumeragi, perhaps others. Yes, it is perfect. Zero will take care of everything. It makes complete sense.

Chapter Text

The meeting with Xingke amuses C.C. slightly. She half-expected Lelouch to simply turn him into a puppet like he did Schneizel. His new approach is interesting.

"Trust?" she asks as they leave the Chinese general in his cell and start to walk away.

"Of course. Obviously, I'm not going to use an army of brainwashed people. That's far too risky, since we don't know the extent of V.V.'s abilities. Not to mention that in the long-run, they act suspiciously and they tend to be unable to do anything except what they're ordered to do. This way, Xingke will simply act normally and the Geass will cancel out anything he may have objected to. Beyond that, the Federation's army is very sheep-like in nature. As long as the Tianzi and Xingke say something, they will obey."

C.C. nods. After all, the eunuchs effortlessly kept up the entire nation subjugated by controlling the Tianzi. It would be easy to do the same through Xingke and a handful of generals like Cao, especially since the Tianzi trusts Xingke implicitly.

Trust. It's all about trust.

They leave the cell block, satisfied with their progress. As Lelouch passes the guards, he says, "Continue to keep an eye on him. I may have gotten him to cooperate, but for now, we still need to be wary." It's not true, but Lelouch can't make the use of his Geass too obvious.

"Yes, Zero," they say eagerly.

These days everyone is so eager to follow Lelouch's commands, and even more so after the way Lelouch so effortlessly beat the massive force the Federation sent at them. It's nice to see.

C.C. wonders if Lelouch will try the same tactic of 'trust' on the rest of the Black Knights. She doubts it—unless they force matters, at least. He wants loyalty that is won fair and square.

During the Requiem, they've abandoned all scruples, and that hasn't really changed now. Nevertheless, they're building something new with the Black Knights, and in his heart, Lelouch doesn't want to break that, not if he can help it. It's still not completely real—they have too many secrets for that—but it's better than what they used to have. Lelouch will still use his Geass if he's forced to, but for now, the Black Knights have given their trust to their leader out of their own free will, so it may not be necessary.

Besides, Geass isn't 100% reliable, just like Lelouch said. Even an Absolute Obedience command can go very wrong if they aren't careful.  And well... It's actually debatable if the more subtle approach Lelouch took in Xingke's case is better than what he did to Schneizel and his army of brainwashed soldiers. Their consciousness appeared to be completely suspended. As far as C.C. can tell, Xingke will remain himself... mostly, but unless a Geass canceler is used, something about him has permanently changed. It's a little funny to realize that Lelouch never ordered people to feel a certain way before, and it's only actions he affected.

Well, C.C. doesn't really mind either way. As long as Lelouch and Suzaku are safe, they can do whatever they want. Although... Maybe it does please her a little.

Prior to their time travel, a part of her did wonder what Lelouch's take of their new chance would be and if he would resent her and Suzaku for scrapping his Requiem. But there is no sign of that, and Lelouch is clearly willing to do whatever it takes so that this time, they can truly succeed. She suspects that a great deal of it is because of them, because C.C. and Suzaku, and idly wonders how Nunnally could have turned away from such devotion in their first life. She gives herself a mental pat on the back for having managed to steal it, at least in part.

For the moment, Lelouch's plans have mostly gone well, but that doesn't mean their work is done. The submarine is already headed back toward the Tokyo Settlement, where they are due to meet up with Cornelia and where Lelouch will probably hold a very dramatic and inspiring speech and Suzaku will end up very uncomfortable due to all the "Zero, Zero, Zero" chanting. But first, they have a debrief pending.

The core members of the Black Knights are already on deck when Lelouch and C.C. arrive. Suzaku is there as well, and he not so surreptitiously makes his way to their side as soon as they enter the room. Since Todhoh is not present and Lelouch had Xingke to handle, he's been keeping an eye on post-battle operations for them, but he much prefers sticking to Lelouch's side, just like C.C. does.

The Black Knights naturally erupt in cheers but Lelouch quickly silences them. "First of all, good job everyone. Today, we scored a great victory, a victory for freedom. But the battle is just starting, and we have a very difficult challenge ahead."

Lelouch then contacts every other important member not there for the meeting—Todhoh, Kirihara and Kaguya—and brings them up for a conference call. The signal isn't great and a video call isn't within their means, not yet, but it'll have to do. "All right, everyone. Once we return to the settlement, we'll have to deal with the aftermath of the treaty with Britannia."

"Do you think they will cause us any problems, Zero?" Kallen asks.

"Not right now, but problems will emerge due to the nature of the situation. To put it bluntly, we will have to rebuild the organizational structure of Japan from scratch, and we'll need to do this while still in a state of war.

"What do you need us to do, Zero?" Todhoh asks, sounding glum, but determined. He understand how difficult this will be.

"The current plan is for the Britannian military forces to depart. The Britannian civilians will be given a choice of stay or go. Most will probably decide to leave, but it seems unlikely that everyone will take this path. This will mean that the rest of us will need to prevent any internal conflicts or backlash against the Britannian civilians. Todhoh, you'll be in charge of continuing recruitment for a special Black Knights militia, to prevent chaos from occuring. Meanwhile, we'll need to fill in the positions that are left vacant with Japanese citizens, and we'll start out with people from the SAZ, since we already know their abilities and what they would be able to do. I'll speak with Cornelia to coordinate with her in this matter."

"What about the Chinese Federation?" Kirihara asks. "I take it you have a plan with respect to them too."

"Yes. They're at a disadvantage now, but we don't have the numbers or the time to intervene there too much overtly. It would be too risky for any of us to leave Japan. I am having Rolo bring the Tianzi here, and we'll go from there."

"Go from there? What do you mean, Zero?" Kaguya asks. Her voice is steady, but it does hold a level of... concern, barely perceivable, but there. C.C. remembers that she befriended the young Chinese empress, so these new developments probably unsettle her. She understands and won't protest, but that doesn't mean she's completely happy about it.

"We will create a new treaty, a union of countries, one that can stand together in the name of freedom. The United Federation of Nations. Its current members will be Japan, The Chinese Federation and India."

Rakshata gapes at him. "India?"

"Don't look so shocked. I did make you a promise. I'm merely starting to keep it. And I have no doubt that I will be able to wrangle some extra concessions out of the Federation."

Extra concessions indeed. That's putting it mildly and they all know it.

"In any case, I will be sending you the document of the treaty in question. Read it and we will discuss it again once I arrive in Tokyo. In the meantime, these are the main points."

The document itself is not exactly like the one Lelouch used in the first life. Instead of disarming, the countries are basically surrendering leadership of their armed forces to the Black Knights. This would not normally be possible, but India has no army of its own, Japan already belongs to the Black Knights and the Federation's leaders are under Geass, dead or captured.

It is also over twenty pages long, and written in legalese not everyone in this room has the education to understand. Thus, just like in the case of the SAZ, he's put together a smaller file which he brings up on screen.

The Black Knights are suitably impressed. Of course, Diethard chooses this exact moment to point out his admiration of Lelouch's skills. "This is amazing, Zero," he says. "When did you even have time to do this?"

"He hasn't slept properly since the Pendragon bombing, obviously," C.C. pipes up.

That is both true and not. Even Lelouch would have had trouble writing something as elaborate as that particular document while still monitoring military operations for the imminent battle with Xingke. But there are advantages about being from the future, and Lelouch has had the UFN treaty sitting on his hard drive for a while now. All he had to do was some minor modifications because of the circumstances.

That doesn't mean Lelouch has been taking care of himself as much as C.C. would like, though.

"C.C., stop nagging me," Lelouch says irritably. "I told you, now is not the time."

Suzaku brushes against Lelouch, and his eye flashes. C.C. blinks. For a moment, she thinks that she imagined it, but no. It was definitely there, a Geass. He doesn't seem completely aware of it either.

Lelouch sits up a little straighter. Suzaku's hand twitches. Lelouch's Geass flares around him, and his expression smoothes out.

What.

She needs to study this a little more. Runaway Geass is very dangerous, as evidenced by Lelouch's problem. Suzaku shouldn't be in that position but... Could he be subconsciously using it just like he does Lelouch's?

Oh dear.

This can't be good.

Kallen frowns, clearly a little worried and some of the Black Knights exchange looks. Lelouch ignores them. "As I was saying, this will be the basis of our future international policy. Once we address matters with the Chinese Federation, we will look at Euro-Britannia. My sources tell me that the conflictual situation is indeed intensifying there and we'll need to be prepared for the unavoidable moment when we have to intervene."

"I have a headache," Tamaki mumbles under his breath. "This is hard."

C.C. has no doubt. Tamaki is well-meaning, but kind of an idiot. Fortunately, the Black Knights don't actually need to understand everything. They just need to do what they're told, and they seem very happy to do that.

After that, the meeting doesn't last for much longer. C.C. is very relieved when it finally ends, because she notices Suzaku brushing against Lelouch for a second time and taking something else. They really need to talk about this before it becomes a problem.

As soon as Lelouch dismisses his people, C.C. grabs his hand and Suzaku's and pulls them out of the room. The Black Knights may assume she's after sex, but for now, she doesn't care about their opinion. "We need to talk about something important. In private."

She drags them both to Lelouch's office. Predictably, both Lelouch and Suzaku are concerned. "C.C.? What's wrong? Please don't tell me Shaing or V.V. did something..."

"No, that's not it. Suzaku's Geass is acting up."

Suzaku and Lelouch recoil like they've been struck. "What?" Suzaku asks, his eyes wide. "But I haven't felt any different."

"You've been using a Geass for years, so now that you have the one from me, you're using that one too when you subconsciously feel the need to do so."

Suzaku now looks like he's hyperventilating. Hmm. Perhaps she should have broken this to them a little more tactfully.

"C.C., you said my order won't interfere with the Geass from you." Lelouch's nostrils flare in anger. "How could this happen?"

C.C. grimaces. "Technically, the two aren't getting in each other's way. It's more like... they've molded."

Suzaku covers his eyes, like he's expecting disaster to strike if he simply looks at them. "This can't be happening. I can't go out like this. What if I..."

"Relax," C.C. interrupts him. "Breathe. Your Geass appears to be harmless, perhaps a healing power of some kind. But you do have to learn how to control it. So we need to test it out.

"I first noticed it earlier, in the meeting room. You appeared to absorb Lelouch's fatigue and draw it in yourself, and Lelouch's Geass compensated for that. That could come in handy in the future... But you can't afford to do it randomly. If it's more than fatigue, it can incapacitate you."

In hindsight, it actually makes a lot of sense. Suzaku is a knight. In his heart, he always wanted to protect people. Later, the list of people he felt that need for diminished greatly, but that need remained. That, coupled with his own feelings of guilt and self-loathing naturally caused this Geass to emerge.

"A Geass that... heals?" Lelouch asks. "I've never heard of that before."

"Well, there are many kinds, and you know your knight. He always was so self-sacrificing."

Slowly, Suzaku's breathing begins to even out. "Okay. So that isn't so bad. Disaster averted. That... That could be useful. But... Still..." He shoots her a dark glare, and C.C. can't blame him for being upset. She did say she was sure nothing would happen, and she was proven wrong.

"Yes, I know. For what it's worth, I am sorry."

Lelouch rubs his forehead. "Well, at least we know what it does and we won't be surprised by it at the wrong moment. Or at a worse moment, at least. And since we know, we can experiment with it and see how it works exactly." He looks at the clock. "C.C. is right. This can't wait. Since C.C. obviously can't do it, I'll have to be your guinea pig."

C.C. isn't happy with what this will involve but they have no choice. Geass comes with burdens and they've all accepted that. They've already lost and sacrificed so much. This experience, no matter how unpleasant it may be, will just have to become one more sacrifice on the list.

****

Since C.C. turned back time, Suzaku has made an oath. He's sworn that he will make sure his loved ones will never be hurt again.

Seeing it happen in front of him, even in a small way, aches, especially since he knows that, indirectly, it's because of his own inadequacy.

When Lelouch pickes up a letter opener and makes a small cut on his hand, Suzaku starts to sweat. The injury is barely there, insignificant, but it still reminds him of things he really wants to forget, of a gunshot that cracked open more than a mask, of Lelouch's flesh yielding to his sword, of all the pain he's caused to his emperor.

In the blink of an eye, he's at Lelouch's side and he takes his hand. Within seconds, Lelouch's wound vanishes and appears on Suzaku's own hand, in the exact same place. His skin tingles with the power of Geass and the flesh knits back together.

"Well, that was fast," C.C. says, eyeing his hand with interest. "Almost as fast as my code."

"It's not a life-threatening injury, though," Lelouch points out. "How does my order help him?"

C.C. shoots him an unimpressed look. "Lelouch... Suzaku and I lived seven more years after the Requiem. Your order massively mutated into something else. Surely you must have realized it by now."

It's true. These days, he doesn't need to be threatened to use the power of Lelouch's Geass. It just... happens naturally. Granted, the tendency did exist in their time pre-Requiem, but not to this extent, this pronounced and in this automatic way. Fuck.

Lelouch seems stricken. That's right. They never did tell him how long they had to live with the consequences of his death.

C.C. sighs. "Perhaps that was uncalled for," she says, and the begrudgingly self-deprecating comment speaks volumes of the fact that she really does regret this entire situation. "It's all right now. We're here. We'll figure this out too."

Lelouch takes a deep breath. Suzaku can practically see him shelving C.C.'s unwise words, to be discussed at a later date.  "Most everything you do is by instinct," he tells Suzaku. "Can you learn how to do it on command in the time we have at our disposal?"

Suzaku nods. He can do it. He has to. C.C. is right. What if he accidentally used the Geass to help a random person and he's incapacitated because of it? His emperor would then be left without him. That's unacceptable.

"I can. We just... I feel like maybe we need another test subject."

"Suzaku may have a point," C.C. points out. "There's no way he can control the Geass when it's you or anyone he actually loves, not right now. That's the whole problem. His instinct is to protect you, thus the Geass activates without him having to think about it. It may not work the same way with others."

Lelouch pauses slightly, musing over their words. "Diethard," he says. "We'll use him. He already knows about Geass and he won't say anything."

Suzaku doesn't bother to hide his relief. He wasn't actually present for Lelouch's conversation with Diethard, but he does know the former reporter took the whole thing well. Yes, this should work.

Lelouch calls Diethard to his office and the former reporter eagerly promises to report in. While they wait, Lelouch puts on his contacts. Diethard arrives mere moments after.

Suzaku opens the doors, double-checking for any other people since Lelouch doesn't have his mask on. There's no one other than Diethard, and Suzaku lets him in without comment.

Diethard bows in front of Lelouch, acknowledging his position as royalty. It's not exactly an imperial bow, but it'll have to do, at least for now.

"Your Majesty," Diethard says. "You wanted to see me?"

"Yes Diethard. I've summoned you for an important matter referring the... abilities we've discussed in the past. There's been a development and I need your assistance with it."

"Of course, Your Majesty," Diethard replies. "I'm at your command."

He sounds completely willing to serve. Suzaku approves.

"You see, Diethard," he says, "until recently, my abilities were mainly... offensive in nature." There's no reason to go into detail, since Diethard doesn't have to know everything. "But after this last battle, we've noticed a change, or rather an addition. I seem to have developed a... healing ability of sorts."

Diethard is surprised at Suzaku's explanation, which could be both because of the explanation itself and the fact that Suzaku has actually spoken with him. "Testing it on His Majesty isn't ideal," he continues. "My natural protectiveness toward him causes this ability to act without my express knowledge. C.C.'s ability makes mine unnecessary. So we need to do... a controlled experiment if you will."

"Don't worry," Lelouch adds. "It will be entirely safe. No actual lasting harm will come to you."

Suzaku expects Diethard to be at least a little wary. The complete opposite happens. "Of course, Your Majesty. I would be honored."

Lelouch blinks, and his lips twist into a small smile. "Right. Please, sit."

Diethard does, and Lelouch proceeds to repeat the same process he used on himself. He takes his letter opener and makes a small cut on Diethard's hand.

Suzaku approaches Diethard, keeping his distance at first. He lets his hand hover over that of the former reporter, taking a deep breath. Focus. He needs to focus.

He remembers how he used to feel like when Lelouch's Geass threatened to overcome his will. He can do this. He's done it in the past, many times. Lelouch's command may have become a part of him, but that doesn't mean he can't still control it.

In the end, it's not that difficult. He can feel Diethard's wound, like he has a sixth sense. Also, it appears that Diethard may have a small lung problem. Former smoker?

Either way, he's a good test subject. He lowers his hand over Diethard's and wills the smaller injury to close, but leaves Diethard's lungs alone. The Geass works, just expected, and the cut heals, appearing on Suzaku's instead. It then vanishes, a few seconds later. The lung-related issue remains unaddressed.

Diethard stares at his hand, then at Suzaku's like it's an alien thing. He may have known about Geass and even seen it in C.C., but witnessing the process like this obviously amazes him.

"Right," Lelouch says. "Once again, to double check. Try it without touching his skin."

Of course. Lelouch's Geass can only be used once and needs specific conditions to work. Learning a little more about Suzaku's own limitations can't hurt.

Diethard is happy to comply, and the experiment goes the same way. It would appear that Suzaku can heal someone through clothing, but it is a little more difficult. He may not be able to do it at all through body armor or thicker items. There isn't a limit to the number of uses, though, and that's good.

Suzaku is tempted to help Diethard with his lungs, but decides against it in the end. This is clearly a case of learning something in small steps and he doesn't want to stumble into something too serious, not just yet.

"Thank you for your assistance, Diethard," Lelouch says once they're done. "Naturally, this will remain between the four of us."

"Of course, Your Majesty. It was my honor to participate in your experiment."

Once Diethard leaves, Suzaku turns toward his emperor. "It seems I can feel injuries in others, even those they aren't aware of, latent conditions. I can try to practice on healing the others of the smaller things." After all, most people don't pay attention if a rash goes away faster than expected or something like that. They just assume it healed naturally.

He wonders how big of an injury he would be able to heal. Could he manage to heal Nunnally? He wants to bring it up, but C.C. almost seems to read his mind.

"Don't push yourself too much, too quickly. It could result in disaster. We already know your use of Geass is unusual. We can't afford to take extra chances."

Suzaku can hardly disagree with that, not when he himself has made Lelouch promise to be careful, so many times. "Yes, of course. I won't push it. I promise."

Lelouch sighs, looking displeased, but resigned. "All right, Suzaku, but always remember. You're the most important one in this equation. You need to live on. The rest is secondary."

Lelouch's words make his Geass flare at the back of Suzaku's mind. It feels like a kiss, as intimate as sex. "Yes, Your Majesty," he replies. "I will always remember. I will not fail you."

Chapter Text

After that frustrating episode, Suzaku leaves, intent on investigating his new power. Lelouch hates to see him go—they have so little time together—but they have no other choice.

The first thing he does once they're alone is to put in some calls he should have made sooner—both of them to family.

Rolo answers on the first ring. "Big brother. I take it everything went well."

"Yes, Rolo. Everything is in order. You can come in and bring the Empress here tomorrow, as soon as I wrap up a few loose ends."

As he speaks, Nunnally's voice sounds from the phone. Rolo must have put them on speaker. "Can I come too?"

"Not just yet, Nunnally," he replies. "It's too risky. You're safe there. No one will think to look for you and Jeremiah and Sayoko will protect you. But here, you will be exposed to too much danger." He sighs. "I honestly wish I could leave Rolo there, but..."

"No, no," Nunnally cuts him off. "I completely understand. It's better for brother Rolo to be with you and help you. I just wish I could do more."

"It will happen, Nunnally. Just give me a little more time."

"Big brother..." Nunnally whispers. "Rolo told me that... In Pendragon..."

"Yes. Almost everyone is dead, except Schneizel, Cornelia and Euphie. If there are other survivors, I don't know."

Nunnally lets out a soft sob. It's understandable. As much as he hated Britannia, a lot of his siblings were innocent of his father's misdeeds. Many of them had been just as young as Nunnally. Lelouch has done too much in his past life to dwell on such passing grief and fleeting attachments, but Nunnally isn't in his position.

 "The culprit will be caught, Nunnally. Schneizel is handling that as we speak. But we are still at risk from other sources, so we must be careful."

"I understand, big brother," she says. "Just don't worry about me and stay safe."

"Always."

After Rolo and Nunnally, Lelouch has one more sibling to contact. He calls Euphie.

Like Rolo, she immediately takes the call. "Zero! Is everything okay? Did things go well?"

"Yes, everything went well. And you don't have to worry about saying my name. This line is secure."

Euphie lets out a sigh of relief. "I'm so glad you're safe. Suzaku?"

"He's fine. Performing a task for me. I'm sure you can talk to him later."

"I see," Euphie says simply, easily accepting his words.

Lelouch feels both grateful and humbled by her trust and generosity. Despite being aware that he and Suzaku have a romantic relationship, she doesn't seem to begrudge him for it at all. Dear, sweet Euphie.

"Euphie, I need to ask you a question," he offers. "This is important."

"Of course, Lelouch. What is it?"

"After the treaty that has been signed, much of the Britannian population will be leaving. Cornelia will be forced to evacuate. I want to know—will you stay with us, here in Japan?"

He's almost positive that she will say yes, but he doesn't want to force matters either, and being in the SAZ is different from what is going to happen now. Lelouch feels he's in a better position to protect Euphie, precisely because he knows the full extent of their problems, but at the same time, just being by his side puts Euphie in a precarious situation.

"Of course I will stay," she tells him with a huff. She almost sounds offended that he's asked. "I've already made my choice, Lelouch. You know that."

Yes, he does know, and for this exact reason, he will allow it. He doesn't want to force her to go, not when he still remembers how hard she fought the first order he gave her. He will just have to make sure she is kept safe from any possible harm. There is no other way.

"All right, Euphie. Just as long as you don't take any unnecessary risks. No more jumping in the middle of explosions, please."

"That doesn't count," she cries. "It wasn't an unnecessary risk. They were trying to kill Suzaku."

He can't argue with that. "Okay, okay. I can't disagree with you there." It's not like he can point fingers. He's done plenty of crazy things for loved ones, after all. "Suzaku does need to be kept safe too."

Her voice softens, turning warm and soft. "Yes. That's right. I knew you would understand."

For a few seconds she hesitates, and Lelouch feels concern stir in his gut. "Euphie? What is it?"

"Lelouch... Do you think... Do you think my stay here will be problematic? Because of Cornelia."

Lelouch sighs. "Maybe up to a point. But I want to tell her the truth about my identity. Hopefully, she will trust me to protect you then."

He expects the idea will please Euphie a lot. Being torn between her favorite siblings made her very uncomfortable. She always did love Cornelia very much, and the fact that she had to go against Cornelia to help Lelouch and the Japanese weighed on her.

"Oh, Lelouch," Euphie predictably exclaims. "This will be great. You'll see. Cornelia always missed you. She will understand."

Lelouch doesn't think it would be that easy, or that Cornelia's cooperation is guaranteed just because he's Marianne's son. Cornelia isn't Orange. Nevertheless, that's what Geass is for, to make sure Cornelia doesn't decide to interfere with his plans. But Euphie doesn't know that, and he has no intention of telling her.

"Yes," he offers instead. "She was very loyal to my mother. I have faith in her."

"I'm so glad, Lelouch. We... There's so few of us left now. We have to get along."

"I can't make any promises with Schneizel," Lelouch warns her.

"Yes, yes," she says with a slight giggle, "although I feel like he would like to play chess against you again. Who knows? Maybe you can reach some agreement there too?"

"Perhaps. It all depends on how things progress."

Technically, if he puts both Schneizel and Cornelia under Geass, it would not be difficult to take Britannia's throne the normal way. But that's something to worry about later, once V.V. is hopefully out of the picture.

"I'll see you soon, Euphie. Keep up the good work at the SAZ and make sure the people remain calm. I'll make an official announcement once I'm in the Tokyo Settlement."

"Looking forward to it."

As they end the call, Lelouch can't help but smile a little. C.C. pokes him in the arm. "You're such a sap, you know that?"

"Shut up, witch," he grumbles. "She's my sister."

C.C. chortles. "Mhmm. And if she weren't, I would have competition."

Lelouch tosses a pen at her head. C.C. ducks, still laughing at him. Somehow, the simple exchange lightens up the darker mood that settled over them earlier.

"C.C. Do you really think everything will be all right with Suzaku's Geass?"

C.C. sighs. "At this point, it's safe to say that nothing is absolute, and I can't be sure of anything anymore. But I believe in him. He can handle it. So trust in your knight. He's done harder things before. He will be able to do this too."

C.C. is right. Suzaku has an incredible mind and an incredible will power. The new Geass won't be enough to bring him down. It is only a tool, one that will help them. But this time, Lelouch will be there with Suzaku to help him deal with it.

This couldn't have been a mistake. He refuses to believe that anything the three of them create can ever be wrong.

****

A few hours later

In her offices in the royal palace in Tokyo, Cornelia stares at the screen in front of her, trying, but failing not to gape.

"You want me to what."

Schneizel gives her a soft, bland smile that could mean anything at all. "Cornelia. Surely you must know that Euphie will refuse to go with you."

"Schneizel, we can't just leave her here, at Zero's mercy."

"Zero won't hurt her. He needs her as a hostage. Her life is the price for our treaty, after all. And honestly, Cornelia, where else could we leave Euphie?"

"I can take her with me when I leave."

"On the battlefield. In a war zone? The areas will be rebelling, Cornelia. It's only a matter of time. I'll need you there on the front, and Euphie isn't equipped or prepared to handle that kind of situation. I will be working on rebuilding Pendragon, of course, and she could stay with me on the Avalon, but I can't actually be sure we won't be targetted by another attack."

"But... To leave her with the Numbers..."

"Euphie has already chosen to stay with them. She always wanted to help them, you know that." He sighs. "Cornelia, I don't like anymore than you do, but we have no other choice. Once the situation is stabilized and we can be sure the Empire won't crumble around us, we can get Euphie back."

Cornelia clenches her jaw. The idea of leaving Euphie in Area 11 is repugnant to her, but Schneizel has a point. The front is no place for Euphie, and despite his faults, Zero always seemed to provide her with the comforts she needs. David reported that she was treated fairly and the Numbers were respectful, even welcoming.

She doesn't actually think there isn't one single place in the Empire where she can stash her sister, but Euphie would refuse such a thing, and there's only so much Cornelia can force. There may not be another solution.

"Of course, you can discuss it with Zero further," Schneizel says. "Don't reveal our agreement outright. Perhaps we can wriggle some concessions out of him if he doesn't realize we're on the same page in the matter. Just remember. The areas stand on the brink of rebellion, and they may be looking at Japan for cues. After all, Zero did manage to wrangle a peace treaty out of me because of this."

Cornelia twitches. She hates this so much, but there is nothing she can do. Schneizel is emperor now. She has to obey him and to trust that he knows that he's doing.

If there is one thing the attempted invasion of the Federation has proven, it's that Zero cannot be underestimated. He is smarter than her, and the only one who can match him is probably Schneizel. She has to follow his lead on this one.

"All right, Schneizel. Understood."

"Report to me in St. Petersburg after. The Knights of Euro-Britannia have been decimated. We've still heard nothing about the remnants of the Knights of St. Michael. With Shin Hyuga Shaing missing, he's still a threat. I've sent the Knight of Three and the Knight of Twelve to the front and to investigate, but we've been dealt a serious blow, and the vultures are circling."

Cornelia grimaces. Objectively speaking, leaving aside their own grief, that's the biggest problem. While the loss of troops and human life is regrettable, in the end, it's the fact that this was even possible that poses the biggest threat. Between the Euro-Britannian coup and the Pendragon explosions, both sides of their empire are unstable, and their visible vulnerability is something their enemies can exploit.

Kanon manifests within view and whispers something in Schneizel's ear. Schneizel nods. "I have to go now, Cornelia. Remember what I told you. We'll play along with Zero for now, until we remove the other, more immediate threats."

With that, Schneizel ends their conversation. Cornelia can't help herself. She picks up a random desk ornament and throws it at the wall so hard it shatters.

A knock sounds at the door, drawing her out of her furious trance. "Princess Cornelia? Is everything all right?"

"Guilford. Yes. Come in."

He opens the door and enters her office. His gaze briefly flickers to the shattered ornament, but he doesn't address it in any way. "What is it, Guilford?" she asks.

"Princess Cornelia, Zero is arriving."

Cornelia feels a migraine begin to pound at her skull. Joy. Now, she has to play nice with that smug bastard when all she wants is to rip the helmet off his fucking head and beat him to death with it.

"I see. Well, let's get this over with, shall we?"

Guilford follows her as she leaves her office to welcome her enemy. Zero comes in through the front door. On his left is the same green-haired woman who always seems to accompany him. On his right is Suzaku Kururugi, once again wearing his new Black Knights uniform. He couldn't have made it more obvious that he's changed sides if he tried. Disgusting piece of filth. She wishes so very badly that Zero had not managed to stop his execution. Oh how she loathes him for wriggling his filthy way into her dear sister's heart.

But no, she cannot think such things. Regardless of her hatred for him, he does seem to care for Euphie and he may be one of the few things still keeping Euphie alive. And right now, she needs to focus on practical matters rather than her own emotions.

"Zero. Congratulations on the victory."

"Thank you, Princess Cornelia. I'm sure we couldn't have done it without you."

They're empty words, and it's obvious to everyone there. Cornelia's guards fidget, all aching to reach for their weapons. The tension is so thick it could be sliced through with a knife.

"Let us adjourn to the war room," Cornelia says. Anything, just to have this blasted meeting end faster and get him out of her face as soon as possible.

The meeting goes pretty much as she expected. Other than her, Guilford, Zero, the woman and Kururugi, there's also Darlton and the rest of the Glaston Knights. On Zero's side, she recognizes Todhoh Kyoshiro, but the others are strangers. They go over the results of the battle, placing special emphasis on the Chinese captives. Obviously, Zero doesn't have the facilities to stash them, so Cornelia has been forced to step in.

"We need to figure out what to do with these people. We don't have the supplies or the facilities to hold them."

"We'll let them go, of course," Zero says.

"Let them go?" Darlton repeats in disbelief. "But..."

"They're not a threat any longer." Zero waves a hand in dismissal. "I have their empress and their general. The rest of them are irrelevant, sheep without a shepard."

He has a point. The whole reason why the eunuchs were able to keep the Chinese Federation was because they had the Tianzi in their grasp. Now that Zero has her—and how did he even manage that in such a short amount of time?—the Federation is basically in the palm of his hand.

She would be impressed if she didn't hate him so much. She hates him even more because in that moment, she can't help but compare him with Schneizel.

"So will you be starting your own empire then?" she drawls, unable to keep herself from getting a dig in.

"Viceroy Cornelia... I am a freedom fighter. I do not believe in imperialistic governments. No, we will merely arrange for an advantageous treaty."

Cornelia has absolutely no doubt that the treaty will be far more advantageous for Area 11 than for the Federation. She hopes Schneizel has a good plan to handle Zero, because this could easily turn into an even bigger disaster than what they are currently forced to handle.

The topic of the Chinese Federation is soon set aside for other practicalities, namely, Britannia's imminent departure. Zero has prepared a plan for the withdrawal of their troops. As expected, he refuses to accept having any Britannian military stationed in Japan, but he argues the biggest problem is not the military at all, but the civilians.

Despite herself, Cornelia cannot disagree with him. With a few exceptions, the civilians will be too afraid to remain in a Japan ruled by Zero, and right now, it will be very difficult to send them to other places. She will need to coordinate with governors from other areas and see if she can find accommodation there.

They settle on organizing a census of sorts and create a list of both those who decide to leave and those who want to stay. Ideally, everyone would then go to places where they are actually needed. Unfortunately, in their current situation, that will not be possible. An elaborate placement of individuals would take time, time Cornelia doesn't have. Zero is in a similar situation, in that he has Japan to think about and he needs to move the uncooperative Britannian citizens as soon as possible to begin rebuilding.

In the end, they settle on a compromise. The tentative timeframe for full Britannian evacuation will be a month. Any less than that could cause a panic and start rioting they can't afford. The Britannian army will start departing immediately, leaving only a small garrison that will eventually depart once all the civilians are gone. Cornelia herself will leave once all the arrangements for the placement of the civilians are made. If she is needed on the front before this happens, she will just have to hope Zero won't screw them over.

Of course, they haven't discussed Euphie's situation yet, and the chance doesn't come until the end of the meeting. "Princess Cornelia," Zero says. "I would like a word with you in private."

"In private. So you can assassinate me like you did Clovis?"

"I have no desire to respark hostilities between Britannia and Japan. And besides, we've come too far for such things. But of course, your knight and mine would both be allowed to stay. I believe that would be fair. The matter concerns the safety of your family."

Cornelia clenches her fists in anger. Despite Schneizel's warnings, blood is already rising to her head. "Very well," she says between gritted teeth. "We can take this to my office."

"Thank you. C.C., take the others outside. I'll only be a minute."

"Of course," the green-haired woman replies.

The rest of the Elevens leave, following the woman. Zero's mistress? His bodyguard? Whoever she is.

Either way, Cornelia doesn't know how to feel about the fact that Zero is so sure of himself he's willing to remain in her own headquarters with nobody but Kururugi as security. Then again, it's not like he's wrong. She can't touch him and he knows it.

That aside, when the hell did Kururugi even become Zero's knight? Oh how she wishes she could arrange the execution of the backstabbing Number.

Livid, she leads them both to her office, and just having Zero there grates on her tremendously. She tells herself this is for Euphie and she will not antagonize the bastard unnecessarily. "I take it you wanted to discuss Euphie with me."

"Yes and no." He retrieves a device from his pocket and activates it. The lights flicker and die. The cameras are deactivated.

Cornelia instantly reaches for her gun. "Zero," she spits out, "I knew you couldn't be trusted."

Guilford steps in front of her, pulling out his sword. Kururugi tenses slightly, but doesn't move.

The reason for this becomes obvious when, much to Cornelia's surprise, Zero reaches for his helmet. Cornelia gapes as he removes it and reveals a very familiar face.

"Hello, Cornelia."

Cornelia's world start to spin. Those eyes. The sharp angles of his face. That dark hair. He's older now, but it's still very distinctly him. "Lelouch?" she can't help but ask.

"Yes, sister, it's me."

Suddenly, everything makes sense. All the pieces of the puzzle slide into place. No wonder he reminded her of Schneizel. They always used to play chess together when Lelouch was a child. And he was always so very, impossibly smart.

She isn't offended that he beat her on the battlefield now. If anything, she feels proud. No wonder he made mincemeat of the Chinese Federation. He is her little brother and the son of Marianne the Flash.

But.... He is also Zero. And his actions remain grave.

"I see now," she says. "You did all this... For Nunnally? For your mother?"

"In a way," Lelouch replies. "But also because of everything the Empire has been doing."

Lelouch passes the helmet to his knight, who takes it and holds it under his arm. "You know, sister, I never did understand you," Lelouch says. "You admired my mother so much, despite the fact that she was a commoner. You worshipped her when countless others whispered behind her back and sneered at her. So I have to ask... Why would you care so deeply about a person who is different, and spurn so many others in the same situation? Why love my mother and hate Numbers?"

"It's not the same, Lelouch," Cornelia protests. "You can't possibly compare..."

"Of course I can," Lelouch cuts her off. "All that hatred, for people who are different." He smiles bitterly. "Also, let's not forget the little fact that Britannia killed my mother and crippled my sister. Suzaku saved my life. Tell me. Who is better?"

Cornelia jerks and stares at the Number. He stares back, impassively.

She does remember that it was his family whom Lelouch and Nunnally stayed with, but she never really thought they knew each other that well. "Kururugi?"

Kururugi's face is like stone. "Do you understand now, Princess Cornelia, why I had to leave my post as Euphie's knight?"

Cornelia is confused. Does that mean Kururugi didn't originally know Lelouch is Zero and found out about it on the island? She can't be sure, but there is the fact that Euphie accepted Kururugi's resignation without too much protest, which Cornelia always deemed odd.

"Euphie knows, doesn't she?"

Kururugi nods. "She understands. She was glad Lelouch has me to protect him."

Of course. This must be why Euphie put her faith in Zero to begin with, why she insisted he could be trusted despite the fact that he'd killed Clovis. And as much as she aches inside for Clovis's loss, Cornelia can't help but feel the same.

"I see then. Then it would seem we owe you a debt and an apology, Kururugi. For keeping my brother safe."

For a few seconds, Lelouch just stares at her. Then, he bursts into genuine laughter. "That hurt to say, didn't it? Still, I'm impressed, dearest sister. We might make a decent person out of you yet."

Cornelia shoots him an unimpressed look. "You grew up to be a brat. These Numbers have ruined your education." She sets all joking aside and addresses one very serious matter they haven't approached so far. "Lelouch... What of Nunnally?"

He hasn't mentioned her at all and pretty much avoided her question when she asked. The idea that she may be dead chills Cornelia to the bone.

Lelouch stops laughing, but fortunately, he doesn't seem upset either. "She's alive too, but when the situation worsened here in Area 11, I sent her away. Once the situation isn't so risky, you can see her. In the meantime, we can make arrangements for you to talk to her on the phone. I know she'd love to hear from you. She was crushed when she learned about what happened in Pendragon."

"Yes, I imagine she would be."

Lelouch sits down on the couch, crossing his legs. "Cornelia... Have you spoken to Schneizel about what is going in Euro-Britannia?"

"I have, but... He's been vague."

"Of course he has. He probably has even less information than I do. Tell me. Did you ever learn why my mother died that day?"

The apparent non-sequitur takes her by surprise. "What? No, Lelouch. I have no idea what happened. She ordered me to withdraw the guard and the next thing I knew..."

"Yes, I'm aware. You see, Cornelia, the culprit behind my mother's murder is our uncle. Our father's brother. He may be peripherally involved in this incident with the explosion in Pendragon too."

What? Their father's brother? Surely not. Victor died when he was very young. Everybody knows that.

"Lelouch, you can't be serious."

"Oh, but I am."

Lelouch smiles and makes a strange hand gesture, like he's wiping his eyes. "Trust me. You will trust me, no matter what I say."

"Yes," she says mechanically. "Yes, of course."

By her side, Guilford parrots her words. He had been facing Lelouch too.  But Cornelia doesn't find her knight's behavior odd. Cornelia trusts her brother and whatever Lelouch says makes complete sense. And if Guilford is her knight, that means he is Lelouch's knight too.

As Cornelia and Guilford blink back into awareness, they find Lelouch sitting in the same spot like nothing's happened. Cornelia rubs her eyes. "I'm sorry. I must have... had a small lapse there."

"Perhaps you should sit down, dearest sister. These past few days have been taxing for all of us."

Cornelia nods. He's right. "In any case... You were saying about our uncle?"

****

Lelouch leaves his sister's office more than a little satisfied. He has Cornelia and Guilford under his sway. Like Xingke, they will act normally unless he tells them something they may usually find odd, in which case the Geass will activate. Neither will them will reveal the truth about his identity, simply because he has told them it is too risky. With Cornelia's genuine affection for him and Guilford's undying loyalty to his princess, it probably won't activate much at all.

To top it off, he has a list of the dead in Pendragon. Gino Weinberg isn't on it, and that has put a spring in his knight's step. Even if they're unlikely to have the same friendship they did in the past, Suzaku remains fond of the Knight of Three, and Lelouch knows that he was secretly grieved upon thinking Gino was dead. Maybe, if things go well, Gino can be brought on board later.

In the meantime, Cornelia has told him that Schneizel is currently busy organizing things in Euro-Britannia and there has been no sign of Shin Hyuga Shaing and V.V. This unsettles him somewhat, as he would have preferred to know where his enemies are, but V.V. is prone to sadistic approaches when it comes to revenge. He will probably want to take his time with Shaing.

For the moment, all the conditions have been met here and it is time for the next step of his plan.

Chapter Text

In a large, well-lit room in a safehouse in the Chinese Federation, Rolo stands behind his sister, combing her long hair. Nunnally has told him this is something Lelouch used to do for her, and while sometimes, Sayoko is better at working out the tangles, she still liked Lelouch's way best.

She's been quiet since the call from Lelouch. Despite Lelouch's reassurances, she's not over her concern. But then, how could she be?

"Do you think big brother will actually let me come back to Japan?" she asks him. "I wish I could help."

Rolo understands that very well. Every single day, he's more and more aware of his limitations, of the fact that, despite his Geass, he did die the first time around and was unable to help his brother when he was most needed.

He must have zoned out a little, because Nunnally seems to grow alarmed. "Big brother Rolo?"

"I'm sorry. I didn't pull on your hair, did I?"

"No." She smiles gently at him in the mirror, a hint of concern in the expression. "You just tensed a little. Tell me. I'm not being a pest, am I?"

"No, of course not, Nunnally," he rushes to reassure her. "I worry about him too, you know. And some days, it does feel like my contributions aren't really enough.

"But... But we have to believe that big brother knows what he's doing. And I have no doubt that, once the war is over, we'll all be together, in Japan. It's our home."

"Yes, I suppose it is," she whispers. "Big brother Rolo?"

"Mmm?"

"Why are you mad at Suzaku?"

Oh no. Rolo didn't think that he'd been so obvious in his dislike of the former Knight of Seven in Nunnally's presence. Clearly, he was mistaken. He needs to find an excuse, fast.

"I'm just..." His mind scrambles quickly for something that would make sense. Finally, he blurts out, "I'm not sure about their relationship, that's all."

"Oh. You mean the fact that they're dating?"

Nunnally knew that? When did she figure it out?

He must have asked that out loud, because she giggles slightly. "Oh, it was obvious. I mean, ever since Suzaku came back into our lives, big brother would always mention him. And he gets this soft tone in his voice... I can't really explain it. But I could tell. I was actually worried Suzaku didn't feel the same, but Sayoko says that it was a misunderstanding and they cleared it up."

God bless Sayoko for making this easier.

"Yeah, that's exactly it. I sort of felt that maybe... Sir Kururugi may have hurt big brother when he was picked as Euphemia's knight."

"Oh, I see. Now, that you mention it, I do remember big brother seemed a little odd around that time. He must've been jealous.

"But it's not something we should worry about now, right? I actually do feel much better, knowing that Suzaku is protecting him. Do thank him for me for that, once you're back in Japan."

It grates on Rolo to admit that Nunnally is not wrong in her conclusion. For all his faults, Kururugi is an excellent soldier and an even better knight, especially now when he has Lelouch's Geass. He does come in handy for watching Lelouch's back.

"Yes, you're right," he says slowly. "It's just difficult to remember sometimes."

"And maybe it's difficult when he spends so much time with Suzaku and C.C., right?" Nunnally asks.

Rolo jolts. He doesn't know how she keeps reading him so well, even when he himself doesn't understand all of his emotions. Yes, he still has a lot of trouble dealing with the whole story of the Requiem, and the knowledge that Sir Kururugi in specific has such a big role in his big brother's life doesn't sit well with him. But he also knows that there are things his big brother will never tell him, secrets he only shares with his two lovers, and that displeases him.

"I suppose it is," he replies, not wanting to make his sister worry.

He leaves the hairbrush aside and kneels next to her wheelchair. "Maybe I'm the one who's being a pest."

Nunnally shakes her head and squeezes his hand. "Not at all. Lelouch and I had a friend at Ashford. Her name is Shirley, and she always said that love is power. I believe that too. If we surround big brother with as much love as possible, surely, he will be safe."

Maybe Nunnally is right. Love didn't really keep Shirley Fennette safe from Rolo during their first life, but Shirley herself is not relevant for Rolo. It's the offer that she made to him during the last minutes of her life that counts. If he hadn't been so hasty in killing her... Perhaps things may have turned out differently.

He wonders now if maybe he and Shirley aren't alike, at least a little. He chose to forgive his brother despite knowing Lelouch had been using him as a tool, and she forgave him for causing her father's death.

It's something to consider, at least.

"I can't be there for him now," Nunnally says, "but you can, and that's precious. You'll give him all my love, won't you?"

"Of course I will," Rolo promises automatically. It's one promise that he knows he can easily keep. He will always do his best to keep his promises to his sister. He owes her that much, at least, after what he attempted in their past lifetime.

It's so strange to think now, when the mere idea of hurting her is as repulsive to him as that of hurting Lelouch. It's so strange to imagine himself squashing the light of Nunnally's smile, when all he wants is to protect it.

How much can he truly cling to the hatred he has for Sir Kururugi, after all the things he has done? He doesn't know. He isn't sure what to think or feel anymore.

Later, when Nunnally retires to bed, he meets up with Jeremiah. As the third party involved in the time travel plan C.C. hatched with Sir Kururugi, he is perhaps the person best capable to give him some advice.

"Sir Gottwald, will you tell me about what happened after I died?" he asks. "Will you tell me... why you agreed to my brother's plan?"

The Knight of Orange studies him with keen, piercing eyes. "Of course. I will answer any questions you may have. You are My Liege's brother, after all."

And so, Rolo sits with Jeremiah and listens to the tale of the Demon Emperor and his cruel white knight, and he makes a decision. After everything that has happened, after everything his brother was forced to endure, it's time to finally accept their new beginning for what it is. It's time to make his peace with his brother's knight. There is no other way, if they are to build the future his brother dreams of.

****

The Tianzi arrives the next day, in a small transport piloted by Rolo and manned by a group of Cao's men—all of whom are under Geass. None of the Black Knights are aware of these developments as Lelouch doesn't want them to look too closely into why exactly he has Chinese staff to begin with.

Therefore, it is Suzaku who takes over cooperating with Rolo in the matter while Lelouch wrangles everything else. It may actually be the first time he's been alone with Rolo in this life, and it's not comfortable at all.

They lead the sedated empress into a comfortable room, where Kaguya is already waiting for her. Once they've fulfilled their task, Suzaku wants nothing more but to leave and find something else to do.

He doesn't. "How's Nunnally?" he asks instead.

"Worried, but otherwise fine," Rolo replies. "She misses Lelouch. She said to tell you thank you for keeping an eye on him."

Suzaku can't help but let out a little laugh. "Oh, how things have changed."

"How do you mean?"

"Oh... You don't know? C.C. hasn't said?"

Rolo shakes his head. It's strange that he's even paying attention, that he hasn't turned around and left, but maybe he too is acknowledging the problem that they have.

He pulls Rolo aside in a corner where nobody can see them or overhear them. "The first time... After the Requiem..." Rolo clenches his fists, but he doesn't move, nor does he show any sign of being affected by Lelouch's Geass. Suzaku keeps talking, ignoring his tension. "I was Nunnally's guard. I was supposed to make sure the peace Lelouch dreamed of endured. But of course, Nunnally wasn't very happy with me. So she kept trying to have me killed. She always failed, of course, but she never gave up. That made me a little happy... I think.

"Rolo, I don't blame you for wanting to kill me. For the longest time, it's what I wanted more than anything in the world. To die. But right now, I don't want that anymore, and even if I did, we don't really get a say."

"I know that," Rolo bites out. "Big brother has already made it clear."

Suzaku supposes that's pretty accurate, since they're both Geassed to not do anything stupid.

"Anyway, you don't have to like me." Hell, Suzaku himself isn't sure he likes Rolo much, since he's seen far more of Rolo the assassin than Rolo, Lelouch's brother. "But if V.V. is coming after us, we can't be at each other's throats," he continues. "And you giving me the cold shoulder has been making the Black Knights ask questions. We can't afford to make them doubt him."

Rolo grimaces and looks away. "You killed him, Sir Kururugi."

"I'm aware." He is very, very aware. He will never forget, not even if Charles zi Britannia somehow comes back from the dead and tries to put a Geass on him.

Rolo stares at the wall, motionless, like a blank puppet. "Sir Kururugi? Does it hurt. To kill someone you love."

"Worse than anything in the world," Suzaku replies.

He half-expects Rolo to be happy about that. He isn't. "You know... These past days, I was with my sister. I kept thinking... In the other life... You know... I wanted to kill her. Because she had big brother's affection." He flexes his fingers and stares at his hand. "I can't understand... I don't want..."

He shakes his head, like he's physically pushing back a thought. "Sir Kururugi, I have decided something. Regardless of our past differences, I will work with you to protect Lelouch and Nunnally. You're right. We cannot afford to be at odds."

It's shockingly mature of Rolo, but when Rolo offers Suzaku his hand, Suzaku takes it. It occurs to Suzaku that they really don't give Nunnally enough credit. It looks like she managed to reach out to Rolo in a way even Lelouch never did.

When they touch, Suzaku can't help but sense the problem with Rolo's heart. Arrythmia, his mind somehow manages to provide. Maybe it's because of the use of his Geass, maybe it's something different. He lets go before the Geass can get away from him. He can't risk his own heart for Rolo, just like he can't risk his eyes for Asahina.

At the last moment, when he looks into Rolo's eyes, Suzaku has a realization. He and Rolo are, in some ways, pretty similar. Both of them are far too desensitized to killing. Both of them love Lelouch. Both of them hurt him or betrayed him in some way.

Is it any wonder then that Suzaku dislikes him?

His brief epiphany makes him blurt out something he normally wouldn't have said. "Thank you, Rolo. For keeping Lelouch safe. Back then."

"You don't have to thank me. I did it for him, and I would do it again... if I could. I get the feeling that maybe, he may have Geassed me to not be able to do it."

Suzaku remembers a different time, when his past self attempted to kill Zero and the order Lelouch gave was 'Live on'. He could have said anything. He could have said 'Save me.' But Lelouch was never like that. Lelouch always was far too self-sacrificing when it came to the people he loved.

"Well, technically... He must have ordered you to not endanger your life using your Geass," he says. "Because of your heart. But... Maybe I can help you with that."

Rolo's eyes widen and he leans in further. "Help me? How?"

"It's just something... tentative... You understand. I'm still practicing. But my new contract with C.C. heals people. It wouldn't fix your... limitation, but it would fix the problem you already have because of it."

Rolo nods eagerly. He's smiling, and it's a genuine expression, not the fake, nauseating mask he used in Euro-Britannia. It makes him look younger, softer. "That would be great, Sir Kururugi. I've been worried about not being able to help big brother enough."

"We're in agreement then. I'll have to ask Lelouch first, of course, and we'll need to wait until the situation is a little less... delicate so I don't accidentally cripple myself when he needs me, but as soon as I can, we'll do it."

"Excellent. Thank you, Sir Kururugi."

"You don't have to thank me, Rolo," Suzaku replies, just like Rolo did earlier. "After all, we're not doing any of this for each other. We're both here for him."

When they go their separate ways, Suzaku is tentatively satisfied that he has reached an agreement with Rolo. It will probably take them some time to actually be comfortable with one another, especially given their history, but they're making progress. At this point, that's the best thing they can expect.

Chapter Text

Three days after the battle against the Chinese Federation, a grand ceremony is held. Zero has already announced their victory to the citizens, and of course, they are relieved, but this is different. This is about the United Federation of Nations.

Kallen cannot deny that she is both nervous and excited. Everything has been happening so quickly that sometimes, she thinks she has fallen into a strange hallucination. But then she realizes she cannot possibly be imagining all this, not when the good things have still come with so much loss.

Nevertheless, she cannot believe that she even entertained the hope of distrusting Zero because he is Lelouch. How foolish she had been. Who else could have saved them all from imminent disaster, when all seemed lost, when they could have fallen victim to yet another invasion? Only him. Only Zero. Only Lelouch.

He's already arranged for her mother to be pardoned, released from prison and given medical care at a real hospital. That alone made everything worthwhile. But even beyond Kallen's own family life, there is so much they have accomplished.

Today, Lelouch has told them that he would be officially announcing the formation of the UFN. For this purpose, the Black Knights gather in front of the SAZ, in the same place Euphemia declared it open.

Kallen is in her Guren, carefully watching the crowd for any disruptive elements. Many of the others have received the same orders, but no one minds.

"This is so exciting," Inoue tells her through the coms. "I mean... I almost can't believe it. Zero really won our independence."

"I wish Naoto were here to see this," she replies. Distantly, she thinks that it could have easily been lost because of Ohgi's selfishness and stupidity.

"I'm sure everyone we've lost is watching over us, wherever they are," Inoue answers.

It's a nice thought to have, and she definitely hopes that. She hopes that Naoto is proud of what they have accomplished, despite everything they've had to go through to reach this point.

The gathering crowd is massive, perhaps even larger than the number of people who came for the SAZ. Lelouch hasn't made an official announcement about the UFN yet, but Diethard did leak a few bits and pieces, so everyone is clearly very excited. Of course, they would have probably come anyway, just because they want to see Zero, the man who won their independence, but that is beside the point.

Finally, as the hour strikes twelve, the people whom they are all waiting for finally arrive. Lelouch, Suzaku and C.C. are first, and the crowd explodes in cheers the moment they see them. Together, they make a striking image, especially since Suzaku and C.C. have added capes to their regular garb, matching Zero's more elaborate ensemble.

She has to admit that a part of her is jealous of their place at his side, but at the same time, she feels that maybe, it is for a reason. Everything he does is for a reason. She doesn't always understand it, but their closeness goes beyond what she has with Lelouch. They must know each other for years. Taking that into consideration, she can't really begrudge them for it.

Besides, both of them really do a good job at protecting Lelouch and at the end of the day, that's what counts.

Also, she suspects that she would hate walking around in that dress of C.C.'s. Then again, it's far less weird than the straightjacket-like thing she used to wear.

Behind the trio, Cornelia appears, accompanied by her sister and their respective knights. Cornelia's presence is surprising, but Kallen guesses it must have something to do with Euphemia. Also, the Britannians are still present here in Japan. Lelouch has some sort of agreement with Cornelia that will guarantee the gradual and peaceful withdrawal of their forces, but in the meantime, they are all expected to play nice.

Then comes the young empress of the Chinese Federation. By her side is her general, Li Xingke and Kaguya. Kirihara and the other members of the six houses of Kyoto follow, with Todhoh by their side. Like Kallen, the Four Holy Swords are in their knightmares, prepared to deal with any problem should it be necessary.

Kallen would be surprised Rolo hasn't been asked to come with them, but she's noticed that Lelouch is visibly trying to keep his brother out of the limelight. Whenever cameras are present, Rolo is not. Like them, he is on knightmare duty, but he never seems to mind.

Of course, not all of the Black Knights are here. Zero has peppered the borders with garrisons that will notify him should anything go wrong or should there be any sign of an approaching enemy. So far, there's been no sign of anything. Kallen hopes things will continue on the same vein.

Lelouch steps up to the microphone, extending his arms in a grand, dramatic gesture. Before he can begin his speech, C.C. jerks like she's been shot, her gaze dancing over the crowd. "No!"

After that, everything happens so quickly Kallen barely has the time to process it. Suzaku shoots into action, shielding Lelouch with his own body. Then, a voice rings out from the crowd, "Suzaku Kururugi!"

Just like that, Suzaku's body goes rigid. He falls to his knees, clutching his head, screaming. C.C. jumps on him, trying to pin down his flailing limbs.

"Get back!" she shouts. "Get back!"

Lelouch staggers back, away from C.C. and Suzaku, clearly shocked. Perhaps he's torn between listening to C.C. and wanting to help Suzaku, but reason wins out. Meanwhile, Kallen herself shoots into action. Something is very wrong.

Kallen was never really sure how Suzaku actually felt about all of them but since he joined them, she always did have a certainty—that his purpose in life is to defend Lelouch. However, C.C.'s reaction is not encouraging. C.C. only shows such emotion when Lelouch is in danger, and Kallen isn't willing to take chances.

Kallen launches the Guren and flies all the way up to the stage. She doesn't know how to interfere yet. Obviously, she can't use the massive guns of the Guren, not when she isn't even sure what is going on. She'll just have to get out of the machine once she's there.

As the knightmare approaches, Suzaku's body goes rigid. He throws C.C. off of him, breaking off her hold with ease—which makes Kallen wonder why he didn't do it before. As C.C. hits the side of the stage and goes still, Suzaku pulls out his sword, his gaze fixed on Lelouch.

Kallen has seen that look before, on the video in which he killed Viletta.

Oh, God, no.

She lands the Guren between Lelouch and Suzaku, no longer thinking of holding back, already aiming her guns. She doesn't even have the chance to shoot them. He jumps on the machine, using it like his own personal trampoline.

She jerks to the side, trying to throw him off or at least stall him, to buy time so Lelouch can run, hide or retreat. But there's only so much she can do. The Guren is a heavy machine and the stage is already creaking under its weight. He's much faster than her, so very impossibly fast.

Reality seems to grow jerky. Her vision staggers and the Guren no longer seems to obey her. She blinks and suddenly, Rolo's knightmare is there, in front of the stage.

When did that happen? How? Unlike her, Rolo doesn't have a float system. Rakshata never got a chance to equip his Burai with one.

Kallen doesn't bother trying to use the Guren again. Suzaku has already jumped over her, and from this angle, anything she might try would hit Lelouch too. She opens the hatch, already pulling out her gun and hoping against all hope that she won't be too late. Todhoh and some others are there. Maybe they had the chance to help.

When she comes out, she finds Suzaku right in front of Lelouch, his sword inches away from Lelouch's chest. Cornelia and Guilford are both pointing their guns at him. Todhoh and Xingke are within reach too. They could hit him. So could Kallen. But it would not be fast enough.

"Don't move," Lelouch says. "Nobody move. This isn't Suzaku. Somebody is in his head."

What? What does that mean? Does it even matter?

"Zero," Kallen starts to protest.

Suzaku is shaking, shaking so hard. "Do not move," Lelouch insists. "Stay quiet."

Everything inside Kallen rebels against the idea of doing nothing, but at the same time, she realizes that he is right. Moving or shooting would just cause Suzaku to react and that would likely end in Lelouch's death. Even the people in the crowd have frozen, obviously acknowledging the seriousness of the situation.

"Suzaku, listen to me," Lelouch says. "You're stronger than this. You can beat it. You need to live on."

Suzaku jerks. His sword slices through Lelouch's coat and shirt. In the crowd, several women scream. Lelouch doesn't move. "L-Lelouch..." Suzaku whispers. "I... I can't."

"Of course you can," Lelouch says. "You're my knight."

To their right, C.C. climbs back on the stage. "Suzaku. Remember our promise, our contract. Remember what we said, when we came here. You said you'd do anything for him."

Suzaku lets out a loud, excruciating shout. He snatches his sword away from Lelouch and turns it on himself. Lelouch grabs his arm before he can go through with it. "There's nothing the three of us can't accomplish, Suzaku," he says, desperation clear in his voice. "Remember?"

Suzaku would have probably broken free easily, since he's far stronger than Lelouch, but the touch buys them time. "This isn't you. Somebody else is here," C.C. blurts out quickly. "Somebody is trying to kill him, through you. You're his sword. You know what to do."

It's like a cue. Suzaku's nostrils flare and his head shoots toward the crowd. He frees himself from Lelouch's hold, shoots past Kallen, past the Guren, past C.C. He jumps over several people, moving so quickly he's barely visible. People are trying to get out of his way, but compared to him, they seem to be moving in slow motion and he ends up bracing himself on shoulders and heads.

Within seconds, he has reached his target. Kallen doesn't have a clear enough view to distinguish what is going on, but she does distinguish a very distinctive blood splatter. The screaming people are also a dead giveaway.

"Thank God," C.C. says, and Kallen assumes Suzaku must have aimed for the right person, not some random bystander.

By Kallen's side, Rolo's Burai opens and he emerges from inside, panting, sweating, clutching his chest like he's run a marathon. "I'm sorry, big brother. I tried, but..."

"I know, Rolo. It's not your fault. Don't worry about it now."

He's barely listening, and Kallen doesn't really blame him. Suzaku manages to turn and look toward the stage, as if checking that Lelouch was still alive. Then, he collapses, like a puppet with his strings cut.

Lelouch instantly shoots into action. "Make room," he cries. "Make room."

He's already rushing off the stage and it's a testament to the respect he has earned that the Japanese obey him with no question. C.C. runs after him, and Kallen and Todhoh follow. So does Euphemia.

C.C. and Lelouch both kneel by Suzaku's side. He's unconscious and there's blood coming out of his nose and ears. C.C. presses her lips together and takes his hand. "We need to get him someplace private. Quickly."

"Will he be all right?" Euphemia asks, crying softly.

"Let's hope so," Lelouch replies tightly.  "Todhoh, I need to deal with this. Evacuate the people. Kaguya will  handle the rest of the matters with the UFN and have Diethard prepare some sort of official statement that will keep people from panicking. Kallen, stay with Rolo. He will help you look for signs of other intruders."

Todhoh obviously has a lot of questions, and so does Kallen, but Lelouch stops them before they can ask. "I'll explain everything, I promise, but I don't have time now. I miscalculated and Suzaku needs help."

"Yes, of course," Todhoh says. "I understand."

By now, someone has already called in a medic. Suzaku is mounted on a stretcher and rushed into the SAZ, and the decapitated body of the intruder is bagged. Kallen watches Lelouch, C.C. and Euphemia—with her knight trailing after her—go and wonders what in the world will happen to all of them now.

****

 It takes only a couple of minutes for Suzaku to be rushed into the infirmary. As soon as he is set on the bed and hooked to the machines, C.C. sends all the doctors away. They can't help him now, and their presence is just a hindrance. His best bet is his Geass, and she can see it flaring, bright, brilliant and true.

They try to protest, but a look from her is as efficient as Lelouch's Geass. Euphemia is visibly confused, but Lelouch keeps her from intervening and David Darlton, still under his Geass, is quick to help. Once the doctors are gone, C.C. sits down next to Suzaku and takes his hand.

Her Geass flares and slowly, Suzaku opens his eyes. "W-What... What happened? Where am I?"

"You're in the SAZ," Lelouch replies. "There was an attack from the Order."

"An... attack?"

His gaze frantically shoots through the room. His shoulders sag in visible relief. Since Lelouch, Euphemia and C.C. are all here, the damage couldn't be too great.

"Wait... Why can't I remember? What... What did I do?"

"A member of the Order took control of your body and attempted to get you to kill Lelouch. Fortunately, you managed to fight it and stop yourself in time."

The whole scene had been like something out C.C.'s nightmares and it could have so easily gone differently. C.C. does not have the physical strength to stand in Suzaku's way and nobody there would have been able to stop him. It was just like the day of the Requiem, all over again, and for a moment there, C.C. truly did think everything they did was for nothing and Suzaku would kill Lelouch all over again.

Suzaku starts to shake, looking like he's about to throw up any moment now. Lelouch sits by his side, and unsurprisingly, Suzaku throws his arms around Lelouch and clutches him with all his might. "It's all right," Lelouch murmurs. "It wasn't your fault. You fought it off. You protected me."

For a few moments, they can only sit there, helpless, with Lelouch petting Suzaku's hair, trying to provide comfort. "Don't try to hard to remember," C.C. offers in turn. "Right now, the last thing you need is to force your mind."

Suzaku nods, still clutching Lelouch. He's still clearly dazed and confused, but that's not unsurprising, since the Geass he fought off caused some brain damage that may have normally killed him.

Thank God for their contract and for Lelouch's 'Live on' order.

 Meanwhile, Euphemia finally snaps out of her shock.  "How is all of this even possible?"

"Euphie, I know you're worried, but this is a really long story," Lelouch explains. "I'll tell you everything later, I promise. The important thing is that nobody got hurt."

And that had been a very close call too.

The thing is, C.C. understands there is more than one reason why Suzaku stopped. The idea of hurting Lelouch is so fundamentally repellant to him now that he could not bring himself to fully go through with it. Due to the unique nature of this particular Geass, though, it may still have won out, like Lelouch's did in Euphemia's SAZ massacre—if not for Suzaku's own double Geass. Lelouch's command and C.C.'s contract  gave him an extra level of protection against the attack. It took the three of them to fight off V.V.'s assassin.

Despite all that, Suzaku would have still killed everyone who attempted to intervene—Todhoh, Cornelia, Guilford—if not for Rolo stopping time. In fact, Rolo's use of the Geass may have been slower than Suzaku and it may have been unable to overwrite the order Suzaku had received, but it did buy C.C. time to recover, which may have indirectly saved Lelouch. So yes, things could have still been so much worse. Not that they are all that great now.

She, Lelouch and Suzaku need to talk about this in private. At once.

"Euphie," Lelouch says, probably thinking the same thing, "would you do me a favor? Could you take your knight and go help control the situation a bit? Make sure Cornelia isn't in a panic. Check up on the Tianzi and speak with the Black Knights. Tell them... Tell them I'll be there to see them in a bit. In the meantime, there's something I need to talk to Suzaku and C.C. about. I'll explain everything after, okay?"

Euphemia seems torn, but Suzaku intervenes to reassures her. He finally releases his hold on Lelouch and shoots her a weak smile. "It's okay, Euphie. I'll be fine now. This is important."

"Right. Okay. But I expect an explanation, from both of you."

She isn't happy, but she departs, with her knight trailing after her. C.C. is relieved and so is Lelouch. He finally removes his helmet and textile mask and sets them both aside.

"Well, it seems V.V. has finally declared open war. Any idea what exactly happened, C.C.?"

"Without more investigation, I can only make guesses. While originally, it may have been your father who attempted to kill God, V.V. was also directly involved. He would want to continue the Sword of Akasha plan. Not only would it fulfill his and Charles's original contract, but it would give him Charles back, in a way."

Lelouch grimaces. "Right. It would appear I miscalculated there."

C.C. doesn't blame him. In their first life, Lelouch's confrontation with V.V. was pretty brief and did not involve the Sword of Akasha at all.

"Am I his only target, because of you, or would he actually want Japan because of the Thought Elevator?" he asks.

"Technically, the Sword of Akasha can be accessed from any Thought Elevator, including the one in the Geass Directorate," C.C. replies. "However, Charles did believe that gaining control of more of them increased the chances of success of the Ragnarok Connection. That was the whole point of his campaign of world conquest."

"So... Yes, he does want Japan. Once he's done with Shin Hyuga Shaing, he'll probably want to go after Schneizel to take over the mantle of emperor or at least rule it from the shadows."

"Between what's been happening as of late, he must know that I may have given you my allegiance. He also knows very well that I can sense Geass in others and large disturbances in the world of C would have drawn my attention. Therefore, he sent one inconspicuous assassin after you, presuming—and rightly so—that I would never actually spot her until it was too late. His assumption was that once you were dead, I would agree to work with him again, due to my desire to die. "

Once, it would have probably been correct. Now, she very much wishes she knew who in the world had given V.V. his code, so that he could track the person down in the world of C and torture them for all eternity. With Lelouch gone and Suzaku the culprit, the alliance between Japan and Britannia would have fallen apart and the results would have been catastrophic—but C.C. doesn't really care about world politics. She cares about Lelouch and Suzaku.

"So there was only one assassin then?" Lelouch asks.

C.C. nods. She remembers the girl now. "Her name was Clara Lanfranc. She possessed the ability to take control of other people's bodies and make them do whatever she wanted them to."

Lelouch frowns. "Clara. I think... I think I know her. She posed as my sister before Rolo, didn't she?"

"Yes. It appears that she was given other orders in this lifetime."

"So... Her power was like Lelouch's?" Suzaku asks.

"Yes and no. Clara's Geass was actually more absolute than Lelouch's. It was like a posession, replacing your consciousness with her own. You shouldn't have been able to fight it, which is why doing so, even with the help of my Geass and Lelouch's, did damage to your brain. Killing her may have made matters worse."

Lelouch doesn't seem happy to hear that. He takes a deep breath, as if trying to brace himself, but his hands are still shaking and when he speaks, his voice echoes the tightness and dread in C.C.'s own chest. "All right. Here's what we have to do right now. Suzaku, you focus on getting better."

Suzaku opens his mouth to protest, but Lelouch stops him. "No. I don't want to hear it. You need rest. Consider it an order."

Suzaku grumbles, but shuts up. In his heart, he must be aware that Lelouch is not wrong. Physical damage can be shaken off more easily than a mental attack, and while the actual brain damage is healing, the emotional trauma of having attacked Lelouch again is not so easily overcome. She wishes she could have kept it from him, but under the circumstances, it was not a possibility.

Suzaku doesn't seem to remember what happened, but C.C. suspects the whole thing hasn't actually processed. He may have woken up and he's on his way to recovery, but he's not there yet.

"Lelouch is right," she says. "You need to give yourself time to recuperate."

She may have hated him once, so much so that she made his guilt over killing Lelouch worse, but that has very much changed, and she wants to protect him too.

"Meanwhile, C.C. and Rolo will stay with me," Lelouch adds. "And... We'll have to speak with the Black Knights. We have to decide what we finally tell them. Where do we go from here?"

Chapter Text

In the SAZ headquarters of the Black Knights, the agitation within the ranks has increased to unprecedented proportions. Asahina watches helplessly, anger, frustration and dread stirring in his gut.

Todhoh has already given out a statement—provided by Diethard—which calmed down the waters a bit. Officially, there has been an assassination attempt on Zero that has been foiled by his knight. Suzaku Kururugi has been injured in the process of defending Zero, but he is on the mend.

Diethard claims that it will suffice until Zero can give them more details on what in the world they're supposed to do next, and to give credit to the reporter, it seems to have worked wonders.

That doesn't change the actual situation, though. Despite Kururugi's previous actions, Asahina never actually doubted his loyalty to Zero. It was just so obvious, in everything he did. For him to turn his sword on Zero is like Chiba suddenly deciding to kill Todhoh. It makes no sense.

"Do you suppose Kururugi actually meant to betray us all along?" Tamaki asks.

"Kururugi is the devicer for the Earl of Pudding, and the ASEEC responds to Schneizel el Britannia," Rakshata muses. "Perhaps the two things are related?"

"Shut up," Rolo surprisingly snaps at both at them. "Sir Kururugi wouldn't turn against us like that. You need to wait for big brother. He will tell you."

It's very unusual for Rolo to jump to Kururugi's defense, since it's common knowledge that the two don't get along. Asahina narrows his eyes at him. "But you know, don't you? You know what he meant when he said somebody is in Kururugi's head."

Rolo nods. "Yes, I know. But I can't say. It's not my place."

"Is it some brainwashing technique?" Rakshata asks, not seeming insulted as Rolo's intervention. "As I understand, it is possible to trigger a brainwashed individual like that."

Rolo doesn't deny it, which is like a confirmation in itself. Brainwashing? How could that be possible?

Asahina remembers what Zero once told them about Charles zi Britannia's brother. A cruel man. Far worse than his sibling. Could it be related?

"Rolo, please," Kallen says. "Just... Tell us something. Don't leave us like this."

Rolo grimaces and looks away. Diethard clears his throat and intervenes before anyone else can press Zero's brother.

"The situation is indeed a little more complicated than you know, but we are not at liberty to make revelations at this time. I'm sure Zero will inform you, like he's promised."

"He's told you?" Inoue asks in disbelief.

"It was necessary for my work in the intelligence department," Diethard explains.

This whole incident reminds Asahina of Ohgi, except that it is far worse. As much as he tries to explain it to himself, he cannot understand how it was possible for Kururugi to attack Zero so quickly. It's not that Todhoh didn't try to intervene. Even Cornelia and her knight attempted to help. But they were far too slow. If Kururugi hadn't stopped, hadn't fought whatever brainwashing had been placed on him, Zero would be dead. The thought makes Asahina break out in cold sweat. They've just earned the freedom of Japan. They can't lose it, not again.

Before they can question Diethard any further, the door to their meeting room opens. Surprisingly, the new arrival is Princess Euphemia. She's left her Britannian knight... somewhere, but she's remembered to have Minami as an escort, like Zero originally asked her.

"Hello, everyone. I hope you don't mind me intervening in your meeting. Zero said that he would be coming to talk to everyone soon and explain."

A few months ago, the presence of a Britannian princess in their midst would have taken them all aback. But they have since come to care about Princess Euphemia. She is so visibly grieved by what happened and her eyes are still red-rimmed. She's been crying.

Asahina gets up and offers her his seat. "Please, sit."

She shoots him a small smile and takes him up on her offer. "Thank you."

"What do you make of this, Princess Euphemia?" he asks. "What could have made Kururugi act the way he did?"

"The only thing I know is that the person Suzaku killed did something to his mind. He's awake now, but very shaken and upset. He doesn't remember a thing." Her tone changes and she shoots to her feet. "I... I don't know what will happen, but please, do not blame him. It's not his fault. Suzaku would never hurt Zero."

Asahina believes her. In fact, everyone seems to agree. After all, why would Kururugi decide to assassinate Zero now of all times? Even if, through some absurd convoluted plan, he acted like a double-double agent for Schneizel el Britannia, now would be the worst possible moment to attack him. Asahina isn't a politician, but even he can tell that Britannia is far too unstable at this point for Schneizel to take advantage of Zero's death.

"In any case," Euphemia says, "while we wait, we need to deal with the aftermath of what happened. Cornelia has returned to the settlement. As far as I know, the civilians have been evacuated, right?"

"Yes. Kaguya is keeping an eye on the Tianzi. She is very scared."

"We'll have to leave signing the UFN for a later date," Euphemia says. "Was all that broadcast on an international feed?"

"No," Diethard says. "I killed the feed right after Kururugi threw C.C. off him. But a lot of Japanese citizens saw what happened. People were right next to him when he killed that woman. We've released a first official statement, but we'll need something more from Zero."

Euphemia clenches her fists. Asahina suspects she feels as helpless as most of them.

It takes ages, but at last, Zero arrives, just as he promised. As always, he is accompanied by C.C. She's never been the most expressive person, but since the SAZ started, she's started to show a little more emotion, usually when she bullied Zero into eating and sleeping. That part of her seems to have vanished now, melting away under an expressionless mask.

Asahina always did think that Zero's featureless helmet was a little unnerving, but it's nothing compared to C.C.'s blank, stoic eyes.

Zero doesn't even wait for them to greet him. He gets right down to business, something Asahina is secretly happy for. "You're all probably wondering what happened outside and where that assassin came from and how such a thing could have been possible.  I'm afraid a fair amount of blame lies on my shoulders. I haven't been completely honest with all of you, and for this reason, as you see, I've paid a very personal price."

Without further ado, Zero reaches for his helmet. Asahina expects him to open it half-way, perhaps because he's having trouble breathing. Instead, Zero removes altogether.

Zero is young, but Asahina already knew that from Urabe. He also looks familiar, although Asahina cannot for the life of him remember where he's seen that face before.

The explanation is quickly given by Zero himself. "My name is Lelouch vi Britannia, son of 98th Emperor Charles zi Britannia and Empress Marianne vi Britannia."

Oh.

Zero made no secret of the fact that he was Britannian, and his manner always suggested the fact that he may nobility. Despite this, Asahina never connected him—or his obvious closeness to Kururugi—to the young prince who arrived at the Kururugi shrine, so many summers ago. Asahina didn't have much contact with Prince Lelouch and he only saw the princess once or twice. He has to admit that he never gave them much thought, since even then, resentment for Britannians had been high. Perhaps if he'd paid more attention, he would have realized the truth.

Todhoh doesn't seem surprised at the revelation. He must have known about it then. So did Euphemia, obviously. She is giving them all worried looks, perhaps thinking that they would lash out at Zero because of his identity.

Judging by Diethard's calm manner, he may have also been aware, but Kallen was clearly not informed. Surprisingly, she is the one who shatters the silence. Asahina expected Tamaki to be the one to say something stupid before any of them ever asked. "You're a Britannian prince?" she cries.

The question naturally triggers an onslaught of further inquiries. Why would he help them? Why is here? Why kill Clovis if they're related?

Zero remains standing, implacable, his face unreadable. Rolo isn't nearly so calm. He takes position by his brother's side, in the same place Kururugi usually takes, presumably prepared to defend him.

"Silence!" Todhoh finally bellows. "Let Zero speak."

The Black Knights all quiet down. Zero's lips twist into a small crooked smile. "Thank you, Todhoh. Yes, Kallen, I am a Britannian prince. An exiled prince, but a prince nonetheless. I'd apologize for the deception, but it was necessary. My being royalty is one of the reasons why I had to wear the mask. But... There are other, more important reasons, and before you ask any further questions, I would urge you to listen to what I have to say."

He's not loud, not like Todhoh was, but the words have an even more sobering effect. Kallen visibly deflates. Several people shift uncomfortably, but a lot of people start nodding hesitantly.

"As most of you are probably aware, my mother was assassinated in 2010," Zero begins. "What is not common knowledge is that the culprit behind the crime was my uncle Victor. At the time, I did not know this either. I asked my father to investigate the murder deeper, and for this, my sister and I were banished to Japan.

"During that summer, my sister Nunnally and I stayed with the Kururugis, where we befriended Suzaku. We became very close. But then... The invasion happened and we were separated.

"Suzaku made his way to his family, but I could not turn to the Japanese for assistance during such a time, so I contacted some old friends of my mother. The Ashfords. Only... Unbeknownst to me, Victor still had agents in Japan and he was hunting Nunnally and I. He hated my mother deeply. He had somewhat of an obsession for my father and she was the only empress Charles ever truly cared about. Nunnally and I were found, kidnapped and taken..." Zero's voice trails off, his gaze turning distant. "Taken to his headquarters," he finishes, rubbing his eyes.

Asahina is starting to get a very bad feeling. Originally, Zero's motives for his rebellion were unclear, but as time passed, it became clear to many of them that Zero had a lot of personal reasons for hating Britannia. Asahina is now genuinely afraid of what he is about to hear.

C.C. squeezes Zero's shoulder in a gentle show of support. "Victor has an organization that is in charge of human experimentation," she says, taking over the conversation, since Zero appears to be having trouble. "Lelouch has mentioned it before, if you remember. Their purpose is to create an army of superhumans, but the process is painful and the results are very random and often have unwelcome side effects. Lelouch, his siblings and I were all test subjects. So was Suzaku, after he became an Honorary."

"T-Test subjects?" Euphemia stammers, shooting out of her seat. "But... But..."

"Euphie, please," Zero cuts her off. "Sit. I promised I would explain. I know this is hard, but it cannot be helped."

The princess nods. She's shaking as she sits back down, but she says nothing.

"I do not remember everything that happened there," Zero continues. His sister's interruption seems to have snapped him out of his fugue. "Victor has staff that is capable of altering memories. I do know that it is there that I met C.C. and Rolo."

"Rolo?" Chiba repeats. "But... Isn't he your brother?"

"Yes, he is. But not my actual blood brother."

"But he looks so much like Nunnally," Kallen protests.

"You know the princess Nunnally, Kallen?" Asahina can't help but ask.

"Kallen knew me and Nunnally under our fake names, in our more recent civilian identities," Zero replies in her stead. "I'll get to that part soon. As for Rolo..."

"I don't actually know who I am," Rolo says blankly. "My first ever memory is being experimented on. I could have easily been created to look like this. We don't know."

Princess Euphemia looks even more dazed and nauseated than before, which should have been an impossibility. "I always assumed that you saying he was your brother was because of his age and the resemblance was a coincidence or, at most, something that would have determined you to take him under your wing... I had no idea..."

Asahina understands what she means. Rolo is so young. His distinctly antisocial personality now makes so much sense. No wonder he doesn't know how to associate with others if he lived through such an ordeal. As Zero's true blood sibling, Euphemia would have known Rolo wasn't truly their brother, but how could she have possibly guessed the actual, horrible truth?

"Rolo and I were both held captive there for many years," C.C. continues. "By the time Lelouch, Nunnally and Suzaku were brought in, we barely had a sense of identity and naturally wanted to escape. But of course it was not so easy. There was a lot of security. As some of you may be aware, Nunnally is crippled and blinded, and her injury made matters even more complicated. And there were other prisoners we would have liked to free, a lot of them children, even younger than Rolo."

"We were there for several years, during which most of us were tortured in various ways," Zero adds.

"Your heart injury," Inoue whispers, like a realization. "That's where you got it."

"Among other things, yes. I won't give you a list." He shoots Euphemia a glance. "It's not for present company.

"Nunnally was too fragile for Victor to be able to do much to her, but he dangled her over my head so that I would cooperate."

"What happened then?" Kallen asks tremulously. She looks like she's seconds away from bursting into tears and is only holding back through sheer force of will. "How did you escape?"

"We didn't. Not really." Zero looks away. "Clovis found us. He was involved in the experimentation and after some time, he decided it was... uncouth to have his siblings in such a situation. Mine and Nunnally's memories were wiped. We remembered nothing of the incident. We were placed in Ashford Academy, where we lived until this year, unknowing, and obviously, where we met you."

"And Suzaku?" Euphemia inquires, a little desperately. "Rolo? C.C.?"

"We never made it out," C.C. replies, "not until much later. Suzaku joined the army largely because Victor—or V.V. as is his code name—wanted to test the abilities he gained through the experimentation. Rolo remained with the Order. I was with Clovis for a year or so. In fact, I was the one in the capsule that was stolen that day, in Shinjuku."

There is gaping all around. Asahina was not there for the infamous Shinjuku incident, but he does know it was the basis of the Black Knights. There were a lot of civilian casualties, so it's a bit of a sore spot. "You?" Kallen blurts out. "But.. But..."

Zero nods. "That's how I remembered. It was really... an accident of fate. I was simply passing by—coming from one of my chess gambling matches—when I saw your car accident and I rushed over to help. I fell into the truck when you started the car. And yes, I was there the whole time when you left in the Glasgow. Imagine my surprise when I realized my classmate was actually a terrorist.

His expression turns darker. "While we were in the Shinjuku tunnels, after Kallen left, the capsule opened. C.C. got out and managed to break through my amnesia. Naturally, we were not happy about what had happened to us. Of course, we wanted to help Suzaku too, but we didn't know to what extent we were being monitored. Perhaps more importantly, his mental state at the time wasn't the best and we feared that if we pushed him, his psyche would completely shatter."

"No wonder." Todhoh whispers. "No wonder he was so different that day, before he was supposed to execute me."

"When we were on the island..." Zero swallows and stares at his hands. "The island is actually one of the locations where the Order was active. Suzaku received orders, as you know. He was going to kill us both. Due to our location, I was... not at my best. So I was forced to use my own ability on him—the ability granted to me due to the experimentation—which in turn triggered the return of his memories."

"He's not in the best condition right now, but he's getting better," C.C. says. "Or... He was. It happened again, just now, so it may take him some time to recover. You'll have to be patient with him."

"Of course," Chiba replies. "We completely understand." How could they not? Those damn Britannians. How dare they do something like this to one of their own?

Asahina shares a look with Chiba. He hasn't really made an actual attempt to befriend Kururugi until now, but clearly, that was a mistake on their part. After this incident, they will need to do better.

"After I reunited with C.C.," Zero continues, "I went in search of Rolo. It took some effort, but I finally managed to find him and free him, since at the time, he wasn't stationed at V.V.'s main headquarters. Once I deemed it safe enough and I believed his disappearance would not be connected to the Black Knights, I brought him here. I had to keep my cover at Ashford, again, in case we were being watched, but after Cornelia and the SAZ became an issue, I knew I could no longer afford to do so. Since Clovis was dead and V.V. not here, I deemed it safe for us to... cut loose, so to speak. Or, as safe as it could ever be, at least."

"Zero, if I can interrupt. I have a question," Rakshata says. "You talked about your abilities. But what do these abilities actually do?"

Asahina blinks in surprise. That's right. He was so distracted by the whole human experimentation and torture thing that he missed its purpose of what Britannia had been attempting.

"It varies," C.C. replies. "I'm immortal. I can be killed, but I will heal from any injury, which is why I act as Lelouch's shield."

Everybody stares at her in disbelief. Immortal? Surely not...

"Suzaku has an increased speed, strength and reaction time, but he's also shown signs of improved healing, which is probably what saved his life today," C.C. continues. "Rolo can suspend other people's perception of time. Lelouch can order anyone—with a few exceptions—to do what he wants them to do, within reason."

Asahina's head is starting to spin. "Zero, with respect..."

"I know, Asahina. I know this is hard to believe. Rolo, if you can demonstrate."

"Yes, of course, big brother."

The next thing Asahina knows, Rolo is no longer standing in his previous position, next to Zero. He's on the other side of the room, holding a gun to Rakshata's head. Presumably, demonstrating.

Everybody freezes. Rolo seems completely unfazed. "Rolo," Zero says with an exasperated sigh.

Just like that, Rolo puts his gun away. "Apologies," he says, no honesty whatsoever in his voice. "It's been a long day. We're all a bit on the edge."

"It's no problem at all," Rakshata replies. "That was quite a fascinating skill you have there. I don't suppose you..."

"No, Rakshata, I won't let you analyze it, not at this time," Zero pipes up before she can finish the phrase.

"Do you read minds too?" Rakshata asks, interested.

"Don't be ridiculous. I just guessed. It's not like it's difficult to know that right now, you're thinking about the scientific applications and possibilities of our abilities."

Rakshata falls silent. It occurs to Asahina that maybe Rolo associated the inquiry with the scientists that once poked and prodded at him. That's not a pleasant thought to have. No wonder he targeted Rakshata with his... demonstration.

C.C. huffs. "Lelouch. I'm tired of this. We need to make it clearer. Rolo, shoot me."

"C.C.," Zero immediately starts to protest. "No... This isn't necessary."

"I'll be fine. You know that. And it's the best way to make them see what we mean. Come on, Rolo. Shoot me. Kill me."

Rolo waits, staring at his brother. Zero looks pained. "Euphie," he tells his sister, "do me a favor. Would you mind stepping out for a moment?"

Princess Euphemia stares between Zero and C.C. in disbelief. "Lelouch. I don't... understand."

"Please. I don't think it's a good idea for you to see this. You're not a soldier, not like the Black Knights."

"You can't protect me forever, Lelouch. I don't want to hide or look away. I'm not a child."

Zero grimaces. "Very well. Rolo, do it."

 Just like that, Rolo turns his gun on C.C. and pulls the trigger. The bullet goes straight through her forehead. Blood and brain matter splatter all over the floor.  She goes down, her golden eyes wide and shocked, green hair covered in crimson liquid. Zero catches her before she can hit the floor. Some of her blood stains his cheek.

Despite her earlier words, Euphemia recoils and covers her mouth, looking like she's about to throw up. Zero ignores her reaction.

"Rolo, bring C.C. something to eat, will you?" he asks, sounding tired. "Do we have pizza?"

Pizza? Zero's brother just killed his girlfriend and Zero is talking about pizza? What is this insanity?

"I can go check, big brother," Rolo says, calmly putting away his pistol.

"Please. And maybe find something to mop up the mess."

"Will do. Be right back."

The whole exchange takes maybe a minute, during which time Asahina is completely frozen. Inoue's mouth is open, like she's silently screaming. Tamaki's face is uncharacteristically blank. Nobody—not even Euphemia—seems to be able to even breathe or move a muscle.

Zero gently places his now dead lover on the couch. Once she is positioned in what looks like a moderately comfortable position, he stares at the wall and just waits.

Times seems to slow and then, finally, impossibly, C.C. stirs. The very first thing she says is, "I want pizza."

Zero looks at her with a small, fond smile. "Sent Rolo after some." He pulls out a handkerchief and helps her clean her face and hair. Only after does he wipe his own face. He ignores the small puddle of congealing blood on the couch.

While he does this, C.C. shoots them all an inquiring look. "Did that make the extent of my ability clear?"

Rakshata swallows and nods. Even she is speechless.

"As I was saying earlier, I was with V.V. longest, which is why my ability is like this. C.C. is a code name too. And no, I'm not going to tell you my real name. It's a secret."

"I... see..." Todhoh manages to croak out.

"Obviously, we can't demonstrate Suzaku's ability, but you've probably caught glimpses of it before," Zero says. "And mine is something I prefer to not demonstrate."

The comment finally manages to make Asahina's brain work again. "Right. You mentioned you could order people to do what you want them to? Then why not use it on Britannians to keep them from attacking us?" God, let Zero please give them an answer that will make them stop thinking about the implications of what just happened in front of them.

"It doesn't work like that," Zero replies. "It has a range, and I need eye contact with the individual in question. It can also only be used once. Besides, I prefer not to use it much. People can sometimes interpret orders... creatively. For example, I could give out a completely harmless order and end up accidentally damaging the person in question. One time... After Narita, as you may recall, some civilians died in the avalanche. The father of a dear friend was there. Through a sequence of events, she learned I was Zero. She forgave me for what I had done, but I wanted to protect her from her guilt and grief anyway, so I ordered her to forget her traumatic memories. I ended up wiping her memories of me altogether."

"Wait... That's what happened with you and Shirley?" Kallen gasps out. I always thought it was so weird..." She sounds dazed, like she's blindly reaching for the one piece of information that makes sense.

"Everything comes with a price, Q1," Zero says. "Of course, I will use this ability if I have to, against our enemies, to ensure their cooperation, but it's preferable to try the... regular route first."

"So does that mean you've never used it on us?" Sugiyama asks.

"Just on Suzaku and Kallen."

Kallen blanches. "On me? But why? What could I..."

"Kallen... You were a terrorist with a capsule that held C.C. inside it, suddenly at my school. While we were in the ghettoes, I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt, which is why I helped you at that time. But once we were back at Ashford, things changed. Even if you weren't working for Clovis, you still presumably stole a bio weapon. I didn't trust you. I didn't know you. I thought you might be dangerous for Nunnally. So I simply used my skill to ask you some questions, which is pretty much the only way it can be used in a completely harmless way that would 100% not damage a person. It was that time, in the courtyard."

"When you mentioned Shinjuku. I remember now. But..."

"If it helps, Q1, I do regret it. I trust you now, and I realize that people do a lot of things when they're desperate. I should know." Zero closes his eyes, like he's in physical pain. "And... This power that I have... I keep calling it ability but its actual name is Geass. I never wanted to use it on those I care about. It's why I never used it on Ohgi. I... I admit I considered it. But I had no way of knowing how deeply rooted his affection for the Britannian woman was, and if the command from me contrasted with it too much, it could have shattered his mind. I could have seriously hurt him. And unfortunately, I could not use it again on Viletta, since I had already done so in Shinjuku—which is why she remembered me to begin with and knew to investigate me."

Well, that sounds like a lose-lose situation to Asahina. This Geass of Zero's sounds like a terrible burden to bear.

Kallen lets the topic drop. In the silence that follows, Rolo finally makes his appearance, pushing along a cart with some leftover pizza and cleaning supplies.

C.C. instantly gets up and makes a beeline for the plate. She snatches a slice and digs in, ignoring the fact that, despite Zero's efforts, there are still some traces of blood on her face.

Rolo goes ahead to start mopping the floor. For some reason, maybe out of the desire to just do something and not think about what actually happened here, Sugiyama rushes to help.

Two slices of pizza later, they've all recovered a little more and Todhoh manages to ask another question.  "Zero... What about Suzaku?"

"The command on him is to live. As I said, he wasn't... completely stable prior to regaining his memories. We got lucky in that our reunion gave him a reason to live, in a way he didn't have before. Of course, it's not an ideal situation, and I would've prefered to not be forced to use it, but the important thing is that it helped him and it keeps him safe."

"But earlier... He turned his sword against himself," Euphemia whispers. Asahina is surprised she can even speak given how pale and shaken she is.

"That's because he received another command, from another person," C.C. answers. "As far as we can tell, the command was to kill Lelouch. However, Suzaku's whole being protested against that. Since it's agency that is manipulated, not emotion, he resisted. He probably would have killed himself if not for Lelouch's order. Between that and the two of us reinforcing his memory, he managed to shake it off long enough to take out the assassin."

"And the... person..." Inoue manages to say. "Could have done that to any of us?"

Zero nods. "Yes. She chose Suzaku because she knew nobody could have gotten past him, but she could have easily targeted any of you. The only exception here is C.C., who has a degree of mental immunity due to what was done to her.

"And yes, before you ask, there are more people like that out there, with different Geass abilities, but all of them serving my uncle. Given what we've heard from Cornelia, it appears that at this time, he's mostly still busy with the man who killed Charles zi Britannia, but I have no doubt that he'll eventually attack again. "

"Zero... How are we supposed to fight off an army of superhumans?" Tamaki asks.

"Technically... They're not an army. The experimentation is very risky and has a high chance of failure, thus Victor using it on me even if he hated my mother. They are dangerous, but they aren't unbeatable. Immortality like C.C.'s is actually very rare. Only V.V. himself has it. It's part of the reason why he's so insane. He experimented on himself using the data he gathered from C.C. Either way, as luck would have it, I can kill him. I just need to get close enough."

"I assume you plan to use your ability to do this," Todhoh says.

"Yes. But it won't be an easy matter. We do know the location of his main facility, but we have to take into account the fact that a lot of the people there are very much like we used to be—brainwashed subjects, dangerous, but ultimately innocent. I am working on a plan, but until we find the right approach for that, we need to keep a close eye on developments in Britannia, to monitor V.V.'s next move, just in case he targets Schneizel."

"Would he do that?" Euphemia asks. "Go after Schneizel?"

"There's a possibility. I know what you're thinking, Euphie, but we can't tell Schneizel about this. Not everything at least. Schneizel is not Charles, but he may want to use the Order as a weapon. We can't take the chance. Of course, I actually have told Cornelia part of what's going on, and I will speak with her and give her another head's up, to maybe warn Schneizel to be a little more careful too. But we can't do anything more."

"Oh..."

At this point, the princess sounds beyond downtrodden and going well into the realm of depression. Zero sighs. "Listen, Euphie. C.C. and I still have some work to do here. Would you mind keeping Suzaku company for a while? We sort of chased you out earlier and he needs someone to stay with him right now."

Euphemia jumps at the chance. She doesn't exactly cheer up, but she obviously needs some time to process what she's seen and heard.  "Of course I will. Just let me know if you need anything else."

Before she goes, she gives her brother a hug. Zero hugs her back. It's very strange to see. Asahina has never seen Zero be affectionate to anyone except C.C., Rolo and, less often, Suzaku. He obviously cares about her, although, somehow, Asahina knows that it wouldn't have made a difference had she betrayed their cause.

Zero waits until she's gone and then turns toward the rest of them again. "I know I've dumped a lot of information of you. I know this is even scary. To some, I've been even more unfair than to others." He straightens his back and just like that, all show of emotion vanishes. "But as much as I would like to give you more time to process this, we need to be more careful than ever. We'll tighten the guard and electronic systems. Nothing V.V. can do affects cameras. Stay in your knightmares if possible and don't activate open coms. A lot of these abilities work through contact, other visual or otherwise, so this will provide you with some defense. Watch each other's backs. Also, keep in mind that a lot of these individuals look harmless and are often children. Even V.V. looks like a child. C.C. and Rolo will compile a list with what they remember from the Order. We'll get past this too. I have the utmost faith in our capabilities.

"I will also need a more elaborate story for the populace. Diethard, you've done well so far, but there were a lot of people there who saw Suzaku threaten me with a sword and may not have heard our exchange. We need to make it clear that it's not his fault and I don't want people to question his suitability as my knight. Thoughts, anyone?"

"A subliminal weapon of some kind?" Rakshata suggests. "Without analyzing the process personally, I'd say it's pretty much the truth, in his case at least."

"That could work," Zero replies. "It will cause agitation, but we have no other choice, and a weapon from an outside threat is far better than internal betrayal. We'll tighten gun control and enforce some extra security measures in the civilian population. Technically, that won't help us with this sort of ability, but it will help us with everything else and prevent civilian unrest."

As Zero settles down to prepare his speech, Asahina cannot help but compare him with Todhoh. The two of them are so very different, with Todhoh being so stern and Zero so flashy. But in some ways, they are alike. Asahina has seen Todhoh do this countless of times, bury his emotions and turn into a leader in the blink of an eye. It's all the more awe-inspiring when it comes from a seventeen year old.

Asahina would be grateful for it if he did not know that this determination quite possibly hides countless tortures the seventeen year old in question has suffered. Damn Britannia.

Chapter Text

Zero stays with them a little while longer. As he checks in with all their garrisons and coordinates their security, C.C. manages to unearth an image of Charles zi Britannia's older twin brother, explaining that V.V. looks almost exactly the same now, except with longer hair.

"Does that mean you're older than you look too?" Rakshata thinks to ask.

"Good guess," C.C. replies. "Yes. I'm much older."

Todhoh watches the exchange in silence. He believes her. She always did seem to carry a burden on her shoulders, and her silent, stoic demeanor made him wary and uncomfortable. It wasn't a behavior born out of discipline. C.C. is many things, but a disciplined soldier isn't one of them. But pain? Apathy? Yes, he can see it. And after the earlier display, how could he possibly doubt her words?

When it comes, Zero's speech is as inspiring as ever. He explains the situation to the Japanese, clears his knight of all culpability while emphasizing he basically saved Zero's life. He mentions that the outside threat remains, but reassures the Japanese that both he and Princess Cornelia will be vigilant. He does warn them that at this time, the Area is under a form of martial law, but as long as they remain indoors and cooperate with the Black Knights, no harm will come to them.

The whole thing flows over Todhoh like a wave. He has no doubt that it will achieve the purpose it is meant for, but it does little for Todhoh himself.

As he promised Princess Euphemia, Zero contacts Cornelia and gives her the warning he spoke of. Cornelia assures him that they have the matter covered and she has already spoken with her eldest brother. Zero acknowledges the words, but seems unconvinced.

 When Zero finally announces that he is about to leave—with the promise to send them all further details on what they're going to face—a part of Todhoh wants to go after him, to ask some more questions. In the end, he decides against it. The only reassurances he can ask for at this point have already been given, and any further inquiries would not be appreciated.

Rolo leaves with Zero and C.C., and once they're gone, the whole deck falls silent. It's like Zero's absence has suddenly sucked all the air out of the room. Or maybe there was a tension there before, something pushing them to move past their apprehension and horror. Now that Zero's presence is no longer there to motivate them, everyone freezes at their work stations.

Inoue bursts into tears first. Sugiyama rushes to her side to comfort her. After that, it's like an avalanche.

Kallen slides to her knees and buries her face into her hands. "Oh God. Oh God."

The sentiment is shared all across the Black Knights. It's like something cold that has settled over all their souls, something they cannot chase away or discard.

As for Todhoh... He looks away and clenches and unclenches his fists. All he can think about is the little boy who was once his student, the boy with wide, innocent green eyes, but with so much fire, such determination. The same boy who so often seems so emotionless.

The taste of failure is like poison in his mouth. He's experienced before, many times, with all the losses that he's had. But even then, even when he saw friends and loved ones die on the battlefield, he never had this feeling. That scream Suzaku let out when he was outside... It sounded like he was being ripped open from the inside.

"Colonel Todhoh..." Chiba whispers by his side. "It's not your fault."

"It is. I should have done more. Instead, I hid under the mountain like a coward."

The words come out with difficulty, but they come out. He will always be loyal and respect General Katase greatly, but the fact remains that the JLF stood by and did nothing while people like Suzaku and the rest of the Japanese suffered.

It was only Suzaku who stopped the massacre of the Japanese when Genbu's pride would have killed them all. It was only the young prince of Britannia who stepped in when they were being crushed by Clovis.

Todhoh grits his teeth and does his best to control his fury and revulsion. "All right everyone. We need to pull ourselves together. Right now, the best thing we can do is offer our support and make sure what happened to them doesn't happen again."

"T-That's right," Tamaki stammers. "Zero needs us. We can't let him down."

"I still can't believe Rolo shot C.C., just like that," Sugiyama mumbles.

"Technically, she's the one who asked him," Diethard points out. "And I think she doesn't really care about such things anymore. When they showed me, she stabbed herself clean through the arm and didn't display any reaction except for asking for pizza."

"So... Nutrients," Rakshata muses. "Her body constantly regenerates. Maybe the calloric intake from the pizza helps with that. I wonder how many times she must have gone through the experience in order to become like that."

"You are not to ask, Rakshata," Todhoh says. "This is hard enough."

"I think Rolo made that clear, thank you."

"But you know, guys, I think we're actually... pretty lucky that Zero is a good guy," Tamaki pipes up. "He could have turned us all into tools if he wanted to, but he didn't."

Tamaki is, of course, correct, although it goes beyond that. Todhoh realizes all too well that Zero must have already used this ability against his enemies. It may have been how he got Clovis to rescind his order in the massacre of Shinjuku. Perhaps other times, he may have used it as a weapon or to procure all of the things he's needed for the Black Knights. But the fact that he did not use it on them—except on Kallen, at a time when he feared for family—means something.

He cannot deny he does feel a dose of apprehension. Genbu was a good man too, and his decisions as prime minister nearly led them all to an even bigger disaster. Power has a way of destroying people.

But Zero seems very aware of this, and the fact that he dislikes using his skill reassures Todhoh.

"Zero wouldn't turn us into tools," he says, "not after he himself was used for so long, not after what was done to his siblings, C.C. and Suzaku."

His comment makes Inoue bring up another topic. "That's right... Zero mentioned a sister. The princess Nunnally. Kallen, you know her, right? Why do you suppose he never brought her here after he broke his cover?"

"I think maybe... Maybe she doesn't remember what happened to her. Nunnally is very nice, but she's always seemed so innocent. Rolo isn't like that. So maybe he didn't want to involve her in all the bloodshed. And like he said, she's very vulnerable. If V.V. had tracked him down here, she would have been the first to be targetted."

"We could have still protected her, though," Tamaki claims, a tone of defensiveness in his voice.

"Could we?" Diethard arches a brow. "We couldn't protect Zero, let alone a blind, crippled little girl."

"Do you know where she is, Diethard?" Todhoh asks.

Diethard shakes his head. "I doubt anyone except Zero, C.C., Kururugi and Rolo know."

"Well, there's no point in thinking about it now," Kallen says abruptly. "Zero will tell us or he won't."

For the first time, it occurs to Todhoh that Kallen may not be dealing with the entire thing all that well. After all, she was the only one out of all of them whom Zero targeted with his ability. "Kallen? Are you feeling all right?"

"I don't think anyone here is feeling all right." Kallen smiles bitterly. "I feel like maybe... I was stupid. After Naoto, I thought I understood all the monstrous things Britannia did, but now... It's just one thing after the other. They just... take and take and take and destroy... When will it stop?

"As for the rest of it..." Kallen stares up at the ceiling, her face blank. "Does it really matter in the end? That my classmate is a prince? That he lied to us? In the big picture, does it really matter? After what was done to them... Does it even matter... How I feel..."

"It matters, Kallen," Chiba says. "Otherwise, Zero wouldn't have apologized for using his ability on you."

Kallen still doesn't look that convinced. He shakes her head and straightens her shoulders. "Anyway. Todhoh is right. We need to pull ourselves together and follow Zero's orders. But in the meantime... There is one more thing we need to think about. Rakshata was right, earlier."

"Hmm? Me?"

"Yes. When you wondered about how many times C.C. died. Lelouch never really said what kind of damage they actually suffered. He was vague about it, probably because of his sister." Kallen clenches her jaw. "We have to ask. We can't risk... We can't risk him collapsing like he did on the island."

That's right. She was the one of the few people present during Zero's original fit, the one that let them all know there was a problem to begin with.

"I'll bring it up with Zero," Diethard offers. "I don't think he would refuse us, not now."

Kallen nods, but her expression remains glum. As they return to work, Todhoh wonders what Zero will spring on them next and how they will all be able to manage it.

****

Meanwhile, at Ashford Academy, the members of the Student Council stare at the TV screen with open mouths.

"A... subliminal weapon?" Nina squeaks. "But... How... Who could have..."

"Probably whoever bombed Pendragon," Milly says. "Now that Zero and Britannia are tentative allies, Zero has become a target too. Thus, the martial law."

"But what about Princess Euphemia?" Nina cries. "They didn't say anything about her. Is she at risk too? Did they hurt her?"

Shirley can barely hear them. All he can think about is the mysterious disappearance of her memories.

The fact that Lulu is Zero is the only reason why she's remained at the school after classes ended. She was uncomfortable with going back to her family home, knowing what she did, and the rest of the Council—except for Milly who already lives here—decided to stay behind too. Their presence did help her sort through her feelings, especially since, for a while, she believed her amnesia may have been caused by Lulu himself. But now...

What if something like that was done to her too? What if... What if they wanted to turn her against Lulu?

She scrambles for her cell phone, already speed dialing the well known number. Just like before, during the countless times she's tried to call him, there's no response. Lulu's phone isn't even on.

Suddenly, Shirley's chest feels tight. She can't be here any longer. She needs to talk to Lulu. She needs to see him, for real.

She shoots to her feet, making a bee line for the door.

"Shirley? Shirley, are you all right? Shirley!"

Shirley doesn't listen. She runs out of the Student Council room, her mind already dead set on getting to the SAZ.

It's only once she's outside that she realizes she has a big problem.

Right. She's forgotten. The whole school is on shutdown. The area is being patrolled by knightmares. Most public transportation has been closed or is monitored by the Black Knights. Martial law.

She isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Milly and the others catch up with her in the courtyard. They're all breathing hard, having presumably chased her from the Student Council Room.

"Listen, guys. We can't just go bursting into the SAZ, even if we're worried. I have an idea."

She produces her cell phone, a small, hesitant smile on her lips. "Wish me luck."

****

Suzaku waits. He still has a mild headache, but it's boring to just sit there and 'recover', and it makes him antsy in that it reminds him far too much of the solitude of his time post-Requiem. He opens the pendant around his neck and looks at it, taking in the digital display that registers Lelouch's heartbeat and location.

It would have been so easy for today to go so very wrong. It's so very frustrating to be stuck in the infirmary while Lelouch goes to talk to the Black Knighs. He needs to get better faster, so that he can return to his emperor's side.

Clara Lanfranc is dead now, and presumably there aren't a lot of Geass users like her around. But if more people with the ability to control others show up, he needs to be there to protect Lelouch.

It's strange to think that if not for the Geass from C.C., he may be dead now. So far, he hasn't had time to explore it too much. Before the attack happened, he managed to heal Tamaki of an ingrown toenail, Inoue of a scratch from Arthur and help Kallen with menstruation cramps. That one had been very weird, and it caused a surge in his anger and frustration before it melted away. He'd had a wild thought that maybe Kallen was on her period every time they fought, but quickly dismissed it. Kallen is prone to violent responses every day of the month, and he didn't want to think about her biological processes further.

At the time, he didn't intend to push his new ability, especially after the warnings C.C. and Lelouch have given him. Now, he thinks the Geass may be far more powerful than he expected. Can he make it work faster? How would that even work?

He has no idea, but he decides to try. Following a sudden instinct, he lets his mind drift and tries to think about good things. The smell of C.C.'s hair. Lelouch's deep eyes, so very purple. C.C. curling around Cheese-kun with a slice of pizza. Lelouch's frustrated yelping when they coax him into eating or exercising. The three of them chasing Arthur on a day when the cat was being particularly stubborn. The three of them in bed together. The pendant, registering Lelouch's steady heartbeat.

Lelouch's 'Live on' Geass, the wish that kept him alive. C.C.'s contract, flaring inside him, so very warm.

It helps, and before he knows it, he's falling asleep. He only realizes it when a knock at the door jolts him from his slumber.

"Yes?" he calls out. "Come in."

The door opens and Euphie walks in with soft, careful steps. "Hi, Suzaku. Were you sleeping? I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't. I wasn't asleep. Just, you know... Thinking." Suzaku shoots her a quick smile. "I've been summarily ordered to stay put. I'd love the company, especially when it's yours."

Euphie takes him up on the invitation and sits down on the edge of his bed. The silence is strange and uncomfortable. She's clearly been crying, and she doesn't know how to address what is on her mind. "Did Lelouch explain?" Suzaku finally asks.

Euphie nods. "I'm so sorry, Suzaku. I had... I had no idea."

"None of it is your fault, Euphie," Suzaku replies. "I just... I'm glad you came to see me, because I want you to know something. Even if... Even if I wasn't quite myself when we met... The two of us, the friendship that we have... It's real. It's important to me. You're important to me. I think maybe... It was among the few real things I had, at that time. You, and Cecile. Even Lloyd, up to a point. You helped me a lot, more than you know."

What he's saying isn't one hundred percent true, but then, their elaborate charade of being test subjects is necessary and far more believable than what actually happened. He knows that their lies are hurting Euphie, but in the long run, it will be for the best. They can't keep her isolated from all knowledge. Lelouch has already learned how badly that works due to his complete failure with Nunnally the first time around, and even making the attempt, especially when she is here with them, would endanger her.

Euphie's eyes fill with tears at his response. "You're so brave," she chokes out. "I came here to supposedly help you and here you are, comforting me instead. I guess you're still my knight, a little bit."

"A little bit." Suzaku grins. "I don't think Lelouch would mind it, just this once."

Euphie leans in closer and wraps her arms around him. They don't say anything, but they don't have to. The hug is enough.

It feels like... closure. He did realize before that he didn't love her romantically, but this well and truly settles it, like they can finally fall into a clearer relationship without awkwardness.

A knock at the door interrupts the moment. Suzaku breaks the embrace between him and Euphie and calls out, "Yes. Come in."

The door opens and the familiar figures of Lloyd and Cecile step inside. "Hi, Suzaku," Cecile says with a small smile.

"Ms. Cecile. Lloyd. What are you doing here?"

"What kind of question is that?" Lloyd arches a pale brow. "We had to check on the condition of my favorite devicer. Can't have my parts breaking, just like that."

Suzaku doesn't really mind Lloyd's comment—that's just the way Lloyd is—but Cecile elbows Lloyd in the gut. "Lloyd!" She turns a wide smile on Suzaku. "Ignore him, Suzaku. We were worried about you, of course, and we heard through the grapevine that you were awake. I hope we're not interrupting anything."

"No, not at all," Euphie tells them. "We can all keep Suzaku company, as long as he feels well enough."

"Yes, absolutely. Please, stay."

It actually is nice to have them all here with him. They don't make up for Lelouch and C.C.'s absence, but they do help and their words and reassurances fill a hole inside Suzaku.

They notably avoid talking about the assassination attempt, though, and Suzaku is reminded that they don't actually have a real explanation beyond the official one. Lelouch has decided to give them their official story, but he's left it up to Suzaku, since he's far closer to them than he is. "I actually wanted to talk to you about something important," he says. "You're probably wondering what happened earlier."

"Suzaku, Zero did give a statement," Cecile replies kindly. "Anything further can wait."

Suzaku shakes his head. "I think you should know. You've actually... helped me a lot, so Zero... Lelouch thinks you can be trusted."

Lloyd's expression sharpens with clear interest. "Lelouch? Lelouch as in your friend Lelouch from Ashford Academy?"

"That too. But also Lelouch vi Britannia, son of Emperor Charles and Empress Marianne."

Hilariously, Lloyd should have probably guessed sooner, since he is one of the few people in Japan who knew Lelouch as a child and was familiar with Marianne. However, Lloyd doesn't really look at people so the details of their physical looks just... wash over him.

The whole story comes out, a little haltingly. He takes breaks, and Euphie dutifully provides him with water, looking concerned and several times insisting that he shouldn't strain himself so.

"I can tell them the rest of it," she insists.

"Thanks, Euphie, but I'll be fine."

By the time he's done, Cecile is sitting down, paler than the first time they explained the plan of the Zero Requiem. Lloyd is very quiet.

He's probably thinking about ways to experiment with their abilities, but can't come up with ways to say it without it sounding awful. Lloyd may be primarily a scientist, but he's also a noble and not completely unaware of human sensibilities.

"Oh, Suzaku..." Cecile murmurs. "I don't know what to say."

"It's fine, Ms. Cecile. I just wanted to explain, so that you understand and you'll be ready if anything happens. And well... I do owe you. If Lloyd hadn't given me the Lancelot, who knows where I'd be now? Maybe I would have died in Shinjuku, before C.C. and Lelouch could actually remind me who I really was."

"Oh, it was our pleasure," Lloyd says. "Although I suppose this whole thing does explain a lot. Your reaction time during these past few battles has been... remarkable. The Lancelot isn't really keeping up anymore. You're actually putting a strain on the circuits."

"Am I?" Suzaku didn't realize that. It must be because he's used to piloting the superior frames that are even faster and can handle more.

"Not to worry! I'm sure I'll come up with something that will allow you to use your abilities to their full potential."

Lloyd suddenly seems alight with scientific excitement. Cecile and Euphie open their mouths at the same time to chastise him.

They don't get the chance. The sound of a ringtone echoes in the infirmary room. Lloyd stops mid exclamation and reaches into his coat. "That's strange," he mumbles.

"Who is it, Lloyd?" Cecile asks.

"Hmm? It's Milly Ashford."

Something cold slithers over Suzaku's spine. "Take it. It could be important."

At Suzaku's words, Lloyd looks up from his phone. There must be something on Suzaku's face, because the scientist doesn't argue. It's actually kind of strange, since Lloyd has argued with him plenty of times in the past. Maybe Suzaku has changed more than he himself realized.

"Lloyd Asplund," Lloyd says as he takes the call. "To what do I owe the honor of this call, my dearest fiancee?"

There's a pause as Milly says something. "Oh. I see." Lloyd hums thoughtfully. "Well... That will be a little difficult, but..." He shoots Suzaku a look. "One moment."

He covers his phone with his palm, a small, bemused smirk on his lips. "Apparently, my dear fiancee and her schoolmates are worried about you and want to see you."

Suzaku's mind goes blank. What? Why would they show such interest in him?

It's not that he didn't make friends in the Student Council. They like him well enough. Even Nina sort of accepted him by the end of his stay there, despite her general dislike toward Numbers.

But Milly hates her engagement with Lloyd. That's common knowledge. For her to call him... She wouldn't do that for just Suzaku.

She would do it for Lelouch.

Does she know about Lelouch being Zero? Could Shirley have told her? Does Nina know, and could they pose a danger now or in the future?

Lelouch has told him he has Nina under Geass not to make the FLEIJA, but that doesn't mean Nina is completely stable. Her obsession with Euphie still exists. Lelouch has believed in the past that it may never manifest aggresively if Euphie isn't harmed, but Lelouch has been wrong before. It's not out of the question that she may do something regrettable if the situation isn't addressed.

Suddenly, the panic he's been holding back since Lelouch's departure from the infirmary returns with a vengeance. He shoves off the covers, already making plans. "Tell her you need to speak to someone in charge to get authorization. You'll call her back."

He's halfway across the room before they can even realize what's going on.

"Suzaku? What's wrong?" Euphie cries behind him.

Suzaku doesn't listen. By now, he knows all too well that even the smallest thing can spiral into disastrous consequences. They need to handle this quickly, and he needs to go see Lelouch.

Brain damage or no, orders be damned, he won't be kept from his emperor any longer.

****

In Zero's private office, Lelouch and C.C. watch the feed of the Black Knights conversation. Normally, they would not do this, but Lelouch needs to assess the reaction of his men to their story in order to make his next move.

C.C. is actually pretty surprised about what happens after they leave, and Lelouch is too. "This is going... surprisingly well," he comments.

"They fixated on the torture element like we hoped, but I feel like we underestimated the extent of their affection for you."

"Todhoh is helping a lot. He feels guilty for Suzaku. Thank God I didn't use Geass on him. It wouldn't have worked as well if I had. Although it is a shame that Euphie had to be there to see it."

"Well, personally, I think it's kind of hillarious that Rakshata thought of a better excuse than we did. Maybe we should have gone the subliminal weapon route too."

Lelouch shakes his head. "No, it's better this way. Our skills were going to come out sooner or later, if only because Suzaku is going to heal far too quickly. This way, we can control the outcome."

Kallen's suggestion of once again looking into his medical history takes them both aback. In fact, her overall reaction is very surprising. When Lelouch decided to tell the truth about him having put a Geass on Kallen in order to deflect their attention from the possibility of him putting one on Ohgi, C.C. feared the consequences. In their first life, just the realization that Zero was Lelouch Lamperouge caused her to flee in shock and abandon Lelouch to Suzaku. Her loyalty always tended to have ups and downs, according to her perception of who Lelouch truly was. Zero may have been her hero, but she never felt the same way for Lelouch.

Things have changed massively in this lifetime. Apparently, Lelouch being a torture victim and experimentation survivor trumps him being a Britannian prince in possession of a superhuman ability he's used on her and she has suddenly gone into overprotective Red Ace mode.

"You know," Lelouch comments as they watch her, "I almost feel bad about lying to them."

C.C. arches a brow at him. "No, you don't."

"No, I don't. Well... To Kallen, maybe. Just a bit. But anyway, I know she would never understand." His thoughtful expression changes, twisting into a savage smirk. "I still have the Code R files from Clovis and some stuff I scavenged from the facility when we went after Orange which will help us with Rolo. We can elaborate a bit from there when it comes to me and Suzaku. This could work nicely, C.C."

C.C. nods and reaches for his hand. The smirk fades into something a little less... manic. He deflates like a popped baloon and slumps with his head against her shoulder.

"It's going to be okay," she says. "He'll be fine. We're going to be fine. All of us."

Lelouch nods. For a few moments, he's silent. It's much too reminiscent of their time pre-Requiem, and C.C. hates it with a passion.

Lelouch must feel the same, because he finally shakes himself and says, "Let's go see Suzaku. I think we've given Euphie enough time with him."

 "Always so possessive of your knight," C.C. teases him.

"Well, what can I say? I'm still just as selfish as you."

C.C. very much doubts that. Her list of people she cares about includes only two names. In fact, a tiny part of her wants to use Mao's plan and drag Lelouch and Suzaku out of here to Australia. But she knows that as long as V.V. is still around, they'll never get any peace, so they need to deal with him before she can think of taking extended vacations.

A long, long vacation with nothing to do except have sex and eat pizza, just the three of them. Yes. Absolutely. She will definitely do that after all this is over.

"What are you even thinking about now?" Lelouch asks her. "Should I be worried?"

"Oh, it's nothing much. Just... the future. Come on. Your knight is waiting."

Lelouch gives her a bemused look, but lets it slide. He puts his mask back on and they leave his office. As they head toward the infirmary, his hold on her hand is very tight.

They still have so much to do before C.C. can even hope to fulfill her wishes. Some of her plans... She doesn't even know if they can come to fruition. But she's not alone anymore. She has a new dream and a new hope. She will not let V.V.—or anyone else for that matter—trample over it.

Halfway toward the infirmary, they run into Suzaku himself. He's in Knight of Zero mode, clearly intent on talking to them. The very first thing he does is eye Lelouch carefully, as if checking him for injuries. C.C. mentally sighs. They're back to that, then. It's not surprising, but she wishes it didn't have to be this way.

"Suzaku?" Lelouch asks. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. It's the Student Council at Ashford. They want to come here."

C.C.'s breath catches. All right, so maybe Suzaku's reaction wasn't as out of proportion as she thought. This is the last thing Lelouch needs right now, to worry about his schoolmates. Not to mention that said schoolmates have been known to be dangerous before.

Lelouch hisses in frustration. "How did they even contact the SAZ?"

"Milly called Lloyd."

"Right." Lelouch takes a deep breath, visibly forcing himself to regain his composure. "That's... unfortunate. We have to deal with this and make sure they don't accidentally do anything that would put them at risk."

"Will you bring them here?" Suzaku asks.

"I have no choice," Lelouch says. "I can't afford to leave the SAZ, not now. I need to be here to monitor Black Knight operations."

"Also I need to get a look at them to check if V.V. may have been next to them," C.C. points out, "and I have no intention of leaving Lelouch's side anytime soon."

Suzaku is obviously in agreement, and well aware that their visit isn't about him. "What are you going to do if they are?"

Lelouch grimaces. Right. Shirley and Nina are already under Geass and without Jeremiah here, he can't command them to do anything. "I'm sure I'll think of something."

As he finishes the phrase, Lloyd, Cecile and Euphie manifest in the corridor, followed by a group of Black Knights. It would appear that Suzaku's departure from the infirmary may have been somewhat abrupt and perhaps alarmed some people.

"Lloyd," Lelouch tells the scientist, "tell Ms. Ashford to stay put for now. We'll be sending someone to get her and her friends so that they can visit Suzaku."

Lloyd blinks in apparent surprise, but nods. "Of course."

As Lloyd reaches for his phone, Lelouch does the same and speed dials a number. "Kallen, I need a favor."

Chapter Text

Kallen drives the Black Knights transport through the street of the Tokyo Settlement, angry and frustrated. She doesn't want to deal with this right now, not after today's revelations, but she doesn't have a choice. Orders are orders.

She isn't sure if any of members of the Student Council know the truth about Lelouch being a prince, but judging from the information Lelouch gave them before, she suspects Milly Ashford must. If Lelouch deemed it necessary to bring them to the SAZ now of all times, they must have noticed something else, something he deems a possible vulnerability.

It's just that any of them can be a threat. If Britannia got Suzaku to turn on Lelouch, it would be very easy for them to manipulate another person. They may not have Suzaku's mental resilience and the love for Lelouch that kept him from going through with the vile act.

In her heart, Kallen wonders if she herself could have done it. She's so very relieved Suzaku is up and about again. If something happens, Suzaku and C.C. will intervene.

Her hands shake on the wheel as she thinks about everything Lelouch told them today. Some things make so much sense now. Lelouch's strange comment during the Viletta debacle, his defensiveness about Ohgi 'taking advantage' of Viletta when she was an amnesiac. She always found that odd, because why would he care? Rolo's demeanor, Suzaku's strangely conflicting behavior, even C.C.'s insistence to have pizza all the time.

She remembers Narita, finding them in a cave with C.C.'s clothes torn, then Lelouch's mysterious and emotional comment about snow. Kallen made some wrong assumptions then, but she now suspects that C.C. may have died to defend him then. She remembers the island and her conversation with Suzaku, how different he seemed from the Suzaku who dragged Zero into the Lancelot. She'd chalked it up to Suzaku's epiphany that Zero was Lelouch. As for his occasionally absent and cold demeanor... A part of her believed that maybe at one point, he may have stumbled into a Refrain addiction. The truth is far worse.

The leather of the wheel creaks under her fingertips and she wipes her eyes of the tears now blurring her vision. The only thing she wants now is to be in her Guren and destroy every single person in charge of that monstrous project. But instead, she has to come to the school, to make sure Lelouch's friends haven't been turned into weapons.

She half-hopes they actually have this excuse, because if Milly Ashford called the SAZ for some sort of trivial reason, Kallen may very well lose her mind and do something Milly will regret far more than Kallen will.

"You know," Rolo says from the seat next to the driver, "I can drive if you want."

His voice snaps her out of her thoughts and she realizes she's practically forgotten he was there. "No, it's fine," she replies. "I'm good. Having something to do actually helps."

Rolo doesn't question her. He seems to trust her in his own way, which, all things considered, is actually pretty flattering.

This is what prompts her to break the silence again. "Say, Rolo... Can I ask you something... maybe a little insensitive?"

"Go ahead, although keep in mind that I may not answer."

"You know Suzaku from your time with... that person, right? Why do you hate him then?"

"It's because... It's because V.V. has used Sir Kururugi to hurt big brother in the past," Rolo replies. "It wasn't always even... direct, like today. They were very close as children, and that friendship was a weak point V.V. exploited."

"But that's hardly Suzaku's fault..."

"I know," Rolo replies. "I've always known. Doesn't mean I have to like it."

Kallen falls silent. That's right. Rolo is only fourteen. He won't be rational about everything. And who knows what kind of twisted approach V.V. used to make them turn against one another?

"Anyway, you don't have to worry about that. We've sort of... reached an agreement. We won't fight any longer, especially not now. Big brother needs us."

Well, that explains why Rolo defended Suzaku earlier, before Lelouch told them the whole story.

"Can I ask you a question back?" Rolo says after a few moments of silence.

"Sure."

"Why aren't you angry about him using his Geass on you?"

Kallen doesn't immediately reply. Maybe she should feel hurt that Lelouch used his skill on her, but... She isn't. "Rolo... I've always believed, always felt that maybe... The Shinjuku massacre was indirectly our fault, that we never should have stolen that strange capsule. Sure, it was Clovis who gave the order, but if we hadn't taken the capsule, he wouldn't have purged the ghettoes, so in a way, those deaths are on us." The accusing words of the Japanese civilians have never truly left her mind or her conscience, but she keeps fighting, because she knows she has to, that she can't turn back now. "Zero said that people do a lot of things when they're desperate, and at that time, we were so desperate we were willing to risk anything. Not that it's an excuse. Anyway, I don't blame him for doing what he felt he had to do. Especially when he feared for Nunnally. Besides, if his power works the way he says, he could have actually hurt me using it, and he didn't."

"No, he wouldn't. He's very careful with it."

There's something in his voice that makes realization dawn inside Kallen. "You sound like you're talking from experience."

Rolo smiles, a strange, twisted thing. It's fond, but also a little bitter. "Kallen, let's not pretend. Knowing what I can do, knowing how long I was with them, I think you can draw your own conclusions about what my purpose was at one time. So my instinct is to do certain things, things big brother wouldn't approve of. The brainwashing is gone... mostly and I'm getting better, but sometimes, I kneejerk. So he put a command on me. I don't really know what it is, but it's to keep me from hurting anyone if I lose my temper."

"Like today, with Rakshata."

Rolo nods. "I could have never pushed the trigger, on her, or even on C.C. when she told me to, not until big brother gave me the go ahead." He rubs his chest lightly. "Of course, there's also the fact that what I can do comes at a price and he doesn't want me to endanger myself while using it. I've done so in the past and he wants to protect me, even from myself."

Kallen wants to ask what that price is, but something tells her it would be too invasive. Besides, Rolo is not the most important one in this equation. "And who protects Lelouch from himself if he keeps doing all that?"

"See, Kallen. Now you're getting it."

The conversation dies after that. Kallen half-wishes she never started it to begin with, because it just makes her more anxious about Lelouch's well-being.

It's just as well that the drive doesn't last for much longer and they soon reach Ashford. The Student Council is already waiting outside the school gates when she arrives. She jumps out of the driver seat. "Hey. Zero sent me to take you to the SAZ. Get inside everyone."

Everyone gapes at her. "Kallen?" Rivalz screeches. "You're a Black Knight?"

Could he possibly be louder and more obnoxious? "Obviously. Keep your voice down and come on."

"But how is that possible?" Nina asks tremulously, ignoring Kallen's attempt to rush them along. "You're not an Eleven!"

"It's Japanese, not Eleven," she snarls. "And I am Japanese. If you can't deal with that and be respectful, you're staying here. I don't have time for this."

She regrets the words as soon as they come out, since Lelouch didn't give her leave to say such things and his instructions were clear. To bring them all to the SAZ.

Fortunately, Nina doesn't back out. "No, I'll go," she says sheepishly. "Sorry."

After that, no one else asks questions. They all enter the mobile base and find seats. Milly shoots her a concerned look. "We're sorry about this, Kallen. But we really are worried."

Kallen purses her lips and doesn't reply. "Stay here and hold on. It may be a bumpy ride at one point."

She's not resentful enough to drive excessively fast and draw attention, and the streets are full of Black Knights vehicles so one more doesn't count. Still, when she actually approaches the SAZ, she goes through the underground tunnels. Everything is in shutdown now, and the main gates haven't been opened since the assassination attempt.

Rolo doesn't go to see the group at all. He doesn't seem to have much interest in them. Kallen doesn't blame him. She suspects the only reason he's here to begin with is specifically because he knows what to look for when it comes to this mysterious Order and he can protect them should something happen.

As instructed, she drives the mobile base to the ASEEC facility. The only people visible upon their arrival are the two ASEEC scientists and Princess Euphemia. Suzaku, Lelouch and C.C. are somewhere around here. Lelouch didn't want to alarm the entirety of the Black Knights, not until they actually know what's going on, so they're approaching matters discreetly.

She parks the car in front of the Lancelot and leaves the vehicle. Rolo jumps out after her. "Kallen, Rolo, " Euphemia greets her with a smile. "Everything go okay? No sign of anything suspicious?"

Kallen actually appreciates the fact that the princess is trying so hard to help Lelouch. She realizes now that she underestimated Euphemia. She isn't a soldier like them, but at heart, she's a Black Knight, and Kallen respects that.

"There's been nothing, Princess Euphemia," Rolo replies. "The school seems secure and I haven't spotted any other possible assassins."

The transport doors open and slowly, the Student Council members begin to step out. Princess Euphemia is there to greet them. "Hello, everyone. How have you been? Thank you for your concern. We all appreciate you worrying about Suzaku, although it wasn't actually necessary. The injury wasn't serious."

Nina bounds to the princess's side, shaking with enthusiasm, her cheeks red. "Hello, P-Princess Euphemia... I'm not sure you remember me. I'm Nina. Nina Einstein."

The princess giggles slightly. "Of course I remember you. How are you, Nina?"

Nina goes even redder and Kallen understands. No wonder Nina agreed to come here despite it being a location meant primarily for Japanese citizens.

"Thank you for being here to receive us, Princess Euphemia," Milly says politely. "We're honored by your presence."

"Oh, no need to be so formal. And it's not a problem at all. It's always a pleasure to see Suzaku's friends."

"So, this is the SAZ, huh?" Rivalz says, apparently somewhat embarassed about being received by the princess herself. "It doesn't look like I expected."

"That's because this particular location is a scientific facility meant to store the Lancelot," Lloyd says from his place next to his giant mech.

"Sir Lloyd," Milly says. "Thank you for your help."

"It's not a problem," he replies, waving off her gratitude. "Just following orders."

Cecile Croomy quickly steps in. "Ignore Lloyd. Like the Princess said, we're very happy to see Suzaku's friends. We were actually very relieved to learn he was doing so well at school. I'm glad you welcomed him there."

Despite Cecile's warmth and Euphemia's kindness, the whole atmosphere is pretty awkward—for everyone except Nina who is too focused on Euphemia to realize they haven't actually been invited to go anyplace where they could see Suzaku as they claimed to want. Kallen watches them in silence, waiting for any sign that she may be needed.

Fortunately, they aren't required to force themselves through extra pleasantries for much longer. A side door opens and Lelouch—dressed as Zero—enters the hangars, followed by Suzaku and C.C.

"Apologies for the delay," Lelouch says. "We had a little something to wrap up at HQ."

 Upon seeing Zero, several people in the room freeze. Nina goes pale. Rivalz visibly tenses up and sort of tries to take up position between him and Milly. It's kind of cute, although maybe also a little ungrateful, because if not for Zero and the Black Knights, Milly, Shirley and Nina would have likely died at the hotel.

Milly doesn't seem concerned. She eyes Zero's blank mask with keen eyes, and she suddenly no longer looks like the carefree Student Council president Kallen remembers. But it's Shirley who makes her move first.

She shoots forward, rushing toward Zero.

What happens next is very strange. Kallen blinks, and the next thing she knows, Rolo is holding Shirley down, pinning her to the floor. Suzaku is in front of them, blocking their view of Lelouch.

"Rolo," Zero says. "I don't think that will be necessary. Let her go."

"Sorry, big brother," Rolo says in a disgruntled voice. "If you're sure."

"Positive," C.C. replies in his stead. She seems to have moved slightly from her previous position. When did that happen?

Rolo gets off Shirley and Suzaku steps up to them, offering her his hand. "Shirley, don't do that. Today is really not a good day to launch yourself at him. Although I understand the impulse, we're still a little on the edge here."

Shirley takes his hand shakily. She doesn't seem to begrudge Rolo for his actions and shoots both him and Suzaku a smile. "Sorry. I wasn't thinking."

"W-What just happened," Rivalz stammers. "I don't understand. Shirley... What... Do you know Zero?"

"I suppose you could say that."

Lelouch reaches for his mask and takes it off. Rivalz gapes at the sight and Nina staggers back, her eyes wide. Shirley shows no such apprehension. "Oh, Lulu. I'm so happy to see you. We missed you so much."

Milly just huffs. "I knew it! I absolutely knew it."

"Yes, Pres, I'm aware," Lelouch grumbles. "And thank you, Shirley. I missed everyone at Ashford too.

"Anyway, we should take this conversation somewhere more comfortable and more private. Everyone, back on the transport."

Kallen half expects them to protest, but nobody does. Then again, the mobile base boasts far more comforts than the largely sterile and economic space of the ASEEC. They couldn't have missed it.

The members of the Student Council, together with Euphemia, Lelouch, Kallen and Suzaku enter the vehicle. Rolo remains outside, probably a good thing, given the little incident with Shirley. As soon as they're inside, Lelouch addresses Milly again.

"You shouldn't have called Lloyd, Milly. You know better. It's much too risky for you to be here."

"I know, but Shirley was in a panic, and quite frankly, you've been so curt and brief in your emails. I was so worried after what happened in Pendragon, and even if I wasn't actually sure you were Zero, I had to do something."

Kallen blinks. Right. Somehow, it never occured to her, and probably to any of the others that Lelouch lost a lot of siblings in the Pendragon explosion.

He may not have been close to all of them, but still, they're his blood, and judging by Princess Euphemia and Nunnally, they couldn't have all been like Clovis.

It really is just one thing after the other.

"I'm fine, Milly," Lelouch says, sitting down on the same couch he usually occupied during the time they spent here. "I'm handling it. I have friends and family here to help me."

"Oh... Is Nunna here then?" Shirley asks.

"No, that would be too risky," C.C. replies in Lelouch's stead. "He meant other family."

Kallen thinks Lelouch may have been referring to Euphemia and Rolo, since they're the ones who are actually his siblings, but C.C. does not seem inclined to give that explanation. Kallen wonders if perhaps the rest of the Council Student members are unaware of Lelouch's identity as a prince. Either way, if anyone is confused by the flow of the conversation, they're promptly distracted when C.C. plops herself next to Lelouch on the couch and practically drapes herself over his lap. "You know, he, Suzaku and I are practically married."

That was news to Kallen. Judging by Suzaku's gobsmacked expression and Lelouch's wide eyes, they probably were not consulted on this either.

"Ehhhhh?" Rivalz screeches, his eyes comically wide.

"Married?" Shirley repeats weakly. "But..."

Nina looks between the three of them, her face very red. Maybe she doesn't understand how their relationship works. It's probably the first time Kallen has empathized with Nina even a little.

Suzaku recovers first. "I suppose that's a pretty good description, actually," he says.

Lelouch lets out a long sigh, passing a hand through C.C.'s hair in a gentle caress. "Technically, it's more like... a long engagement," Lelouch says. "We don't have time for an actual ceremony now. But I guess maybe... It will happen. One day. Hopefully."

Milly squeals. "Oh, who needs official ceremonies! You're married in your hearts, right? I love it! Although you need to make the introductions. I don't believe any of us have met your... wife-to-be."

Lelouch grumbles and his visible exasperation with Milly reminds Kallen of their days at Ashford. It's strange to see here, in the mobile base of the Black Knights. "Right. Pres, Shirley, Rivalz, Nina, this is C.C. C.C., you know everyone."

C.C. nods in slight disinterest, still clinging to Lelouch's shoulders. Maybe this is her way to express her general disapproval with their presence. At least she's not the only one who is frustrated with the interference of the Ashford Student Council.

"When did this even happen?" Rivalz asks. "I had no idea you were even dating Suzaku."

Kallen feels like Rivalz's priorities may be out of whack and he should be focusing more on the fact that his friend is Zero. But maybe that hasn't fully processed yet and he's focusing on something he can actually understand.

"Suzaku and I are childhood friends, Rivalz, you know that. Us... dating is more recent, obviously."

"It was actually C.C. who made us realize how we felt about each other," Suzaku points out. "We were still sort of stuck in the best friends phase before she stepped in."

"Stupid, stubborn boys," C.C. mutters in Japanese.

"And nobody... Nobody has a problem with it?" Nina asks. Like Rivalz, she seems to be focusing on this, rather than the Zero thing.

"We were a little shocked, at first," Kallen replies, "but in the end, it didn't matter. C.C. and Suzaku are good for Lelouch and that's what counts."

"I'm surprised you can even keep up with two lovers," Milly teases Lelouch, "what with you skipping PE class all the time."

"I've been exercising," Lelouch admits sulkily.

"What? Really?"

"Mhmm." C.C. sort of manhandles Lelouch through his clothes. "You can't see it because of all these ridiculous ruffles he wears, but he actually has abs now."

Lelouch goes very red. "C.C.!"

C.C. cackles and Suzaku snickers a little. "It's not like it's not true." He somehow makes his way through the room and sits on Lelouch's other side."Come on, Lelouch. Be proud of your accomplishment."

It's a light-hearted conversation, obviously relaxed, but at the same time, it's clear that Suzaku and C.C. are claiming ownership. Thinking back, Kallen has actually noticed it before. And she can't begrudge them for it either, because she's feeling possessive too. Lelouch may not be her romantic partner, but she is still his Q1 and special in a way these people will never be.

"It's actually kind of funny," she says. "A lot of Black Knights kept talking about sneaking into his gym sessions. I kept thinking about the way he was at Ashford. If only they'd known, eh?"

"So you knew Lulu was Zero?" Shirley asks her. Her behavior actually confuses Kallen. Lelouch has told them that he used his ability to wipe her traumatic memories, but she clearly still remembers something and she knew Lelouch was Zero before coming here.

Still feeling a bit wary, Kallen can't help but be a little snappish in her answer. "Oh, sure. I've known for a while. I'm Zero's Q1."

"Q1? What does that mean?"

"It's complicated to explain and some of it is confidential," Lelouch says, "but it basically means she's one of my most important Black Knights. Probably the most important one, after Suzaku, C.C. and Rolo."

The words fill Kallen with pride. Even if she's 'after' someone, the people in question are practically his family. She's happy that he's gone from distrusting her to putting so much faith in her loyalty.

Shirley's reaction to their explanation surprises her. "Oh. I'm... I'm glad that you have people you trust and to protect you..."

She sounds a little lost, and Lelouch obviously notices. "Shirley, is everything all right?"

Shirley is shaking now, and is very clearly not all right. "Lulu... I'm sorry," she says. "I realize that... Well, we intruded and maybe we shouldn't have come. But... It was pretty much my fault. I heard the thing on TV, and I was so afraid... I was afraid they'd done something to me too to maybe harm you."

The whole story comes out in fractured sentences. Shirley confesses that she has a blank in her memory that alarms her, but she discovered a lost page from her diary on which it was stated that Lelouch was Zero.

Lelouch stays silent as she explains, and nobody else seems to know what to believe. As for Kallen... She can see now why Lelouch was so pained earlier when he spoke about Shirley and about his power being risky and not something he liked to use on loved ones.

"Listen, Shirley," Lelouch finally says. "You're not a danger to me or to anyone at the academy. It's a long and complicated story, but you don't have to worry. You're right in that something like this did happen before, which is why you don't remember, but right now, the person who targeted you is dead." He squeezes her hand. "For what it's worth, Shirley, I am very sorry for what happened at Narita, with your father. It was never my intention. Believe me, I know what it's like to lose a parent. I won't ask for your forgiveness..."

"No, Lulu... It's okay. I've already forgiven you. I know you and I understand that... If you did what you did... You must be fighting for something right." She takes a deep breath, like she's bracing herself for something difficult. "So I wanted to ask. Is there anything we can do to help? I mean, with what you're doing?"

"Not right now. I don't want you involved in the bloodshed. That's why I'm doing all this you know. To bring about a better, peaceful world. It will take some time and it's not something you can help me with. But... things won't always be like this."

Princess Euphemia smiles at them. "Peace will come, and when that happens, we'll need people we can trust to help rebuild. I'm sure you can contribute then."

"Well, you know you can rely on me if you ever need an extra voice or set of eyes in the Britannian aristocracy, Lelouch," Milly says. "And I'm pretty sure the Ashford Foundation can arrange something if you need supplies for the Black Knights. We may not have the influence we once did, but that doesn't mean we can't help at all."

"I've had some ideas too," Nina pipes up shyly, "I mean... On maybe how to stop the war."

"Really, Nina? How do you mean?"

"Well... I've been studying the actual properties of sakuradite and how it works, and it occurred to me that maybe... Maybe we can create an artificial version, something that would keep people from coming after Japan for sakuradite? It would take work, but if it's made in a certain way, I think it may also help encourage clean energy. There's not enough actual sakuradite right now for nations to use it as a replacement for fossil fuels, but if an artificial replacement existed, that wouldn't be a problem. Nuclear power is problematic for many reasons, but I think that, using the mollecular structure of sakuradite as a basis, it's possible to create something that circumvents those problems."

Kallen is shocked. She had no idea that all the work Nina did on her laptop was dedicated to something like this.

Maybe she was too hasty to judge the girl.

"That's brilliant, Nina! What a great idea!" Euphemia exclaims.

"Absolutely," Lelouch adds. "Keep working on it and don't share it with anyone else but the people who are here. It could be dangerous, okay?"

Blushing brightly, Nina nods. "I'll remember."

"We'll all think of something to help you, Lelouch," Rivalz said, pumping his fist in the air. "We'll be Black Knights... in secret. Like Kallen."

There are giggles all around. "All that talk about you being frail..." Milly says. "It was a front, wasn't it? I should have known."

"If it helps, it fooled everyone," Suzaku pipes up, "even me."

"You should talk, Suzaku," Kallen teases him. Knowing what she now knows about him, she has to admit that it was brave of him to stay with the ASEEC even after he remembered the truth, and he did manage his role as a double-agent fairly well.

Suzaku shrugs. "Eh. I'm actually not that good of an actor. I much prefer the straight-forward approach."

"Lelouch is the one with all the brains in our little triad," C.C. says lazily. "Suzaku is the muscle."

"What does that make you then?" Milly asks.

"What kind of question is that, Pres?" Shirley huffs. "She's obviously the heart."

Uh. Okay then. That is really not the way Kallen would ever describe C.C.

"The heart?" C.C. repeats, blinking at her with the same stoic expression. "How so?"

"You've already said so, haven't you, that you made them see what they feel for each other? So clearly, you're the heart."

Lelouch's lips twist into a small smile and he shares a look with Suzaku. "You know, I think you may be right, Shirley."

It's very strange, but as they speak, Kallen's defensiveness fades. Even C.C. stops clinging to Lelouch so tightly, and the barely visible tension in Suzaku's body fades.

That's when Kallen realizes the reason why Lelouch actually brought them here, why he left the Academy, why he was so careful. In their own way, the Student Council members are important too. Maybe not as much as C.C., Suzaku or the Black Knights, but important nevertheless.

Princess Euphemia is right. Not everyone can fight. Not everyone is a soldier. And not everyone can truly know the inner workings of the Black Knights. But that doesn't mean they can't contribute to the cause. That doesn't mean they can't help Lelouch. 

Kallen doesn't really understand Shirley and how she can let go of her grief over her father's death, but she doesn't have to. It seems to have lifted a bit of the burden off Lelouch's shoulders, and for that, Kallen is grateful.

The Student Council members don't stay long. Lelouch gets a message, checks his phone and just like that, he's back to being Zero again. "We have to go," he tells the others. "Remember what I said. Stay in the Academy and you'll be safe. Q1, you're to take them back. Report any incidents upon your return. And be careful."

"Understood, Zero."

Like before, Rolo goes with her. Like before, he's mostly silent, focusing on the road. But Kallen feels a little less angry and more hopeful.

They could have lost everything today, but they didn't. Lelouch is still with them. She has to focus on that, and she will be fine.

Chapter Text

The visit of the Student Council members is a welcome break. In part, it's because they now know Milly, Shirley and the others are safe. C.C. managed to look them over, both before their conversation, and during it, when Rolo stopped time, and she's guaranteed that their minds are free from any interference from V.V. And while that is definitely a relief, the visit has also brought a fresh dose of normality that strangely helps.

Sometimes, Suzaku forgets that people outside the Black Knights do care about them. Their lives have become so entangled in world politics that the simplicity of Ashford seems... trivial. But after today, Suzaku desperately wishes he were just another student like the others, and he could rejoin them at the school, with Lelouch and Nunnally. C.C. could always hunt around for pizza while they're at class.

That's not possible, of course. He does know that in their past lifetime, the remaining members of the Student Council mourned Lelouch. It wasn't just Kallen either. He'd actually spotted Milly at Lelouch's crypt in Pendragon a few times, and during Nunnally's few visits to Japan, Rivalz's grief was fairly obvious. Like in the case of the Black Knights, none of them can truly understand, but their kindness soothes him somewhat and it does seem to calm Lelouch too.  When they go back to their shared quarters, the atmosphere is a little less strained than earlier.

It's not like Suzaku has forgotten what he almost did earlier. If nothing else, the way the Black Knights chased after him is a clear reminder that they may distrust him now. But still... Maybe, he can cling to this moment and not think about all that, just for a bit.

He ends up leaning against Lelouch's shoulder, absently playing with Arthur while C.C. and Lelouch work on their computers. C.C. is wrapping up the list of the known abilities of Geass users, while Lelouch is setting up something for the medical file the Black Knights apparently want from them. For a while, Suzaku just enjoys the silence, Lelouch's warmth, the knowledge that they're all safe.

But he's never been great with inactivity, and before long, he ends up offering the occasional suggestion for Lelouch, especially for his own file.

He doesn't have any practical experience with torture—thank God for that much, at least—but he is very well trained in various types of combat, has heard far too many stories from the Vampire of Britannia and was the unfortunate recipient of numerous assassination attempts. Not to mention that, despite not actually being a test subject, his time as an Honorary wasn't pleasant.

Lelouch builds his file heavily around mind wipes and torture methods like electrocution and sensory deprevation. He also includes the chest trauma and an eyesight sensitivity, presumably leftover from the experiments. Should the Black Knights ever wonder why Lelouch doesn't have a stab scar, they can always say it was cosmetically removed before they were sent to Ashford. Since Suzaku has a greater physical resilience and now, an advanced healing factor, his list contains a lot more physical injuries, including, among other things, the use of unknown substances meant to leave his body and mind more vulnerable.

They take a brief look at C.C.'s medical file, then promptly seal it. Unlike theirs, her details are real and they don't want to read about C.C. being burned alive, repeatedly killed, vivisected and had organs harvested for experimentation. The only thing they add, upon consulting C.C., is a lingering problem of sterility. C.C. isn't actually sure if it's a problem she had before, or if it's because of her code, but it's still something that needs to be noted.

They leave most of her data and Rolo's alone, just making sure the files don't contain anything that will contradict their story. They also put something together for Jeremiah, since now that the Black Knights have been informed of V.V.'s existence, Lelouch aims to eventually bring the Knight of Orange on board.

Finally, they put together a briefer, less elaborate version of the medical files. Lelouch wants to send the main one to Todhoh, Diethard and Rakshata, and save the less gruesome one for the others, should it be necessary. He will probably not give it to them at all. There's no point in taking things to extremes. It would be problematic if the Black Knights suddenly decided Lelouch wasn't competent to be a leader because of the damage done to him. Stirring sympathy is all well and good, but they need to be careful to not take it too far.

Once they finish, C.C. sends off her own document and solemnly declares. "Lelouch. You are cooking me pizza. Suzaku will help."

"You know, witch, I haven't actually made pizza before," Lelouch half-heartedly protests.

"Nonsense," C.C. tells him. "I'm sure you'll do great."

Lelouch sighs, resigned to obey her, and Suzaku falls in line with him. He's not as good of a cook as Lelouch, but he's chopped more potatoes than half of his unit and he's always been very good with his hands. If nothing else, he can help with preparing the ingredients.

 Naturally, the witch just curls on a chair with Cheese-kun and watches them work. "You know, you could help us too," Lelouch mumbles as he works on the batter.

"What would be the fun in that?" C.C. asks, poking the toy's hat. "I prefer to observe."

She also prefers to steal the occasional bite of batter and she keeps getting in their way as they move around the kitchen, but nobody minds.

They don't talk about anything work-related or involving the Black Knights in any way. And Suzaku knows that this is actually pretty crazy and irresponsible, that normally, leaders of terrorist organizations wouldn't randomly take breaks to cook pizza. If Lelouch is doing it now, it's for his sake, and he's grateful.

He doesn't have the words to say it, so instead, he throws all caution to the wind and starts a flour battle. They all end up a mess, even dirtier than Lelouch's personal kitchen—which is a minor miracle really. There's flour, ketchup and batter all over them, but the pizza is in the oven and Suzaku feels so very alive.

After, they sit on the floor in the middle of the kitchen, curling together in a pile with the witch on top of them. "I'm sorry," Suzaku whispers to Lelouch. "For attacking you."

Lelouch pokes him in the chest. "Don't be ridiculous, Suzaku. It wasn't your fault."

"I know that. But still, I'm sorry. For this time, and every other time. Before."

He isn't sure he's actually apologized to his emperor. He apologized in front of his grave, but that doesn't count.

"Suzaku... We've all hurt one another a lot." Lelouch clenches his jaw, his eyes flaring bright with decision. "But that's why we're all here now, right? To fix that. And..." His expression turns hazy, almost distant. "As much as it hurts, as much as I hate some of the things that I did, I think now that I wouldn't change them. Because it brought us to this moment."

The concept should be shocking, but after a few moments, Suzaku realizes Lelouch has a point. Suzaku will always regret some of the things he's done, with the Requiem being at the top of the list. He will never forget the scent of Lelouch's blood as he stabbed his emperor clean through the chest.

But... The person he was before, at this point in his past lifetime... He wasn't Lelouch's knight then. He is now, and he's proud of it. Lelouch is happy now in a way he never was before. His fire is back. His smiles are real. He believes. He has a better, more honest relationship with Nunnally. And C.C.... C.C. is no longer the person who used Lelouch like a tool. She no longer wants to die.

Sure, it would have been better if they'd managed to bond like this the first time around, but since that wasn't possible, this option is the best. Yes, Lelouch is right. Everything they did before was worth it, for the sake of what they have now.

Despite this realization, though, Suzaku can't help but be wary. "Yes, but... What if... What if I attack you again... So many things have been happening... Like before."

"You mean Rolo attacking Shirley. The explosion in Pendragon. Clara Lanfranc."

Suzaku nods. Of course Lelouch couldn't have missed it, couldn't have missed the similarities between what is happening in this timeline and what happened before.

"Suzaku, I don't believe in fate. If I did, I never would have told God to not stop the march of time."

"And I wouldn't have asked the Dimensional Supervisor to turn it back," C.C. says. "The most important thing right now is not that you attacked Lelouch in the past. It's that you didn't actually do it today. You beat it. You beat her. We're better now, better than we were.

"Some things won't change, that's true. Life is about a series of choices, and other people may make the same ones they did before. We can't affect everything. But we've already made a difference. You know, Rolo didn't make use of Lelouch's Geass to not attack Shirley. He just did it naturally."

Suzaku pretty much guessed that, since Rolo didn't even pull his knife on Shirley. Lelouch seems to have been aware of it too. But then, he never would have sent Rolo with Kallen if he didn't have at least some faith in his little brother.

"And really..." Lelouch says. "Who would have ever said C.C. is 'the heart' of our little trio?"

"Shirley, apparently. But maybe we can share," Suzaku teases them with a smile. "These days, you're not as scrawny as you used to be and I'm not that much of an idiot, so it's not so clear cut."

C.C. rolls her eyes at them. "You're always going to be idiots. Both of you."

Suzaku would be insulted if the comment came from anyone but C.C. He knows she means it fondly.

They can't say words like "I love you" as easy as Milly and Shirley, but they don't have to. This works for them.

They drag themselves off the floor and stumble into the shower. The hot water feels nice on their tired bodies, but predictably, the bath soon turns into far more. Feeling C.C.'s breasts against his chest, Lelouch's mouth against his neck, their hands on him... It's a gift.

Suzaku genuinely doesn't know what he's done to deserve this, but he embraces it wholeheartedly.

Two orgasms later, they stumble out of the bath, just in time to rescue their pizza. They're in the middle of having dinner when a knock sounds at the door.

Suzaku gets up and opens it. Lelouch doesn't bother to put on his mask. Anyone who would come here at this hour would have already seen his face.

Their guests turn out to be Sugiyama and Inoue, and they have a cart with a few covered plates. "Hi," Inoue says. "I hope we're not interrupting anything. We wanted to bring you some dinner. We thought that maybe you haven't eaten."

"Oh," Suzaku says, somewhat befuddled by their gesture. "That's nice. You didn't have to. We actually... cooked."

"The more pizza the merrier," C.C. calls out from the living room. "Come on in."

Suzaku steps aside and the two Black Knights enter the room, pushing along their cart. They seem a bit uncertain, and Suzaku doesn't blame them. It's the first time they've been here when Lelouch actually has his mask off, and they're still getting used to seeing his face.

"We can trade," C.C. says. "I'm curious whose pizza is better."

"I didn't know you could cook," Sugiyama comments as he starts unloading the plates.

C.C. eyes him balefully, as if offended at the implication that she was the one to do the cooking. It's probably unreasonable, since Suzaku is pretty sure Sugiyama is the one who made the pizza they brought to begin with.

"Lelouch was actually the chef," he says before C.C. can do anything regrettable. "I just helped and C.C... offered suggestions."

"Zero can cook?" Inoue asks.

"He's excellent at it," Suzaku replies. "Too bad he doesn't have more time to do it. He made an exception today. For... therapeutic purposes."

That would have probably made things awkward, since it was a reminder of every bad event that happened today. But C.C. has already directed her attention to the pizza, so Sugiyama and Inoue do the same. "This is... really good," Inoue says as she takes a bite.

"It's actually the first time I ever made pizza," Lelouch admits. "I'm pretty surprised it turned out... edible. Or at least to C.C.'s standards."

"Mmm. I'm sure you can practice more when you have the time."

Lelouch shakes his head, taking a slice from one of the plates for himself then pushing the rest in C.C.'s direction. He knows she and Suzaku need more food than him.

When he's done, he wipes his hands off the crumbs, looking as regal and elegant as always. "Did you get the chance to look over the information C.C. sent?" he asks the two Black Knights.

Inoue fidgets in discomfort. "Yes. We went over it. I won't lie, it's pretty intimidating."

"I realize that, Inoue. It's part of the reason why I wanted to be honest with you." He purses his lips. "In any case, as you can probably imagine, I'm making preparations for our new operation as we speak. Once I receive some extra information I'm waiting for, we'll be making our move against V.V. In the meantime, you should go get some rest. It's been a long day."

"Of course, Zero."

Sugiyama coughs lightly. "Before we go... There was... actually something else. Diethard said he was going to talk to you, but while we're here... If we could maybe ask..."

"Yes, what is it?"

"We realize it's a little intrusive," Inoue says, "but we're concerned about any lingering injuries that may have persisted due to your... treatment at Britannia's hands. We were hoping you could provide a file with... some details?"

She flinches as she finishes the phrase. Obviously, she's not comfortable at all with asking the question.

Lelouch just nods, his face set in a calm expression that could mean anything at all. "Yes, of course. We'll work on that tonight."

"You don't have to... I mean... Maybe... Not now?"

"We'll be fine," C.C. tells him calmly. "It's not like typing a document about what happened can be more unpleasant than actually living through it."

"Besides, it's a good idea to stay busy while we wait for news," Suzaku adds. "Don't worry so much. We can handle it."

Inoue stares at him. Suzaku knows what they're thinking. How can he even be upright when he was just the recepient of a mental attack that almost made him kill Lelouch?

The thing is... In a twisted way, this is familiar territory for Suzaku. He remembers very well how it felt like to actually hurt his emperor.

Back then, the only refuge he had was the mask and his emperor's last wishes, when he used Zero's sword to both punish himself and feel Lelouch closer. But C.C.'s plan changed that, and they have a new chance. He refuses to waste it. And like his lovers said, it's not what he almost did that counts—it's the fact that he didn't do it.

He will not break. He must remain his emperor's sword, and he will not allow himself to crack, not now, not ever.

The pendant around his neck is a promise. The three of them have a future, and for that future, he will fight.

Besides, this new operation of Lelouch's sounds promising. Lelouch always did come up with the best ideas while he was cooking.

****

Late that night, Todhoh receives an email from Zero.

 

Todhoh,

As per the Black Knights' request, I have prepared medical files for all the people involved in the matter we discussed. Attached, please find the documents in question.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am also sending you additional data I acquired during my search for Rolo. This is data from a secondary server, so it does not contain any details of the experiments done on me and Suzaku, but that doesn't mean it is pleasant.

The files tagged as Code R are all focused on C.C. The files tagged as RH are Rolo's.

You will notice also notice a file named Project Orange. It may be wiser to view that one than anything from the others. The subject matter is Jeremiah Gottwald. With everything that's been happening, I didn't get the chance to mention him too, but he was also a target of the experimentation. He was very loyal to my mother and attempted to investigate her murder, thus drawing V.V.'s attention. The consequences were most unfortunate for him. The experimentation gave him a level of immunity to all outside Geasses, but it also did a great deal of physical damage.

Orange is currently acting as my sister's guard and my agent in special missions. You probably noticed him in the video with Tianzi's capture and he will be involved in dealing with V.V. in the future. We'll talk more about it as a group, in the morning.

This content is for your eyes only. I will also send everything to Rakshata and Diethard. The others will only be notified of our enduring injuries. There is no reason to upset them further.

Should you arrive sooner than me on deck, you have my authorization to notify Kaguya about these developments.

 

Zero

 

As Zero stated, there are several archives attached to the email, and they contains a group of files. Some are documents. Other are videos.

He doesn't go to the Project Orange file. Instead, he picks the Code R one. Almost immediately, he wishes he hadn't.

He is unable to watch the entirety of it. He throws up halfway through it, comes back to the computer and reads through the Word documents. It doesn't help at all.

It was indeed C.C. on the video. She was the one to suffer through such monstrous acts. And while he feels grief for her, one of the attached documents details the acts that Suzaku went through, and it's all too easy to imagine him in her place.

A few hours later, when Chiba knocks at his door, he lets her in. When she gives him a concerned look and offers him comfort, he doesn't turn her away.

Tomorrow, he will be capable to follow Zero's orders like before. But tonight, his strength has left him.

How was this possible? How could he have failed so badly?

Chapter Text

Morning finds Diethard in an excited mood, barely managing to contain his enthusiasm. Every other Black Knight looks tired and glum, but Diethard is extremely pleased at these developments.

He knows for a fact that Zero is not as scrupulous with the use of his ability as he is trying to appear, and he is secretly enjoying watching Zero weave his story around the Black Knights.

The strangest thing is that even he doesn't know what part is the truth and what part is the lie. Some of it is definitely genuine, as evidenced by C.C.'s demonstration. But Diethard is well experienced in the manipulation of public opinion and is aware that even that part was carefully calculated. The shock value of her death made the Black Knights dismiss Zero's own ability in a way they wouldn't normally have.

He suspects that at least some portion of Zero's personal history is completely fabricated, as is Suzaku Kururugi's. There are bits and pieces that don't perfectly fit there, portions that were vague and glossed over. But he's never going to point it out. Watching the chaos is far too beautiful. It's a dream come true.

Not to mention that, while he may not have all the information, he does know more than the rest of the Black Knights. The fact that Zero trusts him means a lot, and Diethard aims to gain more of that trust, to fully understand the man who is sure to shape the world in his image.

Things only get better from there.

When they meet early that morning, Todhoh seems particularly stony faced. He pulls Kaguya aside, presumably to explain. Since she spent most of yesterday making sure matters with the Chinese Federation didn't fall apart, she missed Zero's big announcement, and when she was here, no one knew how to approach her about it. Todhoh seems to have finally decided to change that.

Once they finish the conversation, the normally upbeat girl is ashen-faced and quiet.

Zero emerges from his quarters shortly after that. Weirdly, he is not dressed as Zero at all. Instead, he is wearing plain clothes, a white jacket and a white pair of pants that make him look so very young.

C.C. is back in the white straightjacket that used to be her go-to garb and Kururugi is wearing one of his older, white Lancelot devicer outfits. Rolo's clothes match those of his brother.

Everyone blinks at them in confusion. Kaguya is particularly shocked. "Zero?"

"Yes, Kaguya. It's me. I trust Todhoh has explained a bit of what's been going on?"

"Yes, Zero. I've been informed. But..."

"You're confused on why I'm dressed like this. It's because we will be mounting an operation against V.V. For this purpose, Suzaku, C.C., Rolo and I will be going undercover in their headquarters. These clothes will help us blend in a little better."

Chaos explodes. "But Zero, that's way too risky!"

"You can't go there alone!"

"Take us with you!"

Zero lifts a hand. Somehow, he's still as imposing in the plain clothes as he was in the ornate Zero suit.

"Let me finish. At this time, we believe V.V. is not in his headquarters, which is an advantage we can use. He will have his most active agents with him while he seeks out Charles zi Britannia's assassin, and that leaves his base vulnerable. As for the reasons of this approach... It's quite simple. V.V. is not known for his openness toward his staff. Most of the members of the Order are completely cut off from outside information and won't know we've defected or that I've become a target. We can simply walk in. Of course, there will be security, but we're confident we can handle it using our abilities.

"We will, of course, take a small military escort with us. However, we don't want to draw V.V.'s attention to our motions and bursting in would cause unnecessary bloodshed, so everyone other than us will stand by."

"Zero..." Todhoh says. "With respect, perhaps it would be best if..."

"Todhoh-sensei," Suzaku cuts him off, "this is for us too. We need to face this."

"Also, you're not really equipped to handle the Order," C.C. continues. "Any one of them can turn you against Lelouch and we can't afford the distraction."

It's a blunt statement, but it's also a fact, and they all know it.

Diethard mourns the fact that he will not be able to join them, but unfortunately, he is an intelligence agent, not a soldier, and his role will be different.

Zero confirms this when he turns toward him. "Diethard, we will need to put together a little something to hide our absence. V.V. may  expect us to strike in response to his attack. I will speak to Cornelia to make some arrangements and I'll leave you with a registered speech to make it seem like I'm actually here. Kaguya, you'll have to handle administrative matters while I'm absent. Coordinate with Euphie. The absolute first priority is to make it clear that we are still present."

"We understand, Zero," Kaguya says with uncharacteristic seriousness. "Good luck."

"He doesn't need luck, Kaguya," Kururugi says. "He has me."

There's something dark and vengeful in his words, and a shadow in his eyes that didn't seem there before. In fact, looking at Kururugi now... It's strange, but in spite of his white clothes, he looks scarier than before.

Maybe in the past, Kururugi was just doing a better job at hiding his true nature, or maybe he was more affected by the incident than any of them would like to think, but the attack has obviously not left him unscathed.

If Diethard were a compassionate man, he would feel pity for Zero's enemies and everyone who stands in his path. Kururugi will undoubtedly destroy them in a very bloody way, just like he did with the would-be assassin from the day before.

But Diethard isn't a compassionate man, so instead, he congratulates himself for his decision to join Zero and goes on to fulfill his emperor's orders. This is going very well indeed.

****

The entrance to Victor zi Britannia's headquarters is located in the Chinese Federation, in a desert area that makes it very difficult for them to approach using knightmares. Urabe doesn't think he's ever been more apprehensive about an operation, not even when Japan was attacked by Britannian knightmares.

Machines, he can understand. Human experimentation? It's beyond his power of comprehension, and it nauseates him to think Zero suffered through such treatment.

It doesn't help that the news has hit Todhoh hard. Chiba is visibly worried about him. She's confessed that she believes Zero may have told Todhoh more than he told them, perhaps due to Inoue and Sugiyama's request for information, and these new revelations may have been bad.

The thought doesn't encourage Urabe.

As planned, they travel there using a smaller transport for knightmares, but bring an extra one, presumably for prisoners they will retrieve. Once they arrive, they meet with a man in a bright orange mask, the same person in the Tianzi's video. "Orange," Zero greets him. "Any sign of V.V.?"

"There's been nothing," the man reports. "It would appear that he is absent."

"Good." He shoots the rest of them a look. "We'll have to leave the introductions for later. Stand by and wait for instructions. This will probably take a while, but keep an eye out."

"We understand, Zero."

The main entrance of the compound is visible in the desert, but Zero, Kururugi, C.C., Rolo and the mysterious Orange enter through an underground supply line. "We used to work here on occasion," Kururugi comments before he disappears inside. "It hasn't changed a bit."

"It never does," C.C. replies.

And just like that, they're gone. Urabe is left with nothing to do but wait in his machine. "I feel so helpless," Asahina says in the coms. "We should be there with them."

"No," Todhoh replies. "C.C. is right. We'd just get in the way. We have to follow orders and trust that they know what they're doing."

Time passes. The Black Knights grow increasingly nervous, but mercifully, Zero thinks to check in on occasion. Still, Urabe is relieved when he actually sees motion ahead.

It appears that Zero was right to have them watch the exits because some of the members of V.V.'s group have escaped. He immediately contacts Zero.

"Zero, there's a group making their way through the tunnel."

"What are they wearing?" Zero asks.

Urabe describes their clothing. It looks like a doctor outfit, similar to what Lloyd Asplund tends to wear.

"Take them out,"  Zero says. "They're here willingly."

None of them hesitate. Anyone involved in something so monstrous deserves to die.

Honestly, Urabe doesn't even get to do much, because Kallen pretty much mows them all down before he can step in.

"Good job," Zero tells them after they report in. "We're still not done here. We'll let you know when it's clear."

The frustrating wait resumes. Finally, about four hours after the operation has started, C.C. calls them in. "We've finished. You can come."

The Black Knights enter the compound through the same tunnels their leader used before. The place is empty, but Urabe presumes it must have been well guarded before Zero passed through here.

He spots occasional bodies, usually people dressed the same way as the ones who attempted to make their escape. Others wear a different kind of uniform. Security, perhaps? A lot of them appear to be wearing white, which explains Zero choice of clothing today.

The tunnels lead to something to a massive underground city. Structures that look like apartment blocks are lined up on the side of the streets. It's all the more startling because of the purplish illumination. He can't tell where it's coming from at all.

Zero is waiting for them in the main plaza of the city. He, Suzaku and Rolo are surrounded by a group of quiet children. Rolo is currently kneeling in their midst and talking to them in a low voice. He appears to be... showing them how to make an origami?

They all jolt when the knightmares approach. A child pulls on Zero's jacket. Zero picks her up without comment and shoots her a quick smile.

Urabe stops his knightmare a good distance away from the group. There's no reason to scare the children unnecessarily.

They all leave the machines and approach their waiting leader, at which point Urabe notices some other people in the area, with very different demeanors. C.C. is keeping a close eye on several people about Zero's age. A smaller group is standing to the side, staring blankly at the wall. Zero must have used his Geass on them in a more... decisive manner. Urabe doesn't blame him in the least bit.

Zero focuses on the children and gives them a brief introduction. "Everyone, these are the Black Knights. Don't worry. They won't hurt you. They're here to help you and keep you safe."

The children eye them with some suspicion, but nod. "If you say so, big brother Lelouch."

"Come on," C.C. says. "Time to go. V.V. will have probably figured out what we've done by now. We need to go back to Japan."

The children cluster around her and the three young men they see as their siblings. Urabe and the others go back to their knightmares and escort them outside.

As they exit the compound, they once again meet with Orange. "Everything is ready, My Liege."

"Excellent. Blow it up."

Behind them, the structures explodes with a resounding bang. And Urabe may not have been the one to press the button, but it still feels tremendously satisfying to watch.

Chapter Text

The Black Knights' return to Japan is uneventful. C.C., Suzaku, Lelouch and Rolo take the second transport,  the one with the children, leaving the Black Knights in the other. It's for two reasons. Despite Lelouch's Geass, the kids are still scared by their changed environment and need to be distracted. Also, it's always nice to not have to endure the company of other people.

Building a genuine rapport with the kids is actually not that difficult. Rolo is personally familiar with them. They do have a relationship with him, and despite him not feeling any particular affection for them, he knows how to deal with them. C.C. is similar. She's seen children raised at the Order before, and she understands them. She's even raised Mao. Suzaku and Lelouch appear to draw on their experience with Nunnally, and the Geass fills in for the familiarity they don't have.

Once the children fall asleep, C.C. leaves Rolo in charge of watching them and pulls Lelouch and Suzaku aside, into the cockpit. The aircraft is on autopilot, but the space here is limited and she needs the privacy.

They all change into different clothes, which is a huge relief, because the straightjacket no longer feels right for C.C. Suzaku visibly feels better once he's back in his Knight of Zero garb and matching Lelouch's Zero suit.

Still, Lelouch looks a little tired, so Suzaku brushes his fingers over his cheek. All signs of fatigue immediately fade away.

"Thanks," Lelouch says. "Looks like I'm not as fit as you both claim."

Suzaku snorts. "You've barely slept and you've been using your Geass like crazy all day. Of course you're tired."

"Well, the important thing is that it worked."

C.C. can't help but offer him a little smile. "And now, you have an incipient army, all very willing to serve you and ready to trust you. Go you."

"Better me than V.V," Lelouch points out. "Besides, last time I killed them. This is a preferrable option, I think."

"Also, the Black Knights absolutely adore you for being kind to children," Suzaku drawls. "That was a nice touch."

"It's not like it was difficult. I just had to make them see us like they do Rolo. The feeling was already there."

Of course, he also had to make sure the children said nothing about the true purposes and inner workings of the Geass Order, but that was always going to happen. It was part of the reason why they'd needed to go to the Directorate alone to begin with, to make sure none of the Black Knights learned anything that would make them dig a little deeper into the story Lelouch made up.  

"V.V. will retaliate," C.C. warns Lelouch.

"Of course he will. But we already knew that. It's like chess, C.C. He's made his move. I've made mine. He tried to take one of my pieces. He failed. I didn't."

"You know, sometimes, I feel like I should be offended that I'm still a chess piece," Suzaku offers.

"At least you have a place on the chess board. Mine is taken by Kallen. To be fair, Lelouch is technically a chess piece too, so there's that."

Lelouch groans. "Ganging up on me again? Give me a break, okay? It's a metaphor."

"Mhmm. Sure it is."

Their arrival at the SAZ is met with much relief. Euphemia and Kaguya have both been warned about the imminent presence of two dozen traumatized children, so arrangements for their housing have already been made. Rolo still goes with them, since the last thing Lelouch needs is to have the children run amok inside the SAZ in search of their new big brothers, especially when Lelouch himself is needed elsewhere.

The whole group reconvenes in the Black Knights part of the SAZ, where Kaguya and Diethard have been holding down the fort.

"Any updates on the V.V. front?"

"There's been nothing, Zero," Diethard reports. "We've been monitoring communications from Europia and Euro-Britannia like you said and keeping in contact with Princess Cornelia, but it's been quiet."

"I'm pretty sure that's not a good thing," Suzaku mumbles.

C.C. agrees. She hasn't felt any disturbances in the world of C, but that doesn't mean V.V. isn't planning anything. She can't afford to underestimate him, not now, not after the incident with Clara Lanfranc.

She knows Lelouch realizes this too, but he hides his apprehension well. He sets the matter aside and chooses to focus on the issue of the children.

"You're probably wondering where we stand with regard to our new... guests," he says.

"Did you manage to break through their brainwashing, Zero?" Senba asks.

Lelouch shakes his head. "Of course not. That's not so easy and I'm not omnipotent. It's just that the children are familiar with us and they haven't been through the same number of procedures. The others... Most are beyond our help. I locked their abilities so they won't be a danger to us. We'll find a place for them until they can receive appropriate medical treatment. Of course... I was not so kind with those who were here willingly."

"What will you do with them, Zero?" Kallen inquires.

"I'm sure I can think of something. They're scientists. I may have them act as Rakshata's assistants at a later date."

Chiba stares at him in disbelief. "And they'll just do that, without question?"

"Yes, of course. That's how it works. They don't need another prison. They're already imprisoned in their own minds."

Pointing this out is a calculated risk on Lelouch's part, but acting like he never used the Geass was never an option. He's still a military leader and someone with a traumatic past with a great power at his fingertips. Such a thing would not be believable. It's better to show the Black Knights some use of the Geass, in a controlled way they can grasp, making them further appreciate the fact that he didn't use it on them.

It is actually working far better than C.C. herself expected. Nobody seems to care much about the fact that Lelouch suspended the consciousness of the individuals in question. If they are disturbed by the concept, they easily shrug it off, too angered about the actions of the Order to dwell on the morality of Lelouch's usage of Geass. Most importantly, they genuinely think that he would never do it to them.

Amusingly enough, it's true. It was true in the past lifetime too, but at the time, they didn't see it. C.C. still cannot understand how they didn't realize they never could have betrayed Lelouch had he used his Geass on them. She supposes it's beside the point now.

Lelouch sits down on the couch and pulls out his tablet. C.C. plops down next to him and leans against his shoulder. Suzaku sits by her side, and C.C. takes his hand. Their contract has given her a link to Suzaku she didn't have before, and she knows he needs the contact.

Suzaku has never been to the Directorate before, but some of the Geass users did try to attack him and he's still recovering after being possessed by Clara. On one hand, fighting back did help him take out some of his aggression, but on the other, it's left him a little... restless, sort of like he used to be after Nunnally's assassination attempts.

After that, the meeting descends into boring talk. Lelouch reviews the general state of affairs in Japan. The martial law has caused some unrest, especially among Britannian citizens. However, Cornelia's cooperation has helped, and mostly, people are too intimidated by the show of force during the battle with the Chinese Federation to do anything.

Kaguya brings up the fact that since the borders of Japan are now closed, trade will become a problem, so they have to worry about the stock of some products that can only be imported. C.C. secretly thinks the comment is merely her trying to keep busy so that she won't have to think about more recent, earth-shattering revelations.

Tamaki is finally the one to bring up the topic, the proverbial elephant in the room. "Zero... We were wondering... About the thing Sugyiama and Inoue mentioned..."

His uncharacteristically hesitant behavior amuses C.C. Tamaki has never been one for tact, and he seems to not know how to handle this entire situation.

Lelouch intervenes before Tamaki can stumble over his own words further. "I've already provided Rakshata with a file. She's aware of the details."

"What? Really? You never said..."

"It's a medical file," Rakshata cuts him off. "It's confidential. Of course I can't discuss it."

Kallen immediately starts to protest. "But wasn't that the whole point..."

"Other than my chest pains, I have a mild eyesight problem which I'm handling through contacts. Rolo suffers from arrythmia, and C.C. is sterile. Other than that, we may all get migraines or flashbacks due to past... incidents, but physically, we're fine. There's no need to go into further detail."

The Black Knights exchange uncomfortable looks. They can't have missed the 'physically' part, or the fact that Lelouch excluded Suzaku from the explanation. C.C is actually glad for that. Suzaku's lingering issues are related to mental health, and quite frankly, despite the fact that the Black Knights appear to have reacted well to these new revelations, delving into that topic would feel... wrong.

Todhoh's dark expression suggests that he's likely to approach them at one point in the near future, but for the moment, he seems to understand Lelouch's point of view. "Zero is right. The medical staff is aware of the possible issues. It's enough."

"We do appreciate the concern," Lelouch adds, "but we have it under control."

Kallen bites her lower lip, apparently unconvinced. Mercifully, both she and the rest of the Black Knights decide not to push.

Lelouch seizes his advantage and decides to change the topic. "In any case, there's something else we needed to discuss. You've undoubtedly noticed the presence of another agent of mine, the man I identified as Orange during today's operation. Perhaps some of you may have guessed, but that man is Jeremiah Gottwald."

Predictably, there's gaping all around. "Jeremiah Gottwald?" Asahina asks. "The Purist Margrave who worked with Ohgi's woman?"

"Yes. Unlike Viletta, his reasons for joining the Purist group were somewhat... different. He was very loyal to the house of vi Britannia. He was part of my mother's guard and he never made his peace with the fact that she died during his service. He thus attempted to find the culprit, and for this reason, he became another target of V.V.'s wrath."

Surprisingly, the Black Knights seem to understand this motivation. Then again, loyalty and honor were always very important to them. It was intrinsic to the Japanese culture, to the code of bushido, something which C.C. now suspects had a serious effect on Suzaku's psyche after he killed his father.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean the Black Knights will like or accept Jeremiah. Lelouch has a little more work to do before that can happen.

"You trust him, Zero?" Kallen asks with visible wariness.

"I do. He's been acting as Nunnally's guard since the beginning of the SAZ. He has, in fact, currently returned to her side."

Kallen's eyes widen at Lelouch's reply. She, more than any other Black Knight, understands what it means how much it means that Lelouch trusts  Jeremiah with his sister.

"And he'll work with us, even if we're Japanese?" Chiba inquires in disbelief.

"It doesn't matter to him," C.C. explains. "You could be an alien for all he cares. As long as you're loyal to Lelouch, that's all that counts."

"But didn't he participate in that whole business with Kururugi's execution?" Asahina protests.

Suzaku waves his hand, dismissing the comment. "Lord Jeremiah and I have settled our differences. I can hardly blame him for what happened then given some of the... unpleasant incidents that occurred during our stay with V.V. "

"Unpleasant incidents?" Kallen repeats in confusion. She looks from Suzaku to Lelouch, and realization dawns on her face. "Oh. Oh."

Bingo. As expected, Kallen has made the connection between what C.C. told Rolo to let slip and their current explanation.

The other Black Knights look confused. "I don't get it," Tamaki predictably says.

"It's because V.V. would occassionally use Suzaku against me," Lelouch explains. "Now is not the time to get into the details, but that is also the reason why Rolo showed some resentment to my knight in the past."

The tension in the room grows even thicker at the reminder of V.V.'s actions against them. As expected, nobody seems to blame Suzaku for it. So far so good.

"Either way, as difficult as this is to accept, we cannot afford to have our forces divided any longer," Lelouch continues. "It is likely that, at one point in the near future, you will need to work together, and I will ask you to be prepared for that."

"We understand, Zero," Todhoh states darkly. He may be unhappy with the prospect of cooperating with the man who almost executed Suzaku, but his focus is clearly on the reason behind that near-execution. "We will work with Margrave Gottwald."

Slowly, the Black Knights start to nod. As hesitant as they may be to accept Jeremiah, they trust Lelouch. It's a huge difference from the past lifetime, and C.C. has to admit it's nice to see. And of course, there's the fact that Jeremiah's actions are presumably motivated by revenge for his liege, which all of them can definitely understand.

When evening rolls in, C.C., Lelouch and Suzaku decide of common accord to not retire. Instead, they have the kitchens send dinner to them and eat together with the Black Knights. Lelouch dedicates himself to a financial report from Kirihara, more or less nibbles on the food and pushes most of it toward Suzaku. C.C. can see where he's coming from—she's concerned for Suzaku too—but Lelouch starving himself won't help them, and the last thing they need right now is for him to fall into his previous self-destructive patterns. He may be doing it subconsciously, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

Suzaku seems to agree, because he snatches the tablet from his hand and replaces it with a slice of pizza. "Eat and stop worrying for a minute, will you?"

His jaw is set in that stubborn jut, and C.C. is pretty sure that Suzaku himself will refuse to eat if Lelouch continues to be obtuse.

The Black Knights watch the whole exchange in fascinated silence. C.C. decides there's only so much this awkwardness will help them and explains, "Suzaku needs the nutrients after yesterday. Lelouch is just being... Lelouch."

"Always too busy worrying about others to worry about himself," Kallen mumbles. She does not seem surprised at this development.

Lelouch groans. "For heaven's sake... I don't know why people keep saying I'm incapable of taking care of myself. There are just other things that are more important than me eating."

That actually sounds... pretty horrible. But then, despite his regular charisma and coherence, Lelouch had moments when he could be remarkably clumsy—such as the notorious joke that caused the SAZ debacle.

C.C. is unimpressed by his logic, but fortunately doesn't have to intervene. Lelouch actually does eat, perhaps acknowledging the fact that resistance is futile and further protests would just be childish.

Satisfied with his compliance, Suzaku proceeds to demolish his own dinner. Using his new Geass so much has taken a toll on him, more than C.C. would have liked. He looks a little less peaky after eating, though. Thank heavens for small mercies.

The dinner is actually pretty awkward. This is not the first time they've shared meals with the Black Knights. They used to do it pretty regularly at the SAZ, and the mood tended to be more relaxed. However, the revelations from the day before have changed the Black Knights' view of Zero entirely, and they don't know how to handle it or how to address him any longer. He's still Zero, but he's also someone who went through a very difficult experience. They also can't ignore the fact that he's only seventeen and a Britannian prince. And then there's Suzaku, who is actual family to Kaguya and was pretty much raised by Todhoh.

That's the one hole in their 'experiment test subject' plan—the fact that it has the potential of doing damage to the way the Black Knights used to follow Lelouch without question. So far, things have gone tentatively well, but they haven't been in any huge operations yet. If the trust the Black Knights have in their leader is compromised, it could be a serious problem.

"You don't have to walk on eggshells around us now, you know," she says. "Nothing's changed. We're still the same people we used to be."

"Yes, we know," Asahina replies. "It's just been... a little difficult to adjust to everything."

"Well, if it helps, we very much appreciate the support," Lelouch says.

"Also, it's nice to have Lelouch give up the mask on occasion," Suzaku says calmly. He appears to have lost interest in dinner and is now focused on Lelouch. "Not that it didn't have its uses and all, but it's such a shame to hide such a pretty face. And such a pretty mouth."

And just like that, Suzaku leans over and steals a kiss.

It's the very first time Suzaku has made such overt romantic gestures in public. In front of the world, he's always the perfect, respectful knight. When they're with Lelouch's subordinates, he does display affection and something like caramaderie, but never anything sexual. It's both connected to his Japanese upbringing and his marginally closed off personality.

Apparently, he's decided to discard that, just this once.

Lelouch is so surprised he drops the pizza in his lap. Still, he doesn't move away. It's probably impossible for him to ever refuse a kiss from Suzaku, no matter the circumstances where it may be given.

One of these days, she has to explore the possibilities of that. It brings to mind all sorts of kinky ideas they haven't yet explored.

Suzaku doesn't hold back. He buries his hand in Lelouch's hair and delves in deep for a full out French kiss. There's tongue and everything. C.C. finds herself getting a little hot under the collar.

She'll have to drag them away soon for her daily dose of sex. Anything else would be an outrage.

Amusingly, some of the Black Knights are in a similar situation. When Suzaku breaks the kiss, C.C. deigns to look at the others. Kallen's face is as red as her hair, but Kaguya's eyes glint in an almost alarming way. The rest of the Black Knights seem to hover between the two emotions, embarassment and interest. C.C. can't really blame them. Suzaku and Lelouch really do look hot together.

Lelouch finally recovers and clear his throat. Interestingly, he doesn't apologize for Suzaku's actions. "Right. As we were saying, we're going to be fine. There's no need to worry."

"I believe we can all see that," Kallen mumbles, somewhat sulkily.

For a few seconds, C.C. actually believes that will be that and Suzaku's distraction tactic, as heavy-handed as it may have been, will make the Black Knights relax and drop too difficult topics that would be detrimental to their progress.

As it turns out, Inoue takes a different approach. "Say, Zero, if you're giving out kisses, can I get a one too?" she asks in a completely serious tone.

C.C. doesn't know what made Inoue believe Lelouch will be giving out kisses, but regardless, the comment triggers a deluge of interesting replies.

"Me first, please," Kaguya pipes up. "I'm his Goddess of Victory, you know."

Lelouch looks hunted. "Er..."

"Maybe we can have a Zero kissing booth," Kallen suggests, this new development having apparently snapped her out of her moodiness. "I know all the girls at Ashford would gladly sign up." Including her, no doubt.

Lelouch gives Kallen a betrayed look. "Q1!"

Hilariously, Diethard ignores Lelouch's plight and seems to take Kallen's suggestion seriously. "It may not be a bad idea. That way we'll never have financial problems for the SAZ. And I'm sure Sir Kururugi would also be popular, especially with Japanese citizens."

Normally, C.C. would take offense at the idea of someone stealing Lelouch and Suzaku from her, but she knows that's never going to happen, so she decides to play along. Sometimes, it's just better to embrace the madness, rather than fight it.

"It would be good for morale too. They're both excellent kissers."

"Among other things, I'm sure," Rakshata drawls, taking a drag out of her pipe.

 "Well, as C.C. is bound to tell you, we did have an excellent teacher," Suzaku replies. "And we're nothing if not quick learners."

Just when C.C. thought the situation could not possibly escalate further, Tamaki lifts his hand, like he's in class and he wants to ask a question. "Yes, Tamaki?" C.C. inquires.

"So... Can the men sign up for this kissing Zero list? Because I'm not gonna lie, I'm curious."

Everybody stares at him. His face flushes. Lelouch stares at him in disbelief.

C.C. wonders if there is any way this situation can get more absurd.

Ah, yes. She can see the posters now. Lelouch vi Britannia. Turning young, impressionable men gay since 2017.

Inoue bursts into giggles first, and is promptly followed by Kaguya and Rakshata. Soon, the others join in. Senba, Urabe, Yoshida, Asahina... Even Todhoh is smiling a little, which seems to cheer up Chiba in turn.

Lelouch is so red he looks like he's going to self-combust. Given that he's kissed a grand total of four people in two lifetimes, C.C. is not surprised. She's not sure Shirley and Kallen even count, since technically, they kissed him, not the other way around.

Still, Lelouch doesn't berate Suzaku for his behavior, nor does he argue against the teasing. "I'm sorry to say that for the moment, there will be no list, for neither men, nor women. My kisses belong to C.C. and Suzaku," he replies, his voice level even if he's a little flushed.

Kaguya zeroes in on the unwise part of Lelouch's comment like a predator would on its dinner. "For the moment?"

Before Lelouch can address that, the sound of a ringtone interrupts the conversation. Lelouch pulls out his phone, scowling. A bad feeling stirs in C.C.'s gut. There aren't a lot of people who have Zero's number, and most of them are already present.

Lelouch takes the call. "Viceroy Cornelia. What can I do for you?"

Instantly, the jocular mood in the Black Knights' HQ dissipates. Suzaku visibly tenses, ready to go back into battle at one word from Lelouch. The other Black Knights seem to be holding their breaths, clearly concerned.

Their apprehension proves to be justified. At the other side of the connection, C.C. can hear the distant sound of Cornelia reply, "Zero. It would appear you were right to be worried about my brother. We need your help."

Chapter Text

Earlier that day

On the airstrip in front of the Chinese Federation safehouse, Jeremiah kneels in front of his princess and squeezes her hand lightly. "It is time for me to go, Highness. Do not fear. I will take care of your brother."

"I know you will, Sir Gottwald," she tells him with a gentle smile. She's only been informed that a mission will take place where Jeremiah's skills are needed, and while she's concerned, she hasn't asked for more information. "That doesn't mean I don't worry. Do give him and Rolo my love, and be careful."

"I shall."

Jeremiah gets up and looks at Sayoko. She simply smiles at him and nods. Jeremiah knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that Sayoko will protect the princess with her life in his absence. She is dedicated to chivalry, just like he is. Her presence and efforts are a relief. The safety of the princess Nunnally is always of utmost importance.

However, there is nothing more important to Jeremiah than his emperor's word and plan. Once, he offered his loyalty to Lelouch vi Britannia due to his connection to the late Empress Marianne. Now, it goes way beyond that.

Lelouch vi Britannia is truly a noble soul, truly the emperor this world needs, the only person who can ever lead Britannia and turn it into a force for good. As empress, his sister did a fairly good job, but she was only able to do so due to all the things her brother had left for her. And so, as much as Jeremiah cares for Princess Nunnally, it is always Emperor Lelouch that he will serve.

Jeremiah has long ago realized that his loyalty toward the empress Marianne was misguided, as she was not the person he believed her to believe. That has not changed his devotion to Lelouch in the slightest. He hopes that soon, he will no longer have to hide it.

All that aside, his mission today does bring back strange memories. Returning to the Directorate feels... odd. This is the place where he was remade after almost being killed by Lady C.C. at Kaminejima. He does not truly hate it, despite the experience being less than pleasant. If nothing else, it gave him the tools that allowed him to later return to his emperor's side.

But he does hate the man behind this place, the man who has done so much damage and who is ultimately one of the main reasons for his emperor's suffering. Perhaps it is a paradox, but ultimately, not something Jeremiah intends to dwell on.

The confrontation with V.V. will probably not happen today, but they will deliver a swift and decisive blow, not in the way they did last time, but just as efficient, if not more so.

Once his transport arrives at the Directorate, he sneaks in closer, just enough to watch the movements of the people inside. He can't risk approaching too much. It would be too dangerous and blow the entire operation. Nevertheless, he needs to make sure V.V. isn't actually here. Should that be the case, his emperor will have to take an entirely different approach.

The members of the Geass Order aren't known for their talkative nature, so Jeremiah can garner no real information from them. However, their demeanor and the general atmosphere suggest that V.V. is indeed not present. So far, so good.

When the Black Knights arrive, he meets with them outside. It is good to see his liege in person, alive and well, looking healthier than he ever did in the previous timeline.

His better relationship with his knight and his empress have apparently worked wonders on both his physical and mental state.

"Orange," his emperor says. "Any sign of V.V.?"

Jeremiah shakes his head. "There's been nothing. It would appear that he is absent."

"Good." Lelouch turns toward the still watching Black Knights. "We'll have to leave the introductions for later. Stand by and wait for instructions. This will probably take a while, but keep an eye out."

"We understand, Zero," Urabe says.

As they head inside, the Knight of Zero comments, "We used to work here on occasion. It hasn't changed a bit."

"It never does," C.C. answers. With the corner of her eye, Jeremiah can see her smiling slightly.

Once they're out of earshot, Lelouch chuckles lightly. "We used to work here, Suzaku? Really?"

Sir Kururugi shrugs. "Some extra details never hurt. For... veracity."

"You're having fun with this," Lelouch whispers.

"Maybe just a little."

Honestly, Jeremiah can't blame Sir Kururugi for taking his enjoyment where he can. In their past lifetime, he was the one to carry the heaviest burden, having to end the life of their liege. It was difficult enough for Jeremiah to simply stand by and watch and he was only able to do so because, first and foremost, he was honor-bound to follow his emperor's wishes. Having to actually thrust the blade into Lelouch's heart... He doesn't know if he could have done it.

After that, the conversation is set aside for the sake of the mission. Lady C.C. still has access codes, since V.V. never thought to change them, perhaps thinking she would never turn on them like this. And like before, all the members of the Order are all too willing to trust her.

She led the Order for much longer than V.V. For some of them, she is a legendary figure. Rolo's presence by her side reinforces her authority.

"Lady C.C.," they greet her with a smile. "You have returned."

"Indeed. It would seem I was missed."

Sir Kururugi, Jeremiah and their emperor stay behind her and go unnoticed. Once she has their attention and they're distracted, Lelouch steps in. He gradually corrals everyone in front of the Thought Elevator using his Geass.

Nobody even thinks to intervene before it's too late.

Like Jeremiah remembered, most of the people present at the Directorate are young, recent contractors. There are a few older members, but they don't put up a fight either. It's almost hilariously easy, if tedious.

Of course, the security personnel are not complete idiots so they soon catch onto the fact that something is wrong.  However, C.C. can sense Geass and the Knight of Zero can sense danger. They end up splitting up while they hunt down some of errant members of the Order, with Jeremiah taking Rolo with him, while his emperor moves on with the Knight of Zero and his empress.

Rolo seems quiet and thoughtful. Jeremiah knows that he actively participated in the massacre that happened here last time. He wonders how Rolo feels about this new approach.

"Lady Nunnally sends her regards," he says as they move through a quiet corridor.

The words predictably draw a smile out of Rolo. "Along with her concern, I think."

"Yes, indeed."

They run into some guards, and Rolo quickly activates his Geass. Jeremiah rushes forward, taking them out before they can act.

It is as they start to place explosives around the compound that Rolo resumes their previous conversation, "You know, Sir Gottwald, I wonder what Nunnally would truly think if she knew the truth. About us. About all this."

"It is difficult to say, but I believe she would understand. She and I were not close in the past timeline, but I know for a fact that she wished she could have met you. Even then."

This is something he heard more or less through the grapevine, after one of Her Highness's visits to Japan. He was never really sure if Sir Kururugi was the one to discuss it with her, or if it had been someone else entirely, but Lady C.C. commented on it during one of her visits to the orangery.

Rolo seems surprised at this piece of information. "Oh. That's... That's good to know."

Was it? Jeremiah isn't sure. Perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned it.

They head back the way they'd come, reuniting with their emperor. By now, they've made a fair amount of progress, enough at least, that Lelouch orders them to let some of the medical staff escape.

"I want to see how the Black Knights react to this, and it's better to include them at least in some way."

The result is satisfying. The Black Knights do indeed report a small group managing to make their way to the exit. Minutes later, Kallen briskly announces that she has handled it. Lelouch smirks.

Slowly and surely, they continue their exploration of the underground city. Once they've gathered everyone in front of the Thought Elevator, it is a simple matter of Jeremiah using his Geass canceler to remove the previous orders on the members of the Order and Lelouch putting them under a different command.

The younger members of the Order will now remember having been here with Lelouch and Suzaku and will see them both as they did Rolo. Jeremiah presumes his emperor may intend to add them to the Black Knights once they are old enough, but for the moment, what matters is to remove them from V.V.'s grasp.

Once Lelouch is satisfied that he has matters well in hand, he dispatches Jeremiah to retrieve all the data present on the Directorate servers. It is not a difficult task to accomplish. V.V. hasn't bothered with an extra encryption beyond the security codes, since presumably the Directorate itself should be a classified location. Jeremiah doesn't have the time to read any of it, of course, but that is not the point of this mission. He simply inserts an USB stick in the drive of the main server and waits for the file to copy.

He notifies his emperor of his success as soon as the screen flashes with Transfer Complete. After that, he double checks the explosives and makes sure they haven't missed anything, then makes his way outside.

"Everything is ready, My Liege."

"Excellent," Lelouch says. "Blow it up."

Destroying the Directorate feels like removing a weight off Jeremiah's soul. It's another step forward in the path to what needed to come, to his emperor taking his rightful place on the throne of Britannia.

It is as they get ready to depart that Jeremiah receives some excellent news. His emperor pulls him aside, with only Kururugi remaining with them as an escort. "Jeremiah, I want you, Sayoko and Nunnally to get ready to leave the safehouse. I'll speak with the Black Knights. Expect to join us in Japan soon."

Jeremiah doesn't bother to hide his enthusiasm. "Thank you, My Liege. Princess Nunnally will be overjoyed."

"I think we will all be happy to be together again. But keep in mind, Jeremiah, that things will be different from last time. The Black Knights will be aware of your past, at least in some way. There may be some unpleasantness."

"I understand, Your Majesty. I am certain we will be able to work smoothly together in time."

Lelouch nods, seeming satisfied. It is only after they have already gone their separate ways that it occurs to Jeremiah he's forgotten to give his emperor the USB stick with the data on V.V.'s servers.

Oh, dear. Perhaps he can manage to skim over it while they wait for further instructions.

As expected, the princess is very happy to hear the news from her brother. He and Sayoko exchange a fond look as Nunnally insists to start packing at once.

Jeremiah leaves them to it and goes to look over the data. Hours later, he makes the discovery.

Staring at the video files of the younger Rolo on the screen, Jeremiah wonders how in the world he will tell his emperor the truth about his brother, now of all times.

****

That evening

Lelouch stalks into the Tokyo Viceroy Palace, Euphie, C.C. and Suzaku trailing after him. A group of guards, led by Kallen, follow. This really isn't what he had in mind for this evening. He would have much preferred retiring with his lovers for some well-deserved rest. Alas, there is apparently something to be said about the old 'no rest for the wicked' proverb, because V.V.'s retaliation has come sooner than he himself expected.

At the gate, they're met by Andreas Darlton and Guilford. "Zero. Thank you for coming so quickly," Guilford says.

"I understand His Majesty was attacked while stationed in St. Petersburg?"

"Yes. The details are classified at this time. I'm sure Viceroy Cornelia will tell you."

Lelouch doesn't ask any further questions. While Guilford trusts him due to the Geass, the same cannot be said for all of his companions. Lelouch will just have to investigate the whys and the hows at a later date. For the moment, he has to figure out how bad Schneizel's situation actually is.

They reach the infirmary in record time. Outside, they find a livid Cornelia talking to a ruffled-looking doctor. Gino Weinberg is leaning against the wall, watching them approach with sharp, curious eyes.

As Lelouch and his group step up, Cornelia turns toward them. Euphie rushes forward, all protocol forgotten. "Cornelia! Oh heavens. Is Schneizel going to be all right?"

Cornelia somehow manages to muster a small smile for their younger sister. "We can only hope. We're doing the best we can, but the doctors have been... unable to do much." Her gaze turns thunderous and she looks at Lelouch. "Zero. Tell me you have some answers for me. I seem to be surrounded by idiots."

"I just may, but I'll need to see His Majesty first."

Cornelia nods. "Come with me."

"Suzaku, C.C., with me. Everyone else, remain here."

Euphie looks like she wants to protest or ask more questions, but perhaps she is aware they don't have time for such things. She remains silent as Cornelia leads Lelouch away.

Inside Schneizel's room, it's quiet except for the beeping of the machines monitoring his heartbeat. Earl Kanon Maldini is seated by Schneizel's bedside, which doesn't surprise Lelouch in the slightest.

Schneizel... doesn't look well. Given that the last time Lelouch saw his brother in person, he had the man brainwashed and tied to an execution pole in rags, that is saying a lot.

By his side, both C.C. and Suzaku tense. Lelouch cannot see whatever they can, but he can draw a few conclusions just from the timing of their situation.

Kanon gets up when they enter the room. Cornelia quickly rushes through a round of introductions. "Kanon, this is Zero, his knight, Sir Suzaku Kururugi, and his... C.C."

C.C.'s lips twist slightly at Cornelia's inability to find the right description for her. Not that it matters that much. Cornelia goes on without seeming too discomfitted. "This is Earl Kanon Maldini, Schneizel's aide."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Earl Maldini, although the circumstances are not what any of us would have liked," Lelouch says.

"Indeed. Princess Cornelia mentioned that she believes you may have an idea on what happened to His Majesty?"

"Perhaps. Could you tell me how exactly this came to pass?"

Kanon nods. "We were attacked in St. Petersburg. Prince Schneizel had asked the remnants of the Knights of Euro-Britannia to gather there. The Knight of Three Gino Weinberg, the Knight of Four Dorothea Ernst and the Knight of Twelve Monica Krushevsky were supposed to join us. Sir Andreas Farnese had just reported in when news came that we had finally captured the rebel Shin Hyuga Shaing."

Oh dear. Lelouch doesn't like where this is going.

"His Majesty ordered for him to imprisoned, to be interrogated at a later date, only that never happened. An alarm broke out, and a group led by Shaing and his knight Jean Rowe burst into our meeting. He just looked at His Majesty and told him to die and suddenly..."

"He attempted to commit suicide," Lelouch finishes when Kanon seems unable to.

Kanon nods. "I managed to stop him and knock him out, and we were in luck in that Andreas Farnese was there. He and His Majesty's personal guard managed to buy us some time. I attempted to carry His Majesty out, but we were intercepted. Fortunately, Sir Weinberg appeared and helped us. Lady Krushevsky and Lady Ernst covered our retreat. I do not know if they are alive. Probably not..

"It was havoc. People were dying all over the place for no apparent reason, fainting and seizing. Our own soldiers were turning against us. We barely managed to get to a transport to evacuate. The moment His Majesty awoke, he attempted to take his own life again. I sedated him, but this method seems to no longer work."

Kanon's report confirms Lelouch's worst fears. He cannot be sure yet if Shin Hyuga Shaing's attack is a personal initiative or if he's involved with V.V., but the latter option seems more likely. Shaing's Geass can only kill, not take control of other people, and the 'seizing' comment definitely suggests V.V.'s presence.

Either way, he'll have to worry about it once they find a solution to Schneizel's situation Lelouch looks at C.C. and Suzaku. "What's your take on this?"

"The fact that he's sedated has kept him alive but that won't help him forever," Suzaku reports. "His body is already shutting down."

Lelouch supposes he's the one who can tell best. C.C. can presumably see the Geass, and can see it attacking the mind of the host, but she can't always tell what it does, especially not when the command was not given by one of her contractors. However, Suzaku's Geass makes him aware of biological functions in a way she is not.

"How is that even possible?" Cornelia asks. "Is it related to the subliminal weapon you mentioned, Zero?"

"It's a long and complicated story, and we don't have time for it right now," C.C. answers in his stead. "In fact, I estimate we don't have much time at all."

She shoots Lelouch a telling glance, and even if she doesn't say a word, Lelouch understand what she isn't saying. Originally, Lelouch intended to contact Jeremiah so that Orange could cancel the Geass on him, but Jeremiah is hours away. If Schneizel's condition is already so serious, they need to act now.

There is only one solution he can come up with, something they could possibly try. Technically, Lelouch could order Schneizel to live. It may override Shaing's command. Lelouch just isn't sure it will work.

"Can you help him?" Cornelia asks.

"There may be something I can do, an experimental procedure," Lelouch says. "It may also kill him on the spot. Earl Maldini, Cornelia, you need to decide. Do you want us to try?"

Technically, Cornelia is the one who could make a medical decision in such a situation, but she's under Geass to trust Lelouch. And even if she weren't, it actually is true that Schneizel always trusted Kanon Maldini more.

Predictably, Cornelia agrees at once, not even questioning why Lelouch asked Kanon too. Kanon gives them a torn look, then nods. "His Majesty would want you to try. He... respects you. He always said that you were the man he loved and feared most. Yes. All right."

The man he loved and feared most. There is no way Schneizel would refer to an apparently random terrorist in such terms. It would appear that Schneizel may have guessed Lelouch's true identity.

Lelouch has no idea how that could have come to pass. It's dangerous, and it would be so easy now, for Lelouch to let Schneizel die.

But if Britannia were too lose its emperor again so quickly, the results would be disastrous. At the very least, if Schneizel survives, they can salvage something, a modicum of order. Lelouch's plans aren't yet complete and he cannot rush forward to take over Britannia like he did in his past life, simply because three quarters of the capital has been eradicated already. They need some consistency and continuity, at least until Lelouch can get rid of V.V.

"All right," he said. "Please wait outside and do not interrupt us."

Cornelia doesn't need to be told twice. She ushers Kanon out, leaving them alone with Schneizel.

Suzaku locks the door behind her and Lelouch takes off his mask. Technically, it's not necessary, but he suspects this will be more difficult than he would like.

"He'll need to be conscious for this to work. C.C., can you override the sedative?"

"I can try to give his consciousness a nudge. Let's hope this works."

"I can help," Suzaku offers.

She approaches the bed and takes Schneizel's hand. It is so odd to see, and a part of Lelouch wants to step in, to keep her from touching him. He still remembers Schneizel as he was in their past lifetime, as his enemy and the man who had no qualms with blowing up Pendragon when Lelouch had been Emperor.

But things are different now and Lelouch has to make some compromises if his plan is going to work.

Suzaku goes to Schneizel's other side. That makes Lelouch bristle even more, since he knows how close Suzaku came to being Schneizel's knight, not his own.

Focus, damn it. He needs to focus. Schneizel isn't the one who is a threat right now.

He watches carefully as Suzaku activates his Geass and the sigil in the center of C.C.'s forehead starts to glow. Seconds later, Schneizel's eyes snap open.

Lelouch doesn't hesitate for a moment. "Live!" he orders.

At first, the command seems to take, but then, something goes wrong. A strange force snaps out, reaching out for him, and pain errupts in his eyes. He catches sight of  Suzaku and C.C. making a grab for him, and then they're all tumbling, reality shifting around them.

Suddenly, they're all in the world of C, surrounded by a field of white. Another figure is there with them. Lelouch recognizes him as Shin Hyuga Shaing, the orchestrator behind the Euro-Britannian coup and the man who imprisoned him and Suzaku the first time Charles wiped his memories.

"Well, well. If it isn't Prince Lelouch vi Britannia. It's such an honor to meet you. I've heard a lot about your... exploits."

"Have you really?" Lelouch asks tightly. "I have to wonder who may have mentioned it."

"A common friend," Shaing replies with a smirk. "But then, if you're here, I expect you must have already known that."

"V.V.," Suzaku hisses.

Shaing claps mockingly. "Oh, bravo. An excellent guess. Although I admit, it wasn't nearly as impressive as you resisting a certain Geass cast on you." He turns his eyes toward Lelouch. "Then again, maybe it's not impressive at all. It's an interesting thing, isn't it... How much a Geass can do. How it can turn a person into someone else entirely."

So V.V. and Shaing assume Suzaku is under Geass to obey Lelouch. He supposes that makes sense.

If V.V. was involved in some way in their escape from the Avalon's blast on the island, as C.C. seemed to think, he would have sensed Lelouch using his Geass on Suzaku and he may not have known the command used was 'Live on'. Given the subsequent change in Suzaku's behavior, he would have assumed Lelouch may have used something more drastic.

Just how much did V.V. figure out anyway? How much did the transference of their spirits disturb the world of C? So far, it doesn't seem like anybody has guessed, but could they be wrong about that?

Either way, Lelouch hides his apprehension and meets Shaing's smirk with a sneer of his own. "And how would you know? The only thing you are able to do with yours is kill. How stagnant and empty."

"Oh, I disagree," Shaing replies. "Death is something all souls aim for." He arches a brow at C.C. "Isn't that right, C.C.?"

C.C. doesn't visibly react, but Lelouch can feel the tension increase in her. Maybe Shaing can sense it as well, because he continues, "You and I are a lot alike, you know. We both crave death."

Suzaku steps in front of C.C., blocking his view of her. "She's nothing like you."

Shaing laughs. "Is that what you think? Is that what she's told you? Or perhaps... Is that what you were forced to believe?"

"My beliefs are my own," Suzaku replies. "Are you sure you are in the same situation?"

"Of course not," C.C. says. "He's a convenient puppet V.V. is using for his own purposes. If you're relying on him to give you what you seek, Shin Hyuga Shaing, you are making a mistake. He's far more likely to turn you into a tool against his enemies, then destroy you to avenge his brother once he has decided he's done with you. And you should know that when it comes to the Order, destruction and punishment don't always mean death."

"And what does it mean, then, in your opinion?"

"Eternal torment."

Shaing narrows his eyes at her. "That is not possible for me."

Does Shaing not know how the code works? Is he not aware of the Ragnarok Connection?

It's unclear. After all, they can hardly trust Shaing is even telling them the truth, beyond the obvious fact that he must indeed be working with V.V.

Something tugs at the back of his mind, and Lelouch knows he cannot stay here any longer. "In any case, this has all been entertaining," he says, "but I truly am needed elsewhere."

"And you think you can chase me away that easily?" Shaing laughs. "If you had, you would not be here to begin with."

"Perhaps, perhaps not."

Suddenly, Shaing begins to dissipate, his body slowly vanishing, the particles being consumed by the whiteness. "You are correct, Shin Hyuga Shaing. A Geass can do many things," Lelouch says. "It's also only as powerful as the person who wields it. And you are not as powerful as me."

Shaing's expression twists into manic rage. His eyes flash red with Geass. Lelouch is faster than him. "Begone!" he shouts.

Shaing vanishes into the ether with an agonized cry. The whole scene is eerily reminiscent of Charles and Marianne's disappearance. Lelouch tries very hard not to let it get to him.

C.C. recovers first. "Well, that was unexpected," she says.

Lelouch sighs. "That's one way of putting it."

"This could end badly, Lelouch," Suzaku tells him. "Without Schneizel in control of the Empire, everything could fall apart on us. There is no telling what Shaing and V.V. will do together."

"I'm aware," Lelouch says, pursing his lips. "We have no choice but to hasten our plans."

He never expected V.V. to recruit Shaing of all people, not when the psychotic bastard was the culprit behind Charles's death. But perhaps, in a way, it does make sense.

For V.V., like for Marianne and Charles, death isn't an ending. Charles's demise may only be a minor inconvenience if the plan of the Sword of Akasha comes to pass, and while Shaing did not mention the Ragnarok Connection in their conversation, that means absolutely nothing.

"Well, there's no point in talking about it here. Let's go back. The Black Knights are probably waiting for us."

C.C. nods and takes Lelouch's hand again. Somehow, she manages to drag the three of them out of... wherever they had been.

Much to their surprise, as soon as they open their eyes, they find themselves surrounded by an entire group of concerned-looking people.

"Lelouch," Cornelia exclaims. "Oh, thank heavens. We thought you may have been attacked too."

"Attacked?" Lelouch repeats as Suzaku helps him up. "Why would you think that?"

"We heard you screaming," Kallen says. She's pasty white and shaking. "We broke the door to get in, but we couldn't get close for some reason."

 "You were out for three hours and Schneizel was staring at the ceiling like he wasn't even mentally present," Euphie says, her eyes red-rimmed. "We thought you were all going to die."

A chill courses over Lelouch's spine. They've lost over three hours without even being aware of it? Lelouch could have sworn the conversation with Shaing lasted five minutes, if that. Despite his claim that his Geass is stronger than Shaing's, how much damage could Shaing do to them if he were actually here in person?

"It would appear...  there was a side effect to my intervention to help Schneizel. That doesn't matter right now. We're fine."

"His Majesty will recover as well," Suzaku reports after stealing a look at Schneizel. "He's going to need some regular medical attention, but the issue that kept it from working before is gone."

Lelouch nods to confirm his knight's words, and some of the tension present in the room seems to dissipate at the words. "Thank you, Your Highness," Kanon says to Lelouch, visibly relieved. At this point, he's not even trying to pretend he doesn't know Lelouch's true identity.

"Now sit down before you fall over, you three," Cornelia orders. "Put on your mask, Lelouch. I don't care what you say—I'm having doctors to come see you anyway."

It's mildly alarming that Cornelia can do that despite Lelouch telling her he's all right, but he decides not to press the issue. He sits down on the nearby couch, and C.C. and Suzaku join him, only managing to fit because C.C. is actually in their lap.

As soon as he relaxes on the couch, he realizes he's even more exhausted than he thought. In fact, he hasn't felt this tired since his last days pre-Requiem, and that was when he regularly skipped sleep due to a combination of being overworked and having nightmares. He supposes the situation is similar. Between the nightmare with the attack on Suzaku, them planning and enacting the trip to the Directorate and now this confrontation with Shaing, these past days have been strenuous on all of them. He's probably only been standing because of Suzaku's Geass.

Unfortunately for him, he doesn't get the chance to enjoy the break. Moments later, his phone rings. Mentally groaning, Lelouch extracts it from his jacket. The screen reads Orange.

Did someone mention Schneizel to Jeremiah? No, it must be something different.

Oh, hell. Lelouch completely forgot about the fact that he instructed Orange to procure the data from the Directorate. The last time, they simply burst in and eradicated everything with no regard to the possible information that may have existed inside, but obviously, in this instance, they decided on a different approach.

He must be more tired than he thought if something so important slid out of his mind.

"Zero here. What is it?"

"My Liege, my apologies for the interruption, but there's been a development. I found something that you should address in the files retrieved from the Directorate."

Jeremiah's guarded tone instantly puts Lelouch on alarm. "How urgent is it?"

"Not an immediate danger, but certainly something that has to be addressed at once."

Of course it is. "All right." He steals a look at Schneizel's very still form on the bed and finally makes a decision. "Come to the SAZ. Bring everyone. There's been an attack on Emperor Schneizel, so we can no longer afford to wait. Have the information ready for me then."

"Yes, My Liege. I understand."

By now, doctors have already rushed into the room and are looking over Schneizel. Several of them are hovering nearby, having presumably been told to check up on Zero and his staff. Judging by the fact that they haven't actually approached, either Suzaku or Kallen—who has taken up post next to them—must be giving them a particularly unfriendly look.

He hangs up the phone and pockets it. "Time to go?" C.C. asks.

Lelouch nods and they all get up. Cornelia looks like she wants to stop him, but  Lelouch doesn't give her the chance. "Princess Cornelia, do keep us posted on any developments on the condition of His Majesty. Princess Euphemia, you should stay here and be with your brother."

Euphie offers him a shaky smile. "Thank you, Zero."

"Don't mention it." He throws a glance over his shoulder at Kallen. "Come, Q1."

Together, the four of them leave Schneizel's room. The others all look relieved when they see him emerge. "Everything all right, Zero?" Sugiyama asks.

"His Majesty will be fine. We'll discuss the rest once we get to the SAZ."

The walls had ears here and the last thing they need is an information leak right now. For the moment, the Black Knights will have to be content with the fact that he's standing and coherent.

This time, his guards do not disappoint, knowing better than to press for more. Even Kallen remains quiet, even if she is still obviously concerned.

Lelouch would be happier about their trust in him if he was one hundred percent certain he can fulfill the task ahead of him.

Three hours shouldn't mean too much in the big picture, but it does. Shaing is trouble, more trouble than Lelouch originally thought. They have to get rid of him, quickly. But how?

Chapter Text

It's difficult for Cornelia to just stand by and watch her little brother go, but as much as she hates it, she understands that he does occupy a role and he cannot just leave his underlings unattended. God only knows what those Numbers could be up to if Lelouch is not there to keep an eye on them.

Not to mention that there are other things she needs to worry about. Lelouch can take care of himself. Schneizel and Euphie cannot, and neither can Britannia.

As soon as Lelouch is gone, Cornelia turns toward the doctors. "Well? What's the verdict?"

"His Majesty's condition has stabilized. His internal organs have suffered some damage, but he is no longer beyond our aid."

"So he'll make a complete recovery?"

"It's much too soon to tell. What happened to His Majesty is... unprecedented. But if he doesn't have a relapse of his past condition, that is our estimate. It will, however, take some time."

"Time," Cornelia repeats. "How much time?"

"We're not certain. Weeks. An induced coma of a certain length would be safest to make sure there's no lasting damage."

Weeks. That is a lot, considering the state the empire is in. Still, it's a huge improvement, considering the fact that a few hours before, Schneizel was practically dying.

"All right. Do it."

It's the best possible option at this point. Lelouch and his knight have told her that Schneizel will be all right, and despite the weirdness of the situation, she does believe that.

In the meantime, with Schneizel down, she is the only one left to handle the empire, and she honestly does not know how to do that. For as long as she has been alive, Britannia has had a solid structure, with her father at the helm. Now, he is dead, their forces are scattered and most of her family has fallen.

But she cannot afford to give up, not now.

She will have to talk to Lelouch again soon, but first, she needs to understand the exact gravity of the situation.

As soon as she makes sure Schneizel is in good hands, she meets up with her war council, leaving Euphie to keep Schneizel company. Technically, it's not necessary, but she needs to approach Euphie in private later before her little sister can be included further in her plans.

Her war council is as efficient as always. "Is Euro-Britannia lost to us?" she asks without preamble.

"It would seem so, Your Highness," Darlton replies. "We have received some transmissions from remnants of the Knights of St. Raphael and the Knights of St. Uriel, but all of them say the same thing. They have been retreated from St. Petersburg and are uncertain what is going on. The Knights of St. Gabriel appear to have been completely destroyed."

That was pretty much what Cornelia expected. She will have to regroup and form a proper attack unit in order to take St. Petersburg back. First order of business after this, talk to Lelouch to ask how exactly this strange subliminal weapon works.

Fortunately, the viceroys of the Areas have mostly managed to do damage control in their respective zones, so there haven't been significant uprisings. But that still leaves the two biggest problems for Cornelia to handle.

"Any news from Nonnette? How are things in Pendragon?"

"Stable, for now, but once people learn of His Majesty's situation..."

It would be chaos all over again. Damn it.

As much as she trusts Nonnette Enneagram, the Knight of Nine can only be a temporary replacement to a proper manager for the reconstruction of Pendragon. Schneizel only intended for her to contain the situation while he handled the more immediate problem in Euro-Britannia.  Unfortunately, now that things have massively gone sideways, it leaves Cornelia in quite a pickle.

Well, there's nothing for it. Euro-Britannia will have to wait. She will need to go to Pendragon first.

"I'll have to go to Pendragon. We cannot abandon the throne while my brother is ailing. I will leave Euphemia as an acting viceroy in my absence, but suffice to say she will need some help." Technically, Japan isn't an area anymore, but that's not the only factor at play here. "Despite Schneizel's original agreement with Zero, it seems unlikely that we can continue with the original plan of the evacuation of the Britannian citizenry at this time. It's just not safe. We'll have to delay it."

"Will Zero agree to a change in terms, Your Highness?"

"Zero is a reasonable man, and he has no desire to place civilians in the line of fire. He is also aware that Britannia is not his enemy right now. He will work with us. Nevertheless, we must maintain a solid presence in Japan, especially since I am not certain when it will be safe for Schneizel to be moved."

Considering her options, Cornelia looks toward the quiet Knight of Three. Weinberg hasn't said much since his arrival, but then, his input hasn't been required. He is young and brash, schooled in combat, but no so much in politics. Still, she's going to need Darlton and the others with her, so her options on who to leave behind in Area 11 are rather limited. While David has done a good job as Euphie's knight, he doesn't have the same influence as a Rounds.

There's also the fact that Weinberg is a huge part of the reason why Schneizel even lived long enough to get to Japan. He will do nicely to make sure her siblings stay safe.

"Weinberg, you will remain here, assist Euphie and work with Zero to make sure Area... Japan is safe."

The Knight of Three twitches slightly, as if he didn't expect being addressed. Still, he isn't a knight for no reason, so he quickly hides his surprise. "Yes, Your Highness. Of course, Your Highness."

"I'll introduce you properly to Zero at a later date. I must speak to him and Euphie before any further arrangements are made. But I will be relying on you to make sure both Schneizel and Euphemia are safe."

"Of course, Your Highness. It will be my honor to protect His Imperial Majesty

Despite Weinberg's agreement, there is still a heavy weight on Cornelia's heart at the thought of leaving. It's the same weight that caused her to bring Euphie along to Area 11 to begin with. She just hates not being able to keep an eye on Euphie. And now there's Lelouch to consider, and possibly Nunnally as well. She hasn't gotten the chance to speak to her youngest remaining sister, but she still worries.

For this reason, when she ends the meeting, she asks Weinberg to stay behind. "Zero is also essential to the future of Britannia," she tells him. "I cannot explain why at this time. You do not need to know.

"The matter at hand is the following. I trust him, but those Numbers he keeps company with, not so much."

"Do you think they would go against Zero's word and attack us, Your Highness?" Weinberg asks.

"It's... unclear," Cornelia says. She isn't actually sure how many of them are aware of Lelouch's true identity. The red-headed woman was obviously among them, but the others may not be in the same situation and they may react badly should they ever learn the truth. "His inner circle, Kururugi and the two women you saw... They wouldn't go against Zero. The others... I'm not so sure about. Be watchful. Befriend the Elevens if you have to. Like Schneizel and Euphie, Zero too must be protected. I am relying on you, Weinberg, to do that."

Weinberg kneels and bows his head, not questioning her in the slightest. "Yes, Your Highness. I understand."

Cornelia smiles. She feels a little better at the knowledge that there will be a Rounds here for her siblings. Kururugi is competent, but she hasn't forgotten the fact that he technically turned on them. He seems dedicated to Lelouch, but that can change.

Satisfied with her progress, Cornelia leaves the room and heads back toward the infirmary. She still needs to speak with Euphie. Then, she'll have to contact Lelouch. So much work to do, so little time.

She hopes like hell that when Lelouch catches their uncle—as he undoubtedly will—he will give her the chance to take out some of her pent-up aggression on him. Yes, that is definitely something to look forward to.

****

Xingke stands in front of the quarters of his young empress, suppressing the urge to pace. He trusts Zero with the Tianzi's safety, but he hasn't seen the masked Japanese vigilante since the attempted assassination on him. According to what he's heard, his knight has recovered from the effects of whatever weapon was used on him, but since then, the Black Knights have provided no further information and Kaguya Sumeragi has been vague in her explanations on what they're actually doing.

He has tried to reach Zero earlier this evening, only to be told that Zero was not available due to an emergency meeting with the Britannians. This unsettles him greatly. He doesn't like being in the dark, especially in such a volatile situation.

For this reason, he has sent Xianglin to keep an eye out. As efficient as ever, she comes running as soon as she finds out what he needs to know. "My Lord Xingke. Zero's transport is arriving."

"Excellent. Stay here with the Tianzi. I'll speak with Zero and come back."

"Yes, Sir."

Nobody tries to stop him as he makes his way through the SAZ. Xingke rather appreciates the show of good faith. It's quite impressive, given that just a few days back, they were facing each other on the battlefield.

The hangar bay where Zero's transport landed is not quite so easy to access, of course, but Xingke assumes Zero must be headed to the main HQ of the Black Knights in the SAZ, and he knows where that is.

Security is tighter in this area and he is stopped by a group of Black Knight guards. He isn't delayed for long. They contact someone through their headsets, then wave him forward with a simple,  "Zero is waiting for you."

Xingke has no idea where that came from, but he supposes Zero may have been informed even before this that Xingke wanted to talk to him. This fact only serves to unsettle him further.

Zero has given Xingke the impression that the UFN is very important for him. If its importance has fallen so drastically, just how serious is the threat they are facing? Is it something targeting the Empress too? Has something else happened that he isn't aware of?

Hopefully, he will get his answers soon.

When he arrives at the Black Knights control room, he finds Zero already in a meeting with the rest of his inner circle. As always, his green-haired mistress—C.C.—and his knight are by his side. "Xingke," Zero says in welcome. "Welcome. I understand that Kaguya informed you of the basics of what happened yesterday."

"Yes, Zero, but I did have some questions."

"Understandable. Please, come in. I was just about to debrief everyone else on what has been going on."

Xingke walks into the room, eyeing the rest of its occupants. Most of the Black Knights—especially the red-haired pilot, Kallen Kozuki—look concerned. This does not fill him with confidence.

As soon as the door closes behing Xingke, Zero begins to speak. "Yesterday, I was the target of an attempted assassination. It was arranged by Charles zi Britannia's brother, Victor, who used a form of subliminal weaponry to turn Suzaku against me. In our case, he failed. Emperor Schneizel was not so lucky.

"Tonight, we received a report from Princess Cornelia of her older brother having been attacked in Euro-Britannia. We have managed to help stabilize his condition and he is expected to recover. However, I estimate that at this time, Euro-Britannia will probably be in the hands of Victor zi Britannia and this man."

The monitors in the room flare to life and a picture of a Japanese man pops up on the screen. There are instant exclamations of surprise. "Huh? He's one of us?" Tamaki asks.

"Not in the slightest," Zero says, shaking his head. "This is Shin Hyuga Shaing. He's an Honorary Britannian who was adopted by an Euro-Britannian noble family. He served under Michele Manfredi, in the Knights of St. Michael, and was eventually made Manfredi's second in command. Apparently, that wasn't quite enough for him, because he recently, he assassinated his superior. He is the main orchestrator behind the explosion that almost destroyed Pendragon and also the man who attempted to assassinate Schneizel. At this time, we believe him to be working with  Victor."

"But why would Victor zi Britannia cooperate with the man who killed his brother?" Todhoh asks.

"Cooperation is a strong word," C.C. says in Zero's stead. "Victor is only using Shaing for his own purposes. If Shaing is aware, he doesn't care. His sanity is very questionable indeed. Either way, we have no doubt that Victor fully intends to remove Shaing from the equation once he is done with him."

"This brings us to our current situation," Zero adds. "I am not certain on the number of troops Victor has at his disposal. I need to double-check some numbers with Cornelia. However, it would not be out of the question to assume that he may come at the Chinese Federation next."

The image Zero's words paint is dreadful. If someone was powerful enough to deal Britannia such a serious blow, the damage they could inflict on the weakened Chinese Federation could be disastrous.

"Xingke, the Forbidden City has been left without a real leader for too long," Zero says, as if guessing Xingke's thoughts. "With the eunuchs gone, you're going to have to go to take charge and make sure the Federation doesn't fall."

Xingke finds himself torn between two duties. Zero isn't wrong. Hong Gu has been in the Federation these past couple of days, keeping things going. But Hong Gu is not enough if a war is coming their way. "The Empress..."

"She will stay here," Zero cuts him off. "We will turn the SAZ into a safe haven of sorts. My own siblings are here, so believe me when I say we will make every effort to ensure the SAZ is unbreachable. The Tianzi will be far safer here than in the Forbidden City, Xingke."

Xingke knows Zero is right. After all, it was very easy for Zero's subordinates to sneak into the Forbidden City. Zero is the person who is best aware of the threat that they face, and as such, he will know how to make sure the empress is not harmed.

"Insofar as it is possible, I will not leave her side," Kaguya Sumeragi says. "I know the situation has been difficult for her to handle. We will take care of her, you have my word."

"I believe you," Xingke says. "In the end, if you had wanted her harmed, we would not be having this conversation."

"Indeed."

"Now, before you go... We will be outfitting the Black Knights with some equipment that will help protect you against the subliminal weaponry used. The most basic of necessities include visors of a specific thickness and opacity, as often times, the weapon in question targets the eyes. Ideally, some sort of hearing protection should be helpful. Naturally, this will take some time, time we do not have. As I know providing such equipment to all of your troops is an unfeasible idea, replace them with full helmets and goggles. We will probably do the same and request some armor from Cornelia."

"Britannian armor?" Todhoh's female subordinate asks. "Is that really necessary, Zero?"

"The Britannian combat armor is very technologically advanced," Suzaku Kururugi says. "The helmet incorporates a communicator, a gas mask and a combat sensor suite. It wouldn't render any of us immune to the weapon, but it would definitely help."

Xingke supposes that Kururugi would know. From what he's heard, the Knight of Zero actually wore said armor in the past. He isn't surprised when the Black Knights look uncomfortable at the reminder.

"With the exception of the Lancelot, I've made every attempt to avoid relying on Britannian gear in the past," Zero says, "but we cannot afford to do that any longer. For as long as we share an enemy at least, we cannot spurn the advantage this equipment offers."

Xingke can understand that logic, and the Black Knights must be in a similar situation, because they don't press the matters further. "All right, Zero," Todhoh says instead, his lips pressed in a very thin line.

The meeting breaks up soon after, with Zero promising he will send all available data. Arrangments are made for Xingke's imminent departure and that of his entourage.

Xingke leaves the Black Knights HQ feeling both reassured and disheartened. He now knows what he must do to keep the Tianzi safe. That doesn't mean he is happy about it.