Round Zero

Stage 02 - Fire-Forged Friends


Aries Palace

Pendragon Countryside, Britannia

August 15, 2009 a.t.b.


Kallen moaned as she reluctantly awoke. Whatever time it was, it was too early. Still, after tossing and turning for who knew how long, she gave up on getting back to sleep as a lost cause.

Sitting up, Kallen rubbed at her eyes. From there atop her opulent four-poster bed, she lazily surveyed her surroundings. Beside her bed was a table and lamp. A large clock hung across the room. A chest laid at the foot of her bed. The curtains over the windows leading to the balcony were fortunately still drawn. The maids sometimes pulled them open too soon and let the hated sun burn and blind her with its most terrible rays.

“Ahhhhh!”

The curtains flew open, and Kallen hissed her displeasure. When the spots cleared from her eyes, her gaze fell onto an unexpected guest.

“Shinozaki-san?”

“Good morning, Lady Kallen,” Sayoko Shinozaki replied in perfect English. As ever, a maid cap resided atop the woman’s brown hair. In truth, although Kallen had once seen Sayoko without her maid uniform on, that hat had never left her head.

“Ohayō–” Kallen started before trailing off into a yawn. After smacking her lips, she said, “If you’re here, I take it Milly is, too.”

“Indeed,” Shinozaki Sayoko, Milly Ashford’s personal maid, said. “She was most put out to hear you were up late last night telling ghost stories with the princesses without her.”

“Well maybe if she’d tell us when she planned to visit beforehand,” Kallen muttered. More than once, Milly had shown up unannounced at Aries Villa or Stadtfeld Manor only to discover their little group had congregated at the opposite place. Somehow, that was their fault, not hers. “So what does Milly have in store for us today?”

“My mistress has not informed me. However, she requested I bring the rope, so I presume it has something to do with Prince Lelouch.”

Kallen snickered despite herself. It had been a strange day when she’d walked in on a frankly rather girly tea party with Lelouch tied to a chair. In the end, tea time with Milly and Nunnally had been an enjoyable new experience for her. Lelouch would beg to differ, of course.

“Is Nunnally up yet?”

“No. I’m to wake her next.”

“I see. Well, I suppose I’d better go rescue Lelouch, then. He’s still upset with me for not saving him last time.”

“Will you require any assistance getting ready?”

Kallen shook her head as she crawled out of bed toward her en suite. One of the perks of short hair amongst the upper class, she’d discovered, was that maids made much less of a fuss over letting her bathe and dress unattended. After a quick shower, she set out into Aries Villa to locate her prince in peril.

Not finding Lelouch in the usual places and not yet ready to face the day outside, Kallen broadened her search. Cornelia, in her office, said she saw him sprint past her door alone about an hour ago. In the kitchen, Kallen managed to talk the head chef into giving her the remaining bin of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from last night, but Lelouch hadn’t been by for a discreet breakfast. None of the footmen or maids she’d run into near the servants’ quarters had seen him, either.

Upon walking into the Ganymede’s simulator room, Kallen found herself in for a surprise.

“Good morning, Kallen.”

“Your Majesty!” A rather exhausted looking Marianne vi Britannia sat at the control station. A still steaming cuppa rested nearby. Her long black hair was as frazzled as she herself appeared. “Uh, good morning. I hadn’t realised you’d returned to Pendragon.”

“Relax. It’s just me, Poppet. Charles isn’t here.”

Kallen let out a sigh of relief. She really had no idea how Marianne could be so casual around – let alone actually flirt with – the emperor. In truth, Marianne was the only person she’d ever seen or heard of getting away with so much as touching the emperor. Granted, the man’s other consorts, most of whom had borne him children, must have touched him at some point, too, but still.

“I’m afraid I need the simulator today, though,” Marianne said. “If you want another lesson, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

“No, I was just – I mean, I’d love that, but I was just looking for Lelouch. Milly came to visit.”

Marianne chuckled. “I’m aware. She asked me for a ride here as I left the Ashford’s research centre this morning.”

“Oh, dear. Lelouch isn’t going to like that.”

“I’m his mum,” Marianne stated. “Nunnally will be happy, and he’ll love me anyway.”

Ignoring the longing in her chest, Kallen asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen him, have you?”

“No, sorry. If he’s hiding from Milly, I’d try the billiard room. She hates the game.”

After saying, “Thank you,” Kallen went on her way. As the billiard room was on the other side of the villa, she continued to look for Lelouch while wandering in its general direction.

“Kallen!”

Kallen barely had time to turn around before Milly crashed into her with a hug.

“It’s so good to see you! It’s been nearly a week now.”

“Good morning to you, too, Milly.”

“Have you seen Lelouch anywhere?”

Kallen lied without hesitation. “I think he went outside a little while ago. Why? What’s your evil scheme this time?”

“I resent that,” Milly said, pouting. “And just for that, I’m not going to tell you.” A few moments later after she’d left to continue her own hunt, she stopped and turned in place. “And by the way, I don’t believe you. You see, ever since you first appeared, Lelouch keeps escaping by the skin of his teeth. You’ve secretly aligned yourself with him, haven’t you? I won’t be forgetting that.”

A shiver ran through Kallen as she watched Milly happily skip off whilst singing some cheery song. Her spying days, it seemed, were over.


Lelouch breathed deeply as he focused on the target before him. A blonde wig lay draped over the top. With a solid step forward, he thrust.

“Hmph.” Lelouch glared at the child-sized training dummy in front of him and, in particular, the hole his rapier had made an inch from the heart. He knew he would never beat Kallen in a contest of physical endurance, given the bizarre mixture of muscle and intellect that she was, but was it too much to ask for more dexterity?

After a couple of short steps back, Lelouch repeated the manoeuvre.

Still off. How does she do it? Urgh!

With an audible grunt, Lelouch thrust out again. This time he actually hit his target, if only barely.

“Of all the places you could be, this is the last one I expected to find you.”

Lelouch turned his attention away and toward the doorway. He found Kallen there walking toward him. “Please tell me Milly isn’t right behind you,” he said.

“No, apparently she figured out that I’ve been quietly running interference for you.”

A small smirk worked its way onto Lelouch’s face. Kallen had been a great help in avoiding his sisters’ shenanigans, but she’d proved rather less useful when it came to Milly. Sure, Milly had a tendency to appear without warning and at the strangest of times, but perhaps this would prove more motivating.

Lelouch turned back to his practice and prepared himself to strike again. “Good,” he said between thrusts. “Serves you right for getting my mother to force me to be your sparring partner.”

“I did no such thing,” Kallen protested. “You were just…convenient.”

Lelouch stabbed his target again with greater than average vigour. Perhaps, he considered, I should get a red wig, too. “‘Marianne, can you please teach me how to pilot a knightmare?’”

“I do not sound like that.”

Ignoring that little comment, Lelouch continued, “‘Oh, of course, Poppet. I’ve always longed for a willing student.’ ‘How do you do that with your sword?’ ‘It’s an ancient style of swordplay a friend of mine taught me. Would you like to learn?’ ‘Oh, please! Could Lelouch be my partner for practice? I like to make his life miserable in my own special way whenever I can like all the other females in his life.’”

“You made all of that up,” Kallen said as Lelouch stabbed his training dummy far too hard and sent his rapier straight through it and out the other side.

“The spirit remains.”

Kallen very dramatically turned around and brought her hands up to amplify her voice. “Hey, Mill–”

Eyes wide, Lelouch sheathed his sword and dashed over to Kallen. He grabbed her wrists and tore her hands away. Starring her in the eye, a second later, he grudgingly said, “You win.”

“Good,” Kallen said, echoing Lelouch’s own words and smirk from but moments ago. She looked entirely too pleased with herself. That look changed into horror in an instant when another voice echoed through the corridors.

“Milly, I found them!”

“Nunnally,” Lelouch growled. Betrayed by my own sister. “I blame you.”

“Whatever! Just run! Milly has the rope with her!”

Eyes widening, Lelouch took off immediately, only for Kallen to snag his wrist and pull him away from the door. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“They’ll catch us if we leave that way. Come on!”

Without any further fanfare, Kallen pulled Lelouch to the window, which she proceeded to open.

“What are you–”

“It’s the first floor, and there’s a branch to grab halfway down.” Kallen climbed atop the windowsill. “Just do what I do.”

And then Kallen jumped out the window.


Today was a good day. The sun was shining, bright and unrelenting, yet the weather was pleasantly cool. It looked like rain tomorrow, but that was a worry for another time. No attempts to breach Aries Villa’s security had occurred today, a sadly too infrequent event. Her Majesty, Empress Marianne, possessed far too many domestic enemies through no fault of her own.

Patrol today had been a peaceful affair. Captain Cornelia had left with her sister to deal with a family matter, but no one had taken advantage of her absence to slack off. There had even been some free time to pick a snack in the orchard. The oranges were coming in especially well this year.

So it was that Jeremiah Gottwald happened upon the strangest sight of the day. From a window further along the path he’d been wandering burst the new face he’d been seeing around the villa over the past several months: Kallen Stadtfeld. She flew forward through empty space before catching a branch halfway to crashing onto the ground. She swung by one hand, arresting her momentum, before dropping the rest of the way to the ground.

“You are completely mad if you think I’m doing that!” came the faint sound of His Highness, Prince Lelouch. Jeremiah could see the prince’s head peeking out of the very same window Lady Kallen had leapt from.

“Do you want Milly to catch you?”

Ah. Understanding dawned on Jeremiah, and he hustled forward to be of assistance.

“Good work, Nunnally.” Now that he was closer, Jeremiah could hear the voice of Lady Milly from within the building. He saw Prince Lelouch then throw caution to the wind and climb onto the windowsill. Dangling at his hip, the prince had a small child-sized rapier in its sheath. “He’s getting away! Grab him!”

Obviously not willing to be caught, Prince Lelouch promptly leapt from the window. Unlike Lady Kallen, he fell short of the tree, but Jeremiah arrived just in time to catch him.

“Are you alright, Your Highness?”

“Yes, thank you…”

“Jeremiah Gottwald, Your Highness, at your service.”

“Thank you, Sir Gottwald.”

Before Jeremiah could correct his prince that he was not yet a knight, Lady Kallen grabbed his hand and pulled him along down the path. She said, “Come on! We have to move!”

As they jogged off at what Jeremiah suspected was the fastest pace his prince could maintain, he managed to catch little pieces of their conversation.

“A little ten foot drop never hurt anyone.”

“Get horses.”

Up above, Jeremiah heard Lady Milly say, “You there! Which way did Lelouch go?”

Jeremiah looked up to see both Lady Milly and Her Highness, Princess Nunnally. He briefly pondered his options. “I believe His Highness and Lady Kallen went to play in the garden.” It was a lie, but a well-delivered lie.

“Thank you!”

With that, the two girls above disappeared back into the villa, and Jeremiah breathed a sigh of relief. Prince Lelouch was older than his sister and…reasonably athletic, and Lady Kallen reminded him so very much of Empress Marianne, if young and unpolished. Lady Milly and Princess Nunnally, though – well, he would prefer it if those two would not jump out of windows regardless of whether he was there to catch them or not. Fortunately, they had not pressed the matter.

And so Jeremiah continued on with his walk through the grounds until he had to get back to work. He did so love working at Aries Villa under Captain Cornelia and Empress Marianne. There was such a positive energy here that he’d not heard of from the friends he spoke with who were stationed at other palaces. That the empress herself was beautiful, charming, and for the better part friendly and informal was merely icing on the cake.

Today was a good day.


Lelouch slowed his horse to a trot. Aries Villa lay far behind, and he doubted Milly would follow him out into the surrounding woodlands. While he remained far within the villa’s grounds, which extended miles in every direction, it was easy to get oneself lost on the property. That was, of course, assuming no one in the guard sold him out to either Milly or Nunnally.

Not too far behind, Kallen caught up and slowed her own horse down to match Lelouch’s pace. She was hardly dressed to ride, but then neither was he. He still had a sword strapped to his hip, after all.

As they came to a more conversational speed, Lelouch said, “Kallen.”

“Hmm? Yeah?”

“I think you and I have a pressing need to make friends. Perhaps among those who monitor the villa’s security cameras.”

Kallen snickered before eventually admitting, “I ply the guards at my place with snacks and innocent, endearing questions.”

I’m so glad she’s on my side. Her and Milly… A shiver ran down Lelouch’s spine at the mere thought. “So,” he said. “We’ve fled in exile, banished from my very home by that blonde usurper. What now?”

“Well,” Kallen said, humming the word. “We’ll eventually need to plan our dramatic return and ultimate victory. But for the moment, I’ll race you to the pond.”

Without further warning, Kallen kicked her horse into a full on gallop.

“Oi!” Lelouch followed suit, shouting, “Cheater!”

Kallen twisted about in her saddle just to blow a raspberry at Lelouch. Irritated, he spotted a clearer trail through the trees. He slowed his horse enough to clear the foliage in the way. Once he was through, the race was on!

Over hills, dodging roots, ducking under branches, and with more than one collision that left leaves in their hair, Lelouch and Kallen manoeuvred for position and the surer path. As he passed by a berry tree, Lelouch grasped a handful and lobbed them behind him. The resulting grunt and cry of, “Ew! Gross!” made the tactic completely worth the effort.

The unopened chestnuts Kallen threw at his back in retaliation made Lelouch reconsider.

In the end, two very unkempt children burst out of the trees with their goal, a little sandy pond, not far off. Lelouch cried his victory, much to a grumbling, cheating Kallen’s displeasure, but there was no disputing that he had, in fact, won. Lelouch just laughed when she dismounted and pointedly ignored him as she made her way over to the pond to wash herself off. Lelouch, finally realising that his hands were a sticky mess, joined her quickly enough.

“So how are we going to take back the villa?” Kallen eventually asked. “We have no food, no allies, a bit of standing water, two horses, and a sword.”

“Well, my rapier can probably cut Milly's rope. She doesn't use anything expensive.”

Yet,” Kallen said. “If we start cutting her ropes, she'll start buying steel wire rope. Or just chains.”

“True.” Escalation was not a winning gambit when it came to that girl. “Do you know if Milly planned to spend the night?”

“Your mum brought her–”

Lelouch cursed.

“–so she'll probably be here at least until Marianne leaves. Your mum did say she needed the simulator today but not tomorrow, so she might make a trip to the Ashford's research centre tonight.”

“No, I doubt waiting Milly out will work. She could be here until Monday morning.”

“We could always sneak in for snacks and camp out on this nice, soft, sandy beach.”

“A…possibility,” Lelouch allowed. It was warm enough, he supposed, if it really came to that.

“I could break your arm.”

Lelouch snorted. “I appreciate you thinking outside the box, but I'd appreciate it more if our plan didn't involve bodily harm. Especially not to me.” That said, two months without Milly's shenanigans almost approached tempting.

“We could find rope of our own.”

“Hmm… That has merit.”

“We could build a tree fort and pull up the ladder.”

Lelouch quirked an eyebrow.

“What? Tree forts are cool.”

“They also sound like a lot of work. I suppose we could hire contractors…”

Kallen promptly swatted Lelouch on the arm with the back of her hand. “Don’t be a prat. A proper tree fort must be made with your own sweat, blood, and tears.”

“You’re really not selling this idea to me. It would take too long, anyway.”

“Fair.”

Now given the chance, Lelouch laid down on the sand to think. Kallen might actually have had the right idea with camping out. This is pleasantly warm. He snuggled deeper into the sand, and a thought struck him. “I’ve got it.”

“Oh?” Kallen, who’d also lain down, rolled over. Her head propped up on her hands, she asked, “What’s your idea, then?”

“Redirection.” Lelouch could hardly believe he’d forgotten, but the girl was quiet and did stay out of the way. “Another” – he said the word like the poison it was – “girl came to the villa the other day. Anya Alstreim. Nunnally’s age. Quiet. Shy. She’s here to learn etiquette, I think.”

After a moment’s pause, Kallen asked, “Battle etiquette?”

“I highly doubt that.”

“Then why did she come here!” Kallen said. She had a good point, really.

Shrugging, Lelouch said, “I’m not familiar with the Alstreims. I’d assume they’re minor nobility hoping their daughter can recreate the vi Britannia magic of rising to the very top from the very bottom. Regardless, I’ve barely seen the girl; I doubt Milly even knows she exists. If we can engineer an encounter between her and Milly…”

“Ooh, I like this plan. That should keep Milly busy for the foreseeable future.” Kallen frowned, if just for a moment. “Seems a shame to sacrifice Alstreim, though. But then the needs of the two outweigh the needs of the one.”

“That is gloriously bad ethical maths.” Lelouch smirked. “And to think, when you first came here, you thought you’d never fit in with other Britanni – ow!” Rather unsurprisingly, Kallen punched him on the arm. As always, the blow came hard enough to draw a reaction but soft enough not to actually hurt. It was a level of control Lelouch honesty envied.

But much more importantly, it was Kallen’s way of admitting Lelouch had won, and they both knew it.

“Serves you right,” Kallen muttered, although Lelouch could hear the smile in her voice.

The faint sound of rustling leaves behind them in the forest trickled onto the beach. Lelouch rolled his head back to look, the world going upside down. No one appeared right away nor made any attempt to conceal their approach, so he doubted it was Milly or Nunnally. In all likelihood, it was a guard coming to check on them.

Indeed, a minute later, a fairly young man in uniform appeared from within the trees. He possessed a slender build lacking any real muscle to speak of paired with a soft face that screamed ‘not a threat’. A strange combination for a guard, Lelouch noted, but then appearances could be deceiving. Milly's personal maid, Sayoko, hardly looked like she could harm a fly yet doubled as Milly's bodyguard. How the Ashfords had recruited a genuine ninja, Lelouch would never know.

It is a bit odd that he hasn't said anything yet, though, Lelouch remarked as he watched the guard approach.

The help doesn't speak unless spoken to.

Lelouch pondered that thought. It seemed wrong. Maybe not elsewhere, but Aries Villa was more open to mingling. No one ever let Marianne forget that she was born a commoner, let alone that she had a French great grandmother, but neither did she ever try to, especially not in her own home.

Well, Mum and Cornelia personally vet everyone who works here. I trust them with my safety.

The guard stopped right beside them, peering down with an almost vacant look in his eyes. His gaze shifted first from Kallen to Lelouch. “You are Lelouch vi Britannia?”

Shouldn't he know?

He must be new. It wouldn't be nice not to introduce ourselves.

“Yes,” Lelouch said, rising to his feet. “And this is Lady Kallen Stadtfeld, heiress to the Stadtfeld name and title.”

“Good morning,” Kallen said, now standing. “Or is it good afternoon? Either way, it's a pleasure to meet you.”

The guard’s expression did not noticeably shift from his disinterested smile. He casually withdrew a garrote wire from his uniform.

Since when do the guards carry weapons to strangle people?

Eh. Everyone has their own way of fighting.

Why would he be putting it around Kallen's neck, though?

Some part of Lelouch objected to this strongly. Something was wrong. His sword was unsheathed and in his hand before he even knew it. But then the guard looked at Lelouch, and he knew he was being foolish.

What am I doing? I don't need this. Lelouch dropped his sword and staggered backward one step, then two, then steadied himself on the third. See? Kallen is fine. She'd be struggling if she were in danger.

I don't like that choking sound she's making. That can't be healthy.

Well, this guard is a professional. I'm sure Kallen will be fine.

But…why?

Why what?

Just…why? Why is this happening? What purpose does it serve?

Lelouch frowned, and his hands rose to his head. Thinking hurt. He took another step back.

I trust Mum. Even if she did bring Milly over. She wouldn't let Kallen get hurt, nor would anyone she hired to protect us.

Lelouch took another step back. This drew the guard's attention and earned him a frown.

He looks so disappointed in me. Why am I backing away?

Kallen's body dropped to the ground.

Well, yes, it is her body, but the way I thought that sounded too much like ‘corpse’. That would be ridiculous.

The guard bent down with two fingers extended, presumably to check Kallen's pulse. Lelouch took another step away, drawing the guard's attention back onto him and bringing on an even sterner frown.

See? He doesn't need to check her pulse, because she’s obviously fine. He's coming straight over to deal with me next. You know, for whatever reason. I'm sure there is one.

Lelouch took a step back, but when the guard's hand fell on his shoulder, he stopped retreating. He trusted the man, after all.


Kallen jumped when her eyes snapped open. Breathing hurt. Her brain hurt. Living hurt. Why did everything hurt?

Experimenting, Kallen found herself able to move well enough. Her limbs all worked just fine. Her neck felt like it'd been lopped off and then Frankensteined back on, but it was still attached.

And then a flood of horrifying memories hit her.

Why did I – Lelouch!

Now that her senses were returning to her, she could hear the sound of Lelouch gasping for air not far from her. For some reason, he put up no struggle as the assassin in guard's clothing strangled him to death. Just like she hadn't.

Kallen's eye fell on Lelouch's sword. She remembered him dropping that earlier while he’d just watched her dying without a fuss on anyone's part.

She shook her head of the confusion, the anger, the betrayal, the fear, everything. Nothing about this made any sense. All Kallen knew for sure was that her friend was dying and that she could act now.

And she only had one chance.

As silently as she could, thankful for the loud gasps from Lelouch as he ran out of air, Kallen grasped the short rapier on the ground. She steadied herself for a silent blow. She would help no one if she collapsed into a coughing fit or were caught.

Step by step, Kallen closed the gap between her and the false guard, who thankfully had his back to her.

Three… Two…

Kallen thrust forward, deadly and precise. She buried the rapier deep within her assailant's back, stabbing upward through the heart and avoiding both the spine and ribs.

The man fell to the ground, dead.

Let's see how you like having no air! Kallen tried to speak the words, but they just sent her into a fit of wheezing coughs, and that set her world on fire. Beside her, Lelouch found himself in much the same predicament, although he could still manage to gasp out words.

“What… Just… Happened…”

Kallen could only shrug. She had no idea, either.

“Not safe here. Need to get back.”

Lelouch held out a hand to help Kallen up, one she gladly took. Propping each other up, they made their way off the beach. There they found their horses thankfully still nearby a short way into the forest. Having to ride back to the villa would be hard enough; walking back for hours on end would be a nightmare.

“Can you ride?” Lelouch’s voice sounded much better than before, if still raspy and grating.

Careful not to aggravate her neck, Kallen weakly said, “Slowly. You, too.”

“Alright. Not sure where cameras are. If lucky, escort will come.”


Imperial Palace

Pendragon, Britannia

August 15, 2009 a.t.b.


“Charles!”

The ninety-eighth emperor of the Holy Britannian Empire, the ruler of nearly a third of the world, the sole publicly known survivor of the Emblem of Blood, Charles zi Britannia shifted uneasily upon his throne. He knew that voice. At the far end of the courtroom and heedless to the gathered audience of courtiers, empresses, lords and ladies, and princes and princesses, the figure of Marianne vi Britannia dressed in her rarely seen imperial regalia stormed up to the throne.

How Charles hoped he was not the target of Marianne’s wrath. But even if he were, what a glorious figure she struck. She would not be sleeping alone tonight.

The Duke of New Orleans, poor fool that he was, attempted to get between Marianne and her target. Technically, he did have the floor at the moment. Of course, Marianne paid him no more mind than the time it took to grasp his neck and shove him bodily out of the way.

At the base of the dais leading up to the throne, Marianne paused in her stride. “A sensitive matter of state requires your immediate attention.” That was all the lip service she could pay to decorum, it seemed.

Glad to have a legitimate reason to leave, Charles turned court over to the recently sworn in Prime Minister Schneizel. He then departed through the rear exit with Marianne to a private audience chamber further within the palace. Once they were alone with the door sealed, Marianne exploded.

“Summon V.V. here immediately!”

And there it was. Charles asked, “What did he do this time?”

“I have a geass user with a sword shoved through his heart in Aries Villa!”

That news brought Charles up short. After a moment, he asked, “What was his geass?”

“Charles!”

Careful not to turn Marianne’s anger onto himself, Charles gently pulled her into him. She put up a fuss, of course, but she allowed it in the end.

“Well?”

With a huff, Marianne settled down just enough to actually talk about what had happened. “From what Lelouch and Kallen could tell me, I think it was a weaker version of C.C.’s former geass. Only it induces trust instead of love.”

“What happened?” Charles had thought Marianne had been attacked, but it would explain her temperament if it’d been the children in danger instead. She’d not exactly been subtle in court.

“Lelouch and Kallen were nearly strangled to death.”

Hazarding the minefield, Charles said, “This spat between you and my brother wouldn't lead him to target–”

“I'm not in the mood, Charles!”

“–the children. It's more likely another code bearer discovered our plans, knew where C.C. has been staying, and decided to remove anyone she might be inclined to grant geass to.”

“Your brother is a possessive, jealous psychopath! Occam’s razor. He ordered it.”

Charles fought the urge to sigh. “I disagree. Nor do I recall a geass like the one you've described within the directorate.” Sensing Marianne's frustration erupting and, much worse, turning onto himself, he said, “Tell me what happened in detail.”

After a long moment of silence, Marianne spoke in a low, dangerous voice. “I only found out something had happened when Lelouch and Kallen came stumbling in through the front door clinging to each other and refusing to let their escort near them. Their assailant had dressed as a guard, and considering what his geass did, I told them they were smart kids and left it at that.

“Kallen suffered the worst of it, but she'll recover soon. Those two told me the assassin confirmed Lelouch’s identity, specifically; Kallen must have only been a witness to silence.”

Marianne breathed deeply in a way Charles recognised as she clearly fought against a grin to stay angry. She failed, of course, thankfully.

“I’m so proud of our boy and my protégé,” Marianne said. The restrained urge to gush and crow revealed itself in her tone. “Lelouch resisted the geass enough to distract the assassin, and then Kallen stabbed the bastard from behind. One hit, one kill.” In perfect seriousness, she added, “I want her for Lelouch. Don’t you dare marry him off, you hear me?”

“As you wish.” In all honesty, beyond the simple need to avoid provoking Marianne further, Charles found no reason to object. From everything he’d heard and what little he’d seen, Kallen Stadtfeld would make for a strong, loyal consort. Charles scowled at the thought of the first woman who’d been foisted upon him before pushing the memories away.

“Will I need to pay those two a visit?” Charles asked.

Marianne sighed. “Yes. I tried to rationalise their experience as being the result of a drug, but they’re both too smart. They know something inexplicable happened to them. Just don’t modify their memories too much. It happened. Let them grow from the experience. It’ll happen again in their lives, most likely. I’m honestly surprised the Stadtfelds haven’t made a move against Kallen yet.”

A snort escaped Charles. “They’re too terrified of drawing your wrath down upon them. No one has forgotten your part in my ascension to the throne.”

“I suppose.”

“The Stadtfelds are no different than my aunts, uncles, and cousins were: lying, scheming, wretches who care for nothing but themselves. If they become a problem, just execute them.”

“Charles,” Marianne said flatly, “I have more royal blood on my hands than anyone else in history. I don’t need you telling me how to deal with uppity nobles.” And then the fire came back into her voice. “And you just described V.V. perfectly!”

This time Charles permitted himself a quiet sigh.


The Sky

Britannia

August 15, 2009 a.t.b.


When Marianne had texted and told him his daughter had been caught up in an assassination attempt, Reese’s first instinct had been to strangle the woman next to him to see how she liked it. Of everyone, he knew Clarine Stadtfeld had always possessed the least moral scruples when it came to getting what she wanted, namely an absolute lack of them.

Reese freely admitted he hated his little sister.

Of course, after he reined in his urge to kill Clarine in the middle of Stadtfeld Industry’s board room, Reese’s next thoughts were for a fist to the face of the man on his other side. He had, at best, a tenuous working relationship with his youngest sibling. Amongst his remaining relations, James Stadtfeld came the closest to accepting Kallen’s existence. The man’s opinion on Minami and Naoto, however, left much to be desired.

But before Reese could decide to assault someone, Marianne had gone on to tell him that the assassin’s target had been Lelouch, not Kallen. That had cooled his temper a bit. When she told him that Kallen herself had dispatched the scoundrel, that had taken the wind out of his sails entirely.

After being assured that Kallen was alive, resting, and mostly well, as was Lelouch, Reese had called an end to the board meeting and had then immediately departed for Aries Villa. Part of him wanted to ask Marianne to wake Kallen so he could talk to her, but he could wait. For now, he pulled out his phone.

“Moshi moshi,” came a much needed voice a few seconds later.

“Hey, Minami,” Reese said, trying his best to sound as calm as he really should be. Kallen was fine, after all. The whole incident had already ended.

“Well, hello, Love,” Minami replied, switching to English. While Reese was not incapable of speaking Japanese himself, there was a reason Kallen and Naoto’s first language was English. “How are things in the empire? Don’t tell me I have to start calling our little girl Your Highness.”

After a pause, Reese said, “No. It’s considered the height of bad manners to…press for such things before a lady’s debutante ball.”

“Didn’t stop you, now did it?”

“No, I suppose not, Milady,” Reese said, relaxing into something more familiar than the near death of his daughter.

“Not that I’m not happy to hear from you, but aren’t you supposed to be in an important meeting right now?”

“I was until I got a call from Marianne.”

“Oh? And what did Her Majesty want? Nothing bad, I hope.”

“Not exactly.” Reese hesitated as he tried to think of the right words, not that he expected to succeed. “Do you remember that Kallen decided to take up fencing?”

“Yes, with the prince. Neither of them were hurt, were they?”

“Not in the way you’re thinking.” Reese then hastily added, “Mind that they’re both well. Just shaken up.”

“What happened?” Minami pressed.

“There was an attempt on Lelouch’s life.” Over Minami’s gasp, Reese continued, “Kallen stabbed the perpetrator through the heart.” After a pause, he added, “According to Marianne, it was very nicely done.”

The seconds passed.

“Minami?”

“Kallen, she’s alright?”

“Yes. I’m still en route to Aries Villa and haven’t talked to her yet, but Marianne told me the doctors are sure no permanent damage occurred.”

Minami let out a sigh of relief before asking, “Is she safe there?”

Grimacing, Reese said, “Where? Aries Villa or Britannia?”

“Either. Both.”

“She’s safer here than in Japan. It’s no secret here that the imperial court is unhappy with the political games Japan is engaging in with regard to the Indochinese War. I’m glad she won’t have to live through whatever ends up happening. But beyond that, Kallen is under the vi Britannian aegis. So long as Marianne is around, no one would dare target her except possibly as a way to get at the vi Britannias. At that point, if she isn’t safe at Aries Villa, where would she be? It’s not easy to kill an empress in her home.”

Reese deliberately left unsaid that it was not easy to kill an empress anymore. There were too few years between the Emblem of Blood and now for comfort, but there was no doubt that the current emperor had managed to put an end to the familicidal aspects of the quest for the throne since his ascension to it.

“I hate this.”

“I know. If we lived in a better world…” Reese let out a dry laugh. “If it wouldn’t put such a large target on my and Kallen’s backs, I’d try to help one of the li or vi Britannia children become the next emperor or empress. Cornelia is a little rough around the edges, Nunnally is a little too mischievous, Euphemia is a little too soft, and Lelouch is a little too close to my baby girl, but they’re all good kids.”

A weak chuckle came through the phone. “‘Too close to my baby girl’ is your objection to the prince?”

“Of course!”

“You are such a prat.”


Aries Palace

Pendragon Countryside, Britannia

August 16, 2009 a.t.b.


Of all the ways we could get Milly to back off…

Lelouch glanced to his left where the girl in question sat beside him.

It’s her fault, whispered a little voice in Lelouch’s head.

It’s not, returned the much more dominant voice of logic. She was the reason we left the villa, yes, but she didn’t hire an assassin. Nor would the assassin have left if we hadn’t gone outside yesterday. He might have even targeted Nunnally first, if we hadn’t; he must have been after more than just me. After all, what have I myself done to be targeted?

That thought struck deep into the heart of every part of Lelouch looking for someone to blame.

Maybe I should even thank her. Kallen and I survived. We’ll be fine. Nunnally might not have.

Really, Lelouch didn’t even dislike Milly. She was more of an irritating older sister he’d never wanted than anything else. He could see the guilt preying on her underneath the concern on her face.

I should say something. What would Euphie say?

Curled up into Lelouch’s side on the right, Nunnally asked, “Is Kallen going to be alright?”

“She’s going to be as hale and hearty as ever,” Lelouch said. He patted Nunnally on the head. “She’s more unhappy with the doctors still fussing over her than with anything else. I know I was when it was my turn.”

“Lelouch…” Milly began, only for him to cut her off.

“I’m fine. She’s fine. That’s all I care about.” Some part of Lelouch bemoaned the missed opportunity to guilt Milly into behaving, but the idea crossed a line he refused to step over – at least when it came to his, well, his sisters’ friends.

Just as Milly looked about to say something else, the door to Kallen’s room opened, and her father stepped out. He noticed the three of them gathered right outside and nodded back inward.

“She’s cleared for visitors,” Reese said, “but go easy on her. And don’t let her out of bed.”

When Lelouch, Nunnally, and Milly moved to enter, Reese’s hand fell on Lelouch’s shoulder and held him back. “A moment, if you would.”

As much as Lelouch wanted to see Kallen again now that he was allowed to, he told the girls to go on ahead without him. Leaving her father angry was a very good way to become responsible for her disappearing from their lives altogether, and Reese’s expression did look so very, very controlled.

Once they were alone, Lelouch said, “Lord Stadtfeld, I apologise for letting Kallen get hurt. If I’d been stronger–”

“Stop. Please sit down, Lelouch.”

Hesitating only a moment, Lelouch nodded and did as bidden. After he was seated, Reese dropped down to his knees to be at eye level. The silence stretched on, and surprisingly, the only expression Lelouch could find on Reese’s face was hints of concern.

“Lelouch, from the story Kallen told me, you drew the assassin’s attention onto yourself and willingly allowed him to catch you just to give my daughter a chance to save the both of you. That is a strength beyond a paltry physical warrior. You are a brilliant boy. Don’t lose yourself over this.”

“That’s… I…” Lelouch had no idea how to respond to that. This was not the direction he’d expected the conversation to take. “Thank you.”

“I assume your mother has already spoken with you, yes?”

Lelouch nodded.

“Good. However, I want you to know, if you ever need someone not of the fairer sex to talk to, you can always come to me. I know the emperor must be busy.”

Despite himself, Lelouch snorted. “Father has over a hundred children. I’m forever surprised when he and I occupy the same room more than once a month. Thank you, though. Clovis is too much of a fop, and Schneizel…” He shrugged. In all honesty, he suspected Schneizel was a high-functioning sociopath. Perhaps Odysseus would be okay to talk to; he was a good listener, if nothing else.

“You’re welcome,” Reese said. “Now, indulge me, if you will. Why did you do what you did? That is, why didn’t you, say, jump on a horse and run for help? Kallen said the assassin was after you, specifically. Did you think he wouldn’t chase you?”

“No. Not exactly. I did think of sneaking off and causing a racket as I rode away. But if I’d left, he might have just snapped Kallen’s neck before coming after me. It’d have only taken a second.”

Reese levelled a calculating gaze on Lelouch. He sat up straighter in his chair, not sure what exactly the man was looking for, but he was determined not to be found wanting in whatever it was.

“I see. Why put yourself in so much risk, though?” Reese asked. “Surely other ideas occurred to you.”

“If the king doesn’t lead, how can he expect his subordinates to follow?”

“So you picked a plan that you saw could bring a total victory even though it carried more risk for yourself?”

Lelouch nodded. That summed it up very well.

“I see.” After a second, Reese then said, “Lelouch, let me tell you a story. In Japan, Kallen attended a private school. There she had a friend named Tomoya. In fact, they’re still in contact, I believe. One day when they were waiting to be driven home, a mean, older boy from another school nearby stole something important to Tomoya. Naturally, Kallen ended up picking a fight with the boy to get it back.”

Not exactly sure where this was going other than to draw a parallel to what happened yesterday, Lelouch asked, “Did she?”

“No. Well, yes. She caused enough of a scene that a few adults got involved. She herself was outmatched at the time. The point I wanted to make is this isn’t an isolated occurrence. Kallen protects her friends regardless of whether she can win or not. With force up to and including precise strikes through the heart.”

Oh. Yes, Lelouch was perfectly familiar with the concept of Kallen protecting him, if only from girly threats until today.

“Give some thought to what you want to do with your future.”

“I will.” It felt wrong to say anything more or less than that.

“Good. Now I know Kallen wants to see you, so why don’t you head on inside.”


With the doctors at last leaving her alone so long as she promised to stay in bed, Kallen finally managed to finish telling her dad everything that had happened. Part of her wanted to see her friends right away, but once she’d started talking, the words refused to end.

“And then I realised Lelouch wasn't abandoning me and had tripped on purpose. His rapier was right there next to me. I wasn't even a proper target, so all I could do to save him was – was to stab him. And Marianne always says surprise only gets you one free hit, so make it count. And I don’t know how to debilitate in one blow. I mean, a knee might have worked, but he might still have caught one of us. Or shot us, maybe. Or I might not have gotten all the way through the bone. Or–”

Kallen flinched when her dad reached out for her, and she hated herself for it. He showed no sign of offence, though, and gently caressed her cheek.

“Sweetheart, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. You did the right thing. Leaving an assassin alive would have only spared his life long enough for a brutal interrogation. And that’s only if he didn’t take his own life first. No one is going to treat you any differently. Or at least not negatively. I know Marianne is ecstatic with how well you put her lessons to use. And since it seems you followed Lelouch’s plan, I can only presume he’s very grateful, too.”

“I know.”

“Oh, and let’s not forget the other girls. Nunnally, Euphemia, and Cornelia will love you unto the end of time for saving their favourite brother. I briefly ran into Milly on the way here. She looked like she felt so guilty for putting you two into that position to begin with.”

“It’s not her fault!” Kallen said. She rather flatly added, “It’s just something that happened.”

“I know. Just tell her that whenever she looks upset, and maybe she’ll eventually believe it. It’s what I plan on doing with you, you know.”

“But Dad, I killed someone! I didn’t even – my first and only thought was ‘go for the heart; avoid the bones’.”

Reese shifted to petting Kallen’s hair, and she relished the undeserved affection.

“When Marianne told me you asked her to teach you to fence, I never though you’d actually have a use for it; she doesn't do it as a sport. I'm so glad you went through with it, though. I don't want to think about what might have happened if you'd hesitated or been unprepared. I’d much rather a thousand murderers die than you. Having the conviction to save not only yourself but others as well isn't a bad thing. You have nothing to feel guilty over.”

“I know. I don't. I just…”

“Feel guilty over not feeling guilty?”

Kallen shook her head. “I don't even feel guilty about not feeling guilty about not feeling guilty, nor anything more meta. I just – straight to the heart, Dad. I'd never even thought about killing someone. And then I just did it. I did it, let Lelouch help me up, and then rode off to the villa without looking back. What does that say about me as a person?”

“I don't know what you see in the mirror, but I'm looking at a more polished version of Britannia’s Yamato Nadeshiko.”

“Wha–”

Cutting off Kallen, Reese went on to say, “Strong, smart, brave, beautiful, and with the strength of character to do what is necessary. Yep. That’s Britannia’s perfect woman.”

“Dad!” Kallen protested.

“Of course, let’s not forget that you’ve only ever hurt others to protect those whom you care about. And you have enough goodness in your heart to wonder if you are a good person. I have no idea what I did right to have raised you, but I’m so very proud.”

By now, Kallen was blushing hard enough that it almost hurt.

“There, see? You look even more beautiful blushing.”

“You’re the worst,” Kallen mumbled, though it did nothing to alleviate her condition.

“Perhaps. Now would you like me to send your friends in? I’ve been hearing whispers at the door for a while now.”

Kallen silently nodded.


The stars burned brightly above in the night sky. This far from Pendragon proper, Aries Villa hosted a glorious nightscape once the bulk of the palace staff went to bed. In all honesty, Kallen preferred the view at Stadtfeld Manor, but either was better than back in Japan. The light pollution near Tokyo was inescapable.

The new moon left Kallen’s room in almost perfect darkness. The only light came from a small, blue nightlight near the bathroom door. Into the silence came a soft knock. The door opened, and Kallen spotted the silhouette of Lelouch just behind it.

“Finally,” Kallen said. “I was thinking about heading to bed.”

“You’re already in one,” came the deadpan response.

Kallen harrumphed. “I don’t see why I’m the only one confined to bed.”

Taking the seat beside Kallen, Lelouch said, “Probably because you’re a delicate flower in danger of wilting.”

“Please tell me there’s actually a real difference between our conditions.”

“Mum said you had some swelling,” Lelouch offered. “I don’t think it was entirely that the doctors considered you a fragile noble heiress in need of pampering.”

“Good.”

Lelouch said nothing.

“We’re alive.”

“Your powers of observation astound me.”

“I think you greatly overestimate them.” After a moment of hesitation she was sure Lelouch picked up on, Kallen said, “You know, I thought you were leaving at first.”

“I wasn’t.”

“I know,” Kallen said. There was no doubt in her tone, and she hoped Lelouch noticed that, too. “It hurt, though, seeing you inch away. Noticing hand gestures isn’t very easy when you’re being strangled to death.”

“Personally, I thought they were very straightforward.”

“Uh-huh.” Kallen rolled her eyes, an act that went unappreciated in the dark. “Point, point, point. Point, point, point at back of hand.”

“Hey, I pointed at me, then him, then away. Then the sword, you, and then gestured for ‘stab him in the back’. It was all perfectly understandable.”

Kallen said nothing and glared at Lelouch.

“Okay, I can see how it might be hard to interpret all that when you’re otherwise preoccupied,” Lelouch admitted.

“I’d also like to point out how hard it is to follow a line when you’re blacking out.”

A second passed in silence.

“Maybe we need codewords and signals.”

“That wouldn't be a terrible idea,” Kallen said, “even if it'd just be for fun.”

And then the silence returned. Neither broke it for what Kallen was sure must have been a full minute. Eventually, though, Lelouch asked, “Why did you call me here?” Only curiosity came across in his tone.

Because I didn’t want to be alone. Because I wanted to know if you’d come. Because I wanted to know if we’re still friends when no one else is around. Because you’re the only one with just the right experiences to understand. Because…

“Kallen?”

“I don’t know,” Kallen finally admitted. “It just…felt right.”

Lelouch said nothing to that, but Kallen could feel a questioning look being sent her way.

“I’m sorry for dragging you out of bed. I’d have come to you if I weren’t confined to mine.”

“It’s not a problem.”

“I… Well, I didn’t really have anything…” Fumbling for words, Kallen eventually decided on a simple, “Thank you for coming. I needed this. Good night?”

“Good night, Kallen.”