Stage 10.5 - Strange Reflections
Britannian Army Garrison Tokyo
Government Borough, Area 11
November 28, 2015 a.t.b.
“I’m curious. Is Kallen aware of your intentions toward her?”
“Possibly,” Lelouch said with a shrug. “I’ve not explicitly said anything to her. We flirt, of course, but that’s all in good fun.”
Marrybell hummed into her hot chocolate as she watched the simulated duel between their Aces. Suzaku had managed to win a few bouts, but now that she had an equal frame, Kallen dominated their matches.
“Why her?” Marrybell asked. She could list several reasons herself, but Lelouch's interested her.
“Because she’s the right choice,” Lelouch said plainly. “Politically, she's capable of the work that would be required of her. I even feel comfortable letting her act unchecked; I’ve made a point to ensure she knows how to notice the subtler manipulation techniques, even if she’s only adequate at delivering them herself.
“Socially, she’s experienced life as a commoner, a noble, and a royal. She’s an aristocrat, yet an Eleven. Britannian, yet foreign. An industrialist, yet old money.
“Personally, I deeply enjoy her company even at her most irritating. We share similar beliefs and have a firm foundation in friendship.
“Physically, I find her more than attractive enough. I think that goes without saying.
“But more than anything, she’s my accomplice.”
“Your accomplice?” Marrybell chuckled. “I do suppose the path to the throne won't leave either of you with clean hands. When do you plan to tell her?”
“Unless she brings it up sooner or in the unlikely event she pursues another to the point where it would be inappropriate to interfere, at her debutante ball when she officially goes on the market.”
“Oh? How unexpectedly formal.”
“She’s the right choice, but I do want it to be her choice as well. Between her oaths to me, our plans, and our friendship, I want to put the least amount of pressure on her to say yes as possible. At such a ritualised event, it should be much easier for her to turn me down.”
Marrybell mentally presented Lelouch with the ‘prince most respectful to women’ award. Not that he had much competition.
“Now that I've answered a personal question, might you do the same?”
Nodding, Marrybell said, “Ask anything.”
“Why did you really return to Britannia?”
A hard question straightaway, eh? Marrybell idly swirled the mug in her hands. “It was no one reason. Should you wish for a succinct answer, it was because I had no one left to protect, so I chose the most flexible path to revenge.”
“What about Suzaku? I’m aware that you remain close with Lady Oldrin as well. They are politically relevant and worth targeting mostly due to your survival.”
“Oldrin, perhaps, but Suzaku had this mad plan to change Britannia from within by becoming the Knight of One. Without a royal patron, I might add. The prat actually had the gall to tell me to watch him die a pointless death in the military.”
“Not in so many words, I imagine.”
“Quite.” Years after the fact, Marrybell still had the urge to smack Suzaku upside the head. “Why do you also get the intelligent one?” She sighed. “Anyway, one of the largest factors in my decision to return was the brutality Hawaii still suffers. My family is the casus belli behind two areas. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pretend to be dead and let Japan suffer the same fate.”
“That does sound like a heavy burden. We never warred with the EU over my mother’s death.”
That brought up another question Marrybell wanted to ask. “Do you have any leads on who was actually responsible for that?”
“One, but she’s missing, presumed dead. Everything else only leads to more questions without answers. If you ever hear word of Sayoko Shinozaki, contact me.”
Marrybell nodded and committed the name to memory. “Friend or foe?” she asked.
“Friend. I’ll send you a photo later.”
As Lelouch said that, Suzaku blew up. Marrybell pouted when the score changed to three to eight.
“You realise Kallen is one of the best devicers in the world. Very possibly in the top ten these days. Suzaku is performing very well.”
“I know,” Marrybell sighed. Suzaku would just have to practice more. “Any advice on grooming my Ace?”
“Nothing special comes to mind offhand. I don’t think my efforts with Kallen would transfer well.”
Marrybell sent Lelouch an enquiring gaze.
“There's no better motivator than that moment when you realise you're no longer the most gifted kid in the class, so to speak.”
How satisfying to know he’s felt that, too. “Let me guess. Schneizel?”
Lelouch delivered a blunt and giggle worthy, “No comment.” He then continued, “Kallen first came to me clever, of course, and so very competitive. Eventually, I started purposefully baiting her to try to outperform me in academics and skill-based games while occasionally pitting her against the Aces amongst the Rounds. Naturally, she improved by leaps and bounds but always remained ‘just a little’ behind.”
“You are a devious monster,” Marrybell said flatly to which Lelouch gave a mock bow from his seat.
“Make no mistake, however. Kallen is not and has never been someone to trifle with. Give her an opening, and she’ll seize it.”
Marrybell took in the look on Lelouch's face and grinned. He probably liked Kallen more than he even realised. “You love that about her, don't you?”
“I do. That girl is passion and fire given human form.”
Marrybell gave a long, dramatic sigh. “I do agree your methods wouldn’t work with Suzaku. Maybe when he and I first met, but he mellowed considerably after the war.” Indeed, everything they had gone through both together and apart had left Suzaku so very subdued compared to his old endearingly brash self. Not wanting to dwell on that, she asked, “What are your plans for the future?”
“For reasons beyond me, the emperor wishes to take Siberia, so I shall do so for the glory of Britannia.”
“And yourself,” Marrybell idly commented before downing the last of her hot chocolate.
“I can hardly boast of defeating Britannia with nought but a handful of rabble. As impressive as that is, it sends the wrong message.”
“I hope that won’t cause you trouble with your future soldiers.”
Lelouch chuckled. “Do you think so little of me? I have three royals including the one commanding the Britannian forces and a countess insisting a purist shot at my knight of honour first. And don't think I missed the ‘unexpected’ delay to the start of their operation in their after action report. They knew she was coming. Then they actually had the audacity to attempt to detain me while I was uninvolved at Ashford before Kallen so much as saw the Glasgow she piloted. Such greed. This round of the public relations game is set on ‘for complete simpletons’. No one can reasonably suggest I had any motive but putting a prompt end to high treason and saving Kallen’s life. I might get a token reprimand for the expedient means I chose, but nothing serious.”
“Hmm… Win a couple battles on the right side, and I suppose few will care either way.”
It also helped that the remaining purists had lost, and lost not even to a foreign power but to numbers. Britannia had little love for those humiliated in battle. Between that and the nebulous charge of treason hanging over their heads, no one would hear their story. If they had any intelligence left among them, they would continue to insist it was all a misunderstanding started by an unidentified but most definitely very dead purist.
“I'll return your question now,” Lelouch said. “What are your plans for the future?”
Marrybell leaned back in her chair, giving the matter some thought. Eventually, she replied, “I had intended to stabilise Japan and then move on to a new area in Europe or Africa. After a few years, I'd hoped to convince Clovis to abdicate in my favour. He hates being viceroy here. After that, who knows? The emperor might have died of old age by then before I got my chance to kill him.”
“If you'd like, I could ask Cornelia to come pick you up when you turn sixteen. She wouldn't hesitate to put your talents to work.”
“I suspect I'm a better peacekeeper than conqueror, but I'll strongly consider it.”
Within the devicer prep room, or break room, or lounge, or wherever she was, Kallen poured herself a glass of the hardest drink available: lemonade. She took a small sip.
Meh. Not great, but could be worse.
After topping off her glass, Kallen poured a second for Suzaku before joining him at a table with a few snacks he’d pulled from the pantry for them.
“To a good fight,” Kallen said, holding aloft her drink. “Kanpai!”
“Kanpai,” Suzaku echoed somewhat awkwardly.
After scoffing half her drink, Kallen said, “Ahhhh! Refreshing! Of course, I'm sure the royals were partaking of the world’s most expensive chocolate or some pretentious wine while we mere servants battled for their amusement. And now here we are dining like paupers.”
“I… I’m not even sure where to begin with that statement,” Suzaku said, to which Kallen returned a giggle. “I’ll only observe that you challenged me and remark that I’m fluent in English.”
“I’m well aware of that, Suzaku-kun, but please indulge me. The only other person I have any regular contact with who speaks Japanese is Naoto-nii.”
Suzaku shifted uncomfortably and glanced around the empty room but said, “Very well, Kallen-san.”
“Thank you. Anyway, business first. I have a good feel for your personal skill level now, but at some point, I’ll need to see how well you work as part of a team.”
“Aren’t Aces usually left to fight mostly on their own?”
Kallen hummed as she searched for the right words in answer to a fundamentally important question. Lelouch had given her what felt like a thousand lectures on modern tactics, military history, and the more probable evolutionary paths of warfare, but this would be the first time she’d ever needed to explain it to someone else.
“The more knightmare technology develops, the more we fall back into the age of romantic war with great warriors directly influencing, sometimes even deciding, the flow of battle. Think…” What names would Suzaku-kun recognise… “King Arthur. Achilles. Uh…” Nobunaga doesn’t sound right… “Kenshin Himura?”
Suzaku smiled in a politely indulgent manner Kallen pointedly ignored.
“There are two primary roles an Ace fills: offencive and, unsurprisingly, counteroffensive.” Kallen pointed to herself and Suzaku in turn, as those were the roles they’d taken in Shinjuku. She had set about causing chaos and inflicting as much damage as possible, and Suzaku's job had been to stop her.
“With a good grasp of tactics and proper support, the former can cause a lot of damage with minimal oversight. Typically, their job is to act as a bruiser: they hit hard, they hit fast, they don’t linger, and they generally make an unignorable nuisance of themselves while the rest of the army focuses on more strategic objectives. Their support is there to pick off damaged units in their wake.
“In contrast, the latter’s job is to seek out and destroy or distract troublesome enemy units while their allies peel away enemy support. Some people fall into this role because they don’t work well with others.” That psychopath Bradley being the perfect example. “Some because they don’t fight as well against large groups.” Such as Lady Ernst. “Some because they have a hard time multitasking in combat.” Nonette. “And so on and so forth.
“All that said, I cannot possibly stress this next point enough.” Kallen paused for effect. “In either role, you are more mobile than your support.”
Suzaku’s lips pressed into a thin line as his brows furrowed in thought. “When I came after you in Shinjuku, we were both alone.”
“That battle isn’t a good example,” Kallen said. “You first caught me while my barely trained support network was reemerging after Marrybell-san’s bombardment, and I dismissed them afterwards to avoid accidentally killing you. Marrybell-san, on the other hand, had no time to prepare one for you nor would she trust the purists not to stab you in the back.”
“I don’t think they would have been so…petty.”
Kallen shrugged. It wasn’t important right now. “Regardless, to directly answer your original question, while your commander will largely leave you alone in battle, an Ace tends to be, as one might put it, rather promiscuous. In a properly organised army, you will never fight alone, but your support group changes as you move. Oversimplifying it, everyone within a certain radius has the sole duty to act as your support unless directed otherwise. It’s a complex tactic requiring a high degree of coordination and flexibility, but it’s devastating in the right hands.”
“Marrybell never told me about this. Is it new?”
“Relatively, no; knightmare technology and tactics are still very young and evolving quickly. The basic concept comes from a plan Marianne-san – Lelouch’s mother – called, and I quote, ‘Fuck Snipers’. Lelouch refined the idea and put me to work. A year of experimentation later, the Knight of Two picked up on the idea and introduced it into the army at large to mixed results. It’s very easy to lose Aces who overextend, but when it works, it works.”
“I see… I have almost no experience outside of solo piloting.”
“I assumed as much,” Kallen said. “For now, I recommend you consider the path of an anti-Ace. From what I've seen, you have a very duelling oriented style.”
Suzaku quirked his eyebrows. “And you don’t?”
“Once upon a time, I did,” Kallen said. As no one but Lelouch knew or ever needed to know the true story, she elaborated with a half-truth. “My first knightmare was the Ganymede with Marianne-san as my mentor. As I eventually learnt, she earned the nickname ‘the Flash’ as much out of necessity as personal style. Picking extended fights in that machine always resulted in death.”
“You started learning that young?” Suzaku asked, eyebrows raised.
A wistful smile forced its way onto Kallen’s face. “It was mostly for fun.” She ran a finger along the rim of her glass as the nostalgia flooded her. “Lelouch used to tease me about how cool I considered giant fighting robots. He was completely mad, of course; they are, and always were, brilliant. Marianne always praised me when she would make time to teach me to pilot. Or how to wield a sword. She was so much fun and so giving. And…”
Kallen brushed a tear away from her eye. “Gomen,” she said, realising she’d slipped into English.
“I’m sorry for your loss. Were you close to Her Majesty?”
Kallen quietly nodded. “I didn’t have long with her, but…I looked up to her. In hindsight, she loved and married the emperor and had so much blood on her hands for reasons I may never know, but I considered her the most amazing woman. She was my mentor. My first mentor. That’s…special.” Who even had a proper mentor in real life? “In time, she might have even been a second mother.”
Seconds ticked by as Kallen pored over her memories of Marianne. Those slowly bled into recollections of her parents and reminders of why she was here and not in Britannia preparing to celebrate Lelouch’s birthday with her family, the Ashfords, and the vi and li Britannias. She let out a soft sigh and pushed the thoughts from her mind as Suzaku broke the silence.
“Tohdoh-sensei never taught me knightmare piloting, but he did teach me everything I know about martial arts and swordsmanship.”
“Is this the famous 'Tohdoh of Miracles’?”
“He dislikes that name, but yes. I have a…complicated relationship with him and my family.”
Kallen let out a bark of laughter. “Believe me. I can handle complicated family situations. I'm not going to condemn you for anything.”
“I actually live with Tohdoh-sensei most of the year,” Suzaku said, Kallen assumed, to test the waters.
Knowing that Tohdoh was part of the JLF, Kallen quirked her eyebrows. “I assume your princess is aware of this.”
Suzaku nodded. “She’s tried to convince me to come live with her multiple times, but I’m actually useful where I am. I'm a double agent for her.”
Somewhat hesitantly, Kallen commented, “You don’t really seem the type for that kind of work.”
“It's…not pleasant. Or honourable. I don't like betraying anyone’s trust, especially Tohdoh-sensei's, but I can't justify the JLF’s existence. But worse, I think he knows and trades information with Marrybell through me.”
“The JLF has had years to pursue its goals,” Kallen said. “Unless it's employing an elaborate ruse as it stockpiles its forces, I doubt it will accomplish anything more significant than it already has.” Namely nothing. “If Tohdoh-san is as intelligent as I’ve heard, I doubt he would blame you for seeking a new path to help Japan even if he disapproves of your actual choice. Who knows? He might even be encouraging you.”
“Maybe,” Suzaku said softly.
“If you don’t mind me asking, where are the Kururugi in this drama?”
After a few seconds of staring at his lap, Suzaku said, “We’re not on speaking terms.”
As nothing more was said on that topic, Kallen dropped it entirely. Instead, she focused on something else Suzaku had mentioned. “So you’re a swordsman?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m not completely untrained.”
Kallen grinned as she placed a hand upon the hilt of the sword at her hip. “You and I are going to have to have a match after this.”
Suzaku heaved a sigh and muttered something about Britannian women.
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
December 4, 2015 a.t.b.
Not long before curfew, Nina approached the student council building. Of course, student council members had no curfew because the president said so, but leaving the girls hall at night remained frowned upon nonetheless. Tonight, though, Milly had demanded that they finally have their ‘girls night’ before Lelouch and Kallen departed for the homeland after the former’s birthday party tomorrow.
Nina stowed her coat as usual. She then quickly climbed the main stairs and headed toward the sitting room where they typically gathered for these events. On the way, she encountered Milly dragging Kallen out of the study by the arm. The latter protested that she had work that needed to be finished before she could relax, but Milly paid her no mind.
For a moment, Kallen met Nina’s gaze with pleading eyes. Nina dipped into a brief curtsy as was proper and whispered an apology. She knew better than to go against the president.
“Oh, Nina.” The girl in question turned in place to find Euphie behind her with her hands overflowing with deserts. “Could you lend a hand please?”
Nodding, Nina grabbed the more precariously balanced food.
“Thanks. If only Milly’s lackey were here to do this for us.”
Nina quietly tittered as she imagined the indignant look Rivalz would have on his face if he heard that, but then sometimes the truth hurt.
“Jeremiah would have been a big help, too,” Euphie lamented, “but he of course left when Milly evicted Lelouch.” She sighed. “Oh well. Did you bring everything Milly asked for?”
Nodding, Nina gestured with her head toward the rucksack on her back. Among a dozen other odds and ends, she had her laptop and all the cables she needed to hook it up to a television. Milly no doubt had a few bad movies in mind for them to laugh at tonight.
In the sitting room, everyone else had already gathered. Nina arrived just in time to see Milly force Kallen onto a sofa and then command a giggling Nuuna to seat herself in Kallen’s lap. That seemed to put a prompt end to that debate. Shirley, meanwhile, appeared to be struggling not to scold those two for their treatment of someone of Kallen’s status while she arranged the snacks already present in the room.
Milly glanced in Nina’s direction, and a smile grew on her face. “At last, everyone is finally here. Marrybell said she couldn’t make it, so it’ll be just be the usuals plus Kallen tonight, ladies.”
A second passed. Nina blinked. Princess Marrybell had been invited? Since when did that happen? No, even before that, since when did Milly know the princess? How did that happen? When, even?
“Lelouch mentioned he wanted to talk to her before we left,” Kallen said. “They’ll probably be busy all night.”
That explained much, although Nina still wondered exactly when and how Milly had met Princess Marrybell over the past month.
Milly clicked her tongue. “That boy. He’s keeping me from adding another royal to my collection.”
Nuuna openly laughed as Kallen rolled her eyes, and Nina noticed Euphie hide a smile behind her hand. The claim and the reactions were yet more weak evidence of a theory Nina had been privately nursing for nearly two years now: the Linettes were none other than Nunnally vi Britannia and Euphemia li Britannia. Not that she ever planned to ask. If she were right, then they obviously wanted to pass unrecognised. Nina was perfectly content to feign ignorance, let them live life as they wished, and avoid the confrontation.
For Shirley, however, Milly’s words proved to be the breaking point. “Come on, Prez! At least show a little respect for the royals.”
“You're just saying that because you think Lelouch is right fit,” Milly countered with a grin.
Not wanting to get drawn into the drama, Nina silently agreed with Milly in the privacy of her own mind. It was rather obvious Shirley fancied the prince. Speaking of, the girl flushed a bright red as Nina quietly excused herself to set up her laptop. When she finally finished and sat down beside Euphie, those two were still at it, one clearly enjoying herself and the other growing increasingly flustered.
Finally, Shirley sought help. “Kallen, say something! Lelouch is your liege.”
A dangerous smile grew on Milly's face. The cat had found another mouse to play with. “Yes, do say something, Kallen. You have to defend your territory.”
Kallen glanced up from her conversation with Nuuna. “Milly is a friend. Lelouch doesn’t mind her antics. Well, not too much.”
And that response pleased neither Milly nor Shirley, although obviously for entirely different reasons.
“I don't think that's what Prez meant,” Nuuna sang teasingly. Unfortunately, she forgot whose lap she was in, as Kallen proceeded to tickle her into submission.
“I know exactly what Milly meant, you little troublemaker,” Kallen said. “What happened to you wanting to marry him, huh? I saved all those chats and emails.”
Between incessant giggles that Nuuna futility tried to escape, she cried, “I didn't know any better!”
Nina noticed Euphie shifting awkwardly next to her. Yet more evidence those two were Lelouch's sisters.
“Well, Kallen?” Milly asked. “Don't tell me you've never considered jumping in bed with Lelouch.”
Kallen released Nuuna, who weakly rolled away on the sofa. She shrugged. “He's one of the few decent boys my age I know. Of course I've considered it. Neither of us are particularly…needy, though, so meh. We have more important things to do for now. Maybe in a few years.”
“You're no fun,” Milly said, pouting.
Kallen stuck her tongue out at her.
“I suppose that's bad luck for you, Shirley. Your prince isn't interested in women.”
Nina shook her head. This could go on all night. It had before. Admittedly, it was a little amusing to observe in its own special way.
“How is your latest project going?”
Turning her attention to Euphie beside her, Nina replied, “I got scooped.”
“Oh, Nina. I'm sorry.”
Nina offered Euphie a small smile in thanks. “It's okay. I at least have the satisfaction of knowing I was working on something worthwhile.”
“I suppose that's true.”
“Besides,” Nina said, “I have an idea for a new energy source involving sakuradite. It's…complicated.”
Euphie hummed in interest. “If it turns out promising, you should ask Lelouch or Kallen for funding. Maybe both. I know Lelouch has his hands in some research fields, but Kallen is the captain of industry.”
“Thank you for the advice.” It was something to keep in mind, if nothing else. “It'll be years before I can even think of anything more than simulations, though.”
With a nod of acknowledgement, Euphie changed the subject. “So which one are you rooting for?” She gestured with her head toward Shirley and Kallen.
To be perfectly honest, Nina neither had nor wanted an opinion. They were both her friends, and she wanted them both to be happy. However that worked out was fine with her.
Euphie smothered a laugh behind a hand. “Lelouch could do that, but I think one woman would be trouble enough for him.”
Sudden thoughts of those three in bed together doing unspeakable things assaulted Nina's mind. Kallen and Lelouch were such dominate personalities. What would happen to poor Shirley when subjected to their every lustful whim? Would she even consent to be with Kallen, too? Would either of them want that? Two beautiful girls locked together in a passionate embrace beneath the sheets–
A shiver ran through Nina as she shoved such tempting but uncouth thoughts from her mind. Blushing fiercely, she said, “That's not exactly what I meant.”
Before Nina could embarrass herself further, Milly called for everyone's attention. At long last, she finally announced which movies she'd decided on to choose from tonight. All were infamous for their low quality.
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
December 4, 2015 a.t.b.
Marrybell could hardly believe her eyes. Of all the places Lelouch could take her, he’d brought her to a seedy pub not far from the ghetto. She tugged her ragged scarf looser around her neck and pulled it up to cover more of her face. This was not a safe place for royalty to be whether in disguise or otherwise.
And yet Lelouch walked right into the pub. Marrybell reluctantly followed him. As soon as she entered, the sound of music filled the air. Someone was playing the piano, and a chorus of reprobates sang a bawdy song to the tune. An honourary Britannian stood behind the counter serving drinks, and most of the clientele were Japanese as well.
Bad idea, worse.
Off in a corner, a young Japanese man with brown hair waved them over. Sighing, Marrybell trailed after Lelouch to join him and whatever scoundrel he’d brought her to drink with.
After the two males greeted each other, the elder asked, “So what made you insist on slumming it tonight?” He glanced at Marrybell for a moment. “Without Kallen, too. Is Jeremiah around at least?”
“Suzaku, actually,” Lelouch said. “I’m sure you remember him. He’s not far away. Jeremiah is our ride home. As for why we’re here, it seemed more neutral ground than Ashford.”
Marrybell’s bad feeling continued to grow.
The man shrugged. “What would you two like to drink?”
“Just a pint for me,” Lelouch said. “I don’t particularly care what variety.”
Two pairs of eyes turned onto Marrybell. “The same will be fine.”
After a quick trip to the bar while Lelouch and Marrybell sat down, everyone had a drink in their hands. So equipped, it was now time for introductions.
“Naoto, this is Marrybell.”
Naoto’s eyes widened in recognition. “Uh, Lelouch…”
Deaf to Naoto’s hesitation, Lelouch said, “Marrybell, this is Kōzuki Naoto. You would recognise his birth name: Naoto Stadtfeld.”
Marrybell shot to her feet and, mindful of where she was, hissed, “You brought me to meet him?”
“I'm not sure how I feel about this either, Your Highness.”
“I don’t need this,” Marrybell added. “It should go without saying I’ll go out of my way not to harm the vengeful countess’s only brother. I know what happened to the Stadtfelds.”
Before Kōzuki could respond, Lelouch said, “That was actually my hand at work,” and then nonchalantly took a drink.
Marrybell thought back to the relevant dates. That does explain the close window of time more cleanly. “Regardless, I'm going home.”
“Sit down, Marrybell.”
“Why should I?”
“Why shouldn't you?”
Marrybell's eyes met Lelouch's. There was no challenge there, no command, no emotion but simple curiosity to know if she would. What was the point? If this were a test, what purpose did it serve? If not, then just why?
Despite herself, Marrybell retook her seat.
“Tonight,” Lelouch began, “we celebrate our common victories. We mock the downfall of the purists. We find new cheer in the improved health and safety of our civilians. We pride ourselves in all being one step closer to our own goals. A toast!” He held up his mug. “A toast to which we all may drink. Fuck the emperor!”
Marrybell only realised that Lelouch had drawn the attention of much of the crowd around them when a roar of approval met his words. Mugs rose. Cans clinked. Alcohol spilled. United in it all, an echoing chorus cried, “Fuck the emperor!”
A smile forced its way onto Marrybell’s face. That certainly was something she could drink to. She raised her own mug and knocked it against Lelouch’s and Kōzuki’s, not caring one whit how much she spilled. “Fuck the emperor!”
Kōzuki Resistance HQ
Nakano Ghetto, Area 11
December 5, 2015 a.t.b.
“Naoto!” Kaname said. “You’re back.”
“Course I’m back,” Naoto slurred. He stumbled forward into the makeshift bedroom they shared until they could find a real flat. Kaname rushed forward to steady him. “Where else I’d be?”
“It’s past midnight. You said you’d return before then.”
“Nahhhh,” Naoto said. “Hey, did you know Marry can really hold her liquor?”
“Marry.” To Kaname’s blank stare, Naoto continued, “Ya know. Marry…something. Girl Lelouch.”
“Yeah! Her! Hell of a drinker. Such a beautiful voice ‘n knows a bunch a our songs somehow. Even the smutty ones girls never touch.”
Kaname sighed. “Let’s get you to bed.”
“What? No! I downloaded this new game for us to play.” Naoto fumbled with his phone in one hand. “Tch. Can’t remember what it’s called.”
“Bed,” Kaname insisted. He dropped Naoto onto the bed in question. “You are drunk.” If they were lucky, maybe tomorrow Naoto could remember what he actually did tonight.
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
December 5, 2015 a.t.b.
Lelouch woke up to a splitting headache. Groaning, he pulled his sheets up over his head to block out the daylight infecting his bedroom and tried to get back to sleep, but it was no use. Frustrated, he stumbled out of bed rubbing his eyes and headed into his en suite.
“This,” Lelouch said, “is a closet.”
Indeed, a massive wardrobe of female clothes met his eyes. Lelouch glanced back at the bed he’d left and was pleasantly surprised to not find a woman there.
Right then. Where am I? Trying to remember what he’d done last night only made Lelouch’s hangover worse, but he managed to catch enough. Oh, yes. This must be Marrybell’s bedroom. Where did she sleep?
Lelouch’s hand shot up to massage his aching head, which put a prompt end to any interest he had in answering that question. Instead, he set about searching for a shower, muttering, “We live in the Future. Where's my hangover cure?” to himself.
An hour later, Lelouch found himself in the dining room with a cup of coffee and a clean pair of clothes courtesy of Suzaku. They were far too big for him, but they would do for now.
“Good morning. I see you’re finally up.”
Lelouch let his head lazily follow Marrybell as she sat down at the head of the table on his left. From her demeanour, last night's revelry had not troubled her in the slightest. This resulted in a well earned round of grumbled insults. Eventually, he said, “Morning. Will Suzaku be joining us?”
“No. Between you and me, he’s not sure what to think about you, so his default plan seems to be to avoid you for now.”
“Heh. Fair enough.”
“It’s more or less the welcome I first received years ago, although I suspect he would have tried to beat me up had I been male.”
“Meanwhile in Britannia,” Lelouch grumbled, “Kallen spent her days whacking me with a sword.”
Marrybell giggled. “You fence?”
“I’m…competent,” Lelouch replied. He had enough skill to defeat a novice but no more. Kallen had eventually moved on to more challenging opponents, and he had gratefully retired his sword.
“Now this I have to see.”
“Not even if you could gift me the throne.”
Marrybell giggled again. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks. You and Suzaku are invited to the party, if Milly hasn’t already told you. It’ll just be friends and family.”
“She has, and we’ll be there. Speaking of parties, are you going to tell me what last night was about? I feel like I went go-carting with Bowser.”
A smirk grew on Lelouch’s face as he said, “I believe Naoto is the plucky underdog, which would make you the villain.” Naturally, he received a glare in response. Then in answer to Marrybell’s question, he said, “Must I have a reason to cause chaos?”
Marrybell delivered a plain and flat, “Yes.”
“Fine. I suspected you had…not so much an exploitable weakness as a cause for missed opportunities and sought to correct it. There are uses for men like Naoto.”
“And my refusal to work with them is a problem,” Marrybell interrupted. ”Especially so when Britannia employs many such people technically loyal to it for it’s dirty work. I know. I know you know I know. It's a strong preference for me, not a principle. What was your real reason?”
Lelouch clicked his tongue. It was too early in the morning and his head hurt too much for clever deception. Relenting, he said, “Consider that had you and Naoto made one or two different decisions in life, you two could very well have found yourselves in each other’s position.”
“Perhaps, but those were pivotal, character-defining decisions.”
“And I wanted to know how you react to someone who made the choices you rejected.”
Marrybell frowned, but it really was that simple.
“When I look at you, I see a reflection of the man I would have been without Kallen in my life. I doubt I would have returned to Britannia, but you're an intriguing glimpse through the mirror nonetheless. That's all.”
Shrugging, Marrybell accepted that answer. “If you say so.”
Marianne vi Britannia International Airport
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
December 6, 2015 a.t.b.
Having said most of their goodbyes the previous night, only a few people had gathered this early in the morning to see Kallen and Lelouch off on their flight home. Milly and her endless energy had come and was busy chatting with Marrybell and Lelouch with Jeremiah watching over them. Suzaku had come as well and had asked for a word with Kallen away from the rest of the group. Curious and with no reason not to, Kallen had obliged.
“So what did you want to talk about?” Kallen asked.
“What is it like being a knight?”
“Oh ho!” Kallen said in her best impression of Milly. “So Marrybell finally popped the question, eh?”
“What? No! Of course not!” Suzaku said, blushing fiercely. “Not in either sense. She’s alluded to it, though. Knighthood, that is.”
“Lelouch and I are not a typical example,” Kallen said more seriously. “You might be better off speaking with Jeremiah.”
Suzaku shook his head. “I think my relationship with Marrybell more closely mirrors yours with Pri – er, Lelouch.”
“Fair point, but I warn you that Lelouch and I are atypical nonetheless.”
After nodding in understanding, Suzaku said, “Your answer?”
“For me, my knighting involved a very minor lifestyle change to achieve a political end. I have a few obligations to meet, but for the most part, Lelouch and I are equal partners. Bear in mind, however, that my background is very different from yours. I realise that you come from what was effectively Japanese aristocracy, but the culture shift is not insignificant, and the delta between you and Marrybell in the social hierarchy compared to me and Lelouch is…dramatic.”
“I’m not entirely unfamiliar,” Suzaku said.
“I’m sorry I’m not being more helpful. I could speak in more general terms, if you wish?”
Suzaku shrugged. “Why not?”
“Alright. First, understand that knighthood is a serious commitment. In many ways even more so than marriage. Even considering how it treats numbers, knighthood is the closest thing to institutionalised slavery in Britannia. Legally, you’re still a person, of course. You can own property, sign contracts, marry, enjoy basic civil rights, et cetera. But your liege has unparallelled authority over you. The trust given when reciting your oath can be abused in terrible ways. The Tragedy of Dame Eleanor is less fictional than most people realise, if you’ve read the book.”
“I haven’t. Is it good?”
“Very.” It was part of Britannia’s literary canon, in fact, despite how poor a light it shined on the royal family. “But I warn you in advance: you will cry.”
A shrug was all the response that met.
“That said, there’s a reason why there are so many stories about princesses finding lovers in their knights. It happens. A lot. Typically, knighthood involves becoming one of your liege’s closest confidants. In fulfilling your oath to support and protect them, you become privy to much of their private life: secrets, ambitions, troubles, indiscretions. It’s very rare to find a knight and liege who would not describe themselves as at least friends, which says a lot about the working conditions.
“So in the end the question you should be asking yourself is simple. Do you trust Marrybell?”
Suzaku opened his mouth, but Kallen cut him off.
“No, I don’t need an answer. You’ll have to ruminate on it by yourself. You already have the strength to be a knight, so this is a purely personal matter. If you want to protect Marrybell, if you trust her with your dreams, if you want to support her wishes, then your answer will come to you if and when she asks for your undying loyalty. Nothing else matters.”
Suzaku remained quiet, contemplative. After a few seconds, he nodded. “Very well. Please don’t share this conversation with Marrybell.”
“My lips are sealed.” As parting advice as she moved to return to the others, Kallen added, “But from now on, swear someone to secrecy first. You’re stepping into an unforgiving world, Suzaku Kururugi. Especially so for a number. Take care of yourself, and be careful.”
New York, Britannia
December 31, 2015 a.t.b.
Kallen weakly batted her hand at the one shaking her.
“Sleeping,” Kallen mumbled.
“Awaken, Dame Stadtfeld. Your liege commands it.”
Kallen cracked open an eye and glared at Lelouch. “What is it, Your Highness, that you would sneak into a lady’s bedchamber in the dead of night?”
“We are about to commit a most grievous error.”
Purple prose. Not important. Kallen rolled away from Lelouch and closed her eyes.
“Oi. Don’t ignore me.”
Kallen sighed and rolled back. “What is it, Lelouch?”
“Every year, we gather here. Although we’ve danced, we yet must take a chance, and find our icy cheer.”
“You’re not allowed to go to Japan anymore. You’ve spent too much time with Clovis.”
Lelouch’s silent eyes dropped in accusation to Kallen’s smile. She paid them no mind.
“I’m in a rare mood. Will you join me on the ice tonight, Milady?”
“It’s been too warm this year. The ice is too thin.”
“Remember the mountain lake where we used to swim? I took the motor sledge up there yesterday. I assure you the ice will hold our weight.”
Oh? “Your sisters and Milly will feel cheated if they find out we left them out.”
“They won’t always be here.”
Kallen paused. There was a promise buried in those words, although one too vague to pin down in precise terms.
“Step outside. I’ll get changed.”
It was cold this high in the mountains, and the headwind from the exposed motor sledge surely must carry a biting chill, but Kallen snuggled closer behind Lelouch as they continued their ascent. She, at least, was warm.
At last, the roar of the engine came to a sudden stop. “We’re here,” Lelouch announced, and Kallen released him from her grasp. After stretching, she unpacked their ice skates. She handed off his and then stole the seat to put her pair on first.
“Hmm…” Lelouch leaned forward and cocked his head to the side. “You should consider a hat instead of earmuffs.”
“You look like a hedgehog.” Lelouch removed a glove, pulled out his phone, and used the camera to show Kallen her hair. The wind had pulled it out of its usual short, flat locks into random spikes.
“Hmm…” Kallen turned her head to observe from the side. “Not really fit for society. It does look a little…rebellious. I think I could make it work.” Even so, she combed her fingers through her hair to straighten it. “Better?”
“Much. I’ll meet you out there.”
Kallen nodded and took off for the fresh ice. The shoreline was rough and uneven, but the ice smoothed out further away. An easy glide turned into a lazy figure eight. Round and round she went beneath the ocean of stars above. Hanging low on the mountainous horizon, the moon bathed the lake in a soft glow. The snow shined with a subtle sparkle in the night.
With a burst of speed, Kallen launched herself into a jump. She landed on one foot still moving, now facing the opposite direction, with her other leg and her arms extended for balance.
And she sticks the landing! Yep. I’ve still got it.
“You don’t look so melancholic anymore.”
Kallen turned in a wide circle to slide into place beside Lelouch. She grasped his hand when offered, and their combined momentum evened their speeds – still in the wrong direction, but that was an easily solved problem.
Affecting a mysterious air, Kallen replied, “Who knows? Maybe I’m just better at hiding it.”
“That would not contradict my observation.”
“True.” Kallen held Lelouch’s hand a little more firmly. “I like where life has brought me. Not as much as I could, but I’m happy nonetheless.”
Before Lelouch could say anything in response, Kallen added, “But let’s forget everything and just be two kids again tonight.”
Lelouch said nothing, merely nodding.
“You know what I haven't played in forever? Shiritori.”
“It's a children's game. One player initially says a word, and then the next has to say a word without repetition that starts with the last kana of previous word. Repeat indefinitely. ”
“I assume ‘kana’ means syllable?”
“Yeah…” Kallen said as she realised the crippling difficulty the language shift imposed upon the game. “How many distinct syllables does English have?”
“Thousands.” Kallen could sense Lelouch smirking next to her without looking. “I earnestly anticipate an engrossing fracas with my loquacious companion’s gargantuan and sporadically sesquipedalian lexicon.”
“Ah, that feeling of such total victory that your opponent never takes the field. Exquisite.”
“Git!” Kallen swatted Lelouch’s arm and took off ahead of him.
“Perhaps instead of syllables, the last letter could be matched,” Lelouch suggested. There were only twenty-six letters in the alphabet.
“Fine. No verbs or proper nouns. I’ll start. Nostalgia.”
And so they played their children’s game on into the night. Kallen knew she had little chance of winning from the outset, but it truly was nostalgic. The last time she’d played had been on a long train ride across Japan with her mother. She could barely remember it now. It’d been so very long ago. Why had they even gone on the trip? Had it been to visit family? She’d forgotten. She’d been too young. She really only had two – maybe three – years of reliable memories of her parents. How depressing.
“I concede,” Kallen said, shaking off the lingering presence of gloomy thoughts. “I’m out of X words.”
“This game is rather degenerate,” Lelouch commented. “The only word I can think of that begins and ends with an X is a proper noun. Whoever has to provide an X word first loses.”
“I did say it was a children's game. I suppose Japanese is a little more balanced as a language.”
“No one has ever accused English of being, in any sense of the word, organised.”
Kallen chuckled. “You have no idea. Mum did her best, but try growing up stubbornly refusing anyone but your busy dad covering the near entirety of your early English education.”
“No thank you on so many levels.”
Kallen giggled at that surreal imagery. She would pay good money to see a picture of Lelouch on the emperor's lap learning the alphabet. “We should do this again next year.”
“I see no reason not to.”
“The year after, too.”
“And the year after?”
“And the year after that.”
“And the year after that?”
“And so on forever,” Kallen said as she slid into place beside Lelouch.
“Forever, eh? I’m not sure we can call ourselves children forever.”
“That’s what you’re objecting to?” Kallen bumped her shoulder against Lelouch but let it stay there. She leaned into him and let her head rest on his own shoulder. “You prat.”
Kallen’s phone vibrated, and Lelouch’s beeped. It seemed they’d both had the same idea.
“Happy New Year, Lelouch.”
“Happy New Year, Kallen.”