Stage 03 - A Murder in the Family
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
September 28, 2009 a.t.b.
Marianne knew she was about to die. No one was around to use her geass on, hence no one whose body she could take possession of. It was ironic, really. Here she was, one of Britannia’s strongest knights and most successful generals, lying on the ground in her own home and slowly bleeding to death after losing a firefight against a ten-year-old.
Of course, V.V. only looked ten, much like C.C. only looked sixteen, but it was the principle of the matter.
Strange thoughts that come to mind when you’re dying. Shouldn’t have asked C.C. to watch over the kids.
Rather unpleasantly, Marianne hacked up what felt like a lungful of blood. Even more unpleasantly, V.V. decided to stand over her so that she had to look at the little wretch. She tried to scowl at him, but the pain was not worth the effort.
“I hope you’re enjoying this,” Marianne said. Her voice, much to her regret, came out broken, but her spirit remained. “Because you are the most shortsighted fool I’ve ever met.”
V.V. smirked in that little condescending way of his that always made Marianne want to punch him. “Oh, let me guess,” he said mockingly. “Charles! Charles! Your evil brother killed me. He’s a monster.”
A sinking feeling grew in the pit of Marianne’s stomach beyond her encroaching death.
“Why do you think you’re still alive?” V.V. asked.
“You’re not going to kill me,” Marianne said in no small amount of horror.
“Oh, no, no, no. I’m going to kill you,” V.V. said with entirely too much undisguised glee. “Sure, I could spirit you away somewhere and break you, but it’d be such a chore to make sure you don’t just off yourself while I’m not looking. And that geass of yours–”
Marianne’s eyes widened.
“You thought I didn’t know what it was? I’m…disappointed you think so little of me. No, I won’t take the chance of you sneaking away from me body by body. You’re done distracting Charles.”
“What is wrong with you?” Marianne said. She knew well enough that there was no reasoning with V.V. when it came to his brother to bother trying. “Ragnarök is proceeding as ever. Charles is allowed to have a life outside of you and the plan.”
“I’m not interested in explaining myself. You’re on a clock, and I need to threaten you before you expire.”
A scoff escaped Marianne, and she regretted it almost immediately as it led to a horrible fit of wheezing coughs.
“Everyone has a weakness, Marianne. You” – V.V. spat the word like it was a poison capable of killing even him – “have become Charles's. Charles is mine. But you, yours is your children.”
“Oh, I’m so scared.” Some part of her knew she should shut up, but Marianne was beyond furious. “What are you going to do? Kill them, too?”
V.V. smiled – no, grinned. “Of course,” he said.
Who cares. They’ll miss out on growing up with their friends, but–
“Oh, and in case you’re labouring under the misconception that I’d merely part them from their flesh like you, do mind that I mean that literally. Maybe I’ll take Lelouch into the directorate. Regardless, when I’m done, there won’t be a thing left of Lelouch vi Britannia. There will only be some tool wearing his skin.”
“And Nunnally! Oh, the uses I could put her to. She's so young and…moldable.”
Marianne glared at V.V..
“Now I bet you’re thinking, ‘Charles can just take V.V.’s code and then kill him.’ Of course, if that happens, I have plans in place for after my death. Just as I’m sure you do, too, which you will be telling me about.”
“You do realise Charles will know all of this after Ragnarök, right?” It was the only counter threat Marianne had thought of so far.
“Yes, but when that happens, he’ll understand. That’s the point, remember?”
“What do you want?” Marianne growled.
“I want you out of the way. You are going to behave yourself in the World of C and tell Charles exactly what I instruct you to say.”
Marianne smirked, not because she had a way out of this, but because she knew V.V. would hate what she had in mind. “So you want me to lie.”
The crack in V.V.’s victorious expression was almost worth everything he was putting Marianne through.
“And when Charles comes to talk to you, you’re going to lie to hi–”
V.V. shot Marianne in the shoulder and visibly restrained himself from going any further. She refused to give him the satisfaction of screaming, but she grit her teeth and grunted nonetheless.
“I will do no such thing! I would never lie to him. I simply won’t tell him things he doesn’t need to know.”
Now there’s a thought. Get V.V. mad enough to kill me before he can tell me what to say. Charles will know something is wrong if I don’t say anything or start making stuff up that doesn’t match whatever story V.V. wants to sell. Or if V.V. gets to me first, maybe Charles will catch him in the act. Marianne doubted it would work, but it was better than doing nothing.
“Half truths, V.V.? That makes you…” Marianne paused for effect. Then whispering, she punctuated each remaining word. “Just. Like. Your. Family.”
“I am nothing like them!”
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
September 24, 2009 a.t.b.
“Marianne, you cannot be serious.”
“I’m not in the habit of issuing orders I don’t intend to see followed, Captain.”
Being referred to by title left Cornelia with nothing to say but, “Yes, Your Majesty.” And in doing so, Marianne's expression softened.
“Aries Villa will look after itself while we’re gone. Take a holiday. Go spend some time with the kids at Stadtfeld Manor. Challenge Nonette to a duel, or simply have tea with her. Seduce that handsome Guilford boy, if that’s what makes you happy.”
Cornelia blushed and fumbled for words as she protested that last part.
“My point is, a skeleton force around the perimeter will be enough to look after the villa for a week while we’re all gone. The staff works hard and deserves a break, yourself included.”
“But Your Majesty, there’s been three attempted assaults on the villa in the last month alone. Three! And that’s not counting the one Lelouch and Kallen foiled. Who knows what traps might be set up while the defences are so weak.”
Marianne sighed. “If you’re so worried, I grant you permission to come back on the first a day early to personally sweep the grounds. But not a minute earlier, understood?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Cornelia asked, “You’re not just trying to hide something, are you? The guard is loyal to you. I’m pretty sure half of the men have long since taken a fancy to you, even. We will keep your secrets.”
Clicking her tongue, Marianne shook her head. It made Cornelia feel small and young again in ways she’d really thought were both beneath and behind her.
“If I wanted to hide something,” Marianne began, “there are far less overt ways of going about it. I do have a cloak and dagger in my closet, you know. I’m proficient in their use. I could go get them right now, if I wanted.”
Cornelia rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll see to your orders immediately.”
After nearly an hour’s work deciding who could leave and who really needed to stay, Cornelia had stripped Aries Villa’s staff and security down to the bare essentials. Come tomorrow, barely three dozen people would remain on the grounds until Marianne returned on the second of October.
Now, though, Cornelia had to face the monumental task of deciding what to do with herself for the next week. Thinking about it, there was one suggestion Marianne had made that Cornelia found appealing. She pulled out her phone and made a call.
“Euphie, would you like to join me on holiday at Stadtfeld Manor?”
Ashford Research Centre
September 24, 2009 a.t.b.
Marianne politely smiled as she passed another acquaintance of hers who’d stopped to say hello. Having worked as a test pilot for so long, she knew most of the scientists here rather well, but every so often she ran into someone whose name escaped her.
Pressing on, Marianne passed through the main lab of the building. There before her stood the Ganymede in all its glory. At over six metres tall and just above seven tonnes, the blue and gold knightmare was a thing of beauty. Faster than a cheetah yet as agile as a squirrel, it could dance circles around any conventional weapon. She’d put it to excellent use in the ongoing Indochinese War, dominating the battlefield wherever she’d appeared.
It was such a shame the Ganymede’s battery life was terrible.
“Good evening, Your Majesty.”
Turning away from her beloved mech, Marianne found herself face to face with Ruben Ashford. At fifty-five, the man still possessed the thick, blonde locks characteristic of the Ashford family, although one or two grey hairs could be found here or there.
“Even after all these years, it still feels wrong to hear you call me that.”
“My apologies. I’ll be sure to keep treating you like the little pickpocketing urchin filth you are.”
“Oh, please. I haven’t done that since you leapt over a fence and landed on me.”
Ruben broke into a smile as the memory came back to him. Chuckling, he moved to embrace Marianne. “Those were better days,” he said as they hugged. “I don’t think my old bones could take you anymore.”
“Ha! Please. You got lucky, old man. Now tell me where have you been hiding out? I haven’t seen or heard from you in a month.”
“Oh, here and there,” Ruben said. “Some whippersnapper up in Oregon saw how effectively you used the Ganymede and thought to muscle in on our territory.”
The man just shrugged as if to say, “I’m old. So what?”
“How did negotiations go, then?” Marianne asked.
“Ongoing. No one wants to get into a patent war with an empress, but I have to admit they had a few good ideas. They haven’t solved the battery life problem, though.”
On the topic of business, Marianne remembered one of the reasons she’d come here today. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small disk containing the latest simulation data she’d gathered and handed it over to Ruben.
“Speaking of problems,” Marianne said after the exchange was done, “the biggest one is still pilot survivability. I’m amazing, and my darling protégé continues to impress, but the average devicer is too exposed. Regardless of the ethical issues, we can always throw more money at knightmares; training talent takes time.”
Although his voice was grudging, Ruben said, “That’s actually one of the good ideas I discovered up in Oregon. They built the entire frame around an enclosed cockpit ejection system.”
Marianne paused to think about the concept for a moment. The unimpeded view the Ganymede offered was noteworthy, but she did get ever so twitchy while constantly watching for a lucky foot soldier looking to take a pot shot at her.
An armoured cockpit would deal with snipers, too. I’m so tired of bloody snipers.
“From the expression on your face,” Ruben said, “I take it the idea gets your vote?”
Marianne nodded. “Look into it. Now if you don’t mind, could you tell me where I could find Sayoko? I have a task for her.”
“Ah… Nothing too…disagreeable, I hope?”
“I don’t anticipate any bodies,” Marianne said warily. The less Ruben knew, the better.
“I see. Well, I believe my granddaughter wandered off to a coffee shop nearby. I’ll send out a few people to fetch Sayoko and bring her to your office.”
“Very well.” As Marianne turned to leave, a thought occurred. “Oh, make sure not to leave Milly unprotected. Sayoko hasn’t reported any recent attempts on her, but we’ve been attracting more than the usual unwanted attention lately.”
“She was intending to go stay with her friends at Stadtfeld Manor,” Ruben offered.
Marianne nodded and left to find her office. Maybe I can bribe C.C. to watch over the kids. I’d probably just need to make a big pizza or something.
Having first handed Lady Milly off to the care of her grandfather, Sayoko stood before the door to Empress Marianne’s office. She raised her hand and knocked.
A moment later an, “Enter,” came from within.
Sayoko did as bidden and stepped inside. She shut the door behind her and approached Empress Marianne’s desk. Once there, she placed her hands together and bowed deeply. “You summoned me, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, take a seat, please. Just give me a moment.” A minute later, Empress Marianne finally set down her pen and pushed her paperwork away. Sighing, she leaned back in her chair. “How are you, Sayoko? Has Milly been well?”
“Lady Milly has been very entertaining. There have been no further abduction attempts since the last.”
“Excellent. Now then, I have a new mission for you, if you’re willing.”
With no hesitation, Sayoko replied, “The Shinozaki clan’s services remain at your disposal, Your Majesty.”
Nodding, Empress Marianne said, “I imagine you can handle this yourself, but if need be, feel free to call in help. I know who is behind the latest series of attacks on my family. Unfortunately, I’m not able to simply remove him, so I need you to do some digging around for me.”
“I assure you my clan is more than capable of disappearing anyone without it being tied back to you.”
Empress Marianne let out a frustrated grunt. “Not in this case, you’re not. I’d be the only suspect, or at least the primary one by default, and when things become dubious enough for me not to task the OSI with what I need done…” Left unsaid was that she would simply disappear as well with or without proof.
“Regardless,” said Empress Marianne. She reached into a drawer of her desk and retrieved a large photo. On it rested the visage of a young boy approximately Prince Lelouch’s age with floor length blonde hair. He wore a black cape and held all the dignity expected of royalty in his bearing.
“This boy is a member of the organisation trying to assassinate me. I’m aware of most of its structure, and I’m technically part of it myself. I’m sure there’s parts being hidden from me, however. I want you to follow this boy. Find out, approximately, where he goes.
“Do not approach him. Do not approach anyone he gives orders to. Tell no one about this unless you require your clan’s assistance. And for the sake of everything you love, do not give him the slightest hint of your presence. These people are more secretive and paranoid than the worst sections of the OSI and are more dangerous than you can imagine.”
“Understood. Do I have a place to start looking or a time frame?”
“The bulk of the organisation exists within the Imperial Palace itself, but there’s nothing of interest there. The boy’s name is V.V.. He tends to avoid being seen in crowds, but he has a weakness for Exelica Garden. If you need an official cover, I can get one for you.”
After a momentary pause to let Sayoko absorb everything, Empress Marianne continued, “That all said, the sooner you get this done, the better, but do not take risks under any circumstances. My family is already in enough danger without it being known that I’m sending shinobi out in retaliation.”
“As you wish. Is there anything else I need to know?”
“No. Just be careful, Sayoko.”
Rising to her feet, Sayoko said, “Very well. Your will be done, Your Majesty.” Offering one last bow, she then departed to see to the fulfilment of her orders.
September 26, 2009 a.t.b.
“And then Nunnally jumped out of the bush growling, ‘Arwoohaaa!’ Lelouch shrieked and I swear nearly passed out in fright. She did such a good job with the mud and leaves and twigs. The whole prank had to have taken hours to execute, but I suppose it’s not like kids have anything better to do with their time.”
Nearly ten-thousand kilometres away in Japan, Naoto smiled indulgently as his little sister rambled on about her time in Britannia with their dad. He was so glad he lived in the Future; video calls made their family’s separation so much easier to bear. He did have one little niggle, though.
“You do realise you’re a kid, right?”
“I mean, I guess,” Kallen said. Her sullen pout really was adorable. “But Nunnally, Milly, and Euphie don’t have nearly as much to do. I have to catch up with etiquette and such, which they’ve already formally learnt, and then there’s fencing lessons with Marianne, and she teaches me how to pilot the Ganymede when she’s around.”
“Uh-huh,” Naoto said, hoping to divert another passionate homage to ‘how awesome real life giant robots were’. “You’ve told me.”
“Well, I’m also learning French.”
Naoto quirked his eyebrows. That was news to him, although he supposed it made sense. Kallen was going to grow up to be important; knowing the most commonly spoken language in the EU would be invaluable.
“And I always have to keep ahead of Milly now that I’m her target as much as Lelouch.”
As hard as it was, Naoto resisted rolling his eyes at that one.
“Oh, and I’m also ahead of all three of them in my regular studies, and Milly is a year older than me.”
“Now there is something I like to hear,” Naoto said. “I see you’re taking well to homeschooling.”
“Well, yes,” Kallen admitted, “but mostly because I have to crush Lelouch.”
“You sound cross.”
Kallen pursed her lips.
“So what happened?”
The only answer Naoto received was an incomprehensible mumble.
“What was that? Please speak up.”
“It’s nothing. He beat me on a maths exam is all.”
“I see.” I’ll have to ask Dad for the whole story. It must have been a resounding defeat. “Beat him on the next one, then.”
“Can’t,” Kallen mumbled. Then more clearly, she continued, “He always gets perfects. I get them, too, but how do you beat that?”
“A most devious conundrum indeed.”
“You're not taking me seriously,” Kallen rather correctly accused.
“Can you blame me? I only have two terms left in my undergrad. I’m a wee bit beyond fractions.”
“We just started pre-algebra, I’ll have you know.”
“So fancy fractions.”
Relenting, Naoto said, “I’m glad to hear my little sister is still brilliant. How is your Britannian history?”
Kallen flinched before she could help herself. “Lelouch and I both agreed that doesn’t count. Besides, I’m catching up!”
The faint sound of a knock came from Kallen’s end of the conversation. She said, “Come in!” and then disappeared from the video. Sometime later, her microphone having only picked up incomprehensible noise in the interim, she returned with a guest.
The boy was impeccably dressed as expected. He stood tall and looked far more adult than he had any right to be. An indescribable aura of authority accompanied him despite his age. Something about how he held himself said he knew you knew he was important without a single word being spoken.
Naoto blinked, then looked between the prince and Kallen. With the two of them standing right beside each other, Kallen looked much the same. How had Naoto not noticed that happening?
“I’m not sure you two have ever been introduced,” Kallen said. “This is His Imperial Highness, Prince Lelouch vi Britannia, Eleventh Prince of the Realm. Lelouch, this is my brother Naoto Kōzuki. As you know, our family situation is complicated.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Prince Lelouch said.
“Uh, likewise, Your Highness,” Naoto replied. He shrugged off the oddness of the formal introduction. “Thank you for taking care of my little sister. I know things were tough for her until she met you and your sisters.”
“Well, met a couple of them,” Prince Lelouch said. “I imagine life would have gotten much worse for her if she'd met Carine or Guinevere instead, and the less said about the fourth princess the better.”
“Oh, I met her,” Kallen said flatly. “I had the pleasure of Igraine gi Britannia's company for nearly an entire minute a couple months ago before excusing myself. I was this close to throwing my wine at her.”
“Wait,” Naoto said, cutting off what he was sure was about to turn into a impassioned rant. “Dad is letting you drink at your age?”
“Not in the way you engaged in underage drinking.” Naoto flinched at the words. Kallen had him there. She then added simply, “The culture is different here.”
Naoto faked a cough. “Anyway,” he said, veering the topic away, “with both of you here, I suppose I should do the brotherly thing and ask how you’re doing. It’s been a little over a month now since the incident, hasn’t it?”
“Ah…” Kallen trailed off into silence as her head tilted down. Just off screen, Naoto swore he saw Prince Lelouch grasp her hand. While he was unsure how to feel about that, he did privately concede that those two were too young for him to risk threatening a prince over his precious little sister’s happiness.
Regardless, Kallen recovered quickly. “I’m fine. It happened. If it had to happen, I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t want to put my safety in his” – she pointed at Prince Lelouch – “hands.”
“Oi!” For better or worse, it looked like Prince Lelouch was now keeping his hands to himself. “I’d have done well enough. With the surprise attack I spoon-fed to you, the only thing you needed to know was ‘pointy end first’.”
“Hardly,” Kallen protested. “You’re neither precise nor accurate. Come challenge me again in a hundred–”
Naoto interrupted what felt like a well-trodden spat in one form or another with a shrill whistle. That got the kids’ attention back onto him. “I’m glad you’re both apparently doing well and have each other,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to know.”
Kallen and Prince Lelouch looked to each other then shrugged. The latter subsequently asked, “Kallen told me you’re in your undergraduate education. What are you hoping to do…” After a moment of hesitation, Prince Lelouch whispered to Kallen, “What do I call your brother?”
Having overheard the aside, Naoto said, “Kōzuki, Stadtfeld, or Naoto is fine, Your Highness. I get all three. Just pick one and stick with it.”
After dwelling on it for a moment, humming, Prince Lelouch said, “I feel like any choice would, in the wrong company, imply things you wouldn’t like.”
“I highly doubt I will ever be in the presence of the wrong company,” Naoto returned.
“A fair point. Very well. Just Lelouch is fine with me, too, then, Naoto-san?” Prince Lelouch looked to Kallen, who shook her head.
“Don’t. I slip sometimes, but I’m bilingual. Just don’t.”
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Naoto added. “I suffer enough Engrish on this side of the Pacific, thank you.”
“Fine. Anyway, as I was originally asking, what were you hoping to do with your degree?”
“Well,” Naoto began, “I’m a more or less a political history major. I intend to go into law school after graduating, but we’ll have to see if I pass the LSAT first.”
“Of course you will,” Kallen insisted.
“Ah,” Lelouch said. He then commented, “I’d invite you to study Britannian law and extend a job offer, but I honestly don’t think that’d be a good idea.”
“No, that’s fine,” Naoto said. “I don’t need you or Dad getting into trouble, anyway. I can find a job on my own.”
Lelouch looked to Kallen and quirked an eyebrow.
Hesitantly, Naoto asked, “Did I say something wrong?”
“No, not really,” Kallen said. “Lelouch is just confused because nepotism is the status quo here.”
“Ah,” Lelouch said in the background.
Meanwhile, Kallen added, “To be fair, the system works, so it’s not blind nepotism.”
“Uh-huh…” After getting a shrug from Kallen, Naoto said, “Well, I should get going. I have class soon.”
Naoto quickly said his goodbyes as well before Kallen closed the connection on her end. Alone once more, he leaned back in his seat and let out a slow, contented sigh. Life was good, if not always easy. For him, at least, nothing much had changed yet; he received more frequent visits from his mother, and that was about it.
A brief rap-tap came, and Naoto’s bedroom door opened.
“Hey, Naoto. Ready to go?”
Rotating his chair away from his computer, Naoto couldn’t help but compare his own best friend to Kallen’s. It was rude to think it, but some part of his mind labelled Ohgi Kaname as the perfect everyman. Where the prince was already growing up handsome, Kaname’s only truly distinguishing feature was his curly brown hair. Where the prince was naturally gifted, Kaname had to study hard to do as well. Where the prince was born to power, Kaname wanted nothing more than to be a primary school teacher.
In truth, Kaname was so easy to overlook compared to the other company that had touched Naoto’s life growing up. Luckily, he’d had the wisdom as a kid to take the man as a friend. And yet it was such an odd thought.
How can two people born to such similar circumstances experience such divergent lives? Naoto let out a quiet snort. Not that I want to deal with politics, and assassins, and certainly not Aunt Clarine. And really just Britannia in general.
“Ow,” Naoto muttered in reflex, not that a mild rap on the head actually hurt.
“Now that you're awake, are you ready to go?”
“Ah, no, not quite. You just missed our favourite Ojō-sama.”
“Oh? And how is Kallen-chan doing?”
“As well as ever, it seems. She's living in a political thriller while we're back here in a nice, quiet slice of life.”
“Ah, if only we were in a romantic comedy,” Kaname lamented.
“I didn't know you wanted to be a background character so much.”
“Ouch! I'm wounded! Clearly, I'm the protagonist at whom women inexplicably throw themselves.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Kaname. Your future students will love your humour.”
“Ha ha,” was Kaname’s deadpan response. “Anyway, hurry up, or we’ll miss the bus. I’m not walking to Tokyo U.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just let me pack my bag.”
A half hour later on said bus, Naoto was busy reading for his first class of the day when Kaname let out a long sigh. Curious, he looked up and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Just reading the news,” Kaname said. “The international stuff is depressing.”
“The Britannian war machine marches ever on, I take it.”
“Yeah… I don’t understand why they’re so successful.”
Rather simply, Naoto replied, “A massive economy, a war-oriented culture, a series of charismatic rulers, and a lack of significant internal dissension.”
“I more meant why the rest of the world just lets it all happen. What is Britannia up to now? Ten colonial areas?”
“If you’re counting Indochina, yes.” The truth was not pretty, but ignoring it would not make it go away. “As for why, I direct you to points one, two, three, and four. Take away any one, and Britannia crumbles, but its opponent needs all four itself to face the juggernaut. The Chinese Federation isn’t able to outspend Britannia, and the EU has trouble focusing. The neutral countries – Japan, Australia, and the like – are too small to do anything alone, and the Middle Eastern Federation is just a mess in general.
“Personally, I hope the powers that be don’t do anything too daft and draw Britannia’s attention here next. That would be…unpleasant.”
“Urgh. ‘Unpleasant’ doesn’t come close to describing it.” After a moment of browsing through the news on his phone, Kaname said, “At least all those political science courses are showing.”
“History, Kaname. Political history. I’ll leave actively participating in politics to my sister, thank you. I have a nice, comfortable, and hopefully quiet life lined up for myself.”
“What?” Naoto asked.
“Just wondering if Kallen-chan realises she’s probably done more to hamper Britannia’s war efforts in Indochina than anyone else. Ever since Marianne the Flash left the field, things have slowed down.”
Chuckling, Naoto rolled his eyes. The thought was amusing, if wrong. “I highly doubt Empress Marianne is staying in Britannia just to tutor my little sister. I think she was only physically in Indochina to begin with for research purposes.”
Kaname shrugged. “Whatever keeps gundams out of the equation.”
New York, Britannia
September 27, 2009 a.t.b.
Although not as absurdly large and pristine as the land surrounding Aries Palace, the countryside around Stadtfeld Manor was nothing to be overlooked. It stood only a dozen minutes’ ride from the southeastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. Astride her horse, Kallen looked out over her father’s domain from five-hundred feet above. She had always lived a life of luxury, but sometimes it struck her exactly just how much she had available to her.
Kallen turned her gaze to watch Lelouch bring his own horse back around to a stop beside her.
“No, not really. Just thinking about how lucky I am, I guess.”
“Lucky?” Lelouch looked at Kallen skeptically. “I suppose you could've been born a destitute Chinese peasant girl sold into slavery…”
Had they been closer, Kallen would have swatted Lelouch's arm in protest. “My life isn't nearly that bad.”
Holding up a hand, Lelouch started counting with his fingers. “Let’s see. Nearly assassinated. Family split apart. Legitimacy in question by relatives who hate you. A brewing war endangering your mother and brother. A secret heritage that would make life difficult for you if discovered. Holding very unpopular beliefs in general.”
Within the privacy of her own mind, Kallen conceded that maybe her life of privilege did, in fact, come with some major disadvantages.
Lelouch flinched at the sound of Milly’s voice. The girl was waving at them both from further up the trail. Along with her was Euphie, Nunnally, Reese, Cornelia, and that quiet girl, Anya Alstreim, who’d been sent to learn proper etiquette of all things from Marianne. Kallen was still trying to puzzle that one out, much less why Marianne had allowed it. The protective guard both Reese and Cornelia had organised had gone on ahead to secure their route and destination.
“Let's not tempt Milly to come up with a punishment for some perceived slight,” Kallen said. She urged her horse forward up the trail, and Lelouch fell in beside her.
Together, the entire group continued on up the mountainside. Reese led, and Cornelia brought up the rear. As today had proved unusually warm, they’d gathered up their little group to go swimming at a lovely secluded lake on the Stadtfeld family's property.
After a half-hour journey from Stadtfeld Manor, the group arrived at a crystal clear lake comfortably tucked away in a rocky area between two mountains. One end slowly drained down the mountainside in a quiet waterfall while the lake was fed from many small brooks flowing into it from all other sides. The water was a little cold, but even this high up, the day remained hot, humid, and otherwise miserable enough to enjoy the chill.
Nunnally and Milly took off first, tearing their clothes away as they ran to reveal swimsuits beneath. They jumped in together, wrapped up in two little balls to maximise their splashes. Cornelia and Reese set up camp nearby and went about basking in the sun and idly chatting with each other while Euphie took Anya off to play in the sand together. Lelouch and Kallen took their time getting used to the water’s temperature on their own terms despite Nunnally's and Milly’s best efforts to the contrary.
Some hours of fun both in the water and out later, Kallen found herself exhausted. She soon took to floating on her back and staring at the clouds. There were not many today, yet more than enough to idle away the rest of the afternoon.
“You, Kallen, are practically radiating melancholy.” The voice was Lelouch's, and it came with the quiet swishes of parting water as he swam closer. “What's up?”
“It’s nothing. Just thinking about earlier.”
“The whole ‘lucky’ thing?”
Not really being in any position to nod, Kallen said, “Yeah. I'm just in one of those moods, I suppose. The kind that feel really profound and pensive but are actually mostly not. You know?”
“No. I am always profound.”
Kallen splashed Lelouch as he so rightly deserved. That he had opted not to return the favour she took to mean he agreed with that fact.
“I guess what I'm thinking about right now is what am I going to do when I grow up,” Kallen said. “I’m a rich, noble heiress who can do whatever she wants and has royalty as her closest friends. I’m not going to whine about how my brother has it easy, but… Well, I just… I’ll have rather more of an impact on the world, I guess, for good, ill, or entirely pointless. And I don’t know what to do with myself, you know?”
Kallen hummed, annoyed. “Well, what do you want to do, Mr Eleventh Prince? Your brothers and sisters will have all the important jobs to themselves before too long, and you’re seventeenth in line for the throne.”
“There’s nothing wrong with just enjoying life and doing good where you can.”
“Is that it?” Kallen asked. She had a very hard time connecting Lelouch with the concept of a regular philanthropist. “No secret ambitions?”
“If I told you, they would hardly be secret.” The sarcasm was thick in Lelouch’s tone.
Technically speaking, that was true. Still, Kallen was not about to give up. “I’ll be your best friend.”
The silence stretched far into awkward territory before Lelouch finally said, “You are.”
In all honesty, when she really thought about it, Kallen herself felt much closer to Lelouch these days than Nunnally, Euphie, Milly, or the few friends she retained back in Japan. A little snort of amusement escaped her. If she jumped out a window, she could expect Lelouch to at least contemplate following. If she needed a training partner, Lelouch would grumble a bit and then agree. If she needed help with schoolwork, Lelouch was the person to go to – when they weren’t competing, that was. If she was in a more feminine mood, but not enough to seek out Nunnally and Euphie, Lelouch would warily put up with it. Really, there was simply no need for her to be anything but Kallen Stadtfeld around him.
“Well, good. You’re mine, too.” After a momentary pause, Kallen said, “So about those secret ambitions.”
“You’re no fun.” Kallen sighed. “Philanthropy, eh? I guess that wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It’s not like you have to decide anything anytime soon.” Lelouch’s voice then took on a dangerous tone as he said, “Besides, you could always become a knightmare pilot to battle giant alien robots from outer space. Between Euphie, Nunnally, and myself, I’m sure one of us would even be willing to personally knight you.”
Kallen took a deep breath and let herself sink beneath the surface. There she rode out her blush while the call for revenge grew ever stronger. She kicked off a large rock on the lake bed and darted over to Lelouch, where she pulled his legs out from under him and submerged him. She surfaced and laughed at the glare he had when he, too, came back above the water.
“You are asking for trouble.”
“I’d like to see you try, nancy boy.”
Lelouch lunged at Kallen, which she easily sidestepped. A smirk overtook her face as she saw the frustration show on his own. He lunged again to no effect. Kallen easily moved back and to her left to avoid him. When he tried again, she knew just the taunt to deliver.
“Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, you know.”
And yet Lelouch came at her again with an even deeper scowl. This time, however, Kallen found herself stumbling over a large rock right behind her, which sent her onto her back. That left her wide open for him to dunk her below the surface. When she came back up, Lelouch now had a smirk of his own.
“True stupidity is expecting an intelligent opponent to be stupid.”
“Oh, it is on now.” Kallen leapt forward to grapple with Lelouch.
New York, Britannia
September 28, 2009 a.t.b.
The next morning the group in its entirety had gathered together in the dining hall to partake of breakfast. Kallen could tell that Lelouch was still nursing a bit of a grudge against her glorious victory in single combat yesterday, but she passed over the opportunity to gloat.
Cornelia’s phone rung. She took it out of her pocket and glanced at it.
“Gottwald. Sorry, I have to take this.” Cornelia rose from her chair and finally answered her phone after she was nearly out the door. Five seconds later, a thunderous, “What?” boomed through the manor. Much quieter but still with a great sense of urgency, she then said, “No, no one outside the staff and family should know they’re here, although it’s an obvious enough guess.”
A few more seconds passed in absolute silence as Kallen and Lelouch first looked to each other before then silently asking if Nunnally or Euphie knew what was going on. Unsurprisingly, they did not.
“No, they’ll be safer here than travelling. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Within the hour if I catch the wind.” A few seconds passed in silence before what was almost certainly the sound of a fist impacting a wall hard broke it.
Cornelia stepped back into the dining room, but only barely. “Lord Stadtfeld, keep the children in the manor. All of them.”
Certainly recognising that for the obvious royal edict that it was, Reese nodded. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“Cornelia,” Euphie said with more than a bit of trepidation in her voice. Cornelia paused in her rush out the door to glance back. “What happened?”
It took a few seconds for Cornelia to decide what to say, and that only worried Kallen all the more. Judging by their expressions, Euphie and Nunnally felt the same way. Lelouch’s face, though, looked ashen. He must have picked up on something that Kallen had missed.
“I’ll tell you later,” Cornelia eventually said. “I need to leave immediately.”
By the time Cornelia was out the door, Lelouch had schooled his expression into a tight frown. Kallen was not fooled, but apparently no one else had noticed his initial reaction.
“What do you think happened?” Nunnally asked no one in particular.
“I hope Mum isn't hurt,” Euphie said. Kallen thought it was a good guess, but there was no way Lelouch would have gotten so worked up over Euphie's and Cornelia's mother, and none of them held any particular love for the emperor.
“Agreed,” Nunnally quietly said. She then asked, “Clovis, maybe? Schneizel?”
“Maybe…” Euphie was as sceptical of that as Kallen, judging by her tone.
“You don't think something happened to Aries Villa while we were all away, do you?”
While we were all away?
“That’d make sense,” Milly said. “Cornelia is the captain of the guard for your home. That'd explain why she left in such a rush.”
Alstreim continued to say nothing but silently nodded.
That wouldn’t explain why Cornelia refused to say anything, though. One glance at Lelouch silently picking at his food with his head down told Kallen he agreed with her. That name, Gottwald. Where have I heard it before…
A few seconds later, the memory struck Kallen. That guard who caught Lelouch when he jumped out the window. So it does have something to do with the villa. Then Lelouch’s and Cornelia’s reactions–
Kallen stifled a gasp.
The idea was impossible, practically blasphemy. Treason, even! Marianne was so strong and too smart to fall into a trap. But when Kallen thought about it, the only explanation for her observations had to be that something terrible had happened to Marianne at Aries Villa. And with almost no one there the past several days, no one would have been around to help her.
Seeing as Lelouch had not said a word himself, Kallen similarly kept out of the ensuing conversation as much as possible. She so wanted to believe her reasoning was full of holes. Life wasn’t supposed to be like stories. She wasn’t supposed to lose her mentor. Lelouch and Nunnally weren’t supposed to lose their mother.
Kallen was not feeling very optimistic.
The door to Lelouch’s room opened just as Kallen expected. She’d left breakfast first and made her way to where she’d correctly assumed Lelouch would hole himself up. He walked right by her without even noticing. Despite the circumstances, Kallen found a hint of amusement in that. She was hardly trying to hide herself, leaned up against the foot of his bed as she was. It made her feel just a little bit lighter; she could be what Lelouch needed right now.
One. Two. Three. Kallen counted to twenty-four while watching Lelouch brood and pace with a scowl on his face. He then jumped in surprise, having finally noticed her presence.
“Kallen! What – where did you come from?”
“I've been standing here the whole time.”
Lelouch had no response to that. “What do you want?”
“Nothing. I can't claim to know exactly what's going on in your head, but I've endured being separated from my mother and brother. It was…hard, at first. I needed a friend so much back then, but I wouldn't meet you, Nunnally, and Euphie for weeks and weeks yet. Nunnally is probably going to need all of us to be strong for her, but until then, I'm all yours. Whatever you need.”
It took a few seconds for Lelouch to gather himself. “You figured it out?”
“You sound so sceptical. I'm insulted.”
Lelouch quirked an eyebrow.
“Seeing your expression when you did helped,” Kallen admitted. “No one else was paying attention, though.”
“But I don't think it'll take Dad long to guess. If he hasn't already. There aren't many reasons Cornelia would leave like that without saying why, and one of them was eating breakfast with us.”
“Will he say anything?”
Kallen shook her head. “I don't think so. Not until he knows for sure what happened, at least.”
“I hope you're right. I don't want Nunnally to see me right now.”
Her gaze drifted down, where Kallen noted that Lelouch's hands were curled into fists. One had his nails digging into his palm, and the other was crushing a roll he must have taken with him from breakfast.
Not terribly sure what she should be doing, Kallen kept her tone solemn and allowed only the slightest hint of levity to enter it. “And Euphie and Milly, too, I suppose. Are my delicate sensibilities of no concern to you?”
Lelouch let out an angry snort. Apparently, he saw the humour in the question, if nothing else. “You're whatever I need right now, if I remember correctly.”
“Besides, what did you feel when you found out your parents were getting divorced just for you to be acknowledged as your father's daughter?”
Fierce burning hate, anger, and smoldering guilt. The answer came without prompting or filtering. It showed on Kallen's face, too, and she felt no shame in it. Those were not emotions to show Nunnally or Euphie, however – Cornelia, perhaps, and maybe Milly, but not those two.
Lelouch hurled his crushed bread into the rubbish, nearly knocking the entire bin over with the force of it. “I hate this. My mother is dead or dying, and I'm stuck here. Worse, I'd just get in the way if I did anything. This feeling…”
“I'm sure you'll get justice, if not revenge.”
A dry laugh escaped Lelouch. “Not even going to pretend it might've been an accident?”
The question was rhetorical, but Lelouch answered it anyway. “Is that what you're going to do to the Stadtfelds when you have the power? Revenge?”
“It'd be a lie to say I haven't entertained the idea on occasion. Just as I'm sure you are already.”
Lelouch's wry smile really said everything for him. “The only question is who?”