Round Two

Stage 28 - Revelations


Shikinejima

Philippine Sea

October 3, 2017 a.t.b.


Marianne had rotated through a series of bodies over the past day and a half. Some she’d explicitly asked for permission while others would simply not be missed for an hour or two. It made associating any one face with her difficult at best, and Kallen assumed that had been her intent. It made it easy to think of her as the ghost and not the vessel.

This changed, of course, when Sayoko arrived at Kallen’s hospital room with the still comatose body of Elizabeth Ward hefted over her shoulders like luggage. She pried the poor young woman’s eye open, and Marianne made the jump.

As might have been expected, Marianne’s first words back in her usual host were, “Gross. I need a shower.” Sayoko had done her best under the circumstances, surely, but Elizabeth was a coma patient. Marianne then left to see to her host’s hygienic needs.

After that short exchange, Sayoko departed with the promise to come back after she’d checked up on her cousin’s tenuous grasp on life and spoken with the rest of her clan.

Marianne returned first. In one hand she held a truly massive bowl of rice, shrimp, mushrooms, and, judging by the smell, a full tonne of garlic. The other hand kept itself busy shovelling as much food into her mouth as possible. When she noticed the look her son and daughter-in-law were giving her, she said, “What? Lizzie hasn’t eaten in nearly three days. I’m starving.”

Rather dryly, Lelouch replied, “I think I speak for the both of us when I say it’s not the manner but the matter.”

“Ah,” Marianne hummed through a full mouth. Once she swallowed, she said, “I get the same sensory input as my host, and Lizzie’s body isn’t exactly fully intact. If you think this is bad, you should see me drink my sugar with a little tea for flavour.”

“How badly hurt is she?” Kallen asked.

“Her consciousness hasn’t once stirred in the entire time I’ve had her. That badly.”

“Will she ever wake up?” It certainly didn’t sound like it.

“Probably not, which is one of the main reasons why I picked her to use as my primary host for the past few years. But speaking of, you two” – Marianne pointed at the pair with her spoon – “weren’t surprised Lizzie is in a coma when Sayoko brought her in. She shouldn’t be on record anywhere. Explain.”

Kallen wanted no part in answering that question and shoved all responsibility for it off onto Lelouch. It’d been his idea anyway. If Marianne prodded for more information than she needed, he could deal with whatever consequences his own decisions brought upon him.

“Last I checked,” Lelouch began, “your paper trail begins and ends at Ashford. I don’t know if Ruben has destroyed it yet or not.”

“Then how?”

“Her great uncle committed a felony in recent years.”

Marianne slapped a hand to her forehead with a groan. “So his DNA is in the system now. I didn’t even think about that.” She set down her meal long enough to fire off a message on her phone. “There. Leak plugged. So when did you steal Lizzie’s DNA from me?”

“When I gave you my recruitment pitch,” Kallen said. She directed a lighthearted glare at Lelouch. “Someone ordered the maids not to clean up after us without telling me.” He’d technically gone behind her back on that one, but she hardly blamed him given the context.

Indeed, the weight of Lelouch’s guilt troubled him not in the least as he moved the conversation onwards to the next topic. “Kallen told me you mentioned something about a plan to create a better world. She also told me you were rather unforthcoming about it. Care to elaborate after yesterday?”

“Well…I suppose it ties into the other explanation I promised you. I’ll give it a try, but your father is better at this sort of thing than me.”

The look on Lelouch’s face told everyone exactly what he thought of that idea.

Marianne sighed. “I know Charles can be a little rough around the edges–”

“Mum, it’s your business who you love, but let’s not pretend that he and I have a functioning father-son relationship. It’s certainly not one I ever intend to emulate.”

Even as she watched Marianne wilt, resigned to the truth, Kallen felt a warm smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She hadn’t thought much of it as a child, but she’d seen firsthand how Marianne would run herself ragged in order to have at least one parent actively involved in her children’s lives as often as possible. It certainly hadn’t helped when Kallen had befriended the family and placed even more demands upon her time. That wasn’t a life Kallen wanted for herself.

Now that she thought of it, Kallen wondered if that had been the tipping point. Marianne’s fight with V.V. had come less than half a year after she’d arrived. Even if Marianne’s explanation for V.V.’s attempt to murder her were to be taken at face value, the two had coexisted for a decade by then. Could Kallen have caused a chain reaction? Could her need for Marianne’s attention have in turn required Marianne to seek comfort and relief from the emperor more often and thus strained their relationship with V.V.?

It was probably best not to dwell on such thoughts.

Kallen sought out Lelouch’s hand with her own, banishing dark thoughts and pushing a smile back onto her face. Anyone who knew Lelouch knew how he doted on family. “As if you would even try,” she teased. “You’re so weak to your little sisters. If we ever have a daughter, you’ll be putty in her hands.”

Despite how true he must know it to be, in his indignation, Lelouch denied it all.

“But I appreciate your concern for my sanity nonetheless. I don’t think I would survive trying to balance my title, my knighthood, our adventures, and children alone. Marianne, you were a brilliant mentor in most things, but I do like to sleep.”

That managed to pull a light chuckle from Marianne. “Sleep is overrated. If you’re feeling tired, just jump to a body that’s not.”

“You didn’t!”

Marianne smiled innocently.

“That is so wrong.”

“Perhaps,” Marianne allowed. “But can you honestly claim the moral high ground?”

“Well…”

“Ehem.” Both women turned to Lelouch. “While it’s fascinating to know that both of you regularly abuse your gifts, perhaps we could continue our conversation?”

“Very well. Where to begin?” The remainder of her meal forgotten, Marianne leaned back in her chair in thought. “Hmm… Do you know what a hive mind is?”

Eyes narrowing so slightly Kallen was unsure if Marianne even noticed, Lelouch asked. “Do you mean the swarm intelligence ants exhibit or the sci-fi notion of a single will computed across multiple minds?”

“The latter.”

“Are you suggesting the solution to humanity’s problems is to bind everyone into a collective?”

A knowing smirk grew on Marianne’s face in response to Lelouch’s question. “Poppet, do you remember what I told you about how geass work?”

“Yes, you said–” Kallen’s eyes widened. Marianne gave her an encouraging nod. “All humans are connected.”

Lelouch understood immediately. “You mean–”

“Mm-hmm. Humanity is a collective intelligence.” It took a few moments for that to sink in. To Kallen, Marianne then asked, “Describe how you felt when you used the Thought Elevator.”

Kallen required no further explanation. She understood. She needed only to translate that primal knowledge into words. “Big. Expanded. Connected.”

“Congratulations on your first real peek behind the veil. Humanity has given it many names. God. The collective unconscious. The sea of transmigration. C’s World. But in the end, it’s just us. All of us who have ever been or ever will be. It’s where we’re born and where we ultimately return.”

Kallen’s breath hitched. “Marianne,” she began carefully, wary of breaking her own heart, “is there an afterlife?”

Rather than answer immediately, Marianne took Kallen’s free hand with both of hers. Lelouch’s own squeezed a little tighter. She offered a sad smile as she said, “Yes, but no. It is an imprecise metaphor, but we tiny humans are the masks C’s World wears to amuse itself. Without them, we’re but thoughts and memories waiting to be called upon. Your parents still exist, dear, but their masks are shattered.”

“No.” The word came as a whisper on the wind. “Please, there must be some way to–” Kallen wasn’t sure what she even wanted, just that she wanted something. “I…” Her vision blurred. She went to rub at her eyes, but two arms gently pulled her into Lelouch’s embrace. “I’m fine,” she protested, hating how strained her voice sounded.

“No, you’re not,” Lelouch insisted. “Mum, could you give us a minute?”

“Of course.”

The door had barely shut behind Marianne when Lelouch first whispered words of comfort in Kallen’s ear as he held her, when he assured her that it was okay to cry when life slapped her in the face. She felt her control slip faster the harder she tried to hold herself together. In the end, her efforts proved futile when she finally broke down on his shoulder.


After letting Kallen cry herself into physical and emotional exhaustion with the intermittent curse upon her father’s family and how unfair it was that she didn’t get her parents back too, Lelouch put her back to bed. She needed time to heal both old wounds and new despite whatever drowsy objections she raised. Once her breathing evened out into the familiar cadence of sleep, he quietly slipped out of her room. He instructed the guards as he left to ensure she was allowed to rest undisturbed.

With purpose, Lelouch marched through the hospital and eventually found Marianne on the ground floor purchasing some fizzy drink from a vending machine. She noticed him soon enough, and he beckoned her to come join him in a secluded room where they wouldn’t be overheard. “Mother,” he said tersely when she entered.

“Oh dear. I know that look. You can deny it if you wish, but you have a lot in common with your father.”

“I’m aware. And like him, I know everything about how to manipulate and persuade people.” Lelouch narrowed his eyes into a sharp glare. “If you were lying about any of that, I will never forgive you.”

Despite this, Marianne smiled. “Ah, love. My little prince is all grown up.” Then came the sound of aluminium snapping and the hiss of air escaping. “It is a lot to swallow, and we’ve only just started. I wouldn’t risk V.V.’s temper or ability to make bad decisions anytime soon, but perhaps another day we can verify everything for you.”

“No.” That would end terribly, no doubt. “I trust you more than my doubt compels me to risk a confrontation with my unstable uncle.”

“I’m glad you still feel that way.” Marianne offered Lelouch an almost, dare he say it, shy smile before she took a drink and broke the moment. “There’s something else you should know. The dead are never fully gone. When someone dies, it’s true that all sense of self is lost, but their little bundle of memories is still there in C’s World. If you find them, you can interact with them.”

“Do you mean you can speak with the dead? Kallen could speak with her parents?”

Marianne averted her eyes. With a subdued voice, she said, “Unless you’re merely after facts, I personally wouldn’t recommend it. It is…not as pleasant as one might think.” No further explanation followed.

Lelouch considered, for a few quiet moments, asking with whom Marianne had learnt that lesson. He had a few suspicions: his grandparents, perhaps. But it was not his business to pry into something she obviously didn’t wish to speak of.

“Do bear in mind that a Thought Elevator is required to access C’s World. Or a cooperative code bearer to act as a medium. I will leave whether to tell Kallen or not up to you.”

No true decision needed to be made. It took no effort for Lelouch to imagine how explosive Kallen’s temper would be if he sat on this information and she found out.

“Anyway, shall we head back up?”

“No, she’s asleep. She’ll let us know when she awakens, I’m sure.” After a moment, Lelouch realised Marianne had used an unfamiliar term. “Code bearer?”

Marianne hummed her surprise at the question. “All immortals have a code. Hence code bearers.” When prompted, she explained, “You can think of a code as admin access to a Thought Elevator without much loss of understanding. If you want a more mystical explanation in greater detail, you should ask your father.”

If that was to be the cost of elaboration, then Marianne’s explanation would suffice well enough. Lelouch, however, politely made no mention of that fact.


It wasn’t until just before supper when Kallen finally awoke. Once Marianne promised to finish their discussion after eating, Lelouch ordered a light soup Kallen would find easy to eat that they could share. With that in hand, he climbed back upstairs and found his way back to his wife’s bedside.

“Mmm…” The aroma alone floating through the air roused Kallen from her repose. Now upright, she craned herself farther upwards in an effort to get a better look. “Smells good. What is it?”

“Potato soup.” Lelouch pulled a nightstand from the wall for better access and then placed the bowl atop it. Handing Kallen a spoon, he added, “You may wish to know that my mother played no part in its creation.”

Smiling through a mouth full of food, tiny little snorts revealed Kallen’s laughter. “Speaking of, what did I miss?”

“Not much.” They’d kept their conversation in the interim mostly about their personal lives to avoid having to repeat themselves. “I did learn that immortals are the sysadmins of the afterlife.”

Kallen nearly choked on her food this time. Once she forced it down, still laughing, she said, “Lelouch! Be serious!”

“I may have paraphrased, but only slightly.” Lelouch quickly relayed what Marianne had told him about codes and code bearers.

“Ha! I totally called it. When you weren’t around. And we never made a bet.” A click of the tongue mourned for that lost opportunity. “Anything else?”

Lelouch waited until Kallen was between bites this time, and she got the message that she should hold up. “Allegedly, it’s possible to speak with the dead through the Thought Elevators.”

A short influx of air met the words.

“Mum didn’t recommend it, although she declined to specify precisely why.”

Kallen said nothing.

Lelouch, in turn, declined to disturb her thoughts.

They were nearly done eating when Kallen finally spoke again. “Knowing how these sorts of stories go, I imagine I would be thrilled at first, then concerned, then regretful, and at the end I’d learn an important lesson about letting go.”

“Or kill yourself to join them in the bad ending.”

A small smile grew on Kallen’s face. “If Marianne thinks it’s a bad idea, it’s probably best I heed her advice for now and not dwell on it. We can revisit the possibility once your uncle is no longer an obstacle.”

“Whatever you decide,” Lelouch said. He suspected any attempt would end in tears, but he would be there to help Kallen put herself back together afterwards.

Kallen hummed her thanks. “Unrelated, but I feel a little better about my body count now. It’s not as though any of them are dead dead. Only mostly dead.

That changed very little about the moral weight of their actions, but Lelouch did concede that Kallen had a point. It wasn’t long after that when Marianne reappeared. He cleared away the mess, and then the three of them returned to their prior positions to continue their conversation.

Before they began, Kallen said, “I apologise for my little emotional episode.”

“Nonsense, Poppet. We’re family. If you were younger, I would have been the one consoling you.”

In a quiet voice, Kallen said, “Yes, I suppose you would have.” She then buried, Lelouch assumed, thoughts of her parents’ deaths and offered Marianne a mischievous grin. “But perhaps not. Lelouch here needed the practice over the years. Why, when we were kids–”

“–I was perfect in every way just as I am now.” Lelouch neither needed nor wanted to hear whatever embarrassing story Kallen intended to share. She rolled her eyes at him, but she could tell tales on her own time. He had no doubt she and Marianne would find some private time together to gossip, spar, and do whatever else they desired. “Now then, as I understand it, a Thought Elevator allows one to connect to humanity’s collective intelligence and utilise it. At least in limited ways. Is that correct?”

“Close enough.”

“So how do they tie into this mysterious plan of yours?” They must be more versatile and powerful than they appeared on the surface if Marianne and the emperor had devoted themselves to conquering their way across the world just to control all of them.

“Before I answer that, I think we would benefit from a brief digression. I trust you both know I have a telepathic link with C.C..”

“I told Lelouch everything you told me.”

Marianne nodded to herself as if ticking off some mental checkbox. “Do you recall how I said she did that?”

When Kallen hesitated, Lelouch stepped in. “I believe you said, in vaguer terms, that C.C. manipulated your connection to C’s World.”

“Precisely!” Marianne said with a snap of her fingers on the second beat. “More specifically, she made it easy for her to find me in the collective at any time and any place. It’s a complex but harmless process, not unlike placing a bookmark or tying a metaphysical bell around one’s neck. I’ve heard that when you were on Kaminejima, many of those you brought with heard voices whilst there.”

“Ah. She was having trouble finding me? Or Lelouch?”

Marianne nodded. “Knowing her, she’s already fixed that after yesterday so she can keep a better eye on you. You’re the only active contract she has, so she won’t risk losing you.”

The only active contract? That reminded Lelouch of something C.C. had told him. “You broke your contract with her. Why?” He’d once thought it was because of her death, but that reasoning was now obviously incorrect.

“Oh. She told you that, did she?” Marianne’s lips pursed, idly sliding back and forth across their opposite as she considered how to respond. In the end, interestingly enough, she evaded the question. “I think it’s only fair to C.C. if I don’t answer that. If it’s her wish you’re curious about, you’ll have to wait until she tells you herself. I promise it’s nothing horrid.”

Marianne had hit the nail on the head, but she did sound sincere in that, so Lelouch dropped the subject.

“Right. Anyway, don’t be surprised if you suddenly hear her speaking in your head,” Marianne said to Kallen. “If you’re not in the mood, you can put up a wall between you and her as you did with me. Unless she forces her way in, of course. The perks of being a code bearer.”

“Does she do that often?” Kallen asked with a slight frown.

“Only when she’s feeling particularly wilful or difficult. Or when it’s necessary. She has a lot of respect for mental privacy but little elsewhere.”

Well, at least that’s something. Lelouch certainly remembered the dozens of little intrusions C.C. had committed over their time together. From the annoyed puff of air Kallen let out, she did as well.

“Now then,” Marianne continued, “next question. How do you think she grants someone a geass?”

“Similarly, I would imagine,” Lelouch replied.

“Right again,” Marianne said. “It’s fascinating all of the things she can do by manipulating our connections with C’s World. She can bridge minds. She can push and pull memories. She can induce visions. The list is endless.

Marianne leaned forward. “And she can do so much more when she’s at the helm of a Thought Elevator.”

All of the suspicions Lelouch had developed, including his original ones, returned to the forefront of the mind. Depending on how this conversation played out, Marianne could become a very powerful ally or a very great enemy. He skipped over the intermediate exposition and leapt straight to the inevitable conclusion. “You’re suggesting we change human nature itself.”

Surprise showed so clearly on Marianne’s face, but she recovered quickly. Indeed, much more quickly than Kallen, who remained speechless. Pride replacing shock, she said, “Indeed, I am.”

“How so?”

“I wish for a world where we all understand one another. Your father wishes for a world without lies. You two, I know, wish for a world where everyone is regarded with basic human decency. None of these desires are incompatible.”

“Perhaps,” Lelouch allowed, “but you’ve yet to identify what specific change you wish to make.”

“You’re right. I haven’t. To continue our earlier metaphor, I want to peel away our masks.”

He assumed not, because it took a special kind of person to plot the death of humanity, but Lelouch asked, “Would that not kill us all?”

“Hmm, perhaps my metaphor was ill-chosen in this case.” Marianne leaned back in her seat, tapping a finger along her jaw as she reconsidered her words. “It is hard to truly do justice to the concept without experiencing it firsthand.” She turned to Kallen. “When you contracted with C.C., do you remember a moment where you felt as though her soul lay bare before you?”

“I do.” From how Kallen had described it in a jumbled mess of words, Lelouch knew that was not something one forgot. “When I used the Thought Elevator, I experienced the same with those around me.”

Nodding, Marianne said, “What you experienced, that…rawness of being, was you peeking behind the mask. Perhaps you can help me explain.”

Kallen spared Marianne an uncertain look before making her own attempt. “The allegory of the cave, I think, addresses her intent precisely. She once was the prisoner, chained to see nothing but the shadows cast on the wall. From nothing but silhouettes, she thought she knew the person who made them. Indeed, to her, the silhouettes were the person. Then she broke free and saw real truth, not mere shadows. It was shocking and scary at first, but she grew to appreciate it. Now she’s returned to the cave to show us a better way. But to us, we think her blind because she’s grown used to the sun and can no longer abide life in the darkness.”

“In other words,” Lelouch began, “without the mask, I would see not the many varying facets of yourself you show me but rather all of you at once.” As Kallen confirmed his interpretation, he folded his arms together and turned to Marianne. “I believe you when you say words do the concept little justice. I imagine it’s much like describing colour to a man who has been blind from birth.”

“An apt comparison,” Marianne said.

“Intriguing.” No doubt a novel about such a society would make for an engaging read. “However, I’m unconvinced of the merits of your plan. I rather enjoy discovering new aspects of both myself and my wife.”

Oddly enough, Marianne chuckled at that. “It’s nothing,” she replied when questioned. She then said, “You misunderstand my proposal. It’s not as though you would turn into an omnipotent being able to understand everything at once. When you look at a painting, you don’t know all of its secrets in a glance. When you watch a film, you never catch all of its little touches in the first viewing. When you read a book, you never understand its themes without additional thought. There will always be something new to discover about others if you only take the time to look.”

“Doesn’t that run contrary to your stated goal of making people understand one another?” Lelouch asked.

“A little bit, yes, but I’m trying to be realistic here.” Marianne ignored Kallen’s smothered laughter. “Even C’s World can’t deal with the endless infinities required to understand all things. V.V. and I got into a series of heated debates over that. I tried to explain that some of the things he wanted were mathematically impossible, but noooo.” The sarcasm grew thick in her voice. “I was just an uneducated street rat around whom Charles couldn’t keep it in his pants.”

Lelouch cringed, to Kallen’s further amusement, and tried to tell Marianne that he really hadn’t needed to hear that, but she was too far gone into her rant.

“What could I know? It wasn’t like Ruben crammed a lifetime of education into my head or anything. I worked hard for my mathematics degree. I didn’t get it to do maths, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about. I swear, if I still had my body, I would rip that little troll’s code right out of him and see how he likes his own medicine.”

Despite wondering whether it had been deliberate or not, Lelouch tucked away that little admission. All immortals had a code, and codes could be stolen, therefore his assumption that immortals could be killed was correct.

Kallen cleared her throat. “Could I interrupt for a moment? Great. Assume everything works out exactly as you intend. You implied that this plan of yours will make people treat each other like, well, people. How does this prevent, for example, the kind of animosity between you and V.V. from proceeding to its natural end?”

A sigh escaped Marianne. “It probably won’t stop personal animosities between people who genuinely just hate each other from spiralling out of control. Charles is optimistic to the contrary, and V.V. I know is riding on it after what he did to me, but…” She shrugged. “But the little things? The lesser evils? If, say, a nobleman kicks a number boy out of his way and understands, sympathises with, and feels what he just did, I doubt he’ll do it again. If a wealthy heiress sees a starving homeless girl on the street, I expect she’ll be far less inclined to pretend to have seen nothing.

“Sure, there will be outliers. Humans as a species are extremely adaptable in sometimes the worst ways possible.”

“Indeed, we are,” Lelouch cut in to put forth a thought experiment. “Consider Alice and Bob, happily married and besotted with each other. Then Bob dies.” He noted that Marianne looked about to say something to that before deciding against it. “Alice spirals into a deep depression. No one wants to be pulled down with her. Even if they wouldn’t be, she’s an emotional blight upon the neighbourhood. So they ship her off to some island with the rest of her ilk where she will never escape her misery. Is this just in your new world?”

“Of course not!” Marianne replied without hesitation. “That would be an institutional failure of the highest order.”

“But does it not qualify as harassment, however unintentional? Is it not Alice’s responsibility to not emotionally abuse those around her with her own depression? Are there not people who would pay her to move somewhere to torment an enemy? To reduce property values?”

“All systems can be exploited, Lelouch. There’s no such thing as perfection.”

“Then let me ask why yours? To me, at least, it seems you’re merely replacing one set of problems with another that you find more palatable.”

“It also sounds very intrusive,” Kallen added. “I’m a public figure well used to intense scrutiny. My entire life since I came to Britannia is practically on public record in one form or another. But even I would feel uncomfortable being so exposed to all and sundry.

Marianne addressed Kallen first. “Only because you’re not used to it. Be honest. How much has the way you think changed since you gained your geass? If you were born with it, you would think everyone else was weird for not having an intuitive understanding of time manipulation. If you were born into a society of empaths, how crippled would we regular humans seem in comparison?”

Kallen admitted Marianne had a point. Regardless of whether it was an improvement, humanity would adapt and normalise the changes.

Now addressing Lelouch, Marianne said, “You’re exactly right. I do want to replace one set of problems with another that I find more palatable. I find them more palatable because I believe they’ll be easier to manage. Because no one can hide them behind rhetoric and lies. Because the true horrors of the world will end with their rise.

“I have spent–” Marianne cut off with a significant glance at Kallen. As her eyes shifted to Lelouch, she slumped over in her chair. Then in the privacy of his mind, she asked, “Did you tell her we can speak with the dead?”

“Yes, I did,” Lelouch answered aloud. The next moment, in less than a blink, Kallen was leaned over the side of her bed with a hand holding open one of Elizabeth’s eyes. No chance to resist, just as Kallen said. “That is very perturbing.”

Marianne offered wan smile before continuing from where she’d left off. “I have spent more time than I care to admit trawling through the dead for firsthand accounts of the horrors humanity has unleashed upon itself. From the Emblem of Blood and the Great War all the way back to the Roman Republic and beyond. From genocides and massacres to rape victims and slaves. We never learn as we are. Isn’t it time we said enough?”

“Of course it is. It’s what Kallen and I have dedicated our lives to doing.” Lelouch exchanged a look with her. “Would you give us the night to discuss this between us and sleep on it?”

“Certainly, but please do keep this just between the two of you. I know you have your own network these days, but I’d prefer not to have this information floating about.”

After they promised to keep quiet, Marianne said she would go see what was keeping Sayoko and left the room. Lelouch immediately set about searching for bugs. There were few places his mother could have put one with the limited access she’d had to Kallen’s room and the adjacent area, so his task proceeded quickly. While he doubted she would stoop to spying on them, he would rather trust but verify than be caught by surprise.

As Lelouch worked, Kallen spoke first to fill what would otherwise be suspicious silence. “I must admit, I wasn’t expecting any of today.”

“And you are the only person claiming to see the future who I never expected to say that.”

“I could always offer to read your palm. I’m sure you’d rapidly lose faith in me.”

“Hardly.” Satisfied with his search and having found nothing of consequence, Lelouch moved to draw the curtains on the off chance Marianne had more exotic equipment available to her. “Do you need anything while I’m up?”

“More water would be nice.”

Lelouch took the offered cup and filled it from the ward’s sink. On his way back to his seat, he instructed the guards just outside the room to keep everyone at a distance except in a medical emergency.

“So,” Kallen began, “want to bet we get memory wiped if we disapprove of the plan?”

“That sounds like a fool’s wager. If I won, I wouldn’t remember to collect, now would I?”

Kallen wagged her finger while clicking her tongue. “You forget. Marianne’s contract with C.C. is not only over but broken and by your mother no less, so her loyalty is all ours. Moreover, since Marianne spilled the secret, she has no lingering obligation to keep the information from us. I imagine she’d restore our memory soon enough. And as far as I know, Marianne is unaware she’s done that once for us already.”

“You have a point,” Lelouch conceded. “But I believe I’ll decline. It’s not a bet I’d wish to win.”

With the frivolities out of the way, they both took a moment to collect themselves and reflect upon everything they’d heard. If Marianne had tried to tell them about this only a couple years ago, Lelouch would have called her mad. Now, however, with everything he’d seen and learnt about magic, he didn’t doubt that she could successfully execute her plan. Whether that plan would have the intended effect or not and what the side effects would be, well, that was another story entirely.

Lelouch broke the silence first. “What are your thoughts?”

“Hmm…” That was a rather uncertain sounding hum. “My gut reaction is to tell Marianne she’s lost the plot. If she were springing this on us at the last second, plan in motion, as she obviously intended since she didn’t want us involved, I’d do everything in my power to put a stop to it.”

That about summed up Lelouch’s own initial thoughts on the matter. It was fortunate they need not make a high-pressure snap decision. He had no desire to alienate his mother so soon after getting her back despite the lingering resentment he still held for her absence. Regardless, he knew Kallen had more to say. “But…” he led.

“But I do have some objections to the way the world works. I don’t know if she has the right idea or not or if we even have the right to muck around with the human condition, but…well, I’m curious. Teleportation. Regeneration. Geass in general. There are so many things we already know magic is capable of, and there’s so much potential for application. What else might we be able to do?”

“It would be nice if we could encode basic human decency, as Mum put it, into humanity. Don’t murder. Don’t rape. Nevermind the more ambitious possibilities; that alone would be worth the effort.”

Kallen agreed with a silent nod. She, Lelouch suspected, found the idea even more tempting than he did. “Hmm…” A few moments later, she said, “Marianne doesn’t know how much privacy we’d have after her plan’s execution.”

“I think it’s fair to assume little to none.”

“Probably.” Kallen shrugged. “So what’s your take on this?”

Cautious and wary were probably the best words to describe Lelouch’s thoughts on the matter. Whatever her co-conspirators’ true intentions and motivations, he didn’t doubt that his mother had noble goals. On the other hand, he had to wonder if her choice of implementation was entirely her own, a compromise with the emperor plus or minus V.V., or merely a plan she simply accepted because her lover already had it in the works. He knew he, at least, didn’t scrutinise Kallen’s decisions very often even when those choices affected them both unless asked to nor vice versa.

“Not much different than yours,” Lelouch replied. “I’m very interested in the how but remain equally sceptical of the execution.”

“I’m glad we’re on the same page. Whatever we decide to do, we’re going to need a completely united front on this one.”

Lelouch agreed wholeheartedly. They were already in over their heads. He doubted his mother would sow trouble within one of her favourite ships – he resisted pinching the bridge of his nose as he thought that – but if the emperor or V.V. felt their plan threatened and saw a vulnerability to exploit, he knew they would pounce and set him and Kallen against each other. As things stood, however, such tactics would have all the subtlety of hand grenade.

“Speaking of,” Lelouch began, “I know why V.V. doesn’t like Mum.” Or at least the reason his uncle likely told himself. Marianne might very well have also delivered an accurate assessment of his character and jealousies, but that was another matter entirely.

“Really?”

Lelouch nodded. “She’s the weak link, and she doesn’t even realise it.” Kallen’s curious look prompted him to continue. “What kind of person would you expect to mastermind something like this?”

“Eh, well-intentioned extremists, psychos, starry-eyed idealists, that sort of thing.”

“Did she sound like any of those?”

Kallen turned inward, pondering the question. The shape of her eyes shifted with her thoughts as she replayed the conversation they’d just had with Marianne in her head. “No,” she eventually concluded. “She was very practical about the whole thing with reasonable, if perhaps not realistic, expectations.” Although subtle, it looked like she had something more to say.

“What is it?” Lelouch pressed.

It took a few moments for the pensive expression to leave Kallen as she wavered on how to respond. In the end, she said, “I kept this to myself before because it was just Anne and she was obviously sensitive about it, but it’s probably best you know now.”

Lelouch frowned as his mind refused to wait and set about imagining all sorts of terrible things that might be wrong with his mother.

Heedless to this, Kallen continued, “Marianne has a well-managed – or at least well-hidden – case of PTSD.”

“What?” Lelouch’s could barely fathom it. He’d known his mother’s childhood was bad, something you’d not wish upon your worst enemy, but he’d never suspected it still affected her to such an extent. She’d always been the strongest person he’d ever known. “Are you sure?”

“She triggered in front of me. Trust me. I know what a PTSD episode looks like.”

Lelouch opened his mouth.

“Why is not my secret to tell.”

So someone else close to us has it as well… Sadly, Lelouch had too many suspects to narrow the list down. “Do you know if the emperor knows?” he asked. He swore, if that man were preying on his mother’s mental health issues, Marrybell would never have the opportunity to kill their father.

“Undoubtedly,” Kallen replied without missing a beat. “Given, well, everything about him, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s worse off than her. The Emblem of Blood wasn’t any kinder to him than Marianne.”

Oh. Of course it was that mess that had done it. Marianne had even termed it a true horror humanity had unleashed upon itself. But now that Kallen mentioned it, “Mum did describe him as optimistic that everything would just magically work out in the end.”

“Ah! A well-intentioned extremist?”

Lelouch blew a puff of air up from the corner of his lips. “Let’s not go that far.”

Kallen giggled.

After the levity ran its course, Lelouch adopted a solemn tone. “Is Mum receiving treatment for her condition?”

Kallen shrugged, paused a few moments to pull information from the aether, and then replied, “She says she doesn’t need it.”

While that answer neither surprised nor pleased either of them, they left it there. Lelouch made a mental note to raise the subject with Marianne at some point. The emperor, certainly, would never bother.

“Anyway,” Lelouch began, “as I was saying before, Mum appears to be the one with a practical outlook on their plan. If I’m very careful about it and presented a better alternative, I suspect I could turn her.

The familiar sensation of calluses and soft warmth slowly slid up and settled onto Lelouch’s hand. Glancing down, he found Kallen’s atop his. Her pinkie pushed and poked its way between fingers to curl about his own. When he turned his eyes back to hers, she met him with an understanding smile. It would be dangerous if – or more likely when – they decided to interfere, far more so than any challenge they’d ever tackled before, but they would face the future together as they always had. He covered her hand with his opposite and smiled back in gratitude.

“I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you.”

“I can think of a few things.” Kallen placed her free hand atop the pile and gently pulled him forward into a chaste kiss. Heads together, barely an inch apart, she said softly, “But at this point, it’s enough that you love me.”

Lelouch craned his neck down to place a kiss upon the back of Kallen’s hand. “That hardly feels fair. It’s impossible not to love you.”

“Flatter.”

Lelouch’s smile widened into a grin. “You’re weak to flattery.”

“Only yours, love,” Kallen admitted after eight long years of silent acknowledgement. She pulled Lelouch into another tender kiss. Then, very reluctantly, she said, “We need to decide what we’re going to tell Marianne.”

“So we do. Does this plan of hers have a name? Such a grand design ought to have one. I feel very silly calling it ‘the plan’ all the time.”

After a few moments, Kallen said, “Ragnarök.”


Shikinejima

Philippine Sea

October 4, 2017 a.t.b.


It was a new day. Her wounds felt a little less angry. Her bed was soft and warm despite sleeping alone. Her husband, she recalled, had fashioned a makeshift bed for himself out of chairs and blankets beside her. It wasn’t prefect, but it would do. Roused only to that blissful in-between state, neither awake nor asleep, Kallen allowed herself to drift in comfort.

And then someone tore open the curtains.

Light flooded the room. Despite her best sleepy efforts, Kallen couldn’t roll away from its source. She buried her head under the covers, but Lelouch’s own stirring nearby pulled her fully from her repose. She cracked her eyes open just wide enough to see a familiar maid cap at the windows.

“Sayoko,” Kallen groaned. A quick application of her geass let her know nothing important had happened while she’d been out. Thus knowing it would not be terribly insensitive, she continued, “I’m sorry about Shinobu. We were stupid. Everything is our fault. Now please close the curtains. Petty revenge is beneath you.”

In response, Sayoko merely replied, “Good morning, Your Highness. Her Majesty is awake and wishes to speak with both of you.”

“It’s nice to see some things never change.” Lelouch sat up, rubbing at his eyes. “Good morning, Sayoko. I seem to recall that you used to serve primarily as Milly’s bodyguard.”

With a completely straight face, Sayoko said, “I did indeed.”

“And you’ve been teaming up with Mum the last eight years for whatever she’s been up to?”

“It’s been an exciting decade, Your Highness.” Sayoko offered no further explanation nor any indication that she knew anything of the deeper purpose behind Marianne’s work. “Do you require any time or assistance before I send Her Majesty to you?”

“I need to shower if I can manage it,” Kallen said. If she needed help, she was sure Lelouch would be willing to assist. “Maybe something to eat. Give us an hour, I think.”

Sayoko placed her hands together and bowed. “As you wish. I’ll let Her Majesty know.”

On her way out, Lelouch requested for Sayoko to delay her departure a moment. “Will you be around more often now?” he asked.

“If you speak of tomorrow, the rats in the ceiling will laugh.”

Kallen chuckled at the bemused look on her husband’s face. She took pity on him and said, “She doesn’t know.” Turning to Sayoko, she asked, “Will you continue to work with Marianne?”

“Unless she decides otherwise, I shall.”

“Then I imagine we’ll be seeing more of each other sooner or later.”

“Milly would appreciate a chance to spend some time with you again,” Lelouch added.

Bowing once more, Sayoko said, “I’ll be sure to remember,” and then departed.

With that, alone once more, the two set about preparing for the day. Lelouch helped Kallen into the bath. There it quickly became apparent that she needed a second pair of hands to get her through the ordeal, so she sat down with a frustrated huff, let her husband wash her, and tried to enjoy the intimacy as much as she usually did. At least she didn’t have to endure sponge baths this time.

Once done and dried, Kallen managed to dress herself before falling heavily back onto her bed. She needed another day or two of rest before she could be up and about again for any extended period of time. Thus they ordered breakfast to be delivered up to them. As time ran short, they ate quickly.

Or at least Kallen ate quickly. Lelouch, she noticed, picked at his food quietly and appeared absorbed in his own thoughts. “Last chance to change course,” she said, eyeing the time. “Are you ready for this?” Whatever manner he thought best to engage Marianne, she would follow his lead.

Lelouch absently hummed a positive response. “Just let me know if it’s ever about to go horribly wrong.”

“So the usual warnings.” That Kallen could most definitely do.


Lelouch had barely finished breakfast before a knock came at the door. The guard announced his and Kallen’s guest, and Marianne walked in once invited. The usual idle morning greetings were exchanged between the three, after which, to Kallen, Marianne added, “You look much rosier today.”

It was true. The pale, haggard look which had hung about Kallen in the immediate aftermath of Kaminejima had largely left her. While nothing compared to the ghastly, near-death state she’d been in the last time she’d been admitted to a hospital, the image still haunted Lelouch. One of these days, she was going to put herself between him and one too many bullets.

“I’m still a bit stiff, but I certainly feel it.”

It was to Lelouch’s immense frustration that even after their marriage, Kallen didn’t seem to understand that she was not replaceable. The thought of life without her in it was anathema to him. If she died protecting him, not even in battle – it wasn’t something he even wanted to contemplate.

“–put me down for weeks as I fought off an infection.”

Honestly, Lelouch wondered if, years from now, Kallen would even get the message once pregnant with another life directly tied to her own. A silent chuckle escaped him. Maybe his mother had a point. Ragnarök, although complete overkill for the task as he understood it, would make her understand.

“So then,” Marianne began, breaking Lelouch from his thoughts. “I’ve explained what you asked of me. You two have had the night. Your thoughts?”

Having rehearsed their response to that very question in broad strokes, Lelouch gave Kallen the nod to proceed. “Personally,” she said, “I think you vastly underestimate humanity’s infinite capacity to be a complete bastard.”

“Nicely put. I’m not nearly convinced this will work out as well as you hope.”

Marianne went to make her argument.

“But,” Lelouch continued, “I see no reason for us to be at odds. As you said, our goals are not incompatible. I don’t believe we’ll step on each other’s toes if we pursue our own separate agendas and table the matter at family gatherings.” A pause, and then he said, “Unless you intended to ask something of us?”

Marianne, her disappointment melting into a warm smile, shook her head. “No, not at all. I just want you to stay away from V.V. while I dethrone him.”

Lelouch exchanged a look with Kallen. She shrugged, and he replied, “We can do that” – at least on their end – “but I am very curious about the mechanics of your plan.”

“Honestly, just magic in general,” Kallen added earnestly.

That drew some laughter from Marianne. “It certainly is a fascinating field of study. Unfortunately, most of my knowledge of the subject is practical. I can show you how to do things but less so explain how those things work. Charles and V.V. do most of the sitting around experimenting and theorising while I deal with…well, more dealt with now, external affairs.”

“Fair enough,” Lelouch said flatly. He’d not expected much so soon anyway, but that completed step one: Marianne knew they were open and interested. She would come back for them, philosophically speaking, and not write them off as a lost cause anytime soon. From the sound of it, they had years to debate the merits of Ragnarök in peace before he and Kallen had to take a firm stance one way or another.

So assured, Lelouch asked, “Can you explain your history with V.V. to us? How did we come to–” He waved his hands at the body of Elizabeth Ward. “–this?”

Marianne pursed her lips as she considered how to answer that. “He once held many of the same beliefs as your father,” she said slowly, carefully picking her words. “As Charles and I fell in love, he began to change. Every time my relationship with Charles deepened, my relationship with him soured. When your father brought me in on their plan, he protested. When we first kissed, he grew hostile. When Charles proposed, he seethed. When you were born, he began actively acting against me in the shadows.

“I asked Charles to intervene, but…” Marianne sighed. “As frustrated as I became with him back then, I don’t blame your father for how things turned out. You shouldn’t either. We all have our blind spots. He trusted his brother as much as I imagine you trust Kallen. Once he got over the shock, he nearly had an aneurysm when I showed up in Sayoko without a body of my own and told him what happened.”

Lelouch muttered, “Didn’t stop him from standing idle while we fell apart.”

“This mess is partly my fault anyway,” Marianne continued. She forestalled both Lelouch’s and Kallen’s objections with a raised hand. “If you approach a rabid dog, what do you expect to happen?

It felt too much like blaming the victim, a far too common phenomenon in Britannia, but the words still slipped out of Lelouch’s mouth just shy of accusation. “Then why did you?” Countless tragedies had befallen the family in Marianne’s absence, not the least of which was the death of Kallen’s parents. The other Stadtfelds never would have risen against them while under her aegis.

Marianne let out an exasperated sigh, clearly annoyed not with the question but with herself. This, no doubt, was not the first time she’d asked herself that. “I gave V.V. more credit than I should have,” she replied. “I never expected him to attempt to murder me himself. He had to have known that would have massive repercussions for him even if I kept quiet. Charles is no fool. I still don’t understand why he did it, and to be honest, I don’t care.”

That’s a fair enough answer on the surface, I suppose. However… With all of the magic he’d seen so far, Lelouch had to wonder if Marianne had been subtly influenced to walk straight into the jaws of the beast despite her better instincts. She’d not painted the nicest picture of his uncle’s ability to make good decisions or solid plans, but perhaps there was more to the story.

“Let’s speak no further of the little troll,” Marianne said dismissively. “I was in the middle of something that I’ll have to get back to soon. Before then, why don’t we spend the next couple days just catching up?”

Lelouch set aside his suspicions and, from the bottom of his heart, replied, “I’d like that.”


Shikinejima

Philippine Sea

October 6, 2017 a.t.b.


“Must you go so soon?”

“Sorry, Poppet,” Marianne replied, “I have to. It’s time sensitive, and I’m already behind.”

With some minor difficulty, Lelouch disentangled himself from Kallen. The stubborn woman insisted on being carried down to Shikinejima’s airfield in the guise of walking instead of letting him push her in a wheelchair. Once freed of his burden, he passed her off to his mother for a hug goodbye.

“Stay safe.”

Marianne chuckled as she released Kallen. “Within reason. And what about you, young lady? You’re supposed to be on your honeymoon.”

“All part of my cunning plan to draw you out of hiding.”

“Uh-huh.” Marianne left Kallen to support herself against a wall and turned to Lelouch, arms extended. He took the offer and drew her close. “Take care of yourself, my little prince.”

“You too. I hope it goes without saying, but you’re welcome at home at any time. If you disappear on us again, I’ll be very displeased.”

“I won’t.”

“I’ll hold you to your word.” Breaking away, Lelouch added, “As I will with your other promises. If you don’t tell Nunnally, I will. She deserves to know you’re alive.”

Marianne looked no less reluctant now than when Lelouch had first brought it up, but he insisted. Nunnally didn’t need to know everything. Indeed, he agreed that she should be told as little as possible at least until she was older; if it were not necessary to explain the impossible, he would just as soon let magic remain a secret. But their mother’s survival? That wasn’t something he could keep from her with a clear conscience.

“Perhaps you could tell her on her birthday,” Lelouch suggested. Unless he’d completely misread his sister, Nunnally would consider nothing else a greater gift than the return of her mother.

Although it came more hesitantly than desired, Marianne renewed her promise. “I will.” Then to both Lelouch and Kallen, she said, “Well, this is it, then. I’ll see you in Tokyo soon. C.C. tells me that you’ll be there for a while.”

It took a moment before Lelouch remembered his own promise. He’d bribed C.C. – and perhaps unfairly felt a little swindled now – with the opportunity to obtain a Cheese-kun, whatever that was. He’d need to ask her for details once they left the island. Unless something unexpected happened, Kallen would be well enough to make the short trip from Shikinejima to Tokyo without worry in a few more days just in time for Euphemia’s birthday on the eleventh.

“Not for too long, I hope.” A distinct sense of amusement filled Kallen’s voice as she returned to Lelouch’s side. Once there, she nudged him with her elbow. “Whatever else we got out of it, we left on our Pacific tour primarily to kill time. We should really be moving on. I’ve been a bit distracted, but the last time I checked, a certain exile has been stirring up trouble for us in the Chinese Federation.”

A smirk crept up Lelouch’s face. The huntress would no doubt have a few choice words for him when they next met, but she’d played her part well. The only question now was precisely how corrupt the federation’s high eunuchs were.

“Exile?” Marianne echoed. She guessed, “Leila Breisgau?”

Lelouch nodded. “Are you aware of what Schneizel has been up to?”

“Yes, Charles told me–” At that very moment, understanding dawned upon Marianne. “Ha! You’re behind her, aren’t you? Amazing.” She wore her own smirk, one which Lelouch felt he was missing some context to fully appreciate. “Now play nice, you two. Despite his choices, Bradow was a good friend. I don’t want to hear a word about you picking on his daughter.”

Lelouch rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mum.”

Kallen just giggled.

“Alright, I’ll see you both again in a week or two.” Marianne moved forward and engulfed them in a group hug. “You have my number and my email. I’ll try to stay in touch as much as I can.”

“You’d better,” Lelouch retorted.

“I promise. Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t while you’re gone.”

Lelouch rolled his eyes again. “I distinctly recall someone using the Ganymede to intimidate an imperial consort.”

In a huff, Marianne defended her disproportionate response. “Abagail was harassing you and made Nunnally cry!”

Kallen just laughed, not having heard that story before. She’d been out of touch living in Japan at the time.

“Shall I instead mention the incident with the horse in the Imperial Palace?”

“Honestly,” Marianne muttered. “Bringing up such ancient history.”

With that, the three broke apart for the last time. To the sound of one final round of farewells, Marianne climbed the stairs to her plane. Sayoko, who’d been waiting patiently at their base, bowed goodbye before following her up. A few moments after they both disappeared into the cabin, Marianne stepped back into view. She raised her voice to be heard and called out, “Kallen, get well soon! I’m looking forward to sparring with you now that you’re grown!”

Kallen shook with mirth against Lelouch. She shouted back, “My blade is faster than a flash!”

“You wish!”

With that exchange over, Marianne returned to the cabin. The plane prepared for takeoff, and with the roar of its engines, it departed. Lelouch watched it pick up speed until it gained enough lift to rise into the air. Soon enough, it vanished from sight, becoming a mere speck in the sky.

And just like that, Marianne was gone. Again. Oh, Lelouch knew he could simply pull out his phone and chat with her if he wanted. He knew he would be seeing her again soon. But he’d spent nearly half his life believing her dead. A few days spent together as a family, no matter how precious, was too little time for him to adjust and normalise.

Kallen leaned her head against Lelouch’s shoulder. “She’ll be back, you know.”

“I know.” Gently so as not to aggravate her wound, Lelouch slipped an arm around Kallen’s waist and pulled her closer. “But it still feels like the end of a dream.”