Stage 05 - Never Again
July 23, 2010 a.t.b.
“In other news, Britannian Prime Minister Schneizel el Britannia arrived in Australia early this morning to enter negotiations with the EU, Chinese Federation, and Japan. The ongoing blockade of Britannian ports has reportedly caused a minor recession within the country, not to mention interfering with their occupation of their new, and hopefully only temporary, territory in Asia. Combined with further economic sanctions and the embargo on the superconductor sakuradite, it’s expected that–”
Naoto turned the television off and replaced the remote onto the coffee table nearby.
“Okā-san, watching the news isn’t going to change anything.”
“I know,” Minami said, sighing. “I just want everything to be over already. This tension is killing me.”
Rather than arguing over the merits of the looming war not being over – Japan being the obvious soft target for Britannia – Naoto turned his attention to another matter he’d wanted to bring up for some time now.
“I’ve been talking with Kallen,” Naoto began hesitantly. “She said the Ashfords would be willing to take you in, if you’d like. They’re way up north past Hokkaido. No one will bother them, or you, there.”
Rather predictably, Minami immediately refused. “I left my home. I left my husband and daughter. I’m not leaving you, too. I don’t care what my neighbours say about me.”
“It was just a thought,” Naoto said. In all honesty, though, the people around him and Minami were really beginning to erode the last gram of his patience. I’m so tired of people calling Mum a whore. She was married for twenty years!
An odd clicking sound reached Naoto’s ear. He glanced around the room, looking for the source, but found nothing. It stopped after a few seconds, so he paid it no further mind.
“Anyway,” Minami said, “how is school going?”
Naoto shrugged. “It’s a lot of work. Mostly reading. I miss seeing Ohgi on campus, but he found a job nearby, so he’ll stay as my roommate for a while still. I should be able to see my grades for this term soon. I’m expecting all A’s.”
That last bit of news brought a smile to Minami’s face. “I’m so proud of you.”
Naoto shifted in his seat. “I study hard. Anyone can do it. Kallen is the genius in the family.”
“None of that now. You know Kallen works just as hard–”
In an instant, everything changed. A quiet explosion, a burst of wispy smoke, and drops of red. Minami collapsed, limp, dead. Behind her, Naoto found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
New York, Britannia
July 23, 2010 a.t.b.
Kallen happily found her way to the library with a skip in her step after having sent Euphie off home. She loved spending time with Lelouch, and Nunnally had recovered over the past year into her usual bundle of energy, but sometimes it was nice to spend true and proper ‘girl time’ with just Euphie. The change in pace was refreshing to say the least. That Kallen now had a fair amount of studying to make up for after ignoring her schoolwork all of yesterday was a thought she shoved to the back of her mind for the moment.
Much later in the day, Rupert Mason – Stadtfeld Manor’s butler, who Milly had incessantly referred to as Sebastian so long ago – came to fetch Kallen for supper. As usual, the food was excellent and abundant. Not like usual, however, was the absence of her father.
“Mason, have you seen my dad?”
“No, Lady Kallen. I don’t believe he’s returned from his meetings today yet.”
“Hmm…” Shrugging, Kallen sat down to eat alone, or as alone as she ever was at scheduled mealtimes. There were several servants moving about as usual, some fulfilling such truly unnecessary but expected roles that she would have taken care of herself back in Japan; she could refill her own glass, thank you. Not that her family had lived alone in Japan, either, but the staff had been considerably smaller.
By the time Kallen was done eating, her father had still not shown. Excusing herself, she returned to her room to relax with a book for the night. Maybe she would talk to Lelouch, too, if he was free and not too busy keeping Aries Villa afloat and Nunnally safe.
Kallen’s phone vibrated. Curious, she picked it up and found that only now had her father bothered to inform her he would not be home for supper.
‘A little late for that warning, isn’t it?’ Kallen texted back.
A few seconds later, she read, ‘I actually won’t be home for several days.’
‘Oh? A business trip?’
Nearly a minute passed before Kallen received a reply. ‘I’m headed to Japan.’
Kallen froze. Her phone nearly slipped out of her hand.
Eventually, Kallen recovered from the shock enough to start typing without a filter. ‘What are you thinking? You yourself told me Britannia and Japan are a week, maybe two, away from declaring war. How are you even going to get there?’
'I’m taking a small plane that can land offshore on the ocean. I’ve arranged to be picked up from there.’
That completely missed answering the much more important question. ‘Why!?’
Again, the response was slow in coming. ‘I need to get Minami and Naoto out of the country.’
That answered nothing! ‘Why?’ Kallen demanded again. ‘The entire point of splitting up was for us all to be safe. Why would you even need to go yourself? And even then, why not have them just sail out to meet you? Or ask Cornelia for help? Or, I don't know, have them just fly to Australia?’ The questions kept coming, and Kallen forced herself to wait for an answer.
Finally, Reese replied, ‘You’ll understand when you’re older.’
What? That doesn’t make any bloody sense! ‘I can understand now if you’d just explain.’
‘Kallen, just wait at home. I’ll be back soon with your mum and Naoto. We’ll be together again.’
‘Why are they going to be safe here now but not before?’ Really, it would be only more dangerous for Minami and Naoto in Britannia now than ever.
‘We weren’t entirely honest with you,’ Reese replied.
Hesitantly, Kallen asked, ‘What do you mean?’
‘I was being threatened with disinheritance if I didn’t divorce Minami and return home. With the political and cultural climate in Japan and the disgrace that would’ve left me in in Britannia, if that happened, life would’ve become very difficult for all of us even if we’d moved to a neutral country. Minami and I didn’t want that for you and Naoto. I have the situation under control now, though.’
Kallen really had no idea what to say to that.
‘I’m sorry for not saying goodbye before I left. I didn’t think I could go through with this if I did.’
Now that Kallen could respond to. ‘Of course not! Because this is bloody stupid! I won’t understand whatever the hell you think you’re doing when I’m older.’
‘Language, young lady.’
Kallen grit her teeth and tried to ignore how much her concerns were being outright ignored. What’s gotten into Dad? ‘Why aren’t Mum and Naoto safe?’ Maybe that answer, at least, she could get out of her father.
‘Besides the fact that everyone knows she had a Britannian husband, had Britannian children, and everything she has was bought with Britannian money?’ There was yet again another pause before Reese added, 'In the right context, wartime makes it very easy to disregard murders and assassinations as civilian casualties.’
It only took a moment for Kallen to overcome the shock that produced. ‘Then just tell them to go into hiding. Look, I can do that right now myself. In fact, I will.’
A press of a button, the choosing of a name, and Kallen had sent a text off to her mum asking what on Earth they were thinking. She repeated the act with Naoto.
‘Kallen, just stay at home,’ came Reese’s response. ‘We can argue about this when I get back.’
‘There’s no point to arguing if you get back!’
‘Well, I’m glad I won’t have to look forward to that, then.’
Kallen screamed in frustration. Her father was not usually this dismissive, stubborn, or outright idiotic. What was going on that she was missing? And of course, Minami chose that moment to reply, telling her that everything was going to be okay and to stay at home until they were together again. She barely restrained the urge to flip the table she’d been reading at.
‘Anyway, I need to head out,’ Reese said. ‘I probably won’t be able to contact you for a while. I’ll see you soon, Kallen. I love you.’
A moment passed. There’s no point to arguing, is there?
It proved entirely too easy for Kallen to write, ‘Okay. I love you, too, Dad.’ She almost added, ‘Goodbye,’ but that felt entirely too much like a final farewell. Please don’t die, Dad. She finally added, ‘Stay safe.’
‘Of course,’ came Reese’s reply. ‘And you stay at home while I’m gone, Kallen. And don’t invite anyone over. I don’t need to hear about any wild parties when I get back.’
After taking a deep breath, Kallen switched over to a different chat. ‘Cornelia, I need a huge favour.’
While Kallen waited for Cornelia to respond, she got up and locked the doors to her room. For good measure, she wedged a chair beneath the handles as well. She had a very bad feeling about this.
New York, Britannia
July 24, 2010 a.t.b.
Kallen bit her raw and swollen lip again, staring at her latest attempt to reach out to her dad, her mum, and Naoto. Her dad had acted horribly out of character. Her mum had brushed her off. Naoto had yet to even respond, and of the three, he was usually the most attentive to his emails and texts. Even his best friend, Ohgi, had not heard from him since he’d left to visit Minami a few days earlier.
Something was very, very wrong.
This must be how Lelouch felt, Kallen idly thought to herself. When Cornelia walked out that morning, it must have felt just like this.
As much as she wished she were, Kallen was not fooling herself. Her father was dead. Her mother was dead. Her brother was dead. But no one had yet come out and explicitly said as such to her. There was yet room to pretend to be a naive little girl waiting patiently for her family to come home to her.
Kallen pushed a series of buttons she knew was going to hurt. Her phone rang.
“Hey, Kallen. Wotcha?”
It took Kallen a few seconds to find her voice. Even once she had, it sounded dull and lifeless to her. “Lelouch, I need you to come over to my place.”
The cheer drained out of Lelouch’s voice after hearing Kallen’s. “What’s wrong? Do you have friends with you?”
A small smile curled at the ends of Kallen’s lips. Lelouch was so paranoid. Granted, she agreed that he had reason to be; they really were out to get him. And besides, they had to get some use out of their code words. “I’m not being held hostage. Have you spoken with Cornelia lately?”
“I got a message a while ago that said my dad was going to go bring my mum and brother back here. It said he was going to take a plane. I asked Cornelia to take a few liberties with her position to search for him.”
A heavy feeling settled into Kallen’s chest as she tried to say the last words: there was no plane. They refused to form even in her head. If no one said them, she could keep pretending. She had nowhere to direct her smoldering anger, and she refused to give her enemy, whoever they were, the satisfaction of her crying.
“Lelouch. I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time for a while about that whole making demands of the emperor debacle I averted. I need you to tell me to stop being a prat and face reality.”
A moment passed.
“It sounds like you already are.”
“Please, Lelouch. Friends do this for each other, right?
“I’m already on my way.”
“Thank you. See you soon.”
Kallen hung up after Lelouch said goodbye. She breathed deeply as she set herself to waiting for him or for one of her family members to respond. Either or was fine. She felt too numb at the moment from keeping her darker emotions in check to really care one way or the other. She did need to inform the staff to expect a guest, though.
New York, Britannia
July 24, 2010 a.t.b.
Although Lelouch had been tempted to take a plane, it being a slightly faster trip, he’d opted for a helicopter instead. He’d boarded just outside Aries Villa and would land right next to Stadtfeld Manor. That gave him more time to ruminate on the very limited amount of information Kallen had given him.
Lelouch briefly thought about contacting Cornelia but decided against it; Kallen apparently had all the pertinent information. To call her would be unnecessary and would unnecessarily involve her. Even the thickest person in the world could recognise that his upcoming rendezvous with Kallen would be a deeply private moment. The last thing he wanted to do was invite anyone else to see her either rage or break down.
So Kallen got a message supposedly from Lord Stadtfeld detailing his plans to go recover his wife and son. Well, ex-wife and son. From her usage of pronouns, she obviously doesn’t think he was the one who actually wrote it. For that to happen, someone would have needed to have gotten ahold of either his email password or his phone.
Of course, it’s not hard to get ahold of a dead man’s phone.
Lelouch sighed and turned his gaze to stare out at the passing landscape. They were currently flying through the usual valley in the Appalachian Mountains en route to Stadtfeld Manor to take advantage of the winds.
I expect that if I did call Cornelia, she’d tell me that the army didn’t spot a plane leaving Britannian territory across the Pacific. I suppose it’s possible that Lord Stadtfeld could have travelled across the pond and over Asia instead. I suspect Cornelia wouldn’t have thought to check for that.
But then he had no reason to lie to Kallen. Sure, he might have expected her to call Cornelia, but that wouldn’t have helped him slip out of the country either by plane or otherwise.
No, it couldn’t have been Lord Stadtfeld who wrote that message. Why would someone who’d gotten ahold of his phone tell Kallen that, though? What could they gain?
When he then turned his thoughts to compiling a list of possible suspects, Lelouch found himself frustrated at how short his list was. He’d not narrowed it down to a short list. No, rather, he knew too little about Lord Stadtfeld to know exactly who would benefit from him disappearing. Still, Kallen would prove helpful in that regard. She should know a fair amount about the businesses and holdings she would inherit if her father really were deceased.
Something about that thought niggled at the back of Lelouch’s mind. I feel like I’m forgetting something important about Kallen…
Lelouch sighed and then turned his mind toward the more difficult aspect of the ordeal to come. How do I comfort a girl? Kallen isn't as straightforward as Nunnally. Do I just hug her and let her cry on me?
A dry laugh escaped Lelouch at the image of a frail, delicate Kallen weeping in his arms and clutching weakly at his shirt. How absurd. As if that would ever happen.
Hmm, what was it that Kallen told me before? She was ‘whatever I needed her to be’? That sounds right. I guess I can't go wrong with that. Not that it's actually instructive advice.
Lelouch shook his head and returned to his original task. There, at least, he could make progress. He turned to his captain of the guard. “Jeremiah, I assume Kallen's background was thoroughly vetted before she was allowed into Aries Villa. Did you ever read the report?”
“No. I believe either Her Majesty or Princess Cornelia personally destroyed it immediately after reading it. Should I try to find the original source?”
“No need,” Lelouch said with an idle wave of his hand. “I just feel like I’m forgetting something.”
“Concerning His Lordship?”
“Possibly.” Reese Stadtfeld was an affable man, or at least that was Lelouch’s impression. He regretted now more than ever not having spent much time in the man’s company. “You wouldn’t happen to know who would wish him harm, would you?”
“Only the usual suspects: jealous family, an overeager heir, a scorned woman, an enemy not fully destroyed, and so on.”
Lelouch slumped back with a huff. “I think we can cross off the overeager heir.”
“Not necessarily.” To Lelouch’s raised eyebrow, Jeremiah added, “However good of a man he grew up to be, young heirs are often known for their…dalliances.”
“Lord Stadtfeld already has two bastard children in the eyes of most Britannians. I think that’s enough.”
While Jeremiah did not look entirely convinced, he let the matter go without further comment. His expression did bear a bit of reprimand in his frown for not considering all the possibilities, though. Lelouch supposed that was fair, especially considering how often his own sisters called him paranoid these days.
A scorned woman… I can’t believe that would be anyone other than Lady Stadtfeld, but from how Kallen speaks of it, their relationship is as strong as it can be with them separated by the Pacific and technically divorced.
There was that niggling feeling in Lelouch’s mind again. Something about that sounded not wrong but wanting. A crucial fact remained outside his reach. Yet the truth of the matter still eluded him.
The rest of the Stadtfeld family is very unhappy with their lord, but why kill him and leave Kallen alone? Him dying on a secret trip to Japan is a believable story, but if you remove him, the heiress has to go, too. There’s no point otherwise.
“We’ve nearly arrived, Your Highness,” the helicopter pilot called out.
Indeed, now that he really cared to look, Lelouch could see Stadtfeld Manor off in the distance approaching quickly. Along with it, however, were a distressingly large number of what appeared to be police officers.
Lelouch immediately sent a message to Kallen. ‘Nearly there. What’s going on?’ Rather predictably, no answer came before they arrived.
The woman who met Lelouch and Jeremiah when they stepped off their helicopter looked very familiar. Her tall stature, blue eyes, sharp features, and especially her red hair all spoke to her identity.
Lelouch silently signalled to Jeremiah to be ready for a fight. He knew a dangerous situation when he saw one. With no answer from Kallen, the police roaming the grounds, and now the appearance of this particular woman, there was little doubt that someone was going to get hurt if he said the wrong thing.
“Welcome to Stadtfeld Manor, Your Highness,” the woman said.
Affecting the politest smile he could, Lelouch took hold of the offered hand in front of him. “You must be Lord Stadtfeld's sister, Lady Clarine. A pleasure. What brings you to the manor today?”
“Tragic news, I’m afraid. Apparently, my brother thought it was a good idea to visit Japan. He was killed while trying to leave with his…friend.”
“I see.” As certain as he was that Lord Stadtfeld had never left Britannia – not alive, at least – Lelouch held off on making any outright accusations just yet. It was possible Lady Clarine was not involved in her brother’s death. “Please forgive my terseness, but why are the police here?”
“My niece unfortunately didn’t take the news well. She rode off the manor’s grounds on horseback a half-hour ago when she was informed.”
Lelouch narrowed his eyes. It was awfully convenient timing that Kallen would disappear between his phone call with her and his arrival not long later.
“She was most definitely not in her right mind when she left. She almost killed the servant who told her about her father while struggling to get away. He doesn’t intend to press charges, of course; the girl was clearly distraught. The police are only here to find her and bring her home safely.”
As Lady Clarine said, a large force of police officers were heading off in the direction of the mountains nearby. Glancing off in their direction, Lelouch could just barely see half of them now heading toward the woods that rested along the lower foothills just shy of the mountain range.
“Well, Kallen always was a bit hotheaded and impulsive,” Lelouch said. “I suppose I’ll just have to wait for her return, then.”
“Of course, Your Highness. I’d be happy to keep you entertained in the meanwhile.”
Smiling, Lelouch said, “That sounds lovely. I haven’t been able to meet much of Kallen’s extended family. I would like to freshen up first, though, if you wouldn’t mind. The flight here was not as pleasant as I’d hoped.”
Patiently waiting to be shown inside and escorted to his usual accommodations was one of the hardest things Lelouch had ever had to do in his life. Once he was finally left alone to disappear into the bathroom, he turned on the shower and then promptly removed the phone he’d smuggled in with his change of clothes. As much as he loathed to admit it, he had no power to deal with this situation himself. Maybe in five years he could, but right now when it counted, he was just a boy with a knight, a handful of pawns, a missing queen, and a few scattered friends. Bluffs and intimidation could only take him so far.
‘I need your help immediately,’ Lelouch sent to Cornelia’s work phone. Ten of the longest seconds of Lelouch’s life later, Cornelia finally responded.
‘Kallen probably only has a few hours before she’s caught in the wilderness and suffers an ‘accident’. She has a horse’ – if her aunt had not lied about that and if Kallen had escaped – ‘but that won’t keep her ahead for too long.’
‘Why haven’t you simply informed the police?’
‘Because my number one suspect right now called them herself.’
‘Clarine Stadtfeld?’ After Lelouch replied, Cornelia added, ‘Makes sense. She must be trying to disinherit Kallen if killing her doesn’t work.’
Lelouch slapped a hand to his forehead. That was what he’d been forgetting. Kallen and her father weren’t allowed to contact her mother or brother.
‘A worry for another time,’ Cornelia said. ‘Succession crises are messy things. How many men and how much fire power will I need?’
Lelouch thought back to the aerial view of the assembled police force he’d seen earlier. ‘I think there were approximately fifty officers. I didn’t see any knightmares, just the regular forces. I only saw them mid-operation, however. I don’t know how many there are in total.’
‘On my way. I won’t arrive until early tomorrow, but I’ll mobilise domestic forces immediately.’
‘Stay safe. And don’t do anything stupid.’
Lelouch snorted as he ignored Cornelia's last message. Frowning, he instead contemplated calling one particular phone number he’d recently discovered in his mother’s office. Cornelia would, well, not fully approve. Milly would not approve. Of all people, Nunnally and Euphie would be the last to approve. Kallen would be furious he’d denied her the opportunity for revenge.
And yet it was happening again. How much more did the world want to take before it would finally be sated? Had Kallen even escaped? Did she need an iron fist or a velvet glove to effect her rescue?
Decision made, whatever its consequences might be, Lelouch waited for the line to connect.
“Hai, Shinozaki Shinobu desu.”
Mangling what little Japanese he knew sounded like a very bad idea, so Lelouch responded in English. “This is Lelouch vi Britannia, son of Marianne vi Britannia née Lamperouge. Do you know how I could get ahold of Sayoko Shinozaki?”
“I’m afraid that Sayoko never returned from her last mission for your mother, Your Highness.”
Lelouch’s eyebrows shot up. “When was this?”
“Only days before Her Majesty’s own demise. Sayoko-san was hired to follow someone ‘extraordinarily dangerous’, I believe were the words she used. Although we’re not certain of anything further, we do suspect she was caught and linked back to Her Majesty.”
Stunned, Lelouch forced himself to shove this information to the back of his mind for the moment. As much as he wanted to dig into the matter further, Kallen was a much more immediate concern than investigating his mother’s murder.
“On behalf of the Shinozaki clan, I wish to express our condolences. Her Majesty had our deepest respect.”
“I – thank you. My own condolences for your loss.” Lelouch shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Forgive me if I offend, but I’m not sure what exact arrangement you had with my mother. Would I be able to hire the Shinozaki clan to do a job for me?”
“Of course, Your Highness. What do you need?”
Lelouch steeled himself. Some part of him almost refused to believe he was about to do this. Yet in the long run, it would be so much cleaner than the alternatives. And Kallen had never failed to answer his call. It was time to return the favour.
“Someone is targeting the half of the Stadtfeld family that I actually like and forgot the other half,” Lelouch said. “I feel compelled to correct that unfortunate error in a timely manner.”
New York, Britannia
July 24, 2010 a.t.b.
Slumped over on a chair in the library, Kallen waited. Lelouch was coming, and he was the deadline. Her father, her mother, her brother – that was how long they had to just say something to her. Otherwise, they were dead. For the last ten minutes, she’d taken to idly turning her phone about in her hands, round and round. Anything which kept her from staring at a clock counting down the minutes before reality set in was the very pinnacle of entertainment.
In the reflection off her phone, Kallen noticed one of the manor’s servants silently approaching with a rag. She thought nothing of it at first. She saw people cleaning every day, and she recognised them all; this was no different. It was only when the man continued to approach her from behind that she began to worry, yet she kept spinning her phone to maintain appearances.
The servant lunged forward. Kallen dodged the first arm meant to grab her. The other bounced off her head, smearing her face with whatever was on the damp, sweet smelling rag. After she’d rolled away, she sprung to her feet and bolted. On more than one step, she nearly stumbled and fell. Her fingers and toes felt numb, but she could deal with that. Far more concerning was that she felt lightheaded.
A thin book spun through the air. A corner hit Kallen sharply on her forehead. Staggered, she almost failed to move out of the way of the next attempt to grab her.
Kallen sprinted away from her assailant. Knowing he was probably faster, she ran into the library's rows of shelves where agility would count for far more. The man cursed and screamed obscenities at her, which thankfully let her use her breath for more important things than calling for help. He would draw plenty of attention all on his own.
After baiting her opponent into following her zigzagging path through the shelves for long enough, Kallen found herself in a corner with hopefully just enough distance between her and him.
Kallen kicked off one wall as she turned the corner. The force she used carried her higher up on the next wall. She leapt from there across the space between her and the nearest bookshelf. She twisted herself to land feet first. The shelf leaned dangerously forward, and when she kicked off of it, she was rewarded with a sharp cry of pain as it toppled onto her foe.
Not stopping to catch her breath, Kallen shot off back toward the entrance to the library. She saw a maid and a footman running toward her as she emerged from the shelves. Her relief was short-lived, though, when she noticed that they did not look relieved to see her unharmed.
Leaping to land with both feet in front of her, Kallen reversed her direction. Her destination this time was a window she knew she could climb out of. Once she reached it and had it open, she jumped from the windowsill. She grasped a tree branch as she fell. From there, she let herself drop from one branch to another before finally landing on the ground on her feet.
Where do I go now? Kallen looked around, not spotting anyone around to either help or attack her. She doubted she had long before the two still in the library caught up to her, though. How many people have turned on me? Who would even want to–
The question caught Kallen off guard even before the words formed. The truth struck her hard.
The other Stadtfelds. They did this. They – they killed my family! Mum. Dad. Naoto. They want to kill me. And all for some stupid title and some money. Kallen spun toward the house, fists clenched. I'm going to fucking kill them! I'll kill every last one of them and their damn goons!
As Kallen took a step back toward the manor, she remembered telling Lelouch off for almost exactly that kind of stupidity. She would not go off half-cocked. She grit her teeth. “I'll be back. I'll be back with the entire Britannian army breaking down the door!”
With one final curse, Kallen turned and ran toward the stables. She had no idea who was on her side, if anyone, nor where the car keys were kept. A horse was her best option.
Kallen silently tiptoed past the stable master. Once in the stables proper, she commandeered the horse she knew had the most endurance. There was no making a quiet exit with a one tonne, steel-hoofed animal in tow, so she settled for a fast one. She set her horse into a full gallop and flew out of the stables and away from the manor before anyone could protest.
Where do I go from here? A car will beat me to town. I can't travel on the road. I can't stay in the open. I'd be found in minutes if I did. Lelouch won't arrive in time to spirit me away before someone else does. Crossing the mountains would be hard and possibly too cold.
Kallen veered her horse toward her only remaining option. The forest it is, then. The trees were far enough apart that she could still make good time yet close enough to hide beneath the canopy. Only once she was finally concealed did she slow her horse to a trot and allow herself to think.
Okay, now what? Where would I go if I were Lelouch? I might be able to get to New York. But then he'd say that's a horrible idea; New York is the Stadtfelds’ base of power. A nearby town?
It sounded like a good idea, but it suffered from one fatal flaw.
I have no idea where I'd find one. I don't want to wander around at random or follow a road. That'd just let my pursuers catch up to me.
Frowning, the options before Kallen continued to dry up. If I have any safe houses that the rest of my ‘family’ doesn't know about, Dad certainly didn't tell me. I don't really have any friends in the area…
That last thought made Kallen groan. There was one place she knew she could go to when in need. She gazed down at her horse for a moment, affectionately petting its mane.
“How far can you go in a day, Felicity? Twenty, thirty miles? Maybe forty if we have a nice open plain to cross, not a dirty old forest.”
Sighing, Kallen wished she’d managed to hold onto her phone. That would have made her life so much easier. Her adrenaline was wearing off, too, unfortunately. That gave her more time alone with her thoughts and the implications of what had just happened to her.
It was going to be a long journey to Pendragon.
Somewhere Along the Appalachian Mountains
July 25, 2010 a.t.b.
“Inspector,” Cornelia said calmly, not allowing the anger she felt to creep into her tone. “Please tell me who I am.”
The rather haughty police inspector tilted his head ever so slightly to the side. “Princess Cornelia li Britannia, Ma’am?”
Cornelia nodded. “Are you aware of the rights and responsibilities bestowed upon the imperial family?”
“As well as anyone else.” From his hesitant tone, the inspector had finally realised he might be in trouble.
Humming pleasantly, Cornelia nodded once more. “Of course, of course. There are so many. Now for the last time, order all of your men to withdraw from the search immediately.”
“With all due respect, General, this is hardly a military matter. Lady Clarine–”
“Tell me, Inspector,” Cornelia began narrowing her eyes. “If, during this search for a young girl I myself might end up fostering, you were to find yourself promoted to glory during your honourable service, who would be your immediate successor?”
“I’ll give the command,” the inspector said, bowing deeply. He then departed as quickly as could be considered polite.
Cornelia sighed to herself. Summary execution was such a faux pas. She could get away with it easily enough, but the headache that inevitably followed was nearly never worth it. Not far away, she noticed Lelouch gazing at her with a frown.
“Of course not,” Lelouch said. “Just envious. You have no idea how frustrating it is that I couldn’t get the good inspector to do that myself.”
Yes, that does sound grating. “What’s done is done.”
Lelouch grumbled something to himself.
“Nothing,” Lelouch said, shaking his head. “Fortunately, it didn’t matter. Kallen is as brilliant as ever. I just wish we could find her trail.”
“I expect Kallen will run into someone sooner rather than later,” Cornelia said. “She’ll contact us, and we’ll reach her before anyone who wishes her harm.”
Lelouch looked decidedly sceptical at that, but Cornelia chose not to comment.
“Anyway, I’ll leave you in charge here for now,” Cornelia said. The search really needed no oversight, but she figured it would occupy Lelouch with something other than worry until they finally found Kallen. “I need to meet with Reese’s lawyers before Kallen’s relatives get too far ahead of me.”
“If you’d like,” Lelouch said. He stood tall with a hard look in his eyes. “There won’t be a custody battle, though, nor a succession crisis.”
As blunt as that was, Cornelia needed no further hints. “What did you do?”
“I contacted the Shinozaki clan. My immediate concern at the time was if we’re chasing ghosts while Kallen is either dead or locked away somewhere. I expect her relatives will be more willing to talk right before they die. Regardless, I will not allow them the chance to ruin Kallen’s life any further.”
Cornelia locked eyes with Lelouch, who refused to even flinch under her gaze.
“Don’t make a habit of assassination,” Cornelia said. She banished the pride from her voice in favour of a scolding tone. “But I can’t fault your reasoning. We will be talking about this later, however.”
“I still need to meet with Reese’s lawyers in the meanwhile. Too much could go wrong if Kallen’s relatives are left unchecked in what time they have left. Stay here.”
On her way out, Cornelia snagged Gottwald and sent him back to Lelouch with the suggestion not to leave his charge’s side until she returned. The man was probably more loyal to Lelouch these days, but she could hope he would at least listen enough to convince Lelouch not to send him away on any tasks.
Somewhere Along the Appalachian Mountains
July 25, 2010 a.t.b.
Kallen hugged her legs to her chest. Her horse needed rest as much as she did. Her horribly sunburnt arms and legs demanded time in the shade away from the noon sun overhead. Her neck had never been so thankful for mildly long hair before. She had socks to protect her feet, too, and for that they were eternally grateful. Having no shoes and sunburnt feet would be an entirely new breed of misery.
Of course, Kallen’s stomach growled its displeasure at her. A few steps away, she could pick mushrooms. A berry patch grew a minute’s ride back in the direction she’d come from. Both options were so tempting.
But then the absolute last thing Kallen needed right now was to get sick – or die – and be unable to ride. With her luck the last few days, everything she found to eat would be poisonous. She would go without. The hunger she could bare, and so long as she continued to find creeks and streams, she would have enough to drink.
Still, Kallen knew there was a bit of envy in her eyes as she watched Felicity graze. Having a horse's diet would be ever so nice right about now. What she really wanted, though, was a second set of eyes. She dared not sleep, and she quietly cursed Felicity every time she stopped to let her horse rest.
Kallen’s stomach growled again.
“Shut up,” Kallen muttered.
Ignoring the pangs of hunger, Kallen's mind wandered back to her situation. It was a minor footnote, really, but she was probably being quietly disinherited right about now. After all, her relatives had 'irrefutable proof’ that her father had broken his agreement to cease all contact with her mother.
But then that was probably what they were counting on Kallen to think. Her father had chosen the path of least resistance to ensure her safety and welfare. Commendable, and she would always thank him for it, but she had friends in the imperial family now. She could afford to tackle the problem directly. Her relatives’ threat to disinherit her father, if true, were of questionable legality and reeked of both blackmail and extortion. They had no right to interfere with the line of succession.
She was Lady Stadtfeld now, the Countess of New York, and Kallen would fight tooth and nail to keep the title for no other reason than spite. “You will not have so much as a single ha’penny of my inheritance.”
Kallen let out a heavy, frustrated sigh.
“I can’t believe them. Sure, I’m a filthy half-breed, but Dad? Seriously? Their own brother?” Kallen buried her head further into her legs. What’s wrong with this country?
Somewhere Along the Appalachian Mountains
July 26, 2010 a.t.b.
“You know, hunger isn't so bad one you get used to it, Felicity. Deal with it for an hour, and it just kind of goes away.”
Sigh… Maybe those red berries I saw aren't poisonous. Maybe.
Kallen shook the thought from her mind, reminding herself that the risk versus reward ratio was too high.
“You know, Felicity, we could probably find a farm if we wandered in a big enough circle. My relatives can't possibly bribe or threaten every farmer in the world. Lelouch probably has people out looking for me, too. Think it's worth the risk?”
Felicity stared blankly at Kallen for a while before neighing.
“Right, well, I thought it was a good idea. I guess that might take us just as long as it would to find Pendragon. We can't be too far away by now. Maybe we'll get there tomorrow.”
Perhaps an hour later as she was preparing to ride again, Kallen said, “I bet Aunt Clarine is the one behind all this, Felicity. Dad always kept her away from me whenever he could. I actually spoke with Uncle James…three times, was it? I don’t know. Maybe they’re in it together. It wouldn’t surprise me either way.
“I'm probably not the only person who's gone through this shite, either. Britannia at its finest, Felicity. Survival of the fittest. Well, guess what. I'm more fit than any of my oh so pure blooded relatives. They're never going to get a chance like this again. Never again.”
Kallen quietly chuckled to herself for no other reason than to stave off tears. She still remembered Cornelia's impromptu history lesson from over a year ago. I guess I'm more Britannian than I thought. Never again. Never ever again.
Shaking herself of those thoughts, Kallen said, “I wonder how my non-Britannian relatives are doing. I have a few cousins who could run circles around me back in Japan. I'm not that fit. Although not to brag or anything, but I’m way smarter than them.”
Kallen fell silent for a moment.
“I hope Gran is safe.”
Felicity lowered her head to eat some grass.
Kallen sighed. “I miss my friends.”
Somewhere Along the Appalachian Mountains
July 27, 2010 a.t.b.
A rustling sound came from nearby in the forest. Kallen weakly lifted her head from her knees to glance in that direction. After dozens of false alarms from squirrels, rabbits, and birds, she just waited to see what came her way, if anything.
Kallen shot to her feet when a young woman with green hair as long as Euphie’s walked into her small clearing. The woman wore a blank expression and a bored frown on her face and looked perhaps a year or two younger than Cornelia.
Not having a weapon, Kallen slowly backed away from the woman toward Felicity. “Who are you?”
Kallen’s eyebrows rose sceptically in silent question.
“You must be Kallen Stadtfeld.”
Kallen took another few steps toward her horse. “So?”
“Lelouch is looking for you. I don’t believe anyone thought you would ride so far, especially without resorting to petty theft. Aries Villa is ten miles that way.” C.C. pointed nearly due south. “The guard will notice you in a five mile radius, so get over there before he does something foolish and gets himself killed.”
The more C.C. spoke, the more Kallen was tempted to jump on her horse and head in the exact opposite direction of what the woman had suggested. But then she picked up on one little keyword. The only people who call Aries Villa a villa are – “who are you, really?”
C.C. quirked an eyebrow. “Are you deaf?”
“Of course not! How do you know Lelouch?”
A somewhat amused expression came over C.C.’s face. “I was his midwife.”
What? But she’d have been…ten?
Kallen shook the unimportant thought from her head. She trusted this C.C. woman at least enough to follow directions. She climbed aboard Felicity, eager to put this horrible chapter of her life behind her.
“Thank you,” Kallen said. She looked between C.C. and the surrounding forest. Now that she thought about it, C.C. had no means of transportation, or at least not one nearby. “Um… Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Seeing as C.C. apparently had nothing more to say, Kallen awkwardly kicked Felicity into a slow walk. “Er, thank you again. I… See you later?”
C.C. hummed noncommittally. “Perhaps in six or seven years.”
That’s…an oddly specific long period of time. Ignoring that, Kallen made her farewells without getting any in return. What a singular encounter that had been.
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
July 27, 2010 a.t.b.
As much as Kallen had wanted to push Felicity to gallop as fast as she could to Aries Villa, the simple fact of the matter was that Kallen herself could barely handle a slow trot. Ironically, it was with much relief when she had found herself with three men in camouflage pointing guns at her and demanding she dismount and explain her presence on royal property.
Kallen chuckled, knowing that she barely looked like herself after over four days of mud, leaves, wind, bugs, sunburns, and all other manner of horrible things. She did dismount, and she smoothed her hair down a bit once she had. That and a few words were all it took for the guard to recognise her and usher her to the palace with all due haste.
When Kallen and her escort finally arrived at the palace, she quickly found herself swept up in Nunnally's and Euphie's arms. She was passed off next to Cornelia, who, while not as clingy, seemed not to want to let go. Even Lelouch wanted a bone breaking hug from her.
“Welcome home, Kallen,” Lelouch said, still refusing to let her go despite how awful she must smell. Really, she must have ruined thousands of pounds worth of clothes just from letting the girls hug her. She was a mess.
But right now, there was only one word Kallen could work up the energy to say. Even without her father, mother, and brother, she still had a family. She still had a place to call home.
Kallen went limp in Lelouch's arms. Eyes wide, he shook her with increasing alarm. “Kallen? Kallen!”
“Relax,” Cornelia said as one of her hands came to rest on Lelouch's shoulder. “She's just asleep. I doubt she’s let herself have much these past four days.”
“Oh. Good. She deserves some rest. But does she need food or water?”
“She needs a lot more than that,” Euphie said. “She needs a doctor.”
“And all the indulgent comforts she can get,” Nunnally added, drawing a smile out of Euphie. “Definitely a weekend spa holiday.”
“Naturally. Hand her over, Lelouch,” Euphie said. He obliged; Kallen was not exactly a light load, regardless of how much of a twig she was. “We’ll put her to bed and call someone to look her over.”
Although he was not terribly eager to let Kallen out of his sight after fretting over her safety for days and barely sleeping, Lelouch allowed his sisters to take her away. He was not particularly interested in earning Kallen’s wrath for watching them undress and possibly clean her. He let out a long, relieved sigh as he watched the girls disappear inside Aries Villa.
“Lelouch.” He turned to look up at Cornelia, at which point she said, “I trust you’ll be there for her.”
As if Cornelia even needed to ask. Even so, Lelouch nodded.
“Good. Any word from the Shinozaki?”
“Yes,” Lelouch said, his mood souring. “They managed to find her mother’s body, but Naoto’s is still missing.”
“I see.” Cornelia sighed. “Well, let’s hope he survived this and will live through the imminent war. Regardless, I expect to win custody of Kallen, but I have to go back to the army soon. Will you let her stay here?”
“With pleasure,” Lelouch said. “But–”
Cornelia immediately cut Lelouch off. “I would move Euphie here as well if I could. As much as she could use the company, I won’t subject Kallen to my mother.”
Already knowing Cornelia’s low opinions of her own mother well enough, Lelouch changed the topic. “Will you be leading the invasion of Japan?”
“No, thankfully. I’m sure Kallen would forgive me that, but she would never forget. I’ll be returning across the Atlantic and staying there.”
“Well, that’s something.”
A moment passed in silence.
“May I offer some advice, Lelouch?”
“On what?” Lelouch asked.
“Kallen is a remarkable young girl and now a very wealthy countess of one of the more important cities in the empire. That she made it here to Pendragon from New York on horseback without any supplies while remaining completely under the radar also leaves a very strong impression, and not just on me. You get on well with her, and unless something goes horribly wrong, she’ll grow up to be rather fetching. Marry her before you become convenient to marry off.”
The last little sentence left Lelouch gaping at Cornelia. “I… What? But – what? I’m ten. She’s ten! She’s…Kallen.”
Cornelia smirked, apparently finding amusement in the rapidly faltering mess before her. “Happiness is being married to your best friend, Lelouch. You don’t have to consider it for a while, but I’m planting the idea now. You, Little Brother, strike me as the type to completely ignore romance until a girl you fancy strips you in frustration and pushes you onto a bed.”
Flushed and with burning cheeks, Lelouch said, “I’ll keep that in mind,” mostly just to shut Cornelia up.
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
August 2, 2010 a.t.b.
Lelouch looked up from his desk to find his no longer missing queen just outside his study at the door. He quickly glanced back down, cursed Cornelia, and got his blush under control.
“Are you busy?”
With a shrug, Lelouch said, “Not really. Just looking over a few things for the villa. What’s on your mind?”
Kallen came in and shut the door behind her. She locked it, too, curiously enough. He quirked an eyebrow. Not getting an answer immediately, he found himself eager to spread his misery. “I think we’re both a little too young for you to seduce me.”
The serious expression on Kallen’s face vanished. “Wha-what? What the hell, Lelouch? I don’t even… What?”
Lelouch both laughed and hated himself for now understanding why Cornelia had considered this so amusing. “Sorry. Just something Cornelia said to annoy me. Anyway, what were you going to say?”
Despite the sceptical glance she shot Lelouch, Kallen let the matter drop. Standing just in front of his desk, she fixed him with a stare. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
“I apologise for not giving you the opportunity to kill your aunt with your own hands, but your life was in immediate danger at the time. I have the report the Shinozaki sent me for whenever you’re ready to read it. As you no doubt expect, the rest of the Stadtfelds were complicit in the attempt on your life.”
Kallen extended her hand. Taking the gesture for what it was, Lelouch retrieved the report from his desk along with the transcript from the interrogations. He passed them off to her and left her to read through them. She went to light the fireplace and then settled down on the sofa nearby while he returned to his paperwork for the moment.
Several minutes passed.
The boy in question looked up from his work.
“We need to talk.”
There was certainly no denying that. After signing one last paper, Lelouch capped his pen, put away his work, and stood up to join Kallen by the fire. As he approached, he asked, “Is this the ‘how dare you’ kind of talk or the ‘I need comfort food’ variety?”
“Neither.” Kallen tossed the report he’d given her aside onto a coffee table. She gestured to it with a scowl. “That just highlights a problem I’ve been ignoring since before I came here.”
“And that is?”
“I hate this country.”
A simple statement, but in the current company, terribly potent.
“And yet,” Lelouch said, knowing the deeper conflict hidden within those words, “you don’t want to burn it to the ground.”
“No, I don’t,” Kallen grudgingly admitted. “I can’t deny that there are things here that I love. Nor can I honestly say Japan is my home anymore. Everything would be so much simpler otherwise.”
Giving a clearly much needed voice to her thoughts, Lelouch said, “Yes, it would be. Go home. Raise support amongst the, in all likelihood, oppressed Elevens. Build a rabid army hungry for vengeance. If I’d gotten myself exiled there and survived the coming war, I’d likely have done the same. Imagine if you’d never come to Britannia. We’d probably be the leaders of the rebellion.”
Kallen said nothing.
“Do you regret your decision?”
“To come here?” Kallen said. “No. I don’t think I would like Kōzuki Karen. She feels shortsighted. What about you? Do you regret me being here to knock some sense into you?”
Lelouch scoffed. “Hardly. I’m not confident Nunnally could survive a war zone, and I doubt I would much care for Lelouch Lamperouge.”
After a moment of reflective silence, Lelouch asked, “So what are your intentions, Countess Stadtfeld?”
To her credit, Kallen barely reacted to the title, but Lelouch knew her well enough to see the hurt flash through her.
“I want to change this country. What we’ve both gone through should never have happened.”
“You want to completely overhaul our culture,” Lelouch said, because that truly was the heart of the matter. Kallen wanted to make them and their struggles the exception, not the norm. She nodded, and he continued, “How exactly do you intend to do that?”
Lelouch said nothing. Kallen had come here for a reason, and he doubted it was just to inform him of her discontent with Britannia. He’d known of that since he’d first met her, after all.
“But,” Kallen said, resolve returning to her voice, “that’s what I have you for. I know you don’t give a damn about your father or Britannian supremacy, much less the aristocracy. I figure a filthy commoner and a crapaud on the throne would be a good start.”
A smirk worked its way onto Lelouch’s face. As expected of my queen. “I’m only one-sixteenth French, you realise.”
“No one cares.”
“Why not aim for Empress yourself, you disgusting half-breed? Odysseus is unattached and easily led.”
“By Schneizel, you mean.”
Lelouch shrugged. Kallen had him there.
“So what do you think? You and me, we take over Britannia and turn it into its worst nightmare: a country that’s actually heard of the phrase noblesse oblige.”
“What makes you think we can?” Lelouch asked. He needed to know how much thought she'd actually given the matter.
“Well, Marianne always said I had a deft hand with knightmares, and you’re already a brilliant strategist. I’m sure you can be a good politician, too; you can be very charismatic when you want to be. Not to mention you have a legitimate claim to the throne. We’re both precocious geniuses, and you can wear a mask as well as I can. I’m wealthy even by your standards, and I imagine most everyone who knows of and would use my parentage against us is dead, so I’m a proper, respectable blueblood of high standing. And speaking of, I bet the commoners would love you if you openly embrace your heritage. Really, together, what couldn’t we do?”
“This would be no small undertaking,” Lelouch pressed on, fighting not to match Kallen's smile with his own. “I have to ask. Why are you so set on this?”
The question brought Kallen’s mood down from the cheer she’d somehow managed to find.
“Altruism, I guess. I don't want anyone else to go through what we have, much less have to go through it again ourselves. But beyond that, I’ve never approved of your father’s social Darwinism or the resulting social stratification. There’s some truth to it, in that not everyone is equal in all ways, but ‘fitness’ doesn’t correlate well with who you’re born to. Evolution is more…macro than that.”
“The situation here isn’t exactly that simple,” Lelouch admitted. He agreed with Kallen, of course, but there was an argument against to be made. “There is some meritocracy to our aristocracy. The infamous ‘Earl of Pudding’, Lloyd Asplund, is a more recent example of rising up the ranks. The man is brilliant, if completely mad, and was rewarded for his work on the Glasgow knightmare.”
“Perhaps,” Kallen said. “But there's a reason why we don't own the world, and it's not because we're outnumbered, outgunned, or out-funded. We waste so much untapped potential with brutal subjugation of both our own people and our colonial subjects.”
“You’d have a hard time controlling all the areas if you treat the numbers like people. And that’s not to mention how difficult it would be to get Britannians to work with them.” Lelouch paused for a moment, then said, “Unless, of course, you’d be asking me to free all the areas, including the upcoming Area Eleven.”
That visibly hit Kallen deep, but she carried through it strongly. “That wouldn't be a good idea. A weakened Japan would be too tempting a target for the Chinese Federation as another ‘member state’. And the oldest areas have been part of Britannia for so long that there wouldn’t be much of a point. They’re fully assimilated. But I wouldn't be against the areas having more autonomy with a more accessible government.”
Smirking, Lelouch said, “Oh, I bet father dearest would just love that. A collection of semi-autonomous nation-states beholden to the crown sounds like his cup of tea.”
“So?” Kallen asked, a hopeful light in her eyes. “What do you think?”
“I’m fairly far down the line of succession. How exactly do you expect me to become emperor? A coup? A rebellion? A populist revolution? Assassination?”
Kallen’s lips pressed into a thin line. Eventually, however, she said, “If your father abides even the slightest bit by his own philosophy, he’ll pass the throne onto his most capable child.”
Lelouch paused in his thoughts. That, in all honesty, had never actually occurred to him.
“Now that’s an interesting perspective. But to become ‘capable’ in the emperor’s eyes as a ruler, would you be willing to not only condone but help me swindle, murder, cheat, and conquer my way to the throne?”
“If not us, then someone else would. We might do more bad in the short run, but at least we would have good intentions in the long run.”
Lelouch found that answer unsatisfactory. “Could you live with the guilt?”
“It’s not like I haven’t killed before.” To Kallen’s credit, she said that without even twitching.
“In self-defence,” Lelouch countered.
“Fine.” Lelouch could let that pass for the moment. “But you realise this won't be a fast revolution, politically or culturally, right?”
“We've got plenty of time. We're young.”
Understatement of the century.
“And I know when you’re fishing for information,” Kallen said. “I’ve played along long enough. You’ve obviously had your own thoughts before on this, otherwise you’d have told me to give you some time to consider it. So? What do you think?”
“What do I think?” Lelouch said. Kallen was such a glorious mixture of fiery passion and concealed intellect. I’ll never be thankful enough that she came to Britannia. It’d have been such a waste to let her stagnate and fester in Area Eleven. “I am so glad my sisters introduced us. Consider us accomplices, Kallen.”
Kallen held out her hand, her pinkie extended. Lelouch looked at it curiously before quirking an eyebrow in silent question.
“Yubikiri – a pinkie promise,” Kallen said, rolling her eyes. “I could have sworn it’d crossed over the Pacific.”
Shrugging, Lelouch said, “Maybe amongst the commoners, but not the nobility.” Hazarding a guess, he curled his own pinkie finger around Kallen’s. “So what do we do?”
“Well, we already know what the promise is, so…” Kallen grinned and moved their hands up and down in time with her words. “Cross my heart, hope to die, eat a thousand needles, if I lie.”
Lelouch blinked. “Well, that’s scary.”
“That’s kinda the point.”
“A thousand needles? That seems a bit overkill.”
Kallen shrugged. “In the full spirit of it, you’d cut off your pinkie instead.”
“By the way,” Lelouch said, not really having a response to that. This was either going to be amusing or very painful. “Are you aware that being a knightmare pilot means you literally must be a knight? Or royalty. Nobility isn’t enough.”
Kallen frowned, understanding immediately. “So I'd have to swear fealty to you?”
“Would you rather swear it to the country and become a knight of the realm?”
“No. But I don't want our friendship to get…weird.”
“Well, your only other option is to pick a prince and marry him.”
“Or,” Kallen said rather forcefully, making Lelouch grin, “we could just pretend.”
“That would limit you to fighting as an unknown element as a knight without a name outside the command structure. A black knight, if you will.”
“Black knights are cool,” Kallen protested, although she put little heart into it.
“They're also insufferably frustrating to work with. How about this? When you step into a knightmare, you're my knight. When you step out, I release you from the vow.”
“Fine, fine. I swear fealty to you when it suits our purposes.”
Lelouch chuckled. “That was the single most uninspiring oath I've ever heard.”