A/N: Special thanks again to Greatratking88 for his work on the chapter.

I do apologize for the delay in this chapter's posting compared to some of my other stories, but there were some delays. But as soon as the chapter is done and I get it back from Greatratking88 the chapter shall be posted immediately.

Enjoy the easter eggs in this chapter.

Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter, so I hope you'll enjoy this one.


Chapter 12

Divergent Paths

The following day, Lelouch and Ava were travelling up Mt. Zeratul, located just a few miles outside Cera City. Ava had mentioned a shrine with some cultural importance, and with nothing better to do with their time, they had decided to make a little field trip for the day. The pair had taken Lelouch's rented car quite a way up the mountainside, but they would have to walk the rest of the way up the mountain path to reach their destination. It wouldn't be a long walk to reach the shrine, just some twenty minutes from the area where they parked.

"So this Ryuvian Shrine, what kind of history does it have?"

"Its been around since the original settlers first landed on Cera," Ava explained as she walked alongside him.

Given that they were going for a bit of a hike, Lelouch had switched to a more casual getup: black jeans and a black jacket over a blue button shirt. Ava was likewise casually dressed, jeans and a red shirt with a dark blue coat. Both of them carried backpacks. It wasn't too cold, but the mountains were a tad chilly today. The mountain area was scarce in terms of people, so they had the place to themselves. However, the pair still refrained from speaking about anything best discussed behind closed doors.

"I have heard about it, but I never visited it. I know it's a popular place during the Winter Festival," said Lelouch.

"Well, let's change that- and I believe the mountain air might be good for both of us."

As they walked, Lelouch felt mildly surprised to find himself spending another day with Ava. Although he remembered her being a serious workaholic, he was glad on one hand to see Ava loosing-up a little, but at the same time, there was something nagging at him.

I wonder why she didn't invite Kayto, Lelouch wondered.

Of course, Kayto was likely still on duty with the Ceran Space Force, so there was an explanation. It just felt odd to link up with Ava like this without even meeting their old school friend. Still, Lelouch couldn't help but feel something was amiss.

Either way, it's not my business to be poking my nose into her personal affairs.

Twenty minutes later, the pair arrived at the Ryuvian Shrine. To Lelouch's surprise, the shrine looked quite familiar.

"Something wrong?" Ava asked, noticing Lelouch's expression.

"This shrine… it looks identical to the ones in Japan, on Earth," Lelouch said, but despite his shock, he was mindful to keep his voice down to avoid anyone overhearing him.

"Really?" Ava said, sounding interested.

"Yes, they are virtually identical," said Lelouch, walking closer, "the architecture is definitely Japanese. I'm no expert, but it's like somebody lifted it right out of…"

"Can I help you two?"

Turning around Ava and Lelouch observed an old man wearing traditional Jōe, traditional white garments worn by Japanese Shinto priests while generally used for other religious ceremonies and traditions. He had a small and cleanly kept white beard yet with no hair on his head.

"Pardon us, we are just visiting the shrine today," Ava replied politely.

"I see. I am Francis Chisholm, the humble keeper of this shrine," said the old man, "I'm a priest of sorts."

"Fascinating," said Lelouch. He hadn't seen much in the way of religion here on Cera, but some things seemed to die hard.

"Is there any particular reason for your visit?" said the old man.

"I was curious about the shrine. I haven't seen it before," Lelouch added.

"Well, young man, you are in luck today," Francis replied. "If you like, I can give you a tour."

"I don't see any reason not to, if it's not too trouble," Ava said.

"Not at all, I don't mind giving tours to visitors," the elderly man replied.


Thousands of miles away, deep in space, Jeremiah was running operations from the Black Knights headquarters. Even after all this time, it was hard to get accustomed to the sheer emptiness of space that their base overlooked. It helped to look at the port they had constructed, bustling with activity; this was where their four Excalibur class cruisers were being restored to full combat readiness.

Fortunately, there was an unending supply of distractions from any discomfort he might get from staring into the void. Endless administrative duties, micromanaging subordinates, solving problems and disputes as they came up… and right now, the meeting he had called with the four captains. Unlike before, they were here in person, one by one trickling into the base's conference room in full uniform. Once they were all seated, Jeremiah cleared his throat from the head of the table. This was the first official action he had called in Lelouch's absence, and he was quite conscious that he did not enjoy the same respect the young emperor commanded.

"I am glad to see we are all on time," Jeremiah started in a calm, authoritative tone, "you were all summoned here to discuss the election of two new captains. As our foundries will very soon have finished up two new Excalibur class cruisers, the Ascalon and the Durandal, we will have to choose two new captains. We've narrowed it down to four choices."

The vetting process had been quite thorough, and Jeremiah was quietly proud of it. Every potential candidate had been interviewed in depth over time, and unbeknownst to them, so had their subordinates, picked at random to ensure a more nuanced view of the officer in question. Not only that, but everyone considered had gone through as in-depth a background check as possible, to ensure that command was not given to a potentially untrustworthy officer.

"I trust you've all read the files?" asked Jeremiah. There was a chorus of assent from the three other captains: Eustace Kenway, Rosarita Cisneros and Isadora Sergeyevna.

"Is that really all?" muttered Cisneros, seeming irritable under the professional calm of her tone, "I ought to be with my ship, making ready for another raid."

"Command," Jeremiah said strictly, "means doing everything that is needed, however tedious. As our admiral, Zero has decided that as captains, we are all entitled to a voice in who we get to call our peers. That on some level, the process should be democratic. We need to pick not only competent officers, but officers we can all work with as well."

This had in fact been Jeremiah's own suggestion, although Lelouch had agreed.

"Besides," said Kenway mildly, "it's not as if your ship is in any condition to go on a raid right now, Cisneros."

The lightness of his tone, almost as if he was telling a joke, seemed to defuse the tension. Jeremiah felt grateful; as a veteran the captain had not only combat skills but people skills too, a valuable trait.

"So be it, then," Cisneros said with a shrug.

"Good," said Jeremiah, pulling out a remote. He flicked a button, and a holographic projector displayed a 3D image of their first candidate, a man in his thirties with slick black hair, blue eyes and a fair skin complexion.

"Max Horner," said Jeremiah, "served at the Barona officer's academy. Trained as a Ryder pilot before applying to become a naval officer. Seems to be something of an idealist, but his actions show a pragmatic streak. Graduated top of his class, and he commanded his own gunship in the Barona navy before deserting to join the Black Knights following our recent victory. According to his file, he was framed after unearthing a corrupt dealing between a superior officer and a local pirate, and jumped ship before he could be arrested."

"Sounds like we were his last resort," said Cisneros.

"Or if we're less cynical," said Kenway, "we were the only right choice left after his life was upended by the villainy of piracy."

"He's kind of cute, too," said Sergeyevna.

"Unfortunately you wouldn't have too much luck there," said Jeremiah dryly, "apparently, he has a wife. Won her in a poker game. It's… a whole story."

"Really?" said Sergeyevna, a bit taken aback.

"Who else?" said Cisneros, suppressing a smirk at the younger captain's shock.

"Our next candidate is Muriel Ramius," said Jeremiah, and the holographic projector flickered to show a young woman in her late twenties with brown hair and matching eyes.

"Former member of the security forces at Vesta. Saw action during the civil wars plaguing the planet, along with the usual pirate raids. Dropped out of college to enlist. Despite her lack of education, she served with distinction. When she left, her entire crew resigned to follow her."

"Now that," said Kenway, raising an eyebrow, "that takes considerable leadership."

"She has displayed some reckless tactics, though," said Cisneros, looking at the data slate holding her copy of the file. "Apparently she… all but rammed a pirate ship twice her size, and somehow came out on top?"

Jeremiah nodded. "She found a blind spot somehow, and disabled a vessel that seriously outgunned her. It takes quick thinking to pull that off."

"Interesting…" Kenway murmured, "and the next candidate?"

"Oswald Rambeau," said Jeremiah, and the holograph changed once more to portray a young, clean-shaven man with blond hair and grey eyes, with a tanned complexion.

"Served in the Ryuvian navy. Discharged when they downsized. Noted for his idealist views and calls for a more proactive stance to potential outward threats, like piracy. We seemed like the natural option to him after our recent victory."

"Experience?" said Cisneros sharply, "We're looking for competence above all else here."

"He completed school with above average scores, and served with distinction as a second-in-command on a Ryuvian destroyer," said Jeremiah, "and he passed every test we gave him."

"I'm not sure about him, though," said Sergeyevna, "I watched his interviews, and…"

"He's troubled," said Jeremiah flatly. "Doesn't approve of our repurposing of Ryuvian technology. Seems to be quite loyal to his homeworld, all told. This could be an advantage- or a disadvantage if our interests were to go against Ryuvia's."

"If 'troubled' was a serious obstacle, I would never have been promoted," Cisneros scoffed, "let's not forget that we can't afford to be too picky. If we keep on churning out ships, we'll eventually have to promote people we are unsure of down the line."

"A fair point," said Jeremiah, "and that leaves us only with the last candidate: Lola Scherwiz, from planet Gerald."

The holo flickered again, revealing a young woman in her twenties with white hair tied up into a combination of bun and pony tail.

"Unlike the others," Jeremiah continued, "she has no prior record of service with any official military."

"She does have the bearing of a soldier, though," said Kenway.

"Her story is similar to everyone else's," said Jeremiah, "dissatisfied with inaction from her local government, she turned to us. She was an orphan, dropped out her last year of high school to become a mercenary taking security contracts against pirates. She seems to have both guts and initiative, this one."

"She seems to be quite strict, too," said Kenway, "discipline seems to be of utmost importance for her crew."

"A self-made woman…" Cisneros said, nodding approvingly.

"That would be all of them," said Jeremiah, "they're all qualified, and for now we have the luxury of choosing our favourites. They'll likely all make captain at some point, it's just an issue of which we'll pick. In the case of a tie, I'll forward the issue to Zero as a final vote."

"I like that Horner kid," said Kenway, rifling through his file, "excellent service record, stable leadership, long record of competence… in my experience, you should play it safe in situations like these, and he's as safe a pick as they come. And of course there's Ramius… it takes an exceptional person to make a whole crew of people drop their livelihoods to join a rebellion. These are the kind of people you want on your side."

"We need results," said Cisneros, shaking her head, "Horner will probably make a fine captain one day, but we need somebody willing to get their hands dirty, like Scherwiz. Her and Rambeau would make an excellent combination of young, eager captains ready to prove themselves. More easily moulded too, more so than official academy types like Horner."

"I… I think I agree on Horner," said Sergeyevna hesitantly, all too aware that she had been considered in this way only months ago, "But I'm not against a go-getter, necessarily. I'm just not sure about somebody who'll drive their ship recklessly into danger on some mad stunt. You're playing with people's lives, you know?"

Jeremiah nodded.

"These are all fair arguments," he said, "and we're not in a hurry to decide. Let's discuss this civilly and consider all angles. It'll be some time before the new ships are ready, after all."

"Well, it's not like we have anything better to do," said Cisneros, "now, why don't I tell you all why results are the one thing that matters the most?"

"I can already tell this is going to be just wonderful," Kenway said with a chuckle, "let's hope we don't tear each other's throats out before our enemies do, yes?"

Jeremiah chuckled, but he felt worried underneath it. All the captains had strong personalities, as you would expect from people with so much conviction and authority, and it would be up to him to keep them in check.


Meanwhile, around the same time, Lynn was lying in the bed of her cell in another section of the Black Knights' main base. Her cell was high-security, and to her annoyance, her actions were constantly monitored. She was at least given access to holo-books, something Zero had encouraged. He had explained that he wanted to examine her cognitive functions and intellectual capacity following her amnesia. Despite her memory loss, Lynn remained highly intelligent, and several tests conducted put her expertise on par with the likes of Lloyd in terms of engineering.

How can they still distrust me for something I can't remember?

Few people would be pleased with being imprisoned, but it irritated her beyond the normal discontentment of isolation. To not be trusted… well, what she had been told were true, she supposed she couldn't blame them, but she still felt irritated by it.

At least there was one person who didn't treat her so cautiously, much to the annoyance of those assigned to watch over her.

"Good morning, Lynn," Lloyd said as he arrived, pushing a button on the intercom on her cell door.

"You again?" said Lynn.

"Of course. I enjoy picking your intelligent brain. It has been quite helpful for me in understanding the mechanics of your machine. Even though it seems you don't remember your past life, you seem to have retained most of the practical information you used before."

Lloyd's own efforts had been revealing. He was not an expert on mind wipes, but he had studied the subject some as of late. His working hypothesis was that the process had been hasty, incomplete. It seemed most of her memories were intact, save for the ones that would reveal important information about her employer. As such, Lloyd was interviewing Lynn regularly about adapting and studying the remains of her Ryder in the hopes of developing Ryders that could counter them.

"We made such progress yesterday, so I would like to keep going," Lloyd said excitably. His excitement, however, ran opposite to Lynn's mood. On the flip side, at least Lloyd wasn't as suspicious or hostile towards her as some of the Black Knights were.

"You should've had more than enough to work with," said Lynn.

"Maybe, but its inspiration I want. Considering you were more or less abandoned and your mind was wiped, I thought you might want some retribution," Lloyd suggested.

Lynn wasn't sure how to answer that. She resented the Black Knights for imprisoning her, but it wasn't they who had taken away such a large part of her sense of self, taken away her identity. Whoever her old employers were, they were the ones who left her at the mercy of an organization that could have had her killed at any time.

"I am not sure what I want."

"Well, let's get started. Maybe you'll find some inspiration yourself," Lloyd suggested.


Back on Cera, it was late afternoon by the time Lelouch and Ava returned to the city.

Their tour of the shrine was informative, but it didn't reveal anything groundbreaking. The similarities between the Japanese shrines on Earth was striking, but there was no answer as to why just yet.

The only other information of note was a black obelisk, which, according to the priest, was a relic of Ancient Ryuvia.

Lelouch was admittedly skeptical of that claim, but he kept an open mind, and the priest had offered both he and Ava to pray to it. Eventually, they had made their way back to the city, walking down the streets together, headed nowhere in particular.

"Expand the military! We need action, not words!"

The shouting of protestors wrestled Lelouch from his thoughts. A group of demonstrators at the central government building were gathered across the street from where they stood. The one they just heard had a megaphone, while other protestors held homemade signs.

"The crowd has grown since I last passed by," Lelouch remarked.

"I think it shows how much that incident has affected everyone on Cera," Ava commented.

The pair said nothing further, well aware that there were somethings they couldn't say in the open. Not to mention it was something they had already discussed at length the following day.

"Well, now, I wasn't expecting you two to be here."

Turning around Ava and Lelouch came face to face with Maray. Although the pair were confused at first, Ava recognized Kayto's younger sister within moments.

"Maray?"

"I am glad you remember me, Avy," Maray replied with a big smile.

"You have certainly changed a lot," Lelouch complimented.

"I am glad you remember me too, Lelouch."

"What are you doing here?" Ava asked, noticing a polled up poster under Maray's left arm.

"Are you joining that demonstration?" Lelouch asked.

"Well yeah. My friends and I were going to join in."

"Why?" Ava inquired.

"I was caught up in that whole mess with PACT," Maray replied slightly more seriously this time. "After what happened… I can't just sit back and do nothing about it."

"You were on that research ship?" Lelouch exclaimed in surprise. He was relieved to hear she made it out unharmed, but clearly the experience had left a lasting impact on Maray.

"So what are you two doing here? Are you on a date?" Maray said, effortlessly switching back to her usual teasing, playful personality.

"Dating? No? Last I checked, wasn't your brother and Ava close?" Lelouch answered.

"What?" Maray replied, clearly confused, "Kayto and Ava haven't spoken since Ava graduated from high school."

"They what?"

"Look," said Ava, slightly defensively, "that's some personal business I don't want to discuss right now. We had a lovely day together, so let's end it on a positive note. Okay?"

"…okay," said Lelouch, realizing that it was best not to push the issue, "wait, end?"

"Well," said Ava with a sigh, "I do have a few things I'd like to get done on my own, and now is as good a time as any to call it a day."

"Alright," said Lelouch. It felt a little abrupt, but it was not as if he could stop her.

"Let's stay in touch," said Ava, "don't leave me hanging as long as you did last time, okay?"

"I'll do my best," said Lelouch with a smile.

"And Maray, it was nice to see you. It's just a shame I can't stay and talk."

"If I said anything-" said Maray, but Ava brushed it off with a dismissive hand gesture.

"No, no, it's nothing like that. I just have stuff to do. Like figuring out what the heck I'm doing with my life…" That last part came out a mutter, and as she waved goodbye, Lelouch and Maray called out their last good-byes. Soon, Ava disappeared into the crowd of people.

"You think I stepped on a sensitive subject?" Maray asked.

"Maybe," said Lelouch, "or maybe she has something to do. I'm sure she'd tell you if there really was something bothering her."

"Anyway… I don't recall hearing about Kayto and Avy splitting. They just lost contact," Maray said.

Before Lelouch could question Maray further, Kayto himself arrived on the scene, apparently having been looking for Maray. Kayto was wearing civilian attire with a simple white T-shirt, black pants, and a black sweat jacket on.

"There you are, Maray," Kayto said before noticing Lelouch, "Lelouch. I didn't expect to see you here."

"Likewise. This day has been full of surprises," Lelouch replied, but out of the corner of his eye, Maray immediately broke away and ran.

"MARAY!" Kayto called out, giving chase.

Lelouch wondered if he should follow. He understood Kayto's position as a concerned older brother, but he also understood what pushed Maray to act as she did.

I guess Maray must've been more deeply affected by what happened than I first imagined, he thought.

After that incident, Lelouch was left alone to his own devices. With nothing else to do, Lelouch found a corner coffee shop called Monk's café. Walking inside, Lelouch sat at the countertop row, where he decided to indulge in a soft drink and a simple sandwich for lunch.

He ate alone. However, shortly after finishing his sandwich, the empty seat next to him was filled by Kayto.

Clearly having failed to notice Lelouch as he took his seat, Kayto was winded from chasing his sister down. It was only after Kayto asked for a drink that he saw he had occupied a chair next to Lelouch.

"Rough day?" Lelouch asked. Kayto looked exhausted, wiping sweat from his forehead. Kayto took a large sip from his drink before answering.

"You have no idea," Kayto said before taking another sip. "I spent a couple years in the military undergoing rigorous training, and yet my own little sister outruns me."

"Maybe she has been exercising more since you enlisted?"

"I suppose, but I didn't think Maray would be the type to do that."

"People change," Lelouch offered before taking a sip from his own drink.

"No kidding. But speaking of time, where have you been?"

"I have been traveling around the Neutral Rim as a negotiator," Lelouch admitted. "I have assisted the Mining Union and others with solving problematic issues they needed to be resolved. Travel is a great bonus too."

"I am actually surprised you didn't join the military, too," Kayto said.

"Well, you know I wouldn't make it through basic training if you consider my physical limitations," said Lelouch.

"Right, I forgot about that," Kayto said, recalling that detail. "Beyond that, how have you been?"

"I have been getting by," Lelouch answered. "A few issues here and there, but that's life."

"Yeah."

"How about you?"

"A lot has been happening for me, but as you can see, I have been having some trouble with Maray."

"Maray told me she was aboard the research vessel that was under threat from a PACT vessel," Lelouch admitted. "It's tied to that, right?"

Kayto nodded, "I know she was badly shaken by the experience, but I am worried about her getting involved in these protests."

Considering how Maray ran away, I think its more than that, Lelouch thought internally.

Lelouch had never had a deep insight in how people worked, but he understood trauma. It changed you. Some people ran from it, and other people tried to do something about it. Maray, it seemed, fell into the latter category.

"I am glad Maray made it back safely, at least," Lelouch said neutrally.

"So am I, but I don't know what to do."

"What do you mean? Did something else happen?"

"Maray saw some of the people fleeing PACT space as they disembarked. The state they were in… it terrified her. She is afraid PACT will actually invade the Neutral Rim."

"I can only imagine what that must have been like," Lelouch lied.

"Yeah, I know, and I saw pictures of them too. I can't even imagine what things must've been like for them and for fleeing PACT space in a ship that was literally patched together from whatever they could find."

"It just shows how desperate they were to get away from it."

"I can't blame them," Kayto remarked before taking another drink. "But I don't know if expanding our military is a good idea."

"Why do you say that?"

"I am concerned it could cause the exact thing we want to avoid instead of stopping it. It could provoke a war from PACT, or make our neighbors a little nervous."

"True, those are possibilities," Lelouch acknowledged before taking a sip from his own drink. "However, on the other hand, what if the rumors are true and PACT does intend to invade?"

"You don't believe them, do you?"

"Not exactly, but you can't deny the troubling signs and stories coming out of PACT space. Granted, it could all amount to nothing, but what if it's true? Then what? That is likely what is going through the minds of those who believe an invasion is possible," Lelouch answered.

It wasn't quite honest, taking the devil's advocate position, but having dealt with those who were argumentive in the past had taught Lelouch how to better handle them.

"If you want to be better at making an augment, political or otherwise, consider the other person's perspective and use what information you have to understand the situation from both sides."

Kayto didn't say anything, and Lelouch decided to continue.

"Some say the truth has three sides; their truth, your truth, and the truth."

"I see," Kayto said, mulling over Lelouch's words. "I'll think about it. But even with everything going on with Cera, I… I really worry for Maray the most."

"You are her older brother, so there is nothing wrong with that. I understand that very well," Lelouch said, sipping on his drink.

"Thank you. I just don't understand how I can get through to her."

"Have you considered another approach?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you seem to be discouraging her from going down this path. Sometimes when you try and force people that way, all that ends up happening is they dig in their heels and commit to their position even harder. Why make her more deeply invested in this new path?"

"What, should I encourage it?"

"Not exactly, but if you take her seriously and make her feel like she's being understood, Maray might realize the pros and cons of the path she has chosen. This would allow you to talk with her more about it. Otherwise, if you come off as completely against it, she might just ignore you."

Kayto was quiet before taking another sip, "I never thought about it like that. I'll give it some thought."

"It's a good start, at least."

"So… do you know what has been going on with Ava?" Kayto asked, deciding to change the subject.

"I was actually going to ask you that. I was under the impression you two were still close, if not a couple by this point," Lelouch admitted.

"You two have been in contact?"

"She calls me every once in a while. We don't talk that much, but I had always told her to give you my regards whenever we ended our discussions." Lelouch answered.

"And she hasn't spoken to me since she left high school, but I chalked that up to her workaholic tendencies," Kayto admitted with a light smile.

"Yes, in fact, she told me her superiors more or less gave her forced shore leave," Lelouch added, leading to the two to enjoy a short laugh. "Still that being said, I am shocked you two haven't at least spoken more, or at least ran into each other as part of the Ceran Space Force."

Kayto sighed, before downing his drink, "So did I, or at least end up on a ship under her command. I am surprised she has spoken to you."

"We usually just talk about politics, really."

"I see," Kayto admitted, sounding morose.

"Whenever I speak to Ava next time, I'll try to encourage her to speak to you," Lelouch offered.

"I would appreciate that," Kayto replied.


Across the galaxy, C.C. and Garibaldi were exploring the remains of the orbital elevator after an advance team had confirmed the structure was safe to be boarded. It had been a few days since but only a small amount of progress had been made, as drones were launched from their ship to conduct a more extensive search and examination of the surrounding area.

As a precaution, both Garibaldi and C.C. were wearing EVA suits while exploring the interior of the orbital elevator.

"I am surprised something like this is still standing," Garibaldi commented as he shined his flashlight around the enlarged corridor.

"We probably have those repair drones to thank for that," C.C. said, shining a light on a spider-shaped mechanical drone conducting upkeep and repair on the ceiling above them.

"After thousands of years, they are still working. Incredible," Garibaldi added.

"Commander, one of the drones we sent towards the moon detected a structure on long-range sensors," a crew member from their ship reported through their comms.

"Don't have it approach it," C.C. quickly ordered. "If it's a Ryuvian Base, then its possible any approach will trigger an automated response."

C.C.'s warning came as a result of having heard stories of ships having the misfortune of finding an ancient Ryuvian Military base. Even though such places would hold a potential bounty of lost technology, the automated defenses of such bases were generally still active even after their empire had long since fallen.

"Tag the site for now, but don't have any of drones go near that moon," Garibaldi added.

"Understood."

"Should we plan to visit the planet's surface?" C.C. asked, knowing their exploration of the orbital elevator could take a day or two.

"We could set up a base camp at the base of the orbital elevator, but let's send some drones specialized for planetary surveys we brought to go first," Garibaldi suggested.

"Alright then," C.C. said in agreement. "I am not exactly confident the elevator in this place is still working."


Later that same night on Cera, Ava awoke in her bed. It was past ten. She had been struggling to go to sleep, but realizing it was futile, Ava rose from her bed. She went to the bathroom to splash some water on her face and went to watch television from her desk. She flicked on the news channel, leaning back in her chair.

"Covering our top story this evening," a female newscaster began, "president Wilkes of the New Moderate party made a definitive statement on the recent PACT controversy, during which one of their vessels violated Ceran space after opening fire on a refugee ship."

A clip rolled onto the screen, and Ava felt some trepidation. Would they finally do something about it? President Wilkes was their current head of state, and although he had proven a capable political leader, his stance on military matters had never been particularly aggressive. His reluctance to commit to a harsher stance on piracy had gotten him much criticism. Had this finally opened his eyes?

"Let me assure you all," said president Wilkes, a man in his late fourties with the bearing and tone of a speaker accustomed to authority and attention, "that we took this recent incident very seriously. We immediately reached out to PACT to demand an explanation, and an official stance. As I have already clarified, our military has been on high alert since."

And?

"It is my pleasure to announce that a diplomatic solution has been reached," continued the president, and Ava felt a pit in her stomach start to grow.

"We have been in talks with official PACT leadership, and we have been assured that this was a gross miscalculation by an overzealous captain. They have offered a formal apology for their transgression. Naturally, we have listened to the cries of our people, and we are currently negotiating for reparations for the violation of our airspace. PACT has made it clear that it does not view Cera as an enemy, and wishes to maintain peaceful relations. Our government is neither jingoistic nor overzealous, and as I have always said, we strive always for peace, not war."

Ava balled her fists.

"Sir," said a reporter, "do you have any comment about the ongoing protests? Critics have cited expert opinions about our navy's lacking funding many times."

"I would say that while we of course respect their right to their opinions, we have access to important, sensitive information that they do not. I can assure you, they do not want war any more then Cera does. Yes, in the back row…"

As the president pointed to another reporter, Ava turned the TV off with a flick off the remote. She sunk back in her chair, stunned. In a sudden fit of rage, she threw the remote into the wall, and banged her fists into her desk, growling with anger.

PACT had openly attacked them, and… that cowardly old bureaucrat had settled for reparations?

If they were attacked now, they could not defend themselves. Their leadership wouldn't act. What was she doing, serving in a military that couldn't protect her home, wouldn't protect her home? What was the point of it all?

Had… had Lelouch just had the right idea all along?