Chapter Eleven

Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what every man wishes, that he also believes to be true.

Demosthenes

A place unknown, October 2017 ATB

Darkness.

For Nunnally, that was nothing unusual. She hadn't seen anything for eight years. But there was something different about this darkness. Something unreal.

"Nunnally."

She could hear the voice, more in her mind than in her ears. She tried to move, but she couldn't feel anything around her. No chair underneath her, no armrests, nothing to touch or grab on to. She was floating, as if in mid-air.

"Nunnally."

That voice again. But where was it coming from? And where was she? What had happened?

Then she remembered. The Student Council building at Ashford Academy, on the night of the rebellion; when Zero and his Black Knights had taken over the school. She remembered the sounds of the rebels, their heavy boots clumping back and forth, the clicks as they fiddled with their guns, their conversations.

And then something had happened. She had felt drowsy, in a way she hadn't felt since she was little, when she was in the hospital. The voices had become slurred, and they had started falling over.

"Nunnally."

"Who are you!?" she called out. "What is this place!? Where have you taken me!?"

"You're safe here, Nunnally." The voice was soft, and strangely gentle. She could have sworn she had heard it somewhere before. "There is nothing to fear here."

"Tell me where I am!" Nunnally insisted. There was nothing soothing about that soft voice, that voice that sounded so familiar. "What do you want from me!? Where's Lelouch!?"

Lelouch. Her big brother, the rock to which she had always clung. He hadn't been there when it happened. He had gone away for the day, and was supposed to be back by the evening. But he hadn't come back. Where was he?

"You are safe here," the voice went on, undeterred. "I brought you here so you can heal."

"What do you mean!?" Nunnally was getting frightened. She wanted Lelouch! She wanted Sayoko! She wanted her friends! But none of them were there. She didn't even know what this place was. Why was she floating like this?

"You are damaged, Nunnally," said the voice, in a pitying sort of tone. "You've been hurt, and you've lived in darkness all these years. It's time for you to heal."

"How?" demanded Nunnally. "How can I? The doctors couldn't heal me! How can you!?"

"I can help you, Nunnally. But you must open your eyes."

Nunnally's blood ran cold.

"I…I can't."

"You must open your eyes, Nunnally."

"No!" The fear erupted into terror. "I can't! I won't!"

She couldn't open her eyes! She hadn't opened her eyes since it happened! She couldn't do it!

"You must open your eyes, Nunnally," repeated the voice gently but insistently.

"No!"

"You must open your eyes, Nunnally."

"No! No I can't!"

Nunnally thrashed around, grabbing for something to hold onto, anything to steady her. But there was nothing to be found. She just kept on floating, drifting amid the whispering voices.

"You must open your eyes, Nunnally."

"Open them…open them…"

"You must open them…

"Open your eyes…"

"No! Please! Stop it!"

She was all alone. All alone in this dark place, with only the whispering voices. They hovered around her, whispering into her ears, and into her mind. She tried to lash out, to drive them away, but there was nothing there!

"You must open them, Nunnally."

"No! I can't!"

"You must open your eyes, Nunnally. You must open them, and see."

Her eyes opened. And she saw. The face of her mother, once beautiful and smiling, now cold and lifeless. Her eyes once bright, now blank and glazed over. The arms that enfolded her, once warm and comforting, now a cold prison.

And blood. Blood, soaking into her dress, her hair.

Nunnally screamed. She clenched her eyes shut, trying to force the nightmare vision away. But there it remained, as it had for eight long years; hiding in the darkness at the back of her mind.

"No! Please! Stop it!" she shrieked, pleading with the cruel apparition that had brought her to this place. "Make it stop! Please!"

"You must see, Nunnally."

"Stop it!"

And then the vision was gone, replaced with a vague white blur. A cacophony of noise buffeted her ears; a din of strange sounds, and voices she didn't know. Hands grabbed her arms, pinning her down.

"Sedate her! Quickly!"

She felt a sharp pain in her neck. Slowly, she felt her body grow heavy and sluggish. The terror faded, replaced with a dull, settling stupor.

Silence.

(X)

Some time later

Nunnally let out a groan.

Her head felt thick, woozy, and her stomach churned; as if she had spinning around very, very fast. She wondered if this was what a hangover felt like. Before her was a vague white blur, bright in the middle and dimmer out to the sides.

She lay where she was, her limbs too heavy to move. She was in a bed, or so it seemed. But this wasn't her bed at Ashford Academy. The sheets in her bed were soft and warm, comforting. The sheet covering her was slick, and somehow hard. And the sheet below her wasn't even made of cloth. It felt like rubber, or plastic. Why did she have a rubber sheet?

Then she remembered. The last time she'd slept on a rubber sheet, she was in the Imperial Clinic, back in Pendragon. She had lain there with her eyes covered, her legs and waist wrapped in bandages, with only voices and the touch of unseen hands to comfort her.

Yes, she remembered. She was too tired, too sickly to take fright at the memories, but she saw them all the same; hovering in her mind's eye, weighing down her thoughts. She remembered it all so clearly. Her mother carrying her up the stairs, the sound she now knew was gunfire, then lying on the stairs; trapped in her mother's arms, her dress wet with blood, her legs in burning agony.

Her mother's face, its smile gone, the colour fading, the eyes glazing over.

That day, eight years ago, her mother had died. That day, she had lost her legs, and her sight. That day, her childhood had ended.

So where was she? Was this a hospital? It felt like one, and now that she came to it, it smelt like one. There was a scent of flowers, flowers she vaguely knew, but under it lay the smell of disinfectant and starched sheets. The smell of a hospital; a clean one, anyway.

Her vision went momentarily black, and then it changed. The blur had sharpened, resolving into vague shapes above her. Then it went black again, and again, the image on her eyelids changing every time; becoming sharper, more defined.

Nunnally felt her brow furrow. Was she seeing things? She really couldn't say. For so long, all she had seen was a vague blur; the only real images being those inside her mind. It was an important distinction, the doctors had told her, though they had not said why. A quick recital from a medical textbook, care of Sayoko, had revealed the reason. If she ever forgot how to tell those images apart, it meant she was going insane.

So then, what was she seeing now? And what was that sensation every time it went black?

Unsettled, but curious, Nunnally forced a sluggish, numb arm to move, bringing a thick, near-unresponsive hand over her face. A vague shape slid over the blurs, blotting them out.

Nunnally almost jumped, her sluggish mind awakening a little. She tried to twiddle her thumb, and the shape responded; a part of it twitching. She brought her hand down to touch her face, and the shape responded. She drew it away, and there were the blurs again, but more distinct this time. There was a round light, and square shapes leading away from it, forming a grid pattern.

No…was she…?

She tried to turn her head. The light moved away, and she saw more of the grid, leading away until it stopped, moving downward. She followed it, and saw a rectangular shape leading downward. She moved her head a little more to the left, and saw another shape; this time with light coming out of it. Much more light than that round thing before, and softer too. Almost like…

She felt her face twitch, and the black came back, then it was gone again. Another twitch, and there was the black again, and again, and again. Her heart sped up as she brought her hand back, and aimed one finger very carefully towards her eye. She could see the blurred shape, felt something flick over her fingertip as the black returned.

Her eyelid. She was blinking. Blinking!

She slumped back in the soft, thick pillow, clutching at the sheets. Her eyes! They had opened! She could see! How had this happened?

She looked around again, her vision sharpening with every blink. She was in a room; about the size of her bedroom back at Ashford Academy. There was a door on the opposite wall, and a window on the wall to her left, sunlight streaming in. There were shelves and cabinets, and a bedside table on either side of the bed. On the table to her left sat a vase full of flowers; the same flowers she had smelt a moment ago. They were round, with narrow lavender petals and orange-yellow centers.

She knew that scent. But if it was what it was, how had she come to be there? What had they done to her to make her see again?

Where was Lelouch?

All at once the door slid open; a sound she knew very well. A young woman in a white smock and pants stepped inside, regarding her with wide, nervous eyes.

"Your highness," the woman greeted her with a gentle but clear voice. "It's all right, your highness. You're safe here."

Nunnally regarded her as she approached the bed. She had brown hair bound up behind her head, green eyes and…a face. Nunnally realised that she didn't know much about that face, or any face at all. She had been blind for so long that she had nothing to compare it to.

"Where am I?" she asked, her voice croaking terribly. "Is this Britannia?"

"Yes, your highness," replied the woman, smiling. "You are in the Imperial Clinic, in Pendragon. I am Nurse Carter."

"Britannia…" Nunnally trailed off, as the reality of it set in. "I thought so."

"You did, your highness?"

"These flowers," she said, nodding towards the vase. "They are Asters, a kind I know well. I remember their scent, from when I was little."

"Yes, your highness." She sounded pleased. "They were sent by her Majesty, the Queen-Consort Victoria li Britannia. They were gathered from the Exelica Gardens, at Aries Villa."

Victoria…Cornelia and Euphemia's mother. That was just like the Victoria li Britannia she remembered; to send her flowers from her childhood garden.

Victoria…Cornelia…Euphie…

"Nurse Carter," she said cautiously. "How did I come to be here?"

A look flashed across Carter's face, vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared.

"I'm afraid I don't know, your highness," she answered awkwardly. "You were brought here by the Imperial Guard, two weeks ago."

"Two…weeks…"

Two weeks. Two whole weeks. Had she been out that long?

"Nurse…when I was last conscious, I was in Japan," she said, the name slipping out unbidden. "I mean, Area 11. What has happened there? What's been going on?"

Carter's face shifted again. Nunnally had not seen a human face since she was seven years old, but even she could tell that Carter was nervous.

"Your highness, there is no Area 11 anymore," she replied, awkwardly. "The rebels have taken it; them and the Chinese Federation."

Rebels…and the Chinese Federation? But if Area 11 was lost, then….

"Lelouch!" Nunnally gasped, sudden terror cutting through the fog that clouded her mind. "Where's Lelouch? My brother Lelouch?"

"I don't know, your highness" replied Carter, in a trained soothing tone she had heard from plenty of nurses over the years. "There was no sign or mention of his highness."

"Lelouch…my friends…" Nunnally's heart began to race. She remembered it all so clearly now. Those voices on her radio, the sound of gunfire, those heavy footfalls, the harsh voices in Japanese and broken English.

And that voice.

"Your highness, please don't get upset," pleaded Carter, looking worried. "You're safe here. And Prince Schneizel is doing all he can."

Nunnally felt sick. Unlike many Britannians, she neither feared nor disliked the Japanese. But they were only human, and they had endured seven years of oppression and misery before Zero led them in revolt. She remembered them in the Student Council room; the harsh, barked commands, the sneering contempt from one of them, the stench of barely-contained fear and aggression.

The hatred.

"My brother, and my friends," she went on. "I last saw them when the rebels invaded Tokyo Settlement. What's happened to the settlers? Do you know anything?"

She stared with desperate eyes at the hapless nurse.

"I don't know much, your highness." Carter looked miserable. "A lot of the settlers and soldiers got out safely, but some were stranded. No one knows what's happened to them. Prince Schneizel is trying to check on them, but…"

She trailed off, and Nunnally knew what she meant. Britannia did not negotiate with terrorists, and there was no terrorist worse than a rebel in arms. If Japan really had escaped from Britannian control, then the Britannians stranded there were on their own; at the mercy of people they had oppressed and lorded over for seven years.

"Your highness, please don't worry," pleaded Carter, kneeling down by her bed. "I'm sure the Chancellor is looking for them. Everything will be all right."

Nunnally looked Carter in the eyes. There was no deception or insincerity in them, but then again how would she know? The Japanese believed that eyes were windows to the soul, but she hadn't seen any for so long.

Unless…

"Nurse Carter…" she said, cautiously. "Will you please give me your hand?"

"Of course." Carter held out her hand, and Nunnally took it. She ran her fingers along it, feeling the muscles and the bones, and the beating of her heart.

"You seem like…a kind person," she said, hoping she had read the hand correctly. It was a strange little knack she had picked up over the years, but it had served her well in understanding others. "I'm sorry to imply otherwise, but…"

"It's all right, your highness." Carter smiled sadly. "You've been through so much. But you're safe now, and…"

"Please excuse the delay, your Imperial Highness."

A tall, severe-looking woman came striding into the room, wearing a white labcoat and a look of cold calculation. Nurse Carter straightened up, and Nunnally could tell that she was nervous.

And behind the woman came a tall man, with curly blonde hair and a gentle smile. He wore a long, expensive-looking white coat. Nunnally's brow furrowed as she saw him. She knew him somehow.

"Nunnally," the man said, his smile widening. "Nunnally, it's been so long."

That voice…

"Brother Schneizel?" Nunnally blurted out, as the memories returned. "Is that really you?"

"I am so glad you remember, Nunnally," replied Schneizel fulsomely. "After eight years, I was afraid you had forgotten everything."

Yes, this was Schneizel el Britannia. Her second-eldest brother, Second Prince, and Chancellor of the Empire. She had not seen his face in eight years, and it had changed somewhat since then; becoming fuller, more mature, perhaps a little harder. But she knew his voice well enough; from the radio, or the TV.

"Oh, this is Doctor Landsen, Surgeon Imperial, whom I've assigned to your care," Schneizel introduced the woman, who bowed. "She informed me that you were awake."

That hadn't taken long. Then again, the Imperial Clinic was inside the Greater Pendragon area, so he wouldn't have had to go far.

"I trust that Nurse Carter's attendance has been satisfactory?" asked Landsen, rather coldly. Nunnally glanced at Carter. She looked even more nervous than before.

"More than satisfactory, thank you doctor," she said primly. "Nurse Carter has been very kind to me."

"I am very glad to hear that," said Schneizel, sending Carter a gentle smile. "Thank you, Nurse Carter."

"It was the least I could do, your Imperial Highness." Carter bowed, and she seemed a little happier.

"In the meantime, might I have the room, doctor?" Schneizel asked, turning his attention to Landsen. "If there is nothing immediate to be handled, I would very much like to talk to my sister in private."

"By all means, your highness." Landsen bowed, and nodded at Carter, who fell in behind her as she headed for the door.

"Nurse Carter!" Nunnally called after her, causing her to pause and turn. "Thank you." Carter paused a moment, and then smiled.

"It was my pleasure, your highness." She bowed, and stepped out through the door.

"How are you, Nunnally" Schneizel asked, as the door slid shut behind them. "Is there anything you need?"

Nunnally faltered. She didn't know what to say, or what to think.

"Brother Schneizel…" She trailed off, the words retreating within her before she could speak them.

"It's all right, Nunnally." He sounded sincere. "You're safe here. You're home. And we're all so glad."

"Schneizel…" She gulped. "Schneizel…why am I here? What happened? Why am I…like this?"

Schneizel did not reply right away. He was smiling, but there was a tinge of something to his smile; something not quite right about it.

"You were brought to us by the OSI," he said. "They claim they were maintaining a surveillance on your friend Suzaku Kururugi. When the rebels stormed the campus, they decided to pull out; and they extracted you."

Nunnally felt her brow furrow. What he was saying didn't make any sense. She supposed the OSI might have been watching Suzaku, but why would they bother to extract her?

Unless…

"Did they know all along?" she asked. She was shaking as the notion sunk in. An OSI surveillance team, spying on them like something from one of those movies. Watching them when they had dinner, or drank Sayoko's tea on the veranda, or went walking in the gardens together. How much had they seen? How much had they heard?

"They say not, Nunnally," replied Schneizel, in a tone as unreadable as his face. "They claim they only did a biometric check on your face on a hunch, and the percentage match was fairly high. It was a rushed decision in the end, though one with a very happy outcome."

She supposed the story was plausible. But something inside her just wouldn't accept it. It just felt…unlikely somehow.

"As for your eyes, that's proving complicated," Schneizel went on. "Your blindness was diagnosed as psychosomatic. It's possible that all the upheaval simply broke you out of it. But there is also something else."

"What else?" Nunnally did not like that notion. Schneizel paused for a long time, and she liked it even less.

"You were given a full medical check when you arrived here. Doctor Landsen tells me you're in very good health, all things considered. But what interested her was the nerves in your legs. The damage…is not as bad as it was when you were last examined; eight years ago."

Nunnally blinked, as she tried to make sense of what he was saying.

"Not as bad?"

"The nerves have shown signs of healing, Nunnally."

Nunnally blinked, and blinked, and blinked. Her mind was a blank. She couldn't process it.

"But they said it was impossible!" she blurted out. "They said it couldn't happen!"

"Nunnally, please don't get over-excited," cautioned Schneizel. "What's happened to you is not impossible, but it is highly improbable. There's no guarantee that it will continue."

She stared up at him, hope and despair warring within her. Was it possible that her legs might heal? That she could walk again? Did she dare allow herself to believe it?

"Nunnally, I may have made a mistake in telling you this." Schneizel's smile had faded, and he sounded sad. "Hope proven false can be worse than no hope at all. That said, it would have been just as unethical not to tell you."

Nunnally's head swam as she tried to process it all. It was the most wondrous thing to have happened to her in eight long years. But for it to happen at a time like this!

"What would happen to me if they did continue to heal?" she asked, trying to centre her mind. "What is to be done?"

"Well, Doctor Landsen would like to keep you here under observation," replied Schneizel. "There would be regular scans to check on your progress. If it continues to the point where it would make a difference, there is the option of therapy. Your leg muscles have atrophied, so you'll need to learn to walk again."

That much made sense. Eight years without use were bound to have that effect.

But still…the thought of being able to walk again. To walk, and run, and dance, as well as see! She could finally see everyone, and…!

Except she couldn't. Because they weren't there. The might not even be alive. She had her heart's desire, but had lost the people she loved most.

"Lelouch…!"

Her face crumpled, and her eyes brimmed with tears. She hadn't cried in so long. Nothing seemed worth crying about, not since the invasion. But she couldn't stop herself. It was too much!

"Nunnally." Schneizel stepped around the bed and knelt down beside it, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. "Nunnally, please don't cry."

"Lelouch…" she whimpered.

"I know, Nunnally." Schneizel pulled out a silk handkerchief and pressed it gently over her face, drying up the tears. "We had given up all hope. We thought you were both lost."

"Lelouch…my friends…Sayoko…"

She wanted them all. She wanted to tell them the good news, to share her joy with them. But how could she, when they were an ocean away, and quite possibly dead?

"I know they'd all be thrilled for you, Nunnally," said Schneizel gently. "And I'm doing all I can to find them."

"You promise?" Nunnally knew she sounded like a child, but couldn't help herself.

"Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Nunnally." Schneizel smiled again. "And you are not completely bereft. Your friend Suzaku Kururugi is here too."

"He is?" Nunnally almost jumped; hope and terror warring within her. "Why? What's going on?"

"He's here in the clinic," Schneizel explained. "He was hurt in the fighting, unfortunately. Though he should recover soon."

Nunnally's heart sank even more, as she released what it all meant.

"Don't hurt him!" she pleaded. "Please don't hurt him! He's suffered enough!"

"Nunnally…"

"It's not his fault! None of it was his fault!" The words came out as a wail. "He would never have let Euphie down!"

She knew that much. She knew it with all her heart. Suzaku had loved Euphemia, of that much she was certain. She was his light, his chance of a better, worthier life, a chance to escape from the darkness and shame that had tormented him for seven long years.

And so much more than that.

"I'm not going to hurt him, Nunnally," insisted Schneizel. He sounded pained. "And I won't let him be blamed. I know for a fact that none of it was his fault."

"You do?"

Schneizel sighed, and stood up from the bed. He stalked over to the window and stared out. There was something heavy about his countenance, as if a cloud was hanging over him.

"We've been investigating what happened," he said. "We're going to publish a report in the next few days. The senate has been demanding it, and so have the people. They want to know why Euphie died, and how Area 11 was lost."

"So why did she die?" she asked. Schneizel sighed.

"Something very strange happened there. When Euphie was talking with Zero, there was a…phenomenon of some kind. Several people complained of anxiety and nausea, while others suffered hallucinations. Suzaku, along with Euphie's OSI team, were rendered unconscious. After that, she ran straight out onto the dais, and the sniper shot her. The rest, as they say, is history."

Nunnally looked down at the sheets, trying to make sense of it all. Suzaku was protected, at least. They could not punish him without punishing everyone else, assuming they were still alive. But…

"You're saying that Zero was behind all this?"

"What little evidence we have points firmly at him," Schneizel agreed. "It's rather convenient, that while he was talking with her in private, Euphie would do the one thing that put her in any physical danger, and anyone who could have intervened was knocked out."

It seemed so obvious; and simple enough for the public to accept. Nunnally didn't want to believe it, not after all the good things Zero had done. She didn't want to believe he was capable of such cruel treachery. But what else was there?

"Our report will fully exonerate Suzaku," Schneizel went on. "It helps that he saved Cornelia's life later on."

"He did?"

"During the Tokyo settlement siege, she faced Zero in personal combat," Schneizel explained. "She was badly hurt, but Zero was driven off. Suzaku managed to find her, and carry her to the Avalon. If he hadn't, she would have died for sure."

Suzaku had saved Cornelia. Cornelia, who had always treated him with suspicion; or so Euphie had told her. Suzaku had lost one princess, and saved another.

"Nunnally, don't bother yourself with such things." Schneizel turned to face her, his smile back in place. "You've come home. You should relax and try to enjoy yourself. Everyone wants to see you."

"They do?"

"Yes." There was a twinkle in his eye. "Lady Victoria especially. She comes here regularly with Laila to check on Cornelia. She was hoping to see you too, if you're able to receive visitors."

Nunnally felt a pang of sorrow. She had known the Queen-consort Victoria li Britannia for many years before her exile. A stern but not unkind woman, always a fine lady, and much respected by the other consorts. As a daughter who had lost her mother, Nunnally had at least a passing notion of what Victoria was going through. She had lost her beloved younger daughter, and her older daughter was lying wounded in hospital.

Wait, Laila?

"You mentioned Laila," she asked. "Laila la Britannia? Clovis' sister?"

"Yes." Schneizel let out a sad sigh. "After Clovis died, Lady Gabriella didn't take it at all well. In fact she became very ill; and there's no guarantee she will ever recover. When it was decided that she couldn't take care of Laila any more, Lady Victoria offered to take her in. I think they've been a comfort to one-another."

Nunnally understood, only too well. She remembered those first dark months, as she processed the fact that her mother was gone forever; along with her legs and quite possibly her sight. She remembered that terrible, lonely emptiness, which even Lelouch struggled to fill.

It made sense. A mother who had lost her daughter, and a daughter who had all but lost her mother. Perhaps some good would come of all this pain.

"Shall I tell them that you are receiving visitors?" asked Schneizel, with just a hint of hope.

"Yes, of course." Nunnally managed to smile. "It would be nice to see everyone again."

And it would. She had never hated or even particularly disliked her half-siblings and their mothers. Not like Lelouch, whose resentment and suspicion had festered and suppurated for eight long years.

Schneizel paused, and touched his finger to his ear.

"I'm terribly sorry Nunnally, duty calls," he said, apologetically. "I'll return as soon as I can. Is there anything you need in the meantime?"

"I'd…like something to read," Nunnally asked. "And…perhaps a mirror?"

"Of course."

Schneizel smiled, and left the room. Nunnally lay back on the pillows, and wondered what on earth she was going to do. She was back in Britannia after so many years, back among her family. But her brother was gone, as was every friend she had made since she had gone to Japan. Every friend except Suzaku, and his life hung by a thread.

So what now? What was she to do? It wasn't as if she could just get up and go back to Japan; any more than she could have avoided going there in the first place. Once again, her entire life had been decided for her by others; but events of which she knew little, and for which no one could offer a serious explanation.

She let out a long sigh, as she tried to think. She tried to steady her mind, using the techniques she had learned from Lelouch and Sayoko. She had to think her way around this, to work it out logically, and decide what to do.

Except there was nothing she could do. She had her sight back, it was true. But even if her legs had recovered, it would be some time before she could properly walk again. And even if she could walk, would they allow her to leave? Would they let her just walk out and go wherever she pleased? And even if she could do that, what would she do then? She had no money, no resources, and no connections aside from the Imperial family, Suzaku, and maybe the Ashfords.

No! She wouldn't give up. She couldn't just give up. She couldn't do anything for the others, but Suzaku was still there; not so far away. She had to see him, to protect him if she could. If Suzaku was by her side, then she wasn't alone.

Nunnally steeled herself, ordering her thoughts. She had to see Suzaku, to show him that he wasn't alone, that the whole world had not turned against him. She had to see everyone again, her stepmothers, her half-siblings; to see what kind of people they had become, and discover if she had one single friend among them.

And then she would find her friends, and Lelouch. And she would find out just what had really happened that night; and why Schneizel was telling her stories that made no sense.

In the meantime, she could only lie where she was, staring at the blank white ceiling. She hoped Nurse Carter wouldn't be long with something to read.

(X)

Schneizel el Britannia stared through the two-way mirror at the body lying on the bed.

Suzaku Kururugi lay still, unmoving but for the slow rise and fall of his chest. A combined mask and feeding tube covered his face, and a white sheet concealed his scarred, wounded body. Medical sensors beeped and flashed, ready to warn the medical staff of any change in his life signs.

And there was no one else in there. No one to watch over him, or console him, or worry about him. Those who loved him were far away, or else in no position to help him.

He was utterly alone.

Schneizel could not help but feel sorry for him. This was a surprise, for he did not often feel strong emotions of any kind. But he knew, better than most, what that unhappy young man had endured in the course of his short life. It was a sad tale, and sadder still for where it had ultimately led him. To this place, and this dark fate.

"Your highness."

Schneizel did not look up, for he knew who it was. That walk, and that voice, he had known for more than ten years.

"So then," he said, his eyes fixed on the mirror. "What have you to tell me, Kanon? For what did I leave my little sister all alone?"

"Your highness, the investigation report is complete," replied Kanon Maldini, his personal equerry and most trusted servant. "The draft has been securely transferred to your office, and awaits your approval."

"And you have seen it?"

"Yes, your highness."

There were not many whom he would have trusted to see the report. But Schneizel had long since learned the value of people like Kanon Maldini. People who could study such a matter, boil it down the important details, and relay it to him in a quick and efficient manner. As Chancellor, he had a lot to deal with at the best of times.

"So then," he asked, glancing at his equerry. "What was their conclusion?"

Kanon visibly composed himself.

"For the assassin, it is as it appears. He smuggled a dismantled rifle into the stadium, piece by piece, during construction. On the day he entered in the guise of his usual duties, reassembled the weapon, and used it."

"Hardly the stuff of Arthur Holmes" quipped Schneizel. He knew it was tasteless, but he couldn't help himself. "Dare I hope the plot thickens?"

"The NSP officers searched the stadium, but found nothing," Kanon went on. "The turnout for the opening ceremony was considerably more than expected. The NSP officers were forced to leave the stadium to manage the crowds. When Princess Euphemia arrived, it became apparent that her guard detachment could not secure the stadium by themselves. General Darlton took the decision to summon additional troops, and delay the start of the ceremony. Minutes later, Zero arrived aboard the Gawain, and asked to speak with Princess Euphemia in private. The meeting took place aboard the MCV, which had been evacuated for the purpose. The Gawain parked directly next to it. The pilot was described as a young woman with green hair."

Her. Her again. The woman Clovis had been so obsessed with. The woman the OSI was bent on finding. The woman who had been seen with his father, and Lady Marianne.

"As I recall, Kanon, this brings us to the…phenomenon?"

"Yes, your highness. Approximately ten minutes after Zero's arrival, symptoms were noted among guards, staff, and guests in the VIP tower. These ranged from a mild sense of déjà vu, through to nausea, then hallucinations, and loss of consciousness. The layout of the cases showed a distinct pattern, with the epicentre being the MCV and the Gawain. Those closest to them, including Suzaku Kururugi, Princess Euphemia's OSI security officers, and several guards, were rendered unconscious."

He fell silent, waiting for a reply. Schneizel stared at the mirror, and the sleeping form of Suzaku Kururugi. He had already known what Kanon had just told him. He had been certain of it. But there was something…macabre about hearing it like this.

"It would seem, then, that we have our answer," he mused. "Zero turns up, and after a few minutes alone with him, Euphemia runs straight onto the dais; giving our assassin a clear shot he wouldn't have had otherwise. Hard to dismiss as coincidence."

"Indeed, your highness."

"But one small problem." Schneizel's brow furrowed. "How do we explain the phenomenon itself? How do we tell the public that Zero somehow caused a number of people to fall unconscious, and Euphie to do the most dangerous thing she possibly could do?"

"The report dismissed a chemical weapon as not fitting the pattern of affected cases," Kanon replied. "They suggested that Zero possesses some sort of mental weapon, able to disrupt brain functions at a distance."

"Do we know of any such device?"

"The OSI can do such things," Kanon mused dubiously. "But not under these conditions. As far as we know, no one in all the world can do something like this; though it is not scientifically impossible."

Schneizel allowed himself to glower. The public wanted answers, not science fiction. If he tried to tell the Britannian people that Zero had caused their beloved princess' death with some kind of brainwashing gun, they would either dismiss it as nonsense or go mad with fear.

And they didn't know half of what he knew; of the strange events that had occurred in Area Eleven, and the pattern they fitted.

"And what about Nagoya settlement?" he pressed. "That's the other one they'll be wanting to know about."

Kanon took a breath, and Schneizel braced himself.

"The investigation found that while Zero was able to infiltrate the HQ tower, and cause an accident on the armoury deck, his presence was not the underlying cause of the disaster. The real causes were unsafe munitions handling, and deliberate deactivation of safety equipment, which could only have been done on Interim-Viceroy Calares' orders. As for Sir Gilbert Guilford, he has confessed to mutiny in joining with the officers' coup, as well as dereliction of duty in allowing himself to be evacuated by Zero. He awaits your judgement."

Schneizel stared harder, wishing he could make this whole wretched situation go away. The Nagoya situation was comparatively cut-and-dried, but the stadium was another matter. The idea that Zero possessed a mind-altering weapon would be a hard sell for some, and a terror too far for others. But if he left that fact out, nothing else made sense. How else was he to explain it all?

"The report will need some editing," he said at last. "We will say that Zero equipped the Gawain with a microwave weapon, and used it to render the guards unconscious; after which Euphemia, for reasons unknown, ran out onto the dais and was shot by the sniper. I don't think we can offer more than that."

"And Sir Gilbert?"

"We will say that Sir Gilbert Guilford was trying to do his duty, as best he understood it, under difficult circumstances. Calares was clearly deranged, and about to commit an atrocity. He was afterwards taken prisoner by Zero, removed from the tower, and then released."

"I will start the redrafting immediately, your highness."

"Good. I'd like it ready and distributed to the ministers by tonight, with maximum security. No leaks until after the council meeting."

For a few moments, the room was silent.

"Your highness, I'm sure the council will accept the report's findings," insisted Kanon. "There's nothing remotely unreasonable in any of them."

"It's not a question of what's reasonable, Kanon. It's a question of whether the public will settle for dead scapegoats."

That was the beginning and the end of it. Euphie's death had plunged Britannia into mourning, but now the sorrow was turning into anger. The people wanted to know why all this had happened. Why was their beloved princess dead? Why was Area Eleven lost? Why wasn't the military getting ready to take it back? And why wasn't the Chinese Federation being punished for bombarding their troops?

Ordinarily he would have waited. He would have ordered a full public inquiry, dragging the whole affair out over many months until people lost interest. But the senators had gotten spooked, and would not debate his reform bills until the report was published. They wanted their constituents pacified, or at least temporarily distracted, before they would pass the bills. And the only scapegoats he could offer were a terrorist and an insane Interim-Viceroy who just happened to be dead.

That only left Nunnally; the lost princess who had come home, a tiny flash of hope amid the darkness. Schneizel had hoped to take it slowly, to let Nunnally's body and mind recover, and then gently cajole her into accepting her situation; into becoming Princess Nunnally once again. But the survival of the empire, of Britannia as a functioning state, might not allow for that.

"It will be enough" insisted Kanon again. "I am certain of it."

"We can only hope, for now."

Schneizel stared again at Suzaku. Once the situation was in hand, he could spent a little time preparing that young man. He would have his own role to play in the drama to come.

"I will not allow you to die, Suzaku Kururugi," he thought. "You have too much to tell me, and too much to do for me…and for Nunnally."

(X)

Britannian airship Granberry, off the coast of Texas, Holy Empire of Britannia

The chamber was dark, but for the shimmering light of the map table.

Lady Oldrin Zevon, Knight-of-Honour, Knight-Commander of the Order of the Glinda Knights, forced her face to remain expressionless. Around the table stood her fellow Glinda Knights, in their sleek new uniforms of crimson and red, their eyes all fixed on the face at the head of the table.

It was a face Oldrin knew well. It was the most precious face in her world, a face whose smile was her greatest joy.

That face was not smiling. Nor was it glaring. It was worse than a glare.

"How recent is this information?"

"The last report is four hours old, your highness."

The last came from General the Lord Johann Schwarzer, standing opposite Oldrin. His face was old and kind, with a white goatee beard and white hair coiffed in a crest behind his head. He alone, out of all of them, showed no sign of fear.

"General…to ensure there is no misunderstanding, please describe the situation."

Her Imperial Highness Princess Marybelle mel Britannia, 88th Princess of the Holy Empire of Britannia, glared down at the map table. Her beautiful, perfectly-formed face remained fixed in its porcelain mask, but Oldrin knew the light in those purple eyes.

"Violent disorder has increased across the colonies," Schwarzer began. "For the newer colonies this is nothing new. But it is the southern colonies that concern us today."

On the table before him was a detailed map of the southern continent, still known to some as South America. Marked upon it were the borders of the Areas 1 through 6; the first six colonies established under the Area system, established under Emperor Theseus more than half a century ago. The major cities and military bases were all marked out; the bulk of them along or near the coastline. Further inland lay the great green mass of the Amazon rainforest, and the grey spine of the Andes mountains.

"Armed resistance has increased noticeably in the past weeks, since the death of her late highness Princess Euphemia, and the loss of Area 11 to Zero," Schwarzer continued. "Resistance consists of surviving Numbers, and various subversive and criminal elements, generally operating out of isolated areas. Hitherto this was nothing the local authorities couldn't handle, but the situation has changed."

On the map, red icons appeared at various points along the mountains and around the edge of the rainforest. Oldrin's pulse quickened as more icons appeared, this time inside the large cities; the cities that were supposed to be secure.

"The upsurge has coincided with an outburst of civil unrest in the settlement zones," Schwarzer went on. "Large demonstrations, at times boiling over into riot. There is some confusion as to the underlying causes, but the viceregal authorities have been forced to pull troops and police off the line to deal with them."

Oldrin glanced around the table, taking in the faces of her subordinate knights. Sir Tink Lockhart, with grey hair and a scarred face; the good-natured lummox who rarely let anything get to him. Sir Leonhardt Steiner, with the spiky red-brown hair and the golden eyes; gentle and chivalrous, looking worried. And Dame Sokkia Sherper with the dark green hair; honest and brave, but a little too affectionate at times.

And there was Toto Thompson; her maid, who had followed her into Princess Marybelle's service. She wasn't a knight, but her apron tied up tight over plenty of other duties; duties for which knights were not usually well suited.

"How can this be happening?" asked Leonhardt, looking up at Schwarzer. "I could understand it in Africa or Area 11, but these regions have been part of Britannia since the 1950s."

Sokkia and Tink glanced at him, then at Marybelle. Oldrin forced herself not to gulp. It was the question she knew they all wanted to ask; yet dreaded to. If unrest could get that bad in such long-standing colonies, then what hope was there for the rest of the empire."

"As the good general said, the causes are not clear," replied the princess, a little primly. "The demonstrations seem to have started as vigils for my late sister Princess Euphemia. It may be nothing more than public feeling running out of control."

Oldrin could believe it. She had seen some of the vigils back in the homeland. The sheer numbers of them, filling up parks and squares; standing with flickering candles, or lining up to sign the memorial books. The books had run out several times, leading to long waits while new books were printed and rushed to where they were needed.

It would have taken so very little to start something. A smoke bomb, a firecracker, even a shout could have started a stampede, maybe even a riot.

But if that was all it was, why had it gone on for so long? Why was it an issue even now?

"The situation in the southern colonies is uncertain," Marybelle admitted, just a little sternly. "The Chancellor has asked us to look into the matter while we are there. For the moment, our orders."

On cue, Schwarzer tapped at his keyboard. The map zoomed in on the north of the continent; on the territory that had once been the Republic of Gran Colombia. The territory was divided into two parts; Area One, which formed the core of the long-conquered republic; and Area Two to the east, the old Britannian colony of Guyana, conquered by Colombia in 1818. The map focussed on Area 1, in the fertile lands in the centre of the colony.

"Our target is here, in the Hacienda Desierto, here in Guarico District," Marybelle went on, pointing at an icon on the map. "An imitation hacienda, built in the 1980s. Its current owner is Louis Martinez Cabaldon, an agricultural magnate with holdings across the continent. He is also, the OSI believes, a major narcotics smuggler; with connections to organised crime and rebel networks also across the continent."

The princess paused a moment, letting it all sink in.

"The OSI has reason to believe that certain representatives of those networks are gathering at the Hacienda Desierto in four days," she continued. "Their purpose is, almost certainly, to sign a pact of rebellion, and to coordinate their efforts against us."

Oldrin forced herself not to shudder, as she saw the cold light in Marybelle's eyes; a light she knew well.

"Our mission, therefore, is to attack the hacienda while the meeting is taking place," stated Marybelle, her tone softening a little. "In the meantime, we will go directly to the Camelot facility here in Texas, to collect the new knightmares Prince Schneizel has been promising us."

There was a twinkle in her eye, and Oldrin saw the knights perk up a little. The Camelot Foundation was a research and development organisation owned and run by the Chancellor Prince Schneizel himself. Anything they came up with was bound to be…interesting at the very least.

"We shall hold a full briefing once we are underway," she went on. "That will be all."

The three knights snapped their heels together, and saluted in the knightly fashion; right fist clenched and held over the heart. Schwarzer saluted in the military fashion, and followed the three out of the chamber. Toto paused until Oldrin acknowledged her with a nod, then genuflected and did likewise. The heavy door slid shut, leaving the two of them alone.

"I can hear you thinking, Oldrin," said Marybelle, smiling. Oldrin cleared her throat.

"Princess, why are we doing this?"

"Why?" Marybelle gave a sublime impression of not understanding her question. "Why do we do anything, Oldrin? This is a war, and we have our orders."

"Princess…" Oldrin knew she was pushing the bounds of propriety. But she could not keep silent. "Why are we chasing coca smugglers? Zero is running amok, and the Chinese Federation has attacked us. Are we not to be part of the counterattack?"

It was presumptuous of her, she knew. But the Glinda Knights had proven themselves in battle, and were as fine an order as any in the empire. They had every right to be part of the war to come; to help take back Area 11, and punish the Chinese Federation for its perfidy.

"There's not going to be a counterattack, Oldrin," replied Marybelle plainly. "Not against Zero, or against the Chinese Federation."

It was all Oldrin could do not to cry out in protest. No counterattack? The Chinese Federation had bombarded Britannian cities, killed Britannian soldiers! Was it all to go unavenged?

"Princess…I don't understand."

Marybelle looked down at the map table, and then looked her in the eyes.

"Oldrin, what I am about to tell you must remain strictly between us, until I tell you otherwise." Her gaze was unwavering. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, your highness."

Marybelle drew a long breath, and Oldrin began to dread what she was about to hear.

"There will be no war, because there can be no war," she said. "Our forces are approaching overstretch, and the loss of Area 11 has done considerable damage to our economy. The damage has been contained, but doing so required the personal attentions of the Chancellor for several days. We are vulnerable, Oldrin; tired, drained, and vulnerable."

Oldrin cleared her throat. She would never have expected to hear such words from her princess. Marybelle had always been a staunch supporter of the war, of Britannia's divine destiny to conquer and unite the world. She saw it as part of her own ultimate goal, to rid the world of terrorism.

How bad must things be, for her to say such things now? What must she have seen, and heard, to make her accept what her younger self would have scoffed at?

What was this doing to her?

"The EU has not launched a major offensive yet, but they are expected to do so soon," Marybelle went on. "The Chancellor suspects that they will attack with all available forces, and make use of their latest weapons. If the Euro-Britannians fail to stop them, then Imperial reserves must be deployed to prop them up. So long as this situation stands, then no other large-scale deployments can be made. No doubt the Grand Eunuchs have this fact in mind."

Oldrin shivered with mingled anger and horror. Britannia had been distracted, and the Eunuchs had seen their chance. Now Britannia was wounded, and the Chinese Federation had the power to finish it off; but stayed its hand for now.

"They want something, your highness?"

"They always want something," retorted Marybelle lightly. "Unfortunately, the Chancellor would not tell me what it is. He did not seem overly troubled by it."

"Then the Chancellor has a plan?" Oldrin's heart leapt with desperate hope. If anyone could scheme Britannia's way out of this mess, it was Prince Schneizel.

"Oh yes, he does." Marybelle smiled, but her smile did not reach her eyes. "Or rather, he is accelerating a plan he has been cooking up for some time. Unfortunately, he won't tell me what it is."

Then her eyes twinkled, and Oldrin realised that her shoulders had slumped.

"Oldrin, I wish I could tell you more," she said, and Oldrin knew she meant it. "I know that Cabaldon isn't the sort of enemy you expected to be fighting. But for now he is the enemy we must fight. Imperial authority has been shaken, and men like him must not be allowed to rise. We must trust in the Chancellor's wisdom, and carry out our orders."

She let out a long sigh. Oldrin could not remember seeing her so weary, so drained. Not since that terrible day seven years ago, when both their lives had changed forever.

"It seems so hard to believe," she said. "It's been such a bad year."

"Clovis, Thaddeus, Emile, Oscar, Charlotte, Euphie…" There was sorrow in Marybelle's eyes as she recited the names of her half-siblings, of the princes and princesses lost in the past year. "There seems so few of us left now."

Before the war, the Emperor had sired a hundred official children; and some whispered there were many more. Of those hundred princes and princesses, Marybelle had been eighty-eighth; a testament to her mother's relatively low status. Since then, most of her half-siblings had died. Some had died in battle, others had been assassinated, or killed in terrorist attacks out in the colonies.

That Marybelle was still eighty-eighth princess was testament only to Imperial inertia. By tradition, the numbers were reshuffled every year; during the New Year celebrations. Yet ever since the war started, the Emperor had not done so. No one had been promoted or demoted. No shoes had been filled.

Oldrin found herself wondering when anyone had last seen the Emperor in public. He was appearing less and less; seemingly distracted with other matters, deep within the palace. Rumours were spreading, and getting louder and louder.

"But one has returned," she spoke up, trying to change the mood. "Princess Nunnally has come back, at least."

Marybelle looked up at her, and for a moment Oldrin could see a spark of joy in her princess' eyes.

"Yes, she has." Marybelle drew herself. "A rare light in these dark times. I'm sure Cornelia will feel better for seeing her."

Oldrin blinked. That was not the answer she had expected. Marybelle and Nunnally hadn't exactly been close when they were little, but they had always gotten along well. She knew Marybelle was glad of her sister's return; so why was she being so cold?

"Princess, won't you go and visit her?"

Marybelle paused, and Oldrin wondered if she had gone too far.

"I can't, Oldrin," she said, an edge to her tone that Oldrin didn't like. "We have too much to do in Houston. There wouldn't be time."

Oldrin frowned. She knew what her princess was saying, but she couldn't let it go without one last try.

"Princess, no one would blame you for going," she pleaded. "She's your sister."

"I would blame me, Oldrin." Marybelle gave her a sad smile. "How can I take time off while everyone else is working? How can I see Nunnally when Sir Leonhardt can't go and see his fiancée?"

"I think Lady Marika would think better of him for that, your highness."

Marybelle stared at her for an instant. And then, as one, they burst out laughing. Even after the many months they had known him, Leonhardt Steiner's engagement to Marika Soresi was still a great joke among the Glinda Knights.

"In the meantime, let's get to the bridge." Marybelle straightened up. "The sooner we get to Houston, the sooner we can get to work. And if we work fast, we might have a little time to ourselves. I hear the base commander keeps a fine table."

She smiled, and Oldrin smiled back, falling in beside her princess as they strolled out onto the bridge.

(X)

And here it is, at long last. Once again, and I fear not for the last time, I can only apologise for this taking so long.

I ran into a few problems with this chapter. The general idea was a catching-up chapter for Nunnally, but I couldn't make that stretch very far. I got bogged down, and distracted by other projects. In the end, I decided to slice it up like this; a couple of scenes for Nunnally, a catch-up scene for Schneizel, and one for Marybelle and her Glinda knights. Hopefully this will have settled any remaining issues with past events, at least for the time being. It also worked out nicely to around ten thousand words. I'd say that's a good chapter size.

Next up we have an EU arc, with Leila Malcal and her Wyverns, and with Magnus Constantian finally making his debut. Expect lots of action, and a touch of political intrigue. I'm expecting to spend a little time on Marybelle and Oldrin's time in South America too.

Thank you once again for your patience, and for taking the time to read this story. I hope you all enjoy it.