Ten days had passed since the end of the Fourth Grail War, but the aftermath of the magical conflict still haunted the citizens of the city.
The fire that appeared out of nowhere and claimed half of the city had burned many unfortunate souls. Those lucky enough to escape the flames but not the disaster were either trapped under rubble to suffocate or crushed under it, much to the survivors' and onlookers' horror.
The dreadful night would be remembered as 'The Great Fire', the largest catastrophe to happen in Fuyuki since the 1930s.
Even now, days after the incident, rescue teams were still trying to find survivors. But with each passing day, prospects of finding anyone were getting bleaker and bleaker. A number of people had already given up, accepting the fact that only a few lucky ones were able to escape the hellish inferno that started in Shinto. No one knew how it even started or who was to blame. While official reports from the local government insisted that it was a natural disaster, news teams proposed an accident caused by bad design in the newly developed city block around where reports stated the first explosions were seen. Some even suggested seismic activity to be the main cause, citing shoddy gas lines lit by electrical equipment as to what started the chain reaction which enveloped the entire district before making its way towards the city centre.
Public sentiment, on the other hand, leant more to less innocent versions of the story.
Some claimed that this was the act of terrorism, done by the same people who were behind the explosion of Fuyuki City Hyatt Hotel. Others blamed the supernatural. Saying the city was cursed and events like this were happening every fifty years. Of course, such conjectures were publicly ridiculed by public officials as mere conspiracies.
It didn't help the fact that foreign specialists arriving from Italy and Britain to investigate the fire for private firms that suffered losses agreed with the public statements. Some xenophobes decried the conspiracy as being deeper than what the government was letting on. A whole web of controversy and hearsay began to spread, blaming cultist rituals and corrupt officials alike.
Obviously, there was truth to the conspiracy. But these third parties wouldn't allow the real reason out. Though the Church and the Clock Tower were enemies at times, the secret of the moonlit world was still one they unanimously protected.
Even if it meant alienating a small part of the population and referring to them as mere crazies, it was still cheaper than outright wiping the entire city off the grid. That in itself would raise more questions.
But for the normal folk living the disaster in real-time, not all hope was lost. Not everyone had descended to madness as the news outlets would have them believe.
There were survivors. Though they number less than forty, there were people that managed to survive and live on.
Although, it is unlikely that all of them would be able to live past a year, considering the grave injuries they sustained, there were those that could and would. All due to the sheer will to survive.
Chief among them, but unbeknownst to himself, one person that mattered to the future and fate of the world was keenly observed by Alaya.
Inside the Fuyuki hospital, a young child rested. A boy, redhead, small and frail, stared warily at the man before him. His amber eyes eyed the one who saved him, wondering why, out of all the other children in the ward, he was the one to be approached.
The adult's warm smile, still fresh in the child's memory, offered a dry solace in the hospital room's eerie quiet.
"Doctors told me that they weren't able to find your relatives." Emiya Kiritsugu said carefully, not wanting to cause the kid any distress.
"I know," was the boy's emotionless reply.
He was not shaken by the news. He'd already known it to be true. He'd seen the fire and what it did. He'd watched it all as the flames took them—took everyone and everything. A normal child would have been devastated, unable to accept or understand the truth that their parents were no longer alive. But the child now only named Shirou simply accepted that news.
Did he do it out of devastation? A mere need to stay sane suppressing his emotions? Or perhaps he'd already broken… and the one sitting here responding to the adults' questions was merely a body on autopilot, its owner's soul sunk away into the depths of his heart?
It wasn't fair, after all. Why he lived but the ones he loved didn't survive. It wasn't fair. More so to a child.
Kiritsugu said nothing. Staring back as the boy did to him, the uncomfortable silence persisted. Though he was alive and well, if more than a little rattled according to the professionals, he remained as deathly quiet as can be.
Having placed Avalon, Excalibur's scabbard, in the boy, that made the child his responsibility. It was the only way to save his life from the burning pyre. But, in turn, that forced a mercenary murderer to involve himself with an innocent kid.
'It can't be helped. After Avenger's last ditch attempt to end everything alongside herself, this was the only way to save him.'
The thought was a hollow excuse and the man himself knew it. But if he could trade the relic of a sheathe for the lives of all that was caught up in the mess, he would've done so already. In the end, that was impossible and only one could he save with this method. One among thousands of other innocents cremated alive. And now, said kid was all alone.
All because he failed to do what he promised his wife, his child. All because Kiritsugu… gave up winning… for the sake of the world…
Another scale… weighed against his heart. Another sacrifice made… that doomed a few… for the sake of the majority.
But… if he could give back even a little… to the few he'd damned… wouldn't that be better… than just giving up?
"Say, Shirou… Do you want me to adopt you?"
For the first time since the fire, the boy's expression shifted. A reaction. That meant there was still life in him.
Hopefully, Kiritsugu could instil… some essence of joy… to someone he'd damned… with his selfish choices.
News of what occurred in a small city far away reached the capital in a matter of hours. Truly, a testament of modern technology. Not that it impressed the former Emperor as much considering those that covered the story were more interested in gossip and hearsay than actual facts.
Political leaders making promises to resolve the situation even before getting a grasp of the actual tragedy. News casters interviewing media starlets instead of surviving victims. A public opinion that conveyed concern yet radiated general apathy. Such was the general consensus one could pull just by glancing over the news programs currently live on television.
Such a blasé response to the incident… it left a somewhat dour expression on Lelouch's face. And that was despite his overall victory in their current game.
"Checkmate. It's my win again, oh great Daimyo of the Orient."
A pillow immediately struck him, eliciting a light smirk. "I hate this game!"
"Come now," he said. Chuckling as he removed said pillow, he spied the pouty expression of the still-naked woman lying spread-eagled on the comfy hotel bed. "That's not the attitude a challenger should take. Besides, you said you were bored, no?"
"It's unfair! You're a professional at chess!"
"Yet, despite knowing you were at a disadvantage, it didn't stop you from insisting we do several games in quick succession."
"NOT MY FAULT THE DAMN CUP DIDN'T TEACH ME HOW TO PLAY!"
The pouting redhead of a woman was, at this very moment, acting like a stubborn child. Didn't help that she flailed her limbs like one as well with only a bath towel to protect her modesty. On Lelouch's part, however, he didn't mind so long as he was able to enjoy this adorable side of hers.
"I'm pretty sure European traders had brought chess to Japan while you were alive. Was it the Dutch or the Portuguese…? Either way, it sounds like someone is trying to find an excuse for their losses." Lelouch's smirk persisted even when he barely caught a white pawn flying towards his nose.
"Hush, you tease! This game was and has been nothing but a pointless pastime to the me of the past! Besides, I prefer something where I can use my all. An actual battlefield! Even a war of attrition would be more exciting than this!" She sighed while falling back to lazing in the sheets. Her arm moved to hide her pouting expression. Though she snapped at him, he didn't miss the fact that she snuck a glimpse at the ring proudly worn on her finger. She'd been doing so multiple times since getting it already, he was certain her new precious treasure forced her to behave meekly still. "I thought our vacation would be more exciting than this…"
Lelouch couldn't help but relent a sigh. Though he agreed and wished to offer a more fitting setting, it wasn't ideal given their current predicament.
Winning a Grail War, and in such a manner that they had, brought the attention of many to the incident. Not just the common folk and the media, he was aware of movements belonging to the 'other side' of the world. The Matou connection, though brief and only born out of convenience, had given him ample warning beforehand. He'd prepared beforehand to erase as much about his and Avenger's involvement as much as he could.
Still, while the general public and the moonlit world were in a tizzy as to the mysterious incident that occurred in Fuyuki, Lelouch judged that they both needed some time off. That being a brief stay in one of the many luxurious hotels the alternate version of the Tokyo Settlement could offer. Japan's Tokyo is quite liberal compared to his old home but still very reminiscent of that monarchic-capitalist society. A vacation here was almost the same as a weekend there.
Though despite calling it a little vacation, the young immortal remained as vigilant as ever. Glancing over to the TV running the daily news, his gaze narrowed slightly.
'Great Fire Ravages a Bustling City Overnight!' 'The Greatest Conflagration To Date Since World War II!' 'Three Hundred Confirmed Deaths Still on the Rise!' 'Fuyuki Shinto District's Inferno Still Burning!'
A sigh escaped the boy's lips as he analyzed the data the base news outlets managed to gather. A fiery disaster that had yet to be resolved. Hundreds dead and still counting. Comparisons to that of an air raid by bombers. Lelouch sympathized with the victims, he really did. But beyond human losses, the implications of the news broadcasts were very concerning.
While some of the data could be exaggerated for views and attention-grabbing, the fact that the fire still raged on despite their leaving implied quite a lot.
'It'd be easy to explain it away as Nobu's Noble Phantasm.' Being a literal hell of a Reality Marble, it no doubts burned eternally with pyres fueled by vengeance, a place manifested by the rule of the Demon King herself. However, 'The power of a Reality Marble extends only as far as the inner world of its caster.'
Anything within is bent according to the owner's will. It was their internal vision that made it a reality after all. But beyond that, it was impossible to remain, or even impose, the world on reality itself. Anything and everything that happens within stays inside. The sole exception being those brought into the said world. And, knowing that Nobu's hell only punishes those she draws into it, there was no conceivable reason for her flames to escape and harm bystanders, let alone burn a whole city.
'The black mud of the Grail, or perhaps a result of Saber's attempt to destroy the cup. Or maybe everything all at once?' Appreciating the basic rundown of his power given by the ghost of Justeaze Einzbern, Lelouch now had to consider other factors. It was a long shot. But considering that the unnatural blaze had been on the path of consuming half of the city almost a day after they'd taken their leave, magic or anything related to it was the only possible reason for the ongoing disaster. 'Hm… Not being able to confirm the factors due to my being 'dead' during the start of the incident has become a pain…'
While it may not matter much in the long run, knowing what caused it and what he could salvage from the information was a necessity. Erasing his tracks without relying on his unsealed powers was going to be easy, but having a fiery contingency like that for future purposes would—…
'… No. Best not try testing Gaia's patience.' Sighing, he relented. Utilizing a disaster like that to eradicate all witnesses was indeed efficient. But it was also overkill, in any respect. Plus, he didn't need the adage of other magi snooping after them. 'Given our new lease on life, it's best we lay low for the time being.'
"Something on your mind, Lulu?"
Nobu's concern whilst sipping from a margarita caught his attention. Though she appeared to be enjoying all the amenities the establishment provided for them, as well as enjoying their evening together, the tense air about her had yet to truly relax. He decided to ease her worry.
"Nothing much apart from our future plans, my dear." Shutting the television screen off with a remote, he stood up to approach their room's balcony window. Pulling the curtains aside slightly, his gaze moved to the western side of the city. Beyond the horizon, dark skies, remnant smoke of the pyre, was barely visible from the penthouse suite. 'With a signal that big, no doubt all the players in the magical world would've taken note by now.'
A few headlines this morning mentioned foreign aid coming in to help with investigating the disaster. The fact that their origins came from halfway across the world was already alarming enough for the conspiracists. Having picked up some knowledge of the Church and Clock Tower during his stint with Kayneth, it was pretty clear who the arrivals truly were.
'Really now. Ten days after our victory and then they would send dignitaries?' Lelouch scoffed at their tardiness, closing the curtains as he returned to sit back on the bed. It didn't take long for a certain someone to hop behind him and wrap her arms around his neck.
"What's the matter, darling? That doesn't look like the face of someone planning a honeymoon."
He retorted to the tease by pulling on her cheek. When that earned him a tug on the ear, he surprised his attacker by going along with it and pushing her down back on the sheets. Ambushing her lips with a playful peck and smirk, he caught sight of flushed cheeks before a pillow was thrust into his face once again.
Horsing around bought him time to think.
'Our old hideout is no more. We've left no evidence of our stay there.' An easy thing it was to start another fire when the whole city was in a panic with the larger blaze. Their disappearance from Fuyuki thereafter had been set into motion. 'Luckily, it seems my status as a Servant has given me… more than a couple of useful talents.'
No money and no connections outside of that city would've spelt trouble for a teen on the streets. More so when he was accompanied by a half-naked woman with an attitude. But upon attempting to book a stay at a hotel, their fortunes were overturned in an instant.
'To think we'd be offered room and board, as well as top class food and services with just a word…'
In the past, he may have used Geass to enslave the necessary pieces for a time. Little did he expect requesting help from the bellboy to lead up to the manager of the esteemed hotel itself to be serving him like a VIP. But it didn't stop there.
Almost every word of his was heeded with reverence. A request for a room was met with the best suite. A question about the nearest restaurants was answered by housekeeping delivering a delicious dinner in bed. A slight comment about lacking spare clothing had the evening shift manager herself offering Nobu her best available suit. Undergarments included.
Needless to say, it was as though everyone he'd conversed with would treat them like royalty. The sole exceptions were other VIP guests they'd yet to meet personally. It seems they've been complaining incessantly about the loud moaning they'd been subjected to through the walls every night since his and Nobu's arrival. Not that Lelouch cared to mind.
'The power of a Servant's charm-type skill…' Lelouch couldn't help but feel a bit giddy at the newfound tool. 'Truly, even without Geass, my power so easily overwhelms the common folk. This could help us out in the long run—!'
Lelouch's thoughts on the matter were muted upon realizing Nobu got the drop on him and had flipped their positions. Her knees on either side of his stomach, she planted her naked self on top and forced another kiss. This time, he felt her tongue cheekily snake down his throat. A sly gleam shone in her eyes upon noting his surprise at her counterattack.
"Pah!" she inhaled heavily, cheeks red and a smile curled in victory. "You're quite tenacious, aren't you, daaaaaarling?!~~~ Perhaps another round and I can finally break you in, no?"
"Though you say that, we both know I now have the stamina to keep up with you, you cheeky devil."
"Oh, is that so? Big words coming from what was a mere cherry boy not too long ago!" She kissed him again but did so playfully this time. "So? What do you say? Another go before we tour the city again?"
Lelouch couldn't help his eye twitching slightly at the redhead's libido, deciding to not mention the fact this kind of activity was new for both of them. It was one thing to break his hips the first night, it was a whole other issue when she made it a competition of endurance. Even if he wasn't one to boast about sexual prowess, there had to be a limit to letting one's self drown in lust.
That aside, another tour didn't sound bad. Having spent a good long week in the city already, they'd made sure to take in the sights of the capitol.
With Nobu's interest of what had become of her legacy, they'd gone on long walks around and about. Dining in the finest of restaurants, taking ferry rides here and there, even taking a trip to Tokyo Tower to see the vast metropolis in all its glory. They'd even drop by at a nearby casino, Nobu's curiosity of his past tendencies to go to such places being the main encouragement. Granted, he wouldn't have been let in without an ID, more so as a normal teenager, but with the power of a Servant's charisma automatically wooing the masses, blending in as a son of some wealthy yet nameless businessman was simple as breathing.
Still, Lelouch hadn't idled by just playing around.
He'd spent the better part of their little vacation by also studying up on the present. Though lacking an advanced mobile terminal to look up detailed data on the net, it wasn't too difficult to gather what he could on the geopolitical and economic state of the world through the daily newspapers.
And going by the peaceful nature of this reality, he found the underlying power balance quite intriguing.
"Hm. For an infamous general, you're quite the peppy child recently–MMPH!" A pillow immediately cut him off as she pressed her weight down behind it.
"Is it so wrong to be curious as to what my people have accomplished in my absence? Moving the capital from Kyoto was a great change in and of itself! Why would I not want to see more of their innovations, their ambitions, my legacy's own legacy unfolded before me?"
Such grandiose reasoning was upset by the fact she was being an excitable brat all the same. He didn't mind it though. Despite her haphazard maturity at times, the personality gap made for an interesting show.
"No need to be so impatient. Our new life has only started, Nobu. Plus, was it not you who preferred to laze about more often than not ever since we arrived here—?"
"Tututu." Nobu tutted with a raised finger and a wink. "Correction, Lulu: Neither of us wanted to leave the bed. Don't leave all the blame to me, darling! You're at fault as well. Don't forget! Our… dance these past couple nights takes two to tango." Licking her lips as she said it, she added sultrily. "Though… I won't mind if you wish to go at it again. Right here, right now. All~. Day~~. Long~~~."
It sounded appealing, Lulu wouldn't lie. Slowly, he made to caress her cheek. In doing so, it prompted her to lean in for another kiss. Only, he prevented her from getting carried away by giving it a playful tug.
"Patience, Nobu. We will always have time for that later. But right now, we need to discuss our plans."
"Come now, don't be like that." Lelouch merely chuckled as he moved to the bedside drawer and pulled out his things. Newspaper clippings, several papers filled with his personal notes, and a world map he procured from the local library. All of which were cleanly laid out on a desk nearby. "After all, didn't you want to conquer this world with me?"
"I wish to do many things with you, darling~~~." Nobunaga leaned over across the table, giving him a good view of her still-bare goods. "For example, right now I just want to shut you up with my tongue and—"
"Business first, then pleasure Nobu. After all, I'm sure planning world domination would be just as exhilarating for you."
She didn't look convinced. In fact, Nobu seemed bummed to be denied. Lulu knew exactly how to nab her attention back.
Gently taking her chin between his fingers, the Demon Emperor leaned closer and whispered into her ear. "Don't you want to hear everything I have in mind? Every plot I prepared for our enemies, every scenario to start a war anywhere in this world that has yet to realize who owns it. Don't you want to know what I have in mind for you, my adorable daimyo? How do I plan to make your most twisted fantasies become reality?"
"Mhm! You know how to get me going, Lelouch!" Tickling her lips with a thumb, Nobunaga's smile turned feral. This left the boy unsure if she wanted to jump him or start a fire inside the hotel. Maybe both at the same time. "Very well, I shall listen. So long as it satisfies me, I'll behave."
"I shan't disappoint then." Relenting his grasp, he moved to the notes splayed on the table. "Now, onto the topic at hand. Our little vacation has been fun, but having analyzed our peculiar situation of awaiting the coming ritual, it seems there's more entertainment to be had."
"First, let us consider our standing. Specifically, our place in this world." Sweeping his hand over to the map, he brought his accomplice's attention to the city they were in. "As of now, Japan's capital—nay, this hotel building is all we have. While we may wield considerable power as Heroic Spirits, overall we have no foundation to stand on. In light of this fact, we are alone."
"Hmph!" Nobu was quick to scoff as she crossed her arms. "Two demons versus the world. Easy! We need no one but ourselves!"
"True. However, it's no fun to be a demon if there is no one left to fear you." He smirked, earning her raised eyebrow. "While I know you'd find it fun to eradicate all resistance, it'd be a bore if they fall all at once, no? To declare war on all with reckless abandon, it would end far too quickly. Wouldn't you prefer being challenged and extending our little conquest from a single battle to a hard-fought campaign? One where we slowly but assuredly occupy all who resist?"
"But that leaves us with a conundrum. As you said, we don't have a foundation. Therefore, where do we get the army we need to start our conquest?"
Nobu's postulation came from her experience as a Daimyo. Not just a mere warrior, she was a warlord. A clan leader who led her countrymen through war and famine, betrayal and conquest. Oda Nobunaga, a former peasant farmer that overturned the warring states on its head, knew better than most how difficult it was to lead an army. Even more than that, conscripting one out of civilians.
In a world like this, where not one but two world wars had already cowed the masses away from such violence, it was nigh impossible to rally troops to a cause, let alone take up arms.
"Hm. While it may be correct to say we lack severely in the manpower department, this world is not so peaceful as to have a lack of it." To Nobu's curious stare, he directed her attention to several points he'd marked on the map. "This world, though very similar to my former one, has marched down a different path in history. The conflicts, the politics, are not as grand and blatant as my former home. Though, it isn't lacking in complexity. And intriguing players."
Lelouch dragged his finger from Japan eastward. To land he once detested, took over, and destroyed out of spite. "This landmass here, do you remember what stood here from my memories?"
Lelouch nodded. "Unlike the great empire of Britannia, this land here remains divided into three with this particular nation considered as a player on the global stage. The United States of America… quite the irony for myself to hear it. Despite its pro-democratic stance, its influence on the continent to its south, one of its direct neighbours, and many on the E.U. mainland is vast. Particularly the first one where it has kept the states there fragmented, weakening them through economic dependence. Though its people decries authoritarian rule, they economically bind the developing nations under their capitalistic thumb."
"An empire in all but name, is it?" the implication earned Nobunaga's scoff. Had the Washington Rebellion taken off and succeeded, this would indeed be of that reality's branch. But more one of its many boorish alternatives for having inherited Britannia's imperial tendencies while hiding behind egalitarian hypocrisy. So that it was even the great daimyo saw it fit to scowl on its place on the map. "Hmph. I take it this is the country that forced my honour-bound successors out of isolation?"
"Indeed. According to my research, the history between the two could be compared to colonial trade partners before devolving into economic and naval rivals. In recent decades following a second world war, one where they didn't annex Japan as they did in my world, they're now considered allies. But only because of their 'ideological foe' just across the sea."
Moving back to Japan, he brought her attention to the continent on the left. Not only was it marked, he practically filled in the outline of a nation very familiar to him, if only for the arduous task it took to conquer it.
"The place I'd once known as the Chinese Federation… Right now, a different China stands in its place. One far richer, far more militant and powerful… yet just as corrupt, more controlling of its citizens, and even less respective of human rights. Or the borders of others." Marking a few spots around said country with encircled exclamation points, he placed emphasis on their proclaimed dominion. Many lines clearly overlapped the borders of other independent nations. "Fractured, greedy, xenophobic. I see that no matter what they style themselves, be it an oligarchy with a puppet princess or a single party dedicated to the masses, the vast continent of the Orient is still ruled by power-mongering fools. Even those ethnically related to them refuse to acknowledge the government's hegemony."
"You mean these small pipsqueaks over here and here?" Nobu said, tapping an island not too far from Okinawa and a few strips of lands bordering the Himalayas.
"Pipsqueaks, they may be, but smart ones, they are. Unlike the Federation I had to break apart and take out one by one, this country opted to consolidate their power internally. And they've managed to stabilize themselves, at the price of expansion and foreign public opinion that is." Taking a pen, he marked the great stretch of land north of China. "Due to the dissolution of the former ideological leader, the Soviet Union, the second largest communist state inherited their antagonistic role against the democratic powers. I need not get into the finer details, but the important thing we need to be aware of is that neither power wishes to openly fight one another. They refer to this state as a 'cold war'. Or, to better put it, 'conflict under the guise of peace and cooperation'. A battle of subterfuge, not bloodshed."
"But why resort to dallying about? If they're public enemies, why wait? Why stand idly by while their foes grow in strength?"
An amused snarl curled in the corner of Lelouch's lips. "Because they've developed weapons far too powerful for their own good. Weapons even I have reservations about using unless I've been backed into a corner."
Sharing a look was all it took. It spoke volumes of her love with just how earnestly she wanted to understand his thought process. The mere mention of such had her drawing from his memories. "Weapons like a FLEIJA, huh."
"In this world, they're referred to as nuclear weapons." Lelouch drew a small mark, a commonly-used symbol to indicate the location for the armaments. "Firepower devastating enough to destroy entire cities in a flash. Yet, unlike Britannia which had the monopoly, several countries apart from the key players also have the means and capacity to develop and launch multiples of these bombs. What's more, they're far easier to manufacture and even more difficult to counter than the sakuradite-based FLEIJAs."
"Without the technology of your world?"
"Shooting them out of the sky would be easy. But say they use it in the same manner as a minefield, even we Heroic Spirits could be caught off-guard. Not even if I had the tech either as a Knightmare wouldn't have the reaction time to diffuse or reverse the split-second destruction of an atom." His tone conveyed the ridiculousness of the notion. "Nukes in and of themselves are a menace and this world knows that well. Yet they're resolved to keep up the deterrent tactic."
"Tch, such a drag!" the daimyo who preferred conventional warfare clicked her tongue in disdain. "If the world wanted to destroy itself, it could do with something less boring than that!"
"So you say. But it's not a stretch to say that the world has already been teetering on mutual annihilation even before the Grail called to us. You could say it hasn't been all that boring for the denizens of this world. Well, for those who live with paranoia, anyways."
Such was the fragility of the state of this world. And this was not mentioning the pointless call for the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. The major powers have consistently played the waiting game. A couple even openly ignored bilateral nuclear proliferation. The former Soviet Union now the Russian Federation and this world's successor to the Britannian Empire are a couple of them.
Quite the delicate balance. And still, the very existence of magic that could yet destabilize things further remained a well-kept secret. Alaya must've been busy keeping the peace.
"So?" Taking up her glass, Nobunaga emptied it with a contemplative sigh. "What does the geopolitics of these plebeians have to do with our army?"
"Everything, my dear." Taking up a bottle, Lelouch refilled her glass for her. "The powers that believe that war should not be fought on their lands nor paid for with their own blood. Instead, they've decided that raising hell in other less prosperous countries through subtle ploys and political pressure as a means to garner ideological support. It is a viable means of diplomacy, but as a result, many nations have been ravaged by unrest and civil war. Dictators and corrupt proletarian representatives selfishly wield their power and bend to the whims of their sponsors, many of whom benefit from war-profiteering from behind the scenes."
"You mean to commandeer their people," a glean of realization sparked in Nobu's crimson eyes. "Using their corruption, the very core issue to their oppression, you would do as you have in the Black Rebellions once more?"
"But of course." Lelouch filled his own cup and took a light sip of alcohol. "To conquer the world, one must raise the appropriate banner. What better theme than 'true liberation' in this theatre of hypocritic peace? It matters little which countries accede or resist. So long as the cause we represent is something many yearn for, many would die for, the pool of manpower we could recruit from is virtually limitless."
The masses themselves wielded power in the form of public opinion. Sway it to one's narrative and you can have them differentiate an enemy from bystanders, dictate good from evil. All according to one's designs.
'For the sake of justice and peace, I raised a flag of rebellion. The only reason why it worked was because of the oppression and inequality that existed beforehand. In a world such as this, where peace is a well disguised illusion and justice is but a mask of the upper classes, there are already kindles set alight without my input.'
All he needs now is to be the guiding wind that directs the inferno.
"Hm. Flaunting your expertise, are you? All the while stopping my entering the limelight…" she teased. "Quite the attention seeking actor, aren't you, darling."
"One does not simply use a trump card in the opening stages of a match." Lelouch teased back. "And besides, the opinion of Nobunaga the tactician is of equal if not greater importance in this compared to the battle prowess of Nobunaga the warrior."
"Guess this means I can't slack off." Setting her glass down, Nobunaga turned her attention to the map once more. A sharp narrowed gaze pierced the paper, scrutinizing metaphorical pieces and opportunities even before they were brought to question. "We're in need of resources. Weapons and money both. And if we're to kickstart a global rebellion, we'd need to decide on our first client. Unless your take-over covers that already—"
She spared him an expectant glance. Knowing her darling, she was certain he'd already had a plan before consulting her. It was in his nature to be just that prepared. However, she didn't expect a somewhat pensive glare directed at the map.
"What's the matter?"
"… Before anything, we'd best leave this country." It took a solid half-minute before Lelouch responded. He started by setting his empty wine glass over the city named London. "While I don't believe they'd pick up on our trail so soon, there's little point in leaving things to chance."
Scrutinizing his wary expression, Nobu did something he wouldn't do for any other. She embraced him from behind, attempting to convey all the warmth she could. "What worries you so?"
"A lot of things do, Nobu." He accepted her embrace by leaning into it. "But primarily of them all is how limited our options are in the country."
"You imply Japan isn't suitable for our plans?"
"Too peaceful for my taste." He sighed as if he was reminiscing about a different Japan. "While beautiful in its own regard, the only relevance these islands have for me right now is the upcoming war. That and your legacy."
Nobunaga might've smiled at the added mention, but it didn't matter as much as she expected it should. "You're worried about the Clock Tower, aren't you?"
"Instigating revolution is one thing, but if we don't act cautiously, we might open a second front with the moonlit world."
Gaia's conditions still stood. He could do as he wished, so long as he didn't destroy humanity. But having been made aware of how those of the magi community do things, it wouldn't be hard to assert his being a Servant would draw attention.
That he was a living, breathing, not to mention, immortal Heroic Spirit traversing the mortal plane, it was sure to attract many troublesome mages. Their thirst for knowledge could and would designate himself as well as Nobu as precious samples. It may even instigate the Church to investigate. And after losing two of their own in the war, they could very well turn hostile on sight.
"Don't tell me you're scared of a few pitiful worms, my love! With my power and your intellect, it'd be child's play to be rid of them."
"Of that, I have no doubt." Lelouch turned to the map once more. "However, causing too much of a stir this early in the game isn't going to do us any good. More so when I plan to recruit any magi that would prove useful."
Nobu's surprised gawk was expected. Though he'd proclaimed conquering the world, he'd neglected to inform her of the how. The global powers aside, the underlying supernatural world remained a threat. With London's magecraft community hoarding all the magical resources, from materials to information, it was going to be difficult to invest in his own organized magi community, let alone utilize his understanding of magecraft.
He was also well-aware of the likes of Kayneth who wouldn't simply bow down to a Heroic Spirit. Considering how more than a couple of Masters used their Servants as tools, it's pretty clear how the rest would treat him and Nobunaga even before they started their campaign.
"Best to beat them to the punch and consolidate our own side of the moonlit world," he said, encircling a large portion of Asia and drawing a line to separate it from the Americas and European Union. "To completely take this world over, even those of the shadows who would choose to defy us must be eradicated. Both, what lies beneath the surface and above it, will either bend to our whims or be destroyed."
Magecraft was dangerous against his plans for the common masses. In a large region where mages are but a myth and magecraft itself was undeveloped if not scattered to secrecy, it was the perfect plan. Lelouch didn't know why the Euro-centric world held so much of the magical development, but theorizing it under the Asian sector's lack of centralization and preference for 'clan-based' inheritance, it was easy to accept why the Clock Tower was powerful as it was yet cared very little about this side of the world with the Grail War being the only exception.
'Soon enough, it won't be the only exception.'
He had to prepare. Nothing could be left to chance. As he had done with the Geass Order, so too shall he root out and exterminate the infestation in this world. Albeit, this time, he planned on wielding his own version of the Clock Tower how he saw fit.
'As a mortal, I would've had difficulty controlling my uncle's Order. But as I am now…' Immortal, powerful, armed with Geass and the abilities of Heroic Spirits, there would be very little to stop his ambition. 'It isn't my world, but it abhors me to stand by and watch it ruin itself. For it to be a perfect utopia, a little evil must be upended.'
And with how the elites of this world were so eager to paint themselves just that, Lelouch could quite easily put them on display.
"Ah, the way you say it… it gets me sooo… wet~~~!" Moaning into his back, the redhead shoved her face into his neck, giving his skin a kiss, before tightening her hug from behind. "I hate acting from the shadows, but knowing you plan to incite another peasant rebellion… it just excites me so!"
"Worry not. We need only behave for ten years. When the Grail War begins once more, there'd be no need to hide any longer. Until then, I will stoke the flames in preparation for our formal declaration. Besides, I promised you a real war, did I not?"
"That, you did," she said, nuzzling her face in his hair. "it would be rude for a gentleman to be unable to keep their word."
"Then, I shall swear to it," pulling away, he dramatically bowed before taking a knee and clasping her hand in both of his. "On my honour as the Demon Emperor, I swear to give you the fight to enjoy for all eternity!"
Pressing his lips to her knuckles, he earned a light blush and a playful slap to the cheek.
"Hush, you dork! To treat me as you would a prissy lady, while I do not mind if it's you, I can't help but feel annoyed." So she said, despite her eyes conveying the desire to continue. "Very well, we will do it because it is your idea. But only for ten years! After that, we will come out of hiding."
He concurred to that. Besides, Lelouch himself didn't want to spend centuries playing some kind of shadow order like the mages had. It just wasn't any fun. The Demon Emperor himself preferred the feeling of being in the middle of a conflict, directing manoeuvres and risking one's life for the sake of victory.
Some would say it was a ridiculous notion for a tactician of grand stratagems to have, but let it not be forgotten his willingness and drive to even face a FLEIJA head on.
The feeling of dominating the flow of battle, all the while overly overturning the expectations of one's foe, it was breathtaking.
"So? If we're to leave, where to?" Nobunaga, being relatively cooperative with his vague plan, inquired. Lelouch answered by tapping near the edge of his circle around the Asian region, right in the centre of the demarcation between the Clock Tower's reach and their current position. "And? What's the deal with this region?"
"It is one of, if not the most destabilized regions as to date. If we were to kickstart a rebellion, it would hardly be noticed in a land that already has more than three groups vying for influence. What's more, I find its unofficial title quite amusing."
"Picture it, my dear." A wide grin overtook his face. "Where better to start a great and vast empire than the land hailed to be the Graveyard of Empires?"
It was quite the auspicious name. But the main reason it was so was due to the hubris of the would-be conquerors. Just because it was a nation of mountains and sand did not mean it couldn't hold its own. The only reason why this nation never came to have such a reputation in his world was due to their sudden acquiescence to the Chinese Federation.
"Hm, just its position on the map tells me this region seems a bit roughshod." She spied the dirt-sand-like texture of the area. "A mountain near desert regions. Can't say I'm used to my encampments being arid, but then again, a mountain base calls for… very familiar and brutal warfare." Her response lacked excitement, but with nary a complaint, Lelouch accepted her compliance. It wasn't the best idea for a honeymoon, but then again, they weren't picky for the sights they'd tour. Besides, it was just one of many stops for their campaign. "Ah, before we forget, what are your intentions for the Matou and the brat Kariya saved? Can't they be useful in some way, considering you plan to expand our reach in the moonlit world?"
Lelouch had considered it. They'd been considerably weakened, to begin with, but it wasn't right to say they were entirely useless. Byakuya may not be a capable magus, but his bare bones knowledge of the underworld of magecraft was still a workable foundation. Even Sakura earned Zouken's praise for being a potential magus candidate.
"No. We leave them be." The boy knew better than to go back on his word though. "The girl's been through enough. As for the Matou household, Kariya's sacrifice was satisfactory as-is. Not only did he assist in our absolute victory, but he also managed to kill the Tohsaka head as well."
The Matou had no intentions to oppose them further. As for the Tohsakas, considering their lacking position at the moment, other magi groups would definitely smell blood in the water. With just his two daughters and wife left, the family was practically finished. Neither would interfere with them in the future.
"What about the Einzberns?" Nobu said their name with such venom, clearly not yet forgiving what the German magi clan had done.
Noting the police records of the casualty victims he managed to procure before leaving, there was very little left of the three families in Fuyuki. That included the owners of the dilapidated castle in the forest. But that didn't mean the reports were reliable.
"Records on the homunculus makers are minimal. They have a property to their name, but you did enough to raze it to nothing. As for their people, I can't rule out spies but it's safe to say no other homunculus are currently present in Fuyuki." He couldn't decide for the rest of Japan though.
"We will get our revenge, right?" she said softly, earnestly. How could he deny her?
"Yes. You will have it. I promise you, love."
She still bore a grudge. His was minimal, but he couldn't allow that clan to persist either. The conceiving of the Grail system aside, they were dangerous on another level. Lelouch didn't know much about alchemic magecraft to get a grasp at its full potential. But still, strategically speaking, it wouldn't do to keep a clan of puppet-makers alive. Not when they could potentially turn the tide to any war on sheer numbers alone.
However, there was one disadvantage to their position against the Germanic magi at the moment. "Not knowing precisely where they've based themselves will be an issue. But given that they'll no doubt participate in the next war to come, we are assured a chance at tracing their location through the breadcrumbs they leave."
"Well, that's reassuring. Knowing you, you're certain to sic me on their trail soon, yes?"
"As soon as I've confirmed it myself, yes, my dear." No one moved in the world without leaving a trace. As soon as they set themselves up on a global stage, Lelouch planned to seize every means of tracking he could. Be it through magic or technology, or both, he will locate all his potential foes. And, inevitably, he'd destroy them all. "In the meantime, I suggest we expand upon our little magi community project. Knowing they've had the means to tamper with the Grail before, I'm certain the Einzberns would try to cheat again."
"Hah! What sore losers!" Nobu threw her hair back as she derided. "But if it means certain victory, the first step would be to make sure they won't have an opportunity to summon something akin to that pagan shrimp again." Nobu paused as if to consider something. "To specify summoning powerful Servants, a Master would need to use catalysts to increase their chances. I doubt a disgusting bunch of insects like the Einzberns relied on their dolls to summon that stubborn bitch of an ancestor without one. In that case, it might be a good idea to start artefact hunting and collect as many relics as we can, no?"
Lelouch considered it, but then smirked. "Wouldn't that mean it'd deprive you of facing really strong foes in the next war? I didn't think you'd limit yourself for the sake of our future, but if it means sacrificing the excitement in fighting worthy opponents for our future conquest, then I guess—"
"Wa—Wait! Wait a minute! I've been holding myself back, you know?! It's not like I don't want to win, but… Don't tell me you intend to risk our chances?"
Nothing of the sort. But seeing her react so adorably, he couldn't help but throw it in.
With how they're just starting to make their moves, the extent to where they could take her proposal was fairly limited. Raiding a museum was one thing, but the authenticity of relics was what concerned him more. How Iskandar was summoned was a prime example.
Despite there being ample locations and/or items that were presumably related to the Conqueror of Macedonia, a boy named Waver Velvet managed to do the deed by stealing from his former teacher, or so the accusations went. If that was the case, whatever relic Waver had in question was of some magical value to are magi and was transferred through magi means. Likely the same could be said of Gilgamesh as, Lelouch already gleaned from Kayneth, the Tohsakas weren't just an arrogant group but a competent, if a bit of a plebian, magus family of the East.
Whatever relics they were to hunt would not only be hidden, but also coveted by magi. Likely, the procuring of such items would no doubt draw attention from the Clock Tower so soon. He couldn't risk it, but he definitely couldn't let the opportunity slip.
"Your proposal will be shelved for the moment, Nobu. I intend to limit our foes as much as possible, but at present, we lack the means to hamper the moonlit world as a whole." The last thing they needed was the entire magic community up at arms and hunting them down. Not that it'd make much of a difference, but it'd be a hassle for their future world domination if some random idiot managed to capture their images and expose them as terrorists on the global scale. "Baby steps first before we ascend the stairs of true conquest."
"Then it is decided! Now, when are we going to depart? I enjoyed the time off in Tokyo, but I can't wait to see the world outside of my island nation."
Lelouch eyed her hungry smile. Nobunaga spent her entire life here, dreaming of going beyond the ocean, to see and conquer the lands beyond Japan, only to end up being betrayed before her ambition of unification came to be.
The boy smirked back. "I thought the self-proclaimed ruler of Japan would love to spend more time in her homeland?"
"When the time comes, yes. We will return here to see the sakura blossoms partake of the local festivities." Nobu's eyes sparkled. "Umu! Definitely, we shall return to my home, but… as a tactician, I'm well aware that we cannot waste the time we have. Despite how much I wish to continue spending our days like this." She leaned against his arm, enveloping it in her bosom while nuzzling her face on his neck. "Still, this is a good opportunity! I wish to travel to other places. See the world beyond the horizon before we make it our own!" She eyed him affectionately. "Of course, only with you by my side, beloved."
"You're making me blush." Lelouch faked embarrassment whilst teasingly avoiding her heated gaze. "Very well. I shall make preparations. It'll take a while, but I believe I can make use of my powers to have us gone by the end of the week."
"Excellent!" Breaking away from him, she returned to her seat on the bed before taking up one of the white chess pieces, a king to be exact, and fiddling it between her fingers. "Until then, how about another game?"
"Hm?" Lelouch blinked. "I thought you didn't enjoy chess."
"I don't like losing, Lulu. So, in order to level the playing field, I need only change the rules to give me an edge." Nobu gave him a flirtatious smile. "You'd allow it, if only to entertain me, yes?"
Not that he wouldn't, but to agree so arbitrarily would be to give in to whatever she had planned this time. Having not won a single game, the sore-loser Daimyo was certain to be holding a bit of a grudge. Nobu sensed his hesitation.
"Don't worry, dear. You will enjoy it as well. Win-win so to speak."
"Is that so? And how exactly do you want to change the rules?" Lelouch asked carefully, knowing to expect anything from the infamous general known to take any risk to gain victory.
Nobu licked her lips.
"You heard me, Lulu. Every time either of us will lose a piece, they will take off one piece of clothing. The first one to be completely naked will lose." His cheeks were flushed the same shade as her hair. She leaned closer until her face was inches away from his before she whispered. "And who knows what the winner will do with an unfortunate loser."
"Wait a minute! Isn't that a bit too extreme?" Lulu pointed out while pointedly avoiding looking at her bare form. "You've barely got anything on!"
"And? What's wrong, Lulu?" She pulled on a bathrobe but it did little when she didn't even tie it close. She left everything hanging out, brazen as always. Licking her lips, she formed a challenging smirk. "Are you too embarrassed to face me like this? What happened to the Demon Emperor who proposed to me when I had nothing on me? Where did that bravado go?"
She was egging him on. That, Lelouch, could tell. But it didn't mean he could leave like this. Being in a relationship with someone like Oda Nobunaga was akin to being in a constant war of attrition. The first to make the costly move will lose. But to ignore the constant taunts would be to admit defeat.
Nobu knew well that he knew just as much and would happily press herself on the boy until he answered in kind. So he accepted her challenge… only for it to backfire entirely.
How does one win against a foe with nothing to lose and everything to gain?
The short answer Lelouch understood from the start: you don't.
For any sort of strip game, the wager was always their shame and embarrassment. But for she who brazenly stood tall, buck naked and raring to have a go at him in bed again, there was no conceivable way to lose. You'd think that only having a bathrobe on would be a major handicap for the redhead, but you'd be wrong.
Lelouch figured that out when she immediately started playing with the first pawn she let him capture. Instead of allowing him to take the piece she'd left out in the open, she immediately snatched it up and unceremoniously started… 'playing around' with it. With her tongue, specifically.
"What are you doing?"
"Why… extending the game, love!" she said it oh-so-matter-of-factly. "It'd be a bore for me to simply take it off after losing a piece, now wouldn't it? And besides, in this game, it is the loser's obligation to… sate the winner with a pleasant view, yes?"
She wasn't wrong for the purpose of the game. But as she stared him down with fiery lust in her eyes, it had the raven-haired boy turning a slight shade of her hair colour. But oooooh, that was just the first phase in her plan to make him uncomfortable.
Next, she began nudging him from under the table. It began with toes twiddling against his ankles while she contemplated a move. After countering her worst possible choice with her white bishop piece, on her next turn, her foot had advanced up to his knee-level, tickling behind the joint. All thew while, she continued to 'play' with her fallen chess pieces, sometimes foregoing the tongue play to unceremoniously drop them between her thighs. She was quick to do so after giving up her queen piece.
It need not be said that she continued to escalate ever still, trapping something very delicate in-between the aforementioned toes and causing him to struggle in making his next moves thereon. Daimyo's expression remained the same, but the haughty air about her grew more and more fervent when she sensed his frustration.
'I've been had!' The boy couldn't help his left eye from twitching. Even as their game went on one-sidedly as normal, the victor of the match slowly lost his composure. Slowly but surely, his urges were kicking in, and Nobunaga continued to pressure that weakness.
Though, despite her overwhelming advantage off the battlefield that was the chessboard, there was one little tidbit Lelouch missed due to her under-the-table attacks. Daimyo's cheeks were as red as his. And, had he realized this fact, he could've turned the tables on her by simply forgoing the game.
But no. The still-innocent boy continued to be made a fool out of up until the point that Nobu herself couldn't hold back further. Pouncing him just as he was about to call check, the game was forgotten in lieu of the two demons surrendering to their urges.
Neither said anything, however, the moans she managed to coax out of the boy before she'd even so much as let out a peep assured Nobu of her win.
Results of today's match: Oda Nobunaga's overwhelming victory.
Matou Byakuya couldn't help but let out a sigh.
Driving a car lent to him by his former in-laws, he slowly turned a corner down the empty streets of Miyama. The town was under curfew since the incident with the fire. With the government exercising vigilance, not even magi stirred in the evening. That fact in itself was worrying, considering how little the magic community cared for the business of the normal folk.
Honestly, had he not been doing a favour for the dead, he wouldn't even be out and about tonight, hence a second deep sigh.
"Is something wrong… Uncle Byakuya?"
The girl in the passenger seat drew his attention. Stiffening slightly at the child's somewhat dazed yet curious expression, he shook his head. "Not really, no. Just… just a little tired."
Considering he'd expended a lot of his energy to contact the parents who hated his guts the most, it certainly wasn't easy to stay calm. Shinji's grandparents abhorred him and his kin for what he let his father do to their daughter. To ask for any favours after such a scandal… Let it not be said that the new, and now true, head of the Matou household knew he wasn't cut out for the responsibility.
But, in the end, they weren't so uncaring as to forsake him in his time of need. Not only did they momentarily shelter him after delivering the news of Zouken's fate, they even cared for Sakura until the war was declared over. It'd take a while, but maybe mending the rift wasn't totally impossible. For Shinji's sake, and his own, it might be best to do just that.
But before he could do that, he had a job to do.
"We're almost there, Sakura." He said whilst glancing at the girl. "Are you ready?"
"Mm." She nodded. That was all. Covered in bandages that weren't caked in blood anymore may have impeded a proper answer, but a non-committed affirmation was all she could muster. It was as though she was still a puppet on strings just following orders. But Byakuya could still see it.
From the corner of her eyes, there was a bit of red. A slight discolouration, evidence of the time she spent crying herself to sleep. Not just for her liberation but also the excitement of returning back to her home. Her real home. Though, it wasn't only that either.
Glancing out the window, the sight of Shinto's high-rises still grey with smoke sent a chill down his spine. The community centre itself was naut but a husk of a building left smouldering in ruins. Remembering where he'd dropped his brother off on that night before retreating back to his hideaway with Sakura in the next town over, he didn't dare dream of his little brother's return. Not after all that.
As for the boy and the devil woman that saved them all… Byakuya prayed to whatever god existed out there that they were safe. Then again, that may be an oxymoron considering it was their actions that took his family from him… both the good and the evil.
'A real dick move of you, little bro. Leaving soon after you played your part as a hero…'
There was no escaping the price he had to pay. He'd die sooner or later. But for the selfish runaway Kariya to commit himself to such self-sacrifice… It wasn't wrong to say Byakuya was damn proud of the bastard. Tonight, he'd make sure to honour him… even if he'd already done so with several bottles the few nights past.
"We're here." Parking the car before one of the larger western-styled homes, he quickly stepped out before circling around and opening the door for the child. "Let's go, Sakura."
Stepping out of the car, the child's eyes had never been wider. "… This place…"
"Yeah…" he let out a resigned sigh for the third time. "Your home…"
How he very much wanted to not be here. After everything that had happened between the Matou and Tohsaka, approaching them was the last thing on his mind, even with Zouken dead. But even if it felt like offering his head to the chopping block, this was for Kariya's sake.
"Come on. It's been a while, but after everything you've been through, it's all okay now. This… this is what my brother wanted for you."
Sakura initially didn't say anything. Of course, after being given away, she wouldn't know how to feel about coming back. There was a time when she wanted nothing more, but to return to her home, to her family. Byakuya knew, however, that Zouken did all he could to break that wish, to break her will.
It was only through the efforts of one stubborn idiot that she was even allowed a ray of hope.
"… If it's what Uncle Kariya wanted… then I will do it."
Byakuya nodded silently. The girl was still recovering from the trauma. Pushing her any more than this was tantamount to pressing her as Zouken had. In time, she'd be fine to make her own choices again. Until then, he'd let her family do what they could. After everything they'd been through, the Tohsakas at least deserve to be together.
As soon as the two of them left the vehicle, however, they were met by a familiar person standing before the mansion's gates. A woman, one both Byakuya and Sakura knew very well, stared at them both with a stern air about her.
"Aoi." Once Zenjou, now Tohsaka, the recently widowed glared Byakuya down, but he didn't falter. Despite how piercing Aoi's gaze was, he wouldn't back off so easily.
It was when she turned that sharp gaze on Sakura, wordlessly forcing the girl to hide behind him, that he felt something off. Her little girl may have changed, having been subjected to the accursed magecraft of the Matou, but she was still her daughter. Of her love for her child, he was certain it was still there. He just needed to hand her over.
"What are you doing here, Matou Byakuya?" Aoi beat him to it, asking with a cold tone.
"What does it look like? I'm returning your child." He automatically went on the defensive, but tried to relax and retain some confidence. "As the new head of the Matou clan, I hereby render all Zouken's business null and void. Any and all dealings your clan had with my father is to be undone. The ones he had no right in taking," he gently nudged the girl to stand beside him. "Returned as soon as possible."
Sakura did her best to step forward. The things done to her had rendered the child meek and afraid. Had this been a year back, she would've run to her mother in teary relief and said parent embracing her child just the same. For a moment, the look on Aoi's face was of sheer shock, maybe joy.
It didn't last when a flash of fear and shock overtook her expression. "Leave."
"… … Eh?" Sakura's voice eeped in surprise.
"… Huh?" Byakuya was just the same. "What are you saying, Aoi—?"
"I said… leave." She said softly, sending a quick glance back at the house. For a single instant, she emanated an air of uncertainty but reverted to stern indifference once more. "Leave and never come back."
"What… what the hell…?" Byakuya's response was one of sheer disbelief. "I came all this way to return her—"
"What is it that you come here for, Matou?" she said stiffly, raising her voice ever so slightly. "Do you mean to gloat over the misfortune that befell my house? Or perhaps you came to mock us one last time before having us removed?"
"I desire no such thing!" Exasperated, he retorted. Trying to maintain a semblance of calm, he breathed in before muttering back. "I'm not Zouken. I… I am only here to fulfil my brother's last will."
"… Kariya?" the woman's expression softened upon stating his name. "Last… will?"
It seems she wasn't slow on the uptake. The implication alone was news enough to her who used to be so close with the guy. Byakuya envied the fact that someone was still able to make such a face for his brother.
"As per my brother's wish for the Grail, or used to be, your daughter is to be returned to you upon being freed from Zouken… as well as Tokiomi. Seeing as Kariya made sure neither would impede on your lives again, he asked me to return her. He also made me promises… that our family, or what remains of it, will never be allowed to harm… or separate the child from the family she loves."
He eyed her expression that spoke differently from her earlier words. Frozen in a state of shock, she looked to drift between crying and breaking down.
"For the sake of that idiot that died trying to reunite your family, the least you could do is welcome her with open arms. Don't tell me that, after all this time, this is as far as your familial love goes?"
He knew it wasn't. The woman his brother fell for wasn't so shallow-minded of an individual. Nor was she uncaring in the slightest. Though a child of mages, Zenjou Aoi had been the more humane of their clan. A picturesque mother and wife. And he could see it in her face.
She'd long since missed her child, afraid and angry that Sakura had to be left to the care of a monster. That much was true. Never a day went by that she wouldn't wish for her child's safe return. Even in the few times, he'd met with their family as Zouken's proxy, he could sense the sorrow of a woman at a loss.
It had been the same for him with his wife and Shinji. An underlying fear of what would come to those he loved due to the talented magi bastards ruling over them. And with Zouken gone, likewise, for Tokiomi, it was now possible for Sakura to not return home. She and her mother and sister would be allowed a normal life. As Kariya wished it to be—
"… You dare… … me?!" Aoi's muttering suddenly burst into shouting. "YOU DARE MOCK ME, MATOU BYAKUYA?! First, you stole my daughter, and now, not only do you rub it in my face, you have the audacity to make fun of my husband's death?!"
"Kuh, what are you on about?! If anyone's to blame for your husband's demise, it was his mistake for overestimating himself in the first place!"
Byakuya was aware of Tokiomi's haughty personality. It was to be expected of a talented magus to have such confidence he himself would never have, but it didn't matter in war. You either lived or died, it was that simple.
That he fell to Kariya's doing was only because the man didn't think he would be caught off-guard.
"Listen to me, woman," gathering himself, he tried to remain calm in the face of her child. "I'm only here to return her. Nothing more. And I'm not about to leave after Kariya sacrificed himself to fulfil his wish! His life to undo Tokiomi's mistake of selling off your daughter is—"
"Wish?! Hah! What wish?!" she scorned his words, spitting them out like a madwoman. Seething, her breathing came out like a hiss through girt teeth. "You've spouted nothing but lies! Tokiomi would have never done something like this! It was you, Matou… You were the ones who destroyed my family! … … … And it was that bastard Kariya… who stole my husband away from me! DO YOU DENY IT?!"
Another glance was sent to the mansion's closed doors. Byakuya would have noticed it, had he not been caught up in the heat of the moment. With a narrowed gaze, he growled, "You ungrateful bitch—!"
"… I'm right here, mother…" Finally speaking, the girl's soft words forced the adults to look at her.
The girl who was until now stood silent stared at her mother desperately. She didn't understand. Why was Aoi not saying anything to her? Why hadn't her mom even acknowledged her presence there? Why?
"Sakura…" her name was said so softly, even Byakuya struggled to hear it. But as the girl took a hopeful step forward, the woman's expression twisted to doubt. "Are you… are you really… that Sakura?"
"My child… she wasn't this meek… Her hair… wasn't as disgusting as yours!"
"That's enough, Aoi—!"
"SHUT UP!" Tearful yet sick with bile, the hurtful words continued as the child took a step back in fear. "She, Sakura was… she was a kind girl. Always smiling… always! But you… You look nothing like her. That pale skin… those empty, lifeless eyes… You… You're not Sakura… Aren't you just… the Matou's doll?!"
"Ah! I see… Then, this means… my child has… she's dead, isn't she?"
Byakuya tried to intervene, but the woman said it before he could stop her. The broken smile contradicted by wide-eyed madness tearing up… to another adult, it may come off as insanity taking root. To a child, however…
"But—! But I'm right… here!" Sakura tried to hold back her own tears. She tried. And failed. "Mother, I—!"
"DON'T BULLSHIT ME! YOU'RE NOT HER! STOP ACTING LIKE YOU ARE!" Directing her anger and disgust at Byakuya, she muttered again. "Leave! Go! And take her with you!"
She seemed to have run out of energy, but the anger and fear, the frustration in her words, no matter how quiet, was still there. Tohsaka Aoi was well and truly done with them. Byakuya wasn't with her.
"What the hell is wrong with you?! Have you gone mad? She's your child?!"
"She… is no child of mine. Now… Leave!"
He would've had to argue. He would've fought against her, for once in his life, stood his ground. Just for the sake of his promise to Kariya. But…
"Uncle Byakuya…" her voice, Sakura's, was weak. It was just as weak and tired as her mothers. The grip on the hem of his coat, more so. She didn't look at him, only staring at the concrete pavement. The warm path to her former home was naut but cold stone now. "Let's go…"
"But—!" she tugged as hard as her weak grip could without letting go.
With that, he could do nothing. His main goal… was to bring the parent her child. But… with the child herself wanting to go…
Staring at the woman who disowned her child, Matou Byakuya only had one thing to say. "I… knew my brother made mistakes… but I would never have guessed… his biggest one was falling in love with you. Of all the things to give his life away for… it just had to be you…"
"Leave." She repeated, not meeting his spiteful gaze. "Leave. And never come back."
A fourth and final sigh escaped him. Cradling the girl's hand in his, he marched off to the car, lifting the broken-hearted child in his arms and depositing her in the passenger seat. Even as he strapped on the safety belt, Sakura never spared the woman another glance.
He gave Aoi one last look in the rearview mirror. The cold mask remained even as she closed the mansion gate behind her. Indifferent through and through, Byakuya was internally mortified. He'd failed. What's more, not through his own indecision or hesitance. It was out of his hands now.
A sniffle escaped the child. Through what remained of his fatherly instincts, his free hand gave her a comforting head pat. The first of many, for… what else could he do now?
Byakuya couldn't leave her alone. The girl suffered the same treatment he and Kariya went through under Zouken's care. She deserved some sense of happiness, a modicum of normalcy after everything Kariya went through for her.
That was supposed to be her mother's job. But now, it was pointless to think of Tohsaka Aoi as worth any of his respect.
This wasn't fair. Not to his little brother, not to the recently orphaned Sakura. But then again, it was his responsibility now, wasn't it? No doubt Kariya would hound him in the afterlife if he just left her on the curb.
"Don't worry about it, Sakura. Who cares about Tohsaka anyway?" He laughed, hoping to improve the mood. It didn't, but her sniffling turned muffled. She was trying her best to listen despite enduring heartbreak. "Hey, do you want to see your cousin, Shinji? He's overseas right now, but we can fly over to him in England for a quick visit. I mean… he'll be your brother from now on, so what do you think?"
She didn't speak, but he felt her bob her head in his palm. Byakuya held back, sighing further lest he disturbs what peace was left. A wry smile flitted on his face as they drove away from the deplorable city.
'Guess, I'm now a single father of two.' It was a tall order from being a mere puppet of a worm monster, but at least he'd get a start on righting his wrongs. 'Here's to hoping Kariya doesn't roll in his grave.'
From the corner of her eye, Aoi watched as the car disappeared from view. A slight feeling in her pained heart arose with relief, though it was accompanied by guilt. It was expected for a mother who'd just yelled at her child that was innocent of any crimes.
'Please… please grow up and live happily… Sakura…'
She didn't deserve to be called a mother for what she'd just done. But her child at least deserved better. Better than a magus mother like her could ever give.
"Are you done dealing with a troublesome visitor, Lady Aoi?" As soon as she entered her own home, the cheery tone of a handsome blonde greeted her like a veiled knife. "For a while, I pondered whether I should come to assist."
The European in his forties emanated a regal and noble air. But underneath all that pomp, a magus aristocrat eyed her carefully, studying her every move.
"There was no need, Lord Edelfelt." Aoi bit her lip, masking her sorrow with a polite smile. "Just some rude acquaintances that needed to be told to leave. You need not raise your hand for such pests, especially since you're my house's guests."
"Was it really alright, Madam Tohsaka?" another voice peeped from behind the man. His daughter, a spitting image of the lord except more like a porcelain doll, leaned in with a helpful tone. "You sounded distressed. Has our visit, perhaps, inconvenienced you so?"
Luvia, far more innocent yet also not, was expressing genuine concern. Unlike her father who only feigned it, it was pressure from a different angle. Yet, despite the younger Edelfelt's kindness, it was the older one she stayed wary of.
"You need not concern yourself, Luvia, dear. Now, how about some tea? You've both travelled all this way, after all."
"Tea would be lovely, wouldn't it, father?" the noblewoman smiled, seemingly letting the matter go. The father nodded as well.
"Yes, it would. Still, it wouldn't do for you to burden yourself any more than you should have, Lady Aoi. After all, it is why we of the Edelfelt household have come to Japan. To extend our aid to a fellow magi family of old."
"Yes," she persisted with the mask, trying her damn hardest to stop the tears. "And I am grateful for your timely arrival…"
She proceeded to lead them into their home's study, the section that wasn't blasted to oblivion during the war. Aiding in serving their guests, Rin came down at her insistence to have a chat with the girl her age. But even her daughter, merely a child, was well-aware of what this visit entailed and wore a polite mask just as Aoi.
To have lost not just her husband, but the Church that supported the Tohsakas as well, Tohsaka Aoi was left stuck between a rock and a hard place. With the death of Tohsaka Tokiomi, the matter of inheriting the family name was left to his progeny and the last remaining student, Rin. But due to her young age, she would have to wait until she was older to fully inherit her father's assets.
Normally, the guardianship would reside with Aoi and, as an added precaution, Kotomine Kirei would be made to manage everything until the time to pass it all onto Rin came. But… there was a problem.
With the death of Tohsaka Tokiomi, as well as Kotomine Kirei and Reverend Kotomine Risei, his family had lost the only ones who could protect them from other magi noble families in the immediate vicinity. The Church were old allies of Tokiomi, but only through Risei were they actually active in that regard.
In the aftermath of the Fourth Grail War and all the chaos, the holy organization was only able to act fast enough and assist their family in covering up the disaster. But beyond that, there was nothing they could do. Or rather would do.
Tohsaka Tokiomi is dead. Their connections to the Tohsaka mages, namely the Kotomine father and son pair, were also dead. The powerful families and lords of the Clock Tower smelled blood in the water, hence why they would come after the Tohsakas. But for it to be the Edelfelt family of all things!
Edelfelt, the hyenas of the moonlit world and the clan that had long since been a rival of the Tohsakas…
Aoi was well and truly pinned from all sides. She wasn't powerful nor as influential as her husband. As things stood, she had the resources and wealth to buy time for Rin to become a good magus, but not the power to fight off competitors in the meantime. Their status was always minuscule outside of Japan, and now, with the consequences of the war, it was far weaker than it had ever been.
They had no choice but to accept Edelfelt's arrival. It was only because she needed to get in their good graces that she bowed her head insistently.
In their current predicament, there was nothing she could do as they proclaimed their indirect ownership over Fuyuki and its ley lines… as well as her and Rin.
"Now, it may be a little early, but I wish to bring to your attention my daughter's idea for little Rin." Lord Edelfelt, the dashing gentleman as he was, pushed one of his key agendas forward whilst lounging about and sipping tea like he owned the place. "Luvia here has suggested that you and your daughter move to Finland with us. Considering the things occurring in Japan as of late, we fear for the safety of your family, isn't that right, my dear?"
His daughter happily nodded. She may be just glad to be of some help to a friend, but Rin could see further than the scion of the Edelfelt. Looking at her mother, she was wordlessly asking for her to protest. To resist this soft take over of her father's legacy.
However, Aoi already knew she could do nothing. She had no choice, and neither did Rin.
Surrendering to the Edelfelt puts Rin in danger. She cared not for herself, but the last thing she wanted was to put her child at risk. It was the same for Sakura. It was why she had to act as she did.
'I can do little to protect Rin, but I won't give up… I can't… … … I'm sorry… Rin… Sakura… But… this is the best I can do… to protect you… I'm sorry, Sakura. I'm sorry.'
The failure of a mother continued to smile like a doll. She continued to feign compliance… all for the sake of those she loved.
Merely a month has passed since the disaster that occurred in Japan, but life went on without a care for the rest of the world.
On the fringes of mountainous countryside, a shepherd stared off into the horizon. Minding the bells and bleeps of his flock, he spared a lustful glance to the north.
The invaders had long since withdrawn. The Red Army had vanished, collapsing alongside their great Union barely a few years back. And yet, despite the absence of foreign oppression, violence and war still ran rampant in his beloved country.
Just yesterday, he'd received word that his wife's father's hometown, a village just a day's march due west, had been razed to the ground. Its people, scattered to the wind by insurgents. Some more literally than others for many had been burned alive in living pyres.
Their reasons for such brutality? A firm refusal to join hands in creating a coalition government. All because it was sponsored by their Pakistani neighbours.
Such stupidity, such barbarism… was it not because of that short temperament that the rest of the world scorned their peoples as though they were animals? He didn't know. He rarely heard of news beyond the goings on within their borders.
For what reason would those living nearly half the globe away bother with such news as a city-wide inferno? When such was a weekly occurrence at home, did any even bother to pray for the unfortunate yet measly hundreds? More so when one had lost thousands in the span of weeks alone?
This old man did. He could still see their faces, remember their names.
Both a perk and con to being a descendant of nomadic sheepherders is that you had to familiarize yourself with those that chose to live along with the animals' grazing areas. Not just for posterity's sake, it was because it was just plain politeness to ask for permission when borrowing the land of others. However, due to traditions begetting such familiarity with others, the old timer had spent many weeks just praying for those he knew, those that had already lost their lives, and those that had their lives ruined by the chaos that was the civil war. Just like them, he too lost family, lost his wife.
Even he, a mere herder of sheep, could not escape the ravages of war that was kickstarted by the ruling clans. Even his kin was not safe. His kin…
A bleat of one of his many charges caught the old herder's attention. One of the young ones had wandered close to him and sought his attention. He sighed, finding only a small amount of comfort in scratching the ears of the meek lamb.
Today, he'd missed the opportunity to bade his son goodbye. Rather, the child had fled in the early hours before sunup for fear of his family caught wind of his plan. One to join one of the many revolutionary camps scattered along these mountains, hidden away and plotting to spark even more gruesome and pointless flames. If not to harm those that disagreed with him, it was to indirectly cause grief to the ones who loved him.
Furious, frustrated, disgusted. The feelings of a man who'd been disrespected by his progeny, being called the coward for choosing the simple life and attempting to dissuade the lad that had been eager to fight, it burned him, balled his fists, made him want to strangle the very lamb he was caring for this very instant.
'… That… that… fool…!'
But the father about to lose his son weakened such a grip. The animal now resting its head in his lap coaxed the regret and sadness he'd hidden away from his remaining two daughters. Though, he suspected they already knew why he'd taken the animals out earlier than usual. Not to allow them an early graze, but to escape from the reminder that was his fractured home.
A tear escaped him, surprising the old timer who thought he had none left.
Sparing a glance to the hamlet he now called home, he spied the ruins just further beyond it. Once, there was another town here. Once, twenty summers back, it flourished with traders and herders alike. The memory was so vivid for it was around that time he'd met his beloved. Oh, the festivals, the dances, the joys and hardships they experienced in times long past… That was before the northerners came down from their snowy home in an attempt to subdue the local population.
But despite the peace, the Red Army's retreat brought, despite the newfound freedom they thought they earned after enduring so many years of oppression, the village that was founded on the first one's ashes remained a mere dusty shambles. Not even children came out to play for fear of being caught unawares by an attack from god-knows who.
His eyes widened at the large sound.
There, in the very direction he'd settled his listless gaze towards, a plume of smoke and flames erupted from the far corner of the town.
More sounds. Gunfire and explosions. Every fibre in his being caused him to jolt up, surprising the resting lamb on his lap. Thoughts of his herd fled to the back of his mind. With all the might he could muster, he raced towards home. Faster and faster, tripping on the rocky plains, he rushed back, praying to whatever god was out there that his family was safe.
That is, until something exploded nearby and sent him careening helplessly to the side.
His vision was blurred, caked in dirt and something red. A touch to his forehead told him he'd been grazed by stone. Luckily, just.
His hearing was nulled. A ringing blocked everything, taking a while before he could hear the sounds of war ravaging his home once more.
In spite of his attempts at recovery, however, he could barely lift himself up. Looking down, he'd twisted his ankle. Blood liquid splayed beneath it told him he might even have shrapnel piercing a thigh and knee. The sounds of gunshots continued on, irrelevant of his injured and desperate state.
At best, he could only reach out, towards his family that was being set to the torch once more.
"O, god… please…" he prayed then. Even if it was only him, at least he prayed for the sake of his loved ones. "Please… grant us… a miracle…"
To let the old die but the young life. Even if he died pitifully and unremembered, let it be that his own didn't suffer the same fate.
"A miracle, you say?"
A new voice spoke. Glancing over his shoulder, the old man glared helplessly trying to find them. Were they friend or foe? Did they come to help or were they the ones to cause this mess? It was too dark and his old eyes couldn't see very well, especially not when drenched in his own blood. But then he saw it.
A flash of red erupted from the rear. The cause, a blood-haired woman wielding a curved blade. Said sword was none like he'd ever seen. Not even the pulwars of his ancestors could compare, more so when it was wreathed in otherworldly fire, as though the metal itself was immortal kindling.
But it was what the mysterious and violent flames illuminated that caught the elder's eye.
There, a man stood tall. Clad in dark purple, almost black, the figure wore a mask in the shape of a tulip. One in the darkest of purplish royal hue.
"You wish to be granted a miracle… however, I apologize. I am not the god you seek."
In his frantic confusion, the old man could care less. Struggling, biting back the bile and spit, he cried whilst pointing to the blaze that was his home. "Please! Save them! I'll… I'll do anything!"
Even if he must kneel to another insurgent, to another oppressor, so long as it meant they were saved—
"Worry not, you who seek salvation…" Feeling a gaze through the eyeless mask, he stared back as a hand was offered to him pleading helplessly on the ground. "For it is the sake of the weak, the sake of those who face injustice in the world that I raise my banner. That is… only if you swear fealty to my ideals, my desire!"
"I… we will do anything…" he rasped. The pain was numbing him to the vestiges of consciousness. The adrenaline of old age, wearing out fast. With the energy he could muster he accepted the hand. "Please… save us… Save them!"
The woman smirked while her masked companion laughed.
"Very well, I accept your contract." The masked figure took the elder by the hand. Such was the beginning of a new rebellion.
For the people asked to be saved, so it was that a hero arose from the ashes to grant them that miracle.
As for his name, it was…
UmU everyone and happy upcoming Padoru-Christmas!
This chapter is part of an arc that will cover stuff between two Grail Wars. So let's see what happened in this chapter: Shirou is adopted, Lelouch and Nobu are horny and thirsty for war, Sakura is adopted, Rin and her mother are adopted. Also, Afghanistan isn't here because of the recent world event or something...perhaps.
Also, in the last chapter, I showed my old draft for Lelouch servant skills I wanted to use for my old Fgo idea. In your review, some of you mentioned that it feels like I'm forcing the part of Lelouch's life moment when he geassed the God. I see your point. That info was my old draft that I might use to some degree in this story, but I will change things as time goes by.
No omake this time, even though I have a draft of Lelouch meeting GudaGuda crew, but re-reading it I noticed something. My humour is kind of cringe, Idk how to write a good comedy. I still have ideas for omakes about Lelouch in Fgo and Fifth Grail War, but I don't think I will post them after every new chapter like I originally wanted. Sorry for being cringe.
Also, for fgo players: I got Skadi! Had to do like 6 rank ups but I got her! Also, I hope everyone is enjoying Lb 5. I sure do!
No omake this time, but ReavesTheReader found something better for you. Knowledge:
"On the bit about Zero and tulips, I googled his design in the past and came up with something particularly interesting. I couldn't grasp it fully through my vague research, but I noted that the creators that designed Zero's mask codenamed it 'tulip' due to its shape. Less of a king chess piece, but then again, I think they designed the show's chess board around the already existing characters/ideas (e.g. look at the queen, it resembles a nun with a large flowing veil, kinda like C.C.'s origins of living under a nun, or the rook, it resembles a colony settlement's main administrative building, like a literal block of a castle). So it would appear that the king piece may or may not resemble Zero, especially in posture when Lelouch poses like a manakin and his cloak tightly wrapped around him.
In any case (long tangent aside), the thing I wish to point out is the nice coincidence that Zero's helmet is in the shape of a tulip, as well as the fact that Afghanistan's national flower is also a tulip. The tulip, or 'Laleh' as it's called in Persian, originated in the Persian Empire and is a floral native in the regions of Central Asia, namely Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey.
Funny, right? The place where many rebellions start and end also just so happens to have the flower in the shape of a helmet of a rebel leader in a rebellion anime?
Also, tulips mean deep love, expressing his reasons for taking up the mask as a rebel being out of love for his sister and extending to love for the world when he chose to rebrand Suzaku's Zero as his usurper in the Zero Requiem.
Also, also, the colour meanings apply too. Considering Lulu's constant purple/black motif, it means royalty/power respectively.
Also, also, also! Black tulips are very rare, but the blackest of them all, darker than the Black Parrot species, is apparently called Black/Dark Hero. Coincidence? I THINK NOT!"
Thanks to ReavesTheReader for making us learn something new today.
Until the next chapter!