Chapter 22

Somewhere near Tokyo Settlement, Area 11, August 2017

It was the morning after the prison raid, and Kallen was somehow still on her feet.

She hadn't slept in twenty-four hours, at least. There had been no time. They had been on the run, using stims to stay awake, sneaking through the Tokyo ghettoes. Now they were stuck, waiting until they could make the final dash to the coast; where their new submarine awaited them.

The crash would come soon. She could feel it behind her eyes, grating on her nerves. But she would deal with it when it happened. Now, in the MCV's lounge where she stood, the meeting was about to start.

Zero was there, of course, as were Ougi and Diethard; and the newly-rescued Kyoshiroh Tohdoh. Colonel Mannequin was there too, representing Task Force Bolivar; and Rakshata Chawla, representing whoever she was representing.

Also present was Gary Biaggi, looking like he had drunk sour milk. Kallen wanted to think he was just tired. But she knew the real reason for his foul mood. They all did.

"Since we're all here, I call this meeting to order," declared Zero. Even his electronically-distorted voice had an edge to it. "No doubt you have all heard the news."

"Hard not to, Zero," commented Ougi. "It's all over the news and the internet."

And it was. Kallen could hardly believe it when she saw it.

Princess Euphemia had chosen Suzaku Kururugi as her knight-of-honour!

"Diethard, what sort of chatter are we getting?" asked Zero, turning to his spymaster.

"A lot, Zero. They cover the full spectrum; enthusiastic to sceptical through to outright hostile. The hostile are the usual suspects, but there's a lot more enthusiasm than we expected; among Japanese and Britannians alike."

Kallen was too tired to stop herself from glowering. People were getting all excited about it! Hopeful even! They were acting like this actually changed something! That things were actually going to get better for the Japanese!

But how could she blame them for it? How, after all she had seen and all she had heard? How could she condemn them for clinging to any scrap of hope?

No matter how pathetic it was?

"Come to your point," Zero pressed.

"My point, Zero, is that this move is pressing a lot of buttons," Diethard went on. "This will convince many Honourary Britannians and moderate Japanese to accept Britannian rule rather than resist it. This is very bad for our long-term prospects."

"I don't understand," Mannequin spoke up. "Is the young Monsieur Kururugi really all that influential?"

"In and of himself, he's a nobody," replied Diethard. "But his name still carries weight. As the son and heir of the Kururugi family, he is one of few people the Japanese might have rallied around. While becoming an Honourary Britannian has discredited him among hardliners, the moderates and the other Honourary Britannians are hardly in a position to criticize. They see him as a man who made the same choices as they did; so they empathise with him, and look to him as an example."

"Therefore he becomes their idol, their excuse" mused Mannequin. "If he joins with Britannia, it's okay for them to do the same."

"Pretty much," Rakshata cut in, drawing on her pipe. "If they start thinking their situation is going to improve, they'll stick with Britannia rather than resist."

Kallen did not want to have to admit it even to herself; but she knew they were telling the truth. Those people, most of the Japanese, did not want to have to fight. They didn't see any point. Why die for a country that was dead? Why fight for an old order that had led the country to ruin, and now just collaborated with the Britannians anyway? Life might be bad, but it was better than dying horribly; or having what little they had destroyed in Britannian reprisals. It was easier just to endure in silence.

She hated it. But she couldn't hate them; not after what she learned, what Zero had made her understand.

Zero…and that Lelouch guy.

"Zero, I must recommend that you publicly denounce this," Diethard spoke up. "I must also recommend that we assassinate Kururugi as soon as possible."

Ougi's face paled, and Mannequin turned hard eyes on Diethard. Kallen felt her heart beat faster. Kill Suzaku?

"No, we must not," retorted Tohdoh, speaking for the first time. "The Japanese people would never support such a cowardly act."

"As a soldier, I must concur with Lieutenant-Colonel Tohdoh," Mannequin cut in. "For all his faults, Kururugi is a soldier and must be treated as such. To assassinate him is inappropriate."

"I agree," Ougi added. "We're supposed to be the good guys here. That's the only reason any of them listen to us. If we throw all that away over one man, we'll be ruined."

"I understand what you're saying," said Diethard. "But Kururugi is a threat. Zero's revolution cannot succeed without the people, and if this move is allowed to go ahead, we risk losing them."

"I'm with Diethard on this," commented Rakshata. "We're better off taking him out now before this takes off."

"I'm surprised."

All eyes fell on Biaggi. His glower was gone, replaced by that smirk that Kallen found so unsettling.

"I understand Mr Reid here being somewhat unfamiliar with these matters," he said. "But I expected more from you, Professor Chawla. You've been in this business long enough to know."

"My specialities are science and engineering, not killing people," retorted Rakshata, matching his smirk with one of her own. "But since you've decided to join the conversation, why don't you lend us your considerable insights?"

The room felt very cold. Kallen did not like the look passing between Rakshata and Biaggi's eyes, or the implications behind what they were saying. She started to wonder if they somehow knew one-another.

"Since you ask…" Biaggi paused, shifting in his seat. "All points here are valid. Kururugi is a major PR threat, so he has to die. But killing him is an even worse PR threat. The answer, I submit, is to dispose of him in such a way that it cannot be traced back to us. Kill him, and make it look like someone else did it."

"You can do that?" Ougi looked appalled and amazed in equal measure.

"It's tricky, but a lot less tricky than making it look like an accident," Biaggi replied, eyes bright with murderous glee. "It's a matter of keeping your tracks to a bare minimum, and planting the right evidence."

"And when things go wrong?" demanded Tohdoh, fixing Biaggi with narrow eyes.

"Well, I can't guarantee anything," Biaggi shrugged. "Zero, you're the boss. It's your call."

"There will be no denunciation, and no assassination," declared Zero sternly. "I have other plans for Suzaku Kururugi. He is to be captured alive, and unharmed."

Kallen almost gaped. Alive? He wanted Suzaku alive? How was that supposed to work?

"What do you have in mind, Zero?" asked Diethard, looking dubious. "I doubt he will be persuaded to turn against Britannia."

"Leave that to me," replied Zero. "In the meantime, the Black Knights have no official position on this. For now, focus on getting to the coast. Once we're on the submarine and rested, we'll have plenty to do."

He stood up, making it clear the meeting was at an end. The others stood up and filed out. Kallen looked to Zero, but he was already heading up the stairs to his private office. She faltered, wanting to go after him, to make him explain himself. But she couldn't bring herself to. She didn't have the energy.

She followed the others out into the daylight. They were at the end of an abandoned road tunnel, on the outer edge of the Tokyo ghetto zone. The sun was up, the light streaming in from the tunnel mouth. All around, her comrades were at work, unloading their knightmares from the HGVs. When the time came, the knightmares and personnel would escape overland to the coast, while the HGVs would head back down the tunnel and park at various pre-arranged points. Once the Britannians spotted them, they would swarm in and tear the surrounding area apart; while the Black Knights slipped away unnoticed.

Kallen could only hope it would work. The Britannians were seriously stirred up. She had never seen so many drones or VTOLs overhead; and unlike in Clovis' time, Cornelia's staff officers were anything but dilatory. If they spotted anything

There was nothing she could do about it. That was the life she had chosen when she followed Naoto into the resistance. Running, hiding, staying one step ahead, knowing that one little mistake meant sudden and violent death…or worse.

At least now it felt like they were going somewhere. With the Black Knights, they were pulling off missions they could never could have dreamed of before. And now they were getting a submarine? Sometimes it felt like a crazy dream.

Just like Suzaku becoming a knight.

She glowered at the thought of it. Bad enough that any Japanese would be stupid enough to accept a Britannian bauble. There was that Shin guy, but he'd been raised by a Britannian family so it wasn't the same. But Suzaku!?

It made no sense. The Suzaku she knew was a harmless, good-natured buffoon. He actually enjoyed wasting his time with Milly and the student council, fooling around having silly fun while the Britannian jackboot stamped down on his homeland. He was annoying…no, not even all that annoying. He just wasn't someone she could ever respect or take seriously; especially not after prancing about in that skirt.

Except he was the pilot of the Lancelot the whole time. He had fought and killed her comrades, and almost wrecked Zero's plans more than once. And now he was going to be a knight.

She clenched her fists. He had to die! It was obvious! If they didn't take him out, he would just go on killing Black Knights and causing trouble!

She thought of her little pink pouch, and the knife hidden in it. It would be so easy. She could get Suzaku alone at school, put him down, and be gone before anyone was the wiser. It would be so simple!

Except it wouldn't. The authorities would investigate, and they would find out who she really was. She would be an instant prime suspect, and if they found so much as an eyelash of hers on or anywhere near the corpse, they would haul her in, and the rest would come out. She would have to get clean away, get out of the settlement, go underground. Her life at Ashford Academy, as Kallen Stadtfeld, would be over.

And her usefulness to the Black Knights would have taken a serious knock. She would never be able to do infiltration missions again, or even enter a settlement. She would only be good for piloting the Guren.

Would the others understand? Would Zero understand?

Kallen groaned and clutched her head, as pain flooded through it. Yes, the crash was coming, and with a migraine for an entr'acte. She just wanted to go somewhere and sleep; preferably somewhere with a nice, big, soft bed, with silk sheets and nice deep pillows. Somewhere she could just sleep for days and days.

But she couldn't, not until they were safely on board the submarine. At least she would have a bunk then. They might even have a proper medic, who could give her something for her pounding, aching head.

She looked around, and saw Task Force Bolivar. They had their knightmares unloaded, and the pilots were checking them; under the watchful eye of Captain Malcal. Even she was looking strained, her eyelids dark and baggy. Maybe she had a painkiller or two she could spare.

Kallen took a breath, and strolled towards her.

(X)

Headquarters Bureau, Tokyo Settlement

She had arrived.

Seated in her private lounge, Cornelia glared at the door as she heard the footsteps beyond it. The door clunked open, and Euphemia stepped through. Her face was set in stone, but Cornelia could see the wince in her eyes as they met.

She was in trouble, and she knew it.

"Cornel-"

"It's Vicereine," Cornelia snapped back. Euphemia cringed and took a deep breath.

"I know that you're angry, Vicereine," she said, as the door was pulled shut behind her. "It's because I chose Suzaku as my knight."

"I offered you the finest knights in the world," Cornelia growled. "The best, handpicked by Darlton. And I thought you had chosen the best of all."

"What do you mean?"

"you know what I mean, Euphie." Cornelia rose to her feet, breathing hard through her nose. "When you and Alexander were at the ball, when you were dancing…"

"Sister?" Euphemia looked utterly bewildered. "What do you…?"

"And I was so relieved," Cornelia went on. "I thought you had chosen him. But instead you chose a…" She trailed off, the word catching in her throat.

"An Eleven?" Euphemia finished for her, glaring defiantly.

"An unstable element," Cornelia retorted, glaring back. "His loyalty is questionable."

"He is loyal to me," insisted Euphemia, unwavering. "I know it so."

"Oh you do, do you?" Cornelia almost shouted. "Once a coat is turned, it gets easier and easier to turn it again."

"Suzaku would never do that. Besides, Alexander agrees with me. He approved my choice."

Cornelia let out a snarl, and began pacing back and forth like an angry lioness. Still Euphemia did not falter; not when knights, lords, even generals would have been cowed.

"And he would have gladly become your knight!" she half-pleaded. "If you had talked to me, I would have released him from his vows!"

"Sister, how could I?" cried Euphemia, finally losing her composure. "How could I take him away from you? You'd be lonely!"

Cornelia gaped, caught off-guard.

"What are you talking about?" she demanded, trying to master herself.

"Cornelia, don't try to deny it." Her sister's eyes were wide, but there was no anger there; only sadness. "You never had any friends when we were little. You won't give any man a second glance. You're so buried in your duties that you never hear the gossip. But I do, sister. I have to contend with it."

"Royalty do not fear gossip!" Cornelia scoffed, her mind awhirl. "And choosing Kururugi will bring even more gossip!"

She faltered, her heart suddenly heavy.

"I don't need Alexander, Euphie," she said. "I have Darlton, and Guilford. Had you asked, I would have given him gladly."

"Is that really true sister?" There was something in Euphemia's eyes, something that made her want to flinch. "Do you really want to send Alexander away?"

"Euphie…"

Euphemia sighed, and lowered her head. There was a shadow about her, as if a terrible weight was on her shoulders. Cornelia had known it was there, ever since they had come to Area 11. But that did not make it bearable to see. It did not suit her.

"Cornelia, you've always had Alexander by your side," she said. "I was lonely when you took him to the academy as your page. But it changed you, for the better. When Lady Marianne died, you threw yourself into the investigation, and I saw something dying inside you. I was afraid I was going to lose my big sister."

Her voice began to crack, and she paused.

"But he brought you back, Cornelia. He led you back from the darkness. When you came back from here, I knew it. You're not some evil witch like they say, or a mindless killer like Guinevere puts about. You are the Queen of Knights, the noblest of all."

She smiled, and seemed at ease.

"And I know, in my soul, that it was because of Alexander. He's the angel on your shoulder, the one who reminds you of your better self. He had the same effect on me, and Lelouch, and so many others. That's what makes him special."

Cornelia ran her hand over her eyes, forcing herself to breath, to control her emotions. She would not break down, not like this, not in front of Euphie!

"Sister, please respect my choice," Euphemia pleaded. "I've gotten to know him, and I know him to be worthy. I admire and trust him, as I admire and trust Alexander. And besides, those two have become good friends."

She smiled a pleading smile. Cornelia's heart clenched.

"You've made a rod for your own back, and for mine," she grumbled. "You have no idea of the trouble you've caused."

"Vicereine…"

"Leave me." Cornelia turned away, and stared out of the window. "The choice was yours, and so shall be the consequences."

She heard a sigh of disappointment. It hurt more than any wound she had ever suffered.

"As you command, Vicereine."

Cornelia heard her walk out of the room, and the doors clunk shut behind her. She stared out over the glittering city, and the Pacific ocean beyond, and wondered why nothing ever seemed to go right these days.

It had been so perfect. She had arranged everything just right. Alexander was already her childhood friend, and was shaping up to be one of the finest young knights in the empire. He was more than worthy to be her knight…and perhaps more than that.

One day, Euphie would be Empress. It was her right, her destiny; for the good of Britannia, and for their family. She was the one the people adored, the one they yearned for. And with Alexander by her side, as her knight, and her consort, there was nothing she could not achieve.

Cornelia clenched her fists. All her hopes and plans ruined, because Euphie just had to be wilful! Instead of choosing the fine young knight Cornelia had chosen and cultivated for her, she had gone and chosen Kururugi! Her charity case! An Eleven! Did she not know what she was? Did she not understand what she had been born for? The destiny she was meant to fulfil? Did she not realise what she was throwing away!?

Then, in her mind's eye, she saw Euphie's face again. Those eyes.

"You'd be lonely!"

The anger faded, and only a strange emptiness remained.

She put a hand to her breast, feeling her heart beat. Yes, it would have been a wrench to give Alexander up. She could barely remember a time when he hadn't been by her side. He was always there, right when she needed him. It wouldn't be the same without him around.

Had Euphie seen right through her? Was her naïve sister wiser than anyone knew? Had she somehow known what was stirring in the depths of her heart?

She turned her heel and strode over to the counter; pouring herself a glass of bourbon and downing it in one gulp. She could not let this go on! She could not allow herself to think this way! She had too much to do!

And then her intercom buzzed.

"Yes?" It was all she could do not to snap at whichever unfortunate was at the other end.

"Vicereine, we've received a priority communication from Prince Schneizel," came the voice from the speaker. "He requests that you speak with him at once."

Him? Now? At this time of night?

"Put him through." She strode back to the counter, downed another glass, then headed back to her desk and sat down; activating the comm.

(X)

On the face of it, the audience chamber was a scene of magnificence.

The chamber was almost full; packed with nobles, courtiers, local dignitaries, officers, and other hangers on. At their head stood Alexander Waldstein and his platoon, standing in line across the chamber;' a cordon of chivalry between the guests and the dais. They all wore dress uniform, with ceremonial swords at their hips, their faces suitably expressionless.

At the rear of the dais, the Imperial flag hung proudly. And before it, in the very centre of the dais, stood Princess Euphemia li Britannia; freshly arrived to begin the ceremony.

To someone watching from the outside, via over one of the news cameras in the far corners of the chamber, it was a wonder to behold. A vision of chivalry, courtly dignity and grand ceremony.

Someone, that is, who could not hear what the audience was whispering.

"Knighting an Eleven is just…"

"What on earth is she thinking?"

"Surely Lord Waldstein is more worthy?"

"Not after that foul-up at the prison."

"The First Knight's son isn't such hot stuff after all."

Alexander's heart clenched at their muttered words; words none of them would say to his face, or even admit to having said. That did not make them any easier to bear.

That Suzaku Kururugi was an Honourary Britannian was of no concern to him. The younger devicer had more than proven himself, whatever his background or his eccentricities. Besides, Euphemia had chosen him as her knight, and that was all that mattered. It should have been more than good enough for any of them.

But otherwise they were right. His star was on the wane, he was sure of it. Princess Cornelia had given him a platoon to command and a mission to carry out; and he had failed. Tohdoh had escaped, the prison was all but destroyed, and dozens of knightmares had been lost. All of it beamed all over the world on all news channels and all internet networks.

Cornelia hadn't punished him; or even given much impression that she was angry with him. She had been far more interested in the battle itself; especially those new knightmares and their pilots. She almost seemed enthusiastic, and he suspected he knew why. Zero had proven himself as a serious threat, and taking him down would be all the more glorious for it.

But then she had returned to the hunt, leaving him and his platoon at the HQ. Even their knightmares had been taken from them, kept in the repair bay on Cornelia's direct order. In the meantime, they were tasked with serving and assisting Euphemia; hence their presence at this event.

It was not a disgrace. To serve a princess was as far from shameful as anything could be. But the implication was hard to miss.

He quickly glanced from left to right. His five subordinates stood at attention, statue-still, eyes forward. They had all recovered from their ordeal, at least physically, and were putting on a fine show today; as they ought to for a Royal knighting.

Were they angry with him? Did they fear for their futures, as Jeremiah Gottwald's knights had done? Would they actually turn on him?

A harsh rapping silenced his dark thoughts. The ceremony was starting.

"Your Imperial Highness!" called out Lord Yardley, the Viceregal Chamberlain. "A plaintiff comes before you, seeking to be knighted!"

Euphemia raised her head, and replied in a voice both high and clear.

"By what name his he known, and of what lineage is he come?" she asked, following the ritual formula.

"By the name of Suzaku Kururugi, and the lineage of House Kururugi of Shizuoka!"

Alexander had to give Yardley credit. He made Suzaku's name and lineage sound as grand as it ought to; even if the former Japanese might not have used such terminology.

"Let him come forward."

Yardley stood aside, the doors clunked open. The trumpeters lining the walls raised their instruments, and sounded the Fanfare for the Young Knights. Alexander kept his eyes straight ahead, as Suzaku strode down the aisle. He was getting the pace right, at least. He must have been practicing.

"Well…he's not bad-looking."

"I suppose even a Princess has needs."

Alexander's blood boiled. He wanted to round on those disgraceful gossips, to give them a piece of his mind. How dare they even think that about her!

But he did not, and could not. He could only stand in his place, as Suzaku strode past, and started up the steps. His new white uniform gleamed in the light of the lamps.

Finally, he reached the appointed place, and dropped to one knee; the fanfare reaching its end. It was all going perfectly.

"Suzaku Kururugi," Euphemia began. "Wilt thou upon this day pledge thy fealty to Britannia, and stand as a knight of the Crown?"

"Yes, your highness."

It was the simple, short version of the knighting oath; not the older version Princess Cornelia had used at his knighting. Nevertheless, it had caught on over the past few years; and was most commonly used for Knights of Honour, such as Suzaku was becoming.

Simple. Short. Restricted. Limited.

"Dost thou wish to abandon thyself, and become sword and shield for the sake of justice?"

"Yes, your highness."

On cue, Suzaku drew his sword and held it out to Euphemia, the tip over his heart. Euphemia took it, and raised it to en-garde position.

"I dub thee Sir Suzaku Kururugi. Once, twice, and three times."

Finally, Alexander felt something. Finally he felt his heart pound, as the sword touched Suzaku's shoulders. He watched as Euphemia took the sword in her hands, and laid it on Suzaku's own upturned hands.

"I, Euphemia li Britannia, do take thee as my Knight of Honour. Arise, Sir Suzaku, and be acknowledged."

Suzaku slid the blade into its scabbard – another move he had clearly been practicing – and stood up, turning to face the audience.

Silence.

Alexander's heart clenched, as did his stomach, and then his entire body. The audience behind him were no longer whispering, but their feelings were plain. No one wanted to be seen applauding this farce.

No, there was one. He could hear one person clapping behind him. But all the others did was shuffle, and mumble.

He glanced at the dais. Suzaku was bearing the humiliation with becoming stoicism, but he could see Euphemia's eyes hardening, and her brow starting to furrow.

He felt sick. Could no one else in the audience see it? Were they willing to risk a Royal tantrum for the sake of their pride?

There was only one thing to do. One way he might salvage this.

Alexander swept his white-gloved hand across his chest, and took hold of his sword hilt. In a single smooth motion, he swept the sword from its scabbard, the blade swishing in the air, then lifted it to en-garde. He saw Suzaku's eyes widen, and heard his subordinates do likewise; until all six stood with swords raised, a salute to Britannia's newest knight.

And the clapping became a roar. And the regal fury faded from Euphemia's eyes.

Disaster averted.

(X)

Somewhere off the coast of Japan

"…the chamber erupts in joyous applause, as Sir Suzaku Kururugi stands a knight of honour."

Kaname Ougi watched as the scene played out on the wall-mounted screen; the voice-over waffling away in the background.

"What a farce!" griped Shinichiro Tamaki, sitting opposite him. "They weren't even gonna clap till the swords came out!"

"There was that one guy," mused Kento Sugiyama. "Don't know who he was, though."

"Yeah, but I mean, look at it," Tamaki waved a hand at the screen. "What was she thinking? The web's going nuts!" He held up his phone to emphasise the point. "Half of them think he's bonking her!"

A rumble of groans, sour mutterings, and whisperings filled the commissary. Kaname was well aware of those rumours, but did not know what to make of them. Was it remotely possible that an Imperial princess, even a naïve pink-haired one, could have fallen in love with a lowly Number? Was it anything more than a fantasy?

"Should you be using that in here?" asked Toru Yoshida, pointing at Tamaki's phone.

"Hey, Rakshata said it was fine!" retorted Tamaki. "I have to get my light novels downloaded before the mast comes down!"

Yoshida flapped a hand dismissively, and Tamaki returned his attention to his phone.

Kaname looked around the commissary again; taking in the metal walls, the heavy hatches with their wheel-locks, the tables bolted to the floor. Yes, this was indeed a submarine.

He was still getting used to the idea. Rakshata had brought them an honest-to-goodness submarine, and now it belonged to the Black Knights. Mere months ago, he and his friends had struggled to keep Kallen's red Glasgow running. Now they had a submarine.

And the story behind it was almost as amazing. It had begun its life as the seventh of a batch of twelve Shalki class attack submarines, meant for the Maratha Confederate Navy. But an unexpected budget realignment had seen the batch cut from twelve to six, leaving the seventh half-finished. Certain people had arranged for it to be written off, and transferred to a private dock; ostensibly to be cannibalised for parts. Instead, as part of an arrangement between the Indian Underground and the Six Houses of Kyoto, it had been altered and completed under Rakshata's supervision.

Now it was Iruka, Japan's only submarine as far as Kaname knew. Its crew were themselves Japanese; former JMSDF submariners recruited by Kyoto agents. Kaname had worried about that at first; just as he had worried about the former JLF recruits. But they were fitting in just fine, and seemed as enthusiastic about Zero – and proud of their new black uniforms – as anyone else.

"I wonder how Kallen's taking this," said Naomi Inoue, sitting opposite him. "She goes to the same school as him, doesn't she?"

"Yes, she does," replied Kaname. "And from what I saw, she wasn't happy. At all."

Kallen had been dropped off along with Zero, that CC girl, and a few others two days after boarding the submarine. Since her school was under the impression that she had health problems, she probably wouldn't be facing any awkward questions. But she had been stunned to see Suzaku Kururugi, her classmate, at the controls of the Lancelot; and stunned even more to learn of his coming knighthood.

She hadn't done anything dramatic. They had been far too busy with the retreat, and loading everything onto the Iruka, for any of that. He had seen her hanging around with Captain Malcal of the Bolivars, but he didn't know what they had been talking about.

He could only hope she wouldn't do something foolish. If she attacked Kururugi, she would almost certainly blow her cover. If she was captured…

No, that wouldn't happen. Kallen could be hot-headed at times, but she wasn't stupid by any measure. She knew what would happen if she tried something. Besides, Zero had given strict orders; and she trusted him more than anyone else did.

"You're worrying about her again," said Naomi, with an air of weariness.

"You're right, I am," Kaname replied with a sigh. "I suppose I always will."

He had known Kallen since she was a child, since he and her older brother Naoto had been friends. She had always been clever, getting excellent grades; but she had been restless too, the teachers struggling to keep her engaged. She'd been a tomboy, full of energy, quick-tempered, always getting into fights.

He had worried about her then. And he had worried about her even more after she browbeat Naoto into letting her tag along with his resistance cell.

"I worry about her too," admitted Naomi. "She's basically all alone in there. There's no one at the school she can talk to, and as for her father." She shook her head. "It's like he doesn't care what she gets up to."

Kaname's heart sank at the memory. He knew Kallen's story; he had been there as it played out. He had been there when her mother had announced her arrangement with her father; how Naoto and Kallen would live with him and his wife as their children, and she would live with them as a maid. Naoto had stormed out, wanting nothing to do with it. Since then, Kallen had lived as Kallen Stadtfeld, the daughter of a twisted menage a trois.

"He's in Britannia most of the time, from what Kallen told me," Kaname said. "Her stepmother lives in the house, and they've got…an understanding."

"Seriously?"

"The stepmother thinks she's seeing a boyfriend in the ghetto," Kaname went on. "And Kallen's sure she's got at least one sneak-in lover. I guess it's a case of I-saw-nothing-if-you-saw-nothing."

"All the same." Naomi looked sad. "It must be hard on her, even now that's she settled things with her mother. She hasn't got a friend her own age; a real friend I mean."

Yes, that much was true. Kallen seemed to sort-of like her fellow Student Council members, but she didn't dare get close to them. And she had fitted in reasonably well in the resistance, she hadn't made any friends there either.

"I did see her talking with Captain Malcal," he said, as he remembered. "They seem to get along well."

"The blonde?" Naomi thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I saw. Even with everything that's going on, I hope they'll be friends."

Kaname smiled in spite of himself. He wasn't at all sure about the Bolivars. They hadn't caused any trouble so far, but some of them worried him. There was that trio, who stuck together like glue and didn't seem to want to open up; and that boy Akito Hyuga, who just followed Captain Malcal around and gave people cold looks.

But Leila Malcal was pleasant enough. It would be nice if she and Kallen got along; for both of them.

Perhaps for all of them.

(X)

Over the Pacific Ocean

"You exaggerate, Cornelia."

Schneizel el Britannia, Second Prince and Chancellor of the Empire, smiled indulgently at the face on the comm screen. The face did not smile back.

"I really don't think I do, Schneizel," replied his half-sister. "I can't believe the Purists will sit still for this, after all the noise they've been making about Siberia. And I dread to think how mother is dealing with this."

Schneizel allowed himself a small, quiet sigh. He knew perfectly well how the Queen Consort Victoria li Britannia was coping. She had been dealing with it right in his face, with much sound and fury.

"Lady Victoria was somewhat surprised," he admitted gently. "So was everyone else. We all knew Euphie was wilful, but not that wilful."

"This is no joke, Schneizel! What's going to happen to her now? With an Eleven for a knight!"

She looked tired, Schneizel thought. His normally majestic and charismatic half-sister looked drained, even burned-out. He supposed it was only natural, given the circumstances.

"I have discussed this matter with Lady Victoria, and I believe I've convinced her to accept the situation," he went on. "She's more open-minded than you might think. Sir Suzaku is by all accounts a fine young man, and with you to supervise there really shouldn't be any problems."

"Schneizel…thank you for that." He could tell that she meant it. "But that still leaves the Senate and the Lords. From what I'm hearing, the Purists are throwing a fit over this."

"A great deal of noise and smoke Cornelia," replied Schneizel with an easy smile. "Everything they are screaming about, they already believed. And when people believe something that much, they'll make the facts fit."

"All the same…" Cornelia sighed. "Britannia doesn't need this. I don't need this, and neither do you."

"It's nothing I can't handle," he said, chuckling. "But what's this I hear about you being cold to Lord Waldstein?"

A look of anguish flashed across Cornelia's face, then vanished as suddenly as it came.

"Schneizel, what are you talking about?"

"I'm afraid there's been whisperings from Tokyo Settlement," Schneizel went on. "First the unfortunate incident at the prison, then Euphie chooses Sir Suzaku as her knight, then you two haven't been seen together much. It's being put about that maybe the young Lord Waldstein is out of favour. That maybe his star is waning."

"Nonsense!" Cornelia's cheeks coloured just a little. "Just because I don't carry him around on my back doesn't mean he's out of favour!"

"I know that and you know that, sister' replied Schneizel mildly. "But people are talking. If anything, they're talking more about this than they are about Sir Suzaku."

"Schneizel…" Cornelia gave an exasperated sigh. "I need him to get out on his own. He'll never reach his full potential if I keep him with me. I might have kept him for too long as it is."

"But surely you don't blame him for the prison battle? I've reviewed the data myself, and I fail to see what wrong he has done."

"I'm not blaming him, Schneizel. He just thinks I am." She sighed again. "I suppose he blames himself. He's not used to failing, not like this."

"We all fail sometimes, Cornelia."

"And this is the only way he'll learn. He'll feel better when he and his platoon get their Gloucesters back."

"You didn't tell him about the upgrade?" Schneizel was a little surprised. "You know he's going to feel punished."

"I can't help it if he reads into things too much!" Cornelia almost snapped. "Incidentally, you do have the modules, don't you? The ones you didn't want me talking about?"

"Yes, Cornelia, I have them. Once I've finished my business on Kamine island, I'll bring them right over."

"Good. I want to get everyone started on them as soon as possible."

She hadn't asked. But her eyes told him that she wanted to know. She wanted to know what he was doing on Kamine Island; why he had come all this way, in person, to a tiny island off the coast of Area Eleven. Such a move was eccentric even by his standards.

And she would never know the truth behind it. At least, not until the time was right.

"I assume you mean to go hunting, again?" he asked wryly.

"The only one I'm hunting is Zero," retorted Cornelia, eyes flashing with mingled anger and enthusiasm. "The prison fiasco only proves how dangerous he is."

Schneizel gave her an indulgent smile. Time to drop the bombshell.

"Unfortunately, there is an official reason for my visit," he said. "It has been decided that Princess Marina Ismail's goodwill tour, when it takes place, will make a stop at Area Eleven on the way to the homeland."

"Her?" Cornelia looked incredulous. "Coming here?"

"Not just her." And another bombshell. "Accompanying her will be Queen Shanma and King Shalio of Zilkhstan."

"All of them?" It was hard not to chuckle at the look on her face. "Schneizel, I can't deal with a full-scale Royal visit! Not right now!"

"Cornelia, there's nothing to worry about," Schneizel assured her. "I'll can handle the preparations and the visit itself; especially if you let me borrow Euphie. There's no need for this to disrupt your duties as Vicereine."

"That's not what I mean, Schneizel!" Cornelia looked rattled. "Bringing them here is risky! I can handle the usual lunatics, but Zero is bound to try something!"

He probably was at that. Schneizel had been studying the mysterious masked man, ever since he had claimed to have assassinated Prince Clovis. Behind the image of a techno-gothic poser with a flair for the dramatic, there was a guerrilla leader of rare brilliance and terrifying ruthlessness. Schneizel would not have put it past him to make some attempt on the Krugis-Zilkh Royal party. Or was he not so foolish as to be so obvious?

"I'm sure we can handle it between us," he insisted. "Besides, I wouldn't mind taking on this Zero character."

Cornelia did not look at all happy; and Schneizel did not blame her. Zero had narrowly escaped her twice, albeit at some cost. No doubt she dreaded the thought of being embarrassed a third time; and with such precious lives on the line.

"It's getting rather late, where I am," he said, deciding to call it a night. "Don't let me detain you, Cornelia."

"I have a staff meeting in ten minutes," Cornelia replied, glancing off-screen. "Euphie will meet you on Shikine island as planned."

"Very well. I'll see you soon, Cornelia."

Cornelia nodded, and Schneizel disconnected the call. He sat back in his seat, closing his tired eyes, and smiling.

Yes, Cornelia was as easy to read as ever; just like when they were children. They had both been seven years old when their father took the throne; casting down his half-brother, the deranged Emperor Darien the Assassin. He would not soon forget that night, when they had all sat on Odysseus' bed, waiting for news of their father, wondering if the coming sunrise would be the last they would ever see.

He would not forget it. And he knew Cornelia never would either. She had always been an easy person to read, to understand. It was something he had always liked about her; and the thing that made him trust her, insofar as he trusted anyone. She was too honest, too sincere, to be capable of deceiving him; even if she wanted to. It was what made her such a fine knight; and utterly unsuited to the throne.

So much the better. He would prefer not to have to destroy her; and not just for her considerable talents.

The intercom buzzed, drawing him from his thoughts.

"Yes?"

"Livonze Almark is here, your highness," said the familiar voice of Kanon Maldini, his personal equerry. He smirked as he sensed a tinge of disapproval in his faithful servant's tone. Those two got along reasonably well, at least when Schneizel himself was present. But there was always something there, just under the surface.

"Send him in."

After a few moments the door slid open, and Livonze Almark stepped into the office. He was by any standard a beautiful young man; slim and well-formed, clad in the green and white uniform Schneizel had selected for his attendants. His face was finely-featured, almost feminine, and topped with teal hair. His eyes were an alluring shade of purple, with an edge to them that titillated some and frightened others.

Schneizel was neither. He knew who and what Livonze was, and what he was capable of.

"Your highness," Livonze greeted him, snapping his heels together and nodding deferentially. "Tieria reports that his checks are complete, and VEDA is ready for the experiment."

"Good, very good. How long until we reach Kamine island?"

"The captain estimates twelve hours, your highness."

"Good indeed. The Avalon is having a fine maiden voyage." He allowed Livonze a smile. "Make sure Tieria gets a full night too. I want everyone at their best for the experiment."

"Of course, your highness." Livonze nodded again, smiling a thin smile. "Though I may have to resort to certain measures. He's been…agitated ever since we set out."

"I can't bring myself to blame him." Schneizel looked Livonze in the eyes. "After what happened the last time."

"We will not fail, your highness," insisted Livonze; in a tone that sounded mild, but really wasn't. "All necessary precautions have been taken."

"I certainly hope so, Livonze. For our goals to be fulfilled, VEDA must be complete."

"Indeed." The purple eyes gleamed with conviction. "I assure you, my prince. The Innovators will not fail you."

"I'm sure they will not." Schneizel shot him a smile. "Just be sure to look after Tieria until the experiment is finished. And if he happens to run into either my sisters, don't let him do anything unseemly. He's in a bad enough state without that sort of thing on his mind."

"I will give him my full attention, your highness."

"Very good, that will be all. Send in Lord Kanon as you leave."

"Of course, your highness."

Schneizel sat back in his chair as Livonze strode out. He would be glad of a good night's sleep before the big event. A great deal was riding on it, and even if it wasn't, he wanted to be at his best when he got there. There were secrets within Kamine island. Secrets he wished to unlock for himself; and which his family, and Britannia, were better off not knowing about.

Secrets which would help him remake the world.

(X)

Shikine Island, off the coast of Japan

The island was in sight.

Standing on the deck of the destroyer HIMS Nimrod, Alexander took in the sight. It was quite a large island, with two mountain peaks covered in green forests, and beaches of white sand. It might have made a pleasant holiday destination, but for its location; some way from both the coast and the major shipping lanes.

That, and the substantial Britannian military base that dominated the island's flatter ground. The base that was this ship's destination.

His brow furrowed. A strange mission, this one. It had been a week since Sir Suzaku Kururugi had been dubbed a knight. Yet here they were, on their way to Shikine island, for a meeting with the Chancellor, Prince Schneizel el Britannia. Precisely why the Chancellor wanted to meet in such an isolated place, or what the meeting was all about, had yet to be revealed.

The upshot was that he and his platoon were on their way to Shikine island; their borrowed Sutherlands crammed into the destroyer's hold along with the ASEEC HGV and the Lancelot. Nimrod's cargo holds were not designed with large vehicles in mind, so the HGV had to go in the VTOL hangar – thus displacing the two anti-submarine VTOLs; while the Sutherlands had taken up six racks intended for Portman amphibious knightmares.

Getting the loading done had not been at all pleasant. He had done his best to be gracious with the sailors, and they hadn't been overtly impolite. But he could imagine what sort of foul imprecations the Captain was snarling; at least when Princess Euphemia could not hear him. Fortunately it was only a short run, so no one had to give up their cabins.

As for how they were to get back, apparently Prince Schneizel was handling that.

"My lord."

He looked up, to see one of ship's officers standing nearby; a young ensign, of about his own age.

"The Captain presents his compliments," the youth said, a little less nervously than when the voyage had started. "And wishes you to know that we will dock in ten minutes."

"Very good, thank you ensign."

He returned the youth's salute, then strode along the deck towards the stern, then stepped through a side hatch; making his way to the wardroom, where Princess Euphemia and her companions were waiting. He knocked on the door, announced himself, and stepped through. Waiting for him were Princess Euphemia, her new knight Sir Suzaku Kururugi, Lloyd Asplund, and Cecile Croomy.

"Ah, Alexander," said Euphemia, brightening as she saw him. "Any word from the captain?"

"The captain sends his compliments, your highness," Alexander replied decorously. "He expects to dock in ten minutes."

"Marvellous," grumbled Lloyd Asplund. "Ten more minutes of salt spray and rolling waves. How these navy types put up with it I'll never know."

"I confess I don't understand why Prince Schneizel asked her highness to meet him here," Suzaku cut in. "It would be much safer in Tokyo Settlement."

"Safer still if lips had stayed sealed," commented Cecile, glowering at Lloyd, "and not gotten our plans leaked onto the internet."

"Ah, but that girl was just so charming," sighed Lloyd with a smile. "I couldn't help myself."

"I feel sorry for her." Cecile looked away, her head lowered. "Having you for a fiancée."

Alexander blinked. Lloyd Asplund, a fiancée?"

"Oh, I wasn't aware!" declared Euphemia, brightening. "Are you really to be married, professor?"

"To a Miss Camillia Ashford," replied Lloyd. "One of Suzaku's very good friends."

"She's the Student Council president," explained Suzaku. "And she's been very kind to me."

Alexander blinked again. Milly Ashford, that warm-hearted if rather troublesome girl, was marrying this man?

Then he remembered the day of Shirley's visit to Narita. That fancy red dress Milly had been wearing, and that look on Rivalz Cardemonde's face.

"Well, it would seem congratulations are in order," Euphemia said with cheerful diplomacy. "But I confess I wasn't expecting this, Professor."

"Well, the relations have been agitating for some time," quipped Lloyd airily. "Saying it's not respectable for a man my age to be unmarried. I wouldn't have bothered normally, but it's not every day one gets to be the heir of the Ashford family. And she's just so entertainingly eccentric."

"I feel so sorry for her, your highness," Cecile complained, pointing an accusing finger at Lloyd. "Having this for a fiancée."

"Come now, Cecile," retorted Lloyd, sounding a little annoyed. "You make me sound like some sort of bluebeard."

"This for her fiancée!" wailed Cecile. "This for her fiancée!"

The wardroom descended into awkward silence.

"In the meantime, Alexander," Euphemia changed the subject. "While we have a few minutes, Suzaku has something to say to you."

Alexander perked up in surprise. Suzaku took a breath.

"Lord Waldstein, I wanted to thank you for all you've done for me," he said, awkwardly but with feeling. "I'd have been defeated at the prison if not for you and your platoon. And your gesture at my knighting…it meant so much to me, my lord."

Alexander had to force himself not to blush. He was not used to such sincerity, and from a young knight he barely knew.

"Pray don't mention it, Sir Suzaku," he replied, trying not to sound as awkward as he felt. "It was the least I could do."

"Yes, it was," snarked Asplund, smirking.

"Lloyd!" snapped Cecile, appalled.

"Well it's true, isn't it?" Lloyd stared at Alexander with those strange, unreadable eyes; smirk still in place. "Playing your part as the script requires? Such a reward for so little investment."

Alexander cleared his throat. He wanted to shout at Asplund, to call him out for a graceless loudmouth who knew nothing of knighthood. But such a gesture would have been childish and futile.

Not to mention a lie. For although it made his heart sink, he knew that Lloyd was telling the truth. What had he done besides complete his allotted role in the ceremony? What risk had he taken? What really had he done?

The answer was nothing. Nothing at all.

"You think me a hypocrite, professor?"

"No, my lord," replied Asplund. "You live honestly and sincerely by the code of chivalry, because you cannot bear the thought of living any other way. You and Suzaku are alike, in that at least."

Alexander looked again at Suzaku, who was looking rather sheepish.

"Actually that's quite right," Euphemia cut in, beaming. "You two do have a great deal in common. Suzaku my knight, and Alexander my childhood friend. I do hope that you'll be friends."

The atmosphere immediately eased. Alexander allowed himself to relax, and looked again at Suzaku. He was smiling, and seemed to have relaxed too.

But his eyes had changed. There was a guardedness to them that hadn't been there a moment ago.

Euphemia had saved the situation; but the moment had been lost.

(X)

The sun was warm overhead, and the air smelt of the sea.

Alexander had always coped well with ships, but he was glad to be on dry land. He was gladder still that the unloading had gone without incident. His platoon's six Sutherlands stood on the concrete dock, alongside the brown HGV. Behind them, Nimrod's boarding ramp was sliding back into place. They would head back just as soon as Prince Schneizel's arrival was confirmed. It would not do to leave a princess and her party stranded.

Satisfied that all was well, and having finished checking his borrowed Sutherland, Alexander left his platoon to their own checking and strode over the concrete. Ahead of him, Euphemia was being effusively greeted by a gaggle of officers; including a grey-clad senior officer with a beard. He recognized the man from his briefing; Lieutenant-Colonel Fayer, the base commander.

"I regret having to trouble you like this," Euphemia declared regally. "I understand that this is irregular."

"It is of no consequence," oiled Fayer. If he was in any way annoyed, put out, stressed, or even mildly disgruntled at this Royal visit, he gave not the slightest show of it. Indeed, half his officers looked positively pleased. Euphemia rarely, if ever, got a bad reaction. "If you will be accompany us to the command centre, we may…"

He trailed off, as a screeching wail filled the air. Alexander froze, momentarily stunned, though he knew the sound as well as anyone there.

"Alert one! Alert one!" barked a voice over the loudspeakers. "All personal to combat stations!"

Fayer's hand snapped to his comm earpiece, his eyes bulging with anger. Alexander couldn't make out what he was saying over the cacophony, but he didn't envy the unfortunate who had sounded the alarm. All the same…

"Your highness," he turned to Euphemia, who was looking confused. "We should…"

A boom and whoosh made him jump. He spun round, just in time to see Nimrod lurch into the air, water billowing up around it. Then came a roar as the ship blew apart, fire erupting from windows and hatches. The hot wind washed over him, almost throwing him to the ground. He turned to Euphemia, and saw Suzaku grab her in his arms and spin around, shielding her from the blast.

Then it was gone. Alexander looked around, searching for the danger. Nimrod was sinking, settling into the harbour water, burning from bow to stern. A vague thump drew his attention towards the base, and he saw the fresh smoke of an explosion near the runway. Then another, and another.

He forced himself to calm, to think. His priority was to protect Princess Euphemia. He had to keep her safe!

The HGV was rolling towards them. Fayer's officers formed a cordon, some of them pulling out their sidearms, for all the good that would do. Fayer himself was listening to his comm earpiece, his face ashen.

"Lieutenant-colonel, what's happening?" demanded Euphemia, as the HGV came to a halt beside them.

"It's the Black Knights, your highness!" he replied, almost breathless with shock. "Multiple knightmares are attacking the airfield!"

Alexander's stomach churned. The Black Knights? Here? Now? But how?

By submarine, no doubt. The same submarine that had destroyed Nimrod. He glanced at Euphemia, and saw her looking towards the stricken ship, anguish in her eyes. The destroyer was sinking below the dock, wreathed in smoke. He could hear the cries of wounded and dying men.

"Don't worry, Princess," Suzaku spoke up. "I can protect us with the Lancelot."

"No, Suzaku," replied Euphemia firmly, turning away from the horror. "You must join the defence. You too Alexander."

Alexander hesitated. Euphemia had the right of command, but to leave her unprotected in a situation like this?

"The command centre is still secure, as is the forest road," Fayer cut in. "Lord Waldstein, the enemy is focussing their efforts on the air base." He pointed towards the rising smoke beyond the tree line. "If your platoon can delay them there, then we should reach the command centre safely."

"Very well," Euphemia agreed, and nodded to Alexander. Alexander saluted, and sprinted towards his platoon. Mercifully, none of them seemed to have been hurt.

"Mount up!" he roared as he reached his borrowed Sutherland. The ascension cable carried him up, and he threw himself into the cockpit. He was powering up even as the cockpit swung shut behind him.

"All units!" he called into the comm, as his platoon chorused their readiness. "The Black Knights are attacking the airfield! Form pairs and follow me!"

"Yes, my lord!" came the reply. Alexander gunned his engines, and the Sutherland moved off. He had only piloted a Sutherland a couple of times at the academy, and it felt unfamiliar around him. But it would have to do, and the controls were the same anyway.

Alexander took point, with Rai beside him. Ledo and Schnee formed a pair to his left, Marika and Lilliana to his right. He made his way through the trees, his knightmare's armoured feet tearing through the undergrowth, the legs flexing over the undulating ground.

A tree was up ahead. Alexander bent the joystick to move around it. The Sutherland began to turn, but much slower than his Gloucester. Alexander gritted his teeth, slowing down and tightening the stick, easing his away around the tree, and another, and another.

"My lord, are you all right?" It was Rai, close in beside him.

"Fine, ensign," Alexander replied, forcing himself not to snap at the younger man. Rai had both trained in and piloted Sutherlands before he got his Gloucester. Little wonder he was doing better.

He glanced down at his tactical screen. The others were struggling too, and though it shamed him, he felt a little better for it.

Finally, they made it through the tree line; the Lancelot just visible up ahead. As he hit solid ground, Alexander gunned his Landspinners, slowly catching up with the speeding white knighmare. His subordinates did likewise, forming up in a line behind him, as they sped through the concrete streets.

He glanced around, his focus returning. The streets were deserted, and the doors around him all closed. That was no surprise. The moment knightmares were sighted in the base, the non-combat personnel would have locked themselves in their buildings; and would remain there until told otherwise.

He looked down at his tactical map. The map was showing properly, but but the icons of his platoon knightmares were flickering, and a warning light was flashing.

Jamming again. Just like the last time, though not quite as heavy.

They rounded a corner, and came out onto the airfield. It was a fairly typical layout; with hangers lined up either side of a concrete marshalling area, leading onto a long runway.

But the activity on offer was most definitely not typical. Two Albatrosses were burning from nose to tail, while a group of Burais were trying to force their way into the hangars. Alexander's heart jumped at the sight of them, and jumped again as the Lancelot sped away, heading straight for them.

"Ledo and Schnee, break left! Marika and Lilliana, go right!"

'Yes my lord!" The pairs spread out, picking their targets. The Burais had seen them, and were pulling back from the buildings, trying to form up. But his knights were already firing, and two Burais went down, the rest vanishing down the gaps between the hangars.

Alexander looked up at the Lancelot, just in time to see it down another Burai with a Slash Harken. His heart jumped, as black shapes emerged from a tree-lined ridge overlooking the hangars. He opened his mouth to cry, but the Lancelot was already moving, throwing up its left arm. Green light shimmered around the forearm, and a G-cannon round erupted as it struck.

Movement, to his right. Alexander jumped back, and a crimson blur flashed past. He brought up his rifle as the red knightmare came around hard, but the reticule couldn't keep up, and the shots flew wide. The red knightmare charged at him, its right hand clawing for his chest. He dropped back, and the knightmare flew past him, landspinners shrieking as it skidded over the concrete. As it tried to turn, he got a good look at it.

The Guren Nishiki. The Red Lotus was on the field. Did that mean…?

He braced himself for another attack, but the Guren didn't come; instead vanishing behind one of the wrecked transport planes. Alexander looked up at the ridge, and saw the three black knightmares again. All three were Burais, the outer pair firing G-cannons at his knights, forcing them to duck and dodge. But it the one in the middle that caught his attention; the one with the red and gold mask.

Zero.

The three Burais pulled back, vanishing behind the ridge. Alexander glanced around, half-expecting an attack, but there was no sign of anyone. The enemy was gone, retreating.

For a moment, Alexander was at a loss. The concrete surface had been scorched and pocked with bullet impacts, and two transport planes had been destroyed, but the hangars and runaway others seemed undamaged. The HQ building had been hit, but he couldn't see any more smoke from it.

So…what was going on? Judging by the number of wrecked Sutherlands lying around, the Black Knights had taken out most of the garrison. So then why were they running away? After having achieved so little? What was the point?

Unless…

He looked around, and his blood ran cold; for he couldn't see the Lancelot. He looked down at his tactical screen, and saw the Lancelot's icon, chasing the retreating insurgents into the forest.

His heart clenched. He jabbed frantically at the comm panel.

"Major Kururugi!" he barked. "Don't go after them! It's a trap!"

It had to be. Nothing else made sense. Why else would they abandon a battle they were winning?

"I'm sorry, my lord," came Suzaku's reply. "I can't let Zero get away. Not when he's this close."

Alexander opened his mouth to plead with Suzaku, but the line went dead. He hissed a curse, but knew there was only one thing to do.

"Platoon! Form up and follow me!"

(X)

Suzaku Kururugi's heart was pounding.

Zero was there. He could see him, just apart, darting lightly between the trees. He wasn't a bad devicer, and he had made the right choice in escaping through the trees rather than using the forest road. His Burai could never have outrun the Lancelot on the flat.

But his good judgement had only delayed the inevitable. He would not get away this time.

His tactical screen beeped. He glanced down, and saw six friendly icons moving up behind him. It was Lord Waldstein's platoon, moving up in support.

Right?

He hesitated, suddenly uncertain. Common sense told him that Waldstein was there to help. But could he be quite sure? Did he dare trust Alexander Waldstein?

He wanted to. Back at the prison, on that terrible night, he had sensed that Alexander didn't like what he had been ordered to do; that he was acting only out of duty. At the ceremony, Alexander had put himself out for Suzaku's sake; saluting with his sword and spurring the audience to start clapping. He had thought it was kindness.

But Professor Asplund was right. The gesture had cost Waldstein nothing; and it would have been a convenient way to soothe his conscience. For all Suzaku knew, Alexander's opinions were the same as Jeremiah's Purists, or those whispering voices in the audience. Maybe Alexander despised Numbers as much as anyone else, but was just too polite to say so.

He just didn't know; and he couldn't know. Waldstein might have been Euphemia's childhood friend, but her openness and honesty hadn't rubbed off on him. Like her, he said and did all the right things; his conduct beyond reproach. But Suzaku had always known that Euphemia was sincere; that she did the things she did because she wanted to. She followed her own heart, and wore it on her sleeve.

Not so with Waldstein. He just couldn't tell whether Alexander was sincere or not. There were times when he seemed so, when something had told Suzaku that he was genuinely being kind. But there was something wrong about him; something in his eyes that was guarded, locking others out.

He was hiding something.

If that was true, then the professor was right. They were alike. They bothhad something to hide. Suzaku did not know what Alexander's secret was, but if his instincts and the professor's logic were right, it was something terrible; as terrible as the secret that had driven Suzaku's every action for seven long years.

That mean he could never trust Alexander Waldstein. Any more than he could trust himself.,

Or forgive himself.

He stamped down on the pedals, pushing the Lancelot harder. The engine roared, and the white knightmare accelerated; the six icons slipping further and further behind. He would capture Zero, and bring him in by himself. He would prove himself at last, and put an end to Zero's mad dream of rebellion. Waldstein was not going to steal the credit, or take him out while no one was around to help.

And if his intentions were honourable, then he had nothing to complain about.

The Burai was getting closer and closer. Suzaku glanced around, but could see no sign of the other Black Knights. Zero's followers had abandoned him. The time was now!

Except it wasn't; not among all these trees. If he tried to disable the Burai now, it would surely crash. He wanted Zero alive, if at all possible. He just needed to…

All at once, he saw sunlight up ahead. The trees vanished, replaced with a wide beach, running from the forest down to the ocean. The Burai sped on, dropping down into a hollow, landspinners throwing up clouds of sand. Then it stopped in the middle, and turned to face him.

For a moment, Suzaku hesitated. What on earth was Zero thinking? Charging into sand with normal landspinners? Was he in a panic?

Or was this an ambush?

He quickly glanced around. No sign of any other knightmares; unless they were hiding in the trees. If so, they could never stop him reaching Zero's Burai; and once he had done, they didn't dare fire.

"Fine then!" He drove the Lancelot forward, leaping down into the hollow. He loosed a Slash Harken, knocking away the Burai's rifle, and brought up the VARIS; aimed at the Burai's plastron.

"Zero, this is it!"

The screens flickered, and the Lancelot began to vibrate. Suzaku looked around in shock, as red warning lights flashed all over his monitors. He tried to move, but the controls would not respond. The monitors went dead, and the Lancelot froze where it stood.

The emergency lights came on, illuminating the cockpit with a dull red glow. Suzaku stared out of the flickering screens, and saw the strange green light crackling around the rim of the hollow.

It was a trap after all. And he had blundered right into it.

"We need to talk, Kururugi!" called out the Burai's loudspeaker. "I suggest you come out! Your secondary systems should still be functioning! You will be treated as a prisoner under international law!"

Suzaku gritted his teeth as he saw the cloaked form of Zero, standing up in the Burai's open cockpit. Behind him was the Guren Nishiki, Tohdoh's black Gekka, and the two Burais with g-cannons, moving into position around the hollow. To his left and right, he could see the four teal Gekkas of the Shisei-ken, and a couple more Burais.

He was surrounded, trapped. And there was no sign of Waldstein's platoon. Had they been intercepted?

"Of course," Zero went on. "If you don't care to talk, we can just gun you down."

Suzaku snarled, his hands clenching the lifeless joysticks. He had been played! And so easily too! How could he have been so stupid!? Why couldn't he have trusted Lord Waldstein and waited for him?

"Suzaku!" It was Euphemia. The comm was still working, at least. "Suzaku, abandon the unit and get out of there!"

Suzaku gulped. He could get out easily enough, but those knightmares would just gun him down. And even if Lord Waldstein was inclined to help him, he was minutes away.

And could he help? Against the Guren, Tohdoh, four Gekkas and four Burais? And maybe more?

"Princess, please tell Lord Waldstein to stay back!" he pleaded. "He's outnumbered and outgunned!"

He heard Euphemia gasp, and his heart ached as he pictured the look on her face.

"No can do, Suzaku," said Professor Asplund. "We tried to warn him, but he wouldn't listen."

Suzaku's heart skipped a beat. Lord Waldstein was coming? For him?

"Professor, I'm in a hollow on an area of sand, at the top of a beach," he said. "There's a ring of devices around the rim, projecting some kind of field. The enemy is surrounding me just outside of it. Please warn Lord Waldstein."

"Will do, Suzaku."

"Suzaku…" It was Euphemia again. "Be careful."

"Yes, your highness."

Suzaku pulled the hatch release. There was a chance, one small chance, to save the situation. It wasn't much, but it was all he had.

The hatch slid out, raising him into the sunlight. He glanced around, noting the enemy forces. His stomach clenched as he counted fifteen Burais surrounding him, along with the four Gekkas, Tohdoh, and the Guren. Twenty-one in all.

Six against twenty-one.

He grabbed the ascension cable, and let it carry him down. Zero was doing likewise, stepping down as he reached the sand. There was a Britannian military handgun in his right hand.

"I'll get straight to the point, Suzaku Kururugi," Zero said, as Suzaku approached. "I want you to join me."

(X)

"Captured!? How!?"

Alexander could hardly believe what he was hearing. The Black Knights had somehow disabled the Lancelot?

"They used a Gefjun field," replied Major Croomy. "Suffice to say, it shut down the Lancelot by interfering with the power supply. According to Suzaku, its being projected by a series of units in a ring around the hollow. Take those out, and he should be able to escape."

Determination and disbelief warred with him. He had never heard of such a thing as a Gefjun field; nor could he imagine anything doing what Major Croomy had described. But it was happening, and he had to act, now.

"Any indication of its range?" he asked.

"Very short," replied Croomy. "It only works within the hollow. The enemy knightmares outside it are fully functional."

"Understood. We will engage."

"Thank you, my lord."

Something in Croomy's tone tugged at his heart as she signed off. She cared for Suzaku, and not just as a useful and necessary subordinate; as Professor Asplund did.

He looked ahead. He could see the trees falling away, and the ridge line from his tactical map. Beyond there was the beach, where Suzaku was trapped.

"All units, slow and stop at the ridge line," he ordered. "Don't let them see you."

"Yes my lord!" chorused his platoon. They slowed down as they reached the ridge, crouching to say out of sight. Alexander stepped carefully forward, peering over the cliff edge with his head-mounted camera.

His stomach clenched. The enemy was down there in some strength. Fifteen Burais, four Gekkas, Tohdoh's custom Gekka, and the Guren Nishiki. Most surrounded a round, rough hollow; in which he could see a Burai and the Lancelot; both standing still.

And in beside their feet, two figures stood; talking. Alexander zoomed in his camera, and saw Suzaku Kururugi in his white g-force suit.

And Zero, with a gun.

"My lord, there's some kind of jamming field coming straight out of the hollow," Lilliana said. "Just like how Major Croomy described."

Alexander looked down at his sensor screen, and brought up passive scan mode. There was indeed a jamming field hovering directly over the hollow; though the system could not figure out what it was. The surrounding knightmares were just outside its field of effect.

"My lord, that field won't stop bullets," insisted Schnee. "We can take them out from here."

"And if we do that, they'll shoot Kururugi before he can move," retorted Marika. "My lord, we should…"

She trailed off, as Alexander's comm beeped insistently. It was a priority transmission from the base HQ.

"Waldstein," he said, connecting the comm.

"Lord Waldstein, return to base immediately," ordered the voice at the other end. "Your location is about to be bombarded."

Alexander's blinked. Bombarded?

"Say again, HQ?" he asked, stunned.

"Repeat, return to base immediately. Bombardment inbound on your location."

His comm beeped, indicating a datalink request. Alexander accepted it, and his blood ran cold as the red circle appeared on his tactical map. It was covering the entire south-west of the island. The beach, Suzaku, the Black Knights, and his platoon were all under it.

"Negative HQ," he replied. "Major Kururugi is in the bombardment zone. Request weapons hold."

"Negative, my lord. Bombardment is inbound. Return to base immediately."

Alexander opened his mouth, but the line went dead. His mind raced as he tried to make sense of it. The bombardment must have been ordered even as the Black Knights were retreating. Had they known that he and Suzaku were pursuing them? Who had given the order?

Something on his screen moved. Alexander looked, and his heart jumped as Suzaku grabbed Zero's gun hand and twisted it behind his back; his other hand grabbing the gun and pointing it at Zero's neck. Zero struggled, but Suzaku held him firm, dragging him towards the Lancelot.

Alexander's pulse thundered as he tried to think. He could bargain with the Black Knights for Suzaku's life, but that would mean letting Zero go. Then again, with those missiles inbound, it would make little difference.

Then the Black Knights began to move. For a moment, Alexander thought they were about to jump into the hollow, Gefjun field or no. But instead they spread out, turning inland, raising their weapons to the sky. He looked inland, following their line of sight.

There they were. A cluster of tiny lights, just visible in the sky over the centre of the island. The cluster grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

"My lord!" gasped Schnee. "The missiles!"

"We've been sacrificed," breathed Ledo.

Down on the beach, the Black Knights were firing; rifles and wrist cannons blazing up into the sky. Alexander switched on his active sensor, and his dashboard beeped in frantic warning, as dozens and dozens of missile icons appeared on his screen.

He should run, now. He should take his platoon and get out of there, while there was still a ghost of a chance. But that would mean leaving Suzaku to die.

Suzaku...

"Platoon, shoot down those missiles!" he ordered, bringing up his rifle.

"My lord, our orders!" protested Schnee.

"You wanna die here?! Because I don't!" retorted Lilliana.

"Adjust your targetters!" Rai ordered. "Mark your targets and time your shots!"

Alexander led by example, squeezing off a short, tight burst at the nearest missile on his screen. The missile blew apart, and Alexander was shifting to another target, even as the glowing reticules slid together over it. The instant they combined and lit up, he squeezed off another burst; his pulse thundering in his ears. Another missile fell, and another, and another. Around him, he could see his platoon firing, sending the same tight bursts into the air, bringing down missile after missile.

But not enough. Nowhere near enough. Little by little, the explosions were drawing closer. His platoon was being overwhelmed, and the Black Knights were doing even worse.

Another missile down. And after it came a half-dozen more. He paused and fired, paused and fired, biting down the scream that fought to escape his throat. Closer and closer they came, more and more of them. One fell short in the jungle, blasting away the trees and making the ground shake. Death falling from the sky, merciless, heedless.

His screen beeped. Ammunition empty.

Alexander froze, his nerves on fire, body and mind seizing up. His conscious mind willed him to hit Reload, but his hind-brain was locked up, paralyzed with terror, like a deer in the headlights of a speeding car. He could see a missile falling from the sky, coming straight at him.

Then it exploded, so close that his Sutherland tottered. Alexander yanked the controls, his will restored, jabbing Reload as he steadied his legs. More missiles were exploding, and he could see lines of tracer cutting across the screen, from the direction of the beach.

Was it the Black Knights? Were they…helping him?"

"My lord, look!"

He looked, and stared.

A ship was floating over the jungle. A great ship, about the size of an aircraft carrier, in white and orange. It was coming around in a graceful arc, point-defence guns blazing, missiles leaping from silos in its topside and flanks. Alexander watched, amazed, as it flew gently over the beach, into the path of the incoming missiles.

His HUD beeped, and he looked up just in time to see a lone Portman roll up to join his platoon, its head staring up at the ship.

Alexander blinked. One Portman? Was this Fayer's idea of sending help?

"You there!" he ordered, with his comm on open band. "Marine! Identify yourself!"

"Alexander, it's me!" replied Euphemia's voice. Alexander almost gagged with shock.

"Princess?! What are you doing here?!"

"I had to save Suzaku!" pleaded Euphemia. "I thought if I was here, they would stop the missiles!"

Alexander's mind whirled, fury and pity dragging it back and forth. Trust Euphemia to be so obstinate, so headstrong. She would not leave her knight to die, not even if it meant risking her own life.

How foolish. How spoiled. Had she thought that they could somehow stop the bombardment, just because she was there? Did she not understand that it was already too late? Had her Royal upbringing left her so completely detached from reality?

Or was that the depth of her determination? Was this the truth of her heart, to risk her own life for the sake of one who was sworn to give his own for hers?

Was she the most foolish of princesses? Or the noblest of all?

"Avalon…" she whispered, the word drawing him from his horrified, awe-struck reverie.

"You know it, your highness?"

"It's the Avalon, my brother's ship," Euphemia went on. "He's been working on it for years. I had no idea it was ready."

Alexander stared at the wondrous, impossible ship, as it slowed to a halt over the beach. Still the missiles came on, even through the Avalon's fusillade. His heart clenched as one flew through the barrage, drawing closer and closer.

Then it was gone, lost in a green flash. Then the flash became a shimmer, hovering in mid-air, spreading out to form a great glowing hexagon. More missiles hit, and more hexagons appeared, forming a shimmering barrier in the air.

Blaze Luminous. Just like the ones the Lancelot used.

Remembering, Alexander looked down at the hollow. The Lancelot was still standing there, with no sign of Suzaku or Zero. All around, the Black Knights were staring up at the Avalon, some raising their weapons; for all the good that would do.

All but one. Alexander stared as he saw the Guren Nishiki's hatch pop open, and the devicer climb out; a slim figure with red hair. He saw the devicer drop down to the sand, and hurry down the slope of the hollow towards the Lancelot.

Above, the Avalon had come to a full stop. A ventral hatch opened, lowering down a ramp, and Alexander could make out a shape in the darkness. A red glow washed over it, and he could see that it was a knightmare of some kind. A knightmare, but much taller than usual; in black and gold, with the glow coming from its shoulder pauldrons.

Was that some kind of weapon? Was it about to fire? With Suzaku right below it?!"

"Alexander!" cried Euphemia. "We have to get Suzaku out! Can you take out the Gefjun units?!"

"I'll try!" Alexander levelled his rifle, keyed for the missile launcher, and aimed it at one of the openings around the edge of the hollow. With no time to take aim, he fired; the missile flashing down and slamming into the sand.

The missile exploded, and an instant later the whatever-it-was under the sand did likewise. Alexander saw a strange shimmering in the air, like oil on water, and some of the other units blew out in turn. Debris bounced off the Burai and it toppled forward, falling into the Lancelot. The Lancelot staggered backwards, and a black shape fell out of the open cockpit, landing unceremoniously on the sand.

The Lancelot's cockpit slammed shut, and the white knightmare was moving, racing up and out of the hollow, sand flying in a cloud behind it.

The black knightmare fired; a strange red light bursting from its shoulders and washing over the hollow. A great flash erupted, filling Alexander's screen, blinding his eyes.

He blinked, but nothing happened. A strange kaleidoscope filled his vision, as if he were falling down some bizarre, light-filled tunnel. He tried to pull on the controls, to press the pedals, but nothing happened. His body would not obey him.

He couldn't feel his body. He couldn't feel anything. He didn't know where he was.

Then the vision changed. His world was a black void, but for a thin line of white. The line grew, revealing two black spheres, spreading over them like a sunrise. The spheres turned silver; one mechanical-looking, covered in bright lights, the other liquid and somehow alive.

Then they were gone, replaced with white. And then a stone wall, cracked and ancient, with a strange emblem set into it; like an ultra, or a chalice, or a bird with its wings spread. An emblem he had seen before…

And then there was a mass of people, ranks upon ranks of them; children or young girls from the looks of them. They wore white clothes, with gold accessories, their faces lowered, their eyes closed. Upon their foreheads was that same emblem.

And then they were gone, replaced with a single woman; that strange emblem on her throat, her eyes purple, staring at him and through him.

"You are not who you are."

Darkness again; a night sky filled with stars, and an orange sphere hovering in the near distance. Was it Jupiter?

Then he was faliing, falling towards Jupiter. The black spot opened before him, opening like a gaping maw, swallowing him up.

Silver. Silver all around him. Droplets falling, landing, rippling like mercury

White again. A white void, reaching into the distance. Shapes moved across it. Human

shapes, trudging across the emptiness, staring straight ahead with bulging, agonized eyes.

Darkness.

(X)

And here it is, at last.

We got through quite a bit here. The events of one particular episode, plus some other worthwhile material and a little foreshadowing, if you can spot it.

This chapter was quite tricky to write; especially the scene on the beach with the Gefjun disturbers. I had to watch that part of the episode several times, as the timing of it is a little bit odd. I was also trying to remember what on Earth was going on with the missile bombardment. As far as I can figure out, Schneizel ordered the bombardment to pin the Black Knights in place, then swooped in to wipe them out with the Gawain. On the face of it, it's a bizarre and risky plan; but I recall an R2 picture drama in which Cecile claimed that Schneizel was using reckless tactics while fighting the EU, and only Suzaku, Gino, and Anya's prowess was ensuring victory.

It also, I think, says something about Schneizel himself; and his similarities to Lelouch. Both of them are brilliant mavericks and outside-the-box thinkers; but they operate on different levels and with different mindsets. Schneizel operates on the level of a statesman, planning vast, sweeping strategies with entire countries as his gaming pieces. While he does care for those around him to some level, he is willing to sacrifice them to attain his goals. He sets himself apart from and above others. Lelouch, by contrast, operates on the ground level; coming up with complex and flash plans that play on the psychology of his targets; and carries them out himself. Like Schneizel he is isolated from others and struggles to connect with them; as proven by his micromanaging. But whereas Schneizel accepts isolation as a fact of life (and maybe gets a kick out of it), Lelouch craves connection. Because of that, in part at least, he is reluctant to sacrifice or harm those he cares for.

Anyway, thank you all for waiting for this chapter. Zaru and I hope you all enjoy it.