No, I'm not back. I'm not even a third of the way done with the story. This chapter is just a preview of what's to come, and to show that I am still going. This is fairly rough, and will likely be subject to change in the future, but I do hope you enjoy it. As always, reader reviews and critiques are helpful.

There was a goof later in this chapter. It is now corrected. Also, I have to ask: is this story really that dark? I mean, we're all fans of a show where the main protagonist routinely went on psychotic murder sprees, culminating in a genocidal campaign in some egomanical quest for 'world peace.' Seriously, how is what I've written any darker than that?

UPDATE 11/10: To anyone currently concerned about the state of the story vis a vis being continued: Not only have I NOT abandoned the story, I am currently eleven chapters in. Once I finish with chapters 12/13, I will be going back through for some extensive editing, and then continue on outlining and then writing new chapters. My outline currently extends to chapter 13. Mind you, I may have to condense one or two chapters, so that is a rough estimate. Essentially, I am roughly 42 percent done, with the need for editing. And I'm having a lot of fun.

I definitely do not own Code Geass.

….

Kyoto Province, United States of Japan, December, 2017

Captain Kallen Kozuki, commanding officer of the Zero Squadron and Zero's personal bodyguard, dodged the too-slow moving arm of the Chinese Gun-Ru as it descended on her head. She slipped forward, grasped the enemy Knightmare's torso with her Radiant Wave Surger, and with a press of her finger, inflated the Gun-Ru like a balloon till it exploded under the pressure of the radiation saturating the machine. The explosive blast rained metal on the scarred red armor of the Guren Mark Two.

Kallen paid little attention, her eyes already snapping to the next enemy signature on her digital map. The feed from her factsphere's camera showed her that it was a Burai, its left arm gone except for the sparking exposed wiring that extended from the socket. Its right arm was firing a concentrated stream of machine gun fire at her. She weaved and danced around the line of fire, advancing in zigzagging vectors that kept her opponent's aim off.

And...there!

The gunfire was replaced by a hollow clicking sound as the magazine emptied. Kallen launched forward, thrusting the silver claw of the Surger into the belly of the machine, disembowling it, while the her other hand grabbed the Burai's factsphere and ripped it free. She scowled when the enemy dropped the machine pistol, clenching its fist and punching in a blind attempt to throw her off. She ducked beneath it, jerked her silver claw from its innards, and sheared off the arm. She lashed out with her foot, taking the Burai at the knee joint, splitting it in half and sending the Knightmare tumbling to the ground.

"Stay down!" she warned, her voice carrying over the general frequency she opened. She looked up to the remaining Knightmares, a pair of Burais and five Gun-Ru's. "Anyone else?"

No one answered her challenge. The gunfire had died away, leaving silence in its wake. Kallen ground her teeth. "Well? Who else wants to die?" she asked.

After another moment, one of the Burai's threw its gun to the ground. Its cohort followed suit, as did the Gun-Ru's a few seconds later. Kallen breathed a sigh of relief.

"Kneel your Knightmares, then get out of your cockpits with your hands up," she ordered them. As they moved to comply, Kallen flicked a switch on her radio. "Q-1 to B-1, reporting."

"B-1 to Q-1, acknowledged," came the reply.

"Enemy forces are surrendering," she reported, not bothering to hide the relief in her voice.

"Good. P-1 is heading your way."

A column of Burai's, friendlies, rounded a small hill painted white with snow. "I see him."

"He'll take the prisoners off your hands."

"Understood."

"Good work, Kallen."

Her throat tightened. "Thank you, sir," she said.

She relaxed into her seat, the fading adrenaline leaving exhaustion in its wake. Deep shadows hung beneath her weary blue eyes. Her dark red hair had a greasy sheen to it, a consequence of not having had a proper bath in a week. Over the last four days she had maybe gotten six hours of sleep.

"Could be worse," she mumbled tiredly. "At least I'm not in the trenches."

"Yo, Kallen!" she heard a boisterous shout. "Nice work puttin' these little shits in their place."

Kallen rolled her eyes. "We're in the field, P-1," she reminded him, sitting up in her seat. "You're supposed to address me by my callsign."

"Like it really matters right now," P-1, Shinichiro Tamaki, retorted. "These bitches are rolled up like spring rolls."

"That's no excuse, P-1," Kallen said. "Use my call sign."

"Ya didn't seem that hung up when the big guy called ya!"

"Sh-Shut up, Tamaki!"

"Would you please just bring me my prisoners?" Lelouch interrupted. "And use designated call signs, P-1. You never know who might be listening in."

"Yeah, yeah, fine, fine!" Tamaki said. Tamaki's Burai gave a bow. "Here to pick up His Majesty's prisoners, milady!"

"Tamaki!" Lelouch said, his robotic voice tinged with anger. "Enough playing. Now."

"Right, gotcha," Tamaki said sheepishly. "Sorry boss."

"Q-1, to my side. Private channel."

"Copy."

A mixture of dread and anticipation swirled in Kallen's chest as she wheeled away from the prisoners. Lelouch Lamperouge, the masked Revolutionary Zero, and a member of the Royal Family, was waiting less than a football field away. His black Burai was indistinguishable from the twenty or so that surrounded it, save for a gold grown piece on the factshpere that designated it as the lead unit. His machine pistol hung at his side. She rolled in next to him, staying slightly in front in case some fool got the idea of taking a shot at him. She swapped her radio over to frequency four.

"Q-1 here."

"With this batch, that should make five hundred," Lelouch said. She could hear scratching as he took notes. "We keep this pace, we'll have the Western Front rolled up by February."

"Maybe earlier," Kallen said. "These Knightmares are starting to look pretty slagged."

"Yes, I saw the one with the arm missing."

"It looks like your hunch was correct: the Eunuchs aren't even attempting to supply their troops."

"Not surprising, given how the Royalists are advancing. This is all a sideshow to them. They can't focus on foreign adventurism while the Tianzi is breathing down their necks."

"So where does that leave us?"

"With too many Chinese and JLF we have to clean up." Lelouch sighed. "This isn't even difficult, it's just tedious and wasteful. Too much time and resources is being spent putting these rebels down."

Seven years ago, Japan was invaded by the Holy Britannian Empire, the world's lone superpower. The Britannians sought exclusive control over Japan's Sakuradite, the fuel that fed the energy appetite of the entire world. Fielding the revolutionary armored platform known as the Knightmare Frame, the Empire conquered Japan in less than a month. After nearly a decade of oppression and humiliation, a hero arose to challenge the Britannian oppressors: Zero, Commander of the Order of the Black Knights.

The campaign to oust the Britannian Empire from Japan had been long and bloody. Months of guerrilla warfare, assassinations, and terrorism had worn down the occupying power's ability to fight. Had all gone according to plan, a Chinese Federation ruled by a newly empowered Empress would have launched an invasion into the country as reinforcements for the Black Knights. There would be a united Japan, backed by the industrial might of the Chinese Federation, prepared to wage war against the Britannian Empire, and end its despotic grip on the world.

Instead, a group of officers within the Black Knights, led by General Tatewaki Katase and Lieutenant Colonel Kyoshiro Tohdoh, launched a coup with the intent of wresting power from the non-Japanese Zero. They bombed Ashford Academy, Lelouch and Kallen's school and home, in an attempt to assassinate the Black Knight leadership during a festival, then launched an all-out assault on the Tokyo Settlement, all while being supported by the Tianzi's mortal enemies, the now rebelling Eunuchs. The coup reached a bloody crescendo at Tokyo when Katase, desperate to take the city, resorted to using civilians as human shields, resulting in the civilians' massacre and Katase's own death. Tohdoh stepped in to take Katase's place, and now the country was locked in a death struggle between the Liberator Zero and the Miracle Man Tohdoh.

"How soon do you think before we can concentrate on the Brits?" Kallen asked.

"Not until we have the west under control," Lelouch answered. "The Britannians are a nuisance, not a threat."

"Those villagers we passed on the way over would tend to disagree."

She could almost see him grimace.

Disparate bands of Britannian stragglers, soldiers who had survived both the invasion and Britannia's failed counterattack, were harassing the length and breadth of the country. They pillaged and burned villages like a band of medieval bandits, leaving bodies and tears in their wake.

"The Britannian remnants can't overthrow us, Q-1," Lelouch said. "You know that."

Kallen sighed. "Yes, I do," she admitted. "But I'd like to kill something other than my fellow Japanese."

"I know. This will all be over soon."

Not soon enough. "I hope you're right." She rubbed her eyes. "How are you faring?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean," Kallen retorted. "We haven't seen hide nor hair of her in the past month. How are you feeling, Lelouch?"

"Fine. Use call signs."

"Lel-"

"I said I'm fine, Q-1."

She bowed her head. "Very well," she mumbled.

"Kallen, I...look, I'm..."

"I know," she said. "Just….yeah. I know."

She rubbed her eyes again. Damn you, C-Two, where are you?

The lime-haired, ivory skinned, mysterious amber-eyed beauty that was the de-facto second-in-command of the Black Knights; Zero's advisor, companion, and…

Girlfriend, Kallen thought bitterly. The girl who had won his heart, and then gone missing after the bombing. The rebels didn't have her, Lelouch was sure of that. If they did, they would have already trotted her out as a hostage. Lelouch suspected someone else had her, some stranger named Mao, and it was a good chance neither was still in the country. If that was the case, it would be a long time before they would have the chance to look.

Kallen heard beeping on Lelouch's side. A few moments later, Lelouch said, "P-1 has the prisoners rounded up. We'll encamp in the town nearby. I'll attend to the interrogations later. Let's roll out."

Kallen shivered when she heard 'interrogations.' "Copy," she said, and fell into step with him.

Numata, Gunma Province, Democratic Republic of Japan

General Kyoshiro Tohdoh, Supreme Commander of the Democratic Republic of Japan, stared out at the black snowy ascent of Mount Akagi. He was a tall man with wide shoulders and short, spiky hair forming an impressive widow's peak, the brown mop streaked with gray. There were new lines on his face, despite the fact he was only thirty-seven. He wore a black trench coat with green trimmings. He stood on the balcony of a small two story house, one of the few structures still standing, a cup of hot coffee in his hand.

Coffee. It was a luxury, Tohdoh knew, one obscene in its consumption given the mass starvation that was crippling his young nation, but one he found necessary. In five days he had had maybe as many hours of sleep, and he needed the stimulant found in each packet he drank in order to stay on his feet. He knew he would be getting hardly any sleep tonight.

The city of Numata in which he was encamped was a mountain village, surrounded by tall heights to north, west, and east, accessible only by a narrow corridor to the south. The city was eminantly defensible, hence why Tohdoh had set up shop here to begin with. It was also a pile of rubble; what hadn't been destroyed by the invasion and subsuquent near decade long guerrilla campaign had been burned to ashes by the Britannian firebombing just a couple of months ago. There were very few buildings still standing, necessitating that the majority of his troops sleep in overcrowded tents, doubling up for warmth in the freezing winter.

They had few winter supplies. General Tatewaki Katase, the late leader of the Japan Liberation Front, may he rest in peace, had seeded caches of supplies throughout the island. These were hidden in caves, at the bottom of rivers and lakes, behind waterfalls, buried in the soil, and any number of other ways to conceal them from the watchful eyes of the Imperial occupation. They were guns, ammunition, ration packs, spare camping materials, and winter gear. It was ideal for an army that never stayed in one place for too long.

What Katase could not have anticipated was the sheer number of men that would need those supplies.

Thirty-five thousand Chinese soldiers remained of an Expeditionary Force that had numbered in the hundreds of thousands. That number was from a previous high of fifty thousand, whittled down by a series of indecisive battles with Zero's dictatorship. Tohdoh had not intended to use the Chinese as the vanguard for his failed offensive; but, Zero had seemed to take a special glee in targeting Tohdoh's foreign allies.

Perhaps I should have expected that, Tohdoh mused. It puts the Bombing of Ashford into sharper relief.

Months of planning, training, manufacturing, all of it put into place for the rebellion that was supposed to have been in Spring 2018 at the latest. Instead, Zero had launched a terrorist attack on Ashford Academy, a prestigious private school in the Tokyo Settlement, that had been hosting a festival when the bombs went off. Hundreds had been killed or injured; among them was the Sub-Viceroy Princess Euphemia li Britannia, who barely escaped with her life.

Horrified by Zero's massacre, Katase had launched the rebellion early with the intent of toppling both the Britannian occupation and Zero.

The rebellion had begun with promise, rapidly reclaiming the north through the overwhelming numbers and firepower of the Chinese army. While Tohdoh had been forced to separate from the main body to reconstitute his scattered forces, Katase had marched the bulk of the army to Tokyo. Under Zero's plan, the city's garrison was to have been compromised by sleeper cells, and the city itself surrendered.

Instead, the city's defenses opened fire, and a multi-hour siege that they hadn't planned for erupted. Tohdoh wasn't sure what had happened; survivors were few and far between. Katase's death was confirmed after the battle, and not long after, Britannian fighters and bombers burned Japan to a crisp. Then, for reasons Tohdoh could still not grasp, the Britannians had simply abandoned the island defense, firing on Mount Fuji as they left to deny the Japanese the Sakuradite mines.

Zero moved quickly. Having killed Viceroy Princess Cornelia li Britannia in single combat at Mount Fuji, he forced marched his troops through a thunderstorm to claim Tokyo, establishing his United States of Japan as an open parody of democracy.

Tohdoh declared the formation of his own country just days later.

And look where it's gotten us.

Kinetic operations ground to a halt just a month after the opening of hostilities, as Sakuradite began to run low. No fuel, no trucks, no tanks, no Knightmare Frames. Tohdoh's offensive ran out of steam just north of the Tone River, his infantry digging trenches from Hokota in the east to Nagano in the west. He had neither the overwhelming numbers to brute force his way through Zero's trenches, nor the naval capacity to outflank Zero by sea. All he could do was settle into an icy stalemate, and wait till Spring.

That was quickly proving to not be an option.

"General Tohdoh!"

Tohdoh turned around.

Colonel Nagisa Chiba, a beautiful young woman with short brown hair, gray eyes, and a slim yet voluptuous physique, stood at stiff attention in her green-and-black uniform.

"Sir, Colonels Asahina and Urabe are ready to give their reports," she said.

Tohdoh eyed her up and down. "You seem to be doing better," he said. The night before, she had suddenly vomited across the table as they were having their evening meal.

She gave him a slight smile. "I told you it was just a stomach bug," she said.

"Tell that to my dinner last night," Tohdoh retorted.

She had the good grace to blush. "I am sorry for that, General," she said, pouting.

Tohdoh held back a smile. "So long as you're doing well, that's all we can ask for." He gestured to her. "Let's proceed."

Tohdoh's quarters contained a simple cot, just big enough for two people, and a desk on the far side of the room. His clothes were packed in a trunk at the foot of the cot.

These all passed by in a flurry as he followed Chiba out of the room and down the stairs, each step creaking noisily as their boots thumped onto them. The hallway the stairs ended at was narrow, forcing them to walk single file, till they exited into a small dining room. The dining room was dominated by a large table in the center of the floor, covered by a full scale map of Japan, with various markings indicating troop dispositions, supply depots, and population centers, among other things.

Tohdoh's remaining two subordinates, Colonel Shogo Asahina and Colonel Urabe Kosetsu, stood at stiff attention on opposite sides of the table. Both men were of a similar height to Tohdoh, though that was where the similarities ended. Asahina had short teal hair that was parted in the middle, and wore a pair of glasses that obscured the long scar that went through his right eye, but not the fire the blue orbs bore. Urabe's dark blue hair mirrored in style Tohdoh's own, though his expression was much more docile than Asahina's, as evidenced by the genial warmth in his gray eyes.

The absence of Ryoga Senba, the fourth of Tohdoh's elite Four Holy Swords and one of the fatalities of the Britannian firebombing, was keenly felt by Tohdoh.

I hope you are resting in peace, my friend.

Both men greeted him with sharp salutes.

"At ease," Todoh said. The two men fell into parade rest. "What's our current situation? Asahina, report."

"General! As per your instructions, we performed an inventory and analysis based on current rationing trends. We came to the conclusion that at current consumption levels, we will be out of rations within seventeen days."

That was only to be expected. The Chinese had only brought a week's worth of rations with them, and much of that had been lost in the landings. With much of the land blackened by fire and suffocated by ice, there was little in the way of forageable edibles. Worst of all, what supply caches hadn't been destroyed in the fighting were in the south, under Zero's direct control.

"Does that include the plans we had to distribute food to the civilians?" Tohdoh asked.

"No, General," Asahina answered, his expression neutral. "When that was factored in, we didn't even make it through the day. If we cut to half rations, we can double the amount of time we'll be able to feed the troops."

"So long as we let the civilians starve," Urabe muttered.

Asahina's eyes flashed angrily as they darted to Urabe. "You speak as if I want them to, Urabe."

"Colonel Urabe," Tohdoh interrupted. "You speak out of turn."

Urabe bowed his head, his eyes closed. "Forgive me, General. I forgot myself." He turned to Asahina, his expression softening. "Forgive me, Colonel. I spoke from frustration, not sincerity."

Asahina returned the nod, his expression still tight.

"Asahina, your solution?" Tohdoh asked.

"We need the Chinese out of here, and we need it as soon as possible," he offered. "The lines haven't been moving at all, and we have no way getting food or other supplies in the quantities we need. Unless we plan on attacking in the dead of winter, they're a liability at best."

Tohdoh cupped his chin in his hand. "Easier said than done," he grumbled quietly.

Tohdoh had been attempting to gain the Eunuchs' support since the outbreak of hostilities with Zero; but, with China's collapse into a multi-faction civil war of their own, the Eunuchs had thrown all of their materiel and manpower into the fighting. They didn't have the resources to hold onto their own possessions, let alone send supplies or evacuate their forces from the island.

Tohdoh shook his head. "No, they are our problem now. For better or worse, we're stuck with the extra mouths to feed." Which wasn't altogether fair. The Chinese were excellent fighters, when properly motivated. There were just too damn many of them.

He leaned over the map, resting his hands on the table, tapping it lightly with his index finger. "What about our armaments? Munitions?"

Asahina looked down at his notes. "We have eight hundred light artillery pieces, and approximately fifty-thousand shells that we can fire," he said. "We have about a million and a half rounds of ammunition, seventy-thousand grenades, thirty-five thousand RPG's, fifty-two tanks, six hundred Gun-Ru's and three hundred Burais." He lowered his notes. "The problem is fuel. We don't have nearly enough of it. If we operated even under limited conditions, our Sakuradite reserves will only last twelve days. My advice would be to shut down all nonessential activity that requires us to use fuel."

Tohdoh nodded. "Draw me up a list of suggestions, and we'll see what we can do."

"Yes, General!"

"Urabe," Tohdoh said, turning to the man in question, "what do you have?"

"All quiet on the northern front," Urabe said. "Zero isn't making any moves. Our problems are of a different nature." He held up a small stack of papers. "I had to execute eight men this morning for attempted desertion. They were all in possession of these."

Urabe passed out a sheet to Asahina before handing the rest of the stack to Tohdoh.

Tohdoh gave one to Chiba before he read himself.

"Soldiers of the Rebellion," it read, "you have been deceived! Your leader, Kyoshiro Tohdoh, has betrayed you! You are starving! Freezing! You die by your hundreds, your thousands! You cry for food, but receive only bullets! You call out for peace, but receive only war! You demand justice, but are forced to commit crimes! You are good men! You are honorable men! Why do you serve men who starve you? Why do you serve men who leave you in the ice? Why do you serve the Butchers of Ashford? Come home, o wayward soldiers! Come home to food, warm beds! Come home to duty, justice, and chivalry!

First Consul Zero"

"He's blaming us for Ashford?" Chiba demanded. "That craven bastard!"

"You can't be serious!" Asahina said, glaring furiously at the offending document. "They actually bought this crap? Zero's hardly better off than we are!"

"Zero has shelter, running water, plumbing, and electricity," Urabe said. "At least, that's what the men believe. And honestly, considering our present straits, they might be thinking the snow's whiter on the other side."

He turned back to Tohdoh. "And, they're not the only ones. Eighteen civies attempted to cross the lines yesterday. Family, extended family, a few significant others." He rubbed his hand across his forehead. "The guards killed three of them before they realized they weren't soldiers."

"Jesus," Chiba murmured.

"This can't go on, General," Urabe said. "Not as it currently stands. We need to let the civilians pass into the south, if that's their wish. They're growing restive. If we keep them bottled up here for the rest of the winter, we may end up facing a revolt within our own borders. Besides, it'll be a Hell of a lot less mouths to feed, mouths Zero will have to fill. Let them be his problem."

Todoh shook his head. "Out of the question," he said. "We do that, we lose all legitimacy, both locally and internationally."

Tohdoh wasn't the smartest man alive when it came to diplomacy, but even he knew how bad the optics would be if he let his own population flee into the lands of their enemy. "Find me another solution."

Urabe frowned deeply. "The only other option I can think of is negotiation," he said.

"Negotiate?" Asahina demanded. "With that treacherous-"

"Asahina," Tohdoh cut off. Asahina shut his mouth. Tohdoh turned back to Urabe. "You were saying?"

"This war is lost," Urabe said. "We don't have the supplies to last through the winter, and you won't let us open the safety valve to get those disloyal out of the country. However..." He leaned forward, resting his own hands opposite Tohdoh's. "We are still strong militarily. If we can bring Zero to the negotiating table, with our yet formidable forces, we can achieve some real concessions from him. Force him to transfigure his USJ into an actual, functioning democracy."

"And how would you accomplish that?" Todoh asked.

Urabe pointed to the map, specifically to Kumagaya in northern Saitama. "We can concentrate artillery fire here," he said. He then ran his finger up through Fukaya, ending at Kita-Fujioka. "All along this line, we hit them with everything we have. We send in shock troops under cover of the bombardment and take these three key bridges to get us across the Tone River." He traced his finger along the map. "From there, we move southeast as quickly as we can, and attack Tokyo."

Asahina whistled admiringly, bending over the map. "Quite the audacious plan," he said. "How long have you been thinking on this?"

"For the past week," Urabe admitted.

"You think this can take Tokyo?"

"If we move quickly enough, yes," Urabe said, swallowing. "But, taking Tokyo would simply be a happy bonus. The real point is to make Zero's inner circle force him to the negotiating table. None of them are as radical as he is, with the possible exception of Captain Kozuki, of course."

"Still, that leaves their entire left flank in a pincer," Asahina said. "Then again, the salient this assault would create would have us getting hit on every side."

"We would burn a lot of Sakuradite punching through their defenses," Chiba added. She chuckled humourously. "What am I saying? We'll be burning quite a bit just to get our forces into position. And we'll need to take the area south of the government district to cut off hope for relief."

Urabe hummed. "If we could seize Zero's fuel depots," he said, "we could replenish our own stockpiles as we moved. He'll have to keep them close to the front for his own Knightmares, else he risks running out just like us. We take them, we'll have all the fuel we need."

"Denying Zero his own fuel supplies in the process," Asahina said. He turned to Urabe with a playful smirk. "You surprise me, Urabe. I'm impressed."

Urabe smiled lightly. "I'm glad I have your vote of confidence." He turned back to Tohdoh. "General, what say you?"

Tohdoh studied him for a moment, then looked down at the map. "Give me until morning," he said. "I'll have an answer for you then." He raised his head. "Dismissed."

Both men saluted and marched out of the room.

"Do you think it will work?" Chiba asked.

"There's a possibility," Tohdoh answered noncommittally. He glanced down at the map, his mind racing.

"The idea of treating with Zero sickens me," Chiba said. "Even so, Urabe has a point. We are losing this war. At the very least, we need time to restock and lick our wounds."

Tohdoh placed a hand on her shoulder. "We'll talk about it later," he said. "For now, why don't you get some sleep?"

"Are you going to, General?" she asked him pointedly.

"Not for a little while," he admitted, staring back at the map. "There are some things I have to consider."

"I could provide you a good board to sound off on," she offered.

He shook his head. "Go on to bed, Colonel. That's an order."

She came to attention. "Yes, General!"

As she spun around to head back upstairs, Tohdoh grabbed her wrist on impulse.

"I'll be up shortly," he promised her quietly.

A faint rosy hue glowed on her cheeks. "Yes, General," she said, then left, her hips swaying more noticeably as she did.

Tohdoh allowed a tired smirk. He was rather certain the only reason his hair wasn't totally gray was the woman currently climbing the noisy staircase. Meditation served him well in calming his nerves, but these days he found exercise was the best relief.

He dropped Chiba from his thoughts, turning back to the map.

"Quite the clever plan, Urabe," he murmured, tracing his finger along the path Urabe outlined. "I knew you were defeatist, but I didn't expect this."

Urabe's plan was reckless in the extreme. They would be riding a razor thin line to have the fuel, ammunition, and armaments to succeed in the initial offensive. There was no guarantee that they would be able to seize any enemy supply caches, either. What they went into battle with was all they would have.

Besides which, Zero would never come to the negotiating table, and neither would Tohdoh. Neither side had sent out feelers for peace terms, despite the deprivations of both their nations, and it wasn't just because of Ashford.

Zero had known about their betrayal. He knew they had been plotting to overthrow him prior to the bombing. How far in advance, Tohdoh wasn't certain, but his actions, both in the bombing itself and the aftermath, left no doubt in Tohdoh's mind that Zero had known.

Zero had made no attempt in the three days after he bombed Ashford to contact Katase. Zero had attacked Mount Fuji, when the plan had called for a pincer strike against the city. The Britannian garrison had fought tenaciously rather than surrendering as the plan called for.

It was all too obvious that Zero had discovered their plot and used the Ashford Bombing as the catalyst to start the war early. It was clear, in hindsight, that Zero intended to grind the former Japan Liberation Front to a nub in order to purge them later. The Britannian firebombing had changed everyone's calculation, as well as the resources at their disposal.

There could be no peace. Zero would never trust Tohdoh, and Tohdoh would never trust him.

Urabe had to know all of that, so that meant only one possible explanation.

"Either we win, and attempt to force a peace settlement that has a snowball's chance in Hell of happening," Tohdoh mused, "or we fail, we all end up dead, and this war ends quickly."

Urabe was a patriot, a true son of Japan. With Japan as demolished as it was, and an Empire that could return at any moment, he was putting the good of the nation over all of their own lives. Tohdoh respected that.

That didn't change the fact that the most likely result was that their Knightmares would run out of fuel, and their assaulting units would be cut off and defenseless, soon to be crushed by Zero's counterattack.

Still, there was a glimmer of hope here. A heavy fog had descended all across the north, obscuring the troop movements of both sides. There was a good chance they could move their men and materiel into place without the enemy seeing their movements. And, there was the very real chance that they could kill Zero himself in the fighting. The man had fought Cornelia, the Witch of Britannia, one-on-one, and triumphed. If he could play to the man's ego, he might be able to draw him into a similar confrontation, and destroy him.

Tohdoh sighed. Such an idea was foolhardy, but he could see little choice.

The ultimate problem was that Urabe and Chiba were right. They were losing this war. They were dying, slowly but surely, and Tohdoh was sure that was why Zero hadn't launched his own assault into the north. Better to let nature wage war on Tohdoh than for Zero to expend his own resources. In just a few weeks, Zero would have his prayers answered. Urabe's plan, for all its recklessness, caution thrown to the wind, and devious plotting were the best chance Tohdoh had, and he knew it.

Tohdoh gave a small smile. "What a diabolical mind you have, Kosetsu."

…..

Hexagone Balard, Paris, Sovereign Republic of France

Paris glittered beautifully in the darkness of the night. From the lobby of the Hexagone Balard, the headquarters of the EU Ministry of Armies and General Staff, Major Leila Malcal could see the glow of thousands of lamps, businesses, restaurants, and clubs that gave Paris its title as the 'City of Light.' Her blue eyes gazed down at the city, long blonde hair brushed carefully to the side so that her view would be unobstructed. She was outfitted in her dress blues tonight, a red-bordered blue coat and frilly black skirt that emphasized, without meaning to, her slim, buxom body, starched and pressed without the slightest trace of wrinkle or dust; an impressive feat considering she had been waiting in the lobby for two hours.

"How much longer will General Smilas be?" she wondered aloud, her arms crossed over her large, round breasts. "The meeting with the Committee for National Defense should have ended hours ago."

"Maybe they're negotiating the terms of surrender," Ryo Sayama cracked. He sat on a large blue sofa next to the window, his dress coat open and his blouse untucked, the back of his head cupped in his hands. His hair was as brown as his eyes, with large, angry looking eyebrows, and a single lock of hair falling down into his face.

"Not funny," Leila snapped.

"Oh, Monsieur la Emperor," Ryo continued, clasping his hands in front of him, puckering his lips, "please, please, do not flambe us the way you did zose filthy, no-good Elevens! We promise to be good, we-"

"Sayama!" Leila turned to him, glaring daggers. "That's quite enough."

"Come on, Major, you know that's what they're talking about," Ryo retorted. "Italy and Spain are gone." He paused. "Actually, scratch that. They're not gone, they're worse than gone! They've thrown in with Britannia! Someone in intelligence has gotta be shitting themselves right now for having missed that."

"Ryo..." Leila warned him.

"It isn't like it was hard to see coming," Yukiya Naruse said. He was a youth with light brown hair and green eyes. He sat on the other end of the sofa, a laptop resting on his legs from which his eyes had not strayed. "The Italian and Spanish governments have been in slow collapse for the better part of a year. Spain was massively over leveraged, and Italy was a debt that had a nation, rather than a nation that had a debt. It's surprising they lasted as long as they did."

"Got out while the getting was good."

"Ryo!"

"What do you think, Ayono?" Ryo asked, ignoring Leila's admonition. When he didn't receive a response, Ryo turned his head. "Yo, Ayano, you hear me?"

"I heard you just fine," Ayano Kosaka, a dark haired girl of around fifteen with a bosom entirely too full for her age, answered, though she wasn't looking at him. She was looking, instead, at the final member of their team, a young man with ruffled blue hair, strands of which twined together in a thick braid down his back. He leaned back against the blue wall, arms crossed and eyes closed, seemingly dead to the world.

Leila's heart squeezed nervously when she saw the look the girl was giving him. Has she been staring at him this whole time?

"Then what do you think?" Ryo asked her.

"About?"

"What the big wigs are talking about?"

"Who cares what a bunch of old fat asses are talking about?" Ayano returned, her attention never leaving the young man.

"Ayano, language!"

Ayano rolled her eyes. "Yes, mom."

Ryo laughed. "What about you, Hyuga?" he asked the young man on the wall. "What do you think's going on?"

Akito Hyuga, Leila's top lieutenant, opened up his blue eyes. Leila's heart skipped a beat.

"I think this speculation is irrelevant," he answered. "Whatever is happening, the only thing we need to worry about is where they send us next."

Ryo scoffed. "Don't know why I expected anything else from you," he muttered.

Leila smiled softly, bittersweet thoughts running through her head.

These youths were all she had left of the W-0 unit. The W-0 unit was one of many special operations teams made up of Japanese refugees. The refugees had been crowded together in over populated internment camps to prevent their intermingling with 'good European stock.' Those who wanted out of the internment camps were allowed to enlist in the EU Armed Forces, securing for them and their families their just freedoms. However, with the announcement of the United States of Japan, all the other members had resigned their commissions, intent on returning to their homeland. Tragically, the outbreak of civil war on the island had cut them off from home, and they had been forbidden from rejoining the army in a fit of pique. Instead, they were imprisoned once more in the internment camps, except now without a way of getting out short of repatriation from their embattled fatherland.

"Major Malcal," the desk secretary said, "General Smilas will be here momentarily. He requests that you wait for him in his office."

"Understood. Akito," Leila said, her stomach buzzing. He looked at her expectantly. "Babysit the kids, will you?"

Cries of protest erupted from their rookie recruits, but Leila had eyes only for Akito. There was a slight tilt of his lips into a smirk. He nodded.

Leila smiled back. She turned her back on them and approached the General's office. The secretary hit a button on her desk. A small beeping sound emitted from the door. Leila turned the newly unlocked door handle, and entered.

General Smila's office was about the size of a family room in a middle class home. The floor was covered by a blue carpet, the center of which was dominated by the emblem of Europa United, a white double headed eagle split by the blade of a sword. His desk on the opposite side of the room was smooth mahogany polished to a shine. Several bookshelves lined the walls behind the desk and around the room. Busts of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte stood at the four corners of the room.

Leila approached the bookcase, her fingers running over the spines with an edge of nostalgia. She knew the books she would find on these shelves. The Prince. Gallic War. War and Peace. Napoleon: A Life. Plato's Republic. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Virgil's Aeneid. Even the great British classics of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V, Macbeth. Smilas had loaned her volumes from his personal collection, a fact for which she would be ever grateful.

The door buzzed again. Leila snapped to attention.

General Gene Smilas, Supreme Colonel of the Army of Europa United, strode into the room at a furious pace. He ran an angry hand through his black hair. His beard and mustache shined with what Leila suspected was spittle.

"They're an assembly of self-centered fools," Smilas said venomously. He dropped his suitcase on his desk with a loud bang. "There is no consensus. No one can agree on a shared national defense. The Germans wanted to station troops on the Rhine. The French countered with a garrison in Berlin, and that whole conversation went to Hell. The Poles absolutely refuse to demilitarize the Russian borders. The Romanians are butting heads with the Hungarians over northern Transylvania. Even my own Greeks are refusing to allow the Serbs to move troops up to the northern borders." He threw himself into his leather chair. "Idiots!"

"It is good to see you as well, General," Leila said, smirking slightly.

Smilas' dark blue eyes snapped up at her. A small, rueful smile spread across his face. "Apologies, Leila. I'm in something of a mood."

"I noticed," Leila said, still standing at attention.

"At ease," Smilas said, leaning back in his chair. Leila approached his desk, coming to a parade rest. "How are you, Major?"

"Ready to serve, General," Leila answered. "The situation does not sound good."

"It isn't," Smilas confirmed. "The defections of Italy and Spain caught our intelligence community flat-footed. We had no idea it was coming. Because of this intelligence failure, the politicians are panicking."

"Is that why the Second and Fifth Armies are currently fighting in the Pyrenees?"

Smilas nodded. "Precisely. Losing Italy was bad, but it was a poorer nation with an unstable government and an increasingly separatist population. Spain was a loyal partner with cash to spend, though it was deeply in debt. If it can turn, it's likely less friendly member states will, too, and the committee knows it."

"How do you think the Empire will try to get through? There are only two corridors around the mountains, and we can bottleneck both of them."

"The Imperials have three options," Smilas said, ticking them off on his fingers, "the two corridors you mentioned, the sea, and going through the mountains themselves. We have thirty anti-air batteries hidden throughout the mountains, so trying to fly over would be suicide. My guess is they'll do some combination of the first two, perhaps even use North Africa as a staging ground to outflank our defenses by way of the Mediterranean. Fortunately, the North African Union still has their forces their tied down." Smilas frowned grimly. "Though with Luciano Bradley there, that may not last much longer."

Leila clenched her hands behind her back. None of this was even mentioning the powder keg that was the Balkan states. If Spain and Italy could turn so suddenly, then what of a region notorious for plunging Europe into war?

"There were talks about sending troops to North Africa to shore up our allies there," Smilas said, rolling his eyes.

"Tell me we're not actually going to," Leila said, shocked. "It would be a fool's endeavor. We hardly have the resources to mount a proper defense, much less cross the Mediterranean."

"We're not," Smilas replied, "though not for the reason you cited. The idea was tabled after thirty minutes when the fools began arguing over which nation should have the honour of who would be sending their children to be killed by that lunatic Bradley."

Smilas ran a frustrated hand over his beard. "This…." he searched for the right words. "This democracy project is failing Europe, Leila. I fear that if these corrupt bureaucrats are allowed to continue, there shall very soon not be a Europe."

"But does this not make us better than the Empire, General?" Leila countered. "This healthy debate, free of the fear that pervades all the monarchists?"

"Perhaps," Smilas allowed. "But perhaps not. What good is this debate when it's going to get us all killed? The enemy is here, now, on our very doorstep! We need..." He coughed. "We need a leader. A strong leader. Someone who can cut through the fecklessness of the Assembly. Someone who might be able to save Europe."

Leila's eyes flicked over to the bust of Caesar. "That sounds far too close to a dictator, General," she said.

Smilas followed her eyes. He stood up and walked over to Caesar's bust. "Maybe," he acknowledged. "Maybe a dictator is what our Republic needs. Consider the Romans." He gestured to the bust. "Whenever the Republic was at stake, the Romans selected a single man, a strong man, the best man, to lead the Republic, to rescue her from her enemies. Once her enemies were destroyed, her savior gave up those powers, and became a common man once more."

"General," Leila said lightly, "you're standing in front of the man who didn't give up that power. Caesar was no Cincinattus."

Smilas chuckled. "True. But he did save Rome, in the end. And," Smilas turned to her, his expression burning with passion, "the empire he and his successors forged would stand a thousand years." The energy seemed to go out of him. "At the rate our Republic is going, we shall not last the decade."

He returned to his seat, sitting down tiredly behind his desk.

"What would you have me do, General?" Leila asked.

He sighed. "I'm sending you to Toulouse," he told her. "We've received reports that Imperial troops from the Britannian mainland are being fast tracked into Euro Britannia. I suspect they'll make their move on the north after winter, so we should likely expect an offensive come February or March. However, that's not why I'm sending you there." He meshed his hands before him. "We're receiving reports of some new killer the Imperials have."

"New killer?" Leila asked. "What are the details?"

"Few and far between," he said. "We've lost fifteen fighter planes in and around the Pyrenees, and not to anti-air fire. The only clue that we have is the last transmission of our most recent casualty. He said he could see some white flash coming towards him."

Leila raised an eyebrow. "White flash?" she asked. "That's not much to go on."

"I know. If I had anything better, I'd give it to you. Find out what this is, Major. I don't want any surprises when the Empire strikes."

"Understood, General."

"From Toulouse, you'll insert into Spain by plane, just north of the town of Brega. Resistance forces are in the area, though their exact location is unknown. They'll find you. Use whatever means necessary to ascertain the truth of this new threat.

"Prepare to depart in three days, Major. You may use your time however you wish."

"Thank you, General. I'll inform my men of their new orders."

Smilas nodded. "Dismissed."

…..

University Hospital La Paz, Madrid, Unincorporated Area 24

"Is my hair straight?"

"Yes."

"Makeup good?"

"Yes."

"What about my pants, or my jacket. Do they look okay?"

"Milly, you look beautiful," Rivalz Cardemonde said, steadying the camera on his shoulder. He winced a bit as it hit his shoulder.

Milly Ashford was by his side in an instant. "Are you okay? Is it your shoulder? It's your shoulder isn't it? I think we have some painkillers, I'll go and-"

"Milly, I'm fine," Rivalz said, readjusting the camera.

"You don't have to do this yunno, I can get a tripod or something. I have a tripod somewhere in the truck. I can set up while you-"

Rivalz lowered the camera, slid his arm around her small waist, pulled her forward, and kissed her hard on the mouth. Milly's eyes fluttered shut, her arms twining around his neck. After a moment he pulled away from her, their lips parting with a pop.

"I'm fine, 'kay?" he said.

"Y-Yeah," Milly giggled. "That, um, yeah." She pulled back from him, her black-gloved hands flat against his chest. Rivalz wore a heavy blue jacket that matched her own, along with a pair of tan cargo pants, and a hat with the letters INBC, standing for Imperial News Broadcasting Corporation, stenciled on the front. Milly wore a black beanie with the same stenciling on the front, her blonde hair falling over her jacket in golden waves. Underneath her jacket, she wore a blue turtleneck that molded itself to her large breasts, and a pair of sweatpants under her blue jeans that hugged her ample bottom and wide hips. She smiled up at him shyly.

"Might want to fix your lipstick," Rivalz said, winking mischievously as he placed the camera back on his shoulder.

"Dammit, Rivalz!"

Milly pulled out a handkerchief and her compact, hurriedly wiping away the smear that had been the red lipstick she'd applied in preparation for the live shot. The news director had told her a few minutes ago that her segment was coming up in just a minute, which meant she was about to broadcast the evidence of her and her boyfriend's brief tongue duel to the entirety of the Holy Britannian Empire. Twenty-four colonial Areas, televisions on thousands of military bases, and the tens of millions of homes in the mainland Empire itself.

Milly's stomach flipped. No pressure, right?

"Twenty seconds, Milly," Rivalz warned her, the amusement gone from his tone.

"Right." She finished reapplying her lipstick, closed her compact, and snapped to attention just as Rivalz pointed to her.

"That's right Lesley," she said. "I'm here at the University Hospital La Paz, where our brave boys are recovering after hard fighting in the Pyrenees Forest. They're tired, they're hungry, and they're hurting, but they're united behind their heroic cause: the defeat of the tyrannical forces of democracy. And today, these wounded warriors were visited by one grateful admirer: Prime Minister Prince Schneizel el Britannia." She fell silent for a moment, waiting. Rivalz gave her a nod, and she breathed a sigh of relief. For the next minute and twenty seconds, the station would be playing her package, which gave her a little bit longer to look over her script.

Rivalz gave her grin and a thumbs up. As he did, his blue jacket sleeve fell back a little bit, revealing the bandages on his arm.

Milly swallowed heavily.

The injuries Rivalz had suffered when Zero bombed Ashford had largely healed, but like his bruised shoulder, there were still some vestigial traces of his near death experience. The sight of them brought back memories; memories of the Tunnel of Love, where they had shared their first kiss, crashing down on top of them; screaming for help in the ruined steel as he lay bleeding and unconscious on top of her; sitting by his bedside for several days, praying for him to wake up; the Battle of Tokyo; the Eleven rapist leering down at her; the smoke rising from the barrel of the gun Rivalz had used to save her life.

Her lips trembled violently as the memories she had tried so hard to repress came bubbling to the surface.

"Milly!" Rivalz hissed. "Milly, you're on!"

"Uh, right, yes," she said. She swallowed again, her dark blue eyes fluttering rapidly. "The Prince-Prime Minister," Milly corrected herself, cursing internally, "says that the Empire will continue to support its wounded heroes. Milly Ashford, INBC."

Rivalz gave her another thumbs up. "That's it," he told her. He lowered the camera, slipping his hand through the grip on the top. He place his now free hand on her shoulder. "Are you alright, Milly?" he asked.

Milly rubbed her hand across her eyes. "No, I-" she paused, pushing away another memory-Billy's head exploded in a shower of blood- She ground her teeth. "Bad memories," she finally said. "Really, really bad memories."

"The Black Rebellion?"

Milly nodded. "Can we, can we talk about it later?" she asked him.

"Of course," he answered.

"Let's head back to the station," she said. "Gerry probably wants to ream me out right now."

"Ah, he can't be that bad."

He was.

"What the Hell were you doing out there?" Gerry Crawford demanded. He was a thin man in his early forties, with light brown hair and, at present, angry green eyes. "Standing there, staring off into space like a slack-jawed idiot! When you see the cue, you talk! Cue, talk, cue, talk! Goddammit!"

"I got the story," Milly retorted. "It went on, the segment aired. I flubbed a little bit at the end, but it was fine."

"Fine? FINE?" Gerry leaned across the table. "It was a goddamn fluff piece, and you still screwed up! It doesn't matter how good the performance is if you can't stick the landing!" He straightened up. "I took a chance on you, kid. You and your boyfriend. I gave you this position, even though you had no training, because I saw potential! You're making me look like a goddamn fool!"

You hired me because my parents paid off your managers, Milly wanted to say. Instead she kept silent, letting him hurl his invective at her.

It wasn't the first time Crawford had gone off on her. He screamed in her face when her first report had to be an anchor voice over because her mic crapped out. She thought he was going to slap her when she took too long in the sound booth, though her deadline was a half hour away. Once, he blew a gasket because she had a sealed cup of coffee next to her computer while she was typing up a script.

Crawford didn't like her, in no small part because she had been foisted on him by her rich parents. It didn't help that she was actually pretty good at the job. Growing pains aside, the rest of the crew had told her that she was well on her way to becoming a great reporter.

If I survive Gerry, anyway.

"Gerry," a feminine voice called out. A woman to match the voice, with flowing red hair and green eyes, stepped into the doorway. She wore a blue dress and a heavy brown coat. "Gerry, we're getting ready to head out tonight. Are you ready?"

"Be right there, Kelly!" Gerry replied, a giddy smile on his face.

Milly rolled her eyes.

Kelly Pruitt was the network's star reporter. She was a slender woman of thirty-one, with fine aristocratic features, which made sense given that she was the second daughter of a baron from Ohio. She was also an entitled snob who looked down her pert nose at Milly for being the scion of the disgraced Ashford Family. Between her beauty and noble demeanor, she had every man and woman in the station wrapped around her finger.

Well, Milly amended, not every man.

"Oh! Milly," Pruitt said, as if just realizing she was there. "Good story today!" She tut tutted. "A shame how you choked up a bit at the end, but I'm sure you'll do better next time."

Milly flashed her a false smile. "Thank you. Gerry was telling me the same thing. He really can give an inspiring pep talk!" She turned the same smile on Gerry, who returned it evenly, though his jaw was stiff and the smile didn't reach his eyes. "In fact, we were just finishing up. Ciao!"

She stood before Gerry could say another word, sliding past Pruitt into the newsroom. The broadcast station they were working out of had been a major Spanish news station prior to the country's surrender, a changeover that was so recent there were still posters on the wall in Spanish, from movies and TV shows, to election stickers and broadsides. There were two long lines of cubicles, each of which had its own computer connected to a server dropbox and office printer on the far side of the room.

Rivalz sat on the edge of her desk in the back corner of the room. "We're in Spain, Mills," he said cheekily. With his heavy coat and hat gone, Milly could now get a good look at his wiry, yet muscular body. His blue hair had been trimmed on the sides, though the front bangs that hung over his gray eyes remained. He wore a green long sleeved shirt and a pair of brown cargo pants. "It's 'adios', not ciao."

"Callate, Rivy," she replied just as cheekily.

"We heading out for drinks?"

"Señor Cardemonde, cute though you may be-"

"-'May be?'-"

"-you are still a minor. So, you shall be the designated driver, while I shall indeed become thoroughly drunk."

"'Designated driver?' Neither one of us has a car. Besides, it's not like they check cards around here."

She placed a soft hand on his cheek. "It's the principle of the thing, darling. Now, come. Today sucked, and I'd prefer not to remember it. On to happy hour!"

Nantan, Kyoto Province, United States of Japan

Zero's hand trembled. He stuffed it into the pocket of his pants, hoping no one had seen it. He bit the inside of his cheek, focusing on the coppery tang of his blood.

"Colonel Spacer, the prisoners are ready for you," one the Black Knight guards said. There were two of them, bundled up as best they could in the cold, standing on either side of the storage container that held their POW's.

It was almost weird to hear the name he had given to Villetta Nu coming off the tongues of his Black Knights. The idea had come to him as he tried to devise a way of leaving Tokyo without Tohdoh knowing about it, and possibly launching an attack with him not around.

It was why he was dressed in a long black trench coat, a standard Black Knight uniform, three thick shirts and two pairs of pants, a thick scarf that covered his face from the nose down, a second scarf to go over his left eye, and a black kepi hat. He brushed his jet black hair out of his visible violet eye, the wind cold against his exposed ivory skin.

"Thank you," Zero said. "I'll just be a moment."

He turned away from them to look at the town proper. Before the war, Nantan had a population north of thirty thousand. It now had less than a tenth of that, shrouded in whatever clothes they could find to stave off the piercing cold of the early onset of winter. The streets were pockmarked with craters, and many of the buildings were little more than wall frames or piles of rubble.

Zero felt a twinge of guilt at having to encamp here. These people have little enough as it is. He shook it away. There was no choice.

He had two thousand men at his disposal, of which only a quarter was mounted, the better to conserve their thin Sakuradite reserves. They would have more had the Britannians not bombarded Mount Fuji, the chief source of Sakuradite in Japan, and the world. What little they had now was coming from the offshore refineries that had survived the Britannian withdrawal, and a single undamaged vein they had found after a month of digging. It was barely enough to fuel Zero's western offensive, but not without leaving the northern front in a stalemate.

"Colonel Spacer?" Kallen said. "Are you alright?" She joined his side, having just finished setting up the maintenance area for the Guren.

The trembling came to a stop. He nodded. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you," he said. He stepped into the storage container.

The prisoners were lined up eight in a row. The two Japanese glared at him with pure hatred as he approached, while the Chinese merely looked nervous. Eight Black Knights stood around them, their machine pistols held at the ready.

Zero gestured to one of them. "Map," he said. He pointed to another one. "Table," he said to him.

They moved quickly, dragging over a circle-shaped plastic table and unfolding a map on it.

"I want information," Zero declared. "Weapons caches, fuel depots, supply drops, troop locations. Anything and everything that you can give me." He pulled out his hand, and unholstered his gun. "You get one chance. One. To tell me what I want to know. Refuse, you die." He pointed to the prisoner on the far left. "You start."

"Go to Hell!" the prisoner shouted.

Zero shifted to the next one. "How about you?"

The prisoner attempted to hock at him, but broke into a fit of coughing. The guards laughed at him.

Zero tapped his leg with the gun. He turned to the six Chinese. "And you?"

The middle soldier scrambled forward. "I-I'll show you!" he said.

"Traitor!" one of the Japanese shouted. Before he or his compatriot could leap at the defector, they were shoved to the ground by the guards, guns pointed at their backs.

"Unbind him," Zero ordered. A guard stepped forward to untie him. Zero gestured to the map. "Point them out."

The prisoner did so, gesturing to several places in their general vicinity. "That's all the ones I know," he said nervously.

"You're gonna die you piece of shit!" one of the Japanese barked.

The prisoner jumped. "P-Please protect me!" he begged Zero. "They'll kill me, I know they will!"

Zero gestured to a guard. "Arrange an escort for him. He can get to work with the others." They had taken just over thirty POW's so far, and about half had been sent to Mount Fuji to assist in excavation efforts.

The other half were serving in their own way.

After the grateful defector was hauled out of the room, Zero turned back to the other prisoners, particularly the five remaining Chinese. "Would you like to confirm his testimony?" he asked pleasantly. When neither replied, he shrugged. "Well, I tried." Zero raised his head to the guards. "Leave us." The guards saluted and filed out of the room.

Zero lifted the scarf that covered his eye. "Obey," he commanded. The now permanent power of his geass, Absolute Obedience, the supernatural ability to turn anyone to his will, burned in his eye.

A moment later, the telltale red glow of subservience was set alight in their eyes.

"Yes, My Lord!" they shouted.

"God do I hate that," Kallen murmured behind him.

"I know," Zero said. "So do I. But, there aren't any better options." Zero pointed at the map. "Confirm what he said."

Six new locations popped up on the map, and three were removed, which was about what Zero had expected. He made the appropriate marks on the map with a marker.

"I want numbers: how many soldiers there are; what are there armaments; how much of their supplies they still have," Zero said.

The geassed soldiers gave him the information he wanted, and the picture became clearer. There were two hundred rebels and Chinese invaders in the area, but they were scattered into small cells, like the one Zero had just crushed. They lacked ammunition, fuel, Knightmares, and even provisions. Their ability to communicate with the rest of the rebels throughout the country was near nonexistent. They were bands of guerrillas, isolated to the area they had been in when the Britannians dropped their bombs in the final days of the Liberation, freezing and starving, able only to prey on the weak civilians or the odd undermanned Black Knight patrol.

Zero nodded once they finished. "You will lead my men to each of these locations," he said, pointing to them in order. "You will give them your phrases and command words, in case you die beforehand. Radios will be distributed to each of you. You will approach these friendly positions, and you will infiltrate them. Once that is accomplished, report to your handlers with the code phrase 'Insider.' Once the final objective has been completed, kill yourselves. Understood?"

"Yes, My Lord!"

"Kallen," Zero said, "bring in the sergeant of the guards."

"Right."

She left the storage container for a moment, then returned with the sergeant in tow.

He snapped to attention. "Colonel!" he said.

"Give these men enough provisions to last three days," Zero ordered. "Machine pistols as well, with a hundred rounds for each man, and a box of grenades. Assign them to two trucks."

"Very good, sir. It will be done."

"Follow the sergeant, gentlemen," Zero said. The geassed prisoners filed past him, their expressions slack beneath the mind control.

Kallen clenched her arm as they passed. "It's like they're not even there anymore," she whispered.

"They're not," Zero said. "And they never will be again. I warned them that refusal would be a death sentence. They made their choice. Now they'll have to suffer the consequences."

Kallen shivered, whether from discomfort or the cold he couldn't tell. Zero clenched his fist.

The desire to take her into his arms, to give her a little warmth in the frozen wasteland that her home had become, was powerful. It didn't help that, even as bundled as she was, that her thick clothes did nothing to hide her slender curves; the plumpness of her breasts or the flare of her hips. Even dirty, Kallen was beautiful.

Zero squeezed his eyes shut. "We'll let the men rest tonight and tomorrow," he said to Kallen. "I'll select the men that will head out with them."

"We're not going in one group?" Kallen asked. "There's a couple hundred out there."

Zero shook his head. "Given their supply situation, their manpower is a hindrance, not an advantage," he said. "Plus, they might flee if they see a huge force advancing on their position. And, when they hear their friends calling out to them, they may just drop their guard.

"We can't focus on one location anyway. The west and south need to be cleared as quickly as possible. Japan won't long survive a two-front war."

At least, his Japan would not survive a two-front war. Zero only nominally controlled the southern and western half of the country. The supply lines were constantly being harassed by his enemies. He needed iron, copper, granite, anything he could get his hands on to supply his army with the material they would need to win this war.

"Double check your Sakuradite level," Zero ordered. "After that, you're relieved for the day. You can attend to me in the morning."

"Very well, My Lord," Kallen said quietly so no one else would hear.

Zero frowned. "You don't have to call me that, Kallen," he said. "C-Two came up with that to annoy Katase." Well, that wasn't the only reason, but he was hardly going to mention that.

Kallen shrugged. "Everyone else calls you that, at least when you're not Alan Spacer," she pointed out. "Why not me?"

"Because you're not everyone else."

A tinge of pink flared up in Kallen's cheeks, and she looked shyly away from him.

"Thanks," she said. "I'll remember that." Before he could say anything else she left, her back noticeably straighter than it had been.

Zero's hand started to tremble again so he tucked it back into his pocket. He gestured with his free hand and a pair of nearby soldiers marched up to him. "To my quarters," he said.

With a, "Yes, Colonel!" they fell into step behind him.

His quarters was a small house three blocks away, commandeered reluctantly from a family of three. They had been happy, ecstatic even, to give him their hearth and home, but Zero knew that wouldn't last forever. Two days was the most they could afford before they'd have to set out again, lest they overstay their welcome. Gratitude could turn into resentment in the blink of an eye. A pair of guards stood on either side of the front door, snapping to attention when they saw him approach.

He wasn't the only one staying here; as his bodyguard, Kallen slept in the room down the hall from his, in what was, no doubt, the kid's room, judging by the toy dinosaurs and star fields painted onto the wall. Zero was in the master bedroom, as befitting the First Consul of the United States of Japan, though at the moment he was simply the commander of this particular Black Knight detachment, his identity under wraps. The room was clean though sparsely decorated, consisting only of a king sized bed set against the far wall and a desk and chair next to the door.

Despite the cold, he felt impossibly hot. He closed the door behind him and took off his black trenchcoat, laying it across the back of the chair. He unbuttoned his black uniform coat, and loosened his blouse. He sat down in the chair.

A stack of papers lay before him, filled with information from every corner of the world. He ran his fingers through the pages.

Cornelia li Britannia is dead, he mused. South America has gone into full scale revolt. The Britannians have lost control of the largest Sakuradite reserves in the world. He frowned. And they're still winning.

Italy and Spain had fallen, forcing the European Union behind the mountains. The Dragon had been raised in South America, and untold thousands were dead from the indiscriminate slaughter as a result. Africa was in a continent wide insurgency, but that Vampire Luciano Bradley was torching everything in sight.

The only nations capable of standing against the Empire were too busy killing each other. Japan was in a worse position now than it had been in the original timeline. It was a sick joke.

His friends were gone. Shirley was brain dead, Milly and Rivalz were somewhere in Europe, Suzaku had practically vanished, Nunnally was in Britannia under Jeremiah's protection, and C-Two had been kidnapped by Mao, with no clue as to their whereabouts.

Maybe I should have stayed dead, he thought. It wasn't the first time he had thought that; it likely would not be the last. He had come back from the pits of Hell, swum through a sea of time, and taken up once more the mantle of Zero to save his friends and the world from the dark future awaiting the other side of Zero Requiem, betting his very existence with whatever entity had brought him back.

I think all I've done is make things worse.

Should man even attempt to meddle with the flow of time? He had asked for the exact opposite once, from God Himself, the Collective Unconscious of Mankind, to prevent his father from destroying the world. If God came to him right now and offered him a reset button, he'd hit it in a heartbeat. The hypocrisy was glaring.

But at least my friends would still be here. At least Nunnally and C-Two would be here.

He closed his eyes. Green hair flowed across the dark expanse of his mind, mischievous amber eyes smiling at him from across a black chasm, far far out of his reach.

He didn't even realize the gun was in his hand until he heard the clicking sound, his thumb pulling the hammer back and forth, back and forth, over and over again. He felt an almost overwhelming need to kill something. The safety was off, a bullet chambered.

I don't need all of those prisoners, do I?

He clicked the hammer back into place, slid the gun back into his holster, his hand trembling again.

He shook his head. Enough of this, he decided. There are matters far more important than my personal life that need to be addressed.

He pulled off his hat and rubbed his tired eyes. The words on the paper ran together, and he tossed them back on the desk. He didn't want to look at this, or anything else. He wanted to sleep the sleep of the dead, and not wake up until all his problems were gone.

He rubbed his eyes. "Running a third world hellhole is so much harder than running an Empire."

In his previous occupation as the Emperor of Britannia, he hadn't actually had to do much work. The bureaucracy was already in place for handling the basic functions of daily government, the political system was stable, albeit in large part thanks to his geass, and Britannia could call upon the natural resources of half the world. Certainly those resources had decreased significantly with the freeing of the Areas, but he hadn't planned on being alive long enough to worry about the long term results. He'd had more than enough time to watch the Hell on Earth it became from whatever afterlife he'd been condemned to.

All that meant he had no practical experience in building a nation from the ground up. Much of his time as a leader had been spent fighting one battle after another, not drawing up policy proposals. The reforms he had put in place were enforced by the business end of his geass, in the world's greatest superpower, but those rules no longer applied.

How could he geass poverty? Or hunger? Or the freezing snows?

His experience running Britannia counted for Jack all in a country that didn't even have a functioning economy. There was no civilian infrastructure, no manufacturing base, and no way to transport the materials to build one, not with this damn war he was having to fight. One of the strongest market economies in the world had been reduced to government handouts, what few there were, and bartering.

God damn you, Katase. And you too, Tohdoh, for continuing this!

Zero rapidly blinked his tired eyes. He cracked open the door. "Coffee," he said. "The strongest you can get."

"Yes, sir," the guard outside said.

He probably would get no sleep tonight, which was just as well. He at least wouldn't dream.

Office of the Russian Ambassador to China, Imperial Palace, Shanghai, Chinese Federation

The Lady Kaguya Sumeragi was, by any objective standard, a beautiful girl. Her lustrous black hair fell down to the middle of her back, the glossy bangs framing mischievous green eyes set in an oval shaped face colored of finest ivory. She wore a golden circlet that was studded in the center with a small ruby. This combined with her pink kimono, ankle length white skirt, and a pair of cloth pauldrons joined by a red ribbon that were larger than her head, contributed to a presence that was magisterial in its bearing. As the head of the Sumeragi Consortium, and the last of the Six Houses of Kyoto, she had been trained to possess the grace and poise that was expected of a lady of estate.

It was taking all of that training to not lash out at the man before her.

"I am sorry, Miss Sumeragi," Dimitri Andropov said, not looking the slightest bit sorry. He was a stocky man with thin brown hair, watery brown eyes, and an expression that screamed boredom. While Kaguya sat in the traditional knee to floor, bottom on foot, hands clasped in the front seiza position, Andropov sat Indian style, with his hands resting on his knees. His office, while not nearly as palatial as that of the Forbidden City, was still richly constructed and adorned, the middle of the floor dominated by a Chinese low table, the surface lacquered with a relief depicting a Western diplomat kneeling before the Chinese Emperor. He was the ambassador to the Chinese Federation and the United States of Japan, given there was no means of safe transport to Japan. "With the Holy Britannian Empire breathing down our necks in Europe, we simply do not have the sufficient forces necessary to assist you in your struggle."

Kaguya smiled gently. This man grates me. "Mr. Andropov, I understand that you have concerns of your own in the west," she said patiently. "Yet, I would note some eight million of your soldiers are currently poised on the northern borders of the rebel provinces, from Kazakhstan in the west to Outer Manchuria in the east."

"These men are meant to secure our borders against rebel incursion," Andropov said dismissively. "Eight million men is not nearly enough to conquer the whole of China."

"But it is enough to anchor the rebel forces to the north," Kaguya retorted. "With such a heavy distraction, we could advance rapidly, and end the northern rebellion quickly."

"Miss Sumeragi, this is an internal matter, one which we would not become involved in even in peacetime."

"An internal matter? Is that why you are selling arms and fuel to the traitors in the north?"

"We sell to those who buy," Andropov rebutted easily. "That includes you."

"For positively usurious amounts."

"I was unaware you had an option. If you can buy more cheaply elsewhere, then by all means."

"And what of the crimes committed by the rebel troops? The towns put to the torch, the people massacred by the hundreds?"

Andropov raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You make allegations for which you have no proof. Our republican cousins have their problems, to be sure, but you have yet to prove such crimes. I would think that you, of all people, would be sensitive to scurrilous accusations."

Kaguya bit the inside of her cheek. Careful, sir, or you will share the fate of all who oppose us. "And the fact that you are paid with cash stolen from the treasury of the Chinese Federation?" she asked aloud.

Andropov shrugged. "Cash is cash, Miss Sumeragi. We are not particular about how it was obtained."

We're talking around in circles.

"Mister Andropov," Kaguya said, "if I may be so bold. What precisely is it that you want?"

Andropov blinked owlishly. "Why, an end to the fighting, of course," he said. "This chaotic war benefits no one, not when the Empire is breathing down all of our necks."

"The fighting will only end when the defenders of freedom conquer the armies of tyranny," Kaguya retorted. "Should not the Russian people, who have so valiantly fought against tyranny and persecution, understand our plight?"

"We understand it perfectly. That is why the EU is offering to broker a ceasefire and a treaty."

"With newly drawn borders that we find unacceptable."

Andropov shrugged. "Then the fighting will, tragically, continue, and our men will continue to sit on the border to ensure the clashes do not harm our people."

Kaguya kept her profile cool, even as she seethed inside. "And what of the other matter we discussed?" she asked.

"The twenty percent stake you offered in your Sakuradite mines?" Andropov confirmed. "While this is a generous offer, we must, again, decline. We have no intention of becoming a contender in your civil war. And, I must admit, I find it rather...distasteful to be joined at the hip with one such as Zero."

Kaguya clenched the hem of her kimono. "I have warned you already, Mister Andropov," she said, glowering. "Do not insult my Lord in my presence."

Andropov dipped his head. "My apologies, Lady Sumeragi," he said, his feathers not the least bit ruffled. "But if you want to treat with us, it would be perhaps for the better under new leadership. One, perhaps, not as soaked in blood."

Her blood boiled. Never. "Good day, Mr. Andropov," Kaguya said, standing up gracefully, if a tad quickly. She placed her hands in the sleeves of her kimono, clenching them angrily.

"Good day, Miss Sumeragi." Andropov bowed his head, and Kaguya left.

A pair of handmaidens joined Kaguya as she strode down the hallway of the palace, her eyes murderous even as her face remained a composed mask.

How dare he! How dare he demand my betrothed's removal! And to equate those false allegations of terrorism against my Lord Husband! Damn him!

Okay, technically they weren't actually betrothed, but it hardly mattered. Their marriage would solidify Lord Zero's power base, and assure the people of a stable line of succession. The scions of their joining, with Kaguya's blood and Zero's talents, could rule Asia for ten thousand years. And Zero would find no greater love than her.

A blush rose up in her pale cheeks, and she smiled delightedly at the thought of their marriage. The anger of her meeting with the Russian ambassador faded quickly.

She arrived at the Tianzi's Throne Room only a few minutes later. The palace was designed as a vacation home first and foremost, and as such lacked the sheer size and majesty of the Forbidden City. It was still beautiful, as to be expected of a Royal condo, but it was also a symbol of how low the Federation had fallen.

The heralds inside announced her presence. Kaguya entered the room. There was a long strip of red carpet that ran down the center of the hall. To either side of it, Royalist courtiers and nobles in varying shades of colors bowed and knelt before the throne. Kaguya walked her path carefully, knowing that any mistake on her part would reflect poorly not only on her Lord, but also on the Empress who placed so much trust in her.

Once she reached the requisite distance from the throne, she knelt.

"Your Majesty," she said quietly, her forehead touching the floor.

"Rise, Lady Sumeragi," a child's voice commanded. "We would know what words you had."

Kaguya lifted her head, though she stayed in her kneeling position. The Tianzi, Empress of the Chinese Federation, was a girl even younger than Kaguya's own fourteen years. Her small stature, coming up barely to Kaguya's own chest, and her white hair and white skin gave her the appearance of a porcelain doll, which was not helped by the heavy white robes that were still big on her. Whatever illusions others may have had about her worthiness to rule, however, evaporated beneath the heat of her crimson eyes. They burned with determination, and an iron will.

"The EU ambassador still refuses to provide material aid beyond what they already have in our time of crisis," Kaguya said. "They instead offer to mediate our disputes."

"There will be no mediation for traitors," the Empress declared. "They are rebels against the Throne of Heaven, and will be dealt with as such."

"Yes, Your Majesty," Kaguya said.

"Was there anything else?" the Empress asked.

"No, Your Majesty."

"Then retake your place at our side."

The Tianzi gestured to the left of her, and Kaguya followed her command. As the principal loyalist to the Tianzi's regime, and the primary instigator in her change in tone and personality, she had been given a place of the highest honor by the Empress as Chief Counselor to the Crown.

"General Gu," the Empress said, "step forward."

Hong Gu, the Vice Commander of the Chinese Federation's Armed Forces, stepped forward out of the crowd. His black hair was close cropped, his green eyes determined but servile. His hair was thicker on his face, where he sported long mutton chops and a spiked goatee. He wore a green and black uniform with a large golden girdle, affixed to which was a sword.

He knelt before the Empress. "Your Majesty," he said reverently.

"Report."

He nodded. "Supreme Commander Xingke's forces stand poised to retake Hunan," he announced. "He has the city of Changsha surrounded from north, south, and east. All he awaits is your permission to begin the assault."

With the Communists and the Nationalists at each other's throats, it was a golden opportunity to liberate the city. Xingke had allowed a corridor of escape for the Communists so as to ensure the assault would not become a months long siege. They needed the manufacturing apparatus of the city far more than they needed dead enemies, though they would have both by the end of the attack. Should they capture the city with minimal damage, it would go a long way toward building up their supply of Knightmares.

"We grant permission for the liberation, Vice Commander," the Empress said. "Free our people."

"Yes, Your Majesty!"

Nantan, Kyoto Province, United States of Japan

Twenty-four Burais rumbled in the cold morning. They were being divided into three groups of eight apiece, supported by a company in each unit, with enough Sakuradite to last three days. While these units would take care of the targets pointed out by their geassed friends, the rest of the army would move west through Hyogo, counting on those Black Knight units in Wakayama and Nara to secure the south.

"Colonel Spacer!" the first unit commander said, snapping a sharp salute. "We're ready to move!"

"Good, very good," Zero said. "You have permission to depart. Good hunting."

"Yes, sir!"

The crack of a gunshot sounded through the night.

Kallen grabbed his arm. "Colonel! We have to-"

"Colonel Spacer!" he heard his radio shout. "You need to see this!"

"Let's go!" Zero said, pulling out of Kallen's grip.

He walked quickly, mindful of how foolish he would look doubled over and out of breath. They made their way to the outer perimeter on the north side of the town, where a half dozen Black Knights were gathered.

"What's going on?" Zero demanded. "What happened?"

A Black Knight looked at him with sheer terror on his face. "I-I didn't mean to, sir!" he said. His face was wet with tears, snot dragging across his mouth. "She-She wouldn't say anything! I-I tried to-"

Zero waved him away. The rest of the guards followed suit.

Zero gasped. Laying spread eagle in the snow, her head resting in a halo of bloody snow, was a very naked C-Two.