ii. Gambit

Donato Garcia Galeano was fired at three twenty-one in the afternoon.

He wasn't a bad worker. He wasn't an especially good one, with a slight tendency to stay out late and come in late, and also sometimes hung over, and also he'd sometimes ignore work in favor of sketching on his legal pad. He was an artist by passion, a paralegal only by habit, so he had other things on his mind, but he had a good WPM average and a good memory. He wasn't a bad worker.

It wasn't the quality of his work that was the issue, though: it was the company he kept. It was the coincidentally named Donna Galliano, assistant to the secretary to the Lieutenant Governor, a Britannian of Italian descent, who had long straight hair down to her hips and spoke with an eyebrow raised in permanent irony and who sang in a low throaty alto and took bites off his plate in the cafeteria, who was the issue.

"When you were hired here you agreed not to engage in a relationship with a co-worker," his supervisor said. This was, of course, bullshit. Yes, he'd signed that document, and he could even vaguely understand the motivation behind it. Still, Maria and Ronaldo, both in the secretarial pool, were engaged, and everyone knew about how the (married) secretary to the Lieutenant Governor was banging the (married) Lieutenant Governor, but nobody said a word.

"I think there might be other factors at play here," he said. "Possibly. Potentially. Like the fact you don't like it that a Number and a Britannian - "

"I don't like anything," Anna said, which was comically accurate coming from her. "It's not me."

"Who is it, then?"

Anna looked at him with raised eyebrows.

"Tell me."

That expression turned into one of pinched annoyance. "And then what'll you do?" When he didn't answer, Anna sighed. "Lord save me from those with convictions. Are you in love with her?" Donato looked down with an uncomfortable shrug. "And her? Is she in love with you? Because you will be very sorry if she's not in love with you."

Normally, Donato would have hedged a bit. But the night before, Donna had kissed him on the eyelids and nestled in against him.

"I don't ever want to move from this spot," she'd murmured into his shoulder.

"So don't."

"I won't." She'd nuzzled him and murmured, "I'm going to freeze time. Watch me. And stay with you forever. Just watch."

So Donato said quietly to Anna, "I think so."

Anna pressed a hand to the bridge of her nose and said, "All right. Here's what we'll do, if you want to do this. It's going to be trouble as long as you're working here, and it'll still be trouble just a bit less trouble regardless, and she'll never make secretary, whatever, you'll regret it when you're older but now you'll be as happy as you can be. How old're you?"

"We're both twenty-two."

"You'll regret it when you're older. No matter. I'm going to fire you."

There was a feeling in Donato's chest like his lungs collapsing. "What?" he mumbled. "I, what - where will I go - "

"Oh my God. I don't know. You'll find something. There are some people I know I can call. For God's sake, you should be thanking me, because I'm going to pull some strings and falsify some information to get you three months' severance pay so that you can find something." She looked at him a little while, then rolled her eyes and said, "You're welcome."

It was only after that she was already offended that Donato understood the full weight of what she was offering. "Oh, I, um. Oh. Thank you. I just - " He took a breath. "Thank you."

She shrugged self-consciously. "I married my sweetheart when I was your age. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be as miserable as I have for the past seventeen years."

So Donato Garcia Galeano was fired at three twenty-one in the afternoon with a broad smile splitting his face. By three thirty he'd collected all his things; at three thirty-two he called up to Donna's desk and got no answer and told the answering machine he'd just wait for her at home; and at three thirty-three he exited the Buenos Aires Britannian Imperial Government Building.

As he went, for some reason despite his love-drunk stupor he noticed the young man who walked past him. The boy might have been eighteen at the most. His clothes were heavy, especially for September, but otherwise he looked fine - clean-shaven, well-groomed. It was just this thing he did, this little gesture as Donato walked past him - a nervous tic of his wrist that twisted his hand in a circle and then snapped it back down towards his thigh. Donato looked at him. The boy just looked at the ground.

Donato walked on.

At three-thirty four, as Donato approached the guard station, the Buenos Aires Britannian Imperial Government Building exploded behind him. He knew the sound immediately for what it was, and the shockwave sent him to his knees, upended his box and scattered his possessions over the ground.

Slowly he turned to look at the wreckage. His lips were numb, but beneath his hands the ground was pebbly sharp. There was the smell of burning skin and hot iron and gasoline, and there were screams. As long as he knelt there, his face craned around to see that pyre, he thought of Anna, and he thought of Donna. He thought of Donna. He thought of Donna.

"Bother," sighed Odysseus. "Two this month and this month's hardly started. What did we think of Area 7, Guinivere?"

"Too muggy," Guinevere replied with a twist of her lip.

"Too muggy," Odysseus said. "Still, the poor damp bastards hardly deserved that." He made a sorrowful clucking noise with his mouth. "By God, what I wouldn't give for a proper war with proper soldiers in proper uniforms who shoot at each other properly. None of this skulking about in shadows. With dynamite. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned but it's simply not for me."

"It's beastly," Guinevere agreed languidly. "Those poor people. Never even knew they were on the front lines of a war."

"Terrible," Odysseus murmured. "A rude awakening indeed."

"And in Area 7 of all places," Guinevere sighed. "They love us there."

"Well," coughed Odysseus.

"Or near enough."

"Indeed, it's a terrible thing," Schneizel cut in softly. Both Guinevere and Odysseus fell silent at the sound of his voice, as they always did when he spoke. He smiled gently at them both, as he always did when they fell back to make way for him. "And it won't go away, I fear. It will only get worse."


Perfectly self-evident though it was, Schneizel explained, "Zero."

"Oh," said Odysseus. He sounded almost dismissive. "Him."

Guinevere took issue with his tone. "Good Lord. Don't say it like that," she said.

"Like what?"

"Like he's beneath our notice. He killed Clovis, you know, and..." She trailed off. That he'd killed Euphemia was a truth all of them knew but none of them acknowledged. It was only with the cover that the Empire itself had punished Euphemia for her actions that they'd managed to suppress worldwide rebellions; any comment on this lie, particularly in potentially mixed company, was quite the faux pas.

(Schneizel frowned to think of Euphemia.)

"And God only knows what happened to Cornelia," Guinevere continued. "Dead or captured, I imagine. And at his hands."

"That knight, the one with the odd name - has he given up yet?" asked Odysseus.

"Guilford?" Schneizel said, then shook his head. "Not yet."

"Good on him, I say," said Odysseus. "We need more men with convictions. He won't find her, though, I don't think," he added thoughtfully. "Wild goose chase."

"Dead or captured," Guinevere said again.

There was silence a moment before Odysseus roused himself and said, "Well, this is a right depressing topic. What's past is past, you know, so. We need to look to the future."

"What's to be done about Zero?" said Guinevere.

Schneizel looked at her mildly. "Does something need to be done? Zero won the Battle of Tokyo, and won it stunningly. We haven't gained an inch of territory in three months. It would be best to leave him be, don't you think?"

"Don't be disingenuous; I don't think so and neither do you," Guinevere said. "Even if he stayed ensconced in the foulest den in Tokyo we would still have an obligation to hunt him down, just to prove to all the Numbers that they're not to follow in his footsteps."

"Strong words, Gwen," laughed Odysseus.

"Strong feelings, Odysseus," Guinevere replied. "I don't fancy watching the world dissolve into chaos."

"Right, you wouldn't want us to lose the colonies. You just built that house in - where was it - ?"

"That's not what I'm talking about. And Dubai City. What I'm talking about is that I don't like people killing each other."

"I'm afraid that people will always kill each other," Schneizel said, "but your protests against this very fact..."

"Moving," Odysseus snickered.

"Don't patronize me," Guinevere said sharply.

"I happen to agree with you, Guinevere," said Schneizel, which stopped Odysseus laughing. "We Britannians have an obligation to the world."

"You sound like my old tutor," murmured Odysseus cautiously.

"Perhaps I do," agreed Schneizel. "But I believe it. Forgive me for saying this but we're in the unique position of being able to bring peace to the world, and forgive me for thinking it but I think we should. There are people out there, we all know, like Zero, who would stand in the way of that, but the road to peace has never been an easy one. It wasn't for our forefathers, and it won't be for us. That doesn't mean we should give up." Schneizel smiled. "Hold me to the word I give now, Odysseus, Guinevere, I beg you: If I have to take up the sword personally against Zero for the sake of peace, I shall. I assure you."

His brother and sister nodded - her appreciatively, him knowingly. "You always were quite the blind idealist, weren't you, Schneizel," said Odysseus.

Schneizel laughed and spread his hands. "Like I said. I hope you both will forgive me it."

"Hey, Lelouch!"

Rivalz caught him by the arm as he was making his way home. Lelouch tensed and jerked his arm away before he could control himself. His mind had been on darker matters. When he said, "Yes?" it was more of a snarl, and Rivalz shrank back.

"I, um," he said. "No. Nothing." Then he laughed, waving Lelouch away. Then, when Lelouch turned to go once again: "Actually, something. Listen. My ma. She's been getting more insistent, you know..."

"Has she?" Lelouch asked neutrally.

"She just doesn't like it. I don't blame her. Though, I mean, I tell her all the time, it's safer here now with the El...Japanese in charge than it was with the Britannians, we both know that, they're not all freedom fighty anymore...But even so. She doesn't like it."

"It's understandable," said Lelouch.

"I know. She's got a point. But, I mean - Shirley's staying on."

"Is she?" God, in this place that held for her so much horror...

"And you, too, right?"

"Most likely. I do have obligations here."

"Ooh, you say that so impressive." Rivalz' laugh was false, and it quickly petered out. "Um. But I mean, you guys, and Kallen, too, if she ever quits with the whole, um, you know, uh, Black Knights thing and comes back to us. And the President, too. She might, you know. Start showing up again."

Milly acted the same as ever, and Milly hadn't graduated, but one day she'd just stopped coming to school.

"Sure, she might."

"And it's the finest education in the world. You know. Right here." A moment. "And I don't want to abandon you, too."

"Don't worry about me."

"I mean, who knows where Suzaku is now, and you need a guy friend around. Keep you from getting overwhelmed with those girls. Right?" Rivalz' expression was almost desperate.

Lelouch hesitated. What could he say? He knew he was a poor friend to Rivalz now. He was only still coming to Ashford to support his cover. He was tired, and he spoke rarely. Rivalz would probably be happier back in Britannia. And it would allow him to escape from this terrible, haunted place. In the end, Lelouch said nothing. Rivalz looked down.

"So I should stay," he said. "Right?"

Lelouch still had nothing to say.

"And - I mean - " Rivalz shrugged uncertainly. "There's also - It seems like there should be...someone here...to remember. You know." Quieter, "You know."

Lelouch knew. He looked away. "Listen, I should go - "

Rivalz' mouth snapped shut. "Yes! Of course. I'm sorry to keep you, you know - "

Lelouch knew, but even so he shrugged and turned away and said nothing as he left. He tried not to think about it. It was difficult when he had to walk past the place where Nina had died.

The taking of Ashford should have been bloodless. It should have been bloodless, and it was, until a point. The Britannians weren't stationed near that part of the city, and they'd been too occupied with the battle to rescue a school.

But then Nina had come out, armed with some terrible weapon, and one of his soldiers had responded in the only way a soldier responds to such things.

The others hadn't been there, but they'd been in the student council room with its clear unobstructed view, and all of them - save Nunnally, thank God save Nunnally - had seen. Milly had attacked the guards, as though trying to go save her friend, as though the bullet weren't lodged with commendable marksmanship in her head, as though it hadn't killed her instantly. Minami had pinned Milly to the ground and had had to hold her there. In the end she'd just exhausted herself.

He was glad he hadn't been there. He was glad he hadn't seen Nina die. He knew it made him a child, shaken by this death over the others just because he'd known her, and known her at best tangentially, just because he considered her a friend, even though (though she was delusional and misled) she'd taken up arms and could have killed so many. That soldier had done what he'd had to do, yet even so Lelouch hated him. Lelouch knew he should have been mourning the death of his soldiers, the death of the innocent, yet he was fixated on this death. He couldn't get her out of his mind.

There'd been one other incident. A Britannian had broken in somehow and shot Ougi, then fled. Ougi, after a three-month hospital stay, had largely recovered, and he was now resting a bit at home, and Lelouch was glad of that, but the incident was odd. He'd resolved to watch Ougi's activities.

"I'm home, Nunnally," Lelouch called.

"Welcome back, onii-sama," came the piping reply.

Here at home, they didn't talk about the war. He didn't know what she thought. There were times when he wanted to ask, but...But then he'd come home after a day of silence, and she'd be there with her smile and her embrace, and he couldn't. He'd remember what he was fighting for, and he'd remember too why he couldn't hear her condemn that.

"How was class today?"

"Quiet," he called back. The school didn't have even a tenth of the students it had before the battle. Zero had decreed that the United States of Japan were open to all people, even Britannians, even Britannians who had served in the colonial government. It had been Diethard, of all people, who had protested this the loudest, wanting perhaps to prove his distance from his former self, but Zero had insisted.

"This will be a country of renewal and forgiveness," he'd said, and the others had seemed leery (Kallen) at the least, angry (Diethard) at the worst, but in time they'd acclimated to the idea. Among the working and middle classes, a fair number of Britannians had stayed, but the wealthy (and, much to his frustration, the taxable) had fled.

"It'll be better when the school opens to the Japanese."

"Sure." Why would they want to learn at a school run by the people who'd oppressed them for so long? Japan wasn't composed of a hundred million iterations of Suzaku.

Perhaps that was unfair.

"Welcome back, Lelouch-sama." Sayoko had appeared suddenly - as was her wont - from God only knew where. "How was your test?"

"Fine. Thank you," he said as she took his coat.

"Did you say how your test was?" Nunnally called, and Lelouch raised his voice, laughing a little: "I said it was fine, Nunnally."

Sayoko caught his arm as he started to join Nunnally. He looked at her; she shot him a glance and murmured, "The E.U. will be gathering for a summit in a month's time."

Her smile was apologetic. Lelouch looked at her, and then swallowed and looked down at the ground and murmured, "Thank you." When he looked up again, she was gone, and his discomfort was momentarily displaced by curiosity over how exactly it was she did that.

"Onii-sama," Nunnally greeted, stretching her hand out to Lelouch. He took it between both of his.

"And your day? How was it?" Lelouch asked, smiling at her. She responded to the warmth in his voice and smiled back.

"Terrible," she said sunnily. "A full hour and a half of French conjugation drills." Lelouch groaned on cue, and Nunnally giggled. "Every irregular verb you could think of."

"Beastly," Lelouch said.

"Terrible," she beamed again.

"An hour and a half?"

"A whole hour and a half!" she cried.

Lelouch hmmed. "Actually, what I meant was - only an hour and a half?"

"What do you mean, only?"

"I mean what I mean, only. I think you need three hours of practice."

"No!" she gasped.

"'Non,' I think you mean to say," Lelouch corrected playfully.

"Non!" she agreed.

"Come on. Practice with me."

"You wouldn't."

"Oh I would, and I will. Come on. Je ris, tu ris, il rit..."

"Don't," Nunnally laughed.

"Nous rions, vous riez, ils rient - "

"Stop it!"

"Would you prefer the subjunctive mood? We can do the subjunctive if you'd prefer. Come on. Je rie - Come on. Tu ries - "

"Stop it! Nooo, stop, don't make me do it!" she cried, hunching over and clutching herself in mock-agony, and in that moment she looked just like Euphemia.

The image struck Lelouch in the throat. It drove all laughter from him. He rocked back on his heels, the breath gone from his mouth, dizzy and nauseous. Slowly, Nunnally's smile slipped from her lips, and her brows drew together.

"What is it?" Lelouch opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't find any words. All he could do was kneel there, next to her, as she inclined her face towards him, her face more and more worried.

"I just - um - remembered that I forgot to turn in an essay," he finally managed.

"Oh," said Nunnally, the worry still written across her face. "Well, do you need to go back...?"

"Um, I - " He cleared his throat. "Nunnally, I have to ask you something."

"What?" She gave an uncertain half-laugh.

"I...may have to go away. For a little while. Not very long, I promise," he begged as that concern deepened.


"It's, um...I just...You know that the Ashfords are leaving, and..."

"Even Milly?"

Lelouch hesitated. That was a whole different thing, a whole different topic. "I don't, um, know, to tell the truth. But it's, um - we sort of need to start thinking about...things."

"You want to get away from here."

Lelouch winced. This whole line of conversation wasn't precisely a lie, but it was close enough to make him uncomfortable. "In a way."

"Is it because of Euphemia?"

It was a question he was expecting. He still had to take a moment before he said, "In a way. Yes."

"I don't know about this." Her voice was sweet, but her face was approaching sternness.

"I won't be gone for long."

"I don't know about leaving." She worried at her bottom lip. "I think maybe it's our duty. To stay and remember - "

"We don't - we can't - have any sort of duty to the past. Do you understand?" Lelouch became aware he was speaking far too loudly, far too heatedly, but even so he continued on: "The very idea is absurd!"

Once that was out, and once Nunnally didn't react, he fell back weakly, spent by that fervor, and looked at the ground. Nunnally still said nothing at all.

"It'll only be a few weeks," he finally said, this time far too quietly.

A moment. "I guess we can talk about it over dinner."

"Sure." He stood and took Nunnally's hand again, then turned away and retreated.

"You heard the news from Sayoko?" C.C. asked lazily the moment the door had closed behind him.

"I heard," he said tersely, going over to the closet to hang up his school jacket, then crossing over to the sink to take out the lens that covered that stigma in his eye.

"All right," she sighed, and was quiet a while, picking at the crumbs on the dirty plate at her right hand. Then: "I much prefer this situation," she said, rolling onto her stomach. "Me not having to hide whenever she comes into the room...She actually treats me, as a high-ranking member of the Black Knights, as an honored guest." She lolled onto her back again. "It's charming."

"It sounds it."

"She asks me the strangest questions, though. 'Oh, are you the one who helps him with his clothes'? As though clothing like that could come from any hand but yours."


There was a moment, and then she turned over onto her stomach again. "For all that, though, I like her. She makes a good pizza, and in less time than it takes the delivery man to deliver. And she doesn't ask for a tip. I never tip," she added with a cruel little smile.


"I let him know that it's your money, and that I don't think you'd want me to give a tip. Besides, I don't want to spend freely. Like I said, it's your money." Another pause and a tiny, almost inaudible scoff. Then another moment before she asked, "Do you know how the pizza is in France?"

Lelouch looked at her. "Haven't you been there?"

A coy smile slipped across C.C.'s face, and she took her sweet time answering, tipping her head back and considering her answer carefully. "Not in a long time," she finally said.

"Well, don't ask me. I haven't been there in a while, either," Lelouch said, rather conscious that his definition of a long time and hers diverged sharply.

"And you probably didn't have pizza, either." There was a deliberate pause. "Assuming Nunnally was with you." Lelouch turned to look at her, then looked away, and then looked back, and C.C. smiled, a superior smug triumphant little thing. "She doesn't want you to go?"

"It's complicated."

"You shouldn't let that stop you."

"It's complicated, I said, and I'm hardly going to look to you for advice." Lelouch sat down irritably at his computer and opened an internet browser. "Besides," he muttered, "I know that there are times when I'll have to do something she doesn't like. For the sake of it all. I'm perfectly aware of that."

"You don't sound like you've accepted it."

He jerked his head in a shrug.

"My word," C.C. said, her voice twisted into a jeer, "you really do love her."

"I'm surprised you were able to recognize that," Lelouch snapped in response, then immediately winced and looked down. That had been so much harsher than he'd intended.

But C.C. didn't flinch. Instead, she just smiled faintly, rolled over onto her back and murmured, "That was cruel. You're enough to make a girl cry."

"I been here so long my heart is a parking lot,
Hollow feet rooted to the spot.
But the fields are beyond belief
From tower out to where I can see -
Language City don't mean a thing to me."