Room 277

Tokyo Settlement International Hotel

Lelouch saw her nose twitch as she began to visibly awaken. The green-haired girl had been sleeping peacefully since the afternoon, according to Kanon, who was recuperating on the other side of the bed she occupied. The man had remarked that he should probably be resting just as C.C. was, but after several days effectively in a coma, he was understandably disinterested in the notion of sleep. Of the others, only Jeremiah currently remained in the room, taking up residence in a small armchair and immersing himself in the pages of a book – almost arbitrarily chosen from the very limited supply stacked upon the desk for primarily decorative purposes. While the book seemed to hold Jeremiah's attention for the most part, Lelouch did not miss the suspicious looks he threw at Kanon when he thought nobody was looking.

C.C.'s nose twitched again as he set the hot tray on the desk, unconcerned about damaging the wooden finish. The room had provided slightly more than meagre cooking facilities in its kitchenette, enabling him to make a peace offering for the girl.

"Pizza."

Lelouch sighed and fetched a plate to transfer a few pieces onto so that the hot tray wouldn't have to be taken over to the bed. He took a few steps towards her, but her glare stopped him in his tracks. Sighing, he turned back and shovelled the rest of the pizza on top, before walking over and depositing it on her lap.

"Why is there pizza?"

He frowned. It was unlike C.C. to question the purpose of available pizza. "I called you a liar earlier."

C.C. chuckled sarcastically. "I have been called worse things than that in my life, boy." She took another bite of the pizza. "But why is there only one?"

"I made it myself, this time," Lelouch pointed out, ignoring the cyborg in the corner rolling his eyes. In truth, he had only prepared and spread around the toppings before putting it in the oven; Shirley had bought pre-made pizza bases earlier that day to cook as a get well present for C.C., but Lelouch had taken over the cooking when he'd seen an opportunity to gain the witch's favour while Shirley was out retrieving supplies.

C.C. stared at him blankly, reaching for a piece and taking a bite. She continued looking at him while she ate, only stopping to cut him off with a blunt "It's awful" when he attempted to break the silence.

The pizza was fine. Scowling, he tried to turn away and take the remaining pizza with him, but she snatched at the tray and held onto it with a vice grip.

"It's pizza."

Well that was that. He supposed he should be familiar enough with her abrasive behaviour to translate that as appreciation. Whatever, he'd repaid his debt for insulting her earlier through her only accepted currency, something which had become second nature over the years he had known her. And was Jeremiah laughing at him? A glare silenced the man.

Sometimes C.C. could be frustrating to deal with, but in truth, he did owe her a great deal. Not even Lelouch could be forward-thinking enough to predict – or even know about – Geass, let alone to know that he would receive one and what it would do. It was pure chance that he had stumbled upon her at the time he had and that she had bestowed upon him the power to make his dreams a reality, vastly reducing the potential for miscalculations and errors in his and Suzaku's extremely volatile plan.

She had, however, already made the majority of her contribution to Zero Requiem before his 'death' at the hands of Zero. He had no need for her Code, nor did he require her to bestow another Geass upon one of his subordinates: the number of people possessing the power of Geass in this war was already high enough and he was fortunate that the majority of them now fought under his banner.

He chuckled to himself. It was oddly convenient that this Geass power seemed to manifest itself as if to further his goals. He had been prepared to sacrifice Shirley, as unfortunate as it may have been, and to allow one of his soldiers to lay down his life impersonating the executed Emperor Lelouch, but Shirley's Geass had given him more effective solutions to these problems. It was as if the world was rewarding his resolve, testing whether or not he would be willing to give up everything to reach his goals.

But then again, Geass had chosen some very poor moments to provide him with new tools to exploit. It was unfortunate that it had taken Euphemia's life, but it had ultimately, in a sick way, been the best possible outcome. He'd never admit it to Suzaku, but if he was in the same situation again, he'd give her the order deliberately. It had been a moment of weakness to prepare to accept the Special Administrative Zone. Zero Requiem was more important than reducing the oppression in a single locality of a single country; he was leading a war, not a civil rights movement. He did feel sympathetic, in all honesty, but it was an almost irrelevant emotion next to the resolve which would see Zero Requiem through to the bitter end.

C.C. dropped the now-empty dish into Kanon's lap and rolled onto her side to go back to sleep. Lelouch resisted the temptation to roll his eyes; he hardly expected any thanks from the girl.

It was true that he didn't really need her, but she was a useful asset all the same, even when her Code wasn't taken into account. For one, she was a competent Knightmare pilot, one who knew how he thought and could fight fluently alongside him, as she had in the Gawain. The strength of Knightmare pilots available to him would be the key factor in determining the success of Zero Requiem from this point. He had already cleared the conditions for victory; all that remained was to strike down the enemy in the first battle Schneizel would ever allow his overconfidence to leave him vulnerable.

Perhaps more importantly, though, was that the presence of C.C. would increase the number of those in his as of yet unformed army who did not hail from the Order of the Black Knights. Ever since Lelouch had relinquished direct control over the group, the command group, who had previously taken orders directly from Zero himself, were forced to direct the war effort themselves and all now felt they should be entitled to a voice in each decision. He would have liked to claim the Black Knights as his own, but there were far too many competing influences to fully regain control over it, especially without revealing his identity to everyone. It was fortunate that the acquisition of Rivalz' Geass would allow for him to wage war against Schneizel with only a handful of skilled Knightmare pilots, giving him the opportunity to independently recruit the best the Black Knights had to offer.

Despite a significant number of his new subordinates having been recruited from the Black Knights – the most significant of which being Tōdō, Cornelia and Kallen – it was important that these three did not recognise each other until the last possible moment. Kallen could be trusted to remain loyal to him, as Zero, but Tōdō and Cornelia were likely to be insubordinate if they disagreed with him on any decisions. It was best to keep them unaware of each other's presence and ensure that neither felt that they had the power to question him. Though the silver Zero masks seemed to be merely a way to distinguish them as a high-ranking, 'elite' unit of his army, they conveniently served a secondary purpose of controlling the egos of Tōdō and Cornelia.

"Oh and Happy Birthday."

C.C. rolled sharply back onto her other side, looking past Kanon and at Lelouch. "Not even I know when my birthday is."

"Then it shouldn't matter if it's today," he responded offhandedly, walking out of the room and leaving her to her thoughts.


Headquarters of the Order of the Black Knights

Tōdō leant silently against the wall in their headquarters, observing the remnants of the Order of the Black Knights go about their duties as though he were farewelling a family home to move to another. Business carried on as usual around him, though it was common for a deathly silence to fall upon the group as they dealt with the conflicting emotions left behind by the triumph of Zero's return and the despair of Kallen's suicide.

From a results standpoint, things were looking up for the Black Knights. Though they numbered only a couple of dozen members, that had not stopped Zero from turning them into a force able to challenge Charles' empire. But Tōdō knew that they were wasting their time. Zero had been returned to them, but he no longer had any interest in arming them to the teeth and leading them into battle, instead manipulating them into unwittingly feigning productivity while he formed his own, more capable, group in the shadows.

It made sense to the hardened JLF military commander. With the dramatic decrease in resources and manpower available to them, Zero would have to once again return to the guerrilla tactics he had employed so effectively in their infancy, something which was impossible while under the ever watchful eye of Schneizel el Britannia. It may have hurt his pride to allow his comrades to waste their energy and hope on a lost cause, but, just as he had when joining the Black Knights after General Katase's death, he was once again bound to put aside his misgivings and cooperate with Zero's unsavoury methods.

Zero had called it the People's Wish.

Eyes narrowed, he pushed himself off the wall and made his way from the upper levels of the apartment building, having finally acquired full used of it, and down to his private quarters. Once satisfied that his door was securely locked and the blinds drawn, he sat down cross-legged on a mat with the package he had received from Zero in front of him. He had opened it earlier in the week after receiving it, of course, in case it was time-sensitive, but the instructions Zero had given to did not require him to use it until tonight. He unwrapped the package for what seemed like – and quite possibly was – the hundredth time and stared at the eerie mask that once again confronted him.

'What is he playing at?'

It could have been no coincidence that the near-replica of Zero's black mask framed a silver oval rather than a purple one; the man simply didn't make mistakes as glaring as those. It clearly signified something, but what? The best explanation Tōdō had been able to conjure was that it implied he would have some special high-ranking station within Zero's new group, his power reflected by the colour of his mask. It seemed overly theatrical, which, knowing Zero, would usually be an indicator that his assessment of the situation was not far from the truth, but somehow he felt that he was missing something.

Tōdō's musings were cut short as his eyes were drawn to something he had previously overlooked.

While he had known that there was a cloak under the mask in the package – it was a complete, albeit all-black, Zero outfit, after all – he had been so caught up in the mystery of the mask colour that he had somehow overlooked the metallic silver '2' stitched into the cloak. It was hard to tell exactly where the number was meant to appear when he was wearing it while he held the slippery mess of fabric in his hands, but when he draped it over his shoulders and crossed his arms, it was clear that it was meant to be displayed on his right shoulder.

This did nothing but raise more questions, however. Did this make him a 'level two' officer? Did it mean he was a member of a group with the designation 'two'? Grumbling in frustration, he stood up, stashed the uniform in a bag, retrieved a cloak from his cupboard and attempted to slip out of the building without attracting any attention.

"Tōdō-san? Where are you going?"

He stopped in his tracks immediately. 'Leave it to a vi Britannia to make my life more difficult than it already is.' As quickly as that thought arrived in his head, he quashed it. Nunnally was a kind person and didn't deserve to be branded with the same stick her demon brother was.

"Zero has a mission for me," he replied truthfully and without hesitating.

"A mission…" The girl looked wistfully past his head. "Everyone's working so hard…"

In truth, he pitied her, however much she would have hated it if she had known. It was a horrible feeling whenever one of them was incapacitated for a few days and had to watch their comrades do all of the manual work – vitally important or not – around the base; it felt as though the organisation would fall behind in the few days you weren't pulling your weight. To be the only one having to live with that permanently was something unimaginable to him. "Don't worry Nunnally, I'm sure Zero has an important role for you to play, too."

"You think so?" She smiled sadly. "I'm glad I'm still useful."

Though to the best of his knowledge, neither she, nor any of the other Black Knights, were still useful, Tōdō schooled his expression and excused himself from the building. Fortunately, he didn't run into anybody else – particularly Cornelia – as he left the building, though he was sure that, if necessary, he could pass on the responsibility for devising an alibi to Zero just as he had done with Nunnally.

Pulling his cloak tighter around himself in the cold evening air, he hailed a taxi and hoped his driver would be Japanese, or at least a sympathetic Britannian. It was hard to remain anonymous in the confines of a sedan and the hero worship of supporters was easier to deal with than the scorn of Britannian arrogance. As luck would have it, the driver was a middle-aged Japanese woman who, after getting over the brief shock of his celebrity, settled into a light conversation with him as they made their way to a location he had decided was sufficiently far away from his destination to give the driver.

After forcing some money into her hands and closing the door – she hadn't wanted to charge him as a sign of gratitude – he took a brisk walk around the block, looking for an alley he could duck into and change into his Zero costume. 'This definitely feels stranger than I thought it would' he decided, draping his regular black cloak around him to obscure the costume and headed on foot in the direction of Tokyo Docks.

It was nearly pitch black by the time he started passing the numbered sheds. In the last twenty minutes he hadn't so much as seen a building with a light on, let alone run into another person.

'Shit!'

Tōdō reflexively darted behind a steel column and into a dark alcove of the shed he was passing as the noise of a car reached him, followed by two headlights rounding the corner. When he was convinced that the headlights were no longer illuminating his position, he peered around the corner and tried to get a look at the occupants of the car, but the window tint made that impossible. Still, he watched suspiciously as the car turned and headed in the direction of the shed Zero had asked him to arrive at. He was still a few minutes early, so he took his time walking the rest of the way.

There were no further disturbances over the last leg of his trek. The shed looked just like any other and the unfamiliar car was parked out the front, so the occupants must have been inside already. He allowed his fingers to linger slightly on the door handle for a moment, hesitant about what his was going to find on the other side, before steeling his resolve and opening it.

Of the many theories he had crafted about what was hiding in the shed, the idea of it being completely empty had not occurred to him. The ground floor was concrete and as large as an aircraft hangar, though its vertical space was restricted by a mezzanine on the side, leading to a series of offices attached to the roof. He supposed it wasn't completely empty, with an enormous curtain sectioning off part of the warehouse from the section he was currently standing in.

Well, him and several other nearly-identical copies of him.

The other half a dozen silver-faced Zeros turned to face him as he removed his cloak and moved to join their group. There was no talking amongst them, so he figured that they were either not allowed to talk or were in the same situation that he found himself – preparing for what was looking more and more like an induction ceremony. Within a few seconds, most of them seemed to lose interest in him and returned to whatever they had previously been doing.

'Everyone has a different number,' he noticed immediately. That, coupled with the lack of numbers, made it unlikely that his '2' indicated his rank in the organisation's hierarchy. Already he could see '6' leaning against a support beam and staring at them from behind the black and silver dome, though he could tell from their body language that their eyes were scanning the group, attempting to profile everyone in the same way he was currently doing.

'1' and '7' stood a few metres in front of '6,' though they didn't show any signs of knowing each other. '8' had just moved to lean against the other side of the pole '6' was leaning on and '4' was staring at the roof. '5' was there as well, but there did not appear to be a '3' or any other numbers above 8.

'Nobody knows each other,' he realised, acutely aware of showing any visual clues this revelation gave away. These people could just as easily turn out to be enemies as friends and it was in his best interests to keep his identity concealed from them.

He resisted the urge to chuckle. 'That's probably what Zero wants. If we distrust each other enough to keep our allies at arm's length, but trust in Zero enough to work with unknown people, he can prevent his decisions being overruled by group consensus.' The thought gave Tōdō pause. 'Is that why you are dissolving the Order of the Black Knights, Zero? Because you could no longer control us?'

It seemed Zero did not want anybody to have any allies in this new clandestine organisation. The instructions that the man had given him did not require Chiba's presence tonight, so he was waiting until he had proof of the group's legitimacy before approaching her. It was probably safe to assume that every silver, numbered Zero in front of him was also responsible for their own, effectively subordinate, members.

It was also highly likely that at least one other silver Zero was recruited from within the Black Knights. His thoughts were immediately drawn to Cornelia, who would almost certainly be the most valuable to Zero, discounting himself. His eyebrows narrowed. 'Even if I do believe that Cornelia is one of the Zeros in front of me, I can't confront her about it without risking exposing us if she isn't involved. I can't question any of these people about whether they are Cornelia or not, either, and she would hardly answer if she was.'

As much as Tōdō hated to admit it, they were all wrapped around Zero's finger. He could only hope that this Zero was still capable of and, more importantly, committed to forging the new world he dreamed of.


Tokyo Docks

The Hangar

Lelouch took the Cheese-kun plush toy out of C.C.'s hands and tossed it back onto the couch of the main office. Since taking over the lease on the shed, he had tidied the place up a lot and his office – Zero's office – looked more like something you would see a wealthy executive calling 'home.'

"You can't seriously think it would be a good idea to carry that down there, could you?" Lelouch resisted the urge to place his forehead in his palm. "No, don't answer that. Where did you even get that, anyway? You've been locked in a cell halfway across the world and you still manage to keep a hold of that thing."

The green-haired witch remained impassive. "I got another one."

He snorted. "It was a special edition and it's not exactly a collector's item. I doubt there would be any on the market."

This just made her stare at him unnervingly, so he tried to ignore the seemingly increasingly-feasible theory that she had simply harassed the Pizza Hut staff with enough phone calls for them to track one down for her.

"Come on, they're waiting."

Oh, so now he was the one delaying them. He rolled his eyes. "It would not look good for us to be seen arriving together. If you had waited down there half an hour ago like we'd planned, we wouldn't have this problem."

"You planned, Lelouch," she corrected. "I didn't want to wait."

"Witch." His words indicated frustration, but his tone was apathetic. He had dealt with C.C. for too long for this to get under his skin. "I'll go down now. Slip down when they're distracted and join them."

Barely waiting for the affirmative shrug he knew would be coming, he left his office and slowly descended the ramp to the mezzanine.

"Welcome, my friends," he began, clicking a button in his pocket as he moved to the edge and overlooked the warehouse. Two bright spotlights illuminated himself and the group below him. "I am pleased that all of you could join me."

"Some of you are aware that I plan to dissolve the Order of the Black Knights." He paused slightly, ignoring the muffled noises as his subjects reacted to the news without anybody they trusted nearby to voice their opinions to. "Very few of you know, however, why my once-mighty champions of justice have outlived their usefulness."

Among them, only Jeremiah, under the alias Q-5; Shirley, with Q-4's silver numeral '4' embroidered on her shoulder; and Suzaku, wearing the Q-8 uniform he would swap for Lelouch's Zero costume when necessary, knew the truth of Zero Requiem. Lelouch could also see C.C. lurking some way behind them in her Q-3 uniform, waiting for an opportunity to slip into their ranks.

"From the beginning, Schneizel was never an enemy you could have hoped to defeat," he continued, ignoring the clenching of fists from Tōdō, Cornelia and Kallen. "Every victory you think you may have had against him was hollow. Every piece of his you captured was a concession that he had allowed, knowing his safety was guaranteed. Schneizel el Britannia is a strategist on par with his father Charles, but his true strength comes not from this, but from an offer he was made when he had not yet come of age."

"Many of you are already aware of the power known as Geass." This time, several of them had visibly flinched. He dismissed their fears with a wave of his hand. "Fear not, Schneizel does not possess this power." None of them seemed to relax at this statement.

"Charles zi Britannia, however, did. His greatest secret was his ability to seamlessly rewrite the memories of anybody standing in his way. Consider yourselves fortunate that he has been removed from the picture, for, on his own merits, he was the greatest enemy the world has ever faced."

Their body language indicated that several of them seemed taken aback by that, no doubt questioning whether Schneizel, having defeated them where Charles could not, or Lelouch himself were more powerful opponents.

'They don't understand how far beyond their abilities my father actually was,' Lelouch mused as he let his claim sink in. 'They had almost no involvement in his death, after all.'

"In the hands of the medical research team lead by Bartley Asprius, it took only months for this Geass to be used to develop the world's first indistinguishable, yet flawlessly subservient body double for his favourite son. Effectively a clone, the double would have all of Schneizel's experience, knowledge and raw ability to navigate both diplomatic and battle scenarios. With the existence of this body double being the best-kept secret in Britannian history – more so than the existence of Geass itself – Schneizel el Britannia could have been the most dangerous Emperor in Britannian history."

"Schneizel may have seemed like a man with no attachment to his life or any other bodily pleasure, but I assure you, he is as greedy as Clovis ever was. It is easy to string your enemies along when you can live your life in the shadows, daringly putting your King in check every move, but a man like Schneizel will never be content with that. While another may have lived in these shadows of invulnerability forever, the day would eventually come where any threats to his rule would be eliminated, allowing him to seize the world for his own."

"That day came when the Damocles finally crushed the Order of the Black Knights in battle."

One of them – Cornelia, he recognised from the Q-6 designation on her shoulder – stepped forward. "How do you know?" She challenged him in something similar to his own voice, the scrambler embedded in her mask obscuring hers. "Schneizel has won many battles and will continue to do so for a long time. You are relying on him choosing to make the switch now, but there's no way to actually know for sure."

"This is Britannia's best-kept secret," he repeated. "If he did not feel secure enough in his victory to discontinue its use, he would not have revealed himself to me aboard the Damocles. Despite being prepared for execution, it would not have been worth the risk of me somehow passing on the information."

Without pausing to let her respond, he continued. "The Order of the Black Knights lie crippled beyond repair, but now that he has revealed himself to me, we know for certain that when we go to war, we face the real Schneizel el Britannia! You, who have been chosen for your elite ability, intelligence and loyalty, stand before me on the cusp of victory! Before the year is out, we will strike down our enemy and recreate the world as we see fit!"

He drew his arms back to his chest, having swung them around wildly as he gave his speech. They were all convinced. Well, everyone save for his blasted half-sister.

"How do you expect us to trust each other when we cannot know who it is we are working with?"

Lelouch smirked behind his mask. She had unintentionally made his job easier by asking that question. "Tell me, Q-6; do you trust me? Have I not lead the Order of the Black Knights for years without revealing my identity to my soldiers?" He didn't allow her time to respond. "Just as it is what I stand for, not who I am that is important, it is what your allies stand for that will drive us to victory! Ask not who they are, but what they are!"

He paused slightly and lowered his voice back to its usual volume. "However, I will tell you that all of you are people who have gained my absolute trust in the time I have known you. Some of you may assume that I have acquired this group of associates in the three years since my debut in Shinjuku Ghetto, but you would be wrong. Amongst you are those who have worked alongside me for over a decade to destroy the rotten Empire that Schneizel had always been destined to rule."

Several of them were clearly taken aback by this revelation, which was to be expected, of course. He paid their silent reactions no heed as he began to descend the ramp to the floor of the hangar, hand trailing along the railing as the spotlight tracked his movements. "We are now beyond the time for political machinations, for raising our armies and for reaching out to the very corners of the world! We can never turn back from this path! We will crush Schneizel with superior Knightmare technology, the likes of which he has never seen before, and with superior pilots that he could only dream of recruiting into the pitiful Knights of Round!"

His shoes clicked against the floor as he finally came to a stop before them.

"This is the final chapter in our victory. Soon, the world will be in our hands."

With that, he turned and slowly walked away from them, pausing just as he made to pass through an opening in the enormous curtain that partitioned the room.

"You are all dismissed. Q-7, remain behind."


"You talk well, Lelouch," Rivalz teased him, peeking through the curtain, the silver numeral on his cloak identifying him as Q-7. He frowned slightly. "I wouldn't have guessed it, except that you're Zero."

Lelouch looked up from a screen he was briefly analysing. 'Same old Rivalz. Though he seems a bit more serious, now that I know he's Laroque.'

"The world needs a leader," he responded noncommittally.

"Will you be Emperor again, Lelouch?" The question was almost blunt enough to give him pause. "You weren't exactly the nicest guy last time you tried."

Lelouch genuinely laughed. Trust Rivalz to tell the Demon Emperor he was a jerk. "For a short time, it is unavoidable, but I intend to pass the mantle over to somebody else after making a few…policy updates."

"Eh? Who to, Nunnally?"

"Cornelia, actually," Lelouch he responded. "Nunnally is too kind-hearted to lead. Cornelia is in the unique position of having the cut-throat effectiveness of a Britannian Empress drilled into her from birth, yet desires change as much as any revolutionary. She will make a fine Empress."

"Was she here tonight, too?" Rivalz asked.

"She was," Lelouch confirmed. "But that's not important. What is important is what lies beyond those doors."

Rivalz looked across the empty space at the comparatively small room in the corner. There was a light on inside, but the blind was drawn. "What is it?"

"Lloyd Asplund, Cécile Croomy and Rakshata Chawla."

"Eh?" Rivalz yelled, jumping backwards and pointing a finger at Lelouch. "What's the Earl doing here?"

"I forget, those names would have no significance to somebody who has been out of the military for as long as yourself," he responded with a wry chuckle, imagining how Rivalz would be internally groaning at the mention of Milly's ex-fiancé. "Lloyd and Cécile are the engineers behind Lancelot, the Energy Wing System and the Guren S.E.I.T.E.N Eight-Elements. Rakshata invented the Gefjun Disturber and was responsible for much of the Guren's development until its capture by Lloyd's Camelot division."

"So that's what you meant by superior technology, then." Rivalz wandered over to the computer, finally dropping his only partially-forced façade of seriousness. "New toys? I've taken all the same physics classes at Ashford as you, Lelouch, though you were either sleeping or – apparently – fighting the Emperor during them, but I haven't touched any hardware since the military. This is all completely different to what they used back then," he finished with some concern.

Lelouch didn't share it. "That doesn't matter. All that matters is–"

"–It does matter, actually," his old friend cut him off. "Geass has limitations. To use my Absolute Imitation, I need to know exactly how everything is made and fits together. It looks like I can just pick up a diagram and make it out of some scrap, but I need to memorise everything, down to the smallest circuit board schematics and bolt sizes. It used to take days to get it right and Knightmares were way less complicated back then." Rivalz shook his head.

"That shouldn't be a problem," Lelouch claimed convincingly, but truthfully, he was somewhat put off by that information. "Those three are the finest Knightmare engineers in the world; I'm sure they could take that into account when making their designs. Is there anything else I should be aware of?" He dreaded the answer.

Rivalz nodded. "Yeah…I guess. It looks sort of alchemy when I change something," he began, grabbing a piece of scrap metal off the table which held the screen they were previously examining. He covered it with his other hand and allowed his Geass to flare in his eyes. When he removed his hand, a metallic figurine of Zero struggling to climb up a set of stairs had replaced the chunk of metal.

…A figurine that was quickly swiped and pocketed by an exasperated Lelouch.

He chuckled, but decided to leave the rebel-turned-Emperor-turned-rebel alone this time. "It probably looks like I can change anything to anything else, but really I can only manipulate shape, heat and, to a small degree, time – if I want a piece of metal to cool quickly or something. I can't change a stick into a bar of gold," he continued bitterly. If only he could make gold, he'd be swimming in money. "If you want me to build something, you'll have to get me the materials the old-fashioned way."

"Materials won't be a problem," Lelouch confirmed, inwardly thankful that these 'limitations' hadn't been more damaging to his plan. "All I need from you is to use your abilities to accelerate their production schedules by eliminating the need for them to waste time on physically constructing prototypes. I want the next generation of Knightmare technology reached in months and the following generation reached by the year's end. We must outclass Schneizel in all areas to have any hope of success with such a small force."

Rivalz had his doubts about whether that would be possible, but he shrugged them off. He wouldn't be responsible for the deadlines, after all – the three engineers in the room across from where he was standing would. He was effectively a glorified 3-D printer at the moment, though he would get the chance to show everybody what a – in his opinion – kick-arse Knightmare pilot he was. "You got it, Lelouch. Man, no wonder Milly picked you for Vice President." His eyes lit up and he grinned. "I wonder how she'd feel if she knew she was Zero's boss for a few years!"

"She'd probably try and add cat ears to the Black Knights' uniforms," Lelouch responded dryly, only half joking. "How is Milly, anyway? I heard you two were seeing each other." In truth he had no idea, but it couldn't hurt to guess.

"I wish," his friend lamented sadly. "I think I've got a chance, but I don't want to tell her about who I was…or am." He seemed a bit confused, now, as if just realising the inevitable impact of his decision to join Zero would have on other parts of his life.

Lelouch almost pitied him for a moment. "You could just not tell her," he suggested.

"Trust you to say that," Rivalz laughed. "Here I am, getting advice from Zero – of all people – about how to give up my secret identity."

"I'd have thought I'd be the best person to talk to about that," he countered. "Milly knows all sorts of things, anyway. There's a reasonably good chance that she already knows about you, or at least suspects it."

Rivalz paled at that. "I don't want to drag her into this, Lelouch. I had moved on with my life, but Schneizel is going to execute her to punish me for refusing his 'offer' to join him." His voice had become much colder than he was used to hearing from the easy-going kid he knew back at Ashford. "I was going to ask Zero to protect her in exchange for my services, but it looks like I won't have to do anything like that now that I know who you are."

Lelouch narrowed his eyes. "I will protect her, of course, but you will still fight under my banner, will you not?"

"Of course!" his friend replied without hesitation, dropping some of the forced harshness. "You're my friend, Lelouch! And that dirt-bag Schneizel has got it coming, anyway." He shadow-boxed the air for a few seconds, causing Lelouch to internally flinch.

"That's enough, Rivalz," he chided. "Assuming the threat isn't immediate, since you didn't inform me when we last met…" Rivalz had the decency to look slightly abashed at this oversight. "…I will discuss plans with you in the coming days to relocate her. From now on, you will endeavour to spend as much time working with Lloyd, Cécile and Rakshata as possible without damaging your Ashford cover; it would not be good if Schneizel became suspicious that you had joined us. Those three will not need you around constantly, but their job would be made significantly easier if you could make yourself available for at least a couple of hours each day."

"I should be able to do that,"

"There's one more thing, though," Lelouch continued, loading up a particular schematic on the screen. "I have obtained as much of the wreckage as was feasible, but it will still be a significantly large undertaking to have it operational in the month I require it to be."

"Eh, a month?" Rivalz exclaimed in disbelief. "Well, I suppose you do have the original schematics and you say you have most of the wreckage…It's possible." He conceded. "Where do you have it stored, though? It's obviously not going to fit in here."

Lelouch tapped some buttons on his phone, which was quickly put away seconds before Rivalz' own phone vibrated, indicating a new message.

"What I've sent you is the contact number of Q-4. She will be both your navigator and protector for the length of this task." Without waiting for Rivalz to respond, he began to walk towards the room. "Come, you should be introduced to your comrades."

"Eh? But I've already met the Earl."

Lelouch chuckled. "They don't know that. You're just 'Laroque' or 'Q-7' to them."

Rivalz scratched the back of his helmet-encased head in embarrassment. "Oh…right. I forgot about that."

'Definitely the same old Rivalz.'


A/N: Don't play Magic the Gathering. It ruins your life and give you no time to do awesome things like finish that story you started several years ago. Sorry about that.

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