"The superior man is distressed by the limitations of his ability; he is not distressed by the fact that men do not recognize the ability that he has."
- Confucius

Chapter XIX: The Chinese Liberation Army

Area 22 Government Bureau
Luoyang Settlement, Duchy of Henan, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

Lieutenant General Sir Reginald Calares, 10th Duke of Argentine and Viceroy of Area 22, was a man who hated his job. Yes, to some, being the military governor of an Area was nothing short of a dream come true; you got a miniature kingdom to play monarch around, unlimited access to its resources and treasures and the title "Viceroy" carried a lot of clout within the Imperial Court. Beside these, you also got other perks such as your own personal staff, the ability to choose your own work hours, countless numbers of subjects to boss around and, if you were of the overly sadistic variety, you sometimes even got a Number rebellion to suppress at your leisure. Thus, by all accounts and purposes, Calares was essentially living the dream, an opinion that was undoubtedly shared by much of the military command and the nobility around the Empire.

Clearly, those same individuals had never been in his position, much less been to Area 22. Though scenic enough, his unwanted fiefdom was a realm lacking in virtually every area; in fact, it was possibly the most underdeveloped, decrepit hellhole Calares had ever set foot in. While the rest of the world had developed accordingly over the previous millennium, China had remained permanently fixed in a feudal state not seen since the Dark Ages; a land of proles ruled over from one tyrant to another, whether it be the Qings, the Kuomintang or Mao Zedong and those that followed him, in which all attempts at development and innovation were severely, and often times, brutally curtailed over a span of centuries. The result upon its transition into Britannia's twenty-second Area spoke for itself.

Any worthwhile resources that the land might have held – sakuradite not being among them, at least not in any major quantity – were otherwise unreachable due to poor industrialization and technological development, such that it would take the Empire years in order to bring anything up to standard. Outside that, there was plenty of land to utilize for agriculture, but a combination of growing desertification and poor practices by the previous administration left only a select amount of it fertile, barring the Area as a farming colony. Further on, due to the aforementioned technological and social underdevelopment, very few of the resident Numbers, normally the backbone of an Area's working sector, knew how to properly perform any sort trade, severely limiting the Area's native workforce. And though there were a fair number of ancient ruins and artifacts that dotted the region – one of which that seemed to hold the Empire's particular interest being placed underneath the Vermillion Forbidden Palace - the Area didn't even hold much in the way of cultural wealth either.

In short, Area 22, as much strategic value as it held, was a pitiful little hill no right-minded individual would want to be king of. And yet the Crown, in its great wisdom, had chosen to send him here, to act as its would-be administrator. Fate was vindictive like that.

At the moment he was reading a report regarding suspected CLA attacks on Imperial garrisons in Shandong, Henan and Shanxi, which were obvious reprisals for the recent purges in those regions. This was the second reason he hated his job: instead of having to deal with a 'minor' Numbers rebellion, he was given the so-called Chinese Liberation Army, the remnants of the former Federation's military, to contend with. For seven years the CLA had waged a continuous guerrilla war against Britannia, giving Calares one headache after another while evading his own attempts to contain them. He likely spent more time trying to hunt down CLA cells than he did doing anything else in his Area, yet he was no closer to eliminating them than he had been upon his arrival here.

"If only we had caught Li at the beginning..." he absently muttered in distaste, continuing to read the report. Of course, he didn't blame Prince Schneizel for that; after all, when Li and his minions had been chased out of Luoyang, he had offered his services in commanding the pursuit force, only to be rejected by a certain group. Obviously, it was that group Calares blamed for blundering Li's capture, both in their rejecting proper aid and their falling into the Tiger's trap at Shentu. Had that screw up not occurred, Li and Tianzi would have both been in captivity and Calares could have casually hunted down and destroyed the rebel Twenty-Twos at his leisure. In that sense, Fate was not only vindictive, but sadistic as well.

As if to emphasize that last point, his secretary, a bookish looking Captain with thick glasses entered the office. "Excuse me sir, but the gentlemen are here and waiting for you." the Captain reported.

Calares sighed at him, both due to knowing who those "gentlemen" were and due to the Captain himself. He couldn't even have a female secretary. That was just mean. "Very well, I'll be there in a minute."

The Captain saluted and took his leave. From that, Calares took a few more moments to compose himself before standing up and, upon straightening his uniform, strolled out of the office and begun making his way down the hall.

Soon enough, after passing through a set of doors and winding corridors, Calares entered his destination, a large recreation room with an abundance of furniture and other such devices. It was here that the third reason why he hated his job, which was subsequently the biggest of the three, could be found: the eight former members of the Chinese State Council, the same men who bartered their country to Britannia for wealth and peerage. They all came in various shapes and sizes, but were easily identifiable by their ubiquitous Mao suits, the same clothes that they wore when they were Federal officials instead of Britannians. They were also all quite repulsive to look at, which as Calares found, belied their true characters.

"It's about time you got here Calares!" whined the high-pitched voice of Zhao Hao, 1st Duke of Henan, beady eyes ablaze with a mixture of anger and panic. "We have much to talk about!"

"The CLA has attacked our territories again!" shouted the shrill voice of Cheng Zhong, 1st Duke of Guizhou, who like the previous speaker looked like he was about to blow a gasket and wet himself at the same time. "And once again your military forces are worthless in repelling them!"

"This is the third time they've attacked in this month alone!" the bespectacled Xia Wang, 1st Duke of Shaanxi shouted alongside the first two. "Just how long are you going to let this continue!?"

Calares could only rub his eyes as the high pitched rants continued on, especially when four others joined in; only Gao Hai, the 1st Duke of Hunan, remained silent through all of it, but that in itself disturbed the Viceroy. Yes, this was the main reason he hated his job, no doubt about it.

In all his life, Calares had never encountered such petty, self-serving and overall useless human beings as he had the eight de facto administrators of Area 22. Everything about these men disgusted him in ways he never would have imagined, from their extreme hedonistic tendencies to their rampant misuse of their newly gained wealth and titles to the fact they were all blatant hypocrites, yet completely unashamed of it. Hell, even the fact they so willingly betrayed their own people, as well as their former nation's ideology, irked the general to no end; it was one thing for Britannians to be oppressive, as their entire Empire was based around Britannian supremacy in the face of non-Britannians, but it was another for a country's leadership to oppress their own so viciously and then betray them, along with their supposed principles, at the given opportunity. Calares could only wonder how Prince Schneizel himself felt when he offered an alliance with these miscreants.

Toward that end, the Viceroy remembered how the Chinese populace, before they became Twenty-Twos, had dubbed these eight and the rest of the State Council as the "High Eunuchs" after they elected Tianzi to the Chairmanship, essentially comparing them to the traditional attendants, and manipulators, of an underage Emperor. That type of mockery had earned severe clamp downs upon the regular population, namely in the form of mass arrests by the MSS, the former Chinese Federation's secret police, but the title still endured to the present day. And indeed, looking at these men, Calares would have suspected they all lacked that certain part of the male anatomy; unfortunately though, the Viceroy was very much aware that wasn't the case, again referring back to the extreme hedonistic tendencies they all practiced. This was especially true in the case of Zhao Hao, who had a particular fondness for children; that alone made Calares and several others in his command want to turn the former Premier into a literal Eunuch.

And here they were now, rambling at him like a group of frightened, sociopathic children, trying to get him to do something about the bogeyman known as Li Xingke. Oh how he wished he were somewhere else; even Area 18 was starting to look good to him, despite the latest string of Zulfiqar attacks.

"Gentlemen," he began with the most soothing voice possible, doing well to keep his disdain out of it. Or at least he thought so. "I understand your displeasure from the...recent events. That being said, yelling at me over and over again will not give me greater insight into defeating the CLA."

"Then what will Calares!?" Zhao Hao retorted. "At this rate Area 22 will never be rid of Li and his terrorists! We'll be old men and still be dealing with the Tiger!"

And whose fault is that again? Calares thought, but didn't say aloud. "Rest assured I am doing everything in my power to hunt down these criminals. If you wish to help me, then I suggest you not to take any more ill-advised, independent actions...such as your latest round of purges."

"What are you talking about!? Those purges were the perfect strategy to draw out the CLA!" Cheng Zhong hollered.

"The CLA yes...but not Li, who would never fall for such an obvious trap," Calares countered, eyes narrowing. "You massacred five million Twenty-Twos, who weren't even rebelling at the time, for nothing. And worse, you used my men to do it, which invited reprisal upon them."

"Oh don't make such a fuss over it Calares," Cai Lishi, 1st Duke of Guangdong, spoke up with a wave of the hand. "Five million dead amounts to nothing in this land. And as for your troops, if they didn't think they would be attacked, then they should never have become soldiers in the first place."

"And it's not like they couldn't defend themselves either," Tong Lun, 1st Duke of Fujian, added as well.

The blatant disregard of his men only served to infuriate Calares further, but he did well to keep his anger in check. "I find it rather amusing that you complain to me about a CLA attack, then dismiss it the next moment when I bring up others who were affected. Far more than you were at that."

"A few nameless Numbers and soldiers do not matter," Zhao Hao summarized with nods from the others. "We, however, are the selected leaders of this land and are therefore entirely nonexpendable. Whether it take one of your men or even a thousand, your entire objective should be our protection as well as our properties!"

Zhao Hao then added. "And you should go about it as if you were protecting the Emperor himself!"

Surprisingly, to both the Eunuchs and to Calares himself, the Viceroy actually laughed in the face of that declaration. "You bastards really think you're of the same worth as His Majesty?" he said amidst his laughter. With that last remark, he saw no more reason to hold back. "How easily you all forget your place in this arrangement."

The eight quickly adopted expressions of shock, but Calares didn't care. "Do you truly believe you eight really matter at all to Britannia? That you are among its most valued sons?" he let out a laugh for effect. "Please, to us you're no different from the other Twenty-Twos out here. The only reason we took you on was because it was the easiest way to obtain this land; if my superiors wanted to, they could just as easily have you all killed or imprisoned, and then bring officials in from the Homeland to take the positions you currently hold. And they would do it with the exact same attitude you're displaying now: complete indifference."

Not it was Zhao Hao's turn to look angry in the face of Calares' stance. "You better watch your tone Calares," he retorted. "Even Prince Schneizel never spoke to us in that manner."

Again Calares laughed. "His Highness is a man bound by honor. When he makes an arrangement, he keeps to his word, even when the other party does not deserve it."

Calares returned a smirk. "Why else would he allow you eight to live past your usage, much less take positions of power? Especially when others, including myself, would have simply killed you?"

Obviously attempting to let out a fierce rebuttal, Zhao Hao raised his right hand in fury, displaying the black leather glove that covered it. Calares quickly took notice of the hand and, instead of stepping back in intimidation, only returned an even greater smirk. This in turn caused Zhao Hao to freeze in his words as he remembered why Calares was smirking, much to his great embarrassment.

There was a reason why that hand, alongside the left, was covered by a glove: it was a prosthetic. The story went that at one point in time, Zhao Hao attempted to force himself on an extremely young Tianzi, but before he could get too far with his sickening act, Li burst into the room and, after declaring Zhao Hao would never touch her again, cut off the Premier's arms with a single swing of his sword. Since then, the rapist had been forced to wear Chinese manufactured prosthetics, which were essentially primitive metal skeleton appendages that lacked any outer shell, thus necessitating gloves to cover the hand portions.

Needless to say, Calares would have paid good money to go back in time and witness that event, and Zhao Hao would have been an even bigger idiot not to realize it. Thus, he lowered his arm and coughed into his newly folded fist. "Regardless, it is still in your best interest to protect us, as we are still Britannian nobles like yourself. Just as it is also in your best interest to end the CLA's reign of terror, or risk losing this land to them."

Calares had to take a breath before working up the urge to reply. "Unfortunately, that is all true. For the time being your lives are...nonexpendable," he then readopted a glare. "Which brings me back to my original point: your complaints, no matter how warranted, will not aid me in fighting these rebel scum. That said, I suggest you return to your homes and preoccupy yourselves with your...hobbies for the time being. I will summon you if I need you."

The General then spared the eight one last glance. Though I would sooner invite Li over for afternoon tea. "Now, good day gentlemen...or should I say song bie."

He then turned around to walk away, only for Zhao Hao to speak again. "Just keep in mind your place in this arrangement Calares," the former Premier stated. "You were placed here under the belief that you were capable of defending this Area and its subjects from their enemies. So long as you keep failing to live up to that image, well..."

Zhao Hao then flashed a similar smirk to the one Calares had given him. "There's no telling how His Majesty will 'reward' your failure."

"Is that a threat, Zhao Hao?" Calares asked without turning around.

"It's a reminder, that you have as much to lose as the rest of us. Song bie." Zhao Hao finished, then turning away himself and moving toward the exit, the other seven following him.

Calares made one last sneer at the eight as they departed before he himself started walking back to his office. In hindsight, the meeting actually went better than he expected, and he took great delight in bruising their egos throughout it. However, this was coupled with the fact Zhao Hao had a point; he needed to show some progress with the CLA and soon, otherwise there was no telling what the Homeland would have in store for him. And as bad as Area 22 was, Calares had no wish to be sent to an even worse place.

But then, is there really any place worse than this hellhole? he thought, just as he saw someone running down the hall toward him.

As it turned out, it was his young male secretary. Who was clutching a datapad underneath his arm. "Excuse me my lord, but you'll want to see this..."

Sighing, Calares reached out and took the datapad, scanning over its contents quickly. When he finished however, his eyes had noticeably widened, worry now quite clear upon his face. "When?" he demanded.

"ETA three hours." the secretary replied while catching his breath.

Calares suddenly felt very cold, alongside a growing urge to drink. "Then we don't have much time. Start making the necessary preparations."

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Duchy of Fujian, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

Just another day in Paradise. Ohgi thought as he gazed out the Mikasa's bridge to the vast landscape around them, effectively summarizing the thoughts of the entire bridge crew in one go. Though paradise was a bit of a stretch, he had to admit the trip to what Zero had established as the main CLA base was a scenic one. Indeed, Fujian lived up to its reputation as a mountainous and largely green province, one fortunately vast enough that the massive land battleship could slip through. On any other occasion, Ohgi might have taken the time to actually enjoy the surroundings.

Then of course, reality caught up with him in the way of a nearby village or town that the Mikasa passed close to. Each time, the sight alone was enough to remind Ohgi of the decrepit state of the former Chinese Federation; collections of ramshackle streets and buildings, often times placed around farmland in which the local inhabitance struggled to yield crops with only the barest tools and equipment available. Most of which, as the Mikasa's visual systems best highlighted, appeared half-starved and barely functioning; the standard image of Numbers suffering under Britannian tyranny, such that several of the Japanese bridge crew visibly cringed as they passed. Ohgi wasn't among them up front, but most definitely on the inside.

"So," Viletta murmured as she entered the bridge, quickly taking up a spot next to where her husband was sitting. She glanced toward the screen, which showed another broken down village with equally broken down Numbers in the distance. "This is what we are going to be fighting Britannia over next."

Ohgi took a side glance toward his wife and subordinate. "Indeed," he replied, noting the irony in his wife's tone, but purposely ignoring it. "It will be just like the Insurrection all over again, only with you and me on the same side among other things."

He then flashed a knowing smirk. "And if we gain some valuable allies along the way, so much better."

Needless to say, Viletta looked far from convinced. "Right, a rundown army comprised of conscripts, outdated tech and only one decently skilled commander," she summarized with the driest of sarcasm. "With them on our side, we'll be set to take the Homeland for sure."

The General couldn't help but chuckle at the sarcasm. "Okay, the CLA isn't exactly up to par, but they're still a start," he answered. "Remember, Zero's plan calls for a worldwide alliance with the Black Knights at the spearhead; by reforming the Chinese Federation, not only do we establish the first vestiges of that alliance, but we also show the world that we are not in over our heads pursuing that goal."

Viletta only sniffed. "That's funny, because I was thinking we were exactly the opposite."

"As am I, but then I've felt that way as far back as Shinjuku," Ohgi shrugged at the memory. "After a while, you just come to accept Zero's plans working out regardless."

"Heh," Viletta let out dryly. As there was nothing more to discuss there, she decided to change the subject. To one that irked her even more. "How are our newest 'additions' doing?"

At that, Ohgi closed his eyes. She didn't have to elaborate; he already knew what she was talking about. "They seem to be keeping to themselves for the time being, so either they're trying to make nice or they're secretly plotting to take over the ship," his expression darkened as he explained. "Goddamn Shinobi."

Viletta bit her lip in order to keep herself from uttering her own curse, feeling the exact same way her husband did. Very few in the regular Black Knight forces had taken the news of Iga's increased presence in standard operations well, much less that they would be operating side by side when warranted. Even the fact it had been Zero's decision, and that Colonel Shinozaki himself had assured all of his army's loyalty, did little to smoothen the integration.

This was especially felt by those aboard the Mikasa, far more so than any of the other Black Knight units. Unlike the latter, the resident Iga unit, the 13th Special Forces Squadron, was made a permanent addition to its assigned force, as Colonel Shinozaki felt an Iga presence on the Black Knights' flagship was warranted. As a result, not a single crewman failed to notice the presence of twelve ninja and their support staff, nor the conspiratorial demeanor that they all projected whenever they moved about their new station or interacted between each other. All the while keeping themselves distinctly separate from the other Black Knights, save only for operational commitments.

The colonel could only shake her head at all of it. "Just be grateful they haven't done anything, nor caused any incidents," she said. "Like it or not, they are fellow Black Knights and they are fighting for the same cause we are."

Ohgi nodded, though the frustration was still there. "I know. I know. It's just..." he replied. "There are just too many things wrong with them for my liking. Their secret agendas, their acting outside the scope of authority…"

He sighed. "As if the Britannians weren't bad enough."

Viletta chuckled lightly. "It's like that in every war, my love," she spoke softly, if only to get her husband to relax a little. "We could all share one common goal... hell, we could all fight for the same country, but that doesn't mean we can all get along," she replied, looking down in remembrance. "I found that out the hard way in Cambodia."

The General could only raise an eyebrow at that. "When were you in Cambodia?"

Viletta only matched his gaze with a wry smile. "Going by your photo album, about the same time you were sporting a nose ring and dying your hair blonde," she inwardly smirked at the look of dismay on her husband's face. "I learned three things from that experience. First, never eat bok l'hong in a village that has no toilets. Second, when using a local phone to call in air support, always have a credit card on hand."

Ohgi was almost afraid to ask, but he did so anyway. "And third?"

"Third," Viletta's eyes narrowed. "Never trust MI6, or any organization that has words like 'secret' or 'intelligence' in its name. Ever."

The higher ranked Black Knight could only remain silent at that, as well as see how that lesson could also fit with groups that were named after ancient ninja clans. Curious however, he couldn't keep himself from speaking again. "I don't suppose you'll tell me what you were doing there."

Suddenly, Viletta adopted a rather cold expression. "Only if you'll tell me what Chizuru Matsumoto meant when she wrote 'thanks for the good time', complete with heart outline, next to your high school graduation picture."

Ohgi swallowed. Hard. "On second thought, let's just enjoy the moment."

"Yes, let's."

"Man, those CLA bastards don't mess around, do they?" Tamaki eloquently observed as the television on the mess hall's sidewall continued to broadcast to the assembled occupants. At the moment, the channel was on IBC, which was reporting on the latest attack in Area 22, complete with various images of Gun Rus and other Chinese armor firing their weapons on Sutherlands and the like. The anchor, who soon flashed back in, reported it as a terrorist attack, but the Black Knights knew better; especially since the Intelligence Division had picked up on the latest round of ghetto purges.

For their part, the other present Black Knights regarded the report with certain boredom, as made apparent by the expressions they all wore. At least everyone except Tamaki, who looked more drawn into the feed than the others around him. "'Terrorist attack'? Seriously, they can't come up with a better spin than that!? They use that one every goddamned time!"

"Well, how many 'spins' are there that make the good guys look bad and the bad guys look righteous?" Naomi piped up, leaning on her right palm. "I'm just surprised they're not showing the scenes of the purges. They had no problems showing those in the past, as long as they claimed the ghettos as terrorist hideouts and so forth."

"Probably has to do with all the uprisings as of late," Kento added. He was sitting beside Naomi, as always.

"Yeah, don't want to cause more of them by showing the crackdowns," Asahina concluded as well, taking a sip of his cappuccino. "At least, not when the Brits are stretched so thin."

"Makes our work easier for us I guess. We need all the breaks we can get at this point," Urabe commented as he leaned back a little. He continued observing the images of the Gun Rus, especially whenever they were charging Britannian emplacements. "I'll say one thing about the CLA, they've got the bravest devicers I've ever seen. No way in hell you'll catch me in one of those deathtraps."

"Agreed, those Gun Rus are hideous," Chiba spoke up at last, leaning over her knuckles to observe the Chinese knightmares more closely. "Look at that thing; its landspinners are fixed, which means it can't move sideways. It can only turn left or right!"

"Yeah, and its guns are also fixed, which means it has to turn its entire torso to fire left or right. Any rookie Sutherland pilot could outmaneuver that," Asahina replied matter of factly.

"And don't forget its bulk," Naomi pointed out. "That thing has a targeting profile larger than most tanks, but judging by these images, it has practically no armor."

"Exactly. It can't maneuver, it can't take a beating and it can only fire in one direction," Urabe summarized.

"And because it only has guns and no arms, it can't fight up close either," Kento added.

"That too," Urabe laughed, continuing to watch the images play out with an unimpressed glance. "Makes you wonder how the CLA has lasted for so long, doesn't it?"

"You will do well not to underestimate the Chinese, Urabe," a new voice spoke up, causing everyone to turn and see Senba standing behind them. Having gained their attention, the elder Holy Sword casually walked up and took a seat amongst the group. "For whatever shortcomings they may possess, they are still a civilization well versed in warfare."

Immediately those gathered remembered that of all the Black Knights, Senba was likely the only one who had fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and thus held a certain perspective of the force that they were hoping to ally with. As such, Urabe and the others decided to sit back and listen. "Well, why don't you give us your insight on these people, Senba."

"Certainly," Senba replied, relaxing a bit more before continuing. He suddenly felt like a grandpa telling stories to his grandchildren. Not that he hadn't done so in the past. "During the War, the Chinese were largely the same as they are today: they held numbers, but were poorly equipped and hardly a threat in individual engagements. In conventional battle, they lost twenty of their soldiers for every one of ours, and perhaps fifty to a hundred for every one of our tanks. Their main forces were, essentially, peasants given uniforms and rifles and sent out to fight against a far more professional army."

The elderly Black Knight inwardly smirked as he saw the great amount of attention given to him. Not just by the group he was talking to, but by a number of nearby Black Knights as well. "But even so, for all their deficiencies, the Chinese are still a race well adapted to war. Their regular soldiers displayed this through their high discipline and their adherence to the chain of command, while their leaders made up for their army's technological shortcomings with tactical brilliance. For an example of the latter, their main offensive strategy during the war was a series of night time assaults that were coordinated not through radios, but through time tables, which were so meticulous and thought out that it inflicted heavy losses on our end for only a fraction of theirs."

Senba took a moment to catch his breath as memories of that war became far more frequent. The overwhelming stench of burnt flesh and motor oil, the sound of tanks and armored vehicles rumbling across the landscape, the battle cries, both Chinese and Japanese, chanting across the air. Events that had occurred entire lifetimes ago, yet he was recalling them as vividly as he had seen them firsthand. "We also found early on that they were willing to risk massive short term losses for long term gains, which we were only able to realize after they had achieved their objectives. This in itself was a strategy practiced in our country's Feudal Era, but was abandoned when Japan became unified and adopted Britannian and European standards for the Self-Defense Force."

"Yeah, but in the end we still won that war," Tamaki pointed out. "I mean, sure the Chicoms got to keep Korea and the rest, but we forced them to pay reparations for that territory."

Senba merely laughed and shook his head at that notion. "We did not lose the war, Tamaki, but we certainly did not win either," he said, becoming more serious. "Our objective in that war, as defined by the Prime Minister himself, was to 'liberate' all of China from the communists, which Japan had not recognized as a legitimate government even before the War of the Orient. Our General Staff believed the Chinese mainland would be fully occupied in two years; instead, the Chinese proved to be far more capable than we had expected and the war threatened to drag on longer than we had hoped. Thus, we settled for armistice."

The seriousness in his gaze deepened even further. "My friends, I've told you this story to share a lesson that I had to learn the hard way: never underestimate the Chinese." he spoke with the hardened voice only a true war veteran could hold. "To them, war is merely another tool of diplomacy, not something to be avoided like we see it; as such, they have no hesitation when it comes to fighting. Beware of such an enemy."

Asahina rubbed his chin thoughtfully at that. "But on the opposite end, that same quality would also make them a powerful ally," he smiled. "I think I'm starting to see the wisdom in Zero's plan," the others, even Chiba, all nodded in agreement.

Senba also nodded, before taking a sip of his own coffee. "We will see. Though I myself wonder if Zero knows who he wishes to deal with..."

"I'm seeing it..." Kallen muttered, her expression completely taken back. "...but I'm not believing it."

Lelouch could only roll his eyes as he lowered the hand weights, then wiping the sweat off his forehead. "Somehow, you're willing to accept that, after these last eight years, I can command a real army, pilot a knightmare at ace level and even lay waste to one of the most heavily defended fortresses in the world..." he stated, breathing heavily. "...but you can't accept that I can do three sets of bicep curls."

"I can't believe you can do any bicep curls at all," Kallen replied, still astonished and questioning whether she had been transported to some parallel reality. "I mean, I remember when you couldn't even lift a box of pillows, so you can understand why this is a shock to me."

Lelouch blemished at that particular memory; that had definitely been one of the more embarrassing moments in his lifetime. "Need I remind you that box held ten to twelve pillows, all of them large sized?"

Now it was Kallen's turn to roll her eyes. "Except those were foam pillows. Even Nina was able to lift hers without any problems."

The exiled prince only sighed and decided not to go any further, for the sake of what little dignity he had left. "Let's just keep going. Bench press next."

"Right." Kallen confirmed as Lelouch walked over to the aforementioned bench and sat down on the cushion, taking a few more minutes to regain his breath. The renegade was so concentrated on that, he didn't notice how drawn spotting partner's was over him.

As hard as it was for the Guren pilot to believe, he had really changed over the last eight years; gone was the weak and helpless honor student and in was the warrior prince, and it showed, emphasized even by the black A-shirt and sweatpants he was wearing. He was still relatively thin in stature, but his arms and legs now had highly definable muscle, while his abs and chest had greatly broadened. Alongside this, he also seemed to have put on more weight over the years, yet at the same time he held virtually no excess fat or bulk, thereby emphasizing a body that possessed both strength and speed. In fact, as Kallen summarized, had he not been a soldier, he could very easily been confused for an athlete; not Olympic level obviously, but an adept one all the same.

Needless to say, Kallen could not keep the red from moving onto her cheeks as she continued to look at him.

"Uh, Kallen?" Lelouch asked, gesturing toward the weight bar. "Care to spot me? Or are you going to keep standing there?"

That was enough snap Kallen out of her trance, to which she immediately reassumed her usual demeanor. "Oh, right." she said, moving over to the weights and grabbing hold, just as Lelouch did.

Three sets of twelve reps later, Lelouch raised the weight bar and placed it on the stand, Kallen guiding him along as he did so, before getting up into a sitting position, once more breathing heavily. Following this, Kallen quickly sat down beside him and handed him a water bottle, which the "evil warlord" eagerly took and began drinking.

"So..." Kallen began, after Lelouch finished taking a drink. "What changed your mind toward exercising?"

Lelouch turned to face her. "What do you mean?"

"Well, obviously you started working out when you were in West Point," Kallen replied. "What I don't understand is what got you into it like this. Back in Ashford, you took every opportunity you could get to skip gym. Now..." she looked over him again. "It's like you've been lifting weights your whole life."

The exiled prince though about that for a moment. "It wasn't a what that changed my mind, but a who." he spoke between breaths.

Kallen quickly realized the answer, recalling who had been Lelouch's personal instructor throughout that time. "The Knight of One?"

"Exactly." Lelouch replied while dumping some water over himself in an effort to cool off. "At first I didn't...take to that portion of the training, even though it was required of me in order to gain my rank and position," he remembered all of it. "I probably repeated every excuse I made at Ashford and more in the first few days alone."

He then looked at the floor. "And yet despite all of my attempts, Bismarck outsmarted me at every turn. If I tried running away, he'd quickly find where I had run to. If I attempted to prearrange an excuse, he would predict my plans beforehand and counter them," he laughed a little. "He was relentless, even more so than Schneizel. Of course, I suppose he has to be in order to protect my father."

"But eventually you did take to it," Kallen exclaimed. "Was it because you couldn't outsmart your instructor?"

"No, not at all," Lelouch said. "I kept it up for a good three months or so, but then one day, Bismarck pulled me aside and practically threw me into a weight room, locking the door behind him. He then proclaimed that I had only two ways of getting out of there: either I do a full day's worth of weight exercises, or I face him."

Kallen snickered, imagining the giant sized Knight of One staring down a still feeble Lelouch, who had not but the weights and exercise equipment around him to use as his "terrain advantage". The thought Lelouch squirming under the Knight of One's gaze alone made her cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

Lelouch, while ignoring the display on Kallen's part, continued. "Since I obviously couldn't beat Bismarck directly, I tried to argue my way out of the room. We probably went on for a good hour or two, but then at some point he made the following ultimatum: exercising was not just a challenge in physical prowess, but also in mental as well. As such, he declared that I was not only weak in strength, but weak in mind as well, and that before my graduation, he would completely change that, no matter what I tried to do."

The prince allowed himself to chuckle at the memory, finding irony in the fact that he was speaking of that time so lightly now. Back then he had believed it to be the darkest period of his life. "It was only at that point that I gave in, and began following my physical training. The result speaks for itself."

Kallen couldn't help but smile at the story. "You two must have been quite close."

Lelouch sighed at that. "He was the closest thing to a father I ever had," he then looked down again. "I will truly regret the day I will have to face him."

Kallen said nothing, only taking the water bottle when Lelouch handed back to her, then spraying some of it on her head. She herself had already done several exercises up to this point and, in spite of the fact she was wearing a red spandex tanktop that left her midriff uncovered alongside matching short shorts, was in constant need of cooling off. That and the act also caused Lelouch to try and sneak a glance at her body every now and then, which she found inwardly amusing. Even the great and almighty Zero has hormones. Who knew?

When he tried this time, she purposely spoke up to cause him to snap back. "You think we'll see any Knights of the Round out here?"

Quickly pushing any urge to look below Kallen's face again, Lelouch answered. "That's always a possibility, but it's doubtful this time around. China has already been annexed, and the CLA have never been seen as a serious threat, so there's really no need to send a Round to this Area. Especially when there's more to worry about in Europe lately."

Kallen frowned at that mention. "Speaking of the EU, I wonder how they're going to react to us after this one; China is right along their eastern border after all."

"They'll probably see us as a credible threat," Lelouch answered. "In fact, they likely do already, since I badmouthed their President and the Council of Forty right after laying siege to Pearl. China's liberation would just reaffirm their stance."

That caused Kallen to consider of something else. "Would they send their own forces after us?"

Lelouch considered that as well. "That's another possibility, though I don't think they'll send anything worthwhile. The closest forces they could deploy are in the Far East, and they're too busy fighting my sister Marrybell to worry about us," then he recalled a certain report. "That and there's been growing tension between Berlin and the eastern states as of late, thanks to Kessler focusing most of the EU's supply train on western Europe and leaving little else for the Far East and Africa."

"That might be something to use in the future, when we move onto the Far East; surely they would welcome us, since their masters in Berlin can't do anything for them," Kallen replied, before realizing she spoke out of turn. "That is your plan, right? Liberate China and then move onto the Far East. Or were you going to go into the Middle East?"

The prince visibly cringed at that suggestion. "No, the Far East will be our next target after China." he replied, eyes narrowing. "For the life of me I don't know what to do with the Middle East."

Kallen didn't believe that. "Surely you have a plan for that."

"Several, but I don't see any of them lasting. At least nothing short of Geassing that whole region into compliance," Lelouch answered again. "I can easily have the Black Knights aid Zulfiqar and the rest in ousting the Britannians, resurrect the Middle Eastern Federation and so on. But what about after?"

He gritted his teeth at the idea. "How can I dispel a form of racial and religious hatred that has lasted well over a thousand years? How can I keep sects of an already violent faith from slaughtering each other after the last Britannians are expelled?" he the dread in his eyes then became deeper. "And that's not even the worst possibility."

"Then what is?" Kallen looked both disturbed and curious.

Lelouch sighed at the thought. "I may end up doing the exact opposite and unite them, from which they would inevitably turn on the 'Infidels' of Europe later on," this time, he looked at her dead on. "The last time an event like that happened, the response was the first Crusade. Consider that for a moment."

Silence reigned for the following moments, until the nearby intercom began beeping. "Bridge to Zero," came Ohgi's voice.

Blinking as the tension drained away, Lelouch got up and approached it, hitting it once. "This is Zero."

"We are now entering Jiangsu," Ohgi replied, talking directly in spite of the news he was about to deliver. "ETA thirty minutes to Xiaopei."

The Black Knights leader nodded to himself. "Very well. I'll be up there soon. Zero out." he then hung up.

Kallen let out a breath of air at that. "Well, whatever we've got ahead, first things first," she said, before getting up herself. "I suggest we quit for the day and get cleaned up. Wouldn't want to disappoint the Chairwoman."

"Agreed," Lelouch concluded, before moving toward the changing rooms. Kallen was not far behind.

The atmosphere throughout the ship had changed since the Mikasa had entered into Jiangsu, and had grown even more intense as the ship at long last entered Xiaopei. Between the Britannians that occupied the Area and the Chinese resistance fighters that hid in it, the Black Knights had no idea who would shoot at them first upon detection. The fact that they needed to be detected at some point, so that they could open a dialogue with the former, certainly didn't help the tension. Even so, they went about their tasks just as well, though with certain nervousness being abundant.

And then, as if on cue, Lelouch, once again having reassumed the guise of Zero, quickly emerged from the elevator with Kallen and C.C., the latter having been unavailable beforehand, in tow. "Zero on the bridge!" Colonel Valkenburgh called out as the masked man entered.

"Status report." Zero said as he took to his usual seat, Kallen moving to stand on his right side while C.C., Cheese-kun once more in hand, stood back.

"We have just entered Xiaopei," Ohgi replied, just as the main monitor flickered to display tactical images of the surrounding area. Even on a digital display, Xiaopei was as desolate looking as a field of purple as it was as lifeless brown desert. "No sign of the CLA so far, though it's a pretty good bet that they're out there."

"And the Britannians?" Zero inquired, resting the "chin" of his mask over his hands.

"Sparse contacts, but they're too far out to do anything about us. We're well outside their radar coverage as well." Minami concluded.

Just as I predicted. Lelouch thought with a smile. He had figured Calares didn't have enough forces to cover all of China's landscape; it was after all the largest Area outside those in the Britannian homeland. Because of this, there was an abundance of unmonitored space within Area 22, which provided nooks and crannies that the CLA operated from. Lelouch just hoped the one he picked was the one Tianzi would be in. "Good, then it is time we announce our arrival." Lelouch said. "Disengage the Gefjun Disturber."

Minami resisted the urge to gulp at that order. "As you command, Zero," he replied, before relaying the command to the appropriate crewman. Moments later, the Mikasa flickered into existence, at least as far as any nearby sensors could tell. If the CLA hadn't detected them before, they most certainly would now, to say nothing of any Britannians that were paying attention in spite of Zero's predictions.

Now fully exposed, tension amongst the bridge crew only broadened, but Lelouch himself wasn't too worried. The Mikasa was already at battlestations, having transitioned to that state of alert the moment they had entered China, and Lelouch had personally instructed that two of the battleship's knightmare squadrons be placed on standby in case any shooting started. For all accounts and purposes, they were adequately prepared for the worst turn of events.

But of course, Lelouch did well to remember that he had made similar back up plans in the past, only to see them fail the moment the Lancelot, almost always an unforeseen element, entered the field. Not that he believed the white knightmare would appear this time around, though he didn't rule out the possibility. "Anything?" he asked after several minute passed.

"Nothing." Ichijiku replied.

"Communications?" Ohgi spoke up as well.

"All channels are clear." Mutsuki reported.

"Strange..." Viletta murmured.

"Hmph. I've never known the Chinese to be so unresponsive," Rakshata spoke up with seeming disappointment, though with a fairly large tinge of hostility underneath. "At Jallianwala Bagh in '14, the CLA didn't wait to see if the pilgrims were armed before they started shooting. Now a battleship appears in their territory, and they don't even send a warning?"

Lelouch was already going through the possibilities. An ambush perhaps? No, starting a fight here would expose them. But at the same time they can't just ignore us, since our continued presence would also draw attention from the Britannians. his eyes narrowed. Just what could they be doing?

A proximity alert soon beeped from the sensors. "Signal directly ahead!" Ichijiku called out. "IFF is not Britannian!"

The Black Prince grit his teeth. Here we go. "Type?"

Ichijiku soon verified. "It looks like a knightm...!"

Suddenly, a pillar of golden light erupted from the Mikasa's port side, obscuring that entire side to the bridge's view. The shot barely missed striking the battleship, but still caused it to rumble and nearly list to starboard, while the bridge crew all covered their eyes from the glare, cries ringing out as they did so. Lelouch himself reflexively reached up with his right hand and covered the front of his mask, even though the optics quickly adjusted to the glare. What is that!?

Then an instant later, the pillar dissipated. "Report!" Ohgi bellowed as soon as he got back up alongside Viletta.

Everyone quickly got back on their stations. "Minimal damage to outer hull!" somebody called out in response.

"Was that a hadron cannon!?" Minami followed up with confusion.

Ichijiku quickly analyzed the data. "Beam composition is a seventy-four percent match. Whatever it is, it's different from a hadron cannon, but not by much." another beep alerted her. "Enemy is closing in!"

Immediately Minami sprang to action. "Lock on and return fi...!"

"Belay that! That was just a warning shot." Lelouch called out instantly, standing up from his chair. Soon enough, the knightmare, upon reaching a certain distance directly in front of the Mikasa, came to a halt. In fact, it was close enough that it could actually be seen from the bridge, albeit as a dot in the distance.

"Magnify!" Minami ordered. A moment later, an image window appeared on the Mikasa's main monitor; upon seeing it, the bridge crew was instantly taken back. Centered on the screen was indeed a single knightmare, but not one any of the Black Knights were expecting.

Holding a height of just over four and a half meters, the knightmare was easily identifiable by its slender, blue tinted armor with red highlights, alongside additional silver armor plates coming off from its shoulders and lower torso. Its chest held a curious grey colored port at its center, which soon retracted behind a neon green colored orb; this was likely the source of the cannon blast just a few seconds ago. Meanwhile, its feet were each topped with gold colored fins of some kind, and its hand manipulators held similar claw-like finger tips as an Akatsuki. However, even those details took backseat to the machine's head; while otherwise humanoid, the faceplate was a golden mask with white and red markings, as well as a red fin coming off from the top of it.

What is that? Lelouch repeated in thought, eyes widened at the newcomer.

"That's...!" Rakshata stammered, pipe falling out of her mouth from the shock.

A second later, a communications window appeared on the monitor, sound only. "Unknown landship, this is General Li Xingke of the Chinese Liberation Army. Identify yourself or be destroyed."

At that, Lelouch nodded toward Mutsuki, who quickly established a channel. "This is the Black Knight flagship Mikasa," Lelouch replied. "I am Zero."

Following that reply, a new vidwindow replaced the initial sound only type, displaying the image of a black haired man in a red pilot suit, sitting within an unfamiliar knightmare cockpit. "So, the great Demon King graces us with his presence," the general spoke, eyes gazing straight at the orb on Zero's mask. "State your intentions."

Lelouch did well to note the hostility within the tone. "General Li, as supreme commander of the Black Knights, I assure you that we hold no quarrel with you or your people. Our intention is to open up a dialogue between our two factions, as fellow enemies of Britannia."

The Chinese general responded by raising an eyebrow. "Really?" he replied, not looking the least convinced. "And why should I permit such a dialogue, especially after this attempt at intimidation?"

Lelouch was quick to respond to that one. "No intimidation was meant; we only wanted you to take notice of our presence here. And to respond."

"That still doesn't answer my question liu mang." Li replied stoutly. "Why should I permit this dialogue at all?"

Lelouch was aware enough to receive the subtle message, and judging by the discomforting glances from Ohgi, Minami, Viletta and Kallen, so were they. This is going to be harder than I thought. "Because it is in both of our best interests that we talk, General," he continued. "I am sure you have seen my message from two months ago; I have declared war on Britannia and proclaimed my intention to liberate the Areas from its grasp."

He quickly waved an arm outward. "This land that you've fought over for seven years is one such Area; sold out by traitors and given to tyrants for a price well below its value," he smirked as he saw Li's face twitch, showing that his message was having an effect. "You wish to see it free, so that your people may experience true liberty, perhaps for the first time in hundreds of years. I wish to see it free as well, so that Britannia may suffer."

He then finished by bringing his arm back in, gesturing his open hand toward Li. "Thus, we share a common goal, and with it the potential of an alliance."

Even still, Li was visibly still not bought. "An intriguing offer, but I see no reason to accept the aid of a nation-less army and a warlord."

Lelouch laughed. "And you think yourself and the CLA as any different?"

"Perhaps not that different, but that still doesn't mean I trust you," Li replied. "How do I know this isn't a ploy to gain China for yourself, after the Britannians have been driven away?"

"I'm not asking you to trust me, at least not at first," Lelouch shot back. "All I'm asking is that you hear my offer."

Li shook his head. "My apologies, but there will be no bargain," suddenly, the knightmare frame's chest opened up again, golden energy collecting at its center. "Leave now, or I will be forced to destroy you."

Lelouch quickly withdrew his hand. The next thing he said wasn't something he wanted to, but there was no other choice. "Forgive me General..." he said, eyes narrowing from behind the mask. "...but I believe that is Her Excellency's decision to make."

Surprise and ferocity quickly dawned behind the general's own eyes. "I see..." he muttered, his voice now possessing an edge. "In that case, I'm afraid I can't let you..." he started to say, before being interrupted by a light flashing from the side. Turning toward it, he sighed. "Excuse me," he said, before switching off the vidwindow.

Seeing a break, the bridge crew stared to move again. "Zero...!" Ohgi started to say.

"Wait for it." Lelouch said simply.

Sure enough, Li's image reappeared after a minute or so. "We will hear you out," Li stated, barely containing his displeasure. A moment later, coordinates began to feed into the Mikasa's navcomputer. "Proceed to the following coordinates." the general finished, before signing off.

With that, the blue knightmare quickly resealed its main weapon, turned around and flew off into the distance. Lelouch smiled triumphantly as he watched it go. That could have been worse. "Proceed Minami."

The Mikasa's captain nodded and then followed up on the order. "Helm, continue on zero-one-five, ahead one-third."

Xiaopei Fortress
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

"Looks like we're about to have guests." Hong stated as he watched the Mikasa from the vast array of display screens in Xiaopei's command center. Ever since the infamous Black Battleship had appeared on their doorstep, the command center was a hive of activity; what had originally been just like any other day had turned into a series of frantic calls, minute by minute reports and orders flying around left and right. For their part, Hong, Zhou and a few other upper ranking staff, were "safely" kept away in the commanders' suite overlooking the area. Alongside their invaluable leader.

"I can't believe he knew of Your Excellency's presence." Zhou murmured in obvious disbelief, her eyes never leaving the image of the Black Battleship. "In fact, I can't believe they found us at all! Even the Britannians haven't done so yet, and they've had a seven year head start!"

Much to everyone's surprise, Tianzi only chuckled lightly at the notion. "It just shows Zero is as cunning as we were led to believe General Zhou," she said, not looking put off in the slightest at the Black Knights' presence there. "General Li is right to be cautious of him."

Gu turned and looked at the former Chairwoman curiously. "Not that I disagree with that notion Your Excellency, but if you believe so, then why did you order General Li to stand down?"

"Because, General Hong..." Tianzi replied. "I had long determined Zero would attempt to reach out to us, following his declaration some months ago; it was only a question of when and how." she explained. "With that mindset, I had decided that when the time came, I would meet with him to see what he has to offer us, and more importantly, the Chinese people."

She looked considerate for a moment. "Is he seeking to take China for himself, or is he legitimate in his proclaimed intentions?" she exclaimed in wonder. "Either way, I will at least hear him out."

Another high ranking official spoke up at that. "If you've decided on this matter, Your Excellency, then why did you allow General Li to provoke the Black Knights at the start?" he inquired. "You could have easily had him rendezvous with them and lead them in since the beginning."

"I could have," Tianzi replied with a wave. "But in all honesty, I wanted to see how Zero would react when confronted by General Li's aggression." she smirked. "To that I reiterate: he's as cunning as we were led to believe. The only question now is how will that cunning support us, if at all?"

With that, the former leader of the Chinese Federation got to her feet and signaled toward Zhou. "Have the stateroom prepared at once, and post appropriate security around the fortress. I want our guests to be comfortable, but not free to roam."

"At once Your Excellency," Zhou bowed and then turned to go about her orders.

However, Tianzi stopped her. "Oh, and one more thing Zhou," she spoke up. "Have the Tianshou be present as well."

Zhou looked perturbed at that notion. "Don't you think that's a bit much, Madam Chairwoman?"

"Not at all." Tianzi spoke, her eyes showing certain interest. "Recall how most meetings with Zero ended in the past; he's quite the deceptive huli jing," she readopted a knowing smile. "While I doubt he wishes to harm me in any way, it's still best to be cautious in this matter. Besides, Li would have them there anyway."

Zhou pursed her lips, and then nodded. "It will be done." she said, before exiting the suite.

With that, Tianzi looked at the others officials. "Now then gentlemen, I believe we have negotiations to conduct," she said, taking one last look at the Mikasa before turning to face the door. "Those of you not attending, please continue monitoring."

"Yes, Your Excellency!" the officials sang out at once before saluting. Taking that in, Tianzi returned their salute with a nod, and then proceeded to walk out herself, several others following her out.

Her uniform prim and proper, black beret adorning her head and Hiryu at her side, Kallen continued along with Lelouch, Ohgi, Tohdoh and the other High Command officials as they followed their escorting guards toward the meeting place. Along the way, she couldn't help but take subtle glances around their surrounding; putting aside the desert above, Xiaopei reminded her a lot of the underground facilities in Okinawa, the ones that currently served the Black Knights and held their forces within, though as she continued glancing around, she found that the Chinese base was not quite as well managed. Still, the large size and openness of the fortress alone was enough to impress her, especially when it had been created by the technology and resource strained Chinese Federation. In that regard, Kallen also couldn't help but wonder how many workers died creating this place, as well as to refit it in modern times.

Currently the Black Knight officials were being guided through a knightmare hangar, which housed several Gun Rus in small pens, technicians and pilots working on the various machines around the clock. Kallen spared the machines and their crews a corner gaze; the last time she had seen those knightmares had been Kyushu, during Sawasaki's "liberation" attempt, and even then she had only seen them on a television screen aboard the Ryujin, as Lelouch had chosen to deploy alone in the Gawain during that event. Seeing them up close now, Kallen saw just how hideous and powerless the knightmare type was; like a giant, metal frog with machine gun arms and cannons on its hips, it was a lumbering beast of burden that could in no way compete with traditional knightmare types. In fact, Kallen surmised that she could have taken several out with her old Glasgow, which had been created in the same generation as these.

So much for the 'great progress' of Maoism. she thought disparagingly. It can't even produce a decent knightmare.

That thought reminded her of that blue knightmare Li had intercepted them with; the one that Rakshata seemed to react toward with familiarity. It had disappeared just before the Mikasa had entered Xiaopei's underground, apparently landing in a different part of the fortress. As such, holding certain curiosity toward it and the rest of the basin, Kallen activated her Geass and expanded its reach until it encompassed the near entirety of the base.

What she saw her caused her eyes to widen by a fraction.

"Right this way," one of the escorts said, gesturing toward an elevator, leading the group into it, which in turn snapped Kallen out of her Geass. A short ride later, they were brought down another set of hallways before coming to another pair of metal doors, which one of the Chinese soldiers opened. "Her Excellency will be with all of you shortly."

"Very well," Lelouch replied, then looking toward Kallen. At that, the Major turned, nodded and entered first, followed by two of the escorting Black Knight soldiers. After they verified it was safe to enter, Lelouch and company entered themselves.

The room within was small but ornate, far more than the rest of the base; red carpeting, cream colored walls, assorted pictures and book pages of Chinese literature adorning the walls, as well as a large Chinese Federation flag draped along one side and a large table with hand-crafted chairs at the center. Frowning from behind his mask at the overabundance, though knowing that the room had been created well before Tianzi's administration, Lelouch stood by while Kallen remained close to him; the others either stood themselves or automatically took to their chosen seats. Silence continued to remain amongst their company.

As the waiting began, Lelouch looked out across the room, waiting for that opposite door to open. He knew he had a long period ahead of him, and that a good portion of it would likely involve outcry and banter between the Black Knight officials and their CLA counterparts. As shown by Li earlier, Chinese were naturally suspicious of outsiders, a racial trait that had endured even before the Federation, and it helped even less that they had a long and complicated history with the Japanese; a history that included two wars, the last of which involved China firing the first shot and Japan following up by invoking heavy war reparations that nearly bankrupt the Federation. It wasn't likely the CLA staff nor the Japanese officials on the Black Knights' end would forget those past slights, even if it was in the interest of their common goals.

Lelouch inwardly groaned at the thought, wishing that he were able to negotiate with Tianzi privately; just two leaders of two distinct factions, laying groundwork and mending any potential infraction without interference. Unfortunately, he knew that wasn't how the game was played, and that while the Black Knights leadership trusted him and knew of his skills as a statesman, they still reserved the right to represent their exiled nation and their military force. Lelouch was sure it was the same on the CLA's end, even though Tianzi was, in spite of communism's infamous disdain toward religion, almost a patron saint to her followers. Thus, instead of a meeting between two leaders alone, it would be a meeting between either side's generals; as such, things only became more complicated.

Best case scenario is that these negotiations conclude amiably. Lelouch thought as he reviewed the current situation. A formal alliance is established, and any leftover tension from past events are either forgotten or put aside for the greater cause.

Lelouch then frowned as he followed up with another thought. Worst case scenario... Is a repeat of Lake Kawaguchi. Only this time in an underground fortress with the opposition outnumbering us several times over. And with that in mind, the door on the opposite end of the room finally opened, causing everyone to look toward it.

The first to enter were a set of officers Lelouch found peculiar: triplets apparently, all holding similar heights and physique as well as hair coloring (black) and style (complete with queues), and all dressed in green CLA uniforms (two holding Captain rank badges and one holding a Major's). The only differences, besides the fact one was a woman, were the individual glances the three gave him: the first male held a taciturn expression, while the second was more belligerent appearing, and the female held certain aggressiveness in her eyes. Behind him, Lelouch was quick to note how Kallen tightened her posture; already she was on guard toward those three.

Following the triplets were several other Chinese soldiers, who were dressed in body armor, much like their Black Knight counterparts on Lelouch's end. After them came Li, now having exchanged his pilot suit for his own uniform. The Chinese Tiger cast a dark glance at Lelouch as he entered, making it clear that the general still regarded Lelouch with hostility and, at so much as a hint of subterfuge, would deal with him as a threat. After him were additional officers of General rank, all coming in in various shapes and sizes.

And then, last but not least, Tianzi herself entered, a clear smile across her face. "On behalf of the CLA and the Chinese people, we bid welcome to all of you, fellow enemies of Britannia," she started, quickly stepping forward. "And to you Zero. It is an honor to finally meet you."

"The honor is mine, Madam Chairwoman." Lelouch replied, taking her hand when she offered it.

Tianzi laughed a little. "It's been some time since an outsider referred to me that way," she said, smile remaining as she briefly remembered. "How nostalgic."

With that, Lelouch, Tianzi, Li and the others took their seats while their respective bodyguards remained further back around the entrances; only Kallen stayed forward. The negotiations had officially begun. "I trust you are aware of our intentions..." he glanced over to Li. "...as well as the efforts we have made for this meeting to take place?"

Tianzi nodded. "Yes to both," she replied. "I admit that even I was surprised that you knew of my present state; very few do anymore."

Her smile quickly returned. "That being said, I compliment your earlier tactic: by indirectly calling me out over an open channel, you forced me to both accept your offer of negotiation as well as prevent Li from shooting you down," her eyes flashed knowingly. "I would say that was very creative of you, but as you are Zero, such praise is beneath your standing."

Lelouch arched an eyebrow, while Kallen and a few others just barely concealed dumbfounded expressions. She's more intelligent than I expected. Lelouch thought. Has she grown that much over the last seven years? Or was she always at this level and I just wasn't able to see it back then?

Even so, Lelouch responded in kind. "On the contrary, I'm flattered by your praise," he said. "And even more so impressed. I did not expect Her Excellency to be so...attentive."

Again Tianzi came across knowingly. "I might have been no more than a figurehead under the Guaoyuwan, but I assure you Zero, one cannot stay Chairwoman of the Chinese Federation without watching and learning," she then gave a peculiar expression. "Though I am curious. What would you have done had I not ordered General Li to stand down?"

Lelouch smirked back. "In all fairness, I had not expected the General himself to respond to our presence, much less in a later generation knightmare frame," he explained. "However, in preparation for such a breakdown, I had two squadrons of knightmares on standby and ready to launch at a moment's notice."

Li's eyes narrowed disbelievingly. "I've fought far worse than that."

Lelouch looked toward Li. "I know that wouldn't have been enough to shoot you down General. However, it would have been enough to hold you, just until Major Kouzuki could launch," Lelouch didn't need to turn to see the smirk that flashed across Kallen's lips.

"Hmph." Li replied, before closing his eyes and looking away somewhat.

Tianzi stifled a laugh of her own. For all his strengths, it was not hard to get under Xingke's skin; something she herself enjoyed doing every so often. Still, it was about time they got down to business.

"I will be straight to the point Zero," Tianzi started off. "Like General Li, I too found your earlier message intriguing. However, considering the delicate position that the CLA is currently in, I also find myself with similar sentiments," she looked directly upon the purple orb. "Why should we accept your offer of alliance?"

Lelouch paused for a moment before responding. "I would think the reasons were obvious, Your Excellency."

"I would still like to hear your answer," Tianzi replied. "As would those beside me," Indeed, the Chinese officials all looked toward the masked man with simultaneous inquisition.

Lelouch smirked as he fulfilled that request. "As we are all well aware, the CLA has been fighting the Britannian occupation of China for seven years; two years longer than the European Union's war, and obviously much longer than ours," his eyes scanned across the faces of the Chinese officials. "Thanks to effective leadership on the part of General Li and those gathered here, as well as the ineptness of the Britannian command structure, you have kept up the fight against an otherwise superior force without any massive loss."

He then looked back at Tianzi. "At the same time however, you have not made any progress in accomplishing your objectives; seven years and not one province, not one city or village, has been liberated from Britannia's hold. Not even your assault on Beijing, which you made in the wake of our attack on Pearl, had any lasting effect beyond harassing Calares and his ilk," Lelouch then leaned forward a bit before he added the ultimatum. "You are effectively fighting the same offensive as the Japan Liberation Front fought in Area 11. An offensive that, if left unaltered, will result in continuous bloodshed for no gain; China will remain in Britannia's hands, and your children and your grandchildren will be forced to carry on your fight when this generation has long passed."

With that added, Lelouch sat back. "That is why this alliance is in your best interest. By allowing us to fight beside you, the Black Knights will provide the edge you need to not just push back against Britannia, but completely remove them from the Motherland," he again smirked. "We will be giving you the means to end the war in just a few months' time, at most."

That caused some of the Chinese officials to murmur to each other in Mandarin; Lelouch and the Generals on his end didn't need a translator to tell that they were interested. Even so, Tianzi remained stalwart. "Once more, an intriguing offer to be sure," she summarized, the look in her eyes holding interest as well. "Surely the same force that directly struck down Britannia twice over would greatly benefit our cause," Lelouch opened his mouth to reply, but Tianzi added on before he could. "At the same time however, your offer still seems a little too altruistic."

"And for good reason, Your Excellency," Li replied as he now entered in, again staring down the masked man. "For all of your explanation Zero, you left out one key detail: that the Black Knights would need this alliance more than the CLA would."

A few more murmurs were made before he continued. "Though you claim China's liberation works toward your benefit as well, there's really more reason than that. By aiding us in our time of need now, you will be securing our support in the future, which you need very much to continue your war; after all, your own objective is to take the fight to a nation that rules over sixty percent of the world. Even if Japan still existed, you would still need our support or the EU's, otherwise you would be fighting under the same conditions as we are now: continuous bloodshed for no gain."

Lelouch bit his lip, feeling a little annoyed, but not surprised, that Li was able to figure it out. "All correct General," he acknowledged. "Just as the Black Knights may serve as an edge for your crusade, a reborn Chinese Federation would serve as an edge for ours," he then added. "Or more specifically, take an active role in a war that encompasses all living beings, including yourselves."

Li closed his eyes for a moment. "I will not deny that the current world war affects China," he stated, then looking back at Lelouch. "The question however is just how much would we benefit from this alliance? Would we be equals, or are you looking to subjugate us just as the Britannians before you?"

"That's uncalled for," Ohgi staunchly replied. "It should be evident that we have no wish to repeat what the Britannians have done."

"Is it?" Hong spoke up as well. "Your former country has already invaded ours twice before. Why should we believe you won't attempt something similar in the future?"

"If we wanted to take over China, we certainly wouldn't have reached out to you first," Tohdoh replied. "Dominance over this land will gain us nothing."

"A rather ironic statement coming from the son of Saburo Tohdoh," one of the other Chinese officials scoffed.

"There are other ways to subject a nation than military force," Zhou replied. "Marginalization of our reformed government and forced dependence on your administration, for example."

"All of which would fit perfectly well in Japanese vengeance for their loss in the Motherland Liberation War," another official spat out.

Tohdoh nearly choked at that title; leave it to the communists to come up with a shamelessly gaudy name for that conflict. "That war was long ago, and even though I am the son of Shinigami no Tohdoh, neither I nor my compatriots hold any grudge against the Federation over it," he replied, before adopting a glare. "That in itself says much, as your attempted invasion of Kyushu was not long ago."

"You mean our attempted liberation of Kyushu, and the rest of Japan," one more Chinese official replied testily. "We only sought to restore the rightful government, under a rightful Prime Minister."

"Don't play that xiangqi game with us," Ohgi stated with an edge in his voice. "We know Sawasaki was your puppet, and that you were intending to 'liberate' Japan in the same manner you had India, Tibet and Korea."

"If anything, we should be suspicious of you. After all..." another Black Knight general stated, then looking toward Hong. "'Why should we believe you won't attempt something similar in the future?'"

Hong fixed that Black Knight an intimidating glance. "Are you making fun of me hun dan?"

"Gòule!" Tianzi commanded, silencing Hong and the others before anything else could be said. "This is a pointless argument that we do not need to engage in. Both sides are only stalling."

"I agree," Lelouch replied metallically. "In that regard, I recommend that we remain with the matter at hand."

"Yes," Tianzi concluded as well, pushing back any feelings of contention. She knew these talks wouldn't be easy, and once more wished she could deliberate with Zero without her generals there (save Li of course); all they were doing was making things harder for her. Even so, they were there, and the talks needed to go forward. "Perhaps you should present your conditions first, Zero."

"Certainly," Lelouch replied, before continuing on.

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

"Goddammit!" raged Jirobu as he pounded his fist on the lounge table. "This damn waiting is fucking annoying! Are the shinachon going to ally with us or not!?"

"I would prefer you don't use that word, Lieutenant," Alfred spoke threateningly over his light novel, causing Jirobu to realize his mistake and look away sore. Even so, the former Glaston Knight found himself sympathizing. "Crass language aside however, I can't help but feel the same way."

"For once, fugly, I agree. This waiting is fucking annoying," muttered Tayuya, as she felt a headache coming on. For once she wasn't in the mood to trade barbs with anyone, though she still threw a crack in for good measure. "I say we break in, put a gun to Tianzi's head and have her decide then and there. Wrong answer means she eats a bullet, and we work our way down the line until someone says yes."

"Oh yeah, that's definitely going to win them over for sure," Kidomaru laughed as he continued to play his Nintendo. "That is, assuming the Tiger doesn't gut you first. From what I hear, he once killed a whole Britannian platoon with a sword."

"So? Zero has the Major and General Tohdoh with him," Tayuya pointed out with a grin. "Not to mention a fair number of our own troops."

"Right, against Xiaopei's whole garrison," Charmelle replied with less enthusiasm. "Starting a fight here is certainly not in our best interest."

"I don't know about that," Liliana spoke up from her chess game with Marika. "From what I've heard about the CLA's regular troops, I don't think they would be too much of a challenge." she then flashed a disturbing smirk. "It'd certainly be a slaughter on their end."

Why do I get the feeling that turns you on? Alfred thought disgustedly but didn't say aloud. "Even so, I would rather avoid a fight with the CLA, especially when we still have the Britannians to deal with."

"Which begs another question." Kidomaru again spoke up from his game. "How do we feel about working with them?"

The question hung in the air for several moments, as if it had just occurred to the members of Zero Squadron that they would have to fight alongside the Chinese soldiers. Sure, it was one thing for Zero to say that the Black Knights would ally with the CLA, but none of the pilots had actually considered the fact they would be combating the Britannians beside Chinese Gun Rus. Needless to say, a twinge of discomfort spread itself across the lounge, and none of the Zero Squadron pilots failed to notice it.

Sakon was the first to answer that question. "I for one wouldn't give a rat's ass about the reds; in fact, I'd rather pay them back for Kyushu."

"Same," Ukon confirmed. "The thought alone leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

"Ain't that the truth," Jirobu said as he ironically took another bite from the candy bar he had been eating. "Fighting the imps but sparing the commies? Tastes like shit."

Tayuya rolled her eyes. "As if you're one to talk about shit, buta."

"Fuck you Tayuya!" Jirobu called off automatically.

"At the very least we won't be fighting alone now," Charmelle said quickly, yet again preventing that fight from occurring. She felt her stare become distant. "And it's not like we're going to restore the original Federation."

"No, but we would be elevating Tianzi to a level of true authority. That's usually the making of a dictatorship," Alfred replied.

"And who's to say Li or one of the other CLA generals won't kill her and take over?" Liliana pointed out, once more sounding a bit more anticipating of such bloodshed.

Charmelle cast a rather disbelieving look. "Somehow I can't see the man who kept Tianzi from marrying Prince Odysseus turning around and murdering his charge," she muttered. "That would be like the Major shooting Zero in the back."

That caused a certain laugh to go around the room. "Yeah, like that's ever going to happen!" Kidomaru surmised. "But that still leaves the other officials to plot against Tianzi when we give her the keys to the kingdom."

"And more importantly there's no guarantee that the Chinese will help us fight Britannia after we give their country back," Ukon muttered in distaste. "Hell, they could just decide to kill us all right after."

"Wouldn't put it past them. Chinamen do make for a treacherous lot. Communists even more so," Sakon added himself.

"Yeah," Tayuya agreed. "We'd definitely be better off leaving the red bastards to their own fight," a dangerous look entered her eyes. "If not putting them out of their misery ourselves."

A collective sigh quickly emanated around the room as the Zero Squadron pilots realized that they all shared similar feelings; even Alfred and Charmelle weren't overly eager to place their trust within their potential "allies". Even so, Alfred quickly responded to that. "Well either way, all we can do is leave it up to Zero; this is all part of his plan, after all."

"Amen." Kidomaru exclaimed, earning nods from the other pilots. Then another thought occurred to him, and going by his facial expression, a disturbing one. "Though that leaves one last question," he said. "How do you think a certain member of our group, whose name I prefer not to say right now, is taking all this?"

Alfred could only cringe; he knew who his comrade was speaking of, as did the others. "If he knows what's good for him, he'll keep his mouth shut and obey orders like the rest of us," he stated. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure if his thought process extends that far."

"I just hope the little fucker doesn't try anything. Last thing we need is him causing an incident," Tayuya added on as well.

"He would at least try, wouldn't he?" Jirobu growled at the thought.

Charmelle leaned back for a moment, recalling the sight of Rikichi's Guren charging at that ejected Sutherland cockpit pod at Pearl Harbor, his intentions toward the helpless pilot within completely clear. For his sake she had not told anyone else about that act, but the memory still caused her skin crawl whenever.

"Yes, he would," she muttered, before burying the memory once again.

The darkness was almost enough to soothe, but not quite. Even within his own quarters aboard the Mikasa, locked away in the dark from the rest of the ship and the world, Rikichi Shirogane could feel the inferno that was his wrath stir, as it always had, even in the most passive of moments. Nearly fifteen years of fury and hatred blazed within him, kept alive by both his own will and the ever present chaos of the surrounding world. The same world that had stolen nearly everything from him, and then destroyed the rest in a blaze that he found almost comparable to what he felt within. His present circumstances, namely the status of the army that he served in, and the fact the one who truly mattered was a slave to a demon in a mask, only added that much more fuel to the fire.

Twisting around in his bunk so that he was facing toward the wall, Rikichi did the only thing he could do: allow the inferno to continue. He knew better than to try and stop it, and was much less inclined to wish it. His rage and hatred had kept him going for so long that he could almost not remember the time he was truly 'happy and 'at peace'. Just as he could almost not remember the days before that thrice damned empire invaded his homeland and took away almost everything he knew and loved. His life, as it were, was one of wrath and vengeance, and not only against the Britannians. As far as Rikichi was concerned, the entire world was ripe to smolder, for all were guilty of crimes against his nation and his people. All were gaijin fit only to be destroyed through the progress of Japan's rebirth, which Rikichi swore long ago he would see firsthand or die trying.

As mentioned before, he had little memory of what Japan had been like before the Britannians conquered it, having only been born five years prior. As a result of this, his grandfather had made sure that Rikichi had been instilled with his race's history and culture from a young age. Hayato Shirogane, a war veteran that had served his country faithfully in China, was a gruff old man whose aged physical frailty did nothing to break his spirit nor the loyalty and patriotism he held for his nation, and as far back as Rikichi could remember his grandfather labored hard to instill all of those things in him. In his younger days Rikichi did not take his lessons too seriously, but as he got older and saw more of what his nation as compared to how his grandfather remembered it, he gained more and more interest. As such, by the time his grandfather had died at the age of eighty-eight, Rikichi had inherited his warrior's spirit and his love for Japan, as well as his great distaste toward the gaijin that exploited his nation for its riches. The latter was something the elder Hayato never held back in displaying his hatred of.

Of course, even his grandfather could not prepare him for the harsh reality of the times. As with all Japanese, the Shiroganes were regularly harassed and persecuted for their heritage; even the title of "Honorary Britannian", which Rikichi's father and mother both worked hard to gain, and the privilege of being allowed to live in Tokyo Settlement as opposed to a ghetto could not save them from the harsh treatment and abuses they received from their conquerors on a regular basis. Yet it was not the abuses that stung Rikichi as much as his having to watch his mother and father pretend nothing ever happened; even when their house had been broken into and burglarized, his parents had both simply sighed and stated they had a long night of clean up to do, refusing to show any outrage over the incident. They had not even called the police to report it, even when Rikichi urged them. Through that 'incident' and those similar, Rikichi watched as the Britannians forced more and more injustices upon his family and his people, all the while his hatred grew each time. It would not be long before he finally resolved in himself that he too would join in the rebellion against Britannia.

Years later, Zero would announce himself to the world, performing such miracles as assassinating Viceroy Clovis, liberating Suzaku Kururugi from execution, humiliating the Purist Faction of the Britannian Imperial Army, and most famously forming the Order of the Black Knights. All throughout these deeds, Zero's infamy and fame grew amongst the Japanese, and even Rikichi had to admit that he idolized Zero at first. But then his hero worship would soon come to an end when Zero would announce that he was not Japanese, and that the Black Knights were made up of peoples of all races. While this only made Zero more popular with his followers, Rikichi soon found himself hating and suspecting the masked vigilante. After all, he was a gaijin, and gaijin had a long history of exploiting and manipulating the Japanese to their own ends; as such Zero was no different from the Britannians in Rikichi's eyes. And yet while he came to detest Zero, the young Japanese patriot found a whole new reason to become a fan of the Black Knights.

Like almost every other resident of Japan, he had seen the videos of the Guren's exploits perhaps a million times, from evening news reports to viral videos over the web. He had only watched in awe as he saw the crimson knightmare, which had been dubbed Akaryu or "Red Dragon" by its fans as its true name had been unknown at the time, tear through squads of Sutherlands without ever breaking. He would become totally enamored whenever the knightmare would grasp a Sutherland in its arm claw and literally boil the blue armor from the inside out, just like the fire breath of a true dragon. And even further, Rikichi would find himself cheering the blood red mecha on when it went up against its main enemy, the white armored Lancelot, Britannia's champion in Japan. To Rikichi, the Red Dragon that he knew virtually nothing about would come to represent the fighting spirit of the Japanese, just like the ancient samurai warriors that his grandfather would tell him stories of, as well as his own reason to fight and hope for a future in which the Japanese would regain their land and their freedom. As such, Rikichi would soon set his sights upon joining the Black Knights.

Unfortunately, while he himself had the willingness to step into the fight, as well as to leave his comfortable life behind to bring about justice, there was only one factor that kept Rikichi from joining the Black Knights early on: his age. He had only been twelve years old at that time, and even with their limited manpower, the Black Knights' leadership refused him because of it. That was yet another reason for his hatred toward gaijin; had the Black Knights been an entirely Japanese organization, trivial things like age would not have mattered so much as the will to fight. In ancient Japanese culture, boys were trained and often sent out to battle at even younger ages than twelve, whereas Britannians looked down upon such practice as "barbaric" and "savage". Rikichi of course argued his case, but his reasons only fell on deaf ears, and in the end he was forced to remain in his normal life, holding some hope that the Black Knights would succeed without him, yet also holding great rage over how he would never be able to prove his loyalty to his country.

Little did he know that everything would soon change, literally overnight. When news of the SAZ came around, Rikichi had been livid; after his side had fought so hard and lost so much, they were going to throw it all away just for a fake freedom based on the pretty words of a Britannian princess. Sure enough in the end, the SAZ turned out to be a trick meant to kill as many Japanese as possible, the arm holding the proverbial olive branch having cleverly shielded the arm that bared the raised sword; fortunately the Black Knights were on the scene to stop it before the entire crowd was slaughtered. Rikichi wasn't surprised by that in the least unlike his parents; after all, the Britannians made a habit out of killing Japanese en masse, it was probably instinctive for them to gun down his people at first sight. Princess Euphemia had only been acting in her true nature, quite befitting of her later epithet Massacre Princess.

Thus came the Black Rebellion, which was meant to be the final battle that saw Japan's liberation from Britannia, but instead only brought about its destruction through the Devastation. Rikichi could still remember what he was doing when the Devastation hit; he had just willed himself into going into the kitchen and making himself a ramen dinner, all the while hoping the carnage outside spared his house. The next thing he realized he had been picked up by rescue workers from the rubble and brought to a nearby medical VTOL before blacking out again. When he woke up once more, he had been informed that just as the Black Knights were coming upon their final push to victory, the Britannians had detonated the sakuradite reserves within the islands and caused mass destruction throughout, killing all but a few thousand in the process. The casualty list had included Rikichi's parents as well, causing two distinctive feelings within the boy: despair over the loss of everything he held precious, and fury at those that robbed him and his people one final time. But even with those feelings welled up within his soul, Rikichi could not find an answer to the next thought that weighed on him: what could he do from there?

Ironically, it was only when the Black Knights began to reform in the face of the Devastation did they allow Rikichi to join their ranks. At that time Rikichi had been fourteen, but his boyhood days might as well had been over, as everything from his previous life was gone; all that remained was the prospect of avenging his nation against those that destroyed it. Like the others in his class, this became the initial source of his motivation, pushing him forward in his studies and his training, both of which threatened to overwhelm him and force him out of the lineup. But Rikichi persisted, continually driving himself until he came out at the top of his class, noted for his skill in CQC, and even more so for his skill in a knightmare frame. On the latter, his instructor once remarked that Rikichi could have seriously given Suzaku Kururugi a run for his money; Rikichi did not fail to see the glow in that compliment, and for a brief moment he had wondered if he would ever get the chance to fight the White Knight of Britannia and put down the traitor once and for all. The thought certainly warmed his heart on the inside, but not as much as when he first heard his post-graduation assignment: 0 Knightmare Squadron "Rei", the infamous Zero Squadron.

It was then that he finally met her.

Once more like the other fresh recruits, it had greatly surprised Rikichi to learn that the pilot of the Akaryu, or the Guren Nishiki as it was so officially named, was a woman. But despite his shock, he had literally fallen in love at first sight of the recently promoted Major Kallen Kouzuki. She was strong, determined and possessing a fiery spirit like no other; the very things Rikichi had come to emphasize the Japanese as a whole she held within herself and displayed like a banner both in and out of the cockpit. Even her Britannian features did nothing to take away from those character traits, and soon enough Rikichi became blind to that and her past life as a Britannian heiress, becoming completely devoted to following her commands and carrying out the objectives she laid out. Unfortunately he had yet to get her to see him the way he saw her, but that didn't matter for the time being; sooner or later things would change, and Rikichi was, if anything, always focused on bringing about necessary change.

But whereas he idolized his CO and felt proud to be part of an elite fighting force, Zero Squadron was still considered Zero's personal vanguard even after his capture to the Britannians; even the shinigami displayed in the unit's insignia held some likeness to the masked man's profile. Despite his pride, Rikichi chafed at being part of the unit that served as that man's personal lapdogs, and the Major doing nothing to change any of it only made him feel more aggravated. It especially didn't help that the other members, from the surviving veterans to the newer members and even the former Imperials, all idolized the phantom and all but outright swore their undying loyalty to his service; Rikichi would sooner return to his status as an Eleven than even consider becoming like them. Needless to say, Rikichi was both proud and shamed by his assignment in Zero Squadron, yet at the same time he was unwilling to leave the service of Major Kouzuki, who he continued to idolize to this day. It was the ultimate Catch-22, and the youngest member of the unit doubted he would be able to figure it out anytime soon, at least compared to his real personal objectives.

The inferno wreathed at that thought, nearly causing Rikichi to grimace at its fury, as though it had been actual flame. Despite the spiritual pain it caused however, the young Japanese warrior found himself smiling at the image that played through his subconscious. The entire world bathed in a similar fire that he felt from within; an inferno that spread from Britannia to Europe to China and beyond. A world and its people brought to the flames of vengeance, all while the Land of the Rising Sun was born anew, where it would then take its place as the one true master of all destinies.

Therein laid the core of Rikichi Shirogane's spirit, the very force that now drove him to continue fighting the good fight even after he lost so much. He did not simply wish to avenge Japan's destruction, nor would he be content to see his nation simply reborn. Instead, he fought for a single dream for the future; a future in which all of mankind was brought to yield to Japan's power and majesty. As with the great phoenix, it was Japan's destiny to rise up from the ashes of the Devastation, but instead of holding the exact same power as it had before, its flames would be even stronger and hotter, and they would spread over all corners of the globe until its power and dominance over the rest of humanity were unquestionable. It would only be then, when its authority was absolute and the very gaijin that exploited, enslaved and annihilated the Japanese for their treasures would be forced to answer for their crimes tenfold, that Japan would at long last be avenged and the future would be secure for Rikichi's descendants.

Yet at the same time Rikichi knew he had much to do before that future could occur. He knew many of his so-called "comrades" did not share his vision, as they had grown far too tolerant and comfortable around their former Britannian oppressors and the other foreign trash that welled up within their midst; as such, the Black Knights would first have to be cleansed of the gaijin cancer that had spread throughout its ranks, from the lowest Private to those in the High Command, until only Japanese remained. That of course would take time to implement, but Rikichi knew where to start, the single shot he would have to fire to change everything for the better. And even as he continued lie within the void around him, he could not keep that single thought, the first step toward his and Japan's destiny that had yet to be made, from entering his mind. Nor another smile from forming in reaction.

First, I will destroy Zero...

Xiaopei Fortress
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

"Luoyang!?" a CLA official shouted out in disbelief. "You would have us attack Luoyang!? That's suicide!"

I'm really getting tired of that claim. Lelouch thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. It had been some time now since the negotiations had started, and now that they had finally gotten to the part that really mattered, after what seemed like hours of needless deliberation and heated exchanges, he felt his patience wearing very thin. For a time he was tempted to simply use his Geass and turn the CLA higher ups into his slaves then and there, but while he kept that as an option, he still wanted to avoid using his Geass whenever possible.

Thus, he maintained his vigilante yet affable front. "Not just Luoyang." he continued, smiling a little as he reflected upon Operation Akai Yoake's core objectives. "Beijing, Taiyuan, Yinchuan, Zhengzhou, Wuhan... We will be attacking all of Calares' power centers in a single offensive, with the intention of liberating every one of them. Once we hold each city, the Britannians will have no choice but to abandon this Area."

Lelouch then clasped his hands together on the table, continuing in spite of the disbelieving glances he was receiving from the CLA officials. Only Li and Tianzi remained passive. "For this to succeed, we will need to pool our resources and our planning together."

"This is beyond insanity!" another CLA official let out. "You would have us launch a multi-pronged offensive against Calares' best defenses!? All at the same time!?"

"We accomplished a similar offensive during the Black Rebellion, and with far less numbers than what you possess," Ohgi pointed out, his personal feelings falling back upon what he told his wife before. That, and he would be damned before voicing his own doubts in front of these men and women.

"You choose a poor comparison, General Ohgi," Hong nearly growled, his own patience wearing thin. "Need I remind you of how that ended?"

"With respect General Hong, I doubt the Britannians have the resources to perform another Devastation," Ohgi shot back, before a touch of slyness reached his lips. "Unless you believe nine million square kilometers of degraded land is detonable."

"That is quite beside the point," Zhou replied sharply. "To meet just the minimum requirements of such an operation, we would have to commit over half of our forces," she tried hard to keep the incredulousness out of her voice, but a slimmer still managed to enter her tone. "Over half of the CLA, deployed into a multi-front offensive, with the Britannians holding every possible advantage. How can you even consider having us launch such a hopeless attack!?"

"Because, contrary to your words, it's your only hope for victory," Tohdoh spoke up. "As brought up earlier, your current employment of guerilla warfare has only led to a stalemate, which has ensured your survival yet kept you from fulfilling your core objectives. Meanwhile, confronting the Britannians through any conventional means would inevitably lead to a war of attrition, which you will certainly lose given the Empire's size and resources," he explained knowingly. "As such, the only way you will ever win this war is through a blitzkrieg; you will have to hit the Britannians hard in the places that hurt the most, and you will have to do it in the fastest way possible to keep them from recovery. Any other strategy will be doomed to failure."

To add effect, he then recalled a certain quote. "Even your favorite general noted 'one may advance and be irresistible if his attack is made against the enemy's weak points, and one may retire and be safe from reprisal if his movements are faster than his opponent's.'"

"Sun Tzu also advised not to besiege walled cities if it could be avoided," Hong countered. "And though it may be a 'weak point' to the Britannian occupation, there is no greater 'walled' city in China than Luoyang, while the others you mentioned are also highly defended. A direct attack on any of them would only be repelled, no matter how large a force we send."

"Beside the Britannians' conventional forces, there's also the Argus defense net to contend with!" another CLA general followed up. "That alone holds more firepower than our entire army and is spread across to every major city in the country, including the ones you listed!"

"Argus itself is the reason we've never been able to fight the Imperialist scum where it would truly hurt them. Nor liberate any of our major cities," another CLA general added scathingly.

Lelouch only sniffed at that. "Yes, I am very aware of Argus." Calares' one stroke of brilliance in his entire military career. "And even I will admit that it is the ideal defense." he again smiled from under his mask. "However, the same reasons that make it the Britannians' ideal defense will also make it their greatest weakness. My strategy will see to that."

"And what is your strategy Zero?" Li spoke up again. "Another mud slide trick like you used at Narita? Or perhaps you are going to make the cities' outer blocks collapse, like you did with Tokyo during the Black Rebellion?" the gaze from the General's eyes spoke volumes of favor. "Either of those would certainly deny them to the Britannians, but they wouldn't exactly keep the cities intact."

Lelouch felt his gut clench at the memories brought up from either event. He's probing me, trying to provoke an outburst. "I'm afraid I cannot explain my strategy just yet General, as we are not yet in a position to implement it. But I assure you it doesn't involve destroying the cities we are trying to save."

"Assuring indeed," Li answered, the tone in his voice being the exact opposite. "Then perhaps you can tell me this much about your strategy..." he looked Lelouch dead set on the mask. "Does it involve you fleeing from battle, just as you had at Tokyo?"

That one struck home, and Lelouch felt his eyes widen from the attack, as did the other Black Knight generals. Behind him, Kallen's eyes narrowed threateningly, while beside him, Tohdoh quickly launched to his feet. "You are commenting on a battle you took no part in, General Li!" the Black Knight General growled in warning.

"Perhaps, but that doesn't mean I'm not aware of Zero's actions during," Li replied dismissively. "You were the one leading the charge, weren't you? Surely you found your commander's desertion distasteful, at least."

"Again, you are commenting on an event you did not witness," Tohdoh replied, his voice growing more dangerous with each word. "And while I could answer your inquiry, I see no reason to justify my commander's actions to the likes of you."

"Sit down Tohdoh," Lelouch commanded, his voice sounding more subdued. As Tohdoh did just that, Lelouch continued toward Li. "Is there a point you are trying to make here General?"

"Yes Zero," Li stated, before rising to his feet himself. "I have analyzed your exploits, from your liberation of Suzaku Kururugi to Pearl Harbor. From these I have determined your character, both as a commander and as a human being."

Though Lelouch's mask shielded his eyes, Li's still bored into them. "For all of your gifts and skill Zero, I find you to be a menace, both to your enemies and your own troops. Your tactics have been effective but highly reckless, at times needlessly endangering your own forces, while your inability to adapt to the tide of battle has resulted in many losses. As such, I believe that any strategy you create would be a double edged sword, one that will either give complete victory or irreparable losses."

Lelouch opened his mouth to reply, but Li only continued. "Also, it is clear to me, from your actions during the Black Rebellion and beforehand, that you only see your troops and allies as pawns; completely expendable to your ultimate objective. You willingly abandoned your troops in the middle of the Black Rebellion, and further back allowed the Britannians to destroy the Japan Liberation Front at Yokosuka to give rise to your group." Li then turned to Tohdoh. "The fact certain members of the JLF have chosen to join the Black Knights truly disgusts me."

Again Tohdoh's gaze at the CLA commander was anything but pleasent, yet Li ignored it all the same. He quickly moved to his main point. "Thus, I believe any alliance with the Black Knights to be too great a risk," he stated staunchly. "The CLA is the last form of organized resistance in this country; once it is finished, the Britannians will have complete control of this nation, and no other would be able to stop them."

He then finished with. "As such, I will not risk this army in any strategy concocted by a madman such as yourself! Much less the madman responsible for the Black Rebellion, and therefore, the Devastation!"

Now it was Ohgi's turn to look infuriated. "You're out of line General!"

"Is he!?" one of the other CLA generals added with his own vehemence. "Or perhaps he's speaking sense, something that is desperately needed among you Elevens!"

The room exploded from there. As the shouting match between the Black Knights and the CLA began anew, with far more intensity than before, the security forces of either army eyed each other with their hands kept to their weapons; the only one who was not looking that way was Kallen, who instead gazed Li and the other CLA generals with ferocity that she usually held for Britannians. It was obvious that, had it not been against her side's best interests, she would have drawn Hiryu and made for the Chinese Tiger's throat, both for his comments just now and certain hypocrisy that only Kallen was able to perceive. Even so, she knew where this situation was going, and so turned back to her own leader.

For his part, Lelouch could only remain silent, his mouth hung open from behind his veil and his eyes wide in shock. Li had hit him in almost every weak point, and as a result, he was unable to formulate a response to the general's accusations, much less find a way to end the current tantrum between the officials. Yet he knew that each second this continued, the more his plans became undone; unless he voiced a retort, and that retort countered Li's accusations effectively, then no alliance would be forged that day. At least, not without Lelouch using his Geass, which was something he dearly needed to avoid at this time, as it would cost him the ability to use it on Tianzi and the other CLA staff in the future.

Through the torrent of anger and barbed words, he looked toward Tianzi to see how she was handling this. What he saw once again shocked him; instead of cowering back as he might have suspected, Tianzi remained seated upright while her expression remained passive, as if she were sitting in the center of a hurricane. The current bickering between the CLA and the Black Knights had no effect on her demeanor; instead, her gaze remained fixed forward. Directly into through Zero's mask and into Lelouch's own eyes, just as Li's had been beforehand.

From that gaze, Lelouch understood. Though she had the power to stop the current conflict and bring the CLA into submission, as well as declare an official alliance between her military and the Black Knights without obstruction, Tianzi held back the command and for good reason. For the alliance to work, the CLA needed to willingly ally with the Black Knights; if Tianzi commanded them, Li and the others would fall in line from the order, but they would still see the Black Knights as a hindrance and a potential threat. No alliance would last with that mindset, and the Britannians would only grow emboldened at the conflict between their enemies. Thus, if the alliance was to be forged, it fell to Lelouch and Lelouch alone to convince the doubters that it was in their best interest; he could not change their perception of him or his past actions, but he could still make them see that their survival hinged on the Black Knights joining their war. Either way, it was all on him to do so.

But even as Lelouch's mind raced to find a way to undo Li's previous words and salvage everything else, he could not come up with anything coherent. Underneath the table he felt his hands begin to shake as the panic started to overpower him, and once more, only his mask kept those in front of him from seeing it on his face.

"This has gone on long enough!" Li declared, causing all attention at the table to turn towards him. "It is clear that there is nothing to be gained from these talks! As such, I give you this ultimatum Zero: leave now before I have my troops storm your battleship and seize your contingent."

"You're making a mistake...!" Lelouch was just able to breathe. "Without our aid, your revolution's loss is assured!"

Li answered with a cold glare. "The CLA has fought the Britannians for seven years without any aid from you or anyone else in the outside world," he declared. "We will survive without you or your legion of tǔfěi."

The Chinese General then got up and drew his sword, pointing it threateningly at Lelouch. "Now, return to your ship and depart this land. I will not repeat my earlier warning."

Damn it! Lelouch mentally cursed as the visor over his left eye opened, revealing his Geass to the world.

"Really General?" a new voice spoke up, completely breaking the atmosphere around the table and preventing Lelouch from speaking a command. "Do you truly believe those words?"

All eyes suddenly shifted backwards, toward perhaps the last person anyone, including Lelouch, thought would speak up at that meeting. Satisfied that she now had their attention, Kallen allowed her gaze to narrow challengingly on Li, while a very Lelouch-like smirk emerged on her face. "Because from where I'm standing, I don't think so."

Li glowered back at the Black Knight ace, looking more angered by her words than he should have. "I don't believe this is your place to speak, Major..."

"Wait." Tianzi spoke immediately. "I would like to hear her words." after Li acknowledged by seething his sword and sitting back down, the former Chairwoman then looked back at Kallen and nodded. "Go on Major Kouzuki."

Inwardly, Kallen was a bit surprised that Tianzi of all people came to her support, but went on regardless. She looked back at Li, then looked up toward the air. "Tell me General, how much of the CLA is concentrated here?" Kallen asked. "Am I right to assume Xiaopei holds the bulk of your military assets?"

"Just what are you..." Hong spoke up, before silencing at a wave of Li's hand.

Li then nodded, albeit hesitantly. "That is correct Major."

At that, Kallen's smirk expanded, while also taking cues from Lelouch in posture and gaze. "In that case, don't you find it hypocritical General? You claim our leader to be a madman, and yet here you are, leading your forces in a war against a superiorly armed, numbered and skilled enemy," she replied, before adding. "...a war that, no matter what you do, you will never win."

Her gaze then became even more intense. "Does that not sound like madness to you?"

Now it was Li's turn to feel hit at a point of weakness, causing him to nearly shoot back up again. Several of the other CLA officials did that for him, looking more ready to tell their soldiers to open fire than to tell the impudent Black Knight off. "A strong accusation," Li replied, quickly waving down his subordinates, while looking back with certain impatience toward Kallen. "But can you back it up, Shàoxiào?"

The look in Kallen's eyes told him and the others that she would more than oblige. "This base's allotment is as follows." she started. "Ten thousand five hundred and sixty-one combat and command personnel, four hundred and seventy two medical personnel, five hundred and sixty three Gun Ru knightmare frames, three hundred forty seven conventional armor units ranging from Qilin main battle tanks to Longma amphibious fighting vehicles, three hundred twenty eight Sanzuniao VTOLs, five landships of the Long Dan-class..."

She then finished with certain flair. "...and despite your claim of fighting without support from the outside, four Chawla designed seventh generation knightmare frames," even Li could not keep the astonishment off his face over that one. "The Shen Hu, Shen Wu, Shen Que and Shen Long."

"How!?" one of the Chinese officials stammered, reflecting the collective thought of every CLA staff member, including Li. Even Tianzi looked taken back by Kallen's display.

Meanwhile, Lelouch himself was surprised, but for a whole different reason. Four!? The CLA has four of those things!? he thought, before his brow furrowed. Rakshata better have an explanation for this one.

"That doesn't matter," Kallen replied to the question, continuing. "What matters is with that amount of firepower and personnel, this fortress will not hold against a Britannian onslaught."

She continued with force. "For all of the numbers the CLA possesses, the fact remains the Britannians have better technology, manpower and training; one of theirs is equal to ten or twenty of yours," she went on before Li could reply to that. "For Xiaopei, it would just take one division with adequate air support to break the conventional forces, while Knights of the Round could deal with the Shen Hu and its siblings."

With the blow struck, the point was quickly emphasized. "One division plus support units. Barely a drop in the bucket for an empire that runs over sixty percent of the world."

Her eyes scanned across the CLA generals, who were now quite subdued by Kallen's declaration. "Think about that for a second. You say Xiaopei is your strongest fortress, and yet for Britannia it would hardly be a struggle to conquer. And that's assuming the Homeland doesn't send a competent commander, such as Schneizel, Cornelia or Lelouch..." she couldn't help but inwardly smirk at the irony on that one. "...to oversee the campaign, in which case it would not be a struggle, but a windfall."

"Xiaopei is not as weak as you claim," Li growled, now finding himself in the same position he had put Zero in just moments ago. "The Britannians would pay dearly in blood before it would fall to them."

"Perhaps they would," Kallen replied. "But the point remains; your strongest fortress would fall to a concentrated assault."

She looked Li square in the eye again. "What about the CLA's other hideaways? How long would they last if Britannia discovered them? Could they even function effectively without you to command them?" her gaze narrowed until it look like Kallen's eyes were going to completely bore through Li's. "Just how can a snake devour a dragon, especially when its head has already been cut?"

She then stepped back. "Thus, I reiterate General: fighting a war you cannot win, with the best possible scenario being a permanent stalemate between your forces and your enemies, is in my humble opinion true madness." she then added. "In fact, I believe the proper term to describe the CLA under that mindset is zhi lao hu..."

Again her smirk took on Lelouch-like tones. "...a paper tiger."

The glances she received from the CLA present were nothing short of murderous. Kallen ignored them however, instead looking down toward the back of Lelouch's mask, quickly adopting a neutral expression. She knew she would hear it out from him later on, but that didn't matter. For the time being, she managed to open up a way for him. Get him Lelouch.

Knowing full well what Kallen had just done, and how she did it, Lelouch nonetheless settled back into an upright posture, before looking toward Li. "General Li." Lelouch said, reclaiming Li's attention. "I told you at the beginning of this meeting that if your offensive remains unchanged, you would be fighting this revolution for generations to come." his voice was subdued at first, but quickly regained its former strength as he went on. "In truth, I was being generous."

At that, he stated staunchly. "If left unchanged, your revolution won't last into the next year."

Although still taken back by Kallen's tangent, Li still had enough in him to stare down Lelouch. "Once more, a bold claim Zero."

"Bold but accurate," Lelouch said, before clasping his hands together on the table. "Do you wish to know, General, the exact reason why you have lasted for this long? Why the Britannians have not located your bases and wiped away your army once and for all? Why Calares has not been replaced with a more prominent commander like those Major Kouzuki mentioned?"

Li wanted to respond to that, but he had a feeling about the answer; in fact, he had held that feeling for seven years now. The other CLA officials, meanwhile, turned their heads toward each other in anxiety, as if they feared the words Lelouch was about to speak. Tianzi, however, remained neutral and listening.

With that, Lelouch delivered it. "It is because Emperor Charles himself does not see you as a threat."

The effect was like that of a cannon blast, with Li looking away in a slight cringe while those around him were once more aghast. Lelouch smiled villainously at that display. "Right after you liberated your Chairwoman and fled Luoyang, Prince Schneizel contacted the Emperor and informed him of the event. After a full explanation, Schneizel then requested that he placed as Area 22's interim Viceroy, so that he may personally hunt down your forces and stabilize the region," he stated, taking internal pleasure in the fact what he was speaking now wasn't a deception, but the full truth. "As well, Prince Lelouch, who was present at that communiqué, added his own request; that he also stay and support his elder brother in this endeavor."

A sudden chill ran down Li's spine as he just realized what Zero was speaking; even he could not deny how events would have turned differently had Prince Schneizel led the garrison instead of Calares, and he would have been difficult enough without the Black Prince, the man who would go on to wrestle much of Africa away from the EU, supporting him. Had they really come that close to outright annihilation?

"As you can guess, the Emperor turned both requests down." Lelouch stated, holding back a cringe of his own at the memory of his father's face. "He openly claimed that you and the CLA were 'but a nuisance', and that you were unworthy of their attention, especially since Britannia was still preparing for its invasion of Europe." he leaned back a little bit. "As such, both princes were recalled to the Homeland and in their place they sent Calares."

That put down, Lelouch went for the main point, looking toward the other CLA members as he did. "That, my friends, is all your revolution amounts to in the eyes of Britannia," he spelled it out. "A nuisance."

"Just how do you know that!?" Zhou barked. "There's no way you could have had spies that deep in Britannia at the time! How could you even be aware of that event!?"

"You're lying!" another shouted, pointing a finger at Lelouch. "You're trying to intimidate us again!"

Lelouch laughed lightly at the collective outburst. "Rest assured that is the truth. I can even provide evidence if you so wish."

He allowed a moment of silence for it all to settle in, before he began speaking toward Li again. "I do not give praise lightly General," he opened up with. "In spite of the Britannians seeing you as little more than an annoyance, you have made great accomplishments over the years. You have turned one of the most antiquated and poorly trained armies to ever exist into a consistent thorn in Britannia's side; a thorn that, in spite of all their power, the Imperials have yet to get rid of."

Li still looked hardened despite that praise, but Lelouch expected that. "However, that does not change the fact that the CLA is only a thorn; it can hurt Britannia every so often, but it cannot defeat it. And while you yourself live up to being the Chinese Tiger, even you can do only so much with a weak army like this one." his eyes narrowed. "Especially since you've chosen to fight alone, with as little outside support as you believe necessary."

Lelouch then leaned back a bit before he added the last clincher. "Once the EU falls and the entire world becomes one with Britannia, there is no doubt in my mind that your luck will end." he stated with clear assurance. "You have managed to avoid Britannia's global radar, and you have had the fortune of having an inept occupational viceroy for your opponent. But rest assured, these things will be amended when the Empire decides to bring its full power upon you, and in such a fight, you will be given no advantage nor mercy."

At that, he finished with. "By my calculations, you will last approximately one year's time." he stated. "After which, you will be wiped away entirely, and your defeat will be seen as further validation of the Empire's might, alongside the 'eternal weakness' of the Numbers."

Something flickered in Li's eyes at that explanation, but Lelouch didn't pause to see what it was. "Tell me General, is that how you want your revolution to be recorded? As a symbol of your nation's weaknesses and your enemy's strengths? As just another 'weak' nation that fell before the Empire, in which it would be one in a line of thousands?"

Li considered that for some amount of time. In the midst of that consideration, glanced toward Tianzi, only to find graveness in her eyes. It took every ounce of will in the General not to flinch at that stare, especially when he knew the true nature behind it. It's not that this hun dan's words have swayed her. the General thought, feeling his gut clench. It's because she herself had come to the exact same conclusions long ago. Zero merely reinforced them.

Seeing no way to argue, Li let out a sigh. As much as he hated to admit it, Zero's words had also reinforced his own long term doubts, and as much as he detested the phantom, he could no longer deny the ultimate conclusion. Even so, he felt himself put up one more defense. "And what of you, Zero?" he asked. "Do you believe your revolution will amount to anything?"

Lelouch folded his hands into fists. "Perhaps it will. Perhaps it won't." he stated, not even bothering to consider that, at least not there. "Either way, there is one thing I believe in: that we can achieve what others would claim impossible."

He spoke with as much directness as he could muster. "But only if we put aside our disagreements and work together against our common foe."

From there, a pausing moment of silence once more encompassed the table. Tianzi didn't need to glance over to see what kind of effect Zero's words had; she could almost feel the CLA general staff mulling over those words, alongside all that had been spoken up to now. She inwardly smirked at that; if nothing else, Zero had at least given pause to their hubris and made them realize just how bad of a situation they were in. And even though they still did not explicitly see the Black Knights or their masked leader as comrades, they would at least come to see them as allies once she had her own words with them.

Once again Zero, you do not disappoint. she thought, before speaking up again. "Well, I see that we have much to consider, especially in regard to this Operation Chìsè Límíng." she opened with, looking back at Zero. "For the time being Zero, I ask that you and your party return to the Mikasa. You have my word that you will not be harassed." she said with assurance. "We will alert you when the decision has been made."

Lelouch nodded, satisfied that he got that much at least. "Very well Your Excellency." he then looked over and nodded at his generals, who all rose simultaneously, as did the CLA staff. At long last, the talks were now officially over.

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

"Welcome back." C.C. said with a corner glance as both Lelouch and Kallen entered into the Devil's Den. At the moment she was enjoying a pizza lunch, which obviously took precedent over her partners' entry. "I take it the meeting went well?"

"They were far from cordial," Lelouch replied as he quickly stripped off his mask, cloak and uniform jacket, leaving him in a white shirt, uniform pants and boots. He then sat down on one of the couches, as did Kallen. "I've had better 'negotiations' with the Afrika Korps."

"Well, at least it wasn't a bloodbath," C.C. replied, as she took another pizza. "And you made it through without using your Geass. That's quite an accomplishment, for you."

Kallen looked up, perturbed. "How do you know that?"

C.C. smirked. "Being a Code Bearer has its perks." she then looked back toward Lelouch. "So what happens now?"

"Now we wait until they decide this alliance is well and truly their only hope." Lelouch said, clasping his hands underneath his chin. "It may take anywhere between minutes or hours, but eventually Tianzi will be able to convince the remaining deniers."

"Maybe." Kallen said, doubt remaining in her eyes. "The question now is how long will the alliance last. Sure, we have common interests, but that doesn't mean there's any trust or friendship between us." she sighed, knowing that several other Black Knights felt as much animosity as the Chinese did to them. "Too much leftover hate from the previous eras, alongside the likes of Kyushu."

"Trust and friendship can be gained as time goes on. For the moment however, we need only their allegiance to the cause." Lelouch replied, before recalling her performance at the meeting. As much as he detested her usage of Geass, which she had obviously done at some point before entering in, the fact was she had salvaged the situation. As such, he looked over toward his bodyguard and friend with sincerity. "And by the way Kallen... Thank you, for stepping in for me. You saved me from doing something I would regret later."

At that, Kallen couldn't help but blush at the praise, though she did well to keep Lelouch from seeing it. "Not at all. I figured the Chinese were going be pompous bastards, so I thought you could use the insurance."

Lelouch nodded. "While I can figure out where you got the Xiaopei garrison numbers from," he said, purposely avoiding any mention of Kallen's Geass. "Where did you learn to talk like that?"

A small pause quickly occurred before Kallen started to laugh. "From you." she replied. "I was imitating you the whole time."

Lelouch couldn't help but blink in a minor shock, before he himself laughed, albeit uncomfortably. My god, do I really sound that ridiculous? he thought while leaning back against his couch, relaxing for perhaps the first time that day.

Kallen did the same, feeling the world slowly begin to drain away. However, just before she could fall asleep, a sudden memory flashed in her mind; one of the images that she had seen with her Geass. Quickly her head shot back up. "Lelouch, about Li..."

"I know," Lelouch said, automatically figuring out what Kallen was going to say. He slowly leaned back up, sighing as he did so. "My mask's sensors picked up on it as well."

Kallen nodded, suddenly feeling hesitant. "What are we going to do? He can't possibly have that much time left."

Lelouch closed his eyes solemnly. "I'm not sure Kallen." he said, looking as though one of the worst possible scenarios in his plan had just occurred. "For once, I'm really not sure..."

From her position, C.C., in the midst of finishing her latest slice, looked on with a serious expression of her own.

Imperial Air Force McConnell
Luoyang Settlement, Duchy of Henan, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
June 28, 2025

If his secretary's earlier report didn't validate the incoming VIPs in Calares' eyes, then their choice of transport certainly did. Though it was a simple Galaxy transport plane, its tail fin bore an all to certain crest: a dark blue and gold outlined circle that contained twelve escutcheons, each displaying highly specific heraldry, surrounding the golden cross of Britannia. In that sense, Calares, much to his inner turmoil and potential ulcer, could no longer deny that the people he had been waiting on were, in fact, who he had been told before.

Sure enough, a side hatch yawned open as a ramp extended. A few guard troops exited first, but once they were out, three far more distinguishable figures emerged; two men and woman, dressed in pristine white uniforms and bearing a signature cloak, each colored red, olive green and dark red respectively.

"Attention!" Calares ordered to the troop lines behind him, their boot heals snapping together simultaneously just as the three reached the tarmac. Calares performed the same act himself, feeling like a lowly Private throughout the process. But then, standing before three of the Emperor's handpicked elites, he might as well had been an E-1.

Looking out over the formation himself, Johann nodded with minute satisfaction at what he saw. "At ease," he stated, before looking toward Calares. "Your orders were to receive us in a subtle manner, General Calares."

Calares coughed before he answered. "My apologies Sir Johann, but it is not every day my command is graced with the presence of the Knights of the Round," he stated, doing well in keeping the discomfort out of his voice. Or at least, he thought so. "I thought you would appreciate a formal welcoming party."

"Oh please," Michael stated with a wave hand. "You're just trying to kiss our asses so we can go home and tell His Majesty good things about you."

He then fixed Calares the snarkiest glance the general had ever seen on a human being. "You REMFs are all the same."

Calares felt his hand twitch and threaten to curl into a fist, but he managed to maintain control. "I assure you, Sir Johann, that was not my intention."

"Uh-huh. Liar liar pants on fire!" Nena called out in a sing song tone.

The Lieutenant General let out a breath of air before gesturing. "If you will please follow me," he said, gesturing toward a waiting limousine. A few moments later, all four were in the limo and driving off the base, heading straight to the Government Bureau.

As they passed desolate looking streets, a good portion of which were filled with downtrodden Twenty-Twos, Calares began speaking again. "As you can see, we don't have much to fight for here in Area 22, but your presence is still very much appreciated," he stated, looking toward Johann while ignoring the mocking faces of Michael and Nena. "If we are to retain firm control over this land, Li's reign of terror must be ended."

Suddenly, Michael and Nena broke out into fits of laughter, as if Calares had just told a joke. "Heh heh heh, you're really not all that bright are you General!?" Michael laughed. "Maybe you've been at a desk for too long!"

"Or under one for that matter!" Nena added in between her own fits.

Calares grit his teeth as he mouthed out a response. "I'm afraid I don't understand," he let out. "Did I say something...funny?"

"Not at all General. Li is a particular annoyance," Johann replied, as he picked up a cup of tea from a nearby compartment, taking a sip before answering. "Even so, he is not the reason His Majesty sent us here."

At that, Calares realized who Johann was really speaking of. "Tianzi."

Johann nodded in confirmation. "His Majesty feels that she has been given free reign for far too long, and is well on her way toward becoming a true threat to the Empire. Thus, he has deployed Sir Michael, Dame Nena and I to bring her back to the Homeland," he lifted the cup back to his lips. "Alive if possible. Dead if necessary."

The Lieutenant General felt himself gulp at Johann's cold, almost otherworldly monotone. "And the CLA?"

"Well duh!" Michael nearly shouted. "How are we supposed to bring her to Britannia without wiping out her attack bitches!?" he leered at Calares. "You really haven't thought this through, have you Calories!?"

Again Calares had to hold back his stern reply. "That's Calares," he nearly barked.

"Calares. Calories. Whatever." Michael let out. "Same fucking difference!"

"That will do Michael," Johann commanded subtly, causing Michael to calm down, at least for the time being. He then looked back at Calares. "Since removing Tianzi from this land requires direct confrontation against the CLA, yes General, we will be fighting them."

He then motioned. "As such, I will be taking full command of Area 22's garrison from this point on."

Despite his best efforts this time, Calares could not keep the incredulousness off his face. "But Sir Johann, is that really necessary!?" he almost stammered. "I've been fighting the CLA for seven years, I..."

"Exactly," Johann replied. "You've been fighting an enemy you should have defeated at the onset for seven years. And while His Majesty looks well upon your service to the Crown, he is still displeased with that performance." the smiles that Michael and Nina flashed at that exclamation could have made the Cheshire Cat envious. "Therefore, you will follow whatever orders I give you to the letter, and you will not step out of line in any way. If you perform well, you may yet retain your command."

Johann eyed the general carefully as he added the following. "If you do not, you will find yourself demoted and transferred to the Eastern Front, where you may deal with Princess Marrybell's command," he summarized. "Are we clear, General?"

All of a sudden, Zhao Hao's words began to burn in Calares' ears as he recalled them. Even so, he still had the professionalism to nod at that question. "Yes, My Lord." he nearly growled.

"Good." Johann said, satisfied. "Once we return to the Bureau, you will call together your senior staff for a meeting. Whether it be the CLA or my own commanders, I wish to know exactly whom I am dealing with. From there, we will work to implement our new strategy."

Again it was only Calares' professionalism that kept him from saying anything unbecoming. "It will be done, Sir Johann."

From there, the limo ride back to the Bureau was in complete silence. And yet, one could not help but feel a foreboding sense of doom, as one of the worst possible enemies for the Black Knights and the CLA had entered into the Vermillion City...