On the table there is a chessboard in the midst of play.
There is no dust that gathers on it, indicating a sense of timelessness, that this game has been forever frozen in this singular moment, its combatants locked forever in an unending, ceaseless struggle.
But this is but an illusion, because nothing ever stays the same, not even if it lives through eternity.
Slowly, piano thin, snow white fingers wrap around a single white bishop, the lone one left on the board, placing it within striking range of the black knight.
"So it's come to this at last," she murmured softly, sounding oddly sad. Her eyes were distant, and outside, an orange-purple sky of twilight darkened, a sun going down in the sky, leaving everything dark and cold.
"The embers of hatred can spark the fires of war…" her lips curled into a sardonic smile. "But I guess this is what you wanted, eh Lelouch?"
C.C. chuckled morbidly, and turned away.
"I guess it's time to go to work."
Part I: God's In His Heaven
"Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people."
His hands were shaking, his forehead gleaming with hints of sweat, his skin pale as death, eyes wide and darting from side to side- classic signs of stress due to severe trauma. Even across this long meeting table, it was obvious that this man had gone through much.
"Now then, private Shigeru, could you please tell us about yourself?"
"Private Shigeru? Your name and identification number, please."
The man jerked a little, finally registering his name as he struggled to regain his senses. With a shaky nod, he began to speak.
"My name is Shigeru Daisukenojo, Private Second Class of the Third Division of the Black Knights, Zeta Company, Service Number SRR-117. I was assigned to the Shiroda forward operations base in Kyushu about six months ago as a communications specialist, under the command of Second Lieutenant Hirokawa Miyazaki."
His response was static and flat, practiced ease helping him keep his voice steady as he spoke.
"Thank you, private, that will be sufficient. Now, about the incident…"
His eyes darted up, and clear panic flashed in his eyes before he managed to catch himself, nodding shakily.
"Well… a few days ago, our drill instructor, this guy from Britannia, Sergeant Winchester, just… snapped. Started shooting up the place. He took out our communications array and killed Captain Mishizawa before Aoba managed to knock him out. When he woke up, he seemed normal, didn't even remember what he'd done… but when our temporary commander, the XO, Lieutenant Sakaki, started interrogating him, the Sergeant went nuts again and killed him with his bare hands. He broke my friend Kurama's wrist when he tried to stop him… he was like an animal."
"You mean to say he displayed… unusual levels of strength?"
"Sort of. I mean, I'd seen guys like this before, guys who fight until they've totally bled out, who take shots but still keep coming… but Sergeant Winchester wasn't really that type. He was always kind of… I dunno. Cool-headed, I guess?"
"So his personality was… altered?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"What happened next?"
"Well… we shot Sergeant Winchester to stop him, but we were too late. The Lieutenant was already dead. And a couple hours later, this other guy, Watanuki… he goes crazy and blows up the Knightmare hangar with himself and three other guys inside. Everyone was so freaked we didn't sleep. Without our Knightmares, our only options were repairing the array that the Sergeant destroyed, or wait for the Knightmares on patrol to come back.
"But the next day, one of the guys who had been out on patrol, another guy from Brittania, Gray, he charges the mess hall in his Knightmare and practically takes out the regiment."
"What about the others who were on patrol with him?"
"We patrolled in teams of two. His partner was Corporal Moriyama… we never found him. I think Gray killed him before returning to base… probably the others who were on patrol too, considering they never made it back either."
"What happened after that?" hands folded, his interrogator peered forward.
"After that… things went crazy. A bunch of the other Brittanian guys at the base went nuts and attacked us. We fought 'em off… and since it was all Brittanian guys who went nuts, we locked the rest of them all up as a precaution. Everything seemed okay, but then one of the other Japanese guys, Yuuji, kills a bunch of them, and then the other Brits kill him and start attacking us. By the end, everyone was killing everyone… no distinction at all."
"How long did all of this take place?"
"The Sergeant snapped… four days ago, I think? I was in that sewer for so long…"
"And when did the last incident you can recall take place?"
"Yesterday… I think. I made a break for it with one of the broken distress beacons from a Knightmare, hoping I could get word out. Hid in the sewers. I think some guys were still alive before I got the distress beacon working, but…"
"I see. Did the people who… snapped, have any common symptoms, or share any experience before they began attacking?"
"No… I'm sorry, I can't remember anything."
"I see. This must have been very traumatizing for you, private. Please, follow these men and return to your temporary quarters. We will have you out of here as soon as possible."
Private Shigeru looked up at him, as though terrified, but swallowed and nodded, following the ornately dressed, masked guards out of the room.
It was a testament to the man's post traumatic stress disorder that he never once asked exactly who the people interrogating him actually were... or why they never showed him any identification.
As he hit a button on the tape recorder to end the session, he watched the man go for a while, feeling the ever so slight amount of guilt for lying to the man, if only indirectly.
As soon as possible… which likely meant never.
But it was better than the alternative.
A form flickered out of the shadows of the meeting room, innocuously dressed in a conservative, old fashioned maid outfit, highly out of place in the blank, smooth gray of the concrete walls, the halogen lights and the lacquered meeting table.
"What do you think, Sayoko-san?" he asked, still staring at the doorway as he handed her the recorder.
"It appears Lelouch-sama's fear has been realized," Sayoko answered softly, looking regretful as she pocketed the recorder. "We had suspected as much, following a trail of incidents leading to this point, but… this is the first real confirmation we've had that what he had warned us about had come to pass."
"Indeed." His tone was grim. "I had hoped, since it has been quite some time since his Majesty's left us, that…"
His voice fell away, and there was a brief moment of terse silence, like mourning at a grave.
"Anyways," he continued sharply, as if to rid himself of the silence that had oppressed them, "Our next step should be to try to gauge its path. We must move quickly, because now that its presence has been revealed, our window of opportunity to take care of this incident discretely has been greatly reduced."
"Do you think it's acting randomly? Striking anything in sight?" Sayoko asked, gazing out towards the doorway they had escorted Private Shigeru through, wondering at what horrors the poor man had seen. "Or is it acting with a purpose?"
"I've no doubt it has a purpose," the man replied tersely, hands clenching. "It destroyed that base when it could just have easily have slipped on by… almost as if it was demonstrating its power."
"It wants us to know it exists?" she raised an eyebrow critically.
"Perhaps…" he murmured, folding his hands and resting his chin atop them. "Or perhaps it wants something else. There's something about this incident…"
He shook his head, as if to clear some kind of illusion. "It's too early to tell, either way. We need more information."
"Should we contact him?" she questioned, shifting her gaze towards him.
"Our agency was formed specifically to handle these matters, to work in the shadows of this world," he said, sighing, "I would like to deal with this under the table, so to speak."
He smiled wryly. "This is the final order we were given, after all."
Silence, heavy with pondering, worrying, and not a little bit of plain frustration.
"Are you going to be much longer?" came a toneless, calm, female voice, from just outside the door.
"We're just finishing up, Anya-kun," Sayoko replied warmly. "Come on in."
The former Knight of Six, Anya Earlstreim, glided into the room, barely sparing any of it a glance. She had grown taller since the end of the war, into a young woman, though she remained reserved and rarely put her emotions into her voice when speaking.
"You've grown since I last saw you, Anya-kun," Sayoko complimented gently, inclining her head to acknowledge her presence.
The younger woman's lips stretched upwards in the barest hint of a smile, before turning serious once again.
"Do you really think Lelouch was right?" Anya questioned, fixing her gaze upon the male occupant of the room. "Is it really…"
"Yes, there are no doubts," Jeremiah Gottwald, former Knight of Emperor Lelouch Vi Brittania, responded gravely, folding his hands.
"Our enemy possesses a Geass."
"What do you mean there were no survivors from the Kyuushu base?" Gino Weinberg scowled deeply, slamming his fist down on the table, scaring the ever living out of the unfortunate messenger.
"Calm down Gino," Kouzuki Kallen interrupted, placing a restraining hand on his shoulder. She stood next to him, crisp in her black uniform which looked vaguely similar to the original Black Knights uniform (some claimed that the Japanese Prime Minister had some sentimentality towards it- those who were really in the know understood it was actually the Empress of Neo-Brittania who had them made into the official uniform despite protests). He glanced back at her, obviously still angry, but checked himself, sitting back into his chair.
The messenger wiped his forehead, obviously still uncomfortable. "Well… all our search parties have reported no survivors, sir. We've done two thorough sweeps of the area- as you ordered- but we've still found no one to tell us what happened there."
Gino gritted his teeth. "Then who the hell activated that distress beacon?" he questioned irritably, glancing at the reports on the table. "This… Private Shigeru sent us a transmission not even six hours before we arrived, and he was clearly alive before then."
"I'm sorry sir. We haven't found anything. Not even a body."
"Well then we can't say for certain there were no survivors then, can we?" the former Knight of Three growled, but, luckily for the man, Kallen stepped in, smoothly interrupting, "Thank you. Please, continue with your search."
Grateful for the intervention, the man nearly bowled himself over saluting, and beat a hasty retreat from the room.
"That's not like you," Kallen noted with a hint of teasing, "You're supposed to be the good cop, remember?"
Gino scoffed, anger dying out like a mayfly, and grinned back. "Nah, you're too pretty to be bad," he replied, doing his best to sound suave.
Rolling her eyes, the redhead socked him on the shoulder. "Get serious," she chided, before her expression settled into a more serious look. "What do you make of all that?"
"Someone got there before us. Somebody picked up the signal and nabbed the only survivor, and then disappeared before we arrived. I don't know why, but somebody doesn't want us knowing what happened at Kyuushu," Gino murmured quietly, eyes flat and hard, that of the soldier he was beneath his goofy, carefree exterior, and Kallen was reminded yet again that the young man sitting next to her was a professional soldier, a difference in training that was subtle but forever present.
"Who could possibly have beaten us there?" she asked, eyebrows furrowing. They were the Black Knights, the official peacekeeping force of Neo-Brittania, basically the only legitimate army still existing in the world today. They had access to every resource the world had, and had mobilized with the utmost speed when the signal had come in. No other organization known had the same capability.
Gino blew out a low, annoyed breath, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms behind his head. "Beats me," he muttered, eyes darkening. "But it really bugs me."
"Must be serious, if you're so wound up about it, Weinberg-san."
Both occupants of the room jerked to attention at the newcomer who had entered the office, and Gino nearly toppled out of his chair.
"Prime Minister!" he blinked, shaking his head. "Don't do that!"
Kallen dipped her head in a respectful nod and saluted, before breaking out into a warm smile. "I didn't know you were here already, Ougi-san," she said, never quite managing to break the old habit of taking –san onto his name.
Prime Minister Kaname Ougi, one of the most powerful men in the world and former second (and later full) commander of the Black Knights gave them both a cordial smile.
"At ease," he said unnecessarily, giving them a shallow nod, before his expression settled into a more business-like look. "I was visiting the Empress at New Pendragon, and flew in from the capitol as soon as we heard the news. The Empress wants to know the names of the families of the soldiers to express her personal condolences."
It sounded like standard bureaucratic platitudes, but few in the world doubted the sincerity of their Empress.
"I'll have it for the little Empress by the end of the day," Gino replied, nodding his head. Kallen winced at the usage of the nickname, but no one had managed to break him of the habit, and the Empress herself never seemed to mind.
"You have the report, Ougi-san," Kallen stepped in, giving him a quizzical look. "There was no need to come all the way here yourself so quickly."
"Everyone is concerned, Kallen. Right now the Empress is in a meeting determining our official response to this incident," the Prime Minister responded quietly. "That was a fully equipped, fully manned military base that was taken out, without word getting out until it was too late, and within the span of a few days, it seems. There's no force left in the world that should have that kind of ability."
Kallen and Gino both nodded in agreement.
"Do you think it was anti-government insurgents?" Kallen asked. There were groups that opposed the peace and rule of Neo-Brittania, as there always would be, but they had never attempted such brazen tactics before.
"No, they don't have that kind of power. The most they've ever been shown to use are the old Sutherlands and, only once or twice have they managed to acquire the use of a Vincent," Gino added in, shaking his head. "Some of them are old soldiers, leftovers of the EU who refused to join and even the occasional holdout from the old Brittania, but the majority of them don't have any kind of formal training, just people who don't trust the new government or who just hate us for whatever reason. And they've never managed to pull off an operation like this."
"So what are we dealing with then?" Kallen questioned softly.
A pensive silence was the only answer they had.
"So many lives lost…" her voice was soft and filled with fresh grief, as though she had personally known those men who had lost their lives. Her eyes welled up, but she dared not cry, no matter how much she wished to.
"It's okay," came a comforting voice and a warm hand on her shoulder. "You can cry if you want, Nunnally-san."
Empress Nunnally Lamperouge shook her head with a smile. "No, I shouldn't. The tears won't help the widows and orphans, so I won't waste time now crying for them. When I'm sure this matter is closed, then I will cry, Kaguya-san."
Sumeragi Kaguya, Chairwoman of the United Nations Council, the ruling power beneath the Empress, consisting of representatives of every country contained within the Empire, smiled back. "I guess that'll have to do," she muttered good naturedly, sighing.
"I apologize for having to bring this to your attention yet again, your Majesty, Madam Chairwoman," Schneizel El Brittania (still under the control of his younger brother's Geass) said respectfully, bowing his head. He acted as a personal assistant to the Empress, handling a great deal of the management aspects and administrative functions she needed organized. "I realize how troubling this news must be for you, and I apologize for having to hold a meeting regarding this issue."
"No, Schneizel-niisama," Nunnally replied, shaking her head. "Thank you. There's no need to consider my feelings right now. Please, continue."
Schneizel nodded. "Understood. What we need to discuss now are the official responses from the various members of the Empire," he said slowly, and gave a glance towards Kaguya, who stepped forward.
"Everyone is concerned," the Chairwoman reported quietly, "And many are offering to help pool resources together to help with the relief effort. There is a great concern about the identity of the attackers, which we have yet to confirm."
"Thank the countries for their assistance, and please give me their names afterward," Nunnally replied. "How is the investigation going?"
"Prime Minister Ougi is currently discussing the investigation with Major Kouzuki and Colonel Weinberg in Tokyo," Schneizel responded crisply. "Our primary concern is verifying the status and whereabouts of the sole confirmed survivor from the base, one Private Shigeru Daisukenojo."
"This is the most troubling part," Kaguya pointed out, biting her lip. "His distress beacon was activated six hours before our arrival, and was the first and only indication that anything had gone wrong with the base. What about the civilians nearby? Surely someone should have noticed?"
"According to the reports, the civilians seemed completely unaware. Of course, once it was pointed out to them, they immediately realized there was something wrong, but up until our arrival it was as if every single person outside the base simply forgot it existed," Schneizel explained tonelessly.
"Forgot it existed…" Nunnally repeated, turning the words over on her tongue. Something about that phrase bothered her.
"There is one more thing I have to note," her older brother continued, sounding hesitant. "This may be nothing but someone's idea of a joke, but…" he presented the two younger women with a sealed brown package. "Outside of this room, only Ougi-san and Xing-ke-san know about this at the current time. Ougi-san has suggested we not allow this to reach even Kouzuki or Weinberg until we have verified the contents."
Kaguya reached over and took the envelope with a look of concern, and opened it between herself and Nunnally, so they could both see it. Within was a somewhat dirtied disc. They both gave the disc a single once over, and then looked back up at the former Brittanian prince.
"This is an electronic report that was supposedly being written by the executive officer of the Kyushu forward base, Lieutenant Sakaki," Schneizel explained, "It is dated a few days before the missing Private Shigeru activated the distress beacon, and describes how the commanding officer of the base, Captain Mishizawa, was murdered by the drill sergeant, a Sergeant Winchester."
"This is information important to the investigation, Schneizel-niisama," Nunnally said sharply, a hint of her old brother in her demeanor. "Why exactly are you keeping it from Kallen-san and Gino-san?"
A part of her suddenly feared that her brother's Geass had somehow worn off on Scheneizel. But the red light of the Geass still rimmed his eyes, making it doubtful.
Nunnally's hands tightened unconsciously around her wheelchair.
"Ougi-san suggested it, actually," Schneizel replied pleasantly, incapable of being offended due to the Geass, "You see, a year before this incident, Sergeant Winchester, a native of the Brittanian homeland, had been reported and suspended from duty on accusations of racism towards Japanese soldiers under his command. After being forced into mandatory training with Japanese officers, he had been transferred to the Shiroda forward base from our base in Shanghai as a 'last chance', and was warned he would be dishonorably discharged from the military if he showed any further signs of this behavior. He complied and had been on his best behavior since arriving in Kyushu, but still…"
Nunnally's fear about the Geass weakening was replaced with a much more devastating, terrifyingly real fear.
Kaguya's eyes widened at the realization. "If word got out that this incident may have been some kind of internal conflict between Japanese and Brittanian soldiers…"
"The peace we've worked so hard to build could be shattered," Nunnally agreed, eyes closing with dread.
The old hatreds stirred up again. Japan versus Brittania. Memories of oppression and war and massacre would be the embers of an inferno that could burn this gentle, peaceful world they had only just started to build.
And the peace was already so fragile, so delicate. Though people lived together, side by side, united by the memory of a tyrant and the desire to never be ruled like that again, it would not take very much to make them remember that they also once hated one another.
The chance for peace her brother gave up everything for- his good name, the love he had from friends and family, and ultimately his own life, would be wasted.
Things were far worse than she thought.
Kaguya glanced over at her, for once at a loss. "What should we do?" she asked, voice shaking slightly.
There was only one person who could be trusted to handle this.
Nunnally opened her eyes, looking far older than her years.
"Find Zero. We need him. And please arrange a video conference with Kallen-san and Gino-san at the earliest possible time."
Scheneizel nodded. "Xing-ke-san is already on his way to look for Zero and inform him of the situation. And I'll make the arrangements for the meeting at ten A.M. tomorrow."
"Where is he?" Kaguya blinked, suddenly realizing that the usually ever-present Zero had not been here during the whole initial panic over this Kyushu incident. "How could he not be here right now?"
The Empress shook her head. "I don't like to tell him what do, not when he works harder than any of us," she said quietly. "I never see him eat or sleep or rest, but neither do I ever hear him complain. He's always the first one up and usually the last to leave. Sometimes he leaves on his own, and I give him that."
Here lies Kururugi Suzaku, Knight of Zero.
The words made him laugh a little, though he only allowed himself a slight curling of his lips. The words were clear, even though there was dirt and garbage and even odd graffiti written upon the tombstone, curses at the second most loathed man in recent history. He found it perversely gratifying, and supposed that it somewhat satisfied his subconscious desire to be hated for all the dirty little things he'd done, starting with murdering his own father.
As soon as the thought entered his head he banished it.
Zero had no father, no mother, no brother or sister, no lover, no country.
He did not feel tired, or weak, did not yearn for the touch of another, did not long to walk beneath the blue sky and feel the wind and sun on his face.
He had no sins to atone for, for he was justice incarnated.
"Ah, there you are."
He resisted the urge to feel surprise. Composure was the essence of Zero.
"Xing-ke-san," he greeted cordially, if distantly, turning to face him. As always, his voice came out distorted by the mask's voice filter, a feature installed by the previous owner to help disguise his identity. It had grown more familiar to him than the true sound of his voice. "What brings you here?"
"I could ask you the same question," Li Xing-ke replied, managing a smile despite his wan, thinning face. His illness had taken a recent turn for the worse and he was only just now returning to his stately duties as Chief Executive Officer of the Black Knights. Still, most of the day to day duties were now run by his subordinates such as Toudou, Kallen, or Gino, to ease the burden on him.
He was glad the mask hid his expression, and not for the first time thought that Lelouch had taken comfort in this any number of times. But then again, Lelouch had many masks, and the ones he wore without a physical aid were always the best.
He wasn't as good, but he'd make do.
"I needed some time alone," he answered honestly, and then regretted it. That wasn't something Zero should say.
If Xing-ke thought the same, he didn't show it. "Of course," he agreed, nodding his head pleasantly. "Every man requires solitude from time to time, to reflect on himself. It is essential to warriors like ourselves."
The man calling himself Zero resisted the urge to balk. He was no warrior. He was just a murderer, plain and simple. He had sold his honor a long time ago.
"Unfortunately, there is an incident of great urgency that requires your attention, Zero-san," the Chinese man continued, bowing his head slightly in apology. "I'm afraid the Empress requires your presence immediately."
He nodded. "Of course. I was just about to leave."
He refused to take a glance back at the grave.
Kururugi Suzaku is dead.
Zero is not.
And therefore, he is not Kururugi Suzaku.
"Thank you for your report, Major Kouzuki," Zero said, inclining his head just enough so the mask would dip and show his acknowledgement.
"No thanks necessary, Zero," Kallen said, feeling awkward as always, even through video conference, when speaking to this strange, enigmatic new Zero. Trying to shake the thoughts out of her head, she continued briskly, "I apologize for Gino-er, Colonel Weinberg's absence. He insisted on going to Kyushu himself yesterday to oversee the physical investigation and is currently out of contact. Ougi-san also expresses his regrets that he cannot attend this meeting, but things in the Tokyo Settlement require his attention in the wake of this incident."
"No need for apologies. Colonel Weinberg's initiative is appreciated," he replied calmly, and glanced towards the Empress and her advisors. "And the Prime Minister has already sent us word he would be unable to join us for this conference, but we have already received his input."
Picking up on the cue, Nunnally spoke up. "Has there been any other suspicious incidents since then, Kallen-san?"
Kallen shook her head. "Nothing, your Majesty."
A cough came from the video screen to Nunnally's left, and Cornelia Li Brittania, Commander of the Black Knight's Police Department, currently stationed in France, spoke up.
"Regarding this, I've had some of my men dig through our old records to find any evidence that this attack was pre-meditated," she added in, and glanced to her right, where, as always, her loyal knight Gilbert Guilford stood. Though blind and restricted to moving with a cane, his aptitude towards administrative duties came in handy in his role as Adjutant to Cornelia.
"On the whole, we have yet to discover any suspicious movements of goods such as armaments, and there seems to be very little disturbances within the greater Kyushu area at any time previous to this incident," he reported.
"So this came out of nowhere?" Toudou Kyoshiro, Chief of Staff of the Black Knights, on video conference from his current station in China, cut in, his mouth set in a stern line. "Impossible."
"I agree," Schneizel nodded, drawing all eyes to him- despite his will being subverted by Geass, his sharp mind, rivaled and surpassed only by his younger brother's, was still just as powerful. "An attack like this, with such power and finesse, could not simply come out of nowhere, as if by magic."
"Perhaps government insurgents?" Guilford suggested hesitantly, though he knew, as did they all, that the resources required for this incident were largely out of reach for such groups.
"At this point, speculation is pointless," Xing-ke interrupted, shaking his head. He coughed lightly, drawing worried looks, but his pallor was unchanged and he continued after another moment, "We need to continue the investigation, but broaden our search."
"Perhaps we should be more creative in our search," Toudou suggested, closing his eyes meditatively. "Cornelia-san, have you looked into the underground markets outside of Japan? Kyushu is quite far from the main Tokyo area and much closer to the greater Asia continent, so an overseas attack might not be out of the question. Suspicious ship manifestos and such could be the clues we need."
"We're currently working on this, but the search area overseas is much broader than it is in Japan," Guilford answered for her. "It will take more time to go over."
Kaguya stepped forward from Nunnally's left, speaking for the first time since the meeting began. "I'll ask the member countries of the United Nations Council for their cooperation in this matter," she offered.
"Very well," Nunnally spoke up, knowing she had to assert her authority over this meeting now and bring it back to focus. "Please do so, Guilford-san, Kaguya-san, and send the reports directly to Zero."
Imperceptibly, Zero straightened, remembering why Nunnally had specifically indicated him.
"As of right now," the Empress continued slowly, trying to put strength into her voice, "I am putting Zero in charge of this investigation. Right after this meeting he will be leaving for Japan to join Kallen-san and Gino-san in the effort to catch the culprits behind this incident."
"Eh? Zero?" Kallen blinked, forgetting protocol for a moment. "Why him?"
"I need someone I can trust to take care of this," Nunnally said softly, reaching over to clasp his hand. "Kallen-san and Gino-san are good people, but… I need you to do this."
Zero looked down at the hand clasping his and those eyes which were looking past his mask for the man who should have been behind it, and nodded, throat tight.
"Yes, your Majesty."
"There is a great deal of concern amongst the international community regarding this incident, especially since our official statements regarding this issue have not been very clear," Zero answered smoothly. It wasn't totally a lie, but hardly the true reason. "As such, the Empress has decided my presence is required in order to reassure everyone that we are doing our utmost to catch the culprits behind this and return peace to the world."
"Ah… I see," Kallen nodded, wondering at this. It made sense, in a lot of ways. To the world, Zero was a hero of justice, capable of achieving the impossible, and second only to the Empress herself. There was no doubt in her mind that if the world was told Zero was handling this incident, they would breathe a sigh of relief and consider the matter solved.
Still though… because of all of this, she wondered absently if this was incident really so dire that Zero himself was needed?
"If that's settled, then I believe there is no more business to take care of," Schneizel stated calmly, sharing a glance with Nunnally, who nodded.
"Thank you, everyone," the Empress said softly. "I pray that this incident will be resolved swiftly, so that no more tears need be shed."
"God above," Gino muttered, nostrils stinging with that uncomfortably familiar smell of gunsmoke and old blood as he stepped through the ruins of the Kyushu base. "I've seen some screwed up battles in my time, but this…"
His gut clenched. He was a soldier- killing was something he'd accepted, but not enjoyed, and stuff like this went way beyond the usual horror of war.
To his left, what remained of the infirmary smoldered, its doors half broken, and the remains of a corpse hang out of a particularly burnt hole that used to be the north wall. Behind him, a Sutherland Knightmare was busy attempting to remove the rubble and free the bodies trapped within.
To his right, rows of bodies were spread out across the empty grass area outside of the base. Tomorrow there would be many grieving orphans and widows coming to identify the bodies of their loved ones.
His teeth ground against each other.
Tomorrow he'd make damn sure there was a culprit who would beg for their forgiveness. Kneeling, he preferred, if one could kneel after you'd broken their kneecaps.
"Stuff like this isn't supposed to happen anymore," he muttered. "Just what the hell is going on…"
"Sir!" a voice burst out across his earpiece, the panicked voice of one of his lieutenants. "You should come to the mess hall immediately, Colonel. We've got something."
Gino moved quickly through the remains of the base, subordinates deftly dodging him as he practically charged through the relief workers who were frantically, and likely futilely, attempting to find anyone, anyone at all who was still alive.
The sight of the mess hall was like being sucker punched and choked simultaneously. His stomach dropped and he felt like all the air had been sucked out around him, making it difficult to breathe. It was by far the worst of the damage- this attack had clearly taken place at meal time, judging from the bloodstains that were visible even through the man-sized bullet holes in the walls.
A Knightmare, Gino thought to himself, and glanced down at the ground. Sure enough, there were signs of a machine crashing straight through into the building, judging from what little remained of the entryway.
Tactically, a brilliant, horribly cruel maneuver- most of the regiment would be there, cramped together in one space. If you wanted to wipe it out, that would be an excellent opportunity.
Waiting in front of the ruin was Lieutenant Keima, his executive officer. Keima was good at all the things Gino really hated about his job- the paperwork, the organizational duties, the constant meetings. It was one of the reasons he'd taken on the role of Knight of Rounds as opposed to joining the regular military- much less hassle, more hands on stuff. Kallen did her own scheduling, but for Gino, Keima was a lifesaver of immense proportions.
"What is it, Keima?" Gino questioned. His lieutenant wasn't particularly amiable, a cool-headed type, and usually only spoke so hurriedly if it was a matter of urgency.
"We found the remains of the Knightmare which attacked the mess hall. It was pretty much destroyed, but some of it remains salvageable," Keima answered slowly, face unusually pale. "I found the serial number in part of the wreckage and put it into our database. I haven't yet spoken to anyone else about it yet, but…"
He glanced to the side, as if wary, leaning in closer to his commander. "The Knightmare was registered to us, sir. Specifically… this base."
Gino blinked, and a cold chill, like an arctic breath, slithered down his spine to sink like a rock in his gut.
"You mean to say that our own men did this?" he hissed, barely audible.
"It's too early to tell sir," Keima replied quietly. "It could be that the Knightmare was hijacked, but that would involve obtaining both the driver and passcode to activate it from its owner. And something like that would be extremely difficult to do in the time frame of the attack… unless they had a way to obtain that information directly."
The former Knight of Rounds glanced back at the ruined building, the bodies strewn about and the wanton destruction that had been inflicted, and gritted his teeth. "Keep this between us. I want the name of the official registered pilot, Keima. And get me through to the capitol."
The Lieutenant saluted. "At once, sir."
As Keima turned and began relaying his orders, Gino sighed.
"Can this get any worse?"
If he had known what would happen in the coming days, Gino would have shot himself for saying those words.
"Zero-sama, we are now beginning our descent into the Tokyo Settlement."
Sighing, he pressed the intercom button and replied, "Thank you."
The private plane allotted to him by the Empress was just barely comfortable enough to be considered VIP- his private compartment had locks on the inside, allowing him to remove his mask if he so chose. It had a small fridge and a single, comfortable chair.
Absently, he rolled the mask of Zero from one hand to the other, letting the empty glass stare back at him. Green eyes, dulled and weakened from constant shielding, were occasionally reflected.
Was that a line on his face, he wondered? It had been so long since he truly, truly looked at himself in the mirror, rather than just doing the bare minimum to trim his hair and facial growth, that he wasn't sure how much he had changed.
He chanced a look out the window. There, in the distance, was a haunting reminder of the past- the massive crater formed during the world's first encounter with the FLEIA weapon, which took millions of lives and changed the course of history forever. In memory of those who died that day, it had never been filled, and instead a single, towering obelisk had been erected at the very center of what was now called the Tokyo Peace Memorial.
He had only been there once before- that is, after he donned this mask, he had come- during the opening ceremony, only on request of the Empress herself who had poured countless weeks of effort into building it, mustering up resources from every corner she could.
The massive spire, made up of countless blocks of white marble, reached towards the sky like the prayers of the hopeful, a chance for redemption.
His thoughts were shaken as the entire plane shook with the jarring feeling of landing, and, despite himself, he smiled.
It felt kind of nice to be home.
Kallen stood at rapt attention as Zero descended down the ramp of the plane, arms folded behind her back, legs set firmly. Behind her, an honor guard of sorts also stood, ram-rod straight, many of whom volunteered to go to the airport with her just for a chance to see the legendary Zero.
Briefly, Kallen wondered at herself. She was years younger than the men under her command, yet her rank was already as high as a Major within just a few years. If she hadn't spent a year and a half at Ashford to finish her schooling and had gone straight into the military like Gino, she'd likely be at his rank, Colonel, already.
It wasn't like she hadn't led others older than her into battle before- she'd been a Captain in the old Black Knights, after all- but that had been a resistance group that had become an army, not a full military from the get-go.
"You're the best Knightmare Frame pilot in the world, Kallen. Of course you're being made an officer," Gino said, back when she first made the decision to enlist.
"The best, huh?" Kallen rolled the words off her tongue, frowning slightly. That much was true, she supposed- she had defeated the only man to ever be a match for her on the battlefield, and now there was no one left in this world who should have the skill to beat her and the Guren.
But sometimes, when she was alone, in the dark, she couldn't help but remember the familiarity of Zero's movements, that inhuman ability that had only been held by-
"Major Kouzuki," Zero greeted, shattering her musings, holding out a gloved hand in greeting. "It's been quite some time since we last spoke in person."
Kallen straightened, legs pushing together as she saluted crisply. "Zero," she greeted in reply. "It's an honor to have you here in Japan, sir."
"I wish it could be under better circumstances, though," the masked hero added, and there was a touch of warmth that was tangible through the voice distorter.
"Thank you, sir," she replied, the words automatic and distant from herself. She hated it- this strange awkwardness around this Zero, the unsure nature of how she should treat the masked hero.
Yet, she never tried to guess at his identity. In the shadows of her heart she suspected, always suspected, but never wanted to prove it to herself.
She'd seen beneath the mask once upon a time, seen the man within, and it had changed everything for her, and maybe for everyone.
This time, maybe it was better that Zero remain an enigma.
"I'm sorry to rush you, Zero, but we must be going soon. I just received a call saying that Gino has some troubling news," Kallen said quickly, and two of her squad members stepped forward to help escort them back to the waiting car. "He left a message, which we can listen to on the way to the government building, if that's fine with you."
"Of course," Zero nodded. "The Empress wants this matter resolved quickly, as do us all."
That was something that didn't seem to change, Kallen mused. Zero was still Nunnally's protector. And that constancy was somewhat comforting to Kallen- as though it confirmed that what she had hoped all along was true.
That maybe the real Zero- maybe Lelouch- really wasn't the monster he had so painstakingly made himself out to be. That maybe some part of him was human, and that it lived on in that mask he had born for so long.
As the doors closed behind them, Kallen pressed a button embedded in the wall divider that separated the passenger compartment from the driver's seat. A false wall fell down in the middle of the compartment, revealing a compact screen. She pushed a different button and the screen flickered to life, revealing a number of touch screen commands.
Kallen selected a number of them in practiced order, and then pushed the large glowing button that read 'Play'.
Suddenly, Gino's face appeared on the screen.
"Yo, honey! How's everything back home! Bet ya miss me, don'tcha, toots?"
Kallen flushed, more so due to the fact that he was saying this in front of Zero, in a way, than anything else.
For his part, Zero pretended he didn't notice, but couldn't help curling his lip ever so slightly beneath the mask.
"He's a dead man," she muttered to herself, already imagining what kind of creative beatings she could inflict on him 'accidentally'.
Maybe she could ask him for an innocent spar and then step on him with the Guren. Or let Tamaki take the Tristan for a test run.
"Okay, I know, enough jokes," Gino chuckled, grinning impishly for a moment, before his smile dropped and he was all business. "We've got a problem."
The former pilot of the Guren straightened, shaken from her thoughts of vengeance.
"During the attack on the base, a Knightmare broke in and killed a lot of the regiment while they were at the mess hall," Gino explained, voice dropping as he added quietly, "That Knightmare was registered to one of our pilots at the base."
Kallen felt a lead weight drop in her gut.
Next to her, Zero's gloved hand tightened. It wasn't the same as knowing that a Brittanian man with a previous history of discrimination had murdered a Japanese officer, but it was still a sign that the base had been split apart by a miniature civil war between Brittania and Japan.
"I've got my Lieutenant looking into the pilot, and I've made sure that this information is restricted. Don't want anyone panicking just yet," Gino continued, and Zero breathed a silent sigh of relief, thankful that the former Knight of Three was, despite appearances, a highly intelligent and capable soldier. "But pass this along to Zero and the Empress- things are worse than we thought. We might have been infiltrated- if so, then this information needs to be restricted until we figure out who we can trust."
Under the circumstances, a viable, though incorrect conclusion. Zero was thankful that there wasn't more evidence at the moment that this was more than anti-government insurrectionists.
"I'll let you know what I find out," Gino finished, and suddenly he was smiling cheekily again. "Ciao for now, sweetheart. Be sure to give me a kiss as a reward when I get back!"
The silence in the car following the end of the message was extremely awkward to Kallen, and she strived to fill the gap.
"I wish he wouldn't make jokes like that," she muttered awkwardly, cheeks still red as she avoided looking anywhere at Zero or the screen. "It's one thing to do it when he's here, it's another when he's using an official channel to send a message." And in front of Zero, of all people.
Zero was quiet for a while, and Kallen squirmed until he finally replied. "Perhaps he's fond of you," he said. "You two have been working together for some time, if I remember."
Though he said it tonelessly and through a voice distorter, Kallen could have sworn that Zero was teasing her.
"He's always saying stuff like that," she scoffed, rolling her eyes. "He likes to think he's a charmer or something. God's gift to women."
"You don't have an interest in him?" Zero asked, surprised at his own lapse of professionalism. But, some part of him must have wanted to break that, he supposed, a part that still hungered for normal conversation.
Kallen sputtered at the suddenness of the inquiry, turning a cherubic shade of crimson that was reminiscent of her hair. "I… he's nice and all, but…" she began, eyes growing distant as she glanced out the window. "I don't know… I don't think I'm really the type to date. Love isn't something I seem to be very good with."
"You don't think you'll ever love someone?" he questioned, curious despite himself.
She smiled sadly, looking downwards at her lap- or more precisely, at the Guren key that still hung around her neck, a weapon she had been given so many years ago, by a man she'd sworn to protect.
"I think I did love someone once," she answered, voice tinged with regret. "But it didn't work out."
Without thinking, he asked, for the first time in years outside of his persona as Zero, "What happened?"
Kallen looked back up at him, or maybe at the mask of Zero, that symbol of justice and freedom that someone else, a long time ago, had taken it upon himself to bear.
"You killed him," she said simply.
Nunnally stared out of her office window, briefly wondering yet again at the amazing power of sight that so many took for granted. The sweeping chrome metal spires of New Pendragon stretched out like glittering jewels against the backdrop of an endlessly blue sky.
It was picturesque, beautiful, and tranquil.
And it could all be engulfed in the flames of war if she was unable to resolve this crisis in time.
Without thinking, her hands drifted to a small locket she wore around her neck, a present from Milly at her birthday a year after her brother's death. It was golden with a single amethyst jewel in the center, but it was what was inside that was the real treasure.
"This is for you," Milly said softly, pressing it into her hands with a soft smile. "I… I was keeping it but I think it should be yours."
Pressing it open, Nunnally was greeted by the smiling, gentle eyes of her brother, a snapshot of him in one of those rare, precious unguarded moments where he was at his most honest.
It helped calm her, even now, helped her feel like his spirit was still with her, still watching over her.
"There's something terribly wrong with the world," Kaguya whispered softly, wringing her hands worriedly as she stepped in line next to Nunnally to look out the window. "I don't know why, but even though everything looks so peaceful, there's an unease in my heart that won't go away."
"There's something wicked in the air," Nunnally agreed, sealing the picture up within the locket again. "What do you think would happen, Kaguya-san, if word got out?"
The Chairwoman of the U.N. Council gave her a pinched look, reluctant to broach the issue. Sighing, she replied, "The worst case scenario… Mass riots in the streets. The die-hard conservatives in Japan who still resent our cooperation with Brittania would suddenly have a great deal of political clout- enough to cause us real trouble. The anti-government insurgents could use this discord to weaken us further, or forge an alliance with those conservatives and become a greater threat."
Nunnally clenched her hands. "Who would stay with us?"
Kaguya pressed a finger to her cheek thoughtfully. "Ougi-san, of course. Toudou-san maybe… his allegiance has always been to Japan, so he'll work with whoever he sees will benefit the homeland the most. Most of the old Black Knights will likely stand alongside Ougi, though, meaning that the government would remain stable."
The Empress turned towards the other woman with a pensive look. "And yourself, Kaguya-san?" there was a slight tremble in her voice. They had become close in these years of peace, being of similar ages and both of royal backgrounds- she did not want to lose her friend over such an issue.
The Chairwoman gave her a look of mock hurt, before embracing Nunnally lightly, smiling gently. "I'm not going anywhere," she answered softly, pulling away, smile brightening up considerably. "After all, once upon a time, I could have been your sister-in-law!"
Nunnally laughed at that- a real, full laugh, her first since this crisis began. "I would have liked that," she murmured thoughtfully, hand unconsciously touching the locket around her neck. "I think you and my brother would have been a good match."
Kaguya smiled at that, turning away with a bemused look. Her picture of that man, Lelouch vi Brittania, was so skewed- she'd known him as a remarkably beautiful, fiercely intelligent child, then as a captivating and mysterious freedom fighter, and then finally as the terrible and cruel Demon Emperor everyone had knew him as. They were all fragments, puzzle pieces that remained separate and isolated from each other.
And by the time she started to suspect that there was more to him than that, that there was a kindness buried beneath the layers of deceit and treachery, he had already been killed by the very symbol of justice he had created.
"If only," she said offhandedly, shaking her head. "He was quite a man, your brother."
"He was," Nunnally agreed, voice a whisper, hand tightening over the golden locket. Her voice picked up strength as she continued, "Do you know why I changed my name back to Lamperouge, Kaguya-san?"
The Chairwoman shook her head.
"The people think I'm erasing the past of my brother and father, of the Brittanian royal family," she began quietly, releasing the golden locket from her hand. "But I did it to remember. To keep my brother, my real brother- not Lelouch vi Brittania- but Lelouch Lamperouge, alive. That's the way I want to remember him- not as an Emperor or as Zero, but as my kind brother."
"I wish I had known Lelouch Lamperouge," Kaguya murmured honestly.
"If only he was here now," Nunnally said quietly, a hint of desperation in her voice as her hands tightened until her knuckles went white. "He was always stronger than me… strong enough to bear the sins and hate of the world and never let it show how much he was crying. If he was here..."
"Your brother could work miracles," Kaguya interrupted gently, clasping Nunnally's hands in her own as she met the Empress' now tear-filled gaze. "With his life, he gave us this miracle of a peaceful world… he gave it to you, Nunnally."
She smiled comfortingly. "He trusted that you could protect it. He believed in you, Nunnally."
The Empress looked down for a long while, saying nothing, until finally she looked back up at Kaguya with a benevolent smile.
"Thank you, Kaguya-san. I needed that."
The Chairwoman grinned back. "What are sisters for?"
They exchanged amused looks for another moment longer, until a loud, persistent ring broke the peaceful silence.
Nunnally grabbed the nearby telephone hurriedly. "Yes?" she answered.
"Nunnally-sama, please switch on the television," Schneizel's voice came out over the line, sounding troubled. "We have a problem."
Half an hour earlier, a call had come in to a news station.
Ten minutes later, a news report was sitting on the desk of the former Student Council President of Ashford Academy, along with a battered and possibly bloodstained journal of one Corporal Hibiki.
"You can't seriously expect me to report this!" Milly Ashford protested, slamming her hand down over the news report she had been tasked to deliver. "This… this is warmongering, for God's sake! I might be a news anchor, but I am not going to report something so… so…"
"It's a story, Milly," the network executive interrupted, giving her a stern look that couldn't hide the greed in his eyes. "The most exciting story in years- we have to report it."
"This could cause a war!" Milly shrieked back, standing up out of her chair and slamming her hands down on her desk again. "It'll be anarchy! People will be in an uproar about this. They'll start throwing accusations at each other, and pretty soon things could get out of control."
"The media is tasked to deliver the truth, and truth like this brings in the ratings," he replied easily, greedily, shaking his head. "The people need to be told."
Disgusted, Milly opened her mouth to protest again, but was cut off.
"Think about this… that guy who called this in wanted it to be reported. If we don't, he'll just call another station," the man explained patiently, crossing his arms. "One way or another, it's going to get out. If you do it, then you at least can control how it gets spun."
Milly clenched her fists. "… Understood."
"This is Milly Ashford, coming to you live. This just in… we have just received a shocking piece of information related to the horrifying tragedy that took place just yesterday at the Black Knight's base located in the island of Kyushu, Japan.
"According to a source who wishes to remain anonymous, four days before the Shiroda forward base was discovered to be in ruins, one of the drill sergeants on the base, a Sergeant James Winchester, born July 3rd, 1987 A.T.B. in the Brittanian homeland, murdered his commanding officer, Captain Mishizawa Ayasaki. To help confirm his claim he has released the journal of one of the soldiers at the base, a Corporal Hibiki Yuuji. In the diary, dated at the same time as our anonymous source indicated to us, Corporal Hibiki writes an entry that details that same incident.
"Unfortunately, that entry is also the diary's last entry, indicating the tragic possibility that the Corporal was killed soon after, leaving the events that followed this murder unknown.
"However, our anonymous tipster also informed us that Sergeant Winchester had previously been on probation a number of years before due to accusations of discrimination against the Japanese soldiers under his command- a fact that we have managed to confirm for ourselves by accessing his career service record.
"From this, our source speculated that perhaps this murder, which seems to have occurred prior to the destruction of the Kyushu base, may in fact have triggered an incident between the Japanese and Brittanian soldiers of the base, and this escalated until the base itself was destroyed.
"Now, we must insist we have not yet ascertained any truth to this conclusion, and we are waiting for official word from the members of the government. Prime Minister Ougi of Japan released an official statement earlier today stating that the causes of the attack were unknown, indicating that the government perhaps had not yet been aware of this piece of information.
"How this will affect the ongoing investigation, which is currently being headed up Zero himself, is still unknown.
"Captain Mishizawa Ayasaki was forty three years old this April, and leaves behind a wife and two children…"
It was like all the air had been drained from the room. Kallen felt like there was air in her lungs but it was heavier than lead, strangling her from the inside.
"My God," she heard in the background, from one of her coworkers.
Milly's voice, familiar and beloved, was juxtaposed next to the horror her words were conveying to her.
What would happen now, she asked herself, feeling like she was viewing everything from outside of her own body. Everyone would be talking about it. The diehard conservatives on both sides would have ammo aplenty to throw against Nunnally and the rest of the current government. People would start to remember when Japan was called Area 11 again, and then the old hatreds, the massacres, the endless cycle of violence.
If the fighting started up again, if Japan had to fight Brittania again…
Who would she side with?
She shook her head violently, tightening her fists into balls. There was no need for that kind of thinking. Ougi-san was in charge of Japan, and he was married to a Brittanian- his children were half and half, just like her. What's more, Brittania itself was ruled by Nunnally, for God's sake, the most gentle young woman she had ever met.
There couldn't be a war.
There just couldn't…
Suddenly the mask of Zero loomed in front of her face as she blinked, startled back into reality by the sound of his voice.
"I'm sorry Zero, I was distracted. Forgive me," she apologized quickly, sounding breathless.
"As I said, we need to get to that station and trace the call, as well as to secure that diary, which could have more evidence as to the truth of this matter," Zero instructed, briskly ignoring her apology, sounding impatient even with a voice filter. He paused, however, after he spoke, regretting his forward tone, his mask tilting ever so slightly as he leaned in concernedly. "Are you okay?"
Kallen swallowed, and nodded, not trusting her voice.
There just couldn't…
"God damn it!" Gino snarled, punching the wooden table in front of him as he stared at the screen in the spacious tent that was currently serving as headquarters for his part of the investigation.
Shutting his eyes tightly, he gritted his teeth. "We're being played … somebody else knew something was seriously rotten here…"
Outside, he could hear murmurs amongst his soldiers, many of whom were Japanese soldiers from the old guard of the Black Knights- people who remembered the battles against Brittania, the ghettoes, the anger. Now there was a serious chance his investigation would be compromised, especially since he used to be Brittania's military elite, a Knight of Rounds.
"If only we could find that damn Private Shigeru," the former Knight of Three murmured, frustrated. "We'd know exact what the hell we're dealing with…"
"Sir, Prime Minister Ougi is on the line for you." Lieutenant Keima's voice broke through his anger. Though considerably paler after the announcement, Keima kept his composure as he held a phone out to his commander.
Gino took the phone with a grateful nod.
"I take it you've seen the news?" Ougi's voice sounded shaky as he attempted to put a bit of humor into it, but he sounded in better shape than Gino felt. This was definitely the right man to be the Prime Minister of Japan.
"Yeah. This is a right mess," he muttered, shaking his head. "Has the little Empress heard this yet?"
"The Empress is calling together an emergency session of the United Nations Council as we speak," Ougi answered. "Schneizel is preparing an official preliminary statement to be issued before the Council convenes. And Xing-ke and the rest of the Black Knights command core will be meeting in a few hours to discuss security."
"What about Zero and Kallen?" The investigation on the mainland was more important than ever now. Zero's credibility was likely their best asset against unrest right now- hopefully it could buy them some extra time before the masses grew impatient.
"They're trying to track down this anonymous tipster, see who he is. Kallen suggested it might be our missing Private," the Prime Minister responded tightly.
Gino clenched his teeth and nodded. "Yeah, that would make sense. How are things on the mainland?"
"My office has been receiving non-stop calls since the broadcast began," Ougi answered tiredly. "I'm preparing to make a speech, to try and reassure the public. In the meantime, Xing-ke asks that you lock down the base until further notice. Keep investigating, but bar all access aside from personnel you can trust. We need to control the information that gets out about the base."
"Understood," the former Knight of Three straightened. "Good luck, Ougi-san."
"You too, Weinberg-san. Godspeed."
"Things are starting to get out of hand, Jeremiah-san," Sayoko commented softly, shutting off the television in the room.
"Indeed. But its intentions are clear now." He gritted his teeth. "If only we had known, we could have acted differently."
"Are you saying we should have let Brittania have Private Shigeru?" the ninja maid asked slowly, raising her eyebrow.
"No, that would have given them too much. The upper echelons of this new government have not forgotten my master, or his powers. It could have made the situation worse, and restricted our ability to act," Jeremiah refuted, shaking his head. "What's done is done. What is necessary now is our next step."
"Anya-kun is on her way to ascertain the location of the anonymous caller. There might still be traces of it left. Since the investigation still doesn't know what they're really up against, they'll likely miss what we're looking for and won't tamper the evidence." Sayoko turned away from him, biting her lip as she stared at the now empty screen, as if it held even more disastrous news for them. "Though with circumstances being as they are, eliminating the source of this disturbance might not be enough."
"At least we're closing in on it," the former knight murmured, closing his eyes. "God willing, we can put an end to this before it does any more damage and irrevocably destroys Lelouch-sama's sacrifice."
It didn't take much for them to get into the station- Kallen didn't even think she needn't to present her identification, since the second the security guard saw that legendary mask their eyes were glued to it like moths to a flame. Zero himself had no official identification, and in truth no official powers or position- yet the sheer force of his reputation allowed him so much more than any government officiation could give.
A part of her wondered at this, at the man who murdered Lelouch being blessed by his victim's deeds. If this Zero had used that reputation to maneuver politically and gain power in the new government structure, there would have been alarm amongst the command structure of the Black Knights, but instead Zero had contented himself with standing guard over the Empress and using his powers only at her behest.
Kallen's thoughts were abruptly broken when two slim hands maneuvered themselves behind her and unceremoniously groped her breasts.
"Oh my, you've gotten even bigger, Kallen!"
The Major screeched and pulled herself free, whirling about, ready to beat the ever living hell out of-
"Kaichou!" the word, so familiar, escaped her lips, even though it had been years since Ashford Academy.
"Aw, Kallen-chan, I'm not in charge of the Student Council anymore," Milly winked lasciviously. "You should really stop calling me that."
"Old habits die hard," the redhead replied, tone darkening with sarcasm as she added, "For both of us, it seems."
"Oh well, you know how it is," she responded airily, waving her hand in dismissal. "I hardly ever get to work with beautiful ladies, so when one comes marching through my door..."
Zero couldn't help but chuckle. Milly Ashford was the kind of personality that could draw out a smile from a granite statue. However, he couldn't indulge in those emotions so carelessly. Coughing, he interrupted smoothly, "I apologize for intruding on this reunion, Ashford-san, but I'm afraid time is of the essence."
Milly had the grace to blush, realizing she was in the presence of Zero.
"My apologies, Zero," she managed clumsily, bowing her head respectfully. "This way, of course."
She led them down a hallway that was unfortunately filled with offices, whose occupants were doing their best impressions of turkeys as they gawked at Zero.
However, the masked hero did a rather admirable job of ignoring these stares, aided by the fact that he was feeling more and more apprehensive and desperate about the current situation to worry about any onlookers.
Not for the first time, he felt as though he were a child trying to fill an adult's shoes. Lelouch had been a powerful, provocative figure as Zero, with that deadly combination of unmatched brilliance and intoxicating charisma, seemingly always having a solution to any situation he was faced with.
He knew that last one for a fact, having been the first Zero's mortal enemy for much of their respective careers. And now that he was replacing Lelouch, he wondered just what he had signed himself up for. How could he hope to match that 'miraculous' ability of the original Zero, that power that could turn despair into victory?
He wasn't brilliant, nor did he have the charisma his old friend possessed. He was a soldier, not a ruler, and definitely not a demagogue. Lelouch had never needed any martial ability of his own, only a keen mind, honeyed words, and of course, the Geass, to bring the world down to its knees.
Could he really hope to protect the peace as Zero, without any of the abilities that had made Zero legendary?
He was so immersed in his thoughts that he almost failed to notice a somewhat familiar figure turning the corner in front of them, a figure with unmistakably pink hair.
Anya? Zero shook his head, incredulous. Couldn't be. She works outside the city, helping manage Jeremiah's orange farm…
But that figure was still strikingly similar…
"Here we are," Milly said cheerfully, pushing open the door to a spacious looking office. "I had it sent to my office to help make things more private for you two. I'll be outside, so just call if you need anything! Toodles!"
Kallen couldn't help but giggle at the familiarity of Milly's antics as she followed Zero into the room.
The masked man went directly to the diary on the desk, leaving the Major to take the time to look around the room, staring at the pictures on the walls- many of which were shots Milly had taken with familiar faces, like the Chinese Empress Tianzi, or Lloyd-san and Cecile-san at Ougi's wedding…
Strangely, there were no pictures of Lelouch anywhere. But, she supposed, a bitter smile tugging at her lips, a famous news anchor couldn't have pictures of the much maligned 'Demon Emperor' hanging on her walls, could she?
"Kallen, over here."
Her thoughts were broken by the cold sound of Zero's distorted voice, and she turned around to see the masked man holding up the diary in question with his gloved hands.
"Is something wrong?" Even through a voice filter, there was a tone of graveness in Zero's voice that she couldn't mistake.
He nodded, a dark kind of movement noticeable even with a mask.
"There's a page missing from this diary… someone tore it out, and recently." He pointed towards the scraps of paper still clumsily left on the desk, and then opened the diary to a portion which clearly had a single page ripped out of it. "We still have the information that the media released about the diary, regarding the murder of the Captain, but whatever information was contained on the following page…"
The room seemed to be spinning around her.
"Shit," Kallen swore, and Zero couldn't help but feel that summarized the situation perfectly.
After a few weeks of deliberation and the comments of several readers, I've decided to break up the chapters of this story. My original intent was for this to be a one shot, but it grew beyond my expectations. Thus, now you get several pieces of the story, and now I'm actually going to put in the author's notes I was saving for the end.
The title of Part I, as some of you may know, is part of the quote "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world" is taken from a poem by Robert Browning called "Pippa Passes", more commonly known as the motto of the organization NERV in Neon Genesis Evangelion. The irony of that quote is that the poem is about horrible, horrible events and the line "God's in his Heaven, all's right with the world" is mocking that. So I thought it fitting, considering the events of Part I.
Private Shigure's Service Number is a subtle nod to Halo, the SRR-117 being an abbreviation of Sierra-117, the Master Chief's callsign. Just a little tidbit I threw in there for my own amusement. And his first name, Daisukenojo, is a nod to The World Ends With You's "Beat", whose real name is Daisukenojo. Much like Lieutenant Keima's name is a nod to the main character of The World God Only Knows (unrelated title).