The corridors of the Black Rebellion flagship Ikaruga had never seemed so long before. Wait, maybe not long…

Big? Lofty, perhaps? That last one sounded like a winner, but lacked something to convey the quality of… emptiness.

Walking along the hall, Kallen Kouzuki, warrior-queen of the Black Knights, wrapped her arms about herself. The meager comfort this afforded did nothing to dispel the gravitas of their situation. To try and occupy her thoughts for the nonce, she again went back to hunting for adjectives in English that suited the occasion's mood.

Unfortunately, nothing more fitting came to mind.

Viciously Kallen pushed a hand through her blood-red locks. The auburn-haired pilot's footsteps echoed down the empty tunnel, every one serving now as a reminder of failure. Of course, it was not a thwarted exercise in vocabulary that left her feeling so devoid of…

Oh.

That certainly worked.

This floating fortress, which had served as her principle home for nearly a year, was definitely devoid of something necessary. Not just comfort, or security. It was more as if a vital component had been removed, rendering the rest of the war machine's accoutrements as nothing more than needless show. A glorified stage prop, deprived of an actor worthy of investing it with his presence.

This motley assortment of riffraff and savants had been robbed of their leader.

Zero was gone.

Less than twenty minutes ago, all hell had broken loose. After only recently being liberated from the Britannian gilded cage she had been languishing in since the Chinese affair, the head of Zero's royal guard had been blessed not just with a custom-crafted nightmare of a Knightmare, but the opportunity to put it to good use. Upon working off her aggression, she had then escorted her leader's damaged frame back into safe harbor on the Ikaruga. They had all been shaken by the loss of virtually the entire Tokyo settlement to the next generation in scientific savagery. It was perhaps this, more than anything, that had caused her allies to be so receptive to the advances of Britannia's emissary. And the shocking revelation he had dealt their cause.

Kouzuki couldn't blame them. Upon learning Zero's true identity a year ago, she had abandoned him herself. It had taken several months and some very intense soul-searching to let her come to the conclusion that in spite of his legacy of deceptions and eventual disappointments, Lelouch vi Britannia was the only person capable of helping her to realize her most cherished wish.

Now that icon of change was on the run, hounded by both his lifelong enemies and the soldiers he himself had organized and trained. All his carefully-culled cult of hero worship and dynamic devotion had turned upon him in less than a day. Were it not for the pitiful delusions of a homicidal social infant, the masked miracle-maker would have probably been gunned down on the spot. Kallen couldn't help but smirk. Only someone so messed up could possibly be counted on to be that loyal. Actually, she thought, that line of thinking probably explained Suzaku Kururugi as well. There was little doubt that somewhere out there now, the White Knight's malfunctioning brain was excusing his genocidal actions in the name of service to his superiors. Hope your army medical benefits include frequent trips to the psychiatrist, Suzaku, his nemesis glowered darkly.

You have to live, Kallen.

Beneath her skintight combat attire, the heir to the Stadtfeld family's fortune felt goose bumps form on her flesh. That was the last thing Zero… or rather, Lelouch, had said to her. It was thinking about the royal prodigy's childhood friend that had triggered the memory. She had been surprised when it was explained to her that they could not count upon the power of Geass to turn Suzaku's strength to their cause. Not that it didn't explain a few things, but the idea was still a tough nut to swallow, even considering all the evidence. Although Kallen still harbored deep misgivings on the topic of subverting another person's will in this manner, she had still broached the subject following Zero's reemergence onto the scene. It was almost a relief to learn that the magic bullet was no longer an option, having already been used on the dutiful soldier once before.

The question of whether she herself remained susceptible had been carefully avoided, by both parties.

You could trust a person with your life, and in so doing make them fight all the harder for you. Zero's queen of the battlefield had certainly come to appreciate that sentiment. Would she have come to doubt him sooner, if he hadn't been so free with compliments as to her worth and abilities? The mystery of who lay behind the mask and what his motivations were had eventually been replaced with an abiding respect for his own capabilities. Not so much in piloting Knightmares, as for a while there Zero seemed to require a new one after every engagement (and really, what could you expect from a boy who had worse gym grades than the girl who actively strove to appear unhealthy?). It was for his implausible strategies that not only succeeded, but made those participating in them thrilled and elated to have played their parts in such daring endeavors.

The best generals viewed their troops as more than just expendable pawns to be flung onto the fires of their own ambition. And in Zero, the freedom fighters of Nippon had found themselves unaccountably blessed with both a general and a hero. Even Kallen had been caught up in the legend of the mask. She had offered the reborn icon her services after his identity was restored, on the condition that he continue to fulfill the hopes and dreams that had been fostered in the wake of Zero's appearance on the world stage. In typical Lelouch fashion, he had left her feeling both assured and thoroughly discombobulated.

Another recurring motif for them was that at the time, she had been holding a weapon on him while showing off a lot of skin. There were times Kallen seriously wondered if her life wasn't part of some sick television show where the producers insisted she be caught in embarrassing situations regularly. She could just imagine the voluptuous smile on the face of uninhibited television personality and good friend Milly Ashford at the thought of such a program. Diethard certainly wouldn't balk at the prospect of higher ratings. He would also be requiring some serious first aid today, after the truculent response she had bestowed upon the newscaster-turned-revolutionary when he suggested she chase after and eliminate Lelouch herself.

I wonder if anyone will inquire about his injuries. And if so, would Diethard admit the truth?

Probably not.

Just what the hell made that man think her loyalties could be so easily manipulated? Just because it had worked that way once before. Kouzuki ground her teeth at the thought as she drew closer to her intended destination. It wasn't just about Lelouch here anyway. Maybe that was the Britannian attaché's problem: he never paid much attention to anyone but Zero. Almost a sort of hero-worship, but he was such a pathological reptile it was hard to imagine Diethard committing himself to any ascribed ideology. Maybe one day their story would become a legend, with themselves as simple characters. But that day was still far off, and while they were alive it was up to the actors to remember that their duties lay not just to a symbol, a nation or even a dream, but to the people who depended on them.

She came at last to the quarters that up until this day had been reserved for Zero.

Something told Kallen that, if given the time and different circumstances, Lelouch would have entrusted this specific duty to her.

Without bothering to knock, she slid open the door and stepped in.

The room was empty.

"C.C.?"

The champion combatant scanned the room carefully. In all the uproar, she had considered it highly unlikely the rest of her comrades would remember to account for the whereabouts of Zero's mysterious other half. And that was good. Even with what little she knew about the female, it did not strike her as wise to allow such an unpredictable quantity to fall into the hands of just anyone. Especially considering that according to Lelouch, she had recently regressed to some sort of guileless servant mentality. There were people who would take advantage of such a vulnerable target in ways far older and even more unsavory than Geass. Before such a disaster could take place, Kallen had decided to see the golden-eyed immortal safely secured in a more peaceful locale.

Stepping further into these plush living arrangements, the ace of the Black Knights checked the back of the sofas, under the table and behind the bookshelves. Anywhere a frightened and confused girl might consider a safe place to hide. Nowhere did she find the person known only as C.C..

When it became clear that her quarry was not in evidence, at first Kouzuki was at a loss. What now? Search the whole ship? Even if it was safe to ask others for help, that would take hours. She had been planning to spirit the simple soul out before anyone else could question her whereabouts. Just what was the best strategy now?

With a weary groan, the exhausted teenager collapsed on a couch. Of all the times to not have Zero around to inform her what the winning course might be. Even one of his off-the-wall "just-trust-me" schemes would be met with no skepticism at this point.

Well, minimal skepticism, she had to admit. Kallen had learned for herself the perils of not thinking about why you were doing something.

So?

Why am I doing this?

Loyalty to Lelouch? Devotion to a proven friend? Compassion for a helpless human being?

Because they need me to.

Both Zero and C.C.

Well, then. Neither of those two were available to offer advice. It was time for Kallen Kouzuki, crack pilot and exemplary academic, to devise a means of locating her errant orphan.

Just what do we know? C.C. was on the loose. The girl was without resources or allies, and the only person she would be expected to approach was no longer available. If that was the case, what could be depended upon to draw the target out into the open?

A sudden image came to Kallen of a large cardboard box propped up on one edge by a stick. On the floor beneath the box was a steaming fresh-from-the-oven pizza. When the timid mouse comes scampering out to snatch up its favorite food, a string is pulled, the container falls, and the prey is caught.

Her next thought involved a slice of pizza on the hook of a fishing pole.

At this point Kallen Kouzuki, master strategist and aspiring evil genius, gave up any plans she might ever have harbored of ruling the world.

"How did you do it, Lelouch?" she murmured into the cushions.

For a few minutes the fiery rebel just lay there, trying not to think about everything that had gone wrong today.

When sulking lost its appeal, she wearily hoisted her body up into a sitting position.

In doing so, Kallen found herself facing something she had previously overlooked. And that something was…

The bathroom.

Of course, she realized. It made sense. If you wanted to be out of sight, but weren't willing to leave the room, then your best course of action lay with…

Suddenly the detective found new wellsprings of energy, buoyed up by the elation at having settled upon a creative solution. So bedazzled by her own cleverness was Kallen that she simply vaulted over the back of the divan, raced to the lavatory and burst inside. Without even knocking.

There was a surprisingly large amount of space. None of that cloistered claustrophobic's coronary that some people found so necessary in the designing of a restroom. Instead there were two marble-topped sinks on either side of the door, complete with golden faucets. White 'His and Her' bathrobes hung along the wall beneath shelves stocked with all manner of towels. The porcelain throne was in evidence, right next to a matching bidet. The tops were purple quartz. Fluffy lime bathmats covered virtually every inch of conceivable foot traffic. Apparently, one of this room's regular occupants despised the feel of cold bathroom floor on bare soles. Hard to say which, they both had their quirks. At the farthest edge of this area, slightly clouded glass walls served to separate this section from the cleansing demesne. An open door offered access to descending steps. Two large golden showerheads protruded from the ceiling, with fixtures of similar make. Several colorful plastic buckets, rubber sandals and wooden stools were in evidence, apparently if anyone felt like taking a traditional Japanese bath near the tub set in back.

The blue-eyed beauty absorbed all this. It was her first time being in Zero's toilet.

When it dawned on her that there was no one else to be seen, her previous euphoric epiphany died so fast it made her want to flush herself down the drain. She felt dirty somehow. Like her presence in this sparkling sanitized paradise was a crime against nature.

Kallen rolled her shoulders, and sniffed.

Actually, more than disappointment, that feeling might be the result of not having bathed today, and sweating in this new suit.

In the face of this lavish lavatory, with all her problems seeming to double and treble in the space of a few moments, suddenly the only thing the rose-topped daredevil wanted right now was to get clean.

It might not wipe away the dirty feeling of having been used by Lelouch, and the worse understanding that she had failed to protect him, but it certainly couldn't hurt. A quick rinse, change into some of C.C.'s clean clothes, and maybe then a solution would come to her.

Yeah, right, Kallen thought. She wasn't that unrealistic. What I am, actually, is short on options. I just need a few minutes to myself, to clear my head. Try to come to terms with everything going on in my life. Is that too much to ask?

In the next instant, Zero's knight had locked the door, and proceeded to strip out of her combat attire.

A small basket of soaps and shampoos was set on the counter. Apparently someone had the idea before she did but had failed to carry it out. Their loss, my gain, Kallen decided. Picking it up, she crossed over to the shower stall, closing the door securely behind her. Being in the buff made for it being a tad chilly, and without further ado the military marvel turned on the hot water for the showers. She then pulled the chain, and cleansing cascades fell from both of the enameled showerheads.

Stepping quickly under this waterfall of refreshment, Kouzuki found a heretofore unnoticed tension leaving her limbs. Exactly what I needed, she thought. It was like standing under a warm rain sent just for her, letting the valiant valkyrie know that the gods bestowed their blessing upon her efforts. Water ran down her svelte physique, drenching the crimson locks. Kallen closed her eyes, turning her face upwards to let the gentle surge fall into her mouth. For a moment it was just so heavenly all she could do was allow the flow to embrace her like a lover, rubbing her fingers through her hair, sliding them down her throat and breasts to end in caressing her flat stomach in a slow, languid rub.

When life hit you this hard, sometimes all you could do was remember the simple pleasures, she reflected. After allowing herself to indulge for a bit longer, Kallen then knelt and picked out a chamois from the basket. A stool was close by, and she hooked it with one toe, bringing it within reach. While the young rebel normally preferred to bathe while standing up, maybe a more prolonged experience was in order here. It was part of her chosen culture, after all. There had been a bucket behind her, and so she turned and moved to retrieve that as well.

The air was already heavy with steam, making the whole of the bathing hall a quite comfortable temperature for her to lounge around in. There were hundreds of small colored tiles in the floor, now that she noticed, joining to form the images of waves and denizens of the sea, including dolphins and clams. It was one of these pearl-bearing mollusks that the bather took the time to examine as she bent to pick up the plastic container. So many colors, purple and gray and pink, they were…

Out of place.

Something on the edge of her vision was registering as off.

From her bowed position, Kallen's head came up, eyes seeking out the part of the room that disturbed her.

In a corner to the side of the door, there sat a boy. It took her so by surprise that all the girl could do was stare.

He did the same.

The shower's course pelted the decorative designs, draining down into brass grilles that served as the occasional suction cups of an octopus mosaic. Kallen felt droplets dripping down off her hair to strike the bare flesh of her outstretched arm. She squeezed the terrycloth in her fist unconsciously, and when the water came trickling out through her fingers…

The situation suddenly became real; most especially, the state of her undress. And when this realization hit, the glistening female gave a sharp gasp and clutched the bath cup against her chest. Kallen's sense of balance teetered for a moment between pitching forward on her face and falling back on her rear.

The latter won out. She didn't even register any pain, there was only a panicked instinctive scuttling of legs and free arm, enough sense still there to keep covering herself until her back connected with the wall, and then it was once more a scene without movement. Heart pounding like a hummingbird's, the unwilling exhibitionist sat with knees to her chest, mouth agape and sapphire eyes wide as could be.

The intruder did not offer any sign at being disturbed in the slightest. He just sat there, watching her. When no overt hostility became apparent, Kouzuki began to feel herself coming back towards a modicum of self-control. Before making any further moves, she studied this enigmatic interloper.

It really was just a kid, she realized now, sitting there in the corner with his legs up and hands dangling between his knees. He was so small that even when standing his head probably wouldn't have crested an inch over the rise behind him. There was something almost sickly about how tiny he looked. But the cut of his clothes gave no sense of inferiority. They were of sublime, even regal make, apparel fit for a prince. White trousers and coat of superlative quality fit him so well they had to be tailor-made, with odd designs on the cuffs of gold and royal navy thread. A cravat of similar hues encircled the child's slender throat, and draped further around his slight shoulders was a peak-collared cape. Something about it made Kallen think of Zero, although this one was black with a purple trim, not red. There were matching wing ornaments that adorned either of his temples, but more unusual than these was the hair that they were pinned to. Even with girls, locks of this length would have been considered extreme. They swept back from his scalp, streaming out down his shoulders and across the floor around him in soft silken bundles. It was like something from a Britannian fantasy, Kallen reflected. Rumpelstiltskin weaving gold from a spinning wheel, or Rapunzel trapped in a tower.

The boy certainly appeared to be of Britannian ancestry, with a fine-boned pointed face. Large eyes were only half-open, and the irises gleamed an unusual lavender color. His skin was a shade most people only had on the underside of their arms; very pale with just a touch of pink. Soft protruding lips so bloodless they matched the rest of his skin perfectly were slightly open to reveal perfect teeth. A small nose and rather pronounced forehead completed the effect of childish proportions. It would have been easy to consider him beautiful. But there was something lacking in that face, a quality of life most children of this age possessed in abundance. He sported an expression of slack disinterest one might find in a bored high school student forced to endure an interminable lecture, not a preschooler viewing the sight of a naked teenage girl widely considered to be one of the most stunningly desirable specimens of her sex in the entire Ashford student body.

Devoid.

That word thrust back into Kallen's consciousness once more today.

This royal adolescent seemed devoid of…

Life, actually.

Was he dead, she wondered?

And then the boy spoke.

"Won't you come a little closer?"

Kallen just blinked in perplexity.

"I only ask because in this arrangement, it feels like we'd have to shout at each other to make sure we were heard. It wouldn't be polite."

Her jaw worked up and down for a second. Finally, she managed a faint, "Pardon?"

The boy gazed at her without expression. Then he closed his eyes fully and tilted his head back to rest against the wall with a slight thud.

"I hate repeating myself," he murmured in a cross tone.

At this point, rationality was beginning to assert itself once more in Kouzuki's mind. No matter how bizarre this situation might appear, certain things took priority. And right now, the thing that was deemed most important was the state of her undress.

She was just opening her mouth to approach this point when the little prince brought his arm up to his brow with a long, drawn-out sigh.

Kallen froze.

In his hand, there was a gun.

Beneath the shock and horror this imbued, there was still careful consideration. It was a Britannian military firearm, one of the pistols favored by officers, and Zero's weapon of choice as well. Perhaps it was one of the spares he kept secreted in his quarters. The clip was definitely in, and the safety was just as clearly off. Even in those minute fingers, the destructive potential of the device remained high enough to warrant her reassessing the situation.

It was while the Stadtfeld heiress was digesting this unexpected threat that her sinister peeping-tom lowered his arm and spoke without looking at her.

"Where's Lelouch?"

Chills. For the second time today, Kallen felt goose-pimples on her arms, in spite of the sauna they were both residing in.

Careful, now. Don't spook him.

"Why are you trying to find Lelouch?"

Now the amethyst orbs did open a crack to train on her deep blue counterparts.

"I really do wish you would come a bit closer. If you did it would save us from the discomfort of fielding such obvious questions." He then hefted the deadly implement out before him. "Do you see this now? If so, I think you can guess why I am looking for him. Please, don't waste my time again. We're neither of us getting any younger."

Was this really a child? The sheer number of things that were off about him seemed to be growing by the minute. Swallowing in a dry throat, Kallen slowly began to readjust her position. She got her legs beneath her and started to rise, hesitant and uncertain. When the gunman made no sign of protest, the picturesque maiden got completely to her feet, and began to edge forward carefully. Her modesty remained as intact as possible thanks to the careful positioning of both chamois and water bucket. In spite of this, Kouzuki felt her face flushing to such an extent that it seemed to be traveling down her neck. The captive again sought to find some measure of reassurance to all this.

"I don't know who you are, but I can't believe you really intend to use that gun, on Lelouch or anyone else. So if you'll just hand it to me, we can…"

Suddenly the barrel of the pistol rose to train on her. Kallen stopped. Stopped talking, moving, and for a little while there, she didn't even dare to breathe.

That cherubic head tilted slightly to one side.

"If I give this to you, it won't be in a way that you would like. And I think that's sufficiently close enough now, thanks very much. You can sit back down again."

The lethal weapon gave his nonchalant suggestion an especially potent impetus to obey. Recognizing that all was not as it appeared here, the target of that threat once more began to slowly lower herself to a seated position.

As she did, Kallen reached as casually as she could for the wooden stool.

"No."

He flicked a button on the grip, and a thin red beam shot from the muzzle, landing right between her eyes.

"Don't try that again." His voice was soft, and chiding. "I'm not stupid. I know that you are a highly proficient combatant. Given anything resembling a weapon, it's not unthinkable that you might be able to overpower me even with significantly superior firepower. Slide the seat to the far side of the room, please."

The target light never wavered. Kouzuki quickly discarded any notions she might have of using this opportunity to try and disarm her captor. Instead, she once more hooked her foot slowly under one of the wooden posts and gave it a pronounced shove off into the opposite corner from where he sat.

When she was just starting to crouch once more, the kid spoke again.

"Actually, considering who I'm dealing with, I think it might be for the best if you had as little to hand as possible. So could you please lose the bucket and the towel as well?"

"Excuse me?" Kallen snarled through gritted teeth.

There was the faintest hint of a smirk now at the corners of his mouth. "It's really not for the reason you think. I'm only concerned with maintaining the upper hand here, not in getting another peek. You're very nice, but I don't see it going anywhere either way."

And then he really did smile.

"If you disagree, we can talk about it some more, but I will shoot you if you don't comply."

Fear and disorientation were fast giving way to anger. But Kallen had been living with her fury for long enough to not let it overrule common sense or intelligence.

"Fine!" At that she roughly shoved the terrycloth into the container, and with pronounced form lobbed them over to land in the Jacuzzi with a splash. Now completely exposed, the seething redhead collapsed to the ground, legs folding beneath her and both arms wrapping around her chest in what she hoped was the position that afforded the least possible exposure to this little fiend's perceptions. Upon getting settled, the prisoner then proceeded to glower furiously at her jailor.

The grin had left him. Once more, that look of resigned indifference settled over the princeling's features. The lewd absurdity of this situation did not seem to have any bearing upon his actions. But he did drop the gun back into a relatively harmless position.

"I'm truly sorry to have to treat you this way. Even if you weren't a noblewoman of the titled Stadtfeld family, it really doesn't suit my preferences to force a lady into such demeaning circumstances. Still, like I said, I'm running on a deadline here. And it seems I might be needing to get some cooperation out of you."

Out of the wealth of tidbits in that speech, it was the least disturbing that garnered her attention.

"You know my family?"

His free hand came up, fingertips resting on his brow as he regarded her thoughtfully. "I'm more than familiar with all echelons of Britannian nobility. At least on paper, so to speak. So yes, Miss Kallen Stadtfeld, I'm well aware of your illustrious name and rank."

"Kouzuki!"

The response was almost unconscious now. But for some reason, she wanted to make it clear to this menace of her choice regarding that matter. To do otherwise would have been an insult to those who had fought and died for the sake of such things. Like her brother Naoto.

However, that distinction did not appear to concern the flaxen-haired psychopath.

"It's not my place to correct the mademoiselle on her preferences. Getting back to my original question, though: are you aware of Zero's current location at this time?"

For all his mentioning time as a factor, the boy certainly didn't seem to balk at running his mouth off. Well, fine. The longer this drew out, the more likely it was someone would come upon them and conceivably put her in a more favorable position.

Or just wind up getting me killed, Kallen thought.

"In the appropriated words of an abrogated twentieth-century musician, Zero has left the building!"

The boy blinked slowly, and then licked his lips.

"You know, in spite of everything to the contrary, I think you might just be telling me the truth. So let's try another query: where can I find C.C.?"

That startled Kallen, so much she forgot to be mad for a second.

"How do you know her?"

The look that came over him at that time might have been classified as fond remembrance.

"Oh, we go back a ways. Though I've only been able to speak with her once since my country took over your adopted homeland."

There came the anger again. "Your country?! What the hell are you, anyway, some kind of junior Cub Scout assassin?"

"No, I let Lelouch's sweet little brother wear that particular cap, I'm afraid."

Back to confusion. "What?"

He continued as though she hadn't spoken. "And at this time, I would like to point out that if Britannia hadn't subjugated Area 11, then in all likelihood you would never have been born, my biracial firebrand. A great loss for all red-blooded males of the heterosexual persuasion. Has it never occurred to you that you're fighting against the very thing that brought you into existence?"

The combination of being stripped, held at gunpoint and his perplexing personality was leaving Kallen with very little room to maneuver in terms of level-headedness, but still she strove to find some means of escaping from this predicament. Perhaps a bit more information was in order. Certainly it couldn't hurt.

"Would you at least tell me what your name is? I'm finding it hard enough being held hostage in my birthday suit without even knowing what to call you in my head, other than 'that freaky little creep'."

The foreign orphan gazed at her, giving a short sniff.

And for just a second, it looked like he was about to cry.

Before any sort of response to this could engender itself in her, the placid countenance was back.

"If you have to call me anything, I suppose 'V.V.' still applies."

The hapless high-schooler gave a brief start of surprise.

"V.V.? You mean like C.C.?"

"Yes. It's a common appellation for those who bear the Code."

V.V. did not appear inclined to elaborate on that statement. But to Kallen's surprise, learning his name had made this predicament seem less surreal and more bearable. Perhaps now that they were on a first name basis she could try and understand what this was all about.

"Okay, then… V.V. You say you want to kill Lelouch. You're certainly on the right boat, but I still have to wonder how you got on it in the first place. The Black Knights don't offer daycare services."

"Again with the wisecracks." He shifted, as though trying to ease a kink in his back. Was it a feint, an attempt to get her to make an escape or an attack? If so, she was not about to fall for it. "If you really must know, I stowed away on my nephew's ship. Being small has its advantages when you want to be overlooked. Believe me, I've been able to cause a great deal of mischief just because nobody bothered to notice I was there."

Nephew? Whom was he referring to? Had someone boarded the vessel without her knowledge?

"Miss Kouzuki?"

Kallen blinked. She had almost lost track of what was happening here. But the untroubled expression on this sweet little sociopath's face brought it all back into focus.

"Are you Lelouch's lover, by any chance?"

Complete and total disbelief.

"Wha…?! NO!"

"Oh." V.V. bit his lip gently for a moment, before casting a penetrating look back at her. "C.C.'s then, maybe?"

Even her debauched former student council president had never made Kallen feel this flabbergasted.

"ABSOLUTELY NOT! WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT I'M…?!"

"There's no need to get so excited. Yelling won't help you anyway, this room has been conditioned to dampen sound. I checked the blueprints. And really, you can't blame me for asking. You just came walking into their private quarters and stripped to take a shower like it was no big deal. I thought about it, and considering how relaxed you appeared, it made sense that you had done something like this before, possibly with their permission. And Lelouch was something of a peeping-tom in his youth. Cornelia caught him in Euphemia's closet twice and beat him black and blue for it. At any rate, the little pest always had an eye for the ladies."

None of this served to alleviate the Guren mistress' discomfort. In fact, quite the opposite. At this point, though, V.V. suddenly hoisted himself up into a standing position, dusting off his backside.

"You know, I seem to be wasting a lot of time here, don't I? It wasn't planned, I assure you. I can't even come up with a decent explanation for why it's happening now, except for maybe the company is more enjoyable than first anticipated. But all good things…"

His eyes traveled distractedly around the breadth of the sauna.

"At any rate, would you turn around for me, please?"

Something about the way the boy said that made Kallen shiver.

"Why?"

V.V. still didn't look at her when he spoke. "Well, I'm going now, you see. And it wouldn't be sensible to leave you here to alert the guards to my presence. So I'm just going to knock you out and lock you in for a while. No worries, you won't feel a thing."

It was when he said this last bit that something became clear to the kneeling captive. V.V. wasn't planning to knock her out.

He was going to kill her.

That was why he was in here. The facilities were sound-proofed. If a shot was fired, nobody would notice. It explained why V.V. chose this spot in the first place, besides it being a remarkably convenient place to stage an ambush. People hardly ever expected to be attacked in their own bathroom. And when you were naked or had your pants around your ankles, it certainly served to hamper any attempts at self-defense.

But in the case of Kallen Kouzuki, she had already experienced being assaulted in the lady's bath once before, and while it was her own friendly classmates behind the attack, the experience had given her some knowledge about just what she could accomplish when naked. Along with the time on Kaminē Island against Kururugi, and when she had first confronted Lelouch in the shower about his connection to the Shinjuku incident, and…

At any rate, the star of the Black Knights was not averse to fighting in the buff.

He was holding the gun loosely. Not even looking at her. There was maybe ten feet of space between them. The floor was slick, but that couldn't be helped, and might prove to be advantageous after all. If I could just move quick enough, Kallen reasoned, like Suzaku fast, I could knock him down and take the gun away. Or just escape. Her uniform was still in reach as well, and in it her hidden knife-pouch. There were many options to consider here besides just…

"Turn around, young lady."

It was so bizarre. Suddenly Kouzuki was reminded of a time when she was still just a little girl. She had talked back to her governess, and the woman had said that exact same thing to her. Her charge had obeyed, never suspecting that anything could come of it. The woman then took a ruler and spanked her with it until Kallen cried. It was the first time any of the adults in her life had laid a hand on her. Also the last. When the Stadtfeld patriarch learned of this incident, he had that woman dismissed, arrested, and possibly executed if the rumors were true. But what his daughter felt so ashamed of later was how readily she had obeyed the command to submit, not even considering a protest. Like she was back in her old public school days, obeying the respected figure at the head of the classroom without thought or worry. No one struck her then, when she was just plain old Kallen Kouzuki. Perhaps she never gave them reason to. But all the same, the realization that she was complicit in her own torture had left the little noblewoman crying herself to sleep for two days.

That same tone of absolute authority, without any hint as to what might be coming next, was evident in his words now. It was because of this that the seasoned battlefield operative found herself slowly turning about and facing the far wall, surprised and disappointed in herself.

She heard the sound of footsteps coming towards her. Kallen's breath was coming in brief, trembling bursts. She felt the presence of someone standing right at her back. The room was colder now than from before the shower came on. She tasted something horrible on her tongue.

A small, uncallused hand came up and touched her hair.

The victim flinched. Those undeveloped fingers traced over her skin, then. Along her throat, down her trembling spine. There was an impression of wonder in the soft pads that caressed the teenager's muscular back, like this was a new experience they had never even dreamt of knowing beforehand.

Why aren't I doing something? Kallen asked herself. Why can't I move?! He's just a kid, and right behind me, I can overpower him now, before he has a chance to…

Kill me.

No.

He's just a little boy. I can't believe he would… do that!

And that's why I can't move. Because if I do, it means I'm acknowledging that we live in a world where something like this can actually happen.

What's the point of a life lived in such a place?

Where was the hope in living?

The child's fingers rested over her shoulder blade, behind Kallen's heart. Rich cloth brushed up against her frame, and a tender voice whispered in her ear.

"It's okay to be scared."

Kouzuki stared straight ahead.

If this is such a bad world, then why do we always try to kill the ones who seek to change it?

There came the rustle of fabric and with cold certainty Kallen knew that a gun was being aimed at the back of her head. And still, the crouching sacrifice could not resist.

All the people she depended on were lost to her now.

Zero.

Her mother.

And…

"Naoto," she whispered.

No explosion reached the girl's ears, or shattered her skull.

Instead, a curious voice said, "Who?"

Kallen's head turned ever so slightly.

"My brother."

She could see V.V.'s face from the corner of one eye. And the pistol he was pointing right at it.

Kallen swallowed the taste of fear.

"He's…"

V.V. was gazing at her with a look of stricken amazement. "He's dead… isn't he? Your brother."

His nude target gave the faintest nod. No other response.

"Oh."

The trigger trembled on the cusp of her murder.

"I…"

Her executioner took a step back. The gun lowered to his side. His violet eyes never left her own.

There were tears in them.

"I lost my brother too."

He coughed, and hastily wiped the evidence of his grief away. V.V.'s head sunk, and he gave a faint laugh.

"Well, actually, I guess you could say that he lost me. Or discarded me. A throwaway. That's what I am now. No real reason to exist. You can't get back in Charles' good graces once you're out. I know him, you see. Maybe not as well as I always believed, because I never thought he would do… this… to me, of all people. But certainly enough to know that I'm dead to him. To all of them. They all think I'm dead now."

He didn't look to be paying any attention to her, but it was still all she could do just to speak right now. Kallen found that her voice was working again, enough to ask at least one small question.

"Charles?"

Those sad, glistening opals glanced up from beneath his troubled brow.

"Charles zi Britannia. I'm his older brother."

It was the sheer lunacy of this suggestion that snapped Kallen back into full focus.

Charles zi…

The EMPEROR?!

This little kid claimed to be the elder brother of a man older than her own father?! What did he mean, like, a figurative big brother, or a social program? Maybe the Emperor was a clone of the original man, and this was a prototype of some kind, a replacement, or could they be robots and…

That's crazy, Kallen.

Crazy? Crazy is what that monster was going to do to me five seconds ago. I should be doing something to keep that from happening again.

So then… why am I just sitting here?

Who is… I mean what…?

"Who…?"

Steady, girl. Get a grip. Put the words in order, and speak.

"Who are you?"

V.V. peered up at her once more. And then… he actually shuffled his feet together! Like he was embarrassed!

"I'm Victor zi Britannia. I was born in the year 1955 a.t.b. of the Holy Britannian Imperial Calendar along with my twin brother Charles. He came out a minute after me, so that made me the elder."

Well. That was… interesting. But still, it begged the question…

"So… if you're the Emperor's older brother… how come you look like you're eight years old?"

The perplexing adolescent rubbed his arm absently, and shrugged. "I became immortal."

Oh.

Right.

"Not at first." He raised his arms defensively, and Kallen flinched when that deadly weapon started waving around like it was nothing. "At first it was a Geass power." V.V. hesitated then. "Do you know what that is, Kallen?"

She gave a vacant nod, and he continued. "Good. One day we went for a ride in the country, and a landmine exploded under the horses. The carriage flipped over. Charles and I crawled out, and when our mother followed, the whole thing just kind of lurched away, and took her with it down the hill. When we made it there, her head was crushed beneath the frame. She was our mother, and she was dead." He clapped his hands together quite suddenly, making Kouzuki jump. "Dead. Just like that."

The earnest expression V.V. was giving her made him seem as young as he looked. Like this was a person who really just needed a grownup to hug him and explain everything that had happened away. But the only individual in the room who qualified was not about to forget the figure that had spoken to her so easily and self-assuredly before pointing a gun at the base of her skull. And anyway, he was talking again. She had to listen.

"For a minute there we didn't know what to do. Charles was sobbing, and I was trying to understand why I wasn't and what I might be feeling, when some men came up from the stream. There were three, all in black. When I saw them I shouted for help, and one laughed and said they were sent to do just that. And then he called us 'Edward and Richard'. I knew Shakespeare, so I recognized those were the names of Richard III's nephews, whom he murdered. I got in front of Charles, who was still crying. He was such a baby all the time."

The tiny prince gave a laugh then, and shook his head. When he looked at Kallen once more, he was smiling, with tears in his eyes.

"He still is, actually. I told him so. But that's beside the point. The men were going to kill us, and two of them started talking about where the best place was to 'do it', when the third walked right up to us. I remember thinking if he would just look away for a second like his comrades, we could make a run for it. The trees weren't far off, so maybe if we reached them we could disappear into the woods, to reach the manor beyond it. I was always good at hiding. Then the man said that we were miracles for having lived, and asked if we wanted to keep on living. Charles couldn't answer, so I told him that he couldn't kill us, no matter what he tried. I was just trying to distract him, but he never looked away. Instead he took off his glove, and held up his hand. There was something that looked like a bird on it; the way children draw them, flying up in the sky. And then he asked if I would make a contract to switch places with him, so that I could live. I didn't even have to think. I said yes."

The teller of this tale began to twirl one of his pale yellow sideburns between his fingers. "What came next was never clear in my head. By the time it was over, I knew something about myself that hadn't been true before. So I did it, and guess what?"

V.V. glanced over at her, apparently expecting her cooperation as the audience. So Kouzuki complied.

"What?"

"I disappeared."

She stared at him for a moment, and the boy grinned, spreading his hands out like a magician pulling a trick. "Poof! Gone, just like that. Charles screamed so loud then, and when the other two heard, they ran over and started shouting at the stranger, wanting to know where I went. He just shrugged, so they pulled guns and shot him. Then, before they could remember about Charles, I took the ceremonial knife from my belt and stabbed one of them in the groin. He went down, and the last man started cursing non-stop, firing all around him. I had already grabbed my brother and pulled him behind the wagon. Then I crept back. The one I'd stabbed was kicking and grunting, trying to pull the knife out but he couldn't. His partner had calmed down, and he was prowling about, saying things like, "Come on out, I won't hurt you." It was so stupid I actually laughed, and he almost shot me. But then he was out of bullets, apparently. He dove for the other man's fallen gun, and I picked it up just a second before he did. While he sat there looking stupid, I shot him in the head."

With the pistol he had now, V.V. demonstrated. "Boom! Like that. Afterwards I went back to find Charles. He stopped crying when he saw me, and so we went back to the castle and got some men to go collect the bodies. Only when they got to the scene, there were only three: our mother, and the two men I killed. The stranger was gone. I didn't see him again for a year. By then, the Geass was in full manifestation."

"Wait!"

V.V. paused. Before him, Kallen was breathing hard from everything she had just been told, but there was one thing she felt absolutely essential to confirm.

"You had a Geass that made you… invisible?"

The childish face split into a grin.

"Every kid's dream, right?"

"Yeah." The thought made her shiver, actually. Every kid's dream, and the first thing this one did with it was kill people. Totally justified, but still, how screwed up was that?

"It got more powerful the longer I used it. And I used it a lot, believe me." That smile had turned wicked in a matter of seconds. "First to find out who ordered the assassination, and then to deal with them. After about four months, it became permanent. Nobody could see me, not even Charles. I made him promise not to tell anyone. There were all kinds of rumors, but eventually, I was declared officially dead. Kidnapped and murdered, they all said. By then it had gotten to where I could make more things I touched invisible, bigger, like a car or a bike. The final stage several months later was amazing. It made me realize that I was actually affecting people themselves, and not really becoming invisible. Cameras could still pick me up, I had checked that already. But when people I concentrated on for a little bit went completely blind for the rest of their lives, it really sunk in that my Geass was something I didn't completely understand. And it was around this time the third assassin came back."

Suddenly V.V. looked up at the ceiling.

"Hey, hold on, it's starting to get really steamy in here. Let me turn off the shower."

So saying, he trotted over to the spigots and flipped them closed. Immediately the water shut off, but there was still enough heat and moisture in the air to keep Kallen from feeling uncomfortable.

At least, there should have been. Unfortunately, it only occurred to her now that V.V. had relapsed back into that cheerful patois he had started out with. The brief flash of humanity was buried, and when he turned to look at her with a small smile and those dead gemstone eyes once more, it made the loner remember her situation with frightening clarity.

As if to emphasize this, the boy said, "He alone could see me no matter what. I took his immortality then. That was the contract we had made. Our bargain was fulfilled. I got to live forever, and he got to have children. It was why he had chosen me, because I was a child, and that was what he wanted the most. Apparently, those who have the Code are incapable of reproducing. He had lived for centuries watching other people raise families, wondering how it must feel like to do that. Eventually it became the one thing he wanted most out of life, and he couldn't have it. So he started making contracts whenever it seemed like someone would make a good candidate. But only with children, because he felt that was necessary. I was the only one who succeeded in achieving full manifestation, and in record time, apparently. Most took years just to get to the first stage. I guess you could say I was a genius at it, but I never had any way to comparatively determine that until I met C.C."

Kozuki did not ask him any more questions. The feeling of dread from before was back. How long until this adolescent assassin remembered he was planning on killing her too?

"You see, Miss Kouzuki, I realized right away that being immortal in a world as sick and desperate as ours was not going to be any blessing. And especially as a child. My brother was the only one who knew about me that I could trust, and when he died, then there wouldn't be any reason for me to live. The only person I loved would be dead. I abdicated the throne without a qualm, because I knew an immortal infant could never be allowed to rule. We talked about it a few days after the contract was fulfilled. My Geass had been supplanted with the Code, so he could always see me now, even when I wasn't trying. We had discussed things like this before, just him and me. Whom to trust and whom not to, how we wished the world was better than it always seemed to be, and what we thought we could do about it."

"I convinced my predecessor to tell us all kinds of interesting things about the Code. Apparently there were some religions set up around it. That proved useful when Charles and I established the Geass Order. Of course, by then we had already decided what needed to be done with this world. We made our contract exactly two months later, and swore to destroy the abomination of a stagnant society that our ancestors had perpetuated and protected for all their puny finite lives. They clung to their childish notions of equality and harmony, never bothering to consider that the only reason they did so was the benefit those concepts afforded them, not for any inherent worth they might have. People brought up those words every time something threatened them, and used them as excuses to perpetrate all sorts of crimes and lies. To them, that was the way of the world, and there was no other viable alternative. To even suggest otherwise was blasphemy, an assault against their up-jumped view of advanced civilization that was actually only two rungs up the ladder from cavemen times. They worshipped that base system of acceptable lies and unnecessary burdens. They even sacrificed to it. Like a God."

"You've heard of it, right, Kallen?" V.V. turned to confront her now, arms outstretched. "Genocide and depredations conducted by religions and governments, and the other people of the world just shake their heads sadly, bemoaning the tragedy, and then go back to ignoring it. Or they threaten the people responsible with 'economic sanctions', or the severing of diplomatic ties. What does that accomplish?"

He began to pace back and forth, keeping his eyes trained on the naked captive crouched a few feet away. Those scarlet orbs were growing wilder as the blonde imp spoke, and he gesticulated with the gun more often.

"Does starving a country into a primitive state have any affect on the people running it? Or do they just sit in their air-conditioned mansions, eating hefty meals while soldiers patrol the grounds and their countrymen die by the wagonloads in the streets from disease and malnourishment? Worrying only that someone just as bad or worse than them will seize power and order their executions? And if people in countries that have the power to put an end to this try to make something happen, they're told to write letters proclaiming how much they care, or donate funds to organizations that claim to offer humanitarian aid. If that doesn't work, they're advised to shut up and go back to their homes, because their leaders know what they are doing, and their followers should treat the government that temporarily allows them to live in those homes with respect. At least more respect than that same government shows the millions that are dying in a far-off land. Sending token displays of force, swaggering soldiers who are informed that they cannot intervene or try to help because it would violate some precious international treaty signed ages ago."

There was a lifetime's worth of anger in his words now, enough to dispel any lingering doubts Kallen might have about this person being older than her.

"Soldiers. Peacekeepers." V.V. spit the word with total contempt. "The only peace they keep is the kind you find in cemeteries. The dead never fight amongst themselves, oh no. Soldiers are supposed to be guards, like the knights of old. They're supposed to protect you, not run off at the first sign of trouble because they're scared or because they've been paid to. Leaving two children to be slaughtered by some hired knives, while their mother's brain is crushed out not two feet away. Lying when they say they'll lay down their lives for you. All the lies that get built up, those of people and countries and societies, forming a blanket that we call civilization but is actually nothing more than a choking mindless shroud wrapped around our heads, keeping us from thinking or breathing and eventually just smothering all the life out of us until there's nothing worth living for anymore and we go to our graves gladly because it means we won't have to deal with all the stupid heartless bastards in the world anymore, ones like…"

V.V. drew to a halt.

"Like Charles."

He looked down at the gun in his hand. Examining it, and its purpose.

"What's…"

A shudder went up his puny frame.

"What's the point of living… if you can't even trust your own brother?"

The deposed deity cast a glance at the bare-naked girl in a supplicant's pose on the floor.

"Did you ever lie to Naoto?"

She didn't move at first. Then, after a while, there came a slow, negative shake of the head.

"You had to think about it," V.V. spoke. "That's good. You should always think about things, especially the reasons why you're doing something. So I lied to my twin. Did he ever consider why I lied? That I was trying to do what was best for us both, even if I got dirty doing it? Like that day when I killed those men to save him. You know he never thanked me once for that? I told myself it was because he was in shock, and just never remembered to do it afterwards. But you know what else I thought? Maybe Charles was just jealous."

Kallen blinked her aquamarine eyes in confusion, and he seized upon that.

"You don't believe me? Think about it. I was the oldest. I was before him in succession to our family's title. I saved us both while he just sat there crying like always. I never cried. I was the strong one. I was the one who got the magic power. What did he get? Servants and false friends? Big deal. I never wanted friends anyway. They only kept close to you because of the benefits you could offer them. If it looked like that well of goodies was drying up, they left you in the lurch and forgot you ever existed. Family is the only thing you can depend on. Close family. Like a brother, or a mother. They're not like comrades or servants or even friends. Friends take everything you have, and then leave you to die. They take…"

There was no more water from the showers. But warm droplets struck the wet tiles all the same.

"He took it away."

V.V. was crying.

"My little brother. Charles, he…" The young boy wept, and sniffled. "He took my Code. For himself. It took him over fifty years to do it, but he finally did. And then he left me there, on the floor of that room, bleeding and broken and scared. I was so scared, Kallen. I thought I was going… to die. If some members of the Order hadn't found me, I would have. They disguised themselves with uniforms taken from fallen Black Knights. Then they zipped me up in one of the body bags, pretending I was dead. Nobody cared to check. Lelouch was missing, and C.C. too. And nobody liked that little turncoat enough to really want to obey him, no matter whose name he invoked. They got me out of there, and took me to a Britannian medical facility to treat my wounds. It's really amazing how much damage they can repair through modern medicine. A person could get gunned down by a police firing squad and be walking around again just a few days later. Really amazing."

The tears continued, as did his story. "So then, everyone thought I was dead, and they forgot about me. Just went on with their own business. I already had a grave. It's fifty years old, and nobody's in it, but it's mine. Charles didn't even bother to put me there, next to our mother. Marianne he has buried in secret with all kinds of ceremony and expressions of remorse. But his big brother just gets kicked to the curb for some soldiers to zip up and cart away. One more victim of a massacre. Nobody special. Doesn't even have a name. Just initials. V.V., they called me. But now I don't even have that anymore. I'm not immortal. I'm going to die."

The ancient adolescent looked at Kallen once more.

"I'm going to die."

Slowly, the arm holding the gun came up.

"We all are, now. Charles is going to fail. I know he is. Without me he's nothing. The Connection will be broken, and no one alive will know how to fix it. I don't have anything left to look forward to. Nobody knows or cares I'm alive."

He examined the instrument of death in his hands curiously, as though attempting to puzzle out some other purpose than that which it was intended for.

"I'm going to die," that beautiful mouth whispered sorrowfully, "and no one cares."

V.V. hiccupped, and sniffed.

"So then, before it's too late…"

He shut his eyes, and tears coursed down fast.

"I had better kill you quickly, then go and find Lelouch."

Kallen had never felt so helpless or so ashamed at that moment in her entire life.

For just a second when he said it, dying really did sound like a good idea, because everything else V.V. was saying made sense too in a way. The world was a pit of human suffering they themselves propagated. Humanity did treat itself and the planet with needless cruelty and contempt. And he had been completely abandoned into that world. A child with no parents and no loved ones left to call upon.

He was right.

But then, Kallen thought, where does that leave me? What am I, and Naoto and Ohgi… what are we doing? What's so important about winning back a country and a name, if you just set yourself up to be betrayed and repressed by someone that you once respected and admired and possibly even loved? It didn't bring back the ones you lost, after all. Just meant you yourself might not have as much to fear. People called out for justice and freedom like they were cure-alls to society's ills. But if I… me, Kallen Kouzuki, the person… if I think about what I want to see more of in this world, it isn't justice. Or freedom. Not even love, really… love's nice, but too strong. Strength like that, if it doesn't get what it wants, it all too easily turns to hate. Just like how the Black Knights' love for Zero became hate in less than a day when they realized he did not fit their perceived notions of fairness and acceptable lineage.

What is it, then? What's the word I'm looking for here? The gifted academic pondered. What do people need more of to make this world better?

Something struck her breast lightly, and without thinking, Kouzuki looked down.

At first she saw nothing. Then Kallen recognized it. Running down her skin. Liquid, warm and salty and…

Clear.

Teardrops.

Much to her surprise, Kallen reached up to discover that she was crying.

Why?

Why are you crying?

For yourself?

No. I don't think so.

Is it… because of him? Was she crying over V.V.?

Yes, Kallen realized suddenly. I am. And not because of what he wants to do, to me and Lelouch and C.C. and maybe everybody in the whole world. I'm not crying because of him.

I'm actually crying… for him.

Because he's alone, and scared. And for all she understood that he was old and sinful beyond measure, her conscience let her feel…

Compassion.

Yes. That's the word I'm looking for.

V.V. wiped his tears away. He opened his eyes, raising the gun at the same time.

And before him, the Guren pilot knelt with her arms outstretched.

Back pressed against the wall, the surprised godling watched her down the barrel of a pistol.

She didn't try to dodge or speak. For all that she looked so unafraid, he might not be about to shoot her. But he was. So then…

"What's this?"

Kallen sniffed, eyes brimming with tears. "Come over here."

He gave her a blank look. "Why?"

The girl's voice broke on her next words.

"I want to hold you."

Mystified, V.V. continued to regard this unexpected development with careful suspicion.

"I still don't understand."

The lovely teenager only gestured with her hands for him to approach.

There was no sense of danger coming off of her at all. Her face, her body- none of it betrayed the slightest hint of peril. Was she really that accomplished a liar, to be able to fool his careful senses to this degree?

She must be, because against his own best judgment, V.V. found himself inching towards her, the pistol leveled at her chest.

"Why should I?" he asked, stalling for time to better try and comprehend this conundrum.

And Kallen drew a shaky breath.

"Because there hasn't been a woman who gave you a hug in a very long time."

SHOCK.

It was true.

He knew that. Always knew that. But somehow, hearing it felt…

How to explain it?

It sounded like that was something… wrong.

When was the last time that any girl had held h…

And suddenly the image of his mother thrust into Victor zi Britannia's mind, as picture-perfect as though he had just left her embrace. The warmth and comfort in her arms, softness of her clothes and skin, the way she would stroke his hair and hum tunes in his ear before lifting him up and carrying him off to bed. Sometimes he would remain awake all through the journey. It was so peaceful and safe when she laid his body down and tucked the sheets up around his chin. All the security and tranquility that could ever be had under sun or moon resided in those arms, which belonged to his one and only mother, who loved and treasured her baby boy forever and ever.

An ache arose in Victor's chest like he had never known.

I want… my!

He took a half-step towards her, and jerked back just as fast.

Then before another thought could come into his head, the tow-headed child rushed forward and wrapped his arms about the young woman's body.

Her own strong limbs came around him, and they settled into a mutual embrace.

Victor stared over her shoulder, trembling, eyes wide with fear. He waited for something awful to happen, the validation of his most reasoned beliefs. Pain, or rejection. An attack of some kind, an attempt to subdue him, anything!

When nothing did, he then buried his cheek in the crook of Kallen's neck and began to weep.

She didn't reject or criticize him. Instead her hold on his slight frame tightened, and she began to stroke his long hair gently. Affectionately. Like his mother used to do.

It all came pouring out. Over half a century of loneliness and grief, which had been denied by himself and those around him for the greater part of his life.

He hugged this strange girl's naked body to him, and all he felt was relief.

"Shhh, it's all right," Kallen whispered softly to the sexagenarian as she continued to console him. "I'm here, nothing's going to hurt you, I'm here." She remembered her own mother speaking to her in this manner when she had awoken from nightmares. At this time there was nothing more sensible or appropriate to be said.

This was a mother's instinct, and it endured for a reason. Because it worked.

Brief, intermittent shudders went through the grief-stricken outcast's spare form. Whenever she felt them, Kallen held on a little bit tighter, letting him cry everything out against her, face pressed into her shoulder and tears trickling down her collarbone.

Eventually Victor's sobs subsided. He lifted his head, blinking rapidly. They were practically nose-to-nose now, and she could feel his breath coming in quivering gasps on her skin. Kouzuki reached up to touch the red-faced boy's cheek gently, and this seemed to relax him further. The deposed heir to Britannia's throne stared at her without any hint of malice or reservation now.

He rubbed his knuckle against an eye, and gave a timid smile.

"You're very pretty," he spoke.

An answering smile came to her lips immediately, gentle in provenance.

"You have a nice face too. And I like your hair."

"Heh." Victor's cheeks were red from embarrassment now, and he absently ran a hand through his damp locks. "At first I let it grow because I wanted to see how long it would take to reach my ankles. By then I was used to it, and I only needed a haircut every now and then. Do you really like it this long?"

"Definitely."

"I meant it too! About your being pretty. I've always thought so, ever since I first saw you."

His confidante cocked her head with a curious look. "You met me before today?"

He nodded.

"Was it when I was little? I think I would have remembered you."

Victor gave a quick shake, arms still holding onto her for comfort.

"No. Actually, it was just about a year ago. On Kaminē Island. Your first visit there."

"What?" Kallen blinked, startled. "So… that was you? You brought me and Suzaku and the princess to that island?"

"Oh, yeah." The tiny blonde nodded eagerly. "It gave me a chance to rescue Euphemia, which is what Charles wanted at the time. But I brought the rest of you along because I thought you could be of some help to me. My nephew Schneizel was sniffing around the ruins there, and I figured Zero was just the one to distract his attention away from the site. Whether they know it or not, he and his cousin have a pronounced tendency to butt heads, so I figured if I put them in the same approximate location, something big would happen. And boy, did it ever!"

"Your nephew Schne…"

Kallen then gaped in stupefied amazement at her flaxen-haired admirer. "That's amazing, you really are…you're Lelouch and Nunnally's uncle!"

Victor drew breath to speak, and then paused.

"Well… yeah. I am their uncle. Along with Cornelia, Clovis, and all the rest. I've got tons of nephews and nieces, and cousins and in-laws. Our family is huge. They just… don't know about me."

His voice had grown sad once more, and immediately she leaned in and gave him a hug, their cheeks resting against each other. The prince's eyes drifted closed. He let out a deep sigh of contentment, and from that position, he spoke.

"Kallen?"

"Yes?" she murmured, rubbing his corn-silk hair between her fingers.

"Do you hate my family?"

The tender-hearted young woman's eyes opened, and a look of troubled deliberation settled over her features. When she didn't answer right away, Kallen felt him tense slightly in her grasp, and she quickly answered. "I don't hate you, if that's what you're asking."

"I… I know that." Victor's voice had descended to a gentle murmur. "But what about all the rest? Like Charles… and Lelouch?"

What should I say?

I don't want to lie, the daughter of two cultures decided. Not to him. Not now.

"Victor…"

Kallen stirred, and drew away from him. The child's arms fell back to his sides, and she rested her hands on his quivering shoulders. Victor was biting his lower lip, looking at her with mingled need and worry etched into his features now. It made her bones ache to see him so distraught, but she was resolved to see this through.

The gun was still in his hand, she noted absently.

"I'm sorry, but I do hate Charles for what he's done to my country, and my people. Every soldier who shoots defenseless civilians just because he's told to, or every pure-blood Britannian citizen who expects other races to sacrifice their dignity for his benefit, I hate them too. I loathe what Britannia has come to represent under your brother. But don't think for a second that I could hate an entire people, because I know that there are good ones in every system. In your family too, there are decent, honorable souls whom I respect very deeply."

"And Lelouch?"

His wine-purple orbs danced over her face.

"Do you hate him?"

That question, once more. The one Kallen had been trying not to think about too deeply since long before she had met this boy. She took a deep breath.

"Victor, I think that I could hate Lelouch…"

"We could do it together!"

He blurted it out quickly, and his guardian angel swallowed what she was about to say.

"I'm sorry?"

The little gentleman's face had lit up suddenly; like it was Christmas, and he had just received the best present a boy could ever hope for. "You and me, Kallen, we could kill him together! Put a halt to this whole crazy mess! And then the Connection will be established and there'll be no need for us to be apart after that!"

Hardly anything of what he was saying made sense to her, but one statement in particular caused Kouzuki's jaw to clench.

"Victor." She spoke his name clearly. "I'm not going to help you kill anybody."

Victor seemed to grow confused. "Why not?"

"Why not?" Kallen whispered, and brought her hands up to cup his tender little face. "I'm not a killer, Victor! Didn't I just tell you how I feel about that?"

"But you said you hate Lelouch." he persisted. "And the ultimate goal of hate is death, either yours or the person you hate. You're a great warrior, Kallen, why shouldn't you kill your enemy?"

"He's not my enemy, Victor! And really he isn't yours, either. You haven't done anything wrong that I know of. I don't understand why the two of you are at such odds to one another, and I've never fully understood this whole Geass terror, but I can't just sit back and allow you both to try and kill each other, let alone help either of you do it!"

Her fingers caressed the child's pale soft skin. She looked at him pleadingly, trying to make him understand with her whole being, her words and body, just what she was trying to get across here.

Kallen sought to demonstrate to him compassion.

The enchanting boy stared at her. His features were lost. Empty.

Devoid.

He reached up, and gently drew her hands away from his face.

"I have to leave," the kid spoke in a soft voice.

She reached over and grasped his wrist holding the weapon.

Soldier and sorcerer stared at one another.

"No," Kallen spoke adamantly.

The child stared into her grim features.

"Let go."

He said it in that careless tone of command.

A slow, deliberate shake of the head was all he got in response.

"I said let go!"

When his captor reached up to take the pistol from his fingers, a look of wild panic grew in his eyes.

"Let go of me, you… you TRAITOR!"

And V.V. sank his teeth into Kallen's arm.

She cried out in pain, and jerked back. The lethal tool went clattering to the floor to stop against the side of the tub. The Emperor's twin jerked free from her grasp, and raced towards his weapon.

Kallen dove after him, catching her quarry by the cape. V.V. pulled forward desperately, and the lacy fabric tore in her grip. Both of them then scrambled towards the bath.

Reaching it first, V.V. snatched up the firearm. Kallen got there just as he spun about, sliding to her knees, fingers closing over the barrel before he could bring it to bear. He tried to yank it away, but the older girl's hold was firm.

When V.V. attempted to bite her again, Kozuki whipped him around in a circle, and wrenched the weapon from his grasp.

The man-child stumbled back a pace. Then he leapt forward, and shoved Kallen back into the bath.

She submerged with a gasp, water flooding into her throat. For a while the young rebel flailed, weightless. And then her feet touched the floor, allowing Kallen to get her bearings. Still armed, she burst up from the pool, coughing and spitting, pushing sodden hair out of her eyes.

Looking desperately around the room, the gleaming wet pilot spotted her target back in the bathroom area. He appeared to be rummaging through her clothes, looking for something. She tried to call out to him, but wound up only coughing. Instead Kallen strove to extricate herself from the bath. When she finally managed to do so, the girl then raced forward.

Halfway across the room, V.V. surged up and spun about. There came a familiar clicking sound.

Kallen stumbled to a halt, eyes wide with shock.

In one hand the royal orphan held her belt-purse.

The hidden knife was extended.

Neither of them moved.

The temperature in the showers seemed to be dropping. Kallen could feel her skin starting to prickle from the chill. She drew air into her lungs, and let it out. Then again. And again. The gun was cool in her grasp. All of her attention focused on the image at the other end of the room.

There was only one thought in her head.

I'm not going to do it.

With that, Kouzuki slowly bent down, and placed the pistol on the floor.

She looked then at V.V. once more.

He watched her do this. The switchblade pouch did not leave his grip. Kallen felt the first stirrings of real fear, but she strove to force it down.

I'm not going to do it.

"Victor. Don't decide anything when you're angry."

V.V. continued to regard her steadily. His features did not change. The mouth was set, and his wide eyes held no trace of indecision.

"Don't presume to lecture me, peasant."

Kallen's heart sank when he spoke that insult, but she gave no outward sign of this.

I'm not going to do it.

"Please. Put it down." Kallen had never begged for anything so earnestly before. "I won't hurt you. You don't have to be scared of me."

Please. In the name of all that's holy, don't make me do this. Naoto, anyone, please help me not to do this.

The soft pouting lips smiled at her.

"It's all right, Kallen."

And he began to walk forward.

"You can't kill me. No matter what you try."

Almost of its own volition her hand snatched up the gun. But she didn't point it at him. It still wasn't too late for regrets.

She was crying all the same.

"I beg you to stop. I don't want to do this." Her voice sounded strange to her ears, desperately broken and forced.

In response, the killer giggled.

"Oh, yeah?" he said.

And then he melted away.

V.V. disappeared.

Kallen stared in amazement. One word leapt out at her.

Geass!

She glanced wildly about, but there was nothing to see. V.V. had vanished. The combat veteran then looked down at the floor, trying to ascertain his location by disturbances in the water. There was no sign of him. The drains had swallowed up most of the liquid anyway. What was left did not seem to register the presence of anyone standing on it.

Kallen crouched down, stock still. She brought the gun up close to her forehead, pointing at the ceiling. Her breath was coming and going in short frantic bursts. Dozens of thoughts went careening around in her brain. Make a dash for the door. Lock him in. Turn on the showers, watch where the water hits. Jump back into the bathtub, he'll have to get in to come after me. Along with them came the reasons not to. What if I run right into him, and he stabs me? The shower faucets are too far away, and the water only covers a small space. If I hide in the tub, I won't be able to do anything, and he could escape and kill people.

What am I supposed to do?

See if I can catch him?

Try to reason with him?

Die with honor?

"This isn't fair," the girl whispered.

She didn't want to die. But what other choice was there?

Am I ready? Kallen asked herself.

Yes, she answered, and prepared for the inevitable. There was nothing else to do but wait.

And unseen behind her, V.V. raised the knife over his head.

His other hand slowly reached out, fingertips dangling a hair's-breadth away from her skin. The invisible assassin remembered how it had felt to touch that body, warm with life and something else. Something special. If he didn't ask her what it was now, he might never know.

He looked at the spot where her heart was located.

He had come this far without it. That meant it wasn't necessary. V.V. would make do on his own.

The deposed immortal then grasped the stiletto purse in both hands, and drew it back for the killing blow.

As he did…

The pouch began to vibrate. A cell phone chime started playing a song.

Its name was 'One More Chance'.

Without thinking Kallen jerked around and squeezed the trigger. There was an explosion. And they both screamed.

The defender of Japan watched as Britannia's forgotten ruler was flung back, a look of stricken disbelief on his face as the bullet entered his chest.

He landed with a painful smack against the tiled floor, the knife spinning out of his reach. V.V. stared up at the ceiling, stunned. He breathed out, and blood came with it.

I'm dead, he thought. And then his being was flooded with pain greater even than when his niece and nephew shot him down. It hurt so bad he couldn't even scream.

Someone else did it for him.

An instant later Kallen was kneeling by his side, drawing up the mortally wounded magician and cradling his head against her breast. She pressed a hand against the bleeding hole, wadding up the fabric of his cape in an attempt to stop the flow. No good. Too much damage. Last time he had been able to survive only because his Code had already started to heal his wounds before Charles could steal it. Now there was nothing protecting him.

Nothing except her, that is.

She was crying again. For him.

"Please," V.V. heard the girl speak. "Don't die. I'm so sorry, it was a mistake. Victor, don't die. Let me find my phone, I'll call for a medic and they can save you."

He was in her arms again. And just like before, all the hurt inside was gradually fading away. What a wonderful woman you are, Kallen Kouzuki. I'm so glad I got to meet you and speak with you.

While she was looking around for her phone, still pleading distractedly, V.V. reached up a hand.

"Kallen?"

Her pleas came to a halt. Those magnificent tropical blue eyes turned to regard him anxiously. There could be nothing more beautiful in this whole world.

"Yes?" she whispered tearfully.

And Victor zi Britannia smiled.

"When I grow up, will you marry me?"

Kallen looked surprised to be asked this question. Her face softened into a different sort of sadness.

"Yes, I will, your Highness."

His eyes were starting to close, and he struggled to take in the next breath.

"Promise?"

Her answer came when she bent down and kissed him.

Victor tasted a woman's lips for the first time in his life.

He realized then what he had been missing all these years. And for once, the fallen soul finally understood how his brother could have chosen this over their contract.

It's okay, Charles, the elder twin thought. I'd have made the same choice.

V.V. felt happy then, and so he died.

When she felt the last expiring breath leave his lungs, Kallen Kouzuki opened her eyes, to find that she was blind.

For a little while she just sat there, cradling the form of her fallen foe. She held a hand up before her face. Nothing. Her whole world had been plunged into darkness.

That's all right, Kallen finally thought. After what I just did, I don't deserve to see.

She sat in that room for an unknown amount of time, while the child's body went cold through the rich fabric of his dress.

After a while, there came a noise to her ears. With a bit of thought, the teen warrior recognized it as the sound of a door sliding open.

"Who's there?" she mumbled half-heartedly.

"Lady Stadtfeld?" came the reply. A man. Kallen tried to place the voice. There was something vaguely familiar about it. Could it be someone from her household? That's the only reason she could think of that they would address her by that title.

Seconds later she heard a pair of boots running towards them. Fast, whoever they were. And then the person drew up to them. She turned and looked behind her unnecessarily, and apparently when she did the man caught sight of what she was holding.

"In the name of mercy…" he choked, and dropped to the ground with a heavy boom. "What happened?!"

"I shot him." Her words sounded dull, listless, even to herself. "The phone in the knife went off, and I shot him before I could think about it." Kallen turned her head from side to side then. "Do you see my cell? It's around here somewhere, but I can't tell where."

Gloved fingers came up and touched her cheek.

"Are you injured, my lady?"

"No." He sounded concerned, and she had to wonder why. "No, I'm just blind. It was his last shot. I don't think he meant to do it to me either, any more than I wanted to shoot him. Neither of us made the choice we wanted. But it's all right. I shouldn't be allowed to see after this. It's Geass, so there's nothing to do about it. You probably don't know what that means, but all the same, we should…"

There was a soft whirring, followed by a low whoosh.

Kallen blinked.

She could see.

In front of her, a man in a long purple and white overcoat was down on one knee, like he was being knighted. One of his eyes was gold. The other was green. She registered this much before the stylized metal raptor's wing over it closed up, hiding his left orb from sight. The knight's hair had a blue sheen, and he wore a look of grief as though he had lost a member of his own family this day.

He really did look familiar, Kallen thought with surprise.

"Do I know you?"

The gentleman stranger crossed one arm over his chest and bowed his head formally.

"Jeremiah Gottwald, at your service, my lady." So saying, he removed the coat he wore and draped it around her shoulders.

She thought about it then. "Oh, yeah. Orange. I blew you up once, didn't I?"

"Indeed."

He didn't seem upset at being called 'Orange' or at the reference to his near-brush with death by her hand. Both Knightmare pilots then turned their attention to the lifeless child still huddled in Kallen's embrace. The Guren's operator touched his peaceful features, drawing her fingers back over the flaxen hair. "Jeremiah, this is…"

"I know," the older man spoke gravely. "His Majesty's older brother, V.V. An immortal Geass maker. We thought him dead in the Gobi Desert, but it would seem we were mistaken."

"He survived," Kallen whispered brokenly. "All this time, in pain, and I…" She looked at her erstwhile enemy with desperate eyes. "I tried to help him, please believe me. I was ready to die before this happened, even knowing what he had done! He was going to kill me, and then Lelouch, but I still couldn't bring myself to do it. You've got to believe, I never wanted to survive… like this!"

Jeremiah gazed at her with a look of commiseration. "I understand the sentiment, my lady. But I think you are somewhat in a state of shock." He then held out his arms. "Will you let me take him?" When the trembling mourner hesitated, he adopted a gentler mien. "Please. I know you have good reason to think ill of me, but this is part of my duty to honor the family of Prince Lelouch. As a fellow knight, I am sure you understand."

Watching him, the grief-stricken woman at last gave a nod of approval. Jeremiah reached out, and together they moved V.V.'s remains into the reborn soldier's arms.

"He…" Kallen swallowed a lump in her throat, still holding onto the little frame. "He's so tiny. He doesn't weigh anything at all, you know?"

She looked down at him, and then up at Gottwald regarding her once more.

"I never thought I had it in me to be a murderer," she gasped, tears leaking freely from her eyes.

In response, Jeremiah reached up and placed a gloved hand against her cheek.

"You are no such thing, Kallen Stadtfeld," he spoke with measured tenderness and courtesy. "You are as much a victim in this case as he was. The gods have been cruel to you both on this day, but in a way, they have also shown kindness. Through your actions, I can tell that you felt a great measure of compassion for this lonely child, and I have no doubt that you bestowed it freely on him in his final hours. For one that had committed such crimes as he, it was a more gracious end than any court or jury would have allowed. Even the fact of my being here could be construed as a form of divine justice. You were willing to accept a life lived in total darkness to show your remorse over what was done in this room, and perhaps you may harbor some resentment towards me for dispelling that pall without your consent. But you should know that it was V.V. himself who bestowed upon me this Geass Canceller I bear, along with the will to use it as I saw fit. So in a way, it was he himself who arranged for you to not have to suffer long, as a final method of gratitude which I now express towards you on his behalf."

Kallen hugged the cloak tighter about herself, and gave a miserable shake of her head.

"It's still my fault it ended this way. I wish it hadn't happened. If only I could have saved him somehow, I would have taken care of him."

"Spoken like a true knight, and a lady of the highest quality," the cyber-soldier intoned gravely. "But I fear there was no way he could have been redeemed. His heart had been crushed by time and betrayal. It is a testament to your noble character if you were able to offer him the smallest glimpse of humanity, if only for a short while."

Jeremiah rose then, and Kouzuki followed suit.

"What should we do now?" she asked.

"I will bear his body away, to an appropriate resting place for one of his house. He shall be laid to rest alongside those who came before him."

On an impulse, the stoic maiden removed her tendered coat. She took one last look at the sweet features eternally slumbering away from the cares of the world, and then draped it over him.

Naoto, if you can, please watch over another lost sibling.

She then assumed a look of firm resolve, and straightening, regarded the heterochromatic gallant once more.

"There's an empty grave back in the Britannian homeland marked 'Victor zi Britannia'. If you placed him in it, I think it would be fitting."

Gottwald's single eye widened, and then he bowed forward slightly. "Your wish is my command, lady of Stadtfeld."

Kallen didn't have it in her to correct him on this matter, and so she only stood by and watched them depart, praying that nothing happened to prevent the little boy from reaching his final resting place.

At the door, though, Jeremiah paused, and looked back at her thoughtfully.

"Mademoiselle Stadtfeld, are you familiar with the linguistic derivation of my last name?"

She had to think about that for a few seconds, as languages were not her strong suit and now was not the most clear-headed of times for her. But at last, she managed to find a feasible definition. "It means 'God's rule', doesn't it?"

"Close enough," he admitted. "It's a noble family name, but in truth, before around sixty years ago, there was no record of it existing anywhere in the annals of nobility. My grandfather was made a margrave and given the name Gottwald shortly before his death in an unexplained accident. He managed to sire a prodigious number of children in the span of just a few months, but in my researches into the family history, I could never find any information about my grandsire before that day. However, one thing always puzzled me. The name of the prince who conferred his rank and station upon him was listed as 'V. Britannia'. This never made any sense to me, as the only heir to the throne to bear those initials had perished a year before, also under mysterious circumstances. I always took this to be a sign of divine will: 'God's ruling', if you would. Self-serving, I know. But when things fall out the way they do, sometimes accepting that there are matters beyond the understanding of men can serve to help you keep your sanity. And on that note, I bid you good fortune and highest honors, most honorable lady of the battlefield."

He turned and left, with Kallen watching him curiously.

After a while, it occurred to her that she was still completely naked, and that Jeremiah had not seen fit to remark upon this at all. That made her think of how Suzaku had done the same, and this in turn caused her mind to wander to Zero, who was being hunted even now by the angry forces in this war he had concocted.

"Do you hate him?"

That's a question she would like to know the answer to herself.

You've got a lot to answer for, Lelouch vi Britannia.

In a corner of the room, the pouch containing her cell phone began to buzz once more.

Kallen stared at it for a while, loathe to touch the murderous bag after this day. But after a while, curiosity won out, and she went over to it. Removing the device, she flipped it open.

"Hello?"

"Yes, may I please speak to Miss Kallen Kouzuki?"

"This is she."

"Miss Kouzuki, I'm pleased we could finally reach you. I'm the shift nurse at Akashi Tsuchiyama Hospital. We wanted to inform you that your mother finally recovered from her trauma earlier today, and is wishing to speak with you. Can you come by anytime soon?"

Kallen was silent for a few moments.

At last she said, "Can you put her on the phone?"

"Yes, just a moment."

There was a brief pause, and the sounds of low conversation. Then, the receiver rustled, and a familiar voice came over the line.

"Kallen?"

The tears that fell now had nothing to do with sadness.

A ruling from heaven, she thought.

"Hi, Mom."

FIN.