"The hardest part about growing up is letting go with what you have been accustomed to and moving on with something that you haven't experienced yet."

-Anonymous

Chapter 14

The Kids Are Alright

"Hey boss? Do you hear a helicopter?" Rivalz called out over the radio, sounding worried.

Gino paused, tilting his head to the side as he strained his ears to hear the sound of the helicopter. "Yeah… yeah I do. It sounds like it's coming from the factory."

Briefly, he considered asking Jinchuu what was wrong- but they had just finished speaking, and the man had sounded distracted as is.

Besides, they had other issues to think about.

Gino and Kewell had disembarked their Knightmares to break into the prison facility, where they had met with minimal resistance from a few scattered, distracted guards who were likely just as confused as to why the alarms hadn't gone off as they were.

They made it up to the prisoner's block without any real problems- the area was barely more than a long, narrow corridor with cells barely capable of allowing a man to walk six steps in any given direction crammed with four or more people.

The stink of it alone, the pungent odor of so much misery and suffering compacted in this place was something Gino felt a bit of bile attempt to rise in his throat at the smell of.

The real problem came next- they had not been prepared for the prisoners. They had known about the numbers, and Kewell had even postulated they would be weak and spineless from being imprisoned for so long.

But the reality was so much worse than they thought.

They were weakly thin, true, and many sported the marks of numberless petty cruelties. People with fresh and faded scars crisscrossing their unnaturally pale skin from nicks and cuts that Gino guessed came either from the knives of a soldier or the sharp edges of a machine. Some had obvious bruises on their faces worn without ceremony, on men and women alike without discrimination or pity.

But it was the eyes that struck Gino the hardest. Even in the worst areas of the city, where half a dozen homeless and starving people could be found on any given street corner, their eyes weren't like these prisoners. In the city, people were hungry, maybe even desperate, but they still tried to survive any way they could.

Blank, unfeeling maws that hurt to even meet with your gaze, when these prisoners even bothered to look up from their downcast gaze fixated upon the concrete floor, as if the action of raising their eyes was a sin.

Gino's team had ushered them into the trucks without any problem, if only because none of them even seemed active enough to even really consider they were escaping. Some, somewhat livelier in relative to the others, managed to whisper hoarse words of thanks and move with grateful touches against Gino's skin.

"It's like they're already dead," Gino murmured to himself, shaking his head as he climbed back inside his Knightmare Frame.

Gino wasn't so sure they had actually saved anyone today, and certainly not anyone capable currently of fighting for their side at the moment. It wasn't like a cheap film, where there would be gruff, weathered veterans eager and willing to strike back against the enemy the minute they were out of confinement- in reality, there were hardly any people in the world with that kind of willpower to keep their spirit against all odds.

Real life just doesn't work that way, Gino thought grimly, shaking his head.

Gino had barely gotten his Knightmare up and running when Jinchuu appeared, bursting out of the factory with hurried steps of his machine, each loud step resounding through the night.

The prisoners' head jerked up at the sound, and several actually looked in awe for a moment, their expressionless masks cracking for a moment.

"Is this everyone?" Jinchuu questioned tersely.

"Yeah," Gino answered, feeling worried at the tone. "The charges are set then?"

"Yes. Let me speak to them before we finish here," Jinchuu said softly, and the Caliburn turned towards the assembled group before Gino could even acknowledge the request.

00000

Suzaku felt a tremor run through his veins as he prepared himself. It wasn't a shiver of fear holding him, however. Rather, the sight of these people, broken down, robbed of their freedom for these past seven years, drove his blood into a boil and caused his hands to shake with rage.

This is what the Empire does, Suzaku reminded himself, his teeth set on edge. This is the reality I am fighting against.

He would never forget that. Ever.

"You are free," he said loudly, through the speakers. "As of this moment, the Empire no longer holds your lives in its hands. You are no longer their prisoners."

But he could see the defeat in their eyes.

He spoke louder, passion and fury mounting in his tone. "They have taken much from you. But they did not break you. You are here. You are alive. And they are dead. This factory, and all who made it, have been judged as evil by the sight of men. And we have come to deliver their judgment."

He had barely finished speaking when a deafening explosion erupted from the factory and flames belched forth from every orifice, punctuating the sentence perfectly. The wave of light illuminated the night sky, and, though only for an instant, all the eyes in the crowd were enraptured by it.

There was a terrible vastness in Suzaku's voice now, the incarnation of a hot and dark rage that lurked in the secret corners of his heart, festering like a cancer.

"I am Jinchuu. I am the judgment of men, and I have come to avenge you."

Even over the roar of the flame, his voice was clear as day, and no one could tear their gaze away from that golden machine and its pilot, their eyes pulled unrelentingly toward its awesome power.

Somehow, Suzaku felt that even the mightiest empire in the world might look on him now and shiver.

00000

"What did you think of him, Luciano?"

Luciano didn't even bother looking at the laptop in front of him, where the other man was speaking from a web camera hundreds of miles away. He sat bored against the harness of the helicopter's seat, resting his chin upon his palm.

"He's no fun," came the lackluster reply. "Even trying to set him on fire wasn't that interesting. He's strong enough that we can't really toy with him either."

"He may be useful to us still, even as an enemy. We cannot move openly yet, but if we were to disguise our intent using the banner of another…" the voice trailed off expectantly, letting Luciano draw his own conclusions.

"This is why I work for you boss. For ideas like that," Luciano said, sounding slightly cheerful as he grinned. "In fact I think I've got a way for us to kill two birds with one stone. Did you see that broadcast this morning?"

"I did," came the reserved answer.

"We can't really have people wringing their hands and smoking the peace pipe when Day Zero rolls around, right?" Luciano continued, leaning back into his chair. "And with so very many factions already in play…"

"What are you getting at, Luciano?" asked the voice impatiently.

"I'm saying, there's a nice fog of war already. Let's just turn the battle chaos up so when we do make our move, no one sees it coming, as they're all too busy going for each other's throats," Luciano finished, rubbing his hands together, his eyes feverishly bright with murderous anticipation.

There was a few moments of contemplative silence, before the voice spoke again.

"What do you need?"

00000

Suzaku wasn't sure if there were worse ways to be woken up than by the insistent ringing of a phone next to your ears, but it definitely had to rank up amongst them. Almost drunkenly, his head aching from the abrupt awakening and the subsequent lack of sleep his body had received, he groped around for his phone blindly, finally landing a hand atop it and pulling it to his ear.

"Yes?" he said irritably, forgetting himself.

"Oh thank the Emperor above."

"Kallen?" Suzaku blinked, confused, glancing at the clock. It was barely six in the morning- the dawn light was just barely creeping through the shuttered windows. "What is it?"

"What is it?" Kallen's voice had that 'are you a complete idiot' tone that she only took when she was seriously upset. "The factory in Dudley was just attacked by Jinchuu!"

Suzaku blinked, and quickly scrambled to convincingly portray surprise. "W-what? When?"

"Just a few hour ago you dunce," Kallen snapped. "I just got the report. The entire factory and a whole garrison of guards was taken out. All the prisoners have escaped as well- the town's under martial law as of fifteen minutes ago."

They reacted fast, Suzaku thought in wonderment, ignoring her condescending tone. "Wow."

"Look, there'll be time to talk about this later. I've got one of the government planes chartered to Dudley right now to pick you up today. It'll land within the hour," Kallen said briskly, her military training showing through in her authoritative tone.

Suzaku frowned. While his personal mission was accomplished now with the destruction of the factory, his overt purpose of diplomacy and spreading goodwill amongst the populace outside of London was far from concluded. And there were other stops that he wanted to make as Jinchuu.

"Kallen… I'm fine. You really didn't have to-" Suzaku began.

"No. Don't argue with me," Kallen interrupted, her tone suddenly frigid, with an unmistakable air of anger in her voice. "You are not risking your life out there. Not now. Not you. These orders come straight from the Palace- even you can't defy this."

From my father, Suzaku understood, and suddenly all he could feel was a sudden, hot flash of fury that had nowhere to turn except at the person he was speaking to.

The Emperor was still treating him like a child to be coddled and used only when it was necessary, like he was still ten and blind to the horrors that his beloved nation was unleashing on the world.

He was Jinchuu now. He fought the Empire. The thinning, haunted faces of the prisoners at the labor camps drifted into his mind's eye, and he felt a fierce defiance burning in his chest.

Not hours ago he promised those people vengeance. If he was to simply go and quietly accept the will of the Emperor now, it would feel like a betrayal of that promise.

"The Emperor isn't in charge here," Suzaku said coldly, a storm furrowing upon his brow as he stood up from his bed. "And I am not going to be hidden away like a child. If Jinchuu attacked, that means that my mission to help ease the minds of the people is more important than ever. Cancel the plane."

He would never bow his head to the Emperor again.

"Suzaku!" Kallen said sharply. "You may be the governor and the prince, but the Emperor sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne, not you!"

"The Throne is half a world away. My father doesn't truly care what happens in Brittania, or to me," Suzaku snapped, his jaw clenched tight. The storm had moved from his brow to his gut, begging to be unleashed. "Now cancel the damned plane, Kallen."

"Damn it Suzaku this is almost treason," Kallen all but snarled, supremely frustrated. "You know what could happen to you if anyone else heard you countermanding a direct order."

And suddenly that was all it took to set him off and let loose the furious storm that had been building in his gut.

"I didn't think I was speaking to 'anyone else'!" Suzaku roared back, his anger no longer capable of being reigned in, hot and boiling in his very veins. Any kind of emotional control had long since faded. "I thought I was talking to my friend! But you're the Emperor's dog now, aren't you? You'd rather side with the Empire than with me anyway!"

"You arrogant ass! Fine, go die in a fire for all I care!" Kallen snapped back and the line went dead.

Suzaku, still caught up in the storm of his own rage, shouted wordlessly and hurled the phone against the wall.

"Well that was one hell of a lover's spat."

Suzaku flicked a glance at the door, his anger still simmering hot and heavy. "Milly… how much of that did you hear?"

"Enough. I know the Emperor is a touchy subject for you, but even that kind of response was a little extreme, don't you think?" Milly questioned archly, gliding into the room and picking up his phone. The back had broken and the battery had come out.

"I thought she was my friend first," Suzaku said bitterly. "Not the Emperor's Sword."

"She's both, Suzaku-sama," Milly reminded him respectfully, sighing as she put the phone back together and placed it on the desk. "You tried to force her to make an impossible choice between you and her country."

"It shouldn't be that hard a choice… not if she saw the Empire the way I do," Suzaku muttered, shaking his head.

"Not everyone is capable of that straightforward black and white thinking, master," Milly said quietly, folding her hands primly in her lap as she sat at the desk chair. "She's doing what she thinks is best. Just as you are."

Suzaku gritted his teeth. If only she knew… but now she was in too deep with the Empire. He knew Kallen- her oaths and promises had tied her to the Chrysanthemum Throne absolutely.

"You have a meeting in two hours. Get some sleep, Suzaku-sama," Milly urged him, and left, shutting the door behind her silently, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

00000

Back in London, another phone call was taking place, one considerably less emotionally charged and more concerned with long term objectives.

"And we're sure Suzaku is fine," Lelouch stressed, his brow lined with worry.

Well, not entirely long term.

"Yes," Naoto said patiently, though Lelouch detected the barest hint of irritation at his persistent questioning.

"Alright, fine. Just asking. Then our next step will be to find where those prisoners have gone," Lelouch said quietly, switching topics easily.

"Hold up. Before we start, I want to be clear- you have no sympathies towards those prisoners? None at all?" Naoto asked skeptically. "I won't hold it against you if you have some qualms about hunting down men and women from your own country, you know."

Lelouch sighed. It wasn't that he didn't expect this kind of question, but answering it was still nothing he wanted to handle.

"You don't have to worry about me," Lelouch assured him softly. "My feelings are not an issue. I can divorce my heritage from this situation."

"That's pretty cold," Naoto commented, sounding vaguely unsure, but he let it drop. "Draft up a search plan. I'll attach my seal to it when you've finished. Requisition whatever resources you need."

Lelouch nodded, listening attentively. "I'll have it drafted by the afternoon. How are things on your end?"

"Things are… complicated. I hate situations like these," Naoto admitted. "Too much double talk and reading between the lines. I'll take an honest battlefield every time."

"You think there's a danger there? Is the Federation going to attack?" Lelouch pressed worriedly, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck raise at the very thought of a war between two of the world's superpowers.

"There's definitely something going on here. Emperor above, this had to happen while I'm gone," Naoto muttered frustratedly. In the background, Lelouch distinctly heard someone calling out for Naoto. "Make sure Kallen doesn't do anything reckless, especially during the prisoner transfer."

"Right," Lelouch muttered, having barely remembered that was coming up this week. "There's a chance this might be connected to some kind of attempt to free Clovis, using this attack on the factory as a way to divide up our resources and attention."

"That would make sense if Jinchuu was working with the BLF," Naoto noted, even as what Lelouch suspected was the banging of a fist against wood became audible over the phone. "If their alliance is moving along this much, things will get ugly. Look, the morning keynotes are about to start, and Sancia's about to break down the door to drag me there. Keep an eye on things for me there, and I'll be back ASAP."

Lelouch nodded diligently, shutting the phone after he heard the distinct click of Naoto hanging up on the other end.

"Well that sounded dire," C.C. said dryly, standing against the doorway.

"You know eavesdropping is a terrible habit," Lelouch retorted, rolling his eyes as he pocketed the phone. "But yes, things are getting… darker. Between the Federation and Jinchuu it feels like the world is tilting on its axis, and the center won't hold."

"Well, cheer up. Jeremiah made waffles," C.C. responded tartly, sounding decidedly unamused. "Best eat quick or we'll be late for school."

Lelouch nodded absently as C.C. shut the door. "She has no taste for Yates I guess," he muttered, leaning back into his chair, gazing up at the ceiling with a distant expression.

Things were going to get really ugly soon. War on a global scale, and Brittania would be caught in the center of the storm.

Lelouch sighed.

Waffles did sound good right about now.

00000

"Aren't you going to be late for school?" Gino questioned tiredly, peering up from his slouched, splayed out position on the couch. He and the rest of his team were arrayed out in one of the warehouse's converted offices, each of them looking dead on their feet.

Shirley said nothing, peering out from the high windows of the office, looking down at the huddled masses of the former Dudley prisoners with a hardened expression. She watched as her fellow BLF members provided the gaunt, haunted men and women with blankets and hot drinks, and instead of being moved with warm emotions by the sight, she felt only a white hot determination searing through her veins.

"I wish I had been there," Shirley murmured quietly. "I wish I had been there to kill the bastards that are responsible for this."

"Things were… weird," Rivalz commented, not even bothering to open his eyes as he laid flat out on the couch across from Gino. "Most of the guards weren't even there, and the few that were there were not fighting back. And Jinchuu never told us what happened inside the factory."

"What? That sounds a bit… weird," Shirley commented, raising an eyebrow.

"Man, you should have seen him, Shirley," Gino murmured in wonderment, all but ignoring her words. "Working with him… damn, I haven't felt like that since the first time I held a gun. I got shivers all the way down my spine when he spoke after we took out the factory."

"I'm glad to hear your experience working with Jinchuu strengthened your resolve," Cornelia said suddenly, stepping into the room, flanked by Guilford and Darlton. "Your actions last night were a great blow for our cause. Some old comrades of ours were imprisoned there."

Smiling ever so slightly, Cornelia held out a hand, which Gino nearly stumbled over himself to shake as he got up off the couch. "T-thank you, ma'am," Gino said quickly, blinking rapidly to try and shake off his exhaustion.

"You look tired, Weinberg. We'll save the debriefing for tomorrow," Cornelia continued, after he released her hand. Glancing towards Shirley, she said questioningly, "Fenette? I thought you were at school."

"I'd rather be here, helping with the prisoners, Commander," Shirley said politely, bowing her head. "Besides, Operation Tower is nearing and I'd rather spend some more time with the Amalthea if nothing else. I want to be ready to face Kouzuki."

"Kouzuki is a pilot with a greater degree of battle experience than you," Darlton spoke up, fixing her with a reproving look. "She underestimated you when you first fought, but when she sees you in the Amalthea… she'll be taking you seriously. We need you to engage and distract her and the other guards, not necessarily defeat her."

Shirley had the grace to blush. "Er, yes, of course. Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself," she apologized, bowing her head.

"Well, we can't fault Fenette for ambition," Cornelia said warmly, inclining her head towards the younger girl. "The time will come when you can fight head to head with the Empire's finest. For now, however, we have the larger picture to consider. But I do agree that more time training may be good for you- the Block B warehouse is cleared for your usage today. Because of our recent shipment we also have the supplies for live fire exercises if you so wish."

"That would be great ma'am," Shirley said, smiling.

00000

"So, Kallen's in crisis mode running the government and Shirley's out sick again… hmm, it feels like it has been a very long time since it was like this, hmm?" C.C. murmured softly, peering at him with an unreadable expression. The two of them were sitting at their respective desks in the classroom during a short study period, Lelouch looking down at his lap watching the news on his cellphone, having been covertly using that feature on his phone to keep abreast of all incoming information.

Lelouch pursed his lips, contemplating C.C.'s words carefully. "Yes, it has, hasn't it?" he flicked a glance at her and smirked. "What, are you feeling lonely since I took on these new responsibilities?"

C.C. gave him a flat stare in response.

His smirk widened, and he opened his mouth to talk-

When a sharp, fierce stinging pain ran up his leg, as though someone had just kicked him forcefully in the shin… someone with a size six shoe, specifically.

Lelouch glared. C.C. smiled, and everything was once more as it was. Neither of them spoke for a while, until finally Lelouch recalled something that had been troubling him earlier.

"Hey, C.C…" as she met his questioning gaze, he continued, "When I was using my power, I tried to push my mind against Jinchuu's, but he was able to repel me. Not only that, but some of the terrorists were highly resistant to me as well."

C.C.'s face remained impassive, as though carved of cold marble. It was the face she wore for him whenever he breached the subject of Geass in general.

"Is it possible Jinchuu is… like you? Immune to Geass, maybe even immortal? And those others, I'm trying to understand just what they were capable of from the AARs Naoto lent me," Lelouch pressed curiously, raising an eyebrow.

"He's not a Code Bearer," C.C. asserted firmly, her tone so sharp that Lelouch was actually taken aback for a moment. "I would know."

"I still don't really understand the mechanics of being a Code Bearer," Lelouch said slowly, studying C.C.'s face for any hint of emotion. "You can affect minds like me, but it's not specialized in one kind of way…"

"Don't ask me about the Code," C.C. said flatly. "You know better than that."

It was an old argument, born sine the day Lelouch had realized that C.C. hadn't aged a day since they first met.

"You let me have a Geass," Lelouch reminded her, suddenly irritated at her evasiveness. "After years of denying me that request, you gave it to me when I finally told you I didn't want that power."

"Because I believed you understood the dangers to it then," C.C. hissed, genuine anger in her voice. "Believe me, the Code is not your concern, Lelouch. Keep playing the savior and fight your war. Leave matters like this well alone."

Lelouch drew back, looking as though she'd physically struck him with the vehemence of her words. In seven years he had never once prodded her to the point where she displayed anything more than a modicum of irritation towards him, let alone an actual display of fury.

Another person would have backed off. But Lelouch sensed that maybe, just maybe, he could finally pry something out of C.C., with her emotions so open.

"You made the contract with me. You've kept me in the dark for years about what you really are, why you've looked after me, and I have given you my trust," Lelouch responded tartly, keeping his voice low. "Don't I deserve something?"

C.C. pursed her lips and said nothing for a long while, but Lelouch held her gaze firmly, refusing to look away. He needed information, and damn everything else.

"The truth is that I don't know why your powers didn't work. There's no set pattern to the power save that it affects the mind only," C.C. answered simply, her eyes hard as stone, "And the mysteries that surround the Code are more dangerous than you can possibly imagine. Right now you're at the fringes of a world that has been in the shadows before the rise of any empire. There are people who would kill just to make sure it never came to light."

There was a quality to C.C.'s voice that was at utter odds with her youthful features, and Lelouch was suddenly reminded that, despite how long he had been with this woman, she was not the seventeen year old she had pretended to be from the moment they met, but an ageless creature that was nearly alien to him in some ways.

He wasn't afraid of her- he never could be, really. This was the woman who had all but raised him.

But at that moment he realized he might not really understand her at all.

Before Lelouch could say anything in return, the bell had rung signaling the end of the break period, and C.C.'s face had returned to its usual impassive expression.

00000

Beneath C.C.'s passive, practically carved of marble stone expression, however, there was what amounted to a storm brewing.

My, my, my, what has gotten into you? A soft laugh echoed within the confines of her skull, accompanied by a flash of purple eyes.

"Nothing," she refuted, her voice so quiet she was practically just mouthing the words.

C.C. had long ago learned how to speak so softly that no one outside of those dwelling in her own mind could hear. She of course did not need to actually physically speak the words, but it helped her, in a way, to be able to. And besides, she had long passed the point of actually caring how others viewed her.

You got upset! I haven't seen you upset in… ever! It's amazing! Like a double rainbow or something! The voice that was not her own was practically giddy in its delighted amusement. You want to defend him so badly, don't you?

"You sound stronger," C.C. commented lightly, ignoring her words. "Your voice is getting louder. I can actually hear your voice this time instead of merely sensing thoughts."

My strength is returning, came the agreement. There's a storm brewing in the World of C, and I've been able to gather my power through it.

"A storm?" C.C. raised an eyebrow. "How large?"

Far bigger than the one seven years ago, the voice replied cheerily. You haven't returned to this place in so long, you know. I think you may have forgotten the experience.

"I've been busy," C.C. responded, almost tartly. She refused to consider how dangerous a storm like that sounded- it wasn't an actual storm, of course, more a conflagration of emotions that made up the World of C. The bigger the event the more emotions would get riled up leading up to it.

Busy protecting the boy, beyond even the mandate I set for you all those years ago, the voice noted. Has he changed you, C.C.? Shattered the stone heart that was so famous? Have you forgotten our purpose? Why you started looking after the boy in the first place? Or even your own dearest desire?

"I have not forgotten," C.C. said coldly, and her eyes had become hard as diamonds, her muscles tensed as though ready to strike. "Seven years does not change someone like me easily. My wish remains the same."

Good. I love the boy, I really do. But we have invested our final hopes in him, and without him we cannot achieve our dream. He is not some weak child- he has the soul of a tiger, and he alone can accomplish what we failed to do, the voice said dismissively, somehow finding a way to be callous and prideful of Lelouch's potential at the same time. Honestly you should have given him the Geass years ago to start preparing him for what is to come.

"How quickly you adjusted your plans when you realized the extent of the betrayal," C.C. murmured distantly, tapping her fingers against the varnished wood of her desk absently. She ignored the statement about giving Lelouch a Geass as a mere boy- she had seen the effects that could have on a grown man's psyche, let alone a mere child's."Did it really have to be him?"

There was no one else capable. You're the Code Bearer, you can feel his potential better than anyone, can't you? The voice retorted, audibly smirking, before a sudden yawn filled her mind, loud and unabashed. Oh dear. I suppose my strength really hasn't returned yet. My eternal rest awaits me again.

"Not so eternal for you," C.C. muttered sardonically, rolling her eyes.

Remember what I said, C.C., it warned, even as the voice grew softer, the presence withdrawing from her consciousness. Lelouch is our weapon and heir to the legacy his father could not achieve. Do not let your feelings compromise our goals. Not now.

The presence faded from her mind, though the words seemed to echo on.

00000

"I was only twenty minutes late," Naoto muttered defensively, straightening his tie unconsciously as he glared at his lieutenant. "And I told you that the call was important."

Sancia ignored his gaze, sipping daintily at her wine. Both were dressed in the dark black, gold, and green military dress uniforms of the Imperial Army, though Naoto's traditional officer sword had to be left behind.

"I didn't say anything," she said simply. "And that was several hours ago, so I have no idea why you would be bringing it up now. Despite the fact that you were called to speak during the keynotes and Kirihara-sama had to cover for you. And when you showed up your tie was practically askew, and your breath still smelled of stale coffee."

"Maybe it's the 'my commander is an embarrassing, irresponsible man' vibe that's making me uncomfortable," Naoto muttered under his breath, shaking his head, before returning his gaze to their surroundings.

The two of them were standing at the veritable outskirts of an elaborate state dinner, sequestered far to the back and away from anyone of real importance.

Senator Dantes had spared no expense for this dinner, which was in fact only the first of many. The display of wealth was blatantly obvious- everywhere new, one-of-a-kind porcelain was set out, and plates were heaped high with both Japanese delicacies (well, for people in the Federation, anyway) and European dishes. The scent of duck foie gras mixed with the familiar aroma of miso soup. A string quartet was playing some European classic in the background while politicians sipped from crystal flutes.

It was the kind of thing Naoto had grown up with, and quite frankly grown used to enough that it honestly did little more than annoy him. It used to make him uncomfortable, wearing uncomfortable clothing and being forced to stay still and quiet for hours on end, but nowadays it was little more than another day at the office.

"It's quite a party, is it not?" came a soft tenor, and Naoto turned to see Kirihara Kaname striding over to them with a wide smile, two glasses of wine in his hands, offering one to Naoto, who took it politely.

"They are sparing no expense," Naoto said neutrally, his mouth set in a thin line as he sipped at his wine.

"Successful negotiations are always something to celebrate," Kaname responded immediately, drinking deep from his own glass. "It of course will take far longer than one day to resolve these issues, but progress is progress. Senator Dantes is a friend of Grandfather, and he has been very reasonable in these talks."

Naoto kept his features schooled neutrally, though he was not truly surprised that Kirihara Taizou even owned people in the Federation. The reach of the Kirihara name was vast.

"Was there something in particular you wanted to speak to me about?" Naoto questioned guardedly, gazing at the other man over the rim of the wineglass thoughtfully.

"I wanted to see what you thought of today's events… and to ask your lovely lieutenant for a dance, of course," Kaname replied easily, raising an eyebrow rakishly. Sancia, of all things, blushed.

Before Naoto could say anything to that particular statement, another voice called out.

"Ah, Kirihara-san. There you are. We haven't had a chance to formally talk yet," said Arthur Camlann, his smile not quite reaching his amethyst eyes, and once more, Naoto was struck by the similarities to Lelouch, in more ways than one.

Just like Lelouch, this Arthur Camlann had a presence about him, for lack of a better word. Lelouch had unconsciously, whether he believed himself capable of it or not, taken control of Naoto's own bridge without anyone realizing it, with the air of a natural commander, one whom men would follow blindly and without thinking. Arthur's stance and posture seemed to give off the exact same presence, perhaps even more so, as it seemed this man had far more self-confidence in his abilities than Lelouch did.

It wasn't like Kaname's charisma and charm, which captured those around him with beauty and flowery airs until Kaname was ready to devour them whole. It was more… solid. Real.

"Secretary Camlann. A pleasure," Kaname said genially, inclining his head with a short half-bow. "You wished to speak with me on a matter?"

"Ah, well, just like you wanted to question the Commander here, I wanted to ask you about today's events, and your goals for these negotiations, in person," Arthur said calmly, meeting Kaname's gaze steadily, and Naoto felt like he was watching two predators circling each other warily, feeling each other out for any weaknesses.

"I want the best result for my country, of course, and I would hope that these negotiations would lead to that," Kaname murmured silkily, "I'm sure no one wants things to dissolve into bloodshed."

"Of course not," Arthur agreed amiably. "Well, I heard you asking this lovely lady to dance, so I shall not keep you longer. Besides, I would love another chance to speak with the Commander here."

"Well then. A good evening to you both. Lieutenant, if you would do me the honor?" Kaname said generously, offering out his hand with a hooded look.

Sancia glanced back at Naoto just once with an unreadable look, and then took his hand with a polite smile. "The honor is mine, Kirihara-sama," she said softly, as he led her off.

Naoto watched them go with his jaw set tight, a frown marring his face, and it wasn't until he spoke that Naoto remembered Arthur's presence.

"What do you think the 'best result' for your country would be, Commander?" Arthur asked lightly, chuckling as he turned and stood with Naoto.

"Peace and prosperity," Naoto answered neutrally, refusing to give in to whatever game the European was playing as he took another glass of sparkling white wine from one of the neatly dressed caterers.

"Ah, but what sort of prosperity?" Arthur pressed, leaning in towards Naoto with a faint smile. "Before the Brittanian invasion you could say the Empire was at peace as the world's largest economic power. After, it gained new prosperity, building upon the powerful factories and technology acquired from the conquest and a measure of peace even after the war."

"Are you asking me if I want peace for my country at the expense of yours?" Naoto asked sharply, raising an eyebrow as he kept his face expressionless.

"That is the nature of the world. The strong need to keep their strength. The weak desire to take it away and make it their own," Arthur responded vaguely, smirking as he absently popped an appetizer from a nearby silver plate into his mouth.

"It's the duty of the strong to defend the weak," Naoto replied tersely, a faint frown on his face. "That's what I was taught."

"Defend? No, Commander," Arthur corrected, and his face flickered and hardened for a single moment, losing its jovial façade. "The strong have a duty to win. The weak are destined only to follow the will of the strong."

"So you think power is the absolute definition of who has what right," Naoto observed, unable to mask the slight tone of distaste in his voice.

"Do you know what power really is, Commander?" Arthur questioned, smiling faintly from behind the dark red wine in his hand. "It's a choice. It's the freedom to do one thing or the other... and the capacity to take that away from someone else."

Naoto said nothing, staring back unflinchingly as he waited for the other man to finish.

"Let's take a gun," Arthur murmured, and made his free hand into a gun-shape, pointing it with a smile at Naoto. "There you have two distinct choices- pull the trigger, or don't. If you pull the trigger, you kill the man, and end his life forever. If you don't, you spare him, and he is free to do whatever he wishes, and is given life by you."

"It's my experience that guns don't give life, only take it away," Naoto responded tartly, taking a slow drink of his wine.

"But if you spare him, don't you give him life?" the other man questioned.

"You didn't give him anything- you let him keep something that is his," Naoto corrected darkly, his brow creasing.

"Ah, but that's exactly my point. You had the choice, not him. You could take what is his, or not. But you had the choice, in the end, not him. All he could to do was die. The strong decide the world. Nothing changes that- people are not equal. The man with the gun is always going to be more powerful than the one without," Arthur continued, as if Naoto had never spoken. "So how do the weak fight the strong?"

"Take away the gun," Naoto guessed, narrowing his eyes as he attempted to piece together exactly what Arthur was talking about. But what was the gun in question? Knightmare Frames? Soldiers?

"Precisely," Arthur agreed, sounding delighted that Naoto had so accurately understood his intention as he lowered the mock gun he made with his fingers. "And so the roles will reverse. The weak become strong and the strong become weak, ensuring that only the most dangerous and ruthless thrive in natural selection. Perpetual inequality, nature in its most balanced state."

"But that just creates the same scenario over again," Naoto pointed out, frowning.

"Absolutely correct," Arthur continued, smiling widely as he set down his now empty wine glass. "If you'll indulge me, let us take a brief look into history."

He fixed Naoto with a bemused expression, looking for all the world like a teacher talking with his favored pupil.

"After the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Empire and the ten year old Napoleon Bonaparte II found themselves somewhat lacking in the ability to hold control over the territories that Napoleon the Elder had conquered, at least not without giving them a say in the government. But the conquered territories did rather enjoy the Napoleonic law and prosperity they had gained under French rule, and the rule of Napoleon had lasted long enough for the people to grow comfortable, but not long enough that they would so easily submit to the French."

Naoto listened along half-heartedly, sipping his drink as he followed along. He was vaguely familiar with the history of the Eurasian Federation- the primary education of the Japanese only briefly touched on the topic, viewing the history of 'lesser' people as a largely unimportant part of their education.

"Thus, a concession- the French Empire chose not to descend into bloody civil war in the style of the generals of Alexander the Great after the death of their master, but instead to reform their government into a Union of composite states known as the European Union, creating the world's first super-state of sorts," Arthur murmured, his eyes clearly lost in thought. "Of course the French retained control over most of the governments… for a time, anyway. The disbanding of national militaries came soon after, as a way to unify all people in the European Union, and instead formed a contract with several mercenary groups."

Naoto narrowed his eyes. He knew where this was going.

"With this concession, the German mercenary group Einherjar came to prominence as the preeminent military group of choice, having folded in much of Napoleon the Elder's finest soldiers into their ranks through exceptionally high wages and a willingness to take any and all nationalities into their ranks," Arthur explained, his hands energetically moving to emphasize his point like a professor lost in his favorite subject. "They start out small because of their elite nature, but they buy up the best arms and they make a name for themselves in the Crimean War. The Danube campaign alone shows them beating the holy hell out of the Chinese-Russian forces. People notice and flock to their banners. Company coffers swell, but they keep their elite nature, never tainting themselves with the impurity of the weak."

"Thus is born the military-industrial complex of the European Union, and at its forefront, the German Einherjar, which soon replaced Napoleon's old Grand Army as the symbol of strength in the Union," Naoto finished for the other man, nodding. He did not know the specifics of that era, but everyone knew that it was German power that was at the forefront of the European Union, and even the current Eurasian Federation still had strong leanings with German policies. "So what you're trying to prove to me is that when the strong concede some power to the weak, the weak inevitably reverse the situation and become the strong."

"Exactly," Arthur said cheerily, sounding unusually pleased at how quickly Naoto had grasped the meaning of his words, clapping his hands in delight. "The strong should never share power, but instead use it to dominate the weak and ensure the continuation of their supremacy. If the French had kept the faith in their strength as they should have, this would be a French Empire instead of a Eurasian Federation."

"That's a bit selfish," Naoto said dully. "And how many lives would have been lost to bloodshed if the French had acted as you said?"

Arthur's smiled only widened at his sarcastic tone. "Not everyone can be happy, Commander. So those with power should ensure their own happiness, rather than risk losing it at the hands of those without."

There was an intangible quality in his voice that suddenly made Arthur seem far older than he was, and Naoto found himself noticing features that were eerily reminiscent of Lelouch's.

"What exactly is the point of this little lecture," Naoto asked, his tone taking an edge. The whole conversation was setting his teeth on edge, like waiting at the edge of a battle.

"Ah, well, that would be spoiling the game. Let's just say I wanted to give you a lesson for the future," Arthur said cheerily, as his phone began to ring. "If you'll excuse me then…"

And without waiting for a reply, he wandered off, leaving Naoto to his thoughts.

00000

Arthur Camlann hummed thoughtfully as he ducked into a private office, seemingly unconcerned about being overheard as he tilted his head to one side and waited for the person on the other end to speak.

"So how's the party?"

"Interesting enough, I suppose. Kirihara's a little too smarmy to be believable, really, but Kouzuki is the one I really have my eye on right now," Arthur responded dully, rolling his shoulders as he settled against the desk, facing the slightly ajar door. "He's just as the file read. Even better, really. He's got morals."

"You think he'll suit our purposes?"

"Yes sir." Arthur paused and flicked a glance at the door. "You should see this farce. Kirihara Industries practically owns Dantes through his shipping company, and everyone here damn well knows it. Why Einherjar hasn't just shot the man is a mystery to me."

"They're playing it close to the vest. They own this country anyway, so even something like this won't slow down their agenda," came the reply, tittering in amusement. "So our sources at Rosenbaum checked out?"

"This is all part of the plan," Arthur confirmed. He eyed the door again and frowned, sighing inwardly as he stood up and moved closer to the door. "Rosenbaum's board execs want working proof, and Bismarck is more than willing to be the guinea pig if it means getting his misguided revenge."

"That man is a fool. What my brother saw in him I will never understand," V.V. muttered, and Arthur could practically see the Code Bearer's otherworldly eyes rolling in disdain. "Well, do what you can from your end. If you think Kouzuki can stymie Bismarck, then you have my permission to aid him."

"Thank you, father," Arthur said quietly, and the line went dead as he swung the door open wide to reveal a young man in a dark suit and tie ensemble, who stumbled back, obviously caught off guard, having expected Arthur to have been paying attention to the conversation.

"Private Caesar Lucero, am I right?" Arthur questioned, raising an eyebrow. The young man's dark brown eyes widened, and he added, "I memorized the names and faces of all of Einherjar's people on site."

Arthur studied him for a moment, like a deranged scientist inspecting his latest subject for dissection. Lucero had classically Spanish features, dark hair, olive skin, strong jaw. His eyes were bright and clear and intelligent. He had promise.

"Bad luck they had you tailing me, Private," Arthur murmured softly, inclining his head in apology as he shut his eyes for a moment, gathering up his will.

When they opened again, his amethyst eyes glowed a bright, hellish red, in the shape of a bird in flight.

The light of a Geass.

Lucero never even had time to scream.

Author's Notes

Okay, shorter than usual, but I think this'll have to be my new policy. This chapter is basically half of the original Chapter 14, with the other half now being Chapter 15. The chapter lengths were just getting too long on me and taking too much time to write. So now, I think 10,000 words max is a good estimate, and anything more than that I cut in half.

With this policy I will hopefully not take forever and a day to come out with the next chapter.