"Fanatics in power and the funnel of a tornado have this in common- the narrow path in which they move is marked by violence and destruciton."

-Oscar Ostuland

Chapter 16

Fraying At The Edges

"And that concludes my debriefing, apart from the official AAR submitted by Major Minami," Lelouch said quietly into the phone, sounding utterly dejected as his fists clenched. He was standing at his window, eyes distractedly taking in the London cityscape. "If you want to end our deal, I will understand and accept your decision."

"End our deal? Bit melodramatic, don't you think? You sound like those old samurai offering to end their lives to reclaim their honor," Naoto joked weakly, before continuing in a more serious tone, "You encountered an unexpected and extremely powerful enemy and were overcome. I'm not going to waste time on recriminations. I doubt I would have done much better. I want to talk about this Knightmare though- the Amalthea, you said?"

"That's correct," Lelouch answered, unsure whether to be relieved or disappointed that Naoto hadn't decided to just end their partnership. "It's a Fifth Gen Knightmare designed by the Ashford Foundation just before the war."

"And they kept it hidden all this time? Why not use such a powerful weapon? It was strong enough to be a match for the Amaterasu, from what you told me," Naoto questioned.

"The last time someone tried to pilot that machine it put that person in the hospital for months on the verge of death," Lelouch said tersely, unwilling to go into further detail. "It's as dangerous to the user as it is to the enemy. Either they've corrected its flaws or they've decided to start sacrificing their pilots for victory."

"Either way, it's a problem," Naoto concluded, sighing. "Like we really needed another."

"How has the Imperial Council reacted to this?" Lelouch asked softly, tapping his fingers against the windowpane absently. "They can't have been pleased that we let such a high profile prisoner escape…"

"You let me worry about the politics. Concentrate on the matters at hand," Naoto said sternly, in a voice that let Lelouch know that he was not to press this issue. "I know this is a hard blow, but we cannot let it stop us from doing our jobs. I need you sharp and ready to face the next crisis, not dwelling on the past."

Lelouch straightened at the brisk, commanding tone, and responded swiftly, "Understood."

"Good. Now," Naoto continued, his voice still demanding obedience, "Give me your projections for what the BLF will do now that they have Clovis and this new Knightmare."

"In this we may have a chance for relief," Lelouch answered. "Clovis has knowledge of Luciano Bradley, which is information we have thus far suppressed from the public. Luciano's ideology does not fit with the BLF's, and will hopefully divide them in the coming months if that man continues to act."

"That's a bit optimistic," Naoto noted, his tone reserved and skeptical.

"Like I said, it's only a small chance, but one we may be able to rely on if Luciano resurfaces, which will put this country in a conflict of the BLF, Luciano's group, and a third faction against our own," Lelouch replied quietly. "The third we have to contend with is the smallest faction, but by far the most volatile."

"The Jinchuu faction," Naoto understood immediately, his tone suddenly dark. "I hear the movement supporting that man is beginning to gain steam around the country."

"Minor protests and graffiti on walls is the extent of it so far, but it indicates that the mood of the country is steadily swinging in his favor. The BLF will have to either align themselves with Jinchuu or oppose him in order to survive the storm," Lelouch murmured, shutting his eyes as he imagined the kind of carnage that would be unleashed if the people really did follow Jinchuu's radical ideals.

"Continue your investigation into Jinchuu. We have to close down that movement before it gains any more headway. While you're doing that, start planning a major offensive against the BLF for when I return with the rest of our forces. I want significant targets we can hit to cripple their movement. If they're willing to perform such a high-risk operation like rescuing Clovis, there's no telling what they'll do next. We need to take the initiative," Naoto said briskly, his frown practically audible over the phone.

"Understood, Commander," Lelouch replied.

00000

"You were pretty lenient with him," Sancia commented, sitting nearby at the lacquered wooden table, as Naoto shut the phone. The room allotted to him was a fairly spacious two room suite, with the parlor being big enough to accommodate several people.

Naoto gave her a helpless look, shrugging his shoulders as he leaned back into the couch, taking a long drink from his glass, relishing the familiar burn of the whiskey. The two of them were having a quiet drink together in his rooms to discuss security plans for the next day and to review the after action reports that Minami had sent over.

"You should have mentioned how this failure has dealt a serious blow to the credibility that you and Kallen-sama have been building for the past several years," Sancia continued coolly, raising an eyebrow, raising her own glass but not drinking from it just yet. "That it should call into question this clandestine alliance, and if we should really be entrusting military resources to a person who won't show his face."

"He's a better commander than me," Naoto replied defensively, crossing his arms as he stared down his lieutenant.

"By virtue of random talent. Not by experience or because he earned his command," Sancia refuted, shaking her head as she took a slow sip of her wine. "Kallen-sama may be right in thinking you too trusting."

Naoto scowled at that. "You're being awfully opinionated tonight. Has time amongst the nobility given you a broader way of thinking?"

His tone was a little sharper than intended, and he briefly regretted that drink.

Sancia, to her credit, raised a single eyebrow and fixed him with a frigid stare. "As the XO, I'm the one who's supposed to critique and refine your plans. And I assumed our partnership gave me license to speak my mind. Forgive me, Naoto-sama, for not knowing my place."

Naoto's scowl deepened at the 'Naoto-sama', and he let out a frustrated growl as he got up and strode over to the liquor cabinet. "You know that's not what I meant. I need you to speak your mind. I just… I need you and Kallen to trust me as well."

"We do trust you. It's Rei we don't trust," Sancia corrected, finishing her drink with a collected expression. "Just what did he tell you while you two were alone that made you trust him so much?"

"He showed me his face. If I really didn't trust him, I could just reveal who he was and let the pieces fall. I know he showed me his face just so I would have that insurance, to help bridge trust," Naoto responded immediately, picking up the decanter and refilling his own glass, and then, after a moment's pause, Sancia's. "But I don't trust him because I could destroy him at a moment's notice. I'm not Kaname. I trust him because I believe he's a good person. The kind of person we could follow to an era where Kallen wouldn't have to be a soldier just to prove herself to the whole Empire."

Sancia looked doubtful, and Naoto continued, "Look, back during that first mission, when Rei took command… did you even realize how naturally things felt, following his orders? His strength was great enough that on his first command even you obeyed instantly."

"That's just professional habit," Sancia said in denial, though there was something in her tone that suggested she didn't quite believe her own words.

Naoto rolled his eyes. "I've got the credibility, he's got the talent. I think this partnership is the kind of thing that suits my ideals perfectly."

"I'm not questioning your ideals. I'm questioning if this path is the right one for us," Sancia argued, pounding her fist on the table as she fixed him with a narrowed look.

Naoto's irritation finally got the best of him, and he snapped, "That's enough. My decision is final. I appreciate your concerns, but this is how I believe we should act for now."

Sancia's face might as well have been carved of stone as she stood abruptly and bowed at the waist. "Understood, Commander."

And without waiting for another word, she left, leaving Naoto to brood alone.

00000

"I have to hand it to you sister," Clovis said delightedly, smiling widely as he all but devoured the plate in front of him. "Your timing could not have been better. I had all but resigned myself to a cell in Shin Kyoto for the rest of my life."

Cornelia did not share his happiness, staring at him with a distant expression from across the table. Their royal reunion was held far away from London, in the safety of her private quarters within the Bastion in Scotland.

"You were reckless," she scolded, frowning. "What were you thinking? Father's throne won't be won by taking civilians hostages."

Clovis rolled his eyes, spearing a piece of steak almost viciously.

"Oh come on, don't be naïve. Even at the height of the Empire under our father, we could not hope to drive the Japanese out. And with our army scattered and broken now, what choice did I have but play the terrorist?" he said defensively. "Besides, if I hadn't been betrayed by Bradley…"

"That's another thing. You should have known what kind of person Luciano Bradley was from seven years ago during the Bloody Sunday incident," Cornelia continued irritably, fixing him with a glare. "Even back then he was a bloodthirsty monster more than he was a soldier."

Clovis said nothing to that, content with finishing his plate and wiping his mouth daintily using a napkin. When he finally did speak, he smiled lightly and placed his chin in his hands, propping his elbows up on the table. "Oh come now, sister, do we have to talk about this right now? It's the first time I've been able to see you in seven years and all you're doing is scolding me like I'm still the child who put bugs in your hair."

Cornelia did not smile, but her expression relaxed somewhat at his words and she sighed reluctantly. "I'm sorry, Clovis. It's been a rough seven years," she said quietly, finally starting on her own plate.

"Ever the military girl," Clovis said with a smile. "With Guilford and Darlton around with you, it's almost like you're still 'The Witch of Brittania'."

"I am still a soldier. We are still fighting. I do not accept the surrender Schneizel and Odysseus offered in the Windsor Treaty," Cornelia all but snarled, slamming her hand down on the table, rattling the plates. "The surrender we never would have had to give if not for Lelouch…"

She flicked her gaze up at him, and her lips twisted into a fierce smile. "But I finally found him, Clovis. I found Lelouch."

Clovis blinked. "He's still alive? I would have thought he died in the chaos of the Japanese subjugation after he disappeared. He was half a corpse when I last saw him…"

"No he survived, and he's in London," Cornelia answered swiftly. "One of my agents, the pilot of the Amalthea, is currently tailing him and trying to find out if he has anything to do with that Jinchuu character."

"Jinchuu?" Clovis wrinkled his nose in distaste, taking a sip of his wine. "That's another bastard I want words with after his interference at the airport."

"We worked with him earlier this month during the raid on Dudley," Cornelia responded freely, shaking her head in warning. "He's a solid asset, for now at least."

Clovis didn't look convinced, but he dropped the subject, instead returning to the previous issue. "So you have a pilot tailing Lelouch? That's your new protégé, right? The redhead?"

Cornelia nodded, finishing her own plate with a satisfied sigh. Darlton made a surprisingly good cook sometimes. She supposed it had to do with raising five boys after having lost his wife to cancer.

"She's a pretty young thing… you aren't trying a honey pot on Lelouch, are you?" Clovis joked, raising an eyebrow. "I doubt our little brother has changed so much as to be deceived by a pretty face."

Cornelia grimaced. "You know I've never liked the honey pot schemes. And I just need his information, if any. And a full confession of his identity, to make sure. Then Fenette has orders to terminate."

At that, even Clovis balked, choking on his wine. "You… you're planning on killing Lelouch?"

Cornelia gave him a flat stare. "Absolutely."

Clovis frowned. "Just like that, huh?" he leaned back into his chair, sighing as he draped his arms over the back.

"Do you disapprove?" Cornelia asked, clicking her tongue.

"I think it doesn't matter if I do or not, you'll still give the order," Clovis responded tartly, rolling his eyes. "None of our siblings except Schneizel and Euphie had the power to change your mind."

The atmosphere chilled considerably after that, and Clovis realized he had said precisely the wrong thing.

"Ah… sorry," Clovis apologized, bowing his head. "That was insensitive of me."

Cornelia said nothing, and stood. "It's in the past," she said coolly. "All that matters now is avenging Euphie."

And with that, she turned on her heel. "I'm going to bed. You can see yourself out."

Clovis watched her go with a shake of his head. "We all miss her, you know," he murmured softly.

00000

It had been two days since his argument with Sancia, and she hadn't spoken to him since.

Oh, she had said words around him, and maybe even to him, but she had said them in the mask of Lieutenant Sancia, not as Sancia, the woman he had served with for years.

Even now, as he all but glared at her across the crowded conference room, she dutifully met his gaze neutrally, her face an impassive mask.

"I understand your desire for justice for your slain citizens, of course, Representative Kirihara," Senator Dantes said calmly, folding his hands. "But Orsus Zoktavir's actions, as I have said before, are ultimately a matter that we of the Federation will punish alone. I'm afraid our citizens will not stand for a decorated military officer to be simply handed over for execution by a foreign power- you understand what kind of precedent that would set, right?"

"With all due respect Senator," Naoto found himself saying, wearing the mask of the Kouzuki heir, "Orsus Zoktavir's military record is a string of bloody incidents, the Chinese Massacre just being the latest. I would hardly call him a decorated officer."

"Perhaps rather than demanding immediate execution," Kaname cut in diplomatically, "We could discuss what actions you will be taking against Zoktavir instead?"

There was a shuffling of papers, and this time it was Arthur Camlann who responded. "He is of course being held in an undisclosed state prison, and we are arranging for a military tribunal to be convened after these talks are finished."

"Would it be at all possible to have a representative of the Empire allowed to sit in on this tribunal?" Kaname questioned, raising an eyebrow.

There was a cough, and a broad shouldered man, sitting at the corner edge of the table, spoke up. The nameplate set out before him read Colonel Vincent Liebert.

"I'm afraid that is internal Einherjar business, and as we are not officially part of the Federation but a private corporation, we are under no obligation to allow a witness." The tone of his voice was coolly professional, edging at the fringes of impolite.

The message was the same as it had been for the duration of these talks thus far. Einherjar was protecting its own, and though the Federation was willing to make concessions, in the end Einherjar had all the cards.

"Einherjar has yet to make a formal apology for this incident as well," Naoto reminded his Eurasian counterpart, his tone sharp.

"Which we will release upon the conclusion of these talks, Commander. Currently we are trying to ease the tensions between our two nations, of which this incident is simply the last in a long line," Colonel Liebert responded immediately, his voice still damnably neutral. "The Senate has been requesting another statement from your government regarding our missing Sakuradite tanker and the recent piracy that has been going on in the Atlantic."

"As we have said before, the Empire denies any involvement with the disappearance of the Kaiser Krieg," Kaname cut in insistently, his smile still fixed upon his face.

"The disappearance has led to a significant upswing in fuel prices throughout the Federation, which is significantly hurting our growth in this economic recession we have been suffering," Arthur commented, and glanced over at Naoto, who met his gaze warily. "Our requests for further shipments to supplement this from Imperial Sakuradite companies such as your own Kirihara Corporation have been met with silence."

"I'm afraid our own Sakuradite needs must take precedence over that of foreign powers," Kaname said simply, his smile wider than ever. "Though of course, I will contact my grandfather and see if something can be done."

And here was the real crux of the matter, Naoto contemplated. It always came back to Sakuradite. The most precious resource in the world. With the rise of the Knightmare Frame, having a steady supply of Sakuradite was going to be the key in any long term military planning. No army could run without fuel for very long.

"I say we should stop here for now," Kaname said softly, smiling genially. "We can continue this on the morrow."

As everyone broke away from the meeting, Naoto tried to catch Sancia at the door, but she brushed past him, speaking instead with Kirihara Kaname.

"All is not well in paradise, it seems?" Arthur commented, smiling as he sidled up behind Naoto. "You and your lovely Lieutenant seem to be at odds."

"Private disagreement," Naoto said tersely. "If you'll excuse me."

As if he had not heard him, Arthur continued to tail Naoto, speaking as though he had not been dismissed.

"It appears our talks are progressing backwards," Arthur commented airily, "We've made no headway this past week."

Naoto said nothing, as though pretending Arthur wasn't there would drive the man away.

"It's almost as if this whole thing is a farce, stalling for time because Zoktavir jumped the gun or something," Arthur murmured, and Naoto snorted.

"That's a bit convoluted," he said, finally deigning to reply. "Why bother with all this if it's just a farce?"

"The Federation is not like your Empire, where in the end it's the Emperor who dictates policy," Arthur responded immediately, sounding pleased that he had finally gotten a rise out of the other man. "The Senate is a bickering hydra, a multi-headed beast that never agrees with itself. Dantes and his people are a pro-Japan faction that advocates peace. Colonel Liebert, Einherjar, and their supporters in the senate are against peace because it's bad for business."

"And whose side are you on, Secretary?" Naoto challenged, raising an eyebrow.

"Me? Why, I'm here to help you, Commander. I'm on your side- for now anyway," Arthur replied vaguely, smiling candidly. "Keep what I've said in mind, Commander. And enjoy the rest of your evening."

And with a polite and fluid bow, Arthur left.

00000

Arthur chuckled as he made his way back to his private rooms. Kouzuki really was an interesting fellow.

With that same pleased smile still on his face, he plopped himself down on the desk chair, spinning delightedly around as he brought forth a small laptop computer from his briefcase, powering it on and typing on the keyboard for a few moments, bringing up a video stream.

He identified the people on the screen immediately.

Colonel Liebert was in full view of the camera feed he had installed, along with another man whom Arthur knew by face if not personally.

Captain Antonin Strakhov, he recalled, fixing his gaze on the solidly built, dark-bearded man that stood rigidly near the corner, holding a glass of liquor near his lips as he spoke.

"Everything is in place, Colonel," he said in Russian accented German.

"And no one suspects anything?" the Colonel questioned.

"All our men have reported no changes, both from the Japanese and from the Senate delegation," Strakhov responded.

"What of the Secretary? Private Lucero is tailing him, correct? He still reports that the boy has no idea?" Liebert pressed, and Arthur couldn't help but smile.

"Lucero reports nothing unusual," Strakhov answered, shaking his head. "What is it about that man which makes the General so nervous?"

"That is not for us to question, Captain," Liebert said sharply. "Now get ready. Operation: Daybreak begins tonight. Einherjar, heil!"

"Einherjar, heil!" Strakhov saluted, and Arthur cut the feed, his good mood fading rapidly.

"They're moving a little faster than expected," Arthur murmured, tapping the desk with one finger rhythmically as he cupped his chin in his other hand. "I suppose we will as well."

00000

"Wow… this is so pretty!" Euphemia smiled brightly, taking in Kallen's appearance with wide, appreciative eyes that made Kallen blush with embarrassment.

"Ah… thanks for helping me get this on, Euphemia-san," Kallen said gratefully, inclining her head slightly as she raised her arms, studying the colorful kimono she was wearing closely.

It was predominantly white, patterned with purple flowers around the sleeves, chest, and hem above her ankles. The large woman's obi that held the kimono together was a deep blue, with the cloth reaching out so far that she had to drape them over her elbows. Her red hair loosely framed her face, accentuating her chin, and she was wearing a light layer of makeup (which was more than ever usually wore anyway).

All in all, it made Kallen feel more like a dress-up doll than a real person.

"You look wonderful, Kallen-sama," Euphemia gushed, still wide-eyed. "Like a real princess."

"You think so?" Kallen asked, glancing over at herself in the mirror with a frown. "I mean, I like the kimono, but I don't know if this is me…"

"No it suits you perfectly!" Euphemia said insistently, so much so that Kallen was taken aback, studying the pink-haired maid with a bemused expression.

It was refreshing to have servants who actually talked like real people rather than mindless doormats, she had to admit, even though it was a little jarring from her usual experiences with the indentured help.

"Well thank you," Kallen said sincerely, smiling warmly.

A knock at the door gave them both pause, and it swung open to reveal Suzaku, who wore a long suffering expression as he walked in distractedly, saying, "Hey, Kallen, are you done getting ready yet? Kaguya won't stop texting me asking when we're going to arrive…"

He trailed off, suddenly seeing Kallen for the first time. His expression was unreadable, and Kallen squirmed.

"Hey… don't stare," Kallen said, uncharacteristically timid as she flushed, skirting his gaze.

"I um… I'm sorry," Suzaku apologized, bowing his head. "You look…"

He fell silent again, simply staring, and Kallen felt suddenly, irrationally irritated.

"I look like what?" she said challengingly, frowning as she crossed her arms.

"Beautiful," Suzaku answered, unthinking, and both of them fell silent at that. They both flushed, embarrassed, once again unable to meet the other's gaze, and it was only when Euphemia (who was feeling more awkward than either of them) squeaked as she tried subtly to leave the room that they were shaken out of their stupor.

"Ah… hey look, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have just walked in like that," Suzaku said quietly, shaking his head. "Do you need a few minutes?"

"No, I'm fine," Kallen said insistently, shaking her head.

"Oi what's with this lovely dovey rom-com setup!" Milly said loudly, startling everyone. Her grin was wide, her usual maid's bonnet was replaced with a black headband with an orange pumpkin on top, almost like a miniature crown atop her head. "Come along Euphie-chan, we're interrupting our master's next flag!"

Suzaku and Kallen both scowled simultaneously at that, and Suzaku muttered, "Not funny Milly."

With that, the tension seemed broken, and Kallen was able to take in Suzaku's own costume for the first time.

Where her own kimono was bright silk, Suzaku's kimono was darker, blue and black, with muted colors that, Kallen guessed, would accentuate her own when they were standing next to each other. The inner sections of the kimono were white as well, and matched the gray hakama. A katana was tightly held to him by the dark grey obi- to Suzaku's surprise, the sword was very much real. Kaguya had paid no expense.

"You look nice," Kallen commented. "Kaguya has a good eye."

"I'm still not sure about these costumes," Suzaku replied, shaking his head. "I mean, I feel a little silly."

"Kaguya-san said it was a fitting costume for our first debut as a…" Kallen hesitated over her next words, and finished lamely, "You know."

Suzaku didn't seem to notice her awkwardness, and muttered, "Kaguya and her ideas. Well, I guess these costumes are at least tame."

He sighed, and turned away. "Alright, well, I'll meet you outside. Kaguya wanted us to be there half an hour early at least."

As he walked away, Milly sighed, and as she followed him out the door she added, "I apologize for my master's thick head, Kallen-sama."

"It's fine," Kallen muttered, shaking her head. As she glanced back at herself in the mirror, she mumbled softly, "Beautiful, huh?"

00000

"That was surprisingly smooth of you," Milly commented lightly, eyes lidded in the picture of serenity as she trailed behind Suzaku.

Suzaku blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing, master," Milly hummed. "Just admiring your… innocence."

Suzaku gave her a suspicious look and shook his head, deciding he'd rather not know.

"Well, have fun tonight," Milly said pleasantly. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"That doesn't limit me to much. Besides, don't talk like that- you're coming with me," Suzaku said, and was inordinately pleased that Milly actually looked surprised at something he had done. Turnabout was fair play, after all.

"Master, you sly dog," Milly said saucily, giving him a wink. "Trying to get a three-way going on your date? Well, Kallen-sama is rather pretty…"

Suzaku felt as though a bit of blood might spurt out of his nose if he dwelled on that particular mental image for very long, so he quickly interrupted her, "That's not… Emperor's blood Milly, don't talk like that! I just wanted to give you the night off to have some fun. Don't read any more into it than that."

"Oh? My master might know more about girls than I thought," Milly said with a saccharine sweet smile. "What brought this sudden generosity on?"

"I've been relying on you a lot, Milly," Suzaku said quietly, turning towards her with a serious expression. "You've gone above and beyond what I've ever asked, and you've never once complained. I appreciate it."

Milly smiled widely, and tapped him on the forehead, right between the eyes. "That's a maid's job, master. And I am the best maid anyone could ask for. You don't ever need to thank me."

She paused, and tilted her head to one side questioningly. "What about Euphie?"

Suzaku smiled at that, and murmured wistfully, "I wish. But Lelouch will be there, and I can't risk him or Euphie finding each other. Not yet."

Milly frowned at that. "That's a little unfair to Euphie. Besides, this is a costume party, right? Why don't I just disguise her in plain sight?"

"I didn't prepare any costumes," Suzaku objected, frowning.

Milly sighed, shaking her head. "Suzaku-sama, you can't keep her locked up in the mansion like a princess in a tower. She has to experience some kind of new memories outside of being a maid."

Suzaku opened his mouth again, but, in the greatest breach of propriety Milly had done so far, she actually placed her finger over his mouth and shushed him. "Don't worry so much, master. I'll prepare a costume for myself and Euphie. We'll slip in after the party starts to avoid notice."

Suzaku met her gaze for a moment, then finally sighed. "I just won't win with you, will I?"

Milly flashed him a grin. "Never, master."

00000

"Oh, come on out already, Red!" Gino all but whined, banging on her door with a petulant look. "Rivalz let me see his costume!"

Gino was wearing a rather unusual outfit- a grey pinstripe suit jacket and matching slacks, with a dark burnt orange collared shirt and a gold chain around his neck. The most striking thing about his costume was the fake sideburns and beard on his chin, and the ostentatiously gift-wrapped present held under his arm.

Shirley flushed. Didn't he realize that the whole apartment complex could probably hear him yelling? "I'm still changing boss!"

Rivalz, standing next to Gino outside of her apartment, cocked his head to the side and said, "Oi, boss, not that I'm complaining- heck, I love this idea- but are you sure it's alright to be tagging along with us to this dance?"

He was wearing a matching grey suit jacket and slacks to Gino's, though his shirt was yellow instead of orange, and he had no golden chain. His sunglasses were nearly hanging off his nose, and he had fake sideburns on and a present of his own under his arm, just like Gino.

Gino grinned. "Consider it a secret mission. The Commander agrees that giving Shirley some backup while she tries to get the truth out of this Lamperouge guy tonight is a good idea. So you and I will be around to help if things get dicey."

Rivalz looked him once over. "You just want to hit on girls," he said flatly.

Gino looked nonplussed, shrugging. "We can't all run into hot blonde bombshells at work, you know. Some of us have to go looking."

Rivalz flushed. "It was one time, and I didn't even get her name."

"And that, my dear Rivalz, is why I need to show you the right way to talk to a girl," Gino said simply, arm around his shoulders in a comradely fashion. "It's easy to do, just follow these steps…"

Shirley opened the door before he could continue and rolled her eyes. "You two are idiots, you know that?"

Gino and Rivalz paused, taking her costume in, and Shirley's cheeks went pink and she scowled. "Don't stare."

Her frilly black dress left her pale shoulders bare save for thin straps, the modest skirt reaching just past her knees and nearly meeting her knee-length, orange and black striped tube socks. The key points to her costume were on her head and in her hands- the wide-brimmed, floppy-cone tipped hat and fake toy plastic wand gave her costume's identity away quite easily.

It was, all in all…

"Very cute," Gino said appreciatively, grinning. "A cute witch trying to enchant a prince in hiding. I like the theme."

Shirley scowled again. "It was all I could find. And the wand lets me conceal a knife, just in case." To demonstrate, she pulled out the bottom end, which came out swiftly and revealed a small butterfly knife.

"Practical magic," Rivalz commented, chuckling. "Are you killing Lamperouge or something?"

Shirley said nothing, and Rivalz's eyes widened. "Wait, you're not serious…"

Gino blinked, frowning as he cast a troubled gaze over at Shirley, who visibly shrank. "You didn't tell him?"

"It all depends on him," Shirley asserted firmly, frowning. "I was given orders to, if necessary, terminate him."

"Won't that blow all hell out of your cover? Stabbing somebody is probably against school policy, you know," Rivalz muttered, looking perturbed. "Besides, I like Lelouch."

"The Commander asked you two to come along for precisely that reason. And this isn't about personal feelings, Rivalz," Shirley said scathingly, though her mind briefly flashed to the furious look in the Commander's eyes when she spoke about Lelouch.

She squashed her doubt as soon as it began to arise.

"This is about the cause," she said firmly, and tried to believe it.

00000

"No, you put the punch there, in the center, where it's a little harder to see! How else will someone slip alcohol into it if you don't try to put it somewhere easy to spike!" Kaguya barked, fists planted on her hips, looking like a miniaturized dictator, glaring at the poor workers who were setting up for the party. "And you! I said put the pumpkins in a semicircle, not a triangle!"

"You should have joined the military, Kaguya-san," Kallen said from behind her, smiling. "You could teach my brother a bit about barking orders."

"Ah, Kallen-chan, Suzaku-kun! You're wearing the costumes! You look even better than I hoped!" Kaguya said cheerfully, examining both her and Suzaku with a critical eye, seemingly pleased with her choices.

"And you, Kaguya… what are you wearing?' Suzaku blinked, looking over his cousin's outfit with a confused look.

"Don't you like it?" Kaguya chirped, twirling on the spot to show off her costume. It looked similar to what Suzaku remembered was called a nun's habit, only pure white instead of black, patterned with gold stripes and a matching white and gold veil that framed Kaguya's face perfectly. The costume's skirt practically touched the floor, and overall gave off a very chaste and pure impression. "I think it looks quite nice on me!"

"No it looks nice, I just assumed your costume would be more… flashy," Suzaku said delicately, shrugging and deciding to change the topic instead. "Everything looks just about ready."

"Just waiting for my guests of honor to arrive," Kaguya commented, smiling widely. She peered behind them. "Ah, Lelouch-kun! C.C.-chan! Just in time."

Suzaku smiled as he turned around, meeting Lelouch's gaze warmly. While they couldn't act too friendly with one another in public, just seeing him cheered Suzaku up immensely.

Lelouch's costume was distinctly western- black, polished dress shoes, white slacks and a matching suit jacket that was zipped up halfway to his chest, revealing the dark gray vest, red collared shirt, and dark tie that he wore underneath it. The left lapel of the suit jacket was emblazoned in the pattern of a golden eagle wing, with the opposite lapel dotted with buttons.

Lelouch bowed at the waist perfectly a second after meeting Suzaku's gaze. "My prince," he said politely. "It is an honor as always to have you at our school."

"Thank you, Lamperouge-san. It is a pleasure to be here," Suzaku said in reply, and inclined his head towards C.C in greeting, whose face remained impassive.

For some reason, Lelouch's mysterious female companion had never really warmed up to him in the few times they had spoken. When Suzaku had mentioned it to Lelouch, he had merely shrugged and said that was her way.

C.C. was wearing an outfit that seemed very complimentary to Lelouch's, dressed in a black, flowing ball gown that stretched down to her ankles which was lined with gold, save for the ruffles around her wrists and neckline, which were purest white. A small pink ribbon rested upon her chest, where the gown's colors were a darker maroon than black. Her green hair was done up in a bun, and she held an elongated pipe between two fingers.

"Ah you did go with my suggestion!" Kaguya said happily, clapping her hands delightedly as she ran up to C.C., clasping the older girl's hands in her own. "It looks so great on you!"

"Mmm, well, playing a witch suits me I suppose," C.C. said softly, chuckling. "And the costume wasn't too crazy for the boy."

Lelouch scowled and adjusted his tie before he glanced over at Kallen. For a moment, his expression was troubled, and then faded into a smile. "Kallen-san. Your costume suits you."

"Lelouch-kun," Kallen greeted. "Thank you."

Kaguya gave Suzaku and Lelouch a knowing look, and said loudly, "Come along, C.C.-chan, Kallen-chan. Let's go get freshened up before our dance!"

And with that, she dragged the two older girls away, leaving Lelouch and Suzaku alone.

With a casual hand signal, Lelouch gestured over to the open air balcony on the second floor, and the two walked up the stairs and out the doors in silence.

As they walked, Lelouch glanced around, marveling at how many resources Kaguya had put in to create this building. It was, nominally, the Student Recreation Center, a large, two storied palace of a place which held several small rec rooms including a weight room and an arcade room, plus the massive ballroom within which they were holing the Halloween Ball.

The ballroom had a wide, sprawling wood floor, with an upper balcony level that allowed people to watch the dance floor from above, and several open-air balconies on that second floor for privacy (Lelouch had heard that students often used the balconies for 'illicit' activities-C.C. took a special delight in ambushing poor couples by stepping out onto the balcony).

The ballroom was often rented out to visiting dignitaries and such for large dinners and brought more revenue to the school than Lelouch would have ever guessed when it was first created.

It was these sorts of things that made Lelouch actually respect Kaguya, to an extent.

As they stepped out into the open air and Lelouch shut the door, Suzaku finally spoke.

"How've you been, Lelouch?" Suzaku peered over at him. "You look a little tired."

Most people would have been fooled by the placid, smiling exterior that Lelouch showed off, but there were some few telltale signs that made Suzaku believe something was amiss.

"Just some stress preparing for the ball," Lelouch lied, shaking his head. "And you're one to talk. I hear you've been all but running yourself ragged."

Suzaku shrugged, hoping none of his guilt over his lies would come off on his face. Lelouch was the smartest person he knew, and probably knew him as well as Kallen. "Its par for the course I suppose. Things are pretty tense right now."

"Jinchuu, the Federation, and now this whole escaped prisoner business," Lelouch commented, feeling terse himself just from talking about it. His voice took an unnaturally bitter note in regards to the last matter, feeling his own responsibility for that escape.

Suzaku, however, misinterpreted it as mixed feelings over his brother's escape, unsure whether to be happy that Clovis had escaped a lifetime of imprisonment or angry that his siblings were continuing to sow problems in the country.

"Look, don't worry about any of that stuff, Lelouch," Suzaku said reassuringly, gripping his friend's shoulder and squeezing once before letting go. "Let me worry about that stuff. You just live your life."

Lelouch opened his mouth, closed it, and the finally turned away and sighed. "I suppose we should drop this matter anyway. Kaguya-san would be pretty upset if we only talked of maudlin things at a party."

Suzaku chuckled. "Fair enough." He gave Lelouch a grin. "I see C.C.-san roped you into a date."

"Not much choice there," Lelouch said defensively, crossing his arms. "I would have to sleep with one eye open if I slighted her."

He eyed Suzaku and then said casually, "Besides, you're taking Kallen-san, aren't you. I'm not the only one being roped into things."

"Just as friends," Suzaku stated flatly, rolling his eyes. "This engagement thing isn't exactly a dream."

Lelouch shrugged, giving Suzaku one of his patented 'I-know-more-than-you-so-listen-up' looks that had irritated him to no end as a child. "That's a little unfair to Kallen-san, don't you think? I mean, you could do worse. At least you two are friends."

"True, I guess it's better than getting married to a total stranger," Suzaku agreed reluctantly, shaking his head. "It's just that having my future decided for me isn't exactly what I want."

"You're a prince. You can't live like a normal person," Lelouch reminded him, somewhat sternly. "You're responsible for a lot more than just yourself."

"Now who's getting maudlin?" Suzaku said jokingly, rolling his eyes. "You'd make a better prince than me."

Lelouch shrugged, with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "That me is long dead, Suzaku. Only one of us here is a prince anymore."

Before either could continue the conversation, the door opened and Kaguya stuck her head out through the door.

"Oi, you two!" Kaguya shouted, grinning. "Enough with the boy time! You're keeping some very lovely ladies waiting you know!"

Suzaku and Lelouch shared a grin as they shook their heads.

"This'll be fun, I think," Lelouch murmured.


Author's Notes

Let's play spot the costume! Two points per character. Most points wins some arbitrary prize!

This chapter I cut short this time because it was only halfway done and already this long. Thankfully this last scene provided a good place to stop, and then we can have the real dance begin next chapter.

Also, goddamn you and your stupid share buttons. Its making all my quotes shift to the left. And I apologize because this chapter should not have taken as long as it did, except that I started playing Minecraft and subsequently became consumed.