Chapter 21: Wicked
Lelouch couldn't sleep on the way back. Between his headache, his throbbing hand and the crick in his neck, it was impossible to relax, so he busied himself with visions of Zero instead.
This was it. The play was coming to a close. As soon as he returned to the villa and fired all his help again, he could sit Jeremiah down and explain. He would have to do it as Zero, of course. Zero's deep voice, Zero's wide, sweeping gestures, Zero's charisma, or else Jeremiah would panic and overreact. Zero would point to his victory in Narita and detail every step, and the genius would make itself apparent.
It was just as they'd planned, when he'd been a boy. When Gottwald sat him down to explain why he backed Cornelia's decision to send him to the Military Academy.
"For your revenge, my liege, and the peace you desire, war will be necessary. Take this opportunity to learn all you can of the arts of war so that when you return, you return a victor."
When Lelouch finished his time at the Academy, he intended to fight under Cornelia. Gain the soldiers' love and maybe even his sister's approval - she claimed to have loved Marianne the Flash, and he heard several of his mother's beliefs echoed in her war-cries. Why shouldn't she join his crusade? Slowly, slowly, he would form his army. And then the true war would begin.
That would have taken him years. Thanks to the witch and her gift, he had formed his army in the span of months. He was already close to taking a nation, and had already crushed his brother in battle. Phenomenal! Beyond their wildest expectations. And now, at last, Jeremiah could share in his glory.
Almost there… Almost…
Lelouch didn't even wait for Jeremiah to open the door for him. He stepped out the instant the car stopped and strode ahead. Now he just had to deal with that gardener and —
A lump formed in his throat. "N-Nunally."
She broke into a brilliant smile, turning in her chair to face him. "Lelouch! Oh, I was so worried."
He heard the door close behind him and saw Jeremiah coming to his side. Nunally knew he was there as well and greeted him.
"I suppose I should've known better than to worry about my brother with you here, Jeremiah."
"You flatter me, Your Highness," Jeremiah said with a deep bow they both knew Nunally couldn't see. Lelouch appreciated it a great deal.
He took Nunally's hand and crouched beside her, trying to find his voice. His soft voice, not… He'd been thinking so intently on Zero, and Zero was power. Zero was an icon. Zero did not have a little sister.
"I'm fine, Nunally. Clovis — tch, Clovis had me drugged. I've been completely out of it these past few hours."
"Oh." Her fingers traced his palm, feather-soft. A look of concern flashed briefly across her face and then melted into her usual warm expression. "I'm sure he meant well. You know Clovis."
I do. But you don't.
"Anyway, I'm glad you weren't involved in all the fighting. The reports we've been hearing… That landslide — it was so awful!"
That landslide was a stroke of genius. Take out a considerable chunk of the Britannian forces and isolate the rest. Who else would have thought of using the Guren's Radiant Wave Surger to create a landslide? Who else would have dared to create a landslide? Just because he'd miscalculated a little…
"Let's go inside," he said, then frowned and cleared his throat. When he spoke again, the soft voice was back. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
"Oh, I thought you might be," Nunally said as he took hold of her chair. "So I had Lucy and Susan make us a late lunch."
Lucy and… The help. Lelouch glanced over his shoulder and gave Jeremiah a meaningful look. The knight nodded and bowed before he left to round up the servants again. The guards outside would've stopped any of them from escaping, but they couldn't have stopped them from roaming the villa. Not when Nunally had let them out of the room Jeremiah had locked them all in before he left.
Did she know how he'd been betrayed? She'd have asked why the servants were imprisoned like that, and his men would surely have answered.
…Did she know the gardener hadn't been able to drug him? Did she know he lied to her? Lelouch looked down at his sister, taking in the warmth of her smile.
You're too forgiving, Nunally… Don't ever change.
"You know. I feel like cooking," he said. "I haven't cooked in a long time."
He hadn't worried about poisoning in a long time.
Maybe he should tell Jeremiah about Geass too, so that he didn't worry when Lelouch brought in yet more servants. He just didn't have the time to take care of the entire household on his own again. He wasn't a child anymore. He was a young man, a prince and sub-viceroy, and the saviour of a nation.
"You should make those blueberry pancakes, Lelouch."
"Blueberry pancakes it is."
Lelouch made the pancakes and couldn't hide the fact that one of them plopped on the floor while flipping. Nunally's laugh was quiet and subdued, so he dropped another one and hoped her big brother's silliness would cheer her up. He was only marginally successful. They ate together on the veranda, and there she told him what was bothering her.
"People died today."
Of course, he'd been expecting that, but it turned out that wasn't quite what bothered her. As Lelouch dabbed her cheek lightly from the sticky maple syrup, she continued, "I know that it's - natural. I understand that it was necessary to… to root out the terrorists…"
And as much as it broke his heart to hear her pain, as proud as he was of her for being so grown-up about it, part of him was glad to hear her reluctance. He didn't want his little sister to start treating death the same way he and Cornelia did.
"I intended to try and evacuate the towns at the mountain base," he assured her. A lie, of course, since doing that would have alerted the JLF. "But Clovis…"
"I know, Big brother." Nunally reached for his hand and clasped it between hers tightly. She tried to smile. "I know. You have a good heart." Her hand went to press against his chest, a little off from where his heart actually was, the heart he wasn't supposed to have, as a prince of Britannia. "The people who died there, in Narita, it's our duty to tend to them. As prince and princess, and you as sub-viceroy and commander, the soldiers expect us to respect the fallen."
They expected nothing of the sort. And that was why it would be so, so much more effective. Create a comparison between him and Clovis; his victories and connection to the soldiers vs. Clovis' defeat and frivolity. It was genius.
"I'll be returning to Narita soon," he assured her.
"I'm coming with you."
She wasn't sure what she imagined would happen when she came here. She knew that her brother would be his usual protective self, and she knew there wasn't much she could do anyway, but Nunally hadn't thought she'd be pushed this far aside.
The tired soldier rattled off another name and phone number, then an account of the injuries while she waited for someone to pick up.
"Hello? This is the Britannian field base in Narita. May I speak to Lady Eisenhart, please?"
Nunally had learned not to announce her status after the first few people hung up on her, thinking she was a prank caller. She'd also learned to sound as tough and serious as she possibly could.
"I'm sorry to inform you that Lord Eisenhart sustained a great deal of injury in the — Yes, he's alive and currently being tended to by our doctors until he's well enough to be moved. Very well, I'm sure he'll be delighted to see you."
It wasn't a bad job, exactly. Nunally understood the importance of what she was doing. Narita was all over the news today, and there was nothing worse than being left in the dark. These people needed to know what happened to their loved ones. But it wasn't what a princess should be doing. As princess, she should be touring the field hospital, consoling the injured and the dying. She should be showing the soldiers that the Empire cared for them, even the common ones.
Except the Empire didn't care, did it? And she had trouble moving her chair in the uneven terrain. She'd be no consolation at all, a weakling comforting fellow weaklings.
Nunally swallowed and clenched her jaw, tucked her hair behind her ear and lifted the phone again.
"Next name, please."
Lelouch wiped his forehead with the back of his gloved hand. He was sweating in spite of the air conditioning, and decided that he must've caught something. Hopefully it would go away once he actually managed to get a full night's rest. He didn't see that happening in the near future, however.
"Jeremiah! Over here."
The Sutherland's fingers removed rocks and clods of dirt from his path, slowly revealing the dented metal frame of the knightmares buried underneath.
"Poor bastard," Lord Ashley said over the radio. He appeared beside Lelouch and was soon followed by Jeremiah. Together they managed to extract the half-crushed Sutherland from its grave. It was their third find so far, the thirty-second one the army had discovered, with many left to go.
"The hatch is useless," Jeremiah observed. "We'll have to send the knightmare down, have them open it."
Finally, an excuse to be rid of him.
"Lord Ashley, if you'd be so kind?"
"Of course, your Highness."
Lelouch watched the knightmare leave, feeling a knot beginning to form in his stomach. This was it. He'd forgotten much of what he'd planned to say during the train ride, the words lost in Nunally's insistence to go to Narita and then in the flurry of formalities when they arrived. But now, at last, they were alone. He pulled his phone out —it wasn't safe to talk over radio— and dialled Jeremiah's number, then attached it to his ear, his hands returning to the controls.
"Your Highness?" Jeremiah sounded puzzled, of course.
"Jeremiah. I think it's time you know where I've been disappearing to."
They kept moving, digging through the mud, so as not to attract suspicion.
"While I'm overjoyed your Highness has decided to divulge your secret at last, might this not be better left until we return to the villa?"
"No, it cannot wait."
A tree was embedded in the ground, its ravaged roots hanging in the air. Jeremiah helped him get it out of the way. Underneath, something sparked and fizzled then died out instantly. Lelouch hadn't expected to find another so soon. Sweat beaded on his forehead as they worked, as he agonised over the right wording.
"Today's victory was mine, Jeremiah." He tossed a severed metal arm aside and then helped pull the knightmare out of the dirt. "In truth, I have no mistress, Japanese or otherwise."
The knot in his stomach tightened. Lelouch wet his lips and drew on the strength he used for Zero. When he spoke again, it was with Zero's voice. "In truth, I am — "
"Dear God, Alex!"
The name had been swallowed in Jeremiah's outburst. It now lodged in Lelouch's throat, threatening to suffocate him. General Alex, yes, that was his knightmare, the shoulder-plates painted a lighter purple to signify his rank. His unit had been swept away by the landslide. He recalled acknowledging the fact while he gloated in his Burai. He also recalled feeling a vague twinge of regret for the loss of that man.
He'd only known very Alex briefly. Good man. Knew his place. Mathis Alexander had also been Jeremiah's friend — he'd forgotten that. Jeremiah was the one who introduced them. And while Lelouch knew that General Alex had tried to pry his old friend from the vi Britannias many times over the years, he also knew it was only out of concern for Gottwald's future.
With the Sutherland torn open, Lelouch could see him. A glance was all it took, he couldn't stand any more. There was blood splattered around the cockpit, along with bits of... of...
Alex had his pistol with him, and chose to die on his own terms rather than wait to suffocate underneath the earth.
Lelouch opened his cockpit and scrambled up. He just barely managed to throw himself to the side in time to splatter his late lunch over the mountainside.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then, disgusted, peeled the glove off and threw it away. Lelouch slowly pushed himself from where he'd been leaning on his Sutherland, standing up straight, and nodded.
"I'm fine." Far from Zero's deep voice, he sounded like a shaken little boy, so he said it again. "I'm fine. I'm... sorry for your loss. General Alexander was a friend of yours, wasn't he?"
Jeremiah saluted the corpse and then radioed the soldiers to come remove General Alex's body and take it down to the waiting tents.
Nunally was safe in an air-conditioned room in the school they'd commandeered. From what Lelouch had last heard, she'd insisted on helping somehow and ended up phoning the families of the victims. Would she remember Alex? Would she mourn? There were other knights here they'd known, lords and ladies they'd rubbed elbows with. Most were a despicable bunch, but Nunally didn't think like that. Consoling the dead soldiers' loved ones might be too much for her.
"Let's move on," Lelouch said. He took one last deep breath of the mountain air. It had been cold and fresh in the morning, when the sun was still pale and he was ordering the Guren to induce a landslide. Now the air tasted of dirt and ashes. He retreated into the comfort of his cockpit, where no one could see him, and pushed his Sutherland forward.
A video comm link request appeared on his screen. Lelouch hesitated a moment before he clicked it, and saw Jeremiah's concerned expression.
"Are you sure, my lord?"
"Of course I'm sure."
"We've been here for a while now. Perhaps Princess Nunally would like to go home?"
Giving him a dignified excuse to escape. How chivalrous.
"I'm sure, Gottwald," he said through gritted teeth. "Let's move on."
He closed the video link and took a deep, ragged breath. It was ridiculous. He had killed men before. Watched them salute, lift the pistols to their temples, splatter their blood and, yes, brains all over. There was nothing new with Alexander. Except that he'd known the man, perhaps. He was a good man.
They uncovered three more bodies before his depleting energy filler forced him to return to the base. None of the three had had pistols with them. One had gotten crushed. Another had clawed desperately as she died. The sight of her bloody fingers haunted Lelouch when he looked down at his own hands, one gloved in black and one bare. Both covered in blood, even if not literally.
Accompanying that image was Jeremiah's voice in his ears, muttering curses at the coward Zero.
"Soldiers shouldn't have to die this way," he said as he handed Lelouch a bottle of water. They were resting in a tent, watching soldiers moving body bags to and fro.
"Death is the result of war, isn't it?"
"Not like this." Jeremiah sank into the chair beside him, shaking his head. For once, his shoulders were slumped. "It's dishonourable. They had no chance of survival, no chance to fight. God damn that Zero."
It echoed. Lelouch gulped down his water but the lump remained, and his hands, though he washed them, were still red. He poured the rest of the water over his head. No, it didn't matter how they died. Had he pulled the same stunt as Prince Lelouch vi Britannia they would have sung his praises for weeks.
"War isn't fair. That's just the way it is," he said. "Zero did what he had to do to win."
If Jeremiah wondered why his prince was defending their enemy, he didn't say so. He merely shook his head and drank his water and stayed quiet.
Lelouch had miscalculated here as well. Jeremiah may have been his loyal knight, but he would forever be a Britannian, first and foremost. He wouldn't be able to accept Zero. The charade would have to continue.
No rest for the wicked, is that it?
He let out a snort and threw his empty bottle to the ground.
They spent the night in Narita. One of the bodies recovered was the father of Princess Nunally's friend, and so she wanted to be here when that friend arrived. They took quarters in the school —the Nurse's ward had a bed which naturally went to the princess— to keep away from the chaos of the military base and the ongoing recovery efforts.
Jeremiah found himself locked out of the room with instructions to go out and relax. That unsettled him more than anything else he'd seen or heard that day. His prince would never order him away, especially not with Princess Nunally with him and in the midst of all these enemies. It was clear now that he wasn't even safe in his own home, let alone with all of the Viceroy's men here. But Prince Lelouch had made it clear that he really did want him to unwind and would be very upset if he didn't.
After much pacing around and having left very strict instructions with the knights standing guard at the door, Jeremiah tore himself away from his duty. He was soon cradling a glass of cheap, watered-down brandy with several other lords and ladies in a gymnasium filled with body-bags. The air smelled of decay and cigar smoke. It was suffocating and he immediately wished he was back with his prince.
Conversation was sparse and spoken in mumbles. Even the most hardened soldiers were affected by the bodies in the landslide and many had lost loved ones. Zero's victory was crushing. Everyone looked haunted. Most were slightly drunk. Jeremiah drank his brandy and did his best to ignore them which, of course, didn't go very well.
After punching a Lord Dellaware unconscious for trying to provoke him by insulting the vi Britannias, Jeremiah sat down again and asked for a refill. They gave him the bottle. As he unscrewed the cap and poured the amber liquid into his glass, yet another person slid into place beside him.
"You people just never learn, do you?" he very nearly growled. The woman beside him just chuckled and waved her empty glass in front of him.
"Do a girl a favour, hm?"
He relaxed a little and filled her glass. "Are you still disappointed you couldn't join in on the Narita operation, Villetta?"
Villetta took a sip of her brandy. He found his answer in the sour twist of her lips.
"That red knightmare could've been the end of you," he said, setting the bottle down between their chairs. He paid no attention to how she crossed her bare legs, and how enticing they looked. Serving under Marianne vi Britannia had taught Jeremiah to rise above such things — or at least not to be obvious about it. "They're calling it the Devil's Right Hand."
"I could've beaten it," she said.
"Doubtful." And because it was never wise to doubt the abilities of a woman with a weapon, he added, "Not in a Sutherland, at least."
"Well, even dying at the hands of that damned red knightmare would've been better than sitting around, guarding little miss sunshine."
"Careful." He shot her a sharp glance and Villetta bowed her head.
"I apologise. I meant no disrespect." A lie, but he wasn't in the habit of hitting women. Not when they were allies, at least. "It's just… so frustrating! Day in and day out at that school, enduring that infernal Ashford — here! Look! Here's that ring Prince Lelouch had me pick out for her in exchange for letting me come."
She thrust her hand under his nose. Even in the semi-darkness the ring was eye-catching. Diamond of course, large and ostentatious. In other words, the perfect royal offering.
Villetta scoffed, sounding disgusted, and drank her brandy. "A knight is not supposed to pick out jewellery."
"A knight is supposed to do whatever is commanded of him. Or her."
He heard her sigh, probably realising at long last that he was the wrong person to rant to.
"You're right, of course," she said, slumping back in her chair. "Forgive me, I've just had a long day. I don't think I'd have minded it so much, if only it wasn't for Ashford. The girl is insufferable. Between her and that Cera, I'm starting to think that's the prince's type: insufferable."
Jeremiah turned in his chair to face her, his brows furrowing. "Cera? You've met her?"
"Unfortunately. Prince Lelouch brought her to meet his sister, I guess. She stayed over for a few days. The house reeked of pizza."
She stayed… with Princess Nunally? Without Prince Lelouch present at all times to ensure her safety? And how could a half-Eleven make it onto the Ashford campus unnoticed? Did he smuggle her in, dress her like a maid? Or perhaps her features were more Britannian than Eleven. Yes, that was more likely. That was probably how she'd snared the prince in the first place, and he didn't discover her heritage until it was too late.
"Did she have green hair?" he asked, remembering the few strands he'd found that one time he snooped around his prince's room.
Villetta nodded. At least he was assured it was just the one mistress.
"Oh, which reminds me. There was this man, this Chinese guy, he came up to me while I was getting the ring. Very creepy, calls himself Mao. He said he knew Cera, except he called her C.C."
The video. The green-haired girl with Zero, her name was C.C., wasn't it?
All of a sudden, things were clicking into place. His prince's unusually sombre mood, even with the dead soldiers in mind, his disappearances, his unusual defence of Zero's methods. Up on the mountain, when they found Alex, Prince Lelouch had been telling him he had no mistress. He was renouncing her. Then, truly, it was she. His Cera was, in fact, Zero's accomplice, if not the true brains behind Zero. The thing that had shaken his prince was the atrocities his lover committed, and it seemed, by the end, that he couldn't bring himself to hate her even then.
Zero had manipulated him well. Prince Lelouch would now be powerless against him, as attacking Zero would mean attacking his love, and he was just a teenager. Love at that age seemed all-powerful, all-consuming.
Jeremiah got to his feet and pulled Villetta up with him. "Can you take me to this Mao character?"
"Er, no, but—"
Her phone rang. She handed it to him wordlessly and Jeremiah put it to his ear.
"You rang, oh white knight?"
The accented voice was childish and grating. Jeremiah hated him already.
"Tsk tsk. Hate is such a strong word. That's not how a knight should be!"
"Mao, is it?"
"At your service. You want to save your precious Lulu, hmmm? Meet me in the dumpster behind the school. You have five minutes."
He closed the phone and shoved it back at Villetta. "How does he know your number?" Better yet, how did he know when to call? Did she give him a signal? Was she too part of the conspiracy?
He must not have done a very good job at hiding his thoughts because Villetta, usually so composed, became wide-eyed and held her hands up in front of her in a gesture of peace. "I don't know. This Mao guy. We talked today, and he always… He knew everything."
"What do you mean?"
She averted her gaze for a moment, seeming conflicted. "I mean he knew everything. My childhood, my family, my secrets— things I'd never told a living soul." Villetta took a deep breath and looked him straight in the eye. "He said he can read minds."
Lelouch glanced at his sister's sleeping form then looked back to the witch standing at the window. Rather than her usual prisoner's garb she was now dressed like a Britannian knight, white cloak and all. He took a moment to make sure Nunally was still tucked in properly, all snug and warm, before crossing the room and opening the window. She leaped in with all the grace of a cat, the cape fluttering.
"What are you doing here?" he whispered harshly. He closed the window again and drew the curtains.
"Normally, one begins a conversation by saying hello," she said, not even bothering to keep her voice down. His lips pursed and he jabbed his finger over his shoulder, in Nunally's general direction. She just shrugged.
"If you don't behave yourself I'll just have my guards escort you outside."
"No you won't." She wasn't so loud this time, though she was right. He couldn't risk anyone seeing her after that Lancelot recording.
"I'm in no mood for your games. What do you want?"
"You're required back at the base," C.C. said, stroking her thick, braided hair. "Not all of your new allies are happy with you, namely Miracle-boy."
Tohdoh Kyoshiro. That was unfortunate. It might have had something to do with how he'd taunted Suzaku earlier that morning, or yesterday technically, but it likely went beyond that. He was one of Katase's most trusted men. Had he noticed something wrong with the general's behaviour?
"I'll attend to it in the morning," he said.
"I suggest you attend to it now. They've already thrown that loudmouth into solitary confinement."
The loudmouth being Tamaki, of course. Lelouch was far from surprised. Who did he piss off now? He heaved a sigh. So no sleep tonight either.
"Do you have my clothes?"
"I have a car waiting for you by the Japanese restaurant, just a block away. Don't be late."
She left the same way she'd arrived, and Lelouch made a mental note to ask her how the hell she always managed to stay undetected. Centuries of practice, he supposed. He returned to Nunally's bed, making one final check of the covers, and leaned down to plant a kiss on her forehead.
The red of his hands was even worse against her pale skin. Then he blinked, and the blood was gone. She'd forgive him, wouldn't she…?
Lelouch pulled on his jacket and tied his cravat loosely. There was no cap or sunglasses to help hide him a little but the restaurant wasn't too far from here and he'd sent Jeremiah away. His Geass would just have to do.
The guards he'd left in his place were just as puzzled to discover Prince Lelouch's disappearance. They swore that none of them had so much as twitched, let alone abandoned their posts, and they hadn't allowed anyone in or out. The window could only be latched from the inside, so he definitely hadn't left that way.
To make things worse, Mao's silly laughter and clapping woke the princess up. Jeremiah clamped a hand over the Chinese man's mouth before he could explain what was going on and told her Prince Lelouch was needed elsewhere and they'd collected him. She seemed disappointed that he was gone but took his words for truth.
"What kind of white knight lies to damsels in distress, hmmmm?"
Jeremiah grabbed the front of his coat and slammed him against the wall. Mao only laughed again. They were attracting curious looks but no one dared approach.
"Where is he?"
"With C.C., of course." Mao shoved him away and adjusted the headphones that had slipped off. Jeremiah could still hear the woman's soft voice saying I love you, Mao over and over. Was that C.C.? Was that what she said to his prince? "She's taking him to Zero. See how you've failed him? Just like you failed his mommy. Just like you failed the little princess."
He let out a frustrated cry and tried to take a swing at Mao, who only ducked away with a patronising grin.
"Failure after failure after failure. And you call yourself a knight?"
Before Jeremiah could lunge at him again, Mao was skipping down the hallway, chanting, "I know where they aaaaaare!" He had no choice but to follow.
The old Britannian woman who met them at the back door was the Japanese restaurant's owner. That wasn't surprising. Britannians loved to indulge in the natives' food every once in a while, and sushi was becoming very popular in Pendragon. What was surprising was that this woman and her daughter were Zero supporters. They ushered him in—mask, costume and all— with awed smiles on their faces.
"It's really you, isn't it?" the daughter said, breathless in her adoration.
Her mother placed a hand on her shoulder. "Please excuse my daughter. We just… We never thought we'd actually see you in the flesh. It's true, then? The Black Knights are working with the JLF now?"
"General Katase and I have reached an agreement, yes, that is true." His gaze flickered to each of the shuttered windows, ears straining to pick up the sound of footsteps. Britannian soldiers come to drag the vigilante away.
C.C. opened a door and gestured for him to follow. "The tunnel's this way."
Zero strode after her, the mother prattling as she tagged along. She explained that they'd lived here for over a decade and that her husband had been killed by the invading Britannian forces. He listened with only half an ear, but it gave him ideas of the stories he could spin to gain Tohdoh's trust. He could claim he'd been here before the invasion too. He could claim he'd loved the Japan of before. What he recalled from Euphie's Japanese training and her letters would help him with the details. Maybe he'd even say he'd lost someone dear to him— his mother, maybe. The best lies were the ones with grains of truth in them.
He'd need to talk this over with Kaguya first, in case she decided to drop any more 'hints'. He was seriously considering just Geassing her and saving himself the headache, especially with the wedding venues she kept trying to show him, but he was reluctant to waste it. Kaguya was still useful to him.
They led him down a trap door to their cellar, where sacks of rice and flour slouched against the walls. He was saved from the worst of the damp smells by his mask, but it soon became suffocating. C.C. helped the daughter push a cupboard aside, revealing the hole in the wall.
"Are you really Britannian, Zero?" the old woman asked. He really only noticed the question because of the expectant silence that came after it, but he pretended he hadn't and thanked them for their help instead.
Together, he and C.C. stepped into the hole in the wall and were swallowed by the darkness.
Moments passed in silence, save for the sound of their breathing and their muffled footsteps. The mother and daughter slid the cupboard back and he had to rely on C.C. to guide him along, until at last he saw the twin lights of the waiting car. The driver, a JLF soldier, scrambled out and held the door open, offering him a deep bow. Lelouch slid into the back seat with a smirk. The unease he'd felt all afternoon was beginning to fade. He had no doubt he'd feel even better once he spoke with his army again and relived his victory.
Lelouch looked down at his hands, gloved in royal purple. There was only a speck of red on the left glove. It didn't go away when he blinked, though, and after a moment of trying to rub it off he decided it must be sauce. The witch had probably handled his costume with her mouth stuffed full of pizza. His mask did smell vaguely of cheese…
"What are the details?"
C.C. didn't answer, focused on releasing her hair from the tight braid. He tapped a finger on his knee until she looked up at last, combing through the green strands. "I don't know all the details. I'm Zero's friend, after all, no one will tell me anything… But I heard the word blackmail tossed around a few times."
"From the Holy Swords, I take it?"
"That's right. The woman and the one with glasses, they were talking about a disc."
He should have fed Katase specifics concerning that. He should have made the man say there had been nothing of worth on the disc and perhaps act suspiciously, give those loyal followers of his something to think about. Lelouch wasn't sure Katase remembered the disc in the first place.
The car screeched into a stop, throwing him and C.C. against the front seats. He bit back a curse and passed a tongue over his teeth to make sure nothing was bleeding after they'd slammed into the modulator in his mask.
Lelouch lifted his throbbing head and tried to see what the problem was, even as the car sped in reverse. It was the whirring sound that clued him in, long before he saw the purple-painted landspinners. A Sutherland. Britannia had caught up with him at last.
"We can't outrun it," he said. Even if they did, the mother and daughter had closed the door. The five minutes it took them open it again would be the end. "Stop the car!"
The driver didn't obey. He reached into his tailcoat and pulled out his pistol, but C.C. grabbed his arm. "What are you doing?"
"We took down the Lancelot, didn't we?"
"It's too dangerous here. There's nowhere for you to take cover and he could—"
"ZEROOOO! Face me, you coward!"
A burst of bullets sent the car veering to the left, the Japanese soldier yelling panicked curses at the Britannian knight as he tried to avoid him. The bullets kept coming. It was obvious the intention was getting them to stop or crash, not to kill them. Not yet anyway.
"I, Jeremiah Gottwald, have come to avenge my lord, Lelouch vi Britannia!"
Once he found his voice again, Lelouch commanded the driver to stop the car. A glance in the mirror was all it took. The soldier intoned, "Yes, your highness," and slammed his foot on the brakes, just as Jeremiah took out one of their tyres. His head slammed against the roof of the car, the plates of the mask digging into his skull.
Lelouch clenched his teeth, eyes screwed shut, until the car was done jerking around and his head stopped swimming. When he looked up again the driver was dead and Jeremiah was striding to them with a pistol in his hand and murder on his face.
I should've told him. I should've told him. He shouldn't have to find out like this.
He splayed his fingers over the oval surface of his mask, pressing as he always did.
The plates did not retract.
The skin beneath her fringe began to glow and he recalled Mao's words: She's a witch, don't let her touch you. Jeremiah hated to shoot a woman, but didn't hesitate to fire several rounds into her chest. She fell into a bloody heap on the ground, eerie amber eyes staring up at him blankly. He stepped over her body and ducked into the car. There he was. Zero. Huddled in a corner, hands over his mask. His prince was nowhere in sight.
So, Mao was right. Lelouch was gone.
He dragged Zero to the ground, right beside his beloved witch, and pressed his foot down on the worm's chest.
"You're the great Zero, are you?"
Zero had barely resisted, so that must mean he had a plan up his sleeves. Did he intend to barter, using Lelouch's body as a bargaining chip? Or was he intending to use that 'power' of his? His eyes narrowed behind the sunglasses Mao gave him. Jeremiah wasn't sure what to believe anymore. All he knew was that this man was evil and must be put down. He couldn't waste his time wondering about variables. He wasn't Lelouch.
Jeremiah clenched his teeth. He cocked his pistol and aimed at Zero's head.
"Remove the mask, Jeremiah."
He stomped on Zero's stomach, the foot then returning to his chest to prevent the man from doubling over.
"Sir Jeremiah Gottwald."
The worst thing about it all was that, if Mao was right, the man beneath the mask was Britannian. A man he knew and had fought beside, a man he had saved countless times. A man who had lied to his face and murdered his brothers in arms. He wasn't even a terrorist, fighting for some rights he thought he had. Zero was nothing more than a filthy traitor.
"I don't care who you are beneath that mask," he said, his upper lip curling back into a snarl. "The mask is your true face. It's only fitting you die in it."
Whoever Zero was, he was no longer a friend. Seeing his face would only make things worse, and Jeremiah intended to hand over Zero's carcass mostly intact.
"I have one question for you. If you answer truthfully I'll grant you the mercy you denied your comrades: I'll give you an honourable death. Where is Prince Lelouch?"
"Pull the mask off."
"Where is Prince Lelouch?"
"The plates are dented. If you could just—"
He shifted his foot to press against Zero's neck and leaned down. He spoke through gritted teeth. "Where. Is. My prince?"
The choked speech was made even worse by the voice modulator. Jeremiah had to remove his foot before he got anything coherent.
"For god's sake, Orange, it's me!"
He smashed the butt of his pistol against the clear oval of the mask. "How dare you use that word!"
Her Highness' childhood nickname for him meant that this bastard had been close to the vi Britannias as well. He'd likely known Prince Lelouch as a boy. Maybe he'd even been part of the assassination that had taken his Lady Marianne. Right under his nose all these years!
Jeremiah straightened up and took aim. "Good bye, Zero."
He squeezed the trigger. A hand clamped around his ankle and, glancing down, he saw the witch glaring up at him a split-second before everything went white.
Colour bled into his vision again after a few moments. A new scene. Sunlight glinted off of broken glass and jewels, and Marianne vi Britannia lay dead on the staircase. Her wide, vacant eyes found him and only him. He knew what she was saying.
An agonised cry tore through his throat as he fell to his knees. The young prince screamed at him, little fists hammering away at his chest. Then the prince was a man, kicking him down, and Jeremiah saw his eyes were still glistening, even though he was full-grown. Jeremiah knew what he was saying.
You failed me.
I put my life in your hands, and you failed me.
The scene shifted. There was darkness again. Rather than the blood-splattered marble floors of the palace he was lying in the dirt. The witch C.C. stood over him, a pistol in her hand.
"He's recovered," she said, to Zero no doubt. Zero, who'd taken it all. His Lady, his liege, his comrades, his honour. Jeremiah tensed, willing his tired limbs to push him up when the moment was right. The most he could hope for, now, was to die while scratching Zero's eyes out.
Zero's eyes were violet.
"I didn't want you to know like this, Jeremiah," he said, in a voice Jeremiah knew was usually reserved for Princess Nunally. "I'm sorry."
He wore a sad smile, only half of which he could see. The other half was hidden behind a jagged piece of his mask. Blood trickled down his forehead, parting at his nose to form two streams that came around his mouth and that smile.
A bloody smile. A bloody mask, which he had broken. There would soon be bruises too.
He'd shot at his prince. He'd hurt his prince. He'd very nearly killed his prince. Marianne's son. Lelouch.
"Lelouch vi Britannia commands you…"
N/A: Hah, see? Didn't take six months this time. -assumes superhero pose-
The next chapter will probably take a while, though. -ducks from angry readers- I'm sorry, I'm sorry! But I have two term papers coming up, two short-stories due and NaNoWriMo to slog through, so yeah. On the upside, the Mao arc is a part I've been looking forward to write since I began this fic, so I'll be back as soon as I can! Wish me luck?