AN: League of Legends (check profile for link) hasn't drained my soul. I only play a few games a week. To be honest, I didn't realize how bad I'm at video games now or how atrocious the gaming community can be. I'm actually mostly busy with work and social obligations.
Chapter 6: Prince on the Prowl
Lelouch sat calmly, sipping morning coffee and biting into toasted and buttered English muffins, as he read the damning reports on his brother's reign of Area 11. It was even worse than what he was led to believe. Area Productivity and Output figures and other economic indicators, which bottomed out since the invasion, showed no sign of recovery. Entire swaths of the industrial heartland remained ghettoized with millions earmarked for its development siphoned off to god knows where. And the judiciary system and rule of law were arbitrary and inconsistent even by Britannian standards, which allowed for unequal treatments of its subjects.
The young prince blew a raspberry at the document in front of him. And for the love of all that's good, could someone explain to him how people unfit to run a small town postage office became state administrators for a territory encompassing over a hundred million souls?
"The Viceroy, Your Highness."
Never mind. He knew why.
"Thank you, Alfred. Patch him through."
Lelouch meant to unload on his brother, only to find his concerns waved aside.
"It's not so bad, I assure you. The Pendragon report exaggerates and Area 11 has always been like this. The numbers are a lazy, uncooperative people, regardless of what we do."
Stunned by the Viceroy's blasé attitude, Lelouch allowed his brother to steer the rest of the conversation.
"Why don't you relax a bit, Lelouch? Get out and take a look around to see what I mean. There's a certain earl who's very interested in what you managed to do with his creation. He and his assistant want to meet you in person at your earliest convenience."
And then the Viceroy was gone, off to smooch with his adoring fans no doubt. In the end, it was probably better they didn't have a longer talk as it would've done little good. Having wormed their way into his good graces, it would take an act of God to remove the leeches masquerading as the Viceroy's senior officials.
Lelouch sighed and rubbed his forehead in exasperation.
"My, my, so tense? One would think you were the Viceroy."
The prince nearly jumped out of his wheelchair - if it were possible - as a pair of delicate hands kneaded his shoulder blades.
"Mhm-hmm. Sorry, Lelouch. You looked so cute, lost in your own world."
Lelouch tried to retort, only to let out a groan of pain and pleasure as he felt her hands dig deep into his shoulder blades.
"You really are tense. Your body is all in knots. The Viceroy's right, you really should learn to relax," Milly gently chided. "Maybe you should take up Earl Asplund's offer to meet with him."
"Might as well. Beats looking at these data. Alfred, please arrange for my transport," Lelouch called out. "I trust you won't be joining me?"
"No, not today. I've a school to run," Milly answered with a smile, never mind the fact that she was a student herself.
The prince gave his old friend a half amused smile, half curious look. "All right. I'll see you later."
Milly waited until she was sure Lelouch was gone before punching in some commands on a remote console. The picture of a peeved Nunnally popped up on screen.
"Your Highness, I apologize for the delay, but I'm afraid your brother left for the day already," Milly answered in a saccharine tone.
The young brunette frowned in displeasure. "Milly, this is the third time. I'm really wondering..." She began before trailing off.
"Sorry. I suppose Lelouch likes to keep himself active. If you want, I could take a message for him,"
"That's all right," Nunnally interrupted. "Send my brother my love and please continue to take good care of him."
"I will do that."
"I bet you will," Nunnally muttered after the connection ended.
The perceptive girl was under no illusion what Milly was doing. It was gamesmanship by the blonde girl, a blatant attempt to separate and isolate Lelouch while she worked her wiles.
Nunnally had recognized years ago that Milly Ashford was every bit as in love with her brother as she and her half-sister was. When the extended Ashford clan fled Pendragon in the turmoil after mother's death, young Milly had tearfully begged for Lelouch to escape with her, and when that attempt failed, had begged to remain behind. Her brother had likely forgotten, much as he likely forgotten the heated argument she once had with Euphemia over who would become his bride. Lelouch, bless his gentle heart, might be a prodigal genius, but he could still be clueless at times.
The soldier princess forced away the image of her mortal enemy lounging around half naked in her brother's bed and donned her military uniform. Unfortunately, she couldn't sit around scheming of ways to get back at the airhead blonde. She had duties to perform.
"I really dislike that Ashford girl," Nunnally muttered for the umpteenth time when her chief of staff, knowing about her affection for her blood sibling, inquired about the seventeenth prince.
"I beg your pardon, Your Highness?"
Jeremiah Gottwald was a giant of man in more than one sense. Towering physically over his peers, Gottwald was a fierce and decorated soldier, who earned the Medal of Valor for his heroism during the brutal Desert Campaign of 2015 and lost his left eye while defending the Tigress of Benghazi from a deadly ambush. Yet for all his accomplishment, there was no mistaking who held final authority when he and his superior walked into a room. Such was Nunnally's reputation.
"Yes, Jeremiah? You look like you have something to say."
"I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but I'm curious about your response to Earl Rosenkreuz's offer."
"I'm still thinking about it." Meaning she was going to ignore it, out of respect and deference to her brother, who distrusted blue bloods in general, and hated the Blue Wings in particular. He still suspected them as being responsible for their mother's death.
"Of course, but I'd be happy to facilitate a meeting."
Like many of Nunnally's talented subordinates, Gottwald was a nobleman and the Blue Wings was the hottest new club on the block. As a Margrave and a highly respected soldier, the built Britannian undoubtedly had his contacts within the privileged organization. The princess gave her chief of staff a calculating look.
"I apologize for my presumptuousness," Jeremiah backtracked, remembering belatedly the princess's past. "I merely thought this would be a good opportunity to further your highness's career. I'm told that the Earl and his associates have tremendous respect for your capacities. You're also revered by the younger officers," he explained enthusiastically.
Flattering, but not surprising. Despite her initial commitment to equality and fair treatment to nobles and commoners alike, Nunnally gradually found herself drifting toward the former. Now, her senior staff and circle of confidants, with the exception of Marika, were composed almost exclusively of nobles or the children of nobles. And it wasn't clear how long her best friend would last in this group.
Ideals are nice, but reality is reality.
The benefits of having friends in high places were significant. Her unit never suffered for want of supplies or replacement parts and was likely one of the few units to have never deployed below its authorized strength. Whatever Lelouch might think, Nunnally could not argue against the results.
"Ok, Jeremiah, I'll trust you on this one. I'll go and see what they want."
A broad grin spread across the Margrave's face.
"You won't be disappointed, Your Highness."
Lelouch watched half in amusement, half in horrified fascination at the interactions between the chief developers of the Camelot Project. After the first five minutes, he concluded Earl Lloyd Asplund, the supposed head, was obviously missing some of his marbles.
"Ah, that's too bad you aren't suitable to being our main piece of equipment." Curious phrase for a pilot, but not inaccurate.
"Lloyd! That is not an appropriate way to address His Royal Highness! I do apologize for his behavior. Please forgive him," the young woman pleaded earnestly. Fortunately, the earl's assistant was more of sound mind. Cecile Croomy, a high flying, promising engineer, who had the misfortune of falling into Earl Asplund's clutches... or so the prince assumed.
Lelouch waved away the apology. "Is that the problem? You haven't been able to find a test pilot." While his previous crude hacking of the Lancelot provided him with some motor control during the incident, he was unable to fully unleash its potential. He was simply incompatible with the machine, for lack of a better term.
"Yes. We've done all we could without a pilot. We received a special recruitment dispensation from the Viceroy, but every candidate from the local military was rejected," Cecile admitted.
Lelouch nodded in understanding. Piloting a KMF was a physically and mentally demanding task and the machine automatically screened out unsuitable candidates. With an advanced, unoptimized prototype like the Lancelot, probably very few people could truly operate it. The fact that local units stationed in Area 11 weren't exactly front line material probably didn't help.
"Have you considered recruiting someone from the Area 11 auxiliary forces?"
"The auxiliary forces?"
"Hmm, that is a very interesting idea, Your Highness."
"But there are non-Britannians in them," Cecile blurted out.
"And half-Britannians," Lloyd added helpfully.
"What does it matter if they pledged their loyalty to Britannia?" Lelouch asked.
Cecile looked at him owlishly, clearly not expecting an imperial prince to say such things. Lloyd, however, smiled broadly, clearly fascinated by the whole exchange.
"Yes, yes. That's an excellent idea, Your Highness. We'll get on it right away, although we'd be very grateful if you could lend us your assistance," Lloyd agreed. "The bureaucrats tend to move a little quicker when a member of the royal family is around."
Cheers erupted from the spectators as the severely battered Glasgow collapsed in a heap. Seconds later, the exhausted pilot slipped out of the cockpit coughing and wheezing like an old man. The opposing machine, still looking pristine, touched down and lowered its pilot to the ground.
"Haha, I'll take care of this in five minutes, right?" one of the observers jested, while lending a hand to the defeated pilot. "I told you she's the real deal. Who do you think you are, a Knight of the Round? Heck, I'm not convinced one of those could even take her down."
The other pilot, a burly, masculine or rather emasculated now man in his thirties mumbled something derisive, which only seemed to amuse his associates more. As the minutia of this seeming upset was being discussed, the victor took the opportunity to escape. She did so loathe these most fight pep talks.
Alas, she didn't make it very far.
"Kallen, congratulations on your victory. Great fight!"
The redheaded girl turned and gave the speaker a baleful look for attracting attention to her.
"Thank you, Suzaku," Kallen grunted. Yes, thank you, you dimwit.
"I'm jealous. I wish I had the opportunity to spar against such a renowned pilot," gushed the boy, as if it was some great honor.
Kallen clenched her teeth. Regardless of the situation, that boy never failed to infuriate her. Everything about him, his past, his beliefs, his actions all frustrated her to no end. He was everything that was wrong with Area 11, no occupied Japan; he was everything that she was not. And yet, at the same time, he was the only friend she had in this den of serpents.
"I'm sure you'd have done well too. You did beat me."
That was another annoying thing about him. Suzaku Kururugi was a phenomenon pilot and on par with herself. He could be a huge asset to the resistance if it weren't for the fact that he was brainwashed by the Britannians. Why else would he earnestly be working for them as some nameless lackey?
"Private Kururugi, what are you doing?" Hollered an officer.
"Sir, yes, sir," Suzaku affirmed before running away.
Just like an obedient dog, Kallen thought bitterly.
"Cadet Kallen, congratulations on your fine performance. You're a credit to your family. I want to let you know that there's an open invitation to the Armored Corps for you. Britannia is always looking for fine pilots of good background."
Fine pilots of good background? How do these people say that with a straight face? Kallen resisted the urge to vomit. Infiltrating Britannia's military ranks was one thing, but to serve that vile institution against her own people was quite another.
"Thank you, sir, I'll think about it."
"Excellent. Please come with me. Some very important people would like to meet you."
Try as she could, Kallen could not extricate herself and found herself forcibly marched to meet these important people of her CO. Sometimes she wished she hadn't adjusted so well to her role as a mole and could knife someone in the back as was her want. Fortunately or unfortunately, she has learned to reign in such impulses.
"Your Highness, Your Lordship, please allow me to introduce Lieutenant Kallen Stadtfeld of the Area 11 Auxiliary Corps."
Kallen bowed just low enough to not solicit offense, but no more.
"A pleasure, lieutenant," Lelouch greeted. He paused to take a good look at the redhead. "I was very impressed. I haven't seen many who could pilot an original model Glasgow so proficiently."
While being the mainstay of the Britannian KMF corps for many years, the Glasgow was an unwieldy creature by modern standards. Nunnally had once compared the original Glasgow to its successor, the Gloucester, as being the Model T to the Ferrari.
Lelouch nodded to the bespectacled nobleman beside him.
"Ok, well, this is a surprise." Lloyd leaned forward, inspecting the girl as a scientist would watch a specimen under a microscope. "I guess it doesn't matter though, equipment will be equipment," he declared cheerfully at the end.
"Young miss, I'm Earl Lloyd Asplund, head researcher of Project Camelot and I've a proposal for you."
"You did WHAT?"
"I turned down the offer," Kallen answered hesitantly. She was regretting telling Suzaku what happened. After all, how could she forget that he was such a naive lapdog of his very oppressors. Instead of sharing her hidden satisfaction at rebuffing a prince and an "esteemed" nobleman, the boy was instead appalled by her behavior.
The redhead chose to ignore her friend as she ate her food in ill-tempered silence.
"Your captain won't be happy."
"My captain is spineless and will do nothing."
"Not to you, but he might to me. He might blame me for corrupting you or something," Suzaku suggested.
That gave Kallen pause. It was exactly the sort of underhanded tactic that low life would do, but so be it. Maybe the injustices of it all would make him have a change of heart one of these days, though she wouldn't count on it. He was an awfully stubborn person. The girl tore viciously into the flesh of her meal.
Both Kallen and Suzaku turned to the dark-haired boy prince.
"At ease. I'm not here to make a scene. I think Earl Asplund did enough for the both of us. In fact, I wanted to apologize for his behavior. I hope that wasn't the reason why you turned down his offer."
"No, of course not. Not at all, Your Highness," answered Kallen dryly. "Thank you, but my decision remains the same. I decline your offer."
"I see." Lelouch nodded in understanding while carefully assessing the redhead. Kallen was certainly a very beautiful girl, a blooming flower in the spring of youth. With her aristocratic background, there was no need for her to go into military service to guarantee her future. Yet, at the same time, there was something about her that seemed...
"I can understand. The military isn't as glamorous as some make it out to be and I imagine you know all about that."
Kallen nodded tightly as unbidden images of Britannian soldiers beating old men and women in the ghettos filtered across her mind.
"But isn't serving your country well a honorable and just duty?"
Both Kallen and Lelouch turned to the until now ignored Suzaku. The imperial prince gave the young man roughly his age a hard look, instantly recognizing his non-Britannian ancestry.
"Perhaps," Lelouch allowed. But what a strange thing for a number to say while wearing the uniform of his conqueror.
"Private Kururugi Suzaku is an Honorary Britannian," Kallen quickly injected, causing her friend noticeable agitation. Suzaku cast her a momentary dark look that made Kallen feel unease. She had reflexively offered the explanation in his defense as any decent friend would do. But as she thought about it, she realized this might work out in her favor. If her friend could see what kind of pompous gasbags Britannian royalties were, how conceited and cruel their elites were, maybe he would abandon his foolish ideas of changing the system from within.
Kallen looked at the wheelchair bound prince. Lelouch didn't fit the image she had of the ferocious conqueror, who subjugated her homeland, but surely the spoiled child-prince could only be worse than his peers: Not only inept and corrupt, but also desperate to compensate for his disability.
"Kururugi? You wouldn't be related to the late Prime Minister, would you?"
Suzaku gave a tight nod, expecting the very worst. What he received was something very different. Lelouch rolled forward and extended his hand.
"It's quite an honor. Your father had a fearsome reputation. His death was a great boon for us and a tremendous loss to your people I'm sure."
"Ahm, yeah, I mean, Yes, Your Highness! Thank you!" Suzaku answered with relief as he accepted the offered hand.
"At ease, Private." Lelouch smiled gently, one that put the other boy greatly at ease. It was at this point that Kallen, watching with growing confusion and disbelief, began wondering if she had misjudged.
"You're a pilot?" The prince queried at last as the trio walked side by side.
"Ah, I've piloted before for testing purposes, but I'm not a pilot per se like the lieutenant," Suzaku explained. "Although I've bested her in sparring," he added cheekily, feeling comfortable to share such a secret.
"You beat me once and the CO refused to arrange for a rematch," Kallen shot back. The hot tempered girl might not have understood the implication of her brash statement, but Lelouch did.
"Private, I'd like you to be a test candidate for Project Camelot."
Both Kallen and Suzaku stopped in their tracks.
"What! But Your Highness, my background–"
"Is irrelevant and I doubt Earl Asplund would care. I might not be a Knightmare Frame pilot, but I know a talent pilot when I see one." Which was true enough considering who Lelouch's mother and sister were.
"I'd really like to see what you can do, Suzaku."
"Yes, Your Highness," Suzaku answered. Having won the affirmation of a Britannian prince and was thus one step closer to his goal, the determined young man was not about to back off. "I will do my best."
When Prince Lelouch finally departed with his entourage, he left behind an ecstatic Suzaku and gave Kallen a chance to take stock of how badly she fucked that up. All she could think about was how Ohgi and the others were not going to be happy.
AN: Jeremiah is here. Everybody loves Orange-kun, right? Just need to find some way of introducing Sayoko and I can get a Storm of Loyalty™ going! Yeah!
I reread this and thought I might have given Kallen the short end of the stick. To be honest, I feel lukewarm about her character, either because she's too popular to elicit my creative interest or because I'm more of a C.C. fan. I pledge to try and have her keep her canon role as the Black Queen. Fair warning, though, I personally love queen sacrifices in my chess games!