Chapter 7: Rescue Mission

Lelouch had known at the time that he would regret this. But Suzaku had a way of insisting that had always made Lelouch rethink his plans to accommodate him. When they were younger, Suzaku had been a force of nature that Lelouch was unable to stop. Now…well, it was that same stubbornness, but it was hard to see why his usual manipulations didn't work on his old…friend.

C.C. would say that it was because he failed to take his own weaknesses into account. She was probably right.

But now, it was hard to remember that, or worry about who was to blame. A top-notch pilot in an average Knightmare Frame was still a valuable asset, but that wasn't the Lancelot Suzaku was piloting, and it had shown. It was, after all, difficult to mobilize Britannian forces when the target was…other Britannian forces. Now, though, Lelouch wished he'd overridden Suzaku's concerns and found a way to steal the Lancelot and its support team before this mission. He would need them later.

There wasn't a large force on Shikine Island, and certainly the Black Knights could take the reinforcements from there with ease. That wasn't what had him worried, though.

This move ended the stalemate. The Britannians wouldn't even have to frame him. By kidnapping Nunnally, taking her to a military base as a prelude to taking her out of the country…they had forced his hand. He would not abandon her, no matter what. His plots, the SAZ, Euphy – none of it was worth Nunnally. He'd taken an irrevocable step. But that meant his coup d'état was crumbling before him, in one small skirmish. Cornelia would hold back nothing now. The war had started, before he'd wanted it to – but there was no way to hide that Zero had fired the first shot. It would take master handling by Dietard to salvage his loss of the high ground in this conflict.

And all for what? It's not like he'd even managed to rescue Nunnally. He was useless.

"Just get out of here!" Suzaku's voice barked over the Sound Only channel. "I'll cover your retreat."

"Like hell! Fall back!" Lelouch ordered. He'd made it clear that Suzaku communicate only with him. He couldn't afford to have the Black Knights recognize the voice of the mysterious new pilot Zero had recruited, and Suzaku himself had become entirely too notorious, even before the SAZ.

Britannia's newest toy had come as a surprise, and not a pleasant one at all. Even Suzaku was caught completely off guard. Not as bad as a Gefjon Disturber, at least; they weren't trapped and useless. But each unit that got hit found their energy cells drained. Two hits made them dangerously low, and a third one knocked out the unit entirely. The Gawain had only been hit once, but couldn't afford another hit if Lelouch was going to be able to fly back to the base. Knowing this, he had no choice but to call a halt to the mission. In any other circumstance, he wouldn't risk either himself or his Knightmare right now. But Nunnally…

He would get Rakshata working on a counter-measure, so they'd be ready to strike back next time. The tight quarters here on Kamine Island made it difficult to maneuver, but Gawain's shield meant he didn't have to worry too much about that. Suzaku on the other hand….

"I said fall back!" Lelouch told him again.

"I am!" came the reply. "Just get out of here!"

Their squabbling was cut short when enemy reinforcements appeared. "I'm reading five more units approaching," Kallen announced. "I can't be sure if they're armed with the new weapon or not."

"Safer to assume they all are," Lelouch muttered. "All units, retreat! Escape route delta seven. Don't get hit if you can possibly avoid it!"

Finally, they were free of the confined space, and the Gawain rose up into the sky. From this vantage point, it was possible to get out of the range of their weapons and still fire the Hadron cannon. He could at least salvage a draw, and cover the retreat of the Black Knight units.

He'd just have to rescue Nunnally on his own once the enemy was neutralized. "C.C., are you sure she was taken to this outpost?" he asked into the phone.

"I'm certain; she's not at the main base on Shikine any longer. She's been taken to the-"

Lelouch cut her off, frustrated again. "Q1, make sure all units return to the submarine. Tell Rakshata what we've encountered here."

"Yes, Zero!"

"Where is she now?" he asked C.C.

"The World of C. I don't think you can get there from the cave on your own."

"Now's not the time to be coy. Tell me what you know, witch!"

"You'll have to activate the Druid system, and they'll be waiting for you. I wish I were there, but…"

"But you're in China, where I ordered you to be," he growled. "I'll do this alone."

"Not alone!" Suzaku interrupted him.

"Suzaku! I told you to retreat with the others!" Lelouch had inadvertently left his private channel with Suzaku open.

"I won't abandon Nunnally any more than you would. I don't care who has taken her, I'm staying with you."

"How is your Knightmare?" Lelouch asked suspiciously.

"It's still functional. I've never piloted a Burai before, but – "

"Do you remember how to reach that cave where the ground collapsed beneath us?"

"Yes, I think so. It was about halfway up the mountain."

"Good. Meet me there."

Lelouch analyzed the Druid system interface left behind by Schneizel and the others. The mask of Zero lay on the ground beside him, momentarily discarded. C.C. had told him that he could enter the World of C if he used this, but he wasn't entirely sure what she had meant by that. But if that was where Nunnally was, he would go there if he had to pass through hell itself first.

"I think this might-" Suzaku flipped a switch, and the wall behind them started glowing.

"No, wait!" Lelouch called out, but it was too late. Glowing light snaked out from the wall and snared both of them, sinking them into screaming nothingness.

"What…what is this?" Suzaku asked, panicking.

"I don't know…. Mother?" Lelouch asked, seeing Lady Marianne before him briefly. But the image dissolved, and he was once more walking through a valley of dead bodies after the war, with Nunnally and Suzaku.

"No…I can't take any more!" The panic was reflected on the face of the image of the young Suzaku, but the voice was that of his friend as he had grown up. "No, it has to stop, it has to end!"

"Suzaku! These are memories! They're in the past, they cannot have any meaning now!"

Suzaku didn't reply, simply screamed when his father came into view and then fell with a knife in his gut. Lelouch turned away sickened when he saw the determined look on young Suzaku's face give way to horror and panic at what he had done. "I had to do it, I had to…" his friend sobbed.

"You don't have to let that day rule you," Lelouch said, but he couldn't be sure he'd been heard. And then he was standing on the landing at the top of the stairs, looking down on the bloodied bodies of his mother and Nunnally, who would shriek intermittently. "Nunnally!" he screamed, his voice not as high pitched as it had been then.

"Don't look," said Suzaku's voice in his ear, and he felt his friend's arms go around his shoulders. "Don't look at them like this."

As suddenly as the onslaught began, it ended, and they were back in the dusty cave, blinking in the dim light.

"Suzaku?" Lelouch asked, getting his bearings.

Suzaku ignored him, just staring blindly into space and shaking at the memories. Lelouch shook him. "Suzaku! Get a hold of yourself. You're no use to Nunnally like that."

Suzaku blinked. "Huh? Right! Sorry."

"I have to go on. Are you coming with me?" Lelouch asked. Suzaku merely nodded, recovered now from the ordeal. Seemingly, anyway.

"Wait a moment for me."


Lelouch gave him an incredulous look. "Zero can't rescue Nunnally. I can't let whoever has taken her know who I am."

"Don't they…know already?"

"Nunnally doesn't know," he repeated, picking up his mask.

Suddenly, seeing him with the mask tucked under his arm, Suzaku recognized it. "My mask – that's my mask!" He'd been holding his anger and frustration at Zero at bay, carefully tucked away to be analyzed…later. But for some reason, this startling detail set him off, and he blurted out his accusation without thinking.

Lelouch glanced down at it, and then back at him as if he were an idiot. "Of course it's your men from when you would practice with Tohdoh. Do you mean to tell me you've only just recognized it?"

"Of course not. I mean, it isn't…it's Zero's…I…." Suzaku floundered around for words, still bemused by what had happened earlier. "I thought you weren't interested in that," is what finally came out.

"I watched. And the helmet of kendo seemed appropriate for the symbol of the Japanese people. Don't you agree?"

Suzaku just shook his head with distaste, while Lelouch disappeared into the cockpit of the Gawain to change outfits. Suzaku had enough trouble keeping track of who he was with one identity. Suzaku-the-student or Suzaku-the-soldier…Suzaku-the-Honorary-Britannian or Suzaku-the-son-of-the-last-prime-minister-of-Japan. But no matter what, he was always Suzaku Kururugi – and he always did his best to follow his own rules. He didn't know how Lelouch could juggle so many faces and names. Or maybe having different names for the different faces made it easier? But was Lelouch always Zero? Were his friend's methods as distasteful as those of the terrorist?

When Lelouch-the-nondescript-Brittanian emerged from the Gawain, he was all business. "Do not touch anything unless I say," he instructed Suzaku.

"Do you even know how this works?" Suzaku asked him skeptically.

"It's a Druid system, like the Gawain," Lelouch informed him. "I just have to get it working, and then it should open this door…"

Suzaku watched him work, not touching anything. This was about Nunnally. Nunnally, Nunnally, Nunnally. Remember Nunnally, he told himself. Now was not the time to pick a fight with Zero. Lelouch was, as usual, right. Once he turned it on, the gate was activated, and they were both transported unceremoniously to the World of C.

"What is this place?" Suzaku asked as he slowly approached the stairs. His voice sounded flat, as if the vast expanse was not really as open as it appeared. The whole thing seemed artificial, like a stage for a play.

"I don't know," Lelouch said, frowning in concern. "But I doubt I can call C.C. from here."

Suzaku checked and confirmed for him. "No signal." He checked his gun as well, to make sure he was ready.

As they reached the top of the stairs, they could see that they weren't alone.

"Nunnally!" Lelouch called, and they both ran forwards.

"Brother!" she said, relieved to hear his voice.

A small child stood next to her, and took a step in front of her wheelchair. Lelouch stopped abruptly, suddenly wary, and Suzaku followed his lead.

"There you are," the child said. "We were wondering how long it would take you to get here."

"We?" Suzaku asked, looking around for someone else.

"Nunnally and I," he corrected.

"Do you know him?" Suzaku asked Lelouch quietly, not taking his eyes away from Nunnally's captor. Lelouch did not respond, but flicked his hand. Suzaku remembered that had meant no.

Lelouch was staring. Who was this boy? He'd never seen him before, and yet…there was something nagging at his memory; something about the face. He couldn't have been the one to abduct Nunnally. And if so…there was someone else.

He glanced around, but saw no one. His hand strayed towards his face, his eyepatch…but then lowered back towards his side. He did not want to use geass in front of Suzaku, and it was unwise to use it before he knew who this person was.

"Nunnally's coming home with me now," Lelouch said, hoping to feel out his opponent's intentions.

The child laughed. "Home? If she's going home, she'll have to come with me. I'm sure her father would love to see her again." He managed to use just the tiniest extra emphasis when he said 'see,' and his childish voice was quite condescending.

"Nunnally's father has no interest in seeing her," Lelouch said with feeling, his anger ignited. Suzaku stepped to the side, his gaze flicking back and forth between the two of them.

"Lelouch, I-" Nunnally began, but the smallest sound from Lelouch silenced her as he threw his arm out in rejection.

"You think Britannia is home to us?" he questioned the child.

"You are Britannian, aren't you?" the boy countered, stepping forward.

"Strange that the empire that rejected and abandoned us would suddenly take interest in us now. And what is your role in Britannia?"

"Haven't you guessed yet? I'm a member of the royal family…like you."

Lelouch had been careful not to reveal that their father was the Emperor, though he'd suspected this child knew. So was this boy another of Charles' children, one that he had hidden away from the spotlight for some reason? Perhaps from a mother he had not married or who did not meet the peoples' expectations of nobility? "Do you claim to be our brother?" he asked.

The child laughed again. "No, son of Marianne. Your uncle."

Suzaku had not been standing idly by. He realized that the boy would stay between Lelouch and Nunnally, so he'd angled off to the side a bit. Deciding that the family reunion conversation was going nowhere (and likely just a stalling tactic on Lelouch's part anyway), he darted up the steps in the hopes of reaching Nunnally before the boy would react.

He nearly made it, too.

At a glance from the boy, he found himself encased in some strange geometric cage. It looked like metal, or glass, but felt like neither. As soon as he touched it…his mind fell into space.

"What have you done to him?" Lelouch demanded, his hand on his eye patch now.

"Pleasant dreams…or unpleasant," the child said, smiling cruelly. "He is no concern of yours now."

The eye patch fell away. "Lelouch vi Brittania commands you! Release Suzaku and Nunnally now!"

The child merely laughed at him, and Lelouch went very still. "Why would I do that?" the boy asked. He seemed…pleased with himself. The laugh had been very cold. "Geass won't work on me, little prince."

Dumbfounded, Lelouch stumbled down several steps. "Who are you?" he asked.

"I've told you. I'm your uncle. Charles' older brother V.V." The emphasis on older was clear…and the implication obvious. This boy was older than he looked…like C.C.

"What do you want with us?" Lelouch asked warily. Was this boy in league with the emperor of Britannia? Did they both know he was Zero? Or was he a rogue like Zero, acting on his own?

Nunnally fell quiet when Lelouch made it clear that he wanted to do all the talking. The boy V.V. who called himself their uncle was very strange – he frightened her. He seemed crazy, and that reminded her of Mao. She did not like being a pawn, and she did not like other people using her to make her brother angry. She knew it was silly, but being used as bait just made her feel so…overlooked.

Though being overlooked had its advantages.

She knew Suzaku was right in front of her. She'd heard him running to her rescue, and cried out with him when…something…stopped him. She moved her chair a little and realized that V.V. and Lelouch were ignoring her. Good.

She reached her hand out, and touched something smooth and hard as glass, cool to the touch. And then her hand melted through it, and she was falling….

The place she landed was noisy. Not like a busy marketplace; chaos. She smelled smoke and heard people shouting in fear. She sat up, and blinked.

'Oh!' she said aloud. 'I'm dreaming!' Since it was a dream, she stood up, and dusted herself off. Usually, she loved dreams, because in dreams she was a little girl again, who could walk and see. But this dream…

She almost wanted to close her eyes.

Everything was…broken. The buildings looked funny, twisted and broken off, tilted at weird angles. Everything was dusty and sooty. And the sirens were noisy. People were running back and forth in panic, and…they looked funny.

'Hello?' she called out. 'What's wrong?' But the people just hurried past, looking up at the sky fearfully from time to time. She looked up, too, but didn't see anything to be afraid of.

She walked down the street, trying to figure out where she was.

Then something huge came around the corner, and she screamed.

It was a Knightmare Frame, she realized. Her mother used to drive one, before…well, before. But that one was much smaller and more…sedate. This one was huge, and it zipped around the corner, effortlessly changing directions. It was bright white, and it skidded to a stop right in front of her.

The top opened, and a boy got out, lowering himself down to the ground. He looked funny, just like everyone else on the street.

'What is this place?' she asked him.

'Nunnally? What are you doing here?' he asked her, and she recognized his voice.

'Suzaku, it is you!' she said happily. 'I've been looking for you.'

'But…how?' he asked helplessly, taking in her open eyes.

'We're dreaming. In dreams, I can open my eyes. And do this.' She twirled around like a clumsy dancer. 'But where is this place?'

'This is the Shinjuku ghetto. You shouldn't be here. It's dangerous!'

'Suzaku. It's a dream. We have to wake up. Then, we won't be in danger any more. Here, take my hand.' She reached for him, and he clasped it.

'I'm not very good at waking up,' he told her. Usually, he was at the mercy of his nightmares. 'What?' he asked, realizing that she was staring at him.

'Is this how you really look?' she asked him. 'I've never seen you before.'

'I…I think so,' he said self-consciously. 'I can't see myself right now, so….'

'And all these people…they are Japanese?' she asked, gesturing towards the frightened civilians.

'Ah…yes,' he said. 'But I should really get you out of here. Lelouch will kill me if anything happens to you.'

'Okay. Where should we go?'

He looked around a bit helplessly. How do you escape from a dream?

Meanwhile, Lelouch was trying – and failing – to regroup from the realization that his geass was of no use here. It was not his only weapon; he could outthink most opponents. But…he had not counted on V.V., and the smug little bastard knew too much. He definitely had the advantage…for now.

"You have no use for Nunnally," he informed his uncle. "Her mother is dead, and she's far down in the succession. The emperor did not hesitate to invade Japan when her life was at stake, so do not pretend that he'd care for his daughter now."

"You are correct; it was not Nunnally I was looking for. But I knew that taking her was the quickest way to bring you here."

"Me?" he scoffed. "What could you possibly want with an exiled prince?"

"The company you keep."

Lelouch paused. This trap…hadn't been set for him? All of his plans, his coup, that's not what this was about? He'd expected a denial, accusations about what Zero had been up to, not this mild dismissal.

So if the trap was not for Lelouch, or Zero…who? This child who was resistant to his geass, who shared his blood, who knew too much. Then V.V. laughed, a childish infuriating sound, and Lelouch knew that his target all along had been C.C. His blood boiled at the thought of Nunnally suffering for her. His plans being ruined…for her.

He whipped out his gun and shot V.V. without another moment's hesitation.

As soon as the bullet hit, though, the world shattered.

"Nunnally!" Lelouch called out as the stairs broke into pieces and fell down all around him. But there was no answer.

Lelouch was in Aries Villa, standing in the library. The place was oddly quiet. There was a chess game set up on a table…to his surprise, he remembered this game. His opponent had been his mother. He thought it may have been the last game he played against her.

"Miss it?" the boy asked.

Lelouch whirled around to face him. Apparently, he was also immune to bullets, though possibly that was related to the unreality of their surroundings. He had no intention of shooting himself to find out, though.

"Your memories give you away. This is the home of Lady Marianne…and your true home. You want to go back here."

"Never," Lelouch said with a scowl, flipping the chessboard. "Where's Nunnally?" he asked.

"As long as we have her, your little rebellion is over, so you might as well just come home," V.V. said. So he did know Lelouch was Zero. It seemed likely, but he hadn't said so earlier. As tempting as a private, face-to-face audience with the Emperor of Britannia was…he had no intention of letting the royal family get their claws on Nunnally – ever.

Lelouch had already looked around the room and realized that the doors would not lead anywhere. The key to escaping this figment of his memory had to be within the library somewhere. There had to be some item out of place or incongruous….

"For someone who professes to be our uncle, you know little of the Britannian royal family. Hostages do not work for us. Do what you wish. If you harm my sister, I will kill you." Now was not the time to claim his identity as Zero or make sweeping threats.

"Really? You'll kill me? And how do you think you'll manage that?"

"Ah-ha!" he said, and stooped down to pick up the black king. That had always been the symbol of his true self, and it did not match this chess set from his old life as a prince. The library dissolved around him, and he was back on the stairs. Nunnally was slumped in her wheelchair at the top, and V.V. was nowhere to be found. Neither was Suzaku.

"Nunnally!" he called, and ran up the stairs to meet her.

Nunnally was trying to figure out how to escape Suzaku's nightmare.

She knew it was his dream, not her own, because everything was so alien to her – things and people she'd never seen before. And because her dreams tended to be more…pleasant. Whenever she dreamed of someone shooting at her, she woke up. Whereas Suzaku…apparently had long drawn out firefights with a numberless foe.

They'd fled down one street after another, but now she knew they were merely retreating before whoever was advancing on them. Suzaku seemed very concerned about keeping her with him, behind him, so he could protect her.

Nunnally was more concerned about staring at Suzaku, and doing her best to memorize his face.

Finally, he ducked into a building, and now the gunbattle raged in hallways rather than alleyways.

"We have to find a place to hide," he told her.

"What are we hiding from?" she asked.

He just stared at her incredulously. "I know you think this isn't real, but I don't want to find out what will happen if one of those bullets hits you."

"Please wake up, Suzaku," she begged him.

"I don't know how!" he repeated, clearly frustrated. He tried the knob of a door and found it unlocked, so eased open the door and cautiously made his way into the darkened room, holding his hand up to keep Nunnally behind him. She inched into the room behind him, feeling for a light switch.

Suddenly, there was movement from a far corner, and Suzaku shot before the person would have a chance to get a shot off. A person cried out, and they were both surprised to hear a female voice. Then Nunnally found the lights, and fully entered Suzaku's nightmare.

"Suzaku?" Euphy asked, surprised to see him. "Why?"

The blood seeped through her dress, and she clutched at her side.

Horrified, Suzaku flung the gun away from himself. "No! Euphy, I didn't mean to! I'm sorry! Euphy!" He ran to her, and helped ease her down to the floor.

"It…hurts, Suzaku," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "I feel…so cold…"

"Hang in there, stay with me," he babbled. "Please, Euphy, you'll be alright, I'll get help for you. It's…it's going to be alright!" He looked back at Nunnally, his face pleading. "Do something!" he begged her.

She obliged by bursting into tears.

Suzaku pushed his hand against Euphy's side, and she cried out in pain. He tried to ignore that and lifted her. The blood was welling through his fingers. He had to get help fast! Where to go, though?

"Nunnally, you lead!" he called out to her, hoping desperately that she would be able to get them out of this mess.

She nodded and obeyed, dashing her tears aside. "Please, Euphy, stay with us," she begged her sister. She was no longer willing to speculate about what was real and what was dream.

"Wake up, please, wake us up," Suzaku was begging quietly in Japanese, and suddenly Nunnally had an idea.

"Suzaku! Kiss the princess," she ordered him.

"What?" he asked her, staring in disbelief.

"To wake up. Maybe dreams work like fairy tales."

"Which one?" he asked her desperately, looking at Nunnally with his arms full of a bleeding Euphemia.

"Just do it!" Nunnally told him, so Suzaku, ever the good soldier, obeyed. He kissed the girl in his arms, and then leaned over and kissed Nunnally, too.

Miraculously, it worked. Suzaku's green eyes were the last thing Nunnally saw before her eyes closed again and she returned to reality.

"Big brother?" Nunnally said, realizing that she was in her chair again. Lelouch was holding her hand.

"Nunnally, you're awake!" he said in relief.

"Where's Suzaku?" she asked him worriedly.

"He's back, too, though…still out." Lelouch nudged him with his foot. Suzaku groaned, but did not stir. "Don't worry, I'll get you out of here," Lelouch promised her. He looked at the stairs and frowned. He'd have to carry her and leave the chair behind. Chairs were replaceable; little sisters were not.

"Nunnally?" another voice asked, and Lelouch spun around, only to see the last person he expected.

"Big brother Clovis?" Nunnally asked incredulously. "Is that really you?"

"Yes, Nunnally. I am glad to see you. My you've grown…"

"Thank God you're alright. The news said you'd been killed. There was a funeral and everything."

"Oh, I'm afraid that's all true," he said, looking at Lelouch for the first time with an unforgiving glare. "About that –"

"Nunnally!" Lelouch said, thinking fast. "We're in a strange place right now. You can hear the voices of people who are dead, but they're not real – only memories!"

"I'm afraid that's not entirely true," Clovis countered. "I'm very much real, Lelouch, and I have not forgotten why I am dead, either."

"It wasn't Suzaku, was it?" Nunnally asked hurriedly. "I know it wasn't, but I just want to hear you say it."

"Who's Suzaku?" Clovis asked, perplexed, stumbling over the Japanese name.

"A friend of ours – he's right here. He's Suzaku Kururugi, the son of the former Prime Minister. But now he's Euphy's knight," Nunnaly explained.

Clovis just blinked at that onslaught of information, and cursorily looked at the collapsed Japanese boy. "No, it wasn't him." He turned to face Lelouch. But rather than reveal his crime to Nunnally, who was obviously still ignorant, he said, "Father knows about you."

It was not often in his life that Lelouch had felt the gears of his mind grind to a screeching halt. The first time he could recall, he had stood at the top of a blood-splattered stairway and screamed. This time, he merely went very, very still, and watched his murdered brother's eyes unblinkingly. "How long?" he finally said, his voice strangled, as if it were desperately important to know.

"Since the beginning. You didn't count on my telling him, did you now?" Clovis sounded amused; he was getting full enjoyment out of his brother's discomfiture. The roles had been reversed.

Suzaku chose that moment to leap to his feet. "Where's Nunnally?" he asked.

"I'm here," she called to him.

"And Euphy?" he asked.

"She's not here," Lelouch answered, confused. When he turned back, he saw that Clovis was gone.

"Let's get out of here now," Lelouch said, and neither of the others protested. Suzaku picked up Nunnally and carried her down the stairs.

When they had returned to the cave, Lelouch was flustered for a moment. Here, with Nunnally, he was not Zero…but how could he put her in the Gawain to take her home?

Suzaku saw his hesitation and reacted promptly. "I'm so glad we found you, Nunnally. I had to use a Knightmare to get here, so it looks like you'll be riding home in that."

"What about Lelouch? Can my brother come too?"

"No, there won't be room for him. Don't worry, I won't abandon him here, though," he said with a smile. He was all gentleness and smiles with Nunnally. Lelouch saw this, and again thought of what could have been.

Nunnally reached out towards him, concern on her face. "Lelouch, I was afraid. I'm so glad I didn't lose you."

He grasped her hand. "Go with Suzaku. I'll see you later. Alright?"

"Okay," she said, and put an arm around Suzaku's neck. Her weak hands that could not grasp anything held more strength than she knew; those small hands clasped both of them to her as surely as spider silk grasps the wings of a dragonfly.

When they were gone, Lelouch returned to the Gawain, returned to Zero. He had to go to the Black Knights' base. He had to talk to Rakshata. And…he had to track down Suzaku before the idiot soldier realized he knew the identity of Zero and decided to report to Cornelia.

Lelouch should have known his plans would not go as he had predicted.

He walked through the door of their new rooms in the SAZ, and was surprised to be greeted by Sayoko. He'd forgotten all about her!

"Master Lelouch," she said, bowing deeply. "I must apologize for my failure earlier today."

"Failure?" he asked.

She nodded. "Nunnally was abducted. I should never have allowed that to happen. I am ashamed that I caused both of you this heartache."

"I cannot expect you to serve as her bodyguard," he said, dismissing the apology. "If I wanted that…."

"You would hire someone trained in those arts, yes," she agreed with a nod.

Something in her look made him pause and pay her more attention. "Is there something you want to tell me?" he asked.

She nodded. "Yes, actually. The events of today made it clear to me that I alone am no longer sufficient protection for you and Mistress Nunnally. But…I do know someone who could provide better protection, if you are interested."

"And who is that?" he asked, suddenly apprehensive.

"The main concern is Britannia, correct? I have contacts who will allow me to get in touch with Zero. He and the Black Knights would offer a much better protection for you and your sister than a single maid."

"Zero?" he whispered, nearly choking on the word.

She nodded. "Yes, Zero. Are you interested? Should I arrange a meeting?"

Suddenly, a solution clicked into place in his mind. "Yes…I think you should," he said with a slow smile. It was all he could do not to burst out laughing at the perfection of it. Zero would save Nunnally; too bad he couldn't save Lelouch, too!

Very thoughtfully and deliberately, he went in to see his sister.

"I've made arrangements for you to see a doctor in the Special Zone, Nunnally, so you won't be going back to that place," he informed her.

"Thank you, Big Brother, but I don't think it was the doctor's fault," Nunnally told him with a smile. She had been seeing the same physician for years, and would miss all the staff at the hospital.

"Even so, I won't risk your safety being compromised. Sayoko has an idea that will prevent anything like that from happening ever again."

"Oh, how is she? She wouldn't say…"

"She's fine, Nunnally," Lelouch reassured her. Sayoko had sheepishly admitted that she'd been knocked on the head after being caught by surprise, and woke up in a dumpster several blocks from the hospital. She claimed not to have seen Nunnally's attackers, but her story confirmed that V.V. was not working alone.

Nunnally's version of the story was simply that someone had grabbed her wheelchair and pushed it out of the waiting room despite her protests, but that no one came to her aid. Whatever diversion had been used to distract the other patients and staff was quite thorough; Lelouch suspected geass.

"How would you like to meet Zero?" he asked his sister.

Lelouch was waiting for her. He spun his chair around to face the door as soon as she entered, his hands steepled before his face. "Sit down," he said evenly.

"And if I wish to stand?" she asked, testing his command.

"Sit down, now, C.C., and answer my questions!"

"So demanding," she said with a sigh, though she did fall into a seat. "Aren't you going to ask me about my trip?"

"Later. First I need to find out what you haven't told me."

"There's a lot I haven't told you. After all, I'm C.C."

"What do you know about my father, witch?"

"What if I don't want to talk about him?"

"I'm through with trusting you. All your assurances to me are a one sided convenience. You know something, something important. Do you know who killed my mother? Why my father abandoned us here in Japan?"

"I have no intention of-"

"You can't die, and I can't use geass on you, but you can starve. I will lock you up without food or water until you're inclined to talk if that's what you want. So start talking!"

"My, my, you are upset. Why so-"

"It was V.V. who took Nunnally."

She paused, frozen. "Oh," she said carefully.

"You knew that already, though, didn't you?"

"Yes, I suspected as much."

"He's like you, and he works for my father. Now start talking!"

She turned away from him, and began talking slowly. "If you don't trust me, there's no point in telling you anything. After all, I could just be lying."

"Even so."

"Even so, I will tell you," she said. "V.V. is looking for me. He is not above using others to get to me."

"Mao was looking for you too, but you didn't think to warn me about him, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised you failed to warn me about V.V. Is there anyone else who will come looking for you and abduct Nunnally to make me hand you over?"

"I don't believe so, no," she said carefully. "Though V.V. may send others."

"My father. Is he looking for you?"

"Hmm. Not really."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"He doesn't really need me right now."

"How do you know my father?"

"Your father knows a lot of women, Lelouch. Surely I was just one more." She said this so blasé, but she glanced at him knowingly. It had shut him up for once. So easy to throw him off!

"I don't need this right now! You're ruining my rebellion. If you don't tell me things, I can't fulfill your wish."

"You can't fulfill it yet anyway," she pointed out. "You don't even know what it is."

"I'll figure it out," he said confidently.

"So you don't know, then," she said with a laugh.

"I will lock you up," he threatened.

"Do you know why I left Mao?" C.C. asked idly, ignoring his fury.

"Did he start demanding answers to his questions, witch?" Lelouch sounded bitter.

"No," she said bluntly. "V.V. found him."

Lelouch knew enough to shut up and listen.

"Mao and I were living in China. He came back one day with the exciting news that he had met someone else like me – a child whose mind was quiet. He was quite happy about it. I told him that I had an errand to run and would be back for dinner. I left, and never returned."

"V.V. was looking for you," Lelouch surmised.

"I had no desire to go back there," C.C. said. "By then I knew that Mao would never fulfill our contract. But V.V. would leave Mao alone once he discovered he knew nothing of my actual whereabouts."

"Back there?"

"To the people who would poke and prod at me."

"The ones who put you in that capsule?"

C.C. smiled smugly. "That was not V.V.'s doing."

Lelouch looked at her skeptically.

"Do you doubt my story?" she asked.

"Mao said you were the only one – the only one whose mind was quiet. Why would he -"

"Geass can make people forget; you know that. He wasn't let loose still knowing about the people who questioned him." C.C. was looking at him in a very calculating way, and Lelouch realized she was assessing whether or not he was himself now damaged goods, corrupted by someone else's geass.

Lelouch knew it would be pointless to worry about that; he would have no knowledge or recollection of the event if he had been. "The contract you made with him – was it the same one you made with me?" he asked instead.

"Why ask, when you don't even know the terms of our contract?"

"Yes or no," he pressed her.

"Yes, then, though I don't see what good that does you."

"You wouldn't," he said with a sudden predatory smile. "But you abandoned Mao, lying to him?" His smile turned into a scowl.

"You're one to talk," she scoffed. "You look down in judgment on me for telling one lie? I had to make it painfully obvious to V.V. that I didn't trust Mao and I wasn't coming back, didn't I? You tell lies all the time when you have to – don't lecture me."

Her words stung, and he turned away. "Not to Nunnally," he said quietly. "I don't hurt her." He wished that were still true.

"What have you done?" C.C. asked, concerned.

"Lelouch Lamperouge is going to die. That should keep your secret safe from V.V., witch," he said bitterly. Lelouch stood up and walked out. He paused in the doorway. "I want a full report on China. Handwritten." He locked her in.

"So childish," she murmured to herself. But her frown was not over the punishment he had just given her.

Author's Notes:

I know it's out of character for Suzaku not to be spouting off about how using the wrong means leads to empty victories. But he's just as worried about Nunnally as Lelouch is, so his self-righteous judgment is…delayed a bit. Euphemia being alive and well has a lot to do with his ability to remain level-headed!

The continually evolving arms race is an important part of the plot, but it is one of the many details that will progress a bit differently in this AU. Later, I hope to give some reason for that, but for now, I'm merely borrowing an intriguing idea from Ender's Game.

Zero's mask is so unique, and I was puzzled for a long time what they used for inspiration for it. The round blankness of the front of it is quite powerful….but as a kendo men it's also very Japanese, so I had to work that reference into this at some point!

Suzaku's endless shoot-'em-up dreams belong to my baby brother. I don't think I'm related to a psychopath, but he killed a *lot* of people in his dreams when he was younger. He also has a much better mind for strategy then I do, and has been able to beat me at every board game in existence (from HiHoCherrio to Axis and Allies)…since he was five. Too bad he doesn't like fanfic, or else I'd have him beta this to keep Lelouch a tactical genius. ;)

The show really exploited the worst possible scenarios whenever possible; by mitigating some of that, I'm making Lelouch's luck a bit better…but it has the unfortunate side effect of making the story blander. (Well, occasionally he lucks out, like with Kirihara meeting them in person, and the Gawain just sitting there ready for him to steal. But in general…if something can go wrong, it does.) So, time for some walls to come tumbling down. …

Hopefully, you won't have to wait so long for the next update, but no promises.