Author's Ramblings: After an extended exodus, I have returned. Much to my sadness, college left very little time for more creative work. Until a little while ago, this chapter was perpetually stuck at 2k words, with no hope of progress.
The chapter is shorter than usual, but this is all I can get out in one segment without it going sideways and spilling into the over 15k territory… then I'd never finish it.
Right now though, it lives. For how long it will continue to grow, depends on whether or not my muse will keep me inspired. I have plans, ideas, thoughts and threads to weave, but whether or not it continues is left to be seen.
I hope you enjoy this chapter as much as you did the ones before, and I hope I manage to get the next one out with less of a delay. Say... few weeks instead of a year and a half?
Chapter 25: Ill Tidings
Noon, April 9th, Saturday
Somewhere in the Chinese Federation,
Seat of the Geass Directorate
Wind whistled past the slightly ajar window, the curtains moving just a bit on it. Staring at his own reflection in the glass, the immortal Director waited patiently for all of his subordinates to enter. He deemed it fortunate that Charles wasn't present. Of all the people, he was undoubtedly the only one who could read his stance and mood correctly.
This is why he kept quiet and facing away from the others, to conceal the slowly mounting rage.
Spread upon the desk behind him was a pile of paper, or rather, many piles that had turned into one somewhere during the night.
"This has gone too far out of hand." He commented quietly as he directed his gaze towards the monolithic Thought Elevator beyond him. The purple light it usually gave off seemed slightly unsteady pulse, rippling, as a pond in which someone had thrown a pebble. "Has Rollo made contact yet?"
"No sir. After his insertion and initial confirmation, we haven't had any contact with him." One of the men standing in his office responded. The boy was alive, he knew that much, but he needed more.
"I see." he responded. 'How irking. I have vastly underestimated the situation. It would seem I'll need to mobilize some other resources. I wonder, how long has it been since it was last used? No… not yet, definitely not yet.'
Turning back from the monolith in the distance, he looked briefly at the room he was in, before nodding shortly to himself. Yes, everything had went to hell in a hand basket, and he himself was at least partially culpable.
The vestiges of a plan had already formed, now all that remained was to gather everything he would need to execute it. He had made one more mistake he now aimed to correct, though it still played to his advantage. From what his spies told him, Schneizel had not yet fully taken advantage of the resources he had claimed from Clovis even if the research now continued. If he recalled, Bartley had taken over working for Schneizel.
Though, if he was correct, Clovis was far more paranoid than any of them gave him credit. From what little his spies had recovered, all that was left of the Code-R project were minor details, and almost nothing on the Geass research that the scientists were working on.
"Very well then."
He turned on the back of his heel and took a few short steps, resting one hand on the relatively tall desk.
"It seems I find myself in need of a new agent. Prepare a suitable extraction team. I will brief them personally."
"My lord, what of Rollo?"
"His current objectives serve me perfectly. Leave him as he is. If he by any chance makes contact, connect him to me through a priority line. "
With short half-bows, the men turned and left the chamber, leaving him once more alone.
It was rare that V.V. chose to remember his old name, or even look slightly towards his actual age, but from time to time, when melancholy set in, it would happen. The memories of a time that had long since passed, buried under spilled blood and conflict, would come surging back.
Absentmindedly, he sat down to write a few things for later, but found himself unable to focus. His writing slipped on almost every word.
He remembered a time, before he had become what he was now, when he was still blinded by petty ambitions, and not nearly wise enough to realize he was being played as a pawn in someone else's game. A time when foolishness had forced a child to pay a price no child should ever have to.
The pencil in his hand snapped, a small shard of glossy plastic flying off just past his cheek and bouncing off the large glass window behind him.
Britannian Field Command
06:13 since the beginning of the invasion
That stark silence and uncertain looks that were shared between all those present in the conference room created an atmosphere of tension that was almost palpable.
"So far, the Chinese forces have spread themselves in a thin belt along the coast but…" Guilford began, steepling his hands to hide the concerned frown behind them.
"They're entrenching. The damn weather got bad enough that we can't field our navy properly, and the seas are too rough for an amphibious assault." Jeremiah cautiously added. "And they've already turned every direct path into a deathtrap."
"And the same situation eliminates the possibility of an aerial assault, correct?" Euphemia added. Of all those present, it was clear the she was the least guarded, or rather, the least jaded by war. Just as it was obvious that Guilford and Darlton would rather that she didn't concern herself with this, but both respected her decision. The princess paid them little attention beyond listening, though, focused as she was on the massive strategic display of the region.
Over the course of only several hours, a blitzkrieg assault had broken through all Britannian defenses along the coastline, extending from their original landing point near Fukuoka, and spreading all the way east to the other coast. The West Pacific Fleet was holding a naval blockade on between Area 11 and the Federation, cutting off the possibility of further reinforcements, but the situation was tenuous enough that it was more of a token gesture.
She was no expert, especially not when compared to several of her siblings or her father, but Sawasaki had a limited force. "So why risk such an obvious attack?" she questioned quietly, ignorant to the curious looks she had begun drawing from the others. It did not take her long to come to a pair of possible conclusions. Neither seemed overly pleasant.
"Has there been any activity from the Black Knights since the attack first began?" she asked, waving her hand slightly.
"None." Darlton responded. "It's surprising, considering that it would be very much to their benefit to use this against us."
'Would it? Zero is Lelouch under that mask… would he resort using outsiders?'
"They could have been hoping that the attack would bring up the Elevens, cause a revolution. Or they could be expecting reinforcements from the Federation." Guilford speculated. "Though the other is now impossible. They are just as landlocked as we are."
The room once more grew silent as all involved mulled over the unpleasant truth of their current situation.
"So, trench warfare it is." Darlton murmured, expressing the almost universal opinion.
"There may be an alternative." The other knight offered, before pointing at a part of the map display. He zoomed in the region where the Chinese forces had entrenched themselves, looking it over carefully.
"The Chinese forces are overextended. We may only have a token presence on the other side of their forces, but that doesn't mean we can't make a breach here or here. It would also allow our own teams of saboteurs and scouts to breach the enemy lines, and help the ground forces. However… we currently lack the actual forces to pull this off properly. By the time our forces gather, the storm will lift, and we may have to contend with reinforcements."
"Then, I may have a solution to offer." The most unlikely voice of all those present offered. Subviceroy Euphemia stood up, placing both her hands on the large table. She stood solemnly, drawing upon the full authority her position, as both princess and acting Viceroy, offered.
In days to come, she would hate herself for this, she knew it. He would never forgive her for it as well, but it had to be done. But… IF it worked, if everything turned out well, she just might be able to make her own dreams a reality.
And in the end, there was one truth universal to any member of the Unbroken Line of Britannia: their ambition ever ran strong.
'Forgive me Lelouch, Cornelia, Nunnally. But this must be done.' she pressed on, steeling herself.
"We use the Black Knights."
Pandemonium broke lose.
As expected after the extended battles of the past week, the medical bay aboard the submarine was filled with activity. The doctors went from patient to patient, helping out where possible.
Having only light injuries, Tamaki was quickly discharged from their care, but still found himself helping out as much as he could, like quite a few others here.
Kamine Island had been a rude awakening, he realized. Despite the theatrics, despite the strategic brilliance, Zero was a man of flesh and blood, and still very much mortal. There was no need to question it, the atmosphere in the bay was uneasy. Kamine was a victory, almost every objective set before a large military operation achieved, and even went past it, with his acquisition of the Gawain prototype that Rakshata and her team were working without pause on.
And yet, a myth had been irrevocably shattered. Zero was not undefeatable. Zero was human. Zero could very well die.
It was sobering. He supposed it was the reason he was now doing all he could, so that he could stop thinking about it all.
Shinchiro Tamaki was no great thinker, or strategist, or anything really. To himself at least, he could admit that much. If it were an anime, he mused, he would likely be the plucky comic relief character who survived on daft luck.
Then again, there was only so much that could be written off as luck. To his well-hidden surprise, more than a few faces were looking up to him lately, and even some of the soldiers were looking with what he guessed was respect.
"Tamaki, over here!" one of the nurses called, motioning for him to bring the box of supplies over. Promptly, he decided that he was overthinking things, and followed. The view helped too.
At the same time, comfortably seated inside the room that was assigned to Zero, C.C was content to read a book she had come across some days past and keep watch over her contractor. Despite her preferences, she had chosen to put on the civilian clothes Lelouch had acquired for her. The jeans were comfortable, as was the loose, dark gray shirt, both surprisingly more than she had expected.
Slowly turning a page, she hummed quietly.
"You two really are a handful." She spoke softly, before sighing. "I know you are awake Lelouch. Just because you are faking sleeping doesn't mean I will ignore it forever. Before you ask, Nunnally was recovering much better than you, so she's recovering in her own room."
For a few moments it seemed like Lelouch was still asleep, but that illusion was soon shattered as he opened his eyes and used his hands to prop himself up into a seating position.
"To be honest, I am exhausted, and yet, sleep seems beyond reach."
She laughed gently, closing her book and leaning back into the chair.
"You rushed into things yet again. It is growing into a worrisome flaw for a man claiming to be a strategist."
He didn't respond, opting to instead keep his blind eyes gazing into the ceiling. A clap told him that she had closed the book she was reading, and the slight scratching of the chair being moved a bit back that she had stood up.
"Rakshata has seen yours and Nunnally's face." C.C. stated, watching amused as her accomplice, a thought that brought a smile to her face, pulled himself up through sheer force of will.
"I would guess she was entertained?" Lelouch calmly stated, pulling his legs from the bed, and making his first tentative attempts to use his legs, nodding slowly when he realized that he wasn't nearly as weak as he expected. He was mildly surprised though, when he felt her help him up.
"I do. Now stop complaining, it will go faster this way. Everyone else is up and about."
Silent, he let himself be guided towards a nearby table, which he, to his irritation, recognized by bumping into it. But that wasn't all.
"It's there. I don't suppose you want me to help you, now do you?" she asked, but without the usual teasing tone. She had merely placed his hand on a familiar bag that had contained something highly important to him.
In return he smiled one of those kind smiles he had reserved for Nunnally, a small show of appreciation that spoke volumes between them.
"Alright then. I'll be waiting for you outside"
He waited for a second to sound of the door closing before letting out a breath he didn't know he was keeping in.
So much had happened. So many thoughts held that made little sense, and whatever it was he had touched back in that cave… the images were so familiar, and yet so distant, like something out of a half-forgotten dream. He knew he should have asked but… he was simply too tired, too drained to push it, and there were greater concerns at hand. Perhaps, he thought, it was by mutual accord that it wasn't spoken of. Yet.
He felt the weakness and the silent throbbing in the back of his head. Now was not the time.
With the greatest speed he could muster, he shed the damaged and torn remnants of his clothes, throwing them away as he stripped. Every move caused a slight ache, but it wasn't enough to stop him from replacing things with his spare outfit, his limbs growing with strength with every article donned again.
It was odd, he mused, just how much power those simple things had. That costume, which he had looked at as merely another tool had become so much a part of him that he felt naked and vulnerable without it. And at the bottom of the bag…
There was no need for sight, nor for the power of his Geass to gaze in order to know it was there. It had a weight of its own, regardless of the relatively light material it was made of, and a pull that could not be explained by anything logic or reason could offer. It was perhaps his own imaginations, but he could swear he felt it, and not with his hands, that he had touched something more, just like when he had touched that monolith.
The mask of Zero, the face of the man who would change the world.
Moments later, he was walking down the corridor in calm, measured steps, not a sign of the frailty he had felt assaulting him. As he passed, men and women, soldiers under his lead stood at attention, saluting, most either content or outright happy that he was back.
The command room, as he could see from a distance, was a mess. He could see Todoh arguing over something on one side, while Yoshitaka was standing and quietly disagreeing on the other, and Ohgi trying hard to mediate between the two of them, while seemingly holding his own ground there. Behind, Rakshata was lurking as usual, and next to her Reid was content to observe the chaos with a small grin.
Hell may freeze over, but with the Black Knights, its business as usual.
The doors to the chamber opened with a hiss as he stepped in, and a sudden silence descended on the room.
"I see you have all been rather busy in my absence. Would you mind informing me what I've missed?" Zero requested calmly, cutting away at the silence and clearing up the tense atmosphere that had started building.
"Chaos." It was surprisingly Reid who responded. "I am ashamed to note that my sources in China were wrong. Sawasaki was a live threat, and he has Chinese backing. It's all over the news."
"The troops are barely holding together." Ohgi added.
"Roughly half our frames are out of commission, we've lost about thirty people, out of which eight pilots, twenty ground crew members and two Division Epsilon members, another twenty are recovering from wounds of various severity and we've barely managed to evacuate most of them to the mainland."
He finished, before passing the torch to Yoshitaka. Despite himself, Lelouch tuned out most of the report, just picking out the highlights. Operational parameters met, new knightmare captured… everything went even better than expected, all things taken into account.
So why did it feel like everything was going to go from bad to worse?
"Everyone, dismissed until we get in touch with the mainland."he ordered after Yoshitaka wrapped his speech up. He needed time to think, and equally importantly, he needed to see Nunnally.
It wasn't just the Black Knights who were in shambles, he tiredly realized. After all that had happened he was veering on the edge of collapse. And all that before he returned to Ashford Academy and faced the probable fallout there.
'So, situation normal.' He thought as he opened the door to Nunnally's room. His dear sister was fast asleep, curled up into a ball on the bed. The door was locked moments later, and he was sitting next to her, the mask placed on the room's desk.
He had planned other things really, but right now, he just couldn't bring himself to do anything. He propped himself against the headrest comfortably, and smiled as he felt his sister move herself to be closer to his warmth, before closing his eyes and fading to a dreamless slumber.
Temporary base of operations near the frontline
Lord Guilford shook his head regrettably as he knocked on the doors of the temporary chambers assigned to one of the men he least wanted escorting the princess. He had already resigned himself to the fact that Lady Cornelia would have his head for all of this, but despite his personal preferences, Major Kururugi was the best choice for this task.
With the majority of the northern garrison either still recovering or entirely disabled, and what little was left guarding the border, there really wasn't much choice. Only a bare handful of veteran Knightmare pilots remained on active duty… and all were busy keeping the frontline from collapsing and costing them the entire south.
No, as much as he didn't appreciate this turn of events, this was the only course of action.
There really wasn't much that could shake up Gilbert G.P. Guilford, but one of those things had happened already with lady Cornelia. It was a burden off his shoulders to know that she was merely exhausted and would be unconscious for a while. Still, falling back on years of military discipline he had carefully cultivated allowed him to remain operational regardless of the situation at hand.
"Yes?" came a voice from the inside.
"It's Guilford. We need to talk."
The door opened seconds later, revealing a somewhat sleepy Suzaku, still dressed in his uniform.
"I hope you were getting some rest major, because your presence is required on a very serious mission." He started. "I know you were about to be given leave after the previous operation you took part in, but there's little room for maneuvering right now."
Internally, Suzaku was wondering. Was it the will of whatever higher power that whenever things turned to excrement, someone always came to push him into the middle of things? Or was it just karmic retribution for his own actions? Regardless of it, he listened to the man in front of him outlining the background of the situation that had arisen while he was sleeping. In his defense, Guilford was sort of droning on and on about it and he was tired enough that he almost didn't catch one crucial piece of information.
"… and your role will be covering princess Euphemia as she leads the main group's assault through the defensive line."
"WHAT?" despite himself, Suzaku shouted, immediately covering his mouth with his palm and hoping that he didn't get in trouble for this. Fortunately for him, Guilford shared his opinion, and merely retorted with a sigh.
"Her decision, and right now, she's atop the chain of command, so all we can do is keep her alive and pray to whatever god there is that Cornelia doesn't murder us all on recovery." He spoke honestly, the tiredness finally breaking through. "I swear, it's always one thing or another here… we'd probably have more peace on the European front. Look, Suzaku, I honestly don't trust you too much, but lady Euphemia does, and you are currently our best available pilot. I'm putting her ladyship's life in your hands."
Suzaku in return was deathly quiet and rather pale. 'Well', Guilford thought, 'at least he understands the severity of the situation.'
It had taken Suzaku the better part of five minutes to get a grip and stop counting how many people would kill him in excruciatingly painful ways should something happen to princess Euphemia under his watch.
"Sir, I will do everything in my power to keep the princess safe." He spoke at last.
"I know you will Kururugi, or it's both of our heads." Guilford responded with a great deal of commiseration. In some odd way, the two of them had come to an understanding here. As Guilford turned to leave, he didn't have to tell Suzaku to follow him, the teen did so without request, already fully dressed for duty.
The two of them walked in silence along the corridors, the thundering of artillery fire ringing in the distance and the rapid taps of footsteps on a much closer distance.
"I believe I owe you an apology Major." Guilford stated some minutes in, suddenly stopping. "For my hostility. I ask that you understand that all I did was what I thought wisest in defense of my Lady, and her sister. What I ask of you is not as a commanding officer, or a colleague. I ask this as one who cares greatly for the woman you are protecting today. Please bring her back safely. And don't get killed yourself, it would be too much of a waste."
The rest of the walk returned to silence, but this time it was a far more comfortable one. By the time he entered the makeshift hangar where the Lancelot was being prepared, Suzaku had steeled himself for the ordeal ahead.
'Another day, another trial ahead, and the stakes ever grow higher.' he thought, looking over the faces of his fellow pilots, while listening to Guilford explain what he needed to do.
"This is Tacitus lance major, you will be leading them under direct command of acting viceroy Euphemia li Britannia. The men here are all veterans, handpicked for this assignment. The objectives are simple, break through the defensive line to our southeast and create an opening for our infantry to move in. After completing that, you will circle around to a second spot where you will enact a pincer attack with the main part of our army. It's a high risk maneuver, but we will make it work."
It would be terrible, frightening and a grand temptation to leave all this behind, but this was his choice, his path. There was no redemption to be found without going the long way, without doing what had to be done.
The burden of trust had been placed squarely on his shoulders, and he would not be found lacking.
For Euphemia, for Lelouch and Nunnally, for Cornelia and Guilford, for everyone who now looked up to him to get the job done he would not falter, nor fail. He would guide her in safely, and bring her back home alive and unharmed, and heaven have mercy to any who dare stand in his way.
Tokyo Settlement, Ashford Academy
Sleep was not a commodity Milly Ashford had at her disposal. Between executive meetings, coaching sessions with her grandfather and her studies to graduate this year, she was swamped. And her worries for a certain someone combined with the rapidly worsening weather did little to help her.
Despite her affections and his capabilities, it was still a source of great concern. The loaded question of trusting him to be safe was pointless, there were many forces beyond either of their controls that could intervene, and the rapidly worsening weather was possibly the least of them.
Leaning back into her comfortable recliner, she rubbed her temples, sorely tempted to throw away the irritating essay she had to write for homework. Ironically enough, it was her own pride that stopped her from simply burning the damned thing and being done with it. After all, what would it say of the soon-to-be-announced leader of the Ashford Foundation if she were to neglect any aspect of her life?
"I hate politics." She muttered irately while looking at the stormy sky outside. "Don't you agree Arthur?" she asked the cat, who merely meowed in response before jumping up, and curling on her lap. She couldn't help but let out a small giggle at the kitty and began scratching him behind the ears.
'So many issues… not like I didn't know it would be difficult, but still…' she thought, enjoying the warmth from the lit fireplace and looking at the falling rain outside. 'Why did grandfather have to organize a public event for Ashford's return to business? I know it would be made common knowledge soon enough, but to do it so, so… flashily? Then again, he has a point. This way we at least control the situation instead of waiting and seeing what happens. Still, it wouldn't do to appear alone there, and inviting Lelouch, despite how much I would enjoy dressing him up and teasing him, isn't a viable option. So who then?'
"Milly! You in there?" she heard a female voice, which despite her knowing it well still took her a few moments to place.
'Shirley…' she reminded herself sadly. The young woman with whom she shared affections for the same man was a frequent subject of her thoughts lately. A part of her hated herself for keeping secrets from her friend 'But then again, it is not as if I can simply come clean and tell her everything. I didn't possess that luxury when the only secret I held was that Lelouch was a prince, much less now.'
"Over here Shirley, come right in." she responded. 'Weighing reactions, predicting moves… guess I should ask the expert for advice.' She concluded, not in the least entertained by the thought. Her concerns took a back seat at the sight of her flustered friend though, as well as the look of worry on her face. "What's wrong?"
"You can see for yourself, it's all over the news."
That was enough to make her flinch. The Britannian populace was reeling from the first news mere hours ago that prince Schneizel and princess Cornelia were incapacitated, no doubt the result of Lelouch's rescue the day before, but when no contact came by from the Black Knights to inform her of the results, she had become concerned. 'But then again, the authorities wouldn't pass the opportunity to parade the fact that Zero was defeated…'
Walking into the meeting room, she was slightly surprised to see everyone but Lelouch and Nunnally present. With how things had been going lately the Student Council had grown ever so slightly distant… with the siblings missing half the time, and herself and Nina working, Rivalz and Shirley took up quite a bit of their work, and especially now that the festival was less than two weeks away, it was wrong to leave the burden to them.
"Hey, it's about to begin." Rivalz stated, a concerned frown marring his normally jovial features. The TV showed a reporter none of them really recognized standing at the official conference hall of the Viceroyal palace within the Tokyo Concession.
'-'…We are coming to you live from the Viceroyal palace where currently acting-Viceroy Euphemia li Britannia is about to give a public statement about the invasion on the soil of Area 11.'-'
The camera quickly moved to the raised podium where the acting viceroy Euphemia stepped forward. Calm, collected and flanked by the towering figure of Andreas Darlton as well as that of the Knight of Cornelia, Gilbert G.P Guilford.
'-'This morning, under the cover of storm, forces loyal to Atsushi Sawasaki landed upon the western shore of Area 11.'-' she spoke, addressing the masses evenly. '-'In order to stem the enemy advance, I am assuming command of the Imperial troops personally and will be departing soon. But before I do, know that I do not go to wage war needlessly'-'
'-'The invaders speak of liberation, and yet, there have already been casualties among the very people they claim to seek to liberate. Britannian or Japanese, it matters not, the Holy Empire shall not stand to have its citizens threatened by any outside force!'-'
As the words resounded across the hall, the collected journalists remained silent for but a moment, before erupting into questions. The princess raised her right hand, gesturing for them to be quiet a moment more.
'-'I am sorry, but you will have to direct any questions you have to my advisors. I am needed on the battlefield.'-'
She was surprised though. All she had heard of the princess spoke that she was a meek lamb. The determined young woman on the screen looked anything but. For all intents and purposes, she seemed the second coming of the Witch of Britannia
'And an opening appears…' she concluded as she turned away from the television. 'Just in time too. Both models are ready for deployment.'
And somewhere in the distance, an emperor laughed upon his throne, his own designs in motion.
Author's notes: And that would be that for the time being. The next chapter is currently being written, standing at one thousand words and growing. I sadly won't have much time to write during the next couple of days, but I'll squeeze in what I can.
Read, review, feel free to point out any inconsistencies I may have missed or any spelling errors so I can fix em.
Till next time.
edit: I've updated a minor slip up I've left in here, a point where Suzaku saw Euphemia while she was physically elsewhere... silly me.