~Lelouch vi Britannia~

Lelouch stepped out of the car at Tokyo Base and straightened his jacket and tie. He was dressed 'down' for the day. There was no cape to denote his royal heritage, no epaulettes to remind people of the military rank he held. His suit was navy blue, his cravat traded for a red silk tie. He had divested himself of everything that anyone might associate with a prince or viceroy or colonel. Today wasn't about him.

He'd divested himself of his Royal Guard and knights as well, though Jeremiah had refused the opportunity for a day off to escort him until the very last moment. His knight was not a fan of the plan for the day, but as much as Suzaku might have been looking forward to his counterpart ruining his big day, Lelouch would not allow it. Hence, this detour from his way to the Kururugi Shrine. He was all for efficiency; he'd kill two birds with one stone.

He set off through the base, Jeremiah matching his pace as he made his way toward the training grounds. There were multiple squads conducting drills under the watchful eye of their Lieutenant, the lot of them working together to surround and breach a mockup of a typical house. Lelouch paused to the side of the exercise and watched them work for a few minutes before the Lieutenant noticed them and jerked to a hasty salute.

"Sir!"

"Wilkins, are you?" He asked as he returned the salute and gestured at the man to relax.

"Yes, sir." The man nodded.

He nodded and turned back to watch the training area as two of the squads breached the front and back doors in tandem and proceeded to clear the house. It was impressive to watch their teamwork, each group moving in perfect synchrony with the others to complete their objective.

"Do you need something, sir?" Wilkins asked nervously.

"Not from you." Lelouch answered

"From one of my men?" Wilkins wondered.

Lelouch nodded, not taking his gaze off of the exercise. "They work well together." He noted, as one of the men yelled an 'all clear' and the squads began filtering out of the house.

"Thank you, sir."

He could see the moment that they recognized him wash over them like a wave, as postures were straightened and the men immediately formed up ranks. None of them knelt, and he was pleased to see that his displeasure with that display had been noted, but they saluted as one before returning to attention.

Lelouch waved Jeremiah away as he made his way down the line of men, coming to a stop in front of one particular sergeant. Higa maintained a textbook perfect attention posture even under Lelouch's scrutiny.

"So," He said after a moment of quiet consideration, "what would it take to get you to swear yourself to me, Sergeant Higa?"

Higa looked stunned by the question. "I - you would accept an oath from me, sir?" He asked after a moment.

"What makes you think I wouldn't?" He countered sharply. He had never discriminated against the Numbers and he would have thought that was well known by now. The ATTF had been founded on a principle of equal rights and equal responsibility. Suzaku was his knight and had been paraded before the masses since the moment of his knighting. Though, for the sake of fairness, he could admit that he was probably the only member of the royal family that wouldn't have taken anyone of non-Britannian heritage swearing an oath to them as anything other than an insult.

There was a moment of hesitation as Higa scrutinized him before he dropped to his knee and recited the oath. Lelouch paused for a moment of consideration. "I'm not demanding an oath from you."

"I'm offering it freely, your highness." Higa insisted.

"Then I will accept your pledge. Rise."

Higa did as he was told, shifting a little under the scrutiny of his comrades. Lelouch turned to Wilkins. "I'm taking Sergeant Higa for the day, Lieutenant."

"Yes, your highness." WIlkins saluted.

"With me, Higa." He said as he turned away and began making his way toward Adrian's office. He glanced down at his watch but he was still good on time. "I need you in your dress uniform. You will come unarmed. You should have twenty minutes or so. My car is parked in the lot next to the administration building. I will meet you there when I'm done with my meeting with Commander Hopkins."

"Yes, sir." Higa said with a salute before rushing away towards the barracks.

Lelouch watched him go for a moment, ignoring the displeased look on Jeremiah's face as his knight rejoined him. "Surely you don't need another one." The man sighed.

"You wouldn't have an issue with him if he weren't Japanese." Lelouch noted

Jeremiah had nothing to say to that. Higa's record was spotless and several of the ATTF commanders had noted his reliability and capability.

"I do believe I gave you the day off, Jeremiah. You're dismissed." He said as they neared the entrance to the building that hosted Adrian's office.

Since the Kenshiki had been brought down, Adrian had been keeping to his mandate by sifting through old intelligence briefings to keep tabs on all of the other terrorist factions. There had been a few minor attacks by other smaller factions over the last year, but most of those factions had been swallowed up by the Kenshiki or had gone to ground when he'd become Viceroy. Adrian was keeping the ATTF sharp by running training drills while they waited for the next enemy to present themselves. If Lelouch was fortunate, that enemy wouldn't be in Area Eleven.

His meeting with Adrian was brief. It was more of a courtesy than anything else, as he informed the man of Higa's removal from the base for the time being and his intentions. He was done within minutes, taking with him birthday wishes for Suzaku from Adrian and some of his staff.

When he returned to his car, it was to find Higa and Jeremiah in some kind of a standoff. They were separated by a couple feet, but Higa's posture was tense and Jeremiah's height had always lent well to intimidation. "Am I interrupting?" He asked with an unimpressed frown.

"I'm just here to see you off." Jeremiah said after a moment of silence.

"Then we'll be off." He replied sharply.

Jeremiah opened the back door of the car for him and he barely refrained from rolling his eyes before deigning to enter the vehicle, followed closely by Higa.

He waited until they had pulled away, Samson already aware of their intended destination, before he sighed. "Did my knight attack you?" He asked. He hadn't heard of Jeremiah laying hands on Suzaku for months now, but Suzaku had always downplayed those incidents and likely tried to hide them. And Higa was not Suzaku; he didn't have the benefit of Suzaku's position as his knight or best friend to protect him.

"No, sir." Higa answered stiffly.

"What did he say?" He asked.

"Just the usual shovel talk, sir." The sergeant answered, still tense and eyeing the windows and doors like he might need to try to make a quick escape.

"You can relax." He said. "We're not expecting trouble today."

"Can I ask why your knights or Royal Guard aren't accompanying you today, your highness?" Higa asked nervously.

"Is that what's making you so uncomfortable?" He wondered. "Just what do you think this is about?"

Higa shifted a little and dared to meet his gaze, searching for something before glancing away. "It's not unusual for Honorary Britannians to be recruited for . . . special missions, your highness."

Lelouch frowned in displeasure. "And that's what you think this is? That I got you to take a knee for me so that I could use you as an expendable pawn or scapegoat?"

Higa grimaced a little, "No, your highness. It's just that your knight -"

"My knight what?" He asked when the silence lingered after the other man cut himself off. "What about Jeremiah?"

There was a long moment of hesitation before Higa plowed on, likely seeing that there was no way to drop the subject now. "Sir Jeremiah has been known to recruit Honorary Britannians for covert missions that they never come back from."

Lelouch pursed his lips. He was aware of Jeremiah's abysmal track record with Honorary Britannians and the Eleven population at large. He had been hoping to slowly rehabilitate him, but it was clear that even if Jeremiah changed his tune, he had left tangible scars on the Japanese community. People had been killed, and it was unreasonable to expect that their loved ones' grief would be any less potent than his own grief at his mother's death. Yet those people would never get justice because Lelouch was too selfish to part with his knight.

"You knew someone he recruited for one of these missions?" He asked softly.

Higa shrugged a little uncomfortably. "A guy in my training group from Basic. We weren't exactly close, but we liked to keep tabs on each other. I don't need the official documentation to know that he's dead."

"I'm sorry."

Higa shook his head a little at that. "You weren't even in the country yet, your highness. And anyway, you seem like you actually care if we kick it or not, so I know this probably isn't anything like that."

It was the way he said it, like Lelouch giving a damn if his soldiers died was a rarity that made Lelouch pause. "What do you mean by that?"

Higa opened his mouth, then closed it and paused for a moment before he began to speak. "I lost one of my men in a Kenshiki raid while we were stationed in Osaka. I got hit too, and by the time I got out of the hospital and managed to track down Shiba's mom to see if there was anything I could do for her or if I could help with the funeral or anything, you'd already seen to it all. You paid for the funeral, got his mom time off work to mourn, paid for grief counselling even. Usually, when an Honorary goes down, they try to find a way to posthumously dishonourably discharge them or fudge the record to make it look like they deserted."

Lelouch stared blankly at the soldier for a moment. He had come across a handful of desertions when he'd been perusing the ranks for potential members of the ATTF, but it hadn't raised any red flags for him because at the time he hadn't been able to fathom how any Honorary Britannian could stomach fighting for Britannia, and he still couldn't most days.

He hadn't known what those records meant. No one had told him. Suzaku was his only real tangible link to the atrocities that the Japanese faced every day, and Suzaku never talked about his time in the army. He knew that they were treated like dirt, had seen Suzaku's squadmates and commanding officer assaulting him that one time, but to have it perpetuated in such an official way seemed worse. Deserters or dishonorably discharged soldiers lost all of their military benefits, which had to be pretty much the only reason for an Honorary Britannian to join the military in the first place.

Lelouch shook his head slightly. "Why are you fighting for Britannia?"

It didn't make sense. It had never made sense to him. Suzaku may have talked himself into it for the sake of his ridiculous quest for knighthood, but he somewhat doubted that every Honorary Britannian that had enlisted had the same or a similar goal. It wasn't like he didn't understand the resistance movement in Area Eleven, let alone the terrorist movement, even if he didn't endorse them.

Higa looked shocked by the question. "I - what do you mean, your highness?"

"Don't play coy." He reprimanded. "Why did you choose to fight for Britannia over any one of the many resistance factions of Japan?"

"I was raised Britannian, your highness."

Lelouch scoffed. "Don't lie. You were raised in Marquis Hartfield's estate. I bought it when I moved to Tokyo. It's hardly conventionally Britannian."

Higa's lips pursed in frustration and he let out a slow breath before he answered. "The Marquis enjoys 'Japanese aesthetics', not 'Japanese culture'. I was raised Britannian and from that upbringing, I know that the Empire is not going to be beat by a bunch of washed up old Japanese soldiers trying to relive the glory days or a bunch of angry civilians taking up arms. That will never happen. Britannia is the greatest military power the world has ever seen."

Lelouch sighed. "You've told me why you're not fighting for Japan, not why you're fighting for Britannia. Don't make me ask again."

Higa floundered for a moment. "I don't know what you want me to say, your highness. I'm not an idealist."

"Hector seems to think otherwise." Lelouch countered.

Higa flushed at that. "That was - I mean - about you, maybe, but not in everything."

"About me?" He prompted.

Higa frowned seriously. "You have to know what you mean to the Honoraries under your command, or, well, everyone under your command, but us Honoraries especially. You've given us hope, a purpose. You've given us something we can be proud of, a way to prove ourselves worthy."

He sighed sadly. That all it took was him treating them fairly to earn this kind of loyalty was maddening. He hadn't favoured the Honorary Britannians over the Britannians or half-Britannians. He'd just treated them equally. He'd taken the established rules for Britannians and applied them equally to everyone under his command.

"Why did you enlist, Higa?"

Higa stared down at his feet for a moment before he sighed and started talking. "I'm not an idealist, your highness. That's not why I enlisted. I never got a choice about being an Honorary Britannian. I was a minor when the program was first introduced by Prince Clovis and my application, along with my mom's, was pushed through by Marquis Hartfield. We were some of the first, but I was never consulted about it.

"But it wasn't so bad. I grew up in the Hartfield estate, like you said. The Marquis treated me like I was his own son, even though I'm not. My old man killed himself when I was barely more than a toddler. I barely remember him. But anyway, I grew up and there I was, just turned eighteen with a Britannian education, good work ethic and citizenship. I should have been set, but I wasn't.

"I struggled for almost a year trying to find anyone that would even hire me and when I did manage to get a job, the boss tried to pressure me into committing a crime for him so I quit that pretty quickly. Old Man Hartfield offered me a job at the estate, but that seemed too much like failure, like giving up, and I don't give up. I saw an ad for the Army and jumped on the chance. And yeah, sometimes it sucked and it was hard, but I feel like I'm making a difference here, sir."

"You do?" Lelouch wondered. "In what way?"

"Did you know some of the guys in my training group had never even spoken to an Eleven before? Granted, they weren't all the best conversations, but . . ." Higa trailed off with a shrug. "One of them actually praised me for being capable of learning the Britannian language because he'd been taught that Numbers were subhuman with IQs barely higher than dogs."

Lelouch shook his head in disgust. "I hope you corrected that notion."

Higa smirked a little viciously. "On that occasion, I'm pretty sure I convinced the guy that I was fluent in dog too since the languages are so similar." Higa said, then remembered who he was speaking to and tried to backtrack. "Uh, no offense, of course, your highness. The Britannian language is -"

Lelouch laughed, then cut Higa off and effortlessly switched languages. "The Britannian language is very close to the barking of dogs, yes." He said in Japanese, thinking heavily of the Emperor's barked out proclamations that were broadcast across the Empire.

Higa blinked in surprise. "You speak Japanese?" He asked, but remained using Britannian.

"I lived in Japan." He countered, still in Japanese.

"Oh." Higa said awkwardly.

Lelouch relaxed back into his seat with a small smile. "Thank you for your candour, Sergeant Higa. I appreciate your willingness to speak openly with me. I hope that you will continue to do so."

The soldier looked a little stunned before he bowed his head. "Thank you, sir."

They settled into silence for a few moments before Higa fidgeted and eventually spoke again. "Can I ask where your protection for the day is, your highness?"

Lelouch smiled as he looked out the window. "You are my protection for the day, Sergeant. We will be attending a formal event and we are not expecting trouble; however, my knights issued some protests when I said that I would go alone. Suzaku will be in attendance at the event, but unable to see to his regular duties, so you will be standing in for him."

He glanced at Higa out of the corner of his eyes, making note of the way that Higa's shocked expression quickly morphed into determination. "I won't let you down, your highness."

~ Gino Weinberg ~

Gino shifted a little awkwardly as he adjusted his tie. He was glad that he had decided to come out of his uniform, given that the rest of the Royal Guard were in suits or, in the case of Amanda, a dress. Still, he was missing the weight of his cape across his shoulders as he waited for the prince to arrive. When they'd first shown up for Suzaku's birthday party, their reception from another group disembarking in the parking lot had been chilly to say the least, so they had decided to wait for Prince Lelouch to maybe ease their way in.

They didn't have to wait too long before an expensive car with dark tinted windows parked and the prince stepped out with an Eleven at his side, Higa if he recalled from his last visit to Area Eleven. The prince looked livid as he immediately zeroed in on the captain of his guard.

"What the fuck are you doing here? I gave you the day off for a reason." The prince hissed quietly.

Hector looked taken aback by the response. "Relax, Lelouch. Suzaku invited us."

"Suzaku did wh- why would he? His paranoia has gone out of control." Prince Lelouch huffed in frustration as he ran his gaze over the rest of the Royal Guard before stopping on him. "There's no way he invited you."

"He did. I was there." Hector vouched for him. Granted, it had taken him a bit to wear Suzaku down before he had been allowed to attend, but he had been invited in the end.

"Why would he -?" The prince huffed under his breath before his gaze went steely again. "Are you armed?"

Gino could admit that he hadn't exactly expected the prince to welcome him with open arms, since the prince had been pissed about news of what his presence here meant spreading, but he hadn't been expecting this level of hostility either. He had no idea what the big deal was. "Always." He answered. He never went anywhere without at least one weapon, not only because he was a target as a Knight of the Round, but also because he was a target as a Weinberg. And he was here on a mission to protect the prince.

The prince looked like he was a second from ripping out his own hair. "It's a peace shrine!" He hissed. "Give them to me."

Gino frowned, but didn't disobey a direct order and promptly disarmed, handing over his entire holster and gun and the knife from his ankle. Prince Lelouch took them and threw them into the back seat of his car before turning his glare on the rest of the Royal Guard.

"Anyone else armed?" The prince demanded, to which the Royal Guard all answered in the negative because they were all off duty.

Prince Lelouch dragged in a deep breath and held it for a second before letting it out slowly. He opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a car pulling into the lot, skidding to a stop once they'd come into view, then promptly backing out of the parking lot back onto the road and driving away.

"Come with me before we scare any more of the guests away. We'll go around the back." The prince ordered before turning away from the long, decorative staircase leading up the mountain behind them and instead turning up an overgrown dirt path that wound its way up into the forested mountainside.

Higa preceded the prince, doing his best to clear any overhanging branches from the path for the rest of them. The incline was particularly steep and he felt sorry for Amanda in her little kitten heels, though he did note that she kept pace with the others and never voiced a single complaint. She, like the rest of the Royal Guard, had been overtaken by a dour mood with the arrival of the prince and his reaction to their presence here.

When they eventually reached the top of the trail, they emerged from behind the ruins of a building. To the soldier in him, it was obvious that this wasn't just a building that had fallen into disrepair and collapsed on itself. It resembled a pile of matchsticks more than a building and some of the timbers were blackened by fire. The prince paused upon seeing it, then resolutely turned his head away and made his way around the ruin.

They followed an overgrown but paved path back into the trees on the other side of the clearing, but the prince stumbled to a stop when they had barely passed the tree line, a look of shock on his face as he took in the sight of a dilapidated shed set back into the trees.

"It's still standing." The prince murmured in surprise before stepping off of the path and moving toward the building, Higa keeping to his side with Gino and the Royal Guard following close behind. The prince tried the door, and when it didn't immediately open he shoved his shoulder into it and forced it open with a rusty screech from its hinges.

Inside, it immediately became apparent that the building was not a garden shed. It had been inhabited at some point in the past, though not any time recently if the dust and grime that coated everything was any indication. There was a small cot pressed against the far wall with a mouldy blanket neatly tucked in across it, a small camp stove and an assortment of chipped and cracked crockery was set up next to the only window in the shed and a rusty wheel chair was folded and tucked against the wall. The shed was decorated with childish drawings and doodles until about halfway up the walls.

The shed was uncomfortably crowded with all of them inside and was still crowded when Amanda and Charles took little more than a cursory glance around then stepped back outside by the door. The prince was taking in his surroundings with a strange expression on face that Gino couldn't quite parse.

Behind him, Hector made a soft sound of horror. "They kept you here?" The captain demanded, his eyes locked on something on the wall. At first glance, Gino had dismissed them as another of the doodles that decorated the walls, but these were different. These markings had been painstakingly carved into the wood near a little stool next to the camp stove: vi|xi and a few inches to the right of it vi|iv. Gino couldn't comprehend the meaning of them for a moment, wouldn't have understood their significance if Hector hadn't spoken. Vi for the vi Britannia line of the Imperial family, xi and iv as roman numerals for eleven and four. The Eleventh Prince and Fourth Princess of the Britannian Empire had been kept in this shack. How? Why? What the hell was going on?

When he dragged his gaze away from the markings and back to the prince, the prince had arched an unimpressed eyebrow at his captain before running his gaze over the rest of his entourage. The prince's gaze landed heavily on him and he tried, but obviously failed, to hide his confusion.

"Interesting. I didn't realize he'd fed the Rounds the same propaganda story he made me feed the press." The prince noted softly before glancing back to the captain of his guard. "When we arrived at the height of the Sakuradite Crisis, we were lucky enough not to have been executed immediately or kept in a cell. We were kept close enough that any attempt to recover us would be noted as a signal of imminent hostilities, not that anyone tried. Besides, where else would they have kept us? Certainly not in the main house where our western ideals could corrupt the young heir."

"You seem to have managed that anyway." Hector noted with a smile.

Prince Lelouch scoffed at that and ran his gaze over the Royal Guard again, assessing, always assessing and gauging their reaction to these lies. The Prince and Princess had been entrusted to the Ashford family for fostering in obscurity after the attack on their mother. Everyone knew that. They hadn't been . . . what? Bartered to the Japanese as a sign of good faith? Given to an enemy nation as prisoners or hostages?

He felt the prince's gaze on him again, its weight daring him to open his mouth and counter what he'd just said. Then the prince began to speak in the same soft, detached way that soldiers did when recounting a tough mission, all the while boring his gaze into Gino in challenge.

"The invasion began on a Saturday. Suzaku had been caught with me again and was supposed to be punished with additional lessons from his tutor, so we snuck away before first light. Just over a mile further up the mountain, the forest gives way to an open meadow filled with wildflowers. Nunnally enjoyed the scents, the open breeze, the sounds of bees flitting between the flowers.

"We had just settled into the meadow when we saw the first planes. Three of them, flying in formation. They passed right over us, flying so low that we could see the Britannian emblem on the tail fins and I thought 'oh, they've come to take us home'. Then they dropped their payloads on the Kururugi estate and continued on their way. And then the sky filled with planes. We could see smoke from the house, hear screaming echoing up the mountain. From one corner of the meadow you can just barely see the road where we parked today. We watched the survivors rush down to the road, only to be cut off when an air carrier dropped half a dozen Glasgows in front of them. They were cut down in seconds and the parking area was turned into a staging point for Britannian forces.

"Suzaku and I carried Nunnally into the trees so that we wouldn't be so visible. We spent two days picking our way down the other side of the mountain before we emerged into the city to find it burning and Britannian forces gunning down anything that moved in the streets. We would have gone back up the mountain, but two days with only what wild food we could scavenge and only muddy creek water to drink had made us desperate enough to brave the city. Nowhere was safe, no one an ally. The Japanese would have sheltered Suzaku but killed Nunnally and I. The Britannians . . . we would have all wound up dead."

"That's -" Gino cut himself off before he could say what he really thought of that lie. "No Britannian would have dared -"

"They dropped bombs on the house that the Emperor thought we were staying in." Prince Lelouch countered mercilessly and Gino had no rebuttal to that. They had seen the ruins of the house only moments ago. There had to have been a miscommunication somewhere. Someone had clearly fucked up with the intelligence or the retrieval teams had been waylaid. Something. There was no way that the Emperor had left them there to die. But it would explain why he had always had the impression that the prince disliked him because he was a Knight of the Round, not because he had been assigned a mission to meddle in his affairs. He wondered if he was just some random knight that had never sworn oaths to the Emperor if Prince Lelouch would have taken a better liking to him.

He became aware of someone shifting behind him, Lukas blocking the door, and for the first time realized just how tenuous his position in Prince Lelouch's entourage was. These men were all loyal to Prince Lelouch first and foremost. They were loyal to a once-cast-out prince of the Imperial family and now they knew just how the Empire had betrayed him. It made sense now why the Prince had never trusted him, why he looked at Gino like he was just waiting for the moment of attack.

It also made a sick kind of sense why the Emperor now favored Prince Lelouch so highly. Above all else, the Emperor valued strength and resilience. Cut off from all imperial privilege and entitlement, Prince Lelouch had escaped what should have been his death and had forged a new life for himself where he had thrived. Prince Lelouch had proven his strength and his resilience in a way that no other Imperial heir could have. The closest to it would perhaps be Princess Cornelia, who had cast off royal privilege enough to serve under Empress Marianne, but even then it had been accepted that the Empress had merely been training her replacement, that it was a temporary arrangement.

He needed to do better, do more. It wasn't enough that he was loyal to the Empire if the Empire had betrayed the prince. If he had any hope of retaining his position after the prince took the throne, he would have to prove at the very least that the prince would never be in danger from him.

"Move." A voice barked angrily from outside of the shed and Lukas quickly stepped aside to make way for Suzaku. The knight was dressed strangely, wearing wide-legged black pants embroidered with a riot of silver and gold patterns, with an ivory coloured silk shirt tucked into them. The overcoat Suzaku was wearing fell to his knees and was made of a matching ivory silk that had been delicately embroidered with the outline of a phoenix sweeping around his shoulders, two circular emblems sheltered protectively under its wings. When the knight stomped into the shed, it became apparent that he wasn't even wearing proper shoes, but instead some kind of wooden sandal that looked unbearably uncomfortable.

Suzaku honed in on the prince. "Why would you bring them all?" He demanded.

The prince looked taken aback for a moment before his expression returned to the same anger he'd had when he'd first emerged from his vehicle. "They said you'd invited them."

Suzaku blinked in surprise, then his expression shifted immediately from pissed to horrified. "To dinner! Not to - not to this!" Suzaku hissed with a wild gesture to wherever the path they had been following led. "They can't stay, Lelouch."

The prince huffed in annoyance. "They need to now. They've been seen, Suzaku. I won't have your guests thinking that I have the Royal Guard lying in ambush somewhere."

Suzaku looked cornered for a moment before he lowered his voice and changed languages. After his last trip to Area Eleven, and after witnessing the Prince and his knight conversing in Japanese, he had decided that it might be worthwhile to brush up on his Japanese comprehension skills. He still probably couldn't string more than a few words together to speak it, but understanding what others were saying was easier.

"You're not bringing a Knight of the fucking Round in there." Suzaku hissed at his prince.

Prince Lelouch let out a slow breath and also switched to Japanese. "If it looks like he's going to start trouble, I'll deal with him."

"How?" Suzaku demanded.

The prince shot his knight a significant look and Suzaku grimaced. Whatever that meant, Gino resolved not to make trouble. "Trust me." Prince Lelouch entreated in Britannian. "This will reflect poorly on me, not you. Your standing shouldn't be impacted."

"My standing isn't what we're here for." Suzaku countered in defeat.

The prince rolled his eyes and shook his head at that. "Every time I try to do something nice for you."

"This isn't my idea of nice." Suzaku retorted, but it didn't hide the fact that Prince Lelouch had managed to assuage his knight's worries.

Suzaku opened his mouth to say something else, but any further conversation was interrupted by the boisterous arrival of a young boy in a similar costume as Suzaku's. He arrived with a cheerful "Suzaku-nii!", then brightened even more when he laid eyes on the prince. "Lelouch-san!" The boy made to prance over to the prince, but Suzaku grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back protectively.

It took Gino a moment to realize that Suzaku wasn't trying to protect the boy from the prince. He was trying to protect the child from Gino, as the boy would have had to brush past him in order to reach Lelouch. Suzaku trusted him so little that he would not even risk his brother within six feet of him. The knowledge settled heavily over him.

He'd spent weeks trying to befriend the other knight, and it had done nothing. Suzaku barely tolerated him in the prince's presence, and would not tolerate him in the presence of his family at all. Did Suzaku really think so little of him?

"Genbu-kun." The prince said with a smile as he stepped past Gino to greet the boy. "How are you today?"

"Great!" The boy chirped, before tugging at the prince's sleeve. "You're wearing the wrong clothes though. You're not going to fit in and you brought too many friends. Hahaue only had two zabuton set out for you."

"Why don't you run back and get them to set out some more for everyone." Suzaku suggested.

"Okay!" Genbu agreed before turning to his brother. "Hahaue said you need to go down the mountain now."

"Sure." Suzaku replied.

The boy sprinted out of the house a moment later, leaving the inhabitants of the shack in an uneasy silence. Prince Lelouch sighed. "Go, Suzaku. I'll take care of this."

Suzaku ran his gaze over the Royal Guard and paused on Gino for a moment; he tried to silently convey that he wasn't about to cause problems. Whatever situation they had just unwittingly walked into, Gino's only motivation for being here today had been to celebrate Suzaku's birthday. He would keep his head down and play along as best as he could.

"It will be starting in maybe fifteen minutes." Suzaku eventually said before seeing himself out.

Prince Lelouch waited until Suzaku was gone before he spoke. "None of you are supposed to be here, but you can't leave now so you will conduct yourselves accordingly. You will remain with me and follow my lead. You will not antagonize the guests. You will not intimidate any more that your mere existence already will. Am I understood?" The prince demanded. While outlining his expectations, he'd run his gaze over the Royal Guard, had entirely ignored Higa, then had singled out Gino. The prince was met with a chorus of agreement and Gino made sure to add his voice.

They made their way out of the shack, the prince dragging the door shut behind them, and continued down the path through the trees. It was only a minute or two later that the forest gave way to another clearing. This clearing was much larger and covered with large paving stones and ornamental trees. On the one end of the clearing sat the staircase that no doubt led to the parking area, on the other sat an old Japanese style building that showed some evidence of recent restoration. He supposed that this must be the shrine that the prince had mentioned earlier. All across the courtyard rested various parties in colourful silk costumes like the ones Suzaku and his brother had been wearing.

They were greeted almost immediately by a young woman in an elaborate pink robe. She bowed low in front of the prince before escorting them to a place near the stairway, the furthest away from the shrine as possible and separated from the other guests by a couple dozen feet, where a bunch of pillows had been laid out on a reed mat on the pavement. Lelouch said nothing about the insult of his placement or accommodation, instead sinking onto one of the two foremost pillows on his knees. Beside him, Higa did the same, and the Royal Guard mimicked the posture on the other pillows.

Gino knelt, his placement on the fringe of the group leaving him behind and to the right of the prince, furthest away from the building and the other guests but closest to the prince except for Higa. Their arrival was noted by the other guests and a tangibly tense silence fell over the courtyard, accompanied by not-so-furtive glances at the prince and his entourage. The prince weathered their interest with grace and didn't return it. Instead, he had taken to admiring the view of Mount Fuji in the distance.

The event began only a few minutes later as a gong sounded from somewhere near the shrine, then again and again after the sound had been given almost enough time to dissipate, striking up a slow, halting rhythm. A procession of men in strange hats and dark robes ascended the stairs, each of them carrying a wooden stick with some significance. Accompanying them were four women in white and red outfits, who followed the procession with the same amount of reverence. They made their way toward the building and took their places on the steps.

Those men and women were followed moments later by an elderly couple, the man's overcoat less elaborate than Suzaku's and with no phoenix, but decorated with the same emblem on the chest panels. The woman was wrapped in a muted dark purple silk robe with a wide amber belt. This couple was followed by another pair of seniors in dark colours, then another old woman made the journey alone. By contrast, the woman that followed the elders was a riot of colour with an elaborate headdress that jingled as she walked past. She was accompanied by two young boys, one of which was Genbu from earlier, so he assumed that these people were Suzaku's family.

Last came Suzaku, who passed them by without so much as an acknowledgement to his prince, his gaze fixed firmly on the shrine at the other end of the courtyard. The family members had knelt in a semi-circle at the foot of the building, and Suzaku took the place that had been left open in the middle. The moment that his knees touched the pavement, the gong, which had continued its rhythmic blaring, was clasped tight, sending the courtyard into shocking silence.

A moment later, one of the men in the silly hats (a priest?) began speaking in Japanese, his voice projecting across the courtyard and dousing the little bit of pride Gino had felt at being able to eavesdrop on Suzaku and the prince's conversation earlier. He could barely understand half the words the man said.

When he was done speaking, the man bowed towards the building and everyone else followed suit, practically prostrating themselves across the ground. Prince Lelouch hesitated for only a moment before offering a perfunctory bow and returning to his kneeling posture. Gino didn't even know who he was bowing to, but he went through the motions anyway when the rest of the Royal Guard followed the prince's lead.

The priest opened up the doors of the building, though it was too dark to see anything of significance inside from where they were seated, and the women in red and white laid something he couldn't see out on the steps in front of the doors. Then there was a lot more talking and he gave up on trying to translate it all after gathering the gist of it that it was some kind of prayer, or possibly a poetry recital.

When the priest finally was done talking, he approached Suzaku and started waving around something that looked like a feather duster and two of the women approached with bells. Suzaku bowed deeply again, though no one else in the courtyard did. Suzaku was ushered up onto the steps of the shrine and was resituated in front of the doors facing the courtyard.

Suzaku's family also turned to face the crowd as the four priestess women donned white overcoats with long sleeves and made their way into an open area in front of the shrine to begin a choreographed dance. Gino was overall just confused by the proceedings. This was the strangest birthday celebration he had ever witnessed and was certainly not what he'd signed up for. The fact that the entire event would have likely driven the Emperor and the majority of his court into an apoplectic rage was not lost on him. It made sense why Suzaku and the prince were so uncomfortable with his presence.

Lucky for them that Gino just found it interesting. It reminded him of the fairy tales his nanny had once told him, though those stories had failed to highlight the pageantry and spectacle of Japanese culture. Tattling to the Emperor would gain him nothing, so Gino would hold his tongue and hope that it would gain him a little bit of the prince's regard. If nothing else, today had shown him just how far away from that he was. The prince had been cordial to him since his return and it had masked just how disliked he truly was.

The women finished dancing and bowed toward Suzaku before returning to their places on the steps of the shrine. There was a moment of stillness in the courtyard before one of the guests stood and slowly approached the Kururugi family, a small box held reverently between his hands. The man bowed to each of the family members, even to the two boys, before stepping past them and kneeling on a mat set before the steps of the shrine. He bowed deeply to Suzaku, face practically to the ground and held there for an uncomfortably long time, before he rose and offered the box to Suzaku while proclaiming in Japanese that it contained something that Gino didn't know the translation for, which the god would find pleasing.

Suzaku didn't move to take the gift, but one of the priests bowed reverently as he took it and placed it in the doorway of the shrine. Once that was done, Suzaku bowed ever so slightly to the man and said something quietly to him. The man rose to his feet and bowed to Suzaku again, then backed away and bowed to all of the family members again before returning to his place in the courtyard.

"The hell is this? A coronation?" Roy grumbled under his breath as the next guest approached the family in the same reverent manner.

Prince Lelouch shifted and glanced over his shoulder at them before returning his attention to the front. "Not far off." The prince said quietly, "Suzaku is ascending to the head of his clan. Many of the attending guests represent retainer clans that once served the Kururugi Clan, and it's been eight years since any of the Kururugis have been able to show their faces in public. They've also tied Suzaku to the shine somehow, propping him up as a guardian or intermediary or something. Best to settle in. The ceremony is going to be long."

"Suzaku's a noble?" Roy hissed quietly. "Thought the Japanese were democrats."

The prince glanced over his shoulder again looking clearly confused. "How many times have I called him a prince of Japan?" He asked quietly before returning his attention to another gift that was offered that Suzaku refused to take.

"What do they keep trying to give him?" Roy asked.

"Offerings for the shrine. I forgot none of you speak Japanese. I'll translate for you." The prince sighed.

When the next guest approached the Kururugi clan, the prince softly repeated their declaration of their family lineage and how valuable the rice cakes they had brought would be to the god in the shrine. And again, Suzaku did not take the gift but the priest did.

The next guest did not bow nearly as deeply as the previous ones had and had brought two gifts. The woman had declared herself a princess, though Lelouch had translated it as 'lady'. Her first gift, another food item, was rebuffed like all of the others and foisted off on the priest. She bowed again and offered her second gift to Suzaku, a jade carving from some legend that was never elaborated on. She held it out to Suzaku and, for the first time, Suzaku leaned forward to accept the gift, then bowed to the woman in return.

It continued on and on like that for what seemed like hours as each guest sent an offering to the shrine and some brought a gift for Suzaku that was almost always historically or mythologically significant in some way. Even despite the cushions that had been set down for them to kneel on, Gino felt like his legs had gone numb ages ago and he dreaded the spectacle he would make when he tried to stand up.

Later, when it seemed like most of the guests had offered their respects to Suzaku, another elaborately dressed woman stood, her face veiled and her dress with long sleeves that trailed to the ground, and began to approach the shrine. She carried a sword reverently before her and the presence of the weapon prompted cries of outrage from many of the guests.

The woman bypassed the Kururugi Clan without even paying her respects, but knelt before Suzaku just the same. She didn't have an offering for the shrine, and only performed a half-bow to Suzaku, possibly the least respectful of all of the guests. When she spoke, Prince Lelouch's expression turned stony and he didn't translate what she said, leaving Gino scrambling to try to translate it for himself.

It was the sword of Isshin Kagemori. That was all that was said about it, but whatever story went with the sword was obviously significant because Suzaku outright glared at the woman and many of the guests had begun shooting glances at the prince again.

The sword remained held out in offering for a long moment before Suzaku finally accepted it and dropped it beside him without care. The woman offered her perfunctory little bow again before rising and backing away. Unlike the other guests, she did not return to her seat. Instead, she made her way down the staircase and out of the temple grounds.

The prince grit his teeth for a moment under the increased scrutiny before he reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a thin wooden box a little bigger than his hand. "All of you but Higa will remain here." The prince said firmly.

"You're highness," Higa protested quietly. "That sword -"

"I am well aware of the history." The prince interrupted before gracefully rising to his feet. The soldier hurriedly rose to accompany him and the two of them made their way down the central promenade to the shrine. Higa offered deep bows to each of the members of the Kururugi Clan, but the prince offered little more than a nod to each before continuing on to Suzaku.

Prince Lelouch knelt like every other supplicant, and then a prince of the Holy Britannian Empire bowed to a noble of a conquered nation.

AN: Uhhhh . . . so this chapter was supposed to contain the entirety of the ascension ceremony and Lelouch's after party as well, but Gino just got so distracted by all of the pretty things that he didn't understand that his scene kind of just ballooned out of control. I don't practice Shinto and know practically nothing about it, so the entire ceremony is probably blasphemous and should be read with a grain of salt. I did try to do some online research, but results were limited and I got sucked down a rabbit hole about how some of the shrines are entirely rebuilt every couple decades, which my inner archaeologist found fascinating.

One of you reviewed last chapter saying how surprising it was the Hector went along with Lelouch's coup plans so easily, but let me just remind you that Hector's Unification Theory from the early chapters centers rather heavily on the premise that whoever becomes the next Emperor will hopefully not be such a douchebag and will actually have an interest in peace and meaningful policy changes. He's actually quite disappointed that it won't be Lelouch.

Anyway, thank you all for reading. Hope you enjoyed!

Allora