Wait and Hope, by wedgegeck {wedgegeck [at] gmail [dot] com}

Chapter One: The Queen's Gambit Accepted

The Ashford campus was wreathed in flowers for the graduation ceremony, decked with even greater extravagance than was to be expected from the President-for-life Milly Ashford. The extra effort and expense was not just for the graduating class, and not just for the roll of guests that included the leaders of most of the world, but instead for one young woman, who had come back to the school to honor a promise. Kallen smiled fondly at Milly and Rivalz; Milly, for her part, was trying to hold back her tears. Kallen Stadtfeld had finished her schooling, this time as herself, honestly and proudly.

Ohgi Kaname, one-time revolutionary and current Prime Minister of Japan, stepped away from his wife to embrace Kallen, crying openly.

"Naoto is proud of you, Kallen. I'm, well, all of us are so happy for you." Ohgi let her go awkwardly, smiling, thinking of promises kept. Villetta was speaking quietly with Kallen's mother, nodding as the older woman cried happily and spoke of her daughter.

As Tamaki moved forward to congratulate her, followed closely by Tohdoh and Chiba, Kallen reflected on her last year of schooling. She had been happy, truly happy to turn away from her prior captivity and aborted execution, to return to her mother and make some kind of life with her. She of course had remained a member of the Black Knights, dividing her time between piloting, reconstruction, and her return to Ashford. This time, though, her long nights of work were respected, her achievements remarked on with admiration. She was the ace of the Black Knights, a hero of the rebellion, and for many, like Milly, Rivalz, and Nina, she was a friend who had come back into their lives, willing to try again.

She had run herself ragged for the first six months, hardly pausing to rest as she worked, studied, spoke in public, trained, and reknit neglected ties of family and friendship. Kallen was pushing herself far too hard, a mask of happiness in place to cover her anger and frustration; one day, though, a single delivery changed that. Although neither her friends nor her mother knew why, she seemed more peaceful, less frenetic. Milly had hoped that she was beginning to recover from the shock of Lelouch's death, to move on.

In truth, Kallen had never celebrated the death of Lelouch, enemy of the world. She had been the first to notice, to recognize that Zero's appearance was more than divine justice or the return of hope; she knew that Lelouch had planned for it, had arranged it.

She believed that Lelouch had wanted to die.

So she had not celebrated with the Black Knights as they were freed, as the world rallied around the UFN and turned to cooperation instead of war. She had smiled, worked, gone back to her friends, and tried some days to remember, some days to forget the words that never seemed far from her mind.

You must live on, Kallen.

She knew for certain, after the liberation of the Black Knights, that Lelouch had been putting on an act as the Demon Emperor. She knew it for certain as soon as she found her mother, hospitalized safely and securely, the best treatment ongoing, uninterrupted by the war, for her withdrawal. She found no notes, no hidden memoirs, but she knew. Lelouch had pushed her away to save her.

Kallen had exhausted herself with work to ignore the ache she felt, until she got the package, delivered direct from the Britannian capitol, currently being rebuilt. It was addressed to Kouzuki Kallen, from the office of Her Majesty the 100th Empress of Britannia, Nunnally vi Brittania. The small box held an onyx king from an angular chess set, with a note:

Wait, and hope. ~Nunnally Lamperouge

Kallen had changed, then. She had slowed down, smiled more earnestly, and become patient. Most days she was uncertain about why she trusted Nunnally's words so completely, but then she would recall Nunnally's heartbreaking sobs over Lelouch's body, and she would steel herself. Nunnally wouldn't mislead her. If there was truly something important for which she should wait, then she resolved to wait.

However, she was growing somewhat impatient as her well-wishers thinned out and she saw before her the small Britannian Empress with her shadow, Zero. Nunnally had been on hand to greet Milly and Kallen, and speak for the graduates. Shaking a little, wondering if Nunnally finally intended to tell her anything, she bowed and spoke, "Your majesty, thank you for coming today."

She grinned a little at Nunnally's pout and immediate rejoinder, "Kallen! You did that on purpose!"

Nunnally's pout turned upward as Kallen knelt to give her a hug.

"Congratulations, Lady Stadtfeld," she heard the voice of the Knight of Three over her shoulder.

Now it was Kallen's turn to frown and look disapproving as Gino started up a round of laughter at Kallen's embarrassment that even included Zero.

Kallen blushed at the good-natured humor surrounding her title - she held it as member of the Order of Albion, but was loath to remind anyone of it, particularly at school.

Kallen faked a glare at Gino, who appeared utterly unperturbed by her false hostility.

Nunnally giggled as she took Zero's hand over her shoulder. "Congratulations, Kallen," came the voice from behind the mask. "Although we're short on time today, Nunnally would like to speak with you in her offices at the embassy at your earliest convenience tomorrow."

Kallen swallowed and hesitated a moment before responding to her commander. "Of course, I'll be there in the morning, Zero."

She nervously received congratulations, and then finally moved on with most of her friends and her mother to Tamaki's bar, where there was to be a celebration. As she left the campus, watching Milly accept Rivalz's offer of a ride, she tried to ignore the rising sense of anticipation for tomorrow's meeting. She wanted, she hoped for one thing in particular, but dreaded the thought of losing that last hope.

At Tamaki's some asked her about her future plans, and were surprised when she announced that she was going to take some time off to decide. Ohgi, for one, had assumed that she would continue in her dual military/diplomatic position. Her mother, though, nodded when Kallen advised everyone of her decision; Kallen had informed her that she wished to wait, and her mother saw no reason that Kallen should do otherwise. It wasn't as though Kallen had not already accomplished enough, in her opinion.

The evening went well and happily - Rivalz was euphoric after Milly kissed him, and everyone enjoyed the spectacle of Tamaki falling all over himself to serve Rakshata. Kallen spoke with Nina and listened to the loud laughter of her friends, watched their quiet smiles. Surely, she thought, Lelouch's sacrifice was worth something.

But she couldn't bring herself to believe that he had gone forever. Before Nunnally's package, she had thought privately that she was being delusional, and didn't care. Afterward, she was afraid to hope, to believe. Even so, she tried.

Once the party was done and another round of hugs and congratulations accepted, Kallen went home with her mother. She showered, got into bed, and tried to sleep. Whatever was to happen, she was certainly going to find out something tomorrow. Nunnally had to be ready to tell her.

There had to be something to tell.

Kallen turned over on her side and tried not to cry herself to sleep.

The next morning, Kallen woke with eyes more red than she had hoped. Shaking off her fear, she went for a run, trying to calm her nerves. After some exercise, a shower, and a light breakfast with her mother, she felt a little more ready to face her day, and her interview with Nunnally. Kallen's mother noticed her daughter's nerves, but resolved to just wait for her. After Kallen finished preparing her dress uniform and got ready for her audience, her mother stopped her in the hallway before she left.

"Kallen, I don't know what exactly is bothering you, but you don't need to tell me now." The thin woman smiled and grasped her daughter's hand. "You're a strong girl, stronger than anyone else I know. You have nothing to fear, Kallen. Just wait and hope for the future."

Kallen drew her mother into a tight embrace and shook a little as she spoke. "I love you, mother. Thank you. I promise I'll explain when I can."

As she entered the car which had come to take her, Kallen waved goodbye to her mother, and reflected. The same words were not coincidence. She had to hope, had to believe. It would be all right.

She would be all right.

Kallen was ready.

The Britannian Embassy was not constructed to be an ostentatious building, particularly in the wake of the occupation, but a little ostentation seemed to be endemic to Britannian architecture. Nunnally had kept it to a minimum, but she had insisted on building a garden. The offices and apartments of Her Majesty the Empress were concealed behind that garden, ringed by her personal guard. For now, though, Nunnally was sitting quietly in the morning sunlight, Zero a shadow to her left. The space was large, and quiet, and for now unmonitored by any electronic surveillance. Insofar as they could be, she and Zero were alone.

Nunnally sighed and closed her eyes, recalling earlier days, and other gardens. Absently, she reached over her shoulder, and Zero took her hand carefully. "Is it wrong of me to be jealous, Suzaku?"

Zero paused a moment before responding, looked around at the locked entryways and the reflective glass that covered the garden. Then he walked in front of Nunnally and knelt, pressing the release catch on his mask. My face, he thought. Suzaku waited calmly for Nunnally to open her eyes again before he spoke.

"Nunnally, I feel jealous." He smiled a little, his eyes softening in a way that only she saw, these days. "I suppose there's no helping it. Don't you think it will be good for the both of them?"

She bit her lower lip nervously, something else that one rarely saw these days. "I hope so, Suzaku. I miss him. I hope she can bring him back to us."

He nodded and leaned forward to embrace her. "I hope she can bring him back to himself, Nunnally."

When she had seen him stabbed, crumpled and bleeding to death before her eyes, Nunnally had touched him and finally understood. Although she had hated herself for loving her brother, she had never stopped loving him. She wanted to hate him for what he was doing, but she could never change the way she felt.

Later, Suzaku told her that was why he would stay with her forever.

She had screamed herself hoarse and wanted to die, had refused to let go of his body when they carted it away. She was left alone with him in the locked antiseptic room, cold and cried out. It was there, that night, that he had abruptly stirred. Nunnally, her dress and hair stained with his blood, had fallen back in amazement and terror, all of which vanished when she saw him turn toward her, obviously in pain, with deep circles under his eyes, smiling. It was not the cruel smile of the Demon Emperor, the false smile that made her want to hate him despite herself; it was a soft smile, a kind smile.

It was a smile that she had last seen when he was home, with she and her mother. A caring smile. Her brother reached out his hand.

"Nunnally," he began, crying as he spoke, "I'm so sorry."

That had been the beginning, for her. "Zero" had entered the room a moment later, along with C.C. The green-haired witch had smiled fondly. "I'm glad to see you're all right, Lelouch."

Then Zero had removed his mask, and Suzaku walked forward to take his friend's hand. "I'm glad it worked, Lelouch. It looks like everything is going the way we wanted."

Holding hands with his sister and his friend, Lelouch smiled tiredly. "Finally."

They had talked that night for hours, but Lelouch and Suzaku had already told her that he must leave, that he had to ensure that no one knew that he lived. Jeremiah came around just before dawn to conceal he and C.C., and Nunnally said her goodbyes tearfully, but more happily than before.

"Lelouch, you must promise me to stay in touch as much as you are able. If we're all to work to keep the world at peace, then I want to know that you're all right." Lelouch had smiled at that, and promised to do so.

She had gazed at him with a determined expression, her eyes clear. "I want to know that my brother will be all right, Lelouch. I will not lose you again."

His smile had fallen a little, at that. "I'll do my best."

C.C. had elbowed him sharply. "What are you saying? No dying with a sad face, Lelouch." She knelt to take Nunnally's hand. "I'll keep him in line, Nunnally. I'll make sure he's safe." She leaned closer to whisper in the young woman's ear. "I'll try to make him happy." She had pulled away then, and smiled, making a mock-curtsey. "We do what we can, right?"

Jeremiah had taken them away then, spirited them to some destination even Suzaku did not know. Only Jeremiah was privileged with their whereabouts, and he alone was responsible for routing and delivering their coded communications.

It had been hard, for both she and Suzaku, to let Lelouch go.

At first, things went well. Lelouch advised the both of them and reviewed the information they sent; he also went ahead and took independent action on his own. In the months that followed, though, Lelouch's messages, those unconcerned with business, grew thinner and thinner. He was, according to C.C.'s own letters, pushing himself very hard, sometimes days at a time, between the work he analyzed and restructured for Suzaku and Nunnally, and his own covert actions.

It was her own worry over her brother's happiness, after many conversations with Suzaku and the Black Knights, which led her to Kallen. C.C. had confirmed her suspicions, and endorsed her idea - the ageless girl was deeply distressed by Lelouch's retreat into work, and found herself unable to convince him to change his behavior. Nunnally's fear about misreading the situation was overcome by her concern for Lelouch, in the end, so she sent off her parcel, hoping that her interference would not ruin Kallen's normal life.

She and Suzaku wanted Lelouch to find some kind of happiness. Suzaku, she prayed, was slowly finding his own in the careful smiles and gentle hand she offered to him. He was slow to respond, but she was patient. She waited, and hoped, but then for Lelouch's sake, she acted. Nunnally would not allow her brother to be miserable, not after he had sacrificed so much to protect her. If Kallen could help, then she was willing to let the secret out. Nothing was more important than her brother, after all.

The silent Britannian chauffeur drove her through the checkpoint at the guardhouse, and was out of his own seat and opening her door before she managed to collect her thoughts. She thanked him as she turned toward the double doors of the embassy entrance, taking a deep breath and smoothing her features. The soldiers flanking the entryway saluted as she approached, then turned to open the way for her. A middle-aged man in a charcoal suit met her in the lobby, inquired whether she needed anything, then motioned for her to follow him down the hallway.

At the end of the long hallway, they stopped at a mirrored doorway, where a guard confirmed their entry over a headset before opening the door. Kallen entered the garden, noticing that the man in the suit stayed behind. The garden itself was surrounded by a tracery of one-way glass and steel, completely enclosed, filled with all manner of specimens from around Japan. She walked toward the center, and the two figures seated near a small table by fountain. Zero stood as she approached.

"Thank you for coming, Kallen." Nunnally's voice sounded somehow stronger with her eyes open, Kallen thought. Perhaps it was the way that she tended to lock eyes with people, not surrendering her gaze and never looking away. It gave the wheelchair-bound Empress a sense of authority which might otherwise have been difficult to maintain.

Kallen knelt, one hand over her heart, still looking at Nunnally. "Thank you for asking, Nunnally." She stood and tried to be calm. "And Zero, as well," she said, looking at the featureless mask.

He nodded, and they were silent for a moment. "Sit, please," Nunnally said, gesturing to the tea service before them. As they did, Kallen noticed a teacup before Zero. She quirked an eyebrow before serving herself, wondering what it was that she was to learn here.

Nunnally interrupted her musings with a question. "Kallen, why did you accept the Order of Albion under your father's name?"

It had surprised her a great deal, nine months previous, to receive a letter advising her that Her Majesty Nunnally vi Britannia wished to do her the honor of inducting her into the Order of Albion, the highest chivalric order in the Empire, apart from the Rounds themselves. She had been shocked; a bit of research (and a phone call from Zero) informed her that she would have precedence, in Britannia, after only members of the royal family and the Rounds. She was to hold one of only twenty such knighthoods.

And she was to be Lady Kallen Stadtfeld.

In retrospect, of course, it was not so shocking. Kallen had, after all, defeated members of the Rounds in personal combat, was the undisputed ace of the Black Knights. She was a hero, a public figure, a knight. The only reason she hadn't been elevated to the Knights of Rounds, she suspected, was her commitment to the Black Knights and her own declared nationality. But she had not thought of that at the time. Then, she had only thought about the name. She had been about to enter Ashford for her final term of school, and was planning to do so as Kouzuki Kallen. Her mother, though, had thought otherwise.

Kallen was still a moment, before she responded. "I hated my father for a long time. I hated him enough to throw away his name, didn't want it to be a part of me any longer." She frowned and sipped her tea. "My mother, when the invitation came, told me something." Kallen looked up from her tea, met Nunnally's eyes. "She said that she had loved him, once, and freely. She didn't want me to hold onto that hatred, because if I did, I'd be hating a part of her." She looked at Zero, saw only the mask, and turned back to Nunnally. "I took the name again out of respect. I don't hate my father, and I don't hate Britannia. I'm Kouzuki and Stadtfeld, whatever people choose to call me." She smiled wryly, tasted a little of her tea. "It was better, for me, easier to do good things, with the knighthood. People listened when I spoke. Things got done. If it helps Kouzuki Kallen, to be Lady Stadtfeld, then that's fine."

Nunnally glanced over at Zero before she spoke. "Did you learn that, do you think, from my brother?"

Kallen placed her cup down a little too quickly, took a deep breath. "Yes, I think I did."

The empress was silent, then reached over and tapped Zero on the shoulder. He looked at her for a long moment, consulted a small device in his hand, and then palmed the front of his mask.

And took it off.

Kallen's breath caught in her throat, even though she had known, had been certain who had to be under that mask. It could not but be a shock. He had, after all, been dead for over a year.

"Kallen," Kururugi Suzaku spoke, his voice freed from the modulator he wore as Zero. "Let me tell you about Zero Requiem."

By the time Suzaku finished, Kallen felt a peculiar calm. Lelouch had turned the world against him, and in his death it would have a chance at peace. Suzaku had died in order to live behind the mask of Zero. Some of this, she had worked out on her own. Some of it she merely hoped to be true.

Kallen's pulse quickened as she spoke. "Lelouch, then, he's ... alive?" Her voice shook despite herself.

Nunnally reached out a hand across the table and smiled softly. "Yes, he's alive. He works as our primary intelligence analyst and political strategist, in hiding with C.C.-" She broke off as she noticed Kallen's tears. The young woman was silent, nodded for Nunnally to continue, crying quietly.

Zero produced a handkerchief and passed it to her. Nunnally continued. "He's in hiding with C.C., doing his analysis and planning, and covert work besides that, but C.C. tells us that he's become very solitary. She's written to us, over the last few months, that my brother seems to be shutting himself away more and more." Nunnally's eyes began to tear as well. "I thought he could be happy, I wanted him to be happy, even apart from us. But C.C. says that he's withdrawing, that she can't get through to him. He can't die, but I don't want him to just exist, Kallen." She sniffed and Suzaku placed his hand on hers, met her eyes. "I cannot go to him. I want him to live, to be happy. If C.C. can't get through to him, then I hope that you will be willing to try."

"That's why we invited you here, Kallen," Suzaku stated. "We're selfish, and we want you to go to Lelouch. I know it's more than an imposition, and Nunnally never wanted to manipulate your feelings, but she believed that you wanted to know, anyway." He looked at her expectantly.

Kallen dabbed at her eyes before sliding the handkerchief across to Nunnally. Truthfully, through the intense relief she was feeling, Kallen could feel a bit of fear creeping back into her awareness. What if he won't see me, what if he won't speak to me, what if I can't help, what if I'm wrong...

"Nunnally, I have something that I want to tell your brother." Kallen smiled, fierce hopefulness pushing away the fear. "If he's alive, I'll go to him. I don't know what he'll say to me, but I won't leave until I have an answer, for myself and for the both of you." She looked at Suzaku. "Don't think that I'm not angry about being kept in the dark, Suzaku, but you're not the one who will need to answer for that." She sighed and leaned her head back, looking up at the one-way dome overhead. "Thanks, both of you, for telling me the truth."

She heard Nunnally's response without moving her head. "He's stubborn, Kallen. I think he's afraid to love, and I think that C.C. is as well." Kallen looked over at her sharply. "Suzaku said we were being selfish. We are, Kallen. I wanted to tell you, to let you, at least, know that he was alive, but I don't know whether I would have, myself, if C.C. hadn't told us how he was doing, and mentioned you." Nunnally was serious now, the handkerchief clutched in her hand. "Will you go to him? I don't have any answers about Lelouch, or C.C., or what they're really feeling right now."

Kallen glanced around her, at the garden, the tea service, Zero's mask resting on the table, Nunnally's hand over Suzaku's handkerchief. She took a breath, slowly released it, and grinned up at the both of them. It was Lady Stadtfeld at the table, with Kouzuki Kallen's determination dominating her features. If you want me to live, Lelouch, you'd better have an answer for me.

"All I can do is hope, right? Tell me how to find them."