Diethard was probably the only Black Knight thrilled by the explosion of the FLEIA. Zero had gotten out alive, although possibly injured, and this new challenge would surely spur him to even greater heights. At this point, Diethard knew that it was his duty to keep everything running smoothly until Zero returned. Everyone else was still reeling from the incalculable destruction of the bomb.
Ougi and Toudou were still active, but it was Diethard who chased down the escaped prisoner, and it was Diethard who first came into contact with Princess Cornelia. He had no idea how long she'd been a prisoner of Zero's, but one thing was certain– she was worth more alive than dead.
"Aim for her legs. I want her taken alive, men."
Cornelia glared at them, proud and strong and resentful of the indignity of being held at gunpoint by mere footsoldiers. Diethard smiled; out of all the Britannian scions, she was one of the most interesting. He could understand why Zero would want her captive rather than dead.
Before anyone could fire, however, a Britannian craft landed, escorted by a giant light red Knightmare, announcing it was carrying a special envoy. Diethard frowned; he hadn't been informed…
The appearance of the Second Prince of Britannia, the Prime Minister himself, stunned even Diethard. It made no sense; why would he step right into the midst of his mortal enemies? To rescue his sister? But he was an even more valuable prisoner. It made no sense.
Diethard could feel his heart racing. Never mind the FLEIA, this would be Zero's greatest challenge.
"Your Highness…" Diethard could hear his voice wavering, and could only hope that everyone took is as fear rather than excitement. "To what do we owe the honour of this visit?"
Schneizel's smile was gentle. "I wish to speak with the leaders of the Black Knights. I have some highly sensitive information that is relevant to our mutual plans for the future of our peoples." He turned his smile to Cornelia. "And, of course, I would ask for safe passage back for myself and my retinue, as well as my sister."
Diethard was sceptical. "Or we could just capture you both. Your Highness."
Schneizel laughed. "Indeed. I am fully aware of my own vulnerabilities. However, I have taken at least basic precautions. There is a FLEIA within the Mordred, set to go off by remote detonation. Several of my men, including myself and my aide, are carrying remotes. It is my hope that our business can be concluded peacefully and we can all walk away from this."
Even more exciting! Diethard couldn't help but admire the way Schneizel played his new weapon early and often, while the fear was still fresh. "I understand, Your Highness. In that case, please allow me to escort you to a waiting area while I gather Zero and the others."
Zero was out of commission, but Toudou was at least willing to talk. Chiba also volunteered, as did Tamaki when Ougi was nowhere to be found. Personally, Diethard had little patience for the brash idiot, but without Ougi, they were running out of choices and time. And the original Black Knights would require a representative. It wasn't ideal but it would have to do.
Prince Schneizel was seated comfortably with his sister on his right and his aide on his left. After everyone was settled, Diethard set up the parameters of the meeting.
"Zero won't be attending. Not until we have the details of the proposal."
Schneizel shook his head and smiled. "Of course. I didn't expect him to. He's not the type who consults with others. No, he keeps things to himself and holds people at a distance."
Toudou frowned, as if remembering something unpleasant. Diethard just frowned with curiosity. "You speak of Zero as if you know him."
"I do," Schneizel answered. "Better than any of you. He is my, and Cornelia's, younger brother, after all."
Tamaki immediately slammed his hands on the table. "What the hell are you talking about?" Diethard winced; there was a reason he preferred Ougi.
"He is the former Eleventh Prince of the Holy Britannian Empire: Lelouch vi Britannia," Schneizel announced.
Neither Tamaki nor Toudou could hide their incredulous exclamations at that. Diethard immediately planned to focus on damage control.
Cornelia didn't let him. "Diethard, please. In all this time, you never figured that out? Even with all the information you were getting from Jeremiah and Villetta?"
"Either way, it's irrelevant," Diethard said. "It's not Zero's lineage that matters but rather his efforts and the miracles that he's performed for us."
"And if those miracles were all just tricks?" Schneizel asked. "Zero possesses a power called geass, the absolute power to compel anyone to obey him. You can think of it as extreme hypnosis."
Tamaki finally, and Diethard was honestly impressed with how long it had taken, jumped to his feet. "I hear a lot of talkin' with nothing to back it up! Zero's a prince with magic hypnosis? Bull! Where's the proof?"
"The proof is here."
Diethard's heard sank when he turned and saw Ougi. With Villetta. That couldn't be good.
"It's just as Prince Schneizel said. Zero is a Britannian prince who's been controlling people with his power. He's tricked us and lied to us from the start!"
Chiba seemed to believe it. "If that's true then…"
"Then it doesn't matter," Diethard interrupted her. "It doesn't erase a single thing that he's done for us. And if it's true, then isn't that a good thing? It's another weapon to use in our fight against Britannia." It was important to remind them all who they were fighting. It wasn't Zero; it was Zero's accusers.
If only Ougi had stayed out of this…
"He doesn't just use it against his enemies, though," Ougi argued. Shit.
"Are you saying he used it on us?" Chiba demanded, her eyes wide with incredulity.
Cornelia just looked at her coldly. "Of course. He used it without hesitation on his younger sister, Euphemia. He caused the slaughter of the Elevens during the opening ceremonies for the special zone."
"You're lying!" Tamaki declared. "Zero is a knight for justice. He would never do something like…"
"I do have proof of that," Schneizel shot back. "Here." He pressed play on a recording device.
"Lelouch. Did you use your geass on Euphy?"
"You caused her to massacre the Japanese?"
"I ordered it."
"So Zero slaughtered our people for his own ambitions?" Toudou asked, sounding less disbelieving than Diethard would have hoped.
Only Tamaki maintained his faith. "That recording's a fake!" His rather blind faith… Diethard kept silent.
Schneizel's aide, Kanon Maldini, Diethard only now remembered, approached Toudou, handing him a significant amount of papers. "These are people we suspect he manipulated with his geass."
The list was long and heartbreaking for the Japanese patriots. Kusakabe and Katase were war heroes, and the number of high-ranking Britannian and Japanese victims made it clear that Zero… no, that Lelouch had been using his powers right from the start. Even if he hadn't used them directly against the Black Knights themselves, he'd used it to manipulate them into thinking he was more impressive than he was. He'd bought their faith with lies.
Kanon sat down. "Not only that, but he was forewarned about the FLEIA. We have the Lancelot's voice logs as proof." He bowed his head in grief. "We wanted to avoid this outcome at all costs, however…"
Toudou's head shot up, his dark expression sharpening. "…FLEIA."
There was a moment of silence as the atmosphere subtly changed.
"You did everything you could to avoid using that weapon… except not firing it."
Schneizel templed his fingers and leaned forward. "We are, of course, immensely grieved by what happened. Sir Kururugi, we believe, was under the effects of his geass when it–"
"You can't just blame that for everything," Toudou interrupted, standing. "These are, indeed, disturbing allegations. But the facts remain the facts. No matter how it was achieved, Zero has very nearly secured Japan's freedom. No matter what your intentions, you unleashed a genocidal attack on Tokyo. And as much as you claim to regret what happened, you sit here comfortably under the safety of the casual threat of unleashing yet another FLEIA."
Ougi stepped forward, his hands clenched. "You can't mean that! He… Zero lied to us from the start! He betrayed us, the JLF… he killed General Katase, he ordered the killing of innocent Japanese…" Villetta placed a gentle hand on his arm. "I wanted to believe in him too, but I…"
"The fact that you stand here, a traitor to your leader at the side of your enemies, is proof enough to me that you are free of any geass," Toudou shot back. "The fact that I was genuinely willing to take the word of the Prime Minister of Britannia and the Witch of Britannia, the former Viceroy of the Area that was once my proud country, without evidence, is proof enough that I am also free."
Diethard frowned, willing, as always, to play the devil's advocate. "But they do have evidence. The recording…"
"Men will say much under duress."
"…old man Kirihara…"
Everyone turned to Tamaki. Ougi was the first to speak. "What about him?"
"When Zero showed him his face, he said we could trust him. That Zero hated Britannia. Even if he is a Britannian and even if he's a prince… that's gotta mean something." Tamaki stood as well, in Toudou's shadow. "I'm not givin' up on Zero neither!"
Diethard chuckled. "Indeed. At least not without a fair hearing."
Cornelia leapt to her feet, knocking over her chair as she slammed her palms on the table in front of her. "Like he gave any of those he tricked a fair chance? Like he gave Euphy a fair chance?"
Schneizel stood as well, more calmly. "I understand your mistrust and your reluctance to relinquish your leader. But, as I said before, I know Lelouch. This is in your best interest as much as it is in ours."
Toudou shook his head. "You're not the only one who knew him before he was Zero. We never spoke, but I can easily recall the memory of a weak but arrogant child, hovering protectively over his vulnerable sister. That same arrogance, that same selfishness is clearly, in hindsight, present in Zero. But, again, that does not diminish what he's accomplished."
"…or absolve him of his crimes," Schneizel added pointedly. "His wholesale slaughter of those only peripherally in his way… can you truly claim that you want freedom at the price he's already enacted?"
"We're soldiers," Chiba pointed out, briefly shooting Ougi a disgusted look. "Well, some of us are. We've all decided that freedom is worth the price of our own lives, and the lives of our enemies. We were also terrorists. And we've have to accept that sometimes innocents will have to die as well. The price that Zero has made us pay is no more than we've always known this might have cost."
Cornelia looked like she wanted to vault over the table and beat the sense into the Black Knight officers that she couldn't get across with words alone. Schneizel pressed her back down in her chair.
"A fair hearing?" He hummed slightly under his breath, clearly mulling that over. "I can't deny that I would appreciate hearing Lelouch's words and justifications from him personally. Indeed, I was hoping that you would turn him over so I could have that conversation with him myself. But you and yours are who he's truly wronged; it would be more appropriate for you question him. I do have one request. Might Cornelia and I stay to watch?"
Toudou hesitated before nodding. "Should you like, you may even question him as well." Tamaki made a whiny protesting sound before Chiba elbowed him in the side. "This is hardly a formal hearing and, as you say, you know him well."
Diethard had already picked up the phone. "Kouzuki? If you don't mind, Toudou and Ougi have a request of you…"
Kallen stood outside Lelouch's door, hesitating.
She was under orders, only phrased as a request, to fetch Zero to the conference room where Toudou and Ougi were waiting for him. She wasn't sure what it was about, but considering what had just happened with the FLEIA, she was pretty sure it was serious. Normally she would have already entered, possibly spouting something patriotic and cheerful to get Lelouch out of his losing funk, but…
Nunnally was dead.
She'd heard Lelouch lose it over the radio. Everyone heard it. And they heard it as Zero. Toudou had been forced to take over for him, and Jeremiah had literally dragged him back by his Knightmare. She hadn't seen him (Rolo had immediately taken him to his room, making up a lie about a physical injury to hide the emotional one) but it didn't take much imagination to figure out that Lelouch was probably still broken.
Well, at least he had Rolo and C.C. If there was something that pizza witch was good for, it was refusing to let Lelouch stew in either his failures or his victories. Or his grief. And Rolo… Rolo was creepy but Lelouch trusted him, enough to take him on secret missions and leave Nunnally's safety in his hands. And it wasn't his fault that Suzaku fired that horrible weapon.
Kallen still couldn't wrap her head around that. Suzaku, the genocide. It was oddly fitting, considering that Euphemia had been his princess. As much as she'd disliked and resented him personally, though, she would never have thought him capable of this. Maybe this was what came of killing your father at a young age. Perhaps the Suzaku Kallen had thought she knew wasn't any more real than the one he showed the rest of the student council. Maybe this killing machine, this White Reaper, was the real Suzaku.
And what would Lelouch say to that – his former friend killing his younger sister in cold blood?
Kallen shook her head, clearing those thoughts. Lelouch was, Zero was, above all else, Britannia's enemy. That hadn't changed when Nunnally took the Viceroy position, and it would hardly change now that Britannia had killed her. No matter what Lelouch was feeling, it would only turn into the righteous rage that had sustained the Black Knights to this point.
And that was something she could follow and believe in.
She tentatively knocked on the door. "Zero? It's me. Can I come in?"
Kallen opened the door, noticing that Rolo was nowhere to be seen (odd) and C.C. scrambling to hide (…odder). Still, it was Lelouch, slumped over on the couch, that grabbed most of her attention. "Ougi and Toudou-san are requesting your presence in the main conference room."
"I'm not sure." It never occurred to Kallen to question orders until later. "But it sounded important…"
"Master." C.C. popped her head out from her hiding place, her eyes darting nervously to Kallen. "Please remove your clothes. I'll do my best for you, I promise."
And the oddness level was officially higher than Kallen could ignore. "What the hell are you two playing at?"
Lelouch sat up, the first sign of life he'd shown since Kallen walked in. "That's not… She's…" He slumped back down looking, if possible, even more depressed than before. "C.C. lost her memories. Because of me…" Lelouch stood up, putting on his cape with less flare than Kallen had ever seen before. "The C.C. you remember is gone now."
As Lelouch put on his mask and followed Kallen out the door to the elevator, Kallen ran that information through her mind. C.C. was 'gone', Nunnally was dead, Rolo was clearly out of the picture… That meant Lelouch was now completely and utterly alone. The only person he had who knew who he was and who cared about him was…
"Kallen. I'm glad you're safe. I'm sorry it took so long to get you out."
Kallen flushed. She didn't want the responsibility. Nunnally had been Lelouch's life, C.C. had been his confidant… Kallen wasn't able to replace them. And she didn't want to. But there was no one else who could be here for Lelouch. She was the only one.
"Lelouch… when I was captured, Nunnally came to speak with me. She was very kind…"
Kallen wished she could see Lelouch's face. "I had an older brother, you know. So I kind of understand how she feels… um, felt about you. She really loved you." Oh good, there was the conference room door. Now Kallen could stop trying to make something unfixable better. "I guess I'll leave you here…"
Zero shook his head. "Whatever Ougi needs me for, you have every right to be present if you wish." He held out his arm.
Kallen hesitated yet again. If she took that arm, would it have any meaning beyond that simple action? For the first time in a long time, she hated the blankness of Zero's mask.
Screw it. Whatever came of this, she was on Zero's, and Lelouch's, side. It was too late for second or third or even fourth thoughts now.
She took his arm gracefully, less like a soldier and more like a lady. She hoped it amused him at least a little. She knew Lelouch well enough to know that normally it would have.
The door opened automatically and they walked in.
The first thing Lelouch noticed, and only thing he noticed for a long moment, was Schneizel.
Then Cornelia and Kanon, Ougi and Villetta, and eventually Toudou and Tamaki and Chiba, standing together in front of some very recognizable photographs.
He noticed Diethard last, standing in a corner with his arms crossed. Kallen seemed just as surprised as he was, clinging onto his arm with a sudden strong grip.
"What's this about then?" Lelouch gently pulled away from Kallen. If this ended poorly…
"Before we start, Zero, we would like you to remove your mask, please."
Lelouch was surprised that it was Toudou who seemed to be leading this, rather than Ougi. Still from the way Ougi was glaring, he was certainly on board.
"I would like to respectfully decline until someone tells me what exactly is going on."
"We told them," Cornelia said. "Everything you didn't want them to hear from me while you kept me isolated as a prisoner. About you, Lelouch, and about your geass."
Lelouch had expected that. "I doubt even you know everything, Cornelia."
"I know enough. And now they do too."
"Just take off your mask, kay, Zero? Then it'll show them as the liars they are!" Lelouch couldn't help but smile at Tamaki's continued support. What a moron.
"Zero, should I…" Kallen trailed off, not even sure what she could offer.
Lelouch shook his head. "No, just… stay out of the range of fire." Kallen made a soft noise. "The figurative range, Q1, I doubt any bullets will fly here." Not yet.
He turned his attention back to Toudou. "What incentive do I have to unveil myself before a surprise panel of my enemies?"
"None, if you're not truly Lelouch vi Britannia," Toudou answered. "If you are, then you have nothing to lose, and at least we can start on relatively equal footing."
Lelouch nodded. He'd planned to unmask almost the moment he'd seen Schneizel. "Very well." He removed the mask, allowing everyone to see his face, his unmistakably Britannian features, and his obvious youth. "Is this what you wanted, Schneizel?"
Schneizel shrugged. "I will admit that you're rather more agreeable than I expected, Lelouch. This encounter lacks the vitriol of our last one."
"I don't have the energy right now," Lelouch admitted, turning back to Toudou. "Was there anything else? Are you planning to expose me to the other Black Knights? Or turn me in to Britannian hands in return for a truce?"
Toudou frowned. "Your heritage and identity are not our main concern. What concerns us more is the use of your geass."
"Oh?" Lelouch looked bored. "How so?"
"Did you truly use it on Colonel Kusakabe and General Katase?"
"Kusakabe, yes. And everyone else in that room. The other option was shooting them, and I thought they'd probably prefer seppuku. From what they said, at least. Katase… I don't think I ever met him. So no."
There was a general feeling of unease. Tamaki cut through it. "Hey, what about us? Did you ever use it against the Black Knights?"
"No. Why would I have to?" Lelouch asked rhetorically, sounding genuinely surprised that he'd even asked. "You did whatever I said without it. Ah, in the interests of full and total honesty, I did use it on Kallen, before the Black Knights were formed."
"That weird moment in the quad…"
"Precisely. Otherwise, no Black Knight has ever been under my geass." Lelouch laughed a little, humourlessly. "It's rather amusing that you'd ask me this after having me remove my mask."
"…why?" Chiba asked.
Lelouch smiled at Cornelia. "Because, as my elder sister should know from her research into the geass cult, my particular brand of geass requires eye contact."
There was an awkward moment as everyone, besides Cornelia, looked away. "Eye contact and an order, is it not, Lelouch?"
"Precisely." Lelouch inclined his head towards Cornelia. "As you've experienced yourself. I'm sure you're also aware of the side effects of the amnesia that comes when receiving the order, as well as when following it."
"Hey, yeah!" Tamaki jumped in. "I never forgot anything, so Zero never used it on me!" His eyes started tearing. "I never lost faith in you, buddy!"
Lelouch smiled weakly at him. It was harder to deal with Tamaki without a mask hiding his expressions.
"You're being quite open about your powers, Lelouch," Schneizel said, meeting his brother's eyes with impunity. "Considering how secretive you've been in the past, it makes me wonder about your honesty now."
Lelouch shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I don't need them any longer. Japan's freedom is all but inevitable now, and once Area 11 is no more, the other Areas will petition for assistance and the U.F.N. will grant it – that's what I designed it to do. There will be bloodshed and backlash against the Britannian citizens of those Areas, but once the smoke has cleared, the world will be a freer place and Britannia will be a weaker entity."
"Was that your goal?"
"No." Lelouch scowled. "But my goal is no longer achievable. At this point I'll take what I can get."
"What was your goal?" Toudou asked. "If not the freedom of Japan, then what were you using us for?"
"Mainly as a means of undermining Britannia itself," Lelouch answered. "But ultimately, the creation of a kinder, gentler world."
Cornelia snorted. "You realize how hypocritical that sounds."
"Ah. But it was never for me, Cornelia." Cornelia's eyes widened.
Chiba frowned. "The Viceroy?"
"My sister." Lelouch placed his mask on the table. "She died in the blast of your FLEIA, Schneizel, and with her died any sense of restraint I might have had. Geass? The Black Knights? All nothing compared to the strength of my wrath when I have nothing to lose."
Schneizel nodded. "So it's vengeance then?"
"It always was. For my mother, and now for Nunnally." Lelouch's eyes narrowed. "And nothing you nor Cornelia nor any of our other siblings will be able to do anything to prevent it. I'm done with caution and biding my time. I'm coming for Britannia now."
Schneizel rose gracefully. "Currently I may be in no position to stop you. But I will warn you that the Mordred is on board with a remote-abled FLEIA…"
"Whose detonation can only be prevented by your release, I suppose." Lelouch inclined his head. Schneizel's life in return for the entire upper tier of the Black Knights. A fair exchange. Schneizel's gambit, to destroy the faith and support Lelouch had from his soldiers as Zero, had failed. Letting him leave with his life was no great loss on Lelouch's part. "Then go."
Lelouch waved that away as if he hadn't been keeping his sister prisoner in secret as a contingency plan. "Of course. Your aide as well. I certainly want nothing to do with you." He turned to Toudou. "Any objections?"
"None, Zero," Toudou answered, staunchly. Lelouch permitted himself a small smile.
He may have lost Nunnally, but he hadn't lost everything. And he could still give it to her, the world she'd so desperately wanted, as a final gift and apology for not protecting her.