Chapter 11: Calm Before The Storm

"Hey, Lelouch-sama!"

Lelouch paused, letting the boy that had called out to him catch up. It was one of the progressively less and less rare times that he had to spend away from Suzaku. His brother was in lessons with one of the Prime Minister's closest advisers, learning everything he would need to become the next leader of Japan. It left him alone and, loath as he was to admit it, lonely.

Over the last four years, he'd grown used to having Suzaku at his side all the time, but now they were being separated more and more often because of Suzaku's duties. He knew it was selfish, but he couldn't help feeling resentful of it. Still, he knew there was no helping it. Suzaku was going to be the next Prime Minister of Japan; he needed to learn everything he could to counter his naturally brash demeanor.

"Hello, Rikuto-sama." He greeted with a slight bow.

Rikuto was the son of some lesser noble family. He was . . . sly, for lack of a better word. Suzaku disliked him, though Lelouch didn't really mind him. They had similar natures. But while he didn't dislike the older boy, he didn't exactly like him either. And that was particularly because Rikuto was always trying to find ways to make Suzaku like him. He dealt with the boy with a kind of ambivalence that hovered on the border of like and dislike.

"How are you today? Suzaku-sama isn't with you?" Rikuto said with an enquiring arch of his eyebrow.

"My brother is in private lessons all day." Lelouch answered, deciding to ignore the pleasantries since he knew they were empty.

"Ah, that's too bad. I was looking forward to seeing him today. You should both come to my house this weekend. It's my sister's birthday and Father has allowed me to invite some of my friends to keep me from being bored. It would be great if you and Suzaku-sama could come." Rikuto said with a cheerful smile that almost hid the sly cunning of his gaze.

"I'll run it past Suzaku." Lelouch promised, though he knew the answer would invariably be 'no'.

Rikuto's smiled widened. "That's great. I'll look forward to seeing you guys there. But I have to go. Father and I were just leaving when I saw you and ran to talk to you. Make sure you and Suzaku-sama come, okay?" The boy said with another smile and a wave before turning around and heading back the way he'd come.

Lelouch kept the pleasant smile on his face until Rikuto had disappeared around the corner before letting the irritated scowl and glower fall onto his face. Above all else, he hated it when people tried to use him to get close to Suzaku. Rikuto was notorious for it, always passing invitations and praise through Lelouch because he knew Suzaku wouldn't even give him the time of day.

Unfortunately, it was one of the consequences for being so close to Suzaku. People saw him as a filter for getting a better grasp on the heir. Lelouch usually made a point of sabotaging their efforts when Suzaku was forced into accepting their proposals and invitations. This time would be no different. In fact, he wouldn't even mention the invitation to Rikuto's at all.

Akatsuki sighed tiredly as he towelled himself off and got dressed. He'd been running drills with Suzaku and the rest of the Eighth all day, honing already sharp skills as they prepared for the next battle. It would only be a matter of time before they were deployed into an active war zone and Suzaku had seemed determined to have everyone in the platoon up to the heir's impeccable standard.

Suzaku was incredible. The more time he spent in the teen's presence, the more impressed he became. In addition to being deadly in the field, Suzaku was also a natural leader. He oozed confidence and charisma, drawing everyone around him in close. He was a born leader.

And somehow, Akatsuki was supposed to be able to rein him in.

It seemed like he was going to have to bite his pride and take the General up on his advice after all. Honestly, going to meet Lelouch was not high on his priority list. He felt a twinge of phantom pain in his shoulder at the memory of the way he'd been so easily taken down by the half-Britannian. It was embarrassing. Humiliating even. Especially because Lelouch was a scrawny little twig of a thing, although he'd realized during their short scuffle that the teen was comprised of straight muscle.

Damn it. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was mid-afternoon and he had no further duties for the day. Suzaku had been hauled off for another meeting with the Prime Minister, so the likelihood of him being anywhere near Lelouch at the moment was slim. Unless of course, the Britannian had also been called for this meeting.

Well, he wouldn't know if he didn't check.

He let himself out of the changing room, waving his goodbyes to a couple of his comrades on his way out before turning toward the building he knew the Intelligence Division was housed in. His security clearance couldn't even get him past the front gate until he revealed his secondary assignment from the General as Suzaku's bodyguard and that his business was with Lelouch. It was probably more information than he should have given to a guy who worked for a bunch of spies, but he shrugged the discomfort away and followed the directions he'd been given to Lelouch's office.

It was on the third floor and out of the way next to a janitor's closet. It wasn't exactly the corner office prime real estate he'd been expecting for one of the Prime Minister's sons. He frowned and hesitated outside the door, wondering if the guard posed at the gate was laughing it up right now at his gullibility. The door was closed, though he could hear the soft sounds of movement within the office.

Sighing, he raised his fist and knocked on the door. There was a moment of silence before he heard the rustling of papers and the opening of drawers within the office beyond. A moment later a voice called a detached "Come." to him and he opened the door.

That was indeed Lelouch sitting behind a desk devoid of any incriminating evidence as to what he might have been working on only moments ago. The inside of the office was cramped and small, barely wider than the desk Lelouch was seated at. The walls were covered almost completely with bookshelves that held everything from manuals for the photocopiers to coil-bound notebooks. It looked more like a storage room that someone had stuck a desk into than anything else.

Lelouch's face was neutral and guarded as Akatsuki entered the office and surveyed his surroundings, not giving anything away. He didn't like it. He couldn't get a read off the guy at all.

"Private Mura," Lelouch said, tone cool and neutral as his expression. "This is unexpected."

Yeah, he imagined it was.

"I'm sorry to intrude, Lelouch-sama. I wasn't sure the best way to contact you. If you're busy, can I make an appointment for a later time?" He asked, hoping not to aggravate the half-Britannian.

Lelouch waved him toward a seat across from his desk. It was a flimsy plastic thing, but matched the rest of the run down office. He sat in it warily, testing it to make sure it would bear his weight before relaxing into it as much as he dared. He thought he saw a spark of amusement in the cold, violet eyes across the desk from him, but he couldn't be entirely certain.

"So, what is it that you need from me?" Lelouch asked, hands resting cradled together on the top of the desk in front of him.

Akatsuki shifted awkwardly and scratched at the side of his face, trying to figure out the best way to explain this. After all, his assignment as a bodyguard for Suzaku was more or less a secret. Could he trust Lelouch not to tell Suzaku about it? Would confiding in Lelouch about this ruin his friendship and easy camaraderie with Suzaku?

But would General Tohdoh have suggested this course of action if it would have put the rest of his assignment at risk? Probably not. Still it was somewhere to start.

"Um, have you spoken to General Tohdoh recently, Lelouch-sama?" He asked cautiously.

Lelouch frowned. "Every day." He answered.

Oh. Well then that changed things a little, didn't it? No, not really. "About me at all, by chance?"

"No." Lelouch answered simply.

"I see." He said, though he didn't really. Did the General not telling Lelouch about his assignment mean that he couldn't trust the half-Britannian not to tell Suzaku why he was getting so close? Or had it just not come up in conversation? Really, you would expect for the man to at least have given Lelouch a heads up that he might be dropping by for advice. But nothing. Not a word. What was that supposed to mean?

He wasn't exactly sure how to proceed. Lelouch smirked slightly and seemed to take pity on him. "You're Suzaku's new watchdog, aren't you?"

"Bodyguard." He corrected.

The half-Britannian chuckled. "Well, let's hope you're better in your Knightmare than you are in a fist fight."

Akatsuki winced. Yeah, he'd been hoping that they'd be able to avoid mentioning his previous ass kicking. No such luck, it seemed.

"General Tohdoh suggested that you might be able to help me." He said. "Give me some pointers on the best way to control him when he's in a dangerous situation or something."

Lelouch smirked. "I can wish you luck, but that's all. I'm not going to tell you anything."

Akatsuki frowned. "Is your brother's safety not worth more than vaunting your superiority over me?" He demanded.

The Britannian's face went from smug and teasing to icy in a heartbeat. Obviously he'd stepped on a landmine. "Suzaku's safety is my highest priority. But I don't know you and I don't trust you no matter how much faith Tohdoh-sensei has put in you. You are asking me to tell you the best way to manipulate my brother and I won't do it. If you ever need to talk him down, call me." Lelouch said, tossing a business card across the desk toward him. "But I won't help you put a leash around his neck."

He grit his teeth, fighting to remain polite. "Thank you for your help." He growled as he picked up the card and stood. He offered a perfunctory bow before turning for the door and barely restrained himself from slamming it behind him.

Damn him. Who the hell did Lelouch think he was anyway? He was just a half-breed bastard that the Prime Minister had felt obligated to take in. And it wasn't like Akatsuki had been trying to 'put a leash' on Suzaku. He'd been trying to be prepared so that he'd be able to protect Suzaku in the worst case scenario.

Fine then. He'd just have to get closer to Suzaku on his own. If they became friends, at least he'd have more leverage over him. Though that might begin pushing the limits of fraternization regulations. Whatever. He'd have to play it by ear for now.

Okay, so Milly had been giving her strange sideways looks all morning. She'd been a little off at school all week too though she hadn't said anything. Which was decidedly un-Milly-like. Milly was always quick to criticize and comment. So it had to be something serious.

Kallen frowned, wondering if she should just outright ask. But it wasn't like they were alone right now anyway. They were currently ferrying around a real estate agent who was trying to find a nice apartment for them to live in next semester.

They stopped in front of a highrise building and stepped out before riding the elevator up to the seventeenth floor. The building was nice, from what Kallen could see. Luxurious and probably out of their price range. But the woman had recognized the Stadtfeld name and kept taking them to these kinds of places despite being told that they were looking for something that they wouldn't have to rely on their parents for the rent.

Because she had to face it—there would be absolutely no help from her parents for this particular endeavour. Once she managed to escape the Stadtfeld estate, they'd insist on her coming back if she couldn't pay her own rent. All of her rent money would come from her scholarships and whatever part time job she picked up after graduation.

The real estate lady selected a key and fiddled with the lock on the door for a few moments before reaching into her pocket and pulling out a few more. When it became apparent that she didn't have the key for this particular door, she frowned.

"It seems they gave me the wrong key. Just let me run downstairs to the office and get the proper one. I'll be back in a few minutes." The woman said with her best sales smile before retreating back toward the elevator.

Kallen and Milly stood in uncharacteristic silence for a moment before she finally caved. "What's been eating you?" Kallen demanded.

For a moment, Milly didn't answer, then she sighed. "You're not getting involved in anything dangerous, are you?"

Considering that Milly thought just going home every day was dangerous for her, the question took her by surprise. "What do you mean?"

"I followed you last weekend." Milly admit.

"What?!" She exclaimed. Milly had followed her into the ghettos? "That's dangerous. What were you thinking?"

"I'm not stupid, I didn't follow you all the way. And I was thinking you had some secret boyfriend that you wouldn't tell me about. You know me, I'm a big snoop. I just wanted to see who it was you were meeting. So I followed you. I had no idea you were going to go into the ghettos. I thought you were on a date. I was really worried for you, you know?" Milly said heatedly. "But then . . . then I tried to talk myself out of asking you about it by wondering if he wasn't some old friend of yours or a relative and I -"

"Relative?" She asked sharply, feeling her heart drop into her stomach. Milly knew. No, that was impossible. But why would she even suggest that she had relatives in the ghettos unless she already knew, or at least suspected, that Kallen was only half-Britannian. "How long have you known?"

Milly grimaced, then glanced away. "I've always known. From before I even met you. I just said I'm a big snoop and it's on your file in my grandfather's office. At first it pissed me off because you still had titles and I kind of sought you out bully you. I thought you'd be some stuck up bitch so full of herself because your family was nobility, but you weren't. You were so normal and nice that I ended up becoming best friends with you instead." Milly admit.

Kallen swallowed thickly. "You've always known?"

How many times had she had to brush off or hide her knowledge of Japanese culture in order to fit in with her friends at school? How many times had she allowed herself to follow the status quo so as not to draw attention to herself and her sympathies for the Japanese? How many times had she agonized over whether or not she would lose Milly's friendship if she confided in her when Milly laughed and promised there were no secrets between them?

And Milly had known all along.

"I'm sorry. I should have said so sooner, but I didn't want you to be mad at me for invading your privacy." Milly apologized. "But now I'm really worried for you. I'm scared you're going to get mixed up in something dangerous."

"Not all Elevens are rebels." She snapped in response.

"I know." Milly said quickly, holding her hands up in mock surrender. "But that guy . . . was he like, your cousin or something? Or your boyfriend? Or what?"

"He's just a friend." She grumbled begrudgingly. She was still pissed that Milly had been lying to her all this time. It was like a slap in the face. But Milly was just worrying about her, like always, and she couldn't really hate her for that.

Milly was quiet for a moment before clearing her throat awkwardly. "Can I meet him?"

Kallen blinked in surprise. Milly had never exactly been anti-Eleven, but she'd never exactly been Number-friendly either. "Why?" She asked suspiciously.

"I just want to meet him. Make sure he's an okay guy." Milly answered.

"And what if you don't think he is?" She asked challengingly. If Milly thought she was going to take over where her parents left off in dictating who she could associate with, she was going to be in for a rude awakening.

Milly shrugged. "I'll probably nag you and annoy you for a while about it, and then I'll hunt him down if he ever hurts you." She promised, flicking a stray blond tress away from her face.

Kallen smirked, surprised at how normal everything seemed to be despite her greatest secret having been exposed. Well, she supposed it had been exposed a long time ago and she just hadn't known it. Still, Milly was sure to have some kind of opinion on it.

She shifted self-consciously and glanced away, "Hey, you're really okay with . . . what I am? With me being half-Japanese?"

"Of course." Milly said, nudging against her shoulder. "After all, it doesn't change anything. You're still you."

The elevator dinged down the hall, marking the return of the real estate agent and they both fell silent. Side by side, like they had always been. Nothing had changed.

"Okay, let's hope they gave us the right key this time, hmm?" The real estate lady said with another smarmy smile.

It turned out they had and they were soon shown into the suite. It was luxurious with a great view and definitely out of their price range. She didn't even pay much attention to it, instead more focused on Milly, who had seemed to cheer up immensely after their conversation, but who also kept shooting her expectant glances.

Eventually, she caved. "Yeah, fine." She grumbled as they halfheartedly checked out the master bathroom. "Next time I go to see him, I'll bring you along."

Milly smirked. "Great. I'll hold you to that."

Amos bowed and smiled and served like he'd been doing it all his life. It was almost second nature already, not that he let himself relax at all. His eyes were always sharp; his ears always open for whispers and gossip. But he couldn't help but feel like he'd hit a wall.

There was nothing new. No new insights on Gottwald. The first few days after Lelouch had made contact with the man, his behaviour had been noticeably erratic. Well, erratic wasn't exactly the word he was looking for. He supposed distressed sounded better. Whatever Lelouch had hit the man with, it must have hit him hard.

Either that, or it was just the regular aftermath of the Empress' death anniversary. Though, according to the rest of the staff, the lord's behaviour was uncharacteristic even for this time of the year. Therefore, he was tending to attribute the changes to whatever Lelouch had done to the man. Though exactly what kind of leverage Lelouch could possibly have over a man as powerful as Gottwald, he had no idea.

Gottwald was off duty today. It was the first time the man hadn't gone to work since he'd started working there and he found it both enlightening and disconcerting. He'd never seen Gottwald outside of his regular routine before which made him a little anxious as to whether the man would be more observant of him or not. But that was a double edged sword because it also gave him the chance to observe Gottwald more than usual as well.

"Ah, Dirk, can you run down to the gate for me, please? A courier just dropped off a message for the Master, but I've got my hands full with the laundry at the moment." Lizzette pleaded, an overstuffed laundry basket balanced precariously beneath each arm.

"Of course. But do you need any help with those? I can take one of them from you. They look heavy." He offered.

"No, no, I'm fine. I do this all the time. Just go greet the courier." She said and made a move as if she'd have liked to have waved him away before remembered her burden.

"Alright." He said, slipping on his jacket hanging near the servant's entrance before walking down the driveway.

The courier waiting at the gate was a teenage boy, dressed in a stiff suit with a scarf wrapped around his neck. He was obviously not a commercial courier. He greeted Amos with a polite smile and handed over a small envelope with a familiar seal stamped on the back.

"For the Margrave, please." The boy said. "And my Master apologizes for the short notice. He said he would understand if Lord Gottwald was unable to attend."

"Of course. I will pass along Lord Stadtfeld's sentiments." He said. The seal on the envelope boasted a coat of arms with a rearing stag on it. It was an insignia he'd seen frequently while Naoto had been training him.

"Thank you very much." The courier said, giving a half bow before taking a step back, task completed.

"Yes, and thank you for bringing this. Good day." He replied before turning back toward the house.

He surreptitiously examined the envelope in his grasp. Aside from the seal and the Margrave's name scrawled across the front in Naoto's cursive, there were no hints as to what it might contain. Ostensibly, it was an invitation to something, though to what Amos couldn't be sure. Still, if it was coming from Naoto, it probably had something to do with Lelouch and their mission.

He found Gottwald in his home office. He was reading some documents with a frown on his face. "This just came for you from the Stadtfelds, Master. Lord Nathan sends his apologies for the late invitation and understands if you are unable to attend." He said, handing the envelope over.

Gottwald took it and delicately slipped it open with his letter opener, the blade probably sharp enough to use as a weapon. Amos was desperately curious about the contents of the envelope, but didn't have an excuse to linger.

"If that will be all, Master, I will take my leave." He said, bowing from the waist before turning for the door as Gottwald perused the contents of the letter.

"Wait." The man ordered, still not looking up from the letter.

Amos paused and turned back, standing quietly in attendance as Gottwald flicked the letter uninterestedly onto the desk and pinned him with his cold, scrutinizing gaze. For the first time since accepting this mission, he felt true fear.

"You used to work for Lord Nathan Stadtfeld, didn't you?" Gottwald asked.

"Yes, Master." He nodded.

"Tell me about him."

Amos shifted awkwardly. It was an order, not a request, but he wasn't sure how to fulfil it. "Ah, out of professional courtesy, I would rather not, Master."

There. And now it would seem that he would protect Gottwald's secrets too even after his employment with him. The man ought to be happy with that.

"You work for me now. I'm the only one you need to be loyal to. If you can't accept that, then you have no place here." Gottwald said darkly.

Amos swallowed nervously. "Ah, well, when you put it like that, of course you are right, Master. What would you like to know about Lord Nathan?"

The Margrave smirked. "Everything."

Great. He hadn't prepared for this kind of situation. He was just going to have to make things up as he went along and hope he could get the details to Naoto before Gottwald called him on it. Luckily for him, he could at least claim a modicum of ignorance because his cover story had him employed at a vacation property that wouldn't have been used by the family full time.

Jeremiah casually straightened his tie before stepping out of his car, pockets full of cash and an expensive bottle of scotch in hand. It was a gentleman's drink, and he'd been invited to a gentleman's evening of gambling and drinking. Normally, he would have passed up such an invitation, but Nathan Stadtfeld intrigued him. The man was only twenty four and yet had already achieved so much.

Though, he supposed Lord Nathan had been groomed for his current position all his life. He'd probably been learning management skills and financial accounting all throughout high school. It was interesting, though, that essentially all he actually knew of the man was what he'd picked up at the prince's New Year's party. That was, that Nathan was charismatic and sarcastic on the surface and only slightly more serious underneath. Despite that, he managed one of the biggest companies in Area Eleven.

He couldn't help but think that there was more to the puzzle. Like if he got closer, he might find something worthwhile. It was nothing more than a gut instinct, but his gut was rarely wrong. So he had decided to accept the invitation.

Nathan's apartment was in the penthouse suite of a luxurious downtown highrise. He had to have the security officer in the foyer use his key in the elevator just to get up there. He examined his surroundings lazily on the way up. The building was definitely something only the vastly successful could afford even on the lower floors. The penthouse was sure to be in a league of its own.

When the elevator opened, he was faced with a small open area and a single door. He was about to knock when the door opened and a young woman curtsied to him. "Lord Gottwald, welcome to my Master's home. Please come in. May I take your jacket?" She greeted.

He stepped inside and nodded, allowing her to move behind him and slip the jacket from his shoulders before handing off his gift of scotch to her as well. "Master Nathan and his other guests are in the drawing room. Please follow me."

Just as he'd expected, Nathan's apartment was the very epitome of modern luxury. Every room boasted sleek lines and open surfaces with bold splashes of colour. It was exactly what you'd expect of a well to do young man. He was led through the open concept living room and down a corridor, where he could hear music and boisterous voices coming from. Though he wasn't late, it appeared as though they had already started.

"Master, Lord Gottwald has arrived." The servant in front of him said with another curtsey as she presented him to the room.

"Lord Jeremiah!" Nathan said with a welcome smile. "Come, come, join us!"

Nathan was seated around a gaming table with three other young men. He recognized their faces from high society events, though he couldn't claim to actually know any of them. The flush on half of their cheeks suggested that the half completed drinks on the table in front of them were not the first they'd had that evening.

"Of course. Thank you for inviting me, Lord Nathan." He said politely as he moved toward the chair that had been left open on his host's right.

"Of course. I figured we'd hit it off at the Viceroy's New Year's party. We should become good friends!" Nathan said teasingly before glancing back toward the servant waiting to attend to them. "Sophie, Lord Jeremiah is far too sober for the current situation. He's going to win all of our money if we let him play like this. Please bring him a drink."

"Of course, Master. Lord Gottwald, do you have a preference? Perhaps some of the scotch you brought with you?" She suggested.

"You brought me scotch?" Nathan asked in delighted surprise. "How did you know it's my favourite? Sophie, bring me some of that too."

"Me as well." One of the other men at the table said with a wave.

"Oh hell, in that case, just bring the whole bottle, Sophie. Unless, of course, Lord Jeremiah would prefer something else?" Nathan asked.

He smiled. "Scotch is fine." He answered graciously. Obviously, Dirk had been correct in his suggestion of the gift. Which was great because at least it meant the man had been slightly useful. The rest of his interrogation of the man had come up a bust.

"Of course, Masters. I'll be right back." The servant said with another curtsey before excusing herself.

"Right, introductions are in order." Nathan said quickly, gesturing to the man sitting on his other side. "This is Lord Liam Hargreave, the son of Earl Hargreave." The blonde man nodded in greeting. The Hargreaves were heavily involved with the banks of the Empire, though they had recently relocated to Area Eleven for reasons unknown.

"Next to him is Thomas Wright, of the Wrights." Nathan continued, gesturing to the dark haired man next to Hargreave. Whenever someone referred to 'the Wrights' there was only ever one family that they were talking about. The Wrights had once been the leaders of an organized crime syndicate that stretched Empire-wide. In recent years, they had turned to more legal business ventures, though their history and reputation still ensured that they were feared and given the respect of those they dealt with.

"A pleasure to meet you." Thomas said with a nod.

"And beside him, on your right, is Viscount Scott Adeney." Nathan continued. The Adeneys were a very old family from the homeland that could trace their heritage back to the early middle ages. They had remained prosperous and influential throughout all of those centuries and had had some of the oldest holdings in the world until Britannia had been forced to flee Napoleon's armies.

The Viscount gave him a sideways nod in greeting.

"And this, my esteemed guests, is Margrave Jeremiah Gottwald of the Viceroy's Royal Guard." Nathan finished with a flourish.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintances." He said, nodding his head toward the others.

The servant returned a second later with a tray bearing the bottle of scotch, ice and fresh glasses. She served them all, then left the bottle and ice on a side table before excusing herself again and leaving them be.

Nathan raised his glass, "To us and our time, the next big movers and shakers."

"Hear hear!" Liam said, banging his fist on the table.

All around the table, glasses raised in agreement. Jeremiah smirked and raised his as well before taking a sip. The scotch burned down his throat, warming him from the inside out. The potent smell reminded him briefly of his late night encounter with Prince Lelouch's lookalike, but he pushed the thoughts out of his mind. He was in company and he couldn't afford to be distracted.

"Ah, god damn that is good scotch." Nathan said as he set down his glass.

"It was recommended by one of your former employees that I hired." He revealed with a shrug.

"Oh?" Nathan asked interestedly. "One from the vacation villa? Have you had any problems with them?"

"Not thus far. You seem rather interested in him." He said suspiciously. In all honesty, he had no complaints about Dirk, but if there was something he ought to know about, Nathan would be the one to ask.

"Of course I'm interested. If he slacks off and makes a fool of himself, it reflects badly on me, right?" Nathan said. "Besides, what if he tells you embarrassing things about me and the women I brought to the villa? He hasn't, right?"

Nathan was blushing by this point, obviously uninhibited by the alcohol he'd consumed. "Of course not, Lord Nathan. That would be embarrassing for me as well."

"Hey, Nathan, I came here to steal your money, not to gossip like a girl." Thomas said.

"As if you need it." Nathan grumbled before reaching for the deck of cards. "So, what are we playing then?"


"Black Jack."

"Old Maid."

Jeremiah paused at the last and glanced to the Viscount beside him who was watching Nathan with a teasing smile after making such a suggestion.

"It's about all you're good for with the state you're in, Nathan. Matching pairs." Thomas added, joining in with Scott's teasing.

Nathan rolled his eyes at the taunt and began expertly shuffling the cards. "Oh, I'll show you. I'm going to win your precious car off of you tonight. See you try to impress your girlfriend with it after that, hmm? Maybe she'll go for me instead."

"You wish." Thomas countered. "Just deal the damned cards."

"Poker it is then!" Nathan declared as he began dealing the cards.

Jeremiah took another tentative sip of his drink, determined not to drink himself into the same state as his host. It was bound to be an interesting and informative evening, so he'd hate to miss it.

Lelouch tapped his fingers on the desk in front of him in agitation. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even so much as a whisper of Lord Platt's meeting with the Viceroy had come to light. He knew the meeting had taken place, he knew who had been involved, but he had no idea what they had discussed. He could guess, but he had no way to find out for sure.

He toyed with the idea of using Gottwald to figure out what had been said. The man had been there as Clovis' 'bodyguard' and would undoubtedly know what had been discussed, but he wasn't confident that he could get the information out of the man. At least, not without raising suspicion. After all, the Prince Lelouch that man had met outside the Fox Hunt was a runaway struggling to survive on his own. That Prince Lelouch would have no idea that a meeting between Clovis and Lord Platt had taken place behind the closed doors of the Viceroy's Palace. It would ruin everything. And learning what had been discussed at that meeting was only a secondary objective in the larger mission of getting closer to Gottwald in the first place.

Maybe Naoto could get it out of the man, but they weren't at a stage yet that Gottwald would confide in him. In fact, he wasn't even sure if Gottwald had taken Naoto up on his invitation tonight. He'd ordered his agent to befriend the man, but it could be months before Gottwald actually got to point that he thought he could trust Naoto. By which point in time, it would already be too late to ask this question.

His other option was more subversive and would undoubtedly lead to civilian casualties in the ghettos. Though that result would likely be inevitable regardless of what he chose to do. When it came to light just what Platt and the others were planning, the Japanese would obviously be outraged. He could capitalize on that, but to instigate it?

He leaned back in his chair and heaved a heavy sigh.

He was running out of time. According to his sources, Gottwald still hadn't voiced his opinion on the registration laws. He needed to act before the man did. A complete reversal of his stance would look too suspicious.


He pushed himself out of his chair and left his office, locking the door behind him. It was already this late and Naoto's still hadn't called. Knowing his agent, he would be cavorting with the enemy until the wee hours of the morning and wouldn't bother calling until closer to midday tomorrow. Agonizing over something he couldn't change at the moment served no purpose.

He made his way through empty corridors, footsteps echoing in his wake. This part of the building was abandoned at this hour, quiet as a tomb as opposed to during the day when the muted bustle of clandestine meetings could be heard from behind closed doors. Somehow, he always preferred it at night.

He snapped out of his thoughts as the elevator dinged at the end of the hall. His eyes narrowed and his body tensed instantly. There was no reason for anyone to be coming here at this hour. He slipped back into an alcove that hosted an oversized potted plant and reached for his gun, focusing on anything that might give the intruder away.

Steady, even footsteps began down the hall, not even trying to hide themselves. Obviously, the intruder didn't think anyone would be here at this hour. He let out a slow breath as they drew closer, relaxing his muscles and preparing to move.

The next second, the intruder was passing the alcove and Lelouch was moving, stepping out behind the person and levelling his gun at the back of their head. Or he would have if the gun hadn't been knocked out of his hand by a rapid open-handed chop which was followed up by a dizzying roundhouse kick that sent him sprawling.

He recovered quickly, rolling out of the way of the following stomp that would have probably broken bones. He had a knife in hand by the time he regained his feet. Not that he would use it.

It was Suzaku, standing in the hall across from him, breathing quickly with the adrenaline rush of their quick scuffle. His brother laughed breathlessly before dropping out of his offensive stance and sending him a sheepish smile.

"Ha ha, I was just coming to get you, Lelouch." Suzaku said awkwardly.

Lelouch rolled his eyes and put his knife away before going to collect his gun from behind the potted plant he'd been hiding with. "Why? Am I needed for something?"

"Not really. Just that Dad came by and found out that you hadn't come home yet. He was worried, so I said I'd come and get you." Suzaku shrugged. It wasn't the first time this had happened, though usually the janitor tended to chase him out before Suzaku came to get him. "You scared the crap out of me though. You're lucky you managed to dodge me stomping on your chest, because I wasn't holding back at all."

"Yeah, but dodging your attacks is something I'm good at." Lelouch said with a smile, turning toward the elevator. "And you know I have a phone, right? There was no need to come here personally."

"I didn't want to wake you up if you'd fallen asleep in your office."

"I've never fallen asleep in my office. And even if I had, you'd have been waking me up either way." Lelouch countered with an aggravated sigh. "Anyway, are you up for going out for food? I haven't eaten yet."

"I was just going to ask you that." Suzaku laughed. "I have an early morning tomorrow though, so we can't take too long."

"You're the one who always takes forever to eat." He said as he called the elevator.

"True." Suzaku agreed. "So where do you want to eat?"

"Doesn't matter."

"Right, because you eat like a freaking bird. I want ramen."

"Sounds good." Lelouch agreed easily before letting Suzaku lead the conversation.

He still had no idea what to do with the Gottwald situation. He needed the registration laws existence to be common knowledge before he could approach the man again. He just wasn't sure he was willing to pay the price of making the laws public knowledge himself. Still, even if it wasn't a step he wanted to take, he was running out of other options. He'd have to decide how he wanted to proceed by tomorrow, or the next day at the very latest.

AN: Bam! Another update. Also, this story is now up on AO3, so if you want to read it over there that's cool too. Personally I find that site a lot nicer to look at, but that could just be because it's new to me. I'm still trying to figure out all the bells and whistles over there.

Once again beta'd by the lovely Kasai no Kage, Jan 25, 2013

Thanks for reading, don't forget to review.