“I had a mark once,” she tells him, that strange witch from Shinjuku, and Lelouch’s cheeks go pink. You aren’t supposed to talk about them; marks are supposed to be private, more private than even your body—but she’s been shameless, here in his rooms, walking after her showers in just her towel, lounging on his bed in nothing but one of his shirts. She’s—
“Liar. There’s not a spot on you.” There isn’t. He’s had plenty of chances to see. Her smile at that is small, amused.
“Had, I said.”
It doesn’t make sense. A mark—it’s meant to follow you through your lives, sometimes the only way to find your other half. But when he looks at her eyes, so sad and still and hollow, he believes her.
It came up along the line of his ribs, and for every summer since he’s hid inside, reading. Playing chess. Euphie and Nunnally, splashing each other in the pool set up in the garden for them; he’d smiled. Turned back to his book.
And then it hadn’t mattered—there was no one there to see.
He doesn’t understand the word that’s shouted at him as he reaches with fascination toward the covered trough of water. What he does understand is the brick wall that slams into him; he hits the ground and skids, and for one long, embarrassing moment he has to bite his lip because he isn’t going to cry, not in front of this boy who’s towering over him, mean written all over his features.
“Lelouch?” Nunnally’s voice, quiet and unsure, is the only thing that keeps him from running. He scoffs, makes a show of rubbing the blood from his bitten lip with the back of his hand and ignoring the rivulets trailing down from scuffed and bloody knees to stain his socks. He kneels, catching Nunnally’s arms to loop them around his neck as he hikes her up. She’s small but deceptively heavy; there’s a twinge in his knee, in his ankle, that wasn’t there before. His first step wobbles. Nunnally’s arms tighten around him.
“What, are you stupid?” the boy asks. His accent is thick enough that Lelouch sneers at him, but it isn’t like he speaks any Japanese. It isn’t until he strides over and starts to pull on Nunnally’s arms that Lelouch gets it.
“No! Hey, no!”
But there’s no way to grab her when he locks his arms around her middle; he can’t carry her like this, but it’s enough to stalemate. He locks his knees until he isn’t swaying anymore, and Nunnally whimpers against his neck.
“Huh. Okay.” It’s an unusually graceful concession from the boy who was trying to steal his little sister from him not a moment ago. Lelouch is cocky for a moment, at least until his knee buckles beneath him and he and Nunnally go toppling to the stones. He’s at least careful to tuck her in, catching the worst of his on his back, but his breath is knocked out of him. His chest jerks on the sob as he smothers it, eyes and knees and back stinging. Lets Nunnally cry for him, her face scrunched in the fear and pain that he can’t let himself voice.
“It’s okay, Nunnally,” he tells her, and his voice is scratchy but she quiets. “I’m sorry I dropped you.”
“Let me carry her.” It isn’t a question. The boy looks stern, I told you written on his face as he reaches down. She moves into the boy’s grasp easily, faithfully, and Lelouch’s heart thumps in his throat until she’s settled like a frog on the boy’s back. “You’re really light,” he tells her, and she laughs.
His name is Suzaku. Lelouch serves him hot water from chipped teacups and listens to him bragging—he’s the son of the prime minister, he is the heir of the shrine, he is Todoh-sensei’s best pupil, he is perfect and everything in his life is perfect, except for the orphans living in his garden shed. Lelouch is quiet as Suzaku describes the field of sunflowers he prefers to play in.
“I want to see them,” Nunnally sighs with longing. Suzaku’s eyes dart to her, lingering on her closed lids. For a long moment, Lelouch wonders what Suzaku will say, stares him down with eyes like needles.
“Ah,” Suzaku says, and his eyes turn to catch Lelouch’s. “It’s not time for them yet. In the spring, I’ll carry you.”
“We won’t be here in the spring,” Lelouch tells him. “Our father will come for us soon.”
It’s the first lie he ever tells Suzaku.
The curly characters are familiar, some matching though he can’t find the first part, and he realizes he may find his mark among them--that his mark is Japanese. For a long moment he’s tempted to ask, to trace the mark in the dirt with the stick he’s using to practice as Suzaku teaches him simple words and phrases. They can hold almost an entire conversation now, Nunnally chiming in where she can, though he knows Suzaku humors him a little. The difference between what he hears around him and the slow, patient way Suzaku speaks with them is stark, and Lelouch frowns to himself, doubling down on the symbols he’s learning. He’s nearly perfected the twisting tail at the bottom of ‘ne’.
“Good, good!” Suzaku encourages, “—but.” He takes the stick, turns the tail the other direction. Lelouch frowns deeper, concentrating. This time the loop feeds into the tail easily, and he sits back, quietly pleased. It does look better. “It’s good, your ‘ne’,” Suzaku says, or perhaps just “It’s good, huh?” It’s difficult to tell, but the key words are clear, and Lelouch smiles at him.
“Suzaku.” Tohdoh is a quiet man, but there’s a tension to him; Lelouch doesn’t recognize all of the words he’s using as Suzaku bows his head meekly, but he does recognize “time”. He recognizes “useless”. He watches Suzaku’s bowed and humble head and the pink flush that covers his face; whether Suzaku thinks he does understand or not, it’s clearly embarrassing that it’s being said in front of him. About him, Lelouch suspects.
“Ah, I have training. I forgot,” Suzaku tells him under Tohdoh’s watchful eye. These words are clumsy; he could have said it in a different way—he’d learned “forgot” the other day. Lelouch nods. The characters disappear as he squiggles them out with a stick. By the time he’s done, they’ve both disappeared.
He still doesn’t know what it means.
Later, when he has more important things to worry about, the word still draws him to a dead stop, printed clearly in red and white. It’s. His fingers drift toward the mark, stopped only by Nunnally’s leg where it dangles as she clings to his back.
“Lulu?” she asks, and. And he knows he can’t — here, not now, not when the evacuation point is still some miles ahead and there’s still daylight. He shakes his head, smiles though she can’t see it.
Suzaku’s fingers are careful around Nunnally’s leg as he guides her down. He crouches, catching her on his back smoothly, and when Lelouch opens his mouth to protest, he smiles, too, shaking his head. “Stay strong. I’ll help.” It’s. Kind, in the face of the danger they’re in. In the face of the fact that they’ve been staggering through burned and decimated villages, through corpses whose faces are already black with flies. Strong—of course Suzaku is, when his own father’s been dead for less than a week and Lelouch’s father has set his life on fire. Lelouch nods once, sharply, and Suzaku’s smile goes softer. “Don’t cry.”
“I’m not!” he snaps back, but when he scrubs at his eyes with the back of a fist, they’re wet.
“Lulu.” It’s quiet, just the two of them for once. Nunnally is inside the dirty, unkempt plastic pod the administrators are calling a bathroom; it’s too small for him to come and help, and so he’s waiting here with Suzaku and hoping she doesn’t have an accident. He’s listening for her call that she’s done, and it might be the only reason he looks up to see—Suzaku’s pulled the edge of his pants down, just enough to show the neat, foreign words on his skin. Lelouch’s heart thumps in his chest as he grabs at him, yanking on his shirt until the dark marks are covered, hidden. Secret.
“What are you doing?” he hisses, and Suzaku frowns.
“I don’t know what it means. I—before—can you tell me?” And Lelouch goes pink because he’s had the same thought, considered asking the same favor before he’d come to his senses and realized that it wasn’t a thing for showing. And here was Suzaku standing outside by the toilets—!
“Lulu?” Nunnally calls, echoey and plastic; Lelouch just shakes his head and turns. He’s got more important things to worry about. He helps her from the seat, cups her hands beneath the tap and pumps water into them for her, checks discreetly—no trouble, and his heart pangs for a moment that she’d managed on her own, as if she didn’t need him.
It isn’t until later, after the camp food dinner and tucking Nunnally into her cot next to his that he takes a moment to consider the dark words. He knows how special it is to have a mark, how only about a third of the population do. His mother had had a mark, one that didn’t match his father; it isn’t uncommon with so few marks around for people to pair off in unmatched sets, and it wasn’t like his father had really paired off, anyway—quintupled off, perhaps, or sextupled off, but the thought makes him feel uneasy.
The whole point is to find that other mark. It isn’t uncommon, no, but it’s rare for it to be permanent. The story is that your half will always pull you, that the closer you are to them by proximity the stronger the heartsong connecting you will be, the harder it will be to resist the call of their soul to yours. Things happen—perhaps his mother’s pair had died young in this life; perhaps they’d been injured or sent to the other side of the world. It isn’t impossible to resist, not if you get far enough away, but Lelouch presses his hand against his chest and tries to imagine a life that empty, always comparing his partner to the quiet knowledge that somewhere in the world was the soul who would always understand him best. He can’t.
He knows how special it is. It’s why he loops his fingers through Suzaku’s in the empty space between their cots, why he murmurs into the dark: “I don’t want to be here.” He remembers them, those words, remembers the moment his eyes had locked onto the furious faces of two children as he’d panted, exhausted, Nunnally’s weight like stone on his back. He’d thought he was talking to himself at the time.
“That’s what it means,” he finishes, and in the dark, Suzaku smiles. Somewhere on the other side of the room, someone shifts on a squeaky cot. Someone coughs.
It isn’t the same. It isn’t quite the same, telling him what it means instead of what it sounds like. Lelouch presses his fingers over the characters along his ribs and remembers a sign, red and white. Remembers the cool peace of shadowed water and the wooden dipper he’d wanted to show Nunnally.
Something inside him knows, and that’s what Mother had always said, her eyes bright and blue and soft with some secret memory. “You’ll know,” she’d whispered, her hand warm along his side and her perfume around him as she’d bent to kiss his forehead. She’d known, almost the minute the mark had risen to the surface, because she was his mother and she knew everything. Her fingertips had rested against the inside of a gloved wrist, and he still recalls her distant look, her quiet sigh. “You will. Your heart will not keep it secret from you.”
It’s comforting, this feeling that he’s wrapped up in love, in eventual, inevitable, ineffable love. He curls his fingertips around Suzaku’s and sleeps.