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"Aren't you the very picture of dejection," Lelouch murmured. "I gather this wasn't in the training manual?"

"What?" Suzaku said dully. He hunched his shoulders. Lelouch gave him a long look, and then he smiled a little and shook his head and said nothing. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the ragged, shorn edge of rock and began tugging off his gloves. Beyond the overhang and protective curve of stone, afternoon sun baked the soil into dusty rock. Cicadas sang, throaty and ringing. Suzaku watched him for a few seconds, and then followed suit and unbuttoned his dress coat.

The coat was filthy; streaked with mud and maybe a smudge of blood, and one of the sleeves was frayed at the seam. He folded it carefully and sat cross-legged on the ground and pulled his sword closer. He cleaned the blade of scuffs and dirt with his glove, and then he didn't have anything to do with it, so he laid it on the ground and stacked his coat and his gloves on top in a neat pile.

Lelouch was silent. Indifferent, his index finger restlessly tapping against his knuckles. Suzaku swallowed and listened to the far-away sound of the waves and fitted his hands around the ankles of his boots. They waited.

Finally, there was a quiet step against stone, the rustle of foliage pushed to the side. Suzaku started to his feet, but Lelouch only opened an eye, and CC ducked into their little shelter. She wore Lelouch's spare slacks and button-up shirt. His cravat covered her hair. She slung a dusty bundle at their feet. "I hope that's worth it," she said sourly, tearing the cravat from her head to let her hair fall free. "Because I'm not doing it again."

"Mm, yes," Lelouch said. He unfolded and reached for the bundle without looking at her. He carded his fingers through the clothes and delicately pulled out a t-shirt and pair of jeans. "That was very useful of you. I'm rather surprised." He spared Suzaku a look and tossed the rest of the clothes his way. "Did anyone see you?"

She gave a mock-dramatic sigh and combed her fingers through her hair, pulling its whole length over her shoulder. "I'm sure. I'm not nearly as interesting to them, now."

"I'm only assuming that if a squadron of Knightmares was in pursuit, you would have the sense not to lead them here," Lelouch said. He unbuttoned Zero's coat. "Though, you may be right. They may no longer care."

"Um." Suzaku stared blankly at the short skirt in his hands.

CC smiled at him. A sly, predatory curve of her lips. "That's mine," she purred. She slipped Lelouch's pants over her hips, and Suzaku automatically looked away. She laughed and took the skirt from his hand.

Lelouch made an exasperated sound. "Give me my clothes, woman." There was a brief scuffle, and then the pirated clothing was in Suzaku's hands, and he undressed mutely. The jeans didn't quite fit, but sat well enough. There were frayed holes in the knees. He carefully folded his slacks and his long-sleeved dress shirt and placed them on top of the coat and sword. His boots felt odd beneath the jeans, but they were discreet enough. When he turned around, CC was squeezing her feet into a pair of flats, and Lelouch was rolling up the sleeves of his button-up shirt.

"Now what?" he said finally. CC raised her eyebrows at him, and then she tilted her head and gave Lelouch a sideways look.

Lelouch looked at him and then away again, his expression peculiar and closed. "Now," he said, "we need to steal an aircraft carrier."

It was odd, Lelouch thought. After all those years of hard pain and resentment, the endless build to a bottomless hunger, this desire for vengeance, after all that time dedicated to hate and calculation and, finally, death, he didn't feel at all absolved. He should have slept better, knowing that the last Emperor of the Holy Britannian Empire was no more. He should have felt the smallest bit of satisfaction, at least, without the gnawing indignation of knowing that he had been played. But absolution, what right should he have to that, anyway? Murder is murder, and that coveted life--those lives, coveted in different ways, were not the first he ever took.

What haunted him: Marianne's blood seeping into fine carpet, her sightless eyes and Nunnally's hysterical scream and him feeling as though he was going to teeter and fall down the steps himself--but mostly the smack of betrayal, that sick feeling in his throat as he realized all of it, her whole dreadful death scene, was a lie imprinted upon his memory. Also, the trembling in his knees as he saw her smile at him, say his name as though he was once again a little boy. Also, the hard numbness he had felt as he watched his beautiful, kind, wise, loving mother fade into nothing before his eyes. Also, split-second, savage triumph. That last, he had expected, if only in the very back of his mind.

What destroyed him: this concept of protecting that which you love the most, of hiding your dear ones away to cry and hurt and starve and languish and die, alone and unprotected and afraid. What was that?

CC hugged her knees close to her chest. "I should be smiling when I die, no? And what about you two? What are you going to do now?" She looked up, met Suzaku's eyes, and then glanced at Lelouch, her face solemn and just a bit apprehensive. "You denied Charles' and Marianne's plan and have chosen reality...chosen the path of advancing time."

Suzaku squeezed the sword's hilt so tightly that his gloves creaked. "Yeah. Lelouch is Euphie's murderer."

Lelouch glared at him, his eyes slitted and edged in furious red. "And what of it?"

"What of it?" Suzaku clenched his jaw and leveled the sword's point at Lelouch. "You can't say that so easily. She trusted you, and you murdered her in cold blood. Your own sister," he growled. "She was trying to create Nunnally's world, and you--"

"Is that all you have to say?" Lelouch snapped. "Is there nothing else?"

"You have to take responsibility for what you did."

Lelouch snatched the sword from the air and dragged Suzaku, stumbling, closer. He put the tip's edge against his chest. "If you killed me," he snarled, "would it bring her back? If I apologized, would it change anything?"

Suzaku recoiled and began, "That's not the point--"

"It is." Lelouch released the blade and batted it aside. He sneered. "That's always been the point. Nothing will change, unless you make it. The dead are dead. Learn something for once, you unbelievable fool." He turned on his heel and started off across the stone. CC stood, dusted off her shorts, and gave Suzaku a long, inscrutable look. He said nothing, and after a moment, she quirked her eyebrows up and followed Lelouch.

Rhetorical question. The more useful thing to ask was, rather, what was that not, and Lelouch knew without any sort of doubt or hope that it was most certainly not that which he would call love.

"We're leaving Japan," Lelouch said. "Before Schneizel heads us off." He stood with Zero's clothes bundled over his arm, watching the slow burn of the sky as the sun sank. "I'm sure," he murmured, "that even now, if you asked nicely, they would take you back." He looked at Suzaku through his eyelashes. A careful distance between the two of them. "Their standards of treason are sometimes rather flexible."

Suzaku didn't take the bait. "When are you leaving?"

A distant, electric drone hummed closer, like a thousand wings drumming together. The trees rustled, then whipped in the sudden wind, and the Shinkirou descended and went to bended knee on crushed thicket and mast. The cockpit hissed open, and CC stretched and crossed her legs and looked to them expectantly. Lelouch smiled. His eyes glittered red in the dusk's light. "At full dark, when the moon sets." He turned away from Suzaku and started toward the Knightmare. "We'll be at the Yokohama base."

He watched them go, if only because of a vague notion that he should not turn his back on someone he didn't trust, and if there was any single truth left, it was that he did not trust Lelouch.

The journey from Kaminejima had not been kind to the Lancelot, traveling as it was without the shelter of the carrier he had brought and subsequently lost. It was grimy with crusted mud and pollen, its paint seared and scratched from the battle over the Tokyo Settlement. Littered with dead leaves and broken branches. Its hasty repairs were sub-par and lagging, its synch ratio with the new parts pathetic. Suzaku climbed over buckled metal and jagged edges, heaved himself over the fact-spheres and keyed open the cockpit.

The air inside was stale and tinged faintly with the scent of oil, but it was cool and clean and empty, dark. He carefully stowed away his sword and dropped into the seat. As the cockpit slid shut, the evening sounds faded to a muffled drone. Darkness encased him. He ran his fingertips over the controls, the grips contoured to his hands. He reached for the devicer key in his pocket. He closed his fingers over it, squeezed its shape into his palm, and then withdrew his empty hand.

He fumbled in the dark to pull up his jeans, and unzipped his boots and kicked them off. He folded his legs up and drew his knees close, pressed his face into his arms and curled his toes into the seat. He did not move for a long time.

Yokohama's lights deafened the stars. The base was a bright blaze that Suzaku skirted, uneasy. The dark seemed like no cloak at all, and he felt very much a coward. From the shadows of the ugly metal storehouses, he could see nothing. His energy filler nagged at him.

The comm. link beeped, and a visual link opened before he could cancel it. "You're going the wrong way," CC said flatly. She gave him a snide look. "The northern edge. We've been waiting for ages."

"Thanks," he muttered, and wheeled and gunned the land-spinners.

The aircraft carrier was no battleship. It could hide. He deftly slid the Lancelot into its cramped hold. The Shinkirou was already crouched there, its gleaming displays dark. He stumbled when he leapt from the cockpit, and just as he regained his footing, the whole carrier rumbled and lurched with a roar. There was a feeling of great gravity as it lifted off, a vertiginous shift of center. He clung to the Lancelot's leg as the carrier inclined and turned (east, he thought), the movement slow and huge like a god.

He felt a pang of fear when he made his careful way to the cargo hold's airlock, as though they might have shut him in there for the whole trip, but the door hissed open at his touch, and he went gingerly to the cockpit, one hand always on the wall. The engine hummed up his wrist bones and rattled up through his shoulder.

Lelouch perched in the pilot's seat, a headset slung around his neck. He peered intently at the dials and needles across the dashboard, his face lit from below by the screens. "It's a seven and a half hour flight," he said, without looking at Suzaku. "Save your energy."

CC was curled in the copilot's seat, her hair loosely braided over her shoulder. She wore Lelouch's Ashford uniform blazer over her tank top. She ignored them, to all appearances asleep. Suzaku shifted back. He gave Lelouch a lingering look, and when he got no response, he turned away to the crowded little passenger seating inset behind the cockpit. He hesitated, and finally laid across the seats, their metal supports digging into his shoulder and hip. He closed his eyes and listened to the droning roar of the aircraft's engine and did not sleep.

She came to him at groundfall as he sat on the rickety crates stashed in the carrier's shadow, the rusted out hangar's skewed lines tracing lurching shadows across the floor. Afternoon simmered beyond them, heavy with insect song and the promise of rain.

"Can I trust you, my witch?" Lelouch said, without looking at her.

CC stepped behind him and smoothed her hands over his hair. "I won't lie to you," she said. "You can believe in that." Her nails drew against his scalp. Her weight against his back.

"I suppose." He studied the mask of clouds as they curled past the open hangar's doorway.

"How cold. I'll try not to be offended." Her fingers brushed along behind his ears, and he thought for a second of his mother's touch and let out a slow breath, its pressure like a great weight against his chest.

"How long have you known me, CC?" he said quietly. "How long have you watched me?"

"Always." Her hands sank to his shoulders. "I have always been here."

"Do you regret their passing?"

She said nothing for a long time, her fingers light against the lines of his collarbones, the angles of his shoulders, and then she sighed. "Inasmuch as my heart can grieve, yes. Though I had thought I would regret it more." When she spoke again, her voice was closer. He could smell her; a clean, unsettling scent like ozone or lightning. "Do you?" She folded her arms around his neck.

"It was rather bloodless," he heard himself say. The wash of sunlight across the dirty concrete floor faded into shadow as the clouds thickened.

"You would have it differently?"

He thought of Charles, dying at his feet. Spitting a bloody drool. Marianne's limp swoon, her chest a burst of red. The weight of a blade or a gun in his hands. This impetuous thing, like cutting through the fabric of lies, feeling it rend between his hands. Death was a stony creature of dirt and ashes, after its flame and cooling blood. Like shoving the muzzle of a gun against the soft flesh of Clovis's cheek and pulling the trigger. Like digging a grave for Rolo's limp corpse. It should not have been so easy. This numbness, this weight, this should be pain. "I don't know," he said.

She huffed out a breath next to his ear. "Hm. Such a thirst for gore. Ironic, as you have acquired a virtuous white knight, hmm?"

"You're not nearly as funny as you think you are." He closed his eyes, and she gave a humming laugh and stepped away, her hair sliding over his shoulder as she turned.

"Not so virtuous, then?"

"No," he said. "Not so."

"I know what you're going to say," she said, singsong.

"Mm, really. What am I going to say?"

"That he's more intelligent than I give him credit for."

He opened his eyes and did not look at her. "I was not going to say that."

"You were."

"I was going to say nothing of the sort. For all I know, you give him exactly as much credit as he deserves."

She sat on the crates next to him, facing the opposite direction. Distantly, thunder rumbled. "If I think he is a dimwit?"

"Then perhaps he is."

She smiled. "And if I think he is a genius?"

"Then I would begin to wonder at your state of mind, CC, but I concede that is also a possibility, slim as it may be."

"Do you think he's a dimwit?"

"Hard as you may find it to believe, I do not enjoy circular conversations. What's your point?"

"No point." She smirked. "Curiosity."

"Well, you know what they say about curiosity." He laced his fingers. "You don't want to brood." There was silence, and then CC snickered. He gave her a withering look, and she ignored him and giggled helplessly into her hand, her laugh ringing but not cruel. "Oh, be quiet," he muttered. "You're clever at all."

"Of course not. But what an ironic thing to say." Her mirth faded, and she leaned back on her hands to give him a sideways look. "What now, boy-king? Have you exhausted your legacy in running away?"

"No," he said. "I'm far from finished. Schneizel will have his own plans, and I won't let him win."

"Enjoy your plotting. Or pouting. Whichever. But be careful of your newfound demon, hmm? If that's what he is."

He looked at her, and she nodded to the carrier's bulk overhead. "Suzaku is not a demon," he said quietly. "He's not a demon, and he's not a virtuous knight. He's just a boy."

"Maybe so." She swung her legs. "I can promise you one thing, though. All joking aside."

"And what's that?"

She smiled: an unpleasant, warning gleam. "By the end of all of this, you'll wish you'd killed him when you still could."

He watched the lines of the trees outside, waxy leaves and gnarled branches. The wind gusted, its edge heavy and humid like fetid breath from a great beast. Rain began to fall in fat, driving torrents, pattering along the dirt road and hissing against the leaves. He did not look at her. "Maybe," he said.

The sun healed, in the same way that rain healed. The sun burned and blistered, sought honesty and truth through pain from beneath peeling deceptions and cowardice. Rain cleansed, but it, too, was its own pain. Because what use was there in cleaning one's soul of everything that hurt? Of blurring the lines and edges? Everything sharp is sharper when one doesn't see it coming. If the sun seared away lies and impurity and rain washed away blood and shame, what then? What was left, but for bleached bones and a fine film of dust?

Lelouch watched the rain for a long time, his fingers knit and his feet just so, just this distance apart. The rain curtained and rippled and sluiced from the roof, hid uneven edges of the trees in a haze, the heaps of mountain beyond. The gutter over the door finally overflowed and spilled a fan of water across the span of the land. Blurry, weaving. He stood and he left, walking into its embrace.

His clothes clung to him, his hair slicked to his neck. It ran over his face, dripped from his chin and onto his chest as he walked the road's length. The earth was rich and reeking with rot and the vivid, persistent blaze of life. Leaves jerking under the weight of the rain. Crushed greenery and turned soil. He toed at the loose, fine mud of the road and stood and watched the land.

Hurt was a curious thing, deeply sewn into heartwood and the mythical fabric of the soul. This was the source of ancient prayer and desperation. (Synapses, all. The heart is no center of emotion, no anchor of the self. It is a muscle, an ugly snarl of bloody tissue. But it beats with the rhythm of the earth. And this burden, this hard knot of anonymous weight, crushes not the mind, not the throat, not the guts, but rather--) But hurt cries for healing, and humans must believe in the potential for healing, or else there is no hope.

A town, a market. He stood beneath an awning and watched the rain whisper and spit and its summer storm split-second strength began to fade. A merchant asked him what his business was, his voice hostile and impatient. Accusation. And he turned and smiled, beatific, made eye contact and asked politely that the stall keeper give him some help, and the man smiled back (no one can help but smile back at the devil) and kindly offered him whatever he might need. Because he was such an upstanding boy, commanded such respect, such generosity.

(And what, then, if in order to heal, to let the sun and the rain burn and launder, one must cut away a part of oneself, what then. Healing has its own price, but what healing is that.)

The story of a betrayal. For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth: the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. This new world. Hallelujah.

When Suzaku drifted awake, it was quiet and dark. He rolled over with a groan, his back stiff, and met CC's eyes. She peered down at him, her fingers idly playing through her hair. "Good morning," she said. "Though I use the term loosely."

He rubbed at his face. "Where are we?"

"The Mid-Pacific Islands." She ran her eyes over his face. "You wouldn't want to go get me something to eat, would you?"

He rubbed at his eyes and squinted at her. "I don't have any money."

She sighed. "Some gentleman you are. I could starve to death here, and no one would care. It would be terribly tragic."

He blinked at the metal struts curving up the bulkhead. He felt leaden, as though he had slept for days. Muddled. "Where's Lelouch?"

"Hmm?" She tucked her hair behind her ears. "Worried about our little prince?" She shifted in the seat so that her knees were on either side of his head. She leaned over him, her hair spilling onto his face.

"No," he said, frowning. "I was just asking."

"Did he scare you back in that other world, little boy?" Her eyes sank half-closed. "He was in top form, no?"

"You're wrong," he muttered, and turned onto his side, his bangs brushing against the fold of her knee. "He doesn't scare me."

"Well. I thought it was an appropriate question. He was rather intense. Emotional catharsis has interesting effects." She tilted her head. "I suspect this will be a dull vacation. You aren't the strong and silent type, are you?" He slid his eye over and looked at her. "Marianne thought you were fairly adorable. Her taste wasn't all bad, but I suppose anyone can be mistaken."

He raised himself on his elbow. "Is she dead?"

"Where have you been?" He glared at her, and she gave a dramatic sigh. "Yes, I suppose at this point, she is truly dead. Lelouch has lost his mother twice, now." She raised her eyebrows and trailed her fingertips along his jaw. "Does that make you sad?" she said softly.

He pushed away her hand. "Don't tease me," he grumbled.

"Another legitimate question disregarded. Alas."

He laid his head back and frowned at the ceiling. He refused to focus on her face above him, and he was suddenly, awkwardly aware of how close she was to him. "Why are you still here?" he said, finally. "You know he won't give you what you want."

She smirked and teased her fingers through his hair. "Because I like him. Don't you?"

Her touch lulled him, reluctantly, and he closed his eyes. "I did," he mumbled.

"Grudges must be so exhausting. I thought you decided to help him."

"Yeah," he said, frowning.

"My god, you are dense." She sighed. "Maybe Marianne was wrong, after all. I can't imagine why he wants you along. How dull." She stood and padded away, flicking her hair over her shoulder. When she reached the door that led back to the cargo hold, she stopped. "But since you asked," she remarked, "I think he's out stealing things."

The hold was new home to a stack of energy fillers for the Knightmares, as well as fuel for the carrier itself. The Shinkirou was in its place, innocent, and Suzaku gave it a long, critical look before inspecting the Lancelot's kneeling form. It was still filthy, still dented and sad. He ran his hand over the curve of its Harken Slasher and felt grit beneath his palm. He swallowed and rubbed at it with the heel of his hand.

As he stepped back to examine its cool bulk, he spied something new. Placed carefully before the Lancelot was an offering: a neatly folded pile of clothes, weighted with a pair of sneakers. He glanced over his shoulder and peered again at the clothes. He rocked on his feet and looked at his boots and, finally, knelt to unzip them and free his feet.

This was something new, unsettling. He walked the length of the hangar--a sorry thing in and of itself, looking as though it had not seen activity or care in the last twenty years--and squirmed his toes in the shoes. They felt alien to his feet, neither the loafers of Ashford's uniform nor the leather of his boots. What guise was this, he wondered. Terrorist or outlaw or maybe just accomplice.

The scale of the world beyond the hangar dwarfed him. The air was hot and clinging, rich. The sky was a crushing, impossible blue, juxtaposed with the verdant clasp of the mountains that billowed violent and green below. He stood still and listened for the sea. He could smell its sharp salt on the air. In the distance, he could see the bulk of Britannia's main island base, all a hulk of metal and angles and shimmering heat. He walked, and met no one until the old hangar was out of sight and its narrow path widened to a passable road, and then buses rumbled by in bursts of exhaust and dust, accompanied by small cars, bulky trucks. The town was a sprawl of quaint tourism and corporate propaganda, built to leach from the base's traffic. He kept shyly to its edges as the road turned to asphalt and opened, broad enough now to accommodate two Knightmares side by side.

He followed the road as it led to the base, and he crested a rise and could finally hear the rolling crash of waves like the beat of a great heart, and the sea stretched from the island's green curves in a wash of deep, unreal blue. He swung over the guardrail and worked through the scrub to the beach. The sand burned white like the center of a flame. He stood for a long time barefoot in the surf, letting cold waves wash over his ankles. Schooling his breath to its inexorable rhythm and watching the distant line of the horizon.

When he returned to the dark hangar and the carrier, shadows were beginning to lengthen and the afternoon hummed, languid. Lelouch was sitting where he had slept, his head hanging over his knees. He was no longer wearing his Ashford uniform, but a plain t-shirt and jeans. His clothes were rumbled, like he had just woken. He looked up sharply when Suzaku stepped through the doorway, but he said nothing and studied the floor.

"You've been busy," Suzaku said. He watched Lelouch's hands, clasped together between his knees, and he didn't move. "Where were you?"

"I did nothing terribly treacherous, I assure you," Lelouch said.

"What are you going to do?"

"There's a plan." He shrugged. "Be satisfied with that."

"Tell me," he said flatly.

There was an awful, tense silence as Lelouch looked at the floor, unfocused, and then he lifted his gaze. "Persistence is not always a virtue, Suzaku," he said softly. He wet his lips and ran his eyes over Suzaku's face. "Afraid, are we? The uncertainty is too much?" He smiled. "Do you think that perhaps I'm preparing some great evil on par with murdering the gods?"

"Not exactly."

"Don't worry," Lelouch said. "This will be easy for you. The first betrayal is the worst, and you've left one that long behind." His eyes were cool and sharp, hungry. Belligerent.

"Something I'm sure you're used to," Suzaku said. He swallowed. "Considering."

Lelouch shook his head and looked at the floor, and he huffed out a laugh. "Dogs never learn, do they?" He looked up through his hair and showed his teeth. "Do you regret it yet?"

"Regret what?" He was hearing himself speak. Hearing these destructive words. He shuffled his feet and made himself look up, his stomach twisting.

"'Regret what,'" Lelouch echoed. His eyes glittered. "'Regret what.' Your unfortunate attraction to royalty, maybe. Your relentless idiocy. Everything." His voice grew louder. "Your poor attempts at self-destruction and your inability to understand the matter of blame or sacrifices and would you get that look off your face."

Suzaku swallowed again. "What look?" he said helplessly.

Lelouch jerked to his feet, his shoulders tense and trembling. "That look like you don't have a soul," he snarled. "Like you've destroyed every aspect of yourself worth saving. Like you're some great martyr with the guilt of the world on his shoulders. I'm sick of your baggage. Your angst is meaningless."

"Is it?"

"Yes," he hissed. "Everything you've done until now, your grand religion of justice, has been completely trivial."

Suzaku was reaching for him before he himself realized it, his vision gone narrow and cold. His hands fisted in Lelouch's shirt and he shoved him against the bulkhead, knocking a rattling laugh from Lelouch's chest. "What's this?" Lelouch said breathlessly, triumphant. "A nerve?"

"You don't have the right to lecture me," Suzaku said, with difficulty. "There isn't a high ground anymore." Lelouch sagged against his hands, as if in surrender, and then Suzaku could feel Lelouch shake as he laughed again. An awful, shuddering sound. Suzaku shook him furiously. "You've only ever been a killer and a liar, Lelouch," he said, the words raw. "Nothing will change that."

"You're pathetic," Lelouch spat. "You make me sick." Suzaku let out a wordless growl and lashed out. The punch was a glancing blow to Lelouch's cheek as he twisted out of Suzaku's other hand and ducked. Suzaku made a grab for him and Lelouch kicked him hard in the side, but Suzaku grunted and fisted his hand in Lelouch's shirt and shoved, tripping him over his own feet, and they both crashed to the floor.

Lelouch glared at him, his eyes a jagged, stinging violet, and he panted under Suzaku's weight across his middle. "You," Suzaku said, and swallowed. His face twisted. "You..."

Lelouch smiled and said something that was drowned by the roaring in Suzaku's ears, the rush and thunder of blood, and suddenly there was the muzzle of a gun digging into his ribs and his hand was crushed against Lelouch's throat. His fingers squeezed against Lelouch's pulse, and he could feel Lelouch struggling for breath, but his face was frozen and closed-off. As though he expected it. The pistol angled up with bruising force, pointing at his lungs, his heart, Lelouch's finger steady on the trigger. Finally, Lelouch tried to swallow and gagged, and Suzaku jerked back his hand. He grabbed the gun and turned it away from its point-blank aim at his chest, and he shuddered, feeling suddenly bloodless, cold.

Despite himself, Lelouch smiled, rubbing at his neck. "How dependable," he said, his voice ragged. "Hate me for it if you like, but I'm not the only killer here." His tongue darted out to wet his lips. "Am I?"

Suzaku rolled off of him and slumped back on his knees. He looked at Lelouch's neck, at the red finger-marks there, and felt sick. "I didn't," he said weakly, and then his throat closed and he fell silent. He wanted to run, to escape. He thought of the Lancelot, and wanted very badly to shut himself inside its cockpit, huddle in the comfort of its darkness.

He was frozen, staring at the floor, when the door from the cockpit hissed open and CC stood on its threshold. She rolled her eyes, her lip curling, and put her hands on her hips.

"Both of you, come with me," she sniffed. "I'm not going to get dinner just so that I can come back and find that you've murdered each other." There was a long silence, and then she started tapping her foot, and Lelouch rolled his eyes in a gesture of massive scorn, but he got to his feet and dusted himself off without protest. He held the gun loosely at his side. CC looked at Suzaku and crossed her arms, and finally, he followed suit. His knees wobbled. "You two," CC said primly, "are a couple of brats. So you have to go wherever I want."

They walked to the town and, in the end, she insisted on going to a chain pizza restaurant, where she ordered for them and the silence stretched out interminable and awkward. "Would you just make up?" she finally sighed. "There will be no hiding it if you keep that up."

"Hiding what?" Suzaku said.

"What massive children you are."

"You do realize," Lelouch said mildly, "that you're suggesting I apologize for coming rather close to shooting him, he apologize for almost strangling me, and also for acting like an imbecilic, long-suffering, soulless martyr." He cleared his throat.

"And him for being a bastard in general," Suzaku said, tracing a line through the water on the table.

"Yes, I do realize."

"I'd rather not," Lelouch said. Suzaku didn't want to agree with him, even though he did, so he didn't say anything.

"Well, I'm tired of it," she snapped.

"Stay out of it, woman," Lelouch said sharply, his mouth twisting. "It's none of your business."

"Pardon me. I thought I was your nanny. And if I'm not," she said quickly as Lelouch glared at her, "you're doing a very good job acting as though you need one."

It was very weird, Suzaku thought, sitting in a Pizza Hut listening to an argument about who should or should not apologize for attempted murder.

In the end, neither of them said anything and the pizza came and CC ate hers with pointed gusto, cheese stringing over her chin, and she ignored Lelouch when he told her she was disgusting. Suzaku ate automatically, without speaking. He could barely taste it. They walked back silently in the dark, the island rich around them with smells of earth and sea, the sky flickering with fireflies and larger winged things that were invisible in the shadows.

He lingered outside and peered at the sky. Clouds curled across its span, blotting out the stars in an endless well of inky black. He closed his eyes and felt the rhythm of the sea, ebb and flow and gentle cleansing. Salt and the sun's warmth against his skin. The rich air of a summer that didn't end.

Lelouch and CC were in the cockpit when he finally climbed into the carrier. He sat and looked at his hands, studied the walls. His ribs ached. After a while, he slept slumped over the back of the chair, his head pillowed on his arms, and he woke only with the quake and vertigo of the carrier's movement as they left sometime late in the night.

The streets of California were paved with gold. Or silver. Or tar and poured stone that felt soft under the blazing noonday sun and gave off a reek like burning rubber. The coast snarled and hummed with desperate capitalism and luxury, painted like a harlot. (She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her--but now murderers.) Mountains edged the horizon in shadowed blue, their sides pocked with development and the open wounds of harvested trees and rock. To the north were the high-rises of noble mansions and well-to-do, old money, nestled among synthetic green and carefully ushered away from scarred land that used to bear fruit. The motherland was sick, was dying a slow, festering death of infection. Lelouch knew this with a curl of revulsion in the pit of his stomach. A poor, sick old queen, horrible with her spill of gluttony and black teeth, blind and mindless hunger.

A coup de grace, he thought, would be rather fitting. Before her limbs went to seek her head and found that nothing sat atop her sagging neck, drive a blade through her chest and destroy the shadow she cast across the land. Set light to her massive funeral pyre and spit upon the flames.

An inept metaphor. If the head is gone, if the brain is destroyed, then what capacity is there for hope? He thought it overly sentimental to spare her heart, because the heart is itself overly sentimental, but that was a difficulty. Britannia required a remaking, not a brutal death, because she had cut out and forgotten that capacity for hope long ago. A stupid notion. As if such a perfect world had ever existed, would ever exist anew. His chest (his what, his _____) ached. Useless.

( "There is always hope," Nunnally once said, smiling and sweet and threatening to tear him in two. "As long as I can take your hand," and here she slid her fingers around his and squeezed, "then you know that you're not alone, and there is hope." )

Another difficulty:

"What of the Lancelot, hmm?" CC tsked. "It won't last terribly long as it is, will it? Rather beyond repair. It's a pity." She sat back on the carrier's console and crossed her ankles, watching Lelouch as he worked.

He sighed through his nose. "A depraved society we inhabit," he said. "Wherein we rely on massive humanoid technology for shows of power. It's impossible to hide them."

"It makes you miss Lakshata, doesn't it?" She swung her feet. "She was useful."

"We'll manage soon enough. I suppose we should, depending on how much trouble it would be to bring with us." He shook his hair out of his eyes. "Where is Suzaku?"

"Brooding. I don't know. He's much quieter than I expected him to be."

He made a dismissive gesture. "Fine, then. You move the Lancelot to the truck if it will go anywhere, and I'll finish this."

"Joy," she murmured, and slipped from the cockpit. He tapped his finger against the console and watched the database's files wiped clean piecemeal, rendering them anonymous. He pocketed the disc drive and powered down the computer, and the cockpit fell dark.

"Don't be thick," CC sighed as he stepped through the door to the hold, and he looked up in surprise.

"Don't touch it," Suzaku growled. His arms spread, his back against the Lancelot's battered form as though he could protect it. Jerked from his maddening, wooden state, his eyes were fierce like a cornered animal's. He looked from CC to Lelouch and back, wild with distrust. CC stood a careful distance away from him, her arms crossed, unimpressed.

"Why?" Lelouch said. He met Suzaku's eyes.

Suzaku gritted his teeth and did not lower his hands. "Leave it alone," he said raggedly.

"It's scrap," Lelouch said flatly. "I'm surprised it got you to and from Kaminejima."

"It's mine," he snapped. "The Lancelot is mine and it's my responsibility. Don't touch it."

"Mementos are useless, Suzaku, if that's all it is," Lelouch said. "You can't fix it."

Suzaku gave him a furious, desperate look, and he glanced at the Knightmare behind him, wavering. Pathetic and sad. A sort of agony. "I'll leave," he said helplessly. "I will. If you leave the Lancelot behind, I'm not going with you."

"Why?" Lelouch said again. He closed his lips and studied Suzaku's face and he felt something treacherous shift within him.

"It's important." Suzaku's throat jerked as he swallowed. "Please," he said, the word hissing from his lips.

"Don't beg," Lelouch said absently. "I won't destroy your precious machine." He tilted his head and looked at its bulk, once gleaming, proud, and now just dirty and worn. "If you can make it move," he said, shrugging, "then I don't care. Fulfill your duty, if you must."

But of course Suzaku could make it move. Of course he could climb nimbly into the cockpit (without a word) and ease into the controls as though they were an extension of himself and awaken it from its rigor mortis to humming life, displays glittering a sharp, vivid green. It rose despite its damage and jerking lag. There was a certain resonance of Suzaku about it, an exacting, sturdy nature. An impressive match. There was a reason he was such an irritating opponent. Lelouch felt very foolish for allowing himself to forget so much. From the corner of his eye, he could see CC watching him, but she said nothing, and he could not read her crossed arms and closed face.

Schneizel disappeared. He did so with no great denouement, no blazing vanguard to mark his passage, and so Lelouch thought he was probably not dead. There was simply a lull, a time of stillness, and then someone in the UFN posed an innocent question--and, damn them, Lelouch could not decide precisely who to blame, though he suspected Xing-ke or Kaguya or Ohgi, one of the three, because they were each very shrewd and it was all too, too calculated--and then Odysseus held a carefully scripted and also innocent little press conference where he gave an inane smile to be broadcasted across the world and said that His Majesty was currently uncertain as to the specific whereabouts of the Prime Minister, His Imperial Highness the second prince, Schneizel el Britannia. Cornelia never made the news in the first place. Endgame, in how many moves?

"We're going to Pendragon," Lelouch said, triumphant, vicious. Humming with mad energy, newspaper ink smeared over his fingers. Suzaku looking at him, critical and silent.

The white king is gone, the white king is gone. He wanted to write it in savage letters and burn them, let a brutal smile eat up a part of him. The throne is empty, the throne is free. Who would have the nerve to seize it and claim responsibility for murder? The nauseous old crone was defenseless, her blood claggy and begging to be spilled. The white king has fled. Check. Checkmate.

"And, little prince?" CC said, her eyes glinting gold. "What will you do once you reach the sacred capital of the holy empire?"

"Don't be facetious." He showed his teeth. "I'm going to take what's mine."

They drove south, the heavy truck churning dust from beneath its wheels.

Greenery faded to dry, scraggly trees like jagged claws, the buildings shifting from elegant slopes and bright colors against the sky to squat and dusty, flat concrete and brick. Lelouch spent his waking hours with the map, carefully editing their route as he listened to static and broken transmissions on the truck's radio. CC drove, because Suzaku could only do it in theory and Lelouch had never bothered to learn at all. The cab had a sleeper with a faintly musty travel mattress, and sometimes one of them slept. The truck swallowed endless gallons of diesel fuel to haul the huge dead weight of the two Knightmares, belching great gouts of foul black exhaust. For a week, they parked a careful mile from each destination and walked the distance along the road, CC tying her hair beneath a kerchief and Suzaku taking their few bags, Lelouch quiet and thoughtful as he shaded his eyes against the sun. Suzaku began to brown and freckle across his shoulders and arms; Lelouch's fair skin just burned.

The managers at roadside motels accepted their money (or a look from Lelouch) and tossed them a key without a second glance. Sometimes there was one bed and sometimes there were two; when there was one, Suzaku took the floor without comment. The heat droned on, relentless, and he slept through its haze and woke to Lelouch watching the news with the sound off, or studying a faded newspaper. CC slept and took compulsive, long showers, complaining that all she could smell was them.

They stayed a day, maybe two, long enough to resupply and sleep off the hours on the road, or until Lelouch started to go crazy with their nonprogress. The sun rose to him furiously packing, yanking CC's covers off her as she slept, pushing Suzaku out the door as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Mornings were hasty, greasy breakfasts eaten in the cramped space of the truck as they angled south, the battered map spread across the dashboard. Lelouch began arranging careful cuttings from newspapers across the floors of their temporary rooms, moving them from place to place and frowning intensely at their arrangement and moving them again. CC acquired a pair of sunglasses and refused to share. At night, Suzaku washed so much clinging dust from his hair and skin that the water ran brown. He slept as though dead.

Finally, Lelouch declared that they were moving too fast, that they would have to slow down so that they did not reach Pendragon too soon, and CC snapped at him that she wanted a proper bath, so he had better allow for that in his calculations, too.

Finally, they again approached the sea.

( It was raining: a cold, seeping sort of wet that slicked the stone paths with mud. Suzaku stood with his knees locked and his hair in his eyes, frozen in front of the storehouse. His hands burning, still curled in the shape of a knife. He tasted blood and bile, dirt and clay.

Is this your justice? Is this the grand destiny of a son of Japan? The first betrayal is the worst.

The storehouse door opened and Lelouch blinked into the darkness, backlit by warm, flickering candles like a beacon, his child's face cautious. "Suzaku?" he ventured. He fussed with an umbrella until it opened and he stepped out in the rain and put it over both their heads. "Nunnally heard something," he explained. "You'll catch a cold. Are you all right?"

Suzaku said nothing. He looked at the ground and twisted his hand in his shirt. If he were to open his mouth, he thought, he would vomit grave dirt and bones, ashes. His bare feet were numb.

Lelouch reached out a hand and put it on Suzaku's head and peered at his face and smiled tentatively and-- )

When Lelouch started awake, it was dark. He swallowed and blinked at the ceiling, his breathing even, and after a long minute of studying the cracked paint, he finally rolled over. The other side of the bed was empty. He sat up and frowned at the rumpled sheets, reached out a hand and felt them: CC had been gone a long time. He wet his lips and peered at the bedside clock, glanced over his shoulder, and realized at last why he had woken.

Curled in the adjacent bed into a tense ball, Suzaku breathed in great, harsh sobs, his hands fisted. He had his face pressed into his crooked arm, his eyes tightly shut and his jaw clenched as though he had been grinding his teeth. The sheets were twisted around his legs. "Suzaku," Lelouch whispered. He didn't respond. Lelouch cleared his throat, and, louder, "Suzaku."

Nothing. He frowned and looked at the sheets over his legs. Stupid darlings, sneered CC's voice in his head. So strong. My heroes. He huffed out his breath and looked back at Suzaku and, finally, peeled away his blankets and slid his feet to the floor.

He climbed across the gap between the beds and slid carefully between the sheets, tugging them from their stranglehold so that he could lie facing Suzaku in weird intimacy. Suzaku shivered and didn't move. "Hush," Lelouch said, a gentle command, and reached out and swiped his thumb along the line of Suzaku's cheek. It came away wet. "Hush," he said again, softer, and reached out and hugged Suzaku to him, this shuddering mass of nerves and nightmares that used to be his only friend. He pressed his cheek to the top of Suzaku's head and brushed his fingers through the curls of his hair. Suzaku was too asleep to either pull away or reach back, and Lelouch could still feel the wet press of tears against the join of his neck, but he relaxed a little, and Lelouch thought that was, perhaps, a sort of victory.

( --and he said, "It's all right. You're safe here." )

Morning dawned, and Suzaku woke with his legs tangled with Lelouch's, his head tucked under Lelouch's chin. He tensed and went still. He was very aware of Lelouch's hands where they rested against his neck and his side, Lelouch's breath against his ear, and, most importantly, an insistent erection that he could not will away. He swallowed hard and inched back. He disengaged his feet from behind Lelouch's knee and on top of his lean ankle, trying to steady his breath. He reached carefully for Lelouch's wrist, lifted it, and slid awkwardly from under the bony press of Lelouch's jaw. He crawled from under the sheet and wobbled to his feet. Lelouch slept on obliviously, now with a large empty space between his arms, and Suzaku allowed himself to breathe. He shifted his weight, scrubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned away, shoved his feet in his sneakers, and left.

The beach was barren and chilly. The waves crashed and rolled across wet sand, relentless, and left filmy bubbles in their wake. He paced the sand, hugging his arms, and tried to banish the tightness in his gut. He stopped, finally, and stared at the hunched shape of the motel tucked behind scraggly trees. It was grey in the morning haze. He gritted his teeth and crouched in the sand, pressing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.

A cool, gentle breeze picked up, and the hair at the back of his neck raised as a chill slid down his spine. He could again feel Lelouch's fingers against his neck, that warmth of flesh against flesh. Despite the cold, his skin burned.

When he let his hands fall, his eyes watered and ached. He straightened and drew a deep breath. He glanced at the stretch of sand to his either side, and then he toed out of his sneakers and pulled off his clothes and left them in a heap. He slipped into the sea under dawn's cool light and swam. The water was freezing, but the waves were gentle, and he pulled himself along the water's surface, arm over arm. Brine burned in the back of his throat.

When his muscles began to protest in earnest, he turned on his back and floated, panting. The clouds overhead stained a pale rose, edged into violet and blue. He closed his eyes and moved his arms as a wave rolled beneath him, and when he opened them again, the sun was peeking over the mountains far beyond the shore. He turned over and swam back to the beach.

CC was waiting for him, dispassionately watching as he stepped from the surf, digging her toes into the damp sand. He tried to ignore her, until she very pointedly looked at him and said, "I thought about taking your clothes. I thought you should know."

"Thanks," he muttered. He squeezed the water from his hair and wiped himself off with his shirt. He dragged the pants over his wet legs, and shoved his feet into the sneakers.

"You do realize," she said, "that ordinary people are asleep at this hour?"

He wiped water from his eyes and pulled his shirt over his head. "What about you?"

"How vulgar. Referring to me as ordinary."

"Are you calling Lelouch ordinary?" he said, feeling stupid.

She smirked. "Well, then. He's probably not asleep either, is he?"

He wasn't. When CC led the way into the room, he was sitting on the end of one of the made beds, a cup of cheap coffee in hand, the morning newspaper spread before him. He looked at Suzaku, but his eyes slid over him without a glimmer of acknowledgement or reproach, and Suzaku shifted back and looked at the floor and did not know what he felt. Gratitude or shame or some mess of both.

At some point, Suzaku became aware that they did not want for money. It was the same time that he realized the places where they stayed no longer came with the rustle of cockroaches darting beneath discarded paper, or the slightly oily carpet that gave weirdly underfoot, and the food that they ate was no longer restricted to the grease of roadside fast food. It was also when he realized that the times when they stayed for days at a time somewhere coincided with Lelouch's disappearances for hours into the night, after which he crept in reeking of sweat and cigarette smoke to shower and collapse into bed a short time shy of dawn, and then slept long into the day and rose without comment or explanation.

"Why?" Lelouch said when he asked, sounding very tired. "Do you care so much?" He rubbed at his temple and looked up at Suzaku from where he sat on the edge of the bed. CC sprawled behind him, watching TV upside-down, holding a pillow to her chest.

Suzaku took a deep breath and shifted his feet. "Well. Yeah. I mean," and he shoved his hands in his pockets, "it's--it's not right. It's like stealing, taking away someone's will like that."

Lelouch gave him a look of unspeakable contempt. "You can't be serious."

"I am." Suzaku insisted. "I mean it, you can't--"

"Very presumptuous of you," Lelouch hissed. "But I'm not wasting the geass on such idiocies, thank you." His mouth twisted. "I appreciate the sanctimonious attitude nonetheless."

Suzaku stared at him. "Then--then where...." Lelouch rolled his eyes. He reached for his pocket and flicked something at Suzaku. It hit him in the chest and his hand jerked out of reflex to catch it before it fell. He turned it over: a glossy playing card. King of hearts. He turned it over again, as though it was a trick. He looked blankly at Lelouch. "You're gambling?"

"Seducing people," CC said, a wicked grin spreading across her face.

Lelouch ignored her. "I don't owe you an explanation," he said. "If you're offering to make some money yourself, then you're welcome to, as I assume you have," and here he waved his hand, "some form of valuable talent other than piloting things. If you're not, then kindly shut your mouth and leave me to it." He tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. "All right?"

Suzaku swallowed a remark about cheating at cards and mutely handed the card back. He thought of the cost of fuel, and the food, and the clothes, and the rooms. Regret panged. "Isn't it, ah. Dangerous?" He met Lelouch's eyes and looked away and frowned.

"Mm, very true, Lulu--"

"Don't call me that," Lelouch muttered.

"--I think you should take him with you." CC poked him with her toe. "Both of you, go away for a while." Lelouch looked at him, something flickering across his face, and then he went thoughtful. CC snickered softly and hugged the pillow closer. "He can protect you." Lelouch scowled and threw another pillow at her. It hit her on the face and she squeaked in surprise.

"I could," Suzaku said quietly. "If you want." He shifted. "I mean, I don't mind." He toed the carpet and bit at the inside of his cheek, bowed his head a little. He could hear the unconscious apology in his voice. It was an unfortunate, brittle part of Lelouch's personality that he liked to ignore things like that, some arrogant little mainstay. It was strange that Suzaku knew that without having to ask, without a doubt. There were many things he had forgotten about Lelouch--and a great many things he had never known at all--but he knew Zero, and he was learning this Lelouch, who was bereft and vicious and something else that he could not name. He expected his weak offer to be thrown back, or discarded and ignored entirely. When he finally looked up, he was surprised that Lelouch met his eyes.

More surprising: "Okay," Lelouch said, and smiled.

Nightfall found them wandering the busy city streets. The streetlights fetched teeming halos of insects, the looming concrete bathed in sickly yellow light. The alleyways stank of garbage and urine, and the sidewalks swarmed with people, all older and foreign-looking, loud. They spoke in Britannia's mother tongue, accented in soft, unfamiliar ways that made it hard to catch. Suzaku found himself missing the familiar flow and lilt of Japanese, even with the weird stilt of the Tokyo Settlement's alien citizens. Lelouch walked without pausing, his head held high, regal, and Suzaku followed him dutifully, as though trained.

Lelouch stopped across the street from a bar, its doorway a smoky hole in the side of a building. Music blasted from its windows, and people milled and came and went. Laughing, yelling. "Here," Lelouch said, and folded his arms. "Here, first."

"Okay." Suzaku studied it doubtfully. "Will they let us in?"

Lelouch gave him a withering look. "The legal drinking age in Britannia is eighteen."

"Yeah," he allowed. "I don't know if this is a good idea."

"No," Lelouch said. He looked back at the bar, his eyes intense. "This will work." He wet his lips. "Watch everyone. You will keep half the money. Two of us are less tempting as a target, and that way they will see that there's no merit in attempting to force it out of me."

Suzaku swallowed. "That's happened before?"

Lelouch showed his teeth in a smile. "No. But tonight will be different. That's why you're here. Come on," he commanded, and he set off, his back straight and his head held high. Suzaku followed him and tried not to look guilty. No one gave them a second look as they walked in, and Suzaku slid closer so that he would not lose Lelouch in the press of people. Lelouch arrowed straight for the back of the bar, to the tables and the largest crowd of people. Through the gaps of arms and shoulders and heads Suzaku could see the darting plastic sheen of playing cards dealt around the table, and the scatter of money in its center.

Lelouch hung back and watched for a long time, his face intent on the exchange of cards. Suzaku stuck close to him, wary and nervous. The men and women surrounding them, lurching with drink and blowing acrid cigarette smoke, were not the homogeny of the Britannian military, nor even the uneasy racial mix of the Tokyo Settlement. He saw a very few Japanese, black-haired people broad in the cheeks and nose, and a flash of creamy dark skin that he supposed was more common in the southern ranges of the motherland. There were none of the heavy, Slavic features of Britannia's territories in the southeast reaches of the old E.U. territory, or the fine looks he had come to associate with the royal family. He felt terribly conspicuous.

Finally, a man slammed his hands to the table in disgust and shouted over the din that he was tired of losing his fucking money, and Lelouch jumped at the chance and slid into his seat. There were derisive protests from the other men, their voices crowing in a drawling accent that Suzaku wasn't quick enough to decipher, and he was ready to drag Lelouch out before someone else grabbed him, and then Lelouch smiled coolly and fanned a handful of pound notes and called, "Deal, please."

The other players shut up, and dealer laughed and slid cards across the table. Lelouch peeled four notes away from the pile and threw them in the pot. Suzaku took a deep breath and watched the other men's hands. If he was to reach out, he could touch his fingers to the back of Lelouch's chair.

The first round, Lelouch lost. He took it with grace. One of the men sneered at him that he should quit before his allowance ran out, and he nodded graciously but did not move. Suzaku nervously watched the two or three men studying Lelouch and his long fingers for--Suzaku figured--an unnatural quickness, sleight of hand.

The second round, Lelouch lost again, and the other men began to treat it more lightly. Half of Lelouch's money was gone, now. He seemed very much a rich boy with no real finesse, witless. Suzaku shifted. The dealer grinned and said, "Last one, kid," and dealt.

Lelouch shrugged and threw the rest of his money into the pot. There was raucous laughter. He exchanged cards, exchanged them again, and, finally, the table looked at him, expectant, hungry. He smiled and spread his cards. "Full house, it seems," he said. Someone across the table choked on his beer, and suddenly they all erupted into protests that bled into annoyance, and, finally, resignation as one by one, they all folded with inferior hands. Lelouch slid his winnings close and stacked them quickly. He looked back and caught Suzaku's eye and handed him a heavy fold of notes. Everyone's eyes followed the exchange, and Suzaku felt his ears burn. Lelouch leaned into his elbows. "Again, gentlemen?" he said, all class.

Which was where it sort of started to go downhill. Suzaku watched everyone else, but now he also watched Lelouch, feeling sheepish. He wasn't sure where he got the idea that Lelouch was only good at cheating people out of things via chess. He was struck with the urge to take back the ugly thought that Lelouch was only good at anything when he could map and plan, without a source of random chance. Someone jostled and sloshed beer down the backs of his legs, but he ignored it and held their money closer.

Lelouch won again, and Suzaku became more nervous. The men with the shrewd eyes were now watching only Lelouch, intense, hawklike. Suzaku became vaguely aware that someone had bought Lelouch a shot of a pale amber alcohol. It sat, ignored and untouched, at his elbow through another round, and when he won again to a rise of noise that was equal parts admiration and umbrage, he knocked it back and slammed the empty shot glass back to the table. He looked for a moment very haughty and royal, despite the nasty, close atmosphere and the smoke and sweat. Someone gave him another shot. The money Suzaku guarded grew, and he darted careful looks around, watching hands and eyes and a scary tide of resentment that was festering. The cigarette smoke burned his eyes.

After another win, Lelouch rose and gracefully bowed out, to jeers and an undeniable wave of relief. He slid into the crowd, pressed a handful of money against Suzaku's chest and pulled him close and said, "We're going to another."

Another bar, another set-up of losses and then relentless, hammering wins. The dealer here was a woman, and she watched Lelouch like he was some sweet thing, a delicate cut of meat who wandered in off the street. Again, someone bought him drinks, and again, Suzaku hung back and watched for danger in the other players' faces and their hands. Lelouch won more viciously, drunk off alcohol and victory, and his smile was like a blade.

By his fourth win, it was time to leave. Suzaku slipped closer and reached out a tentative hand to touch Lelouch's shoulder. Lelouch did not respond; he squeezed. Lelouch's hand shot up and grabbed his fingers, and he turned and gave Suzaku a look. His color was high, his eyes burning fever-bright. He brought Suzaku's hand to his lips and kissed his fingers, practically slid them into his mouth. "For luck?" he purred in husky Japanese. His mouth was hot. Suzaku's breath caught in his throat.

"It's time to go," he said desperately, blushing. "Sorry," he called to the table, dragging Lelouch up by the arm. Lelouch was pliant, boneless. The men roared, gestured angrily at the pot: a sizable pile of notes and papers, foreign coins, a gold ring in their midst. Suzaku felt the thick fold of their own winnings in his pocket and called, "Keep it! Sorry--"

"That's mine," Lelouch murmured, but he didn't try to grab the money. Suzaku dragged him out into the warm night air and sat him down on a rock wall, pocked with old cigarettes and graffiti, backed by a chain-link fence. He crouched in front of him and peered at Lelouch's face; his head lolled, and his cheeks were flushed with alcohol and triumph.

"Hey," he said, and when Lelouch said nothing, he lightly slapped at Lelouch's cheeks.

Lelouch's eyes slid half-open. "Hmm?"

"Let's go back, okay?"

Lelouch gave a low laugh. "Mm, of course. Of course." He felt carefully along the wall and pushed himself to his feet, wobbling. Suzaku caught him before he could fall over, and resigned himself to being a crutch. "How much did we make?" Lelouch said. His steps weaved.

"I dunno. A lot. I haven't counted it."

Lelouch laughed again, a sound that was mostly a hum in the back of his throat. "Two thousand, three hundred and thirty eight pounds," he muttered. "If I remember correctly."

"I didn't take the last set of winnings," Suzaku said to his hair. Lelouch was heavier than he had expected.

"I know. That was...conservative." Suzaku was wondering at Lelouch's ability to be simultaneously articulate and intoxicated when Lelouch muttered, "Oh holy god, please stop," and he had to sit down and put his head between his knees. Suzaku awkwardly rubbed his back, feeling the bony rungs of his spine. It would have been pathetic if he hadn't managed to win upwards of three thousand pounds in one night. The night simmered around them, dust and old heat rising from the pavement and the moon a hot, hazy half-disc. On the way back, Lelouch only had to stop twice to throw up.

When they made it back to the dark room, Lelouch was pale-faced, his hair damp with sweat, and mostly sober. CC was awake, and Suzaku thought she was going to laugh herself sick at the two of them. Lelouch nursed a glass of water and he took aspirin and finally snapped at her to shut her face, and he threw a pillow at her and collapsed across one of the beds. When Suzaku finally managed to scrub the bar-grime out of his hair and emerged from the shower, they were in separate beds and CC was very pointedly taking up all of hers.

As if she could feel him looking, without opening her eyes she said, "Absolutely not. I've had to share this whole time," and made a dismissive gesture.

Suzaku sighed. He climbed into bed with Lelouch, hesitating only to peer at Lelouch's face (still a little pallid, but deeply asleep now, his mouth askew). He carefully laid on the far side of the bed from him, and when he woke to the morning's high blaze, Lelouch was curled against his back, cold fingers and cold nose and deep, even breaths.

Because, in the end, there was something about the fact that he had mostly seen Lelouch at his very worst--abandoned as a little boy with his crippled sister, or bloody and fucked up and crazy, or debased in front of the Emperor, or at the shrine when Suzaku had kind of stepped on his head, or even Lelouch retching into the bushes in the back of some seedy neighborhood in the middle of the vast Britannian southwest. And, in turn, Lelouch had seen Suzaku as the patricidal child, the military's dog and scapegoat, unhinged traitor and unscrupulous traitor and sanctimonious traitor. It was a messed up sort of trust, for someone to see you at your ugliest and your most pathetic.

Another messed up sort of trust: we choose whom we hurt, and we hurt the things we love. That, Suzaku thought. What was that?

Lelouch woke gently in the middle of some nameless night, opening his eyes to focus on the ceiling above him. Silvery light filtered through the dirty window, its blinds bent and mangled as though the survivors of some great windstorm. The moon was dead and white, hanging in the black of the sky like an old burn.

"I dreamt I was drowning," he said softly to the darkness. CC didn't answer and there was a rustle as she shifted a little, sitting on folded knees beside him. She petted idly at his hair. As though she could smooth away the dream. He could still feel the pressure of a hand against his chest, could still see the wavering, blurry face above. Slash of bubbles in the water.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head against her knee. "Would death have been such a relief?" he murmured. "Is the passage of time such a burden?"

"You were a sweet child," she replied. She tugged lightly at his hair. "Very cute." She ignored the question completely. He could hear the amusement vague in the sound of her voice.

He wet his lips and sighed. "Am I your measure, then? Your sound and fury?" Now she did not reply, but laid the back of her hand against his forehead, combed her fingers through his bangs.

"Was it a nightmare?" she said, her voice quiet. Absurdly, as though a dream about dying could be something pleasant or normal. But even so. Even so. He thought for a minute, and then shook his head. She cupped his cheek. "Who was drowning you?"

He put his hand to his chest. Focus and unfocus. That blurry face, the force against him, could have been anyone. It was bizarre enough that he almost laughed, but didn't. He thought. Kallen's hard grip, her strength and her anger. Euphie, gentling touch and with him holding her hands against his throat, Shirley, Rolo. Water pouring into his mouth like blood or wine. Swallowing. Schneizel's cold weight holding him under. Or Nunnally, her hands soft and sweet and him completely accepting of this her decree. "I don't know," he said.

CC didn't answer. She brushed her crooked finger over his cheek, as though to wipe away tears. Which was odd, he thought. He could not remember the last time he had cried.

"For what it's worth, I think she would have won." CC crossed her ankles and looked at the ceiling.

Suzaku looked at her. "Who?"

"Kallen. You mustn't underestimate the power of a woman." She tapped her fingernails on the dryer. Afternoon sunlight blazed across her feet.

"Thanks," he said.

"I suppose we'll never know, hmm?" She looked at him through her eyelashes. "Now that you have no Lancelot and no scientist to rebuild it for you. A shame, that."

"I guess." He looked at the washing machine, their clothes sloshing in murky water. He nudged at their next load of laundry on the long, otherwise empty bench, and eyed the deserted Laundromat. "Maybe." He looked up to see CC staring hard at him. "What?"

"That was your defining factor, wasn't it? The prodigy?" He shrugged. "Will you ever pilot your special machine again?" Her eyes were very bright, despite the sickly fluorescent lights above.

"Not the Conquista," he said, a little too carefully, and she smiled, but didn't ask the obvious, and he shut his mouth. He very clearly remembered the plans for something he had yet to tell Lelouch: stacks of blueprints, the metal skeleton swiftly taking shape. Cecile's elegant sketches, her bright eyes as she pointed at the Guren's energy wings and said, this, this. He wondered if Lloyd had told anyone, after Schneizel disappeared. For now, the Lancelot Albion was no one's. That was important.

She smirked and swung her feet, toeing idly at their empty laundry basket. A tinny pop beat played on the ratty speaker in the corner overhead. It wasn't anything he recognized. "Do you miss her?" he said finally. "Kallen?"

"Mm." She studied her foot and smiled. "She was a strong ally." She met his eye and her smile turned from fond to wicked. "Zero's three court ladies were all rather dangerous creatures."

"His what?"

She shook her head so that her hair fell cool and rippling down her back. "Zero's queens. The Lady Kaguya is the third. She's your cousin, no?" He nodded. "Hm. A fearsome family indeed."

"We were engaged," he muttered, an old blush rising on his neck. "When we were young, before the invasion."

She looked at him, surprised. "Really?" He nodded again, mute, and she quirked her eyebrows up. When he didn't elaborate, she smiled and drummed her heels gently against the scuffed plastic door of the dryer. After a while, she said, "Do you miss the people you left?"

"Kind of," he said.

"None of them were your friends?"

He tapped his fingers together and peered out the door. Heat shimmered from the sidewalk, and the sky was a thin, yellowish blue above the stretches of hot concrete and steel. "I didn't really think like that," he said quietly. He suddenly wished very much that he knew if Gino was still charged with treason or not. It hardly seemed fair, when Suzaku was the one who helped to kill the Emperor and then ran off with the enemy, too.

"That's depressing," she said, matter-of-fact.

"I guess."

"Sometimes you two make me so sad." He glanced at her, expecting a certain cant of her eyebrows or a twist of her lips, but her face was grave, her shoulders hunched forward as she studied him. "It's as though you thrive off misery."

He shrugged uneasily, looking away. "I don't know about Lelouch," he said weakly.

"No," she said. "But I do."

He tried to swallow and could not, a foreign weight climbing in his throat. He looked at his feet. He remembered very clearly the ragged strength of Lelouch's voice as he screamed at Charles and Marianne, the clench of his fists as he said Nunnally's name. The hard knots of pain in the curve of his spine. The prices he'd paid. And the keen twist of agony in Suzaku's own chest, the memories of things lost. He felt very tired.

After a while, she shifted her weight. "Tell me," she said, and her voice was gentle and horrible in a way that he didn't recognize. "What do you know?"

"About what?"


He didn't look at her. "I used to think he was so corrupt," he said, scuffing his sneaker against the dirty linouleum. "So ruthless and treacherous. Manipulative. I think I used to hate him."

"And now?"

"It's weird." He stopped toeing at the floor. "Now, I can't help but think we're the same."

"Is that bad?" she said, her voice barely audible over the washer.

"I don't know," he said. He looked at his hands. "I don't know."

CC sighed, and her shoes tapped flatly on the concrete floor as she hopped down from the dryer. Her feet stepped into his line of vision, and then her hands were on the back of his neck, smoothing up into his hair and pulling his head against her middle. "Oh, boys," she said quietly, her voice resonating up into him. The washer churned behind them, soggy and irregular. The fan in the corner droned, white noise mixed in with the static-ridden radio. He was silent.

After a while, she stepped back. Her fingers lingered against the back of his neck, cool, and then they slid down and lifted his chin. He blinked up at her. "You're not the same," she said. She tilted her head, her face impassive. "You've never been the same. But that's not bad, either." She patted his cheek and took her hand away. "Have you at least decided?"

"Decided what?" He rubbed at his eyes.

"Whether or not you're his friend."

He hesitated. "That's hard." He frowned at the wall. "I don't know."

"'I don't know, I don't know,'" she mocked. "Just go already."

"What?" he said, glancing at her face.

She rolled her eyes and tucked her hair behind her ear. "You want to talk to him yourself, don't you? Go on. I want some peace and quiet for once, and if I have to do it at a Laundromat, then fine. Your angst won't get any better here. I'm not your therapist."

He didn't move, and she met his eyes and something in her face softened. "Go," she said. "Figure something out."

"Is that okay?" He shifted his weight and darted a look at the Laundromat. It was empty, save for the attendant at the counter: a young man in ill-fitting clothes, sitting glassy-eyed at the computer. "I mean, it's not--not very...." He cleared his throat. "It's not very safe."

"Precious," she sneered. "Very noble of you." She covered a yawn, and then shrugged. "As if I'm going to carry this back myself. Bring him back with you. You boys have to eat. He's horrible at taking care of himself."

"Yeah." He stood and smoothed his hand self-consciously over his hair and smiled, tentative. "Thanks."

She sniffed. "Don't think I'm doing it for you. I have a torrid romance novel that isn't fit for children's eyes. But you're welcome, anyway. I hope you understand that this means I'm appropriating your dinner-vote." She untucked a cheap little dog-eared paperback from her purse and sat, crossing her legs.

He tilted his head to peer at the cover and frowned. "That doesn't look very--"

"Go," she ordered, pointing at the door. "You get exactly one hour."

He took a step, and then turned back and gave a hasty little bow, surfaced from some buried habit from long ago, and then pushed his way out the sun-warmed door into the late afternoon's stifling heat. The sun scorched, with no promise or barest hint of rain.

He reached the hotel with his shirt stuck to his back with sweat, his legs dusty and hot. The rattling air conditioner was a feeble blessing to his skin, most of him feeling dirty and out of place. The lights were off but the room was lit by the afternoon's sliding light, Lelouch caught reading on the bed, cross-legged and barefoot.

He looked at Suzaku in surprise. "You're back early." He shuffled his sheaf of notes, a bundle of scuffed clippings and notes written in his spidery flourish, into order and stacked them on the bedside table. "Where's CC?" He frowned. "Where's the laundry?"

"Not done," Suzaku said, his mouth suddenly dry. "I--um." Lelouch raised an eyebrow, and he struggled and looked at the floor. "I'm supposed to come get you," he said, finally.

Lelouch narrowed his eyes and stood slowly from the bed. "Is that so?"

"Yeah." He shuffled his feet as Lelouch stepped forward to slide his notes under CC's bag where she'd flung it onto the room's only chair. He tucked them away--in what Suzaku thought, fleetingly, was one of the most pointlessly neurotic things he had ever seen Lelouch do, ever--and straightened and gave Suzaku a careful look.

"Is that all?"

"Yeah. I mean, kind of." He pressed his lips together and hesitated. "I wanted to talk to you. Before."

Lelouch said, "All right," his face unreadable, and waited. Looking so strangely serene, framed in the sun's rich light. He tilted his head to the side, his eyebrows raised, searching Suzaku's face. He waited and shifted his weight and finally he heaved a wordless sigh and rolled his eyes and turned away.

"Lelouch," Suzaku said, jerking himself forward. Lelouch stopped and didn't look at him, and he went on, clumsy, "What are we doing? Do you have a plan?" Shifting his weight, feeling the sweat in his palms.

Lelouch did turn, then. "Yes." He gave Suzaku a mild look, a bit of a smile playing at his lips. The warm dusk light slanted across his face. "I've said as much. Have some faith, Suzaku."

"Faith in you?" he said faintly.

The smile faded. "Yes. Have some faith in me." He searched Suzaku's face, and his eyes sank half-closed. Weary or resigned. "You can be very tiresome," he sighed, without vitriol. "Is it so hard?"

"I'm a little low on faith."

"Do you trust me?"

Suzaku swallowed. "Trust you to do what?"

"To change things." Lelouch studied him. "To fix things."

"Yeah," Suzaku said. He nodded. "I can trust you to do that." He did not relax the straight line of his spine. This was not what he came to say. Lelouch's face was just in shadow, the sun glaring over his shoulder, gold and violet and grey. The air was hot and still.

"We're both rather pathetic, aren't we?" Lelouch said softly. "Us with our open wounds that we cannot let heal." He looked at the dirty carpet and gave a small smile. "Us each others' wounds." He shifted back, sat on the edge of the bed and looked at his hands in his lap, and suddenly his face was bathed in gold and rose, his eyes bright with caught light.

"I don't, by the way," Suzaku said. Lelouch looked at him, and he cleared his throat. "Regret it. Being here."

Lelouch smiled humorlessly. "You're not going to give me a grand, patriotic speech about where your duties lie, are you?" Suzaku shook his head, and Lelouch huffed out in his breath in a little laugh. "Good. You're not a very good liar."

There was a long, heavy silence. Sunlight crept across the floor, and the room's light dimmed. Suzaku looked his shoes, traced with his eyes the line of the carpet to Lelouch's bare feet. He started forward, stumbling as though the movement was old and foreign, but he did not fall. The sunset was jagged and blinding. He sat next to Lelouch and looked carefully at the join of the wall and the floor, wiping his hands on his shorts. "I'm sorry," he said. "That's what I wanted to say."

"For what?"

"For all of it. For the things that I said. For the things that I did. For...for Nunnally," he said, his throat suddenly tight. The dead are dead. The space under his eyes felt hot. "I'm sorry."

"Mm, well." Lelouch leaned his chin into his hands, his elbows on his knees. He studied the wall in front of him and finally, he shut his eyes. "I am sorry," he murmured, "for many things." He sighed, looking for a moment as though he would continue, and then he closed his mouth and said nothing more.

Suzaku looked at his hands for a few long seconds, and swallowed back that awful, choking weight in his throat.

He schooled his breath and finally said, "Are you--ah. What about me? Do you regret that?" He tried to smile, but it felt unpleasant and brittle, so he stopped. Lelouch slid his eyes over to look at him, and Suzaku gestured vaguely at Lelouch's left eye. Live. He bit his lip.

Lelouch gave him a long look, placid and thoughtful. Finally, he reached out and laid his hand against the line of Suzaku's neck, the hot rhythm of his pulse. "No," he said softly. "I find I do not regret that at all."

He brushed his hand through the hair behind Suzaku's ear and smoothed his palm over the back of his head. He met Suzaku's eyes and his face went all queer and fond, and he pulled gently at Suzaku and leaned forward and pressed his lips to Suzaku's forehead, like a mother to a child. "All irony aside," he said against his bangs, "I'm glad you're still here."

Suzaku stared at the join of Lelouch's neck and shoulder, and he swallowed. His fingers crept up to curl in the folds of Lelouch's shirt. "Yeah," he said.

He felt Lelouch smile, and then shift, and he pressed another kiss to Suzaku's brow, to the side of his nose. The air was heavy and silent. He didn't dare breathe. Lelouch brushed his lips over his cheek, and then Suzaku turned his face and kissed him back. He misjudged, did it faster than he meant to: surprise meant he bumped his nose against the hard line of Lelouch's chin, his lips caught on Lelouch's teeth, and then he was blushing fiercely, pulling back as he muttered an apology.

Lelouch made a soothing sound and moved closer, his fingers against Suzaku's cheek and his other hand still cupped around the back of his neck. He brushed his lips along Suzaku's jaw and pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "It's all right," he whispered, his eyes dark and deep and fathomless and inscrutable. He licked along Suzaku's lips and closed his eyes and swept his thumb across Suzaku's cheek.

The kiss was at first coaxing and gentle, and then harder as Suzaku reached back and fisted his hand in Lelouch's shirt, his other moving over the angles of Lelouch's hip. Suzaku shut his eyes and leaned into it, and their arms tangled, and then Lelouch breathed something inaudible against Suzaku's mouth. A lost little prayer. His fingers threaded with Suzaku's and he sank to lie flat on the bed, pulling Suzaku with him. Suzaku knelt, his knees on either side of Lelouch's hips, and Lelouch arched to meet him, tugged him down to mold to the lines of his body.

His thumbs hooked in Suzaku's belt loops, and he closed his eyes and bared his neck as he shifted his hips, grinding them together through their clothes in a way that made Suzaku feel faint. Suzaku shuddered and brushed his nose through the fine hair behind Lelouch's ear. "Lelouch," he whispered, with difficulty. "What are we doing?"

"Whatever we want," Lelouch said. His throat jerked as he swallowed. "And I think I want this." His hands opened and spread over Suzaku's back and his shirt where it felt hot and damp, climbed his ribs. "And you?"

"Yeah," he breathed to Lelouch's skin. "I do." He put his mouth to the winged line of Lelouch's collarbone and pressed his forehead to Lelouch's skin. He was feverish, burning. Lelouch curved against him and let out a strained, throaty sound at the friction. His lips pressed to Suzaku's temple, the line of his cheek, and finally, his hands slid over Suzaku's jaw and lifted his face.

Lelouch tasted like nothing, like water and its languid flow as he explored Suzaku's mouth. His hands were cool against Suzaku's cheeks, fingers curling into his hair. When Suzaku thrust experimentally against him, he twisted and gave a helpless moan into Suzaku's mouth, a sound of surrender. Suzaku swallowed it, and his hands found Lelouch's wrists, pushed them back to the bed. They moved together now, give and take and bend and flow, tangle of arms and legs. Suzaku burned. His skin was on fire. He was going to die. Something wild clawed up his spine and he made a harsh, wordless sound against Lelouch's lips as he came, all of him rigid and trembling.

He sagged against Lelouch, panting into his neck, and he eased himself to one side and pressed his face into the comforter. Lelouch put his cheek to the top of his head and sifted his fingers through Suzaku's hair. After a long, silent moment, Suzaku felt him sigh.

Finally, Lelouch rose without looking at him, patted Suzaku's head like he was a dog or a little boy, and mutely changed into his last spare set of clothes. His back to Suzaku, thin and pale and traced with the remnants of sunburn like whiplashes against his skin.

Suzaku washed his face and changed before they went back for CC, blushing hotly at the stains on his shorts. Lelouch looked at him mildly, without reproach, and Suzaku said, "Sorry," tiny and scandalized. Peering worriedly at Lelouch's face for assurance. "Was that okay?"

"It's fine," Lelouch said, looking at him without focusing. His smile was small, absent. "I started it. Don't worry." Suzaku studied him for traces of reproof, but Lelouch was enigmatic and unchanged. His eyes were dark and distant, preoccupied, and Suzaku felt weird and ill. As though something had happened that he missed entirely.

CC was folded up in the corner of the Laundromat, laconic and unimpressed with her book, her crossed ankles propped on their folded laundry. "Finally," she said, snapping the book shut. She smiled smugly at them and stepped back, indifferent, her open hand offering the laundry baskets.

"Lazy," Lelouch murmured, but he stepped forward and took up one of the baskets, and Suzaku mutely hefted the other. They took the laundry to dinner because CC claimed she was starving, and she also told them they were eating Italian, so they did. It was a nice restaurant, so the pizza was less greasy, but they couldn't very well bring two baskets of laundry in with them (Lelouch said, tiredly), so they got it to go and ate it sitting on the top of a picnic table in the nearby park under the rich night.

"Now what?" CC said afterward, clasping her hands beneath her knees.

"I don't know," Lelouch said. "I need to think." He looked at the stars and then down at his knees and closed his eyes. "I need to think," he said again, softly. Suzaku studied the tired curve of his back, the hang of his head, and carefully scooted a little closer until he felt the barest pressure against his leg and shoulder, his side braced gently against Lelouch. There was a long, still moment, and then Lelouch leaned against him, curving until his head rested against Suzaku's shoulder. He didn't say anything and didn't reach out, as though the contact was enough. As though it would be too much to attempt more.

They left with the morning, walking back to the trailer truck while the sky was still streaked with violet and rose. Despite the cool air and its lingering edge of night, the ground still gave off parched heat, dust rising around their feet. CC climbed into the driver's seat and the engine roared to life, stinking diesel and the faint scent of cooked rubber. Suzaku crawled into the sleeper portion of the cab to give Lelouch the passenger's seat, and he laid with his arm over his eyes in the close heat, listening to the drone of the truck's engine as it rattled through his bones. He tried to remember the sea.

He must have slept. When he woke, they had stopped and the sun was setting again in the red giant flame of the end of days. The wasteland burned scarlet. He swung to the sun-baked earth and followed Lelouch and CC, his steps mechanical and exhausted, as though he had not known sleep at all. All three of them silent and tired. Almost what they were before, Suzaku thought deliriously: the two of them and a girl, trudging through a devastated land, but this girl was no sweet thing shouldered like a precious burden, but sharp eyes and sharp mouth and not a girl even, but something else entirely. Suzaku walked with them long enough to know the hotel--another building squat upon the dead earth like the husk of a parasite perched on a dead host, full of ruin--before he split away from them again. He prowled, restless, as night fell, his muscles untiring, his mind blank.

He set off into the darkness and walked until he reached the skeletal remains of half-realized buildings, standing sepulcher-like at the edge of the city, the wasteland stretching before him, ghostly-pale and still beneath the bottomless press of the stars. The waning moon set, a hazy crescent graveyard sinking into the distant mountains as though something swallowed whole.

( Lelouch did not just dream of his siblings' judgment and vengeance, the sentence of purgatory passed down to the royal family's youngest son through the long reach of Britannia and her unforgiving hands, that hell of lineage and twisted love. He did not always wake with the pressure of his mother's gentle fingers against his throat, or his sister's delicate hands pulling his heart from a gaping hole in his chest.

He dreamed also of Japan and her beautiful, broken spirit, fields of sunflowers and endless blue sky and the sun and the sea. And, heaven and earth, he dreamed of Suzaku as a boy and a soldier and a knight, unchanged and unaged, his back strong and proud and something there like the faint pattern of feathers against his skin. And his fire that welled within him like tears or blood, and it poured into Lelouch and burned him alive in some conflagration of horror and sadness and love.

These dreams, too, did not frighten him. )

By the strangled light of the television, Lelouch looked faintly drowned, as though some flotsam recovered from a foreign shore. Pale and worn thin, his eyes very dark. He was alone, his feet tucked beneath him. He looked up at Suzaku as he came in but didn't say anything, his face strange in the mutable light and, yes, drowned, or drugged with heavy worry or just not quite there.

"We need to talk," Suzaku said, finally. His breath gusted like a child's. He heard himself and winced, but shifted his weight and lifted his chin. He felt dusty and hot, but not at all tired.

Lelouch unfolded and rose, leaning forward to turn off the TV. Darkness filled in around them, attacked and abated. Silence. He stepped within arms-length. Apparition-like. "Do we?" he said.

Suzaku hesitated. "Where's CC?"

Lelouch tilted his head. "She's the nanny," he said. "I don't keep up with her." There was a long pause, and then he echoed, "We need to talk?"

"Yeah." Suzaku peered at him. "What's wrong with you?"

Lelouch smiled: a weird, gentle curve of his lips that Suzaku was not expecting. "That's not what you wanted to say."

"Are you avoiding the question?"

"No." The smile slipped off his face. "I'm tired. Is that better?" He lifted his chin, maddening and proud and still very much Lelouch, despite the long days and bad sleep. "What? Spit it out."

Suzaku glared at him and drew a deep breath. "Lelouch, what do you want from me?" He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and fisted his hands, feeling himself blush. "What was that, before? Yesterday? Did you want--something? Because you said you did," he rushed out. "You said you wanted it, so."

"So," Lelouch said, the word very slow.

"So. What do you want?" Suzaku said again, helplessly, studying Lelouch's face. He locked his hands at his sides, settled his weight. "That's it."

Lelouch looked at him for a long time. "Did you like it?" His voice like his smile, all gentle and unsettling.

Suzaku met his eyes and looked away again. He pressed his lips together. "Answer the question," he said.

"That's difficult," Lelouch said softly. He lifted his hand, halted it in midair and met Suzaku's eyes. He ran his tongue along the edge of his lip. "What I want," he breathed. "Very difficult."

"Well." Suzaku swallowed. "Try it."

Lelouch stepped closer. "What I want, Suzaku. I want you to undress me," he said, his voice gone low. Suzaku stopped breathing. "I want to taste you, and I want you to touch me. I want your mouth on my skin. You've complicated things." He didn't smile. His eyes were burning, intense. His hand hovered over Suzaku's chest. "Because I also want you to make a promise. I fear it may prove...problematic." He closed his lips and curled his fingers into his palm, looked at his hand absently and frowned, as though it had moved on its own.

"So, what, you--you don't want any of the rest of that," and here Suzaku's stomach made a giddy, skittering twist, "if I don't promise?"

"Not exactly," Lelouch murmured. "You can promise later."

As he began to draw back, Suzaku seized his hand and brought it back, crushed it to his chest over his heart. Lelouch hesitated, and then opened his hand and spread his fingers to rest over Suzaku's heartbeat. "What," Suzaku said. "Promise what?" He squeezed Lelouch's fingers.

Lelouch's eyebrows quirked up and he gave Suzaku a peculiar, lingering look. "You can promise later," he said again. He tugged at Suzaku's hand and brought it to the buttons on his shirt. He kept his hand there and shook his head, disbelieving. "I like you," he said quietly. "God help me, but I like you." He reached forward to slide his fingers up Suzaku's jaw and leaned in, turned his face, and kissed him, slow languor and the barest edge of teeth.

Suzaku's fingers slid down Lelouch's front, nerveless, until they caught in the gap between two buttons. He jerked into action, working blindly to slide the buttons from their holes, his fingers scraping over the warm edge of Lelouch's skin. Lelouch made a soft sound and deepened the kiss, his tongue tracing light lines along the inside of Suzaku's mouth.

Water should not be this hot, Suzaku thought, light-headed. It shouldn't leave this wake of flame. His fingers were clumsy with the shirt, uncoordinated.

"I wasn't lying," Lelouch breathed against Suzaku's mouth as the last button finally pulled free. "That wasn't a ploy."

"It's okay," Suzaku said, sliding the shirt back over Lelouch's shoulders. It caught at his crooked elbows and he didn't move to shake it off. Suzaku met his eyes and dipped his head to press an experimental kiss to the sharp angle of his shoulder. His hands smoothed down Lelouch's sides and settled at his hips, his fingers delving beneath the waistband of his shorts. Lelouch's fingers sank to his jaw, then to his neck, and then to his collarbones. They felt cold, a little clammy.

Lelouch's shorts came loose as Suzaku was sucking a bruise onto his neck, the zipper's teeth parting after a struggle. Lelouch arched against him as the denim slid over his hips, wriggling from its hold. He took a step back beneath Suzaku's weight, and then stumbled as his shorts caught at his knees. He sat sharply, yanking Suzaku with him, and when they met the bed they collided and Suzaku's jaw knocked into the bridge of Lelouch's nose.

Lelouch yelped and shot a hand back to feel gingerly at his nose, wincing. "Sorry," Suzaku said. His hands sank into the comforter on either side of Lelouch's hips. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," Lelouch said. He made a face and sniffed experimentally. "I'm fine."

Suzaku smiled and leaned in to brush a gentle kiss against the side of Lelouch's nose, and then he settled to sit back on his balls of his feet between Lelouch's knees. His hands crept up Lelouch's bare legs to curl his fingers under the waistband of Lelouch's underwear. He wet his lips and darted his eyes up to look at Lelouch's face, and saw the jerk of his throat.

Lelouch put a hand over his fingers, and his knees pressed against Suzaku's shoulders, as though he suddenly wanted to bang them together. His other hand stayed at his nose, his index finger rubbing at its edge. "My point," he said, his voice a little tight, "is that I meant the--the sentiment. This isn't...." He drew a breath. "Necessary. If you don't. Want to."

"It's okay," Suzaku said again. "If it wasn't okay, I wouldn't be here. But I am." He pulled, slid Lelouch's underwear over his thighs. "So--just stop. It's okay. I liked it." He pressed his lips to Lelouch's knee and peered up through his bangs. "I want to. All right?"

"All right," Lelouch said, and relaxed, though his lip caught on his teeth in some betrayal of his apprehension. His hands retreated and he tucked his hair behind his ears and hunched his shoulders.

Suzaku pushed his underwear down over the angles of his knees and Lelouch shook it off one foot. Suzaku shifted forward again between Lelouch's knees and turned his attention to Lelouch's cock, neglected but mostly hard. He bent and scraped his lips over the soft skin of the inside of Lelouch's thigh, settled his fingers in the creases of Lelouch's knees. He parted his lips and brushed his mouth against the hot flesh of Lelouch's now full erection, and when he added his tongue, Lelouch's knees squeezed at him and he felt the nudge against his leg as Lelouch curled his toes.

His lips traveled Lelouch's length, gentle and teasing, and when he reached the tip, he paused. He could feel Lelouch's pulse as if it was his own, an insistent thunder of blood like the roll of the sea. He closed his eyes and took Lelouch's cock into his mouth, sank down over its length, and Lelouch's hands crept into his hair and stayed there, grasping and taken with the slightest tremor.

Suzaku remembered to breathe. His thumbs pressed at the lean bones of Lelouch's knee, and Lelouch's foot tucked somewhere under his ankle. His own foot may have begun to cramp. When Lelouch came in his mouth in a flood of heat, he swallowed without thinking, rather than choke.

He drew back, dizzy and breathing hard, and pressed his forehead to Lelouch's thigh. Lelouch curled over him and slid his hands, now hot and damp, up his jaw, dragged his face up and kissed him. Seeking and relentless, as though he was trying to taste himself in traces in Suzaku's mouth. "Get up here," he whispered against Suzaku's harsh breathing, and pulled back.

He tugged Lelouch's shorts and underwear over his bony ankle and shucked them away. As Lelouch scooted back from the edge of the bed, he pulled his feet up, and Suzaku caught one in midair and pressed his lips to its top, smooth and veined in blue. He heard Lelouch make a vague protest, and he released his foot and reached for the bag stashed beneath the edge of the other bed.

CC's things did not smell quite as alien and female as he expected, but he still flushed as he carded through her bras and panties, all her clothes wadded and creased. At the bottom, three bottles: her coveted shampoo and conditioner, the matching lotion. He prayed a silent apology and squeezed a liberal amount of the lotion into his palm, spread the sweet-smelling cream over his fingers, and heaved himself onto the bed.

Suzaku climbed Lelouch's boneless length and rocked his weight forward onto one hand, bent to scrape his lips over Lelouch's jaw. His other hand skated over the damp skin of Lelouch's middle and between his legs, trailed across tender skin and muscle and finally sank slicked fingers inside him. Lelouch went electric and rigid, curling reflexively into the contact. He clutched at Suzaku's shirt and pressed his face into Suzaku's neck. Suzaku made a soothing sound and gently worked his fingers against tight muscle.

"All right?" he whispered. Lelouch's breath hissed between his teeth, and Suzaku felt him swallow. Finally, he began to relax, his muscles releasing their tension bit by bit until he sagged against the bed, pliant, his hair dark over his face like shadows or ink. Suzaku curled his fingers into wet heat, and Lelouch shivered and moved against him.

"Lelouch," Suzaku murmured. Lelouch made a wordless sound through his teeth, and his hand traveled up to fist in Suzaku's shirt again. Suzaku let him pull him down, but stopped just short of their lips meeting. "Lelouch," he said again. "Tell me. What promise?"

Lelouch made a choked sound and turned his face away. "Cheating," he managed.

"Results," Suzaku said. He brushed his nose along Lelouch's ear, and pressed his lips to the pound of his pulse. He twisted his fingers.

"You bastard," Lelouch gasped, shuddering. His breathless laugh melted into a moan, and his hands slipped beneath the shirt's neckline. His fingernails drew stinging lines across Suzaku's shoulder blades.

"What promise?" he said to Lelouch's neck.

"I want--I want," Lelouch panted, his fingers curling around the back of Suzaku's neck. "You said you trusted me, so promise." He cleared his throat, and his voice regained some strength. "When the time as I say, to make things right." His breath gusted against Suzaku's shoulder. "Even if you hate it. Even if you hate me."

"I don't hate you," he said, his voice suddenly hoarse.

Lelouch's breath hitched as he laughed again. "It's all right." He patted limply at Suzaku's head. There was a pause, and then, "Do something, move, you useless--ah--" He shut his eyes and arched, his fingers clenching in Suzaku's hair.

"I don't hate you," he repeated, and shifted his fingers again. Lelouch twisted beneath him, his pale skin glazed in a fine sheen of sweat.

"But," he panted.

"Stop talking, Lelouch." He pressed his lips to the corner of Lelouch's mouth and felt something opening inside of him that was awful and fond. Lelouch trembled and curved to meet him. His hair clung to the hot flesh of Suzaku's neck. "For once, just shut up," he whispered, and let himself smile. Lelouch pulled mutely at Suzaku's shirt, his palms bright stars of heat, and Suzaku obeyed and finally began to undress and when he had, he bent again, sliding his tongue in Lelouch's mouth so that he could not speak.

This is a train wreck. This is a collision in slow motion, its sound distorted and its fire reduced to silent waves of curling heat and acrid smoke. Summer bloomed, came to fruition in heavy heat, still air and dust and sweat. Cold nights and blazing noon. Dim, dirty lights and crumbling plaster. The downturn of CC's lips like she understood what was happening and had thought it inevitable, but. But. The heat suffocated, drowned, blurred things into a haze. Things to remember: Lelouch kissing bruises onto Suzaku's neck, his eyes dark like the endless well of the desert night. The flushed tan of Suzaku's skin, sun-lightened hair and the flex of his muscles, press of his mouth.

The cities became mirage-like, formed with Britannian ideas of elegance and wealth, made wild again by the wasteland, technology broken down and metabolized into wreckage. Built high on the forbidding shears of rock were arches and swells of suddenly graceful architecture, nobility ruling godlike over the smashed sprawls of civilization below. On the streets, litter caught at chain-link fence and support, pressed into dirt and muck. The cities' liquor was thinned with water, pale and smoky gold like the sky holding the sun just before dusk.

They drew closer to Pendragon, and the drought stretched on. There was no breath of life, no hint of green across this land colored like fire. Old farmland lay barren and fallow, cracked into plates of brick-hard clay and flanked by the remnants of farmhouses and stables, their roofs sunken and gaping wide to the elements.

They met no strangers on the road.

Suzaku dreamed that Lelouch spoke to him while he slept, smoothed his hair with a fascinated sort of tenderness. "Since you promised," Lelouch whispered, "then I will make you one in return." He hesitated, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. "In the end, because there is always an end and someone must always end it, I promise that it will be you. You will be my murderer." And this is how Suzaku knew it was a dream, because Lelouch didn't speak like this, despite all his rhetoric and esoteric nature. He liked to talk about the mythical eternal collective, not the exact state and future of Lelouch himself, and if he did, it wasn't to Suzaku. He knew this was a dream. He knew this was a dream.

( "And when I die," Lelouch breathed, "you won't have to mourn me." )

The next city had a market: a bustling place with bright tents and stalls, merchants from further south with better irrigation, their produce lush and ripe and pricey. Half-dressed and barefoot children ran and ducked between stalls, screaming with laughter. Suzaku wandered their narrow alleys and peered at their wares, simple print dresses and scarves, glittering jewelry, mounds of alien fruits and grain, the sharp scent of cooked street food heavy on the air. The signs were mostly incomprehensible to him, and through a careful pidgin of word and gesture, he managed to buy two expensive jugs of faintly silty water and a sack of rice from an old woman.

CC bought a wide-brimmed straw hat that she shoved onto Lelouch's head. "You'll get sunstroke, little boy," she said when he grimaced. Which, Suzaku thought, was a good point, considering that Lelouch's sunburn never really got a chance to heal, red and painful and spread over his neck and shoulders, his arms. She gave him a superior look. "You're much too fair to be so careless."

"What about you?"

"I am certain to smooth sun block over my youthful skin every day," she said, lifting her nose. "Thus I am spared such indignities."

"I look like an idiot," he muttered.

"Only a little. It's cute," she crooned. He rolled his eyes, but did not move to take it off.

Suzaku left the two of them perched on a worn brick wall with yellowed, crumbling mortar, pitted and chipped with age, and explored the crowded streets alone, heat seeping up through the soles of his shoes. A couple of giggling children followed him for a while, peering curiously at him with wide, dark eyes, but when he began to look for them, they were gone. A woman tried to sell him a cup of flavored ice. Another smiled and ushered him to buy clusters of bright candy. He mimed pennilessness and moved on. He was unused to no one knowing his face. He wondered how well these people knew Zero's mask, in this territory long-since swallowed into Britannia's self.

Lelouch and CC had not moved in his absence. CC smiling her cat's smile, her words made mute by distance. Lelouch looking very grave and a bit silly, frowning intensely with his fingers at his chin, his ankles crossed and that hat on his head. Arguing over some inanity. The two of them shimmered with heat and then firmed and cleared as he approached, like an image held underwater and brought to the surface. He sat next to Lelouch on the wall, tucked up his feet, and absently watched people mill, ignoring the bickering beside him. Then: "Suzaku."

He had only just turned to look when Lelouch shoved a wedge of fruit into his mouth. He bit down, and juice welled and dripped over his chin. The fruit itself was soft and sweet, succulent. He could taste the sharp edge of the rind. He wiped his chin on his wrist, and the juice was translucent and faintly reddish against his skin. "Thanks," he said, and swallowed. "What was that?"

Lelouch offered him more from a small handful of slices wrapped in wax paper. "Street vendor," he said, which was not an answer, but Suzaku accepted it anyway. The fruit's flesh was a rich red-orange, its skin tinged green.

He reached to take another, but stopped when he caught Lelouch's eye. "What?"

"Nothing." He reached out and wiped his thumb across Suzaku's lip. "You have a lovely mouth," he said, and Suzaku blushed, hard. Lelouch gave him a satisfied smile.

"You're in public," CC reminded him.

"Are you trying to lecture me on decency?" Lelouch murmured.

"Perhaps. Speaking of decency, you haven't gone out to cheat at cards lately. Is that all right?"

"I resent that," he said. "I don't cheat, thank you."


"Regardless," he echoed. "I don't know what the market for those sorts of things around here may be."

"What about the nobles?" Suzaku said. He looked up at the manors cut into the hill, the wrought-iron fence surrounding acres of austere property. "Isn't that what you did in Japan?"

"They had casinos," Lelouch corrected. "Or an established gambling system, at least." He gave the manor an irritable look. "But they also have a bad habit of refusing to admit defeat, even when they've lost. I'm rather reluctant to try, without a standard of rules."

"What does that mean?"

CC gave Suzaku a wry look. "It means they accuse him of cheating when they've lost."

"Oh." He wet his lips and tasted stinging sweetness. "So what do we do?"

"We adapt," Lelouch said. "Pendragon is not far. We have enough to travel comfortably until then." He shifted his weight onto his hands. "And after we arrive, we'll have no more need of money."

Suzaku studied his profile, and then looked back at the whitewashed concrete, waves of heat rising from metal and pavement. Barefoot children chasing each other across a dusty stretch of street. A singing dialect he could barely understand and its barren land, its tart, sweet fruit. He tapped his heels gently against the brick.

"After we arrive," Lelouch said quietly, "we will have no more need of many things."

"And won't that be a relief," CC said, sardonic. She gathered her hair and lifted it off her neck. She peered wistfully at the cloudless sky and sighed. "I wish it would rain."

They moved on, passed over endless miles of dust and rock, and came to someplace new.

"Don't be stupid," Lelouch said. He frowned, and Suzaku studied the room's lone wide bed with trepidation. CC rolled her eyes and slid between the sheets and laid down with her back to them, her shower-fresh hair loosely braided over her shoulder.

"Don't argue," she said, and reached back and offered the covers with a little flick of her wrist. Lelouch sat on the bared sheets and peered up at Suzaku.

"It's fine," Suzaku said weakly. "I don't mind."

"Idiot," Lelouch said. He scooted closer to the center of the bed and laid down, leaving the covers to his back folded down. He reached back and pushed away the hair from the back of his neck: a strange, loving gesture, as if in offering. Suzaku wet his lips and surrendered, climbed into bed, sliding himself against Lelouch, their bodies fitting together with the ease of practice. Their feet tangled, and he put his lips gently to the top of Lelouch's spine. His skin tasted faintly like CC's soap, like clean laundry and the salty edge of sweat. He pressed his forehead against Lelouch's cool skin, and presently, he slept.

He woke in the night with his face buried in the pillow, roused by a faint, steady percussion, the barest nudge of movement against his side. He pushed himself up and looked: Lelouch lay flat on his back, staring absently at the ceiling, his fingers drumming softly against his chest in a familiar, just-off rhythm. CC was the pale curve of her shoulder beyond him, unchanged. Her breathing deep and even.

"What are you doing?" Suzaku whispered.

Lelouch didn't look at him. His fingers didn't stop. "It's a curious thing," he said softly. "The heart." He closed his lips and narrowed his eyes, as though something had materialized before him in the still, hanging darkness. A long few seconds passed, and then he continued, "A raw, bloody mess. A contorted organ. But it beats," and here he tapped his chest hard three times, "and beats. Like a permanent death throe. Or a wing," he said, his voice growing faint. "And it feels pain," he breathed, "at the most inopportune of times."

"What?" Suzaku said. He shifted onto his elbows and rubbed at his eyes, his brow knit. "What?"

Lelouch took a deep breath, released it through his nose, and his hand finally stilled. He thinned his lips. "I'm sorry," he said, though not for what. "Go to sleep."

Suzaku put his head back down, his forehead against Lelouch's shoulder, and he waited a long time in the dense stillness and finally he drifted off, but he did not think that Lelouch slept.

There was a point at which Suzaku became aware of what Lelouch's sheaf of notes really was. Its bulk was annotations of newspaper articles, torn clippings of stories about the missing Britannian royalty, the gaping wound of Tokyo and its slow efforts to recover, the UFN and its cautious control of politics. A weirdly cherished-looking scrap that included a picture of Kallen with her Guren, her pretty and proud with the striking hardness of a daughter of Japan. Lists and lists of those still missing and dead in Japan. Patriotic little columns touting the Emperor's prized horrors of vicious evolution. All of that, Suzaku expected.

He did not expect the scribbled lists, penciled into the margins. Mostly with a careful, painstaking neatness, but sometimes desperate and slashed into the paper. (Marianne, Kallen, Shirley, Nunnally, Kaguya, Milly, Rivalz, Clovis, Euphemia. More that covered the smudged back of hotel stationary, spilling onto second and third pages.) Names of the living and the dead and the things he owed them. Lelouch's own account of private pain, itemized and forthright, awful in its simplicity. (Next to Euphie's name: something better.) It was bare chance that Suzaku saw it, but once seen, he could not forget. His own name was on the list, written in jagged script below a mild article covering the arms market boom. Beside it, a blank.

The heat intensified and Lelouch became earnestly miserable: feverish, white-faced and sweating, bright spots of color burning high on his cheeks. CC took pity on him and laved water across his pulse points as he laid limp and sick, mopped at his skin with a washcloth, and at one noon's blazing peak, Suzaku peeled Lelouch's clothes away and slid hands beneath his shoulders and in the crooks of his knees, took him from bed and carefully lowered him into a tepid bath.

He sat on the floor, his arms hooked over the edge of the bathtub, and watched Lelouch, who looked as though he was asleep but he was not. As the fever ebbed, his color slowly recovered and evened, his wet hair smeared across his jaw, and finally, he let out his breath and slid completely beneath the surface of the water and came up again, hands slicking his hair against his head. He sank back until the water just covered his mouth, his knees bent to peek from the water's surface, and rested, quiet.

Suzaku studied the drip of water over his face. "Lelouch," he said. "I need to tell you something." Lelouch slid his eyes over to look at him, but did not otherwise respond. Suzaku cleared his throat. "The Lancelot Conquista can't be fixed," he said. "The Core Luminous is damaged." Lelouch rolled his eyes. Suzaku could very easily imagine the sneer that would have been in his voice as he said, Obviously.

Suzaku hesitated. "But there's another one. It was almost finished when I left." He bit his lip.

Lelouch hummed thoughtfully and lifted his chin from the water. "Is it Count Asplund?" Suzaku nodded. "Is he loyal to Britannia?" His bangs slipped down and trickled water over his cheeks.

"I think so. Schneizel sponsored everything, though."

Lelouch's eyes sank closed again. He was silent for a long time and then, quietly, "What is its name?"

"Lancelot Albion." He tucked his chin into the crook of his arm. "They built it for me."

Lelouch smiled and lifted his hand, dripping, to put it to Suzaku's cheek. The water was cool but Lelouch's hand still a little too warm, as though his sun-fever had not yet broken. "Have you missed it?" he said. "Piloting?" His fingers traced wet lines across Suzaku's face.

"Parts. I miss being able to fly."

"Somehow," he murmured, "that seems very like you." He idly tucked Suzaku's hair back behind his ear and finally, he said, "You'll have the Albion. I imagine you're the only one who can pilot it at all."

Suzaku forced back a pang of dread. "Don't--don't use the geass on them," he said, and looked away. "Lloyd and Cecile. Please. They deserve better than that."

"Mm, such loyalty." Lelouch sighed. "If their allegiance to Britannia isn't sufficient, then some measure will have to be taken. I assume that they might like you enough that their loyalty to the nation itself isn't terribly imperative." He tilted his head to the side. "No?"

"I don't know," Suzaku said, sheepish. "I didn't really leave with their blessing. They might have given up on me."

Lelouch shook his head. "If the Lancelot Albion exists still, then that is proof that they have not given up on you. They must want very badly to believe in your abilities."


"I'm right." He sat up, startling the bathwater into choppy waves, and kissed Suzaku, all of him cold and dripping. "I know I am," he whispered. His hands wiped Suzaku's hair away from his face and he pressed closer, licking into Suzaku's mouth with unhurried fervor. Suzaku's hands slipped off the lip of the tub and splashed into the water, and his fingertips grazed over the top of Lelouch's thigh. When they broke apart, Lelouch smiled and said, "Tell CC to leave."

"Good Lord," she said when Suzaku came out of the bathroom damp and mussed. "Did he order you to get in with him?"

"No." He swallowed and shifted awkwardly, and she smirked and played her hands through her hair where it spread out over her bed. There were two this time, and Lelouch had tucked himself against Suzaku without comment or argument on the first night. Suzaku liked this room most out of the others; it was wide-open and bright, all soft whites and tall windows with plain, sheer curtains that let the light in.

"Something to say?" CC purred. He hesitated for a long, agonizing moment, and she rolled her eyes. "Stop gaping like a fish, boy. I'll leave you two alone." She turned over and sat upright and looked at him over her shoulder. "If that's what you were going to ask."

"Um, kind of. Yes."

"You should be more careful."

He blinked. "What?"

She gave him a wry, appraising look. "No. Never mind. First I remember how young you boys are, and then I remember all the horrible things you've done." She stretched. "Mostly to each other." He shifted uncomfortably, and she studied him, droll. "Just don't think you'll be able to save the world," she said. "You can't fix everything."

"I know." He looked at his bare feet. "I know we can't. Things have gone too far for us to do that. But," and here he struggled a little and finally looked up to meet her eyes, "but you have to understand that we're the ones who can do the most. We have a responsibility," he said quietly. "We have to try."

Her lips quirked up into a smile. "You know, I take it back."

"Take what back?"

"You're not nearly defective as I first thought."


"You're welcome." She stood and wriggled her feet into her shoes. She braided her hair in handfuls and flicked the tail over her shoulder without tying it. "Tell him I'm calling Jeremiah," she said.

"Please don't tell him where we are," Lelouch said, stepping out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist, his hair brushed wet out of his face. "Just where we're going and when we'll be there."

"That will cost you dinner."

"Already accounted for," he muttered, making a dismissive motion with his hand. "Begone, witch."

Suzaku gave him a surprised look. "When will we be there?"

"Shut up," Lelouch said, and pressed a hand to the center of Suzaku's chest and pushed him back toward the bed. His hands were already at Suzaku's shirt, dragging it over his head.

"Be good," CC said, smirking, and closed the door behind her.

Lelouch worked with unsettling intensity to undress Suzaku, his kisses breathless touches of his mouth against Suzaku's skin, his naked weight rocked against Suzaku, bed sheets tangled around their feet. They settled with Lelouch straddling Suzaku's middle, his fingers tracing the line of Suzaku's collarbone, a smile playing across his lips. "We will be there soon," he said softly. "Soon is time enough."

Suzaku brought Lelouch's fingers to his lips and pressed a kiss to their backs. Lelouch tilted his head and continued, "And when we arrive, I am going to take the throne, and I will be Emperor." He smiled and nudged his fingers past Suzaku's lips, and Suzaku sucked gently at them, his tongue curling around Lelouch's knuckle. His skin tasted very clean. "And you will be my most loyal knight," he murmured. "My sword. I will give you the whole sky." He slid his fingers from Suzaku's mouth and traced his hand down Suzaku's side and drew a ticklish line over his ribs.

Suzaku cleared his throat and shifted beneath Lelouch's weight, his hands creeping up Lelouch's thighs. "And then what?"

Lelouch bent, his hair cool and damp as it trailed across Suzaku's face. He smiled and brushed his lips across Suzaku's and breathed, "And then we will make the world fall to its knees."

They fucked, even though they probably shouldn't have, but Lelouch was sometimes very hard to refuse, especially when he was lithe and warm, purring Suzaku's name and promises that sounded so impossible that there had to be some kernel of truth at their center. And Suzaku could claim him back and know that he wasn't lying, because there were some truths that Lelouch could not hide and some weaknesses that he never would have exposed without trust. Like that pliancy as he writhed beneath Suzaku, his skin flushed with the remnants of fever and sex, that willingness to reach for Suzaku's hands as he arched off the bed, and the unconscious, young way he pressed his face to Suzaku's neck and just breathed, rigid and trembling with the force of his orgasm. His fingers curling against Suzaku, as though to secure a grip and not let go. These were the things that sent a shudder of protectiveness through Suzaku, a prickle of love.

"I must say," Lelouch said after, his hands against Suzaku's sides, "this is a look that suits you." He laughed, and his teeth scraped over Suzaku's throat. "I believe the term is 'well-fucked.'"

Suzaku smoothed his hand over Lelouch's hair, combing fingers through its damp patches, and Lelouch tucked himself against his shoulder. His hair fanned light across Suzaku's skin, the rest of him a little ember of sick heat. Suzaku cleared his throat. "CC was saying something about us trying to save the world."

Lelouch gave a wry, sleepy-sounding laugh. "We're not."

"I know. But she was just saying." He shifted and ran his eyes along the lines of the ceiling. "We're not going to be able to fix everything."


"What are we going to be able to fix?" he said softly.

"Losing heart?" Lelouch sat up and tucked his feet beneath him. He smiled. "You've made me a promise."

"I know." He searched Lelouch's eyes and said again, "I know. I won't break it. It's just a lot to think about. Saving things. I want to save something. I want to save something."

Lelouch drew a long finger down the line of his jaw, as though tracing the path of a tear. "You can be very young, Suzaku."

"Why is that young?"

There was a long pause, and then Lelouch smiled again and it was suddenly rueful. "It's not," he said. "There are many things to fix. Many things to save. But it's been so from the beginning, from the very moment of Zero's birth. This is the choice that we made--that I made--when we were in the other world. This is our responsibility."

Suzaku studied his face for a few seconds and then lifted his hand, hesitant, and laid his palm over Lelouch's eye. The pad of his hand pressed against the elegant line of Lelouch's cheekbone, and his fingers slid under his bangs. "Was it worth it?" he whispered.

Lelouch leaned into his hand and looked through his eyelashes. "The emperor?"

"All of it."

The smile vanished, faded into the edges of a brittle calm, and his visible eye turned cool. It was as though a thin veneer of ice spread over him. "Not yet," he said softly, finally, and pulled away.

The next day, it rained. The sky dark and weighty, bruise-colored clouds and still, electric air, and then as though a knife tore into its pregnant weight, the rain slashed through the air to the parched earth. The city faded into its curtains, the gutters fountaining with dirty water as they washed clean. Steam rose from the streets, as though the rain seeped to some hellish volcanic core, and the mist was heady and sulfurous.

Lelouch curled in the chair on their balcony and slept as the rain roared past, one foot tucked beneath the other. The air fanning cool across his face, rain flecking his skin. Thunder rippled, low, encasing the whole city in its heavy closeness. Steel and tin sang. Somewhere far below, children played, their voices bouncing off concrete and rising like the cries of birds.

He dreamed: the earth lush and rich before him, vibrant and Edenic beneath an endless, impossible sky. The air cool and sleek, rippling like the clear water of a spring. And the dream so rich in color, as though painted. The heady scent of flowers on the wind and, so far away, the relentless roll and crash of the sea. No traces of ash or smoke on the wind, no trembling breath to destroy it all. Remember this.

He woke before the rain stopped. His eyes burning, as though the geass demanded some last remuneration from him and heat may pour over his cheeks. He drew his fingertip along the curve of his cheekbone and listened to the beat of his heart.

When he rose it was with purpose, and he stepped through the balcony door to the bed where Suzaku laid as though poured across the sheets, drowsy with the rain but not quite asleep, and he stirred and shifted over as Lelouch crawled onto the bed. Lelouch slid his leg across to straddle his hips, and Suzaku stretched beneath him and shook his hair out of his eyes, in a gesture suddenly very young, boyish. "What is it?" he said, rubbing at his face.

"I understand," Lelouch said, and smiled, beatific. "I know what to do."