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Blackmail Gone Wrong

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"All Black Knights, move into position!" Zero ordered from within the safety of his own Burai. "Remember, our objective is only the Knightmare unit; don't bother yourself with the researchers. They are no threat to us presently." His latest strategy was simple enough to understand. That annoying White Knightmare had repeatedly interfered with his plans, causing setback after setback; it was clearly an obstacle that had to be removed before he could further proceed with the next stage in bringing down Britannia.

Kallen’s voice echoed slightly over the ‘sound only’ transmission. “Zero, is this really the best way?”

Zero chuckled, understanding that his ace pilot wasn’t truly questioning his orders.  He knew that she was just disappointed because she wanted to trounce the pilot of that White Knightmare in a fair battle.  Thus far, that had proven impossible; the enemy pilot was exceptionally skilled, and all the Black Knights knew that fact irked Kallen to no end.  Instead of waiting for the next fight, the knights for justice were going to control all the conditions.  Their current mission focused on the utter destruction of Britannia’s latest toy.

“This is our best course of action in the long-term,” the rebellion leader assured his underlings.

Of course it would have been ideal to steal the White Knightmare for their own gain, but such an operation was far too costly for the sake of time and resources. Destroying the machine would instead well serve their agenda.

It wasn't that difficult to pinpoint the location of the laboratory where it was kept when not in use. Intelligence had gathered data linking the machine to the Advanced Special Envoy Engineering Corp and a man called Lloyd Asplund, apparently well-known in his field and ridiculously proud of his latest creation. Zero could not say he shared the scientist's enthusiasm, but that was to be expected given the circumstances. From that point, it was easy to track the famous Knightmare-designer to the university where he received funding and, conveniently, carried out his work. All the data—as well as the tracking device they'd recently slipped onto it—pointed to the fact that the White Knightmare was contained in that same university, and Lelouch had had to laugh when he’d learned it was the institute directly across from Ashford Academy.

Though it proved difficult to pull off an operation so deep in the Tokyo Settlement, it was definitely manageable under Zero's carefully laid plans. With access to so many armored trucks and personnel carriers—due mainly to the Kyoto Group's recent generosity—it was easy to sneak their own Knightmares unseen from the Eleven Ghettos into the Settlement. Zero was almost certain that, with the element of surprise on their side, the Black Knights could burst into the Research and Development Center and annihilate the White Knightmare while it was shut down and unattended; after all, without its pilot, Britannia’s latest model was useless. Destroying the machine (as well as the research behind it) was not scheduled to take long, and the university was rumored to have been filled with only researchers—not skilled soldiers who could put an end to the Black Knights' operation. If they worked fast enough in locating and demolishing the White Knightmare, they would have enough time to escape before reinforcements arrived. It was a lucky break that came from the Britannian machine being held offsite of a standard military base.

"What should we do if we see researchers?" Ohgi asked, wanting to clarify.

Zero answered immediately. "If they aren't carrying weapons, ignore them. Spare anyone who doesn't seem to have anything to do with this lab. This is a university, and there are innocents here." His mind conjured up an image of Suzaku, who was staying in the dorms here at the university as it was more convenient for him to carry out his military duties. Though he was an Honorary Britannian soldier, and thus technically an enemy, Suzaku was still Lelouch's best friend—or rather, more than that. At the thought, the schoolboy rebellion leader lowered his head in acute embarrassment. Seconds later, he tensed. An annoyed tick developed in his left eye and he shook himself out of it; he couldn't afford to be distracted by thoughts of his lover while in the middle of an operation. Gritting his teeth, he raised his eyes, newfound determination glinting in their violet depths.

Lelouch couldn't risk Suzaku getting hurt.

"Right," Kallen answered, echoed by her teammates.

Zero nodded to himself. It was time to put an end to a consistent problem. "Move out! Smash the White Knightmare and use escape routes F-15 and D-7. Rendezvous at Point B before moving back to base. You all have your orders!"

With a chorus of cries of, "Yes, Zero!" a handful of loyal Black Knights tore a hole through the university wall with their Knightmares and disappeared inside, readying their attacks on a defenseless piece of machinery. Their leader followed more slowly, taking in all the details and issuing commands as needed. Yes, he may have employed underhanded tactics—but at this point, the only thing of importance was that the White Knightmare be obliterated. Destroying the machine like this was not an honorable way to win, but there was a higher prediction of success with this plan than simply waiting to deal with it in the midst of battle—especially since the latter option had failed on numerous occasions.

Besides, it wasn't as if the Britannians played fair either.

A sharp cry directed Zero's attention to a serious problem. One of the Black Knights—Tamaki, by the look of it—had abandoned course and was swinging his Burai at an unarmed uniformed soldier. Lelouch's breath caught in his throat as he recognized the profile—Suzaku. Why was his boyfriend near the lab of the Britannian Knightmare research facility? Yes, he roomed at the university, but his specialty was not associated with the front lines or Knightmare research. He was a simple mechanic, so he had no business being caught up in Black Knights operations! None at all.

"Tamaki!" Zero reprimanded, hoping the note of hysteria did not carry through the transmission. "What are you doing?! Focus. Follow Q-1 and destroy the Knightmare!"

In his usual hotheaded manner, Tamaki growled back, "But Zero, it's that traitor Kururugi! The asshole who turned his back on his own people! Don't worry, Zero, he's got nothing and I have my Burai. I can take him out no problem!"

"I said get back to the task at hand!" Zero ordered sharply. Between worrying about Suzaku and maintaining his image as a faultless rebellion leader, he was a bit high-strung at the moment. Tamaki was always screwing up, but messing with Suzaku was one thing Lelouch just would not tolerate. Growling, Zero threatened, "I won't rescue you if you get captured since you're not following my orders. Leave Kururugi alone and stop holding us up!"

Lelouch knew Suzaku was exceptionally skilled, but a mere human was no match for a Knightmare. Breathing a sigh of relief, he watched as Tamaki reluctantly changed pace yet again and followed the others. "That was close," Lelouch moaned, feasting his eyes on the sight of Suzaku's unharmed body. He'd seen his lover not two days ago, but already he was missing Suzaku's warmth. Groaning, he realized he had to act as the enemy; it wouldn't do for Zero to show special favoritism towards a foe. Tearing himself away, Zero sped after his subordinates. Suzaku was running in the same direction, but Zero was driving a wheeled machine. Zero arrived first—barely.

Kallen was dutifully attacking the White Knightmare with her Guren Mk. II, making steady progress with its destruction. Tamaki was just joining her and some other fighter-units when Zero arrived. Ohgi was acting as a shield, keeping the researchers from interfering. One distraught white-haired man was on the floor bawling his eyes out, repeatedly banging his fist on the floor and choking out, "My poor Lancelot!" A blue-haired woman knelt beside him, obviously trying to offer some comfort but not succeeding since she was so on edge herself.

"Lancelot?" Zero said to himself. "Is that the pilot—no, it's the Knightmare. I wonder who is the pilot of that thing? It seems to be a big secret even within the military. Intelligence couldn't get anything on it. Gah, it's so irritating not knowing!" He smashed his fist on the dashboard in front of him, releasing his frustration. Then he smirked. Alarm bells were ringing and there was the obvious chaos caused by the Black Knights' abrupt appearance, but the White Knightmare—Lancelot—was being destroyed according to plan.

"Suzaku, save my Lancelot!" the white-haired man whined.

Suzaku stopped running to take in the situation. Panicked green eyes zipped over the room, trying to count the number of enemy Knightmares. Gulping, he shouted, "There…there are so many of them; the one unit we have is under attack! Miss Cecile, what happens now?!"

The kneeling woman tried to tug the hysterical crying man off the floor. Exasperation mixed with pity as the calmer scientist looked to Suzaku and slowly explained, "There's nothing we can do now, Suzaku. We don't have the resources to handle this on our own. The Black Knights have the Lancelot; the only thing we can do is stay safe until reinforcements arrive."

Zero smirked again. It seemed this woman had some common sense. Yes, it was better to stay out of his way…

"There must be something we can do!" Suzaku yelled—then dashed foolishly towards the throng of twisting Knightmares.

Lelouch's smirk fell. "No, you idiot!" he screamed, instinctively thrusting his own Knightmare between his lover and said lover's imminent death. "Do you want to die?!" There went the protocol of not showing special favoritism towards a foe.

Suzaku stumbled back from the Burai's sudden appearance, then squinted at the cockpit. Recognition surged in Suzaku's face after hearing Zero's deep, echoing voice, and he yelled in disbelief, "Zero?! Why would you…?"

"Yeah, why would you save him?" Tamaki shouted, similar calls erupting from other Black Knights members.

Zero swallowed, but his voice was clear and confident when he addressed his underlings. "You'd rather him die? His is still a life worth protecting."

"'Worth' on what scale?!" Tamaki demanded. "He's a worthless traitor in my book! He deserves to die!"

Zero clenched a fist and snarled, "'Worth' on my scale!" A hush fell over the entire laboratory; Lelouch noticed how Suzaku himself seemed to have stopped breathing. Taking a deep breath, Zero calmly explained, "That aside, Kururugi is Japanese. We are fighting Britannia. We are fighting for Japan. You would target a misguided Japanese adolescent?" He paused for a moment to let his words sink in before adding, "I didn't go through the trouble of saving him from execution so I could kill him myself. If you want to continue to bear the title of Black Knight, then you will follow my orders and let Kururugi live. Do not question me!"

There was another long silence after that intense outburst. Hesitantly, Ohgi spoke up in support of his leader. "I think Zero did the right thing. There's no point in killing if we don't have to—and besides, like Zero said, Kururugi is Japanese."

"Yeah, but I bet he wishes he was Britannian!" Tamaki sneered. He obviously would not have dared to utter such words in response to Zero, but he felt comfortable tossing them out after Ohgi's input.

"That's enough!" Zero snapped. "Hurry, before the Britannian military arrives. We're not here to discuss Kururugi. Carry on with the mission!"

Suzaku looked quizzically at the Zero's Knightmare, clearly still trying to understand why the enemy rebellion leader would save him. Just because he was Japanese? By the highly skeptical look on his face, Suzaku didn't buy it. "Why are you here then?!" Suzaku shouted, voice barely audible over the renewed sound of clanging metal.

Zero sighed before projecting his answer. "Isn't it obvious? We're here to destroy the Lancelot. It's caused me enough problems. But don't worry; we know you are blameless and you have my word that you and your fellow innocents will not be harmed." It was doubtful Suzaku would trust the word of a wanted terrorist, but the Lelouch still wanted to throw it out there. Just in case.

Green eyes widened in disbelief, but Lelouch knew those eyes well and could pinpoint the relief and gratitude swirling in their depths. Suzaku would always choose the path with the least amount of bloodshed, and if it meant sacrificing a high-class military project for the sake of saving lives, then so be it.

His white-haired coworker, however, seemed to disagree. "Not my Lancelot!" he cried again, waving his arms emphatically. "You can have Kururugi, just spare Lancelot!"

"Lloyd!" the blue-haired woman shrieked, twisting his ear. "You know we would never give up Suzaku! Why do you still say these sorts of things?" She turned to Suzaku with a wide, inappropriate smile (considering the circumstances) and reassured him, "Don't worry, Suzaku. Lloyd just needs to work on his manners. You're completely safe with us." She continued to beam at Suzaku, who looked a bit uncomfortable regardless.

Resting his head on his palm, Zero surveyed the scene on the floor. Hm, so that must be Lloyd Asplund. He's the one who created that monstrosity. Should we capture him? His talents would certainly be useful, but he works for Britannia now. He can't be trusted. I could always use my Geass, but the Black Knights would be too suspicious.

"Zero!" Kallen's voice jerked him back to the main mission. "The lookouts just warned us that Britannian infantry are headed this way. What should we do?"

Zero cast a critical eye over the misshapen heap of twisted white Lancelot. It wasn't utterly destroyed, but it was certainly not in any kind of working condition. It would take weeks, if not months, for Asplund and his team to repair it—especially with some of their research stations and spare Knightmare equipment smashed as well. A sizable amount of data was lost. That was good enough. Though it meant the Black Knights had a narrower time window to advance their plans, it was doable. With their mission objective achieved, they could afford to retreat. "Withdraw! Follow your assigned escape routes." Lelouch left last, keeping one eye trained on Suzaku until he disappeared from sight.

-+-

Yawning, Lelouch collapsed into his seat Monday morning. He'd spent nearly all weekend with the Black Knights. Saturday was spent fine-tuning his strategies and readying everything for the operation; Sunday was spent putting the plan into effect. School just seemed such a waste of time when compared to his exploits as masked rebellion leader Zero, Britannia's greatest threat. He'd been lucky his latest plan had gone off without attracting unnecessary complications, though he was still confused by Suzaku's role in all this.

The more he thought about it, though, the more it seemed to make sense. It wasn't like Suzaku accompanied the Advanced Special Envoy Engineering Corp to the front lines. It must have just been bad luck that he was working that day in close proximity to that accursed White Knightmare. Really, it was Lelouch's own fault for attacking 'behind the scenes.'

Drumming his fingers on his desk, Lelouch stared out the window, deep in thought. Of course Suzaku would not be in class today; after yesterday's stunts, Lelouch doubted his lover would be free of the military for at least a week. It hurt knowing that, but it was a sacrifice necessary in bringing about the downfall of Britannia. At least his last meeting with Suzaku was memorable… Cheeks heating up at the vivid memories, he scolded himself internally and willed himself to calm down. When he was reasonably sure he wasn't blushing, he chanced a look around—just to be sure nobody had seen. He was met with open, horrified stares and mocking laughter from his classmates.

Wait. That didn't seem right.

Even if he was caught blushing, his schoolmates wouldn't react like this. Did he have rice on his face again? But no, he hadn't eaten Japanese food for breakfast…

"Hey, Lamperouge. Do your pants feel empty without Kururugi's hand down there?" More derisive laughter erupted from the students in the room.

Lelouch felt his pulse begin to race. "What are you talking about?" he asked with forced casualty, attempting to stay calm and in control, to appear clueless about the topic under discussion. He was relieved he managed to answer in a steady voice, not a quiver present to give anything away. How in the world did his classmates know about him and Suzaku…? They'd done everything in their power to keep their relationship secret. True, it was bound to get out sooner or later—especially as they were two of the most talked about boys in school even before they were a collective 'it'—but how in the world were they discovered?

Nervous sweat started to slide down the back of his neck. Trying not to panic, his mind raced through all the possibilities. Where had he not covered his tracks? When it came to that, if his class knew about his feelings for Suzaku, what else could they possibly know? About his Geass power, about his identity as Zero—or even his identity as an outcast prince of Britannia? He had to figure out how much they knew before he could deal with the problem.

The students tittered among themselves, ignoring his question.

Frowning, Lelouch searched for anyone brave enough to meet his stare. Rivalz held eye-contact for a second, then closed his eyes and slowly shook his head in either warning or disappointment. Lelouch lifted an eyebrow at this odd behavior but figured he could confront his friend about it later—preferably after he understood the situation. Moving on, his gaze locked with Shirley's. She nodded to him once, disengaging herself from a conversation with her friend Sophie, before making her way across the room to him.

"Is it true?" she asked, her words escaping in a strangled whisper.

Lelouch continued frowning, but his tone was civil when he responded. "Is what true? How can I answer if I don't know what you're talking about?"

Shirley sniffled and leaned closer for privacy, her red-orange hair spilling over her shoulders. Her face was drawn, almost as if she was dreading what was coming next. "I just heard from Sophie that you and Suzaku are…erm…that way. Together. Are you with him, Lelou?" She made sure to keep her voice low, ever respectful of Lelouch's private life, but some surrounding students managed to overhear anyway. They stopped what they were doing, wanting to hear Lelouch defend himself.

Paling at the question, Lelouch caught sight of the eavesdroppers. "Shirley. I, um…can we talk about this later?" He shifted in his seat but tried to look like he wasn't fidgeting; Lelouch Lamperouge did not fidget. "Perhaps during the Council meeting today?" he suggested, almost desperate for the current conversation to end. He needed time to plan what he was going to say.

Shirley stared at him for a long moment, her green eyes—not as dark and lovely as Suzaku's—now brimming with tears. She searched his gaze before surprising him with, "I see." Offering him a watery smile of encouragement, she took a hasty step back to give him distance; she knew how he hated having his personal space invaded. Shirley held her hands up to her heart, maybe reacting to a sudden onslaught of pain in her chest, before she looked down at the floor; the realization that her longtime crush loved someone else was surely deeply upsetting. And to be looked over for a guy, at that! Lelouch could just imagine what thoughts were racing through Shirley's mind. Shirley hiccuped, closing her eyes and squeezing tears from the corners. Lelouch knew it must have been hard to keep smiling for his sake when she clearly felt like her own heart was splitting in two.

"I'm sorry, Shirley," Lelouch said, at a loss about what to do for her. She was one of his good friends, after all, and he didn't want to see her hurt. It was inevitable, though, when looking at her feelings for him and his feelings for Suzaku. He would never be hers, especially while Suzaku was available.

The onlookers gaped at each other. They'd heard the question; Shirley's reaction—as well as Lelouch's apology—depicted a clear answer. There was no public confession of love, but the infamous pretty boy's words and regretful tone were all the answer needed to pinpoint the truth. Lelouch Lamperouge had, in a roundabout way, admitted to dating the Eleven, Kururugi Suzaku.

Lelouch held back a groan. How in the world did this secret leak out? Nunnally was the only one they'd told, but she would never betray her brother's confidence. Sayoko had most likely figured it out, but she knew how to keep secrets. Shirley had said she'd heard the news from Sophie, but where had Sophie picked up this information? And what about the rest of his class? Scowling, he turned back to the window. He didn't want to deal with their judgmental stares, and what was worse, he had to face this by himself. Lelouch reminded himself that it was because of his own efforts that Suzaku was not in school today to share his shame—but on second thought, maybe it was better this way. His Japanese lover suffered enough at the hands of racist Britannians on school grounds without having to deal with the current drama; it would be best if he returned to school after all the initial hype died down.

"The Culture Club," sounded a voice from behind him.

Lelouch whipped around to face the speaker, his gaze landing on his friend and gambling partner, Rivalz. "Excuse me?" he asked, his tone strained.

Rivalz chuckled awkwardly. "Well, you know the Student Council isn't the only group that meets in the Clubhouse Hall. Some of the students from the Culture Club stayed late on Friday to finish some kind of project…and well, they saw you and Suzaku on the staircase."

Slipping his eyes shut at this tidbit of information, Lelouch let an unbidden sigh escape his lips. The Council meeting had ended early on Friday, and he and Suzaku had not exercised caution in their excitement to feel each other once they were finally—seemingly—alone. Normally, they'd wait until they were enclosed in the safety of Lelouch's bedroom before pawing at each other, but on Friday evening they were too desperate to rekindle contact after a long period apart—which they’d both blamed on Suzaku's military duties. Teenager hormones were wonderful motivators, but they scarcely led to good ideas in the long run.

Lelouch cursed to himself under his breath, berating himself for not protesting more at the time. He'd given in to Suzaku's advances on the grand staircase, submitting to his lover's charms, even knowing they were in an exposed environment. He was smarter than that, but Suzaku's hands on him had felt too good to ignore, too good to push away.

"They had a camera," Rivalz continued, completely oblivious to Lelouch's mounting rage and discomfort. "They thought it would be good blackmail, but one of them—I don't know who—blabbed and you know how word gets around here. There are a few copies of the photo floating around campus. I don't know how many, but there are enough that pretty much everyone has seen proof of…uh…you and Suzaku…um…fooling around. Anyone who hasn't seen it has heard about it, and well, there you have it."

Lelouch growled, "Let me see the picture!" His eyes flashed, and he had to actively prevent himself from enforcing the command with Geass. He didn't need the power this time to compel Rivalz; he needed to know what the blackmail image contained so he knew what he was up against. If he was lucky, maybe he could downplay its significance and try to pass something off as looking like they were doing something scandalous. Even if everyone knew how he felt about Suzaku, maybe the rumors wouldn't be so extreme if he could gently nudge them in another direction.

Rivalz squeaked at Lelouch's understandably angry tone. "I don't know who has a copy," he mumbled, not meeting Lelouch's eye. "Are you…is it really true though?"

Lelouch had to work to keep himself under control. "Rivalz," he explained as painstakingly gently as he could, "Shirley just asked me that. I didn't explain anything to her. So can we please discuss this later?" His tone booked no argument, and Rivalz only nodded. Lelouch supposed he could sympathize: his friend was obviously shocked at the news and didn't know what to think anymore. Still, his own situation was far worse, and Lelouch had to think of himself first.

A shaking hand slid a facedown picture across Lelouch's desk. "Here, Lelou," Shirley offered; her eyes were red and puffy from crying. "Sophie had a copy, and I knew you'd want to see it. As painful as it is."

Lelouch blinked at her, speechless yet again. Shirley was clearly heartbroken over the news, but she was still putting him first. What had he done to gain such devotion? He squeezed her hand in silent thanks and slowly flipped the picture over, preparing himself for the worst. Rivalz and Shirley surrounded him, blocking his expression from the rest of their nosy classmates. He scanned the photo and narrowed his eyes in displeasure; then, he pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to avoid a headache. Of course. The picture showed the relationship for exactly what it was, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

The photograph portrayed a messy state of half-dressed boys—easily recognizable as Kururugi Suzaku and Lelouch Lamperouge—desperately clinging to each other on the grand staircase in the Clubhouse Hall. Suzaku was draped over Lelouch, pinning him against the stair railing, his lips firmly attached to Lelouch's neck. They were plastered against one another except for a gap between their groins, existing only so Suzaku had room to work his fingers. Suzaku's hand had noticeably wriggled its way deep into Lelouch's pants; his other hand was clutching the ebony hair at the back of Lelouch's nape. Lelouch's pants were gaping open, slung low on his hips, but Suzaku's hand inside there obscured anything too private from being displayed. Lelouch had, in turn, wrapped his arms around Suzaku's shoulders, fingers clenched in Suzaku's uniform jacket. His head was thrown back, thin, black strands of hair flying, his own eyes squinted in pleasure. A mere slit of amethyst peered down at a head of brown hair. His mouth was open in a silent scream—or perhaps it was a moan—and it was obvious just what was putting such extreme emotion on his face.

That extreme emotion was meant to be for Suzaku's eyes only. The position showed the relationship for what it was. Lelouch had a public image to uphold, and the picture did a fine job of destroying it; he'd clearly lost control. It was easy to note who had whom up against the wall—or in this case, a stair railing—and just who was pulling the strings. It hurt Lelouch's pride when he thought about how he gave up precious control to Suzaku—willingly. His best friend was the only one he could trust, and their moment of intimacy was meant to stay between them. Instead, that private moment was laid bare for all to see, exposing personal feelings and hidden truths. Now everyone knew.

-+-

A moment. That was all he needed. Just long enough to gather his thoughts before the Student Council meeting. His limbs felt like deadweight as he slipped into the men's room; he managed to keep his stride graceful until he reached the far wall. Clutching the edges of a pristine white sink, he used it as support while he leaned towards the bathroom mirror. Slowly, Lelouch let his eyes flicker over his image, assessing the day's build-up of stress on his body. His shoulders were noticeably tense, and there was something missing in his expression—the gleam of cockiness in his eyes had dimmed somewhat in light of recent events. His brow was furrowed, and his lips were stretched in a thin line, turned down at the corners in an evident frown. Letting his eyes slip shut, he heaved a sigh and gripped the sink harder. He lowered his head, black bangs shielding his eyes.

He took another deep breath, then straightened and forced himself to meet his reflection's gaze. So what if people didn't understand what he had with Suzaku? He didn't care what other people thought anyway—not about things like this. Scowling, he turned on the faucet and splashed cool water on his face. As he was rubbing the sleeve of his uniform over his wet nose, it happened.

The electric lights flicked off, and the entire bathroom was thrown into pitch-black.

Lelouch's immediate reaction was to freeze and assess the situation. Before he could figure the cause (random blackout, a cut wire, someone accidentally hitting the light switch, someone deliberately hitting the light switch…) he was grabbed from behind in a death grip, arms locked like steel around his delicate neck. He tried to yell, but all that came out was a ragged choking sound; fingers automatically flew to tug at the offending limbs, but he was too weak to move them but an inch. The sudden darkness and pressure on his body were disorienting, and he felt dizzy at the sudden sensations; he couldn't remember how to breathe. Arms constricted tighter around his trachea in response to his flailing, making him choke more, and an elbow dug painfully into his bobbing Adam's apple.

Twisting his entire body around within the hold—on pure adrenaline—he managed to tilt his head in the direction he presumed lay his attacker's head. A sickly red glow burned to life in his left eye, its eerie light not doing much to penetrate the shadows, and he choked an order: "Let go of me." It was impossible to initiate eye-contact in total darkness—especially when he was being jostled about—so the command had no effect whatsoever. Geass was useless; without it, he was powerless.

“What the hell was that?” exclaimed a voice near Lelouch's ear, naggingly familiar but for the panic and asphyxiation shutting down his brain.

Another body barreled into the locked duo, sending both Lelouch and his first attacker to the floor. The solid hold around his neck loosened at the fall, and Lelouch, wheezing from the stranglehold, quickly took advantage of that to squirm his way to freedom.

"Fuck, moron!" griped the other person on the floor. "That was me, not the traitor faggot!"

Lelouch frowned, his ears ringing at the harsh words. By that statement, he knew for sure why he was being targeted; his stomach dropped at the implications. It was all planned. He was in danger here; these people meant to seriously harm him. The voice bouncing off the walls was familiar, but he just couldn't place it. The only thing he could deduce was that it was masculine and most likely belonged to a classmate. It wasn't deep enough to belong to a full-grown man, so the probability of his attacker being a professor was slim to nothing. More likely, these people were students his own age; that made them more dangerous, in a way.

The tile floor was cold under his bare fingertips, and the sound of nearby scuffling was too close for comfort. Biting his lip, Lelouch worked on controlling his cough; his neck was surely bruised, and he was still finding it difficult to inhale and exhale. After a few gasping moments, he coached himself on breathing slowly through his nose. If he could just stay quiet until he reached the bathroom door—if he could manage to not draw attention to himself—

Another youngish male voice sounded from somewhere above and to the left of him. "Sorry! I can't see in the dark, y'know. Why'd you shut the lights anyhow?!"

The first boy growled. "So he can't see our faces. Are you stupid?" There was some rustling, and then a bang and a yelp as the first attacker shuffled to his feet, the soles of his shoes squeaking on the newly-cleaned floor—and then immediately tripped over the crawling getaway prince, knocking the wind out of Lelouch. "Aha!" he whispered triumphantly, grabbing hold of a spindly ankle. "I found the bitch, so let's hurry up! This place is too public; we need to move before anyone walks in on this!"

"Hold him in place. I got the blindfold!" exclaimed the proud second attacker.

Lelouch winced as someone grabbed his hair and yanked him backwards. An aching pain radiated from his lower back—a courtesy of being stepped on. He opened his mouth to scream, but a thick gag quickly muffled his shrieked protest. He sank his teeth into the offending wad of cloth, trying to jerk away from the fingers brushing against his head. Thin strands of hair tangled with the knotted strings holding the gag in place; said strings cut forcefully into the corners of his lips, biting into his skin all the way around his skull. Saliva pooled under his tongue and dribbled out his mouth, soaking the gag. Simultaneously, Lelouch felt a coarse, burlap cloth press against his eyes and stretch around his head, rendering his Geass power worthless. His heartbeat quickened and, panicking, Lelouch instinctively tried to claw the two boys off of him; it was a futile effort.

For the first time, the original attacker bothered to speak directly to his victim. "Don't bother struggling, Lamperouge. Everyone on campus knows a five-year-old little girl could beat you up." His tone carried mocking amusement, and he hauled the defenseless Britannian boy to his feet by the hair.

Lelouch tensed and gritted his teeth at his weakness, feeling some of his hair pull out from the roots. His arms were yanked roughly behind his back, joints popping in his shoulders from the harsh treatment. Lelouch hated how they had him cornered. Most of the student body had been avoiding him since first period when he'd inadvertently admitted he was, more or less, in love with Suzaku. Even Shirley and Rivalz were keeping their distance, not even wanting to accompany him to the Council meeting. Though they'd stood by him in the morning, they both needed time to adjust and think before the upcoming discussion; Lelouch understood their need to compose themselves privately, Shirley especially. He'd needed that peace and solitude himself. The whole situation concerning Suzaku had wound him up into a tight ball of anxiety, and he knew he wasn't the only one affected by the stress. But to think that some of his schoolmates would actually jump him like this…

They must have been waiting for me to be completely alone, Lelouch thought to himself. He cringed, feeling lightheaded at being completely trapped. No Geass, no nearby friends to help, no physical strength or stamina to fight, no way to talk himself out of this one or play mind games…

Wholly bound and helpless, he was utterly screwed any which way he thought about it. His blood chilled, and jabs of icy fear stabbed his spine, almost paralyzing him. Shaking as they were, his legs could barely hold him up. He staggered when hands roughly pushed him forward. Sightless eyes widened uselessly behind the blindfold: judging by the number of hands on him, there were at least three attackers, not two like he'd previously concluded. His head buzzed at this new information.

With a creak, the men's room door swung open and, bound, Lelouch was pushed out of the bathroom; a hint of light invaded his eyesight now that he was out of the pitch-black of the bathroom, though it did nothing to help him regain his sight since the blindfold was still secure on his head. Without warning, his assailants started dragging him in some unknown direction. It took about ten minutes for them to reach their secret destination—Lelouch was meticulously counting the seconds in his head—and not once did he hear anyone who could offer him help. Campus seemed to be deserted. Where were all the clubs? Surely they weren't all canceled; it was the beginning of the week! Trying to scream for help around the gag resulted in harsher shoves. Dread and anticipation churned in his stomach. The combined strength of the attackers swept him along; his lower arms burned behind his back from the might of their grip. He had no choice but to be hauled away, even though his mind was screaming bloody murder at every forced step.

The loud bang of a door closing called his thoughts back to the real world, and he was violently pushed to lie face-down on a rough, wooden bench. The room smelled horribly of sweat and dirt, and there was the faint sensation of moisture in the air. Lelouch grimaced at the thought of all those germs spreading to his clothes and skin. It wasn't hard to figure out that they'd dragged him to the boy's locker room, a place both deserted and last on the list of places he would ever willingly go, being as finicky and OCD as he was. Since it was after school, no one would need the gym lockers. Everyone knew that sports clubs had their own private changing rooms not associated with those needed for physical education classes. A cold feeling of hopelessness washed over him, and Lelouch's racing thoughts circled his mind in a frenzy: This is it, then. They took away all my options. I'm completely at their mercy, and no one's coming to help me. There's no way out of this!

Lost in thought, he was jerked back to reality by a crushing weight on his back, once more squeezing the breath out of him. His chest almost caved under the pressure, and he gasped for air around the gag cloth as black spots swam across his limited vision. He felt two sets of hands wrench his arms and legs around the wooden seat bench. His arms were brutally looped around the bench as if in a forced sort of hug, and his wrists were tied together under the seat with a tight cord. Made to straddle the bench, his legs were yanked around the seat similar to how his arms were positioned; because his legs did not bend the same way, the sides of the bench rode into the underside of his knee and the pads of his feet pressed together underneath the seat. His ankles, too, were tied with a thick cord. Unceremoniously, after Lelouch was completely tied down, the weight vanished off his back and the gag, removed. His mouth was too dry, and he started hacking.

Once he'd gotten himself under control, he waited for his salivary glands to work again and spat, "What is the meaning of this?!" His tone earned him a sharp slap in the face, but he only grunted and kept right on complaining. Fear made him angry, and helplessness made him desperate. "Unhand me at once!" His tone was a bit more panicky than he'd have liked to use under normal circumstances, but these were anything but. Lelouch was used to being on top of things to an insane degree; never in his life had he felt more on bottom. His body was burning now; the hot, damp air was stifling his lungs. Eyebrows drawing together, he warned in a low tone, "You're making a mistake—"

The leader laughed. "Right. We already went over this, pretty boy. Your physical strength is nothing to be admired, and we’re not afraid of that Eleven boyfriend you're so proud of. There's nothing you can do." The speaker ended with a stinging slap to Lelouch's bottom to prove his point, maybe trying to smack the arrogance out of him. "We thought it bad enough that you stuck up for that Eleven trash when he first came here, but now you're sleeping with that piece of shit? What the fuck is the matter with you, man? How could you become Kururugi’s little bitch?"

The up-'til-now silent attacker joined in with, "It would be one thing if you were fucking him. As an Eleven, he's just a sex toy for your pleasure…but it seems clear to us that you're taking it up the ass from Kururugi! How humiliating! Don't you have any self-respect as a Britannian?!" The third boy's tone sounded genuinely appalled at Lelouch's behavior, as if he couldn't think of anything viler than treating an Eleven as an equal. 

Lelouch sensed a presence directly above him right before a sticky glob of spit landed in his hair. It oozed downwards, catching on his earlobe and leaving a warm, disgusting trail of wetness down the side of his face. He shuddered, shaking his head to try to fling off the spittle, and his heart plummeted as he instinctively pulled at his bindings. They were strong, and bile rose in his throat at the thought of being trapped. He'd always valued control over anything else, and to be at someone else's mercy…

Being powerless was terrifying to a normal person, but for him it was simply bloodcurdling. He listened to his assaulters with half an ear, already predicting the racist dribble that would spill from their mouths. "Don't you have any self-respect as human beings?! Untie me, dammit!" he demanded angrily, not pleading at all. Pride wouldn't allow for begging.

The other boys chuckled at his show of defiance. His hot breath fouling the air, the leader of the group leaned down to whisper in Lelouch's ear, "No. Not until you understand what you're doing wrong, Lamperouge." He snorted. "You're still under the mistaken impression that it's all right for that Eleven filth to touch you. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!"

Lelouch frowned, trying to draw a connection. These people obviously hated his Japanese lover; had he come across them often before? It was definitely a possibility, considering the student population size at Ashford Academy. "By saying this, are you the ones who sprayed Suzaku's gym uniform with graffiti? Are you the ones who bully—" he asked, voice starting to shake as it sunk in that he was really and truly trapped with no way out. His mind conjured up an image of Suzaku’s normal tormentors, but something about the voices didn’t seem right… Or at least, not all of—

Seconds later, the theory faded from his mind like chaffsmoke. He had something more important to focus on. His skin crawled as he felt his attackers' invasive hands start to roam over his body. Even through his clothes, their touches burned. How dare they; he belonged to Suzaku! He'd made that perfectly clear. That, of course, was the entire reason he’d been dragged there, strapped down and stripped of all defenses on a wooden bench in the first place.

"You should be worrying about yourself more than your little boyfriend's clothes, bitch." The harsh reprimand grated against Lelouch's ears with a sense of foreboding, the words warning him of callous punishment yet to come.

There was the sound of rustling, and then a pinging sound of something metal against the wet, tiled floor. "Whoops, dropped the knife," drawled one of the boys in a too-innocent tone.

Lelouch froze up. Wasn’t it about now that someone—say, Suzaku—should miraculously appear and save him?

But nobody came.

A scraping noise sounded from the ground, and Lelouch deduced that someone had snatched up the knife; his theory was proven correct when there was a tugging sensation on his pants, accompanied by the sound of tearing fabric and a fresh wave of air over previously-covered skin. The comforting weight of his long school pants disappeared; a soft thump to the right directed his attention to their new location, ripped to shreds as they must be. The sharp, steel edge of the knife nicked his waist and legs every so often, drawing thin, stinging cuts of blood.

"Look at those black bikini briefs!" the leader of the group wolf-whistled. "Man, he really is a sissy. I betcha he wears that tight underwear for Kururugi's sake." Sharing another laugh at his expense, the racist teenagers slit the bottom of Lelouch's 'sissy underwear' with their knife, being sure to drag the metallic blade teasingly against the underside of his penis. “That right, Lamperouge?” the main assaulter kept taunting. “You model your hard cock in this underwear for Kururugi? Maybe treat him to a show?” When the tight, stretchy fabric fell to either side of his hips, they reached between his spread thighs, grabbing at his exposed genitals from behind.

Lelouch gasped, freezing up. Goosebumps rose on his now exposed legs, pleasant tingles mixing with abject horror and fear. "Wha-what are you doing?" In a state of disbelief, he licked his dry lips, trying to inch away; he didn't succeed, seeing as how he was still bound tightly to the bench. Cold and creepy, the knife was too sharp an instrument to be in such close proximity to his most precious body part. Their groping hands did not make a better substitute; they were sweaty and, most assuredly, riddled with germs, not to mention horrid intentions. Those touches didn't account for anything save humiliation and shame. His body heated up again, and his toes curled; he was utterly revolted by the slight pleasure he felt. “O-oh!” he groaned, disgusted with himself as much as them. None of these people were Suzaku, so he didn't want any part of their bodies touching any part of his.

"If you let that fucking Eleven touch you like this, it's only fair you let us. Besides, we're all Britannians here, aren't we?" The proud, enthusiastic third attacker explained, as if their shared nationality made it all right. He squeezed Lelouch's limp member, hissing as it didn't harden under his touch. "Maybe he really is defective if he can only get it up for an Eleven." His tone was insulted, as if he couldn't believe the nerve Lelouch displayed to respond to a lowly Eleven but not to him, a high-class pureblood Britannian.

"Hmph. Lamperouge's a fag, at least, so as guys we fit half the criteria for his preferences," sneered the leader. With a sniff, he ordered, "Keep working on him. He'll stir down there soon enough if we keep at it."

Unable to hold back another moan, Lelouch played it to his advantage. Mentally smirking, he gasped, “O-ohhh, Suzaku!”

Immediately, the leader spanked him and snapped, “Don’t you dare! We’re fucking touching you this time, Lamperouge. Not that fucking Eleven!” Getting his obvious anger under control, he mocked, "How does it feel, bitch, to know your body no longer only belongs to Kururugi? How do you like the lesson we're teaching you?"

Lelouch clenched his teeth, sweat pouring down his face. If only he didn't have that accursed blindfold on, he could use his Geass! He had never hated his power limitations more; he had never needed Geass like he needed it now. These classmates of his were not skilled soldiers following orders in a political chain of command; they were impulsive, racist teenagers acting on their own whims and their own skewed set of values. The fact that they were downplaying his relationship to a merely physical union was infuriating; of course they would never understand that there was emotional reason behind his body's response to his Japanese lover. Indignant rage bubbled to the surface, once again overpowering fear, and he growled, "No! I only want Suzaku! Not because he's Japanese—"

The leader gave his cock a warning squeeze, relishing in his pained hiss. "Rule number one, Lamperouge. You don't use the J-word in our presence. It's Eleven."

"Japanese!" Lelouch insisted, just as incensed at how his own people could be so ignorant as to how they treated him.

"Maybe we should gag him again?"

"Nah, I want to hear Kururugi's princess scream. Get the bat; I'll keep the knife."

At the mention of another weapon, Lelouch couldn't hold back a whimper. He was truly trapped, and his body was spiraling into numb shock; he still couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that this was really happening—to him, of all people! To him, who thrived on control! Where it wasn't numb, his body hurt from being stretched and tied in position; he was humiliated by the nakedness in his lower regions. He trembled as much as his tight bindings would allow. He could really go for a miracle right about now.

What in the world were his classmates planning? Did he really deserve this just for falling for Suzaku, Japanese though he was? No, what he and Suzaku felt for each other could never be considered wrong. Steeling his resolve, he rubbed his face against the seat of the bench, trying to loosen the blindfold. The burlap cloth they'd used to hide his eyes was coarse and itchy; intentionally shifting it around his face made his skin burn. If he could get it off, then he could use his Geass and extract some revenge on these pathetic degenerates.

The blindfold was tied too tightly to come off. Lelouch cursed under his breath ("Shit!"), then cried out as he felt a thick metal stick strike his backside. Sweat slid down his face as he realized the implications; he began to struggle again with renewed determination. His attackers had evidently raided an aluminum baseball bat from the gym supply closet. If they hit him with full force, they could do enough damage to permanently injure him—or even kill him. They could break his spine; he could really die here!

Frantic, Lelouch thrashed wildly on the bench, his body again falling fit to the basic 'fight or flight' state of mind. The adrenaline rush might actually have done him some good, had he not been so thoroughly tied down. He needed to free himself, to make it to safety—make it to Suzaku. If only he could get access to his cell phone, he could call for help. His friends on the Student Council would never stand for this abuse, and if anything, the Black Knights would never ignore a distress call from Zero. He'd figure out how to explain the whole 'Britannian schoolboy' thing later if it meant he could escape with his life intact; right now, his number one priority had to be survival.

The gun he normally toted around was hidden in his school jacket alongside his cell phone, but it was useless to him with his hands tied. How could people be so cruel—why were Britannians so cruel? "This," Lelouch growled, voice ringing around the empty shower stalls and lockers, "is why I hate Britannia! Your entire attitude and mindset—that's what I want to destroy…!" His words were like fire on his tongue, but he was the only one who seemed burned—

–his classmates only laughed, probably thinking his passionate speech some kind of joke and forced bravado.

"If you don't want us to bash your skull in, you'll do exactly as we say," said the leader, his voice suave. “You can make this easier on yourself by renouncing Kururugi.”

Lelouch’s breath caught in his throat. He sweated and swallowed, but his voice was strong as he announced, “I’ll never forsake Suzaku!”

The leader snorted. “Then you’re bringing this on yourself. While you lie there and take it, remember that you could’ve chosen the lesser beatdown.”

Lelouch forced himself to calm down and take a deep breath, his concentration gathering in a last-ditch effort to save himself. Before his attackers could move, he spoke, his voice ringing with a shadow of superiority. "You don't want to do this." Words were his specialty, his weapon of choice. They'd taken and kept the gag out; he had to try to convince them to turn back now before they hit him more with the baseball bat. Some damage had already been done, but he couldn't let it get any further. Not while he still had a mind and a mouth to speak it.

"Think of what would happen to your reputations if word got out about this." No matter that he didn't know who they were at the moment, he—or someone—would find out. "Is this what you want to be—the kind of people who have nothing better to do than bully others for not sharing their values? Those kinds of people are pathetic." Utilizing his silver-tongue, Lelouch switched tactics then. "Beating me won't accomplish anything. You have no objective to achieve here. What purpose do you think this will serve?" Lelouch paused a moment to let his words sink in, then drove the point home with, "Nothing will change by your actions today; no matter how hard you try, it's impossible to change the world."

One of the boys snorted, "We're not trying to change the world—just you." The others laughed their support.

"Pretty little speech, Lamperouge, but it didn't do you any good," said the original speaker, clearly amused. Cheering, he yelled, "C'mon, guys, let's stop wasting time!"

Understanding his last tactic failed, Lelouch bucked on the bench as much as his bonds allowed. His speech hadn't affected them at all; they'd even had the audacity to laugh at him. Though it was much less severe than the physical and mental torture they'd inflicted upon him, Lelouch was just as outraged that they'd laughed at him in his element. He stilled after a few moments of pointless thrashing, drained to the bone; as expected, he'd gotten nowhere. He clenched his eyes shut in fearful understanding of their show of power, despite the fact that he couldn't see past the blindfold anyway.

All three sneered at Lelouch's predicament. Someone raised the bat high and brought it whacking down on Lelouch's hipbone; the crack that sounded at impact was proof of the weapon's momentum. The clap of smacking palms resonated in the air—congratulatory high-fives, no doubt, at how Lelouch flinched and howled and jerked. They took turns using the bat to pummel his abused body, being sure to turn the session into a full-scale flogging. Jeers spilled from their lips, and they swung the weapon from the side, pounding and smashing his legs into the wooden bench itself. The force of their blows was astonishing.

Lelouch accidentally bit his tongue, and the copper taste of blood filled his mouth; a tiny liquid drop of red leaked down his jaw. Tears began trailing down his pale face at the diabolical treatment; blood from his battered legs dripped onto the floor, surely leaving stains of his suffering. Their powerful hits would leave bruises on whatever skin did not bleed and scab—if he lived long enough for bruises to form.

What were they going to do to him in the end? His legs burned, and he could swear he felt the sharp sting of muscles tearing in his thighs. If one thing could be said of his attackers, it was that they knew how to administer hurt; their impactful, palpable blows brought him indescribable pain. Biting his lip, carefully avoiding his tongue that time, he tried determinedly not to give in to their satisfaction. They wanted to hear him scream? Forget it. He only screamed on one man's orders, and unfortunately that person wasn't present at the moment.

Instead he retreated further into himself as a coping mechanism, dreaming up diabolical ideas for revenge. I’ll hold you at gunpoint and—no, I don’t even need to do that, with my Geass. I’ll make you fight each other to the death. I’ll kill the last one standing myself. I’ll make it slow and painful and a thousand times worse than what you’re doing to me.

The boys mock-sighed amongst themselves. The leader launched into another speech with, "What an embarrassment to all Britannians! What we're doing to you, Lamperouge, is nothing compared to what you did. You dating that Eleven is the biggest insult to our nation, the biggest middle finger 'fuck you' to Britannia's superiority.” He laughed cruelly. “Britannians and Elevens just don’t mix, you see? Everyone knows that. You must’ve just forgot. Well, we'll have to reinstate some good ol' Britannian pride into you, won't we?" They all spat on his face, letting him know just what a dirty little traitor they thought of him.

Lelouch didn't answer, knowing full well he'd never be proud to be a Britannian. This latest string of events confirmed it even further. He was almost numb to the racist talk by now; he'd heard it all before. His face scrunched at the sick slide of their spit on his skin. Pulse racing, he endured their antics. A bitter, overwhelming swell of frustration and misery rose up in his chest when he felt his cell phone vibrate in his jacket's inner pocket against his breast. Someone was trying to contact him, and he would have laughed at the irony if it wasn't so damn depressing and hopeless. He bit his lip. Maybe the Black Knights will pay a visit to you in the middle of the night, he raged inwardly at the elitist Britannian attackers.

“You know,” the leader continued, his tone mockingly thoughtful, “for someone so smart and popular, Lamperouge, you make some pretty stupid mistakes.” He slapped Lelouch across the face again, meaning one of the others must be working the bat. “Don’t give me that ‘Kururugi’s an Honorary Britannian’ bullshit. He’s still just a fucking Eleven!”

Lelouch choked on a growl. I’ll make you get on your knees in front of Suzaku, where you belong. You can beg us both for forgiveness. I’ll videotape your humiliation and put it on the Internet. Then I’ll kill you in your sleep. Maybe I’ll videotape that, too, so I can always relive the glory of revenge.

"Ha, you'll need to borrow your sister's wheelchair once we're done with you! Hope she's got a spare. That nurse of yours—that Eleven nurse—is going to have her hands full, what with both of you having broken legs," the beastly sidekick from the bathroom jeered, repeatedly smacking the back of Lelouch’s thighs with the broad, rounded tip of the bat.

Completely victimized, Lelouch wanted to curl into a fetal position but couldn't quite manage that thanks to his bonds. At the mention of his sister, blood roared in his ears. Once more, he tried thrashing about in vain hope that the cords would break; they didn't. He couldn't contain a moan of despair. His attackers had kept their word thus far about not bashing in his skull, and he didn't want that to change; they'd mainly focused on hitting his lower body. Nothing under his waist was safe. His buttocks, thighs, and legs bore the brunt of the others' fury, and he couldn't control the tears that still streamed down his face from the sheer amount of pain.

Every so often, he could hear the crunch of bone and he almost passed out from the overwhelming hurt and degradation. The worst part was knowing that his attackers were trying to inflict the same pain on him that his dear sister suffered. Would they go for his eyes next? Would they cause permanent damage? If he was rendered unable to walk, how could he help take care of Nunnally? For that matter, how could he continue his public appearances as Zero?

As the beating carried on, his strands of thought shriveled into incoherence. Lelouch may have normally been a calm, quiet person and an absolutely excellent strategist, but he was—for all intents and purposes—completely human. All his plans had backfired, his options, nonexistent. He was backed into a corner with no way out, and his life was on the line. He was not invincible; he was human: thus he panicked and cried just as anyone would in his situation. A fiery longing to see Nunnally, to see Suzaku, to see his other friends, and to see his rebellion through to the end engulfed his chest; the weight of his despair crushed him more effectively than any of his attackers could manage. His pupils dilated behind the blindfold, and his body twitched and shuddered under those hands and weapons. He could do nothing but lie there and take it, could do nothing but wait for the burning pain and torture to be over.

Finally, after an indeterminable amount of time (Lelouch had understandably lost count of the seconds this time), the abusive students grew bored of smacking Lelouch as their new toy and relented their attack. One of the boys snarled, "There, you can't even recognize his legs as legs! Who has the knife? We have to mark him, after all. You know, since Lamperouge is so proud of being fucked by an Eleven." One of the others must have handed the smaller weapon over because the next thing Lelouch knew, someone was cutting into the skin of his butt cheeks with the knife.

Lelouch was almost numb down there from the baseball bat attack, but the sharp slice of pain was enough to remind him that he did still have feeling down there. Air stung the open cut.

"Don't worry, bitch. You'll like this part. Since you want everyone to know, we're just making sure anyone who looks at your ass will know that you're the property of that damned Number." With that said and done, the teen flung the knife somewhere on the other side of the room; Lelouch heard it clang against the wall quite a few feet away.

One of the attackers snorted. "So, we're done with the bat now, right? Is it time to fuck the little bastard yet?" It was the same boy who had been insulted when Lelouch didn't get hard under his hand.

Lelouch swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. His mind whirled. NO! Nonononono! Oh god, anything but that—I just want this to be over! As if I'd ever let anyone but Suzaku touch me! Sweat dotted his brow and his stomach muscles clenched painfully, but he knew, when it came down to it, that there were no viable escape routes. He'd already gone over all the possibilities, done everything he could; it didn't keep him from replaying different scenarios in his head. The chess-strategist only needed one missing piece. If only Suzaku was there, if only he could get one hand free, if only someone would walk through the door and help him, if only his Geass worked without direct eye contact—if only his classmates weren't violent racists…

One of the boys, the second one from the bathroom, obviously recoiled and pretended to retch. "Dude, are you really gay? I thought we were just teaching him a lesson, messing with his head and stuff. I'm not putting my dick anywhere near Lamperouge's ass! Besides, it's already been infected by Eleven come. No way am I taking used goods after an Eleven tainted them…"

"All right, fine," conceded the teenager who'd suggested the rape. "We don't have to fuck him, but we should at least make him suck us off. After all, he'll do it for an Eleven."

"…Yeah, that's doable," the leader agreed after a moment's hesitation. "Just so long as the little bitch doesn't bite. And I get to get off first," he explained in a no-nonsense tone. There was the sound of a zipper being undone, and then the lead attacker stepped closer to his captive, his footsteps audible against the tiled floor. "All right, Lamperouge, take my cock in your mouth and suck it. Make me come."

A warm, hardened slab of skin poked at Lelouch's lips. Eyes widening behind the blindfold, Lelouch's jaw tensed in silent answer to the command. His breathing accelerated, and he almost vomited at the nauseating smell of the other boy's penis near his face. Just to be sure his assailants got the message, he pressed his lips harder together and shook his head, his fine hair flying with the motion. Maybe I’ll Geass you to service customers in a whorehouse. The only ones who should kill are those prepared to be killed. The only ones who should take sex are those prepared to give sex.

The leader chuckled sardonically. "Still got some fight in you… We do still have the bat, you know."

Lelouch stiffened at the grim warning, his latest revenge plan dissipating at the reminder. The throbbing pain in his lower regions reminded him of what would happen if he refused, and his face twisted in indecision. If I don't do it, they'll come at me with the bat. But if I do…I'd be betraying Suzaku… A sob caught in his throat. But if this is my only choice, then…Suzaku, I'm sorry…I just can't take the bat anymore. It hurts too much. They'd kill me if I refused…I need to live, for Nunnally... Very reluctantly, he opened his mouth.

At once, the leader forcefully slid his cock between Lelouch's parted lips. “Oooh, yeah, that’s the stuff. What a hot little mouth you have, Lamperouge. Just what I always…” There was a long moment of awkward inactivity. Impatiently, the racist teenager snapped, "Use your tongue, bitch. And do you remember what the fuck I said about sucking me? Get to it!" One of the other boys bumped the end of the bat against Lelouch's lower back, reminding him of the alternative. Starting to move his hips a bit, the leader ordered, “Suck me like you suck the Eleven! You do suck his cock, don’t you? Yeah, you definitely suck his cock. So you can suck mine, and suck it better, you hear?”

Trembling, Lelouch hesitantly swirled his tongue around the foreign member in his mouth. He dared not bite, remembering how that also would implicate future beatings. Suctioning his lips around the hardened mass, he hummed and clumsily bobbed his head; he wasn't exactly at a comfortable angle to move like that, but had little choice in the matter. He couldn't fit the boy's entire length in his mouth, and he was too choked up to deep-throat; he almost wanted to because it would serve the attacker right if this triggered his gag reflex and made him throw up all over the assaulter’s junk. His hands were still tied, so he couldn't touch the base of the erection. His thoughts were screaming.

In the back of his mind, Lelouch was grateful to his past experience with Suzaku—he'd gained skill. At the same time, he was devastated that he was being forced to use said skill on someone other than his self-appointed lover. He felt a burning shame about betraying Suzaku, even though he basically had no choice.

The leader moaned and grabbed at Lelouch’s hair, pushing down on his skull. “Oh, fuck, Lamperouge!” the lead attacker groaned, sounding like he was enjoying himself. “Yeah, just like that, you little bitch! You’re a natural-born cocksucker, aren’t you, you little faggot? Betcha love having my dick in your mouth. I’m better than that Eleven, aren’t I? Of course I am.” He moaned again. “You better thank your lucky stars you’re in for a treat today. You ready for your first taste of Britannian come? Open wide!”

Lelouch flinched and began to cry harder at this new level of humiliation. He gagged on the bitter come spurting down his throat, and some of the leader's essence dribbled down his chin.

Before he could catch his breath, one of the other boys was in his face, and he repeated his motions. “Yeah, that’s it,” murmured the leader raggedly as he apparently watched. “Fuck his face! Do it, man! Make him take it!” The second teenager groaned and pulled out before he came. Lelouch felt momentary relief before he understood why he was granted the gift of not swallowing: His face was hit with a thick, sticky mess. He panted, grimacing at the somewhat warm substance gracing his skin.

“Ah, yeah, paint his face,” the leader moaned approvingly. “Good idea, man. God, Lamperouge. What a good look on you.” There was the sound of a picture being snapped by phone.

Tuning out the hateful words and using a similar technique to the previous two, Lelouch brought the third and final attacker to completion, once again choking on come.

“Look at that filthy little cockslut,” the leader groaned. “So eager for our dicks.”

Lelouch winced. He’d been eager to finish and get through the demeaning experience as quickly as possible. He breathed a sigh of relief that it was over—then choked when another erection was forcibly shoved past his lips. What the hell?!

“Man, again?” asked the second attacker, his tone a bit disbelieving.

“Dude, just let him have this,” argued the third attacker.

The first attacker chuckled darkly. “Yeah, Lamperouge, do me again.” He grabbed the back of Lelouch's skull and manually moved his head up and down before pulling out completely and demanding, “Tell me you love my cock. Tell me you love sucking it.”

Lelouch opened and closed his mouth several times, shocked into silence.

“Tell me you love sucking my cock, you little bitch, or I really am gonna fuck your ass raw. Maybe you want that instead, huh? Is that it, Lamperouge? You want my dick pounding your ass?” The leader laughed again, sounding more deranged than ever. “I know I could fuck you better than that Eleven. Hey, maybe I can fuck some Britannian pride into you after all. It’s your choice, you little cockslut. Tell me you love my dick or lie there and get fucked.”

The second attacker took a step forward. “Shit, man—”

“Dude, seriously,” interrupted the third attacker, apparently halting him by the sudden lack of footsteps. “Let the guy live his dream.”

Lelouch’s mind was whirling faster than ever, and he only jerked to attention when the leader started moving down his body.

“That’s a good choice, too, Lamperouge,” the leader mentioned mock-encouragingly. “I bet you’re tight. I can’t wait to shove my dick up your fine ass. Won’t that be fun? You’ll scream for me, won’t you? Yeah, you totally will.”

Gulping down spit and come, Lelouch croaked, “Wait!” on instinct.

The leader paused and moved back to his head. “Yes?” he asked expectantly.

Lelouch swallowed thickly, feeling completely nauseated. “I…love your cock…” He was sweating and trembling, terrified and ashamed. He’d grown used to lying for survival, but these ones burned his tongue.

“Oh, what music to my ears. And tell me, Lamperouge, what do you love doing to my cock?”

Again, Lelouch swallowed and tried to mentally steady himself before gasping, “Suck…sucking it…”

“Mmm, I bet you do,” agreed the leader lecherously. “I could tell from the way you devoured it just a little bit ago. Hungry for it, were you? Don’t worry. You get to suck me all over again.” He took a breath and added, “Just as soon as you tell me I’m better than that Eleven piece of shit.”

Lelouch’s heart beat faster. “What?” he breathed.

“Say, ‘I’d rather suck your cock than the Eleven’s,’” instructed the lead attacker. “Or lie there and get banged.”

On autopilot, Lelouch took some fortifying breaths and mumbled, “I’d rather…suck your cock…than Suzaku’s…” His mind raced with mental apologies to his lover. I don’t mean it. I don’t mean any of this. I just need to live.

“Not good enough,” snapped the leader. “The fucking Number doesn’t deserve a name. Say exactly what I told you, or else.”

Shaking, Lelouch muttered, “I’d rather…suck your cock…than the Eleven’s…” He grimaced. You seem to have this hang-up about me with Suzaku. I’ll Geass you to watch us in bed together, over and over, before I kill you.

“Much better,” praised the leader. “And as a reward, I’m gonna give you what you want.” He poked his hard dick past Lelouch's lips again and let out a drawn-out sigh of bliss. “Ahhh, yeah, that’s where it’s at. Fucking suck me off again, you little bitch. Make it good, like last time.”

Numb all over, Lelouch robotically brought the first attacker to the peak for the second time. Still filled with internal shame, powerful fury consumed him simultaneously, allowing him to get through this stage of torture. Just you wait. As soon as this is over and I pin you down, I’m going to make you cut off your own dick. A morbid pleasure filled Lelouch at the very thought. Then you can suck your own cock as you impale yourself on that knife. Won’t that be fun, when they find you with your own dismembered dick in your mouth and a knife sticking out your heart? Then we’ll see who’s laughing! His Geass flickered in anticipation, even though it was still rendered useless. Lost in ideas of revenge, Lelouch gagged in surprise when a new wave of come spurt down his throat.

"Hot damn, the bitch is good at that," sighed the leader. "I guess the fucking Eleven is good for something after all—if he taught Lamperouge how to suck cock. Anyway, dudes, I'm spent; want to go grab a bite to eat?" Seconds of silence ensued. Heaving an exasperated sigh, he continued, "Look, even if he can get free, he won't be able to walk. He hasn't seen our faces, so let's just get out of here before someone comes looking for him." There were murmurs of agreement before the leader menacingly said, "Wait, just one more thing."

"Huh, what are you doing? I thought you said we were done with the bat."

Lelouch started to shake at the mention of it.

"We are. I just want to make sure he doesn't start screaming for help as soon as we leave. Not that anyone should hear him anyway, but just in case…"

The carefree laughter of three Ashford Academy students rang through the locker room as a fist, not the aluminum bat, made hard contact with Lelouch's temple. The sheer terror of the bat preceded the blow, and then he was lost in a world of darkness.

Chapter Text

Suzaku yawned. After the absolute chaos of the day before, the lab was extremely boring. Lloyd and Cecile were frantically dashing about making phone calls, calling in favors, ordering equipment, doing paperwork… Suzaku did all he could to help, but he was a pilot, not a researcher. He knew nothing about the development of Knightmares, and as an Eleven he had no connections he could call on for assistance. In short, he felt useless. That was why, even in a stressful environment, he was bored. The blue and gray walls of the lab space they rented at the university were enough to lull him to sleep, but the others' constant activity kept jerking his consciousness back to the matter at hand.

The Lancelot was wrecked. A small part of him was thankful he wasn't inside the machine at the time; a larger part reminded him he could have prevented this if he had been. At the thought, a sharp bout of shame flowed through his veins. He hunched over, arms wrapped protectively around his middle as if to hold himself together, and he had to blink back the burning liquid guilt that pooled in his eyes. He was to blame for everything; no wonder Lloyd wasn't speaking to him. Cecile did her best to assuage his self-doubt, but he stubbornly held onto the idea that it was entirely his fault. If only he could have been faster…better…

"Stop worrying so much, Suzaku," Cecile comforted, dropping into a seat next to him. She was often the voice of reason among the three of them, the only one capable of balancing intelligence and feelings. Acting as the link between the eccentric scientist and emotional teen pilot, she took all angles into consideration; Lloyd had no heart while Suzaku relied solely on his. The problem with Suzaku was that he could be totally irrational.

Suzaku didn’t respond.

Cecile tilted her head at her younger coworker, mouth drawn and eyes dim as she tried to think what to say, how to explain and get through to him. Finally, she let her eyes slide from his slumped posture; her gaze landed on the yellow and white machine rubble on the floor one story below. The lab they rented had to have a high-vaulted ceiling in order to accommodate the Knightmare's impressive height. Acknowledging Suzaku's worries seemed like the best way to go. Her voice was light and clear when she spoke. "Yes, this is a major setback, but it's not the end of the world. The only one who got hurt was the Lancelot, and that's just a machine. That man Zero kept his word about not harming anyone."

Suzaku shrugged, a sullen "I guess so" falling from his lips. He remembered how Zero had called off one of the Black Knights who'd wanted to kill him—and how Zero himself had prevented him from rushing to his death. On top of that, the masked terrorist had even defended him with a speech, touching on his Japanese heritage and proclaiming Suzaku 'worthwhile' because of it. Did that mean that Zero really did believe himself to be the ally of justice, and that all the casualties he'd caused so far had been mistakes? But if such was the case, if Zero wanted to change the world for the better, he should have started with less violent means. Suzaku groaned, shaking his head. The only thing he was sure of at this point was that Zero was a complicated individual.

Zero wasn't the only one weighing on his mind, though. "But what about Lloyd," Suzaku protested.

"Don't worry about him," Cecile said, cutting him off sharply. "He's just whining like a child because his favorite toy was crushed."

Suzaku frowned. "I wish there was more I could do to help."

Cecile smiled gently at him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Suzaku, you're right. You're a pilot. Without a Knightmare, you don't have a job to do here. Why don't you go back to school for the time being? I'll come for you if we run into any problems we need your help with, all right?"

Suzaku clenched his jaw, weighing his options. If he returned to Ashford Academy, then he'd feel like he was running away from his responsibilities to the military. On the other hand, if he left the lab, then he could see all his friends on the Student Council—most importantly, Lelouch. His facial features relaxed as he imagined his lover. It was mid-afternoon by this point, so Lelouch would probably be complaining about something to Milly in the Student Council room, probably protesting some new project of hers. Was he missing Suzaku as much as Suzaku was missing him? Lelouch might act cold and distant, but he really was clingy when it came down to it. Lelouch had his own insecurities. No matter how he tried to hide them from the rest of the world, he always showed his vulnerable side to Suzaku. Touched and amazed, Suzaku loved his prince all the more for that show of trust.

Slight giggling interrupted his wandering thoughts. "What are you thinking about with that look on your face?"

Suzaku immediately snapped to attention and blushed, remembering Cecile was still sitting beside him, waiting for an answer. He'd been so lost in thought he hadn't realized his mouth had fallen open and his eyes had dropped half-mast.

"So it is a girl," Cecile chuckled knowingly at his reaction. She sounded like she’d been waiting days to tease him about it.

Suzaku furiously shook his head, willing the heat to leave his face. "No!" he protested. "I'm not…thinking about a girl." He wasn't lying, he rationalized to himself. Lelouch was anything but female.

"Whatever you say," Cecile shot back, light blue eyes twinkling. "I know a lovesick expression when I see one. So tell me, what's she like? Is she in your class?"

Suzaku wriggled uncomfortably in his seat. Sometimes Cecile could be more deadly than Lloyd when she asked those kinds of questions. Was he so obvious to read? He normally did come across honest, but he didn't think his inner thoughts could be dissected through a single look. Then again, this was Cecile, and she was good at reading him. Lelouch would be ashamed of him for not controlling his expressions. "Uh…" he stammered, stalling for time.

"Or maybe," Cecile continued thoughtfully, rubbing her chin, "it's a certain Third Princess of the Empire?" She laughed lightly. “Remember that time at Narita—”

Spluttering, Suzaku waved his hands. "NO! Euphy's just a friend. A very close friend, mind you, but not…I mean, we're not dating or anything."

Cecile laughed again. "'Euphy'?"

"She insists I call her that because we're friends," Suzaku explained, emphasizing their platonic relationship. "Maybe things would be different if Le—if I wasn't already seeing someone," he finished lamely, clapping a hand over his mouth in embarrassment. He hadn't meant to let that slip.

"Oh?" Cecile inquired deviously, latching on to the fact that Suzaku was dating somebody after all. "And just who might that be?"

Suzaku clenched his jaw, not willing to spill anything more than he had already. He looked pointedly away, his eyes automatically falling on the wrecked Knightmare frame—another example of failure.

"Answer Miss Cecile's question. It's rude not to," Lloyd called over to them, speaking to Suzaku for the first time that day. He never looked up from his data and theories. He was working at a high-tech computer on a raised platform; stray papers littered the ground around him, some threatening to fall onto the base level floor. He seemed more concerned about Suzaku's incivility, never mind the hypocrisy there.

Suzaku swallowed audibly as he thought things over. Miss Cecile was always respectful of his private life, and she normally didn't nose into his business. Whenever she asked questions, it was simply out of concern for him. She always did have his best interests at heart, and Suzaku knew she was probably just curious about his social life. Also, he really had to rectify her misinterpretation of that Narita incident with Euphy. Coming to a decision, Suzaku sighed, "Ah…well, like I said, there is no girl."

Cecile frowned, about to admonish him for lying, but Lloyd didn't miss a beat and yelled out, "Boy, then. What's your boyfriend like?"

Looking to the ceiling for guidance, Suzaku groaned. Was his boss that perceptive, or was he just throwing out whatever came to mind in the hopes of embarrassing him? Knowing Lloyd Asplund, it could be either—especially since Lloyd still seemed to be angry at him for his recent screw-up.

"Is that true, Suzaku?" Cecile asked, trying to get over the initial shock. "It's all right if it is. We're not judgmental here." Wide blue eyes stared at the teen pilot, but there was a wealth of warmth mixed in with the surprise.

Suzaku—still not looking at them—slowly nodded. "Yeah. I…well…he's…how do I explain him? He's a bit complicated to—but I really like him. No, I'm fairly sure it's more than that. Ah, he's…um…" His old blush returned, and he awkwardly rubbed the back of his head. Being with Lelouch was so easy (sometimes), but talking about him proved to be hard.

Cecile giggled again, covering her hand with her mouth. "I'm sorry," she apologized, still chuckling. "It's just rare you're so flustered and happy. I'm glad to see you acting like a normal teenager. Have you told him how you feel?"

Lloyd suddenly popped up out of nowhere to lean over Suzaku, trying to intimidate him. "Have you done the naughty with him?" The wicked smirk on his face made Suzaku very uneasy.

The young pilot instinctively shrank back from the looming face of his boss. The mad scientist was far too close, was invading his personal space, and those cool blue eyes boring into his own put him on edge. How did Lloyd get off his raised platform so quickly? Lloyd's knowing leer stretched all the way across his face, making his entire visage appear misshapen and out of proportion. It was hard to tell what was going on in Lloyd Asplund's mind sometimes, but Suzaku was sure he didn't want to touch this issue regardless.

Cecile smiled widely and grabbed Lloyd by the ear. "Please, Suzaku, disregard any too-personal question Lloyd asks. He still doesn't understand that it's improper to nose into people's business like that. Whatever you do with this boy is your own business, and it has nothing to do with us here at work." Tuning out Lloyd's yelps of pain, Cecile dragged him away, presumably to continue lecturing him in private.

Suzaku watched them leave before letting out all his frustration and embarrassment in a sigh. He'd never actually planned on telling Cecile and Lloyd about his relationship. Lelouch was the one who'd suggested they keep everything quiet, just on the off-chance something could go wrong. Suzaku grinned to himself, noticing he was once again alone. Would Lelouch be home by now, perhaps lying on that sinfully wonderful bed of his?

It was decided. Suzaku was going to Ashford Academy.

Just as he was about to leave, the phone rang.

-+-

Only half the Student Council members were present at the customary meeting time. Afternoon sunshine slanted through the windows, falling upon the piles of untouched paperwork lying on the center table. One corner of the room was set up for its permanent resident with scratching posts and cat tree furniture, food and water bowls, and a litter box; Arthur himself dozed on a carpeted platform, his black tail neatly tucked around his body as his light purr sounded through the room. Open cardboard boxes lay strewn across the floor, half-packed with costumes for the next cosplay event; the lacy women's undergarments hanging out would surely have made Lelouch shudder had he been present to see them.

Shirley sighed and let her head drop on the table. She was still reeling from the fact that her precious Lelou had it bad for another guy—for Suzaku of all people! Of course Lelouch would always be her friend, but right now she didn't know how to face him. She wondered how often he'd laughed at her behind her back, pitying her poor attempts at flirtation. But no, Lelouch wasn't that kind of person. She'd watched him enough over the years to know that much, at least. She sniffled, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. How long was she expected to cry over him?

"Awww, stop being so melodramatic!" Milly waltzed over and thumped her on the back. She stared at Shirley's downcast expression before her tone softened in understanding. "I know you're upset, but being sad over Lelouch isn't going to change things. And we all know Suzaku will take good care of him." She stood confidently, hip cocked to one side, and lifted her head high. She was the only perky person in the Student Council room. She could empathize with Shirley's pain—more so than anyone realized—but she didn't want to start off the meeting on a sad note.

Nina was hunched over on her computer, as always, not bothering to check in with the rest of the world. Especially when that Eleven was invading the school. No matter that he wasn't physically present at the moment; the mere threat of him was enough to make her turn away. Her purple eyes stayed glued to the computer screen, long fingers flying over the keys as she worked on something nobody else bothered to understand.

Rivalz plopped down next to Shirley, shaking his head. "Man, I can't believe I didn't notice! Lelouch is my best friend. How could I not have seen the connection between him and Suzaku?" Mimicking Shirley, he laid his head on the table. After a long moment of silence, he raised his head and asked, "…Hey, does this make me the only straight guy on the Student Council?" He looked hopefully at Milly, wanting to remind her just how heterosexual he still remained.

Milly didn't take the hint; rather, she blatantly ignored it, as usual. "Can you believe the gossip today? The whole school is buzzing! It's understandable, of course. Lelouch is a popular boy, after all, and this whole affair is pretty scandalous."

"It is kind of shocking that he'd choose Suzaku," Rivalz said, scratching his head. Though disappointed that the object of his affections hadn't risen to the bait, he was always interested in hearing her speak.

Milly shrugged flippantly. "Oh, I dunno. Not when you look back on how they treated each other. I always knew there was something special between them; though, I must say, I never expected anything quite like this." She turned to Shirley, a devilish smirk gracing her face, winked, and roguishly asked, "Hey Shirley, want to imagine the finer details?" As was her intention, Milly was rewarded with her friend's usual spark.

Olive green eyes widened, and Shirley blushed before snapping, "No thank you, Madame President; I've seen and heard just about enough of this! The only one I want an explanation from is Lelou himself!"

Milly chuckled, glad to see Shirley was beginning to act like her old self. "Don't we all?" She chanced a look around, noticing that half the Council was absent yet again. "Kallen must be feeling sick today, and Suzaku must be holed up at work." Snapping her fingers, she exclaimed, "Did you guys hear about the attack yesterday? The Black Knights broke into the university across the street! It hasn't made the news yet, but it will soon, I'm sure."

Rivalz tilted his head at her. "How do you know about it then?"

Milly laughed, her blonde head thrown back and eyes shut in exaggerated merriment. "Oh, Rivalz. You know I know everything!" She slid into a seat on the other side of her wayward admirer, clear blue eyes softening as she tried to compose herself to explain. "Well, actually, my parents had set me up for another blind date." It could have been disastrous, revealing this information in front of Rivalz, but for once he was calm at the mention—or possibly just too in shock to speak. Milly continued, "This time, it was scheduled with a well-respected scientist who works on top-secret projects for the military. He's currently doing his work over at the university, and he had to call and cancel his appointment with me because of the damage the terrorists did. He's completely booked now, trying to salvage his project. It's fine with me if he wants to postpone our meeting! It just means I have my freedom for a little while longer."

Rivalz was torn between crying (at the idea of Milly having another 'blind date') and laughing (that it was canceled).

"I thought it was a blind date?" Shirley subtly asked. Her eyes focused with new determination, having gained a new perspective on things: Lelouch may not ever feel for her the way she wished, but she at least still had the freedom to choose her own love. Milly was being forced to marry someone of high rank just for her family's status; comparatively, Milly definitely had a worse situation.

Milly shrugged. "Well, my parents had to explain to me why he suddenly backed out. It seems he likes to ramble on about his work. Something about 'Lancelot.'"

"'Lancelot'?" Shirley asked, raising an eyebrow.

Milly shook her head, an amused smile gracing her lips. "Don't ask me. Anyway, let's talk about something more cheerful! Do any of you know where Lelouch is? He's the only one not accounted for. I know he likes to skip, but…"

Shirley blanched. "No, he was definitely planning on coming. He was the one who suggested he explain everything to us during the Council meeting."

"That's weird," Milly said thoughtfully. "Lelouch always keeps his word in the end. Do you think he got held up in the hallway?" She started dividing the paperwork on the table, giving Shirley and Rivalz equally sized stacks. Even if Lelouch wasn't present yet to explain things, there was Council business to attend to in the meantime.

Rivalz shook his head. "Based on how everyone treated him today? I wouldn't think so. People are avoiding him like the plague. I think they believe they'll 'catch the Eleven' if they get too close, like it's some kind of contagious disease." He took his share of the paperwork with a groan, but dutifully grabbed a pencil to start outlining club budgets.

Milly whipped out her cell phone. "The only way we'll find out what's going on is if we call him." She dialed Lelouch's number, frowning as it became apparent he wasn't going to answer. "Nothing," she informed the others after a few moments.

Shirley gasped at a sudden thought. "Lelou could be tied up somewhere!"

Milly shook her head, giggling a little at her friend. "Listen to that imagination! I'm sure he's on his way here."

Rivalz looked up from his work. "Or maybe he just went home for a little peace and quiet. You know the first thing he'd do in a situation like this would be to—"

"—run to Nunnally!" Milly and Shirley chimed in unison.

"Er, right," Rivalz said slowly, a bit freaked out at how both the girls finished his sentence together.

Milly nodded, as if everything was clear and decided. "I'm sure that's what happened. Lelouch needs a little time to himself before he can face everyone, so let's give him a couple days. We'll be sure to let him know that we're here waiting for him in the Student Council Room—for whenever he's ready."

Shirley nodded glumly. "Yeah, but he promised…"

"What else was the guy gonna say?" Rivalz interjected. "He was totally put on the spot."

Shirley flinched. "I didn't mean to. I just…needed to know…"

Milly reached around Rivalz to squeeze Shirley's hand. "It's all right. No one's blaming you for asking questions. I wasn't there, but I know Lelouch. I'm sure he's just embarrassed; I don't think he'd be mad at you or anything. Not over something like this."

Shirley brightened a bit. "You're right. Thanks, Pres!" Lifting her head, she attacked her own pile of paperwork with renewed enthusiasm. "I just have to be patient. Lelou needs to relax, and he doesn't need me bothering him right now! Oh, I hope he's getting a good rest."

"I'm sure he is," Rivalz assured her. "He didn't sleep through class like he normally does, so I'm guessing he'd be pretty tired. Honestly, I don't blame the guy for wanting some alone time."

Chuckling, Milly said, "None of us do. Okay, so we'll hold off on worrying about the whole Lelouch situation for now and give him space. As soon as he's ready, we'll be here to listen. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Rivalz and Shirley answered firmly. With that settled, they worked on Council business for another hour or so. Since half the members were absent, there was a lot of paperwork to keep the present members busy.

Eventually, Shirley lifted her head. "Hey, Madame President?" she asked softly. "Are you going to do anything to the Culture Club for spreading this rumor around?"

"It's hardly a 'rumor,'" Milly pointed out matter-of-factly. "And of course! I can't let them get away with defiling our darling Lelou’s precious image, can I? It's just a question of what's within my influence…"

"Let's not give them any funds!" Rivalz suggested. "Then we can give up on this paperwork!"

Shirley glared at the lazy boy. "Aren't you worried about Lelou?"

Shifting uncomfortably under that heated look, Rivalz managed, "Yeah, of course! But I'm sure he's fine. I don't think anyone would do anything to him—no one's approached him all day, remember? Lelouch is the 'diseased Eleven-lover.'"

Milly sighed and looked out the window. "Ashford Academy is supposed to be accepting of Elevens. Suzaku has proven himself to be a good person, hasn't he? Everyone here should have begun to see that the stereotypes don't apply. Besides, Lelouch himself is Britannian…"

Nina huddled into herself on the other side of the room, finally deeming it necessary to contribute to the conversation. Struggling to voice her opinion, she said, "That's what makes it so much worse, though. The Elevens can't help being born what they are, but Lelouch actively chose to date one." Her fingers slowed on her keyboard, but she continued to type, needing something solid to occupy her mind.

Shirley, Rivalz, and Milly all stared at her, speechless for a moment or two. Then, having regained the ability to speak, Shirley shrieked, "You don't still think Elevens are bad?!"

Shaking, Nina offered a half-hearted shrug. She hated speaking anyway, but going against the majority just made it that much harder. Especially when the majority consisted of her closest friends. Luckily for her, the unpleasant conversation was interrupted by a frantic knock on the door.

"Lelouch! Milly! Shirley! Is anyone in there?"

The members of the Student Council all raised their heads at the inquiry. Nunnally Lamperouge had never sounded so upset.

"Yes, Nunnally. We're here!" Milly called back, standing to greet the newcomers. Then, she amended under her breath, "Well, your brother isn't…"

The door opened with a bang, and Sayoko dipped her head, a worried expression clouding her face. "We can't find Master Lelouch anywhere, and he's not answering his cell phone. He's definitely nowhere in the residence, so we figured he might be here with you. I don't see him, though. Do any of you have an idea of where he might have gone?"

Nunnally shivered in her wheelchair. "I've just got this real bad feeling…I need to talk to my brother…"

Shirley and Rivalz glanced at each other before speaking. "He was definitely in last period. We thought he would come to the Council meeting, but he didn't. We figured he was just too ashamed to come because of…you know…" Neither of them wanted to voice words about the Suzaku-and-Lelouch picture incident, not when it was unknown as to whether innocent little Nunnally actually understood everything.

Sayoko pursed her lips, signifying she caught their meaning. "I know it's very possible Master Lelouch was simply upset and needed some time alone—that's what we'd decided earlier—but it has been a couple hours since anyone has seen him. Considering how most people at this school think about Elevens, Lady Nunnally is right to be concerned about his whereabouts."

"Right, we'll find Lelouch!" Milly shouted, giving everyone a thumbs up. If Nunnally was worried, that overruled the previous plan to give Lelouch distance. Milly knew Lelouch would have agreed, too; he'd never want to upset his little sister. Milly's genuine enthusiasm caused Nunnally to let her shoulders drop in momentary relief. "Lelouch knows there isn't anywhere in this school where he can hide from me," Milly cackled, hand on her hip. Shirley and Rivalz dropped the documents they had been working on, and even Nina abandoned her computer to join in the search. Only Arthur shrugged off the concern, flicking his ears at the rowdy group of students.

Nunnally held her hand out, seeking contact from her nursemaid. "Someone should call Suzaku. I know it's silly, but just in case something is wrong…"

"It's a good idea anyway," Sayoko reassured her, moving to squeeze her charge's hand. "Suzaku knows Master Lelouch very well. Perhaps he might have some clues as to where your brother might be hiding." She grabbed her cell phone, then glided over to Nina's abandoned computer. "Suzaku doesn't answer his phone when he's on duty, right? We'll need to contact him through his work. Do you remember what department he was part of, Lady Nunnally?" Her voice was strict and business-like, to the point, but still gentle and comforting to her disabled ward.

Nunnally took a moment to think, crinkling her forehead in concentration. "He mentioned the Engineering Corp," she finally answered. "Something sounded off in his voice when he said it, but that's the only branch he's ever mentioned by name."

Sayoko took a few seconds to locate the military base's contact information online. It was a potential emergency, knowing Lelouch. That boy had a penchant for getting into trouble. Sayoko knew Nunnally was scared—scared that the day had finally come when Lelouch's skills failed to save him.

-+-

"Yes, this is the Advanced Special Envoy Engineering Corp," Cecile confirmed, shuffling some papers as she listened to the woman on the phone. The person on the other line wasn't anyone concerned with the budget, data, equipment, or anything related to the Lancelot's destruction. In fact, she didn't seem to be interested in military operations at all. "…You wish to speak with Suzaku?" Cecile looked surprised as she listened to the other's hurried explanation before a worried look overtook her features. "Oh, oh I see! Well, Suzaku was just about to head over there anyway. Here, let me get him for you real quick." Putting a hand over the mouthpiece, Cecile called for Suzaku, ignoring Lloyd's quizzical stare.

Suzaku bounded over, already dressed in his school uniform. He tilted his head at Cecile, clearly confused when she held out the phone to him. Nobody had ever contacted him at work before. "He-hello?" he asked. He listened for a moment, green eyes widening. His fingers clutched the phone tighter. "Sayoko! What are you…why are you calling me? Did something happen to Nunnally?!" His face paled at her next words, but then he shook his head a bit to clear his mind. "Well, that's not unusual. Lelouch disappears a lot; you know that. Why would this time mean anything serious?” There was a long, ominous silence. “…Sayoko? Okay, fine, explain it to me when I get over there. In the meantime, are you sure he didn't sneak out to gamble? I know it's a bad habit, but he does that a lot, too—oh, Rivalz is still there? Yeah. Um. Check the roof, the kitchens…" Suzaku rambled off a list of places, racking his brain for any ideas of where Lelouch may have ended up. Finally, he hung up the phone and turned to the others, a worried glint gracing his eyes. "Something must have happened today. She was hiding something from me."

Cecile laid a hand on his shoulder, offering support. "Do you want us to go with you? If there are problems…" Her face was taut with concern, eyebrows drawn together in worry.

Suzaku shook his head. "No, it's all right. You have enough to do here. Besides, my friends might just be overreacting." Despite his words, his hands were shaking; Sayoko's fear and uneasiness were contagious. What would he do if something had happened to Lelouch?

Lloyd stood up from the computer he was working at. "Well, we can't do anything more until our royal patronage arrives to oversee our work."

Cecile gasped. "You mean the emperor is taking a personal interest in our projects?!"

Chortling, Lloyd shook his head at his assistant. "No, not the emperor. I meant Second Prince Schneizel. He is the head of our branch, is he not? He was going to come to Area 11 sometime soon anyway to see the Lancelot in action; yesterday's attack just made him speed up his time schedule. Too bad he won't get to see my precious Lancelot operational.” He clucked his tongue in disappointment and added, “He also wants to meet you, Suzaku. Your piloting skills are famous throughout the entire Britannian Army, and I think he's heard some good things about you from the Third Princess." Lloyd waggled his eyebrows suggestively in Suzaku's direction, but Suzaku studiously ignored him.

Cecile smiled in Suzaku's direction. "That's wonderful, Suzaku! You're being recognized for your abilities. And if the Second Prince wants to direct recovery operations, we have to wait for him before continuing our work. Say, Lloyd, when is Prince Schneizel getting here?"

"The earliest he can come is tomorrow. Did you hear they completed a float system…?"

"Don't you need to get things ready for his arrival?" Suzaku interrupted, glancing around the lab. The place was a mess still. As he looked, some nameless soldiers carried in replacement Knightmare parts, making the lab that much more cluttered. They dropped the mechanical machine limbs on the floor, making a resounding clang echo through the lab. The body of the Knightmare would be easy to replace; it would be harder to gather enough sakuradite to power another system like the Lancelot.

Cecile followed his gaze and smiled weakly. "You're right, Suzaku, we do still need to finish some minor things in preparation. But still, please feel free to call us if there's anything we can do to help."

The offer lay heavy in the air between them before Suzaku nodded, his face a firm mask of determination. It wouldn't come to that; there should be nothing amiss at school to warrant such aid.

-+-

Suzaku burst through the door of the Clubhouse Hall, barely pausing to catch his breath before making his way to the Student Council room. Campus seemed normal, if a bit tense. Other students kept throwing alarmed looks his way, but he supposed he understood: He must have looked like a madman running through the halls. He knew Sayoko was keeping something from him over the phone, and the fact that she was worried about Lelouch made him anxious. There was something not quite right about this whole situation, and his imagination was not helping matters. Lelouch was probably fine. After all, what could possibly have happened to him in Ashford Academy?

Sayoko looked up at the sound of thudding footsteps. She waited only a moment to confirm who it was before speaking up. "Lady Nunnally," she said, lightly touching the blind girl's hand. "Suzaku is here."

Nunnally breathed a sigh of relief, turning her unseeing face towards the doorway. "Oh, Suzaku, thank goodness! I know I'm being silly and irrational, but…well…I heard some students in my class making harsh remarks about my brother, and now he's nowhere to be found. The others say the rumors were even worse in the high school section, so I just can't imagine what my brother went through all day. I'm really worried about him." She motored a few feet forward and reached out with her free hand, searching for contact from her childhood friend. Sayoko dutifully followed her charge forward, careful to maintain physical touch. Nunnally needed comfort.

Suzaku narrowed his eyes during Nunnally's explanation. "I don't understand. What happened today? Why would anything bad happen to Lelouch?" Suzaku determinedly grabbed hold of Nunnally's grasping fingers, letting her feel his confusion.

Before Nunnally or Sayoko could answer, the intercom buzzed and Milly's voice echoed through the school, bright and cheerful. "Attention all students, teachers, and faculty! This is your Student Council President, Milly Ashford, speaking! We seem to be missing a certain vice president of ours. If anyone catches sight of Lelouch Lamperouge, please escort him to the Clubhouse Hall immediately! You are allowed to use force if necessary. I repeat, please find Lelouch Lamperouge and bring him to me!" she ordered, then giggled. "No prize kiss this time, folks. We all know by now that our esteemed vice president only has eyes for one certain Eleven, so please bear that in mind when dragging Lelouch over here," she reminded, the echoing sing-song in her voice apparent. She didn't mention Suzaku by name, but the damage was done; everyone knew there was only one Eleven who attended Ashford Academy.

Suzaku's face burned. It was bad enough Milly discovered his and Lelouch's secret relationship, but did she have to broadcast word of it over the school airwaves?! And just how did Milly find out in the first place? Did Lelouch let something slip? Suzaku would have understood that from anyone else, but not from Lelouch. The undercover Britannian prince was just too mindful of things to say something accidentally.

"Well, you can see why Master Lelouch might be hiding," Sayoko replied dryly. "Nunnally and I are staying here in case he comes home on his own. Nina is checking the rooftops, kitchens, and laboratories. Rivalz is scouting the outside perimeter and lawn on his motorbike. Milly is checking the dorms and classroom buildings. And Shirley is checking the gym and swimming pool areas."

Suzaku nodded, mentally filing away the information. Briefly, the thought flew through his mind that this must be the reason why people at school kept looking at him strangely. He found he couldn't process all the details—not when he had a job to do. Not when Lelouch was still missing. "All right. I'll start with the auditorium and then help Milly since she's got the most ground to cover." He turned and was halfway out the door before he popped his head back in. "Just out of curiosity, how did word leak out?"

No one needed to be told what he was asking about. "Um," Nunnally stammered, "this picture apparently portrays the two of you…being indecent with one another." Though she couldn't gain any information from a visual piece of evidence, the young blind girl still clutched the photograph, running her fingers over its smooth, glossy surface.

With trepidation, Suzaku marched over to take the picture. He gasped upon noticing the scene captured on film. There was silence for a long moment before he slowly pocketed the picture. "You don't mind if I…?"

Sayoko shook her head. "Go ahead and keep it. But you should know there are multiple copies floating around campus; holding that one picture on your person won't stop the evidence from spreading."

Nunnally nodded determinedly, her face scrunched with worry. "You need a copy more than I do. Just bring my brother back safe and sound, Suzaku!"

Suzaku's green eyes shone warmly in Nunnally's direction. "Of course, Nunnally. It's a promise." Failure was not an option. Suzaku would find Lelouch—for Nunnally's sake, as well as his own.

-+-

It was funny how most school scandals seemed to involve Lelouch. Shirley still giggled at the memory of the cat chase; that had been months ago when Suzaku had first transferred into the school. The giggles stopped as the heartbroken girl remembered: they also always seemed to involve the Eleven. Not that she minded—terribly—but it was hard not to be bitter when she thought of how the Japanese boy had stolen her Lelou. Not that he was ever hers to begin with, but she was in the middle of working on it! She sighed, her jealousy and anger dissipating as she stepped over a puddle on the pool deck. As Milly had pointed out, Suzaku could make Lelouch happy. That was what she wanted, wasn't it? Of course she'd have preferred to be the one to make him happy, but there was just no way to compete with Suzaku when Lelouch had clearly already made his choice.

"Lelou!" she called, cupping her hands over her mouth to make her voice carry. There was no swim practice today, so the pool area was empty. The chlorine water sparkled under the late afternoon sun, ominously bright. "Lelou, come out! Nobody's mad at you, you know! It's all right if you love Suzaku, just don't hide from us! We're your friends! Leeeloooouuuu!" She stopped shouting, waiting to see if he, or anyone, answered her calls. Nothing. Huffing, she continued the search. With every area thoroughly combed over and no sign of her target, Shirley grew frustrated. What a jerk that boy could be! Making them all worry like this…

"Oooh, he better not have run off to gamble…" she muttered, stomping towards the gym. It was official. He was nowhere near the pool.

-+-

Suzaku, of all people, understood how the school could become a center of festering hate. Of course Lelouch would slip away from such an unpleasant environment. He would hole himself up in his own hiding place until he thought of a suitable plan to work things to his advantage. Normally Lelouch was excellent at thinking things up on the spot, but Suzaku could understand his wanting some time alone to let everything sink in. Even knowing that, Suzaku was uneasy. It was no secret around campus that Lelouch was not the fittest person around, and the possibility of the weak Britannian boy being subject to physical torture made his stomach churn. Still, Lelouch was capable. What he lacked in strength, he made up for with intelligence. He possessed excellent skills in verbal persuasion and mind games. Surely he could get himself out of a dire situation…

Lost in thought, he was jerked back to reality by a jeer. "Hey look, it's the Eleven!"

Suzaku paused in his trek across the lawn to the auditorium. A slight breeze blew by, ruffling the grass under his feet; the shadow of the auditorium slanted over him as the late afternoon sun sailed the sky. Swiveling to the left, he noticed a huddled group of students passing something amongst themselves. Changing direction, he approached them and caught sight of an identical picture to the one resting in his school jacket being passed around. "What are you doing with that?" he asked in a dangerously low tone. He ignored the others' surprised gasps as he thrust his way into the circle, green eyes blazing. Snatching their copy of the photo, he ripped it into little pieces, letting his worry and anger surface. He and Lelouch were not a main attraction at a circus, and their private life was not meant to be mocked and ridiculed by the masses. Did people not understand how serious this was?

One of the students growled, "You think you can just come up and destroy our property? Think again, lowly Eleven scum!"

Being athletic, Suzaku easily dodged the fist that came flying towards his nose, and he had to check himself that he didn't react like he would on the battlefield. These were his classmates, unskilled if misguided civilians, and he was a trained soldier. He couldn't unleash his full attack strength on them; it wouldn't be a fair fight. They'd gossiped and intruded into his and Lelouch's personal matters, but it wasn't as if they'd committed any great crime. They'd done nothing against Britannian law. He had no right to attack them, even in self-defense. So long as he could avoid their blows…

The group of students laughed. "Coward! Look, the Eleven won't fight back. He must be a really useless soldier."

Seething, Suzaku snarled back, "I don't want to hurt you!" He ducked under his current opponent's arm, his eyes scanning the crowd for any sign of Lelouch. It didn't make sense that his Britannian lover would be here among these hateful students—at least willingly—but he had to check to be sure.

The fight was drawing obvious attention. More teenagers came spilling out of nearby buildings to investigate what was going on. They packed the lawn and colonnade, jostling each other to get a closer look.

"Hey, it's the man of the hour!" shouted one of the students, jabbing his neighbor in the side with an elbow.

"How'd you land a beauty like Lamperouge?"

"Congratulations on your relationship! You two make such a cute couple!"

"How dare you turn Lelouch gay?!"

"Can you kiss him for the school newspaper?"

"Stupid Eleven!"

"How far have you gone with him?" The girl who'd asked that was sent dirty looks by her surrounding classmates. "What?" she asked indignantly. "It's a valid question. They might not have gone all the way yet!"

"That's enough!" Suzaku roared, backpedaling to safety. The oncoming rush of students broke apart the circle of fighting, and his original assailants were lost in the swirl of newcomers. Nervously, Suzaku tugged on his collar. Too many of his peers surrounded him to fight his way through, at least without causing unnecessary damage, and the solid wall they presented blocked off any escape routes. What should he say? There was no way out of this without throwing them a speech or an answer of some sort, but he wasn't nearly as good with words as Lelouch was. His eyelids slipped shut as he tried desperately to think of a way out of this. He couldn't hurt his fellow students; he wouldn't disrespect them as they had disrespected him—him and Lelouch.

Nerves steeling, he opened his eyes, emerald fire burning in their depths. He might not be as good a speaker as Lelouch, but this situation only called for the simple truth. Suzaku could handle that. "What Lelouch and I do when we're together is nobody's business but our own. Thank you to those who support us, but we'd really appreciate it if you'd all just stop making such a big deal over this." He held out his arms to ward off the students crowding around him, sweating as they closed in from every side. Not all of them were giving off hostile vibes, but he didn't have time to deal with this; he still had to locate Lelouch.

Just as he was being backed up against the building wall, the intercom buzzed again. A familiar voice rang over the lawn. "Would all members of the Student Council report to the Clubhouse Hall? It's an emergency."

Suzaku's eyes widened in fear. There was none of the usual playfulness found in Milly's voice, and his gut lurched at the word 'emergency.' Somehow, he knew it involved Lelouch. The adrenaline rush kicked in, giving him the resolve to brave the sea of students standing in his way. In a daze, he pushed his way through the throng and dashed back to the Student Council room. As he burst inside and ran along the hallways, he noticed other students shooting him sympathetic looks; the ones milling about the school must have been the ones helping to look for Lelouch out of the goodness of their hearts. That, or they were the few who didn't really care about the latest school news. His feet pounded against the floor, the sound oddly reminiscent of his heart pounding wildly against his ribcage. There was room for only a single thought in the muddled recesses of his mind: Please, Lelouch, be okay.

He had to believe in his lover. He'd made a promise.

"I know what you're thinking, Suzaku. Stop it." Lelouch frowned in Suzaku's direction, pushing at his chest to send him sprawling.

Suzaku laughed cautiously from his new spot on the bedroom floor. A small glob of lube sprayed the wooden floorboard, accidentally spilling as it fell off the bed with him; he knew Lelouch would be upset when he noticed that his room was no longer completely spotless. Holding the other's gaze, Suzaku blindly tried to scoop the lube onto his hands. They still had a use for it, after all. "Oh, so you can read minds now?" he asked, going for playful, ducking the pillow that was thrown at him for his cheek.

Lelouch sighed dramatically, folding his arms over his chest. Unfortunately per his intentions, he didn't look imposing at all; in fact, in his vulnerable undressed state, he reinforced the image he detested: fragile.

With a small, upward curve of his lips, Lelouch fondly murmured, " Your mind is so simple an idiot could read it." He held up a hand to ward off any protests, specks of concern floating in his eyes. There was a bigger issue to discuss. "Suzaku, listen. I can take care of myself. I don't need you to worry about me or baby me or shelter me or protect me or anything else along those lines you're thinking of doing. I can handle the world, so give me more credit." They both knew his speech was not limited to their activities within the bedroom.

With an apologetic look, Suzaku ignored the teasing to focus on his lover's more serious words. "I don't mean to underestimate you. It's just…I care about you, Lelouch, so it's natural for me to worry. Don't you worry about me? About Nunnally?" Suzaku pressed earnestly, slowly climbing back on the bed. Lelouch didn't push him off this time.

Lelouch blushed a darker red, snapping a harsh, "That's different !" in the other's direction.

Suzaku hummed in his throat but didn't press the issue. 'Different,' of course. Lelouch just always had to be difficult. Suzaku leaned forward, dropping a hand on Lelouch's shoulder. "Fine," he acquiesced. "I'll humor you. I can't promise I won't worry, but I'll try to remember that you can handle yourself."

"And now you're mocking me," Lelouch growled, clenching fistfuls of the sheet in his lap. "You don't really believe—" He was interrupted by a hard kiss, quite effectively silencing him. As soon as Suzaku pulled back, he continued as if the disruption never took place, "—that I can take care of myself. Well, let me remind you that I've been doing it for the past seven years—"

"Lelouch, I know that. I just—"

"—Nunnally, too—"

"— I'm sorry, I—"

"—don't need you looking down on me—"

"—I'd never—"

"—need your help," Lelouch finished with a huff.

-+-

There was an unpleasant, metallic scent lingering in the gym. Shirley had to hold her hands over her nose and mouth as soon as she entered; it wasn't that it was overpowering, but that it was out-of-place. Sports-related injuries weren't uncommon, but the scent of blood was never this prominent for a minor scrape or cut. Besides, the last gym class had ended hours ago; there was no reason for the iron tang of blood to taint the air. A twisting knot of anticipation settled in her stomach, and Shirley dreaded what she would find at the source of the awful stench. "Please don't be Lelou," she prayed, but with every step, the certainty and revulsion at the idea grew. She followed her nose to the back, her breath hitching as she caught sight of the first splash of red. Bloody footprints stained the floor heading away from the boy's locker room.

There wasn't enough blood to indicate a major wound, but there was enough to assure her there was something amiss. The footprints only lasted a few paces, the vibrant red at the door fading with each step outward. Panic seized Shirley's heart, and she wrung her hands together nervously. What if the dangerous people came back? A shudder ran through her body, but she straightened and steadfastly put her hand on the door. Lelou might be inside.

Painstakingly, Shirley pushed the door open. She breathed a slight sigh of relief when she didn't notice anything out of order in her direct line of vision, but the fearful anticipation came back twice as strong when she remembered she still had the rest of the room to search. The smell of blood was stronger here, and she held her breath as she stepped over the threshold onto the wet tiled floor. She clutched the protruding door for as long as she could, trying to regain her bearings, before she had to let go in order to move forward. The loud click of the door closing behind her made her freeze; she felt trapped. "Lelou?" she called softly, her voice catching.

A rustle to her left caught her attention, and she swung around in that direction. It was the same one the footprints originated from. The layout of the boy's locker room was similar to that of the girl's. There were rows of dark blue lockers stacked the length of the room which blocked her from seeing anything beyond the closest metal compartments. She had to traverse the aisle near the wall in order to peer into each sectioned off area; lockers were normally grouped together by class. "Hello?" she called out again. So intent was she upon looking for Lelouch, she tripped over a metal baseball bat that was lying carelessly on the ground. With a shriek, she fell on her face.

When she lifted her eyes, she was privy to the most outrageous and most disturbing sight she'd ever beheld.

-+-

"Shirley said it was an emergency," Milly informed the others once they'd all gathered at the Clubhouse Hall. She didn't even try to hide the urgency in her voice, which was a huge tip-off that something was dreadfully wrong. "I didn't want to broadcast the place she found him. We don't need bystanders getting in our way. Listen, I need a volunteer or two to go to the front gates and direct the ambulance once it gets here. I've already called one. We're going to the gym—the boy's locker room to be precise." Deep blue eyes were set and determined; it would take someone who knew Milly very well to understand she was holding back tears. Immediately, the members of the Student Council gasped and started tossing questions at their president.

Suzaku didn't stick around to hear anymore; he'd figure things out for himself after he saw Lelouch. As soon as the word 'gym' left Milly's mouth, he was out the door and running harder than he ever had—even with all his years of military training. The mention of an ambulance only spurred him on faster, and all his old half-imagined appalling fantasies roared to life inside his head. He needed to see Lelouch, needed to know he would be okay.

He reached the gym in record time and cursed to himself that he had to slow down to open doors. "Lelouch," he said to himself. "You told me you could handle yourself. Please…" He didn't even know what he was mumbling anymore when he finally burst into the boy's locker room, drawn there by Shirley's hysterical sobs.

Shirley's cell phone was shaking in her lap. It wasn't vibrating because of an incoming call, but because the girl herself was quivering so hard. Olive green eyes were trained on an motionless lump of skin, blood, and Ashford Academy uniform.

Suzaku followed her line of sight and choked. He suddenly didn't have enough air, and his chest was burning. He started shaking, too overwhelmed with shock. He barely heard Shirley's frantic cries of, "We shouldn't move him; we can't move him!" as he took a step closer, forcing himself to look.

Come. And spit. Smeared over his lover's face. Suzaku gasped and swayed on his feet at the sight, his vision swimming with tears as he shook his head in disbelief. Burning rage warred with numb shock, and his blackened tunnel-vision focused only on Lelouch. Through the haze, he noticed the striking red cut on Lelouch's backside; the wound promised to scar in the near future into a permanent numerical shape: 11. Suzaku stumbled forward the rest of the way, his chest tight as he hyperventilated. He tried to get his breathing under control, but it was impossible. He had too many emotions whirling inside him to concentrate; sobbing, he reached out to his lover. His pulse raced, and his mind was a panicked jumble of thoughts. Oh god, Lelouch. That is…you've been…how could this have…because of me…should've been here…need you to…should've protected you…open your eyes…please…wake up…who the hell did this…must kill…I'm so sorry…Lelouch, I…

Suzaku's eyes grazed over his lover's form. The damage seemed to be mostly restricted to Lelouch's lower body, but the wounds there were enough to tear at his heartstrings. Lelouch's bare legs were covered in bruises and bits of blood; in some instances, the skin had peeled away to reveal raw, jagged bone. His limbs looked like mashed pulp where the bones had been struck so often they'd broken into many unrecognizable lumps of connective tissue. Purplish-red blotches circled his neck; the intense color was visible peeking out from under his uniform collar. Ebony hair was mussed. Both his arms and legs were tied securely around a wooden changing bench, and his eyes were covered by a blindfold. It was worse than Suzaku had imagined, and to top it all off, Lelouch still wasn't moving.

Almost reverently, Suzaku tugged the accursed blindfold from Lelouch's eyes and smoothed back his sweat-matted hair. As soon as they made contact, Lelouch very visibly flinched. Suzaku paused, letting his hand hover, not wanting to cause his lover any more pain. Another garbled sob caught in his throat; he never ever wanted Lelouch to be afraid of him. It was understandable why Lelouch, beaten as he was, seemed adverse to touch, but it still hurt; Suzaku had never wanted to hug Lelouch more in his life. Slowly, he tested the waters and ran a finger along Lelouch's cheek, deeply relieved to feel breath issuing steadily from between open lips. Lelouch had stiffened at first, but he'd made no move to shake Suzaku's hand off his head. Was that because deep down he recognized Suzaku's touch, or because he had been recently conditioned not to fight? Cringing at the fluids on Lelouch's face, Suzaku let himself cry over the prone victim, his tears dripping into soft black locks. He closed his eyes, praying it was all a horrible dream, and whispered a quiet, broken, pleading, "Lelouch."

"Suzaku…"

Eye snapping open at the weak, scratchy sound of his name being uttered, Suzaku sought out a purple gaze; he wept harder at the uncharacteristically defeated, dull look he found in them. So Lelouch was awake after all—if not completely there, judging by the hazy look in his eyes. Suzaku felt as if there were claws piercing his heart. And he knew, as he stared into Lelouch's dim eyes, that the self-blame and self-loathing he'd felt earlier that day were incomparable to the way he felt now, with sharp tendrils of suffocating fiery shame engulfing his entire body. The Lancelot was just a Knightmare, a military resource—it could always be replaced.

But Lelouch…

Chest tightening further at the thought, Suzaku cupped Lelouch's cheek—dirtied as it was—and fell to his knees, his uniform pants getting stained with blood and sweat. He lovingly rubbed his thumb in a comforting circular motion beneath Lelouch's left eye, never breaking his gaze. Swallowing, he tried to force some words out, but found he couldn't make his voice work; only a strangled hiccup sounded for all his efforts.

The other members of the Student Council arrived, but could only stare in shock, not wanting to intrude. Milly dropped down beside Shirley, not having the willpower to hold back her tears any longer at the sight of Lelouch's current state. Rivalz stayed on his feet, but only barely. Nina and Sayoko had been elected to fetch the ambulance. It was only when the whirring buzz of Nunnally's wheelchair sounded that Suzaku realized he was not alone with Lelouch, never mind Shirley who had been there from the beginning.

"What's going on?" Nunnally asked, her voice quaking in the tense atmosphere. "That smell…is it blood? Someone please tell me if my brother is all right!" In a rare show of frustration, she slammed her hand down on the armrest of her wheelchair and motored forward another few inches. "Please! Someone…"

Lelouch didn't even turn at the sound of his beloved sister's worried tone.

Suzaku lifted his head, never ceasing his ministrations, and found his voice. "I'm sorry, Nunnally. I've failed."

Chapter Text

"We're here at the scene of the crime, bringing you live coverage of the aftermath!" gushed a young female reporter, her face twisting into an expression of fake concern for the sake of the national audience. Her mouth turned down at the corners, but she couldn't hide the sparkle in her eyes at covering a juicy story. Being sure to control herself, only a small portion of excitement leaked through her voice when she continued, "In just a few moments, we'll share eye-witness accounts of what really happened." She swept her arm out, pointing in the general direction of the educational facility behind her.

Blue Hi-TV News vans were parked in front of the university; the mess of wires and camera equipment spilled onto the street. Television reporters, journalists, cameramen, light and sound crews, drivers, and computer technicians milled around their temporary news site under the dusk sky. The number of vans and media representatives accounted for a large amount of space, so the road between the university and the prestigious Ashford Academy high school was completely blocked off.

Turning back to the camera, the reporter brought incoming viewers up-to-date. "Yesterday afternoon, this university was targeted by the infamous masked terrorist Zero…"

-+-

Lelouch came to gradually, his mind surfacing from beneath a sea of excruciating hurt and painful memories. He tried to move in his half-conscious state, and the sharp tug of his bonds jerked him the rest of the way to disoriented wakefulness. One by one, the memories of the day trickled sluggishly through his head and he flinched at the happenings of the last hours. The kidnapping…the knife…the touching…the bat…the beating…the humiliation of that final act… His body was in a delicate state, and he dazedly despaired of being found before the pain consumed him completely.

His blood burned in his veins before oozing out the open wounds, and sharp jolts of agony zinged throughout his entire body. He couldn't even feel his legs save for the pinpricks of pain across bone and skin, and the thickly tied cords cut into his wrists and ankles, keeping him in place and adding injuries of their own. All the muscles in his limbs ached profusely from being bound in an awkward position for an extended period of time. The open cut on his backside stung, but it was quickly fading into a bearable ache; it would be fine as long as no one messed with it for a time. Cool air washed over his bare skin, reminding him of his unclothed state. The back of his head also throbbed from when they'd knocked him unconscious at the end. A thick, dried mucus-like substance clung to his face; Lelouch dry-heaved at the remembrance of what it was, making his already sore throat burn.

He clenched his teeth, subtly pulling at his bonds with the slight amount of energy he had available. Recalling the torture and taking a dull inventory of his wounds made the pain rear up again, almost as if thinking about it was equivalent to reliving the experience, and he couldn't hold back a groan in the empty stillness of the locker room. Something continuously buzzed and vibrated against his breast, and it took longer than normal for him to recognize the cause as his cell. His fingers twitched, and he bemoaned the fact that he couldn't reach the damn thing with his hands tied. If he could only answer it…! Drifting in and out of consciousness, he gave in to the pain, snapping to at the more severe waves. There was no sense of time, only a lingering discomfiture and hurt that existed outside the boundaries of human perception.

"Lelou!"

It was the sound of that name specifically that wrapped around his subconscious and provided a startling sense of comfort. There were only good feelings associated with the nickname—the warmth of casual closeness and friendship, the playfulness and minor irritation mixed with flattery of being on the receiving end of an impossible crush, the carefree and lighthearted feeling of fun reminiscent of the Student Council; it was his only name not weighed down with a heavy past and crushing responsibilities. He reacted instinctively to it, despite the overwhelming buzz of pain, and shifted on the bench in response. Only his friends ever addressed him as ‘Lelou,' and that name said in an unmistakably worried feminine tone soothed the initial unconscious freezing terror that his attackers were back. Moving even that little bit made his injuries smart all the more, and he went limp on the bench, his energy suddenly drained worse than before.

A few seconds later, a loud clatter and crash reached his ears; the ping of clanging metal meant the baseball bat had skittered on the tiled floor. Lelouch balked at the sound, his mind sensitive to any connection to the weapon that had inflicted so much pain. There was a tense silence for a moment—before Shirley let out a stunned gasp: "Lelou!"

-+-

"So Zero himself made an appearance here yesterday?" asked a long-haired blond Britannian. The camera in his hands wasn't rolling, but there was a certain gleam in his blue eyes that made Cecile Croomy wary of answering.

Seeing his assistant was taking her sweet time in responding to such a simple question, Lloyd stepped in. "That would be correct, Mr. …?"

"Reid," the blond cameraman filled in. "Diethard Reid. I happen to be following Zero's exploits very closely, so any extra information you can give me would be greatly appreciated." His tone was absolutely hungry, and his fingers clenched in anticipation around his camera equipment.

It was just the three of them in the damaged hangar of the university; the room seemed entirely too big without the bulk of the Lancelot taking up space. The rest of the media crew was setting up outside. Due to privacy restrictions, the university didn't want an entire band of strangers trampling through potentially dangerous laboratory equipment in order to get a good story. So it was that they allowed a single media representative inside to get exclusive coverage of the interior destruction caused by the Black Knights. The interviews were scheduled to take place outside; the hole in the university wall set to serve as a good backdrop indicative of the overall damage.

"There's nothing to tell now that we won't be saying on-air," Cecile put in matter-of-factly.

Diethard quickly hid his disappointment. "Right, I understand." He scanned the room, noting the black scuff marks made by the enemy Knightmares on the floor. "It's just," he sighed melodramatically, "I was recently demoted at the station because Zero stole one of my vans during the Lake Kawaguchi hotel jacking. If I can put an extra spin on this story, then I might be able to reclaim my old position. Can you help me?" There was no need to go into the more exact details of his demotion.

Lloyd blinked, then waved a finger in the media-man's face. "Aha!" He spun around in a circle, his white lab coat swirling around his frame. "You're going to say you don't remember a thing, just like Gottwald!"

"You're on close terms with Jeremiah Gottwald, too?" Diethard pressed, quirking an eyebrow. "I am quite familiar with the man myself. At least, I was before his recent passing." Lowering his head, he put on a show of mourning the turquoise-haired purist soldier.

Nodding emphatically, Lloyd mentioned, "We both studied together at the Imperial Academy." A wide smile remained on his face; unlike the media man, he didn't bother to look upset.

Diethard tilted his head. "That so? Well, I guess it really is a small world. And to answer your earlier question, no. All my memories are intact; however, one of my men who was supposedly guarding the van claims he doesn't remember anything during the reported time it was stolen." Pausing, he looked both the Special Corp soldiers in the eye and mused, "It is very strange. Nothing like that happened here yesterday?"

"No, not at all," Cecile assured. She narrowed her eyes at him, not knowing how to react to this man. He gave her a very bad feeling, and she couldn't help but think he was dangerous somehow. Even for a TV-man, he was asking too many questions. She wanted to get away, wanted to tune out his probing queries. "Is it about time to go out?" she asked, her happy tone strained by stress.

Diethard nodded. "Yes, I got what I needed here. And you say it was only you two in the lab when this happened?"

At the question, Cecile couldn't help but be reminded of and worry about Suzaku. The phone call from that one lady kept repeating in her mind, and she remembered Suzaku's frantic facial expressions and tones of voice. Was his girl—boyfriend all right? (Cecile knew she'd have to get used to that.) She thought herself silly, worrying with no concrete reason why, but Suzaku himself had been trying to hide his unease…

"It was a lazy Sunday afternoon," Lloyd chirped in explanation, basically confirming a positive answer. No need to drag Kururugi into this media circus. He adjusted his glasses on his nose and peered down at his assistant. She had that saddened, anxious look gracing her face again, and Lloyd heaved a sigh before forcibly brightening. "Not much traffic through the Special Corp, you know!" he said, ending in another twirl. "Now let's go tell the world that my precious Lancelot was killed!"

Cecile groaned lightly and held a hand to her forehead. "Lloyd, the Lancelot is a machine; it can't die…"

-+-

Shirley's first thought was that Lelou was dead.

It was the most logical conclusion based on his condition and the stillness of his body, but then she remembered she'd heard shuffling. Tensing, Shirley looked around. The late afternoon sunlight was fading into twilight, and the overwhelming fear of being caught unawares in the dark urged her to hurriedly flip on the electric lights. I have to make sure no one's here. Someone could still be hiding; someone did this to Lelou! Bravely searching the locker room, she could see no one else in any of the partitions, so she deduced it really was Lelouch who had made the rustling noise earlier, despite his extraordinary injuries. It just went to show that prayers were never answered the way one expected; she'd been praying to find Lelou, but she hadn't been specific enough. I should have prayed to find him alive and well, she cried to herself. Now he's bloody and covered in…that's not what I think it is, is it? Oh god… "Lelou…?" she asked hesitantly, hoping he would at least turn his head in her direction.

Lelouch didn't move an inch, and Shirley's eyes glittered with tears. Reaching her slim hand out to the prone figure, Shirley snatched it back at the last minute, fingers curling into a fist. Lelouch was already hurt so very badly, and Shirley wasn't a medical professional. No matter how she longed to reach out to him, there was nothing she could do. Her head snapped up, tears finally falling from the motion. No, she couldn't, but there were people out there who could. Shirley meant to dial 911 herself, but she found her fingers had automatically pressed Milly's number into her phone.

Milly answered after the second ring, and Shirley could barely get her vocal chords to work. "E…mergen…cy," she sobbed, the word almost unrecognizable under the influence of tears and shock. "Lelou! Gym, boy's…" she hiccuped, falling to her knees at last. "So much…blood…" Her body started shaking, and she had a hard time hearing her friend over the roar of rushing blood in her ears. The only part of the following conversation she caught was that Milly would take care of calling the ambulance, and Shirley sobbed harder with relief that she didn't have to handle this alone.

Kneeling by Lelouch, she whimpered his nickname repeatedly, hoping against hope that he would awaken on his own and somewhere reassure her that he was all right. "Say something, Lelou! Let me know you're alive! Please, Lelou…" I need you. Lelouch never stirred, and the minutes passed by unbearably slowly. An agonizingly slow wait ensued after Shirley hung up with Milly; when the locker room door finally burst open, her breath caught in her throat. The paramedics…!

But no, it was only Suzaku.

A wave of intense disappointment washed Shirley, and she had to shakily shout at the equally distraught Suzaku that they couldn't move Lelouch. They could end up doing more harm than good, after all, and it wasn't worth the risk when their mutual friend was already in such a fragile state. Shirley didn't know how she kept her head to remember that, but worry for Lelouch consumed her and common sense overruled emotions—for the moment. She choked when Suzaku had the nerve to brush his fingers against that head of black hair, and a fire started coiling in her belly, twisting and burning her from the inside out. She was almost gleeful when Lelouch flinched under Suzaku's touch—before a sharp sting of horror pierced her chest. She liked it that Lelou didn't respond favorably to his so-called lover; how could she even… Why…did I think that? At a time like this?!

But the fire of jealousy burned brighter when Lelou—Lelouch—murmured Suzaku's name. How long had she been sitting with him, sobbing over him, begging him to speak to her? Three minutes; more? And how many times had he even shifted to acknowledge her presence? Not once! But for Suzaku, he'd…

It wasn't fair!

Shirley had done nothing but love Lelouch, been nothing if not utterly devoted to him for more than a year. Of course she understood Suzaku meant a lot to Lelouch; they'd been childhood friends, after all. But why did that have to morph into a romantic relationship? Lelouch was supposed to be hers! She'd wasted so much time being jealous of Kallen when really her true competition was the boy right in front of her, the boy trying to comfort her. Suzaku had even offered to ask Lelouch what he thought of Shirley as girlfriend material. Had they been going together even then? But no, Suzaku wasn't cruel

Why was she thinking of this when poor Lelou was on the brink of death? I don't have time to be jealous! Lelou could be slipping to the other side as we speak! But Shirley couldn't help it, couldn't help the twisting knot in her stomach and the burning tears in her eyes when she looked at Suzaku… Her fists trembled in her lap.

That morning, when she'd confronted Lelouch about the topic, he'd been wary and resigned; at the same time, there had been a certain sparkle in his stunning violet eyes when Suzaku's name was mentioned. She'd only noticed because she was so practiced at reading him; anyone else would have glanced right over it. That sparkle was what had tipped her off to the truth, and she'd promised herself that since Suzaku obviously made Lelouch so happy, she would try to accept their relationship. However, that was under the unspoken condition that Lelou was safe and happy in Suzaku's care…but no, it was because of Suzaku that poor Lelou was suffering…

Not only Lelou, but herself, everyone on the Council, and Nunnally

Rage and sorrow clogged her throat, and Shirley wanted to scream in response to Nunnally's question. Suzaku's answer only made Shirley tremble harder, and she glared at him through watery eyes. It's his fault. His fault Lelou was hurt like this. His fault Lelou would never be hers. His fault, his fault, his fault…

-+-

"—even many Elevens blame Zero for disrupting the peace. And here to give us more information are the eye-witnesses to the terrorist attack yesterday!" the reporter informed.

Cecile calmly appraised the situation and waited for specific directions from the media crew; alongside her, Lloyd waved cheerily and almost pranced to his designated spot in front of the rolling camera. "Good evening, everyone!" he bellowed, eyes shut behind his glasses. A lopsided smile remained on his face; one wouldn't believe he'd lost the love of his life just yesterday by the way he was acting. "My name is Lloyd Asplund, and I just want everyone to know that Zero is a scoundrel for destroying my precious Lancelot!"

Diethard narrowed his eyes, but made sure to keep his hands steady as he rolled the camera. The obvious anti-Zero atmosphere made him clench his teeth, but there was little he could do. He had to prove his loyalty to the Black Knights' cause without being open about it; maintaining such a balance was hard when his job demanded he criticize the terrorist group in a public forum. He'd already been demoted for promoting the Black Knights' propaganda…

"The 'Lancelot'?" the reporter repeated, jarring Diethard from his musings. "Is that the White Knightmare that's been all over the news?" At Asplund's proud nod, she went on to ask, "Then maybe you can answer a question that's been on everyone's minds! Just who was the pilot behind that machine?"

Lloyd looked taken aback, eyes momentarily wide and mouth drawn into a tight frown. "I hardly think that's important at the moment," he explained frostily. "We should be focusing more on the Lancelot itself. I know the Black Knights terrorize Britannia, but they crossed the line yesterday when they involved my poor Lancelot outside of a fair battle. Why, I couldn't even gather data!"

"Lloyd, please," Cecile interjected in an exasperated tone, coming to stand alongside her superior. Looking at the camera, she smiled weakly and waved before addressing the previous question. "The pilot's identity will remain a secret until Second Prince Schneizel deems it unclassified."

The mention of the Royal Family was enough to deter further questioning in that direction. "Well," the reporter said, scrambling for words, "what are your plans now? Is it possible to fix the Lancelot, or are you going to turn your efforts to another project? Are you afraid the Black Knights will sabotage your future developments?"

Lloyd grabbed his heart, bending over as if in physical pain. "Are you honestly asking if I'm going to give up on my Lancelot?"

Noting the incredulity in his voice, the reporter turned to her fellow media crew for cues. "No offense meant, sir," she apologized.

Before anything more could be said, two distinct ringing sounds sliced through the air. One was the trill of a cell phone attached to Cecile's hip; the other was the siren of a speeding ambulance.

-+-

"What do you mean 'failed'?" Nunnally asked, almost hesitant but desperate to know the truth.

Suzaku hunched over, squaring his shoulders, and couldn't bring himself to voice a proper answer. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "Sorrysorrysorry…" Lelouch, I swear to you. I will find whoever did this and…

Milly moved from her place beside Shirley, gently laying a hand on Suzaku's shoulder. "You couldn't have known," she consoled him. "None of us could have imagined that someone in the school would go this far." She took a closer look at Lelouch's legs, and her lip quibbled. Not many things could make the strong Milly Ashford actually cry, but the sight of her friend's broken body was enough to reduce her to tears alongside Shirley and the others.

Suzaku inhaled sharply, not having anything to say in response to Milly's reassurances. It was his fault, no matter what anyone else said. Lelouch had needed him, and he hadn't been there. Never mind the illogic of feelings and circumstances. He, Kururugi Suzaku, had failed the one he loved most in the world. Lelouch, I don't deserve you.

"Will someone please tell me if my brother's okay?" Nunnally asked again, raising her voice. She trembled but managed to hold onto her wits.

Rivalz covered Nunnally's hand with his own, trying to calm her down and offer some form of comfort. Lelouch was his best friend, and Nunnally had also become like his little sister over the years. This situation called for a 'big brother' role, and Lelouch was obviously unfit for the job at the moment; Suzaku was too self-pitying just now to even begin to soothe Nunnally's doubts and fears. Swallowing, Rivalz said, "Lelouch is…he is…"

"He's alive," Suzaku choked. If he wasn't, I could never forgive myself.

"Yes, but," Nunnally hiccuped, "that still doesn't explain anything."

The distraught members of the Student Council all looked to one another for help, not knowing how much to divulge to poor Nunnally or how to properly explain. Their eyes were wide and panicked, and their mouths opened and closed in mute silence. Just as Milly took it upon herself to wing some sort of answer, a weak cough sounded from the bench.

"…Don't worry…Nunna…lly…"

Everyone's attention snapped to Lelouch. He glared at his friends, almost daring them to tell his little sister about the direness of the situation. For Nunnally's sake, he had somehow managed to pull himself together. "I'm fi…ne…" he croaked. His friends gaped at him, disbelief coursing through their systems as Lelouch managed to speak. "Just a few…scratches…and bruises. Nothing to be…too upset…over." He forced a weak laugh through his lips. "Might need…crutches…for awhile…" he mused, making light of his obvious injuries. Though he could talk just fine, the overwhelming pain he was experiencing made it hard to focus on stringing words together. Still, it was impressive he could handle it at all; how long would this clarity last?

Suzaku's face fell. From the looks of his condition, it was doubtful Lelouch would ever walk again. But that was Lelouch: taking advantage of his sister's blindness to hide the ugly truths of the world. He'd always done that, Suzaku remembered, like it was second nature to lie to Nunnally for her own protection. Suzaku had hoped the need for telling such lies had vanished with time, but life apparently wasn't done dishing out problems for the two siblings. Lelouch would always put his sister first, even when he was half-dead and delirious from pain.

"Big brother!" Nunnally cried out, scooting forward to reach his side. Her wheelchair rolled through a small puddle of blood, and Rivalz and Shirley both turned to halt her progress. Nunnally frowned, but she didn't protest the hands holding her chair in place. Turning her face towards Lelouch, she pleadingly scolded, "You'd better not be lying to me!"

Violet eyes softened in Nunnally's direction, and Lelouch lovingly reassured, "I'd…never."

The other members of the Council winced at the deception, but Nunnally ignored the increased tension in the room. "Oh, big brother," she whispered, and let the tears finally fall.

Suzaku felt his heart break even more under the weight of Nunnally's sorrow added to his own, and he determinedly pushed himself to his feet. "I'm going to help you, Lelouch," he promised. I'll make things better. He gritted his teeth, noticing a bloodstained knife on the floor across the room. It didn't take an idiot to realize where it had come from and Suzaku, despite popular belief, was no idiot. (At least not all the time.) Staggering to the corner of the locker room, he reached for the knife; the ice in his bloodstream melted into burning rage as his fingers touched a weapon that had been used to inflict pain on his loved one.

"Lelouch," he choked, lurching back towards the bench where Lelouch was still tied. "Someone hurt you with this blade, but now I'll use it to set you free," he whispered softly into his prince's ear, his lips lightly brushing against Lelouch's heated earlobe. Very carefully, he squeezed his fingers tighter around the knife's handle for a sturdier grip, then swiftly cut the cords biting into Lelouch's wrists and ankles.

Lelouch stiffened, and his breathing accelerated at the sight of that silver knife coming towards him again, at the rushed words and hot breath on his ear, at the proximity of another person so close to his head. His freed limbs automatically fell towards the floor, jolting him out of mindless panic; his muscles loosened and his eyes softened as he made the connection. Suzaku.

Additional shocks of pain rushed up his arms and legs due to sudden movement after a long period in one strained position. The renewed circulation of blood flow was both welcoming and unwanted. Hissing, Lelouch bit his lip. Violet eyes widened slightly when Suzaku knelt beside him again, took a limp wrist in both hands, and started to massage feeling back into his muscles. Lelouch's whole body started trembling instinctively, but his boyfriend only persisted with his touch; after a few moments, Lelouch started to relax, his mind and body coming to terms with the fact that he wasn't about to be hurt—not this time. Without saying a word, he lifted his eyes to meet Suzaku's determined gaze and briefly, shakily smiled his gratitude.

"Who did this to you, Lelouch?" Suzaku asked at last, trembling with fury. Even enraged beyond measure, his touch was still gentle as he handled his wounded lover's wrist.

Everyone else in the room almost stopped breathing at the question.

Lelouch sighed, his gaze resting on the fallen blindfold. "I…don't know," he answered. "My eyes…were covered…entire time. Didn't rec…ognize…voices. Three males. Britannians," he spat.

"So this was because of me?" the Japanese boy pressed, green eyes tearing up again. "You got hurt because of me?" It was unneeded, the unspoken, Because I am an Eleven.

Lelouch mustered up the strength to glare. "Idiot," he hissed. "Had nothing…to do with you."

Shaking his head, Suzaku leaned back away from the bench. "You don't need to lie to protect me," he rebuked, flicking his eyes meaningfully in Nunnally's direction. I need to protect you, not the other way around.

"Not lying," Lelouch retorted back obstinately, still glaring.

Suzaku pursed his lips, realizing it was useless to argue. Even when Lelouch wasn't in his right state of mind, he was stubborn. Same old Lelouch, he mused; the thought made him smile something bittersweet. Still tenderly rubbing a pale wrist, he raked his eyes over his beloved's form, once more wincing at the gloppy come and spit caked to his face. He beckoned for Rivalz and Shirley to let Nunnally closer. "Why don't you hold your sister's hand?" It was a gentle suggestion, but one everyone knew not to argue against. Nunnally wheeled closer, hand searching, and Suzaku guided her to her brother. Lelouch's hand started shaking in his grip; he tensed, and Suzaku's breath hitched at the revelation: Lelouch is even terrified of touching Nunnally!

Simple physical contact was fear-inducing to the beaten prince, and simple physical contact was the most revered form of communication to the disabled princess. Before Suzaku could retract his words, Nunnally's fingers were already closing over her hurt brother's. Lelouch's palms were sweaty and cold when his little sister softly took them into her hands. After a few soothing strokes and shushing noises, Lelouch slumped on the bench once more, not having the willpower or energy to fight. Even under his sister's familiar touch, tears gathered at the corners of his eyes.

"What's taking so long?!" Shirley complained between sobs. The scene between Lelou and Nunna was too heartbreaking to witness. "The ambulance should have been here by now! Poor Lelou…" Her hands clutched at her hair, tears still pouring from her eyes. As she sniffled, she felt strong, comforting arms wrap around her, and she unconsciously leant into her friend's embrace. "Oh, Milly," she cried. "Why did this have to happen?"

Milly shook her head, tightening her hold. "I don't know," she whispered, soothingly stroking the younger girl's red-orange hair. "Bad things happen to good people, but don't worry. Help should arrive soon. Like you said, it's about time for the paramedics to get here. Nina and Sayoko should be leading them this way at this very moment!" Milly exclaimed, trying to be upbeat and positive for the sake of her Council members.

With Nunnally by Lelouch's side, Rivalz sank back against one of the locker rows. A cold feeling swept over him at the whole situation, and he hugged himself as he shivered.

Suzaku felt numb as he made a beeline for his own locker. He didn't know how he got it open; his vision was too blurry to see the numbers of his combination lock, and his movements were stilted and awkward. Somehow, he managed to get the door open and grab one of his graffiti-stained gym shirts. Luckily, the shower stalls were close by, and he hurriedly soaked his shirt with warm water from the nozzle. The roar of the pounding water was startling in the hushed silence; it felt too normal, too natural a sound to fit the current extraordinary circumstances. It was all too surreal.

"Brother," Nunnally whimpered, clutching Lelouch's cold hands tighter. "I'm so sorry you have to hurt like this!"

Her apology buzzed in Suzaku's ears, and Suzaku croaked, "No, Nunnally. I'm the one who's sorry!" He sank to his knees once more at the head of the bench and tucked his index finger under Lelouch's chin; slowly, he turned Lelouch's face towards his and felt his stomach drop once more at the lost, petrified look gracing those purple eyes. Suzaku caught Lelouch's gaze with his own, silently reassuring him, trying to prepare Lelouch for his touch. Holding up the dripping shirt, Suzaku let his boyfriend become accustomed to it before quietly explaining, "I'm going to clean your face now, Lelouch. Hold still for me." Please don't be afraid of me this time.

Violet eyes fluttered shut in contentment when that comforting warm, wet fabric wiped at the filth desecrating his face. He gasped and flinched when the cloth swept over his eyes, but he relaxed when the pressure was elsewhere seconds later. The cleansing commenced with short, lingering strokes, effectively clearing his forehead, cheeks, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, and neck of all manner of bodily fluids. With that done, the attention turned to his hair; Suzaku very carefully scraped every last gloppy drop from his wet-glistening hair strands. Cool air brushed over his damp, unsoiled face, and Lelouch relaxed further under its tingling clean caress.

"Is there anything more I can do for you?" Suzaku kindly asked, cupping Lelouch's now-spotless cheek. He gently slid his thumb back and forth under a violet eye, glad he wasn't spreading sordid fluids on his love's face by the action. Suzaku forlornly sighed, recalling happier times. You would always blush if I touched you like this, my prince. Not so this time—he was lucky if Lelouch didn't shy away out of fear, never mind embarrassment.

Lelouch still cringed at first, but he relaxed much more quickly under Suzaku's touch. "Water?" he croaked, a hacking cough attacking his throat seconds later.

Suzaku nodded and leapt to his feet, fueled by the desire to make Lelouch as comfortable as possible despite the dire circumstances. He couldn't do anything about his love's legs; even with all his military first aid training, Lelouch's injuries were beyond him. Covering Lelouch's naked lower state was also out of the question since that might also do more harm than good; he didn't want to directly touch the wounds in any way. Better to leave that to the medical professionals. Once more rummaging through his locker, Suzaku snatched a thermos half full leftover from last gym class and flew back to his lover's side. "It's warm," he warned, swishing the water in the container.

Lelouch just opened his mouth, trusting Suzaku would pour the liquid down his throat. His hands were still busy being held in Nunnally's, so he couldn't take the drink himself.

Suzaku inhaled again at the remnants of come on his boyfriend's tongue. Hand shaking, he obediently tipped the thermos and let the warm water splash down Lelouch's throat.

Lelouch instinctively swallowed, the water at once both stinging and soothing his esophagus. Suzaku slowly dragged out the process so Lelouch wouldn't choke; in a couple minutes, the thermos was empty and Lelouch's mouth was as clean as his face.

Some of the weight felt lifted off his shoulders when Suzaku traced his eyes over Lelouch's pristine facial features, his face softening at Lelouch's no-longer-so-panicked expression. There, much better. Suzaku might not be able to move or treat his hurt lover, but he could at least do this—these small things to make Lelouch more comfortable until the proper help arrived.

-+-

Three paramedics hopped out the back of the ambulance at the end of the street; the white hospital van could not get close to the high school's front gate with the media crew's equipment spread over the road. Flashing red lights lit up the dusk sky, and the wailing siren caused all present to clasp their hands over their ears. At the ambulance's approach, the media crew cut their coverage to go to commercial; it was perfect timing because Lloyd Asplund was not cooperating very well with their reporters.

"Clear the way!" the lead paramedic shouted as he ran, shooing bystanders and media people from the sidewalk. The other two followed with an empty stretcher. "Leave a path, thank you!"

Diethard Reid narrowed his eyes at the scene. Something had obviously happened at Ashford Academy, and the media was already conveniently at the site. They could get exclusive coverage—assuming whatever happened was newsworthy. He was jerked back to the Black Knights University Crisis when the blue-haired researcher—her name was Cecile Croomy, wasn't it?—answered her cell.

"Suzaku!" she exclaimed after a moment in a worried tone.

Diethard's ears pricked at the name. 'Suzaku'? While he wasn't well-versed in the commonality of Japanese names, he recognized that one. Could it be the person on the other line was Kururugi Suzaku, the very first individual to be publicly saved by Zero? Suzaku was, after all, a well-known Honorary Britannian, and it was big news when he’d decided to stay with the Britannian Army after it had been about to execute him for false claims. If by some chance it was the same 'Suzaku,' then perhaps this information might be helpful to the Black Knights. Kururugi was their enemy, after all, and any dirt Diethard could get on him would be beneficial to Zero. With a smirk, Diethard listened from the shadows.

Cecile—it was Cecile, right?—smiled at something 'Suzaku' said. "You found him! Oh, that's wonderful; I'm so hap—" She cut herself short, eyebrows drawing together in anxiety. "What do you mean? You're not telling me that the ambulance out here is—yes, one just pulled up. It can't get to the front gate. There are too many news vans blocking everything off. But you're not telling me—your boyfriend—is he going to be okay?" She was silent for a long moment, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes.

Tapping his foot, Diethard discretely checked his watch. He needed to know the other side to this before he started jumping to conclusions; the Black Knights wouldn't appreciate false leads. This was taking too long. He needed factual information, not some gay boy melodrama.

Finally, Cecile spoke again, voice firm but understanding. "I see. Yes, of course. You simply have to go with him; he's your boyfriend. He needs you by his side. I'll take care of everything with Lloyd. Yes, don't you worry about us, Suzaku. We can get along fine without you for a few days. You just focus on taking care of that boy of yours, all right?" After getting a response, she clicked her phone shut and turned to her boss, still crying a bit. "There's been a problem…"

-+-

"Who's going to ride with my brother in the ambulance?" Nunnally asked cautiously. The question came out of nowhere, and it prompted the others to start planning the immediate future.

Milly sent a watery smile in Nunnally's direction, even knowing the blind girl couldn't possibly see it. "You are, of course," she answered.

But Nunnally shook her head, her hair swishing from the motion. "No, I'd only slow them down with my wheelchair. Someone else needs to go in my place," she hinted, turning to the side where Suzaku knelt by the bench. Even without sight, she knew where he was.

"Nobody else has the right!" Shirley exploded. She stared defiantly at Suzaku, almost begging him to contradict her.

Surprisingly enough, it wasn't Suzaku who defended himself against the implicit allegation, but Rivalz. "That's not fair, Shirley. Obviously, Lelouch trusts Suzaku enough to get into a…um, relationship…with him. That pretty much gives Suzaku here all the 'right' he needs." Rivalz shrugged awkwardly, fidgeting by the dark locker rows.

"At least I don't have other obligations that could keep me from Lelou’s side!" Shirley cried, wringing her hands. The glare she sent Suzaku was full of venom, and she roughly shook Milly's hand off her shoulder. She didn't want to calm down.

Lelouch's breath hitched at the amount of pent-up fury in his friend's tone. What was she saying?

Suzaku's jaw tensed in anger at the accusation, but a suffocating feeling of hopelessness permeated his chest at the truth of her words. Shirley was right. If he hadn't had military duties, he could have been with Lelouch all day, could have prevented this from happening. He hung his head, brown bangs shielding his eyes. "You have a point," he admitted in a dull tone. If he wasn't already on the floor, he would have fallen to his knees in despair.

Shirley averted her eyes, looking to the ground. At the sight of Suzaku's crushed spirit, a small seed of guilt blossomed in her stomach; seconds later, it was strangled by the twin weeds of jealousy and self-righteous anger. He deserved to suffer. The emotional turmoil he was experiencing didn't even measure to an eleventh of what Lelouch had suffered on his behalf. "How dare you," she hissed, though her voice was a lot more anguished than biting.

"I won't let it happen again," Suzaku vowed, lifting his head. Emerald fire burned in his eyes, and he swiftly stood, casting one longing look at his lover. There was a hard edge to his voice when he spoke, and his fists trembled at his sides. "I won't let anything keep me from Lelouch. If I have to quit the military—"

Milly, Shirley, Rivalz, and Nunnally all gasped at the proclamation. Stunned violet eyes widened, and Lelouch felt his heart flip in his chest. He must still be delusional, because Suzaku did not go around saying—

"—then so be it. Some things are more important than revolution. Lelouch happens to be one of them, at least to me." Ignoring their shell-shocked faces, Suzaku marched past them to the door, digging for the cell phone in his pocket. "If you'll excuse me, I'll get right on that." The only reason he would leave Lelouch at a time like this was so he could ensure he'd never have to again. He quickly slipped out the door, leaving the heartbreaking scene momentarily behind him. Heaving a sigh, he rubbed the back of his palm over his eyes and tried to compose himself before making his call.

"Miss Cecile, it's me," he managed in a low tone, completely devoid of emotion. If he didn't keep it all at bay, he'd burst under its weight. It was too soon to handle all at once; he was numb for the sake of social necessity. "We…found him…my Lelou—" His voice was strangled, and it hurt too much to finish vocalizing his lover's name. He couldn't do it, not when he was the only one keeping himself together, alone in the hallway and backed up against the wall, crushed by shame and drowning in guilt. "It's my—" he choked, giving in to his emotions and sliding down the wall until he was hunched over on the floor, one leg stretched in front of him. Wrapping an arm around his bent knee, he shuddered and cried inside at the thought of admitting his ultimate failure to an outside party.

Forcefully, he ground out, "No, it's not…he is…he's hurt. Very badly." He wiped at the tear streaks on his cheeks, gasping at the mention of the ambulance. He was so very grateful Cecile could read him so well, so very grateful she explained what was going on outside without him needing to actually ask. He clenched his teeth at the mention of the television crew, his head buzzing with rage. Lelouch was severely injured, and the media was causing problems so they could have their little field day about the Black Knights. Who cared about Zero and terrorism when Lelouch was possibly dying?!

"I don't know," he moaned in response to her concerned question. "He looks…awful. I don't know if he'll—if he'll ever walk again…there's blood everywhere and he's just…I need him to be okay, Miss Cecile, but what if he's not?! I can't—what I mean is—I need to be with him! More than anything. It's not so much that he needs me as that we need each other."

Desperate, Suzaku sighed in relief at Cecile's reassurances; he wasn't going to question his good fortune. If the military could be understanding about this, then maybe he wouldn't have to all-out quit. Giving up his idealistic plan so suddenly was rash, but for Lelouch's wellbeing and his own sanity tied in with that… Softly, he said, "I'll do my best to look after him. Thank you." Just as he finished bringing Miss Cecile up-to-date, three paramedics rushed by.

They charged into the boys’ locker room, Suzaku quickly scrambling after them. Drawn to Lelouch by the scent of blood and the sight of the surrounding students gathered around him, they dashed to their patient's side. "Stand aside," one of them ordered, not unkindly. "We need room to work here."

Sayoko followed, then stopped to gasp as her gaze fell upon her charge's beaten older brother. A hand flew to her mouth, and her chest heaved. Bile churned in her stomach. Even as a nursemaid well-established in the health business, seeing Master Lelouch in such a vulnerable and bloody state was shocking to the core. "Oh, Lady Nunnally," she cried, stepping next to Rivalz to help move the disabled girl out of the paramedics' way. "This couldn't be because…"

"This is because of him!" Shirley shrieked in a sudden fit of anger, pointing a condemning finger at Suzaku as he walked back through the door. "It's because of you! If you hadn't pursued Lelou, then this never would have happened!" She was shivering, and the tears poured down faster than ever. Her voice was scratchy from screaming at such a high-pitch, but that didn't stop her from unloading all her insecurities onto Suzaku. Now that she was getting over the shock, she needed someone to blame—someone conveniently close by, someone who was (even indirectly) involved with the situation.

Huffing, Lelouch raised his head to pin the raging Shirley with his stare. He could understand if she was upset, but did she have to behave like this? Did she have to force these lies down his beloved's throat? Getting in the middle of this was the last thing he wanted to do, but he couldn't ignore it.

Suzaku deflated even more at the words; Shirley was just confirming again the conclusion he'd already come to. In a distant part of his mind, Suzaku was grateful to Shirley; he could always count on her to tell him the truth of the matter. "I know. I'm sorry," he whispered raggedly, his apology lost in the turmoil. You have no idea how sorry I am.

Shirley sniffled, not noticing her precious Lelou’s angry gaze; her voice cracked. "I was going to forgive you. I thought I could eventually be okay with the two of you…being 'together'…but that was when I believed you were good for Lelou. But look at where being with you has landed him!" she yelled. It didn't matter that she was contradicting Lelouch himself; in her mind, at that moment, Suzaku was just as responsible for Lelou’s current condition as the students who had committed the crime.

Suzaku bowed his head in submissive acknowledgment. He was too busy accepting Shirley's words that he didn't notice Lelouch defend him. His throat clogged with emotion again, and he couldn't see past the haze of tears in his eyes. No amount of apologies could heal his lover. I’m beyond redemption. Shirley's rant was just reminding him of that crucial truth.

Lelouch twitched on the bench, using his friends' argument as a distraction from the paramedics' painful work. "Shirley," he warned, purple eyes blazing.

Shirley took a quick step back at the sharp reprimand, crying out at the look in those violet eyes. "Lelou…"

The paramedics filtered out the drama going on around them to focus on the injured victim. Quickly and carefully, they lifted him onto the stretcher they'd carried in with them. After that was done, they covered him with a light, white sheet. Immediately, blood started to soak through the fabric where it stuck to his legs. They frowned, but they knew they didn't have the proper equipment to treat his injuries; they'd have to get him to the nearest hospital. It was also surprising that the boy had awoken already, and that he hadn't moaned once while they were handling his broken body.

Thus, it was that Lelouch Lamperouge (vi Britannia) was paraded across the grounds of Ashford Academy on a stretcher—a bitter mockery of a prince raised high on a royal litter.

-+-

"Um," Nina stammered into the microphone. The Hi-TV news crew had cornered her by the front gate as soon as the paramedics had stepped onto school grounds. Nunnally's nurse had already gone, leading the hospital professionals to the gym. The spastic genius teenager was going to follow—until a reporter blocked her path.

The blonde anchorwoman smiled, flashing her teeth at the camera, and repeated her question. "Do you have any idea why the ambulance is here? This is supposed to be a pretty safe school. I'm guessing there was a sports-related injury—or maybe a student fight that got out-of-control?" the media woman suggested hungrily. "The fact that an ambulance showed up at this particular high-class school is pretty big news. Wouldn't you agree? Why don't you tell me everything you know?"

Nina clenched her skirt in her hands and turned embarrassedly from side to side. "Today," she said in a quiet voice, her face contorted in fear.

"You'll need to speak up a bit," instructed the anchorwoman. She smiled at Nina encouragingly.

Nina hesitantly smiled back. "Today," she repeated in a stronger voice right into the mike, "a student was attacked for involving himself with one of those Elevens." She shuddered with revulsion.

The reporter hummed in her throat. "I see. I take it you're not a fan of Elevens?" she pressed.

"Of course not!" Nina answered, aghast at the very possibility. "I don't understand why he did it. I definitely don't think the boy should have been…attacked…because of it, but yes, I'm of the mindset that he made the mistake of associating himself with someone like that. Elevens are dangerous! Don't you remember how they hijacked the hotel at Lake Kawaguchi? I was there, so I know what I'm talking about. Elevens are violent; just look at the Black Knights! I don't see why anyone would willingly hang around them." Though normally scared to talk, Nina was elated to be sharing her passionate views on the subject. No one on the Student Council agreed with her stance, but maybe here, on the news…

"Strong words from a student!" said the reporter, beaming into the camera lens yet again. "Do you have any idea who attacked this boy?"

Nina shook her head, her long braids swinging from the motion. "We just found him. No one knows anything yet."

Disappointed, the blonde reporter's face sank. "I see. We'll just have to stick to this story until more details come out." She turned to fully face the cameraman and raised her voice. "Here at the prestigious high school of Ashford Academy is taught the balance of Britannians and Elevens in society. Have these teachings become too rigid, too ingrained in the minds of students? Do they invoke physical violence among today's youth? Despite the ongoing terrorism led by Zero and his Black Knights, some people still believe violence is the answer. Even a normally peaceful school reflects dangers so prevalent in modern society at large." With the speech done, the media crew cut to commercial until further information became available.

-+-

The Student Council members trailed along behind the paramedics. Milly made sure to lead Shirley away from Suzaku, sensing how both of them were too emotional to think rationally. Rivalz stuck by Suzaku's side, lending silent support. Sayoko took up her normal duties of caring for Nunnally. It was an impromptu buddy-system, but everyone was secretly grateful for the set-up. Facing what happened to Lelouch was too much of a burden to carry alone.

Suzaku's hands were shaking as he followed the bobbing stretcher. Looking down, he noticed he was still clutching the come-and-graffiti-stained gym shirt. Disgust welled in him, and he angrily flung the dirtied clothing into the nearest trashcan just outside the main school building. He felt freer once he'd rid himself of the contaminated cloth, as if he were somehow throwing away a fraction of his and Lelouch's problems.

Too lost in thought, nobody on the Council realized they'd reached the front gate until there were flashing lights in front of their eyes.

"Look! It's the victim student! According to our previous source, this boy was attacked for getting too close to an Eleven," reported the blonde, gesturing at Lelouch on the stretcher. The cameraman obediently swiveled to get the hurt schoolboy center-screen.

A gust of wind ruffled the sheet, and Lelouch's pale face became clearly visible under the spotlight. His eyes were closed, and sweat still dotted his brow. Ebony strands of hair were splayed over the edge of the stretcher, contrasting the sheer white of his tense face. The lower portion of the sheet was stained red with blood, visible even in the twilight.

Suzaku froze. Miss Cecile had warned him the media was present. The news crew was the reason the ambulance was so delayed! Fingers clenching into fists, he took one giant step towards the blonde reporter lady, but a strong grip on his shoulder pulled him back.

"You can't go against the entire media," Rivalz pointed out. "If you get involved, you'll only make things worse. Stand back—for Lelouch's sake, as well."

Suzaku growled. "How can I stand back? He needs me! They're going to ruin everything!"

Blue hair swished as Rivalz shook his head. "Look, man, I know how you feel. But trust me, Lelouch wouldn't want you exposing the entire truth on TV. If you step in, they'll link you to the incident."

"How can you think so clearly?" Suzaku asked, half-annoyed at the logic presented. He hated logic; he was a feelings person. Right now, he ached to be with Lelouch, to be holding his hand, to be riding in the back of the ambulance with him…

"Someone has to," Rivalz said quietly. Finding Lelouch in such a state was wearing on his nerves, and tears still pricked the corners of his eyelids. So far, he'd done a good job of holding back, trying to be strong for Nunnally's and Suzaku's sakes. His body felt tired, strained, and he wanted desperately to be in his empty dorm room so he could let go in private.

Suzaku clapped a hand on Rivalz's back, a silent gesture of thanks, and squeezed into the crowd, leaving Rivalz by his lonesome. Suzaku would get to Lelouch one way or another, and he'd do it without drawing unnecessary attention to himself. Wait for me, my prince. I'm coming.

The cameras dutifully followed Lelouch. The live news broadcast ran, and on the chessboard, pieces started to move.

Chapter Text

At the Black Knights' Headquarters, Ohgi Kaname stared at the national news station. His friends from the original resistance team were gathered around him, their eyes all glued to the widescreen television in their mobile base. The room was dark save for the glow of the TV screen. The coverage of their own operations involving the Lancelot Knightmare had abruptly switched to coverage of a hate crime committed at the prestigious Ashford Academy.

"What?!" Tamaki shouted, jumping to his feet in rage. "How dare they stop reporting on us?! What, are the Black Knights not important enough to be your number one story anymore, you Brit shits?!" He swung a punch at the television screen, but Yoshida quickly intervened and held onto his elbow.

Ohgi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, the story about the beaten student just happened. It's actually breaking news, and they said the attack had something to do with the balance of Britannians and Elevens in society. Let's keep watching, guys." He leaned forward on the couch, resting his arms across his knees. Looking around, he tried to gauge the reactions of the other Black Knights. Then, his face paled. "Kallen! Kallen, what's wrong?!"

Kallen was gaping at the screen, aquamarine eyes wide with shock. Her face was white as she bit her lip, nodding towards the screen where the camera had zoomed in on the Britannian victim's face. "That's…Lelouch…"

Ohgi, Tamaki, Minami, Yoshida, Sugiyama, and Inoue all stared at Kallen with various expressions of shock and sympathy; they'd forgotten their youngest member attended Ashford Academy as a student.

Angry red splotches colored Kallen's cheeks. "He's the vice president of the Student Council," she said. Everyone knew by now how close Kallen was to the students on the Council. She personally knew this boy, was possibly friends with him… "Lelouch was the one who openly stuck up for Kururugi Suzaku when he started going to school there. Even if he's lazy and unmotivated, and even if he's a smart-ass, he's not that bad of a person." Kallen clenched her fists, angry tears gathering in her eyes. "I can't believe he was so brutally attacked. I bet this has something to do with how he's best friends with Suzaku…"

Ohgi sighed and laid a hand on Kallen's shoulder. "He'll be fine," he assured her, mentally willing his words to be true. Even if the kid was Britannian, he didn't deserve to be beaten like that. "You can go visit him in the hospital. They'll catch the ones who did this. Maybe even Zero would want to investigate; I mean, you know how he is about being the ally of the weak, 'whether they be Eleven or Britannian.'” Pausing, he narrowed his eyes at the television screen and claimed, “From what it looked like to me, that boy—Lelouch, you said?—was certainly the victim here. He seems like the poster boy of what Zero wants to protect: a powerless individual caught up in the injustices of a prejudiced society."

"Wow, Ohgi," Yoshida joked after a terse silence. "You've been hanging aroun' Zero too much lately if you're spouting speeches like that."

Ducking his head, Ohgi blushed and admitted sheepishly, "Maybe he is wearing off on me."

"We won't worry 'til you start walking around in a cape and mask," Sugiyama added with a laugh.

Staring into space, Kallen asked, "Do you think Zero will really want to get involved?"

"He might," Ohgi said, shrugging helplessly. "Sometimes I don't get how his mind works."

"Speaking of Zero, he never did tell us why he intervened yesterday to save Kururugi," Inoue pointed out, changing the subject. "I mean, sure, Kururugi is Japanese, but it still seemed a bit off compared to how he normally does things. He hasn't contacted us with our next instructions like he said he would either."

Ohgi heaved a sigh and wearily rubbed his forehead. "I called him about ten times throughout the course of the day. No answer." He stared at his comrades helplessly and reminded them, "He made a long speech yesterday about how we had to move up our time schedule since we didn't utterly destroy the Lancelot. He said we had to move quickly, starting tomorrow—er, that's today by this point—and it's too late now to carry out another operation. We have nothing planned."

"All we can do is wait," Kallen said, though she also sounded a bit uneasy at the suggestion. "Zero always contacts us when he's ready."

Ohgi nodded. "That's true. In the meantime, we can look over the information that Britannian man sent us. It's from the same source who told us about Narita.” He reached for the papers and flipped through them, skimming the pages before sharing, “In his report, it looks like the Britannian Army has plans for the captured remnants of the JLF. He was right about everything last time; should we trust him this time, too?"

Tamaki huffed and flopped back on the couch. "He's Britannian," he said, as if that alone decided the trust issue.

"Not all Britannians are bad," Minami pointed out, pushing his glasses further on his nose. "Take that Ashford student, for example. He got beaten just because he was friends with a Japanese boy."

Sneering, Tamaki had to offer his opinion. "Yeah, well, if that Brit brat was friends with Kururugi, I can't say I blame the dudes who beat him up. Good for them! The boy must be a whopping idiot. Who'd want to get close to that traitor anyway?!"

Minami glared at the exuberant redhead and stressed, "Listen, Tamaki, the boy's Britannian. He doesn't have a reason to hate Kururugi like you do."

"They were childhood friends," Kallen butted in. "Apparently, they were very close as kids, just as they are now." She, too, glared at Tamaki. "And I happen to know Suzaku from the Council. I can't say he's my favorite person in the world, and I don't agree with some of the decisions he's made, but he is kind of my friend, all right? I believe he's got his own reasons for staying with the Britannian military."

Tamaki growled. "Geez, first Zero protects the traitor, and then this Brit boy sticks up for him and gets attacked, and now even Kallen's defending him! What the hell did Kururugi do to deserve all this?!"

Ohgi held up his palms, trying to placate the angry hothead. "We can't really judge Kururugi. I'm sure we just don't understand the full story here."

"There's nothing to understand!" Tamaki roared. "He turned his back on his people and sided with the goddamn enemy! What's there to understand?!" He leapt to his feet again, and not even Yoshida could restrain him this time as he swung at the wall. "Damned Brit bastards, damned traitors! You can't trust 'em; gimme my good ol' loyal Japanese any day!"

Ohgi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You know, now that I think about it, didn't Zero say he wasn't Japanese?"

Tamaki growled and took another swing at the wall, hysterically sobbing out of frustration. "Zero betrayed us yesterday, too! He wouldn't let me kill Kururugi!"

"That's got you really upset, huh?" Sugiyama asked, soothingly patting Tamaki's back.

"You heard Zero," Kallen said. "He was completely in the right! If he'd ordered it, I would've done whatever I had to, but I'm glad Zero intervened. I didn't want Suzaku to die yesterday either."

Inoue tilted her head. "Yeah, but you know Suzaku from school. You have a personal reason for wanting him alive."

Nobody dared ask aloud: What was Zero's excuse?

-+-

The crowd effectively hid Suzaku from the cameras, but it also made it incredibly hard to chase after Lelouch. Defeated, he stopped running. People jostled him to and fro, but his eyes were trained steadily on the ambulance at the end of the street. Lelouch had just been loaded into the back, and nobody was with him to hold his hand. Not that Lelouch would necessarily want such a thing, but Suzaku wanted it. He swallowed thickly, willing back the tears. The pesky media crew was closing in on the ambulance from behind, but at least now the back door was shut and Lelouch's beaten unconscious body was hidden inside. Eyes swimming, Suzaku watched as the emergency vehicle roared to life, sirens blaring, and sped towards the nearest hospital—taking with it the most cherished center of his torn heart.

As soon as the ambulance was out of sight, a squad of police cars turned onto the street.

Completely numb now that Lelouch had been whisked away from him, Suzaku stared listlessly as the police force ordered for the cameras to be turned off. A bit too late to do much good, Suzaku thought dimly, but it was something nonetheless. He watched the police officers disperse through the crowd, and he tensed at the irrational fear that they'd happen upon him and link him to the incident. He was an Eleven in a crowd of Britannians, and it wasn't as if he hadn't been the scapegoat before. In the back of his mind, he heard someone calling his name, and he jumped when a hand landed on his shoulder. Blinking the tears out of his eyes, he turned his head and forced a sad smile onto his face. "Hi, Miss Cecile," he croaked, and even uttering those few words caused his face to twist in grief.

Immediately, his compassionate coworker drew him into a comforting hug, tucking his stricken face into her shoulder so he could release his inner anguish. "There now, Suzaku. The doctors will be able to help your boyfriend. Now, let's get you to the hospital." Offering a reassuring, soft smile, Cecile waited for a distraught Suzaku to gather himself and then carefully led him out of the throng of people.

"How?" Suzaku asked in a low voice, wiping at his eyes. "The ambulance already left."

Cecile hugged him again. "Lloyd and I will take you." Her face brightened when Suzaku lifted his head, hope and gratitude shining in his eyes like starlight. "We're going to stand by you, of course," she promised. "Right now, you need all the support you can get; you need to know you're not alone." Breathing deeply once they were at the edge of the crowd, Cecile went on, "Lloyd should be bringing the Lancelot's transport any moment now."

His heart warming at the Special Corp's devotion to him, Suzaku felt a tiny, genuine smile form on his lips. Sometimes being around Cecile and Lloyd made him feel like part of a family—a very dysfunctional family at times (Lloyd was hardly 'father material'), but a family all the same. "Thank you," he said, keeping his eyes peeled for the large gray truck. On the other side of the street, he noticed the police entering the school gates. Squinting, he determined them to be following a couple of recognizable schoolgirls, and a little of the anxiety in his stomach uncoiled at the thought that he wouldn't have to face Shirley Fenette at the hospital anytime soon. (Their battle for Lelouch "Lelou" Lamperouge would be postponed. Not that that was critical at the moment anyway.)

"Master Suzaku!"

Both Suzaku and Cecile turned to see a Japanese woman pushing a young blind girl in a wheelchair around the outer perimeter of the crowd. The sky was steadily getting darker, and the streetlamps flickered on, illuminating the growing throng of bystanders.

"Wait please, Suzaku!" Nunnally pleaded as they drew nearer. "Miss Sayoko told me the ambulance already left! Is my brother safe?"

Wordlessly, Suzaku nodded. Then, realizing his mistake, he knelt by Nunnally's side and laid a reassuring hand on her knee. "Your brother is on his way to the hospital," he confirmed.

"You're not with him," Nunnally said wonderingly. "Don't listen to Shirley; she's just upset. Nobody blames you at all, Suzaku! I know my brother doesn't. He even woke up to tell you so; that means you have to listen to him, all right?" Forcing a giggle, she dropped her palm on top of his hand and squeezed, trying to give back some of the comfort he was giving her. Regardless of her efforts to stay strong, tears still poured from her unseeing eyes. As she bravely lifted her head, the streetlamps bathed her forlorn face in a soft golden glow.

"I understand," Suzaku promised earnestly. Anything to appease Nunnally. "And of course I know Shirley's upset. She has every right to be." He paused, then muttered despairingly, "That doesn't mean her words aren't true, though."

Letting the familiar self-blame comment slide for the moment, Nunnally pressed, "How are you getting to the hospital? Miss Sayoko and I need to go, too, and she says it's too dangerous to walk the streets tonight." The excited murmur of voices and passionate yells split the air, and the bustling crowd made Nunnally shiver in her wheelchair.

Sure enough, now that Lelouch was out of the picture, the exclamations of "poor boy" that fell from people's lips were replaced by jeering shouts:

"Down with Elevens!"

"Elevens inspire violence!"

"This is why we shouldn't let Elevens be a part of Britannia!"

"Elevens ruin everything!"

Already the story was being twisted, and the Numbers were made out to be the evil villains. Even though it was a case of Britannians beating a Britannian, the majority of the crowd could not find it within themselves to label their own people as the wrongdoers. Not when there was an "Eleven" element to the case, despite the fact that the Eleven in question was not at all involved in the actual attack.

The little group at the edge of the throng winced. Nina's words on-camera had affected the mob's mentality, and it was threatening to turn violent.

"Let's get out of here before it turns ugly," Sayoko suggested. "Master Suzaku, you and I might not be safe here for very much longer."

Suzaku nodded as he stood, then took a protective stance in front of Nunnally. "Nothing's going to happen," he promised. "Not this time. I won't let it." Steel glinted in his eyes as he looked at his surrogate little sister, and he wondered how she could be so pitiable and yet so very strong. He would do anything to protect her fragile strength, just as he would do anything for the person who completed their trio.

Cecile smiled tenderly at the sight of Suzaku acting as big brother to this handicapped young girl. She beamed wider when she noticed Lloyd pulling up in the Lancelot's transport. "We have room to take the two of you with us," she offered, beckoning the Japanese nurse forward with her charge. "We'll be at the hospital in no time."

"Right, come on," Suzaku added, effortlessly swooping Nunnally into his arms. "Lelouch is waiting."

-+-

The news coverage was switched off in the Britannian Government Bureau in favor of a private communications channel with Second Prince Schneizel.

"Why are you coming to Area 11?" Cornelia demanded, hand on her hip. "I know Zero beat us at Narita, but at least we smoked out the Japan Liberation Front. That is a small victory. Next time, I won't fail. Zero will fall." A line of soldiers stood at attention behind their viceroy, careful not to move an inch. Guilford and Darlton respectfully stood behind the Second Princess, arms at their sides.

Schneizel only smiled, sensing the root cause of her anger. "Ah, Cornelia. I am not coming to assume your duties. After all, how could I ever compare? Area 11 is in your capable hands.” Still smiling, he held up his own hands and started swishing them back and forth in extravagant gestures, explaining, “I just want to personally monitor the Special Corp under my command; I will not interfere with your plans. Besides, I had arranged to make a side trip to Area 11 soon anyway. Please don't think I am coming to replace you; that is far from the truth."

Blushing, Cornelia lowered her head. Schneizel's praise always did get to her. "I understand." All the fire left her voice, and her tone was brisk when she asked, "When will you be arriving? I'll be sure to arrange an escort to meet you."

"There's no need," Schneizel reassured, stopping the gestures to hold up a gloved hand in protest. "My airship is traveling faster than anticipated; I should land in Area 11 in a few hours.” He glanced off-screen for a moment before turning back to his half-sister and adding, “First thing tomorrow, I will visit the university where Earl Asplund is conducting his research. I will limit my activities only to the matters which concern me."

Cornelia's lips twitched upwards into a small smile. "You'll have to see Euphy while you're here. She misses you so."

Schneizel tilted his head, leaning his cheek on his knuckles. Purplish-blue eyes twinkled and he teased, "And you don't, fairest Cornelia?"

The blush on Cornelia's face deepened, and she hurriedly changed the subject. "I have business matters to attend to this evening. I'll see you when you arrive," she snapped, completely flustered, and promptly terminated the connection.

-+-

Viletta Nu dropped her dinner plate. Her heart skipped a beat as she recognized the schoolboy on the television screen: it was the same Ashford Academy student she'd been searching for since the incident in the Shinjuku Ghetto. With a determined glint in her eye, she watched the rest of the news and planned. She smirked. With this information, she could take steps to claim her nobility.

-+-

Rivalz could only stare at the spot where Suzaku had disappeared into the crowd. Hadn't he just gotten through telling his impulsive friend not to be reckless? But no matter; Suzaku was going to do what Suzaku wanted to do. The media was still interfering, and if Rivalz couldn't stop his friend, then he'd just try to stop the news broadcasting industry instead.

…yeah, that would totally be easier than stopping Suzaku.

"Excuse me," said a blond Britannian man to his left, tapping him on the shoulder.

Rivalz looked his way and groaned when he saw the camera in the man's hands. Well, at least he had a start.

"My name is Diethard Reid, and I have a few questions. I couldn't help but notice that you were just standing with the infamous Kururugi Suzaku." Feral blue eyes stared down at Rivalz, and Diethard's hands twitched in excitement.

Rivalz gulped. "You're right, that was Suzaku," he said. "What's it matter to ya?" he asked, trying to be tough.

Diethard smiled, though it wasn't a friendly smile, by any means. "Just to be sure, is that the same 'Suzaku' who was accused of murdering Prince Clovis?"

"He didn't do it!" Rivalz erupted. "If you're trying to make him out to have a bad record, you won't—I mean, he's perfectly clean!"

"The same 'Suzaku' who was rescued by Zero?" Diethard blathered obliviously, too caught up in his own excitement to listen to Rivalz's prattle.

Rivalz jerked back at the unexpected question. "Er, yeah, I guess," he mumbled. "But Suzaku isn't allying himself with terrorists either! He even fights against them as part of the Britannian Army!"

Diethard's smile fell. "I know that," he said stiffly.

"Then what do you want?!" Rivalz snapped. "If you're not lookin' to make Suzaku look bad, then what are you here for?"

Diethard smirked, thinking of his status as a prospective Black Knights member. "A story."

-+-

"I warned you, Mao," C.C. reminded him in a motherly tone—right before she shot him.

Mao howled his pain to the ghetto and slumped to the floor. Blood pooled beneath his fallen body; it wasn't that uncommon in the backwater alleyways where the destitute Elevens scraped a living. People here were used to violence, and a little more bloodstain would hardly be noticeable come morning. Grievously wounded, Mao twitched in his own blood and stretched his arm out to his immortal obsession, fingers grasping at air as he wretchedly cried, "C.C.!"

With a slightly regretful smile, C.C. tossed her long green hair and reprimanded her former contractor, "You should have listened to me, Mao. I don't love you."

"You…love that brat Lelouch!" Mao croaked with a glare, some of his long white bangs dipping into the blood and dirt on the floor.

"I don't," C.C. corrected calmly. "Lelouch is my accomplice."

Mao continued screaming as if he hadn't heard her; due to the pain in his gut and the multitude of voices in his head, he probably hadn't. "Well, Lelouch doesn't love you! I love you! You belong with me, C.C.! With me! With me! With me! With me! With me!" He choked raggedly on his own breath, but his crazed red gaze was completely focused on the only 'human' to ever grace his life.

C.C. stared at him; for a brief moment, a pang of sadness flickered in her golden eyes. "No, Mao. You're wrong. I really don't belong anywhere, least of all with you." She turned away from Mao before speaking. "I felt my current contractor put in danger hours ago, but you held me here against my will. I listened to all you had to say out of respect for our past, but it's time enough I headed back to Lelouch's side."

"Why?" Mao called angrily, forcing the word through gritted teeth.

Averting her golden eyes, C.C. answered, "Because unlike you, he might actually fulfill his contract with me."

"He won't," Mao growled confidently. "There's absolutely no room in Lelouch's heart for you; it's completely full of his precious Kururugi! He only cares about that damned Eleven!"

"I know that," C.C. said simply. "That doesn't change things at all." She looked back at him when she reached the edge of the alley, watching him stagger to his feet, try to chase her, and fall back down to the ground. Sighing, she turned once more and left. Out of pity, she hadn't shot to kill. She expected, sooner or later, that one of the Elevens would find him and extend a helping hand; by the time that happened, she hoped she was ready to deal with Mao for good. While she’d been set to meet with him the previous week, she’d backed out at the last minute. It took her extra time to even get as far as she did.

As she left, Mao started to shriek, "C.C.! Wait! C.C….C.C.! Come back, you forgot me!" A heartbroken wail echoed through the ghetto, and his last words rang in her ears: "I can't believe I was replaced by a gay little Eleven-lover!"

-+-

"Suzaku," Nunnally whimpered as soon as everyone was settled in the Lancelot's trailer. "You'd never lie to me, right?"

Suzaku blinked at the sudden question before quickly composing himself. "Of course not," he assured, tone sweet yet firm. "Have I ever lied to you before?"

Nunnally shook her head, light chestnut brown hair swishing from the motion. "Well, no," she admitted. "But I just need to know the truth, and you're the one best fit to answer. About my brother—he's hurt worse than he said, isn't he? I get the feeling from everything that's going on that he's got more than just a couple scrapes and bruises. Tell me; I deserve to know how badly he's injured! He's all I have!" The heart wrenching pain in her voice made everyone in the vehicle cringe.

Suzaku forced himself to breathe slowly. "I don't know exactly what's wrong," he managed with a croak, "but he is worse off than he made it seem. Please don't ask me to say anything more." Leaning his forehead against the cool glass of the backseat window, he stared out at the night, lost in thought for the duration of the short drive. Dread and fear were sucking the light of hope from his eyes, and the black holes they reflected blended in well with the darkness. He hadn't wanted to tell Nunnally, but it was best she be prepared for whatever the doctors found. Without fail, Suzaku would be there. Whatever happened to Lelouch, Nunnally would not be without at least one brother.

-+-

"It's this way," Milly explained, gesturing to the policemen and crime scene investigators. "It happened in the boy's locker room by the gym. Shirley was the one who found him," she continued, pointing to Shirley by her side. "I called 911 when she called me in tears; she was too in shock to talk much sense, so I just took over." She pushed open the door and held it open for the officials to pass through, then smiled encouragingly at her friend. "Everything will be all right, Shirley. I know you want to be with Lelou, but you can help him more right now by talking to the police and filing a claim."

Nodding, Shirley agreed and followed the uniformed men into that awful room that reeked of blood and prejudice. Upon seeing the bench again, sans a beaten Lelou, her mind froze and Milly had to shake her out of her state of shock. "Wh-what?" she asked, noticing a couple of the investigators were staring intensely at her.

"They asked you what happened when you…found Lelouch," Milly explained softly. "I know it's hard, but do you think you can tell us the details—one more time?" She smiled gently at Shirley, leaving her hand on Shirley's shoulder for moral support.

Managing a small nod, Shirley sniffled and began. "It was l-late afternoon when I first came in here," she recounted, choking on a sob. "Maybe around…around 5:30," she clarified, wringing her hands. "We'd, um, split up to look for Lelou, you know, and the gym was my area to search! I smelled the b-b-blood and followed the scent back here…and that's when I saw…I saw…the bloody footprints by the door. No one else was here! It was just me and L-Lelou...Lelouch. And then later, Suzaku came, and then everyone else on the Council came. I didn't see anyone else!" she cried and leaned against Milly.

The police looked at her pityingly and milled around the room. "What condition was the victim in when you first saw him?"

Shirley doubled-over as she recalled the image of Lelouch, bound, bleeding, and broken—stained with blood and other unmentionable fluids, body twisted and beaten. Chest heaving, she forced the description from her lips, being sure not to leave out a single detail.

"There was semen on his face," repeated an investigator, making a note of it. "Were there any other indications that the victim had been raped?"

Milly and Shirley looked at one another helplessly. "I just saw…on his face…" Shirley stammered. “His lower body wasn't exactly, you know…recognizable…"

One of the policemen pointed at the aluminum baseball bat on the floor, careful not to touch it with his bare hands. "This looks like the main weapon."

"There's a knife," said another, indicating the second fallen torture-tool.

"I'm done taking pictures of the crime scene," said one of the investigators, putting away his camera. "Feel free to move things around now. I'll take a few blood samples for testing at the lab."

One of his coworkers nodded. "I'll get the weapons, then," he said, carefully slipping on a latex glove. "So my fingerprints don't leave traces on the evidence," he explained, noticing the two girls' confused expressions. "The gloves are necessary so I don't tamper with the materials used as evidence."

Milly bit her lip, glancing at Shirley out the corner of her eye. "I'm afraid it might be too late for that. You see, our friend Suzaku already touched that knife…"

-+-

At Mount Fuji, the Six Heads of the Kyoto House sat and discussed the Black Knights' latest operation.

"They made good use of the supplies we gave them," remarked one of the Japanese resistance funders. "Zero just might be the savior of Japan we've been waiting for. With him leading us…!"

Kirihara pressed the pads of his fingers together as he looked at the others. "Yes, Zero has done well," he acknowledged in a slow voice. "I expect nothing less than miracles from that man in the future. However, though we are lucky the Black Knights are gaining ground, the Japanese resistance movement overall was dealt a heavy blow by the capture of the JLF."

"True," muttered another. "At least Tohdoh and the Four Holy Swords managed to escape at Narita."

Nodding, Kirihara said, "Perhaps Zero is already on the move. He has already cleared the stage of Britannia's greatest weapon, and he has severely damaged their research and development institute.” He stopped to take a deep breath, arguing, “With both Narita and this latest attack, the Britannians will be thrown into chaos once again. Now would be the perfect time to attempt a rescue mission; Zero is smart enough to realize that."

"At the same time," said one of the others, "Zero is too valuable now to risk. He might not think the JLF is worth the odds of his own organization."

"But the risk is limited without that White Knightmare in the picture," pointed out another man.

Shrugging, the other said, "That is a matter of perspective."

"Don't lose trust in Master Zero!" piped up a young female voice from behind the slotted doors. "Zero will come through for us. He's Japan's rising hope."

Three of the men glared at her. "That's not what we're discussing, Kaguya! Learn to hold your tongue until you have something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation. None of us are arguing Zero's abilities; we're merely debating how he will prioritize them."

Kirihara lifted a hand for peace. "Calm down. Bickering will get us nowhere. I've tried to contact Zero today, but I've had no luck. I've also spoken to the man Ohgi, the second-in-command of the Black Knights; it appears he can't contact Zero either. For now, we're in the dark about his plans." He grabbed a nearby remote and flicked on the television. "For the moment, let us see how the Britannians are reacting to yesterday's operation."

Bowing their heads, the members of the Kyoto Group watched the news in silence. The TV blared, "Now replaying footage of the shocking attack from earlier this evening…"

Kaguya gasped when she recognized the, albeit older, face of the Britannian prince who'd lived at the Kururugi Shrine so many years ago.

Kirihara silenced her with a sharp glance and clenched his fist on the floor, a sense of bitter understanding flooding his awareness. What have you gotten yourself into now, Zero? Something that will interfere, no doubt, with your plans for the Japanese resistance? Since no one else knows your true face, I'll have to make arrangements...

-+-

"We're here."

Suzaku was out the door before anyone else could move an inch. He sprinted forward a few feet before hurrying back to the trailer, remembering Nunnally was just as anxious as he. Hopping from one foot to the other impatiently—not excited, but nervous and fearing the worst—he helped unload Nunnally's wheelchair and hurriedly pushed her through the emergency room doors.

"He didn't even thank me!" Lloyd complained. He shoved the keys in his pocket.

"He's got a terrible lot on his mind," Cecile said soothingly. "You can't blame Suzaku for being a bit mixed up right now."

Lloyd hummed, "That boy has always been a bit messed up in the head."

Cecile frowned in his direction. "Lloyd, please!" she said, completely exasperated.

"I can't help it if it's the truth," Lloyd whined, wriggling his hips as he danced across the parking lot.

Cecile only sighed and held a hand to her forehead. "It's no use," she lightly complained.

"No use at all," Lloyd agreed happily, a cheeky smile gracing his lips.

Cecile stared long and hard at her rather unique boss before deciding to ignore him. Turning to the Japanese nursemaid, she pleasantly asked, "Have we met?" Cocking her head to one side, a strand of blue hair waved in the night breeze. "Your voice seemed very familiar back there."

The hospital doors swished open as the three adults reached the entrance. Sayoko immediately shook her head, keeping her eyes respectfully lowered. "I don't believe so, milady. I think we spoke on the phone earlier today. I called looking for Suzaku."

"That's right!" Cecile exclaimed, snapping her fingers. "And you don't need to worry about formalities with us. We don't look down on Elevens. I'm Cecile Croomy." She stopped walking and extended her hand, smiling politely.

The Japanese nursemaid followed suit, grasping the Britannian researcher's hand in her own and shaking it gently. "Shinozaki Sayoko," she introduced herself. Her tone was still reverent when she said, "I'm always happy to meet people as kindhearted as Master Lelouch."

Lloyd's head snapped in Sayoko's direction. "Did you say 'Lelouch'?" he asked, interrupting their conversation. Icy blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and then he turned to stare at the crippled, blinded teenage girl.

Sayoko nodded. "Master Lelouch has quite unusual views, but that's because—and don't tell him I told you this—his heart is in the right place." She giggled quietly, nodding over towards Suzaku and Nunnally who were huddled together in the waiting room.

"I see," Cecile answered back, clear blue eyes twinkling with understanding. "Suzaku as well."

Bursting in-between them, Lloyd looked back and forth between the two women and asked, "If I may guess, is the girl there named 'Nunnally'?"

"Yes," Sayoko answered, taken aback by the question. "Why, do you know her?" She blinked in confusion, mouth open slightly.

Lloyd grinned but didn't offer a response, and Cecile gazed worriedly at him as he rudely turned his back.

-+-

Lieutenant Colonel Tohdoh stopped in front of a television in a store window. It was just after nightfall, and the street was almost deserted; most people were probably safe at home, eating dinner. He couldn't hear through the glass of the window, but he could see and what he could see was horrifying. A blob of text ran in a marquee across the bottom of the screen ('repeated footage'), but his attention was fixed solely on the Britannian teenager's face flashing at him from behind the window.

His best soldiers, the Four Holy Swords, also stopped so they could see what piqued their leader's interest.

"That boy," Tohdoh Kyoshiro said thoughtfully. The beaten Britannian boy featured on the news tugged at his memory, and his mouth set in a grim line. "I thought you died during the invasion," he mumbled to the Eleventh Prince on the screen.

"Sir?" Chiba asked, stepping forward. "What's going on? Do you know that Britannian on TV?"

Tohdoh didn't answer for a few seconds, but finally he turned to his most trusted confidants. "I used to," he admitted. "He was listed as a casualty when the war broke out."

"He might be a casualty now," Asahina said thoughtfully.

Senba stared critically at the screen again. "But he's young as it is! He would have been merely a child when the war broke out, sir."

"And he's Britannian," Urabe said. "How did you know him?"

Chiba folded her arms across her chest. "This is all very interesting," she said before Tohdoh could answer, "but the Britannians are very likely looking for us. We can save these trivial discussions for a later date. Right now, we need to move." She froze up and glanced guiltily at Tohdoh. "I apologize, sir. I don't mean to undermine your authority."

Tohdoh shook his head. "No, it's nice to know I have soldiers who can prioritize. You're right: we can't afford to stand here and risk capture. If the Britannians take us, the rest of our comrades in the JLF won't stand a chance." He motioned with his hand for his soldiers to pick up the pace.

"We need to rescue them!" Asahina agreed enthusiastically, always ready to support his colonel. He led the way down the street, looking over his shoulder as he asked, "Are we staying here near the Settlement, sir, or are we going to see Kyoto?" The others followed, moving away from the store they'd been gathered around.

Tohdoh closed his eyes as he came to a decision. "Most likely, Cornelia is holding the JLF at the Britannian Government Bureau in the Settlement. Since time is of the essence, going all the way to Mount Fuji would be counterproductive. We're too few to split up, so we must stick together."

Chiba added, "But we need to find a place to plot our next moves in secret. Since our rescue plan will take place here, finding a nearby hideout would be best."

"The Japanese in the ghettos should cover us," Urabe suggested. "We need to decide on a place to hide; we're wandering aimlessly here."

Tohdoh's fingers twitched. "There is another option, but not one I'm too keen on pursuing." Furtively glancing around to make sure no one was listening, he said quietly, "Zero and his Black Knights. They're the largest resistance group in this area, and they'd have the most resources to help us."

"But, sir!" Asahina protested. "It's because of Zero that General Katase and the others were captured. The rumors are that it was his doing that the mudslide occurred, and you saw how the Black Knights retreated and used the JLF as distractive bait for the Britannians!"

Tohdoh lowered his head. "Yes, I'm aware of that. That's why I don't want anything to do with the Black Knights. But we might have no other choice; we have to consider what's best for the others."

"As far as resources are concerned," Chiba started.

"We call Kyoto," Tohdoh finished for her. "They might very well have instructions and equipment for us. If they don’t, Zero is my back-up plan." When his soldiers agreed, he glanced back once more at the television screen. "I wonder," he said to himself as he followed, "just what that prince has been up to recently to deserve this."

-+-

The sharp sting of antiseptic invaded Suzaku's nostrils as he rushed through the front entrance to the emergency room. He wrinkled his nose, but steadfastly plowed on to the front desk. "We're here for," he panted, "Lelouch Lamperouge."

"He just came in an ambulance," Nunnally piped up.

Casting a cool, indifferent look at the two distraught teens in front of her, the check-in nurse informed them, "If he was just brought here in an ambulance, the doctors will be busy working on him. You're going to have to wait out here until he's stable enough to see you. In the meantime, you can sign in and fill out this paperwork." When they didn't leave instantaneously, she added a cold, "Sorry," and turned back to her computer.

Snatching the clipboard of forms, Suzaku glared at the top of her head and slowly wheeled Nunnally away. The waiting area was dotted with hard, plastic chairs, and he sank into an end seat, making sure Nunnally could fit beside him. They were soon joined be Sayoko, Cecile, and Lloyd, though neither teen acknowledged their presence. Suzaku rushed through filling out the patient's basic information, leaving a lot of blanks because he didn't want to jeopardize Lelouch's royal identity. His hand shook like tissue paper in a gale as he detailed the "reason for visit," and his scrawled words looked mostly illegible by the end; Suzaku wished he was writing an essay analysis on classic Britannian literature, which he hated, because he'd rather bear tedious work and a poor grade than his boyfriend's severe suffering. The scritch of the pen sounded loud in the otherwise quiet waiting room; it felt like everyone was holding their breath under an oppressive silence. Luckily, Lelouch didn't have a complicated medical history so the process didn't take too long. Even then, Suzaku felt helpful. He liked the idea of doing something that would move things forward. While Suzaku wasn't confident in his chicken-scratch handwriting at the moment, he still turned them in and figured they could always ask if they had any questions.

Barely glancing at the completed forms, the check-in nurse said, "Since he's in critical condition already, he's already being seen. I'll tell the triage nurse to skip you."

Suzaku opened his mouth to protest in rage. How dare they skip us?!

"Your...friend...was pushed to the front of the line because of his serious injuries," the check-in nurse said with a huff. "There's no question of patient priority."

Suzaku snapped his jaw shut. He wasn't going to argue if it meant Lelouch would be treated by a team of doctors ahead of anyone else.

Reclaiming his uncomfortable seat, he glanced around and noticed a miniature television in the corner of the room; to make his night even more perfect than it already was, it was running continuous, looped news footage. Lelouch's battered body flashed on the screen every few seconds, reminding him of the dire reason he was there in the first place. At least the sound was muted. To avoid looking, he buried his face in his hands and trembled violently. Once more, he was so close to Lelouch, but he was turned away. He hunched over further in his chair. Breathing deeply, he choked on the scent of alcohol wafting in the air. The hospital smelled so clean and fresh, but the overpowering stench of cleanliness was nothing more than a cover-up to hide the smell of rotting, decaying death.

Nunnally rolled a bit closer, her hands blindly finding Suzaku's shaking body. Without a word, she laid her head on his shoulder to wait out the night. With their combined strength, they'd be able to make it.

It was still and silent for an hour. Then two. Then three. They didn't sleep, merely sat there and waited. And waited. And waited. Sayoko and Cecile read some of the provided magazines. Lloyd... Well, Suzaku didn't know what Lloyd was doing. Didn't care, either. Other families came and went, sticking to themselves in their own separate but similar grievances.

"Suzaku?" Nunnally asked at last, her voice cracking due to both disuse and cracking sobs.

Suzaku mechanically turned his face to the crippled princess. "Yes, Nunnally?"

"How do you think he's doing?" she ventured hesitantly.

Suzaku had to blink three times as he processed her question. "I think he's fine," he said slowly, testing the words on his tongue. "He's in good hands right now." Hands that aren't mine.

"I know, but…"

Suzaku shushed her gently. "He's still back there, which means that the doctors have found things to treat. If he was a hopeless case, they'd tell us in the beginning." He swallowed thickly. "It's a good thing they're being careful with him." In all honesty, he harbored the same doubts as Nunnally, but he wasn't about to voice them. "We just have to be patient." It was an order to himself just as much as it was to Nunnally, and a shudder ripped through his body as his ultimate fear plagued his mind.

"All right," Nunnally said trustingly. Then, "Suzaku?"

Again, he answered, "Yes, Nunnally?"

"You don't still blame yourself, do you?"

Suzaku froze and marginally lowered his head. "I should have been there to protect him," he finally managed. It was a slightly evasive answer, but Suzaku was sure Nunnally was used to those, living with Lelouch and all.

"Well, don't," Nunnally ordered firmly. "Nobody else blames you. My brother doesn't blame you."

For once, Suzaku's eyes were dry. "Your brother isn't in his right mind."

A frown flitted onto Nunnally's face. "You aren't either," she pointed out. "You said you'd quit the military." Lloyd fell off his chair at this declaration, arms and legs flailing. Not noticing the wiggling mass under her wheelchair, Nunnally continued, "You'd never say that under normal circumstances. I know because Lelouch is always complaining that you won't, and he so wanted you to, even in the beginning."

Suzaku sighed and gave a half-hearted shrug. "It's different now," he said quietly. "My being in the military might have cost Lelouch his life."

Nunnally shook her head. "Even disregarding what you just said—about how he's not in such a bad state or else they'd tell us to pay our last respects already—your military duties had nothing to do with what happened. How could you have known? The blame doesn't rest with you at all."

"She's right, Suzaku," Cecile cut in gently. "Everything she's saying is the absolute truth. Just like what happened to the Lancelot isn't your fault either." She shared a concerned look with Sayoko, ignoring Lloyd's frowning face of protest, before saying, "However, now might be a good time for you to take a leave of absence anyway. After all, with the Lancelot destroyed right now, you wouldn't really have a job to do." She looked at his still-passive face and admitted, "They're both extreme circumstances—the Lancelot and your lover. It does seem a bit weird how the timing worked out, but don't question fate. You can take time off to be with your boyfriend on one condition: Stop blaming yourself for all the bad things that happen around you."

A dry, racking sob welled up in Suzaku's throat. It hurt worse to be told he wasn't at fault, and he was free-falling without the familiar clutch of guilt he was so used to relying on. The rush of this new possibility—that he wasn't to blame—was dizzying, and he closed his eyes against the earnest faces of his companions. It was his fault. It had to be his fault—because he was utterly helpless if he wasn't.

Shock and murderous rage burned in his blood when Suzaku thought of the Britannians who'd done this to his beloved, but he had no way of expressing his tumult of emotions—not when he had no clue of their identities, not when he couldn't find them for revenge. He had some ideas, but he couldn’t follow up on them at the moment while he waited on news of Lelouch’s condition. He himself was the only punching bag he had available at the moment, and thus his rage turned inward and intensified. Guilt and shame were his way of life, and making a commitment to abandon them would hurt worse than slicing off his own limbs. Suzaku could live without his essential body parts, but he could not live without the anchor of self-blame which tied him to his own distorted reality.

But wasn't that the point? To die for his sins?

No. Not since Lelouch reentered the picture. Not since Lelouch accepted him—despite his flaws, despite his being an Eleven…

Not since Lelouch loved him.

And not since he loved Lelouch back.

-+-

"Who's there?" called a voice in the darkness.

The intruder hesitated, then gathered her courage. "I am Euphemia, Third Princess of the Empire." There was no pride in her voice at the title, only a glum recognition of her royal status.

"Why would a princess like yourself be down here all alone?" jeered another voice. "This prison sure is dirty for a pretty little thing like you to be mucking through!" Raucous laughter erupted from every corner of the underground holding cell, voices bouncing off the stone walls.

Euphy paused, suddenly unsure. These men were the enemy; maybe she had been a bit hasty in ditching her bodyguards. She wasn't exactly able-bodied like her older sister, and she didn't know how to physically defend herself. That was why Cornelia wanted her to have a personal knight.

"Silence!" thundered the first man who'd spoken. "Princess Euphemia has done nothing to us, so save your anger for when it matters." He was quiet for a moment before he politely hinted, "However, I must admit I am also curious why you would be visiting us. Are you passing on a message from your sister? Is it time for our executions?"

Euphy shook her head, then realized he couldn't see her in the dark; there was barely enough light to find her way along the main corridor between the cells. Why hadn't she thought to bring a flashlight or a candle? She'd been in such a hurry to escape her guards that she hadn't thought things through; she wasn't smart like her older brothers Schneizel and Lelouch. They would have accounted for the darkness beforehand. "I just wanted to talk," she said weakly. Suddenly, saying, 'I wanted to make sure you were all comfortable down here,' seemed a bit silly. They were war prisoners, after all, and Cornelia was known to be ruthless.

A contemplative silence reigned. "I see," said the leader's voice; he must have been the leader if he ordered the others around. "Of course I'd be happy to share words with you, if that is what you wish, Princess." His soldiers growled and bit back muffled curses, but he steadfastly ignored them. "I am General Katase, and I lead the Japan Liberation Front."

"It's a pleasure," Euphy said demurely. She twiddled her thumbs and leaned against a dank wall, glad for the solid support. Replaying his words, she withheld a gasp with slight effort. He'd said, 'I lead the Japan Liberation Front,' present tense—not 'I led the Japan Liberation Front.' The General was subtly letting her know the JLF wasn't beaten down yet, even if their position was dire as being held captive by the Empire. These Japanese would fight to the end; their honor demanded it, and Euphy found herself impressed with their resolve. At the same time, she wondered, "Why do you fight? Wouldn't it be better to try to get along with us Britannians?"

"Naïve child," sighed the General. "After how the Britannians have treated us over the years, it is impossible to forgive their conduct." He let his words settle in the air before saying, "Of course, that doesn't excuse Kusakabe for how he handled the hotel jacking. You have our sincerest apologies about that matter; neither I nor Tohdoh authorized his little stunt."

Euphy giggled nervously. "I understand. That's what I'm trying to say, though: being Japanese or Britannian doesn't automatically make someone a good person. Not all us Britannians are so bad either. I just want us to get along." A forlorn sigh escaped her lips, and she tilted her head towards the ceiling.

General Katase smiled to himself. Idealistic fool though she was, her heart and intentions were pure. "If you can come up with a failsafe way to make it happen—to make Britannia truly respect our freedom as Japanese—then we will be equal and I will stand by you. But remember, right now, you are our oppressors, and to acknowledge you as anything but would be foolish."

"Right," Euphy replied. "Thank you, General. Just to let you know, my sister isn't planning your executions just yet; she has other plans for you."

-+-

It was shortly after midnight when a doctor stepped out from the back and called, "Lamperouge?" He was weary from the long hours spent working on his patient, and it showed in his graying hair as it stuck up in unkempt tuffs. Blood spattered the bottom of his white medical robe, looking rust brown under the bright electric lights. His light hazel eyes, though tired, were alert as they searched the waiting room for the correct party, and he glanced down at the clipboard in his hand before repeating the name-call.

In a millisecond, Suzaku stood in front of him, face drawn and tense with anticipation. Dread filled his features, but he bravely met the doctor's gaze. "You have news on Lelouch?" he blurted hopefully, eyes glossy and pleading. "How is he? Can I see him yet? Is he awake?"

The doctor offered a wan smile at the desperate Suzaku and waited for the rest of the Lamperouge party to gather ‘round before motioning them all into a private back room. It was very cramped and, with Nunnally's wheelchair, almost impossible to fit everyone inside. Suzaku took the only available seat.

Right away, Suzaku extended his arm. Frenzied green eyes bore into the doctor's hazel as he asked in a panic, "You need blood, right?! I'm Type O, so take however much you need!" He wobbled, even though he was sitting down; his nerves were too high-strung. "Lelouch is Type A if you need to match him—but only after you take my blood first!"

Staring at him in disbelief and mild horror, the doctor slowly pushed Suzaku's arm away from him. "We, uh, don't need to do a blood transfusion, young man. It may have looked like your friend there lost a lot of blood at first glance, but medically speaking, he is quite safe in that regard. I, er, thank you for your enthusiasm and generosity, however…"

Suzaku seemed to deflate, but then he perked right back up at the mention of Lelouch's stable blood supply. That was good news.

"Mr. Lamperouge was extremely lucky in a lot of regards," the doctor started, though his voice remained professionally detached instead of encouraging. At least he wasn't being deliberately cold like the check-in nurse. Politely waiting for the sighs of initial relief to pass, he went on, "Starting from the top, there's a nasty bump on the side of his skull. The CT Scan didn't show anything majorly troubling." He flipped through Lelouch's file. "There's some swelling and bruising, and we'll need to monitor him for awhile to make sure he isn't suffering from any serious brain injury. He woke briefly during the procedures and he seemed very with it for someone sustaining so many injuries, so that gives me hope that his head, at least, will heal just fine. As I've said, though, it is too early to tell for sure at this stage."

"He woke up earlier, too," Suzaku recalled. "His mind was really focused, but he had trouble speaking."

Nodding, the doctor explained, "That's common for concussions. I still take it as a very good sign that his mental awareness seems to be unaffected by the blow."

Nunnally smiled. "That's my brother," she stated proudly. "Please continue, doctor."

"His neck is bruised, but again, nothing that won't heal with a little time. There are some deep scratches and indentations around his wrists and ankles, which he informed us was from being tied up for a few hours. In a few days, those will heal with no problem. There is a slight crack in his left hipbone." Here the doctor paused and scratched his head, taking a long, steady breath before meeting a desperate jaded gaze. He continued matter-of-factly, "There is also a deep cut in his left buttocks. From the depth of the wound, I predict there will be scarification as it heals. I'm not sure the scar will ever completely go away. We're lucky in this case that the buttocks are comprised mostly of fat cells."

The roomful of people only nodded, not knowing what to say. Suzaku looked at the floor and had to ask, "That last wound you mentioned. Is it in the shape of a certain number?"

Tired hazel eyes rested on the shaking Japanese teen. "Yes, dear boy. Something tells me you already know what it represents."

Suzaku nodded firmly once. "I do, sir. It's an Eleven…" He lowered his eyes and mumbled, "…like me."

"They cut an '11' into him?" Nunnally asked, horrified. She reached behind her for Sayoko, hot tears pricking her eyes as she processed this new information.

"Ahem." The doctor coughed politely into his hand to attract their attention. "Moving onto the main issue: his legs. After we got all the blood cleaned off and took some x-rays, we were able to get a clearer idea of the extent of his injuries. There are some minor scratches and bruising, but those will heal with time; those aren't what I'm worried about. He has several open, compound fractures, which means that his bones pierced through the skin. His right leg is significantly better off than his left. The connecting bones are clearly fractured in four places; as soon as the swelling goes down, we'll put his leg in a cast. It will take many months of monitored treatment, but his right leg will completely heal and eventually be as good as new." He waited a moment to let all this sink in; after so long of hearing nothing, now it was information overload.

Suzaku continued to stare at the doctor, waiting for the worst. He listened as the doctor rattled off his boyfriend's injuries—like he was going down a shopping list. Suzaku knew the doctor was just trying to do his job efficiently, but his voice was so cool and calm; it didn't fit the aching pain inside Suzaku. At least Lelouch was alive. That was a huge, huge plus.

Seeming to understand his thoughts, the doctor awarded him a tiny smile before continuing. "His left leg, however, is severely more damaged. I'm sorry to say that the upper half of his tibia and fibula are both completely shattered, as is his patella—that's the kneecap," he added for Nunnally's benefit, since she was looking a bit confused at the terminology. "His left femur is cracked in multiple places in the back, but there are no clean breaks. There is a larger amount of internal bleeding and bruising on the left leg, and the open wounds from the knife scratches add to the risk of infection. The surrounding tissue is also damaged." He sat still in his chair as the others shuffled uneasily at the news. "His thigh muscles were also hit pretty hard, and some of the tendons tore loose. We had to do emergency surgery on his quadriceps muscle."

Nunnally quivered in her wheelchair, not saying a word. Tears finally spilled down her flushed cheeks.

Suzaku stilled, a cold numbness washing over him. "Please tell me that's all," he said quietly.

"Yes. He was extremely lucky that they missed nicking the femoral artery; Mr. Lamperouge's condition would have been fatal if that had occurred," the doctor said, hazel eyes a bit lighter at revealing good news. Lelouch Lamperouge was lucky. Then he commended them, "Also, since you were able to get him here relatively quickly, we had a head start on catching a lot of his would-be problems before they fully roared their heads. I'd hate to think of what would have happened if young Mr. Lamperouge hadn't been found until tomorrow morning."

Suzaku inhaled through his nostrils and stared at his hands.

"Is there anything you can do for his left leg?" Cecile asked after a time, since no one else was saying anything.

"At the moment, we have to wait to do anything. There are surgical options to consider, but we need to monitor him for some time before we resort to drastic measures. I'm sorry to say, but for the next several months at least, Mr. Lamperouge will be confined to a wheelchair," the doctor explained, hazel eyes flicking to Nunnally's own. Drawing himself up, he went on, "His right leg should heal just fine in a few months, and if everything is in order, we can perform a surgery on his left leg called open reduction and internal fixation. What we'll do is insert metal rods and screws into the preexisting bone fragments so the leg heals straight and sturdy; before we commit to that, though, we need to make sure the rest of his condition is stable enough to withstand such a procedure." He waited for nods to show everyone was on the same page. "We also need to minimize risk of infection. Even with that surgery, I'm afraid he'll have to make regular hospital visits afterwards for check-ups. Keep in mind we're talking months—years, even—of continuous treatment. Eventually, he should be fine, but it will be a very long road of healing and therapy; I'm afraid he'll never recover one-hundred percent from this beating."

Cecile nodded, her hand pressed hard against her chest. She didn't personally know this 'Lelouch Lamperouge,' but her heart went out to any person who was suffering such extreme injuries. "How long will he be confined to the hospital?"

Sayoko stepped forward before the doctor could answer. "I'm a trained nurse. I take care of his sister, so I'm fully capable of handling wheelchair patients."

"I'll take care of him," Suzaku insisted. He swiftly stood from his seat, his wooden chair scraping the floor. Green eyes burned with determination and desperation; his fists clenched at his sides. "I'll argue with anyone who tries to tell me otherwise. I'm the one who's going to take care of Lelouch."

"For now, the hospital staff is taking care of him," the doctor assured. "Since he has such extensive injuries and because there's so much we need to monitor in the meantime, he'll be here for at least two weeks. After that, and only because this young lady is a registered nursemaid in his home, he'll be allowed to leave. When he goes home, he'll need to come in every other day for testing and physical as well as occupational therapy; depending on his progress as time goes by, we'll space out the times scheduled between hospital visits. Sound good?"

The others nodded, not wanting to argue a professional medical opinion.

The doctor rubbed his forehead and said, "And there's one more thing: the matter of his belongings. We have his clothes and any objects that were on his person at the time of the beating. There are police officers and investigators here to speak with you, and they have one very serious question." Buzzing the grouchy check-in nurse, he ordered for her to escort the police to the private back rooms.

Another moment passed before four uniformed officers crowded the doorway and asked, "Do any of you know why Lelouch Lamperouge carried a gun in his school jacket?"

-+-

Rakshata Chawla tapped her tobacco pipe on her chin as she stared at the projector screen hooked up to her laptop. Her team of researchers swirled around her, but her sea-green gaze stayed locked on the news. It was a bit after midnight, but the uploaded news video links on the 'net were available at all hours of the day. If she was going to be stationed here, she might as well come to understand the current conditions of the area.

"Well, this is our welcome to the Area 11. How depressing," she said, though her tone was more apathetic than saddened. She shrugged, nonplussed by the highlighted violence on the screen, and turned back to her beloved children.

-+-

"A gun?" Suzaku repeated. "He doesn't carry—I mean, I'd know if Lelouch had a gun on him." In all the times he'd undressed his lover, not once had he found Lelouch to be hiding a weapon of any kind. "It might have been planted there—"

The police chief held up his hand. "That's already been thought of, but even if someone put the gun in his pocket while wearing gloves, that doesn't explain why Lamperouge's prints are all over it."

Suzaku swallowed. Did Lelouch carry it for protection, just on the off chance someone discovered he was a prince of Britannia? But no, he couldn't voice that or he'd risk spilling his friends' royal secret.

"We're going to have to question the victim tomorrow," concluded the chief. "We also need to know, doctor, if you found any evidence at all that suggested Lamperouge had been…" His eyes roamed the room, settled on Nunnally, and he delicately chose his word: "forced."

Suzaku gasped, remembering the fluids on Lelouch's face. Of course it had run through his mind—maybe… But that was as far as he'd gotten; Suzaku couldn't handle entertaining the idea of Lelouch being taken by the attackers.

The doctor's hazel eyes widened in genuine surprise. "No! Was he? There was no trace of anything on his body, and his…muscles down there weren't torn. There was no sign."

Nunnally's brow crinkled in confusion. "But you said his muscles were torn."

"Different muscles!" Suzaku jumped in quickly, awkwardly patting her hand. "Don't worry about it right now, Nunnally." He laughed feebly.

Sayoko, sensing where this conversation was headed, quickly whisked Nunnally out of the room.

The policemen raised their eyebrows at the display. "A couple students at the school said he was found with 'traces' on his face."

The doctor hummed thoughtfully in his throat. "There was nothing there when he was brought in. Trust me, I'd remember seeing that on his face."

Suzaku raised his hand. "You didn't because I cleaned it." He sounded proud of himself, happy at the memory of making Lelouch comfortable.

Staring at him a long moment, the police chief inquired, "Are you, by chance, Suzaku?" At the Eleven's nod, he frowned. "Why am I not surprised?"

Suzaku frowned back. "Why?"

"You've tampered with evidence," said one of the policemen. "We could have used semen samples to trace the identities of the attackers. We also might have been able to track them by using the fingerprints found on the knife, but your fingerprints cover them up. In that case, you would be considered a prime suspect for leaving your mark at the crime scene. The only reason we're not arresting you is because you have an authentic alibi, sworn to by three different eye-witnesses at the school and confirmed by a multitude of researchers at the local university."

Suzaku's pupils dilated at the accusations, at the absurd notion that he would ever harm Lelouch. His body began to tremble, and his head buzzed. He slipped off the chair and started to hyperventilate; he could barely feel the solid tiled floor beneath his palms and knees. "No," he croaked, aghast at the mere speculation. "I'd never…no…I love Lelouch! Even considering me at all is insulting!"

"They're just doing their job," Cecile rushed to say, kneeling next to a distressed Suzaku. "They were covering all possibilities! They've already cleared you of all charges!"

"There were never any official charges in the first place," placated one of the policemen. "The only thing you're guilty of is tampering with evidence. Since the other weapon—the bat—was school property, it has prints of almost the entire student body. It's of no use to us. Right now, we have no leads."

Suzaku slumped even more, pressing his sweaty forehead to the cool floor. This couldn't be happening. He'd only ever wanted to help Lelouch, and again, he'd ended up doing the opposite. Lelouch really does deserve someone better than me. Suzaku's eyes burned with the need to cry, but his tear ducts were overworked that night and the dry air scratched his corneas.

"Well," Lloyd joked, "at least we all know how Suzaku feels for his dear little sweetheart."

Suzaku twitched. Lelouch would never stand for being referred to as Suzaku's 'dear little sweetheart.' "Stop it!" Suzaku snapped, lifting his head to glare at Lloyd. "Just…stop! Shut up!" The stress of the night was finally bending him in half, and right now he was too hurt and angry to care that he was yelling at his boss, that he was reacting to the mad scientist's provocations.

Cecile stared at Suzaku, shocked at his outburst. "We'll go now," she said. She cast one final saddened look at Suzaku and vehemently yanked Lloyd from the room. After all, it was common knowledge that Lloyd Asplund never was the cure for frayed nerves.

The police chief stepped aside to let them pass and then peered down his nose at the broken, sobbing mess of Eleven on the floor. "I'll return his affects to his family," he informed him callously and turned to find Nunnally. The others followed.

Heaving a sigh, the doctor pulled Suzaku to his feet. "Hush, boy. Lelouch is alive, and isn't that the only thing that matters right now? Pull yourself together," he commanded, harsh only to pierce through Suzaku's thick cocoon of self-hate.

Sniffling, Suzaku's expression cleared. "You're right." It didn't erase his mistakes, but it made them seem less enormous. Lelouch was still here, and Suzaku could yet make things right.

-+-

"Cell phone, wallet complete with credit card and school identification, spare change, and a black king chess piece," listed the police chief. "I'm sorry, but we have to keep his clothes, the gun, and that photograph as special case items."

Nunnally nodded. "Of course. Thank you for giving me back what you could."

As soon as the policemen's footsteps faded away, Sayoko asked, "Do you want me to put your brother's things somewhere safe?"

Nunnally shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm going to ask Suzaku to hold onto everything for me."

-+-

Suzaku's cell rang before he could reunite with the others. Glancing at the caller ID, he sighed and reluctantly flipped his phone open. He wasn't exactly feeling up to passing on the news, but he knew the others deserved to know the details. "Hi," he muttered.

"Just calling for an update," Milly chattered hopefully. "It's been long enough you should know something."

Suzaku mumbled, "Yeah, we do. It's bad, but not as bad as what we first thought."

Milly's voice was excited over the phone. "That's good then—if he's better than we feared! We'd have come, but the police and crime scene investigators waylaid us."

"Yeah, I know," Suzaku moaned in irritation. "They just came over here."

"Aw, don't be like that," Milly soothed, picking up on what was upsetting him. "You didn't know any better. We'll catch the ones who did this, just you wait! You'll see!" Her confidence did help up his spirits, but only minutely. "Anyway, we'll be by tomorrow after school to check up on Lelouch. And between you and me, Shirley's really upset over what she said to you. She's crying just as much for you as for her darling Lelou right now."

Stunned, Suzaku's jaw dropped. "I know she was just angry," he assured Milly when he got his mouth working. "We both said and did things we didn't mean in the heat of the moment. I'll talk to her tomorrow and get it all straightened out." He paused. “Also, you mean my Lelou. Lelouch.”

"Yes, of course,” Milly agreed quickly. “I’m sorry. That’s going to take some getting used to.” She swallowed audibly and chirped, “Anyway, the plan sounds good.” She really must have been excited to hear that Lelouch was better than they'd thought. "We'll try to do damage control in class tomorrow, but this might be out of my hands. It's a pretty big scandal."

"I understand," Suzaku said hurriedly. "I appreciate whatever you can manage. Thank you."

Milly sighed happily over the phone. "You know, Lelouch is really lucky to have you, Suzaku."

At that, Suzaku paused mid-step, but before he could answer, the dial-tone sounded in his ear. He was left with her last words ringing in his head, and all he could do was disagree.

He disagreed the rest of the night; he disagreed in his restless dreams. He disagreed until dawn when those rather depressing thoughts were pushed right out his mind.

"Are you with Lamperouge? It's fine now. Lelouch is awake, and he wants to see you."

Chapter Text

"Oh, Lelouch!"

It was a little after dawn when Nunnally rolled herself to her brother's bedside and blindly searched for his face. He'd woken on his own and somehow ordered the nurses to permit him visitors, even though his condition wouldn't normally allow it so soon. Still, Nunnally didn't question it too much; Lelouch was known to be manipulative and persuasive when he wanted something. Her knees bumped into the lowly raised hospital bed, and cold fingers suddenly closed around her own, guiding her movements. Lelouch's grip on her was shaky and unsure; Nunnally realized with a gasp that while he must still be scared of touch, he was forcing himself to endure it for her sake.

"I've never been so worried," Nunnally sniffled, lifting his palm to her face in turn. Tears rolled down her cheeks. "You promised you'd never leave me alone—that we'd always have each other."

"We still do," came Lelouch's low, soothing voice. "I told you, Nunnally, I'm not going anywhere." His gentle touch never ceased to ease her worries, and the deepness of his voice calmed the undercurrents of lashing anxiety in her bloodstream. Even when he was completely lying.

Nunnally glared at him as best she could, her face scrunching in acute displeasure. She felt his fingers twitch against her wet cheeks, and she scolded, "You lied to me. About how hurt you were. Why, brother?! You promised you'd never lie…"

Immediately, Lelouch's fingers stilled on her face. "I didn't want you to worry," he said softly, and she caught the almost imperceptible note of disgrace in his tone.

"I worry more when you hide things from me!" Nunnally cried adamantly, pressing herself closer to him, leaning over the side of his bed. "You've been hiding so much lately, and I'm just so scared. And you're really hurt now. I don't want you to be in pain! I wish there was something I could do to help, but I could never help you—even before."

"Before last night?" Lelouch asked.

Wrinkling her nose, Nunnally said, "Before everything. Ever since we were—" she paused, wanted to say 'exiled' but settled on, "—little, you've always insisted on doing everything by yourself. You won't accept help from anyone, and you only just started to let Suzaku into your heart again…"

Lelouch withdrew his hand, and Nunnally shivered on the outside of his mental barricade. He'd never shut her out—at least, not like this.

"Letting people into my heart doesn't mean I need to let them fuss all over me," he gruffly protested.

"Part of being loved is to accept other people's help when they offer it," Nunnally countered wisely. "Otherwise, it's like you're rejecting their feelings—and I know you enjoy being loved, brother." She smiled a bit slyly and added, "Especially by Suzaku."

She felt Lelouch's cheeks warm under her palm. "Yes. Suzaku… Ah, but Nunnally, you'll always be most important to me."

Nunnally giggled through her tears at his devotion, touched by it even after all these years. "You love me different than how you love everyone else, and you love Suzaku different yet. You don't need to explain." She lightly stroked his face, surprised to feel a matching wetness on his cheeks. "Brother, are you…crying?"

Lelouch growled, "No!" Indignant as ever.

Nunnally could sense the lie, feel it against her fingertips, but didn't press the issue. "If I'm that important to you, let me be there for you," she said instead, swallowing around the lump in her throat.

"I can't do that," Lelouch answered. "I can only rely on myself. It's my own body, Nunnally. You have to understand!"

"I do understand!" Nunnally cried. Waving her hand downwards, she pointed at her own useless legs and said quietly, "I understand better than anybody, Lelouch. I didn't want to let you help me in the beginning, remember? But you were there for me, and you didn't leave me alone even when I wanted you to! I know I can't do all the things you did for me, but Miss Sayoko is a professional. You already know and trust Sayoko with me, so why not with yourself? And you trust Suzaku with your body for…" she paused for a second, feeling the heat rise to her own cheeks. "…other things," she finished lamely, remembering their impassioned screams from down the hall Friday night. "So why can't you just accept help?"

Lelouch sighed, the sound weighing heavily on both their hearts. "I have my pride to consider," he said at last.

Nunnally felt her lips turn upwards gently. "You know, brother," she said, "just by talking to me and being honest about your feelings, you're already letting me help you. Thank you." She could feel the intense look he was surely giving her; the hairs on the back of her neck were rising under his gaze.

"…I'll let you win this one," Lelouch offered, a teasing smile in his voice.

Hearing his sheets rustle, Nunnally's smile grew. Lelouch could at least move his upper body, and for that she was grateful. "Thank you," she said again, patting his face.

If Lelouch wanted to say things like 'let you win,' then she wouldn't call him on it. He had enough to deal with regarding his lost control, and she couldn't blame him for trying desperately to compensate.

"Nunnally?"

At her name, Nunnally turned to face him directly, judging his location from the sound of his voice. "Yes, brother?" she asked softly.

There was another rustle of bed sheets before Lelouch kindly instructed, "Please look after C.C. for me."

Nunnally confusedly tilted her head. "C.C.? She's still around? I haven't seen her in awhile!"

"No one else knows about her," Lelouch admitted. "Not even Suzaku, not really—he'd recognize her by sight, but I don't think it'd be a very good thing if they officially met. Not yet anyway. Please don't mention her to anyone. She already knows you, so you're the only one I can ask, Nunnally. She'll probably show up at our suite soon because of…what's happened. I need you to be on the lookout for her and inform her of the details of the situation. Tell her to take care of things for me." He breathed another huge sigh and shifted again.

Nodding, Nunnally put on a brave smile. "Of course I will! I'll even bring her to visit you…"

"No!" Lelouch shouted; he must have tried to sit up—and failed—because she heard the thump of his body hitting the hospital bed. "That wouldn't be such a great idea, Nunnally. Thank you for thinking of me, though. You're sweet as ever."

"Of course," Nunnally promised. "If that's what you think best…I'll ask C.C. to stay with me and Miss Sayoko while you're here. And in the meantime, if I'm not mistaken, there's a very upset boyfriend outside your door waiting to see you," she teased. "It's only fair since I got my time with you." Lightly touching her brother's face one last time, she wheeled herself towards the exit (as Lelouch narrated directions to her).

"Nunnally!" Lelouch exclaimed. "One more thing."

-+-

"Who authorized the media to cover that?!" Cornelia was incensed. Her eyebrows were drawn together, and a worried crease lined her forehead.

Gilbert G.P. Guilford didn't flinch at the volume of her voice; he was used to working with the oftentimes loudly irate Second Princess of Britannia. "We're still investigating. Darlton is on it as we speak."

Cornelia swirled around to glare at him, her mauve hair fluttering around her face. "The incident at the university should have been censored! The truth of the matter will upset our public; the fact that Zero managed to sneak in another victory…especially so soon after Narita…" Her fisted hands trembled at her sides.

Guilford opened his mouth, then shut it without speaking. Cornelia was just ranting, and right now she wasn't in the mood for excuses. So he silently watched her pace until Andreas Darlton entered the room.

"My lady," Darlton greeted. "I couldn't discover who exactly organized the media into gathering at the university, but the good news is that the coverage was cut short. There was another breaking story that happened basically at the same site, and the focus shifted to that since it was occurring live."

Cornelia's stern expression didn't fade. "I see. How much of the truth was leaked?" Immediately, she raised her palm and insisted, "Forget it. I don't want your answers; I want to see it for myself. Roll the coverage."

Nodding, Darlton flicked off the lights and flicked on the monitor. Cornelia slid gracefully into her throne and fixed her eyes on the screen.

"My name is Lloyd Asplund, and I just want everyone to know that Zero is a scoundrel for destroying my precious Lancelot!"

Cornelia glowered and rubbed her forehead. "That fool! Does he ever take anything seriously?"

Smiling sympathetically, Guilford reassured her as best he could, "He is Lloyd Asplund."

"That doesn't make me feel better in the slightest!" Cornelia snapped. "And with one sentence, he ruined everything. We could have come up with a proper cover story instead of admitting that Zero one-upped us." She was silent a moment before growling, "Again."

Darlton sighed. "It will be hard to do damage control now that Asplund has spoken; he is of high status."

"That's not making me feel better!" Cornelia said harshly. She narrowed her eyes at the scientist on-screen.

"I know the Black Knights terrorize Britannia, but they crossed the line yesterday when they involved my poor Lancelot…"

Cornelia shook her head. "Does he ever think about something besides that damn Knightmare of his?!"

Guilford bit his lip before voicing, "In his defense, Princess, it was due to Asplund's Knightmare that your life was spared at Narita."

"It takes more than a Knightmare to save someone, most of all me," Cornelia explained frostily. "It takes skill."

Darlton tilted his head. "In that case, you should extend your thanks to Kururugi. His piloting skills are exceptional—"

Cornelia glared harder and interrupted. "Kururugi. The Eleven? A well-bred princess of Britannia does not thank Numbers. I already promoted that man; that's all he's getting out of me." She lowered her eyes and angrily tacked on, "I am not Euphemia."

Guilford and Darlton shared a glance. "Anyway," Darlton said, "the coverage ends early on. Look, all this time we've been discussing Asplund and Kururugi has been spent on the other story."

Cornelia stared at the school in the background. "Is that Ashford Academy?" she asked, interest piqued and anger momentarily forgotten.

"Yes, my lady," Darlton answered. "Apparently, a student was attacked yesterday for befriending an Eleven classmate."

Cornelia's fingers twitched. "The Ashfords let Elevens into their school? I had no idea they were so desperate. I'll have to do something about that."

"Only Kururugi," Darlton hastened to add. "Don't you remember? Princess Euphemia personally requested they let him attend."

"I see," Cornelia said. "Yes, Euphy would do something like that." She paused, remembering Darlton's explanation, and had to ask, "You mean a Britannian other than my sister has befriended that Eleven?"

Nodding, Darlton answered, "It would seem so, my lady, and he has suffered for it." A glare settled on his features, though Cornelia understood it wasn't directed at her. "Kururugi is a good soldier; he's very capable. In fact, I'm willing to bet he's more loyal to Britannia than some natives I know."

Cornelia sighed. "I'm aware of that, but that doesn't mean I have to like him."

Her two closest companions only nodded.

Another few minutes passed in silence before Cornelia jumped to her feet, face pale as she stared at the television. "No, it can't be," she murmured in shock. Her eyes were wide, transfixed, as she felt her way forward in an almost mechanical motion.

Guilford stared at the monitor, noting the blood leaking through the white sheet atop the Britannian victim. He glanced at Cornelia and took a step nearer to her. While Cornelia might have come across as a bit bloodthirsty to others at times, Guilford knew she wasn't truly cruel. The fact was proven with one look at her pale, drawn face. "Princess? Whatever is the matter?" he asked, concerned. He hadn't seen her this upset since Princess Euphemia was taken as a hostage during the Lake Kawaguchi hotel jacking. And he couldn't recall her ever showing compassion for someone she hardly knew.

Cornelia swallowed and said, without turning to face her knight, "Guilford, I want you to postpone our plans for the JLF."

"Of course, Princess," Guilford promised. "But might I respectfully ask why? We spent all night perfecting our strategies."

Cornelia only shook her head, her eyes still glued to the raven-haired boy on the monitor. "Tell everyone I have a family emergency. And for goodness sake, where did Euphy run off to?!"

Darlton reported calmly, "She is accompanying Prince Schneizel to the university laboratory. Did you need her?"

"Her and Schneizel," Cornelia corrected. "Guilford, patch a call through to them and tell them there's an emergency. Darlton, arrange transportation to the hospital this boy would have been taken to," she ordered.

"Yes, Princess," they both responded before hurrying to their assigned tasks.

Cornelia breathed deeply as she rewound the coverage and paused it on the beaten victim's face. The story behind the news coverage was buried under the mind-numbing revelation that the Eleventh Prince, her beloved little brother—not so little anymore—and the son of her most revered role model, was alive. Purple eyes drank in the image, and she fervently thanked the fates for letting him be all right. Then she remembered how hurt he was, and she closed her palm into a fist over her rapidly beating heart.

When Guilford and Darlton reported back and saluted, the only thing Cornelia could whisper was her little brother's name.

-+-

No number, no number, no number, and so on until Milly, followed by another almost endless list of no number lines, then Sayoko, Nunnally, Sayoko, no number, no number, Sayoko, no number, Nunnally, no number…

Such was the log of missed calls on Lelouch's cell phone early the following morning. Nunnally had given all of Lelouch's recovered affects to Suzaku, as promised, and Suzaku was surprised to find a total of seventy-one missed calls on Lelouch's cell from the past day and a half. Only a handful of them were from recognizable contacts, and Suzaku's brow furrowed as he scrolled through the list. He hadn't meant to invade his lover's privacy, but seventy-one missed calls seemed a bit extreme, even considering Lelouch had gone missing for a few hours last night. Even Lelouch's gambling acquaintances shouldn't have been calling so frequently, and surely they knew Lelouch's face; it would be reasonable if the 'no number' lines had stopped calling after the evening news, but the times recorded for the missed calls continued until well into the middle of the night. It didn't add up. Suzaku sighed as the list of 'no number' lines grew longer, and a familiar tightening in his chest reminded him that these strange phone calls weren't a new occurrence. Not for the first time, he wondered just what Lelouch had been up to recently.

A shadow fell over him, and Suzaku hurriedly glanced up from his spot on the floor in the orthopedics department hallway for admitted patients. He was crouched in front of Lelouch's room, waiting his turn to see his beloved. Nunnally had wanted a private visit with her brother, and Suzaku hadn't the heart to argue. Sayoko had invited him to the cafeteria to grab a strong cup of coffee, but Suzaku had wanted to stake out Lelouch's room instead. Suzaku had been more or less alone except for the occasional doctor or nurse passing by—until now.

"Kallen!" Suzaku exclaimed and slipped Lelouch's cell into his pants pocket. At the moment, his mind didn't register that Kallen had company. "Are you here to see Lelouch? He just woke up. Nunnally's in there with him now." Suzaku tried to smile, but he couldn't quite manage it. So close. He was so close to being alone with his Lelouch…

"Do you want to see your friend first?" asked Kallen's companion, drawing Suzaku's attention to him. "I can go on ahead and see your mother; you can join me when you're done here."

Suzaku shot a quizzical look at Kallen. She was accompanied to the hospital by an older Japanese man. Though Suzaku knew those on the Student Council were more open-minded than most of the school's population, he didn't think any of them actually had Japanese friends.

Kallen smiled nervously. "Sure, Ohgi. I'll be right there." To Suzaku, she added, "He was my brother's best friend growing up."

Oh, it must be just like Lelouch and me! Kallen's brother, a Britannian, making friends with this Japanese man despite society's prejudices! Suzaku's smile turned genuine at the thought, and he waved at the older Japanese male. "It's nice to meet you," he said. "I'm Kururugi Suzaku."

Ohgi looked ready to say something, but then he caught himself and said, "Likewise." He grinned hesitantly back before moving on down the hallway, looking over his shoulder once or twice before he turned the corner.

Sighing, Kallen slid down the wall to sit next to Suzaku. "I'm sorry you have to go through this," she said, sincerity ringing in her tone. "I know you must be taking it way hard."

"It's nothing more than I deserve," Suzaku answered in a low voice. "It's my fault."

"Why?!" Kallen snapped, turning to glare at him, eyes blazing. "Because you're friends with him?!"

Suzaku met her glare soundly, not flinching from the righteous anger in her tone. "Kallen," he said, "I'm an Eleven, and Lelouch was a lot more than just my friend."

It took a moment for the truth to settle, but when it did, Kallen's jaw dropped. "You mean you and he were—the news never mentioned that—but it doesn't matter!" she said, catching herself. "It's still not your fault! Who cares if he's a Britannian and you're 'an Eleven'?" She cringed, hating using such derogatory terminology for their people.

Suzaku frowned, redirecting his attention to the square-patterned floor. "Only bad things come out of a mixed relationship like that. I should have known that from the start."

Seething, Kallen mustered all her strength and slapped him across the face. "How…dare…you?!" she hissed in a choked whisper. Heated tears spilled from her eyes, and Suzaku's surprised face was blurry because of them as she growled, "For your information, I happen to be half-Japanese! I am the product of a mixed relationship. Do you find me appalling because of my heritage?!"

"N-no," Suzaku breathed, shock filling his features. "I had no idea."

Kallen leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. "Well, it's true," she huffed. "I don't really tell anyone, but I figured it might help you to know: You're not alone."

"Thank you, Kallen," Suzaku said, green eyes glittering with warmth now. Thank you for your trust. And thank you for slapping some sense into me. "I'll keep your secret." Silence reigned for another few moments until he asked, "Did it work out? Between your parents, I mean, since they were…"

Kallen looked to the ceiling, liquid pooling in her eyes again. "No," she confessed sadly. "Dad got married to another Britannian; that's my stepmother and the lady of the Stadtfeld house. My dad hasn't even been in the picture for years; he left Japan a long time ago. My mom…well…she worked as a maid for the Stadtfelds."

Suzaku winced, understanding the finer details. "How terrible," he mused.

"She worked there," Kallen continued in a deadpan tone, "until her Refrain addiction got so bad she landed herself here in the hospital."

Emerald eyes widened in renewed horror. Refrain was yet another prime example of how the Japanese suffered due to Britannia's oppressive interference, and Suzaku understood the social implications underlying the other's words. "Oh, Kallen! I'm so—"

"Don't say it!" Kallen snapped, once more glaring at him. "I don't want to hear your apologies. You've done nothing wrong, and your acting all emo doesn't help anything! I'm strong, Suzaku, and I don't need you to coddle me!"

I can handle the world, so give me more credit…

Suzaku, wide-eyed, shrank back and dumbly nodded. Trying to pull his mind away from Lelouch's empty promises, he mentioned, "I'm honored that you're telling me all this, Kallen. But why…?"

Kallen shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I know you're going through a lot right now. Your friendship—excuse me, relationship—with Lelouch ended up like this because a lot of Britannians look down on us Japanese. My family is all screwed up for the same reason; this Britannian-ruled society drove my mom to drugs, and now she can't even speak." Her voice was hard as she detailed their shared suffering. "No one at school really understands. Well, you have the compassionate ones, like Lelouch and the others on the Student Council, but none of them really get it. I guess I didn't want you to feel all lost; I'm in the same boat as you. This society is pretty messed up, Suzaku, and it needs to change. Things like what happened to Lelouch last night—those can't be allowed to continue!" Her eyes burned with determination. "I know I look like a pureblood Britannian, and that makes it easy for me at Ashford, but you…"

"I understand," Suzaku cut in gently. "And thanks. It does help to know I'm not the only one, and hey, I think it's pretty cool that you're Japanese." Some of the tension ebbed from his shoulders, and he relaxed a bit more against the wall. "Heh, I thought it was weird that you came here with a Japanese friend, and now come to find out you're one of us, too. That's pretty amazing."

Kallen laughed awkwardly. "Yeah. My brother chose his Japanese heritage, and the man who came here with me is his oldest friend. Kinda like a second big brother, you know?"

Suzaku nodded. "So I guess it's not like Lelouch and me." At Kallen's blank stare, he explained, "I was thinking earlier that your brother was a Britannian who befriended a Japanese person, kinda like Lelouch's and my friendship."

"Friendship?" Kallen asked, playfully jabbing him in the side.

With a light pink spreading across his cheeks, Suzaku mumbled, "Yes, friendship. We didn't start off as boyfriends, you know."

"Oh, right, you were childhood friends," Kallen remembered. "So…how long have you two been, uh, together?"

Suzaku's lip twitched. "If you must know, a little over six months."

"Wow, you made it work that long?" Kallen asked.

"You sound surprised," Suzaku shot back, green eyes light from the friendly banter. "Lelouch and I…"

Kallen smiled. "You can make it."

Suzaku stilled at her encouragement. "Maybe," he said half-heartedly. "There are things I need to—well, yeah…" Lifting his head, he changed the subject, "You're different from how you are at school."

"I have my secrets," Kallen said, shrugging. "Don't think you know me just because we're on the Student Council together. And don't think you know me because of everything I just told you."

Before Suzaku could respond, the door to Lelouch's room slid open and Nunnally rolled out. "All right, Suzaku!" she chirped. She was much happier now that she'd spoken to her big brother. "Lelouch can't wait to see you, but he told me to pass on a message before you go in: 'If all you're going to do is blame yourself, then you'd be better off going home.' That's what he said."

Kallen smirked triumphantly in his direction, and Suzaku amusedly shook his head before rising to his feet.

-+-

"It's about time you got here," Lloyd complained bright and early in the morning. He took a second look, then gushed, "Oh, and you brought Princess Euphemia with you! How delightful!" Dim electric light glinted off his glasses, obscuring his eyes. Despite being up half the night, he was chipper and impolite as ever.

Cecile poked her head around a pile of machinery and almost fainted once she realized who was visiting. "Y-your Highnesses!" she screeched. In all the confusion concerning Suzaku and his lover, she'd forgotten the Second Prince was scheduled to arrive. Swaying, she reached to put her hand on her head; her wrist was caught in a powerful grip before she completed the action.

The blond Second Prince smiled down at the flushed Cecile. Gently, he slid his fingers from her wrist to her palm, being sure to support her weight. "There's no need to feel light-headed around me, Miss Cecile Croomy," he assured, voice deep. With amusement, he noted how she swooned at the sound of her name on his lips. He chuckled. "Yes, I am Schneizel el Britannia," he confirmed, "and I believe you've already met my dear sister Euphemia."

Euphy giggled at the exchange, nodding to each of the researchers. "But," she exclaimed, looking around the damaged lab, "surely you two aren't the only ones here?"

Cecile's smile softened, catching on to what Euphemia was really asking. "I'm sorry, but Suzaku won't be joining us for awhile. I'm afraid he's still dealing with the attack from yesterday."

"Yesterday?" Schneizel asked, raising an eyebrow in bewilderment. "I thought the Black Knights attacked on Sunday."

"Yes, but the other attack," Lloyd explained impatiently. A wide, knowing smile stretched across his face before he followed it up with a subject change. "Now, how quickly do you think you can arrange for that extra supply of sakuradite to get here?"

"What other attack?!" Euphemia gasped. A pale, delicate hand flew to cover her mouth.

"It had nothing to do with the Black Knights," Lloyd answered, upset that Euphemia insisted on ignoring the subject of the Lancelot. The White Knightmare was far more important. Still, his blue eyes glittered as he baited, "This one focused on Suzaku's personal life."

Tears gathered at the corners of Euphemia's lavender eyes. "You mean Suzaku was personally targeted?!"

"Not him, no. His boyfriend." Despite having grown tired of this conversation, Lloyd was amused to note the reactions of the royal siblings.

"Boyfriend?!" they exclaimed in unison. Two pairs of eyes widened in disbelief, and Euphemia's already pale face whitened dramatically. Schneizel laid a comforting hand on his younger sister's shoulder before pointedly looking at the ASEEC members. "Please elaborate." Euphemia had to work to keep herself from hyperventilating so she could hear the explanation.

"But it has nothing to do with the Lancelot!" Lloyd protested, casting a desperate look at the damaged Knightmare. Cecile frowned at him.

"Still, something has affected the life of one of my men. These things are important to me."

Gratitude swam in Cecile's eyes. No wonder Second Prince Schneizel made such a wonderful leader; he truly cared for people, not just the systems they made up. If Lloyd wouldn't volunteer information, then she would just have to take over—and yes, maybe she was secretly thrilled to have another chance to talk to him. "Yesterday evening, Suzaku's lover was the victim of a hate crime. Suzaku is currently at the nearest hospital, waiting for word on his condition."

"Why, that's horrible!" Schneizel exclaimed emphatically, properly horrified, his fingers tightening on Euphemia's shoulder. "Surely not because the two boys were homosexual…?"

Lloyd stroked his chin, giving in to the current topic of conversation once again. "No, it was more because his boyfriend was Britannian. Though I'm sure the whole gay factor contributed to it as well."

Euphy started to sink to the floor, but Schneizel caught her by the waist. "I want to see Suzaku," she begged, her chin jutting out determinedly. "Please, brother?"

"And I want to fix the Lancelot," Lloyd said petulantly.

Cecile, reacting to Euphemia's emotional turmoil, argued, "But Lloyd, we can fix the Lancelot anytime. Suzaku needs his friends right now more than ever!" She sent an encouraging smile at Euphemia, winking when her boss wasn't looking.

"I don't see why we can't all make a short visit to the hospital," Schneizel agreed pleasantly. "Perhaps our involvement in this issue will send a warning that hate crimes like this are not tolerated in Britannia. We'll work on the Lancelot when we get back." Periwinkle eyes glinted down at kind-hearted Euphy, and Schneizel didn't stagger when she leapt up and gratefully threw her arms around his shoulders.

Lloyd folded his arms across his chest, brow furrowed, as he complained, "Britannian princes, interfering with my poor Lancelot…"

-+-

"I couldn't get ahold of either Prince Schneizel or Princess Euphemia," Guilford admitted. "Nobody is at the university, and I couldn't break through another call they must have been taking. They never switched over to me."

Cornelia scowled but stomped over to her personal transport car. "Very well. For now, I'll go by myself." She raised an eyebrow at their puzzled expressions and corrected herself: "You two will be accompanying me. Now get in!" They scrambled to obey, and Cornelia felt her heart constrict at what was awaiting her at the hospital.

Darlton shared another confused look with Guilford and finally asked, "My lady, what is so important about this boy?"

"Lelouch."

"Pardon me, my lady?"

Cornelia continued scowling out the window. "His name is Lelouch."

Darlton merely nodded. "All right, Lelouch then. What is so incredibly special about him?"

"He's alive, for one," Cornelia said in an even tone. "When you're supposed to be dead, being alive is a miraculous feat." She closed her eyes and couldn't help but wonder: Is Nunnally alive, too?

Guilford dared to shrug at Darlton before asking, "Princess, just how do you know this presumed dead teenage boy?"

Cornelia dragged her gaze back to her knight. "Do you not remember him yourself? Think back to right before your knighting ceremony."

"Big sister! Big sister!" squealed an eight-year-old Euphemia. "Today's the day you get a knight. Aren't you excited? Are you going to live happily ever after like in all the fairytales?"

Before nineteen-year-old Second Princess Cornelia li Britannia could answer, another of her younger siblings stepped in. Half-brother, in this case, Eleventh Prince Lelouch vi Britannia. "She's getting a knight, Euphy, not a husband. It's different."

Euphy frowned, her lower lip jutting out. "Aw, but I think Cornelia should get married and have a big wedding! Then we could all wear frilly dresses and eat cake and dance!"

Cornelia chuckled at her younger sister's enthusiasm. Little Euphy could get away with saying things no one else could. Her chuckles escalated into a full-scale laugh when she heard Lelouch grumble, "I'm not wearing a frilly dress."

"You have a beautiful laugh, Princess," interjected a voice from the doorway.

Cornelia stopped laughing immediately, turning around to stare at the man she'd chosen to champion her in battle. Gilbert G.P. Guilford. It was the only time she'd ever blushed in front of him. "What are you doing here?" she snapped.

Guilford bowed deeply from the waist. "I was told I could find you here, Princess. I need to know how you want to proceed with the ceremony."

"You're not supposed to see her until she walks down the aisle!" Euphy cried, stomping her little foot. Guilford fought back a blush at the implications.

Lelouch hurried to Euphy's side to console her. "Sh, Euphy, that'd only be if they were getting married. They're not." He cast a critical eye over Cornelia's choice and slowly nodded his approval. "He's not much to look at, sister, but if you trust him to watch your back, then I'll trust your judgment."

The corner of Cornelia's lip twitched upwards into a small smile. "Thank you, Lelouch."

Guilford only shook his head. Not much to look at, eh?

Euphy ran to Guilford and tugged at his pants leg. "Big brother is going to be a knight when he grows up, just like you!" she proclaimed.

Guilford smiled indulgently down at her before flicking his eyes back to Prince Lelouch.

Lelouch scoffed, "No, I'm not. I'm going to remain a prince. In fact, I might get a knight of my own. So there!"

Euphy scowled at him playfully. "Nu-uh, no fair! Only princesses should be allowed to get knights. We're the ones that need them."

Snickering, Cornelia had to tease, "Oh, I think Lelouch is weak enough to need protection later on down the road."

Seeming to ignore his older half-sister, Lelouch stuffily recited, "'Having a knight is a privilege of royalty.' There. That's gender-neutral." At Euphy's blank stare, he explained, "That means it doesn't matter if you're a prince or princess. As long as you're royalty, you're allowed a personal knight. And I deserve my own. After all, I am a prince, aren't I?" He laughed, and Euphy joined in.

Guilford couldn't help but ask, "And when you choose your knight, Prince, are you going to select him based on whether he looks decent?"

Cornelia laughed again, and Lelouch had to think for a moment. "No-ooo," he said slowly, drawing out his answer. "When I choose my knight, I'll select the person who best balances me out. I'm really smart but I don't do so well at physical activity. So I'd need someone exceptionally good at all the physical components. I suppose it wouldn't matter if he was an idiot as long as he could follow my orders…but I'd really prefer someone I could hold a decent conversation with."

"What about choosing a man you love?" Euphy asked slyly, glancing between her older sister and Guilford. She was determined to see them married.

Cornelia sighed and shook her head. "Euphy, Lelouch isn't gay."

"What's that mean?" Euphy asked. She blinked innocently up her older siblings.

Lelouch barely kept his composure; his teeth clenched. He understood Cornelia's words. He may have only been a year older than Euphy, but his intelligence surpassed his years. And of course it helped that he'd grown up around Schneizel.

"I'll explain when you're older," Cornelia hastily promised. "Lelouch, take Euphy to find your mother and Nunnally. My knight and I need to get in position for the ceremony."

Lelouch nodded and inclined his head slightly in Guilford's direction. "Let me be the first to congratulate you, Mr. Knight. Take care of my sister or you'll face the consequences dealt out by Prince Lelouch vi Britannia." He guided Euphy out the door by her shoulders, never once looking back.

Guilford blinked and pushed back the memory. "He's your little brother?" he breathed, face frozen in shock. Now that he remembered the face of the nine-year-old prince, it was easy to link him to the hurt boy on the news. No one else could ever possess Prince Lelouch's grace and fine features.

Darlton gasped, "Little brother?! My lady, I didn't think you had any other relatives in Area 11."

"I didn't know either until half an hour ago," Cornelia said bitterly. "Now be quiet. We're here."

-+-

"I trust your judgment," Schneizel said warmly to the man on his communications channel. "This falls under your expertise, so carry through with the project as you see fit."

"Oh, thank you, Prince Schneizel! You won't regret backing this. He's a bit unstable now, but soon enough—"

Schneizel held up a hand. "That's enough, Bartley. You don't need to thank me. Just keep me informed of his progress. Otherwise, I give you free reign to do whatever you please to your latest experimental subject." He quickly shut off communications, never noticing the second call trying to get through; a certain little sister was distracting him.

"How long can we stay at the hospital, brother?" Euphy's eyes pleaded with him to say something along the lines of, 'all day if necessary,' but Schneizel only shook his head.

"We can't stay there too long. Earl Asplund is right in that we need to work on the Lancelot. After all, that is one of the main reasons I'm here."

"One of…?" Euphy echoed, voice betraying her confusion. Her face fell at the time limit, but she supposed she understood.

Schneizel chuckled. "Well, I have another few matters to attend to in the meantime, but they're nothing for you to concern yourself over." He laid a hand on her shoulder again, offering her a soft smile. Euphy smiled back trustingly.

"Was that General Bartley?" Lloyd inquired from the driver's seat. "I thought he was disgracefully shipped back to the homeland by Jeremiah Gottwald."

"Yes, well," Schneizel answered, "I put him under my command. He's part of my escort, so he's here in Area 11 with me."

Lloyd was silent for a long moment, taking everything in. Curiosity finally got the better of him and he asked, "And what kind of inhumane project is he working on now? Still dealing with poison gas, is he?"

Schneizel met the scientist's eye in the rearview mirror. "I don't pretend to understand what Bartley involves himself with, so I couldn't tell you if I wanted to."

"Ah, it's that big a secret, is it?" Lloyd quipped. "Fine then. Don't tell me." He sulked.

Schneizel laughed outright. "Nothing gets past you, does it?"

"Nothing," Lloyd agreed without hesitation. A small giggle erupted from his throat, and Cecile could only shake her head and wonder at what Second Prince Schneizel must think of them.

Euphy smiled at the lighthearted atmosphere inside the Lancelot's trailer, not knowing that she was seated in the very spot Suzaku had perched not one day ago. Her smile dimmed at the revelation of the morning—not only was he taken, but he was gay as well. The smothering feeling she experienced at the news told her just how deeply she'd fallen—without even realizing it—and she didn't know how to handle the sudden darkness in her heart. The despair over Suzaku settled atop the despair she felt at her own country's atrocious practices, and she felt heavy from all the sadness weighing her down.

Cecile shot her an understanding look from the front seat.

Euphy nodded back her appreciation and stared out the window as the hospital came into view. If Suzaku is happy with his boyfriend, then I have no right to get in the way of that, she mused. Cornelia will be happy if I back off of him—since he's only a Number in her eyes. So Suzaku will be happy, Suzaku's boyfriend will be happy, Cornelia will be happy. Everyone will be happy… A lone tear trailed down her porcelain cheek. …Everyone, that is, except me.

-+-

"Look! It's Viceroy Cornelia!"

"What's she doing here?"

"She looks super mad, dude, don't get in her way!"

"Hell, she's hot when she's pissed!"

"Why is the Second Princess here at the hospital?"

Nunnally froze in her wheelchair, hearing the surrounding shouts. "Miss Sayoko?" she asked hesitantly. "What's going on?" The warm morning sunlight did nothing to melt the chill in her bones.

"It's nothing to worry about, Lady Nunnally," Sayoko assured her. "Princess Cornelia appeared and it's causing a bit of chaos, that's all. We won't go near the crowd."

Nunnally panicked initially before she sighed and half-hoped Cornelia would spot her, even if it would cause trouble for Lelouch's carefully constructed lie. She needed her family more than ever, and with Lelouch in the hospital, she had no one. Suzaku, Sayoko, and the members of the Student Council were all well and good, but they weren't family in the same sense that Cornelia and Euphy were. "Is Princess Euphemia with her?" Nunnally asked, trying to keep the curiosity in her tone to a casual minimum.

Sayoko answered lightly, "I'm afraid not, my lady."

"Oh," Nunnally said, trying to keep the disappointment from welling. Someone bumped into her wheelchair, and she heard her personal nurse apologize profusely for the collision.

"No, it's my fault," said a man's voice, and Nunnally strained her ears because it sounded so familiar. "I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked.

Nunnally assumed he was talking to her; people always fretted over her because of her crippled condition. "I'm fine," she promised, voice ringing strongly over the parking lot. "I've been through much worse than someone walking into me, so don't worry." She smiled brightly up at where she thought the man to be.

"Guilford, what's the hold-up?!" a harsh female voice demanded; the sound of purposeful footsteps on the pavement drew closer. "Why did you stop—oh!" Cornelia gasped and, ignoring the crowd, fell to her knees and swept her little half-sister into a hug. "Nunnally!"

Nunnally felt her heart leap at the embrace. Cornelia! It had been so long since someone—besides Lelouch or Suzaku—recognized her for whom she truly was. "Hi, sister," she whispered softly, and the tears started rolling again.

Cornelia hugged her more tightly, barely keeping her own tears from falling. Finally noticing the crowd, Cornelia stood up and asked, "Would you come inside with me so we can talk?"

Sayoko, shocked, could only stare at her mistress. "My lady, are you acquainted with the Second Princess?"

"And all of the others, too," Nunnally laughed. "And the princes."

"Do you want to go inside, then?" Sayoko asked, trying to stick to the issue at hand. "You've had a very hard night. I'm sure everyone would understand if you wanted to rest."

Cornelia glared. How dare this Eleven step in and treat her order as a mere request, to be declined at will? Perhaps her invitation was worded as a question, but surely Nunnally understood…

Nunnally giggled. "Don't worry so much about me, Miss Sayoko. I can handle staying up a little while longer."

Cornelia's glare softened as it started to sink in: This Eleven was only concerned about Nunnally's fragile state. She'd jumped to conclusions because of her view on Numbers, and her lip curled at the realization. "We need a private room," she said, her tone still orderly, but somehow less cross.

Sayoko nodded. "That can be arranged, Princess." She turned and pushed Nunnally's wheelchair back towards the doors, but Cornelia stopped her.

"Let me," Cornelia said, though there was a slight question in her voice. Wordlessly, Sayoko stepped aside and Cornelia took over pushing Nunnally's wheelchair.

Hands fidgeting without a task to do, Sayoko led the way back into the hospital. Cornelia with Nunnally followed close behind, and Cornelia's loyal underlings brought up the rear. The crowd didn't dare come inside.

Five minutes later, the unlikely group was given a private conference room; it was much larger than the room where the doctor had revealed the details about Lelouch's condition. Everyone had room to stretch out, but Cornelia stayed close to her little half-sister and clutched her hand.

"How…?" she asked, her voice catching on the word.

Darlton shot Guilford another confused look. Guilford racked his brain, trying to remember where he'd heard the name 'Nunnally' before.

"Well," Nunnally said, holding Cornelia's hand twice as hard. "When we were sent to Japan after Father exiled us…"

Cornelia interrupted, "No, not that! You can tell me about all that later. I want to know how Lelouch is. I want to know how he is right now."

-+-

"What should I say to him?" Euphy whispered, hanging off Schneizel's arm. She hardly noticed the white hallways of the hospital around her, or the strong smell of antiseptic. "He never told me he had a boyfriend. Do I act like I don't know? Do I hug him, or is that too forward? What do you think?"

Schneizel briefly smiled down at her. "I think you worry too much, little sister. Just be natural. He's your friend, isn't he? I gathered you two were close from everything you've told me."

Euphy glumly nodded. "Yes, but…things are different now."

"Just because he happens to like men?" Schneizel asked. Periwinkle eyes gazed into her lavender and, discerning the truth of the matter, he consoled, "I'm sorry you had to lose him this way, dear Euphy."

Blushing as pink as her hair, Euphy shyly lowered her head. She couldn't deny it. "Me too," she whispered sadly.

Lloyd grinned eerily from behind. "Suzaku must attract the royal pretty ones."

Euphy gasped and blushed even harder. Cecile wanted to pretend she didn't know the eccentric man, but she'd thrown her lot in with his and she didn't want all those years previous to have been spent in vain. So she settled on an annoyed, "Lloyd, please!"

"Please what?" Lloyd asked, that same sparkle present in his eyes. "Please keep talking about how Suzaku attracts attention from exquisite Britannian royalty?"

"I don't even know what you're talking about anymore," Cecile moaned.

Schneizel looked over his shoulder to see what was happening between Earl Asplund and his assistant. With his face turned away, he walked right into someone. "Excuse me," he hastily apologized, turning his head back around, expecting to see a hurrying doctor or nurse. He was surprised, instead, to find his half-sister, Cornelia li Britannia.

"Sister!" Euphy cried jubilantly and gathered Cornelia's hands in her own. "Oh, you must have heard the news. I'm so glad you came! I thought of calling you, but I didn't think you'd be interested in coming down here—"

Cornelia flinched. "Why wouldn't I be here?! Do you think I'm that heartless—that I wouldn't care? Of course I care!" Her expression and voice portrayed the anger and hurt at Euphemia's words.

Euphy inhaled deeply, lavender eyes glittering with tears. "I know you don't like Elevens, so I didn't think you'd consider this important."

"Elevens?" Cornelia asked in a deadly tone. "What about Elevens? Euphy, why are you here?"

Lloyd started to laugh; his whole body shook from the force of it. Cecile hid her face because of him. Schneizel watched the Knightmare frame designer carefully, storing his odd behavior away for later analysis.

Euphy's joyful expression fell. "We're here for Suzaku. Isn't that why you're here?"

"No, I'm here for Lelouch," Cornelia corrected.

Euphy jerked back, startled. Hope shone in her eyes. Of course she'd suspected Lelouch was alive ever since the hotel jacking, but to hear it confirmed…

"Lelouch?" Schneizel repeated in an even tone. "Cornelia, surely you realize that's absurd. Lelouch is dead." Schneizel moved towards her, sensing she must be confused, but Cornelia quickly backed away, her temper even shorter than usual.

Frowning, she insisted, "Schneizel, Lelouch is alive. He's here at this hospital. Right now."

Cecile bit her lip worriedly. At once, she recognized the name of Suzaku's boyfriend, but what did he have to do with the Imperial Britannian Family? Glancing at Lloyd, she found him eerily grinning.

"She's right, you know," Lloyd spoke up, folding his arms across his chest. "I'm afraid the princess hasn't taken one too many hits from a Knightmare." Everyone stared at him.

Schneizel's expression quickly turned to one of bewilderment. "Do you mean Lelouch has been in a coma here for seven years? But that's ridiculous; someone would have notified us!"

"He was hurt last night!" Cornelia huffed. She turned her intense stare on Lloyd. "You're obviously aware of what's going on here. Tell us everything you know."

Lloyd's smirk grew to cover his entire face. "Do you want the short version or the long version?"

Cornelia bristled with anger, but Schneizel smoothly stepped in and answered, "We want the informatively succinct version, if you wouldn't mind."

Lloyd had to wipe a tear from his eye before he could start, and then he doubled over laughing again and he had to wait for that laughing fit to be over. Finally, when even Schneizel's normally tolerant and placid expression was twisting into a pained grimace, Lloyd said in a sing-song, "Once upon a time, there was a young Britannian prince who was sent to live in a country called Japan. He befriended a local Japanese boy and…" He stopped for a moment, shrugged, made a mental guess, and continued, "…er, I'm guessing they shared some traumatic experiences, what with the whole war thing and all, and then they were unfairly separated and they were sad. Boo hoo." He took off his glasses and theatrically dabbed at his dry, laughing eyes.

"Then seven years later, they were reunited and," he paused dramatically, "they were so overjoyed at seeing one another again that they fell in love. Well, they became all cuddly-wuddly with one another, and some of the other Britannians in the area didn't like that. So those closed-minded Britannian boys cornered the prince and beat him to a bloody pulp for daring to love a 'lowly Eleven,' and then he was carted off to the hospital where the 'lowly Eleven' proceeded to annoyingly blame himself the entire time." He stopped to catch his breath, then finished, "The following morning, the prince's extended family just magically happened to turn up—what a coincidence!—and though they thought they came for different reasons, the truth is that they were all present for the exact same thing."

Everyone gaped at him.

Euphy took a step back, hearing the blood rush in her ears. Suzaku was gay. Lelouch was alive. They knew each other. They were gay for each other—and she had neither (boy)friend nor brother to truly call her own. Her hands shook at the knowledge.

Cecile forced her jaw to close. "Are you…telling me…that Suzaku's boyfriend is a Britannian prince?"

Lloyd nodded proudly. "None other than his esteemed highness, Prince Lelouch vi Britannia, eldest child of the late Empress Marianne." At Cecile's stunned look, he moaned, "Please tell me you recognize that name. Lady Marianne was one of the first to ever pilot a Knightmare. She was the Knight of Two and you're telling me you didn't research her? She piloted the Ganymede I want!" He whined.

Schneizel regained his legendary composure. "But how did Lelouch survive the war? And what about Nunnally?"

"She's alive," Cecile and Cornelia said simultaneously. Euphy smiled weakly; the fact that Nunnally was alive as well calmed her tempest heart.

Cornelia spared Cecile a glance before pinning Lloyd with a stare. "And how long have you known about our little brother being alive?"

Lloyd chuckled. "Oh, maybe about fifteen hours."

"How did you recognize him?" Schneizel pressed.

"There aren't many teenagers the correct ages named Lelouch and Nunnally wandering around Area 11, especially when Nunnally just so happens to be blind and crippled—the exact same injuries suffered by Lady Marianne's daughter at the time of her death. It wasn't hard to put it all together," Lloyd said flippantly, shrugging off his brilliance. "I just did my research, that's all."

Cecile wrapped her arms around herself. "Do you think Suzaku knows he's dating a prince? I mean, if Lelou—Prince Lelouch wanted to keep his status a secret, he wouldn't tell anyone. Unless Suzaku knew him by his title as a child…"

"I think he did," Lloyd answered. "I think he knew exactly who his lover was. Why do you think he was so hesitant at talking about him?"

Cecile shrugged. "I thought he was just embarrassed."

"No," Lloyd refuted firmly. "Suzaku knew, and he was doing his damndest to keep his lover's secret."

"What makes you so sure?" Cecile asked.

Lloyd smiled again. "Because they love each other—which means they tell each other everything, of course!"

Cecile groaned and held a hand to her head. "You don't understand how human emotion works, do you?"

"Ask him," Lloyd insisted. "You'll see. Suzaku knew all along."

Cornelia growled. "That Eleven! He dared touch my little brother with his vile hands; how dare he think himself worthy!" Anger roiled off her in waves. "He knew two of our family were alive this whole time, and he let us think—"

Schneizel calmly put a hand on her shoulder. "Sister, he was most likely keeping silent because Lelouch asked him to. I, for one, am happy our little brother found someone he obviously trusts so much."

Cornelia snarled again, purple eyes blazing. "How could he trust an Eleven?!"

Schneizel turned his stare on Lloyd. "Earl Asplund said they knew each other before the war. That makes sense, considering Kururugi’s father was the Japanese Prime Minister at the time our siblings lived here. And besides, even if he is a Number, everything I've heard about Kururugi tells me he is to be admired."

Barking, cynical laughter erupted from Cornelia. "Why am I not surprised?" At Schneizel;s perplexed stare, she elaborated, "Lelouch. He gets it from you—that whole attitude. You were his favorite brother, and he idolized you. I know you know that; you encouraged him to emulate you. And he did!” Waving a hand, she kept ranting, “With taking after your chess obsession, your clothing style, your way of thinking and strategizing, your view on people…why, who knows how he grew up! He could be a black-haired mini-clone of you! He might even make wild gestures when he speaks!"

Schneizel chuckled deeply. "That is true. I did influence him a lot when he was young."

"And look where it's landed him!" Cornelia hissed angrily. "Surrounding himself with that Eleven has cost him his legs; it almost cost him his life!"

Euphy glanced uneasily between her two older siblings. "Let's all stop arguing and go see Lelouch," she suggested, stepping between them. They had blocked the public hallway long enough.

"I think you're going to have to wait on that," piped up a soft voice from behind Cornelia. Everyone's attention swiveled to the frail blind girl in the wheelchair, flanked by Guilford, Darlton, and Sayoko. Nunnally smiled, sensing their stares, and explained, "Lelouch is awake and everything, but I think right now, there's only one person in the world he wants to see."

-+-

Suzaku swallowed down a feeling of pure doom and stepped through the door.

Lelouch was waiting.

Keeping his eyes glued to the floor, Suzaku shambled over to Lelouch's hospital bed on stiff legs. Despite the fact that he'd seen Lelouch at his worst, it had been in the heat of the moment, and right now Suzaku didn't know what to say or do. He was careful not to touch Lelouch at all, keeping at least a foot of empty space between himself and the metal frame covering the orthopedic bed. He squeezed his eyes shut before raising his head, a couple tears leaking through the corners. When he opened his eyes, he felt a stirring of intimidation as he looked at all the special equipment hooked up to Lelouch's bed. It was unnerving, even to a soldier like him who'd seen worse. Maybe because this was the love of his life in the middle of it all. "I'm glad you're alive," Suzaku managed, his tone soft, almost fluttery in his hesitation. Idiot, he berated himself, why didn't I start this off with an 'I love you'? Because Kallen's here?

Tilting his head with a bewildered look on his face, Lelouch made some kind of odd choking noise. Maybe he'd craved the 'I love you,' too, and Suzaku hadn't delivered.

Add that to the list of ways Suzaku could disappoint.

Before Suzaku could venture too far down that demoralizing road, Kallen stepped closer to Lelouch and reached out a hand. Then, apparently realizing what she was doing, she let her arm fall back to dangle uselessly at her side. "I saw you," she explained, her tone matching Suzaku's. "On the news," she added hurriedly. "I didn't know if you were—anyway, I was here already, so I thought I'd stop by…"

Tearing his gaze from Suzaku, Lelouch looked at his other visitor. "Here because of your illness?" he asked, his voice a bit strained. Then, backpedaling, he exclaimed, "I was on the news?"

Kallen stared at him with a blank face. Then, she hunched over and weakly coughed. "Um, yes, you see," she started to say in a higher-pitched voice and then fell into another coughing fit. She completely ignored Lelouch's second question, too intent on...something. Suzaku didn't know what.

"She's here to visit a family member," Suzaku explained, smiling weakly at the flustered Kallen. It was easier to look at Kallen than at Lelouch, or at all the pulleys and weights hanging from the surrounding bed frame.

Lelouch nodded. "Oh?" he inquired. With a polite smile and with his legs elevated in slings attached to traction wires, he was the pure picture of innocence.

Slowly nodding to affirm Suzaku's testament, Kallen pulled a chair close to Leouch's bedside. "Yeah, what he said," she muttered, even though it was a bit redundant. 

Suzaku carefully lowered himself onto the edge of the bed, ducking under some kind of hanging instrument. He glanced at his beaten lover for a quick second and then hastily looked away, wondering where he should direct his attention. After all, Lelouch always had to look impeccable, and right now he looked anything but. Would it be disrespectful to look at him, stepped on and utterly crushed though he was?

Lelouch sighed and, seeming to read his thoughts, commanded, "Suzaku, look at me." 

Green eyes flickered in his direction. "Yes?" Suzaku breathed, shying away from the imposing medical apparatus skirting the bed. He didn't have much room to maneuver, but he'd put himself there and that was all there was to it.

"Tell me what's wrong," Lelouch ordered, his voice still in that slow, patient tone.

Suzaku shook his head. His fingers dug into the thin hospital bed, and his eyes clenched shut. He'd done nothing but wish to be alone with his lover, but now he didn't know... And he still wasn't completely alone with Lelouch; Kallen was there. It wasn't like he could pour his heart out in front of her…

He was saved from answering when Kallen asked, "Do you know what you're going to…do?" she asked, uneasily waving her hand in the general direction of Lelouch's suspended legs.

"They explained a basic treatment plan early this morning when I woke up," Lelouch answered. "But in addition to what they have scheduled for me, there's also a scientist I want to look up on my own." He stared at the bed frame metal rods and attached ropes with a nervous expression before glancing at Suzaku and relaxing again. "I've been reading about her online for awhile now. At first, I thought her work in medical cybernetics might be beneficial for Nunnally, but maybe she can help me, too."

"I see," Kallen said. "Good luck with that."

Lelouch simply said, "Thank you," and dismissively turned his attention once more to Suzaku, who was still silently suffering.

Obviously uncomfortable, Kallen fidgeted in her seat. "Maybe I should go—"

"If the Black Knights hadn't attacked on Sunday, I would've been able to go to school yesterday and protect you!" Suzaku exclaimed suddenly, cutting Kallen off in his desperate need to explain himself.

A rope slipped out of its groove. "This…is the Black Knights' fault…?" Kallen asked in a low voice of disbelief. Aquamarine eyes were wide, and there was a hint of tears ready to spill down her cheeks.

"No!" Lelouch snapped. Suzaku didn't move at his harsh tone, but Lelouch was still calmer when he amended, "At least, not entirely. If the blame is to fall on anyone, it should be on Zero himself! The rest of the Black Knights are innocent." 

Kallen jumped to her feet, looking like she was struggling with something. "I hope you feel better," she forced out. "But I gotta go. Mom's got physical therapy. I'll come visit you again soon," she promised and was out the door before either boy could reply.

Suzaku stared blankly after her sudden departure. Then, he turned back to those shimmering violet irises he fell for so long ago and realized…

…he was finally alone with Lelouch.

Chapter Text

Suzaku struggled for control. He was alone with Lelouch.

It was suddenly too much. Tearing his gaze away from beseeching violet, Suzaku surged to his feet and whirled around to concentrate on the far side of the hospital room.

At the abrupt movements, Lelouch flinched back with a smothered gasp.

The sound cracked Suzaku’s heart deeper. Eyes stinging, he fixated on the soft shade of purple coloring the walls. Photographs of natural landscapes and cuddling kittens dotted the room—as if a calming aesthetic would do anything to diminish the horrors of reality contained within. Who did the hospital staff think they were fucking kidding?

Suzaku paced, knowing he wasn’t getting anywhere but needing to feel like he was. His shoulders trembled like he was trying to hold up the weight of the Narita Mountains but was buckling under the pressure. When he reached the picture of majestic peaks standing proud against a backdrop of sunrise, Suzaku clenched his fists twice before forcibly uncurling his fingers and turning towards his own new beginning.

Leaning back tense against his pillow, Lelouch eyed him warily.

Suzaku breathed in sharply through his nose and squared his shoulders. He felt out of place, as if he didn’t have a right to be in this hospital room with Lelouch, but he forced himself to squash that absurd thought. They were lovers . If anyone should be at Lelouch’s side… The misleading hospital walls closed in on Suzaku, spiking up the tension as he slowly approached his injured purpose for living. His feet moved on their own, taking him back towards Lelouch like always; if Suzaku had only resisted his attraction to his best friend in the first place, if he’d chosen a different path, he wouldn’t be standing now on their shattered dreams. Lelouch would be able to stand, period.

Lelouch’s breathing grew more rapid and shallow the closer Suzaku stepped.

Lost in a fog of his own misery, Suzaku finally realized what was happening and stopped two feet from the bed. He clasped his shaking hands together as tight as the gnawing anxiety gripped his lungs. Lelouch’s whole body trembled like a mudslide throughout the entire process, relaxing only when Suzaku’s fingers sought each other, and his reaction was a nail in Suzaku’s heart. Overwhelming emotions churned inside Suzaku, their effects hitting home as quickly and deadly as the Lancelot’s—only this time he was the target instead of the pilot. It was hard to breathe, like when someone pinned him to the wall by the neck. His brain must not be getting enough oxygen because, despite wanting to be alone with Lelouch for the longest time, Suzaku suddenly didn’t know what to say or do now that he had his chance. It slightly compared to when he didn’t know how to act around Lelouch during the awkward crushing stage of their relationship, or even their first weeks together before things solidified into real .

This couldn’t be happening, but it was a nightmare instead of a dream come true.

Lelouch breathed more steadily as Suzaku stood frozen and unthreatening. A look of recognition dawned in his eyes.

Suzaku swallowed, almost choking on the lump in his throat. He flicked his eyes away from Lelouch’s in less time than it took to fire a gun, looking out the wide window opposite the door—only to see gray skies and concrete. No matter where he looked, no matter how hard he wished, the dismal facts didn’t change. The life lesson was no less bitter this time around. A twisted avalanche of negativity in his chest buried any silver linings as thoroughly as the Narita mudslide had buried alive good people—others whom Suzaku had failed to save.

Lelouch could not be more confined to his hospital bed than if he was fettered to it.

Stifling a dry sob, Suzaku closed his eyes and coughed into his shoulder. He could still see Lelouch on the backs of his eyelids, strapped to that bench and covered in blood and come. He opened his eyes, desperate to escape that memory. The current reality wasn’t much better, and he wished in vain for a different one. Worrying at his lip, he tried to focus on something other than his still-shaking hands. He grabbed a remote controller off the windowsill and hurriedly switched on the small mounted television in the upper corner—more for something to do than because he wanted to watch anything. The local news popped up automatically with blurry footage of The Attack, and Suzaku deactivated the television before the picture could fully materialize.

Lelouch tilted his head, questions lurking in his eyes. “Suzaku?” he asked, his tone guarded.

“Y-yeah?” Suzaku squeaked, his gaze zipping around the sterile hospital room from reminder to reminder of yesterday’s assault. The wheelchair in the corner spawned a heavy weight of dread in Suzaku’s stomach, and his breaths grew as shallow as Lelouch’s when his gaze swept over Lelouch’s suspended legs in plain sight. Even the air smelled of blood underneath the bleach. Or was that just Suzaku’s imagination, because the scent of blood seemed to follow him everywhere?

Leaning forward, Lelouch tried to catch his eye.

Suzaku automatically angled away. Lelouch was physically accessible, right there on the bed. Suzaku could literally reach out and touch him…he so wanted to…so why didn’t he? He chanced a quick, almost unseeing glance in the beaten Britannian’s general direction before staring at a picture of cuddling kittens on the other side of the room. They reminded him of Arthur, and then Suzaku remembered that he’d always had bad luck with cats.

Maybe it wasn’t just with cats.

“What’s wrong, Suzaku?” Lelouch asked, furrowing his brows. “It’s okay. Look at me.”

Rubbing the back of his head, Suzaku forced himself to meet his boyfriend’s concerned gaze. He sighed, getting lost in a swirl of purple. It grew a little easier to breathe. In the back of his mind, Suzaku knew this was backwards. He should be comforting Lelouch, not the other way around! His shoulders slumped. For the first time, he deigned to use a particular coded gesture they’d developed for situations like this: He tapped his throat.

Lelouch’s eyes widened in acknowledgement, but he nodded his acceptance. “I know it’s hard,” he said in a strangled whisper. “I’ll let you find your voice. Take your time.”

It took several additional moments of deep breaths and mental coaching for Suzaku to calm down enough to speak. He fiddled with the remote in his hands, running his fingers over the buttons as smooth as his life was not. Inching forward and lowering his eyes, he avoided the daunting obvious and asked cautiously, “Is there…is there anything I can do for you, Lelouch?”

Subdued, Lelouch blinked and followed Suzaku’s lead, staying on neutral ground for now. “Well,” he mused, rubbing at a bruise, “I suppose I’d like to get cleaned up.” He swept his fingers through his tousled hair and grimaced.

Suzaku cocked his head, concentrating on a crack in the ceiling this time. Hygiene was the furthest thing from his mind at the moment, but then he remembered: Of course neat-freak Lelouch wanted everything perfect—especially after yesterday. “I’ll clean us both up,” Suzaku promised, knowing he also looked a mess. He felt better having a job to do—more focused. With that, he dropped the remote control on the bed and swiftly disappeared into the adjoining bathroom. He jerkily rummaged in the cabinets beneath the sink before emerging empty-handed and suggesting, “I think we need to call for help on this one.”

“I don’t need help,” Lelouch bit out, sounding angry and defensive. “Yours or anyone’s.”

Retreating a step, Suzaku nodded and soothed, “I understand.” He knew Lelouch better than anyone. Suzaku didn’t know why he’d expected recent circumstances to have changed things, but it gave him hope that Lelouch would always be Lelouch.

It was a small blessing on top of the much larger miracle that Lelouch had been found in time. He still could be Lelouch.

“I’ll be right back,” Suzaku said, withdrawing again and feeling lighter moving in reverse. I am the worst, most messed up boyfriend in the world. It was official now, in case it wasn’t before. His heart pounded as he looked at his salvation in the form of an empty cabinet and declared, “I’m going to find us some toothbrushes.” Excuses were handy inventions, and Suzaku was an expert at wielding them. Warmth and dizziness unlocked the heavy chains of guilt and responsibility; he was an airborne paper crane granting a wish. Why am I so happy to get out of here when I’ve wanted nothing but to be at his side for hours?

Nodding with a carefully neutral expression, Lelouch waved a hand towards the door and accidentally set a hanging handhold swinging. He narrowly missed knocking the remote control to the hard floor, too.

Suzaku couldn’t hightail it out of there fast enough, feeling Lelouch’s eyes trained on him to the bitter end.

I guess I just need a break from staring my mistakes in the face.

As always, Suzaku’s mistakes trailed close behind him. There was no escaping reality.

-+-

Lelouch’s face contorted with pain as soon as Suzaku fled the room, the extreme effort of staying composed wasted without an audience. Something awkward and heavy in his chest squirmed around open, stinging cuts. Why is Suzaku being like this? Every act of avoidance felt like a poison dart striking center, and Lelouch hadn’t thought his heart could hurt more than it had yesterday. Being wrong added insult to injury. He scowled at the picture of cuddling kittens, feeling a bitter jealousy burn the back of his throat at their captured closeness. Everything below his waist stung and throbbed with overwhelming agony, and at first seeing Suzaku had somehow been enough to strengthen Lelouch. But now...    I thought he would want to be with me. I thought I’d be happy to have him here, but…

Squeezing and bending the ends of the remote control with both hands until it almost snapped, Lelouch wished he could rewind his life; alternatively, he wanted to at least program Suzaku’s settings back to “normal devoted boyfriend” to fix how they’d seemingly taken multiple steps backwards in their relationship. Lelouch had been aiming forwards instead, had been impatient enough to see his Japanese lover to the point where he’d Geassed the nurses to abandon protocol and allow it—but now that they’d been together, he felt hope drain from him like once-proud countries surrendering to become Britannian Areas. Why are you so closed-off, Suzaku? Of all the people Lelouch felt would be real with him at a time like this…

The room was moderately dim. Lelouch clenched his teeth against a lightbulb idea, reminding him that he could change his boyfriend’s attitude as easily as clicking a button.

He forced his racing thoughts in another direction. I’m safe. Suzaku’s here. He won’t hurt me. I’m safe. He had to actively focus on taking deep breaths, just as he’d seen Suzaku do mere moments ago. My attackers are gone. Today is a new day. I’m safe. I’m safe. The consequences from the day before would linger for years, but at least he was on the road to recovery. I’m safe now . The doctors had cleaned the blood off his body and put his legs in splints. It was a start. I’m safe.

But it had been two minutes. What if his attackers came back? What if they went after Suzaku this time—what if they’d already intercepted him outside the hospital room? No , Lelouch frantically reassured himself. I’d have heard the commotion. Suzaku of all people could definitely fight them off. Still, he couldn’t stem the dizziness making his logic tilt like the room. And Nunnally! Is she okay? He hadn’t seen his helpless little sister for fifteen minutes. Where had she gone after visiting him? Back to Ashford Academy? Was it safe for her there, even with Sayoko’s protection?

Similar thoughts circled on maddening repeat through his head, and his body tensed with urgency as nervous energy spiraled through his body with no outlet. His chest felt tight with embarrassment at how his broken limbs were strung up on awkward display, with only a thin blanket blocking his privates from view. It wasn’t the dignified position of a prince, that was for sure. His fingers clenched around his bed sheets and the remote, and he bit his bottom lip until a bead of blood appeared—because apparently he hadn’t lost enough yesterday. Damn! he cursed, wishing for a nonexistent miracle in the form of information or distraction (if not outright healing). I can’t even do the simplest things! If only I could go after him! As if in response to his negative musings, his legs tingled with sharp jabs of pain.

When the door finally opened to admit the boy of his affection, Lelouch pointed a finger at him and demanded, “Where have you been?!”

Calmly, Suzaku answered, “I told you, Lelouch. I went to find toothbrushes.” As if to prove his trustworthiness, he held up two of the items in question, as well as a small tube of toothpaste and a generic black comb. His hands seemed slightly steadier than before, but he still kept his eyes averted from Lelouch’s as if he couldn’t climb the thick mental wall between them.

Which was bullshit, because Suzaku could scale any wall.

It was insultingly disgraceful that he wasn’t even trying. Lelouch crossed his arms.

Suzaku cleared his throat. “The nurse’s station on this floor is pretty well-stocked. I was only gone five minutes.” A knowing smile crossed his lips and he joked lightly, “I didn’t think you’d miss me that much.”

“I didn’t,” Lelouch was quick to refute, his tone blaringly untruthful—but agitated instead of his normal teasing. “Anyway, go groom yourself. You look like you’ve been to hell and back.”

Suzaku’s face pinched before morphing into a glare. “ Don’t even joke about that, Lelouch.”

In a gruff but sincere voice, Lelouch said, “I’m not joking. You look like you’ve been through a rough time.” That was an understatement, but a true observation nonetheless. He wanted to say that line before Suzaku said it to him; he owned those words first, dammit, and he refused to let anyone take them away from him after everything else he had lost. Reaching for even more control, he sniffed and advised, “You need to sleep. Rest would do you a world of good right now.” He liked telling his boyfriend what to do; it gave him back a sense of power that he felt he’d lost yesterday. Orders felt natural on his lips.

Shaking his head, Suzaku hurried into the bathroom and glanced at his reflection in the mirror. “I don’t need to sleep right now,” he called back. “I’ll just have nightmares.” His fingers clutched the sink for a long moment before he tidied himself up.

Lelouch craned his head to get a better angle, watching as Suzaku pulled the comb through his hair. He sighed, “Me too,” under his breath but didn’t know what else to say to his distressed boyfriend. Lelouch didn’t like not knowing how to handle Suzaku , especially when everything else in his life now seemed so shaky and uncertain.

After a few moments, Suzaku seemed much better if still not completely pristine. After filling a disposable cup with water, he ripped open the second toothbrush package and announced almost too-cheerfully, “Your turn, Lelouch!”

Startled, Lelouch jerked back. “Wha—?” Before he could finish, Suzaku shoved the toothbrush into Lelouch’s mouth before retreating to the opposite end of the room and looking like he wanted to keep going through the wall. Lelouch cringed at the hasty happening as well as at his boyfriend’s continued withdrawal. Toothpaste fell on his tongue, and he accidentally swallowed some of it as he sputtered. The effect of his glare was ruined by the handle of the toothbrush poking out from between his lips. Since his arms were still functional, and Lelouch was one to take advantage of all his opportunities, he raised his dominant right hand and began to brush his teeth. His eyes chased Suzaku’s unsuccessfully throughout the entire process, and toothpaste muffled his frustrated groan.

“Spit into the empty cup,” Suzaku instructed, ignoring the dissatisfied noises and coming closer again just long enough to toss the plastic cup in Lelouch’s general direction. “When you’re done, I’ll take care of everything.”

Lelouch nodded and brushed his teeth for another ten minutes. Nothing would ever wash away the taste of his attackers’ cocks in his mouth, but he scrubbed away as if the toothpaste could erase the evidence; the minty flavor buried the disgusting traces of bitter ejaculate. After spitting, he took a sip of water and swished it in his mouth. It wasn’t as effective as mouthwash, but it was definitely better than nothing. He spit that, too. “I’m done now,” he declared. Dare he think it, but actually he felt a bit better after cleaning his mouth—less dirty somehow.

Suzaku, having waited in some kind of trance, disappeared into the bathroom again to rinse and throw away the cups. He returned with the comb. “Now for your hair.”

With a stiff, grateful smile, Lelouch stretched his hand for the tool; Suzaku held it out of reach. “Suzaku,” the prince snapped. He felt helpless enough already, and dammit, he had to take control where he could. Voice scathing, he snarled, “I can use my arms . I just brushed my teeth by myself, so I think I can manage to brush my own hair.”

At those words and tone, Suzaku forked over the comb and cowered away. “Okay, Lelouch,” he mumbled. “I know you like being independent.”

“Damn right, Suzaku,” Lelouch said, confidence dripping from his tone—but there was a crack in it that hadn’t been present before yesterday.

Suzaku paced the room, still acting lost in his own world, and he balked when he accidentally bumped into the wheelchair. He jumped two feet in the air and pressed his back to the wall, chest heaving and eyes tearing up. Lelouch eyed him oddly, and Suzaku hung his head and turned away. He peeked at the hospitalized Britannian every ten seconds or so, but never let his eyes meet Lelouch’s directly for more than half a heartbeat.

Sighing, Lelouch finished with his hair and flung the comb onto a nearby tray. Damn you, Suzaku! Stop being like this! He tried to shift into a more comfortable position, but the movement only caused him to hiss in pain.

Eyes wild, Suzaku jumped to offer, “Let me get a nurse so you can have more painkillers.” He came across as feeling trapped and needing an out. Again.

Suzaku! ” Lelouch seethed. I’m going to reach you, one way or another! Twisting his torso around to face the soldier, the prince proclaimed, “More than any painkiller, all I need is you .” Violet pierced green with the strength of that belief, and Lelouch repeated for good measure, “Just you.”

-+-

A jolt of guilt coursed through Suzaku’s center, and he lowered his head while hiding his right hand behind his back. “Killer,” he picked out in a low mumble, the other words forgotten as he fell into a tailspin. He could feel the phantom weight of the blade handle against his palm, could feel his father’s gaze pressing into him. He could never escape. “That’s just what I am. That’s not what you need.” His eyes fell again on the wheelchair, and he flinched like he’d been struck with a baseball bat. He squirmed, feeling Lelouch’s cell phone weigh heavily in his pants pocket and hold him down. Half-truths pressed at him from all angles, making the air around him thick with ashen secrets and suppressed darkness.

Lelouch groaned in frustration and scolded, “Idiot!” He glowered, and something vital in his expression seemed to fracture. “Even though you don’t seem to recognize it, I’m right here in front of you, Suzaku!” Making wide and sweeping gestures at himself—which, had it been anyone but Lelouch, might have seemed overdone to compensate for the broken legs—Lelouch slammed the remote against his bed railing. His voice grew brasher, bitter, and burning over the pings. “Newsflash! I’m alive! I didn’t die!”

Suzaku’s head whipped up and he crossed his arms tightly across his chest, trying valiantly to keep from exploding and unleashing all his sins. Wetting his lips, he actively ignored how Lelouch flinched away from the sudden movements. Blocking the truth, Suzaku stammered, “I—I know that, Lelouch.” He tensed as his gaze flicked once more, of its own accord, to Lelouch’s slung up broken legs.

“Do you?” accused Lelouch, his lips twisting in a half-sneer. “You’re not acting like it.” He dropped the remote on the nearby tray next to the comb and clenched his trembling hands into fists on his lap. Before Suzaku could defend himself, Lelouch plunged on, “You’re…you’re hiding from me, from what happened.” His breath hitched and his eyes glazed over, as if he was seeing something Suzaku couldn’t.

Hunching into himself, Suzaku protested in a too-loud voice, “No, I’m not!” His yell seemed to pierce through Lelouch’s mental fog, earning a critical eye. Suzaku pressed himself harder against the wall, turning his head away again, and his voice dropped to the opposite extreme as he whispered, “I—I just can’t… I can’t—”

“Suzaku,” Lelouch interrupted with an exasperated groan as he rubbed his swollen temple, “if you’re not ready to face this yet, that’s fine.” His breathing accelerated rapidly, making one of the hospital machines beep faster. He leveled a judgmental stare at Suzaku as he flung out, “But you’re not helping me by overreacting each time you remember what happened yesterday!”

Suzaku recoiled again, accidentally banging the back of his head against the wall. He didn’t even notice. The guilt pulsed stronger in his bloodstream, especially as Lelouch winced because of him again. I should be doing everything I can to help you, Lelouch. Not just the surface stuff, either. He swallowed down shame and forced out through a tight throat, “I’m sorry.”

“So fix your attitude or leave!” Lelouch snapped out of sheer exhaustion. His eyebrows knit together in an aggravated frown, and he looked downright frightening despite his condition. Gesturing wildly to his broken legs, hands still quaking, he snarled, “Right now I can’t be strong for both of us, so try not to make this harder on me!”

Suzaku flinched as his lover’s zingers hit home, and he whimpered, “I’m not trying…”

Lelouch snorted and countered confidently, resentment oozing through that fresh crack, “ But that’s what you’re doing.” He jabbed his finger at Suzaku furiously. “I know you have your issues and you don’t mean to, and I’m trying to be understanding, but god, Suzaku, right now I have my own damn problems!” He motioned to his legs again, as if Suzaku needed the reminder—which he damn well didn’t.

Cringing, Suzaku closed his eyes in a feeble attempt to block the tears.  After a string of recent triggering events that he was still struggling to handle, Suzaku’s feelings stretched taut and edged right up to his breaking point. The only reason he hadn’t broken completely yet was because of Lelouch’s unwavering and rock-solid support once he knew the depth of truth. Taking another deep breath of stale air, Suzaku opened his eyes to the big picture, looked to the ceiling, and stammered again, “I—I know.  I’m sorry, Lelouch.”

“Don’t be sorry! Just change your mindset or get out!” Lelouch sneered, hurling the comb towards the door. It bounced off with a pathetic clatter. “I really can’t deal with your attitude right now.”

Suzaku gaped in disbelief as he blindly retrieved the comb and stroked the pads of his fingers across the pointy teeth. It felt unreal. “You want me to leave?” he asked, looking intently at the hair instrument, his voice barely audible over the throbbing of his heart. Thunder roared in his ears.

Lelouch sighed like a weak kitten, but his voice was strong and sure as he corrected, “No, Suzaku, you want to leave.”

“I don’t!” Suzaku insisted in a rather unconvincing whine. He tossed the comb back onto the tray, where it belonged. His gaze still flitting around the room, he glanced at a tensing Lelouch through his peripheral vision. “I want to be with you!”

Lelouch scowled at the cuddling kittens picture. “You don’t . I can tell. Why is that, I wonder?” he asked icily. Fuming, Lelouch upended the entire tray with a crash and snarled, “Am I that appalling to you now that I’m crippled ?”

Jaw dropping, Suzaku spluttered, “Wh-what?!” Where did that come from? Is Lelouch secretly afraid...? Face hardening, insulted, Suzaku hissed, “As if I’d give a shit about that!”

Lelouch looked down, muttering, “Well, what else am I supposed to think based on how you’re acting?” Shivering, he wrapped his arms around himself and leaned back. “Don’t tell me you’re feeling guilty —because I told Nunnally not to let you inside if you were blaming yourself.” He took a few gasping breaths, struggling for his legendary control before choking out, “Why can’t you even look at me?!”

Suzaku drooped. “That’s because…”

Shoulders bending in, Lelouch hugged himself tighter and demanded, “Because why?!”

Suzaku took a step forward, closer to the bed. Looking at the photograph of sunrise bathing the mountaintops, he took strength and fervidly divulged, “Because I can’t stand seeing you hurt!” For the first time that morning, he met and held Lelouch’s gaze. It took every ounce of his superior strength to keep his eyes locked in place. Voice wobbly, he added, “And what’s worse, Lelouch, is that you were hurt because of me !”

Lelouch’s head jerked up, his face as angry and stunned as it had looked that night Suzaku had first suggested they shouldn’t be seen together at school. “What?! That’s ridiculous!” He threw both hands in the air, arms spread wide in incredulity, as if he’d never heard anything so stupid—even considering the source was Suzaku.

Gritting his teeth and waving his arms haphazardly, Suzaku said, “If you didn’t associate with me, you never would’ve been attacked yesterday!” Misfortune seems to happen a lot around Suzaku, doesn’t it? Lloyd had observed after Narita. Do you think there’s a correlation? After all this, Suzaku had to agree. It wasn’t fair that Lelouch was taking the brunt of it now.

Lelouch whipped his head side-to-side, trembling violently and eyeing Suzaku’s rampant arm movements with trepidation. It took him eleven deep breaths to gather himself enough to speak. “I was attacked because three prejudiced bigots at our school couldn’t handle the idea of a Britannian boy and a Japanese boy dating. That’s all.” He pointed his index finger at Suzaku in a dramatic pose as he concluded, “It had nothing to do with you!”

Suzaku wiped at his eyes and struggled to find his voice. “But I’m the one—”

“Who makes me happy? Who gives me a reason to fight? Who gives me a reason to live ?” Lelouch interrupted again, filling in the blanks without being asked.

After another terse silence, Suzaku rectified, “No, I’m the one who let you get hurt. This is all my fault, Lelouch! Every last bit!” He staggered a few paces closer to his injured boyfriend. Voice still shaky, arms still in wild motion, he explained, “I’m why they targeted you, and to top it off, I didn’t even save you. I’m so sorry!” Sniffling, he covered his eyes and ignored the big, fat tears rolling beneath his splayed fingers.

“My god, Suzaku. There are lots of things in this messed-up world that I make myself put up with, but I won’t lie here and listen to you blame yourself,” Lelouch asserted while holding a flat palm up and out for ‘stop,’ his voice stronger than Britannia’s military might. Gentling his tone, he lowered his hand and recognized, “I know you can’t always help it, but it’s really hard to lie here and watch you like this.”

“And it’s not hard for me to watch you like this?” countered Suzaku hoarsely. He flapped his hands in the beaten Britannian’s general direction, encompassing everything that had happened. What happened to you is so much worse.

Bowing his head, Lelouch acknowledged, “It is. I never said it wasn’t.”

“You don’t understand,” Suzaku contended, his eyes sweeping Lelouch from head to dangling toe. “Every time I look at your injuries, I’m reminded that I didn’t protect you!” The crazy glint in his eyes shone even brighter as he leaned towards Lelouch. Tears poured down his cheeks faster than Japan had been conquered, and he ripped at his hair in frustration as he burst out, “I’m such a failure and you needed me and I wasn’t there! ” He ended in a wail and the familiar self-degrading thought flew through his mind: Lelouch deserves better than me!

-+-

Lelouch’s heartfelt glare did nothing to stem Suzaku’s tirade. Tactic one, failed. Lashing his arm out, Lelouch said, “This is grating . Give it up, Suzaku!” His stomach churned and he couldn’t pinpoint if it was from watching his lover degrade himself or if his body was reacting to the current emotional stress piling on top of yesterday’s trauma. With a stern look at his distraught boyfriend, he lectured, “Listen to me very carefully: You did nothing wrong!”

Wiping at his nose now, Suzaku argued, “I was at work when I should’ve been by your side.”

Purple eyes rolling in frustration, Lelouch briefly considered tape-recording a playlist of personalized reassurances for Suzaku. Then again, the benefits might not outweigh the cost of effort. Readjusting his bed sheets, Lelouch said, “It’s not a crime to have your own life, you know, and you don’t have to be with me every single second. In fact, I’d get sick of you if you were!”

Lelouch was telling himself as much as Suzaku because, as much as Lelouch hated to admit to an irrational and emotional response, a small part of him agreed with the other boy—felt betrayed and let down—in a place deep, deep inside, nestled close to the part of him that craved his father’s approval. He’d mentally called for Suzaku, had thought of his lover in some capacity or another the entire assault, and the soldier had never come to his rescue. How fucking dare he!

“I should’ve defended you! That makes it my fault!” Suzaku reiterated.

Lelouch counted to ten silently in both Japanese and Britannian English, but his voice was still highly incensed when he returned, “No, it doesn’t!” It doesn’t , he stressed to himself. Follow the logic. I am a logical person . Idly running his fingers over the empty tray stand, eyeing the effects of his supercharged reaction littering the ground, he motioned first to Suzaku and then to the fallen objects. “After all, you couldn’t help being at work, so point the finger at someone else.” Like the fucking bastards who actually attacked me .

Suzaku’s eyes narrowed with focus into angry slits as he processed Lelouch’s words and bent to collect the toppled items. After a moment of silent seething, moving the possessions agitatedly from hand to hand, he admitted, “You’re right, Lelouch.” He slammed the comb and remote back onto the tray as he growled around the resounding clacks, “This is Zero’s fault. That damn terrorist is the reason I was stuck in the lab yesterday, so it’s all his doing that you were hurt.”

Gaping at his lover, Lelouch teetered with dizziness. A sudden chill raced down his spine, chasing the bitter realization: That one backfired on me . Black spots burst in front of his vision, blocking Suzaku’s enraged face. That might have been a blessing in disguise. Grasping the hanging handhold for stability, Lelouch shot back, “Zero? No, I meant—”

Distracted now, Suzaku ranted, “I hate him!” He punched a fist into his open palm and finally made his way to Lelouch’s bedside, spitting, “I thought maybe, after how he treated people on Sunday, that he was changing and that he wasn’t as repulsive as I’d thought.”

Lelouch could not control the way his face lit up with hope and excitement.

Luckily, Suzaku was too caught up in his outburst to notice. “But then…he did this!” Motioning wildly to Lelouch’s injuries, he kept ranting, “Not only does Zero officially go against everything I stand for, but now he’s even taken away your legs!” Brutally shoving the tray stand aside, he reflexively kept it from falling over and knelt on the floor in its place. “You’re the last person who deserves to suffer from Zero’s actions, Lelouch!” With tears still streaming down his cheeks, Suzaku buried his face in the sheets.

The sight tore at Lelouch’s heartstrings, snapping a strand of inhibition. Taking two deep breaths, he slowly stroked Suzaku’s curls.

Suzaku froze at Lelouch’s stilted movements, breathing shallowly.

Heart pounding as he focused on the familiar softness of Suzaku’s hair under his palm, Lelouch repeated his mantra: I’m initiating contact . It helped to remember how he and Suzaku had touched last night in the direct aftermath of the attack, and it had been good. It would be good again. Suzaku’s hair was slightly greasy, but Lelouch couldn’t think of anything more comforting to touch as he pushed through his conditioned fear. I will overcome this!

Lelouch Lamperouge (vi Britannia) controlled terror, not the other way around.

By the time Suzaku’s crying spell winded down, Lelouch’s movements had eased into naturally soothing and smoothly repetitive.

Hiccupping, Suzaku raised his tear-stained face. He opened and closed his mouth, but his words seemed stuck in transition.

Lelouch tensed. Exhaling a decision, he softly traced a tear streak down his boyfriend’s cheek with only the pad of his index finger. Stopping under Suzaku’s chin, Lelouch used his leverage to tilt Suzaku’s face up into eye-contact. “Zero didn’t attack me,” he asserted firmly. Hurrying before Suzaku would probably protest, Lelouch announced, “The real culprits here are three violent, intolerant Ashford Academy students.”

“Zero still played a part,” Suzaku maintained with a ferocious glare. “I can’t forgive him for hurting you!”

Lelouch’s finger dropped as he leaned back, reeling. Suzaku may hate Zero more than he hates himself . It felt like another blow from the baseball bat, only this time the damage was somewhere more sensitive. Heart lurching, Lelouch fiddled with the adaptive bed equipment as he tried to understand. Even redirected to the actual assailants, Suzaku so easily channeled his anger in Zero’s direction . Chewing his lip thoughtfully, Lelouch reached out and grounded himself with the touch of Suzaku’s hair. He noticed the grease more under his fingertips. The beeps of various machines in the background helped set a rhythm for this thoughts. Is Suzaku’s hatred strong enough that he’ll never willingly join me? There were very few answers Lelouch feared to hear, but this had always been one of them.

Suzaku’s head moved under Lelouch’s hand. “Did I say something wrong?” he asked, a note of anxiety in his voice. “I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about that godawful terrorist anymore.”

Forcing his eyes open, Lelouch stared at Suzaku with all the natural willpower he could muster and skillfully steered them back to the crux of the matter. “Zero is not responsible for my condition. You are not responsible for my condition.”

“But Zero—”

“—would probably be the number one supporter of our relationship, Suzaku,” Lelouch cut in with a convincing smile. “A Britannian and a Japanese together—what could represent his ideals of equality better?”

Suzaku’s forehead furrowed into deeply-lined grooves as he scathingly spat, “Pft. Equality. So he says .”

Lelouch kept his face carefully blank. “I believe him.”

“Why?!”

Clutching a fistful of bed sheets, Lelouch said, “Because I—” He looked down so his bangs covered his eyes. I was considering telling Suzaku the truth, but it would ruin things if I dropped that bombshell when he’s already distressed and blaming Zero for things out-of-context . Like with addressing the magnitude of Suzaku’s mental health issues, the circumstances for a serious discussion about Zero had to stand up to Lelouch’s personal levels of perfect. All tasks at hand were not cleared. Narrowing his eyes, Lelouch gazed right into Suzaku’s. “I just...”

Suzaku snorted derisively. “You always have good reasons for things, Lelouch, but even you can’t find one to defend that bastard.”

“I bet I could,” Lelouch challenged with a superior toss of his head.

Suzaku rolled his eyes with a hint of warm affection. “Probably,” he relented, “but I still couldn’t trust him.”

Lelouch frowned. “You know who I can’t trust?”

Tilting his head, the fight ostensibly draining from him, Suzaku asked in a voice smaller than an Honorary Britannian’s nationalistic pride, “…Me?”

Lelouch gave his boyfriend a dirty look and pounded a fist on the bed, the weak impact doing nothing to stem his fiercely renewed frustration. We’re going in circles! Why does he have to be so goddamn stubborn about this?! It was a relatively simple concept to understand, and Suzaku should have been able to grasp it without this much tutoring. Livid, Lelouch barked, “I don’t trust the ones at fault—three Britannian bigots who go to school with us. For the last time, Zero didn’t—and more importantly, you didn’t— do anything!”

-+-

“That’s not the point!” shouted Suzaku, shoulders trembling. He looked around, his vision distorted and hazy around the edges with tears. Looking at it from a different angle, Suzaku unwittingly wondered if the photograph of the mountaintops depicted a sun set instead. “Letting something happen to you is just as bad as if I’d personally stabbed you in the gut!” His shivers spread all over and he lowered his head, exclaiming stridently, “I never want to go through that again.”

Flicking Suzaku on the forehead, Lelouch chided, “Stop being overdramatic. You’ve never stabbed anyone, Suzaku.” Then, gently cupping Suzaku’s face, he amended, “Even though you’re in the military, I know you and you’re not capable of anything like that.” He sounded as sure of himself as always. Even that new crack seemed filled with faith in Suzaku.

Wincing, Suzaku turned his face away and wrapped his arms tighter around his torso, trying to hold himself together. Little do you know, Lelouch! Suzaku was splitting apart at the seams. Any moment now he’d break into little disgusting pieces. Then Lelouch would have to scrape him off the floor and throw him away, like he probably should have done a long time ago. Suzaku sniffled and gasped out in a brittle voice, “St-stop it, Le-louch…”

Jerking his head back and forth, Lelouch said, “No, I’m not letting it go this time!” He gathered fresh fistfuls of sheets as he shook with feeling. The pulleys and ropes creaked. “You’ve been over-emotional and guilty ever since we were reunited, and it’s been driving me crazy trying to figure out why!” He leaned towards Suzaku, his expression and voice bending under the weight of his passion as he swore vehemently, “Nothing is your fault!” His breath came in ragged gasps and his eyes burned bright with conviction. “Why can’t you accept that?”

Shaking uncontrollably—emotionally taxed way beyond the limit, his defenses having been steadily chipped away at for a considerable amount of time—Suzaku lost control and burst before he could stop himself: “Because I need to atone for my father’s death!”

-+-

What in the world? Lelouch flinched away from the level of self-loathing in Suzaku’s voice, his eyes widening at the startling declaration. His resentment vanished, blown away by sheer shock—not only by the nature of the confession, but because Suzaku had finally answered him this.

Suzaku looked paralyzed with fear, his eyes wider than the justice gap and his open mouth round with surprise. He clasped both trembling hands over his mouth, as if he couldn’t believe the words that had just escaped him.

Lelouch could relate, his mind buzzing with questions. He pushed them aside and focused on reassuring his frozen boyfriend, his voice calmer and filled with soft respect as he said, “You didn’t drive your father to commit suicide.” He held out an open palm, but Suzaku yanked his own hand away. Out of reach. Hesitating a moment, Lelouch faltered, “Sure, you were a monstrous little brat when you were ten, but you were a sweet monstrous little brat. There’s no way he’d kill himself over you.”

Suzaku stared straight ahead, the last of the light in his eyes fading away.

Somehow, Lelouch didn’t think he was saying the right things. Why did words always fail him around Suzaku, especially when he needed them most? Shaking his head, bemused, Lelouch tried again. “Your father’s suicide had nothing to do with you and everything to do with politics.”

Suzaku’s face scrunched up as he rasped, “You’re right, Lelouch. My father’s suicide had nothing to do with me.”

“Then why would you need to—?”

“—His patricide , however…” Suzaku interrupted before he apparently lost his nerve.

Lelouch’s heart jolted. Leveling his gaze at his lover, he assumed in disbelief, “Suzaku, you didn’t…” Purple eyes searched green long and hard before, discerning the truth, he corrected himself slowly and with wonder: “You did.”

Suzaku jerked his head in the barest of nods, his chin quivering and his eyes soulful with regret.

An icy wave swept over Lelouch, having the potential to knock him off his feet if such a feat was still possible. Shit. This is momentous. This explains…everything. Overshadowing the satisfaction of finally gaining the missing puzzle piece was the way his heart went out to his boyfriend. Oh, Suzaku. You’ve been carrying this burden around by yourself all these years?

Suzaku hung his head, looking shamefacedly at the ground. “Now you know.” Adjusting a hanging weight, he mumbled, “I understand if you don’t want to continue seeing a killer. A…a murderer! ” He started to turn, but Lelouch stopped him with a sharp tug on his shirt sleeve.

“I don’t care about that,” Lelouch said determinedly, catching Suzaku’s gaze with his. “Even if…if you killed your father…” He was battling down rising shock, knowing that he needed to act before he lost Suzaku for good. Forcibly ignoring the numbness in his limbs, making sure his voice did not shake, he explained, “You’re still my Suzaku.” He again tried to reach out. His elbow slipped. “What happened seven years ago…I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s time to move on. After the hell you’ve put yourself through, you deserve happiness.”

“I deserve nothing. A murderer like me has a black heart,” Suzaku choked out, pulling away and pressing a hand to his heaving chest. “And that’s something I can’t trust…or live with.”

Lelouch jerked back, Suzaku’s words ringing in his ears from months past. “Or live with?” he echoed in a whisper, dropping his own hand listlessly against the coarse sheets.

Nodding, Suzaku made a slicing motion against his neck. “I need to die for my sins!”

“You need to forgive yourself!”

“After what I’ve done?!” Suzaku shrieked, his eyes wild. He snatched the remote. Flung it back down. Glared at the kittens. Glowered at Lelouch . “What, you expect me to just let this go? Run off and be happy with you?”

Lelouch nodded as he set the remote safely away. “I thought that was the plan, yes.”

At once, Suzaku looked away. As his eyes landed on the blank television screen, the life seemed to drain out of him like someone had likewise pressed the ‘power’ button on him. After another stretch of awkward silence, he muttered, “You know now, I have too much blood on my hands to be worthy of that.”

“Idiot,” Lelouch said fondly, tugging on a brown curl. “My life is already steeped in blood. I need you to be my lifeguard—so I don’t drown in it.” He slowly and carefully cupped Suzaku’s cheek, ignoring his writhing insides. I can do this. I can touch him. I can comfort my boyfriend when he needs me, dammit!

Despondently shaking his head, Suzaku argued, “I’m really not the best qualified for—”

“You steadied me when we swam at the Kururugi Shrine,” Lelouch reminded him, gently yet firmly. He lowered his head to meet Suzaku’s eyes, and he lightly traced his thumb back and forth across Suzaku’s tear-stained cheek and chapped lips. Projecting confidence, he claimed, “You can hold me up in a river of blood, too.” He glanced over at his broken legs and grimaced, saying, “I’ll need you to do that more than ever now.”

Suzaku gasped, looking at Lelouch with suddenly shining eyes. One hand slowly reached up to press Lelouch’s harder against his face. Lelouch inhaled sharply through his nose but let the touch continue. Voice filled with emotion, Suzaku breathed, “Lelouch…I really don’t deserve you.”

“Trust me, you do,” Lelouch assured him, imagining their twin black hearts beating in tandem. Someday, I’ll tell you about Clovis. Then you’ll see how perfect we are for each other. The kittens on the wall seemed to agree, even if Suzaku didn’t yet. Lifting his chin, Lelouch said, “Besides, whether either of us really deserves our happiness—”

“—I don’t! I murdered my own father…!” Suzaku babbled, still stuck. Still stubbornly fixated. He was a rope that needed a knot untied before it could slide smoothly through the grooves again, fulfilling its destined purpose. Suzaku held up a shaking hand. “I’ve killed with this!” He let go and turned away from Lelouch’s touch.

“Regardless,” Lelouch maintained, his face set, “I still feel safest in your arms.”

At that, Suzaku collapsed sobbing hysterically on the bed, mercifully not upsetting Lelouch’s injuries. “How can you accept me after the crimes I’ve committed?!”

“Because I love you unconditionally ,” Lelouch emphasized with the strength of a royal decree, lifting his chin. He cautiously carded his fingers through his boyfriend’s hair. The world didn’t end. His stomach didn’t clench as tight this time, lending him courage. Touching you is getting easier, Suzaku. It’s so pleasantly familiar. He continued his tender caresses, adding in a moderate, measured, and heartfelt tone, “I know it might seem too incredible for you to believe, but even finding out your deep, dark secret doesn’t change my feelings. I mean it.”

Suzaku sighed and very slowly relaxed under Lelouch’s touch. He lifted his face to the light. “I wanted to tell you,” he wibbled faintly. “So many times. But I didn’t want to give you a reason to leave.”

“I understand completely,” Lelouch assured him. I’ve felt the same way about Zero.

With a rueful shake of his head, Suzaku wondered in apprehension, “I don’t know how. You just found out that your boyfriend’s a father-killer and you’re taking this remarkably well.”

Lelouch stroked his lover’s face, continuing to exceed expectations, and shrugged away the concern with an explanation of, “Because you’re still Kururugi Suzaku. Nothing else counts.” He guided Suzaku’s head to look at him before proclaiming, “I’ll stay with you always. No matter what.” Holding out his pinky, he vowed, “I’ll swear to it, if I haven’t already.”

Freezing for a second, Suzaku gradually reached out and linked pinkies with Lelouch using their traditional sacred method. “Then…I won’t ever leave you either, Lelouch,” he promised softly.

Instead of feeling reassured, a fissure of fear cracked in Lelouch’s chest. “Then,” he pressed, his gaze drifting down the length of his body and his heart hammering, “there’s no reason you would ever break up with me? Nothing that would make you stop loving me?”

Suzaku twitched, though he kept his pinky curled around Lelouch’s as he answered, “ Nothing ” in a voice as solid as the concrete roof of the adjoined building outside the window. He looked at Lelouch’s suspended legs, for once without any traces of guilt or fear, and asked, “Are you still afraid I’d leave you because you got hurt in the assault?” Automatically assuming yes, he shook his head with a fond smile, wrapping his free hand around Lelouch’s and squeezing his dedication. “You’re mine no matter what, working legs or no working legs.”

Black heart or no black heart? Lelouch wondered, though he only returned the gesture of affection and pasted on a weak smile.

“And I promise to protect you better from now on,” Suzaku tacked on hastily, pressing their pinkies harder together and gazing determinedly into the center of Lelouch’s soul. “I won’t let anything like this happen again!”

Lips curving up, feeling surer of things, Lelouch paralleled, “And I promise you the same, Suzaku. I’ll protect you in return.” Instead of complaining that he didn’t need protection, in this case the better choice was simply to match his lover’s offer in equal measure. They were meant to be fair and balanced, after all. All the weights hung in perfect harmony.

Suzaku breathed easier and sustained his tight hold on Lelouch’s pinky, his eyes locked on Lelouch’s with the intensity of a dying man blessed with a miracle. “When we were first reunited, we almost made a promise. You…you know my sinister secret now, so I’d like to see that promise through.” Now was the time to make the most of second chances. In a gravelly voice, Suzaku said, “I vow never to lie to you.” His fierce look dared Lelouch to even think about arguing or not returning the gesture, and Lelouch caved in the heat of the moment.

“I won’t lie to you either,” Lelouch said in a hushed voice, though he snatched his pinky free as soon as the last syllable left his lips, feeling trapped but in a way much more preferable to being bound to a bench and tortured. What does this mean for me now? I still haven’t come clean. He flapped his hand, trying to work out any kinks. Suzaku’s touch was always so strong and deliberate. Usually, Lelouch loved it—but not now, when the phantom weight of Zero’s mask balanced on his pinky.

With a genial smile, Suzaku slowly caught hold of Lelouch’s waving hand, dropped a feather-light kiss on his knuckles, and started to expertly massage Lelouch’s fingers.

Muscles loosening, Lelouch got himself together. The hard truth wobbled, leaning towards Suzaku, and Lelouch made his choice. While he’d never outright decided on the details to share after their latest phone argument, no matter how much he revealed… I just need to catch him in the right mood and present my side in the best light.

Shadows played across Suzaku’s face, even as his green eyes glowed with relief and—

Lelouch relaxed further, recognizing that expression. He loves me. He’ll hear me out… He has to! He’s Suzaku !

“And on that note,” Suzaku said, wiping his tears on his shoulder, “You were right before.”

Shocker , Lelouch thought dryly before refocusing.

“When you said I was scared about facing what happened to you,” Suzaku clarified with a helpless shrug.

In the wake of Suzaku’s confession and released torment, Lelouch had almost forgotten about his assault. It felt like he’d been exiled to another country (at the lowest point in his young life) and then left to die (in a war started by his father despite knowing he was in the line of fire) to realize the truth of his own condition after briefly overlooking it, and his body went numb with awareness. As always, that wouldn’t stop Lelouch from shouldering his burdens. “It’s okay. I understand. But yesterday happened, and you don’t need to be afraid to bring it up.” He stared levelly into green eyes and stated, “I’m not.”

“Lelouch,” Suzaku said, his expression marveling. “You really…don’t mind talking about yesterday?”

Sighing, Lelouch dipped his head but pulled his hands free. He crossed his arms tightly across his chest but smiled, hesitant yet sincere. “I do not mind discussing the events of yesterday afternoon—not with you , Suzaku.”

-+-

Heart thudding like a rockslide, Suzaku asked, “Do you want to talk? Get it off your chest?” He tilted his head to the right, parroting Lelouch’s own encouragement from a couple weeks ago when their roles were reversed. “It really does help.”

Lelouch worried at his lip and looked down at the bed, mulling over the offer.

Suzaku watched him silently, respecting his space. It had to be Lelouch’s choice, always. Suzaku could only testify to the value of talking, having just experienced firsthand how freeing it was to shed a soul burden. I can’t believe Lelouch accepts me still. All that time worrying, and his first words about my heaviest sins are “I don’t care.” Relief was a parade of fizzy bubbles in Suzaku’s chest, a pearl of impossible fortune nestled deep within hard truth. Suzaku had always treasured Lelouch, but until this moment, he hadn’t quite believed the depth of feeling was mutual. Is he insane, or am I just that lucky? What did I ever do to deserve him? Despite Lelouch’s dire condition, Suzaku felt now more than ever that the world was their oyster.

At long last, Lelouch’s crossed arms fell away from his chest in a show of open body language. He looked up, face hardening with resolve even as his eyes looked a little lost. “Okay. I’m ready to battle this, Suzaku.”

“If you feel ready, then I’m ready, too,” Suzaku said with a soft smile, recapturing one of Lelouch’s hands. “I’ll stop blocking everything, so you don’t need to work so hard to bottle everything up.” I will be there for you, Lelouch, just like you were for me . He leaned closer, rubbing his thumb back and forth across the backs of Lelouch’s fingers, and adjusted the splints and slings immobilizing Lelouch’s legs. I should have been anyway. I…might have gotten too carried away in my selfishness again. Even if he didn’t necessarily want to know, he needed to know. With a new backbone, he committed, “I’m here for you, Lelouch. I mean it this time.”

Lelouch leaned back against his pillows and closed his eyes, his face drawn with anguish and pain. “You’re the only one I feel comfortable sharing this with, Suzaku.”

Breath catching, Suzaku squeezed Lelouch’s hand. “I’m honored.” His voice cracked in the middle around his words: “You can trust me.”

Black bangs fell across Lelouch’s face as he looked down. “I know,” he murmured, the attached weight of significance far surpassing what could normally be packed into a mere two words. “Where should I start?”

“Wherever you want,” Suzaku counseled. The surrounding bed frame suddenly felt like an added layer of protection, cocooning them and their sensitive experiences from the unforgiving outside.

Lelouch shook his head, looking frustrated.  Then, with a lifeless voice and dull smile, he started at the beginning. He refrained from using his standard, animated gestures as he talked about the photograph, the gossip, the failed blackmail. He talked about being overpowered in the bathroom, being marched blind across the school, being strapped down to the bench. His detached tone fractured then into emotional quavers, and he buried his face in shaking hands as he hunched over and gasped out broken glass sobs.

Concerned, Suzaku started to put his hand on Lelouch’s shoulder before thinking better of unbidden touch and drawing back. “If this is too much for you…”

“It’s not!” Lelouch snapped, whipping his head from side to side. He lowered his hands but screwed his eyes shut. “They kept saying—it doesn’t matter what they were saying. They had a…a knife…”

Suzaku swayed on his knees, feeling sick to his stomach at the mention of that particular weapon. Even the kittens’ stare felt judgmental, boring into the back of his head. “Le…louch…” God, it’s hard to listen to this. Maybe even harder than carrying my father’s death on my conscience all these years .

Lelouch kept talking in a tone that sounded like it had been through a shredder. “I tried to persuade them to give up, but they wouldn’t. They…they got a baseball bat from the gym supply closet and…took turns bashing…” The silence that stretched out afterwards was only interrupted by stray sniffles, courtesy of Suzaku. Lelouch sat unmoving and ghostly silent on the bed, clenching his jaw.

Suzaku wiped at some of his free-falling tears. “I know they…they flogged you pretty rough…”

Lelouch opened his eyes, gave the tiniest of nods, and whispered, “I never thought I’d survive being beaten like that.”

Suzaku stayed silent, thanking every deity known to man for Lelouch’s life. You Elevens believe that gods live inside of everything, even objects, don’t you? Lelouch, however, had managed to avoid heaven all on his own; he hadn’t needed a family keepsake to take the bullet for him. He’d survived, even if he’d come out somewhat broken on the other side. Watching unshakable Lelouch crumple was like seeing the rock solid Narita Mountains crumble into ruination.

Taking another deep breath, Lelouch plunged onwards. “And even after demolishing my legs, they weren’t done.”

Suzaku froze again, his memory flashing sticky white. Here it comes. The bastards broke Lelouch’s legs so he couldn’t run even if he got free, and then they…

“They gouged an ‘11’ in my ass, Suzaku,” Lelouch said, his violet eyes wet with unshed tears but reflecting a certain steely strength in their depths. “They said it was so everyone could know my ass belonged to an Eleven—so everyone would know I was getting fucked by a Number. They meant it to be insulting, Suzaku, but you know what?” A half-smirk formed on Lelouch’s lips, looking at home on his face even under such alien circumstances. “I’m honored. I do belong to you, and this proves it. No other Britannian has ever been so privileged.”

Jaw dropping, Suzaku sputtered, “Le—Lelouch! You’re not supposed to be happy that you were wounded!”

Lelouch turned to look at him full-on, a single tear sliding down the curve of his cheek. “Why not? It’s a battle-scar, proof of my feelings. I earned it by choosing you, Suzaku.” With the fluttery caution of a butterfly, he pressed his palm against its customary place on Suzaku’s right side, directly over the Shinjuku scar tissue. Rubbing his fingers gently over the cloth-covered patch of blemished skin, Lelouch affectionately murmured, “Now we match.”

Disbelief etched itself onto Suzaku’s features. “I can’t believe you’re saying this.”

“I can’t believe half the things that come out of your mouth either sometimes,” Lelouch retorted with a toss of his head. His face scrunched with pained effort, like he was trying to mountain-climb when the peak itself was collapsing beneath his feet, before he quickly tacked on, “Then they did some other stuff and left me for dead.” He pressed his fingertips harder against Suzaku’s scars, and his traditional method of grounding himself seemed to calm his anxiety.

Inhaling sharply, Suzaku ventured in a faltering voice, “Lelouch, when you say, ‘other stuff,’ do you mean—that is, were you—”

The longest silence of the morning hung in the air following that broken-off question. Finally, Lelouch answered stiffly, “…No, Suzaku, I wasn’t.”

A single shiver wracked Suzaku’s body. “But—”

“I wasn’t ,” Lelouch snapped warningly, wrapping his arms around himself. He carefully avoided his lover’s eyes. “Drop it, Suzaku.”

Green eyes regarded Lelouch thoughtfully. “All right,” Suzaku replied at length. He’s retreating. Protecting himself. I have to let him do this on his own terms . Falling back to the last safe zone, pretending like the intense exchange had never happened for Lelouch’s sake, Suzaku turned and glared at the mountain sunrise through watery eyes. “I can’t imagine,” he choked out, his stomach clenching with shame and stress. “I don’t have words, my prince.” He scrubbed at his cheeks, accomplishing nothing but spreading his tears. “It’s not fucking fair that you went through all that torture!” My counterattack will be fast and furious .

Lelouch’s chin dropped almost to his chest. “Life’s not fair, Suzaku,” he said listlessly. “We both learned that a long time ago.”

Bowing his head, Suzaku sighed his agreement. “I know, but…”

“But nothing,” Lelouch said. “There’s no point dwelling on the pain of the past. We have to move forward. Together.” He positioned himself on his hospital bed as if it were a royal throne, owning it completely.

Suzaku chewed the inside of his cheek. “How?”

A maniacal grin slithered onto Lelouch’s face. “We show the school that what happened yesterday didn’t change a thing. We sniff out my attackers and set things right.” He chuckled darkly, his grin turning absolutely lethal as he explained, “Cowards like them always yield to men of power.” It almost looked like a red light glowed in his left eye, overshadowing his natural violet for a split second, before Lelouch seemed to shake it away.

Suzaku stared deeply into Lelouch’s eyes, turning everything over in his mind. Am I imagining things? Maybe Lelouch is right and I do need sleep.

Lelouch arrested Suzaku’s attention again in the time it took to blink. “I’ll take care of things as soon as I get back.”

Swallowing confusion, Suzaku asked, “Get back? Then you’re returning to Ashford Academy?” Is that really the wisest thing to do?

“As soon as the doctors give me the okay,” Lelouch said, nodding. “I refuse to be scared into hiding.” Defiance flashed in his eyes, and at least Suzaku recognized that. “Not this time. Not in my own sanctuary.”

Suzaku picked at his sleeve. “Then…”

“Then,” Lelouch continued outlining his grand plan, “we’ll continue on as if the attack never happened.” Seeing green eyes drift to his elevated legs, Lelouch scorned derisively, “Besides the obvious, of course. We had a plan before all this happened. We just need to modify some parts of it, that’s all.” He started talking with his hands again as he said, “Yes, there will be changes, but we can adapt. Some things...” He hesitated then, looking out the window. He held tight to an iron bar of the bed frame. “Some things will take time to overcome. I can’t help how I dislike touch; I never particularly liked being touched in the first place. But I can deal with this!” He scanned Suzaku’s face, looking distressed with darting pupils.

Suzaku smiled. “I know. You’re so brave, my prince.” He affectionately pressed his palm to Lelouch’s cheek, waiting out the short stint of reflexive tension.  He started to lean in, his eyes slipping shut automatically, before he remembered himself and pulled back. Not too fast , he coached himself. Lelouch has been through a lot. I can’t push him. I won’t .

Lelouch smiled wanly and wound his free hand through the stiff hairs at Suzaku’s nape. Pressing at the base of Suzaku’s skull, Lelouch guided him closer and leaned in to gingerly kiss his cheek instead. “I already told you: I can handle the world. You have to believe in me. And if you can’t do that, then believe in us .”

“I do,” Suzaku answered quickly, his heart leaping from Lelouch’s kiss. His voice was earnest. “It’s not that I don’t trust you , Lelouch. I know you’re good at getting what you want, but even you can’t control other people absolutely.”

Lelouch’s chin jerked up. He opened his mouth to say something, looking like he had something he needed to get off his chest, but he closed his mouth with a snap before confessing anything.

Tilting his head in confusion, Suzaku waited a moment to give Lelouch a chance to speak before saying, “It’s them I don’t believe in. They ruined everything.”

“I know,” Lelouch said soothingly.

“Look at all the bad things that happened yesterday,” Suzaku continued, watching Lelouch’s face carefully. “These consequences are horrible.”

Lelouch nodded. “They are.” Unwaveringly, he added, “But, Suzaku, no consequences are worth giving up what we have together.”

Suzaku’s shoulders shook. “Lelouch…I know, but…”

“If I had to choose, I’d go through it all over again to prove how much I love you,” Lelouch said with impressive purpose.

Gasping in shock, fear, and outrage, Suzaku yelled, “ Lelouch! I would never allow it. Love shouldn’t end in a broken future.” He lowered his head, his neck straining from the position.

Lelouch exhaled through his nose. “Then don’t let us end in a broken future,” he urged. He laid a comforting hand on his lover’s bent head. “If you’re scared into hiding, or if you give me up, then they’ve won.” Gripping brown curls, Lelouch tugged Suzaku’s blotchy face up, ignoring his slight yelp of pain. “You know how I hate losing, Suzaku.”

“Do I ever,” Suzaku agreed wholeheartedly.

Violet eyes twinkling, Lelouch smirked and gently ordered, “Then be with me.”

Suzaku’s eyelids slipped halfway shut. He broke free of his boyfriend’s grip and instead rested his head on Lelouch’s bony shoulder, breathing happily. Lelouch didn’t even freeze at the contact. Suzaku’s lips turned up in a smile, and he mumbled an, “Always,” into Lelouch’s hospital gown.

-+-

“You can start now,” Lelouch murmured. After taking another moment to get used to Suzaku’s weight on his shoulder, he took a deep breath and urged, “Come…come here, Suzaku. All the way.”

Face scrunching quizzically, Suzaku pulled back to stare him in the eye. “What are you saying, Lelouch?”

Lelouch swallowed again. “I’m saying…I want you to lie in bed with me.” I need to feel your body against mine, my knight. He ached for the bliss and safety he associated with Suzaku’s arms.

“You want to cuddle?”

Lelouch blushed harder but deliberately nodded.

Suzaku cocked his head, eyes widening with surprise. “That’s a bit much at this point, though, right?” he asked worriedly. “That’s a lot of touching, and you still—”

“Suzaku,” Lelouch interrupted exasperatedly, “I’ve been making progress with touching you.” I’ve already come so far. Give me this.

“I noticed,” Suzaku remarked. Green eyes glowed with pride and joy. “You’ve been either holding my hands or stroking my hair for awhile now. On your own.”

Rolling his eyes, Lelouch teased, “Quick as ever, I see.”

Smiling, Suzaku still protested, “But cuddling is—”

“I’m asking you to,” Lelouch interrupted. “I’m okay with it. I want your arms around me. I want to feel your heart beating against mine. Those are…the most comforting feelings in the world, remember? We both agreed on that.” He carefully held Suzaku’s face in both hands, staring straight into forest green eyes. Before Suzaku could say anything, Lelouch slowly leaned in and lightly brushed his lips against Suzaku’s. It could hardly be called a kiss, but it was contact nonetheless.

Suzaku blinked and stared at him in dismayed shock, not moving a muscle.

I miscalculated , Lelouch panicked suddenly, struck by lightning fear. He felt like he was falling, as if the ropes and wires holding up his legs had snapped and he was about to crash into a world of pain. It’s not for my sake. Suzaku must not want to touch me anymore now that he obviously thinks I’ve been defiled, but he’s just too nice a guy to say so . Lowering his head, he turned away and clenched his teeth. The traction was off. The pressure was back on.

“Le…louch?” Suzaku asked hesitantly. “You don’t need to push yourself. I’ll always be here, no matter what. I don’t expect—”

Snapping his gaze up, Lelouch burst out, “And I don’t expect you’d want me anymore, after what happened. I should have known you’d be too disgusted to kiss me.”

Suzaku reeled back, eyes widening. “What?! Where the hell did you get that idea?”

“I’m dirty now,” Lelouch choked out. It was especially hard to deal with considering his status as a ‘neat-freak.’ He couldn’t stand imperfections, and now some of what he perceived to be his inadequacies were out of his control.

Suzaku frowned lightly and insisted, “You’re perfect to me , Lelouch. That hasn’t changed.” He cautiously kicked off his shoes and burrowed fully into the bed, holding his arms wide open for Lelouch to roll into. Eyelids dropping to half-mast again, he requested quietly, “Come here, my prince.”

Lelouch knew Suzaku was giving him choice, and he remembered how Suzaku often gave him control over little things to sate his complex. Cautiously hopeful, Lelouch dropped back and pressed his side to his boyfriend’s chest. “I can’t roll onto my side,” he complained. His broken legs and catheter were in the way. He was far too drained to come up with strategies around those obstacles, even for the glorious reward of spooning his lover.

Suzaku gently wrapped his arms around Lelouch’s torso anyway, smiling when Lelouch relaxed fully against him. “I can still hold you this way,” he said devoutly. They were cramped on the rather small hospital bed, but they were comfortable pressed so tightly together after everything. Suzaku kept his legs as far to the edge as possible, even though he had more room at the foot of the bed.

Lelouch turned his head on their shared pillow, feeling some of his anxiety ebb away upon seeing Suzaku’s adoring eyes so close to his. He still looks at me like I’m royalty. …He’d look at me like this even if I wasn’t actually a prince. He exhaled and nudged his head a little closer. God, he feels so warm. So perfect. He couldn’t remember ever being happier in Suzaku’s arms, and he’d racked up quite a few worthy contenders over the course of their relationship. Gradually, his arms came around Suzaku in turn. He moaned lowly and snuggled closer. “There we go,” he breathed contentedly.

It was such a peaceful contrast to the hellish nightmare he’d lived through not twenty-four hours ago.

Suzaku settled more closely against him.

“How’s Nunnally?” Lelouch wondered, his voice sluggish. “I know I just saw her, but she’d act different around you than she would around me.”

The corners of Suzaku’s mouth twisted up. “She’s doing as well as you’d expect,” he said with a slight shrug.

With a nod, Lelouch ordered, “Take care of her.”

“Of course,” Suzaku murmured fondly. “I’ll take care of both of you.”

Lelouch’s nose wrinkled in disgust. I guess it does take a few times to sink in for Suzaku, but… “I don’t need to ‘be taken care of,’” he flashed with a sleepy glare. He’d never wanted to be treated with kid-gloves, even when he was still a child. At least that was one thing his father had gotten right.

Suzaku frowned thoughtfully, raking his fingers through Lelouch’s hair. “Calm down, my prince,” he soothed. “Anyone would need extra help after going through what you did. That doesn’t diminish how utterly amazing you are.”

Lelouch pressed his face into Suzaku’s neck, breathing in his scent.

“I don’t think many people could be so level-headed after an experience like yours,” Suzaku continued, sighing into Lelouch’s hair. “I know I couldn’t. Especially after hearing what those assholes did exactly…” His voice tapered off into a growl. “I still wish I’d gotten there sooner.”

Pulling back, Lelouch snapped, “Don’t you dare start this again!” Wriggling into a more comfortable position, he said in a slightly calmer tone, “I understand where all your self-hatred is coming from now, but dammit, Suzaku, you have to know this isn’t your fault!”

Heaving a bigger sigh than before, Suzaku stared straight into Lelouch’s eyes for a lifetime before offering, “…I’ll try to wrap my head around that, Lelouch.”

“Not what I’d pick, but it’s better than nothing,” Lelouch conceded, sighing but linking pinkies with Suzaku. “For now, I can live with that.”

After another few moments of comfortable silence spent simply curled up together, pinkies brushing, Lelouch prodded, “Hey, Suzaku. You explained that you were holed up all yesterday in the labs because of the Black Knights attack. How did you know I was…hurt?”

A sad smile flit onto Suzaku’s face. “I didn’t at first,” he admitted quietly. “Sayoko called. Of course I came right away. But…I was too late.” A sob hitched in his throat. “I kept telling myself that you’d be fine, that nothing had happened to you. I reminded myself to trust in our promise—that you could handle the world. But in the back of my mind, I was scared, Lelouch…”

Violet eyes softened with sympathy. “You had good reason to fear, Suzaku,” he said gently, cupping Suzaku’s cheek.

“It still shouldn’t have happened,” Suzaku pointed out mournfully, reaching up to rest his hand over Lelouch’s and hold it in place. They were aligned.

Lelouch figured they could both use a decent distraction, so he moved his head even closer to his boyfriend’s, smirking lightly and inviting, “You can kiss me now.” Despite his recently conditioned fear of touch, he’d been aching inside for Suzaku’s lips since the moment he’d walked through the door. Come kiss me, you idiot.

Suzaku’s eyes widened in amazement. “Are you…are you sure? I told you I’d never push—”

Rolling his eyes, Lelouch moved closer so their noses bumped together. “I want you to kiss me,” he breathed firmly, leaving no room for doubt. “Just, go slow, okay?” His hands gradually made their way into Suzaku’s hair.

Nodding, Suzaku grinned and pressed forward, catching his prince’s lips in a light, dry, closed-mouth peck. Lelouch kept his eyes wide open the entire time, verifying that it was, indeed, Suzaku who was kissing him. Suzaku pulled back and asked, “Okay?” He searched Lelouch’s face.

Lelouch inclined his head. “Yeah, sorry, I just…”

“No, don’t apologize,” Suzaku said in a rush. “We don’t have to do this. The last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable, my prince.”

Lelouch closed his eyes and shook his head. “You’re not making me uncomfortable, Suzaku. I don’t know why this—I mean, they didn’t kiss me, so it’s not like kissing causes flashbacks.” I don’t want to think about what would. I just want to get lost in your lips, your body. You . He sighed and trailed his left hand down Suzaku’s body, slipping his fingers under Suzaku’s uniform to press against roughened scar tissue. The grounding touch was as comforting and familiar as a chess game.

Suzaku’s arms constricted minutely around him.

Lelouch didn’t even react to the tighter hold. “Kiss me again,” Lelouch commanded, his eyes still closed. “You can kiss me a little harder this time.” I need to feel you, Suzaku. Make me forget all the bad things. He pressed his hand harder against Suzaku’s lower back, feeling every raised and indented bit of wounded skin. They’d come through so much together.

Tentatively, Suzaku leaned in and pressed his lips to Lelouch’s in a practiced lip lock. He still kept the pressure relatively light, but he moved in again and again from slightly different angles, giving small puckered kisses to his boyfriend.

After a moment, Lelouch started to reciprocate, and it was almost reminiscent of when they were learning to shallowly make out on the couch on the first day of their relationship. Yes. This is what I’ve been yearning for. Lelouch moaned and grabbed tighter at Suzaku’s hair with his free hand, holding Suzaku steady while he kissed him even more passionately. Narrowing his focus to the electrifying physical sensations of Suzaku’s touch helped keep his mind occupied, helped keep the daytime nightmares at bay. Helped his heart scab over.

-+-

“Lelouch,” whimpered Suzaku, his fingers burying themselves in Lelouch’s hair and hospital gown. “God, Lelouch, more…” He feels more amazing than ever . He’s here. I almost lost him . Suzaku was so caught up in Lelouch’s touch that he barely noticed Lelouch’s cell vibrate silently in his pants pocket three times in a row.

Squirming incessantly, Lelouch leisurely licked along Suzaku’s lips—which remained closed to him.  Face scrunching, he pulled back, panting heavily. His eyes were bright and slightly dazed, mirroring his boyfriend’s. Still breathing hard, Lelouch closed his eyes and uttered, “Suzaku,” his voice a deep rumble.

Suzaku shifted his head on the pillow. “Yeah, Lelouch?”

“Suzaku,” Lelouch said again, his tone wary. “We can’t…I mean…I’m sorry, but I can’t really…give you more. For a long time. Maybe even years.”

Green eyes blinked in cloudy confusion. “Huh?”

Lelouch opened his eyes and stared at his lover directly. “I can’t give you sex,” he said, a little too loudly. He gestured at his legs with a helplessly frustrated expression.

Suzaku’s mouth opened at the blunt statement, but he gathered himself and smiled reassuringly. “That doesn’t matter,” he said confidently. It’s not about that. His face was earnest. “I love you for you, Lelouch, not the sex.”

Lelouch raised his head a bit, looking encouraged. “I know, but—”

Hugging Lelouch into silence, Suzaku reminded him, “And I mean, we can’t do a lot of things, but we’re pretty creative. There are still some things we can do to pleasure each other if we’re in the mood.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, provoking a small laugh from his boyfriend.

Relaxing, Lelouch nodded thoughtfully, eyes dancing. “I suppose you’re right.”

“For instance, we can always go down on each other,” Suzaku innocently suggested.

Immediately, Lelouch paled and stiffened. His eyes widened and darkened. He started breathing heavier, mumbling, “No, no, no, no, no, never again, no, no, no!” in a panic.

Suzaku gawked, his mind racing and connecting the dots. Confirming what he’d already suspected and stupidly forgot. Flustered, he urged, “Shit, Lelouch, come back to me! Then they really—dammit!” He teared up again, sharing his lover’s pain, and held his now violently shuddering boyfriend while making soothing shushing noises. I really am an idiot. I can’t believe I opened my big mouth . “It’s okay, Lelouch,” he murmured, voice soft and understanding. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want. I’ll never do anything to remind you of what you suffered.” When Lelouch seemed to calm down enough to recognize him, which took a couple eons, Suzaku leaned forward and lightly kissed his forehead.

Starting to settle, Lelouch sighed and pressed his wet face into his boyfriend’s neck.

Suzaku automatically shuffled closer and wrapped him in a tighter embrace, running a hand up and down Lelouch’s back. He idly felt Lelouch’s phone vibrating yet again against his thigh, but he forcibly ignored it. Now wasn’t the time.

“I’m sorry,” Lelouch croaked.

“Don’t be,” Suzaku said again, continuing his lulling ministrations. Just let me help you heal, my prince. “I told you, I’m here for you . We don’t have to do anything sexual at all, ever, okay? I was just trying to help—”

Lelouch reached up and clasped a fistful of Suzaku’s uniform. He started to shake harder before correcting his boyfriend, “No!” When Suzaku obediently fell silent, Lelouch continued, “I’m…I’m sorry…for sucking off other guys…I never wanted to betray you, Suzaku!”

Suzaku felt a wave of anger crest over him, not at his victimized lover—but at the three attackers who had forced themselves into his prince’s mouth. I have never hated anyone so much. Even the Britannian Emperor . Again, Suzaku held Lelouch snugger and caressed his back and neck gently. “I know you didn’t,” he hummed into Lelouch’s ear. “I don’t think of it like that. I know they made you.” He kissed his prince’s burning earlobe.

-+-

Lelouch pressed his face more ruthlessly against Suzaku’s neck, feeling weak but unable to help it. “They said…Suzaku, they were gonna kill me with the bat if I didn’t do it…”

Suzaku’s expression turned murderous. Not that it wasn’t before. “Those fucking bastards ,” he hissed.

Spasms sweeping over him, Lelouch muttered into his boyfriend’s skin, “You…wanted to know…so…I…I sucked the leader twice.” Suzaku stiffened at the news. Heaving a sigh, Lelouch pressed his fingers harder than ever against his lover’s Shinjuku scar tissue to mentally steady himself as he recounted more trauma and continued, “The…the second time…he gave me a choice of sucking him again or getting fucked…” It was easier to admit the hard truths with his head buried in Suzaku’s neck, not watching those green eyes he fell in love with well with hurt. “So I…I gave them oral…” He shuddered harder than ever. “That’s why…I’d understand if you don’t want to kiss me anymore. My…my mouth…especially inside…is so dirty after…”

They’re the dirty ones, Lelouch,” insisted Suzaku heatedly. “I do want to kiss you. Deeply, okay? You have to believe that. I love you .” Swallowing thickly around a jumble of feelings, he explained, “I just don’t want to hurt you or trigger something. That’s the only reason I’m holding back. I promise .” He hugged his prince tighter.

Lelouch sniffled and snorted. “Dammit, Suzaku, I’m telling you I’m ready. Kiss me. As hard and deep as you can. I’m not weak , okay? I want you to do it. In fact, I’m ordering you to do it.”

With a solemn look, Suzaku answered, “Oh, I always follow my prince’s orders.” If you’re absolutely sure, Lelouch…

“Then erase any trace of them with yourself,” Lelouch commanded. “I might have to live with broken legs and bruises for a long time, but I won’t let them take away our kisses, too. I need you, Suzaku. All of you.” Hesitating, he raised his gaze. “I’ll…match you. All of me, for all of you. That is, you were asking before…about rape…” As Suzaku tensed in his arms, Lelouch corrected his earlier assessment. “Yes, Suzaku, but only what you already know. I mean, I wasn’t raped…in the ass. I could have been. They threatened to. But they didn’t do that part in the end. Now you know every single gruesome detail.”

Suzaku held Lelouch the tightest he’d ever dared, trembling with rage. “Still, it was still…they still… I am going to destroy them,” he growled. “I used to feel that sort of thinking was unacceptable. That unless you followed the rules, killing someone was just murder. But now, it’s hatred that’s guiding me. I’m going to kill them.”

“Embrace your hate. Think of me,” encouraged Lelouch. “You’re not going to do it alone. I’m going to kill them with you.” They’d do it together, like everything else worthwhile in their relationship. His heart beat faster. It seemed that, along with the hate crime attack, Lelouch’s discovering and accepting Suzaku’s blackest secret was freeing Suzaku to change his thinking patterns and morals. The idea gave Lelouch hope again that Suzaku would come around concerning Zero.

Lifting himself up on an elbow, Suzaku shifted to hover over and stare down at his prince’s newly-revealed face. He nodded once with firm resolve. “Lelouch, thank you. For trusting me. For sharing your story.”

Suitably mollified and reassured, Lelouch blushed lightly and raised an eyebrow. “I should be saying that to you, too, shouldn’t I?”

Suzaku snorted and halfway nodded. “We’re a mess, aren’t we?”

“I’d rather be a mess with you than anyone else,” Lelouch said offhandedly.

Grinning, Suzaku teased, “That was really sweet coming from you, Mr. Perfectionist.”

Lelouch laughed, his shoulders relaxing. “Maybe just being with you is perfect enough, Suzaku,” Lelouch whispered, his tone as heartfelt as his words.

Suzaku’s breath caught again. “Oh, Lelouch!”

Lelouch slid his arms around Suzaku’s neck and dragged him down for the deepest kiss they’d shared yet that day. He didn’t even care that his lover was pinning him down; Suzaku’s weight was warm, bolstering, and familiar. With Suzaku’s new position, slightly on top of Lelouch, their chests pressed tight together and their hearts pounded comfort against each other. Suzaku pressed Lelouch’s head into the pillow, and Lelouch mewled and opened for Suzaku to take everything he wanted. Their tongues danced and twisted with the energy fueled by their raging love and hatred. Lelouch clutched at Suzaku’s shoulder and hair, holding him tight and giving as good as he got with no fear holding him back. Suzaku’s touch felt exhilarating. It felt amazing to be together, to be on the same page again. To be open with one another, to not hold back. To feel how much Suzaku still wanted him, even after everything that had happened. To be more closely connected after mutually sharing extreme personal hardships.

Their long, escalating, emotional make-out was interrupted once by a nurse who came to check on Lelouch’s vitals, catheter, and special bed equipment. She blushed and stammered her way through her job, and the boys politely kept their tongues in their own mouths until she was out of the room again, but stayed cuddled up together in bed. They were too high on feelings to be embarrassed, and they reached again for each other before the door had finished closing behind her. Their hands trailed everywhere they could stretch, wanting to feel as much proof as possible that they were alive and together, and their broken gasps and moans filled their ears.

“Oh god, Suzaku,” Lelouch groaned, pressing his chest up into his lover’s hard body. “You feel…you feel…dammit, don’t stop…” Scratching his fingernails on Suzaku’s scalp, he yanked at brown hair and pulled Suzaku’s lips down tighter against his, demanding, “Kiss me. Kiss me .”

“I… am …kissing…you,” Suzaku breathed between kisses. He held Lelouch’s face tenderly between both hands, contrasting the all-out frantic, bruising movements of his lips and tongue. He’d make good on his prince’s wish and wipe away any leftover remnants of the assholes who’d hurt them both.

Lelouch moaned long and low at Suzaku’s ardent touches. “Harder,” he begged, getting swept up in the glorious feelings. Yesterday, he’d been terrified that he’d never have this again. Now, he couldn’t get enough. He wasn’t scared of anything anymore. He’d grown desensitized to any instinctive fear at his lover’s touch. He needed Suzaku. He had to take advantage of every opportunity. “Deeper. Ahhh, Suzaku, kiss me !”

“I’m…kissing you…as hard…as I…possibly…can…Lelouch,” Suzaku mumbled, again between kisses, rubbing his upper body against Lelouch’s to add to the sensations. His thumbs moved in circles on Lelouch’s cheeks, and his other fingers started to massage around Lelouch’s ears.

Moaning again, purple eyes smoky whenever eyelids fluttered open, Lelouch agreed, “Mmm, you are. You’re kissing me so good. Giving us what we both want.” He clung to his lover desperately. “Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Suzaku, kiss me.” His head fell back as Suzaku trailed wet kisses down his chin and neck, sucking three new hickeys into already-bruised skin, before making his way back up to capture Lelouch’s lips harder than ever.

Tearing his mouth away finally, Suzaku inhaled deep mouthfuls of air. Looking down at Lelouch, he remarked, “You know, I forgot to tell you. I’m going to have to stop kissing you when the Student Council comes to visit.” He licked his lips. “Milly said they’d be by after school ended.” Narrowing his eyes, he pressed, “Are you…going to be comfortable around so many people?”

Lelouch took this chance to catch his breath, too. In the lull, he took advantage of the opening to rid Suzaku’s torso of that annoying uniform, rubbing his palms flatly down his lover’s naked tan chest when he was done. He shrugged, trying not to drool at the newly-exposed skin. “I can’t say for sure,” he said honestly. The thought of seeing his friends after yesterday was intimidating, but Lelouch had never let fear stop him and he wasn’t going to start now. Cringing at a flash of memory, he checked, “They all…saw everything last night, didn’t they?”

Cautiously, Suzaku nodded. He carelessly threw his shirt and jacket on the floor. “Yeah. Everyone was properly shocked and horrified.” He soothingly swept his hands up and down Lelouch’s face and neck. “You already know this, but I should remind you: No one thinks any less of you. Okay? You’re not a…a weakling, or…or anything…” He dropped quick kisses against Lelouch’s face and neck, following the warm trail left by his fingers.

Scowling, Lelouch quoted from their childhood, “A weakling, huh? Guess I am.”

“I said you weren’t—”

“And I’m correcting you,” Lelouch bit out, which was actually pretty standard. “I always have been weak, but that’s made me stronger. Inside.” He leaned into his boyfriend’s lips and sighed happily, adding, “My heart has always carried me through, even when my feeble body’s failed me. This time will be no different, Suzaku.” He’d been resilient before, and Lelouch had adapted and met every challenge life had thrown his way—and he’d had some pretty significant challenges. His experiences of being exiled to Japan, learning to take care of himself and Nunnally, and surviving a bloody war would all give him something to draw on during his recovery from this current hardship. Lelouch moaned freely then and tilted his head sideways, the pulse in his neck racing. He traced his fit boyfriend’s bared muscles with a lecherous gaze, trying to avoid thinking about the upcoming stressors and take the pleasure he could get for the moment. “But we don’t have to worry about being interrupted until after school ends, right?”

Suzaku nodded knowingly this time. He puffed out his chest, noticing his boyfriend eyeing him. “Yes, Lelouch.”

Lelouch smirked. “Then we have several hours before we need to worry about them. Suzaku, kiss me .”

Suzaku’s eyes darkened with hunger as he dived back down.

They were both into each other completely—mouths fused together, arms tightly clenching around one another, fingers flexing and grasping at clothes (or skin) and hair, heads and chests pressed tight and continuously moving, muffled moans escaping—when they were interrupted by a scandalized, “Oh my !”

Chapter Text

“Oh my!”

Lelouch startled and froze, gasping as Suzaku flailed and fell to the floor with a loud thump.

But he didn’t have time to worry about Suzaku.

He was too busy staring in shell-shocked silence as a horde of unwanted people, among them members of his long-lost family, piled into his private hospital room like a pack of rabid beasts.

Lelouch’s mouth went dry as he caught snatches of present moments between racing thoughts, standing out like focus beacons in a swirl of chaos. There was Euphy, clasping her hands over her heart and silently crying. What are they doing here?! Cornelia was there, too, scowling and pursing her lips towards the front of the throng. How did they find out? Nunnally and Sayoko lurked quietly at the side, a little apart from the rest of the group. How much do they know? Worst of all, Schneizel loomed behind Euphy with a perfectly composed expression. There must have been something sinister behind that congenial smile; it was Schneizel. SHIT! Strangers dotted the hospital room, somehow looking less out-of-place than the visiting royals.

The long silence was broken only by stunned gasps, sniffling, and the shuffling of Suzaku’s clothes as he scrambled to make himself decent.

Lelouch felt trapped in another living nightmare as Schneizel glided forward with gleaming eyes and twitching lips. Feeling more aware than ever of his strung-up leg, Lelouch caught himself shrinking back into his pillow. As soon as he realized the weakness he broadcasted, he forced himself into a comparably confident position with his chin held high. When it came to the Britannian Royal Family, image mattered more than reality. He’d learned that lesson far too young.

“Well, little brother,” Schneizel said, nonchalantly brushing off his clothes as he broke the awkward silence, “after eight years, even I never expected this.”

The pompous statement rattled Lelouch’s nerves further, even more so because it was a line running through his own mind. Damn fucking Schneizel for getting there first. Clenching his teeth, Lelouch shot Schneizel a venomous glare and seethed harder when that provoked only chuckles.

“Still as expressive as always,” Schneizel mused, his face softening into what might be called ‘fond’ on an ordinary person.

Lelouch knew better. He’d learned how to act from Schneizel, how to mask salt as sugar, how to twist truth into action. The blistering itch skittering down his throat made it hard to speak, but Lelouch vi Britannia would not let anything stay his tongue. “Why the hell are you here?!” he demanded, his eyes burning with raging, unchecked wildfire.

“How could you even ask that, Lelouch?!” Cornelia erupted, stepping forward and matching him inferno for inferno. The small room suddenly felt too hot and stuffy.

Schneizel laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, halting her progress. “Calm down, both of you.”

With heated pressure building in his chest, Lelouch snapped, “I’ll calm down when I’m damn well ready!” I give the orders here. Which begged the question, given this grand opportunity, how best to utilize his Geass—

Seeds of plans evaporated before taking root as Euphy darted closer than anyone, cried something unintelligible, and finally burst, “Lelouch! I can’t believe—oh, I’m so glad you’re alive!”

Her words reeled Lelouch back from the edge, and his face fell slack with affection. The flames licking at his heart died down into warm embers. “Euphy…”

For a moment, it seemed like peace would settle over the room like leafy branches in full bloom, shading the ground-dwellers from boiling sunstroke. But Britannia had a history of cutting down trees for the sake of her pride.

“What the hell?” Cornelia asked in a jealous rage, ruining their moment. “He’s happy to see her, but not us?!”

Schneizel remained unruffled. “They were always close,” he said, glancing to the side. The dim light bounced off his blond hair, making his head glow and seem even more unnatural. “Let them be. Remember, we agreed not to discuss anything too heavy or get too emotional when Lelouch is so newly stressed by his condition.” A corner of his lip curled up as he redirected his attention. “You, on the floor—I believe the white button-up shirt goes underneath the school jacket?”

Suzaku squeaked.

Euphy stifled a giggle.

Lelouch inwardly groaned, resisting the urge to turn and look at his dressing-inept boyfriend. Now, of all times, for Suzaku to show incompetence at something so basic…

“You really do have the worst luck, Suzaku, don’t you?” chirped a vaguely familiar and overly-eccentric man by the door, sounding unduly happy while making his observation. His tone sounded just as fake-scandalized as when he’d interrupted their make-out minutes ago, packing more intensity into two words than Lelouch had thought humanly possible.

Suzaku popped up with a wince, properly dressed if somewhat rumpled, and knelt by Lelouch’s bedside.

Bursting into loud, inappropriate laughter, the man said, “You’d sure think it was funny if it wasn’t happening to you!”

Glowering, Cornelia brandished her arm for silence. “That’s enough!” she yelled, projecting enough that the whole hallway probably heard. The rattle of carts outside the door ceased for a moment before resuming in a haste of squeaky wheels and clacking footsteps. Cornelia didn’t pay those details any mind, too focused on her goal. “There are far too many people in here. Anyone who isn’t family, leave immediately!” She waved towards the door with one hand and gave everyone a stern look, the stare of a leader used to being obeyed. Lelouch was impressed despite himself.

Even more so when Cornelia’s knight and chief advisor followed orders at once, sweeping into the hall but taking up sentry positions on either side of the doorway. (The Black Knights still had some work to do when it came to obeying orders without question.) A female scientist-soldier dragged the peculiar giggling man from the room, blushing and apologizing profusely for stepping on the Royal Family’s toes during such a delicate situation.  Sayoko hesitated, glanced at Nunnally inquiringly, and waited for Lelouch to nod his permission before following them out of the room by her lonesome.

Cornelia stared hard at Suzaku. “That’s all but one. Didn’t you hear me, Kururugi? Get out!”

A strangled choking sound emitted from Suzaku’s throat.

“Now hold on just a minute!” Lelouch objected, riding the high as rage crested over him again. He blindly ran his fingers through his boyfriend’s hair, calming Suzaku and himself both with the touch. Secretly enjoying Cornelia’s twitch of revulsion, he affirmed, “Suzaku is my family. He stays. Period.”

Spluttering, Cornelia exclaimed, “That Eleven piece of—?!”

At her violent tone and derogatory words, flashes of suppressed feeling flared up and clouded Lelouch’s present reality. The soft pillow felt like an unyielding bench. The slings and casts felt like rope around his broken leg. It felt hard to breathe, and the germs were invading his body through the festering, open wounds to infect him. Everything hurt. Worse, the surrounding hatred and fear in the air coalesced into a palpable haze of shadow. Flinching, Lelouch withdrew into himself the longer he suffered. He wrapped his arms around his stomach and hunched over, his breaths coming in short, staccato gasps. He heard his boyfriend’s wordless cry of panic as if it came from the other side of some great wall, sounding muffled and far away. Wetting his dry lips, he whimpered—just as he had then— “Su-Suzaku, please…”

“Cornelia,” Schneizel interjected calmly, sounding as tinny and far off as Suzaku. “Considering the circumstances, we should let Kururugi stay.”

At that, Lelouch was able to take in a deeper breath and start to regain control of himself.

“Lelouch is obviously more comfortable with him here,” Schneizel continued, starting to sound clearer and closer.

“I am, too,” Nunnally piped up sweetly. “Suzaku has been part of our family for a long time.”

Lelouch’s vision cleared in time to see Suzaku smile warmly at the easy inclusion. Drawing strength from that beloved smile and battling down embarrassment at his ill-timed panic attack, Lelouch found his voice and argued, “Nellie, you can leave if you’re so distressed being in the same room as Suzaku. No one’s stopping you.”

Cornelia gasped, shocked and angered again—though the use of her childhood pet name dulled the edges. “What?! I just found out you’re alive! A hundred Knightmares couldn’t drag me away from you, Lelouch!”

Her loyalty stirred nothing in him, unable to penetrate the incensed feeling on his boyfriend’s behalf. “Then get used to Suzaku!” Lelouch growled, taking comfort from his boyfriend’s steady presence. “He’s not going anywhere either.”

-+-

Feeling warm and lightheaded at his boyfriend’s passionate devotion, Suzaku sighed and swayed on his knees as pleasure see-sawed with guilt. “I-it’s okay, Lelouch. If I’m causing this much trouble, maybe I should just go,” he said, his voice thin and watery. It felt like the walls were closing in on him, or rather like the far wall was pushing him towards the door.  I don’t want to ruin Lelouch’s family reunion.

Lelouch adamantly shook his head, looking as cocksure as if yesterday had never happened. “You’re not! She can get over it.” Turning to look Suzaku in the eye, he tilted Suzaku’s head up by the chin as he passionately insisted, “Dammit, Suzaku, don’t leave me!” Leaning closer, he hissed directly into Suzaku’s ear, “Don’t give in to Britannian manipulation! Worse, don’t deny us!”

Conflicting emotions twisted in Suzaku’s chest like when he’d applied for Honorary Britannian citizenship, and he wasn’t fast enough to respond before someone else drew the attention.

Holding his palms out in a placating manner, Schneizel murmured in a slow, deep tone, “Everyone, calm down. No one is being asked to leave.”

As if to certify his words, a couple nurses appeared with extra chairs, citing the request came from a Lieutenant Croomy. They were in and out almost faster than Suzaku could dodge a bullet.

“Hold it!” Lelouch shouted, holding up a flat palm to signal ‘stop’ and sending some of the hanging adaptive equipment swinging in the air from his boisterous movement. Reaching for Suzaku with his free hand, he frowned at his long-lost siblings. “Let’s backtrack,” he said stiffly, “to why you’re all here in the first place.”

Suzaku winced, recognizing Lelouch’s question as a veiled accusation. He felt momentarily grateful that he wasn’t on the receiving end of it this time.

Blanching, Cornelia cried out, “When I saw your face on the news, I couldn’t ignore it!”

Suzaku tensed, carefully watching the flicker of frustration that crossed Lelouch’s expression before his usual mask of calm settled into place. It was there and gone in a fraction of a flash; Suzaku only caught it because he was so attuned to Lelouch. Glancing sideways, he noticed Schneizel’s eyes narrowed with shrewd curiosity. A shiver raced down Suzaku’s spine at what Schneizel might be reading into the shadows on Lelouch’s face, in his eyes.

Euphy sank into a chair, seeming oblivious to the spiked tension. “Actually, big brother Schneizel and I were coming here to give Suzaku some support.”

Head whipping up, green eyes stretched wide, Suzaku spluttered, “What?!”

Schneizel smoothly took over, radiating that regal but detached air that Lelouch often oozed in the presence of company. “Earl Asplund told us that your lover had been the victim of a hate crime yesterday, which explained why you weren’t in the lab this morning when we visited,” he clarified, sitting in another chair beside Euphy. He was talking to Suzaku, but his serious gaze lingered on Lelouch. “We wanted to personally express our condolences and offer any help necessary.”

Suzaku opened and closed his mouth several times, his gaze darting between the two princes.

Clearing his throat and smiling at an earnestly nodding Euphemia, Schneizel continued, “By the way, Kururugi—that is, I assume you’re Suzaku Kururugi—it’s a pleasure to finally meet you after hearing so many good things.” With melodramatic inflection, he introduced himself, “I am Schneizel el Britannia, Second Prince and Prime Minister of Britannia.”

Suzaku bowed his head again. “…I am. And I am honored, my lord.”

Lelouch lightly whacked Suzaku on the back of his head. Sneering, he complained, “Suzaku, don’t treat that bastard like he’s something special. For the love of god, it’s just Schneizel.”

Suzaku hurriedly bit his lip, knowing he shouldn’t laugh.

Schneizel raised an eyebrow, remarking dryly, “I’m glad you still think so highly of me, Lelouch.”

Lelouch shrugged one shoulder and, with a calculating look, said coolly, “I respect people who’ve earned it.”

Instead of taking offense at the implied slight, Schneizel merely chuckled and said, “Duly noted.” He paused then, tilting his head, and remarked slyly, “Maybe I should ask Kururugi what it takes to earn your esteem nowadays.”

Suzaku felt his face burn, and suddenly he couldn’t quite look Prince Schneizel in the eye—not that he could beforehand anyway, considering rank and social status.

Cornelia frowned and barked, “Schneizel, don’t encourage this!” Turning back to Lelouch, she matter-of-factly finished the story between the rhythmic machine beeps. “Anyway, Lelouch, our paths converged on the way here. We ran into Nunnally at the hospital and she’s already explained to us about how you survived the invasion and how you’ve been living in hiding all these years.”

Hand twitching in Lelouch’s, Suzaku eyed Princess Cornelia warily before looking again to his prince.

Lelouch breathed out slowly through his nose, looking like he wanted to murder someone. Painfully.

Nunnally winced and mumbled, “I’m sorry, Lelouch.”

Shaking his head, Lelouch reassured in his practiced, falsely bright tone, “It’s okay, Nunnally. You did what you thought was best.”

Something in Suzaku relaxed, even though he knew Lelouch’s easy acceptance was fictitious.

Euphy twiddled her thumbs self-consciously, the blush on her face as pink as the paper Nunnally used to fold paper cranes. “W-we wanted to give you and S-suzaku enough private time to reconnect, at Nunnally’s request, so we just…asked Nunnally questions while we waited.”

With another mocking smirk, Schneizel added, “Apparently, we should have come much later.”

Suzaku squirmed and blushed at the insinuation, reliving that mortifying memory. Everyone saw me on top of him. Shitshitshit. Because his life was just perfect, Lelouch’s cell phone chose that moment to vibrate again in his pocket. Continuing to fidget, Suzaku patted his clothes but ultimately ignored the call. Even unfolding secrets had priorities.

Casting Suzaku an understanding look, clearly sensing his embarrassment, Lelouch then leveled a glare at Schneizel and harshly corrected, “It would have been best if you hadn’t come at all.”

Cornelia whirled around, purple hair flying. “You’re family, Lelouch!” she shouted, making helpless gestures with her hands. “Of course we’re going to be by your side when you’re hurt!”

“Don’t start acting like you care now!” Lelouch growled, squeezing Suzaku’s hand with all his weak might.

Taking a step back, drooping like a defeated soldier, Cornelia said, “I’ve always cared. I’ve just mourned you as dead!” Tone gentling with considerable effort, she wondered, “Why are you so upset that we’re here?”

Lelouch jerked away. “Because I absolutely refuse to go back to the Royal Family, dammit!”

-+-

Cornelia reeled back as if a Knightmare was bearing down on her personally.

Schneizel, once again exuding the calm strength of the mountain in the room’s decorative photograph, soothed, “Lelouch, no one is going to force you to do anything you don’t want.”

“We’re here because you’re our brother and we love you!” Euphy added, putting to words what Cornelia wanted to express but somehow couldn’t.

Finally sinking into a chair next to Euphy, energy sapped, Cornelia pressed, “But why don’t you want to come back? Do you hate us that much, Lelouch?” Her eyes smarted, but she did not allow herself to cry.

Lelouch looked down, scowling at the bed sheets.

Cornelia hoped he understood the hurt lining her fury.

Schneizel sighed and steepled his fingers, looking over them at Lelouch’s strained posture. “You hate Father,” he perceived knowingly, causing Lelouch’s head to snap up and his mouth to fall open.

Cornelia lurched back with a pained, “Lelouch” and Euphy hugged Nunnally. Suzaku briefly pressed his face into Lelouch’s shoulder.

“I do understand, you know,” Schneizel continued softly, leaning forward with a gentle smile. The heaviness in Cornelia’s chest started to lift at the sight of it, especially as he continued to fathom aloud so everyone could be on the same page: “Especially from your perspective, he hasn’t been the…ah, how to put this delicately? He hasn’t been the most supportive father figure.”

Wide-eyed, Lelouch stared at Schneizel with mouth still agape.

Schneizel nodded as he offered, “Listen, Lelouch, we won’t bring attention of your existence to the rest of the Royal Family if you don’t want us to.”

Euphy jumped in, barely letting Schneizel finish before begging, “Just let us be a part of your lives, Lelouch! If nothing else, please grant us this.”

Looking comically flabbergasted, Lelouch withdrew as Schneizel reached for his free hand.

With a slickness Cornelia envied, Schneizel pulled back and reasoned, “We have nothing to gain by revealing you. It can be our secret.”

Looking at Schneizel skeptically, Lelouch asked in a grudging tone, “What are you talking about…?”

Schneizel tipped his head, impossibly looking like he was struggling for words. “Lelouch, the painful reality is….” He sighed once more and drew back into his chair. He collectedly folded his hands in his lap, his legs already delicately crossed. “I’ll be blunt. After what happened yesterday, you’d be useless to the emperor. With all the extra medical care you’ll need to get back on your feet—if you ever can—investing in you would be too much wasted effort.”

“Wasted effort?” Lelouch echoed shrilly, sharing a scandalized glance with his—with Kuru—with the Eleven.

Pausing to nod at Cornelia, Schneizel amended, “You’re obviously still extremely intelligent and capable of being trained in warfare strategy. But at this point in time, you need more than you can give back.” Purposefully tracing his eyes along the extent of Lelouch’s obvious injuries, he added, “With your condition and status, you can’t even be married off for political gain.”

“So I wouldn’t be a valuable enough pawn. I see now,” Lelouch caught on, laughing humorlessly. Lips twisting, he said, “Anyway, I wouldn’t agree to be wedded off.” With a sickeningly fond look into equally-loving green eyes, Lelouch proclaimed, “I’m going to marry Suzaku.” He stroked his fingers through brown hair again, obviously enjoying how Kururugi wriggled in both happiness and embarrassment.

Euphy wiped at her eyes, her breath audibly itching. “Th-that’s so sweet, Lelouch…”

Just as Cornelia screamed with outrage, “You’re not marrying some trashy Eleven boy, Lelouch!”

Nunnally just giggled.

Schneizel remained silent until the initial emotional responses died down before observing quietly, “Ah, so it’s that serious between you two already. Congratulations are in order, I suppose.”

-+-

Nodding, Lelouch, agreed superiorly, “Indeed they are.” He also thought he deserved congratulations for resisting the panic that again clutched him at Cornelia’s outburst.

Chortling, Schneizel looked at the picture of cuddling kittens on the wall and shared, “You know, I’m almost jealous, Lelouch. The way you have it now, you have the freedom to marry the man you love.” He sounded almost wistful.

“…What’s his name?” Lelouch needled, catching on to the layer of true envy beneath the royal figurehead façade.

Raising one eyebrow, Schneizel was quietly passive for a moment before offering in a low tone, “Kanon Maldini.”

Lelouch nodded. The name rang a very faint bell. Shortly before his mother had been murdered, when he’d still trailed after Schneizel with an air of hero-worship, he’d listened as the blond prince described a fascinating young man he’d come to know through the Northern Bulliac Dormitory at his elite schooling. It was through Schneizel’s obvious feelings for this “Kanon Maldini” that Lelouch had learned that it was okay to be gay. It was reassuring somehow to know that Schneizel was still interested in the same person, that some pieces of his old life remained the same, despite the years of change and distance between the two princes. 

“I wouldn’t want to give that up either, if I had it,” concluded Schneizel, ghosting his fingers over a hanging IV bag. “I understand your position, so I’ll help you accomplish your personal goals.”

Lelouch snorted and disputed, “Alternatively, you just want to keep me in your back pocket, and you’ll find some way to use me as a trump card when people least expect it. Knowing I’m secretly alive gives you power. Or you just don’t want me as competition for the throne.” I’m on to you, Schneizel. I’ll call you out on your bullshit. “You’re giving me what I want so I’ll stay out of your way.”

His lips curving wickedly, Schneizel replied with a slightly mysterious tone, “Perhaps. You’ll never truly know, will you?”

Shaking his head, Lelouch murmured, “You don’t have to worry. I gave up my claim to the throne when I was nine, and I certainly don’t want it back now.” He glanced at Suzaku again longingly, thinking, I have a much better future in mind.

Suzaku smiled dopily back, as if he shared Lelouch’s glaring thought.

-+-

Euphy pressed both hands to her chest, feeling a pitter-patter protest against her fingertips. Still grappling with the truth, she could not prevent her feelings from spilling over; though to her credit, she was able to channel them into appropriately accepting verbiage. “How cute. They’re so in love!”

Cornelia shook her head furiously. “Euphy, they’re not in love. That’s preposterous.”

Lifting his face, shining bright with sincerity, Suzaku piped up in challenge: “Actually, I love Lelouch with all my heart and soul.”

Seeing Suzaku’s earnest feelings reflected in Lelouch’s eyes, watching the way both boys squeezed each other’s hands, sensing that almost-tangible bond tying them together in the universe’s oldest language—it cracked the brittle jealousy encasing Euphy’s heart, and her happiness for them trickled forth and swelled until it was a gush of melted affection.

Lelouch looked particularly adorable, flustered in the way he’d always gotten when asked to choose between Euphy and Nunnally as a child. Looking away, he hissed, “God, you’re embarrassing me. Can you all shut the hell up?”

Euphy covered her mouth, unable to suppress a stream of giggles.

Schneizel cocked his head. “No, please continue. This is just as entertaining as chess.”

Fingers twitching, Cornelia sneered, “Eleven, don’t pretend you’re worthy of my little brother—”

“He has a name, Nellie, use it,” Lelouch interjected, half a second before Euphy would have said the same thing in a more polite manner. Lelouch could be forgiven for being crass; he could and would be forgiven for a lot worse things. Lifting his chin, Lelouch ordered, “Repeat after me: Su-za-ku.”

Cornelia remained determinedly silent.

After a bit of an awkward pause, Euphy said, “Well, I’m really happy for you both!”

Nunnally smiled. “Me too!”

Schneizel shifted in his seat and jumped on the bandwagon. “I’d also like to express my delight at my favorite little brother’s romantic fortune.”

Bristling, Lelouch grumbled, “Could you be any more awkward?” At once, obviously dreading more craziness, he snapped, “Don’t answer that!”

Cornelia raised her voice and asserted, “I still don’t approve of this relationship!” She waved a hand at the two teenage boys still holding hands, her lips stretched stern.

-+-

Suzaku cringed and tore away from Lelouch, trying fruitlessly to escape his superior’s wrath.

Casting Cornelia a withering look, Lelouch shot back, “I don’t recall needing your permission!” He wrapped his arm around Suzaku’s shoulders, chaining them together in a clear show of defiance. Suzaku didn’t need to guess why Lelouch was laying on the touchy-feely, and a rebellious part of him thrilled at the way Lelouch’s upper body draped all over him now.

Clenching her hands into shaking fists, Cornelia tried to explain, “I’m only looking out for you, Lelouch.” She narrowed her eyes and scooted forward in her chair. “Surely you’ve realized that the reason you were attacked was because of your involvement with this Eleven boy.”

Suzaku’s world, so recently glued back together, crumbled into a trillion different jagged pieces.

Cornelia’s voice grew stronger as she got bolder, chasing victory where the battle won meant Lelouch’s freedom. Her eyebrows drew together as she said, “This is all his doing and you should rid yourself of such a costly mistake for a human being.” She directed her scornful glare at the Japanese teen.

Suzaku’s eyes teared up at the accusation and his breathing accelerated, trying to squeeze around the lump in his throat. He choked out unintelligible strings of sounds, his mind a jumble. The sterile smell of the hospital was suddenly suffocating, like when good intentions were used for evil.

Fuming, Lelouch griped, “Oh my god, I just got Suzaku to consider the possibility that this wasn’t his fault. You just undid over an hour’s worth of psychological progress!”

Eyes widening, Euphy gasped, “Oh dear.” Shaking her head mournfully, she consoled, “Suzaku, you know you’re not to blame, right?”

“I’ve been telling you that this whole time!” Nunnally upheld, even as Schneizel validated, “Kururugi, they’re right. You’re not responsible for this catastrophe.”

It was still so hard to comprehend, especially when his fears and guilt were reinforced—

Cornelia’s menacing glower deepened as she folded her arms and spat, “I disagree.”

-+-

Violet eyes narrowing to slits, Lelouch threatened, “Cornelia, if you don’t fix this mess you created, I will never speak to you again.” You don’t get to waltz back into my life and shatter my lover. I will end you. He squeezed Suzaku’s shoulders tighter but Suzaku just rocked back and forth on his knees, still lost in his own demoralizing thoughts.

“That’s harsh, Lelouch, considering…”  Schneizel said, waving his hand about in some elaborate gesture reminiscent of Lelouch’s own.

Lelouch hurriedly shook his head and maintained, “What she said was inexcusable.” Face set and determined, he laid out, “These are my terms. If you want me back in your life, then you need to accept Suzaku, too. We’re a package deal.”

Suzaku inhaled sharply, seeming to rejoin reality. “Lelouch…”

Sputtering, Cornelia protested, “B-but…”

“That includes not unfairly blaming him for things,” Lelouch spelled out. Expression twisting, he jeered, “Especially because from what I’ve gathered, you’re just as prejudiced against Elevens as those bigots who attacked me yesterday.” I’m going to call you out on your bullshit, too, Cornelia!

Cornelia immediately recoiled and cried out, “What?! How dare you imply I’m like those monsters!” Her whole body trembled with emotion.

His insides roiling, Lelouch snarled, “Then stop hating on my boyfriend for being Japanese! He didn’t do anything wrong!” Unlike you!

-+-

Schneizel sighed and was forced to intervene again before things grew even uglier. “Cornelia,” he murmured, “maybe you should get to know Kururugi before making any judgments.” He gestured to Lelouch and Nunnally, prompting, “Think about what’s at stake here.”

Very stiffly, Cornelia spoke to the floor. “Kururugi, you’re not to blame for what happened yesterday.”

Suzaku bowed his head further and mumbled gratefully, “Th-thank you, V-viceroy…”

Schneizel was surprised at the fury glittering in green eyes when Kururugi raised his head.

“I also blame Zero for this disaster,” Kururugi impulsively stressed out of nowhere, ranting above Lelouch’s low mutter (“not this again”): “If it wasn’t for Zero, I could’ve been at school yesterday to protect Lelouch!”

Interest obviously piqued over their common ground of shared hatred, Cornelia allowed, “Hmmm.”

Euphy looked unsettled, pale and shaky. Then again, the topic of terrorism had never been up her alley.

Lelouch looked disappointed and resigned.

Schneizel filed away the observations for later analysis. Kururugi could have been acting, but—

Lelouch let out a huge sigh and minutely relaxed his hold around Kururugi. “So anyway, now that that’s settled. That’s how it’s going to be from now on—if you want me.” His tone was confident and matter-of-fact, though it wasn’t as seasoned as Schneizel’s. It was still impressively developed, with Lelouch’s princely roots poking through his presentation.

Cornelia slumped in a manner unbefitting of a proud Britannian warrior-princess. Clearly dreading the answer, she pressed, “He really means that much to you?”

Obviously,” Lelouch scoffed.

It was kind of cute.

Rolling her shoulders, Cornelia shivered and gave in. “Then I suppose I have no choice. Using yourself as collateral—well-played, little brother.”

“That reminds me, Lelouch,” Schneizel interrupted with hungry interest. “Do you still play chess?”

Before Lelouch could answer, Suzaku snorted and revealed, “He still lives and breathes chess!” By his cheery expression, it was hard to tell he’d just had a mini-breakdown. Maybe Kururugi could act. Interesting.

Purple eyes rolled in fond exasperation. “Obviously,” Lelouch said again, though in a slightly less bitter voice.

Schneizel smiled and chuckled. “I see.” He tapped his fingers on his knee, mulling over implications even as he conversed with superficial small talk. “In that case, we have eight years of games to catch up on, Lelouch.”

Lelouch startled and grinned. “I’m not going anywhere, Schneizel,” he responded, his tone the warmest it had been to his estranged half-brother all morning.

Still smiling, Schneizel promised, “Then I’ll visit often to relieve your boredom.” Lips curling into a smirk, he taunted again, “That is, if you can tear your body away from Kururugi’s.”

Lelouch’s face fell and he flinched. “You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?”

“Oh, of course not, Lelouch,” Schneizel said quickly. He’d dearly missed this role. “What kind of older brother would I be if I did?”

“A decent one,” Lelouch said sardonically.

Schneizel let that hover and sink in, let Lelouch think he got the last word, before quietly and seriously saying, “I am going to be a decent brother, Lelouch. I am going to personally bring your attackers to justice.” He nodded decisively, his normally-placid gaze now hard and vicious.

Suzaku and Cornelia both straightened and protested respectively with, “Not if I get there first!” and “I’ll be the one beating those bastards bloody! In my Knightmare!”

Euphy pinched the bridge of her nose and chided, “Sister, please.”

“The Area Eleven Viceroy, attacking high school students in her Knightmare…” Schneizel mused thoughtfully. While the idea held merit and immense amusement… “Probably not the Britannian Royal Family image we want to uphold, Cornelia.”

Whipping her head back and forth, Cornelia protested, “I don’t care! I’ll make them pay for hurting my younger brother…!”

Lelouch gasped. “…Nellie…”

“I’ll thrash them worse than what they did to you, Lelouch!” Cornelia vowed darkly.

Nunnally sighed happily and noticed, “Overprotective big siblings must run in the family.”

Euphy backed her up. “Cornelia’s always cared so fiercely about us.”

Schneizel nodded his agreement and smoothly murmured, “That’s true. Lelouch, none of us are going to let those barbarians get away with their hate crime. The violence they inflicted on you is unacceptable.”

-+-

Lelouch stared at his long-lost half-siblings, completely floored by their familial loyalty. Agreeing to keep his life a secret, accepting his relationship with Suzaku, wanting to become part of his and Nunnally’s lives again simply for the sake of being family, craving revenge on his behalf… These were not the actions of family members who’d forsaken him to death in a foreign warzone. Assuming he could trust their intentions, of course, which he still needed to verify as soon as he could get them alone. At the moment, however, he simply let down his guard the tiniest bit and breathed, “Then I’m grateful.”

Breathing out heavily through her nose, Cornelia appreciated, “At least there’s that. Lelouch, you won’t regret letting us back in your life. I swear to you!”

Lelouch smirked and challenged, “I look forward to seeing you prove it, Nellie.”

“I’ll start right away. I have an Area to run, but I’ll get my top people working to investigate your case,” Cornelia decided. With a soft smile that looked out-of-place on her normally strict features, she vowed again, “I won’t out you if you’re determined to stay hidden.”

Nodding, Lelouch murmured, “Thank you. I appreciate that.” Maybe not all of his plotting was being undone in a single morning. Maybe he didn’t have as much damage control to do as he’d initially feared. Maybe he could still make this work in his favor.

Nunnally couldn’t hold back a sudden yawn.

With an affectionate glance, Euphy offered to do her part. “I’ll stay with Nunnally.”

Nunnally smiled and decided, “Then Sister Euphy and I are going back to Ashford.”

“Where the attackers are?!” Cornelia objected in a shout. “I think not!”

Nunnally shrugged. “It’s home. And besides, my nursemaid Sayoko will protect us.”

Cornelia rubbed at her forehead again and yielded, “If that’s where you truly want to be, then I’ll leave both Darlton and Guilford to guard you also.” With a resolute and protective expression, she asserted, “I’m not taking any chances with my two precious little sisters.”

Clapping his hands together twice, Schneizel claimed, “Then it’s decided.” He stood and placed his chair out of the way against the far wall, apologizing, “I have some business I need to see to in the meantime also; however, I’ll do what I can to help the investigation.” He smiled and it came across genuine, or maybe he was just playing with Lelouch’s head and it was working. “I’ll start making arrangements so we can be part of each other’s lives from now on in secret, too.”

Lelouch bent his head slightly forward in assent. “That sounds like a plan.” They’re going all-out. Was I really wrong about them all these years? It was a possibility he’d never considered before, and he raged at himself for letting his hurt anger and thirst for revenge blind him to a particular prospect. As a chess master, he should have already deliberated each angle—including the ones he didn’t want to believe based on rash emotion and personal bias. He sat and stewed, What does this mean for me?

Leering playfully, Schneizel half-joked, “We’ll let you get back to your boyfriend now, Lelouch.” His face smoothed out with wonder as he marveled, “It really is a miracle, seeing you again.”

“Truly,” Cornelia agreed.

Euphy smiled and gave Lelouch a soft, long hug, mindful of his injuries, before she left for Ashford Academy. As she embraced him, she whispered urgently into his ear, “I need to talk to you about the last time we met…at the hotel jacking.” Upon pulling back, she sounded brightly, “I’ll do everything I can to help, miracle boy!” She giggled at the flabbergasted, nervous, and searching look he gave her and assured, “We’ll be back soon!”

With another teasing look towards Suzaku, Schneizel added, “But not too soon.”

Groaning, Lelouch nagged, “Gah, get out of here!” He jabbed his index finger pointedly at the door, still reeling inside and wondering when the surprises would end. Euphy?! Of all the people I expected to piece things together, I never suspected... He steeled himself, gathering his loose thoughts into a string of logic and reality-based conclusions. The floor of his foundation was breaking under his feet, but it didn’t matter since he couldn’t stand on it now anyway. He had time to piece everything back together, even better than the way it had been before. She’s smarter than she makes herself out to be. I shouldn’t underestimate her.

Shaking himself out of a stupor, Suzaku called out, “Thank you, Your Highnesses! ‘Til next time! Come back and see us!”

Lelouch’s indignant yell followed the royals out the room: “Hell, Suzaku, don’t encourage them!”

Chapter Text

Exhaustion blurred the edges of Lelouch’s vision. With his family gone, his rush of adrenaline faded also. He hadn’t felt this sapped of strength since—barring yesterday—the time Milly had forced him to carry that one box of cat costumes all the way across school for Arthur’s welcoming party. At the same time, shedding baggage sparked sweet relief. With the shock wearing off, his mind looped: Did that seriously happen?  

It was easier to believe in the supernatural power of Geass as proof of the impossible.

Before Lelouch could follow his muddled line of thought, Suzaku eased to his feet and perched on the edge of the bed. “Are you all right?” he ventured, shooting Lelouch an empathetic look.

“I will be,” Lelouch said after a slight pause, acknowledging how Suzaku seemed to respect how emotionally complicated this all was for him. The kittens on the wall stretched into fuzzy blobs before shrinking back into precise shapes, crisp-lined and identifiable, as his focus blinked in and out. Pain prowled the edges of his consciousness, kept at bay by the narcotic medication dripped directly to his veins.

Suzaku smiled, and that alone boosted Lelouch’s mental strength. It was a prescription in its own right: take twenty Suzaku smiles per hour for maximum peace. Overdosing could result in extra wooziness.

“It’ll be okay,” Suzaku said.  His lone voice sounded small after all the impassioned conversation flying back and forth, and yet it carried more weight than all the others combined. “I mean, they even said they’d keep your secret.”

That assertion cleared things into momentary perspective, causing a muscle to twitch in Lelouch’s face. “I don’t trust them.”

“You don’t trust anyone,” Suzaku pointed out around a halfway hollow laugh.

Lelouch wrinkled his nose. “That’s not fair, Suzaku. I trust you!”

Sobering, Suzaku relented, “Yeah. I…I know. Thanks.” He swallowed, looking like he was having trouble digesting things still as his facial expressions kept bleeding into new ones. “As for your family,” he murmured, running his index finger down the bridge of Lelouch’s nose to smooth out the crinkling lines, “all I know is, it looked like they were really happy to see you. They obviously care about you and Nunnally a lot, Lelouch.” Hesitating, he glanced out the window. “Actually, Euphy talked about how much she missed you both only a couple weeks ago.”

Jerking back at the information, Lelouch mumbled, “I believe Euphy.” He followed Suzaku’s gaze to the concrete skyline, his clouded mind clearing with sunbeam speculations. A couple weeks ago? But by then, she must have already suspected that I was alive. His heart beat faster in a choppy rhythm, mirroring the whirring thoughts fighting their way through his sluggish brain. Suppositions weren’t good enough; he needed answers.  What was she hoping to gain by bringing me up to Suzaku?

“They all seem to love you,” Suzaku said with a stronger smile, bringing Lelouch’s concentration back to the original topic.

Lelouch snorted and squeezed Suzaku’s hand, musing aloud, “I suppose I’m just too popular.”

As if on cue, the door opened and another host of people spilled in.

Both teens snapped to attention, leaning closer together for support as Dr. Ashford led in a group of police. Their presence stole attention from thoughts of the Royal Family.

“There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation,” Dr. Ashford was saying to the chief, his concerned eyes flicking over to meet Lelouch’s directly.

Suzaku cringed, and Lelouch raised an eyebrow.

Dr. Ashford, the police chief, and another higher ranking police officer sat in the waiting chairs abandoned by the royals. Again, the hospital room felt too small to contain all the important happenings.

“Good morning,” the chief greeted, his tone and expression professional as he angled himself towards Lelouch. “Since you’re awake, young man, we’d like to get your take on what happened yesterday. The earlier we have all the facts, the sooner we can get those bastards who did this to you.” He smiled encouragingly, seeming more human for his show of feeling, and waved in turn as he introduced, “I’m Police Chief Marshall and this is part of my team: Deputy Hudson, Inspector Ramsey, and Sergeant Bean. We’re going to be working your case.”

“Okay,” Lelouch said, matching Chief Marshall’s neutral tone and mentally noting their identities. Marshall had the scar on his face, Hudson had dimples, Ramsey sported a tattoo of the Britannian insignia on his lower arm, and Bean’s head actually looked like a kidney bean. It kind of made Lelouch hungry, and his mouth watered for his own cooking now long out-of-reach. Distracted by his drifting imagination, in which he instructed Suzaku how to cook his restaurant-worthy dishes, Lelouch struggled to regain the clarity he’d found moments earlier. Unfortunately, it really was as frustrating as trying to catch sunbeams with his bare hands. Impossibly forcing his mind to work, he asked, “What have you got so far?”

With an accusatory glance at Suzaku, Chief Marshall said through pursed lips, “Not much in the way of facts we can use.”

Suzaku slumped. “I’m sorry.”

Eyebrow lifting even higher, Lelouch echoed, “Sorry?”

“Your…friend there,” the chief said with a sniff, “tampered with some evidence.”

Suzaku surged to his feet. “Not on purpose!” he protested, giving Lelouch a wide-eyed, desperate look. “I touched the knife to cut you free, and my fingerprints covered up the—”

“It’s okay,” Lelouch cut in calmly, reaching for Suzaku’s hand again. “You did what you had to do.”

Suzaku shook his head, but allowed his fingers to curl around Lelouch’s. “I should’ve known better. I’m in the military. I’ve been trained, and…”

“And you forgot all that in the heat of the moment,” Lelouch filled in, “because it was personal. Suzaku, I understand. I’m not mad.”

“But because of me, it’ll take longer to find out who—”

“—Exactly,” interrupted the chief, barely masking his glare. “So if you don’t mind, Eleven, stop meddling so we can get on with our jobs.”

Even as Suzaku bowed his head in submission, Lelouch glowered and hissed, “Don’t talk to him like that!”

Deputy Hudson put a hand on the chief’s shoulder and subtly jerked his head, and Chief Marshall forcibly swallowed a charged comeback. “We need his cooperation.”

Leaning forward, Inspector Ramsey interjected before things could derail further. “What happened yesterday?”

Lelouch opened his mouth to answer and—froze. The ache in his legs roared up. It had been hard enough with Suzaku, but he couldn’t make the words come in front of all these strangers. His mind was whirling in a jumbled freefall, and his body hurt as if his inability to open up was an additional wound.

“Let’s start simpler,” Inspector Ramsey said after a tense moment, giving Lelouch a reassuring smile. “What’s your name?”

With a quick challenging glance at Dr. Ashford, Lelouch licked his lips and said slowly, “Lelouch vi Britannia.”

Dr. Ashford choked on air, and the police force gave each other confused looks. Suzaku lifted his chin and stood on standby, clearly ready to act one way or the other if Lelouch needed him.

“He was struck in the head,” Sergeant Bean mused, checking Lelouch’s medical chart. “Do you think he’s suffering some kind of delusion?”

“He must be,” answered Chief Marshall in a decisive voice, “to think he’s Britannian royalty.”

“If his brain is this addled about his own identity,” Sergeant Bean said, “then how can we trust his other answers?”

“He’s our only eye-witness,” Chief Marshall said. “We have to ask. Any clue he can give us will be helpful, and there’s bound to be truth wrapped up in there somewhere.”

Inspector Ramsey nodded and got back to business. “All right, Your Highness,” he said, sincerely playing along, “when did you first make contact with the assholes who did this?”

Narrowing his eyes, Lelouch breathed out through his nose and said, “About ten minutes after the last class ended.” It was slightly easier to focus on the mounted wall pictures than to look at the police. Staring at the mountain sunrise so hard the photograph lost meaning, Lelouch spoke on autopilot as if someone else was channeling words through his mouth. “I waited until I was the last student in the room, and then I went to the boys’ bathroom down the hall.”

“And that’s where it happened?” Inspector Ramsey asked, jotting down notes.

Lelouch nodded, and Suzaku jumped in to inform the police where that particular bathroom was located on the school map and when exactly the last bell rang for clarification. A bird flew by the window, enviably on its way to a better future instead of stuck re-visiting the traumatic past.

Moving on to the next big question, now that they’d effectively gotten into the swing of things, Inspector Ramsey delicately asked, “And do you have any idea who these criminals are?”

Suzaku sucked in a breath, his eyes lighting with keen interest. The air conditioner kicked off, like even the universe was holding its breath for this answer.

Lelouch opened and closed his mouth, then closed his eyes and tried to recall the voices and hints he’d tried to gather in the moment. Talk about chasing sunbeams.

"By saying this, are you the ones who sprayed Suzaku's gym uniform with graffiti? Are you the ones who bully—" he asked, voice starting to shake as it sunk in that he was really and truly trapped with no way out. His mind conjured up an image of Suzaku’s normal tormentors, but something about the voices didn’t seem right… Or at least, not all of—

The voices were familiar, but infuriatingly enough, Lelouch couldn’t pin them to specific identities. There was some kind of mental block. His brain was listless, teasing him with flashes but never supplying him the whole picture. Trying to exhale out exasperation, Lelouch said, “The only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that there were three Britannian guys.”

Inspector Ramsey added that to his notebook and tilted his head at Lelouch questioningly. “Three guys. You’re sure?”

Lelouch felt a wave of indignation at the implied doubt before the question brought to mind the feeling of his attackers ramming themselves down his throat, certainly male by the anatomy upon which he choked. He couldn’t breathe around—he needed air! Space! Freedom! Trembling violently, Lelouch started to sweat and groan involuntarily, his eyes widening but his gaze unseeing as he found himself reliving the memory. He was back on that bench, bound and helpless, hurt and humiliated, and they weren’t done yet when would it all be over no no stop please leave me alone get out get off—

Like earlier, Suzaku’s frantic yells sounded muffled and distant as if being filtered through a different reality. “Lelouch, snap out of it! You’re safe!” He hovered apprehensively over Lelouch, now hyperventilating on the bed, obviously unsure if touching would help or make things worse.

Lelouch simultaneously wanted Suzaku’s comforting touch and a wide personal space bubble, but the conflicting desires were buried under an onslaught of panic. His mouth went dry as his sight flickered, bouncing from past to present and ultimately collapsing into a confusing mesh of both. His imagination cut through the darkness, painting pictures of what he would have seen had he not been blindfolded. Visions of looming forms flitted between Suzaku and threatening silhouettes, a hospital bed pole and a bat…

Dr. Ashford’s voice twined with Suzaku’s, calm and steady, like in the days when Lelouch was recovering from the horrors of war at the Ashford estate. “It’s okay, Lelouch. You’re not in danger. You’re okay.” His soothing tone tethered Lelouch to the current context, giving him a path back from the pain. “We’re all here for you. We’re going to help you. You’re safe.” His focused words, buoyed by Suzaku’s, seemed to hook Lelouch and pull him along, helping him travel through the worst of the memories. His next questions further oriented Lelouch, guiding his return to objective reality. “Do you know where you are, Lelouch? Are you having a flashback?”

It took about five minutes for Lelouch to come back to himself, with Suzaku calling for him and Dr. Ashford repeating his calm assurances. He finally blinked the gym changing room away and swayed with dizziness at seeing his lover, guardian, and a group of police officers staring at him with varying levels of worry, fear, and empathy. Wetting his lips, he rasped, “Wh-what happened?” His eyes darted everywhere, looking for danger. His body tensed, still on edge. There must be something…

“You relived something traumatic,” Deputy Hudson explained gently, getting Lelouch a cup of water. “It’s common for people who’ve survived horrors like you have.”

“I know this is hard for you,” Chief Marshall put in as Lelouch guzzled his drink. “You’re being very brave.”

Lelouch clenched his jaw and gripped Suzaku’s hand tighter than ever, suppressing the urge to fling his cup at the chief’s scarred face. After a moment, ashamed at how he’d lost control and gotten swept up in a flashback—worse, in front of strangers—he relaxed enough to spit, “You don’t need to coddle me! Spare me your pity!” He lifted his chin, his gaze cutting. “I can do this without you looking down on me! You want the facts? Here’s what happened.”

The police leaned forward, pencils ready. Suzaku collapsed on the bedside again, reclaiming what was steadily becoming his spot.

Lelouch took a deep breath, looked at Suzaku for strength, and rattled off the bare minimum of what had happened to him, condensing his experience to four painful sentences before finishing with, “They mentioned going to maybe…what was it? Oh yes, grab a bite to eat afterwards.” His entire body trembled and his voice scraped tight as he relayed his story. Despite hallmark commercials, it wasn’t any easier to share the second time around.

Suzaku bit his lip and scooted closer on the bed, pressing his side intimately against Lelouch’s so they felt each other when they so much as breathed. Wriggling his hand free of Lelouch’s clutch, Suzaku instead wrapped both arms around Lelouch.

Deputy Hudson nodded, flipping back through his notebook. “That all matches the evidence we found so far. Did they…say anything while they were doing all this? Maybe a reason?”

“A reason?” Lelouch barked a hard laugh, remembering, Britannians and Elevens just don’t mix, you see? Well, we'll have to reinstate some good ol' Britannian pride into you, won't we? Flatly, he said, “They were offended that I’m dating an Eleven.”

Chief Marshall’s jaw dropped at the blunt statement, looking like he shared the assaulters’ offense.

Brow furrowing, Lelouch let himself lean slightly against Suzaku as he continued, “They wanted to teach me a lesson, put me in my place.” Sighing, he reached up and held onto the arms snaking his torso, keeping his boyfriend locked in position. The room felt safer already. Adopting a more distressed tone, Lelouch concluded, “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not think any more about what they said or did.”

“Of course,” Chief Marshall rushed to assure, thankfully stuffing his personal feelings back where they belonged. “You’ve given us a timeline and some new things to check into.” While he still looked uncomfortable as he took in the boys’ bodily arrangement, he kept the interview rolling like he didn’t notice. “Moving on. Your fingerprints aren’t the only interesting ones in this case,” Chief Marshall said to Suzaku, before turning back to Lelouch and extracting an evidence bag holding Lelouch’s gun.

Eyes narrowed into slits as Lelouch drew the connections. At the very worst, this gun would link him to Clovis—

Suzaku’s face wrinkled in complete confusion.

That wouldn’t do. Clearing his throat, Lelouch caught Dr. Ashford’s eye and prodded lightly at his boyfriend. “Suzaku,” he said brightly, “You haven’t eaten in a long time. Why don’t you go down to the cafeteria?” Turning to the principal, he continued in his pseudo-respectful schoolboy voice, “Dr. Ashford, could you please go with him and make sure he eats something healthy? I don’t want Suzaku ending up in the hospital, too.”

Clearly reluctant, Suzaku slid off the bed, giving Lelouch a wary look and an automatic, “Yes, my prince.”

Dr. Ashford startled at the seemingly innocent endearment.

Suzaku looked over his shoulder as the principal fell into step behind him, and he gave Lelouch an encouraging smile before he left the room.

Lelouch knew he was being transparent about wanting them gone, but it was heartening that Suzaku trusted him enough to go along with it.

When the others had left, Sergeant Bean launched right into the crux of the matter. “This gun was found in your clothes, and it has your prints all over it. But why would a teenage student carry a gun around school?”

The shadows cast by the orthopedic bed’s strange adaptive equipment seemed to grow and mutate in Lelouch’s subsequent silence. Despite the air conditioner being off, the temperature in the room seemed to drop like a late spring snowstorm.

Fingers twitching uneasily around his pencil and notepad, Sergeant Bean tried again. “You don’t have a license to operate a firearm, Mr. Lamperouge, so having it on your person at all is illegal. You’re underage. Worse, you’re not allowed to bring a lethal weapon onto school property.”

Chief Marshall frowned and recapped for effect, “You illegally obtained a deadly weapon and hid it on your person in a no weapons zone, Mr. Lamperouge. This is very serious.”

“Indeed,” Lelouch drawled, looking from one law enforcement officer to the other.

“Additionally,” Sergeant Bean said, holding the evidence bag even higher, “things don’t make sense when you throw the gun into the equation. Why didn’t you use it to defend yourself?”

Lelouch sniffed with disdain. “I was tied up.”

“Which implies that you had the gun on your person before being accosted,” Chief Marshall interpreted. “Why did you have a gun?”

“To protect myself,” Lelouch said simply, staring the police chief straight in the eye.

“To protect yourself,” Chief Marshall repeated, sounding unconvinced, “or to threaten some classmates into doing your bidding?”

I don’t need a gun for that, Lelouch thought before the implications sunk in. “You’re not seriously suggesting that I orchestrated my own attack?” he demanded, flabbergasted at the accusation. “You think I held them at gunpoint to tie me down, beat me, and force me to do unmentionable things?”

The four men looked at each other with different levels of questioning reflected in their eyes as a couple muttered, “Well, your prints are all over the gun…” and “What does an average high school boy need protection from, anyway?”

“You’re insane.”

“Or you could be,” Chief Marshall shot back, lifting an eyebrow and adding in a mocking tone, “Your Highness.” Clearing his throat, he speculated, “You could have been trying to make a point. Maybe you did this for attention, or to make a social justice statement about your little Eleven boyfriend...”

Deputy Hudson looked perturbed at his superior’s ideas and relapse into unprofessionalism, his dimples disappearing as his face stretched tight with horror.

On the opposite extreme, Lelouch looked down and shrugged as if the allegations didn’t bother him in the slightest. This is ridiculous. When he raised his head, he was smirking and his left eye was burning with power.

-+-

Dr. Ashford cleared his throat as he walked next to the Eleven transfer student he’d so graciously allowed into his school, despite his misgivings about what it might mean for the royal wards he’d taken in with their critical secrets. It turned out this really was the young Eleven boy whom Lelouch had argued and cried for after the war, demanding that Dr. Ashford bring Kururugi Suzaku with them to safety. At the time, the disgraced Britannian nobleman had adamantly refused—he had no time to bother with Elevens—and despite being grateful for his and Nunnally’s own shelter, Lelouch’s eyes had grown a bit colder and accusing towards him as a result.

Lelouch had closed himself off and thrown himself into caring for his sister, and Dr. Ashford wondered with regret as time passed if he’d made a mistake. Lelouch would have been happier with that one real friend he’d made, and the Ashfords had taken that from him after the poor boy had lost almost everything else. Lelouch had even thrown in his face during one childish, heated near-screaming match that if it wasn’t for Nunnally, he would have stayed with Suzaku in the war-torn rubble.

Years later, it wasn’t for Princess Euphemia that Dr. Ashford permitted the Kururugi boy to attend his all-Britannian school: It was for Lelouch, because now he could make up for cruelly separating them all those years ago. He’d been worried at what might happen, but he’d kept watch from afar. The principal was satisfied with how the exiled prince naturally gravitated to his old friend, and how the something missing in him for all those years sparked back to life. He’d just never quite expected their relationship to turn into…this.

Waving his hand, Dr. Ashford wondered just how much the Eleven boy remembered of Lelouch’s royal status. “You and Lelouch go way back,” he said, testing his words carefully.

“We were best friends when we were children,” Suzaku agreed pleasantly, not giving anything away.

Dr. Ashford coughed and prompted, “And, were you friends with any other Britannians…right before the war?” Lelouch had already outed himself for some unknown reason, but at least circumstances allowed his introduction to come across as a mental defect stemming from his attack. Suzaku’s knowledge would be more telling. The cafeteria finally came into view at the end of the hallway.

Lips quirking in a smile, Suzaku nodded and stated, “I was friends with a prince and princess, you know, but they died in the war.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Dr. Ashford nodded. He needn’t have worried after all. This Kururugi boy was indeed helping the Ashford family protect the vi Britannia royal line. The once-nobleman had forgotten that the feelings were strong on the Eleven boy’s side, too, and his loyalty was clearly to Lelouch.

“But,” Suzaku ventured hesitantly as they each grabbed a tray and started loading them up, “supposing that dead friend’s family saw his face on the news after he was attacked, and they came to the hospital…”

Dr. Ashford dropped his tray of food.

-+-

“I didn’t mean to freak him out,” Suzaku protested sleepily, snuggling deeper into Lelouch’s arms. He’d had to remove himself when the doctors came in, but he was making up for it now.

Lelouch lightly flicked his nose. “Casually telling him that the most powerful family in the world just discovered that he’s been tricking them for several years probably wasn’t your best idea, Suzaku,” he observed. His lover’s idiocy was comforting during such a tumultuous time.

You introduced yourself as royalty in front of him!” Suzaku protested, making the bed groan as he settled himself.

Lelouch rolled his eyes. “Only because I knew I wouldn’t be taken seriously! I was walking a fine line.”

Scrunching his face, Suzaku wondered, “Why would you even risk that?”

Lelouch huffed into his boyfriend’s neck, tracing cracks on the ceiling with his eyes. “Suzaku, a seed’s been planted. Now when Cornelia and Schneizel offer their help for the investigation, it won’t seem to come out of nowhere to the police.” Not that it would matter anyway, considering the effects of his Geass. But. Suzaku didn’t know that.

Suzaku apparently didn’t know much of anything. “And Dr. Ashford…”

“Saw how the police dismissed my claim,” Lelouch filled in, now watching his IV drip.

“So he must’ve been reassured—after you gave him a heart attack in the first place!”

Shrugging, Lelouch said, “I was feeling things out and I had fun in the process. Did you see their faces?”

Suzaku bit back a laugh. “I should have known.”

“Don’t worry,” Lelouch said, carding his fingers through Suzaku’s hair. “It’ll be okay. Euphy knows how to handle Dr. Ashford.”

Nodding, Suzaku added around a yawn, “At least he went back to the school.”

“Yeah, I really don’t want him to pull the guardian card and try to control our relationship now that he knows about us,” Lelouch said with a grimace. Ashford Academy was supposed to be his safe place, yesterday notwithstanding. He didn’t need new inconveniences to work around, especially after the pile he inherited from the attack. “Can you imagine him giving us a curfew? Checking to make sure you’ve gone home for the night? Interrogating us about what we get up to…?”

Suzaku only grunted in response and slipped into sleep as he listened to Lelouch’s incessant griping.

Lelouch smiled softly at the picture, his voice trailing off on the tail end of his boyfriend’s snore. Suzaku needs the rest. So do I. At least we have a little time.

Although it hardly seemed like it.

When the Student Council members piled uncertainly into the room a couple hours later, Suzaku snapped out of his light doze and rocketed out of bed. The instinct to distance himself from Lelouch in front of their friends was ingrained in him, and he looked away as he smoothed down his clothes. At least they were only caught cuddling, unlike this morning’s fiasco with the Royal Family. Lelouch sighed and sent him a disappointed look, but Suzaku only smiled thinly back and turned to face the others. “Uh, hi,” he greeted gingerly.

Milly opened her mouth to say something, a familiar teasing glint in her eyes, but pressed her lips into a thin line at Lelouch’s warning glare. She took a step back, bumping into Shirley—who was trying unsuccessfully to hide behind her.

“Yo, Lelouch!” Rivalz said with a wide hand wave. His smile faltered, but his steps were steady as he took the lead and approached Lelouch’s bedside. “How are…uh…” he stammered, fumbling for words most likely because he remembered why they were there. “Oh, hi, Suzaku!” he said in a rush, shifting his attention to Suzaku with a relieved gaze. 

Lelouch carefully kept his eyes from rolling as he responded, “Hey there, Rivalz. Milly. Shirley. I’m fine.” In truth, their presence was making him break out into cold sweats, but he wasn’t going to broadcast how uncomfortable he felt.

They all looked at him with pity and disbelief.

“I’m fine,” Lelouch insisted, his shoulders tensing. “You can all come in, you know. I’m not broken.” He held out his hand towards his lover, gently guiding Suzaku to sit back on the bed with him as soon as his boyfriend made return contact. The movement made some hanging medical equipment swing, which grabbed everyone’s silent attention.

Milly finally took a deep breath and swept past Rivalz. “We know you’re not broken,” she assured Lelouch, sitting in the seat closest to the bed. “We just don’t like seeing someone we love a lot in so much pain.”

At her words, he looked immediately at Suzaku. Everyone else followed his gaze.

“Told you,” Suzaku said with a small shrug. He shifted self-consciously.

Rivalz and Shirley hesitantly took the other two chairs, looking back and forth between the lovebirds questioningly.

“So Lelouch,” Milly boomed around a forced feeble laugh, “has Suzaku cured you with the power of his love yet?”

Suzaku and Lelouch gaped at her.

“This isn’t funny, Madame President!” Shirley snapped. “Don’t make rude jokes like that!”

Lelouch groaned quietly and dragged a hand down his face. Something in his chest loosened at her incongruous teasing, but he wouldn’t share that either in the hopes of discouraging her. “Milly,” he began in a pained voice, “I know you’re trying to cope through humor and avoidance, but try not to be insensitive.”

Milly cringed and looked down, abashed, and apologized, “S-sorry, Lelouch. You’re right. I wasn’t trying to…”

“I know,” Lelouch grumbled. “I’m just pointing it out so you can stop.”

Guiltily, Milly nodded and uncharacteristically folded her hands in her lap as she tried to steady herself and face the circumstances. Lifting her head, she stared at their clasped hands and demanded, “F-for real, though, Lelouch, Suzaku, why didn’t you tell us you were dating?”

“Man, don’t you trust us?” Rivalz flashed. Shirley nodded firmly beside him.

Suzaku looked at Lelouch helplessly.

“It was my idea to keep our relationship secret,” Lelouch said evenly, taking responsibility and meeting each of their gazes. His chest felt tight again all of a sudden. “If it’s any consolation, Suzaku wanted to tell you all. I didn’t want to take chances, though, just in case…well, something like yesterday happened.”

Again, the other Council members looked flabbergasted and hurt.

Rivalz had to swallow a few times before managing, “You—you thought we’d attack you? Dude!”

“Not you personally!” Lelouch rushed to correct. “But what if you accidentally slipped up and word got out? We were safest when nobody knew.”

Milly shook her head slowly and sadly. “We know how to keep secrets, Lelouch,” she reminded him pointedly.

“I know,” Lelouch said, choosing his words wisely. His bloodline had been safe in the Ashfords’ care all these years, but his relationship with Suzaku was different. “I’d trust you to try, but you’re only human and—well, mistakes happen.” All the more likely because you’re high schoolers who enjoy gossiping. You’re my friends. I’ve seen how you behave. He paused and took a deep breath, slamming his point home with, “Look at what happened yesterday. Look at how bad society is. We were right to be overcautious.”

Suzaku jumped into the conversation with a pleading expression. “I’m sorry if it hurt your feelings and all that, but it really was the safest option we had.” His lower lip trembled, and his voice came out shaky as he murmured, “We know we aren’t your average couple, and we know some people take offense to us for any number of reasons. We just…didn’t want to be hurt like this.” He glanced meaningfully at Lelouch’s covered legs.

Milly, Shirley, and Rivalz stared at them with watery eyes, for the first time seeing how ugly the world could be up close. Now that it was affecting them, affecting people they cared about, it was harder to wave it away or laugh off the awkwardness. Now they were forced to face it, to deal with it. These weren’t some faraway sob stories on the news; these were their friends’ lives. Their friends, who were wonderful people, who deserved to be happy together…who had to keep something so beautiful as falling in love a secret, even from people they wanted to trust, because they’d feared the world’s cruel and violent reaction. It was a tremendous wakeup call to reality.

Their offense and hurt visibly melting away, the Student Council members instead looked ashamed and embarrassed. They had never been in danger of a hate crime—not like Suzaku and Lelouch, who were targeted for their sexuality and their interracial relationship. How could they possibly relate? Their mouths opened and closed wordlessly as they tried and failed to come up with anything they could possibly say in this situation. All three of them seemed to shrink in their seats.

Hunching over, Shirley sniffled, “I-I’m so sorry!”

“Y-y-yeah, dudes,” Rivalz added around a manly hiccup. “I—we didn’t…”

“We weren’t thinking,” Milly summed up morosely. “We understand now why you didn’t say anything.” Her shoulders trembled, and she cried, “Especially after what you went through…”

Slowly nodding, Lelouch stressed, “Look, this all just happened yesterday, and I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not ready for that.” His stomach was tying itself in knots, and his eyes were wide with aberrant pleading.

Shirley’s head shot up, eyes wide. “O-of course not, Lelou!” she shouted. “I mean, Lelouch. No one would ask you about what happened.”

Lelouch blinked, remembering the sense of peace that had washed over him when Shirley had called out ‘Lelou’ into the gym darkness. Gathering himself, he offered, “Shirley, you can call me ‘Lelou.’ You’re my friend, just like always, and that’s always been your name for me.”

Shirley chanced a glance at Suzaku. “B-but, Suzaku’s your…your boyfriend, right?” She braced herself for the obvious answer. At Lelouch’s strong nod, she went on, “Then he should…he should be the one to call you…”

“Trust me,” Lelouch assured her, “Suzaku has his own pet name for me. He doesn’t use ‘Lelou.’”

Suzaku blushed as the attention turned to him again, and Milly smirked slightly at the information. Rivalz coughed. Shirley froze up. It almost felt like good old Student Council awkward craziness.

Leaning forward, Milly asked playfully, “Oh, he does? What does he call you, Lelouch?”

Mimicking her, Lelouch craned his neck and answered tauntingly, “Oh, that’s private.” Falling back against his pillows, he added, “You’re not getting anything else out of me.”

 “You, uh, seem comfortable talking about, um,” Rivalz observed, waving a hand between the two of them.

Shirley scooted forward and impatiently burst out, “Yeah, can you explain some things now?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she gasped and flinched, following up with, “Only if you’re up to it, Lelou!”

With a steady gaze, Lelouch merely nodded. “I’d love to talk about Suzaku,” he answered. The knots in his stomach started loosening, and he found that he could breathe easier. His blushing and bashfully grinning boyfriend was a much better topic than yesterday’s hate crime or society’s injustices. Face relaxing, Lelouch asked easily, “What exactly do you want to know?”

“How long has this been going on?” Shirley asked, her voice pitching high.

Rivalz jumped in with, “Did you two get together on Friday?” He was obviously re-evaluating the conversation the Student Council, minus Shirley, had had about Lelouch’s love life only just a few days ago, when Lelouch had adamantly insisted on spending the night with Suzaku while shooting down the Council’s attempts to set him up with Shirley or Kallen.

Suzaku sighed, squeezed Lelouch’s hand, and answered, “No, we’ve been dating in secret for just over six months now.”

Milly, Rivalz, and Shirley just stared at them with blank faces.

“Over six…months?” Shirley asked weakly. “That long?” She bit her lip, a couple tears rolling down her face. “And you…you love each other?”

“Yes,” both Lelouch and Suzaku answered simultaneously, their combined voices filling the room with a sense of powerful certainty.

After a few moments of silence as they all absorbed that, Milly tapped her chin. “Six months ago,” she recalled aloud, trying to think back.

Sighing, Lelouch played her game and revealed, “We officially got together on April 12th when you pulled your lunchtime Council meetings and arranged it so we’d talk after that fight. I suppose a belated thank you is in order.”

Nodding, Milly smiled, waved off the gratitude as if it was all in a day’s work, and said, “I do remember that. Why were you ignoring each other for the week before then?”

“I wasn’t ignoring Suzaku!” Lelouch hissed, insulted.

Suzaku squirmed, hesitantly met Shirley’s eye, and finally looked away at the wall. “I was…ignoring Lelouch because the week before, he—he kissed me on the roof and then bailed on me.” He tensed, and Lelouch knew he was wary of Shirley’s reaction. Suzaku always had been.

The Council members gasped again, Shirley blushing again as she stuttered out, “Y-you two have k-k-kissed?!”

Milly sent her a devious smile. “Come on, Shirley, they’ve been dating for half a year! Of course they’ve kissed! They’ve probably—” She bit her tongue then, her eyes slowly tracing Lelouch’s face and her laughter evaporating. Sitting back in her chair, she squared her shoulders and said solemnly, “No. I’m not like the cruel monsters who caused you pain. Maybe I can’t control the world, but I can control myself.” As her friends looked at her with awed respect, Milly cocked her head and eagerly pressed instead into safer teasing. “So Lelouch was the one who confessed first?”

Shirley twitched at the idea. Rivalz smiled a bit nervously, obviously worried that they were digging into too-personal territory.

“He kissed me first,” Suzaku explained, his shoulders still a bit stiff but slowly slackening. “I told Lelouch I loved him first.”

Lelouch rolled his eyes playfully, the most relaxed he’d been since his friends’ arrival. “Come on, Suzaku. When I kissed you, I was telling you without words that I loved you. Therefore, I confessed first. I win.”

Suzaku snorted and shot back automatically, “Sure, you keep telling yourself that, my prince.”

The others jumped a little in their seats.

Plunging on, Suzaku countered, “You left the job half undone, so it doesn’t count. That means, I win by default.”

“Geez, are you two always this competitive with relationship stuff?” Rivalz asked with a genuine chuckle.

“Did you just call him ‘my prince,’ Suzaku?!” Milly asked urgently, jumping on the pet name. Suzaku paled at the slip-up.

With a strained smile, Shirley admitted, “Y-you two are really c-c-cute.”

Lelouch looked from one to the other and said simply, “Yes,” in response to all three.

Milly clapped gleefully. “Oh, that is so adorable!”

Suzaku hung his head. Lelouch groaned melodramatically.

“Hey, uh, we don’t need to tease them this much, guys,” Rivalz said, a skittering laugh escaping him.

Milly huffed, “What are you talking about? We’ve got six months of ribbing to make up for!”

Suzaku let loose an exaggerated shudder. “What did we get ourselves into?”

“And to think you wanted to tell them in the beginning,” Lelouch reminded him in an ‘I-told-you-so’ tone.

Forest green eyes rolled in fond exasperation. “Okay, Lelouch, I was wrong.”

“Finally, you admit it!” Lelouch’s tone was tauntingly superior.

“Geez,” Milly laughed, blue eyes twinkling. “You two sound like you’ve been married for years. When’s the wedding?”

Shocking everyone into stunned silence, both boys turned to their friends and, without missing a beat, announced simultaneously, “August 10th.”

-+-

At their ready answer, Shirley lurched to her feet, eyes stinging. It was bad enough that she lost her longtime crush to their mutual friend, and even worse when said crush was brutally attacked just for being with said mutual friend. Two days ago, nobody had a clue that they even had feelings for each other—Shirley was still daydreaming about her own future wedding to Lelouch—and now they were talking marriage? It was too much to process all at once, and she needed to get out of that room for her own sanity. Wiping at her cheeks, she caught Suzaku’s eye, her lip quibbling. She jerked her chin to the door and took a few stumbling steps, shooing away Milly’s nonverbal offer of assistance.

Suzaku slid to his feet, squeezing Lelouch’s hand once before letting go. “Gotta go make things right,” he said under his breath, his gaze flicking from Lelouch to Shirley to Milly. He turned back to his best fri—his boyfriend. “Will you be okay without me?”

“I think I’ll manage,” Lelouch said sarcastically, giving the small of Suzaku’s back a little push. “Get going. Make me proud.”

With a deep breath, Suzaku nodded and followed Shirley out into the hallway.

-+-

As the door slid shut behind Shirley and Suzaku, Lelouch turned to Milly and Rivalz, trying to distract himself from the wave of depression and anxiety that flooded him at Suzaku’s absence. No matter his words to his boyfriend, he truly felt safer with his knight around. He wanted Suzaku back by his side, where he belonged, but he hoped his overwhelming need for the other boy wasn’t obvious to the others.

He shot them a confused look. “Where’s Nina?” They’d never been exceptionally close, but she was the only one on the Student Council who hadn’t come to visit him. Even Kallen, with her ready-made excuses, had dropped by (even if he was an afterthought to her mother, it still counted). It was strange that Nina hadn’t come, considering the circumstances.

“O-oh,” Milly said sheepishly. She looked at the floor. “She didn’t, um…”

Rivalz laughed in a too-loud awkward way, rubbing at his neck. “Nina, um, she’s a good person, but uh…she didn’t feel comfortable coming with Suzaku here.” He looked at the floor, muttering, “And maybe, you know, other Elevens. In case some stopped by or gathered outside the hospital. Random supporters or whatnot, who might’ve seen your story on the news.”

Lelouch blinked. “Oh. She’s still needlessly scared, then?”

“Terrified,” Milly confirmed in an undertone.

Frowning, Lelouch reminded them, “I was attacked by Britannians.”

With a half-hearted shrug, Milly mumbled, “She might need a little more time.”

Scowl deepening, taking offense for multiple reasons, Lelouch grumbled, “She needs to get her act together.”

“Hey, hey,” Rivalz cut in, aiming to defend their friend. “Nina’s just sharing an unpopular opinion. It’s not like she’s bombing millions of innocents.”

Arching an eyebrow, Lelouch returned flatly, “Rivalz, it starts with words. Then words affect attitudes. Motivations. Before you know it, you have action.” He shuddered violently, proclaiming, “I’ve had enough prejudiced action for my tastes. We don’t need her inciting more.”

Leaning forward, Milly said earnestly, “I understand, Lelouch. I’ll talk to her again. Try to get her to come around.”

“Not for my sake. Not even necessarily for Suzaku’s,” Lelouch remarked. His voice swelled with purpose. “Rather, do it for the future of the entire world.”

Milly and Rivalz looked at each other in wonderment, moved by his grand tone.

Before they could comment on his profound vision, Lelouch casually shared, “You know, some of my…other family dropped by to visit this morning.” Milly swayed, starting to panic. Face carefully passive, Lelouch explained, “Your grandfather already knows. One of my other sisters is going to stay with Nunnally for now. At Ashford.”

“Whoa, you have more sisters?” Rivalz asked, wide-eyed. “I thought it was just you and Nunnally!” The Lamperouge siblings had always been very careful not to mention their family background.

Lightly smirking, Lelouch shook his head. “Rivalz,” he said, mystery thrumming through his words, “there’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

-+-

Shirley rushed through the door and pressed herself against the wall, her chest heaving as she waited for her Eleven love rival to join her. She’d been scared of this, she remembered. Back when she’d been freaking herself out over asking Lelou to that little concert, she’d given herself a million reasons not to take that scary step. One of those, not-so-inane now, reasons was that Lelouch would rather marry Suzaku.

“Lelouch, hurry up! Our wedding’s about to start!”

“Right!”

She remembered stopping that daydream in its tracks and thinking to herself about Lelouch, Cut! He doesn’t swing that way. Apparently, he did. And apparently, so did Suzaku. “Lelouch, you know how I feel about you!” Were they only that way for each other? If they broke up, would she have a chance with Lelou then?

But no. She forcefully shook her head. She was supposed to be moving on and getting used to the idea of them, not lying in wait like some obsessive stalker. I need to let them have their ticket of dreams, she coached herself firmly. They deserve that, after everything. Shirley might not be able to control the world, but she could control herself.

After a few forever seconds, Suzaku joined her outside the hospital room. He gave her a faltering smile and suggested, “We should probably talk.”

Nodding, Shirley found her voice. “Y-yeah, that’s why I—let’s find somewhere private, okay?” She was proud that she’d managed to get the words out. It was extremely uncomfortable and scary to confront a problem directly, especially under these circumstances. Turning her back on Suzaku, she walked away. Part of her just wanted to avoid Suzaku forever, but—that would mean losing Lelou, too, and she just couldn’t imagine a future without him. Even as a friend.

Suzaku silently followed her to a blessedly empty waiting room on their floor, his expression uncharacteristically empty.

“So, um, Suzaku,” Shirley said, spinning around and scrubbing at her watering eyes. It felt so hard to talk to Suzaku now that Lelouch was between them.

Tilting his head, Suzaku murmured cautiously, “Shirley?”

“I need to be h-honest, S-Suzaku,” Shirley croaked around a hiccup. “I d-don’t l-l-l-ike that you t-took Lelou, b-b-but, I’ll…” …get over it, she wanted to say, but didn’t because at that moment, she didn’t foresee how that was possible. She couldn’t force those words out.

Suzaku scowled and took a small step forward, the blaze of anger in his eyes plainly triggered by her words and stance. “Let’s make one thing clear,” he sneered, talking very slowly and carefully, barely masking an audible layer of spite. “I didn’t take Lelouch from you. He chose me, on his own.” His words sounded confident and he stood military ramrod straight, owning his argument more adamantly than Shirley had ever seen from him.

Shirley fervently shook her head, orange hair flying. She’d planned to do the right thing and step aside gracefully, but all her jealousy came pouring out unbidden. She couldn’t hold it back. The dam was broken. Clinging to the hope that it might have made a difference, she cried, “L-lelou d-didn’t know I w-was interested…”

With a superiorly pitying look, Suzaku broke the news: “Actually, Shirley, he did know.”

At his bombshell, Shirley folded into a chair and sobbed frantically. Hospital staff passing by the door only glanced at her with understanding, most likely used to crying friends and family members in their waiting rooms. Breath hitching, Shirley fisted her skirt and looked at Suzaku with heartbreak swimming in her eyes. Her cheeks felt warm and itchy from weeping, and she knew she must look a mess—all red-faced and blotchy. Not that it mattered. Not that anything mattered, when Lelouch preferred Suzaku. “How? W-why?” she whimpered. Why did Lelou choose you over me, Suzaku?

Suzaku froze for a moment, the aura of offense and vindictiveness melting away as he witnessed Shirley truly break down in front of him. “I’m sorry,” he said gently, sitting a couple chairs down from her to give her space. He played with his fingers, looking at the floor like it held all the answers. “I let my jealousy and possessiveness take over just now. I can only imagine what you’re feeling right now, and I wouldn’t wish that hurt on anyone.” He sounded more like the Suzaku she knew, not the stranger lashing out with righteous pride. Glancing up to meet her eyes, he added, “And I…I know you are really hurt, Shirley. I never wanted to upset you. Lelouch didn’t either.”

That didn’t make it any better. If they hadn’t wanted to upset her, then why did they even get together in the first place? What hypocritical jerks! “Th-then explain why, dammit!” Shirley yelled, her voice high-pitched and cracking.  For some reason, she felt like she couldn’t move on from Lelou without knowing the answer.

Taking a couple deep breaths, Suzaku said, “Because we fell in love with each other. It’s that simple.”

Shirley bowed her head and seemed to deflate. Her hysterical crying winded down, but she still felt swamped with sadness. Gathering her voice, she wondered in a small voice, “Wh-why d-d-does Lelou l-l-love y-you?”

Suzaku turned to look at the wall and shrug, a soft smile flitting across his face. “I ask myself that every day, Shirley,” he confided in a low murmur. “You’re going to have to ask him why. I can tell you why I love Lelouch, but you already understand what makes him so lovable.” He took another deep breath to steady himself before saying urgently, “Trust me, I know Lelouch is special. I don’t take him for granted.”

Sniffling, Shirley finally peeked at him from behind her hair. “I-I’ve just…loved him for so l-long, Suzaku,” she lamented raggedly.

“So have I,” Suzaku shared evenly, acknowledging her point but not letting it eclipse his own. “Maybe no one else knew, maybe no one was rooting for us, but my feelings for him have been there since the beginning. They’ve only gotten stronger over time.”

With a heavy sigh, Shirley tucked her hair back behind her ears and wiped at her face again. “And h-he loves you,” she repeated dully. The world lost more of its luster every time she remembered.

“Yes.”

Shirley flinched but didn’t devolve into howling hysterics. She fiddled with her hands and skirt as she took a few minutes to process things, grateful for Suzaku’s patience. He was sticking around, so she figured he wanted to make it work, too. With a concerted effort, she tried to let her overwhelming sorrow and jealousy drain from her body. “I guess…I j-just have to g-get used to it,” she finally mumbled. There was nothing else for it. She’d arrived right back where she’d started.

The tension started to fade with her surrender, and Suzaku nodded. “Lelouch still values you as one of his best friends,” he offered as an olive branch. “And…so do I.”

Somehow, his kindness hit a nerve that his anger had missed. Squeezing her eyes shut, Shirley burst out, “Oh, Suzaku! I don’t know why, after last night. I wasn’t a very good friend to you, especially when you needed me to be.” Her shoulders shook and she slowly opened her eyes, shiny wet and gleaming with sincerity. Now that her envy had died down to manageable levels, she was horrified with herself at how she’d just acted, basically throwing a tantrum because she didn’t end up with the guy of her dreams. I was supposed to smile, say I was happy for them, and stand aside! What was I thinking?! Regret for her own lost control burned hotter than regret that she’d lost her chance with Lelouch.

“Shirley,” Suzaku said, his tone as warm and gentle as an empty pool on a summer night, “you’re a wonderful person. I remember how you smiled at me when I first started at Ashford Academy.” He held out his hand, palm sideways. “You smiled even though I was an Eleven, and you were one of the first to reach out to me. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

With a watery smile so unlike the one Suzaku was remembering, Shirley dared to look him in the eye as she clasped his hand on an equal level. “Suzaku,” she mumbled, “you’re a great friend, too.” A bit of tightness in her chest unclenched, giving her the strength to gather her courage and exclaim suddenly, “I’m so sorry! I was wrong. I treated you unfairly and horribly and I know I crossed a line yesterday.” Breaking free from his grip, she balled her hands into shaking fists on her lap. “Nothing’s your fault. I know that. I always knew that, I just…”

Suzaku’s face softened, and he scooted one chair closer, holding out his arms. “It was hard to take,” he admitted truthfully. “I felt angry and hurt at how you pointed the finger at me last night, as if I wasn’t already soaking up all the blame.”

Shirley moved to hug him. “I’m so—”

“It’s okay,” Suzaku interrupted her firmly. “I’m sorry, too.” He returned the hug, exhaling heavily.

Sniffling, Shirley squeezed him tighter before letting go and inching back. “I know, Suzaku,” she sighed. “If Lelou is happy with you, then that’s all that matters.” It was all that mattered, in the end. Lelou wasn’t the only guy in the world, and she still had a lifetime to fall in love with someone else. She looked Suzaku directly in the eye again and apologized more determinedly, “I’m sorry for blaming you for what happened. I know it wasn’t your fault, but I just—needed someone to lash out at last night, and you were right there. I know it sounds awful…”

“No, it sounds human,” Suzaku corrected her graciously. “I would even agree with what you said last night, about it being my fault, but, uh, Lelouch would yell at me if I started that again.” Lips quirking in a rueful smile, he theorized, “I’m sure he’d somehow hear me, even all the way out here.”

Starting to giggle, Shirley nodded, her shoulders loosening. Somehow, they were getting over this hump. “You didn’t attack him,” she pointed out softly.

“You sound like Lelouch,” Suzaku said with a grin. “He’s been drilling that into my head so much all day, I’ve even started to consider, maybe, trying to believe him. He’s still really stubborn.”

Tone wistful, Shirley said, “Yeah, Lelou’s a great guy.” At that, her gaze sharpened and she fretted, “Will you be mad if I keep calling him ‘Lelou’? I don’t want to…step on your toes or anything, Suzaku.”

With a low chuckle, Suzaku shook his head. “You’re allowed to call him whatever he lets you,” he said with a good-natured shrug. “Your friendship with Lelouch isn’t my business, Shirley. Besides, you’ve been calling him that name for years. You’ve earned that right.”

Shirley relaxed even more at the permission. “You’re a great guy, too, Suzaku,” she observed kindly. “I lost sight of that yesterday. And…” She hesitated before celebrating, “You and Lelouch really are great together.”

“It’s okay if you don’t think so,” Suzaku put out after a moment of awkward silence. “We know it might take time for, you know, feelings to settle. We’re not gonna rub our relationship in your face or anything, Shirley.” He ducked his head, trying to hide the amazed look on his face. “To be honest, it’s a little weird to even admit our relationship exists—let alone act on our feelings in front of people.”

Shaking her head, Shirley protested, “That’s not right. You shouldn’t have to cover it up.” It must be so surreal to her friends, to be talking about their relationship. Like it was normal and allowed. Shirley’s heart went out to them, stirred by their silent suffering.

With a glance at the hospital hallway, Suzaku huffed his agreement. “Right now, that’s the society we live in. One day, though,” he said, “like Lelouch said on our first rooftop lunch date, we’ll be together openly. In a safer world.”

“At least now you can truly be yourselves with your friends,” Shirley said, with a hint of a nervous question in her voice.

Suzaku’s grin stretched wider. “Yeah,” he answered easily. “Friends like you.”

-+-

Lelouch instinctively breathed easier once Suzaku walked into the room, and his whole face relaxed. For once, he didn’t try to keep a lid on his feelings as his eyes tracked Suzaku across the room. His heart sang, and he felt like floating. Maybe it was the pain medication, maybe not. Maybe Suzaku was his pain medicine after all. “Welcome back,” he murmured fondly, gaze pinned solely by Suzaku’s.

“Awww,” Milly cooed in the background. “Look at that expression! That’s love if I’ve ever seen it.”

Rivalz grinned in agreement. “Isn’t it weird, though?” he whispered loudly. “Uh, not that Lelouch is gay!” he backtracked, holding up both palms in a pacifying motion. “But because Lelouch showing affection for anyone other than Nunnally is really, really strange. Even if it is for Suzaku.”

Shirley looked between the two boys, lost in each other’s eyes, and breathed out slowly. “Yeah, but Milly’s right,” she murmured back. “There is love between them, and it’s so obvious looking at them now. I wonder how they’ve managed to stuff such bright, intense feelings into the shadows.” She smiled. It was small, but it was genuine.

“Manage okay?” Suzaku checked, sitting on the edge of the bed and automatically cupping Lelouch’s cheek. Milly squealed, then again louder when Lelouch leaned into Suzaku’s touch.

With a smooth nod, Lelouch returned, “Of course. And you?”

“Yep. Though, I’m better now that I’m with you again,” Suzaku responded.

Lelouch’s lips quirked in a grin. “Well, obviously.”

Clasping her hands by her head, Milly sighed dreamily. “Look at them! They don’t even realize how cute they are.”

“Uh, Milly,” Rivalz spoke up. “They’re not acting cute for your entertainment. Maybe you should lay off them a bit, okay?”

Milly stared at him, blue eyes wide. Rivalz had grown a backbone towards her. For Lelouch and Suzaku. This was unexpected. Though he was challenging her, Milly nodded with new respect at Rivalz. “Y-yeah, you’re right, Rivalz,” she said softly, sounding a bit embarrassed. “I was just…trying to show my support. I’d tease Lelouch and Shirley the same way if—” She broke off suddenly, looking guilty, gaze flicking between the two boys and Shirley.

Shirley offered the president a weak smile. “I’m okay,” she assured Milly. “Suzaku and I are good now. We had a nice talk.”

Muscles relaxing, Milly breathed, “Good. I’m glad.”

The lovebirds finally shook themselves out of it, blushing with embarrassment when they realized they still had the Student Council as an audience.

“We’ll leave you be,” Rivalz offered with an encouraging wink, his tone as knowing as Schneizel’s had been that morning. “We just wanted to stop by and see how you’re doing.”

Lelouch smiled and observed, “You’re good friends.” Suzaku nodded his agreement. The Student Council members had treated Lelouch the same as always, as their friend, and not drawn awkward attention to his legs. By teasing him about Suzaku and carrying on regular conversation, they’d given him a desperately needed sense of normalcy.

Milly beamed and promised, “We’ll come by again. See you later, you two!”

“Wait!” Shirley called out, then seemed to shrink into herself. Shifting from foot to foot, she looked to the floor and mumbled, “I…I want to talk to Lelou…”

Suzaku blinked but dutifully slid off the bed. “I’ll walk them out,” he offered, gesturing to Milly and Rivalz.

Lelouch nodded without speaking, feeling lonely once Suzaku had gone. It didn’t matter that he still had company. He wanted Suzaku.

“You really do love him, don’t you?” Shirley asked, clearly needing to check with the source in private. Her voice was both resigned and wondering.

Lelouch’s gaze snapped to hers, and he nodded again. “With all my heart,” he replied truthfully, echoing the words Suzaku had answered to Nunnally in this situation all those months ago.

Taking a few wobbly steps forward, Shirley perched gingerly on the side of the bed—where Suzaku had just been sitting. “He said to ask you,” she whispered apprehensively. “Why?”

“Why do I love him?” Lelouch asked, bewildered. “Because he’s Suzaku.” He normally would answer with a speech, but those three words were all the explanation needed. He loved Suzaku. Did Shirley think if she kept asking, maybe the next answer would be ‘no’?

Shirley laughed, the sound a bit broken. Her jealousy seemed gone, or at least mostly gone, but she still looked deeply sad. It must be strange for her to feel so dejected about her own situation while at the same time start to feel happy for her friends. It would be a long road until she fully accepted them and felt comfortable around them, but she’d taken the first steps. With a cutting glance, she murmured a bit sarcastically, “That…really clears it up, Lelou. Thanks.”

Staring hopelessly at his friend, Lelouch tried to explain further. “He’s the only one…who’s ever made me feel like this.” Seeing Shirley tense, he rushed to say, “It’s nothing you did wrong, Shirley. I just…happened to fall in love with Suzaku, and I was damn lucky that he loved me back.” He reached for her hand, then pulled away, not wanting to give her the wrong idea.

“Lucky,” Shirley repeated drearily. She took a deep breath and stared him right in the eye. “So when I asked you out to the opera that time, Lelou, you and he were already—”

With another nod, Lelouch answered, “For several months by that point. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Shirley.”

Shaking her head, Shirley assured him, “No, it’s okay. I understand now why you two kept it to yourselves.”

Lelouch tilted his head down and sighed. “Yes, but I still should have done more. I should have at least let you known as soon as possible to give up on me.”

“Oh, right. Suzaku says you knew,” Shirley said searchingly. “About my feelings for you.”

Looking to the side, Lelouch shrugged one shoulder and said, “I had an inkling after a while. But I…should have paid more attention.” It wasn’t easy, admitting he’d made a mistake, but he owed it to Shirley to be real with her. “I was so focused on my feelings and Suzaku’s feelings that I forgot anyone else existed. That wasn’t fair to you, Shirley.”

“You were in love,” Shirley said, excusing him.

Taking a deep breath, Lelouch smiled at her. “One day, Shirley, you’ll be in love with someone who can love you back the way you deserve. And I’ll be the first to congratulate you.”

“Th-thanks, Lelou,” Shirley sniffled. “And I’m…really, so sorry,” she said, starting to cry in earnest. “I wasn’t supportive like I should have been, and I hurt the person closest to you.”

With a small smile, Lelouch pointed out, “That’s between you and Suzaku. And from what I saw, you two patched things up just fine.”

It was Shirley’s turn to nod. “We’re good now. Better than good. Great! We’re great.” She was undoubtedly overdoing it.

Lelouch chuckled. “Glad to hear it.” Cocking his head, he waited until she met his gaze before saying, “Actually, I owe you my life and thanks. You found me, Shirley, and called for help right away. If you hadn’t come…”

Shirley blushed as bright as her hair. “Oh, no, Lelou! If I hadn’t, someone on the Council would have stumbled across you sooner or later. It was Madame President who decided we should look for you, and you know, she’s the one who actually called the ambulance..”

Shaking his head, Lelouch reasoned, “I’m not saying Milly doesn’t deserve credit. I’m saying I need to thank you for what you did.”

If possible, Shirley blushed harder. “Lelou,” she warned, “don’t make it harder for me to get over you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Shirley,” Lelouch promised warmly.

-+-

“Man, look at the rack on that nurse!” Rivalz said with a wolf-whistle under his breath as they passed by. Immediately, he blushed lightly and turned to Suzaku with an apologetic gaze, sputtering, “M-man, that’s right, I keep forgetting! Uh…” Casting his eyes around frantically, he pointed to the first male he saw—some middle-aged doctor with graying hair and the beginnings of wrinkles—and exclaimed, “Wow, look at that hottie! Would love to get my hands on his…er, package.” Unfortunately, he said it a bit too loud, and said ‘hottie’ gave him a baleful glare.

Milly snorted and covered her mouth with her hand, blue eyes twinkling with humor.

Suzaku shook his head indulgently, his lips curving up despite himself. “You know,” he said conversationally, “it wasn’t really like that for me. I didn’t notice guys. I noticed Lelouch.” With a playful smirk, knowing he was walking into a teasing trap but unable to resist because it felt so freeing to finally joke with his friends about his boyfriend, he added, “So you see, Rivalz, I’m only interested in Lelouch’s ‘package.’”

Milly pointed a finger at him and shrieked proudly, “Oh my god, Suzaku, you went there!” Rivalz’s jaw dropped open in shock.

Ducking his head, Suzaku shrugged self-consciously.

“Have you seen it?” Milly demanded excitedly. “Has he let you touch him yet?!” She had proven that she wouldn’t bring up the topic with Lelouch, after what he’d been through, but Suzaku was obviously fair game.

Milly,” Rivalz warned her, giving her a significant look.

Suzaku blushed harder and focused straight ahead. After opening and closing his mouth a few times, he finally managed, “Um, okay, Lelouch would kill me if I went into detail about our sex life.”

“So you have a sex life to go into detail about?” Milly tittered mischievously, ignoring decorum for the sake of gossip. Nearby nurses tittered as they passed.

Rivalz groaned. “Sorry, man—”

“Yeah, okay,” Suzaku mumbled, forcibly ignoring the invasive question. Desperately changing the subject, he requested, “Say hi to Nunnally and Euphy for me when you get back to Ashford, all right?”

Milly stopped talking, her demeanor changing at the reminder. 

Swallowing, Suzaku ventured, “Uh, you do know Euphy is there…right?” He figured her grandfather would have told the rest of the Ashford family by now. The cat was already out of the bag, so to speak. There was no way to hide the truth from their friends now, what with Princess Euphemia staying with Nunnally.

“Euphy?” Rivalz asked curiously. “That’s Lelouch’s other sister he mentioned?”

Suzaku nodded. “One of them,” he said cheerfully. “She’s the nicest of the bunch.”

Rivalz blinked. “There’s a bunch?! How did I not know my best friend has a large family?”

With a cryptic laugh, Suzaku warned, “Oh, Rivalz. There’s a lot you don’t know about Lelouch.”

-+-

After the doctors and nurses had come in to talk and take care of a few routine medical procedures, Lelouch found himself once more blessedly alone with Suzaku. He sighed contentedly and leaned against his boyfriend, pressing a shallow kiss to his lips. It had been an exhausting day, particularly emotionally. For the both of them. He just wanted to relax and make out before falling asleep.

Chuckling, Suzaku returned the kiss and settled down into the most comfortable cuddling position they’d found. “Come here, my prince.”

Lelouch pressed himself closer as much as he was able. He raked one hand through his lover’s curls and sought Suzaku’s own with his other. Lacing their fingers together, he kissed his boyfriend a bit more forcefully. He moaned when Suzaku responded, following his lead. It felt empowering, dominating their kisses. This was standard. Routine. Comfortable. It gave him a sense of control again, which he ached for with every fiber of his being.

Suzaku’s touch was sanctuary in a warzone, and Lelouch reminded himself of all Suzaku had done for him as he poured his feelings into their passionate embrace. Their hungry kisses tapered off as the IV bag drained, and neither boy lasted long before slipping into slumber, wrapped in each other’s arms.

-+-

Lelouch stirred, feeling other presences in the room. He’d jerked awake, heart pounding, every time one of the nurses had checked on him during the night. His first reaction to strangers coming towards him now was to fear and distrust, especially in his current condition and in a strange environment. His sleep was uneasy, but he felt the nightmares would be worse if he didn’t have his lover beside him. He’d rather have Suzaku than sleep alone, and Lelouch was grateful that none of the hospital staff pushed the issue and forced Suzaku out. They were a special case.

“Aw, they look so peaceful,” gushed a female voice. “Lloyd, don’t wake them.”

Blinking awake, Lelouch stared at two more strangers standing over his bed. He sluggishly remembered seeing them twice before—once in the university labs during the Black Knights attack, and once yesterday when they’d visited and been shooed out by Cornelia. He recalled that they’d stood with Suzaku during the Sunday chaos, so they must be here for his sake. Then Lelouch remembered his boyfriend’s constant reassurances that his current superiors cared about his well-being; Lelouch had been skeptical. Though he didn’t normally like to admit he was wrong, he was glad that it seemed Suzaku was right on this one. Suzaku needed more people who genuinely cared about him, in Lelouch’s opinion.

“But that one’s already awake!” Lloyd whined petulantly, pointing a finger at Lelouch’s open eyes.

Shifting his head on his pillow, Lelouch narrowed his eyes in annoyance and noted, “You’re Lloyd Asplund. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

Lloyd perked up. “Oh, we just dropped by for a quick visit. You’ve heard of me?” He looked absolutely delighted.

“Well,” Lelouch said in a low voice, mindful of waking Suzaku, “let’s just say I’ve been interested in that white Knightmare of yours.”

Preening, Lloyd flung his arms wide and babbled, “Oh, you’re a fan of the Lancelot! Splendid! Well, you’re holding the most crucial piece in your arms.”

Lelouch blinked again in confusion. “Huh?” What is he talking about?

Cecile stepped forward with a proud smile. “Oh, Suzaku’s the best pilot we ever could have asked for!”

At the implications, an icy feeling swept over Lelouch from head to nearly broken toe. Eyes widening with shock, he turned to stare at his innocently sleeping lover. He couldn’t be…! His gaze zipped back and forth between the researchers and his boyfriend at least ten times before he croaked, “What?

Tilting his head, Lloyd rambled off some technicalities. “Well, the Knightmare machine can’t operate without a devicer, that is, a pilot—”

“I think he means, he didn’t know Suzaku was piloting,” Cecile interrupted with a guilty wince.

Lelouch nodded, thoughts still swirling. I’ve been fighting Suzaku this whole time?! His arms tightened around the boy in his arms, wanting to make sure his counterpart was still alive and safe where he should be. I could have killed him! It was the first time ever that Lelouch was grateful for his past failures. He shuddered. My own lover! The only one who could rival Nunnally’s spot in the very center of his heart. Clenching his eyes shut, he pressed his forehead against Suzaku’s. If I’d only known, I would have done so many things differently…

Lloyd Asplund’s tone was obliviously impolite as he wondered, “Why ever not? Don’t they love each other? Don’t they tell each other everything?”

Inwardly wincing, Lelouch counted to ten and took some calming breaths. He thought about all the secrets he’d been keeping from Suzaku, and his guilt swelled. Hiding things was only leading to extra problems, and they had more than enough to handle without adding to them. That’s right. I’ll have to tell him my secrets then. He’d already been considering it anyway, but now he resolved to make time and personally set up the proper conditions so that his irrational lover would hear him out and not overreact. The soldier—the pilot—would be so angry at him…

Cecile groaned. “I told you yesterday, that’s not how it works!”

Irritation bubbled up in Lelouch now, overshadowing his guilt and fear. How dare Suzaku! He quaked with burning cold. How could he? Lelouch understood that Suzaku would pilot if it meant achieving his goals—as a Number becoming a Knightmare pilot in the first place, he was already changing the system from within, so of course that result would motivate him to continue—but… Lelouch tensed again, trying to control the evolving anger. Suzaku lied to me! Lelouch’s hypocrisy didn’t factor in at the moment; he was simply irrationally furious that his lover had lied to his face—several times.

Unable to stand it any longer, Lelouch pulled back and jolted Suzaku awake. “Get up!” he hissed, ignoring their audience. They didn’t matter. He needed answers, and he needed them now. He idly reflected that he was upset about Suzaku piloting, but not about killing his father. Priorities.

Suzaku blinked sleepily—then snapped to attention upon noticing Lelouch’s hurt glare. Hastily propping himself up on his elbow, he asked urgently, “Lelouch, is something wrong?!”

“You’re damn right something’s wrong!” Lelouch growled.

Cecile took a step back, an uncomfortable look on her face. Lloyd simply cocked his head, as if he was enjoying the show and would rather like some sweets right now to top it off.

Suzaku’s eyes widened and he leaned in, frantic. “Oh no! What’s wrong? Is it your legs? Should I drag a doctor down here?”

“It’s you,” Lelouch answered in a hard tone. Violet eyes glittered dangerously.

Suzaku blinked again, but this time in confusion. “Me?” he repeated, stricken. He cringed.

“Yes!” Lelouch snapped. “You’ve assured me, this whole time, over and over, that you were safe!”

Suzaku opened and closed his mouth, tilting his head in drowsy distress. “If you’re not blaming me for the attack after all, then what are you talking about, my prince?”

Lelouch exhaled angrily through his nostrils. He remembered all the times Kallen had almost taken down the white Knightmare in battle and snarled, “You idiot, piloting is not safe!”

Green eyes widening further, Suzaku stared at Lelouch in shock. He looked as dazed as if he’d been hit in the head with a baseball bat. “L-Lelouch,” he said weakly, “h-how did you find out?”

That’s your first response?!” Lelouch roared. “Not ‘I’m sorry for repeatedly lying to you’?! Oh, and, ‘I’m sorry for risking my life every day while you had no idea’?!” Limply hitting Suzaku’s shoulder, Lelouch ranted, “Was I going to find out when you came home to me in a body bag?!”

Suzaku jerked back with another guilty flinch. “Y-you’re right, Lelouch, I’m sorry! For everything!”

“That’s not good enough!” Lelouch bellowed. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me?!”

Shoulders hunching, Suzaku mumbled defensively, “I couldn’t, Lelouch. I couldn’t tell anyone. It was orders!”

“It’s a huge military secret,” Lloyd put in cheerfully, making Suzaku whip around and almost fall off the bed.

Lelouch turned his glare at the wall, thinking back. Maybe he had missed some clues. He’d never thought it was possible…

“This is our fault,” Cecile said, stepping forward again. “We told Suzaku not to say a word. Forgive us, Your Highness,” she pleaded.

Lelouch turned back to her, raising an eyebrow. “Suzaku had a choice,” he said slowly. “He could have ignored orders and told me.” Narrowing his eyes, he added, “I’m the exception to the rule, every time.”

“I said I was sorry!” Suzaku reiterated, swirling to face Lelouch. Grimacing, he lashed out, “Besides, it’s not like you tell me everything either!”

The two researchers glanced at each other, clearly wondering if this was their cue to leave. Lloyd mimed eating something out of a bowl—ice cream? Pudding?

Pursing his lips, Lelouch silently met his lover’s defensive gaze.

“You’ve got your own secrets, Lelouch,” Suzaku reminded him, driving his point home a little less forcefully.

Lelouch stared into Suzaku’s eyes thoughtfully, trying to think ahead now. He had an objective to reveal his own secrets to his lover, after everything that had happened. If he wanted Suzaku’s understanding, then he needed to model the acceptance he craved. Swallowing down his anger, Lelouch took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Suzaku echoed hesitantly.

Lelouch offered a small smile. “Okay,” he repeated. “You’re right.”

Blinking rapidly, Suzaku asked in disbelief, “I’m…right?” Holding a hand to Lelouch’s forehead, he wondered concernedly, “Lelouch, are you feeling all right?”

Swatting Suzaku’s hand away, Lelouch frowned lightly at his lover. “That is a moronic question to ask me right now, Suzaku,” he answered dryly, flicking his eyes to his strung-up legs.

Following his gaze, Suzaku winced. “I just meant—”

“You meant that I must be feeling sick to imply I was wrong, I get it,” Lelouch surmised. “But I’m not sick, Suzaku. I’m just forgiving.”

Suzaku snorted automatically. They both knew Lelouch could hold a grudge the size of Britannia.

Lelouch rolled his eyes. “I was angry, you saw that, but I understand your position. So I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you thought you were doing the right thing.” Nodding, he leaned in a little closer and laid out, “And now I’m going to move on, because I don’t want to fight with you.”

Shoulders relaxing, Suzaku breathed easier. Staring intensely into Lelouch’s eyes, he murmured, “I really am sorry for keeping this from you, my prince.”

Lelouch kissed him.

Lloyd pointed at them and exclaimed childishly, “Oh my, Cecile, they’re at it again!”

“Maybe we should leave them to it,” she suggested with a blush. “We have work to do anyway.”

“Tata, Suzaku and his royal sweetheart! You’re welcome for everything!” Lloyd sang on his way out the door.

Lelouch entwined his fingers with Suzaku’s before Suzaku could flip off his boss.

-+-

“I’ll get us cleaned up again,” Suzaku offered, taking the initiative, after the medical staff had done their latest rounds. “We still have the toothbrushes and combs from yesterday.”

Cocking his head, Lelouch wondered, “Yeah, and that’s great and all. But—Suzaku, when are you gonna go home and get some proper rest? A decent meal? A shower?”

Suzaku shrugged. “All in good time, Lelouch. For now, I want to be with you.” Unlike the day before, he had Knightmare strength in his tone. He got Lelouch going with a toothbrush before walking confidently into the adjoined bathroom to groom himself.

Like yesterday, Lelouch spent an extremely long time cleaning his mouth. Suzaku simply leaned back on the bed, relaxed, instead of hovering nervously over the other boy—which obviously made Lelouch feel more comfortable in turn. Finishing up and smiling softly, Lelouch murmured, “I appreciate your wanting to stay, but I want to see you take care of yourself, too.”

“I will,” Suzaku promised with a warm smile. He fiddled with the comb, playfully holding it out of reach when Lelouch stretched out his hand for it.

Purple eyes narrowing, Lelouch warned, “Suzaku, we went over this already. I can do my own hair.”

“Of course you can,” Suzaku agreed easily. “But would you deny me the pleasure?” He turned on the bed and cupped Lelouch’s cheek.

Lelouch stilled for only a second at the contact, holding his lover’s gaze as he tensed and relaxed before eventually sighing in defeat. Softly, he allowed, “All right. You can brush my hair.”

He regretted it ten seconds later when Suzaku yanked through a snag. “Ow!”

Suzaku winced, muttering, “Sorry.”

“Start at the bottom and work your way up,” instructed Lelouch in a painstakingly slow voice. “If you just brush from the top and yank all the tangles into a big knot at the bottom, you’ll give me split ends.”

Suzaku cocked his head quizzically to the side. Blinking a couple times, he looked over the extent of Lelouch’s injuries and mumbled sarcastically, “Split ends? Oh no, we can’t have that!” He breathed a sigh of relief when Lelouch cracked a grin, seeing the humor in it. Still grumbling good-naturedly, Suzaku adjusted his position and worked gently at a knot of silky black strands. He grinned with pride once he worked out the tangles and brushed the spot a couple more times for good measure. “There!” he exclaimed in satisfaction. “All clear.”

“No,” Lelouch argued. “You still have the rest of my head to go.”

Suzaku hummed in his throat and kidded, “Well, that might take me awhile. You have a pretty big head, Lelouch.”

There was a moment of contemplative silence. Finally, Lelouch said, “I’ll take that as a compliment to my extraordinary brainpower.” A smirk stole onto his face as he leaned towards his nurturing boyfriend, making his hair more accessible.

“And there it is,” Suzaku continued in his teasing tone, a special fondness lacing his words. “Always so full of yourself.” Suzaku smiled, relishing the sweetness of their time together. In the here and now, the horrors of the past and the challenges of the future were nonexistent. It was just him, Lelouch, and a comb spending quality time together. No tension, only love. Getting carried away, caught up in the moment, he lightly swept his knuckles across Lelouch’s cheek. “You’re stunning,” Suzaku complimented his lover.

“Well, let’s not lie about it,” Lelouch interjected, though an amused smile played on his lips. “I’m fully aware that I don’t look as good as I normally do.”

Suzaku shot him an easy grin. “Maybe you’re perfect no matter what you look like.”

Smile growing, Lelouch leaned into Suzaku’s loving hold, his back against Suzaku’s chest. “I’m not going to argue that,” he said lightly. They fell into a comfortable silence, enjoying their simple embrace. Lelouch tilted his head back in the other boy’s direction, gently pecking his lips. After getting carried away with some shallow lip locks, he pulled back and brightly mentioned, “If it’s sunny, I’d like to go outside today. Get some fresh air, maybe play a game of chess…”

“If you’re allowed,” Suzaku hedged carefully. “I’m really glad you feel like playing chess, though. I can always play you up here.” He was happy that Lelouch was showing interest in his old hobbies; it was a sign that, maybe, just maybe, he was starting to move on the tiniest bit. It was also heartening that Lelouch wasn’t trying to hide his injuries away for the sake of his legendary pride.

Snorting, Lelouch explained, “Half of it was that I wanted a change of scenery, Suzaku.”

“Oh!” Suzaku gasped, feeling stupid. “Of course.” It was still encouraging that Lelouch wanted to get outside and do things.

Squirming a bit, Lelouch added, “And if possible, I want to get a little cleaner. I know a bath or shower is out of the question, but…”

Suzaku grinned and hugged Lelouch’s middle. “I can always give you a sponge bath,” he murmured suggestively in his lover’s ear.

Lelouch shivered with delight. “Yes, let’s do that before bed tonight,” he planned. “No use going outside and sweating in the heat after just getting clean.”

“Always thinking,” Suzaku said proudly. Another good sign that Lelouch was acting like himself.

With a marble chess piece expression, Lelouch reminded him, “We’re going to have to use my wheelchair.”

“Good thing we know all about those,” Suzaku half-joked. “Ready to face the world?”

Lips curving wickedly, Lelouch assured his boyfriend, “Suzaku, I’m going to look the world directly in the eye and bend it to my will.”

-+-

“They weren’t as grand as my mother’s at the Aries Villa,” Lelouch shared, referring to the gardens on the property. He tapped his fingers on the wheelchair armrests, looking around with distaste. “They were still a necessary alternative to this room.”

Chuckling, Suzaku asked, “Going stir crazy? You’ve only been cooped up a couple days.”

Frowning, Lelouch muttered, “I don’t like feeling trapped.”

Suzaku’s heart skittered at the reminder. “Y-yeah,” he agreed weakly. “I get it, my prince.” Clearing his throat, he rushed to move on and ask, “You want a sponge bath now? I can ask the nurses for towels and water basins. I need help to get you out of the wheelchair at this stage anyway.”

Slowly, Lelouch nodded. “I…want to feel clean, and I trust you more than them,” he thought aloud. Shoulders hunching a bit, he admitted in a low tone, “But I don’t want you to see…” Grimacing, he gestured down his body. There was still a lot of visible damage.

“I love you,” Suzaku intoned firmly. “Nothing is ever going to change that, Lelouch.”

Relaxing, Lelouch gave the smallest of nods. “Okay, Suzaku,” he murmured. “Then let’s do it.”

Ten minutes and some nurse assistance later, Lelouch was sighing in pleasure as Suzaku lightly rubbed his bare skin with a damp, soapy sponge. “That’s it,” he moaned, sounding a lot like he did when they had sex. It just meant he was in euphoria. “Wash them all off, Suzkau, please…”

Hand pausing a moment at the emotionally loaded request, Suzaku started scrubbing him more methodically. “Don’t worry, Lelouch,” Suzaku murmured lovingly, with fierce steel in fire underlying his tone. “I’ll get rid of them. I’ll get rid of them all.”

Chapter Text

The poster sign on the wall read:

Don’t make a permanent decision for your temporary emotion.

–The Fresh Quotes

Lelouch bit the inside of his cheek and drummed his fingers on the armrest of his wheelchair, glancing at Suzaku out his peripheral vision. He was secretly relieved that his boyfriend had accompanied him to counseling, but now he worried that the decorative quote would trigger something about Genbu’s death in Suzaku. Still silently wrapping his head around the recent bombshell revelations, Lelouch startled as the door opened and a middle-aged man joined them in the cozy hospital office.

“So sorry to keep you waiting,” the man said, striding to the only unoccupied seat in the triangle of chairs facing each other. A small desk and filing cabinet had been shoved to the side of the room, providing a larger floor area for open discussion. “My name is John Paul Roberts, and I’m the head psychiatrist here at the hospital. I’m here to help you with whatever you need in order to move on.”

Lelouch nodded slightly.

“There’s a lot of stigma about mental health,” Dr. Roberts continued calmly, “and a lot of patients don’t feel comfortable seeking services.” He scooted his chair forward, seeming less threatening than if he’d been on the other side of a desk. “Considering the trauma you’ve experienced,” he said, his eye-contact as steady as his voice, “I think it would be beneficial for you to have this safe space during your hospital visit to talk and learn new coping skills. However, it is your decision about whether or not you stay.”

Again, Lelouch nodded. “We’ll stay,” he said firmly, justifying to himself that Suzaku needed therapy and this was an opportunity to ensure he got it. It wasn’t like Britannia was rushing to do an Eleven any favors.

Dr. Roberts smiled. “I’m glad. I’d like to start by getting to know you a little bit better.”

Typical. But, practical. Introducing himself and his boyfriend, Lelouch was pleased to note that Dr. Roberts took their relationship in stride. That out of the way, Lelouch carefully shared a few basic facts about himself. He ended with the condition, “If I stay, then Suzaku is part of this.”

With a gracious nod, Dr. Roberts agreed and followed up with general questions about the attack and Lelouch’s general situation, all with the caveat that Lelouch need not answer should he feel uncomfortable. Technically, all the pertinent information was on the medical chart anyway. Getting to the essential part of the day’s session, Dr. Roberts said, “Since flashbacks have been a problem, I’d like to address those with coping skills.” Passing both Lelouch and Suzaku a copy each of the same brochure, he continued, “Today, I’d like to go over the Grounding Technique. It’s been successful with people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so I’d like to start there, but our main goal is to find what works for you.”

“Perfect,” Lelouch said, wondering if he could Geass himself not to suffer PTSD symptoms.

Suzaku tilted his head. “What else can you teach us?”

Dr. Roberts leaned forward. “Other coping skills are deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, engaging in a favorite hobby… There are several options to explore.”

Satisfied, Suzaku nodded. “Okay. So what’s the Grounding Technique?”

“You use your five senses to root you to the present moment,” Dr. Roberts explained, reaching for some supplies on his desk. “When you’re in a flashback, you need something to concentrate on that will help you remember that you’re in the ‘here and now,’ not the past trauma.” Holding up a simple rubber band, he added, “Some people snap this on their wrists to keep themselves anchored to the present. Some people turn up loud music…”

After Dr. Roberts had guided them through the practice a few times, Suzaku scratched his neck nervously and wondered, “Uh, so, would this work for…let’s say, you’re not reliving a horrible memory, but you’re…uh, somehow in another place and your worst sins are materializing in front of you…”

Lelouch tensed with concerned interest.

Dr. Roberts steepled his fingers. “You mean like a hallucination?” At Suzaku’s blank look, he clarified, “You’re seeing and hearing things that aren’t really there.”

Suzaku shook his head, biting his lip. “No, they were really there. And so was I. It’s like I was in some alternate dimension, and I don’t know how I got there—” He clamped his lips shut, probably realizing how crazy he sounded. He looked at Lelouch with a pronounced wince, his normal guilty expression etched on his face.

Lelouch cocked his head, his brain bubbling with suspicions.

“Perhaps it would help if you put it in context,” Dr. Roberts suggested calmly, turning in his chair to face Suzaku better. “What were you doing before you had this experience?”

Biting his lip even harder, Suzaku glanced at Lelouch again for a split second before turning his attention to the decorative poster. “I was in Narita.”

Lelouch jerked, his eyes widening with understanding chased by self-blame.

“I was…doing my duty as a soldier,” Suzaku continued, his voice cracking. “I had Zero cornered, and then, this girl…”

Lelouch cringed as guilt gnawed at his insides, knowing what was coming and wishing again that the universe didn’t have such a sick, twisted sense of humor.

Dr. Roberts nodded encouragingly. “What did the girl do?”

“She touched my Knightmare,” Suzaku said in a daze, apparently not realizing he had disobeyed orders, “and suddenly I was flying through this blue tunnel that spit me out in this white space, and there was a clock and a mountain of skulls and then silhouettes of people lurching towards me like zombies—”

Lelouch clutched his wheelchair, hardly daring to breathe.

Suzaku hunched into himself. “And then, my father…”

Lelouch silently gasped, stricken by another onslaught of guilt and shame. Everything was falling into place. At Narita, C.C. had mentally fed the white Knightmare pilot “shock images” and—shit, Suzaku had come home broken inside after that and still hadn’t healed from his deep emotional scars. That must have truly been the trigger, as well as the real reason Suzaku’s superiors had arranged for him to receive mental health services. C.C. had shattered Suzaku!

For an intense moment, Lelouch wanted to kill her.

It was interesting how one updated detail such as the pilot’s identity could change his feelings on the matter from deep gratitude to protective fury.

“I see,” Dr. Roberts said, taking a moment to think. After a short silence, he suggested, “Yes, do the Grounding Technique if that ever happens again. You won’t know if it works unless you try.”

Suzaku nodded and turned. “I’m sorry, Lelouch,” he said hurriedly, ducking his head. “I didn’t mean to take over your session.”

Startled out of his raining puzzle pieces, Lelouch simply shrugged. “We’re in this together.”

Suzaku’s smile could free Japan.

If only.

-+-

“Zero is out of commission,” Kirihara informed the assembled Black Knights over the video conference. Holding up a hand to quiet their automatic protests, he added, “Unfortunately, I am unable to go into detail. I am sending you Lieutenant Colonel Tohdoh and the Four Holy Swords, however, as well as one of our top Knightmare designers: Rakshata Chawla.”

The Black Knights mumbled amongst themselves until one voice rose above the rest. “Yeah, and what’s so great about her?” Tamaki sneered, evidently dissuaded by her non-Japanese name.

Kirihara stared at Tamaki piercingly until the lowly rebel took a step back. “She created the Guren Mk. II that you used so successfully at Narita.”

Tamaki seemed to shrink in his skin as he squeaked, “Oh.”

Ohgi stepped forward, aiming to get them back on track. “We thank you for your generosity! But sir, isn’t there anything you can tell us about Zero? I mean, he’s our leader. We deserve to know something.” They were at their wit’s end trying to figure out what was going on; Zero had always been mysterious, but never this absent.

Sighing, Kirihara lowered his head. “I can only tell you this: It is out of his hands.” The Kyoto Group clan chief’s voice rang strong with truth as he did his best to reassure the Knights for Justice: “Zero is not deliberately disregarding the Black Knights.”

“Oh my god, was he captured?!” Tamaki roared in the background, quick to spring back to arms. At his exclamation, some of the others jumped to their feet and yelled incoherent threats at Britannia.

Kirihara gently shook his head and waited for the commotion to settle. “Zero was hurt,” he said simply. “And I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you.”

“Oh no,” Ohgi lamented, his heart suddenly heavy for the leader who’d given them so much already. “Poor Zero!” Thinking about their immediate future, as the stand-in leader for the masked rebel, Ohgi asked, “What…what should we do without him, in the meantime?”

“I’m appointing Lieutenant Colonel Tohdoh as Zero’s temporary replacement to lead the Black Knights,” Kirihara informed them, obviously aware of Ohgi’s leadership capabilities. “I know Tohdoh’s first order of business will be rescuing the Japan Liberation Front. I’ve told him that the Black Knights’ resources are at his disposal, so cooperate with him.”

Ohgi nodded firmly. “That won’t be a problem.” Most of the Black Knights would probably feel more comfortable taking orders from Tohdoh the Miracle Worker, the only Japanese soldier to ever win against Britannia during the war, than they would doing as the mysterious Zero commanded. Besides that, there were several among the Black Knights ranks who felt it had been dishonorable to leave the JLF to Cornelia’s forces, so rescuing them was a way to make up for that mistake.

“Is there anything else?” Kirihara asked tersely.

Ohgi flipped through his papers. “Just one more thing. There’s this Britannian man who wants to join the Black Knights. He’s the one who tipped us off about Narita, and now he says he knows what the Britannian Army plans to do with the JLF. Should we trust his intel?”

Kirihara narrowed his eyes as he thought it over. “Considering his previous information was accurate, I’m inclined to believe him.” He hesitated a moment before musing, “Some Britannians have their own reasons for rebelling against their home country.”

Ohgi startled at the significant weight in the old man’s tone before the connection clicked off.

-+-

“So, about what you were saying in therapy…”

Suzaku closed his impulse-buy book from the gift shop with a solid snap. “I’m sorry for not telling you,” he blurted, playing with the edge of his sleeve and meeting Lelouch’s eyes every other second. “I know it sounds crazy, I just…”

Lelouch forced himself to smile for his boyfriend’s sake. His hospital room must have been destined for awkward breakthrough conversations, and somehow having a history with the room made Lelouch feel more like he owned it. “It’s okay,” he said, reaching for Suzaku’s hand. “I understand. And it doesn’t sound crazy to me.”

Face wrinkling in confusion, Suzaku briefly squeezed Lelouch’s hand. “How can it not?” he wondered, setting his book to the side. “It doesn’t make sense. I mean, spinning through a blue wormhole tunnel, and suddenly seeing my dad? And I know it was my dad, Lelouch, I’ve just got this sure feeling.”

Lelouch held his gaze steady. “I believe you.”

“But logically—”

“Logically,” Lelouch interrupted, “I know that we’re not even close to figuring out all the secrets of the universe. If you say it happened, then it happened.”

Suzaku blinked before a smile of surprised gratitude transformed his lips. “Wow,” he said, sounding an almost-insulting level of stunned. “I never thought you’d accept…”

“Maybe you haven’t figured out all my secrets either,” Lelouch hedged mysteriously, smoothing down the lumps in his bedsheets.  “Maybe I can still keep you on your toes.”

Suzaku’s smile softened at the edges. “You always could,” he murmured fondly, scooting his chair impossibly closer. “I’m really glad you know,” he said, stretching over the bed railing to rest his head on Lelouch’s chest. “I’ve been wanting to say something, but I thought for sure that you’d think I was delirious or making up stories.”

Pursing his lips, Lelouch lightly chastised, “You should know me better than that. I would never just dismiss you, Suzaku.”

Nodding, Suzaku echoed automatically and matched him promise for promise, “I would never just dismiss you either.”

For the first time that afternoon, Lelouch felt his boyfriend’s weight crush his chest.

-+-

“How goes the investigation?” Cornelia barked as her people reported to her. Worry for her siblings churned in her stomach.

Saluting, her most senior detective stepped forward. “The local police force is cooperating with us. We’re still waiting on some sweat and skin samples from the crime scene to come back from the lab.” Glancing at his team, he added, “I also have Mitt and Donnie conducting interviews with high school students. We’re questioning every single student who attends Ashford Academy, Viceroy, to be sure we don’t miss anything. We haven’t found anything yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

With a forceful nod, Cornelia smiled grimly and acknowledged their progress. “Carry on with the work,” she ordered.

As soon as they knew who hurt her brother, she would flay the bastards alive.

It had been too long since Cornelia had let loose completely, and she wasn’t called the Goddess of Victory on the battlefield or the Witch of Britannia for nothing.

-+-

If Cornelia was a witch, Schneizel was a snake.

“The point of attacking the Lancelot was to cripple our defenses,” Schneizel theorized, giving a small nod of welcome to the recently-arrived Kanon Maldini. Sometimes it paid to be the Prime Minister of Britannia, especially when special requests were involved.  “If the Black Knights wanted to take advantage of our weakness, they would have already moved.  They wouldn’t give us a chance to regroup and recover.” It had been a few days, and all was quiet on the Black Knights’ front. It set warning bells ringing in Schneizel’s cautious mind. “The fact that they haven’t followed up their initial attack suggests there is something wrong within the group—perhaps, even, with Zero himself.” He paused to let his people absorb that before turning to Lloyd and Cecile, inquiring, “Do you remember anything unusual that happened on Sunday that might be related to their inactivity? Did Zero himself do anything weird?”

Cecile stared at the conference table, her forehead furrowed as she thought back.

“Weeeelllllll,” Lloyd drawled, “It was most peculiar. Zero did save Kururugi.” He waited a second. “Again.”

The atmosphere suddenly turned tense. One of Schneizel’s escort slammed a fist on the table, exclaiming, “That damn Eleven is always at the heart of things with Zero!”

Cecile looked up, clearly anxious about where this was going. Lloyd merely raised an eyebrow.

“You think Kururugi’s loyal to Zero?” asked Kanon.

Schneizel folded his hands calmly on the table. “Or rather,” he said quietly, gaining everyone’s attention, “perhaps Zero is loyal to Kururugi. Let’s not forget who’s doing the saving here.”

The original man glared at the idea. “Is it possible Kururugi’s in charge, then? This man parading around as Zero is just a smokescreen—a distraction?”

Schneizel inclined his head. “That is a possibility. Zero does everything he can to draw attention to himself—and, coincidentally, away from Kururugi. There’s been a connection there since the beginning.”

Standing up, Cecile burst out tearfully, “You don’t really think Suzaku’s a traitor to Britannia?!”

Lifting an eyebrow, Schneizel posed the question, “If he is, does that make him better or worse than being a traitor to his home country?”

Stunned into silence, Cecile sank down slowly into her seat.

“Walked right into that one,” Lloyd chuckled.

After another moment of tense silence, Schneizel got the ball rolling again. “This is all conjecture. We have no proof either way.” Tapping white-gloved fingers on the table, he added, “Another possibility is that Kururugi is truly loyal to Britannia, and Zero’s actions are as strange to him and us as they must seem to the rest of the Black Knights.”

Lloyd nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes! There was a bit of an internal fight after Zero saved Kururugi. Some of the Black Knights weren’t too pleased with Zero about what he did.”

“That’s something,” Schneizel said thoughtfully. “So perhaps there is dissension among the Black Knights because of Zero’s questionable choices, particularly revolving around Kururugi. This rift might be slowing them down, which could explain why the Black Knights haven’t followed up with another attack yet.” Even as he speculated aloud, Schneizel silently considered yet another alternative.

He knew of someone with loyal ties to Kururugi Suzaku, someone extremely smart, someone who hated the Britannian Emperor, someone who had valid personal reasons for not organizing another attack during the opportune moment, someone who was—coincidentally enough—alive despite an official obituary, someone who was fully capable, and someone who was motivated to stir a group of rebels into action.

“Dismissed.”

Schneizel kept his thoughts to himself.

-+-

“Damn!” Lelouch hissed, unable to keep quiet during his struggles. The kittens on the wall were mocking him. He was sure of it.

 “See if you can stretch just a little farther,” coached the physical therapist, guiding Lelouch through some basic exercises to keep his working muscles intact. He’d briefly introduced himself as Doctor Kirk, but barely thirty seconds into the session, Lelouch had started to mentally refer to him as Doctor Jerk.

Wincing from effort and sweating like he was trying to run a marathon, Lelouch pushed himself another quarter inch before immediately collapsing back on the bed, breathing heavily.

“Good distance,” chirped Suzaku, whose own fabulous fitness was a thorn in Lelouch’s pride now, “but next time, try to hold the position a bit longer.”

“Okay, Doctor Kururugi,” Lelouch snapped, glancing at the muted television mounted on the wall in the corner. Anything was better than looking at those two slave-drivers. He sighed, barely comprehending the visual news clips put on as a distraction by a well-meaning nurse. Nunnally made these same therapy exercises look so damn easy.

“I know you think I’m evil,” Suzaku joked, fetching Lelouch a cold cup of water and a wet washcloth, “but I’m only trying to help.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Lelouch grumbled, wiping his brow. The damp coolness on his skin was as welcoming as the physical therapist’s departure. He perked up, finally registering what was flashing across the screen.

A protest movement.

In honor of him.

“Concerned citizens fighting back against unjust brutality” read the text scrolling at the bottom of the screen, underneath video of a mix of Britannians and Japanese marching together with signs promoting peace and equality.

A liberal Britannian being interviewed said, according to the captions, “When that high school boy was attacked, I knew this had gone too far. It’s time for society to change.”

Following Lelouch’s gaze, Suzaku’s jaw dropped in amazement. “Whoa.”

“Yeah,” Lelouch said blankly, turning up the volume.

Suzaku smiled. “This is how it should be done,” he murmured with conviction. “Peaceful protests to change the system from the inside. Not Zero’s way.”

Just then, a Japanese teenager speaking to the news said, “And of course, we have to thank Zero for leading our hearts in the right direction. To stand up, to push back, and to fight for justice.”

Lelouch felt a swell of pride in his chest, even as Suzaku glowered, clenched his hand into a fist, and hurriedly muted the television again.

“You know,” Lelouch said, eyeing his boyfriend critically, “they’re still using peaceful protest methods.”

Suzaku sighed long and hard, seeming to deflate without the abundance of anger pressing against him from the inside. “I know,” he grumbled. “And I am happy about that. It’s just, hearing Zero’s name is enough to upset me.”

“But you share his ideals,” Lelouch argued, “just like those protesters on the news.”

Squirming as if he couldn’t bear to admit it, Suzaku huffed, “Even so.”

This was going nowhere. Pressing his lips together, Lelouch steered them down another path. “I think I like cognitive behavioral therapy better than physical therapy.”

“They’re both important for your recovery,” Suzaku said, still sounding preoccupied, “but yeah, I agree with you. I really like the Grounding Technique. Think of how much better the world would be if everyone learned useful coping skills like that.” Lurching to his feet, Suzaku paced around the cramped hospital room. “I mean, think how different things would be if Zero did deep breathing instead of lashing out and killing innocent people when he’s upset.”

Quickly putting the reviewed skill into practice, Lelouch reasoned, “Deep breathing wouldn’t free Japan from Britannia.”

Suzaku shrugged and spat, “It might help him clear his mind to think up better ways.”

Recoiling again, Lelouch wondered sarcastically, “I’m sorry. What did Zero do to you again, besides save your life? Which, let me remind you, allowed us to be together?”

Punching a fist into an open palm, Suzaku waved that off. Still pacing, stiff with resentment, he growled, “I just hate him. I hate him.”

“Breathe, Suzaku,” Lelouch said, demonstrating how. “You seriously do need coping skills if you’re this irrationally wound up about Zero.”

A hollow laugh erupted from Suzaku’s throat as the thumping of his shoes ceased. “You think my reaction to Zero, a terrorist, is illogical, but you completely accept my unexplained supernatural experience at Narita without question?”

Lelouch chewed on his bottom lip before clarifying, “I think you’re emotionally overreacting now, and I’m worried because you tend to react recklessly and impulsively when you’re in this state of mind.” The room felt too hot, then too cold, and then too hot again. Honest conversation was always nerve-wracking, despite their practice and history of success. “You don’t think things through, Suzaku, and you don’t worry about consequences.”

Suzaku snorted. “Like when?”

Lelouch raised an eyebrow. “Like avoiding me forever after I first kissed you? Like mauling me when we had that first major fight as a couple?” He ticked points off on his fingers. “Like telling the military you’d quit as soon as you found me injured? Or, oh, I’m guessing like getting into Knightmare piloting? Shall I continue?”

Subdued, Suzaku looked down.

“That’s what I thought,” Lelouch said smugly, crossing his arms.

Suzaku sank back to his special spot on the bed. “None of that compares to Zero, though,” he insisted, clearly still bent out of shape.

“If you keep talking about Zero,” Lelouch said flatly, “I might think you’re in love with him.”

The utter disgust on Suzaku’s face could not have been worse than if he’d slept with his head in Arthur’s litter box.

“I wouldn’t blame you,” Lelouch said, only half-joking. “He is pretty edgy-looking.”

“Should I be worried?” Suzaku asked, green eyes narrowed with indignation. “Are you in love with Zero, Lelouch? Is that why you always defend him?”

Lips quirking, Lelouch said, “Suzaku, it’s simultaneously cute and annoying when you get needlessly jealous.”

“I’m not jealous!”

The picture on the t.v. screen switched to show some of the Britannian Knight Police patrolling the protest.

An uncomfortable burning itch traveled down Lelouch’s throat, and a feeling of foreboding made him feel nauseous. “I think Zero’s got his reasons for what he does,” Lelouch added thoughtfully, looking at the rage growing on Suzaku’s face out the corner of his eye. The burn in his chest now felt acidic. “It seems to me that Zero wants what’s best for the innocent people who have been subjugated by Britannia, and he’s willing to make the hard decisions to right the societal wrongs.”

Fury etched further into the wrinkles lining Suzaku’s forehead.

Exasperation pricked Lelouch’s skin. Planting seeds didn’t appear to be working, not when there was inadequate soil for a change of heart to take root in Suzaku. This problem had to be addressed before it catastrophized further—technically the explanation deadline he’d promised Suzaku during their last phone fight had passed anyway, but it was understandable considering the circumstances—and maybe Suzaku would finally listen to reason once the truth shook his core feelings loose.

Lelouch’s body rejected the idea like the truth was an allergen, protesting the confession plan with violent twinges in his stomach.

But he had to.

Even so, a little wishing couldn’t hurt. He beckoned for Suzaku to bring him some of the therapy pamphlets from earlier, and he started to refold a piece of paper from a brochure into a paper crane. “I wish society would improve,” he said, catching Suzaku’s eye and silently asking for his true desire: I wish you’d accept me. All of me.

Suzaku took a blank paper from the back of Lelouch’s medical record and started to help, following Lelouch’s lead towards a noble goal. Doing something with his fingers seemed to take the edge off his anger.

Two cranes into a thousand, Lelouch ventured, “Uh, Suzaku?” At his boyfriend’s expectant look, Lelouch got one word into a two word confession. “I’m…”

Suzaku tilted his head, pausing in his project.

Lelouch sighed. Somehow, confessing “I’m Zero” was harder than confessing “I love you,” even though they were both three syllables. “I…want to talk to you. About something important.” Anxiety tightened his chest around the esophageal burn. He glanced at the peaceful protest on the television, then forced himself to look back and meet Suzaku’s eye again. “It’s gonna be a lot to take in, and…well, I’d…”

“Lelouch?”

“I’d like if you went home to eat, shower, and rest!” Lelouch said suddenly, abandoning his first plan for something better. “I want you to be in the best possible condition for this talk.”

Slowly, Suzaku nodded, the tension visibly easing from his forehead as he was able to forget Zero for the sake of his boyfriend. “I understand it’s something very hard for you to talk about,” he murmured, making his paper crane sweetly nudge Lelouch’s. “You don’t have to say anything more if you don’t want, my prince,” he offered. “I know enough.”

Lelouch stared at him blankly before it clicked. “It’s not about the hate crime,” he insisted, flapping one hand. His crane almost went flying into the television. “It’s…something else I need to get off my chest.”

Suzaku’s expression softened even further. “Okay, Lelouch. Share whatever you want. I’ll always be there for you.”

-+-

Lelouch’s chest swelled with feeling as his second-favorite sister bounced through the door.

Euphy smiled sweetly and waved at Suzaku as they traded off, then turned her sunshine on her darkened half-brother. “Hello, Lelouch!” she chirped, plopping herself in the seat closest to his bed. Glancing quickly at the muted television, she waited until the door clicked shut behind Suzaku before leaning forward and whispering knowingly, “Or would you prefer Zero?”

Lelouch—couldn’t control his instinctive flinch or the way his fingers automatically crushed his paper crane, much to his dismay. Euphy, like Nunnally, had a way of wriggling past his defenses. Sighing in resignation, he let the bent bird origami dangle from his fingertips and drawled, “When I’m not donning the mask, ‘Lelouch’ will do.” Waiting only a beat, he asked, “How did you figure it out?”

With a modest shrug, Euphy scooted her chair closer. She reached for the crane and fiddled with it, and then looked up through her eyelashes as she admitted carefully, “You said some things at Lake Kawaguchi…”

“I see,” Lelouch murmured, letting his hand drop to his lap. “I wasn’t careful enough.”

“Still,” Euphy added with a quick glance at the door to make sure no one was eavesdropping, “I wasn’t sure until now. You just confirmed it.”

Throwing his head back, Lelouch laughed almost maniacally. “Well played, little sister,” he complimented her, baring his teeth. “You’ve now discovered the true identity of Britannia’s worst nightmare. What are you going to do with this information?”

Tilting her head, Euphy smoothed the crumpled bird into its proper design and answered kindly, “Help you, of course!” Waving a hand at his broken legs, she added thoughtfully, “I’d imagine this is setting you back. And besides that, I’d think you’d want someone with eyes and ears and maybe legs now in the—oh! But wait. You already have Suzaku.”

Despair welling, Lelouch shook his head. “Suzaku hates Zero,” he muttered, looking at the throng of protesters marching across the television screen.

Euphy held his hand, sporting a sympathetic smile. “That must be hard.”

Lelouch nodded. “What’s worse is…did you know he piloted?” He glanced up at his sister with an almost-desperate expression. Piloting made him think of Kallen, which made him think of the Black Knights; for the first time since he awoke in his right mind, he spared them a few moments of wondering beyond letting C.C. handle things. Too busy thinking about how best to contact his personal army and proceed with his rebellion, he almost missed Euphy nodding and biting her lip.

The gesture jerked him back to the present. It felt like he’d been left out of an exclusive club, and Lelouch did not take kindly to being banned.

“I found out just recently,” Lelouch said, his voice barely controlled. “To think, this whole time, that I could have killed my own boyfriend without knowing it…” His insides cracked the same way he’d split the Narita Mountains, unleashing an avalanche of conflicting feelings.

“Or,” Euphemia pointed out softly, trailing her fingers over paper wings, “the other way around.”

Lelouch adamantly shook his head. “Suzaku has a strict ‘no kill’ policy, Euphy. It’s a…code of honor for him.” Fisting his hands in the sheets, he added, “But I think he’s willing to abandon his normal ethical principles if he comes across the bastards who did this to me.”

Lavender eyes watered with heartbreak. “Oh, Lelouch,” Euphy hiccupped. “The hatred you must feel…”

“I’ll hold my hatred in until I can unleash it on the deserving,” Lelouch promised darkly. Broken legs or not, Lelouch Lamperouge vi Britannia—Zero— was a force to be reckoned with and he would not take things lying down, metaphorically speaking. (Literally was a whole different story.)

Taking a deep breath, Euphy reiterated, “So you do need a spy?”

Lelouch lifted his eyebrow. “You’re seriously offering?”

“Yes!”

Chuckles escaping him, Lelouch prompted, “And why should I believe the Third Princess of Britannia would turn her back on her own country? How do I know I can trust you?” It hurt to question Euphemia, but he’d already underestimated her once; he couldn’t afford to get taken in again by her sweet face and their shared history.

Frowning lightly, Euphy held up the crane and explained, “Because I believe in your goals. I think the weak should be respected and protected, not oppressed.” Nodding with her chin to the television, now showcasing a subgroup of liberal Britannians, she said, “We don’t all think the way Father does, and…” Sighing, she added, “I just thought that if you had someone on the inside, some of your plans could be more refined, maybe less violent.” Staring him straight in the eye, she added, “As for trust, I’ve kept my suspicions about your identity to myself for months. I haven’t even told Cornelia.”

“Haven’t you?” Lelouch pressed worriedly.

Euphy whipped her head back and forth. “No! If Cornelia linked you to Zero, Lelouch, she wouldn’t have been so overprotective and happy at finding you a couple days ago.”

Pondering that, Lelouch nodded. “That’s true. She’s not the best actress.”

That provoked a giggle out of the young princess. “No, she’s too straightforward. But does this mean you’ll have me?” She held out the shared origami like an offering.

“I can’t believe you want to be a Black Knight. I can honestly say I never expected this, Euphy,” Lelouch murmured. She’d be a fantastic chess piece to have in his back pocket. With a tentative smile, he plucked the crane back and agreed, “We can do a trial run. See how it goes.”

Throwing her arms around his shoulders in a gentle hug, Euphy celebrated with an ecstatic, “Yay!”

“Now if only Suzaku would join me,” Lelouch sighed, the light in his eyes dimming at the remembrance. He absentmindedly returned his sister’s hug, his thoughts still stuck on his boyfriend, and dropped the finished crane on the empty food tray nearby to be with its two brethren.

Euphy pulled back, her face twisting in sadness. “I’ll try to work on him,” she promised. “I’ll be discreet.”

“And why would he listen to you?” Lelouch asked suspiciously. “Just because you’re towards the top of the social food chain? Because there are others, higher-ranking than you, who believe the opposite and—”

“We’re close. He’s my friend,” Euphy said firmly. Beginning to blush, she turned her head to the side and admitted, “To be completely honest, Lelouch, I wanted…I wanted more with him.”

Lelouch stared at her in shock, his mouth falling open. He couldn’t blame her, but still… After a moment of processing that, he croaked, “Euphy, you’re…you’re in love with my boyfriend?”

Blushing harder, Euphy stuttered, “W-well, m-maybe not in love with, but he’s a—wonderful guy, and I like him a lot…” Looking up, eyes widening, she said hastily, “Oh, but I’d never try to take him from you! I didn’t know he was attached or I wouldn’t have let myself fall this far…”

Bowing his head in relief, Lelouch muttered, “That’s my fault, I guess. I suggested to him that we keep our relationship secret.”

“Of course,” Euphy agreed matter-of-factly. “Look at what happened when your love was exposed. It was a smart move on your part, Lelouch.” Waving her hand at the local news, she continued regally, “Until we educate society more, the world just isn’t ready for your type of relationship.”

Violet eyes softening with warmth, Lelouch said, “One of these times, I’ll learn not to underestimate you. You see things far clearer than you let on.” He shot her one of his rare, genuine smiles.

Basking in his praise, Euphy scooted closer. “Then isn’t it a good thing I’m on your side, Lelouch?” she asked innocently, tilting her head and widening her eyes to complete the picture.

“Euphy,” Lelouch murmured fondly, eyes twinkling, “you are a fool. An amazing fool.”

Euphy held out her hand, beaming when he put his in hers. “We’re both amazing. Together, we’ll win,” she said brightly.

“Yes, we’ll win.”

-+-

Cornelia was used to feeling torn in multiple directions, but it was one of her least favorite parts of being a member of the Royal Family in the public eye—especially when personal beliefs clashed. Like today. Guilford had reported news of liberal-minded protests erupting over Area 11. While her initial reaction was to screech and rage at the anti-Britannian mindset spreading over her territory, especially when she was in charge of preserving it, she couldn’t stay infuriated for long once she found out that they were happening in response to Lelouch’s attack.

And technically, Cornelia did support her brother and she didn’t believe the assault on him was right.

“Why are they making this so political?” she snapped, ignoring how the issue had been borne of politics and social justice. “Forget it. Contact the press. I need to make a statement.”

That was how Cornelia found herself in front of a rolling camera, declaring ‘unjust violence’—like the kind perpetrated by Zero and his Black Knights—to be the real enemy in this tragic local case.

This wasn’t so cut-and-dry as Britannians versus Elevens.

The only cut-and-dry aspect of this whole situation was that Cornelia would pulverize the jackasses who’d hurt her little brother. In that, she was only torn about how.

-+-

Kallen tensed and narrowed her eyes when Princess Euphemia opened the door to the Lamperouge suite.

Nina looked like she would have an aneurysm any second, her eyes bulging with shock behind her glasses. Rivalz gawked, and Shirley took a step back and exclaimed, “Is that Princess Euphemia?!” Milly dipped her head and did a little curtsey.

Warmly smiling, Euphy invited everyone inside with a grand sweep of her arm. “It’s great to know Lelouch has so many wonderful friends,” she prattled. “Nunnally and Suzaku have told me a little about you. Have we met before? You look familiar…”

“You—you—you!” Nina stammered, swallowing down huge gulps of air. She clasped her hands together and stepped close to the Third Princess, never lifting her gaze. “You saved us, Princess Euphemia! You saved me! At Lake Kawaguchi, don’t you remember?”

Tilting her head, Euphy nodded in recognition. “That’s right! I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Blushing a bit, Nina looked at the floor and repeated shyly, “Because of you, Princess.”

Cutting between them with a loud “Anyway!” Kallen looked directly at Euphy and asked, barely remembering in time to use a meek voice instead of the force she was aching to unleash, “Just what are you doing here, Your Highness?”

Giggling, Euphemia answered, “Oh, I volunteered to stay with Nunnally while Lelouch was in the hospital.”

Face wrinkling in confusion, Rivalz wondered, “I thought his sister was supposed to do that.”

Euphy laughed harder. Getting herself under control, she pointed out slyly, “Well, for being his friends, there’s certainly a lot you don’t know about Lelouch.”

Rivalz frowned and complained, “Everyone keeps saying that exact same thing!”

“Well, it’s true,” Euphy said. She waited until everyone was silent and looking at her before dropping the bombshell: “I am Lelouch and Nunnally’s sister. Or rather, half-sister. We have different mothers.”

The Student Council—sans Milly—simply stared at her.

Snorting, Rivalz finally responded, “Yeah, okay, no way. That would make Lelouch and Nunnally…”

“…royalty?” gasped Shirley, eyes shining.

“I don’t believe it,” Kallen murmured, trying to wrap her head around that. No wonder Lelouch was such a lazy snob—he was born to be!

Nina took another step closer to Euphy, mumbling, “I don’t understand. How can Lelouch and Nunnally be a prince and princess?”

Rivalz rolled his eyes. “That’s easy, Nina. The Britannian Emperor must’ve shot his jizz into Lelouch’s mom and walah, nine months later, out popped His Royal Chess Master!”

Nina thumped his arm for being so crude in front of the pure princess, while Shirley stared in shock at his socially-ineptness. Milly choked down her laughter. Euphy only blushed a deep red. Awkward tension spiked the air, and Kallen—not for the first time—questioned why she was still hanging around these people.

Nothing made sense anymore.

-+-

“This is your domain,” Schneizel said slowly, leaning closer to his half-sister and cupping her cheek. They were alone in her private office. “But would you mind telling me, dearest Cornelia, what you plan to do about Zero?” He softly stroked his fingers down her cheek, making her blush and stutter at the attention.

Clearing her throat, Cornelia looked to the side. “I—I’m going to use the Japan Liberation Front as bait to lure Zero into a trap. Then I’m going to crush him. I’ll flatten him worse than he crushed my soldiers under that mountain at Narita, Schneizel.”

Nodding slowly, Schneizel pointed out, “But Zero led his Black Knights away at Narita, didn’t he? Do you think he cares about the Japan Liberation Front’s well-being?”

“Oh, he’ll care when I televise escalating torture of the JLF members all over Area 11,” Cornelia snarled. “Even if he didn’t care about them as a competing rebel organization, his ‘honor’ would demand that he step in to ‘right the injustice’ and save those poor, oppressed Eleven souls.”

Leaning even closer, Schneizel murmured, “And what if Zero doesn’t show?”

Snorting, Cornelia assured him, “Oh, he’ll come. But if for some reason he doesn’t, then Britannia still wins by hurting our enemies. I might even execute them in the end. After all, the JLF has been a thorn in Area 11’s side for far too long.” Shaking her head, she added disgustedly, “I can’t believe Clovis turned a blind eye to them for seven years.”

“Let us not speak ill of the dead,” Schneizel counseled, lifting Cornelia’s face when she automatically bowed her head at the remark. “Besides, you are far more competent, Cornelia. Let’s say Zero comes to save the JLF after all. How are you going to turn the tables on him and his Black Knights?”

Narrowing her eyes, wanting to impress the smart older brother she admired so, Cornelia explained, “Since I’m luring him in, Zero will be on my turf. I’ll have the advantage this time.” She went on to explain in detail where she’d station some of her Glaston Knights and royal guard in hiding to surround Zero from various vantage points, what traps she’d rig in the area she had in mind, and other such conditions that she planned to set up in advance to ensure her victory.

Pleased, Schneizel praised, “This is why you rule the battlefield, Cornelia. You just proved me right.” Smirking, he enunciated, “Area 11 is in your capable hands.”

Leaving Cornelia breathless at the compliments, Schneizel took his leave with a satisfied smile. With this in-depth information, he could trap Zero.

He could trap Lelouch.

-+-

“What did I miss?” Suzaku asked as he strolled into the Lamperouge sitting room, taking note of the awkward tension hanging over his friends. His hair was wet from his recent shower, and he felt refreshed after eating a decent meal and getting a full rest in his bed—well, Lelouch’s bed. It felt odd to sleep in it without his boyfriend, but Lelouch had insisted that Suzaku ‘keep our bed warm.’

Shaking her head, Shirley bemoaned, “Rivalz is being inappropriate in front of royalty!”

Milly stepped forward and added slyly, “But since Rivalz has already acted inappropriate in front of Lelouch and Nunnally, that’s nothing new.”

Startled at the implications, Suzaku forced himself to act cavalier with a blink and a yawn. “Oh, you already had that discussion, huh?”

Kallen narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Wait, did you know about this, Suzaku? Did you know Lelouch was a Britannian prince?”

“Hey, yeah,” Rivalz jumped in eagerly. “Is that why your pet name for him is ‘my prince’?”

Euphy, Kallen, and Nina looked between Rivalz and Suzaku with questioning gazes, apparently not having heard that before.

Rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment, Suzaku stepped back and nodded. “I met Lelouch—and Nunnally—when they still went by their royal names. That’s kind of why we’ve been so secretive about our childhood history, to be honest.” There was a fine line to walk between giving his friends enough to satisfy their curiosity without giving away too much. It was Lelouch’s tale, and while Suzaku had become a main character in his prince’s story, it was the right of the primary protagonist to share only what he deemed acceptable.

“You knew?” Shirley gasped, clear surprise bubbling over. “How could you act so—so casual a-and intimate—with a member of the Royal Family?!”

“Because it’s Lelouch,” Suzaku stressed. “He’s always been my friend, first and foremost, before he was a prince. That’s how we both wanted it. Believe it or not, Lelouch doesn’t want people falling over themselves for him just because he was randomly lucky enough to be born into royalty.” Turning to Kallen, he added, “I know you think Lelouch is an arrogant, cold jerk, but it’s honestly just an act. He never wanted people getting too close and discovering the truth about his heritage.” With a small shrug, he deigned to explain, “That’s why…he considers you all his friends, but he’s always kept you at a sort of distance, too.”

Kallen nodded thoughtfully. “And he didn’t need to keep you at arm’s length, because you already knew his secrets.”

“You had an advantage,” Shirley whispered, before shaking herself out of it. She smiled weakly, obviously making herself focus.

Briefly noting how Shirley seemed less upset than yesterday, which meant progress, Suzaku continued, “And when it comes down to it, Lelouch and I are just two people who fell in love with each other. End of story.”

There was a bit of a silence before Rivalz, clearly prioritizing, asked, “Sooo, what’s it like boning royalty?” He swaggered over and elbowed Suzaku in the ribs, waggling his eyebrows.

Ignoring Euphy’s and Shirley’s blushes, Suzaku very calmly answered, “Like doing it with anyone else, I’d imagine. He’s a person, same as me. That’s all.”

Euphy squawked at the ready answer. “It’s refreshing to hear someone interact with royalty in a regular old manner, instead of putting us on some pedestal,” she said with a feeble little laugh. “It gets old after a while. The royal life isn’t as glamorous as it’s made out to be, you know, and Lelouch is lucky he got away from it.”

“Yeah, why is he here?” Kallen asked. “Why isn’t he living it up in Pendragon?”

Suzaku, Euphy, and Milly exchanged uncertain glances.

“Well,” Suzaku said, swallowing, “I don’t know if that’s something we should get into without Lelouch here. I mean, he’s already missed a lot.” That was the part of the story only the exiled prince should share.

Straightening her shoulders, Milly stepped forward. “But you can’t tell anyone about this!” she exclaimed urgently, for once sounding completely serious. “I can tell you that Lelouch and Nunnally are in danger, and the Ashford family has been sheltering them all these years in secret.”

“So you knew, too, Madame Pres?!” Shirley shouted in disbelief, even as Suzaku frowned at Milly for revealing that much without Lelouch’s strict permission.

Holding up her hands in a pacifying manner, Euphy interjected, “They’re not in danger from me, Cornelia, or Schneizel.” Twirling a lock of pink hair around her index finger self-consciously, she said, “When we surprised him at the hospital, we gave him our word that we would keep everything classified. As far as we’re officially aware, Lelouch and Nunnally vi Britannia died in the Second Pacific War, the same as we’ve always been told.”

“Good,” Suzaku said with a sigh of relief. “Honestly, the main threat I’m worried about is Zero.”

Kallen made a small strangled noise, then hastily regained her composure.

Euphy looked on with a suddenly unreadable expression.

Suzaku didn’t have time to figure out their odd reactions. “Because he’s targeted Prince Clovis and Princess Cornelia,” he reminded everyone slowly, waiting for the lightbulbs to turn on. “If that bastard Zero is intentionally attacking Britannian royalty, then Lelouch and Nunnally are in danger. Especially here in Area 11.”

That’s why you hate Zero so much…” Euphy said, brightening like she’d solved a major mystery. “You’re afraid for Lelouch!”

“That’s one reason,” Suzaku agreed lightly. Raking his eyes over his gathered friends, he steered the conversation back towards safer water and suggested, “So it’s best if you just put this secret out of your mind.”

Shirley and Rivalz nodded, still looking dazed.

Kallen opened her mouth, looking ready to argue, but Suzaku interrupted before she could start. “Treating Lelouch and Nunnally like royalty would only draw unwanted attention. Besides, they’d be uncomfortable.” Pausing to stare everyone in the eye, he decided to just make the best of Milly’s opening and prompted, “Can you do it? Can you protect Lelouch and Nunnally by keeping their royal heritage a secret?”

Shirley, Nina, Rivalz, and Kallen all nodded—though Suzaku noticed anxiously that Kallen crossed her fingers behind her back.

-+-

The Black Knights bowed deeply to Lieutenant Colonel Tohdoh and his Four Holy Swords, in complete awe that they were standing in front of Japanese legends.

Drawing himself up, Tohdoh stepped forward. “I understand from Kyoto that Zero is incapacitated at the moment. You were all told that I would lead you in his stead.” He waited, unblinking, for a couple cheers to die down. Looking each original resistance member from Ohgi’s team in the eye, the war hero clarified, “I will step up to the task for now. However, once we rescue General Katase, I plan to hand control over to him.”

Nodding, Ohgi spoke for the group. “I don’t think that will be a problem for now, sir. However, what about when Zero gets back…?”

Closing his eyes to think, Tohdoh sighed. Finally, he answered, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. We know nothing about Zero’s situation. For now, I’m working under the assumption that he’s never coming back.”

At the Black Knights’ instinctive gasps and low protests, Tohdoh waved his Four Holy Swords beside him. “We’re going to rescue our comrades in the Japan Liberation Front,” he announced, his authoritative voice cutting through the rabble. “For that, I need to learn who you are and what you have so that we can re-organize and use our resources effectively.”

Ohgi briefly went over introductions and inventory before adding, “And there’s a Britannian man who wants to join the Black Knights. A…Diethard Reid, I believe.”

Chiba and Asahina snorted.

“He gave us accurate information about the Britannian forces’ plans for Narita,” Ohgi said. Ignoring Urabe’s muttered “And Zero couldn’t have shared such pertinent intel with us?” Ohgi added about the Britannian prospective member, “Now he claims to have the inside scoop on what is going to happen to the JLF. Kirihara advised us to trust his leads, so you’ll need to read his report to know what to plan around.”

Wrinkling her nose, Chiba growled, “Trust the word of a Britannian?!”

“That’s my kind of woman!” shouted Tamaki, punching the air with a whoop. He immediately cowed under her fiery glare.

Without a word, Tohdoh stretched out his arm—and Ohgi placed the future of the Black Knights in his hands.

-+-

Sayoko rolled Nunnally into the Lamperouge suite and stopped short at the assembled students around the Third Princess.

Laughing, Euphemia waved them further inside. “Your friends on the Student Council just discovered my…familial connection to you and Lelouch,” Euphy explained to Nunnally. “They’re still taking in the shock.”

“Wow, Nunna, you’re a real princess?!” Shirley asked excitedly.

Blushing, Nunnally nodded her head. “I am,” she said softly. “I know you must be upset that Lelouch and I lied to you—”

“It’s so cool that you’re royalty!” Rivalz interrupted elatedly, proving her assumption wrong. “And here I didn’t think you and Lelouch could be any more awesome!”

Relaxing, Nunnally smiled. She and Lelouch had done well for themselves, making kind-hearted—if not completely weird—friends for themselves.

-+-

Finally breaking away during the late afternoon, Ohgi stole outside of the mobile base to sort out his thoughts. So much was changing now. He wondered what Zero would think of Tohdoh’s leadership. He thought about what Zero might have to say concerning the new members of the Black Knights, and about how they were re-structuring the organization without him. Then he wondered if Zero was too injured to even consider such things, and his heart went out to his leader—wherever he was, whatever he was suffering. On autopilot, he took out his cell phone and punched in Zero’s number.

After so long of getting no response, he was pleasantly shocked when he heard the click of the phone finally being answered. Without thinking about it, he instantly exclaimed, “Zero! Thank goodness…”

There was a sharp gasp followed by some hyperventilating over the line.

Forehead furrowing, concerned, Ohgi hazarded, “Zero, are you okay?”

“Holy fuck. Th-this isn’t Zero,” said a whispered voice in a rush—definitely not the masked rebellion leader’s deep tones but somewhat familiar all the same.

Ohgi felt ice creep down his spine. “Y-you, then…” he choked, mind swirling as he tried to place the other person.

“Listen,” said the voice urgently, “I think we both have answers for each other. I’ll meet you in private.” After a brief pause, he offered, “You choose the time and place. I just want to get to the bottom of things, and I’m tired of secrets.”

Nodding unseen, Ohgi agreed, “Yeah, me too. How about the warehouse docks, tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock?”

“I’ll be there,” the other male promised firmly, followed by a click and a dial tone.

-+-

A sickening crack split the air as one protester used his sign as a weapon, slamming it on a Britannian officer’s head, and Suzaku jerked to a horrified stop.

Weren’t these supposed to be peaceful protesters?

In the time it took for the Britannian policeman to crumple, all hell broke loose. Protesters were tackling Britannian officials, beating them, and throwing rocks and glass bottles. One Britannian police jumped on a second to keep him from firing into the crowd. Yelling and thudding bodies mixed in a cacophony of violence, and blood spattered the grass and sidewalks of the usually family-friendly park.

Unable to watch, Suzaku hurtled into the action and dragged two men off a female Britannian. “What the hell?” he hissed, crouching protectively in front of the victim he’d saved.

The liberal Britannian protester sneered, “The cops threatened us first.”

“Yeah,” chimed in his Japanese comrade. “You know what they say: A good defense is a strong offense.”

Glaring, Suzaku shot back, “You’re undermining your whole message by using violent methods!”

Before the fighting could escalate further, a sizeable Britannian back-up arrived in a howl of sirens, and the protesters scattered amidst curses.

Shoulders sagging, Suzaku turned to help the woman he’d rescued. She gave him a shaky nod, brushed herself off, and blended into the crowd of her coworkers. Seeing everything was getting under control, Suzaku wiped his brow and slipped quietly away from the unwinding chaos. “Damn Zero and his bad influence,” he grumbled, noticing a heavy ball of anxiety settle in his chest at the very thought of the terrorist. Coaching himself into a rhythm of deep breaths, Suzaku felt Lelouch’s cell vibrate in his pants pocket for the millionth time since he’d taken control of the phone.

Freezing in the middle of the sidewalk, a little more than halfway between Ashford Academy and the hospital, Suzaku swayed with excited curiosity as his fingers closed around the shaking mobile device. Blessed with time, indulged with privacy, and infected with the secret-sharing mood after what the Student Council had learned earlier, Suzaku felt daring as he flipped open Lelouch’s phone to take the call.

Before Suzaku could even say a word, he had his answer; the world seemed to shatter around him into as many small, jagged pieces as Lelouch’s leg bones.

Whirling between red-hot rage and diluted disappointment, Suzaku stumbled forward. Riled up, half stunned and half apprehensive, he tried to piece together this newest semblance of reconstructed reality. I knew it. Dammit, Lelouch, why did it really have to be you?! Hyperventilating, Suzaku could barely string his thoughts and words together but he knew he needed to grasp the one chance he had and hold on as tight as possible. It wasn’t like Lelouch—it wasn’t like Zero—would give him any real answers.

A violent protest erupted within his own heart, but for once Suzaku felt no burning need to play peacemaker.

Scenery passed in a blur as Suzaku came upon the hospital, not soon enough and all too soon at the same time. Car horns and pedestrian conversation penetrated his mind as if through a thick fog, but Suzaku was all too aware of his own internal screaming. Feeling betrayed and confused, even though he’d had an inkling that he’d vigorously ignored, Suzaku clenched his shaking hands into fists as soon as he crossed the hospital entryway threshold. Hospital staff and patients alike dove out of his way as he stomped down hallways and up flights of stairs, his feet pounding against the steps to match the thunder in his gaze.

Upon reaching Lelouch’s floor, Suzaku forced himself to stop and again take some deep breaths—which didn’t do a goddamn thing when he was this focused on his upset. Thinking furiously, he tried to rein in the rest of his overflowing emotions. He needed to take action. He needed to address this problem promptly. He needed to deal with this.

Stiff with fury, Suzaku marched purposefully to Lelouch’s room. He stepped in, cutting off the prince’s innocent, happy greeting with a low, impulsive, and forceful dismissal: “Lelouch, I can’t do this anymore. We’re over.”

That said, without waiting for a response, Suzaku turned his back on his hurt ex-boyfriend and ignored his reactionary cry. Staggering back down the hospital hallway, Suzaku felt his mind buzz and his heart rupture on another, deeper level.

Lost in his own emotional turmoil, he felt vindictively grateful that Lelouch couldn’t chase him down to demand answers when he had none to give, when all he wanted to do was run from the truth until it stopped splitting them apart worse than their lies.

Chapter Text

Lelouch stared at the closed door with rapidly blinking eyes and a slack mouth long after Suzaku had fled the scene, pushing his feelings deep, deep down so he wouldn’t fall apart. Numb shock crept over his body like frost on a leaf while lightheadedness crackled the edges of his consciousness, but Lelouch snatched a line of calm focus amidst the emotional turbulence and hung tight to evaporating rationality. Suzaku had spent the majority of their relationship terrified that Lelouch would hang him out to dry, and yet Suzaku was the one actively breaking things off now; irony was goddamn painful outside of an English textbook. The sudden sting pierced Lelouch’s chest like a poisoned dagger, shattering his heart and sending sharp remnants of it to slice his insides and allow for the toxic darkness to seep faster through his blood.

His heart monitor beeped unsteadily louder, attracting a couple nurses to check his vitals.

Feeling his brain twisting like a wrung-out sponge, Lelouch tried to find some logic in his boyfriend’s—ex-boyfriend’s—emotionally catastrophic decision. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, his thoughts moved sluggishly and didn’t quite fit together into his normal brilliance. Too many questions, never enough answers—this was Lelouch’s whole damn life. Suzaku, his heart cried as his blood pressure was taken again, is this because you still feel guilty about the attack?

But no, something about Suzaku’s temperament had screamed ‘rage’ instead of ‘guilt.’ Ordinarily, Lelouch would have encouraged this welcome change, would have stoked the flames higher to burn out the restrictive guilt coiling around Suzaku’s core like thorny vines—but not when the result conflicted with Lelouch’s own needs.

Right now, he needed to know why. What was Suzaku’s angle? Was he trying to prevent more pain and prejudice? Was he doing something spontaneously foolish by giving in to society’s pressure in the end? Lelouch’s stomach clenched as one thought hammered down the foundational structures of all his theories: I thought we were the only ones who mattered in this relationship, my knight.

The crisscrossing mental and emotional anguish bled into physical pain, but Lelouch stubbornly held onto his pride throughout the rest of the day and all through the night, gritting his teeth and bearing his agony as he moaned and sweated and crossly sent the nurses away.

There was only one person he wanted assisting him during his moments of weakness.

It was just regrettable that said person was currently causing his extreme distress.

Lelouch would almost, almost rather go through another round of physical torture than endure the torment of Suzaku’s spur-of-the-moment abandonment.

-+-

C.C. breezed into the Lamperouge suite like she owned the place—like she’d never left—carrying three boxes of Pizza Hut. Golden eyes flicked disinterestedly over the two girls at the dining room table, in the middle of teatime if the teapot and dainty cups could be trusted, and C.C. delicately set down her greasy cardboard boxes like they were made of the most precious metals. Or rather, as if they held the secret to death. Staring blankly at the pink-haired teenager, C.C. nudged the teapot out of the way of her pizza and droned, “Who are you?”

“Nunnally,” the pink-haired girl hissed, hurriedly putting down her teacup and standing with a worried frown on her face. “Who is this?”

Cocking her head, Nunnally listened intently to the footsteps and shuffling tabletop items.

“Relax,” C.C. assured them in a monotone. “I’m just here to help Lelouch.”

At those words, both princesses followed her suggestion.

“Welcome back, C.C.!” Nunnally finally chirped, making the pink-haired girl look at her questioningly—not that the blind girl saw. Straightening in her wheelchair, Nunnally said, “C.C., this is Euphy. Lelouch mentioned that you might be coming around soon. He told me to look after you for him. You’re welcome to stay with us here.”

Euphy blinked and sat down again, obviously trying to follow.

Taking a shaky sip of her tea, almost spilling it, Nunnally said, “He told me to tell you the details of the situation.”

C.C. gently prodded Nunnally’s wheelchair under the table, waiting until the young princess fell silent before saying, “I know already. I felt something jarring happen through our connection, and I gleaned details from the news and riots. Let me guess: Lelouch told you to tell me to take care of things for him.”

Jaw dropping just enough so a couple droplets of tea dribbled down her chin, Nunnally nodded.

“Consider it done,” C.C. said airily—right before stuffing her face with pizza. “I’ve been doing what I can,” she said, her voice muffled with cheese, “and secretly watching how the pieces fall on the board. Now I can tell him the ripple effects of his stupidity.”

Euphy drummed her fingertips on the table and echoed, “Stupidity?”

“Being caught with Lover Boy,” C.C. clarified with an exaggerated shrug. “Lelouch is normally so smart and on top of things, I didn’t expect this fallout.”

Swallowing and fiddling with her teacup, Nunnally added in a strained voice, “None of us did. Thank you, C.C., for helping my brother.”

Inhaling more pizza, C.C. waved her hand and hummed acknowledgment in her throat. 

“But what does he want you to take care of?” Nunnally wondered, lightly shaking her head. “I know my brother’s been up to something for a while now, and I can tell it’s weighing on him. Please, C.C., if you know what’s going on, please tell me!” Leaning forward in her wheelchair, she added desperately, “Lelouch has enough to deal with right now after the attack.”

Sighing, C.C. started on her second box of pizza. “I’m afraid I can’t say, Nunnally,” she said after swallowing a mouthful, trying to let the young girl down gently.

Brow furrowing over serious eyes, Euphy asked slowly, “You’re part of the Black Knights, aren’t you?”

Both Nunnally and C.C. turned in her direction.

Lips curving in a half-smile, C.C. approved, “You have more than fluff between the ears, don’t you?”

Euphy’s face set determinedly and she nodded before throwing on the table: “I’m also a comrade.”

C.C. lifted her eyebrow. “Joined up, did you?” she asked nonchalantly, licking up a dangling string of cheese.

Eyebrows squishing together, Nunnally pressed, “Wait, Euphy, you’re a Black Knight? You’re following Zero?”

Before Euphy could answer, C.C. snorted and wiped at some smeared tomato sauce on her cheek. “No one’s going to be following Zero for much longer if he can’t—excuse the mean pun—drag himself to his own rebellion.”

Euphy gasped and covered her mouth with her hand.

“Too cruel?” C.C. wondered apathetically. “You don’t know the cruelty humans are capable of.” A harsh joke was nothing compared to being tortured and killed repeatedly at the hands of various generations of humans. Different faces of the ages, same murderous intent.

Nunnally’s frown deepened. “I don’t get it.”

Sighing, Euphy explained, “Because his legs are broken, he’d have to drag—”

“Wait,” Nunnally interrupted. “Zero’s legs are broken, too?”

C.C. propped her cheek on her fist, chewed three bites of pizza in the settling quiet, and finally gave in. “Only one person has shattered legs, Nunnally. He just wears different costumes depending on the role he’s playing.”

It was silent for another moment as everyone processed what was happening.

Finally, Nunnally knocked over her empty teacup and gasped, “My big brother is Zero?!”

“The smart gene must run in the family,” C.C. said, voice deadpan.

Starting to breathe harder, Nunnally fretted, “He did it for me, didn’t he? Because—”

“Well, you and his Lover Boy,” C.C. interjected casually.

Freezing up, Nunnally fussed, “Oh no, Suzaku! Does he know?!”

Euphy sadly shook her head. “No, it’s quite tragic. But I can tell Lelouch is torn up about it.”

“Lelouch was torn up because of him, too,” C.C. put out there with a practiced poker-face.

“That’s not funny!” Euphemia admonished, glaring at C.C. with petulant anger. “This whole situation is serious! So much depends on—and that’s not to say—that is—”

Leaning back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest, C.C. shared based on her centuries of experience, “I don’t get why you’re so worried about the rebellion. It’s simple. Lelouch’s brain still works, so he can pull off his amazing genius strategies.” Pointing to herself, C.C. revealed, “I’ve worn the Zero costume and played decoy before, so that part is set. All Lelouch has to do is tape-record himself giving his grand speeches.” Rolling her eyes, she complained with the barest tinge of sarcasm, “Really, the solution to this problem is not that difficult.”

Jaw dropping, Euphy sputtered, “Th-that’s—”

“Brilliant?” suggested C.C. “I think so.”

Nodding while thinking through the proposed plan, Euphy acknowledged, “It has possibility, but there are still so many ways it could derail.”

Smirking, C.C. advised, “Then let’s plan accordingly. Should we go ask the master of condition-setting himself?”

Nunnally licked her lips and offered weakly, “Uh, actually, he said he doesn’t want you visiting him in the hospital.”

C.C.’s eyebrow arched under her bangs. “Oh, doesn’t he?” she pressed with a slight smirk. Tossing her head, green hair flying, she thanked Nunnally for relaying the message and settled the matter with another bite of pizza.

-+-

Right away, everyone on the Student Council sensed something was cataclysmically wrong and spiraling into ruin. A nurse had mentioned that it was good that they’d come to call, since Lelouch needed company but had earlier refused group therapy—but Kallen was sure that none of her friends expected what they found.

Lelouch was lying prone on the bed and simply staring at the ceiling, but his violet eyes were dull and dead in a way they’d never been—not even on the night of the attack, because then there was the expectation that things would get better. Now all hope seemed to be sucked right out of his soul. Dried tear tracks ran down his pale cheeks, and he didn’t move or otherwise acknowledge their presence. He sighed despondently, but he didn’t seem to be aware of his own actions. He seemed trapped in a personal headspace of misery.

Shirley took the lead this time, stepping forward cautiously. “Um, Lelou?” she asked, walking to stand at his bedside. Milly, Rivalz, Nina, and Kallen joined her, crowding the fallen prince. Their friend’s problem came before hounding him about his royal heritage. Taking a deep breath, Shirley pressed, “What…what happened? Do you want to talk about it?”

Lelouch only blinked listlessly, and his eyes seemed to dim impossibly more.

Softly, Milly added, “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, Lelouch. Just know that we’re here for you. Whatever you need.”

“Yeah, buddy,” Rivalz agreed. “We love you, okay?” Chuckling a bit, he tried to ease the tension and teased, “All right, maybe not like Suzaku loves you but—”

Lelouch visibly flinched before freezing up, inhaling sharply and choking on air as it went down the wrong tube. Eyes watering, he turned his face into his fluffed up pillow and started shaking like he would come apart any second. One hand fisted over his heart.

They’d never seen him act so vulnerable, but it made sense that the recent attack must have affected his typical behavior.

Kallen frowned worriedly at the revealed prince. While he might not have been her favorite person, he was in a bad spot and she admitted she might not know him as well as she should. She wanted to use his royal lineage in some way against Britannia, but right now, watching him unravel in a way most unlike the Lelouch Lamperouge she’d come to know, she just wanted to help a friend. “Does it have to do with Suzaku?” she asked gently, making the connection between Rivalz’s words and Lelouch’s meltdown response.

With a quick jerk of his chin, Lelouch croaked into his pillow, “Suzaku…ended things between us. We’re finished.”

Shirley shook her head, thoughts racing. “No, that’s not possible!” she exclaimed. “He loves you!” Frown lines wrinkling her forehead, she said, “Suzaku promised me he didn’t take you for granted, Lelou. I could tell how much he meant it. So why…?”

“He dumped you?” Rivalz yelled in outrage. He swung at the wall, obviously pretending he was pounding Suzaku’s face in. A bro had to look out for his bro when it came down to it. “After you just got tortured for loving him?! The fucking nerve…!”

“Rivalz!” interjected Milly harshly, flicking her eyes over Lelouch’s trembling, dejected form. “I know how you feel, but screaming about it isn’t going to help Lelouch.”

Kallen tilted her head, thinking things through. “It doesn’t make sense,” she agreed with Shirley. “When I talked with him the other day, it was crystal clear how head-over-heels he was for you.”

Tapping her chin, Milly theorized, “Do you think he’s punishing himself? He’s still blaming himself and he thinks he doesn’t deserve you?”

Shrugging one shoulder, Lelouch pressed his face even further into the pillow. Voice muffled, he forced out, “He didn’t say. He just stormed in here, told me we were over, and left.”

“That’s so weird,” Shirley murmured. “That doesn’t sound like Suzaku at all. Do you think…do you think someone is threatening him? Someone is forcing him to break up with you?” She snapped her fingers. “Maybe…maybe your attackers?”

Again, Lelouch shrugged one shoulder. “He seemed angry and sure of himself,” he mumbled, finally rolling his face to the open air. Water pooled in his eyes, but the others respectfully made no mention of it.

“He would be mad at them but determined to protect you, if what Shirley said is what’s actually happening,” Milly pointed out.

Rivalz started to calm down. “So maybe Suzaku isn’t intentionally trying to be a dick.”

Lelouch took a deep breath and relaxed the slightest bit. “Maybe,” he said noncommittally. “I wish I knew why…”

“We’ll talk to him and find out what’s going on,” Kallen promised, shooting Lelouch a friendly smile. “There’s got to be more to this story.”

Shirley nodded and pumped a fist in the air, cheering, “Yeah, we’ll have you two back together in no time!”

Exhaling noisily, Lelouch offered Shirley a feeble smile—so unlike his normally proud expressions. “Thanks,” he murmured in a low tone. “I need…” Suzaku.

“We’ll get you what you need,” Milly promised with a grin. “One loving boyfriend, coming right up, Lelouch!”

Lelouch’s smile strengthened a tad, though his eyes still shone with heartbreak.

Nina finally pushed her way to the bed. “Um, Lelouch?” she whispered urgently, as if she’d been holding back but couldn’t contain herself any longer. “Now that your problem is solved, do you think…do you think maybe you could tell me how to win over your sister?”

The entire Student Council, including Lelouch, simply stared at the normally-shy girl in shock.

Clearing his throat, Lelouch narrowed his eyes and hedged slowly, “You want to date Nunnally?”

Nina immediately shook her head, braids flying. “Oh no, I meant Princess Euphemia!”

Lelouch froze. His gaze swept over all his friends, none of whom looked surprised at the connection. Face furrowing, he mused fondly, “So she didn’t disguise herself. What a silly fool, that girl, I swear.”

“So it’s true, dude?” Rivalz asked in awe. “You’re a royal Britannian prince?”

Lelouch rolled his eyes. “It’s not something I’m proud of,” he muttered.

Kallen edged past Nina. “Why are you and Nunnally living secret lives at Ashford, Lelouch?”

Lelouch stared at her, evidently weighing his options. When he finally came to a conclusion, he said slowly, “Because I hate the Emperor.”

“Your father?” Shirley gasped, who obviously had such a loving relationship with her own father that she found it hard to believe anyone could hate theirs.

Lelouch shuddered. “I don’t think of him in those terms,” he said stiffly. Clenching his eyes shut, he tossed out, “I don’t like thinking about my past or that man, okay? It just makes me unbelievably angry.”

“Then we won’t talk about it anymore,” Kallen hastened to assure him, turning over his answers in her mind. This was unexpected. A member of the Royal Family, hating the Britannian Emperor? And hadn’t Milly let slip that he was in danger? If the Black Knights could offer him protection, then he might aid them with royal secrets or other kinds of help. Lelouch could be the key Zero needed to tip the scales all the way in their favor!

Opening his eyes, Lelouch looked at Kallen like he knew exactly what she was thinking. “Don’t tell anyone,” he cautioned, narrowing his eyes meaningfully. “I won’t let that monster hurt Nunnally more than he has already.” Waiting for their gasps at the implications to die down, he added with another significant look at Kallen, “Please at least honor the wishes of a brother who just wants to protect his little sister.”

Kallen inwardly winced. Naoto

“We got your back, man,” Rivalz assured him with a big grin. “And hey, I think it’s pretty cool that I’ve been secretly chauffeuring a royal prince around!”

Lelouch chuckled. “Thank you for your understanding. Now if only I still had Suzaku’s…”

Nina lightly pushed Kallen aside again, trampling on the delicate atmosphere stirred by Lelouch’s bittersweet wish. “So, um, about Princess Euphemia?” she prompted desperately, obsessively.

Lelouch shot the genius girl an apologetic smile, clearly remembering something private and important. “Sorry, but I’m afraid you’re not her type. Euphy seems to fall for idiots.”

-+-

Rubbing at the circles under his eyes, Suzaku listlessly sat down on the end of a pier and stared out over the water. It didn’t matter whether he was shut up in his dorm room at the university, avoiding everyone, or walking around the city—or sitting on a dock by the abandoned warehouses. No matter where he was, his thoughts revolved around Lelouch-and-Zero, now tied permanently together in his mind. He let out a sigh from the depths of his soul and glanced at his phone. He was an hour early for his meeting with—some important Black Knight, he assumed. He didn’t know. He didn’t want to know—didn’t want to know any of this. But, at the same time, he needed to know. It was just like needing to know the details of Lelouch’s attack— Don’t go there, he sternly ordered himself. This was different. This was completely different.

With a shudder, Suzaku punched in Miss Cecile’s number and hoped to pass some time and calm his nerves. He listened to her give a brief, dry report on Prince Schneizel’s doings—he was pulling his network of resources together to help the ASEEC rebuild the Lancelot—though she seemed worried and distracted herself.

During a lull in the conversation, Suzaku blurted out without thinking, “Miss Cecile, I think I understand now.  Why Zero saved me that day.”

There was a heavy silence on the other line for a good, long moment. Finally, Cecile asked, “And why did he do it, Suzaku?”

“I think…he wanted me safe,” Suzaku offered weakly, mentally yelling at himself for even bringing up this topic.

Again, there was a lengthy silence from Cecile’s end. At last, she ventured slowly, “I’d agree with you on that one, Suzaku.” It sounded like she wanted to ask more, but she quickly, out of nowhere, remembered that she needed to run some tests on the Lancelot and hung up.

There was no Lancelot to run tests on anymore.

Suzaku frowned at his phone, then jumped when someone cleared his throat behind him. Swirling around and barely managing to avoid falling into the water, he saw some Eleven guy giving him a curious look. Licking his lips, Suzaku cast a cursory glance over the other man. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, and while he wasn’t scruffy per se, he wasn’t impeccably groomed either. He wore a bandana around the base of his afro. Oh, and he was wearing the standard Black Knights jacket.

Cocking his head, Suzaku dug Lelouch’s phone out of his pocket and held it up, inquiring dryly, “You called?”

The man startled a bit, eyes widening, before he gradually nodded. “I’m Ohgi Kaname,” he introduced himself, bowing a typical Japanese greeting.

Suzaku scrambled to his feet and returned it clumsily. “Kururugi Suzaku,” he shot back, wobbling a little on his feet. He finally remembered seeing this man with Kallen at the hospital.

Ohgi’s lips quirked in a small grin. “Yeah, kid,” he murmured. “I pinned your voice to you as soon as I saw you. Kinda hard not to recognize you after everything, ya know?” He gestured to some crates down the way, partially hidden from view, and took the lead to sit down on one and get comfortable for a good chat.

Following nervously, Suzaku tossed Lelouch’s cell between his hands and looked around. “This isn’t…some kind of trap to kill me, is it?” he asked warily. He still had time to run away. Then again, it boded well that Kallen trusted him.

Ohgi snorted and shook his head. “Kami-sama, no,” he reassured. “Zero is very particular about wanting you kept alive and safe, and I wouldn’t risk that for anything. Besides, I’m not one for needless killing.” Looking Suzaku in the eye, he added, “I was the one who supported Zero when he saved you during our last operation.”

Hesitantly, Suzaku nodded. He tried to think back but he honestly couldn’t remember the voice from Sunday, so he didn’t know if this man was telling the truth. He seemed honest enough, but this man worked with Lelouch—Zero . So that didn’t mean anything. Suzaku cautiously sat on a crate opposite the Black Knight.

After a bit of an awkward silence, Ohgi broke the ice with small talk. “So, lot of protests popping up around Area 11 recently, huh? Because of that high school kid—” Clearing his throat nervously, he muttered, “Uh, hey, I heard that the hurt Britannian boy on the news was your friend.” Fidgeting and pulling at his bandana, he mumbled sympathetically, “Sorry you’re going through such a rough time lately.”

At the nicety, Suzaku frowned and snorted. “Funny you should mention him,” he said, forcing down a sneer. “I really should have noticed—I mean, I did notice, but I convinced myself I was imagining things, you know? It’s—scary how easily you can lie to yourself, right, when you just want to believe in someone so badly.” Shivering, he hunched over and kept on with his tirade. “I saw that he kept mysteriously disappearing, and that he got strange phone calls all the time, and that he always seemed to know more than he should.” Looking up with a desperate gaze, Suzaku rambled, “And I mean, I know for a fact how much he hates Britannia, and he vowed to me when we were just kids that he was gonna obliterate it. He’s always been serious, so why did I think this was different?!” Shaking his head wildly, his breath caught in his throat and he noticed the older Eleven staring at him, wide-eyed and questioning. Sniffling, Suzaku held up Lelouch’s cell and clarified, “My—friend, on the news…this is his phone.”

Ohgi’s jaw dropped, and he couldn’t tear his gaze off the phone. Finally, he swallowed thickly and whispered, “Zero?”

Suzaku nodded slowly. “From what I’ve gathered, yeah. I mean, it makes too much sense no matter how I spin it. Lelouch is Zero.” As he said the words aloud for the first time, he felt like a Knightmare was stomping on his heart. In disbelief, he repeated in a monotone, “Lelouch is Zero.”

Raising an eyebrow, Ohgi asked, “Lelouch…that boy who was attacked…is Zero?” Surprise and astonishment swept through over his face. “I remember Kallen mentioning him by name, and with the timing and everything…” He shook his head. “I just can’t believe they’re the same person.”

“It’s a hard truth to digest,” Suzaku said, “but at the same time, it feels like things are finally starting to make sense.”

“I like when things make sense,” Ohgi offered simply.

“Me too,” Suzaku agreed, sharing his first smile with the older Japanese male at their agreement. “He never told you, did he?” he asked, though it wasn’t really a question. He knew how Lelouch tended to cloak himself in secrets and lies.

Ohgi shook his head. “Never. But…he got us results, so we followed him.”

Rubbing at his eyes again, Suzaku choked out, “Yeah, but at what cost?” Gathering himself, he continued, “True, his goal is noble—but his methods are inhumane…”

Britannia’s methods are inhumane,” Ohgi argued, his voice a bit firmer than it was before. He sounded like a schoolteacher, correcting a student who was adamantly arguing the wrong answer.

Suzaku froze. After a moment, he sighed and bowed his head in agreement. “I know,” he mumbled. “That’s why…that’s why I want to work myself deep into their system and change everything from the inside. I want to make Britannia a better nation, so people don’t have to suffer.” Lifting his head, green eyes burning, he explained passionately, “Lelouch’s way…Zero’s way…just leads to more pain and destruction. Violence breeds violence and until someone stops the cycle, it’s going to continue and more people are going to die. I won’t let that happen!”

Ohgi blinked and tilted his head. “You’re very idealistic,” he noted with a carefully neutral tone. “Zero is a little more realistic in his approach. He knows Britannia won’t change, so he’s doing what he can.”

“Britannia will not fall to terrorism!” Suzaku hissed.

Ohgi jerked back. Taking a deep breath, he murmured just loud enough for Suzaku to hear, “It’s little better than childish nuisance.”

Suzaku gave a powerful nod, thinking he was getting through to the man. “Exactly!”

Ohgi looked up, meeting Suzaku’s eyes directly. “What we said,” he murmured, “that’s what Zero believes. He said those exact same lines the first time we met. He stood up to lead us against Britannia, but he made it very clear that, unlike others, he wouldn’t involve innocent civilians. That’s what sets him apart from terrorists, Kururugi.” Cocking his head, he added, “That was right before he promised to deliver the impossible—that is, free you from your execution.” Leaning forward, he sighed and pondered aloud, “Guess this explains why he’s always been so dead-set on rescuing you. We’ve wondered since the beginning, you know, why you were obviously so important to him.”

Reeling back, Suzaku gaped and tried to control how his heart leapt. He closed his eyes, but the tears still fell. Lelouch believed like I did, once upon a time. But no, by then he’d already abandoned his morals and killed Clovis. But he’s risked himself time and again for me.

(“I’m just…touched that you’d go so far for me.”

“I’d go even further,” Lelouch corrected with a somewhat dark smile.

Suzaku shivered pleasantly at the devotion and promise in his boyfriend’s tone.)

Scrubbing at his cheeks, Suzaku sniffled, “He’s…he’s important to me, too…”

Giving Suzaku time to cry for a spell, Ohgi eventually suggested, “We both have a little piece of the story, but we’re still left with so many gaps. I don’t think we’ll get anywhere else without asking him directly to tie it all together.”

Suzaku jerked back and shook his head frantically, squeaking, “Oh, uh, I just broke up with him out of nowhere yesterday, um, after you and I talked on the phone.” Ducking his head, he anticipated, “He’s not gonna want to see me right now.”

“Wait, broke up with…?” Ohgi echoed, face scrunching in confusion.

Laughing a bit awkwardly through his blubbering, Suzaku made clear, “Uh, that is…he was my boyfriend. We’ve been together a little over six months now—shit, almost as long as the Black Knights have been around.” Angrily crying harder, Suzaku pieced together, “You were Zero before you got together with me, when you knew that I… god damn you, Lelouch…”

Ohgi’s eyes bulged out of their sockets at this latest trivia. “Okay, this just got a lot more complicated.” Coughing into his fist, Ohgi apparently had to make sure he’d heard right. “So, hold on a minute…you’re Zero’s boyfriend?”

Suzaku whipped his head up and glared. “I’m Zero’s ex-boyfriend,” he corrected hoarsely.

“And you broke up with him because you just found out he’s been running around in a ridiculous mask,” Ohgi detailed in exasperated bafflement, “trying to free your people?”

Suzaku shook his head harder than ever and elucidated, “I broke up with him because he’s a lying terrorist scumbag.”

Nodding slowly, Ohgi let out a sarcastic, “Oh, yeah, I certainly see why he’d jump to tell you the truth. Didn’t we just go over how Zero is a different breed of rebel? How thickheaded are you, kid?”

Bristling, Suzaku shot back, “What’s that supposed to mean?!” His fists came up in front of his body automatically, though he thinly controlled himself and remained seated on the crate.

Ohgi sighed at the Suzaku’s dense nature and prompted like he was teaching again, “If he knew you hated Zero, but he wanted to date you…” He looked at Suzaku expectantly before throwing up his hands in frustration, prodding, “Come on, it doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out!”

“I get why!” Suzaku snapped. “But he should have been upfront and honest with me! It’s still not okay that the person I love the most turns out to be the person I hate the most!”

Shaking his head ruefully, Ohgi observed, “Must’ve been hard on him to be both.”

Scowling, Suzaku bit out, “Damn it, stop feeling sorry for him! He’s a manipulative bastard!” Shoulders shaking, he predicted, “Everyone’s gonna side with him now anyway because they’ll pity him after what happened…with his legs…shit shit SHIT!” Ripping at his hair with both hands, Suzaku was lightning struck by a burning thought. Maybe it’s karma from being Zero that got Lelouch attacked so gruesomely. Fate’s payback is a bitch, Lelouch. Immediately, Suzaku was so sick with himself that the thought even crossed his mind, and a fresh cascade of guilt rained out the fires. No, it’s actually Lelouch’s love for me that got him attacked so gruesomely. Groaning, he yanked at his hair again and slumped lower than ever on his crate.

Ohgi frowned pensively and asked, “What’s wrong with his legs?”

Cringing back, Suzaku described, “He was…severely beaten…and both his legs were smashed to pieces…” His whole body started shuddering as he tacked on, “Along with a whole bunch of other injuries.”

Ohgi gawked at Suzaku in horrified sadness. “Hot damn…”

Suzaku nodded numbly, eyes glazing over. “Yeah, he just…went through hell…for being with me…”

Ohgi raised an eyebrow and, obviously scandalized on Zero’s behalf, demanded, “And you…broke up with him unexpectedly…after that?!”

“I can’t…take this…!” Suzaku cried, drawing his knees up and curling into a ball as best he could atop the wooden box. “I know I’m not blameless, okay, but dammit, he just…he just…and I just…”

Apparently trying to understand Suzaku despite his obvious irritation, Ohgi advised gently, “Maybe you just need to give him a chance to explain.” Nodding sagely, he offered, “I know I do.”

They both needed to see Zero—Lelouch—and get the full story.

-+-

“Um, Lelou?”

Lelouch glanced up, feeling a pit of dread form in his stomach. “Shirley?”

Taking a seat, Shirley squeezed his hand. She looked to make sure the door had closed behind the others. Then, taking a deep breath, she said, “Believe me, I know heartbreak feels impossible. I just want to be there for you, Lelou.” Even though he was the cause of her own broken heart, she couldn’t bear to see the emotional agony currently painting his face.

Squinting, Lelouch pressed warily, “You’re not going to try to be my girlfriend now that I’m single, are you?”

Hair flying, Shirley whipped her head back and forth. “No way, Lelou!” She’d already knocked on the ‘date-Lelouch’ door and it had been locked tight. Now that it was unlocked, she still knew the door was closed to her. It would only open for Suzaku, and Shirley was starting to come to terms with that. Beaming encouragingly, she announced, “Shirley Fenette is no rebound, even for someone as amazing as you, Lelouch Lamper—uh…I mean...”

Grinning with weak relief, Lelouch offered, “You mean ‘vi Britannia’?”

“Yeah,” Shirley giggled. “That.”

“The vi Britannia line has its good points,” said a smooth, male voice from the doorway behind, “but the el Britannia line is truly exceptional.”

Whirling around, Shirley gaped at the Prime Minister of Britannia, standing in the dingy hospital room and making Lelouch’s secret lineage real in a way that not even Princess Euphemia could. “Y—your Highness,” she said between hitched breaths, placing her hand over her fluttering heart.

Lelouch audibly groaned. “Schneizel. To what do I owe this…pleasure?”

Striding inside, Prince Schneizel swooped down to kiss the back of Shirley’s hand, making her nearly swoon. “Well, I heard you had a charming young lady in your room, little brother. Obviously, I felt the need to pay my respects.”

“Obviously,” Lelouch echoed flatly.

Holding up a carrying case, Prince Schneizel’s expression softened as he added, “And I thought we could use some quality long-lost brother time.”

Shirley slipped away unnoticed somewhere during the chess set-up, sending warm wishes towards Lelouch and his—brother. Wow.

-+-

“Cornelia has her hands full cleaning up those messes with the Japan Liberation Front and the Black Knights, and now all those escalating protests on top of all that,” Schneizel said conversationally as he moved the white queen on the chessboard. “But she is an outstanding Viceroy, and she didn’t even need my expert advice to come up with a plan to handle them.” He peered at his younger half-brother closely, looking for a reaction.

Lelouch only hummed, seeming disinterested as he mindlessly pushed a black pawn to another square. The slightest trace of energy he’d shown earlier had fizzled when his beautiful young friend had left, and now not even a spark remained.

Nonplussed, Schneizel began detailing Cornelia’s plans between game moves, remarking here and there how clever the Second Princess was to station the Glaston Knights behind a certain outpost, how he’d never think to smoke out the Black Knights using the JLF, and how the enemy could never anticipate the various traps that would be set in place for them. He praised each one of Cornelia’s tactics in full description, always searching his younger brother’s face for clues that he was taking in this surplus of information and thinking up specific countermeasures. But Lelouch barely seemed to be paying attention, only nodding every once in a while and staring at Schneizel with deadened eyes. Leaning forward, Schneizel asked directly, “What’s your opinion, Lelouch? Do you think Zero will fall for Cornelia’s tricks, or will he outsmart her?”

Lelouch only shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“Sometimes it helps to think like the enemy. What would you do, if you were in Zero’s place?” Schneizel prompted.

Lelouch just sighed, moving his black king into checkmate without even looking at the board. “Die.”

Puzzled, Schneizel frowned and cautioned, “You don’t want to do that.”

“I don’t care right now,” Lelouch said dully. “I give up.”

Narrowing his eyes, wondering if he was reading too much into things by thinking the Eleventh Prince meant to secretly give up being Zero, Schneizel carefully slid the tray with the chessboard to the side. Concerned, he pressed, “Little brother, what’s wrong? I thought chess and strategy would be fun for you.”

Lelouch sighed forlornly and shrugged again. “Normally, yes.”

“Normally?”

Lelouch took a deep breath and hung his head. “I don’t feel like doing anything, now that Suzaku’s given up on us.”

Scooting closer, Schneizel asked, “What do you mean, Lelouch? Did Kururugi break up with you?” Proper horror laced his tone.

Lelouch nodded, not saying a word, clearly not trusting himself to speak.

Softly, Schneizel rested a comforting hand on his heartbroken little brother’s shoulder. Lelouch froze at first, but he let the action slide. Either he was finally warming up to Schneizel, or he was just past the point of caring; Schneizel figured it was the latter, even though he missed and hoped for the closeness they’d once shared. “I’m sorry,” Schneizel murmured, his tone genuinely sympathetic as he inwardly gave thanks for Kanon Maldini. He sighed deeply and consoled, “You deserve better, Lelouch.”

Lelouch didn’t respond, so Schneizel sat there the rest of his visit, squeezing his younger brother’s shoulder and lending silent support until his duties called him away.

-+-

Suzaku’s steps slowed, his stomach churning even as he was calmed by the older Japanese man’s quiet support. He glanced beside him at the Black Knight, Ohgi, and took a deep breath as he prepared to face his demon.

Why was he even doing this?

Ohgi gave him a tentatively encouraging smile.

Rounding a corner, Suzaku bumped into a nurse he recognized by sight.

She apparently remembered him too because she put a hand on his upper arm to gain his attention and confided, “I’m glad I caught you before you go in, Mr. Kururugi. I just want you to know that your boyfriend’s had an extremely rough night and morning, and he finally fell asleep about twenty minutes ago. Please try not to wake him. We’re doing everything we can for him, but he’s just in so much pain…”

Gulping, Suzaku nodded. In the back of his mind, he was grateful that the hospital staff on this floor were so understanding about his relationship—that is, prior relationship—with Lelouch. Slowly, he moved forward and made his way into Lelouch’s hospital room, barely aware of Ohgi crossing the threshold after him. Immediately, he was slammed by feelings. Raking his eyes over Lelouch’s beaten, pitiful figure, Suzaku wondered how anyone so fragile could ever cause so much destruction. Drawn by an instinctive need to reach out to his prince, Suzaku stepped lightly to Lelouch’s side. He cupped a pale cheek in his hand, momentarily forgetting that he had an audience because he was so caught up in Lelouch, like always.

Lelouch smiled in his sleep at the touch and blinked awake, staring at Suzaku groggily. “…’zaku?” he asked, voice slurring a bit but still packed with hope in every sound.

“Yes, my prince,” Suzaku replied automatically in a hushed and reverent tone.

Smile growing, Lelouch sighed blissfully and mumbled, “’m so glad you’re here. Don’ ever leave me ‘gain.”

At the innocent reminder, Suzaku recalled that he’d broken up with Lelouch the day before. Hastily, he removed his hand and took a step back, clearing his throat self-consciously. He looked around the room for a distraction from his ex’s pained grimace, his eyes lighting on an embarrassed-looking Ohgi who mimed that he would wait outside. Nodding his acknowledgment, Suzaku braved violet eyes again and startled to notice that Lelouch was waking up more fully instead of slipping back into much-needed sleep.

“Suzaku?” Lelouch managed, this time sounding a little more alert and guarded.

Swallowing, Suzaku nodded and took a step closer again, putting him right back where he’d started. Softly, he murmured, “I figured…we owed it to each other to explain some things, so I came back.”

Hesitantly, Lelouch nodded. “I don’t understand,” he began, purple eyes shimmering with liquid hurt. “Are you feeling guilty again?”

Biting back a glare, Suzaku snorted, “I realized I’m not the one who needs to feel guilty, Lelouch.”

Lelouch tilted his head in confusion. “I still don’t understand,” he said searchingly. “Are you saying the attack was my fault?”

Suzaku closed his eyes and counted to ten in both languages, much like he’d seen Lelouch himself often do. “Well,” he finally hissed out the corner of his downturned mouth, “the attack on Narita was your fault, right?” He opened his eyes just in time to see a confirmatory mix of shock and shame paint his ex-prince’s face. Geez, Lelouch looked so weak; what had Suzaku ever seen in him again? Scowling, he added, “And the Shinjuku Massacre—”

That was Clovis,” Lelouch interrupted desperately. “I stepped in then to save people. Suzaku, I was going to—how did you—”

Shaking his head in disappointment, Suzaku sighed. “Does it matter? I know now, and I’m not interested in dating one of Britannia’s Most Wanted.” He glared at the cuddling kittens on the wall, feeling like they were mocking his emotions by rubbing their closeness in his face. “I can’t believe you and your—gambling activities, Lelouch. You know it’s bad. You’re not even denying it, being HIM.”

“I’m not denying it because it’s the truth,” Lelouch offered. Peering straight into Suzaku’s eyes, he established aloud, “I am Zero.”

Suzaku flinched back, as if the admission was a physical blow. “Some boyfriend you were!” he spat venomously. His blood pressure was rising to match his voice. “You’ve been betraying me all along!”

Face crumpling from the sting, Lelouch pleaded, “Suzaku, no, wait, you need to let me explain. We can figure things out from there!”

“I don’t want to listen to your excuses!” Suzaku choked out angrily. Turning to the side, he rubbed his stiff neck. “I know how you are Lelouch. I know you’re going to try to turn this into some mind game, and I told you before: I’m not your chess piece.

Violet eyes narrowed, and Lelouch swore, “I’m not going to use you as a chess piece, Suzaku! I just want to talk.” Pressing a hand against his breastbone, he complained rancorously, “What, you’re not even going to let me explain my side?”

Fisting his hands by his thighs, Suzaku struggled with himself before relenting, turning back, and growling, “Fine, Lelouch. I guess I did come here for an explanation. I don’t need to know why you became Zero; I know your background, and I know your motivations. I know how you operate.” Inhaling deeply, trying to control the roiling heat in his belly, he softly commanded, “Just answer me this: Why did you even get into a relationship with me in the first place, knowing how I felt about Zero?”

Lelouch cringed at the accusing tone and looked down, gathering himself before meeting Suzaku’s gaze again and asserting, “Because at the heart of all this, I love you.” Waving his hand in the air, he plunged on before Suzaku could protest. “That’s why I kept flip-flopping and sending you mixed signals so much before we got together. I kept debating with myself, and in the end, my feelings for you were too powerful to ignore. Just like I told you back then. I convinced myself that I could keep Zero and Lelouch separate, that Zero could have the rebellion and Lelouch could have the person he loved more than anyone, and at the end of the day, both needs would be satisfied.” Shoulders trembling, Lelouch concluded his point by proclaiming, “I was hoping over time, I could bring you around to at least not despising Zero. I fell more in love with you than ever, Suzaku. I told you that my secrets didn’t change how I felt about you. And I hoped, as we kept growing more solid, that your love for me would be stronger than your hatred for Zero.”

Suzaku’s heart twisted as he listened to Lelouch’s typical speech-length justification; throughout their months together, he’d learned to tell when Lelouch was lying and right now every word out of the prince’s mouth was raw, bleeding truth. For a moment, Suzaku faltered at Lelouch’s heartfelt words—but then he remembered all the atrocities Zero was behind, and he hardened his resolve. “Well,” Suzaku murmured decisively, biting at his cheek, “I know you don’t like hearing this, but for once, Lelouch, you’re dead wrong.”

“I’m nev—well, I suppose, considering probability, that it’s about time you disappoint me when I take a gamble on you,” Lelouch disputed, throwing the blame back on Suzaku and drawing into his protective ice shell. “Forgive me for having faith in you,” he grumbled sullenly. Glowering, he crossed his arms across his chest. Looking down, he muttered, “I wanted to tell you—so many times. I just didn’t want to give you a reason to leave.”

Glaring right back, Suzaku snarled, “Forgive you?! I’m the one who put misplaced faith in you! You’re a goddamn manipulative bastard, Lelouch vi Britannia!” Scrubbing at his dry, stinging eyes, he hissed, “You knew Zero would be a deal breaker for me, and you still deliberately kept things to yourself!”

“You mean like how you never said a word about piloting?” Lelouch argued back, face contorted into a livid mess. “Or how you stayed silent all these months about killing your own father?!”

Bristling, Suzaku pointed his index finger at Lelouch and whisper-thundered, “I don’t need to hear a guilt-trip from a mass murderer like you!”

Flinching at the harsh slight, Lelouch took a few slow, deep breaths and admitted wryly, “I guess I deserved that.”

“You think?” Suzaku shot back bitterly, thrusting out his chest in a show of scorn.

Sighing, Lelouch mused, “I know I made my mistakes, and I suppose an apology and some kisses won’t cut it this time.”

Furiously, Suzaku shook his head. “Bring them back to life, Lelouch!” he demanded, forcing the words through a tight throat. “That’s the only way you can make things better and earn redemption. Bring all those people who died because of you back to life, goddammit!”

Lelouch stared at him with wide eyes. “I can’t. That’s impossible. I can’t undo what’s already been done!”

“Aren’t you Zero?!” Suzaku mocked indignantly with an ugly twist to his mouth. “The miracle worker?!” Narrowing his eyes, he stared Lelouch down and snapped, “That’s what they’re starting to say about you after Narita. That you can create your own miracles. Well, if that’s the case, then you can certainly make miracles happen for other people!” Stepping forward, fists shaking, he tapped his toe impatiently on the floor and prodded, “Well, Lelouch, let’s see you work your magic! I want to see you save the world with all your malice!”

Still staring at him in disbelief, Lelouch murmured fiercely, “Suzaku, you know it doesn’t work like that.”

“Then here’s something you can do from now on: Give up the mask. Stop being Zero,” Suzaku suggested, deadly serious. “Don’t let any more people die because of your sins, Lelouch.”

Shaking his head quickly back and forth, Lelouch contended, “I need to be Zero. For the Japanese people.”

“The Japanese don’t need Zero. No one needs the future you’ll bring,” Suzaku darkly maintained, feeling a muscle twitch in his cheek.

Straightening his back, Lelouch argued pointedly, “The majority of the Japanese disagree.”

Scoffing, Suzaku rolled his eyes and predicted sagely around a tightened jaw, “The majority of the Japanese will come to their senses when the wool is pulled from their eyes. You can still stop this now, Lelouch, before more is lost.”

At that last word, purple eyes swept over Suzaku slowly and deliberately from head to toe and back up. “And if I do it,” Lelouch said, testing the words out slowly, “if I give up the mask, then you’ll be with me?”

Suzaku froze, feeling a shocking sense of cold coat the back of his scalp and neck in tingles. Is that what it would take? Thinking things through, he refused, “We can’t—I—no, Lelouch. I can’t touch you, knowing what you’ve done.” With a conflicted look at Lelouch, he reiterated, “I meant it. We’re over.”

“It figures,” Lelouch snorted without humor. “I lose my legs in a hate crime centered on my love for you—I’m sexually assaulted because I refused to give you up—and a few days later, you ditch me.”

Jade green eyes narrowed into icy slits. “Don’t try to manipulate or guilt me into getting back together with you, Lelouch. Staying with you out of obligation or pity because of the hate crime attack would be worse,” Suzaku claimed frostily.

Heaving a sigh, Lelouch mumbled an agreement and looked down with deadened eyes. “You’re right. Spare me your pity and your charity.”

Lifting his chin, Suzaku outlined, “I’m giving you the respect of leaving, the same as I would if I’d answered your phone at a time you hadn’t been attacked.” Gesturing at Lelouch’s smashed legs under the covers, Suzaku added, “Your injuries don’t factor into my decision at all. The only thing that matters is that you’re Zero, and I can’t accept that.”

Blinking, getting stuck on the wrong point, Lelouch asked incredulously, “Wait, you answered my phone?”

Suzaku lifted his chin in a lofty nod, his body tensing for another round of arguing. “I talked with Ohgi. Nice guy, Lelouch. He deserves better than what he signed up for. All the Black Knights do.”

Raising an eyebrow, Lelouch pressed flatly, “You talk about respecting me, but you answered my phone without permission?”

Suzaku threw his hands in the air in exasperation, exclaiming, “We pinky-promised never to lie to each other, so I figured it wasn’t a breach of privacy anymore! The ‘no number’ lines kept calling! And you always put me off when I ask! This was my chance, Lelouch!”

“I was gonna tell you! Everything!” Lelouch promised, leaning forward.

“Yeah, when?!”

Sucking in a breath, Lelouch said, “Yesterday, when the conditions were right! When…when you’d be in a good mood to hear me out and talk over things rationally—instead of making impulsive, emotionally-wrecked decisions that would leave us both hurt in the end!” Hands trembling, he fisted the covers on his lap. “I didn’t want to ruin our relationship by mishandling such a delicate matter!”

Suzaku turned to the side and took a swing at the air, needing to release his compressed frustration. “We were so happy together and you had to ruin it anyway simply by being Zero!” he hissed with reproach. “I’m losing the best part of my life because you turned out to be a selfish, lying, violent, conniving son of a bitch! I hope you’re happy with yourself, Lelouch. I hope your little rebellion was worth it.”

 “Don’t act like you’re the victim here, Suzaku,” Lelouch warned in a superior tone, violet eyes narrowing further and glinting dangerously, “because the last time I checked, you were the one turning your back on us!”

Suzaku swiveled around. “I’m turning my back on the murderer with a black heart filled with vengeance and hatred.”

“I love you, no matter what role I’m playing,” Lelouch insisted.

Shaking his head again, Suzaku countered, “I’m sorry. It doesn’t go both ways for me.”

Lelouch laughed hollowly, tone resigned as he remembered aloud, “I know, Suzaku. I get it. You can’t stand Zero.”

Face set in a disappointed frown, looking over his shoulder, Suzaku fisted his hands, steeled himself, and corrected with stern finality, “No, Lelouch. Despite everything, Zero is actually the one I’m okay with right now.”

Chapter Text

“No, Lelouch. Despite everything, Zero is actually the one I’m okay with right now.”

Lelouch reeled back at the impact of Suzaku’s jibe, mouth flapping soundlessly and eyes stretched wide with shock and hurt. He was numb and cold inside, trembling as his father cut him down personally and exiled him in front of the entire royal court—was abandoned absolutely by a critical person in his life as if he was worth nothing more than the dirt and dust he would soon grind Britannia into. Swallowing thickly, he rasped, “…I see.”

Looking at the floor, Suzaku shifted his weight guiltily from foot to foot. After a couple moments of awkward silence, he mumbled, “I got what I needed here.”

“So I won’t see you after this?” Lelouch asked, glancing up with wet, shiny eyes. Laughing hollowly, he answered himself, “Of course not. I won’t even need to go through surgeries and therapy because Britannia will execute me long before then. I won’t be around to see you.” Ignoring Suzaku’s startled jump, he added, “Whether you believe me or not, Suzaku, I really do want what’s best for you. I hope you have a good life.”

Suzaku tugged on his ear, looking at the mountain sunrise photograph on the wall. Pressing his lips into a thin line, he shook his head and spewed, “I won’t turn you in, Lelouch. At the very least, out of respect for our past, I’m going to give you the chance to turn things around.” Voice hardening and slowing, he stipulated, “But if you keep walking the path you’re on, then I can’t make promises for the future.”

“And does this ultimatum have a timeline?” Lelouch asked dryly, wiping at his eyes and not bothering to highlight that he couldn’t walk any path at the moment and thus Suzaku’s use of idioms was a bit insulting. “When are you going to decide I need to be put down, Suzaku?” he asked again, being more specific and cruel but mostly proving how determined he was to stick to his plan, Suzaku’s threats be damned. Before Suzaku could respond, Lelouch requested, “I hope it’s not long. I don’t want to live like this.”

“Don’t start with that!” Suzaku snapped, his face growing stern. “Nunnally needs you!”

Another hollow laugh scraped Lelouch’s throat. “But she doesn’t,” he returned lightly. “You’ll take care of her.”

Suzaku gritted his teeth. “Is that how you justified it all to yourself?” he hissed. “Risking your life, secure in your knowledge that I’d be Nunnally’s back-up plan?”

“It made things easier,” Lelouch admitted with a slight shrug.

“I almost got you. And speaking of that time, just what did you think you were doing at Narita anyway, huh?!” Suzaku growled, his jaw tightening. “You and that girl from the capsule—what the fuck did you do to me?!”

Lelouch shook his head slowly, swallowing around the sting in the very back of his throat. “I didn’t do anything to you,” he said in a low, cracking voice. “Nor did I ask her to intervene with—whatever she did. When I asked her later, she said that she fed you ‘shock images’ but…”

“But you don’t know how she did that,” Suzaku surmised, shaking with feeling.

Again, Lelouch shook his head. “I’m sorr-y,” he whispered, his breath catching around the unfamiliar words. “I never expected…I never wanted to hurt you, Suzaku…”

“And yet you broke my heart twice!” Suzaku snarled before lowering his voice to a quiet though still malicious hum. “By being Zero, and then by literally breaking my psyche at Narita! My breakdown was all your goddamn fault!”

Lelouch cringed. “I realize that now,” he agreed, hanging his head. “I thought about that after learning you were the pilot of that white Knightmare.”

Suzaku clenched his fists. “And you were just going to let me believe—”

“I wasn’t!” Lelouch protested, whipping his head up in desperation.

Glaring, Suzaku opened his mouth and thrust out his chin—just as the door opened and Ohgi poked his head in.

Smiling sheepishly, the second-in-command of the Black Knights explained, “The muffled shouting worried me, so I’m just checking that things are all right in here. You two close to being done?”

Lelouch’s mouth fell open. A sensation of ice-water pooled in the back of his head before spreading outward to encompass his whole body, covering his core with cold. Turning stiffly to Suzaku, he raged, “You brought him here?!”

Suzaku ignored him and waved Ohgi inside. “Yeah,” he answered with a chilling, silencing look at Lelouch. He threw Lelouch’s phone onto the bed. “I’m done with him. So, so done.”

-+-

Chloe Beck burst into tears as investigators interviewed her about the school climate.

Milly Ashford raved about her friends and the power of true love, going on slight tangents as she answered questions about the student body population.

Jessica Moore pointed out Synclair Worth, Anthony Bristol, and Cameron Remington as the three obvious people harboring a longstanding, violent grudge against the Eleven.

Rivalz Cardemonde fumbled with his words as he tried to explain Lelouch’s attitude and actions prior to the attack.

Farrell Fox seemed impatient to play baseball as investigators hounded him with questions.

Synclair Worth firmly stated his innocence before a single question could be asked of him.

Shirley Fennette again relived aloud the traumatic experience of finding Lelouch’s broken body.

Corbin Dixon inquired as to Lelouch’s health status after describing the photograph that had started it all.

The police investigators, even with Cornelia’s Special Forces added to the mix, still had to wade through heaps of bullshit for facts.

-+-

Lelouch bit his lip to stop it from quivering, drawing on all the strength he needed from his childhood hardships. The intense cold pressure on the back of his scalp seemed to be putting down icicle roots.

Ohgi respectfully shut the door for privacy and walked to Lelouch’s bedside. Casting a sympathetic look at the abundant injuries on display, Ohgi met Lelouch’s gaze and whispered, “Zero?”

Lelouch jerked back out of instinct to hide, looked at Suzaku’s unforgiving face, sighed, turned back to Ohgi, and nodded firmly. “Yes, Ohgi,” he answered in his best, deep Zero tone. It wasn’t exactly the same because he was lacking the voice modulator technology that he’d installed inside his mask and made available on his cell phone, but it was apparently convincing enough because Ohgi startled in recognition.

Squinting, Ohgi asked, “What was the last thing you said to me—as you were leaving base after our last operation?”

Without missing a beat, Lelouch answered levelly, “Right before I walked out the door, I told you to wash the strawberry jelly off your face because no Black Knight of mine was going to walk around like a sloppy child.”

“Kami-sama, it is you!” Ohgi gasped, eyes widening even as Suzaku muttered his opinion: “Harsh.”

Lelouch turned a glare on Suzaku, his feathers ruffled by Suzaku’s attitude towards him. “No one cares what you think. I don’t care what you think.”

Snorting, Suzaku tossed back, “Obviously, or you never would’ve become a terrorist in the first place.”

Narrowing his eyes, Lelouch corrected, “Rebel leader, Suzaku!”

“Your methods are dishonorable so you’re a terrorist! Don’t try to hide what you truly are with a fancy little surface distraction and pretty words—oh wait, that’s what you do,” Suzaku scorned.

Ohgi held up both hands, cut between them, and snapped a stern, “Boys!!”

Suzaku took a step back, ducking his head. “Sorry,” he mumbled, duly chastened.

“Oh my god, you just screamed at me,” Lelouch noticed, his voice a mixture of shock, pride, and anger. The cold dousing his scalp started to throb.

At once, Ohgi’s shoulders stiffened in realization of what he’d just done. “My apologies, Zero,” he said to the ground.

Sighing, the civilian Zero shared, “It’s Lelouch.”

“I know,” Ohgi admitted, cutting his eyes to Suzaku. “What I don’t know is why you became Zero. I don’t understand why a Britannian teenager would rebel against his home country.”

Tilting his head, Lelouch said slowly, “I may have hidden my face, name, age, and race—but I was always transparent with my reasons.” With wide, sweeping, Zero-esque arm gestures, he continued, “It’s as I’ve said from the beginning: Britannia is wrong and must be stopped.” A fist slammed onto a flat palm before both hands went flying in spasmodic motion again. “The weak and subjugated need freedom from oppression. I have the ability and a moral obligation to do what I can in pursuit of those goals, and I will accomplish them.”

“So you’re just altruistic?” Ohgi asked skeptically. “No, Ze—Lelouch, everyone has a personal reason. I want to know your story.”

At Lelouch’s silence and subsequent stillness, Suzaku piped up, “Her name is Nunnally.”

Whipping his head around, Lelouch barked, “Suzaku!”

With an unapologetic shrug, Suzaku argued, “If he’s following you, he has a right to know if he can trust your motivations.” Aside, to the Black Knight, he said, “You can, by the way. I’ll vouch for him that much. He does hate Britannia.”

“Yes, but why?” Ohgi pressed, forehead furrowing. “What did Britannia do to you?”

Shooting a silencing glare in Suzaku’s direction, Lelouch said shortly, “Abandoned me and my twice-disabled little sister to die in a foreign warzone.”

Eyes widening again, Ohgi let out a small, “Oh.” He blinked, subdued. “Nunnally, then, that’s your little sister?”

Nodding, Lelouch said, “Yes, that’s correct.”

Turning to Suzaku, Ohgi wondered, “And you don’t think he has good enough reason?”

Face hardening, Suzaku admitted, “Oh, he has sufficient valid reason. I only don’t agree with his methods.”

Sighing again, Lelouch cut in. “Ohgi,” he asserted, “please tell Suzaku why you joined the Black Knights.”

“I already told him, Z—Lelouch,” Ohgi said with a tiny smile. “You get us results unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I believe that by following you, we’ll get Japan back.”

Raising an eyebrow at both Japanese men, Lelouch pressed, “And what of my methods?”

With an awkward look at Suzaku, Ohgi promoted, “They’re effective. I don’t…always agree with you, but I can’t argue the results. And I admit that you do your best to keep innocents out of danger, which I admire. Looking at the big picture, you’re the best option we have.”

Throwing a triumphant look at Suzaku, Lelouch tacked on, “And that’s a truthful account from a native-born Japanese. You should look at all perspectives before deciding on a course of action.”

“Oh, like how you looked at things from the perspective of the people who died because of you?” Suzaku challenged.

Frowning, Lelouch argued, “And what of the innocent Japanese that the Britannian officials slaughter? Because Britannia is in power, that makes it okay?”

Suzaku hurriedly shook his head. “Of course not! But you’re just going to make things worse by rebelling.”

“I’ll make things better in the long-run,” Lelouch stressed emphatically, holding out his arms.

Sighing forlornly, Suzaku mumbled, “There’s no point, Lelouch. There’s just no point arguing with you. I mean, you always have to have the last word, and I’m just not going to do this anymore.”

Poking his tongue out the side of his mouth, Lelouch closed his eyes for a second. Surely a solution would appear. “We don’t have to fight,” he said slowly, testing his words and lowering his arms to his sides. “If you joined the Black Knights—”

Closing his eyes, Suzaku held up his hand. “Like I said,” he growled. “There’s no point. You don’t listen. You’re too stubborn and delusional.”

I’m stubborn and delusional?”

“You know what?” Suzaku snapped, opening his eyes and swiveling on his heel. “I’m out of here. I…I told you I’d keep your secret, at least for now.” After two steps closer to the door, he paused. “Please, Lelouch, don’t waste this opportunity to make a better choice.”

Lelouch hid his now-shaking hands under the covers. “So that’s it, then.”

“Yeah, we’re done. I’ll try to remember the good parts of our relationship without thinking about how you were lying through your teeth for all of it,” Suzaku said bitterly.

“I wasn’t lying about—God, Suzaku. You idiot! I love you!

Standing straighter, Suzaku apologized stiffly, “Sorry, Lelouch, but I can’t love you anymore. Good-bye.” Nodding to Ohgi, Suzaku walked out the door and didn’t once look back.

Lelouch stared at Suzaku’s retreating back, his face contorted with pure heartbreak.

Ohgi blushed and took a step backwards, clearly wishing he was invisible.

Blinking owlishly, Lelouch turned back. “Not what you were expecting, I’d bet.” Holy hell, he was mortified. Being seen like this

Ohgi picked invisible lint at his brown jacket, probably exchanged for his Black Knights one before coming to the hospital. “More than the Britannian teenager thing, it’s harder to digest that my ruthless leader has a heart—and that you gave it to an enemy soldier.”

“Of course I have a heart,” Lelouch said, offended. The fact that it was broken now was beside the point. “Where do you think my passionate speeches and will to fight come from?”

“Not from the same place where you fell for Kururugi Suzaku of the Britannian Armed Forces,” Ohgi coughed dryly, twisting his torso from side to side. “Uh, anyway! Sorry you’re going through a horrible time.”

Lelouch slumped. “Well, that’s an understatement,” he managed around the lump in his throat, willing to let the personal poke slide for the sake of not talking about Suzaku anymore. Shaking himself out of his mental fog, he turned directly to his second-in-command.  “Tell me the situation back at headquarters.” Rebellion business was as good a necessary distraction as anything to keep his mind occupied.

Relaxing his stance, Ohgi started explaining how Kyoto had sent Tohdoh and the Four Holy Swords to lead the Black Knights in Zero’s absence, and that their next operation would focus on springing the Japan Liberation Front members free from captivity. He shared how Tohdoh had started re-structuring the organization members, and he brought Zero up-to-date about how the Black Knights were going to cautiously take the next step in screening Diethard Reid for membership.

Throughout it all, Lelouch kept a carefully neutral face, nodding and humming in acknowledgment at the right conversation points. All things considered, it could be worse. At least the Black Knights weren’t completely collapsing without him. Thanks to Tohdoh—Lelouch’s heart beat faster as he recalled, Tohdoh had been Suzaku’s mentor. Why did everything have to come back to that idiot?

“What are your orders now?” Ohgi asked, coming to the end of his report.

Lelouch’s gaze sharpened. “Ohgi, you’ll still follow me? Even knowing all this?” He gestured to himself, head to toe, encompassing everything—his identity, his current injuries, his issues…

After suffering shit-storm after shit-storm, Lelouch’s heart lightened at the thought of finally catching a break.

Slowly and sincerely, Ohgi nodded. “You haven’t lost your brilliant brain, and I still think you’re our best shot.” He adjusted his sleeves, looking up at Lelouch with half-lidded eyes. “It’s going to take some getting used to, but you’ve proven yourself in my book.”

Touched and mollified, Lelouch smiled at his Black Knight’s loyalty. “Ohgi, I don’t say this very often, but…thank you.”

“Of course,” Ohgi said with a growing grin. “And I’m assuming you don’t want me telling the others any of this.”

Lelouch nodded, knowing what a sacrifice the other man was making. “When it’s the right time, I’ll tell the Black Knights everything myself.” Staring Ohgi in the eye, he added, “I’m giving you my word as Zero, and you know I always keep my word.”

“I truly believe you’re the Messiah of Japan,” Ohgi murmured, bowing his head respectfully, “so I’m choosing to trust you.”

“Well,” Lelouch sighed, flicking his eyes at the closed door, “at least someone is.”

-+-

Lelouch hated his family.

He just wanted to sleep, but Cornelia had dropped by for a quick, unplanned visit between appointments. He was glad Ohgi had already left, because it was hard enough for the Viceroy to put up with Suzaku who was—

Who was not going to be a problem anymore, because he’d walked out of Lelouch’s life and Lelouch couldn’t follow.

Sighing, Lelouch pointedly settled himself back against his pillows.

“Schneizel said you were having a bad day,” Cornelia explained matter-of-factly. “So I decided to come see you. What’s wrong, Lelouch?”

Sometimes Lelouch’s family surprised and impressed him.

Cornelia cared about him so devotedly but she, like Suzaku, would turn on him if she ever discovered he was Zero.

“I’d rather not talk about my problems,” Lelouch replied with a cool smirk. He was finally alone with Cornelia, and this was his perfect chance. “However,” he murmured, his Geass springing into action, “I would like to know the answers to my questions.”

Cornelia’s face fell slack as she succumbed to his Geass. “Go on,” she said in a monotone.

“Sister,” Lelouch asked, remembering Clovis’s final moments, “Are you the one who killed my mother?”

“I’m not.”

Eyes widening at the surprise revelation, Lelouch continued to press her only to find that Cornelia knew little more than he did. Numb with disappointment—but somehow glad underneath that Cornelia’s deep love and loyalty for his mother was real after all—Lelouch looked at the ceiling, breaking eye-contact and setting Cornelia free from his mental hold.

“What’s wrong, Lelouch?” Cornelia asked again, voice heavy with concern. “Why are you having a bad day?”

Eyes narrowing, Lelouch shrugged casually and murmured, “Nothing’s panning out like I’d planned, that’s all.” He didn’t want to go into specifics. Cornelia already wanted to kill Suzaku; she would skewer Suzaku for breaking his heart, and Lelouch had meant it when he’d wished his ex-boyfriend a good life.

Thankfully, Cornelia accepted his vague answer and ended up not staying too long after all; she had her own busy schedule and she’d just wanted to squeeze him in. There really was something to be said for the bond between many of the royal siblings.

Settling down again, Lelouch came up with a plan. First, he would get the sleep he craved. Second, he would distract himself by focusing on countering Cornelia’s bait-trap with the Japan Liberation Front that Schneizel had so generously (suspiciously) explained. Third, he would not think of Suzaku.

The ability to uphold two out of three wasn’t bad.

-+-

Suzaku could not stop replaying his confrontation with Lelouch in his mind’s eye. At each looped repeat, he grew angry and hurt all over again like it was a fresh wound. Remembering Lelouch’s words and facial expressions cracked his heart. As he obsessed over everything, he kept thinking of things he should have said or done differently. Things he wished Lelouch had said or done differently.

Walking around the city aimlessly, he stumbled across the Student Council sitting at a table outside a café.

“Hey, Suzaku!” Shirley yelled with a hesitant smile.

Suzaku’s blood raced looking at his friends’ suddenly guarded body language. They know. They think I’m a monster for breaking Lelouch’s heart. They just can’t understand that Lelouch is the monster.

(Suzaku wished for a simple solution from a bygone summer—that by simply turning on a lantern in the dark, he could scare the monster right out of Lelouch.)

But how could they know any better? They didn’t know the whole damn story!

Feet heavy, Suzaku dragged himself over to where his friends were drinking coffee and hot cocoa after dinner. “Hi, guys,” he said cautiously, too self-conscious to look at any of them directly. The trash littering the sidewalk grabbed his attention, and he just wanted to clean the filth from the world. Why was there so much garbage everywhere?

“So Suzaku, man,” Rivalz began in forced cheerfulness, “can we help you with something?”

His face wrinkling in confusion, Suzaku looked up. “What do you mean?”

“We want to help you,” Shirley jumped in, almost sloshing her cocoa in her enthusiasm. “Together, we can handle the people who are threatening you. Then you can get back together with Lelou!”

Suzaku blinked. “Threatening me?” he repeated incredulously.

“Well, yeah,” Milly said, idly dipping her index finger into the whip cream atop her hot drink. “I mean, there’s no other plausible reason why you’d ditch Lelouch—especially now.”

Clenching his fists, Suzaku deliberately put out there, “No one is threatening me. The choice is mine and mine alone, and I can’t explain why.”

“You’re feeling guilty?” Shirley prompted. “You think Lelou deserves better? But Lelou’s in love with you, and no one else will do for him, you see?”

Suzaku took a deep breath. “I’m not feeling guilty anymore either,” he said, squashing down the very feeling of which they spoke. “Like I said, I can’t talk about it. Besides,” he murmured, squinting at Shirley, “shouldn’t you be happy? Now you can have Lelouch.”

Jumping to her feet and glaring, Shirley tossed back, “Let’s make one thing clear, Suzaku. Lelouch chose you. On his own. Remember?”

Wincing at the callback, Suzaku nodded. “He made the wrong choice then.” Turning his back on his friends—who were Lelouch’s friends first, he remembered—he said in a clear, strong voice, “Even if no one else understands, I know I’m making the right one.” Ignoring their reactionary shouts, he took off again—trying to run from his problems that he couldn’t escape no matter the distance, because he carried them in his heart.

-+-

Since he was at the hospital anyway, Ohgi took the opportunity to visit Kallen’s (and Naoto’s) mother. She had always been practically family. It was a hard visit, and after talking gingerly around the secrets gluing him together, Ohgi got back to business and called Kallen as he was leaving.

“After finalizing some plans to free the JLF, Tohdoh is gonna take a group to B-8 to meet with that Britannian guy personally,” Kallen reported over the phone. “Diethard Reid, I think, was his name. The one who gave us the intel on Narita? Anyway, they’re taking the next step to make him a member.”

Ohgi nodded, even though there was no way Kallen could see his acknowledgment. “Sounds good. That all?”

“One more thing! I wanted to confirm it first,” Kallen said excitedly, “but it seems legit. That boy on the news, Lelouch, who was attacked? Guess what?”

Ohgi’s attention piqued. Did Kallen figure out Lelouch was Zero? He readjusted his phone as he stepped off the hospital grounds and played along. “What?”

Kallen’s voice pitched higher. “It turns out he’s really—”

Zero.

“—a Britannian prince in hiding!”

Ohgi stopped short, jaw dropping, as some more puzzle pieces clicked. Wait a damn minute. That means Zero is a—

Kallen kept chattering. “I thought Zero or, well, the Black Knights could use this somehow! I talked to Lelouch earlier, Ohgi, and he really seems to hate the Britannian emperor. And he’s completely in love with Suzaku, who’s Japanese.”

Totally not news.

“He might be sympathetic to our cause,” Kallen finished. “Zero could definitely find a way to weave Lelouch into his plans!”

Clearing his throat, Ohgi finally found his voice and forced himself to keep pushing through the sparse sidewalk crowd. “Oh, uh, I’ll be sure to mention it to Zero. Um, you know, when he’s back in business with us.” The call ended, and Ohgi almost felt like turning on his heel and going straight back to Lelouch’s hospital room to demand more answers. But no, the poor boy needed his rest and privacy—especially after Suzaku had shattered his insides worse than his outsides.

A dark-skinned Britannian woman passing by froze, then stiffly turned to look at him with a hungry gaze.

Ohgi shivered at the laser-focused look in her eyes. No one had ever stared at him so intently before…

The Britannian woman sidled up to him, delight mixing with revulsion as she stared at his Eleven skin. “Did you say…Zero?”

Shit. Panicking, Ohgi grabbed her by the arm and gently hauled her into an alleyway. I need to keep her close now. She knows to link me to Zero, and that’s more than enough to get me and the rest of the Black Knights in trouble. With everything else falling to pieces, Ohgi couldn’t add another problem to the Black Knights’ list. Eyes narrowing, he stepped closer and said softly, “Who are you, first of all?”

“My name is Villetta Nu,” the woman said proudly, her shoulders back and her posture radiating confidence.

Even though Ohgi was slightly looming over her, he felt cowed by her presence. This woman was strong. He had to make himself stop staring at her and actually listen to her words.

“I’ve been searching for Zero,” she was saying. “Or rather, I have some things I need to ask a male Britannian student whom I suspect works with him.”

Ohgi put his suddenly-shaking hands behind his back. Now I really have to keep her close. She’s onto Lelouch! Inhaling deeply, he answered slowly, “I can help you.” Lifting his head, he added, “But first I need to make sure you’re trustworthy. If you want your answers, then stay with me and prove I can trust you.” Then I could spy on her. A small prickle of self-disgust churned in Ohgi’s stomach, and he remembered Suzaku’s opinion on moral methods. Deceiving this woman was wrong, but…he had to do it. And, he thought as he gave her a onceover out the corner of his eye, he really wanted to spend more time with this woman.

-+-

Villetta frowned, but days of skulking outside the hospital and being denied visitor access to the boy on the news had gotten her nowhere. She’d have to—ugh—get close to a filthy Eleven to get the contact information she needed. Staring him straight in the eye, she nodded without a word and, as he beckoned her onto the sidewalk, walked close beside him—but not too close.

-+-

Suzaku ended up in the Ghettos as it was truly getting dark. He’d kept avoiding ongoing protest marches, which kept sending his thoughts spinning. At least he wouldn’t run into judgmental classmates… He could, however, potentially run into other kinds of dangerous company.

“Oh look, it’s the failure!” mocked a voice from the shadows.

Whipping his head around, Suzaku dropped into a defensive crouch and narrowed his eyes at the bloodstained, white-haired Chinese man who stumbled into sight.

Laughing like a maniac—and wearing shades, who did that at night?—the Chinese man stopped just out of reach and drawled, “Almost letting your lover die, just like you killed your own father! My, what a curse you are!” His mouth stretched into a misshapen grin. “And now you’re wondering if the world would have been better off if Lelouch had just died in that attack!”

Suzaku jerked back, face twisting at the atrocious suggestion. “No!” he shouted stridently. “No, I don’t think that, I don’t—”

“Deny and bury all you want,” the man cackled, “but I see the truth in your mind. But then, you always hide from the truth, don’t you? Even when it’s staring you right in the face?” Smirk growing, he taunted, “Even when it’s sharing your bed?”

Trembling, Suzaku took another hesitant step back. He couldn’t make his limbs go faster. This was a nightmare, and for once his exceptional speed and superhuman bodily control seemed broken—maybe because his insides couldn’t power him in their own shattered state.

“You should have noticed that your lover—oh, but you did and you failed to act. That means the blame falls on you!” The man staggered forward, one hand clutching his bandaged abdomen. “If only you could break up with yourself like you broke up with your poor little terrorist prince!” He snapped his fingers and straightened, “Oh, but you can!” Starting to laugh again, he tossed a blood-encrusted knife at Suzaku and jeered, “Should you simply stab yourself like your dear old father, or should you take it a step further and literally rip out your heart—like you did metaphorically to your precious ex? Your prince?”

Suzaku felt a cold sweat break out on his forehead, and he couldn’t move any part of his body now.

The Chinese man burst out into insane giggles. “Oh, you know you need to die, Kururugi! You’ve known that for years! Finally do the world a favor and get rid of yourself.” Nodding at the knife with his chin, he tacked on, “It’s the solution you’ve been looking for! Once you die, you won’t be tormented over Lelouch and the truth of reality! He might even be happy you’re gone—after some of the out-of-line things you said to him.”

“He—he—”

The white-haired man leaned forward, crazy grin growing, and echoed Suzaku’s thoughts: “He was out-of-line by being Zero?” Shaking his head in an exaggerated motion, he tsked, “Yes, Lelouch was definitely out-of-line trying to save his lover’s oppressed people the best way he knew how. You’re right. What a heartless bastard he is!”

His insane peals of laughter sent chills down Suzaku’s spine worse than the sight of that bloody knife.

“Lelouch is so disappointing, isn’t he? It just breaks your heart. Death would be a wonderful escape!” the Chinese man yelled, his voice dripping with persuasion, as he returned to his task.

Suzaku frowned, licked his lips, and managed to jerk his head slightly to the side in a negative answer. “N-no!” he screamed. “If I’m going to d-die, then it’s going to be in the service of the people!” He had too many sins to make up for to simply do himself in at this strange man’s provocations, but god was it tempting…

“Serving the people, huuuhhhhh?” droned the man, cocking his head. “Then why don’t you do your job, soldier, and kill the terrorist instead?”

Feeling his blood freeze, Suzaku’s jaw slackened and a sensation of pins and needles coursed through him at his automatic step backwards. “K-kill Lelouch?” he echoed faintly. The idea made him sick to his stomach. Gathering his voice, he shouted in a stronger and surer tone, “No, never!”

The Chinese man clapped wildly. “Come to a realization, have you?” he taunted. “As much as you hate your precious prince, you’re still madly in love with him! What a tragedy! This is hilarious!” With a purposeful shrug, he threatened, “If you won’t act, then maybe I’ll do you a favor and kill him myself.”

As if those were the magic words, something damaged inside Suzaku clicked back into place and unlocked his body from its frozen shock. He sprang into action, charging the lunatic with an outraged cry. “I will never let you—or anyone—hurt him again!”

“What a hypocrite!” mocked the Chinese man, right before Suzaku punched him in the face. His dark visor went flying, but Suzaku was too busy seeing red himself to notice the actual crimson glow in the man’s eyes.

Seething, Suzaku twisted the man over his shoulder. He didn’t even wince at the loud smack that sounded when the Chinese man landed heavily on the ground, winded from the attack. Some blood from a previous injury started pooling beneath him, opened from the intense impact. Without looking down, Suzaku warned in a low voice, “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but I’ll do worse next time if you even so much as hint at hurting a hair on Lelouch’s head.”

He didn’t look back as he spared the man further pain, instead walking calmly off into the night. Inside, his thoughts and feelings were swirling.

Pushed into action, when it came down to it, Suzaku had indeed discovered that no matter what, he still loved his prince.

-+-

It was the middle of the night and Lelouch couldn’t sleep. He’d gotten in some good hours after people had finally stopped visiting him, but now he was awake and already going back on Part Three of his plan. His mind kept whirling now that he knew why Suzaku had broken up with him. It was one of his worst fears come to life. He’d predicted this from the beginning, but he’d foolishly believed in Suzaku and the strength of their relationship.

But their relationship hadn’t been strong enough to bear the weight of Zero.

I shouldn’t have lied to him, Lelouch reflected, looking at the moon out the window. It looked surreal. He regretted deceiving Suzaku, but he couldn’t regret the relationship they’d built together.

Sighing through his nose, he turned aside and listened to the low bustle of the nurses on night shift. The small bits of life went on, even when he couldn’t see them. His mind drifted off again at the sound of a rolling cart passing by his room. Okay, so he’d hidden the truth about Zero—which was admittedly a huge deal—but he’d been completely honest about everything else, especially his feelings.

Lelouch jerked ramrod straight, breathing heavily at a forgotten chess move. Wait, no. I never told him about Geass. It was the only other major secret he’d been studiously concealing, but he’d just recently experienced the consequences of lies—how they could split cracks under the surface of relationships for months before shattering everything into an emotionally explosive mess. It was time to learn his lesson. It was time to be completely, one-hundred percent honest with the most important person in his life. I need to prove that I truly, without a doubt, love and trust him. Even when he’d given himself to Suzaku, he’d held on tighter than ever to his secrets and therefore kept some of his control. But now, it was time to give that up. So he can have every last piece of me, I need to open up to Suzaku about Geass in the event that we get back together.

Lelouch was intelligent. He knew the probability of that happening was close to his codename. It didn’t stop him from hoping and planning for the slight possibility.

Things had derailed so quickly, even with safeguards in place. We promised to talk things out civilly and listen to each other to solve our problems. All the modeling of acceptance Lelouch had done concerning Suzaku’s own significant secrets had warranted nothing. His heart dropped. I suppose Zero did drive a big enough wedge between us to break us apart past the point of fixing.

“Well, don’t you look gloomy.”

Startled, Lelouch snapped his head to the doorway. “C.C.! What are you doing here?!”

C.C. simply raised an eyebrow and almost seemed to glide through the shadows as she approached him, the door shutting with a soft click behind her. “Nunnally said you didn’t want me here, so naturally I had to come,” she mocked. Then, her face softening the tiniest bit, she looked him over and asked, “How are you feeling?”

Glare fading, Lelouch sighed in resignation. “About as well as you’d expect.”

C.C. nodded knowingly. “I understand, Lelouch. No one can understand torture unless they’ve been through it.”

Eyes widening at the personal admission, as well as at the witch’s strangely serious tone, Lelouch asked, “Then you…?”

“I’ve been tortured to death,” C.C. shared solemnly. “Several times.” With a wry smile, she added, “It hurts worse when you just come back to life and go through it all over again.”

Lelouch shuddered. He couldn’t imagine…

“Unlike you,” she kept talking, coming closer, “I’ve had centuries to distance myself from humanity and all its feelings. I can still relate to you, though, and you are my contactor.” Golden eyes glinted in the moonlight. “That means I am going to stay with you, Lelouch, until the very end.”

Slumping, Lelouch sighed, “Well, at least you’re hanging around.” Both Ohgi and C.C. had shown him loyalty, but he’d trade them both for Suzaku in a heartbeat.

Quizzically tilting her head, C.C. twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “What do you mean?”

Groaning softly, Lelouch admitted in a gravelly tone, “Suzaku broke up with me.”

At once, C.C. asked her go-to question: “Why don’t you use your Geass on him?”

Lelouch froze, remembering all the times he’d been tempted to control Suzaku’s will. He’d had humorous thoughts about Geassing Suzaku not to do idiotic things. He’d had serious thoughts about Geassing Suzaku to stand up for himself against bullies and societal prejudice. He’d wanted to, the night of Suzaku’s breakdown, Geass Suzaku into truly loving himself. More than anything, he’d burned with need for the other boy and had briefly entertained the thought of forcing Suzaku to his side, both to Zero’s as a Black Knight and to Lelouch’s as a lover, but he’d always immediately squashed those ideas. He would not force the person he loved to be with him, and it would be no different now. He would not change Suzaku for the world or use him like a puppet—or rather, a chess piece.

No, Lelouch had decided long ago. He would never use his Geass on Suzaku. Not even to make the other boy forgive him, understand his reasoning, get back together with him, or forget what he’d learned.

“We’ve already been over this,” he responded curtly, tossing his head. “Not. Happening.”

C.C. raised one eyebrow higher. Very, very softly, she stepped right up to his bed and murmured, “Then, what is your plan? Aren’t you tired of feeling hurt over this boy?” She stroked his bangs off his forehead in a soothing gesture, dangling hope and solace in front of him with, “I can help the pain go away.”

Lelouch jerked away from her hand. “Not interested,” he bit out. “You’re my accomplice. I don’t have feelings for you, C.C.”

The witch laughed scornfully. “For all your brilliance, you are rather simple-minded when it comes to important things, aren’t you?”

Eyes narrowing, Lelouch stared at her without deigning that worthy of a response.

“Lelouch,” C.C. said sagely, “I think it’s time we discussed our contract.”

Lelouch blinked in surprise at the turn-around. “What?”

C.C. sat down on the edge of his hospital bed. “You assumed I was offering you sexual comfort,” she laid out, ignoring his resulting blush. “I wasn’t. I am, however, offering you eternal life.”

Again, Lelouch blinked. This was coming out of nowhere. “What?” he croaked again.

In a slow and steady, even tone, C.C. revealed from the dark, “Lelouch, my wish is to die.”

A third time, Lelouch blinked and rasped out a shocked, “What?”

“You always pestered me about what I wanted from you to fulfill your end of our bargain,” C.C. explained, backtracking. “I want to pass my immortality on to you so that I can be free and die.”

Mouth opening and closing, Lelouch continued to stare at her as he processed this new information. Finally, he hedged, “I don’t want to live forever with this heartbreak.”

“Oh, you’ll go numb inside after a few centuries,” C.C. assured him. “That’s how I know you’ll stop hurting over this boy. In time, Lelouch, I promise you that you will no longer care about Kururugi Suzaku or your brief relationship with him. He won’t have the power to hurt you anymore.” Leaning closer, hovering over his prone form, she argued lightly, “In addition, being immortal would benefit your goals as Zero. Think how much you’ll be able to accomplish when the enemy can’t keep you down.”

Lelouch stared up at her, freefalling at the mere idea.

C.C. smiled, looking something between motherly and wicked. “Furthermore—there’s no way to test this since you were injured before taking on my immortality, my Code—but the restorative and regenerative effects come with the package.” Nodding decisively, she glanced at his broken legs and said, “Taking on my Code might be your fast track shortcut to full healing from this attack.”

Lelouch leaned back, unsettled by the idea of going apathetic and forgetting such a strong influence. That said, he was tempted to have an ace up his sleeve to succeed as Zero and also to regain his independence. “Why are you bringing this up now?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because you wouldn’t have been open to my offer before,” C.C. answered, deadpan. “You were so caught up in Kururugi and your little dreams of marriage and lifelong love that you would never have accepted my immortality. You’d have turned me down in order to live a life with Suzaku and age like a normal person.” Golden eyes boring into violet, she explained, “But now that you are free of that boy, then you can free me.”

Gawking at her, Lelouch stammered, “B-but, you just stood back and let me date him. Why bother letting me be with him in the first place?”

C.C. laughed lightly. “Oh, Lelouch, I wanted you to have a good and normal relationship experience for the memory. You deserved that much, so I let you live your delusions to the utmost.” Twirling green hair around her fingers again, she casually threw out, “But I honestly always expected you to break up.”

Stung at the candid remark, Lelouch flinched.

Rolling her eyes, C.C. pointed out matter-of-factly, “Look, it was never going to work—with you being Zero and all. I’m guessing he found out and that’s why he cut you loose.”

With a morose nod, Lelouch brought her up-to-date. Despite his reservations, over the months she really had become his confidante. With a sigh, he concluded, “And on top of the mess with Suzaku and the—attack, I’m also frustrated that Cornelia doesn’t know the truth about my mother’s death.”

C.C.’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Slowly, she suggested, “Why don’t we add that to our contract, Lelouch? I’ll find out and tell you the truth behind your mother’s murder if you agree to take my immortality.”

Lelouch glared at her. “You couldn’t have offered to help me with my mother before?!”

“That wasn’t your reason for living,” the witch reflected. “However, if it’s part of our contract, I can look into it,” C.C. explained, not meeting his eyes. “Asking me to proceed is to accept my terms. You know my one true wish now, Lelouch.” She finally looked up at him and pressed, “Will you agree to the conditions of our updated contract? Information on your mother traded for my immortality?”

Brow furrowing in thought, Lelouch looked out the window. “I’ll think on it,” he said softly, noncommittal. His heart was still holding out hope for his ex-lover to reconsider.

Now he had to decide between the truth of his mother’s past versus his potential future with Suzaku.

-+-

Suzaku didn’t know why he was torturing himself.

After fleeing the Ghettos, his feet had automatically carried him to the Lamperouge suite at Ashford Academy. It was, after all, his unofficial home. It was the middle of the night and he had no business being there. Just as he was turning around to leave, the door opened and Euphy beckoned him inside.

“My brother and sister said Lelouch had a horrific day,” Euphy fretted before Suzaku could even utter a greeting, tugging him to the couch. There were grooves in the floor from where she’d been pacing near the window. “Schneizel said he’s completely given up. I can’t sleep for worrying over him. Oh, Suzaku, what are we going to do?”

Low lamplight spilled over the room, looking ominous instead of comforting. Licking his lips, Suzaku mumbled, “Ah, that is…”

Smoothing down her hair, Euphy fidgeted in her seat. She seemed antsy to take action. “We need to put an intervention into place to help Lelouch!” she said adamantly, lavender eyes glinting with determination.

Suzaku looked down, suddenly finding the floor very interesting. It seemed that Euphy didn’t know about the break-up. “About that,” he hedged slowly, looking at his friend out the corner of his eye, “you’re going to have to do it without me.”

Euphy tilted her head innocently. “How come?” she wondered, her brow wrinkling with confusion.

“Because,” Suzaku said, his voice dropping to almost inaudible levels, “he’s like this because…I broke things off between us.” He couldn’t lie to Euphy. That just wasn’t an option. Besides, it was better to take responsibility upfront.

Staring at him as if she’d misheard, Euphy croaked, “What?” Her eyes were wide and her whole body was tense with shock.

Swallowing, Suzaku soldier repeated himself a little louder. “I broke up with Lelouch.”

“But you love him!” Euphy cried, clasping her hands and leaning closer, her gaze searching his desperately. In a small voice, she tacked on, “Don’t you?”

Suzaku’s lips thinned and he had to force an answer from a tight throat: “I did love him.” His heart was drowning in the lie. It was one thing to still have feelings for his boyfriend who’d turned out to have a secret life as a masked terrorist; it was quite another to admit that truth. Particularly to someone who was so involved in this mess from every angle.

A soft, overprotective glare settled on Euphy’s face. She’d never looked at Suzaku with such disappointment. “What changed?” she prompted.

“I found out some things,” Suzaku said, a bit tersely. “Secrets that he’d been keeping from me.” Clenching his hands into fists on his knees, he kept staring through his bangs at the ground. “After what I learned, we’re not compatible anymore,” he summed up, not wanting to give away too much. He had, after all, promised to keep Lelouch’s secret. Looking up, he cast his eyes over the pretty princess, head to toe. His heart thumped harder as he remembered all those times he’d turned down her affections—to stay loyal to a monster who’d been stringing him along from the beginning. Lelouch had stolen his chance with Euphy by digging his claws into Suzaku first. The bastard!

Euphemia bit her lip, looking like she was debating on what to say.

“I’m ready now,” Suzaku suddenly proclaimed, earning Euphy’s attention. At her confused look, Suzaku clarified, “You said you’d wait for me until I was ready, Euphy. I am now. I’m rid of Lelouch, and so I’m free to be yours.” He slid closer to her along the couch, forcibly ignoring how this was the same couch where he’d learned to make out with his prince. Where they’d first shared the words: “I love you.” Jaw set, he said for his own benefit more than hers, “You and I are compatible, Euphy.” He shushed his heart, which was already roaring in protest that it still wanted Lelouch, dammit, his sins be damned. Suzaku stiffened and made a decision, needing to prove to himself that he could conquer these undesirable lingering feelings. Closing his eyes, Suzaku tilted his head and leaned in, relieved that he could just block Euphy’s image and instead visualize a dark violet gaze burning with passion—

With a choked gasp, Euphy halted his progress with a delicate hand splayed on his chest. “Stop,” she commanded, her tone firmer than any of the times she’d issued royal orders.

Suzaku paused and opened his eyes. “What’s wrong?” I need to get over Lelouch. Euphy, you’ve been wanting this, too. She’d seemed so willing after Narita, and right now he really craved comfort. Her comfort, not Lelouch’s—dammit, brain.

“I don’t want this,” Euphy enunciated, staring him right in the eye. She scooted away a little to give him distance, but still held him back with the palm of her hand. “You and Lelouch are clearly in love with each other, and I will not come between that!” she declared resolutely. Her spine was straight and her shoulders rolled back with confidence.

Suzaku stared at her blankly, reeling with shock.

Euphy smiled gently but her tone grew firm. “Now, I don’t know whatever is going on between the two of you right now, but I won’t be used in the middle of this, Kururugi Suzaku!” Ignoring his visible flinch, she continued, “When I first found out about you and my brother, yes, I was upset. I felt like I was losing you when I thought there might have been something between us.” She glanced down for a couple heartbeats, then met Suzaku’s eyes. “But looking at you and Lelouch? Suzaku, that’s the real something.”

“But…” Suzaku trailed off weakly.

“Maybe once upon a time,” Euphy said, letting her hand fall, “I would have been glad that you were interested in me. Not like this, though, Suzaku. Not after everything…”

Sighing, Suzaku hung his head. Part of his mind buzzed at the rejection, but his whole heart floated almost weightless, relieved beyond measure that it hadn’t worked. He could still be Lelouch’s. “I understand,” he said glumly. “I’m sorry, Princess.”

“It’s Euphy,” corrected the royal girl with exasperation. “We’re still friends, Suzaku. We’ll always be friends.” Taking a deep breath, she argued again, “But in a romantic sense, you belong with my brother. I’m content with that. I’m glad that you two make each other so happy.” She sounded so genuine, so pure-hearted. Staring at Suzaku determinedly, she added, “Besides, if you just left Lelouch for his extracurricular activities, which is what I’m getting from this, then you would run into the same problem with me.” Sitting up even straighter, she proudly declared to his gaping face, “I joined the Black Knights, Suzaku.”

Jaw dropping, Suzaku jerked back as if he’d been punched by a Knightmare. “You did what?!” he screeched. “Are you crazy?!” Maybe this was all a dream. Maybe he’d wake up and Lelouch would never have been attacked, would never have been Zero… Then all these other strange occurrences wouldn’t be happening either.

With a demure shrug, Euphemia explained, “I believe in his ideals, Suzaku.” Catching his eye, she said in a strong voice, “More than that, I believe in him.”

“His methods…” Suzaku argued weakly.

Euphy’s face set even more. “I might not believe in how he goes about everything,” she conceded, “but the blood on his hands is but a drop in the bucket compared to the cruelties carried out by the Britannian mainstream.” Lifting her head, she said, “Zero is the lesser of two evils.”

Pursing his lips, Suzaku trembled with anger. “I don’t understand,” he bit out. “You’re a princess. You have the power to enact the change you want to see using peaceful methods. Laws. Politics. I even get that Lelouch, living in hiding, didn’t have that option.” Forest green eyes narrowing, he flung out, “But you do, Princess Euphemia.”

Throwing back her head, Euphy laughed. “Oh, Suzaku,” she giggled. “It’s cute that you think I have any real power.”

“You’re a Britannian princess.”

Lowering her head, Euphy pointed out, “One of several, and way down the list.”

Suzaku continued to gape at her, struggling to comprehend. “But why would you join the Black Knights?” he pressed. “Surely there’s still a better way!”

Slowly, Euphy shook her head in disagreement. “I already told you, Suzaku, that I think Zero is the oppressed people’s best bet. I trust Lelouch more than anyone, and I have my own ideas to share with him when he’s up to it. At this point, I’d do anything to stop Britannia.”

“Anything?” Suzaku echoed with disbelief. “How could—”

Eyes narrowing, Euphy interrupted and rushed to explain, “Seeing Lelouch targeted like that…seeing him abused by prejudiced Britannian teenagers acting on violent instinct…it made me stop and seriously reflect on what was important.” Hands twisting in the white fabric of her dress, she said, “I know I’ve been naïve, but I’m willing to learn and change. I can’t just sit around and wait for things to get better on their own. I need to do my part, Suzaku, and take a stand.” Chin lifting regally, she finished, “What happened to Lelouch was a huge wakeup call to me. Britannia is breeding this kind of bigotry and hatred, and Zero is Britannia’s greatest threat. I wanted to be part of his revolution. That’s how I made up my mind, Suzaku.”

Finally stunned into silence, Suzaku just stared at her for a long moment before closing his eyes. He couldn’t believe this. Even Euphy was going topsy-turvy on him! It felt like his world spun more off-kilter every moment and he was having a hard time hanging on for the ride.

After giving Suzaku a moment to breathe, Euphy ventured, “Why are you willing to overlook Britannia’s wrongdoings but not Zero’s—not Lelouch’s?”

Suzaku inhaled sharply and his eyes popped open with surprise at Euphy’s unusually accusatory tone. “I…that is…” he stammered, mind racing for a suitable explanation. It was true that he didn’t believe in Zero’s—Lelouch’s—methods, but it was equally if not more true that Britannia’s way of doing things was no better. He groaned as he remembered having this same argument with Lelouch. Repeatedly. Even as late as this afternoon. But for the first time, shaken now by pure-hearted Euphy’s turn-around, he took a moment to think things through instead of holding fast to his instinctive belief. No wonder Lelouch always supported Zero and tried to persuade Suzaku to change his mind. No wonder.

“I think you’re confused,” Euphy said quietly. “What does your heart tell you, Suzaku?”

There was only one thing Suzaku was sure of at the given moment, despite how backwards it might seem. Hanging his head, he muttered, “…I love Lelouch.”

Euphy smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Then why don’t you give him another chance?” she suggested.

Suzaku relaxed under her steadying hand. While he judged himself harshly for still loving Lelouch, Euphy was simply excited for them both. He sighed, feeling more drained now than angry. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“It’s okay,” Euphy said, forgiving him instantly. “You can still fix things.”

Lifting his chin, Suzaku said, “Starting with you. That is, you were right. I was wrong to come on to you like I just did. You’re my friend, and I tried to use you…” I’m an awful boyfriend and an awful friend right now.

“I forgive you,” Euphy murmured softly. “I understand where you’re coming from, and I know you didn’t mean to act like a…a nincompoop!”

Her quirky declaration startled a chuckle out of Suzaku. “I guess that’s what I am,” Suzaku agreed, casting his mind back. He could see it now that he wasn’t looking through the lens of his own self-justification. He realized that Lelouch was always looking out for him, not the other way around like he’d always thought. He remembered how Lelouch fought for his rights and happiness against bullies of all kinds. He recalled how Lelouch accepted him the other day even after learning the sordid truth behind Kururugi Genbu’s death. He thought of how Lelouch controlled himself and pushed away his anger when he’d learned about Suzaku’s secret piloting. Lelouch was by no means innocent in this whole hot mess, but Suzaku curled into himself with shame as he finally recognized his own role as a filthy hypocrite.

“Give it a few days,” Euphy advised him gently, patting his shoulder and wordlessly urging him to relax. “You’re always rushing forward, Suzaku, but sometimes it’s okay to stop and think.” Squeezing his shoulder, she prompted, “Reflect on everything that’s happened and what you want from the future. This should be your decision, Suzaku, and you should be at peace with whatever you decide.”

Suzaku nodded absentmindedly. He decided to heed the princess’s counsel and think through what he really wanted to say and accomplish. Then, whatever he chose to do, he would talk to Lelouch. Properly.

Chapter Text

Suzaku’s torn feelings for Lelouch split the canyon in his heart further, already divided by nationality and mixed loyalty. His head still whirled in a fever frenzy. Lurching down the hallway on heavy feet, he tripped on air and not even his renowned reflexes could keep him from careening into the wall with a dull thud. He could just imagine Euphy smiling indulgently at his clumsiness back in the living room.

He was worried about the wrong sister.

“Suzaku?”

Pushing himself off the wall with his palms, Suzaku stepped carefully into Nunnally’s doorway. “Yes?”

Nunnally giggled, sounding a little strained. “I knew it was you.”

Despite the neutral statement, Suzaku felt judgment pulsing from her words. It was all his fault. He had broken her dear brother’s heart.

“Although your footsteps sound off tonight,” Nunnally observed, oblivious to his overthinking but ever perceptive to the truth hiding in his mannerisms. “Are you okay?”

Biting his lip, Suzaku looked around the moonlit room. More paper cranes than ever littered the desk and floor, and Suzaku found himself wanting a redo wish of his own. “I’m fine,” he finally blurted, tacking on a quick question for distraction and marveling at how even now, he was thinking about how Lelouch had rubbed off on him. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“I’m worried about my brother,” Nunnally said, her fingers moving on muscle memory to try and fold her blanket into a crane-wish that just wouldn’t stick.

A pit opened in Suzaku’s stomach. “Yes,” he said, forcing his voice to stay even.

“Cornelia says he had a rotten day, and I can tell Euphy is more upset than she lets on,” Nunnally continued. “And on top of that, I recently learned what Lelouch has been up to. I’m just trying to make sense of it all.”

Suzaku couldn’t hold back a groan, even as he tampered down surprise at what Nunnally was implying. “You and me both,” he agreed, leaning on the doorframe. “I’m sorry. I should’ve seen—should’ve done something in the beginning.”

“It’s mostly my fault,” Nunnally sniffled, holding out a hand. “He was trying to make my dream come true.”

Jolted by realization as he took Nunnally’s hand, Suzaku saw Lelouch’s actions for the first time through the lens of an overprotective big brother, trying to give his little sister the peaceful world she so desired. It wasn’t all about him, or even them.

“I don’t know what to say,” Nunnally continued, curling up on the sheets. “He doesn’t even know that I know the truth, so how can I come right out and say that I forgive him?”

Suzaku’s breath caught. Here was Nunnally, thrown into the same boat—finding out her most beloved person had been lying and killing in the name of her dream—and her response to the heartbreak and confusion was unconditional forgiveness. God, she and Euphy really were related. Licking his lips, unable to tell her of the emotional crime he now felt he committed, he croaked, “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

He had so many things to figure out.

Then, dropping a light kiss on his surrogate little sister’s forehead, Suzaku retreated to his own space. He dawdled outside Lelouch’s door before deciding on a guest room, craving neutral ground—or the closest thing to it considering this was the Lamperouge suite. He climbed into bed fully-clothed. There were so many thoughts bouncing around his skull that he didn’t know where to start. Emotions crested over him in waves of intensity—fury, fear, bitter sadness, the ever-present guilt…

The door opened slightly, and five seconds later there was new weight—this one warmer and much more welcome than the heaviness dragging him down—on the bed accompanied by a rusty purr. It was only when Arthur settled down in the crook of his knees that Suzaku relaxed enough to let himself sleep.

-+-

“It smells lovely,” Nunnally sighed, inhaling the sweet aroma of flowers in the empty hospital garden.

Lelouch closed his eyes and tried to sense the world the way Nunnally perceived it, forcibly ignoring the picture they must make—two teenage siblings bound to wheelchairs, rolling around the hospital grounds unsupervised. If it wasn’t for the sterile smell that lingered in the air, he could almost believe they were in their own Ashford plant nursery. “It does,” he agreed lightly, reminding himself to focus on the good parts. He heard Nunnally’s wheelchair roll closer. “What is it?”

Nunnally giggled, lifting Lelouch’s spirits. “Let’s do our ritual,” she said. “Choose the best flowers so we can make your hospital room smell nice and sweet!”

Eyes softening as they opened at the heartwarming suggestion, Lelouch looked around. After all the reading he and Suzaku had done on the language of flowers, he—

No.

But Lelouch, being Lelouch, could not ignore facts he’d spent time learning—even if they were attached to heartbreaking memories. He quickly plucked some yellow carnations, cranberry flowers, geraniums, lavender, and yarrow. Not wanting to linger on his choices, he asked over his shoulder, “How are you doing, little sister?”

Nunnally paused, her wheelchair rolling to a stop. She took a deep breath, but this time she didn’t seem focused on the flower fragrance. “I’m…good,” she said in a low voice. Then she looked down, her hair falling in front of her face.

Lelouch’s hands clenched into fists around his flower stems. “Okay,” he growled, “someone’s upsetting you. Who do I need to kill?”

Jerking, Nunnally gasped. “That’s just it! Nobody!”

Lelouch blinked and leaned back in his chair. “What?”

“I don’t want you killing anyone,” Nunnally murmured, “especially for me.”

Tilting his head, feeling the stirrings of nervousness and worry, Lelouch played innocent. “I don’t understand.”

Nunnally was silent for a long moment, squeezing the arms of her wheelchair. Her face was pensive as she came to some sort of decision. “I think that’s my line,” she finally said, her lower lip trembling. “Lelouch, I never wanted…that is…and Clovis?!”

The temperature dropped as starkly as Lelouch’s life had changed that day in Shinjuku. Reeling, his eyes widened before narrowing in anger. “Suzaku told you,” he hissed. “After he promised—”

“—No,” Nunnally interrupted firmly. Her raised chin quivered. “It was C.C.”

Still gobsmacked, Lelouch opened and closed his mouth several times. “That witch,” he breathed, almost crushing the flowers in his fists. How could this have happened? He’d never planned on letting his innocent little sister know of the blood on his hands. “Nunnally, I—I don’t know what to say.”

Nunnally rolled closer and took his hand, held it in her lap. Her touch was as gentle as her voice. “Just tell me about Clovis.”

Lelouch let go of the flowers, letting them spill into Nunnally’s lap, as he let go of the secret that had been gnawing at him since the day he became a demon. “Clovis was not the same Clovis we knew as children,” he said in a rushed, low voice. Suppressed memories bubbled up—exploding buildings, crushed bodies, the entire carnage that Shinjuku had become, then a younger Clovis laughing good-naturedly as he lost a chess game, followed by the blood spilling out of his head when Lelouch put a bullet in it… “He’d just ordered the total extermination of all the Japanese in Shinjuku.”

Nunnally bit back a horrified gasp.

“I…panicked, okay?” Lelouch lowered his head, felt Nunnally squeeze his hand. It wasn’t something he was proud to admit, but at least she wasn’t letting go. He remembered how worried Nunnally had been at the time that their childhood friend Suzaku might be capable of such murder like the news broadcasted; how much worse was it now that the sin was closer to home? “I know I should have done something different now, but in the moment…”

“It seemed the best solution,” Nunnally finished quietly. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been carrying this whole time, Lelouch. I knew there was something, but I never thought…”

Lelouch cocked his head. “Nunnally?”

“Oh, Lelouch!” Nunnally sniffled, suddenly throwing her arms around his shoulders. “I’m so sorry!”

Lelouch blinked rapidly. “You’re sorry?”

Nunnally nodded. “I’m sorry for all the pain you’ve been suffering!”

There had been only one other time Lelouch had been this scared shitless of his sister’s reaction, back when she’d first learned of his romantic relationship with Suzaku. “You…don’t condemn me?”

Shaking her head, Nunnally cried, “No, of course not! I love you! I forgive you! No matter what, you’re my big brother!”

Suddenly able to breathe easy, Lelouch returned her hug.

But he still couldn’t be completely at peace because Suzaku’s rejection was still a thorn in his heart.

-+-

Distracted by Villetta’s stern yet beautiful face, Ohgi flipped open his cell to take the no-number call. “Hello?”

“Hi, um, Ohgi?”

Withholding a sigh at the voice, Ohgi asked, “Yeah?”

“I hope you don’t mind me calling you,” Kururugi Suzaku said in a rush, “but I kinda saved your number in my phone in case of emergencies and—”

“Please get to the point,” Ohgi interrupted, gathering the last of his remaining patience for this kid. Villetta raised an eyebrow at him from the other side of the room.

Suzaku inhaled deeply on the other end of the line. “I need to talk to someone.”

Feeling a headache coming on, Ohgi shot him down. “I don’t think I’m the best person to help you out.”

“I know!” Suzaku said, again speaking too quickly. “I was hoping—since you’re in the rebellion network—if you might be able to connect me with Tohdoh Kyoshiro. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but I just thought I’d ask.”

Ohgi’s headache throbbed. “What do you need with him?”

Suzaku was silent a long moment. “He was my childhood mentor,” he finally said, sounding wistful.

Because Ohgi understood the bond between student and teacher, he caved to emotion. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promised, taking note of Suzaku’s cell number to pass on. He hung up before Suzaku could finish thanking him.

-+-

The vase of flowers actually did add some color to his hospital room, and Lelouch thought Nunnally’s involvement in the whole affair made it a thousand times more special. If only the flowers represented hope—

“So, Suzaku seemed upset last night,” Nunnally said out of nowhere, sounding a little too innocent. If that was even possible. “Did something happen?”

Something gnawed at Lelouch’s heart. “Let’s just say that Suzaku isn’t quite as accepting of my alternate persona as you are.”

Nunnally fiddled with her hands. “I’m not exactly accepting,” she stressed. “I think you did a lot of bad things, and that makes me sad and disappointed.”

A quick stabbing pain joined the gnawing ache in Lelouch’s chest.

“It had to have been hard on him,” Nunnally said, now twirling a lock of hair around her finger. “To find out that the person he loved and trusted the most in this whole world…has been lying to him and secretly killing people.”

The jolt of pain this time made the last one feel like a needle prick. When she put it like that…

“Especially considering his personal values.”

If anyone could understand Suzaku’s position, it was Nunnally. Like before in the garden, Lelouch strained to sense the situation the way Nunnally perceived it. Like Suzaku perceived it.

And somewhere in his heart, the defensive wall Lelouch had built since the break-up started to cave.

-+-

Suzaku squinted at his mentor through the untraceable video feed monitor, the best they could do considering the circumstances. “Aren’t you going to tell me I’m crazy?” he asked after he’d had enough of chirping crickets.

Tohdoh cocked his head, his face still unreadable. “Do you want me to?”

Shaking his head, Suzaku said, “Not really.” He stopped, thought for another moment, and admitted, “Well, maybe.” Scrubbing his dry eyes, he added, “Everyone else says it.”

“I’m not everyone else,” Tohdoh pointed out calmly. The non-descript room filling up the screen in the background gave no clues about his location.

Suzaku nodded. It felt weirdly nice to not have his decisions thrown back in his face as major fuck-ups. Tohdoh always had been that kind of mentor, supporting Suzaku to the end even if they disagreed along the way.

“I think you’re in a hard spot,” said Tohdoh, sounding like the instructor Suzaku remembered. “But you’ve gotten out of hard spots before.”

Suzaku ducked his head. His solutions often catapulted him from mere bad spots to truly horrible spots.

“Tell me about him,” suggested Tohdoh, who’d had a basic non-reaction to Suzaku’s jumbled coming-out earlier.

Suzaku hesitated. He’d been vague, keeping quiet about all of Lelouch’s identities, and sticking to the skeleton of the problem. He looked around the Lamperouge suite guest room, equally bland, as he figured out what to say.

Tohdoh waited another long moment. “Think about the big picture, Suzaku,” he advised gently. “Does this boy…is he worth hanging on to?”

Suzaku nodded without thinking.

“Then you already have your answer,” Tohdoh observed lightly, sounding satisfied.

Suzaku sucked in a breath. “But he lied to me,” he said weakly. “He’s…he’s killed people.”

If Tohdoh was startled, he didn’t show it. “In what context?” he wisely asked. His eyes flicked down for the barest of glances.

Suzaku winced, following his mentor’s gaze to his hands—where he could still feel his father’s blood sliding between his fingers. He figured Tohdoh was also seeing the crimson drops as clearly as he could eight years ago. That fateful night, Tohdoh had been the one to find Suzaku at the scene of the crime. Suzaku breathed deeply; his mentor’s support during that crisis had been invaluable, and his silent understanding now was reassuring in a way that echoed the past. Still, while Tohdoh stayed tactfully silent, Suzaku imagined he was thinking, Perhaps you of all people shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

“You have every right to your feelings.”

Suzaku’s head jerked up in surprise. “I—I do?”

“Of course,” Tohdoh said, and the way he said it made it seem so obvious. “You feel betrayed. That’s your right.”

“I feel like everyone’s telling me that’s wrong,” Suzaku whispered.

“Then they’re wrong,” Tohdoh answered, always in that direct way Suzaku so admired. “It’s not wrong to feel things, Suzaku. What matters is what you do with those feelings.”

“I still screwed up. You always did say I was too hot-headed,” Suzaku remembered.

A hint of a smile quirked Tohdoh’s lips. “Right now, I see a young man thoughtfully seeking advice to sort through his conflicting emotions and make up for wrongdoings. I’m proud of you, Suzaku.”

More heaviness lifted from Suzaku’s shoulders. “Thank you, Tohdoh-sensei,” he said, his voice cracking.

It was empowering to have someone in his corner.

-+-

Lelouch was grateful when C.C. appeared in his hospital room, this time dressed like a nurse. He’d been getting so bored that he’d almost considered doing his muscle exercises.

“So.” C.C.’s golden eyes glinted with curiosity.

Quirking a brow, Lelouch asked, “You expect me to read your mind?”

There was the barest hint of regret on C.C.’s face before she curtly shook it away. “No,” she said matter-of-factly, looking to the side. “Your Geass didn’t manifest that way.”

Lelouch felt his own curiosity spark. “Wait. Geass power is different depending on the person?”

Slowly, C.C. nodded. “But no matter what, people lose their specific power when they take on the Code of immortality.”

Rubbing his chin, Lelouch mused, “Yes, I thought so. You can’t use Geass.”

“You still need to level up your Geass to the stage where you can actually take on a Code,” C.C. said, starting to rummage through every nook and cranny of the room. “So don’t worry about not being able to control people for your rebellion for a while yet. Where are you hiding pizza?”

Gaping, Lelouch stammered, “N-nowhere, witch. What do you mean, ‘level up’ my Geass? You make it sound like a videogame!”

C.C. shrugged, unconcerned. “Liken it to whatever you want,” she said, “but you need to grow your Geass power by using it as often as possible. I’m sure you’ll be there soon with the rate you’ve been going. Then I’ll give you my Code as soon as you’re ready.”

“Hold on a minute!” Lelouch exclaimed, holding out the palm of his hand. “I haven’t agreed to this.”

C.C. blinked at him intently. “Oh?” she asked. “I thought your answer would be obvious. You’re so logical, after all.”

Lelouch glanced at the flowers on the other side of the room. Nunnally’s influence poked at his brain. Suzaku pulled at his heart. “I’m still weighing options.”

Lips thinning, C.C. followed his gaze. Her eyes and voice were chilly as she said simply, “I see.” Without another word, she slipped from the room.

An hour later, confused hospital staff informed Lelouch that payment for an excessive amount of pizza from the cafeteria had just been charged to his account.

-+-

Suzaku opened the cat carrier and swung around. Cecile and Lloyd hovered in his dorm doorway.

“Are you moving him in?” Cecile asked, her voice high with surprise as she looked at Arthur now cautiously sniffing his new surroundings.

Shrugging, Suzaku said, “For now, at least. He helps me stay grounded.”

Cecile bit her lip. “It’s okay if you want to move in with your boyfriend instead,” she offered. “We expected that.”

Suzaku whipped his head back and forth. “I need some space.” His military-issued dorm was somehow blessedly free of Lelouch’s presence, giving him a built-in neutral zone in which to ‘take the time to think.’ Or whatever good idea Euphy had suggested.

Lloyd frowned, stepped closer, and scrutinized Suzaku’s face. Exhibiting his trademarked awkward intensity, he circled Suzaku like he was a shiny new Knightmare and said to Cecile, “Something is broken inside.”

“Of course there is!” Cecile snapped, then flashed Suzaku a guilty look. “Sorry, that was insensitive. I just mean it’s understandable, what with Prince Lelouch being attacked and everything.”

Suzaku winced, even as Lloyd literally waved off Cecile’s interpretation and said, “No, no, no. There’s something else wrong. It’s a part deep inside.”

Cecile shot a questioning look at Suzaku. Arthur investigated his new litterbox like he couldn’t care less what the humans said or did.

Sighing, Suzaku lowered his head and wondered how Lloyd’s strangely perceptive intuition worked. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” he mumbled.

“Then something else did happen?” Cecile asked, then immediately covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, sorry! You just said you didn’t want… I’m so sorry, Suzaku.” She wrapped him in a tight hug and whispered in his ear, “Let us know what we can do for you.”

Heart clenching, Suzaku tentatively hugged her back. Would Cecile be so kind if she knew what an awful boyfriend he’d been? Would she still have his back if she knew that he’d broken up with ‘Prince Lelouch’? Or would she, being military herself, understand why he couldn’t date a wanted terrorist? Suzaku licked his lips and broke free from the embrace. “Miss Cecile,” he said, “hypothetically, if you were in love with someone who turned out to be an enemy, what would you do?”

Lloyd straightened. “Aha!”

Cecile bit her lip again. “I don’t know, Suzaku,” she said. “That’s a hard one. I’d probably do the right thing.”

“Which is?”

“Break off the relationship,” Cecile answered. She got a faraway look in her eye. “Sometimes there are more important things than a single romance.”

Suzaku wanted to ask, but couldn’t bring himself to pry. He aimed to respectfully model how he wanted to be treated himself—and dammit, that was what Lelouch had been doing earlier, hadn’t he, when he’d accepted all of Suzaku’s sins? That breakthrough realization mingled with the next one right on its heels, pertaining to Cecile’s answer itself. Suzaku felt slightly reassured that someone else would make the same call as he would in that particular situation, even though he felt like an ass. Maybe, objectively-speaking, the break-up wasn’t quite as unreasonable as people’s reactions so far had made it seem.

Arthur claimed Suzaku’s bed.

“Hypothetically,” Suzaku continued around a thick swallow, “if your friend acted horribly, what would you do?”

Cecile and Lloyd swapped a look. Then Cecile answered for both of them: “Accept him anyway but try to talk reason with him.”

Suzaku wobbled and sank onto his bed. He…hadn’t exactly done that, had he?

“Whatever you did, Suzaku,” Cecile said, taking a step forward, “we accept you.”

The relief that swamped Suzaku at their unconditional support was enough to make him dizzy.

-+-

“Let’s look at all sides though,” Ohgi said, playing devil’s advocate. He handed over the wrapped plastic silverware that went with with the bento box lunch. At Lelouch’s raised eyebrow, he explained, “Uh, I used to be a schoolteacher.”

“Right, right, critical thinking,” Lelouch said, rolling his eyes. “I think I got that one covered.” His rebellion plans spoke for themselves. He sighed. Then he got back on track. Ohgi had a point, and he was just continuing what Nunnally had started. “I understand he feels betrayed,” Lelouch said slowly, appreciating the break from hospital food.

Nodding, Ohgi added, “And to be fair, while your tactics and strategies are effective, he’s right that they’re morally ambiguous. It’s understandable that he feels uncomfortable with some of the things you do.”

Lelouch sighed harder. Ohgi shared several personality characteristics with Suzaku, so it might actually be beneficial to hear his take on the whole matter now that the initial hype had slightly died down. “What would you do?”

Ohgi blushed, his gaze distant. Snapping himself out of it, he stammered, “U-uh, well, if my feelings were that strong, I’d probably hear Vil—er, her, out and go from there. But you know, I’d need some time.”

Lelouch nodded. That made sense, and he hoped Suzaku was taking the time now to reflect back instead of blindly moving on. His heart was banking on it, standing guard in front of the unlocked doorway to eternal life.

“But,” Ohgi said abruptly, “I don’t know the details of your relationship—how strong it is, how you two have handled conflict, how you express yourselves, that kinda stuff. So it might be different for you guys. I dunno.”

Picking at his food, Lelouch said dryly, “Ohgi, Suzaku’s and my relationship journey could fill eighteen long chapters. As just a prequel.”

Rubbing his neck, Ohgi looked to the side. “Yeah, really don’t have time for that.”

Lelouch snorted.

“No matter what,” Ohgi said gently, “even if he had his reasons, Kururugi shouldn’t have handled things the way he did.”

Licking his lips, Lelouch looked at his lap and slowly agreed, “True, but he’s not the only one.”

Maybe Suzaku did have some valid points.

Maybe methods mattered more than Lelouch had thought.

-+-

“When I first started seeing Schneizel,” Kanon said, too cavalier to be innocent, “I didn’t always agree with some of the things he did.”

Suzaku blinked. It had been astonishing enough when Kanon Maldini had dropped by out of nowhere to visit his dingy dorm room at the university, but to hear such a confession…

“I still don’t,” Kanon continued, petting a purring Arthur. “That’s why we work so well together. He knows I’ll be real with him, and he respects that.”

Nodding along, Suzaku wondered, “Why are you telling me this?”

“Schneizel also loves my intelligence,” Kanon said smugly. “It just seemed like something you might need to hear.”

Suzaku nodded more firmly. “I’ll think about what you said,” he promised. Prince Schneizel most likely was behind many of the same atrocities as Lelouch, maybe cloaked in a different guise by shades of circumstance, but Kanon had adapted.

Maybe Suzaku could adapt to meet his heart’s long-term goal, too.

-+-

Euphy looked so genuinely understanding that Lelouch wanted to scream. To let it all out.

Ohgi had originally said he needed to talk to Lelouch about something important, but they’d gotten distracted by the topic of Suzaku and the nurses had shooed away all visitors before Ohgi had said his piece. Euphy was allowed visitor access simply by nature of being the Third Princess of Britannia.

She had only a single comment, but it was steel-wire strong with hope.

“He loves you, Lelouch,” Euphy said, lavender eyes shining, “so just hold on.”

Lelouch had been holding on almost half his life, dammit, and he wasn’t about to stop now.

Especially when Suzaku hung in the balance.

-+-

Leaning back against his pillow, Suzaku scratched underneath Arthur’s chin and started to process his situation from a new angle. He needed to push back, like he’d pushed himself off the wall last night, and look at the big picture like Euphy and Tohdoh-sensei and everyone kept recommending. He mumbled aloud, talking partly to himself and partly to his cat. Arthur had the uncanny ability to bite Suzaku’s fingers only when he was thinking poorly of Lelouch. Every so often, Suzaku jotted something down in a notebook that he’d acquired specifically for this purpose; it was actually Lelouch’s old math notebook, but Suzaku’s notes on life and love were much more significant.

There was no equation for love. There was no easy answer.

It took a series of long and tedious reflections, but Arthur never left his side.

-+-

Back at the hospital, Lelouch grew so desperate that he talked to the photographed cats on the wall.

Chapter Text

It had been four days. Four long, excruciating days.

Now the hospital loomed in front of Suzaku, the final destination on his journey of intense reflection and self-discovery. An elaborate bouquet of flowers hung limply at his side, telling their own story should he lose his voice. Or guts. Sirens blared behind him, signaling an emergency. He gulped. Then, finding his conviction, he took the first step. Then another. Dead leaves crunched beneath his feet before they suddenly didn’t, abandoned to the outside as Suzaku sought his future. The hallways passed in a blur as he muttered key talking points to himself, remembering the answers he’d arrived at—answers that had only crystalized after taking sufficient time to ruminate and find inner peace.  The final doorway sprang into view after three mental repetitions of his reconciliation plan. Suzaku swallowed down his choking fear as he readied himself to take that final step into Lelouch’s hospital room, hopefully back into his prince’s life.

“You came back,” Lelouch said as Suzaku entered, his tone a tender mix of wonder, hope, and wariness. Dropping what looked like some kind of sewing project, he gave Suzaku his full attention. While his facial features quickly schooled into bored-neutral, the way the corners of his mouth stretched tight coupled with the intense light in his eyes conveyed how invested he was in Suzaku’s appearance.

Awkwardly rubbing his neck, Suzaku mumbled, “Well, I couldn’t stay away forever.” Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to meet burning violet with his own watering eyes. “I thought things over, and now I’m ready to talk. Really talk.” Shuffling on his feet, his shoulders curled over his chest, he thrust out his floral offering and added quickly, “If you want to talk, I mean. I can leave if you want.”

Lelouch raked his eyes over the flowers, reached for them, and gave a slow, drawn-out shake of his head. “Stay. What did you want to say this time?”

“You were right, Lelouch, like always,” Suzaku admitted, drawn to the bright fabric crinkled on the prince’s lap. It was much easier to look at; colorful cloth couldn’t look betrayed. Suzaku stepped closer anyway, finally raising his gaze as he readied to face the consequences of his actions. He hoped playing to Lelouch’s ego would give him an edge early on. “I’ve been a real idiot. I’m so sorry.”

At his gentle words and approach, Lelouch immediately relaxed and took the flowers. “What, exactly, was I right about?” He tightly gripped the bouquet with one hand and the fabric square with the other as he waited with baited breath for Suzaku to clarify.

“Everything,” Suzaku acknowledged firmly, staring deeply into purple eyes with dwindling hesitation. His heart ping-ponged in his ribcage at the swell of feelings in his chest at the connection, and he realized their comfort level still existed though it might now be threadbare. He knew Lelouch, and that put everything in perspective. He had a starting point. Then Suzaku almost lost his breath because his damn heart suddenly clogged his throat, but he pushed through like he’d been trained to do all his life. “About…about Zero, and the suffering people, and…and me. I’ve been a stupid coward.”

Lelouch only tilted his head. He pulled the arrangement of apple blossoms, bluebells, celandine, forget-me-nots, purple hyacinths, magnolias, and red and pink roses closer against his chest, the petals brushing his cheeks.

Taking a deep breath, standing straighter, Suzaku added, “But not anymore. I’m…I’m ready to face reality. I’m ready to change.”

“Change?”

“If you’ll still have me—”

Lelouch perked up. Dropped the flowers.

“—then I’d like to join the Black Knights. Let me prove myself to you.”

Lelouch gawked at him. “I’m dreaming. There is no way you’d ever—no, I see. I must be tripping from the pain medicine.”

“You’re not,” Suzaku assured him, gingerly claiming his old spot on Lelouch’s bedside with a small smile. “I’m really here, and I’m really ready to switch sides.”

Lelouch looked skeptical, but he still moved the bouquet to his other side for safekeeping. “Why now?”

Suzaku shifted into a more comfortable position, pleased when Lelouch didn’t angle away from him. “I’ve had some time to think. And, well, I’ve had a lot to sort through, Lelouch. I had to get the anger out of my system so I could think clearly, and that took a few days.”

Nodding, Lelouch said, “Makes sense.” His gaze never leaving Suzaku’s, he reached blindly for a spool of thread on a nearby tray. “I’m still listening. Go on.”

Suzaku grabbed it for him and swallowed, bracing himself to continue. “I was mad that you were Zero, sure, but I was also mad that you kept this a secret from me.” He took another deep breath, his skin sparking as his fingers brushed Lelouch’s during the handoff of sewing supplies. “I mean, I get why. Everything makes sense now.”

“So you’re not blind anymore.”

Catching himself before he frowned at the anticipated slight, Suzaku inhaled deeply. He spoke only when he was absolutely sure he was calm. “No. And well, after thinking about you, Nunnally, Ohgi, and Euphy…”

Lelouch’s face scrunched with confusion. “Euphy?”

Suzaku nodded. “Euphy pledged her loyalty to you. It was a bit of a wake-up call.”

Eyes narrowing, Lelouch said, “So you were influenced by others.”

“But I took the time to think for myself,” Suzaku countered quickly, smoothing his hands over loose fabric patches spread out all over the bed. “I ran through all their reasons and made sense of everything from different angles. I still don’t agree with all your actions as Zero, but…”

Lelouch leaned forward. Closer. Flower petals rustled against the bed.

“…I think I was channeling a lot of my own self-hatred onto Zero unfairly,” Suzaku admitted, his stomach clenching as he finally put to words the truth he’d denied. “The things you did were never as bad as I made them out to be, but they reminded me of how I killed my father. How I despaired that I could never atone for that. And I just…lashed out at Zero instead…” Clearing his throat, he looked down and quickly changed the subject away from the intense discomfort. “Making a quilt?”

Lelouch blinked once. Twice. “I’m impressed that you came to that conclusion on your own.”

“Which one?” Suzaku asked, startling a genuine laugh out of Lelouch. The tension in the room eased as they swapped hesitant smiles, already feeling their torn intimacy begin to thread back together.

“Well,” Lelouch said with that sparkle in his eye that had always drawn Suzaku in, “while it was really impressive you deduced that I’m sewing a quilt, I was actually talking about the one where you psycho-analyzed yourself in relation to Zero.”

Suzaku snorted before growing serious again. “It was easier with some of the pressure eased, now that you know the truth about my father and—and my piloting.” His chin quivered. He glanced at the assortment of love and apology declarations in flower form, took heart from the decision he’d grown into. “I’m sorry for keeping things from you. It was—”

“—orders, I know,” Lelouch interrupted with a casual wave of his hand, being careful not to spear Suzaku with the needle. “Orders are the perfect excuse to allow immoral conduct.”

“…You really don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to moral high ground,” Suzaku ventured, undoing a little of the progress he’d made.

Lelouch glared at him. “Inappropriate idiom, idiot,” he growled, gesturing to his broken legs covered by layers of fabric.

Wincing, Suzaku rubbed his neck again. “Oh! Right! Sorry, Lelouch. That was insensitive. I wasn’t even thinking…”

“You tend not to,” Lelouch remembered aloud, “especially when you’re emotional.”

(“I know you didn’t really mean it,” Lelouch said with a casual wave of his hand. “I know you tend to speak without thinking, especially when you’re upset.”)

“That may be true, but it’s still no excuse,” Suzaku shot back, watching Lelouch automatically patch fabric squares together as he deftly avoided weaving in leaves and petals. Suzaku knew all about running on autopilot. Breathing through his nose, he shared, “I learned from this. I need to do better about slowing down and thinking things through more for myself—and also about trying to see things outside of my own limited perspective.” Rearranging some quilt patches, he continued, “I need to look at the big picture, and not take things so personally. I need to control myself better and not follow reckless impulses that ultimately make everything so much worse…”

“You really have thought a lot about this,” Lelouch noticed as his hands stopped moving, his tone both surprised and amazed.

“Of course,” Suzaku readily agreed, looking down quickly before glancing up to catch Lelouch’s eye again with a bashful grin. “You were on the line, Lelouch. That was enough.” He shuffled his feet, then traced a line of thread with his finger. “Things got way out of hand, and I didn’t help the situation. In fact, I really messed up.”

Lelouch tilted his head again, listening intently.

Suzaku nodded as he spoke. “I broke up with you because I got so angry at learning your secret that I wasn’t thinking straight. Then, when I came back for answers, I didn’t really listen to your side.” He moved on from the trail of thread and lightly stroked Lelouch’s forearm, his heartbeat slowing at the motion. Peace washed over him as Lelouch allowed it. “I pre-judged you and disrespectfully shut you down, when all you were doing was answering my questions in the first place.”

“That did hurt,” Lelouch acknowledged, his eyes trained steadily on Suzaku’s.

Suzaku’s nods tapered off as he slumped. “You’re right to be upset, and I wouldn’t blame you if you hated me—especially after how I treated you when you needed me most. I lashed out because I wanted you to hurt as much as I was hurting, which is not only selfish but absolutely ridiculous—I mean, you’re already…” Waving at Lelouch’s extensive injuries, Suzaku concluded, “What I did was wrong. I know I hurt you deeply. I can’t take back my words or actions, but like you always said before: We can only move forward together…if you want to take those steps with me.”

-+-

“I do,” Lelouch affirmed strongly, letting the inappropriate idiom slide that time. He brought loose fabric patches together into a beautiful complementary design. “Our relationship might be in tatters now, but…destruction always comes before creation.”

With a winsome smile, Suzaku lifted his chin. “I hope one day, I can make it up to you. Until then, all I can say is…I’m sorry.”

“Suzaku—”

Holding up his hand, Suzaku insisted, “Please, Lelouch, just let me…”

“Okay,” Lelouch relented with a heavy nod. “Go ahead.”

Eyes glowing, Suzaku leaned closer. “I’m sorry for not giving you a real chance. I’m sorry for leaving you alone, especially in the sudden and uncalled-for manner I did.” Voice earnest, he kept rattling off apologies. “I’m sorry for letting you down and causing you so much pain. I’m sorry…for not realizing how much you meant to me in time, and how much Zero meant to the oppressed people. My people.”

Lelouch felt something in his stomach flutter.

Letting out a breath, Suzaku continued as if he’d been holding the words back forever instead of a few days. “I’m sorry for keeping my own secrets from you, and then pointing the finger at you as if I didn’t do the exact same thing. I’m sorry for saying you were wrong.”

“But I was—”

“—I’m sorry for answering your phone without permission,” Suzaku said, raising his voice to be heard above Lelouch’s low protests. “I’m sorry for meeting Ohgi behind your back and bringing him here, and especially for telling him who you really were without your permission.”

Lelouch opened his mouth.

Suzaku charged on before he could utter a single syllable. “I’m sorry for threatening you and putting unfair ultimatums on you.” With a last deep breath, he sighed, “And, lastly, I’m just overall sorry for being such a short-sighted bastard.”

Lelouch quirked an eyebrow. “Did you rehearse this?”

Bristling, Suzaku shot back, “That doesn’t make it any less authentic!”

Lelouch barked a laugh and reassured, “I know, Suzaku. I can sense how much you mean it.”

Suzaku relaxed and reached for Lelouch’s hands. “I do. I really do. Is there…is there anything else I’ve said or done that’s hurt you?"

Lelouch squeezed Suzaku’s hands in return. “Well, the only other thing I can think of is…well, I hurt when you’re hurt. So when you hurt yourself, even by passively letting yourself be targeted, like by bullies…”

Suzaku nodded weakly. “I didn’t realize you felt that strongly. I mean, I know you cared for me, but I didn’t know the extent my mental health stints were having on you.”

“That’s not to say you should feel bad about your depression,” Lelouch said quickly. “Don’t think that. I just hate seeing you hurt, in any way.”

“I know how that feels, Lelouch,” Suzaku said raggedly. “Even if I didn’t behave the right way. I…always said that you deserved better than me, Lelouch.”

Raising his eyebrow higher, Lelouch plucked free a red rose from the bunch, held it out, and countered, “And I’ve always said that we were made for each other.”

Suzaku weakly smiled and took the rose. “We do tend to bring out the best and the worst in one another.”

“I think we covered that one already,” Lelouch tossed back lightly, his face relaxing more by the second. “But as to what we still need to address…” He looked down at the flowers again, running his fingers softly along the petals and mentally preparing his return offering. “Suzaku, I owe you several apologies, too, and you’re going to listen to them all.”

That familiar indulgent smile stole across Suzaku’s face, the one that meant “Lelouch is being Lelouch and I love that about him.”

Heartened, Lelouch said slowly and seriously, “You were right when you brought up that I knowingly romanced you, even though I knew Zero was a deal breaker. I took advantage of your trust, and I manipulated you from the very beginning because I was selfish.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘selfish,’” Suzaku interrupted with an apologetic shrug, brandishing the rose.

Cocking his head, Lelouch explained, “It was. I wanted to be with you so badly that I disregarded your feelings about Zero, and I willingly lied to you every day of our relationship so that you’d stay with me.” He paused to gather his resolve. “Then, with all those mysterious phone calls…” Sighing, he looked to the vase of flowers on the other side of the room, brimming with reminders of past rejection, and found the words he needed. “All you wanted was the truth and I kept putting you off.”

Nodding, Suzaku followed his gaze and winced at the depressed feelings broadcast to any who spoke the language of flowers.

At least now Lelouch could swap out those flowers for Suzaku’s. He gestured to the vase.

Understanding without a word, Suzaku slid to his feet to replace the vase contents, acknowledging Lelouch’s words over his shoulder. “That was beyond frustrating. Do you know how many times I’ve wanted to snap your phone in two?”

With a wry smile, Lelouch guessed, “About as many times as I’ve wanted to snap Synclair Worth into pieces on your behalf?”

Suzaku chuckled and dumped the old, sad flowers in the trash. Victory. Then, sobering, he said, “I still would never want you to do that. It’s not right.” 

Lelouch slowly nodded. “That brings me to my next point: I know a lot of my actions, especially as Zero, don’t align with your moral compass. I’m sorry for not being the man you thought I was, and I’m sorry for killing people in my quest for justice.”

With a forgiving smile, Suzaku murmured, “You’ve stayed true to your word. You’ve never involved innocent people.” He finished arranging his floral gift in its new home and came back to bed, the nostalgia of such an action coating the air with warmth. Their love was about to bloom anew, watered by understanding and reconciliation. “All those corrupt officials had something coming to them, even if I think killing them went too far.”

Lelouch nodded but didn’t try to defend that one. It was Suzaku’s right to hold an opinion.

“And you know what they say about battle,” Suzaku said, flicking his eyes between Lelouch and the mountain photograph. “All’s fair in love and war, and who’s to say that more soldiers wouldn’t have died in Narita if you’d used less underhanded means? A lot more of your own men would have died in direct combat if you hadn’t caused that mudslide.”

Good. So Suzaku really did understand. “Still,” Lelouch said, “I know how hard it must be to reconcile your image of me with your image of Zero.”

“It’s easier to think of you as my loving boyfriend,” Suzaku admitted, “but…this is just another side of your true self, right? And I love you. Just like you love me, with all my flaws and mistakes.”

Euphoria tugged at Lelouch’s lips. “You still love me…”

“I never stopped loving you,” Suzaku assured him gently. “I was just—angry. So angry. All my deep love for you turned sour. I didn’t know what to do.” It was always the people closest to each other that could hurt one another the most; they were a prime example. On both extremes, love and anger could blind a person. Suzaku wiped at his eyes. “But I always—Lelouch, you mean everything to me and I’m prepared to fight for you. If you’ll let me.”

“God, yes,” Lelouch choked out. “Always, Suzaku.”

Relaxing further, Suzaku said, “Good. I’m glad. Then are you ready to figure out how we’re going to do this?”

With a quick jerk of his head, Lelouch protested, “No, I’m not done. Ahem. I’m sorry for holding my physical condition over your head as a guilt-trip to stay with me.”

“That was cruel and uncalled-for,” Suzaku agreed, “but I understand how desperate you felt.”

Lelouch shook his head again. “It wasn’t just that. It was like you were saying earlier…” He glanced at the crushed flowers poking out of the trash. “I wanted to make you hurt as much as you hurt me.”

“Understandable.” Then, slightly hesitating, Suzaku hedged, “Do you see though? This is what I’ve been talking about. This is why I want to stop the cycle of fighting. Look at how bad we hurt each other, but multiply this on a national scale…”

 Lelouch sighed. “I do see your point. And on that note, I’m sorry for disrespecting your values and thinking you naïve. I shouldn’t dismiss your views just because I don’t agree, especially at face-value.”

Suzaku nodded. “We can agree to disagree in general, and tackle each upcoming problem based on its own circumstances.”

This was turning out better than Lelouch had ever dared to hope. “Speaking of tackling problems, I’m sorry for fighting you. If I’d known you were the pilot of that white Knightmare, I would have done so many things differently…”

“It’s okay, Lelouch,” Suzaku murmured softly, his smile growing. “I understand now. I understand why you did all those things. As much as I sometimes think otherwise, you’re just human.”

“So are you. Now, Suzaku, did I do anything else that warrants an apology?”

Taking a moment to think, looking for answers on the ceiling, Suzaku joked, “Sometimes you’re a bit nitpicky about how clean the kitchen is.”

Lelouch playfully smacked him on the upper arm. “I’m trying to be serious!”

Suzaku chuckled softly. “For real, I think we covered everything. I was just trying to include the kitchen sink.”

Lelouch snorted.

Suzaku grinned. “And from this new perspective, my prince, I can see that your heart has always been in the right place. I know what you were trying to accomplish, and that you were just going about things the best way you knew how.”

“Still, as much as I like to think I know what I’m doing, it wouldn’t hurt to listen to alternatives,” Lelouch admitted with a wince, grateful that Suzaku was the only person in proximity to hear such a crippling confession.

Lifting his shoulders, Suzaku said, “You and me both. I’ve been so closed off. I might’ve…taken things a bit too personally whenever I thought about Zero’s methods, but I can see now that you weren’t acting to intentionally spite me.” He cringed. “Subconsciously, I may have…believed you were…”

Suzaku did have a tendency to take things personally, his thoughts and feelings distorted by guilt and delusions. That was just part of the package. Lelouch loved him anyway.

“But there’s a bigger picture here,” Suzaku said, “and it took all this happening to make me realize how skewed I was seeing things. And in this bigger picture, there’s more good than bad. There’s a lot worth saving.”

Lelouch’s heart melted. “I agree. We both made so many mistakes and we hurt each other so badly, but…”

Sighing, Suzaku filled in, “I know we can’t erase the past, but remember I am prepared to join the Black Knights in order to make things right between us from now on.” Doing a double-take, he wondered, “Unless…is there anything else you want me to do to fix things? What will it take for you to forgive me, Lelouch?”

“Just…be with me,” Lelouch said. He blinked.  “I already forgave you, Suzaku. I forgave you before you left—last time. I can hold a grudge against anyone else in the world, but never you, my knight. Never you.”

Suzaku gasped lightly at the familiar endearment. “Lelouch…my prince…” Slowly, he squeezed pale hands. “I want to build a better relationship with you. No more lies. No more fighting. Just us, working together and being together.”

“I want that, too,” Lelouch said. “And what would you like me to do moving forward?” They were always meant to be fair and balanced.

“That’s simple. Just be honest with me from now on,” Suzaku suggested softly, letting go of Lelouch’s hands but clearly trusting in their re-established bond based on the light in his eyes. “Anything we do, especially to change the world…let’s do it together. As it should be.”

Lelouch nodded and threaded his spare needle, holding it out like another offering.

With a growing smile, Suzaku took it and mirrored Lelouch’s movements to layer some edges of fabric. He hesitated before starting to bind them together, suggesting, “And along those lines, we need to agree on ideas before executing them. I’m willing to join you and bend on a few things, Lelouch, but there are still some lines I refuse to cross.”

“You’ll be my equal,” Lelouch said, slowing down his expert sewing so Suzaku could more easily mimic the steps. “And no killing. I promise I won’t ask you to do something that goes against your principles. If it comes down to it, I’ll get my hands dirty.”

Suzaku looked slightly troubled at that last bit, his face pinched with worry as his hands faltered.

Lelouch smiled brightly. “Don’t worry,” he said, “with yours and Euphy’s help, I probably won’t need to use such extreme means to win in the first place. I’ll talk things over with you, and I’ll refine my strategies to be less violent and manipulative.”

Suzaku immediately relaxed, looking more perfect than ever. “Thanks, Lelouch, for meeting me in the middle.”

“I’d meet you anywhere, my knight. There isn’t anything in this world we can’t do!” He gestured widely to the quilt they were now sewing together.

Suzaku’s heart shone through his eyes. “I love you. I’m so sorry—”

“Me too, but give it a rest,” Lelouch said with a fond eye roll. “You’ve used up your limit for today.”

“So I can try again tomorrow?”

“For the love of—just kiss me, you idiot!

Chapter Text

“Kissing you feels different,” Suzaku said with a happy, drawn-out sigh. “Better, somehow.”

Chuckling deeply, Lelouch carded his fingers through Suzaku’s hair. “There were all those unresolved issues and feelings between us, keeping us apart,” he said, quoting himself from fights past. “It makes a difference. I guess we forgot again: We need to talk things out calmly so we can move past the problems—together.”

Suzaku nodded and snuck in another peck. “So are we good now?”

“Not yet,” Lelouch said, sounding unusually hesitant. At Suzaku’s calm and expectant look, he continued, “Since we’re fixing the cracks in our relationship, I want to tell you the last major thing I’ve been hiding.”

There was more? What else could there possibly be? Thoughts whirling, Suzaku nodded and caught Lelouch’s hand in his. Hopeful at the progress they were making, he forcibly calmed the torrent in his mind so that it died down as suddenly as it had roared up; this time, he would be sure to actively listen. He—they—would do things differently. Learn from their mistakes of the past to build a better future. Communicate. Grow stronger than ever, like a bone that was more calcified upon healing than it was before being broken.

Inhaling audibly, Lelouch confessed, “I have a supernatural power called Geass. Under the right conditions, it lets me control people.”

Suzaku glanced at the painkiller IV.

“I’m not tripping on morphine!”

Jerking his eyes back, Suzaku smiled sheepishly. “Okay. But you can understand why this is hard for me to believe.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Lelouch shot back, “Really? Yet you believe in a blue wormhole to your worst sins?”

Briefly frozen, Suzaku shook himself out of it. “Fair point,” he conceded, his voice stiffer than his position. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten, per se, but compared to the blue wormhole trip? This “Geass power” was still a stretch. “Uh, what exactly…I mean, Lelouch, I don’t even know where to start.”

“The beginning,” Lelouch mused, tapping his fingers in a rhythm. “Do you remember when we reunited in Shinjuku?”

Eyes softening, Suzaku said, “Of course.”

“The Royal Guard was about to shoot me,” Lelouch said, squeezing Suzaku’s hand. “Then, I had the same blue wormhole experience. Only I ended up making a contract with a witch.”

Suzaku’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly, his eyes wide. A hint of lime green flashed at the edges of his memory—

“She granted me power,” Lelouch said, looking up just as a red symbol flared in his eye.

Suzaku reeled back, emitting a strangled choking sound. There was crimson overlaying that gorgeous violet. It partly reminded him of Nunnally’s cranes and wishes. And geez, he hadn’t been hallucinating that one time…

“If I maintain direct eye contact,” Lelouch explained slowly, giving Suzaku time to process, “then I can issue one order per person that must be obeyed.” Holding a steady gaze, he admitted, “The first time I used my Geass, I had the members of the Royal Guard commit suicide.”

Suzaku stiffened. Everything in him screamed at the notion of killing, but he tried to look past his guiding principle for Lelouch’s sake. At the time, Lelouch had been acting in self-defense—going overboard, true, but after witnessing what he’d thought at the time was Suzaku’s own murder…

Lelouch must not have been thinking clearly.

Remembering his own spiraling thoughts whenever Lelouch was hurt, Suzaku admitted that maybe Lelouch wasn’t acting in his right mind. Lelouch wasn’t some bloodthirsty monster.

“I know that’s not what you wanted to hear,” Lelouch put in hurriedly, “but that’s the truth. I did it to save myself—and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure it would work at the time.”

“But it did,” Suzaku said in a low voice. There. Lelouch hadn’t even thought he would succeed. That detail alone seemed to change the whole shade of context. It was amazing how well Suzaku could understand his boyfriend—when he wasn’t dead-set on pushing his own principles and agenda.

“It did,” Lelouch confirmed. “And that’s how I’ve been able to work a lot of circumstances to my advantage as Zero.”

Nodding thoughtfully, Suzaku processed that and simply murmured, “Yeah, I see.” That all made sense, too, and Suzaku realized how much it meant that Lelouch was willfully divulging all this to him. He must have truly meant it when he’d recommitted to their relationship, and that bolstered Suzaku’s own pledge to do better. Then, his gaze sharpening, he wondered, “Did you ever use your power on me?”

“Never,” Lelouch said at once, his voice firm and purposeful. “I respect your free will too much.”

Suzaku still felt slightly unconvinced. It was all just so hard to believe…

“I swear by Nunnally,” Lelouch insisted.

Slowly, Suzaku nodded. There was nothing more extreme than that. Now it was time for Suzaku to put his money where his mouth was, now that it was spouting all these words of forgiveness and change. “You were willing to trust me, my prince, so now I’m going to trust you.”

-+-

Lelouch glared murder at the sunshine. Physical therapy was excruciating, probably the worst part of his day. His strength and endurance had been laughable even when he was at full health. Now? He shuddered, sweat-soaked and panting like a dying animal.

Suzaku kept fidgeting over by the window, sending Lelouch encouraging smiles every now and again, and Lelouch wanted to throw something at him.

If Suzaku truly loved him, then he would put an end to this exercise torture.

When the session finally ended eons later, without Suzaku’s interference (that bastard!), Lelouch felt like he’d been forced to do gym at whiplash. He was sticky from overexertion perspiration, and every muscle in his body ached with an extra layer of misery. All he wanted was the bliss of sleep.

“There’s actually one more thing I need to apologize for,” Suzaku suddenly confessed, his shoulders tensing. He stepped away from the window, into the shadows stretching from the bed. “The other day, I…uh, tried to make a move on Euphy.”

Lelouch choked on his own spittle. “You what?!”

Suzaku drew into himself. “I tried to kiss her,” he admitted in a low voice. He sat on the bed. “I was angry and out-of-sorts. I wanted to get over you, and I thought she was interested…”

Heart threatening to break again, Lelouch inhaled a wheezing breath. When the door suddenly opened, he snapped at a nurse before she was halfway inside the room, sending her scuttling away faster than Britannia had conquered Japan. Forget physical fucking therapy—this was worse.

“She stopped me,” Suzaku said haltingly, sending the slammed door an apologetic look, “and I felt so relieved that I didn’t even try again.”  Turning back, he met Lelouch’s eyes with a rare, solemn seriousness. “That was the night I decided to really think about the future I wanted with you.”

Lelouch pursed his lips, fighting through the emotional misery with more determination than he displayed in his therapeutic exercise sessions. “She stopped you?”

Suzaku nodded. “She told me that you and I belonged together, Lelouch.” Sitting straighter, he said, “I think she knew in her heart that I truly believed that, too.”

“Do you?” Lelouch held his breath, which was harder than normal because his air supply was still so limited.

Again, Suzaku nodded. “It was a mistake,” he said firmly. “I tried to do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. I apologized to her already, but I had to come clean and apologize to you, too, Lelouch.”

Absorbing this latest confession, Lelouch dipped his head. It could have been worse. They’d worked through more extreme issues. Since he still wanted to move forward, he bit back burning jealousy and merely said, “Thank you.” He did appreciate that Suzaku had spoken up on his own; it was a sign. Lip twitching, Lelouch said dryly, “I suppose I can forgive you for attempting to kiss her if you can forgive me for being a murderous terrorist.”

Suzaku leaned forward with a gleam in his eye and insisted, “Rebel leader, Lelouch.”

-+-

“I’m a soldier, not a housewife!”

Ohgi sighed and tapped his chopsticks against the bowl. “You don’t have to be a housewife to cook.”

With a glare that could melt stone, Villetta climbed a step-stool to check his upper kitchen cabinets. “All you have is nasty Eleven food,” she sneered. “You shouldn’t even have those dirty chopsticks.”

“Britannia couldn’t crush everything,” Ohgi said, deliberately using his cultural utensils. “In my own home, I use chopsticks.” He was a rebel, after all, even if he didn’t oft act like it. He took pride in his heritage.

Wobbling on the step-stool, Villetta fell backwards with a box of baking soda and a bottle of syrup she’d found in the back of the cabinet. White powder and stickiness sprayed everywhere right as she clunked her head on the floor.

Ohgi’s chopsticks fell to the ground as he rushed to her aid, panicking at the situation but ultimately needing to help. It was ten minutes and several embarrassing phone calls later when Villetta stirred in his bed, blinking owlishly and looking so open compared to her usual mannerisms. Heart skipping a beat as she sat up and caught the sheet just in time before she exposed her nudeness, Ohgi swallowed and stammered, “U-uh, I had my eyes closed when I undressed you and brought you to rest in bed. You were a bit dirty.” Truly, unlike the chopsticks, he wanted to throw in her face, but couldn’t—especially not when looking at her stole his breath away. “Oh! And I turned the heat up, so you wouldn’t get cold.”

Villetta pursed her lips and looked at him thoughtfully, something in her expressing giving way. “You’re a gentleman,” she observed slowly. “An Eleven gentleman.”

“Most of us are,” Ohgi said with a slight shrug, and Villetta grew uncharacteristically quiet as she mouthed her earlier words in silent wonder.

-+-

Suzaku jerked awake as the door slid open, his senses roaring to life at the sight of lime green hair. “You!”

The girl stopped mid-step in a strip of moonbeam, tilting her head at Suzaku with the barest hint of curiosity. “I wasn’t expecting you either,” she said lightly. To Lelouch, she said, “I came to see if you made your final decision.”

Lelouch nodded once, entwining his hand with Suzaku’s. A patient screamed from down the hall, and a horde of nurses and doctors bustled past Lelouch’s closed door.

It barely penetrated Suzaku’s focus.

“I see,” the girl said, narrowing her bizarre golden eyes at Suzaku.

“I’m grateful to you for saving Lelouch’s life in Shinjuku,” Suzaku interrupted with a heartfelt glare, “but that’s where my thanks ends. What the hell did you do to me in Narita?”

The strange girl leaned away, one corner of her lip quirking up. “Well, you don’t waste time,” she observed, taking a step closer. She picked up the finished quilt, gave it a cursory glance, and put it back down as if it wasn’t worth her attention. “I did what I had to do. I’ve no idea what you saw specifically, but I was able to draw forth some shock images from your worst memories through the World of C—never mind, this is too much for a boy who can’t even understand simple algebra.”

Bristling, Suzaku demanded, “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Ignoring him, the girl turned back to Lelouch with a quizzical expression. “You’re sure you want to trade immortality for him?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“Immortality?” Suzaku echoed in a high-pitched voice. First supernatural powers, now immortality?

Sighing, the girl frowned. “And the truth about your mother?” she asked.

Suzaku strained to understand.

Lelouch melodramatically shook his head. “I can live without that answer, but I can’t live without Suzaku.”

Warmth flooded Suzaku at Lelouch’s devotion.

“Fine then,” the girl said in a somewhat frosty tone, turning on her heel. “I guess I wasted my time here. Lelouch, I thought you were smarter.”

With that last jab thrown over her shoulder, she disappeared from sight.

Suzaku’s indignant yell followed her out the door: “Immortality?!”

-+-

Soft sunrise light transformed the shadows in the room, and Lelouch greedily breathed in the new dawn. Starting today, Suzaku was going to be a Black Knight. The idea itself was sustenance. Energy fizzled throughout his body during the usual morning procedures with the medical staff, and he turned to his boyfriend with purposeful determination as soon as they were alone. “Let’s figure this out,” he said, trying to emphasize the joint nature of the planning. He would prove himself, dammit, and do things for Suzaku that he’d never do for anyone else.

Grinning, Suzaku helped himself to the extra bowl of cereal delivered from the cafeteria. “What are you thinking, my prince?”

Moving much more slowly, Lelouch prepared his own breakfast. “Since you’re going to be a Black Knight,” he said between bites, “we should decide what that looks like in action. Are you really going to quit the military and bodily join the organization as a new member?”

“Uh…”

Clearly, Suzaku hadn’t thought this part through. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Lelouch said, “Alternatively, you can stay where you are, spy, and subtly use your influence within the Britannian Army so the Black Knights win.”

Tilting his head, a cornflake sticking out of his mouth, Suzaku wondered, “How do you expect me to do that?”

Lelouch rolled his eyes and plucked the cornflake free. “Do what you always do,” he suggested lightly, “only lose in battle.”

“Lose on purpose?!” Suzaku asked in a strangled tone.

Lelouch stared at him levelly and added the stolen cornflake to his own bowl. “Lose some Knightmare battles on purpose,” he said slowly, “so we can win Japan on purpose. Look at the bigger picture.”

Blinking rapidly, Suzaku digested that news worse than his cereal. “I did say I’d try to do that,” he agreed, his voice still strained, “but it’s so overwhelming to think of the bigger picture like this.”

“Breathe,” Lelouch coached, drawing on some of the strategies they’d covered in therapy. Suzaku joined him after two breaths, and they soon fell into a rhythm together. “We can plan this,” he said confidently, reaching for Suzaku’s hand. “As long as you keep me up-to-date with insider information, I can make adjustments to my own tactics.”

Finally, Suzaku nodded. “Okay. Let’s do that. I can always join you in-person later.”

“Think you can handle it?” Lelouch quipped, finishing the last of his milk.

“Let’s see,” Suzaku said dryly, “pretending to be something I’m not, looking like a loser in the process…”

Lelouch aimed to swat him on the side of his head.

Ducking with a grin, Suzaku reflected with playful sarcasm, “Yeah, I think my whole life has been leading up to this.”

-+-

“I trust you now,” Ohgi breathed.

Villetta looked at the door and decided: “I think we—you need a little more time.”

-+-

Suzaku squinted, grappling with anatomy and physiology terms he didn’t understand. Basically, he knew that Lelouch’s leg bones were still in the early process of healing, but that every treatment and every day of rest brought him closer to mobility.  Or at least, Suzaku hoped. Idly flipping through Lelouch’s growing medical chart, he wondered, “What did she mean, immortality?”

Lelouch startled, putting down the latest X-rays of his legs. “You’re still thinking about that?” he asked, checking the sunlight’s progress across the floor. The sky was growing dim. “I told you. It seems that in its ultimate form, Geass can grant the user eternal life.”

Suzaku shook his head, still having trouble processing things. “And you gave that up,” he repeated slowly, “to be with me?”

“Well, don’t sound too excited,” Lelouch said with a sarcastic toss of his head. “But since the decision is made, now I can plan better for the future.”

Suzaku flipped to the discharge forms at the back of the paperwork, careful not to mess anything up. “What plans?”

Lelouch handed back the X-rays, trusting that Suzaku would return them to their correct spot in the medical file. “Personal plans, Black Knights plans…” He narrowed his eyes at his legs, one-strung up and one lying prone on the bed. “Health plans. I want to check into a scientist—Rakshata Chawla—who has a background in medical cybernetics.”

“Sounds great,” Suzaku said, perking up. He slightly recalled Lelouch mentioning something like this to Kallen, way back during their first hospital visit, but a lot had happened since then and he couldn’t quite remember details. He grabbed his phone, almost dropping official paperwork all over the floor in his haste. “Do you want me to e-mail her?”

Lelouch crinkled his nose. “No, I can access her through the Kyoto Group and the Black Knights.”

Suzaku sent Lelouch a glance of loving appreciation. “Is there anything you can’t do?”

Lelouch looked down and sucked in his cheeks. “Walk.”

(But, Suzaku figured, at least Lelouch had a plan to accomplish that also.)

-+-

The chessboard arrangement jostled Lelouch’s memory, and he turned to Suzaku with a wince. “I really am sorry about what happened at Narita.” C.C. hadn’t even apologized—not that he necessarily expected her to, but Suzaku deserved more than what he’d got. Especially when he was playing a game he didn’t necessarily like just to make Lelouch happy.

With a nod and a shrug, Suzaku moved his white knight piece away from the black king. “It’s okay,” he said, his voice as gentle as the falling rain outside the window.

No longer in check, Lelouch breathed a silent sigh of relief. Though he listened hard out of worry, he could detect no trace of the scorn that had for so long haunted Suzaku’s tone during discussions concerning Narita. He started to slide a pawn forward, then thought better of it since it would be sacrificed in two moves; he could gain the same result in five moves without losing any of his pieces, if he was patient.

“I know you thought you were doing the right thing at the time,” Suzaku continued, flashing Lelouch a smile across the chessboard. Stroking a finger on the white king, he said, “It was the same with me…when I killed my father.”

The pitter-patter of water on glass sounded louder in the following silence.

Licking his lips, Lelouch waited for Suzaku to take his turn before asking, “Why did you do it, Suzaku?”

Blinking sudden tears away, Suzaku stared out the window and struggled with himself before answering. “I thought stopping him would end the war,” he said through a choked throat. “I just wanted to prevent more fighting. More dying.”

Lelouch slowly nodded. He took the next step in his projected game pathway.

Suzaku took a heaving breath. “That’s how I know the ends don’t justify the means.”

Killing to end a war, and yet things had backfired. Lelouch could see how Suzaku, especially as a child, could turn out so mixed up.  Lips thinning, he said, “You had noble intentions. Besides, I still think that in some circumstances, the results matter more in the grand scheme of things.”

Letting out a watery chuckle, Suzaku joked, “It’s always grand schemes with you, isn’t it?” He sobered. “I’m sorry, Lelouch, but I still can’t agree with your way of thinking.”

That might possibly put a dent in Suzaku’s role as a Black Knight, but Lelouch would work around it as best he could. “How come?”

Suzaku’s lips twitched up at the opportunity to just talk out his side in a judgment-free zone. “I just wonder, Lelouch, how can wrong methods make things right?”

“But what about when right methods only lead you in circles?” Lelouch countered. “What if there’s no way to reach your goal using subjectively ‘right’ means?”

Slamming his fist on the chessboard, rattling the pieces, Suzaku breathed out hard through his nose and declared, “There always has to be a way!”

Squashing his instinctive reaction to denounce Suzaku’s views as too idealistic to be practical, Lelouch looked out at the gray clouds and turned his thoughts over. The game was lost, but it was predestined to be if he and Suzaku were on different sides. Silence hung between them for quite a few moments, but it was comfortable and easy. So different from the stress that had cloaked their conversations lately. Veering slightly off-topic, he eventually asked, “What about when you’ve already used a ‘wrong’ way?”

Suzaku leaned over the ruined chess game to press a kiss into Lelouch’s temple. “Then you atone for it.”

“How?”

Hesitating, Suzaku pulled back and started gathering his pieces into a pile. “Well, I wanted to make up for my sins by dying.”

Lelouch stiffened. This really does explain everything…

“But ever since I met up with you again, Lelouch,” Suzaku admitted hoarsely with a guilty cringe, “I haven’t wanted to die. You really give me a reason to live.”

Lelouch swallowed around the lump in his throat. “But you wanted to die,” he echoed blankly.

“In the service of the people,” Suzaku confirmed with a small dip of his head. He sounded eerily calm talking about his own death wish. “Then, I wanted to change Britannia from the inside. To make up for what I did.”

 In a raspy voice, Lelouch judged, “That’s better than dying.”

A corner of Suzaku’s lip curled up. “Of course you’d say that.”

Shifting his shoulders, Lelouch questioned softly, “Since we’re on the subject, do you still think I should die?”

“No,” Suzaku said at once, his fingers clenching around the white king piece. “I think…there are a lot of people you owe things to, and you can start there.”

Lelouch nodded, turning over this information as he packed up the last of the chess pieces. He thought about the wounded soldiers from Narita and their families, the families and friends of the publicly hanged corrupt officials, people he’d swindled along the way…

In short, there were several people who had been negatively affected by his actions as Zero. He’d caused trauma for others, much like he was currently suffering on the flipside.  While there was a part of him that truly felt remorse for his mistakes, at the moment, proving himself to Suzaku held more importance. “I started sewing,” he said simply.

Suzaku looked confused and curious.

“Our quilt,” Lelouch clarified with a self-conscious shrug. “When I was dragged to group therapy, they had us start a personal project to help the victims hurt in all those recent riots.”

Suzaku’s face lit up, and it suddenly didn’t seem like it was raining. “You’re giving back,” he said, sounding awed and pleased. He stashed the chess set to the side, where Schneizel had left it earlier for “just in case.”

Lelouch smiled calmly. “Suzaku,” he assured, “the quilt is only the beginning.”

-+-

This was the end.

Suzaku had thought Cornelia to be the most terrifying of the royal siblings, but that was before Schneizel. The penetrating ice-stare coming from the blond prince was enough to emotionally cripple Suzaku into a gelatinous mess inside.

“Are you sure about this?” Schneizel asked as soon as he was seated, arching an eyebrow at Lelouch. “After he broke your heart in the worst circumstances?”

Suzaku cringed, even as Lelouch silently nodded.

“What?!” Cornelia raged. “You broke up?! How did I not know to celebrate?!”

Suzaku took a small step back, his head bowed. “I’m sor—”

“Oh, I’m so glad!” Euphy said brightly, clasping her hands together. “I knew you two could work things out!”

Suzaku shot a small smile in his boyfriend’s direction. If it hadn’t been for Euphy…

“Things are good now,” Lelouch interjected calmly, a red light swelling in his eye as he glanced at his older brother. He blinked it away at Suzaku’s knowing, disapproving look and slight headshake. Gripping his sheets, Lelouch tacked on, “And Suzaku is my decision.”

“You can’t blame us for being overprotective,” Cornelia hissed, gesturing between Suzaku and Lelouch’s broken legs.

Schneizel nodded. “You both have valid points,” he surmised, “but I’m inclined to agree with Cornelia on this one, little brother.”

Suzaku wondered how painful it would be to jump out the window. Wet concrete would still break all his bones, and then he’d match his boyfriend. At Lelouch’s perceptive glare, he stopped that train of thought right in its tracks.

“Thank you for your opinions,” Lelouch said stiffly, “but I’ve made up my mind.”

Schneizel sighed. “Then I shall say no more about it.”

Suzaku gulped. The look Schneizel sent him abounded with unspoken threats.

Luckily, Suzaku thought on suddenly weak knees, he was really good at dodging bullets.

-+-

Lelouch was only too happy for Schneizel and Cornelia to take their leave. Their disapproving stares were starting to grate on his nerves worse than the cuddling cats on the wall. Even though they’d visited for barely fifteen minutes, he felt they’d overstayed their welcome.

Reaching for the quilt, Lelouch showed off his and Suzaku’s creation to Euphy. As she marveled at the fruits of their labor, he and Suzaku filled Euphy in on what they’d hashed out about the Black Knights. She agreed to work with Suzaku and provide sensitive intelligence to Zero. Before long, talk of logistics faded into playful small talk and genuine family bonding. Euphy lost three games of chess to Lelouch, almost beat Suzaku before they both gave up in the spirit of mutual cooperation, and picked out patchwork squares for the next quilting project. Lelouch smiled. Euphy fit perfectly into their circle.

Stroking the quilt, Euphy bit her lip. “Oh,” she said. “I just remembered. What do you think about how the Black Knights tried and failed to spring the JLF free yesterday?”

Lelouch blinked at the news. Ohgi should have informed him. What in the world could have interfered?

“You…didn’t know?”

Glancing at his equally-surprised boyfriend, Lelouch shook his head. “What happened?”

Sighing, Euphy explained, “It was a stalemate. The Black Knights didn’t rescue the JLF, but Cornelia didn’t manage to capture or kill any of your—our—people either. It was a quick skirmish.”

“And Cornelia’s not gloating?” Lelouch asked dryly. The Viceroy hadn’t said a word about it.

Euphy shook her head. “She’s not eager to report that she let the Black Knights get away—again.”

“Tohdoh-sensei is amazing,” Suzaku chirped, his tone full of reverence for his childhood mentor.

Lelouch nodded. It made sense. Cornelia had been planning to counter Zero’s methods, but Tohdoh’s approach would have thrown her for a loop. “She could still spin it to the media in her favor,” he said, thinking aloud and gesturing for the television remote.

Suzaku took care of things, and the news immediately popped up with press coverage at a protest rally. There was no hint of the Black Knights’ failed operation. Just commoners—liberals— shouting and brandishing signs at Britannian police. “They shouldn’t use violence,” Suzaku maintained, catching both Lelouch’s and Euphy’s eyes.

“I agree this time,” Euphy said. “Rioting aimlessly is pointless.”

Frowning, Lelouch interjected, “It’s effective because they’re getting their message across. People take them seriously.”

“As a threat!” Suzaku was quick to repudiate. “It goes against what they say they’re fighting for.”

Lelouch felt outnumbered, but he still argued, “It’s a means to an end.”

“It’s the wrong means to an end,” Suzaku shot back. “At least the Black Knights rally behind an honorable purpose. You guys have actually saved people, putting your money where your mouth is.”

Lelouch opened his mouth to defend the protesters’ actions—and then quickly snapped it shut. Suzaku had just complimented the Black Knights.

Euphy giggled, glancing between the two of them with a fond, pleased expression. Then she squealed and pointed at the television. “Oh, how adorable!”

“Is that…Ohgi?” Suzaku asked, squinting and cocking his head.

Lelouch followed his gaze to the Japanese man on-screen, pulling an unknown Britannian woman closer against him as they kissed. His eye twitched as he put together just why he hadn’t received timely intel from his trusted second-in-command. “I wish I could say ‘no,’” he said flatly, blanching as the news ticket started scrolling something about how ‘Inter-cultural love blooms at rallies.’

“I think it’s sweet,” Euphy said, gazing at the lovers on-screen with starry eyes.

Lelouch caught Suzaku’s eye again before rolling his own. “You would,” he snorted. “I could have done without seeing him lock lips with anyone, ever. Turn it off.”

In charge of the remote, Suzaku was quick to obey. “To be fair,” he said sheepishly, “Ohgi probably could have done without knowing the depth of our feelings.”

“But we inspired him,” Lelouch deadpanned, pulling Suzaku into a one-armed hug.

“Aw,” Euphy cooed, melting into a puddle. “Someday soon, all the people here will be allowed to love freely.”

With the television quiet, her announcement hung in the air and seemed to echo with importance.

“Yeah?” Suzaku asked with a curious grin. “What makes you say that?”

Euphy smiled innocently.

“You’re up to something,” Lelouch noticed.

Euphy covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. “Maybe.”

She would say no more on the subject, but oddly enough Lelouch trusted her. Euphemia li Britannia had proven herself.

-+-

Suzaku put down his book, dreading but needing to ask, “Are you sure you want to go back to Ashford?”

Lelouch nodded. “Of course.” He sounded offended at the question.

“What about braving Milly’s welcoming party?”

At that, Lelouch hesitated. “I don’t want to stay long, but I should at least make an appearance as the guest of honor.”

Reaching for Lelouch’s hand, Suzaku squeezed it and promised, “I won’t leave your side.”

“It’ll be good to be home,” Lelouch said, casting a baleful glare at the wall cats.

“Yeah,” Suzaku said, “and at least it’s all already wheelchair-proofed!”

Even if it would be a hard transition, Suzaku was confident that Lelouch would adjust. Besides, Suzaku had read all those wheelchair books in preparation for living with Nunnally; he’d just never expected that he’d need to use their information so soon for Lelouch’s benefit.

Life had a funny way of working out in hindsight.

-+-

Lelouch didn’t know if he was falling up or floating sideways, but he never wanted Suzaku to stop kissing the living fucking daylights out of him. Every touch seared deep beneath his skin with want for more. There was a glowing blue line in his mind’s eye, though, and Lelouch physically balked when they reached it the moment Suzaku’s hand idly brushed his hip. “Glass!”

Suzaku pulled back immediately, even before Lelouch had finished their safe word. “I told you, we don’t have to do anything.”

Sighing, Lelouch waved off his words. “I know,” he agreed, coming to a decision, “but I want to at least talk things through with you. About our future.” He let a significant pause linger between them before clarifying, “In this area.”

Suzaku blushed bright red and rolled slightly away in the cramped hospital bed. “Okay. So, uh, kissing is fine,” he said, the flush creeping down his neck.

Lelouch nodded, also feeling the heat. His boyfriend had started them off with the by-now obvious, but it was his right to start setting new boundaries. “I’m okay at the thought of doing anything above the hips.”

“Nipple biting?” Suzaku teased, flashing his teeth.

“God, yes,” Lelouch said around the beginnings of a moan. This conversation was slipping into easy. His sight grew hazy as he remembered the euphoric sensation—

“But nothing with the lower body, right?” Suzaku made clear with an understanding smile.

Reality crashed and Lelouch took a moment to think before agreeing. “Not any time soon, Suzaku.”

Forward would come in its own time. “Don’t worry,” Suzaku said, pecking Lelouch on the lips. “This is whatever you’re comfortable with, my prince.”

“Of course,” Lelouch said, his way of saying ‘thank you.’ Which Suzaku understood if his familiar fond eye-roll was any indication. “After what we’ve been through, after what we’ve built together, I’m comfortable with more than I’d thought. There are only some things I definitely won’t do.”

“Of course,” Suzaku echoed. “No oral sex. Got it.”

Lelouch nodded at the self-explanatory rule of operations, glancing at the door to make absolutely sure it was still shut. “And no bondage.”

Suzaku frowned at the window. “You were so excited about trying that,” he mused, “and those bastards stole that, too.”

“Just another thing to make them pay for,” Lelouch said flippantly. “And also, no exhibition.”

“After the photograph that started this whole mess?” Suzaku snorted. “No way.”

At least, as in everything else, they stayed on the same page. “We still have other things,” Lelouch reminded him. “Dirty talk is still acceptable. And,” he leered knowingly, “I’m fine if you want to get down and dirty with our come, my knight.”

Suzaku buried his burning face in the pillow. “Le-louch!”

“There’s a better way to get me to stop,” Lelouch murmured invitingly, over-exaggeratedly fluttering his eyelashes as soon as his boyfriend lifted his head. The effect made Suzaku burst into laughter before finally kissing them both quiet.

Then it was back to beautiful, beautiful rushing dizziness.

“Oh god, Lelouch,” Suzaku moaned after some more minutes of ecstasy, pulling back and panting for breath. “I…I need to stop, or else…” He looked down at the growing tent in his pants with a guilty expression.

Noticing Suzaku’s reaction, Lelouch smirked. Oddly enough, he wasn’t scared about the other boy’s hard-on. Maybe because it was Suzaku, who would never force anything on him, and his body was as familiar to Lelouch as chess strategy. It didn’t mean he was ready to actively do anything yet. Clearing his throat, Lelouch ordered softly, “Touch yourself.”

Suzaku choked on air. “What?!”

“I want to watch you get yourself off,” Lelouch explained. Pausing a moment, he remembered, “You’ve never done it for me.” Lelouch had touched himself for Suzaku—but that had ended up more than a demonstration because Suzaku couldn’t control himself and simply look like a good audience. Deliberately, Lelouch reminded Suzaku, “Weren’t you the one who said we needed to jerk off for each other more often?”

Sputtering, Suzaku protested, “A-at home, Lelouch!” Looking around the hospital room frantically, he demanded, “Where am I even gonna…?”

Raising an eyebrow, Lelouch suggested, “You could come in your pants. That would be hot, actually.”

Again, Suzaku swallowed some air down the wrong tube. “Kami-sama, Lelouch!”

“You have seven minutes until the next nurse comes in to check on me,” Lelouch pointed out matter-of-factly, desire and superiority oozing from his pores. “So if you want to take care of it before she comes and sees you like that, I’d advise you to start touching.”

Eyes narrowing, Suzaku shifted and started pawing at himself through his pants. “Damn you, Lelouch,” he hissed, throwing his head back as he squeezed a little harder. “A-ah, this is…so embarrassing…” He started rocking his hips up into his hand, shivering at the sensations.

Never taking his appreciative gaze off the show, Lelouch murmured distractedly, “You could always stop.”

“Fuck, no!” Suzaku groaned, rubbing circles on the hardness straining against his pants. His eyelids slipped closed of their own accord.

A hitched sound escaped Lelouch’s throat. “Th-that’s it, Suzaku,” he encouraged breathlessly. It was almost as good as if he was in his boyfriend’s place. “Now shove your hand down your pants. Reward yourself a little bit.”

Always one to follow orders, Suzaku did as instructed and moaned at the increased stimulation. “O-oohhh, Lelouch…”

“Are you going to come?” Lelouch whispered, directly into his knight’s ear, voice barely audible.

Suzaku shuddered, and soon enough—in answer to his prince’s question, yes. He did. Gasping for breath, he leaned back against the pillows and wiped at his sweaty face with his free hand.

Tittering, Lelouch remarked, “You have thirty-seven seconds to stop touching yourself and wash your hands before the night nurse gets here.”

Suzaku shot out of bed. Even with his ultra-quick reflexes, he barely made it.

Chapter Text

“To celebrate new beginnings,” Euphy said, waving a hand at the shiny interior of the Lamperouge suite, “I’d like to introduce you to a revolutionary idea: the Specially Administrated Zone of Japan!”

Lelouch and Suzaku shared a blank look. Arthur, recently returned home as well, rubbed against Lelouch’s wheelchair.

To avoid answering right away, Lelouch glanced around his home. Sayoko had obviously been hard at work while he’d been in the hospital; the rooms were clean even to his standards. There was nothing to distract him as Euphy swelled with pride and bounced around the room, talking a mile-a-minute about her plan to give Japan a small piece of herself back.

(Looking down, Lelouch wanted pieces of himself back.)

Suzaku shifted on the couch. “It sounds wonderful,” he hedged, “but how would it even work?”

Euphy beamed. “I’ve got it all written out. Schneizel already approved everything!”

Well. That quelled Lelouch’s first argument before he could even question Britannia’s stance aloud. While Lelouch had already considered every aspect of a special zone scenario, he hadn’t done so with his siblings’ royal influence in mind. That detail changed the whole angle.

More importantly, Suzaku’s eyes sparkled brighter at the notion.

“It’s something to think about,” Lelouch carefully conceded, noncommittal. There was a heaviness in his stomach at the mere idea.

But that might have been from the upcoming welcome party.

-+-

“Prime Minister!”

Schneizel paused, smiling apologetically at Kanon before turning to the soldier hurrying over. He hid a grimace. They couldn’t even walk down a random hallway without being interrupted.

Leaning forward, the soldier held out a manila envelope and said urgently, “These are the crime scene results from that case you labeled top priority.”

“Ah, yes,” Schneizel said, delicately taking the confidential paperwork. “No one else has seen this?”

The soldier shook his head. “No, Prime Minister.”

“Thank you. Dismissed,” Schneizel said, waving the man off and turning back to Kanon. “And how do you think we should use this information?”

Eyes twinkling, Kanon murmured, “Keep the attackers’ identities in your back pocket unless Zero agrees to your terms.”

“Identity revelation for identity revelation,” Schneizel said around a low chuckle. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

Fighting back a blush, Kanon questioned slyly, “Only one?”

Relaxing, Schneizel brushed his knuckles against Kanon’s as they walked and answered with a knowing laugh.

-+-

“It’s time for me to stand up for my beliefs,” Euphemia li Britannia announced, straightening with pride in front of the new, more-secure cells holding the captured remnants of the Japan Liberation Front. At General Katase’s grunt, the Third Princess continued, “I have designed a plan for something I call the Specially Administrated Zone of Japan.”

The Japanese rebels cried out in shock and confusion. Echoes bounced around the stone walls.

Patiently waiting for the commotion to settle, Euphy outlined her idea. “My brother already approved it,” she said, “and my sister Cornelia has been outvoted. This Zone is going to happen. My question for you is: Will you help?”

Leaning back as he mulled over the proposition, General Katase asked, “We get a choice?”

“You always have a choice,” Euphy said, the smile apparent in her voice. “I’m hoping it’s the same as when you told me last time: ‘If you can come up with a failsafe way to make it happen—to make Britannia truly respect our freedom as Japanese—then we will be equal and I will stand by you.’” She paused and took a step forward. “I started my end.”

“Then the Japan Liberation Front stands with you.”

-+-

“Zero!” cried the gaggle of Black Knights crowding in front of the teleconference monitor.

Lelouch, wearing the top half of his Zero costume, cleared his throat and glanced at Suzaku beside him. They were in the guest room, which apparently Suzaku had already used as a neutral backdrop when he contacted his precious childhood mentor. At least that digital encounter had proven that the Ashford room was untraceable on the Black Knights side. (No wonder they weren’t making great headway against Britannia—) Zero sighed and waited. There were mixed reactions among the core Black Knights, from anger to disapproval to nervousness at his return.

“Why should you get to have any say in the Black Knights anymore?” Tamaki demanded above the rest, raising a fist. “Ya up and ditched us without any warning! Ya look fine.”

Ohgi winced in the background, and Suzaku jerked slightly on his behalf.

Lelouch desperately wanted to pan the camera to his crushed legs and sarcastically ask for Tamaki to repeat that assertion, but two things stopped him. One was his legendary pride, tied to the fact that he would never flaunt weakness. Second was that it would be a huge clue to his identity, and right now he still relied on secrets. He waited another long moment for effect. “Do you remember the Britannian boy who was attacked for…befriending an Eleven?”

The Black Knights tittered amongst themselves at the turn-around.

“I will never let any injustice happen again,” Zero promised, tying in his reasons. “Whether the victims be Britannian or Japanese. I told you that from the very beginning.”

As more of the Black Knights started to calm at his typical passion, Zero waved at Suzaku. “There are two things I can provide. One is inside Britannian assistance from our newest member. You may recognize him: Kururugi Suzaku.”

Tohdoh gave the barest of nods.

“The second is something already in the works, something called the Special Zone of Japan.”

-+-

The Ashford Auditorium teemed with people, and Lelouch wanted to Geass them all to avert their eyes. But that wouldn’t work. He’d already used Geass on a significant portion of the school population when testing his power limitations. Things seemed higher, more out-of-reach, and Lelouch quickly dismissed the thought of putting monster wheels on his wheelchair like how he’d adopted platform shoes as Zero. Height meant control, and now he lacked both.

At least Suzaku was there.

With a grim smile, Lelouch wheeled inside. Instantly all eyes zipped to him as if drawn by magnets, even though he hadn’t been officially introduced by Milly, who was directing the school ceremony from center stage. A banner reading ‘Welcome Home Lelouch’ in fancy glitter was strung across the ceiling, and some well-meaning student had taped an additional ‘and Suzaku’ (hastily scribbled in green marker) to the end. It hung crookedly, but it stood out.

Following Lelouch’s gaze to the tacked-on paper, Milly signaled for it to be ripped down.

Rivalz seemed all too happy to tear Suzaku’s name off and stomp it into the ground.

Students gasped and glanced between Rivalz and Lelouch.

Suzaku winced but bore it all with stiff shoulders. Typical.

Lelouch sighed. It was to be expected of his friends. A part of his chest warmed at their loyalty, to know that they wanted to protect him from whom they still believed was his ex-boyfriend.

“Dude,” Corbin Dixon said, breaking the hushed silence. It was hard to tell if he sounded impressed or outraged, but his tone was somewhere in that incredulous range.

With another sigh, Lelouch deliberately reached for Suzaku’s hand. Couldn’t everyone see that Suzaku accompanied him to the event? Shouldn’t that be a sign?

Milly’s lips thinned into a tight line, but she nodded and handed her microphone to a nearby girl. Jessica Moore, supplied Lelouch’s ever-helpful brain, an active member of the school’s Culture Club. Milly rushed over, not bothering to hide her glare at Suzaku as she demanded of Lelouch, “What’s going on?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Chloe Beck, the girl Suzaku had started to win over towards trusting the Japanese. She pushed her way through the crowd and faced Milly with her hands on her hips. “Aren’t you friends? Aren’t you, of all people, supposed to be happy and supportive of them?”

Nose wrinkling, Milly looked to Lelouch again without answering. Rivalz appeared at her shoulder with the same thunderstorm expression.

Lelouch held up Suzaku’s hand in his. “I know that my boyfriend and I are both welcome here.”

At the emphasis, Milly’s shoulders fell slack while confusion crawled home onto Rivalz’s face.

“We’ll talk later,” Milly said quickly, giving Suzaku a dubious glance. “Do you want to make a speech?”

Lelouch immediately shook his head. “I probably won’t even stay long.”

Milly nodded, maybe a little over-enthusiastically. “Whatever you want, Lelouch!”

“Exactly,” Lelouch agreed, rolling forward and deeming the conversation over. He appreciated Milly, but the entire situation was starting to get to him. It was hot and hard to breathe. His ears were buzzing. Colors blurred, mixed with light and shadow—

He bumped into someone.

“Hey, Lamperouge.”

Lelouch’s senses swirled but finally settled on Corbin Dixon’s face. “Sorry,” he said in his fake schoolboy voice, waving at his wheelchair. His practiced, measured breathing was helping but only doing so much. “Still getting the hang of this thing.”

Dixon peered at him with an unreadable expression.

Suzaku appeared out of nowhere with a bottle of water, which he quickly handed to Lelouch. “You want to head home?” he asked, his words laced with worry.

“What makes you say that?”

Suzaku looked down. “You look kinda stressed, Lelouch. You don’t normally—not that anyone would blame you, of course.”

“Stop that!” Lelouch snapped, clenching his hands into fists. He reminded himself to breathe deeply. “I’m fine. I look fine.”

Dixon chuckled approvingly. “Still got some fight in you.”

Somehow, that made Lelouch’s anxiety spike stronger.

Suzaku glared in the bully’s direction. “No one asked you,” he hissed, his eyes reflecting all the bad blood between them.

“Shut up, Eleven.”

“Haven’t you learned anything?” Suzaku demanded, his hands balling into fists as he took a step forward. “Back off, or you don’t wanna know what I’ll do to you.”

Dixon quirked one eyebrow. “You mean you’re not going to offer yourself on a silver platter anymore? The little soldier’s finally developing some fight instinct, too.”

“Yeah, well,” Suzaku said, cutting his eyes over to Lelouch for a meaningful second, “maybe if I’d fought more back then, I could have stopped a lot of bad things from snowballing.”

Lelouch rolled between them, breaking up the impending fight. Not everyone would have a change of heart just because something drastic had rocked the world around them. Dixon was just proof of how hard it was for societal values to change.

Not that it was an excuse for being a simple-minded jerk.

Before he could say anything, Euphy’s voice sounded from the stage and Japan’s future locked into place.

-+-

“Special Zone?” Villette repeated, deadpan. “Does she even know what she’s doing?”

Ohgi turned up the television volume. “Well,” he said with a blush, “maybe it could work.”

Glancing at him incredulously, Villetta said, “You want it to work.” The sentence hung in the middle of the living room.

Blush growing, Ohgi looked down. “Think of what it would mean, for us,” he said softly. “In the Special Zone, it wouldn’t matter who’s a Britannian and who’s an Eleven.”

“Japanese,” Villetta corrected automatically before covering her mouth, eyes wide. “I can’t believe I just…”

Ohgi smiled, daring to look her in the eye. He remembered the rush of bliss, kissing this woman in the middle of a protest rally and not caring what anyone thought. As long as she accepted his feelings. That drive must have guided Zero’s—Lelouch’s—and Kururugi’s relationship, and now Ohgi felt it personally, too. They were all proof. A Britannian and a Japanese person could fall in love.

Maybe this ‘Special Zone’ was where such love could flourish.

-+-

“I didn’t know there were going to be cameras at the school ceremony,” Lelouch complained, sinking into the luxury of his own bed. Glorious.

Suzaku nodded and slipped under the covers beside him, making it feel even more like a homecoming. “The news cameras were only aimed at the stage,” he said. “You know Schneizel, Cornelia, and Euphy would never let you be shown on television again without your express permission.” It was enough for the news crew that their ‘school ceremony’ piece tied in with the bigger story boosting their ratings, even though a personal interview with the star attack victim was off-limits by royal decree. Suspiciously so.

“I’m not happy about this whole ‘Special Zone’ thing,” Lelouch griped.

“What can I do to make you feel better?” Suzaku asked, looking so earnest that he’d probably fetch a ball in his mouth without a word of protest.

Lelouch smiled. “You already started,” he said, the affection resonating through every inch of him. “I love how you fought back against Dixon earlier.”

“It’s time for me to start taking responsibility,” Suzaku said sagely.

Lelouch nodded, entwining their hands. Then he smirked. “For now, you could make me feel better by improving your public performances. Your show at the hospital was pitiful.”

It took a painful moment for the meaning to sink in, but Suzaku’s cheeks finally flooded with color. “That wasn’t my fault!” He still dutifully pushed the covers down and grabbed between his legs with something between a sigh and a moan.

“Excuses, excuses,” Lelouch tittered, tilting his head for a better angle. “This time, get rid of your underwear.”

Suzaku blinked but didn’t hesitate to follow the order, playfully smacking Lelouch in the shoulder with said undergarment. “I can’t help but think I’m rewarding myself for something I haven’t earned yet.”

Swallowing thickly, Lelouch corrected, “Don’t worry, you’re comforting me. Hey, pull off my underwear, too.”

That time, Suzaku hesitated. Then, meeting Lelouch’s eyes, he gently shimmied Lelouch’s lower body clothing down and off, being careful of Lelouch’s legs the entire while. “Like this?”

Lelouch hummed an affirmative and fisted his own cock. “Yeah. Now stroke your dick, my knight.”

Almost choking on laughter, Suzaku did as instructed and immediately slumped with pleasure. “Fuck, that’s good.”

“Yeah?” Lelouch asked, mimicking Suzaku’s moves. He trembled from the sensations that swept through him. “Mmm, yeah, that’s good.”

“Told you,” Suzaku said, sounding halfway offended as he repeated the motion. Again, Lelouch copied him. Suzaku smiled. “You know what else?”

“I don’t know,” Lelouch said between short gasps for air, “but I bet you’re going to tell me.”

Nudging their shoulders together, Suzaku chuckled and quickened the pace of his stroking. “I’m going to call it. This Special Zone? It doesn’t sound bad, Lelouch.”

Lelouch wrinkled his nose, even as spasms of pleasure jerked from his cock. “I’ve already thought through every detail of that scenario,” he said through gritted teeth. Even with his siblings’ royal influence, it sounded too good to be true. He wanted to believe in it, but… “It won’t work, Suzaku. It’s just an ideal dream.”

“What about our dream?” Suzaku ventured, thrusting into the tunnel of his hand.

Unable to copy that motion due to his injuries, Lelouch settled for fisting himself faster. “What dream?”

Suzaku sighed blissfully and had to gather his thoughts before answering, “Our simple life together. Going to college. Living in our duplex. All the dreams we’ve been planning for…”

Lelouch’s hand slowed on his cock as he processed.

“We can do all those things,” Suzaku insisted, thumbing the head of his cock in hurried excitement. “We can live our dreams so easily in the Special Zone.”

That…was indeed tempting. Fighting back climax—he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t ready—Lelouch argued, “Doesn’t change the fact that it won’t work in the long-term.”

“Sometimes we have to take things one step at a time,” Suzaku reminded him, moaning low and deep as he splashed sticky come all over his pajama top.

Lelouch finally gave in and aimed to add his own contribution to Suzaku’s clothing. “I suppose the Special Zone isn’t necessarily settling for less,” he conceded, using Suzaku’s underwear to clean up. Like their mutual jerking off, the Special Zone was only a small step in a much grander solution. Someday, they’d get it all. In the meantime, even short term objectives brought happiness; the proof was smeared all over Suzaku’s pajamas. “It will only solve a small chunk of the problem, but I suppose we can start there and keep working for Japan’s full freedom.”

Suzaku beamed. “Yeah, exactly. This doesn’t have to be it, my prince.”

“Okay,” Lelouch said around another sigh. “I’ll go along with it, but I’m still not thrilled.”

“We don’t have to be super involved in every little thing,” Suzaku pointed out, peeling off his stained shirt. “Do you want to skip tomorrow’s public Special Zone rally?”

“Of course,” Lelouch said, leaning over to lick some come off Suzaku’s cheek. “We have our own plans.” Before his boyfriend could ask, Lelouch said, “Tomorrow, we track down the bastards who attacked me.”

Suzaku’s cock twitched with anticipation.

-+-

The sun shone its blessing onto the public rally surrounding the Mount Fuji area the next morning.

Villetta felt like she was in a trance as she noticed Ohgi out the corner of her eye. He was with a group of Ele—Japanese people. God. She still couldn’t believe how sick she was starting to feel whenever the word ‘Eleven’ was used to describe a people. Sighing through her nose, she inched closer, enough to overhear.

 “How’d Zero know about the Special Zone before it was announced on the news, anyway?”

“You still question Zero’s ways?” Ohgi asked, hissing through his teeth and glancing around furtively.

Villetta frowned and turned over that nugget of information as she saw a group of Ashford Academy students lingering near the main stage. Zero had already known? Was he behind everything? And if so, how was he using the Third Princess?

As per usual, Villetta’s mind flickered to that day in the Shinjuku Ghetto when her Knightmare had been stolen. Echoing her own experience, Jeremiah Gottwald had also mentioned memory loss when Zero had saved Kururugi—

Kururugi, who had entered the hospital several times to visit the hurt Britannian boy on the news.

Kururugi, who attended the same school as the Britannian boy linked to Zero.

Kururugi, who was—again—at the heart of everything unfolding.

Lost in thought, Villetta bumped into someone. “Watch where you’re—Viceroy!” she exclaimed, immediately correcting her tone. “Your Highness, please forgive me.”

Viceroy Cornelia quirked an eyebrow at her, giving a small nod of acknowledgment towards Villetta’s military uniform. “I can’t blame any loyal Britannian for being on edge today,” Viceroy Cornelia said with a shrug. “Especially as a purist, I don’t know how you’re handling being here to support this…Special Zone.” She said the words as if they tasted sour.

Somehow, after her time spent getting to know Ohgi, Villetta didn’t feel like That Person anymore. “Things can change,” she said carefully, lowering her eyes.

Nodding, Viceroy Cornelia said, “Flexibility is important for a soldier. Well said.”

Villetta tensed. Flexibility was important, but so was knowing when to seize the moment. And Villetta had been waiting for months. After all her time with Ohgi, she knew it in her heart: “Viceroy,” she said, “that hurt Britannian boy on the news?”

Viceroy Cornelia’s face darkened with shadow.

Villetta dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “I know who he really is.”

“Don’t tell anyone,” Viceroy Cornelia ordered at once, leaning in close. She motioned Villetta a few feet away from the crowd for privacy. “I know, obviously, and I’m trusting you to keep the secret.”

Heart hammering in her ribcage, Villetta almost choked. Viceroy Cornelia knew the injured Britannian teenager was Zero? But how? And why was it a secret?

“There are things you can’t possibly understand yet,” Viceroy Cornelia was saying in an urgent, low tone. “You could be of great use to me, soldier. How would you like an undercover assignment at Ashford Academy?”

Villetta jerked, her back straightening. “Yes, Viceroy!”

Maybe this would be her means to nobility.

But then…

Villetta forced herself not to look at Ohgi, who was always a constant in her peripheral vision. Was that what she still wanted?

-+-

The sun was shining, but there were no answers being illuminated as Suzaku pushed Lelouch down the main Ashford colonnade. “So, what’s your plan?”

“Ask around,” Lelouch replied with a shrug. “Someone has to know something.”

As soon as he finished speaking, they caught sight of Synclair Worth leaning nonchalantly against a pillar.

Suzaku frowned. The last time he’d met Synclair Worth in this very colonnade, Worth and his cronies had beat him up for being an Eleven. That had been right after the Narita attack, when Suzaku’s self-esteem had been at an all-time low.

Now, remembering all the times that Worth had instigated severe bullying…

Remembering how Lelouch had been caught up in it…

Suzaku’s blood roared and without thinking, he charged the unsuspecting Britannian boy. Kneeing him in the stomach was pure instinct, as was karate chopping the back of his neck after he doubled over in pain. “How dare you…!”

“What the hell?!” Worth coughed, trying in vain to escape Suzaku’s merciless blows.

Lelouch rolled to a stop and muttered a quiet, “Wait.”

Suzaku pulled back, even as every inch of him screamed to continue. “But he’s the one, right?” he hissed. “It’d make too much sense.”

“Wait, you think I’m the one who attacked you?!” Worth exclaimed, eyes widening. “I swear, I’m innocent!”

Suzaku snorted. “Of course you’d say that!”

Cocking his head, Lelouch caught Worth’s eye and said, “There’s one way to make sure.” Red flared to life in his eye as he ordered, “Answer my questions.”

Worth went slack.

Suzaku’s brain short-circuited before he remembered Lelouch’s claim of power.

Keeping his gaze steady, Lelouch asked, “Did you attack me?”

“No.” Worth’s voice sounded almost lifeless.

Something sick rolled in Suzaku’s stomach.

“What do you know about the hate crime attack on Lelouch Lamperouge?”

Worth robotically shook his head, speechless.

Lelouch blinked. “He’s not involved.”

Before Suzaku could respond, Worth jumped back with his hands held up in surrender. “It wasn’t me, I swear!”

“I believe you,” Lelouch said calmly, bowing his head. “Suzaku, let’s keep going.”

Swallowing thickly, Suzaku resumed his position behind Lelouch’s wheelchair. “Was that…Geass?” he asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

Lelouch nodded. “Under its control, Worth was absolutely unable to lie. There’s no way he knows anything about what happened.”

“But he…he had to answer,” Suzaku said, trying to be sure. Something unpleasant lurched again in his stomach. What if someone forced him to answer about his father’s death? What if confessing was beyond his control? The very idea made him weak with fear. The scope of this “Geass” power was hitting him hard now. And hadn’t Lelouch said that he’d used it to make the members of the Royal Guard commit suicide?

Suzaku hadn’t thought much of it at the time, having so much else to process, but now—seeing Geass in action…

What were the moral standards tied to such a power, anyway?

-+-

“I propose that we support the Special Zone,” Tohdoh said, calmly ignoring several protests. The Japan Liberation Front had somehow escaped, and its members now blended with the Black Knights. General Katase had offered nothing more than a secretive smile when he’d arrived at the Black Knights’ mobile base headquarters earlier that day. They’d immediately begun talk of current events, needing to make decisions before they became obsolete.

With a commanding presence, General Katase stepped forward and addressed the assembled Black Knights. “I already gave my word, and it is my duty as a samurai to honor it.”

Tohdoh bowed his head as he continued supporting his leader. “We will try working together. Ohgi and some of the others are already attending the first rally to support the Zone.”

“Excellent,” General Katase said, dipping his head to Tohdoh. “You’ve done well.”

For a moment, Tohdoh remembered saying those very words to Suzaku, and his heart squeezed as he thought of the boy he’d so long ago taken under his wing. He hoped he was as worthy as General Katase when it came to being a mentor. Clearing his throat, he squashed those thoughts and started waving the others forward. “For now, we help the Japan Liberation Front settle in. Then we will help the Special Zone succeed. Long live Japan!

The resounding cry echoed through the warehouse. “Long live Japan!”

-+-

Euphy struggled to pay attention to Nina at the first public preparation event for her seedling dream. Instead of planning details for her upcoming speech on the Special Zone, her thoughts were with General Katase and the Japan Liberation Front; she hoped they’d escaped as planned with all the inside help she’d provided. She hoped that by now, they’d have met up with the Black Knights.

“—as beautiful as glowing radiation—” Nina was saying, blushing.

Again, Euphy tuned her out. She noticed Ohgi in the crowd and relaxed. General Katase and his number one soldier, Tohdoh, had designated Ohgi as the Black Knights point of contact; Lelouch and Suzaku had laughingly explained to Euphy that Ohgi had been the Japanese man on the news kissing his Britannian sweetheart. As such, he was easy to pick out.

Euphy’s heart thudded as she noticed his Britannian lover off to the side, talking to—Cornelia? They looked like they were having an intense conversation.

“—and you’re truly perfect,” Nina ended with a starry-eyed sigh. “I’ve always thought so.”

Blinking, Euphy offered a confused smile. Nina was always blushing and piling on the compliments.

“Here, take a flyer!” Milly Ashford’s booming voice suddenly sounded across the public square.

Euphy relaxed, impressed at how Milly had organized the members of the Student Council to help run the Special Zone events. Rivalz was animatedly talking to a group of Japanese teenagers, and Shirley was thrusting flyers at passers-by. Suzaku and Lelouch had decided to stay home, but Euphy understood that Lelouch wanted to get settled in now that he was finally free of the hospital. It would definitely be more peaceful for him, especially compared to this jovial chaos.

People had come from all over the island to learn about the Special Zone. There were even a decent amount of Ashford Academy students who had traveled for the occasion. Euphy recognized some students by sight, and her heart leapt for joy. It was her—their—generation that was changing the world.

“Huh?” Shirley followed Euphy’s gaze and tilted her head. “Anthony Bristol and Cameron Remington? They bullied Suzaku. They hate Elevens—I mean, Japanese.”

Nina stood straighter, but her voice still came out shy. “Sometimes people can have a change of heart…”

Turning to Nina, Euphy suddenly smiled and tuned in.

-+-

“So you’re going to be a teacher?” Ohgi asked the next day, sounding thrilled. He glanced around Ashford Academy’s stunning landscape. “You know, I used to teach.”

Villetta’s heart warmed at learning more about Ohgi. She didn’t understand it, but for some reason, it felt important. “I’ll mostly be undercover to keep an eye on Lelouch and Nunnally,” she said, repeating her orders from the Viceroy. “She wants them protected since they’re apparently too stubborn to leave campus.”

“Ah,” Ohgi said, wincing. “Lelouch. That’s the boy—”

“I know who he is,” Villetta interrupted, rolling her eyes. It felt fun to tease Ohgi. Actually, it felt fun to explore her new site of operations with Ohgi at all. Him being there somehow made everything feel more real. More worthwhile.

Ohgi was silent for a moment, obviously fighting back a blush. “I’d like to meet this ‘Nunnally’ character,” he finally blurted. “I’ve heard a lot about her.”

Villetta nodded thoughtfully. “We can meet her together. That is, if you’ll stay with me.”

An Ashford student nearby stumbled into a pillar, fury and disgust ripping across his face as he eavesdropped.

Ohgi barely gave him a glance as he answered, “There’s no question.”

For Villetta, there was no more question either.

-+-

Suzaku stopped dead in his tracks. Corbin Dixon was hauling some suspiciously familiar Britannian woman into an empty classroom, raging about Britannians lately turning into Eleven-Lovers. Shaking himself out of his stupor, Suzaku bounded after them, pleased to see that the Britannian woman obviously had some strength to her and was not going easily. It finally clicked where he had seen this woman before—on the television screen, kissing Ohgi.

In the Purists’ interrogation room, after Prince Clovis’s murder.

She was a soldier. Villetta Nu.

Suzaku shuddered, but he wasn’t going to turn a blind eye just because this woman had added to his extensive scar collection. He burst into the empty classroom. “Let her go!”

Corbin’s eyes immediately zipped to the doors and windows, but he lost hold of his captive.

“What is your problem, anyway?!” Suzaku hissed.

“She was giving heart eyes to a fucking Eleven!” Corbin growled back.

Suzaku rushed between Corbin and Villetta, taking on a protective stance. “So what?”

Corbin wrinkled his nose. Eyeing Suzaku’s raised fists warily, he suddenly turned and tried to make a dash for the door.

Lelouch rolled in front of the doorway, effectively blocking him. “What’s all this?”

Suzaku grinned. With Corbin trapped between them, there was nothing he and Lelouch could not do.

“Please,” Corbin said, deflating. He rounded on Suzaku. “I just wanted to talk. I wasn’t gonna—anyway, I didn’t do anything to her.”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence.

“Come on,” wheedled Corbin, slowly putting his hands up. “You have a soft heart every other time—”

Suzaku sighed and relaxed his position. “You’re right,” he said. “You stopped yourself.” Face hardening, he added, “But don’t think this is me being soft. It’s taking all my strength to hold back a teeth-smashing punch.”

Shifting uneasily, Corbin dropped his eyes.

Lelouch rolled away at Suzaku’s nod, granting access to freedom.

-+-

“So, today went as well as yesterday,” Lelouch said sarcastically. He drummed his fingers on the wheelchair armrests. They’d come back to home base at the Lamperouge suite.

Suzaku shrugged. “We talked to a lot of people—”

“—and we didn’t learn anything useful,” Lelouch concluded. “Are you sure you don’t want to use Geass anymore?”

Suzaku hunched into himself, shoulders curling inwards, before sinking to the floor. “It bothers me,” he confessed. “Seeing how Synclair Worth just lost himself…”

“He’s a monster anyway,” Lelouch pointed out with a shrug.

Suzaku twitched. “He tormented me since the day I started here, but he’s not—I mean, the ones who hurt you are the true monsters.”

“So using Geass on true monsters is okay?” Lelouch asked, looking too interested.

Suzaku felt again the rush of murderous rage as he thought about the bastards who had attacked Lelouch. “Yeah,” he conceded, “that’s okay.” If he was willing to go back on his ‘no killing’ rule…

But like he’d already told Lelouch the day before, Geass on normal people made him sick. That’s why they’d interviewed everyone else they’d come across without using it, much to Lelouch’s annoyance. He’d acquiesced to Suzaku’s request, however, and Suzaku loved him for it. Just like Suzaku loved how Lelouch had given Corbin Dixon a route out, instead of forcing a fight.

Villetta Nu had mumbled something about needing to make sure Ohgi had made it home safely before striding off, clearly embarrassed about the last time she and Suzaku had been in an enclosed room together.

Suzaku couldn’t blame her. Everything was just one gigantic mess.

Before anything more could be said, a knock sounded at the door.

Lelouch let in his company—a certain Chloe Beck and Jessica Moore. “Hello.”

“Uh, hi,” Chloe said, taking Jessica’s hand. “We’ve seen you two going around the past couple days, looking for answers…”

Jessica pulled Chloe inside and waited for the door to close behind them. “We know who it was. We know who attacked you.”

Chapter Text

“We know who it was. We know who attacked you.”

Lelouch sucked in a breath. He was free-falling and there was a ladder flung down to him, but he wasn’t close enough yet to grab hold. He needed names. He needed answers. Mechanically waving the girls further inside, he motioned for them to get on with it before his heart beat out of his chest or before—

“Lelouch, I’m so sorry!” Chloe cried, curling into herself.

Heart stuttering, Lelouch bit back a sigh at the interruption. His lifeline was getting farther away, right at that crucial moment when he’d believed himself saved.

Suzaku stepped forward and pointed at the couch. “Why?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “We know you weren’t the attackers.”

Clouds covered the sun as Chloe sat, tugging Jessica down with her. She blinked back tears as the room grew bathed in soft shadow, though some stray droplets squeezed from the corners of her eyes despite her best efforts. “But I let it get this far,” she said in a hitched, barely audible voice. She clasped her hands in her skirt and shook her head, sending teardrops flying. “I thought it was easier to stay quiet, and then this…” She suddenly looked up, desperate. “Oh Lelouch, I never wanted this to happen!”

Lelouch inhaled deeply again, hoping the chilly nip in the air would help clear his brain. He exchanged an uncertain look with his boyfriend. “Chloe, what do you mean?”

The sun came out from behind the clouds, as if even the day itself was tired of trapping truth in darkness. Chloe sniffled. “It was Corby. He was in charge.”

Lelouch stiffened, feeling razor sharp pinpricks of ice spread down his spine at the surety that overflowed him. “That’s who I recognized. I can’t believe I didn’t make that connection right away.” It was so obvious now, reflecting back. Everything fit, and Lelouch felt as stupid as if a novice had just beaten him at Chess. Defensiveness crested over him. “In the heat of the moment, I had other things on my mind.”

Suzaku put a hand on his shoulder in silent support. In every manner of speaking, Lelouch was gratified that Suzaku had his back.

Jessica squirmed next to Chloe. She opened her mouth, closed it again, looked at her friend, looked at Suzaku, and finally looked at Lelouch. At last, she sighed. “I know Farrell was one of the other two. I bet he’d tell me who the third one was.”

Lelouch narrowed his eyes. “Farrell Fox. He’s Dixon’s best friend—”

“—And your boyfriend, Jessica,” Suzaku cut in suspiciously. “At least Corbin is Chloe’s ex, so it makes sense. Why are you coming to us and ratting Fox out?”

Jessica glared at Suzaku, the same glare she always used on him because he was an Eleven. “Farrell may be my boyfriend, but what he did was still wrong and I don’t condone it! I admit, I did at first, but I didn’t know the real plan.”

Chloe put her hand on Jessica’s shoulder and squeezed it in sympathy, obviously sensing how hard it was for her best friend to speak.

The sky turned cloudy again, and silhouettes of shadows blurred together. Jessica shot a hesitant glance at Lelouch, as if she, like the sky, had trouble making up her mind. Then she wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt. “I knew Corbin was trying to throw something together after the picture.” It looked like she was going to say something more, but then she swallowed her words and rushed in what seemed like a different direction. “Farrell didn’t want to at first. He said he was fine watching and keeping quiet, and he reminded Corbin that he never even liked to get his hands dirty touching the Eleven.”

Lelouch leaned forward in his wheelchair, riveted. He felt the weight of Suzaku’s hand on his shoulder, steadying him as the truth finally swept him up. He couldn’t interrupt the girls if he’d wanted to.

Taking another deep breath, Jessica continued, “Corbin wouldn’t let it go. He said he’d pay Farrell whatever he wanted if he jumped in. Farrell named a pretty high sum, and Corbin agreed to it straightaway.”

Suzaku bit back some kind of hissing sound in response.

“They came up with the idea to use the gym changing room, so Farrell used his key as the baseball team captain to get in after-hours and make sure they had privacy,” Jessica said, finally slowing down her words. She leaned into Chloe’s side. “Corbin was gonna find you, wherever you were, and take you to the gym.” Starting to cry in earnest now, she paused and met Lelouch’s eyes. In a shaky voice, she said, “Th-they asked me to help c-clear the route, so I went on ahead and told anyone I came across some st-story to get them to move. That way no one would s-see them taking you s-somewhere.”

Lelouch cast his mind back, remembering the unnerving silence that had greeted him on that dark trek to the gym.

Jessica looked down, ashamed, and wrapped her arms around her midriff as she hunched over in what seemed like almost physical pain. “I thought they were just g-gonna hold your arms behind your b-back and punch you in the stomach a few t-times. I never…I never suspected this, Lelouch. I never would’ve…”

Both Lelouch and Suzaku gaped at her.

“And Farrell didn’t want to,” Jessica choked out. “He only did it for the money!”

Suzaku clenched his free hand into a fist. “And that’s supposed to make it okay? He still had a choice. He still went through with it, right? He still assaulted an innocent.”

Jessica wiped at her eyes. “He was supporting his best friend.”

“His best friend who was planning a violent hate crime!” Lelouch snapped.

Jessica shrugged half-heartedly. “Corbin has his issues,” she admitted. “But I always admired how Farrell stuck by him throughout it all. I can’t blame him for helping his friend.”

Suzaku and Lelouch exchanged another appalled look. There were lines, and both Corbin and Farrell had crossed them.

Frantically shoving down the thought that he’d always wanted Suzaku to cross lines for Zero, Lelouch re-focused on the current crisis. “Why does Corbin Dixon hate me that much anyway?” he asked scathingly. He waved at his broken legs. “To do something like this…”

Chloe jerked out of a stupor and shook her head. “Oh, no, Lelouch! Corby doesn’t hate you. He actually likes you quite a lot.”

Lelouch raised an eyebrow. “Huh. He’s got a funny way of showing it.”

“He’s just not very confident when it comes to you,” Chloe shared. “He puts on a cool, tough-guy act around you to hide his feelings.”

Suzaku frowned. “Are you saying Dixon has some sort of twisted crush on Lelouch? He arranged this whole crime because he was jealous?”

Chloe shrugged one shoulder. “I think he snapped and lost it because you were the one involved with Lelouch, Suzaku. Corbin’s always hated Elevens. He’s always thought you were in his way, and then to see proof that an Eleven took away what he wanted…”

“How do you know Dixon likes me?” Lelouch asked, shuddering with revulsion at the idea.

Chloe immediately blushed. “O-oh, well, I learned a lot while we were dating. I learned pretty early on that he was only dating me because I fit his ‘type’—that is, I looked enough like you that it was easy for him to pretend.”

Lelouch stared. Disgust pinched his lips and wrinkled his brow.

Chloe continued, “Corbin was big into roleplaying, see, and he always asked me to ‘be Lelouch’ in the bedroom. He’d…uh, punish me if I didn’t try to talk in a deep voice. When I—that is, in the bedroom, he always screamed your name.”

Suzaku made a strangled sound.

Shivering, Chloe wrapped her arms around herself and admitted meekly, “He was always pestering me for….you know, the back way kind.” She made a crude gesture for clarification. “For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable, but then…and, well, he broke up with me before he even finished.”

Lelouch and Suzaku shared another absolutely horrified glance. Feeling nauseated, Lelouch knew they were both remembering that day in the hallway, when Suzaku had comforted Chloe Beck after her break-up and thereby started to earn her trust; knowing what they knew now… Lelouch swayed with dizziness, and he clutched the sides of his wheelchair until his fingers turned white.

“Why…would you date such a monster?” Suzaku asked.

“It was exciting at first,” Chloe admitted, sliding down against the couch. “I felt bad for him, that he wanted you so bad but couldn’t bring himself to tell you. I wanted to help ease his burden a little. He was always so grateful at the beginning.” She twirled her short, black hair. “And on the outside, we were the perfect couple. My popularity went up. And after a while, despite everything, I…I started to fall for him…”

Lelouch slowly shook his head. “I hear what you’re saying, but it’s all so hard to take in.” Suzaku made some noise of agreement behind him.

“And I’m sorry!” Jessica abruptly blurted. “This is all my fault. I…I snapped the picture of you two on the staircase that Friday…I thought it would be funny to spread it around, but like, I never thought something like this would happen.”

Suddenly incensed, Lelouch pointed at the door and automatically used Geass with the burning force of his feelings. “Get. Out.” His eye twitched a couple times.

Jessica scurried out, but Chloe hung back and said softly, “We really are sorry. We…we’ve been building up the courage to come tell you. Because it’s the right thing to do, and our consciences wouldn’t leave us alone. I—we know nothing can make up for our part in all this, but if there’s anything at all…” Her light purple eyes were downright pleading and wet with tears.

“You can start by getting the hell out,” Suzaku repeated, his voice gentle but firm. “We know where to find you if anything changes, Chloe.” He took a deep breath. “And…thank you.”

Chloe nodded, shot them a watery smile, and then she followed her best friend out the door.

-+-

The entire Student Council showed up on Lelouch’s doorstep five minutes later, recently arrived home from the Mount Fuji area where they’d been helping with the Special Zone.

“Okay, so spill,” Milly said, pointing between Lelouch and Suzaku. “What happened?”

“Our business,” Lelouch answered curtly. His mind was still spinning from everything he’d learned, and he didn’t have time for Milly’s nonsense. “All you need to know is that Suzaku and I are back together and thus we can all be friends again.”

“But was it the attackers?” Shirley pressed. She joined Milly on the couch, and altogether they were a much better replacement for Chloe and Jessica. “Did they have anything to do with manipulating Suzaku—”

“Shirley,” Lelouch interrupted, exasperated. He didn’t want to be reminded of Corbin Dixon and Farrell Fox. “This is one of the reasons we kept quiet from the beginning about our relationship. Let it go.”

Chastened, Shirley fell quiet. Milly wrapped a supportive arm around her shoulders. “We’re just worried.”

“There’s no need to be worried,” Lelouch said. “Suzaku and I are stronger than ever. Your support with the Special Zone means so much to us. Suzaku and I discovered who was behind the attack while you were gone. So you see, the world is looking brighter.”

“You know who the bastards are?!” Rivalz jumped in. “Let’s fuck them up.”

Milly nodded her agreement, her attention thoroughly hijacked. “Tell us what you need us to do, Lelouch.”

Glancing at his boyfriend, Lelouch said, “Nothing. Suzaku and I have got this.”

“But—!”

“The best way you can help,” Lelouch said, quickly wondering what would keep them all busy, “is to keep working on Euphy’s dream.”

“There’s a lot still to do. Did you know that some people are protesting the Special Zone?” Shirley asked. “Liberal Britannians and Elevens—excuse me, the Japanese—are saying it’s not ‘enough,’ and conservative Britannians are protesting the Zone’s mere existence in the first place!”

“These rallies are happening around the Tokyo Settlement and beyond,” Rivalz added solemnly, “and there’s already been bloodshed between the two sides.”

“I wish they’d stop with all the violence,” Suzaku said with a shudder. “That’s no way to solve anything.”

Lelouch hummed in his throat, thinking hard. He might not know what to make yet of Corbin Fucking Dixon, but there was one thing he knew he had to do.

-+-

“I need some time to process everything with Dixon,” Suzaku said, flopping back on the bed. They’d finally gotten space from their well-meaning but tiresome friends. Retreating to their bedroom, they’d kicked out a mewling Arthur and settled down for some much-needed peace.

“Okay,” Lelouch readily agreed. Reflection had worked wonders for Suzaku in the recent past. “In the meantime, do you think we could…” He trailed off, gesturing in random swirls and patterns.

Suzaku blinked. “Yes? Whatever you want, my prince.”

Lelouch laughed.  He wanted to move forward with something. “I’m saying I want to touch you. Do you want that?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“You don’t get points for reusing a comeback line,” Lelouch scoffed. He tugged on Suzaku’s pants. “Take these off.”

“You’re so bossy,” Suzaku teased, but he scrambled to comply. Soon his pants and underwear lay in a heap on the other side of the bedroom, right beneath the closed curtains.

Breathing deeply, Lelouch put his hand on Suzaku’s naked hip. Then, instead of moving down, he slid his hand up under Suzaku’s shirt until it rested on the soldier’s old scarred-over wound from Shinjuku.

Suzaku went limp under Lelouch’s hand, his green eyes shining with understanding at the familiar ritual.

After a moment to ground himself, Lelouch met Suzaku’s gaze and used his free hand to gently cup Suzaku’s balls. His boyfriend’s pleased inhalation sounded sweeter than any piano composition.

“Do you want me to…?”

“No,” Lelouch said, sliding his hand up Suzaku’s hardening shaft. “You just lie there. I’m in control.”

“Yes, my prince.”

Lelouch smirked, nodded, and stroked Suzaku’s cock in time to a rhythm in his head. After a moment, he realized it was the same rhythm he used during muscle exercises with therabands. It felt freeing, to touch Suzaku and not have to worry about anything. “How’s this?”

“Good,” Suzaku praised, already panting. “It’s better than good. How are you doing?”

“I’d stop if I wanted to,” Lelouch assured him. He shifted on the sheets, feeling things out. “I’m okay. This feels…familiar. I like holding you in my hand.”

Squirming with pleasure, Suzaku nodded breathlessly. “So,” he huffed. He cast his eyes wildly from side to side. “Euphy’s Special Zone is coming along nicely.”

“I suppose,” Lelouch said, as noncommittal as ever. He squeezed the tip of Suzaku’s cock between his thumb and forefinger. “Now that the Black Knights are officially sponsoring it…”

Suzaku jerked at the sensation. “I suppose it’s all the same thing, though, huh?”

Lelouch dipped his head, focusing on the leaking pre-come. “True. Euphy is a Black Knight.”

“So am I,” said Suzaku, sounding a bit proud of his new title. He thrust into Lelouch’s fist and moaned.

Laughing, Lelouch palmed him quicker and said, “You haven’t even done anything.”

“There’s been no opportunity to do so!”

“So why don’t you really join the Black Knights?” Lelouch pressed. He twisted his wrist in the way he remembered that Suzaku liked, and was pleased to see that it was still effective. “See what kind of people the Japanese rebels are in person?”

Suzaku’s eyes glazed over. “I could see Tohdoh-sensei…”

Chuckling again, Lelouch pumped while twisting simultaneously. “Exactly. And meet more people like Ohgi.”

“I’d like that,” Suzaku agreed. “I guess…it took me such a long time to see it, but…a majority of the common people really do want to achieve things Zero’s way.”

“Zero is a symbol of hope,” Lelouch said, the pride in his voice almost the same strength from before the attack. “That’s how I designed it.”

Lelouch obviously knew what he was doing, because Suzaku came every time.

-+-

“Escaped?!” Cornelia raged, already striding towards the supposedly new-and-improved cells that had for so long held the remnants of the Japan Liberation Front. The poor soldier informant hurried after her, apologizing between breaths.

With everything going on with Euphy’s Special Zone…

Off to the side, Schneizel turned to Kanon with a disgruntled expression. “Well, now we can’t trap Lelouch using Operation Leaked Chess Battle.”

Kanon glanced around before briefly entwining his fingers with Schneizel’s. “We have the attackers’ identities, the ballistics report from Lelouch’s gun, and our own hunch.”

“That’s true,” Schneizel conceded. “Together, we’re never wrong.”

-+-

In the Code R team’s laboratory, one Jeremiah Gottwald broke out of his test tube. “ZEROOO!”

-+-

Zero preached equality through peaceful methods during an impromptu video broadcast (ideal for editing before submission), taking over every channel once aired due to the skills of one Britannian Black Knight, Diethard Reid. Having a TV-man sure was useful, especially one with Britannian connections.

“I understand your feelings,” Zero said, addressing the Japanese and liberal-minded Britannians. “Our efforts have gotten us this far, but now it is time to pull back and utilize the more peaceful approach that was not afforded to us before now.” He slid a backdrop image of the Special Zone in front of the camera to make his point. “We have Britannia’s attention and now we must take the high road in our quest for justice!”

As he made sure the camera focused only on his top half, Lelouch noticed Suzaku’s beaming smile across the Lamperouge suite guest bedroom— by now their unofficial Black Knights recording station. Clicking off the camera, Lelouch held out his hand.

And Suzaku stepped closer.

-+-

“Welcome, gentlemen,” Schneizel said, beckoning a servant over with some drinks. He looked over the trio of Britannian schoolboys with a neutral gaze. “I assume you’re wondering why the Prime Minister of Britannia wanted a special meeting with three Ashford Academy students.”

The boy in the middle, one Corbin Dixon according to the paperwork, spoke for the group. “Yes, Prime Minister. Thank you for having us.”

Schneizel’s lip curled, and he waved the servant away. “I presume you already know what links you three together.”

Corbin Dixon, Farrell Fox, and Anthony Bristol glanced amongst themselves with poorly-concealed guilty expressions to Schneizel’s trained eye.

“I still don’t understand why you’d like to talk to us in person like this,” Dixon said carefully. He folded and refolded his hands.

Bristol shifted uncomfortably. “Dude,” he hissed, “didn’t you hear the rumors? The Royal Family’s been involved with the local sensation case—”

Schneizel held out a gloved hand, interrupting the flow of panic. “Do not worry,” he said, meeting each of their eyes directly. “You did a great service to Britannia by crippling Zero.”

There was a beat of stunned silence.

“Um, what?” asked Fox.

Rolling his hand in the air, Schneizel continued, “Unfortunately, I am torn between being a prime minister and a big brother.” The three boys’ heads jerked at the label. Ignoring their surprised twitches, Schneizel said, “I should be ecstatic that you so severely wounded Britannia’s greatest threat…but half of me wants revenge because of what you did to my blood.”

“Your blood?” echoed Dixon, glancing down at his hands with a wince.

Schneizel nodded solemnly. “My younger brother, of course. Prince Lelouch vi Britannia.”

Dixon jumped to his feet, sending his chair flying. “What?!”

Fox’s jaw dropped, his eyes wide. “P-p-p…” he tried, but couldn’t get the word out.

Bristol opened and closed his mouth several times before sighing and nodding. “Of course,” he said, the sarcasm obvious in his voice. “Wait, you’re implying that Lelou—um, Prince Lelouch is…” He held up curled fingers in a circle.

Schneizel just stared them down. It was a strong assumption, but he felt the truth of it in his gut. “Moving on,” he said curtly, “I am a betting man. Because I’m torn, I will make a deal with you.”

“A deal,” echoed Dixon blankly. He sat down again. Still mostly frozen in shock.

“If the three of you can together beat me in one game of chess, I’ll reward you as heroes of Britannia,” Schneizel laid out. “If you lose, then you suffer the consequences of hurting my little brother.”

Again, the three Britannian boys glanced between themselves.

“Three against one?” Dixon said around a laugh. “I think we’re in no position to refuse. Prime Minister, thank you for your lenience—”

“Don’t thank him yet,” Kanon said, entering the room with a chessboard. “See how the game goes before you open your mouth.”

“Thank you, Kanon,” said Schneizel with an overly-innocent smile. “Listen to his wisdom, boys. Earl Kanon Maldini has had to learn when to use his tongue.”

Flushing, as intended, Kanon set the chessboard down and started arranging the beginnings of a game. “Do you not remember anything Prince Lelouch said or did that might point to his secret identity as a terrorist?” he asked casually, moving pieces into place.

As Bristol recounted Lelouch’s many absences from school, Dixon stared hard at his hands. He lifted his chin and replied slowly, “During the…attack…”

And there it was. Admission, in case there was any doubt.

“Lelouch, he said things like, ‘This is why I hate Britannia!’ Then he ranted about the Britannian mindset and attitude, and he did say something about wanting to destroy it. I thought it was just, I dunno, tough talk.”

Schneizel shared a knowing look with Kanon. “I see.”

Fox bit his lip. “Does Prince Lelouch know?”

“About you? No,” Schneizel said, moving a white pawn forward to start the game. “However, whether or not he discovers your identities is dependent upon your strategical performance in this chess gamble.”

“He is totally Lelouch’s brother,” Dixon mumbled under his breath, carefully mirroring Schneizel’s initial move on the other side of the board.

Less than five minutes later, Schneizel smirked. “Lelouch learned his chess skill from me, boys. It is unfortunate for you, but the odds were stacked in my favor from the beginning.”

-+-

“So.”

“So.”

Lelouch threw a dart, hitting the center of the cork board with a resounding thwack. “We know who two thirds of the bastards are, so we can move on to Phase Two.”

Suzaku slid down in his seat, wiping sweat off his brow from the intense second round of mutually one-sided hand-job sex. It had been both a ‘thank you’ and a celebration of Zero’s proclamation. “What’s Phase Two?”

For once, Lelouch shrugged. “Something we’ll figure out together. You’re still up for revenge, right?”

Suzaku nodded determinedly, green fire in his eyes. “The bastards deserve everything we can do to them.”

“They deserve to die,” Lelouch hissed, clenching his fingers into fists.

Suzaku twitched.

“You…agree with that, right?” Lelouch asked, for the first time worried that Suzaku was no longer on-board with their plan.

Slower than Lelouch liked, Suzaku nodded. “I do think they deserve to die,” he hedged.

“But….?”

“But I don’t think I can do it!” Suzaku said, sounding close to hysterical. “I thought I was ready, but I just can’t imagine myself killing anyone…” He was silent for a moment, then whispered starkly, “Again.”

“Okay,” Lelouch said, trying to understand. “What changed?”

“That’s just it,” Suzaku said. “Nothing’s changed! I’ve had a strict ‘no-kill’ policy for years. I think more than anyone, Dixon, Fox, and whoever else deserve to die a painful death. Thinking about what they did to you infuriates me. I want to kill anyone who hurts you.” He gestured wildly. “But you know, now it’s real people. Now it’s faces I can imagine. And after all the reflection I did…death is so final.” He stopped and gathered his words. “After I killed my father, I was left with this deep regret and emptiness that had nowhere to go. And in the end, nothing was solved. Everything was worse. I’m afraid…I’m afraid to get my hands dirty again, and for it all to be for nothing.”

“I’ll be the one to get my hands dirty,” Lelouch offered, trying not to sound too eager.

“No, we’re in this together,” Suzaku reminded him. “Let’s decide. I’m trying to explain my side, that’s all. Just…think back to Clovis.”

And damn, did that prick Lelouch’s heart like a dart hitting home. It was true that killing Clovis had led to more problems, but they were predictable problems. All part of the grand plan to destroy Britannia. But Suzaku had a point. What was there to gain by killing Dixon and the others? It wouldn’t serve any purpose, other than the personal satisfaction brought about by revenge. But then, did he need more of a reason than that? He was Lelouch vi Britannia! 

Suzaku sighed after some more moments of silence. “Thanks for considering.”

“Of course,” Lelouch responded automatically. He stared pensively at his beloved boyfriend. “You’re not okay with killing them,” he recapped haltingly, “and you’re already traumatized by what happened with your father.” Before Suzaku could respond, Lelouch continued, “I don’t want to add any more trauma to your life by coercing you into doing something against your morals.”

Suzaku’s eyes glimmered with wetness now.

“You’re right in that we need to look to the future,” Lelouch said. Always moving forward. “I choose my future. With you. Protecting what’s left of your sanity is more important to me than getting the ultimate vengeance for what happened in the past, but…”

“But?” Suzaku wondered in a thin tone.

Lelouch clenched his teeth. “Even if we don’t kill them, I still want us to take matters into our own hands and make the bastards suffer.”

“I agree with that,” Suzaku said, for the first time in this conversation sounding absolutely certain. A paper crane teetered and fell off the desk. “What did you have in mind?”

Lelouch sighed through his nose, again thinking hard. “Well, I know you said Geass makes you feel sick…”

“You know what?” Suzaku interrupted, scooting closer to Lelouch. “You’re relenting on our plan to kill for my sake. I appreciate that. So I’m gonna meet you in the middle, like we talked about, and agree that using Geass on these particular bastards is okay.” He nodded firmly, lips pursed. “These are not normal people, after all. After what they did, maybe they deserve to have their wills stolen from them.  Depending on what we’re going to order them to do…”

It was something. It was more than something. “I have some ideas, but I’m also open to suggestions,” Lelouch said, putting the ball back in Suzaku’s court. Give-and-take.

Before Suzaku could answer, Lelouch’s phone rang.

“Hello, Lelouch.” Schneizel’s smooth voice sounded over the line. “Guess what? I have your three attackers in custody.”