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He remembers.  He forgets. He remembers , the bedsheets tangled around his waist and curled down his leg to knot at his ankle.  It’s hot— atsuin ja , he thinks—that’s why he can’t sleep.  It has nothing to do with the ghosts in the room, Euphie sweet and sad at the end of his bed, Lulu in the window where the moonlight can catch at his cheekbones.  Suzaku sighs. Euphie sighs with him.

“I want you rested for tomorrow.”  Lelouch’s voice is heavy for a ghost, not the wisp that it should be, not the half-remembered breath of Euphie’s.  It makes sense; they’ve known each other longer than he knew her, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the sound of Lulu’s voice, soft and tender as he talked about his sister when they were in private.  This ghost is kinder, too, eyes more gentle and voice running the playful lilt Suzaku wants to remember. “Nunnally is—”

Precious, of course.  The corner of Suzaku’s lips tuck up and back in a facsimile of a smile.  An approximation. Lulu nods to himself, assured. He’s a figment of Suzaku’s imagination, of course.  Of course he can tell when Suzaku is giving in. Of course he can. His smile is smug, because Lelouch didn’t know how to not be smug, but he clambers silently down from his perch in the window box.

His fingers fade through Suzaku’s; when he reaches up to stroke Lelouch’s cheek, the tips of his own sink through the pale skin.  Lelouch looks sorry, those wide purple eyes going hazy with regret. It’s a face Suzaku doesn’t remember Lelouch making in life, and that’s how he knows it’s real.

“Sleep now,” Euphie tells him, and he nods into the pillow.

::

He dreams.  He dreams of the world of C, of the sizzled, burned synapse feel of falling into a Geass, of screaming anger into the void as tortured souls wail.  When he wakes, his tongue tastes of metal. He pushes his way under again.

She isn’t there.  He is; Suzaku dreams of narrowed, laughing, violet eyes and contingency plans that have contingency plans.  He’s alone, watched.

He also dreams of a boy, soft and pliable, with wide, empty eyes and Lulu’s thin lips.  It’s different, fed to him carefully down the line that still ties him to the other world, but the boy is.  Simple. It hurts worse than he’s imagined to see him like this, hollowed out and empty, worse than it did even to see him rewritten over and over again, Charles’s rough draft.  But. But he can’t help but admit to himself that it can be—nice. It’s nice to touch this boy, to trail his fingers down his jaw and lift the pointed chin. Even Suzaku’s crushing loneliness won’t let him kiss Lel—this boy.  He curls his fingers in the boy’s hair and strokes until the boy is making soft, pleased sounds beneath his palms.

He wakes and curls Arthur into his arms.  It’s time to head to the palace to meet Nunnally.

It all happens so much faster than he’s ever thought it would.  Failure tastes like metal and gunpowder.

::

He hallucinates.  Shario’s abuse brings him to his limit; with no food and no water, no respite, it doesn’t take long for the shadows to flicker, to seep in from the edges, their humanoid frames both familiar and fluid, merging into one another as they drip apart.  The smallest one—she isn’t dead. She isn’t! His breath is sharper than Shario’s knives, shredding his lungs as he gasps against Nunnally’s grasping hands. Her fingers catch, palm smoothing across the breadth of his forehead, nails scratching gently at his brow.  They come away wet; he can see the glimmer on them when she draws back, but if it’s tears, if it’s sweat, if it’s blood, he can’t tell in the half light.

“You aren’t, are you?  You can’t be,” he pleads.

She tips her head to the side, eyes closed and still so sad.  She’s blind again. It’s how he knows it isn’t real.

::

He dreams him again, the boy huddled in the dark and the distant sounds of combat nearby.  The boy isn’t dreaming, is in some sort of fugue instead, whimpers tangled tight and panicky and high in his throat as people thud against the wall and the picture frames rattle.  He’s—he’s like a child, fingers curled in knots against palms, and all the boy can do is weep. Suzaku trails a curious hand over one of the trembling shoulders and the boy starts, and oh, there’s no recognition in those eyes but there is fear, cutting and familiar, desperation and terror that tear at Suzaku’s heart until he spots the familiar pillow—

The boy’s breathy whines calm for a moment; he snatches the pillow away from incorporeal fingers so fast that Suzaku’s left tingling.  He tries again, tries to smooth the hair that’s fallen loose from its band back behind an ear, and this time—he—lets him. Thick, inky lashes flutter over hollow velvet eyes as Suzaku gingerly pushes back the strand—it’s so long; it’s gotten so long—behind the pink shell.  His fingertips brush the boy’s skin and those eyes flinch. The boy sidles back.

Suzaku wakes at a gunshot.

::

His cell smells like antiseptic and age, the cool, dry smell of stone and the sharp, vivid sting of alcohol, medicine, saline wet and clinical.  For a long moment, he hopes he’s dying, until he remembers that he isn’t. It’s dark here, wherever here is; there’s the sensation of the earth pressing down on his shoulders, familiar as his own skin.

Euphie brushes his hair from his forehead with fingertips so delicate it barely moves.  Her smile is cautious. She looks serious, a little sad. It’s how he knows it’s real.

::

He dreams the boy again, in the back of a truck again.  They watch the sun-sharp sand beneath the edge of the tarp together and the boy pets his hair.  When he wakes, it’s the most refreshed he’s been in days.

::

The shadows gather in the dark corners, watching.

Lelouch hums quietly from his spot within the ghosts.  It’s on the tip of Suzaku’s tongue to laugh, to make fun of all the jokes about his masochism while the razor’s tips cut slices from his flesh.  He hangs open instead, gasping at the sudden sting; Shario will kill him, and soon. For now, though, respite. He sags against the chains. He isn’t sure—doesn’t remember—what Shario wants, letting thought fade in and out of the bruise blue spots in his vision.

There’s no judgement on Lelouch’s face.  It’s how he knows it isn’t real.

::

He dreams an ancient hall marked by centuries of flooding.  He dreams a familiar symbol carved in stone. He dreams of C.C., her eyes sharp on his face before she turns back to the door.  The boy is gone.

::

He opens his eyes into the dark.  He isn’t ungrateful for the break, but he’s been counting the hours in knives on his skin, and without them, he drifts, aimless.  Lelouch is there, his ever-present shadow, but. But. The shadows play on the curve of a cheek; the eyes flash, and for a moment he’s not two years into heartbreak but mere moments, seconds after the coffin is raised into the air carrier—no, the smears of blood are drying on his mask—no, his best friend, the only person left, Lelouch is explaining calmly and methodically why he needs to die, why it must be Suzaku’s hands to crush the pulp of his heart to bloody ruin.  His breath escapes and doesn’t return.  He reaches out.

It’s blinding, the rage that sweeps him when, for once, his finger doesn’t pass through.  He’s still breathless and panting and furious , except C.C. says it isn’t Lelouch’s fault that he’s even alive and the Suzaku’s skin is the paper shell of a hornet’s nest.  He’s dead— alive —and like always, Suzaku is too.

And then—and then; and life in Lelouch’s wake has a way of rushing along to pool in strange eddies.  He finds that somewhere along the way they’ve picked up—good lord, the UFNand the Black Knights rubbing elbows with Cornelia’s team, and Lelouch has settled into the middle of it all, the confident commander as always.

He isn’t listening in on Kallen’s conversation with C.C..  It would be rude. It’s still a good point: say the things he never let himself say before.  It’s a good point. That doesn’t mean he does it, standing there under the stars with two years on his tongue and a hollow world in his heart.  Lelouch pauses, leaves his maps and his plans. They watch the stars until he feels guilty; he passes Kallen crouched at the foot of the stairs, and C.C.’s gaze is long.

::

He doesn’t dream about the boy.  The boy isn’t real.

::

When the battle is over, he tries to give it back.  The mask, the punishment, the pain. Lelouch refuses.  He stands with his heart in his throat, on his sleeve, in his eyes, and Lelouch refuses.

::

He wakes and they’re gone.  They’re gone; they’re gone. Something in his chest clenches around the knowledge.

Somehow it makes it easier, though, to know he’s out there.  He takes the mask off more. It isn’t his, but it isn’t Lelouch’s—it’s a symbol, it’s a placeholder; if anything, it’s Nunnally’s.  He catches himself smiling more, the muscles in his face sore and unfamiliar. He lives , just a little more.

(Later, later he’ll say—everything.  For now, he heals.)