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“It’s a bit selfish,” CC said, cocking her head to the side. Her voice echoed in the bare room. “Doesn’t it ruin things?”

“I’m tired of killing people.” Suzaku did not look at her. “I’m tired of death.”

She twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “Mm. I thought you weren’t supposed to think about these things. Being his sword and all that.”

“You’d rather that he die?”

She sighed. “Are we being a coward about this?” She jumped when he snatched her arm, and then her eyes sank half-closed and they gleamed in the grey light. He squeezed, his fingers meeting around her slim upper arm, and she smiled. “Have I struck a nerve?” she said sweetly.

“I am not a coward.” His voice was low and dangerous, but she laughed.

“Don’t try to convince yourself too hard. I’m not the one you have to explain yourself to. I’m done here.” His grip went slack, and she shook him off. “He can’t help me anymore.”

When she looked down, her face finally softened to something inscrutable, and Suzaku followed her gaze. Between them, Lelouch was pale against the hospital sheets, his breathing thin. There were dark smudges under his eyes, and the lines of his neck and collarbones were unhealthy juts over his skin. There was the steady drip-drip-drip of an IV loaded with sedative, its line snaking down to plug into the juncture of his elbow. Handcuffs linked his skinny wrists to either side of the bed. CC brushed her fingertips over Lelouch’s bangs, smoothing them over his forehead, and she murmured, “He will never forgive you.”

“Maybe,” Suzaku said, his mouth dry.

“Enjoy your delusions.” She rolled her eyes at the room: it was windowless and mostly bare, harsh. It smelled faintly sterile. The air was eerie and stagnant, and finally, she let out her breath. “Goodbye,” she said softly to Lelouch’s still form. She leaned forward and kissed his lips, her fingers on his cheek. She pulled back and hesitated, but he didn’t stir. She straightened and turned to Suzaku. “Goodbye,” she said again, her voice now just a bit mocking, and she stood on tiptoe and cupped his cheeks and kissed him, too.

He stood stock-still as she leaned against him, watching her closed eyes, and when she pulled away, she smiled and shook her head. One of her hands moved down to his shoulder, her fingers tracing the wide collar of Zero’s lapels, the gold trim drained to a weird grey in the darkness. “Have a nice life,” she whispered. She smiled, and then she turned and she was gone.

The door hissed shut, its automatic lock sliding heavily into place, and Suzaku looked at the bed again, at Britannia’s greatest lie. Without CC standing over him, Lelouch was a bundle of limbs and sickly pale skin, the edge of bandages peeking over the sheet. Suzaku reached out and put his hand lightly on Lelouch’s chest. His thumb and middle finger pressed against the sweep of Lelouch’s collarbone. He could feel Lelouch’s weak breathing under his palm, the faint beat of his heart through the soft fabric of Zero’s gloves. If he slid his hand up, just here, he could squeeze, and things would be fixed. Zero would be a savior; Britannia’s last emperor would be dead. If he crushed Lelouch’s windpipe, drowned him in his own blood while he was mired in a drugged sleep, half of this would not be a lie.

Enjoy your delusions.

Lelouch was meticulous by nature, with an impressive eye for detail. His years as Zero had honed his sense, his mistakes forcing him to cut corners in a sort of agony. In the beginning, though, he was obsessively exact. As Zero he had crafted his suit from only the finest fabric. Gold on purple, red on black. Utterly recognizable and borderline absurd. It fit him as few things ever did. It sat and folded attractively, its color rich and full, and even though it was made for Lelouch and not Suzaku, fitted originally to flatter a slimmer frame and made to withstand very little actual wear and tear, it didn’t rip, even when Suzaku jerked it from his shoulders and fumbled to pull his legs from the trousers. He heaped it on the floor and threw the cravat and gloves over its top. As he tore the black undershirt over his head, he heard his own breathing and its frantic, sobbing pace. He swallowed and swayed on his feet and dropped to the floor, leaning his back against the edge of his bed. He hugged his knees to his chest.

(I trust your aim, Lelouch had said, a little smile on his lips as he placed his hand on his chest over his heart. Here.

And Suzaku had nodded and said, Yes, something inside him turning to stone, but when it happened--when he was standing there wearing those fine, absurd clothes in front of however-many-thousand people and Lelouch in white, smiling at him like they were fulfilling some great destiny--he did not aim correctly. It should have been a clean stab, pushing the blade in and out the other side. It should have been easy, except for Suzaku’s stupid heart and reasons why he couldn’t murder Lelouch that he didn’t want to think about too closely. He was used to betrayal, mostly.

And so a change, at the last second, that was just a shift in his grip on the sword’s hilt. A slash instead of a stab: a long, arcing wound that knocked Lelouch back in a spray of blood. Lelouch’s face twisted in furious surprise before he fell under Zero in a crumpled heap, and then Cornelia was there, yelling that Lelouch is dead. Zero’s sword painted in blood, and Jeremiah snatching up Lelouch’s limp, bloody form, taking him away to a place of morphine and bandages and unsuccessful surgery and secrets.

And Suzaku was left with the people chanting Zero’s name, blood splattered across his front and over the mask, the sword heavy in his hand, the trappings of Zero feeling very much like they would strangle him. At nightfall, CC was waiting for him at the embassy, her arms crossed tightly over her middle, her eyes guarded, and she said, Well. He isn’t dead yet.

She didn’t offer her hand to him, like she might have done with Lelouch to catch him as he fell, and Suzaku did not reach for her.)

“Fuck you, Lelouch,” he whispered, pressing his forehead to his arms. He twisted the shirt in his trembling hands. “I never agreed to this.”

The new candidates for the Knights of Rounds were scared of him. He could feel their fear from where he stood behind Nunnally, his cape wrapped tightly around him. From the vantage point of Zero’s mask he could study these young men and women--four Britannians and two Japanese, which was gratifying, if a bit forced--and see how his presence unnerved them. They answered Nunnally’s questions well enough: fighting to preserve the balance of the nations, respect for Japan’s reestablishment, and so on. They tried very hard not to look at him.

Gino did not. He stood to the side of the new candidates, his back straight, watching. Suzaku was very careful. He ignored Gino and ran his eyes over the candidates again. He wondered vaguely what their Knightmare Frames would be called. Gaheris, or Bedivere. Acalon. Anya’s Mordred was retired since she had left, and he himself had destroyed three others. There would never be another Lancelot, he knew that.

When Nunnally lifted her chin and thanked them, the candidates bowed deeply, touching their fists to their chests, and filed away. Gino followed in their wake, his sharp eyes still on the opaque screen of Zero’s mask. As he went to close the door behind them, Nunnally called, “Sir Weinberg? A moment, please, before you go.”

Gino clicked the door shut and knelt, his head bowed. “Your Majesty.”

“Will the Knights be returning with us to the motherland?”

“Sir Enneagram told me that the capital’s construction would be complete within the next six weeks, Your Majesty. The Knights will go wherever is necessary.”

Nunnally paused. She studied Gino’s shoulders. “As one of the members of the Rounds chosen by my father...what is the Knights’ objective, now that Japan is an independent country?”

Gino stiffened and looked at the carpet for a long time. “To preserve the peace, Your Majesty,” he said slowly. “To ensure Britannia’s strength as a world power.”

“Even if there is no war?”


“If the necessity of ensuring our strength and control is gone, then what is the Knights’ purpose?”

He raised his head and gave her a long look, his eyes inscrutable. “What are you proposing, Your Majesty?”

Nunnally straightened her spine, clasping her hands before her on the desk. “I’m proposing, Sir Weinberg, the dissolution of the Knights of Rounds once we have relocated to the new capital in Britannia. Possibly even the eventual destruction of our Knightmare Frames, after we have managed a complete withdrawal from Japan’s shores.”

Gino gaped. “But that would be--” He stopped himself and swallowed, his brow knitting. “I would not--advise that,” he said. “I do not think that would be...wise.”

“Do you say that as a pilot, or as a Britannian?”

“As both, Your Majesty.” He glanced up at her, a question in his eyes, and she nodded, giving him permission. He took a deep breath. “If Britannia deserted Japan and laid down her arms, it would be an open invitation for attack from anyone in the world. We can’t destroy our defenses in a gesture of peace. It would be too tempting for our old enemies.”

“But eventually?” Nunnally insisted.

He looked at her, despairing, and faltered. “Perhaps Zero can answer you, Your Majesty.” He ducked his head and stared at the floor again, his back stiff.

Suzaku cleared his throat. “As appropriate as a withdrawal may be, Sir Weinberg is right, Your Majesty. So soon after the Rebellion, the gesture might seem...a trick.” Gino winced. They all remembered the Massacre Princess. “A solid defense is not always an offense. Even the UFN maintains its military force. If you call for the destruction of our weapons, you may as well do away with our army and navy altogether. Britannia cannot afford to look naïve now.”

“But eventually?” Nunnally said again, looking at him. It was almost a plea, a desperate question from a young girl with too much responsibility.

“Maybe,” he allowed. “Give it time, confer with the UFN, forge an agreement. Ohgi would listen, as would Kaguya and Xing-ke. Britannia cannot do it alone.”

Nunally nodded, her mouth an unhappy downturn. She ran her fingers over the edges of the new candidates’ paperwork, scratching her nail lightly over gilt and ink. Finally, she said, “Thank you. You may go, Sir Weinberg.” Gino stood and bowed hastily, looking very relieved. When the door shut behind him, the room was quiet.

“Would it be that simple?” she said into the silence. “Just ask?”

“They want to believe in you, Your Majesty, after the last emperor.” She flinched. “It will never be simple. Ask your siblings if you want an experienced opinion. Prince Schneizel and Princess Cornelia would surely have something to say to the idea.”

Nunnally smiled bitterly. “Brother and sister would say to double our defenses. They can’t trust anyone.”

“Perhaps they are right.”

She sighed. “Thank you, Zero,” she said, smoothing her skirt over her knees. She looked again at the stack of forms before her, sunlight slanting over her desk. She had no throne room, nothing but the grandest office the embassy had to offer. He thought broad windows and flowers suited her better than the grandeur of Charles’ or Lelouch’s tastes. “I believe we’re done for today. You may go.”

He swept into a shallow bow and stepped away, cape curtaining over him. Nunnally jerked her hand out as he passed, her fingers grasping at the cuff of his sleeve, and he froze.

“Thank you...Suzaku,” she ventured, peering up at him. The color of her eyes still surprised him, even now. When he was younger, he imagined they were something like Lelouch’s deep violet, but not this cool, clear blue. She studied Zero’s mask, her eyes seeking something human.

He took his sleeve gently from her hand. “Kururugi Suzaku has been dead for some time, Your Majesty.” He took care to not brush her fingers.

Her brow furrowed into a frown. “Yes,” she said slowly. “But--yes.” She folded her hands again and began carefully, “Sometime, though, I would like to speak with you, Zero. About a very dear friend.” She peered up at him again. “And about my brother.”

His heart ached. “Whatever Your Majesty commands.”

She thinned her lips and frowned again. “Yes. Thank you, Zero.”

Gino was waiting for him. Folding his long-legged length against the wall beside the long arch of a window, sunlight streaming past the smart lines of his uniform. His sweet, honest face was guarded, closed off. Private and worried, his arms crossed. “Zero. Will you let her do it?” He bit his lip. “Destroy the Knightmares? And the Knights?”

“I will help Her Majesty as best as I am able, Sir Weinberg. You would do well to follow suit.” When Gino hesitated, Suzaku snugged his cape more tightly around him. “You trust my confidance too easily, knight. Tread carefully. You have already shown your capacity for treason. A court-martial would not be pardoned agan.”

Gino jerked, his eyes furious. “Schneizel was attempting a coup. And Lelouch made everyone his enemy.” He straightened. “I am not disloyal to Her Majesty.”

“And the alliance with the UFN?” Suzaku wished Nunnally had ordered Gino back to Ashford to be with Kallen and Rivalz. Gino cared too much. He wanted so badly to believe in the things that he loved that he was dangerous. He would be a fantastic soldier if he ever had anything forcibly ripped away from him, if something ever really broke his heart.

“The Knights will do anything to protect Her Majesty’s intentions,” Gino said firmly. He studied the mask, his brow furrowed, and Suzaku realized suddenly that Gino was alone. With Nonette in the motherland, Gino was the last of the Knights left standing in Japan. “You don’t have to doubt us.”

“See to it that I don’t,” Suzaku murmured. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Darkness and shadows hid what the mask could not: when he finally slipped into lowermost apartment of the west wing, Suzaku was trembling. He sagged against the wall and pulled off the mask. His hair was damp with sweat and tamped down all over his head; the cloth over his nose and mouth was stifling.

“She’s grown up,” he said aloud, pulling the cloth mask down. He shrugged the cape off and slung it over a chair, muttering, “I wasn’t expecting that.” He pulled at his gloves’ fingers and tugged them off. He shook his hands, feeling the cling of sweaty heat.

“No, I don’t know what I was expecting,” he said, looking at the bed. Lelouch was a still, supine lump under the sheets. Suzaku stepped closer and reached down, fumbling for Lelouch’s wrist. At its steady pulse, he nodded and carefully laid Lelouch’s hand back over the sheet. He fished a key from his pocket and clicked the handcuffs open. He stripped off his jacket and unpinned the cravat, pulled a box of gauze and antiseptic from under the bed, and sat.

He peeled away the bandage stretching over Lelouch’s chest, exposing an ugly snarl of stitches and the black crust of blood. A sheen of sweat broke out over Lelouch’s skin as Suzaku changed the dressing, a grimace knotting his features even in sleep, strongly enough that Suzaku thought with a burst of panic that he would wake, but it passed. Suzaku wet a cloth and carefully bathed him, working over the curves and edges of Lelouch’s naked skin.

You’re at my mercy, he thought as he ran the cloth over the lean dint of Lelouch’s spine. I could do anything to you. He spread his hand over the wing of Lelouch’s shoulder blade and felt Lelouch’s head loll limply over his shoulder. His hands were gentle, brushing Lelouch’s hair off his neck, laying him back against the pillows. “There’s a fairy tale like this,” Suzaku said, running his hand over the line of Lelouch’s belly, brushing through the coarse hair that trailed down to nest at his groin, his dick soft against his leg.

Lelouch did stir, then, a shift and another grimace to the fine arch of his eyebrows, and Suzaku stopped and peered at him. “A princess, right? And her knight. Or--no, he was a prince, too.” Suzaku nodded. “Of course.” He did pull back, then, lifting his hand away to keep Lelouch from struggling through the sedative to the surface of waking, and Lelouch’s features relaxed back into sleep. “Of course,” Suzaku said again, and drew the cloth down Lelouch’s leg and over his knee.

“A kiss woke her up,” he said, cinching the handcuffs back onto Lelouch’s wrists. He held Lelouch’s hand, his own skin hot and stifled, and said softly, “His love saved her.” Lelouch’s fingers were long and thin: aristocratic hands, royal hands. Suzaku pressed the pads of his fingers against Lelouch’s knuckles, the manicured edges of his nails, and brought Lelouch’s fingers to his lips. They felt cool and faintly dead, but even after so long in bed, Lelouch’s skin still smelled like him: something a bit like a dried flower, but darker, maybe with the metallic edge of blood. Suzaku wondered if he was smelling Zero, instead. He dropped Lelouch’s hand and stood and leaned forward, his hand pressing into the pillow by Lelouch’s head.

Lelouch’s lips did not feel dead. They were dry, a little chapped, but warm. Suzaku pulled away and murmured, “Good night,” and he retreated, gathering Zero’s affects around him for the walk to his own room. He slid the mask on last, and it closed over his head like a trap.

He woke at dawn, his body jacknifing as he came dreaming of Lelouch’s mouth.

The wreckage of Lelouch’s old alliances met him at every turn. The unhappy turn of Kaguya’s mouth, the wary cant of Ohgi’s eyebrows. He stood by as Nunnally spoke to them, her voice level and adult, and they answered her civilly enough, but he saw their eyes stray to him. He wondered, maddeningly, what Lelouch had meant to them. Kaguya’s arranged marriage, Ohgi’s superior. Their leader. He was very glad Kallen was away at school.

Kaguya was gracious and diplomatic, explaining that the United Federation of Nations would have to confer over Britannia’s proposal. They would contact the embassy with their conclusions. Before she closed the comm. link, she smiled at Nunnally and said she was glad to see that Nunnally had grown up so well. Ohgi nodded respectfully and told her to be well. Nunnally flushed with pleasure and thanked them.

“Are you prepared to compromise, Your Majesty?” Suzaku murmured into the silence.

“I will not compromise on the withdrawal.” She fiddled with a pen. “But I don’t expect anyone to agree to destroying the Knightmares,” she admitted. “Even if I ordered it, I don’t think it will happen, no matter what anyone will report. Brother and sister in particular.”

“Then what does Your Majesty want to happen?”

“I have a list. I’ve been thinking about this. There are so many things that need to happen, but first...I want to halt production and retire our current forces to storage in Britannia. Those are the only orders I can expect to be followed right now.” She smiled up at him. “I’ve been lied to my whole life, Zero. I’m tired of deception.”

He felt hollow. “Then perhaps Your Majesty should speak with Her Highness.”

The lines of Cornelia’s face were harsher than he remembered. She stepped with the sure, feline grace of a predator, a sword swinging at her side. She bowed and stood ramrod-straight until Nunnally explained what she wanted to do with Britannia’s military.

“What would be the point, Nunnally?” Cornelia said, her voice low and neutral. “Britannia needs the Knightmares. They are our greatest weapons.”

“Not in peace,” Nunnally replied. “Not in Japan. If they must exist, then they must exist in the motherland. Not as invaders on foreign soil. We have been here long enough.”

Cornelia’s lips twisted. “And the Tokyo Settlement?” She looked at Suzaku, and her eyes were unfathomable, closed. Her hand did not stray far from her sword.

“It was originally a Japanese city,” he said. “It should be theirs again.”

Nunnally nodded agreement. “This is not our home.”

“A complete withdrawal?” Cornelia sat down. She crossed her legs and smoothed the lines of her uniform. “There are a million Britannians in the Settlement. They’ve made lives for themselves here. Do you want to force them from their homes?”

“Sister.” Nunnally’s brow knit. “For almost ten years, Britannia has systematically destroyed everything precious to the Japanese. This is not our home. The Britannians who live here now may stay, but if they do, it will be either on visa or as Japanese citizens.” She looked keenly at Cornelia. “We will not be tyrants.”

Cornelia met Nunnally’s gaze, and her eyes softened. “I suppose you have a plan for the ghettos, as well?”

“Until our capital is rebuilt, our energies here will be devoted to healing Japan. We have a duty to atone for what we’ve done.”

Cornelia smiled at her: a brittle, sad expression that aged her into a very tired woman. “I wish we had had Your Majesty sooner.”

Nunnally’s face lit up. “You’ll help me speak to brother, then?”

“Of course.” Cornelia gave a tolerant little laugh. She looked at Suzaku, her eyes turning cold and sharp, and she said again, “Of course.” He could see very clearly in her face that she would not forget Euphie, or Zero in the role as her murderer, and he had the unsettling idea that she knew precisely who he was. He wondered faintly if she had loved Lelouch the way Euphie had. If she would ever be able to forgive him for what he did, if she was sorry to think him dead.

He wondered, if he was to tell her that Lelouch slept in this very building, weak but alive and healing, if she would go right then, run even, her hair streaming behind her, storm into that small room and put a gun to Lelouch’s head. Paint the bed with his blood, destroy his face beyond all recognizability in cold rage and brutal efficiency. Murder him in cold blood the way Zero did to so many with his geass. Lie to Nunnally, again. Fix things the way Suzaku could not, and then turn on him and hurt him any way she was able, driving fists and the butt of her gun. He did not think she would hesitate.

He wished he was so brave.

Three weeks and two days after the last emperor of Britannia died, Lelouch woke up. The slash across his chest was healing, its stitches almost overgrown, and Suzaku had gathered the vestiges of his courage, the ache in his heart. Lelouch could not sleep forever.

And so he woke up, early in the morning. It was a vague, shallow sort of waking, absent of the vitriol and bitter rage Suzaku had been expecting, and for the first time in a long time, Suzaku wanted very much to die.

“Suzaku,” Lelouch said weakly, blinking up at him. He shifted and swallowed and darted a look around, his eyes hazy, and he tried to push himself up in the bed. Suzaku said nothing, his throat closed, and he slid a hand behind Lelouch’s head and helped him to drink, water running at the corners of his cracked lips.

As Suzaku lowered him back, Lelouch tried to reach out, oblivious to his restraints, and Suzaku took his hand before he could hurt himself on the metal cuff. “Suzaku,” Lelouch said again, pliant and groggy with the drugs. He pressed his face into the pillow and closed his eyes, taking a deep, easy breath. His face relaxed, his tongue wetting his lips.

Suzaku swallowed. “Yes?”

“I had a very strange dream,” Lelouch murmured. He patted Suzaku’s fingers, the touch light, weak. “CC....”

“She’s not here right now,” Suzaku said. His head hurt. He couldn’t remember how his voice was supposed to sound. He couldn’t remember how to lie. “You can rest.”

Lelouch laughed softly and hummed in the back of his throat. “Thank you,” he said sleepily.

Suzaku ran his hand over the curve of Lelouch’s skin, sliding his fingers over ribs and the soft flesh of his side. A blade would cut so easily, press and press against skin until it split and blood welled and spilled, and then until the heart shuddered to a halt. Lelouch’s chest rose and fell with gentle, deep breath, his heartbeat steady and real against Suzaku’s hand. He swallowed again, his throat too dry, and lifted his hand, brushed at Lelouch’s bangs over his forehead, touched his cheek. His stomach twisted. He bit his lip and tugged up the sheet.

“Welcome back,” he whispered.

“Zero,” Nunnally said softly. “Zero.”

“Your Majesty?” He fought to focus on her face across the wide expanse of her desk. The light glancing off its finish was blinding. Jags of gold, like the gleam of CC’s eyes.

Enjoy your delusions.

“Japan needs you,” Nunnally was saying. “Will you stay?”

“I’m sorry?”

She smiled, tentatively. “Someone has to be here, at the embassy, when we leave for Britannia.”

He bent in a stiff bow, jerking like a badly-strung puppet. “Whatever Your Majesty wishes.”

“No, no.” Her wheelchair whirred. She came into his field of vision, her hands reaching for his. He let her take his hand, reluctantly, and she held it tightly between her own, her eyes searching Zero’s mask and oh fuck she knew. She really knew. “What do you want?” she said.

“I don’t think it matters what I want, Your Majesty,” he said, his voice blank.

“It does.” She looked at him, her face very serious. “You matter as much as I do in this alliance, Zero. I do not want to cripple your power. You aren’t merely a figurehead.” She hesitated. “You are Zero. You were--are--the symbol of hope for the Japanese. I do not think it would be right to force you back to Britannia with me and brother and sister and the Knights of Rounds.”

He stepped back, tugging his hand from her grip, and bowed again. “Whatever Your Majesty sees fit.” The room was airless, suffocating. He turned to go. He wanted to run.

“I want to know what you want, Zero,” she said sharply, and he stopped. “Negotiations with the UFN will begin soon, and I want to help you. They will not want anything for you. Neither will brother or sister.”

“Then give me nothing.”

“The people here need you.”

“It’s as you said, Your Majesty,” he said quietly, without turning. “Zero is a symbol. Zero cannot choose for himself. Symbols need nothing.”

She was quiet. He hesitated, and then turned and looked at her. She was looking at her hands in her lap, at her fingers intertwined. “That’s very sad,” she said, her voice soft. “That’s very lonely.” She shook her head. He thought she would say something, but she kept shaking her head, disbelieving.

He sketched a shallow bow. “Thank you for the thought, Your Majesty.” He slipped through the door before she could answer, feeling sick with her sunlight and warmth and gentle scent of flowers.

It was that evening when he returned, Zero’s cape tight around his shoulders, the mask suffocating, that Lelouch had really, truly woken up.

“What the fuck did you do?” Lelouch spat, his voice raw. Suzaku looked at him dully and did not answer. He thumbed the catch to Zero’s cape and let it fall in a curtain of fabric, dropped the mask to its folds with a hollow sound. “Answer me,” Lelouch snapped. He was trembling, his hands clenched into fists, the sheet rumpled around his middle. His bare back was bony and thin, pale in the half-darkness. He looked like a wild animal.

“What do you think?” Suzaku gave him a long look.

“What do I think?” Lelouch stared at him, his eyes blazing. He jerked at the handcuffs, his teeth bared, and Suzaku saw that his wrists were raw, ringed in blood. “I think--you--” He made an incoherent sound of rage and gripped the bed’s rails so hard that his arms corded, his knuckles blanched. “You ruined everything! I knew what had to be done! I was prepared!” He glared through half-slit eyes, shuddering with anger. Suzaku wondered how badly Lelouch had wanted to die. How badly he had wanted to atone for something. How badly he had wanted Suzaku to suffer a miserable trap.

“Say something,” Lelouch hissed.

“No,” Suzaku whispered.

Lelouch screamed and thrashed, struggling to claw at Suzaku’s throat, his eyes. Suzaku stepped back, that stone part of him weighting his heart, and he watched and waited. Lelouch fought until his arms were streaked with blood and sweat, the sheet tangled around his legs, and he finally slumped, panting, over the edge of the bed.

“Don’t touch me,” he snarled, snapping his teeth in a clear threat to bite when Suzaku took a step forward.

Suzaku ignored him and snatched at his bloody wrist. Lelouch jerked and tried to pull away, but Suzaku pinned him effortlessly, his other hand meeting Lelouch’s face and throwing him back down to the bed. He ground his fingers into a nerve in Lelouch’s wrist, squeezing tendons and bone. “Calm down,” he said hoarsely. “Don’t make me tie you down.” Lelouch glared up at him, his jaw clenching against Suzaku’s palm, but his struggling slowed.

“You’re useless,” Lelouch hissed, half into the sheets. “I never should have trusted you to do anything.” He grimaced as Suzaku tightened his grip, and his hand fell limp. Suzaku let him up and sat, pulling the first aid from beneath the bed. Lelouch pulled himself to a seated position and glared at him. Suzaku was silent, dispassionately dabbing at the cuts on Lelouch’s wrist with antiseptic and ointment, wrapping it in bandages. Lelouch practically buzzed with angry energy, but he held still as Suzaku doctored the other.

Lelouch’s skin was thin and pale under his fingers. There was a bruise forming around his wrist, perfectly finger-shaped. He shook for a time, little tremors that ran through him every few seconds. Suzaku wondered if it was an aftereffect of the drugs, or it he was nursing along his furious hate. Or if he was scared, having been thrust into cold reality after he very clearly did not expect to be alive. Blood dotted the bandage stretched over his chest.

“Is this what you wanted?” Lelouch finally snapped, after the silence had become heavy. He looked at the bandages around his wrists. “All along?”

Suzaku swallowed. “No.”

“Where is CC?”

“Gone.” Lelouch ran a nervous finger along the edge of the bandages on his chest. Suzaku’s eyes followed his hand. “She left a long time ago.”

Lelouch’s mouth twisted, but he said nothing. His hand moved, his fingers tracing the line of his wound, his fingertips pressing against what must have been the edges of the slash. His hand stopped over the left of his chest, his fingers curling as though he was trying to dig out his heart. He raised his face and met Suzaku’s eyes.

“Wasn’t it fitting?” Lelouch said, finally, and gave Suzaku a bitter smile. “Wasn’t it enough?” He let out his breath and his shoulders sagged. His voice was suddenly tired, the edges of his words blurred by the sedatives. He looked very small.

“It was too easy. You aren’t allowed to run away.” Lelouch rolled his eyes and looked away, hiding behind the swing of his hair, folding his hands in his lap. Suzaku looked at him a long time, and said, “You didn’t say. That it would be like that.”

And here, finally, Lelouch looked at him and smiled. Beatific. Not fake in the way Suzaku had seen in a year’s surveillance, or the deranged edge of Zero’s grin. Lelouch smiled and his eyes narrowed, sharpened to cutting, bright edges. “You’re a fucking traitor, Suzaku,” he said, his voice level. “Betrayal is what you do best.” He looked down at his hands, stretched his fingers and made an experimental, weak fist. The chain of the handcuff clicked flatly against the bed’s rail, and he laughed. “Get out,” he said, shaking his head.

Suzaku got out.

He retreated to darkness and stripped Zero away, dropped the mask and laid down, his eyes burning and dry. He did not sleep.

Time was anonymous in a windowless room.

Lelouch slept fitfully, jerking awake to the empty room, its grey light unchanged. There was a vent in the far corner, the heavy door set into the wall, but nothing else. Dim light filtered from subtle panels laid into the ceiling, their glow middling. No sound came through the walls, no sign of life. He tried again at the handcuffs, worrying at one in an attempt to slip it over his hand. He padded his wrist with a scrap of the sheet and forced it vainly against the edge of his knuckles. His hands ached, hot, his veins standing out in purple lines spidering over tendon, and he gave up. He fought against the muddy haze of the drugs still working through his system, feeling stupid and slow.

He dreamed, brokenly, of gentle hands on his face and a woman’s low voice, and he woke gasping for CC, his chest aching. His thoughts flashed on Suzaku and his sad reproach, and his anger built to a hot wave, crested with blind rage.

Finally, Zero came.

“Well,” Lelouch said, his mouth twisting. “I’m still here.”

Zero crossed the room and didn’t reply. He cut a slim, impressive figure in that darkness. As Suzaku slid the mask from his head, he looked at Lelouch, and there was a peculiar sort of unease in his face. A sort of despair. He was thinner, sharper. There were dark shadows under his eyes. Lelouch wondered how long ago the Requiem was. Suzaku pulled Zero’s cape from his shoulders and folded it over the chair beside the bed. He smoothed the lines of the suit and sat, and when he could put it off no longer, he met Lelouch’s eyes. “Lie back,” he said.

“I’d rather not.”

Suzaku looked away. “Then sit up straight.” He drew the first-aid kit from under the bed and tugged off his gloves. “I have to take out your stitches.”

Lelouch sat stiffly, holding the bed’s rails as Suzaku touched him, his hands anxious-hot against Lelouch’s skin. He cut through the bandage with a pair of gleaming scissors and gently pulled the gauze away. It tugged at scabbed edges of the wound, and Lelouch flinched. He looked: the slash was healed, a wide arc of new skin stretching its burned edges from his hip to his collarbone, black lines of sutures holding its length together.

Scabs crusted over the stitches where they had torn. Suzaku didn’t look at him, but his throat jerked as he leaned forward, clipping the sutures. Lelouch hissed through his teeth as Suzaku tugged the stitches through, and his hands tightened into fists on the bed’s rails.

When he finally pulled back, Lelouch fingered the scar. It tingled, hypersensitive to his fingertips. Suzaku did not look at him; he stowed the first aid kit and stood, pulling his gloves back on. He ran a finger along the cravat where it met his throat and smoothed his lapels.

“Having fun?” Lelouch said. He watched Suzaku through half-lidded eyes. “Playing dress-up?”

Suzaku was silent. He pulled the cape from the chair and folded it over his arm. He ran a careful hand over it, smoothing its wrinkles, and then he turned to Lelouch. His face was closed off, emotionless. That maddening, deadened look that shut him down and made Lelouch want to hurt him.

“Well?” he said, finally, when Suzaku gave him nothing. “Is this it?” He watched Suzaku’s face. “Is this where your plan runs out?”

“This wasn’t my plan,” he said tightly.

“Oh?” Lelouch curled his lip. “Sorry. I thought you were the one who staged my assassination and then imprisoned me in a basement for the last...” he thinned his lips and flapped his hand dismissively, “however long. That was someone else?”

Suzaku gave him an empty look. “I’m sorry you’re offended that I didn’t kill you--”

“Not accepted,” Lelouch snapped.

“--but I’m not....” Suzaku stopped and swallowed, with difficulty. His eyes cleared a little. “I’m not sorry that you’re not dead.”

“Imbecile,” Lelouch hissed. “I don’t want your apologies.” His hands fisted, and as his arms tensed the slash across his chest ached.

“What do you want?”

Lelouch clenched his jaw. “Do you care what I want, Suzaku?” He raised his hand, making the handcuff’s chain loud against the bed’s rail. He narrowed his eyes. “Really?”

Suzaku’s expression closed again, his eyes impassive. He said nothing and looked away, his shoulders rigid. He started toward the door. The sound of his steps was loud, echoing. Lelouch reflexively reached out a hand to stop him, forgetting, and pain bloomed at his wrist when the handcuff jerked him back.

He made a wordless, pained sound. Even through the bandages on his wrists, he felt raw and bloodied. He peered at his wrist, rubbing at it gingerly, and his fingers prodded the aching flower of a bruise. The shapes of Suzaku’s fingers, stained in ugly violet and greenish-yellow. When he raised his eyes Suzaku was watching him.

“What?” he bit out, indignant.

“Nothing,” Suzaku said. He focused on Lelouch’s hand, and his brow knit. “Nothing.”

“How transparent.” Lelouch barked an angry laugh. “What a jailor, what a traitor you make. Sadism doesn’t suit you, Suzaku. How can anyone believe you? Have you lost the game yet? Has everyone seen through your lie?” Lelouch glared at him, his fury searing a hole in his chest. Suzaku gave no reaction. He watched Lelouch blaze on as if he wasn’t listening at all. “Have my siblings planned your murder yet? More lies for my little sister?”

Suzaku started, then, blinked at him, and a bit of tension leaked from his shoulders. His eyes focused, his brow knit again, the shadows on his face deepening. He crossed his arms over the cape and looked at the floor. Lelouch shut up and watched him, his hands clenching at the bed’s rail.

Suzaku bit his lip and let out his breath. “No one wants to lie to her,” he said. “They do their best.”

“What about her?” Lelouch felt the fire in his chest dampen. He did not let go of the rails. He was afraid his hands would shake.

“She’s growing up well.” Suzaku was silent for a long few seconds, staring at his feet. His hands curled in the cape, hugging it close. “She’s good,” he said quietly. He looked up and met Lelouch’s eyes. He was so honest. “She’s doing things right.”

“Ah.” His weakness was a clear, shining target. Lelouch showed his teeth in a smile. “So you haven’t killed her yet.”

Suzaku moved faster than Lelouch remembered. He crushed Lelouch to the bed, his fingers locked around Lelouch’s throat. He didn’t squeeze. “Don’t start, Lelouch,” he said, his voice ragged. “Don’t.” Zero’s cape slid to the floor in a rustle of fabric.

“Or what?” Lelouch said. He swallowed. “You’ll kill me?” He laughed, without mirth. “You won’t do it.” His pulse pounded against the pressure of Suzaku’s fingers. “You can’t. Coward,” he said breathlessly.

Suzaku’s face twisted like he might cry, but he leaned forward instead, pinning Lelouch’s shoulders to the bed with his other hand, and his lips met Lelouch’s in a knock of teeth. Lelouch recoiled and bit down, tearing at Suzaku’s lip. Suzaku made a sound low in his throat and kissed him hard, insistent and rough. Lelouch tried to twist away, and then Suzaku shifted and tightened his grip, closing his fingers tightly enough around Lelouch’s throat to choke him in earnest.

Blood roared in his ears. Lelouch kicked and missed, his feet tangled in the sheet, and Suzaku pressed closer, muscling one knee between Lelouch’s legs to lay him open. Lelouch made a strangled noise and thrashed, jerking vainly at the handcuffs. Suzaku was a hot weight against him, climbing over and into him, his hands blazing, on fire. Stars burst in Lelouch’s vision as Suzaku’s hand moved from his shoulder to the small of his back, jerking his hips up.

The sheet slithered down, leaving him bare, and Suzaku ground hard against him. Lelouch struggled weakly as Suzaku’s leg nudged his knee back, and Suzaku moaned into his mouth. He squeezed harder, his fingers crushing, and Lelouch fell limp. And just as suddenly, Suzaku let go. Lelouch sagged back, coughing feebly.

“Oh, fuck,” Suzaku said faintly. Blood was smeared across his face, and his lip was swelling a little around the cut. His eyes were wide and young. Open. He sounded as though he was close to tears. He crumpled and turned away, slumping to the floor. He buried his face in his hands. “Oh, fuck,” he said again, muffled.

Panting, Lelouch stared at him. He could feel the prints of Suzaku’s fingers around his neck, catch the hot metallic scent of blood on his own face. He clumsily wiped his cheek on the edge of his shoulder, and sticky red smeared over his skin. He coughed and reached futilely for the sheet. With it kicked to the bottom of the bed, he felt very, very naked. Suzaku didn’t move, his shoulders hunched miserably.

Lelouch cleared his throat and coughed again. “Suzaku,” he said, his voice a rasp. “Let me out of this bed.” Suzaku didn’t stir. “Please,” he said uselessly. Silence. “If you think I’m going to run, then your IQ has dropped,” he snapped. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

There was another long moment of still silence. Lelouch’s breath was very loud in his ears, and he was suddenly aware that he was hungry. He shifted uncomfortably and studied the huddle of Suzaku’s shoulders, the tangle of his hair. Finally, Suzaku stirred. He pushed himself to his feet and straightened, turned away from Lelouch. He slowly brought his hands up and slid his gloves back on in exact little movements. Without turning, he swung Zero’s cape over his shoulders and clasped it around him, the fabric hugging his shoulders. He pulled the cloth mask over his nose and mouth and reached for that icon, Zero’s real mask, where it sat on the floor. Lelouch tensed as Suzaku finally turned, the mask’s glassy face betraying nothing. Lelouch swallowed, the motion painful, and let out his breath.

Zero--Suzaku--stepped forward, the gleam of silver in hand, and then he was clicking a key into the handcuffs. He did not touch Lelouch. He carefully tucked both pairs of handcuffs away in the suit and turned without a word and walked for the door. Lelouch rolled his wrists around and reached hastily for the sheet to cover himself. The room’s door hissed open, the hallway’s light spilling inside, and Suzaku stopped. Waiting.

Lelouch swung his legs over the edge of the bed and felt for the floor with his toes. He stood, his knees weak, and swayed on his feet. The sheet spilled over the side of the bed and wadded on the floor in a ridiculous train of sterile white. He darted a glance at the door: Suzaku did not react.

Lelouch gathered the sheet around him with as much dignity as he could muster and followed, his steps wobbly and awful. The floor was cold beneath his feet. Suzaku did not give him a second glance. Zero’s cape flared behind him, a flash of its red lining, and then they were outside in an empty hallway. Lelouch clutched the sheet closer around him and huddled his shoulders. He could not forget that he was supposed to be dead.

He peered at Zero’s mask in the elevator. It was so unforgiving, so featureless. He was almost alarmed at its perfection. Suzaku's Zero was different. He passed, but barely. His movement was more economic, less theatrical. He stood soldier-straight, the cape tucked around him like a shield, a careful three feet away from Lelouch. He wondered vaguely how many people actually believed the deception, that the old Zero was also this Zero. This rigid creature of Britannia.

Another blank hallway, and then a door. The only sound was the slide of Lelouch’s sheet over the floor. Suzaku keyed in a quick code at the door, and it hissed open to dim light. Lelouch studied Zero’s mask and didn’t move and finally, Suzaku said, “I have to go. They’re expecting me.” His voice was low and neutral, surprisingly passable as Lelouch’s own through the mask’s distortion.

When Lelouch still didn’t move, Suzaku’s shoulders took on a defeated hunch. “No one will come here. It’s safe.”

Lelouch frowned at the plea. He folded his arms more tightly within the sheet, drawing it around him, and stepped through the door. Suzaku said nothing as he passed, and then his feet were on plush carpet, his eyes adjusting to a different sort of half-light. The door slid shut behind him, and he could very clearly hear a heavy bolt sliding into place.

The apartment was wide and open, its air different than the one downstairs. He padded through the rooms, his hand fisted in the sheet, running his fingers along the edge of a wall. There was a window, a pale shape in the room’s weird twilight, blinds shuttered against the outside light.

He scissored his fingers through the blinds and lifted them to the day: morning over the Tokyo Settlement, the sky warming from slate grey to rose. Steel and cement, reaching up in blocks of infrastructure. Far away was the edge of the wall that separated the settlement from the ghetto. He wrapped his hand around the blinds’ pull and jerked the blinds up, light sliding over his arm, the folds of the sheet. He shifted and peered over his shoulder at the dark apartment in this new light. It was huge and untouched, arranged in some sterile template of royal taste. He curled his toes into the soft carpet.

There was a study, its desk empty. A kitchen, clean of dishes or implements. Shelves for books and other comforts, all bare. A pathetic offering of food in the refrigerator. He could very nearly trace Suzaku’s exact footsteps from the front door to the bedroom (the bed a tangle of sheets) and the bathroom. All of the windows shut tight against the sun. The single door leading outside locked.

He fingered the sheet’s simple material between thumb and index finger and finally let it go, wadding it into a shapeless pile on the bedroom floor. His reflection in the bathroom mirror was wan and unfamiliar, dark hair and dark eyes against bloodless skin, everything about him jutting and grey. Suzaku’s blood smeared across his cheek in a clumsy streak of brown red. His mouth bruised, marks on his neck. He ran a finger along the streak of blood and tried not to think about that despairing look on Suzaku’s face. His lost desperation.

When he emerged from his bath, his skin smarting from the heat, it was late morning. He picked through the contents of the bedroom closet, pushing aside the spare Zero uniform that he himself had commissioned, digging deep for something normal. He surfaced with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, both too large for him. Too wide in the shoulders, a little baggy on his skinny legs. Suzaku’s clothes smelled like him: a simple, clean smell, with the faintest edge of something that Lelouch vaguely remembered from his childhood. The Kururugi shrine had used incense before Britannia invaded Japan, that ancient sandalwood scent of tradition that he had thought soaked into Suzaku’s skin, his hair. That Japanese part of him that Britannia tried to cut out, as if with a bloody knife.

He ate what little he could find in the kitchen--plain bread and peanut butter from an unopened jar--and prowled restlessly through the apartment, rubbing at the sores on his wrists. The sky deepened from a rich, summer blue to twlight, and then night fell, and still Suzaku didn’t return. Lelouch planned tirades, furious speeches that would work much more effectively when he wasn’t naked and handcuffed to a bed, thought about how satisfying it would be to land a blow, make Suzaku hurt. He waited as the apartment darkened, until the night stretched on and lights outside dimmed. He paced until his legs were sore.

He fell asleep in Suzaku’s bed, and when he woke, spooning with a pillow and covers twisted around him, the morning a blaze of sunshine and blue sky, the apartment was empty.

It was late night when Suzaku finally came back. He stumbled inside and tugged off Zero’s mask, his hair tousled, as the door hissed shut behind him. Lelouch met him with a glare. Suzaku did not react to the fact that Lelouch was wearing his clothes. He dragged the cape off and threw it over a chair. Lelouch resisted the urge to snap at him to hang it up. “So?” he said, his voice cold.

“So what?” Suzaku said, pulling off his gloves.

“Unfinished business?” Lelouch hissed.

Suzaku gritted his teeth. His face had dark hollows to it. Lelouch wondered distantly if he’d slept. “I didn’t mean to do that,” he muttered. “Earlier.” His lip was still swollen, an angry mark where Lelouch had bitten him.

“Which part?” Lelouch bared his teeth. “The kiss or the asphyxiation?” Suzaku’s face went white, and then red, and he didn’t look up. Lelouch almost laughed. He knew the sound would be cruel. “Interestingly, that’s not what I mean.” He wet his lips. “I know how much you love your self-flagellation, but indulge me.” Suzaku finally raised his eyes, and his face was empty. He said nothing. Lelouch crossed his arms tightly. “Why, exactly, didn’t you follow the plan?” He tapped his foot. “Was there a viable reason?”

“Don’t ask me that.” Suzaku looked away again and thumbed the buttons on the suit jacket, shrugging out of its sleeves. He unpinned the cravat and pulled off the dress shirt. He was left in the black undershirt, his hair rumpled. The blush faded, leaving him pallid again.

“Answer me.” Lelouch clenched his jaw. “Just answer me, Suzaku.”

“Because I couldn’t do it,” Suzaku said quietly. He swallowed, looking at the floor. “I couldn’t.”

His head snapped to the side with the force of Lelouch’s slap, a livid mark blooming on his cheek. He stood fast, didn’t try to defend himself, and Lelouch growled, trembling with the knowledge that Suzaku had allowed him to strike. “You’re weak,” he spat. “You’re so fucking weak, you and your stupid, butchered ideals. I was supposed to die, and you couldn’t even kill me. You--you’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people, and you couldn’t even kill me.

Suzaku didn’t look at him, and Lelouch resisted the urge to hit him again. He fisted his hands. “I thought all you were good for was following someone’s orders.” He curled his lip. “The least you could do was channel some of your passive-aggressive frustration and do something right for once.”

“Do you want me to do it now?” Suzaku said, his voice soft. “Do you really want to die that badly?” He wet his lips, and his eyes sank closed. “You weren’t all that ready to go this morning.”

“Burn in hell,” Lelouch snapped. “That’s not my point and you know it.”

“That sounds a lot like your point.” He glanced up, met Lelouch’s eyes, and looked away again. “It sounds like you’re upset because you’re still alive, even though the whole world thinks you’re dead.” His lips thinned. “Like it would fix your problems if I just....” He darted his eyes up again, focused on Lelouch’s neck and the bruises that were still there. His hand clenched into a slow fist, and he shook his head. He looked vaguely at the carpet and swallowed, his throat jerking. His cheek was a blaze of angry red, the marks of Lelouch’s fingers. His face twisted and he swallowed again, and then the rest of the color drained from his face. He lurched, hand over his mouth, and shoved Lelouch away. Lelouch stumbled and stared as Suzaku scrambled for the bathroom. He followed in time to see Suzaku throw up, vomiting a thin, clear liquid, his hand grasping desperately at the sides of the toilet.

Lelouch stared, frozen in the doorway. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Fuck you,” Suzaku said hoarsely. He pressed his forehead against his arm and drew a ragged breath, his shoulders sagging. “Don’t talk like you don’t deserve any of this. Like you’re a--” He gagged. “Like you’re a victim.” He curled over his knees and trembled, his hands seizing at each other, and then he pulled himself up by the counter. He spat into the sink and splashed water into his mouth. “You’re only as innocent as I am,” he said, looking at his hands.

The faucet dripped. Lelouch stepped forward, studying the back of Suzaku’s neck. “What’s wrong with you?” he said again.

“I’m doing what you wanted, Lelouch.” His shoulders hunched, and his hands clutched more tightly at the sink. “I’m doing what you wanted. I’m Zero. So just back off and let me do your job.”

“Suzaku.” He flinched and squeezed his eyes shut when Lelouch grabbed his arm. “I’m talking to you,” he snapped. “When was the last time you ate?” Suzaku shook his head and didn’t answer. He was rigid under Lelouch’s hand. Lelouch jerked at his arm. “Come on,” he said roughly. He dragged him to the kitchen, Suzaku stumbling and directionless.

There was soup, stashed far in the back of a cabinet. Bland, generic things like chicken and beef broth, tomato. Lelouch nervously picked one and blew the dust off its lid. “You’re an idiot,” he muttered, fighting with the pull tab. “What would you do if someone came looking for Zero, and you were too sick to do anything? Or if Zero collapsed in public? What then?” Suzaku didn’t answer, and after a few seconds of silence, Lelouch glanced over his shoulder. Suzaku had his face buried in his crossed arms, huddled over the table in an exhausted heap.

He only scorched the soup a little, which was impressive in his opinion, considering he hadn’t cooked anything since Ashford. Suzaku didn’t react when he put the bowl on the table. Lelouch sat heavily beside him and gave the top of his head a disapproving look. “This is pathetic,” he said. After a long moment, Suzaku shifted, raising his head, and he reached for the soup with a reluctant little nod of thanks. Lelouch watched him from the corner of his eye as he slowly ate and finally, he fought back his pride and said, “What are they doing?”

Suzaku fixed his eyes on the soup. “Who?”

“Don’t play dumb. Unless you make it a habit to drive yourself to the brink of collapse. What is Britannia doing?”

“You mean Nunnally?” Suzaku slid his eyes up, then, to give him a pointed look. “You want to know what Nunnally is doing?”

Lelouch glared at him. “Yes, fine. Nunnally and my dear older siblings.”

Suzaku ate for a silent moment and Lelouch fidgeted. “Nunnally’s trying to do the right thing,” he said finally. “She wants Britannia to withdraw from Japan completely. She probably wants to do the same thing with most of the other Areas.” He swallowed. “She wants to disband Britannia’s military forces and forge an agreement with the UFN. She wants to dissolve the Knights of Rounds.”

“Gallant of her,” Lelouch murmured. “I can’t imagine that the UFN will allow Britannia to join their ranks. And the military will never be completely robbed of power.”

“She knows.”

“Did she know before you told her?” Suzaku gave a mute half-shrug. Lelouch crossed his arms. “And?”

“The UFN wants to help her. Schneizel and Cornelia want to listen to her. She’ll get her withdrawal, and most of the military retirement. That’s all. They don’t need me.”

Lelouch narrowed his eyes. “Nunnally still wouldn’t overwork you if she had a choice, and you know it. I imagine she knows exactly who her Zero is. What else?”

Suzaku spooned up the last of the soup and pushed the bowl away. He leaned forward onto his crossed arms again. “She wants me to stay,” he muttered. “She wants Zero to be the head of the embassy, as a symbol of Britannia’s and Japan’s peaceful alliance.” He closed his eyes. “And no one but Nunnally trusts Zero. No one wants Zero to have any power. They know I’m not you, but they aren’t sure that I’m not as powerful.”

“So Zero has reduced to a bargaining chip. Have you spoken to Schneizel?” A small, thoughtful voice in the back of his mind wondered at Zero’s worth, in the face of Nunnally’s Britannia. He hesitated and frowned at the top of Suzaku’s head.

“No.” Suzaku pressed his face into the crook of his arm. His hands fisted. Lelouch rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to say something like, Zero can’t be afraid to move, or I made him indebted to you for a reason, you idiot, but then Suzaku mumbled, “Not yet.” Lelouch gave a mirthless smile.

In the darkness of the bedroom, Lelouch feverishly searched Zero’s pockets, trying to make as little sound as possible. The coat yielded nothing. The folds of the tailcoat and cape were empty. He rifled through the closet again, more carefully, his hands searching. The handcuffs had disappeared. He glared at the closed bathroom door. Suzaku did not take anything but his underclothes and a towel inside, stumbling and exhausted and grey, looking very much as though he was not thinking terribly far ahead.

He swore quietly and returned to the front room, scanning its edges, under the chair where Suzaku had slung his clothes. The floor was clean. He clenched his jaw and decided that Suzaku had another office somewhere. A place with a TV or a computer, a cell phone for communication, a secure place for surveillance or files or a weapon, because he couldn’t be going around so defenseless. He couldn’t have intentionally left his home such a cell.

The bathroom door opened, and he hissed and slipped to the kitchen, its gentle light blinding. Wrenching open the drawer sent the cutlery all askew. He wet his lips and lifted a bread knife. Its wooden handle fit easily into his hand. He examined its serrated edge and caught a glimpse of his own eyes in its surface, their reflection blurry. He held his breath and listened; the apartment was silent. He tucked the knife carefully in the waist of his jeans and padded back to the bedroom, tugging his t-shirt down.

Suzaku was a huddle of blankets on the bed, his back to the door. The covers slid off his shoulder, showing an even curve of skin and muscle. He did not move as Lelouch crept onto the bed and folded his knees beneath him. For a long moment, he sat and watched Suzaku breathe, the rise and fall of his back. “You know,” he said quietly, “you need more furniture.” Suzaku said nothing. “It would seem that my only other options are sleeping either on the floor or in the bathtub.”

“Yeah,” Suzaku said, sounding not at all asleep.

“I can’t say either appeals to me.” Lelouch felt himself smile a little. “The idea of sleep at all is a bit troubling, to be perfectly honest.” He ran his eyes over the bare skin of Suzaku’s shoulders, the bumps of his spine. He could feel the heat from Suzaku’s skin. He shifted, his eyes dropping half-closed. He slid the knife from his jeans and leaned forward on one hand, reaching out to graze it lightly across Suzaku’s skin. “Tell me, Suzaku,” he murmured, teasing the knife over the angles of Suzaku’s shoulder blades. “Will I wake with you trying to smother me with a pillow? Or drowning me in the bathtub?” He hummed and pressed the flat of the blade against the curve of ribs. “Hoisting me off my feet to hang me in the closet?” He eyed the slope of Suzaku’s neck, his hair in damp curls against his skin.

Suzaku’s back was rigid. “What about you?” he said. His shoulders twitched. “Are you faster than your own geass? Could you kill me if you tried?”

“What a question,” Lelouch purred. He pressed a little harder on the knife, applied enough pressure that he was sure it hurt.

“Lelouch,” Suzaku whispered. “Are you still my friend?”

Lelouch gave a startled bark of laughter. “Are you serious?”

“I’m glad,” Suzaku went on softly, curling into himself. “I’m glad you’re not dead. I missed you.”

The knife had sketched an angry red line over his skin. Lelouch glared at his shoulders and pulled back. “You’re an idiot,” he muttered. It was suddenly hard to breathe, and he could not look at Suzaku’s huddled shape any longer.

He examined himself by the bathroom’s light. His scar was rather impressive. The skin was shiny and a little irritated, less stark now that he had regained some color, and he ran his fingers along its edge again and again, tracing this long slash that divided him in two. A bargaining chip. Zero was no babysitter, to be sure, but neither was he so cheap a symbol to be torn apart so easily. Zero was like a guardian deity, a power who could interfere, should the need arise.

He focused on his face in the mirror and narrowed his eyes. His power was not gone. He could feel it pulsing inside him like a bright ember, dormant and closed off. He lifted a hand and placed cool fingers along the edge of his brow, covered his left eye. How foolish, he thought. To have such a power and to have it mean nothing. There was no order he could give Suzaku that would fix him. No order he could give himself. Are you still my friend? You fool. You terrible fool.

An hour later, he finally slid between the bedsheets and laid down. His spine stiff, arm curled rigidly beneath his head, Suzaku’s warmth against his back. A careful, measured distance between them. Suzaku was still, but Lelouch did not think him asleep. He inched closer to the edge of the bed and listened to Suzaku breathe. His head hurt. He fingered the scar’s slash across his belly and thought about Suzaku’s unhappy face, his reluctance and his wild animal speed, that awful, stupid pure-heartedness--that idealism--that twisted into sadness. His heavy guilt. His aimless, desperate need. Suzaku was no god. Lelouch stared into the darkness and felt the flame of anger in his chest gutter and fade.

He woke later pressed against the strong curve of Suzaku’s back, his cold nose buried against the soft spot of Suzaku’s neck under his ear. Suzaku was lax, his breathing deep and even. Lelouch could feel the steady beat of his heart though his shoulders. He vaguely remembered when he had last been so close to Suzaku: when they were boys, lifetimes ago. Then, Suzaku had felt like sunshine, simple and warm and happy. Was that little boy dead? It seemed a shame. It seemed a waste. Lelouch pressed his cheek against the edge of Suzaku’s shoulder and did not pull away.

Morning came again and he was alone. But when he started on his circuit of pacing, mad energy already stirring him into irritation, there was a laptop sitting in the study.

Watching Nunnally’s addresses to the nations was a study in equal parts pride and grief. She was so royal, so full of dignity and obvious love that it hurt. She held her chin high and she spoke well. Her eyes were keen, clear, and her voice was different than he remembered. Firmer. He had not realized how beautiful she was, displaced.

He skimmed over the news, headlines all unfamiliar. Scenes of meetings he didn’t recognize, negotiations for agreements completely alien to him. Cornelia in Southeast Asia, speaking with branch leaders of the UFN. Schneizel in the Motherland. Odysseus and Guinevere and Carine attempting to salvage their dignity. Ohgi and what was left of the Black Knights. Zhou Xianglin giving the Federation’s statement about Xing-ke’s health. He frowned at the screen and finally ran a manual search.

In press release photos, Zero was separate from Britannia, from the UFN. He had no seconds, no vice-commanders, no soldiers to pledge their loyalties. He gave no interviews, no grand speeches, spoke only as a representative of the Britannian embassy in Japan. The public adored him still, but the UFN was wary. Britannia acted as though it had trapped a deadly, poisonous creature, subdued only for the time being. Zero was alone, choked off from his supporters, his sources of power.

Lelouch brushed a finger over the screen, tracing the line of Zero’s figure where he was carefully apart from Nunnally and Kaguya--the latter all-over tense, obvious even in the still frame--and wondered absently if his Zero had stood that way, just so. Feet apart, chest out, confident by nature. Suzaku’s Zero was a straighter, prouder figure, less gesture and more stance. He hid his sadness well behind Zero’s mask, but not his resignation. He looked as though he was facing death. Lelouch tapped his nail against the image of Zero’s mask and huffed out his breath in surprise as he felt the cool clutch of realization, of bottomless certainty: this grudging, doomed admittance of some treachery within himself.

“They’re killing you,” he said later, peering at Suzaku’s face.

Suzaku didn’t reply. He dropped Zero’s suit jacket in a heap on the closet floor and dragged a hand through his hair. Lelouch folded his arms and tapped his foot. “Ah,” Suzaku said finally. He looked at the window and his brow knit. As though he did not recognize afternoon light.

“You don’t care?”

His eyes moved down to the junction of the wall and the floor. “Not really,” he said.

“Do you care to explain why?”

“Zero doesn’t need to rule anything. He doesn’t have to do anything. So long as he exists, he serves his purpose.” He wet his lips. “I can be that symbol, if it means peace. This is what you wanted me to do. This was the whole point.”

“Stupid,” Lelouch hissed. “I didn’t say they’re killing Zero.”

Suzaku’s eyes skimmed up over his face, fixed on a place carefully over his shoulder. “It’s fine,” he said. He ran a hand through his hair again and sat on the bed, his elbows braced on his knees, his fingers laced. “It’s fine,” he said again. “It’s not wasting anything.”

“How noble,” Lelouch said. He studied the slump of Suzaku’s shoulders, his lax hands and his bowed head, as though in prayer, in endless penitence. He thought about strength and loyalty and love and his stomach twisted, a cold, sick weight manifesting itself in his throat. He felt as though something was unraveling. He lifted his chin and stepped closer and snapped, “Will you just look at me already.”

“What do you mean,” Suzaku said, his voice toneless. He raised his head but he didn’t look up.

“I mean look at me.” Lelouch frowned at the top of his head. “You’re acting like I’m not real. Like I’m a ghost and you’re talking to yourself.” Suzaku said nothing. His eyes sank closed and he pointed his face away. Lelouch hissed and snatched at Suzaku’s cheeks, forcing his face up. “Look at me,” he breathed. “I mean it.”

And Suzaku did. He opened his eyes and he ran his gaze over Lelouch’s face, his lower lip caught on his teeth. His throat jerked as he swallowed. “So what?” he said hoarsely. His face was fever-hot.

“So remember,” Lelouch said, glaring, “you didn’t want a ghost. That was the whole point of what you did. This is what you wanted. So deal with it, you stupid bastard.” And he faltered for just a second, his breath hitching, and then he dipped forward and stole a kiss. Suzaku’s lips were warm and dry, open in surprise. Lelouch pulled back and looked at him, close enough that their noses touched. Suzaku swallowed and looked uncertainly back, and finally, Lelouch smiled a little and closed his eyes and kissed him again. He pressed against Suzaku, slid his tongue into Suzaku’s mouth. His fingers crept back to curl in Suzaku’s hair.

Suzaku made a small, helpless sound against Lelouch’s mouth, and his spine broke its rigid line. He grabbed at Lelouch’s thighs, pulled until Lelouch was straddling him. He was like waves in Lelouch’s hands, hungry and grasping and desperate. Lelouch edged up further into his lap and leaned, his knees at Suzaku’s hips and his hands in Suzaku’s hair, until they fell back, Suzaku sprawled beneath him.

Lelouch ran his lips along the underside of Suzaku’s jaw. “I’m sick of you,” he said breathlessly. “Don’t you know how to do anything but hurt?” He leaned close until his lips brushed the edge of Suzaku’s ear. “Poor little Suzaku,” he whispered. “Masturbating to his own tragedy.” Suzaku’s hands slid up his legs and to the curve of his ass, and he panted against Lelouch’s hair.

“Lelouch,” he said, his voice strangled. “Lelouch.” His hands burned. He lifted one, brought it up to hook his fingers in the belt loops of Lelouch’s jeans. Lelouch shifted and pushed himself up, his hands on either side of Suzaku’s head. He smiled. Suzaku stared up at him, his hair rumpled, and breathed, “Fuck.” Mutable shadows played over his face. “Lelouch,” he said again, and swallowed. “What do you want from me?”

“What do I want.” Lelouch curled his fingers into the comforter. “I want you to stop this painful façade.” He studied the wash of uncertainty that made Suzaku’s eyes widen. “I know you,” Lelouch said softly. “I know you. And you are not broken.” Suzaku was silent, but his hands relaxed on Lelouch's legs, and something in his face seemed to soften. Lelouch tilted his head. “What do you want?”

“I want you.” Suzaku flushed hotly.

Lelouch sat back, settling squarely on Suzaku’s hips. “Is that so,” he purred. “That’s what you want.” He tugged up Suzaku’s undershirt, the thin fabric sliding over lean muscle, and he looked up through his eyelashes as he arched his back, ground his hips down, and ran his fingers over the lines of Suzaku’s middle and over his chest. Suzaku shuddered and gave a wordless groan through his teeth, his fingers tightened on Lelouch’s thighs, his hips bucking helplessly. The sound felt like fire, stirring an answering heat deep in Lelouch’s belly. Suzaku let him pull the undershirt over his head, and then he was running his hands up beneath Lelouch’s shirt. Lelouch shrugged easily out of it and bent again, pressing his lips to Suzaku’s collarbone.

“I won’t let you waste away for this,” he murmured, brushing his nose through the soft hair at the nape of Suzaku’s neck. “I want you to fight. You aren’t allowed to run away.”

Suzaku’s breath came quicker. He grabbed weakly at Lelouch’s wrist. “You don’t--if you don’t want to, it’s okay. Don’t do it just because--”

“Shut up,” Lelouch breathed. He trailed a hand over Suzaku’s belly, following its trail of course hair to slide into his pants, his fingers closing around a stiff erection. “I want this,” he said. “I want you.” Suzaku sucked air and arched, his hands suddenly desperate, fighting to drag Lelouch’s jeans over his hips. One hand freed itself and fisted in Lelouch’s hair, pulling him down for a clumsy kiss. Lelouch smiled and licked into his mouth, humming gently. He spread his knees and removed his hand, working blindly to unfasten Suzaku’s pants. Suzaku kissed like fire, heat and energy and hunger, and when Lelouch slid his pants over his hips, freeing his cock, he moaned into Lelouch’s mouth and thrust into Lelouch’s hand.

And then he broke away, panting, “Ah, wait. Wait.” He threw out a hand, reaching bonelessly for the nightstand. “That. Drawer.” Lelouch sat up, flushed and winded. He pulled himself off Suzaku and crawled to the head of the bed. He slid open the drawer and fumbled inside, surfacing with a small tube. He cast a surprised look over his shoulder: Suzaku was struggling out of his pants, and he burned with a vivid blush. Lelouch flashed on Suzaku, fucking himself on his fingers alone in the dark; the curve of his back, tense muscles of his legs, him biting his lip to muffle his cries. He smiled.

Suzaku broke their sloppy, open-mouthed kiss again, whispering, “Wait, no.” His hands went to Lelouch’s jeans, undone and hanging off his hips. “Like this.” His hands trembled a little as he pulled the jeans down Lelouch’s legs. He hooked his fingers in Lelouch’s underwear and pulled, and a shiver of heat went up Lelouch’s spine and he drew his nails down Suzaku’s chest and kissed him again, teeth nipping at his lip. They tangled, Suzaku’s arms curling around and under him, palming Lelouch’s own erection and pressing lube-wet fingers into him.

Lelouch arched against him, lifting his face, and Suzaku pressed his lips to his throat. He slid another finger inside, fire and fire, and Lelouch gasped his name in a thin whisper. He spread his knees wider and moved his hips, Suzaku’s fingers sending sparks of electricity up his spine. “Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck. Now.” Suzaku pulled away and slicked his cock with lube, his hands shaking. His fingers reached closed around Lelouch’s erection, and Lelouch lowered himself onto Suzaku's cock with a hiss, trembling and slow. He tensed and Suzaku groaned and moved. Lelouch shifted, his back arched, thrusting into Suzaku’s hand. Sweat slid down the line of his back. Suzaku fisted him off slowly, his other hand cupping the curve of his hip, helping him move.

His legs cramped and his breath hitched, became pants in the back of his throat. Suzaku pressed a hand to the flat plane of the small of his back and he shifted enough to give Lelouch the room to unfold his legs and tuck them around Suzaku’s hips, the movement dragging a low moan from his throat. He linked his arms around Suzaku’s neck and Suzaku kissed him breathlessly, his hands still moving, his thrusts more insistent. “I want you,” he panted against Suzaku’s lips. “I want all of you.” His breath hissed through his teeth and he arched as he came, wet heat spilling over his belly and Suzaku’s hand. Suzaku’s breath was hot against his neck in short pants, and then he gave a wordless sound and went rigid, his blunt nails digging into the flesh of Lelouch’s back.

Lelouch folded over and pressed his forehead to Suzaku’s shoulder and closed his eyes. The salt of Suzaku’s sweat on his tongue. Suzaku trembling against him, breathing his name against his ear.

Later, he woke feeling pliant and warm, a hand rubbing absent, soothing circles on his back. He must have made a sound, because the hand stopped. “It’s dark,” Suzaku said unhelpfully. Lelouch grumbled and snugged further beneath the covers. The rest of Suzaku was very close to him, but not touching. He could feel his heat. “Lelouch,” Suzaku whispered, after a few seconds. “I’m glad I didn’t kill you.”

“It's very selfish,” he murmured into the pillow. Suzaku’s fingers played through his hair, and he felt himself begin to drift. He felt a little sore all over, heavy. He breathed in Suzaku’s warmth and closed his eyes. “I think I might love you,” he added sleepily. “So don’t do anything stupid.”

Suzaku’s fingers stopped again, and then there was movement and an alarming feeling of proximity, and Suzaku whispered, “Okay,” very close to his ear. He pressed a dry kiss to Lelouch’s temple and pulled him close. I never asked for this, Lelouch wanted to say, the words slow and hazy in his mind, and then Suzaku smoothed his hand over his hair, and he thought, But it’s okay, anyway.