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Figaro

Chapter Text

They say that, to produce divine theatre, an actor must be more than just that – an actor. He must become one with the character, live his role. Only then can he convince his critical audience that all play and act is real and overcome reality.

That is true.

Similarly, a singer of opera must become one with his role in order to make his listeners fear, rejoice, worry and love with him and create truly divine music. It has been told that some opera singers could never let go of the roles once performed, absorbing them as a part of their selves. Some went mad from blurring the line between act and reality.

Very few singers ever make it to the grand stages of the world and even fewer of those manage to achieve the proficiency to genuinely live their acts without losing their minds.

Lelouch Lamperouge was one of those singers.

A bass-baritone by voice type, Lelouch had seriously started singing at the age of fifteen, joined the Royal Opera two years later and had sung his first lead role at eighteen. With that evening's curtain call he had become the acclaimed rising star on London's operatic sky. For the next four years, whenever his name appeared on the programme, the Royal Opera House was sure to be packed.

It had been an offer to participate in a production ofGounod's Faust as Méphistophélès with a cast of world-famous stars at the Opera Australia that had drawn him to Sydney – not to mention that Sydney's opera house's capacity was more twice as high as that of the Royal Opera.

And now here he was, singing the last lines of Wagner's Meistersinger von Nürnberg in front of thousands of enthralled listeners in one of the world's most famous halls at the mere age of 23. And he was loving it, loved how all eyes were on him and him alone.

“... Ehrt eure deuschen Meister!,” he – that is, Hans Sachs – finally sang. Solemnly he took the golden collar from another Meistersinger and slowly put it around the knight's shoulders as the chorus took up his line, dozens as one.

Ehrt eure deutschen Meister! Heil Sachs, heil Nürnbergs geliebtem Sachs!

A laurel wreath was placed on his head, and once more the chorus hailed him. With a pompous flourish, the last notes of four hours of Wagner passed away, Lelouch stepped to the edge of the stage and, as the audience one by own rose to their feet, clapping their hands in ear-deafening applause, took a long, elaborate bow. For a long moment he revelled in the crowd's reverence, then the curtain fell, muffling the applause. Oh, I love you guys. I love your breathless adoration, I love your gifts and flowers, and oh how I love your applause.

As he made his way through a large crowd of both soloists and members of the chorus congratulating him, wanting to shake his hand, once more the boy who had sung the antagonist Beckmesser caught his glance. He stood somewhat aside the crowd, a slight blush adorned his handsome face. The boy didn't seem to notice him.

Once Lelouch had finally gotten rid of the crowd of felicitators and fans, he went over to the other singer. He was humming one of his arias.

“Hey,” Lelouch greeted him. The boy winced surprised. “You're Suzaku, right?”

Slowly and wide-eyed, Suzaku nodded. “And … you're Lelouch Lamperouge …”

“I know that.” The boy was quite handsome. Distinctly Asian features, Japanese, judging by the name. Wild brown hair – how typical of the Opera Australia not to adapt the actors' hairstyles to the setting (not that he would complain – he liked his hair, very much so, and far too much to have it cut off).

“I … I've got your album …,” Suzaku lamely went on.

Lelouch rolled his eyes. Of course he had, everyone had. “Really? That's sweet of you.” Then he drew him aside. “Listen. Have you ever sung in the Figaro?”

Suzaku blinked. “The Rossini one?”

“The Mozart one. Have you?”

“Er, no.” He lowered his eyes. “I … I have covered Bartolo two years ago, though!”

“Hm,” Lelouch made, frowning. “You don't have much experience, have you?”

The boy blushed even harder. “I … er. I only joined the Company last year. Beckmesser is my first major role.”

Lelouch took him even further aside. “Well, it'll do …,” he murmured. “I do like your voice,” he then admitted. “I really do. You've got talent, Suzaku. Say … I'll be singing Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro next month. We still need a Figaro, though.”

Expectantly he looked at Suzaku, whose eyes widened. “Wait … you're … you're not proposing I should sing Figaro? He's the lead of the opera!”

“Precisely. Do you accept?”

When a hesitant smile crept onto Suzaku's face, Lelouch already knew he had won. “Well … I guess it's going to be fun. It'll be here in Sydney?”

He told him where it was to be. Lelouch's triumphant grin widened as he observed Suzaku's face fall.

 

“Well, I guess that's it …,” she said. The girl was eagerly scribbling in her notebook. “Do you have any other questions, dear?”

Quickly, the girl went through her notes. “Hmmm … nope,” she said. “I think that's it. Thanks a lot, miss!”

Euphemia Lamperouge smiled back. The girl was adorable, she thought once more. She couldn't remember ever having been like this, though her sister had come close. “You're welcome,” she said. “I'm sure your speech will be great. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

The schoolgirl's eyes brightened. “Um … if it's fine with you, I've heard you sing the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute on the internet … could you perhaps … sing it for me?”

Euphemia gulped. Then she looked into the girl's bright eyes … “I'll do my best,” she then agreed and stood up from the sofa. She tried to relax her throat. It took her a moment to remember the first notes, then it went all right. It was a demanding aria, but she had sung it at the Metropolitan Opera only six months or so before, so it should be okay.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen, Tod und Verzweiflung – Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!,” she sang, high-pitched, fast and menacing. Her pronounciation of the German was a little sloppy, she had only sung Italian and French for months.

Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro Todesschmerzen, Sarastro Todesschmerzen!, so bist du meine – meine Tochter nimmermehr. Aha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a! Aha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a! Aha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a, a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a! meine Tochter nimmermehr! Aha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a! Aha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a! Aha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a, a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a! So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr!

The girl watched with glossy eyes. Well, that had been the hardest part, now it was pure fun –

Verstoßen sei auf ewig, verlassen sei auf ewig, zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig alle Bande der Natur! Verstoßen, verlassen, und zertrümmert alle Bande der Natur, alle Bande der Natur, alle Bande der Natur! wenn nicht durch dich Sarastro wird erblassen! Hört, hört, hört! Rachegötter, hört der Mutter Schwur!

Heavily breathing, she ended. The girl was enthusiastically clapping. “That was awesome!,” she exclaimed. “I didn't believe even you could strike such a … high note until now! Thank you so much, miss!”

It was rather surreal, she had to admit. The girl couldn't be fifteen.

Euphemia grinned. “You're welcome. It was nice to speak to you. Glad to know some kids these days still care for opera.” Euphemia led the girl out and wished her good luck for her presentation.

The call from her manager had come as a surprise. It had been the first time she had done something like this – she really hadn't expected there to be even a single teen with any interest in opera in New York City, excepting the apprentices at the Met, of course. Still – it had been nice to talk with such a young fan. She had already proposed some more children-oriented programmes to the planning committee of the Company, but it would take time to implement them. Hopefully she could interest some children and teens into opera this way, though –

She went over to the kitchen and brew up a mug. Then she got out her mobile and turned it back on – there was a new message from her manager telling her to ring her back. Nothing else. Euphemia took a sip of coffee (too hot), then rang her up. She was greeted with a hearty, “Ah, there you are. I've been waiting for you to call”.

Euphemia smiled warmly. “Good morning, Julia. At work already?” She threw a glance at her watch, it was about half past 9 in the morning.

“Sure am,” the woman on the other end chuntered. “How was the girl?”

“Adorable, really. It was fun talking with her. Thanks for that.”

“Listen, Euphie, there's been a new offer for you. It's on pretty short notice and only a single performance. As your manager, I would not even consider it, but as a friend, I reckoned it would interest you nonetheless.”

Euphemia raised a brow. A single performance wouldn't be worth the hassle, usually, unless the Met gathered they could make a lot of money with it. “What is it? Some kind of gala?”

“I think you'll like it better. You want to know who the call was from?”

She moaned. “Stop tantalising me, will you! Who was it?”

Euphemia could almost hear Julia grinning through the line. “Dame Ceciniah Cadbury. You know, the conductor of the Royal Opera, London.”

“I know her,” she noted. Now that was a surprise. She took another sip of coffee (about right). “She was a good friend of big brother.”

“Still is, apparently. She wants to stage Figaro's Marriage at the Royal Opera House next month, and she specifically requested you and your siblings for three of the lead roles.”

Euphemia's smile brightened. “Really? That's wonderful! Big brother is behind this, I'm certain. Oh please, can I do it?”

“Well, I'm not sure about this,” Julia objected. “Of course it's a nice opportunity for you, but you must not forget your obligations to the Met. The week in question you happen not to have any performances or important rehearsals, but you'll have to fly across the pond to rehearse before that. Actually I still can't believe your brother got Dame Ceciniah and the Company to stage Figaro on such short notice – it seems she will just recycle last year's Royal Opera production with different actors. Now, you simply can't leave New York to rehearse. In the four weeks leading up to the show, you've got 21 performances, nearly all of them as one of the leads, each preceded by roughly six hours of rehearsal. You've volunteered to supervise that high school project in Jersey at the end of the month, so that's another five days you'll have no time to even practise at home. Also, you've got German lessons. So, I don't see any way for you to participate, no matter how sorry I am.”

Frantically, Euphemia searched for words. She hadn't thought of this. “But … I promise I'll find the time to do both! I'll just practice on the tube … I'll practice whenever I have a few moments! It'll be the Countess, right? I've sung her before, I'll just ask for Dame Ceciniah's wishes per e-mail … and … and then just take my notes from back then! I could start right now! I … listen, I've got an idea. I'll just cancel those German lessons …”

Don't you dare,” Julia hissed. “Do you know what trouble I went through to get you a German teacher in NYC who also knows his way around music?” Then her voice softened. “You said you wanted to understand what you sing, so you got to learn German.”

“But it's hard!,” she whined. Then she had to giggle. “Anyway, I guess it's gonna be all right if I do it? I promise I won't miss anything or fall behind, okay?”

Julia sighed. “On your responsibility, young lady. Very well then, I'll inform Dame Ceciniah. If there's a recording, send me one, okay? Oh, and don't forget about the premier of the Rigoletto tonight …”

Euphemia giggled as she tried to remember just where she had put her notes from the Figaro.

 

Lassù in cielo, vicino alla madre …,” she quietly sang as she looked up at the older man kneeling above her from weary eyes.

The man was near tears. “Non morir! Mia figlia!,” he begged, trembling.

In eterno per voi pregherò,” she added, pianossimo now.

Lasciarmi non dei …,” he whispered.

Even for her, who had sung it before, it was heartbreaking to see this man – already rudely stamped by Life – this desperate. Nonetheless she added one last line with broken voice: “Non più... Addio!

Then Nunnally Lamperouge slowly closed her eyes. The man's hand tightly holding hers was warm. She slumped in his lap and died.

In utter anguish the hunchbacked man put his hands to her cheeks, still hoping for her to open her eyes again – “Gilda! Mia Gilda! … è morte! Ah, la maledizioooone!

With one last, baleful hit from the orchestra, the man collapsed over her frail body and for a moment the stage was completely dark.

Then, as the lights in the hall were turned back on, the audience erupted in applause.

The other singer helped Nunnally up, and they took a long bow.

Nunnally blushed heavily as the first audience members rose to their feet, and she was glad when the other singers came on stage to take their bows and she could stand in the back.

Once more she was called forth to bow, then finally the curtain fell and she no longer had to see the audience.

She quickly bid the other singers a good night, then hastened backstage.

Nunnally carefully closed her dressing room's door behind her, then dropped herself into the comfy chair in the centre of the narrow room, observing herself in the mirror. There she was – young and beautiful, the rising star and lead soprano of the Royal Opera after her siblings had left to pursue their own careers. This last performance, Rigoletto, would certainly make her even more famous. The first offers to produce an album had already come and only weeks ago she had been offered a place and a choral scholarship at Cambridge, which she intended to take up once the next season was over.

And still she found herself dissatisfied, disappointed, even depressed.

She still tended to awake from nightmares at times – not screaming, but drenched in sweat, breathing heavily, and crying. With the dark images still on her mind, she would then wander about the spooky old house that was far too big for a single tenant.

Invariably, she would end up in big brother's room somehow: then, Nunnally would throw her onto his bed, let out all her tears and absorb what little remained of big brother's scent.

And then she would sing: try to, at least, for her voice tended to break and be muffled by tears, but whenever she came to her brother's deserted (unchanged) room, she would sing, a recent aria of hers, perhaps – offer his resident heart a glimpse of how far she had come from merely being his less talented satellite.

She knew that his heart would recognise her, if not the rest of him.

Nunnally winced as the door to her artist's dressing room was jerked open. It was Dame Ceciniah, the conductor. She looked back at the mirror.

“What is it?,” she inquired. Wordlessly Ceciniah stepped behind her and began to unlace her dress.

“First of all, we're gonna get you out of that bloody gown,” the conductor said as she quickly helped her out of her costume. “And then I'll take you out for dinner.” With the stern look she tended to have on her face when conducting, Dame Ceciniah threw Nunnally her casual clothes.

“Dinner” proved to be the local Pizza Hut at Henrietta Street.

Really, she should have expected it. Dame Ceciniah Cadbury was known for several things – amongst others, her exceptional skill wielding the baton, being the first female conductor to be knighted, generally being an eccentric and, most notably, her extreme love for pizza. Allegedly she had eaten twelve pizzas on her own while on a tour to conduct Madama Butterfly in Tokyo and had won a rather cheesy plushy by it which had since been an avid observer in the orchestra pit.

“Are you still going to eat that?,” the conductor asked munching, pointing at Nunnally's plate. She was still wearing White Tie.

She blinked, looked at the empty plates already in front of Dame Ceciniah and shook her head. “You can have it. I'm not really hungry.” The other woman had already taken it.

“You were wonderful tonight,” Ceciniah said with her mouth full. “Really, one of the best Gildas I have ever seen.”

Nunnally gave her a patient smile. “Why did you invite me here?”

The two of them must have given a weird image – the female conductor in White Tie and the singer in sweater and jeans dining at Pizza Hut at midnight, the former having eaten three entire pizzas while the latter didn't even make the first one.

Without haste Dame Ceciniah finished her current slice. “Your brother called,” she then said and Nunnally stiffened. “I told you he'd taken the bait.”

Her voice seemed to an octave higher than usual. “Well … what did he want?”

And, drawing the answer out like a thread of cheese, the conductor answered: “Le nozze di Figaro. I have to admit, that was a good move of him.”

Slowly, Nunnally nodded. She tried to keep a straight face as, within seconds, various implications of big brother's choice shot through her head. Figaro had been the last opera the two of them had sung together, more than a year ago at the Glyndebourne Festival – big brother as the Count, herself as the Countess Rosina Almaviva. It had been a wonderful performance of a wonderful opera, but her memories of the moments off-stage were far more vivid than those of arias and recitatives – big brother's smile, his praise and his hot lips on hers in the finales of acts two and four were the images burned into her mind. It had been the last time they had been this close –

That big brother would choose this opera had complicated the issue and threatened to spoil the slight pride she had felt for her plan to work – have Ceciniah supply to big brother the idea of an operatic family reunion and make him think it was his own.

She could think of three distinct implications, each of which grimmer than the others.

The first one – by far the most pleasant of the bunch, but also the unlikeliest: big brother remembered that glorious evening and her joy and excitement and wished to work the wonder again. Oh, how she would have loved that! To know that big brother still cared … she would have been overjoyed. But, alas – in more than a year she had never seen any evidence that big brother did, or even had something akin to a heart.

The second one – far more likely. Big brother had chosen the Figaro simply because he liked the opera. That he certainly did, but could it be the only reason for his choice? If it was, it would greatly despair her – the thought alone was enough to make her tremble in misery and cry for all she had lost. To think that big brother had not even thought of her and that experience at Glyndebourne that had been so wonderful to her … and yet it was nowhere near as gruesome as the third possibility Nunnally could think of, the one she feared the most:

That he had chosen the Figaro because he didn't trust her to learn a new opera within a month.

Oh, that had to be her greatest fear indeed – that big brother thought of her as nothing more than a little girl that just happened to have taken a few singing lessons. Thinking of it filled her with nothing but cold rage, gone all the love. She was a Lamperouge – no, she was Nunnally. She was London's brightest young star and the Royal Opera's guarantee to a full house for years to come. Even without the surname she nowadays tried to avoid, she was a brilliant singer in her own right and –

And the truth was that she did not really belief in the first two implications.

And the truth was that she just wanted to make big brother listen to her when she was at her best, and be proud of her for all she had accomplished on her own. Perhaps … probably just that had been the true reason for plotting with Dame Ceciniah to bring her broken family back together, even if it was for but a night.

“I see,” she soundlessly said. “I will be the Countess, right?”

“Yeah. Your brother will be the Count, Euphie will be Susannah and Lulu called earlier today to tell me he got some Australian newcomer he was deeply impressed by for Figaro.”

Nunnally shifted uncomfortably. She hadn't really wanted any outsiders to participate – this was for her, for their family, and she couldn't help but think of that Australian as an intruder. She would have been fine with one of the boys from the Company taking the lead, all of whom knew the three siblings well enough not to be offended if told to leave them their space.

“I see,” she repeated. Dame Ceciniah finished her last slice of pizza, quaffed her coke and gave the empty plates in front of her a longing look. Then she looked up at Nunnally, giving her an intense stare.

“I know what you went through, dear,” the conductor then said. “I know what he did to you. But he is going to come back to London next month, and you better be prepared for it – musically and mentally. It was your idea, after all. Eventually, you will have to face him.”

Slowly, Nunnally nodded. “I know that,” she whispered. “I know that …”

 

It was rather cold.

She drew her coat and scarf tighter, got out her phone from her handbag and threw a glance at the time displayed in the header, compared it to the time displayed by the large clock on the wall and to the time flight BA355 from New York had landed according to the arrival board. It had arrived about 20 minutes earlier and most passengers had already made their way to the arrival lounge. Nunnally was pretty sure her sister would come from the exit she was observing, so why did it take her so long?

She took another sip of coffee (rather, a Caffé Mocha Grande with soy milk – she would never understand why they were all called “tall” when they had different sizes) from her paper cup, then looked back at the clock.

“Excuse me?”

Nunnally looked up to find a young man standing by her table, himself holding a cup in his hand. “Would you mind if I sit here?,” he asked in a broad Aussie accent, pointing to the free chair.

Slightly irritated, she looked around the tiny café. It was packed. Then she smiled at the young man. “Of course not. Have a seat.”

Placing his backpack on the floor, the man sat and Nunnally continued to observe the exit. There was an awkward silence, each of them feeling like they really should start a conversation, but none of them actually wanted to –

“So, er, who're you waiting for?,” the young man finally broke the silence. He was quite handsome – Asian features, though brown-haired and green-eyed, somewhat rugged. A black hoodie with the phrase “i pwn noobs”.

“My sister,” Nunnally eventually replied. “The flight from New York. She's a bit late, though. What about you?”

“A friend … well, more of a colleague. We've just arrived from Sydney. He's seen something interesting at the bookshop over there …”

Nunnally had to laugh – she could certainly emphasise. “So, you're here for work, then?”

He smiled uneasily, as if the topic was slightly embarrassing to him. “Well, I guess you could say so … I'm …”

“Nunna!”

She looked up and found a flurry of pink running towards her, she rose, surprised, and almost immediately found herself in a tight hug.

“Eu...Euphie …,” she realised and fought to free herself from the hug. The young man was looking on, amused. Breathlessly Nunnally added: “That … you surprised me …”

Euphemia giggled and picked the suitcase she had dropped back up. “Sorry 'bout that, sis,” she cheerfully apologised. She was still giggling. “So good to see you,” Euphemia then added.

Nunnally smiled. “You too. Welcome home.” She gave a slight cough. “A-anyway, this is my sister, Euphemia. Euphie, this is Mr … er …?”

The young man stared at them, wide-eyed. “You're Euphemia Lamperouge,” he quietly stated. Euphie looked at Nunnally. “Then you must be … Nunnally Lamperouge …”

As they silently looked on, the young man unfroze and began to frantically search for something in his backpack.

“Is … is something wrong?,” Euphemia asked, worried.

The young man looked up, blinked. “Er … you wouldn't happen to have a pen?”

Then he regained his composure, jumped to his feet. He flushed red. “I … I'm sorry, I probably just made a fool of myself … I … I'm Suzaku Kururugi, and … I guess I'll be in the Figaro with you this week …”

Awkward pause.

Then, Euphemia giggled. “Wow, what a coincidence,” she laughed. “You're too cute, Suzaku. Is this your first time in London?”

As the boy affirmed, Nunnally paled.

“How about I show you around the city, then?,” Euphemia cheerfully offered. “You can't stay holed up in the …”

Nunnally interrupted her. “Where did you say is your colleague?,” she soundlessly inquired. Her face was pale as chalk, her hands were trembling.

And before Suzaku could answer, she heard that dreaded, beautiful voice behind her – “Euphie … Euphie, is that you?”

It felt like someone had stabbed her in the heart with a rusty dagger and then twisted it when Euphie squealed and drew big brother into a tight hug. She wanted to run, run away as far as possible – but her feet wouldn't move.

Nunnally tried to remember Dame Ceciniah's advice, tried to face big brother and tell him about her feelings straight to his face, but it proved impossible. There just was no way she could ask him to his face if he still felt anything – the words just wouldn't come out.

Slowly, she turned.

Big brother was as beautiful as ever, a beautiful, feminine face commending his voice.

Finally, he and Euphemia parted and he noticed Nunnally. His smile widened.

“And Nunnally, too … you're looking ravishing.” Big brother spread out his arms to embrace her. She stayed where she was.

Her voice was breaking and far higher than usual when she finally replied. “Hello … Lelouch.”

 

Dame Ceciniah stepped on the stage as the applause swelled on. A spotlight illuminated her. One of the violins handed her a microphone, the audience kept clapping.

Quickly, she rose her arm and snapped her baton, and within seconds it was quiet. Then, laughter. She smiled.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she spoke into the microphone when the noise had died down. “I am Dame Ceciniah Cadbury, DBE, and I shall be your conductor tonight.”

She took a short bow as there was another round of applause.

Le nozze di Figaro – The Marriage of Figaro. One of the world's most famous operas, it is also the prime example of the style of opera buffa, and is also remarkable for being a superb mix of drama and comedy. Composed by Mozart in 1786 based on a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte, it was first performed in Vienna on 1 May 1786, conducted by the composer, and was well-received – and that is despite the libretto being based on the eponymous play by Beaumarchais which had been banned for its revolutionary propaganda. However, Da Ponte removed all of the politics, leaving only the bare dramatic structure on which he and Mozart greatly expanded to produce a sublime example of drama that Mozart with his natural genius set to music …”

 

It was not like Suzaku had expected.

On one hand, London was surprisingly beautiful, from the doorknobs over the palaces and churches to the opera house at Covent Garden. It was not as bright and the colours not as radiant as he was used to, but there was some understated, rainy and very British beauty to the city. The rehearsals had been great fun – the atmosphere was completely different than at the Opera Australia, more serious and studious, but also smoother and friendlier. There was not one untalented singer in the chorus and the voices of the soloists were both astonishing and (to him) intimidating.

On the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling about the tense atmosphere between Lelouch and his sisters, especially Nunnally. The two of them never spoke more than was absolutely necessary and went out of their ways to avoid each other, and even during rehearsals, while making beautiful music together, Suzaku would always feel as if they had to force themselves to act as close as their roles demanded. It was not as if they hated each other – from what little Lelouch had told him, they certainly didn't. But there obviously were a lot of unresolved tension and words remaining unspoken between them.

Euphie, however, was a bright spot in all of this. Although put even more at unease by her siblings, she had taken the time to show him around the city on his first day and things had been going uphill with her since then.

She was an angel. Beautiful, kind, caring, humorous – all those were words that tended to come to his mind whenever he spoke to her, and he had come to love singing with her. With many little gestures and looks from bright eyes she would inspire him to give his best, and indeed he had begun to think that perhaps their duets would eclipse those of quarrelling Lelouch and Nunnally.

He had become infatuated with her.

Slightly nervous, Suzaku looked around the waiting room backstage. Euphie had left for her dressing room a bit earlier with one of the tailors for some last-minute adjustments of her dress. Lelouch and his youngest sister were sitting as far apart as possible, both of them fiercely staring at the flat screen television in the corner on which the first measurements of the overture were being broadcast from a camera in the hall. Kaguya, the young trousers soprano singing Cherubino, was skimming through a magazine. Sayoko and Jeremiah, Marcellina and Bartolo, respectively, were in a bordering room going through the third scene of the first act once more. The other soloists were probably going through their lines or reading in the other waiting room.

The door opened and Euphie stepped in. Immediately he sprung to his feet.

“Are you coming, Suzaku? I think that was our cue.”

Suzaku smiled. It would happen, it occurred to him – it was going to be real. He would be singing in an opera with Euphemia Lamperouge – and that as the lead.

They stepped out of the waiting room. The area directly behind and beside the stage was now almost completely deserted.

“You … you're looking great,” Suzaku managed to say and blushed a little. She was looking great indeed. Her costume was rather simple, as befitting a servant, but the dress nonetheless commended her. She wore neither make-up nor jewellery, but her hair was still flowing and her deep purple eyes were bright with excitement.

“Thanks …,” she replied, herself blushing. They passed the prompter and the propman and moved on stage. “Good luck!,” she wished him, then she moved to her position by the side of the set. High shelves on the sides, to the left filled with various cloths and textiles, to the right with wigged mannequin heads. An easy chair slightly off-centre with a large white cloth thrown over the backrest and a door in the back. It was rather dark; no light was supposed to pass under the curtain.

Suzaku silently moved to the right side, got down on his knee and took the long wooden ruler laid out for him. Then he drew a deep breath and looked up, his face going expressionless.

The lively overture ended. For a moment the orchestra in the pit paused, then started again, quieter and calmer this time. Slowly the curtain rose and the lights on stage went on.

Suzaku waited the few texts until his cue, then he put his ruler to the floor, looked from one end to the other and back and opened his mouth … “Cinque!

Chapter Text

Atto Primo

 

Five … ten … twenty … thirty … thirty-six … forty-three!

Silently they stared at the screen as the first plot lines of the opera were unwoven in song and surtitles – Figaro kneeling to measure the room, his fiancée trying on a lace bridal veil. No English subtitles were provided on the television in the performers' waiting room, but her Italian was good enough to make do without the translations the audience in the hall would be given.

Yes, I'm very pleased with that; it seems just made for me. Take a look, dear Figaro, just look at this headdress of mine.

There was something frightening about the natural perfection of Euphie and Suzaku's act. If Nunnally didn't know the truth, she'd have thought them to actually be the couple they pretended to be: her annoyed by her fiancé's obliviousness, him annoyed by her interruption of his work, but deeply in love underneath those superficialities as finally Figaro duly admired her bridal veil and they gently embraced each other, singing in unison.

Nunnally looked up from the television in the corner to stealthily observe her brother's profile. He hadn't changed too much: still raven hair engulfed his face, though he would soon put it away under the wig he was turning in his hands, still his deep purple eyes looked piercing and omniscient, still his mine always seemed to look self-confident and amused.

She quickly looked back at the television when big brother seemed to notice her gaze.

“What are you measuring, my dearest Figaro?,” Susannah asked over the sound of the harpsichord when the orchestra's music had faded. Figaro had already taken up the ruler again.

“I'm seeing if this bed which the Count has put aside for us will go well just here,” he answered. Once more Nunnally looked at her brother – it was as if he had been completely unaffected by their separation, as if time hadn't passed for him. She wanted to say something, but no sound would come out.

“In this room?,” Susannah asked with disbelief. Figaro laughed.

The plot unravelled as Susannah declined the room, appalled, to which her fiancé replied that it was the most convenient room in the Count's palace.

Supposing Madame calls you at night: Ding ding … ding ding! in two steps you can be there from here. Or if it should happen that His Lordship should want me, dong dong … dong dong: in three bounds I'm there at his service.

And supposing one morning the dear Count should ring: ding ding, ding ding, and send you miles away, dong dong, dong dong, and the devil should lead him to my door? Dong dong, in three bounds …

And so Susannah revealed to her oblivious fiancé of the Count's advances and how he wanted to force her into his bed using an ancient feudal right – Nunnally found herself staring at the screen, her throat dry as dust, greedily taking in every note and every syllable. They looked so natural together – as if her sister and Suzaku had died and become mere hulls for their roles the moment they had entered the stage. She, Nunnally, had never been able to fully become one with her role like they did now – she was superb at acting, but it always remained an act and never life. She found herself unable to cross that crucial line – the line where the line between “life” and “role” blurs even for oneself. She could never hide the fact that she was alone, alone and despaired, and that her music had become a mere job, perhaps solace, instead of the pleasure it had been before.

onstage, the two lovers' scheming to outwit the Count was interrupted by a light ring. With one last embrace, Susannah hastened offstage to attend to her mistress, leaving a gloomy Figaro behind, feverishly pacing up and down the stage, rubbing his hands.

“Well done, my noble master!,” he uttered recitativo. His voice was dripping with spite and sarcasm. “Now I begin to understand the secret ... and to see your whole scheme clearly: to London, isn't it, you go as minister, I as courier, and Susanna … confidential attachée ... It shall not be: Thus speaks Figaro!”

Then suddenly Figaro grinned. Slowly, he began to sing:

If, my dear Count, you feel like dancing, it's I who'll call the tune. If you'll come to my school, I'll teach you how to caper! I'll know how … but wait, I can uncover his secret design more easily by dissembling.” His grin widened as his aria fastened, triumphantly he took one of the wigged mannequins, speaking to it as if it were the Count himself. “Acting stealthily, acting openly, here stinging, there mocking, all your plots I'll overthrow!”

She gulped. She hadn't expected to be constantly reminded of … all that. Oh, quanto amore …, she remembered Gilda's words from Rigoletto, well, all right, but why not her too?

To a round of applause, Suzaku hastened offstage. Instead, Sayoko and Jeremiah entered from the side, Marcellina imploring the lawyer Dr Bartolo to help her in gaining Figaro's hand for her own by exploiting a contract they had once made.

Kaguya closed her magazine and rose from the couch. “I guess I'll get going,” she cheerfully said, oblivious to the tensions between her fellow singers. “See you guys out there.”

Nunnally silently nodded, not even turning her gaze from the screen. She liked the girl, she really did, but to speak would mean attracting big brother's attention and she just couldn't tell him, nor could she have a normal chat with him after all that had happened …

Anyway, Kaguya didn't seem insulted in the slightest as she cheerfully strode out the waiting room.

And now she and big brother were alone

Revenge, yes, revenge is a pleasure meant for the intelligent; to forget insults and outrages is always low and base. With astuteness and acuteness, with judgement and discernment, I can do it … The case is serious: but, believe me, I'll bring it off. If I have to search the whole legal code, if I have to read through the whole statute book, with a quibble or a paraphrase I'll find some obstacle. All Seville knows Dr Bartolo: that rascal Figaro will lose the day!

In her mind, the thoughts were chasing each other like goldfish in a bowl. She couldn't just leave and sit by the stage because she would not have any part before the second act, but neither could she just stay sitting here and hope big brother didn't notice her [and what if …], and she couldn't just storm out because you just … didn't

“Nunnally …,” big brother suddenly said. Something about the way he said her name – woeful, warm in the icy atmosphere – made her shiver. Nunnally couldn't hide a blush, yet thankfully big brother wasn't even looking at her, but at the wig he was twisting in his hands. “I came back to London to see you,” he quietly said. “You are angry with me … and I am sorry for whatever I did to disappoint you.”

She gulped …

Finally Lelouch turned on his couch, intensely looking at her. Nunnally avoided his piercing gaze.

“I love you, Nunnally. I really do, no matter what you may think. I just want us to be like before again …” Big brother paused. She remained frozen like a marble statue. Then he sighed. “Look. I've got an offer from Bayreuth to sing Siegmund in this year's Die Walküre. And I'd like to take you with me – just for fun. I could get you tickets to the Ring, and then we'd just do holidays together, like we used to … we could go to Berlin, then Paris, perhaps … or visit Milan and Venice – you still like Verdi, don't you? It'll be …”

Nunnally had already stopped listening. Her eyes had teared up, she quickly rose. “E...excuse me, I've got something … something in my eye …” Before big brother could respond, she had already stormed out of the waiting room.

He didn't follow her.

Slowly Nunnally wandered towards the stage, the duettino of Susannah and Marcellina becoming louder with every step. The first tears ran down her cheeks, hot and wet.

She passed between two movable walls, a deep, narrow gorge. It was dark behind the stage, where the coulisses were being stored, so that Nunnally had to feel her way forward.

It hurt. After all that had happened, it still hurt to see all her greatest fears proven true. It was obvious now – big brother didn't care, nor love, nor feel.

He didn't even take her seriously.

Slowly she leaned against one of the movable walls to her sides; slowly she sank to the floor. Her shoulders were trembling, shaken by silent sobs. She had failed – all her plans, all her naïve dreams of reconciliation and of past love shattered like the figurative glasses destroyed by figurative sopranos.

Nunnally winced when she heard slow steps – most likely big brother on his way onstage … she held her breath, drew back a little further into the shadows.

Then the steps faded away.

And still the tears were running down her cheeks.

It was obvious that he had not meant a single word of what he had said about “going back to before” – he probably had simply been in need of a female companion for the Bayreuth festival and didn't want to disappoint any of his fans. Well, how convenient he still had a little sister somewhere …

And there were first doubts tormenting her mind – not about big brother, whom she had already unmasked, but about herself.

… no.

This couldn't go on.

She could not allow her heart to be eaten way by big brother like this, she just couldn't. She needed to move on and get over his betrayal. She would have a damnatio memoriae, just for herself and big brother, and forever ban him from her thoughts. She would go to Dame Ceciniah after the performance and tell her that it had not worked out and that she didn't want to sing with Lelouch Lamperouge again.

She would simply delete the man she had once fiercely loved from her life and get on with it.

It would be easy. She felt nothing for him. Of course not.

Perhaps, if she kept telling herself just that, this pain in her chest would go away.

Nunnally gulped and closed her eyes, then opened them again. It was still completely dark. She could hear Euphie and Kaguya's singing onstage.

She needed to get on with it. Just this one evening (perhaps a little more), then she would take the dreaded step and get on with her life. But now she couldn't fail Dame Ceciniah and the people out there, couldn't fail big sis, now she had to sing

Nunnally opened her mouth. The first notes of the Countess's first aria were muffled by tears and broken by sobs, then it got better. “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro al mio duolo, a' miei sospir…”

 

I speak of love when I'm awake, I speak of it in my dreams, to the stream, the shade, the mountains, to the flowers, the grass, the fountains, to the echo, the air, the breezes, which carry away with them the sound of my fond words ... And if I've none to hear me I speak of love to myself.

Shivering and wide-eyed, Kaguya's voice silenced and the pageboy Cherubino's aria ended. Within seconds Susannah had drawn the boy into a deep hug, more motherly than anything else (which the page apparently misunderstood, judging by the hand she had to slap away). There was a round of applause from the audience and some 'brava's.

Then, suddenly, steps.

“Ah, I'm lost!,” Cherubino yelled, hiding behind the easy-chair. Susannah looked up; “Heavens … it's the Count!”

Quickly she stood between Cherubino and the door at the back of the stage. “Woe is me,” she added, frightened, then the Count strode in.

Euphemia had to admit that she was a little amused: instead of the wig Lelouch had agreed to wear after a long struggle, he had merely tied back his raven hair with a black ribbon. So at least this had not changed about her brother … Susannah hid her smirk behind a mask of fear and puzzlement.

“Susannah … you seem to be agitated and confused,” the Count greeted upon entering.

“My lord ... pray excuse me,” she frantically stuttered, “but ... suppose someone caught us ... I beg you to leave.”

Slowly the Count approached her and sat in the armchair.

“One moment and I'll leave you. Listen.” He took her hand, which she withdrew with some effort.

“I mustn't listen,” she insisted, to no avail.

“Just two words. You know that the king has appointed me ambassador in London; I planned to take Figaro with me …”

Quickly, she interrupted him. “My lord, if you'd allow me …”

The Count rose from the chair and once more attempted to take her hand. She shrieked back. “Speak, speak, my dear, and with that right, which today you may assume of me as long as you live … ask, require, demand!”

Susannah fled to the front of the stage, he slowly followed her. “Let me go, my lord, I claim no right … nor wish, nor intend to …”

She sighed, looking away. This was tricky … “I'm so unhappy …”

Although she didn't look at him, she could almost hear the lascivious smirk on his face. “But no, Susannah, I want to make you happy! You well know how much I love you, Basilio has already told you; now listen: if you'll give me a few minutes, in the garden at dusk … ah, for that favour I'd pay

The Count Almaviva was interrupted by a muffled voice offstage. Frightened, both of them turned to the door. “Who spoke?,” the Count warily asked her.

“Oh heavens …”

Then he regained his composure. “Go out, and see no one comes in,” he commanded.

“I'm to leave you here alone?!,” she hissed, outraged. Another murmur from the hallway. The Count hastened to the armchair. “I'll get behind there.”

Susannah quickly stood in his way. “D...don't!”

“Hush! And get rid of him.”

The Count stepped forth to hide himself behind the armchair, Susannah stood in his way. Gently he pushed her aside, but it was enough time for Cherubino to steal in front of the chair and hurl up inside it. As the Count knelt behind it, Susannah covered up the page with the cloth on the armrest.

Not a moment later the door opened and Basilio – played by Clovis D'Arke – entered, vested in a Catholic priest's soutane.

Euphemia remembered Clovis from her time at the Royal Opera, and the fact that she thought him an arrogant jerk certainly helped her act.

“Susannah, may Heaven be with you,” Basilio greeted. ”Have you by any chance seen the Count?”

Susannah winced and quickly marched towards the priest, pointing at the door. “What should the Count be doing here with me? Please leave.”

“Just a moment, listen: Figaro's looking for him.”

Wide-eyed, Susannah turned away. “Oh heavens!,” she exclaimed towards the audience, still recitativo. It felt rather strange to speak so much, as always – or rather, to neither speak nor sing. She preferred singing through-composed operas, but there was something enthralling about The Marriage of Figaro

Then she turned back to Basilio. “He's looking for the one who, after you, hates him the most?”

To the side, the Count quietly interjected “We'll see how I am served …”

Basilio chuckled and shook his head. Susannah didn't bother hide her disgust, though Euphemia did. “I've never heard the proposition that he who loves the wife must hate the husband. To tell you how the Count loves you …”

Susannah hushed him away, shoving him back through the door. “Begone, base agent for another's lust!,” she yelled. “I don't need your propositions, your Count or his love …” Fuming, she turned back to the stage's front, the door opened and the priest came back onstage.

“There's no harm done: everyone to his own taste: I'd have thought that for a lover you'd prefer, like any other woman, a generous, prudent, and discreet nobleman to a youngster, a page-boy …,” he mischievously noted.

“To Cherubino?,” Susannah amusedly inquired.

“To Cherubino, that amorous cherub …” He got even closer to her. Involuntarily, Susannah retreated. “Who at daybreak this morning was prowling about here, trying to get in …”

“Liar!,” she furiously exclaimed, flushing red.

Basilio smirked. “To you, everyone who keeps his eyes open is a liar. And that little song he gave you? Tell me in confidence; I'm a friend and won't let it go any further: was it for you … or for Madame?”

Bewildered, Susannah startled a little. “Who on Earth told him about that …?,” she wondered aside.

“By the way, my daughter,” the priest continued, slowly wandering towards the armchair, “it would be wise to warn him. At table he gazes at her so often and with such avidity that, if the Count noticed … you know, on that point he's ferocious.”

“You wretch!,” she furiously exclaimed, marching up to him. “Why do you spread such lies!”

Basilio feigned indignation. “I! You wrong me!,” he called out. Directly behind him, Susannah saw the Count slowly rising from behind his hiding-place … “I only say what everyone's saying!”

“Really?,” the Count snarled. Susannah turned away, covering her eyes with her palm, Basilio grimaced. “And what is everyone saying?”

“Oh dear …” – “Oh Heaven!”

With five trembling chords, the orchestra finally replaced the meek sounds of the harpsichord, and was soon supplemented by her brother's divine baritone, now arioso, deep and with barely contained fury.

What do I hear? Go at once and throw the seducer out, throw the seducer out!

Quickly Basilio turned towards the Count, raising his hand appeasingly. “My presence is ill-timed here, pray excuse me, my lord …

Susannah was close to fainting as she meekly commented offside. “Unhappy me, I'm ruined!

Go at once and throw the seducer out!

My presence is ill-timed here, pray excuse me, my lord …

Throw the seducer out!

I'm overcome with misery …

While still singing, she was staggering. Within seconds, Basilio and the Count were by her side to support her (she knew Basilio was supposed to be groping her breasts, that didn't change anything about it being sickening).

Ah, the poor child has fainted! Lord, how her heart is beating!,” they both sang and Basilio added: “Gently, gently, on to this seat …,” pointing at the armchair. Carefully the Count drew her to the chair, but Cherubino was still hurled up in it, hidden under a dress …

Where am I …? What's going on …?,” she meekly sang, then suddenly she revived and repulsed both men just before the Count could place her in the chair. “How dare you! Go away!” Retreating from them, she quickly adjusted her dress.

We're only helping you. Don't be alarmed, my dear …,” the Count tried to calm her, and Basilio joined in: “We're only helping you. Your honour is quite safe.

Then he turned towards the Count, trying to appease him once more. Even he was apparently trying hard to retain his calm, as evident in his ostinato. “What I said about the page was only my suspicion …

It's a wicked lie, don't listen to him!,” Susannah quickly added.

The Count remained firm. “That young fop must go!” (Euphemia was beginning to believe that her brother was just perfect for this role.)

Poor boy …,” both she and Basilio appealed.

Poor boy!,” the Count only snorted. “I've found him at it again.

How so … what?

He grimly smirked. “Yesterday, I found your cousin's door locked; I knocked, and Barbarina opened it, more flustered than usual. My suspicions aroused by her appearance, I looked and searched in every corner …

Slowly, he went over to the chair, lifted up the dress. Susannah held her breath … Basilio took the other end and together they carried it across the stage, more for comic effect than anything else.

Very, very softly, I lifted up the tablecloth … and found the page.” In one fluid motion, the Count threw the dress to the ground, revealing a trembling Cherubino who had tried to stay hidden by crawling behind it to the audience. Slight laughter.

Only then the Count saw the page. “Ah, what do I see!

Susannah turned her face in fear. “Oh, cruel Heavens …

Basilio, however, was snorting with laughter. “It's getting better and better …

The Count turned to Susannah. “Oh, most honourable lady!,” he spat, brother's deep violet eyes gleaming furiously. “Now I see what's going on!

She did her best to ignore him. “Nothing worse could come about! Heavens above, what more's to happen!

That's what all beautiful women do!,” Basilio commented aside with great pleasure, looking down on frozen Cherubino on the floor.

“Basilio, go off and fetch Figaro. I want him to see …,” the Count ordered, switching to recitative.

“And I want him to hear!,” Susannah quickly added. She was certain her love, if no one else, would believe her.

“Wait!,” the Count called to Basilio, then turned back to her. “What's your excuse when your guilt is obvious?”

Innocence has no need for excuses.”

“But when did he come in?”

She sighed and closed her eyes as she answered. “He was with me when you came in. He was asking me to beg Madame to speak for him. Your arrival threw us into confusal, and so he hid himself there.”

“But I sat down there myself!,” the Count protested, pointing to the armchair. “When I came into the room!”

“Th...then I hid myself behind it,” Cherubino hurriedly explained, demonstrating his actions by jumping behind the armchair.

“And when I moved behind it?”

“Then I hid inside.”

Shocked, the Count turned to Susannah. “Heavens! Then he heard all I said to you?”

Cherubino was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “I tried not to …”

More laughter from the audience, slightly delayed by the reading of the English surtitles above the stage.

“Perfidious rascal!,” the Count furiously yelled, taking a step towards Cherubino, who jumped off the armchair and tried to hide behind Susannah.

“Restrain yourself, someone's coming!,” Basilio snapped.

“Stay here, you little viper!”

Suddenly, the three doors on the sides of the stage were opened.

After a moment's pause when everything from the performers over the orchestra in the pit to the audience seemed to freeze, the chorus entered, several dozen young men and women, peasants in their churchgoing outfits. All of them were expectantly looking at the Count, who involuntarily retreated a few steps; many were holding flower baskets.

They were led by Figaro, who held a white lace bridal veil in his hands.

Happy young people, scatter flowers before our noble lord!,” sang the chorus, approaching the Count. Figaro quickly stepped to Susannah as the Count retreated to the edge of the stage from the flower-wielding tenants. “His generosity keeps a young flower intact for her love! Strew flowers before our noble lord, our lord!

Slowly the Count sat in the armchair, maintaining a forced smile as the villagers knelt before him and reached out their bouquets.

Alarmed, he quietly turned to Basilio behind him. “What's this fuss all about?” The priest merely shrugged.

“Here we go, back me up, my dear!,” Figaro whispered to his fiancée aside. “I'm not hopeful,” she replied, annoyed. The barber turned back to the Count.

“My lord, do not disdain this humble display of our affection. Now that you've abolished the dreaded feudal right …”

“It exists no more, what of it!,” the Count quickly interrupted.

Figaro took Susannah's hand and gently drew her forward. “Today we've come to gather the first fruit of your generosity,” he solemnly proclaimed, both he and Susannah kneeling before the Count as the villagers looked on. Slowly he offered him the veil in his hands. “Our wedding is already arranged. May it please you to crown her, whom this gift of yours preserved spotless, with this white veil, symbol of virtue.”

Susannah had to suppress a giggle as the Count's eyes widened in shock and understanding. He had planned to reinstate his feudal right – Droit du Seigneur – with her, but how could he do that after being forced to affirm his abandonment in front of so many of his tenants?

He uttered a slight curse, brother's eyes glistering angrily; “Devilish sly!” Then his mien brightened and with a grand gesture he rose. “My friends,” he loudly spoke, “I thank you for your honest feelings. But for this I do not deserve any tribute or praise: it was an unjust privilege, and by abolishing it in my domain, I have restored to nature and duty their right.”

“Vivat, vivat, vivat!”

“What nobility!,” she applauded, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “What justice!”

The Count turned to Susannah and her fiancé again. “To you I promise to perform the ceremony … but give me leave for a while. I wish to complete your happiness before all our friends and in the greatest splendour!”

There was a bit of an excitement amongst the villagers and the Count quickly turned to Basilio: “Fetch me Marcellina!” Then he raised his voice again. “Now leave, my friends!”

Bowing and strewing flowers before him, the peasants repeated their chorus and stepped offstage.

Susannah felt her face flush red in anger. Once more the Count had found his way around giving a clear answer and once more – rather, still – she had to fear to be forced into his bed.

“Vivat!,” she sarcastically snorted as the Count was still looking after his vassals.

“Vivat!,” added Figaro and Basilio. Then, Figaro noticed Cherubino, who was silently standing aside, twisting his tricorne in his hands. “And you're not applauding?”

Uneasily he opened his mouth to respond and closed it again. “The Count has sent him away,” Susannah quickly explained.

“On this happiest of days!,” Figaro begged.

“On our wedding day!”

“When everyone's applauding you!”

The Count remained silent. Cherubino hastened up to him and knelt, grasping his master's hand. “Pardon me, my lord!,” he begged, near tears.

“You don't deserve it,” Count Almaviva coldly replied, making Susannah shiver. “He's still a child!,” she objected, outraged.

“Less so than you think!”

“I … I did wrong,” the pageboy continued, “I know, but I'll never mention …”

Strangely, the Count winced. Then he took the page's hand and roughly rose him to his feet. “Alright, alright, I pardon you!,” he hastily said. Then a smirk slid onto his face, her brother's deep purple eyes glistering cold as stars on a winter night's sky. “Even better: there's a vacancy for an officer in my regiment. I nominate you, go at once, goodbye!”

As Cherubino's eyes widened in fear and shock, he turned to leave, signifying Basilio to follow. Quickly, Susannah and Figaro stood in his way. “Just let him stay until tomorrow!,” they begged in unison.

“No! He must leave at once!”

“I … I will obey you …,” Cherubino quietly said, his shock still evident in his broken soprano.

“Then embrace Susannah for the last time.” As Cherubino hastily rose to do so, the Count sniggered. “That took them by surprise,” he applauded himself.

With forced cheerfulness, Figaro put his hand around Cherubino's shoulders when they had parted. “Well, captain, won't you give me your hand?” When it seemed like the Count didn't look, he quietly added: “Before you go, I want a word with you.”

She could virtually see Cherubino shivering.

“Goodbye, master Cherubino! Within seconds your destiny has changed …”

Slowly, with calm, untroubled steps, the Count left the stage, followed by Basilio.

Euphemia found herself looking after her brother: his act had been superb, of course, as she had expected of him, but it seemed like it had come to him far too easily. The role probably was perfect for Lelouch; it wouldn't have been before she had left for New York.

With a low chord the strings set in, replacing the rough cadences of the harpsichord, and Figaro started singing, perhaps with a very slight bit of mocking.

Amorous butterfly, no more will you be fluttering around at, disturbing the ladies night and day, you pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love. No more fine plumes or dashing hats, no more long hair, airs and graces, rosy cheeks.

(She couldn't help but think that Kaguya as Cherubino looked like a kicked puppy.)

Suddenly, the brasses and timbals set in, and it became clear: that this was not some meagre aria of love or hate or similarly exalted feelings, but a march.

You'll be swearing like a trooper, complete with moustache and knapsack!,” Figaro strongly sang, picking up the ruler he had used before, pointing it at the page-turned-soldier like a sabre or an officer's baton. “Musket on your shoulder, sabre at your side, stand straight! Lots of honour, little money …” Slowly, he pressed the ruler into Cherubino's hands. They closed around it without a second of hesitation.“And instead of dancing the fandango, marching through the mud! Over mountains, through valleys, in snow and days of listless heat, to the sound of guns and cannons, making your ears sing on every key. No more fine plumes or dashing hats, no more long hair, airs and graces, rosy cheeks. Amorous butterfly, no more will you be fluttering around at, disturbing the ladies night and day, you pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love – Cherubino, on to victory, on to glory in battle! Cherubino, on to victory, on to glory in battle! On to military glory! On to military glory!

Slowly, he reached out his hand, and almost immediately the page firmly took it, to the sound of a march.

Quickly, curtain fell and the music was drowned in thundering applause.

Suzaku let go of Kaguya's hand and brushed the sweat from his brow. Euphemia smiled at him; he smiled back. “You were great. I really enjoyed it.” He blushed, then she realised and blushed as well. “That … came out wrong.”

Kaguya giggled. “Let's get out of the way, guys. Stage is being reset.”

Surprised, Suzaku pointed to the scarlet velvet curtain. “No curtain calls? They sound like they'd like one …”

Euphemia smiled patiently. “It's Dame Ceciniah. She absolutely loathes applause between acts and, seeing that she can't forbid it, she does not allow anything that might encourage the audience, including curtain calls. Come, let's get out of the way.”

They quickly left the stage and went for the folding chairs, the towels and water bottles, when they noticed Lelouch approaching them from the performers' waiting room. There was a worried frown on his face. Euphemia put away the bottle of water she had just opened. “What's wrong?”

“Has any of you seen Nunnally?,” he asked.

Euphemia's eyes widened. “Weren't you two … what did you say to her?”

“Nothing!,” Lelouch indignantly responded as Suzaku confusedly looked from her to him and back. “I just … oh, never mind. She'll be onstage for the second act, I'll just talk to her during the interval.”

She shook her head. “I'll look after her. She's not in the waiting room?”

“No. This is between her and me, you shouldn't bother her now …”

“Nunna's my sister, too!,” she snapped back. “I don't know what you said to her, and I don't think I want to know, but she will need me now. Excuse me, Suzaku.”

Lelouch opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again as his sister stormed off to the dark backstage. The two men silently looked after her.

“What … what was that all about?,” Suzaku finally asked. The star slowly sat in the folding chair next to him, took his towel and brushed the sweat from his brow.

“You got a lot of applause,” Lelouch obscurely replied, his voice dull. “Two minutes and 36 seconds; I counted.”

“Um, thanks,” Suzaku made. “Well, the audience is larger than the ones in Sydney …”

Lelouch frowned, sullen and indignant. “That is beside the point. Of course it is louder. The point is that it was two minutes and 36 seconds, and that without a curtain call. They were all yours. You had them – you, the nameless newcomer.”

There was a long and uneasy silence. The hurried noises from the stagehands had quietened, everything was prepared for the next act.

Suzaku gulped. Just when he had thought the star had opened up to him … “I had an aria. It's only natural … I guess … you don't have any larger parts till the second act, and it's the arias that get the applause …”

“No.” He shook his head, slowly, three or four times. “No. I know an audience when I see one, and this one is all yours and Euphie's.” He rose from his chair. “I should have chosen a different opera … stay here. I'll search for Nunna. You should get started, it won't take too long.”

Quickly he marched off into the darkness. Suzaku wanted to apologise, but he didn't know for what. Then, Lelouch turned and looked at him.

“Enjoy the next acts, signor Figaro,” he quietly said.

Chapter Text

Atto Secundo

 

A handsome room with a four-poster bed, a dressing-room on the left, a door in the background – leading to the servants' quarters – and a window at the side.

The Countess lying on the bed, alone.

Slowly, the tall window's blind was raised, bright daylight illuminating the bedroom. Drawn-out, warm chords from the strings – morning.

She involuntarily raised her hand to shield her eyes from the bright light, blinked wearily.

Nunnally shifted, drawing the blanket closer. She gave a weak sigh. “Oh, Love, grant me remorse,” she then sang, slow and woeful. “Console me in my sorrow …

Slowly, she sat up in the bed. It was surprisingly easy to sing the aria, certainly easier than last time she had sung Porgi, amore. She could almost feel a tear running down her cheek –

She still wondered just what made it hurt so much. Nunnally had always thought of herself and been described as a strong person … it wasn't like her to be hurt, even disabled like this. But perhaps her strong reliance on her brother had been what had made his loss this crippling – he had been the one she had consulted in matters significant and not, he had been the one who had consoled her when she had fled to his arms from being left by one of her boyfriends. He had been her constant, the one she had always been able to rely on for support.

Dismantling a house from the foundations. How quaint.

She would have loved to just forget him, build a new foundation for a new house – or best forsake any. Sempre liberadegg'io follegiare di gioia in gioia, vo' che scorra il viver mio pei sentieri del piacer!

But no, no, no. Just like Violetta had been doomed to fail at it, she could not succeed, either. Yet where it had been the promise of a new discovery for the woman gone astray, it was the memory of happier times that made her unable to move on, a drug in its own right – that made her unable to forget the love she had once felt for her husband. Hadn't she fallen for him when he had serenaded her under Old Bartolo's window, years ago? Oh, she could still feel the all-consuming fire in her heart she had felt the very first day.

End my sighs … give me back my beloved … or in mercy let me die.

Quietly, the last notes of the aria faded, and there was some applause. The orchestra silenced as Dame Ceciniah stepped over to the harpsichord and stroke another chord as Euphie as Susannah entered, bristling with energy. The Countess sighed, slowly shook her head and rose from the bed, dressed in a sheer white silk nightgown.

“Come in Susannah, and tell me the rest of the story!”

Susannah shrugged, walking over to her mistress' dressing table. “Oh, there's nothing more to tell.”

“So … he tried to seduce you?” A cold shiver ran down her back.

The maid snorted. “Oh, His Lordship doesn't pay such compliment to girls such as me. He came to offer me money.”

“He no longer loves me!,” the Countess cried out, making Susannah roll her eyes. “Then why should he be jealous?”

Susannah came back and helped her into a dressing gown. “He's a modern husband,” the Countess explained, “Unfaithful out of habit, jealous out of vanity! But … if Figaro loves you … only he could …”

She was interrupted by loud, cheerful singing on the hallway. Figaro entered, holding a mannequin's head with the Countess's wig. He bowed.

“Here he is! Come in, love: my lady is anxious …” It took Nunnally a moment to notice, but there was a slight tint on Susannah's face as she said that.

Figaro chuckled, placed the head on the dressing table and got out a comb from his coat. The Countess slowly sat on the chair by the window as Susannah made her bed. “It's nothing to worry about. His Lordship likes my bride, so he wants to revive the feudal right – it's all possible and natural …”

“Possible!,” the Countess interrupted him with disbelief. “Natural!,” added Susannah, outraged. They looked at each other, their looks merely saying How typical of a man.

“Very natural indeed! And if Susannah is willing, it is very much possible as well.”

“Get to the point!,” Susannah snarled.

“I am. So he's taking me to London with Susannah as his 'personal adviser'. Since she refuses to oblige him, he'll support Marcellina's case … and that's it, basically.”

Susannah angrily drew him aside. “Are you treating this as a joke?”

“At least I'm giving it some thought!”

The Countess hid her face. There went her last hope – she had trusted in Susannah and her fiancé to regain her dear husband, but if they kept bickering like that …

Figaro hurried over to her, raising his arms in an appeasing gesture. “Here's my plan!” He turned to her and she hopefully looked up. “I've sent a letter via Basilio telling him you're meeting a lover at the time of the wedding ball …”

The Countess's eyes widened, she jumped up in fear. “Oh heaven! But he's so jealous!” She didn't want to imagine what he would do to her should he learn about that …

“So much the better!,” Figaro proclaimed. “We'll confuse him, ensnare him and spoil his plans! … He'll realise he can't trick me.” Susannah crossed her arms and snorted, but the Countess closely observed him with wide eyes. “He'll waste his time, and meanwhile we'll be getting married!” Figaro took his bride's hands. “With Madame on our side he won't be able to stop the wedding.”

“But Marcellina can!,” Susannah objected, drawing her hands back.

“Of course …,” he mumbled and began to walk around the room, thinking hard. The Countess watched him, curious. “Ah! You must tell the Count you'll meet him in the garden,” Figaro then exclaimed, rattling through the Italian words incredibly quickly. “Cherubino will go instead of you … dressed up as a woman!”

She had to giggle. The thought of Cherubino in a dress had something very fitting about it (the acting part of Nunnally's mind knew why, of course, but it remained a mere trickle deep below the surface, like the beating of the heart) …

“The Count will be caught in the act,” Figaro triumphantly continued, “and will have to do what we want!”

Pause.

“What do you think …?,” the Countess then asked her maid. There was something very promising about this plan, and contrary to many others – there seemed to be no hooks attached, nothing that might have estranged her love even further from her … she smiled at the thought that this might be just what she had hoped for, and that Susannah and Figaro clearly were a gift of heaven.

“… not bad.”

“In our situation …”

“If he's determined …”

“Do we have enough time?”

“The Count has gone hunting,” Figaro confirmed. “He won't be back for hours. I'll send Cherubino to you at once, I'll leave you to the task of disguising him. And then …”

“And then …?,” the Countess asked him to continue.

There was a slight pizzicato from violins and viola supplanting the harpsichord, allegretto, the melody from Figaro's first aria in the first act. “If, my dear Count, you feel like dancing – it is I who'll call the tune.”

With those words, he left her bedroom. Countess Rosina de Almaviva looked at Susannah. “I'm sorry the page overheard what the Count said to you,” she then told her maid. “Ah, you have no idea … but why didn't Cherubino come to me himself? Where is the song he wrote?”

The maid got a folded sheet of paper out of her dress' pocket. “Here is it: let's make him sing it!”

There was a knock on the door and Susannah startled a little. Then she hurried to open the door. Worried, the Countess looked at herself in the dressing table's mirror; she still wore the nightgown.

Oh, well.

It was not as if she had anything to lose, so why care? No reason not to pay back her unfaithful love in kind.

Then Figaro shoved a reluctant, blushing Cherubino into her bedroom. Susannah giggled. “Forward, march, Mr Officer!,” she teased, and Rosina turned to look.

“Don't call me that …” Cherubino stumbled inside, whining. He already wore his uniform – a scarlet coat with blue facings, tricorn, waistcoat and breeches –, and yet looked so much a child. “It reminds me that I must leave my godmother, who is so kind …,” Cherubino continued, looking at her from red eyes.

“And so beautiful,” Susannah supplemented.

“Ah … yes … indeed,” he sighed.

“Ah … yes … indeed,” the maid imitated him. “Hypocrite! Now sing her the song you gave me!”

A smile slid onto Rosina's face. “Who wrote it?”

Susannah laughed brightly, pointing at Cherubino. “Oh, look how he's blushing!” The Countess sat in the chair, expectant. “Take my guitar and accompany him,” she ordered her maid, who complied.

Heavily breathing, the page-turned-soldier looked from one to the other. “I'm all a-tremble … but if my lady wishes …”

“She does. Don't keep her waiting.” Susannah put the song's notes on the bed and pitched the guitar, then began to play a light-hearted introduction.

Cherubino gulped, his eyes wide he looked at the Countess, took an insecure step towards her. She smiled at him, indicating to continue. Then, slowly, he opened his mouth and begin to sing, a clear boy soprano. “You ladies who know what love is, see if it is what I have in my heart. All that I feel I will explain; since it is new to me, I don't understand it. I have a feeling full of desire, which now is pleasure, now is torment. I freeze, then I feel my spirit all ablaze, and the next moment turn again to ice. I seek for a treasure outside of myself; I know not who holds it, nor what it is. I sigh and I groan without wishing to, I flutter and tremble without knowing why. I find no peace by night or day, but yet to languish thus is sheer delight. You ladies who know what love is, see if it is what I have in my heart …”

Slowly he had knelt before her, taking her hand. Rosina didn't resist, staring back at the pageboy from teary eyes, an absent-minded smile on her lips. There was a long silence as the Countess and the juvenile page stared at each other. How pretty he was! Like a girl indeed, and that wonderful …

She snapped out of her trance. “Bravo!,” she quickly said with a slightly mocking tone, “What a charming voice. I didn't know you sang so well …”

Susannah interrupted her and Rosina startled a little and looked up, caught red-handed. “Oh, I must say, everything he does, he does well. Now come, handsome soldier, Figaro will have told you …”

Cherubino grinned and jumped to his feet, letting go of her hand. “He's told me everything.”

The maid nodded and a smug smile sneaked onto her face as she examined the page. “Let me see … this will do splendidly. We are the same height. Off with your jacket.”

Forcefully she relieved the page of his uniform's coat. Rosina froze. “W...what are you doing?”

“Don't worry,” Susannah calmly said, continuing to undress the boy. “There's nothing to fear.”

Rosina objected. Even though the Count was away hunting … “B...but what if someone comes in!”

The maid merely rolled her eyes. “Let him, what harm are we doing? But I'll lock the door.” She did so, then returned to Cherubino, yet paused when she noticed the boy's short hair. “But how am I supposed to do his hair?,” she wondered.

There was a pause, then the Countess sighed, giving up resistance. “Take one of my bonnets from the dressing room. Quickly!”

Susannah curtsied and disappeared into the dressing room – leaving her alone with Cherubino … she could feel her heartbeat quickening as the boy took a folded letter from his breast-pocket and silently handed it to her.

“What's this?,” she asked and, after a moment's deliberation, took it and skimmed through the first lines. We, Count Juan de Almaviva, Grandee of Spain, Royal Governor of Andalusia, do hereby in the name of His Catholic Majesty Carlos III de Bórbon by the Grace of God King of Spain, Naples, Sicily etc. etc. command Our well and trusted servant Capitán Guzman to take in as an officer of Our regiment of the line the bearer of this document …

“My commission.”

She shifted. Even in the warm morning sun of Seville, she felt cold … “My … they're hurrying!,” Rosina exclaimed.

“I've just had it from Basilio.”

The Countess looked up at the boy for a moment, then skimmed through the rest of the short document. She reached the end of it and giggled lightly, showing it to Cherubino as a faint ray of hope came to mind. “Look. In their haste they've forgotten the seal.” She handed the commission back to him and Susannah came back in, holding a bonnet and one of her crinolines. “What seal?,” she asked.

“On his commission …”

“What, so soon!,” Susannah startled a bit. “Anyway, here's the cap.”

“Hurry! Woe betide us if the Count should come …”

The maid chuckled, then turned kneeling Cherubino's face towards her – and the crinoline. The boy's jaw dropped, he looked from Susannah to the Countess and back at the garment. Then Susannah rolled her eyes and drew him away from her, and as the strings joined in, the maid switched from recitative to aria.

Come … kneel down … stay still here … keep quiet; now turn round … bravo … that's very good. Now turn and face me …” She rolled her eyes and again dragged Cherubino away from her lady and continued to dress the struggling boy. “Here! your eyes towards me … look straight in front at me … my lady isn't here. That collar a bit higher. Those eyes cast down, your hands folded before you … then let's see how you walk when you're on your feet.

She took Cherubino's hand and raised him to his feet, now half-dressed in a loose shirt, pantalettes and a crinoline. Enthusiastically the boy clumsily put on the pair of court shoes she gave him and both women had to giggle at his attempts at walking. “Look at the little rascal,” Susannah teased her, making her blush, “isn't he handsome? What roguish glances, what airs, what graces! If women fall in love with him, they have good reason why …”

The Countess was thrown into a helpless giggling fit when the pageboy finally stumbled and fell into her lap. She pushed him aside, finally relaxing. “This is too silly!,” she sighed.

“I'm almost inclined to be jealous of him,”Susannah joked, taking the boy by the chin. “You little scamp, you've no right to look so pretty!”

Cherubino grinned cheekily, but she rose from her chair, interrupting his response. “No more of this childishness!,” the Countess sternly said, stepping forth to adjust his shirt. She needed something to distract herself with … “Now roll up his sleeves, then the dress will go on more comfortably.”

“There!”

“Still higher, like that …” She noticed something on the boy's arm under the shirt, tightly gripping it. It was blue with dark stains, a piece of cloth tied around Cherubino's upper arm. “What's this ribbon?,” she inquired. The boy flared red.

“That's the one he stole from me,” Susannah supplied, nudging the boy.

She untied it, slightly worried. Then she uttered a slight gasp. “And this blood?”

Cherubino uneasily explained that he must have grazed himself a while ago. Susannah laughed, grasping his arm. “Let's see … it's not serious. Look! His arm's as white as a girl's!”

The Countess frowned at her. “Are you still playing silly games!,” she complained, flustered. “Fetch some sticking-plaster.” She pushed her maid away, then looked at Cherubino, blushing. Lost in thoughts, she twisted the ribbon in her hands.

Susannah was, of course, right. The boy was pretty.

“As for this ribbon …,” she then said in a sing-sang voice, “I'd be very sorry to lose it …”

Cherubino took a step towards her and she smiled. It was hot, as if a thousand suns were burning down on them. The air was dry and warm like during a summer's thunderstorm, just before the desire between heaven and earth would grow unbearable and discharge in a tremendous bolt …

They were interrupted by Susannah bringing a plaster and scissors. Immediately she sent her back out to fetch another of her own ribbons to bandage the boy's arm, but the tension had disappeared. The maid left through the rear door to the servant quarters.

“Ah … one of your ribbons would have healed me far quicker …,” Cherubino then noted, blushing. She frowned. “Why? This one is better.”

The boy's blush darkened. “But … when a ribbon has bound the hair or … touched the skin of some …”

Quickly, she interrupted him. Something inside her struggled against paying the page's love back in kind. How quaint – what had she to lose? Only pleasure and distraction to gain. “… of some other person,” she interrupted, “it's good for the wounds, is that it? That's a virtue I was not aware of!”

She turned away from him and stepped to the window, throwing a look out to the garden, where the old gardener, Antonio, was already hard at work with a bottle of wine.

“… my lady mocks me when I must leave her …” Cherubino's voice was trembling. Surprised, she turned to find his eyes full of tears. Without thinking, she hurried to embrace him. “Poor boy … it's hard …”

Slowly, they sat on the edge of her bed. Cherubino slung his arms around her, burying his wet face at her bosom. “I'm so unhappy …,” he cried, muffled by sobs. She tried to appease him, wiping his tears with her handkerchief. “Oh Heaven …,” he continued, looking up at her … well, not quite up … from tear-veiled eyes. “I would I could die right now … perhaps in my last moment would those lips dare …”

“What nonsense you are talking …,” she answered, slowly, letting him gently push her down to the bed. “Be sensible …”

A noise seemed to interrupt them as she slowly unbuttoned the boy's shirt, their lips growing closer and closer. She could feel his hot skin on hers …

Another knock on the door, the Count's voice. “Why is this locked?”

A light cry of surprise escaped her lips as she startled and pushed Cherubino away. “My husband!,” she cried, “Oh Heavens! I'm lost!” A hounded gaze towards the boy as they slipped off the bed. “You here … undressed … he's received the letter already …”

On the hallway, the Count groaned, annoyed at having to wait. “What's delaying you?”

“I'm alone! I'm all alone!,” she called back, hurriedly making the bed as the boy grabbed his uniform and weaselled around her. He tried to hide under the bed, but it wasn't very convincing, and Cherubino jumped up again, fearfully looking through the room.

“Who were you talking to?,” the Count inquired, once more violently jolting the door handle.

“T...to you, of course, to you!,” she cried.

God … she would die, wouldn't she? She could almost imagine her husband, just returned from his hunting trip … clad in green, his boots muddy, a sabre by his side … and even if by some miracle she should survive … Cherubino …

“After what's happened … he'll be furious …,” the boy cried out, “I don't know what to do!”

He paused, then he ran into the dressing room and closed the door behind him. The Countess hurried to lock it, then she hid the key in her bodice. “Heaven, protect me!,” she offered one last arrow prayer. Then she unlocked the door and let the Count in.

As her brother confidently strode onstage and she demurely made way, everything came back. Seville's burning sun became the legion of stage-lights, the tension in the air that of the audience, the Countess Rosina de Almaviva became Nunnally Lamperouge, soprano. She stepped back, blushing. Her brother didn't even look at her, throwing a suspicious look around the room. Silently she watched as he checked for Cherubino under the bed. “What does this mean?,” the Count that was her brother then sharply asked. “You never used to lock yourself in your room.”

When she tried to answer, the notes escaped her lips only hesitantly. She didn't know what had changed. Back then – at the Glyndebourne Festival, when Lelouch and herself had last sung together – the same opera, the same voices – it had been completely natural …

“I know …,” she stuttered, “I was trying on …” – and broke off.

Suspiciously, the Count looked at her. “Go on.”

Nunnally lowered her gaze, perturbed. “… some clothes … Susannah was here with me, but … now she's gone back to her room …”

Her brother paused, then he slowly crossed the room, looking for possible hiding spaces. Then he slowly pulled out a sealed letter from the inside of his coat. “In any case, you seem perturbed,” he spoke, his beautiful bass-baritone echoing throughout the hall. “Anyway … look at this letter.”

She froze, uttering a silent curse. Even her acting now seemed fake and unnatural to her … as she brought her hand to her face in a supposedly involuntary gesture, she was certain everyone, from the stagehands over the audience to Dame Ceciniah in the pit, could see right through her act.

“Heavens!,” she cried, aside. “It's the letter Figaro wrote him …”

As the Count slowly broke the seal and opened the letter (and was every inch a count as he did so), he was interrupted by a sudden loud noise in the dressing room – as if a certain someone had knocked over a chair … the Count startled a bit, turning towards the locked door. “What is that noise?,” he inquired.

She sat on the armchair by the window, her fingers nervously tapping against the armrest. “I … heard nothing,” she tittered, flustered.

The Count raised an eyebrow. “You must have weighty matters on your mind, then … there is someone in there!”

She startled a little, blushing. “Who might that be?,” she exclaimed, trying to act surprised as he quickly approached her.

“I'm asking you!,” the Count snapped, “I've only just come in!”

Pause.

“Ah, yes! It's Susannah,” she then quickly lied. “… of course.”

“But you told me she went to her room.”

“I … I didn't notice to which room she went!”

The Count didn't look convinced, and as Nunnally shrunk under her brother's scrutinising gaze, the Countess shivered in fear. “Susannah … then why are you so disturbed?”

She forced herself to smile at him. “About my maid.”

He took a step towards her, gesturing at her with the letter in his hand. “If it's your maid, then why are you so disturbed?” His hand was rested on his sabre's hilt …

Nunnally had to force herself not to breathe heavily. It was all an act and she couldn't afford to exhaust herself at a simple recitative … and yet, despite that knowledge, there was this harsh … hostile look in Lelouch's eyes that made her want to cry out …

“It's you who are disturbed by her!,” the Countess counterattacked, rising from the armchair. She took a few insecure steps towards him, and to her greatest surprise the Count stepped back. Then he turned on his heel and swiftly marched to the locked door Cherubino was hiding behind … “Indeed I am, as you shall see.”

She hurried to his side, anxiously wringing her hands, as he loudly knocks on the door. From the edge of her eye Nunnally can see Euphemia slipping back in through the other door, but the Countess can't and then Lelouch's beautiful voice raises above the strings … “Susannah, come out of there … come out, I command you!

And in counterpoint joined she and Euphie, who was hiding behind the bed … “No … stop … listen … she can't come out …” and “What's happening? Where's the page?,” both merely mediocre echoes to Lelouch.

And why can't he come out?” Nunnally shivered a little at his voice. It was deep and powerful as always, forged by too much Wagner, making her blood freeze and boil in turn. The Count came closer and she pressed herself against the door, looking up at him from wide eyes. “Modesty forbids it! She's trying on a wedding dress, trying on a wedding dress,” she calmly replied.

Grimacing, the Count stepped aside. “It's all too clear: there's a man in there.

It's all too horrible; whatever will happen?

I think I understand: let's see how things work out.

Their voices interlacing, they dispersed on the stage. In turn the three voices took prominence with elaborate flourishes, then lost it again as another surpassed them in precision of diction, volume or pitch.

Well, at least speak, Susannah …” – “No, no, you mustn't!” – “… if you are in there!

The Count stomped back the door to the dressing room, forcefully knocking on it. The Countess threw herself in his way, pressing against the door. “I order you, be silent!

There'll be a disaster,” sung the three siblings in perfect counterpoint, “a scandal!

She tried to stand between the Count and the door, but he roughly shoved her aside and she stumbled over to her bed, grimacing. Nunnally … this hadn't been in the last production of Figaro's Marriage they had sung in together. Something had indeed changed – and something inside her had cracked.

She had been right. She had been right from the very beginning. She wouldn't wait until the end to speak to Dame Ceciniah – she would just tell her in the interval: that she didn't want to sing with young Mr Lamperouge again …

Her eyes teared up as the aria continued.

Nunnally wondered if she could find happiness again … if she could sing again if she banned her brother from her heart. He had been the one who had helped her laugh again after their mother's death, he had been the one who had given her singing lessons back then …

Slowly, the Count approached her. Wide-eyed she stared at him, trembling, as he pressed her down onto the bed, bowing over her. “Avoid a scandal …,” he quietly repeated. She retorted the same, shoving him aside. She quickly rose and ran to the opposite end of the stage, continuing the terzetto. Again he stepped towards her, furiously staring down on her. Close … very close.

Nunnally was proud at herself for not retreating from him.

Then he broke away from her. After the sublime trio, his recitative sounded even harsher over the harpsichord's rough chords. “So you won't unlock it?”

“Why would I have to open my own room!,” she protested.

“Very well then, I shall open it without the key!”

“What! Would you hazard a lady's reputation?”

“You're right, we must avoid gossip. I'll fetch the tools myself.” The Count stomped out of her room, and she hurried to close the door behind him. Then he halted and came back. “I'll make sure to lock the other doors first,” he then announced and locked the door to the servant quarters and took the key.

She involuntarily brought her hand to her brow. She had a head-ache. “What folly …,” she whispered.

The Count slowly reached out his arm for her to take. “Please come with me, Madame,” he asked – rather, commanded. Slowly she linked arms with him, heavily breathing. “Susannah will have to stay in here till we return,” he commented.

Then her brother led her offstage.

Lelouch let go off her once they had crossed the legs curtains at the sides of the stage. Someone had prepared two bottles of water and towels, and they exhaustedly drunk and wiped away their sweat.

None of them spoke a word.

From onstage, Nunnally could hear how Susannah hurried out of her hiding place, singing a tremendously fast duettino with the pageboy that would end with him jumping out of the window to escape and the maid locking herself in the dressing room.

None of it mattered now.

She startled when he spoke – “That was very good, Nunnally.”

She trembled a little and put the bottle of water down. “Your acting was superb.”

She quivered, and she had to fight back tears. “Nunnally … you have a beautiful voice.”

Feverish, Nunnally stared into space. There it was. There it was … but what was it worth. The decision had been made; her heart been broken.

And even so – even if that was it – had Lelouch's voice not been a bit too sweet? Had not there been hesitation in it – too much?

She felt her fears confirmed when Lelouch took her hands, gently, far too gently. “Nunnally …,” he repeated, sending shivers down her back. Too harsh were the memories of blissful past, too sweet those of heartless betrayal.

“Please, speak to me,” he implored. “I want to make up for what happened,” he assured. “I want us to go back to how it was before …,” he pleaded. Finally he was interrupted by Susannah's scream from the stage, followed by a crash, then laughter as Cherubino jumped out of the window.

Lelouch remained silent after that. He didn't hold on to her hands when she drew them away from him.

When he grabbed the leather bag with the tools and the Countess followed her Count outside, she still hadn't dared to look her brother in the eyes.

Susannah had already disappeared in the dressing room, so the stage was empty as they stormed onstage.

Slowly the Count took a look around. “Everything is as I left it,” he then concluded and walked over to the door to the dressing room, an axe in hand. “Will you open it, or must I?”

“W...wait!,” she interrupted him. She could hear her own voice quivering a little, but she supposed it might work in context. “And … hear me for a moment.” The Count came over to her and threw the tool on the armchair. “Do you believe I could fail at my duty?,” she sweetly asked, gently reaching for his hand.

“Never mind about that,” he responded, just as sweetly, and tenderly kissed her hand. Then he let go off her and reached for the axe again, “I'll open that door and see who's in there!”

She was panicking and stood in his way, heavily breathing. Her pupils widened, in spite of the bright spotlights. “Y...yes, you shall!,” she interrupted the Count, fortissimo. “But … listen calmly …”

“So … it's not Susannah?,” he merely asked, his grip tightening around the axe. She nervously assured him it had been a harmless prank, tittering. “Who is it!,” the Count interrupted her, drawing his sabre. She shied away from him, uttering a surprised squeal. “I swear I'll kill him!”

“L...listen … oh, I dare not …”

“Speak out!”

“He's … a child …”

“A child?”

“Yes …,” she tittered. “C...Cherubino …”

Furiously, the Count shoved her aside as he stomped to the dressing room's door. “I find him everywhere!,” he exclaimed. “Why hasn't he left yet?! Well, that explains it …”

Then he raised his axe against the door and with it raised his voice as he vehemently initiated the act's infamous 20 minutes sextet finale. “Now come out you imp of Satan, you villain, without delay!

Oh, my lord, your anger makes me fear for him …,” she responded, trying to restrain his arm.

Do you still dare to oppose me?” – “No, please listen …” – “… to oppose me?” – “No, listen …” – “Go on, then! Speak! Speak! Speak!

The Countess walked around the bed, trying to get some space between them. “I swear to Heaven, despite all your suspicions and the state he is in – collar undone, his chest bare …

Collar undone! His chest bare! Pray continue!

D...dressed in women's clothes …

He interrupted her. “Ah, I understand! You shameless creature, I'll punish him for this: he goes to the dressing room, then turns back … I demand vengeance!

Your doubts insult me!,” she joined in, their voices overlapping, “Your suspicions do me wrong!

Then the Count crossed over to her and grabbed her by the arm. His grasp was vicelike, it almost hurt a bit. He reached out his other hand. “Give me the key,” the Count grimly sang.

He is innocent …

Give me the key!

He is innocent, and you know it!” In one last desperate attempt to calm him down, she got out the key from her cleavage and handed it to him.

I know nothing of the sort! Hence, from my sight! You are faithless, wanton … you've sought to disgrace me.” She tried to plead, but he violently shoved her aside and the Countess fell to the ground, grazing her hands and knees. Nunnally looked up from fearful eyes – this was so real … forgotten was the kind façade of the short moment offstage.

This was real

Slowly, she stood up, her voice shivering. “I'll go … yes … but …

I shan't hear you!

I'll go … yes … but …

I shan't hear you!

I'm not guilty!

I can see it in your face!” Then the Count took the key and walked to the door, once again turning to the audience. “He shall die, die and I'll be rid of the source of all my torment!

Oh, to what extreme will his blind jealousy guide him?,” Nunnally joined in. Her tender voice was almost drowned by the orchestra and most of all Lelouch's truly Wagnerian bass-baritone.

He slowly turned the key. Once more he looked at her from cold purple eyes, then he drew the door opened.

Out stumbled Susannah, grinning nervously. There was some laughter from the audience as they saw their baffled faces.

Susannah …,” the Count slowly asked with disbelief, warily pointing her sabre at her. Nunnally echoed him with even more confusion.

The pause was extremely awkward.

My lord …,” the maid then slowly began, making things up as she went along. “You want to kill the page … well, here he is!” At those last words, she took a bold step towards him, making him step back to avoid stabbing her.

What do I see? My head is spinning …” – “What can have happened? Susannah in there …” – “They're both baffled and can't understand!

After a while the Count interrupted both of them, waving his finger at the maid. “Are you alone?

Susannah calmly smiled. “Look and see if I'm alone.

Let's see, let's see,” the Count warily agreed, “if you're alone.” Then he stomped off into the dressing room.

As soon as he had disappeared, the orchestra's play quickened and Susannah ran over to her. Nunnally jumped to her feet, quickly hiding the bag of tools under the bed. “Susannah, I'm fainting, I can't breathe …,” she quickly sung, her eyes wide with fear.

But the maid broadly grinned, indicating the open window. “Don't worry – he's miles away already!

No sooner had she said this, the Count returned from the dressing room, visibly confused. “How could I make such a mistake! I can hardly believe it …” He turned to his countess. Nunnally averted her gaze. “If I did you wrong, I beg your forgiveness …” Then his voice hardened. “To play such a joke is cruel!

Nunnally pulled out a handkerchief, her fingers trembling, and hid her face behind it. Slightly worried, Susannah put her hand on her shoulder as they replied. “You deserve no mercy!”

The Count took a step towards her and tried to take her hand. “I love you!

That was it.

Liar!,” she bellowed. How could he dare say that after he had thrown her away like a piece of trash – and it still sounded real

I swear it!

She broke away from him. “Yet another lie! I am a 'faithless, wanton creature who's always deceiving you', wasn't that it?,” she quoted his earlier words. Tears of anger [fear] [devastation] ran down her cheeks.

Helplessly the Count turned to Susannah. “Help me, Susannah, to calm her anger …

The maid shook her head, walking away from him. “It's the punishment for your suspicions.

Is this my reward for loyalty and love?,” Nunnally added, reaching out her hand in a gesture of accusation.

It was so real, all too real – Lelouch was the Count and only the Count and the Count was Lelouch. He had lied, but he hadn't when he had thrown her to the ground. It had been the first time this gentle hand had given her pain, and – as the Count was Lelouch right now – it was all too clear that it was a mirror of Lelouch's mind.

Simple.

She had once read that brilliance meant understanding the problem while genius was solving it.

Help me, Susannah, to calm her anger …

It's the punishment for your suspicions.” Susannah nonetheless walked over to her, putting her hands on Nunnally's shoulders. “My lady …,” she pleaded.

Rosina …,” the Count affectionately joined in.

Something about the way he said her name … fury boiled up within her. How dared he … “I am no longer your Rosina!,” she erupted, the cheerful music suddenly darkening as she whirled around to spit those words in the Count's – her brother's – face. Involuntarily he jumped back.

You abandon and despair me …,” she quietly continued, “all to your delight …

I'm defeated and repentant …,” Lelouch and Susannah quietly joined in, “You punish me too much, have pity …

As the three of them sung, Nunnally stumbled over to the bed. This had not been in the libretto, but she just … couldn't stand there any longer … staring into those deep purple pools … Lelouch stepped to her side, gently stroking her hair. This time she couldn't resist. “But the page locked inside …?,” he inquired.

Only to test you …

He sat by her side, drawing her into a tender embrace as she rested her wet face on his shoulder. “But your fear and trembling …?

Only to tease you …

But the anonymous letter!

Figaro sent it via Basilio!,” she quickly replied, echoed by her maid.

Of course, he misunderstood. The Count furiously jumped up. “Those traitors! I'll …

He who will not pardon others does not deserve pardon himself,” they replied, Nunnally joining Susannah by the window.

The Count sighed. “Then let's make peace – I know Rosina will forgive me … don't be harsh to me …

I'm so soft-hearted,” she cried, taking Susannah's hand. There was nothing, nothing she wanted more than to never see him again now – but [memories] … “Who would ever believe in a woman's fury?

With men, my lady, it always ends like this,” Susannah coldly replied, comforting her as the Count knelt on her other side.

Rosina, look at me …

Ungrateful!

Oh, look at me …

Ungrateful!

I wronged you and I repent it …” Gently he put his hands on her shoulders, helping her sit down on the edge of the bed again. Then he knelt before her, took her hand and kissed it … once … twice … thrice. Hot on her cold skin.

From this moment on … they'll try to understand each other better …,” all three quietly sang as Lelouch gently kissed her cheeks and brow and lips. Susannah slowly moved backwards towards the door, opened it …

Cheerfully, Figaro strode in, now dressed in his best coat for the wedding.

She didn't even notice him as she slowly slung her arms around the Count, as he tenderly pressed her down into the pillows. He kissed her, again and again, and every kiss sent shivers through her body just as it had been …

My lord and lady, the musicians are outside! You can hear the trumpeters and pipers, with the singing and dancing of your vassals, of your vassals, let us hasten to celebrate our wedding!

Only after a moment did she hear Figaro's voice, blinking. She sat up as the Count rose and stepped to the window. A frown had appeared on his brow. “One moment … not so fast.

The crowd is waiting!

Not so fast …,” the Count repeated. “Explain something to me.

Taken aback, Susannah and the Countess stepped to the former barber's side. “This is getting difficult … where will this end?,” they sang as the Count unfolded Figaro's letter.

Now I must play my cards carefully,” he commented towards the audience, then sat in the armchair. “Master Figaro … do you know who wrote this letter?

Slowly the valet stepped forth and threw a look at the letter. “No, I don't …,” he then pretended, “… no, I don't.”

She winced as the women linked arms with a surprised Figaro, leading him off. “You don't know?” – “No!” – “You don't know?” – “No!” – “You don't know?” – “No, no, no!

Susannah forced a smile on her face. “Didn't you give it to Basilio?

To deliver?,” the Countess added. “You're deceiving me!,” complained her husband.

No, no, no!

But you know about sending Cherubino to the rendezvous?” “This evening, in the garden?

I have no idea.” Figaro freed himself from their grasp, but the Count stepped in his way.

In vain you seek defence or an excuse, your very face gives you away: I can see you're trying to lie.

Then my face is the liar, not I!

It's no use pretending. We've already given the secret away …

Slowly, the Count turned towards them. “What's your answer?,” he darkly asked Figaro.

Nothing, nothing,” the manservant merely replied, a polite smile on his face.

So you admit it?

No, I don't!

Again the women drew Figaro aside. “Shut up, idiot, the joke's over!,” they sang unisono, slight panic in their voices.

With an elegant flourish, he again freed himself, then reached out his hand for Susannah to take and turned to the Count. “Then, to end this comedy according to theatrical practice, let a marriage ceremony follow!,” he asked.

The Countess took Susannah's other hand. She didn't know if there was any hope for herself – while he had kissed her, it had not felt like love, more like a kiss between siblings than between lovers (something inside her noted that this was perfectly normal, but the Countess objected. She hadn't married her brother). But even if everything was lost … she would see this succeed. She would see Susannah and Figaro happy, and her dear love defeated. So she joined in: “Oh, my lord, do not oppose it, grant their wishes …

But as the two lovers knelt before the Count and she took his hand, begging, she could still hear his counterpoint – “Marcellina, Marcellina, why's she this late?

They were interrupted by an old drunkard storming in through the open doors – Antonio, the gardener, holding a broken pot of carnations.

Oh! My lord, my lord!,” he roughly sang, wildly gesticulating with one of the shards.

What's the matter?,” the Count inquired, thankful for the distraction.

What an outrage!

What's he saying?,” asked all four of them, “What's wrong? What's happening?

Listen!

Go on then, speak!

Listen!

Go on then, speak!

Listen!

Go on then, speak!

Everyday I see all kinds of things thrown down from the balcony overlooking the garden,” the old man quickly sang, “but just now – it couldn't be worse! – I've seen a man thrown down there!

From the balcony?,” the Count asked, a dangerous look in his face as his eyes met the Countess'. She averted her gaze in horror.

D'you see these carnations!

Into the garden?

Yes!

She and Susannah stepped to Figaro's side, “Figaro, think quickly!” Already suspicion was reigniting in his eyes, they needed to stop this … to save themselves and Cherubino.

What do I hear?!,” the Count exclaimed at this new proof of his wife's supposed infidelity.

He's taken aback …” Then they added, louder: “What's this drunkard doing here!

The Count took the old gardener aside. “The man, which way did he go?

The bastard ran away …

It was the page,” Susannah whispered into Figaro's ear. “I know, I saw him …

Then, suddenly, Figaro broke into loud laughter, exactly thrice four descending 'ha's. The Count and Antonio turned to him, surprised, and the Countess herself startled.

Be quiet, sir …

What's there to laugh at!

Figaro walked to the gardener's side, putting his hand on his shoulder. “You've been drunk since daybreak …

The Count drew the man aside, interrupting Figaro. “Now tell me again, tell me again, tell me again! A man from the balcony?

From the balcony!

Into the garden?

Into the garden!

My lord, it's the wine talking!

The Count with a gesture bid them silence. “But you didn't see the man's face?

No … I didn't see it.

At once the two women took Figaro's hands, “Did you hear that!

The barber's face brightened. “Oh, what fuss over tuppence worth of flowers!,” he loudly said, again scornfully throwing the flowers to the ground. “Since the fact cannot be concealed – it was I who jumped, I was the one who jumped!

What? You jumped?!

The Countess whispered into her maid's ear. “What presence of mind!

Why so surprised, my lord?

I just can't believe it.

Antonio stumbled towards Figaro, closely examining him. The former barber grimaced at the old man's boozy breath. “How've you grown so fast, then? After the fall you weren't so big.

That's what happens when you jump!” Figaro leaped, demonstrating how his legs would bend upon landing.

Who'd have thought it?

The fool is insistent!

You, you, what do you say to that?,” the Count furiously asked Antonio for his opinion.

It looked like the page to me …

Cherubino!,” he loudly exclaimed, clenching his fist around his sabre's hilt.

Her eyes widened. Again, he was in danger – and it was her fault, too … Figaro, do something …, she quietly prayed.

Yes, of course …,” replied the one, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Riding back from Seville on horseback, sure he was …

Antonio snorted. “Liar … I didn't see a horse jumping down …His voice was dripping with wine.

Enough with this nonsense!

Merciful heaven …

The Count slowly drew his blade, pointing it at Figaro's chest. “So it was you …,” he violently asked. Susannah gasped beside her. “Why?

I was afraid …

Of what?

Figaro quickly pointed to the servants' quarters, vividly hurrying around the bed to his fiancée's side. “I was in there waiting for Susannah … I heard you shouting and I thought of that letter!” He jumped onto the window sill, then down again. “I lost my nerve and jumped down in terror!” Then his singing slowed down, and the valet slowly hobbled to the chair, supported by Susannah and herself. “And I sprained my foot …” With an exaggerated, painful groan he sat down, rubbing his ankle.

Clumsily, Antonio got out some crinkled papers. “So those here are yours?,” he asked, holding them up.

Immediately Figaro was on his feet and ran across the room again, and there was some laughter from the audience – but the Count had already seized the papers. “Here, give them to me.

Now I'm trapped …,” he quietly sang. “Figaro, think quickly!,” the ladies implored him from the other end of the room.

The Count opened the letter, smirked and promptly refolded it. “So … then tell me, what's this paper?

The Countess could almost see the man's hand trembling as he got out some letters from his pockets, pretending to go through them. “Wait just a moment … I've got so many …

Antonio tried to take a look. “A list of your debts?,” he guessed.

No,” Figaro sharply replied, again grimacing at the stench of his breath, “it's a list of tavern-keepers!

The Count parted then. “You, speak up,” he commanded, “and you, leave him alone.

Leave him alone and go away!

Alright, I'll go …

Leave him alone!

Alright, I'll go, but if I catch you at it one more time …

Figaro merely snorted as Susannah and the Countess forced the gardener out. “Oh, go away! I'm not afraid of you.

The Count sat on the edge of the bed, playing around with the paper. “So … what is it?,” he then asked.

His wife looked from him to Figaro and back. She needed to do something … the only way Cherubino, Figaro, herself could be saved was if the valet guessed correctly … slowly she walked around the bed. She threw a look over the Count's shoulder at the paper … then quickly returned to Susannah and fearfully took her hand. “Oh heavens! It's the page's commission!

I'm waiting …

Susannah stealthily took a step towards Figaro. “It's the commission,” she then quietly warned him.

Take courage …

Suddenly, Figaro looked up, then smacked his own forehead. “Oh, what a head! It's the commission the boy gave me a while ago …” Again he sat in the armchair, averting his gaze from his lord, who had risen, now stood between him and the women.

What for?

Awkward pause.

It lacked …

It lacked …?

She agonised over it. What had she seen? Nothing out of the ordinary … the usual long list of titles and names, followed by a short instruction to take Cherubino in and supply him … the signature.

Then it hit her.

There had been no seal.

She whispered that to Susannah, who then tried to capture Figaro's attention by pretending to seal something … She had no clue if it had worked. Now she could only pray …

Well, answer …,” the Count ordered his servant. There was a cruel tone in his voice that she didn't like.

It is customary …,” Figaro haltingly began.

Go on, why hesitate?

And for a moment the music seemed to stop and every act be broken as Figaro took a deep breath.

Then he raised his voice. “It is customary to seal it!

The Count chuckled. Grinning, he unfolded the commission … then he startled and looked up, wide-eyed. “That rascal drives me mad …,” he quietly said.

A relieved smile slid onto her face. Exhausted, she sat on the edge of her bed. “Now that we have survived the storm,” she and her maid quietly sang, “we fear no further shipwreck …

The whole thing's a mystery to me …

In vain you fume and stamp, sir, you've got nothing out of me …

Softly they sang, softly she, Susannah and Figaro made their way to the door without the Count noticing. Softly they opened it and three figures clad in black stormed in to three brass hits and they jumped aside.

You, my lord, who are so just!,” Marcellina, Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio sang, fortissimo, allegro assai!, “must now listen to us!

They lined up behind the Count. A smirk crept onto his lips. “They've come to avenge me, I'm already feeling better …

They've come to thwart us, what solution can there be …” The Countess felt herself panicking. Her pupils widened, her breath deepened.

Figaro snorted, gesticulating towards the three newcomers. “They're three fools, three madman! What are they doing here!

His lord ignored him and drew another chair closer, sat on the armchair, crossed his legs. “Quietly, quietly, and without interruption, let everyone say their part!

The Countess threw a quick glance at Susannah. The maid was trembling.

Marcellina calmly sat on the chair next to the Count. “This man has signed a pledge to marry me, and I insist that the contract be fulfilled,” she revealed, a smirk on her lips.

Susannah, Figaro and herself stepped forth, stunned. “What! What!,” they loudly exclaimed.

Silence, silence, silence!,” the Count interrupted them, raising his hand as he indicated for Bartolo to sit. “This is for me alone to judge.

I, chosen as her lawyer, come here in her defence, in order to support the legitimacy of her claims.”

He's a crook! A rogue!

Silence, silence, SILENCE!” The Countess winced a little at her husband's words. Well, at least it seemed as if he didn't suspect her any more … “This is for me alone to judge.

Bartolo rose and Basilio sat on the chair, with a grand gesture brushing aside his coat-tails. “I, known as a man of the world,” the priest sang, “come here to testify to his promise of marriage for the loan of money.”

They're all mad, they're mad!,” Susannah, Figaro and the Countess quickly explained, but again were interrupted by the Count.

Silence! I will now read it. We have to observe the contract … everything must be done the proper way.

She held her breath as he unfolded it. Then a smirk crept onto his face, and so on Marcellina's. The Countess gulped – they needed to do something … not this, not after she had been so happy to see love rejoicing in her proximity, to see everything working out between her servants … she hurried to Susannah's side, tried to calm the hyperventilating maid.

Then the three of them – herself, Susannah, Figaro – faced the audience, their eyes wide with horror. They sang forte, pìu allegro, their voices mirroring the rapid strings. “I'm confounded, I'm shocked!

What a coup, what a strike!

“… desperate, stunned!

Everything is going according to plan …” Then the others erupted into chaos, the Count joining in with them. She wondered what it would be like if spoken – no one'd understand a thing … but with music … “Providence that smiles upon us has certainly brought us all here!

I'm confounded, I am shocked!

What a coup, what a strike!

“… desperate, stunned!

They're all baffled!

It was certainly the devil in hell who sent them all here!

They sang, and sang, and sang, for two minutes at least. Forte became fortissimo, allegro became prestissimo, and their faces became masks of horror. Susannah tried to attack Marcellina, Figaro had held her back … it blurred. Her perception became more vague … suddenly she could barely tell Basilio and Bartolo apart … the others' voices were strangely distant, her ears blocked with an annoying humming, the orchestra barely audible … Nunnally closed her eyes when she went prestissimo, even her voice now detached …

She felt rather dizzy.

– and suddenly with six powerful chords from strings and brass the curtain fell.

Nunnally blinked, involuntarily brought her hand to her brow. She slowly looked around the stage – there were Clovis, Jeremiah and Sayoko, there Suzaku and Euphie. There was Lelouch … approaching her. A gentle, woeful smile on his face. Her eyes widened, she turned away from him.

It was Euphemia who saved her. Beaming, her sister hugged her. Nunnally barely responded. “You were wonderful,” she brightly said. “Really, you were marvellous …”

Nunnally struggled a bit, then forced a smile on her lips. “Thanks …,” she quietly said. “You were great, too …”

“C'mon. It's the interval, we'll do a curtain call now, alright?” Before she could reply, Euphie had taken her hand and drew her outside. Nunnally's eyes flickered back to Lelouch – he was still smiling at her as he followed them out. Her sister brushed the heavy scarlet curtain aside, and then they were outside – she blinked at the bright light glaring her … Nunnally gulped at two thousand two hundred and fifty-six pairs of eyes staring at her, at two thousand two hundred and fifty-six pairs of hands loudly applauding. She blushed. Their gazes felt like daggers, their clapping like nails scratching on a blackboard.

She took a short, brisk bow. She closed her eyes. Someone took her right hand and she winced, almost drawing it back – the grip was strong, but gentle … warm … it felt like Lelouch's hand had felt back then.

He made her join into another bow, then she broke free … the hall began to clear, and Nunnally stepped back behind the others. This wasn't for her – she knew she had failed, had been unable to keep up her role …

Slowly she walked back inside through the curtain, her gaze going straight ahead into nothingness. Someone followed her – Euphie, not Lelouch. Her hands were trembling. Her sister gently embraced her. The audience was still applauding.

Nunnally nestled to Euphie, burying her face at her chest as her sister gently stroked her hair. “What's wrong …,” she confusedly asked. Only then Nunnally noted that she was crying.

“It's not working …,” she sobbed, not really thinking. “It's all useless …”

Euphie quietly continued stroking her hair. “It's … I just can't …”

“Hush … what's wrong, dear?”

“I … he changed so much … I just can't move on …” Shocked, Euphemia looked her in the eyes. “But … Lelouch's doing so much … he's doing all of this, for us …”

Nunnally sobbed. “That was I …” – “But … I thought …” – “So did he … I … wanted to make up, and just …”

Euphie sighed. “Just … what exactly happened between you two …?”

“Well … he left … he just left … he told me, of course, but … he didn't even consider me …” Again she sobbed, then cleared her throat. “He came to me one day, told me he had gotten an offer from Australia and would take up on it. Permanently. Meanwhile, I should continue working in London. He … he didn't even ask me if that was okay with me … or if I wanted to come with him. Well … I should have tried to plead, but I couldn't. Wouldn't have … worked, either … I left without another word and spent the next days at a friend's …”

Nunnally's voice quivered. “When I returned the next week … he was gone already.”

Euphemia gently stroked her back. “I … I don't know … do you remember who taught me sing? I was so young when mother died … you and brother were already taking lessons with friends of mum's … and I looked up to you two and got jealous. Then, one day, brother wanted to practice a duet with you, but you were out somewhere …” A soft smile slid onto Nunnally's teary face. “I still remember it perfectly … I went over to his room, curious at what was happening. And then … he began to teach me …”

Slowly, Nunnally parted from Euphemia's embrace. “All I ever wanted since …,” she quietly said, “was … for him to truly accept me … accept me. I … wanted him to look at me, his student … and tell me he was proud of me …” Another tear ran down her cheek, her face hardened. She had completely forgotten about Euphemia. “And now, look at me … look at me, brother … here I am. I've surpassed big sis … and I've thought I were on par with you … but then this! The moment you enter the stage … I become an extra …”

“Nunna …”

“No! No … no … Sempre liberadegg'io follegiare di gioia in gioia, vo' che scorra il viver mio pei sentieri del piacer! I'll erase him from my mind ... like a bad memory ... I can ... I will. Look ... don't worry about me. I'll just complete tonight's performance ...”

Again Euphie pulled her into a gentle hug. She seemed to be crying herself now. “Nunna … please, don't … just … I know he did you wrong. Just … try to forgive him, okay?”

“Remember how he shoved me to the ground?,” Nunnally quietly refuted her. “Early in the finale? That was real. It was … as if he was a completely different person. He doesn't care any more …”

“But … he wants to make up, as well. He told me he offered you to go on vacation with him after he's singing Siegmund in Bayreuth …”

Spiteful, she opened her mouth to reply – “Ah, Nunna, Euphie, there you are,” said her brother.

Nunnally froze. Lelouch was right there, behind her … he gently took her hand, stood close to her. His hot breath in her neck … “Nunna …,” he gently said. She wanted to run, wanted to hide far, far away. Her feet wouldn't move. “Please, reconsider,” her brother spoke, his voice as soft and gentle as a silken scarf. She shivered as his full bass-baritone caressed her ears. “I know I was … cruel to you … I shouldn't have left in the first place,” he said, and then she tensed. “I just want to make up with you … and go back to where we used to be. I love you, Nunna. Let's just … go on a long vacation together. You can join me at Bayreuth, I'll get you a ticket for the Ring …”

Something inside her snapped. How dare he … after all she had done … how dare he just write her off as a mere extra! A mere backdrop to himself! A substitute for a date at social functions! A given … “No,” she said, her voice the icy razor that cut through his hot flesh, “Don't bother. I don't need a ticket. I'll be onstage.

Lelouch uttered a surprised sound. “You … you've … I didn't know …”

“No, you didn't,” she spat, “You just don't care … all of us are extras, isn't it? You wouldn't look up an extra. It's all about you … you, you, you … the great Lelouch Lamperouge! Well, here you are: just for your interest … I'll be Sieglind.”

Lelouch's eyes widened, he stuttered something. His grip around her hand tightened.

Die Walküre – the second part of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung cycle. Siegmund would die early on, slain by Hunding and Wotan … but she would live to see the opera end.

“Don't worry,” Nunnally then quietly continued. “It'll be alright. I'll tell my agent to cancel the role … I won't interfere.”

She broke free of him, stumbled a few steps away from Lelouch. He reached out his hand, wanted to follow, then halted. “Nunna …,” he whispered.

“Goodbye, brother …,” she merely said. “Let's not get in each other's way again.”

Then she turned and left, hastening to the exit to get some fresh air.

Wide-eyed, Lelouch looked at Euphemia. “I … I didn't know …,” he quietly said. There was a long pause as she looked at him with disgust. Then she slapped him in the face, hard and followed Nunnally.

Chapter Text

Atto Tertio

She didn't quite know what to do.

With an excruciated sigh, Euphemia opened her bottle of water and took a deep sip. Around her scurried members of the orchestra and stagehands, a constant reminder that they had a further one and a quarter hours to sing, even with the omission of the two minor arias in the fourth act of Marcellina – Il capro e la capretta – and Basilio – In quegli anni.

Euphemia wasn't as coolly calculating as her siblings, but she was no fool: while she had not felt anything but perfect joy throughout the evening's performance, she wasn't so sure if Nunnally could go on. Of course, there was no technical inhibition – Nunnally was a top-notch singer who had sung both this role and other, more difficult ones, before. Anyone who could sing Rossini, Verdi and Puccini could also easily sing Mozart – this being the reason Euphemia had specialised on Baroque and early Classical roles: Handel, Mozart, the like.

The problem was not lacking technical skill, but Nunnally's mental state. She vividly remembered her sister crying at her chest only minutes ago, remembered her utter helplessness in the face of her despair. The least she could have done was slap Lelouch for his ignorance and breaking poor Nunna's heart – again.

Still, she had to do something. Euphemia couldn't bear seeing her family torn apart like this – she now realised that she never should have left for New York; if she had just stayed – but could she have kept Lelouch from leaving if Nunnally hadn't been able to? Her little sister had always been his favourite and her willpower almost on par with his. If Lelouch had a goal in mind, she knew, there was nothing to stop him from achieving it (considering that, it was a blessing he hadn't decided to become a bloodthirsty tyrant, serial killer or lawyer).

Even so, she had to do something to reconcile Lelouch and Nunnally – that was her duty, both as a professional singer and colleague and as a sister.

She didn't quite know what to do.

It felt like something straight out of a movie or a novel – but the only thing Euphie had known for some seven years was opera. She knew there was something like this in La Bohème – Marcello and Musetta, an estranged couple which during the finale got back together over … she tried to remember what exactly it was. She had never sung in a Puccini opera and had merely seen La Bohème performed once. Well, what happened at the end of the third act?

Mimi died.

Euphemia blinked and put away her water bottle. This meant … what? She had to die for Lelouch and Nunnally to reconcile? Life's not an opera, stupid. Justin Bieber wouldn't be leading the charts if it were.

Dame Ceciniah appeared next to her, looking around searchingly and diverting Euphie from such dark thoughts. A smile appeared on her face; she had always liked the eccentric conductor. Only then the dame seemed to notice her and blankly looked at the lead soprano. “Less vibrato,” she merely said, making Euphie blink in confusion. “You've been doing it again. I hate vibrato,” the conductor repeated. “Also, you were a little off-beat in the third measure of Venite, inginocchiatevi. Pay more attention to me and the orchestra.”

Euphemia quickly overcame her confusion, then gave the older woman a lenient smile. Dame Ceciniah had always been a hopeless perfectionist, just like her brother, though without the self-blinding narcissism. “Alright,” she calmly said, “I'll do that. Otherwise? How was I?”

“… not bad.”

She giggled. “Thanks a lot …” Then she hesitated. “Um … what would you say about my siblings …?,” she then asked. She just couldn't shrug off Nunnally's earlier words …

Curious, Dame Ceciniah raised an eyebrow. “Well, to be honest your brother was nowhere near what I remember of him. Great act, of course, but vocally he was awful … he clearly sang too much Wagner while in Australia. The Count is supposed to have a strong, yet melodic voice. Your brother's singing as if he had a Wagnerian orchestra to fight again … I'll need to get him into bel canto to restore his voice …” She sighed. “Well, at least one can rely on Nunnally to do a perfect performance.”

“Huh,” made Euphemia. That was odd – she didn't remember Dame Ceciniah as one to give out praise. She hadn't paid much attention to her sister's performance due to being offstage or busily singing herself. However, there seemed to be a huge contrast between Dame Ceciniah's view and Nunnally's self-evaluation … “Why you think so?”

The conductor gave her an odd look, as if she was suspecting some form of sibling rivalry behind her question. “Why, what more could I ask for? She's a pretty young girl with a flexible and wide-ranged, well-oiled voice, perfect Italian diction, no vibrato and her acting is great as well. If there were something I'd have to criticise, it would be how she suddenly became all timid midway through Act Two, about when the Count entered. Then again, that works well in context. Better than any act. And it's not as if the poor girl didn't have reason for her reaction …”

Euphie gravely nodded. Then she hesitated, wondered whether it was okay to ask. “And … and your obvious crush on her had nothing to do with that judgement?”

The conductor blankly stared at her and Euphemia wished she hadn't asked. “… following most careful evaluation of my own psychical sensations and chemically-induced reactions to certain fellow human beings, in special regard to the aforementioned singer of the – regrettably – near-dormant, ignoring certain contributions to it in recent years by composers of the school commonly called Post-Minimalism to it, genre of opera – more precisely, through-composed works of the late Classical and Romantic repertoire with a focus on the works of the arguably great Giuseppe Verdi –, I have come to the conclusion (and let me make that perfectly clear) that I, who commonly take great care to evaluate such singers solely on grounds of their vocal, dramatic and – lastly – physiognomic properties respectively abilities, in regard to the aforementioned young and female singer – perhaps more precisely, songstress – can in these special circumstances guarantee – with no strings attached and a probability bordering certainty, as a mathematician would phrase it – that aforementioned process of evaluation was not necessarily not influenced by the psychical sensations and chemically-induced reactions mentioned …”

Pause.

Euphemia giggled. “Give me a clear yes or no, Sir Humphrey,” she insisted. “Has you having the hots for Nunna affected your judgement of her performance?”

If glares could kill … “Yes … and no.” … which translated to “she's hot but I used to change her nappies when she was a baby and I already sung Carmen at the ROH”.

Euphemia blushed. “A...anyway,” she quickly said to appease the fuming conductor, “what about Suzaku?” … perhaps she should make it a habit to think before she talked, for her blush darkened. Even his name felt good on her tongue … oh God, horrible innuendo, there was no way she would ever … well, perhaps not ever

Dame Ceciniah sniggered. Not a good sign. “Well, the boy's got talent and his acting isn't bad … I'd like to have a word with whoever is his teacher, though. His diction is sloppy and his projection is lacking a bit … he's got talent, though less then all three of you, and he will certainly make it big with some real practice.” Then suddenly a smirk crept unto her face. “I know … perhaps you could teach him, huh?”

Euphemia's cheeks flushed red, she startled. “N...no way!,” she quickly replied, “I … I mean I'll return to New York on Saturday, and S..:Suzaku will go back to Sydney … so, um.” Yet she couldn't hide that blush, couldn't fight against that weird tearing feeling in her chest as images of Suzaku appeared in her mind like snapshots exchanged by giggling girls lumped together in the corner of some classroom. Suzaku when they first met at the airport, him blushing, then nervously introducing himself. Suzaku laughing at one of her jokes during break from rehearsal. Suzaku's bright eyes and childlike excitement when she had shown him the view from the highest point of the London Eye.

Her spacing off really didn't make Dame Ceciniah disappear. Euphie's eyes widened as she snapped out of her trance, she looked in front – Suzaku was worriedly looking at her.

She startled, let out a tiny, surprised cry. Frantically she looked around, but the conductor was nowhere to be seen … for lack of a better thing to do, she then returned Suzaku's gaze, her face as red as a tomato.

“A...are you alright?,” he inquired, prompting her to startle a little. “The interval will be over in five minutes …”

She quickly averted her gaze. “Ah … yes …” There was another pause, both waiting for each other to say something. “D...do you know where Dame Ceciniah went …?,” she eventually managed to ask. Again she felt that weird tearing in her heart. It didn't feel bad, just … weird.

“She passed by me when I came here,” Suzaku replied. “She said she'd have to phone the Chief Executive about some urgent addition to the Company and then phone a certain Bryn about a teaching job or … are you really alright?”

Euphemia had buried her face in her hands. That was so like Dame Ceciniah … didn't she have to talk to Suzaku, his manager or the Opera Australia first, anyway? What shocked her most, though, was that this probably was partially her fault. She shouldn't have teased the conductor about Nunnally …

“I … it's just …I'm worried about Nunna.” Immediately she scolded herself. Nunnally certainly wouldn't like her telling a stranger of her troubles … then again, Euphie felt strangely secure talking to Suzaku. It felt as if he already were family, having taken up a fond spot in her heart right next to her siblings … and so she went on. “She's completely devastated because of how Lelouch is treating her right now … you have to know, they always were extremely close. That is … before big brother left for Australia, leaving her alone here in London. And, well … I mean, look at them!,” she fumed. “My poor little sister convinced Dame Ceciniah to stage the Figaro with the three of us … and then he comes, and is completely inconsiderate! Did you hear that just now? He invited her to listen to him at Bayreuth this summer and didn't even notice she'll sing in the same performance!

Suzaku apprehensively nodded. “That's awful of him … can't you talk to him about it?”

“I slapped him. But … I guess the only way to ease Nunnally's devastation would be to make him accept her as his equal … and make her believe it. She seems to think she will never reach his level …”

“And what do you think?,” Suzaku calmly asked.

Euphemia blinked, hesitated. “I … I just spoke to Dame Ceciniah about it. She cavilled at you, me and even Lelouch, but she only had praise for Nunna's performance. So … I think she already is superior to him in some ways … they just don't realise it. She seems afraid of him … really afraid … so … I guess we need to spark some new tenderness between them …”

Suzaku raised an eyebrow. “How exactly?,” he continued catechising her. “I mean … one can't just make people love each other again, right? Though … I guess if it's you …”

He didn't finish his sentence, but it was more than enough to make her flush red. She stuttered something incomprehensible. A tiny voice in the back of her head that sounded a lot like Pamina in Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen squealed and forcefully tried to push her forwards. A faint, flattered smile reappeared on her lips, though she didn't dare look at Suzaku. “That … that's so sweet of you …”

Now it was his turn to blush. Suzaku opened his mouth to reply, but was thankfully interrupted by one of the make-up artists who wanted to finally fix his hair for Act Three. He was saved from replying, but the mood was broken. They looked at each other. “Anyhow …,” Euphie quietly finished, “thanks for caring.”

“Well …,” he mumbled. “Enjoy the rest of tonight, 'kay?”

“Yeah … you …” She broke off. Suddenly, she had realised something – she had been looking too far away. She had thought of La Bohème in order to find a way to reconcile her siblings – she had sought for an opera featuring an estranged couple that got back together. But in doing so, she had wandered astray – why search Puccini when only five … now three … minutes parted her from one of Mozart's greatest masterpieces?

There was some dramatic irony in Lelouch and Nunnally singing the Count and Countess, respectively. And there would be a happy end.

It was perfect.

The path leading to the reconciliation of her siblings was now obvious: it was the same as the one leading to the finale of the Figaro. It wouldn't be as simple, seeing as Nunnally obviously couldn't credibly disguise herself as one of Lelouch's conquests, but the basic gist remained: they would make the Count … Lelouch … jealous, then make use of his shame … drawing out the overprotective big brother of back then would certainly make him realise his wrongdoings and see Nunnally's brilliance.

Then, how to make Lelouch jealous? Simple: love was needed, a handsome Cherubino to “seduce” his innocent little sister … and what better choice than Suzaku? They had to do it quickly, while Lelouch was in London with them.

She froze as she suddenly remembered Nunnally's earlier words – they would forever part after tonight … that meant they had to make Lelouch realise his mistakes before the performance ended … yes, it had to be Suzaku.

And yet something about this necessity made her furious. The thought that her dear little sister might be the one to snatch Suzaku away from her was sickening – it was a dark d-minor ostinato, it was the Don Giovanni overture. It was an aria of fury and vengeance; d'Oreste, d'Ajace

She would have to tell Suzaku and her sister … make sure they would succeed …

There was a round of applause from the audience as the conductor returned to the pit and the curtain rose for the third act.

 

A few vibrant notes from the harpsichord.

The stage was set as the interior of a large, richly decorated hall, doors at the back and to the sides. On the very edge of the stage were two armchairs with their backs to the audience.

The Count was leaning against one of them, a stern expression on his face.

“What a mess!,” he strongly began the recitative, then sighed. “An anonymous letter … the maid locked in the closet, the mistress flustered … a man who jumps down from the balcony and another who says he did it … I don't know what to think.” Suspiciously, he looked around. “Perhaps one of my servants growing rebellious … but … the Countess? To doubt her would be an insult … she won't betray my honour … oh, honour … what mortal nonsense!”

With another sigh he poured himself a glass of brilliant red wine from a carafe on a side-table. Meanwhile, there were two women's voices to hear in the background, inaudible to the Count. “Tell him you'll meet him in the garden …”

“I've sent Basilio to find out whether Cherubino reached Seville …”

“Gracious Heaven!”

“Don't tell Figaro,” the former voice continued. “I'll go there instead of you.”

“I daren't …”

“My happiness is in your hands!”

“And Susanna … if Susanna has betrayed my secret … I'll make Figaro marry the old woman!”

Suddenly, the very maid approached him. “My lord … you seem angry …”

He wasn't angry. “What do you want?,” he snapped at her.

“Your wife has the vapours and requires the smelling salts …”

The Count groaned, then got up. He opened one of the drawers of the side-table and handed Susanna a small bottle without looking at her. “Here.”

“I'll bring it back at once …”

“No, keep it for yourself.”

The maid laughed. “For me? A woman of my standing does not get the vapours …”

Finally, the Count looked up. A smug grin slid unto his face. “Not even when she loses her bridegroom on her wedding day?”

… and for some reason, Susanna smiled back. Not exactly a good sign … “Oh, we can pay Marcellina off with the dowry you promised me.”

Momentarily, his eyes widened. He straightened his back. “I promised? When?”

“I thought you did …,” the maid innocently continued.

In fury, the Count took a step towards her. “I would have given it to you had you done what I wished!”

And again there was that smirk as she slowly curtsied … “Oh, but … His Excellency's wish is my command …”

Music set in. Shell-shocked, he lamely stepped even closer. “Cruel one … why have you made me suffer thus?Cruel one, why have you made me wait?

My lord, a woman always says 'yes' in her own time …

Slowly she stood before him and he gently cupped her cheek with his hand. Then he drew back. “So you'll come to the garden?

I'll come if it pleases you …” And there was much promise in her tender smile …

You won't let me down?

I won't let you down.

You'll come?

I'll come.

Won't let me down?

Won't let you down … I won't let you down.

A broad grin appeared on his mien as he faced the audience. “In contentment I feel my heart full of joy!

On the other end of the stage, Susanna joined in. “Forgive me, lovers, if I lie!

My heart is full of joy!” – “Forgive me if I lie …”

And you'll surely come?

Awkward pause. Perhaps he should just believe her. “… I'll come!

You won't let me down?

I won't let you down.

You'll come?” – “Yes

Won't let me down?” – “No …

You'll come?” – “No …” They both startled a little at this. Susanna blushed, having spoken without thinking.

No!,” he exclaimed in shock.

Um … yes, I'll come, if it pleases you …

Relieved, he sighed. He poured her another glass of wine and gently closed her fingers around it. “Won't let me down?” – “No …

You'll come?” – “Yes …” And again Susanna's voice was a sweet promise.

Won't let me down?” – “Yes …” – “Yes!” – “Yes, I will be there …

He stood behind her, his arms gently slung around her waist, as he brought the glass up to her lips. “In contentment I feel my heart full of joy …

Forgive me, lovers, if I lie!

Suddenly, he let go of her as he realised something. “Then why were you so distant this morning?”

“Well, with the page there …”

“And to Basilio, who spoke on my behalf?”

She gently laughed, as one would love at a child's stupid remark. “But what need have we of a go-between …”

The Count returned the laugh, hurried to her again. He drew her to him and cupped her cheek with his hand. “That's right, that's right … promise me again … if you fail me, love …” He broke off. “But the Countess will be waiting for her smelling salts …,” he then half-heartedly objected, holding the small container up.

“Oh, but that was just a pretext … I couldn't have talked to you without one.”

A bright, flattered grin lit up his face. Overwhelmed, he took Susanna's hand. “Dearest!”

“Someone is coming!”

They quickly let go of each other and brought a few metres' distance between themselves. “She's mine, I'm sure now,” the Count quietly noted.

“Wipe off that smile, my cunning lord …” With those words she quickly left, yet met Figaro by the door, who took her hand, his eyes wide in fright and suspicion.

“Susanna, where are you going?”

She grinned at him. “Hush. Without a lawyer, we've already won the case!” Then she rushed past him, outside, leaving a confused bridegroom behind. “What happened?,” he asked, but got no response as he followed her offstage.

 

Euphemia held Suzaku back once they had left the stage. Nunnally was pacing around between the drinks and a set of trees in planters for Act Four. Meanwhile, onstage, Lelouch launched into a long and spiteful aria, having overheard the brief conversation between Susanna and Figaro.

Nunnally threw them a troubled look. “Do you hear him?,” she quietly asked over the sound of Lelouch's forceful voice and the orchestra, vaguely indicating the stage. “That's so like him …”

She didn't know what to respond. Then, after a pause, she turned to Suzaku without letting go of his wrist. “Suzaku … you need to help us.”

He blinked. So did Nunnally. “At what?”

Euphie blushed. Suddenly, her idea didn't sound that foolproof any more, not after seeing Nunnally's scrutinising look. “Well,” she began, “Nunna … I want to help you … to get back the Lelouch of before.”

Her sister's eyes widened in shock, then she averted her gaze. “N...no,” she whispered to no one in particular, “Please … don't make me go through this again …”

She ignored her, facing Suzaku. Imploringly she took his hands and looked into his eyes. “I want to make him jealous,” she rapidly explained. “Bring out the old big brother instincts again, you know … Suzaku, I beg you: you need to flirt with Nunnally where he can see you. And I mean flirt hard. I … we need to make that succeed. I want my family back … but it has to be tonight, you see? It's our only chance …”

She broke off. There was something sickening about her words, every syllable a fingernail scratching on a blackboard, every word Styrofoam drawn excruciatingly slowly over cardboard. It turned and twisted her stomach. The mere thought of Suzaku hitting on Nunnally tormented her –

Thus she simply said: “Please, Suzaku.”

The young man blushed, looked down at their linked hands. “Ah, well …,” he managed to say. Nunnally remained silent, seemed to closely watch Lelouch onstage from the edge of her eye. Then he gravely nodded. “Alright. That is, um … if that's alright with you, Nunnally?”

Quickly, the woman looked up at them. There were fear and disbelief in her red-rimmed lilac eyes. “I …,” she quietly began, her sublime voice breaking. “It's not … necessary … you don't have to bother. I … I'll move on, it's alright …”

The sweet lie was obvious. “Nunna …,” Euphemia gently said. Then she paused. “It's already over … Lelouch's aria. We'll have to get back onstage …”

 

“The case is decided: pay up or marry her!,” the solicitor from Seville stuttered. The Count had sent one of his servants to the city on horseback to bring his old friend Don Curzio, who was trained in both laws, to sit in judgement over Marcellina's claims.

Desperately Figaro teared his hair under the triumphant grins of the Count, Marcellina, and Bartolo, pacing around before the improvised judge's desk.

“I breathe again!,” exclaimed Marcellina.

“And I'm done for …,” he quietly snapped back.

“At last … I'll be married to the man I love …”

Then, he turned to the Count. Only he could possibly do something about this. “My lord, I appeal …”

He raised his hand to interrupt his servant. “The judgement is fair,” he declared, a smug grin on his face. “Pay up or marry her, quite right, Don Curzio.”

“Your Lordship is too kind …”

“An excellent judgement!,” Bartolo added.

“In what way excellent?”

“We are all avenged.”

Figaro snorted, then furiously pointed his finger at Don Curzio. “I won't marry her!”

“Oh yes, you will,” Bartolo replied in the timid solicitor's place.

“Pay up or marry her,” Curzio repeated, strengthened by Bartolo's support, “After all, she lent you two thousand pieces of silver …”

For a moment Figaro looked around, his gaze hounded, sought for possible allies. “I … I am a gentleman!,” he finally said, grasping the judge by his shoulders and shaking him. “I can't marry without my noble parents' consent …”

“Where are they?,” inquired the Count, chuckling. “Who are they?”

His valet let go of the frail old man and, wildly gesticulating, turned to his lord. “I'll find them, just give me another ten years!”

Laughter from the audience.

“Were you a foundling?,” Bartolo asked him, only mildly interested as he went through his documents.

“No, lost, doctor, or rather stolen!”

“Stolen!,” exclaimed the Count.

“What's that …,” mumbled Marcellina, covering her hand in shock.

“Your proof?”

Figaro gave them odd looks. Timidly, Don Curzio stepped behind him and managed to wrestle down his stammer just long enough to utter “T...testimony?” The valet whirled around and the lawyer startled and retreated at the look he was giving him.

“The gold, the jewels and the embroidered clothes which the bandits found on me bear proof of my noble birth,” Figaro then explained, stepping to the stage's centre. “… moreover, this strange burn mark upon my arm …” He began to take off his coat, but Marcellina interrupted him, her voice quivering.

“A … a spatula imprinted upon your right arm?,” she asked.

Surprised, Figaro backed away from her, quickly putting the coat back on. “Who told you that!”

“Great Heaven, it's he …!”

“It is I, indeed! … who?”

“Who?,” added Don Curzio, the Count and Bartolo in quick succession, their words forming a d-major chord.

“Raffaello!,” Marcellina explained, close to fainting.

His eyes wide in shock, Bartolo looked from her to Figaro and back. Then he asked him: “And … you say you were stolen by robbers?”

“Near a castle …”

On wobbly feet Bartolo approached Figaro and took his hand. With his other hand, he pointed at Marcellina, who averted her gaze in confusion. “Behold … your mother!”

More laughter. The Count's eyes widened in shock. How was that even possible? Why hadn't he known? Thinking about it, their ages were just right … and wasn't there some family resemblance, say, in the shapes of their eyes and noses?

Anyhow, this development was disastrous. By law of God and nature, the marriage contract between Figaro and Marcellina was thus made void … which meant his plan to separate him and Susanna had failed tremendously.

“My nurse?,” Figaro tried to make sense of that, but he didn't even listen any more. He needed to have Susanna like he needed air and water …

“No, your mother!”

“His mother …,” he uttered, still dumbstruck from this revelation.

“Do I hear alright …?”

“And there is your father …!,” Marcellina added, pointing at Bartolo. Even more laughter from the audience at the caught look in the doctor's face. The old woman ran to embrace Figaro, strings set in and she began the sextet.

Dearest son, in this embrace recognise your mother!

Father dear, do not leave me longer here to blush …

My conscience cannot refuse you …

Don Curzio's flustered voice talking at him, he ignored it. “He's his father, she's his mother, the wedding can't proceed …

I'm astounded, I'm amazed, to leave here would be the best.”

Beloved son!

Beloved son!

Beloved parents!

Their singing was briefly interrupted when the Count poured himself another glass of wine to calm down, Don Curzio replaced his documents in his briefcase and Figaro showed his parents the burn mark. Into that vocal silence, Susanna suddenly entered from the door to the left, holding a loudly tingling purse into the air with a triumphant grin. “Just a moment, my Lord Count! Here's the money to set Figaro free!

We don't know where we are, just look over there …,” both he and Don Curzio replied, the latter tipping on her shoulder.

Beloved son …” – “Beloved parents …

Slowly, very slowly, Susanna turned around to see Figaro and Marcellina once more embracing. “Already married …,” she realised with quivering voice, “How faithless!

At the sound of her voice, mother and child parted. Furiously, the maid threw the purse at Figaro's feet; he approached her and tried to take her hand. “Leave me, wretch!

Stay a moment …

Leave me, wretch!

Stay a moment … listen, my love! Listen … listen!

Listen to that!” With those words, Susanna slapped him hard. His parents hurried to his support as he went down.

It's the result of her full heart: what she did, she did for love.

I rage, I burn with fury,” the Count murmured. Though he could probably use Susanna's feeling of betrayal to his advantage, it wouldn't last long enough. “Fate has overcome me …

I rage, I burn with fury … that old woman has overcome me!” Susanna turned to leave, but Marcellina stood in her way.

Dearest daughter, calm your bitterness and embrace his mother, who now will be yours too …

Susanna uttered a bitter laugh. “His mother.” She could just as well have said Yeah, sure.

His mother,” confirmed Bartolo. Her reply was the same.

His mother,” the Count admitted, taking another sip of wine. Her reply was the same.

His mother,” Don Curzio agreed, shrugging. Her reply was the same, though her voice seemed to quiver now.

His mother,” said Bartolo and the young woman's eyes widened. “His mother …

His mother! His mother!,” agreed all of them unisono.

And finally, Susanna had to cover her mouth to hide a giggle. “Your mother!

At once Figaro was by her side again, taking her hand. “And this is my father, who'll tell you so himself …

His father?” – “His father.

Your father?” – “My father!

His mother?” – “His mother! His mother!

And this is my mother, who'll tell you so herself … and this is my father, who'll tell you so himself.

Eventually, Figaro and Susanna embraced. “My heart can scarcely support the bliss of this moment …” They parted to embrace their new-found parents respectively in-laws.

My heart can scarcely support the raging torments of this moment!,” the Count and Don Curzio meanwhile sang. And indeed, his heart was burning with fury. The gentle music didn't fit at all.

The happy family embraced and the Count and Don Curzio hurried offstage.

 

Marcellina and Bartolo vowed to marry each other the very same day, letting Figaro of his debt. With the words “The Count can burst with rage, for all I care,” they walked offstage arm in arm, passing Barbarina and Cherubino in doing so.

As the two youngsters briefly plotted to hide him at her house, disguised as a girl, Euphemia spotted both Lelouch and Nunnally. Her sister stood by the planters, skimming through her score, though she didn't look as if she was consciously reading. From the other side of the waiting area, Lelouch was quietly staring at her, lost in thoughts.

Nunnally looked up when she saw them, and suddenly there was a bright smile on her lips. For a moment, Euphie was puzzled, then her sister approached them, smiled at Euphie and then stood before Suzaku. “That was marvellous,” she brightly twittered as if there were nothing on her mind.

The bass-baritone blushed, apparently somewhat slow on the uptake. “Ah, thanks …,” he mumbled. “You've been far better than me, though …”

“No, really! Your acting was brilliant …” Then she worriedly brought up her hand to the cheek Euphie had hit, giving her a scolding look. “Does it still hurt …?”

Euphie didn't know what to be angrier at – Nunna blaming her for something that was clearly Da Ponte's fault for putting in the libretto, her hand gently caressing Suzaku's cheek, the idiotic blush and grin on his face – or the fact that Lelouch showed little to no reaction?

“Ah, it's alright …,” Suzaku sheepishly responded.

Nunna smiled at him. “Good … I'll go back out. See you soon, alright?” And then – perhaps just to enrage her further – Nunnally actually kissed Suzaku's cheek. Then, without awaiting a response, she rushed onstage past them.

Fuming, Euphemia gave Suzaku a dirty look. “What the hell was that supposed to be?,” she asked and although the blissful grin vanished, his blush only darkened. Then she added, before he could give something away to Lelouch: “Never mind.”

 

The Countess was alone on the dark stage, but she could feel two thousand pairs of eyes on her, one of them burning like a red-hot dagger in her back.

Susanna's not come!,” She quietly began.“I'm impatient to know what the Count said to her proposal; the plan seems to me somewhat rash, and with a husband so impetuous and jealous … but where's the harm?” Her face lit up in a bitter smile. She had nothing to fear any more, neither contempt – for that she had – nor disgrace – for she would rather revel in his hatred than have him further ignore her – nor death, for she had died already a year ago when he had walked out of her peaceful life.

In other words, it was her only chance.

To change my clothes with those of Susanna, and hers with mine, under cover of darkness … oh heavens! To what humiliation am I reduced by a cruel husband, who, after having first loved me, then neglected and finally deceived me, in a strange mixture of infidelity, jealousy and disdain, now forces me to seek help from my servant!

And then – there it was. A weird, vague aching in her chest. It took her a moment to realise what it was: that was the pain of her heart breaking apart. No, rather – a broken heart thrown forcefully to the ground and trampled upon until it was reduced to tiny glistering diamonds the size of sand grains strewn on the ground.

But then, sun rose: through the branches of the old oak tree they used to play tag under, through the window they had once broken playing football with some friends, through the curtains they had washed their mother's blood and their tears off together after it had happened, brilliant sunlight illuminated the clean black lacquer of the piano she had accompanied her brother's attempts at Schubert lieder on, and only then the radiant sunlight made the tiny diamonds of her shattered heart shine and glister like a million mirrors. The light hurt her eyes, but it was more beautiful than a thousand notes, more divine than any gentle aria she knew. It was gorgeous.

Lying on the bare wooden floor, she reached out her hand and tried to touch the diamond shards. The sunlight was warm on her cold bare arm. Her fingertip slowly went down on one of the diamonds, becoming one with the glaring light. There was some slight pain, but it felt like nothing against the dull aching pulse of her shattered heart.

And suddenly there was a gentle hand on her wrist, someone knelt beside her and two hot lips touched the wound on her finger.

She looked up and saw nothing but a black silhouette, deepest faceless black absorbing all the sunlight, and suddenly she was falling, falling, falling –

She landed on her feet, on a stage all too familiar to her. Before and around her the world still was black, but she could feel the reassuring dagger in her heart. She opened her mouth and sang:

Where are those happy moments of sweetness and pleasure? Where have they gone, those vows of a deceiving tongue? Then why, if everything for me is changed to tears and pain, has the memory of that happiness not faded from my breast? Ah! if only my constancy in yearning lovingly for him always could bring the hope of changing his ungrateful heart!

Suddenly, the music had ended. She blinked and closed her mouth.

There seemed to be a thunderstorm raging around her, rain pattering down in the opera house.

Automatically, Nunnally Lamperouge stepped downstage and took a deep bow.

Dame Ceciniah's face, illuminated by her lectern's reading lights, was a strange mixture of annoyance at the interruption of the dramatic flow and, for some reason, worry.

Some audience members rose to their feet.

Her face blank, she took another bow. A pair of eyes in her back like a red-hot dagger. Bow, retire through the right door.

Only then she noticed the tears on her cheeks, glistering like diamond shards.

 

Cue the Count and Antonio hurrying across the stage, the latter holding a fashionable tricorn.

“I tell you sir, Cherubino is still in the castle! Here's his hat to prove it.”

“But how? By this time he ought to be in Seville …”

“Then Seville is at my house. He changed into a girl's clothing there and left his other clothes there.”

“The traitors!”

“Let's go and you can see for yourself!”

 

Euphemia rose when her sister came back, having run across the whole length of the stage backstage from one end to another. Quietly, she held Nunna back when she was already about to go back onstage. From wide eyes her little sister looked at her. The apparent rear wall of the stage opened to both sides to reveal a deeper stage, depicting an office with bookshelves and a Davenport desk.

“That was beautiful,” Euphie quietly said, drawing her into a brief embrace. Then she wiped her tears away. “Are you alright?”

Nunnally nodded and turned away from her to face the stage. Her gentle countenance seemed to harden, her lips now thin, her eyes stern. Then she went out onstage and Euphie quickly followed her.

“What things are you telling me! And what did the Count say then?”

She giggled. “You could read in his face indignation and anger …”

“Gently now. We shall catch him at the tryst … where will it be?”

“In the garden.”

The Countess nodded, thoughtfully, then went over to the Davenport and opened it. She got out paper, a dip pen and an inkwell. “Let's fix a place for it. Write to him.”

Susanna startled a little at that request, apparently fearing the Count's anger. “I write? … but … my lady …”

“Write, I tell you … I'll take full responsibility.”

The maid sighed, then sat down, straightened the paper and dipped the pen into the inkwell. Thoughtfully, the Countess wandered to one of the bookshelves, running her fingers over the countless spines. Then she began to dictate: “A song to the zephyr …”

Susanna wrote. “… to the zephyr …” Once again, beautiful music set in. The duettino was short, but divine. There was little else one could say about it.

How sweet the breeze …

“… the … breeze …

Will be this evening …

“… will be this evening …”

In the pine grove …

Susanna blushed as she realised the subtext. “In the pine grove?,” she questioned, then she wrote. “In the pine grove.”

And the rest … he'll understand.

She giggled. “I'm sure he will understand.

They re-read what they had written, then looked at each other, then nodded. It was perfect – both innocent and teasing, sweet and risqué. Susanna carefully folded the letter. “How shall I seal it?”

The Countess quickly pulled a bejewelled pin out of her hair. “Here … take this pin. It'll serve as a seal. Wait …,” she added when Susanna was about to do so. “Write on the back of the letter 'send back the seal'.” This way, she'd be able to certify if the Count had fallen for their trap or not – if he sent it back to Susanna, they could safely proceed. If it was her … well. Cross that bridge when they'd come to it.

“The seal is stranger than that on the commission,” Susanna laughed.

She gave her a lenient smile. Then she startled a little. “Quick, hide it! I hear people coming.”

Susanna quickly slipped the letter into her cleavage, then sat up expectantly.

Under curtsies, about a dozen girls from the village entered, all dressed in their pretty black churchgoing dresses and holding bouquets of flowers. The Countess returned their smiles. She knew most of them by name, except for one, who however seemed strangely familiar to her – a young, flat-chested girl shyly hiding behind Barbarina.

Accept, oh noble lady,” they sang, “these roses and these flowers which we have picked this morning to show you our affection. We are only humble girls from the village, but what little we can give, we offer you with all our heart.

One after another they approached her, curtsied and handed her their flowers. She thanked all of them with a gentle smile. She noticed the familiar stranger trying to approach her first, but being held back by Barbarina.

Their song ended. The Countess handed the last bouquet to Susanna, then they clapped for a moment. Barbarina stepped forth and once again curtsied. “My lady, those village girls beg your pardon for their boldness in approaching you with presents.”

“How kind! Thank you so much,” she gently said. This served as a wonderful cheering up, and she surely needed one …

“Aren't they pretty,” Susanna commented, directed at both the flowers and the girls. She got out the Countess's purse and handed Barbarina a golden Escudo worth 16 Reales to make up for their expenses and to celebrate the double wedding.

The Countess pointed at the strange girl in the back, the only one who hadn't presented her flowers to her. “Tell me, who's that charming little girl who looks so shy?”

Barbarina blushed a little. “That's one of my cousins, who came yesterday for the wedding.” The girl shifted around and Barbarina nudged him.

“We should honour this fair stranger,” the Countess commented. “Come here!”

The girl uneasily stumbled towards her, clearly not used to her high-heeled shoes, and knelt by her side.

Awkward pause. “Give me your flowers …,” she gently suggested and the girl jerkily held them up in her face.

The Countess laughed. She took the flowers and kissed his forehead. “How she blushes … Susanna, doesn't she remind you of someone?”

“She's his spitting image!”

There was some slight uproar at the main door. The Countess looked up and the gardener, Antonio, stomped in, followed by the Count. Antonio forcefully removed the girl's bonnet and replaced it with the dark blue tricorn in his hand. “There you are!,” he shouted, “There's your officer!”

Hounded, the Countess looked at her maid, who looked as shocked as she was. “Mercy on us!,” she exclaimed.

“The scamp!”

Behind Antonio, the Count arrogantly strode into the room, looking first at the now-revealed Cherubino, then at his wife. “Well, madame?”

“My lord, I'm just as surprised as you are.”

“Then, how about this morning?”

“This morning … we wanted to dress him up in women's clothes for tonight's party …”

Apparently satisfied, the Count turned to Cherubino. “And you, why haven't you left yet?”

Again the boy in girls' clothes got on his knees and pulled off his hat. “My lord …”

“I shall know how to punish your disobedience!,” the lord fumed. He raised his hand to strike the boy, but suddenly, Barbarina protectively stood before Cherubino.

“My lord, my lord …,” she hastily stuttered. “You've told me so often when you kissed and caressed me … 'Barbarina, if you'll love me, I'll give you whatever you want' …”

Her father's, Antonio's, eyes widened in shock and his face got even redder than before. Uncomfortably the Count looked around. “I said that?”

“Yes, you did. So please, sir … give me Cherubino for a husband … and I'll love you … like I love my kitten!”

The Count shifted around. So embarrassing a situation … he threw his wife a quick look. “Well, now it's your turn!,” she gleefully commented.

Antonio proudly embraced his daughter. “Well done, my girl! You've learnt your lesson well.”

He cursed, stepping out of the centre of attention for a moment. “What man, what demon, what god is turning everything against me!”

Suddenly, Figaro in his best black coat hurried in through one of the doors, apparently not surprised in the slightest at finding the girls here. “My lord,” he asked, heavily breathing, “If you keep all those young ladies in here, there'll be no party, no dancing …”

“Dancing? With your foot?,” the Count inquired, raising an eyebrow. What had happened to Figaro having strained his ankle when jumping out of the window?

Pause. Figaro then shrugged and attempted a pirouette. “Oh, it got better. Come, my pretty ones!,” he called out to the girls and tried to leave with them, but the Count held him back.

“Wasn't it lucky the flowerpots were made of clay …”

“Yes, indeed. Come now, come!” Again he tried to leave, but Antonio stood in his way.

“Meanwhile the page was galloping towards Seville, eh?”

“Galloping or trotting, off he went!,” the valet carelessly replied. “Come on, let's go!”

Again the Count held him back. “And his commission was left in your pocket …”

“Yes, indeed. What a lot of questions!” His gaze went over to Susanna, who was desperately trying to signify him something. He frowned.

“Stop making signs, he doesn't understand,” Antonio snorted. Then he took Cherubino by the upper arm and drew him forward. “Here is someone who claims my nephew-to-be is a liar!”

Only now did Figaro recognise the girl to be Cherubino. Nervously, he laughed. “Cherubino …”

“There you are!”

Figaro turned to the Count. “What's the meaning of this?”

“He says he was the one who jumped into the carnations …”

“He does, huh … well, if I jumped, perhaps he did too!”

“He too?,” the Count inquired, closing in on Figaro. It was a last-minute chance, but he couldn't ignore it …

“Why not?,” his valet snapped, standing close to him. “I never argue about things I don't know about.”

The Count flushed red in anger at that insult. He wanted to reply something – that was an opening he could use! … he was interrupted when music started to play in the background, a festive march, and Figaro raised his hand in the manner of a conductor.

“There's the march! … let's go.” He snapped his fingers. “Take your places, ladies, take your places! Susanna, give me your arm …”

“Here it is!” Having embraced the Countess, the maid stepped to his side and linked arms with him. Behind them, the village girls already bustled out to the hall. They left, leaving the Count and Countess alone.

“What presumption!,” he snapped at Figaro's insult. There wasn't much he could do now … his plan to exert the ancient droit du seigneur had failed.

“I feel like ice …”

He walked over to the Countess. She had certainly heard Barbarina's confession … “My lady …”

“Say no more now!,” she coolly interrupted him and he broke off. “Here are two couples: we must receive them. One especially has your protection.” She indicated the two elaborate armchairs on the edge of the stage. “Let's sit down.”

“Let's sit … and plan my revenge,” he quietly added, then they sat. It took a moment, the music rose and the lights were dimmed. The large doors on the rear wall were opened. In exact step with the march, some three dozen villagers and servants entered, bowing first to the Countess, then to him. Figaro and Susanna led them, followed by Bartolo and Marcellina.

Two girls emerged from the crowd, both carrying white silk veils. The Count rose and stepped in the centre of the stage, they flanked him.

Faithful and honourable girls, sing praises to our wise lord! By renouncing a right which outraged and offended, he leaves you pure for your lovers.

To their song, the two pairs solemnly exchanged their rings. The Count was sternly watching them. Marcellina stepped forth and knelt before him and he placed the veil in her hair.

She rose again and returned to Bartolo, then he turned around. Susanna knelt before him as well and with a grimace he took her veil from one of the girls and placed it on her head. Susanna raised her hands to adjust it, then suddenly their hands touched and he froze.

She was holding a sealed letter.

Inconspicuously she placed it in his hand … he looked down at her, she smiled at him. Not daring to breathe, he placed the letter in his breast pocket.

The song was taken up by the rest of the village girls; “Let us sing praise to our wise lord!

He briefly bowed to the two girls, the curtsied deeply, then withdrew. The Countess approached him, a somewhat smug grin on her pretty face. He frowned. And took a mocking, elaborate bow, to which she responded with a gracious smile.

The villagers began to dance: an elaborate, somewhat folkish fandango. Lots of jumping around, lots of bowing and even some clapping.

He absolutely hated dancing. The Count tried to withdraw to the back of the stage, but suddenly was caught between the two pairs and forced a polite smile on his face.

As the dancers moved around him, he stealthily got out the letter and opened it. Something poked him, he startled and dropped it – his finger hurt, a sudden, piercing pain. Annoyed, he shook and sucked it, then opened the letter. “How like a woman to stick pins in everything … ha, ha! I see what she means!

There was some sniggering on the other side of the stage as Figaro observed him. “Some girl gave him a love letter sealed with a pin … on which he has pricked his finger. … and now he's lost the pin!” Again he laughed whilst the Count bowed to look for the gem. After a moment, he found it and put it in his pocket again.

Then he rose, adjusted his coat and stood in the dancers way. “Now go, friends!,” he loudly spoke, “And let the wedding celebrations arranged for this evening with the richest ceremony. I wish there to be splendid entertainment … with singing and fireworks … a grand banquet and a ball …” Slowly he reached out his arm for the Countess to take, a grim smile in his eyes. Now, even though he had been foiled again and again …

… he would succeed. He would have his Susanna.

“Everyone shall see how I treat those close to me!”

Again the march sounded. “Faithful and honourable girls, sing praises to our wise lord! By renouncing a right which outraged and offended, he leaves you pure for your lovers!,” sang the villagers, still somewhat baffled at that sudden outburst of generosity. They bowed and removed their hats as he lead the Countess outside.

The moment the doors had closed behind them, they erupted in jubilation. To the excited song of the villagers – “Let us sing praise to our noble lord!” – Cherubino and Susannah embraced, then Figaro took her hand and raised it to his lips. Within seconds they were surrounded by the others and pushed into the pair of armchairs, lifted high into the air and kissed.

They didn't part until curtain had fallen.

Breathlessly they looked into each others' eyes as the chorus members placed their armchairs back on the ground and the audience applauded their performance. “Thank you,” Euphie gasped, “Ah, for this performance, I mean …” She blushed.

It wasn't that she hadn't been kissed before. In fact, quite a few times – while Lelouch had focused his overprotective allures on Nunna, she had been relatively free to do what she wanted. It wasn't that she and Suzaku hadn't kissed before, in rehearsals. However, there was something different now – she was intoxicated by the air of the opera house, stimulated by the thousands of eyes in the audience. Yet that wouldn't have been enough to produce such an reaction – such puzzlement and blissful confusion – normally: it was common for her to kiss her colleagues onstage, having no superficial reservations against something which was obviously purely professional.

So it was Suzaku who was different. He was a sloppy kisser, apparently rather inexperienced. However, she could feel some strange, daring passion in the intensity of the kiss. It was quite cute – and in fact, it didn't feel awkward at all to kiss Suzaku. Rather, it felt as if she wasn't close enough yet.

Suzaku smiled back at her. “It's my pleasure singing with you … it's amazing, really. All three of you are … so divine …”

Her face fell. “The three of us. Hmm. Yeah,” she mumbled, disappointed. For one she had hoped Suzaku's starstruckness with her siblings would have died down after getting to sing with them, just like her fangirlish obsession with Anna had turned to simple affection and friendship after seeing her get drunk in a bar after the premier of a new production of Don Giovanni and entertain the rest of the company with incredibly dirty, but hilarious jokes.

For another, it made her jealous. It had enraged her enough to see Nunna kiss Suzaku on the cheek; the mere thought that Suzaku could think of someone other than herself after having kissed her was sickening to her.

“Anyway …,” he then asked, “about Lelouch and Nunnally … should we continue?”

She grimaced. The memory of her little sister kissing Suzaku was far too fresh. Of course it was an act, but it hurt nonetheless. “Ah, about that … well, I don't think it'll work. It was a stupid idea …,” she now deflected.

He smiled at her. “I think it was a good idea. I can't think of anything that might work better …”

Euphemia blushed at this. She hadn't expected anything of the sort, not after his comments regarding her siblings – she had never been complimented on anything when either of them had been anywhere nearby. Euphie had no illusions – she would never be up to their level, whether it be intelligence, voice or kindness. And actually, she didn't feel too bad about it – she still was doing alright and it was nice to have someone to get advice or aid from.

Still, Suzaku's compliment flattered her. “Thank you …,” she whispered.

She tried to focus. “We'll need to have Nunna forgive him …,” she thoughtfully stated. “That means he'll have to take the first step and apologise …”

“Have you tried talking to him?”

Euphie firmly shook her head. “No. Just talking wouldn't change anything. He needs to truly regret his mistakes … and be gentle with her.”

Suzaku nodded. “Alright … I'll be onstage for most of the fourth act. Do you think flirting with Nunnally twice for a few minutes will be enough to make Lelouch jealous …?”

She giggled. “You're talking as if they were lovers,” she commented. While she had often thought back then that her two siblings acted a lot like a doting couple, that would have been … ew. “Of course it'll be enough. It's easy to make Lelouch angry if you know, how. Well … if you actually could interact on stage, one could use that, too, but I don't think Figaro and the real Countess ever do, do they?”

He paused, then shook his head. “Don't think so. I'll talk to Susanna in the Countess's clothes, but of course he'll see through that.”

Euphie led him offstage when a stagehand complained they were standing in the spot for one of the trees. Once past the tab curtains, Euphie stealthily indicated Lelouch, then Nunnally. The latter was impatiently pacing around the backstage, the former once more silently watching her. Euphemia hid in the drapes and Suzaku made his way to Nunna.

Her younger sister's eyes lit up in a false, but convincing smile upon seeing Suzaku. She hurried to him, then stood before him, blushed and lowered her gaze. “You were very good out there …,” she shyly complimented, making the Australian blush.

“Um, but you were better … you even got a curtain call for Dove, suono …”

Her blush now darkened. “Ah, but only because I was … thinking of you …”

Somehow, Nunna managed to make even that incredibly cheesy line sound cute, Euphie thought.

Suzaku mumbled something unintelligible. She threw Lelouch a glance, he was closely watching his sister, his face a mask of stone.

Suddenly, her sister's face lit up again. “I'm sorry, Suza …” (she was calling him Suza?!) “… I'll have to go and change … um … when this is over … want to come back to my place?”

Euphie's hand cramped around one of the iron bars of the lightings, dizzily she slowly sank to the ground. She was going too far now …

She wondered if she was teasing her on purpose.

“Um, I just mean … because it's got to be more comfortable than a hotel room …” Nunnally broke off. “… you know.” And somehow she managed to make those two words sound suggestive and innocent at the same time.

Suzaku quietly nodded, frog in throat, and adjusted his collar. His face was stark red. Euphie snorted. Men.

Nunnally grinned. “Thanks! Gotta dash … see you on stage, mio caro Figaro … good luck!”

And with those words, she kissed him on the lips, turned and hurried off to the dressing rooms.

Euphie could barely keep herself from crying out in fury. It was absolutely sickening, it turned her stomach … somehow, she could understand how Nunna must have felt when Lelouch had abandoned her, but at the moment, she felt nothing but hatred for her sister. She knew that it had been her idea, but seeing it like that was … humiliating …

And Suzaku – seemed to be far too happy giving in to her sister's flirts. That was … catastrophic. Not now, not when she felt that tingling and tearing and gaping whenever she looked at him, heard him speak, and sing –

She wouldn't lose. She wouldn't have him taken away from her.

This had to stop.

Euphemia rose from her hiding place, wanted to call out for Suzaku –

“Kururugi,” said her brother's voice, cold as ice and sharp as a razor. “I'd like a word with you. Now.”

Chapter Text

Atto Quarto

 

Slowly Lelouch led him away from the girls, into one of the makeshift waiting rooms. Silently Suzaku followed the other singer.

Lelouch closed the door behind them, then finally turned to face Suzaku. His face was an expressionless mask, but his deep purple eyes were piercing and cold. Suzaku avoided his gaze.

“What do you have to say in your defence?,” Lelouch suddenly snapped, making Suzaku startle a little. He hadn't been aware this was a trial …

“Er …,” he lamely began. “I … I'd like to talk to my lawyer …”

Suzaku saw it coming and could easily have resisted, but for the moment he was far too surprised. He didn't know Lelouch particularly well, but this was still unlike him …

And so Lelouch was now forcefully pressing him against the wall. Suzaku blinked.

“I thought I had made myself perfectly clear,” Lelouch snarled. The mask had cracked; revealing a person completely alien to him – gone was the perfectly civil, if vain gentleman who'd charmed him into coming to London, replaced by fury and … hatred …

Suzaku's eyes widened in fear. He was certain he could defend himself should Lelouch physically attack him – no, he wasn't afraid of being hurt. And yet … he really couldn't quite put his finger on it. Perhaps it had something to do with Euphie? Well … anyway, this probably meant her plan to lure Lelouch's big brother instinct out had succeeded …

“I shall repeat myself once more,” Lelouch hissed with barely constrained fury. “I brought you here to sing. I did not bring you here to fuck my sisters.”

He felt his cheeks redden at Lelouch's choice of words. “Ah, actually …,” he began in an attempt to explain Euphie's plan to him, but was interrupted.

Lelouch gave a grim sigh. “However … I believe it might be too late for such warnings. It's obvious Nunnally can decide for herself …” He grimaced. “… and though I might not be happy about it … I can't legally keep her from choosing you. Or anyone, for that matter.”

For a short moment, Suzaku dared a faint smile as he thought what this could mean for his hopes for Euphie. Then, however, Lelouch's murderous expression wiped it from his face.

“I will, therefore, not stand in your way …”

And while those words were as much as a declaration of defeat, the way Lelouch said it made it one of war. Suzaku gulped and opened his mouth to explain, but was given no chance to interrupt him. “And yet …,” Lelouch hissed, “If you should ever dare tohurt her … if you should ever make her cry … if you should not make her happy … nothing will save you from my vengeance. If you make her cry once … why, I think I'll cut out your tongue … well, there goes your career. The second time … I'll cut off your ears. Slowly, one by one. If you ask me nicely, perhaps I'll even use a sharp blade. Now you can't even hear the music any more … and the third time, you will beg me to carve your heart out with a chopstick … Now. Have. I. Made. Myself. Clear?

Deathly pale, Suzaku slowly nodded. He didn't doubt for a second that Lelouch meant all of this …

Suddenly, a reserved smile appeared on Lelouch's lips. It didn't reach his eyes. A cold shiver ran down Suzaku's spine. “That's Barbarina's cavatina,” Lelouch patiently pointed out, letting him go. Indeed – the music had already started again after the short break to reset the stage. A simple little cavatina for strings and soubrette about a lost pin. “You should get back onstage.”

Confounded, Suzaku stared at him. The sudden change in his behaviour … It felt as if Lelouch had suddenly been exchanged through an entirely different person.

“I still want tonight to be a success,” the baritone offered for an explanation, seemingly reading his mind.

Beat.

“Ah,” Suzaku then lamely said. That … Well, knowing Lelouch, that did make sense. As if he'd ever sacrifice a favourable review in order to start a fight …

Slowly, his eyes fixed on Lelouch, Suzaku left the waiting room to find Sayoko – Marcellina – already waiting for him in the wings. Just in time, they stumbled onstage.

The splendorous hall from the third act had been replaced by another scenery – a Spanish garden; complete with fruit trees, carefully pruned hedges and flowerbeds and a pavilion to each side. Minimal lighting gave the garden a nocturnal, slightly arcane atmosphere. In the stage's centre knelt Barbarina, frantically searching for something on the ground.

“What's the matter, Barbarina?,” he mechanically asked, removing his tricorn and kneeling beside her to help.

“Oh cousin, I've lost it …”

“What?”

“The pin His Lordship gave me to take back to Susanna …”

Slowly, he looked up at her. “To Susanna …,” he whispered, “The pin …” Then for a moment, surprise flared up on his face, then understanding, then horror. “Even though you're so young, you're already so perfidious!,” he snapped, roughly grasping the girl's arm.

Barbarina startled. “W…why are you angry at me?”

With some embarrassment he let go of her and averted his gaze. “Can't you see I'm joking …,” he murmured, then quickly drew a simple pin from Marcellina's dress and handed it to her. She wouldn't notice the difference in the dark. “Look. This is the pin the Count gave you to take back to Susanna. It was used to seal a note. You see, I know all about it.”

“Then why ask me, if you know it all?”

“I wanted to hear how His Lordship sent you on this errand.”

At once, all mistrust seemed to have left the girl. She shrugged and rose to her feet. Figaro followed suit. “Nothing remarkable. 'Here, my girl', he said, 'take this pin to Susanna, and tell her this is the key to the pine-grove'.”

He winced at the obvious innuendo and Barbarina bit back a giggle as she realised it as well. “The pine-grove …”

“Oh, yes – and then he added: 'Take care no one sees you!' – but you surely won't tell?”

“Trust me.”

“It's nothing to do with you.”

“Oh, not at all.”

The girl grinned widely. “Alright then. Goodbye, cousin, I'll go to Susanna … and then to Cherubino …”

Waving at Figaro and his mother, the girl danced offstage.

Slowly, he put his hat back on. “Mother …,” he spoke, as he leaned against one of the trees for support.

“My son …?”

“All is lost.”

“Calm yourself, my son!”

“All is lost, I say!,” he snapped back.

Marcellina started a little, but pressed on. “Patience … patience, and yet more patience!Things are serious and we must think them out. But you can't know for certain who the joke was on!”

But he had already stopped listening when the final realisation struck him. “Oh, mother … that pin … it was the one he picked up during the ball!”

“That … that doesn't prove anything! Just be on your guard.”

“I shall be! I know where they'll meet …” He hastened away from his mother, downstage.

“Wait!,” she called after him. “Where are you going!”

“To avenge all husbands! Farewell!” And with those words he furiously stormed offstage.

Marcellina looked after him for a moment. Then she turned, massaged her temples and sighed deeply. “I must go look for Susanna … I think she is innocent. … but even if she weren't … every woman must defend her poor sex against ungrateful men!” She left stage in a different direction.

 

Moments later he stepped back onstage. Grimly he looked in the direction Basilio and the choir had left in, making sure he was alone. If he were to expose everything, he would need their help …

“Everything is ready …,” he finally noted; recitativo accompagnato. The thick cloth of his woollen cloak weighed heavy on his shoulders. “The hour is at hand! … I heard someone … it's her! … no, nobody there …”

Slowly he removed his tricorn. “How dark is the night … And now, I begin to ply the foolish trade of being a husband.”

Figaro put his hand against one of the trees for support. This wasn't going right, he noted to himself – he needed to work on his acting …

To act convincingly, he had always been told, one needed more than a costume and a pretty voice, or even talent. A fine act was the result of emphasising with the character: for in the end, an actor is nothing but a liar. A trickster, if you will.

In card magic, there is a difficult sleight-of-hand in which a deck is cut, invisible to the viewer through nothing but speed. Tricksters used to compete against each other who could cut most decks in a minute – but that is nonsense. Not he who can cut twenty decks in a minute is the greatest magician, but he who can cut one without noticing. If, while acting, you cannot help but grin apologetically, you are a clown, but not an actor.

Therefore: putting on a mask is not enough. You cannot trick your viewers if you cannot trick yourself. Only when you can observe your own tricks with disbelieving astonishment, you can expect them to be astonished.

You need to become the mask.

Momentarily, Figaro closed his eyes. Then he continued. “Traitress!,” he snapped, fighting to bite back tears. “At the very moment of our wedding … seeing him, I laughed at myself without noticing it …”

He shivered. His legs gave out from under him and Figaro fell to all fours. “Oh, Susanna!,” he cried out. “Susanna … how you made me suffer … With that sweet face … and those innocent eyes … who would've believed it!” He scowled. “Oh, to trust women is always folly!”

As the last syllable died away, Figaro blinked. He rose to his feet and stared into the darkness in front of him. Something … something had changed. Had changed everything. With a sleepwalker's certainty, he opened his mouth –

Open your eyes, stupid men, and see what women are like!,” he sang. Well, perhaps that wasn't quite correct – in the end, what had happened? Had he been betrayed – or had he been mistaken?

It was adherence to a stupid plan that had thrown him into his dilemma. Not that he had had any doubts beforehand … still. Now that Lelouch believed him to be Nunnally's sweetheart, he practically had no choice but to be just that …

Suzaku had no doubts whatsoever that Lelouch would make his threats true. Now, suppose they returned to normal after this failed experiment – doubtless Lelouch would see this as a breakup. And skin him alive.

Suppose they tried to explain – toying with Nunnally's emotions? Touching her improperly? Toying with Euphie's emotions? Making fun of Lelouch? While Suzaku didn't know which crime Lelouch would choose, he could well see his reaction to either of them. Terrifying indeed …

Which left pretending to be in a relationship with Nunnally. And that … would be wrong on so many levels. For one, Nunnally probably had her own ideas. For another, it would be a dangerous lie to Lelouch.

And, most importantly, it would destroy all his chances of being with Euphemia.

You look at these women – see them as they are! We call them goddesses and make offerings to them in our foolishness – but they are witches that cast spells to torment us, sirens that sing to make us drown, little owls who fascinate to pluck us, comets who dazzle us to deprive us of light. They are thorned roses, alluring vixens, smiling bears, evil doves; they cheat and lie, they feel no love, and feel no pity, feel no pity, feel no pity, no, no, no, no!

The rest, the rest I need not say, for everyone, everyone knows it already. Oh, men, just open your eyes! Look at these women and see them as they are! They are witches that cast spell – but the rest I need not say. They are sirens that sing – the rest I need not say. Little owls who fascinate – the rest I need not say. Comets who dazzle – the rest I need not say. They are thorned roses, alluring vixens, smiling bears, evil doves; they cheat and lie, they feel no love, and feel no pity, feel no pity, feel no pity, no, no, no, no! The rest, the rest I need not say, for everyone knows it already. Yes … everyone knows it already.

He ended and, overcome with grief, turned away from the audience. There was some applause.

Then, suddenly, he heard footsteps. Figaro looked up to see three female figures entering the garden and quickly hid behind one of the trees. It didn't take him long to recognise their voices.

“My lady, Marcellina told me,” he heard Susanna say, “that Figaro is coming here …”

“He's already here! Lower your voice a little,” interrupted his mother.

“One man is listening, another is looking for me … we can begin.”

“I'll hide myself in there.” Marcellina ran off, towards one of the pavilions. She didn't notice Figaro as she hastened past him.

Susanna turned to the third woman. “Madam, you're trembling … are you cold?,” she inquired of her lady, her voice unusually loud.

“The night is rather chilly,” replied the Countess, just as loud. “I'll go inside.”

Figaro scoffed behind his tree. “Now comes the climax of the drama …”

“If Your Ladyship will allow me, I'll stay outside to catch the air for half an hour …”

He dared to look at them from his hiding-place. Something was odd – while he could only see their silhouettes, Susanna's voice seemed to be coming not from the one in the elaborate wedding dress, but from the one in the simpler, yet finer gown the Countess had worn. He shoved those thoughts aside, he had more pressing worries right now than physics, or whatever that was. “Catch the air …,” he growled.

“Stay, and take your time!” The latter silhouette waved the other woman goodbye and walked away. Focused on Susanna as he was, he didn't notice her leaving.

Figaro let out a deep sigh. Slowly he sank to the ground. There was it – was not this more than enough proof? He could still foil their plans …

And yet, what good would it do. If he did so now, they would always find another possibility – he could delay the Count, but he could not win against him.

It would be best to catch them red-handed, to embarrass the Count …

But even so, he wondered if he could ever think of Susanna the same way again. He had loved her … truly loved her. She had been everything to him. He breathed when she was his air; he slept when she was his pillow, he drank when she was his water – and he had had absolute trust in her.

Well, until this morning …

He startled a little when the wind carried the voice he adored over to him. Wearily, devoutly, he listened. Soft, gentle song.

At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, hence from my heart, and do not come to trouble my delight. Oh, how the spirit of this place, the earth and the sky, seem to echo the fire of love! How the night furthers my stealth!

Come, do not delay, oh bliss, come where love calls thee to joy, while night's torch does not shine in the sky, while the air is still dark and the world quiet. Here murmurs the stream, here sports the breeze, which refreshes the heart with its sweet whispers. Here flowers smile and the grass is cool; here everything invites to the pleasure of love. Come, my dearest, and amid these sheltered trees I will wreathe thy brow with roses …”

There was some applause as her last notes ended.

Figaro raised his fingers to his cheeks, he was little surprised to find them wet. “Traitress … so she has really deceived me! … Am I awake or is this a nightmare …?”

He startled when suddenly a boy's voice sounded in the distance, singing a little melody, as Cherubino cheerfully entered the garden.

There was a soft noise – a woman's voice? But not Susanna …, then Cherubino halted in his steps.

“I think I heard someone …,” he said, stopping. Then he shrugged. “I'll go where I can find Barbarina … Ah! I see a woman!”

The boy tried to get a glimpse of her silhouette. “I recognise that headdress!,” he then said, “It looks like Susanna …”

Susanna mumbled something in response he didn't understand, then music set in.

Very softly I'll approach her, my time here will not be wasted …

Oh, if the Count should arrive now, there'll be a disaster!

Susannetta!,” Cherubino teasingly called out for her, grinning widely. Then his smile fell. “She doesn't reply …” But the smile immediately returned, now mischievous and sly. “She's hiding her face behind her veil … Now I'll really tease her~!

Suddenly he charged at her and grasped her hand, pressing a kiss on it. The woman struggled and took a few steps away from him. “Reckless boy!,” she shouted, disguising her voice, “Go away!

Affected flirt! I know why you're here …

Go away!

Again he approached her, but she evaded the boy's grasp and shoved him away. He was about to make reply when in the distance, from the other side of the garden – Figaro's side – sounded a male voice …

There is my dear Susanna …”

Figaro stealthily hastened out of his way, hiding behind another tree. “Here's the bird-catcher …,” he snarled, and somehow he felt as if someone, somewhere were repeating those words.

Oblivious to the Count's arrival, Cherubino jumped to his feet. “Oh, don't be so hard on me …,” he begged Susanna.

How fast beats my hard!,” Figaro sung, unisono with the Count, and … was that a woman's voice? “There's another man with her!

Go away, or I'll call for help!,” Susanna replied to Cherubino.

Give me a kiss, or do nothing …”

By his voice, that's the page …”

What, a kiss? What insolence!

Don't be so prudish! Why can't I do what the Count does all the time?

What effrontery!

You know I was behind that chair, I heard it all …”

If the wretch persists in being obstinate, he'll ruin all our plans …”

Well, then take a kiss from me!” Slowly he rose, then whirled around to press a kiss on her cheek.

Obviously, it had absolutely nothing to do with the conductor's fantasies that said kiss landed not on the cheek of Susanna, who had fled, but on the lips of the Count, who had been threateningly hovering above Cherubino for a while.

Oh heavens!,” shouted both Susanna and Cherubino, “The Count!

The Count rose his hand to strike the boy, who evaded and hastily stepped back, hiding behind Figaro's tree, of all things. Quickly he shoved the boy aside, the Count reached behind the tree, grasped an ear, pulled on it and thus slammed the ear's owner's head against the trunk.

This had not been in the rehearsals.

Figaro let out a muffled yelp, then he hastily withdrew. He thought he'd heard a woman laughing somewhere. “Ah … guess that's the reward my curiosity has brought me …”

Ah! That's the reward his temerity has gotten him.

Finally, the Count turned to Susanna, gently taking her hand. “At last he's gone … Come now, my dear!

As you desire! I'm here, my lord!

What an obliging bride …”

Give me your little hand …”

H…here it is!

My dearest?

His dearest …!

What slender fingers, what fair and delicate skin! Oh, I'm on fire!

Figaro scoffed. “His blind infatuation deceives all his senses …,” he mumbled. Strangely, both Susanna herself and the female voice in the back of his head seemed to echo his phrasing.

Though Susanna had – he gulped – betrayed him, he couldn't help but be outraged at the Count's remark. Susanna's complexion was a light olive – not particularly swarthy, but not fair either. Her skin wasn't delicate, either, due to years of hard work.

How dare he seduce his wife without even really looking at her! How dare he make such nonsensical compliments – in fact, they sounded a lot like stock seduction phrases …

Ah!,” the Count made, then reached into his coat to produce a tiny object he now placed on her finger. Susanna averted her gaze and hid her face behind her veil – well, at least she had the propriety to be ashamed …

Here – to your dowry, also take this ring, which a lover gives you as a token of love.

He winced at this. A ring … He wondered if she still wore their wedding ring – or if she had already thrown it away.

Figaro closed his eyes, took a deep breath. The wedding ring … He had worked hard to buy it, and now his beloved Susanna threw it away for the Count's trinkets …

When had it come to this?

Susanna owes everything to her benefactor …”

Everything is going splendidly … but the best is yet to come.

Gently, the Count pressed her against one of the trees and tried to lift her skirt. She struggled to get free of him. “My lord, I see torches …

Then come, my Venus,” he quickly said, pointing to the pavilion to his right. “Let's hide in there …

Foolish husbands!,” Figaro snapped. “Now, come and learn your lessons …

In the dark, my lord?

I don't plan to read …”

Now she's following him … I can't believe it …

Both women – Susanna and the one in his head that, as he had realised by now, sounded like Susanna – sang something he didn't understand.

Furiously, Figaro worked his teeth. No … no. He couldn't go on like this. This … this jealousy was nauseating. A blazing flame was eating him up from inside …

He had to put an end to this.

The Count walked over to the pavilion, then turned to expectantly look at Susanna. Without a second thought, Figaro ran between the lovers to the other edge of the stage. “Wh…who's there?!,” the Count asked, attempting to disguise his voice.

What do you care?

It's Figaro,” Susanna softly noted. “I better hide in there …”

Go on, I'll rejoin you soon …

The woman slowly walked towards the pavilion, then, when the Count turned once more to the direction Figaro had left into, she ran to hide behind it. The Count turned back and entered the pavilion, closing the door behind him.

Slowly, Figaro stepped out of the shadows into the stage's centre. He opened his mouth … At first, no sound came out. He missed his cue and could barely keep himself from panicking. Then, it got better. “All is quite and peaceful,” he quietly sang. “Fair Venus has gone in … To catch her with her lover Mars, I, like a modern Vulcan, will catch them in my net.

With those words, he quickly approached the pavilion the Count had run into, then whirled around when he heard an unfamiliar female voice. “Hey, Figaro! Keep quiet!,” she called out. He frowned, trying to make out whose voice it was.

It's the Countess,” he then decided, walking over to her and taking her hand. It seemed to be her indeed, for she wore the Countess' dress and hid her face behind the Countess' veil. “You came in time! The Count's in there with my wife, let me show you!,” he quickly explained, trying to drew her towards the pavilion.

The Countess let go of his hand and took a few steps away from him. “I shan't move away from here until I'm avenged!,” she insisted … But this time, her voice sounded different. Lighter, brighter, almost playful. No, that wasn't the Countess –

Susanna …,” he mumbled in confusion, then looked up. “Avenged?

Yes!

How will you do that?

She snapped something he didn't understand.

In fact, he didn't understand most of it. Why was she here, and not with the Count? Why was she in the Countess' gown – and who had gone with the Count, then? “She's trying to lead me on …” Then, a smile slid on his face. Perhaps it was too early to rejoice – for he didn't yet know her intentions – but he would at least make the best of it.

Figaro turned back to her, taking a deep, comically exaggerated bow. “Ah, if madame so desires!

Hurry up, then!

He laughed and she repeated herself with barely concealed impatience. Wordlessly he knelt beside her; she turned away from him, quickly lifting her veil. “Here I kneel at your feet,” he sang in the most lyric voice he could manage, “My heart is full of fire for you! Just think how we were betrayed …

He's making me furious …,” Susanna uttered, making him chuckle.

How my bosom heaves with impatience and fire …

Again she turned to him, raising her voice a little. “But you feel no love?

Only anger!,” he assured her. “Now, let's not waste time – just give me your hand … give me your …

She interrupted him, in her own voice again. “Take it, sir!” Furiously Susanna whirled around, raised her hand and slapped him in the face.

Hard.

Perhaps it was something peculiar to the Royal Opera, but he hadn't known those slaps were actually supposed to hurt the actor. He tried to look up in Susanna's eyes and was shoved to the ground, then received another blow.

What a blow!

And that, too … and that! … And that as well!

D…don't beat me so fast!

And that, bastard, and that again!

Quickly he brought some distance between them. “Oh, what welcome blows! How happy is my love!

How dare you play the seducer!

What welcome blows …

He broke off and let go of the hand he had grasped.

Susanna had stopped beating him. Instead, she had stumbled away from him and covered her face with her veil. Her shoulders were trembling, over the dying strings he heard soft sobs.

Immediately, Figaro rose to his feet. Had he gone too far …? He tried to look her in the eyes, but she turned away.

Becoming the mask, huh.

And then, suddenly, it was clear to him. That, firstly, this entire situation was similar, if not equivalent, to another one offstage. That, secondly, the situation onstage was resolvable.

That, therefore, the situation offstage was also resolvable, and that either could be resolved by means of the other.

He was a singer and an actor.

All he had to do was sing his lines.

Figaro stepped behind Susanna and gently embraced her. “Peace, peace, my dearest treasure,” he gently sang. “I recognised the voice I adore and which keeps my heart in thrall.

A bitter, sobbing laugh as she replied. “My voice?

The voice I adore …

As he tenderly wiped her tears away, she joined in. Her face lit up a little. “Then peace, my dearest treasure; peace, my sweetest love.

They were interrupted by another voice in the distance. “I just can't seem to find her, though I've looked everywhere …

It's the Count,” they whispered to each other as they quickly hid behind a tree, “I recognise his voice.

Heh, Susanna! Are you deaf? Are you dumb?

As the Count once more entered the pavilion to the left, Susanna bit back a laugh. “Oh, lovely! He didn't recognise her!

Whom?

She rolled her eyes. Had he missed something? “Madame …

Madame?!

Madame!

Now, that took a load off his mind. After all, what did it mean? That Susanna hadn't betrayed him.

That Susanna still loved him.

Which meant there was only one thing left to do –

Let's end this comedy, dearest,” they sang, “and console those estranged lovers …

They rose from their hiding-place and, with a loud voice, he sang: “Yes, madame, you are my only love!

 

To say that the Count was deeply annoyed would have been a masterpiece of an understatement. First, he had spent the day being humiliated and defied by his servants over and over again. Next, that failure of a page had disturbed his supposedly romantic rendezvous with Susanna … And lastly, she had disappeared without a trace.

The garden wasn't particularly large, so that he had been able to search most of it in the last five minutes. Twice. Which left the chance of her having returned to the house; but why should she have done so – if not to set him up for something?

Yes, madame, you are my only love!,” he heard a man – Figaro? – sing. He whirled around to where he suspected the voice's origin, and saw his valet approaching a woman that looked a lot like the Countess.

My wife!,” he exclaimed. Reflexive he reached for his sword. “And I'm unarmed …

Grant some solace to my heart!,” the dirty traitor continued. His wife stood before him, leaning against a tree, and now invitingly raised her skirts …

Do what you will with me …

And suddenly it all made sense. Of course, it had been Figaro who had hidden in the dressing-room this morning, and Figaro who had jumped out of the window, as well … Cherubino probably was in on their treachery, perhaps to get his hands on his Susanna?

Which suggested that Susanna was a part of this conspiracy …

But why? What could Susanna possibly gain from it? Why would she not just marry Cherubino and leave Figaro to figure out his own answer?

Because they wanted to deprive him of his fortune and power.

He just didn't know yet how they would have done this.

How dare they!

Figaro and the Countess took each others' hands, the latter leading the former towards the pavilion on the left. “Come now, my love,” they sang, “and let pleasure assuage our longing …”

As they passed by his hiding-place, the Countess let go of Figaro's hands, threw him a kiss and, giggling, hurried towards the pavilion. Figaro looked after her for a short moment, then he followed her.

The Count stepped out of his hiding-place and punched Figaro in the face that he went down. “Ho there!,” he called out to his vassals in the main house, “Come swiftly! Bring your swords!

The master! I'm lost!,” Figaro cried, properly frightened, as he held his bleeding nose.

Ho there, I say! Help!

Within moments Antonio, Bartolo, Basilio and the rest of his servants arrived, some holding lit torches, others drawn swords. “What's wrong?,” they loudly inquired.

The Count stepped to the edge of the stage, accusingly pointing at Figaro. “That villain has betrayed me, has shamed me – and you shall see with whom!

I'm astounded, I'm bewildered! I can't believe it's true!

They're astonished, they're bewildered – what a scene! Oh, what joy!

Without another word the Count stormed to the pavilion his wife had run into and threw open the door. Though it was dark inside, he managed to grasp an arm and pulled on it. She resisted, clung to something. “In vain you resist! Come forth, my lady, and receive the reward of your virtue!,” he snapped, then finally overcame her resistance and out into the torches' light stumbled …

The page!,” he exclaimed, completely baffled. What sinister plan was that?

He was followed by the person he had held on to –

My daughter!,” yelled Antonio, seeing Barbarina, who immediately fled into Cherubino's arms.

My mother!,” realised then Figaro when Marcellina followed.

Finally, the traitress herself stumbled out. “Madame!

The Count scowled. Well, this would probably leave less impact on the servants than planned. Nonetheless, he forcefully grabbed his resisting wife's arm, dragged her amidst the other man and threw her to the ground. “All is revealed!,” he shouted, “Here's the unfaithful woman!

The woman knelt at his feet, shamefully hiding her face behind her veil. “Forgive me, forgive me!

No, no, do not hope for it!

Figaro joined her on the ground. “Forgive me, forgive me!

No, no, I will not!

Forgive them!,” the others joined in, kneeling one after another.

No, no, do not hope for it!

Forgive them!

No!

Forgive them!

No!

Forgive them!

No, no, no, no, no!

Before his last note had died away, another voice interrupted him. It was gentle, yet cool, and all too familiar. He whirled around and froze.

Then at least let me plead forgiveness for them,” his Countess – his Rosina – asked of him, slowly emerging out of the darkness, dressed in Susanna's wedding gown.

Slowly, very slowly she approached him walking between Figaro and – for that she was – Susanna as the others got on their feet.

Oh heavens …,” murmured Basilio and Antonio, “What do I see? A delusion … a vision that I can't believe …

She stood before him, firmly returning his gaze. Her beautiful lilac eyes were wet with tears, unfazed she stared back. Cold. Devoid of any affection …

Lelouch Lamperouge never learned when exactly he had lost his mind. He didn't know where he had gone wrong, where he had broken her. He only knew that he had and that he hated himself for it. He only knew when he had been returned it for the first time, by that pair of eyes –

Fear. Anger. Forlornness. Tender and terrible –

Slowly, Lelouch Lamperouge (for the mask was broken) knelt and bowed his head before his sister.

Most serene music. Mozart in his essence. A gentle push in the right direction, a cue to finally do what was long overdue. Save what is to be saved, repair what is to be repaired, never forgive what is not to be forgiven.

Comtessa, perdono. Perdono. Perdono.

My Countess, forgive me … forgive me … forgive me.

Expressionless, she looked down on him. Closed her eyes. Then, hesitatingly, she reached out one of her slender hands to gently stroke his hair. She lowered herself to him to lift him up in her embrace.

I am kinder,” she sang, her soft, lyrical soprano resonating throughout the quiet opera house. “And I will say 'Yes' … I will say 'Yes'.

She raised him up, holding his hands in hers. He looked his sister in the eyes, silently begged for true forgiveness, forgiveness that was more than a show. “And so …,” they quietly sang, the others joining in, but muffled to him as if far, far away, “Let us all be happy …

She didn't deign to smile at him. But she didn't resist when he drew her closer and bedded his head on her shoulder. She continued to gently stroke his back. He could fell – he knew – she was crying.

And so, let us all be happy …”

And the beauty resounding in his ear were not the strings, were not the other singers, wasn't even his own voice. It was all her …

And so … let us all be happy.

Gently, Nunnally broke the embrace. Avoided eye-contact. The chorus turned to leave, they followed suit a moment later, slowly walking downstage. Only the strings were still to be heard. Someone in the audience dropped a needle.

And then Cherubino, dragging Barbarina with him, broke through their lines, ran to the edge of the stage, closely followed by Bartolo and Marcellina, Figaro and Susanna and finally Nunnally and himself. The music erupted, again they joined in –

To this day of madness, love brings a happy ending!,” they sang. He didn't let go of her hand. “Lovers, friends, let's round things off: let's dance and rejoice! Light the fireworks! And, to the sound of a gay march, let's all hurry to the celebrations – let's all hurry, let's all hurry, let's all hurry, let's all hurry to the revelry!

The rest of the singers turned to leave, but they remained –

The Count and Countess. Figaro and Susanna. Euphemia and Suzaku. Lelouch and Nunnally –

Once again Lelouch drew his sister into a deep embrace, ran his fingers through her hair and pressed a chaste stage kiss on her lips. Her cheeks were wet. The kiss didn't turn out too well, but that didn't matter now –

And for a moment, he was back at Glyndebourne, two years ago. It was a warm summer evening. Rain had ruined the audience's traditional picnicking in the mansion's parks, and even now raindrops could be heard over the orchestra. Back then, Nunnally had been beaming with energy. Had been … happy. He'd drunk a little more champagne than he should have after the show and a friend had given them a lift back to London – sitting on the back bench of his car, Nunnally had held his hand the entire time and fallen asleep somewhere on the M23 near Watford, using his shoulder as a pillow.

They had never again been as close as back then in that car full of jazzed, tiddly opera singers.

With an orchestral flourish, the opera came to an end.

For a moment, there was only silence. The last note lingered on in the audience, tense like the air before a lightning strikes on a gentle summer day.

Then, the audience erupted in applause.

As befitting a staged kiss between siblings, they parted the moment the first audience member clapped. He looked up, momentarily distracted by the other pair's passionate kiss (he wasn't sure whether he liked what Suzaku was doing there. Well, it seemed as if that had been yet another thing he had overlooked …).

Then, he took Nunnally's hand and they turned to face the audience once again. They waited for Suzaku and Euphie to finish … whatever they were doing, then they took a deep bow. Curtain fell, the other cast members joined them, it rose and again they bowed. There were separate curtain calls for all four of them. Dame Ceciniah came onstage, took her own bow, then shook their hands. Once more curtain fell.

Without a word, Nunnally let go of his hand, turned and marched off towards the dressing rooms.

His eyes widened. No … no …! Not now, after everything had seemed to work out so well!

He wanted to reach out to her, speak to her, beg for her forgiveness.

Dame Ceciniah cheerfully told the singers to get off her stage and change. Two curtain calls was more than enough.

Nunnally had already left.

Mechanically, Lelouch walked to his dressing room. Suzaku wanted to talk about something, he ignored him.

He closed the door behind him, observing himself in the mirror as he slowly removed his tailcoat. His face was expressionless and dull, like a robot who hadn't yet been told how to feel. Something tore at some other thing inside of him. He didn't know what he was to feel.

Regret.

Why had he ever left? Why had he left like this? He'd sought for fame down under, nothing else. He'd wanted to sing, and sing for the world. He'd wanted to escape the boredom and try something new; sing on another stage, meet those who could help him on his way to the top.

And perhaps, a tiny bit, he had wanted to flee from the realisation that Nunnally was slowly surpassing him.

They had always been close. It had never been a secret that Lelouch had a favourite sibling, not even to Euphemia. They had become closer still after their mother's death, when Lelouch had begun to give his youngest sister singing lessons, and still closer when Euphie had left for New York.

He should have told her. He should have listened to her. And yet, somehow, he hadn't managed to – he had never had any secrets from her, but this he couldn't tell her. Only long after he had accepted the offer from Sydney, mere days before his scheduled departure he had dared to.

Even then, he had barely been able to tell her. They had sat on the armchairs in the parlour, opposite each other. It had taken him half an hour to explain the basic facts only. Stoically she had listened as he broke her world apart.

Perhaps he could have seen it if he had found the strength to look her in the eye.

Once he had been finished, she had gone up to her room. I need a moment for myself, she had said. He had nodded silently (but one word!) and gone to the music room, trying to manage something on the piano. He hadn't gone downstairs to bid her goodbye, embrace her one last time. He could only watch her leave through the windows, carrying a holdall with some clothes, to spend the week at a friend's.

He had not even tried to call her afterwards. He had not even tried to leave a note or letter of some sorts.

He had been too ashamed.

I hope you don't mind, he had said at the end of his speech. Stupid. Incredibly ridiculous. Of course she had minded – anything would have been better than this.

I am sorry.

I should have talked to you about this.

I love you.

Let's pretend this never happened.

The ENO is showing TheMikado tonight. Want to come?

Anything would have been better than what he had said.

He had thought a lot about her in Australia. She had featured prominently in a few bizarre nightmares, the first ones he had had since he'd turned eight. He had ascribed them to some more post-modernist Regietheater productions.

Guilt.

He had tried to write her, more than once – but in the end, it had not even been enough for a text message. Whenever his thumb had hovered over the “send” button, he hadn't been able to bring himself to actually do it. After all, what could he say to her? There could be no forgiveness as long as he was on the other side of the world, as long as he revelled in the spotlights.

The time had come where tried to appease himself. Again and again he told himself that Nunnally, his beloved, strong Nunnally, would surely have already moved on and forgotten about him.

It wasn't a very convincing argument – mainly because he didn't want to believe in it.

And therefore, to answer just that question, he had promptly went for it when Dame Ceciniah had casually played with the thought of getting the Lamperouge siblings together, if but for a night.

The question of whether Nunnally would agree to it had never arisen, leading him to suspect that Dame Ceciniah had talked with her about it beforehand. Which would mean she had merely implanted that idea into his mind …

And now, this. Three awful acts. A horrible intermission. He had truly spared no opportunity to hurt his sisters …

But then had come the fourth act, and the most sublime. With it had come what he had thought to be forgiveness – she hadn't smiled at him. But just that, that she had not managed to smile, had made it clear to him that her returning his embrace was more than just an act. He had been so certain in his bliss, certain that, as the Countess had forgiven the Count, so Nunnally had forgiven him …

Live wasn't an opera.

And if it was, it couldn't be further from Mozart – how could anyone think Figaro was closer to reality than, say, Carmen or Traviata? Because, if you once went wrong in life …

You could never go back to change it. Every single choice we make, every thoughtless word we say, every word we fail to say, makes it mark and can never be erased.

What does that lead to? It means that life ultimately ends in tragedy, in one way or another, because – while they might be well-intentioned – humans are fools.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. It was he and he alone who was the fool. He could have changed it, could have told her about it –

He could have declined the offer from Australia. He could have stayed at home the evening the call had come; he could have gone to see a film instead of Götterdämmerung. He could have taken Nunnally out for dinner before he had decided; he could have cancelled his flight to wait for her.

He'd had many chances to evade this fate, far too many.

He would take whatever chance was offered to him now.

Furiously, Lelouch stormed out of his dressing room, still in waistcoat and breeches. He hurried over to where he remembered had been her room back then and found it empty, though still obviously hers, judging by the black wedding gown thrown over a chair. Had she already left?

Where could she be at this time? Knowing Dame Ceciniah, there would be no sort of after-show event, and anyway Nunnally hadn't looked like partying. Which left the chance of her leaving early –

Lelouch ran back out of the dressing room, then turned left, hastened past some surprised costume designers, then descended a long staircase to ground level, taking three steps at once.

He took a moment to orientate, then followed the dull hallway he knew led to the piazza. He passed the rehearsal hall of the Royal Ballet (he thought he'd seen Kallen through the open doors – cross that bridge when we come to it), then finally reached the back entrance. He saw the door close, and for a moment was certain he had seen a young woman in a cream-coloured sweater step through it.

Heavily breathing, he opened it and stepped outside into the rain.

It was pouring and somewhat chilly. Typical London autumn. Covent Garden piazza was deserted and dark, the popular tourist spots only illuminated by the headlights of some passing cars.

Lelouch looked around, searching for Nunnally – the woman in the cream-coloured sweater. It took him a moment – but yes, there she was. It was undoubtedly Nunnally.

She stood on the pavement a dozen metres or so away, a waiting cab before her. She was struggling with her umbrella.

He called out for her, but she didn't seem to hear him over the rain. Without another thought, he stumbled down the few steps to ground level and ran towards her as she finally got in the cab. He stopped by the cab, held the door open and, heavily breathing, slipped inside beside her.

The cabbie gave him an odd look. Lelouch first looked at himself – he was still in late 18th century period dress, though soaked by now – then at Nunnally.

She silently turned to look out of the window.

Lelouch closed the door and told the cabbie the address of their childhood home.

As they left Covent Garden, he watched Nunnally looking out of the window. Her eyes were dull and empty.

He didn't know what to say.

He said: “Nunnally …”

She made no reply and he shut his stupid mouth.

Lelouch averted his gaze, gulped. This was going worse than he had thought.

He had to say something, had to apologise – which would be far better than nothing. He couldn't just … just what.

Anything was better than saying nothing.

He had nothing to lose.

He said – he sang … “Comtessa, perdono … perdono, perdono …

His voice was breaking.

Nunnally slowly turned to look at him, expressionless. He stared back, once more silently asking for – for forgiveness.

“For what?,” she then tonelessly asked.

“For … for everything,” he admitted after a pause. “I am sorry. I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. I … I've been a fool. I should have told you! I … should have stayed.”

Again he broke off. Nunnally didn't reply, but he had seen the signs of her approaching panic.

“I … please believe me,” he thus quickly said. “I … I love you, Nunnally. You are the single most important person in my life. Always have been.”

That almost caused a bitter twitching of her lips. “And I suppose,” she said, her voice deadly conversational, “that is why you left.”

He opened his mouth. He closed it again.

What was he to say? How could he convince her, win her back?

“I have no excuse for that,” he quietly said. “I have no excuse for anything. And … I know that I do not deserve your forgiveness. I … I guess I have hurt you …”

Lelouch hesitated. Took a deep breath. Took her hand. “I wish I had never left you,” he quietly said. “Please believe me that. And … I beg you for your forgiveness. I ask you for … no less than a second chance. Please, allow me to redeem myself. To go back to …”

Pause.

“I'm sorry. I know we can probably never go back to how it was before, but … I really enjoyed singing with you. To be honest, I … I left because I was afraid. It was stupid, I know. I heard you sing every day, and … I was afraid because I knew that you were better than me …”

Once more he broke off. What was that –

Nunnally was shivering. Again she turned away from him. Were those … tears? “How can you do that?,” she tonelessly asked, her beautiful voice quivering. “Compare a baritone and a soprano. That's impossible …”

He took a moment to consider his reply. “I … I just knew,” he then admitted. He couldn't believe he was actually doing this – but then, he could just as well be honest. “I always loved your voice. Loved your singing. I would have given my own voice to hear you, if just for an evening. That's one thing … But I also saw what the others thought, and did. I saw that you by now received more, and more enthusiastic applause. That everyone adored you … I'm sorry. That must sound incredibly selfish …”

A bitter smile appeared on Nunnally's lips. “That is why you left me? Because your ego was hurt?”

“Yes. And that is why I'm sorry … Because I destroyed everything with it. To tell the truth, I … I was ashamed. So ashamed. I thought I had to leave, and yet I couldn't bear to tell you about it. I was afraid of seeing you hurt. I still am.”

She didn't reply. Silently, Lelouch continued to caress her hand.

They drove westwards, fighting their way through the still heavy traffic. The rain continued to pour down, providing a constant rhythm to drown out the sound of London. It was warm inside the cab.

Then, out of a sudden, Nunnally gave a light chuckle. Tears were still running down her cheeks. “How strange,” she said. Lelouch held his breath. “That … I suppose that is all I ever wanted you to say. That you enjoyed to hear me sing.”

“You … you never asked,” he quietly replied. “It was the most obvious thing in the world to me …”

No reply.

“Do you remember Glyndebourne?,” he finally asked. “The 2011 Figaro …”

Silently, she nodded.

“I … I wanted to repeat that. It was a wonderful experience, to me, at least. To hear you sing, to sing with you … I don't know why it was so special. We've sung together plenty of times before, after all … But … it just was. I wanted to go back to that night.”

Again, Nunnally slowly nodded. “We … we shared something special that night,” she quietly said. “I don't know what. Perhaps it was just … because you were there for me. Because you were watching me so closely, and smiling all the time. That … meant a lot to me.”

“I haven't forgotten,” he assured her. “And … though it's a lot to ask … please, give me a chance. Yet another chance. I have wasted so many, but I won't waste this one.”

Lelouch lowered his head to gently press a kiss on the back of Nunnally's hand. “Forgive me,” he silently mouthed.

Once again, there was no reply.

“I beg you, Nunnally,” he repeated, “forgive me. I want to sing with you … want to hear you sing. Let's stay together from now on.”

No reply.

“Let us go to Bayreuth together. Sing the Walküre together. Or not, if you rather wouldn't – how about this … let us go to Italy. Just go there. No singing. Let's just spend time together. I … I'll show you Venice. Florence. Rome. Whatever you want. Just … forgive me.”

No reply.

He sighed. “You can't …,” Lelouch quietly said. “I understand. But … even if you can't forgive me … I want to be with you again. Go back to before. Rewind everything.”

He let go of her hand.

Finally she broke her silence. “You're right,” she said. “I can't. I am not the Countess. I cannot forgive you. Too much has happened. Too much has been broken. If you break a vase, you can just throw it away and buy a new one … But you broke me. I love you, brother. But … I cannot forgive you.” Again, tears ran down her cheeks. “I would like to. I really would. Go back to before. Rewind … rewind everything to that wonderful night at Glyndebourne. Make you decline the offer. Or go with you, either is fine. But I can't … no one can. Neither you, nor me, nor anybody else. People aren't vases. That … that last year was so painful … I couldn't go back to before. It would hurt too much.”

“I don't understand,” he replied. “I know it's impossible. I know you can't forgive me. I know we can't think of it as a blank slate … But we can soothe each others' pain. We can take comfort in each others' song, and love, and presence. We can be everything we weren't back then. Tonight …”

Lelouch sighed, hesitated. “Tonight … the fourth act … was like back then at Glyndebourne to me. Absolute … bliss.”

When Nunnally finally replied, her voice was almost an octave higher when usual. “I … I don't know. In a way … I've enjoyed it, too. It was so sweet … the sweetest of illusions.” Pause. “The point is … brother … that I am afraid.”

There was another long moment of silence.

“Do not be,” he then whispered. “Oh, please don't be … For I will never, ever abandon you again. Let me swear that and stay true to my oath. You are everything to me. I will bear whatever burden you wish to give me, just … I cannot bear to see you hurt.”

“I can't,” she replied. “I can't …”

“You said you weren't the Countess … And no, you aren't. You … to me … are far more than that. You are an angel. You cannot forgive me, and I am prepared to do that. But … you can give me another chance. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just … say yes or no.”

She didn't say yes.

But she didn't say no.

What she did say was: “I … I am tired. So tired. To get you here … to talk to you … I think I used my last reserves to do that. I had to clarify things before I would be unable to. I had to see you again, even if it would hurt me. And hurt it did. Once I saw you at the airport … I relived that time again. Hear you announce to me that you'd abandon me. And then … when I finally dared to come home again, weeks later … the house was dead without you. Horrible. Full of sweet old memories that could do nothing but hurt … I thought about selling it, you know. Dame Ceciniah convinced me not to. It got better … it helped to go into your room. Imagine you were still there. Imagine you weren't a monster. You aren't, but you were … Helped me cry. I am tired indeed.”

She said: “I can no longer run.”

She said: “I can no longer cry.”

Slowly, the cab halted. The rain was still pouring down. The night was dark, the streets in this area deserted.

For a moment they just sat there, in the back seat. It was dark, but Lelouch could still perfectly recognise the area around his … his home.

Nunnally closed her eyes. “You will need a change of clothes,” she said.

“Yes.”

“And a place to stay at for the night. You probably don't want to go back to your hotel at this time of night.”

There was a long pause.

“I don't mind,” she then whispered. “I suppose that'd be nice.”

They silently got out the cab. Lelouch paid the driver. They stood in the pouring rain, looking up at the façade of the house. “It's just like always,” Lelouch quietly noted.

Nunnally nodded. “Remember? Back then … when we were kids … you used to sing me to sleep …”

A melancholic smile slid onto his face. “Yes … I remember.”

“Lelouch?”

“Yes?”

“Would you …”

She didn't need to finish that sentence. She broke off.

“I'd like that.”