It had come at last. The decisive battle. The turning point when Zero's rebellion either crumbled to pieces or became a full-out world war. The fight for the future of Area 11, and then the rest of the world.
And both Lelouch and Suzaku were missing it.
"Has it really been eight years?" Lelouch wondered aloud to himself as he climbed the steps up to the Kururugi shrine. "Eight years since that summer… eight years since you became the first and only real friend I ever made."
The sounds of the birds and the wind in the trees and the running water were familiar, as were the scents that accompanied them. It was summer, and Lelouch's memories of the Kururugi shrine were all summer memories.
He paused at the seventh last step, as the top of Suzaku's head came into view.
He'd come. He'd kept his promise. Lelouch had known that he would, but it was still reassuring to see it proven.
"You came alone?" Suzaku asked as soon as Lelouch stopped in front of him.
Lelouch carefully didn't roll his eyes. There was no one who could hide from Suzaku's sharp senses. "I said I would."
"You have a lot of nerve coming here."
Lelouch almost repeated 'I said I would', as if that was the only answer he needed. But he didn't; it wasn't his aim here to alienate Suzaku. "According to this situation, there were thirty-one secure routes I could have taken–"
"That's not what I meant, Lelouch."
Lelouch closed his mouth with an audible snap. It seemed that he could alienate Suzaku just fine without trying.
Suzaku continued, his voice growing harder and hotter as he spoke, his left hand fisting around a small object he was carrying. "Showing your face in front of me was what took nerve." Lelouch flinched, but Suzaku didn't stop there. "You promised? Why should I believe any promises you make?"
"Then why did you come?" Lelouch demanded in return. "After what you did, the lies you told, your betrayals?"
"Because I'm fed up with lying," Suzaku retorted. "I've had to lie to Nunnally, just like you, and it's the worst thing. And still you can speak of betrayal when you betrayed us all, from the very beginning?" Lelouch opened his mouth to protest, that he'd never meant to betray anyone, but Suzaku didn't let him. "Not just me and Nunnally, everyone on the student council, Kallen and Shirley, and…" Suzaku's left hand flew up, brandishing Euphemia's pendant like a ward against evil. "And don't forget Euphy!"
Lelouch hadn't. From the moment he'd realized she was in Japan until the moment his father had stolen his memories, Lelouch hadn't forgotten Euphemia for a single second.
"Did you use geass on her?" Suzaku asked, his voice still trembling slightly.
"Yes." Lelouch looked away.
"You forced her to massacre the Japanese?"
"I ordered it done."
"Why?" Suzaku demanded, sounding like at once as if his heart was breaking again, and as if he might lose it and lash out in his rage. "Why would you do that?"
Lelouch swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. He'd never promised to only tell the truth, and there was no way Suzaku would ever believe what had actually happened, but it was harder than he'd expected to lie about this. "To motivate the Japanese. If the Specially Administrated Zone of Japan worked, my rebellion would be over."
He'd expected a punch. Instead, Suzaku calmed down to an almost frightening chill, similar to the cool rage when he'd first found out about Lelouch being Zero. "And Shirley's death?"
"My doing as well." Or close enough. He was as responsible for Shirley's death as if he'd pulled the trigger himself.
"You're not even human," Suzaku said, his voice heavy with disgust, his eyes shiny with unshed tears. "Playing games with lives, taking two of the most wonderful people in the world and using them as mere pawns…"
"Like Schneizel's using Nunnally!" Lelouch said, jumping in at the chance to turn the conversation back to the reason they were here. "All that wrongdoing, all those sins, are mine. Nunnally has nothing to do with it, and she's–" Lelouch felt his throat close with fear at the thought of Nunnally being used against him, even more directly than she had been.
"You coward!" Suzaku snapped. "Using Nunnally as an excuse…"
Lelouch went to his knees, lowering himself in front of Suzaku. The unexpectedness of the move seemed to shock Suzaku into silence, and Lelouch took the opportunity to say something that had festered inside his heart from the moment that he'd first realized it had been Suzaku in that white Knightmare.
Suzaku couldn't believe his ears. Lelouch had admitted to killing Shirley, to causing Euphemia's madness, to masterminding all the pain and suffering that Suzaku had tried so hard to prevent, and he was sorry?
It wasn't enough. It couldn't be enough.
"This is the first time in my life that I've bowed down to another person," Lelouch said. Indeed, he looked awkward on his knees. "I've lost all sense of pride or fear of shame. All I want is this, geass be damned, just save Nunnally! I'm begging you, Suzaku, please–"
Suzaku slammed his foot down on the back of Lelouch's head, grinding his face down into the pebbly ground. "Begging, Lelouch? You think that after everything you've done, that'll make up for it? That just asking for forgiveness means you'll be forgiven?"
"No, of course I don't, but it's all I can do," Lelouch mumbled into the rocks, his voice muffled by dirt and gravel, sounding oddly pitiable but still determined to get his own way. "You're the only one who can save Nunnally!"
"So I should just ignore the past and forgive you? Me and every one else – the people you've tricked, the people who've died thanks to you! What about Euphy? D'you want to make up for everything, Lelouch? Then bring her back. Bring Euphy back and prove that you, with all your selfishness and malice, can save the world!" Suzaku pressed down harder, until he could almost feel Lelouch's skull about to give. "You're Zero, the Miracle Worker, aren't you?"
Lelouch gasped in pain and spat thickly against the ground. "No miracles. Just strategy and stage production. Zero is a mask, a symbol; just a tool to tell lies."
"More excuses," Suzaku snapped, lifting his foot off Lelouch's head so he could drop to his knees and yank Lelouch up to look him in the eye. "If you're going to tell lies, then have the courage to tell them right up 'till the end!"
Lelouch's face was bloody and already bruising. He'd always had delicate skin. But his eyes fixed on Suzaku's without any trace of pain, as if there wasn't any room for something as unimportant as pain between the sorrow and regret and fear shining from them. "I can't return to the past," Lelouch said desperately. "I can't undo what's already been done."
It was nothing more than the truth. And that, coupled with the desperate grief in Lelouch's eyes, made Suzaku even more furious. He tossed Lelouch onto his back and stood, looking over him. "Why did you cast your geass on me, to make me live?" He hadn't been able to follow Euphemia, or to atone for the lives he'd taken, or even to just leave this intolerable conflict behind. "It's corrupted my principles, turned me into this. Why?"
"To survive," Lelouch said dully.
"And why did you save me when I was accused of Prince Clovis's murder?"
"So the Japanese would trust me."
"And saving everyone from the hotel hijacking?"
"A dramatic Black Knights' debut."
Suzaku couldn't hide from it anymore. Lelouch should have looked resentful, proud; hurting but taking a cold satisfaction from his pain. Instead he looked like he was mired in regret, his eyes covered by the dull sheen that came from living a lie and having to hide his true self from everyone. Suzaku had seen that look before, in the mirror when he'd been a private in the Britannian army, hiding from his father's death. But Lelouch wasn't hiding from Zero. He was still carrying that burden.
He was hiding from something else, something Suzaku probably couldn't even understand.
"You can't run away from your lies," Suzaku said. He'd never felt freer than after Lelouch had found out about Suzaku murdering his father. After telling Kallen, and Euphemia. It had hurt but, for a while, Suzaku hadn't felt like he was living a lie. "There's only one thing you can do to redeem yourself for those lies." Lelouch couldn't come clean about being Zero. It was too dangerous, for him and for Nunnally. "You lied when you said you were a Knight of Justice. So now you have to become a true Knight of Justice. Make your lies real, Lelouch, keep them until the very end, and then you can start atoning for all the things you've done."
"Stop this war." Suzaku knelt down beside Lelouch. "You're Zero, and this is a job only Zero can do. Bring peace and happiness to the world, and I'll do my part. I'll save Nunnally."
Lelouch looked up at him, his eyes lighting with a glimmer of hope. "You'll save her?"
Suzaku reached out to him. "Let's work together, Lelouch, one last time. For her sake."
Lelouch tentatively held out his hand towards Suzaku's. "The two of us together…"
Their hands joined and Suzaku pulled Lelouch up. "Can accomplish anything."
It felt surreal, being beside Suzaku without the distracting tendrils of fear, all their lies out in the open.
Well. Most of their lies. Lelouch winced to himself as he thought of all the contingency plans he'd put into place; Rolo, the geass he'd used on Guilford, the automatic message that would be sent out to Kaguya, Toudou, and Xing-ke in four hours if he didn't stop it.
But most lies were out in the open. And that felt good. Lelouch had to admit that when he and Suzaku worked together, towards a common goal, their strengths made up for the other's weaknesses, a true partnership, with no one commanding or controlling anyone else, real equality.
"I need you to get me… to get Zero to Schneizel."
Suzaku frowned. "Why?"
…on the other hand, sometimes it would have been nice to just have his orders followed.
Some of his irritation must have shown, because Suzaku's hackles immediately shot up. "You don't need Prince Schneizel. Just pull your troops out and the war'll be over."
"The battle will be over," Lelouch corrected, "not the war. You made me promise to deliver peace and happiness, Suzaku. How happy do you think your fellow Elevens are being ruled over by Britannia?"
"Not very," Suzaku conceded. "How happy d'you think they'd be dead?"
Lelouch took a deep breath. "That's not the point. The point is that I can't just give up and leave everything the way it was. No one would be satisfied with that."
"The last time I let you alone with one of your half-siblings, thousands of people died."
"I have control now," Lelouch said. "What happened with Euphy won't happen again."
Suzaku hesitated, clearly weighing the risks and benefits, and then nodded slowly. "Alright, I won't leave you alone with him, but I'll take you to Prince Schneizel. I'm trusting you, Lelouch."
"That was the deal," Lelouch retorted, refusing to admit how relieved he was at Suzaku, even half-hearted, trust.
Suzaku had taken a small transport rather than the rather less subtle Lancelot. Lelouch settled into the co-pilot seat as Suzaku started up the launch protocol. The Kururugi shrine was far enough away from active airfields that during a battle no air traffic controller would pay them any mind. Still, Suzaku went through all the motions, methodically following the rules.
It brought a fond smile to Lelouch's face, despite himself.
After taking off, Suzaku shot Lelouch a look out of the corner of his eye. "What?"
Lelouch realized he was still smiling. He schooled his face into a more appropriate expression. "Nothing."
Suzaku still looked suspicious, but he let it go. Lelouch leaned back and closed his eyes, bracing himself for dealing with Schneizel. He had the advantage of surprise, especially if Charles had hidden Lelouch's existence from Schneizel as well as from the rest of their siblings. But Schneizel had the advantage of being surrounded by his own men, while Lelouch only (barely) had Suzaku.
There were only a few scenarios that would end in Lelouch's favour, and they all had one thing in common.
Lelouch flinched at Suzaku's innocently curious question. "Yes?"
"D'you think we can really do this?" He sounded uncertain, but there was a darker undercurrent in his voice, of suspicion and doubt. "I mean… we're… you've pretty much pulled us to the brink."
Lelouch breathed out a sigh of relief. It was just like Suzaku to ensure that the blame rested on Lelouch's shoulders, but as long as he was dwelling on that…
"It's possible," Lelouch answered. "Not easy. But getting us here wasn't easy either."
Suzaku shot him a look, and Lelouch met his gaze evenly. It hadn't been easy, or without cost. Just because Suzaku didn't like the outcome, didn't mean that it hadn't taken effort.
"But you can do it," Suzaku said, looking away. It wasn't a question. It was a demand.
Lelouch smiled. "I can do it." As long as Suzaku remained focused on his resentment of Lelouch, and on the end goal, and didn't overthink the means.
Because Lelouch had no idea how to keep his promises if Suzaku clued into Lelouch's methods for getting them where they were, and forbid Lelouch from using them.
Stopping the imminent world war and freeing Japan would be hard enough as it was. If Lelouch couldn't use his geass, especially against Schneizel, they had no chance.
Suzaku landed on the deck of the Avalon, keeping his eyes on the controls to avoid looking at Lelouch.
It wasn't that he was having second thoughts, exactly. There was something about teaming up with Lelouch that seemed completely right, almost necessary.
And, of course, it had been Nunnally who had brought them together. That seemed right too.
But there was too much between them. Euphemia and Shirley, Japan and Britannia, all the people who had died because of Zero and all the people Suzaku had killed as a soldier and then as a knight. Suzaku wanted to trust Lelouch, but there had been so many lies between them. And he desperately wanted Lelouch to trust him, but Suzaku was just as guilty of lying as Lelouch was.
"Knight of Seven, you're cleared."
"Thank you," Suzaku said, turning off the radio and power. There was no more avoiding it. He turned towards Lelouch.
Who was looking down at his pants. "Hmm…"
Lelouch looked up. "I don't suppose you have something that would stand out less than this?" he asked. "Some lower-ranking grunt's uniform?"
"Ah." Suzaku immediately felt like an idiot; as he'd been dwelling on the past, Lelouch had been planning their future. He hadn't even thought about how it would look for him to come back with a school boy. "I think there are some extra flight suits somewhere in here… I'll try to find one that fits."
He rummaged through the supply closet and tried to focus on the here and now. Lelouch's past betrayals were something to keep in mind, always, but they couldn't stop Suzaku from doing what was needed out of an unjustified sense of suspicion.
"Here." Suzaku turned and handed Lelouch a grey mechanic's uniform. "This should be about your si–"
Lelouch was standing in his undershirt, his briefs, and his socks. Sure, he'd have had to change clothes, but Suzaku really hadn't expected to turn around to see him standing brazenly half-naked. This was a far cry from the prudish, sensitive child Suzaku had met eight years ago.
Although the nose wrinkle at the scrubby clothes was the same.
"This is still going to stand out when we're not in the hanger."
Or maybe it wasn't at the clothes. Lelouch always did think five or six moves ahead. "It should be fine, as long as you're with me. Everyone knows I care more about my Knightmare than anything else."
Lelouch looked up at him then, for the first time since they'd landed, and his eyes were soft with… pity? Suzaku flushed. "Don't look like that. It's not like–"
"It's not like you haven't had any friends or allies, anyone who understood what you'd gone through, someone you could trust and rely on?" Lelouch asked gently, that pitying (sympathetic?) look still in his eyes. "It's not as if the only certainty in your life was your ability to fight for a cause you didn't even believe in, just so you could fight against me?"
"Don't be so self-centered," Suzaku said, utterly disgruntled. "It wasn't you I missed, it was Euphy. And I did have people I trusted; Lloyd and Cecile, and Gino and Anya…"
"Then why aren't they here?" Lelouch asked, dressing in the silence that followed his question.
Suzaku didn't tell him that the last thing he wanted was for either Gino or Anya to get mixed up in this. He wasn't sure what Lelouch ultimately had planned, but he was sure that, somewhere along the lines, rules would be broken. He was more than willing to sacrifice his career (since he couldn't sacrifice his life anymore) for peace. He wasn't willing to sacrifice his friends'.
"Alright," Lelouch said when he was dressed, breaking the silence. "I'm ready. Bring me to Schneizel."
Suzaku looked him over. Lelouch made a thoroughly unconvincing mechanic; far too clean, with soft hands and long nails, carrying himself with the wrong kind of poise.
But likely no one would be looking him over as closely as Suzaku was. "Right. The bridge is towards the bow, and Schneizel's office is down there. We'll grab a folder or something so it looks like you're working."
Lelouch smiled. "Good idea."
For a long moment, Suzaku preened under the praise before leading the way.
The Avalon was laid out like any other Britannian airship, and by the time they reached the hallway to the bridge, Lelouch felt sure he could navigate on his own if he needed to.
Not, he kept reminding himself, that he'd ever need to. Not while he and Suzaku were allied.
He had to keep reminding himself that this was a true alliance. He had taken Suzaku's hand in genuine fellow-feeling, and Suzaku wasn't the sort to use and manipulate people. This wasn't some kind of trap. It couldn't be. Not from Suzaku, and not using Nunnally and Euphemia as bait.
But the closer they got to Schneizel, the more nervous Lelouch became. He'd never matched Schneizel one-on-one when they'd been princes together, no matter how many times he'd tried. Of all his siblings, of all the people Lelouch had met and dealt with, Schneizel was the one person who Lelouch had never bested.
And if Suzaku changed his mind and decided that he didn't trust Lelouch to keep his promise after all…
"You okay?" Suzaku asked softly, sounding genuinely concerned.
Lelouch shook his head. "I always thought that when I finally confronted Schneizel it would be as Zero. I feel naked."
Suzaku made a sound that was half-snort, half-swallowed laugh, and Lelouch turned to glare at him. But the way Suzaku's eyes twinkled, like a mischievous teenager's, making Suzaku look no more than his age, quickly took the edge off Lelouch's irritation.
"Sorry, just the image of you standing in front of Prince Schneizel… naked…"
"Yes, I get it, Suzaku," Lelouch said dryly, but he had to admit his nerves had settled somewhat. "Can we just get this over with?"
Suzaku sobered up (mostly, his lips were still twitching) and nodded as they stopped in front of one of the cabin doors. Suzaku knocked. "Prince Schneizel?"
"Come in, Sir Kururugi."
That wasn't Schneizel's voice. Lelouch must have tensed, because Suzaku glanced over at him, looking concerned before his expression cleared. "That's just Kanon. He's Schneizel's aide."
Lelouch nodded and tried not to bristle at the thought that he was that easy to read. He took a deep breath and centered himself; this would be hard enough without exposing his confusion and nervousness so that even Suzaku could read them.
"Ready?" Suzaku asked softly. Lelouch nodded and Suzaku opened the door and stepped through, leaving Lelouch to follow in his wake.
Kanon was a slim man who radiated elegance and competence. Lelouch had some vague memories of him from when he'd played chess against Schneizel in China. He hadn't made much of an impression then, although that could have been entirely purposeful. He carried the poise of the well-trained minor nobility, born lackeys and, at their best and brightest, an extra pair of eyes and ears for their more noble masters. His eyes glossed over Lelouch, uninterested, and came to rest on Suzaku impassively with just a hint of amusement. Lelouch hated him on sight.
But as easily as Kanon had dismissed Lelouch, Lelouch dismissed him in favour of assessing his brother. He'd seen Schneizel on various news and interview shows since his successes with the EU negotiations, and in person during the chess match that neither of them could claim to have won. But that had been when Lelouch was Zero. This would be the first time he'd confront Schneizel as himself, with no masks or lies to protect him.
It was necessary, but for a moment Lelouch hated Suzaku for making this happen.
Schneizel, unlike Kanon, was visibly curious about Suzaku's companion, although he still addressed Suzaku. "Are you here to explain why you went missing during a battle, Knight of Seven?"
Suzaku, to his credit, didn't back down. "I had other priorities, Your Highness. And I would remind you that, although you have taken over the defence of Area 11, as a Knight of the Round I answer to no one but the Emperor."
Rather than take offense, Schneizel hummed softly in agreement. "Then what brings you here, Sir Kururugi?"
Suzaku stepped back and looked at Lelouch. His eyes were hard and determined, his jaw set. "Go on." Lelouch swallowed hard, feeling surrounded by enemies, realizing that Suzaku would only support him as long as he was convinced that Lelouch was following their plans, that the trust that Lelouch had hoped for was still a long way away.
And yet, there was only one way to earn that trust.
Lelouch stepped forwards, meeting Schneizel's curious gaze.
"It's been a long time, Schneizel."
Schneizel hesitated a moment, his eyes narrowing before he clearly came to some kind of conclusion. "Nearly a decade. You've grown well, Lelouch."