Prologue: The Place Known As The Present

Sometimes, memories I don't like to recall become lost in the dark currents swirling in my mind, and I'm no longer able to catch hold of them, look at them, confirm their contents, or accept their existence. I don't remember stabbing my father, the Souri-Daijin of Japan before it became Area Eleven. I only vaguely remember when Euphie died; it's all blurry in my mind, and hopelessly mixed up with the nightmares that closely followed the events of that bloody day. I don't remember the battle above Tokyo where Lelucia's curse forced me to fire the FLEIJA warhead on the people of my own country. Human memory is awfully convenient, you must be thinking. People forget the painful parts of life. Yet that's not always true. There's a clear exception in my own life. Significant memories involving the presence of Lelucia, whether painful, frustrating, sickening, or joyous, remain ever clear in my mind.

That's why I can close my eyes at any time and see the day when I stabbed the World Empress Lelucia vi Britannia. See, she sits atop a throne on an open vehicle at the center of the parade of troops and Knightmares. She looks as cold and relaxed as her half-sister Cornelia—no, colder. There is almost no trace of the light of humanity left in the Empress' brilliant violet eyes. Over her slender body, with its soft, pale skin, she wears a dazzling gown of white with gold trimming. I know her better than anyone, but not even I can tell what she might be feeling as she contemplates the painful experience she is about to undertake. As I ready myself for the task, donning Zero's black cloak, I can hear the frightened and frustrated murmurs of the crowd. I can feel the September sun, quickly making my disguise uncomfortably warm. I can smell the smoke from old-timey rifles fired in a salute of allegiance. I taste blood because I bit my lip while thinking about the duty before me.

Every detail is vibrant: the way I make my entrance, with Zero's cape caught up in the wind and flowing out behind me; the adrenaline pumping through my athletic body as I run at nearly super-human speed, easily dodging the gunshots of the royal guard, which were poorly aimed on purpose; and the gasping from the crowd as I leap onto the Empress' vehicle, dash up the slope to her platform, and ready my sword. Lelucia is a marvelous actress; she looks both terrified and enraged as I approach. When she attempts to draw her gun, I disarm her flawlessly. Brandishing my sword, I hesitate for just a fraction of a second—and she shows a knowing smile—before I lunge forward and drive the long, cruel blade through the Empress' thin body.

Her eyes go wide as the blade comes out the other side of her body, through her back. Lelucia doesn't make a sound. She swoons, almost falling, but catching herself on me. The Empress clings to my body as her marvelous white-and-gold attire changes to deep crimson with the blood she is speedily losing. And as her elegant but bloody hands grasp the mask over my head, we exchange a few words. These also, I remember in exacting detail.

"This, too, is your punishment," she whispers. "Forced to keep living, you will wear a mask and continue to act as an ally of justice. You won't be allowed to live as Kururugi Suzaku. You'll give everything you have for the happiness of the world, for all eternity. It is a cruel Geass, a painful prayer, which I place upon you now."

Under my mask, tears are flowing from my eyes. I can taste salt as well as blood. I know the words I'm supposed to say: "This Geass I do accept." But I can't say those words. There's a lump in my throat. If I speak, it will show without a doubt that I am weeping. And I'm not willing to accept the fate that my Empress describes. So I tell her in my quaking voice,

"Let me save a little of myself to keep from the world. That little bit belongs to you, and you alone, for as long as we live. And both of us shall live, Lelucia. This is not the end."

"Typical Suzaku." The Empress tries to chuckle, but can only gasp in pain before shakily continuing. "You've always been so selfish, deep down, at heart. I've made you go through with stabbing me. We've made a show of it. But of course, you don't intend to let me die peacefully here."

"That's right." The tears have stopped and my voice is like stone. "I forbid you to die. As planned, I'll take you away with me in the chaos that will follow. The body double is prepared. The medics I hired in secret lie in wait at our secret location. Now, Lelucia, finish this noble play. Go say goodbye to Nunnaru."

With that, I pull the sword out of my lover's body and swing it once to scatter the blood, just for show. Lelucia falls forward and slides down the incline to the base of the vehicle, leaving a trail of blood behind her. There below the platform, the Empress' little brother Nunnaru is waiting, wearing only a light, loose, bright red kimono, along with the black chains holding him in place. The young boy would have every right to hate the Empress after all she had done to the world, and after she had put her own little brother on display like a trophy. But as I watch, Nunnaru exchanges a few words with Lelucia and begins to cry piteously when she passes out. That's Nunnaru for you: even now, he loves his big sister.

As I think back and remember that day, I'm sitting by the bedside where Lelucia sleeps, her top half bare except for the bandages covering the wound in the center of her chest, between her modest but beautiful breasts. Two weeks have passed since the day the Empress "died." I took her to a safe-house in a small Britannian town near the crater that had once been the country's capital, Pendragon. Nobody would expect to find us here. I'm still expected to play the role of Zero for the world, and I've been constantly caught up in the political chaos of the major countries trying to decide what will happen now that the Demon Empress is "dead." It sounds like Nunnaru will become the hundredth ruler of Britannia, while the other countries will self-govern again, and both will rely solely on the Black Knights as the enforcers of justice, rather than forming their own armies or weapons.

Trying to set the world to rights has taken up most of my time. This is the first time I've gotten the chance to come and see Lelucia since I first brought her here two weeks ago. I'm relieved beyond words to see that she's healing up so well. Privately, I wish blessings on Nunnaru, who was the one who gave me a few days off and ordered that nobody interfere with me. He knows that I, Suzaku, am playing the role of Zero, but he remains in the dark regarding the fact that the Demon Empress is still alive and under my watch. I can still hardly believe it all worked out. There were a few close calls. Kallen almost followed me here, but I managed to shake her off. Lelucia almost died from blood loss, but I helped save her with a transfusion using my own blood.

Staying in the safe-house with Lelucia and I are the three helpers who made our escape together possible: Doctor Rupert Evans, Sayoko Shinozaki, and the former Lloyd Asplundh. Evans-sensei used to be the personal physician of Lelucia and Nunnaru when they were still treated as royalty in their homeland more than 8 years ago, and possesses an undying loyalty to the children of Lady Marianne. It's thanks to him that Lelucia lived despite such a serious wound and having lost so much blood. Miss Sayoko has been part of our plan almost from the beginning, and I believe her loyalty is also unquestionable.

As for Lloyd, he helped us by supplying funds, installing a security system in the safe-house, and supporting my cover-story when we are questioned by political leaders or the public. (Our cover story so far is that Zero has gone with Lloyd to see some of his tests and experiments with new technology. Even if somebody finds out I'm staying at this particular safe-house, Lloyd will be with me and we'll simply tell everyone that this is a private outpost where he conducts experiments.) To be honest, I cannot find it in me to trust completely in the former Earl. After all, he was never particularly loyal to anyone. If anyone spills our secret, it's likely to be him. If the slightest of clues suggest to me that he has betrayed my secret plan, I will have no choice but to kill Lloyd Asplundh.

"Suzaku? Is that really you, Suzaku?"

The voice is weak and faint, not at all what I had expected to hear from Lelucia at this point in her recovery. She sits up in her bed, with her short, black hair spiky and unruly. She's lost some weight and looks almost alarmingly thin, but a smile settles on her face wan, weary face. When the gaze of her violet eyes rests on me, I feel alive again for the first time in two weeks. It's only natural for Lelucia to still be weak, I remind myself; even if she hadn't been so gravely wounded, she would have to start coming to terms with the fact that the world believed she was dead, and she would have no chance of seeing Nunnaru or Kallen or anyone else she loved, besides Sayoko, and course, me. That thought emboldens me. I take Lelucia's long, delicate right hand into both my own larger, darker, and rougher hands. I whisper her name, but I feel completely at a loss about what to say next.

"It's—it's really me," I stammer, lamely. "I'm… right here."

For just a second, the former Empress squeezes my hand, but the pulls hers away. "My, my, I'm not even wearing a hospital gown. This is embarrassing." So she says, but I can tell her voice is dripping with sarcasm. She has never been particularly modest; even shirtless, wearing only bandages and plain white panties, she's not the least bit ashamed. "Suzaku, how indecent of you to come into a lady's room while she is undressed and laid up in bed. It's not befitting of a knight of integrity."

"We both know that's not who I am," I answer, a bit stiffly. "I wouldn't claim to be knightly after all I've done. And you've got no business pretending to be a refined lady. You're not feminine at all."

"If I'm so unlike a woman," Lelucia asks pointedly, "why are you blushing like a fifteen year old virgin?"

"That's—it's not—I… ugn!" The truth of her words makes me angry. In turn, that anger only serves to redden my face further. "You're impossible, Lelucia."

The remark causes the dark-haired woman to laugh. It's not exactly a sweet or feminine laugh, but it's not her over-the-top "villain" laugh either; it's genuine. As she casually puts on the hospital gown left by the foot of her bed, Lelucia replies to me. "I don't plan to stop being incorrigible for your sake or anyone else's, for that matter. I'm a devil, to be sure, and it's impossible for normal people to put up with me. But you're not a normal person, Suzaku. You want to have me around. I've lost track of how many times you've saved my life. I hear it was a transfusion using your blood that allowed to me survive. But I'm sure keeping me alive is just your way of torturing me, right?"

I know she's not being completely serious, but she sounds just serious enough to tick me off. "I won't have you talking like that," I say, and though my tone is harsh, my green eyes are tearing up. I sit on the side of the bed, turn my upper body to face Lelucia, grab her shoulder, and force her to lie down again. I'm leaning over her with one hand supporting me, holding my upper body a few inches above hers. My other hand leaves her shoulder and starts stroking her black hair. I tell her what I'm thinking.

"I fooled the world into believing you are dead, and I agreed to play the new Zero, all so I could be together with you. The day I stabbed you was probably the hardest day of my life. Maybe harder than the day Euphie died. The plan all along was for you to secretly live, but I still had to stab you. There was always the chance that I would actually kill you. I was terrified." The emotion is strong in my voice, and a tear falls from my eye onto Lelucia's face. "So now that you're alive, and healing," I finish, "don't you dare say that living is like torture!"

To my surprise, Lelucia raises her head and quickly presses her soft lips against mine. The kiss is over in a second. I instantly find myself wanting more. But the woman I love gently puts a finger up to my mouth, telling me to let her speak. "I wasn't serious, Suzaku. In times like these, I'm reminded of how death is so dismally final, and so entirely empty. Even I, the conqueror of the world, am shaken to my roots by the terror and loneliness of being close to death. I can't honestly claim to want to die. Of course, part of me knows I'm not worthy of living after all I've done. But I have someone with me who understands those feelings perfectly. Perhaps life is indeed torture. It's much less painful, however, when you have that special person who understands you."

Giving Lelucia a kiss on the forehead, I withdraw, realizing she isn't well enough to fool around physically. I wipe my eyes to make sure there are no more tears, and I muster up a weak smile. "I understand you better than anyone in the world," I tell her. "We've been through so much together. There were times when I hated your guts. There are times I still do. But at the end of the day, I always think of you fondly. I want to be with you. I love you, Lelucia."

"My feelings are the same," the woman admits. "And we really have been through so much, hating and loving each other in equal parts. We were ten when we first met. Isn't that right? You were so cute and stubborn, back then."

Together, Lelucia and I reminisce about the past, laughing at the good parts, and reflecting quietly on the bad. Perhaps I'd better explain our story to you. The story of how we got to where we are today. The story of the many joys, loves, pains, sorrows, journeys, deaths, wars, victories, and losses that drove us together. Lelucia and I have been connected in some strange, fateful way ever since we met. We have been friends, rivals, enemies, classmates, traitors, co-conspirators, and lovers over the course of the last eight or nine years. Let us both tell you about our lives leading up to now, to this seemingly impossible place called the present, wherein we are finally together, happy to love one another.