"Struts and Frets"

Forty-three minutes into the quietest student council meeting Lelouch ever recalled bearing witness to, Rivalz slammed down his pencil, leveled a glare at each of the suddenly-raised heads, and announced,

"We have been working too hard."

Milly snorted when he grabbed his bag and squatted down by the VCR. "No," she corrected, "we've been working too hard while you've been no help at all."

Rivalz didn't even turn around towards her, didn't even look up, just flapped his hand at her impatiently. "It's midterms, and we've been going at planning this festival for two weeks straight, and we need a break."

"So, your response to having a lot to do is to do something else?" Kallen said. "That's, um..."

Milly smiled a smile that was mostly disgusted but also a little fond. "Stupid?"

This time Rivalz did look over his shoulder to grin at Milly. "I think you mean to say 'adorable and impudent,' President."

"Imprudent," Lelouch corrected in a mutter that he knew would carry just far enough.

This was enough to turn Rivalz' attention towards him. "Aw, c'mon, Lelouch. It's not as though you have to study, even."

"Well, no," Lelouch started, but Rivalz cut him off.

"So, you have time."

"I do have time. I'm simply wondering why it is that you think that I don't have other, better things to do with said time."

"Lelouch Lamperouge, ladies and gents," Rivalz jeered. "What about you, Suzaku?"

"I'm not doing so well in English, and the exam's tomorrow," Suzaku said, shaking his head. "I need the time to study. Don't want to get kicked out."

"Oh, come on, you have to be some sort of idiot not to do well in English," Rivalz snorted thoughtlessly. Immediately, he realized what he'd just said and snapped his mouth shut and looked a bit ill. Suzaku stared resolutely down at the piece of paper in front of him, Nina had her hands clenched in her lap, Shirley grimaced, and Milly pressed her lips together. Kallen wore a look of vague fury. No one spoke.

It was, of course, Milly who snapped them out of it. "So what is it?"

"Wh...Oh, yeah!" Rivalz laughed just a bit too loudly. "It's, uh, well, it's a game, a video game...but it's not going to be like that time I brought in Battle for Britannia IV, I promise, everyone's going to like this one," he called over Shirley and Milly's groans. "You get to be a rock star."

"A rock star?" Suzaku asked.

"Yeah, a, um, a famous musician," Rivalz replied - much more awkwardly than he would have not a minute before. "You have this guitar, see - " He held up a little electronic replica of a guitar with buttons on the frets and a few thick plastic wires stretched over the abbreviated body. "And you have to try to play it in time with the game, and it's really fun and pretty tough." He slung the guitar over his shoulder and did a tiny dance in place, fake-strumming the strings. "Anyone interested?"

"It sounds fun," Suzaku said.

Rivalz perked up. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, definitely," Suzaku said. "Is that all right, President? If I play? I'm done with my paperwork."

"Well," Milly said sweetly, "that's fine, though if I find so much as a single mistake, ohh, what terrible punishments await you." She winked. "Willing to risk it?"

Suzaku smiled a goofy grin. "I'm pretty confident."

"I like that in a man." Milly grinned right back.

"Say, say, I don't think you'll be able to beat me, Suzaku," Rivalz said broadly, but Milly had already turned back to her paperwork. He shook his head in what might or might not have been mocking despair.

"Okay, show me the controls."

Rivalz pressed the button to load up the game and hunched over the guitar. "See, you press the button here to coordinate it to what you see on the screen, and you strum the strings when it hits the target..." The rest of his explanation was drowned out by a particularly odious pop song blaring out of the television.

"Whoa, whoa!" bellowed Milly, barely audible over the noise.

"Sorryyyyy." Rivalz held the volume button until the game could reasonably be ignored, but the damage had been done: Milly advanced on him threateningly, her hands fixed firmly on her hips.

"If you don't want to do your work, that's fine; you'll get what's coming to you. But I don't want to see you distracting my good workers."

"I won't distract, I promise." He held out the guitar to her. "You wanna take the first game?" When Milly raised a scornful eyebrow, he all but pushed it into her arms. "They have 'Can't Get Enough of Me.'"

That scornful look turned into a grudging half-smile. "Wait, really? Well, so - what do you do? You play the..."

"The guitar part," Rivalz said. "They play the vocals and drum and everything, and you just play the guitar part. You'll pick it up fast."

"Hmm," Milly said, tilting her head slightly to the side and smiling. "Well. I suppose, but only because I like that song, and only because it'll be really fun to kick your butt."

"I dunno, President, I'm a pretty fearsome guitar warrior," Rivalz said, grinning an eager grin and beaming when she favored him with a laugh. "Okay, okay! Here, pass it back to me, let me get it all set up for you. Uh, Suzaku - " He turned towards the other boy with an apologetic grimace.

"I'll watch. I wouldn't dream of not letting the President go first," Suzaku laughed.

"Look at how well I've trained him, and so quickly," Milly giggled. She held out her arms with impatience. "Honestly, I don't have all day! Hurry it up."

"Well, first you gotta name your band, you know." Rivalz pointed to the screen, where there were two fake bands listed. "My brother, his band is 'Butter Battle,' which is a pretty super-lame name."

Milly looked at the screen with a lifted eyebrow. "Which I suppose means that 'The Black Knights' is your band?"

Rivalz nodded. "We're defenders of justice," he said cheerily, "and also rock."

(Fortunately, Lelouch was the only one looking at Kallen at that moment: she was actually so dumbfounded that her jaw was hanging open.)

"I see," Milly said, plainly amused. "A band name, hmm? Lelouch, you're up. Give me an obscure pretentious literary reference or something."

"I," Lelouch answered, "am trying to work, President."

"Yes, well, I've decided that this is far more important. I can find someone else, you know."

Lelouch sat back in his chair and thought a bit. "Well, as a symbol of our collective attention span as well as in honor of how short our lives will be after the equestrian club tramples us to death for not organizing this race, how about 'Brief Candle'?"

"'Brief Candle,'" Milly said, then nodded at Rivalz. "That'll do. Do dub the band, won't you?"

"Your wish is my command," Rivalz said, using the guitar to type in the letters.

Lelouch looked at the three of them - Milly and Rivalz by the television, Suzaku hanging slightly back - and shook his head. If they were all content getting nothing accomplished, that was fine. And if Suzaku wanted to fail his classes, then fine; he could hardly be held responsible for his friend's academic performance. At the same time... "And are you sure you have time to just be standing around, Suzaku?" he asked.

Suzaku looked over at him, a broad, heedless smile on his face. "Oh, it's fine. I'll only take a few minutes."

Lelouch shrugged. "Well, if it comes down to it, I'm not going to help you cheat."

"Not that a student council member would ever help someone cheat," Milly said, then made a little exclamation of delight as a songlist came up on the screen. "They do have it!"

"Well, that's okay," Suzaku said. "I wasn't counting on it, and...Oh, this song!" he cried as the opening chords played, turning away and leaving Lelouch just sitting there awkwardly. He had to take a moment to make a show of how little he cared about this.

"My, they're all so energetic," Kallen said with a faint, weak smile. For some reason it took just about all of Lelouch's willpower to keep from rolling his eyes at that, at her obvious fa├žade. So he turned back towards his papers and tried to ignore the shrieks and giggles from the three playing the game.

He'd finished his paperwork and was moving onto his homework by the time Milly was able to play "Can't Get Enough of Me" (and also "Hearts in Muscovy" and a few Lelouch didn't recognize) well enough that she passed the controller on to Suzaku. Lelouch deliberately didn't look up.

"Is it okay if I use your band, President?" Suzaku was asking as Lelouch turned his paper over with a crisp snap. "I like the name."

Lelouch snorted, but suddenly he couldn't quite maintain the sharp edge to his irritation.

"Be my guest," Milly replied.

"Let's see..." Lelouch did look up, then, to see Suzaku scrolling through the songs. Finally he stopped on "Sunrise Over Britannia," a popular song with notoriously indecipherable lyrics. Even Lelouch couldn't tell whether it had a political bent, but he disliked it on general principle.

"Oooh, that one's hard!" Rivalz said. "You might want to go for something else..."

"Oh, I'm used to making an idiot of myself," Suzaku said cheerily. "I don't think what song I choose will help with that."

"Nah, I bet you'll be good, Suzaku," Shirley piped up suddenly. Lelouch looked at her: he thought that she, at least, was on his side and irritated by this whole thing. She grinned heedlessly over at Lelouch, and then looked back at the screen.

"Oh, now the pressure's on," he laughed, selecting the song and taking a rock-star stance. There was a moment before the music kicked in, and Suzaku started pressing and plucking at the controller but missed just about every note. It was only a few moments before he was booed off the stage.

"See?" he laughed.

But Rivalz was shaking his head. "No, no, you hold the buttons on the top thing, on the little stripeys, the what're-they-called - "

"The frets," Lelouch said. Everyone turned to look at him, and he glared back at them until they looked away.

"Uh, yeah, the...You hold the buttons down while you're playing, see?"

"Ohhh." Suzaku braced himself once again and took a deep breath and picked the song again. The music started up, and carefully at first, then gradually with greater skill and accuracy, he picked his way through the notes that sped across the screen.

"Hey, Suzaku!" Rivalz cheered. "You're getting it!"

"Look at that," Suzaku laughed as he strummed the guitar. "It's not so - oh." He hunched over as he hit a patch of particularly difficult music, and the others laughed and applauded when he came out the other side unscathed.

In the end, he made his way through the song with flying colors. Rivalz leaned over to lift his hand into the air like a triumphant boxer's.

"I think we have some natural aptitude here, folks," he laughed.

"Oh, no - " Suzaku chuckled with his usual self-deprecation. "It's just an accident...I just happen to be good at things like that. It was luck."

Everyone pooh-poohed his modesty, of course. "Do we have a challenger who can stand up to our reigning champion?" Rivalz crowed. "Nina? Perhaps you have a rocker's spirit hidden beneath that demure demeanor?"

"What?" she asked with plain alarm. "I don't..."

"Or Shirley? Will that famous agility carry her far in her career?"

Shirley's smile faded; she pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "'Famous agility'? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Kallen - " Rivalz continued quickly. "Maybe you want to show us what you're really doing on those days off from school?"

Kallen shook her head and gritted her teeth. "I'm sick!" she bit out. "That's what I'm doing!"

"Well, yeah, I just mean..." Rivalz muttered. Then he cleared his throat. "Or maybe - maybe it'll be the one we're all counting on. Maybe it'll be the man who's the darling of every music teacher he's ever met (in addition to being the darling of every math, science, literature, composition, history, speech, and social science teacher he's ever met, note please the conspicuous absence of physical education in that list, as we must remember the situation that occurred during that rugby game), the man who's occasionally given to lecturing all of us on the difference between good music and the music we all like, quick, competent, clever, and constantly full of surprises - " He turned at the last moment to see the really quite impressive glare Lelouch had worked up to throw at him and was startled into a quiet, squeaked, "Lelouch Lamperouge?"

Lelouch said nothing. He folded his hands before him.

Rivalz cleared his throat, gathered himself, and leaned over to Suzaku. "Maybe I shouldn't have brought up the rugby game," he stage-whispered.

"Why?" Suzaku whispered back. "What happened?"

"Don't let's go into that," Lelouch bit out, then picked up his pen with a flourish and snapped his gaze back down to his paperwork.

"Well," Milly started, "it was in phys-ed class, so - "

Lelouch set his pen down again and looked up. "President," he growled.

"So Rivalz was the only one out of us there, so he'll have to - "

"President!" Lelouch snapped.

"Tell you the juicy details."

"Well," Rivalz started. "We were freshmen at the time - "

"Good God!" Lelouch snarled, standing up. "Will you leave me be!"

"Play a round," Milly said coquettishly.

"What happened to not bothering your good workers?" Lelouch spat.

"Aww, don't be such a grumpy-guts," Milly said. Lelouch turned up his nose at her, but Rivalz was nodding.

"You are being sort of a grumpy-guts," he agreed.

"Distinctly grumpy-guts," said Shirley.

"I am not being a grumpy-guts!" he snapped, and stalked over to the game controller. "By God, just give me the thing so I can get this absurd exercise over with."

"Well," Rivalz said, handing over the controller, "I'm not sure if you were listening, so we all decided that you pass along the game when you've won one song; otherwise, you have three tries to pass it - "

"I won't need three tries," Lelouch assured him. "I'm going to be done with this as soon as possible."

"Oh-hoh!" chortled Rivalz. "Bold words from the upstart." Which - hadn't been what Lelouch had meant. He'd just meant that he didn't want to waste a lot of time on it. But, he reflected as Rivalz picked a moderately easy song, he probably wouldn't need to. He didn't know anything about being the darling of the music teacher, but he was perfectly aware that he was simply good at music; his mother had put him on the piano when he was four, the violin at five, and maybe his instructor had simply been trying to curry favor from even the lowliest of the Imperial sons but she'd always seemed genuinely impressed by his aptitude. He'd never tried the guitar before, but -

"Lulu, careful!" Shirley shrieked not even five bars into the song.

"I'm being careful," he snarled, which was cruel enough to make her snap backwards with a look of wide-eyed hurt and distracting enough to make him lose completely.

"Uh..." Rivalz chuckled weakly, a tiny uncertain apologetic Heh that was almost drowned out by the simulated jeers and catcalls from the computer generated audience. "Well. Do you want to try again?"

Lelouch gritted his teeth. He was furious at all of them, every single one. He knew how ridiculous he was being, but even so he hated all of them and their nervous half-smiles that were turning into nervous full smiles as he failed to say anything.

So he shoved the controller back at Rivalz with enough force to make those goddamned smiles fade. And he snapped at them, "I played your damned game. Will you leave me alone now?" and, blessedly, that made those smiles fall away altogether.

"Are you all right, onii-sama?" Nunnally asked at dinner.

Lelouch looked up from his fettuccine to see that she had inclined her head towards him, concern clearly written on her face. "Of course. I'm fine."

"You're quiet."

"I'm sorry. I'm a bit tired," he said. - Which wasn't entirely true; he was tired, but he was always tired, nowadays. The night before he'd gotten enough sleep, and today he'd napped through history, and he was considerably less exhausted tonight than he'd been any number of times he kept Nunnally entertained and cheerful with jokes and chatter. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, don't apologize! Please don't apologize," Nunnally said, reaching her hand out towards him. He took it, feeling even guiltier over her guilt than he did over his lie. "You should get some rest. I know how hard you've been working, with exams and the festival coming up and everything..."

"No, we - honestly, they just brought in a game to play today," Lelouch said, scowling in spite of himself. "I'm fine."

"You're tired," Nunnally said firmly, squeezing his hand. "I want you to go to bed early today. Sayoko-san," she called, and Sayoko, in that almost uncanny way of hers, was immediately there, bobbing her head.

"I'll take care of your plate," Sayoko said, smiling warmly at him. "You should just get some sleep."

Lelouch opened his mouth to protest, but protesting would mean admitting that he'd lied, and protesting would mean admitting that the real reason for his foul mood was that stupid, humiliating squabble he'd had with the others that afternoon. So instead of protesting, he just murmured "Thank you, Sayoko. I'll see you in the morning, Nunnally," and stood up and left.

Sleep, however, wasn't an option - not this early, not with so much that he could still do, and not with C.C. stretched across his bed like a cat. She didn't say anything when he came in - didn't even look up from where she lay, her eyes fixed on the ceiling fan as it spun - and was similarly silent for the next ten minutes, until she finally spoke.

"You seem upset."

In revenge, Lelouch said nothing to her, and just continued working.

"Oh, Lelouch. Did you get in a fight with someone?" she sighed, turning over onto her belly.

He gritted his teeth at her tone. It was mockingly maternal. "No." He turned around and shut off the monitor on his computer. "Get off my bed."

"You should just say you're sorry. The longer the fight drags on, the more miserable you'll be."

"I'm tired," he said, standing at the base of the bed with crossed arms. She looked up at him with hooded eyes, then sighed heavily and slithered across the bed on her belly and finally onto the floor. He frowned and went into the bathroom to change into his pajamas.

When he came back out, she'd taken up a position next to the bed on the ground, her eyes closed and her head tilted back and her hands clasped across her chest in the manner of a dead woman. He looked at her a moment, then climbed into bed and turned off the light.

There was a long moment, and then her mocking voice curled out of the darkness. "Why does a king become a king?"

"What?" Lelouch half turned over, but there was no explanation forthcoming. "To have control over his destiny."

"A king becomes a king because he needs to be loved," C.C. corrected. "Otherwise, he'd remain nothing more than a shepherd, chasing after his flock." There was a long moment, and then, right next to his ear, and none too quietly, she bleated, "Baa!"

"God!" He jumped, then huffed irritably and turned back onto his side, away from her. "Be quiet or go into the other room. I want to get to sleep."

"You sound embarrassed," she purred.

He scowled, unseen to her. "Good night, C.C."

Another moment, and then there was the sound of her turning over as she sighed, "So moody."

The next day he went into Student Council ready to forgive anything. Nunnally, that morning, had called him over specially to give him a tight hug, and China had released a statement reiterating its stated policy of noninterference in Britannia's conflicts, and it was a Thursday so he didn't have physical education. He was ready to forget everything -

But then, in his chair, was a guitar.

The room was silent, but when he looked around, they were all grinning, waiting for his reaction. What were they expecting? Was he to laugh uproariously, perhaps? Applaud their ingenuity? Or were they looking for him to make a fool of himself again?

He did none of these things (except, perhaps, for the last). Instead, he simply walked over, lifted the guitar into the air, dropped it from a height that apparently wasn't quite sufficient to damage it, and sat in his chair without comment.

"Heyy," Rivalz said. "We got that special for you."

"We couldn't have done it without my funding and connections," Milly said, winking at him from the front of the room.

"And let's not forget how I transported you guys to the store, too," Rivalz said. "It was my gasoline that did it."

"And whose idea?" Lelouch asked as coldly as he could.

And naturally, the one who responded was the only one who never felt the cold: "My idea," Suzaku beamed.

Lelouch pointedly presented him with the back of his head, looking down at his paper. "I see," he said. Then, as nastily as he could: "And how are your exams going, that you have time to take off for the store like that?"

"No, actually, they're going really well." Suzaku smiled when Lelouch looked up. "My English exam was yesterday, and I dunno about the written part but I passed the verbal with, uh, flying..." Lelouch only just managed to suppress comment that was both snide and a little too nasty as Suzaku chewed on his lip, trying to come up with the proper saying and failing. " - Well, you know."

"Hey, Suzaku," Rivalz crowed. "Tell Lelouch how you passed."

"Oh, yeah, Rivalz helped me!" Suzaku said cheerfully. "I was talking about how I didn't really get that poem, not poem, that whatsit, the John Donne one? 'Ask not for who the bell tolls'? And Rivalz explained it..." He trailed off, and his smile faded away as he looked Lelouch in the face, and his expression turned puzzled, thoughtful.

"You did, Rivalz?" Milly asked, an eyebrow raised. "I'm impressed."

"Well, you know, Lelouch isn't the only one who's good with poetry and literature and all that," Rivalz said, puffing out his chest. "He's not the only smart one here."

"Certainly I'm not," Lelouch snapped, and then nodded pointedly towards Nina (who looked up, alarm written across her face at being made the center of attention). "There are two of us."

"Oh..." murmured Nina, but was promptly saved by having to speak by an outraged squawk from Rivalz.

"C'mon, Lelouch! I got the interpretation of that quote right, didn't I?"

"Yes, well." Lelouch smiled as coldly as he could. "You know what they say about stopped clocks."

Suzaku tilted his head to the side. "What do they say about stopped clocks?"

Lelouch didn't answer, assuming someone else would, but they were all looking at him. So, finally, he said, "That they're right twice a day."

"I see!" Whatever flash of non-idiocy there had been a bit earlier was evidently lost and forgotten. "What about a twenty-four hour clock, though?"

Lelouch frowned at him. "Then it would be right once a day, I suppose, but that's - "

"Ah, but what if it doesn't have hands?" Milly asked, her very countenance even more innocent than Suzaku's.


"What if the clock doesn't have hands?" she asked again. "Then it wouldn't ever be right."

"But that's not a stopped clock, that's just a broken one," Lelouch said.

"It could be stopped as well as broken," Shirley pointed out. "Maybe it was stopped, and then someone came along and was, like, 'Oh, it's eight-thirteen, I still have plenty of time for my date,' but it wasn't eight-thirteen, it was eight-thirty, and then they missed out and in a fit of rage, but noble rage, so that no one else would ever suffer that sad fate, they broke the hands off the clock. What about then?"

Lelouch stared at Shirley. "That's really quite beside the point."

"Or what if it's digital?" asked Kallen quietly. "It doesn't stop. When it breaks, it doesn't show the time."

Lelouch glared at her most poisonously of all. She, at least, should have known better. "You're all missing the point. It's just a metaphor."

"What's a metaphor?" Suzaku asked, puzzled.

"A comparison, an illustration - "

A brilliant smile blossomed over Suzaku's face. "No," he corrected, "grazing."

Lelouch narrowed his eyes, and then opened his mouth to say something, and then thought better of it and turned away.

"It's what a meta's for."

Lelouch glanced back at Suzaku, who looked so very proud, and then closed his eyes and tried to pretend his friend simply didn't exist.

"Hey, hey, guys, I've got a riddle!" Rivalz announced. "Okay. Okay. I heard this just the other day. What has a face but doesn't wear make-up, hands but can't lift even the slightest bit of weight, and tells without speaking?"

"A clock," responded everyone in varying states of disgust (except for Nina, who said, timidly, "Lelouch...?").

"That was a pretty bad riddle, Rivalz," Suzaku said with cheerful sincerity.

"You're just bitter because you didn't think of it first," Rivalz groused.

"Didn't think of it first? Oh, come on. You didn't exactly think of it." Milly snorted. "I'm pretty sure Adam in the Garden thought up that riddle. That riddle was the third thing God created. It was the Word of the scriptures."

"So you're saying it was awesome," Rivalz said.

"I'm saying it's old," Milly corrected, but she was laughing and shaking her head. "Honestly."

"Okay, here's another one," Rivalz said. "What has four legs in the morning, two legs - "

"A person, everyone knows that one," Shirley interrupted. "Okay, here's one: A man and his son get into a car accident. They're rushed to the hospital, but the doctor takes one look at the boy and says, 'I can't operate on the boy, this is my son.' Why?"

Suzaku jumped on that one. "Oh, did the, um, dad maybe make a really quick recovery..."

"The doctor is the boy's mother," Lelouch muttered in disgust.

"Correct, Lulu!" Shirley clapped her hands in delight. "Okay. What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in an hour?"

Lelouch didn't know, so he rolled his eyes and tried to look like he was above answering. Shirley made a little noise. He looked up to see a profoundly hurt expression on her face, and he shifted uncomfortably.

The others, though, were guessing:

"A second," said Rivalz.

"That doesn't make any sense," scoffed Milly.

"A thought?" Suzaku asked. Everyone, fortunately, ignored him.

Kallen, who had been sitting counting on her fingers, finally ventured a weak, "Oh! Is it the letter m...?"

Shirley nodded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "That's it. Good job."

"Do I have to come up with one, now?" Kallen murmured with a smile.

Shirley just shrugged, and, in turn, Kallen's face fell.

"Um..." Nina cleared her throat. "What's the atomic number for Berkelium?"

Milly raised an eyebrow. "No offense, Nina, but that riddle might actually be worse than Rivalz'."

"No, I just wanted to know..." Nina shook her head and then buried her face back in her paperwork.

Lelouch almost laughed. Somehow, the riddle game had turned just about everyone's mood sour - only Milly (joyful, tending to thrive on chaos) and Rivalz (masochistic, of the opinion that any attention from the president was a positive thing) seemed immune to the gloom.

"All right. Not a one of you maggots is gonna get this one." Milly had inexplicably adopted a drill sergeant voice. "Okay: The one who made me doesn't speak of me. The one who took me doesn't know me. The one who knows me doesn't want me."

There was a moment of silence, and then suddenly, loudly, Suzaku laughed. Everyone looked at him. "Yes?" Milly asked. "Do we have a solution?"

"Sure," Suzaku laughed. "I mean, this time the answer really is - " Slowly, his grin faded. "Lelouch..."

There was a moment, and then all of them, the whole damnable group, burst out laughing. Only Suzaku was doing no more than sort of half-smiling. And Lelouch felt something that was a lot like fury, and a lot like sadness, and a lot like emptiness, but which mostly just felt like a wave of nausea as he stood.

"I'm sorry, Lelouch," Suzaku said, still hovering in the indecisive territory between amusement and regret. "I didn't mean it - "

But they were all laughing at him, all the others. Lelouch could have hit Suzaku in the face. He should have. Instead, he just gathered up his things and walked - didn't run, didn't stomp, just walked - from the room, something thick and unpleasant in his throat.

That night he begged off dinner, feigning illness. Nunnally's concern was written across her face, but even so he couldn't sit with her.

"All right," she said quietly. "Feel better."

C.C. didn't say a thing to him. For once, she saw that he was in a mood and didn't try to make the mood worse. Instead, she just moved from the bed to the computer and stayed silent as he prepared for bed.

Suzaku hadn't meant it, perhaps, and the others hadn't understood it, not in full, but the fact remained that they had found some bit of truth in it, in that last bit, in that doesn't want me -

"What two men," C.C. murmured so suddenly that he jumped, "have the power to choose their own destinies?"

"I assure you that I am in no mood for riddles, C.C.," Lelouch bit out. But she spun around in the chair and looked at him, her face solemn, and finally he shook his head. "Cassius and Brutus."

"The king," she corrected, "and the last man alive."

Lelouch looked at her a long moment, and she just looked steadily back. Finally he sniffed and switched off the light. "Not the best one I've heard today."

"Are you feeling better, onii-sama?" Nunnally asked, and he couldn't manage any words of comfort. He just squeezed her hand.

He didn't look at Suzaku all throughout history, didn't look at Rivalz all throughout maths. Unfortunately, he encountered the latter along with Milly in the hall after his English class.

"You know you forgot your guitar yesterday," Rivalz chuckled, blocking his path.

"Stop it," Milly sighed, forcibly removing his arm from Lelouch's path. Lelouch pushed through without a word as Rivalz turned to look at the president.

"When did this stop being funny?" he asked.

"When Lelouch stopped laughing," she replied.

"He was never laughing," Rivalz pointed out.

"He found it funny at first." Milly's voice was sure. "You could see it in his eyes."

Lelouch could have said any number of things to that, but instead he said nothing at all.

He couldn't quite dodge Shirley before lunch. She stopped him and looked at him with wide eyes and a sweet expression. "Are you all right?" She sounded genuinely concerned.

He just shrugged.

"I'm sorry for what we said," she said. He just turned away from her to leave. He had been walking in her direction, but he didn't want to go past her, because he didn't want to see her expression.

That day, he skipped lunch and invented any number of errands he had to run, just so he didn't have to see any of them. He spoke up in class that day, but he didn't say a word to any friend. It was a strange feeling. It was a strange and lonely feeling.

"Onii-sama," Nunnally called. "You have a visitor."

"I'm still not feeling well," Lelouch called back. It was either Suzaku or Milly - none of the others save Rivalz were bold enough to come into their residence uninvited, and Rivalz would still be smarting from that slap from the president. Since Nunnally would have said if it was Milly, it was most likely Suzaku.

And, indeed: A call of, "Aw, it's fine, I never get sick," evidently was a satisfactory alternative to knocking. Lelouch had, fortunately, locked the door, but he knew that there would be no peace, so he simply jerked his head at the bathroom for C.C.'s benefit before flipping the lock.

Suzaku was standing there, a grin on his face. "You don't look that sick," he said.

Lelouch glared, held a fist up to his face, and gave a pointedly fake cough.

"Can I come in?"

Nunnally was still in the hallway, and he didn't especially want her to hear any squabble they might have. "Sure," he said, trying to sound like he was smiling without actually smiling. "Sorry, Nunnally - "

"No, it's fine," she replied. "I have something I need to do, anyway."

"All right. Suzaku - "

Suzaku needed no further invitation. He walked in and took a very presumptuous seat on the edge of Lelouch's bed. "Look - We've been totally crappy to you. I'm really sorry for that."

"Okay." Lelouch leaned against the wall and crossed his arms and waited. Nothing else was forthcoming. "Is that it?"

"Uh, well, to be completely honest - " Suzaku grinned. "I was sort of hoping for a, you know, 'It's okay, I don't care, let's go back to how things were.'"

Lelouch laughed out loud.

Suzaku's grin grew wider in response. "What?"

"Nothing." He deliberately paused. "That's just a typical response for you."

Suzaku's grin lost a little ground. "What's that mean?"

Lelouch raised his eyebrows and shook his head and shrugged.

"Um, okay." Suzaku grinned wider again, but this time it looked strained. "Any chance of that happening?"

Lelouch shrugged again.

"C'mon, Lelouch. I know you don't have a sense of humor, but - "

"Why do you say that."

Suzaku was startled by the outburst. Truth be told, Lelouch himself was a little startled. "What?"

"'I know you don't have a sense of humor.' How do you think you know me?" Suzaku said nothing. "What am I? The Friend of your Childhood, perhaps, that abstract figure - "

"What are you talking about?" Suzaku interrupted.

Lelouch curled his lip. "I'm not the same person that I was back then, you know."

"I know."

"I'm not that same humorless, powerless, unloved child - " He realized with a lurch what he was saying, cut himself off and shook his head. Suzaku looked down and said nothing.

Finally, Lelouch started again. "I don't like what I was back then, and I'd thank you to forget it. I've changed."

"I understand." Suzaku opened his mouth, drew in a breath, hesitated, drew in a further breath, and then said, "Me, too, you know. I don't like who I was then, either." A pause. "I want to forget, too."

Lelouch started to shake his head. Because he didn't like who Suzaku had become. Once, Suzaku had been proud, violent, perhaps, and an idiot, but he'd been proud. Once he had fought. Now, he smiled and laughed when he stepped around outstretched feet. Now he silently washed the graffiti from his locker, washed the paint out of his clothes. Even among his friends, even in the student council, he felt compelled to make those jokes, play the foolish Eleven just to curry favor from everyone else.

But who was he to criticize Suzaku's transformation? Suzaku hadn't said anything about him, what he'd become. (And he knew he had to be grateful for that.)

"I didn't really have friends back then, either, you know," Suzaku was saying uncomfortably. "You really were my first friend." (Lelouch hadn't known, but he'd suspected.) "But now I can make friends. I like myself better now than I did then." A smile crept across his face. "And mostly I feel lucky that I met you. I'd never have made friends with them if it weren't for you - and even if I didn't, even if I didn't make friends with them, that'd be okay, too." Quietly: "You're my best friend, Lelouch, and you always will be."

Lelouch looked down at his feet, his breath caught in his throat. What was it? That vulnerable honesty that the old Suzaku, the Friend of his Childhood, would never have allowed? Or the simple warmth in that statement? In any case, his breath caught, and he felt suddenly... "I feel constantly grateful. I feel constantly grateful for Nunnally, and for them, for the fact that I found people who...actually like me. Who actually like me." He swallowed. "And I feel grateful for you. You taught me how to be a friend."

When he looked up again, Suzaku was smiling once more. "Yeah, I'm pretty cool," Suzaku agreed cheerily, leaning back. Lelouch rolled his eyes and briefly considered getting irritated, but instead smiled. "They mean a lot to you, and you mean a lot to them. So go apologize already."

"I think you mean go accept their apology," Lelouch corrected, mock-sniffing.

"Yeah, yeah, go accept their apology, that's what I meant to say," Suzaku agreed easily, and then laughed. "They should be all set up now."

Lelouch shook his head, then hesitated. "What do you mean, all set up?"

"Oh, what do I mean, all set up...?" Suzaku puzzled, a finger against his lower lip, before laughing. "Go into the living room."

Well. "And what if you hadn't been able to talk me around? It would have been awkward."

"If I hadn't been able to cheer you up," Suzaku said, "I would have sent Nunnally in to do it."

Lelouch raised his eyebrows. "Remind me never to make an enemy of you," he half-laughed. "You're too devious by far."

Suzaku hopped up and gestured Lelouch through the door. Indeed, everyone was waiting in the living room - even Nunnally, holding a flute lightly between her hands, who smiled when she sensed Lelouch in the room.

"Everyone ready?" she asked sweetly.

Everyone, evidently, was ready. Each of them was holding a different instrument - Rivalz a trumpet, Nina an oboe, Shirley a horn, even Kallen a clarinet and Milly an absurd-looking bassoon.

"We're not much of an orchestra, but we make up for it in spirit," Shirley laughed.

At the front of the room, they'd placed his violin next to the music for Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Minor. Lelouch looked down, and then up at Suzaku, who'd settled in front of a set of small drums - a bit less imposing than the timpani called for in the scoring of the music. "You don't even know how to play," he said to Suzaku.

"Yeah, well, um, Milly gave me some pointers, and we practiced all day yesterday and Friday afternoon. Besides, I'm a quick study, and Milly doesn't play the bassoon, either. And it was Nina who didn't play the oboe, right?"

"Right..." Nina murmured.

"And I haven't touched the trumpet in years," Rivalz grinned.

Milly decided to take over. "Harmony!" she bellowed, and then winked at the grimacing assembly. "It's a magic spell. There's no way we'll sound bad now."

"I believe in us, President!" Shirley agreed. Then, in a stage-whisper, she added, "But do try to play a bit louder than you usually would, won't you, Lelouch?"

"I'll try," Lelouch laughed. He looked at all of them and shook his head. "Well, here's to Brief Candle's first concert, I suppose."

"Here's to it," Rivalz agreed.

Lelouch laughed again then hesitated, waiting to see if they really meant it, if they were really willing to do this for him. They all just looked at him expectantly, smiling, and finally he smiled back at them, picked up his violin, tucked it under his chin, and lifted the bow to the strings.