The Black March

Lelouch Lamperouge liked to think he was, basically, a good person. He wasn't fighting for a country or for himself. The Order of the Black Knights and their campaign arose from a desire to make the world a better place for people like his sister, Nunnally. He didn't enjoy having so much blood on his hands, but someone had to do it. Someone had to change the world. The Japanese had the will, but they lacked the means. He had the means, but had lacked the will for the longest time. It took a selfish, moody, golden-eyed woman to change all of that.

But he wasn't thinking. He was feeling. He felt rage like never before, greater than the dark emotion that rose in his throat like so much bile even when he confronted his callous father after his mother's demise. He felt betrayal, a feeling that cut deeper than being cast aside like so much trash. He felt, and because he felt rather than thought as he was so used to doing, he did something he never would have done under normal circumstances.

The bullet almost seemed to fire on its own accord. He didn't even remember pulling the trigger. In the end, it was a moot point.

The sound filled the ruins, invading every last nook and cranny. It came back at him like a wave of artillery, warped and shaped by his surroundings as it looped around the structure.

Then there was a dull sound as Suzaku's body hit the floor.

Then there was nothing.

A wave of Britannians didn't come pouring into the tomb, a moment too late to save the Honorary Britannian. (Or maybe they were just in time.) The dead youth didn't spring back to his feet, insisting it was only a flesh wound. Lelouch didn't feel any better.

He just felt empty. The rage oozed out of his body like blood through a wound. It needed a target, something to rage against, to remain potent. Nothing rushed to replace it. There was no relief to see the boy who had been a brother to him (more so than any of the princes) lying dead with his skull half-gone. There was no solace in knowing he had shot someone to death. He didn't even feel regret but he had the feeling it was on its way.

He reached up to wipe the blood, now running into his eyes, away from his face. The smell of blood mingled with sweat, gunpowder, and fresh death. The odor washed over him, mingling into something that assaulted his nostrils. Someone once told him the sense of smell was the sense most closely tied to memory.

The bodies lay sprawled across the landscape like an organic carpet. The decay was their perfume, permeating everything that passed through their space, whether it was the clothes the three children wore or, more importantly, every strand of hair. They would never come clean, not really. They could bathe and deodorize and do any number of things. Even if the smell faded, that sense of horror and disgust would remain as fresh as it had been the day the first salvo fell.

At the height of that madness, the violet-eyed boy began to think that they were the flawed ones. Everything around them lay in ruin, split and cut to pieces by falling ordnance. Nothing around them presumed to draw breath or move about. They were content to stay where they were. And wasn't that for the best? Why bother pushing yourself deeper into the slaughter and cut against the grain in a desperate effort to survive? Wouldn't it be better to lie down and join them in their peace?

He realized how peaceful Suzaku looked. Yes, he was quite serene in his mortality. It was enough to make the exiled Prince burn with jealousy.

Who was laughing?

Oh, that's right. He was.

He envied a dead man. He had wanted to trade places with an engine of destruction fueled only his own rage and malice. That wasn't Suzaku. That was a parody of everything Suzaku strove to be. His desire had bee to save lives, not cut down as many men and woman as humanly possible in a bloodthirsty, single-minded urge to carve his vengeance out of an old friend's flesh. In killing him, Lelouch had set him free.

Yes, that was it. It was for the best. Everything he had done, whether it was burying Shirley's father alive or putting a bullet in his best friend's head, had been for a greater good.

The greater good, the greater good. The words prattled on endlessly in his mind like a repeating rifle.

Sacrifices would have to be made. He knew that. He had done everything he could to harden his heart to the atrocities of the world. Zero, the commander of the greatest fighting force Japan had known, couldn't afford to falter under the weight of his responsibility. Even Euphemia, sweet wonderful Euphemia, became a means to an end. He wouldn't allow her death to be another senseless, tragic abomination in a world already brimming with abominations. If he couldn't make her peaceful Japan a reality, at least he could use her name in the pursuit of a free Japan.

So why was it the repeating rifle only ever seemed to fire at him? He held no ill will toward Shirley or her father; on the contrary, he was fond of her sunny personality. Taking Ashford Academy hostage had turned his skin, repulsed by the notion of dragging his closest friends into his war. Euphemia had been among his favorite siblings, second only to Nunnally. Suzaku had only ever wanted to help people, as misguided as he may have been. Even CC, as cold and arrogant as she had started, proved to be an invaluable ally and genuine friend. Yet all of them were slipping away from him.

Nunnally was gone. She was gone in the truest sense of the word. She had vanished and there was no hope of finding her. The Gawain had spirited him away from the battle toward this godforsaken island. CC had thrown herself at the monster of a machine that came shrieking through the wreckage at him, hailing Britannia all the way down. The ruins offered no answers. He saw no sign of his sister or her abductor. It was as if she had simply ceased to be.

The sound of a gun's hammer sliding back assaulted his senses. His head snapped up along with his arm, falling back into the murderous stance that had pushed Suzaku into a lasting darkness just moments ago.

"What do you think you're doing?" His voice was deceptively light, even conversational. One would never guess he had gone slightly mad.

"Zero…" she sighed, her voice hitching brokenly in her throat. Then, her resolve turned her voice into a steely hiss. "Lelouch, drop the gun. I'm taking you into custody."

"Custody?" He scoffed. "Do you honestly think that will solve a God damn thing?"

"You're a Britannian," the word spilled from her mouth like so much vomit. It burned her throat and turned her tongue rotten. "What are you getting for all of this? Money? A court rank?"

Then, all at once, the tension bled from his body. The gun became a weight stretching his long, spindly arms. "You won't shoot me." He slicked his bloody bangs back with a free hand.

"You shut up! You—you…how could you betray us!? All of us? To think I actually believe in you! You're the lowest kind of scum!"

She never did squeeze the trigger. She didn't have to. His brain was already coming apart at the seams. The absurdity of it all was just too much to bear. Kallen, among his most loyal followers, had pointed a gun at him even after he had shot her greatest enemy to death before her very eyes.

"Think, girl," he tapped his chest meaningfully. The Sakuradite bomb made a hollow, threatening sound. "Think of what would happen if you shot me. You—me—even the Gurren outside—everything goes up in smoke. Are you willing to throw your life away for a single Britannian? Don't make me laugh. You're too proud for that."

"Shut up! You don't know me at all!"

"Oh, but I do. I know you love your country and anyone who helps it." He was so brazen as to turn his back to her. The move had no real meaning other than to illustrate a point. It didn't matter how helpless he became; he was beyond harm if she was his enemy. "What do you think will be more useful to your beloved Japan at this juncture, hm? Another dead Britannian student unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire, or Zero, the brilliant leader who took your resistance from a paltry rebel movement to a full-fledged military force capable of matching the Empire? I want you to think on that, Kallen Kozuki. Which one means more to you—Lelouch Lamperouge or Zero?"

The sound of her gun clattering harmlessly to the ground was more than enough answer. As if there was ever any doubt, her sad, lost voice said it again. He closed his eyes and let her voice, a tidal wave of naked emotion, wash over him.

"I…I believed in you. I believed in you so much. We all did, really. Even the skeptics put their faith you because…because even though you wore that mask and kept everything to yourself…you were our hero. You did the things we could only dream about. We thought you were the second coming of Tohdoh.

So, so how? How did it come to this? How could someone who fought so hard for Japan be a spoiled, selfish Britannian like you?"

He turned to her, but only halfway. He didn't want to look into those wounded eyes. Zero was a lie. The master of the Black Knights had failed to become the emotionless machine. He couldn't stomach the raw grief he was sure to see in Kallen, strong Kallen.

"I am not selfish, no matter what you may think. I don't expect you to understand. But I would like it if you believed me when I say that I didn't take on this name and this fight for petty reasons. I didn't rally the Japanese together so the Empire could crush them. I'm not some spoiled son of the Empire throwing a temper tantrum. There are a great many things at stake here and I can't let them slip away."

He paused, awkward. He was so used to unswerving loyalty and his own eloquence. Having neither made him feel painfully naked.

When he saw that the Japanese girl had nothing to say to that, he moved on legs that carried him in a random direction. He had no idea where he was going. He knew, knew it in his bones that Nunnally wasn't here. Whatever man or beast stole her had left this place behind. Or maybe they had never been here at all, using the island as a decoy. He wasn't chasing after her. He was running from Kallen, from Suzaku, away from responsibility and guilt and shame.

He didn't make it far before his feet betrayed him. (But wasn't that always the case these days?) The fall was harder than he would have thought. It was a tremendous jolt to his system, racing through his skeleton and leaving his knees raw. In spite of it all, he was grateful for the pain. Something to take his mind away from everything else…

He didn't know how long he lay weeping either. It overtook him suddenly, moving to replace that brief respite of pain. All the world's woes assailed him as one.

Suzaku and Lelouch playing some silly game, which always ended in tag, as games of youth are wont to do.

Suzaku trying to teach him the finer points of judo and Lelouch returning the favor by instructing him in the fine art of chess. They were awful teachers and even worse students.

Suzaku standing with the Lamperouge siblings, all three of them smiling, as they posed for a picture. It felt like coming home.

He saw children starving. He saw people in the ghettos dying of easily treated diseases. He saw theft and rape and murder and his own rebellion. He saw Nunnally in the hands of men he did not know, men who couldn't possibly mean her well if they went to the trouble of taking her from the person who loved her more than life itself. He saw CC flying away from him, like an angel in black armor, to lay down her life against an enemy he had made. (She was immortal but it didn't matter; he knew she was gone from his as much as Nunnally was gone.)

Some tactical part of his mind reasoned that he had made a trade in removing Suzaku from play and capturing the Lancelot, but it was the very definition of hollow victory. Losing a friend so that he could lose another wasn't any sort of trade. The white Knightmare, as fine as it was, amounted to so much scrap. None of it mattered anymore. The troops and equipment under his command, the maneuvers in his mind, his vision of the world as a chess board to be manipulated by a great mind such as his. It was beyond meaningless now. Meaninglessness would have been a significant step up from where his life lay now.

He didn't know how long it took Kallen to find him. But, somewhere along the way, his sobs had subsided just enough to hear her steady footfalls. He closed his stinging eyes (the left one always burned a bit hotter these days) to bask in the sound. It was simple. It was pure. Walking didn't kill people or raze cities to the ground. It was a good thing.

"Zero," her voice was so small. He thought of the fiery girl he knew and wondered who it was that had stolen her voice. "Zero, you have to get up. You were right about what you said earlier. The Japanese need a Zero to lead them, now more than ever."

He wasn't entirely correct. Her voice was very small. But it hadn't stopped burning. It flickered in the wind but it never died. She would always be that fiery girl, no matter what mask she wore or how far she fell. She would always burn for something.

He didn't move to repulse her when she moved toward him—not as a comfort but as a bedrock. If the world swept everything away from him, she would throw him a lifeline. It was strange, really. He had always counted on Kallen. She was his finest sword and personal bodyguard. He counted on her very much. Yet he couldn't fight the sense of wonder as she did everything in her power to support and bolster him. He smiled at the gesture, making sure he turned his face in such a way that she would never see it.

He wondered how long it would be before the world punished her for helping him.

"There's a war to be won. It's not just my war—it's yours, too."

"You're such a stubborn woman," he buried his face in his hands, not sure if he was trying to stifle a laugh or a sob. "I don't know what I would do without you."

"What are your orders, Zero?" She didn't look so frail anymore. He didn't see the agonizing emotions in her eyes. He saw a soldier of the rebellion. This was normal. This was safe.

Familiarity breeds comfort, he mused through a mirthless smile. "Prepare the Gurren for liftoff. We're leaving this island."

With a chipper cry, she turned on her heal and left the ruins behind her. He watched her go for a time, allowing his mind to go blank again. It was easier than facing the world. But he would have to do it at some point. So he would take it slowly. He would throw himself back into the old rut of fighting Britannia and rallying his Knights. He wouldn't reflect on how much that had cost him or what he still stood to lose.

He knew he would have to confront the phantoms of his quest some day. But right now, it was the journey and not the destination that spurred him onward. He would bury his heart in this place; bury it as deep as he could. The knowing part of him knew better. His human emotions would dig themselves out of their shallow grave as they always did. The phantoms of his mother, his sister, his friend, his partner, and so many others would dance through his dreams. He was the necromancer and they were his works.

But that was all in the future. He lived in the present. He was Zero, a thing without a past or a future, a blank being that existed for a reason known only to its creator, Lelouch vi Britannia. The enemy's move had come to an end with the fall of a Knight. Now it was time for the Black King's turn once more. The game never ended and neither would his march toward that oh-so-distant goal.

It was the least he could do for all the corpses that had been his stepping-stones.