NOTES: OH GOD IT'S A PLOTFIC. GET IN THE CAR.
i. Aprés Moi...
She remembered the feeling of cold water sucking at her ankles. She remembered the rain. She'd forgotten a lot of things in her long life, but she remembered that much.
Sometimes she'd wade out into the water to her knees and bend over, resting her hands on the unsteady surface that licked at her, stuck to her and fell back. She wondered if it might not climb higher and wrap around and pull her under. If it did - what if she didn't make it? She would hold her breath as long as she was able, but finally her jaws would drop apart and she'd inhale powerfully so that it didn't take her long to die. Again she would live, and then she'd breathe in again, and she would quickly die, again and again, head aching and dizzy as each expression of mortality twisted and shaped her until finally, that last time, she would open her mouth and breathe normally and find herself a fish, transfigured by the pressure and heat of the ocean waters.
She remembered fire on her skin. She remembered the way the tiny hairs on her arms would be the first to curl and fall away. She remembered how it would hurt for only a little while before she became intoxicated on the smoke. She remembered the day when early physicists came to understand the properties of air flow and remedied that problem.
She remembered waking up to see a bird in her window. As she'd blinked heavy, wet eyes and wondered where she was, it had looked at her, opened its beak, let out a brief trill of song and waited for her reaction. When it was satisfied, it spread its wings and flew away, and she followed it to look out on the twisting alleys and bright spires and glittering windows of the sun-dappled city by the sea.
She remembered the feeling of a hand on her brow.
She remembered the prickle of champagne on her lips. She remembered the way it warmed her throat, not unbearably - warmed her in the way a hand warms a hand. She remembered serving it, once, her head lowered beneath her hands, biting her lip, not daring to squeeze her eyes shut. She remembered wandering the fields of Champagne and crushing the tart grapes between her teeth, the earth rough and wet beneath her bare feet.
Every bit of memory lay within her, too voluminous to fit inside her modest mind; they crowded instead outwards, tucking into the spaces beneath her fingernails and the bumps on her tongue, pressing outwards to the tips of her eyelashes, giving her form and shape and strength and making her a girl built, layer upon layer, with color and hooded eyes and a contemptuous smile twisting her lips.
"Champagne?" she asked, memories that formed her throat giving her voice a contemptuous curl. "Poor choice, Head of Catering."
"Master of Ceremonies!" bawled Tamaki Shinichiro. (She didn't like that the memory of him and his name also gave her form, but she supposed that there had to be memories to give her sphincter shape, too.)
"Expensive, pretentious, inappropriate, and of poor quality. Rather like you...How much did you pay for each bottle?" she continued, cutting him off before he realized what she'd said and started shouting again.
"Please," she said, "feel free to subtract the graft from the final price."
Strange man didn't even bother to try to deny that, simply doing the math on his fingers. "Six thousand yen? I guess? Hey!" he shouted when she dumped the last of her glass out on the ground. "That's still good!"
"You need better men," she informed Lelouch.
"My followers are uniformly competent," he replied absently, then inclined his head in the direction of Tamaki. "Oh, you mean him," he said. "Yes, he's useless."
"Good." She smiled and curved a hand around the crook of his elbow. "I feared that your victory might have made you kind. Blind to your fellows' shortcomings. Soft."
"Hardly," he said, with such significance that she raised an eyebrow and tilted her head to the side. He looked at her, and she wondered what his expression was beneath the mask - was he smiling, or was he in dread?
They were interrupted by Kallen. "Zero," she said, breathless, a little flushed, a bit drunk. "I'd like to say, if - "
Kallen, in turn, was interrupted by Tamaki. "Zero!" he bellowed, causing everyone in the room to turn to look at him. "Try this champagne. That whor...ho...ho..." He tried for a long time to think of a homonym to "whore" and eventually just smacked his lips in surrender and said, " - whore thinks it's bad, but I know you have good taste."
"Tamaki," Kallen hissed.
"C'mon," he urged, pouring a glass, oblivious to the sudden awkward silence that had settled over the room. C.C. leaned down to rest her elbows on Lelouch's armrest and her chin on her fists and watched them all and smiled.
"You will not be sorry," he said, filling the flute up almost to the top. "It's really, um..." He looked up at Lelouch and that mask and squinted, tilting his head this way and that, until finally he said, "Oh" and shook his head. "Well, uh...I guess you could..." He made a motion like tipping a mask back very slightly and cramming a champagne flute under the gap.
"There's a solution," C.C. snickered.
"Well..." said Tamaki.
"You should keep this one around," she cooed to Lelouch.
Tamaki flushed at her reaction and (unwisely) took his anger out on the first person he saw. "Or maybe you could take the stupid thing off!" he spat. "I mean, we've won, is it just to make you look cool?"
Lelouch didn't react to that and he didn't react to the identical expression fifty people make when the oxygen suddenly disappears from the room. Instead, he simply looked away from Tamaki and said, "Toudou."
"Yes." Toudou stepped forward, spared a moment to glance contemptuously at Tamaki, and then looked back at Zero.
"Have we won?" Zero asked his general. "Do you think?"
"For today, we've won," he said cautiously.
"For today," Lelouch agreed. "For tomorrow?"
"No," he said, and glanced backwards at Chiba, who nodded.
"Diethard? Have we won?"
"I should hope not," Diethard laughed. "That aside, even tonight I can't pretend there won't be repercussions."
"Well said. Japan, tonight, is Japan," Lelouch said, standing grandly but with such suddenness that his shoulder clipped C.C.'s nose. He glanced backwards slightly but didn't apologize. "So tonight, we celebrate our nation. But tomorrow these shores may no longer be ours. Tomorrow we may be stronger than before. Who knows? There's work yet to be done. So, Tamaki - " Lelouch looked at him, all dignity. "You'll forgive me if I wear this mask a little longer, I hope."
"Uh, yeah," was Tamaki's grand response. C.C. rolled her eyes. Lelouch seemed nonplussed: it hadn't been a bad speech, after all, and Lelouch got pouty when even the least of his speeches didn't leave them screaming his name.
"Perhaps we should retire," C.C. murmured into his ear, not eager to have to sit through this party with the only person worth talking to silent and sulking.
"Very well," Lelouch said, and rose, nodding at them all as he went. C.C. lingered long enough to hear Kallen mutter "Well done" and Tamaki respond "Ow."
Lelouch had taken over the Headmaster's office as his own private quarters, disabled the surveillance cameras and drawn the blinds. Now, with a sigh, he took off his mask with his eyes closed and then sat there a while, his face deeply etched with weariness.
"It's a relief, isn't it, that you had the mask to fall back on." He didn't respond, so C.C. leaned in a little further and explained, "It would be awkward to have to explain that you're not old enough to drink."
"So that's where you were going with that," he said, rubbing at his eyes.
He paused in his ministrations to cock an eyebrow at her.
"And how many more miles are there to go before we sleep?"
Lelouch sighed and leaned forward in his chair to lace his hands before him. "Schneizel," he bit out. C.C. shouldn't have been surprised. There was hardly a moment in which he wasn't thinking about the past and the future, even surrounded by friends, even at a party. Really, the only time she'd seen him live in the present was during a battle. "He's canny prey. More so than Cornelia, even. I imagine he'll look at the incident with..."
Lelouch was silent a long moment.
"With Euphemia and draw conclusions," he finally finished, clear-voiced. "Simply requesting a face-to-face meeting is out of the question now. We'll have to come at it from an angle, draw him in."
"It sounds like you have a plan."
"The foundations of one, in any case," Lelouch said, sitting up. "Schneizel's mother is French, and it's a shame he's never quite recovered from - in more than one sense. It's the reason he's the second prince and no better. It's the reason he has such a powerful grudge against the E.U.
"Now, it was a terrible blow to Britannia when she lost the Isles," he continued, tracing maps with the trail of his fingers in the glassy surface of the desk before him. "She plays disdainful, but she'd do anything to recapture that postage-stamp kingdom. Schneizel knows that. If he thought for a moment that the Isles were in play..."
"He'd come running to the E.U., eager for a bit of glory."
Lelouch laughed, disdainful with a weaker inner curve. "Schneizel? Eager?" He settled back, his hands folded before him. "Calculating the glory to be had, perhaps."
"All right," laughed C.C., even though she didn't find the situation particularly funny. "And how will you bring them into play?"
"It's a question."
"And how will you corner him?"
Lelouch's lips jerked powerfully downwards. "It's another question."
"And," she said, "why bother, when we're perfectly able to defend ourselves here?"
This time his face jerked powerfully upwards. There was a deep anger there that surprised even C.C., accustomed though she was to Lelouch's moodiness. As she knew the answer to that question, she didn't demand that Lelouch say it out loud, instead tilting her head to the side and smiling and saying, "Sometimes, when you hold onto two diverging paths, you're torn apart. Are you willing to suffer that fate?"
"Are you willing to mind your own business?" said Lelouch snittily, at that moment such the little boy that she couldn't help but laugh. He flushed at her reaction, and looked away, and so he wasn't ready when she asked,
"And when are you going to see Nunnally?"
He stole a glance up at her, and then looked away, his mouth shut.
"And when you do, will it be as Zero or as Lelouch?"
Shinozaki Sayoko's proudest day was the day upon which she inherited the techniques of the Shinozaki School. She hadn't known it was coming. The Master her grandfather had simply called her in, her father and uncle kneeling beside him, and had announced that she was to take his place when he died.
Her second proudest day was when she, for the first time, cooked a perfect chocolate souffle.
Her third proudest day was when Zero called her to come and see him and asked her to protect his younger sister. She said, "I did not know that Zero-sama had a younger sister," perhaps a little coyly because she'd understood the moment that he asked her that. Still, Zero had that flair for dramatics, and she understood that, too, so she waited patiently as he took off his mask and stared her gravely in the eyes.
"This truly is my proudest day," she said, which (as previously mentioned) wasn't the complete truth, but her Master had made it repeatedly clear that it was okay to lie. For example, he'd also told her older cousin that he was going to inherit the Shinozaki School, and everyone knew how that had turned out. "I'm happy to have served you, Master Lelouch, and I'm happy to serve you now."
"And I'm happy to have your service," Lelouch said solemnly.
She was also happy that he was there to show the world that people like him, with his predilections, were also capable of making valuable contributions to society. And she was also happy that she finally understood why Zero dressed so strangely.
"I trusted you always, of course," said Sayoko. "You, as Lelouch. But I never suspected that you would have this kindness, this..."
"Thank you," said Lelouch with this funny little expression he always made when he was horribly embarrassed. And what Sayoko had just said - that really hadn't been a lie. She really had liked Lelouch. He always treated her and her nation with respect, even when his classmates and even his friends had treated her with contempt. He hadn't had the arrogance that normally would have come with his position and especially his background. But he was still a Britannian, still an interloper - he still lived in luxury, lived freely, when her countrymen were made slaves. So she liked him more now.
And it was good to know he was still a person, that he still did that funny little thing with his face.
"You're the most competent person I know," he continued, steepling his fingers. "You're trustworthy. You know Nunnally. I'll assign security - "
"There will be no need, Lelouch-sama," she assured him. "I've been honored with the title of thirty-seventh successor to the Shinozaki school of martial arts. I will be able to protect Nunnally-sama myself."
There was a moment when Lelouch just stared. Then he took in a breath and asked, "Why were you working as a - ?" Then he shook his head. "I suppose this is the proverbial gift horse. All right. I would be - grateful - "
"And I would be honored," Sayoko responded smoothly. "Will you require my services immediately?"
"Not immediately," said Lelouch. "The situation here still needs to be settled. But after that..."
"And until then, I still need you to look after her. A bit."
Sayoko raised her chin. "You won't be able to do so yourself?"
Lelouch's face was troubled as he echoed himself: "Just a bit." She looked him over in that special way all the Shinozakis learned, the way that seemed so casual and unassuming. Of course, that was rather lost on Lelouch, who looked so introspective that he probably wouldn't notice if she pulled faces at him.
"In any case," he finally said, drawing himself up. "It's a very important task, for reasons you will of course understand. Are you confident in your abilities?"
He nodded and said, "Thank you," a clear dismissal. However, as she turned to go, he spoke again.
"Do you know when the preliminary list of the dead...?"
She looked over her shoulder at him. There was nothing at all readable in his handsome, young face, aside from the fact that it was so young. "I know that Mr. Reid has been hard at work collecting the names. Within the next few hours, I think. Would you like to see it?"
"As soon as it's finished," he said. Sayoko took a moment to pity him. He was so very young, and already he had this on his conscience. Already, he had those deaths on his hands, all because he chose to trust when he shouldn't have trusted at all. She hoped someday he would be able to forget it, be able to forgive himself. They needed him yet. Besides, she liked him.
"Thank you, Sayoko," he said, and she went.
Twelve thousand six hundred seven were dead, and six thousand seven hundred sixty five injured. The rest were still unaccounted for - unidentified or missing. There were more names yet to come.
He had some difficulty locating her name. The font was small, and there were so many names there, and furthermore whoever had compiled the list was clearly a staunch anti-royalist, lumping her in with the rest of humanity, stripping her of her royal name and simply assigning her the name she'd have had if she hadn't been born a princess. But, in time, he found her, nestled between Kyubei Masayuki and Michael Longfellow:
The only comfort was that she didn't lie near Kururugi Suzaku. But that was the only comfort and a small one. There was something incredibly cruel about that name that sounded flowery spoken and looked flowery writ. There was something terrible about the smallness of those letters. There was something about them that struck him like a blow and sent him rocking back in his chair, looking at the ceiling for a very long time.
It was a woman's voice that gave him the presence of mind to wonder what time it was. "Zero? May I come in?"
He looked at the door and honestly considered saying no before he finally reached up, touched his mask carefully, and then called, "Come in." Even with that permission, Kallen hesitated, gradually pushing open the door before slowly peering inside. He thought for one absurd moment of calling out to her, saying "I'm decent," but that would have made him sound silly and have such a tragic ring of falsehood besides.
"Is there something you need?" he asked her.
She stood before him now. She was a strange creature, Kozuki Kallen, and he wondered if he would ever be able to reconcile her. Out of all his Knights, she was the only one who really quickened his breath, made his heart beat - made him nervous. It was more than the fact that she was the only one who knew both sides of him, both Lelouch and Zero. It was her passion, her idealism...It was the fact that he didn't understand her.
Like now. She was coming to him, not seventy-two hours after he killed twelve thousand six hundred seven of her countrymen and injured six thousand seven hundred sixty five - at the very least - and smiling at him, timidly, and saying, "I just would like to, um...thank you."
Normally he was a bit more tolerant of foolishness. Now, he tossed his head and said, "It wasn't for you that I did it."
That timid smile fell away and turned into a tentative scowl. "I know that. That wasn't what I was saying."
"That you did an astounding job. That's all." The scowl turned a bit deeper as she jerked her shoulders in a shrug. "That I thought you were heroic."
He responded to that in the only way a sane man could: by laughing uproariously. Kallen flushed in response, looked at the ground, and gritted out, "All right. Fine, then. I sound stupid, I know that. But the fact remains that you've returned our country to us, and I thought some sort of recognition of that was in order."
His laughter faded merely into a widely amused smile she couldn't even see. "Kozuki, you don't thank the devil for holding up his end of the bargain."
Her eyes narrowed warily, but even so she tossed off, "I do. It's only good manners." Then she cocked her head to the side and said, "If it's a deal with the devil, what's the price?"
"Ah, if I told you now, it would ruin the suspense, wouldn't it? I assure you, though, it will be quite dear."
And he thought that was enough. But her eyes flicked downwards to the list before him, then back up to where his face would be and then at the list again, and that wariness, that mistrust, faded into sympathy, God damn her.
"I guess so," she agreed softly. He couldn't believe that she was actually looking sympathetic towards him. He wanted right then to scoff at her, inform her that she misunderstood, laugh at that misunderstanding - but not with that list beneath his hands. He couldn't do it, not with that list.
"Is that all?" he asked instead.
"Yeah. Unless, um - you're lone...you want someone to talk...Uh - " She jerked backwards and flushed. "Never mind. No. That's it. God. I - That's it," she said again, more firmly, and turned to flee the room. Even so, he noted, she hesitated just a moment at the door, as though hoping he'd call her back.
He just wondered: How could he ever face Nunnally?
He faced her, in the end, half as Zero - the mask removed and tucked under his arm, still wearing his suit. He came into their home, the home he hadn't seen in so long, and looked at her.
She'd turned her face towards the door, waiting for him to speak. She looked exhausted. Her eyes were red, her face a little swollen. Lelouch swallowed.
"Nunnally," he finally said, his voice halfway to Zero's, hoping she would draw her own conclusions. She did:
Her lips dropped apart, and then pressed closed again, and with a tight, sorrowful expression she spread her arms. He dropped the mask, ran to her, embraced her; and she held onto him tightly, buried her face in the crook of his neck, and murmured, again and again, "Onii-sama, onii-sama."
(She remembered the flood. And she remembered that city by the sea.)
"I'll tell it as I best know how,
And that's the way it was told to me:
Must have once been a thief or a whore
Then surely was thrown overboard,
Where, they say,
I came this way from the deep blue sea."