The Cradle of Summer
Kia Ixari

But a mere testimony to Lelouch, a true King, and Suzaku, his true Knight.

-


Love alters not with its brief hours and weeks
But bears it out to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
"Sonnets 116," Shakespeare


-

Humans are fickle creatures.

This much, Suzaku knows.

Humans never are content for long with what they are given, always wanting something else, something new. Humans long for things, but after having achieved it — or having failed to achieve it — move on to something else. A man wants and needs one thing, but only for a certain while; later on, he will want something else—probably not much different, Suzaku muses, but probably not much the same either.

Similarly, the world has always needed peace — and what an awfully ironic thing it is, Suzaku thinks, because he knows that peace can never be fully realized by mere flawed humans — but what kind of peace the world needs will always be — has always been — dependent on the ever-moving hands of time.

Suzaku squinted under the glare of the bright and vibrant sun, feeling an almost imperceptible tickle against his skin that was the breeze. The trees around him were old and aging, yet still wondrous and elegant as they flowered under the mid-spring skies. A lone sakura petal fluttered to the open palm of his hand, and he smiled.

Today was a good day, for today was the first day of freedom.

Hefting the weight on his back, Suzaku stepped past the old red torii and began the long climb up the crumbling steps of the Kururugi shrine, a lonely sentinel hidden deep within the abandoned countryside's mountains, overlooking the peaceful seaside of Kyoto. In his hand he held a suitcase, and along with dark gilded cloaks, within was a black mask no one would fail to recognize, that constricting black mask he has worn for more than a decade.

But no more.

Under Nunnally's careful and sincere guidance, the world was now ushering into a new era, calling for a new kind of peace, a peace unhindered by past mistakes. In this world, Suzaku — Zero — no longer had a place. No longer did the world need him — no longer were they dependent on the security and promise and hope he presented as an icon, as a symbol of miracles past. The world was now ready to stand on its own once again.

In truth, Suzaku was relieved. The world could not afford to forever depend on him, a fleeting existence. And those miracles he represented, they were not even his own miracles!

They were Lelouch's.

Lelouch.

The mere name elicited a burning, constricting feeling at the base of his throat, an inexplicable tightening of his chest. A myriad of overlapping memories, a whirlpool of confused emotions — what they were, Suzaku had only faint ideas.

There was happiness, blissful happiness, for he was blessed with his precious Lelouch, his Emperor, his Prince, his friend — burning, roiling, ripping anger and hate, for all the forsaken innocent souls and lost lives, for the suffering and loneliness he has endured chained under the mask of Zero, for Euphie — oh beautiful Euphie — reluctant resignation lingers in the back of his mind, for none could deny that Lelouch's hands were sullied, and the blood, once there, would never wash out — and the frustration, what a blasted thing it is, festering and burrowing deep into the tiny cracks in Suzaku's aged and worn armor —

Suzaku's foot falters on a step.

— regret.

The regret that he suppresses into the darker depths of his mind, the regret that haunts him in waking dreams, the regret that wakes him up in tears in the darkness of midnight, the regret that unfailingly reminds him, everyday, of that day — of that godforsaken moment — of the conflicting despair and acceptance in Lelouch's eyes, of the coldness of the sword in his hand, of the smile on Lelouch's face, of the feel of flesh giving way, of the scalding heat of his tears and the comforting warmth of Lelouch's blood, of Lelouch's faint words of farewell, of his heart shattering, breaking

Dappled sunlight stole through motley green foliage, illuminating Suzaku's steps. Somewhere nearby was a wild cat, baying, perhaps to its young. Birds overhead chirped at each other in a language one could only pretend to comprehend, wings rustling as they rode the wind.

The one time Suzaku — as Zero — had talked to Kallen after the war, the girl had mused that it was, perhaps, pointless and foolish of them to be sentimental about the entire thing. Surely, she said, Lelouch would berate them for it (Suzaku did not even need to ask how she had figured everything out). Lelouch made the perfect sacrifice — his life made the perfect price for the perfect peace.

Suzaku disagreed.

He disagreed — not with the idea of sacrifice, for he knew that there would be no gain had there not been a sacrifice — but with the idea of perfect peace. Perhaps, to the eyes of some who had suffered, the relief of war would be the perfect peace. But Suzaku knew it was not so. Suzaku knew the wicked ways of the world, knew that there would never, ever be absolute and perfect peace, for humans are simply what they are — mere and fleeting beings, flawed and vulnerable, walking the world for several decades and then dying, blinking out like snuffed candlelight.

But there was no need to explain this to Kallen. Suzaku hoped that she held her mind open, for if not, someone or something else might open it for her, in what might be a not-so-nice way. He knew she would see — perhaps she already has seen.

His foot descended upon the last step, and he looked up, finding himself facing the old, unkempt shrine. To the right, partially behind it, was the winding, downward path that led to the old Kururugi ancestral houses, where remnants of past days and wisps of memories remained. And to the left, farther in and partially hidden by the trees, was an old, rundown storehouse.

There was a stinging in the back of his eyes. Faint echoes of laughter was dredged up from the far corners of his mind, treasured memories that he thought were long gone coming back up with surprising clarity and intensity.

His eyes, aged, wiser than he should ever have been, watched shadows flit about. Two little boys were playing tag, one awfully fast and one awfully slow, limbs flailing and puppy bodies glistening with sweat under the sweltering summer sun. Wide happy smiles stretched from ear to ear, flower crowns adorned their heads, pure and innocent eyes sparkled bright as gems.

Very slowly, almost hesitantly, he moved, walked, through the invisible dirt path already covered in grass, past the tall trees that guarded, protected, surrounded.

There, in front of him, was the house of summer memories. Rundown, worn and dilapidated, but still standing — it was a testimony to the bond that had endured between him and Lelouch.

He pushed the door open, dust billowing inwards as the light breeze once more gave living breath to the old house. The windows were streaked and dirty, but they let in enough light to see. To the back, where the tiny kitchen and bath were located, he could see sunlight streaming through. The wooden floor was old and creaky, several floorboards already detached. The dining table had collapsed, one of its legs needing desperate help. The chairs were intact, but it would probably be a good idea to strengthen them, Suzaku thought.

The stairs, surprisingly, had maintained integrity. Upstairs was a simple, featureless space, large enough for a futon that would accommodate, at best, three people. Suzaku deposited his pack and suitcase on the floor as he looked around.

It was smaller than he remembered, and definitely unfit for two helpless children to live in. The memories were by now rushing like a raging river into his conscious — tiny, tiny Nunnally being fed very carefully and very gently by her loving brother, adorable little Lelouch rapidly picking up the basics of cooking from a borrowed cookbook and clanking pots and pans in the kitchen, determined little Suzaku repairing the backrest of one of the broken chairs.

He walked further into the house. Through the broken window in the kitchen streamed brilliant sunlight, and beyond the spacey backyard was an old sakura tree, the thick rope embracing it signifying age and purity. Underneath that very tree was where he had taught Lelouch the basics of kendo. Of course, his efforts were all in vain — Lelouch had just about all the physical inclination of an injured marshmallow, after all. Brambles and bushes grew over what was before a garden patch, where there used to grow bright red, plump tomatoes under Lelouch's careful watch.

Once this house was alive, one-and-twenty years ago. He would make it live once again.

He stretched, removing his jacket and rolling up his sleeves.

There was work to do.

-


-

Leaves rustled under the gentle sway of the summer breeze. The red-orange glow of the setting sun slowly, ray by brilliant ray, disappeared beneath the distant and undisturbed horizon. The seas were calm, the melody of the crashing waves comforting his tired and aching bones.

Aging, to Suzaku, was not a happy prospect, but one that he had long since accepted. His body was no longer as quick and agile as before, even though he was completely healthy. This, of course, did nothing to undermine his skill and prowess in combat, though he understood that if he pushed it, even the Geass, still actively lurking within the recesses of his mind, would not be able to save him.

Or maybe it would.

When it came to the Geass, Suzaku never really knew.

Preparing himself a small meal and filling the bath with hot water occupied the rest of his early evening. Moving around the small storehouse was no longer as tedious as it was, for the floors and walls and windows were now clean of dust and grime. The table and chairs would have to wait for tomorrow, but that was fine, for tonight, Suzaku would partake of his meal underneath the brilliant stars.

The hot water bath did wonders to his sore muscles. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the water and the electricity still ran, most likely supplied by the compound's generator, which in turn took its share of energy from the nearby hydroelectric power plant. He would also need to check on them tomorrow and fix whatever needed fixing.

His meal, three meager onigiri with eggs and slices of daikon, was enough to fill him for the night and provide for him energy to last until midmorning. The stars flickered, and coupled with the half-moon, became his sources of light as he wandered among the woods and made the most of the night.

This silence, this comfort, was what he had missed the past decade and a half he had served Nunnally as Zero. Within the darkness and warm silence he could be himself. No need was there to hide behind a mask. No need was there to restrain his opinions. No need was there to fit within the mold Lelouch had already made as the character of Zero. Within this darkness, there was no need for Zero.

No, not anymore.

He drew a deep breath, the heavy scent of sakura and a whiff of lavender tickling his nose. A smile crept upon his visage. Lavender was Lelouch's signature scent. His clothes, his rooms, his hands, they always smelled of lavender — at least, until C.C. decided moving to the table to eat her holy pizza was far too much of a bother (which was, of course, almost all of the time).

Suzaku stood by the pond, his reflection not entirely his. His eyes, they were harder. His limbs, his hair, the lines on his face — they were all so different from who he was.

And who was he, exactly?

"…just a child," Suzaku sighed. "Still only a child."

Landing upon the surface of the water, a mosquito rippled the water and distorted the reflection that was him and yet not him.

He blinked.

For a flash, an instantaneous moment, he thought he saw a shadow of himself, his younger self, an innocent and unbridled smiling ten-year-old.

Another larger ripple by a cluster of sakura petals moved the water's surface.

This time, he saw an older Suzaku. The soldier, the Honorary Britannian, Kururugi Suzaku. But this soldier was still comparably young and inexperienced, his eyes full and brimming with naïve idealism and the determination of a warrior destined to be a Knight. And — he drew a ragged breath — beside this idealistic fool of a young man stood a regal and ever-elegant Lelouch, still a Lamperouge, still smiling a true smile, still unmarred by war and bloodshed.

He averted his eyes, clenching them shut.

No—his conscious stood firm. Yes!—his heart succumbed.

But no, he could not. He could not bear to look at Lelouch, still so pure, still so carefree… still so himself.

Still not a murderer.

Let it be clear that this disinclination to gaze upon the exiled Prince is not of disgust. Suzaku simply, just simply, did not want to remember. For if he remembered, his heart would crumble. His heart, his weak and pitiful heart, wanted nothing more than to embrace that which is not, cannot be, real — even now, even after having been a murderer and having killed so many, his heart still hopes. It was still hoping against hope, that Lelouch was still out there, somewhere, waiting, biding his time.

A brush of a warm breeze against his neck made him open his eyes once more, and he found himself staring at a strangely dark pond. The moon had hidden. Despite this, though, the faint light from the stars gave him enough to hazily discern his reflection once more.

He was himself again, older, harder, and far wiser. Far wiser than he ever should have been, should have had to be. He did not like what he saw.

As the moon reappeared from behind night clouds, light flooded the water, and reflection became clear.

Lelouch.

Still stood Lelouch. Partially behind him stood Lelouch. Hair upon brow and tucked behind ear, arms around himself, sad smile upon face. Still young, Lelouch's reflection stood, but he was not the same Lelouch. This smile would never be on the innocent Lelouch Lamperouge's face. This smile, he recognized — it was the same smile his Emperor Lelouch vi Britannia had on his face the day he died.

"So it's you again…" Suzaku said with a sad voice and a grim smile. This was, by now, a common occurrence. Time and time again, images of the Emperor Lelouch, projected memories, would play tricks on his eyes and mind, attempting to push him into believing. At times he wondered if the Geass was what forced him to remember. But perhaps it was just his own heart, and he simply refused to acknowledge it.

A chuckle, low and silent, came to his ears. "Do you really think of me that much, Suzaku?"

The ex-pilot started. His hallucinations — his memories of Lelouch — never, ever spoke. Not when he talked to it, not when he yelled at it, not when he cried with it.

But this one just did.

Silence.

"…Suzaku," the reflection said. "Why are you here?"

Suzaku did not answer.

"Why are you here?" the reflection repeated. "Why did you leave Nunnally? Your duty is to protect her, Suzaku. To be her shield and her sword. Or have you forgotten our promise?"

Words were tangled and stuck in Suzaku's throat. So much he wanted — needed — to say, and yet he could not say them. Several times he opened his mouth to speak, only to have the words die a premature death upon his lips.

But Lelouch remained, unmoving, patiently waiting.

"…the world… the world does not need me any longer, Lelouch. The world does not need Zero any longer," he finally managed, his voice a measly cross of a croak and a whisper. Perhaps, he thought to himself, perhaps this image of Lelouch is what the manifestation of my unconscious has become. Perhaps I am only convincing myself, and not a projected memory.

The reflection remained silent for a breath-stopping moment. Suzaku almost thought it was simply a figment of his imagination that gave the projected memory a voice, and that it would no longer speak any further. But then, once more, the gentle and yet heavy voice asked, "Who is it that decided this? You?"

"No." Suzaku frowned. "The world itself has decided."

"And who will now protect Nunnally?"

"Kallen is with her. Gino is with her. Toudou-san, Xingke, Cornelia—they will not let her fall prey to danger." Suzaku nodded, as if to reassure himself the very same way he had done when he first and finally decided that he would retire and leave his post.

"Perhaps," the reflection agreed. "Perhaps they will, perhaps they won't. But you, Suzaku, are the only one I trust. The only one I can afford to trust." The reflection wavered, as if swaying on its feet. "I wish you hadn't left her."

"I wish I hadn't, too. But I had to." Suzaku hung his head. "I have lived beneath the mask for fourteen years. Fourteen long years. I do not think I can bear hiding myself any longer. I have done all that I could. Nunnally is grown up now, and she can handle herself. I… I simply want to live in peace."

The woods were alive, branches still swaying in a gentle dance. Nearby, a discreet rustling from underneath a bush gave away the presence of a lone wild cat and its younglings. The rest of the population was asleep.

"…I understand," the reflection finally replied, wisps of a whisper lingering behind Suzaku's ear.

And then there was a touch.

On his shoulder, the weight of the reflection's hand was warm, comforting.

Real.

His heartbeat hitched.

Whirling so fast he almost knocked himself out of balance, Suzaku uttered a gasp. His eyes, uncertain and disbelieving, widened and stung.

There, in front of him, was Lelouch.

Alive.

His breathing was in ragged gasps as Lelouch — ephemeral, elegant Lelouch — reached out to him. Emerald eyes fluttered shut as the light brush of gentle, gentle fingers caressed his face. The smoothness of a palm and the curve of a thumb rested on either of his cheeks, and he cried.

"…you have aged," Lelouch remarked, tracing the faint but present lines on Suzaku's face.

"And you," Suzaku said through his tears, "are unfair."

Lelouch, his friend, smiled.

"Ah, yes." He nodded, chuckling as he wiped away Suzaku's tears. "Yes, that I am."

-


And he who gazes towards the stars will never again be quite alone.