A/N: Welcome to a new chaptered fic (why am I starting another one? Honestly, I just can't resist :P)! Our story begins in the time of R2 ep22; after Lelouch and Suzaku take control of Britannia, but before the day the remaining Rounds attack. In time this fic will be long, and very M-rated for good reasons, though this chapter is rating-less until the last part. So if you're not up for M rating, be warned :-) Thanks to Glorfi for beta and brainstorming!
Hope you enjoy, and please review!
I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason,
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those who help us most to grow,
If we let them, and we help them in return.
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true,
But I know I'm who I am today because I knew you.
-- from 'For Good'
Chapter 1 – Without Equal
Suzaku swallowed thickly and tried to push away the apprehension as he climbed down from the cockpit of Lancelot Albion. He should be relieved, he reminded himself. Lelouch was alive. Lelouch was alive, and coming back with him. Whatever had happened to him, wounds healed with time, and he would have the best medical care in the world, and they'd be fine. He should be thrilled. He should be feeling every bit as much relief and joy and thankfulness as he had when he'd answered an unknown number on his mobile and heard his prince's—his emperor's—voice on the other end. Lelouch was alive, and in mere minutes would be here, safe, in Suzaku's arms, flying away from this place in the Albion.
As he slung his Knightmare's key round his neck, though, as he peered into the darkness for signs of movement and pulled out his mobile phone, he felt only a deep, chilling sense of dread that he couldn't explain. A fear that wouldn't go away. An apprehension that he couldn't forget.
'It's more complicated than that,' Lelouch had said, and refused to explain. 'Just…be prepared for a surprise. It'll be easier for you to just see it.'
There was nothing they could have done to him, Suzaku reassured himself, that would make any difference. There were things that might require modification of the plan, sure, but nothing that would make a difference to Suzaku. He had strong suspicions of what might await, him, anyway—or at least he'd worked by process of elimination down to the only things he could think of. Something that would shock him, something that made things more complicated than just wounds to heal—that meant a permanent injury, one visible enough and horrifying enough that Lelouch wanted to show Suzaku, not tell him.
His first thought had been Lelouch's eyes, and that had made him almost too nauseous to think of anything else. Schneizel knew of the geass, and it would be an obvious move to stop Lelouch using it. To take Lelouch's eyes…it would be the logical thing to do, for his captors. For a long minute, Suzaku's mind had flooded with images of blood, of dried, dark brown-red caked around deep scars where once had been life and fire and the most startling, stunning, beautiful shade of violet, before the geass had tainted him. As soon as he could think through those visions, though, he had realized it was—thank the gods—impossible. Lelouch had said he would see the Lancelot, and come to him. That meant he had his eyes, and that had been a greater relief than Suzaku would ever have expected.
It left, however, a limited number of possibilities. In fact, the only other option Suzaku could come up with was that Lelouch had lost a limb. It couldn't be more than one—Lelouch could walk, if he was going to trek to where he saw the Knightmare land, and he could operate a phone, so he had at least one hand. But he could have lost an arm. Apart from being extraordinarily painful, it would horrifying to Lelouch, who had always been so in love with his own beauty, so proud and so vain. It was a possibility, Suzaku reasoned, and if that was it there'd be no problem. What did an arm matter? Suzaku was here to protect him, so he didn't need two arms.
The problem was that really, beneath rationalisation and excuses, Suzaku knew that probably wasn't it. Lelouch was vain, but not stupid. If he was missing an arm, surely he would have just said that over the phone. There was no real reason it would be easier seen than explained. It was fairly simple. And so, really, Suzaku had no idea. He had no idea, except that Lelouch was here, somewhere, had suffered immensely, and had been left with something more complicated than just the wounds of torture. And Suzaku was terrified.
Only after listening carefully for signs of imminent attack did Suzaku type the number he had memorised, and only after listening again did he actually raise his phone to his ear. The dial tone sounded, the mobile phone that Lelouch had stolen from one of his dead captors flashing on the screen. The phone rang four, almost five times before Lelouch picked up. "Suzaku?"
Suzaku felt shadows of that relief wash over him once more, even through the fear. "Did you see me land?"
Lelouch paused a moment too long, and Suzaku was about to ask again when the answer came, Lelouch's voice…strange. Thick. "I'm trying to get there now, but I've lost sight of it. The trees are too tall."
Suzaku made himself put the odd tone of voice away to be considered later. He had expected that the trees might be a problem the moment he'd seen the island, and he needed to focus on finding Lelouch. "Stay there, then. I'll get the coordinates from your phone and come for you."
Suzaku heard Lelouch's moment of hesitation—he'd always hated to look weak. "Fine. I think I'm close to where you are. I'm by a small rock cave. It should be easy to find with coordinates."
Suzaku nodded, already typing into the phone. A few moments silence while a progress bar crept across the screen. And then—yes, a clear position, 560m away according to the GPS. Suzaku let the relief show in his voice—Lelouch had to be more nervous than he sounded. "You're really close, yeah. I'll be there in a minute, Lelouch. Just hold on."
"Fine." And then the steady beep that meant the other end had hung up. Suzaku was taken aback a moment, but not really surprised. He felt like he could do with the phone connection for comfort, but Lelouch had never been the type. Clearly whatever he had suffered hadn't changed that, and that was a little comfort in itself. Terrible things must have been done, Suzaku knew that, but Lelouch wasn't easily broken, and Schneizel had obviously failed.
With a quick, paranoid glance back at the Lancelot, Suzaku moved slowly into the trees, one eye on the map on his phone. The thick jungle made it impossible to see more than a few metres ahead, but it was easy enough to head in the direction of the coordinates on screen. Suzaku couldn't help but wonder how Lelouch had made it this far to start with—hacking his way through impenetrable fauna was not really Lelouch's strong point, and what had looked from the air like it might be an entrance was at least a mile away. One minute, another minute, and Suzaku felt the time passing like a tangible thing as he weaved between the trees.
The map glowed dimly in his hand, full Britannian military maps that he was deeply grateful he had now, and a bright red dot where he had tracked Lelouch's stolen phone. A straight line wouldn't be possible—that looked like a small cliff, and he'd never get Lelouch back up it—but if he tracked west a little and out around the side…. Over a thick trunk, fallen some time ago by the moss on it, under a low-lying branch, through some wet, thick bushy stuff that thankfully didn't seem to have anything living in it and Suzaku was almost half way. The temptation to call out was almost irresistible—surely from this distance Lelouch would hear him, if he called loud enough. But the quiet made him nervous, the darkness, the trees that stopped him seeing more than a few metres in front of him, and if there was anything, or anyone out here, he didn't want to risk attracting their attention, especially when Lelouch was still alone and vulnerable without him.
Another hundred metres. The forest was thinning a little, slowly, as he moved toward the coast, though it was a kilometre away. It made it marginally easier to move, but barely less dark—the moon was only a sliver tonight. It was another hundred metres still before Suzaku could swear he heard something, and then that had to be movement and he was running through the trees, eyes focused desperately on where Lelouch should be, maybe sixty metres away. Suzaku dodged and jumped and ducked with agility that few people had at any speed, footsteps no longer quite silent because that had to be Lelouch and yes, yes he could see him, still wearing the same white robes he'd been wearing in Tokyo the day he'd been taken, and he was only thirty metres away, less, and he must have heard Suzaku approaching because he was turning around, and—
Suzaku stopped dead twenty metres away, felt his knees shake, felt his whole body shake, and had to force himself to breathe deeply, force his legs to stay straight. Lelouch was blindfolded. He was free, he was alone, there was no one there who could have recaptured him, and yet…but that…that had to mean…Suzaku could see his face, clear through a gap in the trees, and he could see the wide swathe of black fabric covering his eyes, wrapping round his head, almost concealed under his hair at the sides. And it was too close to what had filled his mind on the phone, something more complicated than just torture, geass gone and eyes as blind as Nunnally's. No. Oh gods no. Suzaku had to force his legs to move forward. This shouldn't have been possible. He had thought of this, and it wasn't—and it was at that point, five steps closer, that Suzaku realised what was really wrong.
Lelouch had said he'd seen the Lancelot. But…there was no reason he would be blindfolded if that were possible. And there was no reason for Lelouch to lie, unless…someone else had seen the Lancelot. Someone else had been watching for it. The phone hadn't been stolen, and its owner had typed the number and had told Lelouch what to say. Someone was waiting behind those rocks. Shit. Suzaku froze, torn. Surely there couldn't be more than a few people concealed there, the cover wasn't large, and Suzaku could easily take out a few people. But if this was Schneizel's people, who had taken Lelouch, they had to know Suzaku's strength, had to have prepared for it, and that could make this dangerous. How could they have made Lelouch trap him? Could Lelouch have had a geass used against him? Control was Lelouch's power, but it was possible that there was another one similar. Or could Lelouch have allowed them to lure Suzaku here because he believed that Suzaku could overpower them once he arrived? It was possible, and if that was it, then he should go in now. But what if there was some force he wasn't counting on, what if he put Lelouch in more danger? Lelouch would never have just given him up, Suzaku knew that much. Not for anything, not under any natural duress, any amount of pain. And he couldn't just leave. He wasn't going anywhere without Lelouch. Suzaku would happily die, he'd be taken and locked up and tortured too before he'd abandon his best friend, his emperor, the one he'd betrayed a hundred times already. He was going over there, one way or another. He just needed more information…
A mere twenty metres away, Lelouch turned slightly, shifted, leaned against the rock—it was a cave of sorts, but the topographical map told Suzaku it was too small for many men—for support, and looked at nothing. He wasn't trying to see through the blindfold. He was obviously blind. Any idiot could see that. Suzaku's stomach flipped again and he willed himself under control. It didn't matter. It was done. It was past, and there was nothing he could do about it. It must have been…so, so horribly painful, and Lelouch wasn't good with pain like he was, but as soon as he got him out of here Suzaku would get a doctor for him, would make sure the wounds weren't infected or anything, and there would be medication for the pain, and he would take care of Lelouch himself, and Lelouch wouldn't need eyes because Suzaku could be his eyes, could look after him every second of the day if he needed it. The loss of the geass would be a bigger problem, but the plan would still be possible without it, especially if Schneizel and most of his people were dead as Lelouch had told him on the phone—though if this was a trap, that was probably untrue.
So. Where did that leave him? Suzaku listened carefully as he picked a tree and put half a metre of hardwood between himself and the cave. Protected from gunfire, from that direction at least. It was hard to tell with the noises of the forest and the muffling of the trees, but…yes, it did sound like more than just Lelouch there. There was someone breathing, when Lelouch and the rest of the forest shut up. Not a platoon of soldiers, though. There couldn't be more than one or maybe two men hiding, unless they were completely silent. Okay. He could do this. He had to do this. He listened once more for others, in another direction, behind him, on either side, but he was certain. He had outstanding senses. There couldn't be more hiding, however little sense it made for there to be only those few. They must be heavily armed. Maybe thinking that with the stealth advantage they could take him out before he reached them. Stealth would explain why there weren't more. It was a good strategy, considering Suzaku was capable of fighting off twenty of them once it was close range. Probably tranquiliser darts then, high dose, fast acting, enough to completely disable him even if they only hit a limb. More effective than just bullets. That would make the most sense. So he couldn't get hit. Fine. He would have to make them fire as much as possible before he moved out from the tree, and then dodge like he'd never dodged before. There was nothing else for it. They wouldn't fire unless they knew he was there…He took one deep breath and called, loudly. "Lelouch?"
Peering around the trunk with one eye, he saw Lelouch startle, frown—probably because he couldn't hear Suzaku approaching, since he wasn't—and compose himself. No shots. "I'm here, Suzaku."
Oh gods. Suzaku bit his lip and made himself stay still behind the tree. This was all wrong. There was apprehension in Lelouch's voice, maybe even fear; there was exhaustion, pain, relief, bitterness; but no warning, no panic, no attempt to tell Suzaku with his tone that he was in danger. Just Lelouch. Just the one person who meant more to him than anyone else in the world.
"Suzaku?" Lelouch sounded impatient now, and Suzaku ignored the pain, the way his heart sank as one answer asserted itself over the rest. His emperor was under geass. There was no other way this made sense—Lelouch must have been induced by that corrupt, horrendous power to trap him here. Lelouch was no longer on his side, at least for now. He would have to rescue him against his will. Take out the others, disarm Lelouch, and get him back to Pendragon where Jeremiah could fix him. Fine. Then that's what he'd do.
Suzaku's options were limited. If he wanted whoever was there to start shooting while they could still miss, he was going to have to let them know that he knew. He didn't have Lelouch's strategic mind, but he wasn't stupid. He took one more deep breath for focus, fit himself well behind the tree, and made his voice loud and strong. "Come out, whoever's hiding! I know there's someone else there. Come out and face me!" Taunting. Provocative. "You think you can trap me? Show yourself, cowards!"
There was a long moment's silence. And then the last thing that Suzaku expected—Lelouch shuffled forward, hands outstretched, feeling his way without sight, teeth gritted and lips frowning in fury at the humiliation. "It's not a trap, Suzaku. Look. I'm quite free to move."
Suzaku fought down the horror, the bile in his throat. Lelouch had been turned against him. Schneizel had found a way to use that foul power to turn Lelouch against him. But was it possible that he had gone further? Could Lelouch have been made, not just to lure him here, but to lure him here and kill him himself? Could the too-small number of men hiding just be here to make sure Lelouch did his job? It wasn't possible. It couldn't be possible. But…Euphy had massacred thousands. Suzaku had massacred millions with FLEIA. He knew it was possible. He'd seen it proved millions of lives over. And gods, he wanted to die. Even the blindfold could be a trap, he realised. The blindness could be a pretence to make Lelouch look weaker than he was. For a moment, Suzaku felt a bizarre sense of hope, and wanted to slap himself for it…but no. That shuffling, that helplessness wasn't a lie. It couldn't be. Lelouch was a great actor, but his pride had always been his weakness, and Suzaku just couldn't see him pretending that level of humiliation, humiliation that would so disgust Lelouch, for so little strategic gain.
Besides, it made perfect sense for Schneizel to have blinded Lelouch, even if he had now turned him against Suzaku. Realistically, Schneizel had probably had his thugs destroy Lelouch's eyes as soon as they'd abducted him, rather than let the power of the geass get anywhere near Schneizel himself. The thought made him sick, and it made him want to run to Lelouch, to hold him, to stop anyone else hurting him like everyone seemed so determined to do. But this wasn't Lelouch. Not his Lelouch. This Lelouch had been turned against him, and Suzaku couldn't afford to be weak. He rechecked his gun. Lelouch had always been the strong one, strong enough to make up for his physical weakness. Even when they were children, Lelouch had been so much colder than him, so much less soft. But Lelouch needed him now, and there was no room for mistakes. The time for games was over. He made himself be harsh, made himself yell it. "Don't come any closer, Lelouch." This was so unfair. This was so too much like the moments he regretted more than almost any other, the stupid decisions he'd made, the every time he'd gone against Lelouch and been wrong. Ten million times he'd wished Lelouch's bullet had hit its mark on Kaminejima while the battle of Tokyo raged itself into nothing. He dreamed about it sometimes; that the bullet had hit its mark in the centre of his forehead and saved the world from Suzaku's idiocy. But the geass would never have let that happen, and now here he was facing off against Lelouch again, too like the day he'd betrayed him most utterly, ignorant and naïve and foolish as he'd been. It was too much. It was too unfair. But he was in the right, this time. A sane Lelouch would be with him. This was different.
Lelouch growled frustration, a hiss of breath through his teeth, and Suzaku was almost surprised, because he'd only seen this loss of control once before, once, in that cave on Kaminejima with both of them equally blinded by loss. "Damn it, Suzaku." He turned as he talked, and if Suzaku had clung to any last doubts about the truth of the blindness, they were gone—Lelouch had no idea where he was, and it was making him furious, making him wild and irrational in a way he never allowed himself to be. "Just come here!" Furious and disdainful and irritated and unreasonable. "There's a reason I lied to you on the phone. I just don't want to show you through however many trees there are here. Remember I told you it was complicated?"
And it was all Lelouch, all annoyance and impatience and no pleading, no humility, despite the situation, and Suzaku so wanted to believe it. There was definitely someone hiding, but there could be another explanation. Perhaps Lelouch had escaped with someone else, and hadn't wanted to tell him over the phone in case he'd refused to trust the stranger? But Lelouch was smarter than that, Lelouch would have known what Suzaku would think when he saw the lie of his eyes, and how would what Suzaku might say about some stranger be worth that risk? He couldn't fall for that. He couldn't lose to whoever was controlling this. He couldn't afford a mistake. For Lelouch's sake. He considered his options carefully, and then his words. "Okay. If there is an explanation for this, you can show me now, from there. Right now. Otherwise, you—you aren't getting any closer to me." Lelouch clenched his fists. Suzaku pushed harder. "You show me in the next ten seconds, or I will subdue—" and he raised his voice, and made it clear that he was talking to the person in the cave—"anyone who is hiding over there….and Lelouch."
Lelouch had stopped shuffling. He was breathing more heavily—stressed. Good. Hopefully the person in the cave felt the same. He swayed unevenly with nothing to lean on, and Suzaku could no longer read the expression on the visible half of his face. "Can you see me?"
Of course. "Yes."
"And you can clearly see the rocks behind me?"
Lelouch swayed again and his frown deepened as he raised his arms for balance. "I told you it was more complicated than just…injuries."
Suzaku prayed for patience as Lelouch almost stumbled and his heart ached. Gods, they were making one hell of an effort to guilt him out of hiding. But biding his time was something he did very well—something he had done tirelessly, flawlessly, for years of working for Britannia. He just had to hold out a little longer. "I can see that."
"And I told you that there was something that would be easier for you to believe if you saw it."
"Just tell me, Lelouch." And he ignored the way it hurt to say his name, knowing the person before him was almost certainly not his Lelouch, couldn't be, not in the ways that mattered. The silence stretched, Lelouch's face creased in thought, and Suzaku knew, helpless optimism and pathetic hopes aside, that the only person he had left to live for was probably trying to draw him out to his death, and he ignored that too because life was like that.
Lelouch spoke louder than he needed to—he obviously couldn't see that Suzaku was so close. "Schneizel didn't abduct me just to get rid of me, and he didn't keep me alive just to torture me."
Which only meant he'd done more, and though Suzaku already knew that it chilled him to hear Lelouch say it.
"He has similar equipment here to what Jeremiah described to us. We clearly hadn't killed all of his scientists, and those who he had stationed here had advanced beyond what they did to Jeremiah."
And they had created another like Jeremiah? That was who was hidden in the cave? But why would that need him to see to believe? He'd seen enough of the Orange—he wouldn't leave Lelouch alone.
Suzaku shook his head and made himself put his thoughts in words. "That doesn't tell me why there's someone hiding in the cave, or why you lied to me."
Lelouch scowled and Suzaku shuddered to know it would have been a glare had there been more than half a face left to show it. "Just listen, Suzaku. Schneizel brought me here to create something very specific, and that something very specific has come with me because we can use it as well as he could, and because…" Lelouch cut himself off with a heavy breath out. "Because they…it…" And looked down at the ground, an instinct that remained despite the inability to avert his eyes. His voice was quiet, pained…sickened. "You'll understand when you see it."
And suddenly the dread was back, stronger than anything, though he had no idea what he expected. It was just a trap, Suzaku told himself. Lelouch—this Lelouch, who wasn't his Lelouch—was trying to draw him out. But the pain seemed so real. The exhaustion looked so real. That tone that far surpassed anything he'd heard from Lelouch before—when he'd told him of Damocles, when he'd spoken of Mao—this was like the way he'd spoken of his father as a child, but Lelouch wasn't ten anymore. This didn't feel like a trap. And where the geassed Lelouch of a trap set up by Schneizel would have nothing to show him, would be trying to talk him out of cover, this…wasn't. Lelouch wasn't telling him to come forward.
"You can see the rocks?"
"Yes." Suzaku wished his voice didn't sound so choked.
Then—"Come out. Show Suzaku your face. Now."
Suzaku's gun was pointing at the opening of the cave before Lelouch had finished his command, and the 'now' almost had him firing, 'because surely that meant some kind of plan, some kind of attack. But nothing moved.
Lelouch growled under his breath. "He won't hurt you. I promise."
Lelouch's voice was firm, but the effort he was making to keep it soft, almost kind, was obvious and unmistakable and completely bewildering. Again. "Right now. I mean it."
And then an edge of white around the corner of the stone, and someone was coming out, slowly, hands raised high each side of his head, obviously trying to look unthreatening, though experience had made Suzaku as cautious of eyes as of hands. Perhaps it was that thought that distracted Suzaku, or his focus on the man's stance, or the one eye he had on Lelouch, or perhaps it was just that it was the last thing he could ever have expected. Perhaps it was that it had not even occurred to him that he might recognise the face, because there was no one left who mattered to them, really. Perhaps it was just his mind refusing to accept what couldn't be real. Perhaps all of those together were why the figure had edged almost the whole way out of the cave before Suzaku really froze, before he saw what the figure was wearing and then more, before his heart stopped and the gun shook in his hand and his breath quickened so much he felt dizzy. "What's going on?"
Beneath the blindfold, Lelouch laughed coldly, bitterly. "Can't you see what's going on, Suzaku? It's not Sayoko. It's not any kind of imitator or mask. Schneizel thought it might be useful to clone me. Can you see why I thought you might have trouble believing?"
Suzaku stared. The two Lelouches standing before him—perfectly identical, but for the blindfold—were the only people here. Two emperors, and he knew with a certainty that made him ill that had the other one come out first, he would have seen no flaw, would have walked right over there and into the arms of…whoever that was. Suzaku bit his lip hard enough to draw blood and made himself focus. He could hear no one else hiding, no other breath. Both had guns, but neither had one drawn.
And then…timid, scared, cautious. "Would you like me to place my weapons on the ground?" Lelouch's voice. Oh god, Lelouch's voice, but with things behind it that didn't feel like Lelouch. Hesitance, yielding.
Suzaku struggled to think, and made himself raise his weapon. Whoever the person was, whatever it was, it had obviously noticed Suzaku staring at the firearms in its belt. Fine. Let it try to pull anything. "I have my gun pointed at your head. Remove the weapons slowly. If I think you are raising one, I will shoot."
And…the man…the clone?...whimpered. A quiet sound of terror that could never have come from the real Lelouch.
"It's terrified of you, Suzaku," said real Lelouch murmured, and the whole thing, Lelouch's voice from both sides, Lelouch's face timid and terrified, Lelouch's wide, clear violet eyes when Suzaku knew the real ones were blind, bloodied and torn and stolen…it was too much. He narrowed in his focus to just those hands—fine, graceful hands far, far too familiar—removing the guns slowly from the belt. The thing that looked so impossibly real straightened carefully once both weapons were harmlessly laid in the dirt. Suzaku turned, oddly numb, back to the blind man who looked less like Lelouch than the copy did, but was indisputably the real one. "Lelouch?"
More laughter, quiet and poisonous. "You think I'm going to shoot you, Suzaku? When I can't even see you?"
"Fine." The question had been rhetorical. "Here." Precise, sure hands fumbled the weapons like they never would have and took a few seconds longer to remove them than they would have with sight. Lelouch almost fell when he bent over, clearly totally unused to moving without his vision—he must have been restrained for the past two months. Suzaku forced himself to stay still until Lelouch had discarded the guns, pressed his palms to the ground and used them to push himself clumsily back to standing. He was completely helpless. He could barely even manoeuvre himself. It made Suzaku sick to his stomach, and it made him more sick to stand and watch it and do nothing to help. Lelouch seemed to feel roughly the same. "Are you satisfied now, Suzaku?"
Suzaku stared numbly at the weapons on the ground. They had disarmed themselves. They had freely taken off their weapons. They had no means of causing him injury. But…that didn't make sense. If this was a trap, how could they do that? If they were completely unarmed…and there was no way Lelouch could hurt someone unarmed, let alone hurt Suzaku, Lelouch just wasn't…but…then…gods…was it possible? Could it…really… "You…you really are yourself?"
Lelouch sighed impatiently. "Yes."
Suzaku considered that with what didn't feel like much objectivity at all. Oh gods, gods he wanted to believe it. But he couldn't be fooled. He couldn't let down his guard, if there was still any chance…so what did he need to prove? His mind was moving too fast, too desperate to run to Lelouch and fix this. There had to be a way to prove that it was him. If he really was unarmed…then Suzaku only had to make one more check. He tried his hardest not to sound too eager, too desperate, and mostly failed. "Can I check you both for hidden weapons?"
He could see in the way Lelouch's lips twisted, though he was sure it wasn't possible to tell from just that, just how his friend would have rolled his eyes. "If you want." Lelouch shuffled round, turning on the spot, toward the clone. "Stay still, Lelouch. Let Suzaku check you. Don't move a muscle."
And there it was again, the wave of nausea, hearing Lelouch call the thing, whatever it was, by his name. How could he? How could Lelouch, proud, vain Lelouch who had never given up that part of his name even when he hid under an alias, just throw his name to some…creation? Some creature? Suzaku breathed deeply, made himself slow, made himself focus. There would be time for that later, if this was Lulu, and if it wasn't, if this was a trap…then he would figure something out. He had to check them for weapons. He had to know. So he didn't question it, just focused again, and stepped slowly, cautiously as possible, out from behind the tree. He crossed the last fifteen metres at snail's pace, gun raised, the clone's hands each side of his head again, Lelouch struggling once more to stay upright. It took every last bit of resolve he had to step past Lelouch, to walk right past him without a word, without a touch, but he couldn't afford to trust, not until he'd made this last check, and he had to check the clone first, since it had the advantage of sight. It flinched as he stepped close. Suzaku collected his resolve and pressed the gun firmly to the back of its head. "I'm going to pat you down for weapons. Don't move."
"Don't move at all," Lelouch echoed, still swaying, bent arms keeping balance. Suzaku couldn't read his tone, and he stopped himself trying to.
The thing that answered to 'Lelouch' flinched again, violently, as Suzaku patted up its ribs—and had it been anyone else, he wouldn't have known that even this was a perfect copy, but he knew every inch of Lelouch's body better than any other, and this was same enough to tear his heart in two. But Lelouch murmured quiet words of reassurance—for the clone, not for him—from where he stood, more stable when he didn't try to move, soft words that Suzaku couldn't understand. And slowly, the clone stilled, then relaxed altogether, let Suzaku guide its limbs with no resistance. By the time he had carefully, cautiously removed the ridiculous half-cloak and its sashes and checked one arm then the other, the thing was turning into his grip, meeting him like some small, nuzzling creature, and Suzaku was quickly becoming downright disturbed. Then he moved to its legs, and the whimper it let out was entirely different and too close to something horrifying familiar and Suzaku's eyes widened and flickered reflexively to Lelouch in time to see him scowl darkly. Suzaku took a deep breath and finished the standard weapon check he'd learned and practiced as a soldier enough to do it without thought. Whatever was going on here, it was…strange. It was becoming harder and harder to believe that this thing was here to kill him. And that meant that Lelouch…
Suzaku approached his oldest—his only, now—friend far more tentatively than he had the copy. He didn't even realise how loudly—deliberately loudly—he was walking until Lelouch pulled him up on it. That same cold laughter. "I don't need your pity, Suzaku. If you think I'm trying to kill you, compensating for my lack of eyes by stomping is rather stupid, don't you think?"
Lelouch gesticulated wildly as ever, though it put him off balance, and sneered and scowled, though his eyes no longer burned with it, and if this was somehow someone else, if someone had managed to impose their will on Lelouch without changing a one of his moods or his flaws or his impulsive hostilities, it might just kill Suzaku, he thought.
He paused an inch from his friend and called up every suspicion and betrayal and horror that dwelled in his memory and firmly silenced the corner of his mind that said Lelouch was welcome to bury a knife in his back, if only he could hold him right this second and never let go. It didn't help him sound less weak. His voice barely made it to a whisper. "I need to check, Lulu. It was you who taught me to be paranoid."
The laughter this time didn't last more than a second. "Don't you think it's strange, Suzaku? That you touch the clone more easily than me?"
Suzaku didn't catch himself in time to hide his confusion. "What?"
The slightest shake of the head. "Go on. Check. I'm unarmed now. You know where all the pockets in this outfit are anyway."
That much was true, but no chances. Suzaku placed his hands gently as possible over Lelouch's ribs—he had no idea where other injuries may lie. Slowly down his sides, and no broken ribs, thank the gods, though Lelouch was even skinnier than he had been, and Suzaku hadn't thought that possible. It couldn't be healthy. He didn't draw Lelouch back against him when he moved to check his front, hands across his stomach, however much he longed to, because he couldn't let his guard down that way and because he knew it would infuriate Lelouch. Hands smoothing up across his chest and a sharp intake of breath that made Suzaku think maybe there was a wound there, or a scar, or just bad bruising, it was impossible to tell through the clothing. His lungs as they rose and fell felt too exposed beneath Suzaku's fingers, as though skin and bone were paper, and they probably were; it felt like Lelouch hadn't eaten in the whole ten weeks he'd been gone.
Lelouch didn't struggle as Suzaku loosed the invisible ties that held the cloak on and drew it off, just huffed discontentedly as he shook it out and quickly checked the inside pockets and slung it over his arm. Nothing. One stick-thin, weakened arm and then the other, Lelouch stiff and hostile as surely the clone should have been. Jacket tight to his back, too tight to hide anything, and as Suzaku ran one hand there, the other at Lelouch's chest, holding him upright lest Suzaku accidentally push him over, he felt every vertebra through the skin and two layers of fabric. Suzaku closed his eyes a moment as he pressed around Lelouch's bony shoulders, his collar, and prayed for strength. Then familiar thighs and familiar calves and he held Lelouch's knee up, cradled in one hand, as he pulled one boot loose, a cursory check, then eased it back onto a delicate foot not made for jungle trekking, and the same on the other.
Nothing. There was really nothing. The hat was the last thing to check, and it was just a silly looking hat, just as it had always been. He wasn't armed. Neither one of them was armed. Neither of them was trying to kill him. No one here was. And if no one was trying to kill him, then this couldn't be a trap. And if this wasn't a trap…oh. Lelouch didn't turn to face him. "Are you done?"
Suzaku couldn't breathe. "Lulu…"
"Don't call me that."
Of course he wasn't in the mood for nicknames. "Lelouch, I…" Lelouch still hadn't moved, and it felt wrong to reach for him when a second ago he'd been patting him down as a potential enemy. Suzaku whispered the only thing he could think of that might not make Lelouch angry. "I'm so glad you're alive."
Lelouch didn't say anything, and still didn't move, and Suzaku was about to give up and just hug the idiot until Lelouch remembered that it made him happy too, when the clone shifted loudly, and Suzaku remembered that they had somewhat more pressing issues. Lelouch loved him, Suzaku honestly believed that, even if he was less demonstrative about it than he was about anything else at all. But Lelouch was also supremely practical, and he would, of course, appreciate any attempt Suzaku could manage to deal with practicalities first. So he stayed hovering a metre from his emperor and reminded himself that the clone was watching. "What are we dealing with, Lelouch?"
And at last, Lelouch turned round, slowly, a little more accurately than before, to listen. He also drew a step back, a step away from Suzaku, and though it killed Suzaku to let him shift away like that, he let it go. Lelouch had been through a lot. He probably just wanted to concentrate, deal with business as Suzaku had expected. That was okay.
More concerning was the look on his face, the tension in his jaw that was usually covered before it could be seen. His voice was resigned, neutral as could be for the subject matter, with only the faintest trace of hurt. "It has my mind. All my skills, all my brilliance. It could be useful to us."
Suzaku nodded mutely, not coming close to comprehending most of the words, then realised what he'd done and murmured a guilty 'yes', still unable to take his eyes off the bandage. It was a rougher fabric than he would first have guessed, probably ripped from a bag or a tablecloth or a uniform or who knew what—neither of the two Lelouches was wearing any black. And they weren't two Lelouches.
It was then that the mirror image—more than a mirror image, 'cause it wasn't reversed—moved, and Suzaku felt his stomach drop and his breath catch and his knees become oddly unstable again as it came to Lelouch's side. Knowing this was real, this was all real, and it was his Lelouch who had been distorted this way, used this way…it felt so much harder than it had five minutes ago. The clone clung to Lelouch, huddled small, fingers twisted gently into the collar of his long coat. Suzaku blinked. Okay…the familiar black-haired head, complete with identical hat bowed and hid in Lelouch's shoulder so that only one bright, violet eye with no trace of geass fixed on Suzaku and flitted away.
And then—"Suzaku—" the clone breathed in Lelouch's voice, with a softness and uncertainty and fear that Lelouch would never let show so clearly, and Suzaku could only gape, eyes wide, as his best friend, his whole life put his arms loosely around the creature and rested his chin in its hair and whispered "Yes," with a tiredness and a resignation and a pain Suzaku had rarely seen over all the years they'd been together, as friends or enemies or in between. "He's safe, don't worry," the real Lelouch whispered, and Suzaku breathed deeply and tried his best to stay upright, because they—he—Lelouch—needed him. "He's safe like me. He won't hurt you."
And the clone looked up, took his face from Lelouch's shoulder, though he remained pressed against him, and looked at Suzaku with timid eyes and something like awe, and slowly, the smallest, most uncertain smile. Suzaku couldn't even think about returning it. The sound of the thing drawing in breath sharply through its nose could have been the only sound in the world, smile wavering, shaking in Lelouch's arms as it huddled further into the original's body and gazed up at Suzaku from under its eyelashes, under lids half lowered in fear or deference or who knew what.
And then Suzaku's eyes were back on the one he'd come for as he drew in breath in just the same way, though with different emotions behind it, gritted his teeth and looked up...at what would have been eye level. At where Lelouch thought he might have met Suzaku's eyes. Why was this still so painful? Could he not just accept that that part of Lelouch had been stolen? But that this was it—that the wound would never heal, that Lelouch would never meet his gaze again…his eyes had been so beautiful, even guilty and ugly and a torturous reminder as they were. His eyes had said so much, when Suzaku could bring down his guard.
And then Lelouch spoke, arms still around the clone, and Suzaku was thoroughly distracted from his eyes. "He has some of my memories." Pain and panic and anger in the smooth, clear, familiar voice, and Suzaku couldn't process what he was hearing. "He remembers…" a breath of hesitation "…Euphy and Nunnally." A tear of pain in his chest, a familiar pain, but it was much easier to ignore when he was in this much shock. Lelouch's head moved unnaturally, unguided by a direction in which to look as he continued. "Not in any detail, but…" a loud breath out, frustration, anger, desperation? "I think he remembers the three of us—Euphy and Nunnally and me—as children, and he remembers that Euphy's dead, and that it's my fault…" shaking his head too rapidly, "he calls it 'our' fault, he thinks it was me and him."
Suzaku opened his mouth and closed it again and finally managed a completely insufficient "Oh."
The clone's head jerked up at his voice, wide violet eyes untouched, and its lips opened and closed again and again, wildly, clearly unsure of what it could say.
And Suzaku felt his knees finally all but give out, though he held himself up by force of will, his stomach churn and his head spin as he realized what Lelouch was telling him and several things fell into place. "It remembers me."
Lelouch smiled tightly, the smallest smile and Suzaku couldn't understand it without familiar eyes to give meaning but he was beginning to guess. "Of course."
Calm. Lelouch needed him to be calm. "What does he remember about me?"
The clone looked back and forth between them as though torn, almost stepped out of Lelouch's arms then huddled itself small again, shivering, and Lelouch's grip on it tightened.
"I'm not sure."
It didn't sound remotely like the truth. Suzaku waited.
Lelouch took a deep breath in and out. "I'm not sure exactly."
Suzaku watched the way the clone was shaking, the tension in Lelouch's jaw, all the things he wasn't saying, and wished he had his eyes to read. "Lelouch…"
"He thinks he loves you."
It was so quiet Suzaku almost, almost hoped he was hearing things, but the bitterness in the statement was too sharp to have imagined.
"He knows you hurt me once, so he's more wary of you than he is of me, but…"
It killed Suzaku not knowing what his friend was thinking. He took two slow breaths before choosing the best line he could think of. "It's going to be okay, Lulu."
Lelouch laughed harshly, angrily, and Suzaku cursed under his breath—he'd obviously chosen badly.
"Oh, of course it is! In fact, it's great for you, isn't Suzaku? Who needs pathetic, deformed, can't see to speak in the right direction Lelouch when you've got a conveniently untouched, easier, less troublesome me to fill in?"
"Though really, my eyes don't even come into it, do they? Even if I were in perfect working order, you'd be thrilled."
"A nice, docile, agreeable replacement who doesn't argue back and won't ask a thing of you and doesn't make plans or cause trouble or think—you must think all your wishes have come true at once."
Suzaku clenched his fists and told himself it would be wrong to violently shake a blind man.
"I couldn't care less, Suzaku. Have it." The clone stumbled slightly as Lelouch shoved it, hard, in slightly the wrong direction, and stood shivering and uncertain and very little like Lelouch between them. "But you'll regret it. You'll see soon enough that no pathetic clone can match me—"
Lelouch was yelling at a tree to Suzaku's left now, and this was going nowhere.
"No one can match me, and you'll—"
Suzaku crossed the small space to Lelouch in two steps, completely ignoring the clone, turned him back to face him with a firm grip on his biceps, and ignored Lelouch's attempts to struggle away as he pulled the idiot, the ridiculous idiot against him.
Lelouch held himself stiff and hostile in Suzaku's arms. "I don't need you. I don't need anyone."
Suzaku could think of several things that it would probably be nice to say, but he was too annoyed with Lelouch to bother being nice.
"Stop being stupid. We're going home."
Lelouch stopped struggling predictably quickly—captivity hadn't made him any physically fitter—but didn't yield. "And what am I going to do there, Suzaku? The clone's going to have to replace me in most of the plan, and it's crazy about you, so you can make it do it as well as I could."
Suzaku bit his tongue hard before he could waste time telling Lelouch what a lunatic he was.
Instead, "Tell the clone to follow us," he ordered quietly, and without asking for permission he knew he wouldn't get, picked Lelouch up easily, held him easily cradled against his chest despite the inevitable struggling.
"Suzaku! Put me down."
Suzaku ignored the order and headed purposefully back toward the Knightmare. "What do you call it?"
Lelouch's mouth twisted harshly, and even without burning eyes Suzaku could read fury, derision, shame, bitterness, mocking anger, despair, despite the darkness under the canopy. "What do I call it? Lelouch, of course. It'll need to answer to that if I'm to have it replace me."
And Suzaku did see the sense in that, but it felt…too wrong. He held Lelouch tighter as he ducked a branch. "Will it answer to 'clone'?"
Lelouch shrugged awkwardly, lips sneering. "I'm sure it'll answer to whatever you want it to."
Suzaku gritted his teeth and reminded himself that Lelouch had been locked up being tortured for more than two months, and thus probably deserved some tolerance. He didn't loosen his grip on the frail body that still felt so familiar to him, despite the last bit of bodyweight he'd lost, as he turned back the way he'd come. The clone froze immediately, following along a metre behind them, obviously slightly more co-ordinated than Lelouch if it was keeping up through the trees in those clothes.
Suzaku met its eyes rather than calling it the name that would never belong to it. "Follow us. Do you understand?"
The thing that looked so like Lelouch and so unlike him nodded earnestly, and while Lelouch had said it had his mind, his brilliance, Suzaku was beginning to seriously doubt that it had any of Lelouch's skills at pretence and manipulation…or, at the least, any inclination to use them.
"Can you speak?"
More nodding. "Yes, master."
Suzaku shut his eyes and tightened his grip on Lelouch as his whole body shuddered involuntarily.
"Don't call me that. Just stay close."
Suzaku had half-way turned around when—"How close?"
Lelouch laughed, an edge of madness making the sound ugly, and Suzaku ignored it. "Just follow. Don't lose sight of us."
The clone cut itself off awkwardly, and Suzaku turned around and started walking again before he could snap, before he could run back to the underground labs that showed from the sky only as clearings in the trees and kill everything there again, though Lelouch had assured him on the phone that they were all dead. Someone had to suffer for this. Someone had to pay for what they'd done to Lelouch.
Right now, though, Lelouch was in his arms, and all that mattered was getting him safely back to Pendragon where he could protect him and tend his wounds and somehow make the idiot remember that Suzaku loved him with all his heart and soul, eyes or none. They were going to be fine. Well, they were going to be as fine as they'd ever planned to be. Who needed eyes? The clone's steps were loud behind them—it was less clumsy than Lelouch, yes, but it didn't have a fighter's stealth. In Suzaku's arms, Lelouch slowly relaxed, step by step back through the jungle, too tired and too weak to hold the tension in his body. Up ahead, Lancelot Albion became more and more visible between the trees. He really shouldn't be surprised anymore, Suzaku reflected. They had agreed to pay the price for peace, and after all they'd done they should probably have known the world would ask more of them than just life and death. That didn't make Suzaku any less sick to the stomach, and it didn't make looking at Lelouch broken in his arms any less painful.
So they would be as fine as they had ever planned to be, for as long as Lelouch planned to be.
Some cold comfort that was.
In his massive bedroom in his massive suite in his massive palace in the imperial city of Pendragon, Lelouch rolled out of bed, and Suzaku raised an eyebrow. Suzaku was on his back in Lelouch's massive bed, still catching his breath, and he wasn't about to stand up any time soon. But Lelouch had a minor tendency for silliness after good sex, and Suzaku had learned what seemed an age ago to humour him just for the laughs that inevitably resulted. Besides, he wasn't really good at much other than humouring Lelouch when they'd just made love. Suzaku smiled wryly to himself. Maybe he was silly too.
Lelouch paused by the table where his shoulder sashes were neatly folded, because he'd taken them off some time before he'd talked Suzaku in here (with every insistence in the world, of course, that Suzaku had been begging him ). He ran one slow finger over a stupidly oversized red gem, down again and tracing around glowing gold embroidery. Suzaku reflected dimly that Lelouch really must have the most beautiful, graceful, exquisite hands in the whole world, for him to actually be looking at them, when Lelouch was standing there perfectly nude in a fully lit room like a work of art. Lelouch only turned the lights off when he needed comfort—when the old depressions overcame his strength and crawled under all his purpose to weaken him, and Suzaku had to yell and be harsh and shake him back to sense before he could hold him close in the dark for hours. The rest of the time, Lelouch was enormously visual, very aware of his own good looks, very fond of them, and considerably so of Suzaku's as well, to his knight's considerable amusement.
So it didn't really surprise Suzaku when Lelouch draped the long stretch of fabric over his arm and wandered deliberately—knowing he was being watched, knowing he was beautiful to watch, and taking pleasure in every second of it, Suzaku was sure—to the full length mirror that was bigger than any other mirror Suzaku had ever seen, anywhere. Lelouch started contemplatively a moment at his reflection—gods he was ridiculous, and so stupidly adorable—brushed a few bangs out of his eyes, glanced quickly away from his contacts. Ran three fingers slowly, lingeringly—that had to be deliberately—down his neck, arching into the touch, chin lifting just slightly in shivers of residual pleasure. He traced the fingers out along one sharp, straight collarbone, paused at his shoulder, put a thumb and forefinger each side of his chin in half a second's consideration and draped the elaborate sash around his shoulders with an unreadable smirk. Suzaku bit his lip, hard, to stop himself laughing. He thought he might fall off the bed if Lelouch started posing, that or go over there, drag him back to bed and kiss every inch of him until he had no doubt that Suzaku thought he was just as beautiful as he thought he was himself.
But Lelouch didn't pose—just straightened the sash a little, straightened himself a little, bowed his head slightly, and looked up from under his eyelashes a long moment. "Suzaku?"
Suzaku propped himself up further on his elbows and made himself keep his voice straight. "Yes, Lulu?"
The slightest shake of the head, scorn barely making it to violet eyes in the mirror, and no serious anger. "Don't call me that."
Suzaku smiled what he knew was fondly, and pretended wasn't, 'cause it was ridiculous how Lelouch disarmed him with a look. "Yes, Lelouch, my emperor?"
Lelouch rolled his eyes and Suzaku grinned as the great emperor of Britannia and soon, if all went to plan, which he'd make sure it did, everything else, straightened up and looked once more at the vision of himself in the mirror. All white, white skin and burning eyes and hair that always looked stunningly windblown, whether tossed by the actual wind or in here late at night, tousled and bed-mussed. Sharp lines, stark cheekbones and collarbones and hip bones that stood out without a trace of body fat to soften them, long, graceful lines, because Lelouch was so tall, and he knew how to carry it. Very little muscle, but it didn't matter, he didn't need it. Delicate feet and elegant calves and long, lean thighs and a perfect behind of which Suzaku was maybe just the smallest bit possessive. Lelouch was half hard, almost, Suzaku could see in the reflection, just from looking at himself, and that no longer surprised Suzaku either, though it did make him smile. Lelouch was just like that, had been for a long time, and it didn't bother Suzaku. They hated themselves enough. It was nice that Lelouch knew how beautiful he was. Never mind that watching him stroke himself to his own reflection, whisper irrationalities to himself and lick his lips and throw back his head and come hard against the glass, teeth sinking into his bottom lip in the most sinful way, one hand bringing himself to climax and back again while the other clung to the glass and held him upright…was incredibly erotic, and Suzaku would rather have that side of Lelouch than have him stuck with the virtue of modesty any day. It wouldn't suit him anyway.
Today, though, Lelouch didn't touch himself.
Today, Lelouch wasn't even looking at himself anymore. His fingers had moved on to trace that heavy gold embroidery that marked all his clothing, up and down a golden wing, circling the massive red gem at the base of the sash then trailing over golden chain and off the end of a huge green glass teardrop.
His fingertips brushed once across his hip before he spoke, skimming sharply visible bones and soft skin, and Suzaku didn't miss the way his emperor's arousal responded to that. His voice was quiet, his smile wry, calm.
"I am sans pareil, Suzaku, aren't I? I am without equal."
Oh gods. He was ridiculous. He was so terribly vain. But it was so innocent, beneath all the horror that had taken them. And, well…Lelouch was right. His brilliant mind. His beautiful, glorious, stupidly pleasure-giving body, his smiles, his fury, the sound of his voice. And that innocence. The soul Suzaku loved, here at the end of all they'd done. That goodness. That giving. That selfless compassion, equal to all the pride. Lelouch was without match. Lelouch was the most beautiful thing in the world.
"Yes," Suzaku whispered, sitting up enough to make sure Lelouch could see his smile in the mirror. "Yes, Lelouch, you are."
A/N: I hope you're enjoying it so far! Chapter 2 is up now; make a story alert if you'd like to read more :D And please review!