NB: A year ago today, the final episode of Code Geass aired :( Needed *something* for today ;D, so rushed this a bit and at last, chapter 2! Might be worth rereading the first chapter, since this may have been the longest update gap in the history of ever :P Thank you so much everyone for waiting, and I hope everyone enjoys :) First 3 sections PG (T), last section NC-17 (MA). Slash, don't like, don't read ;-)

***


Chapter 2 - Visceral

It was dark, deep darkness here where people no longer came. Suzaku clung easily to the shadows, and it still felt strange to sneak in here, though this wasn't the first time he'd done it in the years since it had been his home. Above, the sky was clear but moonless tonight, and the stars were dimmed by city lights. They didn't quite reach here, but finished only a kilometre back the way he'd come. There were far fewer now than there had been eight years ago. Far fewer than there had been three months ago—three months and five days.

Suzaku had climbed the hill by foot. Lancelot was miles away at the temporary consulate, flown in this morning for no one knew what reason—Japan might no longer be technically Britannian, but under continued ceasefire, and with the relative popularity of the ninety-ninth emperor, no one questioned the motives of the emperor's knight (the white demon, the devil's right hand). The temporary consulate in the Tokyo Settlement was in fact a large float ship, not dissimilar to the Avalon. The general populace assumed this was because of the difficulties with rebuilding; Suzaku, of course, knew that Lelouch had more than sufficient resources to get a new consulate built in no time, had he wished to. The Britannian Consulate in Tokyo was a float ship for very good reasons. Given their joint fault in the destruction of their hometown (both their hometown), Suzaku and Lelouch had taken the rebuilding of Tokyo rather seriously. Taking rebuilding seriously meant putting good men in Tokyo, and putting good men in Tokyo meant needing to get them out quickly when the Federation deemed it time to move against Lelouch. There'd been no sign of it yet, but neither of them had any doubt it would happen soon enough if the conditions didn't arise for them to make their move first—another inevitability, just like all the rest. So the Britannian consulate was a ship, parked across the opposite side of the crater to Ashford Academy because Suzaku had been left to choose, and the thought of accidentally running into Rivalz or Milly or another familiar face was less than appealing.

Thus Lancelot had flown in that morning to a landed float ship bright against the destruction. Three hours later, the emperor had gone on television to remind Britannia (and the world, because when Emperor Lelouch spoke, the world listened) that the scourge of FLEIJA must not be allowed to repeat, and that all those who would use it to threaten us must be stopped. So perhaps that was why the emperor and his knight were in Japan. The emperor mentioned in his broadcast that he'd just toured the crater and the rebuilding, which he was funding (at least until Kaguya decides to evict us, thought Suzaku), and he was pleased with the infrastructure progress, though also saddened, and angered, and strengthened once again in his resolve to wipe out the enemies of peace (Schneizel—Suzaku could imagine hating no one more, since geass wasn't a someone but a thing—and probably the Black Knights).

It was funny, no one had seen the emperor at the crater, or at the rebuilding, or anywhere else, but a few had seen the Knight of Zero, and he never left the emperor, so maybe the emperor was in disguise or something. Fans—and there were fans, plenty of them, Lelouch was a charismatic leader—avidly scanned their snapshots for faces, zoomed in on an obscured figure next to Kururugi that might have been him. In the Student Council building at Ashford Academy, Rivalz Cardamonde watched on television as Milly reported that the emperor would only be in town for today and would have no time for audience, and avoided his name like she always did if she could.

In a room deep in the temporary consulate, Kururugi Suzaku pulled a media disc from the player and snapped it neatly into smaller and smaller pieces, not to be found by another or accidentally used again by him. One more two-month-old film used and erased. Cover the tracks. He poured the pieces into his pack and wondered whether he'd wish one day that he'd kept the discs in tact, even fake and clichéd as the recordings were. It didn't matter. Nothing else did, now.

There was little useful for him to do here until tonight, and after a moment Suzaku sat down again and stared at the blank screen. He wished he'd come here later in the day. He wondered whether this act was all futile. He prayed he wasn't waiting for nothing.

***

Eleven hours later—funny, how 'eleven' had become a cursed number here—Suzaku reached the top of a very familiar hill and hovered in the deep shadows of a cedar tree a moment to listen. He was glad this place hadn't been burned away, though he'd trade it in a second for the consulate—for Nunnally—to have survived, or for any of the buildings full of thousands of people to have been spared instead. Had the blast been here, the radius would have encompassed a fraction of the number of people. His special kind of bad luck that the shot he hadn't controlled, the shot he'd never wanted to fire had landed right where it would hurt the most.

No one had seen him leave the consulate unless they'd been watching for him, no one had known he was going, and even if he had been watched he doubted anyone could follow him all the way here without alerting his attention.

Still.

Silence.

Nothing.

There was no one on the stairs, obviously, and as he scanned each tree Suzaku could see nothing but shadow. There could, theoretically, be someone hiding behind one of them, but they would have to have made it here through the empty streets ducking out of sight in complete silence each time he checked over his shoulder. It didn't seem likely.

Suzaku kept his gun in one hand as he prepared to step out of cover and pass through the gate—red even in the moonlight, red to shout his presence. The old associations, the things the red had once meant to him seemed weak now. Red that drew the eye. Red for guilt. No one here knew he'd fired FLEIJA—he knew Nina would never say a word to anyone, he trusted Lloyd and Cecile to stay silent, Gino and Cornelia had both disappeared off the map and Schneizel was being mysteriously silent—probably because he knew Suzaku would come peel off his skin and do to him whatever he'd done to Lelouch tenfold if he found out where he was. So no one here had tried to blame Suzaku for what he'd done. But the gods knew—of that he was absolutely certain.

And yet here he was. Guiltier than he'd ever imagined possible, and here to beg anyway. Some days, Suzaku thought he really had lost his mind eight years ago.

But nothing else was left. Lelouch was nowhere. It had been two months. And right now, Suzaku was nowhere as well. He had no idea what to do. No idea where to go. No idea but here. Because once upon a time, before he'd been broken, if not before Lelouch had been, he'd dragged his only friend up a tree by his skinny wrists to sit on the high wall just there, and they'd swung their legs off the side and Lelouch's hair had been just long enough to fly everywhere in the breeze at the top and he'd pointed out things in the city below until it got too dark, then Lelouch had pointed out things in the stars until someone came searching and scolding to drag them down and send Lelouch back to Nunnally and yell at Suzaku for hanging around with the hostage like a vagabond again.

So it hadn't quite been idyllic.

But if anywhere remembered—if the gods of any place might remember the Lelouch he did, if any place might still know that his heart was good, that they could do this, fix things, if the gods of any place might remember enough to set aside the mistakes they'd made and help them...then it would be here, where Suzaku could look up and see the same bricks that had scraped Lelouch's palms when he was nine years old.

There had been good times—gentle times, once upon a time.

They could never go back there. But they had—found something, rebuilt something, built something new from what they remembered and what they'd never forgotten, what they'd fought and what they'd lost and what they had left. Grasped a final something out of the promise that they'd be nothing, together. Silent vows and surface jokes that meant everything and some kind of impossible understanding that shouldn't make sense and shouldn't be possible anymore but...is. Was.

So he checked his gun one more time, looked up and down the path again, back down to the street, into every shadow...and ran across the break, moonlight on a plain black jacket that just missed the ground (the cloak was…conspicuous, and heavy), through the gate and back into the shadows on the other side.

For ten whole seconds, Suzaku stayed perfectly still, concealed just inside the entrance, and listened. Nothing. The slow rush and sway of wind in seas of cypress and cedar. A skitter easily traced to a squirrel making the same dash in reverse a few metres away, out of the bushes and into the danger of moonlight, out of the shrine into the wide world of more trees and more food (and more predators). Not a footstep. Not a breath. No fabric catching on bark or leather soles moving almost silent on dirt or on stone. Suzaku searched every angle—every eave of the buildings now visible in the compound, every branch and every step and every tall, straight trunk. Nothing.

And then, finally, he allowed himself to look around.

Nothing had changed. How nothing had changed, he wasn't sure—the people of Tokyo had so many feelings, so many questions and answers to associate with this place that someone, surely, should have scrawled something on a building or left a mess of trash after taking refuge here, on returning to the struggle of day and night and life, but...there was nothing. No one had been here.

It wasn't that strange, he supposed. Thousands, probably millions had hated him during the time he worked under Lelouch's father as the Knight of Seven, but many of those would have associated this place with his line rather than him personally, possibly revered it for that, not to mention that the whole compound was technically temple grounds.

The temple, of course, hadn't been active since Prime Minister Kururugi's 'suicide'—it was so easy now to ignore the taste of bile in his throat, the way his head throbbed and spun just a little—had cursed the place, and that would have been enough to keep away those for whom the name Kururugi still meant something good.

So this place was empty, and blank, and the dark covered up eight years of decay and dust.

It was so, so tempting to breathe out and follow his feet, to go where he knew they'd take him, across the moonlit path and over to the wall and around the far building until he could see a little white storehouse; up to the step so he could reach out and open the door that might or might not still work. He'd cross over into the dust and it'd be too dark to see with only the moonlight through the tiny high windows but he'd know the way in the dark, even if his strides were longer now. And he'd sit on the steps where he'd huddled with Lelouch and eaten hot nuts when they'd both been small enough to fit one blanket round their shoulders; Lelouch's blanket that Suzaku wouldn't have needed to fit under except that he'd put all his coats on Lelouch because he was tiny and always shivered, and the idiot had put most of his own coats on Nunnally (who looked almost as ridiculous as her brother, crammed into her little wheelchair in a massive ball of insulating fabric).

Suzaku didn't go there. There were ghosts here, now. There were ghosts in that tiny storehouse, of a child Lelouch no longer had inside him, and of Nunnally, Nunnally who Suzaku had killed with Lelouch's will forcing his hand.

He didn't go to the other buildings either, to the rooms he'd grown up in, because the ghosts there were more frightening still, the child he'd thrown away one day in a horrible war when he was still too young to understand what he was doing.

And the one he really couldn't face, or even dare to name, in the room that filled his memories and his nightmares; a ghost with wide eyes and blood streaming from its chest.

There was only one building that Suzaku planned to enter, and he dreaded that more than enough.

There was no one here, and no one to hide from. So Suzaku took a deep breath and headed for the closest building, where lay inside two altars; two altars he had allowed to lie cold for eight long years.

Suzaku had a plan. He had thought about what he was going to say, what he needed to ask for, who he should ask. He had all night to be here, all night until the grey light of pre-dawn when he would sneak back out and away before he could be seen. So he would devote the next several hours to simply begging for help. Help to find him. Help to keep him alive. Help to bring him home. He would ask any spirit that might hear it, all the ancestors he had failed to properly honour, every god that had belonged to this place. He would stay on his knees all night long, and pray and pray and hope against all possible hope that it might do some good.

And then, in the last hour before dawn, he would do the last thing, the thing he knew he had to do—he would allow for the possibility that it was too late. He would swallow the scream that had been lodged in his throat for two months and fight down the way his fingers wanted to close on his own neck every time he so much as thought about admitting...and he would ask. If he was dead. If Lelouch was gone from his beautiful, useless body and free to hear Suzaku asking, then he would ask him what to do. How to know. When to give up. When to draw the line and use the backup plan.

When to let go.

Just in case. Just in case he was too late, and Lulu was waiting in the insubstantial air to hear him.

Suzaku didn't pause at the door—it didn't lock, he knew that, so he reached out one hand, ungloved, and slid open the screen. The air inside was almost unbreathable—the shock of it choked him as it came out the door, made him want to cough, stifling with the smell of sitting incense and maybe some dead foliage, by the smell of it, and a lot of dust. He didn't cough—he didn't make a sound. He gave the air a minute to clear—to clear enough to enter, at least—and took the time to confirm that no, there really hadn't been a single soul in here since the place had been abandoned. These weren't the only alters in the Kururugi Shrine. There were far bigger, more important places of offering across the other side, open to the air, where more people could gather, and one just inside the gate. This place, Suzaku had chosen specifically because it was inside. Here, traces of a visitor would likely have meant cameras or some other foul play—and here the small space, the thick air made it easy to see that there had been no one. Here, he could close the door, and kneel, and submit, and pray. Here, someone would have to open the door to come up behind him, and a screen sliding open he would definitely hear.

When the doorway smelled a little less like stepping into a two-hundred year old basement (or opening a crypt, Suzaku tried not to think), he stepped up carefully into the room, and reluctantly shut out the breeze. It was dark—very dark—but he knew the room, and it was largely empty anyway. The tatami was caked in a good quarter-inch of dust, springing up in tiny fireworks as he padded across the floor. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it beneath his feet. Invisible motes shimmied in musty clouds as he sighed—it didn't bode well coming to pray in a shrine he'd let gather so much dust he could feel it through his shoes, but...well, he'd known that already.

He was here now. He was ready to do this...even the last part. He stopped before the smaller of the two altars and knelt to the ground, knelt in front of it with the dust sticking to his knees. It was definitely this one he should use, he thought; the little, personal one he'd seen his father praying at in the evenings when he wanted to be alone. Praying for a way to save Japan.

Well...better late than never.

He was going to save Japan, save whatever of it he hadn't destroyed.

He was going to save everything.

Even if Lelouch never came back to help him do it.

The altar looked...dead. Suzaku hesitated, torn, suspended in the moment before action. Lighting the incense seemed like a bad idea when he didn't want anyone to know he was here. But really…he couldn't afford to do this by halves. If he was going to come begging to the gods, he'd better do it properly. Besides, if anyone could see a single wisp of incense smoke curling its way to the sky through the narrow grill that had completely failed to ventilate the room for more than eight years, they'd probably just whisper more about ghosts and devils; they already counted this place as cursed. And it wasn't like he was lighting the main altar—Suzaku was almost certain he shouldn't do that without a priest. There was no priest here, of course, and like everything about this situation, that wasn't ideal. But while he could probably have intimidated one into praying with him and keeping quiet about it, there was no guarantee the monk wouldn't send curses up for them instead.

At least if it was only him, Suzaku knew he was begging with all his heart and soul. And sure, he hadn't done much to deserve the gods' help, but if there were points for wanting, if there was credit for really, really wanting what you asked for, and if there were points for being in the right for once, if the gods could see that they were the ones truly on the right side of this, that they were trying to fix things, that they would absolutely do good with any chance the gods could give them…maybe that might count for something. It had to be worth a try. If only because it was all Suzaku had left.

The matches were still by the small altar, still dry, and Suzaku used them rather than his lighter. It seemed foolish to taint this place unnecessarily. The match struck hesitantly, loudly in the silence, echoing harshly off the walls. It still smelled of dust in here, and the match flame made everything hazy, flickering, too small to light far. Suzaku moved to the candles first, and they lit easily enough, though they didn't light up the room like the cloud of flames at the large altar would. The incense rods took more effort—years of damp air and no fire had made them less ready for use. But eventually smoke curled up, the thick tang of sandalwood, flickers of what was meant to be chrysanthemum but was probably some other, cheaper flower. The smoke made Suzaku feel ill. He knelt down anyway.

He didn't have much to offer. He'd taken a few flowers from the garden at the consulate—only Britannia would build float ships with flower gardens for its princesses—all he could fit in his pockets. They were somewhat crushed now, but they were still bright, and fresh. They looked pretty in the candlelight. That would have to do. He added some coins from his wallet. Not the world's greatest offering. But fair enough. He vaguely remembered kneeling a few metres to his right, once, the main altar blazing before him, and someone whispering in his ear that all the money offerings were just to keep the priests alive and buy the incense—it was the heart that made the real offering.

Well, here was his heart, and they could have it beating and bleeding on the altar if it'd make a difference. Here was his heart, desperate and broken and afraid and ready to give anything, and that'd have to be the flowers, the gods would have to see his heart there in the petals, shades of pink and red and white that looked alive in the way the lights moved. Flickering.

Flickering.

That was him. That was all he had to give.

He could only pray they'd accept it, here in a dead shrine with no priest for a fallen supplicant who hadn't made an offering in more than eight years.

***

The flight from Schneizel's island—Suzaku was beginning to really hate small, forested islands—back to Pendragon was long. Lelouch was, predictably, infuriated by Suzaku's insistence that he stay in his arms, in his lap, against his chest, for the length of the flight, but where else was he supposed to put him? The Lancelot didn't have a passenger seat, and Lelouch was too weakened to hold himself upright, even if he hadn't been blind, and thus completely unable to grab onto things for support.

Suzaku would not allow his tortured, injured, exhausted, half-dead best friend and emperor and love of his ridiculous, cursed (completely insane) life to rattle around the floor of the cockpit because he was too stubborn and proud to just sit with Suzaku. And Lelouch couldn't exactly struggle effectively and the clone, it seemed, didn't get involved in fights (Suzaku was rapidly beginning to question how he could have thought the thing capable of attacking anyone) so Suzaku, unsurprisingly, got his way. This made Lelouch more furious still, and so Lelouch was not talking to him. The clone didn't seem capable of holding a conversation, and Suzaku didn't want to talk to it anyway, but it sat curled up behind the pilot's seat and murmured names, his, and Lelouch's, and others, and again and again, "we're free. We're free, Lelouch." until Lelouch raised his head slightly from where he had given up fighting and fallen against Suzaku's chest and murmured "yes. We are. You did well. Very well." And it was all he said all flight. Suzaku could feel himself slowly going mad.

It was just on daybreak when they entered the airspace of Pendragon, Suzaku murmuring a tired password over the radio to air control. Minutes later they were touching down in the palace grounds. At some point, some hours ago, Lelouch had fallen asleep in Suzaku's arms, head heavy on his shoulder, breathing softly, deeply against his neck. It was tempting to use the chance to check him properly for injuries, but Suzaku hadn't risked waking him. Besides, he was probably best off focusing on flying; it would be just their luck if the remainder of the Black Knights chose this moment to attack while the Albion was alone.

Suzaku allowed himself half a second before he looked out at the landing pad to hope that C.C. and Jeremiah might not have noticed them coming in. Or been busy. Or out of the country. They weren't really serious hopes. C.C. and Jeremiah didn't get more than ten metres from Lelouch if they could help it, and they'd been away from him for as long as Suzaku had. They looked equally bizarre at the Lancelot's feet, two not-quite-humans no longer trying to appear normal. Suzaku stopped himself glancing reflexively back at the clone. Lelouch sure had a way of picking them.

He held the sleeping emperor carefully steady as he shifted to better see behind him. "Clone?"

Suzaku was relieved when the thing answered rather than whimpering. "What should I do, master?"

And he could ignore that. He just had to pretend this was any other prisoner. "You're going to put my cloak on to cover your clothes, and then put yours over your head. Then you're going to follow me, and stay covered up. Don't say a word. Ignore the other people."

"Alright."

That sounded a lot more like Lelouch, if subservient in a way Lelouch would never be. Suzaku stared firmly at the one in his arms to remind himself of the truth. He considered for a whole several seconds waking his prince—there'd be typical Lulu wrath if he ever realised Suzaku had humiliated him by carrying him from the Lancelot—before deciding he'd rather just kill C.C. (or do his best, at least) if she tried to say anything. He kept one arm firmly around Lelouch as he fished his enormous cloak out from by his seat. "Clone."

The clone took the cloak almost eagerly when Suzaku held it out, shedding its own—identical to Lelouch's—before pulling Suzaku's close around its body. Suzaku peered as best he could over the back of the seat. The familiar white outfit was almost invisible. Jeremiah would assume the cloak over the thing's head was Lelouch's, if Suzaku just left Lelouch's here in the cockpit. And C.C....wouldn't be told anything by the clone's clothing, at least. "Now cover your head. I'll lead you out."

The clone only nodded this time—thank the gods—and pulled the white cloak obediently over its head. Lelouch would never let his guard down that way—Suzaku couldn't help but think, and he scowled. The thing wasn't Lelouch. To compare them was ridiculous.

He pulled his deeply sleeping cargo closer to his body, and switched the button on the transmitter. The last thing he needed was Jeremiah calling out as soon as he opened the hatch and waking Lelouch. "Stay quiet. I've got him, but he's sleeping."

Suzaku saw the way Jeremiah startled just slightly at the sudden voice—C.C. seemed unsurprised—then nodded dutifully, face torn between relief and anguish. C.C. glared. Suzaku ignored her.

"I have a prisoner on board. Lelouch has asked me to keep the prisoner's identity hidden from you for now. I will make arrangements concerning him."

So it wasn't strictly speaking true, but surely Lelouch would agree with him.

C.C., unsurprisingly, wasn't buying it. Given that the clone had geass, there was very little hope anyway. Suzaku suppressed a groan as her frown deepened. "Lelouch has never hidden anything from me." Pause. "Your prisoner has geass."

Well, that was quick. "Yes."

The frown creased further. "He…Lelouch?"

Suzaku really, really didn't want to deal with this tonight. He opened the hatch. He may have sounded just a little hostile. "I'd prefer that Lelouch discussed it with you when he wakes up. Please don't interfere."

Her voice was always cold and harsh for him. "Aren't you the one interfering, Kururugi?"

Suzaku checked Lelouch's position resting against him one more time before easing to his feet. The transmitter crackled quietly. "I am following Lelouch's orders."

And thank the gods, that made Jeremiah step in. The sanctimonious expression on his face always disturbed Suzaku a little, his voice pompous and self-satisfied. "Then no one should interfere. I'm sure Master Lelouch will explain the situation to you when he is ready, woman."

C.C. sneered deliberately as Suzaku climbed slowly out of the Albion's cockpit, but she could see now that Lelouch was indeed asleep and if nothing else, she did seem to genuinely care for his wellbeing. Suzaku could hear her reluctance, and the mocking she didn't try to hide. "I suppose you can put him to bed?"

"Of course." Suzaku didn't much care—he mostly thought it amusing when she was jealous. Or he tried to just be amused, anyway.

He switched the transmitter off before turning to the remaining occupant of the flight space. "Clone. Climb out." Suzaku balanced on the ledge, watched while the clone felt its way out, and fervently wished the witch would just leave. He could feel the eyes on his back. He pressed the button in again—"You can both go back to bed. Lelouch is fine. I can handle both him and the prisoner."

Jeremiah hesitated only a moment before bowing hastily. "Yes, my lord."

C.C. didn't move until the Orange was standing right in front of her, staring expectantly. She stepped around him to stare once more at Lelouch—luck for once that his face was hidden in Suzaku's shoulder, she wouldn't see the back of the blindfold the way it was hidden in his hair—before turning tail. "I'll be by tomorrow morning to see what you're hiding."

The clone was having difficulty feeling its way over the edge, and Suzaku didn't offer to help. "Fine."

He kept his eyes on her instead of the clone until she'd stalked out. Jeremiah followed with another shallow bow. Suzaku didn't trust either of them, and he didn't tell the clone to remove the cloak.

Almost a minute later, the creature had managed to get one foot over onto the ledge. Suzaku really, really didn't want to touch it, and he didn't want it to touch Lelouch in his arms even more. But he didn't want it to tumble off the edge of the Albion and down to the ground either. He glanced around the space once more—Lelouch's two accomplices really did seem to have disappeared—before speaking. "Can you see through that cloak?"

The clone paused in its slow progress over the edge. "Yes."

And Suzaku hated to read its voice because he shouldn't be able to read the tone of a stranger this well, but the thing was obviously lying. And not because it sounded exactly how Lelouch did when he lied. "Can you see well enough not to fall?"

Pause. No then. "Yes."

Suzaku saw its fingers tighten around the seat before it lifted the second foot out of the cockpit.

Now he just had to get it to the ground. "Are you going to fall if you try to climb down with your eyes covered?"

The pause was longer this time. "You could help me."

Or not. The mix of huffy Lelouch annoyance and half-hearted fear and...something like guilt, but beneath something else altogether...left Suzaku clueless. No one except Lelouch, however, was allowed to speak to him that way, and this was not Lelouch.

Suzaku glared and pressed his lips together before he could say anything he regretted. He didn't want to risk uncovering its face. And it was probably unreasonable to expect it to find the descent by itself without sight. Suzaku reluctantly shifted his grip on Lelouch until his hands were free. Lelouch barely weighed anything, despite his height—he was skin and bones, and fine bones at that. He was nothing cradled against Suzaku's body, supported in the crooks of his elbows, head rested carefully against his shoulder. Suzaku held his breath as he shuffled sideways, reached out—reminded himself he was an elite knight with responsibility for executing Zero Requiem—and took the clone's shoulders. It drew in a sharp breath, then sighed it out, and Suzaku ground his teeth. "Just move sideways. The stairs are just here."

The clone bowed its head, breathing slowly, heavily. Suzaku wondered whether this made up for letting Lelouch get kidnapped. "Thank you, ma—."

It was two shuffled steps to the spot, then a moment for balance, a second to check his hold on both apparent-emperors before stepping down onto the first step—more a rung, the descent was really more a ladder—and letting his hands slide down the not-Lelouch's back as he went down. Long enough to stop him snapping or yelling at the thing here where someone could hear it. "Just call me—you don't need to call me anything. I'm climbing down now. Wait a second and I'll show you the first step."

Another rung down, and another, step by step. It was a long time since anything had pushed Suzaku's balance, but this took all his concentration, holding Lelouch and keeping his hands on the unstable prisoner at the same time. Three more rungs and he was low enough that his hands were behind its knees. He stopped and tightened his grip, moving both hands to one leg. "Let me bring your foot down. Hold on to something."

The clone nodded, or it looked like that from Suzaku's obscured position below, and then, too suddenly, the whole leg he held was limp. Suzaku held a little tighter, and refused to be unnerved. No normal person could could let out tension so simply on command. Muscles just didn't relax that way—did they? The thing was unnatural. Suzaku liked it less every second.

But it was convenient for now, and Suzaku reminded himself that that was all that mattered. He'd had to fight standing on here before, and he'd climbed it a thousand times, so it was simple to wedge his feet firmly in place, lean forward enough to counter Lelouch's minimal weight against his chest. He bent the clone's knee with both hands, and then only one, when it became clear only one was needed. The leg came easily away from the ledge; the clone held itself in place without trouble and followed the pressure of Suzaku's fingers what felt like effortlessly. It really was weird—nothing, Suzaku knew, should be able to trust someone's touch that easily, not off balance, high above the ground.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, though; he already knew the thing wasn't human. Perhaps it was some kind of bioengineered AI? That raised a whole new set of problems—he would have to make sure the clone saw and heard nothing Schneizel didn't already know until it had gone through a full set of x-rays. Recording devices under the skin—or walking, talking ones in clever disguises—would not be beyond Schneizel in any way. Suzaku squeezed Lelouch a little more tightly against his chest, and just—just brushed his lips against sweat-damp black hair, just to feel him there. Nothing more.

The clone was still perfectly relaxed. Suzaku lowered its foot carefully until it made contact with the first rung, the creature not returning its weight there until Suzaku had drawn back his hands. This wasn't all that complicated. Suzaku's head felt only half there, and gathering his wits felt like fighting thermal columns in the sky on low power. Maybe he hadn't slept enough. Maybe he really was going into shock. Maybe things like this just didn't happen. The clone was still half-way between rungs, and Suzaku wasn't sure who he was more annoyed at—it or himself or Lelouch for making him bring it. He answered himself a firm 'it' before clearing his throat. "Can you feel your way down now?"

The clone lifted its other foot and stepped steadily down to level on the first rung. "Yes, m—"...it fell silent.

Suzaku tried to be grateful for small blessings. "Well, uh, climb down then. "

The clone didn't reply, and didn't question the cover over its head, stopping most of its sight, just moved easily, far more easily than Lelouch could have blind—that word that made Suzaku shudder and look anywhere but Lulu's face. Suzaku descended quickly now that his hands were free, Lelouch balanced easily against his body, and the clone wasn't far behind him. A murmured voice command into his transmitter and the hatch of the Albion slid shut as he reached the ground. Suzaku listened until he heard it lock.

Lelouch stirred in his arms, almost mumbled something, and stilled again as Suzaku held his breath.

The clone stepped forward from the base of the ladder.

"He has nightmares sometimes."

Suzaku wanted to ask. He really, really wanted to ask. But the clone had no right to speak of Lelouch. The clone only knew anything of Lelouch because Schneizel had—who knew what Schneizel had done, but at the very least he'd kept Lelouch locked up on that island for ten weeks, and hurt him, and clearly made him put up with his ridiculous creation, if the thing said it had watched Lelouch sleep. Suzaku took a deep breath and compromised. "I'll ask you about that later. Right now, I need to get Lelouch to bed. Can you see enough to follow me?"

No hesitation this time. "Yes."

Suzaku didn't wait to start walking—the thing would follow. He didn't slow down for it, either. It had already demonstrated that it was more fit than Lulu. "Will you stay where I put you if I find you a room?"

The clone's pace didn't falter, but its voice had that note of…pitiful, pathetic… need?...that made Suzaku ill. "Whatever you wish, master."

Suzaku almost growled. "I said—"

"I'm sorry." The apology was almost a whisper, rushed and trembling, and it made Suzaku feel unpleasantly…mean. This was absurd.

Suzaku tried to push what was probably manipulative sympathy-garnering on the part of the thing out of his head and think practically. As much as he hated the idea, he should probably give the clone the room next to his—it was empty, like all the rooms around his and Lulu's, the clone really didn't seem like a threat (and if it was, Suzaku doubted it could get past him), and if it was close he could keep an eye on it. That, and C.C. would be less likely to find it. He would have to be firm with it, make sure it wouldn't leave the room. He could lock it in, but if it was anything like as smart as Lulu—something he didn't believe for a minute, but it had to be reasonably devious for Lelouch to say it was close—then it would be perfectly capable of getting past a normal locked door. So he would be firm with it. Order it to stay still. Make sure it had everything it might need, so it would have no reason to leave. And put it in that room, yes, because it had Lelouch's full security lock, rather than the standard security of the rest of the palace rooms, and that would keep the thing in, surely.

But he had to put Lelouch in bed first. He still had no idea what injuries might be beneath the almost clean white clothes, and whatever was there, lying flat on a mattress would be better for Lelouch than being curled up in Suzaku's arms like this.

The clone's footsteps were steady behind him, matching his pace easily. Turn left, turn right, left and left again back the direction they'd come down a different corridor and this was his and Lulu's wing, where only three of the thirty-five suites were occupied, and one was as far away from theirs as Suzaku could convince Lelouch to force on C.C. The carpet here was thick and it muffled footsteps—stupid, Suzaku thought, security-wise—but he could still feel the clone behind him, keeping an exact distance, a too-close metre from Suzaku's back. Lelouch looked more drawn, more ill in the low light of these corridors. The grey of the walls tinted his skin. It made Suzaku nervous. He would go to Lelouch's room first, and the clone would just have to wait in the lounge while he made sure Lulu was settled. That would be fine. Frustrating, yes, generally objectionable as the idea of the thing anywhere near Lelouch's rooms should be, but not actually problematic. It couldn't do anything if Suzaku stayed firmly between it and Lelouch. It couldn't plant anything in the room when Suzaku had already confirmed that it carried nothing.

Another right, and it felt all wrong to bring the clone here, into their space, where only C.C. was allowed to intrude—and, well, as much as Suzaku couldn't stand her, she wasn't all that bad, when she wasn't being deliberately antagonistic. Not compared to this thing.

Their rooms, doors across from each other on this hall, were really the only place Suzaku and Lelouch had lives of their own anymore. They had given everything else to the world a long time ago. Suzaku had spent much of the last month sitting inside the door on the left, the door he stopped at, sitting and trying to think of anything he hadn't thought of, or just looking at things, Lelouch's things, or lying on top of Lelouch's blankets and trying to sleep 'cause he knew that staying awake would only make him less alert and less likely to figure out where Lelouch had gone. He hadn't stopped to erase his presence from the room when he'd gotten the call, but he doubted Lelouch would care. He'd shake his head and smile that condescending smile that Suzaku had once let annoy him…until he'd realised it was the closest Lelouch got to letting down his guard and admitting he liked most things about Suzaku, including his fixations and his fussing and that horrible character flaw of being rather more honest than his prince. Then, anyone was more honest than Lelouch, and it probably wasn't hard not to 'fuss' when you spent most of the time completely oblivious to other people's emotions.

Suzaku typed in the 15 digit door code (which was recorded nowhere and had different beginning, middle and ending digits dependent on time of day, day of the week and month of the year, but not numerically linked to any of those factors) and went in with barely a thought. Lelouch had used the same stupid sets of rotating codes since he was a child, using them only on the most necessarily secure places (their rooms here, the other two in this hall, Nunnally's bedroom at Ashford) so that no one would have a chance to experiment or practice or learn to unlock them. Suzaku spoke all Lelouch's codes as easily as Japanese. The clone, cloak still over its head, followed in silence, and Suzaku shut the door firmly behind them. The chances of C.C. spying were still reasonably high. He really did not have the energy to argue with her about the clone tonight—this morning, since the sun would be above the horizon by now outside.

Said clone was standing perfectly still just inside the doorway. It made no move to restore its sight. Well, it could follow instructions, at least. Unlike Lelouch. Suzaku held back a groan. "You can take the cloak off your head."

The clone did so immediately, and Suzaku was ready to walk right past it into Lelouch's room and throw back an order to stay put, but the expression spreading across its face stopped him. Wide, wide eyes, and the smallest, most frighteningly genuine smile.

Suzaku tried his hardest not to scowl. "What?"

The clone turned to him immediately, but the smile didn't fade. "This is…home."

Suzaku rested his hands on Lelouch's arm so he wouldn't clench his fists. "This is Lelouch's home. Not yours." Never yours. Calm. Don't snap. Suzaku focused his eyes on the part of Lelouch's face still intact, thin lips parting and closing again just slightly with the exhale of breath. Calm. Rational. This wasn't hard. "I am going to put Lelouch to bed." Fine. Straightforward. "Wait here, and I'll come back and find you rooms for however long Lelouch wants to keep you here."

Suzaku looked away as the smile fell, and reminded himself that the clone didn't deserve to be happy. He was almost at the door to Lelouch's bedroom when the thing surprised him again. "I am Lelouch."

Crashing. Crashing in his head, his ears, his hands, and these were feelings he couldn't have anymore, the desperate desire to punish that he'd locked away behind older, nobler thoughts when he'd come back to Lelouch, but—

Remember you're holding Lulu. Suzaku made himself stop, breathe deeply, and focus on the sleeping body in his arms instead of the fury in his chest. "No, you are not. This is Lelouch. You are a fake."

The clone's voice faltered, but it didn't stop. "Not a fake. Just a copy."

Remember. You're holding. Lelouch.

Suzaku opened Lelouch's bedroom door, stepped through, shut it, and left the foul creation of Schneizel's behind.

Lelouch's room was exactly as Suzaku had left it. The blankets were slightly creased, but not folded down—Suzaku couldn't bear to lie under the covers with Lelouch missing and suffering who knew what any more than he could bear to sleep in his own room with this one empty. He still didn't know what Lelouch had suffered in the past two and a half months, how much of what he'd been trying not to think might be true. But Lelouch was right here, now. Lelouch's forehead was pressing into Suzaku's neck, his weight against Suzaku's chest, his breath coming slow and steady on Suzaku's shoulder. Suzaku could feel the movement of air through the thin fabric of his pilot suit. Lelouch was right here, close, safe in his arms, and though he wasn't untouched, he was alive. Everything had worked out alright.

Suzaku knelt so that he could pull back the sheets without shifting Lulu in his arms. Then he straightened again, and lay the body—alive and almost whole and peacefully sleeping—down gently, painstakingly, trying his best to support his head as he lifted Lelouch away from his chest. The hat fell off onto the pillows. Lelouch shifted a little and mumbled something incoherent as his back touched the sheets, and Suzaku froze. But he didn't move again, just breathed deeply, slowly, and stayed silent. Suzaku hoped that meant he had fallen into deep sleep, free from whatever nightmares undoubtedly lingered.

He waited a whole minute of silence before letting go of Lelouch and pulling up the blankets. Lelouch stayed unconscious as Suzaku pulled the covers close around his chin. He looked so peaceful like this, free from the restless motion and unsettling sounds that had punctuated his sleep on the flight home. It was so easy to pretend that the blindfold was only for the light, that Lulu's eyes were softly closed behind it, ready to wake and glare and spark and burn with morning.

Suzaku took one deep breath to compose himself, sitting on the edge of the bed. Slowly, carefully, he leaned down and pressed his lips just above the blindfold, relaxing despite himself when Lelouch didn't stir. "I'll be back soon," he murmured, in case some part of Lulu's mind was still listening. It wasn't easy to stand up then—his whole heart and body cried out against leaving his prince. But he was sleeping, sleeping peacefully, and he seemed to be okay for now. Suzaku would probably only wake him fussing. And nothing could happen to him here in the fifteen minutes, less, that it would take to deposit the clone across the hall. Then he would come back and lay down by Lelouch's side and watch him all night long, and make sure himself that the nightmares didn't return and no one woke him and everything was fine. He could keep him warm. He could keep him safe. He could look after him completely, even if he'd failed miserably before.

Lelouch took a slightly deeper breath, a break in the steady rhythm, and Suzaku held his…but Lulu's breathing only slowed a little further, sinking further into rest. He'd be asleep for a good long while now. He was exhausted. Suzaku sighed and made himself press his feet into the floor. The bed barely moved as he raised himself inch by inch. "I'll only be a minute, Lulu…" he murmured again, knowing it was more to himself than anyone else. And then he walked backward to the door, eyes fixed on Lelouch until he opened it, felt the clone staring, and slipped through quickly before its gaze could disturb his prince's sleep.

For a moment, Suzaku's hand hovered on the doorknob. Leaving Lelouch alone felt a lot like cursing himself to eternal damnation or cutting off several limbs or something similarly painful and stupid. The last time he had left Lelouch alone, he' d been abducted, blinded, tortured, and then, just because that clearly wasn't enough, cloned to top it off. It was that that turned him around, though he hated to turn away from Lelouch's door. He could feel the clone staring at his back, now the door to Lelouch was shut. And he didn't like it one bit.

"Don't say anything." He could see the clone's confusion at that, tiredness, and hurt that barely bothered him, really; he'd had plenty of far more harsh things on the tip of his tongue. The thing should be grateful. "Follow me. Immediately."

The clone was already following by the time he said 'immediately', but it reinforced something, Suzaku thought. Reinforced that the thing was a prisoner here, not a guest. An enemy prisoner. Not a relative of Lelouch's (though that hardly meant anything good), or a friend, and certainly not any part of him or anything like him. The thing was Schneizel's. One of his creations. It was definitely an enemy. The reminder that an enemy was standing in Lelouch's lounge staring at his bedroom door while the emperor slept, almost unconscious, alone inside, was more than enough to move Suzaku. The clone followed close, too close, as Suzaku crossed to the door, and stood so close as he opened it that Suzaku almost had to back into the thing to swing the door toward him.

"Follow me," he murmured again as he managed to get the door open by pressing himself into the wall, and that was unnecessary too. Clone-Lelouch—a term that implied no similarity whatsoever to Lelouch himself—was more obedient than anything or anyone he'd ever seen. It disturbed Suzaku—it made him uneasy. It had to have an ulterior motive; it was a clone of Lelouch, after all.

Suzaku pretended he hadn't just thought that.

Across the hall, Suzaku immediately wished he'd left the clone in Lelouch's room while he unlocked this one. It felt conspicuous, standing here with it in the corridor. But it looked just like Lelouch. There was no way anyone could pick anything. Well, except for—Suzaku didn't groan—C.C.. But she already…the last of the fifteen numbers on the 9 x 9 code panel, and the door clicked unlocked. Suzaku didn't ask the clone to follow him in this time—no need to look suspicious if C.C. or Jeremiah or anyone else was watching—and it entered behind him anyway. Suzaku was no longer surprised. He closed the entryway with a final paranoid glance up and down the corridor. The clone stood neatly a pace and a half behind him. Suzaku took a deep breath for patience. "You can stop following me now."

The clone didn't say anything, but it took a half step back, and that was all the acknowledgement Suzaku needed or wanted. "You'll be staying in this room. Understand that I am right next door, and I will know if you are up to anything."

The clone nodded quietly, or nodded as best it could while not looking up from its feet. "Yes, master."

Suzaku clenched one fist and forced his voice even. "You can't call me that. You look a lot like Lelouch, and if anyone heard you speaking that way to me—"

"I am Lelouch."

After several long, violent moments of deliberation, Suzaku chose to ignore the interruption. Think of Lelouch. "Do you have a name?" And, to quickly amend, "Of your own? That isn't Lelouch's?"

The clone slowly shook its head. "I am Lelouch. You can call me what you like, though, master."

Suzaku wondered only half-jokingly whether Lelouch would mind him giving the clone insulting nicknames. Probably. He had no idea, really—had no idea what Lelouch was doing bringing the thing here. C.C. would know, a voice in his mind whispered, but that was rubbish, he was sure. He knew Lelouch at least as well as C.C. did, and she would understand no better than he did what was going on. Lelouch didn't want the thing harmed, that much he knew, and surely that was all he needed to know for now. No nicknames, then. Suzaku reminded himself—internally—that he was the Knight of Zero. He didn't get riled up by lowly prisoners and provoked into childish name-calling, or half-serious thoughts of it.

And Lelouch was waiting across the hall, asleep in bed, alone and unprotected.

Suzaku did not have time to waste here with idiocy.

"Are you listening to me, clone?"

Barely a beat. "Of course…Suzaku?"

And it was Lelouch saying his name, tentative and soft and unsure, more helpless than he'd ever been ill or injured or nine years old. It was Lelouch's voice, but not Lelouch, and Suzaku felt his skin crawl. "No. If you...you may call me Lord Kururugi." Even though he hated that name, hated it with every bit of energy he possessed.

The clone nodded enthusiastically, far more so than was warranted. "Yes, Lord Kururugi."

Suzaku shook his head and tried to pretend he was having this conversation with someone—thing—else, and tried to pretend he didn't hear the title, and tried to pretend this was all some kind of horrible dream...but would that mean Lelouch wasn't back either?

Why was he thinking about this?

Suzaku breathed in, and out, and focused. "Well, this is your room. For now. You are under arrest here, you are not a guest, and you will not leave this room unless you are with me...or with Lelouch," because Suzaku didn't really have an option on that count, "do you understand?"

The clone nodded again, still with that unreasonable fervour. "Yes, Lord Kururugi."

Suzaku was beginning to prefer 'master'—at least the clone hadn't seemed so taken with it.

He took two of the three steps required to get back out the door. "See this panel here?"

The clone started nodding again, and Suzaku cut it off before it could chorus another 'yes'. "This button here—" he pointed clearly as he could to the top left button, his call button in these inner rooms "—the one in the top left—" the clone nodded eagerly to go on "—this button is a panic button, and it calls me. You are not to press any of the other buttons. If you press the top left button, I will come in here assuming you're being murdered. If you are not being murdered, I will make you wish you were. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

The clone seemed to hesitate a moment, which was unusual enough—it was disturbing how quickly he'd become used to unquestioning obedience from the creature. "I am intelligent, Lord Kururugi. I understand most things."

And that was just unnerving.

Suzaku wasn't sure whether it was insubordinate (no, obviously) or disrespectful (maybe) or inappropriate (just its being here was inappropriate) or just sounded too like Lelouch for him to allow it. Take out the ridiculous name, heighten the suppressed sarcasm—because it was there—just a little...Suzaku glared, just for good measure. "Fine, then. Stay here. Use that button if you're in trouble. Don't if you're not. Don't leave. Don't talk to anyone. Lelouch will see you when he so wishes. Stay quiet, don't make it obvious you're here, and don't make me wish you weren't any more than I already do. A doctor will see you tomorrow."

Either the clone had picked up on his discomfort or it had grown tired of parroting—it stayed blissfully silent, crisply nodding its agreement. Suzaku resisted the impulse to nod back. Enemy experiments didn't deserve courtesy. "Goodnight, then."

And Suzaku could have sworn the thing had the gall to whisper "Goodnight, Suzaku," under its breath. But he couldn't be sure. And Lelouch was across the hall. So Suzaku turned around, and stepped out, and shut and locked the door behind him. It would take one talented clone to break out of that room, and there was no way the foul thing really had Lelouch's mind (it was not possible). That job was done. Which meant...

Suzaku opened the door to Lelouch's suite very, very quietly. He paused before the bedroom door, just to listen—and there was Lelouch's breathing, quiet and even, back where it belonged. It was probably silly how that made the breath come easier to his own lungs, but it did. No more silence. No more space where Lelouch was not. He opened the door inch by inch just wide enough for him to slip through, then closed it equally slowly, one eye on the slow rise and fall of the lump beneath the blankets. Lelouch was deeply, silently asleep.

Suzaku breathed.

Lelouch didn't stir.

Suzaku closed his eyes, and crossed to the bed by memory. Would Lelouch know when he woke that Suzaku had been here every night since he'd gone? It was the kind of thing Lelouch picked up on—Lelouch picked up on everything. He probably wouldn't mention it—it was also the kind of thing that embarrassed the almighty emperor.

For his own part, Suzaku thought he was probably beyond embarrassment.

Lelouch was back. Lelouch was here.

Lelouch was safe. With him.

His knees touched the blankets at the exact moment he expected them to, eyes still shut, and he could have curled up by Lelouch's side with his eyes closed too—he was so used to this bed being empty that Lelouch's body heat was like the image of the sleeping prince floating in his head—but he opened them, just to be careful.

He looked just the same. Lelouch always slept the same way when he slept alone—curled slightly on his side, arms huddled close, legs bent enough that he didn't look quite so absurdly long until you looked for it. It was the only time his body truly relaxed, when he was deeply asleep, exhausted, and it was beautiful, always, always, lips quiet, untouched by that bitterness and that pain, eyes softly shut...and they could be. And they still could be.

It was so, so easy to imagine that peace, sleeping behind the black cloth swathing his head.

Gone.

Suzaku bit the inside of his lip hard, and breathed, and looked away. He would not get into bed tense, and he would not tense lying there next to Lelouch and wake him. And so he ran his eyes over those lips instead, lips that tumbled magic words that made no sense and kissed like another world and another, better time and a whole new universe of no pain, down over Lelouch's sharp jaw, long neck...bruised.

Suzaku was breathing too fast, far too fast, and he held his breath. No.

No.

He bit the inside of his lip again, and the tears pricked his eyes anyway.

It was so hard to think any words but 'no'...

So he sat down instead, felt the warmth that Lelouch had lent to the blankets seep into his legs, felt the mattress move with his breathing. In and out.

In and out.

Here.

Suzaku stood again, long enough to peel back the sheets. Lelouch never admitted that he slept better with Suzaku by his side, but Suzaku never admitted that he slept better that way either. He pulled the covers back over himself easily, and it was warm, too warm—did Lelouch have a fever? But no. No, this was...normal. He'd slept the past 72 nights either in his Knightmare or on top of these blankets, barely crinkled under his weight. He hadn't been under a blanket in months, and no one but Lelouch was allowed this close, and Lelouch had been...elsewhere. Not here with him. Not safe, and definitely not well.

Suzaku swore quietly, muscles carefully relaxed, that if the clone was responsible for that bruising on Lelouch's neck (however unlikely that admittedly seemed), or for any other injury, he'd make the cursed thing pay ten times over, Lelouch's wishes be damned.

But for now...

He didn't touch Lelouch—there were no more bad injuries, simple observation told Suzaku that, but it was impossible to know where else he might be bruised or otherwise sensitive. Instead, he lay half an inch from the sleeping prince, almost touching, curled around the long line of his back; puzzle pieces, cursive letters, something terribly poetic that Lelouch would know and Suzaku wouldn't that just worked even though it had never really made much sense. It was warm. It was good.

A minute and a half later, breathing as shallowly as he could against the back of Lelouch's neck and watching ghost trails of black hair move like feathers and a distant dream on his skin, he realised Lelouch's back couldn't be that sensitive—he'd carried him all the way here. And he'd wake up before Lelouch did—he always woke up before Lelouch did. Still...

Suzaku shifted one hand, one inch—half an inch—and rested one palm across the broad of Lelouch's back. Of course, no part of Lelouch's back was all that broad, and Suzaku's fingers were very long. It fit. It fit...right.

And it was warm here, so warm, and Lelouch was so fragile, so...well, skinny...that Suzaku could feel his heartbeat pulsing through his back, pulsing in Suzaku's fingers, pumping Suzaku's blood, because Suzaku hadn't had his own heart in years.

Lelouch breathed in, and his back shifted accordingly, and Suzaku breathed in, and shifted with it, and they both breathed out, and their heartbeats slowly aligned. And it was warm here, and it was good, and Suzaku hadn't felt a human touch—even a sleeping, one-sided human touch—like this in more than two months, and Lelouch wasn't dead; he wasn't well, but he wasn't dead, and it was warm, so warm...

And Suzaku was asleep, curled around Lelouch like a shell (to protect you, always), breathing together, safe and warm.

***

Across the hall, the clone was dreaming. This in itself was testament to the creature's mental fortitude; it was severely discomfited—where 'discomfort' is equal to rather exceptional physical and emotional pain—and felt absolutely nothing like sleeping. Excepting serious threats to those about whom he cared, however, Lelouch was above all else supremely logical. Sleep was required for health and alertness, and if this was the way that things were, then he needed to be awake and alert in the morning to try to overcome the considerable obstacle that was Suzaku's—not hatred, he couldn't—but... hatred.

And so the clone had checked the room for a change of clothes and found none. He had hung his cloak and coat in the wardrobe, placed his hat carefully on the nightstand, removed his shoes and climbed into bed in his shirt and pants—it would be impractical to sleep naked when there was every chance he might be awoken unexpectedly, if he was indeed being treated as hostile. The fabric was soft, at least, which helped a little when his mind wandered and his bones ached and his skin burned more fiercely than usual.

And so by pure force of will, something that Lelouch possessed in great plenty, he had fallen asleep, curled on one side, arms huddled close, legs bent up just enough that he didn't look quite so absurdly tall. His body wasn't relaxed—his body wasn't capable of relaxing. His brain, though brilliant, was not exactly Lelouch's, and nor was his body, and relaxation was not something in the spectrum of possibility for either right now. But he was sleeping. And sleeping, Lelouch's clone had begun to dream.

There was sun streaming through the sheer curtains, thick with the gold of late afternoon—heavier red velvet drapes waited to be pulled, but the warmth felt good on bare skin and cooling sweat.

The clone nearly always dreamed about roughly the same things.

They weren't sweaty from sex—it had been less than that, a part of this incident but not a part of this dream. This was usual, dreaming in bytes, in moments, single memories of this. They—Lelouch—were usually on the other side of their bed, but today they were on the window side because they'd been cold, bare-skinned, and hadn't wanted to retreat under the blankets yet lest sleep take its claim, and so Suzaku had lazily shaken his head and smiled and rolled them over to the other side of the bed where the sun would shine on their back.

The sun was always a beautiful pink-gold over Ashford Academy—over the whole Tokyo Settlement—in the late afternoon, and always warm, even in winter.

Suzaku's skin was bronzed and healthy-looking and glowing in the soft light, and they—Lelouch—shifted their head enough to brush their lips against his shoulder. Suzaku smiled, chuckled quietly, barely a breath, pressed his palm up the centre of Lelouch's back to comb long, firm fingers through mussed hair and trail them back down.

They were already sans clothing—they had already gotten off once this afternoon. Tumbling in the door from—where?—somewhere unrelated, somewhere that didn't matter enough to dream about, to bother thinking of—one of those heated encounters that came in that time from stupid games and joking arguments and moments of meeting gazes in the late afternoon sun. Lips that came together like they'd done a hundred times in weeks, just-too-hard pressures of finger-pads on necks and heads and hands and wrists, brushing noses and fluttering eyelids and Lelouch's hair always getting in the way.

Their hair.

The clone shivered in its sleep, fingers twitching, muscles slowly relaxing, releasing—letting go. Beneath starched sheets, wrapped in imperial gold and white, its limbs untensed, knees unlocked, joints shifted into a more natural position for sleep. The clone's body relaxed as pain dissipated. Lelouch—Lelouch's clone—sighed happily, and sank into a deeper rest.

From frantic kissing—Suzaku not walking away, Suzaku not turning around, Suzaku holding on, holding on tight and the strength of his arms—to a rapidly acquired state of nudity, Lelouch fumbling buttons and Suzaku sliding fingers down his spine to pull him closer—a gasp of breath—before hooking the waistband of his trousers...and flashes, flashes of tangled sheets and tangled limbs and breathless gasping into each others' mouths and whispered words and parts of words and hands bringing each other off to the same rhythm, starting fast and getting faster, thrusting into each other's grips and bodies and warmths and breaths and Suzaku holding out as best he can to come just a moment before Lelouch, chins bumping as their heads fall back, eyes squeezed shut, golden half-set sunlight dancing in the liquid smearing their hands and their stomachs and Lelouch's sheets.

And they breathe down together, and Suzaku laughs about their rushing, and Lelouch says something smart (because they are always smart, Lelouch and his double, even if Suzaku seems to have forgotten that in the present), and they're there together, bare, evening air cooling on sweat and semen, and then it's back to Lelouch—them—shivering, and it's too early for sleep, so Suzaku rolls them over to where the sun shines warm on their back.

And here the dream begins in earnest.

The pain is gone, and the aching, and the burning, and the need. The clone is sleeping—Lelouch is sleeping—and with these dreams filling his mind—with these memories in his dreams—the clone is Lelouch in everything but the unusual, exceptional sense of relief and the lingering, sleeping awareness that the pain will inevitably return.

There is sun streaming through the sheer curtains—muslin with fine threads in squares and squares of sunny white. Sayoko always tucks the curtains up to let more light in, except for the ones jammed behind the bed. Suzaku always lets them down again, just the light ones so the sun is diffuse and sight is shielded, and he doesn't say anything, but Lelouch knows the uncovered windows make him nervous, and doesn't say anything either. Their back is warm with the light, and their head is heavy on Suzaku's shoulder, body not curled against him but sprawled across one half of him—Suzaku on his back and Lelouch on his stomach, unwieldy and oddly positioned as always post-orgasm, one arm settled on Suzaku's chest. It is supremely comfortable—Suzaku is extremely comfortable to lie on—

and so the stream of thought, tense thought, alertness, worry, discomfort running through their head is of little concern to the clone, because this is perfect. Lelouch is not content in the memory—he is still thinking of Suzaku walking away, turning away and leaving Lelouch masked and speechless in the warehouse, and because they are brilliant, he is not sulking about it but making plans. Plans to keep him. Plans to bring him over to Zero's army. Plans to manipulate, to communicate, to change the constant repetition of no, no...because he wants Suzaku on his side. Because he doesn't want...this.

The plans are of little concern to the clone, or to the dream. They are plans for the past, to change events that didn't change and can't be changed, now. The worries are for situations no longer relevant, at least for the moment, and beneath the plans, beneath the constant stream of thought is a perfection waiting to be lost in, in the shadows of the curtain fabric's weave on Suzaku's skin and the taste of his skin on their lips and the warmth of this and the touch of it and the right and good and whole.

The thoughts, though, are necessarily a part of things when they move again, because this is not just a dream—this is a distant, half-lived memory.

Lelouch moves his head again, brushes his lips once more across Suzaku's shoulder, raises his head from rest enough to kiss Suzaku's collarbone and taste salt. Suzaku smiles contentedly and rubs a thumb in circles between two vertebrae. "Mmm?"

Lelouch shrugs and lowers his face back to Suzaku's skin rather than form an expression.

"Nothing," he murmurs against the edge of Suzaku's chest, but his thoughts, the thoughts the clone doesn't need or want aren't nothing, the thoughts are 'I want you', the thoughts are 'Why can't I have you?', frustration and scheming and need.

It's only because he's become very, very used to this that the clone can make what comes next separate to that thought, dream it as touch and sensation and the simplest kinds of love and not want and the need to claim and an edge of fear. Suzaku will not come quietly to the Black Knights and see reason. And so, in his Ashford bed, in the careful mask Suzaku won't let him remove, Lelouch claims him more quietly, uselessly; for a moment's peace of mind, for a little comfort in the late afternoon.

Mine.

Suzaku's eyes flicker open again as Lelouch pushes his weight a little way off the bed, and a half-formed query turns to a stretched, closed-lipped, sleepy smile as Lelouch leans over him and brushes a kiss just above his right nipple, and another, and another right in the centre of his chest. Strong fingers twitch a little and stay where they are, one hand laced with Lelouch's, one in the small of Lelouch's back, because both are itching to card through Lelouch's hair but Lelouch hates feeling like Suzaku's guiding his movement and Suzaku knows that. Lelouch kisses slowly, slowly down Suzaku's sternum and lets the taste of his skin, imaginary echoes of cedar wood and cypress, warmth and salt and water, familiarity and stability, ground him with the feeling of hard muscle beneath the tip of his tongue as he teases a line out toward the beat of Suzaku's heart.

Suzaku shivers—twitches—clenches every muscle in his body not to raise his hips.

Lelouch smirks, and lets just the tip of his tongue between his teeth, and licks just the tip of Suzaku's left nipple, and Suzaku moans through lips clamped shut and tries to grip the sheets without crushing Lelouch's fingers, and all the doubts and fears and unease in Lelouch's mind ebb away.

Suzaku is his. Of course he's his. He'll come back to him soon enough.

Of course he will.

The thought belongs to both of them, in both times, and Lelouch's clone tries not to remember how long and how much pain it took for that certainty to prove justified the first time.

It doesn't matter. Not right now.

Focus on feeling. Focus on the way he doesn't pull away.

Remember.

He makes Suzaku wait just a moment, blowing softly on the damp skin, letting him shiver and beg with his eyes for one second, two seconds, three—before nipping there hard, soft flesh good between his teeth. He sucks it in before the gasp can leave Suzaku's mouth, sucks it in to run his tongue in circles and tease and arouse and feel Suzaku's nipple hard between his lips and feel Suzaku's body shaking just slightly beneath him with the effort of stillness and know that Suzaku's erection will be hard and weeping and desperate for his mouth by the time he chooses to grace it with his attention.

Suzaku needs him. Wants him.

Belongs with him.

Always.

When he pulls back, he blows on the glistening nipple again just to feel Suzaku's hips jerk up half an involuntary inch beneath him. He straddles him properly before he turns to the other side, and he's careful, very careful not to let their erections brush, because Suzaku is going to be desperate. The moment it takes to shift his legs is more than enough time to see that Suzaku is, indeed, very much aroused, and very much erect, and exerting an amount of effort that only Suzaku would ever bother with to keep his hips flat on the mattress.

Lelouch smirks again as he licks a wide circle around Suzaku's other nipple and avoids it altogether. Suzaku pouts. It's unimaginably satisfying. "Lelouch..."

Lelouch's smirk grows, and he raises an eyebrow.

Suzaku bites his lip and rubs his thumb along one of the pale fingers still tangled in his hand. "You are the world's biggest tease."

But that is a challenge. So Lelouch meets Suzaku's eyes instead of ducking his head again, and Suzaku knows he's in for it from the look there, and Lelouch knows the smiling, groaning resignation to something truly maddeningly fantastic. He takes a few seconds for thought, then smirks once more for good measure as he rebalances himself on his knees, lifts his free hand from the bed, stares into Suzaku's just-wavering gaze and licks a feather-light circle round his own gathered fingertips.

Suzaku moans again, loudly.

Lelouch is a tease, a clever, cruel, luxuriant tease, and he presses two fingers into his mouth slowly, eyes still locked with Suzaku's, leaves his lips just parted enough that Suzaku can almost see him teasing them with his tongue, draws them out inch by inch and swipes them across his lips and lowers them almost halfway down to finally touch Suzaku's other aching nipple (not the stronger ache between his legs, not yet, not until he's lost) before pulling them back up and bobbing his head downright lewdly to suck himself in again, and again, and again, and only when Suzaku's whole body jerks just a little despite his practiced restraint and he lets out a muffled sound that might have been the beginning of a groan does Lelouch press the wet pads of his fingers to Suzaku's hard, dry right nipple, and then his lips, and then his open mouth, sucking, then biting, then teasing one more time with the tip of his tongue before drawing back to see Suzaku's face.

Suzaku's cheeks are flushed, and the light is dimmer now, evening, the sun beginning to set in earnest, but it's enough, and he wants this finished before the sun goes down. He wants Suzaku to watch him do it, and he wants to see the look on Suzaku's face as he comes down, the look that says 'I would follow you anywhere' and means it with every beat of his heart. Even if it's only because he doesn't know.

Lelouch replaces his hand on the mattress by Suzaku's shoulder, leans over, and presses one slow, almost chaste kiss to his neck. Suzaku shivers, and Lelouch's own erection is pushing him on. He whispers into the hollow of Suzaku's throat, into the most sensitive place, the place where you can push something as blunt as a pencil and press through to the trachea and burst the breath and kill. The most vulnerable—the most intimate place. He's not going to make Suzaku beg—he wants to claim, not to fulfil. He presses his lips against the soft skin, and speaks there, lips brushing the warmth. "I want to suck you off."

Suzaku's whole body jerks again, and Lelouch can feel the restraint in the hand he's still holding.

He smiles. "Shall I take you in my mouth, Suzaku?"

Suzaku breathes heavily, bends his neck to try to kiss the top of Lelouch's head, presses his hips down into the mattress. "Y--" Choked and heady and cut off by breath.

"Will you come for me, Suzaku?"

Suzaku arches right off the bed, head pressing back into the mattress, desperate for touch, and Lelouch nips at his exposed neck and kisses the tiny white marks he leaves.

"Yes," Suzaku whispers, murmurs, voice lost somewhere indefinable, "Yes—Lulu..."

Lelouch nips his throat again—"Don't call me that—" and doesn't kiss it better, just for emphasis, before sitting back up straight and shuffling back on the bed and it's all one fluid, long-limbed movement from his head at Suzaku's throat to his head at Suzaku's hips, one hand still clasped. Suzaku's whole body is strung tight as Lelouch just breathes—in, out. In. Out.

Suzaku's cock twitches with each soft breath across the skin.

Lelouch chuckles quietly.

Perfect.

"Lelouch...pl—"

"Shhh."

Lelouch looks up and sure enough, Suzaku is peering down as best he can, eyes pleading, and Lelouch stops smirking just long enough to smile, properly.

And then he presses down Suzaku's hips with one probably useless hand, and presses the thumb of the other into Suzaku's palm, and dares Suzaku with his eyes to come too soon. He ducks his head and pushes his tongue out past his lips and licks a long line along the length of Suzaku's erection and tastes precum and sweat and skin and Suzaku and feels more at peace than he ever does at any other time of day, than he ever does with a mind clear enough to worry that this will never be without pretend.

Right now, this is without pretend. Right now, he's just Lelouch, and the sounds Suzaku makes in bed make him lust so hard he almost forgets how stupidly in love he is, and how weak that makes him.

Right now, he can't hate this.

Suzaku does his best to hold his hips to the bed, and Lelouch presses them down with his one free hand, and Suzaku gasps and moans and mumbles strings of senseless, needy words about love and beauty and gods and love and love and Lelouch sucks hard on the tip and swallows precum and dips low again, takes Suzaku just to the back of his mouth then draws up, tongue swirling round the shaft as he goes until he's at the tip again.

He's getting good at this—or rather, he's getting good at doing this to Suzaku, because he's attentive and observative and scheming and remembers everything. Lelouch holds the tip between his lips and draws his tongue back into his mouth so he can press it there as he goes back down, press the tip of his tongue to the tip of Suzaku's cock until it slips between the skin and moves under the foreskin and Suzaku's fist clenches in his and what sounds like a curse flies from Suzaku's lips. He's close, so close, his restraint slipping by the second so Lelouch takes him in again, further, takes him back just a little into his throat, as far as he can, almost all the way, and off again, and back down, and faster, and faster, until the weight and the taste and the heat of Suzaku in his mouth is like identity being stripped away and little shards of separate colliding and fusing and becoming one and faster, faster so he's dizzy and lightheaded and Suzaku's panting, moaning, low and fast and faster until Suzaku cries out and unclenches his fist to grab Lelouch's wrist and it's more than warning enough because Lelouch is so ready because this is good, this is right, this is together and whole and warm and safe and wonderful, doubtless, and Suzaku comes until Lelouch's mouth feels full and then some, and he has to gulp awkwardly not to spill any, but he swallows it, and keeps Suzaku in his mouth as he comes down, sucks the remainder from the tip until it's all gone, then pulls back just enough to lick the last stickiness off the shaft as Suzaku's free hand comes finally to stroke clumsily through his hair, other hands still tangled together.

Suzaku lets Lelouch lick and preen for all of about six seconds after he's half-conscious again before he tugs insistently on his hand and then at his chin, until Lelouch slides back up Suzaku's body. Their lips meet once, twice and it's slow now, warm, still a little clumsy, and Suzaku's got both arms wrapped around Lelouch like he'll never go anywhere else.

Long, warm moments full of incoherent murmuring later Suzaku tries to move to return the favour, but Lelouch shakes his head and insists he use his hand instead, because it's good to look into each other's faces, good to press lips together, lazily, one hand still joined.

In the real time, in the real place, sixteen months ago Lelouch also knew that it was his gesture for his own comfort, knew that he wanted to undo Suzaku that way, not to be undone himself; that he wanted to focus on that perfectly executed plan, tied off with a neat finish—jerking and gasping into Suzaku's hand, coming gloriously over their stomachs again with the heady rush of a second orgasm in one afternoon—evening—and the last light of sunset glaring across their faces through the muslin. He had claimed Suzaku for the evening, and his plan had worked, and it felt good, even if it meant nothing. Even if it would feel pathetic when Suzaku put his clean, garishly orange army uniform back on tomorrow afternoon.

In the dream, though, there was very little thought. In the dream, everything was just perfect.

In starched sheets and newly stained white trousers, Lelouch's clone stretched happily in his sleep. Somewhere in his memory-filled dreams, Lelouch—they—were happy, and Suzaku was happy, and everything was perfect. And for the first time since last waking up, Lelouch's clone was completely free of pain.


***

NB: So, there you are :P So, so sorry it's been such a very long time; I am the worst updater in the world :S I have the fic a lot more worked out now; hopefully the next update will be somewhat quicker ;D This fic is very experimental for me, and there are a few things in this chapter I'm still a bit :S about, so please let me know what you liked and what you didn't! Feedback would be very very much appreciated; I want to do the best I can for next chapter :D Oh, and feedback on chapter length is extra helpful; some people want every chapter to be 25K :P, some like them broken down to 5K or 2K...let me know what you guys prefer :)

Thank you so much to those who've kept on emailing me about this fic for the last almost year - you guys are endlessly patient and I would have abandoned this for other stories long ago if I hadn't had your support :) Thanks for reading, and please review! :D