Author's Note: Pay attention to the dates, people. There's a bit of time-skipping. Also, *sob* I'm sorry for the wait.
From the Ashes
U.M.S. Marterra, Columbia Interplanetary Port, Eastern America, Earth. June 10th, 1529 A.W.E.
Phoenix woke with a start, blinking away images of ghostly emperors and tinted masks as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of his cabin. He ran a hand through his hair, exhaling roughly. Had he really been woken up by a dream that was already fading?
The buzz of his PD on the desk convinced him otherwise. He yawned and rolled over, tapping the monitor to shut off the vibrations. The screen flared to life, illuminating the tiny cabin room and showing him that the time was 3:30 AM.
Time to relieve Pailey of his watch, and time to start his own. Elsewhere aboard the Marterra, Lelouch might be plotting. Waiting for a chance to escape or set some evil plan into motion, just like he had been scheming to take control of Britannia's courtly stage as a child.
Phoenix forced himself out of bed, throwing on his sleeveless hoody and not bothering to change out of his pajamas. He didn't have to care if the former Emperor of Britannia thought he was a slob. It was the middle of the night, and Pailey—the only person that mattered—had once told him he might as well wear pajamas when he was caught accidentally sleeping in the history department's library. He hoped the professor had remembered his promise of coffee. With another yawn, he stuffed his feet into his flip flops and left his cabin, trudging down the hallway to Lelouch's holding facility.
The facility was cabin 52, an ordinary student's cabin and completely normal except for its current contents. He swung his arms as he made his way down the hallway, hoping the movement would help him wake up. It was still very dark outside, and it felt as if he had only just gotten to sleep before his PD had started going off.
"…known Zero for two years. I have no idea what you're—"
Phoenix stopped abruptly, wide awake as a woman cut off Pailey's echoing voice. Who was…?
"That's exactly why you don't see it. It's creepy, William. I thought it the moment I saw him, and now this?"
Phoenix swallowed nervously, leaning against the wall in the near darkness. He didn't exactly want to eavesdrop, but at the same time… it would be completely awkward to walk in on a private conversation about himself. The woman's voice, though… it was Dr. Trin. What did she have against him, anyway? He had been thinking they got along well, that she was impressed by him, even. And if she had a problem, what was she doing talking to Pailey about it in the middle of the night?
"I don't see what connection you're making here," Pailey's voice rang out flatly.
"Just look at him," Dr. Trin said, her voice almost too low for him to hear.
Phoenix blinked at the dark ceiling, suddenly wishing he had gotten dressed. Why didn't Dr. Trin like him? He had thought that everyone on the research team was fond of him after the discovery of Zero's tomb. And Dr. Trin hadn't seemed like the type to be jealous…. He felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he stared at the dark floor. It hurt, and not just his pride, to realize that the lead researcher had some problem with him.
"He's a great kid," Pailey defended, and Phoenix's dropping self-esteem stabilized. "He's exactly what he looks like, Faery. Hardworking, honest, bright…"
Phoenix felt himself start to redden. Did Pailey really think so highly of—
"Willing to make deals with an undead tyrant?" Dr. Trin countered quickly. "I'm not the type to be superstitious, but Lelouch does it."
"I know what you mean," Pailey responded, his voice heavy with discomfort.
"So how did he even find Lelouch in the first place?" she asked.
Phoenix froze, his breath catching in his lungs. Her question was something he preferred not to think about. It was as if its echoes reached his place in the Marterra's hallway like a freezing, paralyzing gas.
"I… like I said, he's a smart kid." Pailey sounded hesitant and unsure, almost too quiet for Phoenix to make out. Maybe the professor was thinking of the look on Phoenix's face as he had run into the woods, chasing something that no one else could see. Perhaps Pailey was remembering the way Phoenix had told him about the sword, and then only later—when it was too late to turn back—he had pointed to the grave.
There had been a long enough pause in the conversation. Phoenix coughed, and started walking down the hallway, making sure his footsteps were audible. He didn't want them to know he had been listening to their conversation, and felt guilty enough for listening to the bit he had. Sneaking around wasn't like him.
In truth, he didn't want to hear what other theories they had on why and how he had known Lelouch was there. Phoenix had been doing well convincing himself it was purely a coincidence of Dopaizin and irrepressible nerdiness.
He rounded the corner, seeing that Pailey and Dr. Trin were smiling at each other too nicely given their previous conversation. The wiry woman waved and stifled a fake yawn when she caught sight of the young student, then nodded and patted Phoenix's shoulder as they passed each other. Clearly she was off to bed. He nodded, turning to watch her go, his unformed thoughts interrupted a moment later by his advisor.
"Welcome to the night watch," Pailey greeted him tiredly, but with his usual humor.
Phoenix nodded, deciding to continue to pretend he hadn't overheard anything. "Coffee? And, uh, isn't the point of this to be watching Lelouch?" He looked pointedly at the door with a 52 on it, which was behind the towering professor.
Pailey glanced to the door. "I've been in there for all except the last few minutes, when Dr. Trin came by. He's been sound asleep since one-twenty." The man appeared to hesitate for a moment, then went on. "I told Dr. Trin what happened and what's going on. We've decided that it's best if no one else knows—so it's just between you, me, Dr. Trin, and the four others in your group. But mainly between you, me, and Dr. Trin." He sighed and rubbed at his neck. "And the coffee's just down the hall on the left. Get some and then it's your turn." He pointed down the hall.
Phoenix bobbed his head and went in the direction Pailey had indicated, finding a pot and a small mug on a table. He poured himself a cup, added sugar, and went back, briefly wondering if Pailey were going to bring up Dr. Trin's concerns, whatever they really were.
He hoped Pailey wouldn't bring up his own concerns, and force Phoenix to face something he didn't want to—namely whether it was ghosts or insanity that had brought him to Lelouch.
"There's a chair in there you can sit on," Pailey said, tapping on the keypad to open the door. A dark rectangle opened up in the wall. "Call me if you need anything," he finished in a loud whisper.
Phoenix nodded, stepping inside the room. The figure on the small bed was breathing deep and slow. He settled into the chair, giving one last nod to Pailey, and then took a sip of coffee as the door slid shut.
He could only hope that his watch was uneventful.
Phoenix had been going over the genealogy of the Britannian Royal Family for some time, and was trying to remember the names of all 36 of Emperor Charles' wives and consorts who had given him more than one child. Of the wives, there were three: Marianne, Celestra, and Leida. As for the 32 consorts, he could name Suzanna, Helena, Isabelle, Char…. Was it Charlotte? Or Charlene? Whatever her name was, she had borne a son and a daughter, in that order. He knew nothing of the son, but supposedly the daughter had stolen Lance Kozuki-Weinberg's virginity. Sources were unconfirmed.
He checked his PD, shielding the glow from the sleeping Lelouch with his hand. 4:52. Back to the mental family tree…. Tara, Sylvia, Olivia… wait, Olivia had been Guinevere's mother, and hadn't given birth after that….
A sudden gasp shattered the room's silence, and a moment later something warm and heavy rolled into his lap. Phoenix fell from his chair, pinned under Earth's heavy gravity and the blanket-tangled form of Lelouch vi Britannia.
"Aaugh—what're you—?" Phoenix yelled in surprise, hearing a startled yelp from the Britannian. Phoenix struggled instinctively, shoving Lelouch onto the floor while rolling out from under him. He leapt to his feet, tensed and wary of any further attacks. Having the ex-emperor flail on top of him for even a brief moment had been both suffocating and terrifying. He fixed his eyes on the former emperor, forcing himself to refrain from looking away. What was Lelouch planning? Or… was he having some kind of fit?
The Britannian was panting heavily, flopping in his blanket like a fish taco in which the fish was still alive. He freed one arm as Phoenix hurried onto the empty bed. Phoenix sat on the bed, drawing his legs up to keep them out of Lelouch's way as the undead man began clawing at the floor, gasping for breath, two barely audible words slipping out.
Phoenix blinked, and then cautiously reached his foot down to nudge Lelouch.
The clawing and flailing instantly stopped, causing Phoenix to jerk his foot back to the safety of the bed. The boy on the floor took a deep breath, rolling onto his back. Phoenix could see the glitter of his red-tinged eyes in the dim light. Lelouch blinked once, and drew in another deep breath.
"What was that… all about?" Phoenix asked, careful to keep his voice from trembling. He didn't want Lelouch to know how freaky he found the night's events. Had Lelouch just had a really horrible nightmare? Or was it some kind of trap? But what kind of trap involved pretending to have a seizure in the middle of the night? He hadn't been close to pinning Phoenix successfully, but maybe that was the point? It made Phoenix anxious to try to consider all the plots that might be going through Lelouch's manipulative mind.
Lelouch didn't answer at first, but the pause gave Phoenix time to calm his racing heart. Certainly, Lelouch was dangerous, but an emperor without an empire was only as dangerous as a snake without venom. Besides, Lelouch had promised Phoenix his history, and Phoenix was going to hold the ancient teenager to that promise. No matter what.
He set his jaw in steely determination, and watched the slow breaths of the pale Britannian.
"It just…" Lelouch answered slowly, "took me a moment to realize where I was. That's all." His voice was surprisingly calm, given that he had been more or less writhing on the floor only a minute ago.
"You forgot where you were?" Phoenix asked, allowing his voice to sound skeptical. It did seem a little ridiculous for someone like Lelouch to freak out about something so normal. Phoenix had woken up away from his planet his first day aboard the Marterra, but he hadn't fallen out of bed because of it.
Again, Lelouch took his time to answer. "I thought… it was darker than it actually is." Phoenix caught the glimmer of Lelouch's purply-red eyes again, and looked away. The room was beginning to feel rather confining.
"So because of that, you rolled on top of me and started flailing about." From Phoenix's lips, the statement sounded something like an accusation. He had been enjoying (although perhaps "enjoying" wasn't quite the right word) a peaceful predawn before Lelouch had gone epileptic, and it was better to let Lelouch know up front that Phoenix wasn't going to tolerate running away—either from him or from his questions.
He glanced down at the floor as his artifact drew a breath, hesitated, and spoke.
"For a moment, I thought I had dreamed you up, Phoenix."
The Britannian squirmed out of his blankets and stood slowly, gathering the tangled mass of sheets up as Phoenix's mind was processing his words. Lelouch had thrashed on the floor like a madman… because he had thought Phoenix wasn't real?
He moved aside as Lelouch began spreading his blankets back on the bed, carefully tucking in the sheets. Phoenix quickly squeezed past him, avoiding physical contact with the undead Britannian. He took his place in the chair, feeling somewhat dazed. His eyes stayed on Lelouch, but it felt impossible to focus his mind on simply watching for trickery. What on earth had Lelouch meant?
"For the past thousand years, I have woken up in exactly the same place," Lelouch said, smoothing the sheets and tugging the comforter into place. Phoenix did his best to muster a level stare in case the Britannian looked back at him, but couldn't help hoping that he would get more of an explanation. Despite how scary Lelouch's red eyes and strange words were in the small, dark room, Phoenix needed answers.
When Lelouch drew in a deep breath, Phoenix resisted the urge to set his PD to record, and instead he simply listened. "I often dream I am elsewhere, that something happened to set me free. My imagination has become quite vivid." He paused, his entire body going still before he continued both speaking and tucking in covers. "My dreams often feel more real than my waking life. They were certainly… more colorful." Phoenix saw the insuppressible shudder that rippled through Lelouch's body. His voice hollowed. "I have dreamed, or thought—it doesn't really matter which—that some friend had realized the truth, and had come to rescue me. I thought I was allowed to secretly reunite with my friends." Lelouch appeared meticulous in his bed-making, his voice slowly rising in pitch and gaining momentum as he continued. "I have also dreamed that people dug me up in order to finish the job. To kill me properly. I have thought that I was truly dead, in some kind of Hell. I was haunting my own grave, unfit to join the collective unconscious. I have dreamed that eons have passed, that I can hear the sound of the wind and rain on the tombstone above me. I can hear the crash and roar of the ocean. Time and the seasons change the landscape around me. An earthquake frees me, and I am hunted down and locked away. A meteor strikes, and—"
"I get the picture," Phoenix cut in, noticing that Lelouch's voice had fallen into an eerie, haunted monotony, and that the blankets he had been repetitively smoothing were as flat as they'd ever be. He willed himself not to shudder.
Lelouch went still for a moment, and then nodded, his shoulders slumping as he released the tension that had built up in during his monologue. "I thought for a moment I had only dreamed you, Phoenix." He took a deep breath, still facing away from the history student. "It's… cruel for a caged creature to dream of other things, if only because dreams end."
"You don't think it'd be worse if you never had those dreams at all?" Phoenix queried before he could quell his curiosity. He had never really suspected the Devil of Britannia to be such a pessimistic person. He had always believed Lelouch had possessed the kind of psychotic optimism necessary to take over the world. Or maybe… these were only the effects of his internment.
He found himself remembering how Lelouch had crawled from the grave. The single, pale hand reaching from the tomb had at first been terrifying. But moments later, the dusty air had revealed Lelouch as a coughing, watery-eyed teen dressed in old clothes. Lelouch had gone from fearsome to pathetic in moments… and Phoenix had also moved from fear to pity.
Not that he should be pitying the man who had forced his will on the world. Not that Lelouch deserved anyone's pity.
"It's hard to say," Lelouch replied, pulling back a corner of the blankets and slowly climbing into bed. "But constant reminders of the things you may never see again…." He shook his head, sending Phoenix a slight smile as he closed his creepy eyes. "To think I feared forgetting the color green. Or her smile."
"Her smile?" Phoenix asked, wondering who on earth Lelouch was talking about. There were no official records of him having any kind of romantic relationships with any girls… though during his first semester Pailey had introduced him to some ancient diaries that had alluded to Lelouch being quite the player in high school.
Lelouch leaned his head back into his pillow. "Nunnally's smile," he breathed, "was perfect."
Phoenix could just make out a relaxed smile on the Britannian's face. It was the most peaceful expression he had ever seen on the boy, and again, Phoenix found himself realizing that Lelouch was only nineteen. Although he may have technically lived longer, he had only done so inside a dark and claustrophobic tomb. Obviously it hadn't done wonders for what was undoubtedly an already damaged psyche, but it seemed as if Lelouch was still mostly the same person he had been thousands of years ago. Though maybe the anxious tone in his voice and the haunted expression on his face were new.
Even so, Phoenix wondered how someone as evil as Lelouch could still show such devotion to someone as kind as Nunnally had been. He glanced at the figure on the bed, and then looked away. He doubted that such an emotion could be faked.
But to accept that Lelouch truly had a gentle side would be difficult. Could anyone really accept that Lelouch wasn't exactly the devil he had been made out to be?
Phoenix shook his head, trying to clear it of such a ridiculous thought. The man had been horrible enough to be labeled Worst Human Being Ever thousands of years after his death. All of Lelouch's words and gestures were evidence that the former emperor was quite insane. Writhing on the floor in the middle of the night, sudden mood changes, and a history of world takeover. Clear signs of an unstable mind.
Phoenix firmly believed that someone who had taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people was not capable of love. Not even towards his younger sister.
But Phoenix couldn't forget Lelouch's gentle smile when he spoke her name.
West of Columbia Interplanetary Port, Eastern America, Earth. June 12th, 1529 A.W.E.
After only three days, Phoenix was beginning to feel the strain of his exhausting new routine. Morning started in the dark, with convincing Lelouch that he was still real and that their promise still dawn, Pailey dropped by with breakfast. After a shower and a change of clothing, Phoenix was more or less attached to Lelouch until just after lunch. He used the time to probe Lelouch about his childhood, taking the Britannian from the prying eyes of other researchers and interviewing him on the periphery of the cemetery. After lunch, he passed Lelouch to Dr. Trin for up to three hours. After a nap, he returned to being Lelouch's watchdog-interviewer until after dinner, when he passed off his charge to Pailey and collapsed on his bed.
But in all honesty, the actual interviews with Lelouch were much less stressful than he had thought they would be. In daylight, dressed in regular clothes, Lelouch appeared rather normal. He seemed to take to his duty to Phoenix like a hound to a scent—seriously, but also was also grateful to Pailey for making a trip into Columbia to get his artifact cosmetic contact lenses. The dark brown eyes not only helped to disguise Lelouch's true identity (and strengthen his false one as Larry Rougelamp, Dr. Trin's Terran intern), but also significantly reduced the creepiness level by hiding the strange red sigils.
For whatever reason, the contacts also seemed to make Lelouch friendlier, but maybe that was due to his readjustment to living on top of the ground rather than in it. Needless to say, Phoenix resisted the unspoken offer of friendship.
Since the weather had been so warm and dry—though the air still felt too humid to Phoenix's Martian tastes—they had taken to sitting in the shade just on the other side of the cemetery's western wall. In the right spots, the stones made surprisingly comfortable backrests. Phoenix's PD was always set between them, recording their voices, birdsong, and the rustle of the breeze through the leafy canopy above them. Phoenix asked questions and listened intently for several hours, breaking only slightly for lunch and then ending the discussion when the sun crossed a certain tree.
Phoenix yawned as he and Lelouch made their way back to the center of the excavation site. Dr. Beradoire, clad as usual in an awful Hawaiian shirt, gave them a nod as they skirted his site at Andreas li Britannia's tomb. Phoenix smiled back, trying not to look as tired as he felt. He was looking forward to today's afternoon nap.
Unfortunately, when they reached Dr. Trin's tent, she was absent. Phoenix sighed, slumping into a folding chair while Lelouch stood quietly by the door.
"You… take a nap in the afternoons, don't you?" Lelouch queried, passing his gaze across the tired history student.
"Yes, I do. I have to because I stand guard on you for half the night," Phoenix reminded, realizing that he had the habit of losing his tact when he was tired. Then again, he felt beyond tired and tact towards Lelouch wasn't supposed to matter. The Terran gravity, the constant watching of Lelouch the Devil, and the lack of sleep combined was starting to be too much. And that wasn't even mentioning his concern about whether he was schizophrenic or able to see ghostly, undead one was cause for concern, though.
"Sorry about that," Lelouch returned quietly, looking down at his feet. Phoenix was too weary to make the effort to shake his head and tell Lelouch that his apology was meaningless.
Suddenly, the flap at the entrance to the tent swung open. Phoenix's initial relief at finally being able to sleep was dampened significantly when Professor Pailey entered the small tent.
Pailey took one look at Phoenix, and stopped. "Zero, naptime. Now," he commanded bluntly. "I've got Larry until Faery gets back."
Phoenix nodded, raising a hand to cover his yawn. He glanced to Lelouch to nod goodbye, and then froze, caught in the Britannian's wide-eyed stare. The intensity was frightening, and Phoenix had to remind himself to breathe.
Belatedly, it hit him.
Pailey had called him…
Lelouch dipped his chin, maintaining perfect eye contact, his expression forming a question.
"It's just a nickname," Phoenix said quickly—too quickly, judging by the slight raise of Lelouch's delicate eyebrow. "Because of my research." He swallowed. His words weren't coming out right, feeling like lies, and the whole ordeal was not helped by Pailey's sudden and belated "Oh."
Lelouch looked away, nodding at the floor, but Phoenix knew that Lelouch didn't buy it. Then again… why was it something Phoenix had to hide? He had always been rather proud of his name and its possible implications, so why should he fear Lelouch's reaction? If anything, Lelouch should fear Phoenix Zero, not the other way around.
He breathed deeply, squaring his shoulders and facing Lelouch. "It's my real name," he stated, causing Lelouch to jerk back towards him, his expression a mixture of hope and failure. "My name is Phoenix Zero."
Lelouch nodded helplessly, and without warning collapsed to his knees, placing his palms on the hard, dusty ground. Phoenix widened his eyes in alarm, but didn't move. Had Lelouch guessed what his name meant? Did he believe it? Was he bowing down, trying to ask forgiveness from Zero?
He risked a quick glance at Pailey, who shook his head.
Lelouch drew in a ragged breath and curled up, hugging his arms to his sides as his face rocked closer to the ground. Phoenix still wasn't sure what was going on, until he heard the first sob, and saw the first wet drop land on the ground.
The tent flap opened and closed again, though Phoenix couldn't take his eyes off Lelouch to see who it was.
"We had no idea what we were getting into." Dr. Trin's voice was low and full of an ominous foreboding.
Phoenix swallowed, taking a step back and remembering his exhaustion. He had a feeling she was right.
U.M.S. Marterra, Columbia Interplanetary Port, Eastern America, Earth. June 13th, 1529 A.W.E.
"Special treat for you," Pailey was saying as the door to cabin 52 slid open. Phoenix glanced up from his chair, blinking. Lelouch turned away from the cabin's window for a moment, and then went back to staring at the waves.
"Yeah?" Phoenix asked, covering a yawn a moment later.
"I didn't bring you breakfast."
"What's that in your hand?" Phoenix asked with a flat stare, gesturing to the bagel-shaped napkin in Pailey's right hand. There was cream cheese in his left. "And how is no breakfast a special treat?"
"Obviously, it's the breakfast of the undead," Pailey replied, giving Phoenix a wink. Phoenix didn't really think it was funny, having just spent half the night reassuring the undead that he was no longer buried. It was creepy rather than funny, and he didn't like the reminder that Lelouch had somehow survived for 1,500 years.
"And the special treat is you treating yourself, Zero," Pailey continued, apparently oblivious to Phoenix's discomfort.
But the treat was a good one, so he nodded, climbing to his feet, glancing only momentarily at Lelouch. He had been concerned that the revelation of his last name would set back the interview process for a while, but by the time Phoenix had returned from his nap that day, Lelouch had been back to his normal self. He hadn't brought it up again, and Phoenix had been content to keep it that way. He told himself it was because the matter was irrelevant, not because he was afraid to.
He stretched as he exited the room, trying to imagine all his worry being trapped behind the sliding door to cabin 52. His stomach growled, and he hurried down the hallway towards the Marterra's cafeteria. It felt like it had been a long time since he had eaten a normal meal, without the presence of Lelouch.
Though, it had been oddly entertaining to see Lelouch down his first meal since the last year of Ascension Throne Britannia. Entertaining, but the creepiness factor had put Phoenix off his own feed. Normal people didn't suffer startling culinary inventions between meals.
Snatches of conversation drifted towards him as he approached the cafeteria. He passed three girls chatting over coffee, and suddenly felt very awkward and abnormal. He hadn't had a meal in the cafeteria for the past four days, because he had been watching over someone who was considered too much a liability to eat there.
He sighed, picking up a tray. He hadn't even had a chance to call Lia and tell her that he had done something really crazy like she had insisted.
"Well look who's gracing us with his presence today," came a dry voice. Phoenix looked up, recognizing a familiar redhead on the other side of the table of fruit, smiling with Ella at her side. "Long time, no see," she said as he walked over.
"Yeah… I've been… busy," he said lamely, placing an apple on his tray.
"Are you okay, though?" Ella asked.
He nodded, thrown off guard by the question. "Do I not look okay?" he hazarded, and was reassured by the laughter from the girls.
"You never look okay," Rachel assured him, patting his arm. He rolled his eyes, but was secretly very happy to have his two friends make fun of him in such a normal way.
It was as if, since spending so much time with Lelouch, he had forgotten what a normal life was like. His constant companion of late was a person who had lived in a different era, who spoke in a tone that was as far away from the real world and normality as his hidden purple eyes. It was like participating in a fantasy or an extended dream, but he had to admit that real life was definitely refreshing.
"So, you've been guarding Larry, huh?" Ella said, her voice the perfect pitch and tone to be lost in the general hum of the cafeteria.
Phoenix nodded and swallowed his mouthful of coffee. "He needs someone looking out for him," he said, thinking that his phrasing sounded much more natural considering Larry's occupation as an intern.
"Not much sleep then, helping him stay on track?" Ella said, correcting her metaphor and adding to it. She stared at him from over her breakfast while at her side, Rachel poked unenthusiastically at hers.
Phoenix gave them a strained smile. "Is it that obvious?" He hadn't spent much time looking at himself in the mirror lately, and was hoping Rachel's earlier jab hadn't been more truth than fiction. He didn't need awful gray bags under his eyes—he wasn't even twenty yet!
"Haha, no," Ella said, shaking her head. "It's just that you seem kinda spacey… well, more spacey than usual," she amended. She crunched on her cereal, swallowed, and continued. "I guess it's just good to see you alive and well. We're not above worrying about you, you know."
Phoenix nodded, giving her a geeky smile. "Yeah, I'm just so busy I haven't even had time to do much else. I'm learning all sorts of things—you have no idea how cool my recordings are. It's a first-hand account of pretty much all the things I've always wondered about. First-hand," he repeated, trying to impress on his friends the nerdy awesomeness of his task. He shook his head in disbelief. "And I'm not even into the really interesting parts yet."
"Good for you. Maybe we can find some time to hang out, though?" Ella suggested, nudging Rachel to see if she was interested. Rachel shrugged, her mouth full.
"That'd be cool," Phoenix replied, and then frowned. "Though I'm really not sure when."
"Well, whenever, really," the brunette said with an easy-going shrug. "I mean, we're always just in the dorm area when we're not here or at the site."
"Yeah, I'll see if I can get away for a bit," Phoenix said, thinking that the idea sounded just as appealing as it did impossible. Pailey had a lot to do just keeping up appearances with the other professionals, not to mention dealing with any other problems among the students, and figuring out the licensing to opening Zero's tomb….. And Dr. Trin… she was the lead researcher of the whole operation. Not to mention the fact that she, for whatever reason, didn't seem to completely trust him….
"Yeah," Ella said brightly.
"Yeah," Phoenix responded suddenly, her voice having drawn him back to the present.
Rachel snorted. "Yeah," she added, her voice slightly sarcastic.
"Yeah?" Ella asked with a goofy smile, looking to her redheaded friend.
"Yeah." Rachel's voice was even more critical than before, as if her word had actually been a negative.
In response, Ella drew her eyebrows together, looking slightly worried.
Rachel sighed and shrugged, as if whatever the two girls were silently talking about was a subject she didn't want to discuss any further. She shook her head slightly and picked up her fork.
"Yeah?" Phoenix echoed, completely confused. Ella smiled and nudged Rachel in the ribs again with her elbow. Rachel rolled her eyes, and Phoenix couldn't tell if her smile was forced or if it were the other way around, and she was trying not to smile. Phoenix wasn't sure why she would do either.
Rachel suddenly sighed and leaned over the table, her expression much too serious for breakfast. Phoenix felt a sudden tension in his gut, and wondered whether he was going to be able to finish his meal. For some unknown reason, he was abruptly wondering if he was going to get punched in the face.
"You do know what you're doing, right?" Rachel asked, her voice low.
Phoenix swallowed uncomfortably, nodding belatedly. "With… Larry, you mean?"
"Rachel…" Ella hissed, giving her friend a pointed look.
"Who else, stupid?" Rachel replied, completely ignoring Ella. "I'm going to say this once, and you'd better listen.
"I don't like what going on. I don't trust that Larry guy for a second, and you shouldn't, either. Ever since he popped out of the ground, you've been ignoring everything else around you. I don't like it. And I'm not stupid, either. I did some research of my own. We all know he took over the world, but let me just say there were always rumors…."
"Rachel…" Ella hissed again, this time frowning in distaste.
But Rachel shook her head and continued giving Phoenix a level look. He wondered what she was going on about. It was especially weird considering that Phoenix was the history buff in this group, and he doubted there was anything his "I'm here for kicks" friend knew about Lelouch, Zero, or anything historical that he, Phoenix Zero, didn't.
Still, the look in her eyes made him wait for her next words.
"Rumors about witchcraft. That he could hypnotize people into doing his bidding."
The moment might have been as dramatic as Rachel expected it to be, except that Phoenix had heard that stupid rumor, and that Ella was looking embarrassed. Phoenix couldn't help but press his lips together as he tried not to smile, or worse, burst out laughing.
Rachel went on the defensive. "Look, I'm just keeping an open mind here, seeing that this guy just up and climbed out of a grave." She picked up her tray and swung her legs over the bench, her next words coming out clipped and harsh. "Go ahead and laugh all you want. I just figured saying it was more important than keeping it to myself and seeing my friend get killed."
Ella's smile disappeared as she exhaled in frustration, pressing her lips together. "Oh Rachel, just stop."
Phoenix had the sudden feeling the two girls had already had a similar conversation sometime in the past four days. He cringed as Rachel shook her head and stood, refusing to acknowledge Ella's pleas, and walking away from the table.
"Sorry. She's been like that for a while," Ella said in disappointment. "She really just wants 'Larry' back in the ground." The air-quotes she put around the name were for some reason just as obnoxious as her heavy sarcasm.
Phoenix blinked in shock. So that's what Rachel had been after with this conversation? She was trying to convince him to give up his cause for truth? He felt a twinge of betrayal, that she would attempt to persuade him that Lelouch was going to hypnotize him into a puppet, when in fact Lelouch had done nothing of the sort. Lelouch acted like his dog or something, sleeping on command and walking at his heels everywhere. Rachel was trying to tell him to stop working with Lelouch, even though she never actually saw what Lelouch was like!
And when everyone had run away during that first moment, it had been Phoenix who had stayed behind in the swirling dust. Phoenix had been the one to bravely hold out his hand, to stare the devil down and demand his history and his truth.
Rachel had it all wrong if she thought Phoenix was being controlled by Lelouch. It was entirely the other way around. Lelouch had accepted the terms of their contract, and hadn't complained at any of his treatment. (Treatment that, if Phoenix really wanted to admit it, was also more appropriate for a talking dog than a normal person. But seeing as he had murdered thousands and was immortal, Lelouch didn't count as a normal person.)
Ever since the moment he had bound Lelouch to his words, Phoenix had known he would risk his very life to know what Lelouch knew. Fate had given him a chance that didn't come around very often. In truth, chances like this never did. If he didn't follow this until the end, there was no one else who would, or even could.
So who was Rachel to try to convince him he was wrong when he knew he was right? He considered himself brave and fortunate enough to have come this far, and he wasn't a quitter. Rachel just obviously didn't understand that this might very well be his purpose in life. He was a dedicated historian, and was not going to be stopped some old rumors that no serious person put stock in. It wasn't fact until there was proof, and Phoenix wasn't following Lelouch around with a "yes, Your Majesty" or anything similar. He didn't like the unwarranted anger from a person who didn't really know what she was talking about.
"So, do you also think I should stop?" he asked slowly, piercing Ella with a sullen gaze.
"Do not put me in the middle of this," Ella shot back quickly. She sighed and then stared down at her food. "Sorry. Just… Rachel sometimes gets difficult to deal with, and I value both of your friendships."
A bell chimed, signaling the end of the hour. He met Ella's eyes with mixed feelings, knowing that whatever had just happened at the breakfast table was a huge mess and entirely unresolved. Furthermore, she knew where he was going.
To Lelouch's side, where he would continue his task. Where, he was certain he would uncover the secrets that only Lelouch knew, no matter who tried to stop him. Dr. Trin, Rachel, and even Ella could distrust him all they wanted. He'd explain things later to Rachel when he could, but if she'd rather try to bring his quest to an unfinished end than try to be helpful and support him, there was ultimately nothing he could do about it. As bitter a conclusion to come to as that was, Phoenix knew he still had Pailey on his side, and that his artifact was still willing. The path to the truth was yet clear before him, and there was no turning back.
West of Columbia Interplanetary Port, Eastern America, Earth. June 14th, 1529 A.W.E.
Whatever the cause, Phoenix was finding it harder and harder to remember that Lelouch was in fact the terrible tyrant from all his history books. The contacts allowed him to look the Devil of Britannia in the eyes without shivering, which was having all sorts of unexpected consequences. Phoenix found himself actually staring into those dark brown eyes often, and it took him days to realize that those eyes stared back just as often. Lelouch was no longer dropping his eyes as he had been during their first interviews,
What was more unnerving, but only when he thought about it, was that the interviews had lately been sounding more and more like a conversation between two friends. This was furthered by how Lelouch began smiling during portions of his reminiscing.
But smiling in and of itself was no reason for alarm, even when the smile belonged to Lelouch vi Britannia. Phoenix didn't mind smiling along when the topic warranted it, either. But it was uncomfortable when Lelouch laughed that morning, and Phoenix found it difficult to stifle his own.
Lelouch noticed the way Phoenix schooled his expression back to a serious one, and his laughter died on his lips. The Britannian leaned his head back against the stone wall, and looked up at the sky.
"Any other questions, Phoenix?" he asked, hiding his sigh better than his disappointment.
Phoenix told himself he didn't have to feel bad for not being Lelouch's friend. For not laughing with him. Though telling himself that was rather useless against the sour taste in his mouth. He didn't really feel like talking much anymore.
Dialogue with Lelouch was becoming too natural. Even if it was terribly obvious that Lelouch was the person he talked to most, Phoenix didn't want it to be that way. He hadn't had a chance to talk to Rachel since that morning in the cafeteria, and he had the horrible, almost nauseating feeling that she was going to start laboring in vain to free him from a hypnosis that didn't even exist. And then get mad at him about it. He worried that she was going to sway Ella, too, and then he'd have no friends on Earth and no one to talk to other than Dr. Trin, who apparently thought he was creepy, Pailey, who was more like a parent than a friend but at least liked him, and… Lelouch.
Maybe there was a reason why Phoenix spent most of his time with the ex-emperor, and found the interviews to be perhaps the least stressful part of his day. He didn't like to think that he was avoiding his friends, but he really didn't know how to calm Rachel down and the more time that went by, the harder it became to think of something. At least with Lelouch, he knew what questions to ask and what responses to make. Interviews were easy, and listening to a biography was much less complicated than actually living. The biography itself made an interesting story, even though he knew its end and the outline of its middle. He exhaled slowly as he stared at Lelouch's profile, trying his best to match it with old videos and photos of the terrible emperor.
But the truth was… there were no pictures like this. None with Lelouch so relaxed, with the sunlight dappling across his face and arms. There were no videos of Lelouch the Devil having a bit of downtime in a forest, with that slight, wistful smile on his face. The two people—past and present—were difficult to match up, and at the present moment, it was a struggle to even match this Lelouch with the eerie-eyed being that rose from a black tomb.
Which was the real Lelouch? Was he tryant, monster, or… just what Phoenix saw before him?
"I don't mind if you stare at me for the rest of the day, but I have the feeling that's not your intention," Lelouch stated, sliding his chocolate eyes towards Phoenix.
"Uh, right," he responded instantly, snapping his gaze to a fern on his other side. He reminded himself that people in Lelouch's era didn't read into long stares between same gender individuals. Thank goodness for it, though. "I was just trying to think of a question," he lied hastily, "but, uh, since I think we've covered in great detail everything until your exile, I guess we might as well move on." Phoenix was impressed that his blunderings actually led to something useful. At least he still had brains.
"So whenever you're ready, Lelouch, talk about what happened afterwards."
"My father wasted no time. After our confrontation, he sent Nunnally and myself to Japan. I felt used and discarded, thrown to a foreign country halfway around the world. And Nunnally… it pained me every time I helped her into her wheeled chair, and every time she reached out suddenly in front of her, trying to make sense of her newly darkened world.
"The situation made me change my plans entirely. No longer were we to be an extraordinary royal duo, seeking courtly power and bedazzling all who beheld our presences. Nunnally was physically broken, and I was emotionally handicapped.
"I took great care to shelter Nunnally. The horror that she had witnessed—our mother's death—was great enough for her entire lifetime. I vowed to protect her from the world's evils, to prove to her that goodness existed. I wanted her to believe in the gentle world she and Euphie had always played in when they pretended they were fairytale princesses of a perfect land.
"I tried to convince her that going to Japan would be like visiting that fairytale kingdom, that it would be a fun adventure for both of us. I made up all kinds of stories about the people who lived there, based more on my imagination than fact, including plenty of loyal samurai and ninja maidens and beautiful geishas as I knew existed in the far-off country.
"Our arrival was dismal. It was raining at Narita airport, and the two of us were shepherded along by stern-faced Japanese businessmen, the servants of Prime Minister Kururugi. I didn't want anyone else to take care of my baby sister, but I was so tiny that I struggled to help Nunnally into her chair and then it was an effort just to wheel her along. But from behind her, I could see how her head tilted slightly as she listened to the awkward syllables of the language and the patter of the rain against the glass windows of the airport.
"'Tell me what it's like,' she asked me, and thus began our way of coping. I told her that the country was beautiful, that the rain seemed to sparkle in the sky, and that everywhere there were interesting people who all looked busy doing something. I described the tall skyscrapers and the huge televisions that flashed over the large squares. As we were loaded into a limousine, I told her it was black and looked very sleek in the rain, that the droplets of water from the sky made perfect circles in the concrete puddles.
"She asked me questions about every little detail, and gripped my hand tighter when she was excited. And through my descriptions, through the way I made the world beautiful for Nunnally… I saw it through her closed eyes.
"Japan was beautiful. As we escaped the downtown section of Tokyo, I saw tiny statues nestled between buildings, hanging lanterns by ramen shops, and even two women holding up the sleeves of their colorful kimono as they hurried through the rain on their wooden platform sandals.
"The road took us up towards the Kururugi Shrine, a complex of buildings on the top of a hill, with the driveways and the long steps marked by tall, red, Japanese arches. We were dropped off at the base of what I took to be a thousand stone steps. It was impossible to push the chair up steps, so I asked Nunnally to climb onto my back. I carried her up, all by myself, while the men in black suits with dark glasses walked hesitantly around us. I felt defiant towards them, and as much as I already disliked the thought of my father and my homeland, I felt proud that I was a Britannian prince, strong enough to carry my sister the entire way by myself.
"It was likely an hour before I made it to the top, and cautiously let Nunnally off my back. We were in front of the largest of the strangest-looking buildings I had ever seen. The roof curved, and overhung a long way all around the building, keeping dry a wooden walkway attached to the wall. The doors, which might have been made of paper, slid open to the sides, and a woman in a plain-looking kimono ushered us inside.
"We had to take off our shoes in the first room, and then were made to sit on cushions on the floor in another room while the adults talked. I whispered to Nunnally what was happening as I carried her inside and set her down next to me. Neither of us knew what the adults were discussing, but we could safely assume it had to do with us.
"Suddenly it seemed as if the men had reached some kind of conclusion, and one turned to me, speaking in very broken English. He told us that we were to stay here, at the house of Kururugi Genbu during our stay in Japan. He said something about the pleasantness of nations and hoped we could all get along. I was simply ready to sleep after the long journey.
"A woman, who might have been the same one as before, directed us to our new home. It was a small shed on the edge of the shrine, but it was fortunately at ground-level, which meant we could enter without the impediment of stairs. The woman gestured towards our bags, which were waiting just inside the building for us. Without another word, the woman nodded and disappeared, and we siblings were left alone.
"I was appalled at our new setting. Certainly it was a roof over our heads, but it could only be called that. I wasn't sure if there were beds, or just the maze of old things. There were more sliding doors, and just as I coughed when opening one, Nunnally asked me to describe our new home. I plucked up my courage and tried to spot something good.
"In no time at all, however, Nunnally had turned it into a game. Soon enough I was describing a palace even more brilliant than the one we had left behind. I said that the chandeliers were enormous, and that they made the entire space glitter like a party. She squealed and told me we had to invite all our siblings here for a grand soirée. I told her that the other room was an enormous bedchamber that we could share because it had two king-sized beds with a zillion pillows and big, bright windows. She insisted that Euphie, Cornelia, and Clovis had to come over for tea and a sleep-over. I said we had a view of Mount Fuji and she said that after our sleep-over, we could all climb it and have a picnic. Just as I was climbing up a ladder to tell her what marvelous treasures were in our personal loft, I met him: Kururugi Suzaku.
"He was dressed in the traditional clothing of his country, but looked nothing like the other Japanese people I'd seen. He had a mop of brown hair instead of smooth black, and his eyes, instead of dark brown, were bright green. I blinked at him for a long moment, wondering who he was and whether I could convince him to play servant for Nunnally.
"But before I could open my mouth, Suzaku attacked. He was never much for thinking before acting, or thinking at all for that matter. In a matter of seconds, we were trading blows and calling each other by racial slurs.
"Nunnally's voice cut through our squabble, and I instantly broke free, assuring her that I was fine despite a bleeding lip and a soon-to-be black eye. I turned to stare defiantly at my new enemy, and suddenly, it didn't work.
"Suzaku was looking forlornly at Nunnally, having just realized she was completely blind. He trembled violently and then ran away, leaving me bruised and Nunnally worried. For all his strong fists and words, Suzaku proved to be more of an idiot than anything else, because the next day he hung his head and apologized… to Nunnally alone.
"Thus began our strange friendship. Although Suzaku's name-calling and fist-fallings on me diminished as time went on, we continued to be an odd trio. As the brains of our childhood operation, I would plan our activities and adventures, leaning only on Suzaku's knowledge of Japanese holidays and the surrounding terrain. Nunnally was the glue that kept us from deciding to never speak to each other, and always patched up our friendship after our fights. Suzaku simply alternated between hating the interlopers living in his shed and cherishing his only friends.
"Those days are the ones I remember when I hear the word 'childhood.' They were the only months of my life when I felt as if most of my troubles were the kinds of troubles that all children go through. I was roped into playing tea party with my little sister, and I skinned my knees and elbows playing tag with my best friend. I endured teasing and bullying. I explored hillsides and built impromptu forts. Suzaku and I got into a fistfight, brawl, or wrestling match every other day, and I always lost. I taught him chess and always won. He taught me go, and I still always won.
"There were days when tea parties, chess, and wrestling matches were what mattered most to me. But there was always a frightening undercurrent to the normalcy. From time to time, it would surface, interrupting my childhood to remind me that I was simply a pawn.
"Because the rest of the world—the adult world—continued to move, continued to plot. And it was up to me to save myself and Nunnally, and to bring our mother's killer to justice."
West of Columbia Interplanetary Port, Eastern America, Earth. June 19th, 1529 A.W.E.
"Would you say you wanted protect Nunnally more than anything else in the world?" Phoenix asked slowly, glancing up into the afternoon sky. The vibrant Earth green of the leaves looked even brighter when the warm sunlight passed through them. He had been asking for the footnotes from the second chapter of Lelouch's life for the past few days, trying without much luck to find the root of evil that should exist in the boy beside him.
"Of course I did. Nunally meant the world to me. She was my reason for everything, Phoenix." His voice was low, and Phoenix got the impression that it was so because speaking otherwise would reveal how choked up he was.
Phoenix shook his head. Figuring out Lelouch was the hardest task he'd ever encountered. It was plain after the past week and a half that Lelouch hadn't always been the evil monster that history remembered him to be. Furthermore, whether he was still capable of being that monster was…
…uncertain. He glanced over at the black-haired boy next to him, who was smiling slightly with his eyes closed. He still had the habit of not looking like a murderer, which was bothersome, but less so than it had been a week ago. It was odd, really that Phoenix felt used to treating Lelouch like a normal history informant.
Especially when there was no way Lelouch was anything like any other history informant. Lelouch held more knowledge than an open book, was more willing to offer relevant information than the internet, and was far more portable than a library. He was arguably the most important find in centuries, if not ever. To say that "just anyone" could have been the immortal person to rise from the grave was probably untrue, but it was still a fact that Phoenix had found a person who had been at the center of things during his favorite era….
Sometimes it took a surprising amount of willpower to go back into camp for a nap, even when he knew he was exhausted. And besides wanting to stay late to continue the interview, Phoenix felt it was a daily exercise in willpower to not ask Lelouch directly for his impression and knowledge of Zero. He was dying to find out, but didn't want to ruin the ending of the story since Lelouch was telling it so well.
"So that's probably it for today," Phoenix said, rolling his shoulders and picking himself up from the ground. The sun was already farther past the usual tree than usual.
Lelouch nodded, opening his chocolate brown eyes, and the two began making their way back towards Dr. Trin's tent.
"So what do you do when you're with Dr. Trin, anyway?" Phoenix asked, wondering why he'd never done so before.
Lelouch shrugged, looking back at him. "She doesn't speak much to me." He looked forward again, but his voice carried back to Phoenix. "It's much more like being guarded when I'm with her."
"You don't feel like I watch you closely enough?" Phoenix asked, brow furrowing in concern. Did that mean Lelouch thought he could pull off some kind of trick and escape while under Phoenix's watch? His mind raced over the old speeches by Lelouch vi Britannia. He had been the kind of person to taunt his foes by leaving a clue to the trick, or at least by revealing his master plan during its completion….
Lelouch laughed lightly. "I thought you would take it as a compliment, Phoenix." The black hair bobbed side to side and Lelouch paused to hold a branch back for the Martian. "You're much easier to talk to. I appreciate it."
Phoenix looked away. What in all the solar system made Lelouch have moments of such sincerity? He took a deep breath, telling himself it was likely to lure him into a false sense of security. It's a trap, he reminded himself. Everything Lelouch does is a trap.
But despite his inner monologue, Phoenix didn't bother to hide his smile. "Er, thanks," he replied. "Let's, uh, hurry back. I'm sleepy."
As had become his usual custom, Phoenix waved at Dr. Beradoire as they passed the grave of Andreas li Britannia. The stone was looking quite clean, and Phoenix could easily read the engravings on the front now. The doctor was too busy with his PD or something and almost didn't notice him as he passed, but then gave him a short, wide-eyed stare. Phoenix waved and turned away.
With his next step, Phoenix nearly ran into Lelouch. He gave the other boy a glare for slowing so unexpectedly, but then stopped at the serious look on the Britannian's pale face. "That man… is he sick?" he asked in a whisper. Phoenix stepped around a stump and glanced back.
"Dr. Beradoire?" He was suddenly embarrassed for looking back because the man was still staring at him, though maybe he was just staring into space? He quickly turned back to Lelouch. "Not that I know of. Why?"
"He's just been looking worse and worse lately…" Lelouch trailed off uncertainly, his brown eyes darting around.
"Probably just working too hard," Phoenix explained with a smile. "All of us history nerds are like that." He thought back to the unhappy breakfast he'd shared with Ella and Rachel, wondering if he himself didn't show a change for the worse. He'd never gotten a chance to go hang out with them since then, either. (Not that he was sure Rachel even wanted to see him.)
Lelouch nodded uneasily, and then jumped a moment later as a voice called out to them.
Phoenix turned around again. "Yes, Dr. Beradoire?" he asked, watching the man climb up from his workstation, brushing the dirt off his khaki shorts.
"Good timing! There's something I'd like to, ah, show the two of you," he said, rubbing at the dirt on his hands. He gave them a cheesy grin, and then quickly pointed into the forest. "It's, ah, a new excavation site, actually." He nodded and then wiped the humidity off the back of his neck. "It might be Princess Cornelia's," he added. "Want to see?"
Phoenix grinned. "Of course!" he said, jogging forward and forgetting entirely about his nap. Princess Cornelia's grave? There was no way he was missing this one! She had been the most fearsome Princess of Charles's Holy Empire, leading her elite unit of Glaston Knights. During the Black Rebellion, she had suddenly disappeared from the battlefield, waiting until the opportune moment to strike Lelouch down. She had gone from Zero's most frightening enemy to one of his most trusted allies. Nunnally the Gentle had chosen her son as heir to the Empire. It would be an amazing find for the research team.
Phoenix tripped suddenly, knocking his mind out of his history-induced fantasies as he regained his balance. He belatedly looked back to see if Lelouch were following him.
"Uh, come on, Larry," he reminded, motioning the former Emperor to follow.
"This way," Dr. Beradoire said, starting off into the shrubs and branches without another word. The trail sloped downhill, and Phoenix stepped aside to let Lelouch go first. It was much easier to follow someone else down a trail-that-wasn't-really-a-proper-trail, and Dr. Beradoire was too far ahead for Phoenix to clearly see his feet.
He felt himself relax into the rhythm of stepping into Lelouch's footprints and watching out for roots and low branches. The wind rustled through the dense bushes ahead, and a bird suddenly squawked loudly, flapping through the foliage overhead and then out of sight. It seemed that Cornelia's grave was oddly distant from her son's, but then again, he had been an Emperor.
Phoenix and Lelouch both jumped at the call.
"LARRY!" This time, Phoenix whipped his head to the direction of the voice. There was only one person who regularly called him Zero.
"Pailey?" He blinked, staring into the trees to his left as if he expected the professor to come tromping through them. What on earth would make the man yell like that? It was more than just being a few minutes late to Dr. Trin's tent….
"ZERO!" He sounded… worried. There was a note of anxiety in his advisor's usually unflappable voice.
"Let go!" Lelouch yelled suddenly, stepping back towards Phoenix and flinging Dr. Beradoire's hand away. What was—
Dr. Beradoire lunged forward, wrapping his hand around Lelouch's thin wrist and yanking him forward. Lelouch toppled with a yelp as the yank forced him to lose his footing and fall to one knee.
"Did you think I wouldn't notice?" Dr. Beradoire hissed, his eyes glinting strangely. And now that Phoenix was closer, he could see how the researcher looked slightly pale, his cheeks more gaunt than before.
Lelouch's breath was rapid in fear as he struggled to break free.
"Hey!" Phoenix yelled, swiping his hand down to effectively karate-chop the two apart. He tried to keep his voice normal against the rising anxiety in his gut. "What do you think you're—"
Phoenix stopped suddenly as Dr. Beradoire slid over backwards, rolling a short distance down the hill before stopping against a clump of ferns. Phoenix felt a horrible anxiety fill his chest. Had he really just pushed a researcher down a—
"No," Lelouch hissed, grabbing Phoenix's arm before he could go down to help the fallen doctor. Phoenix felt as if he was teetering on the edge of an abyss, rather than a sloping hill. Why was Lelouch stopping him—was his master plan now to be revealed?
Had Phoenix really been such a stupid guard? Had his whole plan to learn the truth about Lelouch's history really been deeply, innately flawed?
He turned his face sharply to find Lelouch's… and found that the Britannian was staring down at the fallen researcher…. No, not quite at the doctor, but at….
Phoenix's breath caught in his throat. There were people… four long, dark shadows of people… slipping out from between the trees, filling the forest below Dr. Beradoire. Who were they?
"ZERO!" came the call from Pailey, and Phoenix was filled with the unmistakable urge to flee.
Run to Pailey, his mind whispered. He glanced to Lelouch, who looked paler than usual, his face drawn and almost green.
"Don't think I wouldn't notice," Dr. Beradoire coughed out, rising shakily from his clump of ferns. There was dirt smeared across his floral-print shirt. "I noticed. I'm not stupid. You can't parade around in front of me, and think I wouldn't notice."
Phoenix wanted to run, but the strange tremor in Dr. Beradoire's voice held him fast.
"Every day you've passed by, and every day I've known! Since the beginning!" He stared vehemently at Phoenix. "Did you think you could tame the monster? The Devil changes you!" He shook his head and glared at the slender, pale Britannian.
"I know who you are… Lelouch vi Britannia!" With his final words, he raised a trembling finger and pointed, singling out the disguised emperor.
Out of the corner of his eye, Phoenix saw a slight shudder course through Lelouch.
"Kill the Devil!" a voice shouted, and Phoenix took a step back, bumping into Lelouch. The voice was quickly hushed, and the people in black started moving forward, coalescing together like some kind of malicious shadow surrounding Dr. Beradoire.
Pailey's voice rang out again, as if calling on the ancient savior of the free people. "ZERO!"
But what would Zero do, given this situation?
One cloaked figure suddenly flipped back a hood, revealing a blond man with a tattoo on his neck. "Zero's justice!" he screamed, shoving a knife into the air. It was the same one that had yelled before.
Phoenix drew in a shaky breath. Why was it suddenly possible for things like this to happen, for things occult and shadowy and entirely too creepy for normal life to exist in this day and age. Zero's justice? They intended to kill Lelouch? But his research….
"That man is dangerous. You can't keep him as some kind of secret pet project," Dr. Beradoire intoned, shaking his head. "I'm a historian. I'd recognize him anywhere. And if he's not dead already… it… it must be the Devil…." He slumped against a tree, putting a hand to his face.
One of the people in black stepped up next to him, putting a hand on his shoulder and tossing back the hood. Long waves of chestnut hair cascaded from her head as the hood slipped to her back. "You've done the right thing, Erik." She looked up towards Lelouch, and then her eyes fixed on Phoenix. "Boy, come away from there. That man is the Devil and he will use you to his own ends." She held out a hand, beckoning for Phoenix to go to her. Dr. Beradoire's face was twisted with a mixture of remorse and pity.
Phoenix felt torn—did he turn himself over to a researcher and his group of creepy, black-cloaked minions? Or did he side with Lelouch, the person who the world had hated so much, it had vowed to never make war again. Rationally, this was no choice between good and bad or right and wrong, just a choice between the lesser of two evils.
But if there was a side with the most good, or if one side had even the tiniest bit of right to it….
What should he do? Phoenix had grown up with the knowledge that Lelouch had been a deranged, power-hungry tyrant, eager to start wars and kill thousands upon thousands just to hold the world in his bloodstained hands. In school, he was taught that Lelouch had been a crafty and intelligent boy, his mind tuned towards control and twisted by a thirst for revenge. But in the past ten days, Phoenix had seen a boy haunted by long memories of the dark, filled with a quiet tragedy. Or had he just been blind to the truth of the immortal, crimson-eyed youth, clothed in a mystery too deep and terrifying for even Phoenix to question?
What was the reason for Lelouch's continued existence? Was it, as the hooded group suggested, a pact with the Devil? Or was there some cryogenic, scientific reason after all? Phoenix wasn't sure, and he didn't think he had the time to figure it out. Fate had given him this decision. He had to choose one.
The options were clear, but the correct choice was not. Creepy people he had just met, or an even creepier presence he had somehow become a little accustomed to? He didn't want to let Lelouch's history go, but he feared the woman was right. But he could only choose one. He could place his destiny in only one.
"Go," whispered Lelouch, softly enough for only Phoenix to hear.
In surprise, he flicked his eyes to the former emperor. If there was a side with good in it… that would be who Phoenix sided with. There was something good in his pact with history, something good found right beside the truth. He would find his answers only in an unhidden face, in the clear features that were not masked by a long hood or possessed by dark shadows and sallow cheekbones. Phoenix could see right through Lelouch's single word to the self-sacrifice and desire to protect it represented.
The side that was good, that was right… that was the side Phoenix belonged to. That was the side his search for the truth about Zero belonged to. And Lelouch… he had pledged himself to Phoenix's side.
At his side, Lelouch would stay. For better or worse, Phoenix found himself putting his trust in the fallen emperor, believing in the longing for redemption he heard in Lelouch's single word.
He was confident, somehow, that his decision was exactly what Zero would do. In his veins was the blood of the hero of all heroes, and in his heart was the courage to do what was right, no matter how strong the opposition.
Phoenix would defy this Devil's command, hold him to his promise, and continue to seek the truth.
"I won't go," Phoenix announced, eyes narrowing at the woman beside Dr. Beradoire. He took a step forward, throwing his arm out in front of Lelouch. "I won't let you have him! You can't use your religious or cultist beliefs to justify a murder! It's wrong and I won't stand for it!"
He heard Lelouch gasp in his ear as Dr. Beradoire looked up suddenly, meeting Phoenix's intense gaze, and then dropped to his knees as the woman beside him stepped forward testily.
"If you want him," Phoenix said defiantly, his voice carrying easily over the shrub-covered hillside, "you'll have to go through me first."
The wide blue eyes of the woman locked onto his, her mouth open in surprise. She held her hand out towards him again, wet her pink lips with her tongue, and….
Everything suddenly moved too fast. Only his brain and thoughts could react.
"Zero's justice!" cried the man with the knife, lunging forward. The woman fell back, downed by the man's enthusiasm. Something was crashing through the bushes behind him.
No. It's not.
"Phoenix!" Lelouch yelled, his voice high-pitched and fearful. His grip tightened on Phoenix's arm, trying to thrust him away. He heard a high-pitched scream from behind.
This is right.
Phoenix felt his breath catch in his throat as his eyes caught on the metallic glint of the knife as the man released it, his arm outstretched in Phoenix's direction.
This is it.
The knowledge hit him with a simplistic certainty as a cold wave spread across his brain.
I'm going to die.
End Chapter Four
Author's Notes: Sorry again for the horrendous wait! I really should never do that ever again. T_T But I hope you appreciate how wonderful this chapter is, given the wait. I will try not to leave you in suspense about Phoenix's death/injury/fate for too long.
A special thank you goes out to anja-chan, who is my fearless beta. Without her, I would feel too crappy about this to post it. Go read her stuff and give her lots of of reviews if you think I'm any good.
I had a lot of difficulties getting this out, so PLEASE REVIEW! (Also, the more questions you guys ask, the more likely I'll be able to address them/write something cool in the next chapter.)