If you're listening,
Sing it back,
And I'm still running away,
I won't play your hide and seek game,
I was spinning free,
With a little sweet and simple numbing me
What a dizzying dance,
Ah ah ah, this sweetness will not be concerned with me
"Sweetness", Jimmy Eat World
To Make Kings and Vagabonds
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!" Kaguya chirped, gesturing widely. She stood behind a raised podium, looking out over the sea of faces that made up tonight's guests. "On behalf of the Sumeragi Academy, I am pleased to present our honored guests- my esteemed cousin, Kururugi Suzaku, and his lovely bride-to-be, Kouzuki Kallen!"
The roar of applause seemed to enthrall and invigorate Kaguya as she gestured over to Suzaku and Kallen, who put on their best smiles and kept up a polite façade.
"As our guests of honor for this evening, I would invite my honored cousin and his bride to lead us in the first dance," Kaguya announced, inclining her head towards them, and then making a quick gesture towards the live band she had positioned on one of the upper balconies.
Suzaku frowned, and whispered discretely, "Did you know she was going to make us do that?"
Kallen shook her head ever so slightly. "You know her."
The gaze of the crowd was on them, and even Suzaku could recognize a losing battle. With an inward sigh, he extended an arm out to Kallen, who took it gracefully as they stepped out onto the floor.
"Now then, everyone get your partners, and let's have some fun!" Kaguya cheered, and the crowd burst into applause.
The distinctly Brittanian music began to play, all strings and piano. The song sounded vaguely familiar to Suzaku, but he couldn't place it. He had apparently spent too much time trying to listen to the music, however, as Kallen hurriedly elbowed him, reminding him that they were supposed to dance.
Suzaku led her through the dance, one hand around her waist and the other on her arm, wondering briefly if Kallen knew how to dance in the Brittanian style (his own knowledge was based on being taught during his brief stay in Brittania- Euphie in particular demanded he practice with her constantly).
However, Kallen moved fluidly in step with him, and in fact moved correctly at one point where he made a misstep, guiding him back into line as easily as breathing.
Kallen flicked a glance at him, sensing his surprise, and whispered softly, "My dad taught me. I had him dance with me every time he came to visit."
Her face was inches from his own when she spoke, her breath tickling his chin as she tilted her head upwards, and they both realized their closeness and moved back slightly, sharing an embarrassed smile.
The moment felt so natural, so utterly normal to their friendship that Suzaku suddenly realized how much not really speaking with each other for an entire month had been affecting him.
The last time they had really shared a smile and a quiet laugh felt so long ago that it scared him a little.
"I missed that," Suzaku said quietly, without thinking. "Being able to smile with each other."
She said nothing, and he pressed on, "Look, I was out of line before, when we spoke after the attack on Dudley. I shouldn't have let my anger get the better of me. I'm sorry."
He bowed his head in apology, wondering what her expression must be like in that moment.
After a moment, Kallen spoke softly.
"I was scared, you know."
She said it almost casually, and Suzaku froze.
"When they told me the factory had blown up, and that Jinchuu had left his mark… Emperor preserve, I thought you were dead Suzaku. That Jinchuu had found you and killed you himself," Kallen said softly.
Suzaku swallowed, throat tight. He knew there had never been a danger, but to Kallen… his double life affected more than just himself, he reminded himself.
If I told Kallen… I mean… she's known me even longer Lelouch… than Suzaku began to think, but stopped himself. She's a Sword of the Emperor- of my father's. She swore an oath to him, and it would break Kallen to make a choice between her family's honor and me.
Studying his childhood friend with her confession still so fresh in his mind, Suzaku considered her well. Kallen was so straightforward, especially for a Japanese girl- she spoke her mind, preferred brash action over demure subtlety, and was as doggedly loyal a friend as anyone could ask for. To her, his deception would be nothing short of the grossest kind of betrayal.
But she had never seen what Suzaku had seen. Never felt responsible for the destruction of an entire country, the suffering of a people.
He couldn't tell her his secrets- she would never understand.
"I'm sorry," Suzaku said simply, shaking his head, knowing she would never fully understand why he said that, and would only assume he was trying to understand her feelings.
"It's not your fault, I guess… I'm just so tired of things being out of my control. We keep losing to this Jinchuu guy, and the Federation is creeping up behind us, ready to strike…" Kallen trailed off, offering him a wan, tired smile. "This is probably just stress from being in this stupid kimono."
Suzaku tried to manage a sympathetic smile.
"Kallen, you're one of my best friends. I love you. Nothing is ever going to change that fact," Suzaku said softly, as the soft tones of the music lulled, preparing to rise back up in a crescendo. "No matter what happens in the future, I'll always be your friend."
"You love me?" Kallen suddenly grinned impishly as she moved away from him. "Is that right?"
Suzaku flushed, realizing what he had just said. "I… you know what I meant. As friends. I've known you all my life and we've been through so much and… and… Emperor, you are never letting this go, huh."
"Oh I do know what you mean," Kallen said in a sing-song voice, "You love me. You said it. Can't take it back."
Suzaku tightened his grip ever so slightly, just enough that it was a light pinch, and Kallen squeaked and glared at him.
"You still can't take a joke," Kallen muttered, rolling her eyes.
"And you still know how to annoy me," Suzaku shot back, grinning.
Tomorrow I can think about the war, Suzaku decided, his heart light. Tonight, I just want to be with my friends.
"Don't they make a lovely couple," C.C. commented, smiling with hooded eyes as she glanced back from Suzaku and Kallen to him.
"They match each other well," Lelouch agreed, holding her in his arms as they too moved along with the music. He was surprised at how well they danced to the foreign music- Suzaku had never been too interested in learning how to dance, though Euphie had all but bullied him into it.
"But not as well as us, right Lulu?" C.C. teased, leaning into him slightly, just enough to brush her chest against his.
His grip on her faltered as he flushed, and C.C. laughed openly, shaking her head.
"Way too easy," she murmured, resuming her previous position. "You're dancing quite well though, so I suppose I'll forgive it."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Lelouch said softly, a faint smile on his face. "Given your experience.
C.C. sniffed and stepped pointedly on his toes. "It's not nice to discuss a lady's age."
Lelouch hissed and clenched his jaw- C.C.'s costume thankfully did not have pointed heels.
The music faded, and Lelouch moved to take his hands away, but C.C. fixed him with a look.
"Oh no, you're not done yet, boy," C.C. said huskily, smirking.
Lelouch sighed. "This is payback, isn't it?"
C.C. smiled sweetly in response. The music began to play again, louder and with a faster beat.
"I don't know how to dance to this," Lelouch admitted reluctantly, frowning.
"Just follow my lead and try not to mess up," C.C. responded immediately, chuckling.
Though he didn't particularly care for the idea, Lelouch did as he was bid, mirroring C.C.'s movements as best he could. Partway through the song, he had the pattern down, and was moving in sync with C.C., though he felt his breath begin to come harder and a bead of sweat ran down his neck at the pace.
"You're a surprisingly good dancer, you know," C.C. commented, somewhat breathlessly, as the song came to a close. "All that courtly training wasn't wasted on you, I suppose."
"I'm glad it impresses you," Lelouch said dryly. "Have you extracted enough from me or would you like another dance, milady?"
He performed a mock bow as he finished speaking, a crooked smile on his face.
"That will do enough for now, I suppose," C.C. replied, raising an eyebrow. "I'm a bit thirsty. Fetch me a drink. And one for Kaguya too, I suppose. She's probably thirsty."
Lelouch rolled his eyes. "Yes, your highness."
"This is one fancy shindig," Gino drawled, whistling in appreciation as he glanced around the ballroom with wide eyes.
"We're not here for fun, boss," Shirley muttered, elbowing him in the ribs sharply.
Neither Gino or Rivalz said anything to the reprimand, though they shared a grin behind her back.
"Ah, Shirley-san, Rivalz-kun! Glad to see you two made it," Lelouch greeted, appearing through the crowd with a friendly smile, holding two clear plastic cups filled with punch.
Gino studied Shirley's target with curious eyes. Knowing that he was one of the Imperial line, Gino could sort of see the family resemblance to his father- the shape of the eyes in particular. Gino had only met the Emperor once, during his older brother's court debut, but the impression he had gotten had stuck with him all these years.
Charles Zi Brittania was a titan of a man, larger than life, utterly removed from any kind of human warmth. When he spoke it was the booming voice of authority made flesh, and Gino had never seen him smile once that night.
Unlike the stern, commanding presence of the Emperor, Lelouch seemed friendly enough, but there was an almost exaggerated caution in his movements, as though the prince was afraid he might hurt someone. A son afraid to hurt someone born from the man who had worn power like a second skin around him. Very strange.
This is the prince we might have to assassinate tonight, Gino thought to himself, as Lelouch turned towards him.
"I don't believe we've met," Lelouch said slowly, holding out his hand. "Lelouch Lamperouge."
"Ah… Jack. Jack Simon," Gino lied swiftly as he shook his hand, using one of his numerous aliases that the BLF had created for him. "I'm an old friend of Rivalz and Shirley here. They invited me along to see their school and try to convince me to enroll."
"Well I hope you enjoy tonight, Simon-san," Lelouch said pleasantly, smiling slightly. "The Sumeragi Academy is always happy to welcome new students. If you need anything, please let myself or anyone else on the Student Council know."
Shirley, meanwhile, had been fixatedly staring at Lelouch, obviously trying to figure out a way to get him alone so they could ask him some questions without anyone interrupting.
Rivalz took care of that, however, cheerfully grasping Lelouch on the shoulder and saying loudly, "Oi, Lelouch-kun! Shirley here wanted to show her thanks for taking care of her all this time!"
Lelouch and Shirley both looked taken aback, though Shirley turned her head in seeming embarrassment to avoid betraying her surprise.
"Yeah," Gino chimed in, sensing what Rivalz intended, "You owe Lamperouge here a dance at least, huh Red?"
Shirley blinked. "I…"
Lelouch shrugged, smiling still. "I wouldn't be opposed, I guess…" he trailed off, looking at Shirley questioningly. "Is that really what you want, Shirley-san?"
"Y-yeah," Shirley forced out, nodding quickly. "I do owe you, after all."
Lelouch smiled. "Then I'm looking forward to it."
"Yoo hoo! Lelouch-kun!" A dark haired young girl popped her head out from behind the crowd, waving energetically. "Where's that punch!"
Lelouch bowed his head apologetically. "I appear to be needed elsewhere for now. But I'll be sure to take you up on your offer later, Shirley-san."
As he left, Gino grinned and muttered, "He's a pretty popular guy, huh? You got a lot of competition, Red."
Shirley scowled. "It's not like that. And I could have found a better way to corner him than tricking him into a dance, you know."
"Gotta use your feminine wiles sometime," Rivalz said, shrugging. "Besides, what else were you going to do? Ambush and drag him off?"
Shirley flushed. "I would have come up with a better plan."
"Yeah, yeah," Rivalz said disbelievingly, walking towards the table of refreshments while still keeping his eyes on Shirley. "You know Shirley, sometimes I have trouble remembering you're a-"
He accidentally bowled into someone as he spoke, interrupting his sentence and nearly knocking the other person over.
"Ah, I'm sorry-" Rivalz apologized quickly, before his throat got caught as his gaze caught and met a pair of gorgeous blue eyes.
His mouth went dry.
"That's alright," she said cheerfully, brushing herself off, before giving him a curious look. "Are you okay? I didn't think we collided that hard, did we?"
His mind screamed at his body to move, his mouth to say something, anything that would catch her attention. As he scrambled to think of something, he took in her appearance.
Strikingly, she was wearing what was unmistakably a male butler outfit- dark, pressed slacks and a matching suit jacket, with a red lapel and white undershirt. Completing the ensemble was a red ribbon tied around her neck collar.
After a while, her eyes widened in recognition.
"Ah, it's you!"
The blonde from Malory's gave him a winning smile that made his heart do a reasonable impression of a drum roll. "Your name was… Rivalz, right?"
Oh my God she remembered my name. Rivalz could have died right then and there and been happy.
"Rivalz, hey, who's your friend?" Gino said cheerily, arm wrapping around Rivalz's shoulder as he pulled the other boy close, giving the girl a wide, friendly smile.
Hearing his leader's voice shook him back into reality, and he realized that not only was the gorgeous blonde from before right in front of him, she was also a link to the mysterious Jinchuu.
"She's a friend of our… mutual acquaintance," Rivalz said quickly, hoping that both Gino and the girl would understand his meaning. When Gino blinked and gave him a helpless look, he added, "She's the one who passed along that message about Dudley."
Gino's eyes widened in disbelief, eyes flicking rapidly between the blonde who had immediately garnered respect from him to Rivalz, waiting for a reaction.
The blonde gave them both a winning smile and winked. "Now now, I don't think we should make a big deal about this… Gino-san."
Rivalz blinked in surprise and felt a small chill run down his spine as his estimation of the blonde jumped up several more notches. She had no way of really knowing Gino's name, but she had quickly guessed it via pure intuition.
"Of course, miss…" Gino smiled tightly, waiting for an answer.
"Milly," came a new voice, soft and pleasant, and another girl stepped into view. "There you are."
The blonde froze just for a second, obviously caught, and then sighed. Just before the other girl came over, she said softly, "My friend is uninvolved. Leave her alone, and we'll talk later."
And then her face changed, all bright and sunny smiles as she turned around. "Sorry about that, Euphie. Just saying hi to a few friends."
Euphie turned out to be a girl just as striking as Milly, dressed in a long hemmed white dress with a modest neckline, holding a classic wicker picnic basket in one hand, with a long red cloak tied around her neck that reached down to her ankles and forming a red hood over her head, allowing her pink hair to frame her face perfectly.
"Well, it was a pleasure seeing you again," Milly said formally, bowing slightly. "Come along Euphie."
"Well forgive me for being forward, miss, but I'm sure my friend Rivalz here couldn't possibly live without at least one dance," Gino said quickly, reaching out to touch her arm before she could leave, and Rivalz choked audibly.
"Oh you son of a bitch," Rivalz swore, and was about to whirl on Gino when his eyes met Milly's.
She stood there, giving him a once over, and he wilted under her gaze, shifting uncomfortably.
"Find me later and we'll see," she said lightly, eyes twinkling in amusement, leaving Rivalz a stupefied mess until well after she had disappeared into the crowd.
"Who were those people, Milly?" Euphemia questioned curiously.
"Ah, just some people I usually see around town who I've gotten to know a little," Milly replied easily. Inwardly, she felt strangely intrigued- three members of the BLF were here (she guessed that the girl was also one of them), alongside her master. Was he the target?
"That one boy seemed to like you a lot," Euphemia said teasingly, smiling.
Milly blinked, shaken from her thoughts as she gave Euphemia an amused look.
"Well, look at you. Someone's lively," Milly said, chuckling. "And he was cute enough, I suppose, in a dorky sort of way."
The two of them giggled at that, until Milly came to a stop, spotting Suzaku just off in the distance.
"Let me just tell Suzaku-sama we're coming so he knows not to be surprised, alright?" Milly said quickly, smiling brightly for Euphemia, who nodded in somewhat confused agreement.
Milly made her way through the crowd easily until she was right behind Suzaku. Idly noting how ridiculously easy it was to sneak up on the Crown Prince of the Empire of all people, Milly grinned mischievously and tapped him on the shoulder.
"My lord, can I trouble you for a dance with this humble maiden?" Milly said faux politely, bowing her head.
Suzaku blinked once and then laughed loudly, shaking his head. "You scared me. I almost didn't recognize you Milly."
"I'll take it my impression is quite passable then," Milly said laughingly, shaking her head. "Where are the others?"
"The girls went off somewhere," Suzaku replied, shrugging carelessly. "Lelouch was called off on Student Council business."
"Well that's convenient. Come with me," Milly said brusquely, smirking as she all but dragged Suzaku away.
"Where are we going…" Suzaku began, trailing off as Milly abruptly shoved him towards a girl in a red hood.
"I'm so sorry miss!" Suzaku apologized embarrassedly, fixing Milly with an annoyed look. "Are you alright?"
"I'm alright," came a familiar voice, and a pair of familiar eyes peeked out from under the hood.
"Euphie!" Suzaku whispered in surprise, glancing around warily. "I hardly recognized you."
"And that, my master, is the point," Milly said, sounding utterly pleased with herself. "I told you I could make it work. As long as she has the hood up, who's going to know who she is?"
"I…" Suzaku sighed helplessly. "I guess you were right."
"It's okay for me to be here, right?" Euphemia questioned, and Suzaku tried to smile reassuringly.
"Yeah, it's alright. You do need to experience more than just the mansion," Suzaku said quickly, nodding.
"Well, now that that's settled," Milly continued, grinning. "I asked you for a dance, but I suppose I'll let Euphie cut in instead."
Suzaku and Euphemia both blinked, glancing first at Milly and then at one another, their cheeks distinctly red.
"Oh, go on and have some fun," Milly said cheerily, all but shoving the two of them towards the dance floor.
Euphemia stumbled into his chest and Suzaku grunted, steadying her with his hands on her shoulders.
"Damn it Milly, always doing stuff impulsively," Suzaku muttered, rolling his eyes. "Are you okay?"
Euphemia smiled. "Yeah, just lost my balance, that's all. Shall we dance?"
Suzaku smiled back and nodded, holding out his hand. Despite his misgivings about having her here, he really was happy to see Euphemia looking much better than how he found her just a few short months ago.
"Thank you for letting me come tonight," Euphemia said softly, gazing up at him from beneath the red hood as they danced.
Suzaku blinked. For some reason, the words grated him.
"Look, I know you technically work for me and everything, but you don't need my permission to go out and do things. I was just… worried, that's all," Suzaku said apologetically, bowing his head. "I forget that you need to live your own life."
"I'm not upset about it!" Euphemia assured him quickly, looking panicked. "I know that you're only trying to help me. I mean, you've done so much for me already, it seems amazing that you'd be willing to let me put you at risk like this at all."
Suzaku chuckled. "That's definitely the old you. Always willing to think about others before yourself."
Euphemia's cheeks went pink, and she giggled. "I sound like a pretty impressive person then, hmm?"
"You were something," Suzaku agreed, nodding along as they twirled along with the music. "I remember when I first arrived in Brittania, everybody else was too scared of my father and my status as a prince to speak with me like a normal person. Everyone but you."
Euphemia's smile seemed to deepen, and she leaned in closer, her grip tightening eagerly. "Really?"
Suzaku nodded again. "You treated me like a person. I never forgot that." His eyes softened. "Being able to help you like this makes me happy- I can pay you back for all your kindness."
The conversation fell off after that, both of them just smiling at the other, letting the music fill the gap with a sweet, gentle harmony that echoed the warm, unnamed feeling that surrounded them.
As the music began to drift away, Suzaku realized something.
"Wait, Euphie… who taught you to dance?"
Euphemia blinked, glanced down, and her eyes widened. "Oh…"
Suzaku laughed as some hidden fear of his faded. "You still remember. Somewhere in you, the old you is still in there. The fact that you still know how to do certain things, like dancing, proves that." His expression was soft, full of warm memories. "You always did love dancing."
"I love dancing," Euphemia repeated quietly to herself, still gazing at her feet. After another moment, she smiled. "How about that."
"Where did he run off to?" Kallen muttered, blinking as she gazed around the densely packed ballroom, trying to spot Suzaku.
"Lose someone?" came an amused voice, as Lelouch emerged from the crowd. He held out a cup, which Kallen took with a roll of her eyes.
"Suzaku disappeared on me," Kallen replied, sipping her punch appreciatively. "Where's your date?"
Lelouch shrugged. "I'm too afraid to ask."
"Well here's to somehow losing our dates," Kallen said, raising her cup in a salute with a grin.
Lelouch raised his own glass as well. A small part of him was thrown off by the friendly expression on Kallen's face, given that the last time they had 'spoken' he had been in his Rei persona and she had been all but gloating at his abject failure.
A small price, he supposed, for a secret identity.
"Cheers," he said, forcing a chuckle. "So, judging from your faces earlier, it looks like you two made up?"
Kallen smiled slightly. "Yeah. It all seems kind of stupid now, to have been fighting like that."
"I'm glad," Lelouch said quietly, sounding relieved. "Life's too short to waste on petty fights."
"Bit dramatic," Kallen noted wryly, raising an eyebrow. "You sound like a bad shoujo manga or something."
Lelouch raised an eyebrow right back and Kallen flushed a little. "Not that I read shoujo manga."
"Unfortunately Kaguya already mentioned loaning you her collection a while back already. No secrets with the princess, remember?" Lelouch assured her, grinning. "Besides, what's the harm? I won't tell Suzaku, promise."
"It's just embarrassing, you know?" Kallen muttered, crossing her arms. "I grew up in the military. That kind of girly stuff is…"
"What girls your age are supposed to like, which is nothing to be ashamed of," Lelouch interrupted, chuckling. "It's actually quite charming, you know."
Kallen's cheeks went pink, and she met Lelouch's gaze unsteadily. "Hey, you have your own date. Don't go hitting on me," she warned, rolling her eyes.
Lelouch flushed as well. "I didn't… alright, that was not what I intended. I just meant that you shouldn't be ashamed of being who you are."
"Well, that's funny coming from you," Kallen said wryly, and Lelouch had the grace to look somewhat abashed.
"This and that are completely different things," Lelouch responded evasively, frowning. As he spoke, however, his mind wandered to the last person who prodded him about his heritage- her father.
"Whatever darkness you carry, do not drag my daughter down with you when those sins inevitably catch up to you."
Coughing awkwardly, trying to disguise the expression on his face as Matthew Stadtfeld's last warning returned to his mind, Lelouch asked quietly, "Are you still set on finding a way to reunite your family?"
Kallen blinked, looking thrown at the sudden change in topic, before she responded, "Of course. I know I can do it." She peered at him quizzically. "Why are you asking about my father?"
"It's ah… nothing. Sorry I asked," Lelouch said quickly, averting his gaze.
Kallen continued to bore into him with a fixed expression, before a light of understanding came into her eyes. "Is this about… you know…" she leaned in and whispered, "Your brother?"
Lelouch blinked, and it took him a moment to understand exactly what Kallen was getting at. "Oh… no, it's not like that," he tried to assure her, but Kallen pressed in, putting her hand on his arm comfortingly.
"It's alright to be relieved that your brother escaped. I mean, it's not exactly something I'd like to see you celebrating, but he's still your family. I understand if you have mixed feelings about it," Kallen said quickly, trying to be as reassuring as possible.
"My brother deserved to go to jail. He nearly killed hundreds of people," Lelouch responded flatly, shrugging off her hand, suddenly irritated. "My only feelings on that matter are that the person in charge is at fault."
His anger, of course, was directed at himself, at his own incompetence for underestimating Cornelia and letting the reappearance of the Amalthea rattle him.
"Now that sentiment I can agree with," Kallen said darkly, nodding. "That guy…"
She trailed off, remembering that the existence of Rei was a secret within the military.
"Do you not like whoever was in charge of that operation?" Lelouch asked, raising an eyebrow. His lip twitched ever so slightly, as he thought about the absurdity of asking Kallen about her irritation towards his alternate persona.
"He's a right bastard," Kallen spat. "Good men died on his watch. If I had my way he never would have been involved."
"Everybody makes mistakes," Lelouch said softly, feeling decidedly odd at having to defend himself in such an abstract manner.
"But the kinds of people who make those mistakes should not be in charge of a military operation," Kallen responded instantly, frowning. "I just… I hate the way my brother is running things right now. I guess even with me and Suzaku reconciling I still have things on my mind."
She shrugged, offering Lelouch a wan, tired smile. "Sorry, I always seem to end up telling you all my problems. You didn't come here tonight for my issues."
Lelouch smiled back comfortingly. "Please. I'm happy to listen. You're trying to change the empire, setting an example that I could only dream of. If I can be this tiny support for someone like you, then I'm happy."
Kallen seemed taken aback by his sudden profession, and her smile seemed to gain strength. "You know Lelouch Lamperouge… if someone like you was in charge, I think things would be better."
At that, Lelouch deflated, but he did his best to keep smiling.
"Maybe," he lied.
Before they could continue their conversation, another voice cut in.
"Ah, Lelouch-san…" Shirley called out quietly, approaching them demurely. "Is now a good time?" She bowed politely to Kallen. "Sorry to intrude, Kallen-sama."
Kallen gave him an amused look, and Lelouch flushed.
"Y-yes, I suppose." Lelouch held out his hand, putting on a smile. "After you then, milady."
Shirley hesitated visibly, before finally placing her hand in his.
Jeremiah Gottwald had the night off.
That, in itself, was so foreign to him that he actually spent several hours just going through the normal routines of closing the shop, cleaning the house, and preparing dinner for three before he even realized that fact.
After finishing the meal and packing up the sizeable leftovers into neatly marked containers for both C.C. and Lelouch, cleaning the dishes, and putting everything away, he looked at the clock and found that it was barely eight.
And that was why he found himself wandering into a local bar, seating himself comfortably facing the door (old military habit), giving polite nods and greetings to the various people he recognized from around the neighborhood. It was an all Brittanian establishment, and the air was fairly relaxed.
"Well, here's a rare sight. Your charges let you have the night off, Jeremiah?" called out one of the older men, John, grinning from down the bar.
"They're growing up," Jeremiah replied easily, shrugging as he signaled the bartender. After making his order, he sipped quietly at his beer, savoring the taste.
"Ah, yes. I remember when that boy of yours was just a wee thing," the bartender commented, sounding nostalgic. "Guess he's about ready to leave the nest."
A very small part of Jeremiah bristled at the bartender for calling his prince a "wee thing", but, as always, he reminded himself that such petty things were unimportant. The greater part of him considered the comment more carefully.
He had heard stories about other knights who had served their lieges since childhood, growing with their charges until they were a mixture of mentor and servant. And there was a line, Jeremiah knew, between protecting his master and allowing his master to grow.
Right now Lelouch was on the cusp of manhood, finally starting to make his mark on the world in the way that Jeremiah always knew he would. But Jeremiah himself still had lingering doubts about this path, and its immense danger to his charge. By putting himself out there under a false name and a mask, he had effectively isolated himself from everyone but C.C., Kouzuki Naoto, and himself. His erstwhile allies could turn on him at any moment, especially if Kouzuki was ever incapacitated.
And there was only so much Jeremiah could do to protect him if both the Japanese military and the Brittanian rebels were to come gunning after him.
"He is at that," Jeremiah said reluctantly, finally replying with a terse sigh.
John reached over and clapped him on the shoulder, grinning. "I had a boy and a girl, both of 'em grown up. I went through the same thing. It isn't easy."
Jeremiah said nothing in reply, drinking deeply instead. He just listened as John kept going on about his son and daughter, both of whom apparently went into the military, and apparently made the rank of Knight as well. It made Jeremiah wonder if he had ever run into them before, at the Academy. It was unlikely he would have encountered them anywhere else, given that nearly the instant he graduated the Academy he was given a post in the Imperial palace as one of Empress Marianne's royal guard.
When there was a lull in the conversation, Jeremiah finally felt compelled to ask, "So, what happened to them?"
"My son? He lives in the city. We still talk. My daughter…" John sighed, looking melancholy. "She disappeared during the invasion. She and her whole unit just… vanished."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Jeremiah said quietly, bowing his head respectfully.
"I believe she's still alive," John assured him, smiling bitterly. "She's a tough girl. Spine of steel. Much like her mother, may God rest her soul. My son though… he's given her up for dead. It's probably why we don't talk as much anymore."
Jeremiah frowned, and upon seeing his expression, John continued, "I don't blame him. Seven years without a word is too long. It probably eases his mind to think she's dead."
John sighed, swirling the alcohol in his glass. "Kewell and Marika were always very close. It devastated him to hear that she had vanished. He blamed their commander… oh, what was his name…"
He tapped a finger against his chin thoughtfully, before he finally exclaimed, "Ah, Bradley, that's right. Luciano Bradley was his name."
Luciano sneezed, rubbing his nose with an annoyed look.
"Damn dust. Someone clean off the guns thoroughly next shipment," Luciano muttered, scowling irritably. He was squatting on a crate in a dark sewer tunnel, holding a rifle in his hands as he leaned against the wall.
"Apologies sir," Marika offered, standing off to the side, though her tone was slightly wry. "The men are almost in position."
"Good. Waiting down here is starting to give me cramps," Luciano muttered, cracking his neck. His eyes rested on the dirty, unpolished metal sign next to the ladder in front of him.
Sumeragi Academy Maintenance Staff Only.
Luciano flicked a glance upwards, and smiled. "Let's crash ourselves a party.
As he asked a barkeep for another round in somewhat awkward French, Naoto supposed it was extremely lucky that his tutors insisted he learn to French as a child. His grammar and vocabulary were passable, but on the other hand his actual ability to speak was quite horrible and it took a few tries before the bartender even understood him.
Technically, he supposed that drinking alone was edging very close to a relapse- before his promotion to Commander, Naoto had sworn off drinking to excess ever again. He had broken that oath already, however, in the aftermath of the Federation's attack, and lately a nightcap had been helping him sleep without troubled dreams.
As the bartender set down the glass in front of him, a hand reached out and placed bills on the counter before Naoto could react.
He turned to see an unfamiliar face, tanned and dark haired and clearly Japanese, who smiled and inclined his head.
"Please commander, it's on me."
Naoto frowned slightly. "I'm sorry, I don't believe we've met…"
"Ah, sorry sir," the younger man apologized, bowing his head respectfully. "Third Lieutenant Katase Masataka. I'm one of the officers aboard the Murasaki."
Naoto blinked, recognizing the family name. "Wait… are you General Katase-san's son?"
"Second son," Masataka admitted, averting his eyes in embarrassment. "Sorry for just approaching you like this, but I recognized you from across the bar and I just couldn't help myself."
Naoto frowned. "Um…"
Masataka flushed deeply, face and neck reddening. "That was poor wording. Let me explain. You're… kind of a hero to me. And to the others like me."
"Others?" Naoto tilted his head to one side, wondering briefly if he'd already had too much to drink. "Hero?"
"Yes, others," Masataka said quickly, eyes bright with excitement. "Don't you know? Amongst our generation, you're a legend. You embody all the changes we want to see made in the empire."
Naoto's face must have betrayed his confusion, because Masataka continued eagerly, "Your reforms, Commander. Don't you know? You're not alone in thinking that the Empire must evolve and incorporate its various peoples into the fold, not just the pure-blooded Japanese."
"I'm…" Naoto shook his head. "Look, you're making it sound like I'm some great advocate of change. I'm really not. I'm just trying to make life easier for me and mine."
"Of course," Masataka agreed, though he did not sound convinced. "Kallen-sama too is a hero, and is our Prince. The three of you are our hope."
"You keep talking as if there are many of you. But if that's true, why are all the changes both myself and Suzaku-sama have made become so unpopular?" Naoto questioned skeptically, crossing his arms.
"Because the previous generation is the one in power. Conservatives like Minister Kirihara and my father hold too much sway, their voices drowning out our own. But we are not alone, commander," Masataka assured him, grinning. "Our generation is different. We think to the future, and our Empire will only survive if we accept and integrate. War will not solve our problems."
Masataka was lost in his own world now, his voice captivated by the ideals he philosophized about. "Our Sakuradite, for example. It is not a renewable resource. Every day Japan has a little less. Did you know, Commander, that in just a century, we will have run out at our currently increasing rate of consumption?"
"You're referring to the Kimigawa Report," Naoto noted, taking a long drink of his glass. He'd read the report himself out of curiosity two years ago. "I take it then you, as a General's son, are also aware that it is forbidden by law to discuss it in public. Only somebody with my level of clearance is allowed to even know it exists, but I assume you've used your father's name to get access."
Masataka flushed yet again, caught. "More attempts by the older generation to subdue the younger. But they can't pretend that our current situation will not last forever. Our Empire is too large to control without properly integrating our subjects and using them to help reinforce our position."
Naoto sighed deeply, bowing his head tiredly. "Look, Lieutenant, I appreciate your admiration. Really. But I've had one exhausting month, and I really don't want to get into a long discussion about the Empire. I just want to sit here, get hammered, and go home."
Masataka's face fell, and Naoto felt a pang of guilt. As he opened his mouth to apologize, however, his eyes caught movement at the entrance of the bar. Without thinking, his hand went to his gun, but it was too late.
The soldiers standing directly at the entrance of the bar had him at point blank range. Five rifles pointed directly at him, and the man standing behind them, clad in an Einherjar uniform, smiled.
"Commander Kouzuki," the man said slowly, his Japanese thickly accented, "My name is Captain Strakhov. I would prefer it if you came with me peaceably."
"And if I decline," Naoto questioned, shaking his head once at Masataka, who looked ready to lunge at the enemy soldiers.
"Otherwise", the captain continued quietly, as his smile turned sharp and edged, "We will have to use force."
Naoto's eyes narrowed as he slowly stood up from his barstool, hands in the air to show he wasn't trying anything.
"I'm here as a guest. Or has Eurasia decided to abandon the common international laws regarding diplomatic emissaries?" he asked coolly, fixing Strakhov with a glare.
Strakhov's smile only widened delightedly. "My Japanese is a little rusty, but how should I say it… there's been a change in management."
A deep rumble echoed through the room, coming from outside, almost like thunder, and Naoto's blood ran cold.
"What is that? An earthquake?" Masataka asked shakily, speaking up for the first time since the Einherjar soldiers had entered the bar.
"That was an explosion," Naoto corrected, not taking his eyes off of the captain. "At the hotel, I assume. Which means…"
"That the honored Senator Dantes is no longer amongst the living," Strakhov finished, looking amused at how quickly Naoto was following the situation.
"So it's a coup," Naoto murmured, finally breaking his gaze. "Then this is where the war really starts. You were just waiting to find out who was on your side and who would have opposed you."
"You are a very intelligent man, Commander," Captain Strakhov complimented, "It's a shame we will never have a chance to cross swords in battle."
He nodded sharply to his men. "Take him. Kill the others."
And with that, Strakhov turned sharply on his heel and left.
They danced in silence through the whole song- Lelouch didn't know exactly what to say, and Shirley was still trying to figure out exactly how she was going to press him for information and, if necessary, dispose of him.
As the band played the closing notes of the song and Lelouch made to let go of her, Shirley's grip tightened and she finally spoke. "Wait. Can you help me outside? I'm feeling a little weak."
Lelouch blinked, but nodded. "Okay. Follow me."
As he led her upstairs, Shirley fiddled with the wand her hands, checking the weight of the knife.
"Here we are," Lelouch said suddenly, and Shirley looked up, and her breath hitched.
Lelouch, smiling gently, amidst a backdrop of stars and dressed impeccably well in his suit, held out his hand again. "Are you feeling better?"
"Ah… yes, much better," Shirley said quickly, refusing to meet his gaze as she brushed past him. "But… I'd like some company, if that's alright."
Lelouch smiled again. "Of course." He leaned against the balcony, his back wide and exposed to Shirley. "It's been a while since you came by for a tutoring lesson. Have your studies been going well?"
"Y-yes. Well enough I suppose. I've felt really weak lately so I've missed a lot of school," Shirley lied quickly. "Thank you for asking."
"Is it the weather?" Lelouch asked curiously. "It has been unusually cold recently."
"It is almost November," Shirley agreed idly, and suddenly she remembered the Bloody Sunday Riots that happened over seven years ago to the day this November. The riots that took her father's life.
The riots that supposedly were caused by Lelouch vi Brittania.
She took a deep breath, and decided to chance her luck. "I hate November. It always… always reminds me of the riots."
Lelouch went very still out of the corner of her eyes, and Shirley knew she had him on the hook. "Was that when you lost your parents too? In the riots?"
Lelouch coughed awkwardly, refusing to meet her gaze. "N-no. They died before that."
"You said it was your fault. What did you mean?" Shirley pressed, and Lelouch fell backwards, against the balcony.
"I… I made a mistake. I…" Lelouch turned away, bracing himself against the balcony railing, head bowed. "I killed them."
"You were just a kid, any mistake you made couldn't really make you a murderer," Shirley offered, waiting to see his reaction.
"No, I…" Lelouch clenched his fists and sighed. "It's nothing. I'm sorry, Shirley-san, but I just don't want to talk about this."
Shirley frowned. She was losing him.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pressed you… it's just, I heard something recently that made me think of the riots again." Shirley tightened her grip on her knife. "I heard that all of it could be blamed on one person. That one man was responsible for all of this."
She gestured out towards the London Settlement, to the glistening lights of a city that was no longer theirs. "That this occupation, this invasion… that all those deaths are solely the responsibility of a single individual."
Lelouch's face paled considerably, and the truth of it was in his eyes. Shirley could see it plain as day.
He was the one.
"Lelouch vi Brittania…" Shirley whispered-
And was drowned out by the sound of gunfire.
"What the hell was that!" Lelouch shouted, panicked, brushing past Shirley, who followed suit.
And there, at the center of the ballroom, were a dozen armed Brittanian men and a single woman.
One of them, a spiky-haired redhead, looked vaguely familiar to Shirley, and it was only when Lelouch hissed his name that Shirley recognized him.
"Luciano Bradley," Lelouch spat, sounding horrified.
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen!" Luciano Bradley called out loudly, smiling wickedly. "We are… tonight's entertainment."
This was probably the most challenging chapter I've ever written. And yes, the title does come from the Lion King, if any of you were wondering, and it's because I caught Elton John's show while in Vegas earlier this month.
Big stuff next chapter! Look forward to it.