Chapter 96: Peer Pressure

Kaguya smoothed her hands over the silk of her kimono, trying to calm her nerves. Ever since her first day on Lelouch's council, she'd been too proud to change her style of dress. She'd gone in traditional Japanese fashion to make a statement, and she wasn't about to retract it now, even if the rest of the council disliked her for it. But for all that they seemed to dislike her, it didn't seem to really matter. Lelouch let them bicker amongst themselves before steamrolling them into doing things his way regardless of their opinions.

This council was a mockery. A ruse. Just lip service the prince was willing to pay for the cooperation of the JLF. She hated everything about it, but she was stuck there now. A hostage that Lelouch knew was involved with the resistance movement of Japan.

She touched her hair gently, making sure her pin was still in place and that nothing had come loose on the ride to the Viceroy's Palace. It was earlier than their regular meetings, meaning that there were less politicians in the halls and more servants.

She fidgeted again, wishing that she was allowed to bring her bodyguard here. But Lelouch had been very strict on that front. None except his own people were allowed to carry weapons into the Viceroy's Palace, and he had guaranteed the safety of all of the council members. If she'd insisted on bringing her bodyguard despite Lelouch's assurances, she ran the risk of offending him and further damaging her reputation amongst the other council members.

She raised her head, drawing on confidence that had been ground into her since childhood. She was a Sumeragi, the princess of an ancient and distinguished line of Japanese nobles. She had heritage and tradition spanning back longer than the Britannian Empire had even existed. The tassells from her hair pin jingled softly as she made her way forward with small, geisha steps and her hands delicately folded within the sleeves of her kimono in front of her.

When she reached Lelouch's office and his assistant ushered her inside, she bowed as she had been taught as a child instead of adopting the Britannian curtsey that the prince seemed to prefer. He was at his desk, a recently abandoned document sitting in front of him as he regarded her coolly. Sir Jeremiah was next to the desk sending her nothing less than a full on glare.

Suzuku was conspicuously absent, replaced with a blonde knight she didn't recognize.

The bad feeling she'd had since she'd been scheduled for this private meeting with Lelouch compounded, twisting in her stomach until she felt lightheaded and anxious. She clamped down on the reaction and smiled instead. "You wanted to speak with me, your highness?"

Lelouch silently ran his gaze over her for a moment before gesturing toward the armchair across from his desk. "Please, have a seat."

She did as she was told, sinking onto the chair with as much stiff poise as she could manage. She kept her back straight and her head high, refusing to rest against the back of the chair or seem too relaxed in his presence. Neither of them would be making the mistake of thinking that they were friends due to their history together. Maybe if Nunnally had survived she'd have been able to leverage a bit more goodwill out of him, but not as the situation stood now.

Sir Jeremiah shifted slightly closer to her seat, towering over her. It was an intimidation technique and set the mood for their meeting. She decided to forgo any pleasantries that might have been appropriate at the moment in favour of meeting and holding the prince's stare. She wouldn't show fear. She wouldn't break his gaze even if the proximity of his knight was making her sweat a little.

"I wanted to speak with you. It shouldn't be surprising. You had to have known this was coming." Lelouch said. "What's your involvement with the Kenshiki Faction?"

She stiffened slightly then let out a slow breath. "I have had nothing to do with the Kenshiki Faction." She said evenly, still meeting his gaze. If he was any good at judging the truth of a statement, he'd be able to tell that she wasn't lying.

Lelouch frowned. "You expect me to believe that?"

"I do. It's the truth." She replied.

"I know about Kei Tanaka, Kaguya." The prince said with a slightly smug expression. "Your beloved cousin. Are you sure you don't want to rescind your previous statement?"

She felt a thrill of dread shoot through her. It explained why the quarantine around Osaka was still in effect even after Saito's execution. She pressed her lips into a thin line and glared slightly. "No. I don't need to change my statement."

"So your cousin runs what is arguably the most ruthless and most active terrorist faction in the country and you, a member of an organization that funds terrorist factions, has had nothing to with him and his compatriots?" Lelouch reiterated skeptically.

"I already said it's the truth." She replied. "The Kenshiki Faction was never supported by my organization due to their extreme methods."

"Even though Kei is related to you by blood?"

"Even so." She said firmly. "I cut ties with him a long time ago."

Well, that wasn't necessarily true. It hadn't been too long ago since Kei had forced himself into her home to demand her cooperation. But that had been the very last straw in their already tenuous familial relations. Even before the war, the Tanaka family had been upset that yet another Sumeragi princess was going to be sent to the Kururugis. The destruction of Japan had done nothing to lessen the rift, and her recent actions, along with Suzaku's recent actions, might have been the final nail in the coffin. At least, that was if Kei knew that she had joined Lelouch's council.

"Then prove it." Lelouch challenged.

"How would I do that?"

"Come to Osaka with me tomorrow. Watch as I bring him down."

She let out a slow breath to steady herself and closed her eyes. Lelouch was cruel. She and Kei might not have been close, she might not have supported him, but they were still family. Watching anyone she knew die was always difficult, but it was even more so when they were family.

But this was even worse than that. Lelouch was going to have Kei executed. The prince might even get angry enough to kill Kei with his own hands like he had done with the other leader of the Kenshiki. Could she really stand by his side and watch him do it while knowing that any hint of grief could condemn her?

And at the same time, could she not? She didn't have a choice. This was a trap if ever she'd seen one. But to refuse right now would likely only lead to her arrest as a co-conspirator of the Kenshiki. The Six Houses were counting on her to remain in Lelouch's inner circle, she couldn't lose her space so easily.

"As you wish, your highness." She said, though her tone was sharp and disapproving. "I will go with you to Osaka."

Euphy fought hard to keep herself as charming as physically possible as she spoke to Duke Hamilton, Duke Calares and Lord Mars. She drew upon every subtle charm and conversation tactic she knew of to pull Mr. Ichigawa into the conversation as well. He reluctantly did so, nervously voicing his opinion while shooting furtive glances at Duke Hamilton. She smiled brightly and agreed with him, validating his contribution.

It was hard work and a single misstep could turn them all against her, but she'd learned from one of the best. Schneizel had always chidingly coached her when she made the mistake of not saying something diplomatically enough for his liking. Usually she tried not to put his lessons to use in everyday conversation since she didn't like how cunning and contrived it all was. But this was not an everyday conversation and she would take advantage of every edge she could get.

She was playing a dangerous game and only had a limited amount of time before she had to have visible results. Mr. Albertson was the next to join them, entering a few minutes later than the others. She welcomed him to the group while simultaneously keeping up their previous conversation. It was about something dreadfully boring, but she had managed what Abigail told her even Lelouch hadn't been able to. They were all having a civil conversation together and agreeing with each other.

She met Abigail's gaze across from her for a moment and received an encouraging smile from her sister-in-law. She was doing it. She was really doing it. Finally, she was able to do something worthwhile; something that she could look back and be proud of.

The door opened and all conversation paused as Lelouch and Miss Sumeragi entered. Her brother stopped on the threshold, eyes widening slightly at the sight of her amongst his council members after he'd specifically ordered her to leave the country last night. She met his gaze evenly, not looking away even when he glared.

But he didn't say anything. Abigail had said that he wouldn't. He wouldn't risk looking anything less than in control in front of people as powerful as Duke Hamilton. She was thankful, as the other possibility had had him forcibly removing her from the room. Instead, he sat down at the head of the table and gestured for the rest of them to do the same.

Then he carefully went about dismantling everything that she'd accomplished that morning. He pit the council members against each other, deliberately drawing them into arguments with each other. The entire council descended into a mess of conflicts and politely delivered barbs.

She understood now. She understood just why he didn't want her help. He had no intention of giving up even an ounce of power. This council was for show, likely to gain more support from the Elevens.

Not that it changed anything. She wasn't about to give up just because Lelouch didn't want to cooperate. She had come here to deliver a voice to the people. Lelouch already had the foundation in place. She was going to build on it and turn this council into something her brother couldn't even have imagined.

He'd thank her for it eventually.

Though apparently not today, as Lelouch was currently going about destroying any kind of goodwill she'd cultivated between Lords Hamilton and Mars. Their conversation devolved into a petty argument and the lack of surprise around the table told her that this was actually the norm.

"You puffed up bigot. Your suggestion is both pointless and counterproductive." Lord Mars snarled to a suggestion the duke had made which had essentially proposed that all Elevens be forced into labour camps to recoup the costs of repairing the infrastructure damages caused by the Kenshiki's reign of terror.

It was rare that a noble would actually insult another to their face except for in the most extreme of circumstances. Abigail had warned her in advance that the two lords disliked each other, but she hadn't even considered that it could be to such a level.

She wanted to bury her face in her hands in frustration at the sabotage of all of her hard work, but she didn't. She remained cheerful and as charismatic as possible throughout the duration of the meeting. She hated to admit it, but she was more than just thankful when Lelouch finally glanced at his watch and signalled that he was done with the meeting.

"These meetings will have to be cancelled for the upcoming few weeks while I'm away in Osaka dealing with the last of the Kenshiki." Lelouch said as he nonchalantly flipped a few pages into the folder in front of him.

"With all due respect, your highness, isn't the purpose of this council to oversee the running of the country while you are busy with your other duties?" Mr. Albertson enquired.

"It is. But until I can trust you all to conduct yourself in an appropriate fashion without oversight, I must remain present during these meetings. Besides, a quarter of the council will be coming with me to Osaka anyway, and it would hardly be fair to let you make important decision without them." Lelouch answered casually.

"Oh? And might I ask just which members of the council you are taking with you, your highness?" Lord Hamilton asked.

"My wife will be coming with me, as will Miss Sumeragi." Her brother answered, gesturing to the two women. From the way that Abigail's jaw clenched minutely, Euphy could tell that this was news to her. Some kind of punishment for helping her infiltrate the council, maybe.

"I see. Well, the reason for bringing your wife is obvious, but what reason do you have for bringing the Sumeragi girl with you?" Duke Hamilton asked again.

"Miss Sumeragi asked to come to see what has become of the city." Lelouch answered easily.

"If that is the case, then I would also like to come with you, your highness. I have significant holdings within Osaka and I would like to see what has become of them since the city was quarantined." The duke requested.

Lelouch arched his eyebrow and cocked his head slightly to the side, giving the request some thought before he shrugged slightly. "If you wish, though be warned that I will be going to Osaka to conduct military operations. I won't be expending my time and resources to escort you around the city while I have other duties."

"That is fair, my prince. I would still like to go. I can provide my own security detail for my time within the city." Duke Hamilton said.

"I would like to go as well, your highness." Mr. Albertson said. "For the same reason. My businesses in Osaka need to be assessed."

Lelouch nodded his assent and Lord Mars issued a similar request a moment later, followed thereafter by Mr. Ichigawa who wanted to witness for himself the state that the city was left in after being segregated from the rest of the country so long.

"I will go as well." Euphy said.

A moment of silence hung in the air as all of the council members looked between her and Lelouch. Maybe it was simply due to her heritage, or maybe it had more to do with the fact that she hadn't asked for his permission. She had merely informed him of what she intended to do.

Lelouch scrutinized her, a frown tugging at his lips. She sat a little straighter in her chair, shoulders back and chin up, to meet his gaze evenly. She wasn't going to back down this time. She had plans, and those plans centred around her being a part of this council. She couldn't allow the council to go to Osaka without her, especially not this soon after forcing her way into their midst.

Her brother's violet gaze skipped past her for a moment to land on Villetta standing behind her chair instead. Her knight shifted slightly, the sound of her uniform rustling behind her alerting her to the woman's discomfort. Then Lelouch glanced away an once again nonchalantly shrugged.

"So be it." Lelouch said after a moment of tense silence. "Should your sister give you her permission, I will bring you along."

She bit the inside of her lip to hold back her scowl at him. There was no way in hell that Cornelia would agree to such a thing. She hadn't even gone to see her sister yet for fear that she would be immediately deported back to Pendragon.

And she hated the way Lelouch had compromised everything she wanted to accomplish here by treating her like a child. Lelouch himself had only just turned eighteen a few weeks ago, but she just knew that everyone else in the room was now seeing her a kid trying to get some attention, rather than as a princess and diplomat in her own right. He might have just ruined everything.

"Of course." She replied as evenly as she could.

His lip twitched slightly in response, assured of the victory he'd just scored. Well then, she'd just have to find some way to get Cornelia to agree with her going to Osaka.

Lelouch stalked into his house and tossed his suit jacket onto the nearest piece of furniture, where it was almost immediately picked up by one of the maids. He was in a foul mood and he had been all day. He couldn't decide who he was more angry with; Euphy or Abigail.

On the one hand, Euphy had directly disobeyed him and had exhibited nothing but Britannian stubbornness since she'd returned to the country. But Abigail had betrayed him. She had sided against him and enabled Euphy's infiltration of his council, knowing full well that he wouldn't do anything to compromise the image of impenetrable authority he had over the members of his council.

It had been grating at him all day. He was honestly surprised, though he didn't know why he should be. His wife had exhibited her underhanded nature practically from day one. Hell, she'd openly admit to spying on him for Schneizel. It had been foolish to think that he could buy her support by acting as her brother's patron.

Speaking of the brother . . .

Lelouch paused in his stormy march through the halls outside of the library and frowned. Carson was seated at one of the reading tables but he was not alone. C.C. leaned over the table across from him, exhibiting ample amounts of cleavage. Like any fifteen year old boy, Carson was having a hard time keeping his eyes on her face.

"C.C." He said icily from the threshold.

Carson jumped and flushed guiltily as he leaned back in his chair as far away from C.C. as possible without leaving his seat. C.C. merely arched her eyebrow at him curiously.

Lelouch glanced between the two of them for another moment before sighing. "A word, please." He needed to put a stop to whatever shenanigans it was that C.C. was planning with Abigail's brother. He didn't have the time or inclination to deal with the fallout of whatever she was scheming, so it was best to nip this in the bud.

"Whatever you want, Lelouch." She purred as she stalked toward him like a cat sighting its prey. "Though words are usually the last thing you want from me."

Carson blushed at the innuendo as Lelouch fought to keep himself from rolling his eyes. It wasn't a lie, per se, as he couldn't even count how many times he'd told her to shut up since she'd decided to move in with him, but the tone set the statement in an entirely different light. She latched herself onto his arm and began dragging him away from the door before he managed to shake her off.

"What the hell are you doing with that boy?" He growled as he continued his way down the hall and out into the garden. She fell into step easily beside him, like she'd been doing it her whole life, and shrugged carelessly.

"Just having a little fun." She said.

"Well, don't. He's a minor." He growled irritably.

C.C. let out a short peal of laughter at that. "If I recall correctly, you were a minor when I met you too."

"That's not the same and you know it. Just leave him alone." Lelouch snapped.

"Why? Are you jealous?" She quipped.

Lelouch stopped mid-step and turned to face her, eyes narrowing into a glare.

Before he could snarl out an insult and a denial, the mirth dropped from her face as she scrutinized him carefully, her amber gaze searing through him. "No, you're not jealous, are you, Lelouch? You're scared. You're scared that I might pick him over you, aren't you? You're scared that I might give him Geass."

Lelouch stiffened, the insult he'd been about to hurl shrivelled up and died in his throat. It was times like this that he remembered that C.C. was dangerous. That she could completely and utterly destroy him and everything he was working toward. And also that she could cut her losses and replace him at any time, like she had with Mao.

"C.C." He said warningly, though his tone was soft as he took a step closer to her, searching her face and body language for any hint of betrayal.

"Lelouch." She replied just as softly as she took another small step toward him, leaving them mere inches apart. She gazed up at him evenly, as though silently urging him to remember something and he couldn't look away from her, mind racing as he tried to place just what it was she was trying to say without words.

He remembered the way she had fallen mere minutes after meeting him, taking a fatal injury in his stead. And he remembered the countless times she'd sworn her allegiance to him; sworn that she would do absolutely anything for him.

Ultimately it came down to whether or not he trusted her. Did he trust that she was telling the truth? Did he trust her not to betray him? Unfortunately for him, he did. She'd had too many opportunities to screw him over by now. And she was far too important of an ally to ruin his relationship with.

He sighed and let his head drop, resting his forehead against hers. If she wanted into his mind right this second, she could probably do it. It was as profound of a declaration of trust as he could think of at the moment. She closed her eyes and he had no idea if she was in his head, rifling around in his memories at that moment without his knowledge or not.

"What do you want from me?" He asked quietly to distract himself from the disturbing thought.

"You don't confide in me anymore." She replied almost instantly, although she didn't pull away from him.

It was true. Since Abigail had come to the country he'd been making a concerted effort to avoid her except in a group with other witnesses so that they could avoid looking like guilty lovers. It wasn't like he'd deliberately tried to cut her out of his life, but he had enough shit going on with his job and his mission that he didn't want to deal with a war when he got home. C.C. and Abigail were both such a handful to deal with separately, let alone when he had both of them coming after him.

"I'm sorry." He said.

"So do something about it." She said, though her tone remained evenly monotone. "Tell me why the boy is here."

Lelouch hesitated for a moment before deciding that he was pissed enough at Abigail's most recent transgression that he didn't care so much for her privacy. "It was a part of a deal to keep Abigail from trying to conceive."

She snorted in disbelief and pulled back to arch her eyebrow at him skeptically.

"It's true." He said defensively.

"He said you were making him your heir." She prodded.

Lelouch groaned. "I told him not to tell anyone. It makes me wonder how many other people he's told."

"So that was true." She said with a frown. "You've given her too much sway over you. Now she's gotten you to make her own brother your heir."

"It was my idea. Much as I don't want to defend her at the moment, she had nothing to do with it."

C.C.'s frown deepened as she mutely examined him or a moment. "This is part of your long-term plan? Wrapping up your loose ends?"

Lelouch frowned and wondered just how much C.C. had been able to glean about what he was planning from her foray into his mindscape. "I've got it under control. You don't need to worry about me." He said as he stepped away from her a little.

"Lelouch," she said calmly, "don't forget about me when the time comes. I'll be able to help you more than you expect."

He scrutinized her for a moment, trying to parse the hidden meaning behind those words. What exactly was she trying to offer him? He couldn't even guess. He smirked to cover up his confusion and nodded. "Sure." He said, before he turned away, only to find Abigail watching them from the garden entrance.

His wife's lips were pressed into a thin line as she glared at the both of them. For once, Lelouch refused to look guilty about spending time with C.C.. Abigail's overactive imagination was her own problem. There was nothing romantic between him and C.C. and after the stunt Abigail had played today with Euphy, she was the last one who should be feeling betrayed here.

Lelouch met her gaze evenly for a moment before turning back to C.C.. "Try not to cause too much trouble with this." He chided before taking off down the walking path into the garden and leaving both women behind.

"Why do you always want the impossible, Lelouch?" She called after him with a short laugh.

The morning was still crisp, with only a hint of spring in the air as Suzaku stood on the tarmac at the Tokyo Base, watching as the Lancelot and the Royal Guard's Lionels were loaded onto transports. Nick and Lukas were with him, quietly joking with each other while studiously ignoring the way that a newly dark-haired Kallen kept shooting them withering glares.

He'd heard about the hair-dying incident from Hector and hadn't been able to disagree with the gruelling physical labour Nick, Lukas and even Roy had been made to do as a punishment, much as he would have liked to. He didn't want to feel sympathy for Kallen and he certainly didn't want to side with her, but in this matter she'd been the victim and the idiots beside him had been out of line.

His gaze darted momentarily to the half-Japanese woman as a Sutherland was loaded onto the Royal Guard transport. She was glaring at the machine with a visible sneer. He was the one who had suggested that Lelouch keep Kallen out of an advanced knightmare frame. It was only fair since, when she inevitably turned on them, he was the one who was going to have to take her down. Giving her a machine that would let her compete on almost the same level as the Lancelot, especially with her skills, was to be avoided at all costs.

He hadn't felt ashamed or weak for his recommendation. It was Lelouch that was continuously singing praises about his aptitude in a knightmare. Suzaku just wanted to do what was necessary to get Lelouch to the point that knightmare combat was no longer necessary in Japan; wanted to get Lelouch to fulfil his promise about fixing this country. If he had to beat down Kallen to do that, he didn't mind taking an unfair advantage. None of this was about pride.

Suzaku's attention was drawn away from the Royal Guard by the arrival of a sleek black car. Duke Hamilton, Lord Mars and Mr. Albertson had already arrived, each with a security detail in tow that put Lelouch's to shame. Kaguya stepped out, conspicuously alone except for her driver, who quickly moved around the car to fetch her luggage. Suzaku frowned, wondering what she was up to now, though he supposed it was always possible that she had employees waiting for her in Osaka already.

Mr. Ichigawa arrived alone via taxi, carrying his own luggage. He was the very picture of humility next to all of these over-privileged nobles. Suzaku sent him a brief nod in greeting as he passed, which the man stopped to return respectfully before continuing on his way to greet Lelouch.

Suzaku wasn't exactly sure how all of this had happened. He'd left the house the other day to run some tests on the Lancelot with Lloyd, when the plan had been that they would return to Osaka to actively root out the remaining members of the Kenshiki and retrieve the stolen knightmares. When he'd come home, he'd been informed by Gino that the entire council had decided to go on a working holiday and come with.

It was ridiculous. What the hell did they think they were going to be able to accomplish while confined to Lelouch's palace? And just why had Lelouch agreed to it anyway? But whatever. It was probably part of Lelouch's big plan. He'd recently given up on trying to keep straight the details of it all and instead focused only on what Lelouch asked him to do.

Duke Calares arrived in his personal car, the same one he came to work with every day, accompanied by a single manservant who carried his bag. No security. Apparently the duke didn't fancy touring the city like the rest of the council.

Lelouch glanced to where the last of the knightmares were being loaded up and Suzaku could tell that he was impatient to be on their way. He began making his way toward the prince, anticipating their departure within the next few minutes.

Then another pair of expensive black cars pulled up and he paused. The entire council was already accounted for. The car door opened and Princess Cornelia stepped out, her chin raised defiantly as she stepped out of the way to allow Princess Euphemia to exit the vehicle. The princesses were joined by their knights of honour and all five of the Glaston Knights.

Lelouch went rigid and, though he didn't say a word, all of the Royal Guard with the exception of Kallen began making their way over to the prince, flanking him as the Glaston Knights were flanking the princesses. Lelouch glared at both of his sisters, but they ignored his furious expression and made their way toward the prince regardless.

"Here to see us off, sisters?" Lelouch asked, his tone clipped and harsh. Euphemia pursed her lips anxiously but said nothing.

"Not quite, Lelouch." Princess Cornelia answered, running her gaze over Lelouch's entourage. It hit the Royal Guard like a physical force, dragging them all into stiff attention as they found themselves under the scrutiny of their former commander.

It was at this time that Kallen finally realized that she was supposed to have picked a side and slowly moseyed over to take her place next to Amanda and Gino. The movement drew the princess' attention to her for a moment before it focused on Gino instead.

"Sir Gino Weinberg," Princess Cornelia said in surprise, "I wasn't aware the Knights of the Round were operating in Area Eleven. What orders were you given?" She demanded.

"Disregard her, Gino." Lelouch answered immediately.

Princess Cornelia stiffened in surprise as Gino glanced in confusion back and forth between the two royals. It seemed he still thought Lelouch was destined for the throne, as he kept his mouth shut and adopted a stance at attention instead. Cornelia's gaze narrowed at the defiance, but she turned it on her brother rather than the Knight of the Round.

"What are you up to now?" She asked suspiciously.

Lelouch ignored the question. "Why are you here, Cornelia?"

"Um," Euphemia said, finally piping up. "You said that if I had Cornelia's permission, I could come with you to Osaka. And, well, everyone else was bringing bodyguards and I thought it might be a bit much for Villetta, so I asked if we could bring the Glaston Knights as well."

"We?" Lelouch asked dangerously.

"I'll be coming as well, of course." Cornelia answered.

"You have a job to do and I did not give you leave to take a vacation." Lelouch countered coldly.

"I can do my job from anywhere, Lelouch. I need not be in my office so long as I have access to my information." Cornelia answered smugly, gesturing vaguely to where one of the drivers was bringing out their luggage and a fair amount of computer equipment. "Come now, Euphy, let's get settled on the plane."

Cornelia swept past Lelouch, Euphemia following more hesitantly in her wake. Lelouch stood completely still for a moment, gritting his teeth in frustration, before he let the tension seep from his body and rolled his eyes tolerantly, as if it had all been nothing more than a sibling spat.

Only then did Suzaku remember that all of that had taken place in front of the members of Lelouch's council and their minions. Cornelia had probably calculated for that. He stepped closer to Lelouch and dropped his voice. "Do you want us to remove the princesses from the plane?" He asked.

Personally, he couldn't believe that Euphemia would betray Lelouch to this extent, but it was a lesson well learned. Euphemia might seem sweet on the outside, but underneath she was just as calculating as any other royal.

Lelouch shook his head minutely. "The damage is done now. Just leave it." He sighed.

He nodded and turned away, where he found Gino trying to subtly catch his eye, looking for all the world like he had no idea what the hell was going on. Suzaku didn't really blame him. The interpersonal relationships between all of the royals were just way too complex.

AN: Sincerest apologies for the huge delay on this. The fall is the busiest time of year for me and I've spent more than a month of it living in hotel rooms without access to a computer, and even when I was home it was long days. But the season is wrapping up now and I've been hit with some kind of super virus that has essentially kicked me out of the field, so my hiking days are over for another year and I will hopefully have more time to write.

Thanks to SplitIce and Giriath for betaing for me. And thanks to everyone who kept sending me reviews to remind me to get my ass in gear. Hope you enjoyed the chapter.

Thanks for sticking with me,