Thank you to rkemy for the beta. And the other wonderful, random proof-readers who suffered me throwing this at them at inopportune times.
Early on, Gino discovered his consuming, bottomless love of the sky, the current and power of the wind. A hunger for that sense of climbing and vertigo and falling, split-second fear and exhilaration lit from within by the sun. Rise and fall of adrenaline and the purest sense that all he can see is real, in a way that it never was before. It is as though his heart can breathe and unfurl, and he thinks that he knows something of freedom. There are no shadows.
Higher. (And higher.)
Some things never change.
It wasn't as though he had expected being one of the Rounds to consist completely of title and power, of gorgeous and dangerous women like Nonette and Dorothea or the awesome dignity of Bismarck and his unwavering loyalty. He knew what to expect. He fought a little, and never lost. Anya acted like he was kind of dumb, but she also told him dispassionately that Mordred worked with Tristan best, which was pretty flattering. And there was no way he was unaware of Britannia's major conflicts overseas or the hate the Emperor's name alone could evoke. He was proud to call Britannia his country, the great power and stature of its royal family his master. He was proud.
But he had grown up under the shelter of the Weinberg name, and that was its own kind of innocence.
The first time he felt the tremors of brutal war, it was two months before his seventeenth birthday and he was watching news footage of Her Highness Euphemia li Britannia's sweet smile as she emptied an AK-47 into an Eleven corpse, blood soaked through her fine ball gown. The picture trembled and unfocused, refocused. There was the tinny crackle of explosions. People were screaming.
Beside him, Monica whispered, "Oh my god." He glanced at her face and expected her to be crying, but she was not.
It was not long after that many things happened at once. Zero was apprehended and executed in one of Britannia's more vicious triumphs that sent Area 11 crashing back to its knees. Princess Nunnally vi Britannia remarkably surfaced from the wreckage. Schneizel embarked on his campaign against the Euro Universe in earnest and humbly requested of the Emperor that he receive the assistance of the Rounds. And, finally, Kururugi Suzaku was inducted as the Knight of Seven.
Suzaku studied Gino's outstretched hand for an overlong moment, and then cautiously took it and said, "It's nice to meet you." Gino beamed at him, encouraging, but Suzaku just gave him that same look and gently extracted his hand. He stepped past and Gino appraised the straight line of his back, the sureness of his strides. He was shorter than Gino had expected, but still very striking in his new uniform's crisp tailoring and its rich colors. Gino grinned and ignored the clear signal that the conversation was over and followed.
"You've only been here a few days, right?" He didn't wait for an answer. "It's not normally quite this dead, but everybody's been so busy with everything that our paths haven't crossed much. Just about all the Knights have residences here, unless there are special arrangements or we're stationed somewhere for a while. Have you spent much time around the Imperial Palace?" Suzaku shook his head, and Gino shrugged carelessly. "I think it's a bit big. Too many rules around court."
A pause. Gino cast a sidelong look at Suzaku's face. "It'll be good to have someone else here," he continued, undeterred. "It's been pretty quiet, and that gets boring. Bismarck's around, but he's not much for conversation. He's the Knight of One."
"I know," Suzaku said quietly. He did not look up.
"Dorothea and Nonette have been gone, so that's most of it. They're Four and Nine. I'm Three," he added, "if you didn't know." Suzaku didn't reply, and there was another long stretch of silence. "I haven't been here very long, actually. Just about five months. So I was the rookie, you know. Before me was Anya—she's Six—and she's the youngest. I could introduce you now, if you want." He lit up and grinned again. "And the Knightmares, you could see those, too. I would really like to see the Lancelot. I hear it's an awesome machine. Count Asplund is a genius."
Suzaku's steps slowed and finally stopped. He looked at his feet and then raised his head and said, "I'm sorry, Lord Weinberg, but—"
Gino gave a surprised laugh. "No, no—Gino. Call me Gino. I'm younger than you are, you know, and I seriously haven't been here all that long."
"Then I'm sorry, Gino," Suzaku said. "But I don't think I can today. I'm kind of tired." He blinked and focused on a point over Gino's shoulder. "I'm going to go lie down in my quarters."
"Oh. Well. That's all right. I hope you get some rest, Lord Kururugi."
He smiled thinly. "Suzaku is fine."
Gino winked at him and turned away. "I'll be seeing you, Suzaku," he called. He waited until he got to the end of the hallway and before he turned the corner he looked back: Suzaku had not moved, frozen where he stood and looking at the wall, his face empty of emotion.
"What do you think?"
"Yeah. What do you think?"
Anya hmmed and looked over her phone and her crooked knees at the wall. She was silent for a long moment, and then she finally blinked and slid her eyes over to look at him. "Think about what?"
"Suzaku. What do you think about Suzaku."
She went back to her phone. "Boring," she murmured.
He let out his breath and poked at her cheek. "You're just saying that."
"What do you think?"
He gave her a lopsided smile. "Do you care?"
"Well, I think you're wrong. I think he's interesting. Prince Schneizel likes him, and you know how he is. Be nice, okay?"
She ignored him. "Have you seen the cat?"
"Have you seen the cat?" she repeated, and looked at him again. "We're supposed to look for it. The princess is worried."
He found Suzaku a few hours later wandering the palace gardens alone in the dark, barefoot and disheveled, peering into neatly trimmed shrubbery and careful tangles of rosebushes. The set of his shoulders was frustrated and tense, and he had tugged up his shirtsleeves to the crooks of his elbows. He bent to look beneath a sculpture, and Gino heard him curse softly.
"Hey," Gino called, and Suzaku straightened quickly, tugging at his shirt. Gino grinned. "Did you lose something?"
"Ah." Suzaku shifted and looked at the shrubbery again. "Yes. Kind of."
As Gino rounded the corner path, the cat at his feet pricked its ears and froze with one paw poised in the air, zeroed in on Suzaku's voice. Sudden relief flooded Suzaku's face. "Arthur." He crouched and held out his hand, and the cat bounded to his feet and took a playful swipe at his fingers. He looked up at Gino. "You found him?" His smile was grateful and earnest, open. It was a pleasant change from his earlier reticence.
Gino shrugged. "Sort of. He found me."
"He wasn't bothering you?" Gino shook his head, and Suzaku's shoulders sagged in an odd little half-bow. "Thank you." He ran his hand down the curve of the cat's back and it bumped its head against his knee and purred. "I didn't think I'd ever find him."
"I thought it was Princess Nunnally's cat."
Suzaku's hand faltered, and then he let out his breath in a little laugh. "No. But I told her I lost him. I didn't realize she would tell everyone."
"You know the princess?"
A pause, and then Suzaku nodded wordlessly. Gino watched him, bemused, but Suzaku didn't elaborate. The cat nibbled his fingers, and he scratched at its chin. It twined its tail around his leg and purred louder. "Gino," he said. "How old are you?"
"Me? I'm sixteen. Seventeen in a couple of months. Why?" He cocked his head to the side. "How old are you?"
Suzaku didn't look up. "Seventeen," he said quietly. He hunched his shoulders and braced his elbows on his knees. "Can I ask you something?"
"Why did you join the Knights? Why aren't you still in school?"
Gino studied the downturn of Suzaku's face and shrugged again. "I guess I'm selfish. I ran away from home, and I can do things here that I couldn't do in school or the regular military. I like it here." He remembered: the calculating man who he had thought would send him home but had instead looked at him and said tell meand smiled. "And I can serve my country, and, um." He shifted and looked at the back of Suzaku's neck. The cat sprawled on the ground between his feet and batted at his fingers where they hung between his knees. "My family might not be ashamed, since I'm a Knight. I don't know."
He heard himself and winced. He knew little about Suzaku, but he knew this: Suzaku did not have a country he would fight for. He did not have a family to be proud of him. "I like to fly," Gino said finally. "And I like piloting. That's all. I don't need anything else." He wished he could see Suzaku's face. "Why did you join?"
Suzaku said nothing, poised motionless over his knees. The silence lengthened to become uncomfortable, and Gino frowned at his shoulders. He fidgeted and shoved his hands in his pockets. The cat made an impatient sound and twisted, hooking a claw along the fleshy inside of Suzaku's thumb. Suzaku pulled his hand back, but with no shocked pain or surprise, and he looked at the blood beading at the edges of the gash. He brought his hand to his mouth.
Finally, he lifted his eyes again. "Sorry," he said. "What?"
Gino peered at his face and bit his lip and then he shook his head, feeling suddenly and intensely unnerved. "Nothing. Never mind."
But really, Gino knew how he would have answered, or at least part of it. Area 11 and its bitter, bloody conflict was no secret, and even the Knight of One's severe disapproval wasn't enough to keep Bradley from being ugly and sneering over what he and the public called the Massacre Princess and her traitor knight. Gino wondered how Suzaku had loved Euphemia, if it was love for a woman or devotion for a princess. He wondered what Suzaku would be like when he was in love.
He seemed unused to coldness and the heavy weight of misery sunk into his bones, as though that careful, numb distance was an alien concept he was still learning. Gino imagined a boy who smiled without effort, who knew how to laugh, but try as he might and despite the relieved smile Suzaku gave him that night, he could not imagine that boy in Suzaku's shape.
By chance, Gino saw him in the gardens again before they left, in the golden light of an autumn noon, now dressed in his full uniform, his cape curtaining over him in a regal fall. Nunnally was with him, looking pretty and fragile like a doll.
Suzaku knelt before her wheelchair, holding her hands in his as if in prayer, and his face was so sad. Nunnally pulled her hands free and lifted them to his face, ghosting her fingers over the lines of his jaw and cheeks and brow, her thumbs drifting beneath his eyes as though she was wiping away tears. She said something quiet and Suzaku closed his eyes and bit his lip, but his face softened beneath her hands and he smiled. Taking her hands in his again, he rose and pressed his lips to her forehead, and then he turned and left.
The second time Suzaku unsettled him, they were in the Russian wilderness and E.U. forces drenched the trees in reserve fuel and set them aflame in a rush of stupidity and desperation. Smoke billowed in a suffocating cloud, and Gino felt the wash of heat even in Tristan's cockpit.
"There they are," Suzaku said, and Lancelot shot off, arrowing for the cluster of Panzer-Hummels at the valley's narrow mouth, white metal scorched black and made invisible and visible again by curtains of smoke.
Gino wheeled and drove his scythe through a Knightmare's core. Its muddy finish blistered and went soft, and he shoved it away to explode in the smoke. "Suzaku, wait." He folded Tristan into its sleek Fortress form and gunned the thrusters, pulling up hard to gain height. "I'll back you up."
"Back off!" Suzaku snarled. "I can handle it." Static chipped at his voice, made it thin and savage. Lancelot was a gleam of dirty gold and it swerved and sliced its swords through the middle of a Knightmare, then spun and fired the VARIS, laying waste in a wide swathe of fire and clinging black smoke. The enemy forces erupted into panic and converged on him, and Gino gritted his teeth and dove.
The flash of an explosion made him shield his eyes, and he hooked sharply left to avoid a jagged scrap of metal that screamed past. Tristan shifted as he landed and ground to a halt on its feet in the rubble, smoke and dust clouding in its wake. The mass of Panzer-Hummels lay crumpled and broken around him in a holocaust of metal skeletons. Lancelot stood in the wreckage of burning Knightmares, shadows flickering over its surface. Its optic lenses glowed bright, sharp green as it crushed the last Knightmare's head and tore an arm away. Its metal was streaked with ash and mud and worse, wavering and blurring in the heat to create a monster of jagged edges and deep shadows, hunched like a beast over its kill.
"I believe we're finished here," came Schneizel's mild voice. "Seven, Three, I'm honored. Well done."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Gino said, but he was looking at Lancelot. The comm. link was silent.
When the Knightmares returned to the Avalon, they were all scorched and reeking, smeared with wet ash and filth. Suzaku jumped from his cockpit and landed in a crouch, his hand on the floor to catch himself. He rose with a mute, curt wave to his R&D team and started off to the hangar's doors, his hands fisted at his sides and his pace brisk. Gino jogged after him and caught the exasperated look Lloyd gave Suzaku's back and the longer, less readable look from Cecile.
Gino caught up to him in the hallway and came alongside. Suzaku did not acknowledge him, his face closed off and cold. Soot and sweat streaked across his jaw. "Suzaku," Gino said. "What were you doing?"
"I was doing my job," Suzaku said shortly. He didn't slow down. "I was following orders."
Gino frowned. "You should have let me back you up."
"I told you I could handle it."
"That was reckless, you know. You could have gotten in trouble."
"Are you okay?" He put his hand on Suzaku's shoulder. "Hey, come on, slow down, talk to me—"
Suzaku twisted out from under his hand and wheeled to face him. "Why do you care?" he snapped, bristling. His eyes were very bright, his color high from the fire and the fight.
Gino pulled back his hand and rubbed at his neck, frowning. "Because I'm your friend."
Suzaku flinched and stared at him, his face so guarded and edged with something like confusion that Gino wondered what answer he was expecting. Scorn, or greed for glory. Gino gave him a rueful smile. "I'm your friend," he said again, more slowly. "So be more careful next time, okay?"
Suspicion gave way to uncertainty, and Suzaku's face became veiled. His belligerence faded and he shifted back, his hands opening and closing. He studied Gino's face for a few long seconds and then he dropped his eyes and nodded, silent, his lips a thin line.
Gino learned to read Suzaku: his restless hands and the set of his jaw, the firm lines of his brow and his posture. He learned Suzaku's private, cloaked anger, and took every presented opportunity to tease and coax a smile from him. The world's geography and territory lines began to shift around them, pushed by defeat and victory and treaty. He turned seventeen on the eve of the Bolodin conflict, and nothing really changed, but on behalf of the prince, Kanon Maldini respectfully presented him with a set of fine stationery embossed with the Rounds seal and an elegant numeral three. Later, Anya disastrously decided to make him a cake and convinced Suzaku to help her. In lieu of anything edible, Anya instead showed Gino a picture of one of Suzaku's rare, genuine smiles, taken back in the Motherland as he folded Nunnally's fingers around the stem of a flush pink peony.
He became aware of other things about Suzaku, like how Lancelot was a prototype but invariably out-performed every Knightmare on the battlefield, and how he hated being complimented on his piloting skill. And how it was Britannia's most triumphant victories that left him silent and brittle. And his unwavering acceptance of the world's hate and the derisive, fearsome titles they gave him.
"Kishin," Suzaku explained. "It means oni, or ogre." He smiled a little, but his eyes were empty. He walked away from them flanked by the Emperor's guards, a small, martyred figure in blue and gold. It should have been happy. It should have been an honor.
He didn't see Suzaku for a while after that, until Schneizel's campaign shifted to one that was theoretical, played out on an elaborate chessboard of politics, and he and Anya left for Pendragon. There, Suzaku met them in the hangar with his cat pawing playfully at the hem of his cape, and he looked shyly glad to see them and Gino beamed and ruffled Suzaku's hair and Anya handed over her phone to show him what weird little idiosyncrasies he had missed: Lloyd asleep on his desk, Kanon preparing a tea tray, a horizon blurred by distant smoke, snow flurries further north.
Gino paid his respects to Nunnally at her request. The parlors at Belial Palace were open and bright, trimmed with flowers and sheer white curtains at the windows. He swept into a low bow and knelt before her. "Your Highness."
"Thank you for all that you've done," she said, her voice soft. He had met her only once before, when she was first brought to the capital. He liked her, was loyal to her, even pitied her, but she was royalty, sibling to the awesome power Schneizel commanded and Cornelia's thirst for blood. He didn't want to admit that this meeting made him nervous.
"I'm honored to fight on the behalf of the Prince," he replied, inclining his head. "And to serve Britannia."
"No," she said, and he glanced at her in surprise. "Thank you for being kind to Suzaku. He's told me about you." She smiled and unfolded her hands and reached out, palm up. He hesitated, and then took her hand gently. "He needs a friend. Thank you." Her fingers closed around his. He thought, sheepishly, that he should not be surprised at her strength.
He gave a self-deprecating laugh. "I'm not sure he wants a friend."
"He's just stubborn," she said. "And his heart hurts. He doesn't know what he wants right now." She squeezed his hand.
He remembered seeing them in the gardens, that tenderness and keen sadness in Suzaku's face. "Have you known him long, Your Highness?" he ventured.
"He is very important to me," she replied, and said nothing more.
He knew of important things, or thought he did. Because there was this:
"You have to understand," his father rumbled, "you have a responsibility. Our name carries great weight." He creaked back in his chair and tapped his fingers against the desk. His ring caught the light with the sharp edges of cut stone and a family sigil.
Gino was silent. He held his back straight and his hands at his sides. His cheek still stung. He could still taste blood on the back of his tongue, heavy and clinging like wine. His heart ached. His father studied his face and said, "This is for your own good. No son of mine will be with an Eleven girl. Do you understand me, boy? Think of our reputation. Think of your pride."
Gino met his father's eyes and swallowed back his sorrow. "Yes, sir."
"Tell me, Private," the unfamiliar, smiling man said. "Do you enjoy flying?"
"Yes," Gino said fervently. "Oh, yes."
Winter eased its grip and the long dry season seeped heat into miles and miles of sculpted stone. The sun baked the capital into a sea of hot metal, suspended and silent in the still air. The Knightmares were off-limits for technical maintenance, Lloyd refusing entrance to anyone not under his direct supervision. There was a bureaucratic stalemate in the war and a very small set of official business that needed doing and it was, Gino thought, just intensely tedious and terrible and he was bored out of his mind.
"You're being obnoxious," Dorothea said sharply after he stepped on the hem of her cape the second time.
"What?" He gave her a wounded look.
"Obnoxious," Anya echoed.
"She's right," Monica said, her hands working quickly to plait a ribbon into her hair. "You're terribly underfoot. Don't you have something to attend to?"
He flashed her his best smile. "Other than the unparalleled pleasure of your company?"
"Cute." She rolled her eyes but could not suppress a giggle. He liked Monica, liked making her laugh. She didn't act like he tricked her into it like Dorothea, or like he'd pay for it later like Nonette. She let him flirt and he let her not take it seriously. It was a trade he was willing to make. She tied off the ribbon and looked at Dorothea. "Are you ready?"
His face fell. "Where are you going?"
"We have an audience with His Majesty. No time to babysit." Dorothea smirked. "Stay out of trouble." She turned and walked briskly away. As Monica started to follow, she gave him a sympathetic look and made a little shooing motion with her hands.
After a while, Anya floated off to accompany Nunnally to a press conference, and when she came back Arthur was trailing behind her, bright-eyed and eager for attention. No instructions came. Eventually, Gino went to find Suzaku and after that they spent mornings sparring in the palace's private courtyard.
Gino had a comprehensive education in many things. Ballroom dancing etiquette, for example, and the discipline of the unarmored longsword, and the technical logistics of flight. He could fence (épée), and he was pretty okay at most casual sports. None of which mattered when Suzaku was able to catch his wrist in midair and subvert his momentum to flip him roughly onto his back.
He lay sprawled on the grass and blinked at the sky. It seemed very blue and vast. Suzaku leaned into his field of vision, back-lit and blurry. "Are you okay?" He wasn't even out of breath.
Gino coughed. "I'm great. Did Anya take a picture of that?"
Suzaku looked up and squinted, shaded his eyes. "I think so."
"Wonderful. Let's go again." He offered his hand, and Suzaku gave him a new smile: pleased, a bit of cocky challenge. It was a better smile, Gino thought dazedly, than the tight-lipped, empty thing he wore or his moments of sad relief. Much better.
Suzaku grabbed Gino's hand and pulled him to his feet. "You're not fast enough," he said. "Try to hit me again."
Later, when the lattice of bruises bloomed across his back and his sides in shades of mottled violet and yellow-green and Gino hung over Suzaku's shoulder and moaned that he felt like death, Suzaku just sighed and shook his head but made no move to push him off, and that seemed like a kind of victory, anyway.
The E.U. trembled and weakened under pressure from Britannia and Schneizel finally returned to the capital, swanning in with a cool, smug serenity that spoke of victory overseas. There was a soirée to celebrate some nonspecific triumph and Gino danced with a duke's daughter and a young, widowed countess and, briefly, Cecile, her in a red glove of a dress with slits far up the lines of her legs. Champagne made him happy and reckless, and he grinned and kissed her knuckles when they parted.
Cecile gave him an indulgent smile and drifted toward where Lloyd lounged off to the side, gifting the room with his special snide look. Gino accepted a fresh flute of champagne from a milling servant and retreated to enjoy the view. Britannia's colors hung draped along the walls, interspersed with lush flower arrangements. The floor was hardwood and masterfully inlaid with the national seal. At the head of the room, Nunnally was with Schneizel, and he bent to listen to her, his face fond, his hand poised at the back of her wheelchair. With sudden clarity, Gino noticed the Suzaku-shaped absence at Nunnally's side. He did a quick inventory of the room. Anya had tucked herself in a corner where she could ignore everyone without being disturbed. Monica and Dorothea were Odysseus's captive audience and were doing a very good job at not looking bored stiff. Nonette was with Guinevere. Gino frowned and grabbed an extra flute and started toward the doors outside, thrown wide to let in the evening air. He passed Bradley at the door and ignored him. Bradley curled his lip and didn't stop, his cape billowing.
The night was breathlessly cold. It cleared his head and wore off the comfortable haze of alcohol. He shivered. As his eyes adjusted the stars pricked from the darkness, clear and sharp. The moon shone from somewhere out of sight, its weak light making indistinct shapes of the courtyard below. It was quiet. He peered into the shadows and picked out Suzaku's shape beneath one of the arches, leaning against a pillar and facing away. As he came closer, he registered the hostile set of Suzaku's shoulders, and his smile slipped.
"You don't like parties?" he said. Suzaku jerked and looked at him. His eyes were very dark in the shadows, full of some barely-suppressed storm of things that Gino couldn't immediately name. He looked raw and angry, and Gino made himself smile and relax, putting down the flutes of champagne.
Suzaku's face shuttered, his emotions battened away as quickly as they had shown themselves, and he drew a breath and looked away. "No," he said.
"It's hard to gracefully dodge all the lustrous ladies demanding a dance, is it? That's unfair of you." Gino leaned against the balustrade, his weight on his elbows, and shifted in a little closer.
"They don't want to dance with me," Suzaku said flatly.
Gino persevered, feeling very valiant for trying. "Well, anyway, there are a lot of them. It's crowded. And hot. I don't blame you for coming out to get some air. Even if it's freezing."
"They're all Britannian nobles?"
"Well, yeah. It's not like they'd let just anybody in."
Suzaku ran his gloved fingers along the carved stone of the balustrade. The engraving arched and bloomed into a graceful, abstract shape, its ornate flourish reminiscent of flowers or wings. "I don't like them," he said quietly. "I don't like any of them."
Gino shifted his weight and sipped at his champagne. The glass was a cold shock against his lips. His ears were beginning to tingle. He waited, and finally sighed. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Suzaku said.
"You like to lie, don't you?"
Suzaku looked at him sharply. "What?"
"Because you do it so often." Gino watched him. "Bradley's swine, by the way. Did he speak to you?" Suzaku's jaw tensed and Gino shook his head and twirled his glass. "Of course he did, hmm. He loves to needle. A true gentleman would never." He squinted into the shadows. "Do you want to talk about what he said?"
"That's okay. Most of the things he says aren't worth repeating, anyway. I can't wait for the day someone wipes the smile off his face. Dorothea almost did once, but she couldn't quite bring herself to 'stoop to his level of absolute and extraordinary disgrace.'" He snickered into his glove.
There was a pause. "Are you drunk?"
"I most certainly am not. I've been drunk before. When I was twelve I found my father's cognac, and it was dreadful. I am not drunk."
"You sound drunk." His voice was so weary.
"Listen, just ignore Bradley. Everyone else tries to." Suzaku made a noncommittal sound and didn't answer. Gino sipped his champagne and looked at the stars. "Do you ever get homesick?" he said suddenly.
"Homesick?" Suzaku echoed, a little weakly.
"Just curious." And he was. Area 11 was a forbidden subject, or so he'd always thought. Suzaku never broached the topic of his home country. It was a reckless question, but it was a reckless night.
There was a long pause. "Not exactly," Suzaku said. He sounded resigned. "I don't really have a..." He hesitated. "Not a place. A time, maybe. When I didn't have to fight or command." He ran his fingers over the engraving again. "Before all this."
Gino smiled. "You're very good at 'all this,' you know."
"I don't like hurting people," Suzaku said. Gino's smile faded. "That's not a skill I want to have."
His eyes slid back to Suzaku's face. The night and the moon leached away all of Suzaku's color and made him this grim, despairing shape of shadows and greys, Britannia's wings emblazoned over his back like a brand. He felt dizzy. He was taken with the absurd urge to reach out and touch Suzaku, if only to see if Suzaku would jerk away. Or if not, if he was just half-wild with loneliness and helpless anger and if his walls would crumble under the barest pressure, loosen the tightness across his shoulders, relax the sad line of his mouth.
Gino realized with an abrupt, stark pang that he wished very badly, more than anything, to see Suzaku smile. It seemed like something worth wishing for.
"Here," he said, and pushed the extra flute across the balustrade.
Suzaku picked it up and just held it. "I've already had some," he said.
"If you'll excuse my saying, I don't think you've had enough." Gino leaned over and touched his glass to Suzaku's. The crystal sang dully in the silence as Gino drained his glass. His legs felt suddenly wobbly, and he gripped the balustrade and peered into the darkness of the gardens. His pulse thudded dully behind his eyes. He focused on breathing and tried to ignore the helpless falling sensation in his chest. Suzaku stood motionless for a long moment and then he drank.
"And no," he said quietly, setting the glass down. "I don't like to lie."
They let him fly the next day. Lloyd flapped a hand at him as he hung over the shoulders of his R&D team and he said to take Tristan as high as it would go.
Gino broke into an incredulous smile. "Really?"
Lloyd tapped his chin with his pen and hummed. "Really," he said, and he smirked. "You must know I don't joke."
The sky over the Britannian southwest was a unique kind of endless, juxtaposed with the arid land and ancient rock stained ochre and rust, tinged with the faint ruined-gem colors of scarred stone. Clouds built themselves into mountains of uneven, sculpted white, curling across the faraway line of mountains, and the wind was buffeting and powerful and crashed like waves against sleek metal and the tense heat of the float system. The sun was brighter, the sky rich and vividly blue.
Gino spiraled higher and pulled up against the sharp tilt of the horizon. He imagined he could feel the weight of the sun's heat and the mighty current of the wind. Far below, desert birds wheeled and dipped, and further were the flat shapes of the hangar, maze of roads and the grand lines of Saint Darwin Street and the arches of the Imperial residences.
He passed the clouds, soaring into the high, thin air where the whole world lay below him, vast and complete. The wind roared, crushing against his fragile walls, and the sun kissed glass and refracted and reflected, endless, blinding.
(And here, at the apex of the earth as time slowed and sloughed off its aged weight and the sun pierced the heart of the sky, he thought about momentum, about that weightless lurch before he had hit the grass, the air thudded from his lungs.)
He drew a breath and closed his eyes and angled into a twisting dive. The whole Knightmare shuddered, plummeting, and the wind thundered like the beat of his heart. His hands tingled, and he tightened his grip and opened his eyes, exhaling. Thin, misty clouds whipped past and the sky burned jagged blue. The earth reached to cup him in his fall and he rolled out of the dive and accelerated to curve over the uneven desert in a wide, lazy arc. His shadow fell away and away behind him, lost to the slopes and edges of stone.
They left again, ordered by some distant decree to follow Schneizel across the world.
Gino and Anya went to the Mediterranean, where the sea was impossibly greeny-blue and carved the coast into a rolling cascade of hills and cliffs and waves lapped at the rusted hulks of Knightmares left as so much flotsam in the surf. The E.U.'s dreadnoughts buckled and sank in great slicks of black oil that flickered and burned on the waves, reappearing as wavering, shadowy reflections pressed into the depths, trailing the bodies of drowned men. E.U. forces sent light air carriers full of explosives into Britannian formations, ripping holes through the unwitting and inexperienced. Fires burned long past sunset, and the morning dawned hazy and red, choked with fluttering ash. The beaches turned black and filthy, littered with wreckage and death, and finally the E.U. retreated into Africa and Britannia followed.
Suzaku went to Belarus where, Gino heard, he fought alongside Bradley and left the western front gutted and beaten, the defeat extraordinary and stunning in its brutal totality.
Still the fires burned.
There were stories about this ancient land with its jewel-waters. There were histories about her defilers, the price the earth paid for man's war. The town had a dock, and old houses rising over empty spaces where trees once were. Where nothing was. Splintered remains of fishing boats bobbed at the wharf, half-sunken and rotting. The western edge of the town was burned, littered with blackened corpses and crumbling stone, evidence of an escape or calculated sacrifice. The sky was empty even of gulls.
The E.U. had a brilliant general holding the front at El Alamein and stalling Britannia's advance into Alexandria, and so when Suzaku arrived with Lancelot and the troops assigned to his command, the deadlock had already lasted a week. Soldiers loitered in the town, and Anya had taken to sleeping away the heat and Gino was sunburned across the bridge of his nose. Arthur was ecstatic and wriggled across loose schematics and threatened to overturn misplaced coffee until Lloyd sourly forced Suzaku to confine the cat somewhere less pertinent.
With the clouds of choking smoke dissipated, the days burned hot and clear. The sun was a blazing coin high in an unforgiving sky and nights were cool and dotted with stars, all overhung with the salty humidity of the sea. After sunset, men camped in the streets under harsh halogen lights, trading cigarettes or dealing cards, complaining of the heat.
Distance shuffled things around, made things change. Suzaku arrived quiet and withdrawn, polite but neither terribly personal nor unkind. There was that old heaviness to him, that bone-deep weight. Gino watched him clasp his fist over his heart and report to Schneizel and he noted the faraway look in Suzaku's eyes. He would not speak of Belarus.
But distance had also made him forget. By now he should have learned that Suzaku would always, at some visceral level, scare him like nothing else could.
The heavy heat made things slow, made them soft and blurred and somehow more vivid, as though swimming through a kaleidoscope's jumbled mirrors. The sun's sharp jag of light along the Avalon's planes of blinding white, Schneizel's hair golden and ash-white by turns, Suzaku's eyes such a bright, stinging green.
Night gentled, draped in soft shadows, but it cloaked and deceived without reserve. It was easy to forget danger.
They were wandering the town after dark, and Gino turned and saw too late the man dressed in a shoddy imitation of Britannian uniform slipping swiftly from the shadows, a knife glinting in his hand, his face twisted in an ugly snarl and focused on Suzaku's unprotected back. Time slowed, but did not stop.
Faster than reflex, Suzaku ducked out of the man's grip before it trapped him and he twisted the man's arm back until there was a wet crack and his attacker started screaming. The knife—a wicked, curved blade—dropped to the ground and Suzaku kicked it away. The man jerked and reached back, trying to grab him. Suzaku dealt him a sharp, brutal blow to the neck and the harsh, animal sounds the man was making cut short as he crumpled to the ground.
Silence fell. Gino stared, motionless. He couldn't breathe. Blood dotted the ground, a shock against the loose, pale dust. Breathing hard, Suzaku rose and blinked, as though suddenly uncertain. He straightened and drew a breath. "Take him away," he said.
There was a stammered chorus of "Yes, my Lord!" and Suzaku stepped over the man's body and passed Gino without meeting his gaze. There was a certain hollow quality to his eyes, a twist to his mouth that Gino registered and could not identify.
The men gave him a wide berth as he passed and he slipped alone into the shadows and out of sight. Gino could not miss the looks of fear and awe that followed him. His memory replayed the quick, savage fight again, the intense and remorseless focus in Suzaku's face, and he felt a curl of horror of his own. He looked back at the soldiers hauling up the would-be assassin, the man dead or unconscious from shock, and he swallowed and went after Suzaku.
(Because there was fear, and then there was compassion, and he never learned his lessons, anyway.)
The street was deserted and dark, the sound and light from the base of men seeming very distant. He didn't have to look far. Suzaku had stopped a few steps past the corner, sagging against the wall beneath the sloping curve of a shop's roof, his shoulders hunched. Gino approached carefully but Suzaku ignored him. His eyes were open but unfocused.
"Hey," Gino said, peering at Suzaku's face. He put a tentative hand on Suzaku's shoulder. Suzaku's breath shuddered, and he grabbed at Gino's arm. Gino froze, but Suzaku didn't break his wrist or shove him away, just tightened his grip and wavered on his feet. He began to shake. "Hey," Gino said more softly, brushing away his own confusion, and tugged at Suzaku until he stumbled forward and Gino folded his arms over his shoulders.
"It's okay," Gino murmured. "It's okay, it's okay." Suzaku pressed his forehead against Gino's shoulder and trembled. He remembered that confession on a clear, cold night—I don't like hurting people—and let out his breath. Suzaku felt thin and young, made small by the clutch of misery around him. There was no trace of that efficient violence in him.
"I hate this," he whispered raggedly. "I hate all of this." Gino stroked his hand over Suzaku's hair and couldn't think of anything to say. "I hate," Suzaku started, and made a choked sound.
It was self-loathing, Gino realized, in Suzaku's words, his voice, and in the hopeless downturn of his mouth and his loneliness, his despair. The burden that caged him, left him quiet and consumed. He squeezed Suzaku tighter and pressed his cheek to Suzaku's head. You had to do it, he wanted to say, and you aren't alone and I'm sorry.
Suzaku was silent against him, just breathing, his fingers still clutching at Gino's sleeve. Gino sighed and smoothed his hand over Suzaku's hair again. His other hand pressed flat against Suzaku's back. He could feel the sharp lines of Suzaku's shoulder blades, the rungs of his spine. Gino studied the pained lines over Suzaku's closed eyes, and pressed his lips to the center of Suzaku's forehead as though in absolution, in blessing.
Gino's fingers curled into the hair at the nape of Suzaku's neck. He shifted and slid his hand around to cup Suzaku's jaw, and before he could think he had raised Suzaku's face and kissed the corner of his mouth, close-lipped and chaste.
And Suzaku let him. He didn't jerk away or resist, but his breath hitched and he sank against Gino. It was suddenly very silent and dark.
The moment passed. Gino tilted his head until his forehead met Suzaku's, and the night came rushing in. Clinging humidity and scorched earth, the far-off rhythm of the shore. He wet his lips and could taste Suzaku's skin: heat, a tang of sweat and ash. "We should go back," he said, finally letting go and stepping away. Suzaku met his eyes and swallowed, nodded.
A breeze whispered down the narrow street, carrying with it the sharp salty scent of the sea.
"You don't understand," Suzaku whispered later, his words swallowed by the treacherous darkness. Gino smoothed his thumbs along the lines of Suzaku's knit brow and he smiled a little and said nothing in reply.
But he did, more than Suzaku knew.
Because he recognized the note of contempt in the Emperor's voice when he spoke of legacy and honor.
And he gave up his birthright and his home for a foolish ideal.
And he understood love that suffered and broke into pieces.
And victory meant seeds sown in grief and hate.
And lies meant nothing.
And time never stopped.
(And hope was irrepressible and the possibility of forgiveness never died.)
And there was that weight, that weight that could be lifted and become the weight of nothing, the sky, the sun on grass and leaves and flowers. All of it beyond ash and smoke, scoured clean by the wind and held by that precious, rich blue like the sea. He opened and spread his hands over Suzaku's shoulder blades as though to give him wings.
Some things never change.