Zero stepped out of the nondescript Sutherland, looking blandly over the equally nondescript landscape surrounding him. There was no doubt that these were the coordinates for the meeting but, as far as he could tell, he was the only person within miles. And there wasn't a whole lot of uncertainty to that assertion – the area wasn't just deserted, it was completely barren – a flat expanse of desert surrounded only by the pasty blue hue from horizon to horizon and the occasional wisp of distant cloud at the very edge of the skyline.

It wasn't windy, but every single movement of air, no matter how gentle, threw dust and sand up against both Zero and the Sutherland. It was a good thing his outfit ("Costume." "Uniform.") covered him from head to toe, although all the black leather and velvet and silk were starting to overheat his body in the noonday sun. If he stayed here too long, he might start getting heatstroke and the Sutherland's joints would lock up from the sand and he'd either have to radio for a rescue or…

No, he'd have to radio in. Even if he wanted to try his chances walking, he would be prevented from doing so. Shame was something Zero no longer had the luxury to avoid if the alternative meant his death.

His communicator chirped, drawing him out of his maudlin thoughts. That had been happening more and more often lately which was annoying – existential crises were for teens and fortysomethings. He should have been full of confidence – like he had been the first few years… "Yes?"

There was a crackle of static – likely intentional as even the most uneducated and inexperienced users could manage a simple two-way conversation. "Are you there yet?"

It had been nearly a full decade, and that voice still somehow grated and brought back every memory of that summer, taking over the world for its own damn good. "I just arrived." It wasn't like her to call if she was running late and it didn't take a genius (fortunately) to figure out that… "I take it you're not coming."

"No. It's a set-up." C.C.'s bland voice held a small amount of amusement in it. Which was a nice change from the last time Zero had heard it as she left Pendragon with nothing but a faint sad smile and a ridiculous hat. The years must have treated her well. They seemed to have nurtured her passive-aggressive nature, that was for sure. "Not my doing, however."

"Then what?" Zero considered the risks and the odds and didn't immediately return to his Knightmare and leave the area. As odd as it was, after everything they'd been through, he trusted C.C. in a way.

There was a long pause. Then C.C.'s voice returned, the warm tinge of amusement gone. "Do you have any regrets?"

"What?" C.C. didn't answer, not that Zero really expected her to. He shrugged. "No. None."

"…and does Suzaku Kururugi?"

"I doubt it; he's dead." Zero allowed the smallest trace of humour to enter his own voice, almost enjoying the banter despite having no idea as to its purpose.

"Are you lying to me, Zero?" C.C. asked, her voice as level as ever. "Not that it matters. This isn't entirely about you. It never is."

Zero scowled behind his mask, his momentary good mood gone. This was less entertaining. "State what you mean." He didn't have time for her games. Well. He did, but he hardly had the patience for them.

Rather than answer him (she almost never did) C.C. changed the topic. "Turn around." …she rarely changed the topic that suddenly and drastically. Zero snorted, but did as she said.

For a moment, all he could see was the large stone door looming up before him, like the one guarding the Ragnarok connection on Kamine Island. Then he noticed the walls leading from the door, a mixture of stone and wood and ivy and moss at least fifteen feet high. As far as he could see, the walls stretched from horizon to horizon. The exotic sound of birds that Zero had never heard before and strongly doubted were native to this desolate region called from the other side of the wall, as well as the roar of what was possibly a lion. Zero blinked.

"That… wasn't there before."

"You always did like to state the obvious. 'You killed Euphie', 'that wasn't there before', 'C.C., you're standing on my foot'…"

Zero was only partially listening. He took a step back and took in the entirety of the giant edifice which had just suddenly appeared out of nowhere. For a moment, he suspected geass as the cause, before ruling it out. Geass was a powerful tool, but even it couldn't create something out of nothing. And this was a pretty impressive something. It wasn't just a door and a long wall, it looked like a maze. He sniffed the air, breathing deeply as he approached the door again. Even through his mask, he could smell fresh running water and plants and animals and life.

"…really, it's like you need to recite a running commentary of your life."

Between the mysterious sudden appearance of the seemingly infinitely large wall and C.C.'s pointless drivel, Zero cut to the chase. "What am I supposed to do?"

C.C.'s voice held a warm affection this time. "That's why you're my… well, not my favourite, but… Touch the wall." Zero did as she said. The wall felt cool and rough, even in the hot sun and as Suzaku pressed against a vine, he could feel its healthy sponginess, even in the dry heat. Other than that, nothing happened. He slid over to the doorway, fingertips becoming fingers becoming his whole palm pressing against the stone, and even tracing directly over the mystical sigil etched into it. He still felt nothing but the cool sensation of stone that had sat for centuries in shade.

"…take the glove off, idiot."

Zero removed his glove and reached out with Suzaku's pale, trembling hand.

OoO-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-OoO

Lelouch shivered, not with cold, but with fear as the sound of another round of bombs landed in the near distance. It felt like they were getting closer each day – encroaching on his little peaceful world more and more… it had barely been a week since Britannia first started its invasion of Japan (since he and Suzaku had run blindly up a cliff and been greeted with the sight of the Britannian airforce covering the sky like voracious insects swarming over the backdrop of Japan's mountains) and already Lelouch could easily imagine his father looming over the small island nation, his cruel mouth and eyes narrowed with cool assessment and finding it wanting, weak.

If only there was something he could to do fight back…

But there was nothing. Lelouch was nine and powerless and cowering in a dilapidated shed given to him and his little sister out of the dubious kindness of one of the crueler men Lelouch had ever met (to whom he was not related). He had nothing – no weapons, no soldiers, no strategies… and he'd overheard a rumour from one of Kururugi Genbu's visitors that Britannia was using Knightmare Frames in battle. Lelouch had no idea how to counter that, even if he'd had the resources.

He didn't even have Suzaku, as the younger boy had been forbidden to stay overnight with the Britannian children since the invasion. He'd been terribly sulky about that, but Lelouch could see the wisdom in keeping the Prime Minister's son close at hand. Nunnally had taken it well, although there were moments when Lelouch could see that she withdrew into herself at the fear of losing someone else important. As much as he wanted to, Lelouch couldn't promise her that that wouldn't happen – he knew better and he never, ever wanted to lie to her. Suzaku, brash and arrogant and kind of an idiot, did make that promise, however, promising to always come back and to always protect them. Nunnally had been through too much to take that at face value, but the words had clearly cheered her up and her smile had been brighter than it had been for weeks.

And Suzaku did his best to keep that promise, at least. He was still allowed to visit Lelouch and Nunnally during the day, even if that visiting time was becoming shortened and occasionally supervised, and he tried to bring something new and interesting every time to cheer Nunnally up. He'd even kept his word about protecting them, defending them against one of his father's visitors who suggested housing the royal siblings more… strategically. Even apart from the fact that Lelouch firmly believed their father didn't care a thing for them, the image of hiding behind children was repugnant enough to the others that the idea was dropped. Just as well – their presence hadn't stopped Britannia from invading, and it wouldn't likely do much to affect the outcome in any other way either.

But it wasn't just toys and trinkets and Suzaku's big mouth. The main thing he offered was his presence, his company. The fact that their nations could be at war, and yet Suzaku never had a cruel word for either of them meant a lot to Lelouch.

Sometimes, when Nunnally was otherwise occupied, Lelouch and Suzaku managed to sneak away from their guards. That happened less and less often, though. And never for long – the idea of Nunnally surrounded by people who didn't care for her like he and Suzaku did never sat well with Lelouch.

Of course, neither did all this bombing and secrecy.

Lelouch peaked out the window at the main house. It was close enough that he could clearly see Genbu's study still lit, as well as the living room where shadows moved against the windows, late-night visitors to the Prime Minister. Suzaku's room was pitch black. He was probably asleep. Still, the sight of Japanese men gathered together to plan a strategy to defend against Britannia was heartening to Lelouch. There were some brilliant military minds gathered in there. Maybe they would find a way to fight against Britannia. Lelouch's gaze narrowed as the shadows in the Prime Minister's study shifted, as if someone had opened a door but either hadn't gone through or were too small to be silhouetted against the window…

Another sound, this one much closer but less violent startled Lelouch from his thoughts. It wasn't a bomb or a gun, but it was…

He crept closer to the window once he was certain Nunnally was sleeping peacefully. At first he thought there was nothing out there, but then a flicker of movement caught his eye, a shadow within a shadow, moving fast but not unnaturally so.

…Suzaku perhaps? Had he snuck out to join them? If so, why wasn't he just coming in? It was a warm night, but even so, creeping around in the blackness wasn't Lelouch's idea of a good time.

Which was why, as he pulled on his shoes, he decided to scold Suzaku doubly hard once he caught him. Playing around like this in the daytime was one thing, but in the dark…

Lelouch had never really been afraid of the dark. He'd grown up with older siblings who had little patience for scaredy-cats and younger siblings who looked up to him. His mother had always said that there was nothing in the dark that wasn't there in the light, and that it was always the attacks that you see coming that do the most damage. She'd been gunned down in the middle of the day; proving her point. Lelouch hardly liked to think of that, but it only reinforced his utter lack of fear for the mere absence of light.

Even so, the moment he stepped out the door, he knew something was wrong and it made him uneasy. It was still dark, but the sounds were all different; exotic and frightening. Apparently, there were things in this dark that hadn't been there before…