ONE MONTH LATER
"Are you sure about this, Zero?"
Lelouch looked up from his mask. "You can call me Lelouch when we're alone."
"I don't want to right now," Kallen retorted. "Are you sure about this?"
That was a hard question. Lelouch had planned for this since leaving the World of C, had worked to get everything ready, but now that it was time… "Of course I'm sure."
Kallen huffed a laugh, plopping herself down gracelessly on the bed beside where Lelouch was sitting. "You don't sound sure."
"Don't be ridiculous. I always sound sure." Even when I'm not.
Rather than answering that, Kallen brushed her fingers over Zero's mask.
"I would have done it."
"If you hadn't come back. If… if something had happened to you. I was ready to do it."
Lelouch frowned. "I shouldn't have asked. It's not something that can just be handed over like that. It was just the stress of the moment."
Kallen shook her head. "No, I mean… you don't have to do this. If you just want to walk away, you don't have to destroy Zero to do that. I can–"
"Kallen, no." Lelouch moved the mask away from her hand. "You can't. Nor should you. It's not just wearing the mask, it's being willing to give yourself up for it." He shook his head. "I'm not placing any of the responsibility for what I've done on 'Zero', but I do know that you can't take on this persona without having it change you." He gave her a half-smile. "If there was nothing left for you to live for, if you'd lost everything that made your life meaningful, then… perhaps. Maybe I could have forced this onto you without regret. But even then, Kallen…"
"I'm not good enough."
Lelouch laughed softly. "You're not broken enough." He looked at her fondly. "Zero walks with his back straight and his head high because the person behind the mask cannot. I've never seen you bend, not once, Kozuki Kallen. And I never want to."
Kallen nodded. "Then what are you going to do? Without it, I mean?"
"Start again." Lelouch sighed. "Although I'm not sure what the point would be anymore. Japan is free, the U.F.N is already working to make the world a better place, Xingke is now in command of the Black Knights, my mother is… well, that whole situation is resolved now." He shrugged. "Nunnally is safe and cared for, Rolo has found a place… there's nothing more for me to do."
Kallen laughed. "Burnt out at eighteen."
"Maybe I'll finish high school."
"Don't even joke about that." Kallen made a face. "I have to repeat the entire last year."
"Is it really repeating if you spent the whole time being a freedom fighter rather than attending classes?" Lelouch asked.
Kallen rolled her eyes. "We weren't doing much freedom fighting. Just sitting around, waiting for an opportunity to bring you back." She shot Lelouch a mildly irritated look. "It seems I've spent most of my life waiting for you."
"Don't even." Kallen stood up. "So what. Are you going to go back to being Lelouch Lamperouge, or Lelouch vi Britannia?"
Lelouch stood as well, picking up the mask. "We'll see if I have any choice in the matter. It's entirely possible I'll be spending most of my adult life in prison, or that I'll be executed within the month."
Kallen looked shocked. "But they–"
"I trust Schneizel about as far as I can throw him. And given my upper body strength…"
"They tend to lie." Lelouch smirked. "Ah, well… it's not like I'd be surprised. I have been willing to die for this ending and I'm more than willing to do so now, if that's the price."
"The Black Knights won't stand for it!"
Lelouch raised an eyebrow. "Really? After finding out who I really am, you think they'll rally behind me?"
"Of course!" Kallen declared indignantly. "It doesn't matter who you are, you're still Zero!"
Lelouch gave her a moment to process that. "Well, on the odd chance it happens, I'd appreciate if you'd call them off. The last thing I want is to be the trigger for another war."
Kallen's face was flaming red at this point, half furious that they were talking about Lelouch's execution like this, half embarrassed at the memory of the way she'd abandoned him once she found out his true identity. "I'm not just going to–"
"What?" C.C. asked from the doorway as Kallen chocked off mid-sentence. "Don't stop yelling at him just because I'm here."
"I think we're more or less done here in any case," Lelouch assured her. "Are you coming?"
C.C. thought about it. "Might as well."
"Well then." Lelouch put his mask on and offered C.C. his arm. "Try to look appropriately witchy."
"Ladies and gentlemen, Zero is arriving now." The hushed, reverent voice of the newscaster transmitted his excitement through the television. "Waiting for him is the Princess Cornelia, the Knight of Seven, and Princess Nunnally's personal knight, the only three people in the Empire to have seen Zero's face and live.
"The peace bought by millions of lives and hours of negotiations hinge on this moment. If Zero reveals himself to the satisfaction of those awaiting him, the alliance between Britannia and the U.F.N. will be ratified by the 99th Emperor Odysseus eu Britannia and Sumeragi Kaguya, the Chairwoman of the U.F.N. However, the Black Knights are still under his command until he removes his mask, and should he chose he may maintain his secrecy, a decision that could lead to war. The world is truly in this mysterious man's hands."
Zero stepped out of the car that had been sent for him, pausing before taking C.C.'s hand.
"Ah, he's brought his… er… woman with him." The newscaster barely stumbled over C.C.'s rather questionable title. "It's said she's the only one of the Black Knights, including Zero's own fiancée, to have ever seen him without his mask."
C.C. turned and smiled directly at the camera as Zero ignored it.
"Zero is now approaching the throne room." The camera moved with Zero, managing to get a decent angle to record Zero entering the throne room, approaching Odysseus with his head held high and C.C. moving like royalty herself.
There were a lot of people present. Every noble who could manage to get to Pendragon had wanted to be here for this. The reveal of Zero's identity had been the source of a great deal of speculation, and many of them had a significant amount of money riding on the outcome.
The muttering that came from the crowd was different from the last time Lelouch had walked this of his own will. Then, the murmurs had been malicious and vindictive, rejoicing in the misery of a ten year old boy and the death of a young vibrant woman.
…who wasn't actually dead, but they didn't know that. Lelouch suppressed a disgusted snort. Surrounded by the depths of such disgusting opinions based on such pervasive ignorance…
This time the murmurs were curious and respectful. While there was no love lost between Zero and the nobility of Britannia, there was respect there, and fear. From the nobles at least. Lelouch was still of the opinion that they were overdecorated peacocks.
"Zero." Odysseus stood. Zero approached the throne and did not bow.
"Your Majesty. Congratulations on your ascension." Lelouch saw Bismark's expression twist bitterly. Interesting… Lelouch made a mental note that Bismark's loyalty appeared to be to the deceased Charles and not the newly crowned Odysseus. It was good to know where everyone stood.
Lelouch's attention then turned to Schneizel. He'd had Jeremiah remove his geass before the negotiations started, per his promise to Nunnally. Odysseus's own geass had been removed some time afterwards. It was rather more difficult to get to the Emperor than to a mere prince. Cornelia's geass remained at her own request. She didn't want Lelouch able to use his power against her in the future. Lelouch had been impressed with her request and promised her that should he rebel again, he'd be sure to just kill her. She'd thanked him for his courtesy.
In hindsight, if Lelouch had known that Schneizel would have demanded he reveal his identity in this public manner, he might have kept the geass on him longer. Judging from Cornelia's amused expression, she may have had something to do with the forum in which Lelouch would have to demask.
Actually, Suzaku looked a little smug too. The only one who didn't look like he was looking forward to this was Rolo. Lelouch felt a wave of affection for his fake little brother, and a sweeter, gentler wave of affection for Nunnally, seated in her wheelchair with her eyes wide open at Rolo's side.
It somehow made it better that she seemed to want this too.
C.C. moved off to the side. Lelouch faced the new Emperor. "You Majesty, I have a request."
"I would appreciate it if the Knight of Seven could be the one to remove this mask."
Odysseus looked to Schneizel briefly (but what a tell…) before nodding. "Of course." He gestured for Suzaku to approach.
Suzaku stood in front of Lelouch. "What are you doing?" he whispered.
"I just feel more comfortable the more uncomfortable you get," Lelouch answered, just as quietly. Suzaku's lips twitched. "No, really, I just thought… in her memory…"
"You're getting sentimental in your old age," Suzaku said, reaching forward and fumbling at the release of Lelouch's mask, lifting it up and off.
Lelouch hadn't bothered to cover his mouth, so the moment the mask was removed, Odysseus, Schneizel, Cornelia, and everyone around the throne had a perfect view of his face.
"L-Lelouch…" Odysseus stared at him in genuine shock. Later, Lelouch would look over the footage and notice with some pleasure that even Schneizel had been surprised – apparently Cornelia had kept his secret, if only for the entertainment value of having it exposed this way.
Suzaku stepped back and Lelouch, still in Zero's outfit, but no longer Zero now that the mask was removed, bowed properly to his new Emperor. "Your Majesty."
Odysseus stepped forward, looking like he wanted to embrace Lelouch right then and there. But then he remembered that he was no longer merely the crown prince. He was Britannia's Emperor.
"We thought you were dead. I mean, when we found Nunnally, we all hoped, but…" He drew himself up. "How could you betray Britannia like that? And at your age…"
Lelouch smirked, keeping his head bowed. "Who at seventeen isn't a bit of an idealist, Your Majesty? I saw a world filled with corruption, a cruel Empire that preyed on its weakest citizens. I simply decided to do something about it."
"But…" Given that Odysseus had apparently rebelled against his father in a smaller way the first time he took over the throne temporarily (albeit under Lelouch's geass) there wasn't much he could say to that. "But you're back now? You'll come home?"
Lelouch's head snapped up at the hopeful tone. Odysseus's geass was gone and he wasn't a natural manipulator like Schneizel. There was no reason for him to say anything like that unless…
He was even looking at Lelouch with some kind of beneficent patience and Lelouch just wanted to laugh. This was seriously the next Emperor? Well… he fought not to look at Schneizel. He had an idea who the true power behind the throne would be.
Still… "If you'll have me." Lelouch bowed his head again, the penitent returning to the flock. He back was staring to hurt.
"Of course, of course!" Odysseus sounded thrilled. "Stand up, Lelouch. Zero or no, you're still my brother."
That was what Lelouch had been afraid of – that Odysseus just genuinely meant what he said, that even without the geass on him he still…
No. Wait. Maybe this was just a public relations thing. Maybe he was trying to play the part of beneficent ruler. Maybe he'd been forwarned by Cornelia and advised by Schneizel to act this way. It was possible, even though Odysseus had never been a decent actor, and Cornelia had nothing to gain by welcoming Euphemia's killer back into the family and…
The thought that it might have been just that easy; that if Lelouch had turned to his siblings instead of trying to face the Emperor alone, that he might have been able to avoid everything that happened was too much. With Zero's mask gone, the last of Lelouch's defences stripped from him, it took everything he had not to break down right then and there.
And then Suzaku was there; a strong hand on Lelouch's shoulder, warm and familiar. "Lelouch… it's okay."
That was just like Suzaku. He had no idea what Lelouch was thinking and feeling, but he was always willing to try and fix things, even things he didn't understand. It wasn't okay. It wasn't even close. But… it could be okay again. In the future. Maybe.
Lelouch stood with Suzaku's help, facing his eldest brother who simply smiled back. "Oh, I forgot. Sir Kururugi, Sir Lamperouge, Princess Cornelia… is this the true Zero?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Rolo answered immediately. Suzaku just nodded in agreement.
Cornelia walked up to Lelouch grasping his chin and lifting his face to stare him down. "Did you pull the trigger?"
Lelouch didn't even pretend not to know that she meant on Euphemia. "Yes."
She released him. "This is… was Zero."
Odysseus nodded and gestured. A table and two chairs were immediately drawn up and Kaguya was brought to sit opposite Odysseus as they signed the treaty.
"Can I speak to my fiancé now?" Kaguya asked cheerfully.
Odysseus frowned. "Fiancé?"
"Oh great," Lelouch muttered nearly silently. Suzaku, the only one close enough to hear, fought not to smile.
Kaguya hopped up and bounded up to Lelouch. "I must say this is a surprise. I always thought Zero would be older."
"I thought you'd be more disappointed," Lelouch replied. "I don't recall much affection the first time we met. Mostly bossiness."
"Don't be silly!" Kaguya chirped. "I did say you could kidnap me if you promised not to eat me."
"You also called me an oni. I know what that means."
Kaguya waved her hand in the air. "Bygones." She grabbed Lelouch's hands. "In any case, I hope you get to help with the liberation of the other Areas. It would be lovely to work together again." She released him before he could answer, turning to C.C. "Do try to keep him out of trouble, won't you?"
"I'll do my best," C.C. assured her solemnly.
The rest of the day was mostly self-congratulatory speeches followed by mingling. Lelouch retreated as soon as possible.
"Welcome back, Sir Kururugi."
"Thanks." Suzaku stepped out of the Lancelot and removed his earpiece. It had been a week since he'd been in Pendragon, since Lelouch had been revealed as Zero. A week in which there had been no combat, so he'd done a lot of training and a lot of thinking. Particularly about a certain offer to return to Japan and serve under Toudou.
He was hesitating in answering back for a few reasons – he felt like he was finally doing good in serving Britannia, he wasn't sure how the Japanese people would react to him returning, Toudou and the others he'd be serving with would also have certain prejudices and reservations… but mostly it came down to one thing.
He wasn't sure he wanted to be there when he could be somewhere else. Serving someone else. Someone else in particular.
Since he was running a bit late, he made a quick call from the hanger. "There's a slight delay…"
"Oh, Sir Kururugi. We were trying to contact you earlier." Probably when Suzaku and Gino and Anya had all switched Knightmares for Gino's idea of fun. It might have been dorky, but Anya had laughed at him lumbering around in the Mordred and Suzaku realized that he'd never actually heard her laugh before. Gino wasn't as shallow as he seemed. "Your appointment has been moved back to 1300 hours, sir. My apologies."
"It's fine." That would give him enough time to wash and change and grab something to eat. "I'll be there. Thanks."
He was in a surprisingly good mood once he was clean and fed. He arrived at the appointed meeting place early and waited.
A girl with the same voice from the previous call stuck her head in a few times to apologize, a little more harried each time.
After half an hour of this, Suzaku simply stood up and walked past her into the office.
"Marie, If he's still there, tell him I'm busy."
"Oh, don't worry. He's still here."
Lelouch looked up from a mass of papers with a smile. "Suzaku. How nice to see you." His eyes moved to focus on the girl standing behind Suzaku, no doubt fretting over him barging in like this. "It's fine, Marie. Frankly he had more patience than I expected." Lelouch waved to an empty seat in clear invitation.
"Would you and your… guest like anything, Your Highness?"
"No," Lelouch answered for both of them. "Thank you." He waited until the door was closed before turning to Suzaku with a smirk. "Half an hour?"
Suzaku just leaned back in his chair. "It's not like I had anything better to do." He gestured at the mountain of papers on Lelouch's desk. "As opposed to you."
Lelouch laughed. "Yes, well… the Britannian nobility see me as a prince, the downtrodden Numbers see me as Zero, and everyone's willing to listen when I speak. It's perfect except that they're only willing to listen to me." He snorted. "I blame Kaguya. If she hadn't immediately publicly recognized me after Odysseus… I mean, His Majesty did, I wouldn't be so universally revered and I wouldn't be stuck with this mess."
"Isn't this what you wanted, though?" Suzaku asked. "I mean, freedom for the Areas, the dissolution of the Britannian Empire…"
"I suppose," Lelouch conceded. "I just never expected it to happen so bureaucratically."
Suzaku grinned at Lelouch's whiney tone. "You never were one for homework." He stood up, full of anxious energy. Lelouch ignored him for a few moments before his pacing got to him.
"It's just…" Suzaku had come in here with a plan. He'd practiced and rehearsed what he'd say. But it wasn't working. "You were right."
Suzaku gestured vaguely. "Just… in general. About things. You… Zero got things done. I can't agree with the way you went about it, but you got what you wanted in the end. You were right."
Lelouch put down his pen. "I honestly never thought I'd hear that from you."
"Well, it took a while to manage…"
"That's the stupidest thing you've ever said, Suzaku. And that's saying something." Lelouch glared at him. "You can't agree with the way I went about it? I killed Euphy. I systematically took away people's free will. I used the Japanese people to enact my own selfish revenge. I lied to my sister. And the fact that the world is becoming a better place isn't because of any of that – it would have happened regardless. The only things I can look back on with pride are the formation of the Black Knights and the U.F.N. and stopping my father. Everything else is something I have to atone for in some way." He lowered his glare to the table. "And it would take more than a single lifetime to do so."
Suzaku hadn't ever heard Lelouch's voice so full of grief. Not even when describing what had happened with Euphemia. "You did good things, Lelouch. You freed Japan, and other Areas too. You saved the world, and even now–"
"That's the point!" Lelouch interrupted. "I'm doing more good working within the system here or across a negotiating table than I ever did as Zero. If I hadn't… If I'd just hung my head and swallowed my pride and returned to the family when I was ten… maybe this wouldn't have had to happen. Maybe Nunnally would have been safe here, loved. Maybe I could have worked with my family instead of against them. Maybe Clovis, Euphemia…"
"Maybe Japan would still be Area 11," Suzaku said reasonably. "Maybe we'd all be in the World of C. You can't really think that's better."
Lelouch refused to look at him. "What did you come here for, Suzaku?"
This wasn't how Suzaku had wanted to bring this up. "Prince Schneizel talked to me recently. About you needing a knight if you were going to continue to place yourself in vulnerable positions in volatile Areas."
"Don't be ridiculous. You'd be accepting a demotion."
"I never said I was offering."
Lelouch conceded the point. "Right. Go on."
"Suzaku… no." Lelouch shook his head. "Thank you, but no."
"Why not?" Suzaku demanded, leaning over Lelouch's desk. "I know you. And you know me. You know you can trust me, Lelouch and I… I want to protect you."
Lelouch leaned away. "I don't want to be protected by you. I appreciate the offer, but serving me, guarding me, isn't going to rebuild our friendship, Suzaku. We were only ever friends when we were equals. As long as you serve Britannia, that can't happen."
"Says who?" Suzaku wheedled. "I mean, yeah, you're always going to be a prince, but you'll still be Lelouch."
He leaned in closer, and Lelouch's eyes widened as Suzaku's face and body drew uncomfortably near. "Suzaku…" The sight of Suzaku falling to one knee in front of him made Lelouch's heart skip a beat and not in a good way. "Suzaku, don't you dare kneel in front of me, you bastard…"
"Please, Your Highness." Suzaku bowed his head. "Please let me do this. I know you don't think it'll work, but… I want to try."
"You damn cheater." Lelouch sighed and reached out, threading his fingers through Suzaku's hair. "I'll consider it." Suzaku's head snapped up, his smile lighting up his entire face. "I'll just consider it. So get up. And stop grinning, I haven't said yes."
Suzaku, very wisely, didn't say 'you will…' like he wanted to. "No, you're right, of course." He stood up. "When can I expect an answer, Your Highness?"
"Tomorrow," Lelouch answered. "Plus one more day every time you call me 'Your Highness' when you don't have to."
"Kay." Suzaku beamed. "Can we tell Nunnally first?"
Lelouch outright glared. "I still haven't said yes." Suzaku's smile didn't fade one iota. "You're going to be insufferable, aren't you?"
The look of exasperation Lelouch shot him was, at least, fond. "Don't move."
Lelouch stood up, facing Suzaku. "Don't move. Just stand there and… don't move. And don't read too much into this either. And don't think about it or anything. In fact, don't move, don't say anything, and forget about this the moment it's over."
Suzaku stared uncomprehendingly at him. "Lelouch…"
"I said not to talk," Lelouch reminded him, taking a deep breath before standing in front of Suzaku and wrapping his arms around him, one hand lacing through Suzaku's hair.
Suzaku stiffened at first, not sure what to make of this, before relaxing in Lelouch's tentative hold. He was rewarded with Lelouch settling more comfortably against him, tightening his hold slightly. He was warm and smelled surprisingly good. Suzaku hugged him back.
"Oh, shut up, Lelouch." Suzaku felt his throat constrict with a mixture of nostalgia and hope. There had been a time in their lives when casual embraces and touches had been the norm between them. This was far from casual, but perhaps it was a good first step to regaining that comfort.
Lelouch drew away, and Suzaku let him. "Fine. You can be my knight."
"Yeah, I know." Suzaku smirked.
"Insufferable. I knew it." But Lelouch was smiling now. It was small, but it was genuine, and it looked like he was trying not to and couldn't help it. "First things first…"
"Telling Nunnally." Lelouch shrugged. "Then the Emperor, I suppose."
Suzaku winced – he was not looking forward to that. Informing the Emperor that you'd rather serve his little brother was an awkward conversation to have. "At least you're in his favour right now."
"Don't look so worried," Lelouch advised him. "After all, it's us. And together, we can do anything."
A/N: Okay, NOW it's over. XD I was highly entertained by how many people thought I'd leave that last chapter as the conclusion (which would feel abrupt and kind of like a ripoff, I think).
Overall, I've been really happy with the reception of this fic, considering I've mostly written one-shot explicit slash fics for this fandom (does it show? :p). I'm taking a month-long hiatus from fic-writing, but at the end of that I'm considering finishing another one of these. There's a poll on my profile for which Turning Point I should do next, but the "Suzaku finds out Lelouch is Zero" one is a third done, so that one's next. Still, please vote because the odds of there being a third fic are pretty high.
Thanks for reading, and especially for everyone who reviewed and voted in the poll. Feedback and opinions are always wonderful!