Lelouch was halfway up the stairs when he heard Suzaku calling his name. He ignored him, along with the burning in his legs and the scratchiness in the back of his throat as he forced himself to move faster after that damned cat.
Despite the fact that Zero was relatively new to the terrorist scene and hadn't done any of the many things Lelouch had planned with him, He had done more than enough to earn a capitol punishment with Clovis's murder and Suzaku's rescue. If Lelouch was caught…
"Lelouch!" Suzaku was catching up. "You're looking for the cat too?"
"It's fine, I have it!" Lelouch yelled back, gasping. "D-don't come up!"
"But the Student Council President said to catch it and I was always more agile than you," Suzaku replied easily, not out of breath at all. "Remember when that little bird got loose?"
Lelouch ignored him, rounding the last corner and seeing that cat. With Zero's mask over its head. Just… standing there. "Thank goodness…" He yanked the mask off, collapsing against the wall as the cat cocked its head at him. "What're you looking at?" The cat, rather than answering, turned his attention to Suzaku racing up the last few steps.
"Gottcha!" Suzaku laughed as he scooped the cat up. "I wonder why you're so popular?"
The cat bit him.
Lelouch managed a light laugh as Suzaku bit back a curse. "I think it likes you."
Suzaku shot Lelouch a wounded look, his lower lip sticking out in a pout until his mouth relaxed in surprise and his eyes widened. "Is that…"
Lelouch had thought he'd hidden the mask behind his back. "Is what?" he asked, shifting slightly. Suzaku couldn't have seen it – at least not well. The lighting was poor and it was almost completely covered by Lelouch's uniform jacket. "Aren't you going to go down and collect your reward?" Suzaku frowned in confusion. "For the cat."
"Huh? Oh, right…" Suzaku still looked bothered. "You coming?"
"I'll be right there," Lelouch assured him. "Just let me catch my breath for a few moments." Suzaku nodded and stood there, waiting. "Alone."
"Ah. Right." Suzaku managed a bright smile before turning and leaving, shooting one last puzzled glance at Lelouch.
Lovely. Lelouch sighed and started searching for a decent hiding place for the mask.
When he reached the ground, he was greeted by a throng of people, all standing and staring at Suzaku. The silence was overwhelming, broken only by the occasional snide whisper. Suzaku just stood there, holding onto the cat almost like a shield, passively being judged.
Lelouch locked gazes with Milly who looked back at him helplessly. She had only so much influence, and to spend it here, if things went sour…
Well, fine. Lelouch might not have had the influence Milly did, but he was more than willing to 'waste' it on Suzaku.
"It looks like you found the cat." He walked up to Suzaku and took the vile creature, handing it to the Milly. "Here, president. I hope it was worth it."
She shot him a grateful look, then inspected the cat curiously before huffing. "Well. This is completely unhelpful. Where's your embarrassing secret, Lelouch?"
Lelouch ignored her, smiling mildly at Suzaku. "So. These are the members of the student council – Milly Ashford, Rivalz Cardemonde, Kallen Stadfeldt, Shirley Fenette, Nina Einstein," a small brunette gasped and hid behind Nunnally's wheelchair, "and myself." He waited patiently for Suzaku's response before sighing. "Well?"
"Um… it's nice to meet you all." Suzaku scratched the back of his head nervously. Lelouch almost expected him to bow… but that would be too Japanese, he supposed.
Lelouch rolled his eyes. "Your reward, dolt."
Suzaku looked stunned at that. "Lelouch, I…"
"Fair enough." Lelouch had been expecting something like this, and had planned accordingly. Again, if this went poorly, it would go very poorly, but it would still be worth it and this was embarrassing enough that Milly would be satisfied as well. He leaned over and kissed Suzaku on the lips.
It was barely a kiss. It was dry and still and quick, only slightly longer than a peck, but without the warm affection. "L-Lelouch…"
This would generate talk, but likely none of the revenge that having an Eleven kissing a female member of the Student Council would. Lelouch pulled away with a bland smile. "President, would you permit Suzaku to become a member of the Student Council?"
The choruses of 'huh' and 'what?' that met that request came from pretty much everyone except Milly. Lelouch shrugged. "He's an old friend."
Milly sighed. "Well, you are the vice president. I suppose I can't refuse." She smiled at Suzaku. "Welcome aboard!"
Lelouch looked smugly satisfied as one of the students shook off her confusion and stepped up brightly towards Suzaku. "Hi! I'm Shirley."
"Rivalz," the boy with her added before Suzaku could react to her introduction. "You knew Lelouch as a kid?"
"Um. Yes." Suzaku looked around for any kind of help (Lelouch was practically ignoring him) before his eyes lit on Nunnally, one hand held delicately up to her lips as she laughed quietly at his confusion. As nice as it was to see her smile, he couldn't expect any rescue there.
"So what was he like?" Rivalz pressed.
Suzaku laughed nervously as Lelouch's attention returned to him. "I'm not sure I should…"
"Be sure to maintain my elaborate mystique, Suzaku," Lelouch smirked. "Make up something good."
"But I'm no good at lying," Suzaku protested, before thinking about how that would come out. Fortunately it just made everyone laugh.
Milly was still looking at the cat. "No collar, no tags… he's a stray. Hey! Let's make him our mascot."
"So impulsive…" Lelouch complained.
"We'll have to name him," Shirley said, immediately taking on the task.
Rivalz groaned. "Can we do this in the Student Council room? I'm feeling kinda exposed out here." He grinned at Suzaku. "At least it'll be nice having another guy on the council. Lelouch is great, but get him started on fabrics and stuff as he's as bad as any girl."
Suzaku laughed. "Well, at least that hasn't changed."
Lelouch glared at them both. Suzaku managed to look at least a little contrite, but Rivalz just kept grinning.
As they entered the Student Council room, Suzaku placed a hand on Lelouch's shoulder, drawing him aside. "Can I come over tonight? There's something I want to talk to you about."
Lelouch pursed his lips slightly, wondering what Suzaku could want. "Of course. You're always welcome, Suzaku." He smiled as brightly as he could. "Come for supper."
Suzaku came to the Lamperouge residence at supper time, just as Lelouch had requested. The smile that lit Lelouch's face upon seeing him; genuine and warm, as opposed to the cool façade he'd worn in front of his classmates; made Suzaku feel almost hopeful. Maybe he'd jumped to conclusions. Maybe he'd seen things, having had nightmares about that mask and the man behind it for days. Maybe Lelouch wasn't… No, Lelouch couldn'tbe…
"Come in." Lelouch pulled Suzaku into the house, closing the door behind them. "I wasn't sure you'd come." His voice held a thread of humour over a genuine uncertainty.
Suzaku snorted slightly, uncomfortable at having made Lelouch uncomfortable, and also at his easy naked honesty. "It's not like you to be unsure of anything." Lelouch's smile actually widened at that and Suzaku really, genuinely, began to think that maybe this was just a misunderstanding. Surely if Lelouch were Zero he'd remember Suzaku's sharp rejection and wouldn't smile so easily at him.
Supper was pleasant and delicious, with Nunnally, oddly enough, directing most of the conversation. Lelouch responded to any questions she asked, and occasionally jumped in to tease Suzaku, but mostly just sat there, watching Suzaku with a faint, fond smile as he ate.
Suzaku's stomach was turning flips, making it hard to eat.
After Lelouch cleared the table and they had dessert and tucked Nunnally in bed, Lelouch turned to Suzaku with that affectionate smile. "Let's go up to my room." He took Suzaku's hand and led him, unresisting, to sit on his bed. "Now," Lelouch sat down next to him, "I'm sure you have a few questions."
Just one, really "Are you…" Now that he had his chance, Suzaku found that he couldn't go through with it. "…gay?"
Lelouch looked shocked. "What?"
Suzaku managed a grin. "I mean, with the kiss and everything…"
"What? No! You're the one who chose me, moron!"
Suzaku laughed. "Not on purpose. And you certainly didn't seem reluctant." This was good, this was safe. Just two friends teasing each other. "Not that I can blame you; I am a good kisser…"
Lelouch slapped Suzaku's arm, making him laugh harder. "You're an idiot is what you are. And you didn't do anything in that kiss."
"Want me to?" Suzaku offered, leaning in suggestively and getting a great look at Lelouch's face as it blossomed into a fiery red blush. Then Lelouch shoved him away and stomped off.
"Honestly! Do you take anything seriously?"
Suzaku fell back on the bed. "Some things." This was good. This was okay. As long as he didn't know, he could tell himself that it wasn't true. He'd seen things, or the mask was a coincidence, or… Lelouch wasn't Zero. That was… ridiculous.
Lelouch's head moved into Suzaku's field of vision as he leaned over. "Is there anything else you wanted to ask?"
Dammit. Why couldn't Lelouch just leave him alone in his blissful world of ignorance? "…do you still… hate Britannia?"
Lelouch smiled. "Yes."
Darn. "And do you hate me for joining them?"
Lelouch's smile disappeared and he sat down by Suzaku's head. "No." He looked at the wall. "I don't think I could ever hate you, Suzaku."
"I… yeah, me too." It was true. Suzaku just didn't have it in him to hate anyone, really. He just wasn't as angry and hurt as Lelouch was. But if he couldhave hated someone, it wouldn't be Lelouch. No matter what.
And that made him finally able to ask what he came to ask. "Lelouch? Are you Zero?"
Lelouch nodded. "Yes. You saw the mask?"
"Yeah, but… not clearly. If you said you weren't, I would have believed you."
"I appreciate that." Lelouch turned to look at him, his eyes oddly intense. "Now that you know… what are you going to do?"
Suzaku shrugged. He hadn't actually thought ahead that far. "I dunno. What would you do in my place?"
"Join Zero and take over the world."
"Speaking of," Suzaku smirked, "you suck at recruitment speeches."
That startled a laugh out of Lelouch. "Well. I suppose I was recruiting the wrong Kururugi Suzaku." He placed his hand on Suzaku's cheek. "You've changed."
Suzaku couldn't meet Lelouch's serious eyes. "Not that much," he lied. "I mean…" He sat up, facing Lelouch on his level. "Not that much. Really."
Lelouch looked a little sad. "If you say so."
"I do," Suzaku insisted, finally meeting Lelouch's gaze. "And what about you?"
"What about me?" Lelouch asked. "It's not like my hatred of Britannia is new, nor my desire to liberate Japan."
"The whole killing people is, though," Suzaku pointed out. "I would have thought… after your mother…"
Lelouch's eyes widened with hurt. "That's not… Suzaku if I could stage a bloodless coup, I would. But ideas and words aren't enough to change the world. I've accepted that, but it won't stop me. One way or another, Britannia needs to fall."
"But… Prince Clovis was your brother," Suzaku insisted.
"Half brother," Lelouch corrected. "In any case, I can't let that stop me either. I've long disowned every member of my family save for Nunnally. They are no longer my siblings, and my father is just a tyrant and an enemy to me, nothing more."
That made Suzaku bite off his next argument. "So you're going to keep going? Assassinating people and stuff?"
"No," Lelouch said. "Assassinations don't win over hearts and minds. Victories do. I plan to amass an army, strong enough to take on Britannia on her own terms. And I plan to win." He smiled tentatively at Suzaku. "I know you rejected Zero, Suzaku. If I made the same offer, right here and now, would you reject me too?"
Suzaku thought about it. "Yeah, I would." Lelouch looked hurt. "You're a terrorist, Lelouch! I get what you're trying to do, but you're only going to get more people hurt. If you'd just… if everyone just let it go and embraced the system, it could work! It's people like you who fight even when there's no chance of winning who ruin it for everyone else."
Lelouch made a small contemplative noise. "So rather than fight for Japan's freedom, you want to cooperate for her… security?"
"Yes!" Suzaku said, overjoyed that Lelouch was finally starting to listen. "Who cares where the power lies, as long as people are healthy and happy and alive."
Lelouch shook his head. "He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither." Suzaku scowled. "Suzaku, I understand what you want and what you're working for. But I can't agree to it. So. Where does that leave us?"
There was a long moment of silence before Suzaku spoke up.
"I won't tell them about you. Being Zero."
Suzaku sighed, suddenly really tired. "I don't want to fight you, Lelouch."
Lelouch suddenly embraced Suzaku, tightly. "Don't worry. You're not in the infantry anymore, right? You're with the engineering corps. Just do what you feel you must and so will I, and let's hope our paths don't cross."
It so wasn't that simple, but Suzaku found himself holding Lelouch in return, more like two scared boys than anything else.
The thud of something hitting the floor snapped Suzaku to his senses. The sight of Zero's mask, reminded him of where he was, and with whom, and that… "I have to go."
"Okay," Lelouch said, giving in rather easily. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
Suzaku ran through his schedule in his mind. "I'm working tomorrow."
Lelouch nodded. "Then… later."
"Yeah," Suzaku said faintly, wondering if it would be Lelouch or Zero he'd meet next. "Later."
"That's what Her Highness said!" Lloyd looked thrilled. "Which means we get to keep you which is all that really matters."
"R-right…" Suzaku was stunned. He'd never heard of a former Eleven achieving anything above a rank of Sergeant. And he'd certainly never applied for this position. The fact that it was basically a gift from Cornelia li Britannia – not one of the princesses known for her tolerance of non-Britannians – made it even more unexpected.
And Suzaku had had about enough surprises lately.
Cecile looked a little worried at Suzaku's shock. "How are things going at school?" She asked, clearly hoping to distract him.
"Um. Very well, Cecile-san!" Suzaku made sure his smile was bigger than his typical smiles. "It was a little rocky at first, but I happened to run into an old friend there and he smoothed everything out for me."
"That's wonderful." Cecile looked genuinely happy for him. "I'm so glad it's working out."
For some reason, it seemed like she'd really been worrying after him. Suzaku wasn't sure why – they'd basically just met, he was an Eleven (honorary Britannian), and he'd certainly never asked for her concern. But it was nice, in a way, to have someone just simply concerned for him. It was nothing like Lelouch's persistent, prodding caring. It was less personal, less invasive. More comfortable.
"Actually," Suzaku added, smiling sheepishly, "I have a few homework assignments due. I was wondering if I could work on them between trial runs."
Technically, Cecile should have asked Lloyd first. "Of course! If you need any help, don't hesitate to ask."
There it was again – that comfortable caring. Suzaku felt touched by it. "Thanks, Miss Cecile."
"Oh, please. Just Cecile is fine." …the light flush on Cecile's cheeks made everything suddenly a touch less comfortable. But Suzaku was good at ignoring things like that, no matter how obvious they were.
Even Lloyd was looking at them curiously now. Fortunately Suzaku was saved by another soldier rushing into the room. "Lord Asplund, Princess Cornelia just faced off in the field with Zero. We require the data from the Lancelot's previous fight with Zero to compare."
"Ooh… you mean he got away?" Lloyd cackled. "Well, the data's free for all to enjoy! Come right this way…"
Suzaku felt sick. Cecile patted his arm. "I guess that means our work here is done for today, Suzaku. Go to school. Classes might be over, but it's important to have a social life too."
"Lelouch, you okay?"
The sound of Lelouch's fingers drumming on the table faltered and stopped. "Fine. Why?"
Suzaku seemed to be searching for words. "Well… uh… you didn't answer your phone when I called yesterday."
"I was busy."
"…at the Saitama Ghetto?"
Lelouch's hand clenched into a fist. "The rumour mill is fairly active, huh?" He faced Suzaku. "What are they saying?"
"Not much. If it makes you feel better, the Viceroy's not considering it a victory."
Lelouch snorted. "She doesn't have to. No matter what, it was my loss." He set his jaw. "But I'll do better next time."
"Next time?" Suzaku asked, not sure why he was surprised by that. "Lelouch, if she sees you…"
"I know!" Lelouch repeated, louder. "I am fully aware of the risks and repercussions." He shook his head. "The only thing I can do is ensure I'm not caught alive. I'm sure my father has ways of making people talk… no matter what their own will might be."
Suzaku stared. Was Lelouch talking about suicide? "Lelouch…"
"If possible, I should probably try to disfigure my face," Lelouch mused. "That would mean a gunshot to the back of the head." He frowned. "That seems awkward to manage…"
"Lelouch!" Suzaku was starting to get a little scared. "You don't really mean that. You wouldn't…" He couldn't finish the question. The silence dragged on for a long moment as Lelouch very carefully didn't look at Suzaku and Suzaku searched for something to say.
"If…" Lelouch swallowed. "If something happens to me, Suzaku. If I'm caught either alive or dead but recognizable, it could lead my family to Nunnally." He shook his head. "This revolution I'm trying to start… it's not without risk. I accept that. But I won't risk her."
While the sentiment and the motivation did make sense to Suzaku, he felt like Lelouch was missing the point. "You don't have to risk anything, Lelouch. If you just stopped…" Lelouch just looked at him, his face close to expressionless. Suzaku couldn't face that blankness, the lack of expression as Lelouch blocked him out. "Fine, but if something happens to Nunnally because of this, you'll hate yourself. You know you will."
"I know." Lelouch sighed. "But I can't let this continue. I can't let Britannia remain as it is, and I can't let that man continue to control lives with his callous disregard." Lelouch shrugged. "I've lived seven years, Suzaku, hiding from my family, hiding myself from my friends… I've lived in fear of assassins, of kidnappers, of a random noble putting violet eyes and a crippled sister together and arriving at the truth. It took two years for me to be able to form any kind of relationship with anyone apart from Milly, and another three for me to make an actual friend in Rivalz. Nunnally still hasn't been able to make those kinds of connections on her own yet. I can't trust anyone, I can't rely on anyone… I'm alone." He looked up at Suzaku. "And as much as I might want to pull the sheets over my head and hide in bed with my sister, I'm not a child any longer. I'm not afraid of the monster in the closet, I'm angry at it. And if I have to take it on myself, I will."
Suzaku looked away. "Lelouch… it's not a matter of monsters. He's your father and–"
"He isn't," Lelouch denied. "He is not my father. The only family I have is Nunnally."
"Lelouch, that's just not true."
"I'll make it true."
Suzaku bit back his next words. Getting angry wouldn't solve anything and, besides, Lelouch had something of a point – if his family and his father had abandoned him, then why would it be wrong for Lelouch to disown them right back? "Fine. Fine, so he's not your father. That doesn't make him a monster."
"No, his actions make him a monster," Lelouch retorted. "It's unnatural to discard your own children, to take more than what you need for the sheer joy of avarice, to speak at your son's funeral as if his death is nothing more than an excuse for getting your propagandist lies out into the general consciousness again. He's nothing natural, nothing human. All that's left is a ravenous monster that cares nothing for anything but itself."
There wasn't anything Suzaku could think to say against Lelouch's angry hatred. Lelouch wasn't going to be moved from this position, this belief. He'd said it himself – seven years. Suzaku couldn't undo that in a conversation, as much as he wished he could. Lelouch had always seemed strong to Suzaku – even if he hadn't always been able to explain how. Watching the younger Lelouch struggle at simple tasks, refusing all help; seeing him try to keep Nunnally's spirits up in dire conditions; holding out a hand bloody and bruised, unused to physical activity and yet gripping strongly onto Suzaku's hand without complaint… Lelouch had always been strong. His anger, his hatred, was just as strong. And Suzaku knew that he didn't have enough conviction to fight it.
For all Suzaku's sins, he'd never hated his father. Perhaps he simply hadn't had the chance, with his father's death happening too quickly, too soon. But looking at Lelouch now, the fiery passion driving him to recklessly endanger himself for a chance at confronting the man he hated more than any other… Suzaku found himself, a little cowardly perhaps, grateful that it had never gotten this far for him. Even if the alternative was something he had to live with every day.
"Hey." Lelouch pressed a hand against Suzaku's cheek. "Don't… don't look like that Suzaku."
Suzaku snapped out of it. He must have looked really bad for Lelouch to comment so bluntly on it. "Sorry, just lost in thought."
Lelouch raised an eyebrow. "You? Seriously? Must have been frightening."
Suzaku took the subject change gratefully. "Terrifying. After all, I've never been before."
"You're no fun to tease." Lelouch smiled, and it seemed real, but Suzaku wasn't sure. "You get to the punchlines first."
"Can't make everything easy for you." Suzaku smiled back and knew his smile didn't quite look real. He was still somewhat unnerved by Lelouch's vehement hatred of his father, and haunted by the memory of the last meeting with his own father. "Lelouch you know… I'm not saying I approve of what you're doing. Or even that I'm not going to try to talk you out of it every change I get. But… if something happens. If anything threatens Nunnally, you know… right?"
Suzaku bit his lip. "I'll do anything to keep her safe. I promise."
Lelouch nodded. "I know that, Suzaku. It's why I can be Zero." Suzaku's eyes widened in surprise and Lelouch laughed a little. "Sorry, I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's true. The fact that you're here… it's one of the main reasons I can take these risks. Because I trust you."
"That's why you didn't before…"
"It's one of the reasons," Lelouch said. "It's not the only one, but your presence in Nunnally's life, the security it gives me… don't underestimate how important you are to us, Suzaku. Nunnally may be my only family, but you're still my best friend." He placed his hand on Suzaku's. "We have Milly and her family, and that's great as far as it goes, but if I had to choose anyone to guard my sister in my absence… you know it would be you. And only you."
Suzaku swallowed thickly, refusing to cry in front of Lelouch. "Thanks." He felt a tear fall down his cheek and snorted a little at himself – couldn't even manage that.
Lelouch just grinned fondly and passed him a tissue. "You always were sentimental."
"Oh, shut up."