Lelouch had barely finished his blasé announcement when Cornelia drew her blade and Suzaku found himself in the rather unenviable position of defending Lelouch with his bare sword once again.
It had been half instinct. Lelouch might be immortal, but Suzaku's reflexes hadn't fully adjusted to that realization yet. And, as much as he wanted Lelouch to pay for what he'd done, for the games he'd played, he didn't want him dead.
Never mind that he couldn't be killed. Never mind that, apparently, Suzaku's geass wouldn't allow anyone to be killed. Even with their relationship at its worst, Suzaku would never have allowed anyone to actually kill Lelouch.
…never mind that it was unlikely that Cornelia had even intended a killing blow.
Indeed, as she faced Suzaku down, her lip curled in disgust and she snorted in something less than laughter. "Picked your side, Kururugi?"
"He's acting in my interests, Cornelia," Schneizel answered before Suzaku could. "If we're going to have a civilized conversation about Japan's future, Lelouch needs to be a part of it."
Cornelia didn't relax the pressure on Suzaku's blade, but her eyes flickered over his shoulder. Suzaku didn't even need to turn; he could feel Lelouch moving behind him, as if there was nothing happening, around where Suzaku and Cornelia were locked in a rather half-hearted battle, towards Schneizel.
"Why is that, Schneizel?" Lelouch asked. "What part do I have in this? I'm not Japanese. I'm not Japan's slaver. I'm not even a prince anymore, and can't be reinstated until Britannia has an Emperor."
"You are Zero."
"Is it that simple?"
Cornelia disengaged, and Suzaku stepped back, more than willing to stand down.
"You can't seriously suggest that this isn't what you wanted, what you planned and worked for and killed for," she snapped at Lelouch. "Don't act like a martyr or a snubbed girl."
Lelouch laughed. "And how shall I act, sister? Like a prince? A general? A chessmaster?"
"How about a human being?"
"It's a little late for that."
Suzaku snorted, not even caring when everyone's attention turned to him. Schneizel sighed. "It doesn't matter how you see yourself, Lelouch, or even how we see you. The important thing is how you are perceived outside this room. If you're not a part of this, the legitimacy will be questioned. You know this."
"Once it becomes public that I'm a former prince of Britannia, the legitimacy of everything I've ever done will be questioned. The UFN, under the inestimable leadership of Kaguya-dono, have drafted up emergency powers and plans in case I overstep my leash." Kaguya flushed a little, but shrugged in basic admission of that truth. "The leadership of the Black Knights, excluding Kallen and C.C., naturally, have made similar, if less official arrangements." Toudou, to his credit, neither blushed nor flinched at that, but Suzaku had no doubt that was equally true. "Both these august groups are already well-represented in any case."
Schneizel smiled. "So you really come here with nothing – only the half-hearted support of those you rallied to your cause, no family or friends backing you up, armed only with your own wits and whatever your geass allows you?"
"Not even. I've given up my geass," Lelouch said calmly.
"So you're even less of a threat," Cornelia interjected. Suzaku didn't quite agree with that, but he could see how she would think that without knowing the full details of Lelouch's code. "You make a good point. What use are you?"
"He is Zero," Schneizel repeated. "He was enough to start this foolish battle, and he is required to end it."
Lelouch nodded, clearly pleased that Schneizel recognized his importance. "I am. I started this and I need to be present for its conclusion. But I do not need to be a party to the resolution." He gestured towards Kaguya and Toudou. "There are others with more invested and more deserving of that trust." His gaze slid over to Suzaku. "I no longer have what it takes to be in the center of conflict. I have neither the drive nor the ambition any longer." Apparently the code had taken more out of him than Suzaku had suspected. Or else he was faking it. "But there are others who can take my place."
Schneizel smiled and nodded as if he'd bought that completely. Suzaku doubted that he had, but one good act should be followed by another. "I understand, Lelouch. And if this is what you choose as your ultimate legacy, you could have done worse."
"And there could be worse situations in which to take over the throne of Britannia," Lelouch rejoined. "Your favoured tactics of negotiation and diplomacy will appear to have saved Britannia's position once the old ways of warfare and conquest seemed to have failed completely."
"Appear to?" Kanon asked smoothly. "With the Lady Kaguya's support, diplomacy will finally be shown to be more efficient and more effective than the destruction of the very things Britannia desires in its greedy determination to take them from others. The age of bullying people by force will come to an end."
"And the age of bullying people by words will begin," Suzaku said, the words slipping out before he could stop them, the regular rhythm of arguing with Lelouch passing his lips out of habit.
There was an awkward moment of silence. Then Lelouch shrugged.
"If nothing else, without the cost of military upgrades, it will be cheaper."
"And more equal," Kaguya said, smiling cheerfully at Schneizel. "After all, words are something anyone can wield." Schneizel inclined his head.
Cornelia looked entirely displeased, even when Guilford came up behind her, covering the hand that held her sword with his own. "Isn't this what Princess Euphemia would have preferred?"
And Nunnally. For the first time, Suzaku could look at Lelouch and know that they were thinking the same thing.
"Zero has to bow out after this," Lelouch said softly, seeming to take this seriously for the first time. "With the Emperor dead and the eunuchs in China disgraced, Zero is the last relic of the age of war." He looked up, not at Suzaku, but at Toudou. "And such relics need to become things truly of the past."
Toudou nodded. "War is only honourable if it leads to peace."
"Wise words," Schneizel said with satisfaction, and just a touch of smugness.
Lelouch arched an eyebrow at his brother and sat down, shrugging off his vest and undoing the top buttons on his frilly dress shirt. He looked a little ridiculous, a half-undressed princeling shedding the powerful layers of Zero, but he also looked remarkably comfortable without the costume on. Almost liberated.
Suzaku frowned as he watched everyone take their own seats, following Lelouch's self-assured, confident lead.
All of the seeming contradictions; all of his promises, kept and broken; everything had led up to this.
And this seemed, somehow, to be turning into exactly what Lelouch wanted.
Something niggled at the back of Lelouch's brain as he sat down and watched his brother negotiate a reasonable, respectable hand-over of Area 11 to the UFN. He should have been fully engaged in the debate, adding his voice judiciously to Kaguya and Toudou's, but there was the oddest feeling that continually nagged at him, demanding his attention.
It was nothing like the anxious feeling of having forgotten something, nothing like the anticipatory feeling of something unknown to come, nothing resembling anything like guilt or satisfaction or even boredom. It was something completely new.
And it was stronger every time he looked at Suzaku.
He did his best not to look at Suzaku at all. The fact that Suzaku had drawn his sword in defence of him, even knowing that he couldn't be killed, meant something to Lelouch, as much as he'd like to deny it. Throughout everything they'd gone through, Suzaku had always done everything he could to be able to stand by Lelouch, one way or another, even if that meant going against his own will. Lelouch had done everything he could think of, removed every mental and moral crutch that Suzaku had relied on, trying to force him to make his own choices, to exercise his own sense of right and wrong, to trust in his own morality. He wanted a Suzaku who no longer hid behind orders, or commands, or geass. That Suzaku had fought against him, pinned him down while his father raped his mind, and let himself be manipulated by whoever happened to hold his reins at the moment.
But Suzaku hadn't always been like that. When they were children, Suzaku had been malleable, but only to a point. He'd had his own ideas, his own values, and he'd fight against anyone who opposed them. His values weren't Britannia's and they weren't Lelouch's, and they certainly weren't some sick melding of the two. Suzaku's search for a middle ground needed to end, and he needed to find his own personal path.
Even if Lelouch had to push him onto it.
"Two months, working with the Black Knights, and then no Britannian in Japan is allowed to own or carry a weapon without an explicit permit," Kaguya said firmly.
"Including knives longer than eight inches, I assume," Schneizel added wryly. "Let's reintroduce the Meiji-era restrictions with an eye to tradition, no?"
Lelouch tuned out as the argument over the disarmament of the Britannians who would remain in Japan continued. The solutions were clear – anyone who enlisted in the Britannian army had to leave, the police force (made up mostly of Britannians) would be strongly encouraged to leave, and most Britannians with the means would be allowed to leave. Any Britannian who stayed would risk mob 'justice' (revenge) from the Japanese who had been subjugated, so the UFN would have to maintain order with a police force made up almost entirely of the Black Knights. Who had trained for urban warfare, not crowd management. It would be a challenge, but the Japanese people were generally obedient, orderly people. At least they hadn't started with Area 18. That Area would be a pain and a half to liberate without huge civil wars erupting.
And the last thing the UFN would need, when they attempted that liberation, would be an affiliation with a war-mongering disowned Britannian prince. Likewise, Britannia would do better without its Shinigami, without Suzaku and his white machine of death. Lelouch's gaze slid over on its own to where Suzaku was standing, and that irritating feeling shivered down his neck again.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw C.C. shift, perking up in sudden attention. He'd almost forgotten she was here, standing as always in the background, watching silently as the mortals played at their games around her. But now she was paying attention to something. To him. And to Suzaku, oddly enough.
C.C. didn't care for Suzaku. Not that she disliked him, as she disliked Tamaki, just that she'd never seen him as his own person. To her, he was only important in relation to Lelouch, whereas Kallen and Nunnally and even Rolo, in his way, were their own people in her eyes.
Even when Lelouch had given Suzaku a geass, and offered him to C.C. once that geass matured, she hadn't taken note of Suzaku himself, just of the potential he offered her.
Lelouch's eyes narrowed. Suzaku had used his geass only over the past few days, and it had been given to him only a few days before that. There was no way that he was ready to take on a code. It had taken Lelouch the better part of a year to get to that level, and he'd lost control of it at that point. It had lead to Euphy's death and Suzaku's change of heart, and hadn't been anything like this dull, pervasive, incessant annoyance.
Unless it had, and C.C. just hadn't chosen to warn him. The thought made Lelouch frown, even as he dismissed it; after Euphemia, C.C. had been the most compassionate he'd ever seen her, almost motherly in her care for him in his grief. If she could have warned him, she surely would have.
On the other hand, it wasn't like Suzaku's geass was anything like his own had been. Maybe his evolution was equally different. But to evolve in a matter of days?
"Marianne used hers once, and that was all it took," C.C. said, her soft voice breaking through the constant disputes that surrounded Lelouch. Schneizel and Kaguya fell silent as Lelouch nodded thoughtfully at C.C.'s apparent non-sequitur.
"I said I'd keep my word. I simply never thought it would be this soon."
"You did impose your own geass on him and he learned to control it himself," C.C. said. "Perhaps that made the difference."
That was a good point. From that perspective, Suzaku had been controlling a geass for months now, almost a full year. Just about as long as Lelouch had been, before what happened with Euphy.
Suzaku looked back and forth between the two of them, clearly unnerved as the realization that they were talking about him became undeniable. "What are you two…"
He trailed off uncertainly as Lelouch and C.C. turned towards him as one.
"I wonder if your geass is still even active," C.C. mused pensively to Lelouch, focused on Suzaku, but clearly not addressing him.
Lelouch raised an eyebrow. "You don't know?"
She shrugged. "Mine wasn't. The moment my geass was taken from me, every beguiled man under my spell turned from me, leaving me alone and bereft."
"Huh," Lelouch said, now curious as well. "There's only one way to find out. Kanon, may I see your sidearm for a moment, please?"
Lelouch had carefully modulated his voice, mimicking Schneizel's tone and mannerisms closely enough that Kanon, already off-step and a bit bemused, acted on instinct and handed over his gun into Lelouch's waiting hand. Before Cornelia or Schneizel (or Toudou, who was looked just as alarmed as anyone else) could say anything, Lelouch tossed the pistol over to C.C., who immediately turned it on Suzaku.
There was barely enough time for a rush of adrenaline before Suzaku felt his will melt away and his body move without him. He had less than a split second to decide whether to let himself be taken over, or to take control of the rush of power and strength, wielding it with the delicate skill with which he wielded the Lancelot.
It was a decision that he'd made dozens of times since Lelouch had first imposed his geass on Suzaku, and it was a decision that Suzaku had almost learned to embrace. And, between the confusion and anger and the bitter, resigned lack of surprise, Suzaku was more than willing to draw his sword and charge C.C., noting Cornelia and Toudou out of the corner of his eye as they rose to intervene, noting Lelouch and Schneizel's mirrored expressions of curiosity but, most of all, noting the almost hungry look in C.C.'s normally expressionless eyes as Suzaku ran her through.
As C.C. bled out over the floor, laughing softly, Lelouch took the opportunity while no one was paying attention to him and gathered up his discarded clothes. Maybe, when everything had settled down, he'd have a bonfire and destroy them completely, give them a proper sending off.
"Someone get security in here!" Cornelia barked, taking charge and yet still (under Suzaku's geass) not taking up arms.
Schneizel shook his head. "It's rather too late for that. And I doubt Sir Kururugi plans on any further actions if no one else threatens him."
Suzaku stood as the last of C.C.'s laughter faded into eternal silence. Lelouch couldn't help the pang of useless regret that accompanied the feeling of satisfaction as he watched her die, embracing the only Wish she had left. Suzaku turned to him, his normally expressive green eyes calm and blank. "You could have said something."
"It was more entertaining this way," Lelouch said. He could explain later about how he hadn't even known this was possible. He had been planning on asking for Suzaku's custody to be part of the negotiated terms of agreement between Kaguya and Schneizel, wanting him close at hand until his geass evolved to the point where he could take on a code, but Lelouch hadn't expected that to be possible until months in the future.
Normally, Suzaku would have been at least irritated by Lelouch's casual lies and manipulation, but all he did was shrug as if it didn't matter. Which, in fact, it didn't. Lelouch easily recognized the dulled emotions that had affected him once he'd acquired his code making Suzaku both more tractable and less manipulatable than usual. It was interesting, and it would be even more interesting to see what kind of person he'd become once his emotions returned, but after he'd realized how weak the bonds of duty really were, and how little their everyday actions really mattered when you realized that civilization had been around millions of years, gone through thousands of tyrants, and would remain for millions of years and thousands of tyrants to come.
"Sir Kururugi, I'm going to have to ask for your sword," Kanon said diffidently, holding out his hand without any evidence of the fear he must have been feeling. Suzaku didn't even turn to him as he placed the sword in his hand. "…thank you."
"Suzaku…" Kaguya said uncertainly. "Are you…"
"I should leave," Suzaku interrupted, looking up again at Lelouch. "We should leave."
Lelouch hesitated. Everything he'd said before was still true – Zero needed to be seen to have had a hand in these talks. He looked down at his armful of clothes and over at Kaguya.
"Can you get in touch with Kallen?"
His faith in Kaguya's quick brilliance was renewed as her eyes widened and she nodded as she figured out his plan.
Japan was free, Britannia had a new Emperor, the UFN was a force to be reckoned with, and Zero had been revealed as the half-Japanese daughter of Lord Stadtfeld, who won over hearts and minds with the story of her brother's death, her mother's mistreatment and addiction, her frustration over the Japanese people's plight, and her drive to do something to change it.
Lelouch toyed with the volume as Kaguya stepped up beside Kallen and thanked her for everything she'd done, everything she'd sacrificed. Suzaku snatched the remote control from his hands and glared.
"I'm watching that."
Lelouch shrugged. "Is it convincing? Are you convinced?"
Kallen's mother took the stage when Kaguya was done, shaky and still weak, but able to stand on her own and embrace her daughter to the delighted roar of the crowd. Suzaku shrugged back.
"If I didn't know better, I would be. I wouldn't even want to overthink it; this is the perfect explanation for everything."
"Too perfect," Lelouch agreed. "There will be conspiracy theories, of course, but most of the people who knew that Kallen was the Guren's pilot also know that I was Zero, which doesn't increase the risk of leaks."
Suzaku raised an eyebrow. "You think someone will talk?"
"Tamaki is one of the people who knew who I was. He owns a bar. I'm pretty sure rumours of the true Zero being a Britannian prince are weeks away, if that."
On the television, Kallen announced the start of the first free elections for Japan in over a decade. The nomination process would begin tomorrow, and the elections would be held four months from then, just long enough to keep the attention of the world on Japan while Kaguya quietly worked on liberating the other Areas.
Suzaku switched the channel to a re-run of Schneizel's coronation, and Lelouch groaned and swatted for the remote. Suzaku, mostly out of spite at this point, held it just out of Lelouch's reach.
"And, most of all, I hope to bring Britannia to even greater heights through diplomacy and peaceful negotiation. The age of wars is over, and Britannia will rise stronger than ever in this new age."
Lelouch frowned at the television. "Suzaku. Do you feel like taking a trip?"
Suzaku laughed and changed the channel to a fishing show. "I've wanted to leave for weeks. You're the one who said we couldn't, that we'd end up handing out geasses like candy."
"True enough." Lelouch glared at the fishing show, as if trolling for bass was personally offensive. "I suppose that means we'll have to give Schneizel free reign until he does something to force my hand."
Suzaku grinned. "He's your brother, Lelouch. He's manipulative and clever and good at minimizing risk. If it's up to him, he'll probably never give you reason enough to move against him."
Lelouch didn't answer right away, nodding pensively at Suzaku's words before getting up and switching off the television manually.
"Then I get what I want and we all win."
Suzaku's grin softened into a smile. "And do you think that's good enough?"
Lelouch didn't quite meet his eyes, but his lips curved at the edges, into a small smile.
"It will have to be, I suppose."
The world's gotten a lot better since the last time I saw you. I trust that Schneizel is treating you as well as he seems to be. If he's not, I think Lelouch plans on forming another revolution.
That's a joke. Lelouch said I should work on my humour, since that seems to be the last thing to come back to normal.
He's being… remarkably patient, actually. I honestly think he needs a project to work on to be happy, and so far I'm pretty time-consuming. He's started to pace while watching the news, though, so I'm not sure how long it'll last. Don't worry; I'll find some way to distract him if he gets too ambitious, although I think that's mostly behind him now. Behind me to. It's just too hard to get that self-important drive back. Apparently, that's the Code working.
I still haven't used my Code yet, and Lelouch hasn't used his on anyone since me. We're both watching each other, because there's still this impulse to hand out Geasses to anyone who can accept them. That would be a bad thing.
At least we still have enough perspective to see that.
He still refuses to even consider visitors, too afraid that the temptation would be too strong if we're surrounded by strong-willed candidates. I'll see if I can convince him that I'm safe enough to risk around you and your siblings and ask again. It's me he doesn't trust, I think, more than himself.
Which is stupid because he's the one who went out and impulsively started a war, so you can yell at him about that when we come to visit you.
I hope it'll be soon.
Lots of love,
I'll never admit you were right, but you might not have been entirely wrong. All the energy that was once expended on war has now been directed toward solving hunger and poverty. As expected, most of the credit has gone to you. Maybe because people find it a lot easier to pick out a hero rather than appreciate a laundry list of diligent workers.
Or perhaps I'm underestimating them. But I doubt it.
Either way, the world seems to be moving on from the past and is finally free to move forward, into the future. I'm sure you find this whole thing amusing, the way the world fell into your hands, so I have just one message for you.
I am still out here. With far more power than I had as Zero, and without the personal grudges that were my weakness.
Keep well, brother, and know that you have my full support.
Until you don't.
~L.L.~ Lelouch Lamperouge ~L.L.~
You cannot seriously be coming to Pendragon. With Lelouch! You are aware that Schneizel and Cornelia are still here, and that Nunnally is still ambivalent about her brother since the last time he was here and that I'm in charge of security. Can't you just arrange a video conference or offsite meeting or something?
Oh, and Gino says "hi", and he says that Anya also says "hi". And Anya says that Nunnally also says "hi", or at least she would if she knew about this, which she doesn't because we haven't told her anything because you cannot be serious.
Think it over for more than five seconds.
Lt. Gen. Kouzuki Kallen, Royal Britannian Commonwealth Army
Budapest was you, wasn't it? I may be retired, but I can recognize your style from a mile away.
Cornelia li Britannia
As you know, Mother has passed away, leaving the throne to my sister. I know we haven't been what one would call 'close', but we grew up hearing stories about you and Suzaku, not only from mother but also from Uncle Schneizel and Aunt Cornelia, as well as Sir Gino and Lady Kallen.
My sister holds with our mother's wishes and would never ask for your help. But I've seen the weariness and worry in the eyes of our councillors, and I fear for out future.
I'm not asking you to do anything you haven't already done.
Please, return to Pendragon.
Your loving nephew,
Frederick, crown prince of Britannia and her colonies