Lelouch felt his heart stop. This was… impossible. There were dozens, hundreds of girls who could have been chosen, but Nunnally…
This wasn't supposed to happen. He was supposed to keep her safe. That was his job, his purpose.
The long pause after the announcement was nothing new – apart from some sick freaks, no one would participate in the Hunger Games by choice. But this time there was an added unease. Sending boys and girls to fight (and almost inevitably die if you were from Area 11) was nothing new, but everyone knew Nunnally. Everyone liked Nunnally. And sending a blind, crippled girl to fight for her life was hard even for those few fans of the games to stomach.
A small, dark ball of despairing laughter welled up inside Lelouch, barely suppressed. There were only steps up to the stage, no ramp. Even if she'd wanted to, Nunnally couldn't join the male Tribute, a boy about Lelouch's own age who looked vaguely familiar. They probably went to the same school, when Lelouch could be bothered to attend. They might even be in the same class. He looked so unafraid, standing there tall and unwavering, nothing like the blubbering Tribute that had been sent off last year to his death. Lelouch guiltily remembered the thrill of relief that had coursed through him as "Suzaku Kururugi" had been called out instead of his own name. And then this.
Suzaku's steady green eyes and squared shoulders gave Lelouch the strength to do what needed to be done. He bent down and kissed Nunnally's cheek. "Take care of yourself." Nunnally's hand tightened on his for a moment, but he pulled away, standing to face his mother. "You too… take care of her."
If he hesitated a moment longer, Lelouch wasn't sure he'd be able to go through with it.
The tradition of volunteering had fallen out of favour in Area 11. Unlike some of the more… urban Areas, fighting to the death wasn't something that was considered an amusement here. Conformity, keeping your head down and doing work that was good enough to pass but not brilliant enough to stand out… those were the traits of Area 11. But there were still protocols, rules to follow, procedures in place to ensure that the reaping went smoothly, no matter what.
Lelouch planned on breaking all of them. And he planned on getting away with it.
Everyone wore their best clothes on the reaping day, mandated as if it were a day of celebration. Lelouch tore off his suit jacket and tie, undoing the top two buttons of his shirt, and quickly hunted out Milly Ashford, the mayor's daughter. He found her, near the stage, watching him with wide, frightened eyes. She was fond of him, and of Nunnally, and had often helped him skip out of classes so he could earn enough to help support his family. This would be the last time he needed her help, but it would be a big favour.
The crowd was already getting restless, shifting and searching out Nunnally, wanting the painful experience of sending a young disabled girl to her death over with, like ripping off a bandage. Lelouch didn't have much time. He moved quickly, pulling Milly behind the stage and shoving his jacket at her.
"I need your dress."
To her credit, Milly didn't ask any questions before stripping down shamelessly to her underwear and pulling on Lelouch's clothes as he handed them to her in return. "Are you sure…"
"Watch over them. Please."
Lelouch nodded and turned away.
"Nunnally Lamperouge!" The call came again, this time more impatient.
Lelouch took a deep breath and walked up the steps, barefoot since Milly's shoes didn't fit and men's dress shoes didn't go well with a satin and lace gown. "I would like to volunteer in Nunnally's place."
Everyone, even the so-composed Suzaku Kururugi, gaped at him over that.
Lelouch Lamperouge. In a dress. For a moment, Suzaku thought he was seeing things.
He wore it well, for what that was worth. The cut was flattering enough to his thin waist and the supportive top hid the fact that he had no breasts quite well. His feet were ridiculous, but so was this whole situation.
The flurry of confusion would have been amusing in almost any other case but, even with everyone else's attention on Lelouch, Suzaku's gaze wandered out over the crowd, looking for…
Ah, there she was. Clutching her mother's hand and weeping, her cries audible from the stage, even over the noise of debating and gossip and even some shocked and scandalized laughter.
The first time Suzaku had met Nunnally Lamperouge, he'd been ten and she'd been eight. He'd just lost his father and was two years away from being able to sell his name to the reaping pool for tesserae, enough food to get him through the year, in theory. He was an orphan and orphans, as a rule, didn't survive. There simply wasn't enough food to go around.
It had been autumn, a few months after his father's death and just after finishing the last of the food he and his father had started storing for the winter. She had fallen out of her wheelchair and he was the only one around to see. He'd been living in isolation since his father's death, all his old friends and his father's friends keeping away from him, not wanting to see him starve to death in front of their eyes. So there was a part of him that just wanted to walk away, reject this girl as the entire community had rejected him.
But he couldn't.
After he'd helped her back into her chair, she'd held his hand and then spontaneously invited him over for supper. Lelouch hadn't been there, but Suzaku had met Nunnally's mother and had been all but adopted between the two of them by the time supper was over. It was only with their help, their charity, that Suzaku had survived that winter, with gifts of clothing and firewood and food.
In all those months, Suzaku never met Lelouch. Nunnally spoke of him, of how he worked odd clerical and logistical jobs and gambled for money and food, but he was never around when Suzaku was. The first time they met, it was well into spring, and Lelouch was checking over the more dilapidated houses (including Suzaku's) to see if they needed to be condemned.
It was clear, when those cool violet eyes landed on Suzaku's face, that Nunnally hadn't told him about Suzaku. "You live here alone?"
Lelouch had sighed. "You're too young to live in Area 11 on your own. You're going to die." Suzaku remembered feeling those words strike with the surety of inevitability. Even with Nunnally's help, his bones were closer to his skin then ever before and breathing was harder than it had been a year ago. "You should join up with one of the gangs that hunts in the forest."
It wasn't Nunnally's compassion, but it was a kind of compassion nonetheless; cold and practical, but not the nothing that the rest of the community had offered him. The next day Suzaku had snuck into the forest and found a pond filled with fish about a mile away from Area 11. He caught three of them and headed back, leaving one wrapped in papers on Nunnally's doorstep. A week later, Kallen had let him join her group and he was able to leave more small gifts for the Lamperouges.
He was almost positive that Lelouch had no idea that they were connected. That Nunnally had saved his life that year, and then Lelouch had enabled him to save himself.
And now Lelouch was saving Nunnally, or trying to. Maybe that kind of self-sacrifice was genetic.
"I'm afraid that a boy can't be our female Tribute, that's just…"
Lelouch ignored Mr. Ashford's apologetic stammering, addressing the cameras directly. "I can promise the people of Pendragon this: My death will serve you better than the slaughter of a girl in a wheelchair. If you're worried about stacking the odds with two male Tributes, then there's no need – I have about Zero chance of surviving. But…" He smiled, and Suzaku felt a shiver run through him at the cold expression. "I promise you that when I die, and until I die, I will do everything I can to entertain and amuse you."
"I don't…" The sound of a phone ringing cut Mr. Ashford off. He picked it up and listened, growing pale before he hung up. "Very well. Area 11, your Tributes."
Lelouch had no idea who had been on the other end of that phone call, and he didn't really care. All that mattered is that he'd succeeded. Nunnally was safe.
He stood through the speeches, the anthem, just waiting for his chance to get back to Nunnally, for that one precious hour they gave the Tributes to say goodbye. Maybe he could even give Milly back her dress and use one of his mother's older ones.
But as the last note of the anthem rang out, Mr. Ashford grabbed Lelouch's arm and pulled him to the side. "I'm afraid that you're going to need to talk to some people before you leave. This is very… irregular."
"But…" He wasn't even going to be allowed his last hour with his family. Punishment for overstepping his place?
"I can get a message to them."
Lelouch turned, more than a little surprised at being addressed by Suzaku Kururugi. Didn't he have people to go see?
"Please. Let me help."
They were going to try to kill each other in a week, but there was no reason not to accept this small token now. It wasn't like Lelouch was signing up for a real alliance. "Just tell them that this is for the best, and that I'll make my way back to them." Lelouch's lips twisted in a wry smirk at that. There was no way he was going to survive. "Also, tell my mother to let my father help them if they need it."
Lelouch's father had abandoned them to return to the capitol when Lelouch was nine. He still sent the odd care package – money, food, clothing – when things were especially scarce, but Lelouch had worked hard to ensure that he wouldn't have to anymore. The last care package had been over a year ago. Lelouch hated getting them. He would rather think of his father as dead.
"Can you just tell them?"
"Right. Sorry." Suzaku hesitated. "I…"
Mr Ashford watched Suzaku go with a small smile. "That's the way things should be. Solidarity within the Area, teamwork…"
"…until one of us knifes the other in the back," Lelouch finished for him.
The smile disappeared. "Here, talk." He passed the phone to Lelouch.
"Hello, Lelouch Lamperouge, female Tribute from Area 11." Lelouch felt his face settle into a scowl. "I must say, that was quite the impressive performance, one that we couldn't turn down."
"Oh, come now, you must know that you're only going to the games instead of your lovely little sister out of the goodness of our hearts. Be a little more… genuine. Entertain us, Lelouch. Like you promised."
Lelouch closed his eyes and took a deep breath, just like he had before walking onto the stage. "I'm grateful, really. And I assume you have some orders for me to follow in return?"
"You are a clever one. The rules for you are simple. You're a girl now. You will talk like one, walk like one, act like one, and look like one. I want the audience to look at you and see femininity personified. Years from now, no one will even remember you, or the fact that a boy took a girl's spot as a tribute, because you will convince everyone that you are a girl. Understood?"
"Perfectly. Ah… during the games as well, I imagine."
There were some issues with that – certain bodily functions that worked differently with him than they would with a girl. Nevertheless… "You will not be disappointed."
"I expect not. After all, just because your sister isn't a Tribute, that doesn't mean she's safe."
There was a small sound of satisfaction, and Lelouch allowed himself to hate whoever was on the other end of the line for a brief, glorious moment. Then he forced himself to return to his usual apathy. "Is that all?"
"I assume you'd like to make your final farewells, then?"
"Too bad. You have fifty-five minutes to make yourself look feminine and not like a sixteen-year-old boy in a dress. Use them wisely, Lelouch."
The line went dead and Lelouch handed the phone back to Mr. Ashford. "I need to speak with Milly."
Before the man could answer, Milly poked her head around the corner. "I'm here, Lelouch."
Lelouch let his mask fall, trusting Milly enough not to judge him. "You always wanted to dress me up and make me pretty. Here's your chance."
Milly laughed, but it sounded oddly like a sob.
After getting Lelouch's message to his sister and mother, Suzaku was at loose ends. Kallen was nowhere to be found, and there wasn't really anyone else Suzaku needed to say goodbye to. He wished he had something to give to Nunnally, even just a token.
All he could offer was the promise that he'd watch over her brother and do his best to protect him and make sure he came back to them.
At least then Suzaku's death would have some meaning.
About fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to go, Kallen found him. "Suzaku!"
"Kallen. Where were you?" Until then, Suzaku hadn't realized how much he wanted to talk to her, one last time.
"Getting this." Kallen clipped a small pin onto his shirt. "You're allowed to take one token from your Area."
Suzaku looked at it. It was copper and cheap-looking, with green and black discoloration marring it, but it was obviously well-loved and treasured. "What is it?"
"Suzaku." Kallen smiled at Suzaku's confused expression. "The Guardian God of the South. I just thought… maybe he'd protect you. Because… you know…"
It was sweet. And probably as close as Kallen would ever get to saying she cared about him. "Thanks. I'll treasure it." The Peacekeepers were moving towards them, and Suzaku knew his time was up. "Look, no matter what happens, I'm really glad I had the chance to run with you guys."
Kallen grabbed him in a sudden, fierce hug. "You're better than the rest of them, Suzaku. Take them out, take them all out, and come home."
"I…" Suzaku couldn't promise that. Not if he was going with Lelouch. "Thank you, Kallen." The Peacekeepers took him by the arm and led him away. He could hear Kallen yelling after him, something about how he'd better not take the easy way out, but he couldn't hear the words clearly. Besides, it hardly made sense – the easy way out would have been dying when he was ten.
Lelouch joined him on the train platform, still barefoot but owning it somehow, as if that was the proper way to look. He looked the same, mostly, but there was something different about him. His aura, his attitude, something… His chin was up and he looked as arrogant as ever, but somehow also softer and prettier…
Like a real girl, albeit a cold and commanding one.
There were cameras everywhere, and Suzaku tried to follow Lelouch's lead and keep a straight face, a calm façade for the media. But he couldn't help stealing glances as Lelouch every now and again, trying to reconcile this odd, ephemeral beauty with the determined, self-sufficient boy he'd met only a few times in his life.
He didn't know what to say. I think you saved my life. I know your sister did. Lelouch probably didn't even remember him. He certainly hadn't seemed to recognize him. Maybe this was for the best. Maybe if they just pretended that they were nothing to each other, they could make it through this.
Well, Lelouch could. Suzaku planned on keeping him safe and getting him back to Nunnally, as he had promised. He knew full well that that meant he wouldn't leave the games alive, and he was okay with that.
The train arrived and they were ushered in, each to their own room. Lelouch immediately ducked into his and closed the door. Suzaku hesitated outside his own room, suddenly overwhelmed by everything that was happening.
Maybe this was why they only gave the Tributes an hour. So that when the panic and reality set in, they were already on the train, moving 250mph towards the capitol.
Suzaku threw up in the toilet and then checked the clock. Two hours until he had to be in the dining car for supper.
He decided to take a shower.
Lelouch arrived to supper early, but he wasn't the first one there.
"Oh, good. I was hoping to catch you early." Area 11's escort, a prim, serious young woman named Cecile Croomy, smiled at Lelouch. Lelouch smiled back, reflexively, feeling something unknot in his stomach. Better her than Suzaku. "I've been briefed about your… issue, and I'm eager to help." She pursed her lips. "No shoes your size in your room?"
Lelouch let his smile turn wry. "No. Probably there's a pair or two in Suzaku's, but…"
"Yes, hardly feminine." Cecile sighed.
"I don't mind walking around barefoot," Lelouch said. There had been outfits with trousers and simple blouses, but Lelouch had chosen another dress simply because he knew he needed to get used to this – the mentality as well as the practicalities of being a girl. "But there was a thing of make-up and I…"
Cecile beamed, clearly overjoyed at finding something to do to help. "We'll experiment after supper."
They sat at the table, chatting about nothing in particular (Lelouch steered the conversation away from family and friends and Area 11, and that left little to talk about) when Suzaku walked in, his hair still wet from the shower, looking remarkably handsome in clothes that were just slightly too tight on him.
"Am I late?"
"Not at all." Cecile tsked lightly. "Haven't you even been taught how to use a towel?"
Suzaku blushed. "Uh…" Clearly, the answer was no.
"Never mind, just take a seat."
As Suzaku sat, Lelouch smiled at him. "Did you get the message to my sister and mother?"
Suzaku nodded. "Yeah, they said… they wished you luck."
"Thanks," Lelouch said curtly. Even as grateful as he was that he'd been able to at least say goodbye through Suzaku, that didn't mean that he wasn't above using him for other things.
Cecile looked at her watch, a fancy-looking delicate silver thing. "I do hope Lloyd isn't…"
Lloyd Asplund, Area 11's only living Hunger Games victor, was, to put it kindly, nuts. Lelouch had done the occasional odd job for him, until he'd been dismissed as an 'inferior part', and the man had the strangest things in his house. Over the past few years, after his victory a decade and a half ago, everyone in Area 11 had learned to ignore the occasional strange sounds and explosions that came from the victor's village at the edge of the Area.
Rumour had it that the games had made Lloyd go mad. Rumour also had it that he was insane before, and that was how he won. Either way, Lelouch wasn't planning on relying on him.
The food arrived before he did, and Lelouch watched Cecile closely, mimicking her actions from placing his napkin on his lap, to how she held her spoon. He would eat like a proper lady. She noticed sometime during the main course and smiled approvingly. Lelouch inclined his head slightly.
Just as the dessert was being cleared away, Lloyd arrived. "Oh, did I miss supper?"
"I can fix you something from the kitchens," Cecile offered.
A look of horror crossed Lloyd's face. "No, that's… I had a big lunch." He looked over Suzaku and Lelouch. "So these are the Tributes…" He heaved a sigh. "Weak and dim. Fantastic."
Suzaku looked faintly confused, and Lelouch bit back a smile – way to verify Lloyd's first impression. "I prefer to go by 'Lelouch'. And he's Suzaku."
"Weak and Dim are easier to remember, and easier to forget once you're nothing more than a face projected on the night sky."
"Hey…" Suzaku protested.
"Hush, Dim." Lloyd flipped the chair around and sat on it backwards, resting his chin on the back. "Together, you'd make a formidable team. But what are the odds of two Tributes actually cooperating?"
Suzaku's eyes met Lelouch's, warm and hopeful. Lelouch looked away. "Not great."
"Exactly. And on you own, you two are doomed."
He had a point. Lelouch let himself look back at Suzaku, considering his options. Suzaku was just clueless enough that he could be useful, a guard and shield until they were the last two standing, and then a back ready for a blade. It could work, however…
For some reason he didn't understand himself, the thought of using and betraying Suzaku didn't sit well with Lelouch. Then again, Suzaku wasn't the only option. They would arrive at Pendragon by noon, and Lelouch could have his pick of the other Tributes as tools once they were there.
Lelouch's immediate and easy rejection stung, a little. Not that Suzaku had expected Lelouch to go along with Lloyd's idea. After all, as far as Lelouch knew, both he and Suzaku were fighting to win.
Suzaku wasn't, though. He was fighting to give Nunnally back her brother. He was the one person Lelouch could trust.
But Lelouch would never believe that. And Suzaku didn't really even expect him to. Why would he?
Cecile and Lelouch returned to Lelouch's room soon enough after Lloyd's arrival, saying something about practicing and make-up. Suzaku, still a little unnerved by Lelouch in a dress (and how weirdly appropriate and attractive it was) didn't ask any questions. Instead, as soon as they were out of sight and out of hearing range, he took Lloyd aside.
"I want to do what you said."
"…what? When did I say anything?"
Suzaku set his jaw. "I want to team up with Lelouch. I want to protect him–"
"You want to protect her. The rules are clear – one male Tribute and one female Tribute."
"But Lelouch is–"
"The rules," Lloyd said, slowly and carefully. "Are clear. The first thing you can do for Lelouch is to remember and follow the rules. The second thing is to remember that she's much much smarter than you and to follow her lead."
Suzaku nodded eagerly. "What else?"
Lloyd sighed. "Are you sure about this? I mean, it works out great for me – it's far easier to sell a team than it is to sell individuals, and we can easily make up a compelling backstory as to why you two are in this together instead of competing, but… Lelouch didn't seem too enthused by the suggestion. She's as likely as not planning on selling you out as soon as it's convenient."
"If that's what it takes…" Suzaku looked up at Lloyd, determined. "Only one of us can walk out of there. I know that. I just want to make sure in the end it's him. Her. Lelouch. So tell me what I need to do to make sure h-she gets out of this alive and back to her family."
"That's it for now. Talk to her about strategy tomorrow, and I might be able to advise you further." Lloyd grinned suddenly. "Ooh, finally, a real chance at taking home a winner!" He rubbed his hands together, cackling crazily as he walked off.
Suzaku watched him go, more than a little perturbed. Maybe placing his fate, and Lelouch's, in this man's hands wasn't the best idea.
It was too early to go to bed, so Suzaku watched the footage of the other tributes. The boy from Area 1 looked normal enough, but the girl looked soft and pretty and kind, and not like a fighter at all. No one stood up to volunteer for either of their spots. The volunteer Tributes from Area 2 were, as expected, terrifying. The girl looked almost six feet tall and more muscled than Suzaku, and the boy, while smaller and softer in appearance, had the eager eyes of a sadistic psychopath. The other tributes seemed mostly the typical average kids, with some exceptions (a girl with a deformed hand from Area 4, a young boy with dead eyes from Area 10) and there were no more volunteers.
Suzaku memorized the faces of the Area 2 Tributes (and realized that he'd also spontaneously memorised the pretty girl from Area 1) and went to bed. He'd have something to tell Lelouch tomorrow, when he offered his alliance, a token gift of information. Lelouch would no doubt appreciate that.
The bed was too soft, so Suzaku pulled off the silky sheets and warm covers and made a nest on the carpeted floor. Even with the rumbling of the train reverberating from the floor, this was the most luxurious bed Suzaku had ever slept in. It even smelled nice, like lavender and lemon, neither scent one that Suzaku knew from his life's experience, but both instinctively calming. Warm and full and with a set plan for tomorrow, Suzaku found that he was able to sleep quite readily, and if he dreamed, he didn't remember it.