"Lelouch?"

Even just the sound of her voice, the familiar rise and fall, the gentle lilt as she said his name... hurt. But he mustered the same bland schoolboy smile he'd mustered for years, finding her eyes in the moonlight.

There should have been more light, of course; should have been a crackling fire between them, and pieces of wild boar's meat roasting like marshmallows on makeshift wooden spears. She should have had many comforts that he had been... unable to provide. But he couldn't imagine she was about to complain now. For one thing, she had only smiled when he gave up on ever getting the fire going, admitting that she wouldn't have even known how to try. For another, her tone was too careful - and her expression too grave.

He shut his eyes. It was too much to hope for something petty like that anyway. He would - never have been so lucky. "What is it, Euphy?"

Another bad sign: she didn't immediately answer. Lelouch felt his smile beginning to falter and bolstered it, waiting. Tomorrow, he wouldn't have the time to be patient with her. Wouldn't have the luxury to be gentle. Because even when Zero was "kind", he could not afford to be gentle. Gentle people hesitated, like she was doing now.

But that was tomorrow, and for the night he was not Zero. He was only Lelouch, her brother, and those people could be gentle, at least when it suited all of the other people he had to be.

(It was dangerous, this game he was playing. Too many masks, too many lies and half-truths. Too many carefully-interlaced threads in his spider's web. It was bound to catch up with him sooner or later.)

"Euphy," he said, speaking up again partly because her lips were white with whatever she didn't want to say and partly because the sound of his own voice was convenient for shutting out the thoughts he didn't want to have, "it's all right. Whatever you were going to tell me..." And in a way he even meant it, because there was really nothing she could have said now that would ever hurt him half as much as she already had without knowing it. "If you hate Zero - that's fine."

She shook her head and shifted onto her back, so that her eyes were pointed up at the stars. So that he wouldn't be able to see them. "No. I don't hate him." But he could still see her lips as they formed the smallest smile, soft or sad. "How could I?"

Lelouch knew she meant because Zero is you and I don't hate you. He wondered if she didn't perhaps also mean because you're my brother and I can't. And he wondered how she rationalized what he had done to Clovis. Blood was thicker than water; fine. But water diluted blood. Add enough water, and the blood completely disappeared.

He said, "Most people find it very easy," which made her smile more because of course it let her say, "I'm not most people," and didn't make her think too much about the ugly part where maybe she should have been.

And that much, Lelouch had expected from her. He was somewhat more surprised when she knitted the fingers of her hands together and murmured, "You know, I think I... even understand why he exists. Why you need to be him." She didn't give him time to respond, which was just as well because Lelouch had no idea what he would have said. "So... that's okay. For now. Or, well, it isn't okay. It isn't okay at all. But... as long as you do one thing for me, it will be."

Lelouch stared at her. He still couldn't see her eyes, but he could imagine them - full to the brim with reflected light from the stars: with the much more fragile and flickering light that human beings called hope.

And for some reason, he hesitated.

How funny. He really was being extremely gentle with her, wasn't he?

He forced his tone brighter than he felt. "Just one thing, really? And then it'll all be okay? You're such a simple girl."

Euphemia sat up, then, and turned to look at him. Her expression was warring between amusement and offense. "I know. But it's not a very small thing. It might even be... a selfish request."

And then she reached out her hand for his, bridging half - but only half - of the gap between them. She was leaving it up to him to span the rest of it and take her hand in his. When he did not immediately do so, she didn't seem hurt or even surprised: she just left her hand dangling there and began to speak.

"I've already lost one brother in this war." Her voice was amazingly strong, amazingly sure, and amazingly - amazingly - gentle. "I don't think I could bear losing another one, Lelouch. So, please - just be careful. As careful as you can."

Slowly, Lelouch closed his mouth. He had been so sure she was going to say... and so sure that he would have to go cold, would have to sneer at her for thinking he could just stop killing off the members of this family - for thinking he had any intention of stopping his slaughter.

He knew her. He knew her softness, her foolish sentimentalism. So why was it, how was it, that she kept surprising him?

She claimed she didn't hate Zero, claimed that she couldn't. Even though he had told her he wasn't Zero right now - even though he had invited her to think of them as separate people, the way Kallen (poor thing) and Suzaku (his heartbeat did something strange and treacherous) did. Of course she chose to see them as one in the same, and she chose to see them both as Lelouch.

Never mind that there were still good reasons to hate Lelouch. Never mind that Lelouch, part of Lelouch, some of Lelouch, all of Lelouch, hated her - had hated her - at one time or another.

He wondered if she knew that. He wondered if she knew that he had hated Clovis, had hated all of his brothers and sisters for their warm soft illusory lives, or that part of him had been happy, so sickeningly happy, to watch Clovis beg for that pathetic spoiled life - and just as happy to kill him.

It was a very good reason to hate Lelouch, because in that moment he had not been Zero. Could not have been Zero, a name he'd only just invented, an identity he hadn't begun to really shape. Clovis's final moment had not been a theatrical stunt for watching cameras, had not been about "justice" or retribution for the Japanese. There had been nothing righteous about his finger curling around the trigger, and the cruelty of that moment had been purely, utterly, completely Lelouch.

Lelouch looked at her, at her soft round young face - young not just because she was sixteen, young in a way he had not been at sixteen - and knew she had no idea. Knew she didn't even like to imagine that moment, but that she would have pictured him in Zero's mask and Zero's cape. She probably liked to pretend that Clovis hadn't known the identity of his murderer.

Part of him, the part that still hated her or still wanted to, pointed out coldly that it was, after all, much easier on her that way. That her "gentleness" was only self-serving delusion. But Lelouch knew better than that. He knew she wouldn't only prefer that fairy tale because it was easier on her. She would prefer it because it would also have been easier on the brothers she loved so very, very much.

Euphy-

He wet his lips and shut his eyes again, then reached across the space between them to take her hand. He brought it to his lips and kissed it, exactly the way she would remember him doing when they were children, and he made sure his smile was just right, perfectly earnest - flawlessly true - before he raised his head again. She would never know, should never have to know, how close he had come to shooting her right there, on the beach, when she had called out his name. He wouldn't let her.

"I promise, Euphy," he said. For tonight, it wouldn't even have to be a lie.

Her gaze was very slightly more shrewd than he remembered as she looked at him: searching, scanning, doing her best to make sure he meant it. But in the end, she wanted to believe it too badly to let herself doubt for more than a few seconds, and her hands closed warmly over his as she nodded. "It's a promise," she said, and she sounded so happy, turning to look up at the sky again.

When his hand slipped away from hers, she didn't seem to notice, and the silence that fell between them was more comfortable this time. Lelouch watched her for a moment, then shifted to also stare up at the stars. The sky was bright with them.

It looked warm and welcoming, a bustle of activity, with so many points of light crowded together like good friends. But the reality was that unimaginable distances separated even the ones that seemed to be almost touching.

There was, in the end, no lonelier sight than a night sky full of stars.