The moment Lelouch regained consciousness, he looked blearily towards the sun. It hadn't moved from its position, as far as he could tell, so he had likely only been out for a few minutes, half of an hour at most. He could hear the rumble of the earthquake, either much more distant or significantly weaker, and Lelouch estimated he'd been out for about fifteen minutes, and there was likely only another fifteen or so until the earthquake stopped and the next section started.
With that logic out of the way, Lelouch could focus on more important things. Like how he couldn't move his arms or legs, and what an awkward position he was in, and how stiff and sore he felt.
"He's waking up."
"Good." That was undeniably Xingke's voice. So Kirihara was dead, then. Lelouch let himself care about that for a moment while his head emerged from its fog. "Make sure he's secured."
Hands gripped Lelouch's shoulders, pulling and tugging at whatever was restraining him as his head lolled and he finally managed to blink his eyes into focusing. Xingke was watching him appraisingly, with a dark sort of satisfaction that sent a thrill of fear up Lelouch's spine. His muscles tensed up instinctively, but he held himself back from fighting. He might not have much in the way of strength or flexibility, but there was no point in using what little he had before there was a real chance at escape.
"He's roped up tight," Kewell reported. "Any sign of the others?"
"Nah," Marika said from somewhere above their heads. "Ougi and Rakshata did a good job of driving them out of range and they haven't triggered any of the security alarms yet."
Xingke's attention returned to Lelouch. "What?"
Lelouch swallowed against the nausea and pain. "Suzaku'll kill you all." It felt good to get that out. This was, apart from Suzaku's death, the worst-case scenario, but even if Lelouch died here, he was confident that Suzaku would feel free to let himself go and slaughter everyone who stood in his way. Lelouch might not be there to see it, but Suzaku would do everything he could to win and get back to Area 11, if only to wreck vengeance on Lelouch's killers.
The thought struck Lelouch as hilarious. All the plotting and planning that had been thwarted at every turn thanks to their 'allies', and Lelouch's goals would be achieved, not through any effort of his own, but through being victimized.
He started laughing, despite the fact that it made his headache worse and his vision swim. The hysterical edge to his voice just made him laugh harder, less controlled. Kewell backhanded him, casually cruel and hard enough to shock Lelouch into stopping. Or at least the hysterical laughter subsided into silent convulsions, still filled with dark humour, easily overcoming the pain in his joints and face.
Xingke loomed over Lelouch and the odd angle made Lelouch finally realize how, exactly, he was restrained. They'd found a tree bent at just enough of an angle that Lelouch's spine was stretched backwards over it, his hips naturally canting upwards to ease the strain on his lumbar spine. His hands were tied simply on either side of the tree, tethered with a thick rope that had no give to it. His feet, braced at about shoulder-length apart, were also tied, but individually and with enough laxity that he could move them a little, although not nearly enough to get any kind of leverage.
He noticed, with some relief, that he was still clothed. Trussed up like a sacrificial whore, he was yet untouched.
Xingke smiled, as if reading his mind, and Lelouch realized that that could change at any moment. The thought was immensely amusing. "Feel free to take solace in the idea that your Suzaku will come save you," Xingke said, gentle and almost kind. "We're counting on him at least trying. But know this; he will fail. And he will fall. And it will be all for your sake."
"You underestimate him," Lelouch retorted, his crazed amusement turning fast into cold anger. "And you underestimate me."
Kewell laughed. "I fail to see how that's even possible. We've trussed you up good, and you've never been a physical threat to anyone who didn't already have their back turned towards you."
"Maybe we should gag her," Marika suggested. "Stop her from using her feminine wiles on us." All three of them laughed.
Xingke shook his head. "No. I want to hear her as she watches her lover fall at our hands, out of love for her. I want to hear the despair and the fear when she realizes that she's helpless to do anything but scream as we tear away the only hope she had left." He leaned forward, pressing his body against Lelouch's leg, his groin rubbing at just the right angle of Lelouch's knee for Lelouch to realize that he was completely and utterly uninterested in anything sexual. His words whispered warmly over Lelouch's skin, caressing softly even as the impact of them hit harder than a ton of bricks. "You're poison, Lelouch. Every life you touch is worse off for it. If it hadn't been for you, for your idiotic ideas and the false hope you gave the Numbers, Tianzi would… would still…"
Lelouch's eyes widened at the realization that this wasn't just strategy. It was personal. "I… I'm sorry. I never intended–"
Xingke stood back and Lelouch flinched, anticipating another backhand. It never came, although Xingke's look of utter disdain hurt as much as any slap. "I don't doubt it. People like you never intend to ruin lives, to end them. It's just a game to you, isn't it?"
"No," Lelouch said, meeting Xingke's eyes. "It's not. It's quite literally a matter of life and death, mine and Suzaku's. And I think you know… no, I know you know what I mean. If you could have saved her, Tianzi, if you could have given your life up for hers, you would have."
"I never had that chance."
Lelouch nodded. "I did. And I gambled everything, even his life, for everything. And I'm not sorry I won, no matter what the price, because he's still alive and we had a year together, and that's more than I ever…" Lelouch's voice broke. "I'll find a way. You are underestimating me, and I'll find a way to keep Suzaku safe."
"It's too late for that," Kewell said. "Should have killed yourself before we could nab you."
Such a simple and straightforward solution. Lelouch could, hypothetically, admire its elegance while finding so many loopholes that he couldn't regret not using it. "He still would've come. If he'd had any hope, any at all, he would have come." Suzaku's determination was something Lelouch could always count on, for good or ill.
"Then he still would have died." Kewell shrugged. "There's no way he can take all three of us out, especially when we've got you to threaten. It's the perfect trap."
It was. For Suzaku, in any case. "Cornelia and Guilford and Gino?"
"Cornelia's too clever by far to fall for something like this, and she'll keep Guilford out as well. We're expecting them to be the last foes standing," Xingke explained easily. Well, Lelouch was literally a captive audience, why shouldn't Xingke take advantage of that? "Gino's always been a bit of a wild card. He might follow your boy, but we're more than ready for him as well."
Lelouch remembered Kirihara, bravely standing up to this butcher, trying to give Lelouch the chance to escape. "Did you leave Kirihara's body behind?"
"Yeah. No point in doing anything to it. Pendragon'll have picked him up already."
Then there'd be nothing distracting them from running after Lelouch. In fact, they could easily assume one of those cannons were for Lelouch and not Jeremiah or Kirihara. In that case, Suzaku could already be out looking for revenge rather than trying a foolish rescue mission. Lelouch desperately hoped so, since that would increase Suzaku's chances of victory, without Lelouch's own safety to distract him, considerably.
"Don't worry, though. Pendragon picks up the bodies, not the weapons. We've left more than enough clues that'll lead them straight to us, and after you."
There was that hope gone.
"Xingke! They're back at where I shot Jeremiah," Marika called. "They should pick up the trail quickly."
The earthquake finally stopped, leaving an unnerving silence in the wake of its constant low roar. With Kirihara fresh in Lelouch's mind, he recalled how anxious the old man was about time.
"What happens at two o'clock?"
Kewell shot Xingke a curious glance before turning back to Lelouch. "There's an electrical current that paralyses anyone in that area. Rakshata got more than one Tribute that way." He turned back to Xingke. "Are we dealing with her and Ougi before or after Cornelia?"
"Now that they've served their purposes, sooner rather than later," Xingke answered. "Cornelia and Guilford will take all our attention."
"And then what?" Lelouch asked. "Once all your enemies are gone, then what?"
Xingke and Kewell looked at each other. Kewell smiled. "What indeed?"
"Two against one seems fair," Xingke said, smiling back, all teeth. Lelouch suddenly realized how alliances worked – or at least how they were supposed to work, with respect and cooperation and the regard one gives to valiant foes. They were planning on stabbing each other in the back, but they were at least upfront about it. They were using each other, but they were at least mutual about it.
It didn't seem like much, but to Lelouch it seemed almost healthy. Healthier than his alliance with Luciano had been, certainly. Healthier than whatever he and Suzaku had had with Gino and Cornelia.
Healthier, in a way, that his and Suzaku's overall relationship.
"It doesn't matter," Lelouch said, half to himself. "All that matters is that Suzaku gets out of here alive."
Xingke turned to him, an eyebrow raised in curiosity, but he never got to ask any questions.
"Uh, guys?" Marika's voice rang out uncertainly from the tree tops. "Something's happening. Did I miss a cannon?"
Lelouch's heart seized until Kewell responded. "No. What's up?"
"There's a… it doesn't look like the usual Pendragon corpsemobles. It's bigger and not nearly as shiny."
"Marika, describe exactly what you're seeing," Xingke demanded.
"A ship. A flyer and a hoverer, dull grey. It's hanging over where I last saw Cornelia and the others."
Xingke turned to Lelouch. "What is this?"
Lelouch shook his head. "I have no idea." It was the truth. He couldn't honestly think of a single explanation for this. Even if Cornelia and Gino had truly banded together, this wasn't something they could pull off. This would have required someone from Pendragon; someone rich and powerful and clever and desperate. And why steal a few soldiers at so much risk? A few missing persons from each Area would go by barely noticed, and you could hardly amass an army that way. There was no reason for this to be happening, no explanation that Lelouch could come up with that made any kind of sense. And even if he could come up with something, there was no way of knowing if it was the truth or not.
But Xingke had no idea that Lelouch hadn't had any part in the planning or any knowledge of this strange development. He slammed his hand against the wood by Lelouch's head and leaned in. "What's happening?"
Lelouch laughed. There was no way out of this. "I don't know! If this was planned, then Cornelia's decision to traipse about the forest after other possible Victors makes no sense. If this wasn't planned, then it's a hell of a coincidence."
"I don't believe in coincidence," Xingke hissed menacingly.
"I don't either," Lelouch said. "But the alternative is that Cornelia walked away from the very escape that she planned, protecting it for me. And I don't think either of us believe that's what happened."
Xingke didn't look entirely convinced.
"Look, if that's our ticket out of here, we should take it," Kewell said. "Leave her here and take our chances with Cornelia. She's not unreasonable."
"We're running out of time," Marika added.
Xingke thought for less than a second before nodding, drawing a long curved knife with serrated edges. "We'll go." Lelouch closed his eyes tightly, preparing for the killing blow. "But we're taking Lelouch with us."
"What?" Marika, Kewell and Lelouch asked at the same time. Kewell glared at Lelouch and continued. "She'll just slow us down."
"She's worth something to them. At the very least, she'll be good to barter with." Xingke started sawing away at Lelouch's bindings.
"Wait, no!" Marika jumped down from the tree she'd been perched in. "The hoverplane's moved off. They're gone." Kewell cursed and turned on Xingke, clearly furious at the loss of this chance. But Marika wasn't done. "And it's being chased by a whole bunch of shinier planes." She looked, wide-eyed, at Kewell and Xingke. "Pendragon's coming."
Almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth, the soft sound of a few of Pendragon's smaller, more manoeuvrable planes landing filled Lelouch's ears. He craned his neck, trying to see around Xingke at a highly awkward angle, but all he could make out was the reflective glare of the sun bouncing off the wings of the planes.
"Oh, shit," Kewell said, dropping everything that could possibly be seen as a weapon and raising his hands in obvious surrender. Marika followed his lead, standing beside him, both siblings with their backs to Lelouch, making it impossible to see their expressions while also partially blocking his view.
Xingke released Lelouch's bonds, and tossed the knife to the ground, but kept his hands by his sides. "We had nothing to do with whatever the Tributes from Area 1 had pla–"
There wasn't even the sound of a bullet firing, nothing more than a nearly soundless 'pew', and Xingke fell to the ground, cut off mid-word. Lelouch swallowed bile and hoped that he was just tranquilized and not brutally shot down for speaking. There had been so much needless bloodshed already that even Xingke's death weighed heavily on Lelouch now.
Kewell stood in front of Marika, giving her what protection he could, but kept his hands up and his head down, offering no challenge or fight, completely passive and waiting for the commands of his masters. Lelouch breathed out, hoping that would be enough to save him.
Marika gave a small shriek as he fell and then fell beside him, silent. Lelouch couldn't see any of them, given the angle he was bound at, but he could smell the faint metallic odour of blood.
They were probably dead. The seemingly invincible Xingke, the cold and ruthless Kewell, the quick and sharp Marika. They had planned Lelouch's death, Suzaku's death, but Lelouch hadn't wanted this for them; being discarded like inconveniences, mowed down like they were nothing.
And what of him? He couldn't even fight back if he'd wanted to, trussed up like a sacrifice to a particularly sadistic deity. He could hear footsteps approaching him, some light, some heavy, and one pair that sounded impossibly familiar. Or maybe there was a familiar scent, or another sense that alerted Lelouch's subconscious somehow. In any case, it was enough to renew Lelouch's struggles against the ropes that held him in place, desperate to run and hide.
"Lelouch…" The deep voice just made Lelouch panic more. He couldn't be seen like this, not in the actual presence of…
"Your Majesty, you shouldn't. It's not safe…"
"Silence him." There was a grunt from somewhere in the crowd of people, but Lelouch wasn't paying attention to any of that. His father was approaching him. Anything else was inconsequential.
The footsteps stopped. "Lelouch." Charles's voice was so close Lelouch knew that all he had to do was lift his head, just slightly, and he'd be able to see him.
Lelouch slammed his eyes shut and renewed his struggles. "Don't… don't touch me."
"My foolish son," Charles said, almost affectionately. "I did warn you." He reached out and grabbed Lelouch's hair, forcing Lelouch's to look at him. "And still you chose this path."
"Please… don't…" Lelouch had nothing to lose. He was terrified and in pain and there was no one left to protect; Nunnally was in (or had escaped from) Area 11, and Suzaku was on that hoverplane, with his fate in other hands. Lelouch had nothing more to protect beside his own pride, and that had been stripped away over the past two years to practically nothing. "Please."
"What kind of father do you think I am?" Charles asked, seemingly affronted. "I would never directly harm a child of my blood." His hand twisted in Lelouch's hair, turning his words to lies. "No, Lelouch, you're still useful, even after all you've done."
Lelouch shook. "What are you going to do to me?"
"I'm going to ease your mind," Charles said, gently. "Erase all your pain; all the memories of your cruel lover who abandoned you, all the heartache of being separated from your beloved sister and mother, all the weight of being Lelouch Lamperouge, darling of the Areas, rebel leader, Zero. I'll take that all away from you, and leave behind a pretty propaganda tool."
Charles smiled. "After a few days of treatment, you'll never hear or say that name again."
"No." There was a soft sound of lasers cutting through thick rope and Lelouch felt his bonds loosen and fall. "No."Strong arms gripped his shoulders, and Charles's hand was still fisted in his hair, but Lelouch still fought; writhing and screaming into the uncaring air of the Hunger Games arena. "No!"
It wasn't until one of the guards managed to inject him with something that made his tongue feel fat, his jaw dangle uselessly, his muscles heavy and tired, that Lelouch stopped screaming, managing only one heartbroken moan after another.
Charles released him and gestured for him to be placed in his personal plane.
Lelouch let his eyes fall open. "Hmm?"
Shirley huffed an exasperated sigh. "Will you pay attention? Nina was going over the plan for the autumn festival."
"It's alright," Nina said quietly. "Lelouch helped me draft this, he knows what's in it."
"That's not the point. It's disrespectful."
From behind Shirley's back, Rivalz caught Lelouch's gaze and rolled his eyes. Lelouch managed a small smile. "You're quite right, Shirley. Please, Nina, continue." The moment the softer spoken girl started reciting the list of duties and activities, Lelouch nestled back down into the pillow of his crossed arms and closed his eyes.
He was bored.
Not about the as-of-yet-unnamed autumn festival, or about Nina, but about everything. He literally couldn't remember a time when he hadn't been bored. Every day felt like the last, with only the most minor changes and no surprises. It wasn't a bad life; he had his friends, good grades, a bright future. But it was dull and somehow pale.
On the other hand, the last thing Lelouch wanted was an adventure. The Areas were in the midst of rebelling, Peacekeepers were being sent out daily to help quell the worst hot spots, and there were more than enough opportunities to go join them. But that interested Lelouch about as much as a hole in the head. He didn't want danger, or to fight for a cause he had no reason to believe it, he just wanted…
Something less boring.
It didn't help that he had no ambition. There was nothing he wanted to do, nothing he wanted at all, really. He wasn't happy, but he was… content to keep coasting along without a plan or anything to strive for, excelling in things that others thought were important and finding nothing he himself considered of any import.
Rivalz threw a pencil at him as Lelouch drifted off again, averting the wrath of President Shirley. Lelouch shot him a small smile of gratitude and shifted into a position where he was turned away slightly from Shirley and was less likely to drool.
"Lamprouge?" Nina stopped mid-word as the door opened and one of the school's councillors poked her head into the room. "The principal would like to have a word with you."
Lelouch sighed and stood. He'd found himself volun-told onto a committee that reviewed and evaluated current events. Since the Numbers' Revolt, the only current event worth reviewing was the revolution happening in the Areas and its impact on Pendragon. Lelouch kept himself abreast of events, put them in context of the first rebellion, and recorded his impressions on a bi-weekly basis. Lately, he'd been asked to do more recordings, apart from his video essays, where he answered specific questions. Sometimes the questioner was a teacher, sometimes a Peacekeeper, sometimes an anonymous government suit.
It had started as a moderately invigorating mental exercise. The parallels between both rebellions were interesting, and the differences even more so, with the loss of Area 0 and the rise of a central figurehead for the Areas to rally around.
There was something intriguing about Zero. Lelouch found himself occasionally distracted as he read through news story after news story, watched propaganda reel after propaganda reel. The mask and cape were delightfully over the top, and the outfit just tight enough to reveal the lean muscular form under it. Lelouch would catch himself gently caressing the photographs of the rebel leader as he read, idly tracing over his mask, his torso, up and down those lithe legs. It hardly romanticized the rebellion, Lelouch still thought it was stupid, watching the Numbers fail a second time as hard as the first. They had guns and pitchforks and fire; Pendragon had missiles and flying ships and bombers and well-trained warriors. As long as Area 2 remained steadfast, the rebellion had no chance against the Peacekeepers, and as long as Area 3 stayed out of things, the rebellion had no chance against Pendragon's technology.
It was doomed to failure, it was just a matter of how and when and how many dead would be left in the wake. Lelouch estimated everything would be over by next summer, just in time for a renewed Hunger Games.
It was frustratingly predictable, but there were interesting aspects. Zero aside, and Lelouch's strange, irrational fixation on him, some of the battle strategies, the way the Numbers did so much with so little, were fascinating. They'd even managed, somehow, to hack into Pendragon's media and send their propaganda messages, through Zero, out to the public. Lelouch had every recording of their messages, as 'research' and sometimes he closed his eyes and just let Zero's voice wash over him.
Those moments were private, a little embarrassing, and the most sensual things Lelouch had ever experienced. He could feel every inch of his body; every pore, every pulse of his heart, every whisper of air that passed through his lips and filled his lungs. His clothes felt too tight, the material too rough. He shifted restlessly, trying to get comfortable, trying to scratch an itch that felt like it was deep inside his body. It was arousing, yes, more than anything else Lelouch had experienced in his virginal life, but it was more than that. It was… stimulating. It whetted a need that Lelouch hadn't even realized he had, one that made him more aware of the people around him, of the way some of them looked at him, as if he affected them that way too.
It was tempting to take some of them up on their unspoken offer, to try to scratch that itch, but something always stopped him. It wasn't the right time, or the right place, or something just seemed off. And then Lelouch would return home, alone, and cue up Zero's speeches.
They were good speeches. Apart from the way Zero's voice crawled up and down Lelouch's spine as he spoke, making Lelouch clutch at the arms of his chair to stop his hands from moving over his own body, touching himself in ways that were, frankly, unforgivable over a terrorist leader, the words were inspiring and intimidating, making an impact in the little time he had to get his message out before the rebels lost control over the media.
If Lelouch had been in his position, that was the way he would have run his rebellion; steady resistance from the locals interspersed with brief unpredictable surges of support from wherever Zero housed his forces. The small victories were writ large in the propaganda videos Zero released, and the people of Pendragon were growing incensed and slightly frightened.
Cowards. Even if Zero had made significant headway in the Areas (he hadn't) he was a long way from making any kind of move against Pendragon itself. So what if Area 8 had been damaged enough that no production would be possible for years? So what if the waters around Area 4 were poisoned with the debris from the bombs and garbage no one could take the time to properly dispose of, as well as the blood of the fallen, on both side? So what if Area 11 had been razed to the ground, the earth salted so nothing would ever grow there again?
The Areas were the Areas, and of no personal concern to anyone in Pendragon. The rebellion would inevitably falter and fail, and peace would be restored, and with it the appropriate subjugation of the Numbers. And all would be as it should be.
Lelouch's video essays had taken a turn to the ironic, more about the foolish reactions of those in Pendragon – from those who thought an invasion from the Numbers was imminent to those who thought that following the example of Area 11 and wiping out all the Numbers was the answer – than about the war itself. As his essays sharpened in tone, however, he was pulled aside more and more often to answer specific questions about the rebellion; about the tactics, about Zero's latest message, about the overall philosophy and rationale that allowed the Numbers to justify their revolution.
The questions were tiresome and insulting. Not only overly simplistic, they seemed to be a rather less-than-subtle attempt at assessing Lelouch's allegiance to Pendragon. Which was silly, since who would willingly side with the Numbers when to do so would mean giving up the wealth and comfort and freedom of Pendragon, even if the Numbers were in the right?
Right or wrong, they were on the losing side. And Lelouch didn't care for losers.
Speaking of… "Mr. Bartley. How pleasant to see you again."
"Lelouch." The Peacekeeper General inclined his head slightly. He'd interviewed Lelouch twice before, and each time had been an excruciating exercise in repetitive redundancy. The questions were simple, straightforward, and rephrasings of a single idea.
"Do you support the rebellion?"
No. Did Lelouch think Zero had a point? No. Did Lelouch think that Pendragon was in the wrong? No. Did Lelouch think that the Numbers were unfairly treated?
At first, Lelouch had tried to find new and interesting ways of saying 'no'. But after a while, it became dull and tiresome, and Lelouch just gave monosyllabic answers to the foolish questions. It didn't stop Bartley from coming back again, though, and asking the same questions over and over. Lelouch wasn't looking forward to another dull session.
They sat down, in front of the camera, and Bartley leaned back. "Now, Lelouch. Have you seen the last video from Zero?" Lelouch nodded and Bartley smiled. "Very good. I'd like to hear your critique of it, of his stance, and please… be vicious."
Hm. Interesting. Lelouch leaned forward. "Of course. First off, just let me say that everything Zero says, everything he does, comes from a flawed premise. Therefore, everything he says and does is intrinsically incorrect. He's fooling himself, he's fooling his followers, and he's fooling anyone who thinks he's a threat. The thing about Zero is he's a liar. He's going to lose and he's going to lead everyone who follows him to their doom. All those who have placed their trust in him will be betrayed."
Lelouch felt something in his chest lurch at that, but shook it off. It was perhaps a shame, what was happening to the Areas, to the foolish Numbers swept up into it, but it had nothing to do with him.
Nothing had anything to do with him.
ETA (Nov 28 2013): Hi everyone! I just watched "Catching Fire" and, whoa nelly, did I visualize the island wrong! XD Sorry about that. :p
Hunger Geass: Zero is being posted, FYI (made it just in time for fall!), the final instalment. Hope you all enjoy!