“Police struggle to contain the violence ravaging the streets after a third night of riots. They describe it as the worst in current memory. Four men have died after being shot during the rioting, which has now spread from Pendragon to other major cities. The governor is visiting now and has called a state of emergency. In an attempt to quell the violence, he states that thousands more police will be deployed on the streets, along with—”
When he heard the soft footfalls of his wife, Suzaku quickly turned the TV off. The brilliant screen blinking to black, he set his spoon into his empty cereal bowl as she set their daughter down in a chair. Wiping his mouth, he nervously fingered his wedding band before announcing his departure.
“Already? Are you sure you don’t want anything more? I don’t think a bowl of cereal will do you much good, and I don’t want you to be hungry…”
“I’m okay.” He didn’t tell her that he’d suddenly lost his appetite after the news report.
She studied him carefully, as if she were searching for any proof that he was lying to her. But Suzaku was more guarded than his wife knew, and when she could find none, she settled for clasping her hands together and asking if he couldn’t wait until his daughter at least woke up enough to open the first of her presents. He sighed heavily.
“I’m sorry. I really am, Euphie, but I… The Commissioner needs us there by 7. I’m sorry.”
She tightly squeezed his hands as she looked up at him with her doe eyes wide with worry.
“Just be safe, okay?”
He nodded. Slipping on his hat, he shrugged on his jacket before bending down to kiss first his daughter’s forehead and then his wife’s cheek. Tucking her hair behind her ear, he looked her in the eye as he promised to return as soon as he could. Then, wishing them both a merry Christmas, Suzaku left the warmth of his home for the blazing streets.
. . .
Leopold had never felt so grateful for Uncle Lelouch as he did on the morning before Christmas. Of course, he had felt grateful for him before, but the feeling had never bee quite as strong as it was when Uncle set him on his shoulders so that he could put the star at the very top of the enormous tree, or helped him knead the dough for Père Noël’s cookies. When his arms grew tired, he could simply sit by on a stool and watch as he worked the soft dough. And while it wasn’t a perfect day – there wasn’t even a flake of snow to be found outside – it was very, very close, and that was enough for him. Though it would be nice if it did snow. Just in case Père Noël was listening, he wanted to make sure he knew how nice it would be if it snowed. Because it really, really would, and he would be so glad, and he’d make sure to be extra good for next year.
If it meant anything, the flour from the cookies looked a lot like snow, except it wasn’t cold at all, and while you couldn’t really build a snowman out of it, he could use it to mark things like Uncle Lelouch’s cheek.
When he slapped his floury palm on his cheek, Uncle had looked incredibly startled, but since he neither yelled nor scolded him, Leopold breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t really meant to do that. He hadn’t really known what he was doing, but he hadn’t really meant to do anything like tap him. And it was tap – Uncle Lelouch’s head had barely moved, so you could hardly say that he had slapped him because the truth of the matter was, he hadn’t, so—
Leopold blinked in the wake of his sneeze, and watched as the wintry sun highlighted the flour floating through the air before grapping a fistful from the bag and tossing it in the general direction of the man who was no longer standing by the island but rather, was crouching around the corner so that when he hopped off of the stool and ran around, he was immediately swept up into his arms in a puff of flour and laughter. And when his mother walked into the kitchen and found that it was snowing – and that Lulu was violently sneezing from all of the “snow” – the fun didn’t stop there either because before she could say anything about the powdery air, Uncle Lelouch gave her a dusty peck on the cheek, thereby allowing Leopold to escape any lecture he surely would have been given. And so the morning passed quickly and left behind white smudges, powdery footprints, and glowing faces.
When the cookies were finally slid into the oven, he was ushered upstairs for a bath. Cheeks rosy and white dust trailing after him, Leopold giggled to himself as he remembered the wonderful sight that his reflection had made.
Though he wasn’t able to build a snowman, that was alright. It seemed as if he had found one anyway.
. . .
Once not even a mote of flour remained on him, Leopold sat before the glittering tree. His mother and Uncle Lelouch – also clean – sat on the sofa behind him – spectating – as he tried to decide which of the various presents he wanted to open first. He was allowed to open one on the morning of Christmas Eve, and he ought to pick carefully. Of course, not all of the presents under the tree were for him; there were some for Jeremiah, and for Sayoko, and Anya, and Maman, and Uncle Lelouch. Even Lulu had a few packages addressed to her in swirling cursive, which he was pleased to find. He had made sure that there was something for Lulu in his letter. And while there probably wasn’t going to be everything that he had asked for – he had given his letter to Maman after he had finished; she always made sure that Père Noël got it – as there didn’t seem to be anything shaped like a swimming pool under the tree, it looked as if he had been good enough to get most because there seemed to be a wealth of presents under the tree that was reserved for him and him only.
Scratching his head, he tried to decide which to open, when something caught his eye. Its peculiar shape was what made him curious and it stick out so. It was a flat rectangle, which in itself wasn’t really strange, excepting the fact that it was so flat, he had nearly stepped on it. Understandably, it looked nothing like the other presents, which were all boxy. Squatting before it, he squinted, eyeing the wrapping paper before carefully peeling away a strip. He wasn’t quite sure why. For sure it wasn’t the largest present, but there was just something about it that made him curious. So that was the one that he opened. And boy, was he glad that was the one that he chose because when the shell fell away and he was left with the meat from inside, Leopold couldn’t help but beam. Of course, that was only after he figured out what it was. Because what was inside was nothing but paper.
Not that it was blank paper because it wasn’t. It had four staves inked into it, which…wasn’t really all that strange for music except for the fact that half of the staves were blank. Leopold looked up from where he sat in his mother’s lap, confused by the disappearance of the notes.
“Why is it blank?”
“Because it’s for you, love. For your music.”
Brows knit together, he frowned. What did she mean for his music?
“Uncle Lelouch’s already written in the first part. Now you’re to compose the other.”
“It’s a duet?” He looked up from the paper to the man who was carefully watching him for his reaction. The child’s wide eyes blinked at him before falling back down to the gift. “And I’m supposed to make it up?”
“But… What if I mess up?”
It was then that the man spoke up.
“One of the beautiful things about composing, Leopold,” he said, “is that it’s impossible to mess up. To mess up means to fail to meet a standard, and when you yourself is setting your standard, how can you possibly mess up? The worst that you could do is not to try.”
He bit his lip. Beyond his hesitance lay excitement and the thrill inspired only by a new, foreign opportunity. He had never before considered writing his own music, so to have an invisible door open like this was rather awe-inspiring and confounding. But all his wonder put aside, he truly did want to try. He did wan to step through, he just… He was just a bit shy because Uncle Lelouch had been playing for seventeen years and he was obviously going to be very good at writing, so… But at the same time, he really did want to play a duet with Uncle Lelouch that he – that they – had written together…
“…Will you laugh?”
“Of course not. I promise.”
They crossed pinkies so he knew how serious he was. When their hands broke apart, Leopold glanced at the open door before turning back to the man’s smile. He was still a little scared, but… But at the same time, he had a feeling that his mother and Uncle Lelouch would help him through and stand by him to the very last bar. And that was all he really cared about and all that he wanted. So, clutching the papers, he looked up with a smile on his lips.
. . .
C.C. fingered her bracelet before absentmindedly smoothing her son’s hair. She hadn’t really decided that they would be going until that afternoon, and she wasn’t quite sure why she had made her mind in the way that she did. God knew the last time she had been near any place of worship she had been frightened out of her skin. And while that memory was still fresh and vivid, at he same time… Maybe this would be good for Leopold. Maybe it would be good for him to meet God so that later on, he could decide on his own terms. Her own mother had done that for her, and she had always been grateful for being given a choice. And perhaps he would meet some of the other children there. That would be good for him. But whatever the motive was for her attendance, she would be okay. She would be fine. Lelouch would be there, as he had promised her at that undesirable reunion, and he would stand there besides her and hold her hand and remind her that she wasn’t alone in her sin.
She would be fine.
She brushed imaginary dust off of her son’s jacket and straightened his bowtie as he stood before her. Squirming, he tried to touch his hair, but she gently caught his hand, reminding him how his hair was to remain parted as it was now. With a sheepish grin, he let his hand fall to his side, where he tugged on his vest.
“Maman, where are we going?”
“To visit Father LeBlanc. Do you remember him?”
He nodded. “Are we going with Uncle Lelouch?”
“Yes, we are.”
He beamed at the news and, holding Charlie with one hand and hers with the other, pulled her towards the door. Asking what they were waiting for, he tugged her forwards, excitedly chattering about this and that, and down the stairs where Lelouch should have been waiting when instead, she saw her husband’s charming smile waiting for them at the bottom of the staircase.
. . .
“You look as beautiful as always.”
Even Leopold – who had been so animated since waking that morning – was quiet and subdued as they drove down the quiet road to town. C.C. – determined not to give them away – was careful look her husband in the eye so that no margin for error was left. He smiled at her before clasping his hands together with a note of finality.
“I’m sure you’re surprised to see me here, and I understand you may have some questions for me. You may ask them if you’d like.”
There was a heavy pause before she spoke in accordance with the obligation that had been placed before her.
“…When did you arrive?”
“Not so long ago. A little over two weeks, I believe.”
“Why did you not tell us that you were coming?”
Her lips curled back at the question that had slithered out before she could stop herself. It sounded more accusatory than she had meant, as if she were hiding something that she didn’t want him to find out. And while that was true, it was also something to be kept from her husband. She carefully searched for any signs of suspicion. There was none to be found in his genial expression.
“I loathe to burden you any more than I have. I realize that this is difficult for all of you, being uprooted by war and constantly in hiding. Though I assume Lelouch has been doing his job well?”
“I’m glad to hear. I knew that if I were to trust anyone, it should be him.”
A brittle silence settled in until he asked: “and you, Leopold? How have you been?”
“…I’m okay,” he mumbled.
“I’m simply ecstatic to hear. I was worried about you. It must have been a terrible surprise for you to suddenly be rushed out of your home. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“…It’s okay,” he whispered, averting his father’s piercing gaze.
He nodded as if he had expected nothing less before shifting his attention to the one seated besides the boy and had been especially invisible since his arrival.
“And you, Lelouch: I understand that there was an altercation back in Pendragon that’s left you disabled. I’m impressed that you haven’t let this interfere with your responsibilities. I commend you.”
A heavy pause politely wedged itself between the two sides – one of the knowing and one of the oblivious; one of the man and one of the family – before it burst into a shower of brilliant, blinding sparks.
“If you would allow it, I would like to borrow my wife for some length of time after this function. There are some things that ought to be discussed as they should be between a man and his wife. As well as some of your time, Lelouch, before you go inside. If you would permit it, that is. While I make no promises, I assure you I will do my utmost to keep neither you nor her any longer than necessary. I loathe to put an end to the festivities.”
The odd thing about Schneizel el Britannia, he decided, was that he always acted as if he were giving others a choice. Even though they knew, and he himself knew, that their will was not theirs and that they had no choice but to bend to his whims, he always insisted on putting on a gracious façade, and for that, Lelouch always made sure to watch his back all the more in the presence of his superior. Just because of the way those eyes seemed to gleam from the shadows – as if he knew something that they didn’t but would very, very soon.
Schneizel’s teeth glittered in the dark.
. . .
They stood outside, the knight on the steps and the king below. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the young woman and her son disappeared behind the doors of the church, her tightly holding his hand and him constantly looking back over his shoulder as if he were afraid that the moment he went behind those great doors, he would lose him forever. When the wind slammed the door shut, he turned to his superior and began his wait.
He stood by the sleek car, not quite leaning on it but not quite standing on his own either. The shadow of the cathedral swallowed him whole, and when the moon hid behind a cluster of thick clouds, he was nearly impossible to pick out from the dark, save for his bright smile. Lelouch stood his ground in the face of that smile and the biting winter gales until he could just barely make out his quiet voice from the the shrieking wind.
“How are you, Lelouch?”
“Well, thank you.”
“I’m glad to hear that at least someone in my company is doing well. As you may already known, the Weiss Ritter are faring rather poorly in the face of this new adversary – a fate which has prompted me to pay a visit to the Ambassador of Switzerland in this country. He’s a distant relative to my wife. You must understand – my mother-in-law – may she rest in peace – was from an extraordinarily well-connected family, and while she is no longer with us, she’s left behind quite a social cornucopia for my wife.”
He fell silent as if he were reflecting on the untimely passing of his wife’s mother. Lelouch folded his hands behind his back.
“I sought asylum for Leopold and Cecaniah in the case that the Weiss Ritter continue to fare poorly in this situation. For you as well.”
“Your grace knows no bounds,” he murmured.
“You’re like a brother to me, Lelouch. I wish only the best for you.”
The wind howled in the far-off distance, and somewhere, through the din, the scream of a crow rang out through the surrounding canyons.
“And I only wish the best for everyone. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to forego the suspicion that there is a traitor in our presence. And while that wouldn’t be an important issue, given the current circumstances with the Hóng Hè successfully forming coalitions against us, as well as the instatement of a new commissioner…” He sighed melodramatically. “I wish no harm on anyone. But at times, people refuse to listen and must be made examples of. My only regret is that I was unable to ensure the loyalty of my men. A king may wear the crown, but he is nothing without his men. Would you not agree?”
Schneizel smiled fondly at him and grabbed his shoulder. Firmly squeezing it, he said, “I always knew you were an exceptional specimen of men. Thank you, Lelouch, for proving me correct.”
He granted him a hollow smile.
“Merry Christmas, Lelouch.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Lelouch watched as the car pulled away and continued to stand there even after it had rounded the corner. Though his hands were cold and the frigid wind continued to lick at his face, he continued to look after the spot where the taillights had been before vanishing. Brows knit together, he frowned before finally turning away and slipping inside.
Schneizel would come later. Right now, he had other obligations to carry out to other people; the matter of Schneizel could wait until then.
It would wait until then; he would accept nothing else.
. . .
Sliding down from the bed, he looked over his shoulder at the still furniture before wading through the ghostly light of the moon and quietly leaving. When the door closed behind him with a soft click, he held his friend close before quickly padding his way down the hall. While it wasn’t as cold as it was in Pendragon, it was still winter, and below, the floor felt freezing. The toes of his bare feet curling as he dashed to sanctuary, the shirt of his pajamas billowed up as if a shadow were following him and tugging on the hem.
He found him awake and sitting at his desk, the blue glow of his laptop reflected in the lenses of his glasses and making them obscure his violet eyes. For a moment, his heart faltered at the possibility that the eyes he would find behind were the cold eyes of his father, but when he slipped the glasses off, he realized how silly it was to be frightened of such a thing. Of course it wasn’t his father. Uncle Lelouch had promised to stay with him, hadn’t he?
He inched forward from the doorway as Uncle Lelouch leaned back into his chair. Waddling behind the bed, he peeked over the edge as he nervously eyed the man. He knew that his mother didn’t take kindly to him going about after his bedtime, but he didn’t know how Uncle Lelouch felt on that matter, so… But just in case, he hid behind the bed.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”
“Well… I am, but…”
“…Can I sleep here?” he squeaked. Ducking behind the mattress, he flushed. Would he say no? He wouldn’t, would he? Well… Well, see here, that was the thing. He didn’t know. He had never asked Uncle Lelouch of anything like this before, and while his mother always said yes to him – hell, he never even asked her, he just climbed into bed – he wasn’t quite sure as to whether he was against it, so… So…
“I mean, Charlie wants to sleep here. He thinks that your, um… He thinks that your pillows are better than mine. So can he?”
The world’s longest silence stretched before him. Anxious, he squeezed the weasel close as was his habit, until he heard: “Of course he can.”
A smile of relief broke out onto the boy’s face, and he clambered up onto the bed.
“But before he does, he has to answer something for me.”
“Um… What is it?”
“Has Charlie brushed his teeth?”
When he saw the reproach in his eyes, Leopold sheepishly ducked his head and mumbled, “Well… He might have forgot to…”
“Then off we go to brush Charlie’s teeth.”
When the young man saw the look of surprise on the boy’s face, he silently asked him what was wrong.
“You’re coming with me?”
“I have to brush my teeth too.”
Leopold blinked. For some strange reason, to hear that Uncle Lelouch fell victim to the same rules and laws of life made him feel quite…light. As if he weren’t alone and that Uncle Lelouch was the same as he was. As if there was absolutely nothing to fear with Uncle Lelouch – even the unknown, with all its mysteries, was beginning to lose all its potency as he stared at him.
“And then after, Charlie can sleep here.”
“Will you tell me a bedtime story too? Maman always tells me one.”
“If you would like one, yes.”
The child beamed at him, and he returned his smile. And though he could still remember the fear he had felt for the rejection that had never happened, the memory was fading too quickly for it to take root in his beating heart. All he knew was how glad he was that Uncle Lelouch was there, and not only there, but there for him. Because with Uncle Lelouch there, it almost seemed as if – dare he say it? – they were a whole family. As if they were a family who loved each other and were always there for one another. Because that’s what a family was, wasn’t it? People who loved each other and helped each other and smiled and laughed and cried together, no matter the distance separating them. Wasn’t it?
Yes, it was.
. . .
As they lay in bed together, Lelouch studied the design of the ceiling above. He was surprised by how strange and unfamiliar it was, which in turn surprised him. What did it matter that he didn’t know of the pattern? Most people didn’t. But, he quickly realized, most people also didn’t stay up most nights, haunted by the ghosts of their past, so perhaps it was unfair to say that most people didn’t know what he usually did.
When he felt warmth shift closer to him, he tore his eyes away and to the boy with a sort of fascination as he burrowed himself into his chest. Sniffling, he sighed before turning over, his lips parting slightly. Gently closing his mouth with a nudge, Lelouch pulled the blanket further up to his chin before carefully sitting up. Running a hand through his hair, he sat, hunched on the edge, as he mulled over the passing of one of the most profound moments of his life because it was in that singular moment, when it seemed as if the world had stopped spinning and the universe had stood still for a split second, that he had consciously felt his love for the child. He had always known, of course. Somehow, through his actions, words, tone, expression, it had always been there, hidden somewhere, but in that singular moment, he had realized how he felt. He had realized how much his happiness meant to him as if it was his own, and as he sat there, he realized how greedy he had become as he experienced for the first time in a long, long time, a renewed sense of fear that always nipped on the heels of discovering something that one values and loves and wished to keep safe.
As he sat there in that dim twilight, Lelouch mulled over his complete metamorphosis, and just how exhilarating it felt to once more feel like he had been able to all those years ago.