“When’s Uncle coming back?”
“Later, in the evening.”
Her son gaped at the absurdity of her proposition. In the evening! What?! With a frown, he demanded to know why he was going to be out for so long. Uncle had, after all, pinky-promised to play with him, and God knew how sacred pinky-promises were. They weren’t just any old promise; they were made with the pinky; Uncle should know how important those were. Everybody should. Mouth ajar with disbelief, he watched as his mother took the chair adjacent to his.
Tucking loose strands of hair behind her ear, she let her hands rest for the first time since that morning. Her muscles ached from half a day of unpacking made none the easier by her son who, while endearing, had taken it upon himself to play Jack Frost with the foam peanuts so that the living room had become a Winter Wonderland – which had required half a morning worth of clean-up. It had been some time since she had worked her body like this, and while it remembered, it was still having some trouble keeping up with her demands, so she gladly took the opportunity to rest.
Brushing her hair out of her eyes, she gently reprimanded her son’s impatience.
“Leopold, you must be understanding. Uncle Lelouch has made certain promises that he must keep.”
“Okay, but why does he have to be out all day? He made a pinky promise with me! That beats all other promises!”
She sighed. “Things are different here, sweetheart. Here, Uncle Lelouch has to work.”
He looked down into his lap where his hands lay. Glancing down, she saw that one of the marbles he had been given for Christmas – the largest one, in fact – was sitting in his palm – the very same marble that had once been the belle of the ball in Uncle Lelouch’s childhood collection – the very same that Leopold was now master of. The effervescent green glittered prettily before its translucence was swallowed by his fist.
“…He’s coming back, right?” He looked up with furrowed brows and an apprehensive cringe. “What if he doesn’t, Maman?”
Smoothing his hair, she gave him a wry smile. The creases on his young face deepening, he returned his attention to the pearl in the oyster before turning back to her and saying, “Well, I wish he’d stay with us.”
“Me too,” she murmured.
“I wish he’d stay with us too.” And that was the simple truth of the matter.
. . .
“You understand, don’t you?”
He stared straight ahead as his superior smiled at him apologetically from where he sat at the bench.
“I am aware of your current handicapped state, but I’m afraid I can no longer afford to spare my most brilliant strategist. We need you, Lelouch.” He folded his hands together and leaned forward in his seat. “I need you, here, by my side. Where you belong.”
His blank stare unflinching, he intoned: “Will I be maintaining my previous duties simultaneously? Or shall they be passed off to someone else?”
Schneizel adopted a thoughtful expression as if he had never really considered what was to become of his wife and child. Leaning back into his chair, he propped his chin on his splayed hand. Lelouch pursed his lips as he felt a prickle of irritation – did he really care so little for the well-being of his family? Even if he had sacrificed his best man to place a guard near them, even if he had personally sought out asylum for them, to think that he hadn’t taken his family into account in this dire time just went to show how deep his concern ran for those who would have been of the utmost priority for most – if not all – other men, and Lelouch couldn’t help but let a flicker of dismay and disdain imperfect his otherwise perfect illusion.
“It would be most ideal if you continued to stay with them. Not only must we begin consolidating our resources, but consistency is what’s best for times such as now as consistency provides the foundation for structure – something that we are all in great need of. The Hóng Hè will also most likely know where it is that you live; it shouldn’t be too long until they too attack your home. Perhaps it would be for the best if you moved in at least temporarily. I’m sure my wife won’t mind. I myself would prefer to keep things as they are; with the recent betrayal, I loathe to choose the wrong man, and I have little time to spare for deciding who would replace you, should you shed your previous duties.”
His cold eyes flickered up as he smiled at him.
“You understand why this is necessary, don’t you, Lelouch?”
Murmuring a confirmation, the capobastone watched as the older man rested his elbows on the flat wooden surface before him and his smile widened into the likes of a Cheshire cat’s.
“I knew you would.”
As he always did.
. . .
She was waiting for him outside. She watched from behind the glass walls as he left the elevators and crossed the glittering lobby towards her. Blatantly scrutinizing him, she observed with her sleepy eyes, safe in the knowledge that he would ignore her; her superior had long become desensitized to her peculiarities. He understood that it was in her nature to observe – that was why she had been assigned to him, was it not? – and would make no snipe like some other men might.
Even so, Anya could do little to simply stand by when he faltered. His hand, outreached for the keys she had been holding out for him, dove to the ground as its owner nearly followed after. Placing a cool hand on his elbow, she silently waited for him to struggle against his mortality. He eyed her but gave her no excuse; Lelouch Lamperouge was no fool. He knew that there would be no point in such an exercise. Doing so would merely waste precious breath he desperately drew into his depraved lungs; she’d never swallow his lies.
She stood patiently until he slowly straightened up enough to recompose himself. She watched as he closed his eyes and his nostrils flared. And then she quietly stepped aside as he climbed into the car to deliver his lord’s will to the men, women, and children of the world – all the while missing a rather distinct cinnamon head watching him with shell-shocked eyes.
. . .
Violet eyes slid away from the screen they had been trained upon, and, a shadow of a smile appearing on his face, Schneizel laced his fingers together.
“How may I be of assistance, Mr. Maldini?”
His smile widened as he appraised the graceful man that stood before his desk. Kanon Maldini folded his hands behind the small of his back as he adopted a stance much similar to the one the capobastone had had just minutes earlier. Amused, he settled into the silence that had drifted into the spacious office. Once enough time had passed, he finally let out a chuckle.
“Must we continue on with this masquerade of ours, Kanon, or shall we drop all pretenses? As fun and as amusing as they are.”
Three more seconds ticked by until the soldier was replaced with the courtesan. Coming around the desk, he settled on the edge. Tucking strands of his hair behind his ear, he looked down at the man in the chair before softly saying, “Might I remind my lord of Lelouch Lamperouge’s ties with the Madame?”
His only reaction was a cocked brow.
“Placing him so close to your wife for an extended period of time could endanger all that we have worked for, sir.”
He watched as he turned his chair to face the glass wall behind him. The panorama of the city glinting in his eyes, he stared into the depths of the world as he watched over the rise and fall of man and listened to the desperate dull roar of those below him.
He tore his eyes away and fixated them on the man besides him. His eyes barely blinking, he resumed his previous humor.
“Worry not, Kanon. All will be taken care of. My will shall be done whether or not Lelouch Lamperouge agrees. I’ve invested far too much for a mere mortal to stop me.”
And as he smiled at him, Kanon saw that this was the truth, and accepted the hand that had been reached out towards him.
. . .
Singing at the top of his lungs, Leopold’s world became a blur of color until he finally lost his balance and toppled over. Crashing onto the rug, he let out a slow “whoa” as he watched the ceiling spin from where he lay on the ground. Dragging Lulu onto his stomach, he closed his eyes as he tried to rid himself of the dazed and confused thoughts stumbling into one another in his head. Giggling at the cautious poking of her paws on his stomach, he rolled over as she lightly landed on her feet besides him. Cupping his chin, he kicked his legs as he watched her scamper away.
When she vanished around the corner, a sigh drifted out from his lips, quickly followed by a groan. There was nothing to do. He had watered- accidentally drowned – the plants and had helped Maman unpack – that is, before she had seen what artistic endeavors had taken hold of the living room. He had dug his crayons out from whatever box they had been transported in but had been unable to think of anything interesting to draw, resulting in several rainbow-colored scribbles. He’d also found his folder of music, but with no piano to play it with, it had been no better than drawing paper.
Flip-flopping on the floor, he covered his face with his hands. What was there to do? What could there possibly be? Lulu was busy napping in the sun. Maman was in the other room with the endless sea of boxes of “snowflakes.” And here he was, lying on the ground, with no songs left to sing at the top of his lungs and no piano to play music with. He didn’t even have Uncle Lelouch to play with.
That is, he had had no one to play with until the doorbell cheerfully rang.
Leopold had been taught not to open the door for strangers, or to follow after them. Even if they offered him caramels, he wasn’t to follow go anywhere with them because they were bad and wanted nothing but to hurt him. And while he knew this, when he heard the bell, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to open the door. What if it was Uncle Lelouch? What if he had decided to come home earlier? He must know how bored he was. It was Uncle Lelouch after all – so naturally, he pounced and, with all his optimism, eagerly opened the door for his most favorite person in the entire world – other than Maman, of course – only to find that the person behind the door wasn’t Uncle Lelouch but instead a complete and utter stranger
. . .
Suzaku felt the sweat crawl down his neck but didn’t bother brushing it away. Not only because he couldn’t, what with all the gear he was dressed up in, but because he couldn’t spare even a second to soak up the sweat. Green eyes shifting nervously all around the dead veins of the city, he crept past the endless rows of lifeless windows, the light jingling of his suit and the soft falls of his boots the only noise breaking the suffocating silence of the deserted ghetto.
Swallowing hard, he nervously fingered his gun. Even through his gloves, he could feel the cold of the metal, and though he wanted nothing more than to put that finger on the trigger, he let it lie where it lay. Over the years, he had learned a few things about his home. He had become familiar with her ways and her habits, her little ticks and peculiarities, but the one thing that he had become especially close to was her temper. —– And while her fuse was a slow-burning one, he knew that an ill-timed gunshot would devour what meager patience they had been blessed with – especially at a time like now. His colleagues might call him a fool, but Suzaku trusted in the city. She had fed them and clothed them and put a roof over their heads. Though she seemed cruel and merciless and full of bloodlust, he knew and understood that she could be kind to those who were faithful. And for that reason alone, he swallowed his fear and pressed his finger into the body of the gun and away from the trigger.
He looked up from the abandoned street stretching before them. The others also stopped and turned to stare at their colleague, who was staring back at them with wide eyes and furrowed brows. Suzaku watched as the one who spoke pulled his mask down and lowered his rifle. The cringe on his face deepening, he looked around the company of men. But before he could raise another question, someone shouted.
“What is that?”
They all snapped their necks up as they followed the lonely finger pointed towards the grey sky. Craning their necks, they blinked up at the snowflakes drifting to the ground. Snow? How could it be? The weather had been unusually mild this winter; it was too warm for snow. What was happening? By what miracle was it snowing?
Suzaku reached out, as did the others, only to jerk his hand back. His fingers stinging, he stared at the angry, puckered skin that had glanced the snow. Pressing them against the cold metal of his gun, he grit his teeth as shivers ran up his spine in spite of the heat of the ghetto. Something felt off. Even if the ghettos had been evacuated a week earlier, there was just something about this place that made him feel uneasy, as if their every move was being watched and recorded by some all-seeing, all-knowing eye.
“Let’s keep moving.”
Sharing nervous looks, they all faced forward once again and continued their venture, each and every one hoping and praying to each their god that they would be delivered from what now seemed like the pits of hell itself. Suzaku merely frowned as he violently shoved all thoughts of his family out of his head. To think of them now, he knew, would be akin to promising himself to Death. What he needed to do now was focus on the task at hand; worrying over his wife and child would only distract him. If he truly wished to return to them, he would ignore them.
If he truly wished to return to them, he would kill them if only until he dragged himself out of this wretched and cursed place. For their sakes.
For his sake.
It wasn’t difficult to; his thoughts were drawn away soon enough by a hauntingly familiar and yet alien scent. He smelled it before he saw it. They all did. Wrinkling their noses at the acrid musk, they glanced at one another as if to silently ask the other if they could identify the smell. And while all suspected, none were brave enough to speak. All were silent until they finally turned the corner; it was only then that they dared to cry out in shock.
All he could do was stare as the snow fell all around them and the charcoal-like stench of sulfurous hatred embraced them. He stared at the pyre squeezed between the crooked, crumbling towers of the city’s worst secret, stacked three-stories high with malicious and unforgiving flames. And when he realized what it was that those men had set fire to – when he finally came to understand what it was that he stumbled upon – he tore away his mask and gasped for breath as he choked on the overwhelming and unmistakable stench of genocide.
Gagging, the solider doubled over as his stomach heaved and retched. Shaking, and with tears in his eyes, he let the freezing metal fall to the ground as he dropped to his knees and prostrated himself before the monument as he tasted a putrid air so thick with greed and unadulterated hatred, it would be one that could never be washed away from his skin or rid from his nose – a scent that would forever imprint itself on his psyche – the heady perfume of human fallacy.
“Who would do this?” one cried.
“Does it matter?” sobbed the other, and the souls of the wretched shrieked in reply as the inferno crackled with mirth.
Suzaku raised his head as he watched the pillar of fire burn to kingdom come. Through his tears, the faithful footman watched as the ashes of their fathers snowed down upon them, and bore witness to the fall of man.
. . .
Heaving a heavy sigh, Lelouch stopped before the door. Though he couldn’t hide it as well from Ceci, he could – and should – hide what “business dealings” he had overseen from Leopold. The boy had already gone through so much of what no child ever should; he deserved what little of his childhood had survived, and he’d be damned if he did anything to taint what little was left. Rolling his shoulders, he rubbed his face before adopting a faint smile. Punching in the code to the front door, he waited for the buttons to illuminate a cheerful green before stepping into the warmth of the apartment.
The moment he crossed the threshold, he felt something take hold of his leg. Knee buckling slightly, he looked down.
Lelouch’s smile widened as he returned the greeting. Lifting him up, he smiled at the boy, who returned it in kind. Wrapping his arms around his neck, he gave him a brief hug before pulling away and kicking his legs in signal to put him down. Complying, the young man set him down on the floor, where he jumped up and down. His cheeks flushed and his eyes glimmering with excitement, he beamed at him.
“Hello, Leopold. How was your day?”
“It was great! I made a friend today! You wanna meet her?”
“I would be honored.”
The child eagerly took his hand and tugged him in the direction of the kitchen. Unable to stifle his smile of relief for the boy’s preservation, he followed after. But when he saw who it was that was seated at the table, even the thought of Leopold’s childhood, and the happiness bounded within it, couldn’t save him from the sinking feeling in his stomach as the man at the table greeted him with a smile and his name.