“Hey, Suzaku. The Commissioner wants to see you.”
“Me?” He looked up from the papers he had been looking over, taken aback. “Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. I think it was something about the Lancelot Project? I don’t know, but it’d probably be for the best if you hauled ass and got down there quick. Heard she’s pretty strict.”
“Yeah, I will. Thanks for letting me know.”
When he was left alone, Suzaku dropped his faint smile and grimaced. He could scarcely imagine why the Commissioner would want to see him of all people. The only reason he could think of was to congratulate him on his recent promotion, but she didn’t really seem the type. Unless Gino was right and it was about the Lancelot Project, in which case…
As he gathered up his jacket, Suzaku decided to reserve all speculation. He’d have no idea until he was standing in her office, and as Gino had been so gracious to point out, it wouldn’t do to keep her long. He would find out in due time, whether he wanted to or not what exactly it was that was expected of him. The only thing that he could honestly do was brace himself and obey. But that was what he had signed up for, wasn’t it? To protect and serve? To obey and enforce?
Wasn’t that why he had dedicated his life to the law? So that he could always be in the right, no matter if he actually understood why – or even what – the greater mechanics of the world worked the way they did?
Yes, it had been. And so Suzaku shrugged on his jacket on and left the sanctity of his office with little to protect him from the gods than his own faith that they knew what was best.
. . .
“You’re leaving today too?”
Lelouch looked up from where he had been slipping on his shoes to find the boy hiding behind the sofa. Somewhere in the background, he vaguely caught the telltale sounds of early morning cartoons. Besides the child peered Charlotte the soft, white bunny rabbit that the girl next door had lent him on faith of friendship, and together, the two sadly blinked at him as they waited for an answer. Briefly smiling through his exhaustion – he had spent most of the previous night doubled over the toilet as he threw up a dinner he had never eaten – he replied that he was. Almost immediately, Leopold’s frown deepened as all traces of his previous amusement vanished in a single instant and a single nod.
“I promise I’ll come back.”
Straightening up, he glanced at the young woman standing close by before kneeling and offering him his pinky. “I promise.”
But Leopold’s eyes only fluttered as his grip around the rabbit’s neck tightened.
“How do you know?” The white fur matted with sweat, Charlotte glassily stared at the man as deaf ears strained for an answer. “How do you know you’re going to come back?”
“Why would I not come back?”
He shrugged. “Charlotte says you could get lost.”
The man glanced at the stuffed animal with its mouth sewn shut before asking, “Then what shall I do so as not to get lost? So that I can find my way back to you, what should I do?”
“Leave a trail behind.”
“A trail? Of what?”
Lelouch looked down as the child held out a small burlap pouch and refused to look him in the eye. Though the child tried to hide it, he could still catch the faintest glimmer in his eyes. His expression softening, he listened to him mumble, “You can borrow them until you come home. But you have to come back, okay?”
“Of course,” he said softly.
“Do you promise?”
“I give you my word.”
He reluctantly let go of the marbles before stealing a look at him. Wondering if he should say something more or if he should leave before he made him feel any more worse than he already had, Lelouch searched himself for words of comfort. He opened the mouth of the pouch.
“Why are you…?” The boy looked down at the enormous green marble that had been placed in his hand – the crown jewel of the collection. Lelouch smiled at him.
“The start of the trail.”
It was then that the child hugged him. Throwing himself over the back of the sofa, he wrapped his arms around his neck and held onto him tightly, as if he were afraid that once he left, he’d never come back – which probably wasn’t all too far from the truth, the man realized. Wistfully smiling, he held him in return as he wordlessly told him that all would be good and that all would be right. Rubbing his back, Lelouch held him close until he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Rising upon signal, he smoothed the boy’s hair as he looked at her silently. They had already spoken the evening before, and the evening before that, and the evening before that and so on and so forth ever since that night when they had sat together in the dim light after having bid the Kururugi’s good night and Leopold sweet dreams. She had covered her face and hid her tears then, and he had held her then as they had traded words of worry and of caution – words of comfort – until the early morning sun had interrupted them. And though Lelouch could still see the childlike doubt in her eyes and could feel the trembling of her hands, he kept still. At this point, there was little more he could say to her. Instead, he reached for her pretty face and cleared it of her hair before raising her fingers to his lips.
She chose to stare without comment. To the mere outsider – to an innocent 4-year-old who knew no better – she remained untouched and unaffected by the princely gesture. But Lelouch knew better, and as he met her eyes once more, he nearly balked. He nearly pulled her in to wrap his whole being around her if only to give her some sort of memory she could cling to until he returned, when she softly said, “You’ll be late.”
“…I was just about to leave.”
She nodded, seeing clearly through his lie, and watched him hesitate again. He glanced down at the boy who had been clinging to his legs as if doing so would weigh him down and root him to the spot, anchoring him away from the gales of the inferno he was willingly throwing himself into. Not that the child recognized what dangers lay beyond the door, but she knew from his restlessness that he could feel without having to be told why the morning was always such a difficult time for them all.
C.C. watched him smile sadly at her son who had long dried his tears on the man’s pants and could see him wavering – perhaps he could spend one more day with them under the guise of securing the perimeter, or under the pretense of perfecting their disguise – and while she wanted nothing more than for him to stay, she knew that him staying today would only make tomorrow all the more painful. He was not free from his brethren; to them he had promised his life in exchange for godliness, and they would not go without collecting his debt. She knew that if he were to stay today, he would have to leave tomorrow. That tomorrow, he couldn’t stay with them no matter how much they wished it. So she squeezed his hand in return and steadily met his eyes when he looked up at her so that he could find no fault in her.
“…I’ll see you tonight.”
“Stay safe.” Leaning towards her, he brushed his lips against her cheek. “I love you.” Then, after touching the boy’s shoulders and telling him to “be good,” he left. The door closing shut behind him with a soft and final thud, mother and son stared at the blank face of the door until she briskly gathered her son up in her arms and asked if anyone would like to help sort the laundry.
But she was ignored as Leopold remained fixated on the door. Brows drawn together, he tightly held onto the green marble winking at him from the depths of his fist. Cajoling him, C.C. tried to steal his attention away.
“First prize is caramel.”
At the bribe, he turned away from the door but not without a glance over his shoulder. Gently bouncing him up and down, she softly sang his name.
“Caramel?” Some color returning to his cheeks, he blinked as some shadow of his former childhood returned to him. “I like caramel.”
“Would you like to help Maman with the laundry then?”
And so the two stepped away from the door while the kitten sat before the barren spot that the largest pair of shoes had previously occupied and swatted irritably at the emptiness before scampering off at the call of her young master.
. . .
It was silent in the office until he spoke with a look that held none of the regret that his words described.
“…I’m sorry but I’ll have to decline.”
“This isn’t a choice, Kururugi. You’ve lost the right to claim such a luxury a very, very long time ago.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, I—”
“You ought to know that I, as well as other officers, all of whom shall go unnamed, am very well aware of your connection to the capobastone of the Weiss Ritter and that there are many who begrudge you your recent elevation in spite of your merit and past conduct. Though they are rare, there are a few officers within our midst that go as far as to accuse you of using said connection to your advantage and are petitioning for you to be dishonorably discharged and then arrested for treason against the state, as well as the safety and security of those you promised to protect. You may reject this opportunity if you so desire, Kururugi, but know this: should you choose to decline, not only do you put the integrity of all that we’ve worked for at risk, but I also cannot protect you from those who hold malice towards you. I will not save one man, no matter how brilliant he may be, if I can save fifty in his place. You can either accept or turn in your badge. Knowing this, do you still wish to reject?”
Jaw set, Suzaku remained silent and simply stared hard at the faint glimmer of the Commissioner’s wedding band as he caught out of the corner of his eye the wink of his own ring.
Did he still wish to reject?
. . .
When the doorbell rang, Leopold’s head popped up from where it had been hovering near the wooden train tracks crisscrossing the cool floor. The red train screeching to a halt just inches from the damsel-in-distress, his attention snapped from her plight and the lifelong rivalry between the vigilante sheriff and the infamous outlaw to the door. His ears straining for his mother, he stared at the tight-lipped mouth of their new home when he heard a second chime. As if enchanted by the cheerful singing, the child rose onto his knees and then onto his feet thereafter, when he hesitated. The last time he had opened the door by himself, he had been lucky enough to open it to a friendly, and not one of those creepy old men who’d try to lure him away with caramels – or so he’d been told by his mother. Not to mention how terribly upset she’d been the last time, opening it willy-nilly to everybody and anybody. But… But on the other hand, Maman was clearly busy if she hadn’t yet answered the door and wouldn’t it do to help her by opening the door? Never mind his burning curiosity.
Fortunately for the young mind, it no longer needed to be burned by such a perplexing dilemma as his mother appeared in front of the door phone to see if it really was a creepy old man waiting on the other side of the door. With eyes wide open so as not to miss a single second, he craned his neck to peek over the sofa, when instead of an old, wrinkly face as he had expected, he found a young, pretty one instead and heard not a creaky wheeze of a voice but a bright chirp as their morning visitor greeted them.
“Good morning. Hello, Leopold.”
Surprised – and slightly disappointed; it wasn’t that he didn’t like Sakiko’s maman, it was just that he had secretly been looking forward to finally meeting this fabled creature – Leopold could barely manage to stutter out a strangled, “Hullo” in return. She smiled at him and gave him a short wave – he stared, mesmerized by the graceful flutter of her fingers before trying to mimic her grace – before saying to his mother: “I don’t mean to impose, but I was wondering if you’d like to go grocery shopping together. Since you’re new to the area, I could show you around and let you in on some of the local secrets.”
His interest piqued, the small eavesdropper crept closer. Shopping? Shopping meant buying things, and buying things could mean ice cream. Maybe. Only if Maman said so, of course, though he’d try his darnedest to bring some back home for Lulu. And! And it made sense that Sakiko’s maman showed them around. Obviously, she would know which swings wen the highest and which slide let you go down the fastest and where the best hiding spots for hide-and-seek were. Of course, the child had no idea that his mother had in fact lived at this exact address before it had been rebuilt and it had still been its former, poorer self, and she hadn’t yet known of the world or its indifference. Nor was he yet aware that this mother had been responsible for such gentrification in efforts to erect a memorial to contribute to the dirge of her youth. All Leopold knew, quite honestly, was that he loved vanilla ice cream and that there was only disappointment to be found in the freezer. So he quietly tugged on his mother’s hand to ask if they could go, when he heard a decidedly cheerful, “Hi!”
Squeaking, he hid behind the soft, perfumed fabric of his mother’s skirt. Tightly squeezing her hand, he searched for the source of such a boisterous and unabashed greeting, and soon after, two bright green eyes linked into his own two violet. Realizing that a friend, and not a foe – not an old man – had made his heart stop for a beat or two, Leopold shyly flapped his fingers in a poor impersonation of her mother’s wave. His mother’s gaze escaping his notice, Leopold flushed at the sight of his…friend, was it? Friend, wasn’t it? He flushed at the sight of his new friend, his cheeks burning with the memories of the fun from that dinner they had had between their two families. A grin on his face, he remained oblivious to his mother’s watchful eyes as he showed off to his friend the elaborate stage he had set up for the climactic showdown between sheriff and outlaw, good and evil, light and dark, and thereafter, how well he’d been taking care of Charlotte and that yes, he had been feeding her carrots and lettuce as she had instructed even if Maman hadn’t been all too enthusiastic about where the vegetables on his dinner plate were ending up. In fact, so lost in his childhood was he that Leopold entirely missed his mother nodding – or even of his original quest for ice cream – and replying that she would be more than grateful for her kindness – if only for her son to laugh as loudly and as freely as he did now.
. . .
Suzaku watched the water droplet stagger to the bottom of the glass where it joined the watery ring on his desk.
It wasn’t that he didn’t understand. On the contrary, he was honored that she would take care of him, even if it was in an indirect and rather forceful manner. And under normal circumstances, he’d have readily accepted the assignment. He’d led plenty of raids before and had searched countless homes, digging and breaching into the privacy of faceless civilians, all in the hell-bent, dogged pursuit of justice. Under normal circumstances, the role that had been designated to him wouldn’t have been an issue in the slightest. But the circumstances in which the responsibility had been bestowed upon him weren’t normal. Even before this crimson tide of carnage had washed over their desert city, the circumstances had been anything but normal, so Suzaku found himself dragging his feet even with the allure of quieting all those who doubted him.
It was just that…he preferred not to get any more mixed up with the Weiss Ritter than he already had. Part of it was the banal fear one had when stepping out in front of a speeding train in hopes of stopping it with the combined force of those righteous and brave few. He’d always been afraid that there would come a day when he’d no longer be able to keep his promise to his beloveds, and Suzaku wanted to do all he could to avoid such a day as that as cowardly as it was. But another part of it was the fear that he would run into his friend when there’d be no leeway for them. He was afraid that he – or his colleagues – would kill him or worse, bring him to his knees and drag him off to weigh his sins against the hatred of Libra where surely, the state would demand of him their due. And though Suzaku shouldn’t harbor such reservations – s doing so was against his nature – the mere entertainment of such a possibility made his mouth taste sour and his pristine badge all the more burdensome.
. . .
“Have you finally settled in?”
“Yes, we have.”
C.C. looked all around them at the brightly lit rows of sparking greens before looking at her son, whose voice had swung up to the high ceilings above before plummeting back down alongside Charlotte, who’d lay claim to the title of world’s first flying rabbit. Lending one ear to the children and the other to her guide, she glanced around the airy grocer, her mind wandering through the aisles and into the past as she wondered if this was what life would have been like should she had married her former fiancé and not her husband. Catching the faintest glimmer of a broken promise, she surveyed the rows and rows of produce and wondered if an outing like this one – if a sight like the one that shone in her eyes now – would have been unremarkable and unimportant. Should she been allowed to live the life she had intended, she wondered, and hadn’t had her will perverted by her inheritance, would a day like today been something that would run into the blur of the mundane, unlike what it was now? – a virgin phenomena?
“When are you due?”
“Due?” She blankly stared before registering what was being asked of her. She replied with uncertainty. “I’ve yet to make an appointment.”
“I can introduce you to someone if you don’t mind. She’s very good at her job.”
“I…” Distracted, C.C. smiled briefly as she stalled. It wasn’t that she wanted to reject her. On the contrary, for some inexplicable reason, she didn’t feel quite so much wariness for Euphemia’s warmth as she would have should it have been from any other. But it was rather difficult to concentrate on the matter at hand when suddenly, from beyond their aisle, she saw the never-ending stream of sales cut short by a somber news anchor.
Captivated, the adults stared at the bright display that their progeny ignored, and, together, united, watched husks of men and women being loaded into waiting ambulances as a grave voice reported the loss of seven and the imminent loss of fifteen others – the tragic aftermath, the anchor intoned, of a bloody massacre in one of the city’s residential districts. The neighborhood had been quarantined with police patrolling the borders, and the authorities were already well under way to hunt down those associated with a certain organization who was presumed to have been involved in the incident.
Pursing her lips, C.C. stared hard at the screen before turning her back, only to be surprised by the gentle concern of her company. Her expression faltering, she softened by offered little explanation other than the question she had been nursing for some time.
“How is it that you can bear your husband’s involvement in such danger? In a world like the one that we live in now, how can you go on as if all is right?”
“Dominus providebit,” she whispered. When she took her hand, C.C. spied the faintest glimmer of a golden cross hidden within the folds of her collar. “Have faith. Courage.”
She blinked once, twice, then a third time before returning to the array of vegetables. She refused to say anything more on the subject. As kind as Euphemia was, the topic of Lelouch’s – and to an extent, her own – involvement with those being hunted wasn’t something she relished. So she picked up a packaged bag of carrots instead and moved on down the aisle and away from the once-more never-ending stream of sales.
. . .
Leopold had been tucked into bed considerably upset. His mother – as much as he loved her and as much as she loved him – had proven to be rather difficult, if not silly. Refusing to let him stay up to wait for P…that is, Uncle Lelouch to come home, she had firmly tucked him into bed, albeit a full 45 minutes after his usual bedtime. Which wasn’t fair because she wasn’t going to bed, so why should he? Even if his eyes were teary from all of the yawning – he wondered if he’d broken the world record for most yawns ever – he’d made a promise to P—Uncle Lelouch, and he had to personally make sure that it was a well-kept one. But what sway could he possibly have in the politics of his bedtime? He had stalled for as long as he could – first asking for a bedtime story and prolonging that with an incessant stream of questions, and then a glass of water, no, wait, some warm milk instead, and then a trip to the bathroom before one more bedtime story pretty please because he’d forgotten the other one about the little prince – but eventually, even his mother could no longer indulge his every fancy and the lights to his bedroom were turned off.
But even with his frustration, after his mother kissed his forehead one last time and left the door just slightly ajar enough to let in a sliver of light, Leopold’s eyes had begun to feel heavier and heavier until finally, he was just about to give in, when heard a distinct four words that made his heart jump into his throat.
“I should have called.”
Newly awake, Leopold scrambled out of bed. Nearly entangling himself in his blanket, he struggled to free himself before bolting out of the room and into the blinding light.
So excited was he to see him seated at the kitchen table that Leopold immediately headed straight for him to hug him as he squealed, “Papa!” in delight. And so natural was it to address him so that the child didn’t feel that anything was amiss until he looked up, surprised by the absence of a reaction, and realized the slip of his tongue. His grin fading, Leopold’s eyes fluttered as he panicked.
He had made a mistake but not the kind that most would have assumed. For the past few weeks, Leopold had always suspected that he had wanted to speak to him in this way. Not that he had really known what “this way” meant until he had met Sakiko and her papa. But after meeting them, and listening to them and watching them, Leopold had realized that that was what he wanted to say too. to him, he could see no difference between her and her papa and him and his own, and so, by that logic, there oughtn’t be any difference between the way she addressed her and he his. But the one thing he hadn’t been so sure about was whether the recipient of such a title would agree or not, so he had done his best to temper himself – and hand displayed quite remarkable discipline even if it only had lasted a few days.
His mother stared with wide eyes, and Leopold, his ears bright red, tried to hide behind Charlotte. Squeezing his eyes shut, he listened to his heart pounding over the rush of blooding roaring in his ears, when he could just barely make out, “Yes, Leopold?”
Looking up, the boy was warmed from the smile above as he was lifted up and set in his lap. And from there, he could just barely catch a faint whiff of his cologne mingling with an ashy smoke as he placed in his hands the small pouch of marbles. And when he was given them as he had been promised, Leopold Corabelle – at the old, old age of 4 – greet his father for the first time with a bright smile.