Careful not to make too much noise with his windbreaker, Suzaku carefully put the lunch his wife had made for him into his bag. He ignored the voice in his head that asked if he’d really be able to swallow the food Euphie had packed the night before. He normally had what most would consider a voracious appetite (it was often a source of guilty, bashful smiles on his part and giggles on that of his daughter as he reached for the umpteenth serving) that was in no way mitigated by his wife’s talent in the culinary arts, but after a restless night of tossing and turning, Suzaku dismally thought of how his lunch would go to waste today. Which was a shame because he hated the guilt of not eating and making Euphie worry. Not to mention how she had packed tuna sandwiches and orzo salad with spicy buttermilk dressing – his two favorites!
With a heavy sigh, he zipped up his jacket and headed for the door when he heard, “Papa?”
His heart nearly failing him, Suzaku whipped around to find his daughter standing next to the kitchen counter – of which she was just barely taller than – and sleepily rubbing her eyes. Behind her, he could see Ellie (who was her designated dream buddy since Charlotte had gone next door) smiling at the clock at read 6:19AM in flashing lights. Kneeling down so as to be eye-level, he whispered to her.
“Why are you up so early, Princess?”
“Papa, what’s going to happen to Leopold’s papa?”
Winded, Suzaku struggled to recompose himself as she mumbled through her sleep how the boy next door – her new friend – had been so worried that his father wouldn’t come back as he’d been promised that he hadn’t even been able to concentrate on their game.
“I told him he shouldn’t worry because you’re going to protect him. And you will, right? You’ll make sure Leopold’s papa will come home to him, right?”
“…Is that why you woke up so early?”
When she gave a half-shrug, he helplessly smiled at her before picking her up. “Then let’s get you back to bed.” He handed her Ellie. “Your Grace has nothing to worry about. Of course I’ll protect Leopold’s papa. You needn’t have even asked.”
She nodded as if she had suspected as much. Naturally he would. Nothing else made sense. Even with her young age, Sakiko understood what right and wrong was. It showed whenever she had a lapse in judgment and had to suffer through the humiliation of a lecture from her parents. It showed when she had stood up to those elementary school kids even under threat of being made a target herself, and it had shown when she had promised that boy that his father would come home every night to play with him and love him and be his father because that was the only thing that was fair. If she had her papa, it was only fair that he had his too, he who had committed no sin, right? Wasn’t that only fair?
Of course that was only fair. Suzaku knew that that was only fair, that that was the only one that made sense and was equal, but as he tucked his daughter in and quietly left the house, he also knew that what was fair wasn’t always what was justice, that they were two different beasts and that the state had chosen eons ago to tame the latter.
All the same, the pain he felt from lying to her made his heart heavy. If only he was allowed to be honest and true to his desires and hers. If only their world was a gentler one with more forgiveness or, in the very least, forgetfulness.
But it wasn’t, so Suzaku could do little than kiss his daughter to bed with a lie, and that was that.
. . .
Wiping the water from her hands onto her apron, the elegant lady swung the door open when she felt something cling to her legs. Looking down, she saw a small tiger curled around her knees. She smiled as it, as well as a dinosaur, yelled, “Trick or treat!”
“Hi Sayoko! I brought Lulu and Sakiko! That one’s Lulu,” explained the tiger with a gesture towards a wicker basket, “and that one’s Sakiko. In case you forgot.”
“Thank you very much for the reminder. Hello, Sakiko. It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Hi!” she replied brightly. Giggling, she jumped up and down as the hood of her onesie slipped off her head. “Do you have any caramel? Or chocolate? Because me and Leopold like the way they taste.”
“Sakiko.” The unfamiliar pretty young woman – the girl’s mother – smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry. She can be rather forward at times.”
“Oh, it’s quite alright,” she replied. She said nothing about how glad she was that her young master had finally found a companion that he needn’t puppet around. Nor did she speak of how much she had always loved children and their whimsical ways, and how that love had continued even past her own child’s departure to the greater beyond. Instead she turned to the children and said, “While we’re still months away from Halloween, I may have just what you’re looking for, so long as the special few can solve these riddles…”
Their eyes widened at the slip of paper that had mysteriously materialized before them. Tiny hands greedily grabbing, tiger and dinosaur scurried off, their tails flying behind them in their wake.
Once their excited voices were muffled by the walls of another room, Sayoko faced the two mothers with a gentle smile.“I always believed that a home isn’t really a home until a child’s laughter can be heard throughout.”
“Leopold’s missed you for some time now,” said one.
“I only hope Sakiko will behave,” added the other.
“I’m sure she will. She seems like a very kind young lady.”
“We’ll be back by 1. And again, thank you, Sayoko, for agreeing to watch over them.”
“It is my absolute pleasure, Madame. Please be safe in your travels. The children will be here, waiting for you, when you return.”
When they had left, Sayoko bent down and gently picked Lulu up. The kitten mewed as if she could remember her before licking her palm with her tongue. Happy to have some ghost of Orpheil with her, the kindly woman smiled, her softly-lined face creasing to form the sort of smile that hadn’t been seen since she had last called for her young master.
. . .
All who had attended the meeting had paid grave attention as if their lives depended on it. For some it had, while for others, it hadn’t, but nonetheless all had been absolutely attentive to the reviewed stratagems and tactics. That is, all but one.
Schneizel watched him carefully, paying more attention to his capobastone and key strategist than the actual reports of victories and losses alike. He knew that he had more than enough to distract him, but to think that he was allowing them to influence him so blatantly was highly uncharacteristic. Lelouch Lamperouge had only ever once lost control to his emotions. Well… Not quite, but that was highly debatable – as well as besides the point.
He waited for the meeting to end to pull him aside. Asking him to remain in the conference room, the two sat silently until the last of the lower classes had filtered out, some with quizzical glances and others with knowing smirks – or so they thought. And when they were finally alone, he waited for a few more minutes to tick by before speaking to him.
“That’s quite the pocket-watch. May I?”
It was relinquished but not without some shadow of reluctance. Turning it over in his hand, Schneizel held it up to the light of the rising sun.
“Yes… Quite beautiful. It makes you wonder who would bestow upon you such a work of art. Though I’m sure you in no way are lacking of those who would enjoy your aesthetic – a privilege that I, sadly, no longer hold.”
The room was so quiet, the click of Schneizel’s wedding band hitting the watch seemed to echo. Leaning forward and folding his hands together, the king dropped his smile.
“Tell me, Lelouch, what it is that’s distracting you. It’s not like you to lose control like this. What is it that’s making you for forgetful, hmm? Who,” Schneizel’s hand tightened around the mechanic heartbeat, “is responsible? Hmm?”
. . .
“…This may seem intrusive.”
Euphemia looked up from the magazine she had been carelessly skimming through.
“And I apologize for the lack of a better phrase, but why is it that you’ve been so kind? I wouldn’t think someone you’ve met only weeks ago would be close enough to warrant your accompaniment to the doctor.”
She set the magazine down on the table she had picked it up from. Smoothing her skirt, Euphemia searched herself for the right words How to explain without causing any offense…was truly a difficult task at times. She was only human after all, and hadn’t quite yet learned of C.C.’s likes and dislikes. Tucking loose strands of her bun behind her ears, she carefully began with, “My father…is an expatriate.”
Looking around the waiting room, she smiled. “So I was told anyhow. He left everything before I was born, but he still brought with him the wealth and ways of a duke. So, unfortunately, that meant that I…had a somewhat difficult time meeting new people, much less making new friends. I think Suzaku was the first friend I’d managed to keep past a year. And as a result, I’ve made it my dream to make as many friends as I can. That’s why I went to culinary school too – when I was younger, I’d always dreamt of cooking a huge feast for all of my friends. Sometimes I still do,” she added with a guilty smile and bright cheeks. The woman beside her remained quiet – speechless, perhaps? – allowing her to fill in the silence with her nervous chatter.
“As for the appointment… I found that some company usually makes things like these easier to bear. But I’m sorry if I seem overbearing. I hope you at least know that it was done out of good intentions.”
No further words were shared between them and Euphemia picked at the hem of her blouse. Unable to help herself, she glanced at her…friend? Well now it was somewhat difficult to tell at this point. Perhaps she had been too hasty. Not to mention she probably had been overbearing. Oh, but could she be blamed? It had been some time since they had had neighbors, especially neighbors with a young child and someone she could visit and have tea with, or pick up their children from school with (when they were older, of course), or fulfill any of her domestic best-friend fantasies that she’d stubbornly held onto since childhood. Though of course she would understand if C.C. didn’t agree. If she didn’t, Euphemia only hoped that her enthusiasm wouldn’t get in the way of any sort of relationship they may have in the future.
Interrupted, Euphemia looked up at the call of the nurse. Nervously standing up alongside her neighbor, she moved to help her up – not that she really needed it yet but just in case – when she hurriedly pulled her hands back. Anxiously smiling, she wrung her hands and wondered if she should leave or go in with her, when her neighbor – her friend – turned and quietly said, “Thank you.”
Never before was Euphemia so happy to say, “You’re welcome” in return.
. . .
Easing back with a smile, Schneizel breathed in deeply, his nostrils flaring, as he ran a hand through his hair. Careful not to let his gaze so much as flicker, Lelouch watched him closely – silently – until he found an opening to slide into.
“If it’s my ability to fulfill my responsibilities that you’re questioning, consider it unnecessary. I have made little err, if any at all, and I’ve hardly had any lapse in judgment. I’ve fulfilled all that you have asked for and more. I can hardly agree that my past conduct warrants an interrogation.”
The tension expanded between them until it felt as if they were sitting at opposite sides of the table, rather than in adjacent seats. Schneizel tapped each finger three times in succession before speaking.
“No, I suppose not. But heed your limitations, Lelouch. You are not a god. You are but a man, and thus are susceptible to weakness and human folly. The last thing I want is for you to kill yourself. I’ve lost too many men already. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
He nodded though he was unable to shake off the bugging sensation at the back of his mind. He was unsure why he felt so strange – maybe it was just the fever bothering him again; he’d had it since he’d left the house that morning – or why something felt so off. Nothing seemed out of line to him. Was he forgetting something perhaps? Or was it the fact that it was the first time that Schneizel had ever so much as remotely lost his temper? Ever since they had met in that alley four years ago, this was the first Lelouch had ever seen him this way. He supposed it all came down to the realization that Schneizel was in fact subject to the same laws that he was. Not necessarily the laws that the state drew up in a vain attempt to curb man’s natural instinct, but the same inherent laws that governed all subconsciously. It sounded ignorant, but seeing him here like this was just…
So even Schneizel could fall victim to such humanness. Interesting.
. . .
Something that Suzaku had asked himself with increasing frequency over the course of the past few weeks was why – why – Lelouch had chosen the side that he had. Especially now, as he stood and looked out over the scope of the enormous penthouse, he couldn’t help but ask himself why it was that Lelouch Lamperouge had chosen the path of death and destruction rather than what he himself had chosen. But no matter how hard or how long he thought, nothing ever quite satisfied him – especially the answer that everyone else would have assumed.
As unbelievable as it was, it didn’t seem like his motive had been wealth. Although the penthouse was extravagant, it barely looked lived in, as if it were just a model home perpetually waiting for an owner to properly flaunt its God-given gifts. There was absolutely no sign of wear-and-tear even if said owner had claimed it as his own nearly a year ago. Nor did Lelouch have any markings on his legal reputation, both minor and major. The man abided by the rules – or was careful not to get caught when he wasn’t – was a caring, loving father a small boy, a kind and adoring man to his lover, and polite and quiet to all. Nothing at all suggested his involvement – his responsibility – for the never-ending loss of lives. Even with four years of involvement under his belt, he had adopted none of the habits usually picked up by members of a syndicate, either in mannerisms or in habit, suggesting that he was a mild-mannered man who cared nothing for wealth or the thrill of living on the other side of the law. If he hadn’t known any better, he would have never figured out that he was the capobastone.
Of course, he hadn’t always thought this way. Suzaku had never asked Lelouch why he had joined the enemy. He didn’t feel that it would be a pleasant conversation for either party or very healthy for their already-precarious relationship, so he had never broached the topic. Consequently, he’d been left to his own devices, and once left alone, he began to imagine. Naturally, he had assumed that it had been for the wealth. It was always because of the money, wasn’t it? What else had a strong enough magnetism to induce man to kill his brethren? Somehow, some way, all and every situation was tainted by the color green. Some even driven by it, and so naturally, he had assumed that somehow, in some way, money was to be blamed for driving a man who had no self-serving (or at least not any more than the common man had) bone in his body into the deepest, darkest depths of ungodliness. And during the first hour of the Lancelot Project, he thought himself correct. When they had broken in, Suzaku, as well as some of the other officers, both seasoned and green, couldn’t help but gape at the tremendous wealth that was Lelouch Lamperouge’s private home.
They had known the numbers – his infinitesimal wealth – but to see a black figure on a sheet of white paper and to see the reality presented forth by that black figure on that white sheet were two different things – and for a split second – just a second – even the most unforgiving and hardiest of officers sympathized with Lelouch Lamperouge. Suzaku, blinded by the brilliance that was the world of crime, too had almost forgiven him. But the more time he spent in that haven, the more he compared it with his own home and began to miss the little messes of toys his daughter would leave behind to mark her territory, the scent of the laundry detergent wafting through the rooms as the laundry gently flapped in the spring breeze. Even the embarrassing dent in the bedroom wall when he as a new father had been unaccustomed to the irregular hours of early parenthood, the fatigue that barely left any energy for finishing anything, and had promptly tried to put his head through the wall one early morning when his newborn daughter had made a demand for his attention and he had severely miscalculated the distance than an abandoned, half-constructed play mobile lay from the bed. It wasn’t particularly a story that Suzaku liked to ponder over, but the dent in that comparatively tiny apartment was far better than the highly sought-after view in this hollow shell of a house – and for some inexplicable reason (call it the instinct of fatherhood), Suzaku didn’t think Lelouch would disagree with him.
And while there were times when he was wrong, maybe he was right this time. Maybe just this once, he was actually right.
. . .
“Yes. Yes, I under—You needn’t be swept away by such passion, it’s not advisable to your current state. I do understand. We’re working as fast as we possibly can. Forget not that I too have a wager in this back-alley gamble, Mr. Lamperouge. Rest assured I will send word the moment it has been finalized.”
When he hung up, Lloyd picked up the pudding he had set down for the rare phone call and continued to watch Cécile play with his beloved child through the window
“Who was that?”
“Who was what?” he asked innocently with a mouth full of pudding.
“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” Her sigh crackled over the intercom. “Who were you on the phone with?”
“His Royal Highness, of course. He seemed rather eager to use the serum even without a diagnostic. Which is understandable, I suppose. How goes it anyhow? All is well, I presume, since you’ve yet to burst out of the control room?”
“Excellent.” Humming to himself, the scientist left his partner to let her conduct the remainder of the test in relative peace – she was the one with more patience and was more suitable; her science, after all, was one of a more applicable nature, and so, she had far superior experience compared to his own. There was nothing he could do now; it was all in her hands now – and turned to the large screen that had been quietly playing report after report after never-ending report of the political and social turmoil embroiling the nearby city of Pendragon. Now, under normal circumstances, Lloyd wouldn’t have even so much as considered watching the news – he preferred buoyancy over that inflated, grandiose trash – but he had heard (or rather assumed from the requests that the Weiss Ritter were sending in) that now even silver spoons and golden hair were to be burnt at the stake. Which was terrible news as that could only mean one thing – no more funding.
The mere thought made him shiver. He had had such fun at Camelot over the years and had grown uncharacteristically fond of its state-of-the-art facilities and deliciously long leash. But science could only be done where there was money, and since science was the only real use that Lloyd had – other than consuming copious amounts of pudding – he would leave should it ever come to that. He had no attachment to those who had served as patron to his endeavors; to him, it would be nothing but the close of one epoch and the open of the next. So it had gone for the past 27 years since he had graduated as doctor of philosophy 8 years before the norm and had roped in his first investor.
As if on cue, the TV bore the images of a bombing in one of the residential districts of the city – which was nothing new by any means as the heathens had made a fashion of targeting the innocent, save for the fact that the building that had been razed had once been a monolith dedicated to the wealthy elite.
At the burning effigy, Lloyd couldn’t help but cluck his tongue. With the poor and misfortunate dead, the lust for war was now moving to those who would soon be gone – and rapidly too. Now even their gold wouldn’t be able to save those poor bastards.
Lloyd could only sigh before moodily returning to his pudding. If only they had been smart enough to donate their affluence to the sciences before falling victim. Then perhaps something useful could have come out of this manic, wanton genocide instead of this senseless emotional high infecting these people.