“…I don’t want to do this,” he whispered. Eyes wide, Gino tried to swallow as he stared at the golden number shining on the door. “I can’.”
“It’d be best if it came from us. You know that. Pull yourself together. It’s not going to help them in any way if you unravel in front of them. Get ahold of yourself.”
Monica patted him on the back as he nodded and dried his eyes. She understood his pain. While she hadn’t been in the same graduating class, she had been the one to show him and Suzaku the ropes, so to speak, when they had been assigned to her precinct, and guide them afterwards, and for that she shared a connection to the that no other did. For that, she felt a sadness that no other in the force could feel other than Gino Weinberg.
She waited until he had recomposed himself and, once she had asked him if he was ready, rang the doorbell. Squaring her shoulders, she tugged on the hem of her dress blues as she waited for the door to open. The sick feeling in her stomach intensified as she saw the bright smile waiting on the other side.
“Hi!” Monica’s heart seized as the little girl cheerfully waved. “Oh! Hi, Uncle Gino! Nice suit! It looks just like the one that Papa wore when we went to that ceremony thing! Oh, do you know where Papa is? He didn’t tuck me in yesterday and he promised he would. He owes me a chocolate kiss you know.”
Her resolve nearly crumbled, but she set her jaw. With a strained smile, the policewoman asked, “May I speak to your mother please?”
The officers looked up with pale faces at the young woman who had appeared behind her daughter. When Monica saw her, she was reminded of the pictures Suzaku had had on the inside of his locker. There had been three of his daughter and another of his family and then his wedding picture. They had often teased him for his adoration and fawning over his wife and daughter, all of which he had taken gamely with a good-natured smile. It had all been said in jest, of course. Though they poked fun at him, in reality, they had all very much admired his dedication and love, and all knew that nothing would have separated him from being with them, save for death itself. This, Euphemia must have known – she might have even known last night when Suzaku never made the call that he would be home late as he always did whenever the work day ran late for him – because when she saw her and Gino standing in the doorframe in their best clothes with grim expressions, her smile slowly faded away.
“Sakiko, why don’t you go decorate some cupcakes for our guests?”
“Can I make one for Papa too?”
“Of course you can, sweetie.”
The child giggled to herself as she thought of what kind of cupcake she would make for her father. Flashing a thumbs-up and a “Don’t worry, I’ll make you the best cupcakes ever!” she ran disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. When her pattering footsteps stopped, Gino wept.
. . .
Skipping here and there, her son hummed to himself before turning on his heel and asking for the millionth time, “Why didn’t Sakiko come with us to the park?”
And for the millionth time, C.C. replied, “I’m sure she wanted to, mon chaton, but she was too busy. Maybe next time.”
And for the hundredth time, he grumbled, “…I wanted to play hide and seek with her today…”
“But you still had fun today, didn’t you?”
“Yup! I found an acorn!” He proudly brandished the small nut. “A squirrel gave it to me! I wonder if Lulu will like it.”
She couldn’t help but smile as she brought him closer and hugged him. “I’m sure she’ll love it.”
Tightly holding hands, they gently swung their arms between them as they left the elevator. The boy glanced towards the door opposite their own and wondered if he should go and see if Sakiko wanted to play today – even if it wasn’t at the park, they could always play some other game at home. The last time they had played dinosaurs, and she had been a T-Rex while he had been a pterodactyl; it had been some pretty awesome fun, and they hadn’t even gotten to the part when the meteor struck earth and they turned into super dinosaur cop buddies! – when he was distracted by his mother.
“I wonder what we should have for lunch today…” she said to herself just loud enough for him to hear. As she unlocked the door, he wrapped himself around her waist.
“Ice cream? Pretty please with a cherry on top? Extra sprinkles with caramel syrup? M&M’s and gummy bears?”
She laughed. “Maybe after lunch, if you eat everything on your plate like you’re supposed to.”
“Or,” he countered, “we could have ice cream first and then I can eat everything on my plate like I’m supposed to. Or we could my idea instead. I know Papa likes ice cream too, so maybe…”
Speaking of the devil, the two stared at the shoes waiting for them in front of the door. A void expanded in the conversation before the child spoke for the both of them. “Papa’s home? Already?”
C.C. frowned. It was still early afternoon; she seriously doubted he would come home in the middle of the day without good reason. There were times when he didn’t come home until late, late in the night, and those were the days when he was able to come home. She could scarcely imagine what would draw him home in the middle of the day with more than half of his “work day” left
“Oh, then I can just play dinosaurs with him instead!” Plopping down on the floor and tearing his shoes off, he kicked them away before scrambling up to run to what he knew to be his parents’ bedroom when he heard, “Would you like some ice cream, Leopold?”
Sliding to a stop in his fox socks, he said, “Yes! With Papa!”
“Papa can have his after he eats. I think he’d rather have his after he eats lunch.”
“Oh, okay. Then I want mine after I eat too then.”
“Then I’ll get lunch ready. Do you want to work on your duet in the meantime?”
“Oh, yeah! Okay!”
Once he was sufficiently occupied – which didn’t take too long; whenever he sat in front of the piano, Leopold, even at his young age, became engrossed in the 88 black and white keys as if his world started and ended with them – C.C. quietly knocked on their bedroom door before slipping inside.
She found him in the dark room, all of the curtains drawn, hunched over on the edge of the bed with his back to her. Gently closing the door behind her, she waited for him to speak.
“…Shirley and Suzaku are dead.”
C.C. felt her stomach drop.
He looked up at her as she came around the bed, showing her the guilt in his eyes. Reaching for her, he tightly held her, his nails digging into her, as he muffled his sobs. She quietly held him as he wept.
“They’re dead, Ceci. All because of me. They’re dead because of me. It’s all my fault.”
. . .
“Mama, how come Uncle Gino left without saying goodbye?”
Sniffling, Euphemia sat up from where she had been doubled over in the kitchen chair. Drying her swollen eyes, she sniffled her red nose a second time before giving her daughter a watery smile. Beckoning for her, she pulled her up into her lap and tucked strands of her hair behind her ear as she studied her. Sakiko blinked, feeling that something was off but unsure of what.
“Sweetheart, there’s something Mama has to tell you, so I need you to listen carefully until Mama finishes what she has to say. Do you think you can do that for me?”
Brows furrowed together, she silently nodded, and her mother smiled as she hugged her and kissed her forehead. Leaning into her mother’s warmth, Sakiko stared at Ellie who smiled up at her from where she had been abandoned under the table as she listened to what her mother had to say – just as she had promised she would.
. . .
Swinging his legs back and forth, Leopold leaned forward until he was practically laying on the table. Scratching an itch on his nose that had been bothering him for some time, he drummed his fingers on the cool glass before saying, “Sayoko, can we invite Sakiko for a sleepover?”
“Would you rather play with Ms. Kururugi than with Lulu?”
“I love Lulu, but I wanted to play with Papa. Why did Maman send me here?”
Sayoko looked up from the rice she had been washing in the sink as the little boy picked up his kitten so that she was level with his face. Lulu blinked as her tail curled up to tickle his arm.
“Why do you think Maman won’t let me play with Papa, Lulu? You don’t think it’s because she found out about the gumdrops, do you?”
She mewed, and he frowned. He certainly hoped she hadn’t. The other day, he and Sakiko had been playing in the closet when they had found a box of forgotten gumdrops in some nook and some cranny. They had, of course, taken no chances and had carefully split the musty candy right down the line so that each got half before hiding behind a line of perfumed clothing, where they had giggled in the shadows as they cheerfully ate the candied pieces. But it had been right before dinner, so when Leopold had sat down to eat, he hadn’t really felt like eating anything. Especially his peas. Maman hadn’t quite known why – they had hidden the gumdrops very, very well in their tummies – and luckily for him, she never found out why because Papa had left the dinner table in the middle of the meal, looking very pale as he coughed, which had actually worried Leopold a little bit until he forgot all about it when he and Papa played marbles and then taken a bubble bath together.
…But the more he thought about it, maybe Maman wasn’t letting him play with Papa because of the reason he had been coughing yesterday? He hadn’t quite given the game his all as he usually did. In fact, he had been downright distracted, which was something that had never happened before…
“Sayoko, do you think Papa’s okay?”
There was a long pause – one so long he was on the verge of repeating his question; Sayoko was starting to get old. Maybe she hadn’t heard him? Wasn’t that a symptom of being old? – when she said, “I’m sure Master Lelouch will be more than happy to play with you, Monsieur.”
“Right?” Relieved, he smiled. “That’s what I thought too. I knew I was right.”
With a smile, he held the kitten up again. “See, Lulu? I knew I was right. You were just being silly, you silly cat.” He hugged her. “But it’s okay. I still love you anyway.”
Sayoko smiled softly. She still loved him anyway too. They all did. How could they not when he was such a breath of fresh air?
. . .
What little he had allowed himself to eat was thrown up. C.C. quietly dried her hands after putting the last of the plates in the dish washer. When he had finally dragged himself out of bed after some amount of coaxing, he had done his best to keep his food down until she had finished in a valiant attempt to keep from disturbing her dinner, but the timid roar of the running faucet wasn’t loud enough to block out his retching. Sighing, she moved the kettle from the stove and, when he returned from the recesses of the bathroom, handed him a cup of ginger tea.
“I sweetened it for you.”
He gave her a sickly smile in thanks as he held the cup. She watched him take a sip before setting it down on the counter. Sighing heavily, she reached for his hands and traced the lines on his palm. Clasping his hand with both of hers, she raised it to her lips and kissed his hand like he always had in the past to comfort her.
She knew of his grief. He hadn’t told her everything, but what he hadn’t told her she could guess. For Suzaku, she knew how he blamed himself for being the cause, no matter how indirect and how loose the connection was that linked himself with the death, and she knew how much it hurt him. He had, after all, breached the chasm between their two worlds. He had met and spoken to his family, had sat down and had dinner with his wife and child. For God’s sake, their children played together at every possible opportunity they could seize and their respective partners spent just as much time together as their children did. Lelouch had tamed them, so to speak, and had unwittingly set himself up for a sort of pain he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. But she also knew that he had been doing his job long enough to get over Suzaku’s death. It would take time, no doubt, and he would need help, but eventually, he would get over it. Given enough time, he would stop blaming himself for an incident that wasn’t even his to begin with. No, Suzaku wasn’t the problem here; the problem here was how he felt about Shirley.
It wasn’t even her, it was just how he felt towards her that was causing so much issue and self-loathing because the truth of the matter was, if he were to be really honest, the reason why Shirley’s death had so shaken Lelouch was that he just…didn’t care. He didn’t particularly care about her. He had never really had any opinion about her, both before and after he had manufactured that sham of a relationship, and in all honesty, he had actually forgotten about her. With a son to worry about on one hand, the war on the other, and one foot already in the grave, he hadn’t really been inclined to think of her. Not that he would have had he been unburdened with all of those worries; if not for the Hóng Hè specifically targeting her for the thin, unraveling connection between them, he would have continued forgetting her. But she had been specifically targeted for the thin, unraveling connection between them, so he was reminded of her and the depth of his callous inhumanity and so hated himself for it. And for that, C.C. held his hand and brought his forehead to rest on hers as she held him and comforted him and showed him how much she loved him.
. . .
They shared few words as they sat across from one another. Too preoccupied with the table that lay between them, the two men gorged themselves on exotic foods and rich wines. The silverware clinking in their own made-up language, silence filled the room as they filled their appetites with a feast of fragrant soups, sautéed vegetables, and golden roasted rumps. With little to no reserve, they indiscriminately sunk their teeth into dark meats and white alike, swallowed the delicate sauces, chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, and chewed and swallowed, all but licking their plates clean.
Even Schneizel partook ravenously, unbecoming of his customary loftiness, and took more than his helping of the ambrosial feast that lay before him. Kanon had been surprised by his hunger, but as the banquet wore on, and he watched him satiate himself with what could be considered reckless indulgence, he realized that he oughtn’t be surprised. His devouring was no more bizarre than his careful calculating or his omnipotence. Had Schneizel’s appetite not been the one to drive him to create the empire that he had? Had his greed not provided him with all of the power and influence he had to his name in this very day?
He chose not to question. Instead, he chose to relish in the privilege he had been bestowed that to him was sweeter and more filling than the sumptuous feast that had been lain before him could ever be.
. . .
She looked up from the shirt she had been folding to look at the little boy who had been curled up on the couch for the past half hour. The cartoons quietly playing in the background, he turned away from the mouse hammering the cat into the ground as he asked, “When are we going to go back to Orpheil?”
“I…would very much like to return to Orpheil.”
“I had a dream last night. Me and Charlie and Charlotte and Ellie and Sakiko and her family and you and Maman and Papa and Jeremiah were all at Orpheil. Anya too. We were at the beach, and I built a huge sandcastle and all of us lived inside and it was the best holiday ever except it never ended, which was the best part. Well… That and I was also the best swimmer on the entire beach. I was even better than Papa.”
She smiled. “Master Lelouch must have been proud.”
Sitting up, he grinned. “Yup, he was. He gave me ice cream because I was so good. Do you have any ice cream? Because I ate all my peas, you know, just like I promised Maman I would, so I think I deserve some ice cream.”
“We can look and see.”
Cheering, he made a beeline for the kitchen. Standing up, Sayoko followed after, carefully sidestepping the kitten that scampered after, glad to have avoided telling him that she didn’t think there was a very high chance of his dream coming true; that his dream had already been rendered into an impossibility by the company of the father he adored so much.
. . .
Leaving the towel on his head, she reached for his hand and gently squeezed it. “I’m just going to get your medicine, and then I’ll be back.”
He remained silent with his head bowed. C.C. studied him for some time, wondering what thoughts were going through his head. Or, well… She had some idea of what thoughts were going through his head; while Lelouch had told her some of it, she had a feeling he hadn’t told her all of it, which worried her. He had always had a habit of internalizing things, and now, with the guilt of two personal deaths and all that was implied from weighing down on him…
Perhaps she had made a mistake in sending Leopold away to Sayoko for the evening. She had sent him there because she hadn’t wanted to neglect him and draw him away from his usual evening routine as then he’d start asking questions. Not to mention how parenting always required some level of acting – more so with what was going on around them – and she hadn’t thought that either of them would have been up for the task with as much vim and vigor as was necessary. Especially Lelouch. He barely spoke now; who was to say he’d be able to entertain Leopold’s every whim without breaking character?
But at the same time… Their son did cheer him up. At the end of the day, after a day’s ‘work,’ Leopold may not be aware of it, but Lelouch always came home haggard and drained, and one of the few things that helped him recuperate was the games that they played together after dinner. That always seemed to cheer him up and take his mind off what he had come home from. Maybe she should have let him stay home and play as he had wanted?
“I’ll be right back. I promise.” She touched his shoulder. “I’m just going to the kitchen to get your prescription.”
She turned to go, when he grabbed her wrist.
“…Tell me something no one else knows,” he begged. “A story.” His hand slipped down to lace their fingers together. “A secret. Please.”
She stood silently for some time before speaking softly. “…When I left you to marry Schneizel, I thought of dying. I wanted nothing more than to die. I was so disgusted with myself and hated myself so much for leaving you and betraying you that I… I thought there was no point in living anymore. Why should I deserve to when I’d hurt you like I did? I knew all we had was each other, and I knew all you had was me, and yet, I still left you, and I hated myself for it. So I thought of putting an end to it all; Father had already tried to once. Maybe this time would work. So I set to work. I wrote you a letter telling you the truth, apologizing for what I’d done, and I secured a gun. It wasn’t too difficult,” she said bitterly. “I merely had to ask, and it was readily provided, no questions asked.”
A silence seeped into the room as she thought back on the earliest days of her marriage and the misery and pain of. Grimacing, she lowered her eyes to his head.
“But then I found out I was pregnant, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; I had already ruined one life. How could I bear ruining a second? So I locked the gun away and burnt the letter. The guilt and pain was still there, but I thought that maybe I could redeem myself with the baby. It was selfish of me, but that’s what I told myself if only so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.”
Her eyes prickling, she held him with trembling hands as he wept. “And I’m so glad that I did. I’m so glad I lied to myself because Leopold is so precious to me, and I know you’re so precious to him. He loves you and he believes in you. He waits for you to come home every day. Even when you can’t, he goes to bed, trusting that you’ll be there for him in the morning. You’re the best thing that ever happened to him, and no matter what you do, who you are, he will always love you. And so will I. We love you, Lelouch, and nothing can change that.”
But no, she had made the right decision. Even if Leopold always cheered Lelouch up, he would have only felt all the more terrible for being unable to give him what he thought their son deserved. All the more when such a sacred ritual was tainted by outside affairs. No, C.C. had made the right decision, and she knew Lelouch agreed. His tears said more than enough; it was better for all of them that he be protected from the weakness of his parents. Leopold would be waiting for them in the morning when they were ready to hide their humanity again and happily receive him with open arms and bright smiles, just as he deserved. But until then… Until then, they let loose their agony freely and fearlessly.
. . .
C.C. woke up to the smell of coffee wafting through the room. Feeling nothing but cold, empty space besides her instead of his arm around her waist and his soft breath on her ear, she sat up. Rubbing her eyes, she reached for her robe and hugged herself as she left the warmth of the bed.
He was in the kitchen, a towel protecting his black collar from his damp hair. She stared at him and at the darkness of his clothing, wondering if he was really in a state to go out into the throes of war. He looked up from the newspaper he had been reading. He crossed the room in a few quick strides to kiss her.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“No,” she replied. Reaching for his tie, she straightened the knot before peering up at him. He dropped the façade.
“…I’m…” He paused as he searched for the proper words. “I let it get to me yesterday. I’ve done some thinking, and I’m better now. I’m sorry for making you worry.”
She nodded. He wrapped his arms around her tightly as he whispered, “I love you.”
She thought of telling him what the doctor had told her. She thought of telling him about the news Cécile had found out and that Euphemia had caught onto. She wasn’t sure if he was aware or not of the twins, but in the case he wasn’t… She wondered when she should tell him. She had been meaning to last night once he came home, but when she had found him beside himself with grief, she couldn’t bring herself to. Not then and not now after he had just recovered. He had said he was feeling better, but she could see how fragile that front was. He had enough on his plate as it was; the news could wait a little longer. She would tell him, just not… Just not now. Not so soon after he had broken down.
Patting his chest, she reached up on her toes and lightly returned his earlier kiss. “I love you too.”
She couldn’t help but smile as he smiled. Tucking her hair behind her ear, she held his face as he bent down closer, and told him how much she loved him before falling silent and closing her eyes as he loved her and she loved him.
. . .
Lelouch stood in front of the door, unsure of what to do or even why he was there. He had meant to get into the elevator right after leaving the apartment, but for some reason, he found himself standing in front of the door across from home instead as he ignored all instincts that told him to walk away before anyone came out and caught him standing there. He should leave. He wanted to leave. He had no business here. In fact, he had never really had any business here. So what if Suzaku had… So what if he had been the closest thing to a friend he had had in a long time? So what if Leopold like to play with their daughter? Business was business, and all personal connections he might have shared with this family was no longer. Those had died alongside Suzaku. He had no reason to be wasting his precious time by loitering in front of the door and staring at his warped reflection in the copper num—
He flinched as the door suddenly swung open. Eyes wide, he stepped back as the madam of the household stepped outside before realizing the presence of a visitor. She stared at him with an expression as bewildered as his own, and a palpable silence enveloped them – he had no idea what to say – when she softly said, “Good morning.”
He opened his mouth to greet her in return when nothing came out. His mouth simply fell open and remained there, his voice thrown out by his confusion and guilt. He tried to think of an excuse, or some kind of apology for what he had done to her and her daughter and their lives, but try as he might, he remained mute until she suddenly stepped forward and swiftly put her arms around his waist.
The hairs on his nape stood on end as she leaned forward and embraced him as a brother, instead of retaliating against the murderer that he really was. Unsure of what to do with himself, he stood there, unnerved, as she comforted him in a way that only she could, the wife of the victim, and forgave him for all that he had done and all that he hadn’t until he hesitantly returned her embrace as the golden number on the blank door glowed at him; and it was in that moment that Lelouch began to realize what it was that this woman and her husband and his love and his son had already known for some time. He felt his heart beat for the first time in years.