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The Sweetest Thing

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Prior to being possessed by the spirit of a humble and kind-hearted boy scout, Suzaku had been a menace as a child.

He was the worst sort of person: very loud and usually wrong, prone to outbursts or sulking when chided or corrected. This was a particularly disastrous personality type when paired with Lelouch, who was then, and is now, overly-eager to point out stupidity and errors. There was a good reason that neither of them had any friends beyond each other. 

"You are both very annoying in different ways," Kaguya had declared as a seven-year-old when confronted by the two boys having a loud, unproductive, and entirely pointless argument over the mechanics of beetle flight. Suzaku had insisted they flew like tiny birds; Lelouch said they flew like any other bug and informed Suzaku that he was a moron. They had spent twenty minutes arguing over the merits of each position, despite neither of them knowing a single thing about the subject, before Kaguya pulled up a slow-motion video on her laptop and shoved it in front of their faces. The beetle in the video flew in an incredibly stupid-looking way that was neither birdlike nor buglike.

"We're both morons," Suzaku marveled, and Lelouch conceded that this was indeed the case.

And it is indeed still the case.

Knight of Honor Suzaku Kururugi, he of the heroic Lancelot, the good Number standing against the unwashed and ungrateful masses. What a… unique situation, the royal channel proclaimed the day of the announcement, unable to outright deride him as a circus elephant or future traitor due to Euphemia's patronage of the pilot. Mostly they avoided discussion of Suzaku as a human and instead discussed with glee the irony of Zero's terrorists being brought down by one of their own. The colony of Area 11 will remain in Britannian hands thanks to an Eleven! Fighting fire with fire! Elevens throughout the ghettos will now flock to serve the Empire, witnessing their countryman's meteoric rise through the ranks! Truly Britannia is a meritocracy that rewards hard work and good faith, regardless of humble beginnings! Et cetera.

They've been at it all week. Every time Lelouch glances at the news, some smug broadcaster is discussing the implications of the new honorary knight. Said honorary knight has been absent from class for the past few days, busy learning the many strange rituals of the upper class and getting wheeled in front of cameras with a bashful smile and a princess by his side. Lelouch develops a mysterious nausea that Sayoko attempts to treat with ginger.

"And he's the only son of their last ruler," one of the talking heads says to the other as footage of the knighting ceremony plays in a little square in the corner. "Direct blood lineages are very important to Asians. He's practically a representation of the Elevens as a people."

"Much more so than Zero, certainly. Our reporting suggests that he's from somewhere near India and only recently arrived here; that's why he keeps his face hidden. And opinion polling conducted by the Crown shows—"

Rivalz, holding the remote, shoots Lelouch a confused look as he violently pushes the power button on the television in the student council room. Lelouch gives him an apologetic smile. "It's pretty hard to do calculus homework when people are chatting next to your ear," he says, considering the risks and benefits of sabotaging the cable system throughout the entire campus. 

Suzaku returns to school the next day, staying for only two hours and attending physical education plus half of literature class. Suzaku's friends, limited almost entirely to the members of the student council, crowd around him and shower him with congratulations and questions; the other students raise their eyebrows at one another and roll their eyes. Lelouch puts on an expression that he knows Suzaku will recognize as fake and tries very hard to be in the first group and not the second.

They say exactly thirteen words to each other.

In his practiced neutral-but-friendly voice, Lelouch says: "Wow, congrats on the promotion. That's a big deal."

"Thanks," Suzaku replies, kindly refraining from pointing out the way Lelouch's eye is twitching. "I appreciate it."

Then he is approached by Nunnally, who gives him a more enthusiastic greeting and tells him about the party they'll apparently be throwing in his honor. The two friends say nothing further to each other until Suzaku is whisked away to the very important work of guarding Euphemia as she oversees a dog show.

Suzaku knows Lelouch's opinion of this already, just as he knows Lelouch's opinion of him serving in the Britannian military, piloting a death machine for the Britannian military, and allowing himself to be used as a propaganda tool for the Britannian military. They could argue about it for hours, but they won't. Instead, they will pretend that they can ignore those minor differences in outlook and act like close friends.

A lot has changed since the days of debating the mysteries of beetles. Maybe this is what they mean by growing up.

Lelouch laments his lack of grip strength as he tries and fails to snap his pencil in half.

The thing is that the two boys who constantly argued over irrelevant nonsense had been friends in the truest sense of the word. Atrocious personalities aside, Lelouch and Suzaku had understood each other; they knew that no matter how much they argued, no matter how trivial or deeply personal the subjects became, they would still enjoy spending time together the next day.

Whatever they have now might vaguely be called friendship or at least fondness, or at bare minimum a willingness to stand in each other's proximity in mixed company. But that is hardly what they had before. There are too many walls between them these days, and Suzaku seems entirely uninterested in removing those bricks. Lelouch can count on two hands the number of times he and Suzaku have been alone together in the same room, just the two of them, for more than five minutes. Something always seems to come up, some urgent task that must be completed, some work-related duty forgotten until that very moment, and then he's off to the magical world of the Engineering Department. These very important errands seem to multiply whenever he and Lelouch broach an uncomfortable topic: anything related to the past, anything related to the military, anything related to the Empire currently and actively colonizing Suzaku's homeland. When the subject is merely the week's chemistry assignment, there are rarely any pressing duties to complete. Strange, that.

He had thought—stupidly, self-centeredly—that maybe it was just the length of time that had passed, that they would endure this awkward period while getting to know each other again and then the dam would break and it would all be perfectly fine. Then there was Mao and Suzaku collapsing on the floor, and Lelouch figured that he'd need to build Suzaku back up again, remind him that he was strong and needed, assure him that he had a place in the world and it was by his—by Nunnally's side, and then it would all work out. 

Then there was Suzaku sticking out of the destroyed white knightmare, inches away from death at Lelouch's orders if not his hands, and there was Euphemia on the news informing everyone that actually, he would be by her side instead.

It's funny—Lelouch had never even considered the possibility that Suzaku was lying to him about what work entailed. Certainly he had not entertained the idea that his mysterious benefactor was Euphemia, which Suzaku sheepishly admitted to a couple of days after the announcement. He'd supposed that the Britannian official who bankrolled Suzaku's tuition was Andreas Darlton. The general has a habit of adopting orphaned boys from territories conquered by Britannia, raising them as good Christian soldiers, and integrating them into polite society. The Darlton Brothers, now numbering nine, are frequent subjects of fawning media coverage and documentaries. Lelouch had assumed that poor orphaned Suzaku, eager to serve and bereft of a father figure, was in the process of becoming Suzaku Darlton. He had never brought it up, fearing that the praise Suzaku would heap on his mentor would cause Lelouch's eyes to roll so far into his head that he'd never get them back out. His eyes are rather important to his plans. 

Come to think of it, he'd—never asked if Suzaku had met either Cornelia or Euphemia, figured he would've said something if he'd done more than glance in their direction. But of course they would at least know of him, given his rather public non-involvement in Clovis' unfortunate facial reconstruction incident. Lelouch supposes that he should listen to CC's advice for once and stop priding himself on his intelligence.

Oh, was all he'd thought once he'd had his obligatory mental breakdown over the prospect of nearly killing his best friend, adjusting to the new reality of Knight of Honor Suzaku Kurugi, whose name was misspelled in the official announcement in the paper the next day, probably out of spite. Well then. This certainly explained things, didn't it?

The refusal to talk about the past, the inability to discuss anything deeper than the day's lunch menu or English essay, the insistence on going back to work, the relief on his face as he left. Like he was escaping a miserable social interaction and he could finally go home. To someone else. Not quite the pitiful soul Lelouch thought he could save, the grunt in the Engineering Department's routine testing division who lived a lonely and sad life in the barracks, surrounded by people who berated him and heaped scorn on him every day. 

Suzaku isn't a fragile creature at risk of breaking. He just—doesn't want his faux-friendship with Lelouch to be any more than this easy, light association with an old acquaintance. Lelouch has been making him uncomfortable by pressing for more, by trying to overfill his glass. Because he already has someone giving him plenty to drink, doesn't he.

All he needs from Lelouch is bland water cooler talk, a body to sit next to at lunch. Maybe someone to correct his use of gerunds in his English workbook.

Certainly not someone who will tell him that he's a delusional idiot moron.

"It is wonderful to see you so focused on your studies," his calculus teacher tells him a half-hour later, evidently judging his level of concentration by the fierce expression on his face. "You've seemed a bit distracted as of late, but you have always had such promise. It's good to have you back, Mr. Lamperouge!" He pats Lelouch on the back, returning to the whiteboard to resume his lesson on integrals.

Lelouch glances down at his notebook and is surprised to see that he's been copying down his teacher's notes for the past thirty minutes—with the notes interrupted at regular intervals by minor digressions about Suzaku, Britannia, and the amount of sugar in the cafeteria's pasta sauce. It has not, alas, been a conscious endeavor, nor is his present concentration devoted to unit seven of the math textbook. He has instead been committing his mental bandwidth to an imaginary discussion with Suzaku. More precisely, he has been fantasizing about a deeply one-sided argument in which he lists all the ways that Suzaku is being an imbecile. Thinking of synonyms for moron has made up a not-insignificant percentage of this exercise. 

He concedes exactly one point in Suzaku's favor: it is true that Lelouch has also been reluctant to break down some of the walls between them. The walls related to Zero and the Black Knights, specifically… but these aren't things that he wants to keep from his friend. Lelouch would like to emphasize the fact that he has repeatedly and enthusiastically asked Suzaku to step past those barriers, to join him on the other side, and Suzaku has rejected him at every turn. Had he agreed to abandon this moronic path of his and stand beside Lelouch, of course Lelouch would have taken a sledgehammer to every last brick that stood in their way. 

But now he is trapped here with these still-standing walls, because Suzaku's pigheaded stubbornness has created an insurmountable situation for the both of them. Suppose Lelouch rewards Suzaku's frequent misdirections and lies with the unvarnished truth. Suppose he's mature and puts faith in the strength of their bond. What, exactly, would Suzaku do with this information? Arrest him? Alert Cornelia, Schneizel, his father? Put in an anonymous tip to the police? Do nothing as Zero's men continue to (justifiably, he must add) kill Suzaku's brothers-in-arms? If Suzaku were to chide Lelouch for hiding this from him—and he would, if he knew—then what is the better alternative that he would propose? Or would he just sit there and give another moralistic speech about honesty and justice?

And what about you, O scion of the Engineering Department?, Lelouch would say. Is your obsession with honesty a recent conversion, or is it just that your lies are noble while mine are evil? Is your brand of justice good while mine is wrong because yours is rubber-stamped by the powers that be? Are you taking out your sword only to slay dragons? How chivalrous of you.

The bell rings, signifying the end of class in reality and the beginning of another debate round in Lelouch's brain. He stomps back to the clubhouse arguing with the Suzaku in his head as the real one is off standing in front of cameras at a public relations extravaganza. Sayoko takes one look at his face and wordlessly hands him a cup of ginger ale and a plate of salted crackers.

The early afternoon's agenda, in approximate order of urgency: investigate the best way to oust the puppet ruler of Thailand and find a suitable replacement for him without actually leaving Area 11. Refill Nunnally's prescriptions online. Complete pages 17-21, evens only, of the calculus workbook. Carry out the first two steps for the chocolate chip cookies that he and Nunnally will apparently be baking for Suzaku's Congratulations On Becoming A Bigger Cog In The Machine party.

Lelouch's current preoccupation, taking precedence over the other tasks: daydreaming about all the ways he could ruin the happy storyline that has been created around the good princess and her dashing knight.

He has an abundance of options. Suzaku is still his best friend, even if the feeling is not mutual, so violence and/or dark magic are methods he tucks away for more cynical moments. And he hardly needs them, because he has something just as useful up his sleeve: information. Truth. Telling the truth is the right thing to do, isn't it? The moral and just and upstanding thing, the proper way of doing things. All the adjectives that Suzaku loves so much.

Here is the truth, then: Prime Minister Kururugi Genbu, hailed (absurdly, but no matter) as the personification of noble and self-sacrificing Japan's spirit, did not resign himself to an honorable death at his own hands in penance for failing to protect his nation. He had not, as the press at the time insisted, given his cabinet members a final speech chronicling his hopes and desires for the nation as it entered its colonial era. He had not ended his life with a sword supposedly crafted by Masamune's student Kanemitsu, even though that made for quite the symbolism.

More truth: Kururugi Genbu's (unrealistic, unwise) ambition of repelling Britannia was fully intact until he had the misfortune of getting into an argument with his ten-year-old son, who was armed with a kitchen knife and improbably good aim. He had been rushed to the hospital, his portal vein and liver both hemorrhaging from their deep wounds. A single stab to the abdomen is quite unlikely to result in death, especially if prompt medical treatment is sought. Suzaku's excellent point of entry and applied force ensured that he beat those odds. Kururugi died three days after the confrontation with his son, surrounded by harried bureaucrats and the scent of antiseptic.

It was, in hindsight, probably the wisest thing Suzaku has ever done. Of course Lelouch understands his shock and regret over the incident—from his reaction to Mao's taunting, Lelouch can easily guess that the murder was an impulsive action, a flare-up of Suzaku's tendency towards violence, a mistake that he could not undo. But Japan is better off without its Prime Minister, who was not suicidal but who had decided that the entire nation should be. Getting Kururugi out of the way and leaving the nation with a wholly invented but patriotic myth around him was beneficial to the people of Japan. 

If Suzaku didn't flinch every time Lelouch mentioned something more morally complicated than Milly's proposals for new uniform designs, Lelouch would gladly tell him all of this in an attempt to clear his conscience. But as it stands, Suzaku obviously views his patricide as some sort of sin that he must atone for, and has probably deluded himself into believing that serving Euphemia can cleanse him like the bubblegum-flavored blood of Christ itself. Trying to change the mind of someone clinging to faith is a waste of time. 

But confession is the first step towards forgiveness, is it not? It seems his dear friend has forgotten this crucial component of salvation, so Lelouch will helpfully remind him.

He opens his word processor and begins frantically creating a PR statement, accompanied by an English translation, to be published after a speech given by Zero. The Black Knights have learned that the commonly-accepted story surrounding the martyr Kururugi Genbu's death is little more than Britannian propaganda. The Prime Minister was murdered in his own home to ensure the Empire's victory over Japan's forces by his son, Suzaku, who has served the imperialists ever since. As a reward for his assistance, Britannia promised the young Suzaku that he would rise through the ranks of their military, earning money and power over the very people whose hopes he crushed that night. He has continued to receive accolades and promotions, appearing in Britannian fluff pieces with a smile on his face—all while keeping this information secret from you, the people of Japan, whose self-determination he destroyed with his own hands. Below, we have printed transcripts of the testimonies given by individuals with direct knowledge of these shocking revelations, beginning with Todo Kyoshiro, who—

A Pizza Hut delivery truck pulls up to the clubhouse with three loud honks, ruining his evil machinations.

This is notable only insofar as it is a truck and not a bike or small sedan, both of which have plagued his home as of late. 

CC emerges from wherever she's been lounging, a sticker book in one hand and his credit card in the other. "I needed to spend enough to get the limited-edition window decals as a prize. Two hundred and ninety-five dollars," she announces, "and twelve cents. Including three crates of orange soda and a twenty-percent gratuity. I'm sure you don't want to be known as a stingy tipper." She exits his room without a further word.

He is too bewildered to speak. Nunnally wheels past his doorway, escorted by Sayoko. "Oh! I was just about to put in an order from that Italian shop that you like. But this works fine, too. Suzaku likes pizza, doesn't he?"

"I," Lelouch says, downing the rest of his flat ginger ale to buy time, "yes. He does. I wanted to order something he likes for his own party, even if it is a little lowbrow. It's his special day, after all!"

Nunnally nods sweetly. "I think that's a great idea. That just leaves dessert. Sayoko and I will get started mixing the ingredients now. Would you like to join us?"

Lelouch stares at his half-finished press release, the English translation of which currently clocks in at three thousand words. Rearranging his face into a smile that Nunnally cannot see, he closes his laptop and goes off to bake cookies for his worst enemy.

If Nunnally's good name is to be associated with these cookies, they must be delicious, and so Lelouch reluctantly allows his famed chocolate chip cookie recipe to be used for this farce of a party. He spent several months perfecting it as a fifteen-year-old, with assistance from Sayoko (collaborator) and Shirley (taste-tester). Brown butter, dark brown sugar, Greek yogurt, and sea salt separate it from the common riffraff. By wide agreement it is excellent. By the agreement of Lelouch's ego it is far too good for a celebration dedicated to advancement through Britannia's ranks. 

Still, he stands in the kitchen, shaping the chilled dough of the second batch to the appropriate dimensions. Suzaku may not deserve cookies, but if he must have cookies, then they will be perfect. Sayoko contributed the browned butter, while Nunnally whisked the batter. CC's sole contribution involved stealing some dough and stuffing her face with it before disappearing back into his room. Everyone evacuated the area after performing their assigned tasks, knowing that Lelouch tends to get slightly irritable when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. And so he is alone, measuring the distance between the lumps of dough with a ruler.

As if on cue, the honorary knight himself waltzes into his humble abode, gracing the clubhouse with his presence immediately after the cookies are placed into the oven. He is still in his finery, the dashing Lancelot in the flesh. (Without the adultery and retreat into a hermit-like existence, presumably.)

"Hey," Suzaku says, walking into the kitchen. "It smells amazing in here."

"So amazing it made you forget to ring the doorbell?" Lelouch replies, perhaps a tad more sour than intended.

Suzaku continues to blithely ignore his friend's bitterness. "I guess so! I just wanted to drop by and say hi to you guys. I know we haven't had the chance to hang out lately."

Setting the timer with an unnecessarily single-minded focus, Lelouch turns his back to him. "Oh, it's no problem. We know you've been busy. This sort of opportunity isn't an everyday thing, after all."

"Thanks for not freaking out about all of this. I know you have your own views of—everything," Suzaku says, coming to stand beside him and stare at the oven. Lelouch stares with him, the two morons gazing at the cookie dough in silence for three solid minutes. "I honestly had no idea she was going to do that," Suzaku finally adds. "It was as surprising to me as it was to you."

The cookies have started to assume their form, flattening out as they bake. "What's surprising about it? You've become the Empire's most valuable pilot in Asia. They just kept your name out of the press for some obvious reasons. Now everyone knows the truth, including us." He kindly gives Suzaku a moment to say something like gosh, you're right, I'm sorry for neglecting to mention that I've been sitting inside the most advanced weapon in Area 11 for the past month and a half, thereby vastly increasing the chances of you unknowingly causing my violent death, but Suzaku is silent. "You should be proud. A promotion is long overdue."

"...thanks," he says again, making awkward but intentional eye contact via a sidelong glance. He looks sincere, without the fake boyish smile that he has grown accustomed to as of late. "I just wanted to—I mean, I would have told you in advance. If I'd known. That's all."

"Stop thanking me," Lelouch complains. Stop thanking me unless it's to say thank you, Lelouch, for not using your evil mind-control power to command me to abandon my military duties and resume a new and happy life in the Tuscan countryside, he mentally continues, which you could do at this very moment and I'd be none the wiser, but you won't, because you're a delusional simpleton. Much appreciated! "I haven't done anything for you," he says instead.

"No?" Suzaku goes over to the sink, licking the measuring spoons coated in cookie dough like some kind of animal, ignoring the sound of Lelouch's strangled outrage. "These aren't for me?"

Lelouch finds himself unable to speak for the second time in an hour. Perhaps CC and Suzaku would enjoy each other's company, what with their addiction to disgusting food and ability to leave him feeling like a complete fool. "Nunnally wanted to make them," he finally manages, with considerable effort.

His effort is sadly wasted on Suzaku, who only raises his eyebrows and continues eating the bacteria-laden treat. "But you're the one in the kitchen. Did you kick her out so that you could focus on your craft?"

The stupefied silence that follows is miraculously interrupted by the kitchen timer going off. "If that gives you salmonellosis, I don't want to hear you whine," he says, straightening out his spine as he walks to the oven and retrieves the perfectly-golden-brown cookies, which are for Nunnally on behalf of Suzaku and not for Suzaku himself, since Suzaku is an ignoramus and part of the imperialist machine overseen by the Emperor and does not deserve cookies. There's a difference. There is.

"Hey," Suzaku says, dropping the teasing tone and sliding up behind him. "Seriously, I appreciate it. Both of you." He looks down at the tray. "I know they're too warm to hold together, but can I take one for the road? I've gotta go, but I'm dying to try one before I leave. This has gotta be one of your personal recipes that you obsessed over for a year or something."

Lelouch looks at Suzaku's hopeful face, then at the cookies, and feels a deep sense of resignation. He gets a paper plate bordered by hearts and stars from the cabinet and carefully slides the two best-looking cookies onto it without destroying them. "Try to make them last."

Suzaku wants to say hello to Nunnally (and presumably receive an actual you're welcome from someone) before he leaves, so they head to the living room, where Nunnally and Sayoko have been enjoying a pleasant meal while listening to the two boys engage in awkward attempts at social interaction in the kitchen.

They are joined by approximately forty boxes of pizza and three crates of orange soda, which CC has neglected to refrigerate. (It is unlikely that forty boxes of pizza could fit in their mid-sized refrigerator, to be fair.) The window decals, evidently worth three hundred dollars, are nowhere to be seen; Lelouch suspects that his bedroom window is currently being plastered with Cheese-kun-related stickers.

Suzaku is naturally mystified by their unusual choice of cheesy decor. "That's—a lot of pizza," he manages, inspecting the stack of cholesterol and sugar.

"It's the menu for the party!" Nunnally informs him. "Lelouch wanted to get something you'd enjoy eating."

"Oh… wow. Thanks!" Suzaku says, desperately trying to meet her level of enthusiasm and cheerfulness. Then he turns to Lelouch, a confused look on his face, and adds in a lower tone: "Won't it be cold by then?"

"It's already lukewarm, probably."

"…is that okay?"

"You like cold pizza." Suzaku's specific opinion of room-temperature pizza is unknown to him, but given his friend's utter lack of taste, he probably won't mind it. And Lelouch can hardly get a refund without explaining to his credit card company that he is a victim of identity theft due to an immortal witch who has invaded his living quarters, so the menu is regrettably set in stone at this point.

"I do," he admits. "But the other students are used to more—"

"You're the guest of honor. The other students don't matter. Stop being a selfless clown for three hours."

He does not mean for it to come out quite so bluntly; those words are too close to the honesty and directness that comes with actual friendship. Lelouch had meant to say something like It's your special day, after all!, something bland and meaningless and more befitting of their current acquaintanceship. But Suzaku takes it in stride. "Then the two of you have my sincerest gratitude," he bows, much to his friend's horror. "Apparently that's the fancy way of saying thanks," he tells Nunnally. "I've had to say it a lot lately."

"Being a knight suits you," Nunnally says in such a sincere voice that it makes Lelouch's nausea return, the stale cheesy smell suddenly unbearable. "And I'm sure it will be like second nature to you soon! You'll be part of this world for a long time." Or forever. Or until Area 11 stops being a flashpoint and the resistance settles down. Until the Empire has no more need of Suzaku as a soldier in his homeland and he is either shuffled off to some other warzone or made to remain a propaganda figure or puppet ruler by Schneizel's machinations. Perhaps Area 11 will one day be ruled over by a Japanese man who has been in Britannia's little world for so long that he interacts with cats more than Japanese civilians. Change from within, indeed! You dolt, dotard, dumbass, dummkopf—

Suzaku kneels next to Nunnally, allowing her to grasp his hands in her own. "Thank you," he says to her, looking up at her face. "I'd like to think that you've trained me well for the job." He kisses her hand, rising as she releases him. "Never felt like much of a job to me, though." 

He takes a bite of one of the cookies before he leaves. "I knew it was one of your secret recipes," he whispers. And then he's off, back to work.

With a weary sigh, Lelouch flops down at his desk, opens his laptop, and deletes the exposé-in-progress. CC arranges the members of Cheese-kun's family on the window behind him.

"Evil plans tend to work best when they are put into action," she informs him while reaping the benefits of her credit card fraud. "I say this because you seem unclear on the concept."

He says nothing in return, opening up his recipe document and adding Suzaku enjoys them to the notes section of his chocolate chip cookies, then begins work on the coup in Thailand.

Preparations for the party begin immediately after the final class of the day. They have about an hour and a half to set up the decorations Milly's purchased, organize the food tables and seating areas, and mitigate any disasters that pop up in the process. Shirley and Nunnally join the President and Vice President in their duties; Kallen pleads fatigue, Nina doesn't want to be involved, and Rivalz is too busy with a video game.

Lelouch doesn't like the way that Kallen sulks around the perimeter of the room, watching the others work as she seems to be investigating ideal locations for something. Something like slipping poison into one of Suzaku's drinks, maybe. Or something bloodier. Kallen's never been the poison type—more a dagger-to-the-heart type. He can only pray she won't be stupid enough to try anything at the party, and curses Diethard for raising the deeply-reasonable suggestion in the first place. Discreetly, he pulls aside one of Nunnally's friends helping them organize the room, commanding her to monitor Kallen from a distance of ten to twenty feet and notify him of any unusual movements, expressions, or tools.

If he were to authorize his troops to injure Suzaku, it would be a very specific injury, inflicted under controlled, calm circumstances that left no room for fatal errors. Something like—rupturing the triceps of his dominant arm via a complex comedy of errors, orchestrated by a small army of geassed helpers and perhaps some precariously-balanced weights. A painful and debilitating wound, no doubt; it would prevent him from piloting for months. And months is all Lelouch needs. Once he's mopped up Britannia's forces in Area 11 and moved on to mainland Asia, it will be much easier to make Suzaku see the whole plan with clear eyes. 

The school would probably be the best place to inflict the injury. He doesn't need breathless news coverage about the Black Knights trying to harm the handsome and wholesome knight climbing the ladder of meritocracy. This would be a mere accident of fate, orchestrated not by Zero but by Suzaku's best friend, trying to keep him alive.

He stares at the life-sized cutouts of Suzaku and Euphemia, looming over the buffet table. Yes… this is a workable plan. If he gets Suzaku out of the way with only mild violence, much as he'd hate to do it, then he can protect him from Britannia and the Black Knights at the same time.

A shove to the back makes him jump, a startled yelp unbecoming of a terrorist leader emerging from his mouth.

"You look like a bitter old lover at her ex-boyfriend's wedding," Milly says, holding a bag of confetti in her other hand. "No more sulking! A Vice President must put his personal feelings aside as he carries out his duties!"

"I'm quite sure I don't know what you're talking about," he breezily replies, returning to his task of arranging his cookies in a rose pattern.

"Lie to others, Mr. Vice President, but not to your superior." She glances at the cardboard versions of Suzaku and Euphemia. In a whisper, she confides: "Still, this does explain a lot, does it not?"

"What does it explain," grumbles the man who had the same thought less than a week ago, "his new cologne?"

She raises her eyebrows suggestively. "Well, it's interesting, no? There are a lot of Honorary Britannians in the settlement, plenty of them school-aged, but the princess only provided tuition for one. And he happens to be very cute."

"And what do you mean by that?"

"I mean that she's a young lady, you ridiculous man," she continues, sprinkling confetti on the floor. That will be a nightmare to clean up later, a task that will almost certainly be left to him. "She has a girl's dreams. She probably envisions attending the academy herself, eating lunch with him and going on cute little dates."

"She is in a position of power over millions of native Japanese people. She doesn't get to go and live some idyllic fantasy while acting as part of the colonial government that occupies their land," he complains, his voice evidently louder than intended. Kallen stares at him from across the room, wide-eyed. "I mean—she doesn't have time to do so while performing her imperial duties," he corrects. His cookie-rose has somehow morphed into a cookie-skull, which he hastily shoves back into a pile.

"Neither does Suzaku, yet here he is." With a wink, she departs, off to sprinkle heart-shaped confetti in a ring around the image of the smiling couple.

Lelouch hopes Arthur mistakes it for a scratching post.

Once he's completed his assigned tasks and the room is sufficiently packed with medium cheese pizzas and orange soda, Lelouch darts back to the clubhouse, determined to iron out the details of his plan before inspiration leaves him. He has thirty minutes before the party starts—plenty of time to put together a rough outline of injuring his only friend.

He quickly decides that a triceps rupture will not be enough to keep Suzaku down. He'll need to aim for the rotator cuff as well, inflict a tear there that he can fully recover from, but not until he's endured physical therapy and perhaps surgery for a minimum of three months. Given Suzaku's freakish and inexplicable strength, he will need to do a lot more than merely trick him into lifting something heavy. He'll need to somehow pin Suzaku down, have something heavy drop onto him from above. Maybe something heavy and sharp, but Lelouch doesn't want to cut his arm off. Perhaps something heavy, sharp, and small? An item that can puncture his muscles and tendons without slicing the bone. Or he could geass someone to accidentally press Suzaku into a wall with something similarly pointy attached to it, though that person would need to be quite bulky for that to work—

"I beg your pardon," Sayoko says from his doorway, causing Lelouch to slam his laptop shut in a moment of panic. "Miss Nunnally sent me to check on you. She wishes to know if you're planning on attending the party, and wished for me to inform you that it began fifteen minutes ago."

Ah. He has been so absorbed in his research that he lost track of time. Lelouch rises, thanks Sayoko, and heads into the kitchen to grab his gift before heading to the function hall. He saved his final batch of cookies for Suzaku. They're still warm, nearly falling apart, just the way he likes them.

Suzaku is surrounded by well-wishers by the time Lelouch enters the room, sycophants flocking to him now that he has status. Lelouch is certain that at least a few of them are the same students who jeered about ghettos to him mere weeks ago. Progress! Change from the inside! The new generation of social climbers doesn't care if the Honorary Britannian knight was born a Number, as long as he can get them into a princess' circle of friends!

He does not have time to revel in his resentment, as his phone vibrates in his pocket, a text message from Nunnally's friend displaying on the screen. She keeps looking at her purse. I think I saw something sharp in it. She seems upset or nervous.

Delete this conversation, Lelouch texts back. He glances around for Kallen, finding her headed towards Suzaku with a grim look on her face. A tiny pink purse is clutched in one of her hands, her fingers bone-white from gripping it so tightly. Well, it's not a dagger, per se, but it's close enough to what he imagined. Sighing, he moves to intercept her, placing his box of cookies on a nearby table to keep them safe. They cross paths just in time; Suzaku won't be getting stabbed by a purse-knife today.

The party comes to an abrupt and scandalous end mere minutes later, as Milly's engagement is revealed and Suzaku is told that he must leave his own celebration for, of course, work. Milly attempts to distract the crowd from her personal matters by ordering her cronies to blast the partygoers with a confetti cannon, covering the students in hearts and miniature crowns. The accompanying chaos leaves Suzaku alone with Nunnally, both of them looking quite thankful for the momentary lack of company.

A student attempting to flee the onslaught of confetti bumps into the table beside them, upon which a television has been haphazardly balanced on a stack of pizza boxes. It's been playing Britannian hymns accompanied by patriotic imagery to celebrate the new participant in the Empire's proud tradition of knighthood. The television tumbles down, its screen about to break upon Suzaku's shoulder as he kneels in front of Nunnally. With an inner strength and speed that he rarely possesses, Lelouch shoves the thing back in the other direction, sending it thumping safely onto the floor as Suzaku's head whips around in confusion.

"Woah," he whistles. "Good thing it didn't fall this way. That would've hurt."

Lelouch slumps beside the table, out of breath from the five milliseconds of exertion. Suzaku and Euphemia's cutouts stand across from him, placid and unconcerned in the midst of the revelry. The ring of confetti around them has been shuffled by the feet of passersby, and now forms a giant heart. They look right together, wide-eyed and soft and gentle like something out of a sanitized fairytale, the beautiful princess and her loyal knight. It's one of the only kind things the media can bring itself to say about Suzaku: he just looks perfect with her, doesn't he?

And Lelouch is forced to admit that he does. This bizarro-Suzaku, devoid of the righteous fury and short temper that had once been his hallmark, this meek little mouse desperate for approval and respect, is perfectly suited for the fairy princess. It's like they were meant to be. Truly.

Lelouch has always imagined Suzaku beside him, not as his knight but as—as a constant companion, without an exact descriptor or title. It had seemed so clear that he had taken it for granted, even before they had been reunited in the ghetto. Of course his only friend would be the one walking with him on whatever path he took—who else would be by his side if not Suzaku?

But when those memories that never were resurface in his mind, they seem wrong, misaligned; Lelouch is an actor playing a role occupied in reality by another. It is either jealousy or pettiness that forces him to keep trying, to keep searching for the path that will make it all click into place again. Even though they all result in dead ends.

Suzaku will never join him.

He knows that. Lelouch could take off every mask he's ever worn, reveal himself as an angry and spiteful child on a crusade against an enemy that more than deserves to burn, and the most he'd earn is a pitying smile and an assurance that it's not too late to put all this silliness behind him. He could shove Suzaku into a chair and force him to watch footage of Britannia's atrocities, features of the system and not glitches in it, and he would be met with a stubborn insistence that it can change, that it can be the noble hegemon Euphemia envisions it to be. That if only people would just lay down their arms and stop fighting, there would be peace, and maybe then things would get better. Any arguments to the contrary would be branded with the wrong methods stamp and sent to the trash pile.

He could rip out his heart and throw it at Suzaku's feet, let him inspect it for flaws and for whatever specks of softness still exist within it, and nothing would change. Suzaku would look at it for a moment, maybe dust it off, and kindly give it back to its owner like a rejected gift. He has no use for something so defective when he has something better at home. And his home sure isn't here. It's too cold where Lelouch's mind is, probably; the roof leaks and it rains often. Why stay there when you could live in a cushy palace surrounded by gardens of hedges and wildflowers?

A smart man would consider those facts and act on them, using any tool at his disposal—including, perhaps, his ability to make anyone do anything he wants—to get this obstacle out of his way. A smart man would accept that the alternative is death or failure.

Lelouch is not a smart man.

He walks over to the table that the box of cookies is sitting on, tidying up the red string securing it and shooing away a beetle perched atop it. He wordlessly hands it to Suzaku, already halfway out the door.

Suzaku blinks down at the box, feeling the underside of it. "They're still warm."

"Warm and falling apart," Lelouch confirms. "It probably looks like a disaster in there."

"You can go ahead and say perfect for an animal like you," Suzaku says, opening it up. "I know you're thinking it." He reaches into the box and pulls out a handful of cookie pieces, chocolate getting all over his hands as he shovels them into his mouth.

"I've been trying to be more polite lately," Lelouch says, very carefully. "Like you. A noble knight can't have a rude friend at school."

Suzaku licks the chocolate off his fingers before going back in for seconds. Lelouch grabs a useless napkin from a nearby table and offers it to him, concerned about the amount of bacteria he's ingested today. "I don't feel like much of a noble knight when I'm around you. I feel like more of an idiot."

Lelouch reaches into his pockets and retrieves two wet wipes, shoving them into Suzaku's hand for good measure. "We're a perfect match, then."

"Guess so." Suzaku tidies himself up as best he can, wrapping the half-empty box back up with the string. "Thanks for the cookies. Brown sugar, right?"

He is staring directly into Lelouch's eyes. It would take five seconds to end it here. Stop serving Britannia. Forget how to pilot a knightmare for six months. Tell your commanding officer to shove it on live television. Go be a farmer in Mexico. Stay with me.

"Yeah," he says, hating how honest his words are. "You're welcome. I'm happy that things are turning around for you, no matter how I feel about the rest."

And then he's rewarded with a gentle smile, and a "thought you'd never say it," and a wave goodbye.

He sighs, stares at the room filled with tiny hearts, and gets a broom.