~Lelouch vi Britannia~

Lelouch managed to catch Suzaku off guard and grinned at the slight widening of his knight's eyes when he performed a bow in respect. Lelouch felt nothing about the actual gesture; there was no shame in humbling himself before his friend. People didn't bow the same way in Britannia, but the most analogous gesture would be to kneel and Suzaku did that for him without complaint when the situation demanded it. Lelouch could pay him back in kind and let the spectators interpret it however they wanted.

Not that Suzaku let him get away with it. His knight had ever been adaptable and quickly bowed in return, though Lelouch noted that he was careful not to lower himself a single degree lower than Lelouch had. With that gesture, he declared to all watching that they were equals. Lelouch couldn't help but smirk at his knight finally accepting that as fact.

When they had each raised themselves back up, Suzaku offered a small nod to Higa, who had knelt and bowed beside him. With all of the formalities seen to, Lelouch offered up the box he had brought with him to Suzaku.

He offered nothing to the shrine. He had no gifts for empty buildings.

Lelouch didn't understand not only Shinto, but religion as a whole. Religious practice had largely gone out of fashion in Britannia and had never been a part of his upbringing; the Ashfords were scientists first and foremost, and if his mother had ever believed in a god, it would have been the Emperor. He understood religion as a vague concept, but had never had an interest in learning anything that wasn't firmly rooted in fact and logic. All that being said, he didn't disparage Suzaku and the others in attendance for practicing their religion, or as much of it as they could salvage after the invasion.

Suzaku took the box and, since he hadn't declared its contents, popped open the lid before promptly slamming it shut again and staring at him wide-eyed. A moment of shocked silence lingered before Suzaku managed to get his expression under control.

"Where did you get this?" Suzaku demanded under his breath.

"I won it ages ago. Some nobleman had it displayed on his mantle so I bartered for it when I beat him in a chess game. It's been hidden in my closet at Ashford for years. I'd quite forgotten about it until you mentioned the rededication of the shrine." He explained quietly.

"But . . . how did you even know what it was?" Suzaku asked in confusion.

Lelouch sent his friend an unimpressed look. "Do you really think that the kannushi could tell ten-year-old me that I wasn't allowed in the shrine and I wouldn't find a way to get in there to see what all the fuss was about?"

He'd been rather disappointed, actually. After hearing the stories from one of the priests while he'd labored to teach Lelouch the Japanese language, he'd snuck into the shrine expecting to have his mind blown. He'd expected to meet a celestial being of immense power, someone stronger than even the Emperor, and instead all he had found was a small mirror. Sure, the mirror was beautifully and distinctly etched on the back side of its polished bronze surface, but it resembled a small plate more than the image of the god that he'd built up in his mind.

If the god actually did exist, he wondered if it wouldn't have preferred to have stayed on the noble's mantle, where it could at least look out at the world, instead of being a spectator to only the happenings of his closet. But at the time it had been unacceptable that anything of Suzaku's be left in the hands of some puffed up Britannian lord who didn't even know the value of what he had as anything more than an art piece.

"Should have guessed." His knight huffed. Suzaku hesitated for a moment, his lost god in hand and clearly about to return it to its rightful place.

"No one knows the shrine is empty." Lelouch reminded.

"Right." Suzaku said, displeased, before he placed the box in pride of place amongst the other gifts he had received. "Thank you, Lelouch."

"You're welcome." He said, then rose to his feet and bowed again as he prepared to return to his Royal Guard.

"Lelouch." He had barely stepped back and turned halfway away before the song of steel escaping its sheath made him pause. Higa sucked in a shocked breath and would have dove at Suzaku if Lelouch hadn't thrown his arm out like a mom that had hit the brakes too hard. He raised his chin and held himself wide open as he faced his knight without even the precursor of a doubt in his mind.

Suzaku had risen to his feet and held the naked blade he'd received from his previous guest in hand. How she'd managed to smuggle it onto the shrine's grounds without any of the other guests noticing and losing their shit, Lelouch had no clue. He still remembered Suzaku complaining about it when they'd been children, about all of the cool katana his family had at the other properties they owned, but that weapons had been forbidden at the shrine since some ancient treaty had been made there centuries ago. Today, on what was supposed to be a joyous return to something like normalcy, that rule had been broken, and not by just any blade.

Suzaku took a small step forward, down off of the shrine's step and onto the tatami that had been laid out for the guests to offer their respects upon. Lelouch held his ground and didn't give an inch. Then Suzaku knelt, with the tip of the blade held over his heart and the hilt offered up to Lelouch in mimicry of his knighting. This sword was longer than the one he'd been knighted with, and Suzaku's solution to that problem seemed to be to brace his palm against the sharp of the blade a few inches below the hilt.

Lelouch stared at the reckless gesture for a moment, somehow so much more potent a show of trust than the point of the blade resting over Suzaku's heart. He didn't doubt that the blade was razor sharp; a single careless movement could see Suzaku cut to the bone. He met his knight's gaze and carefully lifted the blade out of Suzaku's palm, gratified to see no harm had been done.

He lifted the blade away from Suzaku entirely before letting it fall to rest at his side, the point just barely held from touching the ground. Suzaku reached behind him for the scabbard and held it out in offering with both hands as he bowed his head. It truly was a beautiful weapon, despite its bloody history. The scabbard was made of polished wood stained so brightly it was almost orange, and was decorated by intricately braided black leather that matched the twisting design on the hilt. He took the scabbard with the reverence it deserved before promptly sheathing the blade.

He gestured for his knight to rise, both touched and annoyed by the public demonstration of their trust in each other. Today wasn't supposed to be about him, but he supposed that Suzaku couldn't have let the demand presented by the sword linger unanswered for too long. Best to shut it down in the most brutally efficient manner possible.

He bowed again as etiquette demanded, which was met to the same degree by Suzaku, before retreating back to his place with the Royal Guard and enduring the closing of the shrine ceremony with their nervous tension practically suffocating him. They returned to their feet when the other guests rose and began to mingle with each other.

"What's with the steel?" Hector asked after a moment of tense silence.

Lelouch glanced down at the sword hanging loosely in his grip and frowned at it. "Centuries ago, at a time when Japan was ruled over by warlords, one particular daimyo was renowned for his army's success. They never lost a battle and gained much fame and prestige throughout the country. Most of those victories were accredited to the daimyo's general, a samurai named Isshin Kagemori, who had served him faithfully for decades.

"However, when the battles were won and it came time for the daimyo to rule the land that he had won in the war, he made a poor governor. The people suffered terribly under his rule for years and the daimyo had no pity for them. When it became apparent that the daimyo would not change and that there would be no respite, Isshin Kagemori took this blade and removed his lord's head with it before committing ritual suicide. The story has been passed down as a parable about duty to one's people over duty to one's lord and the importance of ruling well. Suzaku was quite fond of the story as a child."

Lelouch sometimes wondered just how much the impact of this story on Suzaku's childhood had led to him killing his father. The story lauded Isshin Kagemori as a patriot who chose loyalty to his people over loyalty to his leader. He'd been cast as a hero and a liberator rather than as a traitor or criminal.

"Tch." Roy huffed. "So giving the sword to Suzaku was what? A reminder of his civic duty?"

"Just that." Lelouch agreed quietly. "One that Suzaku put down before the idea could be given time to go to seed. Suzaku will never be used as a weapon against me."

"Who was the woman who gave it to him?" Hector asked grimly, glancing down the stairway as if she wasn't long gone by now.

"That I don't know, but I do intend to find out as soon as I can corner Suzaku's mother."

"No cornering is required, my lord Viceroy." A voice interrupted in Japanese.

He turned to find Chiho Kururugi had approached him on her own accord. He regarded her coolly as she bowed to him and returned the gesture with little more than a nod. "Kururugi-sama." He greeted.

"Your token gesture was appreciated, but lost much of its impact when you brought your entire cohort with you." She criticized softly.

For a moment, he thought she was talking about his gift to Suzaku, then realized that she was actually talking about Higa instead. He smirked confidently at her, though he'd already suspected that the impact of his choice of protection for the day was much diminished by the presence of the rest of the Royal Guard. "Oh, Sergeant Higa is more than that."

"Indeed?" She wondered with an unimpressed air before running her gaze over the rest of his entourage. "I don't recognize the blonde."

"You say that like you've been studying my Royal Guard." He noted, letting his voice dip dangerously low. Behind him, his entourage shifted at the threat of his tone, though he didn't fail to notice that in the shuffle Gino had been pushed to the back of the group and was mostly hidden behind Charles and Nick's taller statures. Hector, Lukas and Amanda, all three of which were blonde, had been pushed to the front.

Chiho smiled serenely at him. "You are dangerously complacent if you think that the faces of your Wolf Pack are not known, your highness."

He accepted the criticism with good grace - a warning, not a threat - and attempted to put her at ease. "He's one of mine. You don't need to worry about him." He reassured before changing the topic. "Who was the woman who brought this blade into the shrine?" He demanded.

"I do not know, your highness." She answered simply.

He leveled her with his most unimpressed glare. "Shall I assume, then, that she was a representative of the Sumeragi Clan, as there was no other representative?"

"There was no representative of the Sumeragi because you have imprisoned the Clan Head." She responded immediately, her lips pursed into a thin line of anger.

Kaguya had been returned to her estate in Tokyo after he'd finished dismantling the Kenshiki and had been kept under house arrest ever since while he tried to figure out just what response to her transgressions Suzaku would allow, or if her recent actions had finally pushed her outside of the bubble of his knight's protection. He was somewhat enjoying the prospect of letting her stew for a while, only trotting her out for council meetings where she was forced to maintain appearances and watch how powerless the council truly was.

"And no other representative would come in her stead?" He wondered meanly. "How craven to leave you as the sole attending member of your clan."

She barely repressed a snarl at that, but quickly got herself under control and leveled him with her most imperious stare. "I am Kururugi now, your highness, and we Kururugis have hitched ourselves to you. It is only through your protection that we are allowed this much freedom. Do you truly think that I would ever knowingly allow anyone to risk that? She disrespected the kami. She disrespected our clan. All that only to offer a challenge to Suzaku that it was always obvious he would never meet. She was no guest of mine."

He was a little surprised by her vehemence, particularly her faith that Suzaku wouldn't have met the challenge. After what had happened with Suzaku's father, he'd assumed that she would have considered it a possibility in a way that Lelouch hadn't. He nodded his head to her slightly in acknowledgement.

Any way he looked at it, the move had been foolish. In this political climate, if he had been struck down by anyone, let alone by Suzaku, who but Britannia would even gain anything? They were at a traditional Japanese ceremony with their Britannian overlord in attendance without complaint. Surely his mere presence should have indicated that change was nigh. Then again, perhaps this was his bloody reputation working against him in real time.

Chiho excused herself a few moments later, bowing politely to him before continuing on her rounds as social climbers were wont to do. Lelouch remained quiet for a few moments before he let out an annoyed sigh.

"How long have you known Japanese, Hector?" He asked blandly.

The captain of his guard winced at the question, but his entire conversation with Suzaku's mother had been in Japanese and yet still Hector had managed to maneuver his subordinates into a formation that took much of the attention off of Gino.

"A few months." Hector answered reluctantly.

Lelouch forced himself not to scowl as he tried to recall which conversations he had had with Suzaku in Japanese because he had mistakenly believed that it granted them a measure of privacy. He might have been more worried about it if Hector hadn't practically begged for the opportunity to commit high treason in his name only days ago.

"When were you going to inform me of this new skill?" He asked.

"When I became fluent." Hector said. "I'm still not very good at it."

"Is Suzaku teaching you?" He wondered. Perhaps Suzaku had known about this and still chosen to converse with him in Japanese.

If anything, Hector looked even more uncomfortable at the question than he had been about being caught eavesdropping. "Uh, no."

He narrowed his eyes at the man while Hector looked anywhere but at him. "Who then?"

Hector hesitated for a moment, but Lelouch wasn't about to let this go. "I'm learning from Nozomi." Hector reluctantly admitted.

Hector said the name like he should know who he was speaking of, but the only Nozomi he knew worked in his villa. Then again, Hector visited the villa almost daily in the course of his duties and he knew everyone who worked and lived there by name.

Lelouch sighed in slight annoyance. "What you do on your own time is your own business, though I would have appreciated a warning."

Suzaku joined them a moment later, looking only moments away from brusquely telling all of his guests to stop chatting and go home.

"Smile. No one died." He coached in greeting, earning a dirty look from his knight.

"Happy birthday and, you know, Clan Headship?" Roy said brightly and the sentiment was repeated by the rest of his Royal Guard and by Gino and Higa as well.

"Thank you." Suzaku said awkwardly, as if he hadn't expected genuine birthday wishes from so many of his friends.

"Would have brought you a present but someone said that Elevens don't do that." Roy said as he shot a significant look at Hector.

"Uh, we don't, really." Suzaku said awkwardly.

Roy shot Suzaku an unimpressed look before gesturing back toward the shrine. "Your mountain of treasures over there says otherwise."

"That's politics, Roy." Lelouch shrugged, then elaborated. "By giving him a gift they obligate Suzaku to return the favor later."

"That's not true, Lelouch." Suzaku protested. Lelouch arched his eyebrow in surprise at the correction and his knight shrugged a little under the look. "Okay, that's mostly not true. A couple of them were exactly that. Most of them were just trying to find a safe place for the last of their family's treasures. I'm pretty sure most of them are shintai that we'll have to make shrines for."

Lelouch blinked in surprise and viewed the gifts in a new light. It made sense, he supposed. He knew that many shrines had been specifically targeted during and after the invasion. When he'd acquired the Kururugi Shrine on Suzaku's behalf, it had been in little better condition than the house was, but they had quickly managed to rebuild it. Many of Japan's shrines had been pillaged and the relics sold off on the black market, as every indicator of Japanese culture had been suppressed by the new Britannian regime and made contraband. Even the clothes that the guests were wearing today would have been enough to have the owners branded as disloyal to the Empire and likely imprisoned or put to death under Clovis' reign. In that respect, he was a little surprised that so many of these items had lasted this long.

But now the Kururugis were here, retaking their place at the forefront of society under the protection of the Viceroy, and those sacred items might have the chance to be returned to their original purpose without risking their original owners and caretakers' lives. It was the show of trust that he had hoped for when he had pushed Suzaku to regain his inheritance. It was a starting point, but they still had much work to do, particularly by expanding the sphere of protection he could offer further than just to the defunct Japanese nobility that declared their allegiance to the Kururugi Clan.

~Suzaku Kururugi~

Suzaku was running late to his own birthday party. After the ascension ceremony and most of the guests had finally left, he had been corralled into a meeting with his grandfather where his expectations for returning the clan to prominence had been laid out in detail. He had just barely managed to stop himself from telling the old man to go fuck himself.

They had cut him out of the family even before he had left home. They had spat on his decision to become an Honorary Britannian and had belittled his hardships and sacrifices. But now that they had paid off, his family was practically tripping over themselves to use his blood, sweat and tears for their own gain. The vindictive part of him, the part that was all monster, wanted to drive the family to ruin just to spite them. But that wasn't what Lelouch wanted, so he would keep himself in check.

He pulled off the travesty of a haori that he had been forced to wear for the ceremony and forced himself to fold it neatly instead of rolling it into a ball and throwing it in the trash. He had initially refused to wear it because the symbolism of the Kururugi mon being protected by Suzaku, the Vermillion Bird of the South, was a little too on the nose even for him. But his mother had put her foot down and then news of the Viceroy and his entire Royal Guard arriving had reached him and he'd given up on the fight in order to go demand what the hell his friend was thinking.

He couldn't believe things had gotten so twisted. If Hector had overheard Lelouch planning his party, he'd assumed that he'd known the time and venue. Instead, the Captain must have looked at Lelouch's schedule and thought that an event at the Kururugi Shrine was a more likely contender for his birthday party than the one at the Viceroy's Palace.

Suzaku changed back into his uniform, comforted by the weight of the cape that he had earned the right to wear. He offered his final respects to the kami in the shrine before finally making his way down the stairs and into the car he had borrowed from Lelouch's garage. He might have sped a little on his way through traffic back to the city, but compared to the speeds the Lancelot could reach, the highway was barely a challenge and he managed to shave off about fifteen minutes from what it would have taken him going the speed limit.

Despite bargaining with Hector to figure out what Lelouch was planning, he had no idea what he was actually about to walk into. Hector had revealed a number of more and more elaborate and outlandish plans for the party, but he'd known that they were all false the moment Hector had mentioned strippers. Maybe if Roy had been put in charge of planning, but not Lelouch.

He was directed toward one of the smaller, more intimate dining rooms by a member of the staff at the palace and made his way there, pausing on the threshold to take in the scene before him. His guests were arrayed around a table. There were no strippers or cakes large enough for a woman to jump out of in sight.

"Suzaku!" Lukas practically shouted, the first to notice his presence, before leading the rest of the guests into a rousing rendition of 'Happy Birthday to You'. They were all well past tipsy and some were clearly well on their way to drunk. Even Lelouch had a telltale flush to his cheeks, though as always he still maintained a level of control that no one else in the room seemed to be able to manage.

He thanked them again and laughed at their antics before allowing himself to be ushered to the empty place around the dining table at Lelouch's right. He was grateful that Lelouch hadn't put him at the head of the table, particularly after the bowing incident earlier in the day that he had been forced to reverse in order to save his prince's reputation.

Once he was settled and Roy had begun plying him with liquor, Lelouch gestured to one of the serving staff and plates and plates of sushi and sashimi were soon laid out on the table. All of his guests were Britannian and showed a polite, if hesitant, interest in the cuisine until Lelouch picked up his chopsticks and moved a selection of rolls and sashimi onto his plate.

Suzaku tried to hide his smile as he loaded up his own plate and watched as Lelouch picked up a piece of sashimi and managed to swallow it down without betraying his disgust. When they were children, Lelouch had had sashimi only once. Lelouch and Nunnally had been trotted out during his father's birthday celebration as proof that the Britannian threat had been handled and Lelouch had almost thrown up at the first taste of raw fish before he'd quickly removed all but the vegetable rolls from Nunnally's plate.

But Lelouch was absolutely petty enough to watch his Royal Guard squirm at the strange new cuisine as some kind of minor revenge for the mix up from earlier. Joke was on him though, because after a brief tutorial on chopsticks and the first few tentative bites, the Wolf Pack settled into dinner like it was any other meal and the previous loud and happy mood returned to the table.

Suzaku let himself get lost in the conversation and cheerful atmosphere, but he couldn't help the way that his gaze kept being drawn to Gino at the far end of the table. The Knight of Three was acting as his usual cheerful self, if maybe overdoing it a bit in his efforts to make friends, though that could also have been the fault of the alcohol. He couldn't help but wonder if Lelouch had had to use his geass to keep the Knight of Three from turning on them. And then he wondered just what order would have been given. Surely Lelouch wouldn't waste the chance to get an Ace that would inevitably become their enemy under his thumb. Not just to keep the Kururugi clan safe, but what would a more encompassing order look like?

The monster in him wondered why Lelouch hadn't already used it. Lelouch had had the chance to nullify the threat of two Knights of the Round when Gino and Anya had first arrived to 'assess his aptitude as a knight' and Lelouch hadn't. Of course, Suzaku hadn't even known about geass then, but the fact remained that Lelouch had held back. There had been at least one opportunity for Lelouch to have acted when he wasn't around, but still Lelouch hadn't.

He glanced at Lelouch, watching as Roy refilled the prince's glass with the obvious goal of getting him and everyone else at the table drunk. Lelouch allowed it with nothing more than a laugh before snapping back wickedly at something Hector muttered under his breath. He looked at Lelouch, really looked at him, and realized what he'd done.

Lelouch had embraced himself as a monster, so he'd automatically assumed that they had to be monsters of the same breed. But that wasn't true. Lelouch was nowhere near as bad as him, because if he'd been Lelouch, if he'd embraced the worst parts of himself like Lelouch had done and if he'd had Lelouch's geass, could he have ever left so much to chance? To trust?

When he really thought about it, with the exception of Jeremiah and testing its capabilities on his staff, Lelouch reserved his geass for his enemies only. Which again begged the question why he hadn't used it on Gino from the start, or on Kallen even. Gino was a Knight of the Round, he had sworn oaths to the Emperor and would inevitably become their enemy.

Gino caught him watching him and grinned brightly before raising his glass in a toast in honor of Suzaku's birthday, doing his part to get everyone at the table a little more intoxicated as they all joined in. It took him a few minutes longer to finally realize the reason. Maybe Lelouch had hesitated to use his geass on GIno because of Suzaku not knowing about it, or maybe because of his own moral code. Maybe Lelouch had noticed the potential of the Knight of Three and wanted to see it have the chance to play out. In the end, that was what Lelouch had gotten.

He'd wondered why Lelouch was being tolerant of the Knight of Three when he'd returned to Area Eleven, even despite the deal for cooperation that he'd made. Lelouch had openly voiced his suspicions of the knight's motives, but still let him join his entourage and it wasn't until now that he realized why.

Gino had disobeyed the Emperor for Lelouch's sake.

Suzaku suppressed a shiver at the mere thought of it. He couldn't imagine ever choosing to abandon a mission that was given to him by Lelouch, and he knew the Emperor was nowhere near as lenient. What had Gino returned to in Pedragon? What had he had to do in order to retain his position as a Knight of the Round? And why would the Emperor ever let his errant knight near Lelouch again? Was it a test?

He was drawn from his thoughts by everyone but Lelouch rising to their feet around the table. At first, he'd thought it was the beginning of another toast, then caught sight of the new addition to the room and shot to his feet. Princess Abigail strode into the room confidently, as if the entire reason that this party was being held at the Viceroy's Palace instead of Lelouch's villa wasn't so that she or her brother wouldn't be able to easily crash the party. Despise each other they might, but the Chapman siblings seemed to share the same views on Numbers.

The princess greeted the Royal Guard as she passed them, making her way toward the head of the table, but she stopped at where he was standing instead of continuing on to her husband. She smiled softly and held out a small box towards him. "Happy birthday, Sir Kururugi."

He took the box cautiously from her before bowing. "Thank you, your highness."

She nodded at his response before continuing on to plant a kiss on Lelouch's cheek and chastise her husband for his intoxication. Lelouch didn't go sharp like he once would have, but he still teasingly told her off. She laughed it off and made a round of goodbyes before leaving.

Suzaku waited until he was sure she was gone before he set the little box on the table in front of him and sank back into his chair. Silence reigned for a few moments before Roy predictably broke it. "Do we need to call for bomb disposal?"

He couldn't help the laugh that escaped him but honestly he wasn't sure. Though, of course, it was unlikely that she would have sent anything that ran the risk of harming Lelouch. Displeased with her role as bait during the Osaka operation as she might have been, Lelouch was still the only thing giving her a royal title.

With that in mind, he quickly flipped open the lid to the little box, then stared at its contents blankly for a moment before snapping the lid shut. He didn't say anything, couldn't think of anything to say, not even when Lelouch leaned over to pick up the box and examine its contents.

Lelouch frowned at it for a moment before closing it without another word and tossing it back to Suzaku. He should have known better than to think that the Royal Guard would let it rest, because Roy clumsily lunged across the table and snatched the box out of the air before he could catch it, then triumphantly returned to his seat to examine the box with Hector and Lukas on either side of him.

"I don't get what the big deal is." Roy said after a moment of consideration. "She gave you cufflinks that match your knight's broach."

He subconsciously pressed his hand to the broach in question. The platinum and diamond wolf broach identified him as Lelouch's knight. It was the only visible distinction between his uniform and what the rest of the Royal Guard usually wore.

"Princess Abigail has never acknowledged me as a knight." He said tightly. "I'm Lelouch's fighting dog or the savage he tamed. Never, never his knight."

"Careful, Suzaku, or she'll slip right through your defenses." Lelouch warned quietly, doing nothing to mask his resentment.

He took a deep breath to steady and sober himself before nodding, remembering that Princess Abigail was still on Lelouch's shit list for facilitating Princess Euphemia's infiltration of his advisory council. It was unlikely that the princess would choose now, on the heels of his greatest failure, to finally accept him as a knight. No, rather it was that she was just trying to buy her way back into Lelouch's good graces by taking advantage of Lelouch's soft spot for him.

He smiled a little as he accepted the box back from Roy and toyed with the lid for a moment before opening it up and fishing out the cufflinks. He struggled with replacing the plain button links that he had been wearing with the flashy new wolf ones, giving up when Amanda snapped at him to just let her do it already and took over for him.

Decorum demanded that he wore the gift, but if she thought that his allegiance could be so cheaply bought, she was going to be in for a rude awakening. He knew that his friendship with Lelouch was a liability, but that same friendship made him more resistant to machinations such as this. The princess would get no help from him.

~Kaguya Sumeragi~

Kaguya sat quietly with her father's tanto in her lap, staring blankly at the beautiful flower arrangement she had made earlier in the day to keep her hands as busy as her mind. The house was quiet, which wasn't so unusual considering the late hour, but the silence was especially heavy now that it was empty and she was alone. She'd managed to send away the last of her retainers that morning even despite the heavy watch she was under. She was glad now that she had begun the process of removing her house staff ever since she'd been found out by Lelouch. With the last one gone now, she was alone and there would be no collateral damage.

She sighed heavily and wondered what she might have been able to do differently to obtain a different result, but couldn't come up with anything. She could have been less confrontational. She could have conformed to Britannian fashions and ideals instead of flaunting her Japanese heritage. She could have tried to ingratiate herself into the prince's council better. Still, none of those things would have changed the fact that Lelouch was only humoring them from the start.

Perhaps where they had truly gone wrong was when they had sold the JLF to a Britannian prince for the promise of a more appealing cage. She had no doubt that Lelouch would stick to his end of the bargain and introduce the legislation he had presented to them. He would do it for Suzaku's sake if for no other reason. The legislation had likely been written with Suzaku in mind from the beginning. It was unlikely that the prince would have been able to draft such lengthy legislation in the time he had had between when the meeting with the JLF was called and when it had taken place.

And yet still . . . still she had thought that she would be able to wring more cooperation out of the prince, if not because of her familial connections to Suzaku, then from their past interactions as children. He had been cold to her the first time they had met as children, but she had eventually managed to befriend both him and Nunnally. Or at least she'd thought she had.

She huffed at her own arrogance. She'd been so sure that she could do this, so eager to sit at the table across from the Viceroy and argue for the sake of her people. She'd had such grand dreams of the ways that she would convince him to see things her way and push for even more radical changes, though what could possibly be more radical than the legislation he had already proposed she hadn't been quite sure. Liberation, perhaps. Perhaps she'd wanted to convince him to take Japan and secede from the Empire, blissfully ignoring all the while that Lelouch was a product of the Empire, a beloved prince. Liberation would never come from a Britannian prince.

And Suzaku was little better at this point. She had thought that she would be safe, that being his cousin would offer her some protection, at least from him, but the bruise he'd left on her arm for daring to touch the prince was more than telling. Suzaku had chosen his loyalties, and they didn't align with hers.

She flinched at the sudden sound of a gunshot shattering the quiet of the night and tightened her grip on the short blade in her lap. She took a steadying breath and let it out slowly. She had gambled with every last thing that she had and was, and now it was time to see if it had paid off.

There was a shout from outside and more gunshots. There was a crackle of a radio, orders being relayed and situations reported. After a few moments more, there was only silence until she heard the front door open and the sound of people entering the house.

She tried to steady her hands but her heart wouldn't stop racing and she felt nauseous and a little dizzy with fear. If this hadn't paid off, she had no doubt that Lelouch would have her killed. She would go out on her own terms before she let that happen.

She raised the tanto to her own throat and thought about her father. She thought of all the years that he had bowed and scraped under Britannian rule, how careful he had always been to maintain their family's image of loyalty to Britannia while always remaining steadfast in his support of the resistance movement. She had thought that she was capable of replacing him, thought that she was ready, that she had learned everything she needed to step into his shoes and lead their clan.

But she wasn't.

She had made mistakes and those mistakes had consequences that she couldn't fully realize even now that she was more clear headed about her situation. She only hoped that the loss of the Sumeragi wouldn't be too much of a blow to the other Houses of Kyoto. She was sure that they had made contingency plans for her failure as soon as she had ascended to the head of her family anyway. They would be fine without her.

The door to her sitting room slid open and a man she had never met before stood on the threshold, surveying the corners of the room before dropping into a straight backed formal bow. "Lady Sumeragi, my name is Li Xingke. Empress Tianzi sent me to rescue you."

She let the tanto fall into her lap before bowing deeply in return, too deeply given his likely social status, but her relief left her feeling like a puppet with its strings cut and she used the moment to regain a small measure of her composure. "Thank you."

"Are you injured?" Xingke asked as he stepped further into the room, revealing the presence of a few others in the hallway behind him.

"No. No, I'm okay." She reassured him as she took the hand he offered her to help her to her feet.

He released her hand quickly once she was standing, then crouched to return her father's tanto to its sheath and hand it to her. She tucked it into her obi as he lifted her travelling pack onto his shoulder. "Is this all you're bringing?"

She nodded. "Everything else can be replaced."

She'd struggled with deciding just what she should bring with her. Her practical side insisted that she only bring necessities, but she was the keeper of her clan's countless treasures and the thought of them being destroyed or sold off to collectors made her cringe. She'd deliberated endlessly about which things to bring. In the end she couldn't bring them all, so had limited herself to one change of clothes, as much cash as she had available in the house and as many heirlooms as she could fit in a single bag. The majority of her fortune could be recovered once she was safe, but the rest of the heirlooms would be lost to her.

He nodded with a note of approval before ushering her toward the door where two other men were waiting, both of them bloody and with grim expressions on their faces before they bowed to her. She bowed slightly in return before they fell into an escort formation around her and they left the house.

There was an unfamiliar box truck backed into the driveway with a few more men keeping watch around it. Xingke offered his hand again to help her into the back, even as he barked out orders to the others in Chinese. In the back of the truck, three bodies were laid out under a hastily applied tarp, while two others were receiving medical aid - the weighty price of her bid for freedom. Beside them stood another girl, her presence standing out against the black and grey tactical armor of the others by the beautiful pink and red furisode she was wearing.

The girl rushed to Kaguya as soon as her presence was noticed, snatching up her hands as much to welcome her as to seek comfort. "Kaguya, he was there. The whole lot of them were there. He's going to kill me. You have to take me with you, please!" She pleaded, her voice shaking with terror.

"Calm down, Yuki-chan." She comforted softly, even as she led the girl out of the way of the last of Xingke's men who were loading into the truck.

"Please." Yuki begged. "I did everything you said to do in your message. I helped the Chinese get in and I gave Kururugi the sword. Please, don't leave me behind. The Wolf's going to come after me a-a-and -" She broke off in a sob.

Kaguya hesitated. Yuki wasn't part of a retainer family or an employee of the Sumeragi Corporation. There was nothing officially tying Yuki to the Sumeragi name or to Kaguya. If they separated, Yuki should be safe from any reprisal. But then again she hadn't expected Lelouch to bear witness to her warning for Suzaku. If he started hunting her, Yuki would have no chance. She was a normal teenage girl, one of the few friends that Kaguya had ever made that didn't take political benefit into mind. They had only ever met because their fathers had been such good yet unconventional friends a lifetime ago. No one had ever suspected her father, one of the highest ranking nobles of Japan, of befriending some low ranked common soldier.

"If you go with me, there's no coming back. Your life here will be over." She warned heavily; it was the same weight she was bearing with this decision. Once she left, she would likely never be able to return to her homeland. But it was a price she was willing to pay, as she had finally decided that internal resistance was no longer the way they would win. Britannia needed to be crushed and forced out.

"My life is already over. The Wolf's going to kill my father any day now and I can't get him back. He's all I have left and he's practically already gone. Please." Yuki begged again.

Kaguya nodded slightly and Yuki practically collapsed against her even as she turned to look at where Xingke had been watching them. "Can our transport to the Federation accommodate one more?"

The Chinese man scrutinized them both for a moment before nodding. "We have room for Kondo-chan."

"Thank you so much." Yuki breathed before dipping into a low bow and almost losing her balance as the truck finally began to move.

Kaguya steadied her friend, then sent a much less pronounced bow to Xingke before leading her friend to a spot next to some of the soldiers and settling down for the ride. And if she maybe leaned into Yuki's shoulder and took some comfort in return, no one could fault her for it. She had been prepared to leave everything and everyone she had ever loved behind. Having one friend make the same sacrifice as her in order to make the same journey was more comforting than she had ever considered.

AN: So, I have like negative amounts of free time for writing lately, but I wrote this in the spring then hesitated to post it because it begins the next phase of things which ... is a lot. But we'll see how it goes and maybe my schedule will open up a bit more soon. Hope you enjoy this in the meantime and don't forget to review.