Charles zi Britannia, better known as the Emperor and now my interrogator, sat in a plush cream-colored chair on the right side of the bed I was now propped up in. he'd chosen to sit by the head of the bed, probably to better read my expressions and ascertain my truthfulness. On my left, in approximately the same position but in a dark wooden chair, sat one Sir Gino Weinberg, my resolute defender/protector for this moment in time. His posture was much tenser, and his proximity had much more to do with offering me support and comfort than with trying to catch me in a lie. His bright blue eyes reminded me of the calm before a storm but he wore a polite, diplomatic smile. The storm, I knew, was the interrogation that would start in a few moments. "Well, I suppose that we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way," Charles declared dully, as though he was bored by his own statement. Ah, well. He may have gone for the most clichéd interrogation line from any and all films, but at least he seemed bored with it, I thought wryly, waiting to smile but forcing myself to retain a calm expression. "Well, then. Why don't we do this the hard way?" Gino choked and shot me a dark look. Charles, to my surprise and Gino's absolute shock, just laughed. "Well, now. I like that you are unafraid." "Ah, well, my father raised me to not believe in fear. Father believed in respect, honor, tradition, culture, dignity. Fear never factored into his outlook on life." I shrugged. "My father was a little strange. Unfortunately, it was his outlook that I inherited. Actually, I believe it's a great deal better that my mother ever was, so perhaps it was more fortunate that I ever believed it to be." "What of your mother?" His interest didn't seem feigned, but how was I to know? It wasn't as though I had any past experience when it came to handling the Emperor. I mean, I'd seen my father handle him before –and, fairly well, if I might add (and my bias is included free of charge)– but I had no experience with him myself. All I could do was rely on memories that were close to a decade old, my sharp wit, and my …charm. "She died when I was young." I was testing the waters, wondering if he would back off if I showed that I didn't want to discuss this at all. "And?" Ah, well. Seemed he wouldn't cut me a break on that one, which was okay: I didn't mind talking about my mother. "My parents met almost by accident. Father slept with her on some sort of whim, but my mother got pregnant with me to tie him to her for all eternity. She was a bit vindictive, especially since Father would have ignored her existence if she didn't have his first-born son. I spent my early years as a hostage, a prize, yet I was almost completely ignored by both of my parents. She died when I was four, one year after she finally managed to convince Father that I was his son. It took him about five years to stop expecting me to be just like my mother, despite the fact he was personally seeing to how I was raised and how I thought." I shrugged. "Of course, I only had a year or two with him after that point before he died and I ended up in one hell of a legal mess." Maybe I was old-fashioned, but I had expected certain things from an interrogation. I expected to be asked about the vital statistics: you know, full name, date of birth, Social Security number, weight, height, blood pressure. It surprised me that he had started out with a question about my mother. I lacked sensitivity on the issue, anyway. I didn't even remember my mother's name, nor did I recall if my parents were ever married. Hell, I could barely remember what she'd looked like! She'd died when I was four, but the most time she'd ever given me without expecting something specific of my father in response was probably a week. My father had spent years with me teaching me. The only thing he'd ever expected of me was that I would come to be his heir eventually. Other than that, Father let me be a child. I was allowed to go to school, to have friends and sleepovers and fun. As things had fallen, the only true parent I had was the one who had taken a remarkable amount of convincing to believe that I was his son. Despite the fact that my father could be both stern and harsh on occasion, the fact that he paid attention to me, that he sent me to the school where he had been educated, that he cared –it all shaped me so much more than my mother, who saw nothing in me but something to use." "What about your friends?" Charles was asking some rather interesting questions, considering. I couldn't imagine what good the names of my childhood friends would do him when it came to trying to pin-point my identity. Besides, I doubted Rivalz and Lelouch even remembered me at this point: it had been seven long years and I was sure they had moved on with their lives. What good would hunting them down and asking questions do? "He's just as frère described him, Father." I hadn't thought much about it when Euphiemia had said it, but was Charles expecting me to come up with the name of a Britannian prince? I didn't think I'd met any of them, aside from the one time I'd vaguely met Prince Schneizel in passing when I was just a child and he'd been just a teenager. Was there another unclaimed prince out there? Was I being used to force one of his wayward heirs back home? Either way, before my mind had wandered there, I had already been uncomfortable with giving up the names of my childhood friends. If I was to be used to force someone to do something they had no inclination of doing, I was even more uncomfortable. "Friends?" I suddenly found myself asking. "I didn't have many, but I don't feel comfortable giving you their names. It's been seven years since I saw them, and I doubt any of them really remember me." I was quiet for a moment, waiting to see how Charles was receiving my pronouncement. His face seemed calm, so I was starting to believe my mind's errant wanderings had been just that. But I'd rather error on the safe side of things, anyway. I gave him my most winning smile before asking, "How do you feel about switching to the easy way, Your Majesty?" He smiled and suddenly reminded me of my own father. "It really doesn't seem right after agreeing to the hard way." "Ah, well, that's just a matter of semantics. Let's go the easy way." I gave him what my father has always called my 'enigmatic smile'. "As you wish." Those words just seemed wrong coming out of the mouth of the Emperor, but I refrained from commenting on it and simply looked down at my hands. "Check my DNA against my father's DNA profile. I'm certain that some labs still have it, seeing as the number of women claiming their fatherless child was my father's went up exponentially in the six months that followed his death. You might have to call around to find a lab that has it, but I'm certain that it will prove useful in retrieving the answer you seek, Your Majesty." Gino's hand touched mine and I looked up to meet his gaze. Emotions swam in his blue eyes, but I could read the question there. I reached for his hand and held it for a moment, wondering how to tell him not to ask. "I understand," the Emperor acquiesced, drawing my gaze back to him. "I'll see that it is done." There was a pregnant moment of silence that seemed to last for hours. When I could stand it no longer, I asked, "What is it, Your Majesty?" He smiled at me, the expression almost tender and almost shy. "May I come visit with you again, Suzaku?" I blinked twice, startled. "Of course, Your Majesty. I'd like that." It wasn't until the Emperor rose from his chair that I noticed the death-grip Gino had on my poor, abused left had. Charles inclined his head to me. I bent as far as my stitches would allow. Then, it was Charles' turn to wear an inscrutable smile before he dismissed himself from the room. Gino's grip on my hand finally relented when the door closed behind the Emperor. I withdrew it from his grasp carefully, before gingerly flexing my fingers to make sure there was still circulation to each digit. "What is it, Gino?" I asked politely, not daring to look up and have him read the pain in my expression. Knowing he caused me pain would only make Gino more cautious and more worried, and when Gino was with me, I needed him to help me watch the intricate human interactions. "He was not pleased that you changed your mind and didn't mention your friends," he revealed casually. "I think there was something in particular he wanted to glean from there." "Lady Euphemia mentioned to him that I was just as someone she called frère described me. 'Frère' means 'brother' in French, and of the two male friends I made as a child, two out of two have very French names. Hell, they were the reason I knew what the word meant." I gave him a tight smile. "I had a feeling he was fishing for a missing prince." "There are rumors of a missing Prince and Princess, although the claimed heirs certainly watch their words about them. The Emperor has candidly mentioned another Prince once, in my recollection. He said 'I wonder if the Little Prince recalls his father's lessons'. He would never have mentioned him at all, except he'd been drinking." Gino looked grim. "If he thinks you know this 'Little Prince', he's going to keep you close even if you aren't the son of Genbu Kururugi." I gave him a tight smile. "I will not be used to bring a lost lamb into the fold if the lamb ran away itself, Gino. I'm certain that Prince had his reasons to leave his father, his siblings, and the life he once knew, and I don't want to drag him back into it if he wants to stay out of things." He rested his hand on top of mine for a moment, and we fell into a tense silence. "Oh the bright side, the Emperor seems to genuinely like you and believe you." Gino gave a sparkling smile. "You think so? I mean, I want him to believe me, because it is the truth, but you think he likes me?" I asked, suddenly wanting to have pleased him. "He… the Emperor reminds me a bit of my father," I admitted softly. Gino's answering smile was very gentle. "He really likes you. That's why he asked if he could 'visit with you' again. Trust me, the Emperor's interrogations rarely end with pleasantries, and he asked for permission to see you again instead of stating that he would. That implies his belief in you as well as a certain level of interest." "I think it might be the way I talked about my father. The Emperor knew my father socially and he negotiated against him. My father was hardly a soft man: he was stern, harsh, and stubborn. He was stuck on older values, traditions, and dignities, and he made sure to bring up his child in the life he had and in the things he believe. I met one of the princes once, when the Emperor and Father were mid-negotiations. Prince Schneizel was a great deal like his father as a teen, despite being a bit more reserved. He watched everything with those Fae eyes of his, studying the negotiations like a chess master at a chess tournament." I shot Gino an amused expression. "I think he's interested in me because I turned out as my father intended, despite the way the last seven years have gone for me. I still follow my father's teachings like he told me all of those things yesterday, not most of a decade ago. I think he liked Father a lot, because they were similar, and I think he sees my father in me." Gino looked stunned. I smiled at him, although I was certain this smile was all sharp jagged edges and without a single ounce of softness or comfort. "That's why I'll have so much trouble forgiving him if he's simply maneuvering me around like a pawn in a chess game. I'd much rather see my father in him than my mother. I'll have lot less respect if he's using me as my mother did." "Is that why you told him about your mother before you told him the easiest way to discover your identity?" Amused, I eyed Gino to see how serious he was about his question. "I'm afraid even I am not yet that calculating. Given time and the right environment, I bet I will be soon." Gino opened his mouth to reply, but a soft knock at the door interrupted him. I tilted my head at him. "Do I need to invite them in? I'm afraid whoever it is probably has much more of a right to be here than I do." Gino chuckled at that. "Come in," he invited in lieu of answering my silly question. At least he was smiling again. I was starting to see how he used that smiling jester's mask: he hid his intensity behind fake smiles and people would drop their guard around him and let him see things that they shouldn't. I was suddenly intensely glad he was my ally in all of this. The door opened inward and Miss Cécile stepped into the room. "How is our patient, Sir Weinberg?" "His condition is much the same, surprisingly enough. I think His Highness likes him." Gino gave her a smile. Her expression softened. "Well, that's good news. Princess Euphemia will be very pleased to hear that. She's been very worried." I winced. Miss Cécile turned stern in an instant as she faced me. "Suzaku, you must rest. I know that you probably have enough adrenaline to run from a herd of elephants right now, but you will crash. And, judging by the severity of your wounds, you are going to crash hard. Would you like something to help you sleep?" I shook my head. "I doubt there's much of a point, Miss Cécile. As you've mentioned, I'm in for a crash. It'll probably be pretty soon, anyway, now that all of the excitement is over. I'd probably be asleep by the time you got back with the medicine." It was as though having Miss Cécile point it out made me suddenly aware of the exhaustion that made my limbs and my eyelids heavy. I managed to keep my eyes open long enough for her to kiss my cheek and retreat through the heavy wooden doors by refusing to allow myself to fall asleep in front of her and confirm the frailty of my state. Gino looked amused by my sheer stubborn will, but I forced myself to slide down and lay flat on the bed before I allowed my eyes to close. After all, I did need the sleep. And I felt surprisingly safe here, despite being hidden in the belly of a viscious beast, if the tabloids were to be believed. I drifted into a deep sleep almost instantly.
All five of us were gathered in her backyard, right next to the playhouse that always became our castle. "Lelouch has to be the prince," Milly exclaimed. "Because Shirley is the princess!" The redheaded girl blushed brightly and Lelouch smiled brightly at her. Lelouch had quite the soft-spot for the lovely Shirley. He found her sweetness and her shyness very endearing. "What's Suzaku, then?" Milly asked the rest of us. Milly was one year older than us, so she was automatically our fearless leader, but sometimes she liked to pretend we all had a say. Rivalz pouted, still upset that Milly had decided Lelouch was to be the prince this time. I could still come up with several roles equally as cool as the prince, so I was excited to see who I would become today. "He's the knight!" Shirley exclaimed, her blush having faded a few moments before. "He'd gotta be the knight, 'cause he and LouLou are inseparable!" Lelouch winced slightly at the girly nickname, but remained silent on the matter. I cringed internally in sympathy. I was just happy that neither girl had used my equally girly nickname. "Well, then what am I?" Rivalz demanded, frustrated and having trouble coming up with a role that still needed filled. "You're the Queen's Consort," Milly told him, smiling cutely. "Who's the queen?" Rivalz asked, still pouting. "Milly," Lelouch, Shirley, and I all replied in unison. It was a no-brainer: as queen, Milly still wielded all of the power, and the rest of us had already realized that Milly liked to be in charge. Milly giggled. "Of course it's me, you silly goose. I still have to take care of all of you, after all." Rivalz turned bright red. I looked to Lelouch and tried hard not to giggle. Rivalz had confided in us just yesterday that he had a sizable crush on our dear Milly. I had no doubt that Rivalz was quite pleased with this role. "Is that alright with you?" Milly asked Rivalz sweetly. He nodded quickly, though I would have sworn his blush had darkened two shades. "Good!" Milly declared. "Alright, everyone: places!" All five of us hurried to the playhouse, eager to take our positions and begin the day's game.
I woke with a start, staring straight up at the ceiling. It had been months since I'd dreamed of days long-gone. Usually, the dreams were bittersweet for me: sweet, because I was so very happy in those days, and bitter, because those days were over and I hadn't seen Milly, Shirley, Lelouch, or Rivalz in years. I missed the simplicity of those times, and I missed my friends. Sighing, I glanced around the dark room. As my eyes adjusted, I realized I wasn't alone in the room at all. Gino had fallen asleep sitting up in that hard wooden chair. His head was cocked to the side and it had lolled back a bit as well. He looked really innocent in his sleep, like a child. I hoped he was comfortable enough there. Someone had draped him with a soft-looking blanket. I glanced over toward the window, only to discover that Princess Euphemia was stretched out on the window seat, sound asleep. She lay on her side, facing me, as though to watch over me while I slept. A blanket had been tucked securely around her. She looked peaceful, despite the shadow of worry I could read on her brow. I hoped she was warm enough. Beside the princess, propped up in the chair the Emperor had used when interrogating me, was the gentle Sir Guilford. His dark hair fanned out on his shoulders and his glasses were askew but still on his nose. His face was turned toward the slumbering princess, as though his vigil continued even in his sleep. A blanket covered him from his feet to his chest. I hoped he was supposed to be asleep at this time. I glanced back down at the covers that now covered me and noticed a pale hand. I had to focus for a minute before I realized it was Miss Cécile. She was sound asleep, her face pillowed against her arms. I reached out and pushed a chunk of her hair behind her ear. She had fallen asleep while watching over me, and it made me feel warm inside because of the memories it stirred. Looking around the room once more, I had to smile. I hadn't felt so safe among people since my father died. Just knowing that these people who barely knew me cared enough to watch over me made me marvel at my own situation. It was too bad that my sanctuaries never lasted. I wasn't looking forward to the end of this one, simply because I was surrounded by such wonderfully likeable people. I felt like I could belong here, with these people, if only I were allowed to stay that long. I couldn't sleep for the next two hours because of the knot that formed in my stomach because I knew the other shoe had to drop and that it would do so soon.