He thought he knew Lelouch. For years he’d been by his side, talking with him, laughing with him, and enjoying life in general. That niggling sense in the back of his brain refused to sputter out and die, despite everything else crying out to the contrary. It was confusing.
Because he knew Lelouch. Or thought he did. Lelouch was a great bluffer. A strategic genius. A liar. But good inside. Right? This whole execution business - this wasn’t right. It wouldn’t compute. Not until he saw Lelouch execute the prisoners with his own eyes would he really, truly believe he’d changed into someone else. One of those prisoners was Kallen. Their classmate. And while they didn’t hang out much, and despite the fact that she was a Black Knight, she was still a part of the student council. This felt like a disagreement that had blown way out of proportion.
He wanted to hold onto the happy days of the past. The days full of skipping classes to go play chess. Or to go and goof off at the library. Sure, it was shocking to find out he had been best friends with a member of the royal family this whole time, but that didn’t change his fundamental personality.
He thought he knew Lelouch. He knew he was a fantastic liar. Hell, he kept his lineage a secret the whole time. But all of it couldn’t be a lie. Right? He clutched his fingers over the railing as the procession came closer.
“Lelouch, is this really what you wanted to do? To rule over the world… over everyone?” It still couldn’t compute. There had to be something. Something. If only he could talk to him. If only he wasn’t terrified of trying. There was no way someone could flawlessly fake years of their life - not even a genius like Lelouch.
Though it was expected, he was still kind of disappointed that he got no reply.
The crowd took in a collective gasp then, because there, in the distance, stood the imposing figure of Zero, his aura wisping out like black death personified. A heartbeat later, and he was charging forward, a blazing shadow that paused for only a mere moment in front of Lelouch - whose face was a picture of terror in the split-second he could see, before becoming obscured by the flip of a cape - Zero’s arms poised and deadly, sword glinting harshly in the sunlight.
The gun Lelouch held went flying. No one seemed to care. And it was at that moment when his gut plummeted, because he knew without a doubt there would be no escape, no rescue, and only one outcome. He might have screamed “No,” but he would never remember definitively.
What Rivalz would never forget was the red splotch that stained Lelouch’s pristine, white robes. Or the crimson sheen on Zero’s sword. Or the pallid face of death of someone he knew. The images seared their way onto his mind’s eye, like a painful, permanent tattoo. Deep down, he really hadn’t been expecting anyone to die that day. Especially not the best friend he thought he had.
He felt sick for even questioning the validity of that.
He stared at the notes in front of him, valiantly trying, and spectacularly failing at concentrating. It had already been two weeks since that day. School continued on as usual, a few clubs and classes reassigned to different buildings, due to the aftermath of the battle in the Tokyo Settlement earlier that year. The clubhouse dormitory was left in ruin. But, for the most part, life at Ashford Academy continued on as usual.
As a result, Rivalz was incredibly busy, as the sole member of the student council left. Students came to him in droves, demanding leadership of some sort to iron out their problems regarding financial shortcomings and missing equipment. The school’s funding was already squeezed into next to nothing, delegated to building repairs. Not to mention that the pressure from external forces in the face of political upheaval was sending out waves of uncertainty that filtered down like some kind of black cloud.
The future of more than just Ashford Academy was at stake, and though some of the students were aware of it, most just wanted to leave the worrying to their parents, and for their own lives to go back to normal. It wasn’t as if anyone could run away to Pendragon anymore. That place was nothing but a dusty crater. Everyone was being forced to dig their heels in and deal. Rivalz was one of those, even though he knew better. His normal days were long gone. But he could pretend pretty damn well, and moreover, he did have years of experience in the council.
It was hardly a task Rivalz was suited for, nor one he truly wanted. He wasn’t very good at managing people, and to be fair, he originally only joined the student council because that was where Milly was. He befriended the other members he wasn’t already acquainted with soon after, and from there, he really did not feel up to joining other clubs. Leadership just wasn’t his thing. Never had he imagined it would fall down in his lap like this. In that kind of a situation, he’d ask for help, and since Milly had already graduated and was busy with her job, it should have been Lelouch -
He sighed, setting his pen down. Right. Lelouch. He never did manage to get any answers. And now, he never would.
It had been long enough, he guessed. All the red tape and formalities had to be completed, and the actual task of burial should have already been taken care of. But he hadn’t heard anything about it; not a peep on the news. Everyone knew he was dead - knew it the moment it happened - but aside from that, nothing. He supposed it made sense. After all, Lelouch was generally hated by the masses. The girls that had been fawning over him months ago wouldn’t deign to utter his name, now. His grave’s location would probably stay secret. But for someone like Rivalz - someone who really knew Lelouch - it sat heavy in his gut. At this rate, he would never know where he was laid to rest.
The dead always deserved respect, no matter who they were in life. How could he do that, when he didn’t even know where Lelouch was? It was unfair to bring Shirley and Suzaku flowers, and leave Lelouch out. A wry smile cracked on his lips. Lelouch might not appreciate flowers. Something else, then.
He leaned back to stare at the ceiling. How could a nobody like him ever find out something like where the Demon Emperor was buried? The only person he knew that was close to Lelouch was Suzaku, and that was out of the question. Rivalz took a moment to reflect on his memories. He missed Suzaku a lot, too. He missed Shirley. He missed everyone really.
Stuck there, counting the pockmarks in the ceiling, the burden of Ashford Academy’s student budget still spread across the table in front of him. The air conditioner vent whistled, and Rivalz sighed to break the silence. It was a cold, unwanted mantle. He had never felt so incredibly alone.
He didn’t get it. He wanted to ask, but he didn’t even know where Lelouch was. It festered inside.
It occurred to him soon after in a sudden flash of insight, while catching a glimpse of the news. She was dressed in black, and Rivalz thought it didn’t suit her at all. The color dwarfed her, making her seem even smaller than she really was. Pale fingers barely peeked out from lacy sleeves, folded into a demure lap, and with her hair framing her face, she had the regal beauty that all commoners were envious of in one degree or another. The angle was off-center, and she wasn’t even looking at the camera, but it was undeniable. Delicate features and piercing eyes.
He paused, turning his head to face the TV more fully. The volume was too low to hear, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the tiny script in bold font at the bottom of the screen.
Nunnally vi Britannia.
He recognized her. Not because she had been the Viceroy of Area 11. Not because she was a member of the royal family. And not because she had been recently instated as the newest empress, per the scrolling text at the bottom. He recognized her because she had been there on That Day, face streaked with tears, and voice shrill and bleak above the chanting masses. She was a picture of mourning, grief-stricken and draped bodily over the corpse of his friend, Lelouch. Her brother. He remembered, because she had been a part of the scene that burned its way into his memory. Her wails still echoed faintly in the deep recesses of his mind.
Beloved and kind, she was deemed a gentle and caring person - perfect for this time of reconstruction in the aftermath of political oppression. Rivalz didn’t pay much attention to the news, but he did know she had promised fair negotiations with foreign leaders, including a representative for the Elevens. Ah, he should probably call them Japanese, now. Suzaku hadn’t seemed to mind too much, but the world was changing. A few months from now, and he might even have to call himself Japanese, or move back to the mainland.
Of all people, she would know. Rivalz absently chewed at his bottom lip. The question was - could he convince her to tell him? He supposed the more pertinent question should be how he could arrange to get an audience with the empress in the first place.
Surely, if he could just manage to get in touch with her, he could let her know how he and Lelouch had been friends, and that Rivalz wanted to pay his respects. Whatever kind of background checks they might run on him would check out, and he could get the information. Maybe Milly could help him out. She was a reporter, after all, so perhaps she would be able to arrange something like that.
Rivalz frowned and clenched a fist. He really didn’t want to rely on Milly. If he was ever going to impress her, this wasn’t a thing he could do. She was standing strong on her own, out in the world, and doing what she loved. No, this was something he had to do himself. This was personal, too. Everyone was growing up, so it was about time he tried doing a bit of that on his own. He owed at least that much.
Glancing once more at the television, he took in a deep breath. He had his bike. The empress was still in Area 11. He could try the straightforward approach. And if that didn’t work, then, well… He’d figure something else out.
What he hadn’t expected, after idling in aimless circles for over an hour in the lobby of the government embassy, whilst trying to gather the nerve to place a formal request, was to be addressed, of all things, by name. “Rivalz Cardemonde?” His head whipped around to see a security guard coming his way. For a brief moment, he considered running. The days of executions were bygone, but he still felt his nerves seize in instinctive panic. Rivalz didn’t even have the presence of mind to wonder just how the guard knew his name in the first place. This was a public building, wasn’t it? He hadn’t done anything wrong, and he opened his mouth to say as such before getting cut off. “Please, come with me.”
Before he really knew what was happening, he was being escorted by another guard and a female servant up several flights of stairs and down more halls than he could keep track of. He passed through a few security gates, and even had to suffer getting frisked before he was steered off again in yet another direction.
The last door was unassuming, plain, and like all the rest. With nothing more than a hushed “mind your manners”, the door opened. Really, he had no idea what to expect, as the servant urged him inside. Coming face to face with the empress had been a possibility, but not one he seriously entertained. Wasn’t there a grand reception hall for that kind of a thing? Protocol? Something? Still, he found himself kind of dumbfounded to see her there. Behind her, a black shadow loomed.
He flushed with nerves, not expecting Zero, of all people, to be standing there, too. Granted, he knew the empress needed a guard during her meetings, and who better than the very symbol of justice? Imposing and dark, no one in their right mind would go against him. He was known as a terrorist in the past, and still frightened Rivalz to some degree. A small spike of anger also danced in his chest, because he was also the one who killed Lelouch right in front of him, without even trying to capture him, or hold him down. It would have been easy. Lelouch had always been beyond pathetic in P.E. class.
Why stab him, why kill him when Lelouch could still be alive and breathing today in a prison cell somewhere? He might have been sentenced for execution at a later time, but there was always the chance for him to live peacefully in jail. Lelouch would have never been set free for the things he’d done as emperor, but it wasn’t like he’d be able to do anything once the throne was taken from him. At least in jail he’d be safe from lynching, and there was the small chance Rivalz might have been able to see him again. They might have even been able to play a game or two of chess, even though he knew Lelouch would wipe his face across the board.
But then swept in Zero, wielding that damn sword that must have symbolized everyone’s righteous hatred. Of course everyone hated Lelouch, but it wasn’t as if Zero was a saint, either. Doing something like that as if he had the right to judge. How cold-blooded. How hypocritical.
At that point, he realized he probably hated Zero. And it was strange, because Rivalz had never hated anyone before - not even when Zero dared to use Ashford as a base of operations during the Black Rebellion. At that time, he had promised not to hurt any of the students. This was something different. Rivalz felt himself scowling, and had to tear his eyes away from the reflective sheen of Zero’s mask. He wasn’t here to meet with him, after all.
His gaze wandered down to meet the bright one of the empress seated in her wheelchair. Rivalz nearly wanted to flinch away from how straightforwardly she stared at him, but then reminded himself that she had been blind for a while. He wondered how he should address her. Bowing might be good he figured, after watching the servant sweep low in practiced reverence before clicking it shut, leaving him alone with her and Zero.
Shocked back into reality by the noise, Rivalz followed the example, clumsy and unsure. An elbow knocked against one knee, and he quickly switched his arms, realizing he had them backwards. He’d never had to bow before. “Um, Your Majesty.” She giggled at him, and he felt mortified at his incompetence.
“It’s okay, you don’t need to bow, Rivalz.” What? His ears burned at the familiar use of his name.
“It would be rude,” he forced out, still staring at the ground.
She paused at that, silence hanging thick in the air. A soft sigh, and she conceded in something akin to disappointment. “You may rise.” Reflecting the sound, it was even more apparent on her face as he raised his head to glance at her. Not even five minutes in, and he’d managed to give a terrible impression. Way to go.
Straightening, he fiddled with his hands. This had gone much more smoothly in his imagination. Then again, he had been expecting to meet in a huge assembly hall, like the ones he saw on TV, in front of hundreds of other people, and after giving his request, having the information ferried back and forth via one of the attendants, before being dismissed. Talking directly, in person, with Empress Nunnally hadn’t even entered his mind. Meeting alone, in a small space such as this was borderline overwhelming.
Was he supposed to wait for permission to speak? He had no idea how to act. Talking with the empress was completely different from those nobles he and Lelouch used to gamble with. Now that he thought about it, no wonder Lelouch always knew just the right thing to say or do back then. It was in his blood.
His brief reverie cut short when she spoke. “I apologize for so abruptly bringing you here. Security notified Zero of a suspicious person lingering in the lobby. Zero confirmed that you were a student from Ashford Academy, and when I found out, I had them double-check who you were. Not many people are aware of the unique ties to Ashford, so I had to make sure. I take it you’re here about my brother?”
Shoulders tensing, he licked his chapped lips. “Well, uh, he - Lelouch, I mean - went to my school before he became emperor, and I know I haven’t seen him in a while, and all that… other stuff happened, but I was kind of wondering if maybe, possibly, I could perhaps… visit him?” He immediately raised his hands up in a surrendering motion. “I mean, I don’t want to do anything bad, and I won’t tell anyone else where he’s buried, I promise. I just kind of wanted to see him, is all. Tell him… goodbye. And stuff.” Red suffused his face. Hearing his own words coming out of his mouth was nearly painful. Rivalz saw how she cried that day, but now he was having some serious, irrational doubts that she would even consider his request. He wasn’t completely prepared for this!
To his relief, her eyes softened in a sad, nonjudgmental way, and he saw Zero shift uncomfortably. Served him right. He should know there were still people out there who actually cared about Lelouch. Rivalz hoped he regretted the rash assassination for the rest of his life, whether Lelouch deserved it or not.
“I know you were close to him at Ashford. I think he would be happy you still want to see him, even after everything that has happened.” Rivalz had to wonder about that. Lelouch had, in essence, completely snubbed him at the U.F.N. conference that was hosted earlier that year at the academy. He had nothing to say to that, merely lowering his gaze to the ground. “I don’t mind sharing the location with you, but I’d really like it if you could do something for me.”
Black eyes flickered back up, and he unconsciously straightened his posture. “Sure, of course, Your Majesty.”
“Oh please, when we’re alone, you can still call me Nunnally. But that wasn’t what I was referring to.” Rivalz chanced a quick glance towards Zero, then back to her inquisitive gaze, his own face pinched in confusion. “I wasn’t able to be with him for a long time, so I was hoping you could tell me about that time period with him at Ashford. I was unable to get much information at the time, and what I did receive was…” She paused, clearly struggling for the correct word. When she found it, he was surprised at the thinly veiled steel in her voice. “Filtered. In various ways.”
Zero shifted, even more blatantly uncomfortable than before. Rivalz knew there was a story there, but since it involved Zero, he definitely didn’t want to know. Nunnally closed her eyes for a few moments, seeming to recollect her wits. Something vague clicked in the recesses of his brain as he watched her, and he could only stare, having the oddest sense of déjà vu. When she opened them again, she was as cordial and gentle as earlier. He didn’t even realize he had been so shamelessly gaping until she tilted her head and spoke again.
“Is something the matter? If you don’t want to talk about it, then I understand.” Rivalz blinked.
“Ah, no, it’s just you kind of remind me of someone. He had a brother named Rolo - oh, but you knew that. He’s your brother, too. Of course you remind me of him. But you act a lot like he did. Well, before the Black Rebellion, anyway.” His brow furrowed slightly, a bit confused with himself. Something uncomfortable was drilling in the back of his mind. A mild headache was coming on, so he allowed the fleeting sense of unease to pass with a small shrug of his shoulder. “He kind of changed a bit after that.”
“Oh, but you have so many other siblings, so maybe you didn’t know him. Well, no, you probably did. I mean, who wouldn’t know their own sibling?” He laughed nervously, silently berating himself for babbling like an idiot. “I haven’t seen him in a while, though. He disappeared when Lelouch did. Maybe you’ve seen him? Oh, but no, that would mean he’d be emperor, so obviously he isn’t here right now, but well…” Gods, he felt like such an idiot. The clack of his teeth was nearly audible, as he forcibly closed his mouth to prevent anymore inanity from spilling out. His attention was then drawn to the squeaking noise of Zero’s gloved fingers as they tensed tightly over the handles of Nunnally’s chair. All he could do was cringe.
For a moment, he was afraid he’d said something incredibly insulting or presumptuous, but then Nunnally herself glanced up at Zero with questioning eyes. He hadn’t just committed some kind of treason, claiming someone else should be emperor, had he? Moron, moron, moron! Zero whispered something too quietly for Rivalz to catch, then merely turned his head to the side in clear dismissal. Rivalz couldn’t help but be surprised at such arrogance in the face of royalty. Nunnally’s brow furrowed, but by the time she looked back to him, her features had smoothed back out. Again, he was struck by the oddest sensation. Why was Nunnally allowing the man who murdered her brother in cold blood to stay by her side? The young empress was known for her forgiving nature, but wasn’t that a bit extreme?
“I’m sorry, I haven’t seen him.”
“Oh,” he murmured, shoulders slumping. Rivalz regretted ever bringing the topic of Rolo up. Knowing now what he did about Lelouch’s royal lineage, he must have been hiding out to protect Rolo, since he was so fragile. Fragile? His brow furrowed again, that same mild headache beginning to form once more. Well, since Rolo still hadn’t shown up, he must still be trying to stay out of the Britannian spotlight. That most certainly meant he would never be seen around Ashford again. Or ever, for that matter. Rivalz hoped he was alright.
“Was he happy at Ashford?”
Glancing up, he found her sending him an imploring look. He opened his mouth for a moment, then let it slide shut, considering the things he knew. Rivalz struggled with the words, forcing them out in stuttering waves as his thoughts tried to coalesce. “I think he… I think he had something bothering him for a really long time. Especially after the Black Rebellion. He seemed happy, but… preoccupied? It might have been because he was considering becoming emperor, but it distracted him. For a long time. He was always like that, trying to solve problems on his own.”
His eyes went out of focus, falling into the haze of memory. “It was almost like… he was putting it off. Or… struggling. In some way. I wanted to help, tried asking him about it, but he wasn’t hanging around as much towards the end. Suzaku wasn’t there much either, and I really wanted to be there to listen, possibly help with whatever it was, but…” Rivalz blinked back to the present, and flushed deeply. “Ah, not that I could have done much. I mean, he was a prince, after all. What would a commoner like me know about becoming emperor, y’know?”
Nunnally looked down as she drew her hands together in her lap. “I am glad you were there for him. He needed someone like you there, I think. So, I am glad.” She looked up then, and smiled. It was small but honest, and so heartfelt. Grateful. Sad. It stung, and he didn’t know why. “Thank you, Rivalz.”
“Ah- er, y-you’re welcome,” he stuttered, for lack of a better response. To be honest, he was kind of lost. What do you do when the most powerful figure in the world thanks you? He shuffled his feet, nervous all over again.
“I’m afraid there is not much chance for me to visit his grave, myself.” Her gaze flittered down to her hands again, speaking softly but surely. “I made sure to make it anonymous, but as empress, I just cannot compromise the world’s faith based on my personal feelings. I cannot spend time there. I was forced to grow up on that day, and throw away my past self.” Just barely, he could see her tighten her fists into the folds of her skirt.
He watched as she spoke, not quite sure what to think. Rivalz had been there, too. Lelouch was an important person to him, as well. To throw his own emotions to the side for the sake of others - no, more than that - as an obligation; it was not a thing he could wrap his mind around. Grief was a natural thing, and he’d experienced it. Someone such as this, with such a kind and forgiving heart, to deny her something so basic and plain as sorrow felt almost criminal. But he supposed it was a product of the current world, one so mired in chaos. She was empress. Noblesse oblige. Was this something Lelouch also understood?
“These feelings I treasure for the brother I knew, can I ask that you carry them with you instead? Suzaku’s, as well. I think… I’m sure he would want that, too.” Finally, she lifted her gaze. “It’s too lonely for onii-sama, otherwise. These feelings of hidden grief, can I entrust them to you?”
Motion from the corner of his eye caught Rivalz’ attention. Zero had canted his head forward, catching the light in a dull gleam off his helmet. For a moment, things were completely surreal.
It annoyed him, because Zero, for all his pomp and flair and righteous symbolism, was slumping. Of course, it was incredibly hard to tell, but if you stared long enough, and watched him breathe, you could see it. The slightest turn down of his head. Like he had some immeasurable weight on his shoulders. Was he feeling guilty at causing Nunnally so much pain? Rivalz hated it, because in light of his shocking new dislike for the man, he definitely did not want to sympathize in any way. If there was one glaring weakness he knew about himself, it was how hard it was for him to hold onto strong convictions.
Milly, of course, was an exception. The Lelouch that he knew from Ashford deserved no less. After all, the dead deserved respect. If he had to shoulder the weight of an empress’ feelings, he would do it. Looking back at her, he straightened his back and nodded. “I can do that.”
And then the strangest thing happened. The smile she gave him was absolutely radiant. That image burned into his memory, nestled itself deep, and brought to the surface warm feelings like those long-forgotten. It was then that Rivalz realized that from then on, things would be all right in the world.
He carried that feeling with him all the way home. Just the slightest bit, he felt better about going to visit Lelouch.
Rivalz blinked, not quite sure if he was seeing quite right. Red hair. Very familiar red hair. “Kallen?” She turned at the mention of her name, and that was all the confirmation he needed. No more doubt about his imagination, but that brought to point something even more confusing. Why was she here? Well, clearly she was visiting the grave, but -
He eyed her warily, keeping a discreet distance. Kallen revealed herself the previous year as a member of the terrorist group, the Black Knights. After that, she disappeared when everyone thought Zero had died. As far as he knew, she wasn’t that close with Lelouch outside of the student council. After Lelouch revealed himself as royalty, she had every right to hate him, considering her affiliation with the terrorists. She was a major part of that final battle that claimed Suzaku’s life, and taken as a war prisoner too. They weren’t very close, and enemies, as well. So seeing her there was unsettling. Maybe she didn’t know that this was Lelouch’s grave.
His weight shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. She had turned her face back to the smooth marble, acknowledging his presence with a soft noise. Well, at least she wasn’t scowling at it. Nibbling at his bottom lip, he edged closer.
“Y-yo.” The war was officially long over, but he still really didn’t want to get too involved with such messy affairs. He should probably just pretend nothing was wrong, on the off-chance she didn’t know just what they were standing in front of. The problem was, he had no idea how to talk to her. “Nice day, huh?” Yes, because the weather was perfectly cloudy, and promising rain in the next few hours.
Kallen snorted, and he shifted his gaze to look at her more closely. She stood tall, her shoulders squared, and nothing at all like how he remembered her in school. Even her hair was less tame. She looked every bit the confident resistance soldier that she was imprisoned for.
Okay, so maybe the weather idea wasn’t so great. “So, what brings you here?”
That got her looking at him, with a mildly exasperated face. “The same thing that brought you here.” And her eyes returned forward, turning solemn. Her chin jutted out, motioning to the marker in front of them. “Him.” Well, that crashed the theory she didn’t know this was Lelouch’s grave.
“I thought you hated the-… him,” he worded carefully. The Black Knights had made a firm stance against Lelouch’s rule when he was still alive. Rivalz watched her from the corner of his eye. He was still confused as to why she was there.
“Oh, I hated him,” she spat with surprising venom. Rivalz winced. “But. I’m not here to visit the Emperor of the World, I’m here for Lelouch.” With how much her voice softened, he marveled at her a moment. There was definitely something he didn’t know about. Clearly Kallen knew Lelouch better than he thought she did. Maybe she was like Rivalz, and knew something was just not right about Emperor Lelouch towards the end. Maybe the theory he had about them dating a long, long time ago wasn’t so far off base.
“Oh.” It was too late for answers, anyway. “I didn’t know you were…,” he trailed off. He didn’t want to say “friends”, since he honestly had no idea about the nature of their relationship. There was the whole Shirley issue, too.
A soft sigh. “Of course not.” Something vague and heavy lay between her words. Rivalz knew better than to pry, figuring it probably had something to do with secrets about lineage, or rebellion, or something equally muddled and confusing. Politics wasn’t his strong point.
Instead, the two stood in a long, contemplative silence. The grey of the stone matched the color of the sky. It felt almost like a mirror, reflecting the things above and behind them. Unreal. Hard to comprehend. More than anything, it was as opaque as Lelouch himself.
Rivalz was the one to break the quiet. “Lelouch. What was he, exactly?” A friend, a demon, an emperor, a teenager, a student council vice-president. So many things, all so confusing, and Rivalz didn’t know how to think of him anymore. An absent murmur, he really wasn’t expecting a real answer.
“He was…,” she trailed off softly. “Complicated.”
And that was something he could understand. For someone complicated like Kallen to say that, it had to be true. And from what he knew of Lelouch, he couldn’t have said it much better.
“Do you think… I mean, well, you acted different in school too, so -” He stared firmly at the stone, wondering how he could phrase something he didn’t really want to say.
Kallen, surprisingly, picked up on it. “He was your friend.” His jaw clicked shut at her decisive tone. “I don’t think that was an act.”
The faintest curve of a smile insisted at the corner of his lips, and a surge of relief washed over him, allowing his shoulders to relax. He hadn’t even realized how tense they had been the entire time. He wanted to believe that. Hearing someone else say it was more than he had been expecting. His head ducked down, hair falling and obscuring his face. “Thanks.”
If someone else thought it, that meant he wasn’t wrong to believe it. Lelouch was his friend. Rivalz would believe in that until the day he died, no matter what derisive things others said about the Demon Emperor. They didn’t know him, they never spoke with him, they never saw how he was at Ashford. That was the Lelouch he wanted to remember and believe in. Surely Lelouch had his reasons, even if it was way too late to find any of them out. Lelouch was always secretive. At least that never changed. And the fact that Suzaku stayed by his side until the end had to mean something.
He wasn’t wrong. His gut was telling him as such. To have Kallen confirm it, even knowing her stance on the war, perhaps especially because of her stance on the war, was a huge relief.
Speaking of which. Rivalz shifted his attention to her, nervously. “You work with Zero right?” He watched as her shoulders stiffened slightly.
“The Black Knights are no longer needed. Not anymore, now that Lelouch is dead.” Her sad smile was kind of heartbreaking. “We’ve disbanded for the most part.”
He turned his attention back to the anonymous slab of marble in front of them. “Oh. Well, I saw Zero when I went to meet Empress Nunnally. He seemed kind of strange. Really quiet.” And his lips were turning down into a scowl before he realized it.
“Zero was…” She paused awkwardly, taking the moment to squat down and hug her knees. “He’s probably taking this much, much harder than anyone else. This is just my gut instinct, though. I think he’s just as complicated as Lelouch was.”
“I think I hate him.” Rivalz shocked himself with the proclamation. Kallen looked up at him in surprise, too. He flushed a bit, and coughed to the side. “I mean, he killed my best friend and all. Okay, so yea, Lelouch was kind of a stranger at the end, and did a lot of bad things, but we were really close at Ashford, and even though he was a total flake, he always gave a little more of the gambling winnings to me the next time around, and he was the first one to speak up for Suzaku, even though he was just an Eleven, and…” He trailed off at Kallen’s expression. She turned back to the grave marker.
“You shouldn’t judge Zero so quickly, Rivalz. What do you know about him? You have to remember, under that mask, he’s human too. He’s lost precious people, like everyone else.” And at that, Rivalz suddenly realized she knew Zero. Not by proximity; it was a real knowledge that had nothing to do with the face behind the mask, and everything to do with the person. It stung a bit. A little too close to home. A friend(?) of a friend(?) of a friend, or something. He blinked dumbly, and swallowed his next retort. She had to be conflicted about the whole assassination affair. Complicated really was the right word for it.
She continued, oblivious to his discomfort. “But to be fair, I think I kind of hate him, too. Just for different reasons, but I can’t hold those against him. Not anymore.” She snorted humorlessly. Alright, so that nixed the friend notion. But even so. Complicated.
“Kallen...” Rivalz searched her face. He was confused about something, something to do with Zero, but he had no idea what would help him understand. So instead, he just stared at her, hoping to be enlightened through sheer willpower. Why would she hate Zero?
She cut off his effort when she rocked to her feet. “I’m going back to Ashford.”
“What?” Because really, that was out of nowhere.
She continued to gaze at the marker, eyes unfocused and lost in her thoughts. “It wasn’t exactly a promise, but… I was asked. When everything was over, when the war was done, I was asked if I could go back. To live peacefully as a normal student. So.” Kallen finally turned, and gave a small, pained smile. “It’s the very least I can do.”
He had another epiphany then. Kallen found the path she should take, and had made her peace with Lelouch’s death. Whatever issues she had about him were settled, or at least sufficiently accepted. Belatedly, he remembered to smile back, albeit a bit sheepishly. “Ah, right. The paperwork for the student council has gotten ridiculous. It’s worse even than after one of Milly’s special events.”
Her smile warmed to something more genuine at his unspoken invitation. She took one more glance at the anonymous marble before turning to leave. “I’ll see you around, then.”
“Right.” Rivalz allowed his hand to drop back to his side, numbly watching her back as she left. Had he just made amends? Hard to believe, considering her involvement in the battle for the Damocles. That was the battle that resulted in the death of Suzaku. His gaze wandered back to Lelouch’s grave marker.
“I don’t understand, anymore.” With a sigh, he leaned down to sit on the ground. His eyes fell half-lidded and he stared absently at the smooth stone surface. “You were my friend. So was Suzaku. And Kallen, too. Why did all this happen? You were always terrible about keeping things to yourself, but don’t you think it’s kind of unfair to leave me hanging like this? We were buddies, man!”
He paused, poking idly at a few blades of grass. “Weren’t we going to watch fireworks together with everybody? I totally wanted everyone else to see you crying about the beauty of friendship. That was classic.”
This was all Zero’s fault - he knew it. Zero had stormed in, and just killed Lelouch, no questions asked. Kallen said not to judge him too quickly, but what else was he supposed to do? Rivalz was no soldier, nor was he a politician, or even part of any particularly prestigious family. He didn’t want to involve himself in convoluted affairs, even if he had the power to. He couldn’t help but be angry. It was all he could do. “Hey, Lelouch. What would you have done?”
He could practically see how Lelouch would roll his eyes, haughty as ever, and telling him matter-of-factly exactly how he would make use of his brilliance to make a difference. Or somehow divine the purpose and translate it into something easily understandable. Or perhaps he would smile vaguely, with a mysterious glint in his eye.
Rivalz hunched over his stomach, gut twisting. That familiar burning in his eyes was coming back. “It’s boring these days. Student council work is insane without your help. I barely have any time for my job at the bar. At this rate, I won’t have the money to keep paying for my bike, and that would be a downright crime, wouldn’t it?” A dry chuckle.
He’d cried for way too many lost friends. It was a gaping hole, one he had a harder time patching each time. This one was particularly difficult, as Rivalz continued for several more minutes attempting to steady his voice. The strain of it pinched at his throat.
“I don’t know if you remember, but I asked you once, a long time ago, if you were planning on becoming a CEO or some kind of bigwig, and you told me you weren’t interested in that kind of a thing.” The grass was cool between his fingers. “With how lazy you were, I thought that was a big waste. I mean, you were so smart, and everything. I dunno about having you as a boss or anything, but I figured, if there was any company to work an office job at, that would be the one I’d go for.”
Rivalz sighed. “And then you go all whoosh, disappearing on me, and next thing I know, you’re on TV, saying you’re the next emperor of Britannia. Doesn’t make sense, y’know? I thought you hated getting involved with politics. Especially now that I know you were a prince in hiding.” He nibbled at his bottom lip, recalling the last phone conversation he had with him. It was right after the huge battle where the FLEIA decimated the dormitory. He hadn’t thought it at the time - he was just happy to know Lelouch was still alive - but thinking back, it really did sound kind of like a goodbye. After that, Lelouch and Rolo disappeared.
“What changed? I know it was getting pretty bad with the war, but did you really have to go and take charge of the empire like that? Why not just leave it to one of your brothers? I know you always felt like you had to do the right thing, but you hated the attention afterwards. Making yourself emperor isn’t something you can just walk away from. Surely you knew that?”
He leaned back, resting his weight on his palms and staring up at the overcast sky. “I bet if Zero hadn’t kicked up such a mess, we’d probably still be lounging in the clubhouse right about now. You, me, Rolo, and Suzaku, too.” Pausing, he considered for a moment. “Maybe even Shirley, too. Y’know. If her dad hadn’t gotten all caught up in things.”
“Everyone is calling Zero a hero. Things are much calmer, and everyone is having diplomatic talks left and right. The world’s a mess, but I think people are starting to figure things out. Your sister, Nunnally, is the empress now. She wanted to see you too, but because of how things are, I don’t think she’ll be able to for a long time. I don’t know what you had planned for everyone exactly, but I suppose everything is turning out alright, anyway.” Rivalz paused.
“You were planning to fix everything in time too, I’m sure. Right?” The wind ruffled by, eliciting a small shiver. “I mean. Of course you were. You’re Lelouch. My best friend. Just…” He trailed off, at a loss as to how to articulate his confusion and feelings. “Complicated. I guess.” A half-chuckle filtered past his lips.
Hands fiddled restlessly in the folds of his jacket. It was beginning to get cooler, and the breeze was tossing his bangs into his eyes.
“I know I already told you this, but your room was completely totaled by FLEIA. All your stuff is gone, even the magazines I let you borrow.” His mouth contorted, still mildly upset about that. It seemed inconsequential in the face of everything, though. “You never came back, so I never got the chance to give back your chess set. I’m not sure if you’re able to play wherever you are, but…”
Rivalz carefully lifted to his feet and took a hesitant step forward. Pulling his fingers from his pocket, he placed a chess piece on the stone, then quickly stepped back. “Just in case.” It stood stark against the pale marble, gleaming dull and dark.
“I know it’s kinda pointless to tell you to rest in peace, but I hope that will keep you occupied until I can come around and bug you in the afterlife for answers. Keep Shirley company, okay? Suzaku, too.” He allowed his eyes to fall half-lidded, quiet and solemn. For a long while, he merely stared at the single piece of carved ebony, recalling the pleasant days of the past. “We’ll meet again one day, so until then - I guess I’ll see you later, Lelouch.”
Taking a few more seconds to breathe in a cleansing sigh and let it out, Rivalz turned on his heel, and walked away.
It wasn’t long after that when it began to drizzle, obscuring everything in a blinding haze of gray. Sounds became muted, mixing and dying in the droning rhythm. Vibrancy fled in the face of nature. At that time, everything was monochrome. And there, with no one to watch, and the rain weighing heavily on his shoulders, the black king toppled over, destined to disappear into the shallow puddles there.