Fandom: Code GEASS
Characters/Pairing: Schneizel el Britannia x Kururugi Suzaku
Word Count: 5001
Challenge: 30_romances #16. Crème de la crème
Word Count: 5001
Summary: The Spring Tournament and what it entails.
Previous installation: Before Dawn
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There was something to be said about fighting for your lord’s honour in front of those who really mattered in the realm.
In a sense, they were gladiators – staggeringly glorified gladiators, riding equally glorified horses to battle each other in this glorified coliseum. Knightmares were their weapon and armour, all equal and uniformed to the point where the only thing which would make a difference, significant or infinitesimal, was their own individual skill. A match to see who the better fighter was.
But they were also knights, honourable knights of the empire, defenders and protectors of their master – and the match suddenly got a whole new meaning.
Suzaku was not worried. When it came down to it, piloting a Knightmare was all about reflex and gut instincts – theories and simulations could only do so much in a real combat – and he knew that in this department, he was quite possibly inferior to none. It wasn’t a confidence built in one night, but when someone had survived more battles than he could count, a certain kind of conviction sprang forth on its own. Invincible, it would have said if his intrinsic trait of humbleness hadn’t overpowered the rest.
But ‘never underestimate thy enemy’ was also a rule he firmly believed in. Especially in this tournament, where his opponents were undoubtedly Britannia’s elites, proudly wearing the badge of the Imperial Family. It was more than just their name at stake. It was their master’s, and true knights lived and died for their master.
This was where they rose and fell, a tournament caught in the first stitches of spring, marking the end of a long, hard winter. It was a field of fortune, theirs to claim and inherit, or waste and forever regret. A filter of some sort: those fit for survival and those doomed to obscurity.
But when the opening salvo, and eventually the tumultuous rounds of applause died down, all that was left was the quiet drone of his Sutherland. Pride, political importance was a faraway thought. It was a sacred ground, here, in the middle of this circular stadium, when they stood facing each other and returned to the most innate character of their selves. Two soldiers, a match, and winning or losing.
His opponent was a young man not much older than himself, the knight of the tenth prince, but he moved with the confidence of a war god. A straight aim to his chest followed a split of a second later – to end the match quickly, even in the grip of recklessness – and he would have succeeded if piloting a Knightmare were not about reflexes and gut instincts. Suzaku managed a leap back, only far enough to escape the wild talons, and then a surge forward to trap the sustaining cord in his Sutherland’s grasp, and a well-aimed kick to disable the motion control.
It took eight seconds for the referee to notice that one of the contenders had lost his ability to move. The silence which ensued was deafening, but Suzaku turned toward the north end of the stadium and saw a smile that spoke of pride on his master’s face, and for him it was more than enough.
“Twelve if that idiot of a referee realised what had happened faster,” the red-haired young woman went on, paying no heed to his negligible attempt of interruption. “But twenty is good enough. Only Marianne the Flash had ever done anything like that before.”
Jacques, who was sprawled on his bed and completely ignorant of the small wrinkles he was causing his ceremonial attire, grinned widely. “It was obvious that no one saw that coming,” he said, “and certainly not your opponent.”
“I bet he thought all those stories about you were bullshits,” Claire declared with a series of lively flails of arms, almost toppling over the chair she was sitting on. “Did you see his face when he got out from his Sutherland? I swear I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”
“It was only the preliminary,” Suzaku said reasonably.
“And you have a deaf ear when it comes to people praising you,” she accused hotly, glaring as she did so. He offered her an apologetic smile. If there was a hint of gratitude in it, it was accidental and honest at the same time. Friendship was precious in this place, a haughty, gilded cage that decayed even the most innocent heart with its political intrigues. No one could say that he wasn’t lucky.
Now, if only that luck prevailed until three days later.
“Economic Growth in the Areas.” Jacques flipped a book which was lying next to the pillow, staring incredulously at the cover. “What are you doing reading a book in economy?”
“Because His Highness will return to Japan soon,” he responded, snatching the book away from Jacques. “You know it won’t do for the knight of the Governor-General to look stupid and uninformed.”
There was a moment of silence where one could count the seconds ticking away. And then Claire opened her mouth, sounding more than a little bit awed, “You really are in love, aren’t you?”
Suzaku was saved from the obligation to react by the polite but insistent knocking on his door. He rose to his feet quickly, sparing himself the need to see that shit-eating grin on Claire’s face – he didn’t bother to glance at Jacques, the snicker was a telltale enough. And no, he was not blushing. He just…
…realised that he should have ignored the knocking and dealt with Claire’s shit-eating grin. In front of his door stood an imperial aide, and not just any aide because he was the one who usually…
“Good evening, Lord Kururugi,” the man greeted, holding out a neatly folded note to him. Suzaku glared at it, wishing that somehow the undesirable item would disappear if he dealt enough damage on it. Sadly, no such thing occurred.
“Thank you,” he forced himself to murmur and reluctantly took the piece of paper. In theory, paper really shouldn’t be different one to another, but he felt like he could recognise this particular kind – the fine texture, the shade of colour, or the faint scent perhaps. A more logical part of his brain pointed out that it was just his own paranoia speaking because he knew what was written in there.
“A more personal celebration?” Claire sounded like she was barely trying to contain her amusement – and Suzaku was barely trying to contain his displeasure at this lack of restraint, but if only blood could stop surging to his face.
“You never know,” Jacques replied, and his straight face spoke of nothing but volumes of trouble – big, red, complete-with-wailing-siren trouble. “Suzaku may just be invited over to discuss the finer points of Area 69’s economic growth.”
Both lieutenants had escaped into safety before he could respond in a drastically more murderous fashion.
“Go back to your mud hole, Eleven whore.”
The voice was cold, venomous through the line, through the mist of sleep still curtaining his mind, and its abrupt disappearance sank like a knife into his soul. In its place were short, sharp beats of death, filling the silence in his ear as he, numb with shock, listened to the same spiteful voice echoing in his head.
He wasn’t supposed to be shocked. It wasn’t unexpected, not even in the slightest sense. After all, who wanted to see an Eleven…
The voice, and then the light touch on his bare arm made him flinch. Literally. The cell phone slipped from his numb grasp to his lap and the silence that suddenly filled his ears was sharp. The fingers on his arm withdrew, and he wasn’t quick enough to whirl around and undo the mistake – always a second too late, always a moment too slow. The prince looked at him and the weight of his gaze lingered between long drums of silence, eloquent enough to inquire without the aid of words.
He swallowed, fingers clutching the sheets that pooled at his waist, and forced himself to open his mouth. “I’m sorry, Schneizel-sama.” His voice came out firmer, steadier than he had dreamt possible. “I was… thinking about today’s tournament.”
Suzaku didn’t know how much his face was betraying, but he could tell that there wasn’t even a mask anymore between the world and the storm that was his swirling emotions. He had never really been able to lie to the older man and this morning didn’t seem to be any different.
But Schneizel dismissed it and reached for his hand instead, pulling him to settle back in the pillows. Suzaku drew in a sharp breath when the prince’s face came close to his own, a gentle look that never failed to make his heart skip a beat softening his eyes. “It isn’t like you to worry.”
“I’m not worried,” he blurted out, trying to fight an urge to pull away when a finger touched his cheek, and then two. The words spoken in the phone were still clear inside his mind, drops of ink-black poison trickling slowly into those violet pools which were his fleeting sanctuary. He couldn’t help but wonder why they still had the power to hurt, after all these times.
“Today is the second round,” he added quietly. “I will have to give my best.”
His master smiled, and for a moment it seemed to be mocking him – but then Suzaku reminded himself that he was looking at the world through a murkier glass after that call.
“I know your best will win me the tournament,” Schneizel said and bent down to kiss him. Suzaku closed his eyes, accepting, lips against lips, concentrating on the kiss instead of that accursed cell phone, cold plastic between his thigh and the bed. He should treasure them, these silent hours of the morning when everything was perfect, innocent, when he could convince himself that his prince was truly in love with him and nothing else but their being there together mattered.
“I will arrange for a new number to be given to you,” Schneizel said when they had pulled apart. “One with better security measures.”
“Your Highness, it isn’t necessa–“
“I insist.” The older man’s tone of voice stopped his protest, and so did the gentle fingers threading in his hair. “I want your full concentration on the tournament.”
Suzaku tried to smile, but all he could manage was a sort of frown. He listened to his breathing turning low and sharp, and then muttered, “They will never stop.”
“Not in the near future, no,” Schneizel agreed, “but you are my knight and you will last far past that.”
It could be an expression of hope for the capricious future, or an illustration of trust, or mere twisting of words to keep his loyalty in place. Right now Suzaku was not interested to know – lies could as well be truths when everything was perfect. The day was young, not yet tainted by chaos and intrigues of palatial life, and there were still a few minutes before Klaus, the prince’s manservant, arrived with breakfast and their respective duties began.
He dared himself to hope. “I shall win, Schneizel-sama,” he promised, promises that tasted sweeter in the blush of intimacy.
“I have no doubt,” the prince murmured, smiling like a benign lord and indulgent lover both, and then proceeded to make love to him again.
He felt their resentful gaze, burning holes into his rigid back as he made his way back to the waiting room. It was crowded still with knights waiting for their turn, although the disgusted expression on their face might as well say that they were only waiting there to scorn his victory. Suzaku did everything to disregard them, eyes set to the floor a few paces ahead, feet alternating steadily between quiet steps. He had the choice to leave – after all, he had won his round – but duties of an imperial knight didn’t stop at winning. Behind these proud walls of an empire, even genuine deeds often found themselves powerless in front of appearances.
He seated himself in an empty chair, pretending to watch the ongoing match displayed by a large screen at the middle of the room. Three Sutherlands were exchanging blows in the centre with the fourth circling outside range like a hawk, waiting for the right momentum to attack. It was Kreindler, Suzaku realised and tried to ignore the bile rising in his throat. He had seen the other man fight, the way he commanded his Knightmare like it was an extension of his limbs, and the swift, ruthless victory it had yielded. If piloting was about reflex and gut instincts, then Kreindler had mastered both to such perfection that…
Snapping his eyes hut, Suzaku told himself that he shouldn’t be intimidated – it was the first sign of losing, the thunder before the dawn of the battle. Most of the times, it was enough to ascertain defeat, but the hostile atmosphere in the room didn’t help. He looked down at his fingers, still numb from gripping the control too tightly, and wished that he could remember.
Seconds of blank void, when his three opponents had charged at him with intent not only to win but also to annihilate. He had reacted quickly enough to evade the combined attack, and blinked. Once, a brief detachment from pressure and reality, and in front of his eyes was a spectacle of destruction. Pieces of Sutherlands littering the stadium, and eyes that looked at him with loathing – except now it was streaked with fear, pale and cold and bitter in comparison.
Something had happened in that blink of an eye, something which might not have been his doing at all. The classic contradiction. Was the deed his to claim, if he had no recollection to it?
“It was cowardly.”
He looked up with a start and found a tall woman standing a few paces away, her long dark blue hair, the colour of a clear night sky, tied neatly behind her back. He remembered that disastrous opera night, and the curious but condescending look on her face as they had tentatively shaken hands after being introduced.
“What they did to you,” Asthal Callenheim, the knight of the First Princess, continued and her voice rose above the stiff silence enveloping the room. “The purpose of a four-way combat is to see how one deals with multiple enemies and the complexities of the situation. But they went after you right from the start, all three of them. Good thing you showed them their place.”
“It was luck more than anything, Lady Callenheim,” Suzaku answered, although the little smile he tried to fabricate felt like a painful grimace instead. Even he couldn’t tell if it was a lie or something else less repulsive.
“Was it?” A darker expression twisted her face. “I don’t appreciate false modesty, Kururugi.”
“It was modesty,” he admitted, throat tightening painfully around the words, “but false it was not.”
There was a sneer on her face, scorn in her eyes, and Suzaku was reminded how this empire hated modesty like it was the daughter of hell herself – be proud, be firm, or you won’t survive. “Let’s see what tomorrow will bring,” she said and turned around to leave, her tread heavy and firm across the room. Kreindler had won, he noticed when the sound of cheering coming from the screen led his gaze back to one Knightmare, standing proudly at the centre of the stadium.
“Survive,” he whispered, as the word echoed in his head.
She gracefully jumped down from her Sutherland, her dark-green pilot suit a stark contrast against the bright blue sky. Suzaku was unsure what he was to do for a few tentative seconds, ears straining against the drone of the Knightmare to catch any kind of reaction from the crowd. There was none. Then Lady Callenheim looked up, eyes sharp, and he followed her example to climb down from his Sutherland.
Dust and gravels shifted beneath his feet as he planted them firmly on the ground. The female knight approached him but remained silent, the fire from their earlier match not dying yet in her eyes. Suzaku found himself holding his breath.
“I lost,” she said – declared – when she stopped in front of him, close enough for some parts of his mind to dutifully notice that she stood a little taller than he was. “Your fighting skill outclasses mine, at least that much is clear from this match.”
He opened his mouth to answer, but she was quicker to add, “And if you’re going to say that it was luck, I will take it as an insult.”
Suzaku would have smiled at the intensity of her warning, if the oppressive silence swamping the stadium hadn’t locked away whatever sense of humour he still had. But Lady Callenheim ignored his lack of response and continued in a more subdued voice, “You should be proud. Only two other people have ever managed to score a win against me in this kind of match. Not to mention, this is your first tournament.”
“I only fight for my master,” he answered, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
“Don’t we all?” she said with a casual shrug. “My point is you should be proud that your devotion withstands even my sword. His Highness must be really pleased with your achievement.”
He couldn’t resist a glance to the north side of the stadium, wishing that he could see the expression on his prince’s face. “I don’t know.”
Her hard features softened slightly. “Then you should find out,” she said decisively and held out a gloved hand. “A knight has to become the person closest to his lord, does he not?”
The words, taken directly from the book which content he had taken to heart, touched a smile to his lips. “Thank you, Lady Callenheim,” he took her hand, returning the firm grip. She smiled in response and it was as sharp, quick as a bolt of lightning, and he realised that this was what the prince truly wished from him, this kind of acceptance, slow and grudging though it might be.
A smile might not be much, but it was one step closer.
The world glowed bright crimson, and when he looked up, it almost seemed as if the clouds were blazing with fire. At the feet of the sky, the sun was setting, bathing colourful awnings and roads crowded by people with its rich, vibrant red. And then there was the hubbub of conversations, vendors and buyers hawking and haggling over pieces of objects displayed on plain wooden tables or fancy glass cases.
All of the hustle and bustle reminded him to the festivals in warm summer nights, with fireworks erupting across black drape of clouds and how it had seemed, for one breathtaking moment, that the world had burst into millions of colours. Britannia had her own beauty, it was undeniable, but Japan… Japan was different.
Suzaku realised that he was – of course – rather prejudiced in this subject.
“We don’t need an Eleven.”
There was nothing that disrupted a moment like a wholehearted insult. He could feel blood turning to ice in his veins as the murmur of conversations died down, leaving only an awkward silence to paint the deepening twilight. Something told him to walk on and ignore the insult, but another part of him wanted a confrontation. He shouldn’t have taken all those abuse lying down, not when he was already so close to winning the Spring Tournament and such glory wasn’t a petty achievement–
“Come with me.”
The hand that seized for his elbow was firm and Suzaku found himself falling into steps next to a very pretty young woman dressed in light blue. “Milly-san,” he breathed out in surprise, recognition dawning.
She tilted her head to look at him, disapproval shading her smile. “Please, Lord Kururugi, we are old friends, aren’t we?”
He smiled in return. “Yes, we are, Countess Asplund.”
Her clear laughter rose and filled his heart with warmth. “The title isn’t too bad actually,” she said, a twinkle in her clear blue eyes, “but the wedding isn’t until September, so you’ll have to be content with ‘Milly’ for a while. Do you have anything in particular to do this evening?”
“Not really, but…”
“Excellent,” she slipped her arm around his. “I hate to look around alone and this square is so big. Will you accompany a lonely lady, o Sir Knight?”
Suzaku found himself chuckling as he made a small bow. “I will be most honoured.”
Milly smiled and it reminded him of many things. Mostly it was Lelouch and his failure to protect Nunnally, but when they walked like this, arm in arm amidst columns of various stands that reminded him too much of his homeland festival, it was almost impossible to drown himself in the murky side of the memory. Milly’s voice was like the steady ripple of a brook, the kind that drifted and soothed as shadows lengthened and the day grew old. Suzaku realised that he never actually noticed it until now.
“You did great in the match this afternoon,” she said as they made a turn into an alley crowded by flower and jewellery sellers.
He looked at her uncertainly. “So you came here to watch the tournament?”
“Yes. Lloyd-san invited me, as his fiancée, to watch the Spring Tournament with him. And I need to meet his family at some point, so I thought why not just get it over with. Sooner is better anyway.”
Her faint discomfiture on the topic brought a sympathetic smile to his lips. “I hope it went well.”
“Better than I expected, actually,” she answered truthfully. “His family is… I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but I do think the closest word to describe them is ‘odd’. I would never have thought that they were a prominent aristocratic family.”
That explained the eccentricity of his former superior, Suzaku reflected in some amusement. “And the wedding will be in September?”
“It was decided a few days ago.” The hand on his arm tightened slightly. “Will you come?”
“Of course,” Suzaku replied, surprised at the sudden earnest note in her voice. But then he realised that many of her friends probably wouldn’t be able to make it – some of them were definitely not going to, thanks to him – and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
“I’m glad to hear that.” Milly flashed him a subdued smile. “It’s just… sometimes it still feels strange, to marry a man who knows very little about me.”
“I guess it requires lots of courage,” he said tentatively.
“Well, I don’t exactly have someone in particular, so for me anybody is fine.” She laughed again, but it sounded strained and her gaze was still pinned to the formation of flagstones laid out under their unhurried footsteps. “And they say love grows in the end, right?”
Suzaku glanced at her. “I suppose,” he responded neutrally. There was something about Milly that reminded him of himself. He understood duty better than anyone else – she to her family, he to his country – but perhaps he was slightly luckier in that regard. At least his lord was also the person who held his heart.
Although of course, it didn’t necessarily mean that he would be happier in the end.
The rest of the evening went by in a companionable fashion. Milly stopped often before many jewellery stands, admiring intricate silver designs and glittering gold earrings, even threatened to buy him some – for the sake of friendship, she reasoned to his unbridled horror. In the end, she bought herself a necklace and a beautiful fan – since your victory tomorrow is only a matter of time and there’s bound to be a celebration, these will go well with my green dress, and are you sure you don’t want that bracelet?
She made him laugh, in a way he hadn’t in months, when she did buy the bracelet and slip it into his jacket pocket. She reminded him to Ashford and Ashford had been a happy time before everything went wrong, one of the very few bright splotches on his otherwise dark canvas of life. But even at that point, Lelouch had been Zero and sometimes Suzaku wondered if he wasn’t only deceiving himself by trying to believe that it had been a happy time.
Even his memories were built on lies, he reflected bitterly, but then Milly linked her arm with him again and he felt the bitterness melt away and smiled at her.
“I’ve been getting death threats,” she said when they had once again blended with the milling crowd.
Suzaku’s eyes went wide. “You’ve been getting death threats?”
“Yes,” she answered solemnly but there was a twinkle in her eyes. “From your fans it seems. That is Lady Estella de Landtz, yes?”
Suzaku felt like he had missed an important part of the discussion. He looked at the direction she had indicated with her new fan. “Yes, but what…?”
“Because I’m holding to your arm like this.” The straight-faced look on her face broke into a broad grin. “You still can’t take flatteries, can you?”
It might be that thing of being with a friend – not just a friend, because Claire and Jacques were both his friends but there was something about Milly, maybe her ties with his past – and Suzaku found himself laughing again. Happiness never lasted long in his life – and tomorrow he would face Kreindler of all people – but who knows, perhaps everything would still be all right in the end.
“I’m glad you’re here, Milly,” he said, tightening his hand on hers.
She smiled sweetly. “I know.”
“No wonder you can climb so high.”
Suzaku knew he should ignore it, that mocking, spiteful voice that echoed in his cockpit. His hands were cold and clammy with sweat under the gloves, and there was havoc in his head, resounding like war drums in the eve of battle. When Kreindler made a low sweep with his Knightmare’s sword, Suzaku had no choice but to sacrifice an arm to avoid instant defeat.
“Tell me, how often do you let His Highness bed you?” The voice came again, now tinted with specks of satisfaction. “Every night? Four times a night like I once did?”
It was followed by a harsh bark of laughter that made Suzaku draw in a shaky breath. He shouldn’t have listened to it. Kreindler had been losing, that was why he resorted to this tactic. It wasn’t difficult to configure the communication link between the two Sutherlands, and now here he was, a sitting duck to a volley of insults. If this continued, not only victory would slip away from his grasp, but also the precarious balance he had built around himself, and then his lord…
It wasn’t strength at all that suddenly surged in his limbs and muscles. Strength would burn hotly and lift his spirit, but this one settled in his stomach like lead and ruthlessly pounded him awake. It was more like a cold realisation that failures wouldn’t be tolerated. He had come too far, it would be unforgivable.
Maybe it was determination – not to fail, not to disappoint.
One arm missing and wheels close to falling apart, he spurred his Sutherland on with gritted teeth and made a high, decisive leap.
They all passed him in a blur, wrapped in the mist of euphoria – the ceremony, the tense silence as he walked up to the podium, followed by rounds of hesitant and then hearty applause. The Emperor fastened a medal on his pilot suit, a firm hand shaking his smaller one, and Suzaku found himself kneeling in front of his prince and kissing the back of a gloved hand.
It was even more unreal than a dream. He saw Kreindler’s face and it wasn’t the cold, stony hatred that got to him, only the sense that it looked distant as if they were separated by miles instead of a few steps. The smiling faces and polite congratulations were all the same, dulled by something else more powerful – perhaps the knowledge that he hadn’t failed this time.
Everything only started to become less dreamlike, the mist slowly dispersing when he felt a strong arm around his waist and his mouth being kissed senseless. A small, thoroughly insignificant part of his mind indignantly exclaimed that he should at least feel embarrassed about doing something like this in the hallway where someone could pass by and see them, but the rest decided that they didn’t care.
“And you were worried about the second round,” the prince reminded him, his voice profuse with amusement.
Suzaku couldn’t help a small, breathless laugh. “It was circumspection, Your Highness,” he answered demurely. “I hope I did not disappoint.”
“I cannot see how you can possibly disappoint in this situation,” Schneizel said, running his fingers appreciatively along his lower back. Suzaku suddenly wished that his pilot suit wasn’t so skintight – or at least all those adrenaline could be channeled elsewhere – but the prince only laughed and kissed him again.
This second kiss ended quickly when a pair of guards made their usual round in the hallways. Suzaku managed to secure an escape after a promise for a dance – not at the party, but in the safe confines of a bedroom since privacy was an absolute for this particular dance, the prince had implied mildly – and made his way back to his quarters with a smile. Not even the prospect of spending the rest of the evening being half-heartedly congratulated by snotty nobles and their giggling daughters could remove it from his face.
At least until an Imperial Guard caught up with him and delivered a message.
“My lord, His Majesty asks for your presence in the Royal Study immediately.”
Suzaku was surprised, but he nodded his acknowledgement and turned around to follow the guard.
Notes: I’m not going to write about Suzaku’s meeting with the Emperor
Next Installation: Between The Lines