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Ground Zero

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Suzaku blinks awake. He is reaching into his pocket for his father's watch before he even finishes registering his surroundings - an apartment bedroom, white linen sheets, light streaming in from a window with day curtains - the press of metal familiar and reassuring against his fingers. He draws it out to feel its weight, the cracks in the glass as he swipes a thumb over the watch face, sees the second hand tick past twelve while the hour and the minute hands stay in place at a specific time, the one moment he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

Still dreaming, then.

There is a warm body at his back, someone else next to him on the bed. Suzaku turns and is not alarmed to see Lelouch, also stirring as he wakes - and then Suzaku thinks about where they are and what this dream might be and he is, leaping out of the bed (yes, this looks like one of their hideouts from the time before Lelouch took throne), grabbing his pistol from the nightstand (it's happening again, he's going to have to relive it again), clicking off the safety - 

"Suzaku - " Lelouch moves too, the covers slipping off his shoulders, but he isn't fast enough to hold him back and Suzaku nearly snarls at him as he presses the muzzle up against his own skull.

"Don't." He'll wake and leave the dream now; better to die here this way than be made to kill Lelouch all over again - not again, not this time - 

"It's me!" Something in Lelouch's voice makes Suzaku pause, and the other man produces a black king piece from his own pocket, resting sideways on the palm he opens before him.

Suzaku hesitates. Lelouch uses the moment to get up from the bed, keeping his totem and closing the gap between them, his eyes never once leaving Suzaku's and holding his gaze in a way no projection of Lelouch has ever done - wide with concern but steady, certain.

Lelouch takes his face in both hands, thumbs tracing Suzaku's cheekbones. His skin feels warm and he speaks, soft but clear, "I'm not a projection."

The pistol trembles in his hand. Lelouch reaches calmly for the other, uncurls the fist that Suzaku's fingers have tightened into and brings it to the bare skin on his abdomen - and it's not till then that Suzaku realizes how hard he's breathing, his exhale long and shuddering as Lelouch presses his fingers against the place no projection would know so precisely at this point in a recurring dream, a place not even the best forger would be able to pinpoint with such painful accuracy. The exact three inches of flesh Suzaku plunged the sword into to bring Lelouch out of limbo an age and too many dreams ago, an invisible scar on Lelouch's unblemished skin known to only them both.

"It's me," Lelouch whispers once more against his lips, though he probably doesn't need to, and Suzaku slides the gun's safety back into place and lets go to cradle Lelouch's neck and close his eyes and lean into the kiss.

"Why didn't I -" At any other time Suzaku would kiss him longer, but his mind is already working fast through the possibilities. If this is a shared dream, and Lelouch entered it with him, then why hasn't he realized it sooner?

"I wondered the same thing." Lelouch steps away to pull back the curtains and peer outside, the frown deepening on his face. "Have you remembered how we got here?"

"I -" Suzaku pauses. Remembering a dream takes years of practice, but fortunately that is precisely what they both have owing to Lloyd's research and their work with his Special Envoy unit -- work which they are still doing, right now. He feels his mouth go dry as the final missing pieces slide back into place. "The Avalon -" If the cabin in which they're carrying out this extraction has been compromised -

"No, not likely. Schneizel knows better than to allow that. It's Waldstein himself." Lelouch is still surveying the scene before him through the window pane, his mouth pressed in a thin line. "Some interference from the level above. This isn't my design."

Suzaku joins him to take a look. At first glance, it still looks like what was in the blueprints: a mix of towers from the Tokyo Settlement and Pendragon that Bismarck is familiar with, scattered in a strange city area with winding streets and sharp corners which he knows were mapped out in Lelouch's mind like the squares of a chessboard - a maze, and the placement of the different towers a rough representation of chess pieces awaiting the last few moves to checkmate. As per safety protocol only Lelouch and the respective dreamers for each level know the mazes for this operation by heart - and this is Lelouch's level, Lelouch who is both skilled in dreaming and unrivaled in dream architecture, one of the few dreamers who possess the ability to close and reopen new loops, to alter the landscape of their own dreams while still within, without attracting too much attention from projections. But from the blueprints Suzaku has glanced through and the trial runs, Suzaku can tell now, too, that two-- three buildings are not where they are supposed to be - and judging from the look on Lelouch's face, it is not Lelouch who has shifted them. Suzaku frowns. "But if this is your dream -"

"It still is. Someone else has moved the pieces." Lelouch does not look pleased, his eyes fixed on the altered building positions. "They've read the chess gambit. This new placement is a taunt." There's a buzz from his trousers and Lelouch whips his phone out and answers without glancing at the ID. "Rolo. Is everything in order on your end? --Good."

Suzaku listens to Lelouch update his sister's former classmate on their situation and scans the streets below while Lelouch is still holding the curtain open. Theirs is a high-rise unit at the edge of the dream with a decent view of most of the layout, and directly down below there are mostly ordinary projections, scattered pedestrians - but no shortage either of the odd patrol of military police making their rounds, all on the lookout and dressed for combat, a uniform he himself has donned for a brief period prior to being seconded to Lloyd's division and placed in Ashford for the remainder of his schooling.

"-I can't tell either from here." Lelouch is saying. "But we'll find out. -Right. Stay together." He snaps the phone shut and drops the curtain. Suzaku looks at him expectantly.

"We rendezvous with C.C., Kallen and Rolo at Babel Tower as planned." Lelouch says, reaching for a discarded shirt on the floor. Suzaku follows suit, wondering now if their landing here like this on this level is the result of Lelouch's subconscious pulling them to safety instead of to the ground floor like in the trial runs, or if this, too, is the mocking work of a target that knows his enemy better than they expected him to. Now does not seem like the appropriate time to ask anymore.

A level above - Gino's - they have Bismarck lured into a false sense of a security, with the Imperial holiday villas as the setting to minimize militarized projections and Lelouch's subtle remodeling of the gardens and the villas themselves so that the routes are deceptively familiar to Bismarck's projections while being nowhere near the same as the originals. The job has been in the works for months, backed now even by Schneizel, for C.C.'s suspicions have not been unfounded. The more they investigate, the more it seems like Britannia's Emperor himself has made significant investment in experiments with dream sharing and mind control, and short of the Emperor himself, only one of Bismarck Waldstein's standing will know of the the details, the full reach of Charles zi Britannia's ambitions. If they've played their cards correctly, Bismarck should not have detected the infiltration just yet, but from the looks of things on this level, it is otherwise.

Suzaku picks up his gun, shoves it down between the small of his back and his jeans, watches Lelouch load his own. They've rehearsed this possibility - dealing with militarized projections - and there is still Lelouch's trump card which will aid them, but - "What about the maze? That's also been tampered with, right?"

Lelouch makes a noise of acknowledgment as he slides open the wardrobe and tosses a coat at Suzaku. "We'll deal with it on the way. It'll take more than a few magic tricks to fully displace my control on this level." He reaches in and jams a cap over his head - Lelouch will be more recognizable here to Bismarck's subconsciousness than Suzaku would. "And we're hardly new to this." His hand on the knob of the apartment door, Lelouch turns before opening it to give him a brief, wry smile, his eyes brilliant as they catch the morning sun and he says in reminder, "Together there's nothing we can't do."

Suzaku swallows, giving him a weak smile in return, "Yeah," and they are headed for the elevators.

Together there's nothing we cannot do. That was the mantra Lelouch kept murmuring under his breath during his last few months in limbo, in a world so elaborately constructed and complex that even Suzaku's and C.C.'s initial attempts to pull him from it had all been rendered futile. Lelouch's limbo became reality for all three of them; what had started out as Lelouch's attempt to deal personally with some of his oldest wounds - Marianne's murder, Nunnally's crippling, his confrontation with his father and subsequent exile to Japan - had spiraled out of control into a world that paralleled and diverged from reality in ways too many to count, too many not to lose themselves in. In limbo the knightmares were functional outside of dreams, all notions of dream sharing non-existent; Suzaku had woken up on that last level to find himself on Lloyd's medical table and Cecile holding his totem, he had looked at it, broken and stuck as always at that specific time, and all the chatter about how it had just saved him from a bullet began to drown out whatever else his mind had been trying to tell him then.

And C.C. - C.C. became divine, immortal, a witch, a secret the Britannian military had intended to keep, with the trump card she had helped Lelouch develop among his dreaming skills turning into a power bestowed upon him in a contract meant to remind him of death. In limbo the Geass eventually took on an unbridled, uglier form, manifesting permanently when overused - and so did Lelouch's hunger for justice and vengeance, his jealousy at the obvious liking Euphemia had taken to Suzaku after meeting him, his paranoia at Rolo and Nunnally's growing friendship, his own unspoken growing attraction to the best friend he'd been reunited with at Ashford - yet unaddressed at the time perhaps because Lelouch himself had been constantly brushing aside his feelings on the matter.

But in limbo Lelouch had let his subconscious loose, his desire for resolution flaring his resentment toward Charles into full-blown rebellion, destroying Euphemia's creation of the SAZ and Euphemia herself, twisting Rolo into a murderer to be manipulated - and Suzaku and C.C. were swept up in the thick of it. Lelouch's mind deconstructed and resconstructed powerfully and with exquisite detail, until all their interference and the ensuing chaos eventually left only regret and one another to rely on, three minds lost in the reality they'd built for themselves out of the web that Lelouch's inner fears and ambition had initially spun.

Eventually they still managed to find some form of resolution within, though limbo proved its tendency to deliver this in unexpected ways. The Zero Requiem Lelouch devised was to be the atonement for all their wrongdoings, all the people he had used (projections that they had thought real); the journey leading up to it had seen Lelouch deeply regretting Euphemia's death, learning to trust in Rolo's sincerity, among other things - and learning most of all to let go of Nunnally so that she could spread her wings on her own. It had seen Suzaku coming to terms with his own integrity and principles, and most of all recognizing what Lelouch still meant to him in spite of all the things he'd supposedly done.

And whoever still believes that notions and ideas produced in dreams can have no bearing on real life has obviously never traveled deep down enough. After emerging from limbo his friendship with Lelouch has never been the same. It isn't the desperate fucking in the days leading up to Lelouch's death by Zero's hands and the tenuous alliance they'd forged while thinking that they'd each taken too many lives and wronged each other on too many counts - but they can never be simply 'friends' anymore either, not after Zero Requiem. And beyond that, the dream has left Lelouch unable to shake the fear that what they discovered about Charles' ambitions down below is far more than mere subconscious speculation, left Suzaku haunted by periodic nightmares in which he relives the trauma of having to kill Lelouch and await a long slow death all over again.

There is now no relief greater than waking to find Lelouch and Euphemia still alive and the Specially Administrated Zone of Japan still intact, than being able to kiss Lelouch good morning and know that it is not just a dream of something past. By the time Lelouch returned to limbo to remind him that the second hand of his pocket watch - and only the second hand - would still work if he set it back in motion, to make C.C. question why she couldn't remember so much of her past and remind her that she could indeed die if she truly set her mind to it, decades had passed and Suzaku in his old age had thought at first that he was seeing a ghost, going senile. It took no small amount of persuasion and ultimately the summoning of Jeremiah in projection form to counter a command they'd all thought was absolute, but when Suzaku woke it was to C.C.'s smile next to him and Lelouch's fingers laced tightly with his - and Suzaku remembers not wanting to let go for a long, long time after.

Now this level of the extraction is reminding him more than ever of their time in limbo - first with the apartment, now as they exit the elevator on a lower level and slip down the fire escape to dart straight into a crowd of pedestrians, a typical precaution against any pursuers and reminiscent of the time they were on the run after Lelouch killed his parents in the Sword of Akasha. And it is difficult to stop thinking of the scenario Lelouch dreamed up while deep under so many layers - of the Emperor's desire to unite the world's consciousness, preposterous as the notion may sound outside of their experience in limbo. But if the job isn't completed here they will be no better off than before. What they need now is confirmation, and more importantly information on how. There will be no new moves they can make without these.

A projection's shoulder bumps into his and he catches the dirty look he is given before he ducks his head with a murmured apology and keeps moving, Lelouch just a couple of steps ahead of him always. The projections here aren't armed, but hostility is rising among them the more he and Lelouch weave their way through the crowd - and it isn't just because Suzaku is discernably a Number. Lelouch is drawing stares, too, even though neither of them looks out of place among all the others on the street.

But that is to be expected; the dreamer they seek is Lelouch. Suzaku instinctively draws closer to him, the small weight of the gun against his back providing some measure of comfort. Lelouch may be a master at dreaming but his physical abilities here ultimately end up mirroring those in the real world more often than not, and in a way Suzaku's role as a Knight has never really ended.

He can tell now from the line of Lelouch's shoulders that he is concentrating, feeling, calculating. Logically, there's a chance this is going to be difficult. Even if Lelouch can reshape the landscape without drawing the projections' direct attention - without enough information on who tampered with the dream in the first place and how, they run the risk of exposing their immediate location to Bismarck himself if Lelouch were to make any drastic shifts in the architecture.

At least no one seems to be following them yet. And fortunately, knowing Lelouch, the vantage point from the apartment window earlier should have already allowed him enough time to study the new route to Babel, and speculate and predict all the obstacles they are likely to face along the way. All they have to do is get to the tower. According to the plan, once the groundwork has been laid, Bismarck will come to them instead.

Lelouch slows down and turns to look at him over his shoulder, an almost exaggerated coy smile on his lips as he links a hand with Suzaku's - a lover dragging his partner toward a tryst - and tugs them into the next deserted alleyway. It works - no one so much as tries to follow them with their gaze.

This trick is familiar, too. Together, there is nothing...

The streets are a lot narrower now, packed in by anonymous buildings looming above on either side. They weave right, left, right, right again - and Lelouch halts, his eyes darting to his from under the cap.

"Suzaku."

Suzaku steps ahead, half-pressing his back against the wall and his hand twitching toward his gun as he peers around the corner - and nearly collides with a rifle-touting soldier who is rounding the bend. This, too, is routine by now, his elbow knocking the rifle aside and a fist connecting with the projection's jaw, sending him falling backwards; a yell from up ahead as the soldier's backup registers the assault. 

Suzaku leaps to close the remaining distance between himself and Number Two and kicks - not hard enough to knock this one out as well but enough to dislodge the visor from his face, to grab him in a headlock while he is still winded and force him to meet Lelouch's gaze as Lelouch now calmly emerges from the shadows.

This is the trump card, the Geass - the ability to mentally latch on and focus so much on a subject's projections that immediate influence over them is gained. For Rolo this is limited to slowing down perception of dream time within a certain radius and only for brief moments; for Lelouch, reaching such focus requires direct eye contact but subsequently allows more room for manipulation.

Like the next step in the gambit when Lelouch discards the cap, pulls a manila envelope from his coat and hands it over to the officer. "Directives from Special Ops, we're part of sub-security. Take this to Headquarters."

Suzaku feels the tension slip out of the man as the order takes, and releases him to let him open the envelope and flip quickly through its contents. Information they will plant which will allow them easier passage later - including all their falsified identities. The projection is standing at attention in a matter of seconds, documents tucked under his arm.

"Quickly." Lelouch instructs.

"Sir," comes the brief acknowledgment, and the soldier is hurrying off... in the direction from which they came. Headquarters must be somewhere there instead, then.

Suzaku frowns, peering down now at the crest on the blazer of the unconscious platoon mate the soldier left behind. He recognizes the symbol for the mobile suit unit from his earlier days of dream sharing and simulation training. And judging from the approach of the second projection that he saw before kicking him down...

"...Lelouch," He bends to pick up the unused rifle, slinging it over a shoulder by its strap. "I think we should head left."

"-No," Lelouch says after a beat, eyes fixated beyond the building on something Suzaku cannot see when he tries to follow his line of sight. "This way."

Suzaku doesn't argue only because he is certain Lelouch picked up on the same signs he did, and because this is Lelouch's dream, a maze that Lelouch ought to know how to navigate better than he does, even with the unexpected changes.

But the curse comes flying out of his mouth when a bullet nicks the sleeve of Lelouch's coat two turns later, the hulking form of a Sutherland knightmare frame swinging down from the rooftop of a lower-rise block further up ahead, and what looks like about a dozen others rounding the corner and approaching from behind it.

Shit.  Shit.  "I  told  you we should've turned left," Suzaku hears himself growl out as he cuts in front of Lelouch to shield and brings the rifle forward, though his heart has jumped into his throat. One automatic rifle and two handguns against the artillery of an entire squadron of knightmares, they definitely won't last, not even if they run, it's a wonder that they're not still being  shot  at, that Lelouch is still alright, that -

"We'll be fine," Lelouch says with unbelievable aplomb from behind him, hands clasped behind his back when Suzaku glances to check on him and staring straight beyond Suzaku's shoulder at the oncoming screech and thunder of knightmares up the street.

"Fucking hell Lelouch, you think just because I lasted ten seconds against the Order of Michael without the Lancelot, I can -"

"-I think it means you lack imagination, as always." There's a smile in Lelouch's voice that he thinks he hears, and Suzaku would've been able to make certain if not for the loud rumbling that starts before them as the entire ground beneath the fast approaching knightmares suddenly divides into blocks and collapses - the same tactic that Lelouch was so fond of using back down in limbo.

The crashes are deafening, the ground shaking violently beneath his feet. Suzaku sees several slash harkens shoot out in a bid to catch on to the surrounding buildings for support but the pilots are too late, and when at last the dust starts to settle Suzaku can hear his own pulse still pounding loudly in his ears.

"...And I think you could have a little more faith," Suzaku turns to see Lelouch casually tossing the remote for the trick up in the air before slipping it back into his pocket with a smirk, awaiting his response.

Suzaku inhales, still trying to calm his panic as he lowers the rifle and slings it back behind him, reaching out to check Lelouch's shoulder for injury and relieved to find only torn cloth and no broken skin. "Okay," he breathes, swallowing and trailing his hands down Lelouch's arms to hold him before pulling him closer. "Okay. But just --" It isn't fair, it isn't fair to expect Lelouch to know the fear that seized him moments earlier at the thought of losing Lelouch to limbo again, isn't fair to expect Lelouch to know the anguish he experienced at having to strip his friend's life away while being fully convinced that it was real - but there is a way to explain his reaction to Lelouch and help him understand. "-Just... don't make me go down into limbo for you again." Suzaku realizes his hands are trembling. "I know I've done it before. And I'd do it all over again if I have to, but don't-" Lelouch is studying him with eyes solemn and bright, just like they were before he leaned into Suzaku and left a bloodied caress on the mask and Suzaku feels himself choke, the memory still too vivid, fresh as if it happened only yesterday. "-Don't make me, Lelouch."

"...I know," is all Lelouch murmurs at last, soft and low as he wraps his own hands around Suzaku's shoulders and Suzaku lets his eyes close at the lingering kiss Lelouch presses to his lips. "I know. I won't." It's a whispered promise and Suzaku finally lets himself relax and drops his hands to Lelouch's waist to kiss back - even though chances are high that with all the earlier noise made by the ground caving in, more projections will be closing in on them soon enough.

As if reading his thoughts Lelouch smiles when he pulls away and looks to the rubble, where a quick flick of his eyes has one block rising slowly back up, bringing with it a slightly battered but clearly still functional Sutherland, the entrance to the cockpit hanging open and its pilot nowhere to be found.

Ah, Suzaku thinks, as the direction of Lelouch's plan becomes much clearer, and Lelouch grins.

"I hope you haven't forgotten how to pilot fifth generation frames."