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Boden's Mate

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They meet late at night, among the little waterfalls that mark the FDR Memorial. "Sebastian Shaw," Moira says, setting the file down on the bench beside her. Alex is the one who takes it, she notes; Erik just goes very still, his eyes shadowed. "Need I say more?"

"The CIA actually got a lead on the bastard?" Alex asks incredulously, already flipping through the file. He has to squint to read in the darkness. "It's been more than two years--"

"We have a mole within his organization." Moira keeps her eyes on Erik, warily waiting for a reaction. "We couldn't risk them breaking cover, but they managed to reach out to us last week. There's a very narrow time frame on this. Shaw will be in Havana in two weeks. We can't arrest him--"

"As though the man is entitled to due process," Erik interrupts with a snort. His voice is very low.

Moira pinches the bridge of her nose, willing the headache away. She really hasn't missed Erik Lehnsherr these past two years. "As it happens, I agree, but the law's the law. And the CIA can't just make people disappear, Erik. Especially not prominent international businessmen."

"You mean you still haven't found any hard evidence of his wrongdoings? Extortion, kidnapping, illegal dream trafficking, not to mention outright murder--"

"None of that would stand up in a court of law," Moira says wearily. "And you know it. And men like Shaw tend to have insurance policies, so if his corpse were to wash up on a Cuban beach--"

Erik gives her a shark-like smile. "You assume there would be anything left of him to find."

"He has information that we need, and we need him alive to extract it," Moira says, and there it is: the job is on the table.

Extraction.

"My team, my rules," Erik says at once. "I pick my own people, and that means no interference from your government whatsoever."

Moira knows full well that many of the sharpest minds in dreamsharing operate well outside the various military programs in which it had initiated. There's simply too much cash to be made in illegal extraction, and none at all in government work.

Erik had never cared about the money, before. It was part of what made him such an excellent asset. But things have changed, since -- well.

"I called you because I wanted the best people on this," she tells him, keeping her tone brisk and professional. "You can run the job however you like, so long as you give us results."

"Results," Erik drawls. "Indeed. I'll also need access to your mole."

Moira gestures to the folder in Alex's hand. "That's all the intel they've given us so far. I'll make sure you see anything else they send, but you know I can't reveal their identity. They're no good to you dead."

"We'll still need to know before the job." This time it's Alex. He doesn't look a day older than when Moira last saw him, but he's changed, too. He's -- quieter. More settled. And there's a weariness in his eyes that belies his youthful face.

Keeping Erik in check for two years -- well, there aren't many who would stick it out. No wonder he's tired.

"We could use a man on the inside to physically get to Shaw for the extraction itself," Alex goes on. "And I wouldn't want to take out one of the good guys by mistake."

Moira nods reluctantly. "I'll take that upstairs. It should be resolved by the time we get to the point where need to know applies."

"See that it is," Erik says. He glances at Alex, who nods and tucks the file under his arm. "And now we have a great deal to do in a very little time. Have a good night, Moira." With a poisonous smile, he adds, "Sweet dreams."

Moira shakes her head, watching them walk away. She hasn't had a single dream in more than two years.

*

Like most jobs, it starts simple: they need a plan, which means they need an architect. Alex finds Sean in Chicago, scoping out jellyfish at the Shedd Aquarium. "Please tell me you're not planning a heist in here."

Sean doesn't even twitch at Alex's voice right behind him, just smiles, slow and lazy. "Nah, man, you ever try to get tropical fish through Customs? So not worth the hassle."

There's almost definitely a story there. Alex is pretty sure he doesn't want to hear it.

"Speaking of things that aren't worth the hassle," Sean adds, slanting a glance over, "the answer is no."

"You haven't heard the offer yet."

"You're still running point for Lehnsherr, right?"

Alex keeps his face impassive. "Yeah."

"So why are we still talking about this?"

"Sure, 'cause you're obviously keeping so busy these days," Alex says caustically. "Designing an aquarium?"

Sean shrugs. "Maybe I just wanna dream about jellyfish. Seriously, man, the way they move, the light through their bodies -- it's fucking weird. I could use that sometime, maybe. You never know when you're gonna want to weird someone out for a job."

This is why they need Sean, Alex reminds himself. Because the guy may be on the wacky drugs, but he's got a real genius for nontraditional architecture. And taking this mark will require an outside-the-box approach, that's for damn sure.

"You're bored," Alex points out. "I promise this'll be an interesting one. And Erik promised not to mess around with your blueprints this time, I've got that in writing."

"You've got to be kidding me, man," Sean says, exasperated. "Remember the last job I worked with that psychopath? He pushed me off the roof of a fucking skyscraper!"

"So don't build him any skyscrapers this time."

Sean scowls, ducking his head. His red hair flops into his eyes, making him look all of fifteen. Too bad Alex has known him way too long to be fooled by his emo brat act. "Then he'll just get creative," Sean says grudgingly. "So who's the mark?"

Alex smiles.

*

While his point man is off hunting down the Cassidy boy, Erik sets up shop. There's a flat in New York that should work nicely -- it's in Astoria, a bustling enough neighborhood that no one should notice their comings and goings. The apartment itself is quite comfortable, if a bit run down, and Erik hasn't gone near it in a good eight or nine months. Should be safe. He spends a day just cleaning the place, getting it sorted. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an appealingly large living room to set up the PASIV and associated paraphernalia; good enough for government work.

He places the PASIV case on the coffee table and then deliberately avoids it for the rest of the day.

No sense jumping the gun, after all.

*

Alex also likes Sean because he's a free agent, always has been, which means he knows just about everyone who's anyone in their business, plus a few nobodies on the side. Alex's contacts are mostly ex-military (like him) or otherwise government-affiliated. It's probably his biggest flaw as a point man -- and for this job, in particular, they'll be better off using people who fly under the radar. Like Sean.

Like Hank, who's going to take a bit more convincing, but he'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

"Look, to fool Shaw, you need more than a forger, you need a fucking shapeshifter," Sean argues, settling comfortably back on the overstuffed couch. "There's exactly three people in the world who could pull that off, and one of them is already on Shaw's payroll."

Erik scoffs at that. "Emma isn't that good of a forger."

"She fucks with your head, man, you believe she's anything she fucking wants you to. But anyway, Frost is out. So that leaves us with two choices." Sean steeples his fingers thoughtfully. "Eames was in Paris, last I heard. I'm still on pretty good terms with him from the Jenkins job, I can try--"

Alex shakes his head. "No, he's running his own crew now, him and a couple of Cobb's old people. They're still sitting pretty on the payout from the Fischer-Morrow thing last year, there's no way we can offer enough to tempt Eames away. If we're lucky we can get him in on a consult -- I'll look into that, actually." Alex scribbles the note to himself. "But that leaves us with--"

"Raven," Erik says. He sounds like he always knew it would come down to this. "Where is she?"

Alex eyes him warily. "Rome. You really think you should be the one approaching her? Because last time--"

Erik smiles. It isn't a very friendly smile. "That's precisely why she'll come along this time."

*

Raven's quite fond of Rome. It's noisy and dirty and vibrant and beautiful, and the food is kind of amazing. Her Italian is fluent, though she's picked up a Sicilian accent somewhere along the way, and she loves the way the words roll along her tongue.

She's idly window shopping along the Via dei Condotti. Supposedly, the shop owners on this street used to charge customers just for walking through the door, but nowadays she can admire the exorbitant displays of Gucci and Versace without fee, though lord knows she could afford it if she chose. Her last job was a particularly lucrative one. Catching a glimpse of her own reflection in one window, she decides she rather likes herself as a brunette, and contemplates finding a hat to match.

"Lovely as always," someone murmurs into her ear, "but you've made one mistake."

"Are the fall collections already on display topside?" Raven sighs. "And I'm usually such an ardent follower of fashion."

Erik chuckles. "Actually, it's far more pedestrian than that. The shops in the reflection aren't the same as the ones across the street."

Raven tosses a glance over her shoulder. He's right. "I never claimed to be an architect."

A few passersby give them odd looks, and Raven rolls her eyes and takes Erik's arm, leaning into him like an expectant lover. The projections move along, satisfied. "Testing your memory?" Erik asks, gesturing to the carefully recreated street.

"And trying out a few new skins," Raven agrees. She slips a hand into her large purse. "How did you find me?"

"Your eyes. They're always sharper than any projection's, no matter what body you wear. This one's a real knockout, by the way, though you know most gentlemen prefer blondes."

The revolver is cool in her grip, still concealed within her handbag. "Good thing you're no gentleman, then. Now, how did you find me?"

Erik smiles down at her. "Alex, of course."

"So that brought you to my flat." She pulls away to face him, eyebrow raised. "And the locked door wasn't a deterrent?"

"To me? What are a few padlocks between friends?"

"How about a few bullets?" Raven asks sweetly, and shoots him in the head.

He laughs as he dies.

She checks her wristwatch. Still another good twenty minutes down here before the preplanned kick. Much briefer up above, of course, but does she really want to give him free reign of her flat in the meantime? With a shrug, she presses the revolver's muzzle to her own temple and fires.

*

With that asshole Lehnsherr off in Italy, Sean has plenty of time to futz around with preliminary designs. He's sketching out a labyrinth of cubicles when Alex sticks his head in the studio (or, well, the bedroom Sean's commandeered as such).

"Hey, got five minutes?" Alex asks. "I want to try something with your architecture."

Sean tosses his pencil down. "Sure. What's up?"

"Ever try building a place you've never seen?"

They start with five minutes on the timer and a barren dreamscape. There's no such thing as complete neutrality in dreams, but Sean gives them a flat plain of waving grasses, the sort of mind-numbing sameness that cuts a large swathe through the Midwest. Sean grew up in Nebraska. He knows whereof he speaks.

Alex is wearing a messenger bag, the sort of hipster shit he's always been secretly fond of. He reaches in and pulls out a small spiral notebook, tossing it to Sean.

"What's this?" Sean asks, flipping it open.

"Should be a description of a house," Alex says. "Place I lived from age ten to fourteen. I remember it pretty well. So build it."

Sean makes a face as he reads. "Nowhere near enough detail."

"That's all the detail you're gonna get. It's my dream, right? If you build it right, my subconscious should fill in the rest on its own."

"I don't like pulling too much from memories," Sean points out. "That way madness lies."

"They're not your memories, they're mine." Alex stuffs his hands in his pockets. "Look, the point isn't to perfectly recreate a house that used to exist ten, fifteen years ago. That's impossible. But I'm your mark, okay, so make me believe I'm there."

Sean looks around. The landscape's all wrong. He shuffles the world into a neat suburban-ish street, cookie cutter houses sprouting all around them. Army base. He knows the type. "This is for the job, isn't it," Sean remarks as he gets to work. "You want Shaw to dream a place he knows, but we've only got a written description to go by, right?"

"I want to see if it's something you can do, at least," Alex replies. "There's no plan yet. Just trying to keep our options open."

Sean flashes him a grin. "You know me, man," he says, stone foundation slamming into place beneath their feet. "I'm all about keeping an open mind."

*

Raven's reaching for her real gun almost before her eyes open. She finds Erik sitting in the armchair across from her, flipping a coin between his long fingers, his PASIV line already rewound back into the case. He shakes his head reprovingly at the weapon and pockets the coin. "None of that up here, my dear."

"I'm pretty sure I promised I'd shoot you in the face if I ever saw you again."

"And you are nothing if not a woman of your word," Erik says lightly. "Did it help?"

Raven tilts her head, considering. "It felt very cathartic."

"Excellent. Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk business."

She detaches her own line, meeting his eyes levelly. "Shaw, right? I got nothing, Erik. Not one damn clue since the incident in Florida last year--"

"When I let him slip away," Erik finishes. His mouth is pressed into a thin, flat line. "Yes. I recall. I'm here to make it up to you, Raven."

The words hang in the air between them like a promise, like a fantasy. She dares not reach out and touch them lest they slip away like smoke on the wind. "What do you know?"

"Havana. Two weeks. One chance. Are you with me?"

"Extraction?"

"The CIA thinks Shaw's working on a very special project. Something that could completely revolutionize the dreamsharing industry, and not in a good way. Moira wants us to find out what he plans."

Raven snaps the PASIV case closed. "Nice cover. And the real job?"

"You already know."

Yes, Raven already does.

*

"You know you're gonna need a real chemist, right?" Sean remarks, idly scratching at the mark left on his inner arm from the PASIV line. That was his third go at building Alex's childhood home. The details are improving, but the overall wrongness still jars Alex out of the dream, every time. It's giving him a headache.

He rubs the back of his neck, willing the kinks out. "What, you think Shaw's already too familiar with generic Somnacin?" It's not that he disagrees; he just wants to hear what points Sean will make.

Sean gets to his feet, stretching. "Obviously. But also, what you're trying to do here -- I think we should try futzing with the formula, see if we can't come up with a cocktail that lowers the mark's inhibitions, makes him more prone to suggestion. And by 'we' I mean the chemist, because man, you do not want me spiking your Somnacin."

Alex's eyes narrow. "You've tried going under during an acid trip, haven't you." It's not a question.

"Trust me, man," Sean says with a shudder, "you do not want to know the nightmares that gave me."

"How are you even still alive, seriously, you are such a fucking dumbass."

"None of which changes the fact that we need our own chemist," Sean points out, long-suffering. "And I mean a good one. Like a legit scientist type."

"I know."

"Like McCoy."

"I know, shut up, do you think I'm stupid or something?" Alex says, exasperated. "I sent him an e-mail yesterday."

Sean gives him a Look. Alex really hates it when he plays at being all perceptive and shit. "Like he wouldn't delete any e-mails from you sight unseen. I bet you're on his spam filter. I bet he hacked your IP address and put all your accounts on his spam filter, even the ones you haven't created yet. Where is he?"

"Washington, where else?" Alex grumbles. "I've already got an Amtrak ticket to Union Station for tomorrow. It's not like this is my job or anything."

"Can I come with?" Sean grins. "Can I bring a video camera? And popcorn?"

"Shut up and go draw some fucking mazes, asshole."

*

It's too bad that they get in to Queens just a few hours after Alex has already left for D.C.; Raven still hasn't decided if she's going to hug him or punch him in the face for giving Erik her address without warning her first. But instead of Alex, they arrive to find a red-haired young man who wastes no time in getting them hooked into his PASIV. He actually pulls the bags straight out of Raven's hands as she walks through the door and navigates her into the living room.

"Cassidy," Erik growls warningly, before he can be similarly manhandled. So this is Sean Cassidy, then -- she knows him by reputation, but they've never actually worked together before. Erik has, though, once or twice, and supposedly Sean and Alex go way back.

"Hiya," the architect says cheerfully. "How was your flight?"

"Long."

"Awesome. I want to see how jet lag affects your perceptions of the dreamspace. Hook up."

Raven shrugs and rolls up her sleeve. She's experimented under far worse conditions, and if Alex trusts the guy, that's good enough for her. "Just as long as we're in Erik's head and not mine," she tells Sean. "I've got a few tricks I want to try out, it works better if I'm not the subject."

Erik frowns, like he's about to protest, but Sean hits the button on the PASIV and--

She has sand between her toes and the air smells of salt, and seagulls screech in the sky above her. The sun is pleasantly hot on her face. Raven sips her iced tea and smiles out at the waves.

It's not anyplace she's specifically been, and Sean's probably constructed it from the usual smorgasbord of memories, photos, and pure imagination. But it feels very Eastern Seaboard to her -- warm, gritty sand, the choppy Atlantic ocean, possibly the Jersey Shore or further north into New England. When she was a child, her family would sometimes go on weekend trips to beaches like this in the summer, rent out a beach house in Atlantic City where her stepmother could drink herself into a stupor while her father disappeared into the casinos, and she and her stepbrother could escape her asshole brother Cain into a world of sand and shore and other screaming children--

Raven shakes her head sharply to dispel the memory. That's not what she's here for.

She sets the thermos of iced tea down on the blanket and gets to her feet, shading her eyes against the sun. There are other people scattered across the beach, enjoying the day -- some families, some singly or in couples. She doesn't see either Erik or Sean, but they must be around somewhere. Good. Time to try out her latest trick.

The sun beats down, dizzily hot for a moment, and yeah, there's the jet lag seeping in. She shakes it off and focuses. She's been playing around with the concept of maintaining multiple forgeries at once -- inhabiting two separate bodies. It's possible, but requires a great deal of concentration. For now, she wants to keep it as simple as possible. She keeps her own natural body, but visualizes a mirror in front of her, full-length. Every detail must be just so: the wave of her blonde hair, falling just past her shoulders; the bright blue bikini top and cut-off shorts; the smooth line of her tanned legs. Her reflection gives her an appreciative wink. Then the mirror dissolves, leaving just her reflection behind, and they split off across the beach in opposite directions in search of her teammates.

*

Hank McCoy works in the sort of fancy-pants corporate lab that Alex would need a very elaborate fake identity and multiple passcodes to break into. Not that this is beyond Alex's abilities, because please, he's a fucking professional here. But he doesn't have the time required to compile the necessary resources, not unless they're willing to put off the Shaw job by another month or so, which, no. So he's stuck loitering around outside the facility like any old miscreant, waiting for Hank to show up for work.

Of course, Hank being the freak of nature that he is, he probably got into the office at some ungodly hour of the morning, before Alex's ass o'clock AM train even pulled into Union Station. So Alex has to resort to hoping the big dweeb actually takes a coffee break at some point.

He's been lurking for a good two hours in the shadow of a neighboring building when wonder of wonders, Hank actually emerges. It's been years since Alex last saw him, but he looks much the same as ever -- tall and gawky, with those ridiculous clunky glasses from the height of retro dorkdom. Christ.

"Dr. McCoy," Alex says, stepping out of the shadows like a classic film villain. It's fun to watch Hank jump.

Hank crosses his arms across his chest and scowls. It's really not even a little bit intimidating. "Corporal Summers. What an unpleasant surprise."

Oddly enough, Alex starts a little to hear his old army rank. He hasn't been military in years. But of course, that's still how Hank would think of him, isn't it? He shrugs it off. "I did send you an e-mail."

Hank snorts. "You didn't actually expect me to read it?"

"Hope springs eternal. Got a minute?"

"I'll save you the sixty seconds. No."

Alex keeps his arms loose at his side, to restrain himself from smacking Hank upside the head. Old habits die hard. Okay, so maybe, once upon a time, Corporals Summers and Cassidy had given one Specialist McCoy kind of a rough time for a few months. It was the army, okay, a bit of good-natured hazing was to be expected, and they outranked him. That the three of them -- along with nine others -- had been part of an elite squad assigned to the army's experimental dreamsharing unit meant that they'd spent a lot more subjective time together than the few months topside would imply. Point is, for all Alex's congenital roughhousing and Sean's tendency to fuck with the dream around Hank in not-strictly-military-approved ways -- well, McCoy was the master chemist. And Alex knew for sure he'd gotten them back on at least four separate occasions by messing with their Somnacin compounds. It was all in good fun, right?

And when the army had abruptly terminated the program, Alex got Hank the hell out of there right along with Sean. That had to count for something. The other nine in their squad weren't so lucky, and yeah, Alex still sometimes has nightmares about that. Or would, if he were capable of natural dreaming anymore.

Then the CIA had co-opted Alex, at least for a little while; Sean had split off to navigate the black market of dreaming on his own; and Hank ended up in private research. Incredibly well-funded private research -- his lab was bought out by Proclus Global last year, right around the same time as the Fischer-Morrow dissolution. It's no secret in their community that inception had brought Fischer down, and Proclus now actively pursues further avenues within dreamsharing. Intentionally or not, Hank is poised on the cutting edge of PASIV research, and Alex wants the whiz kid on his side.

Even if he has to grovel.

"Just hear me out, will you?" Alex says, doing his level best to keep the exasperation out of his tone. "It's important. Way more important than the fact that I used to bully you around like seven years ago, and by the way, I am sorry about that, okay?"

Hank glowers and doesn't budge. But on the plus side, he's not walking away. "You know I'm on Proclus's payroll these days. How exactly do you think you can buy me out?"

"We can't. I'm trying to appeal to your better nature, here. Bear with me." Alex squares his shoulders. "Who's the most dangerous individual in the dreamsharing industry right now?"

"Apart from my boss?"

Alex waves that off. "Saito? Please. Corporations always look like the Big Bad, and sure, you can do a lot of damage with a large, blunt instrument. But I'm talking scary."

"If we're going on a scale of one to sadistic fuck?" Hank's body language loosens a bit, his eyes distant. "Sebastian Shaw. You should see the file we've got on the guy. The areas of research he's exploring -- talk about nightmare fuel. Literally."

"He's our mark."

Hank blinks at that. "Are you out of your mind? There is no form of extraction you can attempt on him that he hasn't already pulled on someone else, only worse. How the hell do you think you can outwit Shaw?"

"Sheer bloody-mindedness, my boss would say." Alex grins. "And I'm hoping for a really fucking ingenious Somnacin cocktail, something that Shaw will never see coming. You're pretty much the only name on my list, Hank. By which I mean you are the only name on my list."

"I can't just walk away from--"

"The time frame is two weeks," Alex wheedles. "That's it, then you're free. I'm sure Proclus Global is generous with its vacation time, and knowing you, you haven't so much as called in sick in years. Come on, Hank." He gives Hank his most winning smile. "Don't you want to save the world?"

"Fuck you," Hank says, and yeah, he's in.

*

Raven finds Sean first, pulling a monstrous sand castle up out of the earth. Nearby onlookers are getting noticeably twitchy.

"I can't tell if you're showing off or if you're trying to commit suicide by projection," she remarks, plopping down onto the sand beside him.

"Bit of both. I wanna see how disorienting the jet lag is on Lehnsherr's subconscious, see how much it lets me get away with." He grins, giving her an appreciative once-over. The leer looks fairly ridiculous in conjunction with the truly enormous sunglasses he's wearing. "Didn't expect to see you in your own body -- I thought you were trying out something new yourself?"

Raven stretches languorously. "I am."

Simultaneously, she finds Erik on the other side of a weathered wooden pier. Seeing out of two pairs of eyes gives her a bit of a headache; carrying on two conversations at once is a real challenge. It's kind of fun. "There you are," Erik says. "Any sign of Cassidy? He keeps shifting the shoreline around me, it's rather trying."

"Wanna clue me in?" Sean asks, at the same time.

"Other side of the pier," her reflection tells Erik; she smiles coyly at Sean and says, "You'll see in a minute."

There's a sudden wind off the ocean, startlingly cool in contrast with the heat of the day. Thunder rumbles ominously in the distance as clouds begin to blot out the sun. One of them is playing around too much. Probably Sean, with his showy landscaping; she's barely even started.

Sean glances down at his watch. "Twenty-eight minutes of overt fucking around before the first signs of collapse. Not too shabby."

"The dream's destabilizing," Erik says unnecessarily, fifty feet away. "Wonderful. I want to get a real nap in once we're done."

Her reflection catches sight of her and Sean; Raven twists around to wave at herself and Erik as they approach. For once, it seems, she's managed to catch Erik off guard; he's startled into an appreciative laugh.

Sean blinks comically, looking from her to the reflection and back again. His eyes go very wide. "Damn."

"Told you I had a few tricks up my sleeve," Raven says smugly.

Erik and reflection-Raven join them; the reflection immediately stretches out on the sand beside herself. "Well played indeed," Erik says, eyes alight with interest. Not in her body, of course; just in what she can do. She's always liked that about him. "Can you maintain two different bodies at once, or just identical copies? What about three, or four? Have you tried--"

"Dude, please stop talking," Sean says, still staring at both of her. "I'm in a very happy place right now. Don't spoil it."

That's when it starts to rain.

Both Ravens laugh, grabbing at beach towels to cover themselves; Sean actually lets out a shriek, which she is so never going to let him live down. Erik just shakes his head and tilts his face up to the rain. Around them, projections are reacting like any beach-goers would in the face of a sudden storm -- snatching up bags and blankets, starting a small stampede for the boardwalk and cars and homes. Sean waves his hand and shields them all with an enormous beach umbrella, keeping out the worst of the rain, but of course that just draws more attention from Erik's projections. A young boy with vivid freckles glares murderously at them; an older Latina woman spits on the sand at their feet.

"I think we've worn out our welcome," Raven remarks in two voices at once.

"We've still got a few minutes before the kick," Erik says, frowning. "I suppose we may as well just--"

He cuts himself off, face suddenly pale, staring. Raven turns to see a projection advancing upon them -- the first thing she notices is the knife in his hands, and she finds herself wondering why that should frighten Erik, God knows he's seen far worse....

And then her gaze travels up to the projection's face.

She loses control of the forgery in an instant, snapping fully into one body. "No," she whispers. "Erik--"

Sean's already pulled a gun out of nowhere, instinctively responding to the threat despite his confusion. "It's just a projection--"

Raven hasn't seen her stepbrother in more than two years. He smiles at her coldly, and it's all wrong; he never looked at her like that, blue eyes like ice, no warmth at all -- and then he grabs Erik by the neck and she screams and the rain is lashing down at her face and Sean shouts something and Erik doesn't even fight back, just closes his eyes as Charles slits his throat and the sand is soaked with blood and she can't stop screaming as the dream collapses around them--

And then she wakes up, yanks the line out of her arm, gets to her feet, and slaps Erik full in the face.

He doesn't say a word. It's like he doesn't even notice her at all.

*

Moira's working very late, reviewing notes from one of their research teams; she nearly jumps out of her skin when her phone rings. The first thing she notices is that it's not her government-issued cell -- it's her private phone, the number only a handful of personal contacts should have. The caller ID simply says UNKNOWN. She hesitates before answering, but really, who else could it be?

"Alex?"

"Close, but no cigar. Hiya, Moira."

She hasn't heard that voice in years. Amazing, how the little things can bring you back. "Raven," she murmurs. "How did you get this -- no, of course, never mind. So you've joined their team."

"Just like old times, huh?" Raven says cuttingly. Moira winces. Raven never had forgiven her -- or any of them, really.

Raven and Alex had been off on a recon mission when it happened. They'd returned that night to find their facility a smoking wreck, fire trucks still parked haphazardly across the lawn, floodlights illuminating the destruction like some ghastly film set. Moira sat alone on the steps, wrapped in a blanket that an EMT had given her hours ago.

It was Angel, she told them. Angel had betrayed them. Angel let them in, while they were all dreaming, hooked up in a training simulation.

Who, Alex demanded.

We don't know for sure, Moira said -- but no, it was Shaw, had to be Shaw.

Where are the others, Raven begged to know, and Moira hadn't known what to tell her.

"Why are you calling?" Moira asks her now, warily. "I've already told Alex I'll pass along any new intel as I receive it myself--"

"Yes, I'm sure you will," Raven says. "But I'm looking for slightly different information. Has the government done any research on a dreamer's projections?"

Moira blinks. "Projections? Aspects of the subconscious, with varying degrees of significance. Tend to be very protective of the dreamspace, provoked into violence as the subject's subconscious realizes it's dreaming and tries to identify the foreign agents invading it."

Raven's tone takes on an edge of impatience. "Yeah, of course, duh."

"You already know all this," Moira points out. "You're a more experienced dreamer by now than I ever used to be."

"I know, it's just--" Raven breaks off with a frustrated sigh. "You know what, never mind. It's probably nothing."

"What happened?" Whatever it was, it couldn't be nothing. Not for Raven to call, when she hasn't spoken to Moira in two years.

"Saw something in Erik's dream today that kind of spooked me," Raven says, affecting a breezy disinterest. "Big surprise, right? It's Erik. But whatever, I'll get over it."

"If it's something that might affect the job--"

"We'll deal," Raven says firmly. "Forget I called. Bye, Moira."

Raven hangs up before Moira has a chance to protest. Moira drops her phone back into her purse with a sigh, knowing that her night's ruined. She's glad that she lost the ability to dream naturally ages ago -- outside of the PASIV, which she's refused to touch since the attack on their facility. She doesn't know how people like Raven and Alex and Erik -- especially Erik -- are able to go on working in dreams after what they've seen, what they've done.

Every morning, she wakes up with her heart in her throat, pulse racing, and every morning, just for a moment, she thinks she's back. Waking up out of that nightmare simulation to the sound of the fire alarm shrieking, the glaring red emergency lights so saturating the stark room that at first she didn't even notice that the damp stain spreading across the concrete floor wasn't water at all. Erik was grabbing her wrists, dragging her up, and she slipped in the wet and that's when she realized it was blood. It was blood, and Erik's face looked haggard and haunted in the red light, and Darwin and Charles were nowhere to be found.

Erik deposited her into the care of emergency services and was gone, chasing after Shaw (chasing after Charles); then Alex left to run after Erik, and Raven left to run as far from the rest of them as she could get, so here Moira is as she always has been, holding down the fort, hiding in her tower, alone.

She stares determinedly down at the file open across her desk, willing the past back into the shadows where it belongs.

*

"Sebastian Shaw," Erik says, tacking Shaw's photo up on the large bulletin board that now dominates one wall of the living room. The photo itself is probably three years old, and a bit on the grainy side, but good enough. "Alias Klaus Schmidt, alias Boris Shvernik, et cetera. Former Navy SEAL, one of the original participants in the first experimental dreamsharing project. Dishonorably discharged in the early 1980s when he stole himself a PASIV and ran, thereby establishing what would become a popular tradition among the dreamsharing community." Erik gives his team a pointed glance. Alex and Sean both cough and look away. "Currently commands a criminal organization known as the Hellfire Club, base unknown. The Hellfire Club is notable for their particularly brutal methods of extraction -- which have left more than one subject in a permanent vegetative state -- as well as for their mysteriously well-funded research and development program. Shaw is a clever enough scientist in his own right, in addition to which he has a particular talent for convincing or coercing better minds to work for him. Where coercion fails, the Hellfire Club has been known to murder their competition outright." As they have had ample opportunity to discover for themselves. Alex meets his eyes now, expression grim. Erik clears his throat and goes on. "Shaw's financial sponsors are as yet unknown."

That's Alex's cue. "The goal of this particular job centers around Shaw's R&D program," he says, standing up beside Erik. "The CIA currently has an operative within the Hellfire Club. He or she passed along information last week that Shaw is close to a major breakthrough, something that could knock everyone else out of the playing field. We're talking government programs, Proclus Global, the works -- not to mention assorted independent contractors." Raven snorts, and Erik can see the new chemist, Hank, suppressing a smile. "The precise nature of this breakthrough is unknown," Alex goes on. "Shaw's keeping a tight lid on it, even from his own associates. But it's got the CIA very nervous. Our job is to extract any and all information we can on Shaw's current avenue of research."

"You've each already been made aware of our time frame," Erik says. "In eleven days, Shaw will be checking into the Hotel Saratoga in Havana, Cuba. He will be there for two nights only. Our source says that he's in Cuba to meet with an associate, Janos Quested." He puts another photo up on the board, this of a slender, sharp-eyed Latino man in a neat three-piece suit. "We're working on getting further intel on Quested. We do not know what time Shaw will be arriving, nor where from. Our best opportunity is at that hotel."

"Supposedly Shaw will be traveling alone, but I don't believe that for a second," Alex says. He pulls out a file folder and starts tacking more photos up on the wall. "Known current members of the Hellfire Club include: Emma Frost, forger. Azazel Bondarenko, weapons expert and point man. Angel Salvadore, architect." He nearly spits that one out, eyes hardening; Erik doesn't much like looking at the turncoat's photograph, either. "Donald Pierce doesn't do extraction work -- as far as we know -- but he heads up the Club's physical operations. Jason Stryker, chemist."

Hank raises his hand, like a kid in class. "What about past associates?" he asks. "Is there anyone we can get to -- someone with firsthand knowledge of how Shaw works, I mean? Who won't run and tattle after?"

That raises Erik's estimation of Hank a couple of notches. Most of the chemists he's worked with previously have been either druggies or classic mad scientist types, heads full of chemicals and formulae, with little to no understanding of strategy outside the narrow reach of their field. This one at least appears to be aware of the greater picture of the job beyond his own role in it. Promising.

And of course Hank has no way of knowing what an awkward question he's just posed.

"Shaw's former associates are, uh, kind of thin on the ground," Alex says carefully. "Most people don't walk away from Shaw and live. As far as we know, well...." He hesitates, glances to Erik, then forges on. "The only known ex-associate of Shaw is Erik Lehnsherr."

It lands heavily. Alex knows everything, of course -- or, rather, as much as Erik wants him to know, which is more than enough. And certainly Raven knows as well. She doesn't react at all, continuing to look levelly right past Erik to the photos on the bulletin board. That's to be expected; she hasn't spoken to him once since the incident in yesterday's dream. She'll get over it eventually.

But Sean and Hank hadn't known, and it shows. Hank's face flushes; he stares down at his feet, fidgeting with his glasses. Sean gapes openly. "You've got to be kidding me," he says. "I knew you were a dickhead, Lehnsherr, but you used to be Shaw's attack dog?"

"It was a long time ago," Alex cuts in defensively, but Erik waves him off. This is who he was, who he is. He hasn't bothered with shame in many years.

"Yes," Erik tells Sean. "I was his protégé, in fact." He looks up to address the team as a whole. "So believe me when I tell you that this is the most dangerous extraction you will ever perform. His subconscious is most certainly militarized, and inventively so. Expect ruthlessly violent projections, booby traps, the works. Shaw is a sick, twisted old bastard. Furthermore, he's been doing this longer than some of you have been alive, and he is an absolute master at manipulating the dreamspace. The instant he realizes he's dreaming, he's won. All he has to do is wake us up." He smiles grimly. "Of course, he won't be nearly that merciful."

"This is why chemistry is the key," Alex adds, looking directly at Hank. "He cannot know that he's dreaming. Whatever magical combination of sedatives or hallucinogens or what-the-fuck-ever you've been experimenting with in that big fancy lab, Hank, we need it."

Hank sits up a bit straighter. "I want more than one dream level," he says at once. "I know it's flashy, and people talk about multiple layers all the time, but not many teams actually use them, and you forget how disorienting it can become as you get deeper and deeper."

Erik smiles. "Excellent. Two levels, then. More ideas?"

"Got any specs on the hotel yet?" Sean asks, looking to Alex. "Floor plans, photos, testimonials, janitorial staff--"

Alex nods. "I'll get you whatever you need. You're thinking the hotel for the first level?"

"Seems like the obvious choice," Sean says with a shrug. "Especially if we can catch him right off the plane. New country, jet lag, mild disorientation -- so throw him straight into the place he's expecting to be anyway. Kay Eye Ess Ess, baby."

Architects tend to dream big and complex; it's nice to work with one who knows that sometimes, less is more. K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

"In that case, I want Quested," Raven says. She goes over the the board, taking down Janos Quested's photo to examine. "We may as well give Shaw what he came for. Have they worked together before?"

Alex's mouth twists. Erik knows he hates having to admit the gaps in his research. "I don't know yet, but I'll find out."

"You do that." Raven's lips curve in a little half-smile as she studies the photo. "And then Quested will bring us to the second level."

"What are you thinking?" Alex asks.

"We're supposed to extract info on his current project, right? So why not have Quested request a demonstration?"

Erik shakes his head, but more in contemplation than denial. "Shaw hasn't kept his secrets for this long by acting recklessly," he says warningly. "We can appeal to his love of showing off, but that only takes us so far. What's the hook?"

"You said it yourself: he's a sadistic bastard, and he doesn't like losing his toys." Raven looks at him, finally, and smiles. It's not a pleasant smile. "So Quested will sweeten the deal by handing him Erik Lehnsherr on a silver platter. Second level, Shaw thinks he's fucking around in your head? He'll show us everything he's got."

*

Hank likes this coffee shop, he decides. Convenient location, cheap coffee, just the right balance between shabby and reputable. The chairs are comfy and he and his laptop fit right in, and the ambient noise level is just right. For all the time he spends in pristine labs or offices, Hank's found he does his best thinking in places like this, casual and comfortable and surrounded by the low buzz of other people's conversations.

He sips his coffee and pulls up some of his most recent data spreadsheets on his laptop. What was he looking for? Interactions between Somnacin dosages and a few generic brands of sedative, wasn't it, because he wanted to do a test run later today....

"Is this seat taken?" someone asks -- male voice, English accent, and that's about all the attention Hank is willing to spare at the moment.

He doesn't even bother looking up from his work. "No, go ahead," he says, lost in his private universe of chemical formulae.

If he tweaks the diazepam dosage in that particular cocktail, it ought to increase the inhibitory processes in the cerebral cortex, and reduce the subconscious's self-awareness to more manageable levels. Wouldn't want to go too far in that direction, though -- if the subject loses all grasp on reality, the dream would become too unstable, might not hold the foundation of the architecture. Back in the army, Hank had more than a few dreams collapse around him, and it's not an experience he's anxious to revisit. Not that it matters, he never goes into the dreams himself these days -- oh, but wait, Erik is going to want him on ground zero for any new drug cocktails. I'm not your lab rat, Doctor McCoy, Erik had told him -- this morning? Yesterday? Any new compound you want to test out, you'll be right down there with me. So Hank must be very careful futzing around with the Somnacin, because he's going to be his own guinea pig.

Sean's waiting on this so that he can adjust his architecture accordingly, and when had Erik spoken with him? Normally Hank's got a much firmer grasp on details than this. How long has he been working here? The little clock on his screen doesn't seem to be working right. He looks across the table to his new neighbor. "Excuse me, do you have the time?" Hank asks.

The other man glances up from his newspaper. He looks to be a few years older than Hank, but with the sort of perpetually youthful face that probably means he still gets carded at bars sometimes. He's dressed neatly, suit jacket over a button-down shirt and nice slacks, no tie. Business casual, probably on his morning coffee break. Or is it afternoon?

"Sorry," the man says, with a pleasant smile. "I'm afraid I don't wear a wristwatch."

"Oh, no problem," Hank says. "It's just that I'm supposed to be meeting some friends."

Why did he say that?

The man folds the paper, studying Hank with sharp blue eyes. His expression remains open and friendly, but there's something unnerving about his gaze. "You seemed quite absorbed in your laptop. Working on anything interesting?"

Hank gives him a self-deprecating smile. "Psychiatric chemistry. Just reviewing some data. It's all very obscure and technical, really."

"I dabble a bit in chemistry myself," the man says, leaning forward slightly. "Are you--"

The little bell on the door to the coffee shop jangles, and Hank looks up to see Alex and Erik enter together. He waves them over. "My friends," he says apologetically.

"There you are," Alex says, smirking. "Man, you really did a number on yourself, didn't you?"

"At least we know it's effective," Erik remarks dryly.

Hank frowns. It's like -- something about their words is supposed to make sense, but it doesn't, not quite. "Sorry," he says, not sure what he's apologizing for. "I think I lost track of the time. I was just chatting with...." He trails off, looking to his new friend; they'd never actually introduced themselves.

Alex and Erik glance down at the stranger and freeze.

"Hello," the man says. He's still smiling as pleasantly as ever, but with a poisonous edge that Hank hadn't noticed before. "New chemist, Erik? He's a clever one."

"I always do appreciate your good judgment," Erik replies, voice strained. There's something shattered in his expression, in the way he's gazing at the man like it's physically painful yet he can't look away.

Alex just looks horrified. He grabs Erik roughly by the arm. "You told me you were handling this," he says, in low, urgent tones. "Christ, this isn't even your dream, what the hell is he doing here--"

Hank is a very smart man. He has never felt this confused in his life. "Guys, what's going on?"

"Oh, do keep up," the stranger says with a sigh. And then he pulls out a pistol and shoots Hank in the chest.

It hurts like a motherfucker, and Hank can only gape at him across the table as he--

--wakes up.

He was dreaming. He'd worked out the Somnacin cocktail early this morning, so they'd decided to test it in the afternoon. Jesus H. Christ, has it really been so long since he last dreamed that he'd forgotten what it felt like down there? On the plus side, he is a fucking boss at chemistry, because damn, he even fooled himself.

But the dream hadn't been collapsing, it was perfectly stable. None of his projections had so much as looked at him funny. So who the hell--

Hank looks over to see Alex and Erik both jerk awake at once. No one else is hooked into the dream. So that must have been a projection.

"Good work, Hank," Erik says gruffly, yanking himself free of the PASIV. "You'll do another run with Sean and Raven tomorrow."

"Erik!" Alex shouts after him, but Erik stalks off without another word. "Fuck."

"Okay, so what the hell was that?" Hank demands.

"Charles Xavier," Alex mutters, winding up both of their PASIV lines. "My old mentor in the CIA. He and Erik used to work together."

Hank rubs his chest, still sore with phantom pain from the bullet he hadn't actually been shot with. "Bad breakup, huh?"

Alex stills, his eyes snapping to Hank. "No," he says roughly. "He died. A little more than two years ago."