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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."

Chapter Text

Raven often builds dreams from memories. That breaks one of the first rules of dream architecture, she knows; but then, she's never been considered an architect, so who cares? Some people may have trouble distinguishing dream from reality, but not Raven. After all, she can't shift skins in the real world. She always knows when she's dreaming; this is where she feels most alive.

"Do you have a totem?" Hank asks her, looking uncomfortable in the opulent, wood-paneled halls of her childhood home.

Raven laughs. "You really do work for Saito, don't you? I'll bet he issues them out to all Proclus's dreamsharing employees."

"Not really," Hank says. He reaches out and traces the elegant carving along the front of an antique grandfather clock. "But I'm thinking maybe I ought to invest in one anyway."

"You're a chemist," Sean points out. "It's not like you're gonna be going under for a job anytime soon." He lounges against a wall, looking completely out of place here in his battered jeans and well-worn T-shirt and not caring a bit about it.

Raven wishes there'd been people like Sean or Hank or Alex about when she was growing up here; she'd never liked this luxurious old tomb, crept around it like a thief in the night. Her brothers had been different -- Cain was a human cannonball, tearing through the place; Charles, well-bred but desperately lonely before his mother remarried Raven and Cain's father, followed him around in wide-eyed worship at first. But at some point he recognized Cain's brutal bullying for the inherent cruelty it contained, and learned to avoid him as Raven did, escaping with her to the library or kitchens. They were two against one, they shouldn't have had to hide -- but Cain had five years and fifty pounds on the both of them. They never stood a chance.

Maybe this is why you're not supposed to build dreams from memories. You can get lost in them.

Raven shakes her head and shoves open the door to the library. A game of chess is already set up on the side table, awaiting Charles's return. It will have to wait a while longer. "So," she says briskly, sprawling across the divan and taking a perverse pleasure in putting her boots up on the delicate upholstery. "Let's have at it, then. What are we playing with today, boys?" Erik had probably told her at some point, up topside in the apartment, but she'd ignored him as per usual.

The boys exchange a look. That's her warning. They go way back, she remembers, the two of them and Alex, playing soldier together in military dreamscapes. They might not have much in common, but there's a certain us-against-the-world mentality that goes along with that sort of experience, like she once had with Charles. Like Alex and Erik, who cordially disliked one another in the CIA but have since operated in wary codependence for two long years.

"Variation on the Somnacin compound that subdues subconscious projections," Hank says. "To see how much you and Sean can fuck around before the dream implodes. Architecture, forgeries, whatever."

"A good forgery never tips off the dreamer's subconscious," Raven retorts automatically, but she studies them with narrowed eyes. They don't need to do joint testing for this. And Hank doesn't really need to be down in the dream at all. "No, but seriously, guys."

They trade looks again, and this time Sean draws the short straw. "Charles Xavier," he says.

Raven stiffens.

"More importantly, Erik's projection of him," Sean goes on. He takes one of the seats at the chessboard, straddling the chair to fold his arms across the back, facing her. "You saw him invade the beach dream. I thought he was just a particularly violent projection, but Hank here says he turned up in a test run yesterday, too. I've never met the man myself, but Alex mentioned the name a time or two. So he's somebody Alex and Erik both knew. You too, right?"

She tosses her hair back, affecting nonchalance. "Why don't you ask one of them about it? I thought you two were all chummy with Alex."

"I did ask." This time it's Hank. He perches awkwardly at the edge of an armchair, like he's scared he might break it somehow. "Alex said he died a couple of years back--" And oh, does that ever make Raven's breath hitch in her chest, still. "--but then he clammed right up. Said it didn't matter. Except obviously it does matter, because this guy's kicking us out of our own dreams, and that's kind of a problem."

"The second level is supposed to be Erik's dream," Sean adds. "No fucking way am I feeding his subconscious any blueprints, not if this is how it's manifesting. That's like giving the projection a map with a big red arrow saying come fuck me over." He leans forward in the chair, balancing precariously. "Look, I've heard of this sort of shit happening before. Ever work with a guy called Cobb?"

Raven rolls her eyes. "No, but I've heard the same dumb urban legends you have--"

"No legend, fact," Sean insists. "I did a job a couple months back with the guy who used to run point for Cobb. Those are some fucking war stories, man, we're talking clawing-your-way-out-of-Limbo stuff. I do not want to go through that shit on this job, there is not enough money in the world."

"So go psychoanalyze Erik. I don't see what any of this has to do with Charles."

"This guy Charles is the one lurking in Erik's head with an axe to grind--"

"That isn't Charles," Raven snarls, shoving herself off the divan in impotent fury. "Charles would never -- at first he couldn't even point a gun at a projection, let alone people he cared about." She laughs without mirth. "The CIA trained that out of him, sort of, but you could still never rely on him for a good old-fashioned murder-suicide when your dream was already shot to hell. Whatever bullshit complex Erik's got marinating in his subconscious -- guilt, self-loathing, God knows what else -- it's just wearing Charles's face. That's it. Erik's the problem here, not my dead brother!"

"Your brother?" Hank whispers, face pale. "Oh, shit."

Anger makes Raven reckless, lightheaded. She stalks over to the chessboard, deliberately bumping Sean out of the way so that his chair thumps back down onto all four legs, hard. She swipes her hand across the board and scatters the pieces, whites and blacks all tumbling together to the floor as the walls of the room warp and shift around them. Hank did say this Somnacin cocktail was conducive to fluid architecture, after all.

They think they can corner her in her own dream and interrogate her about Charles? Fuck that noise.

"You wanna know what happened to Charles?" she snaps. "Here. I'll show you."

*

Sean's got to hand it to her -- Raven's doing stuff with this dream he'd never even considered, and he's supposed to be the fucking architect here. Like some serious surrealist Dali melting clock type shit. And he really wants to know what Hank spiked the Somnacin with, because these are some good drugs.

The chessboard has flattened and expanded at their feet, seeping out across the ground like a stain, absorbing the Persian rugs and expensive carpeting into its rosewood checkerboard pattern. The walls distort around them, convexing outward to form a mahogany cavern; golden lanterns blossom out at regular intervals for illumination. Sean watches her seal off all the possible entrances, effectively trapping them within the expanded cube of the room. He can't imagine any stray projections stumbling upon them here; if or when the dream collapses, it will implode like a black hole, crushing them into waking.

"Very Harry Potter," Hank remarks approvingly. He is such a fucking geek, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Raven bends down to catch up one of the discarded chessmen from the floor. It's a black bishop. "What can I say," she says. "I have an appreciation for the classics."

She tosses the bishop across the board. It expands in its flight, ballooning rapidly to something approaching life-size. When it lands, it snaps upright in the middle of a white square.

"Are we supposed to play a game?" Hank asks.

Raven laughs harshly. "We already are. Gentlemen, may I introduce my stepbrother?"

Oh, she's good. It's like some ungodly melding of architecture and forgery, shaping an inanimate object into human form. The bishop shifts into the body of the projection from the beach. But he's clearly not a projection, not a subconscious manifestation. Just an object. Nothing to be afraid of. Sean takes a step closer to study Raven's work. Xavier -- well, he's there and he isn't, more like a hologram than a person. Or maybe a ghost. Sean gets the feeling that if he reached out to touch it, his hand would pass right through.

Sean imagines light passing through jellyfish, and grins.

"Charles Xavier," Raven says unnecessarily. Her mental image of Xavier is subtly different from Erik's projection -- equally upper-class and neatly dressed, with the same floppy brown hair and piercing blue eyes. But her Xavier is softer, somehow. Kinder. Maybe it's in the way he holds himself, or his smile. Sean can't picture this one slitting anyone's throat.

He wonders which of the two is the more accurate recreation of the dead man.

"He was always fascinated by the mind and its workings," Raven continues. The lights stutter; Sean gets the sudden impression that they're standing in a Gothic archway, ivy creeping up the stone walls. "Did undergrad in biology; doctorate in psychology with a side interest in psychiatric medicine. The CIA recruited him straight out of Oxford--"

"I thought he was British," Hank interrupts with a frown. The illusion of Gothic architecture flickers out like the end of an old film reel, returning them to the unnatural chessboard chamber. "I mean, we chatted a bit in my dream before he went all psycho projection, and that was definitely an English accent. So how would the CIA--"

"Dual citizenship," Raven explains. "His mom was English originally, but he grew up mostly in Westchester. I tried to train the accent out of him when we were kids, but then he was off to Oxford and there was no helping it." She looks at the bishop-hologram-Xavier, smile twisted between fondness and grief.

Sean actually feels his gut clench with something like guilt. He'd just wanted some fucking backstory on Erik's psychosis. He hadn't known he'd be dredging all this up with it. He clears his throat. "So, CIA?"

Raven nods briskly, and both boys judiciously pretend not to see her blink tears back. "CIA. Top-secret dreamsharing program, yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill. Charles recruited your buddy Alex, and somewhere along the line he suckered me in as well." It sounds like there's a story there, but Raven's not telling it, not today. As she speaks, the quality of light in the room shifts again, becoming the sterile white and chrome of a laboratory. It's as though a movie is being projected across the space, but without a screen to capture it, just the air and their own bodies and the checkerboard pattern across the floor. Raven and Hank look less substantial, less real than Xavier right now. "I know you guys were both military, so I can imagine the sort of training you had, but you've got to understand, Charles's focus was -- different. He had no interest in the sort of extractions we pull for a living. For him, it was all...." She waves her hand airily. "Oh, subconscious workings and psychological theories and mental illnesses. He wanted to develop a method of dream treatment that could cure PTSD, that sort of thing. Save the world one mind at a time."

"And that was what the CIA wanted him for?" Sean asks, not bothering to hide his skepticism.

"Of course not," Raven says scornfully. "But they tossed him a few bones to keep him happy, while twisting the bulk of his research to their own purposes. They exploit dreamsharing for purposes of gathering intelligence, same as the rest of us. Only difference is that they don't sell the secrets they extract to the highest bidder." She looks away. The illumination around them doesn't change, exactly, but somehow the sterility of the lab setting takes on an ominous quality. "And forced interrogation within dreams is no prettier than outside of them. They may not officially condone Shaw's methods, but sure as hell they're salivating after his results. And that's where Erik came in."

She plucks the other black bishop out of the pile and flicks it away. This one lands on a black square opposite Xavier's white. Unsurprisingly, it sprouts up into the hologram form of Erik Lehnsherr. In the eerie film-like half-light, he, too, looks more solid than the real people in this dream.

"The CIA had been trying to track Erik for years. He'd once been Shaw's protégé, but then he vanished off the face of the earth about ten years ago. Dreamsharing was only just starting to take off as a mercenary industry, most of the participants were still working within various world governments. I don't know where Erik was or what he was doing for most of that time. The CIA wanted to bring him in because he'd been Shaw's."

After a moment's thought, she selects the white king to stand for Shaw, throwing it as far across the board as she can. Shaw's hologram-king smiles at them pleasantly, and Sean has to suppress a shudder. Whose lab are they in?

"Yeah, and what's the story there?" Sean has to ask. "If he used to work with Shaw--"

Raven shakes her head. "I don't know all the details. We were never close. He might've told Charles the full story, but not me. But I did hack his CIA file once." She grins darkly. "Apparently his mother was a hotshot scientist in West Germany back in the '80s, one of the brightest minds in dreamsharing, working for NATO. And Shaw abducted her." As she speaks, the room darkens, closing in on them. Sean's skin crawls with a claustrophobia he's never actually experienced in life. "Except he miscalculated, and when his people stormed her flat to bring her in, her young son was there with her."

"Oh," Hank says, looking faintly nauseated. He's definitely not enjoying the way the dream continues to shift fluidly around them. "Damn."

"Got it in one," Raven tells him with a smirk. "I can only speculate the rest. Probably Shaw tried torturing Erik in a dream to get Mommy Lehnsherr to cooperate, and discovered that Erik had...untapped potential in that area. So Erik wound up just as valuable to him as the mother. Anyway, she's long dead. And once Erik grew up -- well, I'd have cut and run at the first opportunity, too."

The walls convex outward again, making it easier to breathe, and the chessboard reasserts its dominance over the dreamscape. Raven picks up the black king -- weird, that she's representing the 'good guys' with black instead of white, but Sean gets the feeling Raven just likes being contradictory sometimes -- and regards it with much the same disdain as she had for Shaw's piece. "So anyway, the CIA got a lead on Shaw, and sent their favorite little dreamsharing prodigy out after him." The black king finds its square and morphs into the image of a pretty dark-haired woman. "Moira MacTaggert, gentlemen, our current sponsor."

"The king?" Hank asks, frowning in bemusement.

"Nominally the most important piece on the board, but technically the least powerful? Always has to be fucking protected and never does anything herself?" Okay, clearly Raven has some kind of grudge against this Moira chick. "Don't overthink the analogy, Hank, just go with it. Anyway, Moira had the good sense to take Charles along with her that time. Shaw slipped away -- through no fault of theirs, frankly, they had bad intel and never stood a chance -- but Erik was there, too, botching an assassination attempt on Shaw, so they picked him up instead. Like, dragged him kicking and screaming out of the middle of the fucking ocean, to hear Charles tell it--" Sean tastes seawater, hears muffled shouting, the lights shifting as though they're underwater; it only lasts a moment. "--but I think he was exaggerating."

Raven smiles ruefully at the pair of holograms, Xavier and Lehnsherr. The way she's placed their pieces, it's like they're staring at one another. Kinda creepy. Not unlike the rest of this acid trip of a dream.

"They were pretty much inseparable from there on out," Raven goes on. "The CIA suits practically wet themselves with excitement at having finally 'captured' Erik, but Charles showed some initiative for once in his life and put an end to that nonsense. I will never be able to figure out how he managed to wrangle Erik out of a jail cell and onto the Agency payroll instead."

"But he did," Hank prompts, when she trails off.

"But he did," Raven agrees, looking wistful. The air around them shimmers, like it can't decide what illusion to form next. "And the universes they built together, my God, you should have shared those dreams with them. You've never met two such different people -- they argued all the time, Christ, I nearly slammed their heads together more times than I could count, but in dreaming, they created like some kind of ridiculous feedback loop with their minds. There were no limits, none whatsoever. I swear, I learned more about building dreams from just watching them play off each other than in any training sessions I ever had." She smiles wryly. "The CIA fucking loved them. They didn't even try to send them on missions, for the most part, just let them screw around together in the dream labs and recorded everything they could."

Hank's mouth twists, eyes flashing with rare humor (for Hank), and Raven lets out a bark of laughter. "Not like that!" she protests. "God, no, not in the facility -- or at least I hope not, though Erik did try to stick it to Big Brother whenever he could -- oh, my God, I'm just digging myself in deeper, aren't I? But you know what I meant."

Sean has no idea what they're on about. He clears his throat pointedly. "So what went wrong?"

The room darkens noticeably. "Shaw," Raven says. "And his minions, of course." She grabs chess pieces by the handful this time, scattering them across the board. Sean can vaguely identify all the white pieces from the photos on their wall in the apartment. The white queen at Shaw's side becomes Emma Frost, clearly living up to her name; Janos Quested and Angel Salvadore flank them in the guise of bishops; Sean has forgotten the others' names, but they present themselves as knights or rooks, predictably. On the black side, Alex and an unfamiliar African-American man join up as knights; holograms of Hank and Sean are shoved into corners as rooks, clearly sitting this round out; and Raven's own image takes the place of the black queen. Well, stands to reason -- Sean's never really played chess, but isn't the queen the piece that can move in any direction, be whatever the player wants her to be? Sounds close enough to forgery to him.

"Where are the pawns?" Hank asks, displaying his usual flair for pedantry, and Sean elbows him roughly in the side. Way to miss the point, dude.

Raven only shrugs. "Already used up, or irrelevant. Or maybe we're the pawns, and I'm totally missing the bigger picture right now. Who cares?"

The hologram people-pieces shift positions, as if of their own will. Alex and Raven strike off in the direction of Shaw and Frost, while Salvadore insinuates herself into the tight circle of Moira, Erik, Charles, and the unnamed black knight. (And when had Sean started thinking of him as Charles, a real person, rather than Xavier-the-projection?) "Alex and I weren't even there," Raven says bitterly, watching her avatar make its way across the board with Alex's. "We'd been sent off on a wild goose chase a few days earlier -- we had some intel that Shaw was pulling a job outside of Moscow. That was a complete bust. We thought we caught a lead on Frost, but the Agency wouldn't give us authorization to pursue her. Utter bullshit. Anyway, we were on the flight back from Russia when it happened."

Raven stalks back over to the black side of the board. "Angel was one of us, in training to be an architect," she says, nodding at the incongruous white bishop in among the blacks. "Hell, Charles and Erik recruited her themselves. We never saw it coming."

The room flickers again, building the illusion of an undefined cityscape around them. It's obviously a dream city, not a real one, the architecture blurred around the edges and drawn from too many different styles. The air is hazy with the suggestion of smoke, and Sean thinks he can hear the sounds of a riot unfolding in the distance. The chess pieces are coming to life -- Erik warily pulls out a handgun, clearly evaluating the situation, while Charles places a concerned hand on his shoulder and leans in to murmur something indistinct in his ear. Moira just frowns, confused but not yet aware enough to be worried, looking around. Something in their dream isn't right, isn't how they'd planned it. Sean knows the feeling all too well.

"They were supposed to be testing out a new training simulation," Raven says, her voice and face utterly devoid of expression. "It was the first one Angel had created entirely on her own. Charles was primary extractor, Erik running point, Moira filled in as the mark in order to observe and evaluate Angel's designs. Darwin was monitoring them topside, with Angel."

She waves at the black knight. "That would be Armando Muñoz, but everyone called him Darwin. He was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades -- dabbled in everything, a sort of non-specialist specialist. Really talented guy, incredibly adaptable. Hence the nickname." Sean and Hank had both effectively been special forces in the army; they know the type. A soldier who never trains to be expert in any one area, but is instead extraordinarily well-rounded, good at everything. There aren't many of those in dreamsharing. At most, someone might develop two specialties -- point man and architect, forger and chemist, whatever, mix and match at will. And anyone should be able to pull off the extraction itself, if necessary. But it's rare to meet a person who is genuinely competent in all of those roles. If Darwin was -- well, Shaw would certainly want someone like that in his Hellfire Club, no two ways about it.

"Who was Shaw's target?" Hank asks, exchanging a look with Sean. He's clearly thinking along the same lines.

Raven shrugs helplessly. "We never knew for sure. Darwin would have been quite the prize, certainly; but then, Charles was building his own reputation as a brilliant researcher, so of course Shaw might have wanted him as well. But our intel was a mess -- they destroyed the whole facility on their way out, including security camera footage. Apart from Angel letting them in, we don't even know which of Shaw's people pulled the job. Not Shaw himself -- he never would have let Erik go, if he'd known. But other than that, it could've been anyone."

An explosion shakes the dreamscape, throwing Hank to the ground; Sean only just barely stays on his feet. Raven remains unmoved, impassive, like a goddess in judgment. Among the chess pieces, Charles and Erik both draw in to flank Moira, guarding their king. "According to Moira, the dream went bottoms up from the get-go," Raven says. "It was nothing like the blueprints Angel had shown them. I don't know the details, but it got ugly real fast."

Topside, Angel pulls out a revolver and presses it to the back of Darwin's head. He stiffens.

"Charles was kicked out of the dream first," Raven remarks, utterly detached. The hologram of Charles Xavier flickers out abruptly. Erik, visibly panicking, whirls around to grab fruitlessly at thin air, mouth opening in a voiceless yell. Angel and Darwin similarly vanish, and then all the other white pieces follow, winking out one by one. The walls close in tight, crowding them, and Sean grabs Hank's wrist to pull him up and out of the way, just barely avoiding being crushed. Of the holograms, only Erik and Moira remain. Moira's face is a mask of shock and confusion; Erik, only rage. The scent of smoke in the air grows thicker, flames licking at the edges of the walls, and a deep red stain seeps out across the checkered floor.

This must be the facility as Raven and Alex found it, Sean realizes; a smoldering heap of ash and blood. No wonder Raven didn't want to revisit this fucking nightmare.

Hank clears his throat. His voice sounds scratchy from the nonexistent smoke. "So they took Darwin and Charles?"

"And vanished without a trace," Raven confirms distantly. She pokes the toe of her boot in the bloodstain, grimacing. "The CSI team ran all kinds of fun tests, afterward. The blood was all Charles's." She turns her back on them, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her jacket. The images of Erik and Moira finally dissolve, leaving just the three of them alone in the wreckage of a dream. "And nine days later they found the bodies."

Don't ask, Sean thinks at Hank as loudly as he can. Don't you dare fucking ask.

Of course Hank asks. "What condition were they in?"

Sean punches him in the shoulder, hard.

"Darwin didn't have a mark on him," Raven murmurs. "The investigators were completely baffled. But that was Shaw's trademark. He'd gone into Darwin's head and killed him from the inside out. They were missing for nine whole days." She shudders. "That's a hell of a long time to be trapped in a dream with Shaw. And Charles--"

When she turns back to look at them, her eyes are completely blank. That's somehow scarier than anything her dream has thrown at them.

"They had to run a DNA test to even ID his body," she says. "That's how badly Shaw destroyed him."

Music fills the air, faint but unmistakable: Mozart, Hank's choice. The timer must have finally run down. That's the kick.

Sean has never been so glad to wake up out of a dream in his fucking life.

*

Erik has long known of the existence of the dream dens, still few in number but gradually spreading, scattered across the globe. Much like opium dens of old, they provide a dubious promise of escape for their users. Chasing the dragon, chasing the dream; leaving one weak-limbed and hazy, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality -- there is an ugly cost, no question. But they do have their uses.

The dream den in the East Village is much of a type with the others Erik has seen. It has no particular claim to fame -- not like the Osaka den, which specializes in exotic fantasies, dreams of flight and adventure and lurid details; or the den in Mombasa, run by a particularly talented chemist, which recreates memories and might-have-beens with heartbreaking intensity. But Erik is in New York, not Japan or Kenya, so this will have to suffice.

Alex is right -- this issue with the projection is getting out of hand, and Erik will not have his overactive subconscious sabotage the Shaw job. There's far too much at stake. So he will deal with this on his own terms. He could just as easily take care of it at the apartment, he supposes; but then he would be wasting his team's resources, both in terms of chemicals and time spent with the PASIV, not to mention subjecting himself to their constant interruptions and inquiries. No, better to seclude himself here, one more anonymous dreamer among many in this dimly-lit basement den, with a steady supply of Somnacin and no questions asked.

After the necessary exchange of cash, the unsmiling woman at the door guides him to a cot. He stretches out as comfortably as possible and rolls up his sleeve past the elbow to insert the PASIV line. She presses the button, and he descends down into the iron fortress of his memories.

When he was younger -- no longer a child, but still in Shaw's employ -- he'd learned to construct himself a memory fortress. Emma Frost had taught him; to date, it remains the closest thing to altruism he'd ever witnessed from her.

"Your mind is a mess," she told him bluntly. "The dreamscape isn't your personal psychiatrist's couch, Erik. If you can't learn to control your subconscious, Shaw will control it for you."

Erik was already quite talented at manipulating dreams; but weren't everyone's projections unruly by nature? "It's my subconscious," he protested. "It's not like I can help it--"

Emma's lip curled in a sneer. "Of course you can."

And so she introduced him to her dream fortress. Hers took the form of a pure diamond palace, beautiful and glittering and impenetrable. Much like Emma herself. It didn't have to look like anything in particular, she told him, so long as the symbolism was strong and clear to the dreamer in question. She led him into a sparkling chamber, studded with gemstones; each of her gems held a memory locked deep within the stone. A memory -- or a neurosis, or a fear, or a hope long deferred. When Erik leaned in to examine one -- a massive emerald the size of an ostrich egg -- he could just make out indistinct images shifting within its depths.

"It's not about forgetting," Emma told him. "Nor is it pretending to be someone you aren't. If anything, you're protecting yourself. I haven't lost these parts of myself, simply tucked them away within my mind where they can do me no harm." Her eyes grew distant. "And where no one else can reach them."

Where Shaw could not reach them, Erik thought at the time. It was a lesson well worth learning.

Erik's own fortress is constructed of iron and steel, inflexibly solid. The particularly potent Somnacin of the dream den lands him squarely within its twisting corridors. There before him is the thickly reinforced door that leads to his childhood. To his mother. He locked it behind him many years ago, took the key away and buried it in a forest well beyond the fortress walls. He doesn't think he could find it again if he tried.

(Except for that one time -- the warm, candlelit dream Charles once built for him, bringing up a memory he'd thought long destroyed -- but that was all Charles's own magic, now lost to him.)

He strides right past the door that leads to his earliest years with Shaw and his experiments, and on past the experiments Erik himself was encouraged to conduct in Shaw's employ. And on, and on, until he finally reaches an empty cell in this iron prison he's created for himself.

There's only one way he knows to lock these errant memories away.

He pushes open the door and falls down into the ocean, struggling to stay afloat among the choppy waves, the moon far above concealed behind clouds; and this is the night he first met Charles.

*

Alex is lying in wait. Or possibly he's hiding. One of the two, he's pretty sure. He's parked himself at a table by the door of a Starbucks that's on the same block as the apartment, nominally doing research on Quested and Havana, but also keeping an eye out for Erik's return. It's been like two days since that fucking projection of Charles showed up in Hank's dream, and Erik's been missing ever since. Well, he can't run forever, not with the Shaw job looming, and Alex is damn well going to corner the asshole for a little chat about keeping his fucking subconscious under lock and key before they all wind up in Limbo.

And, okay, maybe he's also kind of hiding. Raven brushed past him earlier with an airy "Oh, by the way, I told your army buddies everything that went down at the facility two years ago," and seriously, way to stab a guy in the back, Raven. Alex is the quintessential point man. He's organized, meticulous, completely badass with all manner of dream weapons, and he does not let personal issues interfere with his goddamn job. He keeps the past in the past where it fucking belongs. He is not Erik fucking Lehnsherr, goddammit.

So the last thing he wants to do is share his fucking feelings with either Sean or Hank. Sean, at least, he can probably trust to keep his trap shut. But Hank will have questions, because Hank's a scientist and he doesn't know when it's time to stop trying to figure shit out and just leave it be.

Alex peers out the window again. No sign of Erik. He sighs and turns back to his laptop. He's already reached out to all the contacts he can think of who might have intel on Quested, now it's just a matter of waiting for them to get back to him. So instead he brings up the specs for the Hotel Saratoga yet again, in case there's something he missed the first twenty times he examined them. He wanted to get himself and Sean in as maintenance workers of some kind, but they are way too pasty-skinned for that to fly -- maybe pose as bodyguards of some sort? There's still a little over a week left before the job, he should probably catch a flight down to Havana in the next couple of days and do some proper recon on the ground....

He catches sight of Hank outside the window approximately five seconds before he enters the Starbucks. Shit.

Well, it's not like Alex is actually hiding, anyway. Because he could if he wanted to. Really effectively.

Hank pulls up a seat at Alex's table. Surprise, surprise. He glances around with a crooked half-smile. "We are awake right now, right?"

"Losing your grasp on reality, McCoy?" Alex asks, smirking.

Hank gives a self-deprecating shrug. "I figure as long as no one shoots me, I'm good either way, but it's nice to get confirmation."

"We're awake."

"You sure about that?"

Alex sighs and pulls his totem out of his jeans pocket. A single dog tag, like the pair he used to wear around his neck in the army, except he had this one made special. His serial number is incorrect by one digit. But in dreams, it's always accurate, because that's what no soldier's subconscious can ever forget: name, rank, and serial number. "I'm sure."

Something in the set of Hank's shoulders loosens fractionally. Damn, the guy was actually getting worried.

"You got something about the job to discuss, or is this about Raven's little story hour?" Alex asks. He may as well meet this thing head on.

"I don't understand why you all wanted to keep it a secret so badly," Hank says. "It's relevant to the job, right? I'm not saying that Sean and I need to know all the gory details, but still. Who does it hurt to keep us informed?"

"It wasn't exactly our finest hour," Alex says bluntly. "None of us like reliving our failures."

Hank frowns, tracing idle patterns on the chipped tabletop. "But it wasn't any of your faults. The way it played out, it sounds like Shaw had you guys pretty tightly trapped. What could you possibly have done to prevent it?"

Alex thinks about the other nine guys in their dreamsharing squad, the ones he failed to get out. "There's always something we could've done," he says heavily. "Are you gonna keep rehashing this argument, or do you have anything specific you wanna ask?"

The question, when it comes, isn't what Alex expected. "How did you wind up working with Erik?" When Alex hesitates, Hank goes on: "Charles recruited you, and you called him your mentor, so I get that. And the way Raven laid out the dream, I thought maybe you and Darwin might have been friends."

Friends. Alex flinches. Hank, fortunately, doesn't seem to notice.

"But you and Erik don't even seem to like each other. I mean, I know I've only been here a few days, so what do I know--"

Alex huffs out a laugh. "You don't like me either, Hank. And yet here you are."

Hank just gives him a Look. The capitalized kind. Alex kinda misses the days when he was easy to intimidate.

"No, you're right, Erik and I never really got on," Alex says. "We both kinda resented each other at the CIA, competed for Charles's attention a lot. Which was completely fucking stupid, but whatever. Then they recruited Darwin, and he and I hit it off pretty well, so that helped keep me and Erik out of each other's hair. But when Shaw took Darwin and Charles...." He takes a deep breath, staring down at his laptop. It's kicked into screensaver, multicolored flowing lines weaving across the black screen. "By the time Raven and I got to the facility, Erik had already hared off after Shaw. So I went after Erik."

"Why?" Hank sounds like he probably knows the answer, but he's got to support his data or some shit.

Alex shrugs. "Wherever Charles went, Erik followed." The fact is so self-evident to anyone who knew them, it's weird to even have to state it aloud. "Plus he spent years tracking Shaw on his own. I figured if anyone could find them, it'd be Erik, so I had to help him. Darwin was my best friend, okay, and Charles -- man, I owe Charles more than anyone will ever know. No way I was gonna just let them go like that. Erik only had a couple hours' head start on me, and he wasn't bothering to cover his tracks. He was easy enough to find. Didn't much care for company, but he had to admit two guns would be better than one when it came time to storm the castle." He presses his lips together into a thin, hard line. "Not that it mattered. We didn't catch up in time."

"But that was two years ago," Hank points out. "So why are you still with him?"

"Because Charles would have--" Alex cuts himself off, shaking his head helplessly. Christ. "Remember how I said that anywhere Charles went, Erik would follow?"

Hank frowns. "Yeah?"

"So Charles is dead. And there's nobody else left to make sure Erik doesn't follow."

*

Erik's memory-dream of this night is fractured, fragmented; the instinctive struggle to keep afloat twining helplessly with the irrational despair that it doesn't matter, seawater stinging his nose and throat, the burning wreckage of his own (stolen) speedboat sinking beneath the waves. The irrelevant question of how a boat can simultaneously drown and burn flashes through his mind. And for the love of God, how could he have possibly predicted Shaw's submarine, and this is it, he'll never come so close again and he failed, failed, failed....

He scarcely notices the Coast Guard cutter in the water, half-drowned and out of his head with impotent fury; doesn't even register the shouting until there are someone else's arms around him, dragging him back, and a stranger yelling right in his ear to stop, let it go, I've got you, calm down, I've found you, I've got you.

(Later, Charles will tell him he was actually trying to swim after the submarine, which Erik vehemently denies. He wasn't that far gone.)

He doesn't fully return to himself until he's on the ship, sopping wet and shaking with shock and the chill night air despite his wetsuit, curling in on himself on the wooden deck. There's another man beside him, equally sodden and shivering -- and Erik takes one look at him and knows he's finally met someone crazier than himself, because this guy jumped into the water after him fully dressed.

"Hello," the man says through chattering teeth. In the cutter's harsh floodlights, his eyes are impossibly blue. "My name is Charles Xavier."

The incongruousness of it takes Erik aback. "Erik Lehnsherr," he finally replies. His throat feels raw from coughing up seawater. "You do realize you're out of your mind?"

Charles Xavier grins at him, and something stutters unexpectedly deep within Erik's chest. "Yes, I know," Charles says cheerfully, despite the fact that he's shaking so hard it hurts to look at him. "That makes the two of us, then."

Erik snorts. "Well, there's a relief," he remarks, voice thick with sarcasm. "Here I thought I was alone."

"You aren't," Charles says simply. "Not anymore."

Though he doesn't entirely realize it at the time, that's the precise moment when Erik is lost.

There's a flurry of activity on deck, voices shouting across the air, other people now gathering around them with questions and useless exclamations, but Erik hardly notices. He's freezing and furious and a complete failure, and Shaw has slipped out of his reach, and this perfect stranger is looking at him with that bright, steady gaze like he knows him. It's startling and impossible and Erik finds himself grasping for his coin because this can't actually be happening. Except of course there are no pockets in his wetsuit, damn it, and Charles notices the aborted gesture and laughs aloud.

"You'll need a new totem, I'm afraid," he says. "But it wouldn't be nearly this cold if we were dreaming." Someone else is helping Charles up now, throwing a blanket over his shoulders; but Charles turns back on unsteady feet to offer Erik his hand and a smile. "Come along, Erik -- I must warn you, you're in for a hell of a debriefing tomorrow, but you're no use to us if you die of hypothermia first."

He's hardly one to speak, lips nearly blue, teeth still chattering so hard he's borderline incoherent, so Erik grasps his hand and allows himself to be dragged upright just to stop him talking. They lean on each other all the way to the cabin, half-staggering, and finally Charles shoves open the heavy door into--

--the CIA's dream lab, white and sterile, which Erik loathes at first sight. He remains by the door, folding his arms across his chest. "The men in black already had me demonstrate my extraction prowess at length," he says dryly. "Don't tell me you wish to be brutally interrogated in your dreams as well."

Charles is already bending over the PASIV case; his head snaps up at Erik's words. "Not at all," he says. "But there's far more to dreaming than mere extraction--"

Erik can't help but recall years of Shaw's experiments. His lips curl in a sneer. "Yes, I know."

"That's not what I meant," Charles says quietly, eyes intent on Erik's face. He deliberately sets down the PASIV line and straightens. "Dreams can be beautiful, as well."

"Not mine," Erik says flatly. "You don't want to share my nightmares, Charles."

Charles steps in closer. "You don't give yourself nearly enough credit. I would never claim to understand what your life -- your dreams -- were like with Shaw, but believe me, my friend, there is so very much more to you than what he made of you." His voice drops lower. "Please, Erik. Let me show you."

It should be so easy to shoot Charles down, to turn his back on this hopeless optimist and walk away. Or, worse, prove him wrong, drag him down into one of Erik's worst nightmares and trap him there. But something in Charles -- the way he looks at Erik as though he has more faith in him than Erik has ever had in himself -- it's pure foolishness, Erik knows, but impossibly compelling. And anyway, Charles is the one who stands to be hurt the most by this, not Erik. If he wants to take stupid risks, who is Erik to stop him?

He pushes past Charles, deliberately jostling him on his way to the PASIV. Charles allows it with a faint smile. "Don't say I didn't warn you," Erik tells him, unwinding two lines. "My subconscious isn't a pretty place, and it's fully militarized. You're not in for a pleasant dream."

"I'll take my chances," Charles says agreeably. He reaches over to take his PASIV line from Erik, and for an instant, his fingers curl around Erik's, startlingly warm.

Erik clears his throat, pulling away. "I don't have anything particular in mind for the dreamscape--"

"We'll sort it out once we're down there. Don't worry, I'll find you." Charles grins at him impishly, eyes bright. "I always do, don't I?"

His arrogance is rather breathtaking. Erik rolls his eyes. "You're not actually taking credit for the Coast Guard boat, are you?"

"I'm the one who dove in after you!"

Erik lets out a huff of laughter. "Go to sleep, Charles," he orders, and presses the PASIV button. He closes his eyes and--

--pushes through the curtain into the gentleman's club, all red velvet and brass accents and mood lighting, indistinguishable from any other such establishments lining the Strip here in Las Vegas. Certainly the assortment of scantily clad young women is interchangeable from one strip joint to another. "Why, Charles," Erik remarks slyly, "I never realized you could be so easily distracted from your mission."

"This is the mission," Charles protests with a laugh. "Didn't you catch the name of the club?"

"'Dreamland'? Surely you're not serious."

Charles grins, catching Erik's elbow to steer him toward the bar. "But I am. This particular establishment creates a very special experience for its clients. Of course, it's rather illegal, especially as none of these 'gentlemen' are even aware of the existence of dreamsharing--"

"I'd imagine it never occurs to anyone to lodge a complaint afterward, though," Erik remarks, considering. It's actually a rather clever scam. "Do the ladies happen to extract information from their clients' dreams while fulfilling their most erotic fantasies?"

"I believe they do indeed," Charles agrees cheerfully, pulling up a stool at the bar while keeping his attention outwardly focused on the dancing girls. To anyone else he looks like yet another horny bastard ogling the merchandise, but Erik can see the sharpness in his gaze. Charles is looking for someone in particular. "Nothing terribly dramatic -- the clientele here don't tend to range among the very rich or powerful -- but valuable enough to keep the operation afloat and then some."

"If the CIA knows about it, why haven't they shut the place down?"

Charles shrugs. "Not my call to make. Perhaps they get more valuable information by allowing them to remain in operation, or perhaps we haven't built the case sufficiently yet. Either way -- ah, there she is."

She turns out to be one of the strippers, a beautiful dark-haired girl with dragonfly wings tattooed across her shoulder blades. "Request a private room," Charles instructs him in low tones, leaning in close. His breath is warm against Erik's ear. "They only take clients in one at a time. I'll follow after and add myself into the dream."

Erik slants him a look. "Shouldn't you be the one to--"

"Trust me." Charles leans back into the bar, giving him a small smile. "I'll find you."

"You always do," Erik murmurs. Charles's smile widens, his eyes soft, and Erik has to pull himself away.

He goes after the stripper as instructed. Her name is Angel, and after the obligatory monetary transaction, she leads him with a coy smile into a private chamber. As she pushes him playfully down onto the bed, Erik has just enough time to wonder how these girls get their unsuspecting clients hooked up to a PASIV. Then Angel clasps his wrist, he feels a quick prick of a needle, and he's out.

When he opens his eyes, he can tell at once why Charles wants to recruit this one. Her dream is spot-on perfect. He's in a room much like the actual one in the club, but subtly larger and more luxurious, with a masterful attention to detail. It's a pity Angel hasn't been given leeway to design far more interesting worlds than this one.

She's leaning above him on the bed, eyes dark and sultry, hair falling forward to brush his cheek. "So, big spender," she purrs teasingly, "what's it gonna be?"

A part of him almost wants to lie back and watch her work, see how she manages the extraction within the seduction. But he'll have plenty of time to observe her technique once they've recruited her, and under far more respectable conditions. Still, there's something strangely intoxicating about the tangerine scent of her perfume, the dark curtain of her hair....

Oh, of course. She's spiked his Somnacin with some sort of aphrodisiac, and probably additional sedatives as well -- keep the clients sated and malleable, prevent any uglier aspects of their subconsciouses from bleeding through to spoil the fun. Knowing he's being artificially influenced helps him control it, to a degree, but it's still far more difficult than it ought to be to gently push Angel off him.

She looks confused at his rejection, then visibly starts at the sound of another voice behind her. "Oh, marvelous work," Charles says brightly, comfortably ensconced in a lurid red armchair. "Really, Miss Salvadore, you've an impressive grasp of atmosphere, and of course your technical skills are quite sound."

Angel's whole demeanor shifts abruptly. She yanks away from the bed, spine stiffening, arms akimbo as she glances between them. "What the hell is this?"

Erik props himself up on the cushions, grinning, doing his best to ignore the steady thrum of drug-induced arousal under his skin. He's shared dreams under far more unpleasant conditions than a bit of a hard on, after all. "This is your ticket out of Dreamland, Angel."

(They didn't know then, couldn't have known, that Dreamland was a subsidiary of the Hellfire Club, that Angel was working for Shaw all along. Would it have mattered? Charles would still have tried to save her.)

They can speak as freely as they wish down here; there are no hidden cameras in dreams. Charles does most of the talking, as usual, and Erik watches him languidly from the bed, mind drifting. His skin feels too warm, stretched taut across his body, and whenever Charles's gaze flickers over to meet his, he feels it like sparks igniting through his bloodstream. Which makes no sense, what the fuck, he really needs to get the hell out of this dream.

"I'm gonna kick out and collect my things," Angel finally says. So Charles's powers of persuasion remain unaffected. He must have used her dosage of Somnacin rather than Erik's. Angel glances back to Erik, and smirks unrepentantly. "Better let the dream run its course for him, though. I'll reset the timer to reduce it down to one minute, so it'll pull the drugs through his system faster, but just yanking 'em out cold turkey is not a good plan, believe me."

"Yes, of course," Charles says, eyeing Erik with some concern. Erik just scowls at him. "We'll meet you in front of the Bellagio fountains at, say, midnight?"

Angel grins. She really is a beautiful girl, Erik thinks. "Sure thing." She pulls a tiny needle from her garter and pricks her own wrist -- clever, that -- then vanishes out of the dream.

The moment she's gone, Charles propels himself up out of the armchair and over to Erik. "What did she--"

"I'm fine," Erik says shortly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed to stand. He wavers on his feet, irritatingly, and puts a hand on the headboard to steady himself. One minute topside equals twelve minutes in the dream, and the drugs should be working their way out of his bloodstream as they speak. But standing brought him straight into Charles's personal space, and this close he can see the faint flush across Charles's cheeks, the pupils noticeably dilated in his wide blue eyes....

That fucking idiot. He's been tapped into Erik's Somnacin line after all.

"Ah," Charles murmurs, flush deepening. He always does have the uncanny ability to read Erik's mind. "Yes. That."

"It'll wear off soon enough," Erik says, doing his level best not to let his gaze flicker down to Charles's too-red mouth. Which is difficult enough under normal circumstances as it is.

Charles laughs ruefully. "I sincerely doubt I'll be able to tell the difference, my friend," he remarks with far too much honesty. His hand falls to rest at Erik's hip, and Erik can feel the warmth of his palm sear through the fabric of his trousers like a brand. With a start, Erik realizes that he's already reaching out to cup the back of Charles's neck, fingers twining through his soft brown hair, thumb rubbing slow circles against his nape. Charles leans into his touch, tilting his head up.

"This isn't real," Erik whispers, with the last of his restraint.

Charles smiles up at him, eyes clear despite the faint haze of the drug; and who is Erik kidding, anyway? "This is just as real as it ever is."

So Erik kisses him, and kisses him, and Charles clutches his waist hard enough to bruise and kisses him back, and neither of them lets go until the kick -- and when Erik wakes, still on the bed in that silly red chamber, he tugs the PASIV line out of his arm and looks straight over to find Charles stretched out beside him, and this has absolutely nothing to do with a spiked Somnacin cocktail.

"Well," Charles says, a bit breathless, removing his own line, "that was certainly a long time coming--"

And Erik yanks him close and kisses him again, and it feels just the same in reality as in the dream. Charles laughs against his lips, pressing their foreheads together for a long moment, then reluctantly pulls away. "We'll continue this later," he promises, "but for now, we have a new recruit to meet."

He reaches out to clasp Erik's hand, and Erik follows willingly where he's led, pulling open the door to--

*

"I'm not building the second level in Erik's head," Sean announces to the mostly-empty room.

Raven raises an eyebrow, looking up at him from where she's idly sprawled across the couch. She tosses the (too slim) file on Quested aside. "Isn't this something you should discuss with the whole team?"

Sean hunches his shoulders, hands stuffed in his jeans pockets. "Yeah, and I will, but I need you to back me up. I don't want Erik to have control over any of the dream levels."

"Alex says he'll get the projection under control." She still can't refer to it as Charles.

"Alex is covering for his CO, because that's what Alex does," Sean says bluntly. "But I'm not waiting till the last minute to be told we gotta switch it up. Second level's your dream now, Raven. Any suggestions?"

"I'm not an architect--"

Sean snorts. "The hell you're not. What was that chess thing about, then?"

Raven pushes herself up to sit cross-legged on the couch, shaking her head. "Closed conditions, no outside interference, no set-up for extraction included. It's totally different."

"Hey, it's not like I'm giving over the whole design to you. I'll still spend twelve hours gluing tiny wooden models together. But I've come at this from every angle I can think of, and I still got nothing." He presses his hands to his heart, soulfully. "Be my muse, Raven."

She hurls a throw cushion into his face, but she does also follow him into the studio.

Sean chose the smallest bedroom to use as his studio, and it's the sort of New York apartment where that means a room that would maybe qualify as a walk-in closet anywhere else. Just as well they didn't try to shove an actual bed in here, Raven thinks. One side of the room just barely accommodates a wide desk, where Sean's been doing most of his scribbling; a model of the first dream level's maze occupies one corner. One of the walls has clearly been given over to that dream -- it's covered with blueprints of the Hotel Saratoga, glossy interior photographs, floor plans, and sketches. Following the pattern, the other wall is for the second dream level. It's completely blank.

"Hit me up," Sean says, staring at the blank wall with palpable desperation. "Anything. Please."

Raven steals the lone chair in the studio and crosses her legs, considering. "The plan is still for Shaw to think he's in Erik's head, right? So no matter who's technically controlling the dream, he still knows he's dreaming. Which is risky, since we know he's crazy talented at manipulating the dreamspace."

Bereft of his swivel chair, Sean makes do with the floor. He hugs his knees to his chest. "Right. You see the catch-22 here, right? I mean, look, I agree it's probably our best bet at catching him off guard enough to extract the intel. But still. We're straight up telling a master dreamer that he's dreaming. How are we supposed to control this thing at all?"

"He knows he's dreaming," Raven repeats, because that's got to be the key to it. "So we're not bound by the false-reality school of architecture. Symbolism is more important than realism."

Sean frowns in thought. "Unrestricted dreamspace? That skirts Limbo territory."

"And it would give Shaw too much control. No, that's not what I'm thinking." Raven glances over at the level one model. "But definitely no mazes. That kind of prepared architecture will tip him off in a second. What about some sort of empty landscape?"

"No such thing," Sean says at once. "I mean, I've got a base of grassy plains that I like to work with, and a lot of architects really like empty cityscapes, but those are for practice sessions. As soon as you start adding other dreamers into the mix, everyone else's subconsciouses start filling the spaces in. I mean, unless you've got a Somnacin compound so rigid it keeps just about everything in check, but then you can't extract anything, either."

He's got a point. "Okay, then the next step up. Someplace where projections are less likely to be an issue. A desert?"

"Nasty environmental conditions in deserts, I don't want to try dying of thirst in a dream. Or sandstorms, or flash floods, or--"

"Any natural landscape is prone to some kind of natural disaster," Raven says irritably. "It's impossible to cover all the bases, but so long as we can defend against the most obvious intrusions.... Okay, a desert is still probably very very hot and dry, which won't be fun to play with. What about a desert island, then? Something nice and small and contained. Think like the Caribbean. Nice sandy beach, bit of forest cover, ocean stretching out as far as the eye can see."

Sean's eyes light up, clearly warming to the idea. "We'll already be in Cuba, it's no great stretch that his mind would go there. I mean like it wouldn't seem preplanned, Shaw wouldn't have reason to question it. And any projections would have to come from the outside in, we'd be able to see them coming across the water a mile away."

"We'll still need some kind of symbolic construction on the beach, someplace for Shaw to stash his secrets." Raven drums her fingers along the chair's arm, thinking. "I suppose a sand castle would be too trite."

Sean grins. "How about a shipwreck?"

"Oh, nice," Raven says, returning the grin. "Lots of weird nooks and crannies, I'll bet Shaw's subconscious will fill it right up with buried treasure stuff. And that's where you can sneak a maze in, as a last defense for our people to hide if it all gets shot to hell."

"Right." Sean jumps to his feet, giving her a shooing motion. "My chair, get off, need to draw things now."

She laughs and gives up the swivel chair. "I'll be out in the living room if you need any more inspiration," she says teasingly, turning to head for the door.

Sean puts out a hand to stop her for a second. "Seriously, though," he says. "You're good at this. I mean, you're really good at forgery, it's not like you need a day job, but still."

"I mostly build from memory," she points out. "Or closed conditions, like I said before."

"Was that house a memory?" Sean looks genuinely curious. "The one you put me and Hank in before it went all surrealist-chess-game, I mean."

Raven glances away. "Yeah. That was the house I grew up in. Charles's father came from old money, it was theirs originally."

"Very nice," Sean says, unearthing his drawing pad from the stack of notes and research. "Alex had me trying to recreate his childhood home, but I never could get it quite right."

Raven tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Don't focus too much on how it looked. That doesn't matter, his subconscious will fill it in. What you have to create is how it made him feel." She laughs shortly. "I hated that house."

"What happened to it?"

"It's Cain's now," she says with a shrug. "My older brother, the asshole. It should've gone to Charles when his mother died, but he didn't want it any more than I did. Too many ugly memories. So Cain got it. I hope he burns it to the ground." She pulls away, pausing only for a moment at the door. "You know where to find me if you need me."

Sean's already got a pencil out, sketching away. "Yeah," he says. "Thanks."

*

--the dream lab, where Charles is dreaming alone on one of the cots. Moira, monitoring him, jumps halfway out of her chair when Erik lets the door slam shut behind him. "Jesus, Erik, you know better than to interrupt a dream session!"

And Moira should know better than to chastise him when he's in one of these moods, a fact that visibly registers once she's had a moment to look him over.

"How many layers deep?" Erik demands.

Moira shakes her head. "I don't know, but he only asked for an hour on the timer--"

"An hour is a hell of a long time if you go more than one level in! Is this for that top-secret game the Agency has him playing?"

He cranes his neck to look down at the open file in Moira's hands, and can just make out the words Project Cerebro before she flips it shut with a pointed snap.

"Why are you even here?" she asks, rubbing her eyes. No one at this facility gets enough real sleep. "This has nothing to do with you -- or with the hunt for Shaw, for that matter. Charles has always had his own private research programs, starting well before you joined us."

Erik has to remind himself that Moira does care for Charles, that she can be his ally in this. "He's burning himself out," he says tightly. "We had a quick session this morning -- ten minutes on the clock, only one dream level -- and he nearly brought a building down on our heads. He was distracted, sloppy. I've never seen him like that before. I kicked us out of the dream early and he said he'd go home for the day and rest. But then Raven mentioned he was in here again."

Moira at least has the decency to look concerned. "I didn't realize.... Look, it wasn't entirely his choice. The boss called us both in to his office, told Charles he needed to see more progress on this project. It's something they're trying to fast-track for -- oh, crap, Erik, you know I can't give you details." She looks down at the closed file in her hands with a sigh. "Listen, even I'm not cleared for all this, Charles is the one developing the, uh, prototype. I'm just his support staff. But he's brilliant, you know that, you really shouldn't worry--"

"He's brilliant and overconfident and he's never learned his own limits," Erik says quietly. He takes a seat at the edge of Charles's cot, tracing his fingers along Charles's bare forearm, up to the faint bruise where the PASIV line is inserted. Erik still hates the sterile whiteness of this lab with a passion -- it feels like a hospital room. The fluorescents are harsh on Charles's face, pale and slack in sleep.

When he looks back up, the compassion in Moira's eyes makes him flinch. "Do you really think you should be the one to dictate his limits for him?" she asks, gently enough to offset the sting.

Erik presses his fingers lightly against Charles's wrist, seeking reassurance in the steady pulse there. "You forget, I've seen firsthand what happens to those who push the dreams too far," he mutters. "I should know."

The preset timer chirps loudly, startling them both. That should be Charles's kick. His eyes flicker open slowly, still dazed and disoriented from the dream, until he finally focuses on Erik's face. "Oh," he says with a crooked smile. "Hello."

"Welcome back," Erik tells him, and if his tone is a bit too curt, he tries to make up for it by being particularly gentle detaching the line from Charles's arm, his fingertips lingering against the abused skin. Charles just watches him silently until the PASIV line is rewound back into its case.

Erik gets to his feet, allowing Charles the space to sit up properly. Charles does, swinging his legs over the side of the cot, but his face is nearly gray with exhaustion, and Erik can see his hands tremble slightly where they rest on his knees. Charles evades Erik's eyes to look over at Moira instead. "I still think an external component will be necessary," he tells her, as though picking right up in the middle of a different conversation. "I tried everything I could think of on multiple levels of the dream, but there's simply no other way to amplify--" He glances up at Erik, brow creasing. "Erik, I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid you can't--"

"It doesn't matter," Erik says shortly. "You're not doing this now. Moira, can your discussion wait until tomorrow?"

The look he gives her brooks no argument, and for once, she follows his lead. "Of course," she says. "This will go much more smoothly once you're rested, anyway, Charles. You can organize your notes on your own time and we'll do the debrief first thing in the morning."

Charles glances between them both with a narrow glare, but he doesn't protest. That, more than anything else, tells Erik just how tired he really is. He even allows Erik to help him to his feet. Once he's up, Erik refuses to relinquish hold of his arm, firmly steering him out the door of the lab.

Erik glances back over his shoulder once, to give Moira a grateful nod, and she shoots him a tight smile before turning back to her notes.

"Strange that I'm so tired," Charles murmurs, as Erik navigates him carefully down the hallway. "You'd think I'd spent long enough asleep...."

Worry is a sharp pinch in Erik's chest. "How long were you under this time, for you?"

Charles waves a hand dismissively, but he won't meet Erik's eyes. "Oh, long enough."

Erik's grip on his arm tightens reflexively.

"I was fine, Erik, really," Charles says. He stops in his tracks, refusing to let Erik pull him along, finally looking up at him. A soft smile tugs at the edges of his mouth. "Missed you down there, though."

One hour on the timer means half a day on the first level of dreams, means the better part of a week on the second level, and that's where Erik's mental math fails him. How many levels deep had Charles gone? It could have been weeks for him, months....

"I should have tapped into the dream and dragged you out, Moira be damned," Erik says savagely. "You're courting Limbo, Charles, what the hell are you thinking?"

Charles doesn't answer, just presses his lips together into a thin line, shaking his head apologetically. Whatever this Project Cerebro is, Erik isn't cleared for it, and so Charles won't say a word, too stupidly loyal to an agency that would happily let him fry his brain in pursuit of some utterly irrelevant advance in dreamsharing research.

Erik sighs, letting go of Charles's arm and looking away. "One of these days, you're going to--" He cuts himself off, anger sapping away into something like helplessness, and he hates it. "I don't like it when you go places I can't follow."

"I know, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Charles says, and this time he's the one to reach out, running his hands down along Erik's arms and gently tugging him close. Erik doesn't go willingly, but he doesn't fight it, either. "Please, Erik, you know it was never my intention to -- I'm not trying to lose myself down there. I won't." His smile is subdued, almost tentative. "It might even be for the best that you're not down there with me for these dreams," he adds lightly, glancing away, but Erik can hear the thread of uncertainty underneath. "Knowing you're still up here gives me something to come back for."

After all this time, hearing arrogant, confident Charles sound so unsure of this -- of them -- God, no, with all the things Erik has destroyed in his life, this cannot be one of them. He cups Charles's face in his hands, holding him firmly in place, forcing Charles to look at him. "I'm still here. Always. You have to know that."

The tension seems to drain out of Charles's body, and he relaxes into Erik's hold, eyes bright. "Then you have to know I'll find you."

"You always do," Erik agrees, and kisses him, hard. Charles's mouth opens to his at once, unhesitating, and Erik promptly forgets that they're still standing in the middle of the CIA facility's corridor in plain sight of at least two different security cameras and anyone who might wander past. Charles mirrors him, bringing his hands up to either side of Erik's face; and there is nothing outside of this, the hard clash of lips and tongues, Charles's teeth scraping at Erik's lower lip, the pads of his thumbs pressing into Erik's cheekbones, his perfect mouth hot and needy against Erik's own. In moments like these, the line between dreams and reality becomes blurred beyond all recognition, and Erik doesn't care, doesn't care--

--"what the plan was," Erik argues, "because this clearly isn't the dream Angel showed us."

They're in a generic sort of dream city, but there's something weirdly wrong about it. For one thing, everything looks too new -- skyscrapers all shimmering steel and glass, freshly paved streets, the sidewalks gleaming. It's too sterile, the sun in the sky above them buzzing faintly with white electricity like the fluorescents in the dream lab, eerie and unnatural. Angel's sketches beforehand had shown an old world European-style city, houses crammed in around each other in a more organic style, cobbled streets just barely wide enough for cars to pass through. Not this pristine modern metropolis.

And this city is completely empty. No projections that Erik can see or hear in any direction, no evidence that anyone else has ever set foot in this place. Moira is the dream's subject; her subconscious should have filled this world to the brim. Erik has shared her dreams often enough to know. But there's no one here at all but him and Charles -- and they've been down here more than twenty minutes and can't even find Moira.

This isn't right.

"Maybe this is meant to be part of the simulation," Charles suggests, looking warily about them. "I have to admit, Angel's original design was rather simplistic as an actual training scenario -- perhaps the higher-ups had her embellish it somewhat."

"Without informing us?"

Charles shrugs. "Moira's the one doing the evaluation. Technically, she's the only one who would need to be informed of a change." He gives Erik a wry smile. "They do enjoy throwing the two of us into these sorts of situations, after all."

"Yes, we are the favored lab rats," Erik mutters. "But this just doesn't make any sense. It's not only that the architecture is different from what we expected, or that there's been a twist in the scenario -- it's just empty. There is literally nothing to do in this dream except wander about aimlessly, and we've already done about as much of that as I can stand."

"Perhaps the trick is that we're supposed to figure out what we're doing here?"

Erik snorts. "Or perhaps the trick is to keep us out of the way for a few hours."

Why had he just said that? Something itches in the back of his mind, but the thought isn't clear enough yet, and he's distracted from following it through. "All right, then," Charles says, hands at his hips. "What would you suggest?"

"I say we kick out of this wasteland and check in with Darwin and Angel," Erik replies at once. "We're just wasting time faffing about down here."

Charles raises an eyebrow. "And if that ruins Angel's evaluation?"

"Then she's fucked herself over by dumping us in this," Erik says impatiently. "Charles, something isn't right here. You should know to trust my instincts by now."

"I do," Charles says with a sigh. "And I don't disagree. I just -- oh, never mind. You keep looking for Moira down here, I'll kick out."

Erik frowns. "I'm more than happy to be the one who--"

"We're not arguing about this," Charles says sharply. "You know I can't shoot you in the head, and I'm not standing by and watching you do it to yourself either. So I'll go."

It's been a tricky point of contention between them -- for someone who's worked in dreams as long as he has, Charles has never shared most dreamers' cavalier attitudes toward violence within the dreams. Particularly where Erik or Raven are concerned. "It's not real," Erik reminds him, futile though he knows it to be.

Charles shakes his head, eyes intent upon Erik's. "This is just as real as anywhere else."

"And yet you don't have a problem with me killing you to wake you up." But he's already got his pistol cocked, muzzle lightly brushing Charles's forehead. This is just how it is between them, frustratingly illogical though Erik has always found it.

(But he would much rather be the one pulling the trigger than watch Charles turn his own weapon on himself, and what does that say about him?)

Charles smiles. "I trust you," he says simply. "I'll sort this all out topside, and then I'll hook back into the dream and find you."

"You always do," Erik says, and fires.

Seeing Charles crumple and fall always leaves a sour taste in Erik's mouth, though the body vanishes the moment Charles awakens topside. Well, hopefully they'll have answers soon enough. He catches a glimpse of movement in the edge of his peripheral vision, and whirls around, gun still out and loaded.

"Whoa, calm down!" Moira calls. She emerges from around a concrete column, hands up. "Jesus, Erik, I've been looking everywhere for you guys. Where's Charles?"

Erik lowers his weapon. "Just woke him up."

"That explains the gunshot," Moira remarks. "He's checking in with the team topside, then? Good."

"So you agree that something's wrong with this dream," Erik says. For some reason, the confirmation just deepens his sense of unease.

Moira nods, looking up at the skyscrapers warily. "Hell, yes. This is nothing like the planned simulation. I would've kicked myself out within the first five minutes, but I wanted to find you guys first. Hopefully--"

She's interrupted by a sudden thunderclap -- or, at least, that's what Erik thinks it is at first. But it doesn't sound quite like thunder, and he can't seem to put his finger on what....

All of the color drains out of Moira's face. "That was topside. That -- that was another gunshot--"

The moment feels stretched, suspended, the last reverberations of the shot still echoing faintly across the sky. Erik forgets how to breathe, his chest painfully tight. That half-formed thought in the back of his mind clicks fully into place. Keeping us out of the way.

"Charles," he whispers, and the moment shatters.

He hardly even realizes that he's bringing his gun up to his own temple until Moira tackles him, yanking the weapon out of his hand. "Don't be an idiot!" she hisses, right in his ear. "If there is an ambush happening up there, waking yourself up will throw you right in the middle of it!"

"Precisely," he snaps, shoving her away roughly. She staggers back, but doesn't fall. "Charles is useless in a fight, I could--"

"You could what? Get yourself shot in the face when they see you waking up?"

(She's right, he realized later. By holding him in the dream, Moira probably saved Erik's life. He's never quite forgiven her for that.)

Moira grabs his arm. "Erik, please, just think for a minute. We have more time down here than they have up there--"

"Would you rather wait for someone else to provide the kick for us?"

"We don't know for sure what's happening," she says firmly. "We don't even know who was doing the shooting, or who -- if anyone -- got hurt. It was just one shot, not a full out firefight--"

She keeps talking, but Erik doesn't hear a word. "I woke him up," he murmurs. "I decided we should kick out, he wanted to stay in the dream -- I woke him up. I shot him. I shot him."

With no warning whatsoever, the dream collapses around them. He's reaching for Charles before he even opens his eyes, but his hand closes on thin air. The cot beside him is empty, alarms sound shrilly throughout the facility, and Charles's blood is seeping out across the concrete floor.

*

Erik loses all sense of time, trapped in the horror of the moment when he'd woken up to discover that the nightmare was real, and Charles was gone. How many times had Charles told him that the dreams were just as real as the world topside? Why had Erik never quite believed him?

The dream around him shifts ever so slightly without ending, suspending the moment while detaching it from the actual memory. The alarms peter out, leaving only the faint stench of smoke in the air; Moira's cot fades away. Erik is left alone in the red-lit dream lab, staring down at the pool of Charles's blood.

In a very real sense, he's been trapped here for two long years.

Well, this is the whole purpose of his memory fortress, isn't it? All he has to do is walk through that door, and lock it behind him. To leave this moment tucked away in the back of his mind -- not to be forgotten, never to be forgotten, but to be buried away where it can no longer poison his dreams. It's so simple.

Erik stares down at the blood, and can't move an inch.

"Ironic, isn't it?" a voice remarks. "The last time you saw me alive, you were putting a bullet in my head. And now here we are."

It's hard to look up at him, to see Charles there in the doorway, leaning so casually against the frame. No, not Charles -- Erik's projection of him. He must remember that.

(Does it even matter?)

Erik swallows hard. "I was only waking you up."

Charles makes a show of looking about the place, wrinkling his nose. "If this is waking up -- I have to tell you, my friend, I think I preferred the dream."

"It doesn't matter," Erik says hoarsely. He closes his eyes, hands clenching into fists at his sides. "You aren't real."

"Are you sure of that?" Charles's voice is very low. When Erik refuses to rise to the bait, eyes still tightly closed, he hears a soft sigh and the faint rustle of fabric. The gentle weight of Charles's hand lands on his shoulder, kneading lightly. "This is as real as it ever is, Erik," he whispers, and Erik can feel the breath warm against his cheek.

Erik can't help but lean into his touch. This is as real as it ever will be again, he thinks, has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep the words from slipping out. Even so, the soft press of lips against the line of his jaw nearly undoes him entirely.

"That isn't fair," Erik mutters.

He feels Charles's huff of laughter against his neck. "All's fair in love and war."

"I never wanted to make war on you, Charles."

"So don't," Charles says, and it's so simply stated, so straightforward, so Charles, that Erik has to give in and look at him.

God, he'd forgotten how easy it was to lose himself in Charles's eyes.

"Go ahead, Erik," Charles says, a mischievous half-smile playing across his lips. "Prove to me I'm not real" -- as though this is just another one of those teasing mind games they used to play, the meandering philosophical debates conducted in the imagined forums of their dreams.

Erik runs his thumb lightly against the curve of Charles's cheek, feeling the warmth of his flush at the touch. "I saw your body."

"You saw a body," Charles counters. "Too gruesomely mutilated to identify."

And it haunted Erik's nightmares for months unending. "They ran a DNA test."

"The results of which could easily have been faked. You're no forensic pathologist, Erik, you didn't run the test yourself."

These are all arguments Erik has made himself, still continues to hash over in the solitude of his own mind. "I would have gotten word, by now," he murmurs, dropping his hand from Charles's face. "It's been more than two years. Even Shaw can't keep a secret this long. I looked everywhere I could, followed every imaginary lead--"

"And how many months did you spend stringing Alex along, insisting I wasn't dead?" Charles persists with that crooked grin, letting his hands slip down the length of Erik's arms, twining their fingers together. "Hauling him halfway across the globe, refusing to hear reason.... You'll never give up on me, Erik. I know you. You still believe I'm out there. So why not believe me in here?"

Erik squeezes Charles's hands tightly, then lets go. It feels nothing at all like yanking a band-aid off; but rather, like ripping a whole blood-encrusted bandage off a still-gaping wound and knowing that without it, you'll bleed out in minutes. "Because he's dead," he says heavily. It's the first time Erik has ever voiced it aloud, either in dreams or out. "If I truly believed that Charles was still alive, then how could you be haunting my subconscious?"

All at once, Charles's face changes, twisting into an ugly mask. "Are you so sure of that? So ready to betray me, one last time?"

Erik takes a step back, still unable to tear his eyes away. "I've already claimed responsibility for his death, in so many ways," he whispers. "Finally admitting it is the least of my sins. If anything, better I should have done this two years ago."

"You're not absolved," Charles spits out, and if Erik had ever doubted it, this proves that this is a projection, and not the real Charles. Because in life, Charles would forgive Erik anything, without hesitation. The fool. "And now you intend to lock me up in here, forever? You can't possibly think this is how I want to be remembered."

Erik shakes his head helplessly. "No. I owe him far, far better. But this is all I can give. I'm sorry, Charles, I'm so very sorry."

His back is at the door now. Quickly, before Charles can react, he grabs the handle and turns it, nearly stumbling as the door swings open outward. He steps out of the room, but hesitates there at the threshold, door still standing open.

Charles doesn't bother chasing after him, just stretches out on the bloodstained cot, lips curling into a sneer. "Running away, Erik? I hear that used to be a great talent of yours."

"I'm sorry," Erik says again, because these are the only words he has left.

"Oh, don't worry," Charles says with a laugh. "I'll find you."

For the first time, it sounds like a threat.

Erik bows his head, closing his eyes. His voice feels raw in his throat with the memory of seawater. "You always do," he whispers, and slams the door shut.

There's a key in his jacket pocket. Unsurprisingly, it fits the lock perfectly. The door locks with a clang. Erik opens his hand and the key falls to the floor, dissolving when it hits the concrete. Then he forces himself to walk away, striding down the corridors of his iron fortress, clambering up a narrow, winding stair and out along the wall. The wind is cold against his face. He leans out over the edge and looks down, impossibly far, the wall of iron stretching down as far as the eye can see.

And then he lets himself fall.

--and wakes up back in the dream den in the East Village, limbs nearly numb from long inactivity, cheeks wet with the tears he'd never actually shed.

Chapter Text

On the morning of the third day after he stormed out, Erik reappears in the apartment as though he'd never left. The man has balls, Alex has to give him that.

"Team meeting," Erik says briskly. "Gather the children, Alex, if you would."

It's like eight in the fucking morning. Apart from Alex, who still keeps military hours because he's a machine like that, and Hank, who's on the first of the day's many coffee runs, they aren't even sort of conscious yet. And frankly, Alex is borderline. But he just shoots Erik the patented Summers Death Glare (which will never be quite as effective as his older brother's, but Erik has never met Scott so it still counts) and heads off to risk life and limb rousing Sean and Raven.

Separately, thank fuck, much to Sean's continuing chagrin. She is so far out of his league it's not even funny.

With those two in the process of making themselves presentable (seriously, Raven actually pulled a gun on him, what the fuck), and a text sent to Hank suggesting he pick up a bag of bagels and a couple gallons of espresso in addition to his usual pansy-ass latte, Alex has maybe five minutes' grace period to corner Erik. He doesn't waste a second of it. "Seriously, man, where the fuck have you been?"

Erik pauses in the middle of sorting through Sean's latest sketches, which he has of course hijacked and is, in fact, scribbling notes on one blueprint as they speak. "Troubleshooting," is all he says.

Alex eyes him warily. He's already stared down the barrel of one (cocked but not actually loaded) pistol so far today, and he's not sure how far gone Erik is on the scale of one-to-batshit-insane this morning. He figures he has maybe a fifty-fifty chance of surviving mentioning Charles's name, and that depends on whether Erik has his coin handy to flip. (Yeah, Alex knows Erik's totem is a double-headed coin; you don't live on the run with a guy for two years without figuring this shit out. He's never seen it up close, though, much as Erik has never inspected Alex's dog tag.)

"The projection problem, I hope?" he says instead, which is about as much delicacy as he's capable of at oh-eight-hundred hours and no caffeine yet.

"Precisely," Erik says curtly.

"Like for real this time," Alex stresses. "Like if I plugged you into a dream right now, there would be no sabotage from that general area."

Erik glares at him. It's scarier than the Summers glare by a long shot, but Alex pretty much has immunity by now. "It's done, Alex, now drop it."

Apparently Sean has been eavesdropping en route from the bathroom, because he snorts audibly from the hall. "I'll believe that when I see it," he mutters. Probably that was supposed to be subtle, but Sean is a lot louder than he thinks he is, especially first thing in the morning. (Worst hangover buddy ever, as Alex can attest from tragic experience.)

"And you will, very shortly," Erik calls back, with a decidedly cruel smile.

So everything is pretty much back to normal, then.

Once everyone's gathered and coffee has been distributed, it's time to play show-and-tell. "So the first dream level's basically set," Sean says, leaning back into the couch with his eyes half-closed. "We should probably give it a walk through sometime today. Figure we'll give Shaw a room on the third floor, there's a totally tight little maze set up around it and I've got some real fun Escher shit going on in the stairwells to mess with the projections. Should be pretty defensible."

Alex makes a note of it. "And that's still my dream, right?"

"Yeah, you're the one-man army in this crew," Sean agrees. "Any big plans for the kick that I should be accommodating?"

"Just blowing shit up, as per usual. It's not like they're giving out points for style." Alex glances over at Hank. "Unless I've got to work around anything weird in the chemistry."

Hank shakes his head. "Same old same old. The sedative's a little stronger than usual to maintain the second level, but it's still a pretty standard cocktail in that sense. Nothing wacky. If we wanted a third level of dreams, things could get complicated, but there's no need to go that deep."

"What about the Shaw factor?" Alex presses -- not because he thinks Hank's forgotten, but you know. Good to have it out in the open. "By which I mean the fact that Shaw is real good at figuring out when he's dreaming."

"Already tested out the compound on myself, remember?" Hank says wryly. "It works. Then for the second layer, spike in a bit of hallucinogen -- he knows he's dreaming there, so no need to be coy, and that should reduce his cognitive faculties enough that you guys stand a fighting chance at maintaining control over the architecture."

"That still sounds chancy."

"With Shaw, it's always going to be chancy," Erik cuts in. "We're never going to beat him outright at his own game, but we'll swindle anything out of him that we can get. But I'm concerned about the kick -- it's going to be difficult to gauge how much time we'll need in the second level, and once the extraction is complete, you're going to want out immediately."

Alex snaps his head up from his notes to look at Erik. You're, not we're. Might not mean anything, but he's learned to parse Erik's choice of words very carefully. It's the only red flag he's going to get. "I'll take that into consideration," is all he says aloud, but makes a mental note to have yet another private chat later.

"Level two's my dream anyway," Raven says. "I have no problem with a good, old-fashioned bullet to the head if no one else does."

Erik frowns, eying them all narrowly. "I thought the plan was for Shaw to go into my head on the second level."

Right. That.

Alex promptly leans over and slaps his hand over Sean's mouth to keep him from putting his foot in it. Sean makes a muffled noise in protest, but really, it's better for everyone this way. "We thought that given your, uh, history with Shaw," Alex says carefully, "it might be best if it wasn't actually your dream."

"'We?'" Erik echoes, raising an eyebrow. "So this is a democracy now?"

"Well, you kinda disappeared for three days, so yeah, some decisions were made by the committee."

"Shaw will still think you're the subject," Raven adds, crossing her legs with a smirk. "This way, he can play with you all he likes without us risking the dream imploding. I'll maintain the forgery of Quested and keep an eye on you both while Sean sneaks off to extract any additional information Shaw hides away in his subconscious -- that is, assuming Shaw doesn't demonstrate all his new groundbreaking techniques on you openly."

Alex clears his throat. "And oh, hey, speaking of Quested...." It's only partly intended to divert them from the argument. He pulls up his e-mail on his phone and clicks open the latest message. "So Sean's buddies Eames and Arthur came through on the intel. Janos Quested and Shaw have indeed worked together previously -- Shaw trained him on dreaming. Quested is not an active member of the Hellfire Club, though, which explains the necessity of the meet. He actually works for a corporation called Cobol Engineering--"

"Oh, hell no," Sean mutters, while Erik and Raven exchange vaguely horrified looks. So, yeah, Cobol kind of has a reputation.

Hank only frowns. "I think I know that name -- aren't they rivals of Proclus?"

"Kinda," Alex says. "They're not into dreamsharing themselves, but they sure as hell like hiring extractors to get the dirt on their business rivals. And they've got some pretty brutal street cred. Not a fun bunch to cross. If Quested's on Cobol's payroll, there's a good chance they're looking to expand their business somewhat -- or maybe they're just sick of relying on independent contractors for extractions."

"It's worse than that," Raven says quietly, still keeping her eyes on Erik. He gives her a curt nod and she continues. "This may present a certain...complication. Or maybe it's just a coincidence, but--"

Alex twitches impatiently. "Spit it out, Raven."

"The head of operations at Cobol Engineering is an asshole named Cain Marko." Raven's mouth twists bitterly. "My big brother."

*

Raven's a fast learner. She's already memorized the route through the hotel level's maze from studying the diagrams topside, so Sean's guided tour feels rather superfluous. Instead she focuses on studying their surroundings from an aesthetic perspective.

She hasn't been to the actual Hotel Saratoga yet, of course, but this has the right feel to it, which is the important thing. Opulent, well-maintained, with the usual ostentatious 'native charm' that wealthy tourists lap right up. The plan is to hit Shaw as soon as he checks into his room; his subconscious should correct any cosmetic inaccuracies.

Deep down, Raven wonders why they're going to all this trouble for Sebastian Shaw when a simple bullet through the head would suffice. She doesn't give a flying fuck about whatever his 'groundbreaking' research is; the Hellfire Club can do whatever it likes with other people's dreams. She just wants Shaw dead. But she hasn't yet crossed the line from dream violence to actual murder, and she supposes she ought not to step over it now. Besides, it might be difficult to cover her tracks, given that the CIA did hire them for this one. Oh, well.

In the meantime, she amuses herself by trying on different skins as they explore the dream hotel, enjoying the way she makes Hank flinch. Poor boy's never worked with a real forger before, she can tell. He's so easily disconcerted in dreams.

They finally reach the room they're giving Shaw, and Erik drags Sean over to a corner to discuss caches or something. She leans back in an armchair and idly shifts into Quested's skin. "I need a way to get close to this guy and actually observe him," she remarks to Alex. Her voice is still her own in Quested's body. "Hear him talk, see how he moves. I can't convince Shaw with only a handful of photos to go from."

"Yeah, I know," Alex says, sprawling across the generous king-size bed. "He's already in Havana, apparently -- Cobol's got a small base of operations there." Raven resolutely does not think about Cain. "And I need to get on the ground at the hotel to set up the hit. I've already booked myself on a flight to Cuba tomorrow evening, I'll get you a seat as well. That work?"

She flashes him a smile. "Perfect, thanks. Just like old times." The CIA dream team (pun intended) generally used to send its people out in pairs or trios; Raven, Alex, and Darwin were usually teamed together in some combination or another. Moira, Charles, and Erik were the other set.

None of which she particularly wants to think about at the moment. She changes into Alex's body to distract herself, looking over at Hank, who's lounging awkwardly by the door. "You're going to be monitoring us topside for the job," she remarks. Hank's eyes widen noticeably at this forgery. "So now you're, what, tagging along just for the hell of it?"

"Cut that shit out, Raven, you're not as cute as you think," Alex complains. She sticks her tongue out at him.

Hank's eyes dart between them. He looks supremely uncomfortable. Oh, right, he and Alex don't get on too well; having two Alexes in the room probably doesn't help. Raven concentrates for a moment, then shifts into Sean instead. The real Sean is distracted enough by his conversation with Erik not to notice.

"Uh, Erik wanted me along," Hank says. "He wants all of us familiar with both dream levels. Just in case, he said."

Alex rolls his eyes. "He used to be a point man. It shows."

"Because he's an anal SOB?" Hank asks innocently. Raven muffles a laugh behind her hand.

"You never know when you'll need to improvise," Erik calls over his shoulder, with a hard-edged grin.

Alex makes a sound that might be either derisive or vaguely approving. Or both. "No, but seriously," he says, "what could possibly happen that Hank would need to tap into the dream?"

"And now you've definitely jinxed it," Hank says sourly. "Thanks a bunch, Summers."

Erik leans back against the window, propping his elbows on the sill. "Shaw is nothing if not adaptable," he says implacably. "If we want to counter him, we must maintain our flexibility. That means any one of us must be prepared to make the extraction itself if necessary."

"Dude!" Sean yelps, apropos of nothing. He must've just realized that Raven's wearing his skin. She smirks and waggles her eyebrows at him.

"All right, so you've trained under Shaw," Alex says to Erik, pointedly ignoring the pair of Seans. "What kind of deeply disturbing shit might he throw at us?"

"Can't possibly be worse than some of the stunts these two jerk-offs pulled back in the army," Hank mutters.

Erik lifts an eyebrow. "Don't be too sure of that. Alex enjoys wreaking havoc with explosives, I know, and Sean's capable of some disconcertingly unstable architecture, but that's child's play to Shaw. Oh, certainly he could pull the dream down around our ears, but that would be so...inelegant. Dreams are in the mind, and Shaw's grasp of psychological warfare is unparalleled."

Raven already knows she's going to regret this, but she's about to share a two-level dream with Shaw, and she has to know. "So show us."

For once in his life, Erik actually looks hesitant. For all that Raven's made herself a professional rep of being a wild card -- there are a couple of extractors who flat out refuse to work with her because of her unpredictability, even though she always does get the job done -- she still doesn't often catch Erik off balance. (Not counting that one time shortly after he'd joined them at the Agency, when she'd decided to confront her crush head-on and turned up naked in his bed; in fairness, he and Charles hadn't gotten their act together yet, but still. Once she realized -- well, she and her stepbrother shared many things, but they drew the line at sharing lovers. Just, no.)

"I'm serious," she goes on, when he doesn't respond. She drops the forgery of Sean to slip back into her own body, because frankly, no one takes Sean seriously. "The second level's my dream, Erik. I need to know what he might try to do to me."

"According to the plan, he should be trying his tricks on me," Erik reminds her, eyes dark.

"And you just said like ten seconds ago that we need to prepare for anything," Raven points out. "So come on. Hit me with your worst."

Erik glances between her and Sean, and then over at Alex. Alex nods. "I'm with Raven. We need to know."

"I'm not showing you Shaw's worst, because I don't know how to replicate those tricks myself." Erik's tone is low, but they can clearly hear every word. "So we'll start simple. Raven, you of all people should be aware that we possess no real physical body in dreams." Raven's form flickers to Erik's own body for an instant, then back to herself. She nods. "So. We only provide ourselves with these physical shells down here because that's how our subconscious makes sense of the world. Shaw, however, is able to project himself into the bodies of other dreamers and take them over."

Raven tries to imagine this and fails. It sounds like some sort of dark mirror to forgery, surely she should be able to grasp it, but her mind is drawing a complete blank. She wouldn't know where to begin. "How -- or, what does it...." She trails off, not even sure how to formulate the question.

"It's very...violating," Erik says carefully. "And lacks any real practical application on a job. It controls only the body, not the thoughts -- you can't extract any information out of the mark that way, though I suppose you could frighten them into telling you anything you want. But of course it's a surefire way to tip the mark off that they're dreaming, which brings the projections down upon you like the wrath of God. And since you are physically inhabiting their body, if they die, you die with them."

Alex clears his throat, looking thoroughly spooked. Well, as much as Alex can, so it reads as mildly disconcerted, maybe. "So why would you ever use that?"

"Because it's scary as hell," Erik says flatly. "Because it demonstrates just how thoroughly he has you in his power."

On impulse, Raven says, "Try it on me." Erik stares at her, eyes unreadable. She tosses her hair back and meets his gaze head on. "I mean it, Erik. What if Shaw decides he wants to show Quested who's boss? I'd rather know what I'm up against. Really know."

Erik shakes his head firmly. "Raven, it's tantamount to rape."

"Not if I'm consenting, it's not." She takes a deep breath. "I know you won't use it to hurt me. I trust you, Erik."

The hell of it is, she does. She doesn't always like him, she's still more than a bit angry with him, and she's never quite forgiven him, but she does trust him. They both want the same thing, after all -- vengeance.

And she's Charles's little sister. For that reason alone, Erik will never hurt her.

"If we try this, you won't be able to change your mind once it's begun," Erik says warningly. "I will have no way of knowing if you withdraw your consent."

Raven nods curtly. "Fine."

"Thirty seconds only. Alex, you'll call it when time's up." Alex taps his wristwatch in agreement. "All right. Raven, are you sure--"

"Will it cause me physical pain?"

"None whatsoever," Erik says without hesitation.

"So stop being a big wuss and let's do this."

Erik sighs, shaking his head, but there's something like grudging respect in his eyes. And then he's not there at all, like he's been kicked out of the dream entirely.

And Raven can't move.

She'd thought, fleetingly, that it would feel like having Erik's voice whispering in her head, directing her. But that's not it at all. She is utterly alone inside her mind. It's like the worst sort of nightmares she used to have as a child, the sense of being completely frozen or paralyzed. She feels the horror growing within her, but she's deprived of any physical outlet -- she can't even breathe. Her body is a thing, an object completely divorced from her self, and she's trapped within it. She can't hyperventilate, she can't scream, she can't fight, she can't move. She stares down in utter helplessness as her hand raises, comes up to push her hair out of her face -- she feels no physical connection to the movement whatsoever.

Erik was right. This is a violation, horrific in its simplicity. She still sees through her eyes, hears through her ears -- it's not complete sensory deprivation -- but her body has been invaded, taken over by a mute, mindless power, and she's trapped she's trapped she's trapped--

"Time," Alex says.

Physical awareness snaps back into her. She shudders, taking deep, greedy gulps of air because she can. Erik is once again leaning against the windowsill, watching her, his face unnaturally pale.

"Forgive me," is all he says. His gaze is shadowed, murky.

She shakes her head. "No worries," she gasps out, aiming for nonchalant and missing completely. "I needed to know."

"Could anyone do that?" Hank asks. He sounds more curious than alarmed, and Raven realizes -- it wouldn't have looked like much of anything at all, to the others. She'd sat in her chair and run her hand through her hair. That's it.

Shaw's brand of psychological warfare is very personal indeed -- moreover, it's intensely isolating. And this was how Erik first learned to dream. This was how he was taught, from who knows how young of an age. She's only had the briefest taste of it; he had ten years under Shaw's tender mercies before he got out. And this, he'd said, was one of the least of Shaw's tricks.

Raven wonders how Charles ever first convinced this man to share his dreams.

"It takes a great deal of mental control," Erik tells Hank, but his eyes never leave Raven's. "And long training. I can only just barely hold on to an unresisting dreamer for a couple of minutes -- my will is strong enough, but I never did have the peace of mind required to maintain the trick. I would never be able to do that to Shaw, for example -- he'd throw me off in an instant."

"Could you teach us how to resist it, then?" Alex asks, ever the pragmatist.

"No," Erik says. "Because I don't know how. No one but Shaw did. We simply learned to bear it until it was over."

Raven looks over to Alex. When she catches his eye, she gives him a nod. He returns it grimly. "Well," Alex says, "we've got another twenty minutes down here before the kick. I guess it's my turn next. So what else can you show us, Erik?"

It's probably just a drop in the ocean, it probably won't prepare them at all, but they're going up against Sebastian Shaw in a little less than a week. It's worth a shot.

*

The apartment gets a lot quieter once Alex and Raven leave for Havana. Which is weird, because it's not like either of them are particularly big personalities or whatever, but still. Alex is Sean's buddy, and Raven's always fun to flirt with, even if he knows he's never gonna get anywhere. But they're off being the advance guard, so that leaves Sean with Erik -- who now wigs him out even more -- and, well, Hank.

He's also left with a lot more pizza than is probably healthy, because Sean forgot they were two men down when he made the dinner run. But that's not really a bad thing.

Hank is at the kitchen table when Sean ventures out from his studio-cave for thirds. "Hank!" Sean says, sliding into the chair across from him. "Just the man."

Hank eyes him warily while Sean flops a couple more slices on his plate. "I'm on dinner break," he points out. "No one is allowed to run dream experiments on me while I'm eating."

"Would I ever -- no, don't answer that. Anyway, I don't want to go under again tonight, I want to discuss insurance." Sean punctuates this with a generous bite of pizza.

"Insurance?"

"Here's the thing," Sean says affably. "At some point, this job is actually gonna be over, assuming Shaw doesn't scramble our brains like so many eggs in the process."

"...yeah?"

Sean props his elbows on the table and leans forward. "So I wanna know what kind of sedative-drug-thing you've cooked up to ensure that he forgets fucking everything he dreamed afterward, 'cause man, I am so not living out the rest of my tragically foreshortened life with the Hellfire Club breathing down my neck, you get me?"

"Oh," Hank says eloquently, after a long moment. "Shit."

"No one's been discussing this," Sean remarks. "Seriously, why has no one been discussing this? Most marks, they wake up and think damn, that was a weird-ass motherfucking dream, and then they get up and forget about it. But Shaw is one of us, man, he's trained for this shit, he does not forget a single fucking detail of any dream he has, and there's no way he dreams naturally anymore, no fucking way. He is going to remember, and he is going to specifically remember Erik, and then he is going to hunt down every person Erik has ever worked with and set a fucking bomb inside their skulls. And I am not cool with that, Hank."

Hank blinks at him for a bit, then pokes at his pizza. "No one spiked the food with uppers, right? Because I don't think I've ever seen you get this worked up about anything, like, ever."

"Did you not also experience Erik doing deeply disturbing things in your head yesterday?" Sean demands, exasperated. "Because I thought that time he decided the best way to kick me out of a dream was to shove me off a really tall building was fucked up enough, but apparently that was him on a good day."

"Raven and Alex did kind of push him into it," Hank points out quietly. "And we all volunteered."

"Yeah. We did." Sean shoves the rest of his slice into his mouth in one go, chewing viciously. The thing about Erik is, okay, he's kind of scary and his head is not a pleasant place to hang out, but whatever. Dreamsharing tends to attract the crazy ones, and Sean's got no illusions about himself, either. But ever since Erik got back from his three-day vanishing act, he's been -- creepily focused. Honed. Like he shucked off all the remaining bits that kept him human and left only a weapon behind.

Sean is more than happy to leave Erik to his death wish, but he is damn well not going down as collateral.

Hank toys with the crusts on his plate. "So when exactly did you become a complete wuss, Corporal Cassidy?"

Sean swallows his pizza and shoves his chair back from the table. "Somewhere around the time the US Army decided to murder its own fucking recruits rather than let us loose with the training they gave us. Or did you forget that part? How's your nice cushy lab working out for you, McCoy?"

"We're all in this one together," Hank says, and it's so cheesy Sean kinda wants to hurl. "Alex will have your back down there, Sean, you know he will."

"Alex isn't the guy running this op. And if there's one thing I've learned in the past few years, dude, it's that no one's gonna protect my pasty white ass but me." Sean levels him a hard stare. "Insurance, Hank. Think about it."

That's the part where Erik ambles into the kitchen, grabbing his own rapidly-cooling slice out of the pizza box. "Ah, Hank," he remarks, willfully oblivious to the conversation he's just walked in on. "I need to discuss the issue of sedatives with you. Do you have a moment?"

"Yeah, sure," Hank says, turning deliberately away from Sean. "What's the thing?"

Sean shakes his head and leaves them to it. He's got a shipwreck to engineer -- like Erik actually needs the help.

*

Raven will give Cuba this much: the weather here is gorgeous. She could get used to this tropical island thing. Sure, it's a bit on the hot side, but that just means she gets to give her favorite blue sundress a spin. She's currently sipping lemonade in an outdoor cafe in the Vedado district of Havana, half a block down from the building where Cobol Engineering rents out office space. It's not quite on the seaside, but close enough that Quested can probably look out on the absurdly blue ocean from his upper-story office. Not too shabby.

Alex collapses into the chair across from hers with a sigh, looking very bodyguard-dude in his shades and suit jacket. Raven is woman enough to admit to enjoying the view. "Please tell me there is alcohol in that lemonade -- Christ, I don't even care, just give me some." She rolls her eyes, but slides the drink across the table to him. He downs like half of it in one long gulp. "Thanks."

"It's not that hot out," she remarks.

"You've been sitting in the shade all morning, what the hell do you know about it? Anyway, I've got two items of interest for you." He leans his elbows on the table, steepling his fingers together. "One, Señor Quested is indeed in the office today, so you haven't been waiting out here for nothing after all; and two, nobody in that building has seen or heard of anyone matching the description of Cain Marko, so it's unlikely he bothers with this outpost much, and I doubt we'll run into him on this job."

Raven yanks her lemonade back before he can finish all of it. "Good," she says. Not that she couldn't handle her brother if she had to, but, well, it's nice not to have to. "But if Hellfire is aligning itself with Cobol -- well, I guess we've got an good idea of where Shaw's R&D funding is coming from. Cobol's loaded. Cain's loaded independent of Cobol, for that matter."

"I always kinda figured you and Charles came from money," Alex remarks, stealing the stupid little paper umbrella out of her drink to toy with. "Well, Charles more obviously than you."

"That's because Charles was born with it, and I was just his charity case," Raven says tartly. "My dad married Sharon for her fortune, it wasn't even sort of a secret. I was eight and I'd figured that much out."

Alex winces. "Sorry I asked."

"Ancient history, no worries," Raven assures him, waving her hand dismissively. "Anyway, her liver finally gave out when we were in high school, and she was a dumb enough drunk to sign just about everything straight over to Daddy in her will. Charles took what little was left and fucked off to Oxford, I got my ass disinherited, and so Cain landed the bulk of the Xavier family fortune when the old man kicked it a few years back." She snorts. "We're a real after school special, aren't we?"

"Shit happens," Alex says sagely, and this is what she's always liked about him: he hates being the subject of sympathy himself, so he doesn't try to unload any on her, either. He pushes back from the table a bit, but otherwise makes no real move to get up. "If you're good here 'till Quested emerges, I should head over to the hotel and start getting things in place."

"Yeah, I'm good. Question, though. Any thoughts on what we'll do if Shaw isn't traveling alone?"

Alex shrugs. "Sedatives aren't just for dreamers these days. Drug 'em up."

"Which will definitely keep them from figuring out that shit's gone down after they wake up," Raven points out caustically.

"Yeah, well, I'll bounce that one back to Erik and see if he's got any ideas. We can't kill anyone, so we've just got to find a quick and easy way of disabling them." Alex slowly and methodically shreds the paper umbrella.

"Not to mention, Hank's going to be the one watching over us topside," Raven adds. "And I mean, I know he was army with you and Sean and all, but still."

"He's stronger than he looks," Alex says mildly. "Back in our squad, the guys had a kinda funny nickname for him. They called him 'Beast.'"

"Is that supposed to be ironic?" Raven laughs. "Like calling a giant 'Tiny' or something?"

Alex smirks. "Something like that. Anyway, he'll do fine, and we'll come up with something clever if Shaw shows up with company." He takes his sunglasses off for a second, squinting and rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Right. Hotel. I'm going, I really am."

"Think of the air conditioning," Raven says encouragingly. "And it's only like a twenty minute walk from here. Thirty at most."

"I hope you die in a fire," Alex informs her, and shoves off. She gives him a one-fingered salute in parting.

Ten minutes later, Janos Quested strolls down the sidewalk past her cafe. Raven slips on her own sunglasses, drops some coins on the table, and follows. Game on.

*

It all goes to hell that afternoon.

Erik's not sure precisely who or what he was expecting when he responded to the persistent knocking on the apartment door, but pulling it open to find Moira there definitely wasn't high on the list. "How did you get this address?" he demands without thinking. Which, in retrospect, really oughtn't to have been his first question.

"Alex," she replies, leaving off the implied duh. "He gave it to me a few days ago, in case of emergency. So here I am. You guys have twenty minutes to pack; I've got a car downstairs, and we need to be on a flight out of La Guardia in an hour and a half."

He doesn't waste another minute; he himself is always ready to bolt at a moment's notice, but Sean and Hank will need all the time they can get. Luckily, they're both in the apartment at the moment. Once he's put the fear of God into them, he snaps the PASIV case shut and tosses it and his prepacked suitcase into the foyer. They have eighteen minutes left. "What's happened?" he asks Moira, who's now perching uncomfortably at the edge of the couch.

"Got a report in from our Hellfire mole this morning," she says. "Shaw changed the timetable on us. He's getting in to Havana late tonight, scheduled to check in to the hotel at 11:30. If you want to beat him in, this is our only chance. Direct flight from La Guardia to Miami, forty-five minute layover, there to Havana. All courtesy of the US government."

"We were supposed to have six more days!"

"Tough shit," Moira tells him, but her eyes are worried. "Can you pull off the extraction tonight, or do I call this a blown mission? Because I don't want to put you guys at risk, but I also don't know when we're going to get another stab at this."

"Then we'll do it tonight," Erik doesn't quite snarl. This isn't Moira's fault, he reminds himself, but dammit.... "You couldn't have called?"

Moira lets out a soft, exasperated noise. "You refuse to give me your number, remember? And I couldn't reach Alex."

"He switched phones, picked up a cheap new cell in Cuba," Erik says, mentally slapping himself on the forehead. One of them should have anticipated this possibility. Stupid, stupid. "He and Raven are down there already -- shit, I have to let them know--"

At precisely that moment, his phone buzzes on the coffee table. It's Alex. "Erik, I've got a potentially disturbing development," Alex says, voice a little scratchy through the vagaries of international cellular airwaves. "Raven was tailing our guy Quested, and she overheard a conversation that made it sound an awful lot like Shaw may be in town earlier than we think."

Erik clenches his fist around the coin in his jacket pocket. "Yes. Moira is here with me right now. We're flying in tonight. Shaw checks in at twenty-three thirty."

"...fuck," Alex says. "Um. Okay. Fuck."

"Yes, wonderful, and now that you've gotten that out of your system--"

"So we do the job. Fantastic. I'm booking us a room on the opposite side of the hotel from Shaw's to use as a base. Moira bringing any Agency friends with her?"

Erik relays the question, and then Moira's answer. "Just the one, her current partner Levine. They'll hold down the fort while we do the job, and provide the getaway afterward." It's going to be a hell of a long day for them all -- and the idea was to pull the job while Shaw was jet lagged and disoriented, not while all the rest of them were as well. But you can only play the hand you're dealt. "Do you need anything else from me right now? I probably won't be able to check in again until we're on our layover in Miami."

"No, I think we're good -- oh, hey, actually, one thing. Do you know if Shaw drinks?"

Erik blinks at that, but Alex wouldn't ask without good reason. He thinks back. "I believe he generally enjoys a nightcap, yes. Whiskey, maybe? On the rocks, whatever it was, I used to have to fetch ice for him."

"Cool, thanks. I gotta go do a thing -- well, kind of a lot of things, actually, Jesus fucking Christ, why does no one know how to stick to a fucking schedule -- but yeah, call me when you're in Miami." Alex hangs up, and Erik pockets his phone.

The living room is very quiet for a few long moments. The silence is broken by a crash resounding from elsewhere in the apartment, and Sean's cursing. "We didn't need the models anyway," Erik sighs, allowing himself to slump into the armchair.

"Alex is good," Moira says awkwardly. "I'm sure he'll get everything set up for us in time."

Erik rolls his eyes. "Yes, I know my own point man's capabilities, thank you."

Moira sighs, plucking at the couch cover. "I was just -- oh, never mind." She glances back up at him. "I know we're not friends anymore, but I don't get why you hate me, Erik."

"I don't hate you," he says, and it's true. But she had been there that night, and yet she'd stayed with the Agency; he will never understand her, nor does he want to. She'd been Charles's friend, anyway, never really his. He clears his throat and changes the subject. "Need to know, Moira. Who's your mole?"

"I don't know."

"Bullshit," he snaps, pushing out of the chair to get in her face. "Don't play these mind games with me, Agent MacTaggert, they aren't endearing."

She jumps to her feet, dodging him. "I swear to you I don't know, Erik, I only ever saw the data they gave us. Someone in the Hellfire Club's inner circle, I'm almost certain, but I don't know. If they're heading down with Shaw, hopefully they'll make themselves known to us. That's all I've got."

She's telling the truth. Moira has always been a terrible liar -- she can evade with the best of them, but not flat out lie. "Why don't your superiors trust you, Moria?" he asks softly, dangerously.

Moira levels him a glare. "Probably because I still consort with deserters like you."

Sean stumbles in on them then, before the argument can escalate. "Shit, man," he gasps, toting a vastly oversized suitcase. "When did this turn into a rush job? Are we even ready for this shit?"

"Yes, we are," Erik tell him, but keeps his eyes on Moira. Because we have to be.

*

One of the tricks Hank picked up in the army, well before being assigned to the dreamsharing squad, was the ability to sleep anywhere and under any circumstances. It's come in handy more than once. So he falls asleep while the flight out of New York is still taxiing down the runway, and then again on the flight out of Miami. He even gets a few winks in on the drive from the Havana airport to the hotel. By the time they get to the hotel itself, he's -- well, rested is probably too strong a word, but definitely functional.

Which is good, because they've got less than an hour until Shaw's supposed to check in and it's pretty obvious that no one's going to be getting any actual sleep tonight.

Alex is waiting for them in the lobby, with the slightly manic mien of the artificially overstimulated. Hank does some quick mental recalculations for adjusting the Somnacin levels to accommodate that much caffeine. "Christ, could you have cut it any closer?" Alex demands, glaring at the party at large. "Let's move it, people -- Raven's just inside, she'll show you to the room, I'll take care of the check-in. Wait, wait, who is this fuck -- are you Moira's partner? Levine, right? No, you're with me, just give Moira your bag and let's boogie."

The other CIA agent is a competent, serious guy who clearly has no experience with dreamsharing, but is one of those government types who just loves following orders and responds instinctively to anyone with enough authority in their voice. He goes along with Alex willingly to chat with the front desk attendants while the rest of them skirt the edges of the extravagantly large lobby to find Raven.

Apart from exchanging a few terse greetings, Raven leads them upstairs in silence. It's kind of eerie, actually. Hank's been with these people for, what, about a week now? And unless they're all physically separated and working, he's never known the group to be this quiet. Even Sean's not running his mouth tonight, just clinging grimly to his huge suitcase with a pale, pinched expression. Erik and Moira stand as far apart in the elevator as they can, and Raven looks like she's trying to figure out which of them she's least uncomfortable with, finally settling on shooting Hank a quick, apologetic smile. Hank sincerely hopes this is all just a universal case of pre-job jitters, and not a portent of how badly it's going to blow up in their faces.

The hotel room itself -- an en suite, with like couches and everything -- is downright luxurious. Not that it matters; the two CIA agents will be the only ones spending any real time in here. After dumping the luggage, they convene on the couches. A TV monitor has been set up center stage. "Alex wired a tiny camera in Shaw's room earlier today," Raven explains, flicking on the TV. The picture isn't exactly HD, but it'll do. It shows a room much like theirs, with a bottle of some kind of alcohol and an ice bucket set out on the coffee table. "Moira, you and your partner will stay in here and monitor -- Shaw's room is on the far side of the hotel, you're well out of the way. Once Shaw conks out, you'll let us know and we'll move in."

"Radios?" Moira asks.

"Cell phones," Raven corrects, tossing her one. "Cheap and disposable, local numbers. I've already programmed the other numbers in on speed dial. Alex should also be giving one to Levine right now. Hank, this one's yours." He catches it easily. "Since you're on deck topside, if anything goes wrong, you call Moira immediately. Likewise, Moira, if you or Levine see any trouble coming our way."

"We'll alternate monitoring the TV in here and patrolling the hallways," Moira promises.

Alex shows up a minute or so later. "I left Levine in the lobby," he says. "He's never worked in dreams, no reason Shaw could possibly have to recognize him -- unlike the rest of us. When Shaw turns up, he'll let us know."

They all retreat back into uneasy silence. Moira stares at the unchanging image on the TV screen like it holds all the answers to questions she hasn't been able to ask. Alex leans against the door frame, uncharacteristically still. Sean curls up in one corner of the couch with his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Raven keeps shooting surreptitious glances between Alex and Erik, but never gets a reaction. And Erik stares out at nothing, face an expressionless mask, rolling a coin absently between his fingers.

Hank checks and double-checks the PASIV case, like he can do anything else about the Somnacin compounds now. One extra vial sits heavily in his jeans pocket. He doesn't think about it too much.

When Alex's phone trills, everyone starts noticeably -- except for Erik, who just calmly pockets his coin. Alex flips open the phone. "Yeah?" There's a long pause. "Okay, great." He snaps it shut, looking up at the group. "Shaw's downstairs, and he's brought a friend along. Female, twenties, dark hair. Sounds like Angel to me, but I guess we'll find out. Whoever she is, she's got the room next to Shaw's." His face sets itself into grim lines. "If she is Angel, I'd like a word with her."

"Stay on mission," Erik orders, though not unkindly. "If she keeps out of our way, we keep out of hers. Do we have a means of neutralizing her if she does interfere?"

"Hank's got a sedative to knock her right out, right?"

At Alex's glance, Hank nods, producing a hypodermic needle from the case. "Should induce very mild amnesia as well," he confirms. "Then we lay her back down on her own bed, and when she wakes up, she'll just think she fell asleep."

"And worst case scenario, I can always just bind and gag her," Alex adds, sounding a little too happy at the prospect.

On the TV screen, the door to the room opens. Shaw enters alone. It's the first time Hank's ever seen him outside of grainy photographs. Not that this is much of a step up, but still. He looks so...ordinary.

"All right, people," Erik says quietly, deliberately turning his back to the TV. "Let's get in position."

They don't need further prompting. Hank's got the PASIV case; apart from that, there's nothing much to bring. Alex slings on a backpack, which presumably has rope or whatever other supplies he deems necessary, and he's probably also packing heat. Moira and Levine had been able to get their personal weapons on the flight (albeit in their checked luggage) with their CIA badges, and Erik stashed his own gun in Moira's bag as well, which he now retrieves. Hank will never know how Raven manages to keep her pistol on her at all times, but she does, and he can just see her holster slung in the small of her back, the shape under her blouse becoming indistinct once she shrugs on a light jacket. So Hank and Sean are the only ones unarmed. Great.

Shaw's room is on the opposite wing of the hotel, and two flights up. They convene in the emergency stairwell just down the corridor from his door.

It's been a while since Hank's been on a job like this. He'd forgotten how much waiting was involved.

Finally, Alex's (now silenced) phone buzzes -- "It's a go," he says. "Moira says Shaw's unconscious on his couch."

So they go. Alex had managed to swipe some kind of master key from the cleaning staff; the card reader on the door blinks green at once. Alex goes in first; once he's sure the room is clear, he signals them all in.

Shaw is draped awkwardly across the couch, like he'd fallen asleep all at once. There's a glass of some dark liquid set on the coffee table, next to the opened bottle. "Spiked the booze?" Sean asks.

Alex grins. "The ice, actually."

No one wastes any more time on chit-chat. Hank sets the PASIV on the table and starts unpacking it, pulling out five leads, while Erik sees to Shaw. It's probably the first time Erik's encountered the man in person since leaving his employ however many years ago; whatever he's thinking, it doesn't show on his face at all. He moves briskly and efficiently, tapping a line into Shaw's exposed wrist. Raven scowls in their direction -- Hank can't tell who in particular it's intended for, possibly both of them -- but makes no comment. She and Sean select seats on the opposite couch, as far away as Shaw as possible while still within the reach of the PASIV lines. Alex remains in place by the door, listening. He stiffens, which is the only warning they get before the knock comes.

They all freeze at that.

"Hey, boss!" a woman's voice calls from the hallway. "You gonna leave me out here all night or what?"

Alex draws his weapon, looking over to Erik. Erik steps away from Shaw and nods. "Raven, get the door," he says, very quietly.

With Alex in position against the wall, Raven gets up and goes to the door. She slowly turns the handle and pulls it open, keeping the door between herself and their guest. The stranger takes all of one step into the room before Alex is grabbing her, yanking her the rest of the way in and slapping a hand over her mouth while Raven slams the door shut behind them.

From the chess dream, Hank is indeed able to identify the interloper as Angel Salvadore. She's dressed in a very short skirt and low-cut top, and she immediately attempts to stomp on Alex's foot with her high-heeled boots. Alex evades that easily. "Hello, Angel," he says through gritted teeth. "So glad you could join us."

Oddly enough, she stops struggling at once, her eyes widening as she takes them all in. She makes a muffled sound against Alex's hand.

"I don't much care if you scream," Erik tells her, eyes like steel. "These walls are quite thick, and there's no one to come to your aid in any case. But I would prefer if you didn't. Do you agree?"

Angel nods. Alex removes his hand from her mouth warily, adjusting his grip so that he's holding her arms behind her back with one hand and has his gun in the other, lightly teasing the base of her neck. "Give me one good reason not to shoot you right now," he snaps. Under the circumstances, Hank supposes they'll have to pardon the cliche, but Jesus, so much for staying on mission.

To her credit, Angel doesn't look particularly cowed. "Fuck, Alex, get off me, I'm on your fucking side!" When no one seems impressed by this, she rolls her eyes. "I'm the goddamn informant, all right, I was coming in here to drug Shaw and wait for you jerks to show up. But I guess you work faster than I expected."

Erik strides forward, bending down to grab at Angel's leg -- wait, no, her stocking? She doesn't fight him, remaining surprisingly docile in Alex's grip. When Erik straightens, he's holding a tiny hypodermic needle between his fingertips. Hank blinks. Had she stashed that in her garter or something?

"Still up to your old tricks, I see," Erik remarks, in terse, clipped tones. Hank has never seen Erik truly angry before, but he gets the feeling that Erik is just barely keeping his rage in check.

Raven has her hands on her hips, glaring at Angel like she could actually burn a hole through the other girl's forehead. "So now you claim to be on our side, huh? Sorry, Angel, it's just that you switch back and forth so often, I guess I've lost track. Alex, let's tie her up, this is a waste of time."

"I am, I swear," Angel protests, as Alex and Raven maneuver her roughly into a chair. Sean tosses Alex his backpack, and Alex pulls out a length of thin rope. "Erik! You recruited me in the first place, I was always on your side -- fuck, the CIA sent you to get me, you can't tell me they never told you why...."

Erik goes very still. "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, God, they didn't," Angel whispers, eyes wide with something like horror. "You and Charles -- you never knew."

Maybe it's because he's an outsider to all this drama, or maybe he really is that much smarter than everyone else, but Hank puts it together first. "They set you up to turn traitor from the beginning, didn't they?" he says, and doesn't particularly enjoy the way everyone else snaps to look at him. "The CIA, I mean -- they wanted a mole in Shaw's organization, so they orchestrated the whole incident at the facility."

Angel nods. "Yeah. Well, sort of. The job itself was all Shaw's, even my bosses at the CIA didn't know what he was planning. I was only supposed to offer myself up to him, but he needed more than that to sweeten the deal."

"So who was Shaw's target, that night?" Alex demands, cinching her hands probably more tightly than he should.

"Darwin," she admits, wincing. "Just Darwin, oh God, Alex, I'm so sorry -- but they weren't supposed to kill him, I swear, Shaw promised!" Now that she's started talking, it's like she can't stop, all the words she must've kept bottled up for years finally spilling out. "They wanted to recruit him to Hellfire, he was way more valuable to them -- I'm just another architect but he was...Darwin. I did everything I could to try to convince him to join up voluntarily, that I was on his side, but he wouldn't believe me -- and Shaw was still watching me real closely, I had to be careful or we were both dead, but -- and then Shaw said they'd just extract from him and let him go." She curls in on herself, looking suddenly tired and frightened. "I guess they did," she adds, voice small. "They extracted everything."

Erik might as well be made out of granite, for all the emotion he's showing. "And Charles?" he asks. His voice is deceptively mild, but Angel shrinks away.

"He woke up," she says, tone taking on a pleading quality. "He took us all by surprise. And so Azazel just shot him. I didn't think--" She shakes her head helplessly. "I built you guys a totally sterile dream, no projections, it was supposed to keep you safe! I even timed the kick so that you'd all wake up as soon as we were gone, before you could get trapped in the fire! So why the fuck did he wake up?"

"Azazel," Erik murmurs, ignoring the rest, and Hank knows, sure as shit, he's just acquired a new target. "Thank you, Angel, that was very informative. Perhaps we'll speak again later. Hank, put her to sleep."

"No!" Angel yells, as Hank approaches her with his hypo of special sedative. "Wait! Erik, you need to--"

Hank slips the needle in her wrist gently, almost apologetically. The effects of the sedative are virtually instantaneous. Her eyes roll up in her head and she slumps over, dead to the world.

Well. Not dead, obviously.

As soon as Angel's out, Raven collapses gracelessly into a chair, white-faced. "Angel's the CIA mole," she whispers. "I can't believe it. They set the whole thing up."

"I don't care who she was working for when," Alex says, eyes hard. "She still got Darwin and Charles killed. End of story."

Hank clears his throat. He's still kneeling at Angel's side. "It doesn't sound like she had much of a choice in the matter."

"There's always a choice," Alex snaps back.

"Hey, guys?" Sean waves awkwardly, toying with one of the PASIV lines. "Not to break up the party, but, uh, job? We're still doing this, right? Because the ice drugs aren't going to keep this guy out forever, and I still kinda want to get paid."

Erik stalks over to the PASIV and grabs his own line. "Yes. Nothing's changed. So let's go extract the CIA's precious information and be done with it." He looks pointedly at Alex, who's still shifting from side to side, clenching his gun with white knuckles. "Alex. It's your dream. For God's sake, calm your mind."

Alex glares at him for a long moment, then deflates. "Yeah," he mutters. "Whatever. Let's go." He shoves his gun into Hank's hands, much to Hank's surprise. "You're more likely to need it than I am," he explains, inserting his PASIV line in his wrist. Around the table, the others are all doing the same. "And if she wakes up, give her another jab."

"Yeah, I know," Hank says. He sets the weapon down carefully on the table. It's been years since he fired a handgun. Not much his style, these days.

"Hank," Erik says, so Hank presses the button on the PASIV, sending them all to sleep.

And then he pulls up a chair facing the door and sits. More waiting. Awesome.

*

Alex stands behind the reception desk in the hotel lobby, idly flipping through the guest registration list. Most of the names are blurred, illegible, but one halfway down the page stands out: Sebastian Shaw. There's a faint ringing in his ears, like the sound you make tracing your finger around the rim of a crystal glass. Which is...weird. Then he notices the little call bell on the desk -- it's vibrating. That's legitimately strange, and kind of unnerving. He puts his hand over the bell and it stills, falling silent again.

He glances up at the rest of the lobby, but no one seems to have noticed the slight disturbance. A few guests meander in and out, chatting amongst themselves. Three Cuban cops are standing in a tight knot near the revolving doors. They're not in anyone's way, but the way they're eyeballing every guest who passes through could spell trouble. Alex doesn't want to find out who or what they're looking for.

That's when Shaw himself enters, flanked by -- Angel? What the fuck? Hank couldn't possibly have hooked her into the dream. So maybe this is just Shaw's projection of his associate--

Angel's the one to approach his desk, dinging that call bell obnoxiously to get his attention. "Hola, señor," she says. "Reservation for Sebastian Shaw?"

For just a moment, her dark eyes flicker blue-gray, and she gives him a coy smile. Oh, for fuck's sake, Raven. Christ, she just had to go and improvise, didn't she?

"Of course," Alex says aloud, as Shaw comes up to stand just behind Raven-Angel. He fetches the key card and slides it across the desk to them. Raven takes it with a wink, and Shaw gives him a smile that manages to somehow be both pleasant and condescending. "Room 314. Enjoy your stay, Herr Schmidt."

It's only a slight risk. Schmidt is one of Shaw's preferred aliases, and more importantly, it's the name he was using when he'd first 'recruited' Erik. Alex wants to help nudge the man into the right frame of mind -- Shaw's got to decide to demonstrate his latest experiments on his former protégé, after all. For now, Shaw just gives him a nod and follows Raven off.

Once they're in the elevator, Alex ducks out around the desk and disappears into the service stairwell. As he heads upstairs, he pulls out his cell and calls Erik. "Shaw's on his way up."

"Good," Erik says. "We'll give him a few minutes to find his room, and then our Quested will give him a call."

Alex pauses on the stair. "Wait, hold on, Raven's up there with you?"

"Yes, of course."

His heart stops beating for a second. "That's not possible. I just saw her with Shaw, forging Angel."

"But she's -- Raven!" Erik shouts, and Alex can hear someone laughing in the background. "They're both Raven," Erik tells him, sounding disgruntled. "One of her new tricks. God help her when she's got to interact with herself."

Alex is selecting some truly choice words for that when the building around him gives a sudden, fitful tremor. He grabs at the railing to steady himself, just barely missing tripping headfirst down the stairs. "Erik, did you feel that too?"

"Feel what?"

"Oh, fantastic," Alex says disgustedly. "I've got super-selective earthquakes following me through the hotel. Just what I've always dreamed of."

"Be careful," is all Erik says -- like Alex is ever not -- and they hang up.

Alex takes the rest of the stairs two at a time to emerge out onto the third floor corridor. Erik and 'Quested' should be waiting in the room next door to Shaw's; once Shaw is in place, the plan is for Quested to call him with news of their surprise guest, and then lead Erik right on in to the slaughter. And while mazes have been designed into every other floor, as well as the elevator system -- Escher architecture, according to Sean -- the service stairwell cuts straight through from the lobby to Shaw's hallway.

The hallway is decorated in beige and gold tones, thickly carpeted to muffle sound. The walls all seem to curve slightly, as does the floor; Alex doesn't really notice that at first. Until he realizes that he's been walking along this hall for a good five minutes, and although the numbers on the doors are starting to repeat themselves, room 314 is nowhere in sight.

Fuck.

As he passes the stairwell door for the third time, it swings open and Sean stumbles through. "Dude," Sean says, sounding somewhat out of breath. "I totally just went up like two more flights to escape this shit, how am I still on this fucking floor?"

Alex's stomach sinks a little further. "You're the architect, you tell me! I thought this route was supposed to be maze-free!"

"It was! I didn't design this!" Sean glares at him accusingly. "This is your dream level, man."

"So, what, you think I suddenly dumped an infinite staircase on top of you, just for shits and giggles? And what the fuck is up with this hallway, it's not shaped like a proper circle but it's like looping in on itself--"

"Moebius strip, near as I can tell." Sean's face is paler than usual. "What the hell, man. Is this -- does Shaw know he's dreaming, is that what this is?"

"If he did, we'd be dealing with a lot worse than some stupid fucking optical illusions," Alex snaps. "It's like his subconscious has got some kind of automatic -- oh, Christ. Booby traps. Erik warned us about this."

"Okay, see, but when you say 'booby trap' I tend to think of things going boom, not impossible architecture."

"Yeah, well, he always does say Shaw's a twisted old bastard. Fuck!" Alex doesn't quite punch the wall, but it's a near thing. "We must have set off some kind of, I don't know, paradoxical tripwire or some shit, how the fuck are we supposed to--"

Another not-earthquake hits, more violent than the last. Alex catches himself on a decorative wall fixture, but Sean goes sprawling. It's like some sort of ripple is sweeping down the hallway, making Alex's eyes cross with the effort to see something that isn't quite there, and then all at once it's gone. The walls seem to snap back into place.

"I would rather deal with a fucking army of projections than this," Sean grumbles, getting gingerly back up to his feet.

Alex narrows his eyes, staring down the corridor. "The walls aren't curved anymore. I think that might have snapped us out of the Moebius strip."

He's right. They're standing right in front of room 314.

Neither is willing to press their luck. 312 is right next door, where Erik and Raven-Quested would have been waiting; either they're still in there or they've already moved on to Shaw's room, and either way, Alex and Sean are going in. They shove their way into 312, finding it empty. Sean locks the door behind them, while Alex pulls his gun and makes sure the room is clear of any stray projections. "Where's the panel?" he calls over his shoulder.

"Between the two lamps," Sean replies. One wall panel is false, actually a door between the two rooms. They'll use that when it's time. Meanwhile, Alex flicks on the TV, which -- much like its topside counterpart -- will show them what's happening in Shaw's suite. This being a dream, they get audio as well.

Erik is bound to a desk chair in the middle of the suite, unintentionally mirroring the position they left the real Angel in topside. Shaw stands before him. Angel is perching on a couch, while Quested leans smugly against one wall, his arms folded across his chest. Alex has to hand it to her, Raven is good. At the moment, Erik and Shaw are conversing, but the audio must be muddied somehow, because Alex can't quite--

Oh. They're speaking in German. Well, that's real helpful, Erik. He wonders if it's because Shaw doesn't fully trust one (or both) of his associates, and is deliberately excluding them from this conversation. Or maybe Erik started it, maybe he's trying to throw Shaw's mind back into their past like Alex tried with the Schmidt thing; or he could be trying to goad Shaw into some kind of reaction. Alex can't tell for sure, because he doesn't fucking speak German, now, does he?

Sean rolls his eyes at the screen, obviously uninterested in the ongoing drama of Erik and Shaw, and wanders over to pull back the thick curtains. "I made a really nice Havana," he remarks, almost wistfully.

"Get away from the windows, are you like new here or something?" Alex jumps up to yank Sean back. "We know Shaw's subconscious is probably militarized, and there were already cops gathering in the lobby when I headed up. Your mazes might slow them down a bit, but there's a building just as tall as this right across the street, and I'll bet they're setting up snipers as we fucking speak."

"Dude, calm down, I was just having a look."

For all that this is supposed to be his dream, it feels like there is very little down here that Alex can actually control, and that makes him twitchy. He methodically blockades the door to the hallway with furniture, gun holstered at his side in easy reach, while Sean sits cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV.

"Can we get English subtitles on this thing, at least?" Sean complains, only half joking. "'Cause if this is supposed to be the big showdown, I gotta tell you, it's kind of lame."

"Hopefully they're just saving the good stuff for the next level down."

On the screen, Shaw finally turns away from Erik, who glares daggers at his back. "Janos, what a fine gift you have given me," Shaw says, switching back to English.

Quested smirks. "I thought you would appreciate it. You did come all this way, after all."

"And here I thought I was in for another dull contract negotiation," Shaw remarks with a smile. "You always do enjoy your little surprises."

"Ah, and while we're discussing negotiations...."

"Yes, of course," Shaw says gregariously. "It's only fair. I can't expect to sell you a product without a demonstration, can I? Angel, the PASIV, if you please."

Angel gets to her feet, flashing Shaw a smile. "Sure thing, boss." And shit, Raven always could teach a fucking master class on forgeries of people she knew well. Her Quested is impeccable, but her Angel is spot on. They'd been pretty good friends once, hadn't they? What does that mean for them now, if Angel really has been working for the CIA this whole time?

After this job is over, sorting all this shit out topside is going to be a bitch and a half, Alex can tell.

Aw, isn't that cute -- Raven even picked up Angel's trick with the needle in her stocking. Shaw was already assuming the position on the couch, wrist bared for the PASIV line; a quick jab of Angel-Raven's needle in his neck, and he's out like a light. Time to boogie.

He signals Sean, and they both move to the hidden wall panel. Sean's got his own pistol out now, for some damn reason. He really must not trust Shaw. Alex raps quietly on the panel.

After a moment, the knock is returned, and Sean twists the base of the neighboring lamp to open the panel. Everything in room 314 is exactly as they could see it on the TV -- Shaw unconscious on the couch, Erik still tied up in the chair, and the two forgeries walking free.

"Anytime you'd like to get me out of this, Raven, that would be just delightful," Erik says, glaring at the Quested forgery. "Was it really necessary to cut off my circulation in the process?"

"It had to look realistic," Quested protests, grinning, while Angel laughs.

Alex rolls his eyes. "Show's over, Raven, would you just--" He waves his hands to vaguely indicate the two unnecessary bodies, and Erik, and...stuff.

Watching Raven snap herself back together is a bit vertigo-inducing, but then she's back wearing just one form -- her own -- and going over to cut Erik's bonds. "None of you are any fun."

"Yeah, well, maybe I kinda overdosed on fun getting up here," Alex says, moving to his customary place by the door, hand resting on the grip of his handgun. He's going to be here for a while, and it's the most obvious defensive position in this room. Sean's already closing the wall panel, hopefully none of Shaw's projections will catch wise -- and anyway, he blocked off the door to 312 pretty fucking thoroughly with that couch. "Anyone else get the earthquakes? And how about the unexpected paradoxical architecture?"

Raven frowns, looking up at him. "Angel and Shaw didn't have any problems." She gives the cords around Erik another tug, and they fall to the ground.

"You're lucky you pulled the double forgery trick to stay with Shaw," Erik tells her. "He always creates a clear path for himself."

"So he does know he's dreaming?" Sean's voice is kinda shrill.

Erik stands, rubbing his reddened wrists. "I'm honestly not sure," he says quietly. "He didn't give any indication of it, and you may have simply triggered passive subconscious defenses, Alex. But it's equally possible that he's planted warning flags throughout his own subconscious -- something as simple as a certain flower arrangement by the elevators, or a painting on the wall -- and he's now fully aware that he's asleep."

"You think he might just be toying with us?" Alex asks, sense of dread rising. He glances around the suite, wondering what other traps Shaw might be waiting to spring. "Christ, does he carry a totem, could he have checked it--"

Raven shakes her head. "I didn't see anything like that. If he warned himself, it was really subtle. Look, I think we're all overthinking this -- can we just do the job? He may be unconscious right now, but he's still dreaming, and the longer we put this off, the more likely he is to do exactly what we're most scared of."

She makes a good point. Erik nods and crouches by the PASIV on the coffee table -- Christ, talk about deja vu all over again, did they really have to build this dream to so perfectly mirror the actual room topside? -- while Raven and Sean start rolling up their sleeves.

The faint scraping sound catches everyone off guard; Raven actually snaps back into her forgery of Quested, for some damn reason, and Sean's pistol is back in his hands. From his position by the hallway door, Alex can't pinpoint where the noise is coming from -- and then he realizes it's the wall panel to room 312, the hidden door to the empty fucking room, and it's opening, and Charles is there.

Jesus fucking Christ, do they really have to go through this nonsense again?

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Alex mutters, bringing his gun up -- but then, for some reason, he hesitates. This Charles just doesn't look right. He's seen enough of Erik's projections to catch the differences.

This projection isn't nearly as neatly dressed as he ought to be. He's also too thin, slacks hanging off him loosely, and his skin is unhealthily pale. His shirt is rumpled, open at the collar, and his hair falls longer than Alex has ever seen it. But his bright blue eyes are just the same, going right to Erik as though they're the only two people in the dream.

Alex glances over to see all the color drain from Erik's face. "Charles?" Erik says. His voice sounds hoarse, raw.

"Hello, Erik," the projection says, with a shaky smile. "It's been a long time."

Sean lets out an exasperated noise and points his gun straight at the projection's face. "Um, guys? We're kind of on a schedule here. Why are we not dealing with this?" He cocks the pistol, finger on the trigger.

And Erik moves in a blur, wrenching Sean's arm back and knocking the gun to the ground. Sean cries out, more in surprise than pain, and Erik's grip visibly tightens.

"That's not a projection," he hisses. "That's him. That's Charles."

Chapter Text

Charles isn't entirely sure that this is real.

No, correction: he's absolutely positive that he's dreaming, which certainty already makes this one of his better days (nights? Moments? His terminology is rather flawed of late). But dreams have been fully entwined with his waking reality for many years now. 'Real' is relative. Right now, in this moment, he chooses to define reality as a dream shared with others, an experience witnessed and therefore quantifiable.

His mind feels sharper than it has in...well, some indeterminate amount of time. That was Angel's doing, he knows; she disconnected him from the Hellfire chemist's IV line several hours (days?) ago, leaving him with just the necessary PASIV equipment. So, options: either this is all an elaborate ploy of Shaw's, in which case nothing he does matters anyway; or he is in fact sharing someone else's dream at last. Alex's, at best guess; he's taken point, and the others were all clearly preparing to hook into a second dream level when Charles interrupted them.

Ah. Alex, yes, who still has a gun pointed at his chest. Erik has already disarmed the unfamiliar ginger boy, and the other stranger -- Latino man, sharp dresser, something oddly familiar about the eyes -- doesn't pose a threat at the moment. Best deal with Alex, then; Charles mustn't wake up too quickly from this one.

(Erik is here. Erik is here. No, he doesn't want to wake up from this one at all.)

"Alex," Charles says, keeping his voice calm and steady. "I'd very much appreciate it if you didn't shoot me just yet."

"But you're dead!" Alex insists. "You're -- Charles is dead! You're just another one of Erik's fucking projections--"

It's an intriguing concept, Charles must admit. Might he be? Do projections have thoughts, emotions, memories? But no, he can't become distracted by minutiae, not now. "I should hope death would be rather more peaceful than this," he says instead, trying on a wry smile. Erik makes a soft, strangled sound, and Charles can't help but glance back over at him.

God, Erik. Apart from the shattered expression on his face, he looks precisely the same as ever. "Prove it to him," Erik says, eyes locked on Charles's. "If you were merely a projection of my subconscious -- Alex, ask Charles something that only the two of you know. Something I couldn't possibly project."

Clever enough. Charles manages to tear his gaze away, back to Alex, who is (encouragingly) starting to lower his weapon. He's already pretty sure he knows what Alex will choose.

"Where did we meet?" Alex asks roughly.

And it's well chosen. Alex never speaks of this aspect of his past, and Charles, respecting that, never told anyone else. "You were in a military prison," he says quietly. "They were holding you in isolation because your nightmares were so bad that they disturbed the other inmates. If I recall correctly, you'd originally given yourself up in order to aid two of your former squadmates in their escape."

"Dude," the red-haired young man blurts out, squirming out of Erik's grasp. Erik allows it, albeit warily. "You did what now?"

"Just forget it, okay, Sean?" Alex says, but he's still staring at Charles.

The other stranger folds his arms across his chest, eyes hard. "I'm not buying this," he says. He speaks with a faint Spanish accent. "What if he's one of Shaw's projections, playing mind games with us?"

Probably Charles ought to feel frustrated at their hostile reception, but really, it's just all so marvelous. Other people are wonderfully unpredictable; trapped within his own mind, nothing has been able to surprise him in so very long. He shrugs, suppressing a smile. "I'm afraid I honestly don't know how to prove myself otherwise. But you must believe me, my name is Charles Xavier, and I'm here to assist you against Sebastian Shaw." Oh, there's a sobering thought; he glances over to Shaw, who still appears to be unconscious. "Which we really ought to get a start on. You can't incapacitate Shaw for long. If you leave him like this, he'll gradually rip this dream apart around you. I'm surprised he hasn't already begun."

"He has," Alex says at once, distracted from his lingering doubts by the more immediate threat. "The earthquakes, and that hallway trick--"

But Erik interrupts, taking an aborted step forward and then hesitating, his gaze searching, disbelieving. "I don't understand," he mutters. "Why are you here, now? How are you here?"

"I'm here to give you the information you're trying to extract from Shaw," Charles says simply. "You want his research. That would be me."

"Nope, still not getting it," the redhead -- Sean, was it? -- remarks.

It's difficult to find the words, to have to voice it aloud; fortunately, Charles has already prepared a succinct explanation. "Shaw has been holding me captive under nearly perpetual sedation in order to use me as his personal research team. In particular, he had me focus on remote dreamsharing. Fortunately, he has yet to realize just how adept I've become at invading the dreams of others." He huffs out a self-conscious laugh, ducking his head and rubbing the back of his neck. "So here I am. Hello."

He doesn't want to look at Alex, can't look at Erik. He knows how it must sound. He's been working for Shaw, essentially, and disregarding the circumstances it's rather unforgivable. The moments stretch between them. God, Shaw is right here, sharing this dream, and they are running out of time, but he doesn't know what he ought to do next.

And that's when Charles is bodily tackled by the unfamiliar Latino man. Except it's not a tackle, it's a hug; and the stranger's form shifts and it's Raven, of course it's Raven, how could Charles fail to recognize his own sister? "You're here," she whispers in his ear, pressing her cheek to his, "oh my God, Charles, you're here." And he wraps his arms around her and buries his face in her hair and God, he'd forgotten what it felt like to be held by another real human being.

He hadn't realized quite how starved he is for touch.

"Sorry," he murmurs. "Sorry, I'm sorry, but we really don't have the time for this right now." Pulling away is the worst sort of cruelty, but he has to. There will (might) be time for proper reunions later, but not here, not in Shaw's dream. Not if they ever want to wake up again to reunite. He gently disentangles himself from Raven, shaking his head. Focus, he must focus.

But Raven grabs his hands, holding him in place. "Where are they holding you, physically?" she demands urgently. "Do you know?"

Of course he knows. He's known since he first struggled up into consciousness, out of his head from pain and drugs and confusion, and opened his eyes to the all-too-familiar ceiling of the bunker. He forces himself to meet Raven's eyes. "Home sweet home," he tells her softly.

She blanches, jerking away from him as though burnt, her hands going to cover her mouth. "No," she whispers. "No fucking way, not this whole time--"

"It doesn't matter," Charles says, because it really doesn't. He stuffs his hands into his trouser pockets to keep himself from reaching back out to her, missing the contact keenly. "There's no way you could have known."

Erik steps up behind Raven, resting his hand on her shoulder. He's still staring at Charles, something dark and unreadable in his gaze. "I don't understand," he says, again. "Raven, what--"

"The house in Westchester," Raven says, voice strained. She yanks out of Erik's grip, backing away from them both. Alex and Sean are just watching from opposite sides of the room, uncomprehending. "Oh, God, we were less than two hours' drive away--"

That's when the earthquake hits.

The entire building seems to shift beneath their feet, like the deck of a ship in a storm; the walls groan and tremble, windows rattling, light fixtures shaking audibly and picture frames crashing to the floor. Charles feels oddly distant from it all; it's yet another of Shaw's horrid brainstorms, serving no purpose but to frighten and disorient anyone unlucky enough to be sharing his dreams. Yes, he finally decides, this is real -- he would never subject himself to this nonsense in his own private dreamspace. He watches with detached horror as the windows shatter inward with the force of a sudden explosion, spraying the room with shards of glass.

And then Erik slams into him, throwing him to the floor. Charles wheezes painfully, cheek pressed against the carpet, all the breath knocked out of his lungs; but oh, it's worth it for the sudden rush of reality returning. He's here, he's present -- yes, it's another of Shaw's nightmares, but he's not trapped in it alone. Not this time. The proof is in the solid weight of Erik's body all along his back, covering him, shielding him from the flying glass. Charles can feel Erik's breath warm against the nape of his neck; he reaches out blindly and finds Erik's wrist, clasping it tightly. Erik's pulse beats strongly under his fingertips. Yes, this is real, this is real.

The tremors subside after another minute or so, leaving unnatural stillness in their wake. For a moment, all Charles can hear is the drumming of his own heartbeat and the faint tinkle of settling glass. He breathes in, and then out again. His leg twinges in protest, a sharp ache, but he ignores it. Erik shifts, easing himself off Charles's back; it's both a relief and a disappointment. "Charles?" Erik murmurs, breath ghosting against Charles's ear. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine," Charles breathes. He slowly twists around, rolling onto his side and propping himself slightly on one elbow to look up at Erik. "Are you?"

Erik is so very close; it would be the space of a breath for Charles to tilt his face up and capture Erik's lips, to rediscover the taste of him, and he wants with such harsh suddenness that it's hard to breathe. But it's been so long (how long?), and he might no longer be welcome.

"I think so," Erik says, gaze flickering down to Charles's mouth so quickly that he might just have imagined it. Then he's pulling away, wincing as he gets to his feet. He extends a hand, and Charles takes it, allows Erik to help him upright. He memorizes the feel of Erik's warm skin beneath his fingertips; he will tuck this memory away to be savored later, once the dream ends and Charles is alone again in the wasteland of his own mind.

Right now, there's work to be done.

He looks around. The hotel room is a disaster area. There is one undamaged bubble around the couch, around Shaw; outside of that, glass is scattered everywhere, furniture damaged, plaster cracking off the walls and ceiling. The others are also now stirring warily. Alex braces himself against the door, using the knob to gingerly pull himself up; Raven was clever enough to duck behind the couch, and escaped the worst of the quake. But Sean -- ah, Sean had been standing by the windows.

Charles has only just met the young man, and really doesn't know a thing about him. But he rushes over to Sean's side all the same, Erik close behind him. It's bad, very bad; the glass caught him full across the front, cutting into his face and chest, blood streaming from a hundred tiny gashes. Worst of all is the long shard still jutting out of his neck.

Alex curses vividly.

Sean's still alive, moaning under his breath. Charles kneels beside him, tilting his head close to listen. "Wake me up," Sean is muttering, like a prayer, like a mantra. "Wake me up, wake me up...."

Charles brushes Sean's matted curls back off his forehead, grasps the shard of glass gently in one hand, and does.

The body vanishes once Sean is awakened topside. Charles lets the bloody glass drop to the floor with a sigh and pushes himself up to his feet. Raven looks away, white-faced, and Alex is staring at the ground, but Erik meets his eyes levelly. Sean had been in great pain, and dying. This was the kindest way. Up above, he would shake off this death like all the other nightmares and move on, as they all did, every time.

"Well, then," Charles says quietly. "Shaw is taking over this dream level. If you want to accomplish anything, I suggest we move down to the next as soon as possible."

Alex clears his throat, looking back up at them from across the room. "What for? We know what Shaw was up to -- you're proof of that. And Raven seems to know where we can find you topside. From where I'm standing, it looks like we're done here."

"Not quite," Charles and Erik both say, at precisely the same time. It's almost funny, but no one laughs.

Erik raises an eyebrow. "Well?"

"Shaw must be stopped," Charles says grimly. "I've had enough experience with his--" He shakes his head, swallowing the words back. There's no need to dredge those thoughts up, not now, they haven't the time. "I have my own extraction to take care of here, with your help. I assume you had a plan for the second level dream?"

"We were going to have him demonstrate his groundbreaking new techniques by torturing Erik," Raven explains, voice steady for all that she's still visibly shaken. "Though now that we know what he was working on, I guess that wasn't the best strategy."

"No, if anyone could goad him into revealing too much, it would be Erik," Charles says, glancing over to him. Erik's face is devoid of expression. "It's still a good plan. No need to alter it on my account. But having extracted the necessary intelligence from Shaw, I can't imagine you intended to simply -- let him go."

The edge of Erik's mouth quirks, ever so slightly. "Go on, then, Charles. Tell me what I was planning."

"To lock Shaw up someplace from which he can never escape," Charles replies without hesitation. "You're going to try to send him into Limbo, aren't you?"

"Very good," Erik says. Behind him, Alex looks startled; though by the way his eyes narrow at Erik, he's not entirely surprised. Raven just smiles in grim satisfaction. "Now tell me why I'm wrong."

"Ah, that's just the thing, my friend." Charles's mouth twists into something that's not quite a smile. "I completely agree."

That shocks them, he can tell. He wonders if they're now doubting him once again, considering that he might indeed be Erik's projection. It doesn't matter. He still can't condone the taking of life, would never permit Erik to murder Shaw up in the waking world, but a man like Shaw absolutely deserves to rot away in prison. In a way, Limbo is a mercy -- let him create his own kingdom down below, be master of all he surveys, Charles couldn't care less. But Shaw shall never touch another dreamer's mind again.

There's just one possible caveat.

The thought must be projected across his face, or perhaps Erik really can read him this well, even now. "What do you need to extract from Shaw?" Erik asks.

"Much the same as you," Charles says. "Remote dreamsharing. I concealed the extent of my abilities from him, let on that I was nearing a breakthrough but never successfully passed any of his tests. That's how I managed to slip in here. I can only break into another person's dream if I time it precisely -- I must go under while they're dreaming, and I must seek out the specific person whose dream I wish to share. Angel slipped me a wristwatch with an alarm before they left for Havana, so that I would know when to put myself under and begin searching for Shaw. But if I could hide myself from him, he could do the same. For all I know, he picked up enough from the constant trials I underwent that he's capable of it himself already. And if that's true, and we send him into Limbo...."

"Then he'll be dreaming all the time, and be able to tap into anyone's dreams at any moment," Erik finishes. His tone is flat, but Charles can hear the suppressed horror underneath.

"Christ," Alex mutters. "This just gets better and better."

"How likely is that chance?" Erik asks, gripping Charles's arm. "What are the odds he could have mastered a technique you've only just barely worked out yourself?"

Charles shrugs helplessly. "Normally I'd say slim to none, but Shaw is a genius, in his own way. We cannot afford to take the risk, not without knowing for sure."

"So we go down as planned," Raven says, moving at once to the PASIV. "Charles keeps out of sight while Erik and I lure Shaw out. We get the intel and proceed from there."

But Charles has to shake his head. "You can't just send someone off to Limbo like flipping a switch, it doesn't work that way. If it were so simple, it would happen to dreamers accidentally all the time. There are only two paths to Limbo that I'm aware of -- experimenting too deeply, with too many dream levels, which takes a great deal of time and effort and still occurs only very rarely. Or--"

"Or sedate yourself so heavily topside that should you die in the dream, you can't awaken," Erik says.

"Which you clearly haven't done," Charles points out, "or you never would have allowed me to awaken Sean."

From the strangled noise Alex makes, he doesn't quite share Charles's certainty.

"Of course not," Erik says, shooting Alex a glare. "But I did make certain arrangements with Hank -- our chemist, Charles. At my signal, he's ready to inject a particularly potent sedative into the PASIV. Just a limited amount -- it should dissolve in precisely thirty seconds topside, which gives us a window of six minutes on this dream level--"

Charles does the maths rapidly. "And just under an hour and a quarter on the second level."

"We coordinate the time with the musical cue, as usual," Erik goes on. "Alex?"

"Headphones are in the backpack, it's not like I'm new at this," Alex mutters. "A little warning would've been nice. So once Hank cues the music, I start the timer. Six minutes, I kick you out of the second level and then blow this shithole to bits to wake us all up. But that means that you really are trapped down there for the hour and change -- can't kick yourselves out, can't die. And what if you find out Shaw is capable of jacking himself into other people's dreams anywhere, anytime? You won't be able to kill him!"

Charles shrugs. "We'll just wait him out until the kick. I've become rather talented at surviving Shaw's dreams, and I'd imagine Erik is as well."

At the look on Erik's face, Charles realizes that Erik hadn't bothered to think this aspect through. But he refuses to pursue that thought further.

"Wait, wait, wait," Raven says, hands on her hips. "How the hell were you planning on signalling Hank from down here? How will he know when to start the heavy drugs?"

Erik clears his throat, leaning back against the cracked wall. "At that point, we'd planned to have just extracted our information from Shaw on the second level. I imagined that with the stated mission accomplished, you and Sean would have been more than happy to wake up and pass the message along to Hank."

Ah. Yes, of course, leaving Erik behind to Shaw's tender mercies until the sedatives kicked in, at which point Erik would be free to murder Shaw at his leisure. There's a certain brutal elegance to the concept.

Raven is shaking her head, eyes flashing fire. "No. No way, no fucking way am I dying for you right now. The second level is my dream, and I am damn well going down there with you! Charles, tell him!"

"It can't be Alex," Charles points out gently. "He has to hold down this dream level or it will collapse and strand us. And Erik has to be the one to confront Shaw, you and I would get nothing from him on our own -- no, I don't care how good a forger you are, Shaw knows Erik's mind too intimately for that. And, well...waking me up would accomplish nothing, for obvious reasons."

Raven opens her mouth to argue further, but the dream rumbles again -- only mildly this time, not knocking anything else loose, but the warning is obvious. "We can't waste any more time on this," Erik says harshly. "Raven, you need to tell Hank to spike the PASIV with his sedatives. Either wake yourself up or I will do it for you."

Charles steps over to her, ignoring the crunch of glass beneath his shoes. He reaches out to cup her cheek in his hand, hesitantly, but she allows it, her eyes flickering closed. "I'm sorry, Raven," he says quietly. "But sometimes you have to sacrifice the most valuable piece in order to win the game."

Her hand comes up to cover his, ever so briefly. "I always hated chess," she whispers. She opens her eyes to meet his. "We are coming for you, Charles. Just keep yourself in one piece for a little while longer, okay?"

He smiles. "I'll do my best."

Raven pulls away, and he lets her. And he watches her steadily, wordlessly supportive, as she pulls her pistol out from the small of her back and shoots herself in the head.

As always, Charles is eternally grateful that the bodies disappear from the dream once the dreamers awaken. It's difficult enough as it is.

He looks to Alex, who's now helping Erik with the PASIV. "Will you be all right alone on this level? Once the sedative enters your topside PASIV, you'll be just as trapped."

"Christ, don't insult me, of course I'll be fine," Alex says scornfully, unwinding a PASIV line. He passes it to Charles, who takes a seat on the couch, as far from Shaw as possible. Erik pulls up an armchair next to him. "So Shaw's subconscious throws a few more fucking booby traps at me," Alex goes on, "who the fuck cares? I've survived worse." He jerks his head at Erik. "I've been working with him for two years."

Charles stills, pressing the line into his wrist. He looks up at Alex. "Two years?"

Alex's eyes widen. He glances over to Erik. "My God, Charles," Erik says softly beside him. "You didn't know?"

"I -- no, I had no way of...." Charles fumbles unnecessarily with the PASIV line, trying to find something else to focus on. "Shaw keeps me sedated -- not always dreaming, often just unconscious -- so I couldn't -- it felt longer to me, of course, in the dreams, but I kept losing track, and I thought perhaps...but two years." He lets out a shaky breath, forcing himself to meet Erik's eyes, to smile. The smile doesn't take. "Well. It's not nearly so bad as I'd feared, but...rather worse than I'd hoped. Erik, I am so sorry."

Erik's eyes darken with something like anger. "You're sorry?" he echoes incredulously. "What on earth are you apologizing for? That bastard took you, he drugged you, and I just stood by and let him--"

"No," Charles says firmly. "We're not doing this, not now. Erik...."

"Do the job," Alex interrupts, his voice rough. He's already hooked Shaw up to the third PASIV line. "You two can work your shit out topside once you've dealt with Shaw. Okay?"

Erik breaks first, turning away. He tapes the line to his wrist with jerky, violent motions. "Yes."

At Charles's nod, Alex bends over the PASIV. He hesitates there, glancing back up to Charles. "Hey," he says. "I'm glad -- I mean, it's good to have you back, okay?"

Charles gives him a warm smile, which Alex returns tentatively. "Thank you, Alex. I'm sure I'll see you shortly."

Alex nods and fusses with the PASIV. Charles looks over to Erik, who's still staring stonily off at nothing, gripping the arms of his chair with white knuckles. Well, that won't do at all. Charles reaches out to him, resting his hand lightly on top of Erik's. "Are you ready for this?" he asks quietly.

After a brief moment, Erik lets out a breath, some of the tension visibly draining from his body. He shifts his hand to clasp Charles's, too hard. Charles doesn't protest, just waits him out patiently until Erik finally turns his head to meet his eyes. "Let's find out," Erik says.

He doesn't look away until Alex presses the button on the PASIV, sending them both to sleep.

*

As it turns out, Hank doesn't have to wait for very long at all. He hasn't been timing it or anything, but by his best estimate less than five minutes have elapsed when Sean jerks awake, yelling bloody murder.

"Holy fucking shit," Sean gasps, ripping himself free of the PASIV line.

Hank blinks at him, then quickly checks the others. No one else stirs. "Okay, so you're early. What happened?"

"A window fucking exploded in my face, that's what happened!" Sean rubs at his neck with a grimace. He gets up and starts pacing around the hotel room, giving both Shaw and Erik equally wide berths. "Man, if that's what the dream is like when Shaw doesn't realize he's asleep, I am kind of glad I died before getting to the second level, because that was some deeply fucked up shit right there."

Worry starts to niggle at Hank's gut, a sharp, twisting sensation. "Do we need to call the job off? I can hit Shaw with enough sedatives he'll sleep like a baby 'till noon and we can hop the next flight off the island, we can--"

"No, shit, Erik will kill us for real if we kick him out right now," Sean says, kicking the carpet. "His boy's down there with them. Xavier."

"Wait, what? The projection's back?"

"No, man, like the actual dude." And there's no sarcasm in his tone that Hank can hear. "Or at least he convinced the three of them that he's real, how the fuck would I know?"

Hank shakes his head, mind racing. "But that's not possible, he's dead. Or even if he's not dead, he's not here, he's not hooked into the dream, how could they possibly think--"

"Remote dreamsharing. So sayeth the Xavier not-projection, anyway."

Okay, it's not that Hank can't wrap his head around the terminology, because 'remote dreamsharing', fairly straightforward; so, hooking into a shared dream from a different location. Simple enough, except for how that's not possible.

"Oh, and hey, speaking of shit Charles Xavier told us," Sean says, "did you know that Alex did time in the clink for us?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

"No shit, man, military prison, solitary confinement, the whole shebang. If we ever get out of here, he and I are gonna have words."

Hank is fortunately saved by coming up with a response to this (because his normally very powerful brain is still stuck on a loop of wait, what?) by Raven gasping herself awake in her chair.

"Dude, we are dropping like flies," Sean observes, jumping back skittishly.

Raven's eyes are too bright, and she just stares up at the ceiling for a moment, blinking back tears. Hank doesn't want to ask how she died. Then she swipes an impatient hand across her face and comes back to them. "Hank," she says, tone razor-edged. "Special sedatives, destination Limbo. Add them to the PASIV right the fuck now."

Hank's hand goes straight to the vial in his pocket, even as he protests, "But it's way too soon! Sean just got killed on the first level -- even with the time dilation in dreams, there's no way you've done the extraction yet!"

"Wait, Limbo?" Sean demands, wide-eyed. "What the hell is this? When did we discuss going to Limbo? I so did not sign up for this shit!"

"Yeah, and you're already out of the dream, so you don't count," Raven snaps. "And speaking of people who fucked up, oh my God, Angel and I are going to have a serious chat when she wakes up -- Hank. Sedatives. Now."

"We need to coordinate with the musical cue," he points out, grabbing for Alex's backpack and fumbling with its contents. Zip ties, first aid kit, Jesus Christ there are a lot of bandages in here, what the hell did Alex think they were going to -- is this a fucking grenade? Oh, thank God, iPod with headphones.

"The first dream level was falling apart around us," Sean is still arguing. "You put those sedatives in there, they are all going to fucking die in Limbo. Erik can do whatever the fuck he wants, but Alex is still down there!"

"So go back in after him, if you're so worried!" Raven shouts. She's clearly starting to come apart at the seams, Hank can tell. Then again, if her stepbrother really did show up in their dream....

Sean shakes his head so violently he nearly falls over. "No way, man, I am not going within a hundred fucking miles of Shaw's dreams ever, ever again."

The first level dream is collapsing. The sedatives will trap them in it. Once Hank adds the new cocktail to the mix, Alex will have to hold his dream together for precisely six minutes or they'll all land in Limbo -- in Shaw's Limbo, no less. And while Alex can be a force of fucking nature when it comes to handling projections, he's always been much better at destroying dreams than reinforcing them. Sean's the architect, but he's bugging out.

Six minutes. He just has to keep them alive for six minutes. With all the crap his asshole squadmates used to throw at him back in the army, Hank used to be very, very good at surviving shitty dreams. The brain is a muscle; muscle memory never entirely goes away. Only six minutes.

He sticks the headphones on Alex's sleeping head and slaps the vial of sedatives into Raven's hand. "Wait until I'm under, then inject them into the PASIV and start the music," he tells her, grabbing her line and preparing to insert it into his own wrist.

Raven just gapes at him for a moment. "Are you out of your mind? You're a chemist, what do you think you can--"

"Dreaming is all about brain chemistry," Hank says, twisting his mouth into a crooked smile. "Trust me, I have a doctorate in this stuff."

He glances over at Sean, who turns away, not meeting his eyes. "His funeral," Sean points out gruffly. "Whatever."

Hank looks back at Raven. "I thought we were in some kind of hurry?"

"Okay," she says. "Okay."

He takes a deep breath. It can't possibly be worse than the time Alex accidentally sliced a rocket in half around them, right? Well, only one way to find out. He slips the line into his vein.

Six minutes. And...go.

*

The spreading leaves of the palm trees provide only the barest protection from the sun beating down on them. Charles closes his eyes, tilting his face up to the sunlight, relishing the faint burn on the fair skin of his cheeks and nose. In the waking world, he'd be scrambling for sunblock; in the waking world, he hasn't seen the light of day in -- two years, apparently. He'll take what he can get down here. He won't be in this dream long enough to worry about sunburns.

They're on an island, probably Caribbean-influenced; large enough that it would probably take several hours to walk the circumference, but small enough that he can glimpse the ocean in every direction. The sea is a bright blue-green, with a vividness he's only seen on postcards that look as though they've been digitally enhanced. It creates a picture-perfect contrast with the pure white sand on the beach. The sunlight glares off the sand, off the waves, but he doesn't bother conjuring himself dark glasses. He prefers to see clearly, even if it causes him discomfort.

He's always found Erik's dreams beautiful. Harsh, yes, and uncompromising, and all the more beautiful for it.

Erik is only a few yards away, leaning against the broad, scaly trunk of one of the many palm trees, squinting out at the beach. Charles rests a hand on Erik's arm. "Any sign of Shaw?"

"No," Erik says, the tension clear in his tone, in the rigid set of his shoulders. "This isn't quite right."

"The island?"

"The shipwreck." Erik nods to indicate it. Sure enough, when Charles peers out past the treeline, there's a shattered wreck sprawled across the beach. He can see the trail of destruction left in its wake, the gouges in the sand, the palms bent and crushed beneath the gaping metal hull.

"Not in the design?" Charles asks.

"The wreck, yes. But it was meant to be a pirate ship." At Charles's raised eyebrow, Erik snorts and rolls his eyes. "That would be Sean's idea of a joke, not mine."

Charles smiles, then looks back out at the wreck. Not a pirate ship, that's for certain. It's difficult to tell from this angle, but it seems more like.... He sucks in a breath.

"A submarine," Erik confirms grimly. "Shaw's submarine."

"Whose subconscious did that spill out of?" Charles asks, as gently as possible. "His or yours?"

Erik just shrugs, expressionless. After a moment, Charles drops his hand with a sigh. Erik doesn't give any sign that he noticed.

Nothing happens for several minutes. The air is hot and still, with no breeze off the ocean. Charles can feel sweat trickling down between his shoulder blades, pooling in the small of his back. In deference to the heat, he unbuttons his sleeves at the cuffs and rolls them up to his elbows, then loosens the button at his throat, and then the one below that. It helps a little. His leg aches, but there's nothing he can do but ignore it, shoving the sensation to the back of his mind and locking it firmly away. Erik remains motionless, still staring out at the wreckage on the beach. His hair glints golden in the sunlight.

In the distance, faint music sounds, like a drumbeat. Erik starts at the noise. Charles just watches him steadily. "That's Alex's cue," Erik says. "The timer's started."

"Seventy-two minutes and counting," Charles remarks lightly. "Well, there's no sense lurking back here. Shaw won't be waiting for you out in the open, you realize. He'll be in the submarine."

Erik grimaces. "Sean built his maze in there."

"Shaw's the minotaur in the labyrinth, then. I'll be sure to provide you with a ball of twine." At that, Erik huffs out a breath, glancing sidelong at him. It's not quite a laugh, but Charles smiles widely all the same, delighting in even this slight concession. He kicks off his shoes and socks, revelling in the warm sand beneath his bare feet, then looks back up at Erik, still grinning. "Shall we, then?"

Erik looks at him for a long moment, the faint mirth in his eyes fading, shifting into something else entirely. "You're so--" He cuts himself off and reaches out to brush his thumb across Charles's cheek. His touch is so light, as though he thinks Charles might break into a thousand pieces at the contact, or perhaps simply disappear. Charles forces himself to remain perfectly still. "How can all this seem so easy for you?" Erik asks, wonderingly. "He's been holding you captive--"

"Not here he's not," Charles says firmly. "This is our dream as much as his, Erik. He can only control us if we allow him." Although of course, the opposite is equally true, but it's clear that Erik hasn't yet thought it through. How does he expect to kill Shaw in Shaw's own dream?

Fortunately, he has Charles here to consider these questions for him.

Erik trails the backs of his knuckles down along Charles's neck. "Our dream," he repeats. His voice is low and rough, and it very nearly fractures something deep within Charles's chest. "God, Charles, I thought you were dead."

So did I, sometimes, Charles does not say aloud. "I'm not," he says instead, catching Erik's hand. "I'm here, Erik, I'm real. I'm right here." And then because he has to, because he can't go another moment without it, he leans up and covers Erik's mouth with his own.

It's so light at first, just the gentlest press of lips together; but then Erik makes a soft, desperate sound in the back of his throat and drags Charles close, gripping his arms as though he'll never let go again. Charles responds in kind, opening his mouth to Erik's, welcoming him in. He can't help but remember their first meeting, diving into the waves after a complete stranger; he wraps his arms around Erik just as tightly now as he did then, and they're both still gasping for breath, still drowning.

But God, what a way to go.

Charles is the one to end it, bracing his hands against Erik's chest and pressing one last kiss to the corner of his mouth. He closes his eyes for a moment longer, breathing in, hating himself for having to pull away. But they have only sixty-eight minutes and counting. "Race you to the wreck," he whispers, quirking a smile, and ducks under Erik's arm and away.

It's surprisingly difficult to run across the beach, his feet sinking into the soft sand, tripping him up; but oh, it feels glorious. To run freely, the sun in his eyes and the air heavy with the scent of salt and coconut; to run toward something rather than away from it. Just to run at all. There has been precious little joy in his dreams of late.

Once Erik's recovered from the surprise of it, he catches up to Charles easily, his longer legs and athlete's body providing a distinct advantage. Charles hopes he's been able to forget, if only for a moment, that they're racing toward Shaw, toward the final confrontation. This much freedom, at least, he would like to be able to give Erik.

It can't last, of course.

Erik suddenly staggers to a stop, halfway down the beach. He shields his eyes from the glare with one hand as he stares out at the ocean, frowning. "Do you see that?"

Charles slows to a jog, coming to rest beside him. "See what -- oh."

Still small in the distance, but creeping quickly up from the horizon, there are ships approaching. More than a few ships. Actually, it looks like a bloody armada.

"Sean and Raven deliberately chose a desert island for this level in order to keep projections out," Erik says tightly.

"Oh, dear," Charles remarks. "You may have forced Shaw's subconscious to become creative."

"Apparently, yes."

Charles gauges the distance left between them and the wrecked submarine. "We can make a dash for it, lose them in the maze. Though I hate to ask -- what sort of weapons do you suppose those ships possess?"

They find out an instant later when the first ship fires.

The launch falls short, warhead landing uselessly in the ocean. But the underwater explosion is enough to set off a veritable geyser, waves rippling out toward the shore and crashing on the sand. They're far enough back on the beach to avoid the worst of it, and the spray feels pleasantly cool against Charles's skin, but that was merely the warning shot. The rest won't miss.

"Oh, God," Erik says, staring out at the ships. His voice is flat with horror, but Charles can practically see his mind racing, calculating possibilities, attacks and counter-attacks. His hands twitch at his sides. "What weapon would take out a fleet? What can I throw back at them--"

Briefly, Charles considers constructing some sort of nuclear shelter around them, a shield against any explosion -- his mind flickers to the underground bunker beneath the Westchester mansion, where his physical body still lies -- but Shaw has always known how to blast through Charles's mental defenses, ripping him raw. The only way he has ever been able to hide from Shaw is in plain sight. Throwing up walls around them will only increase Shaw's projections' determination to attack. And this is Shaw -- he knows this is a dream, that Erik is here, and he wants Erik all to himself. He's not actively trying to kill Erik, merely to test him.

But really, for Charles, the situation is very simple. If Erik dies, he will land in Limbo. Therefore, the missiles cannot hit the beach.

So they won't.

"They're only projections," Charles says calmly. Even in his own ears, his voice sounds oddly distant, detached. "Manifestations of Shaw's subconscious. They aren't real. We are."

Erik glances at him, his panic visibly warring with a more direct, personal concern. "We're going to find out precisely how real those missiles are in very short order--"

"Weapons are merely objects." Charles watches the tiny flashes of light from the ships, hears the faint popping sounds over the sea. They've launched the warheads. "Imagined objects, projections of the mind. If I can dream up a pistol, so can I imagine it away."

"Charles--"

Charles turns to give him a smile. The missiles are hurtling through the air. "So let's stop them."

Anyone else would have balked. No one else would have even grasped what he was saying, really -- sometimes, Charles suspects that words have different meanings for him than for most people. But this is Erik, and even if he doesn't fully understand Charles, he trusts him. It's both wonderful and terrifying.

Erik holds Charles's gaze, nodding, and takes a deep breath. The faith in his eyes makes Charles's throat ache. And then Erik turns back to the sea, to the falling bombs, and thrusts out a hand.

The missiles stop.

The physical gesture is thoroughly unnecessary, of course -- they're dreaming, the action is in the mind and not the body. But Erik has always been a physical man, first and foremost, and the gesture focuses him. Charles used to have a similar tell, pressing his fingers to his temple to concentrate, but he's long since stripped the psychological need for it away. Best not to give any warning.

The missiles hover in midair above them, undetonated. "Brilliant," Charles tells him warmly, careful not to touch Erik however much he might want to -- he doesn't want to pull Erik's focus. "Would you like me to dream them away?"

Erik slants a glance over at him, a hard smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I thought you wanted to stop them."

And with a twist of his hand, he sends the missiles plunging back at the ships.

They're merely projections, but still, Charles takes no pleasure in wanton destruction. He turns away; when Erik would clearly stay to watch Shaw's projections die horribly at sea, Charles reaches out and tugs at his hand. "Come on," he says softly. "We don't have much time, and we still need to find our way through the maze."

But there's a strange desperation in Erik's expression when he looks down at Charles. "If I can stop a missile -- what if Shaw can stop a bullet?"

Shaw can, Charles knows, has always known. Of course Shaw can. Charles doesn't allow the thought to show on his face; doesn't let himself reach up and trace the fine lines at the corners of Erik's eyes, the sharp curve of his jaw. He already stole his moment there beneath the palms; he can't take another one, not now. So he lets go of Erik's hand and steps away.

"We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it, my friend," is all he says. "But we have some information to extract first."

And when he turns and strikes off across the beach toward the submarine, he knows Erik will have no choice but to follow.

*

The first rule about dreaming, the thing most people have trouble understanding, is this: there are no rules.

Okay, well, obviously that's not entirely accurate. There are a few things you can usually count on. When you die in a dream, you wake up in real life. The only real people in a dream are the ones hooked up to your PASIV with you topside. The biggest problem you have to worry about in someone else's subconscious is pissing off their projections.

But the Shaw job has already blown all those rules out of the water, so Hank's back to square one. He's dreaming, and in dreams, no rules apply. And that includes any pesky physical laws that most people don't understand well enough to subvert. Like gravity.

This hotel isn't Hank's dream, and he's never been much good at architecture anyway. He can't do much to reshape the dream around him. He's also definitely not a forger, can't let go of his sense of self in order to wear another body. And when it comes to projections, well, he may have once been a soldier, but he's not really keen on physical combat. That's Alex's area.

But goddamn if he can't manipulate himself in relation to the dream.

So he's currently pulling some Spider-Man-like moves crawling headfirst down the exterior wall of the hotel, because he landed on the eighth floor and he couldn't remember the route through the mazes to get down to the third, and this seemed like the simplest solution. It's not a matter of shifting gravity throughout the dream -- that's impossible. Or, well, incredibly difficult and he'd have no idea where to begin. But Hank is an enormous nerd, okay, and he's certainly read Ender's Game. 'Down' is whatever direction he wants it to be. What does gravity have to do with it?

Once he's counted down to what must be the third floor, it becomes a matter of figuring out which windows lead to room 314. Which, hey, he's looking for Alex, right? So he just follows the trail of destruction. There's a massive scorch mark blasted across a large swath of the outer facade. He scrambles across the stucco exterior, not bothering to worry about handholds or shit because why does he need to hold on to anything? The wall is his floor. He's not quite confident enough to just walk upright -- it's been a long while since he's tried this trick, his inner ear hasn't been properly desensitized again yet and there's no sense risking vertigo -- but he still makes pretty good time. His hands are getting kind of grimy with soot, though. Alex has been busy.

And the blasted-out window isn't all that hard to find. The jagged shards of glass lining the edges give Hank pause for a second, but hey, all he has to do is avoid them. So he ducks into a sort of stretched-out somersault and flips himself into the room, just barely remembering to reorient himself midair so that down is once again the actual floor.

He lands deftly on his feet, already scanning the room for dangers. The place has been seriously trashed, glass everywhere, light fixtures fallen off the walls, blood staining the carpet near the shattered windows. The walls themselves are cracked and -- rippling, what the hell, like ocean waves. Alex has built up a sort of barricade around the central couch and the three dreamers, using furniture and cushions and God knows whatever else he dreamed up. Alex himself is crouched at the just-barely-ajar door to the hallway; Hank can hear shouting somewhere down the hall. Fucking projections. Alex squints out, clearly assessing, then pulls the pin out of his grenade and lobs it down the hall, yanking the door back shut behind him and sitting hard on the floor. The resultant explosion shakes the remaining wall fixtures.

Alex looks up at Hank. The corners of his mouth twitch into a reluctant smile. "Hiya, Beast," he says. "Don't think I didn't see you somersaulting in here like a fucking monkey, what the hell, are you trying to give me a coronary? I guess you still got it, huh?"

Hank grins right back at him. "Like riding a bicycle. So Shaw's subconscious wound up resorting to projections after all?"

"Yeah, a fucking SWAT team, or whatever the Cuban police equivalent is. Real unoriginal. I'm actually kinda disappointed."

For all his bluster, Alex looks rather worse for wear. His face is soot-stained, and there's a jagged cut on his cheek -- maybe from flying glass, maybe not. His suit jacket is torn at the sleeve, and Hank can see blood spattered across his white shirt. Maybe Alex's, maybe someone else's, no way to know. Hank thinks about the time they'd wasted topside getting their shit together after Raven woke up and demanded he inject the special sedatives -- it couldn't have been more than a minute or so, but still, much longer down here.

"I heard the music while I was scaling the walls," Hank says. "How much longer on the timer?"

"Just under four minutes," Alex replies. It comes out a bit like a groan. "Speaking of, what the fuck are you doing down here?"

"Thought you might need some help against Shaw's subconscious."

"Yeah, well, I'm doing just fine, obviously. But hey, long as you're up, wanna grab the explosives for the kick out of my backpack? Should be next to the couch, in the--" He waves his hand to indicate the fortress of furniture. "--thing."

Hank does, rolling his eyes. "You actually have any left? The number you did on the building, I would've though you'd used them all up by now." He scrambles over an overturned dresser to get at the couch. Shaw is there, and Hank instinctively shies away from him. He finds the backpack at the other end of the couch, where Charles Xavier is hooked up to their PASIV.

It's the first time Hank's seen the actual guy who sort of inadvertently started the whole job, but he doesn't have the time to stare. As he grabs the explosives out of the bag, he does notice that Erik's sleeping in the armchair pulled up right next to Charles, and they're...well, holding hands.

Okay, that actually explains kind of a lot. Raven had implied as much, anyway. Not that it matters, but still, good to know.

Erik really is going to kill them if this job goes badly.

Bombs and timer in hand, Hank pops back up to look over the wall of furniture. He expected Alex to already be up and moving, getting into place to set the explosives, but Alex is still sitting with his back to the door, eyes closed in a grimace. "Since when did you get lazy?" Hank demands, mostly joking, but when Alex shifts to look up at him, his jacket falls open further and Hank sees the gunshot wound in his chest.

"Oh, shit," Hank says.

Alex glances down at it and pulls a face. "Fucking snipers," he mutters, confirming it. "Don't have to be standing too near the windows if there are no windows, turns out."

It clearly missed his heart, or he wouldn't still be moving and talking. Shit, shit, how long before Hank got here did this happen? How long has he been slowly bleeding out while still trying to run around and blow shit up and hurl grenades at a fucking SWAT team--

"Whatever, Hank, I'm fine," Alex says, rolling his eyes. "Three more minutes. No big fucking deal, now would you just do me this one favor and set the goddamned explosives so that we can kick the fuck out of here?"

Hank does, because it's not like there's any use arguing with him. Three minutes. He starts setting the explosives all around the perimeter of the furniture blockade; should be enough juice to blast them right through the floor. "What's with the walls?" Hank asks, glancing at the continuing ripples in lieu of outwardly panicking.

"Yeah, they've been doing that," Alex murmurs. "Kinda making me seasick. Shaw must really like that beach we built him on the second level."

"I guess." Hank sets the last of the bombs and turns back to Alex. Now that he's actually looking, he can see that Alex's skin is sickeningly pale beneath the grime. Not good, not good. "Come on," he says, crouching down beside him. "We've got to get you into the circle or you'll miss the kick."

"Won't miss it by much, I'm thinking," Alex grunts, and shit, that is just a little worrying, okay?

Alex isn't totally useless yet; he throws an arm around Hank's shoulders when prompted, and doesn't even bitch about how much it's got to hurt. Together, they stagger to their feet. Alex is a lot heavier than he looks.

"Hey, I've gotta ask," Alex says, keeping his eyes on the ground in front of him with grim determination. "This remote dreamsharing thing. So Charles isn't hooked up to our PASIV topside. If he dies down there--"

Hank shrugs helplessly. "I don't know, I really don't. He shouldn't have my sedatives in his system -- but he is attached to this PASIV on this level, and that's not an independent device, it pulls directly from the real one topside. So, really, call it fifty-fifty odds. I have no idea, Alex, I'd have to run trials--"

Alex sighs. "Yeah, figures we wouldn't be so lucky. Guess he'll just have to hold out until the kick like the rest of us." He stumbles, and Hank grabs hold of him even tighter, wincing.

Just hold out until the kick, he thinks, as loudly as possible. It's not so long. Only two minutes and counting.

*

Erik's totem is a coin -- a silver dollar, to be specific, large enough to be a solid weight against his palm. In dreams, it's otherwise unremarkable. The real coin, in the waking world, is a sham. Both faces are heads. He picked it up a few months after leaving Shaw's employ, in a shady pool hall in L.A., and has held onto it ever since. It serves as a constant reminder that nothing should be left to chance. Erik has to make his own luck, in dreams and outside of them.

Unlike some dreamers, who feel a constant need to confirm their own state of consciousness, Erik rarely uses his totem as such. He prefers to think of it as insurance -- good to have, just in case, but hopefully never necessary. Charles, on the contrary, never had a totem at all. He hadn't scorned the practice, merely didn't share it. Erik was never sure whether that was due to arrogance or if Charles simply didn't care whether he was awake or asleep; he treated both worlds as though they were equally real.

Watching Charles now, Erik worries -- with a sharp, twisting fear -- that the dreams may have become more real to him than the waking. Erik can't think too hard about what that means. Everything has been happening so fast; Erik hasn't had the time to fully process all these new revelations, starting from the moment in the hotel room topside when Angel revealed herself and continuing straight through to Charles's appearance on the first level dream and then to here, scrambling over a beached submarine in search of a usable entrance.

The full horror of what's been done to Charles -- of where he's been for the past two years -- is already beginning to sink in, and the fresh guilt of it crashes with gut-churning intensity into the staggering gratitude Erik feels that Charles is alive at all. He knows better than most what Charles has been through at Shaw's hand. Rage lurks in the corners of his mind, a pure, cold fury that as yet lacks direction or outlet. He pulls his focus inward by necessity, containing the inevitable explosion, channeling it to the preexisting goal of finding Shaw and destroying him. Years of ironclad self-control are all that hold him together now; every time he glances over and sees Charles there beside him, he feels unmoored, adrift. He can't focus too closely on Charles or he'll shatter apart.

Which is in sharp contrast to Charles, who reaches out to him as though Erik's the only thing still tethering him to reality.

"Here," Charles calls. "I think this is the -- hatch, or whatever you call it."

Erik pulls himself across the curving metal hull using a deliberate mental disregard of physics. The metal handrails around the hatch have been smashed out of shape by whatever force threw the submarine onto the beach, but the door itself seems intact. It takes both of them straining at the wheel to get it unlatched, but once the mechanisms click into place, it opens easily enough. Too easily, actually -- expecting more resistance, Charles stumbles backward when it swings up and nearly loses his balance entirely. Erik grabs at his arm to steady him. The sub is a monstrous construction; if he slips off the side, there's quite a long way to fall.

"Careful," Erik snaps, the spike of adrenaline making his tone harsher than it ought to be. "If you crack that thick skull of yours open now, you'll wake right up in Limbo."

Charles winces, and Erik realizes just how tightly he's gripping his arm. He loosens his grasp but doesn't let go entirely. "Perhaps," Charles says. He absently presses his palm to his thigh, as though it pains him -- he probably strained a muscle trying to catch himself, Erik thinks. "Or perhaps not. I haven't had much opportunity to test this technique out, you know, but I'm not really hooked into your PASIV, am I?"

"You are on the first dream level," Erik retorts.

"I'd still give myself even odds, at least." Charles smiles in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood. "Flip a coin on it?"

Erik barely resists the urge to shake him, hard. "Don't you dare take any chances, Charles. I'm not losing you again." He doesn't give Charles the opportunity to respond, releasing his arm and turning to the open hatch instead. "Let's go."

He swings himself into the submarine, clambering down the ladder. After the harsh sunlight of the beach, it takes him a few long seconds to adjust to the relative darkness inside the sub. It's not pitch black, he realizes; he's in a narrow sort of corridor, lit by red emergency lights.

Red lights, and a concrete floor, and for a moment, he's sure he can see the bloodstain spreading across the concrete, smell the acrid scent of smoke in the air. He braces himself against the bulkhead and squeezes his eyes shut tight, breath coming in shallow pants. Not here, not again--

"Erik." A hand grasps his shoulder, warm and solid. He opens his eyes to meet Charles's concerned gaze. "It's just a trick of the mind," Charles says firmly. "Shaw's trying to spook you, nothing more."

Erik shakes him off, forcing himself to breathe regularly. There isn't any smoke, it's all in his head. "I know. I'm fine."

It doesn't matter what superficial cosmetic alterations Shaw has made to the dream; this is still Sean's architecture, and Sean's maze. If it now takes the form of a nuclear submarine, then Shaw will doubtless be lurking at the reactor core at its center. The corridors look different, but the route is the same. Erik takes the branch to his left and does his best to ignore the way the red lights seem to stain every surface with Charles's blood.

As they make their way through the labyrinthine corridors, Erik has to stave off a growing sense of unease. Shaw has strewn mental suggestions throughout the maze, like some twisted perversion of a lover's mementos. One rack along a wall is lined with surgeon's tools, scalpels and scissors and saws and other instruments of torture, evoking the earliest dreams he forced the child Erik to share with him; in another corridor, Erik trips over the precise make and model of the antique handgun Shaw used to shoot his mother in the forehead. The lurid red armchair from Dreamland is crammed into the galley; one deck is decorated in precisely the same opulent fashion as the office of the Swiss banker who'd been Erik's first extraction mark with the Hellfire Club; and as they proceed deeper, the air grows thick with the scent of seawater and the lights flicker like reflections off choppy ocean waves. ("Sorry," Charles murmurs, face pale. "He stole that memory from me, very early on.")

Another left and then a sharp right, and Erik pushes open a door into an unlit cabin. There's a strange quality to the darkness -- the faint spill of light from the corridor glints oddly off the walls. Behind him, Charles finds a light switch and flicks it on.

The walls of the cabin are pure, hard diamond, studded with a hundred glittering gemstones.

"My goodness," Charles murmurs. "Where on earth did Shaw find this?"

Erik can feel the blood drain from his face. He takes a hasty step backward. Charles simply reaches out to rest his hand at the small of Erik's back, a light, warm pressure. "Emma Frost's memory fortress," Erik tells him, shaken. "This is the palace she constructed to protect herself from him -- to safeguard her dreams -- if he could break into her fortress, my God--"

"Ah, of course." Charles sounds more intrigued by the concept than aware of its implications. He studies the nearest gem intently. "Symbolic, very evocative. I presume she tucked each memory away into a jewel?"

"Yes. If you peered closely, you could catch glimpses in the facets." The gross invasion of privacy makes Erik feel faintly nauseated. Emma had been the one to teach him about mental defenses; seeing her fortress here is a blatant show of aggression from Shaw. Nothing in Erik's mind is safe from him. That he would take something so personal and splash it across someone else's dream entirely....

"Come look," Charles says gently, tugging him in. Erik goes reluctantly. This one is a ruby, abnormally large, and when he looks into it--

There's nothing. It's just a stone.

"He's throwing this in your face like some sort of dreadful warning, but it's a sham, Erik." There's an odd note to Charles's voice, and when Erik glances over at him, he realizes that Charles is angry. And not at Erik. "He's treating you like a mark. He wants you to think he has access to your most guarded secrets, to the memories you hold most dear, your fondest hopes and darkest fears, but he doesn't. The only memories he can actually touch are the ones he shared himself, or stole from others."

Erik gestures at the diamond palace, wordless.

"So he tried to break into Frost's fortress," Charles says, exasperated. "Bully for him. He didn't succeed in prying her memories off the walls, and he cannot touch yours. He thinks he's setting you up for an extraction, but he's revealing just as much about his own mind. He's so bloody eager to show off how well he knows you -- Erik, he doesn't know a damn thing."

That's not strictly accurate; after all, Shaw shaped the child Erik was into the man he is. In that sense, Shaw knows him very well indeed. But that was before Erik met Charles, and perhaps that makes all the difference. And when Charles's eyes flash blue fire like this, his skin faintly flushed, speaking with such unrestrained passion -- God, Erik will believe anything he says, if only to keep him looking so alive, so present. Erik wants to press him up against the ridiculous jewel-studded wall and hold him in place, ground him with the weight of Erik's body against his, keep them both here in this moment and let everything else go to hell.

It's so strange -- he's here, in Shaw's mind, only moments away from finally achieving his revenge, the goal to which he's dedicated the entirety of his adult life. In his darkest moments over the past two years, he'd thought bitterly that Charles had only diverted him from his true purpose, that losing him was simply the cost of his distraction -- and he'd hated himself for even thinking it. But that was still easier than considering that he might have finally found something better, and lost it anyway.

Destroying Shaw was his only remaining purpose. He had never bothered wondering what came after, had never really planned on leaving this dream at all. Yet now all he wants is to get this job over and done with as quickly as possible so that he can go after Charles instead. Perhaps this is how Charles is helping him to truly defeat Shaw at last: by rendering him insignificant.

"No," Erik says quietly, "he doesn't. And far more importantly, he doesn't know that you're here with me."

Charles gives him a lopsided smile. "He'll never see us coming."

"Why are you doing this?" Erik demands, almost plaintively. He has to know. "Why are you helping me destroy him? This is everything you used to hate most about dreamsharing -- the cruelties we might inflict with it. So why?"

"Because I've seen true cruelty, and Limbo?" Charles shakes his head grimly. "Limbo is a mercy. And one that Shaw never allowed me."

It's an ugly thought, all the more so because Erik himself shared it, once, long ago. "Charles, don't--"

"I'd rather be lost forever in a universe of my own mind's construction than allow anyone else to fall prey to this man's dreams ever again, Erik," Charles says firmly. He smiles then, incongruously, humor brightening his eyes. "Of course, I'd much prefer to wake up."

"We will," Erik vows. "Shaw won't."

Charles is right. Limbo is the more merciful option. If Erik's extraction reveals that Shaw is capable of remote dreamsharing himself -- if sending him to Limbo is no longer a choice -- then Erik will awaken with the kick and put a bullet straight between Shaw's waking eyes. Charles must know that, but if he does, he refrains from remarking upon it.

Perhaps they've both changed one another, irrevocably. Erik wonders if that's entirely for the better.

It's far too late to worry about that now.

At the end of the diamond cabin there is another hatch. It leads to the nuclear reactor chamber, and Erik must enter that alone. If Shaw catches sight of Charles, it will give the whole game away. Fortunately, Sean's maze incorporated more than one way in -- although it was intended to be the captain's cabin of the pirate ship, not the core of a nuclear submarine. But still. "Go back out to the corridor and take a right," Erik instructs Charles, who of course never saw Sean's designs. "There should be a ladder there to the next deck up. Go straight across that deck and you'll find another ladder going back down. That will place you in the cabin directly beside the reactor chamber, opposite this one. There's a false panel in the wall, triggered by stepping on a black plank -- or tile, I suppose, here -- on the floor."

"I won't be able to hear you in there," Charles objects, though he's already moving to the corridor. "When you've completed the extraction--"

Erik grins darkly. "Oh, I'll find a way to let you know."

Charles hesitates at the door, concern etched across his face. "Shaw doesn't intend to kill you, but please don't take any unnecessary risks. Please."

"I won't," Erik promises. And he means it. There's no way he's landing himself in Limbo, not with Charles still out here. Charles must see that, because he relaxes, ever so slightly. He gives Erik a nod and a quick smile, and then he's gone.

Erik reaches into his pocket and traces the outline of his coin. He always thought he had to make his own luck, but then again, Charles has always proven himself the exception to every rule. Between the two of them, Shaw has already been outmaneuvered -- he simply has yet to realize it.

He crosses the cabin in a few long strides and spins the wheel to unfasten the hatch, pulling it open.

"Ah, little Erik Lehnsherr," Shaw says delightedly, voice like velvet. "Did you honestly believe you could pull a job on me?"

*

Sean is actually chanting the countdown, like he's watching the fucking ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve. Raven refuses to join in on general principle. He's lucky she doesn't punch him in the face.

At least there's one benefit to sitting this out topside: much less time to wait.

*

Christ, it hurts. Adrenaline kept Alex going pretty well for a while there, but with that initial rush wearing off, the pain has kicked in like a motherfucker. Add to the list of Shit Alex Is Never Fucking Doing Again: getting shot in the fucking chest. It's right up there with dealing with Erik Lehnsherr's homicidal projections or jumping out of the fifth-floor window of a burning building -- except worse, because in those cases death is fairly instantaneous, but this shit is dragging out seemingly endlessly.

He would really like a shot to the head to finish things off peacefully right now, but no. Fucking Limbo. So instead he focuses on breathing, which also hurts, and hey, how would he know if the bullet punctured his lung? No, probably he'd be choking on his own blood right now if it had. Small mercies, right?

"One more minute," Hank says beside him. Or at least Alex has to assume Hank's crouched down beside him, because he's still got an arm around the guy's shoulders, but his voice sounds like it's coming from somewhere very far away.

Christ, if he sees a bright light, he is running the fuck away, never mind that he couldn't actually stand up right now if he tried.

*

The chamber is octagonal in shape and seems to be constructed entirely of mirrors, which Erik somehow doubts is in the architectural rendering of any actual nuclear submarines. He has no idea which of their subconsciouses produced it. Probably Shaw's. It gives the encounter a twisted funhouse vibe, reflecting their images a thousandfold, making Erik's head hurt. He focuses on Shaw alone instead.

"Who says I'm the one pulling the job?" Erik is already sure that Shaw knows better, but this is how the game is played. "Last I checked, your man Quested had me trussed up in your hotel room."

Shaw laughs. "And what a lovely dream that was. Oh, Erik, it's so good to see you again."

"What gave it away?" Erik asks, honestly curious.

Shaw just taps his nose, smirking. "Now, now, that would be telling. My compliments to your forger, by the way, whoever they are -- their Angel was simply exquisite."

Erik has a very good poker face. He doesn't react at all -- which Shaw, of course, would read as Erik covering his frustration that his forger had been discovered. But if Shaw is so sure that Angel was the forgery -- what of Quested?

"May I ask you something?" Shaw inquires, taking a step closer. Erik allows it warily. "Whose side are you playing on, these days? Cobol's? That's rather pedestrian of you, though I'm sure the pay is quite good."

Erik lifts his shoulders in a casual shrug.

Shaw chuckles. "Oh, Erik, Erik. I thought I raised you better than that. Not that I'm at all offended that you took this job, of course -- I'm sure you leaped at the chance to get back at me, didn't you? My dear friend Janos has no idea what he purchased with your services. I'm not surprised Cobol felt the need to spy on their own business partner -- they are a paranoid bunch. What was Janos after, might I inquire?"

Oh, it's even better than Erik had hoped. "Cobol wants the upper hand in your upcoming negotiations, of course," Erik replies carelessly. "I warned them you'd probably catch on, but what does a corporation like that understand of dreams?"

"Very little indeed," Shaw agrees, shaking his head sadly. "I do hope you demanded your fee up front."

Erik inclines his head with a small smile.

"And how ever did you pay off their chemist?" At the slight widening of Erik's eyes, Shaw smiles. "It's really the most curious thing, Erik. On my way down here, I found the most intriguing collection of maps in the control room. Do you know where all the coordinates led? Limbo."

Shit.

He doesn't stop to think; he throws the punch blindly, striking at Shaw's face with no concept of what he might be trying to accomplish. It doesn't matter. All at once, it's as though Erik is trying to move through molasses, time slowing around him. He's been captured in this strange bubble of slow motion as surely as he himself had caught the missiles on the beach.

Shaw evades him easily now. He circles Erik's slow-moving form, studying him with the sort of pitying smile that turns Erik's stomach. "I'm sorry for what happened in your childhood, Erik," Shaw says sympathetically. "I truly am. But everything I did, I did for you."

All at once, he releases Erik back into the proper flow of time, simultaneously giving him a harsh shove from behind. The combined force of his push and Erik's own aborted blow hurl Erik forward, throwing him into one wall. He manages to twist enough that his shoulder bears the brunt of the collision rather than his head, but the force of it cracks the mirrored wall and leaves Erik stunned, crumpling to the floor.

Erik curls in on himself, absorbing the pain. His shoulder feels like it's on fire, and there's a long gash on his arm from a shard of mirror. He looks up at the jagged crack in the wall, seeing his own blood glisten along one edge. This is the wall that leads to Charles's cabin, Erik realizes all at once; how deep does the crack go? He doesn't want to shatter it entirely, but if he can create a direct line into the cabin, so that Charles could at least hear them....

He drags himself to his feet, turning to face Shaw, bracing himself on the wall at his back. The crack bites into his palm, but he couldn't care less. He sends a mental nudge down along the fissure, widening it ever so slightly, tugging at the furthest edges until he can sense the open air of the neighboring cabin. There. And the trick panel is still intact, for when it comes time for Charles to open it.

"You've come such a long way," Shaw says approvingly. "Why do you think I didn't simply shut down the dream at the first level? I wanted to see what you'd do with it, where you were planning to take me. Really, I haven't been so entertained in ages. I'm so very bored with my usual associates' dreams, they all blur into one another. But you, you always tried to keep me guessing."

Erik has no idea what he's talking about. As far as he can tell, Shaw wrested control of both dream levels from the very first moment -- Erik has had practically no influence over either the hotel or the beach. But he supposes a man of Shaw's manipulative brilliance must grade everyone else's minds on a strange sort of curve.

"And you're only just starting to scratch the surface," Shaw remarks. "Imagine how much further we could go together."

Erik's fists clench at his sides, but he forces himself to remain calm. He remembers the missiles, the feel of them hurtling through the air, what it was to grasp them and hurl them back. "There's only one place I have any interest in going with you," he tells Shaw, and with a chopping gesture in the air, he yanks at the steel beams that must be supporting the mirrored walls, tugging them inward.

The only wall he leaves preserved is the cracked one at his back. The others all shatter inward, beams ripping through them, creating wreckage of the funhouse chamber. Shaw immediately throws up an invisible barrier around himself; nothing touches him, precisely as Erik hoped. It's not time for Shaw to die just yet. But Shaw knows that Erik is here to send him to Limbo, expects Erik to try to kill him. So Erik will make a very good show of it.

With a strength no man actually possesses, Shaw rams one of the long beams lengthwise against Erik's chest, slamming him back into the one remaining wall. This is Shaw's idea of kindness -- he could have shattered Erik's spine with the blow. Instead it merely causes him agonizing pain. He fights against it, biting his lip hard enough to taste blood. "I don't want to hurt you, Erik," Shaw says warningly. And what a pretty lie it is. "I never did. I want to help you."

Erik spits in his face. "You've only ever been interested in helping yourself."

"You speak as though there's a difference." Shaw delicately wipes the spittle off his cheek with a white handkerchief. It comes away faintly stained with red. "I want you to reach your full potential, Erik. With my guidance -- together, this world could be ours."

"You're just another mad dreamer, Shaw," Erik snaps. "People like us lurk in the shadows of civilized society -- we'll never rule it."

Shaw gives him a patronizing smile. "Don't be so obtuse, Erik. This is our time -- the new Information Age! Knowledge has always been the surest form of power. And what do dreamers deal in, if not information? The real tragedy of the dreamsharing industry is its short-sightedness. With all the vast potential of our technology, our skills, we limit ourselves to petty thievery, stealing minutiae and selling it to the highest bidder. Last year a clever group of dreamers managed inception -- they took an idea of their own choosing and successfully implanted it into someone else's mind. Magnificent! But what did they use this power for? To bring down some meaningless corporation." Shaw shakes his head. "What a humiliating waste of talent. Imagine it, when we could be as gods! Men like you and me, Erik, we are the future." He reaches across the beam, holding out his hand to Erik. His voice softens. "We only need to embrace it."

Erik hesitates, then takes the proffered hand. The steel beam pinning him in place falls to the floor with a loud clang, and Erik staggers with the sudden freedom. Shaw clasps his arm, helping him step over the beam, and Erik allows it. He then shakes himself free and leans back against a somewhat stable pile of rubble, holding himself gingerly as if still in great pain. Which, yes, his chest and back are screaming, and while the gash on his arm is no longer bleeding freely, it still hurts like a bitch. But he's fought through far worse than this. More importantly, his careful maneuvering has switched their positions around; now Shaw is the one with his back to the trick wall.

He lifts his head to meet Shaw's eyes. "So this is why you're so keen on invading the dreams of others remotely," he says, slowly, working it through. "While the extraction team hares after one specific piece of intel, you're going to be picking the rest of their minds clean."

Shaw draws back slightly, eyes narrowing. "What--"

"Remote dreamsharing, Sebastian," Erik says pointedly, lips curling into a feral grin. "Oh, I know what your secret project is. Don't forget, it was the CIA's first. Project Cerebro."

That's a gamble, but a calculated one, and it pays off. "Ah, yes," Shaw says. "I'd very nearly forgotten. You did spend some time playing spy with the US government, didn't you?"

"As well you know." Erik half-sits on one of the destroyed beams. It's jutting down to the floor at a somewhat awkward angle, but he could use the support. His chest still aches. Bruised rib, definitely; possibly even broken. "Tell me, Shaw, I've always wondered," he says, gripping the beam tightly with one hand. "The attack on our facility, when Angel delivered our two best people into your hands. Why did you leave me behind?" It comes out far more plaintively than Erik intended. But maybe that will work in his advantage.

Shaw tsks lightly. "Erik, Erik. Did you think I had abandoned you? I'm so sorry. But you see, I didn't make the trip in person, and my people only had instructions to collect Angel and Mr. Muñoz."

In other words, Shaw hadn't actually known Erik was there at the time. It had been no secret among the others on the CIA team that Erik had once been a part of the Hellfire Club -- so Angel had never passed information on Erik's presence along to Shaw beforehand? Interesting.

"They didn't only take Darwin," Erik says, low and quiet.

Shaw smiles. "No, they didn't. Charles Xavier -- what a fortunate accident he turned out to be. Such a mind! I was so very sorry to have to kill him, along with the talented Mr. Muñoz, but they didn't prove at all amenable to our cause, and, well, needs must." Even two levels deep in dreams, he's a very good liar. But Erik can see the corners of his mouth twitch faintly at the lie, with insufferable smugness. "But I extracted such profitable information from him first," Shaw goes on. "I'm sorry, Erik -- Xavier was a particular friend of yours, wasn't he?" He pats Erik's hand where it grasps the steel beam. "Such a pity he wouldn't join us. But don't worry -- your boyfriend's work lives on, through me."

Erik suppresses a grimace. He's always hated that word, especially as applied to Charles. It's just so trite. Charles isn't his 'boyfriend.' Nor is Charles his lover, or his partner, or his spouse, or whatever the hell other bullshit labels normal people are so fond of. It's really very simple. Charles is his. And Erik is Charles's.

And that Shaw has so clearly failed to grasp that simple fact will prove his undoing.

"So you've achieved it, then," Erik says. "Remote dreamsharing. You can do it yourself?"

Shaw chuckles. "Oh, Cobol certainly thinks I can, and it scares the shit out of them. Is that what they hired you to extract -- confirmation? Well, just between you and me, Erik: no." He shrugs. "Well, not yet, anyway. The practical application of remote dreamsharing is still very much a work in progress. But it can't hurt to keep our competitors on their toes, eh?"

The one intact wall panel is opening behind him, slowly and silently. Erik keeps his eyes on Shaw's face. "You shouldn't have killed Charles, Sebastian. He was a far more valuable resource than you ever understood."

"Oh, don't be too sure of that," Shaw says, with a smug little smirk. "And for all his efforts, even your brilliant friend Charles wasn't able to master the trick of remote dreamsharing."

"Care to wager on that?" Charles asks lightly, stepping out from behind the panel.

All Erik needs is a moment, and Charles has given it to him. With Shaw briefly distracted, turning to Charles with pure confusion etched across the lines of his face, Erik moves. He conjures up a handgun out of nothing and points it straight at Shaw's head, pulling the trigger.

Nothing happens. Nothing happens.

"Oh, well played indeed!" Shaw says delightedly, looking between the two of them in dawning comprehension. "Charles! I never knew you had it in you. Marvelous, simply marvelous. So remote dreamsharing is possible after all! Such a pity you felt the need to keep this a secret from me -- I'll be forced to be rather hard on you now, you realize, but there, it can't be helped."

Oh, God. How could Erik have thought he could ever move quickly enough to truly catch Shaw off his guard? Shaw manipulates the dreamspace as easily as breathing, without a thought. Erik must seem a child to him still.

It doesn't matter now. Erik ignores Shaw, looking past him to Charles. Charles meets his eyes ruefully. Well, it was worth a shot, he seems to say.

And then Charles narrows his focus on Shaw -- and Erik knows, all at once, with horrified certainty; Charles had always expected this would happen. He'd planned for it. Erik can see the precise moment that Charles makes his decision, can read it right there in his eyes.

"Charles, don't--!"

Charles gives him a brief smile, apologetic but determined, and vanishes. And then suddenly Shaw is frozen, immobile; unable to move, unable to react, unable to fight back. Because Charles is holding him perfectly still.

That always was Shaw's favorite trick, and God knows Charles has had plenty of time to pick it up for himself.

"Erik." It's Shaw's mouth that moves, but Charles's voice; the juxtaposition of the two is enough to make Erik want to be sick. "Erik, I can't hold him like this for long."

Erik shakes his head convulsively, backing away. He nearly trips over the rubble. "No. No, Charles, I can't--"

"Yes," Charles/Shaw says. "You can. It's the only way. If I release him now, he'll kill you, and there's too much time left until the kick, I can't hold him that long."

"If I kill him now, you'll die with him!"

"I know. And I'll wake up."

Erik slams his hand into a beam, heedless of the pain. "In Limbo!"

"We don't know that for sure." Shaw's face creases into a grimace -- is that Charles, or Shaw himself fighting through? "Please, Erik, we have no time!"

Charles is right, Charles is always right, why the fuck does Charles always have to be right? How long has he known it would come to this? From the moment he first entered Erik's dream? No, Erik rages silently. Not this, not him--

Shaw has already taken away everything Erik cared about. Of course, of course, he will claim this victory as well. But Erik has no choice. If Shaw breaks free of Charles's hold, he'll kill Erik instead -- send Erik to Limbo and keep hold of Charles in his fucking mansion, and neither of them will ever escape.

This is the only way.

Erik's hand is shaking so badly he can hardly aim the gun. He forces himself to calm, to be still. There.

He looks into Shaw's eyes, and all he can see is Charles. "I'm coming after you," he says, voice nearly sticking in his throat. "If I have to follow you straight into Limbo and drag you back out again, Charles, I promise you, I will find you."

For one moment, just the barest instant, Shaw's face flickers and Charles is there instead. "You always do," Charles whispers.

And Erik pulls the trigger.

Shaw's body crumples and falls to the ground, lifeless. It doesn't vanish. Shaw isn't waking up, will never wake up again. It's over. He's done.

Erik lets the gun fall from his nerveless fingers. He needs air. With only a thought, he rips the hull of the submarine apart around him, shredding it to pieces, burying Shaw's body in the rubble. The sunlight pierces through the warped metal, painfully bright, and Erik climbs up toward it, stiff and awkward amongst the wreckage.

He finally stumbles over the last of it, feeling his feet sink down into the blindingly white sand. He keeps walking until he reaches the surf. The waves lap at his feet. That's as far as he can walk, and he doesn't much feel like remaining upright anymore, so he sits. The sand is wet, soaking his trousers. He doesn't care.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his totem. Flip a coin on it, Charles suggested. So he does. Heads, Charles woke up. Tails, he's in Limbo.

This is a dream. The coin lands differently every time. Heads, then tails, then tails again, then heads three times in a row, then tails. Erik tosses it in the air over and over again, mesmerized, until the air fills with music and there, that's the kick.

Chapter Text

In the time-honored tradition of all dreamers who have just died horribly, the first thing Alex does when he wakes up is frantically check himself to make sure he's still in one piece. No gaping wound in chest, not blown to bits, family jewels still present and accounted for. Okay. He's good.

His next instinct, weirdly enough, is to check on Hank. Well, it's only fair -- the guy did kinda save Alex's ass in the hotel dream. Not that Alex couldn't have managed on his own if he'd had to, of course. But still.

Hank's also fine, jerking awake with little more than a shudder. He shakes his head a few times as if to clear it. Then he looks up across the PASIV to meet Alex's eyes, and gives him a small smile. Mission accomplished, at least on their end. As for the primary objective--

Erik wakes more slowly, as though reluctant to leave the dream behind. His hand clenches on the arm of his chair, then releases it, like he's grasping for something just beyond his reach. When his eyes open, he stares blankly out at nothing.

"Erik?" Raven asks, crouching down beside him. "Did you....?"

There's no answer, but none is needed. Shaw is still prone on the couch, eyes tightly closed. He doesn't wake up.

They did it.

"Okay," Alex breathes. "Right. Okay." Instinct takes over, his body automatically shifting into post-job mode, which generally means cleaning up and clearing out ASAP. He detaches and rewinds his own PASIV line, then moves to do the same for the others. Hank's already taking care of himself, but Erik is still immobile, eyes distant. Alex hesitates, then taps his wrist lightly. "Erik? We good?"

Erik blinks. His eyes refocus on Alex's face. Alex raises his eyebrows, and Erik gives him a faint nod. "I'm fine."

That nudge was apparently enough to propel Erik back into motion. He rips out his line and slaps it carelessly into Alex's hand as he gets to his feet. Raven stumbles back out of his way. "Where's Angel?" Erik demands.

Alex rolls his eyes. "Right where we left her, where do you think?"

Erik stalks over to the chair where Angel is still tied up and sleeping like a baby. He frowns down at her motionless form. "Hank? Do you have another jab that'll wake her back up?"

"Uh, yeah, actually," Hank says, fumbling with the PASIV case. "But it'll take a few minutes to take effect, and she's still going to be kind of woozy for a little while--"

"Then let's get the process started," Erik snaps. "We need information on the Westchester mansion. If it has any defenses, how it's being guarded, blueprints, where they're keeping Charles--"

"Whoa, slow down," Alex says. He takes a few deliberate steps toward Erik, blocking him off from the others somewhat. Erik's getting that crazy-eyes look, and that's never good news. "We just finished a job, man," he goes on, pitching his voice low enough for the illusion of privacy, though he knows for sure that Sean and Raven, at least, are listening closely. Hank's busy trying to wake Angel back up, slipping another injection into her arm. "Let's worry about getting our asses out to a place of safety first, okay? In the morning--"

"They're holding Charles," Erik says, just as quietly, but there's an edge to his tone that sets off a big red flag in Alex's mind. Danger, Will Robinson!

"And that sucks, but his situation is stable for now," Alex points out, as reasonably as he can manage. Erik's whole face seems to go dark and shuttered at that. What else did Charles tell him that he's not sharing? Alex shakes his head, brushing the thought aside. "Erik, it's already tomorrow and we've all been going since early yesterday morning -- remember how last minute this job all came together? We need sleep -- real sleep. And then we'll talk to Angel, do a sit rep, figure out the best way to move on this."

In her chair, Angel stirs slightly, letting out a long breath that skirts the edge of a groan. Erik glances back down at her. His face hardens. "Fine," he tells Alex, in clipped tones. "Take care of this. I need some air, I'll meet you in the other hotel room."

Without another word or look to anyone, he storms out of the room, letting the door slam shut behind him.

"Yeah," Sean says. "I'm definitely glad I died before the second dream level."

Alex just sighs. "You heard the man. Let's get moving, people."

Hank goes to take care of the PASIV equipment, while Sean and Alex struggle to maneuver Shaw's permanently slumbering body onto the actual bed. Raven keeps an eye on Angel for the moment.

"Fucking dead weight," Sean bitches, once they've gotten Shaw in place. "Why are sleeping people so much heavier than waking ones?"

"Turn down the bedspread," Alex instructs him, ignoring the comment. "We should make it look like he actually planned to go to sleep. Maybe even undress him--"

"Dude. No fucking way."

"Get his shoes off, at least, Christ. Hey, Raven--"

She looks up from Angel to him, and Alex notices with a sinking sensation that her face has gone very pale. "The CIA set her up to be the mole," Raven says softly. "They set everything up -- Darwin, Charles...."

"Yeah, we know, we figured that out before we even went under." Alex's eyes narrow. "Why do you mention it?"

"We had more important things to worry about while we were dreaming. But now--"

"Oh, fuck," Alex realizes. "Erik."

The thought hits them both at precisely the same moment. Raven jumps to her feet. Alex is already moving toward the door. "Hank, Sean, take care of this, will you?" he shouts over his shoulder. He yanks the door open, Raven at his heels.

"Wait, what?" Hank demands. "Where are you--"

"Moira," Alex and Raven yell back, in perfect unison, and they're off.

There's no time to deal with elevators. The CIA's room is two flights down from Shaw's, and on the complete opposite wing of the hotel. Alex and Raven race down the stairwell; Alex actually has to pause and remind himself that this is not a dream, he can't just tell gravity to go fuck itself and chance a flying leap. Once they're on the right floor, they sprint down the hallways, heedless of the late hour or how much noise they may or may not be making. Alex is the faster runner, but adrenaline gives Raven a fairly impressive momentum of her own, and she's not too far behind him.

The other agent, Levine, is posted uselessly at the end of their corridor. He probably wouldn't even hear it if Moira screamed. Of course, he's supposed to be on the lookout for Shaw or Cobol's people, not their own. "Did Erik come by?" Alex calls, as they barrel down the carpet toward him. "Is he here?"

Levine's brow creases in confusion. "Yeah, he was just here a minute ago, heading for the room--"

That's all Alex needs to know. He puts on one last burst of speed, grabbing his key card out of his pocket as he skids to a halt in front of the room. The lock clicks green on his first try, and he shoves the door open. Erik is bent over the couch, over Moira. His back is to Alex, but it looks like he's got his hand at her throat -- choking her -- fuck!

Alex doesn't think, just slams right into him. Erik has a couple of inches on him, but they're roughly equal in terms of muscle mass, and Alex has the advantage of surprise. He doesn't knock Erik to the ground, but the momentum carries them both into the nearest wall. "Jesus fucking Christ, Erik!" Alex yells, right in his ear, shoving him hard. "What the fuck are you doing?"

Erik shoves him right back, and Alex staggers backward a step. "She knew," he snarls. "The Agency fucking knew and they didn't do a damn thing--"

"I didn't," Moira chokes out. Alex glances back over his shoulder at her, concerned. But though she's got tears in her eyes, she looks more or less okay. Raven's at her side, not quite touching her, but clearly ready to intervene should Erik manage to blast his way through Alex -- which, incidentally, not fucking likely. "I didn't know Shaw still had Charles, Erik, I swear! I thought he was dead, same as you!"

"You all right?" Alex asks her.

Moira nods. No bruising on her neck, just -- oh. Her blouse is all rumpled at the collar. Erik was grabbing the front of her shirt, not her throat. Not that that's in any way okay, but still, he's not actively homicidal, it's a start.

"Project Cerebro," Erik spits out. He's glaring daggers at Moira, but he's not trying to approach her again. "Don't you dare lie to me, Moira, you were working on it with him. You knew Charles was researching remote dreamsharing when he was taken -- and it never occurred to you that Shaw would be interested in that?"

Moira's face goes pale. "Is that -- that was Shaw's breakthrough?"

"Charles's breakthrough," Erik corrects her, icily. "Which your Agency was positively gagging for before Shaw took him, as I recall. Well, I suppose Shaw does have ways of getting results. The CIA did love keeping Shaw around, didn't they? Can't hire him, can't officially condone his methods, but they'll damn well steal his research once he's done, and never mind the human cost in the meantime."

"You can't honestly believe they deliberately handed Charles over to Shaw!"

They, Alex notices, not we. Is Moira deliberately trying to distance herself from the Agency, or is she starting to believe Erik's conspiracy theory?

"You can't honestly believe they didn't know Charles was still alive!"

"They didn't," someone says quietly. Angel is standing in the doorway, leaning heavily on Hank. She looks a bit unfocused, gaze drifting from face to face, but her voice is steady. "At least, I never told them. Maybe they had other sources, I dunno, but I doubt it."

"Why?" Raven demands plaintively. "If you were in communication with the CIA -- why didn't you tell them?"

Angel shrugs, mouth twisting bitterly. "'Cause I thought we'd never get out if I did. You're not so far wrong, Erik -- they never wanted to take Shaw out. He produced too much good work. If they knew Charles was alive, and doing Shaw's research for him? Shit, that'd be like striking oil. You milk that resource for all it's got, you don't yank it straight out."

From the look on Moira's face, she agrees.

"Hey, speaking of keeping secrets," Alex remarks, glaring at Angel. "You couldn't have maybe let us know that Charles might turn up in our dream? You know, so we'd know not to kill him on sight like a fucking projection?"

"I tried, asshole," Angel shoots back. "You guys knocked me out before I could tell you!"

Okay, fair point. But they had kinda been in a hurry.

"Hey, Erik," Angel calls. She's focusing better now. "You took care of Shaw, right?"

Erik nods. "Limbo," he says shortly. He doesn't look nearly as triumphant as he ought to, Alex thinks. Isn't this what he's always wanted?

Angel smiles darkly. "Good. I was hoping Moira'd hire you, I knew you'd get the job done right. Now are we gonna go take down the rest of Hellfire or what? 'Cause soon as those fuckers find out what happened to Shaw, they gonna close up ranks and turn that house into a fucking fortress, so we gotta move fast."

To be perfectly honest, Alex expects Moira to protest. Sending Shaw to Limbo is only half a step up from murdering him outright, which they'd been expressly forbidden. And launching an attack on the Hellfire Club was never part of any bargain. But as she listens to Angel, Alex can see her eyes grow hard, face stony. She doesn't say a word.

Sean's the last of the team to show up. He's got the PASIV case under one arm and Alex's backpack slung over his shoulder, and he gives Alex a nod. Shaw's room is clean. Time to move.

"All right, we need to get out of here, we're lucky nobody's called in a noise complaint on us already," Alex says, breaking into the conversation. Sean tosses him the backpack, and Alex fishes out the plane tickets, passing one each to Sean, Hank, Raven, and Erik. The CIA agents made their own arrangements, and Angel -- shit, they'll just have to buy her a ticket at the airport. "You know the drill. We all take separate cabs to the airport. Get on your flight, go to your layover city, book a room in the closest motel and sleep it out. Money will be wired to your accounts as previously specified, should be posted tomorrow at noon. Anyone who wants to help me and Erik go after Charles, meet us in the Queens apartment tomorrow night. This is not, repeat not part of the job. Job's done. Hellfire Club is volunteer basis only."

Raven rolls her eyes. "Like you even have to ask."

"Hell yeah," Angel agrees. "Two years of that shit, damn right bastards are gonna pay."

"I'm in," Hank says quietly. Which, hey, Alex was not expecting that. Huh.

And Moira gives Erik a hard smile and pats the gun holstered at her hip. "No statute of limitations on kidnapping. I'll get you backup, Erik."

Erik leans back against the wall. Christ, he looks even more exhausted than Alex feels, and that's a whole fucking lot. He doesn't even seem angry anymore, just -- empty. "All right," he murmurs. "Let's go."

It's only on his way out the door that Alex realizes -- Sean never put his two cents in on this one. He's leaning against the doorway, half perched on his oversized suitcase, fiddling with the ticket in his hands.

"Hey, man," Alex says. "You coming?"

Sean looks up at him, expressionless. "Job's done, Alex. Maybe Erik's gonna hang up his spurs now that Shaw's out of the picture, but I gotta make a living, you know? Can't piss off both Cobol and Hellfire and expect to just walk away from it."

Alex nods. "Money'll be in your account by noon," he says gruffly.

"Yeah. Thanks." Sean grabs his bag by its handle. He offers Alex a lopsided smile. "Sorry, man. See you around."

"Yeah," Alex says. "See ya."

Alex turns and walks away, down the corridor to the service staircase and out onto the muggy streets of Havana. There's a cab idling at the curb. He falls asleep on the ride to the airport and winds up being overcharged by like twenty bucks, what the fuck, but who cares?

*

Angel wakes up, and for a few long moments, she has no idea where she is.

Awareness gradually seeps back in, displacing the instinctive panic. No, she hasn't been snatched by one of Hellfire's enemies -- or, well, okay, technically she has, but voluntarily. She's in Erik's apartment in Queens, and the early afternoon sun is streaming through the bedroom windows. The two of them had gotten in to New York at just past dawn. She's had maybe six or seven hours of sleep, then. Good enough.

She pulls on clean clothing, dark jeans and a black hoodie -- she'd known when she'd left for Havana that this was probably her best shot getting away from Shaw, and packed accordingly. A part of her is tempted to just cut and run, climb out the fire escape and disappear into the crowded city streets and never have anything to do with the Hellfire Club or Erik Lehnsherr or dreaming again. But that's an idle fantasy. The dreams are in her blood now. What else is she supposed to do?

After a quick trip to the bathroom to wash up, she decides to chance the rest of the apartment. Maybe there's food in the fridge.

She finds Erik sitting at the kitchen table, clutching a cup of coffee and looking as though he hasn't slept at all. "Hey," she says. "Got any more where that came from?"

He nods at the counter, where a coffeemaker nurses half a carafe of Folger's. Could be worse. She finds another mug in a cupboard and pours herself a cup. No milk in the fridge, so black it is. Whatever.

Angel pulls up the chair across from Erik and studies the cracks in the tabletop. Maybe it's better that she and Erik were never really friends. Colleagues, yes, and he'd helped to train her; but not friends, not really. Associates. She'd been closest to Darwin and Raven, back in those days. Darwin's gone -- not at her hand, not directly, but she carries the guilt of it all the same. And Raven will probably never forgive her, so.

Yeah, Erik's easier. Which is probably not something anyone else has ever thought of him, she thinks wryly.

"I'm sorry," she finally says, because someone's got to say something eventually.

He continues staring down into his cup. "Good," he says. "Someone should be." But there's no bite to it, just weary resignation, so she doesn't mind.

"They keep Charles in the underground bunker." At that, he does look up at her. She meets his eyes levelly, unflinching. "It was built to be some kind of bomb shelter, I think. Two levels below the basements. There's a fucking secret passageway to get down there, would you believe it? One of Charles's ancestors must have been a paranoid son of a bitch. I only discovered it about a month ago -- I was looking through some old blueprints of the mansion, working on a dream project, and I found some inconsistencies, spots that didn't match up. So I went exploring, and I found Charles."

"You didn't know...?"

She shakes her head. "No, man, Shaw kept that one real close to his chest. Only a couple other people in Hellfire knew about it -- Jason Stryker, obviously, he's our chemist. I'd heard him brag about it a few times, chemical compounds and shit, how fucking brilliant he was, and I should've realized he had a test subject squirreled away someplace because the shit he talked about, I know he wasn't trying out on any of us. But I didn't put it together. Then -- Emma knew, probably, Shaw trusted her the most. And Cain." Her lip curls. "Speaking of people who deserve a bullet to the head."

"I'll do my best," Erik says, voice hard, and he's not fucking kidding. Good, she thinks. Cain liked his girls young and pretty and pliable, and Shaw did his best to keep his business partners happy. In Cain's case, that often meant Angel. It suited her particular background, after all, as Shaw had been so fond of pointing out.

Fuck 'em.

"Your architect leave any sketchpads behind?" she asks. "I can draw you up a layout of the mansion, at least the parts that matter."

"I'll get you whatever you need," Erik replies curtly. "Defenses?"

"Security system at the perimeter of the estate. I've got the codes. Some guards, but nothing too heavy. It's Cain's private property, technically. And it's not Hellfire's primary base of operations. We rotate in for a couple of weeks every few months." Erik nods. He used to be Hellfire, he knows the drill. Shaw always keeps them moving. "But Charles is a permanent resident. Jason is on site with more frequency than most, to keep the chemicals pumping, and Shaw visited fairly often even when we were based elsewhere. I thought it was business with Cain -- and by extension, with Cobol -- but now I guess it was for Charles, too."

"How--" Erik cuts himself off, grimacing. He clears his throat. "How is he treated?"

Angel knows Erik well enough to know he's not much interested in her sympathy. So she keeps her tone even. "Physically? They're not abusing him, if that's what you want to know. They keep him fed and hydrated and cleaned, all the comforts of home. The bunker's locked up tight -- we'll have to disable the computer system, I've done it before -- but he's not handcuffed to the bed or anything. He has free range of his prison, for whatever that's worth, when he's awake. But he's not awake much."

"Dreaming?"

She shrugs helplessly. "Sometimes. But mostly just sedated, near as I could tell."

"He said you'd slipped him a wristwatch. How did you get in?"

"Made nice with Jason, the first time." Angel rolls her eyes. "Boy loves to show off. Described all the IV lines in great detail, all the drugs he was pumping in and what they each did. Real helpful when it came time to cut Charles off. Erik...." She hesitates, but if they're gonna pull Charles out, Erik needs to know. "A lot of those compounds were...well, meant to blur the line between dream and reality, y'know? I only got in to talk to Charles a couple of times, and I don't think he knew whether we were awake or asleep. Didn't matter for the planning, he treats both like they're real, but when it comes to actually getting him out of there--"

Erik hunches his shoulders forward, propping his elbows up on the table and lowering his forehead to rest on his clasped hands. "He may not wake up at all," he says, so quietly Angel isn't even sure she hears him right.

"What do you--"

"He died on the second level dream," Erik tells her. "Before the kick."

She's been told enough about the Shaw job by now to know what that implies. "How?" she asks softly. Not because it matters, but because she's scared of what'll happen if Erik lets all this shit fester inside him. She's surprised he's saying anything at all.

Erik lifts his head. His eyes are bleak. "He held Shaw still for me, so that I could kill him."

"Okay." She's quiet for a moment, digesting this. "Do the others--"

"I need them to believe they're breaking out their friend," Erik says. "Not an empty shell."

Angel nods slowly. She doesn't entirely agree, but she does see his point. Maybe this is why he's telling her. Because someone else needs to know, and it won't affect her dedication to the job. She wants to bring Cain and his miserable mansion down regardless. "You know," she says, considering it, "Charles isn't hooked up to any of those extra-strength sedatives in the bunker. Maybe he just woke up."

"Maybe," Erik echoes, but he clearly doesn't believe it. He meets her eyes, and for the first time, it's like he's actually seeing her. "What do you want, Angel? Just revenge?" It's not dismissive -- Erik, of all people, respects vengeance as a motivation. But his curiosity is genuine.

What does Angel want?

"Out," she says. "I want out. Out of Hellfire, out of Cobol's grasp, out of the fucking CIA. They would've left me to rot with Hellfire forever so long as I kept feeding them intel. I'm done. I'm out."

"Help us get Charles out, and I can help you disappear," Erik promises, and she nods. It's no less than she expected, after all.

Her coffee has gone cold. She dumps it down the sink and brews up another cup. When she's ready, Erik gives her a sketchpad and a stack of pencils, and she gets to work.

*

It's nearly ten o'clock by the time Moira and Hank pull up into the parking lot of the little all-night diner just off I-684. They're definitely the last to arrive. Due to the vagaries of traffic around Baltimore, it took them well over six hours to drive up from D.C. On their one stop for gas, Hank had checked in with Alex and confirmed that they'd rendezvous here in Westchester rather than at the apartment in Queens. A black van is parked a few spaces down from Moira's rental car. Probably an Alex acquisition, Moira thinks.

The diner is mostly empty. A cluster of giggling teenagers have shoved together a few tables near the door, doubtless giving the lone waitress hell. Moira and Hank head to a booth by the windows, which Erik and his team have already commandeered. They've clearly been here for some time. Erik and Alex are both nursing cups of coffee, while Raven plays with the straw of her Coke and Angel carefully constructs a small tower of silverware. Erik contributes a flat knife to the top and looks up at them. "It's about time," he says acidly.

"Traffic on 295 was a real bitch," Moira sighs, sliding in beside Angel. The booth is plenty roomy, but Hank just glances at the space next to Erik warily for a moment before pulling up a chair to the edge of the table instead.

"Got what you wanted from your lab?" Alex asks him from around Erik.

Hank nods. "Whatever sedatives they have your friend hooked up to, I should be able to counteract -- at least well enough to get him out the door."

"Any backup from Langley?" Erik asks Moira, but she can tell he isn't expecting much.

Which is good, because she's got nothing. "Just me," she admits. "I'm sorry. My bosses were kind of pissed off about the Shaw-in-Limbo situation, they wouldn't look too kindly on a request for additional manpower. Levine's busy running interference for me in Virginia so that I could get away to help you guys at all."

"How much trouble are you in?" Alex asks.

Moira shrugs, grinning crookedly. "Left my work cell at home, rented a car instead of using an Agency vehicle, didn't inform anyone I was leaving the D.C. metro area. They can't fire me if they can't find me, right?"

"Amen, sister," Angel mutters.

In all honesty, it probably won't be that bad. Moira's getting a lot of flak for being the one to suggest Erik for the Shaw job, but her bosses also know she hadn't been in on any of the planning sessions, nor had she participated in the dream itself. The Agency is well aware of the risk entailed in hiring outside contractors: they don't always deliver the expected results. And in this case, the CIA did get the intel they'd requested. They'd simply failed to specify that Shaw remain mentally stable afterward. At worst, Moira will be subjected to some bullshit internal investigation, maybe be temporarily suspended from duty. Whatever. She'll ride it out. She always does.

And in the meantime, she still has a badge and a gun, and the power to take proven criminals into custody. She just lacks the resources to make the arresting-bad-guys part particularly effective. So she'll have to improvise.

"So, plan," Moira says briskly. "Please tell me we have one."

Raven snorts into her Coke. "Depends on your definition of 'plan.'"

"We have neither the time nor the resources to mount an effective full-scale assault on the Xavier mansion," Erik says, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. "The longer we wait, the more likely they'll have received word on Shaw and prepared accordingly."

"How would the Hellfire Club react to losing Shaw, though?" Hank asks.

Erik shrugs. "That depends on the outcome of the resultant power struggle. If Emma Frost wins control, they'll cut and run, scuttle back into the woodwork like cockroaches. And like as not they'll take Charles with them, and God knows how long it would take us to track them down again. But if Cain wins--"

"If Cain wins, it means Cobol takes control of Hellfire," Alex says bluntly. "And that house turns into a fucking fortress. We've got to slip in before that happens, which means tonight."

Moira tucks a loose strand of hair back behind her ear. "So, what, we go in the front door?"

"Pretty much," Angel says. "I've got the security codes to get us through the main gate and into the garage, plus the guards all know me by sight. Once we're inside, it's just a matter of dealing with any stray security personnel. Cain puts too much trust in his perimeter security and personal bodyguards -- once you're in, you're in. No cameras to worry about or any shit like that. We shouldn't have too much trouble."

Alex groans. "You realize you're basically asking for something to go wrong now, right?"

"No, she's right," Raven says quietly, toying with her straw. "Cain's a bully, and an arrogant bastard to boot. He doesn't really think anyone's capable of getting one up over him. But he's also clever enough to have a contingency plan in place for worst case scenarios, and that's what we need to worry about. Whatever it is, it won't be subtle. Or pleasant."

"Fortunately, we're leaving Cain's shit alone," Angel goes on. "Shaw had his own private suite. He kept a safe in the wall to contain all his most valuable business documents. That's what you're really after, Moira. Proof of all of Hellfire's illegal activities."

"You know the code to the safe?" Moira asks, surprised.

Alex smiles grimly. "That's where I come in, thanks. All the extractions Erik and I have pulled, I can't begin to tell you how many of them came down to me blowing my way into someone's fucking dream safe. Turns out getting into the real deal requires the same exact skill set. Who knew, right?"

"So Alex and Raven -- and Moira, I presume? -- will go for Shaw's office," Erik says. "Angel's drawn us excellent maps, and Raven already knows the house very well. Meanwhile, Angel and I will go after Charles. She knows how to disable the security system on the bunker to get us in. Hank, you're with us, in case Charles requires any of your particular medical attention to wean him off Hellfire's sedatives."

Hank nods. "What about our rental car?" he asks. "I assume we're all going in in the van."

"There's a long wooded drive leading up to the estate," Raven says. "All private property. Ditch the car there. We may end up needing an additional getaway vehicle anyway."

"And if we do run into any of Shaw's people in the mansion?" Moira asks, because someone has to.

Erik just gives her a level look.

Right. Well, for all the times Moira's turned a blind eye to things her own Agency has done, she supposes turnabout is fair play.

There's nothing else to discuss; or, rather, there's so much left they really should discuss that if they got started, they'd be here all night. So they leave it at that. Erik tosses a few crumpled bills on the table for the harried waitress and they head out. After Hank fetches his bag from the trunk, he joins the others in their van, leaving Moira to follow them alone in the car.

It's a brief drive through meandering side roads to the sprawling estate, and once they're away from the interstate, they don't pass any other vehicles on the roads. Moira keeps her eyes on the van's taillights and her mind carefully blank. No sense overthinking this now. They're all veterans of dreams, have survived far more complex and fraught scenarios than a simple grab-and-go mission in an understaffed mansion. Of course, there's no cheap escape in this one, no waking up out of it. They'll have to be careful.

Less than twenty minutes into the drive, the van brakes to a stop on a deserted private drive. Alex sticks his head out of the passenger window and signals to her. Okay. She does a quick K turn and backs the car up into the brush. No ditch to maneuver; the side of the dirt road simply trails off into the grass and untamed shrubbery. It'll be easy enough to floor it back out of here if needed.

That done, she pockets the key and pulls her hair back into a tight ponytail. Like the rest of them, she's dressed in simple dark clothing; her sidearm is holstered at her hip. Raven pushes open the back door of the van, and Moira clambers in and pulls it back shut behind her. The interior is very dark, but there are dim blue strip lights lining the edge of the floor, enough to break up the worst of the darkness. She can make out Erik across from her, toying with something that glitters blue in the lights -- a coin, maybe? Hank and Raven are also there, keeping the silence. That means Angel's driving, which makes sense, if she's going to get them through the front gate.

They bump along for couple of minutes before the van rolls to another stop. Moira can hear muffled voices up front, but can't make out what they're saying. Raven looks very tense, her pale skin a sickly blue-green in the dim light; Hank just clutches his bag and stares out at nothing. Of all of them, Erik seems the most relaxed, and Moira draws a strange sort of reassurance from that. She loosens her gun from its holster, ever so slightly. Her world has become very simple. If anyone opens the back of the van, she shoots them.

No one checks on the van. Whatever Angel tells the guard, she must be fairly convincing -- or the guard just doesn't care. After another minute, they move along.

"The problem with developing a reputation is that after a while, you start to believe it yourself," Raven remarks quietly. "Everyone's so terrified of crossing Cobol that no one's actually tried it in a really long time. Cain's gotten complacent."

"What was it like, growing up with a brother like that?" Hank asks.

Raven shrugs. "Never a dull moment."

There's another quick stop, during which Moira can hear what must be the sound of the garage door opening; and a minute or so later, the van is parked. Alex pulls open the doors at the back, and Moira wastes a few long moments blinking as her eyes adjust to the sudden brightness of the fluorescent lights.

The garage itself is quite spacious, with surprisingly high ceilings -- it must take up the bulk of the basement level of the mansion, Moira thinks. But when she voices the thought aloud to Raven, Raven just snorts. "Barely half of one wing," she corrects. "I forget, you haven't actually seen this place before. Don't think 'big house', think 'castle.'"

There are a handful of other cars parked down here already, mostly the sort of sleek black Jags that scream 'security detail.' There's also a monstrous red muscle car ("Gotta be Cain's," Raven mutters) and a stylish, gleaming white Corvette.

They gather their gear quickly and efficiently. Which isn't much -- Hank's got his bag, and Alex has his usual backpack of things Moira would rather not think too hard about, but the rest of them are empty-handed apart from whatever weapons they've stashed on their persons. No heavy artillery on this job. Upon a moment's reflection, Raven grabs a small empty duffel out of the back of the van, presumably to stash any documents they find in Shaw's office.

"All right," Angel says. "The bunker's another level down from here. Raven, I assume you know where your group is going?"

"Second corridor to the right, and straight on till morning," Raven says dryly. She leans back against the concrete wall next to the doors. "Yeah, I know the way. From your diagrams, looks like Shaw took over Sharon's personal suite. I wonder if he found all her old liquor stashes."

"Meet back here in thirty minutes," Alex reminds them. "Anything goes wrong, coordinate by cell, as usual. If you run into anyone -- well, use your best judgment, but we'd rather keep a low profile, and going on a killing spree doesn't help anyone, all right?" That last may have been directed rather pointedly at Erik.

Erik doesn't dignify that with a response. He's pure coiled energy now; Moira can practically feel his focused sense of purpose. She's seen Erik's game face before, many times. He leaves no room on the surface for such trivialities as emotions.

"Let's move," is all Erik says.

Of course, that's the precise moment that the heavy double doors that lead to the rest of the mansion are pulled open. Alex and Moira have roughly the same immediate reaction; they have their guns out and pointed right at the intruder's head. Raven, still standing right beside the door, is quick enough to twist around and grab the stranger's arms behind her back, holding the woman in place. She's a slender, buxom blonde, a little shorter than Raven, with the coldest blue eyes Moira's ever seen.

"Emma," Erik says, stalking toward her. "How unfortunate of you to join us."

*

It's hard to maintain your dignity when you've got your arms wrenched up behind your back and two guns in your face, but somehow Frost manages it. Raven might almost be impressed, except that all her energy's currently focused on holding the woman in place without bashing her pretty blonde head into the nearest wall. The temptation is strong.

"Erik," Frost says sweetly. "You're rather later than I'd expected. Then again, I hadn't accounted for the entourage." Her glance flickers to each member of the team, coolly assessing. If she's surprised to see Angel with them, she doesn't show it. "You actually have friends these days? Good for you, sugar."

"I didn't realize we were coordinating our schedules," Erik replies, ignoring the last. His expression is stony. "So you've heard, then?"

Frost curls her lips into a cold smile. "I'll give you this much, honey, you sure do know how to send a message." For some reason, Raven doesn't think she's just referring to Shaw being in Limbo. "So let's get down to business, shall we? Sebastian is out of the picture, so I believe the only remaining interest you have with Hellfire currently resides in the bunker right below us."

"It's cute how you think you're in a position to bargain with us right now," Raven says through gritted teeth, giving Frost's arms an ungentle tug.

"Don't kid yourself, sweetie," Frost retorts, shifting slightly in Raven's grip to catch her eyes. Her purse slips down her arm and smacks Raven lightly in the hip. "Little Miss Marko, isn't it? Or whatever name you go by these days, I hear you've shed the surname." Raven nobly resists the urge to claw her fucking eyes out. "At any rate, if I were in a vindictive mood, your brother's men would already be swarming all over this garage. The guard at the front gate alerted me the moment your van pulled up. And yet here I am, unaccompanied."

"What do you have to offer us?" Erik asks, eyes hard.

Frost looks back up at him. "This mausoleum and any of its remaining inhabitants, of course. My people have all already left, apart from myself and my man at the gate. Xavier's cell is unguarded. He's all yours, Erik. As is Cain Marko, if you want him," she adds, as an afterthought. "Goodness knows I don't."

In spite of herself, Raven feels a fleeting sense of solidarity with the other woman.

Erik looks like he might almost be tempted to smile, but it doesn't actually make it as far as his lips. "And in exchange?"

"My car is right over there," Frost says, nodding at the white Corvette. "I drive straight out of here and, God willing, we never see one another again."

"Why the hell should we let you go?" Raven demands. "You'll just start the Hellfire Club right back up again somewhere else!"

Frost smirks. "Yes, sugar, I will. Here's the thing. When you removed dear Sebastian from the game, you left a bit of a power vacuum. Someone will fill it, that much I can guarantee. You certainly can kill me, or I suppose your pet G-woman can try to arrest me." She nods at Moira, whose eyes narrow in response. Neither she nor Alex lower their guns. "On what charge, I have no idea, and any half-decent lawyer will get you laughed right out of the courtroom -- and any lawyer I employ will certainly be rather more than adequate to the task, I might add. But regardless, say you succeed in eliminating me from the competition. Do you really want to consider who else might take over Hellfire?" She's looking straight at Erik now. "Cobol Engineering, perhaps? Or one of Shaw's other more ambitious associates? My, what a pretty dream that would make for us all."

Uncertainty pricks at Raven's spine. She has no love for Emma Frost -- Shaw's right hand woman, one of the people primarily responsible for Darwin's death and Charles's captivity, and can doubtlessly claim a whole host of other sins besides. But for all that, in her years of dreamsharing, Raven's never actually heard anything all that terrible about Frost. That she's a cold, manipulative bitch, yes; but nothing that implies actual sadism or latent megalomania. Frost simply knows what she wants and how to get it, and supposedly she's a hell of a good forger. All of which is disturbingly similar to Raven's own dreamsharing reputation, actually. That's an uncomfortable thought.

Raven looks up to meet Erik's eyes ruefully. Erik nods, and Raven lets go of Frost. Frost accepts her release with a certain degree of graciousness, flexing her arms to work out the kinks and readjusting her purse over her shoulder.

"Make no mistake, Emma," Erik says, tone low and dangerous, "if I come to learn that you have ever laid a hand on Charles--"

Frost rolls her eyes. "Relax, sugar. He was Sebastian's lab rat, not mine. I am sorry, by the way," she adds, glancing between Erik and Raven. "I had nothing to do with his capture, and disagreed strongly when Sebastian elected to keep him on a more permanent basis. But he didn't care to hear my opinion in the matter."

"And Darwin?" Alex demands. Though Moira lowered her weapon when Raven released Frost, Alex's is still pointed straight at her head. "Did you have fun trawling through his mind before you and your fucking Sebastian burned it out entirely?"

"I did aid Shaw in extracting from your friend's dreams, yes," Frost admits, meeting Alex's furious gaze levelly. "We all did. He had quite a beautiful mind. I had no desire to destroy it. But once again, my desires never had much impact on Shaw's decisions." Her voice softens with something almost like compassion. "You've already had your revenge on the man responsible for Darwin's death, honey. I suppose it wasn't enough, but what is?"

There's a bitter edge to her tone that gives Raven pause. She'd never wondered what would draw a woman like Emma Frost to work with Shaw in the first place -- and to remain with him for so long. At least ten years, if Erik had once worked with her. Maybe there's more to her than a desire for power and wealth and designer clothing.

Raven really fucking hates seeing her enemies as human beings.

After a long, tense moment, Alex looks away, dropping his hand to his side, gun pointed at the concrete floor. Emma shows no sign of relief -- or any other emotion, for that matter. She just gives him a nod and steps briskly past him, moving toward the Corvette. When she passes Angel, she hesitates, looking the other woman over.

Angel meets her gaze defiantly, her chin jutting up.

A hint of a smile plays across Emma's lips as she walks on. She pauses at the car door. "Oh, and Raven," she calls over her shoulder. "I may have neglected to inform your brother of Shaw's little accident. And if you happen to be looking for dirt on Cain, you might try investigating Shaw's offices. Just a suggestion."

"Like I needed you to tell me that," Raven mutters.

Alex shifts his weight from one foot to the other, frowning. "I don't fucking trust her," he tells Erik in a low tone.

"I've never trusted her," Erik replies, watching her narrowly as she gets into her car and keys the ignition. "And she almost certainly spent the past few hours destroying any documents implicating herself or Hellfire in Shaw's schemes. But it doesn't sound like there's any love lost between her and Cain Marko, so we may still have a case to make."

They wait until Emma's car has left the garage before moving on.

There's nothing left to be said. Once inside the mansion proper, they split up into the two predecided teams. Angel and Hank -- who had stayed well out of the way in the brief encounter with Emma -- move down one corridor with Erik, searching for the hidden passageway that will lead down into the bunker. Raven hesitates for a moment to watch them go. Charles is down there; every instinct she has is screaming for her to go to him, go with Erik, find her stepbrother and get him out of here. Instead she has to lead Alex and Moira upstairs, down the miserable corridors that haunted her childhood, toward her dead stepmother's old rooms.

Toward Cain.

No, she tells herself firmly, there's no reason they need to cross paths with Cain at all. They're going to Shaw's office, not Cain's. They'll be in and out in less than twenty minutes, probably. No problem.

She takes a deep breath and leads the way.

The worst part is, the house is exactly the same as when Raven last saw it, when she was still a teenager. She almost wishes Cain had decided to redecorate. Instead it's like diving into a dream, into a memory: the rich wood paneling, the long oriental rugs, the antique grandfather clock still marking time with its golden hands. They go upstairs by way of the servants' stairway, where she and Charles would hide from their parents' interminable cocktail parties; if they emerged at the first floor, they'd be three doors down from the library, which probably still holds all of Charles's precious books and his own father's chess set. They pause at the second floor, while Alex does a quick check to make sure the hallways are empty; all Raven can see is the door right across the hall, which used to be her bedroom. The door had no lock, but there was a tall, ancient oak tree right outside her window, and she used to scramble out onto its boughs and down when she needed to escape from Cain. Until he figured out the trick and sawed off the branches that extended to the window, just to be spiteful. After that, she spent half her nights in Charles's room instead. His door locked.

The coast is clear. They move quickly and silently down the corridor. Sharon's suite was at the end of the hall -- Shaw's, now. Well. Not anymore, Raven supposes. The door is standing partway open; Erik was probably right. Emma's been here before them.

"Where's the safe?" Moira asks, pushing the door closed behind them and standing guard by the doorway as Raven and Alex move in. This room, at least, has changed since Raven last saw it. The hideous green-and-gold wallpaper is the same, but all of her stepmother's things are gone. Shaw's taste in office furniture runs to the opulent, which suits the general decor quite well. There's also an ornate mirror hanging on one wall. Alex carefully removes it, handing it over to Raven. She sets it gently on the floor rather than indulge the urge to smash it to bits. Where the mirror once hung, the clear lines of a false panel are revealed. Alex finds the hidden mechanism and the panel opens. The safe is tucked into the hidden compartment.

"You got this one?" Raven asks him with a smile.

Alex nods. "Oh, yeah. Gimme a minute. And stand back."

Raven doesn't bother watching him too closely as he sets the small explosives, scoping out the rest of the room critically instead. This suite is composed of three connected rooms; the door that leads to the other two is all the way across the long room from the wall that holds the safe. This part of the house is fairly isolated; there's a long-deserted sitting room below them, and one of many guest bedrooms above. From Angel's hastily sketched maps, Cain has primarily taken up residence in the opposite wing, leaving this side to Shaw and the Hellfire Club. If, as Emma said, the rest of Hellfire have already flown the coop, there shouldn't be anyone near enough to hear Alex's small, controlled explosions. And there was no sign of life in the corridor, at least.

"All right," Alex says, after a few minutes. He takes a few steps away from the wall, holding the detonation device loosely. "Here we go. Shouldn't make too much noise, but, well, boom. In three, two, one--"

He's right. It does indeed go boom, but in a muffled sort of way. And it doesn't even kick up any dust. Raven really has no idea how these explosives work at all, she thinks. "Did that even work?"

Alex shoots her a glare. "Well, gee, let's find out." Sure enough, with only a bit of jiggling, the door to the safe swings open.

And it's empty.

"Well, fuck," Raven says. "That was anticlimactic."

Moira grimaces. "So much for Emma Frost's promises. She must have cleaned the place out."

"Okay, I guess we do a quick check of the rest of the office instead," Alex orders. "Take ten minutes. If we don't find anything, we give this up as a bad job and head out. Getting Charles out is still the most important--"

He cuts himself off abruptly, whirling away from the safe, eyes wide as he stares past Raven. With a sinking feeling, she realizes: Moira's only guarding the door out to the corridor. It's the door to the rest of the suite that's opened. She reluctantly forces herself to turn and see for herself.

"Looking for something?" Cain asks acidly. He's holding a stack of overflowing file folders in his hands.

*

Hank doesn't quite understand why they have to go up a flight of steps in order to get to the bunker below the garage, but he didn't design this place, clearly. The logic is eerily similar enough to dream architecture that it makes him irrationally nervous. Not to mention the hidden door in the wood-paneled wall that Angel has to thump really hard to open, which is way too reminiscent of Sean's use of false panels in both levels of the Shaw job. Not for the first time, Hank makes a mental note to find himself a totem as soon as he gets out of here.

Neither Erik nor Angel are the talkative type, and as Hank trails them down the narrow staircase concealed between two walls, he finds himself almost missing Alex and Sean's barbed camaraderie. For all the shit they gave him, the constant banter at least gave him something else to focus on. In this heavy silence, all he can think about is what lies ahead. Frost said the bunker was unguarded, but what if she was lying? What if Cain Marko has men waiting for them? What if they changed the security system and Angel can't hack her way in? What if they get to Charles and he's under some new sedative compound that Hank can't counteract?

Okay, that last is really unlikely, but still.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Angel hesitates, glancing to Erik. "This door leads straight into the lower level," she says. "There's kind of a...whatever the bomb shelter equivalent of a 'foyer' is, you know, and then the entrance to the bunker itself, where Charles is. So call it a fifteen foot square space between us and the bunker. That's where the security system is set up. If any of Cain's people are waiting for us--"

"Then they'll gun us down as soon as we step foot out this door," Erik says flatly. "This is the only way in to Charles, correct?"

"Yeah."

"Fine," Erik says, and shoves the door open.

Hank instinctively cringes back into the stairs, but apart from the loud bang as the door swings straight open into the wall, there's nothing. The room is deserted. Angel closes her eyes briefly, breathing what might be a prayer or a curse or just a faint sigh of relief. Erik snorts derisively and strides forward out of the stairwell.

After exchanging a look of commiseration, Hank and Angel follow him.

The double doors leading into the bunker itself are massive, thickly reinforced metal of some sort. In place of a handle or knob, a large wheel is set into the door. It all feels very Cold War paranoia. Except for the computers set up at a workstation next to the doors, of course. Angel takes a seat in the tall rolling chair at the primary computer terminal. "This is gonna take me a couple of minutes," she says, bringing up a small dialog box on the screen. She gives Erik a pointed glance. "So were you planning on telling him, or am I gonna have to?"

Oh, great. That definitely inspires confidence.

Erik has the grace to look slightly uncomfortable. "It's not--"

"Important?" Angel cuts in, eyebrows lifted. "Right, 'cause if none of Hank's magic drugs here wake your boy Charles up--"

"I know," Erik says harshly, glaring daggers at her. For a second, Hank almost worries that he's going to hit her. But Angel just folds her arms across her chest and waits him out.

Hank clears his throat. "So," he says. "Why do we think Charles might not wake up?"

After another round of Erik and Angel's little staring contest, Erik finally sighs and breaks away. He leans heavily against the wall, shoulder slumping, looking suddenly very tired. Hank wonders uneasily if he got any sleep at all between Havana and Westchester. Angel turns back to the computer, as though to give them some privacy.

"When we went up against Shaw in the second dream layer," Erik tells Hank without looking at him. "Charles was killed along with Shaw. Before the kick."

Oh. Okay. Suddenly everything about Erik's behavior since they woke up out of the dream makes a lot more sense. No wonder he hadn't seemed particularly happy at the successful completion of the Shaw job. He thinks Charles is in Limbo with Shaw.

"Is that it?" Hank blurts out, without really thinking.

Now Erik does look up at Hank, expression stormy. "That means Limbo, Hank. It's a pretty big it."

"No, I mean, yes, but -- he just died in the dream, right? We don't have anything special to worry about up here?"

Erik's eyes narrow. "Not that I'm aware of."

"Okay," Hank says, giving him a nervous smile. "Only -- Alex asked me about this, actually, while we were waiting for the kick. I mean, about what would happen if Charles died in the dream, since we don't really know anything about how his whole remote dreamsharing thing works. I gave him maybe a fifty-fifty chance of waking up versus falling into Limbo. But I've been thinking about it on and off since, and actually -- well, look, it's a really interesting conundrum, but I think the odds are actually in Charles's favor this time."

Erik scrubs a hand across his face wearily. "He was connected to our PASIV in the hotel dream. Our sedatives."

"No, he wasn't," Hank says. At Erik's disbelieving look, he holds up a hand. "No, wait, let me explain. When you work with multiple levels of dreams -- look, what most people don't get is that the objects we interact with in dreams are not, technically speaking, real. They're mental constructions."

Erik's already shaking his head. "But when you get hit by a bullet in a dream--"

"It's all in the mind," Hank emphasizes. "Your mind sees the object, recognizes it as a bullet, informs you that you've been shot, creates the pain in response. Because that's how we perceive the world. And it's incredibly difficult to shake off that perception of reality, no matter how much we try. But basically, the PASIV on the first level dream isn't real. It's like -- an avatar of the actual device topside. So when Charles tapped into the hotel dream, he was still under the Somnacin of his own PASIV here in the bunker, not ours. And when he hooked himself into our dream PASIV -- for him, it should have functioned as an avatar of his own."

"I don't--"

Hank sighs, frustrated with his own inability to translate thoughts into words. This has been a constant struggle for him his entire life, you'd think he'd be used to it by now. "All that really matters is the actual, physical drugs being pumped into your actual, physical body. Everything else is just a construct of your mind. Charles was just sort of hacking into our shared dreams. He didn't need the first level PASIV to hook into our second level because he was never with us in the first place -- if I understand the theory of remote dreamsharing correctly, anyway, and I think I do -- so when he joined you on the second level, he was still only hacking in from his actual location here. The only Somnacin compounds in his veins originated here in his bunker. He was never under the influence of the additional sedatives, Erik."

It's like -- he can tell Erik wants to believe him, maybe more than anything else in the world. But he's not letting himself go there. Because that would mean getting his hopes up, Hank realizes, and hope isn't something Erik thinks he can afford right now. "You don't know that for sure," Erik says heavily. "You said it yourself, you're operating on a theory of remote dreamsharing that you haven't actually proven yourself. Even Charles wasn't sure what would happen to him."

Theory, Hank thinks with a mental snort. Yeah, and you know what else is just a theory? Gravity. But he doesn't try to argue with Erik further, because he's clearly not going to get anywhere.

And there is still the possibility that Hank is wrong about this.

Erik turns back to Angel abruptly. "How much longer?" he demands, voice rough.

"Oh, we've been good to go for a while," she says with a smirk. "I was just waiting for you two to finish."

But when she glances at Hank, he can see the relief in her eyes, and he knows: Angel, at least, believes him.

"Do the others know?" he has to ask. "I mean, that Charles -- that you thought he might be in Limbo?"

Angel snorts. "If Alex and Raven knew this, do you honestly think they'd have gone after Shaw's paperwork instead of barging right down here with us?"

Good point.

"All right, then," Erik says, turning to face the heavy double doors to the bunker with a set jaw. "To get in--"

"I suspended the electronic security system," Angel says. "Just spin the wheel to manually unlock it."

So Erik does, and they're in. And Charles is there, installed in a bed on the far side of the long bunker, IV tubes hooked up into his arm, lying pale and still against the white sheets.

*

Oh, this is just fucking beautiful. The CIA ought to be ashamed of its combat training, given that three of its onetime star recruits have now been caught with their pants so far down around their ankles they may as well have their junk just swinging freely in the air.

Okay, imperfect analogy, given that Moira and Raven have girl parts, but still.

As it stands, Alex's hands are full with his fucking backpack, Moira has her gun out in a flash but is then smacked into the wall when the door to the corridor swings open unexpectedly with all the force of an angry rhino, and Raven--

Alex thinks that for quite possibly the first time in her entire life, Raven just...froze up.

For all of Cain Marko's bulk and menace, he's really not the most immediate threat here. The immediate threat involves his two bodyguards, one of whom pushed into the room just behind Cain and can't figure out whether he should have his gun trained on Raven or Alex, and the other, well, just inadvertently slammed Moira into the wall. He's probably feeling pretty pleased with himself for that one. Moira lands heavily on the floor, looking dazed; the guard actually stomps on her hand to get her to let go of her gun, which she does with a cry of pain. Okay, so that guy is now officially marked for death, Alex decides.

Just as soon as he can figure out how to get his own handgun out of its holster without getting himself shot in the chest again, that is. Because it's been like less than twenty-four hours since the last time, and this would be for real, and just no. And in the meantime, Moira's guard (henceforth dubbed "Dickhead") now has two guns, which he's pretending he can actually both aim at once. This is not a true fact. Alex can tell just from looking at him. He's way more likely to shoot himself in the foot with one of them than to successfully hit two targets at once.

Raven's instincts kick in at that point, way too fucking late, and the bodyguard standing by Cain (whom Alex shall name "Lumpy", because the guy is shaped like a really unfortunate ball of Play-Doh) is finally forced to make a decision and points his weapon right at her head just as she yanks her pistol from the small of her back and aims it at Cain.

"Now, now, Raven," Cain says, sounding very unconcerned for a man whose baby sister is pointing a gun at him. "Is that really wise?"

"Drop your weapon!" Lumpy demands belatedly in a shout, like maybe she'll take him seriously if he says it loud enough.

Alex sighs. "Seriously, though, Raven," he mutters. "You can't take them all out before one of them takes you out, and I am so not explaining to your stepbrother how you got your stupid ass killed."

With a ferocious scowl, Raven lets her pistol fall to the carpet. At Lumpy's further goading, she kicks it away from herself and Alex -- though as far away from any of Cain's people as possible, Alex notices. Not that it'll matter much. They are so fucked.

Except that Moira is still on the floor, clutching her hand and moaning, and that's not right at all. Alex has known Moira for several years now, and whatever else he might say about her, she is not some delicate princess who would get completely fucking incapacitated by a door to the face or a boot to the hand. He allows himself a grim surge of satisfaction. The whimpering is definitely an act.

"So what exactly do you have there?" Alex asks Cain, nodding at the folders in his hands. "The official minutes of the How-We-Were-Evil-This-Week Club?"

Yeah, it's not his best line, but whatever. They're not paying any attention to Moira, that's for damn sure.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Cain scoffs. Jesus fucking Christ, this is like the worst banter ever, why the fuck did Alex get stuck with these tools? Is Cain going to bore them to death or something?

"What do you want, Cain?" Raven asks wearily.

Cain stomps across the room toward her (not because he seems particularly angry or anything; Alex just gets the impression that he stomps everywhere, he's a big fucking guy), tossing the folders carelessly onto Shaw's desk as he passes it. Alex judges the distance quickly. The desk is in the middle of the room, pretty much equidistant from either of the doors. Lumpy is still blocking the door to the rest of the suite, while Dickhead has the exit to the corridor covered. The windows are open, but taking a flying leap down two stories -- or more, if you factor in the foundation -- yeah, not a good plan. He'll keep working on it.

"To start with, I want to know what you're doing in my house," Cain says, crowding Raven back against the wall, into the corner. He's like a foot taller and four times broader than she is. If there's any physical resemblance between the siblings, Alex can't see it. Well, they've got the same straw-colored hair and peachy skin tone, but hell, so does he. Actually, he and Raven could pass as brother and sister better than her and Cain. It's a cover they've used before.

Raven keeps her chin up and eyes on Cain's, but her body language screams her discomfort at being so physically close to her brother. Alex is tempted to slug the guy on the jaw, except it would be kind of like a fly trying to beat the crap out of an elephant. "It's Charles's house," she snaps. "Not yours. Never yours."

Cain grins, and for the first time, Alex can see why Raven's scared of him. That is -- okay, he'd previously graded unhealthy smiles on an Erik Lehnsherr curve, but this blows that scale right out of the water. Cain is not fucking stable. And that makes him unpredictable as hell, which is what Alex hates the very, very most.

"Oh, yeah, Prince Charles's castle," Cain sneers. "Don't you fret, little sister, I've been giving him the royal treatment. Now tell me, what the fuck do you think you're looking for in Sebastian Shaw's safe?"

Alex slants a glance over at the guards, ignoring Raven and Cain's continuing spat. Lumpy has moved in closer, and now that Cain has Raven occupied, he's redirected his gun at Alex instead. Dickhead is still at the open door to the hallway, but he's getting distracted by Cain's conversation, and his two guns aren't really aimed at anyone in particular. More importantly, he's not paying the slightest attention to Moira anymore, and he's the only obstacle between Moira and the desk with Shaw's papers. Lumpy's position is the best -- he has a clear line of sight to anyone in the room. If Moira can take out Dickhead, Lumpy's still a risk. So Alex needs to foul up Lumpy somehow.

The papers are on the desk. The desk is in the middle of the room. There's an expensive-looking office chair behind it, the rolling kind. Of course, Lumpy's focus is still on Alex, so if he tries to make a move now -- no, it's all in the timing. His gun is holstered at his hip. His backpack is still in his hands. Moira is starting to stir, slowly, as if trying to curl in on herself -- but what she's really doing is moving into a crouch. No one is looking at her. She glances up at Alex, and their eyes meet.

He lets his gaze flicker toward the desk, and she nods.

Alex tunes back into the conversation. Raven hasn't actually mentioned Shaw yet, good for her, and it sounds like Cain is gearing up for a proper rant about Charles instead. Ugh, Alex hates family reunions. Doesn't matter, Cain's clearly got no interest in anyone but his sister at the moment. Good a time as any.

Alex lets his backpack fall to the floor.

In one fluid movement, Moira kicks out at Dickhead's legs, hard. He yells and goes sprawling, one gun flying from his hand and the other firing uselessly up into the ceiling. That's sufficient distraction for Lumpy to turn instinctively toward the sound of the shot, and Alex dives for the desk chair, shoving it across the carpet and straight into Lumpy's side. He doesn't go down completely, but it does send him staggering into the wall. Moira's already grabbing the stack of folders with her good hand; when Dickhead starts to shove himself up to his feet, Alex pulls out his handgun and coldly double-taps him in the head. He goes down without a sound. It's messy as all fucking get-out, though.

Serves him right for breaking Moira's fucking hand, Alex thinks dispassionately.

Moira's too much of a professional to hesitate. She just meets Alex's eyes with a quick nod and sprints right out the door, jumping neatly over Dickhead's body, the documents tucked under her arm. Good girl. Because now Lumpy's up and shooting futilely after her, and Cain is shouting some shit and for a second, Alex actually hopes he's stupid enough to send Lumpy chasing after Moira.

No such luck, of course.

Alex and Lumpy are engaged in a Mexican standoff, guns pointed straight at each other's chests, when Cain roars, "Enough!"

From his position with his back to the windows, Alex is open enough to be able to glance over with losing his aim on Lumpy. Cain has one massive hand wrapped around Raven's throat, demonstratively. She claws at his arm, eyes wide, trying to gasp for breath, but can't shake his grip. In Cain's other hand is a smallish device, like some kind of remote control or something--

"Drop your gun, boy," Cain says brusquely, with another one of those deeply disturbing smiles. "Or I detonate the explosives I have placed in Charles Xavier's bunker."

Well, shit.

Chapter Text

The bunker is a cavernous space of dark concrete floor and mixed brick and concrete walls. The ceiling curves in an arch above them, and there are long, thick cables running down the length of the room at the seam where the wall meets the ceiling. Electricity lines, perhaps. Amber-tinted lights are set at regular intervals along the walls. There are no windows, of course, and nothing to indicate the passing of time. A few pieces of furniture cluster at the far end of the bunker: a couch, a table with a closed PASIV case, an IV stand, a bed. An open door in the wall beside the bed visibly leads to a bathroom. And that's all.

Erik doesn't see any of it, only Charles.

The bunker is very long, yet somehow he's already standing at Charles's bedside, with no real sense of having traversed the space. For the first time in many years, he feels compelled to check his totem. Both faces of the coin are heads. Not dreaming, then. He reaches out and takes Charles's hand in his own. It feels cool at first, but warms quickly to Erik's touch.

Charles's skin is naturally fair, but now it's paler than usual, wan under the ugly lights. His eyes are closed and his breathing even in sleep. The pulse at his wrist is slow and steady under Erik's fingertips. Blue veins stand out prominently on his bare left arm, bruised where the IV is inserted.

Erik feels the presence of someone behind him, and doesn't bother turning to look. "Will it cause him harm if I rip this fucking IV line out of him?" Erik asks, voice scraping in his throat, staring down at Charles's too-still form.

He can hear Angel hiss between her teeth. "Shit. Jason must've decided to give him another dose before he fucked off out of here. I don't know what--"

"It's fine," Hank says, examining the bags of liquid hanging off the IV stand. "You can remove the line. I'm familiar with the effects of this one, it's just a moderate sedative. Cutting Charles off won't hurt him."

For all that he wants to just yank the hateful thing away, Erik is careful detaching the line from Charles's arm, gentle. He lets the tube drop to the floor. Charles doesn't stir. How long should Erik give him before conceding defeat? The PASIV sits not five feet away. Erik wonders what he will find, when he hooks himself into Charles's dream. Will he fall straight into the Limbo that Charles and Shaw have together created? Or will he have to pass through multiple levels of barren dreams, gradually taking himself deeper and deeper through the empty, uninhabited wastelands of Charles's mind--

"Here," Hank says quietly. He's produced a syringe from his bag, taps the needle. "Let me just--"

Hank doesn't abuse Charles's left arm further, instead reaching across to find the unbruised vein in his right arm to inject the serum. The anti-sedatives, whatever they are. Erik knows little of chemistry beyond Somnacin itself.

Erik sits at the edge of the bed and closes his eyes, still holding Charles's limp hand in his own. He smooths his thumb across Charles's knuckles and counts the seconds. They can't waste too much time waiting. Three minutes, Erik decides, and then he'll hook them both up to the PASIV. The one benefit of diving into Limbo is the exaggerated time dilation; Erik won't have to rush, will be able to take however long he needs searching for Charles, secure in the knowledge that scant seconds are passing up above. Not that Erik gives a flying fuck about what happens topside anymore--

And then Erik can feel warm fingers twining around his own. He takes one breath, and then another; and then finally opens his eyes to see Charles gazing right back up at him, a soft smile quirking at the corners of his generous lips.

"Hello," Charles says.

It's as though Erik had been living in a universe of grays for the past two years, everything around him muted and flat and uninteresting, and now suddenly he can remember what color is. It starts with the impossibly bright blue of Charles's eyes and spreads outward from there, seeping back into the rest of the world, like stepping into Oz -- except this time, Oz is real and that other gray place was all just a horrible dream.

"Hello," Erik echoes, when he remembers what words are and how to shape them against his tongue. "I've missed you."

Charles's grip on Erik's hand tightens convulsively, and he grins so brightly it nearly hurts to look at him. "Likewise," he breathes. "Erik, you've no idea." He blinks, then, and seems to notice Hank and Angel's presence for the first time; Erik had certainly forgotten they were still there. Charles lets go of Erik in order to push himself up to a sitting position, struggling against the dip of the mattress. The covers slip down, and Erik can see that Charles is wearing a plain white T-shirt and what look like gray track pants under the sheets.

"Hey, good-lookin'," Angel says, with the first genuine smile Erik has seen since she'd rejoined them in Havana. "Welcome back."

"Yes, I've been quite the world traveler of late," Charles remarks dryly, glancing down at the bed. "Thank you for the clothing, by the way, it was much appreciated."

Angel smirks. "Trust me," she says, at Erik's skeptical look, "it don't look like much, but it's definitely an improvement over the raggedy-ass clothes Shaw left him in. I even got your sneakers stashed under the bed," she adds, turning back to Charles. "Can't have you running out of here barefoot."

A shadow passes across Charles's face, but he nods. "Thank you, Angel." He looks up at Hank and smiles again. "I don't believe we've been introduced. Charles Xavier."

"Yeah, so I gathered," Hank says, with an awkward grin. "Uh, Hank McCoy. I was their chemist on the Shaw job."

"He's an old army buddy of Alex's," Erik adds. "Very talented." He can afford to be generous with his praise, because Hank was right. Hank was right, and Charles is here, Charles is awake, he didn't fall into Limbo -- and suddenly all the frantic worry and guilt and abject terror Erik has been forcibly suppressing for the past twenty-four hours finally spill over and he realizes he's actually shaking, clutching the edge of the mattress so tightly his knuckles are chalk white, and it's a good thing he's already sitting down because it takes all his energy just to remain upright and oh, God, Charles--

"Oh, no, you do not get to crap out on us now," he can vaguely hear Angel saying, her tone spiked with alarm, but it's very faint under the roaring in his ears.

But Charles is there, surging forward, bracing himself up awkwardly on one knee so that he can wrap his arm around Erik's shoulders. "It's all right," Charles murmurs, pressing his lips against Erik's temple. "I'm right here, I've got you, you've found me, everyone's all right."

Erik turns his head to rest his forehead against Charles's, and relearns how to breathe.

"I'm fine," Erik mutters, once his heart rate has slowed to something approaching normal again. He ought to be deeply embarrassed -- and he's fairly certain he will be, later -- but right now, the warm press of Charles's body against his side is miraculous enough to chase away minor concerns like dignity. "I'll be fine, I just needed -- I'm fine." There's still a faint tremor in his hands, but he has himself back under control now. He pulls back away from Charles to meet his eyes. "Charles, if you ever pull a stunt like that again--"

"I had to," Charles says softly. "I'm so, so sorry, Erik. But never again, I promise you."

Erik nods slowly, reaching up to trace the curve of Charles's jaw. "Never again," he repeats, and reluctantly drops his hand. "Let's get you the hell out of here, shall we?"

Charles gives him a crooked smile. "I thought you'd never ask."

Erik gets to his feet, then crouches down to find the shoes Angel had tucked away under the bed for Charles and passes them up to him. Charles hesitates, glance flickering up to Angel and Hank for a moment, then takes them and sets them beside him on the mattress. He's still partly braced on one knee; when he leans back to sit, it's with stiff, awkward movements. At first, Erik assumes his muscles are simply weak from the long-imposed sedation. But when Charles swings his legs over the side of the bed, Erik realizes.

Charles's right leg, the one he'd braced himself up on, moves normally. But he has to lift his left with his hands to shift it over, heavily, like a dead weight.

"They said you were shot." Hank's the one who speaks; he's staring down at Charles's legs just like Erik is, but with a dawning comprehension in his expression that still remains frustratingly out of Erik's reach. "Where were you shot, Charles?"

It isn't Charles who replies, but Angel. "In the thigh," she says, eyes widening. "Oh, shit, I never even thought to ask, I thought it must've healed--"

"It healed," Charles says shortly. He bends down to put the shoes on, tying the laces with sharp, jabbing movements. "Shaw brought a proper surgeon in and everything. First rate care. After all, pain is in the mind, so what use would mine be to him if my physical body remained in agony? And morphine interacts so poorly with the Somnacin."

The bitterness in his voice takes Erik aback. Charles has never spoken in that tone, never. Erik wants to yank Shaw's body back out of Limbo and kill him all over again -- but much, much more slowly this time, and making sure he's wide awake until the last possible moment.

"And PT?" Hank asks gently.

Charles just laughs. "He only needed me to dream, Hank, not to run." He finishes tying his shoes and stares down at them, distantly, like he's not really seeing anything. Angel had said, before, that she wasn't sure if Charles was able to keep track of whether he was waking or dreaming. The blankness in his gaze now sends a cold spike into Erik's gut. He reaches out and rests his hand at the base of Charles's neck, rubbing slow circles against Charles's nape with his thumb, willing him to stay here, to be present.

"There are a lot of important muscle groups in the front of the thigh," Hank says quietly. "Not to mention if the bullet fractured the bone, or caused any nerve damage, or -- well, anyway. Without a proper physical therapy regimen--"

God, no wonder Shaw and Cain hadn't bothered with posting guards on this place. Charles couldn't run out of here if he tried. The stairs alone pose an insurmountable obstacle.

"I can walk on it," Charles interrupts, looking up at them. His tone brooks no argument. "It's not completely useless. I'm quite all right. Erik, if you would be so kind as to lend me an arm up...?"

"Anything," Erik says, immediately moving his hand down across Charles's shoulder to grip his bicep. "I'm getting you out of here if I have to carry you myself."

Charles gives him a small smile. "I hope that won't be necessary," he murmurs, and together, they pull him up to his feet. Charles staggers a little, but wraps his arm around Erik's waist and keeps his weight firmly planted on his good leg. "All right," he says, with grim determination. "Let's go."

*

Raven can't breathe.

Cain has his hand wrapped around her throat, bruising the tender skin there, and there's no air and she can barely even slap weakly at him and what the ever-loving fuck, of all the ways Raven has imagined she might die this was never anywhere on the list and her vision's going black and--

Cain releases her, without warning, and she crumples to her knees, gasping. Apparently breathing really fucking hurts when you haven't been able to do it for a while. Or maybe that's just the bruised larynx.

When she's able to look up, tears still streaming freely from her eyes, she can see that Alex has dropped his handgun on the desk and is currently being shoved down into the chair by the one remaining bodyguard. His eyes meet hers, concerned, and she manages a nod. I'll be fine. Alex gives her a fleeting smile and leans back in the desk chair, folding his arms back behind his head nonchalantly, like he owns the place. Like he's not the one being held with a gun to his head.

"Congratulations, Mr. Marko," Alex says sarcastically. "You've got us. Of course, the CIA has Sebastian Shaw in custody as we speak, so really, you're still kind of shit outta luck there."

Cain's eyes narrow dangerously. "Sebastian Shaw is a highly respected businessman, and a consultant of Cobol Engineering. You wouldn't dare hold him."

Alex smirks. "And yet. I didn't see Cobol lifting a finger to help him in Havana last night."

It's clear that Cain doesn't buy Alex's lies, but that does throw him, ever so slightly. Had he thought the trip was a closely guarded secret? Or hadn't he known Shaw was in Cuba at all?

"Shaw was meeting with Janos Quested in Havana," Raven says, her voice rasping against her sore windpipe. She pulls herself to her feet, shakily, leaning heavily on the wall for support. "And here I thought you were the liaison between Shaw and Cobol. Guess they wanted a second opinion."

Cain's jaw clenches and he fidgets, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Raven has never forgotten how to read her brother; has never forgotten how to goad him, either, right up to the point where his hand clasps around her neck. This time, he rather jumped the queue by hurting her before she'd made him sufficiently angry on her own merits. She's earned the payback.

"Nobody fucks with Cobol, and no dreamer can extract anything from Shaw's mind, right?" Raven smiles coldly. "Wrong on both counts, Cain. Think your bosses will believe the CIA got its intel from Shaw's own mind? Or will they assume it came from one of his associates?" Raven laughs. "Especially once Agent MacTaggert passes along those documents, implicating you with Shaw's more explicitly illegal activities. Look around you, Cain. The rest of Hellfire's fucked off and left you alone to deal with the fallout. They didn't even tell you Shaw's been captured, did they?"

She's not really surprised when he backhands her across the face. Hurts like hell, but no, not surprising. Cain's not very good at expressing his emotions except through violence.

"Losing Shaw means losing Cobol's influence with the Hellfire Club," Alex points out through gritted teeth. Raven can practically see him calculating the distance between himself and his gun, and whether he can put a bullet through Cain's skull before the bodyguard puts one through Alex's. "Emma Frost hates your fucking guts, Marko. She's not going to maintain Shaw's alliances. And with no Hellfire for you to liaise with, I gotta ask, why the fuck would Cobol bother keeping you around at all?"

Cain looks between the two of them, toying with the device in his hands with deliberate menace. "Charles Xavier and his fucking CIA," he says slowly. "I should have put him down the minute Sebastian brought him into this house. He's never been anything but trouble."

"Blaming our stepbrother for your own mistakes again?" Raven asks caustically. "And here I thought we'd all grown up a bit in the past ten years. Go ahead," she urges, determined to call Cain's bluff for once and for all. "Blow the place up. That bunker's built to withstand a lot worse than some puny explosives. If you really have rigged it to collapse, you'll bring the whole mansion down with it, and you'll be just as dead." She grins recklessly. "Hell, I hope you do. I always hated this fucking house, serves you right if you make it your own tomb."

She doesn't believe the remote control is real, doesn't believe he'll do it, right up until the very instant he presses the button. And when nothing happens, she laughs, knowing she was right.

That lasts for maybe two seconds.

"I'm not stupid, Raven," Cain says. At the manic light in his eyes, her laughter dies right the fuck down. He waves the device in her face, tauntingly. "This doesn't detonate the explosives directly. It merely activates the timer." He smiles the smile of the truly insane. "Ten minutes is plenty of time for me to clear the premises, don't you think?"

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Alex blurts out, eyes wide with disbelief. "What are you, a fucking Bond villain?"

Cain ignores him, pressing the timer-detonator-thingy into Raven's hands like a gift. "There you go, little sister," he whispers in her ear, and she instinctively recoils. "Go run to Charles. It's what you do best. You have nine and a half minutes." And he laughs, then, like he knows she can't get Charles out of there on her own, like he knows something she doesn't.

She knows something he doesn't, too. The others are already getting Charles out. But they don't realize how tight their schedule has just become -- and it's all Raven's fault.

She shoots Alex a frantic, desperate glance, and he only nods, clearly still not quite believing. This is because Alex is a sane and logical person, and he doesn't really understand that people like Cain actually exist. Raven knows better. Their nanny always did say that boy would cut off own his nose to spite his face.

"Tie him up," Cain orders, turning his back on his sister and nodding brusquely at Alex. The bodyguard complies.

Raven runs.

*

Moira is not lost, thanks. She just has no idea where the garage is. In her mad dash down the corridor, she miscounts the doors and finds the main staircase rather than the narrow servants' stair they'd used before; down, still, down is good. Down leads her to the ground floor, the broad staircase winding elegantly down to mahogany floors and an actual crystal chandelier hanging from the ridiculously high ceiling, providing the sole source of illumination in this wide, grand room. A ballroom, originally, maybe. Whatever else can be said about Cain Marko, at least he kept the place up. There must be a small army of maintenance workers tucked away someplace.

Maybe she'll find a maid or someone who can point her in the right direction.

She tried calling both Erik and Hank as she ran, but their phones are going straight into voicemail. (Which in Erik's case means it just hangs up on her automatically.) So she has to make a decision: stay put and wait for someone to call her back, or find her way out onto the grounds and search for the garage entrance from there. Either way runs roughly an equal chance of her stumbling across more of Cain's security detail, she figures.

Also, her hand hurts like a bitch and is starting to swell up. She doesn't think any of the bones are broken, but she's not a medical professional, so who the fuck knows. Fortunately, there's a well-stocked bar in the ballroom or wherever the hell she is, and that means ice. Lacking any cloths or plastic bags, she settles for just sticking her hand into the ice maker and letting it chill while she ponders her options.

Moira sets the stack of files onto the bar and flips one open. Looks like a bank statement -- oh, wire transfer of funds, from Cain Marko to Sebastian Shaw -- dear God in heaven, that's a lot of money. Well, now they know for sure where Shaw got his funding. And this is just the tip of the iceberg -- flipping quickly through the stack, there are more financial statements, hard copies of personal correspondence, operational details....

Oh, her bosses are gonna have a field day with this.

Moira's cell buzzes, and she fumbles for it, wincing as she jars her hand and accidentally scatters ice all over the place. Whatever. "Erik?"

"It's Raven," she hears. Raven's voice is strained, like it's been rubbed raw, and it sounds like she's running. "Moira, get out, get out of the house, Cain's got bombs set to go off in the bunker in eight and a half minutes--"

Moira doesn't need to be told twice. She shoves the files back under her arm and bolts. There are no windows in the ballroom, but the massive double doors look promising. "The bunker?" she gasps, as she runs. "Did they get Charles out?"

"I don't know, I can't reach them--"

"Neither could I -- oh, Jesus, it's an underground bunker, of course there's no cell reception--"

"I'm heading down there now," Raven says, and hangs up.

Moira drops her phone back into her jacket pocket and yanks at one of the doors. It takes a few good tugs, but eventually it groans open, and she slips through. The next room is draped in shadows, but moonlight glitters faintly through the huge French windows. She nearly trips on the edge of the expensive Oriental rug, but keeps her balance and sprints across the room to the exit. The French windows are only latched from the inside, that only holds her up for a few seconds. And then she's outside, racing across the balcony and down the steps out into the courtyard, and then out onto the grass of the massive lawn in the cool, cloudy night, the moon just barely peeking out through the haze.

*

It becomes quickly apparent that Charles is in no shape to walk himself anywhere, much less run. Hank hovers awkwardly alongside as Charles limps his way down the length of the bunker, lips pressed together in a thin line, a sheen of sweat standing out on his forehead. He doesn't make a single sound of pain or complaint, just moves doggedly forward with his arm around Erik's waist, but Hank can clearly see him flagging. He's determined enough to make it out the bunker; no way will he manage the stairs, though. And Hank's a little worried about the further damage he might cause by pushing himself too far.

Hank catches Angel's eye; at her raised eyebrow, he shrugs helplessly. On the plus side, they've still got plenty of time until their scheduled rendezvous with the others.

At the door to the bunker, Hank says quietly, "You should stop here a moment and rest."

Charles shakes his head, swaying slightly. "I'm perfectly fine--"

"No, you're not," Erik says harshly. He has his arm braced around Charles's shoulders, and now that they've paused, it's clear that momentum was pretty much the only thing keeping Charles going. He leans heavily into Erik, face gray. When Angel grabs the chair from the security workstation, Erik maneuvers Charles down into it, ignoring his continuing protests.

"There's no rush," Hank points out; it's only sort of a lie. "We can wait a few minutes until you're ready to go again."

"I'm not an invalid," Charles says sharply, understandably defensive. "And it's not like I haven't pushed through worse. Erik, you remember the Venice dream--"

"Dream injuries are different."

"Pain is in the mind."

"Christ, Charles, mind over matter only works in the dreamspace," Erik snaps, the abrasive tone completely failing to mask his concern. He reaches out and presses his palm against Charles's knee, which is visibly trembling from the earlier strain. Charles stares down at it as though the leg has personally betrayed him. "Your leg is giving out, you can't control that," Erik goes on, in a softer tone. "It doesn't make you weak."

Charles just looks away.

"Guys," Angel says quietly. "We really should get a move on."

Without a word, Hank bends down at Charles's side, opposite Erik. Together, the two of them help Charles get to his feet. He's short, Hank realizes all at once; Erik is noticeably taller, and Hank has a couple of inches even on Erik. When Charles gives in and puts an arm around each of their shoulders, they both have to hunch over awkwardly to support him. That's all right, though. They'll make it work.

If they look completely ridiculous, Angel doesn't comment, just holds the door open to the stairwell until they can shuffle through.

The stairs are too narrow for three to fit across, so while Angel scrambles ahead, Hank cedes his place and lets Erik take over. Charles has a railing to grip now, at least. And Hank never thought that Erik could be so patient, so careful, taking one laborious step up at a time, allowing Charles to cling to what little dignity Shaw left him. Following slowly behind them, Hank's mind wanders -- okay, Charles is able to put some weight on the left leg, so it's not outright paralysis; definitely muscle damage, though, exacerbated by the stiff scar tissue that would've formed around the bullet hole. Fractured femur? Probably not, or only mildly so, healed after the initial surgery. Factor in the natural muscular deterioration caused by the long periods of sedation-imposed inactivity, and the lack of formal physiotherapy; though Charles was probably smart enough to force himself to walk on it when he was awake and aware enough through the haze of Shaw's drugs--

There's a clatter of feet on the stairs above them, and they all freeze. Angel is bringing up the front; she pulls out a small revolver from where it was hidden beneath her loose black hoodie.

"Erik!" It's Raven, shouting down the stairs as she runs. She stops abruptly above them, and Hank's surprised she doesn't trip and tumble down the rest of the way. "Oh, thank God, Charles," she gasps. "Cain planted explosives in the bunker, we have seven minutes before they blow, we need to get out!"

Hank's brain stalls briefly on explosives; fortunately, the others are a bit quicker to react. Erik glances down at Charles, who lets out an impatient huff of breath. "Yes, yes, get on with it," Charles says, exasperated. "I'm not so stubborn as to get us all killed for the sake of my bloody pride."

With that permission granted, Erik hoists Charles up over his shoulders in a fireman's carry and nods to Raven. "Lead the way."

They race up the stairs, emerging out of the hidden passageway at the ground level. Down the corridor to the left is the route back to the garage; Raven ignores it completely, instead darting ahead in the opposite direction. Well, it was her house. Less than a minute later, they're stumbling out a side exit straight onto the gravel drive that circles the mansion. Hank can hear screeching tires, but not nearby -- the garage exit must be on the opposite side of the mansion from where they came out. Sounds like Cain Marko is getting his people moving, though.

"Where are the others?" Angel asks, breathing hard.

"Moira's out here somewhere, and Alex--" Raven shakes her head, desperation apparent in every line of her body. "Cain's got Alex, up in Shaw's suite."

Hank turns back without even thinking about it; he has less than six minutes left. Fuck, it's the hotel dream all over again. He'll just have to remember not to try to fuck with gravity this time.

But Angel's grabbing his arm, yanking him back. "You didn't study the blueprints, you don't know the house--"

"I did," Erik says. Hank turns to see that he's already lowered Charles back onto his feet, their arms wrapped around each other's waists in the combined effort to keep Charles upright. Erik gestures impatiently to Hank; Charles just watches Erik, expression unreadable. In the space of the bare seconds it takes Hank to jog over, Erik glances back down and the two of them have what looks like a complete conversation without saying a single word.

Then Charles releases Erik and throws his arm across Hank's shoulders instead, shifting his weight briefly onto his bad leg until Hank can steady him. Hank shakes his head, baffled. The last thing he ever expected was for Erik to willingly walk away from Charles. "But why would you--"

"That cocky bastard kept me alive for two years," Erik says in a low, even tone. He's addressing Hank, but his eyes never leave Charles's. "It's time and past I returned the favor." Now he does look at Hank, eyes hard and cold as steel. "Get him safely away from here." Or I will hunt you down and cut out your still-beating heart goes unspoken.

"Five minutes," is all Charles says, voice hoarse. "Hurry back."

Erik nods and sprints away, taking the stairs up to the main entrance three at a time. Charles stares after him until he disappears back into the mansion.

"Come on," Raven urges, tugging at Charles's other arm, tears streaming freely down her cheeks. It doesn't make her look any less fierce. Angel's standing just behind her, hands at her hips, wordlessly supportive. "I don't know how powerful the bombs are, we need to move."

Between Raven and Hank, they manage to drag Charles away.

*

Five minutes to big boom, and Alex has got to wonder what the fuck kind of exit strategy Cain has planned, because he sure as hell doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Also, Lumpy doesn't know shit about tying knots. Alex is stuck in the dumbass desk chair, his wrists tied to its arms in bullshit loops that he could easily wriggle out of in like three minutes tops. Well, assuming no one was paying any attention to him, which unfortunately is not so much the case. Once Raven was gone, Cain got on the phone and started barking out orders to whatever dumb fucks agreed to work for this asshole, making arrangements to get out and take this, that, and the other thing with them, yadda yadda yadda. But Lumpy's still got a gun pointed in Alex's general direction, though he's standing by the open door to the hallway with a seriously anxious expression on his doughy face.

Glad to see someone else is aware of the ticking clock, here. Although Alex still can't quite wrap his mind around the concept that Cain is blowing up his own house.

Four minutes, Cain hangs up and gives Alex a shit-eating grin, like he's got some brilliant new lame-ass fucking line that he's about to use for his grand exit, and Alex just rolls his eyes and turns deliberately away. So Alex is the only one looking at the door to the rest of the suite when the handle starts slowly turning.

He allows himself a smirk, and carefully shifts his weight forward to the front of his chair. In three, two, one--

The door slams open, and Alex dives under the desk, just in time, taking the fucking chair down with him. Erik bursts in already shooting, which is a really stupid tactic if you're planning on hitting anybody, but makes for one hell of an entrance if you just want to scare them off. High risk of collateral damage, though. Asshole.

He hears Lumpy scream, and thunderous footsteps which have got to be Cain, and then the gunfire stops. "It's clear, Alex," Erik says, sounding vaguely amused.

Alex shimmies backward awkwardly, still attached to the fucking chair. "Got a knife or something?" he grumbles, shoving himself away from the desk.

"Do you even have to ask?" Erik says dryly, and crouches down to cut Alex free. "These knots are shit."

"I know, I know," Alex mutters, kicking the chair out of his way as he stands. "But I figured you didn't want to waste time watching me squirm out of them on my own."

Erik's eyes crinkle into what for him counts as a smile. "You're welcome."

"Ugh, whatever, bombs away in like two and half minutes, don't make me leave you behind here," Alex says, but there's no heat to it and Erik obviously knows the threat is bullshit. He's kind of surprised Erik's the one who came after him, actually, now that he thinks about it. "Did you get Charles--"

"Charles is safe," Erik says. "We're not. Let's go."

He's already moving to the exit; Alex does a quick sweep of the room. Lumpy is down and groaning with one bullet wound to his shoulder and another to his calf; Cain is nowhere to be seen. Alex bends down to scoop up Raven's pistol from the carpet as he goes, because he really doesn't want to have to listen to her bitch about losing her favorite gun after they all get out of here.

On his way out the door, he puts another bullet in Lumpy's skull, to stop him moaning. Slow death by exploding house would be way worse. That's for Darwin, he thinks. Because he'd show you fuckheads the sort of mercy none of you bothered granting him.

"Cain?" he shouts to Erik, as they jog down the hall.

Erik grimaces. "Bolted right out the door, using his fucking bodyguard as cover. Coward." He pauses, then kicks open a door. It leads to an empty bedroom, vaguely feminine. Erik strides across it and yanks open one of the large windows along the far wall.

"Erik, what the fuck--"

"We have maybe ninety seconds, the house is too large, we won't get out the front door in time," Erik says, speaking in rapid, clipped tones. "Charles once told me that Raven had a tree outside her window, she used to use it as an escape route."

"What the fuck," Alex repeats under his breath, but he's already scrambling out onto the blessedly wide window ledge. There's a huge tree just outside, yeah, but the branches aren't exactly easy to reach from here. "Cain is fucking crazy, you know."

"I know," Erik says tightly. "Can you reach or do I need to fucking throw you?"

Alex stretches out his arm, can just barely grasp the nearest branch. It's an old tree, thick branches, probably sturdy enough. "Jesus fucking Christ. No, but seriously, the fucking explosives -- I refuse to believe that people do shit like this in real life."

Erik snorts. "I think you'd better start believing. Less than sixty seconds. Jump or be pushed, Alex."

Alex grabs on tight to the branch and jumps.

*

Angel is running across the grass, and then she hears the sound of a thunderclap behind her. There's nothing else at first, just the echoes reverberating through the still night. And then the foundations of the mansion collapse, and the rest follows, crumpling in on itself in horrific slow-motion, shock waves spraying across the pebbled drive, windows shattering. There's a horrible grinding noise of crushing brick and concrete, and a cloud of white-gray dust billows upward, so thickly that she can't even see the house anymore.

It takes another minute or so before the flames sprout up from somewhere deep within the rubble, devouring all the beautiful wood paneling and Oriental rugs and fine curtains. The general shape of the mansion is still intact, though grotesquely off-kilter; soon it will merely be a shell. Somewhere, someone is screaming; could be male or female, Angel can't tell. She wonders if anyone else got out in time. Maybe. The estate is large, and the grounds are shadowed by the cloudy skies and, now, the thick dust in the air around what used to be a house.

If the fire keeps growing, they'll soon have light enough to see by.

Hank and Raven still have Charles supported between them. They both look shocked, like they hadn't actually expected it to happen; Raven's face has a haggard edge to it. And Charles -- oh, Angel can't look at Charles, that horrible bleakness in his gaze, like he's empty. So instead she collapses down onto the soft, damp grass, and watches the mansion burn.

*

Raven lasts maybe two minutes staring at the burning wreckage of her childhood home before the full reality of the situation slams into her. "Hank," she croaks out, not looking at him, "can you--"

She can't finish the thought, so it's a good thing Hank has learned how to read her frantic body language. He holds Charles steady while she shoves herself away and stumbles to her knees in the grass, retching. It's been a while since she last ate -- she was too hopped up on adrenaline and nervous anticipation to bother with dinner -- so she just dry heaves for a minute or so, throat burning. It's like she's suddenly ten years old again, and Cain's done something unspeakably horrible and it's all her fault, she pushed him into it, she made him angry, why can't she just keep her fat mouth shut for once, her fault her fault her fault and Daddy is going to be so angry with her....

There's an arm around her shoulders, hugging her gently, and a soft shushing noise in her ear. "Hey," Charles murmurs, smoothing her sweat-damp hair back out of her face. "Raven, hey."

"It's my fault," she chokes out, gulping air. "I provoked him, I taunted him, I made him do it--"

"No one has ever been able to make Cain do a damn thing in his entire life," Charles says, his hand tightening on her shoulder. "This is Cain's doing, and his alone."

"And I just left Alex behind with him!" She twists in his curve of Charles's arm and throws her arms around him as tightly as she can, pressing her face into his chest. He returns her embrace just as fiercely. Their house is burning, but Charles is all the home she's ever wanted. "I'm sorry," she mumbles into the thin fabric of his T-shirt. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't leave me again, I'm sorry."

He presses a kiss to the top of her head. "I missed you, too." His voice is low and shaky.

Raven doesn't know how long they remain there, clinging together like children, but gradually she becomes aware of the world around them again. The lawn is damp and the night is chilly; Charles has got to be uncomfortable, sitting awkwardly there in the grass with Raven sprawled across his lap. He doesn't complain, though. "You know," he murmurs against her hair, tone light, "I can't help but think how Great-Uncle Percival must be so disapproving of this."

That startles a laugh out of her, and she giggles into his shoulder. Great-Uncle Percival is what they'd named one of the portraits in the main hall; a sour-faced older gentleman in late 19th century clothing who always seemed to be watching them disapprovingly as they ran in and out of the house. He must be burning up like all the rest, the poor old bastard.

When Raven is finally able to pull herself up and look at him properly, she can see that Charles is shivering slightly in the cool air. He refuses to relinquish his hold on her completely, keeping one arm around her shoulders, but he winces as he shifts her off his legs. His left leg seems to be particularly stiff, jutting out at an awkward angle, and she remembers the way she and Hank had had to half-carry him across the grass.

"Charles?" she asks. "What happened--"

"It's not important," he says quickly, grimacing. "Just -- not now, Raven, please." He looks up over her head. "Hank, did you manage to reach them?"

She glances back over her shoulder to see Hank standing there, his cell phone in hand. "Moira's on her way," he says, fidgeting. "She headed straight out the gate when Raven gave her the warning, says she thinks she's nearly at the bush where she stashed the rental car. She'll drive it back here to pick us up." He makes a face. "I don't know if we'll be able to beat the cops out of here, though."

"Oh, I didn't realize Moira was with you! That's wonderful." Charles is smiling, but it doesn't reach his eyes. Raven can tell he's just going through the motions, defaulting to bland courtesy as a shield between himself and the rest of the world. Her gut clenches, and she almost wants to retch again, remembering who they're still missing.

Hank catches her look and shrugs, looking faintly ill himself. "I couldn't get a hold of Alex," he says. "And I, uh, don't actually have Erik's number."

Raven's already fumbling in her jacket pocket for her own phone. "I do, shit, let me just--"

"Give it here," Angel says, quiet but firm, pushing herself in between Raven and Hank. She holds out her hand. "I'll take care of it."

Raven passes it over gratefully. She honestly doesn't have it in her to deal with Erik right now. What would she say to him, if he answered? What will she do if he doesn't? Instead, she settles back down to sit beside Charles and slips her arm around his waist. The dynamic between them has shifted, though they probably don't look any different to outsiders. But this time, she's the one keeping him from going to pieces, holding him together in the fragile circle of her arms.

He's her brother. It what she's here for.

Angel took a few steps away from them to make the call, turning back to face the burning mansion. Idly, Raven wonders why she hasn't heard any sirens yet. Well, the Xavier estate is set well apart from the nearest town, surrounded by woods. And clearly none of Cain's people bothered notifying emergency services. Still. The cops will be here soon. It's one of those immutable laws of physics or something.

"You utter bastard," Angel says, tone caught somewhere between furious and kind of impressed, and when Raven looks up, she can see two dark figures jogging across the lawn toward them.

It's funny, how similar relief can feel to exhaustion.

"They're here," she whispers into Charles's ear. "They're both all right."

Charles closes his eyes and lets out a soft breath, scarcely even a sigh.

Raven gives his waist a quick squeeze, then pulls away, getting to her feet. She reaches a hand down to Charles. "Do you--"

"I'm fine right here, thanks," he says lightly, tossing her a distracted smile. He lounges back into the grass, propped up on his elbows, his legs splayed casually in front of him. "I'd just like to sit for a moment."

She leaves him be, turning to join Angel and Hank. As Alex and Erik approach, she can see that they're both a bit worse for wear -- Alex seems to have picked up a slight limp of his own, and Erik's turtleneck is torn at the sleeve. Both are liberally sprinkled with gray dust, pants smudged with gravel and dirt. Raven thinks they're both perfectly gorgeous.

"Hey," Alex says, breathing heavily. "Everyone get out okay?"

"You stupid fuck, has no one ever taught you how to use a fucking cell phone?" Hank demands, uncharacteristically shrill, and Angel laughs when Alex is visibly taken aback.

Raven throws herself at Erik, surprising them both, and hugs him fiercely. Erik clearly has no idea what he's supposed to do in this situation. He settles for patting her back awkwardly. "Thank you," Raven tells him, holding on tight. "For Alex, and Charles, and just -- thank you." She goes up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and then adds, directly into his ear, "But if you scare my brother like that again, I will hurt you."

With that, she releases him and gives him a good shove in Charles's general direction. Erik flashes her a wryly appreciative smile and goes. That settled, Raven jumps into the middle of Hank and Alex's argument in order to give Alex his own thoroughly awkward hug, and they proceed as per usual from there. It's not quite like the old days -- a bit too much baggage between them and Angel, and Hank is a very different sort of person than Darwin was -- but for a few minutes, anyway, it's almost like coming home. Alex even managed to salvage her favorite pistol from the wreckage, which is oddly sweet of him.

Raven glances back over her shoulder once. Erik has taken a seat beside Charles on the grass, heedless of the chill or damp. They're not talking, hardly even touching, just sitting together with their shoulders brushing as they watch the others bicker amongst themselves until Moira finally pulls up in the rental car, driving straight across the lawn to reach them.

Okay, Raven thinks, as Alex starts yelling at Moira instead. Maybe they're all going to be okay.

*

"You have a broken hand!" Alex hollers, yanking open the driver's side door. "How the fuck are you driving with a broken hand?"

"Interestingly," Moira replies. Her face is very pale. "Also, I don't think it's actually broken. But while we're on the subject, I think Hank stashed a first aid kit in the trunk, would you mind having a look?"

"Hank!"

"I'm standing right here," Hank complains, moving to the trunk. "Calm down."

Alex helps Moira out of the car, which is probably completely unnecessary given the way she's glaring at him, but whatever, chivalry lives and whatever and what the fuck is she doing driving, Alex is going to like blockade the fucking car door until she hands over the key to someone who isn't currently physically impaired. He might've wrenched his knee falling out of that fucking tree, but that doesn't count.

Also, he and Erik have already agreed to never speak of it again.

While Hank tends to Moira's hand -- despite protests that he's not actually a medical doctor, but he's still the only one among them with a doctorate in the sciences so whatever, good enough -- Alex rummages in his pocket for his phone. Look, when he's busy jumping out of windows and then running like hell on a twisted knee to escape the massive fucking exploding building, checking for missed calls is not exactly high on Alex's list of priorities. He's going to be coughing up dust for the next week or so as it is.

Five missed calls and one text message in the past twenty minutes. Alex snorts. One from Moira, one from Raven, two from Hank, and one from an unfamiliar number. The text is from the same unknown caller -- it just says, in all caps, GOT SAFEHOUSE?

Alex grins and calls the number back.

"Dude!" Sean says, over a blast of static. "Did anyone die?"

"Not yet," Alex tells him, rolling his eyes. "Thanks for your concern. We did blow up a mansion, though, the cops can't be far. You mentioned something about a safe house?"

"Yeah, man, I figured you guys might need a rock to scuttle under, what with the whole pissing off both Hellfire and Cobol and shit. You're in New York State, right?"

"Westchester County, near North Salem, yeah."

"Okay, kinda downstate, but still," Sean says. "So I know this guy, right, ex-dreamer, used to be in the same military program that gave the world Sebastian Shaw -- but he hates Shaw's fucking guts, so don't worry, he'll probably buy you a case of beer or something for getting rid of him."

Alex shakes his head, bemused. "Christ, Sean, is there anybody in dreamsharing you don't know?"

"Is that like a trick question or something? Anyway, he got out of the business years back, but he keeps a couple of hidey-holes scattered around just in case, and he's got a house up near Plattsburgh that should do for you guys. It's like twenty miles from the Canadian border, plus a regional airport and Amtrak, depending on how you wanna split up. But nobody else knows this house exists, it's like in the middle of nowhere, I've crashed there a couple of times myself."

"All right, gimme the address so I can plug it into GPS."

Sean does, then adds, "Should be a straight shot up I-87 through Albany, less than five hours' drive. Or like three and a half, if you're driving."

"Speed limits are for pussies," Alex mutters. Besides, it's already like eleven PM, it's not like there's going to be any traffic to speak of. "Thanks, man, I owe you one."

"Dude, don't get too excited, it's practically fucking Canada."

Alex grins. "Yeah, whatever. So this guy got a name?"

There's a long pause. "Um," Sean says. "Several, actually, but I have no idea which one he's using at the moment. But he knows to expect you."

Alex shrugs. Dreamers can be a paranoid bunch, and for good reason. "Cool. Thanks again, Sean. Hey, you made it out all right, right?"

"Yeah, you know me," Sean says cheerfully. "I'm like a cat or something, always land on my feet."

"Nine lives, too, huh?"

"Dude, I hope so, 'cause working with you and Erik is running through them like fucking wildfire."

Alex is still laughing when Sean hangs up. When he turns back to the others, they're all clustered around the car, watching him. Charles is perched on the edge of the hood, with Erik and Raven flanking him, and Angel's rifling through the folders that Moira stole from Cain. Moira's hand is wrapped up in gauze, and she tosses the icepack at Alex. He catches it reflexively. "What do I need with this?"

"I told them you twisted your knee," Erik says, flagrantly unapologetic. Alex feels the betrayal keenly.

"Don't be an asshole, Alex, it's just ice," Hank chides.

Alex rolls his eyes and slaps the icepack against his knee. Whatever. "Right. So Sean's found us a safe house way upstate, we should really hit the road before emergency services show up here. Moira, car keys."

Moira reluctantly passes them over, while Charles remarks, "There's a back road out of the estate -- not much more than dirt path, really, but I've driven it before. I can direct you."

In the distance, Alex can hear the faint wail of sirens, and they've definitely run out of time. Unless they want to answer some very awkward questions. "Sounds good to me, let's--"

That's when he does the mental head count, and looks at the small rental sedan. Shit. It was one thing piling seven people into one car back when he was eighteen and stupid and they were all skinny new army recruits, but seven adults -- with varying degrees of injury between them -- that's another story entirely.

"Yeah," Moira sighs, taking Shaw's files back from Angel. "I did the math earlier. I'll stay behind and talk to the cops. The badge helps, and I've got a great story about an ongoing investigation into Cain Marko to back me up. You guys go."

"I'm with Moira," Hank adds, unexpectedly. He grins at Alex's raised eyebrow. "Hey, I'm not the one with the prison record here. And Proclus Global has really excellent lawyers."

Erik chuckles. "The kid's got a point. No one fucks with Saito's people. He wields litigation like Cobol uses thugs."

That settled, Alex hops into the driver's seat. "Charles gets shotgun," he announces. "Debilitating leg injury definitely trumps both being female and being too damn tall for your own good. No, Erik, you are not fucking driving unless you can prove to me conclusively that you've slept more than three hours out of the past forty-eight. Yeah, I didn't think so."

Raven doesn't need any further encouragement, slipping into the backseat, but Charles and Angel hesitate, exchanging a look while Erik hovers at Charles's side. "Moira," Charles says quietly. "Angel isn't--"

"I kind of figured that," Moira says, with a lopsided smile. "Agent Angel Salvadore was tragically killed in action in the explosion at the Hellfire Club base. I know the routine."

Angel gives her a quick hug, murmuring something too low for Alex to catch, then follows Raven into the car.

"And while I realize it sounds terribly cliched, Moira, kindly forget you ever saw me." Charles's tone is gentle but firm. "The bunker's thoroughly destroyed, I sincerely doubt there's any evidence left that Cain was keeping me there."

"They'll find out you're still alive eventually, you know," Moira says. "Sooner or later."

Charles smiles wryly. "Later suits me quite nicely, thank you."

The sirens are getting much louder, and Alex can see headlights emerging from the main drive. He revs up the engine. "Come on, people, we need to go!"

Erik helps Charles into the car, then slides into the back right behind him, pulling the door shut. Alex floors it. The last thing he sees in his rear-view mirror is Moira's face, tinted red in the taillights, looking sad and a little lost, Hank standing just behind her. The mansion still burns merrily. Then she turns away to deal with the cops, and Alex keeps his eyes on the road -- well, grass, but whatever. Charles directs him to a gap between the trees, and sure, whatever, he'll call this a road. He's feeling generous tonight.

Chapter Text

Charles stares out the window, watching the miles flow past in the quiet night. There isn't much to see; it might be pretty enough by day, but in the darkness, the low wooded hills along the highway blur together into one long, dark smudge, and the moon has long since given up its battle against the thick cloud cover. Still he looks, enthralled. He hasn't seen the world outside his bunker in two years. It doesn't seem like it's been so very long; at the same time, it feels much longer. His mind feels sharp, alert; for the moment, at least, he's quite certain he's awake. Perhaps something in Hank's injection countered more than just the sedatives. He hopes the sharpness lasts.

He doesn't want to fall asleep.

They've been driving for an hour, perhaps more; what little conversation there was dropped off quickly, and now the silence goes unbroken but for the soft sounds of breathing and the wind outside as they speed down the highway. Charles warned Alex at first about the New York State Police and their love of issuing speeding tickets, but he just laughed it off. They've been lucky so far. Charles doesn't bother pushing the issue. In the back, Angel and Raven have fallen asleep against one another, Angel's head tucked onto Raven's shoulder, and Raven's cheek pressed into Angel's hair. Erik also sleeps, leaning away from the girls, head lolling back. He'll probably wake up with a crick in his neck and then go on to complain about the contortion of his long legs in the cramped backseat. Charles smiles up at the rear-view mirror, knowing no one is awake to see him, not caring.

"Hey," Alex says, keeping his voice low. "How's your leg doing?"

Charles shrugs. "It's fine." It hurts, of course; a constant, dull ache, buzzing at the periphery of his awareness. Less so now that he's stopped trying to walk on it, but he has no doubt he'll suffer for that adventurousness tomorrow. It doesn't matter. He welcomes the pain; it's a small price to pay for waking. He glances over. Alex keeps his eyes on the road, his jaw twitching like he wants to say something but doesn't know how. "May I ask you a question, Alex?"

"Yeah, anything, what's up?"

"Erik said that you kept him alive for two years," Charles says softly. "What did he mean?"

Alex fidgets, blinking a few times. "Uh, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to answer that."

Charles leans against the window, watching Alex intently. "I suppose I'd hoped Erik and Raven might stick together, after -- well. But she struck off on her own, and you stayed with Erik. You were with him this whole time?"

"Yeah," Alex says. "I mean, not like twenty-four seven or anything. We'd split up after jobs and then meet up again a few days or a week later, that sort of thing. But pretty much. We're -- we were a team, I guess."

"But why?" Charles is genuinely curious. Erik has always been a loner by default; and of all of the CIA's dreamers, Alex is the last person Charles would have expected Erik to latch on to, and vice versa.

Alex clutches the steering wheel. "After they took you and Darwin, Erik went hunting Shaw. I offered to help. It took us nine days before we found the bodies. Erik -- uh, he kind of lost his fucking mind at that point, it wasn't pretty."

Charles has to look away, staring out through the windshield at nothing. He knows how he might have reacted, if their situations had been reversed, and he has always been the calm, reasonable one. He doesn't even want to imagine Erik's rage set loose upon the world.

"I mean, I wasn't doing too well myself," Alex goes on roughly. "Losing Darwin like that, and then you, too...." He shakes his head. "But Erik, man, Erik was fucked up. You couldn't argue about Darwin, he was right there in front of us, but the body we thought was yours...well, anyway, Erik refused to believe it. He kept insisting you were alive, that Shaw had you. I mean, turns out he was right, but that wasn't -- none of us believed him. He didn't himself, not really, but he just couldn't let go. And the shit he pulled -- the jobs he was taking -- he was just--" Alex cuts himself off, shaking his head. He shoots a quick glance over at Charles, then back to the road. "I couldn't leave him," he says quietly. "I was scared of what would happen."

Charles nods mutely. He wants to grab Erik by the shoulders and scream at him; he wants to wrap his arms around him and never let him go. He doesn't know what he wants. There shouldn't be space inside of him for this many conflicting emotions; the human body simply wasn't built to withstand it. How has he not yet splintered apart?

"I'm sorry," he says instead, once he's able to force the words out. "Alex, I am so sorry. You should never have had to--"

"Hey, please don't," Alex interrupts, looking deeply uncomfortable. "I mean, we got through it, right? So whatever. We're good."

"Thank you," Charles says softly, meaning it with every fiber of his being. "For Erik, and everything else."

They sit in silence for a little while longer. Finally, as through the words are being wrenched out of him, Alex says, "It's funny."

Charles waits him out.

"I mean," Alex says, "I spent all this time chasing after Erik, keeping him in line -- I just never stopped moving. There was always the next job to worry about, what crazy stunt he might pull next, and I never...." He trails off, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. "And now you're back, and that's awesome, and he has you again, so that's -- great, I mean, seriously. But I...." He lets out a short, humorless laugh. "Christ, I have no idea what I'm going to do with myself now."

"Whatever you want," Charles says simply. He tries on a smile, and finds that it fits. "I think you may be the strongest of all of us, Alex."

Alex's shoulders tense up, then relax. "I don't know what I want."

"People rarely do. You'll figure it out," Charles assures him. "There's no rush. And in the meantime...." He shrugs, smile widening. "You'll do just fine."

He tilts his head back against the seat, and looks out at the highway. A sign flashes past, informing them that they're seventeen miles out of Albany. Still a ways to go yet, Charles thinks, but they're getting there.

*

After spending over an hour telling and retelling her story a hundred times to the local cops, Moira's pretty much ready to start shooting at random and make good her escape. The EMTs on scene checked up on her hand, and confirmed that it probably wasn't broken, just jammed, though they wanted to bring her back to the hospital to be sure. She refused as politely as she could. Sooner or later, though, she's going to have to sweet-talk somebody into giving her and Hank a ride back to civilization.

Hank has parked himself on the grass, and responds to any inquiries with a polite smile and complete silence. It's kind of hilarious to watch. Moira likes this kid.

"Excuse me, Agent MacTaggert?"

Moira turns with a sigh, preparing her hundred and first recounting of the great Battle of Xavier Mansion. This guy isn't a cop, though -- or plainclothes, maybe. He's a middle-aged man with a receding hairline, very ordinary in every way: average height, average build, average uninteresting face. Something about him pings her radar, though. The deliberate blandness, the neat suit -- oh, definitely G-man. She knows the type. She's one herself.

"Yes?" she asks wearily.

He smiles pleasantly, flashing his badge. "Agent Phil Coulson, with the Subconscious Homeland Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Division. Do you have a moment?"

"Look, I've already told the police everything I know--"

"I'm pretty sure you told them everything they asked, actually," Agent Coulson says, still smiling. "But I doubt any of the local cops thought to ask you about Cain Marko's affiliation with dreamsharing."

Moira stills, eyes narrowing. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He looks amused. "Don't they teach you how to lie at the CIA? Look, we both work for the same government--"

"Then you can take your questions straight to my superiors," Moira says flatly. She crosses her arms across her chest, glaring at him. "I've had a very long night, Agent Coulson, and I'm not interested in being interrogated."

"Actually, Agent MacTaggert, I'd like to offer you a job."

Moira likes to think she doesn't startle easily. But that she was not expecting. "If this involves dreamsharing, you should know that I haven't worked in dreams in more than two years."

"Yes, we realize that," he says, clasping his hands neatly. "We have no intention of sending you into dreams yourself, but frankly, there aren't many veterans of the U.S. government's various PASIV programs who are still interested in remaining in government employ. Black market dreamsharing has existed since the late '80s, but there's been a massive spike in the mercenary industry in the past five years or so. Meanwhile, the government's been terminating its own dreamsharing programs right and left. We've never been so vulnerable to dreamers who would sell state secrets to the highest bidder." He leans in, ever so slightly, his expression intent and serious. "The CIA's given up the ghost on dreams. You're wasted there. I hate to poach from a rival agency, but, well, we want the best. You'll still be serving your country -- but wouldn't you like to be free to focus your energies on your own area of expertise, with the support and resources you need?"

She can't deny that it's tempting. The CIA's been shoving her into a corner, keeping her as barely more than a high-level secretary as they slash their dreamsharing program. Having lost so many of their former dreamers, they simply don't trust Moira with anything important. The Shaw job was probably her last chance at anything better, and Sebastian Shaw is in Limbo.

"How do I know your group is going to be any better?" she demands. "The Subconscious Defense and Espionage whatever--"

"Subconscious Homeland Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Division," Agent Coulson says patiently, in the tones of one long accustomed to having to repeat himself. He gives her a small smile. "But you can call us S.H.I.E.L.D."

*

Erik awakens gradually, in bits and pieces, which is unusual for him. Generally, waking is something that happens all at once, accompanied by a rush of adrenaline. Dreamers tend to be wary sleepers. But this time it's a drawn-out process. He's distantly aware of the motion of the car, the faint vibrations of his seat, becoming more pronounced as the vehicle moves off well-paved roads onto what feels like a gravel track. Then the low murmurs of voices seep in. Alex's is instantly recognizable from two years of living in close quarters; it takes a few moments to place the other, so soft as to be nearly indistinct. Charles.

Erik opens his eyes.

"Okay, but GPS doesn't even know this road exists," Alex is saying. "Which I gotta tell you, kind of creeps me out."

Charles laughs quietly. "That's probably what makes it a good safe house." His eyes flicker up to meet Erik's in the rear-view mirror, and his lips curve into a smile. "Look who's up."

"Well, if you two weren't chattering away," Erik grumbles, but he can't keep the smile from twitching at the edges of his own mouth. He sits up straight in his seat, rolling his neck to work out the kinks, body protesting his return to consciousness. He still feels thick with sleep. That was probably the longest he'd slept in one stretch in several days, and it's not nearly enough. Beside him, Angel and Raven are starting to stir as well.

Alex snorts. "Whatever, we're almost here anyway. Wherever the fuck 'here' is."

"Plattsburgh," Charles says placidly. "Or near enough."

"You say that like it's not just a synonym for the middle of fucking nowhere."

"There's the house," Charles points out. His voice is rich with suppressed laughter, and something locked tight within Erik's chest unfurls slowly at the sound of it. It's almost like hope.

The car rattles to a stop on the loose gravel drive, pulling up in front of a weather-beaten house. It looks ghostly gray in the headlights, but for all that, it seems decent enough. The construction looks sturdy and the roof has been recently shingled; there are three floors and a wide front porch, and Erik can see light shining through the curtains of the main room. An old but well-tended pickup truck is parked next to the porch.

"All right," Alex says loudly, killing the engine. "Last stop. Everybody off."

Raven groans and squints one eye open. "I hate you so much."

As they slowly sort themselves out, the front door of the house opens. Erik stretches his legs and studies the person who emerges. Not a tall man, but powerfully built; when he crosses his arms across his chest, his biceps stand out intimidatingly. He's only wearing a sleeveless shirt and jeans -- and cowboy boots, of course -- but he doesn't seem to notice the chilly night air. He has long, unkempt sideburns and a lit cigar between his teeth. "You Cassidy's people?" he calls, and Erik frowns. There's something vaguely familiar about this guy, niggling at the back of his memory.

"Yeah," Alex says, flicking off the headlights and slamming his car door shut. Erik blinks in the sudden darkness. "And you are?"

"Name's Logan. How many you got?"

"Five," Alex tells him. "How many bedrooms? Or sofas, I'm not feeling too picky." He eyes the house, assessing, then glances back to where Charles is stiffly pulling himself out of the car. Erik tries to lend him a hand, only to be waved off. "And we're gonna want at least one bed on the first floor," Alex adds.

Logan shrugs, taking a puff from the cigar. "Bunk down wherever you want, bub. Got one bedroom downstairs and three upstairs. None of 'em are what you'd call luxurious, but a bed's a bed. If nobody wants to share, there's a couch in the living room. The attic's mine; you leave my shit alone and I'll leave yours."

"That'll do nicely, thanks," Alex says, and holds out a hand for Logan to shake. Logan just gives him a disparaging look, so Alex shrugs and drops it. "Your place?"

"One of 'em," Logan says noncommittally. He chomps on his cigar, looking them all over through narrowed eyes. "Dreamers, right? If you brought your own PASIV, leave it in the car. I don't want any of that crap in my house."

Alex glances back at Erik, who shakes his head. The car was Moira's; all of their kit had been left behind in the black van, now buried under a pile of rubble in Westchester. "We don't have any stuff," Alex tells Logan, mouth twisting wryly. "Of any kind, actually."

Logan nods sagely, like this sort of thing happens to him all the time. Maybe it does. "Twenty minute drive into town, you can pick up any essentials in the morning. Gonna need cash?"

While Logan and Alex work out the details of whatever arrangement Sean set up for them, Erik leans in to Charles. "Does this guy look familiar to you?"

Charles frowns thoughtfully, then brightens. "Now that you mention it -- didn't we try to recruit him to the CIA once?"

"Ah, yes," Erik sighs, the unfortunate memory sliding back into place. "Shitty bar in Michigan, Upper Peninsula. Nearly earned myself a knife between the ribs. One of our more memorable failures."

Charles chuckles, low and warm, and brushes his knuckles lightly down Erik's side. Erik shifts closer, and Charles slips his arm low around Erik's waist, leaning against him. That ridiculous thin T-shirt he's got on isn't nearly enough for how chilly it is outside, Erik thinks, and glares up at Alex and Logan, willing them to get a move on.

As if sensing Erik's impatience, Alex glances back over his shoulder and nods. "Come on," he calls. "Some of us have been driving all night while you had your naps, I'm about to fucking fall over here."

The girls head in first; Logan gives Raven an appreciative once-over as she passes, and Alex punches him in the arm. It looks like it hurts Alex more than Logan, who just grins around the cigar and hooks his thumbs in his belt. Alex scowls and heads inside after the girls. Erik and Charles follow more slowly behind; there are only four steps up to the porch, and Charles navigates them very carefully, Erik keeping a firm grip on his arm.

Logan watches them levelly, as though withholding judgment. "Cassidy says you're the ones did for Shaw," he remarks, following them into the house and closing the door behind them. It's not all that much warmer inside; Logan must not like wasting money on heating costs this early in the season.

"Yes," Erik says shortly. "He's in Limbo."

Logan smiles. It's not a very nice smile, feral at the edges. "Good," is all he says. "Bedroom's next to the stairs, can't miss it." With that, he turns and tromps up the staircase; Erik can hear Alex and Angel upstairs bickering over who called dibs first on the bathroom.

Now that they're on level ground, Charles brushes Erik off again and makes his way to the bedroom unaided. He's limping heavily and keeping one hand along the wall for support, but it isn't far -- hardly even a few meters -- so Erik holds his peace. But he does follow close on Charles's heels, ready to grab him again if he flags.

The bedroom is small but clean. There's a double bed squashed against the wall, an empty chest of drawers, and a small bedside table with a lamp, which Erik flicks on. In the warm lamplight, Erik is very aware that he's still a dusty mess after his narrow escape from the collapsing mansion; luckily, the room has its own adjoining bathroom, which is a very pleasant surprise. "I'm going to wash up," he tells Charles, who is wearily lowering himself to sit on the bed. "Unless you'd like to use the facilities first?"

Charles shakes his head, looking about as exhausted as Erik feels. "I'm fine, go ahead."

Erik does, stripping quickly out of the dirty clothing -- the trousers just need a good wash, but his sweater probably isn't salvageable, not that he cares -- and taking a fast, hot shower. The heat of the water only serves to loosen his body further, making him feel sleepier than ever. Alex was probably right not to let him drive. Once clean and toweled off, he hesitates, then puts his boxers and undershirt back on.

He half expects Charles to already be asleep by the time he emerges, but Charles is still sitting at the edge of the bed, staring blankly into space. He's taken off his shoes, at least, but otherwise gives no sign of having stirred at all. Erik drops his own clothes in one of the empty dresser drawers -- better than on the floor, he supposes -- and makes his way to the bed. "Charles?"

Charles blinks, then lifts his head to look up at him. "Feeling better?" he asks lightly. His smile doesn't reach his eyes. There's a distance there that clenches at Erik's gut. Something that isn't quite fear trips its way up Erik's spine, instantly dispelling his sleepiness. It's as though Charles is looking at him from somewhere very far away, and Erik hates it. He wonders if Charles has been putting on an act this whole time, since the bunker, cloaking himself in the good humor of the Charles they all remembered; but now he's stripped away the artifice, leaving only the broken shell behind.

Erik sits cautiously beside him on the bed. Gooseflesh stands out on Charles's bare arms in the cool room, but he's made no move to cover himself with the blanket. Erik isn't sure whether he's allowed to touch him right now. It's as though Charles has thrown up a pane of glass between himself and the rest of the world, closing himself off, keeping himself apart. Erik wants nothing more than to grab Charles by the arms and drag him close, but he's suddenly terrified that if he does, something inside Charles will fracture irreparably.

"You know," Charles says, almost conversationally, "for the longest time, I didn't even realize I was dreaming."

Erik clasps his hands together, forcibly restraining himself from reaching out to him.

Charles goes on, gazing straight ahead out at nothing. "My head was so muddled from the drugs -- when I was awake, that was the nightmare. Dreaming, though...." He shrugs. "I thought I was back in the CIA lab, still working with my team -- with you. I don't know if you were all my own projections, or if Shaw brought Emma's forgeries in from time to time, but it doesn't much matter. I helped him, Erik," he adds bleakly. "Shaw's research, his experiments -- I helped him with all of it. And I did so willingly."

"No, Charles," Erik says, as firmly as he can. "Shaw coerced you. By keeping your mind disoriented on his chemist's Somnacin compounds, he robbed you of any consent you could possibly have given. He tricked you."

Charles hunches his shoulders. "Maybe I wanted to be tricked."

"Look at me." When Charles doesn't move, Erik breaches the invisible barrier, reaching out to touch his cheek. Charles shudders but still won't meet his eyes. "Charles, please."

"I'm sorry," Charles says. His hands clench into fists on the coverlet. "I just -- I'm so tired, Erik, but I don't want to go to sleep again." He laughs a little, self-deprecatingly. "I'm not sure I trust myself when I'm asleep."

"Charles." Finally, finally, Charles turns his head to look at him, and the uncertainty in his eyes undoes Erik completely. There is no hell hot enough for Shaw, no fevered nightmare of Limbo grotesque enough for that man's hideous mind; he somehow twisted Charles against himself, and for that, there can be no forgiveness. Erik rubs his thumb against Charles's cheek and forces himself to keep breathing. "I trust you," he says, in a voice he hardly recognizes as his own. "Charles, there is nothing you have done, nothing you could possibly do, that would ever make me stop trusting you."

Charles lets out a strangled laugh, reaching up to cover Erik's hand with his own. "You've always been biased when it comes to me. It's a grave failing."

"You never complained of it before."

"I never realized quite what I was capable of, before."

"What you're--" Erik swallows the words back, shaking his head. He can't allow himself to get angry, not at Charles. He's been there himself, is all too familiar with the guilt and self-loathing, how it can rip you apart from the inside out. This is Shaw's legacy, his final revenge, and damned if Erik will allow Charles to succumb to it. "Charles, you kept yourself alive and sane for two years of captivity, during which you were physically injured, drugged, sedated, and confined in a place you despised with your psychotic and abusive stepbrother as your keeper. You trained yourself, alone, to do the impossible, to enter the dreams of others without ever leaving your prison." He takes a breath. "You devised a plan with Angel to enable yourself to invade Shaw's own mind, and when all my team's best efforts failed, you alone figured out how to permanently disable him -- which you did at great personal risk. And then--" He almost laughs as the final piece clicks into place. "I imagine you were the one who warned Emma that Shaw was gone, and convinced her to evacuate Hellfire from the mansion in order to clear the path for us to find you. Am I incorrect?"

Charles closes his eyes. "No," he murmurs. "You're right. Emma goes under for a private PASIV session every morning. I hacked into her dream and told her about Shaw. She didn't require much convincing."

"Look at me," Erik says again, and this time, Charles does. "I know precisely what you're capable of, Charles, and the only thing I don't understand is how you could ever believe that you're anything less than perfection." When Charles opens his mouth -- probably to protest further, the fool -- Erik leans in and catches his lips with his own.

He's not sure which of them moves first, or perhaps it's both of them at once. But then Charles's arms are wrapped tightly around him, and he clutches Charles just as desperately; no matter how closely entwined they are, it's not quite enough. "Touch me," Charles gasps against Erik's mouth, pressing him down into the mattress. He tugs Erik's undershirt up over his head and off, tossing it aside, then kisses him again and again. "Oh God, please, Erik, you have no idea, touch me, please--"

Charles has always been a very tactile person, casually demonstrative; Erik imagines him lying alone in a narrow bed for two years, with no physical contact with anyone save the press of an IV line into his arm, and the thought is unbearable. He gently maneuvers Charles down onto his side, facing him, and tangles their legs together. Charles tugs him closer still, running his hands along Erik's back, clearly craving physical contact, and Erik begins pressing soft kisses along every exposed inch of Charles's skin -- the corner of his mouth, the curve of his jaw, the long, pale line of his neck, the dip of his collarbone. For all that Charles arches into every kiss, there's a strangely innocent element to it; yes, Erik is half hard, and Charles is so starved for touch that nearly any contact carries an edge of eroticism, but they're both far too exhausted to take this much further tonight. Charles is still clothed in his T-shirt and track pants, and neither his nor Erik's hands slip beneath the waistbands of their boxers. Erik has never known such a sweet mixture of desperation and tenderness; he just wants to hold Charles close, to press his face into the curve where Charles's neck meets his shoulder and breathe him in, and everything else can just fuck off for a while.

Gradually, the urgency recedes, and they press together with slow, almost clumsy touches. Erik shifts them both enough to tug the sheets and blanket over them; Logan really ought to turn the fucking heat on, he thinks. When he pulls away to flick off the lamp, Charles makes a soft sound in protest and tightens his hold on Erik's waist. Erik hesitates, glancing down. In the golden lamplight, Charles's face no longer looks so frighteningly pale. There's a light flush along his cheeks and neck, and he blinks up at Erik with his blue, blue eyes, brown hair mussed and soft, perfect lips ever so slightly parted. Erik's heart clenches almost painfully in his chest, just looking at him.

Erik has never thought he deserved someone like Charles; that he should lose him and then find him again seems beyond impossible. But here he is.

"Erik?" Charles asks softly.

He doesn't have any words left. He flicks off the light and lies back down beside Charles, pulling him close, and kisses him once more, lingering. "You can sleep," he murmurs. "It's safe here. I'll still be here when you wake up."

"You'd better," Charles says, but his eyes are already closing. Erik can feel the soft brush of Charles's eyelashes against his cheek. He waits patiently until Charles's breathing goes slow and even with sleep, and then follows him down.

*

By daylight, the safe house is almost pleasant, Raven thinks. The interior decoration leaves something to be desired -- way too masculine for her tastes, all exposed brick and dark wood and practically no decorative touches whatsoever. Utilitarian, if not borderline Spartan. But nice enough for all that. The kitchen has large windows, and the late morning sunlight streams through the open curtains. Not quite worth being awake for, but hey, what can you do?

She's warming her hands around a mug of coffee when Erik emerges from the first floor bedroom, hair uncharacteristically tousled, like he just woke up. Well, he probably did. He had the good sense to pull on his trousers, at least, though his chest is bare. Not that Raven hasn't seen him shirtless before, but still. Nice view.

"Cups?" he asks, voice rough with sleep.

Raven gestures to the sink, where a few mismatched mugs and glasses are upside down on the drying rack. "They're clean."

Erik grabs two glasses and fills them both with water from the tap, then sets one aside while he drains the other in a few long gulps. "I feel like my throat's still clogged with dust from that fucking explosion," he grumbles, refilling his glass. "God, it's quiet out here. The others still in bed?"

"Yeah, not so much," Raven says, smiling crookedly. "You missed them by like twenty minutes. Logan's giving Alex and Angel a ride to the airport; they're flying out to Boston, or maybe Montreal. I don't think they'd decided yet."

Erik frowns, leaning back against the sink and folding his arms across his chest. "They're gone?"

"Angel's trying to disappear. Turns out Alex has some experience in that area, so he's helping her get started."

"Of course," Erik sighs. "I suppose he needed a new project now."

"Yeah, well, it's not like he was going to keep babysitting you forever," Raven points out.

"I know." Erik sounds strangely disarmed; Raven wonders if this is the first time Alex ever managed to truly catch him by surprise. Well, apart from when he'd first shown up, hunting for Darwin, and then refused to go away. "It's for the best, especially for him. I just thought -- well, two years. I expected to at least be able to say goodbye."

And to thank Alex for not letting him jump off any cliffs, Raven thinks, all of which would have been monumentally awkward for both of them. No wonder Alex skipped out before Erik could stop him.

"How's Charles doing?" she asks, only partly to change the subject.

Erik smiles softly. It's such an unusual expression on him, she's almost taken aback. Erik never used to wear his fondness quite this openly, did he? Or did she just not notice it back then? "Still sleeping," he says. "Real sleep, unlike that sedation crap at the mansion. He needed it badly."

So did you, Raven doesn't say. He looks ten times better for a full night's sleep; he's lost the harsh, haggard edges and the coiled-spring tension of the last week or so. Or maybe it's just having Charles back that changed him. She hunches her shoulders and looks away, taking a long sip of her coffee.

She should have left with Alex and Angel. There's no room for her here.

"I should head back in before he wakes up," Erik adds, glancing back over his shoulder at the bedroom door, which stands ever so slightly ajar. "But later today we need to discuss what comes next. Is Logan going to kick us out at some point?"

Raven shrugs. "I don't think there's any sort of time frame. You can stay here until you figure out where you want to go next." She finishes the coffee and gets to her feet. "If I'm gone before he wakes up, tell him I said bye, okay?"

Erik's attention snaps back to her. "What are you talking about?"

"Things to do, people to see, scams to run," she says, tossing her hair back in a show of breezy unconcern. "You know the drill. Plus my lease in Rome isn't up for another couple of weeks, I could use a real cappuccino--"

Erik catches her wrist as she sets the mug down in the sink, gripping a little too hard. "Raven. I'm certainly not about to tell you what you can or cannot do with your life, but there is no fucking way you are walking out of here now."

She shakes him off, putting her hands at her hips. "Look, I know what happens next. You've finally got your Charles back--"

"Don't be childish," Erik snaps. "You're better than that. Raven, he's your brother and he needs you, just as much as you need him. And if you run away without so much as a goodbye -- well, Charles will forgive you, because he loves you and that's just what he does. But I won't," he adds, with a predatory smile, "and that's far, far worse."

After a long, taut moment, Raven breaks away, slumping back against the sink. "I don't want to be in the way," she whispers, feeling raw and exposed, and hating herself a little for it. "I know what the two of you are like together."

"Just stay out of our bedroom, and you'll be fine," Erik says, with a touch of humor. "I realize that I can be a possessive bastard, but surely you don't think I intend to force Charles to choose between us? You're his sister."

"It won't be for very long," she promises, tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "You know me and Charles -- stuck in the same house all day, I'll probably want to kill him inside of a week."

For all that she loves him dearly, she and Charles are very different people. And it's been two years. She has a different life now; Charles will want to focus on rebuilding his own. But for a little while, at least, she just wants to enjoy having her big brother back.

"Oh!" she adds, gesturing him to follow her out into the living room. "I almost forgot. Alex and I did a run into town before he left, we picked up some stuff. Toiletries, change of clothes, just the basics." She tosses him a shopping bag. "He guesstimated your size pretty well, and I know Charles's -- same as mine, without the curves." She smirks. "And there's a washer and dryer in the basement."

"Thanks," Erik says, tucking the bag under his arm. "You must've been up early."

Raven shrugs it off. "Too much thinking. Couldn't sleep. Might head back up for a nap now, though, since apparently I've got nowhere else to be."

Erik nods. "You do that. We'll talk later." As she starts to head back up the stairs, he puts a hand on the railing, looking up at her seriously. "Raven -- you do know that Cain's still out there somewhere, right? I sincerely doubt he was caught in the explosion, he planned it out too well."

"Yeah, I kinda figured," she says, mouth twisting into a bitter smile. She fingers the fresh bruises at her throat. "That's part of what woke me up. But we've managed to avoid each other for years already. No reason he'll come after me now."

That's a blatant lie, and they both know it. But Erik lets her drop the subject for now. She'll be hearing it from him and Charles both later, she's sure.

"Go on," she says, shooing him. "You should be there when he wakes up."

He smiles that unnervingly sweet smile again, and Raven shudders and leaves him there. Right now, she could use a few more hours of sleep. She'll sort the rest of it out later.

She has plenty of time.

*

Charles blinks slowly awake to the weight of someone else's arms around him, the warm press of another body all along his back. Erik, his mind supplies lazily. When he stirs, he can feel Erik's lips at the nape of his neck. Still more than half-asleep, Charles rolls over onto his back, turning his head to capture Erik's mouth with his own, kissing him slowly, languidly. It feels so simple and natural, like any of a thousand mornings, not quite ready to face the day--

No, Charles remembers all at once, with a sharp surge of adrenaline. It's not. Because he's alone, has been alone for so very long in the bunker, and Erik isn't here, can't really be here. He's dreaming. Dreaming.

He breaks the kiss and pushes himself away, nearly falling off the edge of the bed in his panic. The projection of Erik (or forgery? But no, Emma has never been quite this cruel) is surprised enough to release him at once. Charles's left leg is so stiff as to be nearly numb; he has to grab on to the nightstand to pull himself upright, nearly knocking over a glass full of water. He stumbles to his feet, putting some distance between himself and the bed, grasping at the wall to keep his balance.

"Charles?" Erik demands, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, openly concerned. He's only wearing a pair of dark shorts; the sunlight through the window casts a warm glow on his bare chest and shoulders, his muscles rippling under the skin. It's deeply unfair, that a dream should be so beautiful and so false. "What's wrong?"

Charles glances quickly around the room, assessing the parameters of the dream. "I'm sorry," he tells the projection distractedly. "I'm so sorry, but this isn't real, I need to wake up--" He's very talented at manipulating the dreamspace, but if this is one of Shaw's nastier Somnacin compounds, he might find himself trapped here for some time....

Erik moves so quickly that he's practically a blur, grabbing Charles's shoulders and pushing him roughly back against the wall. It doesn't quite hurt, but it certainly gets Charles's attention. "Don't you dare," Erik says urgently, gripping him tightly. "You're not dreaming, Charles, you can't wake up because you are awake. This is real. This is real."

Charles's heart is racing, thumping painfully against his ribs. "How do you know?"

"Stay right here," Erik orders him, kissing him hard before pulling away. He doesn't go far, just a few steps across the room to a battered old dresser; he pulls open a drawer and rummages through a small heap of clothing. Charles leans back against the wall and frantically rifles through his own memory. He recognizes this room, doesn't he? It's different enough by daylight to throw him, but yes, familiar. How did he get here? Last night--

"Here," Erik says, returning. He takes Charles's hand and presses a coin into his palm. "My totem, Charles, you must remember--"

Erik's totem is a silver dollar, with heads on both sides. Charles remembers that much from before. He doesn't think Erik ever gave it to him to hold; totems are private by their very nature, useless if other dreamers know too much about them. Erik would have trusted him easily with even this, if Charles had ever asked, but he never had. He'd respected Erik's privacy.

Charles takes a deep breath and examines the coin. Both sides are identical. Heads. He flips it in the air a few times, clumsily, but the results never change. It lands on heads every time.

He clenches his hand into a fist around the coin and closes his eyes. Adrenaline still courses through his body, but the fog of sleep and panic is slowly clearing from his mind, the memories crashing back into place. They came here last night. There was a man, Logan, rough-spoken but generous; this is his safe house. Alex had driven them in Moira's rental car; Alex and Angel and Raven and Erik. Because they'd found him, pulled him out of his prison, and he'd watched his family estate collapse into rubble.

He knows how he got here. This is real. He's awake.

"Oh, God," Charles says shakily. The rush of relief leaves him suddenly trembling, and he's not entirely certain how much longer his leg will be able to support his weight. His mouth feels very dry. He fumbles for the nightstand, grabbing the glass of water and gulping it down, then carefully limps over to sit back down on the bed. He can't quite bring himself to look up at Erik, feeling his cheeks flush with embarrassment. How could he ever have thought Erik was a projection? "Oh, God," he says again. "Are the others--"

"Alex and Angel have already left, but your sister's upstairs." Erik starts moving to the bedroom door. "Do you need me to go get her? Will she help you believe?"

Charles is already shaking his head, trying not to look too desperate. "No, please, that's fine. I don't want Raven to--" see me like this, he doesn't finish, but he knows Erik hears it anyway. He holds his head in his hands and takes a few deep breaths, willing himself calm.

"I'd almost have thought...." Erik starts, oddly hesitant. He holds back, hovering by the closed door, like he's not sure if Charles will let him close. Charles isn't entirely sure himself. "In our dreams, in Shaw's mind, you could walk -- you could run. I suppose I'd assumed that would be nearly as good as a totem."

Charles laughs. It rasps in his throat like sand. "Do you honestly imagine I've never had nightmares where I couldn't walk? Or worse?" He squeezes his eyes shut. "And when the pain is bad enough, it spills over into the dreams. Yes, if I can walk freely, I know for certain that I'm dreaming. But the reverse isn't necessarily true."

He vividly recalls one of the first dreams Shaw had built for him, so very shortly after the surgery he was too drugged to remember. The anaesthetic from the surgery had reacted badly with the Somnacin, and he could feel nothing at all below the waist. He'd ripped the dream apart in his panic, shattering the world around him as though putting a fist through a thin pane of glass, shards cutting into his skin. Even so, he'd never fully realized he was dreaming, his mind stuck on an endless loop of I can't feel my legs, I can't feel my legs.... And when he'd jerked awake, his leg was still completely numb and he couldn't breathe properly and Shaw was staring down at him with eager interest saying fascinating, that was just fascinating, let's see what happens if we adjust the anaesthetic and try again--

He's suddenly aware of Erik's hands on his knees, gripping hard enough to bruise. Erik is kneeling before him, white-faced, saying Charles's name over and over again until Charles meets his eyes. The mattress sits low on the bed frame; they're very nearly of a height like this. Charles scrubs his hand across his face. "Did I zone out for a moment there?" he asks ruefully. "I'm so sorry, Erik, I didn't mean to frighten you."

"Don't apologize," Erik says sharply. His tone takes Charles aback until he realizes: Erik is angry with himself. "I should have known you'd -- waking up in an unfamiliar place, after what you've -- of course you would think--"

"I'm fine," Charles says, each of Erik's half-formed recriminations cutting into him as though they were his own. He clutches the coin so hard that it's probably being permanently imprinted into the skin of his palm. "Please, Erik, stop, it's certainly no fault of yours."

"I should have--"

The last thing Charles wants is to listen to Erik blame himself. He reaches out to run his hand through Erik's hair and cups the back of his head, dragging him in for a kiss. Erik surges up into it, bracing his hands on either side of Charles's thighs, bracketing him in. His mouth is hot and desperate; Charles matches Erik's urgency with his own, kissing him like he has no need for oxygen, drowning in him, finding himself anew.

"You're awake," Erik promises against Charles's lips, drawing back the space of a breath until their eyes meet. "This is real, I'm real, you're awake."

"I know," Charles says hoarsely, cupping Erik's jaw in his hand and tracing his thumb across his lower lip. Erik shudders slightly at the touch, his eyes dark with heat, and Charles needs him so badly he can't breathe. "God, Erik, come here."

Erik follows willingly where he's led, scrambling up to join Charles on the bed and manhandling him against the pillows, anchoring Charles with the weight of his body. Charles reaches up to him, clutching at his shoulder blades, pulling him down to kiss his mouth, his jaw, his neck, his mouth again. He's dimly aware of the coin falling out of his hand to land with a clink on the floorboards; he couldn't care less. They'll find it again later.

Erik tugs impatiently at the hem of Charles's T-shirt; Charles laughs and sits up enough to yank it off, then gasps at the feel of Erik's bare skin against his own, nearly overwhelmed by it. God, two years without touch; it's all too much, all at once, and he doesn't care because at the same time it can never be enough. He forces himself to stop touching Erik for long enough to wriggle out of his trousers, which takes more of an effort than it used to, even with these loose track pants. Erik helps strip him bare, then pauses, tracing his fingers along Charles's exposed left thigh.

Ah, yes. That. There's just the single, puckered scar; a pale, ugly little round thing. Strange that something so small as a bullet could do so much damage, and hardly leave a mark. "It's all right," Charles says, still breathing heavily but trying to accommodate Erik's obvious shift in mood. "It could have been much worse. I suppose I'll need to purchase a cane, but it's only a minor inconvenience, really."

Erik has plenty of his own scars, both visible and not; he knows better than to afford Charles's too much importance. He presses his lips to it, lingering, then slowly traces a path of open-mouthed kisses up the length of Charles's body until Charles is arching and gasping beneath him. With every touch, every caress, the world of the dreamscape seems further and further away; Charles's universe shrinks down to only encompass the two of them, here in this moment, waking and indisputably real.

"Stay," Erik breathes out against the soft, sensitive skin just beneath Charles's ear. "Charles, stay with me."

Charles laughs, breathless and free. "Where else would I possibly go?" he replies, and twists up to claim another kiss, and another, and another.

*

Epilogue

The universe really has no excuse for Mondays. By mid-morning, the walls of Hank's lab feel like they're closing in on him, and he ducks out for his second coffee break just to not be there anymore. It's not that he finds his work dull, exactly; Proclus Global is at the cutting edge of Somnacin research, and Hank has pretty much been given free reign of his lab. It's just that the experiments he's running are so...sterile. Theoretical. Fascinating enough in their own way, but completely detached from the gritty day-to-day realities of actual dreamsharing.

Hank is bored.

There's a Mr. Coffee in the staff kitchen, of course, but Hank isn't in this for the caffeine. Well, not just for the caffeine. He wants the full playing-hooky coffee break experience, and that means the Caribou down the street. Besides, he likes their flavored lattes.

He guesses he should be surprised to find Alex loitering outside the building, but really, it's about fucking time.

"It's been two months since the Shaw job," Hank says by way of greeting. "What took you so long?"

Alex smirks. "Getting tired of playing with test tubes, Hank?"

"You have no idea," Hank tells him feelingly. "What's the job?"

"Actually, it's, uh--" Alex waves his hand expressively. Well, it's probably meant to express something, anyway, but it's not any of the military hand signals Hank remembers, and apparently he's not up to date in his Alex-to-English dictionary. "Got a few minutes?"

Hank shrugs, indicating the coffee shop at the other end of the block. "Only if you're buying."

"You're on Proclus's fucking payroll, why the fuck am I the one -- Christ. Fine."

Once they've collected their caffeinated beverages of choice, and after Alex has spent a solid three minutes making fun of Hank's caramel mocha latte, they finally settle in to talk business. "So Raven and I are thinking of putting a crew together on a more permanent basis," Alex says.

Hank licks some stray whipped cream off his upper lip, considering. "Who's in charge, you or Raven?"

"Bit of both."

Hank just looks at him.

Alex huffs out a breath, rolling his eyes. "Okay, yeah, Raven, whatever."

"Any set criteria for jobs?"

"Only clients recommended by people we trust, nothing involving any state secrets because Moira will kick our asses, bonus points awarded for creativity." Alex grins. "Raven doesn't take kindly to being bored."

"Base of operations?"

Alex shrugs. "Fluid. Raven's partial to the Mediterranean, I've got more contacts in the States; we both have an irrational fondness for Sydney, but that's way the fuck out of everyone else's way. So wherever suits the job in question, I guess. Keep your apartment here in D.C., it's a good international hub."

"So this is meant to be a full-time gig," Hank says thoughtfully.

"What part of 'permanent basis' implied 'keep your day job'? Christ, Hank, it's not like you'll be taking much of a pay cut -- no, don't give me that look, I'm not trying to get into some kind of bidding war with Proclus, do you want to spend the best years of your life locked in a fucking corporate lab or what? And just think of the frequent flier miles!"

Hank grins, sipping his extremely sugary and delicious coffee-related beverage. "Is Sean on board, too?"

"He bugged out but good," Alex admits. "Haven't heard a thing since he set up that safe house for us. I mean, whatever, he'll turn up eventually, always does. But nah, we actually did a job with Angel the other week, I think she might stick around." He drums his fingers along the cafe table. "Though Raven's been dabbling more and more with architecture herself. You should probably hide your chemistry set in case she decides to go for the full complement, she's like trying to be the next fucking Darwin or something."

He says the name easily, without flinching or glaring or hunching his shoulders like he's trying to ward off attention. Maybe he got some of his own closure out of the Shaw job after all. "Heard anything from Erik lately?" Hank asks, cautiously testing the waters.

"He and Charles are lying low for the moment, giving the government a chance to forget about them. But they're good," Alex says, almost fondly, though Hank generously ignores that to maintain plausible deniability. "Last e-mail I got, sounded like Charles is making noise about starting a dreamsharing research academy or some shit, get people trained up properly, all in the name of science and psychiatry." Alex snorts. "You better be careful, Hank -- they ever get that off the ground, they're gonna try to recruit you."

"Yeah, well, you too, probably."

"Probably," Alex admits with a crooked smile. "But I may as well enjoy myself for a while first. Seriously, though, you're obviously bored out of your fucking skull here. We need a chemist who knows his shit and is willing to experiment, and I can promise that you'll actually get to participate in the dream levels on the jobs when we need you. Angel prefers hanging out topside during the jobs themselves anyway. So, what do you say, Hank?" He reaches across the table and swipes his finger in Hank's whipped cream, over Hank's loud protests, then does his level best to suck the cream off his finger in the most outrageously lewd fashion imaginable. "Wanna go commit some really sexy mind-crime?"

"It's like you want me to tell you to go fuck yourself," Hank complains, but he can't help but grin back at him. As Mondays go, he's had far worse.

Fuck, he really needs to make himself a totem.

*

They settle in Montreal, for no particular reason. Or, well, because it's an easy drive across the Canadian border from Logan's safe house, and they both speak French already. Erik is fluent, but apparently he has a thick Parisian accent, which the locals consider entirely too snobbish, whereas Charles mangles complex tenses left and right, but mimics the Quebecois conversational patterns with ease. It doesn't really matter; Erik's used to everyone liking Charles better, anyway. God knows he does.

And it's not as though they plan on staying here long. But Erik really quite likes the city, and they have a pleasantly large ground-floor flat within walking distance of the McGill University hospital, where Charles undergoes regular physical therapy under an assumed name (though the doctors say he'll walk with a limp for the rest of his life). So it will suffice until they can work out what comes next.

Erik keeps a PASIV case of the top shelf of their bedroom closet. He'd half expected that Charles would never want to dream again, but that underestimated the man's resilience. True, Charles chooses to live solely in the waking world for the first few weeks, relishing in his first real stretch of full consciousness in more than two years. But one day he puts on that particularly mulish expression and won't back down until Erik sketches out a quick dream for them both to share. It's a complete disaster: militant projections, grotesque distortions of architecture, inconvenient paradoxes, the works. They last less than ten minutes before being killed awake.

So the next day Charles insists they try it again.

"This is what drew me to dreamsharing in the first place," he murmurs, later, trailing his fingertips idly across Erik's chest, down the bare plane of his stomach. "Direct access to the subconscious mind -- the gateway to unlocking psychological traumas. Not scampering about carelessly plundering secrets, but if we could instead devise a sympathetic course of treatment...."

Erik presses a kiss to Charles's collarbone, catching Charles's hand and twining their fingers together. "I don't like the thought of you experimenting on your own mind."

"I'm not experimenting, merely exploring," Charles retorts, but his fingers tighten around Erik's. "And who better?"

Erik hates that Charles can be so clinical about the lingering scars of his long captivity; he self-diagnosed his own fucking PTSD weeks before he allowed Erik to drag him in to see a proper psychiatrist. There are still hours when Charles is distant, disengaged, the line between waking and dreaming blurred. Never for very long, and the episodes are gradually growing fewer and further between, but no less terrifying for Erik to witness. But for all that, Charles's ready willingness to let Erik in is a comfort; if Charles ever falls too deep, Erik will be able to follow him down, to find him, to bring him back.

That's the theory, at least. And it's not as though Erik is a stranger to Charles's subconscious demons.

He brings their joined hands to his lips, kisses Charles's fingertips one by one until Charles loses patience and drags Erik close, tangling their bodies together. And Erik thinks that someday soon, he'll be ready to bring Charles down into his memory fortress, to finally offer up the darkest corners of his mind to Charles as Charles has to him. And maybe then, with Charles at his side, Erik will be able to stride down the iron corridors of his own construction, throwing open door after door, releasing every last memory, setting himself free.