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Queen's Gambit

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Raven is dreaming of a casino. It's not for a job, just practice. Casinos are large, gaudy places, bustling with activity in every corner, thousands of projections swarming around; she slides in and out of bodies as she moves through the space, seeing how far she can get before anyone notices.

No one does.

She plays a few hands of poker as a disdainful, elderly aristocrat, and slips her hand up the skirt of a cocktail waitress. The waitress squeaks and giggles, slapping her away with a saucy smile. After losing too much money at that table, Raven moves on to the slot machines, becoming a bored housewife on holiday, cranking the lever with a seemingly endless supply of quarters. She actually wins once, though she doesn't hit the jackpot; a handful of silver coins spill out into her open palms.

They're not quarters, she notices, but Susan B. Anthony dollars. Huh.

She cashes in her winnings for a stack of blue-and-red chips and moves to a blackjack table, donning the designer suit and reckless air of a high-roller. The dealer hardly glances up. Two rounds after Raven is dealt in, another player slides into the seat beside hers, taking the next three hands.

"Trying to cheat the house?" Raven asks idly.

The other player chuckles, low and rich. "Just a run of luck. Stay in long enough, Ms. Marko, and the house always wins."

Raven stiffens. Her current forgery is male, and she hasn't thought of herself as a Marko in years. Her professional name is Raven Darkholme. When her subconscious slips, it sometimes calls her Xavier instead; she'd legally taken on her stepbrother's surname after her asshole father had disinherited her. But she can count the number of people who know her as Raven Marko on one hand.

She turns to study her neighbor. Not anyone she's ever seen before, either in reality or dreams. He's a tall, muscular black man, bald, whose build and posture positively scream military; he wears a long black coat and an eyepatch over his left eye. She already has her pistol out under the table, aimed right for his gut. "I'm afraid your luck is about to run out," she tells him, with a hard smile. "This is my house, sir, and as you say, I do always win." But her mind is racing frantically. Who the fuck is this guy? How did he hook into her dream? Who sold her out, and for fuck's sake, why?

The intruder chuckles again. For some reason, that fails to reassure her. "No need to panic, Raven," he says. "I'm sorry to startle you like this, but I wanted to see your work for myself. Beautiful forgery, and the architecture is quite good for a nonspecialist." He looks around the casino with an appraising eye. "Needs a bit more depth, but the detail is exquisite."

"How the hell did you find me?" Raven demands.

"I was given your contact info by Agent MacTaggert," he says. "She also warned me that you'd probably shoot me in the face, but as you can see..." He gestures to the eyepatch with a smirk. "I've had worse."

Raven grits her teeth. Moira. Of course. You do one job for the government, it's like they fucking own you or something. "And you are?"

"My name is Nick Fury," he tells her. "And I'm here to talk to you about Cain Marko."

*

Their last job hadn't ended well.

In fairness, the job itself had gone fine, at least as far as Angel knows. Simple in-and-out extraction, corporate gig, good payout for minimal effort. There had been a minor kerfuffle between Proclus Global and one of its pharmacological subsidiaries; Hank had landed them the job due to his Proclus connections and his own expertise in the field. A scientist had been sitting on a potential breakthrough, and Proclus was concerned their subsidiary was trying to sell out his research to a rival company. Angel had built them a very simple dream, appealing to the scientist's secret love of cheap potboiler mystery novels. As it turned out, his big secret was that the much-touted breakthrough itself was a bust. The info was easily extracted -- he was feeling pretty guilty about it already -- and Angel only had to wait around for fifteen minutes topside before her teammates were waking up of their own volition, well before the musical kick. Easy money.

But something must have gone wrong in the dream itself, because they'd all awoken tense and angry -- Angel's never seen Hank legitimately pissed off before, it's kind of an experience -- and Alex and Raven haven't spoken to each other since. It's been about a month and a half now, which is a hell of a long time for an extractor and her point man to hold a grudge. And for Christ's sake, Alex had run point for Erik "Asshole" Lehnsherr for two years -- Angel would've thought he had immunity to just about any stunt a fellow dreamer could pull by now. What on earth could Raven have done to spark off this fucking cold war between them? Or was it all Alex's fault? Or Hank's?

Fortunately, they made enough off the Proclus job to earn themselves a bit of a vacation, but six weeks in, Angel's starting to get seriously bored. And frustrated, because no one will fucking tell her anything. The four of them had had a good thing going for a while there; what the fuck happened?

She should've known something that good wouldn't last. Story of her fucking life.

So Angel's in New York at the moment, playing art student at the Met. She's ensconced in front of the suits of armor, sketching a Japanese samurai outfit, when a loud tour group swarms in around her. Angel ignores them. Then she feels a hand on her shoulder, and only long years of illegal activity keep her from jumping right out of her fucking skin.

"That's really good," Raven says, too brightly. "Hey, are you like a professional artist or something?"

Angel suppresses a grin, keeping her expression studiously neutral. "Nah, just a student," she says, shading in the curve of the helmet crest. "You wanna see some real art, you should check out the collection of woodblock prints upstairs."

Out of the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of Raven's quicksilver smile. The prints are up in a corner of the Asian art section, way quieter and more secluded than the armoury gallery here smack in the middle of the museum's bustling ground floor. "Hey, yeah, sounds cool," Raven says. "Might split off from this tour and check 'em out in like twenty minutes or so."

"Cool," Angel echoes, and ducks her head back down to her sketchpad. Raven is swept along with the rest of the crowd, the image of a casual tourist.

Twenty minutes later, Angel heads up to the Japanese art gallery, moving past elaborately painted screens into the semi-private nook that holds the colorful woodblock prints. There are a handful of other visitors in the gallery, but no one's paying the slightest attention to Raven. Good. Angel's still wary of other dreamers; there's been no sign that either Hellfire or the CIA give a flying fuck about her continued existence, but it can't hurt to be careful.

"Hey, girl," Angel says with a broad smile. "Been a while."

Raven grins and gives her a quick, warm hug. Her long blonde hair brushes Angel's cheek, smelling faintly of lavender-scented shampoo. "It's only been a month and a half," Raven protests, pulling away and tucking her hair back behind her ear.

"We've never been more than like three weeks between jobs so far," Angel points out. "Here I was getting worried you'd found yourself a new team."

"Never," Raven says, but her eyes darken somewhat. Her tone shifts into business mode, clipped and professional. "Seen him?"

Angel doesn't need to ask who. "Last I heard, he was playing bouncer for movie stars. Got a job?"

"Have I ever." Raven sticks her hands into the pockets of her dark purple leather jacket, shifting her weight from side to side. "Hey, you ever heard of a guy called Nick Fury?"

Angel frowns, more at Raven's obvious discomfort than the unfamiliar name. "Nope. Should I have?"

"Don't worry about it," Raven says, turning to go. "I'll send you an e-mail when we've hashed out some more details, but get your kit together."

"You two still haven't sorted your shit out, have you?" Angel calls after her, trying to keep her voice down in the quiet museum.

Raven turns back and shrugs, her pretty mouth twisted into a rueful smirk. "We'll be fine. He's just being an idiot."

"Well, yeah," Angel says with a snort. "He's a dude, after all."

Raven tosses a laugh over her shoulder as she heads back out, and Angel grins. New job, huh? It's about fucking time.

*

It's not like Alex needs the money, because after the Proclus job, he really, really doesn't. But he's just so fucking bored. He's still got connections with some other ex-Army guys, most of whom were never dreamers, and a couple of them work as personal bodyguards for wealthy Hollywood types. So when Alex is between jobs, he sometimes picks up a gig working security at an obscenely overpriced club in downtown L.A. And if that means he occasionally gets to beat the shit out of some asshole paparazzi or whatever, all the better. It's a good way to blow off steam outside of the dreamscape.

Friday night, and the place is packed to the gills. Alex has never seen the appeal in this sort of club -- the drinks are appallingly expensive, the music is so loud you can feel the bass shaking your bones apart, and you're packed in like sardines with a hundred other trendy jackasses so closely that no one can even see your thousand-dollar shoes or what-the-fuck-ever. What's the fucking point? When Alex wants to get drunk, he prefers to do so cheaply and efficiently in a place where he can actually make conversation without shouting. And when he wants to dance -- oh, wait, he fucking hates dancing, so who the hell cares?

Fortunately, he's been posted at the door tonight, where he's still got a low buzz of headache from the thumping bass, but at least there's fresh air. And he gets to watch wannabe starlets in six-inch heels and barely-there dresses try to wheedle their way onto his VIP list, which is kind of hilarious, because no. He didn't get this job by being easily swayed by cleavage, and with the Proclus payout sitting pretty in his bank account, he's kind of difficult to bribe.

What looks like a bachelorette party staggers past, heading toward the C-list club just down the street. It's a raucous bunch; a few of the women give Alex and his co-bouncer Mike wolf whistles, strutting like hens as they walk by. Mike's a burly Iraq vet with biceps the size of Alex's thighs, and he fucking laps it up, flexing and grinning. Alex rolls his eyes behind his dark glasses and thanks fuck that they're not trying to get into his club.

One of the women detaches from her friends, pushing her long blonde hair back out of her face. "Hey, babe," she slurs, laughing loudly. "You wanna like frisk me or something?"

"Oh, that's original," Alex grouses, but the blonde manages to shove her way around the line of clubbers, heading straight for him. She throws an arm around Alex's neck, plastering her body all along his side, giggling hysterically. Alex attempts to disentangle himself without breaking her fucking arm while Mike just laughs, the traitor.

"You need help or something?" Mike asks him, grinning hugely.

Alex peels the woman away from his side, then needs to catch her waist to keep her upright when she staggers. "No," he says through gritted teeth. "I got this. Just gimme a sec, okay?" To the girl, he says, "Christ, let's get you back to your fucking friends, I don't have time for this shit."

She bats her heavily mascaraed eyelashes at him. "You wanna party with us?"

"Hell to the fuck no."

"Bouncer's gotta bounce," she informs Mike with drunken solemnity, then shrieks with laughter.

Alex roughly manhandles her down the pavement. A few people laugh or give them weird looks, but most of the partygoers are too interested in themselves to give a flying fuck. Alex ducks them both down a narrow alleyway, out of immediate view of the street, then pushes her away. "Fucking hell, Raven, you couldn't have found a subtler way to contact me?"

Raven smirks, folding her arms across her chest. She's stone cold sober. "Oh, you're no fun anymore."

"I'm working."

Raven gives him a disdainful look. "That's not real work, not for us."

"What, like you've got something better on offer?" Alex snaps, then matches her scowl for scowl in lieu of banging his head against the nearest wall. Of course she's got a job for him, why the fuck else would she be here right now? And after the way they left things, he's more than a little surprised to see her at all. If he's a bit off his game tonight, that's the only reason.

Right.

Raven sighs, looking suddenly weary. "Look, are you going to keep acting like a twelve-year-old about the Proclus job, or can we pretend to be grown-ups for a while? Because if I need to find a new point man, please just tell me now so that I can stop wasting both of our time."

Alex pinches the bridge of his nose, grimacing. Yeah, he's still pissed, and he knows Raven is too, but it's not like Raven's going to apologize, and Alex sure as hell won't. So they can be stuck in this holding pattern forever or they can move the fuck past it. "Talk fast, I gotta get back to the club. What's the target?"

The hint of a smile flickers across Raven's face. "I hear Washington's lovely this time of year."

"Yeah, the cherry blossoms are real fucking pretty. But D.C. is Hellfire's turf these days."

"Is it?" she asks, with false innocence. "How about that."

"Not to mention, Moira tends to get pissy when we screw around inside the Beltway."

"Moira's the one who landed us the job."

Alex narrows his eyes. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is sponsoring us now? What the fuck? I thought we had an arrangement with those tools. We don't get in their way, and they pretend our crew doesn't exist."

"Change of plans," Raven says with a shrug. "And Moira's boss is...not the sort of guy you say 'no' to. But there are perks to being on a government contract." There's a certain sort of grim satisfaction in her tone that sends Alex's spidey sense all a-tingle. Raven's running her own con on the side. The only question is whether she'll let Alex in on it in time for him to keep it from blowing up in their faces.

"The perks not being financial, unfortunately," Alex reminds her, shoving his unease to the back of his mind for now. "There's not going to be much of a payout with a government extraction. We got the team together on the Shaw job mostly by playing up the personal angle, and even so, Erik had to invest a lot of his own savings to back it up. But if you want to tackle the Hellfire Club--"

"We made enough off Proclus that the money shouldn't be an issue for our usual crew," Raven points out. Which makes sense. If she found Alex here, she's probably already talked to Angel. And cash has never been the sticking point for Hank. "And we're not trying to take down Hellfire itself."

"Who's the mark?"

Raven smiles and holds up two fingers.

"Two marks? Shit. Simultaneous but separate, I'm assuming?" Alex does some quick calculations. In spite of himself, it feels good, getting back into the mental groove of a real job, working out logistics, connecting the dots. This is what he lives for. "You're going to need like a dozen people to pull this off, and they can't all be dreamers, 'cause the logistics on the ground are gonna be a real bitch. Hopefully we can count on S.H.I.E.L.D. for some resources, but we still need to pay off two separate extraction teams. Where are you getting the money to back this?"

"I'm willing to put down a personal investment for starters," Raven says, twirling a long strand of hair around her finger. "And God knows Hellfire's made a few enemies along the way."

"Yeah, but finding someone with that much cash and nothing to lose--" Alex stops, thinks about it, tries not to smack himself in the forehead.

Raven grins.

*

Emma Frost keeps a small mansion by the shore in Malibu, all dazzling white stucco and red clay tiles and one of those pools that's set right at the edge of the cliff looking out onto the Pacific Ocean. She invites them out onto her patio for lunch with a surprising amount of graciousness considering that the last time they all met, Raven had twisted Emma's arms up behind her back while Alex pointed a gun in her face.

"I must admit, this is rather an unexpected visit," Emma remarks over seared salmon and wild rice. "Given the terms of our sole prior encounter, you must be either very foolish or very desperate to seek my assistance."

Alex snorts, muttering something under his breath that sounds an awful lot like or both. Raven ignores him, turning her most charming smile on Emma. "Actually, I have a great deal of respect for you, Ms. Frost--"

"Emma," she interrupts coolly. "I can't be bothered to keep track of all the names you use, honey, so if I'm to call you Raven, we ought to forgo the formalities entirely, don't you think?"

"Emma, then," Raven says, determined to remain pleasant. "I have a mutually beneficial proposition to make."

"Yes, I rather expected as much." Emma takes a delicate sip of white wine. "Is it my money or my forgeries that you're after, sugar?"

Well, if they're not going to beat around the bush... "Both."

Emma raises an eyebrow. "What's the job?"

"Know anything about a Colonel William Stryker?" Alex asks.

"Stryker," Emma repeats, pursing her lips into a moue of distaste. "Yes. He ran the original US Army dreamsharing program, by which I mean the very first time anyone thought to touch another person's dreams. Sebastian Shaw was one of his first recruits. I'm not sure if I ought to send Stryker a gift basket or a hired assassin for that. But his program was dismantled with all the rest, a few years ago, when the military decided to shut down its dream research. I don't know what Colonel Stryker's been doing with himself since."

Alex twitches a little, and Raven reminds herself that he'd been part of the army's very last dreamsharing squad. And one of only three survivors. She'll have to remember to ask him later if he'd ever encountered Stryker himself.

"He was never a dreamer himself, as far as I know," Emma adds. "He loathed every aspect of dreamsharing, for some reason or another, but he loved the power his dreamers gave him. Not a pleasant man. His son is a member of the Hellfire Club inner circle, actually."

Alex nods. His eyes are concealed behind his dark shades, but Raven can feel the look he shoots her all the same. "Jason Stryker. Hellfire's chemist."

"The winning personality runs in the family," Emma says dryly. "I take it that Stryker père is your mark, then? Whatever are you trying to extract from him?"

"Stryker's one of the two marks, yeah," Raven says, keeping her tone breezy. She takes a bite of the salmon. It's excellent. "But it's not exactly an extraction, per se. Thing is, Stryker seems to have adopted the Hellfire Club as his personal attack dogs. And he's using them to buy himself...influence, shall we say, among several key members of Congress."

"He's trying to start up his military dreamsharing program again, basically," Alex puts in. "Except with less oversight and more scary. And with Hellfire's assistance, he's got some important Congressional committee leadership in his pocket. It's only a matter of time."

"Our client is understandably wary of such developments." Raven sips her wine. "He would like us to inconspicuously take Colonel Stryker out of play."

Emma glances between them, her cold blue eyes narrowed. "You mean inception."

Raven shrugs. "The client wasn't terribly specific as to our methods."

"Are you both out of your minds?" Emma demands. "Do you have any idea how risky inception is? There have been people working in dreams for nearly three decades, and do you know how many times a successful inception has been completed? Once. One inception in thirty years of dreaming, and from the rumors, it landed two of its team in Limbo in the process." She shakes her head, toying with her white linen napkin for a moment before folding it neatly beside her plate. "I've got to hand it to you, sugar, you know how to dream big, but this is insanity. And to, what, eliminate some bitter, washed-up old army colonel from the game?" She curls her lips into an elegant sneer. "Honey, that's what bullets are for."

Raven and Alex exchange a look, then get to their feet in perfect unison. Alex snags one last bite of salmon, though. "You're right, of course," Raven sighs. "Assassination would be a far simpler solution, on the surface. But our client is concerned about the potential backlash -- from Congress as well as the Hellfire Club itself."

"But yeah, inception is fucking crazy," Alex agrees. "And far too risky an investment for a woman of your professional standing."

The barb cuts, Raven can tell. Not that Emma Frost isn't a highly respected dreamer in her own right, but she lost Hellfire, and with it, most of her prestige and clientele -- though clearly her personal finances haven't suffered. She gives them both an icy glare.

"We'll see ourselves out," Raven says politely. "Thank you for the lovely lunch, Emma. We won't take up any more of your time."

They turn toward the house, but Emma's voice halts them. "You mentioned two marks," she says. When Raven glances back, Emma is running her finger thoughtfully along the rim of her wineglass. It rings faintly. "Stryker is the first. Who's the second?"

"Cain Marko," Raven tells her. The man who'd wrested control of Hellfire Club away from Emma and then hung her out to dry like yesterday's dirty linens. Raven is not above cheating at cards, not when the stakes are this high.

After a long moment, Emma smiles slowly, darkly, like a predator contemplating its prey. "So what did you have in mind?"

*

Moira kind of hates Los Angeles, and near as she can tell, the feeling is mutual. She has never been so excited to get on a plane in her entire life. Her flight back to Dulles doesn't leave for another hour and a half, so she's sipping bad coffee in a food court in LAX and counting down the minutes.

Coulson takes the seat opposite her, dropping a tray of terrible airport Chinese food onto the table. "Two twenty-something blonds approaching from the direction of Cinnabon. That's them, right?"

"Better be."

Sure enough, Alex and Raven scoot in beside them. Raven snags a limp stalk of broccoli off the tray, while Alex studies Coulson warily. "New partner, Moira?"

"Alex, Raven, meet Agent Coulson," Moira says. No handshakes are exchanged. "There. I'm sure we're all going to be the best of friends."

"I was kinda surprised when you told us you were already in L.A.," Raven remarks. "What brings you so far outside the Beltway?"

Moira rubs her temple wearily. "Bit of a flap over at Stark Industries. Don't ask."

Coulson suppresses a smirk, the bastard. It's all his fault that Moira is now a special agent with the Subconscious Homeland Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Division, and he didn't just spend the better part of a week trying to fend off Tony Stark's untoward advances. ("This is the closest attention the man's paid to a S.H.I.E.L.D. debriefing in years," Coulson had told her with a grin. "Sorry, MacTaggert, but we're not letting you go anytime soon.")

"So," Alex says briskly, all business. "I know Moira's street cred, but do you know your way around a dream at all, Agent Coulson?"

"Only as a tourist," Coulson says. "But I've had some experience handling a PASIV, if you think you'll need an extra body topside."

Raven tilts her head to one side, eying both agents pensively. "You're both going to be on deck for the job itself?"

"Our boss told us to give you anything you asked for, within reason," Moira tells them. "He also wants us in on your group planning sessions. Fury doesn't like surprises." They're not going to be pulling a trick like the Shaw job again -- no one's being sent on a one-way trip to Limbo on Moira's watch. But on the plus side, S.H.I.E.L.D. is willing to give Raven's team a hell of a lot more leeway than the CIA would have.

And once the job itself is done, Moira and Coulson have very specific instructions about looking the other way.

"Babysitters?" Raven asks, wrinkling her nose.

"If you like," Coulson says amicably. "We'd rather be considered part of your team, though. Fury's cleared us of any other assignments or obligations for the duration of the job. Feel free to put us to work."

Raven and Alex exchange a quick glance, but neither of them seem particularly put out by it. Alex nods slowly. "We could use some extra hands for the sting itself, and if you two handle topside security, that frees up more of our people for the dreams themselves. Plus you guys do actually understand security. I think that's worth the trade-off."

"How big of a crew are you pulling together?" Moira asks.

"Two complete extraction teams," Alex says. "Well, only one chemist, but other than that, yeah. If your partner here can actually handle a PASIV, that could come in handy."

Moira does a quick mental tally. One chemist, two each of extractors, point men, architects, and probably forgers, plus two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Eleven total, or ten if Raven intends to double as both forger and primary extractor, which she usually does. Still. That's a much bigger crew than most dreamers are comfortable working with. Dreamsharing is not an industry that lends itself to safety in numbers. Quite the opposite.

"I hope you're only choosing people you trust," she says carefully. She certainly couldn't list eleven active dreamers she trusted. She can barely think of five.

Raven shrugs. "More or less. The ones I'd normally trust less are the ones with the highest personal stake in the venture, though, so we should be fine." She gets to her feet, and Alex follows suit. "We've got our own flights to catch, but we'll all rendezvous in Washington in a few days. I'll let you know."

"Where to next?" Coulson asks.

"Splitting up for the moment," Raven replies. "I've got some errands to run in D.C. while Alex clears up a little problem in Chicago, and then we're both heading up to Montreal. Don't wait up!" She waggles her fingers at them while Alex rolls his eyes, and then they melt back into the airport crowds.

Moira sighs and pokes at the greasy lo mein, debating whether or not it's worse than the meal they'll be served on the plane.

"I wonder who else they're recruiting?" Coulson remarks idly.

D.C., Chicago, Montreal. Moira huffs out a laugh. "I'm pretty sure she just told us."

*

Raven's the one who finds him, and for an instant, Hank feels a flash of something almost like disappointment. But that makes no sense, so he shrugs it off.

"Shit, Hank," Raven says, looking around his apartment with wide eyes. "What happened here?"

Hank scratches the back of his neck, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Um. I got bored?"

The general effect is a bit like several electronics stores and a few high-tech laboratories have vomited their contents all over Hank's living room. He's got three separate experiments running along one long lab bench and a fully functional robot spawning assorted gadgetry on the couch, and it's probably for the best that Raven hasn't seen his kitchen yet.

"We went all of six weeks between jobs," Raven says incredulously. "Most people would just book a cruise to the Caribbean or something."

"The last time I had a vacation was before I joined the army," Hank mutters. "I don't remember how."

Raven snorts and tries to take a seat at the edge of the couch. The robot clicks at her warningly, so she leans against a bare patch of wall instead. "Apparently. Good thing I'm here to save you from yourself." She crosses her arms across her chest, studying him. "You spoken to Alex at all since...?"

Hank shoves his hands into his jeans pockets with a scowl. "No. He's being an idiot."

"And you've known him how long?" Raven inquires lightly, but her smile doesn't reach her eyes.

"Are you two--"

"On speaking terms again? Yes." Raven shrugs. "By necessity. We're both professionals."

"Could've fooled me," Hank mutters. What happened on the Proclus job was just -- it doesn't matter. It shouldn't matter. The only one who's acting like it matters is Alex fucking Summers. And everyone thinks Hank is the one who walks around with a stick up his ass.

Raven's watching him too closely, like she sees something Hank doesn't, and it crawls under his skin. "Please tell me we have a job," Hank says, trying not to beg.

From Raven's smirk, he didn't quite succeed. "We have a job," she confirms. "Don't you want to know what it is?"

Hank looks around his apartment bleakly. "Do you honestly think I care?"

*

It was supposed to be a simple grab-and-go extraction, no fuss no muss, but then someone had to go and get all creative. Fuckers. So now Sean's trapped in a Chicago alley with cops swarming at either end, his so-called teammates already under arrest, and a PASIV case tucked under his arm; and he's got the unhappy options of either tossing it into a dumpster and praying it's still there once he's managed to shake off whatever bullshit the cops charge him with, or chance the Chicago P.D. getting their hand on a real live PASIV.

Not that they'll have the slightest idea what to do with it, but that's still a risk Sean doesn't want to take.

"Freeze!" someone shouts, barrelling down the alley, and Jesus Christ on a pogo stick of fail, Sean is so not having the best day ever.

Then he turns to see the asshole arresting him, and dude, Sean has never been any good at poker. But he does his best not to grin too widely.

He tolerates the handcuffs while he's escorted out past the cop cars. One policeman does try to intervene; Alex flashes a badge. "Special Agent Scott Winters, FBI," Alex snaps. "Which you would know if you had the slightest fucking clue what you were dealing with here."

The cop, a youngish dude who's clearly never dealt with any feds before, just blinks rapidly and puts his hands up, placating. "Sorry, sir, but this is a drugs bust, and if this guy--"

Drugs bust? Sean thinks incredulously. Seriously, which incompetent fuck called this shit in? Because when Sean finds out, he and the traitor are going to have words.

But Alex is unfazed. "Yeah, that fits his profile to a tee. We've been tracking Seamus Connolly for quite some time now." Alex yanks at Sean's arm, and Sean scowls threateningly for show. "See this?" Alex goes on, brandishing the PASIV case. Sean tries very hard not to wince. "Gotta send it in to the lab to be sure, but my guess is, pure medicinal-grade cocaine, street value upwards of ten million, right here in this case. You led us on quite the merry chase for a while there, Seamus," Alex adds, giving Sean a good glare.

The cop blinks again. "Oh. I didn't--"

"No," Alex says scathingly. "You didn't. Christ, could you pretend to be a functional human being for like two minutes and go fetch Detective Marks for me? I need to speak with him."

"I don't know who that is," the cop says helplessly.

Alex glares at him. "So go educate yourself, for Christ's sake!"

The cop scurries off, and Alex gives Sean's arm a good hard tug. Sean manages to keep it together until they've rounded a corner and duck behind a newsstand on Wabash. Then he nearly doubles over laughing. "Did you see his face?" he crows, gasping.

Alex grins and undoes the cuffs. "Good to see you again, too, moron. How the fuck did you fall into the middle of a fucking drugs bust?"

"Dude, I have no fucking clue," Sean laughs. "Someone must've called in an anonymous tip or some shit. So you got a job or something, or did you just happen to be in the neighborhood?"

"Job," Alex confirms. He throws up a hand to hail a passing cab, and they tumble inside. "O'Hare," he tells the cabbie, and they're off.

Sean settles back comfortably against the worn leather seat. He doesn't have any of his shit with him apart from the PASIV, but what the hell, that's the most important thing anyway. If Alex is offering him a job, he can foot the bill for some new duds until Sean can get at one of his various hidey-holes scattered across the States. "So you and Raven get over your little spat, then?" he asks.

"How did you -- no, you know what, I don't even want to know how you heard about that." Alex rolls his eyes. "Whatever, we're fine."

"So that's a no, then."

"Fuck off," Alex says easily. "So long story short, we're gonna try to take down the asshole who threw our old squad under the bus. You in?"

"Dude, like you even have to ask." Sean folds his arms behind his head, grinning. "Man, it's so good to be working with actual fucking professionals again, you have no idea."

*

Once Sean's been packed off to crash at Hank's place in D.C., there's no avoiding Raven any longer. They know how to present a united front to outsiders, no problem, but trapped alone in each other's company, Alex isn't sure how long they'll last before one of them snaps and tries to rip out the other's throat.

Their red-eye from Washington up to Montreal feels like a fucking eternity. Alex isn't actively angry with Raven anymore -- that faded within the first few days after the Proclus job -- but the heavy weight of six weeks of passive-aggressive silence locks them in place, holds them down. He doesn't know how to lift it, isn't even convinced it's all her fault anymore. Maybe he overreacted a bit -- but no, still, what the fuck had Raven been thinking--

"Still not sure this is such a good idea," Alex mutters, trying to derail that train of thought before it leaves the fucking station. He wishes he could just take a nap or something, but he's far too wired. "They got out of the game after the Shaw job."

"They got out of the business," Raven corrects curtly. "But not the game. They're still dreamers. And this one's too important."

She's right, and he knows she's right. This job is getting very personal for both him and Raven. And they're far from the only ones with stakes in taking down Stryker or Cain.

"And even if you're right," she goes on, "it can't hurt to ask."

Alex snorts. "Raven, you're putting your stepbrother into a position where he might have to enter Cain Marko's mind. You know, the guy who made both your lives a living hell while you were kids, and then, oh yeah, held him captive for two fucking years before trying to blow him up." He shakes his head in sudden, horrifying realization. "Christ, Erik is going to kick our asses."

*

It's supposed to be spring, but Canada seems to have missed the memo. At least there's beginning to be a noticeable contrast from the long, dark winter. The snow is entirely gone at last, and dawn breaks at a more reasonable hour -- or unreasonable, Charles is prone to grumble, shoving his face into the pillow, but Erik's always been a morning person. He's well into the Sunday paper and his second cup of coffee when the doorbell rings.

His first instinct, still, is to grab for his sidearm. Which no longer actually lives on his person at all times, more fool him. He keeps one handgun stashed in the hall closet and another in his bedside table; but by then the initial surge of adrenaline has passed, and Erik is capable of thinking rationally. In their line of work, real trouble doesn't tend to ring the doorbell. Hell, real trouble doesn't always bother with doors.

The bell rings again, in a succession of rapid bursts. Ah. Erik's been awoken by that precise pattern of knocking on various hotel room doors more times than he can count. The doorbell's buzz is far more obnoxious. Alex must fucking love it.

When he yanks open the front door, he finds both Alex and Raven there, looking poorly dressed for the weather. Raven's hands are shoved into the pockets of her short leather jacket, breath misting in the frigid air, and Alex is actually hopping from one foot to the other in a laughable attempt to warm himself up. Erik smirks and leans against the doorway, blocking their path, and takes a slow, deliberate sip of his steaming coffee. "Well, this is unexpected."

"Hello to you too, Jesus fucking Christ it's cold out here, are you gonna let us in or what?" Alex demands, all on one breath.

Erik remains in place for another long moment, just because he can, but the wind is biting at his face, so he eventually steps aside. "It's not my fault you didn't think to check the weather forecast," he says mildly, locking the door behind them. "Where did you think you were going, Hawaii?"

When neither of them shoot back a witty retort, Erik pauses, eyes narrowing. It's been well over half a year since the Shaw job, and not once has Alex dropped by for a casual visit. Raven has, several times, but she always at least e-mails Charles first. Both of them here, together, without warning? And who the hell goes visiting before nine o'clock on a Sunday morning?

"I told you this would not go over well," Alex mutters under his breath. Erik supposes it's somewhat gratifying to know that his former point man hasn't yet lost the ability to read his mind.

Erik takes another slow sip from his mug before setting it down on the coffee table. He can hear muffled thumping and muttering from the general direction of the bedroom, and grins. "You woke him, you'll have to deal with him," he remarks, enjoying their matching guilty expressions a little too much. He perches on the arm of the couch, folding his arms across his chest. "So. What is it this time?"

"We have a proposition to make," Raven says, taking a seat unbidden in an armchair. Alex just hovers behind her, rubbing his hands to restore circulation.

Erik raises an eyebrow. "Oh, you'll have to do better than that, Raven. It's more than a consultation, or you would have just e-mailed. Sensitive enough that you came yourself, without calling ahead to warn us. And you brought my -- your point man along, which means you thought you might need backup, which means you didn't expect I'd go along willingly. How am I doing so far?"

"It's important enough to drag you and Charles out of retirement," Raven adds, with a small smile. "Don't forget that."

Erik doesn't consider this to be retirement, precisely, but he's not interested in quibbling over terminology at present. "Both of us?" he inquires instead.

"Well, yeah," Alex remarks, rolling his eyes. "Like we'd bother trying to approach either of you separately."

"You've been working with a fixed crew for months," Erik points out. "I suppose you might have a situation that requires an additional primary extractor, if Raven's forgery doesn't lend itself to the extraction itself, but two? And while we're both competent architects when the need arises, you wouldn't bother calling either of us in for that. I suppose you might be considering ditching Alex as your point man and taking me on instead--"

"Like hell!" Alex says indignantly.

"--but you must know that I only run point for Charles these days." Erik smiles. "Not that either of us are in the illegal extraction business anymore."

"Yeah, and how's that dreamsharing academy coming along?" Alex asks pointedly.

Erik shrugs. "It's a process. Ask Charles about it sometime, when you've a few hours to spare."

"No time like the present," Charles remarks. Erik glances up to see him leaning against the kitchen counter, hastily but neatly dressed, one hand resting casually on his cane. He gives Erik a quick smile, but there's something uncharacteristically guarded in his eyes. His gaze flickers back to their guests. "Although I believe you've rather more pressing matters to discuss than my scholarly pursuits."

Raven jumps up to give her stepbrother a tight hug, which Charles returns easily. He's become quite adept with the cane, Erik notes. In the early days, he'd floundered at Raven's embrace, not quite sure what to do with his hands or how best to maintain balance. He may have lived with the disability for two years on his own, but trapped in the bunker beneath the Xavier mansion, he'd never had to navigate anything more complicated than the short distance between his bed and the bathroom. Human interactions are vastly more complex terrain.

And not only in the physical sense, as Erik has been discovering right along with him.

"Hello, Alex," Charles adds, once Raven releases him. "It's good to see you."

Alex twists his mouth into a crooked smile. "You too."

"Alex and Raven were just telling me about a job they're pulling together," Erik says, leaning forward and bracing his hands on his thighs. "Or not telling me, as the case may be."

"You were all...deducing, or some shit," Alex says with a shrug. "We'd have gotten around to the point eventually."

It's not like Alex to be so squirrelly. Erik sighs and looks over at Raven instead. "The job, Raven. What could you possibly need us for that you can't do yourselves?"

Raven stays close to Charles, perching on one of the barstools at the counter. "One job, two marks. Two teams. That's why I need you guys. There aren't any other extractor-point teams I trust."

"Linked dreams or separate?" Charles asks.

Alex and Raven exchange a quick look. "We were assuming separate," Alex says. "But there might be some advantages to linking them. Either way, we'll still need both teams."

"And the marks?"

"Military contractor by the name of Colonel William Stryker," Raven tells him. The name sounds vaguely familiar, but Erik can't quite place it. And it doesn't account for the way she's wringing her hands in her lap, fidgeting like a schoolgirl. "And, uh, one of his associates. They're using dreaming to influence members of Congress into supporting Stryker's programs, he's trying to bring back military dreamsharing in a bad way--"

Erik's eyes narrow. "We'll have to know the second mark's name eventually."

It's Alex who gives it up. "Cain."

And when Erik jerks convulsively and looks up at Charles, he can tell at once: Charles isn't surprised at all.

"No," Erik snarls, surging to his feet. "Absolutely not."

He can see both Raven and Alex flinch in his peripheral vision, but he only has eyes for Charles, who meets him head on. "We knew it would come to this eventually," Charles says, far too calmly.

Erik itches for his weapon, glowering at all three of them indiscriminately. "There is only one job I am willing to do on Cain Marko, and it has nothing to do with entering his dreams. If I'd known you had intel on him--"

"We didn't," Raven snaps back, face flushed. "Do you think I'd have left him out there this long if I'd known how to get to him sooner? We knew he'd taken over Hellfire and that they were operating out of Washington, but without S.H.I.E.L.D.'s assistance--"

"What the fuck is S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

"Ever hear of a guy called Nick Fury?"

At that, Erik stills. Yes. He has. But it's been years -- that restless, roaming period of Erik's life, after Shaw but before the CIA, before Charles had found him....

"I don't care about Fury or his fucking job," Erik says, slowly and clearly. "If he can give us Cain--"

"What the hell sort of deal do you think I made with him?" Raven demands. Her eyes spark like embers. "But Cain has information we need. The extraction is happening, Erik, whether you like it or not, and God help me, if you fuck me over--"

"If you think you can drag Charles into that bastard's mind--"

"Erik." Charles doesn't often raise his voice, but now it cracks in the air like a whip. "Might I have a word?"

Erik stalks right past him and into their study, the closest thing to privacy they'll find now that Raven and Alex have invaded their home. It's a small room, all bookshelves (mostly Charles's), and Erik nearly trips over the two chairs they've set out with a chessboard on the table between them. The bedroom is far less claustrophobic, but by mutual agreement, they keep certain arguments out of there. That's a remnant from their time with the CIA -- when you sleep with the person you work most closely with, certain boundaries must be drawn to safeguard the relationship. Erik refuses to have this fight in their bedroom.

Behind him, he can hear Charles begging Raven and Alex's pardon, and he snorts to himself, silently fuming. He paces the narrow edges of the study impatiently until Charles follows him in and shuts the door behind them.

"You knew," Erik accuses him, doing his best to keep from shouting. The walls aren't that thick. "You knew they were coming before they even got up this morning. You knew about the job."

Charles rubs his temple, squeezing his eyes shut for a brief moment. "Yes," he says, opening his eyes to meet Erik's steadily. "Moira called me yesterday afternoon, while you were out. She didn't give me many details, just fair warning. Apparently she's working for this Fury gentleman these days."

Erik scowls. "Fury's no gentleman. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I knew you'd react like this," Charles snaps. "We're all professionals, Erik. We should be capable of discussing this jobs on its own merits."

"You never did this sort of work--"

"Of course, because the CIA's extractions were so very much kinder than their illegal counterparts." Charles scrubs his hand across his face and pinches the bridge of his nose. He looks exhausted. For all that Erik enjoys mocking him for his dislike of mornings, he's well aware that Charles is often up working late into the night, developing his psychiatric dreamsharing theories, delving deep into all his old psychology texts and updating himself on two lost years of scholarship. Last night, Charles didn't stumble into bed beside him until three or four o'clock. Erik is abruptly, viscerally reminded of the worst parts of their CIA years, when Charles would run himself ragged on experiments and rarely get any real sleep at all. He clenches his hand on the back of a chair to keep from reaching out.

Damn Alex and Raven, anyway, for barging in and fracturing the fragile life they've been building together here.

"I don't want you in that psychopath's head," Erik tells him, voice like steel.

Charles's head snaps up. "And how do you think I feel about my sister diving into Cain's dreams?"

Erik's breath stutters slightly on that, as the full implications gradually catch up to him. From the moment Alex had named the mark, he'd only been able to think of Charles. Not Raven, who was actually related to Cain by blood, who'd had to live with him alone for the better part of a decade before Charles joined their family. Who'd borne Cain's bruises livid against her throat for a week after they'd pulled Charles out of the mansion.

"Raven's been dealt enough damage at Cain's hands," Charles says, low and fierce. "Damn it, Erik, I know she's an adult and she's more than able to take care of herself, but if I can protect her from this much, at least, I must try. There was little enough I could do when we were kids."

"She's earned the right to her own revenge, Charles," Erik points out, but the words feel heavy against his lips.

Charles's blue eyes are colder than Erik has ever seen them, staring past Erik at something that only he can see. "And she shall have it. Her job. Her team. Her plans. But I intend to be right there beside her."

"Beside her?" Erik repeats, chest tight. He hates it when Charles lies to him. "Or in place of her?"

Charles sighs, leaning more heavily on his cane. "Two marks," he says. "Two dreams. Perhaps neither of us will be going into Cain's mind at all."

Somehow, Erik very much doubts that. "Charles...."

"I am taking this job," Charles says. His gaze softens, studying Erik's face intently. "And I would quite prefer you go in with me, but if you feel so strongly about it--"

"Of course I'm with you," Erik snaps. "Always. It's not even a question, Charles, how could you think--"

Charles gives him a self-deprecating half-smile. "I know. I'm sorry." There's warmth to his eyes again, and the smile shifts into something softer, more genuine. "Come here."

Erik goes to him, because he can't not, not when Charles is looking at him like that, is asking. He allows Charles to reel him in with the gentle curl of his hand at Erik's hip, splays his own palm against Charles's shoulder and rubs his thumb along his collarbone, ducking in for a kiss. Charles's lips are chapped but his mouth is warm, heating Erik from the inside out better than any cup of coffee, and far quicker than the gradual thaw of spring creeping reluctantly into the city. Erik relaxes into Charles's touch, covers Charles's hand with his own on the cane, which Charles hardly uses for support at all when he can lean into Erik instead. Charles kisses him slowly, a bit sleepily, but with the edge of urgency that often follows in the wake of their arguments. Erik would gladly let it develop further, skims his fingers back along Charles's neck to tangle them in his hair, and Charles slips his hand under Erik's shirt to trace maddening circles against the small of his back, but -- "Raven and Alex probably think we've killed one another by now," Erik mutters against the corner of Charles's mouth.

With a huff of laughter, Charles pulls back, eyes heavy-lidded with more than exhaustion. "Not to mention, we should probably get more details on the job than just the names of the marks." He smooths his palm down along Erik's side. "Raven knows what she's doing. Two marks, linked dreams? At the very least, it will certainly be interesting." His lips curve into a smile. "And while I appreciate your continued indulgence of my dreamsharing studies, I know you've missed the heists."

The hell of it is, Erik has. He'd be jumping into this job with a will, if it weren't for Cain Marko -- no, that's not strictly accurate. Pulling an extraction on Cain would be his pleasure. But the combination of Charles and Cain -- "I don't like it," Erik tells him.

"I know," Charles says.

*

"Fifty bucks says they've forgotten we're here and are screwing against a bookshelf," Alex says. The shouting has finally died down, but that's not necessarily a good sign.

Raven shudders. "Ugh, he's like my brother, oh my God, how do I even know you."

"I notice you're not arguing that they're not."

"No bet," Raven says, grimacing.

Alex grins humorlessly and steals an apple out of a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter. It's not much as breakfast goes, but better than nothing. "I hate to say it, but Erik might have a point," he remarks, punctuating it with a large bite of apple. Raven fucking hates it when people talk with their mouths full. It's the little things that make Alex's life worth living, really. "The Cain extraction is too personal for either you or Charles, really. We don't want a repeat of the Shaw job."

"The Shaw job was successful," Raven points out.

Alex remembers the impact of the bullet in his chest, the lightheaded sensation of slowly bleeding out, Hank's frantic instructions to hold out, just hold out until the kick, just another minute.... He shakes his head to clear it and scowls, toying with the half-eaten fruit. He's not particularly hungry anymore. "That was cutting it pretty fucking close, Raven. Not my kind of party."

"The risks are way lower with Cain. He's not a trained dreamer."

"All the more reason to put you both on the A-team with Stryker," Alex presses on doggedly. "That's gonna be the delicate job. Any asshole could pull the Cain extraction, it's pure vanilla. Well, with a side of insanity, but still."

If Raven keeps pulling that face at him, it might just freeze that way. But from the way her shoulders slump, Alex knows she secretly agrees. "Charles and I are the primary extractors," she points out, probably just for the sake of argument. "I don't mind focusing on forgery -- assuming we ever come up with a viable plan for the Stryker job, which, fuck, we really need Charles and Erik in on this -- but regardless. If we're both on Stryker, we'll need another primary to handle Cain. Maybe Erik--"

"Running point for Charles, no way you'll convince him otherwise, assuming they agree to the job at all." Which means Alex is definitely on point for the Cain extraction instead, while Raven joins Charles and Erik in Stryker's dream. Fine by him. It's probably for the best that he and Raven split up for this one, for a couple of reasons, not least being that they no longer fully trust one another in the dreamscape. "And I don't think we want to let Erik loose on Cain's subconscious."

Raven nods at that, but still looks unconvinced. "We already have ten people on this job," she hedges. "That's kind of a lot. You really think we need one more?"

Alex just looks at her. She sighs.

"You think we need one more. Fuck. Okay, we'll get one more."

That's when Erik and Charles finally stumble out of the study, looking more or less respectable. Alex chooses not to think too hard about it. He polishes off the rest of his apple before Erik can notice he took it.

"All right," Charles says, sinking down into the armchair. "So tell us more about this job. Linked dreams, that's complicated enough as is, and you do realize that Cain is mentally unstable?"

"Yeah, got that," Raven says wryly, while Erik scowls. "Oh, and one other thing. Did we mention the Stryker dream might involve inception?"

*

The bar is a real shithole, hovering around the US-Canadian border. It claims to be a pub, according to the faded wooden sign out front, although the paint on the name has long since worn away. And deciphering the remaining letters to read PUB is probably only Raven's overactive imagination at work, anyway.

It's a slow night; might always be a slow night, here in the middle of nowhere, but there's a truck stop attached so presumably they get some customers occasionally. A couple of heavily tattooed truckers give Raven overtly appreciative looks as she walks in out of the cold, and it's almost enough that she wishes she'd brought Alex along with her. Almost. She does keep her pistol in a holster at her waist for a reason. If any of these gentlemen think about stepping out of line, they've got another think coming.

And if she needs a man with her for her target to take her seriously, then she doesn't fucking want him on her team.

She hops up onto a stool at the bar, signals the bartender for a glass of whatever's on tap. It'll be shit, and she's not much of a beer enthusiast, but having the drink is the point, not actually drinking it.

After a few long minutes, the guy on the stool beside her sighs and snuffs out his cigar. "Now I know you ain't here for me, kid," he drawls, in an unplaceable accent that's no longer Canadian but doesn't quite land in any particular American region. "So how about you just drink up and move along."

"Come on, Logan," Raven says breezily. "Is that any way to greet an old friend?"

Logan snorts. "You think crashing on my spare bed for a week makes us friends? You must not have too many."

True enough, Raven thinks, but doesn't cede the point. "You've got to be at least a little bit curious."

"Curiosity killed the cat."

"And satisfaction brought it back. I'd like to offer you a job."

Logan guns down his whiskey and gestures the barkeep for a refill. "In case I failed to make it clear, I don't do dreams anymore. Like reality just fine, thanks."

"I believe there may be a slight misunderstanding," Raven says pleasantly. "You seem to think that when I use the word 'offer' I'm implying you have any choice in the matter."

Logan stiffens, giving her a hard look. He'd been amiable enough, by his standards, but she can tell she's treading on thin ice now. Push too hard in the wrong way, and the claws are coming out.

"I hear you used to be the best at what you do," she remarks, taking a sip of her crappy beer.

"Yeah, and what I do isn't very nice." His eyes narrow. "Who's been dumbass enough to suggest you look me up for a job?"

Raven gives him a sharp smile. "Nick Fury."

"That right?" Logan matches her grin fang for fang. "That asshole ever tell you what happened to his other eye? 'Cause that was the last job I ever pulled for Nick fuckin' Fury."

Raven laughs. Logan talks a big game, but she doesn't believe the half of it. "Yeah, well, he seemed to think you'd be real interested in this one. Enough to go dreaming again, anyway, which you haven't done in -- how long's it been there, Gramps?"

"Long enough," Logan growls. "And why the fuck does Fury think I give two shits about some little girl's fancy fuck-off extraction?"

"Because it's not just an extraction. Bit of inception, actually." Raven tucks her hair back behind her ears. "We're planting a very nasty idea inside the head of an Army officer. Colonel William Stryker. Heard the name before?"

Beside her, Logan has gone very, very still. Even in the dimly lit pub, she can see his knuckles go white around his glass, gripping it hard enough she's surprised it doesn't shatter. She takes one of the cheap cardboard coasters off the bartender's stack and scribbles an address on it, slides it over.

"Maybe you're interested, or maybe you're not," she says, getting to her feet. She drops a couple of bills on the bar for the beer she's barely touched. "But if you think you might want a crack at this one, be there in two days. Say, eight in the evening. We'd be glad to have you."

Logan doesn't say a word, gives no sign that he heard her at all. She slings her purse over her arm and walks toward the exit. But when she glances back over her shoulder, he's got the coaster in his hand, twirling it slowly between his fingers.

She smiles and heads to her rental car for the long drive back to Washington. That makes eleven. Game on.