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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.

Chapter Text

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom along the Tidal Basin, their fragrance heavy and thick in the air. Alex slips his sunglasses on against the reflected glare off the water. He idly wishes for some rain or cloud cover; anything to break up the unexpectedly oppressive heat. Washington's not supposed to be this muggy so early in the season. And a good, stiff breeze might help dissipate the too-strong aroma of the flowers.

"You really wanna be mucking about on Hellfire turf?" Sean asks nervously. He glances across the water to the Jefferson Memorial, which gleams white-hot in the stark sunlight. "Like, seriously, dude. If they find out Frost's back in town--"

"They won't touch her," Alex says. These past few days, he feels like he's been having the same damn argument over and over again. It's not like the Hellfire Club has sentries posted all along the Beltway. It's a free fucking country, Emma Frost can come and go as she pleases. And so can they.

Sean fidgets, kicking at a clump of fallen cherry blossoms. He's toying with something in his hand, too small for Alex to see. Does Sean carry a totem? Alex can't remember. "So maybe Frost's got some kind of arrangement with them. That doesn't mean we're safe," Sean points out.

"We're dreamers," Alex says. "We're never safe. Anyway, Hank's been living here for years, it's not like Hellfire's ever paid any attention to him."

And Hank's there, too, carefully keeping Sean between them, never quite meeting Alex's eyes. "Bad example," he says, voice tinged with bitterness. "I'm easy to overlook."

Alex frowns. "That's not what I meant."

"Yeah, well." Hank shoves himself away from the railing, hands stuffed in the pockets of his white lab coat. "Then say what you mean, for a change. I'm sick of guessing."

He stalks away down the path, and Alex shakes his head, trying to dispel the uneasy sense that this conversation has gotten away from him, been yanked out of his control. He feels a little dizzy with the heat and the cloying, sickly-sweet scent of the blossoms. "Christ," he mutters, then calls after him. "Hank!"

"Leave him," Sean says, not looking up. Alex glimpses a flash of silver between Sean's fingers. "Can't you tell where you're not needed?"

Alex blinks. That doesn't sound like Sean. "I just wanted to--"

"Raven'll look after him," Sean says with a shrug. "Don't worry about it."

It's so fucking hot. Hot like the middle of August, hot like doing PT in full combat gear at Fort Benning under the noonday sun. Alex can feel sweat trickling down between his shoulder blades. Sean's flipping a silver coin between his fingers. It shimmers like a mirage in the desert.

Summer nights in Georgia don't give up the heat; they hold it in, tucked close under a blanket of humidity. Alex's memories of his last night at Fort Benning are hazy and fragmented, but he remembers that vividly, viscerally. It felt like this, the sweat pooling at the small of his back, the heavy scent of the forest growth around him. Sean's still playing with that fucking coin, and it glints in the air like moonlight off metal, like glimpsing a rifle hidden amongst the brush.

"Tails, we're safe," Sean says, flipping the coin. "Heads, we're totally fucked."

It's Erik's coin, Alex realizes abruptly. Erik's double-headed silver dollar. They're fucked.

"It's not a dream," he hisses, grabbing Sean's arm. The camo paint makes Sean's face look alien in the shadowy forest, emphasizes the whites of his eyes. "We're awake. We're awake."

Hank crashes through the undergrowth toward them, rifle slung over his shoulder. "Come on, guys, the melee--"

"We're awake," Alex keeps insisting, urgently, but this time, they're not listening. They're not listening, they don't want his help, don't need him, he's on his own, and when Hank swings his rifle up to aim it at Alex's chest there's nothing he can do but--

--jerk awake, sitting bolt upright in his hotel bed. His sheets are soaked with sweat. Alex tears them away and strides across the room to the window, yanking it open. The night breeze feels cool against his bare chest. He braces his hands against the sill and squeezes his eyes shut tight, breathing in, out. A dream. Just a dream.

He looks down at his wrist. It's unmarked. He hasn't touched a PASIV since the Proclus job, and that was more than six weeks ago. So what was...?

That's the first natural dream Alex has had in years. Fuck. He's almost forgotten what normal dreams were like. No wonder everything felt so slapdash, spiraling out of his control. What a fucking nightmare.

Ha. It was a nightmare; it really, actually was.

He doesn't even try to go back to sleep that night, just sits by the open window and waits for the dawn.

*

The address is in Washington, D.C.: strike one. Logan hasn't been down to D.C. in years, and he sure as shit hasn't missed the fucking traffic around the Beltway. He grits his teeth and navigates his pick-up down New York Avenue like he's whitewater rafting, nearly sideswiping a tiny red Mini. He flips the driver off in response to the blaring horn. If you're gonna play in the big leagues, drive an actual fucking car instead of a gussied-up tin can on wheels.

Strike two: the house itself, a cramped monstrosity of white stone and Ionic columns bumping uglies with all the other equally gaudy displays of wealth that line the winding streets around Kalorama. There's only a narrow driveway, already full; Logan takes perverse satisfaction in parking his truck right up against someone else's fancy-ass flowerbeds, blocking their artistically placed front gate. Permit parking only? Yeah, eat shit and die, asshole.

Which means the company inside is strike three. Fucking dreamers.

Logan couldn't care less about shit like doorbells. If they didn't want him here, Raven wouldn't have given him the address. So it's a good thing the front door's unlocked, or there might've been a bit of an incident.

Inside, it's a simple matter of following the low buzz of conversation across the spacious foyer and through a disgustingly opulent dining area to the open French windows, which lead out onto a sort of patio space. Anything less than an acre doesn't count as a proper backyard, in Logan's opinion, but city folk get all excited about their postage stamp gardens. This one's bigger than he'd have expected from the street view, with a white marble water feature burbling at the center of lots of slate and sandstone tiles. It's very Feng fucking Shui. The only redeeming feature is the bar set up next to the house, which actually has a decent liquor selection. Logan pours himself a whiskey.

Looks like he's the last to arrive -- at least, he had better be, because he may not be great at math but he can fucking count, and there are precisely way too damn many people on this patio for an extraction job. He's seriously considering turning on his heel and walking right back out, but of course that little shit Cassidy sees him at once and comes bounding over like a fucking terrier, bottle of Bud Light clutched in one hand.

"Logan, my man!" Cassidy chirps, and Logan rolls his eyes and knocks back his drink. "Long time, no see!"

"This is all your fault," Logan informs him darkly. If Cassidy hadn't called him eight months back begging a favor, Logan would never have had the misfortune of meeting any of these people in the first place. No good deed goes unpunished, yadda yadda yadda, what the fuck is he doing here?

Cassidy just grins and slings his arm around Logan's shoulder. Logan barely resists punching him in the face. Instead, he shrugs Cassidy off and leans back against the bar, studying his new coworkers through narrowed eyes while Cassidy prattles on.

He knows about half of the assembled crew by sight, though none particularly well. Logan had started in the very first military dreamsharing program, and most of his generation of dreamers have long since retired. Or they're dead. Mostly dead, actually, and not of old age. It's hard to even think of those days, when he'd been a fresh-faced new army recruit. A grunt. Cannon fodder who'd wised up and kept ticking along when most of his fellows had fallen. More fool he.

But over a decade surviving the dreamsharing industry -- and then avoiding it -- has given Logan a damn good read on people. It was a necessary skill back when he was still running extractions, and knowing your fellow soldiers -- or criminals -- is just as important as knowing your marks.

Cassidy's probably the weakest link in this crew, though that's got nothing to do with his skills. From what Logan's heard, his architecture's fine. But like many architects, he's rabbity when it comes to the jobs themselves, more like to turn tail and run when the going gets too rough than stick it out. Nothing wrong with his self-preservation instincts, that's for damn sure. Oh, he's loyal to some degree -- his broad network of connections among dreamers is proof enough of that. He won't sell them out to Hellfire. But he's not the man Logan wants running point when the shit hits the fan, as it invariably will. Best let him off the hook and send him scurrying once he's taught them all his designs, keep him out of the extraction itself.

Over there by the fountain is the other architect -- what's her name, Angel? Logan had met her only briefly. She's ex-Hellfire herself, which doesn't make him inclined to trust her, but she probably has to deal with that shit all the time, and yet she's still here. So she must've proven herself to somebody. Seems like a tough nut to crack. Logan's willing to reserve judgment for the moment. She's chatting with a tall, skinny geek who has got to be a chemist, no two ways about it. They seem cosy enough, probably worked together before. No sexual chemistry there whatsoever, though, which is weird, 'cause that Angel chick could probably defrock a priest. The geek's either blind or gay. His loss.

The point man and a G-man are making awkward small talk off in a corner. Logan can't be bothered to remember Point Man's name. Blond guy, wiseass, all sorts of control issues simmering under his skin. Goes with the job, all point men have a touch of OCD. He's definitely ex-military, much like the guy he's talking to is definitely government. Speaking of which, what the fuck?

"Who's the fed?" Logan asks, interrupting whatever the fuck Cassidy's been chattering about.

"The one who's cornered Alex?" Cassidy grins, not at all offended. He's a good kid that way. "Agent Coulson. Dunno his first name. Works for some group called S.H.I.E.L.D."

That's right, this job's gonna have Nick Fury's fingerprints all over it. Asshole. Coulson doesn't look like one of Fury's whiz kids, so he probably brings up the bureaucratic end of the operation. Isn't that fucking fantastic? Logan can only hope he's smart enough to stay the hell out of the dreams themselves.

"Moira's his partner," Cassidy adds, gesturing with his beer to the other side of the patio, where an auburn-haired woman is chatting with Charles Xavier. They seem friendly enough, though Xavier's...whatever he is, Erik Lehnsherr, is glowering by his side. Moira has a hard-edged practicality to her that Logan likes. It helps that she's a very fine-looking woman. But he's got to admire the way she blithely ignores Lehnsherr's ill humor. That takes a certain bull-headedness that Logan has to respect.

Lehnsherr -- now, there's a piece of work. One of Sebastian Shaw's creations, a ruthless son of a bitch. He'd had an ugly reputation back when he was still under Shaw's thumb, and it hasn't improved much in the intervening years. They've never worked together, but Logan imagines that he and Lehnsherr both play out of the same rulebook on extractions -- which is to say, they fight dirty and mean. If Logan's got a lot of rough edges, Lehnsherr's are razor-sharp. And he looks about as happy to be here right now as Logan is himself.

For all that, though, Lehnsherr had been a model guest in the week or so he'd spent living in Logan's safe house, brusque but polite. And he's the guy who sent Shaw into Limbo; if the dreamsharing industry gave out public service awards, that would've bagged Lehnsherr one bigass fucking trophy.

Looks like he and Xavier are still caught fast in each other's orbits, too. Now, there's a guy Logan can't get a good read on, and that makes him wary. Xavier's very smart, unfailingly pleasant, and kind to a fault. It'd be easy to dismiss him as a soft academic, but what the hell would someone like that be doing with a guy like Erik Lehnsherr? None of his old contacts know much about Charles Xavier -- which means he was probably government, 'cause Logan's guys know all the military or, uh, independent contractors -- but the ones who've heard of him swear that he died a couple of years back. All Logan knows for sure is that Xavier used to be in dream research, with a focus on extraction; and according to him and Lehnsherr, he'd been held by Shaw for about two years. And no one survives years with Sebastian Shaw in their dreams without picking up more of his tricks than Logan's comfortable with.

Xavier may look like an absent-minded professor, but Logan suspects he's just as dangerous as Lehnsherr.

"So whose joint is this?" Logan asks Cassidy. There's good money in illegal dreamsharing, but few dreamers splash it around like this, and none of the assembled crew look like they belong here. One of Fury's safe houses, maybe? He's got a sweet source of funding, but it's not like him to throw away resources on Washington real estate.

Cassidy makes a face like he swallowed his beer down the wrong pipe. "Frost."

Oh, hell no. Logan hasn't spent ten years under the radar just to step into the sights of that broad's rifle. He slams his empty glass down onto the bar and heads straight for the door, bumping Cassidy aside--

But it's too fucking late, because that's when the lady of the manor herself appears in the doorway, a cold vision in white, with Raven at her side. Raven gives him a wink, and he bares his teeth ever so slightly. God damn it.

"Hey, kids," Raven says, pitching her voice to be heard over the conversations and the fucking water feature. "Glad to see you all made it in. Let's chat business, shall we?"

She and Frost both know how to command attention, that's for damn sure. They're both poised blonde forgers, and if it weren't for Frost's scary stiletto heels, they'd probably be about the same height, too. But for all that, they couldn't be more different. Emma Frost is hard as nails, but brittle; find the right pressure point and give her a good strong tap, and she'll fracture. She's also one of the canniest political operators Logan's ever met. He has no idea how she managed to lose control of Hellfire -- she must have had one mother of a bad day. At least she's got her piles and piles of money as consolation.

Raven, on the other hand, blows hot to Frost's cold, and for all her soft curves, she's made of pure steel underneath. Plus, she could probably take Frost in a fight. Logan would pay good money to watch that.

"You all know why you're here," Raven goes on. Beside her, Frost picks delicately at a manicured nail. "We've got a complex job with two high-risk marks, and everyone on this patio has a personal stake in one or the other of them. That's great for motivation, but bad for business. Too much personal investment makes you sloppy, makes you take stupid risks. So this is your last chance to back out. You think you're too close to this job, you think you won't be able to keep your head in the game and get shit done -- or even if you just think the risks are too high to be worth the payoff -- you're free to enjoy your drinks and then head back out. The rest of you, come with me."

She flashes them all a quick smirk and turns back into the house. Xavier is the first to head in after her -- that's right, he and Raven are brother and sister, aren't they? Or close enough. And of course, wherever Xavier goes, Lehnsherr follows. The rest all filter in behind them, some still carrying drinks. Cassidy gives Logan another friendly thump on the arm and falls in along with Angel and the geek, chattering away.

Logan just refills his glass with whiskey and takes a sip, nice and slow.

The patio clears until only he and Frost remain. She studies him briefly through demurely lowered lashes, then crosses over to the bar, pouring herself a stiff gin and tonic. "Logan, isn't it?" she asks, saccharine sweet. She knew him by a different name before.

He takes another slow swallow of whiskey. "You really wanna play this game with me, sweetheart?"

"Oh, honey," Frost says with a pitying smile. "It's the only one worth playing. Now get in the fucking house."

He does. Not because she told him to, mind; he was headed in that direction anyway.

*

Emma's house conceals a deceptively large basement, which was built for functionality over ornamentation. Not that it isn't luxurious in its own way -- Emma would hardly settle for less -- but she'd bypassed her usual displays of opulence when she'd originally furnished the place. The conference room is very nearly corporate in its design, and it's always entertaining to watch various dreamers react to the space. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are by far the most comfortable, having endured a thousand briefings in rooms just like this. Scruffy Sean Cassidy slinks around the edges, looking thoroughly discomfited; Alex has to shove him down into a chair. Amusingly, Logan seems the least put off by the sleek sterility of the place; he slouches into one seat and sticks his feet up on another, setting his drink on the oak table without bothering with any of the helpfully provided coasters. Emma dislikes the man intensely, always has, but she has to admire such determined insouciance.

She takes the empty seat next to Angel Salvadore, who looks distinctly unhappy to be in such close proximity. Suck it up, sugar, Emma thinks. There's no point in either of them trying to disguise their pasts. Angel's got as much blood on her hands as anyone else in the Hellfire Club, no matter whose side she'd been secretly playing for. And Emma's here to win Hellfire back for herself, which the rest of Raven's eleven must be well aware of. Who cares? They're dreamers. There's no such thing as trust in their profession, not really.

"Colonel William Stryker," Raven says briskly, getting right to business. She taps on her laptop and a photograph of Stryker appears on the flatscreen TV set into one wall. It's not a handsome face; even in youth, Stryker was a plain man, and years have added harsh lines across his brow and at the edges of his perpetual scowl. His eyes are sharply intelligent behind the wire frames of his spectacles. "Our primary mark," Raven continues. "He's been involved in the US Army's dreamsharing program from the beginning, but never as a dreamer himself. He started as a military scientist developing the first Somnacin compounds. In 1988, he was given his own dreamsharing division, which became known as the Weapon X project and played a significant covert role in Operation Desert Storm." She slants a glance over at Logan, who remains impassive. "Weapon X was disbanded at the end of the Gulf War in '91, but Stryker eventually went on to oversee all operational aspects of the Army's ongoing dream programs."

"Except he fucked up," Alex interjects, scowling. "The Army only ever intended dreamsharing to be used as a sort of training regimen -- teach soldiers to endure any sort of environmental or logistical condition, practice all kinds of fun ways to kill one another without any actual casualties. But Stryker had a fucking vision. He thought he could use dreamsharing to create some kind of supersoldier. Wanted to use dreams to go into our heads and rebuild us in his own fucking image."

Emma wrinkles her nose. "He's a scientist, not a dreamer. The only psychology he understands is brainwashing -- wipe the slate clean, sterilize the mind like it's one of his labs. His son's much the same," she adds, as an afterthought. Jason Stryker and his test subjects, who were collected like stray pets and then discarded. Much of Sebastian Shaw's reputation for viciousness derived from the results of his chemist's experiments. Well, perhaps that's unfair. Shaw always had been an active participant in Jason's work; Jason's never had the half of Sebastian's creativity.

"Anyway," Raven goes on, "the Army started cutting further and further back on its programs over the next decade and change. As the focus of dreamsharing research shifted more toward what we now consider extraction, the government shuffled it away from the military and over into national intelligence, until it fell almost exclusively under the purview of the CIA and NSA. And in the aftermath of 9/11, the Army had more important things to worry about than a super-sketchy experimental training program. The success rates for military dreamers really, really sucked -- as Stryker kept pushing the limits of his chemical compounds, he was losing more soldiers to bad Somnacin reactions and sudden mental illness than any squad ever lost through standard training accidents. So about six years ago, the Army finally terminated its last remaining dreamsharing project."

"And that was an order Stryker took a bit too literally," Alex adds. Beside him, Sean grimaces and glances across the table to the chemist, Hank McCoy, who looks deeply uncomfortable. Interesting. Emma knows that Alex is a product of military dreamsharing, but she hadn't realized he'd brought his former comrades-in-arms along on this job as well.

She'll have to keep an eye on those boys; Stryker's lab rats always did emerge with the most debilitating subconscious scars, which can so trying to work around in the dreamspace. Not that Hellfire's people are any better, but anyone who survives Sebastian Shaw's dreams develops particularly potent mental defenses, which protect both themselves and anyone hooked up to the same PASIV. Emma's far more inclined to trust Erik's or Charles's dreams than minds ravaged by Stryker's ungentle ministrations. She'd learned, long ago, to construct a fortress to contain her demons; Alex's are all too likely to still remain lurking in the shadows of his dreams, poised to strike at the slightest provocation.

Well, she supposes variety is the spice of life.

"Yeah, and that's all real tragic and shit," Logan says, rolling his eyes. "So what's the job, Raven? Don't keep me in suspense here, I might develop a fucking heart condition or something."

Raven perches on the edge of the table, crossing her legs, revealing a flash of thigh beneath her short sapphire-blue skirt. Emma suppresses a smile. Sure, honey, like that'll keep the man distracted. At least she's definitely captured Sean's attention. And, interestingly enough, Angel's. Emma wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't been right beside her, but Angel definitely sits up a bit straighter, and her dark eyes gleam with more interest than Emma's ever seen her display seducing a mark.

"Stryker's trying to get Weapon X back up and running," Raven says. "And he's using the Hellfire Club to buy himself influence in Congress. The job is to stop him."

Logan gives her a feral smile. "If you just want to stop him, kid, all you gotta do is ask."

"That wouldn't be wise, Mr. Logan," Agent Coulson remarks mildly. "Colonel Stryker is very well connected. His sudden death -- particularly by violent means -- would lead to some rather uncomfortable inquiries. S.H.I.E.L.D. would view such a development most unfavorably."

"Do you want to shut Stryker down or not?" Logan demands.

Agent MacTaggert shakes her head. "Not like that. Our boss was very specific on that point."

"You can tell Fury to take his little team and go--"

"We're not killing Stryker," Raven interrupts firmly. "We're simply...changing his mind."

The tense silence that ensues is broken by Hank, who clears his throat. "Um, I'm assuming you're referring to inception now? Because I don't mean to contradict you, Raven, but that's anything but 'simple.'"

Raven turns on a dime to give Hank a broad smile. She shifts skins just as fluidly in the waking world as she does in dreams, Emma notes. A consummate actress. Emma prefers to keep a strict separation between her self and her forgeries; Raven blurs that distinction. Useful enough, Emma supposes, but rather distasteful. A woman ought to maintain a stronger sense of self. Not that she hadn't done more than her own fair share of pandering to the masses, but Emma's always made it perfectly clear that she's doing them a favor. Raven bends too easily into whatever another person wants her to be.

"That's why I've brought all of you aboard," Raven says, beaming. Emma tries not to roll her eyes too obviously. "I know how much you enjoy a challenge. And just to keep things interesting, here's another twist: our second mark."

She taps the laptop again, and Cain Marko's photo replaces Stryker's on the screen. Cain shares Raven's blond hair and gray eyes, but while the round face and full lips lend a pleasing shape to Raven's features, they're transformed into something brutish and petulant on Cain. And Raven doesn't have that horrible lurking madness in the depths of her eyes, thank goodness.

"Cain Marko," Raven says, then adds dispassionately, "My brother. Better you know that up front, if you didn't already. He wrested control of the Hellfire Club after Sebastian Shaw's little accident eight months ago, and he's been palling around with Stryker ever since. His extraction is simple. We need him to give us the list of congressmen -- and any other government types -- who've been compromised by Stryker through Hellfire. If we can get specific blackmail material on them as well, all the better. We mine Cain's subconscious for intel and then get the hell out of there."

"Your basic smash and grab job, then," Sean remarks. "Dibs on Cain!"

Alex gives him a sardonic look. "Yeah, it's maybe a little more complicated than that. Cain's off his fucking rocker. Like, legitimately mentally unstable."

Sean shrugs. "Aren't we all?"

Alex rolls his eyes, but Raven cuts him off before he can make any scathing remarks. Pity; Emma might have enjoyed the show. It would have been more entertaining than the powerpoint presentation, at least. "Anyway, this is where we're splitting up into two teams," Raven says. "We'll do our best to keep this simple. Anyone who's been fucked over by Cain is on the Stryker dream, and vice-versa. Well. More or less. Hank, you're our only chemist, so you're handling both. We were considering linking the two dreams--"

"On the top level, yes, I should be able to work something out," Hank says. He frowns thoughtfully, tapping his pencil against his notepad. Emma realizes that he's been taking notes this whole time, scribbling across several pages. At least she won't have to worry about his work ethic. "Back in Proclus Global's lab, we used to play with linking up multiple PASIVs, with multiple subjects. It's kind of a disaster if you don't do it right, but we came up with a way for the architect to design a dream layout to be shared by more than one primary dreamer -- it's a total head trip, like serious science fiction stuff, parallel universes overlapping, I really don't know how to explain it without a practical demonstration." Hank talks far too quickly when he gets excited; Emma didn't really follow any of that. Hopefully his 'practical demonstrations' will be a bit clearer. "But it's definitely not sustainable on multiple dream layers," he continues, "and inception means going deep, probably three layers in if we want it to stick. That's a huge risk on sedation. Unless I can come up with a miracle, we've got to assume that death in the Stryker dream means Limbo."

"So we'll take every possible precaution," Alex says, far more irritably than the warning deserves. Hank flinches, stung; across the table, Raven narrows her eyes at Alex, but refrains from commenting. Emma experiences a fleeting craving for popcorn. "Stryker's military, I'm gonna assume his subconscious has been fully militarized. But he's not a dreamer himself, and he's got no fucking imagination. His mind will try to kill us, but only if he catches wise to the dream. We'll just have to be really fucking sneaky about it." Alex leans back in his chair, stretching. He almost looks bored. "The Marko dream, on the other hand, is a fairly straightforward extraction, but he's actually a psychopath, and there's no telling what sort of shit his subconscious will throw at us. Again, the fact that he is not himself a trained dreamer works to our advantage--"

"Why can't we just extract the goods from Stryker instead?" Angel asks. It's a dumb question, but Emma can hardly blame her for asking. Angel has ample reason not to want to venture anywhere near Cain Marko's mind.

Emma feels a flash of something uncomfortably close to guilt at the recollection, and shoves it ruthlessly away. Sebastian's alliance with Cain had come with a lofty price tag; Angel isn't the only one who'd been forced to foot the bill.

"Far too complex," Raven replies at once, though not without sympathy. "We need to focus on coaxing Stryker's subconscious to accept the inception. While I'm sure we'll stumble across some useful information along the way, we can't possibly hope to extract the intel S.H.I.E.L.D. needs and still successfully implant our own idea at the same time."

At the far end of the table, Charles leans forward in his chair and speaks up for the first time. "And what idea is that, precisely?" he asks. "Because before we consider any other layer of complexity, we need to be able to clearly articulate the thought that we will be placing in Stryker's mind." He exchanges a quick glance with Erik, seated silently at his side. "Everything else unfolds from there."

Now that she considers it, Emma's rather surprised that the pair of them have remained quiet for so long. She's shared dreams with both, though not together; neither are the retiring sort. Erik has always been very vocal about his opinions, and though her experiences with Charles were tainted by his captivity, his dreams are bright and bold, filled with ideas and impressions and texture. It's somehow significant that Charles is only speaking up now. She wishes she could pinpoint precisely why.

Raven clicks away the picture of Cain and brings up a blank document on her laptop, which is still projecting onto the television. Her cursor blinks at the upper lefthand corner for a long moment, and then she types: I WILL NEVER WORK IN DREAMS AGAIN.

Charles smiles, which does nothing to alleviate Emma's vague uneasiness. "Thank you, Raven," he says. "That's an excellent place to start."

*

S.H.I.E.L.D. is kindly providing them with their own safe house for the duration of the job, but it won't be available until tomorrow afternoon -- when Charles inquired about the timing, Moira rolled her eyes and muttered something indistinct about a gang of rowdy Norsemen and astronomical repair bills, but refused to specify further. So Emma has kindly allowed Charles, Erik, and Raven to use her two guest bedrooms for the night. Alex and Sean both headed out to crash at Hank's apartment, Moira offered Angel her couch, and Logan took one look at Coulson and announced he'd find his own fucking motel room for the night, thanks.

It's close to midnight by the time the bulk of the team departs, and the sudden quiet is welcome. Emma retires shortly thereafter. It only seems logical to follow her example, given how long a day they've had, but although Erik drops off quickly, Charles lies awake, eyes wide open. To pass the time, he tries to memorize every detail of the guest room, from the feel of the plush mattress beneath his spine to the minute irregularities in the flat plane of the ceiling. He can't sleep until he's sure that he'll know the room again when he reawakens.

Charles doesn't take kindly to waking up in strange places of late.

The glowing red numbers on the bedside clock inform him that it's 1:32 AM when he finally gives up. Erik stirs slightly when Charles moves to get out of bed, but Charles runs a soothing hand along his arm and he subsides, slipping back into deep, dreamless sleep. Charles tries not to envy him too much. He found a decent selection of teas in Emma's kitchen cabinets when they got in this afternoon; that should calm his mind enough to squeeze in a couple of hours' real sleep, hopefully.

His leg is stiff from inactivity, and it's a bit of a trial to get himself up and dressed, so he settles for a pair of loose sweatpants and a T-shirt. The shirt is too large -- must be Erik's -- but Charles doesn't have the energy to go rooting through his suitcase again in the darkness. About halfway down the staircase he's already having second thoughts -- there are too damn many stairs in this house, and he's gone up and down them far too many times in the past few hours. The flat in Montreal is all on the ground floor, and the hospital where he has regular physiotherapy sessions is of course well provided with lifts. Even the local library is handicap accessible. He hasn't needed to navigate more than a handful of shallow stairs since -- well, since stairs became a problem in the first place. But down is easier than up, so he grits his teeth and keeps right on going, gripping the banister in one hand and his cane awkwardly in the other.

There's a light on in the kitchen, he notices with some surprise. Raven is sitting at the kitchen table, fiddling with an open PASIV case. A mug of tea steams beside her.

She looks up and smiles. "Hey. I thought I heard you thumping around up there."

He returns the smile ruefully. "I was hoping not to disturb anyone. Erik's used to my nocturnal comings and goings, he doesn't much notice anymore, but--"

"Nah, don't worry about it," Raven says. "I was already up. Still up. Whatever. Tea?"

"It's as if you read my mind." Charles gratefully sinks down into the chair opposite her, hooking his cane on its back, and she slides the mug across the table to him. He takes a sip. It's just this side of scalding, but lovely all the same.

Raven watches him, her expression unreadable. He wraps his hands around the warm mug and looks her over. There are dark shadows under her eyes, and she looks startlingly young without her usual mask of makeup, her hair pulled back into a low ponytail. She's always possessed a poise and self-assurance beyond her years, but that's all stripped away now, in the weary small hours of the very early morning.

"Dreaming?" he finally asks, nodding at the PASIV.

"I was considering it." She uncoils one line from the case, rubbing the tip with her thumb. "I have so much work to do for this job...."

"You're not alone," Charles says quietly. "Let the rest of us knock our heads against the problem for a bit, see if we can't shake anything loose. We've got time." There's no set deadline on the Stryker job, at least not that Charles has been made aware of. Though he supposes Moira's boss is as impatient as any other.

"But I'm the one who--" Raven shakes her head, biting her lip. "My job, my crew. It was okay when it was just the four of us -- we were all in it together, you know? Me and Alex and Angel and Hank. But then it all -- and now with you guys, and Emma, and Logan, and S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and this fucking job -- Charles, how did you do it?"

"I don't know what you mean," Charles admits, concerned.

She waves her hands in frustration. "This! With the -- briefings, and people in suits looking at you like you're somehow in control of things, when you're just making it all up as you go along. That's what being a grown-up is, isn't it? Faking it."

Charles can't help but chuckle. "Pretty much, yes. I'm sorry, there's no secret manual they pass out to teach you how it's done. It's rubbish, isn't it?"

"I hate it," Raven says, and her voice is suddenly very small. "Charles, I don't want to go into Cain's head. I don't."

Ah, and that's the real crux of the problem. He wants to jump over the table and wrap his arms around her; unfortunately, that's another minor casualty of his reduced mobility. He settles for reaching out to clasp her hand. "Nor do I. Fortunately, we'll both be busy in Stryker's mind instead. Much pleasanter, wouldn't you agree?"

Raven snorts. "Yeah, inception. That'll be a real walk in the park." She clutches his hand tightly for a moment, then releases it. She draws a second line out of the PASIV with a coy smile. "Since neither of us can sleep -- wanna dream instead?"

After a brief hesitation, he accepts, though not without some trepidation. "Why not?" he says lightly, but really, there are several excellent reasons why not -- starting with her current volatile mental state and his own lingering subconscious snarls, not to mention the late hour, and the false sleep of dreamsharing is never particularly conducive to actual rest....

But his sister is tired and frightened and needs to turn off the real world for a little while, and he'd rather go down with her than leave her to it alone.

"Do you have anything particular in mind?" he asks lightly, as they each insert a line into their wrists.

She shrugs, giving him a crooked little smile. "Dunno. Can't we just play make-believe, Charles?"

The memory rushes forward, unbidden: Raven's childish face, so very young, her gray eyes wide and pleading -- Let's play make-believe, Charles, can't we please? -- and he never could resist her, her or the magical silver case Kurt kept on the top shelf of his bedroom closet--

When he opens his eyes, he's standing on a mountaintop, wind whistling in his ears, and he can see a thousand miles in every direction, open and empty and free. The path up the mountain is lined with twisted little pine trees, and the rock face juts out unevenly behind and above him, perfect for climbing. "Charles!" Raven calls, and he can see her scrambling up the rocks, higher and higher, and maybe she's a child again. Then again, maybe so is he. He can't tell.

He pulls himself up the cliff face, both legs strong and aching pleasantly with the exertion, and can't help but grin. Make-believe, indeed. The wind shrieks with laughter through the scrubby pines, and he climbs and climbs and climbs.

Chapter Text

Something's not right.

It's not yet dawn, but Hank sits bolt upright in his bed, straining to hear a sound that doesn't quite register, stomach faintly unsettled. He used to get like this sometimes, a lifetime ago, in the barracks at Fort Benning: a persistent, unspecific sense of unease driving him awake well before reveille. Maybe paranoia is a side effect of certain Somnacin compounds. He should really investigate that possibility.

In the meantime, there's no use trying to fall back asleep, so he might as well get to work. Clear his mind of the lingering, undefined discomfort and replace it with clean, untainted chemistry.

He almost forgets that Sean and Alex are crashing at his place -- Sean in the glorified walk-in closet that claims to be a guest bedroom and Alex on the living room couch. Tripping over the pile of crap in the hallway that originally lived on said couch serves as his reminder. He tries not to curse too loudly.

There's a muffled thump from the living room, and Hank freezes. It's probably just Alex blundering about, he tells himself, willing the jolt of adrenaline to dissipate. Or Sean.

Still, better check and see.

It is Alex. He's still on the couch, thrashing about with the blanket impossibly tangled around him, sound asleep. The thump was the sound of his water glass hitting the rug. Between soldiers and dreamers, Hank recognizes a nightmare when he sees one. Looks bad, too.

Hank's not quite stupid enough to try to shake Alex out of it, because that's pretty much a surefire way to get himself punched in the face -- ex-soldiers wound as tightly as Alex tend to wake up swinging. But he's been trapped in his own fair share of night terrors, and if it were him, he'd want someone to wake him up.

"Alex," he calls, warily inching closer to the couch. He flicks on the lamp on the side table. "Hey, Alex."

Alex struggles with the blanket, eyes squeezed shut, head turning from side to side. He lets out a low moan that sounds...well, like maybe he's having a particularly good dream instead, though the evidence suggests that's clearly not the case. Hank can feel his ears go hot anyway.

"Alex," he says again, louder this time, though still trying not to disturb Sean in the other room. "Alex, wake up."

No response, apart from more tossing and almost inaudible muttering. It's deeply discomfiting to watch -- Alex is always the last person to admit weakness or pain or, heck, any sort of actual feeling. Alex has precisely two emotional states: coolly competent or pissed as hell. Seeing him twitching and terrified in the thrall of some unnamed dream is just wrong. Hank has to kick him out of this. He can't help himself.

Bracing himself for the inevitable fist to the nose, Hank takes a deep breath and leans over to shake Alex's shoulder. "Alex!"

Alex doesn't punch Hank in the face. Instead, he grabs him by the shoulders and flips him over onto the fucking floor, pinning him down and pressing his elbow into Hank's windpipe.

Hank holds himself very still -- not like he's got much in the way of options, with Alex on top of him, but yeah, he'd rather not provoke the guy into actually choking him. It doesn't take more than a couple of seconds before Alex's eyes widen in recognition.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Alex snaps, leaving Hank coughing on the rug. "What the fuck do you think you're doing, Hank?"

Hank sits up, gingerly rubbing his throat. "Waking you up," he says hoarsely. "You were all...." He flaps his arms to indicate the flailing. "Nightmare, I thought?"

"Yeah, so?" Alex takes another step back, crossing his arms defensively across his bare chest, his biceps flexing. He's flushed, sweat prickling his brow, eyes wide and wild. Unfortunately, it's a good look on him, and Hank hates himself a little for noticing. Bad timing, McCoy. Really, really bad timing.

Not that there's any such thing as good timing, with Alex. Hank remembers being nineteen and confused and desperately not gay in the army, with this mouthy blond asshole pulling rank and giving him shit and being cruelly attractive the whole damn time. Alex isn't nearly as much of a dipshit these days -- or, well, he's not as mean about it. Somehow that just makes it worse. Hank can handle his inconvenient attraction to the guy; liking him is something else entirely.

"So," Hank echoes faintly, swallowing hard. "I thought you'd want to wake up."

"You stupid fuck," Alex says, and the viciousness in his tone takes Hank aback. Alex glares daggers at him, but he's also...shaking? Shit, must've been one hell of a nightmare. "I could have really hurt you, moron!"

Hank blinks up at him, utterly at sea.

"Christ," Alex mutters, scrubbing at his face and looking away. "Just...are you okay?"

"Me? I'm fine, why wouldn't I be? You were the one having nightmares--"

Alex shakes his head and turns away, then makes a face down at the rug. He must have stepped in the wet spot from the overturned glass. He crouches down to pick it up, then just sort of...stays there.

"Alex?" When he gets no response, Hank pulls himself to his feet and crosses over to him, hesitating just shy of touching him. They don't do that. None of them do; Raven's the most touchy-feely of their crew, and even she reserves it only for her brother or moments of extreme emotion, and maybe a hug when a job goes really, exceptionally well. Angel's physically confident but prickly; she relaxes only around Raven. Hank's too awkward to reach out to anyone else, and Alex is, well, Alex. Sharp-edged, sarcastic, irritating, and untouchable.

But this Alex, barefoot and shirtless and somehow small in the dim lamplight -- he's almost human like this, and Hank doesn't know what to do.

He presses his palm gently against the warm, smooth plane of Alex's shoulder. For a second, he almost thinks Alex appreciates the human contact, even starts to lean into it -- but then he flinches away, and everything snaps back to normal.

"Go back to sleep," Alex says roughly, not meeting Hank's eyes. "I'll take care of this."

"But you--"

"I'm fine," Alex snaps. So Hank leaves him be.

He can't focus on his work now, not after that, but he can't fall back asleep, either. He lies on his bed and stares at his ceiling, until the sun slowly rises outside his bedroom window and there's light enough to see by.

*

Erik awakens to sunlight slanting through the windows and an empty bed.

He sighs and gets up, dressing with mechanical efficiency while his mind gradually creaks into full consciousness. Judging by the angle and quality of the light, it's only just past dawn; Charles ought to still be half-asleep and grumbling. It's far too early for him to be up and about, barring an emergency -- in which case he'd have woken Erik. Erik dimly remembers feeling him get up in the middle of the night. Best find out where he's wandered off to.

Also, coffee would be nice.

After getting the coffeemaker started in the kitchen, he finds Charles and Raven in the living room, sleeping on the sleek white couch. Charles's head is pillowed on a flat, stylish cushion, with Raven curled up along his side. A closed PASIV case sits unattended on the coffee table. The curtains are drawn against the morning sun, but they're sheer white lace, and enough light filters through to glint off Raven's golden hair, which tumbles down across her face and Charles's chest.

Raven's dead to the world, but Charles is a lighter sleeper. He blinks muzzily at Erik's tread across the hardwood floors. "Erik?"

"Emma gave you both perfectly adequate beds for the night," Erik remarks, going over to perch on the arm of the couch. He lets his hand fall to rest lightly on Charles's head, the fine brown hair silky between Erik's fingers.

Charles props himself up on one elbow, leaning into the touch. His eyes slip back closed. "There were...stairs," he mumbles. "Tired of stairs. Fine here."

That actually makes more sense than Charles's usual brand of early morning logic. Erik glances over at the cane, hooked over the back of a nearby armchair, and then to Raven, sprawled half on top of Charles's bad leg. "You're not going to be quite so comfortable when you try to get up," he points out.

Charles opens his eyes again slowly, and shifts to look down at his stepsister. Raven just burrows further into his warmth, tucking her face into his chest. "Doesn't matter," Charles says. "We're good." He tilts his head up toward Erik with a soft smile. "Hi."

Erik picks up his cue easily enough and bends down to kiss him. He's been disgustingly well-trained, but finds it somehow difficult to mind. So long as no one's trying to drag him out of bed, Charles is warm and sleepy and pliable in the mornings, and he hums quietly into the kiss, lazy and content. "Good morning," Erik mouths against Charles's lips.

"Mmm." Charles pulls reluctantly away. He rests his head against the uncomfortable-looking cushion again. "Couple more hours?"

"It's early yet," Erik agrees. "Moira won't be here 'til noon." He stretches, rolling his neck to work out the kinks, and his gaze falls back on the PASIV. Between Charles's bouts of insomnia and Raven's bullheadedness, he really shouldn't be surprised. "Getting a head start on the job, were you?"

Charles doesn't have to open his eyes to know what Erik's referencing. "Just dreaming," he murmurs. "Good dreams. Don't worry."

"Who's worried?" Erik says, and Charles just smiles.

They spend a few long minutes in comfortable silence. Erik threads his fingers soothingly through Charles's hair until he's pretty sure Charles has drifted off. But when he starts to move away, Charles reaches up and presses his hand against Erik's thigh.

"Stay?" Charles asks. He has dark circles under his eyes and tired lines etched across his brow, but somehow he looks very young.

Erik hesitates. He was planning on going for a run, then heading out to set up preliminary surveillance on Stryker -- but there's also some prep he can do from Emma's house. Last night, Moira slipped him a copy of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intel on both Stryker and Cain; Stryker's file is particularly thick. Erik has plenty of reading to catch up on.

"I'll be right back," he promises.

He makes a quick trip back upstairs to grab the file, then detours to the kitchen for his cuppa. Thus fortified, he returns to the two siblings on the couch, tapping Charles gently on the cheek to get his attention. "Budge over."

Charles sits up just enough for Erik to squeeze in at the end of the couch, careful not to dislodge Raven. She mutters something incoherent and wraps her arm more tightly around Charles, who smiles fondly down at her.

"All right?" Erik asks quietly.

"Quite," Charles says, pillowing his head on Erik's lap with a grateful sigh. "You're much more comfortable than those wretched throw cushions."

"Happy to be of service," Erik says dryly, but Charles is already slipping back into sleep, and doesn't reply.

Erik shakes his head and curls one arm around Charles's shoulders, feeling Raven's long hair tickle the back of his hand. Then he flips open the file on Colonel William Stryker and begins to read.

*

When Raven arrives at the S.H.I.E.L.D. safe house in Northern Virginia, she finds Hank already setting up two PASIVs in the living room. "Oh, good," he says, thrusting a line in her face. "You're with Angel. Hook up."

Raven snorts and glances over at Angel, who gives her an amused smirk. "Anytime, love," Raven purrs. "Really, you just had to ask--"

"What?" Hanks blinks, then flushes beet red. "Wait, no, that's not what I meant!"

Angel laughs. "Chill, Hank, we know." But there's a flash of something unidentifiable in her dark eyes, and she quickly looks away from Raven to futz with her own PASIV line. Okay, then. Raven mentally files the observation away, to be dealt with...later.

"What are we dreaming?" she asks instead, rolling up her sleeve.

Hank pulls out an extra line and carefully hooks it up to the second PASIV. "Linked dreams," he says. "If we're really doing this, I figured we should get accustomed to it ASAP. Sean!"

"Gimme a sec, I gotta take a leak!" Sean hollers from another room.

Raven wouldn't have minded a chance to explore the place before being dragged into Hank's experiments, but the rest of the house will still be there when she wakes up. It looked big enough from the outside -- a sprawling old farmhouse in Virginia horse country, surrounded by several acres of pasture, but close enough to the interstate that commuting into Washington shouldn't be too much of a bitch, as long as they avoid rush hour. Growing up in the Xavier mansion has given Raven a somewhat skewed perspective on what constitutes a 'large' house, but this one should accommodate the eleven of them cozily enough. And S.H.I.E.L.D. provides pretty good security.

She likes this room, at least -- large and airy, with sunlight streaming in through wide windows. Several couches are arranged conveniently for shared PASIV use. There's also supposed to be a well-stocked lab in the basement for Hank's use. Compared to some of the shitholes she's worked out of in the past, this is positively luxurious.

The CIA dream facility had been similarly well-appointed, she remembers, then pushes the thought aside.

"So what's the plan?" she asks.

"Sean sketched out the maze last night," Angel explains, taking a seat on the couch beside her. "He showed it to me already. So we're both working off the same set of blueprints. If Hank links the two PASIVs right, we ought to be navigating the same architecture in the dream as well. But since we're two separate dreamers, the dreams ought to be different -- my subconscious will fill in the details of our dream, Sean's will fill his. You ride with me, Alex is going down with Sean. Hank will try out both dreams one at a time, see if they're linked up properly, make note of the differences between the two. Since I'm designing the Stryker dream and Sean's got the Cain extraction, that should give us a heads up on what to expect on the job itself."

"But if these are two separate dreams -- will we even be able to see Sean and Alex in theirs?"

"That's the goal," Hank says. "You can see them, interact with them -- to a certain degree -- but nothing you do will affect their dream, and vice-versa. Theoretically, you could rip your dream apart, and Sean's will still remain stable. You're sharing space and architecture, but not the dreams themselves. It's like -- parallel universes, seriously, I don't know how else to describe this stuff. Just go with it, okay?"

She can hear Alex bickering with Sean in another room, footsteps fast approaching. A knot tightens at the base of her skull, irritation and long-repressed anger festering like a wound, making her neck ache. She's been keeping her temper on a short leash for days; it's far simpler to press the button on the PASIV and slip under.

Raven is standing by the shore of a lake, the air crisp and cold. Tall, weathered pines fill the air with the sharp scent of sap, and snow dusts the craggy mountains that rise up from the water's edge. The landscape has an undeniable rugged beauty, the sort that belongs in movies or travel brochures. It's somehow intensely isolating for all its loveliness, makes her feel small and solitary and unimportant against the vast, harsh landscape. She's always appreciated Angel's dreams; Angel knows how to evoke a mood better than any other architect Raven's ever worked with.

"How much of this is Sean's design?" she asks.

Angel tugs her fur-lined hood up, shivering a little. "Just the general outline. The geography of the shoreline, the maze, the bridge--" She points across the water, and Raven realizes that the lake is man-made; one long stretch of it shears off against the horizon. That must be the spillway.

"What maze?" Raven asks.

Angel smirks. "The pine trees. Hard to tell when you're in it, but they're forming a maze. Don't think we'll use that for the job, though; I want to focus on the dam. Stryker's a real control freak. He'll be easier to control in a man-made structure, especially something we dress up like a military installation."

The wind bites at Raven's cheeks, and her hands are going numb even in her gloves. A light snow begins to fall. "Do you think Sean and Alex have hooked into their dream yet?"

"Sean said we should try to meet up on the bridge," Angel says, nodding again toward the spillway. "Let's head down."

The forest of pines does indeed form a maze, closing in around her as though she's slipped into a Grimm fairy tale. Raven follows behind her architect, Angel's tread sure and steady through the powdery snow, and leaves no trail of breadcrumbs behind.

*

Alex can see echoes of San Francisco in the city Sean built, hilly streets leading down to the curving coastline. A structure very much like the Golden Gate Bridge even stretches out across the bay. But the mimicry is imperfect; the buildings themselves are all harsh, gritty lines jostling for space around ruler-edged streets, giving the dream a harsher, more industrial feel than anything to be found in the Bay Area.

"I like Angel's cities better," he says.

Sean shrugs, unaffected by Alex's irritability. "It's not like Marko's got much appreciation for aesthetics. Come on, I told Angel to meet us on the bridge."

When Alex moves to follow the shoreline, though, Sean tugs him back.

"Dead end," Sean says. "Gotta follow the route through the labyrinth."

Right, because this is one of Hank's little academic experiments, so the dreams weren't actually designed with functionality in mind. Christ, it's already like half a mile of coastline to the bridge, who knows how much farther it'll be in one of Sean's convoluted mazes. Alex really isn't in the mood to play lab rat. At least the weather's not bad. If this were really San Francisco, it'd probably be foggy on top of everything else. It is humid, though; Alex can feel sweat trickling down his back.

Something flashes in the corner of his eye, and he flinches. But it's only the sunlight glinting off Sean's shades as he puts them on. "Come on," Sean says again. "Let's boogie."

Alex can't help but try to memorize the path through the maze of city streets, even though he knows it's just a rough template that won't actually be applied to the job itself. Still. You never know when a dream's gonna suddenly head south and you'll need a quick escape route. And Cain Marko's mind is probably more twisted than a fucking noose; may as well get used to the paranoia. Alex has never actually shared a dream with the criminally insane before, Erik Lehnsherr notwithstanding, and he's not looking forward to it. What sort of shit will Cain's subconscious throw at them?

He wants to think it can't be worse than the Shaw job, but fear of the unknown looms large; Shaw was crazy like a fox, but at least he had ironclad control over his own subconscious mind. Every piece of nastiness they'd encountered in Shaw's dream had been deliberately planted and executed. Cain isn't an experienced dreamer, and has no inherent control over the dreams -- which means his mental instability will be both ugly and utterly unpredictable. They can't even count on his projections intentionally attempting to sabotage the extraction; they might be militant, they might be helpful, they might just be batshit crazy. There's no way to do a trial run of this sort of thing. And that makes Alex twitchy. Not to mention, he's still feeling wrung out and unfocused from the nightmares this morning, disjointed images of forest and moonlight off metal and blood that isn't his own splashing across his arms and face, then to find himself on the rough rug with his elbow crushing Hank's throat, like he never woke up at all--

So when someone materializes out of thin fucking air on the street ahead of them, Alex dreams up a handgun and shoots the projection in the face without thinking twice, and only realizes it's Hank half a second later.

*

"Did you hear that?" Raven asks, stopping dead in her tracks.

"Definitely a gunshot," Angel confirms. She frowns. "But who the hell is shooting? There shouldn't be any projections in this dream, it's supposed to be an empty landscape--"

Yeah, Raven's heard that one before. "You have way too much faith in your subconscious. Not to mention mine." She unzips her parka to rest her hand on the comforting shape of her holstered pistol, scanning the pine maze through narrowed eyes. The sound of the shot was all the more startling in the unnerving hush of the snow-muffled forest.

When nothing happens for a few long minutes, Angel exhales fine mist into the cold air. "I think it came from further ahead of us," she says. "And we're almost at the bridge."

All at once, Raven is sick of waiting. If the dreamscape wants to fuck with her, that's just fine. She's more than ready to blow shit up. "So let's go."

Angel shoots her an incredulous look. "You want to head toward the random gunfire?"

Raven grins recklessly and unholsters her pistol. "It's just a dream. What's the worst that could happen?"

"Girl, I know you know better than that," Angel protests. But she returns the smile, as if in spite of herself, and leads the way onward down the trail to the dam.

*

S.H.I.E.L.D. has a surprising amount of clout on the Hill, covert though it is. Moira spent the morning posing as a personal aide to one of Fury's pet congressmen, a senator who chairs an important defense committee. As it so happens, Senator Kelly had a nine thirty with Colonel William Stryker regarding an upcoming appropriations bill.

"Whatever Stryker's problem is, it's personal," she tells Charles and Erik, pouring herself a glass of Diet Coke in the farmhouse kitchen. "Kelly was primed to ask several leading questions, but Stryker shut him down at every turn like a pro. I wouldn't want to play poker with the guy, either. He's smart, he's mean, and he gives nothing away."

"Did he have any of his own people with him?" Erik asks.

Moira nods. "Two aides. Coulson's running down background on them as we speak, but I took a couple of pictures." She brings up the photos on her iPhone. They're grainy and poorly focused, but they'll do in a pinch. The first is of a tall, expressionless Asian woman. "This one was in the meeting with us -- striking woman, completely silent throughout. I overheard Stryker addressing her as Yuriko, but we weren't properly introduced. The other one I didn't get a name on at all; I got the impression he was more of a bodyguard. He stayed outside Kelly's office." This photo's blurrier than the last, which is a pity; handsome guy, in a bland all-American sort of way, with very impressive biceps. "Now he would not shut up. I could hear him yammering away at Kelly's secretary the whole time. Can't blame Stryker for keeping him out of meetings, but it makes me wonder why he keeps him around at all."

Charles glances over at Erik. "Do you recognize either of them?"

"No, but that's not surprising. I was never military, and certainly not US Army." Erik slides the phone back across the table to Moira. "You should really try Alex instead. And once you've got better shots, get a copy to Raven, she might want to forge one or both of them."

"Already on it," Moira assures them. "Once they're done with Hank's chemistry experiment, I'll talk to Alex. And Sean and Hank, for that matter, they were all in the same program. Not to mention Logan--"

"He's going over Cain's background with Emma, back at her place," Charles says, without the slightest inflection. "I offered to assist, but apparently he doesn't play well with other extractors. He'd rather develop the Cain job on his own."

It occurs to Moira that when it comes to poker, Charles could probably give Stryker a run for his money. He doesn't appear the slightest bit affected by the mention of his longtime captor. Erik's the one who flinches at Cain's name. It's a striking contrast to their time together in the CIA, when Charles was all about empathy, and expressing one's feelings, and earnest discussions, while Erik was the stone-faced, cold-blooded criminal.

It's not a perfect role reversal, of course, but it twists a small knot in Moira's chest, a reminder of the distance they've all traveled from who they once were. Moira used to drag Charles out to see ridiculous romantic comedies and bitch about the CIA's Powers That Be over Irish coffee. And once Erik stopped regarding her suspiciously as a potential rival, she'd unexpectedly become his frequent sounding board when he and Charles had one of their more potent arguments; they'd shared both a certain hard-edged pragmatism and a fond exasperation with Charles's rose-tinted view of the world. But the years between have scraped away Charles's naivete and raised all of Erik's protective shields into an impenetrable wall around himself and the very short list of people he considers family. She no longer knows where Erik goes after he's been fighting with Charles, has no idea if Charles has watched a single silly movie since escaping from the Westchester mansion.

She wonders if she seems as much a stranger to them now as they are to her. It doesn't really matter; they're here to do this one job, that's all. And then they'll all go their separate ways back to their new lives, and leave the past buried deep where it belongs.

"What do you think of Logan?" she asks instead, all business.

Erik and Charles exchange glances. "None of us have shared his dreams yet," Charles says cautiously. "But by all accounts he used to be a very capable extractor."

"I hear your boss is the one who recommended him to Raven," Erik adds, leveling a look at her. "Any insights?"

Moira shrugs. "Supposedly they worked together once in the Gulf. It didn't end well. And yet Fury still wanted him in on this job." She matches Erik's cool stare. "He speaks highly of your work as well. He'd wanted you as primary on the Stryker inception, not Charles."

"He'll just have to learn to live with disappointment, then," Erik says dryly. Charles just looks faintly amused.

Well, it doesn't sound like she's getting the story on Erik's onetime involvement with Fury today. Not that she'd expected to. So she changes the subject instead. "Any ideas on the inception yet?"

"Still percolating," Charles says. "It's only been a day, after all. Moira, do you know if there are any additional PASIVs in this place? I'd like to work through a few theories while Hank and the others are experimenting."

She gets them set up in the sitting room, after doing a quick check on Hank's group -- all still sleeping soundly. She idly wonders what they're dreaming. When Charles and Erik hook themselves into the fresh PASIV, Charles glances up at her, eyes intent. He unwinds a third line from the case.

"Care to join us?" he offers, a little too gently.

Moira hasn't dreamed since that last disastrous day at the now-defunct CIA dream facility. She doesn't miss it. Really, she doesn't.

"No, thanks," she says. "Not my style, these days."

She doesn't know what to do with the sympathy in his smile, so she presses the button on the PASIV to send them both to sleep.

*

There is no true neutrality in dreams; trying to design a blank template is, paradoxically, too challenging to be worth the effort. Most practiced dreamers develop basic dreamscapes that they return to regularly; a rude approximation of their hometown, perhaps, or an empty field, or the like. But for purposes of exploration, Charles has always preferred to allow his subconscious to manifest itself as it will.

Given their conversation topside, he's unsurprised to find himself in the wood-paneled halls of the old Westchester mansion.

"Charles," Erik says, a clear warning in his tone.

"It's just a house, Erik," Charles says lightly. It isn't, of course; it's also a feeling, a memory, a symbol. Nothing in dreams is ever just its superficial attributes. But extractors mold the symbolism of the dream to their own purposes; they cannot allow themselves to be controlled by it. "And if we want to plant an idea in Stryker's mind, we must be prepared to step outside our comfort zone."

"Inception isn't a parlor trick. I'm sure the dear Colonel has his fair share of childhood traumas for us to dredge up, but I fail to see how that will accomplish anything."

Charles runs his finger across the molding in the walls. It comes away dark with accumulated grime. This house has stood empty for some time. "We need to somehow feed the idea to his subconscious so that he believes it is his own. To do that, we'll need to evoke some powerful imagery within his mind -- to introduce symbols on the top level which reproduce themselves of their own accord as we travel deeper." He shoves his hands in his pockets and swivels to face Erik. "What is your most powerful childhood memory?"

Erik seems unruffled by the abrupt change in subject, but he quirks one eyebrow. "You should already know the answer to that question."

In one sense, Erik has a firmer grip on his memories than anyone else Charles has met; he locks them all tightly away within a fortress in his mind, and never allows them to bleed out into his dreams. But that's because he's well aware that should he release them into his broader subconscious, they might too easily control him instead. Charles's dreams are sloppier on the surface, liberally seeded with stray thoughts and memories and emotions, but he finds freedom in the disorder. He knows what to use and what to ignore, how to let his eyes slip past the ugly memories within this mansion and see only the structure, an impersonal thing that can do him no harm.

He itches to dive into Erik's mental fortress and smash it apart, but that's a matter for another time. First they have to demolish Stryker's. "Indulge me."

"Watching Shaw shoot my mother in the head," Erik says, voice flat and nearly expressionless.

"Love," Charles says quietly. "And loss. Two of the most potent human emotions, so firmly entwined in one memory that you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins. They tap into the very core of your being. That's what we need to evoke in Stryker's dream."

"Don't forget rage," Erik says, but there's a softness in his eyes that belies his ironic tone.

Charles smiles. "A mere byproduct, a reactionary emotion. Love and loss lie at the heart. We must attempt to strip the rest away." He catches Erik's arm and tugs lightly, leading him down the corridor. His leg doesn't pain him at all in this dream.

He pushes open a door into a darkened bedroom, distinctly childish and feminine, with the pale pink wallpaper Raven had always so hated as a girl. The window stands open; a cool night breeze wafts in, making the lacy white curtains dance. The old oak tree's branches reach right up to the sill.

"Always the idealist," Erik remarks. He hardly spares the room a second glance, still watching Charles. "You're assuming Stryker has a heart."

"He must do," Charles says. "Or else how could it have been so badly broken?"

*

Hank has snow in his hair, and Alex looks like he's about to puke, and Sean has no fucking idea what's going on but he would really like everyone to stop yelling at each other for five minutes. And when Sean is politely asking others to shut the fuck up -- Houston, we have a problem.

Also, the ground beneath his feet is starting to rumble faintly. Sean really should've known better than to build a California-ish dream for people with volatile tempers.

He sighs and checks back in to Hank and Alex's argument.

"Yeah, because splattering your enormous brain all across the sidewalk, that'd really make my fucking day!" Alex yells.

"Hey, at least I'm not the one who's so freaking trigger-happy that I'll shoot at anything that moves in my general vicinity!"

"No, you're the one getting your stupid face shot off!"

Sean flinches at the tread of footsteps behind him. They sound off, muffled and sort of crunching. Raven and Angel walk up beside him, looking distinctly out of place. Raven's cheeks are pink with cold and exertion, and they're both lightly dusted with snow. Like Hank.

Oh, right.

"So that's why the bullet went right through him!" Sean says all at once, and both Hank and Alex turn to give him identical well, duh looks. Look, Sean just builds stuff, all right, he doesn't deal with all the theoretical shit. His face gets hot. "Oh, shut up and go back to ripping each other a new one, whatever."

They do.

"So Hank's in our dream, huh?" Angel remarks.

Raven rolls her eyes. "Let me guess. Alex shot first and asked questions later."

"Well, sorta," Sean says with a shrug. "I mean, if you count 'what the fuck were you fucking thinking, you fucking fuck' as a question, sure."

The ground trembles again as Alex screams at Hank, red-faced, and Sean grimaces. The girls don't seem to have noticed the tremors, but Angel tugs her hood tighter around her face, and Raven's hair whips back in a wind that doesn't touch Sean's cityscape. So the feeling's mutual. He wonders what Angel's dream looks like -- if it's another city like his, or something else entirely. Bits and pieces of hers filter through -- the snow, a scent of pine -- but it's like Hank said, parallel universes layered on top of each other, tantalizing glimpses out of the corner of his eye that dissipate when he tries to focus on them directly. He wonders what'll happen to Angel's dream if Alex succeeds in ripping Sean's apart.

"Okay, getting bored now," Raven says. There's a dangerous glint in her eye. "The whole point of this exercise is to test the limits of the linked dreams, right?"

Angel exchanges a quick, wary glance with Sean. "Yeah?"

Raven shifts her weight subtly, adjusting her stance so that her feet are planted more squarely on the ground. Her shoulders hunch forward. Something in her expression turns almost hawkish as she watches Alex and Hank argue. "So let's shake things up a bit."

She can't directly influence Sean's dream, but he thinks he can feel the wind shift all the same.

"Corporal Summers," Raven bellows -- but she's not Raven anymore. She's Stryker. Sean can feel his spine automatically straightening in visceral response to that tone.

Alex whips around, snapping to attention like he's back in Fort Benning. The shock lasts for only about as long as it takes for him to take in the sight of his former commanding officer standing alongside two of his current coworkers. He's not the most expressive guy, but Sean can see the precise instant when Alex puts two and two together, figuring out Raven's forgery.

Whatever else you can say about Alex, he's usually a pretty logical guy. Short-tempered at times, sure, but he kept Erik on something resembling an even keel for years. He can be a force of nature when the job calls for it -- Sean's seen him cut swathes through angry projections, leaving a trail of destruction a mile wide -- but he only applies those scorched earth tactics to his enemies, not his allies. He used to lose control sometimes back in the army, but, well, teenagers. None of them could help themselves back then. They've grown up a bit since.

But Alex's reaction to Raven's little mind-fuck is not exactly what you might call a proportional response.

The pavement that stretches between them splits apart, cutting a jagged crater down the middle of the street. Sean yelps and throws himself sideways to avoid falling in. All the windows of the nearby buildings rattle ominously in their frames, and okay, Sean has died by exploding glass once before already and has no desire to repeat the experience. He has no idea what the others are seeing -- if the linked dream theory holds, nothing Alex does to his city should affect Angel's dreamscape, whatever she built -- but they can obviously tell something is wrong. Angel takes several instinctive steps back from the gap in the earth, and Raven/Stryker's eyes are suddenly wary.

"Dude!" Sean says. "She's not even in our dream, what the hell are you trying to--"

"You want a fucking fight, Raven?" Alex yells, completely ignoring Sean. "You wanna fight like Stryker? How about a fucking melee?"

Aw, fuck.

*

Charles looks out of place here, in this little girl's bedroom, yet he moves through it as though it's as familiar to him as their own. Erik watches him from the doorway. "What's the purpose of this exercise, Charles?"

"Recurring symbols," he says, as though it were obvious. "I want to try sowing them through multiple dream layers, see how they grow."

"Incepting yourself?"

Charles shoots him a crooked grin. "Hardly. I know precisely where the ideas originate. But still, worth a trial run. The thoughts are my own, so my mind shouldn't reject them. A good control group, wouldn't you say?" He kneels down beside the child-sized bed, flipping up the rose-colored dust ruffle.

While Charles is rifling around under the bed, Erik amuses himself by looking over the room. He'd seen the original once -- but only once, and under rather strained circumstances. He does remember that the tree limbs hadn't reached nearly so close to the windowsill in Raven's actual mansion bedroom -- but then, they'd mentioned that Cain had sawed the nearest branches off when he'd discovered the trick. What a delightful childhood they all must have had together.

There's a bright blue jewelry box on the dresser. Erik idly flips it open. Tinkling music plays, some banal classical piece reworked for a child's music box, and a tiny ballerina spins in front of an inset mirror. The box is otherwise empty, apart from a glint of silver at the bottom. Erik picks it up. It's another mirror. If he holds it just so, the ballerina figurine appears to spin in an endless tiny hall of mirrors.

"Here we are." Charles pulls a battered PASIV case out from under the bed.

Erik pockets the little hand mirror without thinking much of it. "You used to keep a PASIV under your sister's childhood bed?"

"It was on the top shelf of Kurt's closet, actually," Charles says with a wry smile. "Raven found it. I've no idea what she was originally looking for up there."

For once, Erik is taken by surprise. He'd never asked how Charles had first started dreamsharing; he'd simply assumed that the CIA had trained him as they had Moira and all the rest. "Your stepfather was a dreamer?"

"Military scientist. Much like Stryker, actually -- my God, I wonder if they ever worked together?" Charles looks distinctly discomfited at the thought. "But yes, he was, in his own way. Raven and I stumbled across the PASIV by mistake. So we gave it a go."

The thought of two untrained naïfs diving into dreams together is enough to send a chill down Erik's spine. "How old were you?"

Charles shrugs. "Fourteen, I think? So Raven was ten. She used to call it 'playing make-believe.'"

"That was very, very dangerous," Erik says quietly. He can't quite keep the horror out of his voice. "You could have lost yourselves."

"I suppose we were lucky. And devastatingly talented, of course." Charles glances up at him with a smirk, then softens. "We were hardly more than children, Erik, we didn't know any better. And it turned out well enough, didn't it?"

Erik doesn't know how to respond to that, so he simply accepts the PASIV line Charles is offering and slips further down the rabbit hole.

*

On the mountaintop far above the lake, an avalanche begins to rumble.

"Hank!" Angel calls, willing herself to remain calm. "Didn't you say we couldn't affect anything in the other linked dream?"

"We can't!"

"Right, so is it you or Raven's who's causing the earthquake, then, 'cause it sure as hell ain't me!"

Angel would really like to know what Sean and Alex's dream looks like right now, because from the way Sean's scrabbling at the ground, it can't be pleasant. But she's got her own problems to worry about. Namely, the ominous white cloud that's growing at the peak of the nearest mountain. It's not directly above them, but close enough not to matter. By the time that avalanche rolls its way down the slope, it'll have more than enough accumulated power to crush them flat. And with the icy lake at their backs, they've got nowhere to run.

Raven's dropped the forge of Stryker, but that hasn't stopped the fight. She and Alex are both pretty well trained in unarmed combat, which makes no difference when neither of them can land a punch. It would be almost funny to watch if it weren't for the impending doom.

"Alex can't directly alter this dream," Hank says, wheezing a little -- his attempt to grab Raven's arm earned him an elbow squarely in the solar plexus. "But the link, it's like...so you know how on multilayered dreams, stuff that happens in the top level can affect the levels below? Yeah. Like that."

"So, what, Alex's emotional turbulence in his dream is setting off aftershocks in ours?"

Hank shrugs helplessly. "Kind of? And getting the rest of us all riled up doesn't help."

A wave suddenly surges up in the lake and then freezes midair, sending icicles hurling over Raven's head to slam into Alex. Or they would, if Alex were in this dream. But they must find some equivalent in his, because he drops to the ground, covering his head with his arms, and she can see thin slices cut out of his shirt and hands, blood welling up in their wake. The dreams are both destabilizing -- is that affecting the link? "Raven, stop it!"

Raven doesn't even hear her. She'd started out purely on the defensive, but she's clearly the one taking control of the dreams now. She fights reflexively, fierce and beautiful, but there's a baffled look on her face like she can't quite believe this is actually happening. Alex, though, fights like a wounded animal, a snarling dog, with none of his usual focus or precision. He may be gunning for Raven, but he's going to take the rest of them down right along with her. And what the fuck was it about Raven's stupid forgery that set him off like this?

Sean shouts something and vanishes into the snow, like the earth is swallowing him up. Hank -- who'd been so worked up arguing with Alex right up until Raven's interruption -- looks pale and sick. Maybe the constant tremors are making him queasy, but....

Angel grabs his arm. "Hank? What the hell scares Alex so badly about Stryker? And what's a melee?"

"That was Stryker's favorite training scenario," Hank says, grimacing. "The military dream program was supposed to train soldiers how to fight, how to kill, how to torture. The melee -- they'd dump all of us in the same dream together, all twelve of us. The dreamscape was always different. Sometimes it was like Vietnam, or the Gulf, or whatever, but usually it was just some random landscape. And then, well, melee." He hunches his shoulders, hands clenching at his sides. "Last man standing wins. Last man to wake up."

A twelve-man squad, set to kill each other over and over and over again in different training scenarios. Angel tries to imagine it -- tries to picture herself and Raven and the others, all set against one another in the dreamspace, and the only way out is to kill or be killed awake -- and fails. Maybe this is why she was never military material.

"Alex used to win the melees a lot," Hank goes on bleakly, as the avalanche roars down the mountainside. "Not the majority, maybe, but more than any of the rest of us. He can't use weapons effectively here, not with him and Raven in different dreams, or it'd be over already. And he'd hate himself for it."

"It's just a dream," Angel says, though she doesn't believe it. Charles always likes to say that what happens down here is just as real as anything topside. He might be right. The ground is shaking, unnatural wind whipping at her face, but she refuses to run. It's not like there's anywhere else for her to go.

Hank shakes his head. "The last time -- they'd terminated Stryker's program, only he didn't tell anyone. So he drugged us up and dumped us in the middle of the woods at midnight. He told us it was another melee. We thought we were dreaming." He looks away. "We weren't."

Alex shouts and Raven screams, and then the thunder is right on top of them, and Angel's whole world goes white.

*

The museum is sleek and modern, all clean lines and white surfaces; Erik recognizes a sort of Guggenheim influence in the architecture. This dream level has plenty of projections milling about, chatting quietly in the gallery or moving from piece to piece with the considering airs of aesthetes. There's light music playing over the speakers. Erik might not know much about classical music, but the piece sounds naggingly familiar. He shrugs it off.

All of the artwork on display is similarly familiar, yet not quite. He gets the impression that they're all famous pieces, but as he approaches one for a closer look, it seems to blur in his sight, becoming unrecognizable. Perhaps it's a Seurat, he thinks with a smirk, but Charles isn't here to share the joke. Which is unusual in itself, though not alarming -- they tend to land in the dreamspace in fairly close physical proximity to one another, but dreams are unpredictable. Charles might be anywhere else in the museum, or even outside of it. They'll find each other eventually.

In the meantime, he ambles through the galleries, wondering what symbols Charles is planting through the dream. He hadn't seemed to be doing much of anything in the first dream level....

A winding staircase leads Erik up to another set of galleries, just as pristine as the others. There are fewer projections up here. An elderly couple coos over an indistinct painting that seems to be all swirling blue and gold, and a heavily pregnant woman rests on a bench, scribbling in her notebook. Erik peeks down at her notes as he passes; they're written in French. Someone Charles encountered in Montreal, perhaps?

One of the paintings on the wall captures his attention -- as he approaches it, it actually becomes clearer to his eyes rather than blurring further. It's a Degas, he thinks: dancers in blue skirts bending over a barre.

"I've always enjoyed the impressionists," Charles says, stepping in beside him. "Very dreamlike."

The image of the ballerinas comes together in his head with the music still wafting softly through the air, and Erik recognizes it all at once. "The music box in Raven's bedroom!"

Charles slants him a smile. "Raven's jewelry box, yes. She used to hide her most valuable possessions in there when we were children. Which, in retrospect, weren't terribly valuable at all, which is probably why Cain never bothered pilfering them."

Erik reaches into his trouser pocket and feels the hard, flat shape of the little hand mirror. Something of Raven's, once? Or a fragment of Charles's subconscious, accustomed to thinking of the box as a hiding place for secrets? But what meaning is there in a mirror?

"What are you hoping to symbolize with the jewelry box?" he asks instead.

Charles shrugs, reaching out to trace the rough surface of the canvas. He's always been a tactile person; where else could he feel up priceless masterpieces but in a dream? "Any number of things, I suppose -- safety, a child's sense of security. Or maybe it's about the dancer. Ballet is such a rigid, demanding art, but so wonderfully expressive within the set constraints of the form."

He could probably spend hours philosophizing; Erik cuts him off with a pointed lift of his eyebrow. "We're going to have to be rather more specific when we suggest symbols to Stryker's mind."

Charles laughs, a touch self-deprecatingly. "Yes, well, this dream isn't particularly well-defined; you'll have to forgive the nebulousness of my subconscious state at the moment."

Erik turns back to the painting with a faint smile. The dancers admire their reflected forms in the mirror at the barre, blue tutus puffing out behind them. But no, the actual Degas painting has no mirror, does it? Did it a minute ago? He glances around to see if anyone else has noticed, but Charles has wandered off to the next exhibit, and most of the projections have already dispersed, leaving only Erik and the pregnant woman with her notebook.

She looks up at him, tucking a wayward curl back behind her ear. Her eyes are large and dark, bottomless pools. "You mustn't blame him," she murmurs in a lilting accent. To Erik's trained ear, it's almost certainly French, rather than Quebecois. "He cannot help himself."

Her hand rests protectively on her distended stomach. Erik feels vaguely disquieted, and doesn't know why. He gives her a curt nod and heads off after Charles.

The next gallery is markedly different from the others. Instead of the modern white architecture, it takes on a much darker tone, with mahogany paneling and a thick Persian carpet muffling Erik's tread. The art in here is different, too -- the indistinct paintings are replaced with austere sculptures and ornate vases on blocks of marble. One such pedestal displays a PASIV, the case battered and tarnished. Charles studies it impassively.

"Charles?"

"Onward and upward, I suppose," Charles says. He flips open the PASIV, leaving it on its marble base, and begins unwinding two lines.

"Downward, you mean," Erik says, watching Charles uncertainly. There's a large, gold-plated mirror hanging from one wall; he somehow feels the need to keep a careful watch on it in his peripheral vision, as though the Charles reflected there might act differently from the Charles before him. "There isn't enough sedative in the Somnacin compound to sustain a third dream level."

Charles shrugs, maddeningly indifferent to Erik's concern. "Not to maintain the structured architecture of a job, no, but the subconscious mind can be surprisingly flexible when given a freer rein." He gives Erik a perplexed frown. "We've experimented with far deeper layers than this before."

It's true, they have, but something just feels...off. Erik can't quite pinpoint the source of his unease, but he's learned to trust his instincts. Both this and the mansion dream have been perfectly tranquil; the only projection who's taken the slightest bit of interest in either of them was the woman in the Degas gallery, and her attention seemed more concerned than antagonistic. And yet, and yet...

But he still trusts Charles implicitly, and so inserts the proffered line into his wrist once again.

*

Alex rips the line out of his arm as soon as he's awake, fumbling the tape with shaking hands. Stupid, stupid, what the fuck is he doing? He just destroyed two separate dreamscapes and killed all four of his teammates as well as himself. And if they'd been in the same dream, he would have ripped Raven apart with his bare hands. What the hell does that make him?

He hasn't thought of himself as Stryker's creation in a long, long time. It leaves a sour taste in the back of his throat.

"So that was pretty much an unmitigated disaster," Hank says, completely failing to dissipate the awkward tension between the five of them. "But at least we know the linked PASIVs work!"

Raven is staring at Alex from the couch, eyes wide and wary. "Alex--"

"Just leave it, all right?" he snaps, hurling himself out of his armchair. "Christ, Raven, don't you ever know when to stop fucking pushing?"

It's obviously the wrong thing to say. Raven's voice snaps across the room like a gunshot. "If just the sight of Stryker is enough to send you into a frenzy, how the hell am I supposed to trust you on this job?"

He whirls back around so fast he practically gives himself whiplash. "Me?" he demands incredulously. "Jesus fucking Christ, I'm not the one who changes plans on the job at the last fucking minute and doesn't tell anyone!"

She crosses her arms defensively across her chest. "If this is about the damn Proclus job--"

"It's about every job, Raven!" Alex yells. "How about the Shaw job, when you suddenly decided to forge Angel without warning anyone beforehand? Or in Madrid, when you added a back route through the maze that your own damn architect didn't know about? And then the fucking Proclus catastrophe--"

"We got the job done!"

"I nearly killed you before you completed the extraction, because you'd changed the fucking forgery on me, again! If Hank hadn't gotten in my way--"

"You know what your problem is, Alex?" Raven says. She's not shouting anymore, but there's an ugly edge to her tone. "You're such a fucking control freak, you couldn't improvise your way out of a paper bag. We work in dreams! You can't control every aspect of your own subconscious, let alone a mark's! So, yeah, sometimes I have to fucking adjust my plans for changing circumstances to get the job done. And if you can't handle that, why the fuck are you in this business, anyway?" Her lip curls in a sneer, and for an instant, she looks just like Emma Frost. "Adapt to survive, Summers."

He recoils as though he's been slapped. That's what Darwin always used to tell him, when they trained together back at the CIA. But Darwin never used that cold, disdainful tone.

"Raven," Angel says quietly, and Alex is suddenly hyper-aware that they are not alone in the room, that the other three are still standing there staring at them. "That's enough."

Alex turns on his heel and stalks out.

He hasn't had a chance to explore the new safe house much, but he knows he needs to get out. The kitchen opens out to a huge wrap-around porch; he slams the screen door open and barrels outside, swinging himself up over the railing to jump down onto the grass. Distantly, he can hear the door slap shut behind him, then open again. He ignores it, half-running across the yard up to a sprawling sycamore tree. He punches the trunk as hard as he can. It hurts, but whatever.

"What did the tree ever do to you?"

Hank. Just his fucking luck. The bloody aftermath of the Proclus job runs like a film reel in his head, Hank pushing Raven's unfamiliar forged body out of the way to intercept Alex's bullet, and it was like they were right back in the middle of one of Stryker's fucking melees.

Gut shots are slow, painful deaths. But they'd needed to keep Hank alive long enough to complete his part of the extraction, so Alex couldn't finish it off mercifully. Hank held out all the way to the kick, pale and sweating and going into shock from the pain. And every time Alex looked at him, all he could think was: I did that.

Fuck.

"Leave me alone, Hank," Alex growls. His blood feels too hot under his skin, stomach roiling like he's gonna be sick. He'd done it again in there -- shot Hank right in the head, except they weren't actually sharing the same dream. And then he'd ripped the world apart.

"No," Hank says, uncharacteristically defiant.

Alex snorts. "What? Worried I'm gonna fuck up the precious job? I'm not even going into Stryker's head!"

"No, I'm worried about you, you imbecile," Hank retorts, and the hell of it is, he's probably even telling the truth. The concern in his face is far too sincere, and he's looking at Alex like he sees something secret, something hidden, something Alex isn't even sure about himself. It's just too much. Hank's too close, so Alex has to physically shove him away.

Hank shoves him back. He's stronger than he looks, and Alex wasn't expecting it; he stumbles back against the tree trunk hard. He has to tilt his head back to meet Hank's eyes, and that always somehow comes as a surprise, being reminded that Hank's taller than him. His pulse is still racing with the unresolved aggression from the dream, the sycamore's bark is rough against his spine through the thin fabric of his T-shirt, and when Hank's hands curl around his shoulders, he doesn't know what else to do but push right back.

He kisses him.

It's not gentle, or tender, or particularly nice. Hank's lips are chapped and he tastes mostly like the ham sandwich he'd had for lunch right before the dream session; his palms are sweaty and Alex almost immediately gets a crick in his neck from the height difference. But then he nips at Hank's lower lip and Hank makes a strangled sound and closes the distance between their hips, and suddenly it's very nearly amazing. Alex feels angry and embarrassed and turned on as all hell. When he closes his eyes, he can still see his bullet punching through Hank's body. So he keeps his eyes open and tries to overwrite the memory with this very different sort of surprise on Hank's face.

Hank starts taking more control of the action, pressing Alex back against the tree and licking a hot trail down along his neck, and Alex sucks in a harsh breath, tugging him in by his belt loops. Alex hasn't gotten any in a while, and Hank's all long lines and lean muscles beneath his disarmingly dorky exterior; what the hell, Alex has always preferred his guys tall, skinny, and too damn smart for their own good. And Hank is...Hank, which Alex doesn't want too think too hard about right now. Doesn't want to think at all right now, actually, so this is fucking fantastic. His body feels like it's reacting almost on autopilot, hands fumbling for the button on Hank's jeans, but that's good, that's fine, that's great. Adapt to survive, Summers.

The thought douses him like a splash of cold water. Alex yanks his hands away from Hank's pants, twisting out of his hold. To his credit, Hank stops immediately and takes a hasty step back to give Alex space, though he's still breathing heavily, skin pleasantly flushed. "Alex?"

His voice is low and rough, and it sends a jolt of heat straight down to Alex's dick. Perversely, that just makes him feel even sicker about it. What the fuck is he doing? This isn't some anonymous lay -- it's Hank, one of his crew, maybe sort of even his friend. That means something, should damn well mean something -- and here he is, what, gonna screw him up against a tree because he's so desperate not to lose another argument?

"I can't," Alex says, in a stranger's voice. His body doesn't feel like his own. Maybe he's still dreaming. "Fuck, Hank, I shouldn't have -- I just can't. I'm sorry."

He doesn't run away, at least. He's got that much dignity left to him. Instead he just stands there with his back against the fucking tree and watches Hank's face flush -- with anger, humiliation, whatever, Alex doesn't know and refuses to care -- until finally, finally, Hank turns and stalks away.

Alex mimes a gun with his hand, points it at Hank's retreating back, and pulls the imaginary trigger. "Bang," he mutters, remembering the feel of his old uniform against his skin, dark and wet with someone else's blood.

*

The third level of Charles's dream is noticeably unstable from the very first moment. Erik isn't entirely surprised -- there's a reason few dreamers even venture two layers deep, let alone more, and he and Charles haven't experimented with this many levels at all since breaking Charles out of the underground bunker in Westchester eight months ago. Charles's grasp on reality had been tenuous enough at first as it was; the deeper the dream, the more disorienting, even under the best of circumstances.

But Erik isn't one to dictate Charles's limits to him. All he can do is brace himself for the inevitable fallout.

The dreamscape here is fluid, uncertain, as though it can't quite decide what it wants to be. He's walking along the outer wall of a castle, or possibly a fortress; the air smells like seawater, but there's no ocean to be seen in any direction. His feet sink slightly into each step as though the fort is built of densely-packed sand rather than stone. A large black bird alights on a nearby turret -- a raven? Or just a crow? He sees a flash of blue fabric vanish into the next turret down and takes off after it, picking up his pace until he's almost running.

Inside the narrow tower, a tightly winding staircase leads down, down, down. Music echoes faintly off the curved stone walls, the music box tune. He follows the blue dancer ever downward. The steps are too steep, and he stumbles down them too quickly, nearly falling and braining himself on now-unforgiving stone countless times. Finally he reaches the bottom and staggers out of the staircase, dizzy and disoriented, to find himself in a hall of mirrors.

It's as though he's fallen into some sort of awful funhouse, mirrors on every side, reflecting each other a thousand thousand times over. The turret door slams shut behind him and melts into yet another mirror; the music cuts off abruptly, leaving him with only the sound of his own breathing. There's no sign of the dancer. Only his own stark reflection stares back at him, from a hundred angles, echoing infinitely down along the mirrored corridors. It's difficult to discern the shape of the hall from this perspective, but from the angles of his reflections, he thinks there are at least six sides to the room, or perhaps it's octagonal....

And Erik realizes exactly what's so familiar about these mirrors.

Before he has a chance to fully explore his prison, one wall shatters apart, shards of mirrors littering the tile floor. Charles stumbles in, wild-eyed, the knuckles of both his hands cut and bleeding. "Erik! God, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I never meant to trap you in here--"

"I'm fine," Erik says shortly, because he is. He hadn't been stuck there long enough for it to have much of an effect on him. "Your symbolism got rather out of hand, didn't it?"

"This wasn't supposed to be the motif! The jewelry box--"

"That's where it started." Erik pulls the hand mirror out of his pocket, still with him through three dream layers, and tosses it at Charles's feet. "A place to hide your valuables, to store secrets -- what the hell did you think your subconscious would do with it? That's elementary-level extraction, Charles!"

Charles stares down at the mirror, then around them, then back up to Erik. He looks stricken. "I never intended for you to see this."

"We're standing in the fucking nuclear reactor chamber of Shaw's submarine -- the dream where I killed you both. Did you think I wouldn't recognize it?" He's shouting now, can't help himself. "What the fuck is Shaw's little torture chamber doing in your subconscious?"

That's actually a pretty stupid question, once his brain catches up with his mouth -- God knows this memory haunts Erik's nightmares, why shouldn't it lurk in Charles's as well? But this doesn't feel like a stray memory. He can't begin to explain it, but he knows with a bone-deep certainty: this room is here for a reason. Raven hid personal items from Cain in her jewelry box, and Charles hid this. Erik just doesn't know how to make the connection.

"'The beauty about the unconscious is that it is really unconscious,'" Charles quotes. Jung, of course; Charles always retreats behind his old doctoral thesis in a pinch. When Erik starts to turn away in disgust, Charles reaches out and grabs his arm. "I don't know, Erik, I really don't."

There's now a streak of red on Erik's shirtsleeve from Charles's torn knuckles. It's only a dream injury, nothing serious, but it makes his stomach clench all the same. Erik sighs and swallows his temper back, covering Charles's hand carefully with his own. "What, did you try to punch through the damn wall?"

Charles's face is still too pale, but he manages a rueful smile. "It seemed like a valid option at the time. No matter, this dream level is disintegrating, I'll be perfectly fine once we wake up."

He's right; Erik had been distracted by his perfectly justified anger, but the broken mirror-wall was only the beginning. The dream's been struggling to hold its shape from the start, small wonder their combined mental distress is shaking the rest of it apart. Erik holds onto Charles tightly as the dreamscape falls to pieces around them, and does his best to ignore the ill-concealed relief in Charles's eyes. But the sour feeling it leaves in the pit of his stomach lasts all the way up through the kicks.

*

Coulson's cell buzzes while he's neck deep in files from the pre-digital era that no one has bothered to scan into the S.H.I.E.L.D. database yet. It's not exactly his favorite aspect of the job, but the facial recognition software hadn't turned up any matches on either of Stryker's aides. The next step would be hacking into the military's mainframe, but it's probably best to exhaust traditional avenues of research first. The Army does tend to get tetchy about major breaches in its security systems. And Coulson would prefer not to alert them of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s current interest in Stryker.

His phone informs him that Raven Darkholme is calling. He frowns down at it. Raven ought to be at the safe house by now -- why would she go through the trouble of contacting him when she could just speak with MacTaggert in person?

Only one way to find out. "Coulson."

"Subconscious Homeland Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Division," Raven says, sing-song. "What a mouthful."

"Hence the snazzy acronym." Coulson pinches the bridge of his nose. "What can I do for you, Ms. Darkholme?"

"You guys keep pretty close tabs on the, ah, extralegal dreamsharing community, right? What with the whole subconscious intervention and espionage thing."

"We do indeed. Is there a reason you can't discuss this with Agent MacTaggert?"

He can practically hear the shrug. "Moira's busy. Besides, you're the one who's all Secret Agent Man." She drops the mocking tone, voice going brisk and businesslike. "I need a favor. For the job."

A favor that she doesn't want her old friend Moira to know about. This could be interesting. "My boss told us to give you anything you need. What is it?"

"It's becoming pretty obvious that going into Stryker's mind will not exactly be a walk in the park," Raven says. "And to make the inception viable, we'll need to go in deep enough that finding our way back out won't be as simple as a bullet to the brain."

"If you're not willing to risk it--"

"I'll take my chances," she snaps. "I'm not backing out on the job. I just need another level of insurance before I send my brother and my friends into a fucking war zone."

Coulson smiles in spite of himself. Loyalty among thieves. How quaint. "The dreams are yours to run -- what sort of insurance do you think we can provide?"

"Limbo." She takes a deep breath. "Rumor has it there are people who've fallen into Limbo and managed to pull themselves back out again. I need to talk to them."

Chapter Text

Erik and Sean are arguing over a stack of blueprints when Alex gets up to the library. Typical. He can see the marks where Erik scribbled all over the plans from halfway across the room.

"You're not gonna be planting the inception itself in the first level, and you can milk plenty of symbolism for Stryker out of that mansion," Sean insists.

"You're presenting him with what he'll consider a hostile environment from the start," Erik snaps. "We're not going to be planting the inception at all if his projections kill us all on the first dream level!"

"Hey, man, I'm just doing what I'm told. Logan and Frost will be here in like ten minutes if you want to take it up with them--"

"What does Charles think of the plan for the first level?" Alex interrupts brusquely. "'Cause last time I checked, Erik, you weren't primary extractor on that job."

He'd be lying if he says he's not kind of enjoying mouthing off to Erik like this. Erik isn't his boss anymore, and it's fun taking him down a peg or two every now and then.

"Charles is just fine with it," Charles calls from across the room. "And shouldn't you be out stalking Stryker, Erik?"

Erik huffs, rolling the blueprints up with sharp, aggressive movements and slapping them back into Sean's hands. "I was about to head out. But Stryker's projections are no joke, and we really need to take this into account."

Alex deliberately does not allow himself to think about any of Stryker's fucking war games. Stryker had never shared those dreams, anyway, just monitored their brainwaves topside and fucked with their chemical intake.

"Hank and I worked out some architectural precautions," Sean says grudgingly. "We're doing a walk-through soon, if you want to stick around."

"We can't just rely on mazes to protect ourselves--"

"How about booby traps?" Alex suggests. "Shaw had some nasty fuckers in his repertoire, don't tell me you didn't pick up a few tricks when you were still with Hellfire. Angel might know a couple herself."

"Much as I'd love to blow his mind apart, we'd be better off with diversionary tactics than outright aggression." Erik pauses, thinking it through. "I suppose we could always try deflecting the projections' attention off our people."

Once he has a chance to consider it, Alex starts to smile. "You wanna pull a Mr. Charles?"

"No way," Sean groans at once. "I really don't know why that trick's gotten so popular lately, it's completely shit. Destabilizes the dream every fucking time."

"Then you're not doing it right," Erik tells him.

Sean rolls his eyes. "No, but seriously, dude, that's like an academic's trick. Like it sounds totally sweet in theory, but it never actually works in the real world -- or, well, real dreams, whatever, you know what I mean. I've worked with two separate extractors who've tried that shit, blew right up in their faces."

Erik grins. "Imitations are never as good as the original."

"Seriously, man," Alex adds, "who do you think the technique was named after?"

Sean blinks, looks between them both, then over to the armchair where Charles is comfortably ensconced with a stack of notes. Charles glances up with a small smile. "I can be fairly persuasive," he says mildly. "Stryker shouldn't be too much of a challenge. He's certainly paranoid enough already."

"Dude," Sean says, after a long moment's thought. "Suddenly I almost wish I were on the Stryker dream, 'cause this is something I would love to see. Except for the part where you're totally going to get yourself shot in the face."

Charles props his chin up on his hand, tapping his own cheek thoughtfully. "No, I think we can work it to our advantage. Stryker hates dreaming with a passion matched only by his greed in exploiting dreams for his own purposes. If I can successfully manipulate his awareness of the dream...."

Erik grabs his jacket from the back of a chair, shrugging it on. "Keep working on it. I've got to get down to Capitol Hill. Charles--"

"It'll mean some adjustment of the lower level plans, but you're right, it should be better for all of us in the long run," Charles agrees. "We'll discuss it with Raven later."

Erik gives Alex a brisk nod in passing as he heads out. Thank Christ. Charles has been far less territorial about the linked dream, content to cede the design over to Sean and Logan's specifications. Logan isn't as temperamental an extractor as Erik used to be, but Alex would rather not have to deal with another pissing contest on today's trial run. He's already got a raging headache from sleep deprivation over the past week.

Speaking of. He heads over to take a seat in the chair across from Charles's. "Hey. I've got a question for you."

Charles gives him a smile. "What's on your mind?"

Alex takes a deep breath. "I want you to share a dream with me. Uh, a memory. About Stryker. I think it's stuff you'll want to know before you go into his head."

"Of course," Charles says, a little too gently. Alex tries to ignore the sympathy in his tone; it's not pity, it's just Charles. It's been a while since he regularly turned to anyone else for help, but Charles had been his mentor back at the CIA, and, well. Who the hell else is he gonna ask?

Besides, he wasn't lying. It is something Charles should see for himself. And maybe if he opens it up to someone else, he won't keep having the same damn nightmares every fucking night.

"All right," Alex says. "Thanks."

Sean drifts over with his blueprints, but before he can say anything, Logan and Emma stride into the room. It's weird watching them together -- they're, like, the definition of 'polar opposites,' and in this case, opposites sure as hell don't attract. Working on the Cain extraction, Alex sometimes feels like he's being swatted between the pair of them like a fucking ping pong ball or something. It's probably worse for Sean, who has to actually design the dreams to their widely differing specifications. Logan may be primary on the job, but Emma refuses to give an inch. It's fucking exhausting. Alex almost misses running point for Raven.

Almost.

Hank follows in their wake, carrying the PASIV. Alex stiffens and turns away before he has to acknowledge the way Hank's eyes always seek him out first, like he's the only other person in the room. Which is just stupid. They've hardly spoken at all since the incident last week. It's better this way. Alex already watches Hank get blasted to pieces in a hundred different ways in his nightmares; he doesn't need any fucking feelings bleeding over into the professional dreams, too.

They're fucked enough as it is.

*

The mansion makes Logan's skin itch. It reeks of old money and indifferent privilege, all impeccable taste without a hint of personality behind it. Logan wants to stomp across the gleaming hardwood tiles in muddy boots just to give the damn place a bit of character.

Frost stands in the middle of the ballroom, examining the glittering chandelier overhead. "It shouldn't be quite this grand."

"It's close enough," Xavier says, limping up beside her. "Cain's mind will fill in the appropriate details. But it has the right feel to it."

He's clutching a worn wooden cane, face drawn and tight. Physical pain from the waking world bleeding into the dream? Or just psychosomatic? It's not like Logan can't empathize with the guy, but really, he only cares so far as it might affect the job. Stryker, the quintessential career military man, has no patience for the weak or infirm; if Xavier's disability carries over into the inception job, he'll be handicapped in more ways than one. It isn't fair, but them's the breaks.

But Stryker isn't Logan's concern for this one. He shakes his head roughly to clear it. "If Cassidy can't convince the pair of you, he stands no chance fooling Marko." He glares across the ballroom at Cassidy, who's wrapped up in his conversation with Alex -- no, Summers. These kids might all be on a first-name basis, but Logan's not budging. Marko's mind is gonna be a fucking war zone; Logan's got to remind them how to be soldiers again if they want to stand any chance at cracking it.

"We're still tinkering, and we both know we're dreaming. Cain won't," Xavier points out. "It's not quite fair to judge Sean's work on that standard."

Logan looks around with a critical eye. "Marko's not gonna play fair, and neither will Stryker. They may not be trained dreamers, but neither of 'em are idiots, and you're the idiot if you cut your people too much slack at this stage of the game. This isn't an academic exercise, Xavier."

Xavier gives him a cold smile. For a minute, Logan can clearly see the man who'd grown up in a house just like this. "You hardly need remind me what the stakes are, Logan."

Logan returns the smile in kind, baring his teeth. Just to make sure they understand each other.

"If you boys are quite done," Frost says, sounding bored. "I believe our architect has some special features to discuss with us."

Cassidy waves them over to the broad, winding staircase that dominates one corner of the ballroom. As they follow him upstairs (Xavier moving slowly but steadily, with a sharp glare when Cassidy makes the mistake of offering to help), Summers falls in beside Logan with a scowl.

"You sure about this?" Summers asks in a low tone. "This was Cain's home base for years. I know you want him complacent for the first level, but I'm worried we're giving him too much of an advantage."

"I want him to think he's got the advantage. There's a difference."

"We'll be handing over everything Cain wants on a silver platter," Frost adds with a cool smile. "He's a greedy man, honey. He'll lap it right up. Frankly, I'm not even sure why we're bothering with a second dream level."

Summers doesn't look convinced, but he lets the issue drop. Logan won't hold it against him. He's a good point man, it's his job to look for the weaknesses in their plans.

"Right!" Cassidy chirps, once they've all reached the landing. "So given our, um, experiments last week, Angel and I figure that if we really want to go through with the linked dream level, we're gonna want a couple of precautions in place. For starters, we're both gonna share this architecture -- same top level for both jobs, same mansion."

"More or less," Xavier amends. "Different dreamers, different subjects; I imagine Stryker will see this mansion rather differently than Cain." He shoots Logan a sidelong glance. "But the differences are purely academic."

Logan scowls and dreams up the biggest, foulest cigar he's ever smoked, just to stink up the air in Xavier's general direction. The first puff is acrid, tickling his lungs. It's never as good in a dream as in reality. Xavier just smirks and looks away.

"Right, anyway," Cassidy says, "since the two jobs have different objectives, we want to make sure we've got ways to cut them off from one another that won't affect the stability of either dream. So I'm building in a couple of failsafe mechanisms." He grins and punches the nearest wall.

Logan barely manages to dodge out of the way as a fucking panel descends from the ceiling, silently falling into place behind them like some kind of fantasy spaceship door. The hallway is now neatly divided, trapping them on one side of the panel with the staircase back down to the ballroom on the other. The panel itself is made of a thick glass, or maybe some kind of plastic, not entirely transparent but enough to still see the corridor continue on the other side. Except that looking straight at it makes Logan's head feel thick and muzzy; it's a strange sensation.

"Fascinating," Xavier says, reaching out to tap on the divider. "This isn't purely architectural -- there's almost a psychological component as well. Or chemical. Did Hank help you with this?"

Cassidy beams. "Yeah, it has to do with suggestibility and brain chemistry and I lost track of the conversation after like five minutes, but he tweaked something in the Somnacin compound to make it work. Anyway, the panel's a physical barrier between the two linked dreams. Angel and I are still working out where we want to place them in the mansion, but once we're ready to split Cain and Stryker up for good, we'll be able to activate the barriers and go about our separate business without having to worry about anything bleeding in from one dream to the other. And it'll keep either mark from accidentally stumbling across anything from the other job."

Knowing Cassidy's predilection for trapdoors and secret passageways, Logan's not at all surprised by this development. He's still uncomfortable with linking the dreams at all, though. Something to hash out with Xavier again topside. Mainly, he's concerned that they're over-complicating matters -- the Cain extraction should be so fucking simple, why do they need to throw it in with the mess of Stryker's mind? But Xavier and Raven have to play a very delicate game with Stryker, and they're both convinced they need Cain's presence on the first level to sow the right seeds for the inception. And their job trumps his. He'd be a lot angrier about that if he weren't so fucking invested in taking Stryker down.

No wonder Raven split up the teams like she did. Everyone's much more amenable to compromise when they're more emotionally invested in the other team's success than their own.

"Hey, and speaking of Hank, have we settled the custody battle yet?" Cassidy asks. "Which job is he going under with?"

Logan exchanges a measuring look with Xavier, but Summers speaks up first. "The inception," he says, sounding bored. "We've only got two levels to deal with, and you and I can handle 'em between us no problem while Logan and Emma get to work on Cain. But Erik is the only one on the inception team who's really solid under fire, they'll need Hank to hold down one of the other levels. He's good at that. It'll be rough enough for Angel to stabilize a level herself. Raven would be better, but she'll be too busy with her forgeries."

"I wouldn't underestimate Angel," Xavier remarks. "She's tougher than she looks."

*

"Do you think we're gonna hit some kind of critical mass?" Angel asks Raven idly, observing the human wildlife on display along 18th Street. She feels even more exposed than usual out here, sipping coffee in an outdoor café in the heart of Adams Morgan. They might be on the opposite side of town from Capitol Hill, but Hellfire's influence in Washington looms large. She prefers the relative distance and anonymity of the Virginia safe house. "I mean, how many dreamers can one city hold before it goes nuclear?"

Raven gives her a tight smile. "Between us and Hellfire?"

"Not to mention S.H.I.E.L.D."

"Speak of the devil." Raven inclines her head ever so slightly, and Angel glances across the street where a black sedan has just pulled up to the curb. Coulson is in the driver's seat, face impassive as always.

A slip of a girl emerges from the passenger seat. She's about Angel's height, though a few years younger, with long brown hair and very pale skin, wearing the sort of artsy-chic outfit that blends right in with the throng of hipsters and faux-bohemians that make up a good seventy percent of this neighborhood. No wonder Coulson suggested they meet here. The girl shifts her messenger bag over her shoulder as she waits for the lights to change.

"I still don't know why you wanted me along for this meet," Angel says, surreptitiously scoping out the street from behind the shield of her dark sunglasses. A couple of teenage guys on the corner leer at the girl, accompanied by some crude hand gestures. Too overt for Hellfire, too young for S.H.I.E.L.D. Probably just a coincidence. The girl is cute, after all. "Who is this chick, anyway? Not Hellfire, unless she's very new."

Raven shrugs. "Yeah, don't think so. But I'm not sure where Coulson found her. He didn't give me her credentials, except...."

The girl starts crossing the street toward them. Halfway down the block, so does a serious-looking guy who looks like a pol. Coincidence? An older Asian woman bumps into the girl at the curb, apologizes profusely. Significant? Two thirty-somethings have been flirting heavily at the next café table, and the woman gives Raven and Angel a bright but obvious once-over while her possibly-boyfriend is distracted by their waitress. There are just too many people to keep track of. Makes her feel like she's dreaming, like the world is filled with projections out for her blood.

If Raven feels as exposed as Angel, she doesn't show it, body language perfectly relaxed. "She was on the inception team -- the one that pulled off the Fischer job," Raven says quietly, her eyes on the approaching girl. "That's her street cred. Good enough for you?"

Angel looks at her sharply. "What kind of consult is she giving us? If word gets out about this job--"

"Kinda late to worry about that." Like flicking a switch, Ravenchanges. Fucking forgers -- even topside, they're always putting on an act. Raven waves the girl over, smiling brightly, and Angel has no choice but to follow her lead. "Hey, girl!" Raven calls cheerfully. "It's been too long!"

The newcomer doesn't miss a beat, greeting them both with a round of squeals and hugs before they all finally settle down to business, giggling and lowering their voices like old friends whispering secrets.

"I'm supposed to ask for someone named Raven," the girl says. She grins impishly. "Man, I feel like I've fallen into some kind of trashy spy novel, what is my life."

Raven cracks a smile that almost looks genuine. "Makes you kinda wish you'd chosen the blue pill, right? Anyway, I'm Raven. This is Angel. And you are...?"

"Ariadne." She slings her bag down under the table, leaning back in her chair and glancing curiously between them. "So who wants to tell me why the men in black abducted me from across the Atlantic? Because I'm really hoping it wasn't for the shitty American coffee."

Raven makes a face. "Ugh, seriously. I'm mostly based out of Rome, this is such a tragic downgrade. I could kill for a real cappuccino."

"Or chocolat chaud made with, like, actual chocolate," Ariadne says, eyes bright. "I did a job in Milan a few months back, there was this one café--"

Angel rolls her eyes. "This sounds like the start of a beautiful friendship, but we're sitting ducks out here. Could we maybe get down to business?"

Under the table, Raven knocks her ankle against Angel's, not quite gently. "Right," she says to Ariadne. "So I guess you've figured out that we're all in the same line of work. Let's swap trade secrets, shall we?"

Ariadne leans in, going serious. "Secret agent dude says you're looking for someone who's been to Limbo and back. Can I ask why?"

"Occupational hazard," Raven says lightly. "Three-level dream, heavy sedation. I want to cover all my bases."

"Three levels?" Ariadne frowns. "Why do you want to go that deep? Better to reduce it to two, streamline the plan and cut the risk of Limbo entirely. Who's designing the dreams?"

"Me," Angel says. "And believe me, it's not my top choice, either."

"You're an architect? So am I." Ariadne tries to flag over a waitress, but the only one nearby is still chatting up the flirt at the next table over. His probably-not-girlfriend looks bored. Ariadne rolls her eyes, more amused than annoyed, and turns back to Angel and Raven. "But it sounds like you've been doing this for a while. I've only built a three-level dream once, my first job out, and I only got conned into it because I was too green to know any better."

Raven blinks. "You designed an inception for your first professional dream?"

"It's not like I came up with the game plan, I just built the mazes," Ariadne says, hands raised defensively. "But yeah. Sometimes I think maybe that's the only reason it worked -- no one ever told me it couldn't." Her eyes narrow. "Jesus. That's why you're going so deep. You're trying to plant an inception, aren't you?"

"Something's only impossible until someone does it once," Raven says. "Once you've blazed a trail, you can't expect it to stay off-limits."

"Like I said, I only drew the mazes--"

"I want to know how you got out of Limbo." Raven drops any artifice now, all her focus intent on Ariadne. "Because I'm putting people I care about in harm's way, and damned if I'm going to leave any of them behind."

Ariadne studies her for a moment, then glances over to Angel. "Must be nice to work with someone who puts the welfare of their team ahead of the job," she remarks.

Angel snorts. "Don't give her too much credit, she's still sending us three levels deep into a militarized subconscious."

"Sounds like a party." Ariadne turns back to Raven, meeting her gaze levelly. "How do you think I got out of Limbo? I died."

Raven rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I figured as much. But if it's as simple as waking up out of any other dream, why the hell is the entire dreamsharing industry so damn scared of it?"

"Because to get out of Limbo, first you need to know you're there." Ariadne tucks her hair back behind her ear. "Say I told you, right here, right now, you're both dreaming and you need to shoot yourselves in the heads. Right now. Do it."

Angel crosses her legs uncomfortably, exchanging a quick look with Raven. "Well, not all of us carry handguns on our persons at all times."

"So go walk into traffic instead," Ariadne says, dead serious. "There's a bus turning up 18th Street right now, run out in front of it. Go."

Raven laughs nervously. "Okay, I think you've made your point--"

"You're dreaming." Ariadne is as relentless and implacable as an approaching freight train. "Wake up. You have to wake yourself up."

And there's that niggling little voice in the back of Angel's mind, the uneasy whisper that haunts every dreamer's waking life. That parasitic thought in the dark recesses of her head that murmurs what if, what if...?

"We're not dreaming," Angel snaps, shoving her chair back from the table. "Christ, Raven, I didn't come here to play juvenile fucking mind games--"

"And that's why you can't just wake up from Limbo," Ariadne says. "Because it feels just like this." She finally succeeds in catching the lone waitress's attention, who sullenly pauses by their table, pad in hand. "Large hot chocolate, please, with tons of whipped cream. Thanks." She looks back at Raven and Angel, eyebrows raised. "So, are you guys actually ready to talk logistics now?"

Raven lets her hand fall softly to Angel's wrist, tugging her back in, and Angel reluctantly settles back down into her seat. For all Shaw's experiments with the Hellfire Club, Limbo was the one line he never crossed. But while Shaw had been a twisted old bastard, he'd had a strong sense of self-preservation. Raven, not so much.

With a sinking feeling, Angel realizes that she'd better get over herself and listen to what Ariadne's got to say, because she's gonna need all the help she can get.

*

"The logistics for the hook are going to be a pain in the ass," Erik gripes, folding himself into the passenger seat of Moira's black sedan. "Near as I can tell, the only time Stryker doesn't have one of his aides glued to his side is when he takes a shit, and they probably guard the bathroom door for him. The man's better protected than most foreign dignitaries."

"Better watched," Moira corrects. She pulls away from the curb and off down South Capitol Street, angling them toward the Freeway. "Not necessarily protected."

Erik shoots her a considering look. "Are either of the aides on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s payroll?"

"Not yet."

"I'd try for the woman, what's her name, Oyama. She's the smart one."

"Too smart to have stuck by a man like Stryker for this long without a very compelling reason," Moira says regretfully. She still can't put a complete picture together on Yuriko Oyama, and the gaps in her intel chafe. "But the other one, Wilson, he sounds like a real mercenary. Coulson and I are just working on the best approach."

"Sic Alex on him," Erik suggests. "The look on his face when you showed him that photo--"

"He wasn't the only one."

(Alex had gone sickly pale, eyes bulging. "No fucking way," he'd said. "Yeah, I know this asshole, except he's dead."

Hank grimaced when he glanced at her iPhone. "I guess he won the melee."

"Fucking Wade," was all Sean would say, sourly. "Stands to fucking reason.")

Traffic's not too bad in the middle of a weekday -- busy, but moving -- which is maybe why she's already exiting off the highway before Erik notices. He sits up straight and frowns. "I thought we were heading back to the safe house."

"We are. Just taking a quick detour first."

She parks the car along the narrow access road leading up to the memorial, the statue stark against the clear blue sky. Erik grimaces up at the American flag. It's a hollow symbol for him, and tarnished even in Moira's eyes. But the image of the soldiers striving to hold up their tattered emblem, in spite of everything -- she can identify with that much, at least.

It's not one of D.C.'s most popular tourist attractions, and the little park is more or less deserted at the moment. Her boss is waiting for them at the base of the monument.

"Iwo Jima, really?" Erik remarks caustically. "I'd have figured you for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, myself."

Fury lifts his shoulders in a shrug, his one eye glinting in something loosely akin to amusement. "This one's more convenient to the Metro."

Erik snorts and folds his arms across his chest, glaring.

"Good to see you, too, Lehnsherr," Fury says. "It's been a while." He glances over at Moira. "How's it all coming together, MacTaggert?"

"Floundering a bit in the absence of a set time frame, but otherwise adequate." She slants a sidelong glance at Erik. "You'd be surprised what this crew can accomplish with only a week's prep."

"I'm not all that favorably inclined toward surprises," Fury drawls. "By the way, Sebastian Shaw died in a Cuban hospital last night."

Erik visibly starts at that. "So what?" he says harshly. "He's been good as dead for eight months."

Fury smiles. "But now it's official. Thought you might like to know."

A sharp breeze ruffles the flag overhead. It's far too bright and lovely a day to be having this sort of conversation. Moira has to admire Fury's machinations, and judging by the grudging respect in Erik's eyes, he's equally aware of the implications. Quid pro quo. Erik's pretty much honor bound to give Fury whatever he's about to ask for now.

"You hired Raven for this job," Erik points out. "Not me. Why aren't you having this discussion with her instead?"

"I expected her to give you primary on Stryker, not her stepbrother."

Erik stiffens, eyes narrowing. "Are you questioning Charles's abilities as extractor?"

"Not his skill, no. His motivations."

"He has no more personal interest in William Stryker than I do. Which is to say, none at all."

"That's an interesting fiction. The world of dreamers is far too incestuous; you've all got some kind of stake in this. Stryker introduced Shaw to dreaming."

"All the better that Charles has taken primary on the inception, then," Erik says, his patience clearly fraying. Moira feels like she's watching a tennis match. "You hooked Raven into this by dangling Cain in front of her like bait on a lure. You know full well that she's going to put a bullet in Marko's skull the second her people have completed the extraction. So I really don't know where you get off lecturing me about getting too personally invested in Stryker when--" He cuts himself off abruptly, mouth hardening into a thin, grim line.

It's one of those things Moira hasn't allowed herself to think about, to look too closely at, but of course Raven plans to murder her own brother. Cain wants to see her dead, after all. What would Abel have done, if he'd been given warning?

And once Raven kills Cain -- once S.H.I.E.L.D. allows it -- Fury will essentially own her. Erik smooths out his features, but the realization lingers in the edges of his mouth, the fine wrinkles creasing the corners of his eyes. Moira rests her palm over the familiar curve of her hip holster and keeps her mind blank. Nick Fury is a pretty good boss, as they go, but she chose this. Raven wouldn't.

Fury sighs. "The sins of the fathers, Mr. Lehnsherr. Do you know where dreamsharing first began?"

The question seems to be addressed as much to Moira as to Erik, so she answers. "It was a military project spearheaded by Stryker in the early '80s. The Weapon X project."

"Yes and no. Weapon X was born later, when Stryker took over the program. I imagine Mr. How-- Logan can give you more details on that. But a team of four military scientists developed Somnacin in 1981." He clasps his hands behind his back, like a soldier at ease. "It was a joint American and British project, intended for NATO as a defense against the Soviets, though that got derailed pretty early on. The original team consisted of two chemist/architect pairs -- they called the architects 'engineers' back then. Anyway, the chemists were William Stryker and Brian Xavier; the engineers were Malcolm Miles and Kurt Marko." Fury gives Erik a pointed look. "Can you guess where I'm going with this?"

Erik looks pale. "Both Raven's and Charles's fathers worked with Stryker."

"It goes deeper than that -- all four men had children who would end up in dreams. Stryker's son is Hellfire's chemist; you don't need me to tell you he's a nasty piece of work. Miles had a daughter who skirted the line between legal and illicit dreamsharing; she and her husband even worked for the CIA, briefly."

Moira flinches. Mallorie Cobb, née Miles, had been a lovely woman, and one of the canniest extractors Moira has ever known. She'd left the CIA when she'd become pregnant, abandoning government work in favor of raising a family; in fact, her departure had prompted the CIA to recruit Charles as her replacement. Had Mal trained him in extraction? Moira can't quite remember if they'd overlapped or not. She'd only been with the CIA for a few months herself when Mal left.

"She eventually lost her grasp on reality, like most of the early dreamers," Fury goes on. "Killed herself in an attempt to wake up. As did Brian Xavier, back in the late '80s. Kurt Marko remarried Xavier's widow, then died in a laboratory fire several years later; Malcolm Miles left the military in disgrace after the Weapon X project fell apart in '91, though he continued privately recruiting and training architects until his daughter's death three years ago, at which point he permanently retired from dreams. He passed away in January, natural causes. And now Xavier's son and Marko's daughter are going after the last of the original four dreamers." He chuckles humorlessly. "If that's not some twisted kind of poetic justice, I don't know what is."

"Charles and Raven don't know," Erik says at once. "They knew Kurt Marko was a dreamer, used to play with his PASIV when they were kids. But they've never mentioned this, and it's not the sort of secret either would care to keep to themselves."

Moira frowns. "Why does it need to be secret at all? Neither of them would bear Stryker a grudge over it. If anything, they're more pissed about what he did to Alex and Hank."

"It's no secret, just something very few people know about," Fury says. "The point I'm trying to make is that family matters. You cannot underestimate that if you want this job to succeed, Mr. Lehnsherr. Stryker's well aware of the pattern. He's convinced that his team's work in dreams poisoned the minds of all their children. For all his current marriage of convenience with Hellfire, he'll never trust Cain Marko. Likewise Raven, if he ever identifies her as Kurt Marko's other kid." He meets Erik's eyes levelly. "And you'd better hope to God he doesn't recognize Charles Xavier in his dreams, or your plan will be fucked all to hell."

*

"The thing you need to understand about Limbo is that it doesn't make any fucking sense," Ariadne tells them, sipping her hot chocolate. She's got a little dab of whipped cream on her nose, which kind of undermines Raven's ability to take her entirely seriously. "It's raw, unrestricted dreamspace, pure subconscious. And that's the only chance you've got at navigating out of there."

Angel shifts beside her, her knees bumping lightly against Raven's under the little round table. She's looked deeply uncomfortable ever since they parked themselves outdoors. Raven ruthlessly quashes the niggling guilt at dragging her friend into this. "But if we're at the mercy of our own subconscious--" Angel starts.

"You're totally screwed," Ariadne agrees. She wrinkles her nose, then swipes at the spot of cream with her napkin. "If you're trapped alone in Limbo, don't bother worrying about it, 'cause you'll never even know you're there. The only way you stand a chance of getting out of Limbo is if you've got someone else down there with you."

"Why -- oh." Angel's eyes widen. "Because it's not all your own subconscious."

"Exactly," Ariadne says. "See, that's why I kinda think I'm not the best person to talk to about this. Yes, I've been to Limbo -- but I was going after someone else, and even so, I had a guide. Someone sharing the dream who'd already been to Limbo and back himself, so what we landed in was composed of the rotting dregs of his own subconscious. It always felt completely alien to me, because my own mind barely brushed the edges of it. So it wasn't hard to me to remember that it wasn't real. But for him...." She wraps her hands around her steaming mug, eyes distant. "We're all used to the concept of symbolism in dreams, the power of suggestion a simple image can evoke. But in Limbo, the symbol is reality. A thought becomes a literal object; an idea exists in a specific physical location. And if you can keep your wits about you, it's possible to use that against the mind of the person who's trapped there."

Angel's whole body seems to be coming alive, her dark eyes alight with interest. "So the key is really in the architecture, except on a grander scale. Not, like, grander as in bigger, but in terms of the scope...."

They continue debating the finer points of subconscious and symbolic architecture while Raven contents herself with studying the fine play of emotions across their faces. It's not that she can't follow their discussion; she may not be a proper architect, but she's been building her own dreams since she was ten, it's not like she can't grasp the concepts. But her mind wanders unbidden, unable to focus on the matter at hand. There's just so much she has to worry about -- two jobs, the hook for Stryker, Charles's increasing reticence, Erik's frustration, Emma's condescension, Alex's continual stonewalling of her and Hank both; and Cain, Cain lurking everywhere, the long shadow of Hellfire and her asshole brother falling across everything she tries to accomplish, and this is the first time she's seen Angel really smile in ages, and what kind of a friend does that make Raven?

It's been a week since they all first gathered in Emma's house; two weeks since Nick Fury showed up unannounced in her idle dreaming and called her by her true name. Raven has never felt more like a Marko than in these past weeks, ruthlessly exploiting every tie of friendship and family she has left to pull this fucking job together, alienating her point man and pushing her stepbrother too far too fast and Angel's always got that little furrow of concern between her eyes when she looks at Raven these days, like she's turning into someone her own best friend doesn't recognize.

It'll be worth it. It has to be. This is her only shot at getting close to Cain, roundabout though the path may be. And once this is all over, Raven will make it up to them. All of them.

She observes the curve of Angel's body as she unconsciously leans in toward Ariadne, her economy of movement a stark contrast to Ariadne's expressive hands, the low tenor of her laugh. Raven has always known how to read body language; she wouldn't be much of a forger otherwise. Looks like Angel's found a kindred spirit of a sort. Raven wonders why that makes her throat constrict, as though with unshed tears.

She suddenly wishes she hadn't brought Angel along. It shouldn't matter, anyway. Angel's not going anywhere near Limbo. Charles is the one who'll be risking himself the most, and if he gets his ass killed in Stryker's dream, Raven will go after him by herself. Angel's only here because Alex's condemnation still itches under Raven's skin -- I'm not the one who changes plans on the job at the last fucking minute and doesn't tell anyone!

If anything goes badly wrong on the Stryker job, there'll be one other person, at least, who's aware of Raven's back-up plan. She's trying.

(It has to be Angel -- Hank has too much on his plate with the chemistry, Charles would be furious if he knew Raven was even contemplating this, and Erik thinks he's the only one who's allowed to chase after Charles. From what Ariadne is telling them about Limbo, Raven's pretty sure that Erik would become all too easily lost in Charles's subconscious. She's got the best shot of navigating it, and Angel's by far the best person to run interference if it comes to that. After all, she's been managing the escalating hostilities between Raven and Alex for months.)

One table over, the man who'd been flirting with their waitress gets up from his seat and accidentally jostles Ariadne's chair. "Oh, sorry, love," he says, shuffling past.

At precisely the same moment, Raven's phone buzzes with an incoming text. She checks it quickly: HC @ McD, it reads. Coulson. Raven glances casually across the street: there's a tall, hawk-nosed man loitering at the McDonald's entrance, looking anywhere but at them. Shitty field craft, Raven thinks, adrenaline starting to buzz in her veins. He looks vaguely familiar.

"Angel," she says quietly. "Across the street."

Angel doesn't look directly, but she tilts her head just enough to catch it in her peripheral vision. "Azazel," she murmurs. "Shit, I knew this was a bad idea."

"Don't worry too much about it." Raven turns to blink at Ariadne in surprise. Ariadne gives her an awkward little half-smile. "I've, um. Got a friend looking out for me."

Sure enough, across the street, a slender, serious-looking man bumps into Azazel, apologizing and gesturing to the phone in his hand. It looks like he might be asking the Hellfire agent for directions.

Two friends, Raven mentally corrects. The guy running interference plus the flirt from the other café table. He gave Ariadne the heads up, and he's been subtly shifting between several distinct personas in his interactions with the woman at his table and the waitress. Raven can always recognize a fellow forger.

Ariadne drops some cash onto the table to cover her drink and the three of them slip back into the café. "Coulson's got a friend in the kitchen, she'll get us out the back way," Raven explains. She smiles wryly at Angel's startled expression. "What, you didn't think I'd expose myself like this without an escape route handy?"

"I've got my own out," Ariadne adds. "We'll lead him on a merry chase for a bit. But listen, there's one thing I was supposed to ask you. Are you Raven Xavier?"

Raven's heart skips a couple of beats. She's really sick of strangers dredging up her old names. Why does no one like Darkholme? She's rather fond of that alias. "I'm not sure if I--"

"My friend used to know your brother," Ariadne says, stuffing her hands in her pockets. And -- Raven Xavier, so she's not referring to Cain. Oh. Oh. "Is it true that he's still alive?"

If they manage to pull this job off, the ramifications are going to ripple throughout the world of dreamsharing. Charles's secret always had a limited shelf life. So -- "Yes," Raven tells her. "He is."

Ariadne grins. "Good," she says. "That's good. Tell him Arthur says hi, and good luck."

"I will." Raven tugs at Angel's hand, starting to lead her back toward the kitchen, then pauses. "Hey, Ariadne. What's the most important thing you think I should remember about going into Limbo?"

Ariadne stills, looking thoughtful. "Don't waste any time," she says. "If you're going to go, don't think about it, just do it. Five minutes topside is an hour in a dream; the difference gets exponentially worse when Limbo is involved. A mind in Limbo thinks it's awake; you can grow old and die in there. And that's brain death. So don't let yourself lose any time, or there won't be anyone left to save."

*

The night air is oppressively warm. Charles tries to breathe in deep and nearly chokes on the dense humidity. This is not a climate he's accustomed to. He can hear insects buzzing in the trees around him as sweat trickles down his spine. The rifle feels too heavy in his hands, an unnatural weight. He grips it tightly all the same.

"I didn't know how I got here," Alex says beside him. The camo paint renders his face nearly invisible in the dark forest; only the whites of his eyes give him away. "So I must have been dreaming, right?"

Charles clears his throat. "It's a defining feature of the dreamscape, yes."

"It's a logical fallacy." The bitterness in Alex's tone is intimately familiar; Charles knows what it is to be betrayed by his own mind. "Like saying that because all tigers have stripes, anything striped must be a tiger."

"Where are we?" Charles asks quietly.

Alex shifts his own rifle over one shoulder. "Fort Benning, Georgia. Somewhere in the fucking woods. This is the night the Army terminated Stryker's last dreamsharing program." His eyes harden. "Meaning, this is the night Stryker terminated his own fucking soldiers."

There's a crunching sound, like a boot going through a rotten log, and Alex and Charles both drop into a crouch. The movement feels instinctive to Charles, automatic; that must be Alex's memory of the night bleeding into his own perception. They move cautiously through the brush, toward the source of the original noise. Moonlight filters sporadically through the heavy foliage. A bit of light glints off metal--

Alex brings up his rifle and fires mechanically, five times, the noise echoing abominably through the still, heavy night. Charles grabs Alex's arm, dragging the gun down, but far too late. In the sparks from the gunfire, Charles sees the other soldier crumple.

He rushes to the fallen man, tossing his own rifle heedlessly aside into the brush. The soldier stares up at him blankly. He's already dead, and Charles's uniform is stained dark with a stranger's blood.

"His body didn't disappear," Alex says dispassionately, standing over them. "Other dreamers' bodies always vanished once they were dead, in the dreams. That was my first clue."

"Who was he?"

Alex's throat works for a few long moments, though no sound emerges. Charles wonders if he's ever allowed himself to name the man he killed, or if his mind will shy away from even this. "Specialist Bradley," Alex finally says. "Total gearhead, worse than McCoy. Wanted to be an electrical engineer when he got out of the army, loved taking shit apart and putting it back together better. Stryker's dream program was primarily a training regimen; we weren't slotted into extraction roles. But I think Bolt could've been a decent extractor if he'd ever gotten the right sort of training. Pick apart your mind and put it back together again."

Charles runs his hand across Bradley's face, closing his eyes. His palm comes away smeared with the camo paint. "Bolt?"

"Nickname. It was 'nuts and bolts' at first, but we figured the nuts part went without saying." The ghost of a smile flickers across Alex's lips, desolate and strange. "We thought we were so fucking Air Force or something, coming up with those stupid call signs. It was tradition in Stryker's squads. I wonder what Logan's used to be?"

"What was yours?"

Alex looks down at Bolt's bloodstained body with a grimace. "Havoc."

*

Hank nearly jumps out of his skin when Raven bursts into the room. "Hey, Hank," she says breezily. "Seen Charles anywhere -- oh."

He sets his book down on the coffee table, next to the open PASIV. Charles and Alex are still dreaming peacefully. He's not even sure why Charles asked him to monitor them. It's become pretty routine to trip over unconscious dreamers and their PASIVs in this house, usually either singly or in pairs. "They've only been under for a couple of minutes," he tells Raven. "Alex asked for fifteen on the clock tops, so if it's not too urgent--"

"Nah, it can hold," Raven says, taking a seat on the couch next to Charles. "Ran into Sean in the kitchen, he said Charles maybe had a new idea for the inception. Just checking in." She looks over the dreamers curiously. "What are they testing out? They're not on the same job."

Hank shrugs, fiddling with his sleeves. "Not sure. Something to do with Stryker, I think."

"He's not talking to you either, is he."

It's not a question. He keeps his eyes on the PASIV. "We talk about the job."

Raven snorts. "In terse, pointed sentences."

"What do you want from me, Raven?" Hank asks wearily. "Alex has always had a rare talent for burning bridges."

She's quiet for a moment. "I know why he's mad at me," she finally says. "But he hasn't been able to look you in the eye since the Proclus job, and I don't get what he thinks you did wrong."

Hank's lips twist into something that doesn't feel much like a smile at all. "I let him hurt me. Worse yet, he let himself give a shit about it."

Raven laughs mirthlessly. "Christ. Do you think we were all this fucked up to start with, or is it this damn business that did it to us?"

"I think if we'd started out normal, we'd never have gotten into dreams in the first place."

"Probably." Raven tilts her head back against the couch cushions, looking up at the ceiling. "Do you ever wonder what that would be like? To be normal?"

Hank traces his finger along the tube that leads out of the PASIV and into Alex's wrist. Alex's skin is surprisingly soft there; he remembers running his hands up and down Alex's arms, never quite daring to tangle their fingers together but allowing himself to stroke the pad of his thumb across Alex's inner wrist once, twice, before Alex whined in the back of his throat and batted Hank's hands away to reach for the waistline of his jeans--

Normal. Hank doesn't even know what that's supposed to mean anymore. "Every single day," he says quietly.

Raven nods and looks back down at the PASIV. "I wonder what they're--"

"Don't," Hank says. Her hand stops in midair, aborted in its reach for a third IV line. "He'll never forgive you if you hook into his dream now."

"He'll never forgive me no matter what I do," Raven says tiredly, but she drops her hand back onto her lap, and doesn't try again.

*

Clouds gather overhead, blotting out the faint traces of starlight. The humid air falls still and expectant. Storm's coming, Charles thinks. At least it will break up the heat.

The brush ahead of him thins unexpectedly, and he looses his footing, nearly tumbling forward headfirst. Alex grabs his arm just in time. "Ditch," he says flatly. "I tripped right over it. That's the road."

'Road' is rather a generous term, Charles thinks -- it's hardly even packed dirt. But compared to the dense forest growth, it's a relief to not have to slog through brambles and dodge around potential sinkholes anymore.

"This is where I started to recognize the place," Alex says. "Did Basic right in these woods, there are certain landmarks that kinda get seared into your memory. Thought maybe they'd built the dream based around Benning for a change, like maybe that was some kinda key to winning this round of the melee."

Melee. Intellectually, Charles knows it used to be a perfectly acceptable form of sport in medieval courts, a twisted sort of preparation for the chaos of actual battle. But in this day and age, to send a group of very young men into excruciatingly realistic dreams for the sole purpose of having them brutally murder one another, and call it training -- he shouldn't be shocked by it, but he can't help himself. It's bloody barbaric.

And then to let these boys loose upon one another in the depths of the forest, drugged to the gills and unable to differentiate dreaming from waking -- yes, Charles is getting quite a detailed portrait of what sort of man Colonel William Stryker is. It turns his stomach.

The dirt road twists between the trees, seemingly at random. Charles is thoroughly disoriented, couldn't begin to guess what direction they might be walking in, but Alex moves forward with grim certainty. Of course, he's lived this dream before. As they follow the next curve, Alex suddenly grabs Charles's elbow and yanks him off the side of the road, back into the forest growth. There's a truck idling on the road ahead, its taillights glowing dully at them through the darkness. Distant thunder rumbles.

"Here," Alex whispers. They move further into the trees, crouching low to the ground. Charles can feel adrenaline flooding his veins, his heartbeat very loud in his ears. His leg doesn't so much as twinge. They arc around the truck from the forest. Charles can see a tiny point of light near the cab, glowing red, and he realizes it's a lit cigarette.

Stryker is standing at the hood of the truck. He takes one last drag, then drops the butt to the ground, crushing it into the packed earth.

"And this is when I knew." Alex keeps his voice very low, rumbling like the approaching thunder. "Because Stryker never hooked himself into the dreams. Not once. Not ever."

Charles watches the projection of Stryker push his hands into his pockets, staring out into the trees with no expression whatsoever on his craggy face. "What did you do then?"

"I ran," Alex says. "I had to find the others, to tell them--"

He's already starting to move, but Charles catches his arm, holding him in place. "Not this time," he says quietly. "I want to get a better look at Stryker."

Alex frowns. "He's just a projection."

"The subconscious mind is a marvelous thing, Alex. You never know what you might have observed without realizing it." Charles gives him a small smile. "Besides, worst case scenario, he shoots us awake."

But Alex shakes his head, eyes wide. It's as though he's frozen in place. "I can't," he whispers. "If I don't find them, they'll kill each other. They'll die. They'll all die."

"This isn't real," Charles reminds him. "It didn't happen like this in reality. You got Sean and Hank out."

Gunfire rings out, sudden and grotesque, shattering the stillness. Charles and Alex both jump at the sound. Stryker just nods to himself grimly.

"I'm sorry," Alex says, agonized. "I have to go, I have to--"

He breaks violently away from Charles, turning and plowing off through the brush. "Damnit," Charles mutters. "Alex!"

But Alex is gone.

Well, nothing for it, then. Charles squares his shoulders and dreams up a new rifle to replace the one he'd lost by Specialist Bradley's corpse. Then he steps out onto the open road.

"Evening, sir," he calls out. He can't help but derive a certain dark amusement at Stryker's obvious surprise, though the projection masters itself quickly.

"Soldier," Stryker acknowledges in clipped tones. "Lost track of the battle, did you?"

"I'm afraid so," Charles agrees easily. His uniform is still stained dark with Bradley's blood. He supposes it suits his cover. "Mind if I bum a cigarette before diving back into the melee?"

Symbolism is important. He wonders what Alex's projection of Stryker will give him.

Stryker hesitates, staring at him, then shakes his head. "Oh, the hell with this," he mutters gruffly, and reaches into his coat pocket--

Charles swings his rifle up and fires before the projection even has the chance to aim. Stryker falls to his knees, eyes wide with shock, the gun tumbling from his nerveless fingers. His mouth opens and closes, breath rattling in his throat. "Four," he croaks, and dies.

Lightning streaks across the sky, blindingly bright.

Charles sets the rifle down on the road and hurries over to Stryker. He's not sure how much time he has left, whether Alex is still trapped in the same pattern of his nightmares or if he's trying to break out of it, what killing the projection of Stryker means for the stability of the dream as a whole. Symbols matter; Charles just killed Alex's bogeyman. Best get to work. He'd much have preferred to draw out the conversation with Stryker over a cigarette, do a bit of direct extraction from Alex's subconscious, but physical evidence is equally important.

Stryker's gun is a Colt Python revolver. Outdated, and not standard military issue; this must be Stryker's personal sidearm. Alex is a bit of a firearms aficionado, following his keen interest in anything that goes boom; he'd have noticed Stryker wearing this, known the precise make and model, idly wondered about it in the back of his mind. Charles carefully examines the weapon, but there are no particular distinguishing marks on it, no stamps or personal emblems. Not unexpected, but disappointing. He'd hoped the revolver might be a clue.

For now, he sets it aside and quickly rifles through Stryker's clothing, suppressing distaste at his own ruthlessness. It's just a projection, he reminds himself. Not a real body.

(This is just as real as it ever is, he's told Erik once, twice, a thousand times. He's much better at lying to himself.)

The only thing of note he finds is a small cloth bag tucked away into one of the inner pockets of Stryker's jacket. He opens it carefully and shakes the contents out into his palm. Three bullets, one of which has clearly been fired from a gun already. All three are .357 Magnum caliber -- the type meant for the Colt Python. Charles dreams himself a torch and examines the bullets more closely. Each is engraved at the base. The two clean bullets are marked 2 and 3; the compressed bullet is harder to make out, but he's fairly certain it reads 1.

He reaches for the revolver again, this time flicking out the cylinder to check the chambers. Only one is loaded; when he shakes the single bullet loose, he finds the base marked 4.

"It's your totem, isn't it?" he murmurs to the projection's corpse. "The gun, or the bullets. Perhaps both. You hate dreaming. You'd always want to be sure."

Alex said Stryker never hooked himself into their dreams; he'd only ever had the opportunity to observe Stryker in the waking world. And so Stryker apparently carries an outdated revolver loaded with only one bullet. If it is Stryker's totem, Charles would imagine that in dreams, all the chambers would be loaded.

Lightning crashes again. In the sudden brightness, Charles can make out shapes emerging from the forest. He doesn't bother trying to defend himself; he's found what he came for.

It's Alex, projections of Sean and Hank close on his heels. "Come on," he gasps. "It's real, it's all real, we have to get out of here--"

"Yes," Charles says calmly, getting to his feet. He closes his fist around bullet number 4, feeling the point press uncomfortably into his palm. "It's time to wake up."

Sean and Hank exchange a quick glance, then as one, they bring up their rifles and fire.

*

There's an unfamiliar car parked two houses down from Emma's Kalorama home. It's unobtrusive, a plain red Toyota. There are probably thousands like it registered in the D.C. metro area alone. Perhaps one of her neighbors has guests for the evening.

Emma smiles to herself as she parks in her own driveway. There's some loose white gravel on the path up to her front door, disturbed by someone with a heavy tread. The door is unlocked.

She's not the sort of woman who carries a weapon on her person at all times. Frankly, she finds guns distasteful. She prefers to avoid using them even in dreams whenever possible. She has other methods of persuasion, and unlike a dreamer's projections, most people in the waking world are usually more than amenable to reason.

Emma makes sure to lock the front door behind her once she's inside. Wouldn't do for just anyone to wander in off the street.

"Hello, Azazel," she says. "How lovely to see you again. It's been too long."

Azazel arches his eyebrows, his eyes startlingly pale in contrast to his thick black hair. He sits sprawled across her couch, his arms stretched along the backs of the cushions. "Emma," he says, his thick Russian accent twining around her name like a cat marking its territory. "You don't seem surprised to see me."

"You're getting sloppy. There's gravel all over my front step."

He smirks. "Professional courtesy."

"I appreciate it," she says. She drops her purse negligently on an armchair and heads for the bar. She has some excellent Cognac stocked up for these sorts of situations. Azazel declines the offer, as expected. She pours out a few fingers for herself, admiring the rich, amber color in the crystal glass. It tastes buttery smooth going down her throat.

Azazel watches her impassively, gaze never straying down along the length and curves of her body. It's something she's always appreciated about him. "You've been very busy lately."

In all honesty, she's surprised it has taken Hellfire this long to catch wise. She's been more than ready for, oh, days now. It's quite trying. One more day handcuffed to a PASIV with James fucking Howlett -- oh, pardon, Logan -- and she might well have gone militant projection on the whole insane lot of them.

"Have I?" she asks airily. "The days all seem to blur together since we last parted."

"You made an arrangement with Hellfire, Emma," he reminds her. "If Marko should discover you've been dreaming in his town--"

"I was here first," she snaps. She purses her lips, breathing deeply, then smiles. "As it so happens, I'd like to revisit the terms of our arrangement. Some of dear Cain's conditions rather...chafe."

Azazel's eyes narrow. "You're not in much position to renegotiate."

"You'd be surprised, sugar."

"What could you possibly offer Marko?"

Emma takes another slow sip of her Cognac, concealing the curve of her smile behind the crystal. "His sister."

Chapter Text

"It's going to be Tuesday," Coulson says. "Stryker's scheduled to testify in front of Congress regarding his appropriations bill. Senator Kelly will delay proceedings to bump his testimony to Wednesday instead, which means Stryker will book a room in his usual local hotel overnight."

Erik nods, perching on the arm of the couch beside Raven. She appreciates the show of support. "There's our opportunity."

"Another hotel," Raven remarks. Erik gives her a wry smile. "Lovely. At least we've already got the routine down. Bodyguards?"

Coulson clasps his hands behind his back, smiling blandly. "Mr. Wilson has been gratifyingly amenable to negotiation."

"I really don't like hooking this whole damn thing on the loyalty of a merc."

"He'll play ball," Coulson says, with grim certainty. Raven decides she really doesn't need to know what sort of deal S.H.I.E.L.D. struck with Wade Wilson. "Let us handle topside security, you've got the rest of the job to worry about. The real question is, will you be ready to pull this off in two days' time?"

"The Stryker job is as set as it will ever be," Charles says from his armchair. "I can't speak for Logan's team--"

Raven rolls her eyes. "Oh, he's been raring at the bit to get this fucker over with, I don't think we'll have a problem there."

"And Mr. Marko?" Coulson presses. "From what I understand of your plan, it's rather crucial that both of your targets be in relatively close physical proximity for the job."

"Yes," Raven says. "It is."

*

The night before the job finds them all in a dive bar in Winchester that's surprisingly raucous for a Monday night. Hank huddles in the corner of a booth with his Sam Adams, wondering what the heck he's doing here when he's got less than twenty-four hours to perfect the two primary Somnacin compounds for the PASIVs -- and, yeah, okay, so all his tests have been running smoothly for days now and he'd only be tweaking percentages for hours before reverting back to what he's already got, but still. It's an important part of his process. So why is he here?

Actually, he knows why. They're all here because Raven got that very particular mulish expression on her face, and informed them all darkly that they were a fucking team, damnit, and they were going drinking.

Even Alex knows better than to argue with Raven when she gets that look.

It started with a round of shots to break the ice, and quickly degenerated from there. Sean has staked his claim as master of the jukebox, and his musical taste hasn't improved much since the Army. But he somehow got Angel to dance with him, and a significant percentage of the bar's other patrons have joined in. Off to one side, Moira and Alex are proving to be fairly evenly matched at darts, much to Alex's obvious chagrin, while Coulson is kicking Logan's ass at pool. Erik and Charles are having a quiet discussion across the table from Hank, but he tuned them out a while ago. He's long since lost track of Raven and Emma. That worries him somewhat. He's pretty sure Raven challenged Emma to a drinking contest of some kind, which can only end in tears.

"It's not that simple." Erik's voice raises enough to penetrate the vague background hum of Hank's awareness.

"It can be," Charles says, softer. "We have a tendency to overthink things, but you can't micromanage the subconscious mind."

Hank takes a swig of his beer, seeing calculations scrawled haphazardly across pages and pages of his lab books, disorder gradually streamlined into uncluttered equations, smooth and sure. It all coalesces into one vial, one syringe, the sharp, pure sting of the IV penetrating the fragile skin at his wrist.

Dreaming, like everything that really matters, is simply chemistry.

"What we're selling," Hank says, and they both blink at him, like they'd forgotten he was even there. He reaches out to catch the strand of his thought, spiderweb-fine, before it dissolves into dust. "Stryker's buying. I mean. He wants to believe it. So he will." He finishes the rest of his bottle. "That's all it is."

Charles smiles, eyes sharp and sort of proud. "Yes," he says. "I know."

"You worry too much," Hank tells Erik, and Erik snorts and mutters something under his breath about pots and kettles that Hank magnanimously decides to ignore in favor of seeking out a refill.

He has to edge around the informal dance party to get back up to the bar, and Angel intercepts him unexpectedly, closing her small hand around his wrist. Her manicured nails tap lightly against his pulse point. "Hank," she murmurs, voice smoky. "Dance with me."

Hank looks around for Sean, but he's off fiddling with the jukebox again. Sean's not really Angel's type, anyway. Neither is Hank, but then, Angel knows she's not his type, either. It should be awkward, but weirdly enough, it's okay.

"Yeah," Hank says. "Sure."

He's normally a shitty dancer, all flailing too-long limbs, but Angel used to do this professionally (in her own way), and she reels him in with a practiced air, placing his hands on her waist and holding them there, grounding him. A new song kicks in, something '70s-ish and vaguely familiar, inoffensive, with just an edge of melancholy. Angel is tiny and distinctly not fragile, and her hips move against his smoothly, businesslike. It's a little too subdued to be fun, exactly, but that's okay. It's oddly comfortable.

Alex leans back against the bar, beer in hand, surveying the dancers with his usual inscrutable gaze. He must've given up his match against Moira. His eyes meet Hank's, and he just looks so awfully resigned that Hank's rhythm stutters, dropping off the beat.

Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice, the jukebox informs him sagely. Raven slides onto the barstool beside Alex, her bare arm brushing his, and he turns away from Hank toward her to say something too low to be heard under the music. She offers him a shot glass and a sad smile, both of which he reluctantly accepts, and then Hank has to look away before Raven's fragile olive branch snaps in two.

Angel catches him, her arms coming up around his neck, pulling his forehead gently down to hers. "Hey," she says softly. "Dance with me," so he does.

They're a team, after all.

*

"Sometimes," Emma remarks, watching Angel dance, "I wonder which of us hates Cain the most."

Moira has yet to get a good read on Emma Frost. It's vaguely disconcerting. "Raven, surely."

Emma slants a glance at her, a faint smirk hovering at the edges of her lips. "Not Charles?"

"Charles doesn't hate anyone," Moira says. "It's not in his nature." After a moment, she adds, "That's what he has Raven and Erik for, anyway."

Moira takes a long swallow of her vodka sour, the rough aftertaste puckering on her tongue. It's sharp and smooth all at once. When she looks back across the table at Emma, the other woman is regarding her coolly.

"I find it fascinating," Emma says, "that for all the dreams you've all shared, none of you seem to know him at all."

Amidst the throng, Raven pulls a strangely pliant Alex onto the makeshift dance floor, catching him by his belt loops. Her hip bumps Angel's as though by accident. She smiles and wraps her arms around Alex's waist, swaying in place. Erik neatly avoids the whole tangled mess of them en route to the bar. He catches Moira's eye and shrugs, clearly wiping his hands clean of these crazy kids. Charles must be sitting alone at his booth, then, unnaturally sedate. Moira first met him at a pub almost but not entirely dissimilar to this, boisterously drunk amongst the Oxford undergrads. Moira wonders if she ever really knew him at all.

But Emma only knew him as his jailer.

"Who do you think hates Cain the most, then?" she has to ask, when the silence between them has stretched out beyond the point of awkwardness.

Emma taps her nail against the rim of her tumbler. "Angel, I think," she says. "The rest of us have been nursing our grudges, which muddies the waters. Hers is a clean hate." She tilts her perfectly coiffed head to one side, ever so slightly. "I almost envy her that."

The thought curdles in Moira's chest. "When Angel was working for Hellfire," Moira asks quietly, "did Cain ever...?"

"Yes," Emma says before Moira can put a word to it. Her voice is dispassionate, but not unsympathetic. "We all had our duties."

Angel dances fluidly, never missing a beat.

*

Coulson's wiping the fucking floor with him, but Logan stopped giving a shit three beers ago. He's surprisingly good company, for a fed. Actually knows when to keep his mouth shut and just play the damn game. And Logan's picking up a few tricks just watching him, though Coulson's all about calculating angles, which Logan's never had the patience for himself. His shots are more about instinct, and his instinct for pool's kinda shit.

He keeps his best instincts in reserve for more important games.

"What do you think of Ms. Frost?" Coulson asks idly, lining up a shot. "You've worked with her before, right?"

Logan snorts. "Yeah. A lifetime ago." He'd been a different person then. Funny, how thoroughly he'd shucked off that life, let the scar tissue form over the wound. He can't even feel it anymore.

Coulson never takes his eyes off the game. "You trust her?"

Logan tosses his pool cue from one hand to the other and back, considering. "I trust Emma to do what's best for Emma," he finally says. He grins darkly. "Make of that what you will, bub."

"I'll keep it in mind," Coulson says, and takes his shot. He pockets three balls that round, the smarmy asshole.

*

Erik slides back into their booth. "Looks like Raven's trying to make nice with her crew," he says, passing Charles another glass of whatever's on tap. American beer all tastes the same to him, half a step up from piss, but it's still better than the travesty this shithole calls brandy. "At least she seems to be enjoying herself."

"They're none of them exactly enjoying themselves," Charles says, watching the dancers. He accepts the beer absently. "But I suppose we're off to war tomorrow, in a way."

"Civil war," Erik says. Raven tosses her head back, blonde hair tumbling in waves to her shoulders, laughing like she knows it's her last chance. "Charles, if she pulls this job off, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s not going to get in her way."

Charles doesn't take his eyes off his sister. "Carte blanche?"

"Oh, she'll be billed for it. But only afterward." Erik drums his fingers against the table, a staccato beat that doesn't match the music. "Fury's not stupid. He wants the best, and he knows he can't feed her a line on patriotism or duty and expect her to bite. He's running his own game here."

"Aren't we all?" Charles asks lightly, but when he turns back to Erik, his expression is serious. "Raven's smart. She's not going to fall into Fury's trap."

Not if Erik can help it, she's not. Cain's marked for death regardless; it's probably the only certain outcome of this job. Now it just comes down to a matter of whose finger is on the trigger.

"I know," Erik says. "Cheers."

They clink their glasses together, but then Charles sets his back down untouched, gaze intent on Erik. Erik can only nod, heat pooling at the base of his spine. It's the night before battle. Certain traditions must be upheld.

Charles's cheek feels almost feverish against his palm, and his mouth tastes of beer and lime and something indefinably Charles, and as always, Erik finds it impossible to pull away. This, at least, has always been easy between them, natural as breathing, inescapable as a heartbeat. Erik allows Charles to crowd up against him, maneuvering in the narrow booth until Charles is half-straddling his lap, ever mindful of his bad leg. It's more comfortable for both of them for Erik to take the bulk of Charles's weight -- not that Erik considers it a hardship. He loves the solid press of Charles's body all along his, real and present and here, now, always. Erik chases the flush of Charles's skin with kisses, following it down his neck and to the hollow of his throat, and Charles sighs into Erik's hair and clutches him closer still.

"We're all coming back from this one," Charles promises against Erik's temple. "We always do."

Erik allows Charles to tip his chin up, to kiss him soundly, to pretend he believes it.

*

"Oh, Jesus," Sean shouts over the music, joining them on the dance floor. They're not paired up anymore, just grooving together in one messy foursome; it's easy enough to make room for one more. "It's like PDA DEFCON-3 over there."

"What?" Hank asks, craning his neck to see.

Raven rolls her eyes. "My brother," she says. "Please don't, you'll go blind."

Alex grimaces, dodging Sean's flailing trajectory. "Remember that time in Richmond, what was it, the fucking biker bar that Darwin dragged us to as some kind of fucking joke--"

"Oh my god, I still have the scars--"

"Shit," Angel says dismissively, with a secretive smile, "you should've been there when they recruited me. They found me at my club, right, we used some extra juice in the Somnacin--"

"You didn't," Hank says, eyes comically wide.

"Company policy! But we only normally saw clients one at a time, should've charged 'em double for both--"

Raven giggles helplessly, pressing her face into Angel's shoulder and totally losing the beat. It's okay, though; Angel's arms slip around her waist supportively, and they're all laughing, even Alex, and it's almost like they're still friends.

The song changes to something harsh at the edges, some kind of technopunk bullshit, and Sean curses and darts off to reclaim his beloved jukebox. The rest of them drop off the dance floor, overheated and drunk and sloppy, and Raven can't think of a compelling reason to let go of Angel, so she doesn't.

"I need another drink," Alex says.

"Something cold," Hank seconds fervently. Angel pulls back a bit and mentions something about needing to visit the little girls' room.

"Yeah," Raven says, "me, too."

The place is too small to have stalls, just a single restroom, so Raven waits outside while Angel goes in first. The beat from the shitty music thrums in her bones, vibrating under her skin, flushed and buzzing and scalpel sharp, and when Angel cracks the door open again, Raven slips in like an incision, swift and sure.

Angel presses her back against the cool tile wall and kisses her like she's winning something, like she's won, and for once, Raven is content to be trapped within her own skin. She slips her hands up the back of Angel's halter top, luxuriating in the silky-smooth skin beneath her palms, and gratefully swallows Angel's purring sigh. She traces the fairy wings tattooed across Angel's shoulder blades and imagines she can feel the ink etched across her skin.

"You make me feel like I'm flying," Angel whispers breathlessly against Raven's lips, and maybe they are.

It's almost as good as dreaming.

*

"Man, they've been gone for a while," Hank says nervously, unmoored without the girls to ground him. He never quite meets Alex's eyes.

"Yeah," Alex says. He knocks back his drink. "Girls. You know."

He's pretty sure Hank hasn't caught on, actually, which is okay by him. There would be blushing and stammering and awkwardness, and Alex kind of hates himself for finding that attractive. Christ, whose idea was the drinking? Raven's. He's going to fucking kill her for this. Once she's done getting Angel off in the restroom. Ugh.

Sean has apparently decided to try chatting up Moira, which is even more laughable than his usual attempts at being suave, and God only knows where the other grown-ups have fucked off to. Do they even have a designated driver to get them back to the safe house tonight? Coulson, probably.

Definitely time to start sobering up.

"Alex," Hank says, and whoa, when did he get all up in Alex's space like that? Hank's eyes are too bright behind his glasses, and his hand rests on the bar just a fraction of an inch away from Alex's, close enough to feel the ghost of his touch like static electricity or some shit. "Are we ever going to--"

"To what, Hank?" Alex asks, as harshly as he can. "Talk about it?"

"Fuck," Hank says baldly. Christ, it sounds wrong, Hank almost never curses. "Are we ever going to fuck. Because you kissed me first, for the record, so don't pretend you're not interested."

Alex's laugh scrapes in his throat. "Jesus, you get real honest when you're drunk, you know that?"

"In vino veritas," Hank says bitterly, turning away, "except for you, apparently, you're just always full of shit."

"I -- hey, fucking wait." Alex grabs his arm. "Christ. I can't, Hank, okay?"

"So you've said." Hank's expression is sullen, but he's not trying to pull away. "Whatever, it's fine, I never liked you much anyway."

Alex scowls. "I don't like you, either."

"Fine. Forget it."

"Fine."

Neither of them moves. What the fuck, Alex thinks, still clutching Hank's arm hard enough he might leave bruises. He drops his hand and exhales sharply. "Look, on the job, okay, feelings, they're bullshit, they just get people hurt. When Darwin--" He cuts himself off, pressing his lips into a thin line. "Doesn't matter. I spent two fucking years watching Erik self-destruct when we thought Charles was dead. It's a miracle he didn't get himself killed -- or me killed, or any of the other dreamers we worked with. I'm not going there, okay, not ever. Feelings, they make you stupid, and then you get sloppy, and then you get dead."

Hank stares at him, something distant and unreadable in his gaze. "Sure," he says. "Except I thought we were just talking about sex." It's like a punch in the gut, and Hank must see that, because his eyes widen and he does that flappy flustered thing with his hands. "No, I just meant -- they're two different things. We can fuck, or we can not fuck, but the feelings you're so damn worried about, they're already there either way. So I don't see how perpetually blue-balling me is going to change that."

That's...huh, surprisingly mercenary, actually. Alex has to respect an argument like that. Not that it's gonna change his mind.

"I'm sorry," he says instead.

Hank studies him for just long enough to skirt the edge of creepy, like he's a sample on a slide or something, then carefully leans in and presses his mouth to Alex's. In spite of himself, Alex can feel his eyes slip closed, his entire awareness reduced to the gentle pressure of Hank's lips against his. He's not sure how long they remain there, in this strange trance-like calm amidst the music and sweat and other drunk people shouting, but when Hank pulls away, Alex realizes with a jolt that his own hands have migrated to Hank's skinny waist, clinging for dear life.

"Yeah," Hank says, stepping out of Alex's reach. "I'm sorry, too."

It takes another twenty minutes for their night out to stutter to a close, but as it turns out, Coulson is designated driver, after all. They go back in two carloads. Alex voluntarily waits for the second trip, letting Hank and the girls go on ahead with the first round. He sits alone at the bar, clutching a glass of water, and waits for his head to stop spinning.

It doesn't.

*

Raven can't say she's surprised to wake up with a delightful hangover. Disappointed, yes, and also, motherfucking ow. But not surprised. She drank an awful lot last night. How could she possibly thought doing tequila shots with Emma was a good idea? And that was at the beginning of the night.

Fortunately, the job doesn't start until later this evening, so they've all got the bulk of the day to recover. It's still early yet -- by which she means not yet noon -- but she's too wired to fall back asleep.

Tonight. It's going to happen tonight.

Charles is waiting for her in the kitchen with a tall glass of water, the coffeemaker just starting to gurgle out fresh brew. He's always had a bit of a sixth sense about these things. Before Shaw, though, the hangovers tended to be mutual. He cuts himself off after one or two beers these days, never touches anything stronger. He admitted once that getting drunk feels too much like Shaw's mind-fuckery drugs. She hasn't brought it up since.

Still. The asshole looks way too chipper for her level of pain right now.

"I'm not sure whether I should love or hate you," she grumbles, sliding into the chair across from his at the breakfast table. He grins brightly enough to make her head ache -- well, more than it already does -- and slides over the water along with three extra-strength Tylenol. "Fine. Love you. Thank you."

"You're welcome," he sing-songs, too loudly.

Raven grimaces and swallows the painkillers, chasing them with the entire glass. "Someone got laid last night."

"Also this morning," Charles agrees brightly, propping his leg up on another chair to give it a brisk massage. "I should consider pulling dangerous and unpredictable jobs more often."

The water sloshes and churns in her stomach. Oh, God, his first real job since escaping Hellfire's captivity, and she's -- how did Angel put it? -- throwing him three levels deep into a militarized subconscious. The reality of their situation slaps her hard across the face. "Right," she manages, plastering on a smile. "Hey, so where is Erik?"

"Out for a run." He raises an expressive eyebrow. "And Angel?"

Well, they'd been way too drunk to be subtle about it. "Still sleeping. Lucky her."

"Lucky her, indeed," Charles murmurs. Somehow he manages to sound supportive rather than skeevy. "Is this...new, then?"

Raven can't help but smile, remembering the disbelieving wonder in Angel's eyes, the eager brush of her fingertips tracing the arch of Raven's spine, the soft, secret sounds she made when Raven pressed up against her. Maybe this is all they'll ever have, maybe it'll never happen again, but Raven's not sorry for taking the chance when Angel had offered it.

It's funny. She's spent years unconsciously modeling her ideas of romance after Charles and Erik's. It was a hard act to follow. Connection at first sight, diving into the ocean, weird immediate co-dependency, One True Love yadda yadda yadda. No wonder her romantic liaisons have always felt somewhat...wanting. But relationships come in many forms, and maybe she doesn't actually want that terrifying, operatic sort of love. Maybe her romance should be something gentler. Less intense. Less all-encompassing. She's not willing to give up so much of herself to one other human being, and wouldn't want it in return. And that's...okay.

"New," she agrees, because she's not sure what else to call the fragile potential bubbling up between them. "We'll see."

The coffee's ready. She helps herself to a cup, black. Her headache hasn't abated yet, but somehow, she doesn't mind so much anymore. It was totally worth it.

"Moira and Coulson will pick us up at five," she says, which Charles already knows. "It's kinda nice to have Fury's people handling all the ground logistics. We should do this more often."

A shadow flickers across his face, quickly enough that she might have just imagined it. "Would you want to?" he asks. "Continue working with S.H.I.E.L.D., I mean."

Charles has a pretty fantastic poker face. It's really too bad she's known him since she was eight and can see right through it. She chooses to brush off his obvious concern. "Hell, no. I tried the government gig with the CIA, remember? Been there, done that, got the lingering emotional scars. No, thanks." She takes a careful sip of her steaming coffee. "Plus, the pay is shit. If I hadn't convinced Emma to bankroll us, we'd be doing both jobs with half the crew."

He frowns, still kneading his thigh. "Did Emma drive herself home last night? I didn't see her come back to the house."

Raven shrugs. "Must have. Makes sense, anyway. She's got a few things left to take care of on her end."

And all Raven has left to do is wait.

*

Emma's landline rings at precisely half past five in the afternoon. "Kelly confirmed that the session closed before Stryker's testimony," Raven tells her. It sounds like she's in a car. "Congress reconvenes at 9:30 AM tomorrow. Stryker's aide booked the hotel room five minutes ago. Game on."

Emma hangs up without saying a word. She places the next call from her cell. It rings twice, three times. "Yes?"

"Capitol Hill Suites," Emma says. "Nine o'clock. If I see any hint of the cavalry, I'll warn Raven off and your boss can spend another eight months tracking her on his own, for what little good that will do him."

Azazel chuckles. "It's almost as though you don't trust us."

"No one else gets to take the credit for my prize, Azazel."

"Nine o'clock," he agrees, and the line goes dead.

Time enough to prepare herself for the rest of her evening. While most of the dreamsharing industry places a premium on subtlety, on anonymity, Emma believes that a good disguise can take any number of forms. And her finest forgery of all is Emma Frost.

She dresses meticulously in gleaming white, her blonde hair falling in perfect waves to her shoulders, small diamonds glittering at her earlobes and in the hollow of her throat. One final phone call confirms her destination: a moderately fashionable Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill with pretensions toward haute couture. Well, it will have to do.

It's well past seven by the time she arrives. A private table has been reserved for her in a more intimate section than the front bar; good. She orders a Chardonnay and the evening's special; she'll hardly be touching the food. That's not what she's here for.

Colonel William Stryker is already well into his meal, several tables away. He appears unaccompanied, but that's merely an illusion; both bodyguards are present and accounted for. Oyama sits at the bar in the back with a glass of tonic water. Wilson is chatting up the hostess by the door in the main dining room. Both took note of Emma's entrance. Neither has alerted their boss, not just yet. Good. Emma has no intention of causing a scene.

It takes another twenty minutes for Stryker to notice her. Longer than she expected; he must be preoccupied with his upcoming testimony. She wonders idly what he intends to say. Something dreadfully monotonous about the best defense being a strong offense, probably, couched in bureaucratese. Perhaps a side of fear-mongering for spice, rile the congressional hawks up a bit. It's all so terribly predictable. She's far more interested in what he actually intends to do with a new dreamsharing project, but none of that information would be suitable for C-SPAN.

When he does look up, he's clearly only seeking out the nearest waiter. His gaze flickers past her impatiently. Then comes the double take, his eyes narrowing. She acknowledges him with only the barest lift of an eyebrow, tilting her wine glass ever so slightly in salute. Then she returns her attention to her dinner.

They've never met before in their lives. But despite her recent misfortunes, Emma Frost was once the Hellfire Club's poster girl, and Stryker is no fool. There's no such thing as coincidence. Not in this town.

She leaves first. Stryker's eyes follow her all the way out the door.

*

Unlike the last-minute rush in Havana, they have the luxury of time today. Stryker's aide checked him in while Congress was still in session, but they're not going to make their move until much later in the evening. Best give Stryker a chance to fall asleep on his own first. They need him to wake up tomorrow morning with no suspicion of foul play.

The hotel itself is well-suited to their purposes, Erik decides. This is not the Waldorf-Astoria, just a respectable, middle-class establishment that caters to a wide variety of businessmen and tourists, and busy enough that no concierge or attendant will stop anyone who acts like they know where they're going. It's easy enough for the eleven of them to slip in gradually amongst the crowd.

Moira and Charles check in together first, early on in the evening, posing as a couple under one of Charles's preferred aliases. "Must be nice to be presumed dead," Logan remarked, beforehand.

Erik bristled at that, but Charles's clasp on his wrist clearly warned him off commenting. "It does take the pressure off," Charles replied dryly.

Through some combination of government credentials and black magic, Moira managed to book them the room right next to Stryker's. Erik and Hank come in next through the service entrance, dressed as technicians, and make their way straight up to Charles's room. Erik swipes them inside with his master card key (helpfully provided by the janitorial staff, via Coulson), then sets down his tool kit while Hank unrolls a set of blueprints across the king size bed.

"However did you get a hold of the hotel's floor plan?" Charles asks.

Moira grins. "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s way better than the CIA at domestic ops. Less oversight."

"Fair enough."

"Okay, lucky break for us that this is the room Stryker booked," Hank says, tracing the diagram with his fingertip. "The floor plans for these two rooms are mirrored. See, the closet in the entryway of this room shares a wall with the closet in Stryker's, and the wiring...." He swaps it out for another roll of plans. "Yes! Electrical outlets on both sides. If we remove the panels from both sides, we should be able to run a PASIV line between the rooms for the linked dream. And before you even ask, yes, I know he'll be able to see that if he goes to plug something in, but come on, who actually uses the outlet in the closet?"

"It's there to plug in the iron, because that's where the ironing board is stashed," Moira says primly. "But no one was going to ask."

Erik grabs a screwdriver out of his kit. "Anyone in Stryker's room now?"

"He went out for dinner with both of his aides."

"Great." Erik glances up across the room briefly at Charles. He's got his game face on, a cool professional mask so similar to Erik's own that it's a bit like looking into a mirror; but then it softens ever so slightly, and he gives Erik a small smile. Erik nods. "Okay. Hank, let's do this."

*

Sean's never done too well with stakeouts. They're just so damn boring. "Jeez," he mutters. "What, are they having like a five course meal or something?"

"Stop complaining," Alex says, never taking his eyes off the restaurant across the street. "The longer he takes, the more time we can buy for Hank."

Sean fidgets in the passenger seat of their borrowed S.H.I.E.L.D. sedan, fiddling with his seatbelt for a minute before deciding to investigate the glove compartment. Seriously, no one ever actually stores gloves in there, it's a total misnomer. This one's actually got a road map in it, even in these enlightened days of GPS. Sean unfolds it curiously. New Mexico. Why the hell would Coulson be driving to New Mexico? Feds are weird. He tries to fold the map back up again, which fails spectacularly, reminding him why everyone switched over to GPS in the first place, because it's fucking impossible to fold a road map back up correctly.

"Bingo," Alex says quietly.

Sean gives up and shoves the whole messy wad of map back into the glove compartment, struggling to slam it closed. "What's up?"

Alex nods across the street. Emma Frost has emerged from the restaurant. She glances left and right, looking bored, but gives no indication of having noticed them. Sean finds himself shrinking down further into his seat anyway, despite the tinted windows. Hard to break a habit. Apparently satisfied, Emma turns briskly and strides off down the sidewalk, her exceptionally well-tailored ass sashaying distractingly.

Within a minute, another patron steps out of the restaurant, does a similar quick case of the street, then sets off unerringly after Emma.

Sean scowls after them. "Damn it."

"You owe me ten bucks," Alex says smugly. "I told you it'd be Oyama. Stryker knows better than to trust his merc anywhere near a woman like Emma."

"I still say there's gotta be a catch somewhere," Sean mutters, passing the money over. "Things never work out this smooth."

Still. He can't really complain.

"You wanna tail them for a while?"

"Nah," Alex says, revving up the engine. "Too indiscreet. Let's head back to the hotel before Stryker catches us."

*

When the black Jaguar pulls up alongside her, Emma ostentatiously checks her crystal-faced wristwatch. It's eight thirty-five. One tinted window rolls down, revealing Cain Marko's pale, malevolent eyes. The streetlights glint off the metal of his revolver. "Get in the car, Ms. Frost."

She purses her lips and obeys, rolling her eyes ever so slightly. "You're early. We agreed--"

"I got bored," Cain says flatly. He gives a nod to his driver -- Azazel, of course -- and the car drives slowly on. She can feel the purr of its engine rumbling beneath the smooth leather seat. Emma always did have a weakness for beautiful cars -- but not their owners. "Azazel tells me you have a proposition for me. I think you're a lying whore. You'd better convince me, and fast."

Emma sighs. "Your sister is pulling a job at the Capitol Hill Suites. She checked in this evening under an assumed name. It's a particularly complex operation; the rest of her crew will be spread out around the hotel while Raven monitors the mark's suite, which is next door to her own. She should be left alone in her room by nine o'clock at the latest. Any earlier--" She gives Cain a pointed glare. "--and we run the risk of encountering another member of the team in the room with her."

"Doing what, I wonder?" Cain flashes her a leering grin, then sobers. "You should be very, very careful, Emma. You've crossed me once before. There's no skipping out this time. You're unleashing a juggernaut; once you set me off, don't even think of trying to stand in my way."

"Wouldn't dream of it, sugar," Emma says blandly. "Family matters. It's the only reason I accepted her job in the first place, to bring you two crazy kids back together."

Cain snorts. "And you've always been such a giving person."

"I considered it a worthy investment."

"You've been out of the game too long."

"Thanks to you," she says sharply, then cools, smiling sweetly. "Tit for tat, honey. You know my terms. Are you prepared to meet them?"

"A renewed share in the Hellfire Club--"

"And protection from retribution." Emma lifts an eyebrow. "Raven's associates won't take kindly to our little arrangement."

"Of course." Cain doesn't sound particularly concerned. He traces the barrel of his weapon down along the curve of Emma's collarbone in a gross parody of a lover's touch. "And yet they failed to recognize the viper within their own midst. I can't say I'm overly impressed by Raven's little friends."

She refuses to flinch. Cain's intimidation tactics are nearly childish in their brutality, like a playground bully who's watched too many Tarantino flicks. But the revolver's safety is still on. He's only toying with her. "They don't trust me. But they do need me."

Cain's piggish eyes narrow, his mood shifting without warning. "How many with her?"

She keeps her expression impassive, just this side of bored. Necessity drives her dealing with Cain, but she's not inclined to give away any more cards than she has to. "Just her usual crew."

"Let's see." Cain ticks them off on his fingers, still eying her suspiciously. "Azazel spotted her out and about with the pretty little slut, Angel. Sloppy of her. So, architect. Chemist, McCoy. Point, Summers. Am I right?"

Emma favors him with a bland smile. "On all counts."

"Liar," Cain snaps. His revolver presses uncomfortably into her side. "My baby sister had a very public falling-out with her point man. The gossip's all over the industry. I hear she fucked him, and then fucked him. So don't play the dumb blonde with me, Frost."

Managing Cain's volatile moods had always been somewhat trying. But if he's foolish enough to summarily write off Alex Summers, that's his problem, not Emma's. "Fine. Yes, Summers is out. Her point man is Erik Lehnsherr."

Cain's doughy face coalesces into an expression that might almost be considered pensive. "I know that name."

"He was one of Shaw's," Azazel says quietly from the front seat. "A long time ago."

Cain turns on Emma all at once, snarling. "You expect me to believe Raven would willingly work with one of Shaw's people? The bitch isn't that stupid." He deliberately flicks off the safety on his weapon, leveling it at Emma's face. "And neither am I."

It takes every ounce of composure Emma possesses to remain unflinching in the face of this very immediate danger. Fortunately, she has had more than her fair share of experience dealing with psychopaths. "Could've fooled me, sugar," she says acidly. "Don't forget, your sister's still a Marko. She's just as mercenary as you are. She's working with me, isn't she?" She meets his glare levelly. "Now get that damn thing out of my face. I thought this was supposed to be a civilized arrangement."

It's a risky play, but Cain has no respect whatsoever for cringing docility. Better to fight back a bit. And Azazel unexpectedly comes to her defense again: "Your sister would have good reason to trust Lehnsherr," he tells Cain, never taking his eyes off the road as the Jag meanders slowly through the streets of Capitol Hill. "She was close to your stepbrother, da? Lehnsherr was Xavier's lover."

While Cain takes a moment to process this new information, his face screwing up with disgust, Emma allows herself a fleeting glance up to the front. Azazel's eyes meet hers briefly in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps she still has allies within Hellfire, after all.

Abruptly, Cain laughs, clicking the safety back on and lowering his weapon. "So she's playing happy families with Charles's ex-boyfriend? That's rich." He grins at Emma humorlessly. "And you've grown a pair under those slinky white skirts, haven't you? I like a bit of fire. If you hadn't always been such a frigid bitch, maybe I'd have kept you around a bit after Shaw finally bought it. Too bad." He switches gears again before she has the chance to react. Just as well. "So what's Raven's job?"

Emma shrugs, swallowing back bile. "Does it matter?"

"Yes," Azazel says. "You're being followed."

Cain twists at once to peer out the back windshield, dropping his gun to his lap. "Who? One of Raven's people?"

A taxi has been following them for ages already, ever since Emma stepped into this car. Yuriko Oyama is resourceful, though somewhat predictable. "One of Colonel Stryker's," Emma corrects, with a grim smile. "Raven's mark. Azazel, if you would be so kind...?"

The car swerves abruptly down a side street, then turns again into a narrow alleyway between banks of row houses. Quick as thought, Azazel throws on the parking brake and slips out of the vehicle, his own weapon in hand. Emma doesn't bother watching the scene unfold, already knowing how it will end. She has a much more immediate interest in the play of emotions across Cain's round face. He's still fiddling with his revolver, clicking the safety on and off absently, probably not even aware that he's doing it. The last thing Emma needs is to be shot in the head by sheer accident.

"William Stryker," Cain remarks, unconcealed menace in his tone. "She's trying to take down Hellfire, isn't she? Little bitch, always trying to take away what's mine."

Hellfire was never yours, Emma doesn't say. She keeps her tone even, disinterested. "It's just business, sugar. She's never met Stryker, had no idea he had connections to you and Hellfire until after she accepted the job." Cain lowers his revolver to his lap, and Emma allows herself a small smile. "Just a lucky coincidence."

Cain scowls. "Lucky?"

"Your arrangement with Stryker can only benefit from your intervention in this matter," Emma points out. "He's an honorable man, in his own way. He'll owe you for this. More than he already does."

While Cain ruminates over this new possibility, Azazel returns to the car. He has Ms. Oyama's arms twisted tightly behind her back, his gun pressing into her temple. Oyama looks furious but resigned; she clearly recognizes both Azazel and Cain. And now she'll see Emma with them, comfortably ensconced in the back seat, Cain's weapon concealed from her view through the open driver's door.

It's almost too perfect.

"What shall I do with your stalker, Ms. Frost?" Azazel asks, as though in deference, but his eyes are on his boss.

Emma waves a hand negligently. "I'm sure it's just an honest misunderstanding. Don't hurt her too terribly much, Azazel, honey." There's a fine line. She wants Oyama unharmed, but she can't let the woman go skipping off back to Stryker just yet. It's all in the timing.

"Get her in the car," Cain orders. "We've got business with her boss that I don't want interrupted. You can return her later."

Azazel hesitates, glancing between them. "In the...back?"

"We're only a couple of blocks from the hotel," Cain says, and shoves his side door open. He glares at Emma to do the same, and they step out of the Jaguar together. Cain's slipped his revolver back beneath his suit jacket, but his crushing grip on Emma's arm is deliberate and painful. His smile makes her want to take a long, hot shower. "We'll walk."

*

"Raven, it's almost nine," Angel says, keeping her voice pitched low under the general murmur of patrons at the hotel bar. "You really want to run the risk that Stryker walks in early and sees you? You're Kurt Marko's kid, he'll know your face."

Raven sighs, methodically shredding a cocktail napkin. "Yeah, I know. It's just--"

"I know." Angel rests her hand on Raven's bare forearm, just for a moment. Her skin is warm to the touch. "Now get out of sight."

"Fuck." Raven knocks back the rest of her drink, scrunching up her nose when the alcohol hits the back of her throat. It's unfairly adorable. "Okay. I'll see you in a bit, yeah?"

"Count on it."

Angel watches her all the way out into the lobby, until she steps into an elevator and vanishes from sight. She doesn't entirely trust that Raven won't sneak back downstairs anyway. Girl hates to be cut out of the action, always has to be in the thick of it. And she will be. But not right now.

She looks across the bar. Charles and Moira are ensconced in a corner, nursing their drinks. She's pretty sure neither of them ordered anything with actual alcohol in it. Only Raven's nervy enough to want a real drink before the biggest job of her career. Charles has his back to the door, obscuring himself from the view from the lobby, but Moira's keeping a sharp eye out. She catches Angel's glance and gives her a nod. Coulson's manning the lobby, with Erik lurking around the streets outside; the army boys are all staying well clear of anyplace Stryker could possibly pass by. He trained them all; even Logan, way back when. Too damn risky.

As for Emma--

Angel's phone vibrates in the back pocket of her jeans. She checks the text: approaching lobby. It's from Erik.

Showtime.

Their tab's already been paid, so Angel pushes away her untouched beer and slips off the barstool. She makes her way back out to the lobby, her purse tucked under her arm, and sinks down into one of the armchairs, texting furiously to no one in particular. A flash of white makes her look up. "Emma?" she hisses, blinking. "What are you--"

"Relax, sugar," Emma says, hardly even glancing down at her. "Look, tiny little change of plan, Oyama glimpsed me on the street and she's alerted Stryker. Shouldn't matter much, but you should probably go give Hank a heads up, hmmm?"

"But Stryker's practically here--"

Emma smiles coldly. "Better run, then."

"Fuck," Angel says, pocketing her phone. "He's out around the back, I'll be just a minute." She turns and makes her way hastily off to the right, away from the elevators. There's a service hallway back here; they scoped it out earlier. But rather than continue on down it to find Hank and the others, Angel hesitates, pressing her back up against the wall and peering carefully back around the corner. Emma's no longer visible in the lobby; she either headed into the elevator or stepped back outside.

And sure enough, she reenters the hotel a minute later, Cain Marko on her arm. Angel jerks her head back and sucks in a breath, leaning into the wall, his presence hitting her like a punch to the gut. That fuckhead. She clenches her hands into tight fists, feeling her nails cut into the soft skin at her palms, and forces herself to keep breathing.

When she's confident that her legs will continue to support her weight, she heads off down the hall.

*

"I'm so sorry," Emma gushes to the concierge, hanging off Cain's arm with a brilliant smile. "We're in room 225 -- see, here's my key -- but our friends are staying on another floor and I can't for the life of me remember their room number."

Cain shoots her a glare. "If you hadn't left your damn cell phone in the room--"

"Oh, don't be such a grumpypants," Emma giggles. "Isn't he just the worst? He's the absolute worst. Only it's her birthday and we've been planning the surprise for ages--"

"It's no trouble," the harried-looking concierge says quickly, in a desperate bid to stave off another monologue. "What were the names again?"

"Mr. and Mrs. Brian Francis," Emma tells him. She can feel Cain stiffen at her side, and favors the concierge with another dazzling smile. "Oh, you're just too kind."

"Room 618," the concierge says. His return smile looks distinctly forced. "Enjoy your stay!"

Emma keeps up the act all the way to the elevator, which takes entirely too long to arrive, gushing and fawning over Cain like some empty-headed trophy wife. She drops his arm like a hot poker the instant the elevator doors close behind them. "Proof enough for you?"

"That used to be one of Charles's aliases," Cain says darkly, shifting his weight from side to side like a runner gearing up for the pistol. "She's always taking other people's things."

Emma watches him warily, testing the waters. "Not like he has any use for it anymore."

"Damn right he doesn't," Cain snaps. "But it's the goddamned principle of the thing."

So her guess was right; Cain genuinely still believes his stepbrother to be dead. Fascinating. She wonders how that choicest of morsels managed to slip the Hellfire Club by -- or is someone deliberately keeping Cain in the dark? Better and better.

When they emerge onto the sixth floor, the corridor is deserted. Cain leads the way to room 618. He stops abruptly a few doors down, turning to give Emma a hard, assessing look. She raises an eyebrow. "Well? I did agree not to stand in your way."

He reaches into his jacket. "Here. Take this."

It's a gun -- a small pistol, completely unlike the service revolver he'd pulled on her earlier. She curls her lip disdainfully. "I find it difficult to believe you'd trust me with a weapon."

"It's not loaded, of course," he says with an ugly smile. "But Raven won't know that. You think I'm just gonna walk in there blind? Not on your life, sweetheart. You go in first. Now take it."

This time, the order is enforced with a gesture with his actual, loaded weapon. Emma sighs and accepts the toy pistol in distaste. She genuinely loathes guns. But she knows them well enough to be able to check the chamber for bullets; nothing, not even blanks.

"Good," Cain says, gripping her waist and pressing the barrel of his revolver into the small of her back. "Now knock on the door."

Emma shakes him off with a glare. She doesn't need to be paraded around like a marionette. Rolling her shoulders back and tossing her hair, she strides up to Raven's door and knocks once, twice. After a moment, she hears footsteps approaching. Cain stays off to the side, out of view of the peephole, keeping his weapon trained on Emma.

Another long moment passes, and then Raven opens the door. "Emma?" she says, brow furrowed with confusion. "You're supposed to be down at the bar. What--?"

With an internal sigh, Emma points the unloaded pistol at Raven's chest. "Step inside, honey," she says. "Quietly, now, and no one needs to get hurt."

Raven's eyes go very wide, her face a mask of disbelief, giving way slowly to comprehension of Emma's betrayal. She takes a silent step back, allowing Emma entrance.

"Thank you." Emma steps daintily into the room, keeping the pistol aimed in Raven's general direction. "I'm so terribly sorry, sugar, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to renege on our agreement. You see, I've accepted a better offer."

That's when Cain shoulders his way inside, slamming the door shut behind them. His beady eyes glitter with malice. "Hello, brat," he says, with an awful grin. "Bet you weren't expecting this."

"Actually," Raven says, and that's when Angel steps out of the en suite bathroom and jabs a hypodermic needle into the back of Cain's meaty neck.

Hank's sedatives work fast. Cain hardly has the chance to gape at his sister in shock before he's crumpling to his knees. He's out like a light almost instantly.

"Huh," Angel says, staring down at his prone form. "That was really satisfying."

"And not a moment too soon," Emma sighs, tossing the pistol onto the bed in disgust. "I had to hang off him like a limpet in the lobby, it was absolutely revolting."

Raven looks like she's just barely resisting the urge to kick her unconscious brother in the groin. "Ugh, I don't even want to know. Whose idea was the pistol?"

"His, of course," Emma says disdainfully. "He doesn't know me at all, or he'd have realized that your seeing me with a gun would've given the game away immediately. Speaking of which, best dispose of his."

Angel snorts. "Dispose of it, hell, that's a good weapon right there. Ugly as sin, but I bet we can pawn it off on Alex. He's all over that crap." She shoots Raven a smirk. Raven just rolls her eyes and waves at her to take care of it, but she's clearly suppressing a smile.

"That was a nice little show in the lobby, Angel," Emma adds with a smile. "Cain lapped it right up as evidence of my trustworthiness."

Angel shrugs. "Not like I don't have plenty of practice performing for his benefit."

While Angel takes care of the revolver -- and carefully frisks Cain for any further weapons, keeping a coolly professional mask over her obvious revulsion -- Emma and Raven perch together on the bed. "Any sign of Stryker?"

"Not yet," Emma says. "But Azazel's taking care of Oyama for us."

Raven laughs. "How generous of him." Her gaze drifts back to Cain, and her smile fades, replaced by something hard and inscrutable. "I'd better call the boys up to deal with this. I'm tempted to just leave him right there."

"No one's stopping you," Emma points out. "The PASIV lines will reach him on the floor as well as anywhere else."

If the dark malice in Raven's grin bears more than a passing resemblance to her brother's, well, Emma's certainly not going to be the one to mention it. "Fine by me," Raven says. "Make the call."

Emma studies her face for a moment, then nods. She fishes her iPhone out of her purse and taps on a contact.

"Logan, the first package has been delivered," she says. "All trussed up and ready to go."

*

"Charles," Moira says quietly from across the table. "It's time."

Sometimes, Charles thinks the last few waking moments before an important dream feel far more dreamlike than the job itself. The world around him seems muted, hazy and uninteresting, and he passes through it like fog, honing in on one fixed point in the distance. His leg doesn't pain him, but he can hardly put any weight on it at all. Well, that's what the cane is for, isn't it? A literal crutch, grounding him to a reality so insubstantial that it slips through his grasp like sand through a clenched fist. Better to cup it gently than to try to clutch it tight.

He pushes forward through the hotel lobby, Moira at his side.

"Stryker and Wilson went upstairs five minutes ago," Coulson informs them, calm and contained. This is just another mission for him. Business as usual. "Beta team has already assembled in the second room, of course."

"Of course," Charles echoes with a faint smile. "Coming?"

"After you."

They ride up together. Charles concerns himself with watching the numbers count up to six, ignoring the glances the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are exchanging behind his back. Coulson's no dreamer, but Moira used to be. She understands. There's no point getting all worked up now, not with the dream approaching like a thunder rumbling in the distance. The air always feels unnaturally still before a storm.

"Shall we head right in?" he asks distantly, as they alight.

"Not just yet," Coulson says. They can hear the television going in Stryker's room, and a steady stream of chatter. Coulson raps on the door to 618 instead, three sharp knocks, and Raven is there.

"Hey," she says, smiling thinly. "Sorry about the mess."

Cain Marko sprawls in a heap on the carpet, caught between the bathroom and the queen-sized bed. His breathing comes low and even, and his arm is splayed out across the floor, palm open and grasping at nothing, PASIV line already taped into his pale wrist. Charles doesn't even try to navigate around him, choosing instead to remain in the doorway as Raven closes the door behind them.

"Hey, Chuck," Logan calls across the room. He grins, amiably feral. Charles has always found him an odd contradiction in terms. "You ready for this?"

Charles lifts his shoulders in a shrug. "As much as I'll ever be, I suppose." He glances around the room. Alex is already unwinding more PASIV lines, distributing them to the rest of the Cain extraction team; Hank hovers over his shoulder watchfully while Sean stretches out across the middle of the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Emma and Angel look surprisingly cozy together, sharing an overstuffed armchair; Coulson neatly picks his way across the room to join them. Raven and Moira remain with Charles in the entryway. Raven slips an arm around his waist, and he leans into her comfortably, trying to avoid looking down at Cain. "I haven't packed a hotel room like this since my Oxford days," he remarks lightly.

It really is too small for all eleven of them; fortunately, their period of discomfort should be brief. And he only counts ten.

"Erik will be up in a minute," Raven murmurs, her breath dancing lightly against the shell of his ear. He nods.

In here, the buzz of conversation from the room next door can be heard more clearly; thin walls, Charles thinks. At first he assumes it's all the TV, then gradually realizes that someone's carrying on a very one-sided conversation over the sounds of the television. Not Stryker.

Alex glances over and must catch the expression on Charles's face. "Yeah," he says with a wry smirk. "That'll be Wilson."

"What was his nickname in your squad?" Charles asks.

"He didn't have one," Alex says. "We mostly just called him 'Fucking Wade.' Or 'Jesus Fucking Christ, Would You Shut The Fuck Up For Five Goddamn Minutes.'"

"'Seriously, Wilson, If You Don't Shut Your Mouth I Swear To God I Will Shut It For You,'" Sean volunteers.

"The merc with the mouth," Hank says, shaking his head. "You'd really think it'd be a liability in his line of work. And yet."

The chatter from next door cuts off abruptly, though the TV continues in its low tones. A minute later, they hear the door open and then shut quietly. The rapping on their door is not unexpected, but startling all the same.

"Hey!" Wilson calls. "You wanna do this thing or what? 'Cause I'd better be getting paid either way, man, do you have any idea how much time and money freelancers waste annually trying to track down their honestly (or dishonestly) earned pay, it's a fucking travesty, I've seen the statist-- oh, holy mother of God, where the fuck did you come from, what are you like a fucking ninja or--"

Moira yanks the door open, revealing Wilson and, unsurprisingly, Erik, who has Wilson's arms twisted up behind his back and is looking like he's seriously considering resorting to drastic measures to shut the man up.

"Now you know how we felt all the time," Alex says feelingly.

Wilson blinks at them. "Hey, Summers...and McCoy...and Cassidy, what the fuck, is this some kind of class reunion that nobody told me about -- Jesus Christ there's a lot of you, did you get a fucking group rate or something?"

"Please," Erik says seriously, looking straight at Charles, "please tell me I can kill him."

Charles cracks a smile, but then turns his attention to Wilson. "Stryker?"

"Sleeping like a baby in front of the boob tube," Wilson says. "Slipped a roofie in his drink. Or, like, whatever the opposite of a roofie is -- a downer? There have got to be some decent slang words for sedatives -- Beast, help me out here, you've always been the go-to guy for better living through chemistry--"

"Thank you," Charles interrupts, when Wilson finally has to pause for breath. "I'm sure Agent Coulson has worked out your fee to your satisfaction...?"

"Yes," Coulson says. "He has." He levels a hard look at Wilson. "Isn't that right, Mr. Wilson?"

For some reason, that shuts Wilson right up. "Yeah, we're good," is all he has to add.

"Brilliant," Charles says, when nothing further appears to be forthcoming. "We'll be needing Colonel Stryker's room for no more than three hours, at which point you will return and see to it that your boss is comfortably situated in his bed. I presume you know the drill."

Wilson opens his mouth, glances back at Coulson, and then closes it again. He nods. At a look from Charles, Erik sighs and releases the merc. Wilson tips them an imaginary hat and saunters off, whistling. The elevator dings, and the doors close behind him.

"What the fuck are you paying him?" Logan demands, but Coulson just smiles.

Raven tugs on Charles's arm. "Come on," she says, looking over his shoulder to take them all in. "We've got a job to do."

Neither she nor Charles spares a single glance back at Cain as they walk out into the hall.

As promised, Stryker's room is a mirror of their own, with Stryker sound asleep in the armchair in front of the TV. Hank pulls the PASIV out of the closet -- already linked with Cain's -- and sets them up quickly and silently. There's really nothing to be said at this point. Raven presses a quick kiss to Charles's cheek, then takes her line and clambers onto the bed, with Angel slipping in beside her. They lean back against the headboard, closing their eyes, shoulders not quite brushing. No one comments.

Charles pulls the desk chair up next to Raven's side of the bed, hooking his cane across the back as he settles in. After a moment's consideration, Erik takes a seat on the floor beside him, back propped up against the foot of the bed. Hank passes them both lines from the PASIV while Moira takes a seat in the second armchair, preparing to play the watchful guardian over their slumbering forms.

For some reason, Alex has followed them into the room, hovering awkwardly in the entryway. "Hey, Raven," he says. Her gray eyes blink open. He offers her a crooked smile. "Good luck down there."

"Yeah," she says, returning his smile with a small one of her own. "You, too."

Erik reaches up to squeeze Charles's knee gently, and Charles simply covers Erik's hand with his own. It's just another dream. No reason to get all dramatic about it. He closes his eyes.

"Hey," he hears Alex murmur. "Don't die, okay?"

"I don't intend to," Hank replies quietly, and then he must press the button on the PASIV, because the earth tilts and spins beneath them and the breath catches in Charles's throat and it's as though he can feel the chemicals coursing through his bloodstream, sparking new life through his veins, like the jolt in the pit of your stomach that feels just like falling--

And when Charles opens his eyes, the night air is cool against his face, crickets chirp in a symphony around him, and he's looking up at his dreaded, hated childhood home, Cain's hulking silhouette illuminated in the lamplight of one second-story window.

Chapter Text

Right from the start, the dreamscape in Cain Marko's head is crawling with projections.

Okay, Alex corrects himself, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But they're in this enormous fucking mansion, and he'd actually been inside the real deal when it had been Hellfire's primary base of operations, and he knows it had never been this heavily manned. Hell, they'd never have been able to break Charles out of the damn building if there'd been half this many guards roaming the halls. He already knew Cain's paranoia bordered on the pathological -- though frankly, that isn't anywhere near the most alarming issue on the man's psych profile -- but it's one thing to know a guy has trust issues, and another thing entirely to have the evidence swarming all over the dream-mansion like it's a fucking army base.

For a mark with no formal dream training, this is by far the most militant un-militarized subconscious Alex has ever encountered. It's making him twitchy.

Weirdly enough, though, none of the projections seem to be paying any attention to him whatsoever. Maybe it's because (Alex glances down at himself) he's wearing the same nondescript gray uniform as the rest of Cain's dreamed-up bodyguards. Huh. So Cain is unconsciously including the extraction team as part of his own mind's defenses. Alex can definitely work with this.

Time to start steering Cain in the right direction.

In one sense, these first few minutes are the riskiest part of the Cain job. Partly because their primary focus is to set up the Stryker inception, rather than the Cain extraction itself; partly because, well, there's a decent chance that Cain will recognize Alex from their strike on the mansion almost nine months ago. Hank didn't seem too worried about that possibility -- Alex's encounter with Cain topside, though memorable, had been very brief, and Cain's focus had been almost entirely on Raven. Alex's face might ping the memory, but unless his subconscious flips out over it, that should actually play in their favor. They want Cain thinking about his sister, about betrayal, about how fucking angry he was at that moment in time. That's exactly the mindset they need for this extraction.

Here's fucking hoping, right?

Alex had hooked into the dream maybe thirty seconds or so later than the rest of his team topside, so they've had a few minutes' head start on him down here. As he strides down the corridor to Cain's office suite, he can hear the distinct sound of a helicopter's rotor blades gradually whirring to a stop outside the mansion. So Alpha Team Inception should already be on the grounds. Good. Sure enough, he steps through the open doorway to the office just in time to overhear Logan saying, "Looks like Stryker's kept up his side of the bargain. Sir."

"Stryker's downstairs," Alex announces. "He's got the package."

Cain doesn't acknowledge him, absorbed in staring out his large windows down at the grounds. Logan stands on the other side of the desk. He's got the same damn uniform on as Alex and the rest of the projections. He catches Alex's glance with a raised eyebrow and a terse nod. Everything's going according to plan so far, then. There are two other security guards in the room, projections both, faces impassive.

"Sir?" Logan prompts Cain. He even sort of manages to sound halfway respectful about it. Will wonders never cease. "We gotta hold up our end of the deal. The intel on the congressmen?"

Cain snaps out of his contemplation with a savage grin. "In the safe. Azazel has the code. Call him and Frost down to join us in the foyer. We have a deal to execute."

He shoulders past Alex on his way out the door, hardly even glancing at him. The two projections follow him out, again without so much as acknowledging Alex or Logan's presence. It's a bit weird. Alex wonders if this is how ghosts feel.

"Think he'll supply his own projections, or do we gotta offer up an Azazel for him now, too?" Alex asks.

Logan shrugs. "Frost's already in place. I'd rather not complicate shit further. You can check in with her if you're worried about it."

"I take it you're not."

"I'm saving it for when I got reason to worry, kid." Logan pulls a cigar out of his breast pocket and conjures a light. "Safe's behind that big-ass mirror, I think. He kept checkin' himself out while we were waiting on the helicopter. Even Marko wouldn't want to look at his own ugly mug that much. You need an engraved invitation or something?"

Alex heads over to examine the mirror. It looks exactly like the one in Shaw's old office in the real Westchester mansion, now buried under so much rubble. There are benefits to modeling a job after a real topside location. He gets the heavy fucking thing off the wall without too much trouble, finds the mechanism to pop open the hidden panel in the wall. This safe is so secure that it doesn't even have a combination lock on it. Good thing Alex knows his way around safe-cracking, in dreams and out of them.

He sets the explosives and takes a few prudent steps back, joining Logan by the window. The helicopter's still waiting on the lawn. Hank's the pilot; once Stryker and Cain complete the trade, the Inception team will return to the helicopter with Stryker, where they'll hook up for the next level. Alex wonders what Hank will do for the remainder of their dream, until the kick -- just fly around aimlessly? How far does their dream extend in every direction? Does the dreamscape ever just...end, peter out into nothingness?

More projections swarm over the grounds as the explosives go off quietly behind him, filling the air with the faint, acrid scent of electrical smoke. Fuck, those guys are really starting to weird him out. "Have you ever seen this many projections in a subconscious that wasn't militarized? Not counting city dreams."

"Nope," Logan says, unconcerned. "Maybe some of 'em are Stryker's."

"The linked dream doesn't work like that. We're in Cain's head, not Stryker's. We can't see anything Stryker's dreaming up for himself."

Logan shrugs, stubbing out his cigar on the windowsill and heading over to the now-open safe. "Then I guess they're all Cain's. Unless you've brought a party with you."

Alex shakes his head, peering down at the new guards. There's something almost familiar about the one nearest the helicopter -- something in his lanky form and the way he moves, triggering a memory. Maybe someone from Hellfire that Alex has encountered before? Hard to tell in the nighttime darkness, though the helicopter's searchlight provides ghostly illumination to the grounds.

"Damn," Logan mutters. "Knew it couldn't be that easy." Alex turns to see him scowling down at the open file in his hands.

"What've you got?"

"List of Hellfire's congressmen, sure as shit," Logan says. "But none of the dirty details Fury wants. Well, it's a start."

There'd been an outside chance that they could pull off their end of the job without needing to bother with the second dream level, that Cain would be open enough to give up all the goods right here. But they've always known it was a long shot. Still. Too fucking bad.

"I'll let Sean know the second level's a go," Alex says. "Anything interesting in there?"

"Kelly's on the list," Logan says. "Looks like S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pet senator's playing for both teams. That'll piss Fury off. Can't wait to see the bastard's face when we give him the good news."

He tosses the file over to Alex, who scans it quickly, memorizing the intel. It's not as long a list as he'd expected. Stryker doesn't have as much clout as he pretends to have. Good. He passes the documents back to Logan, who tucks them under his arm.

"I'm gonna get this down to Marko for the trade," Logan says. "At least it gives us a good base to work from for the second level. Start setting up the maze, will ya?"

"Yeah, sure," Alex says distractedly, taking one last good look out the window. Most of the projections have vanished, leaving a few guards posted around the grounds. He's about to follow Logan out of the office when the projection he'd noticed by the helicopter turns toward the house, stepping directly into the light from the helicopter, and Alex's blood becomes ice in his veins.

It looks just like Darwin.


Cain's decided to meet Stryker in the ground floor library, which makes sense to Logan. It's an imposing room, luxurious and opulent, dripping with old money. Colonel Stryker is a career military man of Spartan tastes. He'll hide it well, but he'll never feel at ease in a room like this.

Logan doesn't much like it, either. He also doesn't like how many projections Cain's got crammed in here at the moment -- looks like he's got the entire Hellfire Club assembled in his subconscious, eyeing one another suspiciously. Looking for the dreamer. Just as well Summers is upstairs and out of the way. If he gets himself killed out of the dream, the whole damn thing will collapse around them.

Stryker's son stands at Cain's shoulder. Logan met the actual man once, many years back; Jason Stryker was younger and angrier then, greedy to outstrip his father, to push the chemistry of dreaming in directions even the Colonel found distasteful. Over the years, his anger has burned him down to the bone, his face gaunt, his mismatched eyes feverishly bright. Not a pleasant man to have as an associate, and implacably cruel as an enemy. The similarity between father and son is stronger than either would care to admit.

"Stop staring," Emma Frost hisses in his ear, not quite close enough to touch. "You're supposed to be a grunt, sweetheart. Keep your eyes on the threat, not the inner circle."

Logan grins. "Just trying to sort the players from the projections, kid."

"Stryker won't be able to see Cain's projections. Jason wouldn't be of much use to us if his daddy couldn't see him, would he? Of course he's my forgery."

"And just how many of those can you maintain at once?"

"Enough," Frost says grimly. "But mine aren't the most important for this round."

She steps back away from him as the door opens. A handful of Cain's soldiers precede Stryker into the library, none daring to touch him. The linked dreams create an interesting effect on the projections -- they seem to be giving a wide berth to those in the other dream, the alien presence registering as wrong without being perceived as a threat. Stryker marches in as though he can't even see them -- and, of course, he can't. Thinking about it too hard makes Logan's head hurt. So the only people he's sure Stryker can see in the room right now are the real people in both dreams: Cain, Logan himself, and the various forgeries courtesy of Frost and Raven. Summers is safely out of the way; Cassidy is likewise keeping a low profile, and should be working with Xavier's team to make sure this level runs smoothly for both jobs. He's not sure how the inception team is coordinating their side of things, apart from Raven's role in linking Stryker to Cain, and doesn't much care. He doesn't make a habit of worrying about other people's jobs.

Coming face to face with Stryker after all these years is enough of a joyride as it is.

"You keep dangerous pets, Mr. Marko," Stryker says, eyeing Logan coldly. "Don't you ever wonder if one day they'll turn on you?"

Cain smiles unpleasantly. "They know better than to bite the hand that feeds 'em. Isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir," Logan agrees. He notices that Stryker won't even acknowledge his son's presence. Interesting. He's almost curious about what Xavier has in mind for the lower levels.

Beside him, Frost sighs, folding her arms across her chest. The view is spectacular. "If we could perhaps proceed to business, gentlemen?"

One of Cain's projections -- a strange little guy that Logan doesn't recognize -- snickers loudly. Logan ignores it. Better not to react to anyone Stryker can't see or hear. Luckily, Cain doesn't seem to care.

"I believe you have something that's mine, Stryker," Cain says. His face twists into an ugly smile.

Stryker's lips twitch in distaste, but he turns and signals to someone behind him. One of his own projections, Logan assumes, since he can't see anybody but Cain's guards there. For a second he thinks he catches a glimpse of dark hair and eyes, a woman's face -- but it's gone in a heartbeat, and he shrugs it off. Fuckin' dreams.

Out in the hallway, he can hear sounds of a scuffle, and raised voices. "Get your dirty hands off me!" he hears Raven yell, all righteous indignation, and he coughs to cover a grin.

No one's actually touching her when she appears in the doorway, but Stryker's aide Oyama has a service pistol pointed at the back of Raven's head and a look on her face like she's more than ready to use it -- which is pretty hilarious, given who's forging who. Logan makes a mental note: Cassidy owes him twenty bucks. He knew Raven would forge Oyama for Stryker, instead of Wilson -- no one would want to expend that much effort being that annoying on a job, especially given that Raven's got multiple forgeries running at once. The silent, enigmatic Oyama is a much simpler con to run.

The "real" Raven's hands are cuffed behind her, and she glares at Cain with defiance edged with fear. "Hey, bro," she all but snarls. "What a delightful reunion you've arranged. The Markos always did know how to treat family."

At Cain's shoulder, Jason tosses an ugly smirk in his father's direction, and Stryker frowns.

"Welcome home, brat," Cain says. He gestures in Logan's general direction, and Logan steps forward to grab Raven by the arm, pulling her back away from Stryker and Oyama. She twists in his grip but doesn't actually fight it.

Stryker's mouth settles into a flat line. "The files, Marko."

At Cain's nod, Frost steps forward, deftly conjuring a thick accordion folder out of nowhere in particular. It won't be the same file that Logan found in Cain's safe, but it doesn't matter. Stryker's in a different dream, and he'll read whatever his subconscious chooses to put on paper. He takes the files from Frost and rifles through them; Logan wonders what he sees. Doesn't matter, he reminds himself. Not his job.

"Got what you came here for?" Cain asks, overly solicitous.

Stryker tucks the file under his arm. "It'll do." He gives Cain a curt nod, shoots Logan another skeptical look, and then turns on his heel and strides out of the library, Oyama in his wake. After a quick glance at Cain, Frost follows after them.

The room feels a hell of a lot emptier once they've gone, and Logan frowns. Hadn't there been a whole gang of Cain's guards in the doorway a minute ago? He hasn't seen or heard them leave, but now they're gone. And it seems like at least half of Cain's projections of the Hellfire Club have vanished over the course of the brief exchange with Stryker, too. Logan grips Raven's arm a little tighter, and she gives him the tiniest of nods. She's noticed, too.

Well, they all know Cain's not playing with a full deck. So his projections appear and disappear at will. If that's the worst of his mental instability, Logan's not gonna complain.

Although the expression on his face as he looks Raven over is definitely on the creepy side.

"Leave us," Cain orders, and there's no question about who he's referring to.

A couple of the remaining projections straight up disappear, and Logan flinches. So does Raven. Fortunately, Cain doesn't appear to notice anything out of the ordinary. He beckons, and Logan gives Raven a quick shove in his direction. It's for the best. Cain's sister will do more to get him in the right headspace for the next level down than anything Logan can dream up.

Once he's outside the library, the heavy doors closed firmly behind him, he taps on his earpiece. "Exchange is complete. Whenever you're ready, Cassidy."


"Groovy," Sean tells Logan, shouting to be heard over the whirring rotor blades. The wind generated by the helicopter whips at his hair. "Just gimme a sec."

Charles's attention is on the guarded entrance to the mansion, his expression unreadable in the darkness. He looks a lot like Agent Coulson at the moment, actually, standing ramrod-straight in his tailored black suit. Very G-man. Sean reaches out to tap his shoulder, then grimaces, realizing his mistake. It's super creepy to watch his hand pass right through Charles as though he's some kind of affable British ghost. He keeps forgetting they're not actually sharing a dream. "Hey," he yells instead. "Logan says we're ready to go. How about you guys?"

"Raven's herding Stryker out now," Charles replies, still focused on the mansion. "Give us another minute." He shoves his hands in his trouser pockets, rocking back on his heels. "Ah, there they are."

Sure enough, Stryker is indeed emerging from the mansion's massive double doors. Emma is at his side, speaking rapidly into his ear, and Stryker doesn't look happy about whatever she's telling him. His bodyguard Oyama trails just a step behind them. It's not much of an entourage -- the Colonel that Sean knew would never enter hostile territory alone -- but for all Sean knows, Stryker might think himself surrounded by his own people. Sean can no more see Stryker's projections than he can physically interact with Charles or anyone else in the other dream. It's a real mindfuck -- even more than usual for a dream. Hard to keep the jobs straight.

"Damn," Sean whistles. "How many forgeries does Raven have going at the moment?"

"Three, I think -- well, perhaps down to two now." Charles smiles grimly. "Nothing she can't handle."

Right. Like she's not massively revolutionizing the dreamsharing industry even as they speak. Emma Frost is one of the best forgers in the world, but as far as Sean knows, even she can only maintain one forgery at a time. He's not sure Eames could've pulled it off, either. But on this level, at least, Emma's lone forgery is more important than any of Raven's -- the entire Cain extraction is riding on it.

"Looks like you're set," Sean says. "I'm gonna go blow something up."

"Just wait 'til we're in the air," Charles reminds him. "Linked dreams are unpredictable -- we're not entirely sure what the ramifications will be for our dream. I'd rather be well out of the way in case you trigger anything that affects the link."

Sean grins. "Dude, I'm just pissing off Cain's projections. You guys can't even see them."

"Fair enough. How does it look for you, by the way?"

Sean cases the area one last time. Cain's people are fucking everywhere. "Like I'm gonna get my ass shot off just crossing the grounds."

"Best of luck," Charles says wryly. "Off you go, now, before Stryker's close enough to recognize your face."

Sean tosses him a sloppy salute and lopes away, doing his best to blend in with the crowd. He's got a regular arsenal of grenades in his backpack. Time to do some damage.


Emma falls heavily to her knees, the impact jarring even with the luxurious carpeting. Her cheek burns where Cain hit her, her jaw tender. She tastes blood. No teeth loose, though. It could be worse. And it's not like she'll keep the bruise long.

She really doesn't envy Raven her childhood.

Emma just wants to curl up and lick her wounds. But Raven's a different sort of woman. She spits blood onto the carpet and starts to laugh. They need Cain angry. And no one can push Cain Marko's buttons quite like his bratty little sister can.

"Home sweet fucking home," Emma-as-Raven giggles. "How I've missed you, brother dearest."

A large hand grabs her chin, roughly dragging her head up. Cain's piggish eyes glare into hers. "What's so funny, brat?"

"Your face," Emma tells him sweetly. "I'm just giddy with anticipation. It's going to be so fucking awesome to see your face when you realize how totally fucked you are right now." She allows her tone to harden. "And for once, I'll be the one doing the fucking."

He slaps her again, which is a good sign. Cain prefers violence to uncertainty. If he's swinging freely already, she must have him uncomfortably off-balance already. He'd spend more time gloating if he thought he had control of the situation.

She comes back up with a savage grin. Emma hopes the expression is as disconcerting on Raven's face as it is on her brother's. "So what was the deal, Cain?" she says, taunting. "What did you trade Stryker in exchange for little ol' me?"

"Nothing of any value," he snarls. "Don't think too highly of yourself."

She laughs in his face. "You still don't get it, do you? You never were the brightest crayon in the box, Cain. Especially not in this family." When he moves to grab her again, she twists away. "Charles was worth twenty of you. Hell, even Kurt--"

He catches her this time, wrapping one meaty hand around her throat. "You dare."

So Daddy dearest remains a sore spot for Cain, just as Raven promised. How delightful. "Stryker knew our father far too well to ever trust you," she croaks out. "There was only one thing he wanted from you -- Hellfire's pet congressmen. And now that he's got everything you had, you honestly think he'll bother keeping you around?"

As if on cue, a muffled explosion rocks the room, bookshelves creaking ominously. It's followed by another, and then another.

Cain throws her to the floor, eyes wild. The door crashes open. "We're under attack, sir!" Logan shouts. "They've got the house surrounded!"

For a moment, Emma thinks she sees a dark-haired woman standing behind him, her face achingly familiar -- but no, no, it can't be. Not her. Not here.

But when she blinks, the woman is gone. Perhaps Emma only imagined her.

"Who?" Cain demands of Logan, snapping Emma's attention back to their present situation.

"Can't say for sure, sir, but it looks a hell of a lot like military special ops--"

Cain swears fluently. "Stryker. What the fuck is he--" His gaze snaps to Emma, who grins viciously up at him. "You conniving little bitch. You're working for Stryker."

"He didn't even have to pay me for this one," Emma confirms with no small amount of glee. This is going very well. She'd worried he wouldn't make the connection immediately, that she'd have to actually spell it out for him.

"Sir, we need to get you to a place of safety--"

"Fuck that," Cain snarls, grabbing Emma's arm and dragging her to the chaise lounge. "Get me a fucking PASIV. She's going to give us everything she knows, now."

Marvelous. They'd thought Logan would have to suggest that course of action himself, but if the idea comes from Cain's own mind, all the better for them. Logan doesn't waste any time arguing. He strides right over to the nearest bookshelf, shoving a handful of heavy tomes to the floor. A silver PASIV case is revealed behind them. While Cain's attention is focused on Logan and the PASIV, Emma slips the zipper down on her calf-length black boots and palms the small syringe she'd concealed there. It's one of Angel's old tricks, which Emma had grown rather fond of during their shared time at Hellfire. Cain's still holding her down with a heavy palm against her sternum; it's childishly simple to plunge the needle into his bare wrist. His eyes roll up in his head and he collapses on top of her.

"Damn," she mutters, struggling to shove his bulk off her. "Logan, a hand?"

Logan barks out a laugh when he sees her situation. But he does help pull the unconscious Cain off her. "Bit off more than you could chew?"

"Hardly." Now that the deed is done, she wants to scour Raven's skin clean of Cain's touch, slough the form off like so much filth. She shakes herself free of the forgery and back into her own vastly more comfortable body. Logan doesn't bat an eye at the transformation. "Cassidy?"

"On his way," Logan says. "He got the projections good and riled. Summers is gonna have a hell of a time fending them off, so let's make this nice and quick for him."


"They're assembling a fucking army." Sean sounds out of breath over Alex's earpiece. "Sorry, man."

"No problem," Alex replies, making his way down one of the mansions innumerable corridors. He's already dreaming up a couple of AK-47s. There's a point at which you just gotta stop worrying and learn to love blowing the shit out of projections. "It's my fucking job, right?"

"Yeah, have fun with that. We're all in the library. Going under in a second. Catch you on the flip side."

"Sweet dreams," Alex says, and cuts his end of the radio connection. He'll be on his own from here on out.

There are two nice things about this job. First off, it's only two levels, so the Somnacin compound's stable enough that there's no risk of Limbo. (Time was, that wouldn't even be a factor in Alex's calculations. Fucking Erik and his former fucking death wish.) And following that, there's no real time limit, so they're not bothering with a coordinated kick. Once Logan finishes the job on the second level, he'll handle the ritual round of murder-suicide to bump them back up to Alex, and likewise to wake up entirely. It's not elegant, but it doesn't need to be. Logan's a no fuss, no muss kind of extractor. Alex likes him.

Of course, he's still got a backup plan in case things go to shit. Worst case scenario is topside -- if something goes horribly wrong at the hotel, Coulson and Moira will give both teams a musical cue before yanking everyone out of the dreams. Likewise, if Alex's level starts falling apart beyond the point of no return, he'll improvise a quick kick for the others first. (He's been stranded on a second-level dream while the first level completely destabilized before; it's not an experience he'd wish on anyone else. His topside equilibrium was completely fucked for nearly a week after that one.)

But his first order of business is keeping Cain's angry projections away from the rest of his team. Should be no problem -- they're looking for the dreamer, specifically, and on this level, that's Alex. Trouble is, since Sean set off his explosives, Alex hasn't seen a single damn projection.

It's starting to seriously creep him out.

He kicks open a door at random, finds a delicate-looking sitting room. The drapes on the wide windows are pulled open. He approaches carefully from the side, hugging the wall, leaving the lights off, trying to minimize the chances of being spotted from the grounds. Outside, it's dark and still, the helicopter's rotors only just barely audible in the distance as Hank flies the inception team away. He can't make out any sign of movement. The countless projections who'd been making him so nervous earlier seem to have all vanished in the space of minutes. Goddamnit, Sean said they were forming an army, so where the fuck are they?

(And Darwin, a voice whispers, don't forget Darwin. He does his best to ignore it.)

He hears approaching footsteps out in the hall and drops to a crouch. The treads are muffled by the carpeting, but sounds like four or five men, moving swiftly but not running. Alex sidles back along the wall until he's at the door frame. He dreams up a silencer for his rifle and waits.

Four projections in special ops gear file past the open doorway, moving with a purpose. They don't so much as glance his way. He waits until he's sure they've all past him, then slips out behind them into the hallway. It's a long corridor, but he's got excellent aim. His first shot hits a projection squarely in the back of the head, and he falls. The others react only when his body thumps to the floor. By then Alex already has the second in his sights, and drops him before he has a chance to bring his own weapon up. A third gives a shout before Alex can take him out. Enough to raise the alarm? Probably not. His wrist and shoulder are starting to complain about the recoil, but he pushes the feeling back. It's just a dream, not his real body. He'll be fine. He aims for the fourth and final projection, whose eyes widen in recognition -- "Havok?"

It's Colonel William Stryker.

Alex feels frozen in place, his finger numb on the trigger guard. His blood turns to ice in his veins. No. Charles's people should have Stryker by now. He heard the helicopter leave. But -- they can't communicate with the other team by radio, and if something went horribly wrong, he might never have known -- oh, fuck, what if he just killed his own people, what if he sent them into Limbo...

The logical part of his brain reminds him that that's not possible, reminds him of that awful trial run in Sean's cityscape, watching the bullet pass through Hank as though he were some kind of phantom, fighting Raven like an animal and never being able to land a single blow. He can't physically harm anyone in the other dream. The guys he just shot were all projections. It's a dream. It's not real.

(It's not a dream! he screamed at Hank, at Sean, their faces rendered alien by the camo paint and the drugs still coursing through his system. Bolt Bradley's blank, lifeless eyes stared accusingly up at him.)

He can't move.

"Havok?" Stryker says again, stepping closer. His voice is gentler than Alex remembers, soothing. Like he's trying to approach a wild animal. "Is that you?"

Alex's weapon drops from his nerveless hands to thud uselessly against the carpet. This could blow the whole inception, christ, why can't he think? All at once, he remembers the trick panels Angel and Sean had installed to divide the two dreams. There's one in this very corridor. Alex smacks at the nearest wall until he finds the mechanism and triggers it -- thank fucking god, the semi-opaque panel glides smoothly into place, right between him and Stryker.

But instead of losing interest, Stryker seems to stare right through the divider, and he's still coming--

Someone grasps his shoulder, and Alex nearly jumps out of his skin. "Relax, kid," Logan says. "The real Stryker's already in the helicopter. That's just a projection."

"How do you know?" Alex whispers.

On the other side of the divider between the two dreams, Stryker presses his palm against the panel. Alex finds himself mirroring him, reaching out as though to touch--

"He ain't worth it, bub," Logan says quietly. "Trust me."

Alex shakes his head sharply to clear it, pulling away from the panel. When he blinks, Stryker's end of the hallway is empty. Even the bodies of the dead projections have vanished. He turns to Logan to find -- no one.

Of course, Logan's with Cain and the rest of their team, already diving down to the next level.

Alex leans against the wall, shaken. What the fuck is going on here? He's not some idiot kid screwing around in his first dream. He's been in this business for the better part of a decade by now. This is, like, weird experimental Somnacin compound shit, but Hank knows better than to fuck around like that on a high-stakes job. It almost reminds him of the Shaw job, but Shaw had been a genius extractor in his own right, whereas Cain's scarcely more than a tourist when it comes to dreamsharing. He couldn't possibly--

You do realize that Cain is mentally unstable? Charles murmurs in his memory, and Alex feels sick to his stomach.

Christ.

It's his job to deal with the projections while the rest of his team sleeps, and in Cain's unhinged subconscious, there's no fucking way for Alex to anticipate what they'll do next.


It's instantly clear that something has gone very, very wrong.

Sean is the dreamer for the second level. Sean is also the architect for the Cain extraction. Sean, more than anyone else, knows every detail of these two dreams down to the type of gravel used in the mansion's driveway and every twist in the maze constructed to keep projections out for as long as possible, plus three shortcuts through it on each level, one of which he never even shared with his teammates, just in case. (He did two jobs with Erik during his crazycakes period, okay, not to mention all the rumors about Dom Cobb. Sean's not stupid.)

So when Sean finds himself in medias res walking down yet another one of the mansion's endless fucking corridors, he knows something's up. For a few precious, wasted seconds, he's convinced that he's still making his way over to the library to meet up with Logan and Emma. But no, he's suddenly certain, he did that already.

So either he's caught in some kind of weird-ass Groundhog Day loop within the first dream, or the second dream level is somehow identical to the first.

No, he realizes, with a growing sense of panic, not identical. The carpeting is distinctly different from that on the first level -- it's older, stained, even rotting away at the edges. There are actual candles set into the sconces along the walls, instead of the tasteful little lamps. And the air is thick and stale, smelling faintly of must and decay.

He's not on the first dream level anymore. But this sure as hell isn't the dream he built for the second level.


She hums softly to the doll in her arms, a pretty ballerina in a blue tutu. "Soft the drowsy hours are creeping," she sing-songs, holding it close. The pale pink wallpaper is ghostlike in the flickering candlelight. Outside her bedroom window, the wind whistles the lullaby along with her. "Hill and dale in slumber sleeping--"

She hears heavy footsteps in the hall, plodding and inevitable, coming relentlessly closer. Curled up on her frilly pink bedspread, she clutches the ballerina doll tighter to her chest. Her door has no lock.

"I my loved ones' watch am keeping--"

A cold gust of wind calls her through the open window, but though it pleads, it offers no escape. She cannot reach the tree outside her bedroom. All the thickest branches have been sawed off.

The footsteps come to a halt just outside her door.

"All through the night," she whispers.

The door creaks open, and she cringes.

"Frost?" the man demands. "What the hell?"

It's only then that she remembers -- she's Emma Frost. Not Raven. Not a frightened little girl in her hated pink bedroom. She drops the doll with a start, blinking back into her own body. "Howlett?"

Howlett -- no, that's not right, he calls himself Logan now -- Logan folds his arms across his broad chest. "Playing house?"

She looks around the room, as though really seeing it for the first time. "Someone seems to be. Cain?"

"Must be," Logan agrees grimly. "This ain't Cassidy's architecture. Marko's subconscious hijacked the dream. He do this a lot with Hellfire?"

"We never allowed him into the dreams," Emma murmurs. "Even Shaw thought him too unstable for the standard dream structure. I suppose we should have expected something like this."

"Hell, he's not even the dreamer. You ever encounter anything like this before?"

She shakes her head and turns her back on him, going to the open window, still feeling shaken. She's never lost herself in a dream like that before, especially not as a forgery. She hadn't even thought it possible. As she pulls the window shut, she glimpses a figure standing beneath the massive oak tree, indistinct in the darkness. The shape is feminine, but Emma can't quite make out her features. There's something terribly familiar about her, though.

"Frost?"

The woman outside takes a step closer to the house, and a sliver of moonlight illuminates her face. Emma reels back from the window as though struck. "Down, by the tree -- I thought I saw -- but it can't be--"

"It is," Logan says grimly, and when she looks back at him, she sees new lines etched deeply into his face. He looks ten years older. "I saw her, too. Outside. I couldn't bring myself to kill her."

"But...projections spring from the subject's subconscious," Emma protests shakily. "And Cain never met Kayla. So how could she be here?"

Logan shrugs. His jaw is set stubbornly. "Guess one of us brought her in."

"But I can't have," Emma murmurs. The diamond palace of her subconscious has never once been breached. "She's in the garnets."

"She's just a projection." Logan's voice is even harsher than usual. "We've got more important things to worry about."

He's right. Kayla's been dead for more than ten years now. If Logan's guilt has somehow manifested her now -- and it must be Logan, it must be, Emma locked all that securely away in her diamond palace long ago -- well, he can sort it out on his own time. Emma can't allow herself to be distracted by the projection of her long-dead half-sister now. Just another red blot to add to James Howlett's ledger.

"Any sign of Sean?" she asks, her voice very nearly steady again.

"Haven't seen him yet," Logan grunts. "Radios aren't working. This is a real shitshow."

"We'd better find him, I suppose," Emma says. She's suddenly reluctant to venture outside of this room, imperfect sanctuary though it may be. "Do you think we're better off kicking out of this level and trying again?"

"No way," Logan says grimly. "If we're ever gonna find Marko's hidden stash, it's more likely to be here than in any dream we construct. The walls reek of secrets."

"I hope you have a new plan, then."

He smiles, like a wolf baring its teeth. "Sure thing, honey. We talk to Marko, and then we rip this place apart."


The library is at the heart of the first level's labyrinth -- or at least it will be, once Alex has finished triggering all the rest of Sean and Angel's secret panels. They had to make it appear open for the meetup between Stryker and Cain, but with the inception team now out of the way, he can close up shop and brace himself for the inevitable showdown. In his route around the mansion to trigger the remaining panels, he's encountered a few more small strike teams of projections, but none as unsettling as the first, and all easily dispatched. That's almost more disturbing than the gathering army Sean mentioned. Alex really doesn't like surprises; if Cain's projections are planning something, he wants to know about it ASAP.

And since when do projections plan? They're figments of the imagination. They react. Barring creepy shades locked within a dreamer's subconscious -- thank you, Erik -- projections are mindless drones, bent on safeguarding the subject from invaders. Their danger lies in their viciousness and their numbers, not their cunning.

Maybe Cain's projections really are just this fucking inept. But Alex isn't holding his breath.

He's in the main foyer when the attack begins, and it's immediately obvious where the projections have been gathering: on the roof. The first huge picture window explodes in a shower of glass and wood shards, and three projections rappel inside boots-first. Then the next window shatters, and the next, and the next, and that's where Alex stops counting because he's running for his fucking life. He can hear glass shattering from what sounds like all over the damn house -- christ, they've completely surrounded him. Nothing for it but to dive back into the maze of corridors and hope to God that the labyrinth trips most of them up.

As he runs, following the route he'd memorized topside, his mind races through the possibilities. He's got to pick a spot to make his stand, and it had damn well better be a good one. The maze will slow them down, but there are only so many possibilities -- one of those projections will find the correct way through, and one will be enough to alert the rest. This is gonna be Shaw's hotel all over again, isn't it? Except zero chance of Hank pulling out a last-minute save this time. Hank's got a different dream to worry about.

Well, this time at least he can die before the kick if he absolutely has to.

He turns the final corner of the maze. There's only one door at the end of this corridor -- the one to the library, where the rest of his team is fast asleep.

That's where Darwin is waiting.


They find Cassidy in the ballroom, sitting cross-legged with his back against the bar and a bottle of some indefinable alcohol clutched in his fist. He looks even pastier than usual, his freckles standing out starkly against the paleness of his face.

"Cain's in the dining room," he says, with a jerky nod toward a pair of French doors. The panes of glass on the doors are cloudy with filth. He glances at Frost, then away. "You, uh. Don't play Raven this time. He's got his own."

Logan grimaces. "Anyone else in there with them?"

Cassidy's throat works visibly for a few moments, but he doesn't say anything. He takes another swig from his bottle instead. "Yeah," he finally manages, but doesn't elaborate further.

Well, ain't that a fucking treat. Logan doesn't much care to know what put that look on Cassidy's face. And he doesn't have time to dick around.

"Does Marko know he's dreaming?" Logan asks.

"Don't think so," Cassidy says. "He's totally bought into his own nightmare fuel." He grimaces. "How the hell did he hijack my architecture?"

"Does it matter?" Logan eyes the doors warily. "Who do you think he'll respond to best right now? It sure as hell won't be Emma Frost."

Frost purses her lips. "Indeed not. Given the...nature of the room I found myself in, Cain seems to be regressing back to his childhood somewhat. I'd suggest his father, but I don't know enough about Kurt Marko to feel confident forging him."

"Too much bad blood there," Logan says at once, shaking his head. "Not the sorta shit we wanna stir up right now. Anyone he particularly likes within Hellfire? I need his focus back on the congressmen."

"Actually..." Emma tosses her hair back, spine straightening. "Senator Kelly was on the list you glimpsed on the first dream level, wasn't he?"

Logan never told Emma any of the names on that list. His eyes narrow. "What makes you say that?"

"He was one of the connections I...cultivated, when Shaw still ran Hellfire." Emma smiles coolly. "I wasn't at all surprised to learn that he was in Fury's pocket as well. The man is terribly suspicious of dreamsharing technology -- doubtless because he has more than his fair share of dirty secrets to protect."

"Know him well enough to forge him?"

She gives him a condescending look. "Honey, I wouldn't have suggested him if I didn't. Give me a moment to prepare, please."

While she turns away, Logan swipes the bottle out of Cassidy's hands and takes a healthy swallow. The mystery booze is completely flavorless, but somehow it still burns all the way down. Like how Kayla's dark eyes burned into his -- shit, he's nowhere near drunk enough for that sort of bullshit poetry.

At least Emma seems to have pulled her shit back together, despite Kayla's unexpected appearance.

"If she already knows all of Hellfire's dirt on the congressmen, why are we even doing this extraction?" Cassidy asks plaintively.

"Because I don't, sugar," Frost calls over her shoulder. "Cain runs things very differently from Sebastian. We only had a bare handful of contacts within the government in my day -- Shaw preferred to avoid unnecessary entanglements, and politicians tend to be poor proprietors of secrets."

When she turns back around, Senator Kelly stands in her place. He adjusts his glasses with an oily smile. "Gentlemen, if we may proceed?"

Logan snorts. "After you, Senator." To Cassidy, he adds, "If you see any projections -- just fuckin' shoot 'em."

Cassidy snatches the booze back from him. "Whatever you say, boss."

When Frost-as-Kelly pushes the French doors open, they reveal a large, filthy dining room. The walls are streaked with soot, likely from the medieval-style torches that fill the space with flamelight. The long dining table appears to be an antique, though it's difficult to gauge its worth; it's so grimy that Logan can't tell what it's constructed from, and the wood itself is gouged and cracked in many places. Raven -- or rather Cain's projection of Raven -- is splayed out across the surface of the table. She's nearly unrecognizable. Cain has clearly been taking his time with her. Logan can't tell if she's dead or merely unconscious; he's seen worse, in his day, but that doesn't mean he likes it. Projection or not, he's seriously considering putting a bullet through her head just to put her out of her misery.

Cain himself sits in a tall-backed chair, his feet up on the table near Raven's head, a half-empty tumbler in his hand. He barely glances up at their entrance. Any other projections Cassidy thought he saw in here earlier have vanished; only the two siblings remain.

"What the hell is this, Mr. Marko?" Kelly strides over to the table. If Frost is disturbed by the condition of the Raven projection, she gives no indication of it.

Cain knocks back his glass. "None of your damn business, Senator."

"The hell it isn't." Kelly slams a large envelope down on the table. "Would you care to explain to me how Colonel William Stryker got his hands on these?"

Muttering under his breath, Cain rips the envelope open and shakes its contents out. Large, glossy photos flutter to the tabletop. Logan squints at them over Kelly's shoulder -- looks like the good senator had quite the misspent youth. Is that Woodstock? Huh. Logan never thought the old man had it in him.

"What else did you give him?" Kelly demands.

Cain laughs. "Everything."

"You can't possibly -- what if this should leak? To the press?"

"That's your own fucking problem, isn't it?" Cain sneers at him. "Now get out of my house."

"I won't leave until I've got everything you think you have on me! And my colleagues! Who on earth do you think you are?"

"You'll never find it," Cain says, sing-song, and Logan can't tell if he's gloating or furious. Or both. Cain nudges Raven's head with his toe, and she gives a little moan. Still alive, then. "It's all her fault. She thinks she can hide things from me. She doesn't understand that everything she has is mine." All at once he swings his legs back down and stands, slamming his fists on the table. "It's mine! All of it is mine! You can't stop me!"

Logan steps back, unnerved by the sudden shift in mood. The whole house seems to creak warningly. His mind races. Cain's lumped the idea of secrets together with Raven in his subconscious. That means the information he's hiding from Kelly will probably be stashed in a place he associates with his sister. Her bedroom, maybe? Damn, they were just there!

Kelly holds out a placating hand, obviously nervous now. "Now, Mr. Marko, let's be reasonable--"

"No one can stop me!" Cain screams. He shoves the table, and the entire massive thing flips over with a hideous crash. Raven shrieks weakly, trying to pull herself out of the wreckage; Cain grabs her by the throat. "Don't you know who I am?"

"Mr. Marko--"

"I'm the juggernaut, bitch!" Cain throws Raven into the wall with a supernatural force only possible in dreams. Logan can hear her spine shatter on impact. Good thing she's just a projection. Emma's clearly struggling to maintain control over her forgery; Kelly looks like he's about to be sick.

Logan grabs Kelly's arm. "Let's get out of here."

"Mine!" Cain yells after them as they flee. "Everything is mine!"

Cassidy's got an assault rifle in his hands when they rejoin him in the ballroom. "What the fuck did you say to him? Projections are crawling out of the fucking woodwork, man!"

"Move it!" Logan shouts without so much as slowing his pace. The three of them race up the winding ballroom staircase. "We've got to get back to Raven's old bedroom!"

Frost is back in her own body, but thankfully, she's forsaken her usual five-inch heels for running shoes. Her face is as white as the pantsuit she's wearing. "Are you sure?"

"If you've got a better idea--"

He doesn't even see the strike team of projections waiting for them as they turn the corner. But he definitely hears the gunshot, and, well, here's the thing about getting a bullet to the head. It's kinda hard to miss.


"Took you long enough, Alex," Darwin says cheerfully. "Hey, catch."

Alex does, more out of reflex than any conscious decision on his part. It's a...bulletproof vest?

"Come on, man," Darwin says, with a pointed look. "You really wanna do this without the most obvious form of protection? You know better than that. Put the damn vest on. Those assholes won't be far behind you."

After a moment's hesitation, Alex surrenders to the surreality of the situation and obeys. He's never been more certain in his life that he is, in fact, dreaming. No totem necessary.

He realizes that Darwin's set up a low barricade of furniture from a nearby room, blocking off the entrance to the library. Once Alex is set, Darwin gestures impatiently and they both clamber over it, establishing a basic defensive position. There's a regular arsenal of weaponry stashed here, too.

"You good?" Darwin asks.

"Yeah," Alex says, surprised to realize that he is. A strange sense of calm settles over him. "I've got an army of deranged projections chasing me through a labyrinth of a mansion that went down in flames as I watched, and now I'm having a conversation with my dead best friend. I guess this means I've finally gone nuts."

Darwin huffs out a laugh, then turns serious. "Alex, do you think I'm real?"

"No, of course not."

"See, you're not crazy. You're just talking to yourself."

Alex snorts. "And that's not crazy?"

"Shit, Alex, everybody talks to themselves." Darwin grins. "As long as you don't think anybody's talking back, you're good."

He can't help but laugh at that, and Darwin joins in. There's a knot that's been twisted up in his chest for three long years. Hearing Darwin laugh maybe loosens it, just a little bit. Even if it's not real.

"You aren't..." Alex starts, then trails off. He already knows the answer to this question, but what the hell, he might as well ask. "This isn't like Charles showing up in the Shaw dream, is it?"

Darwin shakes his head ruefully. "I may have had my tricks, but the Professor always was a special case. Sorry, Alex. You know I'm dead."

"So you're, what, a shade?" Alex asks, strangely unconcerned by the prospect now. "Except Erik's shade of Charles always did his damnedest to get us all killed. Unless you're trying to lull me into a false sense of complacency, in which case, I gotta tell you, it's really fucking working."

"Nope, I'm not like that," Darwin says with a grin. Somewhere in the house, something explodes, makes the floor tremble. Bits of plaster and dust rattle free from the walls. They both ignore the disturbance. "You carry plenty of guilt, Alex, but you've never blamed yourself for what happened to me. Not like Erik did. Whatever weird shit manifests itself in your brain, at least you haven't twisted me up like that. But you're right in that I am a projection."

Alex frowns, adjusting his grip on his rifle. "Cain's projections are trying to kill me."

"Cain never even met me. I never said I was one of his."

"But I've never heard of anything -- except for Erik, bringing in Charles's evil twin even when he wasn't the dreamer. Or that asshole extractor Cobb... So you are a shade?"

"You're not thinking," Darwin says patiently. "Haven't you noticed anything off about Cain's dream?"

"Well, his projections are unpredictable as all fucking get-out -- wait." Alex frowns. "If Cain's mind isn't stable enough to maintain subject versus dreamer integrity...christ. We're all bringing our own projections in here, aren't we?"

"Projections are the subconscious mind's natural defenses against invaders. Cain's dreams can't be contained. Your own minds are defending themselves in the only way they know how." There's a burst of gunfire from somewhere down the corridors. The projections are fighting amongst themselves. Darwin is watching him intently. "You trust me on this one, Alex?"

He coughs, uncomfortable. "You're a figment of my imagination. Are you asking if I trust myself?"

"Hey, don't knock it. It's not easy, having faith in yourself. It can be the toughest thing in the world." Darwin folds his arms across his chest, one eyebrow cocked in challenge. "You think you need to control everything, all the time. It's what makes you a good point man. But sometimes you gotta let that go."

For some reason, Alex thinks of Hank, that night at that shitty bar -- christ, had it only been last night? It feels like a lifetime ago. We can fuck, or we can not fuck, but the feelings you're so damn worried about, they're already there either way.

"Fuck, Armando," he says quietly. "I really fucking miss you, you know that?"

Darwin just nods, never breaking his gaze. "So what do you think?"

"Letting shit go doesn't exactly come naturally to me," Alex says. "But someone pretty cool used to tell me I had to adapt to survive."

Darwin's teeth flash in a grin. "Damn straight, Summers."

The first of Cain's projections rounds the corner to the center of the maze. Without batting an eye, Darwin brings his weapon up and fires off a short burst. The man falls neatly to the floor.

"Hey, Alex," Darwin says, bumping their shoulders together. "You ready for this?"

Alex gives him a lopsided smile. "Yeah. I think maybe I am."


"Aw, fuck!" Sean yells as Logan goes down. He immediately brings up his AK-47 and blasts the hell out of the projections ahead of him, but it'll be too damm late for their extractor. Motherfucking shitballs, Logan was the only one who seemed to have a clear idea of where Cain's storing his secrets, and without him, there's way less chance they'll complete the extraction. This whole nightmare of a dream level will be for nothing.

But once that cluster of projections is dead, Emma grabs his arm, her manicured nails biting into his skin. "Wait," she orders. "You've never dreamt with James Howlett before, have you? Practice runs for this job aside."

"He's been out of the business for longer than I've been in it," Sean points out sourly. "What do you think?"

She smiles coldly. "There's a reason for his reputation."

That's when Sean notices that Logan's body never vanished, the way a dreamer's does when he's awakened. And immediately following that realization comes the stark terror of seeing a fucking dead man pull himself to his feet with a grumbled curse. Logan rolls his neck, spine popping. The bullet drops from his now unblemished forehead.

"What the fuck?" Sean shrieks. In a very manly way, of course.

"Mind over matter, kid," Logan says matter-of-factly. "It's a goddamn dream. I ain't dying until I'm damn well ready for it."

Sean is rescued from an extended and well-deserved freakout over the fact that his extractor is apparently a fucking dream immortal by the arrival of yet another contingent of angry projections.

"Now here's the fun part," Logan goes on. He flashes a feral grin. "We're dreaming. I don't need a weapon. I am a weapon."

And with an actual fucking roar, he throws himself down the corridor and starts killing the crap out of everyone in sight.

Sean is a red-blooded, very heterosexual male, but he has to admit that he falls a little bit in love at that moment. It is a pure, untainted love, like his love for new and exciting explosives, or the Transformers movies. It's just so very satisfying to see such a perfect example of mayhem unleashed.

"Let's go," Emma says, snapping him out of his reverie. "I have to assume Cain's subconscious mimicked the architecture from the first level. If you built in any shortcuts that would get us closer to Raven's bedroom, now's the time. Logan will join us shortly."

Of course Sean did. Not that he'd singled out Raven's bedroom in the original architecture, but, well, that seems to be the place that Cain's mind has given the utmost importance in this dream, which means it'll likely be somewhere near the heart of the labyrinth. There's a servant's stairway that should do quite nicely. It's actually not much of a shortcut -- two turns down the corridor is the quickest route -- but it is secret, and that means there'll be no projections in their way.

They emerge only two doors down from Raven's old bedroom, which in this dream lies at the very end of one wing of the house. This hallway is inexplicably brighter than the others -- more candles set in the sconces along the walls, maybe, or moonlight through the large picture window. He can hear the chaotic noise of a melee echoing from around the corner. Logan's still hard at work, then. But far more disturbing are the noises coming from the bedroom itself -- crashes and snarls, like a rabid animal has been set loose. Emma hangs back as Sean makes his nervous way forward.

Cain is in there, and he's ripping the room apart.

The bed is in splinters, the coverlet shredded as though with a knife. All the drawers in the large oak dresser have been pulled out, their contents strewn across the floor. A bookcase has been upended. A dollhouse lies in shattered pieces in one corner.

"It all should have been mine," Cain mutters to himself. "She can't stop me. She can't keep it hidden forever."

Well, shit.

Then Cain catches sight of Sean in the doorway. This does not improve the situation. With a wordless yell, Cain hurtles toward him. Sean jumps out of the way just in time; Cain smashes through the doorframe as he goes, sending shards of wood flying in all directions. For some reason, Sean can't focus his mind enough to dream up any kind of weapon -- and, fuck, he can't actually kill Cain, Cain's the damn subject of this dream, if they kill him out of it they'll lose any traces of his subconscious secrets. But if he kills them first--

He hears Logan's roar again, and the man himself leaps past him, somehow jumping up to kick Cain in the head. Cain staggers backward, but he's not so easily stopped. He swings his meaty fist, catching Logan in the shoulder. Logan snarls and twists around, metal flashing. Are those knives in Logan's hands, or claws? Between the flickering candlelight and the constant faint haziness of a second-level dream, Sean can't tell for sure.

"No!" Emma yells, just as another, unfamiliar female voice cries out, "Wait!"

Logan falls back at once, head jerking up like a wolf catching a scent. And Cain throws himself forward at a pretty, strong-looking brunette who seems to have materialized out of fucking nowhere.

"Kayla!" Logan and Emma both scream, with the kind of exaggerated terror that only comes from the worst possible nightmares. Which, okay, Sean's pretty close to screaming right now himself, just on general principle.

But when Cain grabs the woman by the throat, she simply wraps her own hands around his wrist. "Stop," she commands.

And for absolutely no reason that Sean can discern, Cain does. Cain's eyes widen, as though transfixed, or maybe hypnotized. His jaw goes slack.

"Turn around," the woman says. Her voice is low and calm, though she can't possibly be getting enough air through Cain's grip. "And walk away." Her tone becomes harsher, more commanding. "Walk until your feet bleed. Then keep walking."

With a low groan in the back of his throat, Cain releases her. She collapses to the floor in a heap. He stands over her for a long moment, shifting restlessly from side to side, his hands clenching into fists. Then he turns and walks away down the corridor. His heavy footsteps gradually retreat.

The hall is very, very quiet.

The woman stirs, sitting up and hugging her knees to her chest. When she tilts her face up, it's fully illuminated in the moonlight through the picture window. She's a very attractive girl, Sean thinks. Actually, she looks kind of like Emma -- well, if Emma had dark brown hair and eyes, and a darker complexion overall. So, not much like Emma at all. Still, there's a distinct resemblance. This is a weird fucking dream.

"Kayla?" Emma whispers.

The woman -- Kayla, apparently -- gives her a sweet smile, then shifts her gaze to Logan. "Do you know why the moon is so lonely?" she asks.

Logan's got his arms crossed against his chest. The muscles clench and relax a few times. His face gives nothing away. "'Cause she used to have a lover," he finally replies.

Kayla nods. "Once you leave the Spirit World, you can never go back." She sounds wistful.

"Just this one job," Logan says roughly. "To help get the guy who killed you. One job, then never again."

She smiles again, sadly. The candles all flicker madly for a moment. When they brighten again, Kayla is gone. As are all of Cain's projections, judging by the continuing silence. It should be a relief. Sean just feels very tired.

Without another word, Logan strides forward into Raven's bedroom. Sean and Emma follow him in. They all look around at the wreckage, then at each other, one thought clearly passing through all their minds.

If Cain really did hide his secret in here, there's no fucking way they'll be able to find it now.

Chapter Text

The helicopter's rotor blades chop noisily through the air, churning up a wind that whips Raven's hair into her face. She runs toward the mansion, keeping her head down. The grounds are empty, but won't stay that way for long. Stryker will fill them with his own people soon enough.

She slips in through a servant's entrance that leads directly into the kitchens. Emma is waiting for her there. "About time, sugar," she says. "We haven't got all night."

Raven sticks her tongue out at her, then gets to work.

She dreams up a full-length mirror, opening it out into three panels. Three images of herself wink back at her. She gives Emma one last good look, then turns back to the mirror. Emma Frost studies her coolly from one panel. She tucks a wayward strand of white-blond hair back behind her ear. The next panel is Yuriko Oyama, her expression unreadable behind her dark glasses. The last is the trickiest. She's never actually met Jason Stryker before. His heterochromia fascinates her -- and it's the trickiest of his physical traits for her to mimic.

The mirrors shatter soundlessly, and Raven closes three pairs of eyes against the initial disorientation. Two forgeries at once make a neat party trick. Three give her a hell of a headache -- in three different skulls.

She opens her eyes (all of them) to examine her own body, standing before her with its arms folded. "Not bad," Emma says, with Raven's voice and body.

"Likewise," Raven replies, with Emma's. Jason rolls his mismatched eyes. Oyama just watches them all without a word. "Handcuffs?"

"If you insist," Emma sighs, and cuffs materialize around her wrists. Oyama gestures curtly, and the two of them stride back outside, to find Stryker. That's one forgery accounted for -- Raven doesn't have to focus too hard on controlling Oyama's body. It feels a bit like watching three separate TV screens, or controlling three different avatars at once in a video game -- you've got to keep an eye on all of them, of course, but you can only really focus on one at a time. For now, Raven chooses Jason. He'll be the toughest to maintain, and the form she'll need to feel most comfortable in throughout all three dream levels. He doesn't have much to do on this level, but better get used to him while she has the chance.

Jason and Raven's version of Emma set off for the library together, to wait for Cain and Stryker.


Charles lines the corridors of his childhood home with memories both real and fabricated. Erik and Raven will lead Stryker down along the portrait gallery, with its oil paintings of generations of Xaviers, brought over from the old manor house in England when Brian Xavier relocated here with his wife and young son. He liberally strews framed photographs amongst the portraits. One, which he distinctly remembers from his father's study, is given particular prominence now: a grainy Polaroid of four military scientists in their lab. Thirty years ago, William Stryker had more hair and less paunch, but his stiff bearing and unfriendly scowl haven't changed a whit. Kurt Marko remains the old monster from Charles's childhood memories; Malcolm Miles he'd never met at all outside of this photograph. Young Brian Xavier bears a striking resemblance to his son -- Charles never quite realized just how much he's grown to look like his father until now.

He adds full-length portraits of all four original Somnacin scientists to the gallery, and paints their children in beside them. Jason Stryker is a solemn little boy with one blue eye and one green, staring disconcertingly out at the artist. Cain Marko is large and menacing even as a child, tugging at his little sister's blonde braid. Raven's eyes look too old for her chubby little face. Mallorie Miles is slender and elegant, wearing the only genuine smile of the lot. Charles doesn't care to look at his own childhood portrait too closely.

"Stryker's on his way," Erik's voice murmurs through his earpiece, and Charles slips away down the servants' stair before they catch sight of him.

His leg doesn't so much as twinge.


Stryker's projections are outfitted all in black fatigues with helmets and night-vision goggles obscuring their faces, like a filmmaker's idea of a spec-ops team. Erik dressed himself to match. He's had no military training himself, but has no difficulty blending in with Stryker's soldiers. Learning to dream with Sebastian Shaw was its own form of boot camp.

"Are you sure this is wise, sir?" he asks, matching Stryker's pace while staying a respectful half-step behind. "This is Marko's home turf. If Hellfire betrays you--"

Stryker smiles humorlessly. "Dreamers always do."

"His sister's a valuable asset. Do you really want to deliver her straight into Marko's hands? Even with the intel you're getting in exchange--"

"That's enough, soldier," Stryker says. "You have your orders."

"Yes, sir."

As they pass through the portrait gallery, Stryker's attention snaps directly to his own portrait, and he comes to a dead stop. His lips thin as he surveys the other images on the walls, particularly that of his own son. Erik keeps his mouth shut and watches carefully. Have they overplayed their hand already? Stryker has kept out of dreams for years, but he was one of the original dreamers; the technology has come a long way since then, and Hank's one of the brightest chemists in dreamsharing, but there's no guarantee that Stryker will be susceptible to Somnacin's more disorienting effects. If he realizes that he's dreaming on this level, they're fucked.

Stryker's hand goes to his sidearm, but he doesn't loosen it from its holster. If Charles is right, the revolver is Stryker's totem -- and there's the trouble with totems. If the people you're dreaming with know too much about your totem, it loses its effectiveness. Everyone on the inception team knows that Stryker's real revolver would only have one bullet in its chamber topside, and they're incorporating that into the dreams. One bullet, Erik wills at it, with all the force a lucid dreamer can muster. There's only one bullet. Feel the weight of it. It's not fully loaded. You're not dreaming, Colonel. This is real.

The moment feels very long indeed.

Then Stryker drops his hand to his side. He gives his projections a curt nod and continues onward to the library, toward Cain Marko.


It's...disconcerting, to say the least, to hold a gun to your own head. Or, well, to the head of someone who looks and acts exactly like you. Raven has to give Emma credit -- the woman really is a magnificent forger. Raven would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them herself.

Of course, Emma's only forging Raven at the moment. Raven's got three different bodies to manage, and they're all in the same room right now. And it's hard enough to maintain that sort of focus when your abusive asshole brother isn't standing right in front of all three of you.

It helps that Cain's in a different dream. He can't lay a hand on her here. But the way he's staring at Emma makes her sick to her stomach.

He'll never lay a hand on anyone, ever again, Raven reminds herself coldly. She's never actually killed a man, but it can't be much different in reality than in dreams. She just has to take care of this job first.

She deliberately turns her attention away from the little family drama playing out between Cain and Emma's version of herself, focusing on Stryker instead. He's been more distracted by Logan's presence at Cain's side than by his own son's appearance here, which fascinates her. He refuses to acknowledge Jason -- of course he wouldn't, not the son he'd all but disinherited, not in front of a man like Cain. That doesn't matter; Jason's mere presence is enough for this level. She knows Stryker's aware of him regardless. But the attention to Logan is interesting, the way he keeps taking subtle potshots at the other man, like a bruise he can't help prodding. There's more history there than Logan ever bothered explaining.

"The files, Marko," Stryker finally snaps.

The part of Raven that's controlling a forgery of Emma Frost steps forward, offering up a thick accordion folder. She fills it to the brim with all the dreamsharing research Stryker believes Hellfire has been conducting, all the ways in which dreams have been used to manipulate and abuse and destroy, all the twisted malevolence of Sebastian Shaw and Cain Marko and Jason Stryker. All the minds blasted apart from within, all the ways in which a person's subconscious can be warped against them, every vicious trick and petty violation Emma and Angel and Charles have ever told her about from their sojourns with the Hellfire Club. She knows that Erik is here, too, among Stryker's faceless soldiers, and that he's adding his own data to the collection in these files, the things he's never even shown Charles. Everything in this folder is specifically designed to make even a man like Colonel William Stryker sickened with dreamsharing, to hate everything it is or could ever become. They need to turn him against his own research, to push his guilt to the forefront of his mind. He needs to walk away from this never wanting anything to do with dreaming again.

Stryker is a cruel, vindictive man, but he's not actually a sadist. (His son is. That's a matter for another dream level.) He doesn't care about the lives he's ruined in his quest for military supremacy or whatever the hell he's actually trying to get out of this, but he derives no pleasure from the destruction. There's still a chance that he has a conscience, Charles explained. They're banking everything on that.

She can only pray that Charles is right.

When Cain dismisses Stryker, Raven -- as both Oyama and Frost -- follows quickly after him. For now, she allows Jason's body to dissolve into nothingness. He's served his purpose on this level. She'll use him again later.


Even with noise-canceling headphones, the sheer decibel level generated within a helicopter cockpit is giving Hank a hell of a headache. He hopes that doesn't somehow bleed out into the rest of the dream. Not that he'll ever know -- he may be the dreamer on this level, but he's not so much as setting foot inside the mansion. Unless something goes drastically wrong, the only part of these dreams he'll ever see is this damn Black Hawk. This exceptionally well-designed and topside-accurate Black Hawk, to be specific. Angel's the architect, but there are some things only real military experience can recreate.

Angel's back in the fuselage, futzing around unnecessarily with the PASIV. She's got it worse than him at the moment -- everything's hinging on her architecture right now, and she's stuck out here, too. It's too risky for her to go into the mansion and chance crossing paths with Cain in the other dream. Risky for Charles, too, for that matter, but he's the extractor, and he's the one strewing symbolism around the place for Stryker's subconscious to (hopefully) absorb in preparation for inception.

All Hank has to do is fly a helicopter and deliver the kick at the appointed time.

On the plus side, the projections seem to be accepting them for now. They're operating on the assumption that Stryker's subconscious is fully militarized -- neither Erik nor Alex could find any intel either corroborating or contradicting that, but given Stryker's role in the foundation of dreamsharing and his rank within the military, it's a pretty sure bet. The instant anything trips his paranoia, Hank knows his projections will descend upon them like the wrath of god. Hence the helicopter -- he can at least stay out of reach of the ground troops, and Stryker's Army, not Air Force, so hopefully he won't get too creative with enemy aircraft. With luck, they'll manage to keep him complacent throughout all three dream levels, but the way their luck's been going recently, Hank's not holding his breath.

He wonders what Alex is up to in the other dream. Then he squashes that thought.

"On our way back," Erik announces over the headset. "Get ready."

Hank twists around to signal Angel, who nods. She quickly tucks the PASIV out of sight and joins him up front, strapping in. It's only another minute or so before Stryker appears in the open cabin door, but it feels like several lifetimes. This is actually the first time Hank's come face to face with Stryker in the dream -- his stomach lurches a little, but that's all. The colonel only tried to have him killed that one time. Hell, he's pretty sure Alex has done way worse to him over the years.

Close behind Stryker are Raven's two forgeries -- Oyama and Frost. From the look of things, Stryker and Frost have come to some sort of grudging agreement. It's way too noisy in the fuselage to talk, but all three strap themselves into jump seats while Hank goes over his preflight checklist one last time. When he glances back again, Stryker has a large file open on his lap which he peruses with a frown, while the Frost forgery leans over his shoulder, murmuring directly into his ear. The only players missing are Erik and Charles.


"Give it another minute," Charles shouts, leaning in close to be audible over the rotor blades. "He's got to have the chance to examine the file before we put him under."

"The longer we wait, the more likely his projections will catch wise," Erik retorts. He knows Charles has a point, but he feels like a sitting duck out here. The sooner they're in the air and away from this damn mansion, the better. Being inside the place made his skin crawl. How could Charles stand it?

And watching Cain leer at the forgery of Raven in that library -- well, between that and Charles's years of imprisonment, recompense is long overdue. At this point, it'll come down to whether Raven or Erik wakes up first, and he has no intention of letting Raven take the fall for this. She's suffered enough at Cain's hands. He won't see her pay the price for a perfectly justifiable homicide as well.

Charles doesn't try to yell over the noise again. He turns back to stare out at the mansion, deceptively still amongst the bustle of Stryker's soldiers and the helicopter's floodlights. His face, normally so very expressive, is virtually blank. Erik can't read him at all right now, and he hates it. The house is a perfect recreation of Charles's loveless childhood home. If it hadn't already been reduced to rubble in reality, Erik might be tempted to take a torch to it right here and now, and damn the job, anyway.

He steps in close, ducking his head to Charles's. "One level down, two to go," he says. "This is the last you'll see of it."

Charles responds with a noncommittal hum, and turns briskly away. He's not limping at all, Erik notices. He strides up into the helicopter without another word for Erik, like a man on a mission, and Erik wonders why exactly he finds that so unsettling.

Stryker's already strapped into a jump seat, reading through the files with a frown. At Charles's signal, Oyama plunges a syringe into Stryker's neck. He blinks, eyes wide, and turns just enough to glimpse Emma Frost's smirk before slumping to the floor, unconscious.

Somewhere on the grounds, Erik hears a burst of gunfire. The projections didn't like that.

Once Stryker's out, the two different forgeries blur and then merge, leaving just Raven standing over his sleeping body. She and Charles unspool the PASIV lines together, in a practiced routine that harkens back to their misspent youths playing with Kurt Marko's dangerous toys. Erik passes the case up front to Angel, tapping Hank on the shoulder as he goes. He flicks on his comm. "Hank, you sure you can fly this thing?"

"Of course I can," Hank replies irritably. "I built it."

Angel smirks as the helicopter jolts to life, lurching up into the sky without any further warning. Erik staggers backward with a scowl, flailing a bit to keep upright. He feels strong hands bracing his arm and lower back, and of course Charles is there, keeping him from falling. They move gracelessly into seats of their own and hook themselves up to the PASIV.

"Projections definitely assembling on the ground," Hank reports, as gunfire rattles uselessly below. "If they get their paws on a mortar or something, this could get ugly real quick. I can hold 'em off for ten minutes, maybe. That enough time for the second level?"

"That's fine," Charles says. His tone is casual, unconcerned, and his expression is still disconcertingly impassive.

"Got it. Good luck. Timer starts -- now." Hank presses the button to send them into sleep, and they all fall together.


The mountain air is clear and cold, with the scents of pine and snow. Angel's knees are damp from kneeling in the thin dusting of snowfall, but she ignores the discomfort, keeping her binoculars trained on the dam. It's a massive concrete structure, an ugly chord out of tune with the otherwise untainted wilderness surrounding it. The surface of the manmade lake itself is placid. There's no wind today.

"It's way more heavily guarded than the mansion," she remarks. "I mean, you did ask me for a military base."

"And Stryker's on the alert from his betrayal one level up," Erik adds. He's got a pack full of assorted weaponry which he sorts through efficiently, mechanically. "Sneak in through the spillway?"

Charles shakes his head, lowering his own binoculars. "We have to assume Stryker's projections control it. If we take that route, they'll flood the place before we get to the door."

"I built in an alternate route, but no guarantee his people won't be waiting for us at the other side," Angel says. "We'll need a diversion. And we've got, what, two hours on this level before the kick?"

"One hour fifty-three minutes remaining," Erik reports. He's the dreamer on this level, and point man. Of course he's got the clock going. "Make it a quick diversion. Any ideas?"

Raven gets to her feet, brushing off snow. Her blonde hair shimmers brown, then shortens around her ears. "I got this. You guys sneak around the back way, I'll pull focus."

"And who exactly do you think Stryker's gonna allow in unmolested?" Erik asks, brows raised. "If you think he won't drown his son--"

Raven bares her teeth in a smile that's distinctly not her own. "Oh, I'm saving that for later. Did you notice who he paid the most attention to, in the library? Because it wasn't Jason."


The metal grating clanks under the tread of her heavy boots. The curved walls of the spillway are dank, slimy with mold and trickling wetness. It's just as cold in here as it was outside, although at least there's no snow. Raven hopes the base itself has heating.

As she walks down the spillway, she examines the walls and ceiling for the cameras she knows must be there. The only sounds are her own footsteps and the erratic dripping of water. No hum of machinery. She likes to think she'll get some warning, at least, if Stryker decides to flood the place.

At the large metal doors, she glances up. There -- the telltale glint of a recording device. She doesn't have time to play a waiting game. The clock is ticking.

"Stryker!" she yells, in Logan's voice. "Stryker!"

He'd better take the fucking bait, because she's shit out of ideas if this one's a no-go.

After another couple of wasted minutes, panels open in the stones on either side. Shit, she hadn't known had Angel built extra doors into the spillway. Projection soldiers file out, weapons raised. Two pat her down and, once satisfied she's unarmed, slap a pair of handcuffs around her wrists. She's not concerned -- between her own flexibility, Logan's brawn, and the potential for dream manipulation, the cuffs will only hold her as long as she wants them to. The spillway machinery finally cranks into life around them, and the double doors ahead of them groan gradually open. She allows the soldiers to march her forward, into the base, where an entire army's worth of projections awaits them.

Christ, Stryker really is as paranoid as they all told her. But at least she knows she has his undivided attention.

The man himself turns up a moment later, flanked by Oyama and Wilson. She meets his gaze with Logan's version of a smirk. She's stuck in this body now -- it's up to Charles to tip Stryker off to the dream, and shifting forgeries will show their hand too soon.

"Wolverine," Stryker says, with an unpleasant smile of his own. "This is unexpected."

"Is it?" she replies, rocking back on her heels with all of Logan's swagger. "You're the one who warned Marko about keeping dangerous pets."

"Are you biting the hand that feeds you?"

She grins savagely. "Let's just say I've got some information for you."


"Coast is clear," Erik tells them, ducking back around the corner. He leans down to help pull Angel, then Charles up through the grate. Angel's "alternate route" had involved an underground passageway through an eerily sterile sewer system. When he mentioned the lack of actual sewage, she just cocked her head and asked if he was complaining or what?

She takes a moment to get her bearings, then jerks her thumb toward one passageway. "That's the heart of the maze."

"You sure?" Erik asks. The interior of the dam has an industrial uniformity that's a little too disorienting for his tastes. Or maybe he's just feeling the effects of a second-level dream. There's a certain Escher sensibility in the architecture that wasn't present in the mansion; he's a little worried that if he splits apart from Angel and Charles, he'll wind up walking through the same corridor over and over again. It's not a criticism -- Angel's a very atmospheric architect, she knows what she's doing. Hopefully Stryker is feeling equally off-balance.

Angel nods as she shucks her outerwear, dumping it back down through the open grate. Charles does the same. He's wearing a white lab coat under the parka, and takes a second to straighten himself up. "Lead on."

Erik unzips his jacket, but doesn't ditch it. Unlike the others, he might need it again. Once they've gone under to the third dream level, he'll have a very limited amount of time to set up the kick.

One hour and seventeen minutes to go.


They step into a laboratory that's identical to the photograph with the original Somnacin team, which is a very good sign. Erik's the dreamer on this level, Angel the architect, and neither of them have seen the original photo, just the facsimile that Charles dreamed up. They wouldn't be able to achieve this degree of accuracy all by themselves. That means Stryker's subconscious is already playing along.

"Good," Charles murmurs, looking around. The military dream lab feels of a piece with the rest of the dam installation, as he'd hoped. Angel is at her best when given a specific mood to evoke. He remembers the very first dream of hers he'd shared, at that dreadful club in Vegas, when he and Erik had recruited her out of a bloody sex dream -- well. Best save that memory for another time.

A handful of projections in a mixture of lab coats and army uniforms work at various stations, some with dreamers hooked up to clunky old experimental PASIVs. Charles wonders idly if projections dream. (Of electric sheep, he supposes.) Jason Stryker perches on an uncomfortable-looking stool, with a disassembled PASIV in pieces scattered across his workbench. He has beakers of oddly colored chemicals simmering over three different Bunsen burners.

"This Jason's a projection," Angel confirms, at his glance. "Not Raven."

He wonders how she can sound so certain. How familiar has she become with Raven's tells? Once upon a time, Charles too could always recognize his sister, no matter what form she wore. But not since Shaw. She's changed too much in the intervening years. Sometimes he's not even sure if he recognizes her in the waking world.

"That one's not Raven, either," Erik adds, and Charles is startled to realize that one of the dreamers in the lab does indeed wear Raven's face. It's slack and very young-looking in sleep. The projection is tended to by another woman -- Mallorie Miles. Her white lab coat fails to conceal the curve of her pregnant belly.

"He's taking the bait," Charles says quietly. "All the children of the original four -- except me."

"No Cain," Angel says.

Charles shrugs. "He already suspects Cain betrayed him. He wouldn't allow him into his inner sanctum. Besides, unlike the rest of us, Cain never became a dreamer. Hellfire notwithstanding."

He notices that Erik is frowning at the projection of Mal, with a very particular look on his face, like he's putting two and two together. Charles isn't sure what he sees. Erik had never met Mal, as far as he knows.

"Mal Cobb wasn't pregnant when she died," Erik says abruptly. "At least, not that I've ever heard."

"But she did have two children," Charles points out. "The only one of us to procreate, so far. The symbolism is what's important -- yet another generation of dreamers to be corrupted."

And she was pregnant the last time I saw her, he doesn't add. It isn't relevant. Mal trained him at the CIA in the final months of her first pregnancy, then left to raise her family and to devote herself to increasingly dangerous dreamsharing research with her husband, her sporadic e-mails becoming more and more erratic and strange-sounding as time went by. And then Shaw happened, and by the time Charles finally woke up again, two years later, Mal had been long dead. Charles supposes he hasn't ever taken the time to mourn her. He doesn't really feel like he has the right.

A part of him hopes that neither of her children ever lay eyes on a PASIV.

"Stryker should be stopping by soon," he says. "Angel, will you arrange a workstation for us?"

She nods and moves toward one of the empty cots. Charles turns back to Erik. "How much time left?"

"Fifty-nine minutes," Erik says. "Plenty of time for level three."

"Too long for you to hold off the projections once Stryker realizes he's dreaming, though." Charles grimaces. He has perfect faith in Erik's abilities, but once the projections catch wise, that's a hell of a long time for one man, no matter how skilled, to hold an army at bay. And if Erik is killed -- no. He refuses to consider that possibility. "Hopefully Raven keeps him busy for a bit longer. I imagine you could use the time to prep the kick, though."

"I could," Erik agrees, but he's not heading out to do just that. Instead, he steps in closer, gaze searching. "Charles..."

All at once, the effort to remain detached and professional is too much. "I'm not going to tell you to be careful," Charles snaps, then takes a deep breath, willing himself into calm before any of the projections take undue notice of them. He's suddenly, irrationally convinced that if Erik gets himself killed now, he'll die for real. (This is just as real as it ever is, whispers that niggling voice in the dark, shuttered corners of his mind, every dreamer's constant companion. What if it's telling the truth?)

Not that Limbo would be much of an improvement. Damn it all to hell, why did he ever think a three-level dream was a good idea?

"Fine," Erik says. "So I'm telling you instead. Charles, be careful down there." He grips Charles's shoulder, not quite painfully. "I thought I'd landed you in Limbo once. You are not putting me through that again, understand? Stay alive. Or god help me, I'm going in after you."

Charles kisses him, swift and hard. "Likewise. So let's not, shall we?" He gives Erik a gentle shove. "Now go do your job, so I can do mine. I'll find you after the kick."

"You always do," Erik murmurs, and with one last kiss, he goes. Charles closes his eyes and breathes deeply, trying to silence the creeping doubt that any of them will ever wake up again.

Then he straightens, opens his eyes, and joins Angel at the PASIV.


The projections broke out the anti-aircraft artillery within the first three minutes. Trouble is, there's only so much evasive action Hank can take without disrupting the dreamers' equilibrium. Too steep of a drop will make for an early kick, and then they're all fucked. But really, any sharp turns or banks will have ramifications on the second dream level. Hank has a particularly visceral sense memory of his brief role in the Shaw dream, the walls rippling and glass shattering as he did his best to ignore the law of gravity on his way to join Alex. Stryker's mind is less devious than Shaw's, but that doesn't mean they can afford for Hank to make it any harder on them.

When the attack planes appear along the horizon, in V-formation, heading right towards him, he wonders why on earth they ever thought riding this level out in a helicopter would make a good plan.

If he crashes into the mansion, maybe he can fuck up the Cain job, too, he thinks, not quite hysterically. Two for the price of one. And then maybe no one will ever allow him to touch a PASIV again, and really, that doesn't sound too bad at the moment.


Logan straddles the hard wooden chair like he owns the damn place. Raven really likes this forgery, actually. It's...freeing, to be someone who so genuinely has no fucks left to give. "I'm telling you, what Cain's cooking up is gonna make Weapon X completely obsolete," she tells Stryker. The tale she's been spinning him has been a fucking masterwork of paranoid fantasy, tying directly into the files she planted for him on the first level. Stryker's dream-addled mind has been lapping it right up. "I'm no lab weenie, though -- don't you got anybody in this place who can translate the science of it?"

"My top scientists are hard at work in our lab right now," Stryker says. "But I'm not allowing Marko's dog anywhere near it -- unless you're volunteering to be our newest test subject?"

She snorts. "Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it. I ain't going anywhere near one of your damn labs again, Stryker."

Stryker gives her an oily smile, like he looks forward to proving her wrong. "Of course." He gestures to a couple of soldiers. "Keep an eye on Mr. Howlett while I check in on the lab. Make sure he's...comfortable."

Raven tosses him a one-fingered salute and settles in to wait, flexing her bound hands behind her back and gently willing the cuffs to loosen around her wrists. She'll know when Charles is ready for her.


Turning down a corridor, Erik very nearly runs smack into Stryker, who must be en route to the lab. "Sorry, sir," he snaps out at once, saluting.

"Watch where you're going next time, soldier," Stryker grumbles, but otherwise pays him no mind. He's clearly distracted. Good. Whatever Raven's been telling him, it's weighing heavily on Stryker's mind.

Once Stryker's past, Erik continues on toward the spillway. It cuts right through the center of the dam -- the perfect location to set a few particularly strong explosives. Being dunked in water always has been Erik's favorite variety of kick.


"Charles," Angel says quietly. "Showtime."

He turns to see Stryker standing in the doorway of the laboratory, his face unnaturally pale. He's staring at the projection of his son, who works on, unruffled.

Showtime, indeed.

Charles straightens his lab coat and strides toward him, plastering a friendly smile on his face. "Colonel, how wonderful. You really do have the most marvelous timing. We're right on the verge of a real breakthrough--"

"Would someone tell me what the hell my son is doing in this lab?"

Several of the projections snap to attention, their eyes hard. Mal grasps something that looks like a scalpel tightly in one elegant hand.

"Yes, of course," Charles says soothingly, stepping directly between Stryker and the rest of the lab. "If we could just step out for a moment so as to avoid disturbing the scientists..."

Stryker allows himself to be cajoled back into the corridor, and Charles pulls the door shut gently behind them. He drops the smile. This is the point at which he'd normally introduce himself as Mr. Charles and remind the mark of his dream training, but nothing about Stryker's experiences make him a normal mark.

"Colonel Stryker," Charles says, in an entirely different tone. "You know who I am, I presume."

Stryker really looks at him for the first time. His eyes narrow. "Brian -- but it can't be...?"

"Not quite." Charles extends a hand. "My name is Charles Xavier. It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

Stryker shakes his hand automatically, frowning. "Xavier's son. You worked for the CIA. But I heard you were killed three years ago."

"You heard right," Charles agrees calmly. "Colonel, I'd like you to check the ammunition in your personal handgun." When Stryker starts at that, he clarifies, "The Colt Python revolver you keep in the holster on your belt. Your totem, Colonel."

A seismic rumble passes through the dream, subtle but unmistakable. Charles can feel the vibrations in his bones.

With unsteady hands, Stryker unclips his holster and removes the revolver. He pops out the chamber to examine it. Charles has every confidence that it's fully loaded -- the mark of a dream, to Stryker's trained subconscious.

"Please remain calm, Colonel," Charles says quietly. "Yes, you're dreaming -- but I'm here to help."

Stryker stares down at his handgun, then clicks the chamber closed and aims the revolver point blank at Charles's forehead. His eyes are wild behind his spectacles. Charles was right -- Stryker loathes dreaming. He wants to exploit dreamsharing, not participate in it himself. "If I'm dreaming, then you're just a projection," he spits out. "A thing."

"Yes, I am," Charles says, with no trace of emotion. "And projections are the mind's first line of defense against invaders. Your subconscious is under attack, Colonel, and not by me. I know it's been many years, but think back to your training. You established a subconscious security team in case of this very event."

Stryker sneers at him. "Why would I ever designate Brian Xavier's kid as my chief of security?"

"I wear the form your mind has given me," Charles says flatly. "I'm a projection, not a psychoanalyst. Will you allow me to assist you or not?"

Stryker's wavering, he can tell. His aim is slipping, veering off and down slightly. If he pulls the trigger now, there's a good chance Charles won't be killed instantly. Well. A moderate chance, anyway. Better than nothing.

Except then Stryker brings the muzzle up to his own temple. "I don't need any fucking help. I'm waking myself up."

Damn, this has always been the biggest risk of the Mr. Charles gambit. "Sir, I really wouldn't do that. If you wake up, whoever they have topside will simply plunge you back under again, and you may not be so lucky next time. And whoever's attempting this extraction would know your history with dreamsharing. You're a difficult mark indeed, Colonel. They wouldn't allow you any simple way out. I believe you may be too heavily sedated to wake yourself up in this way."

Stryker glares daggers at him, but he's a logical man, and there's enough common sense in Charles's argument to sway him. "You mean Limbo."

"You've lost more than a few troops to Limbo, yourself," Charles says quietly. "You know there's no cure. We must think of another way out from this dream for you. Now, I realize the Somnacin may make it difficult to focus, but I need you to think, Colonel. What's the last thing you remember? How did you get here?"

"I..." Stryker lowers the gun. Charles keeps his relief buried deep within himself, not permitting it to show. "This installation...we helicoptered in. Didn't we?" His frown deepens. "No. I don't remember how we arrived."

"You keep saying 'we,'" Charles presses. "You and who else?"

"My security detail, of course," Stryker says at once. "Yuriko and Wilson. And..." His face darkens. "Emma Frost."

Charles keeps his voice low, an insistent pressure. "What do you remember?"

"She gave me Marko's files," Stryker says. "She was in the chopper with me. There was a pain, in the base of my neck, and she was...smiling."

The concrete walls groan faintly, as though under a great deal of pressure.

"Emma Frost was Hellfire's top forger," Charles murmurs. "If she set you up, she could be anyone down here, anyone at all. We need to work this out quickly if we're going to keep you safe. Who else might be working with her? I can't easily identify Ms. Frost, but if you've glimpsed any of her known associates -- even if it was just for a moment, even if you thought you were imagining it--"

"My son," Stryker breathes.


Inside the laboratory, all of the scientists turn as one to stare at the projection of Jason Stryker. Those in uniform reach for their sidearms. Angel tucks a PASIV case under her arm and tosses her hair back, drawing a mantle of authority around her like a cloak. She is an architect, a shaper of dreams. There's far more to it than simply designing a building.

She strides directly over to Jason, cutting a path through the hostile projections. They gaze at her suspiciously, but draw back, satisfied that she's going after the primary target of their ire. Stryker knows for certain that he's dreaming. His subconscious is desperately attempting to seek out the dreamer. Hopefully Erik is keeping well away from the more populated portions of the military base, but for the moment, Stryker is fixated on his own projection of his son.

"Mr. Stryker," she says coolly, laying a hand on Jason's shoulder. "I'll need you to come with me, please."

He looks up at her and smiles -- an eerie, ghoulish expression on his skeletal face. His eyes glow fever-bright. He says nothing, but allows her to prod him along without resistance.

As they reach the door, she staggers, the floor tilting unexpectedly beneath her feet. Glass shatters with ringing tones from somewhere in the lab. The projections clump together with murder in their eyes. Jason doesn't so much as stumble, but his smile widens.

Damn. Hank must be hitting some turbulence one level up.

"Let's go," she orders, shoving Jason roughly forward. She's always hated the little prick.

Out in the passageway, Charles is grasping Colonel Stryker's arm and speaking to him in low, urgent tones. Stryker has a revolver in his hand, she notices with a spike of fear. She doesn't know guns well enough to tell if the safety is on or off -- or if that kind of gun even has a safety. If he gets twitchy on the trigger right now, he could accidentally blow a hole in Charles's leg. Which, hey, it's not like Charles hasn't been through that already or anything.

She pushes Jason out in front of her. "Here you are, sir."

"She's with me," Charles says quickly. "We'll help you see this through. Colonel, I need to know what the Hellfire Club is trying to extract from you. Frost, your son -- this all ties in to your dealings with Hellfire."

Stryker's lips curls in a sneer as he looks Jason over. "Never trust a dreamer. Cuff him."

Angel obeys, dreaming up a pair of handcuffs to clap around the projection's wrists. Stryker really has convinced himself that this is his son. Good for them. For Stryker, not so much.

"Colonel--"

"James Howlett was back there feeding me intel on Hellfire," Stryker says abruptly. "I think he's double-crossing Marko. Bring him in."

"Sir, he could be attempting to misdirect you," Charles suggests, and as expected, Stryker rolls right over him.

"The Wolverine has many talents, but he's always been a crap liar. Get him here, now."

Charles hesitates theatrically. "Any of the guards you left with him could be Frost in disguise. It's a risk."

"It's my own damn subconscious. I'll risk whatever I damn well like." Stryker turns to Angel, gesturing with his revolver. "You. Give me that PASIV. I want to know what Marko's trying to steal from me. We're going into my bastard son's head."

From the look on his face, even Charles never expected the job to go this smoothly.


For all his...eccentricities, Erik is usually sane enough to know to run away from the sound of gunfire, not towards it. Particularly when in a dream where death buys you a one-way ticket to the personal hell of your subconscious. But the sound of gunfire currently stands directly between him and the spillway, and since that's where he needs to detonate the explosives to trigger the kick, well, he's kind of headed in that direction anyway. It's not like it's out of his way.

A large mechanical door is slowly groaning its way shut ahead of him, like a garage door, except far more solid-looking. That will neatly close off the only route to the spillway. It'll also close off the source of the gunfire, which is probably a good thing, but damn it, he doesn't have time to find another way around this obstacle before the kick. Just as he's contemplating making a dash for it, trying to slip under the metal door before it closes completely, someone on the other side of the passageway apparently has had the same idea and comes diving through.

It's Raven, in her own body. She's flipping off whoever's on the other side as she slides through.

"Raven!"

She flips up to her feet in a rather impressive feat of gymnastics that he's absolutely certain she only managed through the generous manipulation of dream physics. "Oh, thank god, it's just you," she says. "If you were another projection, I'd be seriously fucked. Where are Charles and Angel?"

"With Stryker, hopefully, back by the lab," Erik tells her. "Damn it, I really needed to get to the spillway."

"Time for plan B, then, I guess." She looks frazzled. "Seriously, it was all I could do to get out of there alive. There's a fucking army of projections back there, and they all snapped right to attention when Stryker figured out he was dreaming. I hope to god the Mr. Charles thing is working out, or we're totally screwed."

The ground sways alarmingly beneath their feet. Raven grabs at Erik to keep from falling. He catches her, just barely.

"Fuck," she says. "Either Stryker's not working with the dream, or--"

"I think that was Hank, actually," Erik says. "As long as the chopper doesn't go down in flames, we'll be fine. Unless we miss the kick because I can't blow the fucking dam."

Raven squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, then nods. "Screw the spillway. The mechanical room -- control room, whatever the hell you want to call it. That's where all the hydraulic machinery is. Blow that up instead. You'll get your kick -- and you better time it right, or we'll all drown on this level before Hank kicks us upstairs. Now I've got to get to Charles."

If Erik remembers the blueprints correctly -- and of course he does -- the area she's talking about is right near the labs. "I'll get you there. Let's go."


"In here," Angel calls, sticking her head out of a doorway. "It's the mechanical room -- all the dam's controls operate out of here. We can seal the room to keep the -- I mean, to keep the rest of the extraction team out."

"Sir?" Charles prompts, and Stryker nods. He now has eyes only for his son.

Charles pulls the surprisingly docile Jason along with them into the mechanical room. The noise of the machinery is aggravating, but no worse than the helicopter one level up. If that hasn't carried over into this dream, then this shouldn't affect the next level down. Stryker shoves his son down into a chair while Angel starts setting up the PASIV.

"I'm going to step out a moment to make a quick call," Charles shouts over the steady thrum of the hydraulics. "My people should have Mr. Howlett here shortly."

Stryker makes a dismissive gesture, and Charles goes.

Out in the relative peace of the corridor, he flips out a mobile and prays that Raven is in a secure enough position to answer. But when he hits the call button, he hears the tinny ringtone echo further down the hall. A moment later, Raven and Erik emerge, rounding the corner at a run.

He pockets the mobile again with a shrug. "Good timing. We're setting up for the next level in the mechanical room."

They exchange a glance. "Suits me," Erik says. "I can't get out onto the spillway -- too many projections. I'm going to have to control the kick from in there."

Charles has to admit, he's rather comforted to know that Erik will physically be standing guard over their slumbering bodies, rather than running about the dam on his own. Safer for everyone that way. "Are you sure you can manage it from in here?" he asks anyway, trying not to sound too hopeful.

From Erik's faint smirk, he didn't succeed. "Might have better control over it this way, actually," Erik says. "I should've thought of it myself."

"Fair enough." Charles claps his arm briefly in passing, then turns his attention to Raven. "Stryker thinks Logan is double-crossing Hellfire. We're going to perform an extraction on his convenient projection of Jason." He hesitates, then adds, "Raven -- I believe Jason has become the symbol, in Stryker's mind. He's using his son as a direct anthropomorphization of the very concept of dreamsharing. You've got to be extra careful down there. Everything hinges on your forgery."

"Yeah," Raven says. "I know."

"All right, then." Charles looks her over, considering. "He's expecting his Wolverine to join us now. Slip into Logan's skin one last time, if you please."

Raven grins. "Sure thing." When Charles blinks, it's Logan standing before him. Erik rolls his eyes behind Logan's back, and Charles swallows back a smile.

"Excellent," he says instead. "Shall we proceed?"


It's no great secret that Erik prefers to remain at Charles's side in dreams. Deliberately sending Charles down to a level deeper than his own never sits right with him. Back during their time together at the CIA, Charles had been working on a project of his own, one that Erik didn't have the clearance for, and he'd be forced to sit and wait as Charles dreamt on alone, for god knows how long or how many layers deep. He'd hated it then, and he hates it now. But Angel doesn't have the training to hold down a hostile dream unassisted, and Hank's already maintaining the first level, and Raven's presence is even more crucial to the inception than Charles's own. So here Erik must remain, and god help any projection who dares try to interfere.

He presses the button on the PASIV, and watches their faces all go soft and slack with sleep. And then he tears himself away from Charles's slumbering form, because he has less than thirty minutes left to figure out how to flood this chamber with lakewater.


Angel deliberately planned to leave the third dream level kind of up to chance. She needs Stryker's subconscious to help shape it; constructing too-rigid architecture will only hurt them here. Stryker knows he's dreaming at this point, and he thinks he's diving into Jason's mind without any architect to guide him. He also knows he's more than one level deep, and most dreamers avoid that if at all possible. Without a good chemist and a disciplined subconscious mind, deeper levels of dreams are fundamentally unstable. And the deeper you go, the easier it is to accidentally slip into Limbo, and never awaken.

Her blueprints for this level were deceptively simple in design, inspired by Escher's waterfall. It's not so much a maze as an endless looping pathway, tumbling down and down and down. Some dreamers like to use paradoxes as traps for projections; she intends to shut projections out entirely. There's no way for them to break in.

She looks around, curious about where Stryker and Charles have placed them. After long debate, it was decided that Charles would be the official dreamer on this final level -- with his background in psychology and longer years of experience, he'll have a more thorough understanding of Stryker's subconscious workings, and prove a more amenable host. Angel's primarily here as a tourist, to be honest, and to provide back-up if anything should go wrong. Three levels deep, they're likely to need all the help they can get.

The dream has taken on the form of a sun-dappled house: a family home, pleasantly suburban, with all the trappings of the comfortably middle-class. She wonders if this is where Jason Stryker spent his childhood. There's no sign of Jason himself -- or, rather, Raven's forgery of him. But Angel knows she's in here somewhere, waiting for them.

The individual rooms are indistinct, like a photograph out of focus. They blur one into another in a gentle downward slope. Here the general impression of a kitchen, spacious and warm; there the image of a cozy bedroom. She finds Charles and Stryker together in a space reminiscent of a family room. The outlines of furniture are strewn haphazardly across the room, not fully sketched out. If she tries to sit on the sofa, she thinks she might pass right through it.

"He's trying to trick me," Stryker says, his harsh tone at odds with the languid pleasantness of their surroundings. "He's toying with my head."

"You're in his head, Colonel," Charles reminds him. "He's trying to hide from you."

A vein in Stryker's forehead throbs, his whole body rigid with tension. "He's a bad egg, Xavier. Always has been. All of them were. You, Mal Miles, the Marko brats. 'For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers.' And he has punished us, oh yes."

He moves abruptly, striding through an open doorway into yet another suggestion of a room. Charles and Angel follow him down. This one is less welcoming than the others; she has the impression of red, spattered across the space like a Jackson Pollack painting.

Blood red, she thinks, and shudders.

"I thought he'd follow in my footsteps," Stryker says, as though from a great distance. "He had a sharp mind, a scientist's curiosity. A talented chemist, just like his father. Brighter. More creative. His experiments..."

Charles suddenly stills, grabbing Angel's arm so tightly it hurts. He knows something about Stryker that Angel doesn't. He's warning her back.

"I later learned he was tormenting my wife every night in her dreams," Stryker goes on. "His own mother. Playing God in her subconscious mind. She started seeing things, believing things..." He pulls his ever-present revolver out of its holster and flips the chamber open, spinning it idly. "Your father, Xavier, he lost track of what was real and what wasn't. Shot himself in the head to wake up."

"I know," Charles whispers.

Stryker taps out one bullet and tosses it lightly at him. Charles flinches away. Angel catches it instead, instinctively. When she examines it more closely, she realizes there's something etched into its base. The number 1.

"My wife, though, she didn't know about my work. She didn't have the training to understand what was happening to her." His face is an ugly mask. "She took a power drill to her temple to try to bore the dreams out."

Angel swallows hard. The redness seems to drip down the walls, soaking into the carpet.

"Marko was next," Stryker goes on. He has another bullet in his hand now. He throws it into the room they just left, and flames seem to lick the doorway in its path. Number two, Angel thinks numbly. "His whole lab burned down around him."

He moves forward with a lurching gait, leaving the red room behind. Angel and Charles can't do anything but follow.

"Then Miles," Stryker calls over his shoulder. "A few years after that pretty daughter of his. God only knows what she was thinking."

They pass into an extended hallway, much like those in the Xavier mansion in Westchester. A large framed portrait hangs from the wall, of an older man and a vibrantly beautiful dark-haired young woman. Miles and his daughter, Angel thinks. The daughter is very pregnant, her face glowing with it. Stryker jams a third bullet into the portrait as he passes, cutting through the paint and canvas, leaving an ugly scar behind.

Charles tugs Angel's arm, keeping her back. "The inception is taking," he tells her urgently. His face is very pale. "He's planting every thought on his own on this level, without my prompting. He's deliberately destroying all the symbols we've sown."

"Burning every bridge," Angel murmurs. "His subconscious mind is completely rejecting the notion of dreamsharing. When he wakes up, he'll never want anything to do with it again. So what's left for us to do?"

"We have to stop him," Charles says. "Before he gets to--"

The door at the end of the hall swings open, and Jason is there. He's only a child, maybe ten years old at the most, his mousy brown hair in need of a haircut. His face is baby-round, the mismatched eyes wide and trusting. "Dad?" he says, his voice pitifully small. "I've lost all my friends. Can you help me find them?"

Raven's forgery is a masterwork of manipulation. She's presenting Stryker's son as a perfect innocent, still uncorrupted by Stryker's work in any form. This Jason is someone for Stryker to protect from the evils of dreamsharing. She's giving him the chance to be the hero of his own story. He'll turn his back on the world of dreams, shut down the Weapon X project for good, everything Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. want from him, and he'll feel good about himself for doing so.

The inception's going to take.

So why, Angel wonders, her stomach turning to lead, does Charles look so terrified?

"Yes, son," Stryker says, with uncharacteristic gentleness. He crouches down to put himself at Jason's eye level. "I'll take you to them now."

And then Stryker presses the muzzle of his revolver to his son's forehead and fires his fourth and final bullet.

To Raven's credit, she maintains the forgery flawlessly as she dies.


The ack-acks are only getting worse. The helicopter has sustained several glancing hits without too much damage, but one direct hit and they're going down for good, and dying in a fiery crash won't wake anyone up in this dream. Hank checks his timer -- it's a little too early, but no help for it. Hopefully Charles and Raven have had enough time to get the job done.

He switches on the helicopter's sound system at full volume, blasting music that can probably be heard for miles around. "Ride of the Valkyries", of course, because he's in a military chopper and c'mon, when else will he have the chance to pull an Apocalypse Now moment like this?

"Brace yourselves, boys and girls," he mutters. "Thirty seconds to kick."


The constant thrum of all the machinery distracts Erik at first, but then he realizes -- that's not the hydraulics, that's music. By some loose definition of the term. Fuck, Hank is early, what the hell's going on up there?

Well, it's not like he can argue about it. Between his explosive charges and some judicious hacking of the controls systems, he's as ready for the kick as he'll ever be. He yanks a set of headphones out of his pack and places them over Charles's ears, getting ready to cue the music. Thirty seconds up there means six minutes down here -- make that five. There've been a few periodic bursts of gunfire outside the control room, but whatever the projections are cooking up out there, they haven't figured out a way to break through the thoroughly reinforced metal doors yet. Apart from the machinery, it's been practically peaceful.

Erik's not complaining. Given his track record, it's nice to have a dream come off smoothly for once.


She is on a beach.

She washes in with the high tide, seawater stinging her throat and nasal passages, tongue thick with thirst. She coughs and spits, tasting salt and sand. The air is sharp and fresh. Her whole body feels heavy, sodden. She feels as though she might sink into the wet sand and be consumed by it.

She is on a beach, her hair plastered across her face, and she hears birds calling at each other. Not gulls. The sound is lower, rasping. A large black bird comes to rest on a shard of driftwood. It cocks its head at her, eyes bright with intelligence. Another joins it, then another, and another.

A murder of crows, she thinks, then corrects herself: an unkindness of ravens.

She sits up on the beach as the wind stirs around her. More birds gather, welcoming. Not unkind at all. What a silly phrase. Where had she even heard of it?

Ravens. There's something important about a raven, something personal. Some part of herself that she's lost. But she can't imagine what.

The sun beats down upon her. She raises her arms, and the ravens take flight around her, and she is with them, and the waves, and the sand, and the salt air. They cry out in many voices, in one voice. The sands shift. She takes flight.

She is on a beach, and this is the only reality she has ever known.

Chapter Text

For a long and wasted minute, Angel freezes in place. Her heartbeat slows to a crawl. The body of Jason Stryker -- Raven's body -- doesn't vanish. No one is waking up from this dream.

She lets out a breath. Time resumes its forward march. Blood flows through her veins, her eyes blink, there's a faint roaring in her ears, and Raven is in Limbo.

Distantly, she's aware that Stryker has dropped his revolver to the floor with a clatter, that he's walking away through the muted outlines of the dream. The impression of the house around them seems to sigh with it. The inception has taken. That's important, she reminds herself dimly. That's why they're here. To change Stryker, to screw Cain and Hellfire, to get paid tomorrow. It all feels very superficial at the moment.

Angel has been working in dreams since she was seventeen years old. She knows the rules. When you die in a dream, you wake up. You're supposed to wake up. You have to wake up. "This isn't real," she whispers, stroking Jason's mousy brown hair away from the wreck of his face. When had she knelt down beside him? She doesn't remember moving.

"This is as real as it ever is."

She flinches away from the child's empty body. Charles's voice sounds as though it belongs to someone else entirely. She looks up into blue eyes as cold and fathomless as a mountain lake. His skin is pale, drained of all color, but the expression on his face...

It's as though something inside of him has shattered, and there's nothing of Charles left. As though he's the corpse. And for an instant, she's terrified that he'll dream up a handgun and follow his sister right down into Limbo -- and then Erik will follow Charles, of course, and then she and Hank will be the only ones left in this nightmare with Stryker, and neither of them with the authority to decide what to do next--

The buzzing in her ears isn't just the blood rushing to her head. It's music. Erik is cuing them for the kick.

"We're nearly out of time," Charles remarks, in that stranger's cool, dispassionate tone. "I have to finish the job."

He turns and walks away, pushing through the blurred outlines of rooms in this fading dream-house to follow Stryker's trail, leaving Angel alone by his sister's forged body. She doesn't know if it's a relief or a disappointment. All she feels is numb.

If Charles had been the one to die in this dream, Raven would have gone after him. Raven had known this was a possibility. She'd planned for it, even. But Charles didn't meet with Ariadne. He might not even know that anyone has managed to return from Limbo before. Despite all his years of research, his experiments with the CIA, his torments under Shaw's imprisonment, Limbo is the one line Charles has never crossed. What could Angel possibly expect him to do?

Don't waste any time, Ariadne murmurs in her ear, like a half-remembered dream. If you're going to go, don't think about it, just do it.

Angel always keeps a hypodermic needle somewhere on her person, in dreams. It's practically her totem. She doesn't like guns; poison is a far more elegant way to wake herself up. But there's no waking up out of this dream. This is as real as it gets.

The music swells, vibrating in her bones. Here comes the kick.

She jabs the needle into her own vein and blinks awake on a sandy shore.


The hotel phone rings, startling Moira out of her meditative state. She grabs it before it can ring again. Not that a ringing phone will be loud enough to disturb her dreamers' drug-induced slumber -- hell, the hotel could catch fire and they'd go right on sleeping, as she knows from personal experience. (She hasn't had a natural dream in years, but that doesn't stop her from slipping into the occasional waking nightmare -- even though she now knows for damn sure that Shaw is dead and he's never coming after any of her people ever again. Sometimes she still blinks awake to the sense-memory of klaxons blaring and blood pooling on the concrete floor.) But still. She scans the room quickly just in case, but no, the inception team and Stryker dream on placidly.

"We may have a problem," Coulson says over the line. "Hellfire's driver seems to have shaken Oyama loose."

Shit. "I thought we had backup on the street!"

"Agents Ward and May have intercepted Azazel for the time being, but Oyama's gone to ground. Mr. Wilson should be watching for her in the lobby, but even odds she gives him the slip as well. Be ready to close down shop on my order."

"Yes, sir," Moira says, because she has no choice in the matter. Coulson outranks her, and he's been with S.H.I.E.L.D. a hell of a lot longer than she has. So she makes sure to hang up the phone before she lets loose a string of expletives.

He can probably hear her through the wall anyway, but it's the principle of the thing.

It's too soon. Coulson's babysitting the Cain job, and there aren't any extra sedatives in their Somnacin. They'll wake themselves up once the job is done. And the plan for a successful inception (or one that failed thoroughly enough to warrant immediate extraction from the dream) was for a member of the Stryker team to make contact with Alex on the shared first-level dream so that he could pass the info along to Coulson and Moira upon waking. Once Alex gives them the go-ahead, Moira will cut the sedatives and safely awaken the inception team without risk of Limbo.

But no one from the Cain team has awakened yet, which means neither job is complete.

She can only pray that Oyama takes her sweet time getting back to the hotel, or else they're all screwed.

"Hurry up," she mutters to Charles's sleeping form. "C'mon, Charles, just get the job done."


Erik's almost sorry he has to be caught within the dam when the detonations go off. From the outside, it's probably a spectacular sight: the concrete walls exploding outward with the force of thousands upon thousands of tons of water breaking free, the human-made lake pushing through its unnatural boundary, the triumph of nature over industry.

From within the control room, it's simply -- water. Lots and lots of water, shattering the walls, rushing toward him. He sends up a brief prayer to a god he stopped believing in years ago that he timed the kick correctly with Hank's, and that Charles and Raven and Angel are ready for it. He clutches Charles's hand tightly. And then the water hits like a freight train--

--and he's gasping awake in a bucking helicopter, hand grasping at nothing.

"Stryker!" Hank is yelling from the cockpit. "Someone check on Stryker!"

The Blackhawk jerks and rolls like a ship in a storm; it's a wonder Hank hasn't crashed and killed them all yet. He fights with his strap, yanking himself free to stumble gracelessly over to Stryker's jump seat. Stryker himself is blinking awake, jaw slack, face visibly pale even in the shitty lighting. Whether the inception took or not, they don't want him conscious or aware for this final phase of the job. Erik hastily dreams up a rag soaked in chloroform and shoves it into Stryker's face. He never fully awakens before slipping back into unconsciousness -- dreamless, this time.

Once Stryker has been dealt with, Erik can take a moment to reorient himself to this dream, his ears still roaring with echoes of the dam collapsing around him. If Hank doesn't land this damn helicopter soon, he's going to lose his fucking lunch. Not that he ate lunch. Still.

Hank is still shouting over the incredible noise of the rotor blades. "Fuck! She's not waking up, she's not waking up, she's not waking up!"

And that's when Erik realizes that despite the chaos of this dream, there's not nearly as much activity around him as there should be. Strapped into the jump seat beside Stryker, Raven's eyes remain closed, the movement of the helicopter jostling her body like a rag doll. And when Erik staggers toward the nose of the Blackhawk, to Hank, he can see Angel's head lolling awkwardly in the co-pilot's chair, equally unwaking. In an instant of blinding panic, Erik is convinced this is somehow his fault -- that he mistimed the kick, stranding the rest of his team on the third level. But no, he couldn't have, Stryker was clearly waking up on this level, and he'd been just as deep as Raven and Angel and--

And Charles.

Charles, who'd been sitting right next to Erik when they hooked themselves up to the PASIV, holding his hand as they went under, just as always.

Charles, who isn't in the helicopter with them at all.

Erik allows himself one long moment to feel the bottom fall out of his stomach, for his heart to turn to ice in his chest, for his hand to clench convulsively on empty air. Then he surges forward and grabs Hank's shoulder. "You need to land this thing. Now."

"I'm trying--"

"Now!" Erik snarls, and the helicopter drops a good ten or twenty feet in one lurch before Hank wrests back enough control for a proper landing.

In a normal dream, when you die, your body vanishes from the dream as you wake up. But not on this job. No one's waking up when they die, and their bodies remain behind, accusingly, pointed reminders of their teammates' failure.

If Charles had died on a lower level -- if he were now in Limbo -- his body would still be strapped into the jump seat beside Erik's, loose-limbed and perpetually unwaking. But that didn't happen to Charles.

Raven and Angel are in Limbo. Charles is...missing.


Angel struggles up the beach in sodden clothes, the sand sinking beneath her with every step. Her eyes sting with saltwater. Is she crying, or is it just the ocean? She can't tell. And why would she be crying?

A boardwalk constructed of faded grayish wood runs along the top of the beach. The slope is steep -- strong tides, she thinks. Powerful undertow. Danger. Scrubby bushes and tall grasses grow further up the slope, and she grabs onto them to help pull herself upward. The knobby branches scrape her palms. She pushes a dripping lock of hair out of her face and leaves a trail of sand speckled with blood across her forehead. The salt stings her hand. She keeps moving. It's somehow very important that she keep moving, though she doesn't know where she's going to, or what she's running from.

She finally manages to drag herself up onto the boardwalk and rests there a moment, pressing her cheek against the warm, sandy wood. Wind tickles the back of her neck. Her clothes are drying quickly -- too quickly, she thinks, frowning, but isn't sure why that's supposed to bother her. Something about the laws of physics. She can't remember.

Eventually she stands. There's nothing beyond the boardwalk, just gray on one side and beach on the other, so she follows the path it makes, keeping the beach to her left. She'll walk until the boardwalk ends, she decides, then follow it back in the opposite direction if need be. Surely there must be something beyond this.

She doesn't know how long she walks. The sky is cloudy and gray, like the grayness on her right side, and if there's a sun up there somewhere beyond the clouds, its position is unchanging. She thinks she ought to be thirsty, but she's not. Her hands have already healed cleanly, and her hair and jeans and hoodie are all bone-dry.

She hears faint music in the distance. She doesn't recognize it.

There's a structure up ahead of her, suddenly appearing through the gray, curiously unidentifiable. She couldn't have described it if she tried. But it has a door, and when she reaches it, the knob is solid and smooth against her palm. She turns it, and the door opens.

She's in a casino.

It's a large, gaudy place, bustling with activity in every corner. There are rows upon rows of slot machines, beeping and sparkling; there are roulette wheels and blackjack and poker tables and games she's never seen or heard of before. The ceiling stretches out so high above her it might as well be a grand cathedral of old. After the unending grayness of the world outside, the variety and intensity of the colors in here make her eyes hurt. And there are hundreds upon hundreds of people, people of every age and shape and size and race, cigarette girls and high rollers and housewives and mob bosses and children running underfoot. The din is incredible.

Angel feels...wrong here. Unwanted. There's something alien about this place -- everything feels somehow just a hair off-kilter, the colors too bright, the noises too sharp, the room both too large and oddly ill-defined. Something niggles at the back of her mind. This isn't right. Nothing here is right. None of the people here are...

...real.

They're projections. She's dreaming -- no. This is beyond dreaming. This is another space entirely. Another subconscious. Not her own.

Angel blinks, and remembers how she got here, and why, and what she needs to be doing.

She has to find Raven.


All at once, the wave of militant projections just stops, as though they'd never been there at all.

"What the fuck?" Alex demands. His voice sounds very loud in the sudden silence.

Darwin sets down his weapon with a satisfied smile. "Now that's better." He gets to his feet, and Alex instinctively tries to drag him back down behind their impromptu barricade, but Darwin evades his grasp. "They're gone, Alex."

"You're my projection, how the fuck do you know what Marko's are gonna do?"

"Because I'm here to protect you," Darwin says. "And you don't need me anymore."

Alex blinks up at him, scowling. "Was that supposed to be all deep and shit?"

Darwin grins. "Nah, but it did sound pretty profound, right?" He holds out a hand to Alex, and helps pull him upright. "Go see to your team, Alex. You've got a job to finish."

"No, but seriously, this place was swarming with bad guys, and now they're all just gone?"

"Looks like someone else is handling them."

That sounds a lot more ominous than it should. Alex shoves open the door to the library and ducks inside. His teammates are sprawled across various pieces of furniture, along with Cain Marko, all hooked up to the central PASIV. Moonlight splashes their still faces with silver. Sean frowns furiously in his sleep. The others look more or less peaceful, even Cain. Doesn't look like anything's gone wrong here, although Alex kind of thinks they maybe should be waking up about now. He lost track of time fighting off projections, but it's been a while. How long could Logan possibly need to complete the extraction? They're lucky they aren't on a strict timetable for this one.

But the inception is time-sensitive, and that team needs to link up with him when they're ready to wake up. This deep within the mansion-maze, there are no windows, so he can't easily check to see if the helicopter's back, but he's got to assume they're on their way. The moon shines brightly overhead.

...wait.

There are no windows in the library. How could there possibly be moonlight? Alex looks up, already grasping for his sidearm. The whole library ceiling seems to be made of glass, one giant skylight overhead. Thousands of stars shimmer in the velvet sky. The full moon gleams. He's never seen a moon so large, or so bright.

"The maze is dissolving," Darwin murmurs behind him. "Cain's mind isn't stable enough to maintain the architecture. No more shadows. No place to hide."

Alex thinks distantly that he ought to be bothered by this. Instead he feels lighter, freer than he has in years. "What's that gonna do to the linked dream?"

Darwin shrugs. "Beats me. I'm in your head, not theirs."

"The real you would've known." Alex tilts his face up to the moonlight, letting his eyes slip closed. He exhales and the world melts away. "Hank would know."

He can hear the smile in Darwin's voice. "So ask him."

"Next time I see him, I will."

There's a warm pressure on his shoulder, then nothing at all. Alex knows that when he opens his eyes, Darwin will be gone, and probably for good this time. So he stays where he is and lets himself pretend for just a little while longer.


The mansion grounds are utterly deserted. Hank sprints for the doors, feeling far too exposed in the bright moonlight. The ack-acks cut off abruptly right before he gave his teammates the kick; there's no sign of any anti-aircraft artillery here on the ground, which makes no sense. Even if the projections have given up the fight, there should still be evidence of their activities strewn about the place. Shouldn't there be?

The tall double doors at the main entrance swing open silently at the touch of his hand, revealing the mahogany-walled foyer. Moonlight streams through the picture windows. That's the only source of light, but the room is somehow as brightly lit as though it were full daylight. As Hank proceeds through the maze, every door stands open to him, every corridor clear and empty. The projections are all gone. It's as though Stryker's mind has nothing left to hide.

Maybe the inception took after all.

He reaches the library -- the heart of the labyrinth -- far more quickly than he should have. That door, too, is already wide open. Sean, Emma, Logan, and Cain are all still sprawled across the furniture, sleeping soundly. Alex stands alone in the middle of the room, his back to the door. That's enough to set off screeching alarms in Hank's head. Since when has Alex ever left his team so obviously unprotected?

"Alex?" Hank demands, slightly winded from running. "What's going on?"

Alex turns to face him with a small smile. "Hey, Hank. I've been meaning to ask you -- what happens to the linked dream if ours destabilizes?"

He looks way too calm to be asking that sort of question. "Depends on what sort of destabilization you're talking about--" Crap. Focus, McCoy. "--but it doesn't matter. Alex, you've got to wake your people up, right now. And then you've got to tell Moira to yank us out of our dream ASAP."

All that serenity drains away from Alex's face. His loose, relaxed stance tenses back up in an instant, and Hank feels abruptly wretched that he's the one who caused it. He shoves the guilt aside and forces himself to focus on the actual problem. "Why, what happened?" Alex asks, hand going to his sidearm. "Did the inception take?"

"I have no idea," Hank admits. "There's no one to ask. Stryker seems fine, but Raven and Angel won't wake up, and we can't find Charles anywhere."

Alex nods, absorbing it, and moves quickly to his teammates. "I can dump water on 'em, but they haven't completed the extraction yet. Let me at least give Logan a musical cue as warning. What about Erik?"

"In the chopper with Stryker and the girls. If Charles isn't in Limbo -- and we'd still have his body, if he was, so probably not -- Erik said the first thing he'd do on this level is look for his sister, so that's where Erik's going to stay. And we need someone conscious to look after Stryker until Moira can kick us awake, anyway."

Alex's hands fumble with the headphones. He looks up at Hank sharply. "You're telling me Erik volunteered to babysit the mark? Instead of haring off in search of Charles?"

"Yeah." Hank's stomach sinks a bit. "Why? You think he's gone off on his own anyway?"

"No, Stryker's too important to be left alone right now. Erik knows that." Alex goes back to settling the headphones over Logan's ears, but he's still frowning. "But it makes me wonder exactly what Erik's doing while he waits."


By her third circuit of the casino, Angel's heart starts thumping painfully in her chest. Panic seeps like a poison through her veins. She hasn't caught so much as a glimpse of Raven anywhere in this madhouse. And worse yet, there don't appear to be any exits. She knows she must have entered the casino somehow -- she has a dim memory of gray skies and pounding waves, a sense of elsewhere that came at some point before here -- but there are no doors, no windows, nothing but the endlessly curving walls and neon and people, people everywhere, in every size and shape and age and attire, none of them Raven.

She hasn't been able to change a single element of the architecture. She doesn't even remember how. She's trapped in someone else's hell, and there's no way out. She can't even dream up a syringe of poison as the final escape. And she isn't sure that suicide is an option -- what if she ends up killing herself over and over again, and every time, she just washes up on that same bleak shore?

Eventually, exhausted from her constant circling of the enormous casino floor, she collapses into the nearest open chair. It happens to be at one of the few unoccupied slot machines. She hardly spares the game a glance, just stares blankly out into the swirling crowd. The flashing lights make her head ache.

After an eternity -- or a few seconds, maybe; it's hard to tell -- Angel feels a warm pressure on her arm. She's lost the ability to feel startled. She looks up dully. There's a young woman there: one of the countless projections. She has long dark hair and a childlike face, and her eyes are compassionate. Angel thinks she looks vaguely familiar, but can't spare the mental energy to place her.

She's not worried, anyway. The projections in Raven's Limbo haven't shown any signs of hostility at all. It's like they know Angel is no threat to them.

The dark-haired woman takes Angel's hand in hers, gently pressing a small, cool object into Angel's palm. Angel instinctively closes her hand around it. The woman nods in approval.

Angel looks at what she's been given. It's a nickel. "For the slot machine?" Angel guesses, her throat hoarse.

"The symbol is reality," the woman tells her, and the sound of her voice triggers Angel's memory, slots her into place. But before Angel can say anything, Ariadne smiles and turns away, melting back into the crowd.

Angel doesn't try to chase after her. Instead, she studies the nickel, then the slot machine. She's never played the slots before, but she knows the general principle of the game. Insert coin. Pull lever. Watch the symbols spin madly on the reels. If the symbols all match when the reels stop spinning, you win a prize.

On this machine, instead of the usual generic symbols -- stars, cherries, dollar signs -- the images shuffling rapidly through the reels are all faces. They spin too quickly for Angel to make out. Eventually, the three reels slow, and then click to a stop. Angel doesn't recognize any of the three faces -- an older Latino man, a blonde child, a striking olive-skinned young woman. The third looks vaguely familiar in the way a number of the people in this casino do. Projections she's encountered while sharing Raven's dreams in the past? Maybe.

The faces don't match, obviously, but to Angel's surprise, the lights on the machine all go nuts, tinny music trumpeting as though she's won something. A handful of nickels spill out the front of the machine. She gathers them up, mind racing. In Limbo, the symbol is reality. What should she be learning from this? Can these three faces be found amongst the throng of projections in the casino? Will they help lead her to Raven?

Since she's won more nickels, it only seems logical to play another round. That's how gamblers get suckered, right? Maybe she can figure out the rules of this game if she keeps playing. Maybe she can win it for real. She slips in another nickel, pulls the lever.

This time she recognizes the three faces that appear. One is Charles. One is Cain Marko. And the third seems about to land on Charles again, but at the last possible instant, it ticks over into Sebastian Shaw.

The machine goes wild. Even more nickels tumble out, too many to fit in Angel's pockets. She drops another into the machine with trembling fingers, yanking the lever down. She's not sure if she likes this game anymore, but she can't stop now.

All three images match this time. They're all Raven. Angel doesn't win a single coin.

"Don't waste your time on that one," a very familiar voice says just behind her.

Angel practically leaps out of her chair. "Charles? Oh, thank god." She's not prone to displays of affection, but she very nearly throws her arms around him. Maybe she should be angry that he followed her and Raven down into Limbo after all, throwing the inception away, but all she feels is relief. She's not alone down here. And nobody knows Raven better than her own brother. He'll find her for sure.

"I knew you'd come for her," Angel tells him.

Charles gives her a strange little smile. "Did you? How touching. I'd best not disappoint, then."

It's...weird. Like there's something not quite right here. But they're both in Limbo, so really, a little weirdness is probably to be expected. Angel shrugs it off. "I've been trapped in this damn casino for ages," she says. "And I can't find Raven anywhere."

"Then you haven't been looking terribly closely," Charles says, slipping into that familiar lecturing tone that used to drive her nuts back when he was one of her mentors at the CIA. Now she's glad of it, desperate to dump some of the weight of responsibility onto Charles's shoulders before it crushes her. She hadn't realized how scared and alone she'd felt here until he showed up.

"What do you see that I don't?"

Charles just smiles again and steps away, beckoning her to follow. He's using his cane, she notices as they wind their way through the crowded casino floor. And leaning on it heavily, his limp more pronounced than she's seen it since they first got him out of Hellfire's clutches. That's weird, too -- Charles is a strong, disciplined dreamer. He hadn't needed the cane on any of the other levels of the Stryker dreams. But she hasn't been able to alter the surroundings in Raven's Limbo herself, so it makes sense that Charles doesn't have control over his own dream body here, either. Raven's the one running this game, and the rules are a secret locked tight in her mind. Angel's gonna have words with her about that when they find her.

When. Not if. She's got Charles on her side now. They've got this.


Emma has lost track of time sifting through the wreckage of Raven's childhood bedroom. Even with all three of them searching, it's rather difficult to find a stash of secrets when you haven't the faintest notion what form they might take. Or if you're even looking in the right place.

"Even Cain couldn't find this shit in here," Sean complains, not for the first time. "And it's his own stupid subconscious!"

Logan makes a frustrated noise somewhere between a growl and a snarl. "I'm open to suggestions, Cassidy. You got a better idea?"

Sean falls sulkily silent again. Emma has begun cleaning up the place. It'll be easier to keep track of what they have and haven't already looked through this way. She smooths out a pink party dress, hangs it up neatly in the wardrobe once she's shaken it out for any potential secrets. Not that she expects that the young Raven had hidden her treasures in the pockets of her clothing, but they can't afford to make any assumptions now. Not if they want to get anything useful out of this nightmare of an extraction.

"At least you saw the list of names on the first level," she reminds Logan. "We won't be leaving completely empty-handed."

Logan grunts and continues piecing through the shattered remains of the dollhouse. It should be funny, watching his big, rough hands delicately pick through the tiny furniture and dainty dolls, but she's too weary to drum up amusement. This dream has been emotionally exhausting for everyone involved.

The walls of the room thrum with a distinct, slow beat. She blinks and looks up, seeing Logan's head come up sharply at the same time.

"Aw, crap," Sean says. "Tell me that's not--"

"Musical cue," Logan confirms flatly. "Thirty seconds up there, six minutes down here. Summers wants to kick us out."

"This job wasn't supposed to have a time limit!"

Logan shrugs, mouth set in a grim line. "Guess something's gone wrong upstairs. Can't exactly argue about it from here. We've got less than six minutes to find the dirt on the congressman, or I get to have a fun little chat with Fury about why we couldn't get the job done."

"He'll have to make do with just the names of the guilty parties, then," Emma says, stepping away from the wardrobe with a sigh. "And S.H.I.E.L.D. will have to do the grunt work themselves if they want to know precisely what Hellfire has on them. Such a shame, having to dirty their own hands for a change. The Stryker inception is the more crucial element in play, anyway."

But still, the failure stings. It's a blow to her pride, for one -- she hasn't had a job go so poorly in many years. And she'd poured a good deal of her own funds into this one. Well, no use crying over spilt milk; her finances will survive one bad investment. But losing the chance to hit Cain Marko where it hurts -- ah, that particular pain will linger.

Sean kicks a chunk of what probably used to be part of the bedframe, scowling. "It's not fair! No extractor could get anything good out of a mind as unstable as Cain's. We don't even know what we're looking for!"

"You're looking for a jewelry box."

Emma whirls to face the door, hand pressed to her chest, then relaxes. Of course there's a projection of Charles roaming about his stepbrother's subconscious. After Kayla, nothing ought to surprise her anymore.

"Gotta love how helpful all these damn projections are," Logan says sourly, but he's got a look on his face that might almost be mistaken for relief. "All right, fake-Charles, I'll bite. What jewelry box?"

Charles doesn't smile. His skin is paler than usual, mouth tight. His lovely blue eyes are cool and dispassionate. "A small, blue jewelry box. It plays music when you lift the lid. Raven kept her favorite trinkets in there when we were children. Cain only figured it out years later, when she didn't care anymore. His subconscious would remember."

Logan and Sean are already pawing with renewed vigor through the debris, searching for anything blue. Emma regards Charles instead. The projection of Kayla had most likely been Logan's -- she'd appeared older than Emma had last seen her, and sadder. And most of her attention had been focused on Logan. If she'd been Emma's projection, she wouldn't have cared -- Emma had always disapproved of their relationship, and rightly so, since it was James Howlett's connection to Stryker that had gotten the real Kayla killed.

But this Charles...she's not sure which of them brought him in. Sean hardly knows Charles at all, so he's the least likely candidate. And Logan knows him little better than Sean, and cares even less. Charles would be the last person Logan would dream up to help them out here -- if his subconscious was so desperate for help finding these secrets, he ought to have dragged a projection of Raven in instead. Raven's the one who hired him for this job in the first place, and she'd know her childhood bedroom best of all. Emma supposes Charles might be her projection, but again, he's not the person she would have chosen to see, and she doesn't have any strong memories or emotions associated with him.

If Alex were on this level with them, she would have immediately assumed Charles was a figment of his imagination. Charles had been Alex's mentor for years; he still instinctively turned to Charles for guidance topside. Could Cain's mental instability lead to projections slipping between dream levels? That's a distinct possibility. For that matter, Occam's Razor dictates that Charles should be Cain's, because in any normal dream, projections emerge to defend the subject's own subconscious. And given the mess of Cain's mind, it makes as much sense that his subconscious would betray him as anything else. Of course Cain's projection of his much-loathed stepbrother would give up his own secrets. It's the only logical explanation.

But it nags at her, still.

"There," Charles says, his tone almost bored. "Under that dresser drawer, Sean, by your feet."

She sees the flash of blue, and Sean grabs at it with a triumphant cry. He flips the box open. Tinny music plays, out of step with the slow beat of the impending kick, and Logan bares his teeth in a smile.

Charles looks as though he couldn't care less. He turns and steps away from the door. Impulsively, Emma follows, careful not to trip on any of the debris. Logan can handle the secrets in the music box.

"Charles!" she calls down the darkening corridor. Charles is neither limping nor rushing: he just strides forward steadily as though with a purpose. She grabs his arm to halt him. "Something isn't right."

"And since when have you cared about right or wrong?" Charles inquires, face blank. Cain would never imagine a Charles so cold and uncaring. Cain hated Charles; would dream him exactly the way he'd always seen him. Would create the vain, foppish professor of Charles's younger days; or perhaps the conquered cripple, weak and pale and forever trapped in the bunker beneath his mansion. Cain still believes Charles died in that explosion. This is not Cain's projection.

And the real Charles is hooked into the Stryker dream. Even if he were in the linked dream on this level, somehow, she shouldn't have been able to touch him.

But Charles is somewhat of a special case, isn't he?

"There are hardly two minutes left before the kick," she tells him. "Cain has too much of a head start on you, sugar. You won't catch up to him in time."

He gives her a thin smile without the faintest trace of mirth. "You know better than to underestimate me, Emma."

"Yes." She pulls back, studying him. "All those years Shaw spent shuffling through your head... I do believe you learned more from him than he ever learned from you."

He assesses her coolly. "Do you mean to distract me until the kick?"

"Not at all." She points down the corridor. "Logan's projection ran him off. That way."

Charles turns away, and the hallway bends and distorts around him. Then he's gone.

Emma smiles.


Angel follows Charles out a pair of French doors that certainly hadn't been there before, onto a curving balcony. A sea breeze tugs at her loose hair. The air smells like salt and sand. The balcony doesn't look out onto the ocean, though; it overlooks a cobblestoned plaza, brightly lit against the darkening evening with strings of fairy lights. Cafes jostle for space around the plaza, brimming over with people. When she looks up and out, Angel can see an entire town spilling out before her, narrow streets meandering up a steeply sloping hillside. It has a Mediterranean feel, but doesn't quite resemble any actual city Angel has ever visited. The outlines of the buildings all seem kind of blurry, vague, like they're not entirely sure of themselves. Raven has always been a passable architect, but specificity isn't her strongest suit. Her forgeries excepted, of course.

"Shit," Angel breathes, a wave of hopelessness suddenly swamping her, leaving her trembling. She leans heavily against the iron-wrought railing to steady herself. "Raven could be anywhere out there."

"She is," Charles agrees cryptically. He sounds utterly unconcerned. "Do you see now?"

Angel frowns at him. "What do you mean?"

"You asked me, earlier, what I saw that you didn't." Charles leans in, hands clasped primly on the head of his cane. His voice remains low and reasonable. "Have you grasped it yet?"

Something like dread pools in the pit of Angel's stomach. She looks back out at the town, at the plaza, searching for something, for anything, any clue to Raven's subconscious she might be missing. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"

"The futility of your quest."

She whips back around to face him, heart hammering, as the world ripples around them. Bile rises in the back of her throat. She swallows convulsively. Charles doesn't seem to have noticed the shift in the dream, his expression as maddeningly serene as ever. "You can't mean that," she manages to choke out around the knot in her throat.

"There's nothing here for you to find," Charles goes on. "If Raven can't even find herself, what hope could you possibly have? Best give in to the inevitable. There's no way out for either of you."

"No," Angel says. "No, this isn't right. This isn't you. You would never give up on her. You never gave up on anyone, least of all your own sister. Limbo's fucking with your head. You gotta snap out of this, Charles, I need your help! Raven needs your help."

Charles laughs pleasantly. "Oh, she certainly needs help, all right."

Cold wind slaps Angel's face. Smells like a storm's coming. Anger boils up within her chest, burning out the fear. "So, what, you're saying she's kinda fucked up? You think I don't know Raven's got issues? News flash, Xavier: we all do. Nobody goes into this business 'cause they're well-adjusted. If we were sane, we'd never have touched a damn PASIV in the first place! So what?" She's right up in his face now, gives his shoulders a light shove. "You think I'm gonna give up on Raven just because her mind's a bit of a mess right now? Then fuck you, Charles. You don't know shit about me. And you don't know shit about your sister."

Another one of those weird little smiles plays across Charles's lips. "Why, Angel, I never realized you were a romantic. How very white knight of you, dashing to her defense like this. Last night must have been quite extraordinary for you both."

Angel's cheeks go hot with embarrassment. What the hell is going on here? Charles would never say this sort of crap. "This has nothing to do with my sleeping with her," she snaps. "She's my friend, asshole. She let me back into her life when she had no reason to ever trust me again. She gave me my own life back, when I thought I had nothing left of myself, after Shaw. If I'd been the one Stryker killed, back in that dream, she'd have come after me in a heartbeat. I owe her big time. And there's not a chance in hell I'm leaving here without her."

Rain begins to fall around them in big, fat drops, splattering against the railing and the red tiles of the balcony.

"Then I wish you the best of luck," Charles says, straightening. His voice has changed. It's brisker now, less cloying. Businesslike. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a smallish blue box, which he offers to her. Angel's thrown a bit off-kilter by the change in his demeanor. She accepts the box more out of reflex than conscious choice. "And believe me, Angel, you'll need it."

"The box?" she asks, confused.

"Luck." Charles turns and walks back toward the doors into the casino, still leaning heavily on his cane.

Angel just blinks after him for a long moment, then shakes herself out of it. "Wait!" she calls, jogging after him, still clutching the little blue box in one hand. "Charles, aren't you coming with me to find her?"

He doesn't reply, his gait unchanging. She grabs his shoulder and swings him around to face her.

The man in front of her isn't Charles. He's much older, his hair liberally streaked with gray, his dark brown eyes polite but confused. She gasps and flinches away from him.

"Can I help you, señorita?" the stranger asks in a Spanish-accented voice.

A projection. Not Charles. She's been talking to a projection this whole time. God, she should have realized!

"No -- no," she stutters, backing away. "Lo siento, señor. I thought you were someone else."

The man tips his brown cap to her, and shuffles off.

The rain is coming down harder now, plastering her hair against her forehead and soaking through her hoodie. But she doesn't want to go back inside the casino, in case she gets trapped in there again. So she does her best to ignore the discomfort and moves to sit with her back against the wall, taking what little shelter she can under the overhanging roof of the building. Once settled, she figures she may as well check out the gift that the projection of Charles decided to give her.

It looks like a sort of jewelry box, maybe. She flips open the lid and music plays, the sound small and tinny. A tiny ballerina in a blue tutu spins jerkily in front of the mirror set inside the lid. It's hard to tell with only the twinkling fairy lights outlining the roof to see by, but she's pretty sure the ballerina has Raven's face. Inside the box are photographs -- hundred of them, the sort of wallet-sized portraits that you get when you order school pictures as a kid. She sifts through them. No two photos are the same. Some she recognizes, some she doesn't. Here again are the faces she'd seen on the slot machine, both the familiar and unfamiliar. She finds her own face in the box, along with Alex, Hank, Erik, and Moira. Cain, Charles, Kurt Marko, and Sharon Xavier are all represented; so are both Strykers, and the colonel's bodyguard Oyama. Darwin winks up at her from one photo; Emma Frost eyes her coolly from another. Some are faces she vaguely recognizes from previous jobs -- both of the women Raven had forged during that disastrous Proclus job, a man from the job in Madrid, another from the Keats extraction. For a few minutes, she wonders if this little box contains photos of every single person Raven has ever met, but eventually dismisses that as ridiculous.

Frustrated and still confused, she crams the stack of photos back into the box with a sigh. She needs to get moving again. She's not going to find Raven just by sitting here.

The rain looks to be letting up. She still wishes she could dream up an umbrella, but no dice. Instead she finds a narrow stairway leading down from the balcony to the plaza below. As she makes her way slowly through the town, she notes that the rain doesn't seem to have slowed down business at all: the cafes are all full, and people meander through the streets in couples and groups. She keeps an eye out for Raven's blonde hair and curvy silhouette, but doesn't spot her anywhere.

After what feels like hours of walking -- all uphill, every street leading further and further up the jutting hillside -- she stops at an outdoor bar to grab a seat and a drink. The bartender serves her a lemonade with a little pink umbrella. She rolls her eyes but doesn't toss the decoration away. The lemonade is too sweet for her tastes, but she gulps it down anyway.

At the next little cafe table, there's a sharply-dressed Latino man reading a newspaper. He looks very familiar, but it takes her a few long minutes of toying with her mostly-empty drink before she can pull the memory out of the fog of her mind: Janos Quested. He'd been Hellfire's liaison with Cobol Engineering, back in Shaw's day. Something goes ping in the back of her head. She pulls the blue box out of her hoodie pocket and flips it open again, ignoring the repetitive music as she flips rapidly through the stack of photos.

There. Janos Quested.

Suddenly suspicious, she keeps looking. The bartender is a tall, muscular man with white-blond hair and very pale skin, and a nose that looks like it's been broken a couple of times. Sure enough, she finds his photo in the stack, too.

Now that she's looking -- all of the projections on the streets around her match photos in the blue box. There aren't as many distinct individuals as she'd originally thought. With so many of them not personally familiar to her, and her focus on searching for Raven, she hadn't noticed before, but now she does: that couple cooing at each other across the street had been manning different game tables back in the casino. She's walked past that attractive young black man at least three or four times already. And now that she's looking more closely, she's pretty sure she can see Alex and Hank dancing together in the nightclub next to the bar.

Angel spreads the photos across her cafe table, trying to make out the bigger picture. Most of the members of Raven's current team are included, but not Logan or Coulson, and Nick Fury is nowhere to be seen. Both Strykers and Markos are included, as of course is Charles, but neither father or daughter Miles nor Brian Xavier, so it's not related to those original four dreamsharers in the way the inception had been. Of the old Hellfire Club, she sees Shaw and Emma and Quested, plus Jason Stryker and herself, but not Azazel, and none of its other members. She can only find one of their team's previous marks -- the one from the Madrid job -- but incidental characters from every single one of their jobs together are represented, including a few whose faces she'd nearly forgotten. They hadn't been Angel's problem; they'd all just been significant to the marks in some form another, people that Raven had forged for the jobs…

Raven's forgeries.

She'd forged Jason Stryker, Oyama, and Emma all for the inception job. She'd forged Stryker himself in that stupid practice dream with Alex. All of her forgeries from every job Angel has ever worked with her are here, both from the past eight months and the CIA, and she's willing to bet that the unfamiliar faces are all people Raven forged in previous jobs, all the many faces she wore while Angel was building dreams for the Hellfire Club. She'd forged both Quested and Angel herself during the Shaw job. And Raven loves fooling around in practice dreams -- she's certainly forged all of her teammates at some point or another, and as a child learning to dream in secret with her stepbrother, it makes sense she would have tried out all the bodies of her own family first, the people best known to her. And how many skins has Raven experimented with in the privacy of her own mind, when no one else is dreaming with her?

But why would Raven's projections all be only her own forgeries? Projections can be anyone you've ever met, plus hundreds of entirely made-up people besides. The subconscious is a strange place. There's no reason Logan or Coulson shouldn't be wandering around down here in Limbo with the rest of them. This is too weirdly specific. There has to be an explanation.

Have you grasped it yet? Charles's voice whispers in her mind. The futility of your quest?

I can't find Raven anywhere, she'd complained, back in the casino, and he told her: Then you haven't been looking terribly closely.

Every face Raven has ever worn in a dream stares up at her from the table, from the streets, from the nightclub and casino and cafes and boardwalk.

"Oh," Angel whispers, seeing clearly for the first time since she washed up on a sandy beach. "Oh, shit."

Raven hasn't populated the distant shores of her subconscious with projections. She isn't filling up her lonely mind with hundreds of imaginary friends. Every single one of these people -- every stranger, every companion, every shade of her past -- every distinct, individual person Angel has encountered down here in Raven's shattered subconscious is real.

Perhaps an architect's trapped subconscious would construct endless cities, each more magnificent and otherworldly than the last; a paranoid business tycoon might create an impermeable fortress manned by thousands of projected guards. But a forger, a true forger, whose mind has been imprisoned in Limbo, thoughts beating frantically against one another in an infinite loop -- her subconscious might fragment, split into its hundred component parts, latch onto everyone she's ever mimicked or impersonated or simply yearned to be.

There are no projections in Raven's Limbo. They're all Raven. Every single one.


It all comes back to Raven. Her job. Her team. Her brother. Watching her slack, unwaking face, Erik wants to demand: was it worth it?

He's never seen much point in false hope. (Not counting the years when everyone else insisted that Charles was dead; but then, Erik had been proven right in the end, hadn't he?) So he doesn't lie to himself now. Raven and Angel are both in Limbo. Whether they were both killed on the third dream level, or one died and the other chased after her, the end result is the same: both girls are lost to them forever. If Sebastian Shaw, the canniest son of a bitch in dreamsharing, couldn't claw his way back up out of there, what chance do an architect and a forger have?

Without Raven, the Stryker job is essentially meaningless to Erik. He never cared about Nick Fury's power games. The inception doesn't particularly matter to him. Stryker fucked up the world badly enough by developing Somnacin in the first place; whether or not he removes himself from the business now is a moot point. Erik had nothing to do with the Weapon X Project, or any of Stryker's little war games. He didn't allow Raven to drag him out of retirement for Stryker.

He's here for Cain. And he wants blood.

It's not just for Charles's sake anymore. Now Cain has Raven's blood on his hands, too. The only reason Raven ever took this job -- the only leverage that asshole Fury ever had on her -- was to get to Cain. She saw a golden opportunity to maneuver herself into a position in which she could put a bullet through Cain Marko's brain and get away with it. With the inception complete, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents won't stand in her way; Fury probably even promised her protection from any sort of retribution. Hell, Emma Frost would've thrown her a fucking party on Hellfire's dime. Of course, the deal with S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to bite Raven in the ass eventually -- after Raven murders Cain, Fury will essentially own her. And Erik isn't sure that Fury is any better for the dreamsharing industry than Stryker. Once Fury consolidates his political power and military resources, what does he intend S.H.I.E.L.D. to become?

Fuck him, anyway. Fuck Fury, and Coulson, and Moira; fuck the CIA for dropping the ball on dreamsharing and Stryker for weaponizing it and Shaw for exploiting it; fuck Kurt Marko for not locking his PASIV away deep in a vault where his daughter and stepson would never have found it.

Erik's never entirely forgiven Angel for her role in Charles's abduction and Darwin's death, however unwilling a participant she turned out to be, but she didn't deserve Limbo. And Raven is as good as dead, and god only knows where Charles has vanished to, or how he'll react to the loss of his sister. If Erik could somehow break into the linked dream, he'd hunt down Cain himself and wring the psychopathic bastard's neck. And he intends to do precisely that as soon as they wake up topside. But in the meantime...

Stryker clearly survived the third level dream, and Erik knows, deep in his gut, that Charles did as well, wherever he might be now. And Charles is the finest extractor he's ever known. The inception took. Erik is sure of it. Charles got the job done; Erik just intends to add one final flourish.

Inception, is it? Erik was Sebastian Shaw's protégé and one of the most bloody-minded extractors in the world of dreamsharing. He'll show Nick Fury inception.


Cain Marko blinks and finds himself in a long, mirrored hallway. He's walking down it with a scowl, furious about -- something. He can't exactly remember what. But goddamn it, his anger is fucking well justified.

He catches a glimpse of his face in one of the mirrors, except it's not quite his own. The flicker of someone else is gone so quickly that he must have imagined it. Mind playing tricks on him. But he saw her: Raven. That bitch.

He remembers why he's so angry. Raven is trying to steal away what's his. Same old story. Well, he's going to make her pay this time.

Cain strides forward and walks right into a wall. No, not a wall -- a mirror. Hurts like hell. He curses, rubbing his forehead. Fucking mirrors everywhere -- whose idea was it to redecorate the place? Can't keep track of which way is up with all these stupid goddamn mirrors everywhere.

He turns around, takes another three steps, and smashes right into another one. This one bloodies his nose. Wary now, he moves more slowly, keeping one hand out in front to feel his way while pinching his swollen nose with the other. Another handful of steps, he finds another wall. And then another. The mirrors are all floor-to-ceiling now -- had they been before? He's not sure. His mind is hazy, probably from the fucking concussion he's developing from walking smack into all these fucking mirrors. He squints out around him, trying to work out which way the corridor leads, but all he can see are countless reflections of himself and the carpeting and the mirrors themselves, stretching out endlessly in every direction.

There's no way out.

Fear trickles down his spine, icy and unfamiliar. He shoves it aside, letting the anger boil through him instead. This is all Raven's fault somehow. He's going to rip her to pieces when he finds her.

He doesn't realize he's spoken aloud until another voice responds: "I very much doubt that."

Cain knows that voice.

He whirls around, furious and terrified, searching him out in the maze of mirrors. "You're dead!" he shouts at his own reflections. "I killed you myself!"

"Did you?" Charles's voice asks politely. Cain still can't see him anywhere. "Well, points for effort, I suppose. Unsuccessful though you were."

There -- a glimpse of movement, down that way. Cain chases after it and runs into another mirror. This time it cracks down the middle, leaving him with a jagged cut down his forehead. He howls in pain and jerks backward. All of the mirrors reflect the same crack. They surround him. No way out.

"No one could've walked out of that pile of rubble!" Cain snarls, blood trickling down his face. "Especially not a useless cripple like you!"

"I had help." Charles's voice could freeze the very blood in Cain's veins. "People who cared for me. You wouldn't understand. And that's why you won't be walking away from this one."

Cain can feel breath on the back of his neck. He spins around, and Charles is there.

"Because no one is coming to help you," Charles whispers. His eyes are the coldest Cain has ever seen.

With a roar, Cain swings at him -- but Charles isn't there anymore. He's behind him. Cain whirls around and throws another punch. His fist meets mirror and fractures it, shards of glass cutting up his knuckles. Charles is somehow behind the mirror, the cracks in the glass distorting his face, making him appear cruel. Cain has never feared his weak little stepbrother for a single moment in his life. He's afraid now.

"Is this about Raven?" Cain demands, struggling to control his terror. "You always did try to protect that little brat. I'll find her eventually, you know. You can't hide her from me forever!"

A shadow passes across Charles's face. "You can't hurt her now," he says quietly. "She's beyond your reach. You'll never be able to hurt her again. For that, at least, I can be grateful." His face smooths itself out, and his spine straightens. The cruel mask is gone now, as is the flicker of sorrow, replaced by an expression far more terrifying: nothing at all.

Cain pounds his fist against the glass between them, no longer caring about the pain in his desperation to break through, to escape from this hall of mirrors, this hell that Charles has somehow trapped him in. "I will rip your throat out!" he screams, battering at the mirror. "I'll show you--"

"No," Charles says coolly. "You won't." He tucks his hands behind his back, slowly circling Cain as though studying a specimen behind a glass. The mirrors replay his reflection over and over again until Cain is surrounded by Charleses, hundreds of him, thousands, all speaking with one voice. "Did you ever meet a dreamer called Armando Muñoz, Cain? You might have heard him called Darwin. Shaw abducted him at the same time he took me. We were brought together to the Westchester house. I never saw him again after that."

"I saw him," Cain snarls, his hands stinging with pain, blood spattering across his shoes. "Shaw killed him from the inside out. Hollowed out his brain. Never understood why he didn't do the same to you."

"Because he needed me," Charles says. "Because he wanted to learn from me. Because I was smarter than him, and he knew it, and he wanted to exploit it."

Cain's breath comes shallowly now. His chest feels tight. "You always thought you were so fucking smart."

"Emma was right," Charles goes on. "I learned more from Shaw than he ever did from me."

He flattens his palm against his side of the glass, and all of the mirrors shatter explosively inward. Cain screams in agony as thousands of shards of glass cut into him from every angle, ripping his skin apart. He can't see, blinded by the pain, but he can still hear that voice, that cultured voice he'd always hated so much, as Charles continues to speak calmly.

"We're not on your playing field anymore, Cain," Charles says. "We're on mine. And I'm afraid that I'm no longer inclined to play nicely."


Coulson is not a man given to undue anxiety, but he's beginning to become mildly concerned. It's only been about five minutes since May reported that Stryker's bodyguard Oyama was missing, but five minutes is a very long time for a woman of Oyama's skills to be unaccounted for. His only consolation is that Azazel had dropped her off a good mile away from the hotel. Even by cab, in D.C. traffic, that should take time, and she'd be wary of Hellfire's people intercepting her again. She would be careful making her way back to the hotel. Believing Wilson to still be watching over Stryker, she likely wouldn't feel the need to hustle.

Likely. Probably. Should. Coulson dislikes all these uncertainties. If Wilson catches sight of Oyama first, he'll delay her further, and text Coulson a warning. Again, if. Nothing is assured.

And if five minutes feels very long to Coulson, he knows it's been significantly longer for the dreamers. They hooked up to the PASIVs a full fifteen minutes ago. That's three hours on the first level alone. How could they not have completed the job yet?

He doesn't want to have to wake them up early, but neither can they risk being caught red-handed by Oyama. S.H.I.E.L.D. has no leverage they can use on the woman, and killing her would be inconvenient at best. Stryker needs to awaken completely unaware of the inception for it to work. To find his most trusted thug dead would make him unduly suspicious. Besides, Coulson has a great deal of respect for Oyama's abilities. It would be a shame to have to eliminate her.

He checks his wristwatch again, and at precisely that moment, Alex Summers jerks awake.

"Tell Moira to wake them up!" he gasps out, rubbing his hand across his face. "Get them out of there."

Coulson is already dialing the room next door. "Problem?"

"Well, my dream's probably falling to pieces now that I'm awake," Alex says. "Dunno what that'll do to the linked dream. Don't want to risk anyone else."

The way he says it -- anyone else -- immediately raises Coulson's hackles, but he puts it aside for now. The other members of Alex's team are beginning to stir, and they've got to keep Marko sedated until they can clear the room. "Pull them out," he orders Moira, when she picks up. "Alex gave the go-ahead."

"Mission accomplished?" Moira asks, and Coulson isn't sure what to say. The others -- Logan, Sean, Ms. Frost -- all look calm enough. From the grin on Sean's face, he'd guess the extraction on Marko was definitely successful. But Alex has a blank expression that Coulson's all too familiar with on a soldier's face: something went wrong down there. Maybe only on Alex's level, maybe the others don't know about it yet. He wonders what the inception team will report.

"Wake them up," is all he tells Moira, and hangs up.

Logan stretches, spine popping audibly as he stands. "Got the goods for your boss," he says. "Though it was a right bitch getting 'em, let me tell you."

"Good. Pack it up." Coulson studies Marko's large, unconscious form where it lies blocking the entryway to the room. "And then I'll need your help getting Marko onto the bed. The sedation should make his recent memories hazy enough that he won't question how he got here, but he's definitely going to be suspicious if he wakes up in the middle of the floor."

Before he can bend over Marko with the sedative, though, Alex is already trying to slip past him. Coulson catches his arm in a firm grip. "And you're going where?"

"I gotta check in on -- with Hank," Alex says distractedly, trying to pull free.

Coulson frowns. He hadn't said anything when Alex ran after the chemist earlier, while the rest of his team hooked up to the PASIV; long as they kept their personal lives private, he didn't much care what was going on between these kids. They weren't his agents. He was just their liaison for this one job. But running off to check on your boyfriend while the mark still hadn't been taken care of? That looked a lot like carelessness, which didn't match up with the intel Coulson had on Alex Summers as a point man.

"What happened down there?" Coulson asks, pitching his voice low enough that the others shouldn't be able to overhear them.

Alex hesitates, then looks Coulson squarely in the eyes. "Weird shit in Cain's head, but that's besides the point. Hank told me -- he thinks Raven and Angel won't be waking up out of this one."

Damn. With the extra sedation required to maintain three dream levels, Limbo was always a risk. Doesn't make Coulson feel any better about it. "Go," he says, releasing Alex at once. "We'll hurry it up in here."

Alex nods and darts out. Coulson crouches down beside Marko, hastily detaching the PASIV line from his wrist as he preps the sedative.

Wait.

Coulson takes hold of the man's wrist again, more carefully this time, pressing his fingers against the pulse point. Nothing. He holds his hand in front of Marko's nose and mouth, and feels no breath. Then he checks the pulse again, this time at the neck. Nothing. No heartbeat.

This is the point at which he really should be starting CPR while ordering someone else to call the paramedics, but he hesitates. His orders regarding Marko are hazy at best. Fury had strongly suggested that he simply vacate the premises and ignore anyone else -- Raven, for example -- who might want a few moments alone with the unconscious Marko. In fact, that was part of why he had Agents Ward and May on standby -- just in case there was a certain mess that needed cleaning up after Raven was done.

Coulson had known from the beginning that Marko would not likely walk away from this job.

But how on earth could Raven have killed him without even laying a hand on him? And from Limbo, no less, if Alex is to be believed.

"What's the hold-up, bub?" Logan demands, shouldering past him. "Let's get this asshole on the bed before he wakes up."

"Mr. Marko won't be waking up," Coulson says slowly. "He's dead."

Logan's head jerks up, nostrils flaring. "What the hell? There was no risk of Limbo in our dream--"

"Limbo would result in the appearance of a comatose state. Marko isn't merely unconscious. His heart has stopped. He's dead."

Sean looks just as shocked as Logan. "Dude, that's not even possible! None of us could even touch him in the dream. He was a fucking juggernaut! That fucking weirdo projection calmed him down, but even she couldn't kill him. And dying in the dream would just wake him up, anyway!"

"Bad Somnacin reaction, maybe?" Logan suggests, eying the corpse. "Used to happen a lot, back in the day, but not so common lately. Still, he wasn't a dreamer. If he had some kinda allergy..."

It would've showed, Coulson thinks. It would have been apparent from the moment he'd pressed the button to send them all to sleep. He's never seen a Somnacin-induced allergic reaction in person, but he has seen the documentation. Anaphylactic shock leaves visible physical signs. But there isn't a mark on Cain Marko. An autopsy might provide more substantial evidence, but he hasn't heard of a dreamer dying like this since...well, since the glory days of Sebastian Shaw.

Coulson looks sharply across the room at Emma Frost. She appears as cool and collected as ever. "Allergic reaction," she agrees calmly. "Must have been. Can't say many will mourn the man. Are we done here?"

She'd been Shaw's right-hand woman for years. If anyone knew how to recreate Shaw's methods of murder-by-subconscious, it would be her. But when could she have done it? He'll have to question Logan and Sean, but Emma's far too smart. She wouldn't have left their sight long enough to manage this. Or could she have? How long does it take to kill someone in a dream in such a way that their body dies with them? No one at S.H.I.E.L.D. had ever managed to work out how Shaw had done it. It was one of those things that shouldn't be possible, yet somehow was. He hadn't done it often -- only three such bodies had ever been found, to the best of Coulson's knowledge, the last being a CIA dreamer, Armando Muñoz, three years ago...

This line of thinking is going nowhere. Coulson sighs and strides out of the hotel room, making his way next door to Stryker's. There he finds Hank and Alex doing their best to pack up the PASIV, while Moira tends to Stryker -- sedated, but clearly alive -- and Erik bends over the two young women asleep on the bed.

"Don't disconnect them," Charles says from his chair, in a low, strained voice. He doesn't look as though he's even tried to get up yet. His cane is still hooked over the back of his chair.

"We can't leave them in Stryker's bedroom," Erik replies, far more gently than Coulson would have thought possible of him. "Moira just told us that Oyama's on her way back in."

Right, Coulson thinks distantly. Oyama. Strange that he'd been getting so worried about a bodyguard, only a couple of minutes ago. He has much bigger problems to deal with now.

"Move them without disconnecting the PASIV, then," Charles says. "It's their only chance."

"The inception," Coulson interrupts, his voice snapping across the room. "Did it take?"

Charles turns those weary eyes on him. He looks drained. Like there's nothing left inside him. "Yes. It took. Now fuck off. My sister's in Limbo and the only hope I have of getting her back is Angel, and the only way that will be even remotely possible is if they remain connected to one another's dreams, and if anyone removes that PASIV line, so help me god, I will hold you personally accountable for their deaths!"

Coulson goes over to help Erik with the girls. It's clear he won't get anything useful out of Charles before they tend to his sister. "The other room is booked under Raven's alias," he says quietly. "We can move them there for now, until Stryker is dealt with and we have a clear shot at getting them to a S.H.I.E.L.D. hospital." He waves Alex and Hank over. "Come on, give us a hand. Moira can deal with the PASIV."

Moira already is, her face pale but resolute. She's a good agent. "But what about Marko?" she asks. "Isn't he--"

"He won't be bothering us," Coulson says shortly. "He's dead." He looks right at Charles as he says it. "Allergic reaction to the Somnacin, we think."

Charles doesn't so much as blink. It's Erik who flinches, fumbling with Raven's body for half an instant before catching her again. But Erik couldn't possibly have done it. He hadn't even shared Marko's dream. He couldn't have affected Marko in any way -- no one on the inception team could have.

But Erik's gaze snaps over to Charles, and at that, Charles does look away. He presses his hand against his bad leg, rubbing his thigh with a wince as he prepares to stand. He won't meet his partner's eyes.

Erik thinks Charles had something to do with Marko's death. And Erik knows Charles better than anyone else. What does he know that Coulson doesn't?

Charles spent two years under Shaw's captivity. He has one of the sharpest minds in the business. He could have picked up a few of Shaw's tricks in the process. But Charles hadn't been hooked up into Marko's PASIV. It wasn't possible to hack into another dream like that. It can't possibly be Charles.

There's a hell of a headache brewing at the base of Coulson's skull. He does his best to ignore it as he and Hank carry Angel carefully out of the room. Erik and Alex are just behind them with Raven. Both girls are still linked into the PASIV with thin tubes in their wrists, the only things keeping them from slipping into comas for the rest of their natural lives.

If it isn't too late for them already.