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=|=|=|=

This time, they're finally gonna nail it.

Jake's throwing up in the marble bathroom when Cougar comes looking for him. They're in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, their base of operations as the mark's checked into the suite next door. The brocade and tasteful luxury are getting on Jake's nerves; this place is way out of their league and they're only here courtesy of some dubious funding finagled by Aisha. Jake really doesn't want to know the details. He hacked the booking system once they found out which rooms their target had taken. Soon, he'll pick the lock to the connecting door and let them through.

The mark's a key figure in the Qatari secret service, some sheik or other who's here on a business trip. Jake spaced out on his name—Walid, al-Aziz, shit like that. Aisha's with him now, having a "private consultation" and once he's out cold she'll knock on the door and Jake'll do his thing, then they'll set up the IVs and PASIV and get to it. The sheik's guards think it's a tryst with Aisha after her audience earlier—she was all dolled up in eye-makeup and a fancy veil, henna patterns swirling on her hands, and ankle bracelets tinkling. They've pegged her as a high-end hooker and won't interrupt. Like all good forgers she's a consummate con-artist: lying comes easy as breathing. Sometimes Jake wonders why they trust her at all, but then Clay's not that objective where Aisha's concerned, and Clay's the boss.

"Take this." Cougar hands him a pill. He knows how Jake gets before a job, knows what works for the nausea. Covering all the details is what Cougar does, as point man.

Jake takes the pill, and Cougar silently hands him bottled water, to wash it down and swill out his mouth. Jake spits, then turns, wiping a hand across his lips. "Lookin' good, Cougs," he says appreciatively. The three-piece suit and Italian shoes helped Cougar grease up the hotel staff and concierge, but they're only a tad classier than his usual attire. He looks like a spiv, and hot as hell. What with the suit, his hair pulled back in a sleek, tight ponytail and the Latin charm turned up full bore, he had the reception staff—male and female both—eating out of his hand. Jake wants to let his hair loose and muss it up. He knows better than to try, before a job.

"Okay, ready to rumble." Jake claps Cougar on the shoulder in thanks, then heads back in where Clay's pacing while Pooch lounges on an overstuffed sofa, the PASIV at his feet. Cougar and Pooch'll stay out, Pooch keeping them deep with his special cocktail, and Cougar monitoring the spyware and perimeter alarms, rifle at hand in case Max's team turns up again. Ever since Wade ambushed them when they were deep in an extraction on that Agency guy Sanderson, they don't all go down at once. Almost got killed for real, that time.

=|=|=|=

Pooch has the sheik under already and is fussing with the rest of the IVs. "You'll thank me later," he tells Clay, who's fidgeting impatiently. "The Pooch don't take no shortcuts with sterile procedure. Ain't none of you gettin' septicemia or a sub-Q abscess on the Pooch's watch."

"Just because Jolene's been nagging you agai–" Clay starts, then yelps as Pooch, having finished his vigorous alcowipe cleaning session, stabs the cannula into Clay's vein to shut him up.

"Jolene does not nag," mutters Pooch, frowning, taping the IV securely to Clay's arm. "Jolene is a trained nursing professional, on our payroll as a consultant. The Pooch was not nagged."

"Jesus, alright!" Clay snarls, squeezing his curled fingers open and shut as though that might ease the sting of the needle in his arm. Jake knows from experience that it doesn't. Clay turns to Aisha, on the bed beside him, IV in place. "No trouble knocking him out?" he asks.

Aisha looks scornful, in other words, much the same as usual. "All men are useless when they think with their dicks. He was no match for me."

"Hey now, fucking him for real wasn't in the–" And then Pooch starts the pump on the IVs, and it all goes dark.

It's fine at first, once they're in Clay's dream. Jake built a multi-layered palace full of back doors and secret passageways, coded it into a 3D sim and trained Clay and Aisha up like it was a video game. It's an Arabian Nights fantasy; he figured the sheik was most likely a sucker for the classics, so it's all marble pillars, gauzy draperies, archways, and patterned tiles. He leads the others up a staircase, grinning to himself. He's looking forward to seeing how the sheik's over-the-top bedroom turned out.

Clay and Aisha have finished a vicious, whispered argument about what happened in the hotel which seems to have established that she merely seduced the sheik before rendering him unconscious. Clay catches up with Jake. "There better not be any Escher fucking staircases in here, Jensen," he mutters in Jake's ear. "That shit does my head in."

"Nope," whispers Jake. He only built one of those staircases once, for a training session when he was practicing extraction skills. Clay's never forgiven him. "But you're the dreamer, who knows what your twisty old subconscious'll do." Clay grimaces; they both know which part of his subconscious they don't want turning up. Jake mentally kicks himself: damn, shouldn't have mentioned it.

They creep down an arcade of shadowed Islamic arches and Clay pushes open the heavily carved, gold-embossed door to the sheik's room. Oh yeah, pretty cool. Wall-lamps in niches shed soft light on a huge room thick with expensive rugs, walls covered by paintings and draperies. There's a large pool in the center, under a graceful, domed pavilion. The pool's full of floating roses and the air's thick with their scent. In the middle of the pool on a raised marble platform, the sheik's lying on a satin-draped bed, arms crossed behind his head, staring up at the filigree of the dome. Clay signals and they slide into the shadows by the entrance.

Aisha frowns. "I must swim?" she breathes at Jensen.

"Not advised," he whispers back. "His subconscious might have populated it with piranhas or, y'know, miniature sharks or something." He points with his chin. "There's a boat."

Aisha glares at him. "Piranhas?" she hisses, then slips off, and moments later she's hailed the sheik who props himself up on one elbow and beckons. She's morphed already, diaphanous harem pants low on her hips her only clothing. She gets into the flat-bottomed skiff and poles it out through the petals. The scent of roses intensifies.

Jake and Clay melt back into an alcove, and by the time Aisha crawls up onto the huge circular bed, she's naked, and a guy. She'd fooled the sheik in the hotel by packing a fake dick under her robes, letting him cop a quick feel before immobilising him with her favorite Vulcan death-grip. Here, in the dream, she's the real deal: slender, gold-skinned, her eyes ringed with kohl, predatory and beautiful as she slinks across the ridiculous bed. The sheik smirks in anticipation.

Jake grabs Clay's arm to shut him up. Clay hates when Aisha screws other men, even in dreams. She draws out the seduction while Clay twitches angrily in Jake's grip. Aisha's teasing, getting the sheik into a state where he'd sell his own mother to fuck her. She uses the old standard: "tell me all your secrets." Hackneyed, but it's a classic for a reason. The sheik's eyes flick briefly to the left-hand wall where four Persian miniatures are mounted in a gilt frame.

Aisha grins and closes for a kiss, then uses the same carotid pressure trick that knocked him out in the Waldorf. The sheik subsides, limp on the satin pillows, and Aisha morphs to female again and crawls off, then poles her way back to where Clay's waiting.

Jake's already across the room, looking for the safe. It's usually a hidden safe with dudes like the sheik. Whoa—he peers more closely at the miniatures. Lithe bodies tangle on them in improbably athletic poses, and what with Aisha sexing up the sheik and now the erotic art—the erotic gay art— he's half hard. "That can't be right," he mutters, turning his head at a 45 degree angle. "The human body does not do that." He dope-slaps himself to clear his thoughts and swings the picture away from the wall, exposing the dial. Bingo. Standard rich bastard issue, probably what the sheik has back in Qatar. Jake cracks his knuckles, pulls out his stethoscope, and gets to work.

He's cracked the final ring of the dial and this is the risky bit—if the damn thing's wired to a secret alarm, opening the door's when it'll go off. He pulls the earpieces out of his ears and turns to look for Clay and Aisha, to warn them it's time. Clay's got Aisha lifted up against the wall, legs wrapped around his waist, one of his hands busy in the shadow between her thighs. He's biting her neck and she shudders, clawing his back as she comes. "I'd say get a room, but we don't have time," Jake snaps. Jesus. "Get some clothes on 'cause I'm about to pop this thing and anything could happen." They separate reluctantly, and a heartbeat later, Aisha's in black jeans and a tee. Jake hopes Clay's got blue balls, because seriously, they better hope Jake doesn't snitch on them to Cougar. Cougs would not be amused.

Predictably, here's where it all goes pear-shaped. Jake cracks the safe and there's nothing in it. Oh wait, a small flash drive right at the back. Jake glares at Clay who looks innocent. "It's his subconscious," Clay says, shrugging.

"Oh, and you knowing I'm a hacker didn't at all influence the mode of data storage, huh? You couldn't have made it easy for me with a nice one-page executive summary of his secrets that I could've just read?"

"Too hard to cart documents around if it gets messy," says Clay, and right on cue the doors are smashed in and a bunch of the sheik's subconscious defences—big no-neck security guards clutching Uzis—pour into the room. Jake pockets the drive and they run for the other side of the sheik's pool-bed and hunker down behind the low stone wall. Surely the sheik's defences won't risk catching him in the crossfire? Clay and Aisha get off a few shots, but they're pinned down, and probably more guards are on their way. Jake pulls his emergency condom out of his back pocket—he's got himself trained to expect it to be there; they're remarkably useful—and drops the drive into it, knotting it tightly, then he makes a face and swallows the lot. Bleh, latex. He retches and scoops a mouthful of water from the pool to wash it down. He's going back in for a second scoop when Clay grabs his wrist and points: a curved dorsal fin's slicing through the water toward him, rose petals falling away on either side. "Seriously?" Jensen splutters, punching Clay in the arm. "Miniature sharks, seriously?"

"Your fault for talking about them," mutters Clay, squeezing off another few rounds at the guards across the room. "We gotta make a break out the back. We can cut around through the gardens, escape that way."

"With what?" Jensen yells over the gunfire. "I haven't accessed the data on the drive yet! Look around you: this place is medieval. It's not filled with computer hardware!"

They make a break for it anyway, running for the archway at the rear. More ornate doors, but they're not locked. Clay pushes the heavy slab of wood open a crack and they squeeze through, Aisha sending a few last rounds back at their attackers, joining them on the other side and slamming the doors shut.

"Clay," says a familiar voice, and Jake's heart sinks. Roque steps forward, gun pointed at Clay's center mass. He's grinning, teeth white in the gloom of the hallway. Jake senses Aisha tensing to spring, but then a bunch of guys in black paramilitary outfits step forward from the shadows beside Roque, all with guns trained on them. They're cold-eyed killers, far more lethal-looking than the Sheik's guards in the other room, and weirdly, they're all dead ringers for Saddam Hussein. Great: Roque's gotten himself a whole fucking squad now. Jake glares at Clay.

"Roque," Clay says, his voice bleak. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Yeah, ain't that a trick," says Roque, and he's not smiling now. He gestures to his men. "Tie 'em up."

So that's how they end up trussed like chickens, in the dungeons of the sheik's subconscious. They can't kick themselves out of the dream by killing each other and the PASIV wasn't set with a timer. Timers are fine for training sessions or short, predictable jobs. They didn't use one for this—too many variables. Eventually, Pooch'll realize something's gone wrong when they don't awaken. He's planning to lighten the sedation and wake them after an hour, anyway. But an hour in real life can be a very long time in the dreamworld, and they're trapped and helpless while Roque sharpens his knives.

"Will you for Christ's sake see a shrink about this guilt trip with Roque?" Jake hisses.

"Shut up, Jensen," mutters Clay, working stubbornly at his bonds. They're not likely to budge; Roque tested them himself, so obviously some part of Clay wants them all to be immobilized, and it's Clay's dream.

"I mean, I know he was your point man for years before Max killed him, but that's what I'm saying. Max killed him, not you!"

"Jensen," Clay says warningly.

"It's just so unnecessary, letting him haunt you, and it's fucking up the work." Jake's not gonna shut up: he's had it up to here with this crap with Roque's shade, and he's tied up and lying in a filthy cellar in some goddam sheik's subconscious, and it totally sucks. "It probably all goes back to your parents or some shit. Probably some kind of unresolved complex where you wanted to kill your daddy and marry your mommy, and because you repressed your homicidal tendencies you have to save everybody in the whole fucking world now, and not leave anyone behind. I mean, Roque was a stand-up guy, don't get me wrong, although the knives were always a little worrying, but the op turned to custard and it was Max and fucking Wade who killed him, not you. Seriously, get some help."

Clay doesn't say anything, but Jake can pretty much hear his teeth grinding. He wonders what'll happen first, Roque slicing bits off them with a knife, or one of the Saddams shooting them in the kneecaps. Or hey, maybe the flash drive'll give him a bowel obstruction: that'd be delightful. Maybe Pooch'll wake them up in time, but that isn't usually how their luck runs. And if they do get pulled out, all he'll know is that the sheik's got secret intel—he won't have the damn data on the flash drive.

Jake thinks furiously, but he can't find a way out. They could go down another level in the dream to their back-up scenario but their bodies—well, their dream-selves on this level—would still be trussed up in this cellar, so it's not an escape route. Mostly they use it to gather extra intel by sucking the mark further into the dreaming. No chance of a pleasant nap up here, anyway, as Roque's got the Saddams coming in every few minutes to harass them.

Jake sighs and settles down to wait for his next kicking.

=|=|=|=

"Got a bad feeling," says Cougar. His guts feel like they're tied in a knot.

Pooch blinks at him. "What, worse than your usual paranoia?"

Cougar paces some more. "Taking too long."

Pooch points at the clock. "Chill, bro. The hour's not up yet."

"One hour here. Twenty hours for them." Cougar shakes his head. A lot can go wrong in twenty hours.

Pooch gets a stubborn look. "Clay said not to pull 'em out early. We gotta get the intel, you know that." His phone rings and he takes the call, wandering off, head bowed. "Yep, I'm him." Pooch stops dead. "Say what? Where? Is she?—Hell, I'm…at work. No, I'll. Uh. Look, gimme the address." He grabs a brochure for aromatherapy massages and scribbles something down. "Yeah. Tell her to hang on and I'll be there. Soon as I get a cab. And hey? Tell her the Pooch loves her. Yeah, you heard right."

Pooch stuffs the phone back in his pocket and turns to Cougar, eyes wide. "It's Jolene. You know she wanted to come, do some shopping? It's three weeks early but her waters broke in Macy's. They took her to hospital by ambulance. The baby's coming, Cougs and I gotta be there." He breaks off and whirls around, staring at the dreamers, the IVs, all the gear. "Shit. What're we gonna–"

"Go," says Cougar firmly. "I will watch over them."

"But Cougs, I can't just. What if they?–"

"Your child is coming. Jolene needs you. We will be fine here." It's the last thing Cougar wants, but he can't put that on Pooch. Not with Jolene in premature labour in a strange city. He calls the concierge and they say there are plenty of cabs right outside. Cougar pushes Pooch out the door, ignoring his protests, trying to take in his last minute instructions.

Then he's alone, just him, the three sleepers, and the bad feeling. Cougar stares into the intimidatingly complicated guts of the PASIV device, LED timer counting down on the front. He's the point man: he's supposed to know everything, be on top of all the details. But they specialize. They have roles; they're not jacks of all trades. Pooch is the one who's good with machines. Well, apart from computers—that's Jensen's turf. Cougar knows guns and he can juggle the complexities of a plan, never losing sight of the final goal, the target. But the PASIV? That's always been Pooch's job.

The timer blinks at him. Twenty-two minutes until the hour's up and he can't remember what Pooch said, about tapering down the sedative. There are two white buttons, but does he push the left one or the right, to decrease the dose? Will that even work with the dream underway? Was there something else he had to do? Shit. He goes to the laptop and checks all the spycam screens. It seems safe, no sign of Wade's team, but his gut's still screaming at him. Cougar grips his rifle and hunkers down on the uncomfortable sofa, glaring at the door.

=|=|=|=

At first when the door grates open Jake thinks it's one of the Saddams again, or Roque, come for his pound of flesh.

But it's not Roque. It's the sheik, flanked by six of his guards, and he's pissed. Maybe he went down a level into some sort of unstructured dream-within-a-dream after Aisha felled him with the carotid pinch. Jake wonders how he got kicked back up again. Maybe it was a nightmare and he died down there? Might be one reason he's in a crappy mood.

"Thieves and intruders," the sheik snarls. "In my inner sanctum!" He glares at Clay and Jake, then turns to Aisha, his face cold. "You will not deceive me again, whore. Betraying my trust, pretending to be–" He stops, apparently reluctant to talk about getting it on with Aisha as a dude, in front of his guards. Jake can see why: they don't look like they go on a lot of gay pride marches.

"Search them," says the sheik, and one by one they're stripped, held down, and searched.

The guards aren't gentle. "Ow, jeez, use a little lube for fuck's sake!" Jake yells, before a meaty hand's clamped over his mouth and he's kicked in the head. Again. It's worse than goddam airport security, and Jake winces at the thought, his head spinning, 'cause if the bastards have got a scanner they'll figure out he swallowed the drive, and he wouldn't put it past the sheik to set up a little impromptu surgery.

They don't have a scanner. They don't seem as lethal as Roque's squad, or as organized, resorting to straightforward brutality when the stolen drive eludes them. Finally, the three of them are left alone to curl up around their bruised ribs in the dark. Roque's nowhere around, so maybe being thrashed in the dream has assuaged Clay's guilt enough for now that he doesn't need to beat himself up inside his own head.

Jake slips into unconsciousness. He doesn't dream.

=|=|=|=

The hour's up, and Cougar's in an agony of indecision. He thinks it's the button on the left, to slow the sedative. But what if that's wrong, and he kills them all with an overdose? He's not a doctor, and he couldn't resuscitate three people at once, even if he was. There might be an antidote here to reverse the somnacin cocktail keeping them under, but he's checked Pooch's drug box and there's nothing labeled "antidote". He makes a mental note to address that. And to put a label on the goddam buttons.

Plans to get Pooch's gear neatly labeled in the future are no help to him now. He paces, and grinds his teeth, and finally he gives up and pulls an armchair over by the PASIV, tourniquet tight on his arm until the veins stand out. He swabs a big one snaking over the back of his forearm, cleaning it carefully because he doesn't want a lecture from Pooch about antiseptic procedure if he gives himself blood poisoning. He's watched Pooch do this often enough; it's not so difficult. Cougar takes a deep breath and inserts the needle. He has to push harder than he'd thought; skin's tough to get through when you don't have a razor-sharp knife. He tapes the tube down flat. No telling how long he'll be under.

It's a terrible plan, he thinks as he hooks himself up. Possibly the worst plan he's had in his entire life. But something's gone wrong in the dream. He can feel it, and he has to go in after them.

He has to get Jake back.

=|=|=|=

The dungeon door scrapes open again and two of the sheik's guards push someone in, then slam it. Clay and Aisha tense, but the new prisoner falls to the floor, his hands bound, and doesn't seem a threat. Clay manages to roll and drag himself over—man, he's so sick of being trussed up—to see who it is. It's dark in here, no windows, but the door doesn't fit well so some light leaks in from lamps in the hallway outside.

"Cougar?" Clay asks incredulously. "What the fuck?"

Cougar groans, and spits some blood. His lip's split where the guards worked him over. He squints up at Clay—probably can't see a goddam thing in the gloom.

"Clay?"

"Yeah. And Aisha. And Jake's here too, but he's not doing so well. He kept mouthing off so they kicked him in the head a few extra times."

"Shit." Cougar struggles to his knees. "Get my hands." The sheik's guys aren't as efficient as the Saddams and the rope's a little loose, so in moments Clay has it undone. It takes a minute or so for him to undo Clay's bonds, then Cougar crawls over to where Jake's propped against the wall, slumped on Aisha.

"Take him, so Clay can untie me" she says, and Clay hears them shuffling about, hears Cougar dragging Jake's unconscious form across, taking his weight.

"He's been out half an hour or so," says Clay, scooting across to Aisha and working on the knots of her bindings. He frees her and she slumps against him, rubbing her wrists.

Cougar sits back and there's just enough light that Clay can tell he's heaved Jake's body up so Jake's cradled on his chest, his head on Cougar's shoulder. Cougar wraps his arms around him.

"Not that we aren't thrilled to see you," Clay says, "but I gotta ask: who's minding the store?" Pooch, of course, but Clay doesn't like to think about Pooch there in the hotel on his lonesome, fending off Max and that bastard Wade all by himself.

"No one," says Cougar, and the cellar's pretty damn cold, but Clay still feels ice trickle down his spine.

"Pooch?" he asks. Jesus, what happened to Pooch, is he–

"He is okay," says Cougar. "Jolene. She's having the baby."

"But she isn't due for three weeks," says Aisha, like the universe not running to plan's a personal affront, rather than their usual crappy luck.

"Si," Cougar agrees. "Premature. He had to go."

Holy crap. Clay can see how it'd play out, but—"So you figured you'd leave us all up there, laid out on a plate for fucking Max to pick off at his leisure, and just plugged yourself in as well?" His voice is high, incredulous. He's too stunned to be as angry as he ought to be.

Cougar sounds sullen. "Knew something had gone wrong, and I am not the chemist. I could not be sure to wake you all safely." It's clear he knows he fucked up, but Cougar's not always rational where Jensen's concerned.

"No sign of Max or Wade's team," Cougar's still trying to justify himself. "There are perimeter alarms and the booby traps–"

"Oh, right, a few spycams and what, a bucket of water propped over the door?" Clay lets his voice drip sarcasm. "That'll stop Max cold."

"More than that," mutters Cougar angrily, but they both know it's not much more.

"Well, this adds a whole new dimension of fucked-upness," announces Clay. "Aisha and I were debating whether to kill each other, so I think you just sharpened the argument for that plan."

"What about Jake?" Cougar asks, and yeah, Clay thinks bitterly, what about Jake? That's why they haven't already committed murder-suicide and kicked everyone out of the dream.

"We don't know for sure what damn dream-level he's on," Clay says. "Could be he's gone down another level and what with Pooch's souped-up somnacin cocktail…"

"Killing him if he's down too deep might send him to limbo," Cougar finishes, his voice flat.

"It is not very likely," puts in Aisha, her voice hoarse and weary. "Probably he is still here, just unconscious. There has been no clear sign that he was dreaming."

"Too dark in here to tell," counters Cougar, sounding worried.

"And there you've got the argument we've been having, in a nutshell." Clay knows he sounds exhausted too. Getting the shit kicked out of you repeatedly'll do that.

"I will go in and find him," says Cougar. And yeah, Clay figured that's why he entered the dream, to get Jake. "I only just plugged in, I can do it."

"'cause your system's not used to it yet? Yeah," Clay agrees, "I guess it'll be hitting you hard, about now, so you can go deeper. But Cougar, you know it's a risk if you end up the dreamer. You don't do that anymore, not after–"

"I don't care," snaps Cougar. Clay knows when he gets like this there's no budging him. It's Jensen, after all. "You'll look after us?" Cougar adds quietly.

"Well, yeah. Someone's gotta keep an eye on things here if you're going deeper. I'm not leaving you behind," says Clay. He looks across where he knows Aisha's sitting: she's not going to like this. Her piercings briefly catch the light. "You have to go back and stand guard in the hotel room." She starts to protest, but he grips her arm. "I need you there, looking after us all."

"This mess is your doing!" Aisha spits. "And now you send me away?" But there's nothing else to be done, and Clay knows she can see that. They have to have someone topside, watching their six. She gets to her knees. "Do it, then," she says angrily, clambering up and hauling Clay to his feet.

They steady themselves, momentarily dizzy, then he pulls her in and kisses her, biting her lip. She tastes of blood and dirt. She doesn't fight him, so it only takes a moment to get her in position and snap her neck.

Clay lays her out in the darkest of the shadows by the far wall. He knows she's not dead in real life, but he doesn't need to be tripping over her goddam body down here and remembering how it felt...he doesn't need that. He slides down to sit again, lets his head fall back. No sleeping, so he makes himself mentally strip and clean every gun he's ever used. He's on the old hunting rifle he had as a boy, when Jensen groans and stirs.

"Jensen?" Another groan.

"Jeez, my fuckin' head's killin' me," Jensen says thickly. "What'm I lying on? 's lumpy."

"Cougar," says Clay. "And how the fuck are you awake?"

"I dunno. Way my head feels, must've been knocked out. Was I?"

"Yeah. You weren't dreaming, then?"

"Down another level? Nah." Clay's relieved: at least Jensen remembers what's going on. His concussion can't be that bad. But–

"Wait," says Jensen, wriggling around in Cougar's lax embrace to peer at him in the dark. "Cougar's here? What's he doing here?"

"Came into the dream to get you," explains Clay. "We thought you were down another level. Aisha's gone back up to stand guard."

"It's like fucking whack-a-mole around here," complains Jensen. "People popping up and down." Then he goes still. "Shit, Cougar's asleep, isn't he? He's fucking dreaming, isn't he?" His voice is tight with worry.

"Didn't have much choice," Clay protests. "You know what he gets like. He thought you were lost down there."

"Oh, fucking marvellous. So now he's lost down there!" Jensen tries to yell, then he groans and clutches his head. "Note to self: no shouting," he mutters. "Also, I take it back. This isn't whack-a-mole, it's Romeo and fucking Juliet!"

"You're the girl?" Clay asks innocently, because even if they're neck-deep in shit, some things have to be said.

"Yeah," Jensen says, "laugh it up. But Cougar's the fucking dreamer down there, and you know what that means."

Clay sobers. "Yeah. I warned him, but…"

"Fuck," says Jensen wearily. "Now I gotta do a Juliet and go after him." He's silent for a moment. "Or maybe I'm Orpheus?"

"Don't look back," says Clay. "And don't eat the fucking fruit."

=|=|=|=

Jake's in camos when he opens his eyes, sprawled under a giant tropical tree. He's clutching a rifle in both hands, and hallelujah, there's a laptop velcroed to his tac vest.

He squints around. It's daytime, but the jungle light here's always green and filtered. The place looks right—it's their back-up, like an alpha site in case they need to regroup on a deeper level. Cougar knows it well—hell, he drilled them all in the details after Jake coded it. So here Jake is, at the meet-up tree, but where's Cougar? Clay said he only went under ten minutes before Jake came to, but ten minutes up above is 200 minutes here. More than three hours.

"Cougs?" Jake calls tentatively. No one answers. The urge to look for Cougar is overwhelming, but Jake knows he can't; he has to stay put or they'll both be wandering around aimlessly, not seeing the wood for the trees. Like, literally.

Well, at least he can access the drive and get the data while he waits. He figures it'll be part of his body somehow, maybe his clothing, since it was still inside him. He checks himself over but there's no sign. Is it still up his ass? Oh man, he'd really hoped it'd morph into something less…anal. Yeah, sure, Jake. You figured you'd be less anal about computer hardware? He huffs out a sigh, and goes to let nature, and the time-dilation inherent in changing dream-levels, take its course. Five minutes later he's more comfortable, but there's no drive—and it's not like his fears about a bowel obstruction came to anything.

The gloom's deepening and Jake's getting seriously pissed at his digestive system, the jungle, Clay, and fucking Cougar, by the time Cougar shows. "Hola," he says softly, stepping out between two trees about ten feet away. He's in jungle camos as well, hat jammed low across his eyes. Jake'd been searching his laptop in case the drive data had magicked itself on there somehow—it hadn't—and he yelps in surprise and drops it into the leaf mold.

"Where the fuck were you?" Jake knows he sounds shrill. He grabs the laptop, brushes leaves off it.

Cougar shrugs. "Sorry, got twitchy. Thought I heard–" and he goes rigid, staring off into the trees to his left. Nothing happens, and he slowly relaxes.

"Oh, don't tell me it's started alr–" begins Jake. Cougar holds up a warning hand. Don't talk about it. Jake makes a lip-zipping gesture. "Hey," he says, changing tack as a distraction. "I can't find the data. Wanna help me?"

"Que?" Cougar frowns and picks his way through the undergrowth, joining Jake under the big tree.

Jake points up into the canopy. "We raided the sheik's safe, in the first dream-level. There were miniature sharks, an' all, you'd have loved it." Cougar gives him the eyebrow. "No really, man. Sharks and erotic art and roses, the whole nine yards. It was a thing of beauty. Anyway, I dunno if it was the sheik being tricksy or Clay being a dick, but the goddam data was on a flash drive." Cougar cocks his head and indicates Jake's laptop. "Yeah, but I didn't have one up there, did I? It was all hot an' cold running houris, not a hacker's den." Cougar nods judiciously. Jake leans in for emphasis. "And then Roque turned up!"

Cougar's looking thunderous. "Roque? Again?"

"I know," says Jake, wide-eyed. "That man has got to get his head shrunk, seriously. Plus, Roque had this squad of guys that all looked like Saddam Hussein – I tell ya, Clay's subconscious is a strange and scary place. But anyway, before Roque, the sheik's projections had us pinned down. Oh, but you met those guys, right." Jake touches Cougar's lip where the split was.

Cougar nods, "And you," he says, tracing the side of Jake's face where the bruising had been worst. Jake wants to lean into it, but not here, it's not safe here.

He hurries on. "So we were pinned down and I ate the flash drive." Cougar's eyebrows go ballistic. "Hey, in a condom, so the data'll be intact. The drive's probably fine as well. They're tough, and mostly plastic-sealed." Jake waves his hands in frustration. "But the damn thing hasn't come out the other end, and with changing levels I figured it'd most likely morphed, anyway. But I can't find it." He starts undoing his shirt. "Check my back for me?"

Sure enough, it's a tattoo, dark letters covering his back. Cougar reads it out to Jake, and he's pretty visually oriented—kind of has to be, as a sharpshooter. Between them, they should get all the details. Anyway, it's worrying enough that Jake figures it'll be etched onto their memories. Max has been using the PASIV and dreamsharing to do something called inception—planting suggestions in people's heads through dreams, which is totally not supposed to be possible—influencing politicians and military leaders, building up to some world domination plan of his own, like your typical Bond villain. There's a list of those who're already in his pocket, through inception or plain, old fashioned blackmail. It's disturbing.

"Okay," says Jake, as Cougar finishes going over the details for the third time. "Wow, that's pretty terrifying. Almost worth you risking coming down here: there's no way I could've accessed that data myself. What are we going to do, Cougs? He's a fucking evil overlord!"

"We tell Clay and the others," Cougar says firmly, "and we find a way to stop him." And yeah, that's what they'll do.

"We should go," says Jake. "The longer we st–"

But then he hears it, and Cougar does too, his head whipping around as he stares into the darkness under the trees.

First it's just the swish of leaves and twigs crunching underfoot, but the footsteps aren't right, aren't normal, they're erratic, dragging, too many of them, and Cougar moans and clutches Jake's arm. "No, no otra vez," he breathes, his voice a pained whisper.

Jake sees them then, the small shapes, dark in the shadows as they close in. Not just dark from the jungle's gloom, but from soot and blood as they shuffle forward, trailing broken limbs, necks at terrible angles, shattered and burned and coming for Cougar. The children.

"Los niños, no," Cougar moans, his grip on Jake's arm almost cutting off the circulation.

"Crap," says Jake. "You've been here too long." Cougar's frozen, his face ashen, and Jake knows it's down to him now.

He forces himself to turn away from the small, staggering figures, now only yards away and moving inexorably toward them. He turns Cougar around so his back's to the tree. Cougar stares past him, the whites of his eyes stark in the dim light, and Jake hears Clay's voice: don't look back. He pulls Cougar against him, thankful for his greater height, and buries Cougar's face in his shoulder. "Don't," he says urgently. "It was not your fault, for fuck's sake, Cougs. It was goddam Max who had the helo shot down. Just 'cause we were supposed to be on it–"

But Jake knows it's no use, he can't reason with Cougar or his shades, born of trauma and guilt. Cougar was the nearest; he saw the aftermath up close when that missile hit the helo full of kids. He's never forgotten it.

There's only one thing to be done, so Jake grabs his sidearm and presses it to the back of Cougar's neck, hugging Cougar close. At point blank range the bullet will take them both out simultaneously. He feels the first scrabbling at the legs of his BDUs and shudders. Then he pulls the trigger.

=|=|=|=

"Bad, huh?" says Clay sympathetically, and they're back in the goddam dungeon, Cougar sitting trembling, hunched over his knees, arms shielding his head.

"Yep," says Jake. "In every possible way. But at least we got the data from the drive."

"What, you had to shit–" starts Clay, but Jake cuts him off.

"Nah. It turned into a tatt. Cougar read it to me. It was all across my back."

"Least it wasn't all over your ass," mutters Clay, hauling himself up.

"Hey," says Jake, mock affronted. "My ass is pristine."

Clay snorts. "Yeah, and I'm the Dalai Lama. C'mon, we're blowing this popsicle stand."

Jake kneels beside Cougar and gives him a hug. It's dark; Clay can pretend he doesn't see. "Come on Cougs, time we were out of here." He helps Cougar up.

"How we gonna do this?" he asks Clay.

"Strangle you with your clothing?" suggests Clay.

Jake makes a face. "Strangulation's too damn slow. Anyway, that's gotta be institutionalized bullying, when the boss straight out kills you, don'tcha think? I should get free therapy on my health plan."

"If you had a health plan, I might agree," says Clay. He goes to the door and starts banging and yelling.

So then there's a fight and they take down a few guards, and Clay does indeed kill the three of them once he liberates an Uzi.

=|=|=|=

They come to in the hotel bedroom, sweating and gasping, then pull the IVs out of their arms. Aisha covers her relief with scorn and bosses them about, standing over them with alcowipes and band-aids in between packing away the PASIV.

"No intruders," she says crisply. "No sign of Max."

"Yeah, that'd be all we need, to put the cherry on this shit of a day," grumbles Clay, wincing as Aisha cleans his IV site rather vigorously and slaps a bandage on.

"What about him?" Aisha tilts her chin at the sheik, laid out on his bed and still sleeping.

"He didn't get kicked out of the dream," says Clay. "He'll wake up naturally in a while, when the drug wears off."

They slip back into the adjoining suite and do a quick and dirty debrief. Jake thinks he and Cougar managed to remember all the names, and the details of Max's plans. Clay looks grim, but they're too exhausted to figure out how to save the world right now. They need baths and beds, but sleep's likely to be elusive, this close to a job. There are other ways to relax.

When the last of their gear's packed, they check out: too risky to stay here if they don't need to. Cougar's booked them in at a cheap but perfectly adequate three-star several blocks away. They get a cab.

At the new hotel, Clay and Aisha melt away. Pooch and Jolene already have a room here, not that they're in it. Jake wonders if Jolene's had the baby yet.

In the elevator up to his and Cougar's room, he checks his phone. Sure enough, his email's full of photos of a grinning Pooch and an exhausted but radiant Jolene holding a tiny, swaddled, monkey-faced bundle. "IT'S A BOY!" reads Pooch's message. Jake hands the phone to Cougar, who finally unclenches a little and cracks a smile. An email with a huge file attachment comes through soon after they get to their room, from Pooch again. It's a vid and Jake whimpers, staring at the screen in horror, until Cougar takes it off him to see for himself. "THE MIRACLE OF BIRTH!" Pooch has written.

"Why would he send us the actual goddam birth video?" Jake whines plaintively, falling back onto their king-sized bed and scrubbing at his eyes to erase the images. "Those were Jolene's ladybits! This is why I'm gay, Cougs, so I never have to see that sort of traumatic shit!"

Cougar smiles, but it's strained, and doesn't reach his eyes. Jake takes the phone and chucks it aside then hauls him into a hot shower. After, he gives Cougar a really thorough back massage and tucks him up in bed. When Jake gets back from the bathroom, Cougar's relapsed a little, curled in a fetal shape under the covers. Jake coaxes him to unwind with a nice long blow job. He can't take away the horror, but at least he can get Cougar off to sleep on a wave of endorphins. Better living through chemicals.

Finally, Cougar nods off. He wasn't in the dream very long, and he had a smaller total dose of the drug, compared to Jake. Maybe Jake isn’t getting to sleep himself any time soon, but at least Cougar's out for the count. He spoons up behind Cougar, slings an arm around his waist and spreads his hand over Cougar's heart. He won't think about Max taking over the world, not tonight.

Jake closes his eyes. Next time it'll go better. Next time, they're finally gonna nail it.

=|=|=|=

the end