Title: What Dreams May Come
Author: Lena7142
Genre: Gen, H/c, whump,
Characters: Michael, team.
Warnings: Violence, pseudo-deathfic (but not really)
A/N: Thanks to Faye Dartmouth for the generous beta! Remaining mistakes are my own. Posted in multiple parts for length. Part A.

Summary: When Michael starts being haunted by nightmares about the team's missions, the lines between dream and reality begin to blur.

-o-

What Dreams May Come

-o-

Michael Dorset knew a fair amount about dreams.

He'd started as Pre-Med, but had eventually changed his major to Psychology, and pursued a graduate degree in it. He'd held a part-time job in a sleep lab in grad school, and had spent hours staring at maps of brain waves of sleeping people, seeing how dreams were just little electrical impulses in the mind, appearing as squiggles on a chart.

He knew dreams were just the way the mind processed and reviewed information from the waking world. That while intriguing, they were a normal neurological function, and in no way supernatural.

They certainly weren't prophetic.

A born skeptic, Michael had always scoffed at the people who insisted that their dreams had come true, or predicted the future. Such dreams were simply the product of the subconscious mind's extrapolation of the most likely outcome, often based on information the conscious mind hadn't realized it had retained. The subconscious mind, after all, was good at making predictions. Such dreams were a statistic probability and nothing more.

Knowing how mundane and trivial dreams ultimately were made it fairly easy for Michael to dismiss his own.

Usually.

-o-

When Carson Simms died (or had appeared to die, at any rate), Michael had nightmares.

They'd started out as simply reliving the explosion he'd believed Simms had perished in, watching the flames billow outward night after night after night. But then the dreams changed... expanded. And then it wasn't just Simms. Some nights he watched Casey go down in a hail of bullets. Some nights he could only stare in horror as Billy crumpled lifelessly to the ground, jaw slack and eyes vacant.

For a while, Fay had been there to shake him awake when he screamed in the middle of the night, holding him and whispering soothingly as she ran her delicate fingers through his hair, assuring him that it was just a dream.

But eventually Fay left. And Michael was left to wake alone in the dark, the names of his team dying on his lips as he realized that it was all in his head.

He'd had to go see an Agency shrink as part of his extended debriefing over Simms' death. He told the doctor he'd been having trouble sleeping, but he didn't say why. He didn't tell her about the dreams. Because they weren't important. They were just dreams. Squiggly lines on a chart. Michael didn't need a shrink to tell him that they were a perfectly natural psychological response; that losing Simms had awakened anxieties in him about the possibility of losing the rest of his team; that his subconscious was becoming obsessed with mortality, and enacting out scenarios he was afraid to recognize the potential for in his waking life.

Michael didn't need to be told any of that, so he didn't say a word. Eventually, the black paint on Simms' star faded from glossy to matte, and the ODS got over their grief and moved on. Eventually the dreams went away, and Michael slept through the night again.

And if he even acknowledged that the nightmares had started the night before they'd flown to Africa, he certainly never told anyone that.

-o-

Four years later, Michael started having nightmares.

-o-

They were planning a mission to Moscow. A branch of the Russian Mafia was getting very enthusiastic about arms trafficking, and the ODS had orders to recover the intel to shut it down. They'd be going in under deep cover as a group of mercenaries looking to get on board with a trafficking operation. It was supposed to be simple recon. Casey and Rick spoke fluent enough Russian to get by, and Billy and Michael were the admittedly "smooth" members of the team, so between the four of them and their carefully crafted Agency covers, Michael had been confident.

-o-

Then everything went wrong.

The first phase of the mission had gone perfectly. They had worked their way in as a mercenary group, gotten in well with the family boss, and were set to help oversee a shipment to Kiev.

Then their cover got blown sky high.

Michael hadn't even had time to register it. One minute they were smiling and kidding around with their new 'business partners' – and the next, a gun was being pointed in his face.

"Whoa now, what's going on, fellas?" he'd asked, trying to grin despite the sudden increase in his heart rate. "What're you doing?"

"Exterminating rats," the leader had snarled with a wicked smirk, poising his finger on the trigger.

Casey slammed into him before he could pull it. And then the ODS was doing what the ODS did best, which was causing disruption; Billy took out two mobsters with an improvised club made of a chair leg, and Casey was a whirlwind of fists and feet and utter devastation. Michael got a few good punches in and turned to his left to see how Rick was faring –

– In time to see the knife flash across the kid's throat.

Michael froze. He was seeing things. The knife hadn't really cut Rick. He hadn't seen what he thought he'd just seen.

But Rick's eyes had gone wide and then there was a thin line of red appearing above his shirt collar, which rapidly grew as blood began to pour down, bright and red and oh so very real.

Michael didn't remember shouting. Didn't remember taking out the man with the knife. He remembered catching Rick as he fell, though, holding him and staring as blood welled and bubbled up from the young operative's severed throat.

"No, no no no no no," Michael began to repeat like a litany, trying futilely to stop the bleeding. It was hot and bright and brilliantly red, pulsing beneath his fingers in an arterial gush.

And Rick stared up at him, eyes wide and panicked, his expression one of shock and terror. Because this couldn't be happening. Rick tried to speak, tried to say something, but all he managed was a gurgling, choking sound as blood filled his mouth and the gash across his neck made an awful sucking noise. His eyes fixed on Michael, pleading, imploring him to do something. To make this not be happening.

But there was nothing Michael could do except hold Rick while the younger man's blood poured out of him.

"Just hang on, mate, you're going to be all right!" a voice said, as if from very far away.

Billy and Casey had arrived. Michael hadn't even realized. Casey's face was white, his jaw clenched so tightly he was almost trembling. Billy had crouched down and had a hand on Rick's shoulder, encouraging and cajoling him with assurances that it would all be okay. But the haunted look in his eyes told Michael that Billy knew better.

They all did.

"I'm sorry," Michael whispered. "I'm so sorry, Martinez."

Rick trembled and convulsed, making a small, wet, choking noise, eyes welling with tears.

Then with a gurgling sigh, he went limp in Michael's arms, eyes still staring into Michael's.

And Michael woke up.

-o-

He woke up in his apartment. The one he'd started renting after Fay had sold the house. The one in Virginia.

Not Moscow.

He sat up and looked down at his hands. Even in the early pre-dawn gloom, he could see that they weren't drenched in blood.

Hot and wet and pulsing through his fingers...

Reaching to the left, he turned on the light. He looked at the clock. 4:26am.

The bag he'd packed for the mission sat beside the foot of his bed, undisturbed.

They hadn't left yet. It hadn't happened. Martinez was fine.

Still feeling shaky, Michael got up and went to the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face and filled a cup with the chlorine-flavored tap water, gulping it down. Just a dream. Nothing more. Something must have come up that reminded him of Bolivia, probably igniting those old anxieties he'd had after the mission with the cartels, where he'd almost gotten the kid killed. It didn't mean anything. Hell, he'd see Martinez in a few hours when he went to pick him up for the team to carpool to BWI.

But when he crawled back into bed, Michael couldn't fall back asleep, and instead tossed and turned until dawn.

-o-

The mission to Moscow went off without a hitch. They worked their way in as a mercenary group, got in well with the family boss, and were set to help oversee a shipment to Kiev. Their covers were solid and they all knew them back to front; Michael had drilled them mercilessly on every last detail on the flight over.

They managed to gather enough intel on the operation they'd been sent to infiltrate to shut it down completely, and even went off script to successfully derail the arms shipment to the Ukraine, getting the mobsters in their company apprehended in the process, while melting away into the shadows themselves.

On the flight back, Michael gave Rick a squeeze on the shoulder. "Good work on this one, kid," he remarked, keeping his voice casual, refusing to admit even to his own mind the peculiar sense of relief he was feeling.

Rick looked back at him, his smile uncertain but enthusiastic. "Oh. Uh, thanks!"

They got back to the States with the mission accomplished, safe and unharmed.

Not that there was any reason to expect otherwise.

It had only been a stupid dream.

-o-

For a few weeks, things were quiet. They had two minor missions; a simple drop off in Portugal, and a brief rendezvous with an asset in Budapest. Both were simple and straightforward, done within a day, with the team flying back to lounge around the office and pretend to do paperwork for the rest of the week.

The memory of the nightmare gradually faded, and soon Michael found himself as antsy as the rest of his team to get back out in the field.

They got their chance with a mission to Berlin; a double agent was suspected to have infiltrated the consulate there, and it was up to the ODS to identify, isolate, and contain the breach.

The man in question turned out to be the cultural attaché's assistant, one Peter Hauer. But before the ODS had a chance to quietly and discretely apprehend him to bring him in for questioning, Hauer realized he'd been made and ran for it.

Which of course, meant a high-speed chase through the busy streets of the German capital.

"Higgins is gonna love this," Martinez had mused as Billy turned the wheel hard, sending their car screeching around the corner with a smell of burning rubber.

Hauer's car was smaller than theirs, allowing it to slip through narrower gaps in traffic.

"He's getting away!" Casey shouted, tense with rage.

But being smaller also meant that Hauer's car was more fragile and had less ballast; when a truck clipped him as he ran a red light through an intersection, Hauer spun out and overturned in a crash that made the entire ODS wince.

"That'll bloody hurt," Billy remarked as he pulled over near the throng of pedestrians who were beginning to gather and gawk.

But to all their amazement, the crumpled door of the little car opened and Hauer stumbled out, staggering at first, but then making a run for the nearest building.

"Oh no you don't," Casey growled, jumping out of the SUV and taking off at a sprint after the double agent.

Billy blinked. "I suppose we ought to follow?"

Michael nodded, unbuckling his seatbelt. "Right. Collins, you're with me. Martinez, I need you to contain the situation here. You speak German, right?"

"Er, a little –"

"Good enough. Hang tight and bullshit the authorities when they show up; we'll be back with Hauer."

Rick frowned at being sidelined, but didn't protest. Michael hopped out of the car, and he and Billy broke into a run after Casey and Hauer.

-o-

They lost Casey in the building.

It was an old office building, currently closed for renovations, the ground floor covered in dust and plastic sheeting that floated ghost-like on the draft from the doorway. Michael called Casey's cell.

"Bit… busy…" he heard Casey gasp.

"Where are you?" Michael demanded.

"Stairwell. He's heading… for the roof!" Casey grunted before the line went dead.

Billy looked at Michael. "Don't suppose the elevators work?"

Michael looked around. "I doubt it. Let's go."

-o-

Michael's legs and lungs both burned. Far above, he could hear Casey's footfalls, and beyond that, Hauer's. Billy was a few steps behind him, every bit as winded as Michael as he brought up the rear of the pursuit.

When they finally reached the door to the roof, Michael felt lightheaded and his quads were on fire. Still, he ran out on to the roof –

- To see Hauer, standing at the edge, gun in hand and pointed to his head.

"Well that seems a mite redundant," Billy rasped as he caught up and got a look at the scene.

"Stay back!" Hauer shouted. "I'll do it!"

"Easy now," Casey said from his position nearest Hauer, glancing back pleadingly at Michael to take over.

"Calm down, Hauer. We can salvage this," Michael said, catching his breath enough to speak. Hauer dying would close the breach, that was true, but he was far more valuable alive. They needed to know who he'd been working with, what intel he'd been feeding them…

"What, so I can be tried for treason?" Hauer demanded hysterically. "No thanks! My life is over."

"That's not true," Billy interjected. "Not yet. You don't have to do this, mate, you've got options!"

Hauer hesitated, and Michael saw something change in his eyes as he slowly lowered the gun. For a moment, he dared to feel relief that the man was seeing reason, that they might recover him and save this mission after all.

Then Hauer raised the gun again, only this time, it was pointed at Billy. "You're right… I do…"

Michael tensed, ready to leap aside and push Billy out of harm's way. But before he had the chance, Casey lunged forward at Hauer, tackling him.

And then they both went over the edge.

It happened without a noise. Without time for Michael to even take a breath. He stared. Hauer and Casey had both been standing by the edge of the roof. And then, in a split second, they were gone.

Gone.

"Casey!" Billy screamed, breaking free of the spell first and making a dash for the edge.

Michael barely had time to move, to grab Billy and hold on to him to keep him from following Casey over the precipice.

"Let me go!" Billy cried. "Casey!"

"He's gone," Michael heard himself say, the words thick and alien on his tongue. "He's… he's gone…"

"NO!" Billy shouted, thrashing and pulling free, running up to the edge –

– and stopping, staring down. Carefully, Michael edged forward, daring to look.

Over a dozen stories down, two figures sprawled out on the pavement, surrounded by a growing pool of dark blood.

And as Billy fell to his knees with an anguished sob, Michael reflected numbly that it had all happened in just a split second…

And Michael woke up.

-o-

One nightmare was a fluke.

Two nightmares…

Were probably also a fluke, Michael sternly reminded himself, pulling on his sneakers for an early morning run. He knew better than to think he'd be able to grab a few more hours of sleep, and figured he might as well channel that anxious energy into a productive workout.

In the other bed of the shared hotel room, Casey snored peacefully.

Before leaving, Michael scribbled a quick note on the complimentary hotel stationery:

Gone for a run. Jet lagged from the flight over. Will meet you guys at breakfast and we'll head to the consulate from there.
-M

He quietly slid the door closed. By breakfast, he reflected, he'd have probably forgotten all about it.

-o-

He hadn't.

It made breakfast awkward.

Michael couldn't help but steal glances over at Casey every few minutes. Rick and Billy seemed oblivious, but the human weapon caught Michael's gaze and after the second time, frowned. "Do I have something in my teeth?"

"Er, little bit of syrup on your chin," Michael lied. "There. You've got it."

Casey wiped at the imaginary syrup with his napkin and harrumphed.

But Michael couldn't get the image of Casey, broken and splattered on the pavement, out of his head. It had been so... vivid. But Casey was next to him and as alive and dour as ever, digging into his breakfast. And Billy was laughing and making jokes and flirting with the waitress – a stark contrast to the desperate and sobbing Billy of Michael's dream – while Rick's sleepy smile couldn't have been further from the look of horrified terror as he bled out in Michael's arms...

This was reality. That had been a dream.

"You all right, mate?" Billy queried around the time the check arrived.

"Fine," Michael lied, smiling. "Let's get going. We have a meeting with the cultural attaché..."

-o-

When they found out the double agent was the cultural attaché's assistant, an unassuming-looking man named Peter Hauer, Michael wasn't too surprised. He'd read all the files on the consulate during the red-eye flight to Berlin, had gone over all the intel, and had probably seen something that had already allowed his subconscious to deduce that Hauer was the source of the leak.

And when Hauer bolted, well, that was also a completely predictable response. Missions were difficult to control, and any double agent who thought he'd been made was well within his senses to run. His dream had done nothing more than predict the most likely scenario.

But as they turned and sped through the streets, with storefronts and street signs flying by in flashes of brief familiarity, Michael began to feel a little unsettled. He'd been to Berlin a few times before, but he didn't know the layout of the city well enough to anticipate this route. The sense of deja vu he was experiencing was starting to make the hair on the back of his neck prickle.

"Higgins in gonna love this," Martinez mused as Billy turned the wheel hard.

Michael swallowed, and the way his stomach rolled wasn't just from carsickness.

Hauer's car wove between two taxis, to a chorus of angry horns.

"He's getting away!" Casey shouted, tense with rage.

A truck clipped Hauer as he ran a red light through an intersection; his car spun out and overturned in a crash that made the entire ODS wince.

"That'll bloody hurt," Billy remarked as he pulled over near the throng of pedestrians who were beginning to gather and gawk.

Casey gave Michael a long look. "If you're going to be carsick–"

But Michael was already out of the car, sprinting toward the wreck, pushing through the crowd. When the door opened and Hauer tumbled out, Michael skidded to a stop, grabbing the double agent and hauling him to his feet before slamming him against the crumpled side of the car, twisting his arm painfully up and back while reaching for the gun he knew – no, not knew, suspected– Hauer had tucked into his waistband. Several onlookers gasped, one person launching into applause. Michael winced. Drawing this level of attention, in a public space, wasn't optimal.

But it was better than the alternative.

"Nice takedown," Casey said from behind him.

Instead of turning, Michael looked up at the towering office building under renovations. "I was feeling pretty motivated today," he replied, suppressing a shudder.

All it took was a split second: for him to lose a teammate, or to save them.

-o-

Once was a fluke.

Twice was just weird.

Michael found himself reliving the Berlin mission – the dream and the reality – in his head over and over after they got back. The details, the similarities... it was uncanny. Though, he rationalized, it was perfectly possible that the deja vu was an illusion, and that his mind had projected those details on to his recollection of the dream after the fact. Human memory was notoriously unreliable, after all. And as for Casey dying, well, spywork was dangerous. Of course he would worry about his team. Even Casey wasn't immortal.

It was just a stupid dream; nothing precognitive or special about it.

Though that didn't explain whyhe was having nightmares again. Something was clearly causing his subconscious some form of anxiety if this was starting again; something that was prompting his mind to construct elaborate worst-case scenarios of missions.

Michael just didn't know what.

He wound up having coffee with Fay. She'd been reluctant to agree, and normally, he sensed, would have turned him down flat. But he'd been having trouble sleeping and looked haggard, which probably had something to do with it.

"Ok, spill. Something is seriously off with you," she remarked as they sat down at the small cafe table. It was oddly reminiscent of one of their first dates, though Michael found himself too distracted to enjoy the comparison.

"Remember, a few years back, when, uh..." Now that he was trying to actually talk about it out loud, it felt stupid. Sounded stupider. But Fay had been the only person who'd ever known about the dreams the first time around, and he wasn't in a rush to tell anyone else. And furthermore, he was stuck. She knew him, probably better than she wanted to. He needed her insight. "Remember after Carson, when I had... trouble sleeping?"

Fay frowned, brow furrowing faintly in concern. "A little hard to forget."

Michael swallowed. "It, uh. It started up again. Couple weeks ago."

The frown deepened. "Do you know why?"

He shook his head. "No clue. Was wondering if you had any ideas."

She bit her lip. He'd always loved it when she did that... it was sexy as hell. But right now she looked less enticing and more worried. In many cases, Michael would have relished that – his ex-wife worrying about it justified his conviction that she still loved him and they could maybe fix things – but he had other things at the forefront of his mind at that moment.

"If it had happened eight months back, I'd have said it had something to do with Simms," she finally said. "Since it was connected to... him, the first time around. But if it's only been weeks–"

"Started right before Moscow," he confirmed.

She pressed her lips together and shook her head. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I'm sure they'll pass, though. It's probably just stress. Just... take care of yourself, okay? You look like hell."

"And you look gorgeous as usual," he remarked, doing his best to take her words to heart. Just stress.He'd gotten a divorce, sold his house, moved into a crappy apartment, and had a job where he rather routinely got shot at. Why shouldn't it be something as simple as stress?

Fay rolled her eyes, standing up. "Thanks for the coffee, Michael. Now go get some sleep before you run yourself into the ground."

"Yeah, ok. Thanks." He sipped at his decaf and sighed.

He should go home and sleep.

But he dreaded what dreams would come if he did.

-o-

"You doing all right, mate?" Billy asked a few minutes after he'd gotten into the car.

"M fine," Michael grumbled.

"Right..." Billy hesitated, looking a bit torn, then pressed on: "it's just, you seem a bit, er, off."

"I'm not off," Michael retorted, staring dead ahead.

Billy frowned, chewing momentarily on the inside of his lip before countering. "You've been acting a bit odd since Berlin. We've all noticed it–"

"I'm not off."

"Right..." Billy said again, nodding, and leaning back. "Then why did you just blow through that stop sign a minute ago?"

Michael blinked. "What stop sign?"

"The one we drive past on our morning commute every day, Michael." Billy's frown deepened. "You're not sleeping?"

Michael scowled. "Leave it alone, Billy."

"Right, sorry, forget I said anything." Billy lightly replied, hands raised in mock-surrender, though Michael didn't miss the sideways glances the Scot kept casting his way.

The rest of the drive in to Langley passed in silence.

-o-

Their next mission took them to southeast Asia, to try to break up a heroin-smuggling ring.

Michael had planned meticulously, fretting over every detail. He justified his reluctance to go to sleep by staying up all night with the mission reports and field intel. He did his best to plan for every contingency.

Except he couldn't. Paranoid bastard with a fevered brain regardless, Michael couldn't plan for everything.

-o-

He hadn't, for instance, planned on him and Billy getting captured while Casey and Rick were off disabling the perimeter defenses. Neither had he planned on the fact that a rival opium faction would launch an attack on the bunker used for heroin processing while he and Billy were infiltrating it, the sounds of combat breaking out just as the two spies were apprehended and restrained.

Being tied to a pole, back-to-back with Billy, on the floor of a tent while a drug war waged around them, had in no way, shape, or form, been part of the plan.

"Well." Billy shifted slightly, making the ropes chafe. "This is less than ideal, I must admit."

"Your knack for understatement knows no bounds," Michael grumbled, trying to see if there was any way to work loose the knots. He supposed they were lucky, in a way, that the rival cartel had launched an assault when they did. Without the distraction, it was likely he and Billy would have been executed by now.

But with the rat-a-tat of gunfire echoing around them and a flickering of light outside the tent that looked suspiciously like fire (especially when accompanied by the smell of burning opium) served as a reminder. A reminder that there was a good chance that even if he and Billy weren't killed deliberately, they might expire simply by being collateral damage.

"We need to get out of here and fast. Malick and Martinez will have heard this racket by now and are probably planning something stupid," he said, tugging at one of the knots that didn't seem as tight as the others.

"Way ahead of you, mate," Billy remarked, and Michael could hearthe smug smile through the Scotsman's voice. Then the rope began to jerk in a steady rhythm. It took him a second to realize Billy was sawing through it with something held behind his back. A minute later, the bonds loosened, and Michael was able to wriggle out of them as Billy tucked a small knife back into the fabric of his sleeve.

"Not bad," Michael noted with a nod of approval.

Billy winked. "I like to come to the party prepared."

Michael couldn't help but grin a bit. His team was good; they complemented each other's strengths and weaknesses. Michael might obsess over the big picture and prepare for major eventualities, but Billy planned for the little things and prepared for the unexpected. "Right. Now let's get a move on before that fire spreads to the tent..."

They checked to make sure the exit wasn't guarded – any sentries had apparently dispersed in the attack – then snuck out, keeping their heads low and clinging to the shadows wherever possible. Fires raged among the canvas and wood structures around them, and the air was thick with shouts and shrieks.

It was also thick with smoke, heavy and cloying and slightly odd-smelling. Opiates, Michael realized. This much unprocessed heroin on fire meant just breathing the air was like being in an opium den. "Try not to breathe," he hissed to Billy, pulling his shirt up to cover his mouth and nose. The Scotsman did the same with a nod. The last thing they needed was to try to escape while high as kites.

The compound was utter chaos. Fires, gunshots, jeeps driving by full of armed men – it all set Michael's nerves on end. But fortunately, it also meant that he and Billy were the least of anyone's problems. Though they had to duck a few times as bullets whizzed overhead, coughing heavily on the smoke, they eventually made it to the perimeter.

Then they were in the jungle, running blindly through the thick, damp vegetation, trying to put as much distance between them and the budding drug war behind them as possible. After a few minutes of all out sprinting, Michael called out to Billy to stop. He put his hands on his knees, sucking in deep gulps of miserably humid air. He'd breathed in enough of the smoke that his head was spinning, he reflected, trying to think through the haze of adrenalin, oxygen-deprivation, and opium. "Don't suppose you managed to grab a radio on your way out?" he gasped.

Billy shook his head grimly. "Sorry, mate."

They'd ditched their earwigs upon getting captured, so they were cut off from Martinez and Malick. Michael's expression soured. "We're just going to have to get to the rendezvous point. Odds are that Rick and Casey are there already if they heard things go to hell before we took the earwigs out."

"And the cartel?" Billy asked.

Michael shrugged. "Was on fire when we left it, with their entire supply up in flames. I think it's safe to call their operation dismantled, even if we didn't do it ourselves."

"Right, fair enough." Billy looked around, then furrowed his brow. "I suppose the only question left is – do you know which direction the rendezvous point is in?"

Michael stopped, thought, and then swore. They'd been so focused on getting out of the compound and into the safety of the trees, he hadn't taken note of their relative direction. He looked up, but the heavy foliage obscured any astronomical markers. Damn."No idea," he confessed. "I think we may have been heading north out of the camp..."

"So we'll hook a left and go west, aye?" Billy cheerfully supplied. "Oh, don't look so grim. The bad guys went up in flames, we got out with nary a scratch on us, and we dinnae even have to get our hands dirty! I think we can put this down as a win in the books." He gave Michael a friendly punch in the shoulder.

Michael straightened with a sigh. "Yeah, you're right. Let's go."

-o-

Michael found himself thinking of war movies. He remembered scenes from Platoon and Full Metal Jacketwhere soldiers hiked – no, 'humped' was the word – through the jungles of Vietnam, sweaty and miserable and cutting their way through the swath of vegetation with machetes.

Michael could do with a machete right about now, he reflected, wrestling with a bush.

"You know, the mosquitoes are rubbish, but apart from that, it's actually a scenic hike, I have to say," Billy remarked from a few paces ahead, slapping at his neck but seeming otherwise unperturbed.

"You're nuts, Collins," Michael growled, beginning to feel ornery.

"No really. I could imagine having a summer home here, if not for the infestation of insects and heroin dealers, though I dare say the latter population has been somewhat diminished following recent events."

Michael found himself thinking of otherdangers of the jungle from all those war movies. "Yeah, it'll be just great, going for a nice afternoon stroll and stepping on an old landmine from the Vietnam War," he grumbled, a stick smacking him in the face. "Not to mention all the booby traps our buddies in the cartel probably planted out here."

"You have no appreciation for the beauty of nature, Michael Dorset."

"Nature, I appreciate. A jungle in the dark that seems to be actively trying to kill me? Less so," Michael replied. Damn, he was starting to sound like Casey...

Then Billy stopped short.

Michael froze. "What, you see something?" he whispered.

Billy turned his head a fraction. "Remember what you were saying about booby traps?"

Michael's heart skipped. Then he looked down.

And saw the trip wire under Billy's foot.

He looked back up and Billy was staring at him, eyes wide in fear coupled with awful resignation. "Run!" he hissed.

And Michael didn't have time to think. Didn't have time to scream or rail against the unfairness. All he had time to do was throw himself to the ground, and the last thing he heard was an unholy bang.

-o-

The explosion happened fast.

Waking up, on the other hand, happened slow.

Michael came to gradually, his ears ringing, making him wonder if he'd gone deaf. Everything seemed muted, muffled, bits of dirt and debris raining gently down around him as he rolled on to his side, trying to recover some sense of equilibrium. Reaching up to his face, he felt blood trickling down his cheeks and neck, dribbling down from his ears. Blinking, he tried to make his eyes focus, tried to think through the awful, incessant ringing...

Something had happened.

He'd been... blown up? Yes, there had been a bang. Bangs tended to happen with explosions. An explosion in the jungle. He'd been hiking through the jungle in Southeast Asia with Billy –

–Billy.

Michael blinked, sitting up, ignoring the wave of nausea. "Billy!" he shouted, his own voice muted and distorted in his ears. He gritted his teeth and tried again. "Billy!" he called again, and this time heard it more clearly.

And from somewhere nearby in the dark, he heard a gasp and a groan.

"Billy!" Michael clambered to his feet, stumbled, and settled for crawling on his hands and knees. His body protested in pain, and he knew that he was probably covered in cuts from the bits of shrapnel the trip-wire-bomb had thrown into the air. But Billy –

Another groan, and then Michael stopped cold.

He'd found Billy.

What was left of him.

Michael's stomach sank, and even in the tropical jungle heat, he felt suddenly cold.

Michael had been a few paces away from the blast. He'd been able to hit the ground before it went off.

Billy hadn't.

"Hey, hey it's okay, I'm here," he found himself saying, kneeling next to Billy's mangled form. Oh God.

Billy looked up at him, blinking, involuntary tears tracing trails through the dirt on his face. "M-Michael?" he stuttered, voice hitching. "You.. a'right?"

"I'm fine," Michael assured him. "I'm... I'm okay..."

And he hated himself for it. Because he was fine and would only need a few stitches at the worst.

But looking down at Billy, he knew a few stitches wouldn't do it for his friend. He doubted anything would at all.

Billy's foot was gone. His left leg ended in shredded ribbons of flesh somewhere below the knee, his pant leg drenched in blood and tattered. Fragments from the grenade had torn through him, slicing open part of his thigh, tearing his hand nearly in half and ripping through his stomach. Michael tried not to look too closely at the grisly sight of Billy's insides spilling through the gash –

"It's... it's bad, innit?" Billy croaked.

Michael started to protest – started to assure Billy that no, it'd be fine, just a flesh wound, he just had to hold on until help got here.

But help wasn't coming.

They were alone in the jungle in hostile territory with no radios, no rescue, and no way out.

So Michael nodded. "Yeah. It's bad."

Billy seemed to appreciate the honesty. He smiled faintly, but then the smile was distorted into a grimace of pain as his back arched and he cried in pain, gasping and shaking. "Bollocks. That bloody hurts..."

"Well, you did get blown up," Michael pointed out weakly.

Billy snorted, taking a few deep, tremulous breaths. "Bloody stupid is what it is... this far into the mission and it all goes tits up over a misstep."

Bloody stupid. Michael couldn't help but agree, fighting back the wetness threatening to form in his eyes.

"You know, we all... talk a lot about... giving up our lives for the mission... yeah?" Billy gasped, voice cracking. "But... well... I don't think I really... want to die..." He panted for breath, and Michael could see him trembling. Billy looked up at him and tried to smile, but the gesture was undermined by the sight of blood staining the grooves between his teeth. "Reckon it... had to happen sooner... or later, though, aye? Retirement... wasn't really an option."

Michael tried to ignore the sensation of hot tears spilling down his cheeks, fighting to keep his voice even and calm. "You always were the blaze of glory type."

"I could've done... with a bit less blaze... and a bit more glory. Though I don't suppose... it'll be bothering me... for much... longer..." Billy convulsed and gasped, grinding his teeth together to stifle a whine.

And Michael couldn't handle it anymore. He leaned down and scooped Billy up, ignoring the small cry of pain, and pulled Billy's ruined, mangled form into his lap where he could cradle him close. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry," he said, voice strained. "I–"

"Don't," Billy hissed. "Please... don't. Not your fault." His eyes were wide, jaw locked in pain. "Not... your fault," he gritted out from between clenched teeth.

And Michael nodded, even if he couldn't agree.

Billy convulsed again and whimpered. "Damn..." He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and looked up at Michael in sudden panic. "Don't leave me. Please."

Michael pulled him closer, ignoring the slick sensation of Billy's blood spilling on to him, soaking through his clothes. "I'm not going anywhere, Collins. You have my word."

Billy relaxed slightly. "Righ'..." his eyelids lowered, his breathing growing more shallow and ragged. "Tell Casey m' sorry... an' take... care o' Rick for me, aye?"

"Yeah. I'll do that," Michael assured him, trying to hold it together even if he felt like he was being ripped apart, almost as badly as Billy had been ripped apart...

"It was... good team... good run," Billy murmured, head lolling against Michael's chest. "Wish... could've gone... home... one more ti'..." His voice grew weaker, shuddering, his eyes unfocusing. "Olivia..."

And then his body relaxed with one final breath that was almost like a sigh, and Billy went still and died in Michael's arms.

And Michael woke up.

-o-

He rolled off the couch where he'd accidentally dozed off, stumbled, staggered, and barely made it to the bathroom in time to fall to his knees and empty the meager contents of his stomach into the toilet. He fell back against the side of the tub, shaking and gasping, trying to push the image of Billy, blown to bits and bleeding in his arms, out of his mind.

Just a dream.

It was just a dream.

Wasn't it?

-o-

Their next mission took them to southeast Asia, to try to break up a heroin-smuggling ring.

Michael had planned meticulously, fretting over every detail. He justified his reluctance to go to sleep by staying up all night with the mission reports and field intel. He did his best to plan for every contingency.

And he did. He predicted an attack by a rival cartel that they had no actionable intelligence to confirm. He anticipated patrols that hadn't been in any of the reports. He made calls that seemed irrational, that made his team give him sideways looks.

Which was nothing compared to the looks they gave him when he was right.

"You've gone from mildly astounding to downright unnerving, you know that?" Billy commented as they slid out of the compound at the exact same time that fighting broke out, covering their escape completely.

"I have good intuition," was the only reply Michael could manage, grimacing.

"Oh, don't look so grim. The bad guys went up in flames, we got out with nary a scratch on us, and we dinnae even have to get our hands dirty! I think we can put this down as a win in the books." He gave Michael a friendly punch in the shoulder.

Michael tried to force a smile in return. He ought to smile, he knew. Because things were going right. They hadn't been caught, they'd gotten enough intel to dismantle half the heroin operations in the golden triangle over the next decade, and they were going to get out just fine.

He and Billy took off down a narrow, muddy trail, travelling due west. He still wished they didn't have to go through the jungle. But circumstances had changed. Everything had changed. Dreams didn't predict the future, after all, and the fact that half the events in Michael's dream had come to pass, despite the lack of evidence previously presented to indicate that outcome, was pure coincidence.

He kept telling himself that, at any rate, for the sake of his sanity.

But as they pushed their way through the jungle, Michel began to feel on edge. And when the sight of a patrol ahead on the path made them duck into the trees, blazing through the dense plant life, Michael felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. After about fifteen minutes, a sense of deja vu began to set it. "I think we might be going in circles," he muttered. "That tree looks familiar."

"Nope," Billy replied, pulling out the compass Michael had insisted on packing. "Straight as an arrow, I can assure you. An you know, the mosquitoes are rubbish, but apart from that, it's actually a scenic hike..."

"You're nuts," Michael countered before he could stop himself, the words emerging as if he were reading from a script. He swallowed hard, shaking his head. It was just deja vu. It was a common phenomenon; it didn't mean anything.

"No really," Billy continued, blazing on through the dense brush, "I could imagine having a summer home here..."

Michael stopped listening. He didn't need to listen. The sense of familiarity now was overwhelming; uncanny; exact.

Michael's stomach dropped.

This was familiar.

This was all coming true.

It was just a dream.

"Stop!" He cried out, reaching forward and grabbing Billy by the shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.

Billy looked at him in confusion. Michael nodded downward. The Scot's eyes tracked down and then widened at the sight of a thin wire mere inches from his foot. "Well that would have been unpleasant," he remarked, exhaling slowly and stepping back before crouching down to examine the booby trap. "Looks like it's attached to a grenade..." He turned back to Michael. "How the bloody hell did you even see that?"

Michael blinked. "Good eyes, I guess." It was a lie, though. He hadn't seen it. Not until after he'd shouted and grabbed Billy.

He hadn't seen a thing. But he'd known it was there. And he was damned if he could explain it. It was making his head spin. God, was he losing his mind?

Billy stood up, brushing the dirt from his knees. "Well, good thing you did. I mean, the thing looks like it's over forty years old, so it's probably long dead, but still. Not a risk I'd like to take."

Michael nodded, lips pressed tight. "Let's just get back to the rendezvous point. The sooner we're home, the happier I'll be."

"Fair enough. You can get some shuteye on the flight back. Lord knows you look like you need it, no offense..."

Michael smiled thinly in response, then pushed ahead, deftly sidestepping the trap and forging on through the jungle.

He wondered if he'd ever be able to sleep again...

-o-

They weren't just dreams.

But that wasn't possible. There was no scientific explanation. Michael was a man of reason. Of cold hard facts and deduction and logic. He could think circles around most people and yes, he could frequently make predictions and calculations that some found impossible and borderline supernatural, but that was just a matter of probabilities and statistical predictions.

Not like this. He didn't know what this was. And it scared him.

Michael's own mind was his greatest advantage; his greatest asset. Casey was the strength of the ODS, Billy its personality, Rick its heart, and Michael was the brain of the operation. But now that brain, that mind, was turning against him, making him question his own sanity. Because the impossible was taking place and fates that hadn't happened yet were haunting him.

They weren't just dreams. But Michael was damned if he knew what they were.

-o-

He passed on their next potential mission.

"But it's good!" Rick argued, holding the file up and shaking it. "I swear, the intel from my asset on this is solid, I've been working on the guy for six months now..."

"Too dangerous," Michael muttered, sorting through the papers on his desk.

"We're spied!" Rick nearly exploded in frustration. "Dangerous is what we do!"

"We take calculated risks that yield acceptable losses," Michael returned. "It's not worth it."

As Martinez sulked off, Michael slumped into his desk chair.

It wasn't worth the risk. Because some losses were simply unacceptable.

-o-

Michael started drinking coffee.

Well, more coffee.

A lot more coffee.

In his off hours he found himself digging out his old psych textbooks that Fay had neatly boxed up when they'd still been married. He poured over sleep studies, reading case files he'd considered inconsequential for years, trying to find something that would make it all make sense.

But there was nothing, and when he got to work in the mornings, exhausted and frustrated, he was every bit as stumped as when he started.

-o-

If it wasn't the psychology or the neurology at play, it could be the missions themselves.

Michael got the mission reports – the unredacted versions – of the Moscow mission, the Berlin mission, and the Vietnam mission.

He poured over them, trying to find some sort of connection.

Trying to find the link. They already had something in common in that he'd dreamed the death of a teammate prior to each mission, but there had to be something else, something he simply wasn't seeing.

He began to go blind to everything else.

-o-

Michael had always been a paranoid bastard.

But not like this.

If his subconscious was devoted to constantly treating him to the worst-case scenario, then there had to be a reason, he decided. He began to spend late nights at the office, sometimes never going home at all (sleep was the enemy), mapping out every possibly horrific outcome to every mission, every event, every choice. It consumed him in his waking hours. And he did his best to make sure they were all waking hours.

Because every dream was worse. And Michael wasn't sure if he'd be able to handle whatever came next.

"You need to stop this," Casey remarked from the doorway one evening as Michael taped up one end of a piece of string he'd been using to illustrate a map of potential sinister connections.

"Shhh," Michael hissed. "I'm on to something –" There had to be a connection. Had to be a reason. He just had to make it all make sense!

"Your behavior of late has been alarming," Casey continued, somewhat louder. "I am rarely perturbed by the extracurriculars of others and even I am seriously perturbed. The others are concerned."

"I'll be fine," Michael mumbled, tacking up another scrap of paper and frowning at it thoughtfully.

"'Fine' is not on the list of descriptors currently coming to mind," Casey groused.

But Michael wasn't listening. Michael had found a connection. A thin line with three points of removal, but a connection nonetheless. Grabbing a fresh piece of string from the snarled heap on his desk, he stood precariously on his chair to pin one end up and stretch it to another item. It was all interconnected. It had to be. He had to make sense of it all. If this was happening, then it was happening for a reason and Michael wouldn't be a victim of his own brain; he'd harness it and makeit figure it all out...

He didn't hear whatever Casey said next. He didn't hear when Casey stopped talking. And when Casey left the room, Michael never even noticed.

-o-

Fay ran into him in the breakroom the next day when he went to refill his umpteenth cup of coffee.

"Michael!" She stopped short, blinking, dark eyes widening. "Oh my God, Michael, you look awful. Did you sleep at the office last night?"

"Didn't sleep," Michael mumbled, reaching around her for the coffee pot. Didn't sleep. Couldn't sleep. Couldn't handle what might happen if he did...

"Michael," she dropped her voice. "What's going on? Higgins is starting to ask questions. You haven't taken your team out in the field or put forward a mission proposal in nearly two weeks. And you look like hell warmed over. When was the last time you even shaved?"

Michael stopped briefly to think about that, then shrugged. "Not important. Watching out for my team."

She raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Because if that were the case, you might have noticed how on edge they all are."

"They're fine," Michael groused. They're alive.

Fay sighed, shoulders sinking, her expression of skepticism and irritation fading into wearied concern. "Is this about the dreams?" she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

Michael glanced around the breakroom. "Don't know what you're talking about."

"I was married to you, Michael, don't think you can pull that on me," she snapped. "What happened in the Vietnam mission, Michael? You were weird before but you've been bordering on scary since you got back."

"Nothing happened," he said, and then stopped. He laughed, realization setting in. "Nothing happened!" he repeated, a hint of hysteria creeping into his voice. Nothing had happened because he hadn't let it. He'd controlled it, he'd seen it, he'd known(how could he have known? It didn't make sense) and Billy was alive and they were all alive except for in his dreams where he watched them die, one after the other, bloody and broken and blown to bits –

"Michael!" Fay reached up and lightly slapped him, snapping him out of it.

He rocked backward, slightly stunned.

"You need to pull it together," she hissed, eyes bright. "Please."

Michael reached up and touched his smarting cheek. "Soon. I just need to figure it out first..."

And the look of resignation in Fay's eyes as she shook her head and walked away was all-too-familiar. But Michael had other work to do. Work he neededto do.

He needed to know...

-o-

Michael hadn't noticed when Casey came in the night before.

He did notice when Billy showed up.

But only because Billy bodily hauled him down from the desk, making Michael yelp as he tumbled back awkwardly into Billy's arms.

"A'right, fearless leader. Normally I am more than willing to allow you to take the lead, but I'm relieving you of your command for tonight. Right now I'mthe one giving the orders."

Michael growled beneath his breath. "Let me go, Collins, I'm close – I've almost got it –"

"What you've almost got is a suspension if you don't knock this off!" Billy snapped, affable manner suddenly gone. "We're worried about you, Michael. All of us. Fay too. And Higgins is starting to notice. You're coming apart, mate."

"Did she send you?" Michael asked, feeling petulant, vaguely remembering having talked to his ex about something that day. Or had it been the day before?

"It's everyone, Michael."

"Then how come it's just you here?" he demanded, trying to pull away.

Billy manhandled him toward the door. "Well, we figured you could probably deck Martinez, even as strung out as you are, and we didn't trust Casey not to just knock you out and haul your deadweight home."

"This is mutiny..."

"Well, you can have us all flogged for it tomorrow. We've got a briefing with Higgins in the morning and you need your beauty rest."

Michael continued to grumble and protest as Billy dragged him down the empty corridors, out into the parking lot, and over to Michael's Taurus. When the Scot shoved him into the passenger's seat, however, Michael balked. "Hey, it's my car. I get to drive."

"Mate, you can barely walk; you're not bloody driving," Billy announced in the rare voice that Billy used when he was serious and not kidding around. And Billy was almost always kidding around. "I let you get behind that wheel, and you'll probably kill us both."

Michael blanched, then shut up.

As Billy climbed into the driver's side, adjusting the seat for his longer legs, Michael fell silent and leaned against the window, letting his eyes drift closed for just a minute...

He barely remembered pulling up to his crappy tenement apartment. He had only the vaguest recollection of Billy half-carrying him up the stairs, or fumbling with his keys. And he was practically dead to the world by the time the Scot dumped him into his own bed, announcing that he would be out on the couch if Michael needed anything.

He hadn't meant to.

He hadn't wanted to.

But Michael finally slept.

-o-

He woke up groggy and bewildered to someone hitting him with a pillow.

"Oi, rise and shine!" Billy called out, voice obnoxiously chipper. "Big day ahead of us, mate. Up an' at em, aye?"

Michael rolled over and groaned an expletive into his pillow.

"Would it help if I said I picked up coffee?"

Michael tentatively turned and opened one eye.

Billy was standing over him in his shorts and undershirt, a pillow in one hand and a cup of Dunkin in the other. He grinned widely. "Ah, good, you're awake after all. Time to get moving, Sleeping Beauty, we've got a meeting with Higgins first thing!"

-o-

Billy succeeded in getting Michael put together and into the office in time for their meeting. Though he was still a bit dazed, Michael had to admit that a full night's sleep had done him good. He was showered and shaved and wearing clean clothes now, which brought expressions of relief to Malick and Martinez' faces as they made their way into the briefing room.

And residual grogginess aside, Michael didn't miss the look exchanged between Billy and his ex-wife, or Fay's grateful nod.

But before he had any time to ruminate on it, Higgins and his aide walked into the meeting and the lights dimmed as a set of images projected on to the screen at the end of the table.

Michael squinted at the series of photos – many grainy and pixelated, some from security cams, others probably satellite footage – and frowned. There was a nagging sense of familiarity about a few of them that he just couldn't put his finger on...

"We have a problem, gentlemen," Higgins announced as he took a seat. "Ms. Carson, if you would pull up the video?"

One of the images expanded to fill the screen, then began moving as Fay hit the playback. A man in a rather rumpled suit with a hat and scarf that seemed vaguely Central-Asian in style began shouting and yelling in a language Michael didn't recognize, speaking animatedly and obviously to a crowd. From the responses he was getting, it sounded like he was a skilled orator. The video was only forty seconds or so, and when it concluded, Casey snorted.

"That would have been a lot more impressive if any of us had the slightest notion what he was saying," the human weapon commented.

"It's your standard radical, anti-Western spiel," Rick clarified, looking grim.

Higgins nodded his head toward Rick. "Mr. Martinez is correct. The man you're looking at is Masud Khavlon, leader of the Aravad political party in Armekistan."

Fay minimized the video and brought up a map, highlighting a small country poised in the ambiguous area between the Middle East and the former Soviet Bloc. "Armekistan is a small but critically located country. A lot of goods and supplies travelling from the east to the west go through it," she explained.

"So anyone in charge there who decided they wanted to shut down western trade routes could make a big mess," Michael mused.

"Correct," Higgins noted.

"Alright, so what's this Khavlon blighter got to do with it all," Billy asked.

Higgins made a face. "Up until not, the Aravad party has been a minority. We've kept an eye on them, but haven't considered them an overt threat. But Khavlon is poised to take the majority seat in the next election, which would make his nationalist, Anti-Western rhetoric a matter of national policy. In power, he could do an awful lot of damage. Not just to trade, but to the stabilization of the entire region."

Fay pulled up another image, and Michael's stomach turned as he recognized some of the intel his team had gathered in Russia. "Armekistan has very limited gun control, and we have reason to believe Khavlon has connections in the Russian mob he's been utilizing to arm his followers. We could be looking at a militant state if he assumes control."

Connections. Michael had been close but he hadn't seen it all; not yet. But it was all connected...

"And while he might be a thug, he isn't stupid," Higgins muttered. "We think he may be working with an independent intelligence contractor, which means he knows enough to be damn dangerous."

The gears of Michael's mind had slowed as a result of the night before, but they were kicking back into gear now. "This wouldn't happen to be the same contractor we found Hauer was working for, would it?"

Higgins hesitated. "That information is on a need-to-know basis, Operative Dorset," he then answered, but the meaningful pause was as good as a yes.

It was all connected...

"I don't suppose he's been paying for all that intelligence work and arms imports by getting involved with the heroin trade," Michael remarked, trying to keep his tone casual.

The looks he got ranged from confusion on the faces of his team, to surprise on Fay's, and outright discomfort and suspicion on Higgins'. "We do have reason to think he has facilitated... certain transportation of goods."

"So he only has a problem with trade when it isn't illegal?" Rick muttered, looking bitterly at the screen.

"Sounds like a charming bloke. Politics seems like a perfect fit for him," Billy added with a wry grin.

"So what's the deal, we're supposed to go take this guy down?" Casey asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

"No need. We already have a way of taking Khavlon out of power." Higgins smirked and nodded to Fay, who pulled up another photo.

"This is Pendar Farzin," she announced, nodding at a picture of a rather unimposing, businesslike man. "He's Khavlon's right hand, and more of a moderate. Khavlon has become more rabidly Anti-Western in the face of the upcoming election, and one of our deep-cover agents within the Aravad faction managed to get through to Farzin and convince him to defect."

"Farzin's deep enough and knows enough of Khavlon's dirty little secrets that if we picked his brain for half an hour, we could have Khavlon's entire campaign in shambles," Higgins added.

Michael frowned. "Okay. Sounds like you have it under control. Why are we here?" It was all connected... but he wasn't seeing how. It wasn't making sense...

Higgins pursed his lips. "That is where we come to a bit of a quandary. Farzin has agreed to defect, on the sole condition that his entire family is taken into protective custody. The operative who incited the defection was compromised, so we have reason to believe that Khavlon knows Farzin is going to our side."

"Sounds like North Korea and the Songs all over again," Rick said, brow furrowed.

"At least Armekistan should be easier to get in and out of," Casey said.

"Fortunately, most of Farzin's family has already been taken to a secure location," Fay replied. "The only one we haven't been able to get to with our people currently on the ground is his daughter, Nasreen."

Up on the screen popped a picture of a young girl, aged nine or ten, with dark eyes, long straight hair, and a somber look on her face. "She's currently at a rural boarding school in the northern province," Fay continued. "Farzin received a threat on his daughter's life hours before we took him into custody. It may have simply been a bullying tactic..."

"... But more than likely, it is a legitimate precursor to an assassination attempt," Higgins concluded with a sour look. "Your mission is to go in, get the girl, and get her safely to the United States Embassy. Once she's confirmed safe, we will have Farzin's full cooperation."

"Great. Babysitting. Exactly what I joined the CIA for," Casey groused.

"Oh, come on, man!" Billy replied, clapping Casey on the back. "Venturing into strange foreign lands to rescue innocents from the clutches of evil men? This is hero's work!"

Michael tuned them out, his gaze travelling from the image of Farzin's bland face, to Khavlon's irate one, to the strangely serious, almost sad gaze of Nasreen Farzin.

It was all connected.

He just had to know why.

-o-

It took ten hours of flights and trains to get into Armekistan, which gave Michael plenty of time to outline their plan. Getting up to the northern province meant a series of train rides, followed by renting a rather battered old jeep when they reached an area where the trains no longer went. Billy griped about the Jeep's suspension for much of the drive, until Casey threatened to take the wheel instead. Rick, meanwhile, practiced his cover: it was decided that since he was the only one who spoke the local dialect, he'd be the one to get Nasreen out of her school and into the ODS' protection.

"I thought I wasn't smooth enough?" Rick had replied when informed of his role.

"I'd say you've blossomed in the past six months or so," Billy told him, grinning over his shoulder.

The private academy was tucked away in a rural, scenic area. They parked not far outside and made sure Rick had the letter that Billy had forged Farzin's signature on. "We're not sure what political leanings the school administrators may have, so be careful," Michael warned him.

Rick nodded, then got out of the car.

He returned about twenty minutes later with a young girl in tow, along with her already-packed luggage and book bag.

"That was quick," Michael remarked.

"Guess I'm smoother than we thought," Rick answered with a wink, picking up the suitcase and loading it into the back before opening the door to the back seat for Nasreen, who wordlessly climbed in.

Billy raised an eyebrow.

Rick caved. "I ran into Nasreen in the courtyard on my way to the main office and explained who we were and that I was hear to bring her somewhere safe so she could be with her family. She agreed to corroborate the story and tell them I was her uncle so we could get her out faster. Turns out she was already packed too; I think she was expecting something like this."

Casey looked appreciatively over at the little girl buckling her seatbelt in silence. "Smart kid."

"Brave kid," Michael agreed. "Don't suppose she speaks English?"

"Afraid not," Rick said. He then turned to Nasreen and launched into a rapid introduction in her language, pointing at each member of the ODS in turn.

Nasreen smiled very faintly, nodded her head, then quietly said something to Rick.

"What'd she say?" Michael asked.

Rick looked over at him. "She said it's nice to meet you, thank you for coming to get her, and that we should probably get going instead of staying here."

Casey snorted. "Like I said, smart kid."

"Out of the mouths of babes," Billy agreed with a laugh, putting the car into drive.

And as they pulled off down the narrow road, Michael hoped the rest of the mission would be this straightforward.

-o-

For the most part, it was.

There was a roadblock at one point that they had to drive through. Michael tensed up, but Casey quickly hid Nasreen in the back under a heap of coats, and Rick managed to talk them through while Billy smiled winningly. Despite Michael's worst fears, they were waved past without incident.

The rest of the drive was long and dull and fairly uneventful. They stopped a few times for food and to stretch their legs, briefly. Nasreen was quiet and never complained. Rick spoke to her frequently, and while her answers were quiet and brief, Michael saw her smile a few times. It was nearly dark when they got to the train station. They managed to get a compartment together and took turns sleeping during the ride to the capital. But as much as his brief interlude of sleep from before the mission had helped to clear his mind, Michael couldn't bring himself to get any shuteye. If he slept, he might dream, and if he dreamt, then all of this could go straight to hell. The logic of cause and effect was flawed, he knew, but it kept him alert through the night nonetheless. So he let Rick sleep through his shift; the kid had earned the extra rest, and waking him would likely also wake Nasreen, who had fallen asleep with her head leaning on Rick's arm.

The train pulled into the capital in the early hours of the morning, when it wasn't quite dark anymore, but the sun had yet to break through the crepuscular gloom.

Billy found a car rental, and once more they loaded all five of them and Nasreen's luggage into the vehicle – a smaller sedan, this time, which made for a tighter fit. "The embassy is on the far side of the city, so we'll have a bit of a drive," Casey remarked, looking at the GPS. "Fortunately, it's early enough that we should beat the rush hour traffic."

Michael nodded. "Good." And it was good news. Everything about this mission was going well – their papers all checked out, the kid was cooperative and incredibly well behaved, they hadn't run into any major trouble, and Michael hadn't even had any bad dreams.

There was nothing to suggest that this would be anything more than a simple babysitting mission that they'd write off and forget about within a week.

But Michael couldn't shake a strange and inexplicable sense of apprehension. As if he were waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Which it did.

With a bang.

"Bollocks," Billy cursed, putting the car into park and getting out of the driver's side door. "Tire's blown. Don't reckon we have a spare?"

"Don't remember seeing one," Rick replied grimly.

"We're pretty close to the embassy," Casey added, putting the GPS down. "We could just hoof it the rest of the way."

Michael considered it. The sun was gracing the edge of the horizon and the city would come alive soon. A broken down car with people drew attention, and drawing attention was the last thing he wanted. All he wanted was to get the girl to the embassy as fast as possible and then go home. "Yeah, okay. Let's do that. Rick, can you tell the kid–"

But when he turned, the trunk was open and Nasreen was already pulling items from her suitcase and stuffing them into her book bag, which she then zipped up and slung over her thin shoulders with a determined look.

Rick grinned. "I think she's got it."

Casey's mouth quirked in a smile. "You know, after this, I think I'm going to have to reconsider my stance on kids."

Billy immediately turned to him with a look of horror.

"Not havingthem, I mean!" Casey hastily amended. "Just, my general opinion of them. She's been a hell of a lot easier and smarter about this than a lot of the adults we've had to transport and protect."

"So, what, you're a fan of children now?" Billy teased.

Casey scowled. "I've amended my

verall position from 'loathing' to 'general dislike' is all."

"Quit bickering, you two. We need to get moving," Michael interrupted. "Casey, which direction are we heading in?"

It was cool out, so they walked briskly, pausing now and then at Rick's insistence to make sure Nasreen wasn't having to struggle to keep up. Casey navigated and Michael made a call on a secure line to inform the embassy that they were en route and would have the girl there very soon.

"Making sure the doors are unlocked for us?" Billy asked with a grin as they took a left turn at Casey's indication.

"It is pretty early. Most of the regular staff won't be in yet and I don't want to be hanging out on the front stoop like a bunch of sitting ducks," Michael answered. The assassination threat may have only been an idle one, but Michael was a paranoid bastard, which was why he was still alive after a decade with the agency. "The sooner we have her tucked away and safe, the better."

"It should be up ahead and just around the corner," Casey announced.

"Oh, come now," Billy said with an impish grin as they stopped for Nasreen to tie her shoe. "You don't think four strong lads such as ourselves aren't an ample protection–"

Billy stopped abruptly, his head jerking back as a popping noise echoed through the quiet street. He held still for a moment, then a trickle of blood began to run from the hole that had suddenly appeared in the middle of his forehead, running down between his now-glazed eyes as he crumpled lifelessly to the ground.

Michael stared, frozen in horror. No.No, this wasn't happening. He was imagining it. He would wake up any second now.

Michael needed to wake up.

And then Nasreen's scream pierced the air. There was another popping sound, louder this time, and Rick screamed "Get down!" while throwing himself protectively over the girl as they hit the ground. Michael dropped to the pavement, trying to tear his gaze away from Billy's body so he could look for cover. Another shot sent pieces of asphalt flying into the air only a foot or so away from him.

He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to wake up, to find this was just another nightmare.

But when he opened them again, Billy was still lying motionless two yards away, face tilted slightly towards Michael, eyes vacant. Michael swallowed painfully. Billy was still dead and Michael's team was still under fire.

"We need to get to cover," he shouted, looking up and scanning the area where the initial kill shot had to have come from. Something glinted on a rooftop, cueing him in to the sniper's position. From that trajectory... He looked around. The nearest real cover was the next corner, at least twenty yards away.

Casey had rolled up in the nominal cover provided by the heavy base of a lamppost, and had apparently reached the same conclusion as Michael. "Go. Get the kid to safety," he said, pulling out his gun.

"What about you?" Rick and Nasreen were balled up next to a newspaper dispenser, which rattled as a bullet struck it.

"I'll lay down suppressing fire," Casey answered, his face oddly blank.

And Michael knew that expression.

It was the look of utter calm before a storm; the look Casey got right before he became the only person to walk out of a room alive. Because Billy was dead, and Casey would be out for blood.

Michael balked. But they had little choice. Nasreen was clinging to Rick's shirt, trembling and sobbing, her dark eyes bright with tears. And their mission was to save her.

"Okay. When I say, go, we go." Michael bit his lip and steeled himself, flinching as a bullet chipped the pavement beside him. "Go!"

And he was off and running, watching out of the corner of his eye as Rick scooped Nasreen up into his arms and broke into an all out sprint. Looking over his shoulder as fresh, closer shots rang out, Michael expected to see Casey laying down fire from his slightly-obscured position.

But instead, Malick was standing up, taking aim at the rooftop and firing as he walked straight out into the open.

For a second, Michael nearly stopped running, half-tripping as his pace slowed and Rick overtook him in their dash for the corner. His confusion lasted only a split second; then, with icy realization, Michael knew what Casey was doing.

Cover fire at this range would do little good; a professional sniper wouldn't be ruffled by it. But he might not resist a fresh target out in the open.

Casey had said that he would lay down suppressing fire. But what he meant was that he'd give the sniper something else to shoot at. Michael had mistaken that blank expression for repressed rage; he'd been wrong.

It was Casey making a decision.

Michael was nearly at the corner, but his legs had turned to lead. He heard himself shouting as the first shot caught Casey in the shoulder, making the older operative stagger. Casey lifted his gun again and pulled the trigger once, twice more.

Then the second shot caught him in the chest. And a third. And a fourth.

Casey's body jerked as high-powered bullets struck him. He fell to his knees, wavering, but then began to lift his gun once more –

With the fifth shot, Casey fell the rest of the way to the ground and didn't move.

"MICHAEL!"

Michael didn't resist as Rick grabbed him by his jacket and hauled him back behind the building's corner, pulling him bodily out of harm's way.

He felt dazed. This was a nightmare. It had to be. Only why was he still here, in this hell, if that was the case? He'd lost Billy. He'd lost Casey. His team...

"Michael!" Rick repeated, giving him a shake.

Michael blinked. He made himself look at Martinez. Fresh tears ran down his face, but the kid was otherwise keeping it together. The girl stood a pace behind him, trembling and staring at the ground, her dress torn and her hair mussed, but otherwise seeming unharmed.

Rick and Nasreen were both alive, Michael forced himself to remember. He still had the mission, and he still had one operative left to get out of here alive.

Then he could go to pieces.

They were behind the corner of a large stone building and out of the sniper's line of sight. The embassy was within view, but to get there they would have to run through the open street and be exposed. The city around them was beginning to wake and come alive, faces appearing nervously in windows, drawn out by the sound of shots, their curiosity fighting with their fear for dominance. In the distance, he could hear the faint wailing of sirens.

Taking a deep breath and repressing the urge to scream, Michael pulled his cell phone out. His hands trembled almost too badly to dial, but he managed it.

"Hello?"

"Fay." His throat felt constricted, making it hard to squeeze the words out. "We're under fire. There was an ambush. Tell the consulate we'll be coming in hot. And if we have any kind of support, tell them we have a sniper on the roof across the block."

He could hear a rattle of computer keys on the other end of the line, along with Fay's voice, all smooth and professional. "Done. They'll be ready for you, and I'm alerting local authorities as well as the embassy's guard contingent. Are you okay?"

He swallowed painfully. "Collins and Malick are down. We've still got the kid; she's alright."

She inhaled sharply. "Michael–"

He hung up.

Rick was pale, sweat running down his face as he looked questioningly at Michael. "We getting any backup?"

Michael ground his teeth together. "By the time they get here, our buddy on the rooftop will have probably moved to get a better shot. We're gonna have make a run for it."

Rick grimaced and nodded, hunching over slightly as he did so.

Michael frowned. "Martinez, were you hit?" Please don't be hit...

Rick bit his lip, then shook his head. "It's nothing. Just a graze."

Michael hesitated, but then nodded, ready to take Rick's word for it, if only because they didn't have time to argue. "He's probably changing positions for a better vantage point, thinking we'll hunker down and wait for the cavalry. If we go now, he won't be set up for a clear shot. Improves our odds."

Rick turned and explained softly to Nasreen, who wiped her tears off on her sleeve and then nodded stoically in a way that would have torn at Michael's heart, if his heart didn't already feel like it had been ripped from his chest. "I told her we're going to have to run as fast as we can," Rick told Michael.

"And faster if we can manage it," Michael muttered, leaning carefully around the corner. No bullets chipped at the masonry around him, which seemed like a good sign, and when he scanned the rooftop where the shooter had been, there was no telltale glint in the early light. "He's on the move. Go. Go!"

And then they were running. Michael ran often; he jogged every morning before work, and his job necessitated a fair amount of sprinting. But he found himself running harder and faster than he ever had before; if he could just outrun it, if he could just outrun it all...

A bullet ricocheted off the pavement next to them and Nasreen let out a thin shriek. Michael swore beneath his breath, then shouted: "Martinez! Drop and give cover fire!"

Rick immediately dropped away, going into a roll and coming up on one knee behind the cover of a parked car, firing up at the rooftops with his own gun as Michael grabbed Nasreen's hand and pulled her along.

Another shot whizzed past, so close Michael could swear he felt the air move. It isn't enough...Rick was laying down cover fire as best he could but it wasn't enough. Michael snarled in frustration, then ducked behind another street-parked car, hauling the girl to safety with him as bullets pinged off the metal of the car's hood. They were close to the embassy now; nearly right across the street.

It wasn't enough...

But two shooters might be. Looking up, Michael saw the edge of a shape on the rooftop, partially exposed from Michael's vantage point. If he could get a shot in from here, it might not hit, but it would alarm and disorient the shooter enough to give the girl a chance.

He looked at Nasreen. "When I say 'go', I need you to run," he said slowly, pointing at the embassy. "Go. Run. As fast as you can. Do you understand?"

For a second he was worried that the language gap would kill the one chance they had, but then Nasreen nodded. "Run," she repeated softly, pointing to the doors. "Fast."

Michael reached forward and squeezed her shoulder. "I hope you grow up to cure cancer, kid, because I really need you to be worth it," he whispered. And then there was a lull as the shooter reloaded, and Michael knew he had his opening. "GO!"

And Nasreen ran.

Michael leaned out, bracing himself against the back of the car and firing at the shape on the roof. He couldn't hear anything over the barking report of his gun as he pulled the trigger, again and again. For Billy. For Casey. For Nasreen.

And then he saw the shape recoil and disappear.

His gun clicked empty and he looked over his shoulder just in time to see the doors swing shut behind the girl. For a split second, he saw her wide-eyed face in the glass before someone pulled her away to someplace safer, without windows.

They had done it. Nasreen Farzin was alive and safe.

And Casey and Billy had given their lives to make it happen.

He took a deep, shuddering breath, then slowly crawled out from behind the car, watching the roof for any motion or movement.

Nothing.

"Martinez?" he called out.

Silence.

Michael's heart sped back up. "Martinez?"

"Yeah?"

Staying low, Michael ran over to the car where he'd left Rick, dropping to the pavement beside him. "Hey."

Rick was paler, his face shining with sweat and his eyes glassy. "Hey yourself," he mumbled, leaning heavily against the car's bumper. Then his brow furrowed. "Nasreen?"

"She made it," Michael replied, feeling oddly numb. "She's safe."

Rick let out a small sigh, sinking back limply against the car. "That's good," he breathed.

Then went still.

Michael's heart plummeted. "Martinez?"

Rick didn't reply. Didn't blink.

"Martinez!" Michael reached out and shook him, then noticed the patch of red at the edge of Rick's jacket. Pulling the fabric back, he choked at the sight of the blood that had been soaking through Rick's shirt and pants, covering his entire left side.

Just a graze.

Only it had been more.

Too much more.

He'd been willing to overlook Rick's grimace of pain, had been too busy, too distracted...

And as the wailing sirens closed in, Michael let out a choked, gasping noise, burying his head in his trembling hands. One mission, one stupid mission, and he'd lost everything. He'd been their leader, and he'd lead them all to this.

His team.

His men.

His friends.

Gone.

And Michael simply couldn't handle it.

-o-

And Michael woke up.

-o-

"Michael! Michael!"

Hands shook him roughly and Michael gasped, bolting upright, nearly cracking his head against Billy's as the Scot just barely got out of the way.

Billy.

Michael turned and stared at him, feeling as if he was seeing a ghost. But no blood trickled down from his forehead, and instead of being unfocused and dim, Billy's eyes were bright and concerned as he stared back at Michael in turn.

"Bloody hell, mate. That was some nightmare you were having. Thought you were going to shout the whole sodding building down," Billy remarked, thought his levity was tempered with obvious worry.

Michael was still trying to remember how to breathe.

Nightmare.

Dreams.

He'd finally woken up.

"What... what are you doing here," he finally managed to ask Billy, trying to piece together what he remembered. But all he remembered was Armekistan; running through the streets, ducking behind cars, his teammates' blood on his hands –

"I brought you home last night, remember? Hauled you off your desk and staged a mutiny, as I recall you titled it. Crashed out on your couch to make sure you didn't try to sneak back out in the middle of the night," Billy explained, sitting on the edge of the bed. He'd slept in his undershirt and boxers, and his hair was mussed and sticking up spikily in all directions; he'd clearly woken up mere moments before Michael.

Michael rubbed at his eyes. It had been so vivid, so real. More real than this. The waking world was muddled and hazy around him as his exhausted brain tried to keep up, his normally razor-sharp mind feeling dull and sluggish. "Damn. What day is it?"

"One ending in 'y', I believe. Now we'd probably best be up anyway; we've got a meeting with Higgins this morning if I remember correctly." Billy stood and smiled, apparently satisfied that Michael had finished flailing like a child having a night terror. "If we get ready now, we can stop for coffee on the way, which judging from the look of you, you probably need."

Michael grunted. Coffee. Coffee was good.

Being awake was good.

His team, alive and well was good.

But with a creeping sense of dread, he realized that now he would have to figure out how to keep it that way.

-o-

Michael barely paid any attention during the briefing, and only spoke in curt monosyllables when prompted. He already knew everything that was said. Had already heard it. He didn't know how or why but he was beyond questioning the morbid phenomenon.

He knew the faces projected on the screen already. Knew the mission outline. Knew the comments his team would make, even before they made them.

Much of Michael's life had been devoted to using reason and logic and facts to piece together probable outcomes and anticipate events and reactions before they happened. And now he already knew everything before it happened, but there was no reason, no logic, no fact. Just dreams more vivid than the world around him and the realization that either he had gone stark raving mad or the laws of the universe had changed.

And none of it mattered.

What mattered was that this mission was going to kill his team unless Michael stopped it.

And he would stop it. Because even if he didn't know how this was happening, looking around at his teammates as they reviewed the mission, Michael was beginning to understand why. He'd seen Billy go down with a bullet between the eyes. He'd watched Casey fall in a barrage of gunfire. He'd witnessed Martinez stop breathing as he bled out from a stray shot. He'd seen these awful things, this hideous future, and that outcome had been unacceptable.

He knew what he had to do.

-o-

He waited until Higgins and the ODS had cleared out of the conference room.

"Fay."

"Michael." She lowered the mission report she'd been holding, eyeing him critically. "I take it Billy managed to get you to sleep a little? You look moderately more sane today."

"There's going to be an ambush."

"... And I take back the comment about being sane. Michael, there's nothing to support the idea–"

"Fay, there's going to be an ambush. Please," he pleaded, voice low and quiet but filled with urgency as he took hold of her forearm. "You need to believe me. Khavlon is going to have a shooter on the roof less than a block down from the embassy. They know we're going to be moving Nasreen and they're going to have someone in position to take us out at the one location they can count on us being."

Fay stared at him, her expression a mix of pity, fear, confusion, and wariness. "How do you know this, then?"

He ground his teeth together. "I don't know," he admitted, frustrated. "I just... I just do. Please. I saw–"

"Was this one of your dreams again, Michael? God, you really should go down to Psych services–"

"I don't need Psych services, dammit, Fay, I need a team to clear that rooftop before we get there!"

She bit her lip. "Michael..."

"Please, Fay. I need you to do this. If I'm wrong, we just look extra-cautious. And if I'm right..." He let it linger in the air. He didn't have to paint a picture of what he'd seen to know that the idea had been conveyed.

With a sigh, she nodded. "I'll have a detail cover the rooftops and routes to the embassy to keep them clear. So just be careful."

Michael felt something in his chest unclench with relief. "Thanks. I owe you one."

"Michael."

"Yeah?"

She sighed through her nose, pressing her lips together. "When you get back, just, promise me you'll talk to someone about all this?"

He smiled ruefully. "If we all get back, I'll do whatever you want."

-o-

The mission wasn't similar.

It was exactly the same.

The sheer eeriness of it no longer had an effect, though; Michael was too tired, too distraught, too focused to care about the impossibility of it all. The dreams didn't matter. Finishing the mission with his team alivewas the only thing that did.

So Rick got Nasreen out. Billy talked them through the checkpoint. Casey got the train tickets. And Michael wasn't surprised. Wasn't phased. Wasn't anything but focused and determined to make sure that not everythingwas exactly the same.

Not this time.

When they got to the city, he was exhausted and his eyelids were heavy from staying awake through the night. He'd gone over every memory, every moment of the dream that he remembered, trying to push past the hellish recollections of his friends' deaths to get at the details... the small choices he could change, the variables he could alter to elicit an alternative outcome. So when Casey went and got the rental car, Michael pulled out a map and began drawing out a different route.

"That isn't the most optimal way of reaching the embassy," Casey pointed out. "We'd shave off five minutes if we–"

"This is the way we're going," Michael answered in a tone that brooked no argument. He was vaguely aware of his team exchanging glances behind his back, but didn't care.

He was changing up the variables.

But when Billy took a left on the road Michael indicated, their path was blocked by unexpected construction; the road was torn up and white-and-orange barricades blocked the way.

"Rick, would I be correct in assuming that the big yellow sign there with an arrow on it reads 'detour'?" Billy asked.

"Yep," Rick answered, leaning forward, and Billy took a hard right into a narrow side road, following the arrow signs.

Too late, Michael realized the road they'd pulled on to looked familiar. The deja vu made his stomach flip. "Billy, stop, turn around–"

But before he could finish there was a bang and Billy swore, hitting the brakes as the tire blew out beneath them.

"Bollocks," Billy cursed, putting the car into park and getting out of the driver's side door. "Tire's blown. Don't reckon we have a spare?"

"Don't remember seeing one," Rick replied grimly.

"We're pretty close to the embassy," Casey added, putting the GPS down. "We could just hoof it the rest of the way."

Michael's throat closed up too painfully for him to protest. He felt paralyzed. It was happening all over again...

Rick looked around, chewing his lip. "The amount of time it would take to get a tow or something would compromise the mission, and I don't think we're gonna find a taxi this early in the morning."

"A brisk morning jaunt it is, then!" Billy exclaimed with a grin. "Nothing like a good constitutional at dawn, aye?"

Nasreen was loading her backpack up and Michael found that he'd somehow gotten out of the car, as if his muscles were on autopilot...

But even if it was the same route and the same busted tire, he'd already changed something, hadn't he? He'd gotten Fay to have the roofs swept, to flush their shooter out. They should be safe now, he reminded himself, though he drew less reassurance from the thought than he'd hoped.

"You alright?" Casey was eyeing him, looking a little disconcerted. "Hey, Earth to Dorset, you reading us here?"

"Yeah, just tired," Michael lied. All right, maybe it wasn't fully a lie; he was tired after all. When this was all over, he'd sleep for a damn week. So long as he didn't have any more godforsaken dreams... "Let's get a move on, then, before someone spots the kid."

Even with the knowledge that the roof ought to be clear, Michael led his team down different roads and side streets. He ignored Casey's grumbling that the added distance was inefficient; he was too occupied with trying to alter things as much as he could while still heading toward the embassy. He was changing the variables.

Walking so quickly he had his team on the brink of a jog, with poor Nasreen almost running to keep stride with them, Michael brought his team closer to the embassy, closer to safety, closer to this mission being done and over with.

As they drew closer, Michael remembered something and pulled his phone out of his pocket, making a call to the consul to let the embassy know to have the doors open.

"Making sure the doors are unlocked for us?" Billy asked with a grin as they took a right turn.

"I don't want to be stuck in the open waiting for a greeter if we need to come in hot," Michael mumbled. Not that there was any indication at the moment that they would need to make a break for it, but he couldn't take risks. Not here. Not with this.

"It should be just around this corner and then down the street," Casey announced.

Michael knew he should have felt relief at being so close, but instead he felt the pit of his stomach drop as the hair on the back of his neck stood up as they rounded the corner.

Something was wrong.

Something was repeating.

"Oh, come now," Billy said with an impish grin as they stopped for Nasreen to tie her shoe. "You don't think four strong lads such as ourselves aren't an ample protection–"

"DOWN!" Michael shouted suddenly, throwing himself at Billy, sending them both crashing to the ground even as a shot rang out.

Billy grunted as he hit the pavement with Michael on top of him, eyes widening. "Bloody hell–"

"Shooter at nine o'clock!" Casey growled, ducking into a doorway, gun in hand. Rick and Nasreen had ducked behind a car, the younger operative holding his hand over the girl's mouth to stifle her scream of shock.

Michael looked up to the roof at his left. But there was nothing. No shadow, no telltale glint. "I don't–"

The next bullet whizzed past so close Michael could swear it parted his hair before taking a chunk out of the masonry behind him. He dropped, but not before catching sight of their sniper from a third-story window.

Michael's heart sank.

He'd told Fay to have the rooftops cleared. And she'd had it done – but instead of scaring their shooter off, they'd merely driven him to take shelter indoors.

Michael could change the variables; but he couldn't control the outcome.

He cast a frantic glance around as he and Billy clambered behind a set of battered and odorous waste-bins; they at least weren't as in the open this time around, and the embassy building was so close it wasn't even fair; Billy was still alive, which had to count for something. The shooter, though, would have a clear view of them for as far as it would take for them to reach the embassy doors.

But from his lower vantage point, the shooter would also be more exposed.

Michael scrutinized the angle. The trajectory from here, on the sidewalk below the window, was too steep. He'd only wind up hitting the window molding. If he got just a bit further out...

"We should call for backup!" Rick hissed, holding a visibly frightened Nasreen.

"By the time they get someone out here, he'll have probably gotten lucky with at least one of those shots," Casey muttered, flinching as a bullet pinged off the hood of the car Rick was crouched behind.

"Or he'll have called for backup first," Michael said, already formulating a plan. Hiding and waiting, pinned down under meager cover, hadn't worked before. He wouldn't lose his team again.

He wouldn't lose them at all.

"Hang tight. I'm going to give you guys cover fire."

"How?" Casey demanded. "There's no good angle to him from here."

"Right. From here,"Michael agreed with a thin smile. "Get ready to run when I give you the signal."

Billy's eyes widened and he shook his head. "Michael–"

But Michael didn't wait. Didn't give him the chance.

Michael had to protect his team.

Whatever the cost.

He lunged out from behind the bin and broke into a run, having already picked out his destination – the opposite side of a black sedan with diplomatic plates parked down the street from the embassy and across the road from his team's current position. The second he was in the open he heard shots crack and ring through the air, but didn't slow down.

Michael ran often; he jogged every morning before work, and his job necessitated a fair amount of sprinting. But he found himself running harder and faster than he ever had before; if he could just run fast enough, if he could just run fast enough to save them all...

And then he skidded toward cover, rolling and flipping over the trunk of the car with a grunt, something smacking him hard in the chest and making him feel like he'd been punched. It wasn't the most graceful landing, but he managed to twist and roll up into a crouch with his gun whipped out, ducking behind the car and resting his pistol against the frame as he lined a shot up with the window.

"GO!" he shouted, and fired. A bullet from the sniper ricocheted off the pavement, the flash from the muzzle of his rifle giving Michael something to aim at. He pulled the trigger, again, and again, and again as Billy and Casey and Rick made a dash for it, Billy leading the way, Rick carrying Nasreen in his arms, and Casey bringing up the rear, gun in hand.

Michael kept firing until he heard a yell ring out, and then a dark-clothed figure slumped out the window, arms and upper torso hanging limply off of the sill.

His gun clicked on empty. He let it fall from his hands, which were now starting to tremble. Finally tearing his gaze from the window, he looked to his right toward the embassy.

They'd made it.

His team had made it.

Michael felt lightheaded. He let out a small chuff of breath, which turned into a chuckle, which turned into a laugh, shaking him with relief. His team was alive. He'd changed the variables. He'd altered the outcome and he'd saved them; he'd saved them all.

Standing, he staggered for a step, wincing at the bruise he must had incurred running into the car. He made it halfway to the embassy steps when the ODS ran back out, sans Nasreen, and then jogged to meet him halfway.

"That was the bravest thing I think I've ever seen," Rick said with a shaken smile.

"Or the stupidest," Casey commented dryly.

"Everyone okay?" Michael had to ask.

"We're fine," Rick assured him. "How did you even know the shooter was there? None of us had any idea until you knocked Billy down–"

Michael grimaced, not wanting to explain that. Damn, he might have cracked a rib at some point. And the adrenalin rush wearing off was leaving him a bit weak and giddy. "The girl?"

"Right as rain, though I imagine she's probably had enough excitement for the day, which is quite an accomplishment considering it's not even breakfast time," Billy remarked with a grin. The grin faded, though, as he scrutinized Michael. "Oi, are you all right there? You're not looking so good, mate..."

"M fine," Michael mumbled, though he was starting to feel odd.

"Is... is that blood?" Rick interrupted, eyes widening. "Holy– Michael, are you hit?"

"Mmm?" Michael frowned, then looked down, pulling aside his jacket.

Oh.

Blood.

His blood.

"Huh." Staring at the crimson stain that covered him from mid-chest to waist, blossoming across his shirt even as thick, dark blood welled from a hole near his ribs, Michael felt his knees weaken and his vision began to go spotty.

And he heard Casey yelling for a medic and Rick shouting his name and felt Billy reaching out to grab him as he fell; and then he was lying on his back, head propped up in the Scottish operative's lap as Casey frantically pressed down on the gaping bullet wound.

It was all rather ironic, Michael reflected.

All these dreams about death. About dying and loss. But maybe it hadn't been Billy's, or Casey's, or Rick's death after all. That was the funny thing about dreams: they'd seem to be about one thing, but would really in a roundabout way be about another. He'd dreamt about losing his team. And he supposed, in a way, he waslosing them.

But this way was okay.

This was better.

This, he thought, looking up at the sky, which was now a robin's egg shade of blue with the sun having fully broached the horizon, was an acceptable loss.

Because Michael had saved his team. And in the end, that was all that really mattered.

"Come on, stay with me–"

"– Don't you bloody dare–"

"–Just hang on! Ambulance is almost here–"

Voices faded in and out but Michael didn't listen. He was too tired. He'd been tired for a long time now. He'd fought so hard, and he had managed to change things. Maybe it wasn't the optimal outcome, but with his team all around him, he had to admit, it wasn't the worst.

He'd earned a rest.

And as he let his eyes slip closed and his body relax, Michael finally went to sleep and didn't dream.

-o-

And Michael woke up.

Which wasn't really on the list of things he'd been expecting. Not that he'd been expecting anything, really, though he supposed that was the point. The last thing he remembered was letting go; sinking quietly back into the dark.

But now he was floating back up into the light, and it made his head hurt.

For a brief moment, he wondered if he haddied. It felt like dying, lying there on the ground, surrounded by his team, looking up at the sky and realizing that the gunshot didn't even really hurt anymore. It had felt right, in a way.

But Michael had never been a particularly spiritual or religious man; he was a skeptic at heart, and enough of a bastard to know that if there was an afterlife, he wouldn't be in one this full of blindingly white light.

Also, heaven probably didn't smell like antiseptic.

Slowly, Michael opened his eyes, blinking away the blurriness from his vision in an attempt to focus...

His senses all started kicking in at once. He'd smelled the industrial-strength cleanliness before, but now he also heard the chorus of whooshes, beeps, and distant intercom pages; tasted the plastic-flavored air from the rubbery mask pressed over his nose and mouth; and felt the suddenly eye-watering pain in his chest where his ribs felt like he'd been hit by a truck.

And he saw his team, all around him once again.

Rick looked worried, dark circles underscoring his eyes; Casey looked more careworn than usual, his shoulders slumping and the lines in his face somehow deeper than before; Billy was haggard, the stubble on his chin threatening to cross the threshold into full-on beard-dom. They were wearing different clothes than he'd remembered them being in, but even those were rumpled and wrinkled.

They looked like hell.

Which was about what Michael felt like.

"The sleeping beauty awakes," Billy announced, more quietly than usual.

"Hey," Rick ventured with a tentative smile. "Welcome back."

Michael blinked several times. His head ached, and it felt like it had been stuffed with cotton; his thoughts were torturously muddled and slow. Shakily, he reached up and pulled the oxygen mask away from his face, wincing at the flare of pain in his chest that the movement elicited. "Hospital?" he managed to croak.

"You've been in a coma for three days," Casey remarked, looking none-too-pleased about it.

Michael drew a ragged breath, his chest feeling painfully tight. He briefly lowered the mask back over his mouth, inhaling as he surveyed his team. Three days? That was... well, that wasn't good. And from the look of it, the rest of the ODS had been right here for the majority of that time.

"Bad?"

Billy looked a bit green and Martinez stared down at his shoes. It was Casey who stepped up to reply: "Bullet went through your lung and missed your aorta by a centimeter before lodging in your scapula. You were in surgery for several hours while they tried to get it out without killing you."

Which at least explained and somewhat justified why he felt so lousy. He'd probably be off field duty for a while, he thought, cringing at the notion – at least until his lungs recuperated. "Mission?" he managed to ask between breaths, trying to ignore the painful soreness in his throat. It felt like he'd been gargling razorblades and he wondered if he'd been intubated at some point.

"A stellar success, barring the minor detail of you trying to get yourself killed," Billy answered, folding his arms over his chest and eyeing Michael critically. "A foolhardy stunt, I might add."

Michael snorted. "That's rich... coming from you," he wheezed, coughing a bit.

"The girl's been relocated safely," Casey said, still looking peeved. "Farzin started cooperating as soon as we got his family reunited. They think they can have Khavlon out of the election by the end of next week with all the dirt we now have on him."

"Also, Nasreen made you this before they flew her out," Rick added, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a slightly battered piece of folded paper.

Michael realized it was a card, once it was in his hands; the paper depicted several figures in suits, smiling, surrounding a smaller figure with black hair in a dress. He couldn't read the writing, which looked like an odd fusion of Middle Eastern script and Cyrillic, but found himself smiling anyway.

But when he looked up, his team wasn't smiling; they were all still staring at him with expressions that ranged from concerned to outright annoyed. Hell, even angry. "What?" Michael asked, trying to sit up a little and wincing. The tension in the room was palpable.

"You nearly bloody died!" Billy finally exclaimed.

"We were worried sick!"Casey snapped. "I haven't been able to eat this whole time. Not that I'd be missing much with Armekistani cuisine, but still!"

"You nearly coded out on the operating table," Rick murmured, looking down. "We... we thought..."

And then it hit Michael. It wasn't anger on their faces. It had been fear. The same fear he'd been haunted by for weeks now...

"Do you have any idea what you put us through?" Billy said, usual cheer gone and replaced by raw exhaustion and anxiety.

Michael took another breath from the mask, then offered them an apologetic look. "Yeah... I think I do."

Fear of losing a teammate. A brother in arms. A friend.

Michael had been consumed by the fear of losing his team. He hadn't even spared a thought for their fear of losing him in turn.

"Well don't do it again," Casey grumbled, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

Michael snorted. "Yeah... ok. I'll cross 'getting shot again' off my list of plans."

His team might be a bit miffed at him now. But they'd recover, just as he eventually would. They'd forgive him. They were okay.And really, knowing that was enough to assure Michael that he would be too.

He'd saved them.

They were allokay.

And what was more, Michael had been out for three whole days without a single dream.

Dreams. They'd been an anomaly. They'd been insanity. They'd been a curse. Or at least, that was how he'd thought of them; a sign of something wrong, something broken in his mind – his mind, which had been his greatest asset to this team, and which had been compromised.

But the dreams had been a warning. They'd been some sort of inexplicable, incomprehensible intel. They'd let him save his team and prevent disaster.

"You guys all look like hell," he remarked, pulling the mask away again, his voice beginning to return, though it remained hoarse. "You should go get food or sleep or something."

The ODS exchanged glances. "You sure?" Rick asked.

Michael rolled his eyes. "As team leader, I order you to go take care of yourselves. I'm alive. There are doctors around. Go get cleaned up and eat or take a nap."

Casey snorted. "Awake for five minutes and he's already giving orders again."

"You sure you're all right?" Billy said with a raised eyebrow.

Michael sank back into the bed. "I'm fine," he mumbled. "Go. It's not like I'm going anywhere."

Slowly they shuffled out, and when they were gone, Michael let out a deep breath, sinking into his anemic hospital pillow; the simple exchange with his team had left him exhausted.

There was a moment of apprehension as his eyes began to drift shut – the memory that with sleep came dreams, and with dreams came death and mayhem and loss –

– And forewarning.

It was possible, he reflected, that the dreams could be over; they'd gone away the first time around, they might go away again now. He might well be rid of them. Or they might return and haunt his sleep again, but in doing so arm him with the knowledge to save his team from peril.

But right now Michael was too tired to care. He needed sleep. And he suspected, as he let his eyelids drift closed, that he had earned a peaceful bit of rest.

-o-

Michael Dorset had thought he knew a fair amount about dreams.

He knew more now, and so much less.

His dreams weren't quite prophetic, but they weren't insubstantial either. Even if they'd just been somehow predicting his death – or even somehow propelling him toward it – in the end, they were just dreams. Mundane and trivial; squiggles on a chart.

But Michael knew better now. He knew they could be chaotic and they could be hellish and they could be full of revelation and realization. They could be uncanny and horrifying and sublime. They defied logic, defied reason, and existed in a place independent of his control.

They could drive a man to madness. Or they could save his life.

They could mean a great many things.

Or they could mean nothing at all.

But he wasn't sure he'd ever dismiss his own again. Not for his own sanity. Not for his team.

No matter what dreams may come.