Afterimage Chapter Three

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Based on an original series and alternate future by Sonny & Ais called In the Company of Shadows.

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Slash (M/M), het (M/F) and graphic language, violence and sexual situations. Not intended for anyone under 18!


Book One: Evenfall See Evenfall chapter list.

Book Two: Afterimage
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Book Three: Fade
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Afterimage Chapter Three

Uploaded on 10/4/2008

The day for Level 10 orientation somehow seemed to arrive more quickly than anticipated.

Boyd had learned, as he'd entered the room and found name tents with the units listed beneath, that there were eight candidates including himself. He'd read the names but only recognized two of them; Ryan's former boyfriend Andrew Torres from Counter-Terrorism and Kassian's teammate Harriet Stevens from Insurgency.

Coincidentally, Andrew and Harriet had arrived at the same time and the difference in their reaction to seeing Boyd had been extreme. While the Puerto Rican man's handsome face automatically melted into a friendly smile and he extended an arm in a casual wave, Harriet just gave Boyd a steely-eyed look. It seemed that the aura of irritation that had surrounded her in Mexico followed her back to the States and as she took her seat, folding her arms across a loose fitting sweater that completely hid her shape, Harriet looked around at the other candidates in obvious disappointment. Obviously she'd been expecting more.

The others turned out to be Cade Carter from Counter-Terrorism, Emmaline Walker from Intelligence, Patrick Stanley from Counter-Terrorism, Tobias McAvoy from Intelligence (although he apparently went by 'Toby' judging by a conversation he overheard) and Jonathan Logan from Intelligence and Special Ops.

Jonathan was the only one to actually have Special Ops on his tag which was kind of interesting in itself. Special Ops was such a broad division that it was usually made up of high-ranking agents who only came in from time to time on very special missions. A good example was Blair from Insurgency who also doubled in the Aerial Support Unit, a section of Special Ops.

The fact that Jonathan had it listed as a home division made it obvious that he was frequently called upon for unique assignments and Boyd had to wonder exactly what the man's expertise was. Other than two scars on Jonathan's pale face-- a crescent shaped one under his eye and another slit through his upper lip-- the man appeared completely ordinary. His brown eyes and hair were completely unmemorable and even his clothing was rather drab. But it was entirely possible that looking plain was something he was good at; it probably allowed him to easily blend in and disappear.

After a moment of intrigued staring, Boyd turned his gaze away and looked at the front of the room.

He'd arrived five minutes before they were supposed to start but they were all still sitting around at eight minutes past the hour. At a long table in the front of the room there was Sin, Kassian, and Carhart. Sin was slouched down in the chair, looking half-asleep and entirely under-dressed for the occasion in his usual threadbare t-shirt and a pair of ratty jeans. He had a hooded sweatshirt on over the t-shirt with the hood pulled down far over his face, shading his expression and slightly shielding the fact from the unobservant that his eyes were practically closed.

Boyd was fairly certain he had never seen Sin look in worse shape except for the times that he'd been badly injured on assignment. His skin was pale and pasty and there were dark circles under his eyes. The fact that he was dozing off in front of a room full of people was a testament to how exhausted the man must be. Boyd hadn't seen him for several days and he was worried to see Sin looking in such poor shape in front of everyone, but then again, since when had Sin cared what others thought of him?

Boyd couldn't tell if Sin was half-asleep because he'd finally taken the sleeping pills or if he was still as out of it as he'd been when they'd taken the trip to Linnea's. Regardless, it made something in Boyd twist to see his partner looking so ill yet there wasn't really anything that he could do about it.

Once Sin went to the medic wing and had them determine what the issue was, then they could help him. Boyd was hoping that with a week or two of good rest and well-balanced meals, Sin would start to look like his old self. Boyd knew they almost certainly wouldn't have any missions together for the next few months and as long as no solo missions came up, maybe this training would actually help Sin by giving him an excuse and chance to take the time for himself to recuperate.

Despite his worry, Boyd made a point not to look at Sin any more often or longer than he did anyone else. He got enough shit about receiving special treatment due to his mother being in charge of the Agency and the last thing he needed in his first impression to the other candidates for Level 10, was to seem as though he could be getting special treatment here too due to any sort of confirmation of his relationship with Sin.

Moving his attention to the others seated in front, Boyd looked over at Kassian. He hadn't thought about Kassian and Sin being present at the first meeting for Level 10 but he supposed it made sense. They were, after all, currently the only two people in the position that he and the others were vying for and they would have the best information.

As usual, Kassian cast a professional image that was starkly contrasted when seated next to Sin. Unlike Sin, he'd chosen to dress more formally with plain black slacks and a button down shirt even though the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He was sitting up straight and looked very alert and actually interested in what was going on although there wasn't a hint in his expression as to what he thought of the candidates.

The difference between the two Senior Agents at the front of the room was almost comical.

By this time, most of the candidates were scrutinizing Sin and Kassian, Sin in particular, but Harriet seemed to especially be focused on General Carhart. Her deep brown eyes were fixed on him intently, her striking features set in what appeared to be a permanently stoic expression although now she displayed a hint of deference. It seemed she wanted to make a good impression with all of them but the General especially.

It was strange but at times Boyd forgot how elite their unit must really be for Carhart to be heading it. Carhart was the third highest ranking person at the Agency with more clout than any other General, yet Boyd still found it odd that the man who had once told him to 'just call me Zach' was such a powerful figure.

Whatever the case, Carhart wasn't paying as much attention to the group as Boyd would have expected. Carhart was sitting up straight in his chair, arms folded in front of him but he seemed to be alternating between staring out the window and down at a file that lay open in front of him although Boyd couldn't tell if he was actually reading it. The general had been that way lately-- distracted, anxious, and his youthful good looks were starting to seem weary, with frown lines etching themselves on his forehead. Boyd didn't know the reason but he did wonder what could possibly be bothering the usually easygoing man.

As if feeling the steady gaze on him, Carhart glanced up at Boyd suddenly and stared back for a moment. He seemed to realize that his lack of attention was obvious and cleared his throat, closing the file and turning his cerulean blue eyes on to the last man in the room.

Instructor Douglas Ferguson, according to his name tag, was standing next to the table and surveying the trainees dotted across the room. Boyd had never seen the man before but for some reason his last name sounded vaguely familiar-- likely it had been mentioned in his initial training to become an agent.

He was an interesting-looking figure at 6'2" with a very solid and powerful build, and an unruly mass of windblown black curls that fell across his forehead stubbornly. He stood with his hands on his hips as his extraordinarily pale blue eyes bore into each agent in front of him, shaking his head from time to time although it wasn't obvious why.

"Alright girls, let's start this thing," he said suddenly, voice booming loudly and with a slight Australian accent. "My name is Douglas Ferguson, specialized trainer for high ranking-agents. If you don't know who I am, it means you weren't trained with the best when you were promoted to Level 9 and that probably means you're going to fail this whole thing before we even get too far into it and that's just the way it is."

Boyd resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow. Well, the man was certainly confident. Douglas was probably just trying to scare them away to some extent but it was obvious that he really believed what he was saying.

"Everyone should at least be marginally familiar with the three men sitting to my left and if not, you're an oblivious cunt who once again probably shouldn't be here." Douglas crossed his arms over his chest, jerking his head to the left. "And in case there are any such people sitting in front of me, and believe me I'll weed your asses out soon enough, we have here General Carhart who's basically my watchdog, making sure I don't abuse you all too much."

Carhart gave the Instructor a wan smile and shook his head slightly, not seeming at all surprised by the drill sergeant approach or the language Douglas used quite easily.

"Then we've got Captain America here," Douglas went on, indicating Kassian in all of his Blond All-American glory, "Or Agent Kassian Trovosky as some of you may know him. He's one of the only two agents who actually made it to Level 10 and managed to be good at it. A prime example of miracles happening every day."

Kassian seemed to give an internal sigh but otherwise didn't bat an eyelash, also appearing quite used to the man's style.

The more that Douglas talked, the more Boyd was entertained by Douglas. He had an odd combination between his somewhat unkempt appearance and his harsh mannerisms and words. His description of Kassian and Carhart amused Boyd as well as their beleaguered responses.

"And last but not least... well maybe least is a good word, we have Agent Hs--" Douglas broke off abruptly when he glanced at Sin and scowled. It appeared as though Sin had actually dozed off this time and was slumped down in his chair, hood completely covering the top half of his face as he leaned on one arm.

Douglas growled in irritation and kicked Sin's chair. "Wake your ass up."

Sin woke with a start and sat up, the hood falling back to reveal his red rimmed eyes as he stared up at Douglas moodily. "What?"

Kassian shook his head and met Boyd's eyes briefly, mouth twitching slightly.

Boyd returned the look with slightly raised eyebrows. Although Kassian had looked equal parts unsurprised and displeased by Sin's display, Boyd was equally concerned and amused. Normally he would feel exasperated by Sin's tendency to completely disregard any sense of protocol but in this case he knew how awful Sin felt. But other than the worrisome aspect, it was somewhat funny to see.

"Well I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but in case you haven't noticed you've got a fucking audience," Douglas said, sarcasm oozing from his voice. "Now look alive, damn it."

Sin didn't make any attempt to look lively and made a face, glaring at the trainees as if they were the root of all his problems. They stared back with expressions varying from dismay, to irritation and surprise.

"Sadly, Agent Vega is probably the best assassin and fighter you're ever going to meet," Douglas finally went on, still scowling at Sin. "We're actually planning to use this dumb fuck for training purposes later, so look forward to that."

Training purposes? Surprised, Boyd glanced toward Sin. Boyd's expression was mostly neutral but there was a slight questioning aspect to it that he knew Sin would be able to interpret. He hadn't heard anything about this and wondered if Sin knew, or even what 'training purposes' exactly meant.

Sin looked at him with a slight one-shouldered shrug and didn't look at all surprised by the revelation.

"The reason these two gentlemen have graced us with their presences today is that they are the only two Level 10 agents that are currently living at the moment. Interpret that any way you want and the worst thoughts that come to your head probably don't even begin to cover it," Douglas said, turning his attention back to the trainees. "If anyone can best fill you in on what you can expect if you, and it's very unlikely you will, receive this promotion, it's them. But before we get to that, I'll go into some details about what the word 'training' really means when it comes to this."

Douglas clasped his hands behind his back and narrowed his eyes slightly, likely gauging any reaction they would have to whatever he was going to say. "If you're thinking it's going to be the same shit as Level 9, you can get that out of your head right now. The only thing that set up and this set up has got in common is that you'll be staying in the bunkers, but this time there's very little interaction allowed between trainees and non-trainees."

He paused for a moment, letting that sink in. "Got it? There's no taking time off to stroll about the compound or going out for cokes and burgers or whatever the fuck you people like to do in this town. You stay in the bunkers, you interact with each other and that's the end of it except for two phone calls a day and one trip outside biweekly. That's the end of your connection with the outside world until your three months of training is through. It's better for you in the long run-- it will keep you focused on what you're doing but it's also a test in its own right."

Boyd didn't visibly react to the news but he did see the frown on Patrick's face. He wasn't someone that Boyd had ever formally met but there was definitely something familiar about the tall and extremely muscular African American man. He was very powerful looking, to the extent that it could be intimidating, but his good-natured expression and calm voice as he'd greeted the others in the room told Boyd that he wasn't someone who would use his size to make people fear him.

In fact, Patrick appeared to be the polar opposite of Cade in that way. They both cut incredibly muscular figures but while Patrick seemed naturally kind, Cade's arrogance was very apparent. It was the way he'd strutted across the room as he walked in, sizing every one up and making rude comments under his breath. The gym shorts and sleeveless shirt that he wore were also an obvious ploy to bring attention to his mass of muscles.

The two agents were as different as night and day in their personalities and it made Boyd wonder just how he would interact with these people for three months with barely any time to himself.

He'd known ahead of time that they would essentially be in lock-down during the training and although he would miss his freedom and his ability to see Sin, he was confident that he could do it. To him, this entire training session was going to be a test of his ability to work and adapt on his own. In the long run, training was only a few months out of his life and the challenge probably wouldn't be bad for him as a person or an agent.

"What if there's a family emergency?" Patrick asked finally, looking hesitant to speak but obviously thinking his question was pertinent enough.

"What if there's a family emergency on a mission? Gonna haul ass back to town then?" the Instructor asked rhetorically.

Patrick looked away, appearing troubled, but didn't say anything further and after a moment Douglas went on.

"The training is not just physical," he said, eyes sliding away from Patrick to focus on Cade. "Got it? Not. Just. Physical. So don't think being all juiced up is going to be the deciding factor in who gets through this thing. There's a variety of tests and endurance challenges which focus on physical and mental, and don't think there's going to be any warming up to the hard stuff, either. It's all hard stuff."

He nodded to himself, curls falling around his face haphazardly. "If you didn't already have an excellent understanding of the basics, you wouldn't be in front of me, or that's what we're assuming anyway. If it turns out you're a total piece of shit then that will come out sooner than later when you get maimed while sparring or killed on a mock mission. We've even had a suicide during a mock up interrogation," Douglas said with a chuckle. "Some fucking people, huh?"

The other trainees reacted more to this information than anything else that had been said so far. Emmaline shifted uncomfortably but didn't say anything and covered up the movement with a sip from her water bottle. Toby also looked taken aback by the news but Cade had the strongest response. He snorted and leaned back in his chair with a doubtful raising of his eyebrows, giving Douglas a look that clearly said he didn't believe him.

The expression wasn't missed by Douglas and he stopped whatever he was about to say to stare directly at Cade. "You got something to say, juicer? Or is your face just twitching from all of that extra testosterone?"

"Yeah, I do," Cade said, shifting in his seat to give more of a lazily intimidating presence. "You seriously trying to tell me I may not stand a chance against these pussies?" He gestured toward the rest of the trainees.

Douglas stared at him for a moment before exchanging highly amused glances with Carhart, who just shook his head and declined to involve himself. "Well judging from your response, I'd say you don't have the mental capacity to get past the first week. You've got no i-fucking-dea what the rest of them can do and you're judging solely based on muscle-mass alone which means you're an idiot already for underestimating opponents you know nothing about." He paused and then pointed at Sin. "You're about sixty pounds bigger than Agent Vega. Do ya think he's a pussy too?"

Sin glanced at Cade, suddenly interested in the discussion.

"I ain't talking about him," Cade said dismissively. "He's a freak, everyone knows that. I'm talking about the others in here-- the two with the real pussies, no offense darlin'," he addressed that only to Emmaline and didn't seem as though he really cared if he offended her because he let his eyes linger a little too long on her breasts, "and the rest of them who may as well. C'mon, man, that one over there looks like he'd piss his pants if someone said 'boo' too loud at night if he didn't have his teddy bear and night light." He pointed at Toby.

Boyd was mildly interested to find that, for once, he wasn't the one singled out as being weak at first glance. Typically, the macho men took one look at his slightly effeminate features, his slender body and his medium-length blond hair and they thought he would be as much threat as a little girl.

"You're a tool," Toby replied, not looking very surprised by the summation of his appearance. He was probably used to it by now; he was slightly shorter than average height and rather thin, but his aristocratic features and pale blue eyes seemed to be permanently full of disdain. His clothing as well as his demeanor made him seem very much like a man who thought highly of himself and his appearance, but not much of the rest of the world.

"Oh don't make me cry," Cade said sarcastically, clearly unimpressed by Toby's response.

Harriet shook her head disgustedly, perhaps with his attitude or simply with the fact that someone somewhere considered him to be in the same league with her, but she said nothing.

Surprisingly, it was Patrick who spoke up despite the fact that he appeared to be a rather shy individual. "It wouldn't hurt to show some propriety, man. We're here with superiors for a possible promotion. Don't ruin it for yourself before we even start training."

Cade made a show of turning in his seat and looking at Patrick but rather than continue to argue he just made a rolling shrug. "I'm just saying," he said lazily, but he subsided. "We'll see it once training starts anyway."

"I'm sure we'll see plenty once training starts," Douglas said with a wide grin, appearing to thrive on the idea of Cade's possible future failure. "But for now, ladies, let's get back to the matter at hand, yeah?" He leaned against the table, and tilted his head to the side. "And if you've gotten any doubts about what I'm saying, the three people sitting here have all gone through this very same training and each time there have been colossal failures and deaths. If you're prepared to deal with that, by all means stay and hear the rest of what these agents have got to say but if for some reason you know you're not cut out for the kinda shit that's going to go down-- then please get the hell out now and don't waste my time."

Patrick actually appeared to consider it briefly while Cade just leaned back in his chair with a smug expression that said he didn't quite believe it and had no intention of going anywhere. Andrew settled more firmly into his seat but he seemed a little harrowed by the idea of how difficult this would be.

The others did not seem to react, including Boyd who just watched Douglas with his usual neutral expression. He already had a good idea from Sin and to an extent Kassian and Carhart about just how difficult and challenging the Level 10 job was, let alone the training, so he was unsurprised by Douglas' speech. It was obvious that this entire meeting was a test on its own; to get an idea of the personalities of the candidates and see how easy they were to upset or shake their convictions.

Douglas waited for a few moments before shrugging. "Good. So we can move on." He turned toward the table and looked at Sin and Kassian. "The floor is yours, kids."

Sin gave him a look that clearly told Douglas what his opinion of having the floor was and it was Kassian who finally stood up. Kassian seemed completely confident and sure of himself, glancing over everyone as he apparently gathered his thoughts. Harriet sat up a little straighter and her mouth turned up in a small smile as she watched her team leader; looking simultaneously proud of him and for some reason slightly embarrassed.

"Like Instructor Ferguson said, Agent Vega and I are the only two active Level 10 Operatives at the moment and we're here to pretty much give you some insight as to what you can expect from that title and what will be expected of you. I've been through two of these orientations before and was involved with the training for both sessions so I can tell you now that it really is as tough as the Instructor is making it out to be. Out of almost two dozen trainees, I've only seen one man get promoted and he died shortly after that." His voice was calm and carried across the room easily. "You should all know that Level 10 Field Operatives have an extremely high mortality rate. The average life expectancy is five years after initial promotion, although Agent Vega and I have thus far been an exception to that."

Emmaline raised her hand slightly.

Kassian looked at her with a brief smile and nodded. "Yes..." He glanced at her name tag. "Emmaline?"

"I typically go by Emma," Emma offered politely, smiling. "Agent Trovosky, where is that statistic coming from? If there are so few Level 10 promotions and you two have remained Level 10s for years, how is the average life span so short? Were previous Level 10s killed so quickly?" It was the first time Boyd heard her speak; her voice was smooth and rather pleasant-sounding, which seemed to fit her general appearance and personality.

The differences between the only two females in the room was as striking as the contrast between Patrick and Cade. While Harriet was tomboyish and obviously reluctant to show any femininity at all, Emma did nothing to hide it. They were both highly attractive but unlike the tight knot Harriet had in her black hair, Emma kept her long brown, thick hair down in waves. While Harriet wore no makeup, Emma had chosen to subtly enhance her beauty with cosmetics. While Harriet wore over-sized clothing, Emma wore slim cut pants and a stylish blouse, although her clothing was not provocative in the least. While Harriet's dark brown eyes often seemed distant and unreadable, Emma's deep blue gaze was often polite, interested, and amiable. While it was rare to see Harriet seem friendly, Emma had greeted each trainee with a smile that had actually seemed genuine.

The only two women Boyd ever had much interaction with at the Agency were his mother and Harriet so seeing Emma was almost a relief. Not all female agents were as extreme as the former two; somehow Boyd just seemed to interact more with people who had intense personalities, sometimes dramatically so.

"Actually, yes." Kassian held her gaze for a long moment despite the fact that he was obviously not only addressing her. "This Agency has been around for quite some time and in the distant past, it was common for there to be many Level 10 agents at a time. But as the war worsened and we were directly bombed, many agents were killed and a lot of the veterans who would have been next in line for promotion were replaced with new agents who had to take years working up the ladder such as some of you."

He finally broke Emma's gaze just as Harriet glanced at the other woman but Harriet's expression was unreadable.

"It wasn't that those agents were unskilled," Kassian continued, "it's just that we are typically sent on assignments that really do seem like suicide. I have been on many missions that seemed like inevitable death and somehow my luck just hasn't run out yet. But it isn't only assignments that take us out-- it's the pressure as well. Many times it has caused agents to crack, to go crazy, or to lose themselves in a personality that isn't really their own. Many Level 10 agents have subsequently committed suicide or wound up locked in a mental ward, unable to handle things that happened to them or even things that they'd done for the sake of the mission."

Kassian shrugged expressively. "The reason I'm here is to ensure that you all are aware of what you're getting into. It may seem like a small step but really it's a huge difference in what you'll be expected to do. These are not the average assignment where you're in and out after the task is accomplished. You are put on assignments where you have to sacrifice every part of who you are to get the job done, and if you don't, the consequences can be very severe."

Emma raised her hand again and waited until Kassian looked over to acknowledge her. "Yes, I actually have two questions. What sort of resources are available for Level 10s to handle the job, such as counseling, vacations or other services? And, secondly, I'm wondering how you've both successfully dealt with the stress."

She looked toward Sin, her expression as amiable and interested as anyone else she looked at, showing that she either did not buy into the idea of him being a freak or she was prudent enough not to let it show. "Senior Agent Vega, I was especially hoping that you'd have a chance to answer that question; as far as I understand it, you've been Level 10 for longer than anyone else as well as being the youngest, which must have been especially difficult in your formative years as a teenager."

Sin seemed disturbed that she was directly addressing him and didn't say anything for a long moment. He just stared at her blankly for enough time to make it sufficiently awkward and only seemed to come to himself when Kassian turned to stare at him as though he was an idiot. Sin narrowed his eyes toward Kassian in a manner that was obviously threatening before turning the glare to Emma. "Pass."

"Christ," Douglas muttered softly, shaking his head to himself.

Carhart sat up finally and cleared his throat, casting a furtive glance at Sin before speaking for him. "Therapy is offered to all agents but the higher up you go, the more benefits will be offered to you in that way. Level 10 Field Operatives receive very individualized care from the psychiatric and medical staff because, as Agent Trovosky said, they're often put into situations that are damaging to them mentally and physically. The Agency does everything possible to give these people what they need, even if it is not always successful."

"Are you implying my therapy hasn't been successful?" Sin asked dryly.

The general looked at him directly and asked pointedly, "Do you think it's been?"

Sin opened his mouth to reply, likely with some smart-assed comment, but for some reason he frowned and seemed to decide against it as he settled for brooding silence once again. Boyd was mildly surprised by that but thought Sin was probably just too tired to feel like arguing.

Carhart met Emma's gaze as she attentively listened. "Agent Vega is a difficult case if you're trying to put the concept of how useful psychiatric care is to Level 10s into perspective. Being a fighter since the age of thirteen likely does something to a man that no one, not even a doctor, could possibly comprehend."

"That's understandable," Emma said with a nod. "Therapy in any regard depends on the person, circumstances, and therapist. I was just wondering what sort of resources may be available for Level 10s or how Senior Agents Trovosky and Vega have dealt with the issues that have arisen as a direct result of their high-ranking position. I assumed that successful therapy or other techniques to de-stress and relearn behaviors must have been involved to some extent. I can see how that was a poorly worded question, though." She said it easily, not in any way implying that Carhart or the others were reprimanding her for her question, but rather acknowledging that she could see the error of her ways and was already compensating for it.

"I can't speak for Vega," Kassian said, dropping the use of Sin's title for some reason, "but I believe that the services offered to us can be quite helpful. After completing extensive undercover assignments, it's possible that you can be required to see one in order to make sure that you're at the place you should be when you return. I just came from a two-year undercover op and I've found it useful, and although I'm not seeing anyone regularly at the moment, I always have the option to go back and see the doctor I dealt with in the past. My coping mechanisms typically just involve having somewhere to go that is completely removed from work."

If it hadn't been for the fact that Boyd had actually visited Kassian's house, he probably would have believed that well-executed evasion. Especially standing there next to Sin, Kassian had such a put-together, well-rounded, good guy appearance that it was easy to believe him when he implied nothing was really wrong. Boyd knew that in many ways Kassian definitely lived up to his reputation; he was an adept, textbook example of a great agent except for the fact that his morals sometimes conflicted with his assignment. Yet he knew that Kassian also put up a front so that the rest of the people at the Agency, and even his friends and neighbors, were not aware of any insecurities or flaws he may have.

Boyd knew that the place Kassian went to that was "completely removed from work" was his home, messy and littered with empty bottles and cans of alcohol and that he seemed to sleep on the couch more often than not. It wasn't Boyd's place or in his interest to judge the man; he knew enough about Kassian's assignment in Russia and the type of Level 10 assignments Sin had been given that the stress all of them talked about was very real. It also wasn't as though he was an expert on Kassian or that he even necessarily cared to be; he'd really only been around him a few times but even in that time he could tell there was more to him than met the eye.

Part of that was simply because Kassian had given him the opportunity; mostly because Kassian knew Boyd didn't care about him either way so Kassian had taken the chance to let him see beyond the facade.

For Boyd, the things that Kassian tried to hide from others just made him seem more real, like he was more of an understandable person because he also did things that he regretted or thought he needed to hide. It was just interesting because since he'd visited Kassian's home over the summer, Boyd hadn't really been confronted with the disconnect between Kassian's life at home and Kassian's persona at work. Of course he'd noted the difference when he'd visited but this was the first time he was in the context of the Agency and realized even just a hint that he could read beyond what Kassian was saying and presenting to what was really happening behind that professional exterior and polite smile.

As for the other trainees, they didn't seem to notice anything amiss at all. In fact, judging by their reactions they were more caught up on the length of time Kassian's mission had lasted than the coping skills he mentioned. Andrew looked surprised but didn't say anything and once again Patrick looked quite disturbed by the news; it seemed pretty obvious that he had not expected many of the things he was hearing. It was hard to tell what Emma was thinking; her expression did not change from professional interest as she nodded in thanks to the information, but there was a slight tensing of her shoulders.

"Are assignments of that length typical?" Toby chimed in suddenly, looking intrigued by this notion.

"They can be," Kassian replied. "It depends on the division you're in and the type of work you typically do. My expertise is espionage, so I'm more suited for those missions which is why they're assigned to me. However with missions of that length there is always the option to opt out, although there is a large bonus involved if you go through with it and it's likely considered a dereliction of duty if you say no."

Toby nodded and seemed to think hard about that although he maintained his smug, slightly arrogant expression throughout. Boyd thought Toby was trying very hard to appear as though that information didn't intimidate him but it was obvious by the way his lips turned down at the side that it did.

"It's not surprising," a quiet voice with a slight Irish accent rang out suddenly. Jonathan looked around the room briefly before focusing his gaze on Toby. "The deeper undercover one goes, the more information they're going to access about their enemy and that's what espionage is all about."

"That's right," Kassian agreed with a nod.

"How much warning is usually given before assignments?" Andrew asked, shifting in his chair to get more comfortable or perhaps out of some sense of fidgeting. "Like, say your two-year assignment. Did you get enough time to put your affairs in order or do these things get sprung on you last minute?"

"I was given time," Kassian replied. "It takes some time to devise a thorough understanding of the role you're supposed to take on and to make any physical changes that you may need to make for one."

"So what kinda missions are we talking about anyway?" Cade piped up from the side, his pose and tone somehow a little flippant although he seemed honestly interested in the answer. "Long undercover missions, assassinations, what?"

Douglas, who had been eyeballing Cade since his last comment, looked like he wanted to respond with something both belittling and belligerent but smiled coldly to himself and settled for saying, "I bet you'd be just gorgeous in an undercover mission."

Kassian glanced at Douglas knowingly and was most likely very aware that the Instructor was going to have a lot of fun with this trainee just by the wicked glint in his blue eyes. But before the other man could say anything more, Kassian replied. "We can't go into specifics, you're not high enough classification level at your current rank, but you can expect a variety of assignments in all divisions. It will probably come as a surprise to those of you who are used to team assignments in the Counter-Terrorism division especially."

Carhart nodded in agreement with Kassian, paying more attention to the discussion now. "When I was first promoted, it was a big change because I was used to working as part of a larger unit from my years in the Marines and then working in General Stephen's division in a close-knit team. But you get used to it. I did and at the time I wasn't nearly as focused as a lot of our new agents are today."

"And look who you had as a partner," Douglas chimed in with a chortle.

Sin glanced at Carhart, who ignored the comment.

Boyd had nearly forgotten that Carhart had once been partnered with Emilio but as soon as Douglas said it, combined with Sin's glance, he knew they couldn't be referring to anyone else. He tried to imagine going from a setting like the Marines to a partner like that while also being promoted to Level 10. That must have been quite taxing on Carhart; Boyd had felt like he'd had issues when he'd first started as Sin's partner but at least Sin had been pretty straightforward about his personality from the start.

Emilio sounded like the sort of person who'd been unrefined and unpredictable, but who had been so charismatic and likable that he could get away with being an asshole all he wanted. Granted, he had never met Emilio because the man had died over a decade before Boyd had joined the Agency but Emilio's reputation certainly preceded him.

"What sort of assassination are we talking about here? Who would the targets be?" Andrew asked, and although his expression wasn't very readable, Boyd could tell that he was a little uneasy about the idea, which was unsurprising since he seemed to have a bit of a hero complex. He'd been so upset about Boyd killing an enemy during the raid; what would he be like on a mission where he went in specifically to kill someone without the immediate reward of seeing the innocent lives he'd saved?

"Now what kind of dumb fucking question is that?" Douglas drawled, tilting his head as his curls bounced around wildly. "Even if you were classified to that information at the moment, you think we just have a list of people waiting to die all lined up for ya?"

"I meant what kind of people," Andrew mumbled, seeming slightly embarrassed.

Cade smirked off to the side, looking pleased to see someone else get berated by Douglas.

"You'll find out if you get to that point, trainee. If," Douglas said with a snort.

Kassian waited until the Instructor was through before glancing down at Sin. "Do you have anything to add?"


"Fine." Kassian looked back at the trainees, looking somewhat tired of having to talk to them. "Does anyone have any questions for me or Agent Vega?"

"I have a question for Instructor Ferguson," Emma offered, looking up from some notes she was quickly scribbling on her pad of paper. "How do you decide who'll be promoted?"

"There's a variety of factors that are taken into consideration and just for your information, I'm not the one doing the judging. That's up to the top dogs-- the guys behind the big desks and what not." Douglas brushed his unruly hair out of his eyes, seeming somewhat aggravated with it. "Everything is considered a test, whether it's written, oral or physical and you'll be judged and scored on all of it. Scores are tallied and the list is narrowed down but it's not just numbers that are the deciding factor. Other things are taken into consideration as well but I'm not about to share that with you fuckrags just yet. The best trainee is a trainee who don't know shit because they can't pretend like they do. Everything is a lot more honest that way, am I right?"

Boyd was glad at least to hear that they would be taking everything into account. He agreed with Douglas' assessment but he also suspected that the trainers would keep them in the dark on purpose, to create more doubt and uncertainty and make that all a test on its own. The more unpredictability they would have to deal with, the less likely they would fall into any sense of a routine or get too complacent. He did the best in those types of situations anyway, so it would work to his advantage although he could see that being problematic for someone like Cade who seemed incapable of taking his head out of his ass for longer than a few minutes at a time.

"I have a question as well, Instructor," Toby spoke up. "When will it be announced who is going to be promoted?"

"Approximately four to six weeks after training is complete," Douglas replied. "If any of you actually get promoted. If. You will be notified, although everyone is called in, even if you didn't make it, just so it can be explained to you why exactly you suck."

Cade looked smugly over at the others, as if he could not imagine himself being one of those people but for once he did not speak. He seemed to especially focus on Toby, Harriet, Emma and, unsurprisingly, Boyd.

Although Boyd somewhat agreed with Cade's earlier assessment of Toby in that he doubted the man had what it took to stand up to Cade immediately, he knew that Harriet at least was not the sort of person to let such slights go unnoticed. Part of him was secretly waiting for when she would get back at Cade for his earlier comments along with the smug look he'd just given her. He didn't particularly like Harriet but sometimes it was entertaining to watch strong personalities be aimed at people other than himself.

"Well, if you girls don't have any more questions, you're free to enjoy your last week of freedom before I lock your asses down in the bunker," Douglas said, waiting a moment to see if anyone would speak, and then turned to Carhart which effectively ended the orientation.

The trainees hesitated briefly as if to determine if it was okay for them to move, then one by one they left. Andrew was the first one out of the room, followed by Jonathan. Emma took a moment to gather her things and slide them back into her bag. Patrick started to leave but paused and hovered a moment, as if he intended to say something to her, but Cade apparently decided that it was a good time to hit on her as he leaned against her desk and said something in a low voice. She mostly ignored him, giving him only a cursory, polite smile, and stood up to go.

Cade made an attempt to block her in but she smoothly moved around him and walked out with him close behind. Patrick watched them a moment before finally leaving as well. As soon as most of the trainees were gone, Douglas and Carhart walked out talking, only paying brief attention to the others still left in the room.

Boyd wandered down toward the front, where Kassian remained in Sin's vicinity. Harriet was the only other trainee still there and she headed toward Kassian, saying something to him that Boyd didn't initially pay attention to.

"What did they mean, training purposes?" he asked Sin.

"What?" Sin asked, staring at Boyd blearily. "What are you talking about?"

"The Instructor said they planned to use you for training purposes later," Boyd reminded him patiently.

"Oh." Sin rubbed a hand across his face. "Some nonsense."

"They use him as an example," Kassian said suddenly, obviously having overheard the conversation. "Of how quickly and efficiently a Level 10 is expected to get things done but he doesn't necessarily have to be there for that. I don't know if they've changed things since the previous training but last time they also wanted to have one of us there for sparring."

Boyd glanced briefly at Sin in a mixture of surprise and exasperation although the emotions did not make it to his face. Why would Sin not just tell him that if it was such a simple answer? He was sympathetic toward the fact that Sin was exhausted but Sub had done the same sort of thing to Boyd a number of times before and it was frustrating. Sometimes it seemed like the situation got unnecessarily complicated because Sin didn't tell him about something he knew about well in advance.

Boyd turned his attention back to Kassian. "We may have to fight him?"

"Possibly. One of us. Most likely him though," Kassian replied with a shrug.

"Why most likely him?" Harriet asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Because he's the better fighter," Kassian said, irony dripping off his words as he glanced down at Sin again and shook his head. "Even though he looks hungover at the moment."

Sin flipped Kassian off and got to his feet. "Whatever. You should know about that, huh? Drunk ass Russian."

Boyd kept his expression neutral and looked over at Kassian, mostly out of surprise that Sin's comment in any way rang true, but he made the movement casual enough that for anyone watching it would seem like he was just seeing how Kassian would react to one of Sin's usual baseless insults. He found that Kassian glanced his way briefly, a question hidden in his eyes asking whether Boyd had said anything. Boyd shook his head just the faintest bit in a subtle move and Kassian gave him a brief half smile, acknowledging it.

Although Sin missed the quick, subtle interaction Harriet apparently hadn't because she gave Kassian a strange look. But she didn't say anything about it; instead, she completely changed the topic back to the matter at hand. "How would that be scored? What determines how well you do compared to everyone else?"

"Well, it's not like you're all just supposed to set out to beat each other. It's not really a competition even though I know everything turns into a competition with you, Harry," Kassian said, smiling slightly as he raised a knowing eyebrow at her. "When I did it, while Vega was... indisposed..."

"You mean locked in a box while doped up with tranquilizers?" Sin corrected, staring at Kassian and not looking anything remotely close to good humored or friendly.

Harriet's eyebrows drew together slightly at the description and she briefly gazed at Sin, her expression a strange mix between pity, curiosity and an edge of intimidation as she recalled her teammate's fear of Sin on the way out of Mexico. Even when he'd been in a coma and looking very close to death, Michael had stared at the man with complete fear in his eyes and begged Kassian to strap him down in case he woke up. A man who was that feared and was treated with such measures-- it only made her wonder what he was capable of. Even in his current sickly state.

Kassian shrugged and continued. "It was more like I was training them rather than outright fighting them, helping with techniques I've learned over the years. But when I was trained, they had me spar with him multiple times."

Harriet's eyebrows shot up, looking surprised. "I didn't know that."

"He did really poorly," Sin offered helpfully, rubbing his forehead again. "It was quite funny."

"Fuck you." Irritation was starting to creep into Kassian's sky blue eyes as his jaw clenched.

Boyd looked at Kassian in mild surprise that didn't make it to his face. He remembered his own first spar with Sin; it had ended in a laughably short amount of time with Sin nowhere close to breaking a sweat. Granted, Boyd had at that time only had half a year's training and Kassian would have come from other areas before he sparred, but against Sin no one truthfully stood a chance.

Given Kassian and Sin's rivalry and Kassian's dislike of how he was constantly compared to a person who was a phenomenal fighter and assassin but had little in the way of overarching morals as far as he knew, it was unsurprising that he wasn't pleased with Sin's comment. What surprised Boyd was that the usually mild-mannered Kassian was getting annoyed enough that he actually snapped back in public.

"But how do they judge it?" Harriet persisted, shooting Kassian another look.

"Based on how well you can stand against his retardedly fast reflexes. I suppose they figure if you can spar with him and not die, you stand a good chance against most other opponents," Kassian said, tone getting gradually more annoyed, more sarcastic as Sin smirked at him. The contrast between their personalities-- Kassian at first making an effort to be professional and Sin doing his best to get underneath Kassian's skin-- was very obvious and it was no wonder why they had a complete inability to get along.

"Given the fact that Sin can take out an entire room of enemies in a matter of seconds, no one stands a chance of winning against him," Boyd said honestly, glancing toward Sin. "I suppose it does measure a sense of prowess but it just seems... contrived and insulting on all our parts, including Sin's."

Boyd lifted shrugged lightly. "Maybe that's the point. As long as they judge the entire training on multiple levels--mental, physical, and so on--a person should be able to continue even if failing abysmally there but I just don't see most of us making it far. No offense meant to Emma but, for instance, I doubt she'd last longer than a handful of seconds. I know I didn't, at least, the first time I sparred with him."

Harriet glanced over at Boyd and studied him for a long moment before raising her shoulders slightly in reluctant acknowledgment that she apparently thought he was right. "I agree. They likely will take into account how well we do under the pressure of facing such an opponent and possibly even how strategic we are during the course of it."

"Captain America made it pretty far," Sin said, mocking smirk firmly in place as he continued to lock eyes with Kassian. "He even hit me once."

Kassian shifted slightly, body tense as anger seemed to build inside of him. His eyes narrowed as he shook his head, irritation practically radiating off him. "That was over ten years ago. Things have changed since then."

"Well, we can give it another shot if that's what you want," Sin said, smirk widening into a smile as if he was looking forward to the chance of inflicting some violence on someone. "You must have your big boy shorts on today, Kass."

"You're such a fucking asshole," Kassian replied. "I'd love to wipe that smirk right off of your face."

"You're more than welcome to try," Sin said, voice lower, more threatening, as he faced Kassian entirely.

The two of them looked on the verge of actually attacking each other. Although Boyd wasn't as familiar with Kassian's body language, he knew Sin was in one of his reckless moods where he was lashing out just to see what reaction he could get and how far he could push it; this wasn't just talk between them and for that reason Boyd tried to run interference.

"This isn't the time or place for that," Boyd pointed out reasonably. "If you both really wanted to challenge each other it should be in an actual spar in the training rooms, not a brawl like it would be if you started now. Your emotions would interfere with your skills."

Harriet said nothing but stared at Kassian in surprise, appearing more than a little uncomfortable with seeing her Senior Agent and Team Leader who was typically so level-headed and in control, so easily rankled by Sin. It also came as a big surprise considering just how hard Kassian had tried to keep Sin alive back in Mexico, when it was more than obvious that they both disliked each other intensely.

Sin raised his eyebrows at Kassian, a challenge in his eyes. "I don't mind a good brawl."

Kassian stared at him hard for another long moment before exhaling slowly and flexing his hands, glancing at Boyd and Harriet as he appeared to come back to himself. "Be an asshole by yourself, Vega. I'm not going to be brought down to your level."

"How fucking impressive of you," Sin sneered. "Must be great being such a paragon. Too bad it doesn't come with balls."

"Do you really think I'm afraid of you?" Kassian asked incredulously. "I've never been and I never will be. You should know that by now. You're nothing to me but an annoyance."

"And you're nothing but a do-gooder little bitch who thinks you're something special just because you do whatever the hell you're told."

"I think I'm going to go," Harriet interrupted suddenly. "I have some things to take care of before training starts."

Sin and Kassian looked at her, a slight edge of embarrassment crossing Kassian's face as he nodded distractedly. "Yeah, of course. Sorry you had to witness this."

"Oh brother," Sin muttered, rolling his eyes and sitting on the table, appearing to have lost interest--or maybe just having lost the energy--in continuing to bate his rival.

Harriet cleared her throat, seeming awkward as she quickly looked at Boyd and Sin before focusing on Kassian again. "Well, I suppose I won't see you for awhile then..." Her tone was strange and it was hard to say whether or not she was leading to something she was hesitant to say.

"I'll see you during training," Kassian replied, seeming oblivious to her awkwardness and tone.

"Oh, right. Okay." She nodded and tucked stray strands of black hair behind her ears. At the moment she didn't seem so much like the hard ass who'd judged Boyd so harshly in the back of that van in Monterrey; rather, she seemed like an insecure woman who was frustrated with herself and her situation. But she quickly caught herself and shot an almost irritated glance at Boyd, as if his presence was somehow making the situation worse.

Boyd just looked at her evenly, wondering at her interaction with Kassian and how she was such a markedly different person around him, but before he cared to think on it much she was already moving to leave.

Harriet hoisted her black backpack on one shoulder and nodded at Sin briefly more out of respect that he was a superior than anything else before saying, "Well, I'll see you later Senior Agent Trovosky."

"Good luck," Kassian said amiably, watching her walk away. When she was gone, he cast another look at Sin. "I hope they skip the sparring this time around."

"Afraid I'll beat up your girlfriend?" Sin asked dryly, hunching forward with a wince as he put his head in his hands. "Don't worry, I have no desire to kill a bunch of pathetic little trainees if that's what you're thinking."

Boyd raised an eyebrow. "You'd better not be including me in that statement."

Sin peeked at him through his fingers. "Oh. I forgot about you."

"I'm that easy to forget, am I?" Boyd asked dryly. "Especially when I've been right in front of you for the last hour? I'm flattered."

"You were barely there anyway. You didn't say a word. I think points should be deducted from your score just for that," Sin replied with a snort, getting to his feet again with a stretch.

"Scoring me already?" Boyd asked with an amused smirk. "That was quick. I'll have to watch out with Judge Sin on my back." Out of the corner of his eye, he realized that Kassian was watching the two of them as they bantered; first Kassian seemed to study Sin's expression and then he looked toward Boyd, who didn't let on that he'd noticed.

"I could say something," Sin smirked. "But I won't."

"I'm grateful for your restraint," Boyd said, amusement clear in his tone. He hadn't meant to choose such poor wording that would have been so easy for Sin to twist, and for all that he was glad Sin hadn't taken the opportunity it was somewhat entertaining to imagine what he would have said.

"Ha." Sin looked over at Kassian as if he just remembered that the man was still standing there. Sin took in the way the other agent was examining Boyd and him before his expression once again turned into one of annoyance. "What the hell are you looking at?"

Kassian shrugged. "Nothing. Just observing."

"Observing what?" Sin demanded.

The other man raised an eyebrow. "Nothing. Why so quick to be on the defense, colleague?"

Sin just shook his head, looking aggravated, and said nothing.

His previous irritation and bad temper appearing to have been put behind him, Kassian rolled his eyes and nodded at Boyd. "Well, it was good to see you again."

Boyd inclined his head in acknowledgment with a trace of a smile. "You as well, although we'll be seeing each other at training, Instructor."

Kassian tilted his head slightly, a half smile on his face as he began to walk away. "You should know that doesn't really count as seeing me."

Boyd's smile widened wryly, thinking of the almost awkward insecurity Kassian had displayed when Boyd had visited his home, and how at odds that was with the confident and controlled image that Kassian had shown at the orientation. "True. My mistake."

Kassian stopped his backwards walk and hesitated for only a brief moment before saying, "You should come over again sometime."

The invitation somewhat surprised Boyd. He actually considered stopping by again but they only lived a few blocks apart and aside from the awkwardness it had been an interesting trip. He also hadn't known if Kassian would have wanted him to visit again; he'd left on terms of disagreement after the topic had turned to Sin and during his stay Kassian had seemed so awkward about having anyone over that Boyd had thought that was the end of it. He was mildly pleased to know he was welcome; he couldn't say why he felt that way except that overall he found Kassian to be surprisingly pleasant company.

"Perhaps I will," Boyd said after a moment, tilting his head thoughtfully.

"Well, you know where I am." Kassian lifted his hand in a casual wave and turned entirely, striding out of the room.

As soon as Kassian was gone, Boyd looked over to see Sin staring at him questioningly and nonplussed. Rather than addressing that immediately, Boyd asked instead about something he'd been wondering since Kassian and Sin had started to fight. "Why do you like to antagonize him so much?" He asked it lightly and curiously, not in any way accusatory or taking Kassian's side; it was simply that Sin seemed to take special delight in baiting Kassian.

"Why not?" Sin retorted, still eyeing Boyd oddly.

Boyd raised an eyebrow. "Surely there's more reason than that."

"I don't like him. In fact, I think I despise him." Sin started rubbing his head again, eyelashes lowering over red-rimmed green eyes as he stared down at Boyd. Despite the fact that he'd been all ready to fight Kassian, he looked completely out of it. It was surprising that no one had really mentioned it further than Douglas' initial comment.

"Why?" Boyd asked, honestly curious.

"Why the hell not?" Sin growled, looking exasperated. "What's so good about him?"

"Well, for one thing you'd be dead right now if it weren't for him," Boyd pointed out. "I don't think he likes you much either but he refused to let you die when he had the chance."

"What are you talking about?" Sin didn't look too enthused by this information.

Boyd sighed and looked away. He'd never really told Sin any of the details from Monterrey; for awhile it was because it was too fresh and painful, then there was so much going on that it seemed irrelevant, and after long enough it just didn't seem necessary anymore.

"The orders Kassian was given were to infiltrate the Janus base, get whatever information they could, and recover me," Boyd said after a moment. His voice was relatively even, if a little heavier than usual, but he didn't immediately look back to meet Sin's eyes. He'd had enough time to deal with all the issues that had come up after they'd left but it didn't mean he liked talking about it. "I was told that... if we found your corpse we were just supposed to leave it."

A strange expression briefly flashed across his face, something like a grimace but somehow darker. "I didn't want to abandon you or believe you were dead so I insisted we look for you anyway. Even just so I could find your body and, I don't know. I had this stupid idea that I could make sure you got a funeral." He shook his head to himself. "He could have refused but when I pointed out that we had matching GPS, Kassian went along with it in the end."

Sin didn't look very surprised by the information; in fact it was just what he would expect from Connors and the Agency in general. Why waste time and effort on someone who wasn't an asset anymore? It was just another reason it was so bizarre that they'd actually spent the resources to fix his injuries after he was brought back. It just didn't make sense, especially since it had still been in the era of Connors. Sin didn't know what, but he was almost sure something had to have been in it for them. "How noble of him. The great hero Kassian strikes again."

Boyd looked at him more seriously. "Sin, you technically died twice in Monterrey. First, when Janus removed the GPS from your throat. And second, when you went under cardiac arrest just moments before Chingón stopped us in the van. Michael almost didn't resuscitate you and Kassian was furious with him, then did CPR himself. Your heart actually stopped beating. They told him to stop because you were dead but he wouldn't. He reprimanded Michael later for not helping you soon enough. When you were nearly dead and they were all talking about you like people usually do, saying maybe they should tie you down like you were some sort of animal or monster, he defended you and said you were human. Maybe you think he's just too much of a do-gooder and his tendency to follow whatever ideals he has annoys you, but..."

Boyd crossed his arms across his stomach, his eyes flashing dark briefly as he remembered that trip and how it had haunted him. Part of that feeling made it into his eyes and voice. "Jesus, Sin. I was scared fucking shitless. I'd thought I lost you, then I had hope you could make it, even though it seemed impossible, and then I almost lost you again. Maybe it seems like nothing to you now but I know no one else in the position he was in would have done all that for you. It's your right to be as flippant about it as you want, and I don't know your history with him so maybe knowing this doesn't matter to you, but as for me I'll never forget that. Whatever your rivalry with him, he did save your life. I'll always be grateful to him for that."

Sin sighed and sat back down on the table, looking annoyed and weary, his voice increasing in intensity as he spoke. "It doesn't matter to me. I don't care. I don't like him. Whatever he does, whatever good guy act he puts on to seem like the humanitarian, it has nothing to do with me. Am I glad he got you out of Monterrey? Yeah. Am I glad he didn't let me die in the back of some shitty Agency truck? Yeah, I guess. But he's still an asshole and I'm so fucking tired of people acting like he's so perfect. So fucking good and noble. Blow me."

He seemed to be working himself up now, voice rising even though he wasn't actually directing the anger at Boyd. He seemed to be ranting in general, not giving Boyd a chance to speak. "I'm fucking sick of everyone here. I'm sick of the way people use me to do their fucking dirty work and then act like Kassian is so fucking superior because oh wow-- he feels bad about the shit he does! He has a conscious! Big fucking deal. I get the job done and I don't go whining to everyone about how bad it made me feel inside. Maybe if I did, I'd be a bit more fucking likable but too bad I couldn't care less about my reputation in this shit hole. I have more fucking guilt built up inside of me than anyone will ever understand but that doesn't mean I'm going to broadcast it just so people can suddenly remember that I bleed just like everyone else."

Sin ran a hand through his hair violently, looking agitated, angry. "And he's a condescending fuck on top of it all."

Boyd watched him a moment; he'd never actually seen Sin get so worked up or show so much emotion over anyone other than himself. He knew that Sin didn't like Kassian but it was a little surprising to see him get so involved in his rant. At the same time, he supposed if he'd had so little sleep for as long as Sin had, he'd be pretty touchy too, especially over old wounds or rivalries.

Besides, Sin had a point; it was understandable that Sin felt resentful for being compared to Kassian and, in others' eyes, always falling short on the points that could made him seem more human, while Kassian failed at things that no one would necessarily criticize him for. Especially being judged on something like morality when Sin had his own morals and emotions that very few people seemed to understand. Just because Kassian would refuse certain assignments didn't mean that Sin never wanted to, or that he never felt bad for things he'd done.

Sin had nearly died because he'd stopped to help a civilian in Monterrey whereas Boyd would have let her burn. Even just between Sin and Boyd, Sin actually had a far more grounded sense of morality and was much more likely to act on them. Yet most people in the Agency would undoubtedly automatically label Sin as the remorseless killer, the monster without a conscience, before they would consider Boyd who appeared to be more 'normal.'

It wasn't a matter of Boyd feeling no regret for anything he'd ever done or considering himself to be a monster; it was just that he didn't think that it was accurate or appropriate to make all those assumptions about Sin without even bothering to understand him. After a long enough period of time, Sin had stopped trying to prove people wrong; after all, why try if they wouldn't believe it anyway?

In that way, Kassian and Sin were alike; they both put up a front at the Agency but they'd come to opposite conclusions. While Kassian tried to put up the front that everything was fine, Sin had no chance; his childhood had not been 'normal' and most people would not be able to forget his history at the Agency regardless of how long he acted as a normal, functional human being. So, Sin had chosen to put up a tough front; to push people away with his attitude and intense glares, to protect the part of him that was vulnerable and achingly human.

It was an understandable defense mechanism. The people who judged Sin would probably never believe his vulnerability even if confronted by it; if anything, they may use it against him. While Kassian's only known "flaw" of sticking to his morals made him seem like a hero, Sin's "flaws" numbered so great in most peoples' minds that the only thing he had going for him was how phenomenal he was of an assassin.

It was as if people thought that Kassian was a model human and Sin a model killer; two people in the same position whose personalities and reputations made them seem so separate when, Boyd felt, in reality it was more as though they were two sides of the same coin.

But it wasn't really his place to tell Sin about Kassian's home life and he knew it wouldn't matter anyway. Part of what Sin was upset about was his own situation at the Agency and that was something that had been improving lately, but only slowly and without any promise of remaining so forever.

"Well," Boyd said finally, "far be it from me to enter the fray on the Great Kassian and Sin Rift. You're right that they treat you unfairly, though."

Sin pushed himself away from the table, body completely tense. "Listen, I'm going to go. I'm really--" He broke off and stared at Boyd with a frown. "I just need to calm down. I'm aggravated and I really don't know entirely why. I just need get my head together."

"Alright," Boyd said, not wanting to keep pushing him. "You have my number if you need me."

"I'll call you in a little while." Sin stared at him for a long moment and at first it almost seemed like he wanted to say something more. But then the aggravation flared up again and he just shook his head in disgust. "I can't deal with anything right now. Sorry." With that, he turned and hurried out of the room before Boyd could say anything else.

Boyd watched him go; he didn't like to see Sin so stressed but there was nothing he could do that he wasn't already doing or offering. He knew when to leave his partner alone to give him a chance to recuperate and cool off and this was definitely one of those times. What bothered him the most was that as time went on it seemed like, subtly and slowly, things were getting worse for Sin. He couldn't blame Sin for a touchier temper after such consistent exhaustion but he wished Sin would just go in to the medic wing and get it over with.

Boyd sighed and looked away, making sure he had all his belongings as he left, absently beginning to go over the things he'd heard in the orientation. As unsure as he'd been about whether or not he truly wanted the promotion, he had to admit to himself that a part of him was truly looking forward to being tested and for the opportunity to prove that he could work just as well on his own. The fact that it sounded difficult only made it more of a challenge, which he thought was a good thing.

At the same time, he knew this would be something that he'd have to focus on entirely; there would be no room for worrying about Sin. He wanted to be there for his partner yet Boyd was incredibly aware of the fact that even standing right next to Sin he wasn't really any help. Besides, training was for a limited amount of time--only three months, which was really not that long in the grand scheme of things.

And for all that what he wanted to be around Sin and help him, that didn't quell his independence. The more he thought about the training, despite the difficulty of it and the fact that it would open him up to more taxing missions if he were to actually pass, there was a part of him that shifted and stirred at the prospect, as if waking from a long sleep.

For years, he'd systematically killed off every emotion within him as a defense mechanism to deny all the fear, pain and anger that he hadn't had any release for until he'd forgotten what it was like to feel alive. Even after he'd started to rediscover his emotions one by one through his time with Sin and the Agency, there were still parts of him that he felt hadn't fully reawakened and in some cases, possibly never would. He would never--could never--be the same person he'd once been but that didn't mean he couldn't improve or become someone new while also slowly reconnecting with parts of himself that he wanted back.

Since he was small he'd been the sort of person who'd welcomed challenges because without them he fell into a sense of complacency. School had been too easy for him, boring him so completely that even with his interest in learning new things he'd felt as though it had been a waste of time. Imagining years ahead of him in the same rut had been incredibly disheartening and had given him very little motive to try hard at anything because it had all seemed so meaningless. Although to others it had seemed like a huge leap at that time, he'd ended up graduating early and taking college classes when he was years younger than anyone else around him. That had been what he'd needed to renew his thirst for knowledge and, truthfully, within that feeling, his passion for life as well.

Boyd didn't know if Level 10 was the right place for him but he wanted to try. He knew that some of the missions he could be assigned would be controversial, maybe things he disagreed with, maybe things that he'd later regret doing. He hadn't forgotten the McCall assassination or the way Kassian and Sin referred to their solo missions with muffled heaviness. Boyd wasn't any closer now to being a blind devotee of the Agency's mission statement than he had been when he'd started.

He was intensely aware of how horrible it could all turn out in the end. He knew he could be stuck on missions that lasted years, he knew he would be putting himself in situations that could severely tax him. He knew he could be maimed, and he knew he could die.

But what was the alternative?

Realistically, he was stuck with the Agency for life. If they ever let him retire, he'd be shadowed for life and if he ever tried to run, they'd likely kill him. But since the people he knew and cared about were all at the Agency, he had no reason to want to do either. He could stay in Level 9 indefinitely, staying as Sin's partner in Carhart's unit and there wasn't anything wrong with that, really.

Except he wanted to be independent, he wanted to be stronger as a person. He wanted to prove himself on his own, all on his own, not as someone with connections.

There were still people who wouldn't take him seriously because of his looks or because they felt it wasn't right that he skipped straight to Level 9 without all the years and experience like everyone else. There were people who thought he was only there because of his mother, that he wasn't good enough on his own.

There had even been a time when he'd wondered if they were right. But he no longer felt that way. He wanted to be taken seriously, to show that he could rightfully compete with others.

He was already in a highly classified unit that put him a lot of dangerous situations as it was. Maybe he didn't have solo missions but at the same time he'd been in a lot of dicey situations already and made it through. A lot of the time it'd been dumb luck, or he'd had help; only a few times had it been actual skill. Boyd wanted to get strong enough that he was more of an equal with his partner-- although, of course, no one could truly be Sin's equal with fighting or assassination.

The longer he stayed at Sin's side as a rank below him, the more Boyd would let that same complacency take over.

But he didn't want that to happen. Now, he wanted to be challenged.

Boyd knew that he would never be able to change anyone's negative view of his personality, of his family, his partner, but what he could change was himself. If he wanted to be taken seriously, he had to show them why he should be. If he was already stuck for life in the Agency in a dangerous situation, he may as well challenge himself and continue to rise through the ranks. Maybe he didn't really subscribe to the Agency's goals but he was already caught in them anyway.

This sort of offer came infrequently; who knew the next time they'd have Level 10 training, who knew the next chance he'd get to show that he wasn't someone to be taken lightly? If he backed out, wouldn't that just be proving to anyone who knew he'd gotten the invitation that he didn't feel he was good enough on his own?

It wasn't really that he particularly cared what others thought of him, but at the same time he was tired of not being taken seriously. He could be a damn good agent, too. He'd already basically done missions on his own before but now wanted the chance to create and fulfill a mission completely alone, without having to worry about others and how his actions may affect them. He wanted more control in his life. He wanted to stand at his partner's side and not feel like he was looked at as inferior in many regards.

He wanted people to say 'Agent Beaulieu' and think of him as Boyd, not as The Inspector's son, not as someone who was only as good as he was reflected through the more capable people around him.

For a few months, this was going to mean he was taken out of his comfort zone. He was probably going to be pushed harder than he'd ever been pushed in his life and Boyd couldn't help but look forward to that. He wanted to be able to say he'd actually tried for something, actually put his mind to something unlike he had in years; that he'd found a goal to believe in just for himself, only for himself and not a reflection of those around him.

After years of feeling dead inside, he wanted to remember that feeling of challenge, of alertness that he'd rekindled when he'd pushed himself to go to college. He wanted to stand on his own, be worthy on his own and succeed on his own. He wanted to prove that he was just as strong and capable as anyone else.

And, most of all, he wanted to be recognized for his individual accomplishments and be defined simply as himself.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Four...