Afterimage Chapter Seven

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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
See Afterimage chapter list.

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Book Three: Fade
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Afterimage Chapter Seven

Uploaded on 1/2/2009

Doug stood at the front of the room the trainees had all first met in, although this time there was no one else at his side. He fiddled for a minute with a projector that looked rather high-tech and sophisticated, then he turned to the trainees.

His hair was as wild and unkempt as ever but despite that he cut a rather impressive figure in the casual clothing he'd decided to wear for the day; he was obviously an incredibly fit man although his body wasn't an almost overwhelming mass of muscles like Patrick and Cade.

"Since most of you did phenomenally shitty on the communications portion of this week's training, I feel like I should warn ya that we aren't going over any of this again." He looked over the group sternly, thick eyebrows lowering over his eyes. "We ain't in uni-- there's no review before finals. No reading week, ya hear? So get it now or don't get it at all and expect to get fucked in the end. No lube either."

Boyd nearly raised an eyebrow at the wording but was more worried by what was said. Although it made sense that they wouldn't review, some part of him had hoped they would. So far he hadn't done as well as he would have hoped, which was disappointing.

It had been five days since they'd started training for the Level 10 position. On the first day, they'd received a sheet which had outlined in general what the schedule for the next three months entailed. Boyd glanced down at it now, trying to gauge ahead of time which weeks he would especially have to pay attention.

There was no set pattern to the schedule other than the fact that after the first month, there was a twenty-four hour break every two weeks which meant he would receive four opportunities in three months to actually leave the training barracks.

Other than that, the schedule was a combination of weapon, combat, and strategy training as well as undercover techniques, the last two of which he felt confident he would excel at. There was nothing really surprising about what they would be doing except for something that would occur in weeks five and six called 'All-Terrain Survival and Evasion' and something in week ten called 'R2I.' Boyd had no idea what either entailed.

Earlier in the week, they'd already had training on intercepting, sending and receiving messages and communications, as well as basic encryption and decryption. They learned the terminology, such as the difference between ciphers and codes, as well as learning that there were a number of encryption and decryption techniques that ranged from simplistic to more sophisticated. Although they hadn't been given an in-depth lesson on encrypted communication, it was pretty obvious that techniques spanned the world and timeline of human history.

Although Boyd was good with puzzles and figuring out plans, he found that he was not as inherently gifted at actual decryption without any real knowledge of the sender or a good idea of what the key could be.

He didn't have as many troubles when he knew the sort of mindset of the person who would have encrypted the information-- such as when he'd been able to figure out what Hale's password had been to enter his private office. But that only worked when Boyd already understood the target's profile, when he'd had background information and knew the sort of mind he was working with. When he was simply given a mess of letters and was told to decrypt it without any knowledge of the background, he realized that a lot of his previous success had been based on having additional information.

He had a bit more respect for Jeffrey after even the scant three days of training; they'd been looking at very simple encryptions and he knew that Jeffrey worked on a phenomenally higher level.

Boyd had ultimately been able to decrypt the ciphertext well enough but it was a somewhat discouraging start to the training. Once he started to learn the formulas for searching for the keys to decrypt information, he did a little better. But without the instant understanding of the material he automatically felt like he was moving too slowly.

He was used to learning new subjects quickly; the main effort he felt he'd had to put into training at the Agency since he'd started had been the physical training of combat and weaponry, and since he'd never been a very athletic person he'd felt that was acceptable. But the mental aspect of learning had always been where he'd excelled and he hadn't anticipated to have even the comparatively simple start of Level 10 training cause him troubles in any way or to go more slowly than anticipated.

At least he'd done quite well in the strategy exercises that had followed. It had all been very general information they'd been working with, like being told scenarios and asked what their reaction and plan would be, or going over multiple strategies and determining which was the most appropriate for the circumstances.

Now, five days into training, he didn't know if they were still on strategy but it was possible they were transitioning to 'perception,' whatever that meant. Apparently it entailed watching some sort of video.

Doug surveyed them all to see if they sufficiently grasped the weight of his comments before moving on. "Good." He gestured at the projector. "Now we'll see if you can redeem yourselves or at least show you're not completely stupid. This next segment includes watching some films."

"Oh goodie," Cade said sarcastically, acting as if he were muttering but it was loud enough for everyone to hear. "Is it Little Mermaid? That's my favorite."

"Which version?" Emma asked, looking over with interest. Although she seemed to realize he was being sarcastic, she still looked curious. "The one where she kills herself or the one with the happy ending?"

"There's kinds?" Cade asked incredulously. "How many movies they need on some selfish fish-bitch anyway?"

"Well technically," Emma pointed out, "in the one where she commits suicide she's not really very selfish. She loved the prince and physically suffered to be by him, to win his heart, but he married a princess instead. Then, when presented with the chance to kill him to save herself from completely ceasing to exist, she chose to die instead."

Cade snorted. "She sounds like a fuckin' retard to me."

"Why are we talking about mermaids?" Andrew asked in mild annoyance, giving Cade a look. He had been irritated with the man since earlier in the week when Cade had taken it upon himself to relentlessly mock Andrew for failing to correctly decode a message in time. "Unless we're going to Atlantis or wherever the hell on our next mission and need to strategize how to get around their mer-guards, I don't see how this is related."

Boyd amused himself briefly with imagining how that strategy would even go; distract them with automated sharks while the scuba-diving stealth team swam in from above? Somehow, he felt certain that Cade would have found a way to introduce explosives to the plan.

One thing Boyd had grown to learn so far that week was that sometimes the meetings went rather like the briefings with Carhart's team; reminiscent of how Owen, Jeffrey and sometimes Ryan would get into pointless arguments that ate up time unnecessarily. Cade somehow managed to incite someone into an annoyed comeback at least once daily. Although some of the trainees seemed very irritated by this, Boyd felt that Cade was pretty much an obnoxious, harmless idiot and Boyd wasn't too concerned when they briefly digressed. It was only a problem when they couldn't get off the topic.

"Oh, mer-guards?" Cade taunted with a smirk. "That the official term?"

"I don't know, Carter," Andrew said in irritation. "You're the expert on Little Mermaid movies. You tell us." There was the unspoken question of, 'Why the hell have you watched that movie anyway?'

"Hey, I got some dumbfuck nieces," Cade said, raising his hands in a defensive manner as if to say it wasn't his fault. "I can't help it when they bring their girly shit over and blast it on TV. At least then I can workout without having to watch 'em."

"If you worked out your brain cells you'd have probably done better in comm," Doug interrupted, looking none too pleased with their digression. "Do you people want to get on with this? If not you can continue your conversation outside of this building and this training."

Emma and Andrew looked suitably chagrined but Cade just gave a rolling shrug and settled more fully in his chair. "I'm all about getting on. Pop that motherfucker in, Teach. I got some popcorn right here."

Doug stared at him, clearly unimpressed, and he rocked back on his heels. "Ya know, it's fully within my right to dismiss any of you from this operation whenever I decide that you don't belong. It's in my duties, part of the job. Narrowing down the list and what not."

Cade looked as though he was about to make another smart ass retort but, perhaps sensing that Doug wasn't bluffing, he just leaned back and raised his eyebrows, as if to say he was now waiting patiently for training to commence.

Doug watched Cade a moment then seemed to dismiss him entirely. "Let's move on then."

Doug turned to the computer; in the time they'd been talking, he'd had the chance to get all the equipment ready. He hit a button on a small remote and the projector screen went black as the movie started. He didn't say anything at all about what they were going to be watching or why, despite a few curious and questioning glances various trainees sent him. He dropped back into a comfortable-looking computer chair and, rocking back and forth slightly, watched the trainees closely and disregarded the movie.

The screen remained blank briefly before a video appeared.

For a moment it wasn't obvious what exactly they were looking at but then Boyd realized they were watching a video of another video being played. A projector similar to the one Doug was using but not as sophisticated was flashing grainy images of death and war across the white backdrop.

In one image, a completely razed countryside was displayed and scorched bodies were tossed about carelessly. In another image, a small child was sitting beside the body of an adult female. The child was staring at the corpse in what appeared to be numb despair.

The pictures flashed through incredibly quickly, lingering briefly on some but mostly flipping through them almost too quickly to recognize.

There was silence for a moment as the trainees stared in confusion and this time it was Toby that spoke up. He sat up a little straighter in his seat, raising his hand politely. When Doug didn't seem interested in looking over, he decided that he should just talk. "Sir, what is it that we are watching for? I'm confused as to the relevance of these videos."

Doug gave him a look and leaned back in his chair, putting his feet on the desk. "If I was gonna say somethin', McAvoy, I'd have said it already."

Toby looked suitably chagrined and turned to the screen again.

Just as their exchanged finished, a voice began droning on in the background of the video. It was a male's voice, monotonous and without accent or distinguishing qualities other than the fact that he was American and he didn't sound particularly old. The man began informing the audience of the dangers of being a sheep. His toneless voice spoke plainly about the atrocities of what he called 'a pointless third world war brought on by the Western greed for power' and he called on the 'intellects of society' to see through the media facade and stop viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses.

The video went on for a few more minutes and Boyd stopped paying complete attention to the words once he realized that it was essentially the same anti-Western dialogue that any number of post-war rebel organizations would have believed in.

His eyes focused on the images as he listened absently to the words and he tried to look for a pattern in the pictures, specific things about the ones that hovered longer than others; it was only then that he noticed a very faint mixture of letters on the backdrop. They were only visible in between flashes of the images and although he tried to make sense of it, Boyd just didn't know what it meant.

The images stopped moving and froze on a photo of the mushroom cloud that had consumed New York City. The man stopped speaking and the photo remained for nearly a full minute before the video ended.

The trainees glanced at each other and then at Doug but he didn't speak and the projector whirred to life once again.

The screen abruptly displayed what looked to be footage from a rather sophisticated surveillance camera. Unlike the grainy footage typically associated with the devices, this one was sharp, clear, and despite the fact that it was in shades of grey, it captured everything else in detail.

The camera appeared to be attached to the side of a tall building and was aimed down at the street below. It took a moment for Boyd to realize why the scene seemed familiar; this was a shot of the midtown Theater District and there were no doubts in his mind that this must have been taken before the bombings had destroyed that section of the city.

The Theater District now was nothing but an empty shell of itself; the officials hadn't deemed it important enough to rebuild since tourism was nonexistent after the attacks. Not to mention that the plummeting economy hadn't allowed much room for recreation for the struggling city-dwellers who'd actually survived. But the image in the video showed a time Boyd had never experienced; it almost seemed like an entirely different world.

Skyscrapers soared up from the ground and out of view of the camera, gleaming in the bright sunlight; the kind of golden sunlight that Boyd had never seen before, even in Monterrey where it'd been dulled by the ever-present smog, although it had been slightly thinner there.

Shorter buildings with colorful banners advertising different productions lined most of the street that was in view. Each building possessed painstaking architecture that seemed like it was straight out of the scenery of the individual shows. The entire block was impressive; it looked like the kind of place people would want to go to just for the ambiance, the flair for life that seemed evident in every corner.

The street reminded Boyd of the beautiful kind of metropolis displayed in old movies; a bustling hub of business, where young people would want to go to start their lives and where older people would want to go to start their lives over. The entire scene screamed prosperity, commerce; it was something that had died along with the bombings of 1999, which had left the city a crumbling skeleton of its former self.

Now death and decay were thick in the streets. The only areas that had avoided the sad demise were the Financial District or a few wealthier neighborhoods; some had remained unscathed and others were promptly repaired by its residents and the city officials who wanted to keep the rich people happy and uninterested in moving away, taking with them the desperately-needed wealth to continue making the economy grow.

Now the city wasn't a place where people wanted to go; it was a place that was virtually non-existent in the media and, therefore, in people's minds. In a country that was trying to rebuild its image, showing the world the places that had been destroyed and never quite rebuilt was not a good way to represent the state of things. So the city, along with the other areas that had been ravaged by the war, were virtually forgotten by everyone except for the people who still lived there.

It was surreal for Boyd, who had lived in the city his entire life but never knew what it was meant to look like. Since he'd been born within a month of the war commencing, he'd never seen the world the way others who were older than him had.

The video appeared to have been shot in the winter if the coats and scarves people wore were any indication. A scrolling marquee on one of the buildings broadcasting headlines displayed one which read, 'Storm of the century to blow in; NFL fans panic.'

The streets were crowded with cars and the sidewalks were full of people. Most were hurrying in one direction or another but some were stationary and those were the people Boyd focused on.

There were teenagers doing tricks with skateboards near the wide staircase of one of the theaters and a middle-aged man sat on the staircase on the far right eating some kind of sandwich. A younger woman in her mid-to-late twenties stood nearby, also watching them as she chatted on a large clunky cell phone with a serious expression.

After a moment a younger kid, probably twelve or thirteen, burst onto the screen from the left side. He was holding a bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He looked quite proficient at inhaling although he twisted his mouth at the taste. He bounded up the steps of the same building and sat on the top one, digging through his bag idly.

The older man seemed startled and more than a little annoyed by his presence and stood abruptly, moving away from the pre-teen and leaving his discarded bag of food and wrappings as he did so.

The older man disappeared from the screen and two young white men appeared. They were carrying a large radio, which they sat on the floor and presumably turned on, and began discarding their personal belongings. Hats, glasses, cigarettes and even wallets were dropped onto the pavement before they also dropped their heavy coats on top.

Despite the fact that everyone else was shivering in their winter clothing, the two men seemed impervious to the weather. The older of the two even went so far as to discard his sweater, exposing a sleeveless undershirt which displayed a muscular torso and arms as well as a tattoo of scrawled words that snaked down one of them.

After a moment they addressed the crowd and burst into an athletic street performance that appeared half dance and half gymnastics, likely the reason they'd put all of their effects in one place in advance. Several people stopped to watch; some tourists began to film the spectacle, and the pre-teen kid dug a camera from his bag as he began to take pictures of the talented men.

The performance went on for several minutes, the wild movements and jumping taking them on a wide arc around the sidewalk, until finally it seemed as though they were coming to an end. However, at the very end one performer lost his footing and slammed into a pedestrian who had been walking through the quickly growing crowd. The man, who appeared to have been angry already anyway, began to curse and the two quickly became engaged in an altercation.

Before long the fight became more violent and two cops came running into the screen to break it up. The skateboarders quickly took off and the young kid tossed his cigarette, scrambling to get himself together, but looked so in a rush that he ended up leaving his camera and bag behind.

The picture suddenly went dark before flickering on again. This time it was the exact same street and the exact same camera but within seconds of the video playing, the camera shook violently.

The people in the shot all froze, looking around wildly with expressions of confusion. Several of them looked to the East, out of view of the camera, and pointed off in the distance as horror quickly overtook their faces.

A few turned, as if they intended to run, but before anyone could do anything else two more explosions went off in quick succession in the area the camera was recording. The explosions presumably killed or maimed everyone who had been on screen standing there; parts of the buildings buckled and cracked in the background seconds before the scene was completely obscured by a huge cloud of smoke and debris. The camera abruptly went black.

None of the trainees said anything at first but after a moment, Doug leaned over and shut off the projector before folding his hands in front of him and raising his eyebrows. "What was the significance of the first video?"

There was silence in the room and no one seemed very sure of what to say in response to the question.

"If possible, can you give us some background information on it?" Harriet asked, eyebrows drawing together. "I mean it seems like some kind of obvious anti-war rhetoric but can you tell us more or is that what we're supposed to figure out?"

Doug stared at her and Harriet shifted her gaze as the moment grew awkward but then Doug shrugged and said easily, "This was distributed on the Internet in 2007 following the sabotage of the Rose Parade in California."

"So the creators were the perpetrators?" Harriet narrowed her eyes slightly. "I guess their explanation as to why they did it?"

"Yes." Doug leaned against the desk and folded his arms over his chest, eyeballing them all. "It wasn't exactly a violent attack; they just fucked it up, hacked into networks and had televisions playing images of the bombing of New York City instead of the parade, set off some gas bombs and sent people running-- nearly caused a stampede but no one got seriously injured. Overall belief is that these kids wanted to remind people that just because New York was across the country, don't fuckin' mean the West Coast was safe."

"So they were trying to tell people to stop putting on rose-colored glasses at some stupid parade and pay attention to the events of the world and not what the media is trying to distract them with," Toby said, looking somewhat impressed by the way the message was carried out.


"Hey, wait. I remember this now," Emma said, pointing at the screen with a pencil. "My brothers were talking about how ironic it was that two weeks after the incident at the Rose Parade, Los Angeles was attacked."

"But that doesn't answer my question," Harriet said impatiently. She looked frustrated about her lack of clear understanding of the situation. "Are we meant to figure out who they are or something else?"

Doug snorted. "Well obviously you're not gonna figure it out if you're still asking me that, sweetheart. If you don't know what the point of it was, you obviously missed what you were supposed to see or you got no clue about what it meant."

Harriet scowled and said nothing in response.

"The reason we kept this video is because it's a radical group that spawned circa 2007," Doug continued. "There were a lot of anti-government groups that spawned during that time, including Janus. We keep information on every possible organization that could have clues to Janus's origins because as I'm sure everyone knows, no one fucking knows the identity of the leaders. If you ask me, I doubt these kids in the video have anything to do with that but the video is in the archives and it happens to include a pretty sophisticated code."

"Actually, it would make sense to me if this is related to Janus' beginning," Boyd said thoughtfully. "It's already assumed that the founders were college-aged, which the voices seemed to fit. I don't know when exactly the Rose Parade occurred in 2007, but it was obviously after the beginning of the second wave and I'd guess that alone infuriated them. I could see it being at least the inspiration for Janus; the rhetoric they used has the right amount of idealism and resentment combined with an organized, intellectual execution. And Janus has used sophisticated encryption in the past."

Emma looked mildly impressed by Boyd's knowledge. She raised her eyebrows a little when looking back at him but then she seemed to remember that it was his job to work with Janus.

Doug arched an eyebrow. "That's interesting insight, Beaulieu. But can you or any of you tell me what's encrypted?"

Jonathan shifted, crossing one knee over the other as he seemed to ponder carefully whatever he was about to say. "There was something about the backdrop of the projector, some scramble of letters that needed closer inspection, but I was unable to properly analyze it."

Doug seemed neither pleased or displeased by the answer, but that was typically the case. He had a unique style of training that involved very little encouragement or suggestion so that the ensuing mockery always seemed abrupt.

"I'd vaguely had the same thought," Toby interjected and one had to wonder if he was being truthful or just attempting to sound more aware than he actually was. "I also thought those letters were strange. I'd associated the video with the training earlier this week and hypothesized that it was a code of some sort."

Doug raised his eyebrows, leaning back on his hands. "Which sort?"

Toby faltered, face dropping slightly. "I'm not sure."

"It's not possible to decrypt it at a glance or even know specifically what kind it is without seeing the ciphertext more clearly," Boyd said with a shrug. "Especially since the letters changed at least once as far as I could tell; either as a decoy or because the ciphertext is so long it fills more than one screen." He paused thoughtfully. "Will we get a written representation of the ciphertext?"

"Nope." Doug raised his eyebrows, giving nothing away. "Is that it, then?"

The trainees stared at him silently and that pretty much was an answer in itself. Nobody from Counter-Terror had commented at all and Boyd was the only person from Insurgency to have contributed. It was either a coincidence or a clue that agents from different divisions tended to be more analytical than others.

"Okay, then how about the second?"

Boyd realized that Doug had no intention of explaining the first video, which bothered him a little. The onus was on they as the trainees to figure it out but Boyd didn't want to leave it as an unsolved mystery; he was curious what the point of it had been, especially since it seemed like it could be connected to Janus.

He wasn't positive what type of encryption would have been involved, primarily because their teachings on coded communication had been very basic and overarching; there were probably more codes and ciphers than he knew existed. He decided that he would have to make sure he followed up on the first video later, at the very least to figure out what the ciphertext had been.

"Someone was planting a bomb or scoping it out in the first part," Andrew said without a hint of hesitation.

It'd been a fairly obvious observation and once again Doug didn't seem too impressed.

"That had to have been Thanksgiving weekend, '99," Cade said lazily. "'Cause of the words in the background. That blizzard blew the shit outta the game. I remember 'cause it was canceled and I was pissed."

Boyd realized that meant the video had happened around the time he had been born. It was an odd thought, knowing that while those people were dying, across the city his mother may have been giving birth to him. He'd always known he'd been born around the time the war hit his city but he'd never thought about how close it all happened.

"There was something off about those kids running off so fast, I thought," Patrick spoke up hesitantly.

"I think they may have run off because they were being truants and a cop was coming," Emma said helpfully. "But the younger boy was suspicious. I think he deliberately left the camera behind."

Boyd agreed with her. Truants or not, there was no way a kid that age would accidentally leave his camera and bag behind; those items would be stolen immediately or could give clues to who he was.

"That performer got in a fight on purpose, too," Andrew said, apparently trying to make up for saying something so obvious at first. "He went right for the angriest guy he could."

Harriet glanced at Andrew and seemed to think about something for a moment before saying, "Well if we're implying the performers may have been involved somehow, it would make sense since they were Russian and we were hit by Russia. There's a tattoo on one guy's arm in Russian, some kind of phrase that I couldn't translate but I recognized the language."

Boyd considered that. "The kid must have been in league with them. He had the same cigarettes as the performers and it wasn't local. Judging by his expression, I'd suspect he doesn't usually smoke or that it's a new brand for him. Maybe they gave him a cigarette and possibly money to do something for them with their camera, which could be why he left it behind. They could have picked it up after the police left."

After having spent a lot of time around Sin, who had taken to smoking even after his Jason persona ended, Boyd was becoming accustomed to the types of American packs and cigarettes that were available. Sin typically smoked one brand but Boyd had seen other kinds at stores and on the streets.

He'd noticed that the cigarette in the kid's mouth had looked different; judging by the long brown filter and black color it didn't even appear to be a local brand. There had been a small logo on it that hadn't been easily visible from that distance but was fairly distinct. In the moments before the coats had covered the cigarette packs the performers had dropped to the ground, he'd noticed they had the same type of logo.

"Is that all?" Doug asked once again, neither confirming or disagreeing with anything they said yet.

"No," Jonathan spoke up again. "I'm positive they were in league. I paid attention to the kid from the beginning since he and the performers arrived from the same direction only a few moments apart, and I also noticed the cigarettes so it was obvious that he at least bummed one from them. However, if you pay close attention to the way the performers move-- the directions they turn, where they pause, with their backs facing the East, and so on-- the kid is taking pictures of each new position before leaving the camera behind."

"There's a large bridge to the east," Boyd said thoughtfully, going over what he'd seen in the movie and the directionality of the explosions. "It wouldn't have been visible from the kid's angle but that was probably where the first explosion happened. They could have done the same thing over there. The other explosions that happened on screen seemed to be in directions the camera was aimed. They must have been staking the place out, getting an idea of traffic flow and visibility, while also acquiring seemingly innocuous pictures of what the area looked like so they knew where to plant the bombs."

Doug tapped his fingers against the desk. "Do any of you know why two Russians would be going undercover to stake out this city?"

Boyd considered that but had no idea; the only reason he could think of was the obvious answer of wanting to plant bombs, but why would they choose this city in particular, and why were they planting the bombs in the first place?

This would have been the beginning of the war, one of the moments that started the next few decades of the degrading economy and society in the United States and other global superpowers. The only thing he could imagine was if it was somehow related to the Agency, but if that was the case, why not target the compound directly?

"I've never understood why this city was targeted," Toby admitted finally. "Unless they were targeting that military base just outside of the city? But there are military bases all over the country-- I always found it curious that we were one of the first targets above everywhere else."

There was a brief moment of silence while Doug waited for someone else to answer before he finally spoke. "Because of us, smart guys. Because of this organization. The US and Russia were up each other's asses for decades before finally getting down to serious business, and between all of the spy games, Russia somehow got wind that this city was a major source of information output. Fuck knows how-- but fuck knows how they knew anything they knew about. These two countries were all over each other like flies on shit."

"So they targeted the military base thinking that's where the intelligence operation was based," Jonathan suggested. "If they knew there was actually an espionage agency here, I highly doubt we would have stayed in this specific location."

"Precisely," Doug agreed, staring at Jonathan for a moment before standing upright. "But the fact that they got wind of this at all was discouraging. It showed us that we needed better trained agents, better trained staff, more protected network frequencies-- it changed the way this organization was run."

He crossed his arms over his chest. "So if any of you think you're gonna just coast through this with bullshit answers, half-assed effort and a complete lack of respect for what we're doing here, you're wrong. The reason for this long period of training, the reason why we take the time to do this when we know most or all of you won't even make it, is because we have to be careful now. We have to make sure we have people who can do the job and not fuck shit up the way it was fucked up back then."

He turned towards the door halfway, eyes drilling into them. "Think about that real hard before we progress any further, got it? This week was a pathetic failure for the lot of you."

If Doug's words hadn't been a clear enough dismissal, the fact that he walked out made it obvious. The trainees stayed silent for a moment even after he'd left; most of them seemed to be considering what he'd said.

Boyd gathered his things and walked out, thinking about the training so far and what Doug said. He had to admit that it was rather intimidating; thinking about the fact that it could have been people in the Agency who'd been careless or traitorous enough to let information slip to the enemies. That people he knew, possibly even people of high authority, could have indirectly caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. He hadn't considered the Agency's role in the start of the war.

He was well aware of the fact that there were a vast number of important secrets stored within these walls, that he couldn't give away any information if he was ever caught, and that he had to take his job very seriously because of what he knew and what they did. Although the Agency's main goal was ensuring that the government kept power, they also protected the lives of the American people.

He was aware that his own fuck up could potentially have catastrophic consequences. After Monterrey he'd realized the negative affect his actions could have on others; the fact that innocent people had been detained in Monterrey while the government searched for him had been evidence enough of that. The repercussions of his actions had rippled all the way up to the governments in the other countries.

It was stupid but he hadn't really connected the two before; how normal people could have been the catalysts or excuses needed for the politics of the war to shift, crack, and roll forward inexorably. The realization was rather sobering.

Boyd was just about to head down the hallway to return to his room when he stopped and frowned thoughtfully. For some reason Doug's words had an actual profound effect on him and it made him want to do more; work harder. If he was going to go through with this training, he was going to do it right.

In effect, he had to do homework.

Boyd was accustomed to just getting things right away, to not having to put much effort into anything academically because what he was learning was easily understandable to him. Although he had understood the concept of coded communication, of the differences between encryption, decryption, enciphering and deciphering, he hadn't been as adept as he wanted to be at figuring out the message.

If they weren't going to ever visit that topic again, he absolutely had to know how to improve. Even as a Level 9 he could receive communications that were encrypted or he may need to encrypt something himself.

Besides, it bothered him to leave the first video unsolved.

He turned down another hallway instead and followed a circuitous route to the supplies room. Although the trainees were not allowed to have outside contact, there were still people who needed to come into the building to restock supplies and clean the area. There was a room off to the side where the trainees could order supplies while they were on lock down in the building.

Granted, Boyd could wait for his first break but that was three weeks from now and he wanted to start working on the code sooner than that. He was positive that his request would be sent through the proper channels and have to be accepted by Doug before they would send him anything, so he wanted to get a head start.

When he walked into the room he found a man behind the counter, looking bored as he idly flipped through a hunting magazine. He was older, probably in his late fifties to early sixties, with white hair, brown eyes and a loosely fitting dirty white shirt and bluejeans. His feet were kicked up on the counter as he leaned back as far as his old office chair would allow.

It was unclear whether he was on his break or was just lazy because when he looked up and realized he wasn't alone, he didn't look guilty; he simply set the magazine in his lap and raised his eyebrows. "Yeah?"

"I need a book," Boyd said as he approached.

The man stared at him, probably waiting for Boyd to say more. When Boyd didn't immediately embellish the man said slowly, drawing the word out, "'Kay. Want me to randomly choose one or you got something in mind?"

"I don't have a particular title." Boyd stopped near the counter and watched the man thoughtfully. "Do you have a list of inventory or can I just give you the topic?"

The man, whose name tag upon closer inspection read 'Robert,' gave him an odd look and considered him. After a few seconds he shifted and dropped his feet to the floor with a heavy sigh, as if this was too much work he was being put through.

The magazine nearly fell to the floor so he tossed it onto the desk in front of him and laboriously wiggled the mouse on the computer nearby. The screen was black and didn't change at first, although there was a little green light on the base of the monitor that indicated it was on; he'd probably been sitting there so long that the computer had put itself into hibernation.

"It don't work real fast," Robert said as a belated explanation. He looked at Boyd sidelong and seemed to study him closely. "Gotta wait for it to load."

Boyd found Robert's scrutiny of him to be a little strange but decided that the man probably hadn't expected to get any customers during the Level 10 training period. The Agency had to keep the position staffed, though, for reasons like this and probably also so Doug and the other instructors had someone to easily contact about replenishing supplies.

"That's fine," Boyd said and leaned against the counter so he could see the screen more clearly.

A log on window appeared, white against pale blue, and Robert gave Boyd a suspicious look as he started to type in his user name and password. Boyd was mildly amused by that; what, did Robert think he was going to break back in there and use his information to order crazy things like his own personal jet fighter and eighteen cases of toilet paper?

A little hourglass replaced the mouse arrow and they stared at the screen a moment as the computer slowly loaded. It was worse here than some of the older areas of the Agency's Tower. And Boyd had thought the computers they wrote their reports on were bad.

After a few minutes the operating system kicked in, the profile loaded, and Robert double-clicked an icon labeled "Inventory Mgmt." The mouse arrow was replaced with another idly turning hourglass. The two of them watched the screen, waiting for this to load as well.

"Hey," Robert said rather casually after several seconds of silence. "I know you. You're that... one guy's partner, yeah? Vega?"

Boyd noted the pause before 'one guy' and wondered if Robert had almost said 'freak' or 'monster' like so many others chose to. Boyd watched him neutrally but with the slightest quirk of his eyebrows, as if to ask why that mattered. "Yes."

Robert raised his eyebrows and whistled slowly, looking away almost as if he was rolling his eyes. He didn't say anything further, though.

Boyd stared at him blankly. What the hell was that? How was he supposed to interpret something like that?

It was mildly annoying that Sin's infamy never quite seemed to leave him; not because it bothered Boyd what people thought about his being Sin's partner, but because so many people seemed set on just assuming the worst of Sin.

That must have been Robert's way of saying he'd heard the old rumors about Sin and thought it must be difficult being a crazy person's partner. Boyd had hoped that after Sin had saved Vivienne and things had quieted down that some of the blatant slurs on Sin's character would slow down but that was apparently not going to be the case.

"Why wou--" he started to ask but Robert cut him off.

"It's up," he said, either not noticing that Boyd had been talking or not wanting to acknowledge it.

Boyd stared at him a moment then at the screen which was finally showing a program that had several tabs, one of which appeared to be a complicated search engine. He didn't really feel like getting into another conversation about Sin's supposedly questionable mental status and instead decided to drop it.

It wasn't worth the aggravation and it wasn't as though the conversation would change anything. Boyd believed in Sin and knew he wasn't what everyone else made him out to be and Robert probably wouldn't listen regardless of the evidence Boyd could present.

"So whaddo ya want, then?" Robert asked, looking at him.

There was something careful in Robert's expression, as if he didn't dare give away too much, and it was at that moment that Boyd knew even if he'd tried to push the topic Robert would not have said a word about what he was thinking.

It wasn't surprising; the Level 10 trainees weren't supposed to have access to the outside world so it was technically a breach of protocol to allow them to interact with even the maintenance crew. But the building needed maintenance and even the trainees needed personal supplies during that three month period so the staff had probably just been told not to interact more than was absolutely necessary.

"I need a book on codes," Boyd said simply, then reconsidered his explanation. "Cryptography. Search for that instead of 'codes,' maybe; I need it to cover all forms of encryption and decryption, not just encoding or decoding."

Robert made a thoughtful humming noise to himself, his eyebrows raised once more although he said nothing. Boyd found it mildly off-putting that the man clearly had a lot of thoughts about this conversation but was not taking the time to explain it. He would have preferred he hadn't given any indication of his thoughts at all if that was going to be the case.

Several long minutes passed in which Robert typed multiple versions into the computer and Boyd watched different books and other items flash across the screen. Most of them did not appear to be what he was interested in but then one caught his eye.

"Try that," Boyd said.

Robert opened up more pages on it and together they both skimmed the summary, table of contents, and other information. He looked sidelong at Boyd after a moment. "Want it?"

"Yes." Boyd pulled out his ID card and set it in front of Robert. "Here's my information."

It was another few minutes for Robert to type in the information needed on the screen, which was a surprising amount given the fact Boyd was just trying to order one book. By the time Boyd got his ID card back and he was informed that he'd be alerted when and if the book arrived, he was quite ready to get out of the tiny room with the man who kept giving him sidelong, scrutinizing stares.

It was as if Robert was searching for something in Boyd, or maybe just trying to get an idea of who the person was who was partnered with probably the most notorious field agent in the history of the Agency.

Boyd barely took the time to thank Robert before he left the room. He felt better knowing that the book was potentially on its way; if he'd gotten any type of grade for the first week he knew it would have been failing or close and that bothered him on a level he hadn't expected. He supposed it was because it implied he wasn't good enough, that he didn't have the strength or ability to actually contend with the upper level agents.

Truth be told, after the discussion with Toby, part of him was paranoid that he couldn't even stand equal with his own peers. He'd thought he was a decent Level 9 but maybe he wasn't; he hadn't worked directly with Level 9s as partners or peers except in Monterrey, which was its own anomaly.

There had been a time he'd thought maybe he had gotten the position due to his mother's influence and at that time he'd accepted it. However, for all that Boyd had once been ready to accept that possibility, now the idea just rankled him. He wasn't just his mother's son any more than he was just Sin's partner. He was tired of being defined by the people around him, as if he was such a blank, boring slate that there was nothing that identified him as himself.

At the same time, Toby had seemed to be saying that he was the problem as well; that even regardless of his mother or Sin, Boyd was unlikable, distant and removed. If he knew Boyd hadn't even graduated from college, would Toby feel even more like Boyd didn't deserve this position? That he didn't deserve this chance at promotion?

Had the Agency been so desperate for more Level 10s that Carhart had nominated him without believing he could make it? Was this all just one big political move on his mother's part, to put him in the running for something he was far too weak to achieve but she expected him to succeed anyway?

It all bothered Boyd on several levels.

He didn't want this to be about connections, about his proximity to notorious and infamous people on the compound, or about his past accomplishments or lack thereof. He was here now, at this moment, and regardless of how he got there he wanted to prove himself. He wanted to be taken seriously on his own, he wanted to be strong and capable without needing anyone else around.

Even after all that had happened between Sin and him, there were still certain things that were very evident. He was not Sin's equal in any regard; not on missions and sometimes, it seemed, not even when they were just hanging around.

Boyd couldn't identify why or how but it was something he knew on a deep level. It was like how Sin had mocked him in Canada by saying that Boyd needed to do things like sleep with informants in order to get by. It was in the way that Sin could go empty-handed into a building full of enemies and come out the other end barely touched and the only one alive.

And it was in their interactions; something there but indefinable, especially lately.

As if there was something else on Sin's mind, something Boyd wasn't privy to because he wasn't quite equal to him. It wasnt that he thought Sin was deliberately being cruel to him but sometimes it seemed as though something was missing; something unsaid or unacknowledged, especially during and after sex.

At first, Boyd hadn't even really recognized it or realized it was there. But little things over time had started to build and, for some reason, being disconnected from Sin for a week and going to bed every night alone with a racing mind had made certain things click.

In Monterrey, he'd felt closer to Sin than ever before and it hadn't been the same since. Maybe it was just because they'd been removed from the Agency and they'd had time to just enjoy each other.

When they'd had sex then it hadn't seemed as desperate as it did lately. Back then they were as close to affectionate as either of them would ever likely get. Back then, it was a lot more likely that Sin would fall asleep in the same bed as him, that Boyd would wake up and he'd still be there, sometimes not even awake yet. When Sin had lain there, breathing evenly with a relaxed face, the scars of Sin's life hadn't seemed as prominent then. Sin had seemed somehow... content. His smile had been genuine.

Lately, everything was different. Sin was tense, strained, his attitude was different and even if he didn't take it out on Boyd deliberately, it was evident in his behavior regardless. Boyd knew that Sin was having nightmares again but that had been the case all along, especially when they'd first become friends and the sexual tension between them had been high.

So why were things so different now? Why was Sin so distant when he'd never been before?

Having time to think about it made Boyd realize that all of it worried him. Sin was his friend and his lover but lately it almost seemed as though they had sex for the sake of having a frantic exhausting fuck and everything else was left behind. They still hung out but even that wasn't as relaxed as it had once been, even before they'd become lovers.

Boyd had a feeling that something more had to be going on but he had no idea what it could be. It was entirely possible that it was trauma related to Janus's torture techniques but Sin never gave the slightest indication that it had a lasting effect on his psyche. Even if it had, Sin had been through so much in the past, it seemed strange that this particular event could have damaged him so much; especially when he'd gone hunting for Boyd immediately upon awakening from the coma only to slowly withdraw in the following months.

None of it made any sense to Boyd. It was difficult to understand someone as complex as Sin and all of these new things, all of these new changes and revelations, just made it worse.

For a long time Boyd thought he'd had his partner figured out but now he wasn't sure. Just when things seemed as normal as they would ever be something new popped up to change it. He didn't even know how to soothe Sin anymore; in the past, sleeping next to Boyd had been calming during a nightmare but now Sin just seemed to want to be alone during those times.

What did that mean? Was it simply recovery from the coma? Did it mean Boyd wasn't as comforting to him anymore? Did it mean Sin didn't need him as much? Did Sin still resent Boyd somehow for things he had said or done, like his actions regarding Jessica? Why had it shifted to more desperate, intense sex, but fewer moments of simply leaning against each other?

There had been times before, especially when Sin hadn't wanted to think about a personal question Boyd had asked, that he'd grabbed Boyd and used sex as a way of avoiding answering or maybe forgetting the topic. It seemed lately it was more like that, only this time Boyd wasn't asking questions or getting answers. This time they weren't often really talking about things the way they used to. This time, they fucked and fell into a state of exhaustion and that was it.

There was a distance between them that hadn't been there before, and it was out of his control because he didn't even understand why it was there so he couldn't do anything to fix it. Sin was the person he could rely on, the person who would have his back in a fight, the person who made him feel like everything had been worth it. The person he trusted and believed in above all others. The person he loved.

But this all just went to show him that Sin still wasn't someone he completely understood.

With everything that had been going on, Boyd hadn't stopped to ask himself the questions of why their interactions had changed and what it meant. He hadn't stopped to analyze his own relationship with his partner. Maybe he hadn't wanted to.

But now that the thought was there, he couldn't make it go away.

It had slid into his mind insidiously the other night between self-conscious moments of staring at the ceiling worrying about how poorly he was doing in training and the the lazy self-analysis of deconstructing his day. Listening to Toby's breathing had made him very aware of the fact that he was in the same room as another person but it wasn't Sin; it wasn't the person he wanted to be there.

He'd wished Sin was there. He'd wanted to hear Sin's breathing instead and feel his warm body next to him; he'd wanted to idly run his hand along that muscular body and tangle his fingers in that soft hair. He'd wanted that hot breath to be puffing against his bare skin cooling with sweat from their latest bout of sex and the intense orgasm that followed.

He'd wanted to fall asleep next to Sin and wake up with him still there, to feel the comforting weight of another human being who wanted to be around him for more than just events or actions, like their missions or sex.

But then a small voice inside him had whispered, "And how often has that happened lately?"

Resounding silence had been his only answer.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Eight...