Afterimage Chapter Thirteen

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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 Thirteen

Uploaded on 1/30/2009

The desert stretched around them; rusty brown, hot, and nearly empty of all but patches of dry, desert vegetation. The sun was so blindingly bright that rays were seen peeking through the thin cloud coverage revealing spots of intense blue beyond.

For awhile, Cade and Boyd had tried wrapping their spare shirts around their heads in an attempt to keep the sun out of their eyes and off their faces but it had done little to keep the heat from feeling overpowering and ultimately they'd both given up.

At least Boyd had been exposed to this sort of extreme heat within the last year; Monterrey had been nothing if not intense and he felt like all those months had somehow primed him for this. Of course, he'd had less of an abrupt shift in temperature at that time.

Although it was sliding into winter back in America, in Australia the seasons were flipped; here it was hot and arid rather than cold and snowy, and here the temperature was nearing triple digits.

Dirt and dust puffed beneath their feet and Boyd thought that, for all that this off-compound training was going to be intense and extremely difficult, the change of environment may have almost been a welcome distraction to keep him from thoughts about Sin-- the paranoia and, honestly, fear that Sin and Ann were as intimate as Boyd thought that action could have implied.

He'd spent the majority of his day off just sitting at Crater Lake and still didn't know where he stood on the entire situation, or what it was going to mean for him. All he knew was that by the time he'd left to return to the compound, he hadn't wanted to even see Sin; it would have been too soon and Boyd was still too confused.

He didn't want to jump to conclusions, to automatically distrust Sin on circumstantial evidence. It wouldn't be fair to Sin or himself and he didn't want to mess up their relationship over something like unfounded jealousy or hurt. Although what he'd seen had seemed extremely suspicious, it was possible that there was some sort of rational explanation even if he couldn't conceive of what that would be.

He knew himself as well as his relationship with Sin well enough to know that if he'd tried to go to Sin's that day, it would have very likely turned out far worse. If he'd gone there and lost his composure, accused Sin of something untrue, Sin would have probably brought up his annoyance and frustration over Boyd being irrationally jealous as he had felt about the whole Jessica fiasco. In return, Boyd would have probably snapped something back which would have resulted in an argument.

On the other hand if Boyd had gone there and Sin had actually admitted to some sort of tryst with Ann, Boyd didn't even know what he would have done but he did know it would have made it absolutely impossible to concentrate during this two week trek around the world.

So instead Boyd had resolved to try not to think about it as much as he could during training and to talk to Sin on his next break but it easier said than done. As soon as his thoughts turned toward Sin it was inevitable that a sharp feeling of pain or resentment would follow no matter how quickly he tried to stop it. So he studiously didn't think of Sin and for the most part was successful.

In the meantime, he'd decided that he needed to concentrate on what was happening with the training. And the change of pace would have been welcoming if it weren't for present company.

Boyd hadn't realized when he'd first seen All-terrain Survival and Evasion written on the schedule that for each assignment they would be in a different country with a vastly different climate and environment, and that they'd also be given different partners for each mock mission. It made sense as far as working with other agents went but he would have loved to not have been paired with Cade, all alone, in the middle of a desert.

The purpose of it all was for them to learn how to adapt in different parts of the world with different climates, geography and cultures. Each mission was designed specifically to take them out of their comfort zones and see how well they fared in each place.

At first, it had been frustrating. They'd been shipped off to the Gibson Desert in Australia, an area that had been remote and uninhabited by modern communities until recently. The desert was mostly inhabited by a tribe of people who had only come in contact with the modern world some forty odd years ago.

The purpose of the mission was to gather intel from the local tribe regarding reports of weapons testing by an unknown militant organization in the region but it was a lot more difficult than the briefing had made it seem.

Cade had, unsurprisingly, been rather impatient with the natives. At first he'd seemed to make an effort; he'd tried using some of their words as he'd understood and learned them and had made some non-offensive gestures as he'd tried to explain the situation. But that had lasted all of a day before the heat had gotten to him.

Cade seemed to feel like they weren't getting far enough fast enough and then he'd decided that the aboriginals were too stupid for their own good and they needed to just learn English anyway. He'd nearly jeopardized their entire mission when he'd somehow managed to seriously insult them, Boyd still wasn't sure how, and it had taken the better part of a day and all of Boyd's negotiating skills to convince them that he and Cade were not a threat.

In the end, Boyd and Cade had succeeded to the best of their abilities and were headed back to the pick-up point. They'd started off at dawn and were right on schedule. It would have been satisfying if Cade, ten minutes into the walk, had not taken it upon himself to pester Boyd relentlessly.

"So," Cade said as if continuing a conversation they hadn't been having as he gave Boyd a sidelong look. "How'd it happen?"

Boyd almost didn't answer but he knew Cade would just bother him more if ignored.

"How'd what happen?" he asked somewhat warily.

"How'd you turn fag?" Cade was watching him openly now but Boyd didn't answer at first. After a moment Cade smirked. "What, you saying you aren't now? I saw you with that freak. There's no way shit ain't goin' down between you two."

This was really the last thing Boyd felt like thinking or talking about. For that matter, he'd prefer if his sexual orientation didn't have to come up at all but he'd known Cade would bring up the meeting in the hallway; he'd already done so before and it wasn't surprising it happened again.

Cade had made sure everyone knew that Sin had been there much to Boyd's frustration but lack of surprise and although Doug hadn't done anything as punishment, Boyd wouldn't have been surprised if it'd been included on a checklist of all of the things he'd done wrong during training so far.

"Dude wanted to ass-fuck you right there and you would've let him, so don't act all normal and shit now," Cade continued in annoyance when Boyd didn't speak immediately.

"No he didn't," Boyd said flatly, giving Cade a look as he finally allowed himself to be drawn into the conversation. "Why are you asking this, anyway?"

"Inquiring minds and all that shit," Cade said, waving one hand vaguely.

Boyd was very unimpressed. "That's not even a reason at all."

"Bet it had to do with Bulldog," Cade said firmly instead of debating the point. "She seems like she eats men's balls for breakfast."

That was one mental image Boyd was not going to go anywhere near. "Surprisingly, she prefers tea and toast to start the day," he said dryly. "And she doesn't have anything to do with it."

"C'mon," Cade said disbelievingly. "Don't be shitting me. She's pussy-whipped the whole Agency, same as you. Maybe you were scared away from chicks thinking they were all ice-bitches like her."

"You enjoy being offensive, don't you," Boyd said absently, more of a statement than a question, and shaded his eyes as he peered intently around them. He was pretty sure they were headed the right way, but he had doubts about the validity of the directions they'd been given. Or rather, their ability to properly follow them.

Their compass had managed to mysteriously break in the middle of the night and although Cade vehemently denied any knowledge or responsibility, Boyd found the "oh these things happen" explanation to be pretty weak considering the fact that it had been in Cade's possession and he threw his backpack around like something he especially hated.

Cade snorted. "You think I give a fuck if I hurt your feelings? What are you gonna do, cry to mommy?"

Boyd narrowed his eyes slightly.

The man couldn't give a subject up once he set his mind on it and for the past two days, when he wasn't fucking up the mission by being too impatient, Cade had been apparently doing his damnedest to make Boyd snap.

It hadn't all been about his sexual orientation; most of it had been about entirely different topics: Vivienne, Boyd's negotiation skills, the mission planning, the training, complaints that Boyd was trying to take over the mission, Boyd's leadership skills, and whatever other topic Cade came up with.

Boyd didn't know why Cade was so insistent about bringing up his homosexuality repeatedly; it was possible Cade was just bored or that he just liked to get a rise out of people. Each night they'd had to sleep, Cade had made a point of settling down far away from Boyd. On the first night he had proclaimed that if Boyd did anything near or to him that was "faggy" he'd beat the shit out of him right there, rules be damned.

At the same time, if Cade was so offended by the concept of homosexuality, why couldn't he just leave the topic the hell alone?

Something about it seemed a little off to Boyd; almost as if Cade was trying too hard to show how much he disliked gays or that lifestyle. But Boyd wasn't entirely sure if that was the case and any time he thought he'd figured something out, the man did something that seemed to defy the conclusion. Whatever the case, Boyd wasn't about to give Cade the benefit of the doubt until he had a real reason to.

"No, I just think you're trying to get attention and all it's doing is making you seem like a pathetic asshole," he said bluntly, looking over at Cade fully.

Cade looked entirely unimpressed. "Don't be all condescending to me, bitch," he drawled offhandedly. "You think you're such hot shit 'cause of your ma and the fact you're in one of the more classified units, but you're a bitch to be partnered with. All you do is nag all day long, like a fuckin' woman, and when you're not doing that you're trying to take over, like you know what the fuck you're doing. If I wanted that shit I'd marry some cunt from the 'burbs."

"Heaven help any woman you decide to propose to," Boyd said partially under his breath.

"See?" Cade said loudly, pointing at Boyd. "That's exactly the shit I'm talking about. You either won't talk or you gotta say some snide shit about whatever anyone says. It's like a fuckin' compulsion with you. You know what? Sometimes you just need to shut the fuck up."

"You were the one who insisted on insulting me for my sexual orientation," Boyd said pointedly. "If you didn't start so many conversations with offensive remarks then we wouldn't be in this situation."

"We'd be talking like this regardless of the shit I said." Cade crossed his arms and used his height advantage to add to the way he looked down on Boyd. "I think you got no friends 'cause you're a fuckin' asshole who's always gotta be better than everyone else when you're not ignoring them and on top of that you're a fag. You got nothing going for you."

Well, that was certainly a nice vote of confidence from Mr. Misogynistic Homophobic Asshole. Although for the most part Boyd didn't take seriously the majority of what came out of Cade's mouth, he couldn't ignore the fact that it stung a little that the flaws in his personality kept being pointed out. Toby had basically said the exact same thing, minus the homophobia.

Boyd was trying to be better about these issues but it wasn't like he could fix everything immediately and anyway what the hell was so wrong with him in the first place? This wasn't a popularity contest and part of him felt like people could just deal with it if they didn't like his personality.

Rather than say any of the snide comments that came to mind, Boyd just shook his head and tried not to let Cade get to him. "Well, I don't know what to tell you. I'm not particularly thrilled with this partnership either but it's nearly over with. I don't know what you expect me to say about your accusations since you seem to find a way to make everyone's comments into something to mock or distort."

"Look Princess, this ain't about me, it's about you," Cade said, using his favorite new nickname for Boyd. "You piss me off and I want you to know that."

"Fine," Boyd said with a bit of an edge. "Point taken and returned."


They were silent for a few steps and Boyd did his best not to get too annoyed with Cade, mostly because they were stuck in the middle of a desert and getting pissed off wasn't going to do anything but put him in a bad mood for the next assignment.

"So," Cade continued relentlessly after a moment, as if they hadn't digressed, "what's your problem then?"

"Jesus, Cade," Boyd said sharply as he narrowed his eyes. The edge strengthened in his voice, although his tone was reasonable enough not to sound confrontational. "It's none of your business why I'm gay and I don't think being gay is a problem. Am I asking why you're straight? Could you even answer that question if someone asked why you only think women are attractive but not men? It's not like it's a conscious decision on your part, it's just the way you are. So stop assuming I'm different just because the gender I'm interested in is the opposite of yours."

"It don't need to be conscious when it's normal," Cade said pointedly. "The difference between you and me is I like what men are meant to like: pussy. You're like some fucked up woman acting like a man."

"I am a man," Boyd said in irritation. "Liking other men doesn't in any way make me more feminine. How is that logical? And who the hell decided what's 'normal' anyway?"

Cade gave him a look that was hard to read. "Women are the only ones s'posed to like dick."

"And they also menstruate every month and can have babies." Boyd raised an eyebrow. "Can I have children? No. Do I have breasts or ovaries? No. Am I in any way more of a woman than you or other men are? No. Preference in a sexual partner doesn't have anything to do with gender."

"You look like one," Cade said, although it was more of a grumbled aside than anything.

Boyd nearly rolled his eyes at the comment but refrained, not wanting to give Cade more to go off on. They were quiet for nearly a minute as they continued to hike across the seemingly endless terrain and, for an optimistic second, Boyd almost believed the discussion was over.

"Maybe it was your dad, then."

Boyd looked over, opening his mouth to answer snidely but just before he spoke he noticed the tension in Cade's shoulders that was mostly hidden, the way he was looking a little too casually in the other direction. Cade had been looking at Boyd for most of the conversation, as if he'd wanted to see Boyd's reactions to the rude things he was saying, but the fact that he wasn't now was significant to Boyd.

Instead of snapping anything at him, Boyd just made a noncommittal noise. The annoyance he felt was outweighed by his curiosity to see if Cade had been trying to ask or say something to him all along but hadn't known how to bring it up.

"Maybe the way he acted made you different somehow," Cade continued after a moment, shading his eyes as he peered in the other direction. "You got all fucked up and stupid and confused and for some reason you got all retarded and thought guys are good to fuck."

There was the very slightest of pauses before he added with a smirk, as if to hide the slightly more serious comment, "'Cause, y'know, your old man had to be some fucked up dude to be with your crazy bitch of a mom."

"Nice try but it didn't have anything to do with my father," Boyd said after a moment, acting as though he didn't notice that anything was different with this conversation.

"A brother, then?" Cade asked a little too quickly then hid it pretty well with a snide, "That is, if your dad could actually make himself fuck your ma more than once. Though, I dunno. She's smokin' if she don't open her mouth. Maybe he gagged her..."

"I'm an only child," Boyd replied simply, discreetly watching Cade in his peripheral vision as he trained his eyes on the horizon.

"Some people think guys go gay only 'cause he was abused as a kid so he's all retarded now."

The casual rudeness with which Cade spoke was well-executed, as if he was just making an observation and it was unclear whether he was trying to also imply something about Boyd. Cade still hadn't looked at Boyd but he was doing a good job of covering it by intensely searching for any sign of their meeting point.

If Boyd hadn't spent the last few days with the man, if he hadn't looked over right when he had earlier and noticed the tension in Cade's shoulders, he may not have realized that anything was going on here other than Cade trying to annoy him.

"That's a lie," Boyd said firmly. "I had nothing of the sort happen to me." He couldn't be sure but Cade's shoulders may have loosened the slightest hint, as if he was relieved.

"Yeah, well, maybe you were too ugly a kid to rape," Cade said with a smirk, looking over finally. There was nothing in his expression or body language to show that he had any motivation other than to insult Boyd as much as he could.

"Cade," Boyd said more seriously, gaze so intent that Cade didn't even try to look away. "Aside from the fact that everyone has some sense of uniqueness to them-- their looks, personalities, whatever-- there's absolutely nothing that differs a gay man from a straight man other than his choice in a sexual partner. Why I am this way doesn't have to do with most of the-- and let's be honest here-- bullshit you've been spouting this whole mission."

Cade's expression flickered, as if he automatically was going to say something snide but Boyd continued firmly before he could. "Do you really want to know why I'm gay? Because honestly I don't even know the answer. I just am. It's simply who I am. For me, it helped that I had a very close friend who loved me and happened to be male. Maybe without that, maybe if he'd been a woman, it would've been different but I doubt it."

"Maybe you should've tried with some chick, anyway," Cade said but the snideness seemed half-hearted, as if he felt the need to make a comment but still wanted to hear what Boyd had to say.

Boyd shook his head and said skeptically, "I don't think it would've worked. Even if it had been the same situation but he'd been female, I think she would have loved me and I wouldn't have been able to fully return the feelings. I probably I would have tried because she was a friend and when I grew older I would've realized the mistake I'd made and how it hurt her as well. And I would have regretted it. It wasn't family or tragedy or any of that shit that made me like this, it was just me realizing I could be me. Realizing I'm only attracted to men. Just the same as you would have regretted trying to love a male childhood friend when you just couldn't return the feelings or desire."

Cade made a face as if he was about to argue that but Boyd knew the moment the man opened his mouth then this entire conversation and argument would just be needlessly prolonged.

"If you can't accept that I'm the same as you, that being gay doesn't make me inherently subhuman and someone to disrespect, then there's nothing left to say," Boyd continued. "You need to stop spending your time trying to get to some elusive answer of 'why' because that's not the important question here. Who gives a fuck why I'm gay? Why do you give a fuck who I sleep with? I don't think you actually do."

Boyd's eyes narrowed. "The question you should be asking yourself is why it bothers you and what you can do to fix whatever issue is happening in your life that's making my sexuality be a point of contention with you. What I do on my own time behind closed doors has little bearing on you, the same as I don't give a shit who or what you fuck; and I have as little right to know why you are the way you are as you have a right to know about me. What's happening here, this conversation we're having, has very little to do with me and a lot to do with you. And if you start going off on me about my 'fagginess' and you digress back to the pointless insults, I'll be the one ending this conversation very firmly and very soon. If you have something you want to ask me, try doing it civilly and we'll get a lot further." He raised his eyebrows and gave Cade a strong, cool look. "Understand?"

Cade watched him for a long moment and for once the bravado was mostly gone from his expression, resulting in a strangely enigmatic look from a man who seemed to otherwise be constantly smirking or shooting his mouth off. The tension between them was intense and for a moment Boyd really did think they'd get into a physical fight but then Cade looked away dismissively and lazily shrugged.

"Whatever, don't get your panties in a bunch, Princess," Cade said offhandedly. He glanced toward Boyd again, appraising this time. "You gonna whine to mommy 'bout this?"

"I don't plan to tell anyone about this conversation unless you don't shut the fuck up soon," Boyd said casually although his eyes were serious and showed he meant it.

Cade studied him again for a long moment before, surprisingly, he shrugged and let the topic drop.

As they walked up a rocky rise, Boyd shaded his eyes and finally saw the rock outcropping that he recognized as the place they'd hidden their dune buggy. Relieved, he glanced toward Cade who nodded to show he'd seen it, and together they jogged the rest of the way.

Sweat was pouring down Boyd's skin, soaking his clothes and making the air feel hot and papery in his throat. By the time they made it to the vehicle, which was only about a fifteen minute jog, Boyd could tell that Cade was just as ready to get out of this environment as he was even though he acted as tough as ever, like nothing bothered him.

They'd rented an old Joyner two-seater 1600cc Terminator dune buggy, a dark brown color that thankfully was hidden well in the shade. The sides and front were totally open, letting in any sand or dust that came their way, but at the same time also keeping it from being a contained vehicle that would be entirely too hot with trapped air.

The metal supports were hot to the touch as were the seats despite the fact Cade and Boyd had done their best to keep it in the shade. They hadn't wanted to drive the dune buggy around aimlessly looking for the tribe partially because that was a waste of gas and partially because they hadn't known how interested the group would be in outsiders and the buggy had a loud engine that would have warned anyone of their approach.

Boyd slid into the driver's seat before Cade could comment. On the way out, Cade had immediately chosen to drive without letting Boyd try and since part of the training involved becoming accustomed to different vehicles, he wasn't about to lose his chance now.

At first when he started the buggy it took a moment for him to adjust to the humming of the vehicle beneath him, the slight vibration of the wheel, but the seats were surprisingly comfortable and the seatbelt going vertically down both sides of the chest felt more secure than a usual car's. And at least the driver's side was on the left like he was used to.

They each took a pair of goggles out of the glove box and he started the vehicle up.

The dune buggy jerked beneath them when he first hit the gas and Cade gave him a quick look, as if silently doubting his capabilities but within the initial minute of driving, Boyd already felt like he had a good handle on how to use this vehicle. He experimented a little by driving the buggy up the side of dunes and in making a few quick jerks of the wheel to get an idea of how it handled in different situations.

Within minutes, he was pleased with the fact they'd chosen the higher end model; the other models capped their speed closer to 75 kilometers per hour, which only equated, when he'd done the math in his mind, to about 50 miles per hour. That was entirely too slow for their needs and, he thought now as the wind whipped his hair behind him and his face was nearly forced into a grimacing grin from the pressure, it wouldn't have been nearly as fun.

The one issue was the way the sand, when kicked up, bit like bits of glass against their skin. Luckily, most of the sand and dirt was shoved off to the side, to follow them in a wake of drifting dust marking their path across the desert as clearly as the tire tracks in the ground.

He'd never thought about it before he'd started as an agent but being exposed to different climates, locations, and vehicles made him realize how much he appreciated the diversity in that regard. If it hadn't been for this job he may never have left his home city. He never would have felt real heat or seen real sunlight and likely would have gone the rest of his life only experiencing the psuedo-nuclear winter that North America had been subjected to, even if it the soot that had clogged the stratosphere was finally beginning to disperse.

But now he was experiencing new things and seeing new things. One of the things that he was finding out was that he truly enjoyed driving; he liked being in control, he liked adjusting for different environmental obstacles like sand or ice, and, most of all, he liked going fast.

He understood by now that he was becoming a bit of an adrenaline junkie and this was a perfect example. Riding in the passenger seat on the way out had been somewhat intriguing in that he'd never been in a dune buggy before and he'd been watching the desert but it was entirely different when he was the one behind the wheel. He was pleased that they'd ended up with the style that would let him go 100 miles per hour if he chose, which he couldn't help doing on one particularly flat stretch of land.

The drive took almost three hours going ninety for the most part, primarily because there were a few places Boyd had to slow down to account for obstacles that he didn't think blazing over would be intelligent, even if they were in a vehicle specially designed for off-road.

They barely spoke the entire way to Alice Springs. Cade seemed almost pensive, staring out as the landscape flew past, but it wouldn't have mattered if they'd wanted to talk anyway. Between the wind and the light growling of the engine, they would have had to shout to get any information across.

Even so, whatever was on Cade's mind, Boyd guessed that Cade didn't realize how much it was bothering him or else he never would have shown so visually how distracted he was. Boyd wasn't about to complain though; the silence was a welcome respite after days of Cade's sniping comments. Besides, it gave him even more time to enjoy the feel of driving a dune buggy.

He found that, for the first time since he'd started training, he was truly enjoying himself and not thinking about anything but that. It was somehow relaxing despite the situation and he wasn't about to question or challenge the mood in his own mind; he just let himself experience it.

It was early evening by the time they arrived at Alice Springs, heading immediately toward their meeting point near the airport.

As they pulled up, they could see Doug sitting on the hood of a car and Kassian standing off to the side. Kassian's face was pretty much expressionless; although black sunglasses hid his eyes, his broad shoulders appeared tense beneath the sleeveless shirt he wore. Even now, after the first assignment, it wasn't entirely obvious why he was there. Kassian likely knew but he still didn't seem pleased about it.

Toby and Jon were already there and as Boyd parked and got out, another dune buggy pulled up next to them with Patrick and Emma inside. She said something with a laugh to him that made Patrick smile quietly as he got out of the driver's side and, grinning, Emma followed suit from the passenger side.

"Hey," Emma greeted the others with a large smile. Her hair was pulled back in a messier ponytail than normal and she was covered in dust and dirt but she seemed to be in a surprisingly good mood. Boyd, on the other hand, just felt tired.

"You're entirely too chipper," Boyd informed her and she laughed, clapping him lightly on the arm.

"It's just a good day to be alive," was all she said as she passed him to head toward Doug and Kassian. She stopped near them and stood to the side, presumably waiting for further orders.

Cade gave Emma an odd look then a suspicious one Patrick's way, who just avoided the eye contact and quietly headed toward the instructors as well. Toby and Jon seemed entirely uninterested in what was happening across the way and just leaned against their dune buggy. As Boyd glanced away, for the briefest second he made eye contact with Cade and a look passed between them of mutual intrigue.

But the moment passed almost before it was there and Cade immediately gave him a challenging look. "Got a problem, Princess?"

Boyd knew that Cade had felt the same curiosity he had about the others, their interaction and what they'd done, but it was also clear to him that Cade wasn't ready to acknowledge even that level of understanding between the two of them. So Boyd just shook his head and walked away from Cade without bothering to respond.

It was obvious that whatever unspoken truce that had been between them was not going to last, which was unsurprising especially since they were now around others. Cade seemed to be the type who was very interested in showing off in front of others, whether it was his muscles or his stunning ability to say even the simplest observation in the most offensive way.

Even so, Boyd was intrigued by the side of Cade that had briefly shown, and although he had no intentions of trying to figure out what it had all been about or even bothering to bring it up again, it was nice to know there was more to the man than a penchant for pissing people off.

Within five minutes, Harriet and Andrew arrived. Harriet looked somewhat frustrated as she got out of their dune buggy and Andrew looked equally disappointed. They didn't say anything as they joined the others near Doug.

The tall man looked tanner than usual, as if he'd been outside a lot for the past two days in his native country. He looked to be in a better mood than usual although his expression was still critical as his gaze swept over them all. His light blue eyes rested on Patrick for a moment before speaking.

"We have about six hours before we depart. Our pilot plans to take off at approximately 1 am, so that means you get to the take off point by midnight at the latest," Doug said. "Our ultimate destination is Luoyang, China but I'll get into that after we arrive which will be around 2:30 pm local time. You all have got a few hours of break and mission reports to write. You can do it now or during the flight-- your choice but I recommend sleeping on the plane 'cause I can't promise the next time you'll have fifteen hours of sitting in one place."

Doug squinted up at the sky and the corners of his mouth turned down slightly, as if the sunset wasn't strong enough for his expectations; likely he'd remembered it being brighter, bigger, and less dreary pre-war. Even though Australia had escaped most of the effects of the global cooling, the damage done to the ozone layer and stratosphere still caused a noticeable change in heat and sunlight. Those changes weren't as significant as the ones in Mexico, but the level of UV rays was still extravagantly high.

He shrugged unconsciously and looked at them again. "There's laptops in the shop," he continued, referring to the small office he'd rented for the duration of the trip. "You can take turns using 'em; there's four, so do it in there or grab one and take it on the plane. Arrive back late and you'll be findin' your own way to China."

Boyd couldn't help feeling intrigued. China? He knew that their destinations were being chosen according to some sort of relevancy to actual rebel groups, in countries they may potentially be sent to as agents. As far as that went, it made sense to have China be a destination, considering the fact that the Dǐ Zhì were headquartered there. He just hadn't thought about the places they were going.

Boyd would have wanted to visit China anyway, to get firsthand experience in the country of the rebel group that was probably the least of an enemy to the Agency than the others, but it added a level of intrigue for him to realize he'd be in Sin's home country as well. Of course, China was huge and Boyd probably wouldn't be anywhere near towns Sin had actually been in but somehow it added a strange sense of completion for Boyd, as if finishing a half-started novel.

Doug neither dismissed them nor ordered them to stay and even though it was assumed that they could go, it was obvious that he had something else to say. His gaze focused on Patrick again and he tilted his head to the side. "Got bad news from home, Pattycake," he said coolly.

Patrick's eyebrows drew together and concern clouded his face. "Bad news? From who?"

Doug stared at him for a long moment before shrugging casually. "One of your kids is sick. Got a bad bug of some sort."

Emma looked toward Patrick immediately, seeming concerned.

Patrick's face went ashen and he took several steps foward. "Which one?"

"Clara," Doug went on calmly. "The littlest, right?"

"What's wrong with her?" Patrick demanded, not seeming as patient and mild-mannered as he had in previous discourse.

Kassian removed his sunglasses and studied Patrick, a slight frown on his face, and he shot Doug a mildly disapproving look although it wasn't obvious why.

"I dunno. But she's in the hospital. Must not be good then, eh?"

"Then I have to go back," Patrick said without hesitation. He shifted his backpack on his shoulders as if ready to set off right then.

Both of Doug's eyebrows raised but it seemed more for dramatic effect than genuine surprise. It was pretty obvious to Boyd that their Instructor had been expecting that response. "Just wait one bleedin' minute there, bloke. You can't go jetsetting back to the States every time you have some kind of family emergency. Just what do you think this is?"

"I wasn't asking your permission," Patrick practically snarled at him. Parental concern was quickly transforming him into someone impatient, angry, protective, and Kassian stood up slightly straighter when Patrick took another step towards Doug. "I was telling you."

"Well I think you know what the outcome of that'll be," Doug replied, not at all seeming concerned with Patrick's temper. "Disqualification and all that. Maybe some other consequences."

"How soon can I get back?" Patrick demanded, not looking worried about Doug's warning in the least.

Doug didn't immediately reply and instead examined him for a good long moment before sighing and gesturing for Patrick to come talk to him at the side. Nearby, Kassian gave a deeper frown and shook his head as the others began slowly heading towards the rented office or just to hang out until the break was over.

Boyd noticed Emma looking after Patrick with a worried expression. She watched him for a moment then turned and, seeming distracted, walked into the office.

Boyd ended up being one of the last people to disperse, not because he particularly cared about hanging around but because it just happened that way. He was surprised by Patrick's outburst; he'd been so calm and quiet in all of their training that Boyd wouldn't have thought he was capable of such a quick change in temperament.

At least that went to show that Patrick was the type of person who actually cared about his kids. It made Boyd curious about what his father's reaction would have been if Cedrick had been in another country and someone had said Boyd was in the hospital. Would he have reacted that way too or would he have taken the news in stride and just tried to get back whenever he could?

Both of his parents had been so involved in their professions that he couldn't imagine his father jeopardizing his career just because his child was in the hospital, but then, Boyd didn't really understand the way family love was supposed to work in a healthy, more normal relationship than he'd grown up with.

He didn't dwell on the topic for long because for all that Patrick had seemed like a decent man, the fact that he was leaving meant very little to Boyd. He'd barely spoken to the man so the only way it potentially affected him was how they were going to deal with groups now that they had an odd number of people. Maybe future training missions had more than two people to a group, anyway.

He did wonder what Doug had meant about possible 'other consequences' though. Although Boyd suspected Kassian knew what it meant, he didn't go ask; he felt comfortable approaching Kassian as a person but in this case Kassian was their supervisor and he didn't want to add more to the perception that he had connections. Besides, with only six hours until departure, he wanted to get his report written.

When Boyd made it into the office, he saw that all the laptops were taken so he rested in the corner, head tilted back against the wall and slid his eyes closed. A warm dry breeze blew through one of the windows and rustled strands of blond hair against his forehead. As he absorbed the alien feeling of an almost golden and arid warmth, Boyd idly wondered about where else training would take him and what other challenges they would come across along the way.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Fourteen...