Afterimage Chapter Fourteen

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

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


Book One: Evenfall See Evenfall chapter list.

Book Two: Afterimage
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Book Three: Fade
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Afterimage Chapter Fourteen

Uploaded on 1/30/2009

The air was so cold that every time Boyd exhaled, a cloud from his breath nearly obscured his vision and every time he inhaled it felt like ice was forming in his throat. The moist heat from his breath was trapped between his mouth and the scarf, creating an uncomfortable scratchy, wet-cold feeling while still letting enough breath out for the dissipating fog.

It almost felt like even the slight moisture of his eyeballs was in danger of icing over. Even his sinuses felt like they were freezing, giving him a dull headache between his eyes that he knew was not going to leave for the entirety of the mission.

He was bundled up in long johns, two layers of coats, heavy pants, thick boots, a hat that pulled down over his ears, a scarf wrapped all the way around his head so his eyes were all that showed and thick gloves. Yet despite all that, each time the wind blew down the street he felt it spearing against his skin. He huddled, arms crossed over his chest and hands held tightly against his body, and stomped his feet a few times as if it would do anything useful.

Kassian walked ahead of him, seeming far too unaffected by the cold. He was just as bundled up as Boyd was but whereas Boyd curled in on himself as he shuffled along, Kassian stood with his back straight and looked around calmly as if it was a normal day and not what felt like a good fifty degrees below zero.

What made it even worse was knowing that only a day ago Boyd had been standing out under real sun rays as sweat poured down his body with the hot Australian sun pressing down on him and, Christ, even if sweating like a pig didn't feel that fantastic, he'd take that over this misery any day.

He breathed in a little too quickly and the air caught in his throat, feeling dry and full of ice, and he fell into a coughing fit that took a few seconds to recover from. Watching Kassian walking ahead of him unperturbed, not to mention the native Russians hanging out around them as if nothing unusual was happening, Boyd felt rather pathetic. He'd thought he was the type of person who did well being unaffected by drastic temperature changes but he was finding that he had his limits.

"Fuck, it's cold," Boyd hissed in frustration as he caught up to Kassian.

Kassian looked back at him and shrugged. "Yeah. I just got used to this before," he said cryptically, referring to his long undercover mission in Russia.

After Patrick's decision to abandon the training, Doug had informed them all that Kassian would be replacing him for the following missions. Apparently they all were planned to be two-man assignments and now Kassian would be in Patrick's place for however the teams were planned. But instead of a partner and active participant, Kassian wasn't allowed to do more than play the part of subordinate and offer mild suggestions so that the playing field was still even.

"Right after Moscow got hit, it was even colder," Kassian went on. "Probably fifty or sixty below plus wind chill."

Boyd's eyebrows rose in stunned sympathy for the people living here at that time. "I would've killed myself," he declared only slightly dramatically. "Or got the hell out of Dodge."

Kassian finally cracked a full smile and it brightened his previously glum expression nicely.

He'd been more than a little moody since his participation had been announced; after the mission in China had been completed and they'd headed out to Russia, it'd become even worse. He was silent for long periods of times around the others and during the ten hour flight from Luoyang to Murmansk, Kassian's expression had grown significantly darker.

"Yeah, it was tough as shit acting like I was used to being in Siberia," he replied. "I should have gotten an Oscar for that performance."

"You can have twenty and a Golden Globe if you give me tips to adjust a little faster." Boyd looked around as best he could. "Help me out here, the scarf's giving me a disability. Am I so completely obvious that I'm going to ruin any chances of blending in or is it possible they think I'm an especially pathetic old woman? I'm hoping my hunched back is misleading."

"You don't fit in anyway," Kassian said conspiratorially. "You don't have that Siberian look."

"Oh really," Boyd drawled with a wry smile that couldn't be seen but was heard in his voice. "Why's that?"

Kassian shrugged and stopped walking. "You're not taking swigs from a flask of vodka. That's the real trick to keeping out the cold," he said with a wink.

"Shit, where's the nearest liquor store," Boyd said, looking around jokingly. "I'll buy fifty liters if it warms me up."

"Ha. They barely gave us enough rubles to get out of this shitty country, so you'll have to make due with looking like an outsider." Kassian looked around, appearing thoughtful, but not saying exactly what he was thinking. "So how long do you plan to search for a used car?"

Boyd managed some maneuvering to get his watch visible between the cuff of his coat and edge of his glove, and glanced as quickly at the time as he possibly could before he stuffed the glove back under his coat. Even that brief amount of time made the bones in his wrist ache from the cold and he grimaced although the expression was almost entirely hidden by the scarf. It was about 11:30 am, which meant they'd already been walking around for two and a half hours.

They'd been given the parameters for this mock mission as they'd traveled from China to Russia. The scenario was that they were on a mission in which they received vital information and needed to transmit it as soon as possible to the US. The fictional scenario also called for them to escape Russia using alternate means of transportation than bus, train or plane because the group they'd stolen the information from was now aware of their presence in the region and would be searching for them in the obvious places.

They had very few supplies and very little money and had to travel across Siberia to reach a place where they could safely transmit the information and/or call for help. The chosen destination was Helsinki, Finland, but the time period they were given was exactly forty-eight hours as of their 9 am arrival in the country as they'd stepped off the plane.

Although Helsinki was the ultimate destination of all four groups, not all of them had been dropped off in this specific city although they were all the same distance away from Helsinki. That seemed to be the way each mission was going to be set up so far, likely to prevent groups from sharing information, resources and ideas.

As a precaution against 'cheating,' each trainee had been given a tracking device so that Doug could monitor which routes they were taking. If anyone used mass transportation in Russia, they were disqualified from the mission and any points they would have received on the mission would not be counted in their overall judgment at the end of the three months. Although, the good news was that once they made it into Finland they could use whatever means of transportation they wanted.

Although there had been a car rental place right outside the airport where they'd landed, Boyd hadn't even looked at it twice once he saw how expensive rentals were for the two-day minimum they had listed. The 30,000 rubles Doug gave each group sounded like a lot but when Boyd considered that their destination was in another country across the tundra and they had to survive along the way by their wits alone, he didn't want to spend 20,000 rubles on one item, especially since once they hit the Finland border they'd have to convert to Euros anyway.

Granted, if everything went well, then having a rental car to take them straight to Helsinki would work wonders in keeping them within the forty-eight hour deadline. But Boyd's experience on missions was that the only time it went really well was when something was going horribly wrong.

So when Kassian had been assigned as Boyd's partner and Boyd had said that he wanted to find a used car, the senior agent had just nodded and been noncommittal. Hours later of walking in the freezing cold, Boyd wondered if Kassian was wishing he'd been teamed with someone who'd been willing to go for a rental car that they could be nice and warm in and already a few hours into the mission.

Alternatively, they could have stolen something but since the whole point of the mission was to lay low, the last thing he wanted to do was draw any attention to themselves or risk being chased by local law enforcement.

Because of that, it was better to ration their money as much as possible and go as legit as they could on deals.

"Another half hour, I guess," Boyd answered finally, pushing the scarf back so he could peer around more clearly. "If my memory and instincts are wrong on this, we'll have to splurge on a rental or some other alternative, but I don't feel comfortable with that. And I know there has to be an area..."

He trailed off as they rounded a corner and an especially dismal area of Murmansk lay before them. Like Boyd's hometown, Murmansk had been devastated by the bombings of the war. While Boyd's city was apparently targeted due to high traffic intel, Murmansk had been an important port for the Russian navy.

Entire areas of the city were still completely destroyed with buildings crumbled on the ground and covered in snow like miniature urban mountain ranges. The area before them was covered in rubble, garbage, and discarded junk. Simple metal barrels were off to the side, two of which had fires raging inside. Several men and women sat around them, leaning back casually as a few of them drank from flasks just as Kassian had joked and a few casually threw old bottles of liquor into the barrels, watching the fires flare in response.

Past that open area was, in essence, a small outdoor market although it wasn't the sort Boyd had seen in Mexico or China. People sat around with the occasional blanket spread out with items on it or handmade wares dotted in front of them but for the most part the majority of the people seemed to just be sitting or milling around.

Boyd paused, gaze sweeping over the assortment of people as he searched for particular body language and other cues that made him feel that was the person to approach, then glanced over at Kassian. "Can you translate for me?" he asked, fully ready to try charades to get the idea across if Kassian felt it would be an unfair advantage to speak Russian for him.

Kassian nodded without hesitation, probably already having come to that decision before they'd even arrived in Russia. "Even if I was another trainee, I'd be able to use my language skills so it's not just a Level 10 advantage. Toby used his knowledge of Chinese dialects when we were in Louyang. The only thing I'm not really allowed to do is tell you things I've learned and experienced as a Level 10, things you wouldn't know at your own rank."

Boyd made a soft noise of assent; that made sense. "That would've been helpful in China."

Of all the times to not be stuck with his snobbish roommate, of course it would be when Toby's training would have been immensely useful for the task at hand. Even so, he and Emma had done well by finding their fake bomb in time although they'd only had a handful of minutes to spare, which would have been harrowing in a real life situation.

Boyd raised an eyebrow. "If this little adventure lands us in France at any point, there'll be all sorts of people wishing they'd been teamed with me. Except for everyone who knows such a common language."

Kassian snorted and looked around the market. He didn't look curious or confused but he did seem intrigued and examined a few carts of blankets closely as they walked through. "I don't know how common it is to Americans. Although I guess a lot of Intel people are linguists."

Tilting his head in agreement, Boyd didn't answer as he approached the man he'd seen from afar.

The man was fairly average-looking; he appeared to be in his mid-fifties, with greying dark hair and a beard that liberally covered his chin. His clothing was tattered and worn but he looked as though he felt less cold than Boyd did in his multiple layers. He was one of the people sitting to the side without anything visible in front of him, but Boyd chose him with no hesitation.

"Zdravstvuyte," Boyd greeted the man, using the only Russian word he'd learned and could actually pronounce decently when he'd tried to echo Kassian in the first hour of their walking.

"Privyet," the man replied easily.

Boyd glanced toward Kassian to alert him to the fact that he'd need the translation now, and said to the man, "My friend and I were looking for a car but we don't have money for a new one. I heard to come to this place; you know anyone who could help?" He did his best to minimize his American accent and make it sound a little more British or at least something ambiguous.

Kassian responded quickly, the Russian words gliding off his tongue fluidly, and at the moment he really did sound like a native of the region. His tone also changed from the easy-going way he'd been speaking to Boyd and became far more assertive and no-nonsense.

After a moment of conversation with the other man, Kassian looked at Boyd again. "He asked why you thought to approach him, but he seems more curious than suspicious."

"I'm just guessing," Boyd said easily with a shrug. "Your blanket is empty but you keep looking at people and the other sellers seem to know you. So I just assumed maybe you had a larger item somewhere else..."

Kassian translated once again and the guy looked at Boyd appraisingly before gesturing toward the South and explaining something in Russian. Kassian looked in the direction he pointed even as the guy continued to speak.

After a moment Kassian nodded and once again turned to Boyd. "He says there's a guy to the Southern end of this market who sells used electrics but if we don't have any money, we likely won't be able to trade those either since they're pretty valuable. However he said that he has an old junker fuel-based car that is rusting away in his garage that he's willing to swap. He tried to sell it for awhile in the market but everyone wants plug-ins since fuel is so expensive and scarce."

Boyd felt genuine relief at that and although usually he would have hidden it, he let part of it show in his expression not that it mattered much since his face was almost entirely hidden.

"Really?" he asked hopefully. "We don't have money, but, uhh, does he want my coat?"

Boyd unzipped the outer coat to show the man the thickness and tried not to shiver too uncontrollably as he lost all the body heat that had been gathering. "It's really warm..."

The man seemed to pick up on what Boyd meant without Kassian having to translate but the senior agent did anyway. After a few moments of consideration, the man shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, speaking idly to Kassian as his gaze moved carefully over both of them.

"He says his own coat is fine," Kassian translated, watching the man. They exchanged a few more words. "But he'll take my boots."

It made sense; Kassian's boots were thick, durable and a lot newer than the battered ones the man had on. He'd likely had heavy winter clothing even before the downward spiral of the economy but a good pair of boots weren't as easy to patch up in the long run and were likely very expensive to buy new.

Boyd hesitated and looked at Kassian questioningly; it had never been his intention to make Kassian pay for their transportation, especially when it had been Boyd's idea to go this route. In such a cold climate, there was no way he would expect Kassian to give up a good pair of boots.

"I wouldn't ask you to give up anything of yours. I do have a pretty nice watch if he wants it," Boyd said to Kassian after a moment. "It would get a decent price and it would be a lot easier to get rid of than a car..."

Kassian shook his head. "It's fine, I have another pair of shoes in my pack." With that being said, he turned back to the man and told them that they had a deal although he wanted to see the car before he started taking off his boots in the middle of the market.

The man, who belatedly introduced himself as Aleksei, led them on a winding route across several blocks and down a few side streets before they ended up at a small, utilitarian, squat home with a garage that was nearly falling apart behind it. Every other house on the street looked almost the same and the saddest part was this was one of the nicer blocks in the area. It didn't take long for Aleksei to get the car out into the open.

It turned out to be a 1988 Lada 2107; a dark blue, boxy little car that was rusty and full of so many dents and scrapes that it looked like someone had once taken personal insult with the vehicle and had tried their best to attack it. That was unsurprising, given the fact that it was over thirty years old and had somehow managed to survive the bombings.

Boyd examined it briefly; from the outside it didn't appear to be in much better shape than the garage it had been stored in but when they opened the hood, everything seemed to be in order and the engine seemed to be in decent shape. They had roughly 700 miles to go and then they'd be dumping the car anyway so it wasn't like it needed to be in perfect condition. Getting it on trade was going to drastically increase the amount of money they had to spend elsewhere as fall-back in case they needed it. Plus, as a bonus, Boyd noted that the tank was about half to three-quarters full.

Kassian agreed to the trade only after he'd looked over the car as well and turned it on, testing out the basic functions and going with Aleksei and Boyd for a test drive. After Kassian gave Aleksei his boots, who handed over the keys, it didn't take long for them to get in the car and head out of Murmansk.

Boyd discovered that, as a pleasant surprise, the heater actually worked decently in the Lada which was already making the mission seem a lot smoother although the shocks were horrible and each bump they went over resounded through his body.

Boyd removed his scarf and hat before they took off so he'd be able to see better to drive. When he glanced at his watch he saw that it was only just past noon, so they were making pretty good time. He was glad he'd thought to pick up a map of Russia and Finland before they left because now that he was in the car, he didn't want to stop if he didn't have to.

Boyd glanced over and saw that Kassian was looking out the window, seeming gloomy. Boyd had initially hoped that once they were on their way maybe it would help Kassian snap out of the mood he was in but that no longer seemed likely.

"Are you okay?" he asked five minutes into the drive when it became apparent that Kassian was going to remain quiet and pensive.

"What?" Kassian looked over at Boyd, an inquisitive look on his face even though the troubled expression hadn't entirely cleared. "Why do you ask?"

"You seem... distracted," Boyd said, glancing over briefly before returning his eyes to the road.

"Oh." Kassian shrugged, rolling his shoulders with the movement and finally reached up to unzip his jacket at the top, unwinding the scarf from around his neck now that the heater was working. "Yeah, I'm just pretty annoyed that I have to be here."

Boyd looked over again, not entirely certain how to interpret that. He suspected Kassian meant the trip in general, but Kassian's mood had seemed to grow worse once they landed in Russia so it was possible it had something to do with his extended mission. After all, he'd spent years in this country and had finally gotten back to America only to get jetted around the globe once more and end up right back here.

On the other hand, Boyd hadn't been with Kassian in China and Kassian had seemed disgruntled that he'd had to take over Patrick's position and, in effect, do even more work on what was supposed to be his time off. So it could just be that he meant 'here' as in having to work in a group assignment at all.

Boyd couldn't really blame the man; if he'd finally had some much needed downtime and he'd been told to help some lower level agents out, and then had to follow someone around but not even be able to properly contribute, he'd probably also be annoyed.

"That's understandable," Boyd said, not wanting to press him for information on exactly what he meant; as far as he was concerned, all the interpretations made sense.

He'd learned to be at least a little more sensitive and not to push people for personal information in general conversation; he'd upset Sin a few times doing that and tended, in those cases, to suck more information out of the person than he ever gave back. It wasn't a balanced way to converse and he didn't feel comfortable pressing for information from someone who he wasn't even sure he could properly identify as a friend. He liked Kassian and thought he was a good person, and they may have spent some time at Kassian's house, but they were still basically acquaintances, not friends.

Kassian nodded noncommittally and began watching the passing scenery again. Murmansk was a lot like the Agency's home city; there were alternating areas that had been rebuilt and some that looked just as badly as they did right after the war.

When they finally exited the city, the terrain was a lot more sparse and there was nothing for miles around except for the moss-lichen that dominated the tundra.

There were only about four hours of daylight during the day at this time of year and after awhile of driving the sun was already beginning to set, darkening the grey sky even more.

"This whole region is so ridiculous," Kassian muttered finally after a long stretch of silence. "Even the sunrise and sunset piss me off."

"Why?" Boyd asked. "Because it's on such a different schedule?"

"It's depressing," the other man complained mildly. "Even the pathetic bit of sunlight that filters through the cover back in the city is something, but twenty hours of no sunlight at all is just out of control. That's why this damn region has such a high suicide rate, I bet."

"Hmm." Boyd considered that. "It's probably true. I read once that Seasonal Affective Disorder had a marked increase in the general population just after the war, since light was no longer as readily available. Some of the Nordic countries already experienced higher rates but if you add the fallout from nuclear winter along with their already extreme conditions, it would just intensify what was already here. And that's not even taking into account PTSD."

"Miserable bastards," Kassian muttered and leaned his head back against the seat rest before turning it slightly to the side to watch Boyd as he drove. "But most everyone in the world is a miserable bastard these days. Except Doug."

Boyd smiled faintly. "You don't think he is?"

"He's not," Kassian said with a shrug and a half-grin. "I know it seems like he is but he's probably the most easy going dude I know. He's just an asshole though. I mean on the one hand I agree with how he treats trainees but I thought what he did with Patrick was pretty unnecessary even if I guess he had a point."

"What he did with Patrick?" Boyd echoed, glancing over curiously. "What do you mean, by giving the news in front of everyone?"

Kassian hesitated for a moment, as if he wasn't sure whether or not he should say anything but then he made a face. "Well in retrospect I probably shouldn't have mentioned this but since I already opened my mouth, Patrick's kid isn't really sick."

Boyd raised his eyebrows. "Really." He said it more as an intrigued statement than a question. He thought back to Kassian and Doug's reactions to Patrick's response and it made a little more sense. "It was a test, then?"

"Yeah, that's why I shouldn't have said anything. Doug had a feeling that Patrick wouldn't be able to commit entirely from day one-- ever since the orientation." Kassian shrugged and rubbed a hand across his blond hair. "So he tested him. And also, I think Doug wanted him to back out. He didn't like the idea of Patrick becoming Level 10 and doing all of the crazy junk we have to do when his kids are already out of one parent, you know?"

That made Boyd wonder if Doug planned to test each of the trainees in similar ways but he didn't ask Kassian about it; it wouldn't be fair for him to know something like that ahead of the other trainees and it would put Kassian in an awkward position.

"I didn't realize Patrick is a single father," he said instead. "I just assumed he had a wife."

"Yeah she died from skin cancer or something, courtesy of our new and improved ozone layer," Kassian said sarcastically. He was quiet a moment and then retracted his previous statement. "Actually I guess Patrick didn't seem too miserable. I guess he could be in his private time though. I should ask Emma what he was like. I think I'll be with her on the next assignment."

"I think she was sad that he's gone," Boyd said. "She seemed a little distracted at first in China and said she hoped Clara was okay. I guess they talked about his kids on the trip. We didn't talk about it too much since the mission was rather hectic."

He added the last part dryly because ten hours in an overcrowded foreign city looking for a fake bomb when they didn't even speak the language made his comment a bit of an understatement.

"Although, speaking of people who've managed to stay unaffected by the state of affairs in the world, I'd cite Emma as an example. She seems to be consistently in a decent mood. Your next assignment will probably go pretty smoothly if you're with her."

"Hopefully more than that goes smoothly with her," Kassian leered, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Boyd laughed suddenly and looked over. "You know what's funny about that? She gave me a handful of condoms when we landed in China."

Kassian did a double-take and looked at him incredulously. "No way. What the hell for?"

"That was about my reaction, too," Boyd said with a bemused smile. "I'm still a little fuzzy on the details but as far as I can tell, she thought of it awhile ago but when we were alone it seemed like a good idea to her. She seemed as embarrassed by the way she did it as I was confused, but apparently she had a gay friend who died of AIDS so she was worried for me. She said she wasn't trying to be stereotypical or anything but, you know, past issues the gay population's had with AIDS... There was a lot more backpedaling in the conversation but you get the gist."

Kassian stared at him for a long moment before shaking his had. "I can't tell if that's insulting or naive. What a strange chick."

"It actually didn't bother me," Boyd said thoughtfully after a moment. "If it had been anyone else, I probably would've been insulted. But Emma really means well and she stumbled all over herself trying to explain, and she said she didn't have them just for me it was just that she happened to think of it at that time. I don't think she thinks only gay men get AIDS, I think she was just... being Emma. And as far as that goes, it's not like I use protection anyway so I guess she has a point." He paused and seemed to realize he'd just said that aloud. "So... that was a bit too much info..."

This time Kassian gave him a strange look. "What do you mean you don't use protection?"

Boyd was regretting bringing the conversation in any way to the topic of his sex life. He didn't distrust Kassian or expect him to talk about this to anyone else but it was a little awkward, especially since Sin and Kassian were rivals and anything Boyd said was in essence talking about Sin's sex life too.

Boyd had never verified that he was sleeping with Sin but it was implied, so he assumed that Kassian knew or at least had a good idea it was happening. At the same time, he'd been the one to bring it up so it was stupid to try to avoid replying when he couldn't take back what he'd said.

After a moment, Boyd shrugged casually. "Well, it's not like I never have in my life. I just haven't lately. It's... not really necessary right now."

Kassian arched an eyebrow but as if sensing Boyd's reluctance to say more, didn't push it. "Well I guess if you're sleeping with one person it's not necessary, right?"

Boyd inclined his head, relieved that Kassian wasn't going to press the topic. "That's the way I see it," he agreed.

Kassian nodded and looked out the window casually, silent only for a moment before curiosity overcame his previous decision to back off. "So you are sleeping together then?"

Although Boyd could have hedged around the answer, there was no point. "Yes."

"I figured as much," the other man replied, not looking very surprised as he pulled a small bottle out from an inner pocket of his coat.

Boyd glanced at him sidelong. "Getting a head start on staying warm?" he asked lightly, noting that it was vodka.

"It's already cold," Kassian replied as he took a swig. It was obvious that he was taking his role as mindless flunky very seriously. If he were in Senior Agent Trovosky mode, there was no way he'd drink on assignment. "This heater isn't doing much more than making us less likely to get frostbite or something."

Nodding, Boyd was quiet as he idly went over the conversations he could remember having with Kassian. He figured Kassian assumed they were sleeping together due to the way Boyd had been acting about Sin but even if Boyd had feelings for Sin that didn't mean they were necessarily reciprocated or that Boyd acted on them.

After a moment, curiosity got the better of Boyd and he asked, "What made you think that?"

"What made me think what?"

"That I've been sleeping with Sin." Boyd looked over at Kassian although he kept his attention on the road in his peripheral vision. "That it wasn't just one-sided on my part."

"Ahhh." Kassian took another sip and tucked the bottle back into the depths of his coat. "I'm not really sure. The way you act around each other, the way he talks to you is different than the way he treats everyone else but that's obvious."

Kassian seemed to think for a moment before continuing. "I'm not really sure. I just got that impression after seeing you together. That you were in a relationship or at least sleeping together. Something more than just friends."

"Hmm." Boyd didn't know whether that was good or bad; he and Sin didn't go out of their way to hide what was happening between them but they also were definitely not obvious about it around others, with the exception of that one debriefing and even then it was under the table. "It's that obvious, then?"

"No, not really. I probably never would have thought of it if I hadn't seen the way you acted in Mexico and all," Kassian replied. "It's not like you were a couple of obviously flaming gays or something with your hearts on your sleeves."

"Well, good," Boyd said, unable to suppress a slight smile at the amusing mental image of Sin acting that way. "If I ever become that obvious I'll let you reserve the right to lecture and/or kick me." He glanced over with a sidelong, wry expression. "That doesn't work retroactively for Monterrey, mind you."

"That wasn't flaming, it was emotional. Extremely so." Kassian reached down and fiddled with the seat until he made it recline more, allowing him more room to stretch out his long legs. "But it's okay. I don't think anyone in my crew really thought much of it except maybe thinking you were way too attached and amateurish to be on that kind of assignment."

Boyd made a light noise of assent. "I suspect that's the case. Harriet and Archer certainly didn't seem impressed."

Kassian shrugged, neither agreeing or disagreeing. "If someone had suggested to me back then that you'd be up for promotion now, I probably would have thought the idea was crazy. But seeing you in training shows that judging you just based on that one mission is pretty dumb. I've had some pretty ridiculous shit happen to me on assignment in the past on more than one occasion and I've also acted in ways that are not exactly in the Agency guidelines. People don't judge me solely on that so it would have been asshole-ish for me to do that to you."

Boyd raised an eyebrow. "I appreciate the vote of confidence but I don't think I've exactly been stellar on most of the training you've been around for."

"That's not true," Kassian said in disagreement. "You were better at subduing in last week's combat training. You just have to build up your strength and stamina. And Doug gives me a heads up on how everyone is doing since I'm being dragged along for the ride. He said you did well in negotiation, escape strats and undercover training."

It was good to know that Doug and Kassian didn't think he was completely failing. After the shaky start he'd had with cryptography and later with Krav Maga, he'd been feeling a little paranoid.

"Thanks," Boyd said, appreciating that Kassian would even bother to tell him this.

The other agent nodded, asking, "Which reminds me, what made you think to approach Aleksei?"

"It was mostly guessing based on experience, to be honest," Boyd said with a shrug. "You overheard the man at the airport telling some tourists to check out the back alleys for cheaper items, right?"

Kassian nodded in assent, watching him and waiting for a further explanation.

"Well, I was banking on the fact that Murmansk would be a lot like home," Boyd said simply. "If you search for the shittiest back alleys, you usually find either cutthroats or traders markets, and that man's comment made me think I could find markets. I used to go to markets with a friend because we didn't have a lot of money. So I have an idea of the sort of mannerisms to look for."

He paused and glanced over at Kassian, who didn't speak as he apparently waited for the full explanation. "Like I told Aleksei, it was primarily because he was sitting there with an empty blanket, watching people," Boyd explained. "A number of people acknowledged him or got into conversation as they passed, so I assumed he was well-connected or at least enough of a regular to know the sort of items up for trade. Judging by his body language, the fact that the people around him seemed to like him, and from what I could see of his interactions, I didn't get the feeling he was a scammer."

Boyd shrugged again. "I wasn't sure that he'd have a car but I thought he may be most likely to know someone who did and not screw us over in the process. And if that didn't work I was just going to look around for someone else."

"Good observation skills," Kassian commented, breath puffing out in front of him in a cloud. "I'd noticed the same thing about him-- that he seemed to be paying close attention to the shoppers. I figured he was either a thief or had something to offer."

"Thanks," Boyd said again and Kassian just nodded without responding. They fell into relatively amiable silence for the next forty minutes or so. Boyd concentrated on the road while Kassian eventually went back to looking out the window silently.

Boyd found the quiet to be almost welcoming; he didn't mind talking to Kassian but in an unfamiliar country and terrain, in a car he'd never driven before, in the nearly pitch black with only their pale headlights to light the way, he wanted to be able to put as much attention toward driving as possible.

It also meant he could hear the car a lot better although that didn't necessarily mean much. The car was an automatic, something he wasn't used to, so he wasn't entirely certain if it meant anything that as the gears shifted it sounded progressively less smooth.

Just as Boyd was wondering whether he should comment on the noise, the car suddenly started slowing down. Boyd pressed firmly on the gas and the engine revved, the RPM dial went higher and higher but the car wasn't going any faster. No matter what he did, it seemed like the forward momentum was quickly decreasing and they were about to stop.

"Shit," Boyd said sharply, looking quickly at the dials as if he could determine what was wrong. He couldn't tell what was happening, though; there was still a quarter tank of gas and the RPM seemed to be the only thing going wild.

Within moments, the car rolled to a stop and wouldn't move. Boyd stared at the steering wheel in displeasure then parked the car and looked over at Kassian. "I think it's dead."

Kassian let the back of his head thump against the seat and he released a long, low sigh. "That's just wonderful. And judging by the jerks and noises the gears just made, it's probably the transmission so we're screwed."

"Shit," Boyd repeated, a little more emphatically this time.

He stared at Kassian a moment then looked out the window at the darkness. They couldn't afford to spend all night just sitting there and even if they waited the inordinate amount of time for the sun to rise the following day, they'd be in the same situation; stuck in the middle of the tundra with a dead car. If they were more on an decline they could have at least pushed the car and let the momentum take them for awhile but that just wasn't happening in this area.

"We have to leave the car," Boyd said after a moment. It was slightly a question, as if he was wondering if Kassian had any better plans.

Kassian just looked at him neutrally and shrugged, beginning to pull on his heavy wool gloves again. If he had a better alternative, he didn't say and it was likely because he either didn't have one or couldn't make the suggestion without Boyd thinking of it first. So he just pushed the door open silently and got out, standing on the frozen tundra in a pair of tan Timberland boots; the particular style was more suited for hiking than walking through the freezing cold in the snow.

They popped the hood and examined the engine for a few moments before deciding that it really was a lost cause. There was nothing they could do to repair the car.

"Good thing I get to walk about 40 miles in my Tims," Kassian commented wryly as he slammed the hood shut again.

Boyd looked down at Kassian's feet but he could tell that Kassian wore at least a size larger than him. "I'd trade you, but unfortunately I don't think that would be very comfortable for you. If you'd like to try..." He felt bad that Kassian was going to have to walk in sub-zero temperature in completely inadequate footwear since this entire situation was due to Boyd's decisions.

Kassian snorted, his breath puffing out in front of him as he wrapped his scarf around his face and pushed his hood back on. "Not in a million years, kiddo. It's not your fault."

Wrapping his own scarf more securely around his head and pulling his hat on, Boyd looked over at Kassian and couldn't help a faint smile although the expression was hidden by his winter gear. It was as if Kassian knew what was going through Boyd's mind and, rather than letting him stew on it or go any further with feelings of guilt, he casually dismissed any blame Boyd may be putting on himself.

Once again, Boyd found himself thinking about how Kassian truly seemed to be a good person and, he had to admit, of anyone on this trip to be stuck in the middle of the tundra with he would have preferred it to be Kassian; in truth, he would have even chosen Kassian over Sin. Boyd had the suspicion that if Sin were here he would be gracing Boyd with dark-humored sarcasm although Sin's high tolerance for cold would have likely kept the worst of his impatience in check.

As they grabbed their packs from the trunk and Boyd hefted his heavy bag onto his back, he thought about how miserable this was going to be. The wind seemed even more intense out in the open without even the buildings to stop it and he nearly staggered at a particularly large gust. Even with his thick, warm gloves, his hands were already starting to tingle and, when he readjusted his gloves and saw a flash of his watch, he realized it was only 2 pm. Judging by the darkness around them, it felt more like 2 am.

He dug around in his backpack until he located the compass then walked closer to Kassian. Not only was the strength of the wind increased out there but the sound of it was as well. He had to speak loudly when another large gust rocked him on his feet.

"We need to head west to cross the border," Boyd said loudly, holding the compass up; it was relatively sophisticated and had a faint light in it, which was fortunate because they wouldn't have to waste flashlight batteries every time they wanted to check their directions.

"We'll have to decide what to do but I don't know if we could realistically camp in this weather, even with our tents."

Kassian looked around, a slight frown on his face. "There's a town near the border but it's small as far as I remember and I doubt we'll be able to stay there. I'd say we at least got about 150 miles between us and Murmansk judging by how fast you were going. So we're about 15 miles from the Finland border. We could try to stay at the town there but I doubt it will happen, so we may end up camping regardless."

He hefted his large pack, adjusting it on his broad shoulders. "From what I remember, there's a town about 20 miles into Finland named Ivalo. You should be able to find some alternative ways to get to Helsinki from there since our car obviously isn't going to do it."

Kassian didn't hesitate before speaking, apparently deeming whatever prior knowledge he had of the region important enough to share. He wasn't supposed to use information he had from his own experience but freezing on the tundra as they wandered around wasn't a good alternative and by not stating specifically which 'alternative ways' existed, he was still mostly following Doug's guidelines.

Boyd nodded to show he heard Kassian and, feeling briefly overwhelmed by the situation and task ahead of them, he checked the compass again and headed westward.

The walk was long, exhausting and miserable. The wind seemed to cycle, occasionally letting up just enough to lull them into a sense of relief before it suddenly slammed into them again. It was a good thing that their backpacks were made with secure straps and flaps that fastened or else Boyd was certain that any number of items would have flown halfway across the tundra before they even realized it was missing.

The land wasn't completely flat, so every rise and fall, no matter how steep or subtle it was, leeched away energy little by little until Boyd felt like he just wanted to fall over. With the wind as strong as it was, even walking on completely even ground would have felt like an uphill battle. They had the occasional respite when they passed through forested areas but even that wasn't enough to stop the wind entirely.

To make matters worse, Boyd's sweat either caught beneath his layers of clothing and felt incredibly uncomfortable or, where it was exposed, froze like flashes of ice that burned away at his skin.

Boyd split his time between repeatedly checking the compass to make sure they were headed in the right direction and checking on Kassian. Even if Kassian said it wasn't Boyd's fault, Boyd was still worried especially since Kassian's hiking boots didn't look nearly as insulated as his other shoes had been; in this cold frostbite was always a concern. But Kassian actually seemed to be faring better than Boyd, likely because he was more accustomed to the cold and had better stamina.

It felt like the walk took forever but by the time Boyd saw lights in the distance and headed that way, his watch showed that it was close to eight in the evening; they'd been walking a little over seven hours. Together, they pushed their way through the wind to finally arrive within view of the border guards. Thankfully, they had no trouble passing the border and they were able to transition relatively painlessly into Finland. If it'd been a real mission and they were really on the run from Russian officials, Boyd had no idea how they would have realistically snuck past the border in such a flat, open land.

Once in Finland, tall old-growth trees rose around them like sentinels in the dark; they were far enough apart that for the most part it was easy to pass between them but it lent an otherworldly feel to the night. It probably would have been more impressive if they hadn't been hiking across frozen terrain for the past seven hours.

Just as Kassian had predicted, there hadn't been anywhere reasonable for them to stay in the town at the border so they'd continued on their trek with the unfortunate realization that they would be camping in the woods that night. The wind wasn't as bad in the trees but the cold was still severe and with sweat cooling their skin even more beneath their layers of clothing, it was entirely possible that they'd get sick or worse.

An hour after passing the border, Kassian stopped walking and looked at Boyd. "I just had a thought."

Boyd stopped as well and looked over tiredly. "Thoughts are good. Enlighten me."

Kassian opened his mouth to reply but hesitated and gave Boyd a sheepish look. "I'm not supposed to be doing this so don't mention it in your mission report."

"Trust me," Boyd said dryly, "your secret's safe with me."

"Good because I was gonna say it anyway. Rules be damned, I don't feel like freezing my ass off tonight." Kassian shifted slightly, wiping a cold sleeve across his face before yanking a flashlight off the side of his pack and flashing it abruptly. "Where's that map?"

Boyd pulled his bag off and dropped it to the ground, briefly rolling his shoulders with the sudden loss of weight before he knelt down and dug around inside it. Within seconds he had the map out and unfolded it, trying to hold it as straight as he could for Kassian to see, by pulling it taut by the edges, although it still jerked around in the wind.

Kassian shone the flashlight at it and his face became visible suddenly. His face was reddened from the lashing wind, which somehow made his eyes look even bluer than usual. At the moment they were focused intently on the map as he held out a glove and studied it thoughtfully.

"On that assignment," the words came out almost sullenly, as if he dreaded to even talk about it, "I had some business to take care of and it took me out here in this region. I had to lay low for a few days and I remember staying in this camping spot out in the forest. It wasn't too far from the border so it shouldn't be that far off..."

Kassian frowned, studying the map closer and blinking several times as though his eyes still hadn't adjusted properly to the light. "It was around the same time of year and it was abandoned so hopefully no one is there now ei-- Aha! I remember now. It's about another hour of walking though," he said apologetically.

"Are you kidding me?" Boyd asked incredulously in response to Kassian's tone. "I love you right now. If I were a woman I'd have your babies. I'll gladly walk another hour if we have some sort of destination in mind. All I could think of so far was trying to find a way for us to rest while avoiding freezing to death and I wasn't coming up with many solutions."

Kassian laughed; it was an abrupt and extremely pleasant sound, and it left his face looking far brighter than it had during the past several days. "Well, save your gratitude for after we actually find this place. I just hope I'm not remembering wrong and they're in the area I'm thinking. If they are, they should be empty. I think the days of tourists winter camping died after the war though. They looked like they'd been abandoned for years when I was there."

"Anything is better than out here," Boyd said. "I'm sure we'll manage something if you can help lead the way there."

Kassian nodded and adjusted his scarf again, folding the map and stuffing it into one of his big coat pockets. "I'll try, boss. I'm pretty sure I'm right, now that I think about it. I saw some scattered near the forest not too far from the border."

With that being said, he once again began his trek out into the frigid wind. Although it was miserably cold and it felt like time was moving incredibly slowly, they were actually keeping a fairly steady and quick march across the land.

Darkness loomed all around them with the exception of a faint light far in the distance as a vehicle drove along a distant road. Now that they were going off their previous course, even that bit of life was random and much less frequent than it'd been before. For the sake of the theoretical mission, they'd been avoiding the main road between the Murmansk territory and the Finland border, but now they were even farther away.

The more they walked, the thicker the trees became, and finally they were actually in the heart of a forest instead of the barren tundra. The farther they went, the more anxious they became to be out of the cold, until finally well over an hour later-- they saw the first building.

It looked like a lodge of some sort and the signs were so old and faded that the words weren't even legible although it was obvious it'd been some kind of office. They continued on and when they finally reached the first cluster of cabins, exhaustion had really begun to set in. It seemed as though the campsites were set up in small communities in the woods and although they'd probably been charming at one point, they looked to be barely standing at the present time and it was obvious no one had used them in a long time.

Winter camping in Lapland had obviously lost its appeal from tourists after the three-sided world war. Even though Finland had been mostly neutral during the conflict, it was still near the heart of some major battles just past the Russian border.

Kassian climbed the short staircase to one of the old red cabins and leaned over, peering in the window. "Ha. I bet I was the last person to actually use this damn place."

"Did you happen to think ahead and leave us a hot shower?" Boyd asked hopefully, leaning around Kassian to look in as well.

"If I'd had one back then, maybe I would have," Kassian replied, teeth chattering slightly. "And since I broke the rules by leading us here, you can find a way in." He said it like a friendly challenge and backed away from the cabin, watching Boyd and once again taking the role of assistant-Instructor.

Boyd nodded, already studying the place to determine how to get in. First, he tried the easy route of trying the locked front door then walking around the cabin, tugging on windows. All the windows were locked and there was only the single front door. As he came around the side again, he slipped past Kassian and knelt down by the front door, examining its lock. Although he could have just kicked the door in, that would've been a stupid move because they wouldn't have been able to close the door properly against the cold and it would have made it more obvious to passersby that someone was in there who shouldn't be.

The deadbolt the cabin had was an old and inadequate one, but years of neglect and cold had made it more difficult to break into. Luckily, Boyd had a small set of lockpicks in his bag, although at first it seemed like even that wouldn't be enough to help him avoid breaking in more forcefully.

It was too difficult to maneuver the picks with his large gloves on so, after a moment, he had to take them off and use his bare hands. His hands went numb almost immediately in the wind and subzero temperature and the metal of the lock picks burned painfully against his fingers. Boyd narrowed his eyes but said nothing and didn't pause in his work.

It took awhile but finally the tumblers shifted and the door swung open. They both walked inside immediately and shut the door behind them. Boyd absently opened and closed his hands, shaking them to bring back the circulation and he looked around now that he could see the area more clearly.

The cabin was small and had two rooms with wooden furniture, including a small dining table, a bench, and two beds in the second room. There was a little kitchen area, complete with microwave and stove, and in the far corner there was a bathroom. Boyd walked around the place, noting that despite the fact that the doors and windows were all closed and with the wind blocked it was much better than outside, it was still cold enough that his breath puffed in front of him.

The place was in definite disrepair; dust covered everything and the cushions on the chairs and bench were ripped and looked rather pathetic. There were two beds but the blankets looked somehow eaten away or fraying, possibly by insects or animals but otherwise just by age, and half the furniture seemed to be broken or falling apart.

There was an electric heater to the side but when Boyd tried flipping on a light switch on the way there, unsurprisingly there was no electricity. He knelt down by the heater and studied it thoughtfully, brushing away cobwebs as he peered around the back. The main saving grace was that it appeared to be able to run on batteries as well. Of course, it was likely it wouldn't run for long or nearly as powerfully as it would have with electricity.

"Have any batteries?" Boyd asked, looking at Kassian over the top of the heater. "Or are there any in the drawers?"

Kassian slowly unwound his scarf, exposing his reddened cheeks and nose. Once again the contrast just made his eyes look bluer and his hair blonder, the full effect making him look something like a Norse god. He sniffled slightly, screwing up his face, and squinted at the heater. "Yeah, I have a pack of D batteries for my flashlight."

He shrugged off his pack and knelt beside it, rifling until he found the container of batteries. "I don't know how Vega trained in this shit. He should be the one here, not me," Kassian muttered as his body ached from the cold.

Boyd belatedly pulled his hat and scarf off as he waited for Kassian. His hair was a mess, the outer layer frizzy from static cling with the rest pressed down from the hours of being held down by his winter gear. He idly held his hair back in a ponytail as best he could for a moment and lamented the fact that he couldn't bind it since he'd forgotten to bring any hair bands. His own cheeks were bright from the cold and his hands still burned and tingled as they recovered from the lock picking.

"I don't either," Boyd said as he leaned back against the wall, letting his hair fall straight again. "He has an amazing ability to withstand cold weather. I could almost see him wandering around out there in his usual ratty shirt, wondering why everyone else is shivering." He smirked slightly in amusement. "I guess he'd do well undercover here as far as that goes."

"Yeah if he were a little less odd-looking," Kassian agreed, turning on the little heater and staring at it intently until it sparked to life, emitting a soft hum.

"Odd-looking," Boyd repeated drolly. "I can't decide whether I should take offense on his behalf or not."

Kassian snorted and stood up straight finally, giving the heater one last glare as if warning it about what would happen if it died. He looked around the room and then glanced down at his heavy coat, taking it over to the door and shoving it alongside the bottom, preventing any air from getting in the crack.

"I didn't mean he was ugly," Kassian replied finally. "But having four entirely different ethnicities makes for one odd-looking bastard."

"Hmm." Boyd idly watched Kassian for a moment then pushed himself away from the wall and took off his outer coat as well. It was cold in the cabin but a lot better than it was outside, and although he shivered he didn't say anything as he walked over to Kassian.

"He definitely does have a unique look. I'd say 'exotic' before 'odd' but," Boyd shrugged lightly, "semantics." He studied the door as he offered his coat. "Want mine, too?"

Kassian considered the door before letting his gaze run along the window sill. He took Boyd's coat and shoved it alongside the sill since there was a draft coming through, probably because the windows weren't entirely level anymore. "Well love can blind you and all that."

"And so can rivalry," Boyd replied idly.

"I don't consider him a rival," Kassian replied, seeming entirely genuine. "He gets under my skin and I hate for people to compare us, but that's because we're too different to compare. I would never want to be like him."

As Kassian spoke, he walked over to the cupboards and looked through drawers until he found a ratty old quilt that seemed decades old but still had some insulation in the middle.

"I agree that you shouldn't really be compared, and if it weren't for the fact that you're the only two Level 10s, I'm not sure anyone would have thought to. As field agents, you have entirely different styles." Boyd paused briefly, wondering whether he should stop there or say anything further but then decided it wouldn't hurt anything. "But as for people in your positions, I think you're more alike than either of you realize. You just react differently."

Kassian kicked off his stiff, damp Timberlands and wriggled his toes in the two pair of wool socks he'd worn beneath. "What makes you say that?" he asked curiously, setting the boots nearer to the heater so they could dry.

Boyd followed Kassian's example by starting to remove his excess clothing to let it dry. He pulled his inner coat off and set it by the heater then sat down on the bench so he could work on his boots. "You both resist the expectations people have of you but then end up living up to them anyway, sometimes to the detriment of your health and happiness."

"So he lives up to acting like an ass?" Kassian asked, sitting on the edge of one of the twin beds in his thermal under clothing after laying out his fleece sweater and heavy pants. He seemed to be frowning down at the heater but he didn't say anything about it yet.

"He does in a way," Boyd agreed, dropping his boots to the side and pulling his socks off. He pulled some hair behind his ear and looked up at Kassian through his eyebrows. "I mean, to an extent part of it is just his personality. But there's a lot more to him than most people ever see or care to acknowledge could exist. He puts on a strong front the same way you do; the difference is just that people expect you to be perfect and they expect him to fuck up. You can both struggle as much as you want against those perceptions but if the majority of people won't let you be anything but what they want you to be, I imagine after a time it just seems easy to give up and give them what they want."

Kassian was silent for a moment before he sighed. "I'm not trying to come down on your partner, or whatever you two are or anything. Sometimes I even feel bad for giving him a hard time, but you gotta understand, he's a real pain in my ass."

"I understand," Boyd said, genuinely meaning it. "Honestly, you're probably a pain in his ass, too. I can understand why you two may not get along, why it may be hard to try to imagine seeing the other as anything but the way you do now, and truthfully sometimes it seems like he especially tries to goad you. I'm not angry with you for comments you make about him based on your experiences, anymore than I would be about comments he makes about you."

Boyd sat up and pulled his light sweater off, waiting a second to continue so his voice wouldn't be muffled by the fabric. "I know I probably seem delusional to others," he said frankly, tossing the sweater to the side.

"I know my opinion of him probably seems compromised because of my feelings, and maybe it is," Boyd continued honestly. "I know to an extent he shows aspects of himself to me that he doesn't usually to others, so that's part of it too. I guess I just feel like I'm in the position where I think you're both good people, I like you both, and for all that you may see the negative in yourselves or the other, I can see the positive at the same time. So I'm not trying to tell you not to feel or think the way you do, it's just that I would be remiss not to comment on similarities as I see them." He shrugged idly. "I could be wrong about it all, of course. Just because I've spoken seriously with both of you doesn't mean I'm right."

Kassian gave him a half-smile and pulled out another small bottle of vodka from his pack; this one was new which meant he'd already finished the other. "Well, I can't disagree with you about any of it. And you're probably right. You know him better than anybody."

Kassian took a swig from the bottle and continued, "It's still fucking ice-cold in here. The heater just makes it livable but I don't know what the hell we're going to do with that one shitty blanket."

Boyd removed his heavy pants, leaving him in his full length long johns the same as Kassian, and he brought his heavy pants and sweater over by the heater to set down to dry. He knelt by the heater and studied it a moment then looked around the room thoughtfully, trying to determine if there was any way to increase the heat circulation in the space they were provided, but there really wasn't.

Kassian was right; it was cold enough that goosebumps rose all along his arms even beneath the layer of his thermal undershirt and as the night grew longer it would only get worse. His fingers and toes were already starting to feel a little tingly-numb and his skin felt chapped from the cold.

He sat back on his heels and looked over at Kassian. "I guess we could try to check the other cabins for blankets or see if we can dislodge any of the heaters but, honestly, I'm so fucking tired that I don't think I have the energy when we'll only be here a few hours anyway. We're probably just going to have to use body heat in addition to the heater and blanket. We may have to sleep in the same bed or push them together."

Kassian nodded, giving him a look of approval. "Which do you prefer?"

Despite the situation, he was obviously going to make sure that he left Boyd in the leadership role. It was entirely possible that if he was forced to take it on, his entire casual attitude would do an about-face switch.

Boyd contemplated the beds and their heavy wooden frames, trying to imagine how much energy it would take to shove them together just for a few hours. It seemed pretty useless and they'd be able to fit in one bed, even if it was tight.

"One," he said after a moment, meeting Kassian's eyes again. "There's no use expending unnecessary energy when we need all we can for the remainder of the walk tomorrow. And the closer we are, the warmer it will be anyway."

"Good call."

Kassian sat on the bed closest to the heater and pressed his back against the wall. He closed his eyes for a moment, exhaling slowly and finally letting it show that he was just as tired as anyone else would be in their position, Level 10 or not. He seemed relieved to just be able to sit in one place in the luke-warmth of the space around the heater and extend his worn legs.

After a moment of silence as Boyd also sat on the bed near the heater, Kassian finally looked at him. "Want some?" He held out the bottle. "It's pretty much the only thing besides the heater keeping me warm right now."

Boyd looked at the bottle, debating the pro of feeling warmer against the con of a potential hangover, and decided that as long as he only had a little it would work out and probably help him sleep better as well. Normally he didn't like straight vodka or, really, anything except possibly wine, but these were extreme conditions and he'd make an exception.

"Sure," he replied and accepted the bottle. "Thanks."

He took a drink, already feeling a bit better as it warmed his throat, then handed the bottle back to Kassian as he tilted his head wearily against the wall. His body ached, especially his legs and back, and he was so tired that he almost felt like his exhaustion was working against him and he'd have a hard time sleeping.

"Won't Sin mind that we will be technically sleeping together?" Kassian asked dryly, eyebrows rising in mock seriousness as he tapped the bottle with his index finger.

"I think he'd mind more if we froze to death," Boyd said with a faint smile as he glanced over, but he couldn't quite hide the troubled look that flashed across his face. Kassian's comment and the idea of being in close proximity to someone else made him think of what he'd seen with Ann and Sin, of the intimacy of that moment and how little he could be sure of what it meant.

Kassian studied his expression for a moment and drank from the bottle again before passing it back to Boyd. His eyebrows drew together and he grimaced slightly as if he had a headache. "What was that look all about?"

Boyd held the bottle in both hands in his lap and stared at it a moment, trying not to feel the familiar weight of paranoia, uncertainty and doubt, then drew in a deep, tired breath and briefly ran a hand across his burning eyes.


He hesitated briefly, because he didn't know how much he wanted to talk about this, but at the same time he desperately did. He wanted to get the weight off his mind, he wanted someone else with an outsider's perspective to say what it sounded like it meant to them, he wanted some sort of relief from his thoughts.

At the same time, he didn't think it was fair to Sin to talk about this with others first, to not give Sin the first chance to respond and explain, and he didn't want to blow a simple misunderstanding out of proportion.

But he couldn't bring himself to remain entirely silent; out in the middle of a forest in Finland, huddled inside away from subzero weather with Kassian the only one who would hear even the bit of doubt and fear he was willing to mention, Boyd felt like this would be his only chance for the next week and a half to speak candidly to someone who wouldn't judge him.

"I'm worried," Boyd admitted finally, frowning slightly as he studied the bottle. "A little. I... saw something that I don't know how to interpret." He took a drink, glancing at Kassian sidelong, and handed the bottle back. "I'm hoping it's nothing."

Kassian looked just as confused as he felt. "Saw something?"

"I don't know," Boyd said, shaking his head slightly. "It was pretty circumstantial and I'm probably going to sound ridiculous for even thinking anything of it. I just saw Sin outside with a woman and he was letting her touch him and he didn't care. Like it was normal."

He tilted his head and gave Kassian a wry look. "I mean, just touching his face and hair, that sort of thing. Nothing huge, it's just... it's Sin. Even he and I rarely touch in public. So." He sighed and dropped his head against the wall again, looking at the opposite wall. "It bothered me."

The other agent looked quite surprised by this revelation but it wasn't entirely obvious why. Kassian just said neutrally, "He doesn't seem like a very affectionate person at all."

"He's not," Boyd said frankly. "Even in private he isn't. Not really."

Kassian grunted, took another gulp, and handed the last of it to Boyd. "Well, unless he was the one doing the face touching, I wouldn't worry about him seriously wanting to trade you in for this chick."

Boyd took the bottle and drank the rest, enjoying the feel of it moving down to his stomach, warming his blood as it buzzed through his limbs. "I'm trying not to," he said, looking over at Kassian more fully than he had for the majority of the conversation. "And I think, if I can't even trust or believe in him then what the hell am I doing saying I love him? It makes no sense. So I'm trying not to jump to conclusions."

The other man nodded slightly and slid down the bed, allowing his cheek to rest against the rough bare mattress as he stared at Boyd through heavy lidded, tired eyes. "Well, you'll see what happens. Your next bit of time off is after all of this madness is done, ain't it?"

"Yes," Boyd said, then set the empty bottle on the floor next to the bed. "I plan to see him on break." He shifted so he could lie down.

"Hmm," Kassian said tiredly. "Break. I remember that word. It's usually a lie when applied to me though."

Boyd couldn't help a light chuckle. "If I get promoted, I don't want to grow up to be a Level 10 like you, too responsible for my own good. I think I'll take Sin's approach of disappearing into the sidelines."

Kassian scoffed at that but didn't actually reply and after a few moments of silence it seemed that he'd dozed off or was in the process of it at least.

Boyd decided to follow suit. It was awkward trying to arrange himself on the bed so he could slide down completely next to Kassian without feeling like he was going to fall off the side but also so he wasn't sprawled all over the other man. As he struggled to arrange himself comfortably without jostling the bed too much, he kept checking Kassian's expression but it quickly became obvious that Kassian really was asleep because he didn't react, even when Boyd accidentally elbowed him.

The dim light from the lantern threw long shadows across the room that danced every time the flame flickered. In that light, Boyd could see the dark circles under Kassian's eyes, the drawn tiredness of his expression even as he was relaxed in sleep. Despite that, Boyd idly noted that he was a very attractive man, made even more so by his personality.

Aside from Ryan, for years Boyd hadn't felt comfortable enough to just talk to someone like this without worrying about carefully wording his thoughts. The fact that Kassian was such a good agent as well as a good person was relieving somehow. Kassian was human like everyone else and had his troubles, he wasn't perfect, but he could still be a dependable, relatively stable person even after the stress of being Level 10 for years.

He could still be the sort of person who would listen to a person's worries and make them feel at ease without immediately judging decisions or thoughts.

Boyd carefully shifted Kassian's arm out of the way, idly appreciating in passing the solid feel of his muscles, and immediately forgot the thought as he was finally able to lie down on his side. Even the rough mattress against his face felt wonderful as he finally got the chance to relax and the buzz of the vodka made him sleepy. He ended up with his back to Kassian's chest with a bit of space between them. The blanket that covered them wasn't very thick or warm but it trapped their body heat well enough and between that, the heater and the vodka, Boyd slept decently at first.

That peace only lasted a few hours until the batteries in the heater died and the cold once again consumed the small cabin. They huddled together unconsciously in their sleep, desperately seeking relief from the biting cold; they were both beginning to grow restless from the inevitable discomfort when it was time for them to wake up anyway.

Kassian's watch alarm went off at about 3 am, jerking Boyd awake. He realized that sometime during the night they'd shifted positions enough that he was half on his back and Kassian was partially sprawled over him.

"Sorry about that." Kassian gave him an apologetic half-smile and sat up, rubbing the back of his head before shuddering.

"I don't care." Boyd shivered violently as the blanket shifted with Kassian's movement, exposing both of them to the cold, still air. "All the more warmth for me." He sat up as well, unconsciously rubbing his hands quickly along his arms and blearily looked around for his outer clothing.

"We should get moving as quickly as possible if you're going to figure out a way to Helsinki in the next day," Kassian said between grit teeth, stiffly yanking on his fleece sweater and heavy pants. "We still have a long walk to Ivalo."

Boyd nodded and got out of bed, already reaching for his outer pants as soon as he found them. "Agreed."


"Jesus," Emma was saying as she leaned back in her chair, "I knew it would be cold but I wasn't expecting glacial. And that was just mean, doing desert first. I'd rather go desert now... burn some normal temps back into my bones."

Her lips were still chapped and even after the night's sleep in the hotel and the warmth of the lounge, she was bundled up with a fuzzy sweater over a sweatshirt. As usual, her clothing choice matched well and she'd left her hair down and tousled, but otherwise she didn't look ready for the day at all.

It was obvious she would have preferred to rest a little bit longer. A coffee mug was clutched between her hands and every once in awhile she brought the side of the cup up to her cheek, just to let the warmth spread across her skin.

"You should've come to my room last night," Cade said with a smirk. "I could've warmed you up real good."

"Thanks but no thanks, Cade," Emma said with a polite smile aimed his way. "As I've been saying. Besides," she added with a slight frown, "didn't you room with Harriet last night?" She glanced toward Harriet curiously.

Harriet gave her a pointed stare. "Meaning?"

"Meaning that even if I'd been interested," Emma said carefully, "which I'm not, it doesn't seem right to even suggest it knowing someone else is staying there at the same time. It would be rude for the roommate."

Harriet stared at her for a long moment as if she was trying to search for a veiled insult but found none. "Well Carter isn't exactly a considerate human being so I doubt he'd care regardless."

"Fuck no, I wouldn't," Cade said unrepentantly. "First off, knowing someone's watching could be hot. Secondly, even if you're not real wet dream material, Stevens, you know I'm up for a threesome any day."

Harriet gave him such a vicious look that it was no wonder she didn't get up and strike him, repeatedly and violently. "I doubt you'd be up for anything considering what you're packing, Carter."

Cade raised his eyebrows and grabbed his crotch through his pants. "I got more juice in my left nut than you can handle in your whole pussy, Stevens." He looked her up and down derisively. "Not that I'd be able to get it up for some scrawny little dyke like you anyway."

Harriet didn't look remotely insulted, instead she just raised a slim brow. "I can't imagine what bonehead recruited someone as ignorant as you are. They must have been really desperate."

"Nah, they needed my skills for this place," Cade said, leaning back in his chair on the back two legs with his arms draped behind him. His tone was idle and casual, losing the derisiveness easily, although it seemed more than anything like he was losing interest in Harriet because she wasn't reacting enough.

"So," Emma said carefully, in an apparent attempt to avoid more confrontation, "where did you come from before the Agency?"

Cade looked over at her sidelong and at first Boyd wondered why she'd even tried to engage him in conversation because he would probably just keep making his outrageous comments, but instead he just shrugged. "Army."

Emma nodded and looked away, although something in her expression implied she wanted to say something but caught herself. Cade's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What?" he demanded.

Emma frowned distractedly and took a sip of coffee, as if to give herself a chance to think. "Well, the Army... Some of the other people I've met still follow those codes they were taught. You know, like respect and honor... You don't seem very interested in emulating those beliefs."

Cade snorted. "That's 'cause it's all a load of shit. Respect and honor? Where was the fuckin' respect when those terrorists came in, fucked our shit up and even killed some civvies?"

"But she's your teammate," Emma pointed out, her tone non-challenging. "She's not the same as an enemy."

"Bitch, we don't know jack shit about who our enemies really are," Cade said incredulously, although there was no real bite in his voice. "How the fuck do I know who you people really are? If you can even be trusted? Maybe you're at my side now but you ain't part of my team. The only reason we're all in one place is 'cause we're going for the same thing. There's no time for kumbaya along the way and I haven't seen shit yet with Stevens that I gotta respect."

"Well," Jon piped up with his Irish drawl. "The fact that she's in an elite unit with Senior Agent Trovosky should say something about her skill."

Harriet waved a hand dismissively. "Don't bother with his sorry ass, it's not worth the trouble. He's ignorant and that will be his downfall. Whatever nonsense comes flying out of his big mouth doesn't offend me in the slightest-- I can't even understand whatever the hell he's saying most of the time."

Jon smiled a small, discreet smile, and nodded. After a moment he turned his gaze away and went back to examining the fairly upscale Helsinki hotel and the scant amount of people that were actually sitting in the lounge.

It was surprising that he'd even spoken up at all; so far whenever they came together as a group he fell into the background quietly as though he wasn't used to conversing with large groups of people or perhaps just didn't feel interested in doing so.

Cade seemed entirely unconcerned by the side conversation and rocked back and forth in his chair. He looked like he was considering saying something but before he could, Emma cut in.

"Speaking of Senior Agent Trovosky, where is he?" She looked curiously toward Boyd, who was eyeing his tea as he tried to determine if he'd let the bag steep long enough. The color looked golden but when he sipped it, it tasted too thin.

"I have no idea," Boyd said, leaning back in his lounge chair and holding the mug carefully in his lap as he looked over at her. "I didn't room with him so I haven't seen him since we arrived."

"What?" Cade piped up, giving him a strange look. "The hell is that? I had to room with Stevens and Johnny Appleseed got Emma. Who'd you stay with?"

"No one, I got my own room." When Cade raised his eyebrows dubiously at that, Boyd simply shook his head slightly. "It was just happenstance. Anyone who was supposed to be with Patrick would have been in the same situation after Kassian replaced him."

Harriet looked over, seeming interested in the discussion now that it had turned to her team leader, eyebrows drawing together slightly when Boyd simply called Kassian by his first name.

"How'd that work out, by the way?" Emma asked curiously. "I'm a little nervous about having an instructor along for our next mission so I was going to ask Toby what it was like in China, but he's not here yet."

Although nearly all the groups had arrived sometime the night before, Toby and Andrew were the only ones who had yet to arrive. Given the fact that they were all supposed to rendezvous at 9 am and it was already 8:50 am with no sign of them, it seemed likely that they were going to be late.

It raised the question of what they were supposed to do if any of them didn't make it back in time for the flights to the next missions; would Andrew and Toby be stuck in Helsinki and have to find their own transportation to the next mission or would everyone's schedules be held back? Since they changed partners each time, having Andrew and Toby out of commission would similarly mess up their assigned teammates.

"It was fine. He doesn't really contribute," Boyd said, purposefully not mentioning the fact that technically Kassian did voluntarily help by finding them the cabin. "He just lets you make the decisions, whether or not they're good ones."

"Hmm." Emma considered that, taking a deep drink of her coffee thoughtfully. "That would probably be alarming. I'd be worried I was making all the wrong decisions and think too much about it. I guess that's part of the test."

"I wouldn't characterize it as 'alarming,'" Boyd said with a slight shrug. "He basically stands off to the side and doesn't give any indication of how well you're doing. After awhile, it's basically like being on a solo mission only with someone who can help out if you ask."

Emma didn't look entirely convinced, but she did seem curious. "So, how'd you get here, then?"

Boyd would have preferred to just sit there quietly with his tea and not have to bother with being the extended focus of the conversation, but that was obviously not going to happen. So he just shifted to get more comfortable and decided to make it as short of an explanation as possible. "We traded for a car in Murmansk but it broke down before the border. We walked from there to Ivalo, then caught the express bus to Rovaniemi, where we took the train to here."

Emma's eyebrows rose. "What the hell, you walked all that way? How are you not a Boydsicle right now?"

"I felt like one by the end," Boyd said with faint amusement.

"Christ. How long did that take you?"

Boyd had to think about it for a moment. "Around eleven hours?"

Emma gave him an incredulous look. "Well. I'm impressed by your fortitude, at least."

"I take it that means you had less walking involved?" Boyd asked wryly.

"Just looking for transportation, mostly, not like we decided to hike across the country," Emma agreed. "That didn't stop me from missing summer with a vengeance, of course. But, yeah, we bought a used Vjatka in Murmansk -- it's like a Vespa, basically, so it was really cold. It wasn't super fast so we ditched it at the border and took trains and buses over here."

"What time did you get here?" Boyd asked curiously, wondering about his arrival time compared to theirs.

"Uhh." Emma looked questioningly at Jon. "It was about nine or so, wasn't it?"

Jon nodded without looking at them. "Yes, we couldn't afford direct transportation and the locals had multiple stops and layovers."

"Hmm. A few hours before us, then," Boyd observed idly.

There was a brief pause in the conversation, then Emma looked toward Harriet. "How did you get here?"

Harriet gave a one-shouldered shrug and didn't really seem interested in discussing it with them but after an awkward silence, she gave an exasperated sigh and looked from Emma to Boyd. Over the course of the training her distant attitude toward them both had made it obvious that they weren't her favorite people yet. She got along well with the guys, except for Cade, though.

"We stole a vehicle, which drew more attention than expected and we had to end up ditching it anyway. In the end we acquired another truck and drove straight here," she said shortly, obviously not planning to expand.

"Were you chased?" Emma asked curiously.

"No." Harriet turned her attention back to the entrance of the lounge, obviously impatient to get on with the rest of the mission and away from the chit-chat.

As if on cue, a very refreshed Doug and a tired Kassian finally walked through the door. While the Australian man seemed to be enjoying his jet-set through different countries and continents, Kassian was slightly pale with a crease between his eyebrows, as though he had a severe headache.

It was similar to a look that he'd had the morning before on the bus to Rovaniemi when he'd reluctantly admitted to Boyd that he had a hangover from all of the vodka. It wasn't unlikely that he'd spent the previous night drinking in his single hotel room considering the look on his face.

Boyd wasn't the only one who noticed; Harriet's eyes narrowed a bit at her team leader as well.

"I see at least three out of four groups managed to make it here," Doug said in a droll tone. "Looks like we'll be departing without Toby and Andrew."

No one said anything and no one really seemed all that surprised.

"We'll be departing for Grenoble, France in two hours. And don't be expecting another long flight so I suggest starting your reports as soon as possible. I'll explain the next mi--"

A loud ruckus from the entrance of the lounge interrupted his sentence and Toby and Andrew rushed through, nearly colliding with a waiter in the process. Both of them looked haggard, worn out and incredibly on edge.

As they got closer, it was also easy to see that neither of them were dressed properly for the arctic weather even though they had definitely started out that way. Both of them were wearing tennis shoes and their heavy winter coats and gear was gone. There was also a large purple bruise under Toby's left eye, which was practically swollen shut.

"Well look who decided to arrive," Doug said coldly, staring at them unkindly.

"We had trouble," Toby muttered, looking highly mortified. "Our vehicle was stolen, we spent the better part of the mission trying to get money back--"

"Save it," Doug said, holding up a hand to silence the trainee. His unruly black curls bounced wildly as he turned away and focused on the group again. It wasn't entirely obvious if this counted as mission failed for the two agents or if they would just be marked down, and Doug didn't seem likely to share that with anyone at the moment. "Gather your belongings. We'll meet here in one hour and depart for the airport."

With that, Doug turned away from them again. Kassian frowned silently in Toby's direction before shaking his head and wandering off across the room. After a moment, Harriet followed.

"Damn it!" Toby hissed quietly, throwing himself into a chair. "After all of that trouble, he probably won't even count this as part of the final judging."

"What happened?" Emma asked, taking in Toby's swollen eye half in concern and half in bemusement.

Toby glanced at Andrew before sighing softly. "We rented a plug-in and figured with the rest of our money, we could use the charge stations along the way and it would be fine-- the car was in tip-top shape, we even had them run a diagnostic so even though it used nearly all of our money, we thought it would make it. But then right after we crossed the border into Finland and we got to the first station, it was stolen right under our noses. The thieves must have been experts."

"Yeah?" Cade asked, seeming highly amused by the entire affair. "What'd you do, leave the keys in the ignition?"

Andrew made a face. "Very funny, Carter," he said heavily as he dropped into a chair. He looked exhausted, unhappy, and completely unamused. "For your information, everything was fine but we went to get some food real quick. We were gone maybe ten minutes, and I mean maybe, and it was just gone." He spread his fingers in front of him. "Like smoke."

Emma winced in sympathy but no one else seemed particularly moved by the story.

"Or like a high-end car sitting all nice and packaged in Ghettosville, which is probably where you left it," Cade drawled, continuing to rock back in his chair.

"The area was just fine and we weren't doing anything obvious or stupid," Andrew said stiffly. "We just had bad luck."

"So," Emma said slowly, "how'd you get here?" She eyed their bedraggled state and lack of proper clothing. "Did you sell your stuff or something?"

"Yes. It was the only thing left to do and even that took a ridiculous amount of time," Toby muttered, eyeing Cade in annoyance. "It doesn't matter anymore, I don't even want to discuss it. What's done is done."

Emma nodded and let the topic drop; Cade smirked at Toby with a mocking, smug look but surprisingly didn't say anything. Emma drank the last of her coffee then held the mug idly in her lap.

"Well, you must be exhausted but I guess at least all your things are already in order so you can rest for the moment. We already ate but do you want anything, even coffee? I can grab something for you two; just makes it easier and I was headed that way anyway." She held up her empty mug as explanation. Her tone was amiable and she didn't seem to have an ulterior motive as she looked between Andrew and Toby.

"No, that's fine. I'm just going to wash up and get ready since we're obviously leaving soon," Toby said dully.

Andrew hesitated, looking longingly at Emma's coffee mug, but then he glanced quickly toward Cade. "I'm fine, thanks."

Cade raised his eyebrows with an innocent expression but he didn't say anything.

Emma's expression didn't exactly change but her eyes flashed with a sense of understanding. She smiled quietly, nodded, and stood. "I'll leave you two to get ready, then."

She walked away, pausing at the main desk as she leaned over the counter to talk briefly with the receptionist and pointed discreetly toward Andrew, making sure the movement was hidden from Cade's view before she headed back toward the restaurant area.

Cade's eyes followed Emma's movements, anchored primarily on her ass in her fitted jeans, then he dropped the chair forward with a sound of finality. "Later, losers," he said idly as he stood and sauntered toward the elevators.

Within a minute, Jon headed away as well, leaving Boyd, Toby and Andrew as the only ones still sitting there. Toby looked agitated and tired, and Boyd suspected the only reason he hadn't left earlier was because he didn't want to end up stuck in an elevator with Cade.

Boyd would have left already but his bag was already packed in his room, he still had half a mug of tea to go, and he suspected the laptops were already in use for writing the reports. Although the mission would likely generate a decent length report, he didn't think it would take him too long to write it out; he'd had the night before to go over the entire mission in his head and properly formulate how he would explain it.

Even though his mission had gone a lot better than Toby and Andrew's had, he'd still had his share of issues and he wondered if any of them would end up faring well on the off-compound training overall.

Toby was just standing to go when Andrew relaxed back in his chair and covered his face with his hands.

"Shit," Andrew hissed.

Boyd had to agree with the sentiment.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Fifteen...