Afterimage Chapter Nineteen

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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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Afterimage Chapter Nineteen

Uploaded on 2/16/2009

The week of group missions had passed relatively well after the first disastrous assignment and although the other trainees had overall decided that Boyd had redeemed himself for his mistake by stopping Ethan, Doug seemed to be of a different viewpoint. Overnight, Doug went from mostly ignoring Boyd because he was silent and often didn't participate in discussions, to turning more ire toward Boyd than Doug ever had even for Cade.

After each mission, Doug didn't miss the chance to point out what Boyd had done wrong and mocked Boyd even when he'd done his job correctly. Whereas before Doug hadn't bothered Boyd when he remained silent, now it didn't matter; he singled Boyd out whenever he could, sometimes mocking Boyd for not speaking in the first place. If Boyd added to the discussion, Doug found reason to ridicule what he said.

Boyd wasn't the only one surprised and confused by the sudden turnaround; Toby had asked him one night what he'd done to piss Doug off so completely and Boyd had no idea.

He knew he'd fucked up pretty spectacularly in that mission in Annadale Beach; he'd had no excuse for missing Ethan lurking there and all he'd been able to do was say exactly that and apologize to anyone who mentioned it. He'd completely owned up to his mistake and had tried even harder in the subsequent missions, not even giving himself a chance to think about Sin at all. Clearly, letting his mind wander to Sin was disastrous for the mission and could potentially even be deadly for himself.

So he understood completely if Doug was pissed about the mistake; Boyd had made the mistake and he was furious with himself. At the same time, Doug had never seemed to care so much when others had screwed up before. When Cade could have gotten Boyd and Harriet killed in Venezuela, Doug had barely said a word to Cade, and Doug loved messing with Cade. Typically, when someone did something wrong, Doug mocked the trainee at that time, maybe for a day or so after that if it had been especially stupid, but he didn't go out of his way to ridicule the person for longer.

But that was exactly what he was doing to Boyd now and Boyd was at an utter loss as to what to do about it. He tried not to let the words get to him, tried to tell himself that it was just Doug being himself, and Boyd focused almost obsessively on trying to improve, on trying to avoid any and all future mistakes, and on finishing the decryption.

He had to avoid the gym for a few days; his left leg still ached from being pressed between the car and motorcycle, he'd had to receive a few stitches for the stab wounds and he wasn't supposed to strain them unnecessarily if possible. All the abuse his body had been taking for the past few months felt like it was slowly catching up to him.

He was able to make it through the missions because he didn't let himself care about any aches or pains but once he got back to his room he just wanted to take a few painkillers, rest in his bed and work his mind raw puzzling over the code until he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

The obsession with deciphering the ciphertext had finally paid off.

Two nights before their third break, Boyd had cracked the cipher at about three in the morning; he'd been so paranoid that he'd been wrong that he'd checked and rechecked the results until nearly 4:30 am, and had felt such a sense of relief and pleasure that he'd ended up falling asleep before he could fully celebrate his accomplishment.

The next night, he'd researched as much as he could to determine the implications of the cipher; what it had meant, why the keyword had been 'Gwyneth,' and what he would tell Doug. Unfortunately, despite everything he'd tried, he couldn't find any concrete information on the group or that name.

The only clue he'd figured out was that the encrypted text was a passage from John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, but that told him very little except that the was in essence emulating the very ideas they would subscribe to and that the concept John Locke wrote about was similar in parts to the manifesto the group had read aloud. He'd even managed to get a good seven hours of sleep afterward.

Now, the morning of their third break, he headed with mild apprehension toward Doug's office with a handful of documents that included the ciphertext, the translation, the research he'd attempted, and what he thought it all meant. Just to be safe, he'd written a report and was ready to hand that over as well if Doug needed it.

Boyd turned the corner and was surprised to see Kassian heading down the hallway toward him.

Kassian raised his eyebrows at Boyd and stopped walking. "Are you stalking me?"

The question was so unexpected and asked so seriously that it startled Boyd into a short laugh, making him forget for a brief moment his immediate concerns about Doug. "Damn," he said, acting disappointed. "You caught me."

Kassian nodded seriously, blue eyes narrowing slightly. "I figured that might be the case. I'm rarely on compound unless ordered to be but somehow I keep running into you the few times I'm here."

"Yeah, I spend all my free time researching where you might be. You know, routines, patterns of behavior, people I should terrorize to shake your schedule out of them..." Boyd raised his eyebrows. "You really make me go through a lot of work."

Kassian chuckled and shook his head at Boyd, appearing genuinely amused before his grin faded as if something just occurred to him. The taller man paused before he gestured back towards Doug's office. "You're not going to see Doug are you?"

"Yes," Boyd said slowly, feeling suspicious of the way Kassian's tone implied he hoped Boyd wasn't. "Why, did you kill him and I'd get myself involved in a crime scene?"

"That would probably be preferable for you," Kassian replied dryly.

Boyd hesitated, glancing past Kassian's shoulder then returning his gaze to study Kassian's expression. It was clear that Kassian was completely serious and Boyd felt at once frustrated and resigned that Doug still wasn't in a better mood. He'd hoped that maybe if he caught Doug early on a day off, the man wouldn't be as volatile because he hadn't been dealing with trainees all day.

"Is this a general thing or is he still pissed at me?" Boyd asked somewhat warily.

"Uhhh..." Kassian's broad shoulders lifted and he screwed up his face slightly as though he really had to think hard in order to answer. "Both probably. He seems pissed off in general, even had a bad attitude with me because I'm off the hook with this training shit finally, but you came up in passing."

"I did?" Boyd asked, the wariness increasing. "Why?"

"Hmm." Kassian hesitated again and nodded his head to the side, walking further back the way Boyd had come, indicating that Boyd should follow. They hovered in a dark corner under the staircase where they would be able to hear anyone coming along and properly adjust their conversation before it could be overheard.

"Honestly Boyd, I'm surprised you haven't been dismissed," Kassian said quietly, voice lower than it had been.

Boyd stared at Kassian half in surprise; on the one hand, he hadn't thought he'd been doing that terribly, but on the other, he had seriously fucked up the mission in Annadale Beach and others had been kicked out for less. And it wasn't like he'd had a perfect record before that.

Boyd tilted his head down after a moment, feeling a headache come on, and rubbed his temple with his free hand.

"You heard about Annadale?" Boyd asked equally quietly.

Kassian sighed softly and shook his head at Boyd. "Yes. I mean it's not like going around the compound or anything-- Doug told me because I asked how a few of you were doing. I was really surprised to hear what happened. What were you thinking?"

Kassian's tone was almost disappointed, as if he'd been rooting for Boyd to succeed, and although it was similar to his Senior Agent Trovosky style it really just seemed like he was concerned for a friend.

Boyd sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. "I wasn't. I just-- I'm a fucking idiot and I couldn't--" He realized he wasn't making sense and forced himself to stop then look up to meet Kassian's eyes. "I broke up with Sin on the last break," he said heavily. "I tried not to think about it, but... I just." He shook his head, disappointed with himself as well on a number of levels. "I let it get to me."

Kassian stared at him silently, eyebrows raised and his face a study in surprise. "I'm not entirely sure what to say about that. I didn't even realize you were in that kind of relationship. I'd ask what happened but this isn't really the place..."

"Heh." Boyd smiled faintly, humorlessly. "Yeah, well. Obviously it's not exactly a story with a happy ending and I don't know if I'd even properly be able to talk about it now anyway. I'm still trying to work on avoiding distractions and not thoroughly fucking everything up any more than I already have."

"Well for some reason Doug isn't getting rid of you just yet but I really suggest you forget about Sin for now and get your head together because Doug is looking for any reason to get your ass out of here." Kassian straightened and cleared his throat, speaking louder. "Just worry about yourself, kid. Don't let bullshit get in the way of this if you really want it, you know? I learned that the hard way."

"I know," Boyd said quietly.

Boyd didn't want to get this far then get dismissed for letting emotions get in the way. He briefly wished he could just be like his mother; whenever he let emotions distract him on missions, he seemed to do the stupidest things that had the worst consequences.

He had to stop thinking about it all, exactly as Kassian said; it would serve him no purpose otherwise and now he had at least some idea of how close he was on Doug's list of people to be kicked out.

"So," Boyd said after a moment, "I know you said he's not in a great mood and I'm clearly not his favorite person right now. But on a scale of one to killing me on sight, how much time do you think I have to give him something I've been working on?"

"I'm not really sure," Kassian replied with a shrug, stepping out of the corner so that there was more space between them. "He pretty much kicked me out of the office. He seems personally affronted by the fact that I'm free to go. I say give it a shot."

Boyd nodded and moved past Kassian but paused before he left. "Thanks," he said, meaning it on a number of levels, not just the warning about Doug.

Kassian nodded. "Not a problem although I'm not sure what I did to help."

The older man gave Boyd another half grin before speaking again. "You know, I meant what I said before. I wasn't just trying to get Sin more riled up by inviting you over. We should chill sometime. Now that I have my time to myself again, after these next few days I'll be doing a whole lot of nothing."

With a slight smile, Boyd tilted his head and studied Kassian. "Are you sure it's a good idea to invite your stalker over again? I may bring dead animals and bloody roses as a gift. I've been saving them for a special occasion."

Kassian snorted and started towards the staircase. "I'll risk it for non-obnoxious company. I'd rather be bored at home than here at the moment, but wiling away my time playing the same videos over and over gets boring after awhile." He winked at Boyd and started to jog up the stairs. "I'll catch you later, kid. Good luck."

Boyd briefly watched him go then turned back toward the way they came and resisted the urge to sigh again. This wasn't going to be pleasant but he was determined to give Doug the information regardless of what the response would be. He hadn't spent all that free time on deciphering just to avoid handing it over because the instructor was in a bad mood.

Unsurprisingly, Boyd didn't run into anyone else on the way to Doug's office. Everyone else was probably already gone on their break or on the other side of the building in the gym, cafeteria, or, if they were especially sure of themselves, still in their rooms asleep.

The door was closed and Boyd only hesitated for a second before knocking.

A gruff "What?" could be heard on the other side of the door and it was obviously the only invitation Boyd would be getting to come in. After another brief hesitation, Boyd opened the door and slipped into Doug's office quietly.

The room seemed to really be Doug's actual office and not a temporary base during the training. Boyd supposed that was unsurprising given the fact that Doug's entire job at the Agency revolved around training operatives of every level. Boyd wondered what his own experience would have been like when he'd first arrived at the Agency if Doug had been in the country at the time and had trained him all the way through.

Doug sat behind a large desk that was completely covered with large folders, paperwork, diagrams and graphs. A laptop computer sat amidst the files, along with a cigar that was burning in a big metal ash tray, and an incredibly large cup of coffee which Doug was currently spiking with something from a flask.

Doug didn't speak immediately and Boyd glanced around the office, noting the large map with several pinpoints stuck in various locations across the surface, a large plasma TV hooked up in the corner of the room and an assortment of framed photographs that showed Doug at various ages in his life. It was hard to believe that the ornery and rugged faced man that was currently glaring at Boyd had once been so fresh faced with a big charming smile.

"Well?" Doug demanded impatiently. "The fuck do ya want?"

"I deciphered the message from the first week's video, sir," Boyd said, keeping his body language and tone completely professional. He held the files up in front of him. "I came to drop off the information and report."

Doug took a sip of his coffee mixture and stared at Boyd over the rim of the cup before setting it down with a thump. "Don't try to kiss my ass, Beaulieu."

"I'm not, sir," Boyd said calmly. "I was already working on it; I just finished it yesterday."

The Instructor made a sound that was half grunt, half scoff. "Logan turned it in last week."

That was unsurprising; Jon had so far seemed to excel at everything he'd tried and he hadn't had the extra distraction of trying to improve his stamina in the gym like Boyd had. "I didn't just decipher it, sir," Boyd said carefully. "At first I tried to cross-reference the keyword 'Gwyneth' since it wasn't a name mentioned in the film and I spent some time looking into that attack on the Rose Parade but found nothing. The encrypted text was a passage from John Locke's Second Treatise of Government so I tried to cross-reference that as well to see if it matched the names or ideology of any current or defunct rebel groups but although I had a few leads they all led to nothing. I think--"

"Just drop the report and get out," Doug interrupted, still glowering although at least it didn't seem like he was thinking up further reasons to ridicule Boyd's work.

Boyd fell silent briefly then walked forward to set the files on the desk. He started to turn to leave but paused. He didn't think he'd find another chance anytime soon where Doug would be even this approachable. "I know I messed up on that mission but what else did I do?"

Doug snorted and picked up his cigar, inhaling deeply before speaking around the billows of smoke that escaped his lips. "You're under the impression that just 'cause it was one mission means you should get a pass?"

"No," Boyd said, shaking his head. "One mission can be more than enough and I'm fully aware of how incredibly poorly I performed, as an understatement."

He paused, trying to figure out how to word the question he wanted to ask. In the end he figured he couldn't piss Doug off anymore than the man already was. "But, with all due respect, sir, you seem... disproportionately more displeased with me compared to the way it's been with others in the past and I don't understand why."

"Others in the past didn't nearly fuck up their first real Level 10 assignment because they were fucking daydreaming," Doug shouted, sitting up straight and slamming a fist against the desk.

Boyd nearly jumped at the sudden outburst but he kept his expression neutral as Doug continued furiously.

"You fuckin' stupid kid, do you have any idea how important it was that we get Ethan? That was the point of the assignment, to get him here and workin' with us. If he'd gotten away because of your stupid bullshit I'd have recommended you for fucking termination as a whole. You're lucky you're still standing here at all so don't cry to me cause' I ain't kissin' your ass. I don't give a fuck who your mommy is, you're a trainee and as of that mission, a shitty one at that."

Boyd watched Doug for a moment; he didn't know what he could say that wouldn't just anger Doug further. What caught him mostly by surprise was that his mother was brought into it since Doug had never mentioned that before. Then again, when people got angry with him, she seemed to be one of the first people they brought up, as if Boyd was using her as leverage.

He was also caught off-guard by the knowledge that the Agency had wanted Ethan to work with them. He knew the Agency had turned rebels to their side before for information, just like had happened with Warren Andrews and Sector 53, but terrorists too? He supposed he shouldn't be surprised; but would the Agency only use Ethan's brilliance for defense purposes like Ethan had thought the CIA was going to, or was there more to it?

Boyd wasn't about to ask and he didn't want to think about all the implications at that moment. He could only assume that since he'd caught Ethan in the end, it had been the saving grace that had barely managed to keep him in training. Or, apparently, possibly even alive. He had to be especially careful not to mess up again.

Tilting his head down in acknowledgment, Boyd said evenly, "I understand. Thank you, Instructor."

Doug scoffed and took another gulp from the coffee cup, dropping his gaze back to his computer and silently dismissing his trainee.

Boyd turned and left the office, quietly shutting the door behind him. Without a hint of an expression, he carefully kept any deep thoughts at bay as he left the training building and strode across the compound. He didn't even know where he was going at first; he didn't want to stay in the training area, but he didn't want to go home or to Crater Lake, and he had nowhere else to go.

He decided to stay on the compound but the last place he wanted to be was somewhere very public where he could end up running into Sin, yet he didn't want to go into any of the buildings since he had a feeling he'd just feel cooped up and agitated. Boyd remembered an out of the way courtyard hidden on the edge of the compound; a place people rarely went but where Boyd had once sat reading a book on a day off.

The wind had a cold edge to it that had only sharpened since he'd last been outside, making it feel like it was cutting straight to his bones and reminding him that he'd forgotten to grab a coat before he'd left. He didn't care though; maybe the cold would give him something else to think about.

Winter was looming around him; slate grey skies and even lower, heavier clouds than usual, all the leaves long ago crackled and fallen to the ground. There was even, he realized as he looked toward one of the distant silver skyscrapers, a hint of snow flurries dancing lightly in the air. He wished he felt some sort of wonder for the first snowfall but he didn't feel anything; just numb.

Thankfully no one was in the courtyard, allowing him to use one of the benches in the far corner where there were only dead trees and a fountain that had been shut down for the year. He sat on the end of the bench and stared blankly at the fountain at first; the two tiers had a simplistic design but the white stone had chipped away over the years, leaving it looking lackluster and worn. Like the fountain had tried to keep going despite the conditions but now it was slowly giving up.

Boyd felt a sudden burning in his eyes and knot in his stomach and at first he didn't understand why. He didn't want to feel it but, if anything, the feeling just grew more intense and, unconsciously, he drew his legs up to his chest with his arms on his knees, resting his head against his arms. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on breathing evenly, on trying not to let himself feel as completely overwhelmed as he honestly did.

He didn't know what to do.

He felt so completely useless; so stupid and impotent and incapable of doing anything right and it had been a long time since he'd felt like such a complete fuck up on every level. It wasn't even just about the mission, although that definitely played a part.

It was everything. It was Sin and all the issues and emotions that came with just thinking Sin's name, just imagining his face and body. It was doubt that Boyd was making any of the right decisions-- that he was even capable of one at that point. It was exhaustion from too many nights with too little sleep and too many times he'd forced himself past a breaking point because he wouldn't give up, he wouldn't give in.

It was his aching body and the stitches that pulled at his wounds, the bruises and sprains and strained muscles that made even the act of curling up uncomfortable. It was the training that had become increasingly difficult and the way he'd been feeling like he was only barely keeping up. It was Doug saying he'd nearly come close to recommending Boyd's termination and it was the feeling of a car ripping apart around him, of a strap wrapped around his arm and the knowledge that he was about to die and he was ultimately, completely powerless.

It was nearly completely destroying yet another mission because of emotions and it was knowing that it was entirely his fault, that he just wasn't strong enough; that maybe he never would be.

It was feeling invalidated on nearly every level and being completely at a loss as to how to fix that.

It was knowing he had no one to go home to, no one to lean on and say, "I'm scared," and know they'd understand, know they wouldn't judge him for it.

It was isolation and pain and weariness and he was so fucking tired that he just wanted to stop; he wanted his thoughts to stop whirling and his emotions to stop rising up, or maybe stop existing in the first place.

His fingers dug into his upper arms and he let that be a focus; that and the chilled ache that told him he should probably be wearing gloves. His throat felt tight and it annoyed him, it pissed him off, it made him grit his teeth and press his forehead firmly against his forearms and breathe slowly. He felt his lungs expand and deplete and he focused on the shifting of the clothing against his chest as it happened.

But the thoughts wouldn't quite leave.

He just-- he felt so frustrated and angry and upset and, most of all, discouraged. Part of him felt hopeless, like everything was looming too far above him, like he was the only idiot still on the beach as the tsunami was about to crash down around him and there was no way he'd ever make it out on top.

But at the same time he wouldn't even consider the thought of giving up; he had nothing to do but keep pressing forward, keep going along even when he felt like he was faltering on every level he could, when he felt like each step was uncertain and frustrating and sometimes terrifying but it was all he could do to put his foot down and lift the other.

He wanted to be stronger; he wanted to keep going. He wanted to never feel doubts like he had lately, to never feel like this again.

He couldn't just give up because life was difficult or he'd messed up big time or his instructor didn't like him; he couldn't stop because his body hurt and he was so tired that his eyes burned from more than just tears of frustration that he refused to let go.

He couldn't stop because he'd felt betrayed by his partner and he'd started to doubt everything that he'd believed was truth about Sin, himself and their relationship. He couldn't stop because he felt weary and slow and prone to mistakes and he definitely couldn't stop just because he had doubts that he would succeed after all.

He couldn't stop at all because failing wasn't an option.

He couldn't stop because it would be giving up; it would be acknowledging that he hadn't been strong enough, independent enough, good enough to make it on his own. Stopping would prove everyone else right. And, damn it, even if that ended up being the truth he refused to acknowledge it, refused to let it be reality until he had absolutely no fight left in him; until he simply could not physically move forward anymore.

So he had to stop feeling sorry for himself because it wasn't doing any good and he was fine, anyway. It wasn't like he'd been completely incapacitated in training; his body hurt but he could still move. Maybe he felt so weary that his mind seemed fried but he could still think and function.

He still had a month of training left and he'd be damned if he let it beat him now, if he let himself get so discouraged that he just had one more thing to regret later when he looked back on how he'd failed so completely at every goal he'd set.

He told himself these things and he believed them, to an extent, and he felt galvanized, to an extent, but...

Even trying to give himself the stubborn strength to keep going, he couldn't deny how frustrated he was, how stressed and overwhelmed and tired he felt. How hard it was to keep his mind from returning to the same old worries and doubts-- the same painful memories of smiling against Sin's lips or the feel of hard muscles beneath his fingers and knowing that warmth he'd felt inside during those moments hadn't necessarily been reciprocated. Knowing that Sin had been lying to him or he'd been lying to himself and regardless of who had done what, Boyd had been a fool to believe in the relationship in the first place.

And he was even more of a fool to miss it so sharply when it was gone.

Boyd tightened his fingers even more and drew in a deep breath then forced it out slowly in a sigh. His eyes were squeezed shut so securely that it was almost painful but he tried to get himself out of his mind by thinking about the physical aspect of where he was.

He took in the cold wind shifting his hair, the fact he couldn't feel the snowflakes at all on his bare skin and how that was somehow disappointing. He focused on the way his toes curled up in order to keep his heels balanced on the edge of the bench, of the wooden slats digging into his lower back and the air like ice through his thin, long-sleeved shirt.

This time the focus worked, and this time he was able to slowly loosen his grip on his own arms, to release some of the stored tension in his shoulders. He allowed his forehead to rest against his arms instead of pressing down but with the new focus on his surroundings, he couldn't help a sudden, deep shiver. Now he stayed in the same position to retain some body heat as well.


The voice sounded abrupt as it snapped Boyd out of his thoughts. The French accent gave the speaker's identity away before Boyd even looked up.

Thierry stood near the bench with an expression of mild surprise. He was only slightly better dressed for the weather, with an over-sized sweater and a scarf; as usual, he was smoking a clove cigarette. An mp3 player was clipped to the lower part of his sweater and he had a pair of headphones down around his neck. Boyd could hear the faint sound of jazz music playing, and although he didn't know the song or artist he could recognize that the lyrics were in French.

Boyd didn't know who was more surprised; Thierry or himself. "Thierry," Boyd said blankly, and after a moment he thought to add, "Hey."

Thierry gave him a puzzled look and moved closer, slipping his hands into the pockets of his worn black trousers. They weren't very long and stopped just above his ankles, the moccasin type shoes he wore making his complete lack of socks obvious. "How long have you been here?"

Boyd stared at him then looked around briefly as if he'd be able to judge by his surroundings. There was a fine layer of snow around him and, he noticed as he glanced down at his arms, a light white powder on his dark clothing. "I don't know," he said honestly. "Awhile I guess."

Thierry shook some of his shaggy hair out of his eyes and shivered slightly as he indicated a large tree in the corner of the courtyard next to a nearby building. "I have been sitting behind that tree for a couple hours. I thought I was completely alone. I would stay but the cold is beginning to make my poor choice in clothing unfortunate."

"Ah," Boyd said in understanding, not really sure what else to say at first. He realized he still had his legs near his chest and he probably looked rather odd so he shifted so he was sitting normally on the bench. His joints ached with the movement and his fingers felt numb with the cold. Maybe he'd been there longer than he'd realized.

"I didn't see you," Boyd added belatedly. "I thought I was too."

Thierry nodded, grey-blue eyes studying Boyd and after a moment Thierry clicked off the mp3 player and tucked it away beneath the large knit sweater. "Would you like to come to my apartment for espresso?"

Boyd looked back down at the fluffy, thin layer of snow around him and realized he really had nothing else to do and he didn't want to sit outside in the cold all day anyway. Especially when the more he thought about the weather, the colder he felt.

"Okay." Boyd stood up and, after another chill went the length of his body, he crossed his arms across his chest, huddling in on himself for warmth.

Thierry smiled slightly and nodded before turning to walk towards the small residential building that he'd been assigned to. The walk wasn't long from the courtyard and they were entering the building and walking the few flights up to Thierry's floor just as the snow began to fall faster.

There was only one guard in front of Thierry's door this time and he greeted the French man in an amiable way before moving to the side so that the two could enter the apartment unobstructed.

"They have been less rigid with my security lately," Thierry said when the door was shut. He moved into the apartment and set his mp3 player on the kitchen counter, stepping out of his moccasins and curling his toes in the thick carpet. Heat flowed through the apartment and Thierry stretched, seeming to soak in the warmth.

Boyd paused in the doorway and glanced around. He'd been mildly surprised by the guard's change in demeanor but it made sense if there weren't orders to be as strict. Boyd suspected the reason Thierry saw less stringent rules was due to the Jourdain Allard mission but he didn't know for sure. Regardless, Thierry seemed more at ease than he had last time Boyd had seen him so the change seemed to have a positive impact on the man.

"I'm sure that's a relief," Boyd said as he stepped further into the apartment. "Do you know why?"

"They realized that I am an ally and always have been, it seems." Thierry relaxed his shoulders and moved around the counter to fiddle with the espresso machine. It was obviously brand new and appeared very expensive. "I am still not allowed to leave this horrible campus although I can send the service staff to fetch me items."

"Like that?" Boyd asked with a quirked eyebrow as he eyed the machine. He was rather impressed that Thierry even had anything that sophisticated but then again now that he thought about it he seemed to recall that Thierry also had one in his kitchen in France. "Couldn't live without one, I take it?"

"I need strong caffeine," Thierry replied as he leaned against the counter and gazed at Boyd. "My body operates more proficiently when it is properly energized. Now that I have access to some of my hidden bank accounts, I can caffeinate myself the correct way."

Boyd smiled slightly although it was still a more reserved expression than usual. It was strange how this was the second discussion that he'd had in the last two months about people and their caffeine addictions.

"I've always preferred tea, myself," Boyd said idly as he walked closer to the espresso machine. He was mildly curious as to how it worked; he didn't know a lot about espresso except that it was strong coffee of some sort. Since he'd never gotten into the habit of drinking coffee, he'd never had any interest in learning the different types and terms.

"It is very bitter," Thierry said as he poured Boyd a small cup. "But it is irresistible after the first taste."

Boyd rather dubiously eyed the small black and silver mug filled with dark liquid. But he was still cold and even if he didn't care for coffee, it would at least warm him. The espresso was hot and burned his tongue slightly and it was bitter enough that he made a face without immediately realizing it. Even so, he drank it all at once.

"Well, it's certainly strong," Boyd said as he stared down briefly at the empty mug before sliding it over to Thierry.

Thierry automatically re-filled the mug and pushed it over to Boyd, perching on one of the stools near the counter. "How is your training?"

The mug was small and contained only a few sips worth of espresso but Boyd just shook his head wordlessly at first and took a smaller drink. He didn't make a face this time but he still didn't like the taste; it was just especially bitter water to him but at least it was warm.

"Quite horrible at the moment, actually," Boyd said with a slight frown as he set the mug down carefully, staring at the espresso before returning his attention to Thierry. "Kind of one of the reasons I was in the courtyard."

"Ah." Thierry nodded, taking a small sip from his cup, eyes never leaving Boyd. "I believe it is a good place to think. When I first arrived here the constant clutter of people on the campus disturbed me. All I wanted was to be left to my thoughts, to my problems. I hid in the courtyard to escape but today I am glad that I found you there."

"So you could show off your espresso machine?" Boyd asked with a faint hint of teasing.

Thierry's lips lifted in a smile and he tilted his head to the side. "Yes, showing off my wealth is a tactic I use when attempting to seduce beautiful young men. Was that not obvious to you in France?"

"I do seem to recall glamorous hotels and fancy limos, yes," Boyd said mildly. He held up the mug and quirked an eyebrow as he continued jokingly. "Is that what this is, then? You know, most people try to get the other one drunk instead of more alert. Maybe you should've regaled me with a wine selection instead."

"Why would I have to result to intoxicants?" Thierry asked innocently. "Am I not handsome and charming enough to seduce someone without it?"

Boyd smiled slightly. "I suppose."

Thierry made a sound at the back of his throat and looked almost offended. "You seemed to think I was in France. But then again, I suppose that was for your job."

"Yes, it was," Boyd said, not bothering to mince words since they both knew it was the truth. "Honestly, if it hadn't been for the circumstances I doubt I would have agreed. But I thought you were attractive and not a bad person so that made it easier. And it was nice to converse with someone in French." Even if Sin hadn't liked it, he added to himself somewhat bitterly.

Thierry nodded and slid off the stool, leaving the kitchen area to enter the carpeted living room where he sat on the sofa. There was a moment of silence as Boyd followed and Thierry studied him before smiling. "Had it been other circumstances, I would have reacted the same. Honestly, I would not have behaved that way with another agent. I was very attracted to you. Had we met somewhere on the street, far away from the intrigue of war, I would have tried to sleep with you still."

It hadn't occurred to Boyd that Thierry's circumstances had been unique as well; after how capricious Carhart had made Thierry seem, Boyd had just assumed Thierry acted that way around any agent except Sin. Even then it seemed that the French man had restrained himself only after Sin broke his nose in an incident that took place before Boyd had joined the Agency.

"I can't really be the first agent you've been attracted to like that?" It came out as a somewhat doubtful, somewhat confused question; Boyd didn't think Thierry was lying but he never would have thought he was that different from anyone else.

"Of course not, I am very generous with my attention and I am very appreciative of beauty. When I first met your partner I nearly fell in love with his green eyes before I realized how angry and violent he is. I have had many love affairs with men from various groups, Janus and Dǐ Zhì included. However I never mixed work with pleasure as I did with you. But I could not help myself and did not think I would be given another opportunity to get to know you."

Thierry's eyebrows rose slightly at Boyd and although he was very matter of fact about what his intentions had been and how obvious it was that the attraction still remained, the overwhelming arrogance that had stifled their interaction in France was missing.

Boyd studied him thoughtfully. "It was the only time I've slept with anyone for the job," he said after a moment. "But I've wondered... what would've happened if I'd said no?"

Thierry shrugged. "I would have given you the disc anyway. Do not misunderstand though, although my intentions were always for the good of this Agency, that does not mean I am cooperative with any agent they send my way. I have been prone to prolong correspondence or mislead them depending on whether or not I like who they sent to deal with me or whether or not it is in my best interest to give up information at the time. Many times I decided I would and changed my mind later. If I am sent a beast like Sin, I am more likely to give him difficulties and send him home empty-handed because I will not help someone who does not respect me. I liked you so I would have given you the information whether you went to my home or not."

Although Boyd didn't know what response he'd been hoping for, he felt somehow satisfied by the answer. On one hand, it was frustrating that he was now classified as a valentine operative and the Agency could expect him at any point to seduce an informant, when in reality he could have just avoided the whole issue in the first place.

But on the other hand, he felt better having it verified that it really could have been a possibility that they had walked away without anything if the circumstances had been different. He hadn't known at the time the way Thierry felt about him so he'd had no way of knowing that denying Thierry's advances wouldn't have made Thierry decide to keep the information after all.

However, Boyd still didn't understand what Thierry saw in him that made him so different from anyone else. He watched Thierry a moment, trying to understand the man, trying to see himself through Thierry's eyes-- but he just couldn't. He couldn't really see himself through anyone's eyes at that moment and come up with a positive image; he still felt too discouraged.

"Why?" Boyd asked quietly. "You'd been doing this for a long time so why would you change your routine for me? How am I any different?"

Thierry laughed quietly and shook his head at Boyd, brown hair falling across his forehead carelessly. "You were so new, so young. It was refreshing to see and even though I knew you were kind only because you wanted information, I could not help but be charmed by you. It is not every day in this business that I came across people who are not cynical, angry, demanding, unpleasant. People who will only talk of the world and its problems as if there is nothing else even if I sometimes struggle to remind myself that there is."

Thierry extended one slender arm and didn't hesitate to run his fingers along the side of Boyd's face, tilting his chin up as Thierry stared into his eyes. "And you were so gorgeous, I could not resist. Youth and beauty are my two weaknesses and you have both."

Boyd unconsciously leaned into Thierry's touch and, as he searched Thierry's eyes, he felt caught by the strength and sincerity of Thierry's gaze. It had been a long time, if ever, that someone had brought up his youth as a good thing.

At twenty-one years old, he was at least several years younger than anyone he typically worked with and, especially lately, he'd seemed to hear 'stupid kid' more than anything. He didn't think of himself as 'gorgeous' but right then he appreciated hearing anything good about himself, so he wasn't about to argue.

It hadn't occurred to him that his attitude would have been different than anyone else's but now that Thierry mentioned it, he could see how.

Of course, after awhile he'd become rather cynical himself but that had occurred long after the mission in France. Beyond that, over the last year he'd started to acknowledge that there was more to life than the emptiness he'd fallen into. He'd tried to remember the good times as equally or more than the bad. It had been a struggle and still was, but lately it had been even harder.

"Sometimes I forget too," Boyd said quietly.

"It is hard not to," Thierry agreed, his steel colored eyes intense as he continued to stare directly into Boyd's. "It has been especially hard for me here in isolation, a glorified prisoner of this political war. When you came to me two months ago it reminded me that there are still things in life that bring me joy despite my circumstances. It reminded me that..."

Thierry trailed off as if trying to figure out the correct English words. "That even in this concrete prison camp there can be beauty and... pleasure. Delightful distractions that can momentarily bring joy even if joy is difficult to obtain now." His hand trailed down from Boyd's chin and rested on his shoulder, squeezing it gently.

There was no question what Thierry wanted and Boyd found he didn't really mind. He was frustrated, tired, and so stressed out by recent events that he desperately needed to relax, even just for a few hours.

The only two breaks he'd had so far in the two months of intensive training had been as stressful as the training itself. He felt like it had been forever since he'd just had a chance to unwind, to let some of the tension go. To have someone sincerely just want to appreciate him, even if it was simply for his looks or body. To have someone look at him and not see all the things that were wrong and instead see someone who was desirable and worthwhile.

He had no delusions that Thierry wanted anything more from him than sex and that was how Boyd wanted it. They didn't really care about each other aside from as acquaintances; it was basically physical attraction. But since whatever relationship he'd had or thought he'd had with Sin was over, Boyd had no reason to deny himself this. He just really needed something to make him forget his issues, even for a little bit.

At that moment he just wanted-- needed-- to feel good again, to know ahead of time exactly what this was and for there not to be a catch. It sounded like Thierry needed the same.

Boyd couldn't look away from Thierry's eyes, from the smoky grey that was focused on him completely. At first he just nodded wordlessly before he thought to say, "I know what you mean."

Thierry's hand continued to knead Boyd's shoulder expertly before his long fingers extended to gently slide down the exposed skin along the button-down shirt Boyd wore as the two of them continued to stare at each other in heavy silence. Thierry's lips parted slightly, his eyelids lowering as he watched Boyd with barely concealed desire, and finally he took Boyd's lack of reaction as consent.

When Thierry kissed him, Boyd responded with a fire that seemed to surprise Thierry as well as himself. When Thierry automatically started to take things slow, covering Boyd's face and neck with gentle kisses as he ran his fingers through Boyd's hair, Boyd arched against him, drawing the other man into an explosive kiss that left little room for the romance Thierry obviously automatically defaulted to.

Boyd didn't want romance; he didn't want to make love. He wanted to feel something strong and hot enough to burn all thoughts of Sin out of his mind. He wanted nothing but raw, unbridled pleasure.

So when Thierry hesitated before removing Boyd's shirt, Boyd shook his head impatiently although a part of him appreciated the fact that Thierry had remembered his previous discomfort.

"It's fine," Boyd said breathlessly. "It doesn't matter anymore."

"Are you certain?" Thierry murmured in French, nuzzling Boyd's neck with his face, tracing kisses along his collarbone.

"Yes," Boyd breathed and he practically tore his own shirt open as proof, anxious to move on, not wanting to focus on his scars, on his tattoos, on anything from the past. He let the shirt completely fall off him before he reached for Thierry again.

Just like before, they ended up sliding down to the carpet but this time they weren't in front of a roaring fire in a fancy home. This time they were in a Spartan Agency apartment and this time Boyd wasn't trying to do everything in his power to accommodate Thierry. This time Boyd was concerned about his own needs, his own desires, and his eyes rolled back and he shuddered as Thierry hovered above him and began sucking his dick.

It was obvious that Thierry was very experienced; he knew exactly what to do to make Boyd feel as though he was going to lose his mind. Boyd thrust into Thierry's pliant mouth urgently, harsh, open-mouthed pants and moans escaping his lips. He didn't think to stifle his voice at all; he didn't care even if the guard outside the door heard them and knew what was happening. All that mattered was the building warmth in his stomach and the prospect of losing himself in pleasure.

But Thierry had other plans.

As the suction of Thierry's warm mouth was just causing Boyd's moans to become more urgent, Thierry slipped away, kissing the inside of Boyd's thighs without allowing him to come. Boyd dropped his head against the floor and felt a surge of frustration. It was going to be impossible to forget everything, to feel true pleasure, if Thierry kept stopping.

Boyd needed more, he needed something stronger. He pushed himself up on his elbows, golden brown eyes intense and dark with urgent desire.

"Fuck, Thierry-- just-- I need you to fuck me," he hissed, having trouble ignoring the erection that strained between his legs.

Thierry seemed a little taken aback by the demand, tilting his head slightly to gaze at Boyd as though he'd never really seen him before. After a moment he just smiled slightly and shook his head, removing his own clothing slowly as Boyd looked on.

Thierry's body was toned but very slender and there was something about him that was beautiful, but not in the dangerous and exotic way that Sin was. On the contrary, everything about Thierry seemed almost effeminate, delicate, far moreso than Boyd could ever be.

Boyd turned around and rested his arms on the couch, down on his knees as Thierry crouched behind him. Feathery kisses trailed along the nape of Boyd's neck, along his shoulders, down his back, and although Boyd shuddered with the sensuality of it, with the way it caused his toes to curl in anticipation, it was undeniable that he wanted to move on.

Extensive kissing, gentle foreplay, caressing; it wasn't something Boyd was used to. He was used to primal fucking, animal-like intensity, wild sex; fingers strong enough to snap a neck digging into his arms as a deep sexy voice groaned in his ear...

Boyd shuddered violently and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block Sin out. "Please do it already," he whispered to Thierry.

"Patience," Thierry crooned in his ear and to Boyd's frustration, the other man stood up and went to get some kind of make-shift lubrication. Despite the fact that he was back in seconds, Boyd couldn't help but feel aggravated by the pause. It would have been fine if they'd fucked with spit; he didn't mind, he'd done it before.

When Thierry's dick finally pushed into him, Boyd's mouth dropped open at the delicious pressure against the sensitive nerves. He pushed back against Thierry and Thierry began moving in a rhythm that caused Boyd to moan against the fabric of the couch. It felt good to be in the hands of someone who was so obviously experienced, to have someone be concerned with making him feel as much pleasure as he gave.

Even so, after awhile Boyd began to crave that familiar almost-violence of sex with Sin.

He began to push back on Thierry's cock harder, faster, wanting that rough burning pleasure-pain of a big dick pounding into him mercilessly.

"Harder," Boyd groaned, fingers digging into the couch.

"Shhh," Thierry breathed into his ear, moving in and out agonizingly slowly.

"Fuck," Boyd hissed. "Please, just-- faster!"

"Hush," Thierry murmured again and, if anything, he moved slower. "Not everything is such a rush-- it doesn't have to be so rough, so hurried..."

"Shit," Boyd practically growled and buried his face in the couch, panting harshly as he tried to enjoy Thierry, enjoy how skilled he was, and to forget the way Sin did things.

But it was difficult and as Thierry made love to him, all Boyd could do was feel distracted by the frustration he felt-- with himself, with the situation. He grit his teeth and tried to ignore how, even in the hands of someone who was experienced and knew how to make his body burn with sensuality, all he could think was that he just wanted Thierry to slam into his ass and fuck his brains out. How even with all the bruises and aches from training and the stitches from the mission, right then he almost craved the idea of the pain they would give him in rougher, unrestrained sex-- just to feel something more overwhelming and undeniable.

But the way Boyd was used to wasn't Thierry's style.

Thierry pushed in and out of Boyd, moaning quietly, sometimes murmuring things in French, and his arm slid around Boyd's waist in order to painstakingly massage his arousal. The perfect pressure on Boyd's erection, coupled with the heat and feeling of Thierry's dick moving relentlessly in and out of him, was enough to cause Boyd's heart to speed, his breath to quicken as it caught between his open mouth and the couch.

But each time his moans heightened, each time he whispered "yes" repeatedly, urgently, and could feel the warmth building, Thierry slowed down again, slid his fingers away from Boyd's erection or changed positions and made Boyd feel like he had to start all over.

The sex lasted longer than Boyd expected, longer than it ever had for him with anyone else. And even though Thierry brought him to the brink of mindnumbing pleasure on multiple occasions, the complete lack of urgency-- of the screaming, blinding, desperate passion that Boyd was used to-- ruined the experience for him.

By the time it came, even Boyd's orgasm seemed anticlimactic.

Boyd collapsed against the carpet, sliding his eyes shut as he tried to catch his breath and for several moments he didn't bother to move. After awhile he felt Thierry moving away from him with a low sigh and Boyd heard the rustle of clothing as the other man presumably put his clothes on again.

Boyd turned, noting that Thierry was just zipping his pants as he watched Boyd thoughtfully. The moment felt rather awkward but Boyd didn't react to it; he simply found his clothing and started to get dressed as well, beginning with his pants.

"Things have changed in two years, I see," Thierry said simply in French after a moment.

Boyd looked over at Thierry and paused as he was pulling his shirt on. He couldn't read Thierry's expression enough to know what he was thinking but Thierry seemed to simply be making an observation. Boyd glanced down as he started buttoning his shirt and thought about how true that was in many ways; even the fact that he was standing there with his chest exposed to someone else and it didn't bother him was proof enough on his part.

"I guess they have," Boyd agreed equally simply in French as he finished buttoning his shirt and took a moment to straighten the sleeves. He looked back up to meet Thierry's eyes. "Some things, anyway."

Thierry nodded and padded across the room barefoot, curling up in an armchair as he studied Boyd. "Can I ask you something personal?"

"Of course," Boyd said, calmly watching Thierry and making no move to sit down or to leave.

"It just seems as though..." Thierry crossed one knee over the other and shrugged with one shoulder. "Last time we made love you were not so..." He trailed off again, seemingly at a loss before finally asking. "Did you take a lover during the last two years?"

Boyd watched Thierry thoughtfully; it was true that the first time he'd slept with Thierry he'd been a lot more amenable to Thierry's style. Even discounting the fact that he'd been more interested in pleasing Thierry for work, he'd still been more satisfied sleeping with Thierry at that time than he felt he was capable of now.

He hadn't thought about how his tastes had changed so drastically since they'd met in France. Just another difference in himself that he now had to deal with. He was frustrated and annoyed that he'd let thoughts of Sin nearly fuck him over completely in training and now because of Sin he couldn't even have sex with Thierry and properly enjoy it the way he once had.

"Yes," Boyd answered finally. "I did."

Thierry nodded and slipped a box of clove cigarettes from his trouser pocket although he didn't take one out. He just continued to gaze at Boyd solemnly for a long moment before speaking.

"Well I do not know who your lover is," Thierry began, although the stiff way he said it made it obvious that he at least had a vague idea, "but my advice to you is that for the future, you keep in mind that not all men want to have violent sex. If that is what you wanted you should have not let me begin. Your irritation was quite evident while we made love and while I am pleased that we were together, I cannot give you what you want."

Boyd stared at him briefly then sighed and tilted his head down to run a hand over his eyes. "I know, I just-- I didn't realize..."

He shook his head to himself, knowing he was making little sense and knowing that it didn't matter even if he did. He looked back up to meet Thierry's eyes.

He had to admit that it was a pretty shitty way for him to behave. Although they'd both been happy to use each other for pleasure, the fact that Boyd's expectations were so different from what Thierry could provide made it so neither of them had probably gotten the release they'd wanted. It wasn't Thierry's fault that Boyd hadn't realized ahead of time how rough and unrelenting his preferences really had become.

"I'm sorry," Boyd said, not knowing what else to say.

"It is nothing to apologize for," Thierry said calmly, waving his hand elegantly. "I only mention it for the future, if we should sleep together again. Guilt is not necessary; it was merely sex and although frustrating, still pleasurable."

Boyd nodded and stood there a moment. Thierry was the only person he'd ever had casual sex with so it left him feeling like he didn't know exactly what to say or do. At least the initial awkwardness had died down somewhat. "Well, I'll see you around."

Thierry nodded and slipped his cigarette between his lips. "Of course."

Boyd inclined his head and with nothing more to add, he left.

The guard glanced at him as he walked past but Boyd didn't look over or bother to determine whether the man knew what had happened in there. It didn't matter, anyway; at that moment, the last thing he cared about was whether anyone knew he'd slept with Thierry since it was already common knowledge that they were both gay.

What bothered him instead was how undeniable it was to him now just how much Sin had changed him.

In the two times Boyd had slept with Thierry, it had been apparent to him that Thierry was experienced. This time he'd become especially aware that Thierry was an expert at thrumming pleasure out of the body, of building it until the last moment and holding off before climax, of slow pressure and gentle caresses, of finding the places that Boyd had responded to most and focusing on them.

Part of Boyd had craved something like that-- for his body to be so focused on, for caresses that made his voice twist out of him in helpless gasps and moans. He'd wanted that touch; that feeling of intimacy and appreciation which, many times, had been so utterly lacking with Sin.

Especially lately Sin had seemed more interested in his own release than Boyd's pleasure; it wasn't something Boyd thought of as a way of blaming Sin since he himself was partially responsible too. It was simply that Boyd hadn't realized the difference until he'd had something to compare it to, until Thierry had spent so much time learning all the places that made Boyd uncontrollably gasp and moan and had made certain Boyd felt it all on a shuddering, deep level.

But another part of Boyd needed an intensity that Thierry couldn't give him. Even when Thierry had caused his toes to curl and his body to arch, Boyd had been unable to keep from thinking that Sin had been able to make him come in moments with just the right combination of pressure and roughness.

He hated that although Thierry had made him shudder with a longing for release, he hadn't been able to fully appreciate it because his body seemed completely dependent on what Sin had been giving him for so long.

It left him feeling frustrated and angry-- How the hell had he become so dependent on Sin? Why did everything circle back to him? Boyd knew it had only been two weeks since they'd broken up, that it was probably ridiculous to hope to put Sin aside so quickly, but Boyd couldn't help trying.

As Boyd thought about the situation he couldn't understand where it had all gone wrong-- where he had gone wrong.

It seemed as though every part of him was now tied to his partner and it wasn't hard for Boyd to realize what a mistake it had been to allow that to happen. Sin was his partner at work, he'd been his one true friend and confidant, his lover; Sin had become his everything. And now that things between them were different, destroyed, Boyd felt at an utter loss as to what to do. The fact that he couldn't even appreciate sex unless his partner was sufficiently rough and violent made the effect of Sin on his life, his needs, all the more prominent.

How could he ever move on if Sin continued to dictate his needs and his actions? How could he forget about the burning sting of betrayal if he couldn't even push Sin out of his mind long enough to enjoy spending time with someone else?

The questions kept coming as Boyd walked aimlessly across the compound but he realized he had no answers. He was at a loss in his personal life and with training. It seemed as though whatever he did wasn't good enough; he'd disappointed Doug by obsessing over Sin and now he'd likely offended Thierry. It seemed that as long as Boyd focused on Sin, he wouldn't be able to accomplish anything successfully, even casual sex.

It was frustrating and Boyd couldn't help but feel foolish for allowing himself to become so immersed with Sin to the point of not even being able to properly function now that they were apart. It angered Boyd, especially when he considered the fact that he couldn't even properly pinpoint why he'd let himself get so sucked in.

Everyone had questioned his devotion to Sin and now Boyd couldn't help but do the same. What had made made him think that he had Sin's character figured out so fully, so completely? What had caused him to believe that he and Sin had always been on the same wavelength?

Once again-- Boyd couldn't answer. He didn't even think there was one. He wondered if he could ever understand Sin, if he would ever know what to expect from someone so unpredictable, so complicated.

Boyd doubted it and he truly believed that continued efforts to understand Sin, to be so committed to him, would end in the same way unless something drastically changed.

Boyd's eyes narrowed as he walked across the compound, as the light snow flurry interfered with his vision and the icy wind cut through his clothing, sending prickling shivers along his body. The snow and cold weren't the only thing that made it obvious it was late November; with his birthday coming up next week, his luck was falling in line too.

Every birthday, every winter, had been completely chaotic since he'd joined the Agency. It seemed like ever since he'd met Sin, Boyd couldn't last through the month of November without at least something going to complete hell. First Lou's necklace, then Monterrey, now Ann.

Maybe Sin and Boyd were cursed to have terrible winters; to spend more than half the year miserable because they always found a way to hurt each other.

If that was the case, Boyd mused darkly to himself, at least this was the last time.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Twenty...