Afterimage Chapter Twenty-Three

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

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


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Book Two: Afterimage
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Afterimage Chapter Twenty-Three

Uploaded on 3/14/2009

Boyd set the folder on Doug's desk. "I don't understand why she has to die too."

Doug didn't even look up; instead, he continued to study his laptop. He was hunched over the screen with his face resting against one hand as the other scratched at his unruly mop of jet black curls.

"You don't have to understand."

"But... with all due respect, sir," Boyd said carefully, "he's an alcoholic and a cop. He could die any number of ways; he could get shot on the street, he could just kill himself... Why are we involving a civilian?"

Doug idly clicked the small button below the mousepad on his laptop, still not looking at Boyd. His brilliant blue eyes almost appeared bored although his mouth was set in the customary line of impatience and irritation. "He's a civilian too."

Boyd couldn't disagree with that; he wasn't happy with the fact that Patrick Finley was being targeted at all. But at least with Patrick, Boyd could see the reason. "I know. But she's not the one digging into an agent's cover. She's just his ex."

"Is the outline written in a language you don't comprehend, Agent?" Doug asked in a droll tone. "Do you not understand her role in this operation?"

"But why does it have to be a murder-suicide?" Boyd persisted, trying to keep his tone neutral to avoid annoying Doug more than he was by simply having this conversation. "If Finley's the target, I can get him some other way. I can do it so no one would know. We could make it seem like alcohol poisoning or I could shoot him and make it look like suicide... It doesn't have to be domestic."

Doug gave a long suffering sigh and looked up at Boyd finally. His expression was anything but friendly and his lip actually curled in a sneer at the sight of the younger man. "If you don't want the assignment, fuckin' say so and stop standing there crying like a big girl."

"It's not that, sir," Boyd said evenly. "I'm just wondering if it's possible to deviate from the outline provided that the target is terminated in a manner that does not jeopardize our cover."

"No." Doug leaned back in his chair and wiped the back of his hand across his nose. "If you want to turn it down it's not the end of the world. You'll just be marked down and then Vega or Trovosky will do it. Likely Vega since he's active again."

"Active again, sir?" Boyd echoed, confused. He hadn't known Sin had ever been anything but.

Doug picked a piece of foil-wrapped candy up off the desk and began slowly opening it. The crinkling sound seemed deafeningly loud in the silent room. "Do you want the assignment or what?"

"I'll take it," Boyd said, picking up the folder again without hesitation. It would do him no good to refuse; the two would still be killed, the children would still be orphaned, and Boyd would probably just lose his chance at promotion. The only thing he would accomplish would be making Sin or Kassian do it instead.

Doug gave him a smug look before dropping his gaze back to the laptop. "Don't bother me with useless shit again."

Boyd inclined his head, keeping his expression neutral. "Understood, sir," he said calmly and, without another word, he dismissed himself.

It took Boyd a few days to figure out his target's schedule, to get to know the man and his ex-wife better through surveillance.

He knew from the outline that Patrick Finley was a 48-year-old sergeant who worked as a homicide investigator at the local police precinct. Finley had been on the force for twenty-six years, five of which were in sex crimes as an investigator and fifteen in homicide. He'd spent the last twelve years tracking Darren Jones, a man he was convinced was the rapist and murderer of four women and two girls, ranging in ages from 9 to 19.

Although Finley was convinced that Darren Jones was responsible, he could never quite get enough evidence as proof. And since Darren was the son of a prominent politician, all the cases kept sliding on technicalities. Finley had been told repeatedly by the department to drop the issue but he'd refused and it had cost him his home life.

His wife, Heather, had apparently grown tired of Finley's long hours away from home, part of which was simply due to his job. She'd started to cheat on Finley with a man named Joe, an affair that lasted well over a year before Finley and Heather had divorced. The divorce resulted in a long, vicious custody battle over their two children, Annie, now 13, and Damien, now 10. Heather had managed to keep the house in the divorce and now lived there with Joe and the kids.

Finley had become an alcoholic and had thrown himself into his job even more, ignoring further demands by the department to give it up. He'd even gone so far as to stake out places he thought Jones would be, hoping to catch the man off-guard or in the act.

Completely unsuccessful in the endeavor, Finley had seemed to settle down on the matter until three and a half months ago, when Level 5 Agent Linda Rodriguez had nearly been raped on the street in the same Modus Operandi that had resulted in six females' murders prior to her. Linda had fought back and a witness had interrupted the crime, resulting in the suspect fleeing and the witness calling in the incident to 911. Linda had fled as well without making a report or leaving contact information.

Realizing that for the first time a victim had survived and would be able to give a good description, confirm he'd been right all along, testify in court and bring the perpetrator to justice, Finley had shifted his obsession toward the new case. After a lot of investigation, including searching hundreds of drivers license photos against the single grainy shot he'd gotten from the camera, he eventually tracked down Linda Rodriguez. When the Agency leaned on the police department to make him stop, Finley started working on his own time.

The problem had culminated when, unable to contact Linda, Finley had tried to contact her at the job he understood her to have: an employee of Johnson's Pharmaceuticals. When the guards turned him away, he'd started to stake out the place and at that point, his life had been forfeit. There was no way the Agency would let anyone live who was showing so much interest in the cover stories of its agents or the compound.

The end result was Patrick Finley being targeted for assassination when all he'd been trying to do was bring a rapist murderer to justice. Jared had been much the same as Darren; but while there was someone like Finley to hound Darren to bring him to justice, there'd been no one like that for Jared.

It was one reason Boyd didn't like that he had to do this, that he wished Finley had never caught the Agency's attention. Who knew how many Boyds and Lous were out there who now wouldn't get the closure they deserved because the one man who would have cared enough to follow up was going to be assassinated. It was a sad state of the world that it wasn't the criminal who was scheduled to be killed.

It wasn't just Patrick who would be killed, though; his ex-wife's death was a specific part of the mission outline and now two children were going to be orphaned. And the man who was out there raping and murdering women and girls, who had tried to do the same to an agent, was going to escape unscathed.

Boyd was extremely frustrated with the situation. Thinking back on Doug's smug smile and the fact that Doug would know every dirty little secret Boyd ever had after that week in R2I, along with the fact that Doug's apparent hatred of Boyd hadn't distilled at all, Boyd wondered if Doug had purposefully chosen this assignment for him because he knew Boyd wouldn't want to do it, that it would bother him.

Boyd wished Finley had just given up Linda's case, had never found Linda's picture, or had listened any of the dozens of times he'd been told to drop it. What made it even worse was that Finley was going to be remembered as a murderer and, unfortunately for the family, it would be believable.

Finley had been known to have a temper, he and Heather tended to scream at each other any time they were in the same room. Boyd had found old cases of domestic disputes including a single incident when Finley had hit Heather. She had apparently been telling the kids that the entire divorce was all Finley's fault for having been such a workaholic in the first place and that he'd been useless as a father and husband. Just over the weekend, Heather had been awarded sole custody of the children after arguing that Finley was unfit due to his alcoholism.

There was nothing Boyd could do to stop Annie and Damien from losing their parents but he'd hoped that he could at least do the hit somewhere that the kids wouldn't have to see the bodies. Boyd had studied Finley and Heather's schedules relentlessly, searching for some sort of loophole, trying to figure out how to make it turn out as a believable domestic murder-suicide far away from Heather's house.

But when the perfect opportunity had arisen he'd had to take it.

When the police department had realized that Finley hadn't stopped his clandestine surveillance, they'd suspended him for a month without pay. The information had come to Finley on the same day he'd been alerted to the fact that Heather had won sole custody. Infuriated, already somewhat drunk and probably feeling like his life was falling apart around him, Finley had driven to Heather's while the kids were at school and Joe was at work. Finley had practically broken down the door to get inside.

Boyd jumped the privacy fence in back of the house and slid into the home undetected after picking the lock on the back door. He was completely prepared for the kill; he wore gloves, his hair was held back and completely covered by a bandanna and plastic bags covered his shoes so he wouldn't leave shoe prints.

After all the work put into reading up on the couple and their issues, of watching them for days to determine their schedules, and after having assumed that Level 10 assassinations were all complicated, it was almost disturbing how logistically easy it was for Boyd.

Finley and Heather were already screaming at each other by the time he'd made it to the entrance of the living room as he hid around the corner.

Accusations like, "You fucking cunt! I want my kids!" were met with "Why? So you can ruin their lives too with your drunk fucking craziness? Just get the hell out!"

Boyd waited to the side, listening as the argument grew in intensity until Heather couldn't take it anymore.

"Fuck you!" she screamed, her voice cracking in the middle. "Fuck you, you worthless piece of shit!"

She turned and immediately stalked toward the kitchen while Finley shouted after her, "Heather, what the hell do you think you're doing!"

"Calling your boys to see how big you look in front of them, threatening women and smelling like booze," she sneered. "I'll get a court order so you can never come back here again."

"Heather, don't you--!"

Boyd was behind Finley before the man could finish the sentence; Finley was half-drunk and so intent on his ex-wife that he had no idea his gun had even been stolen from its holster until Heather turned just as she reached the phone. Her eyes widened in a mixture of surprise, confusion and fear as she saw Boyd.

"Pat--" she started to say urgently just as Boyd quickly shot her twice in the chest, the way officers were trained to aim at the main part of the body.

She looked shocked, blood spreading across her pale white sweater, and she crashed back into the kitchen table. Her body hit a chair that upended and she fell, head violently slamming against the floor, her eyes wide and unseeing.

"What the fu--" Finley started to say in shock, his reflexes already kicking in before his mind had processed exactly what had happened.

He started to look to his side immediately but Boyd didn't give him a chance to properly react. Boyd slid behind Finley, expertly twisting the man's left arm behind him at a painful angle, pressing the gun against Finley's temple. He forced the man a few steps closer to Heather's body, about the distance away a person would stand to stare in shock at a murder they hadn't meant to commit.

"Who-- Darren?" Finley demanded, as if scrambling for an answer that made sense in the new reality he'd just found himself in.

"No," Boyd said in his ear, making sure to stay out of Finley's sight. It didn't matter, since Finley was about to die but somehow Boyd didn't want Finley to see him. Or maybe Boyd didn't want to have to look Finley in the eye before he had to kill him. "But I think you're probably right about him."

Finley stood very still, not bothering to pull at his arm. He just stared down at Heather's body. "Jesus," he said distantly.

Boyd didn't answer. He knew he should pull the trigger; he knew he should just kill Finley and get the hell out of there before one of the neighbors called the police, before the squads rushed to the location and he got caught.

But he couldn't.

Finley was a good man despite his faults. He was the sort of person Boyd had wanted for years to go after Jared, the sort of person who didn't hesitate to give everything up in pursuit of righting the wrongs he saw in the world.

He was an alcoholic and obsessive, he'd hit his ex-wife once before, and he had problems with authority; he wasn't perfect by any means. But he wasn't someone who deserved to die like this. And Heather hadn't been either. She hadn't even done anything wrong; although she'd seemed to have a cruel side, she'd still been someone's mother and now she was just...


"You really did kill her," Finley said quietly, sounding strangely almost sad and relieved at the same time. "So many times I thought about how much I wanted that bitch dead and now..."

Boyd silently urged himself to just do this, to not care, to simply end it. But...

"You're not fighting me," he observed.

"Why bother?" Finley asked dismally. "No one'll believe me anyway. Not with my rep at work, and not my kids..."

"Do you... want to write a note?" Boyd asked, knowing how utterly stupid that suggestion was-- it would just give Finley a weapon, give him time to think of a plan. This was ridiculous-- he just needed to pull the trigger, he just needed to leave... How many people had he killed without problems before but now he suddenly couldn't?

Alexis' face flashed through his mind and he felt a sudden stab of guilt at the idea of killing another good person, of taking away someone's parents.

"You too scared to cap me now?" Finley asked, tone lost between derisive and depressed.

"I can kill you right now." It was clear from Boyd's voice that it wasn't a bluff. "I could let your kids have nothing to remember you by except how you killed their mom."

"You're not doing me any fucking favors as it is, letting them come home to this," Finley said with narrowed eyes. Despite that, he seemed to hesitate.

"If that's what you want," Boyd said and reached for Finley's arm but Finley started to turn his head toward Boyd with a frown. Boyd forced Finley to look forward again, although the man avoided looking at his dead ex-wife.

"Fine," Finley said quickly, as if to make sure he got the word out before Boyd could pull the trigger. He continued more slowly, "I will."

A note would cement the murder-suicide facade, Boyd thought as justification as he jerked Finley closer to a nearby table where there was paper and pen. "Try any shit and I'll pull the trigger," Boyd said seriously but Finley just shook his head as best he could with a gun against his temple.

Boyd watched on high alert as Finley quickly scribbled out a note then signed it, 'love Dad.' There was nothing suspicious about it; he basically wrote that he was sorry for everything and loved them. Finley probably meant it as an apology for everything he'd done wrong in their lives but it worked as a note of remorse over Heather's death.

Finley stayed where he was and there was a brief moment where it looked as though Finley was considering resisting; his fingers tightened on the pen in a way that could have flipped it around to be used as a weapon, maybe to jam it back into Boyd's neck or face. Finley's shoulders tightened and his eyes narrowed, a dark look overcoming his expression as he stared at the words he'd written; at the condemnation he'd leave behind in his name.

But when Boyd pushed the gun against Finley's temple to make him move, Finley's fingers clenched then released and the pen fell to the table. His mouth was drawn down and his shoulders were slumped. Boyd didn't need to ask to know what the man was thinking; to know that he saw no reason to resist anymore now that everything was already done.

He seemed depressed and at a loss and he and Boyd both knew that even if he tried to resist, Boyd would kill him. Intoxicated and without a weapon, Finley was at too much of a disadvantage and all the life seemed to have sucked out of him when he acknowledged on paper that he wasn't ever the father he'd meant to be.

Finley let himself be maneuvered near the entrance to the kitchen.

"I'm sorry," Boyd whispered and he truly meant it.

There was a beat of silence.

Boyd let go of Finley's left arm, then grabbed Finley's right hand with both of his, wrapped Finley's fingers around the gun and held it to Finley's temple. Finley stayed still, his posture defeated. Without giving either of them a chance to reconsider, Boyd made Finley pull the trigger.

Finley's body jerked as blood, brains and skull fragments sprayed across the living room, a grisly pattern against the leather couch and thick cream carpet. Boyd was careful to step out of the way as Finley's body fell to the floor in a heap so that it would look natural. The angle of the gunshot had kept the blood away from Boyd. Although he'd worn black clothing to hide any stains, he hadn't wanted to leave any suspicious evidence behind like a void in the blood pattern to point toward there being an outside attacker.

After half a second spent staring at the scene, Boyd didn't let himself acknowledge feeling anything as he quickly circumvented the blood and gore and headed toward the back door.

Along the way, he saw picture frames of Annie and Damien that he hadn't noticed before; they were smiling widely, pale blond hair tousled in the wind, eyes the identical hazel of Finley's glazed, lifeless ones. Blood splattered across the frames, concealing part of Annie's face and Damien's bunny ears he held behind her head.

Boyd felt something shift in him at the sight but he didn't stay to examine what it meant; he simply slipped out as quickly and silently as he had entered. Although it may seem odd that the back door was unlocked, he didn't think it would matter enough since many people in this area of the city seemed prone to simple mistakes like that.

He already knew his way through the back alleys and thickly vegetated yards and was able to easily escape without anyone having a chance to see him. He removed the gloves, plastic and bandanna, putting them in his pockets before he casually slid behind a resident's back yard and walked out into a park a few blocks from the assassination.

There were enough people strolling around that he wasn't out of place as he meandered toward his parked vehicle. Boyd was just sliding into the driver's seat of the car when he heard the distant wailing of sirens.

Like everyone else, he ignored them.

Driving back to the Agency, he felt somehow sickened by the whole affair. It wasn't the sight of dead bodies or necessarily even the act of killing that bothered him because he was used to it by now.

It just bothered him that he felt something in response, that he'd felt conflicted about it. That he hadn't wanted to kill them but, even more, that it wouldn't have mattered regardless of what he may have tried; they were still going to die, just by someone else's hands. He'd had no way of saving them since the moment they'd come to the Agency's attention.

In that regard, he was almost glad he'd been the one, even if he couldn't help feeling guilty about the hit. But at least he'd let Finley write a note, at least he'd given the man a chance to talk a little. At least...

At least what? Finley was still dead.

Boyd was surprised that he didn't feel more about the entire situation. He felt guilty and he wished he hadn't had to do it but the overwhelming intensity of emotions he would have expected to feel were just... not there. Like there was an emptiness where they were supposed to be.

He felt far more together than he would have thought he would be and he didn't know if it was a product of that stubborn resolve he'd managed to scrounge up in Kassian's living room or if he was just automatically compensating with the cold distance of emotions that he'd learned from his mother.

Even so, there was something that just didn't sit right with him; Boyd just didn't understand what.

It wasn't until he'd pulled into the Agency parking lot and was halfway across the compound toward the training building that he realized some part of him had honestly hoped that in the space of breath after his whispered apology, Finley would have said it was alright. That somewhere amidst it all, Boyd could have received the forgiveness he didn't deserve.

Boyd leaned his head back against the gym wall and squeezed his eyes shut; they burned from overuse.

He was beyond exhausted.

Nights spent cramming in as much study material as he could before day-long testing periods had turned him and the others into walking zombies.

The tests had been far more difficult than Boyd had anticipated despite the fact that he'd thought he'd been planning for worst-case scenario. He thought he'd done decently on all of them but he couldn't be sure; everything was a blur and he didn't even know anymore what parts he'd actually screwed up on and what he'd only dreamed he had.

The only test he felt for sure he'd aced had been the cryptography portion. Reading an entire book on cryptography, spending so much free time obsessing over encryptions and decryptions, had given him a full range of knowledge for the final.

Boyd opened his eyes partially and looked around.

They were now down to five trainees.

Cade had disappeared sometime between R2I and the finals, and it had taken a few days to figure out exactly what had happened. They'd learned that Cade's solo mission had gone completely awry and although Boyd still didn't know the details, all they'd been told was that Cade had very nearly been killed. He was currently in the long-term medical building in an induced coma and the doctors weren't sure yet whether he'd make it and if he did, whether he'd fully recover.

The information had come as a shock, mostly because Cade always seemed too hardheaded to even know when he was hurt. It seemed strange to imagine how mortal he really was; how that intense arrogance and offensive nature could actually be quelled.

Perhaps more surprising, Boyd found himself actually wondering if Cade would be okay.

The man had been rude, insulting, and cruel to each of them at one point or another in the duration of the training and, in most cases, this had occurred more times than Boyd could count. Yet... Cade had saved Boyd's life during the Ethan mission and Boyd couldn't help tolerating the man as a result.

Regardless of that, Cade was getting the help he needed and Boyd had to focus on the one test that he had left. It was bizarre to think that he actually could see the end of training, that the next morning Boyd would be free to go wherever he pleased once again and he wasn't bound by a twenty-four hour rule of needing to return.

Yet this test was the one he'd been dreading the most.

To get his mind off the thought, he glanced around idly at the others as if to gauge how they felt they were doing. Emma had her legs drawn to her chest, her arms wrapped around them as she rested her forehead on her knees. He couldn't see her face from his angle but he thought she may be trying to gather her strength.

Harriet and Jon were off to the side speaking quietly and although Boyd couldn't hear what they were saying, it almost seemed like Jon was trying to reassure her of something. Harriet's eyebrows were creased slightly and she looked a little anxious but other than that, she didn't seem nearly as nervous as Toby did.

Toby looked like he was going to throw up. He was pale and sweating and he kept shooting Boyd disturbed looks until he finally leaned over and hissed, "What if he kills me?"

If it hadn't been for the fact that they really could have died any number of times during training so far, as well as the fact that they were all stressed and exhausted, Toby's question would have seemed overly dramatic. As it was, Boyd shook his head, thinking Toby was being paranoid.

"He won't kill you," Boyd said reasonably. "The worst case scenario is he overpowers you. And he's going to do that to all of us."

"How do you know for sure?" Toby persisted worriedly. He was paler and thinner than he'd been at the start of the training and none of his previous confidence remained. The thin young man who was staring at Boyd with a panicked look in his eyes had very little in common with the haughty Ivy League graduate who had mocked Boyd on the first day of training.

"He'd have no reason to," Boyd said. He watched Toby and added, trying to make him feel better, "And anyway I don't think Doug would let him."

"But he doesn't wear the collar anymore, how the hell would Doug stop him?" Toby sat back and ran a hand through his hair roughly. It was unruly and looked like he hadn't washed it in days. "I don't want to do this. After all of the shit I've lived through in this training, I don't want to be killed by some psycho for no real reason."

"He wo-- Look at me, Toby," Boyd said calmly but firmly, trying to project confidence to give Toby something to latch onto.

He waited until Toby looked over. "Listen, it'll be alright. Just remember your training. He won't kill you. He may hurt you in the process of the fight-- he may hurt any of us. But it'll be no worse than we went through with Krav Maga. Just a little longer, one more test, and you can relax."

Toby didn't look entirely convinced but he shrugged. "I guess..."

Boyd figured that was as good as he was going to get and looked away after a moment, dropping his head back against the wall. He sighed quietly to himself. He wasn't worried about the fight for the same reasons Toby was; he knew the odds were severely stacked against them, that there was no chance he'd beat Sin.

He just didn't want to see Sin in the first place.

They waited for another few moments before the door to the gym opened and Doug strode inside, followed by General Carhart and Sin.

Sin's hands were shoved in the pockets of his faded black cargo pants and a long-sleeved black thermal shirt hugged his broad shoulders. He looked relatively healthy but his green eyes were devoid of all emotion and his face was drawn, blank. He didn't even look at the trainees scornfully as he normally would have.

It wasn't entirely obvious why Carhart was there but he looked from Boyd to Sin more than once.

Boyd automatically ran his gaze over Sin, not knowing why except that he hadn't seen Sin since their last argument. Maybe part of him wanted to see how Sin was, whether he'd been affected as much as Boyd had. Or maybe it had more to do with the part of him he hadn't quite been able to completely bury; the part that shifted at the sight of Sin and wanted to watch him more, to reacquaint himself. Yet Boyd didn't let that thought go any further than that.

When Boyd realized that he was staring, he immediately looked away in annoyance with himself and refused to make eye contact with Carhart or Sin.

It wasn't until Sin, Carhart and Doug were standing in front of the trainees that Sin's hollow-eyed stare finally settled on Boyd but even then he quickly averted his gaze, likely more than aware that Doug and the other trainees would be closely watching him for any signs of favoritism.

"This is it," Doug said, staring hard at them all. "This is the last test but don't let that make you lazy. I know you all are thinking that there's no way you're gonna beat Vega so this test can't matter that much, right?"

Sin didn't even look at Doug, he just stared at a point on the wall above the trainees' heads.

"Well, that kind of attitude is dead wrong. It's not about winning, it's about showing your skill in the fight, showing if you really learned what you were taught against an opponent that you don't know what to expect from." Doug's eyes flicked from each trainee's face, resting on Boyd's slightly longer than the others.

Carhart walked off to the side, crossing his arms over his chest as he surveyed the scene.

Sin sighed, disgust making it into his voice. "Let's just get on with it."

Boyd made it a point to look between Carhart, Doug and Sin equally, so it wouldn't seem anymore like he was avoiding Sin. He knew Doug was right about what he'd said but strangely, he wasn't worried.

He knew he wouldn't beat Sin so he didn't have the stress of that looming over his head, yet that didn't mean he intended to just give up. Instead, it helped him; he had a bit of an advantage over the others because he'd seen Sin in action. Boyd reminded himself that he was doing this to show his skill, not to win.

And for all that he'd been dreading this, he found himself strangely calm now that Sin was actually in the same room, now that the moment was much closer. He felt like he really could do this.

The first one to fight Sin was Harriet.

They met at the center of one of the sparring circles and Harriet moved in on him as soon as they were inside the circle. Her strategy seemed to be trying to catch Sin off guard but her strike at the side of his throat missed by several inches when he almost casually backed out of the way.

She went entirely on the offense, her attacks coming quickly and efficiently but Sin fended her off almost lazily and after a moment Harriet just stared at him in frustration, backing off to the corner of the circle to catch her breath and glare.

"I thought you're supposed to fight me, not block the whole time," she growled from between grit teeth. In her rush to get the ordeal over with, she hadn't picked up on what Sin was doing.

She seemed to have forgotten that Sin wasn't the one who had to show off his Krav Maga skills. He was allowed to sit there and turtle the whole time and in doing so, he had the opportunity to study every single one of her moves and her fighting style.

Unfortunately for Harriet, she wasn't very good at creativity in a fight once she was in the heat of the moment. She thought of the most logical attacks and what should work textbook style but against Sin that was a big mistake.

Harriet rushed Sin again, almost immediately spinning to the side and kicking the side of his knee. She moved with enough force to seriously disable him if it would have landed but Sin dodged, grabbed her ankle and yanked her leg out from under her.

Harriet kicked out her free leg wildly, actually planting one boot against Sin's pelvis but the angle was off and she couldn't put enough force into it for the blow to be as damaging as it could be. Harriet twisted the leg Sin had hold of and tried to escape but he hefted her up and spun in a circle, still gripping her ankle, until she was literally up off the ground as he swung her in a wide arc.

"Shit!" Harriet shouted as her ankle was abruptly released. She went slamming into the opposite wall and crumpled to the mat.

Sin stared at her blankly. "Next."

Harriet groaned across the gym and wearily sat up, rubbing her forehead.

When Doug gestured at Emma to get up, Emma's eyes seemed a little wide and she couldn't seem to help glancing between Harriet and Sin in mild alarm. It was pretty clear from her expression and the light sheen of sweat on her forehead that she was thinking if Harriet was taken out that quickly she didn't stand much of a chance.

Despite that, she walked up to Sin with her head held high and didn't look like she had any intention of giving up or putting any less effort into this than she otherwise would have.

Sin looked at her evenly and didn't appear to be judging her based on her appearance. Instead of holding back, he took an entirely different approach than he had with Harriet and attacked Emma first. She'd barely made it into the circle before he sent a powerful open-palmed strike directly to her solar plexus.

He hit her so hard that she was on her back and gasping for breath within the first couple seconds of the fight. The wind was knocked out of her but Emma tried to ignore it, coughing violently as she performed a clumsy back flip and barely escaped Sin's boot before it came stomping down on her face.

The sound of his foot slamming against the floor clearly disturbed Emma; if she'd moved a second slower her nose would have likely been crushed under his weight. Emma's face was chalk white as she skittered backwards, still coughing and gasping and trying to regain her breath as Sin stalked towards her casually, slowly; almost like a cat toying with his prey.

Emma seemed to steel herself and sprang up suddenly, grabbing Sin's wrist as his fist came rushing at her face; she tried to twist his wrist sideways to flip him but her lack of physical strength made the move impossible. Sin's fist crashed into the side of her face and as she careened backwards, Sin caught her before she could fall, spun her around by the arm as he twisted it violently behind her back and pointed two fingers at the side of her head as if his hand were a gun.


Emma froze, wisps of hair catching against her lips as she panted. She looked shaken and disturbed by the entire situation. Sin let her go almost immediately and as she walked out of the circle, she looked disappointed in herself.

She glanced around as she walked away and ended up heading toward Boyd and Toby. As she sat down near Toby she mumbled, "He pulled the punch a little."

Boyd knew Sin hadn't used all his strength; he knew Sin's fighting style enough to recognize that there had come a point almost immediately in which Sin had realized how he was going to win the fight so he'd seen no reason to completely obliterate her. Boyd thought she'd probably come over to say that after she'd seen Toby's pale face, as if she'd wanted to reassure him that it wasn't quite as alarming as it looked.

Doug's gaze fell on Boyd. "You're up, Beaulieu."

As Boyd walked into the circle, he could tell by the intensity of the gazes that the others were paying special attention to this, most likely to see if Sin would go easy on him. He ignored that all as extraneous information and instead kept his expression completely neutral, as unreadable as he'd be able to make it to Sin who would be able to read his thoughts probably more than anyone else.

Sin stared Boyd in the eye, who evenly returned the gaze.

Boyd quickly examined Sin's stance, finding it easier than he expected to think of Sin as just another opponent, most likely because he was so aware of others watching their every move. Unsurprisingly, Sin had no visible weaknesses or openings; Boyd knew from experience that even if there had been any, Sin would easily be able to compensate faster than Boyd would be able to react. The best way to handle this would be to take the offensive and try to be unexpected.

Without showing what he was about to do, Boyd feigned a quick strike toward Sin's throat. Sin immediately brought an arm up to block but Boyd had already slid behind him, attempting to knee him in the kidneys. Sin twisted and grabbed Boyd's leg, flipping Boyd in the air to throw him to the floor.

Boyd caught himself on his hands and rolled, jumping up. He was already looking up and had just realized he didn't see Sin when he suddenly felt Sin behind him, so fast and silent that Boyd had no warning.

Sin roughly grabbed Boyd's throat to hold him still and reached up with his other hand toward Boyd's face, obviously intending to simulate snapping Boyd's neck. Not wanting to let Sin finish the fight so quickly and not being in a good position for using his arms or legs, Boyd did the first thing that came to mind: he suddenly bit Sin on the hand, hard enough to draw blood.

The bite was so unexpected that even Sin was surprised enough to falter. In the fraction of a second Boyd had, he slammed Sin's arm away and twisted out of the loosened grip on his throat, using the momentum to spin around behind Sin and knee Sin as hard as he could in the kidneys. He got a solid strike in and moved back immediately, knowing better than to stay within Sin's reach.

But Sin was faster; he was in Boyd's personal space before Boyd could react. Sin rapidly and powerfully struck Boyd repeatedly in the torso, varying the targets but moving so quickly that despite Boyd's best efforts, he was unable to keep up. Sin used all his strength, causing Boyd to nearly lose his breath simply from the powerful flurry aimed at him. His body automatically jerked with the hits, his torso burning in pain, and he could barely manage to block a single strike.

Forced back and stumbling as he tried to catch his balance, Boyd had no warning before Sin finished the hits with an especially hard strike to Boyd's solar plexus, causing him to lose his breath and lean forward slightly. Sin immediately kicked Boyd in the head, hard enough to snap Boyd's head back but without the full force Sin was capable of.

Sin snatched Boyd out of the air before he could fully fall, the difference in their strength like a child playing with a toy doll. Sin grabbed Boyd's arm violently, jerking Boyd around and twisting his arm up behind him so quickly and powerfully that Boyd felt his shoulder spike in pain.

Before Boyd knew what was happening, he was spun around and slammed face first onto the floor with Sin landing on his back. The movement put considerable strain on Boyd's arm, enough that he couldn't help a startled gasp of pain as it felt like his muscles were stretched nearly past their limit.

With no way of getting out of Sin's hold, Boyd squeezed his eyes shut and panted against the floor. Sin's body was hard against Boyd's back, close enough that Boyd could feel Sin's powerful muscles pressed firmly along him, with hot breath warming his ear.

It was impossible not to vividly remember the feel of that body sliding against him skin to skin, the mixture of pleasure and pain from the nearly violent sex they used to have, those pale green eyes intense with lust and focused only on Boyd.

But they hadn't been, had they?

Sin had been that close to Ann too; those same powerful hands had probably run along her body too, had held her in place or moved her around as he'd wanted. That same intensity had probably been in Sin's eyes as he'd fucked her. And when Sin had reached orgasm with her, had he hissed incomprehensibly in Mandarin as well? Had Sin panted against her ear just like this, had he made Ann scream in pleasure the same way he'd made Boyd?

Boyd felt an abrupt, overwhelming surge of emotions that ranged from fury and resentment toward Sin for causing all the conflicting feelings in the first place, to disgust with himself when he realized part of him darkly whispered that he was still attracted to Sin, that he still wanted Sin. He was angry that after everything he could still be so easily affected just by Sin's proximity, by the memory of those hands sliding along his body.

Sin lingered briefly, holding Boyd down longer than was necessary; it was subtle and would have been meaningless if it weren't for all the people watching or for the circumstances.

Boyd jerked against Sin impatiently, who immediately stood up so Boyd could flip over onto his back. Boyd looked up to see Sin holding his hand out as if to help Boyd up and for the first time since the fight had started, Boyd paid attention to Sin's expression. Sin's eyebrows were drawn down slightly and although he would seem expressionless to others, Boyd met Sin's eyes briefly and could see that Sin was clearly unhappy.

But that knowledge didn't matter to Boyd; he was angry with Sin, himself, and the situation. The only thing that stopped him from glaring at Sin was the fact that he didn't want to show any emotion in front of the others and that he appreciated the fact that Sin had actually been harsher on him in the fight than he had with anyone else so far.

Boyd gave Sin a narrow-eyed look that made it clear he didn't want Sin's help or pity and, completely ignoring the offer, he stood on his own. His arm twinged furiously in the movement and he knew at that moment that it was probably sprained.

Without so much as a glance toward Sin, Boyd turned and walked back to his place near Emma and Toby.

He could feel Sin's gaze burning into his back but Boyd sat down and refused to look at the other man, focusing his attention on Doug as they waited to see who would be next.

To everyone else, the frustration must have finally begun to look obvious on Sin's face. Everyone was watching him carefully and despite Sin's efforts to remain expressionless and indifferent, Doug's eyes were moving slowly between Sin and Boyd. Although the Instructor was obviously picking up on the tension, he only looked amused, not suspicious.

"You're up, Toby."

Toby's face was white as chalk as he stood up shakily and approached the circle. He looked at Sin cautiously and gained little comfort by the frown that was now etched into the senior agent's features. When Toby entered the circle and Sin dropped into his typically loose fighting stance, Toby raised his hands as though he had a particular move in mind but he didn't strike.

Sin stared at Toby and Toby stared at Sin but despite the fact that sweat had broken out on the trainee's forehead and he was breathing heavily, he didn't move a muscle; his fear had practically paralyzed him.

Sin stood up straight after half a minute and lifted his hand, once again aiming his fingers at Toby as if they were the barrel of a gun. This time he didn't even have to announce that Toby was dead. It was obvious that within the first fraction of a second of the fight beginning, in reality Toby would have been killed.

Toby backed out of the circle and appeared genuinely shocked by his own reaction. He shot a look at Doug, maybe wondering if he could try again, but Doug's response was cold.

"You're lucky he went that easy on you," the Intructor growled and was clearly disappointed with Toby. "I'd hoped that you'd go above everyone's expectations. That you'd end up being more than your granddaddy's little kiss ass but you're bloody pathetic. A pathetic little girl. Even Emma did better than you, you scrawny little wanker."

Toby swallowed noisily and looked away, shamefaced. "Can I please be excused."

Doug scoffed disgustedly. "Get out of my sight."

Toby fled the gym and Doug glowered at the trainees before turning his stare onto Sin. "And what the fuck do you think you're doing, huh?"

Sin didn't even look at Doug. "What would you have liked me to do?" he asked tonelessly.

"Pfft." Doug shook his head, black curls bouncing around wildly. "You beat the hell out of your little boyfriend but let Toby get off scot-free."

Boyd kept his expression completely neutral despite the annoyance and frustration he felt at the words. He wasn't about to visibly react and lend any credence to what would otherwise seem like one of Doug's typical casual, baseless insults. But it bothered him immensely to be reminded that Doug knew every sordid little detail they'd wrenched out of Boyd about his relationship with Sin. And that Doug would so blithely use such personal information in public; he just hoped that everyone would think he was being irreverent.

Of all the people who Boyd would have wanted to know so many shameful or deep secrets about his life, Doug was about the last on the list.

The look that Sin gave Doug would have stopped the average man's heart and despite the fact that Doug hesitated briefly in his tirade, it didn't stop it entirely. "This is a test, Vega. You're supposed to be trying to kill these fucking kids. If I wanted you to fuck around with a pathetic little pussy I'd have given you some condoms at the door."

"I see." Sin stared at Doug, not keeping the dislike out of his expression. "I didn't realize you actually wanted me to crush the girl's face. Tell her to come back out here and I'll do it just for you. Will that satisfy whatever voyeuristic thrill you get out of watching me kill people who are no match for me skill-wise?"

Emma glanced between the two with an expression caught between wary and unnerved.

Doug looked like he wanted very much to crush Sin's face but he said nothing and it was General Carhart who finally spoke up. He'd been so silent on the sidelines that it'd been easy to almost forget he was there.

"Get on with the last fight," he snapped at the two bickering men. "If you had a problem with him pulling his punches you should have said so from the beginning."

Doug made a face at the General but just speared Jon with an annoyed look. "Get over there, Logan."

Even after Jon was in the circle, Sin's angry gaze remained on Doug. When Jon made his first attack, Sin fended it off without even looking at the trainee but after that first moment the fight got more serious.

It was obvious that Jon was the best and most experienced fighter among the trainees and the fact that his fight with Sin lasted well over a full minute was evidence enough of that. While he only managed to land three solid strikes on Sin, none of which seemed to really cause serious damage, he launched a string of unrelenting attacks and kept up the steady pace for quite some time while continuously evading and blocking.

By the end of the fight Jon was by far the most physically abused, which was evident enough by the blood that oozed from his mouth and nose. Still, he'd done the best and everyone knew it.

Doug looked incredibly pleased that at least one of his trainees were living up to his standards. Despite the fact that Boyd was obviously the second best in this test, Doug didn't acknowledge it at all. Boyd was completely unsurprised; he'd long ago given up any delusions that Doug would stop being so disgusted with him.

Boyd was equally unsurprised by Jon's prowess; the man had consistently been by far the best fighter since their first day in combat training. The only part that frustrated Boyd was that it made him feel like he was a poor fighter; that even with knowledge from two years he'd spent alongside Sin, he was still no match for Jon's natural abilities.

When Boyd looked up again, Carhart was speaking to Sin in low tones and Doug was telling them that they could return to their rooms and start packing up. They would be informed of the results of the training in the next several weeks.

Emma looked carefully at Boyd as if she was about to say something but he didn't want to hear it; he didn't want to talk to anyone. He just avoided eye contact with her and stood, immediately heading toward the door.

Before he could get out, a strong hand grabbed his good arm and pulled him back even though he hadn't heard anyone come up behind him.

"We need to talk," Sin said quietly, mindful of the others nearby but obviously determined.

Boyd was annoyed that Sin continued to try to make these things happen on his own terms. Sin could have easily waited a few days for Boyd to return to his home, to give Boyd a chance to de-stress from his training where no one would see their conversation. Instead, Sin did whatever he wanted regardless of how it would affect Boyd.

Although Boyd had meant it when he'd told Kassian that he'd probably talk to Sin sometime, that didn't mean he wanted to do it now. It was still too soon for him. After three grueling months of training and a devastating break up, he felt far too jittery, raw, exhausted and unbalanced to be able to have whatever conversation Sin wanted. He couldn't even look at the man.

The longer he was in Sin's vicinity, the harder it was. He'd been able to concentrate solely on the test when in the circle but now that he didn't have that immediate goal it was harder to easily adopt the mindset of them as work partners and not something more. It was harder not to think about all the things that had gone wrong and how it had felt to go through it, harder not to want to blame Sin for all of it, to vilify him.

Boyd knew that if they tried to talk right then, he'd just end up getting angry and resentful. Even if he listened to what Sin had to say, Boyd would probably be mocking the reasons in his mind or feel like they weren't good enough. Sin had ripped out Boyd's heart when he'd betrayed Boyd's trust and Boyd hadn't had nearly enough time to recover from everything he'd been through in the last three months to be able to deal with this now too.

So Boyd didn't look at Sin as he jerked his arm out of his grasp. Saying nothing, he strode away.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Twenty-Four...