Afterimage Chapter Thirty

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

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


Book One: Evenfall See Evenfall chapter list.

Book Two: Afterimage
See Afterimage chapter list.

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Book Three: Fade
See Fade chapter list.


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Afterimage Chapter Thirty

Uploaded on 4/11/2009

The doorbell rang and Emma opened the door within seconds, grinning brightly when she saw Harriet standing in the hallway with a case of beer.

Boyd glanced over from the living room and could see that their polar opposite appearances had carried over into their off time. While Harriet was dressed similarly to training, in a plain black sweater and bluejeans beneath her coat with her hair pulled into a ponytail, Emma wore a short blue, fitted tunic-dress with charcoal skinny jeans, chunky jewelry, and high heels, her hair tumbling freely past her upper back.

"You came!" Emma said happily, already moving to the side so Harriet could enter. "Did you find my place okay?"

"Yeah," Harriet replied, boots thudding against the wood floors as she thumped the case down on the floor in the main room. "I didn't realize you lived in this neighborhood until I followed the directions, though."

"Where'd you think I lived?" Emma asked curiously as she broke open the case and grabbed a few beers.

"Not this stuck up ass area." Harriet shrugged off her down jacket and threw it on the back of a chair, eyes moving over the others in the living room.

The condo Emma owned was well-proportioned, with its main asset being two walls of full-length windows in the corner of the living room, showing off what had probably once been a beautiful view but now basically looked out on a few renovated buildings and broken skyscrapers beyond. The furniture was arranged to get the most of the windows, while a television sat against the far wall where it would be in view from the open kitchen.

The living room was fully visible from most of the kitchen due to the open counter on the end but the refrigerator and cupboards were installed against the full wall in the corner. Several plants and flowers dotted the area, looking well-tended with surprisingly healthy shades of green given the low amount of natural light, even with such large windows.

Harriet was one of the last trainees to arrive at the party. In the living room, Andrew was leaning forward on the edge of a fluffy chair, talking animatedly with Patrick and Toby, who were sitting on the couch. Boyd half-paid attention to Harriet and Emma's conversation as he sat in the chair's mate, idly listening to Andrew and the others as he drank a glass of vodka with cranberry juice.

Emma laughed. "Yeah, but try finding a decent one bedroom off-compound with good light anywhere else," she said as she tugged open her fridge and shoved food and other drinks around in order to get the beers inside.

Harriet raised a skeptical eyebrow at that but just moved further into the room. "Is Cade alive yet?"

Boyd glanced over at her and offered, "I saw him a few weeks ago and he was briefly conscious but he didn't look very well." He glanced questioningly toward Patrick and Andrew.

Andrew shrugged and looked slightly troubled. "I dunno, man. I heard it's still touch and go..."

"They're hopeful he's going to live," Patrick's low voice put in. The tall man leaned forward slightly and frowned seriously at them all. "But even if he does, they don't know if he's going to be alright upstairs, you know? If he'll get his brain right again."

"Does anyone know what happened?" Emma asked, looking concerned as she walked around the half-wall in the kitchen and took a seat on the floor near the coffee table. She cracked open a can of the beer that Harriet had brought.

"I don't know the mission specifics but he had multiple gunshot wounds to his torso and a bullet grazed his brain." Patrick grimaced and set his glass of wine down. "The only reason he's alive is because he went down not too far from transport and they went to investigate why he wasn't coming in when his signal was so nearby."

"Jesus," Emma said, looking mildly disturbed.

Boyd thought back to what he'd seen of Cade and it made more sense now why the man had seemed so confused. What happened to Cade was a reminder of how dangerous their jobs were and just how easy it would be to die or have their lives permanently changed on a mission. Of course, Boyd knew that death or maiming was entirely possible on any mission but it was always a little strange knowing the person it happened to.

The concept of dying on a mission didn't particularly bother or shock Boyd, but he didn't like the idea of surviving a mission if it only meant having to deal with permanent ramifications. He'd much prefer to be killed and be done with it rather than have to struggle to survive.

Andrew grimaced and seemed troubled as he looked to the side, absently staring out the large windows at the darkening night beyond.

Harriet gave them all an unimpressed look. "If you're all going to cry over Cade all night, I'm leaving. If you people are still that shocked when someone dies at the Agency, I don't know what to tell you."

Toby just shrugged and stood up, walking over to the case of beer. "Don't expect tears from me."

"I don't think you'd cry for anyone, Toby," Boyd said to lighten the mood.

Toby opened his mouth to retort but Harriet just snorted and walked over, ruffling Toby's hair wildly. "I bet he'd cry about that."

"Hey!" Toby protested, shooting her a glare. "Just because you don't spend any time on your appearance doesn't mean I shouldn't care about mine."

Harriet rolled her eyes and wiped her hand against her jeans, making a face. She likely had hair gel all over it.

Emma snorted lightly and briefly held up her beer as if in tribute. "Hey, if I looked as great as her with that little work, I don't think I'd spend time either. She rolls out of bed and she looks fine. I roll out and it's like return of the Wicked Witch of the West."

Harriet gave Emma a considering look before raising her eyebrows. "It's true. I was shocked the first time I witnessed it."

Toby guffawed loudly at that but Patrick just smiled at Emma. "I don't believe that, even for a second."

Emma glanced over at Patrick with a sense of something akin to shyness in her expression that was there and gone nearly before it could be seen. If Boyd hadn't been watching her, he would have easily missed it.

She recovered quickly with a wide, joking grin. "Well, thank you but unfortunately my flying monkeys would beg to differ."

"What the hell was up with those, anyway?" Andrew threw in from the side, drawing his eyebrows down. "Who thinks up stuff like that?"

"Well, if you believe some scholars, they could have represented the 'Murphy Corps' of the time," Boyd said idly.

When Andrew gave him an odd look, Boyd shifted forward in the chair and explained further. His arms rested across his knees, the glass of vodka held loosely in one hand. "Some people read allegories for the time into Baum's books-- the falling house market, unions, monetary standards... There are several interpretations for the Winged Monkeys but my favorite is that they represented the Pinkertons, who were security guards and spies."

"The Pinkertons?" Emma repeated with a laugh. "How would anyone take them seriously with a name like that?"

"They were named after the man who founded them," Boyd said with a shrug. "He supposedly stopped an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration so he was apparently pretty good."

"You're such a nerd," Emma said amiably, still chuckling. She grinned widely and kicked her feet out in front of her, leaned back on one arm, and took another drink of beer. "Why do you know shit like this off-hand?"

"I read a lot," Boyd said unconcernedly.

"It's a good trait to have," Emma replied with a shrug, seeming amused but not unkind. She raised her eyebrows and pointed at him with the hand holding her beer can. "And for future reference, if we ever play a trivia game I call dibs on you being on my team."

Boyd's lips drew to the side in a slight smirk, looking at her in mild amusement. "Then, for future reference, I'm not very good with random trivia. You'd likely be better off with Jon."

Harriet glanced up from where she knelt by Emma's stereo system. A mixed CD was playing and she seemed to be examining the list of tracks on the small screen. "Is he even showing up tonight?"

Toby gave Harriet a sly look but didn't say whatever he was thinking aloud, instead asking Emma, "I'd been wondering the same thing. Did you get a chance to get in touch with him?"

"Yeah." Emma took another drink of her beer and shook the can a little, making a face when she realized it was empty. She looked over at Toby. "He said he's planning to come but something came up so he'll be late." She paused. "Obviously."

"Ah." Toby looked at Harriet again, raising his eyebrows. "No worries then."

Harriet just gave him a flat look. "Who's worried?"

"Just saying," he replied innocently and then turned to Patrick but not before he could completely mask the smirk on his face. Harriet just rolled her eyes and said nothing in response.

Emma stood and headed toward the kitchen, crinkling the empty beer can along the way. After a moment Boyd followed her to get another drink.

Emma was just finishing putting a few more beer cans in the refrigerator when Boyd turned the corner and stood nearby to wait for her to move. When she glanced back and saw him, she looked a little distracted then stood back with a cold, new beer can in her hands, waiting for him to pour another drink.

Boyd still didn't like beer but he didn't mind vodka and he'd determined that his house was close enough that he could afford a few drinks without irrevocably endangering his driving abilities.

He filled his glass and shut the refrigerator door as he turned to head toward the living room. He was just debating whether the amount of vodka he poured into the glass was too much when he abruptly felt a hand on his arm accompanied with a quiet hiss of, "Boyd, wait."

Boyd blinked and looked back, confused to see Emma looking at him somewhat hesitantly before glancing past him as if to make sure no one else was around.

Giving her an odd look, Boyd turned toward her fully. "Yes?"

Emma dragged him a little closer to the hallway where they would be even less likely to be overheard from the other room, their words covered by the music in the background. Once again she briefly glanced past him out of paranoia before meeting his eyes with an expression that was strangely self-conscious for her.

"Listen," she said so quietly that even Boyd had to strain to hear her over the background noise, "I know this is stupid juvenile of me, but... Well, you're a guy, right?"

The question was rhetorical but she hesitated to glance past him so Boyd raised his eyebrows and said slowly, "Yes..."

"The thing is, I'm usually pretty good at reading people," she said in that same quiet tone, seeming distracted. "But I get really bad at it when I actually care about the person. It's like the more I think about someone, the stupider I get in front of them. So, I mean... Well." She met Boyd's eyes again and fidgeted with her beer can. "I really like Patrick."

Boyd was mildly caught off guard by the fact that she was confiding in him. Emma had consistently reached out to him and seemed to enjoy his presence, so he knew she considered him to be a friendly acquaintance through work; he just hadn't realized it went beyond that. He had to admit that it felt good to know that he'd come such a long way from being perceived as being too haughty to deal with and that Emma didn't question that she could trust him.

Before he had the chance to reply, she continued speaking.

"I'm pretty sure he likes me but I'm being paranoid and I don't want to fuck it up. So, I guess... You heard what he said earlier, right? The way he said it? I don't want to turn into some stupid, crazy girl reading into things too much... I mean, honestly, the man's just a sweetheart in general so it can mean nothing."

She paused, sighed, and pulled her hair behind her ear with a bemused expression. "I know I sound like a twelve-year-old, but what's your take on it all? Has he ever said anything to you either way? Is he the type of guy who's one way in front of a woman and talks shit when just with the guys? Help me out here."

"We've barely spoken... So, no, he's never said anything, and I don't know." She looked a little disappointed in his answer and Boyd tilted his head, considering her. "How did your mission with him go in Australia?"

Emma smiled despite herself. She idly fiddled with the beer can and looked to the side, her eyes going a little distant as she thought back. "Aside from the mission aspect, it was fun. He's easy to be around and he told me all about his kids. We get along pretty well but he's so damn quiet that it's hard to tell what he's thinking. And he seems like a genuine guy but I've been wrong about that before." Her eyes narrowed slightly, with a slightly darker expression than was normal for her, before she looked at him sidelong. "I guess that's why I'm so hesitant."

"Well, I noticed early on that he used to wait around watching you, as if he wanted to say something but was too shy," Boyd said reasonably, continuing to keep his voice quiet so they wouldn't be overheard. "And it's rare to see him laugh or smile but he seems to in your presence. You're easy to be around as well and you both seem like equally good people. I'd say you have a decent chance."

Her smile widened and she seemed truly pleased. "You think?"

"Yes, I think," Boyd said dryly, raising an eyebrow. "Patrick's most likely too shy to initiate anything. He probably thinks he has no chance with you."

"Then maybe I should make a move on him," she said slyly, her eyes falling partially closed and a tricky little smile playing on her lips.

"Maybe," Boyd replied with a slight smirk.

Emma's smile shifted into a grin and she abruptly tugged Boyd forward into a light hug, nearly causing him to spill his drink. Feeling a female body pressed against him was an odd sensation and he realized he didn't know if he'd ever actually been hugged by a woman before. If his mother had ever hugged him, it had been so long ago that he'd since forgotten.

He held his drink to the side carefully to try to avoid any spills and patted her somewhat awkwardly on the back with his free hand. He wasn't really sure what to do in this situation, since people generally didn't hug him out of nowhere.

"Thanks, Boyd," she said quietly then pulled away, looking at him sincerely. "You're a good person too, you know."

Before he had the chance to respond, the doorbell rang and Emma gave him an apologetic look before walking to the door and opening it.

Jon appeared in the doorway looking far too under-dressed for the cold and entirely too unaffected by that fact. He had a fedora on and a threadbare black blazer with a skull and crossbones emblem stitched into the front pocket. The blazer was open over what appeared to be a long sleeved shirt. The only winter item he wore was a loose scarf woven around his neck western-style.

"Sorry I'm late," he said politely as he stepped into the room.

Harriet looked over at him from her position on the floor and made a face. "Nice outfit. Did you miss the part where it's below freezing?"

"Nah." Jon smiled at her and winked. "I left my heavy coat in the car. Didn't want to mess up my entrance with a huge ski jacket and ear muffs and such, right?"

"Right." Harriet shook her head at him and got to her feet, walking to the kitchen and past Boyd to get a beer.

Jon squeezed Emma's shoulder as she closed the door behind him and he offered her a warm smile before greeting the others. "It is bloody freezing out there, though. Emma, you had better be supplying liquor and not waiting for the Irishman to bring it along."

Emma laughed. "Despite my phenomenal taste in music and decor, I doubt I would've been able to keep them all here even this long without boozing them up." She stepped out of the way and gestured to the refrigerator. "Grab whatever you want. There's vodka, rum, beer, gin... Whatever your heart desires."

"Got any Guinness?" Jon asked hopefully as he walked through the living room, cuffing Patrick on the shoulder as he did so. Boyd headed toward the living room as well with his newly refilled glass.

"What's up, man?" Patrick greeted him. "I heard you were awesome throughout training."

"Meh." Jon stopped walking and stood before Patrick, making a 'so-so' gesture with his hand. "I wasn't too shabby but I wasn't on top of it one hundred percent either. The end of it all was fucking horrific, man. I know it sounds insensitive or something but you should almost feel lucky you missed it."

Patrick shrugged silently at that, not looking very sure of what he felt about the alternative.

Harriet re-entered the living room and tossed Jon a Heineken. "Deal with it, Irishboy."

"You do break my heart, Harriet-love," Jon said, holding the beer against his chest with mock sadness.

"But he's right," Harriet went on as if he hadn't spoken. She looked at Patrick. "The last couple of weeks were the worst."

Andrew looked between them all in mild confusion. "Why? The final testing was that bad?"

"Not the tests, although those sucked too," Emma said, expression more reserved than usual. She sat down on the floor again and cracked open her newest beer can. "R2I. Especially the whole... naked uncertainty part." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "And the physical torture." She glanced toward the others almost self-consciously. "What about you guys?"

Boyd leaned against the wall near the kitchen, watching the others with a calm expression. It was good to know he and Toby weren't the only ones who had been so affected by that. Her comment made Boyd wonder how similar all their R2I experiences had been; although both of what she mentioned had happened to him, he actually hadn't been subjected to many physical techniques aside from waterboarding. They'd seemed to realize early on that he reacted more to psychological.

"Definitely the physical torture," Toby agreed, although he didn't meet Emma's eyes as he said it. He studied the television set despite the fact that the screen was black. "They got very creative about it with me, I suppose because they saw how I reacted to pain."

There was a definite note of self-loathing in his tone as he said the words and although it was apparent to everyone, he maintained his typically haughty expression.

"Don't beat yourself up over it, man," Jon said, leaning against the wall next to Harriet and absently brushing his hand against her shoulder. He made it seem like an accident but the almost automatic smirk that quirked on his lips made it obvious that it wasn't, although she once again ignored the attention.

"Who said I was?" Toby retorted coolly, finally looking up.

"Just sayin'," Jon replied easily. "My pain tolerance is nearly as high as my alcohol tolerance and that didn't stop them from nearly twisting my nuts off."

Harriet looked up at him and made a face. "Nice."

"Ain't it?" Jon asked with a grin, not seeming at all bothered by the memory. "I don't mean to be crude, darling, but that's basically what they did."

"I guess I'm lucky I don't have nuts then," Harriet replied dryly, dragging her eyes away from his penetrating blue stare. "And I guess I'm lucky I don't react very much to physical pain. They moved on from that after awhile with me."

"What got you, then?" Emma asked Harriet.

Harriet shrugged and, judging by her expression, she didn't seem very affected by speaking of the ordeal. "It wasn't one particular thing, it was the situation as a whole. I'm used to being in control of everything that's going on around me so having that completely taken away from me was the worst part. The not knowing is what was difficult for me."

Harriet paused for a moment and seemed to think about that before adding, "For the most part I handled the actual techniques better than I expected but the longer it went on, the more they disoriented me with the darkness and the loud blaring music until I had no idea what day it was or anything or how long I had left-- that's what got to me."

"I liked the music," Jon said with an innocent smile.

Harriet made a face at him. "You would."

"That bothered me too, the lack of control," Boyd said honestly, then added, "But the worst part for me was waterboarding."

Patrick shook his head and looked at them all sympathetically, although there was something in his gaze that also seemed like respect. "No matter who ends up getting promoted and who doesn't-- you all should feel damn proud to have gone through all of that. I know guys who were taken captive and tortured during the war and they've never recovered."

"Yeah but they were there probably long term," Harriet said with a shake of her head. "I always knew at the back of my mind that I was at the Agency and that even though they were being as hard fucking core as a real enemy, they weren't going to actually kill me."

"So we think," Toby mumbled.

She shrugged. "Well, yeah."

"It doesn't always feel that way in the midst of it, though," Andrew said, resting his forearms on his knees as he leaned forward. "Even in the training I was in, sometimes I almost wondered if I'd make it through okay. I'm sure Doug was just trying to scare us shitless with all that ominous talk about death and maiming in training, but I can see how it could happen. So I have to say-- I'm with Pat. And in a way I'm glad I didn't make it to the end even though part of me still sort of feels like I suck..."

"It doesn't matter who made it how far," Boyd said, looking at Andrew seriously. His gaze was steady as he met Andrew's eyes. "First of all, only a few of us were nominated in all of the Agency so that alone means something. And for some people, this kind of promotion doesn't fit them. Not because there's anything wrong with them, but because it's not a good fit for their personality. Honestly, I don't think you would have been happy as a 10. At least not the way it's structured right now."

Andrew didn't look away from Boyd's gaze and he seemed to understand what Boyd meant; Andrew's aversion to killing people in cold blood would have made it incredibly difficult for him to make it as a Level 10 and stay emotionally and psychologically balanced.

Andrew nodded but still looked troubled. "True..."

Emma looked between them all and seemed to decide that this was enough of the somewhat dismal atmosphere. She held up her beer can and said cheerfully, "Alright. Toast! For making it through even one day of Doug's shit and all the stuff that came with training."

After a moment, one by one they all raised their own drinks and toasted.

The music shifted tracks in the background and as time passed, they naturally fell back into smaller groups. Boyd ended up moving toward the edge of the room to sit on the sofa, idly watching as Emma, Patrick and Harriet started dancing.

Surprisingly, Patrick didn't seem awkward about dancing with the two women. Despite his typically reserved tendencies, he looked confident and relaxed at the moment.

Jon sat down on the couch, drawing Boyd's gaze away from the trio momentarily.

"Not much of a dancer, eh?" Jon asked with raised eyebrows.

"Not particularly, no," Boyd said dryly. He tilted his head toward the others. "You must not be either or you wouldn't be letting Patrick move in on Harriet like that."

Jon scoffed and relaxed back against the cushions, his eyes following Harriet with a small grin. "I'm not worried; Pat is all about Emma, my man. I stand more chance losing Harriet to Toby and he's a total puff."

Boyd just shrugged easily and drank from his glass, not about to comment either way on his former roommate's sexual orientation. "You never know," he said noncommittally. He paused briefly, watching Emma grin flirtatiously and move a little closer to Patrick, before he looked over at Jon curiously. "What were you doing that made you late, by the way?"

Jon raised his eyebrows and glanced at Boyd. "Important battle with an unruly young hacker trying to get into my system. Don't worry-- the young one was schooled. Or at least I hope he was young for how horrid he was."

"You're that into computers?" Boyd asked, his attention turning fully to Jon, interested mostly because he knew very little about the man.

"I dunno about 'that into,'" Jon replied in his drawling accent, his eyes going back to moving up and down Harriet's body in a manner that seemed very much like he was undressing her with his eyes. "But I understand them very well, the ins and the outs. That's one of the reasons I'm in Spec Ops. When they need a computer nerd who can also beat the brains out of a terrorist, they call me."

Boyd laughed and shook his head to himself, kicking his legs out in front of him. "You don't seem like a computer nerd, but then, that doesn't mean much. Did that help you with the video's decryption? Doug said you handed it in a week before me."

"Ahhh, I wondered if I was the only one working on that!" Jon stopped molesting Harriet with his eyes to turn to Boyd entirely, appearing more interested in the conversation now. "I dunno if it helped, truthfully. When you understand computer code... you learn to see things a different way, so maybe."

Boyd nodded then asked curiously, "Did you do additional research? I tried to look into it more than just deciphering the message but there was such limited information..."

"Not a ton. I didn't put a whole lot of time into it," Jon replied carelessly, shrugging. "Well not more than I had to after spending eight years figuring out that shite."

"So it took you that long, too?" Boyd asked in mild amusement, smirking lightly and feeling somehow vindicated. "With how much better you were at everything, I'd started to think you'd solved it right away and were just waiting to hand it in. At least I wasn't the only one who had to struggle with it."

"I dunno about me being better at everything," Jon protested mildly. "I'm efficient in some fields and really good in others. I think we're both on the same level as far as undercover goes. I'm surprised you got it so quick since you've only been on for a couple of years."

Boyd shrugged, briefly distracted when Emma suddenly laughed loudly. He looked over just in time to see her throwing her head back, one hand resting on Patrick's arm while he smiled at her quietly.

"I don't know," Boyd said idly, returning his gaze to Jon. "I suppose in some ways it comes pretty easily to me, maybe because I'm usually quiet so I've had a lot of opportunity to watch other people and how they interact, which makes it easier to mimic later. Not to mention it's not uncommon for people to underestimate me or just look past me." He tilted his head thoughtfully. "I did have an undercover stint that lasted almost a year in Mexico, though; that probably helped in some fashion."

"Mexico?" Jon's voice held a note of interest although it was so mild that it barely seemed to be there. "I'd heard about a debacle in Mexico. Was that you?"

Boyd grimaced; in retrospect, he probably shouldn't have mentioned Monterrey. Now Jon was probably thinking of all the unflattering rumors he'd heard and, making it even worse, most likely they were all true.

"Unfortunately," Boyd admitted, his eyes narrowing slightly in remembrance. "The end was pretty horrific but the rest of it was smooth."

Jon nodded and gave Boyd a discreet smile; it was just a brief lifting of the corners of his mouth but somehow it seemed more genuine that way. It fit his typically reserved personality. "Don't let it bug you, Boyd. We all fuck up in the first couple of years. It's only natural and look how far you've come now, right?"

"True," Boyd said, smiling faintly at Jon in return. "Of course, I don't think the fuck ups are typically that grand in scale, but it's over and done with so there's no point in dwelling on it." He quirked an eyebrow. "Did you have anything detrimental happen to you in your first few years?"

Jon leaned forward and grabbed his beer from the floor, slurping down a gulp as he tilted his head thoughtfully. "Shot a guy, the wrong guy, in my first real mission. Ran into an old girlfriend who moved here from the UK and didn't tell no one till she came hunting me down here; and the real gem of 'em all, on my first undercover op I forgot to ditch my accent."

Boyd laughed again, mostly amused by the girlfriend comment. "That's pretty unfortunate," he said in agreement. "I guess I'm lucky that I wouldn't have to worry about a girlfriend tracking me down or anything like that. What happened with her that she followed you all the way here?"

"Oh, you know how it is." Jon rested the beer against his knee, his fingers holding it loosely. Scar tissue was heavily evident on his hand but Jon didn't try to hide it. "We ran into each other. She came to the city for some job or another, something to do with recovery and poverty or some humanitarium thing. She was all excited to see me, thought I'd been killed back in Ireland, and we ended up having a few rolls in bed. I told her I was working at JP like a fool and she came calling when I didn't call her first."

"Ahh." Boyd raised his eyebrows. "I don't imagine that went over well."

"Not really, no," Jon said with a low chuckle. His blue eyes strayed to Harriet's lithe frame again. She'd stopped dancing and headed to the kitchen, likely to refresh her drink. Jon set the beer back down. "I'm going to have to excuse myself for a moment, Boyd. I see an opening to sweep the lady off her feet. You should go mingle with Toby. He looks lonely now that Andrew's gone off to dance."

Boyd nodded and finished his drink before turning his attention to the rest of the room. Toby did look pretty bored as he leaned back in a chair and eyed his watch. After a moment, Boyd set his empty glass on a nearby table then walked over to sit near Toby, who looked mildly relieved when Boyd started up a conversation.

The rest of the night passed comfortably and enjoyably. Boyd found himself laughing more than once at stories or jokes that others told and he even ended up in an amiable conversation with Harriet at one point. By the end of the night everyone mostly seemed to feel on equal ground regardless of how long they'd been in training or how well they felt they'd done.

The party lasted well into the night and by the time Boyd left, he found himself pleased for no particular reason. He'd always only been close to one or two people at once and since his default behavior was rather antisocial, he wasn't accustomed to having a fun night at a party or socializing with multiple people at once. Although some aspects of training had felt like hell to go through, in the end it had given all of them a sense of connection that otherwise wouldn't have been there.

And that felt more welcoming and encouraging to Boyd than he'd anticipated.

Boyd shut the door to Doug's office behind him and sat down by the desk.

When Doug began speaking, he didn't even look up. "Your rank has already been upgraded," he informed Boyd in a bland voice. "And so has your pay. Missions will be assigned to you as they come about but other than that, everything will remain the same."

Boyd blinked, completely taken off guard by receiving the news immediately. Although he'd hoped he would be promoted, he'd begun to wonder if it would happen, considering the times he'd screwed up. He'd already come to terms with the possibility that he hadn't made it, so hearing so abruptly that he had was startling. Satisfaction mingled with a faint sense of disbelief.

"So-- I made it?"

Doug raised an eyebrow and was silent for a moment before finally met Boyd's gaze, "There were three realistic contenders as the group shortened," he said calmly. "Jon, Harriet and you were at the top of the list. I never realistically believed any of the others would make it. Patrick is too devoted to his loved ones, Andrew is too noble, Emma lacks the cut throat qualities a Level 10 needs, Toby is best suited where he is-- in Intel and maybe Spec Ops in the future, and Cade... well, let's not talk about Cade."

Boyd watched him; for the most part the assessment made sense to him but something about it nagged at him. He didn't have the time to properly analyze it, though. Instead, he was focused on the fact that there were apparently three contenders for three open spots.

"Were Jon and Harriet promoted too, then?"

Doug narrowed his eyes slightly. "Jon was but despite the fact that you and Harriet performed relatively identically, she wasn't."

"What? Why not?" Boyd almost mentioned aloud how odd that was since there were three openings but he remembered at the last moment that he wasn't supposed to know that information.

"Because neither of you were strong enough candidates," Doug said flatly.

Boyd stared at him. "Then why am I being promoted?"

Doug scoffed and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "You can't be that stupid."

Boyd narrowed his eyes slightly, his expression otherwise remaining unreadable by default .

There was really only one answer; the only difference between Harriet and himself was that his mother was currently in charge of the Agency. But Boyd couldn't believe that Vivienne would actually use connections as a reason to promote him, not after she spent so much time talking about how she didn't even want to be blood-related to him and how everything he did unfortunately reflected back on her.

He had thought he could trust her for one thing, at least: to be ruthlessly logical; to view him only as a candidate and not as her son. He'd never expected her to go against that; after all, she'd worked so hard to get to the position she was at, to be taken seriously, that if anyone thought she was playing favorites they could lose faith in her decisions. She should have been extra cautious, especially since she was now holding two jobs until the new Marshal appeared.

Doug's expression twisted the same way it had since the Ethan Bruce mission; since the time Kassian had told Boyd he was surprised Boyd hadn't been dropped. And truthfully, Andrew and Patrick had been kicked out for far less than almost completely messing up their first Level 10 mission.

Before Annadale Beach, Doug hadn't particularly seemed to care about Boyd either way, but ever since then Doug had an obvious, unrelenting, intense distaste for Boyd. Although Boyd had wondered why that was, he'd always just assumed it had to do with the mission and nothing else. He'd never once thought that his mother had actually been involved. But now it all made sense.

Doug had probably determined that Boyd had failed and Vivienne must have said no. If that was the case, the idea of her going out of her way to promote him when the Instructor determined he didn't deserve it only infuriated Boyd.

"What did she say when you tried to kick me out after Annadale?" Boyd's displeased tone made it more of a statement than a question.

Doug shook his head and chuckled but the sound was unpleasant and scathing. "It doesn't matter what she said. It was made clear that my professional opinion of you didn't matter because she had determined you would be promoted from the start. That mission proved you don't fucking belong at the top-- that you ain't ready for it. And it ain't like you excelled everywhere else either, boy. Your performance was mediocre at best; the one place you did well was undercover which means you should just stay in your current position in your current unit just like Toby."

The Instructor made a disgusted sound at the back of his throat as he stared at Boyd as if he were something he'd stepped in. "If I had a choice between you and Harriet, I would have chosen Harriet but she ain't ready either."

"Well, that's not right," Boyd said bluntly, too angry to be able to fully hide it. "I didn't know she'd actually pull that and whether or not you believe me, I don't agree with her decision either. The point of this was to see who deserved the promotion, not see who she felt like sticking 'Level 10' by the name."

Doug stared at him and seemed very unmoved by the words. "Well it don't matter, boy. It's done and it can't be undone. All I can do now is hope something tragic happens to you on an assignment so that your mother can see how fucking stupid her decision was. Now get out of my office."

Boyd didn't wait for another word before he stood and left. He immediately headed toward the Tower, his expression turning colder as his anger grew with each stride. He felt incredibly agitated; furious with his mother for doing this. All the hope and expectations he'd put into this, all the hard work and all the shit he knew he'd get for this-- it was all for nothing.

It was bullshit-- the very antithesis of what he'd been working for. What had been the point of all that if he wasn't being seen as himself? Knowing that he was going to be promoted for all the wrong reasons, knowing that he didn't deserve it and that Doug knew this, that Carhart probably knew it too, that anyone who found out would only blame Boyd or look down on him further because of it-- The knowledge infuriated him.

He felt simultaneously caught in a trap and angry that he hadn't seen this coming, that he'd let himself trust his mother even as much as he had and that she'd thrown it all in his face. That she was still using him despite everything and that she probably didn't care.

He didn't want the added responsibility of Level 10 if it wasn't right for him. He didn't want to be promoted if it was all just a lie. Otherwise what had been the point of it all-- the stress, the exhaustion, the fear, and how in the background everything had gotten so fucked up with Sin?

His agitation only intensified on the long elevator ride to the top of the building, to the point that his expression had become ice cold and his mood made no one even consider talking to him. He made his way past the checkpoints on the seventeenth floor by flashing his badge and saying he needed to speak to his mother. The guards allowed him to pass-- maybe determining that, as her son, his presence was acceptable, or maybe they were anticipating that he would come.

Regardless of the case, Boyd walked right up to Aisha's desk in the foyer of his mother's office. "I need to see my mother," he said firmly.

She looked at him, thoroughly startled, and started to say, "That's not allo--"

Before she knew what he was doing, Boyd leaned over the desk and slammed his hand on the button he knew would buzz him into his mother's office.

"You can't--!" Aisha protested in surprise but Boyd ignored her, striding across the room and yanking the office door open before the little green light flipped off again. He shut the door firmly behind him and immediately stalked up to Vivienne's desk, ignoring Aisha's harried voice over the intercom as she apologized and belatedly warned Vivienne of Boyd's presence.

"Take it back." Boyd's eyes were narrowed and his voice was a firm command.

Vivienne didn't even look up from what she was doing; she had ignored Aisha's comment as thoroughly as she ignored the abrupt entrance. "You do not have an appointment."

"I don't need one," Boyd said without a hint of hesitation.

"I do not have time for this," she said disinterestedly. Her expression remained unaffected and unchanging; for all that she reacted, she may as well have been alone in the room. Her ice blue eyes tracked the paper in front of her, quickly skimming information on a page as she made occasional notes on a separate sheet. "Leave my office and return when you've gone through the proper channels."

"I'm not going to leave," Boyd said firmly, eyes narrowed and arms crossed as he stared coldly down at her.

The fact that she wouldn't even look at him after what she'd done was only serving to anger him further. He hadn't felt such a strong emotion in a long time; he didn't know the last time he'd been so angry that his body shook just slightly, that he felt as though he wasn't fully in control. All he could think as he stared at her face was that all that time he'd been in training, all the shit he'd gone through and all the things he'd compromised-- the whole time he'd been trying so hard to be simply himself, she'd been watching from the background ready to yank away even that amount of control he had over his life.

The same intensity of anger and betrayal he'd once felt upon finding out Sin had been sleeping with someone else, upon unquestioned trust in something suddenly being compromised, now shifted toward his mother. It made his eyes darken and jaw set; it built the tension in his shoulders until his back was stiff and his fingers curled tightly.

"If you want me to play by the rules then you need to too," Boyd continued flatly. "Treat me exactly like another agent you have no connection with or don't be surprised when I walk in expecting a moment to speak with my mother."

Vivienne continued to write for a moment before finally looking up. She considered him coolly at length but then laid her pen down and folded her hands in front of her. Her expression was an unreadable mask, her eyes scrutinizing him even as she gave nothing away. "Do not mistake this as acceptance of your ridiculous assertion; I simply know how childish you can be and feel no need to deal with your antics. I will give you one minute. What are you feeling victimized about now?"

"The promotion," Boyd said, eyes narrowing further at her.

He assumed her comment about childishness was a reference to how he had once yelled outside Connors' office that he wanted to be let in, but it still sent a spike of annoyance through him. Although it was true that it had been an immature move, he thought these circumstances rightfully warranted his irritation toward her and because of that, they were not comparable.

"It's bullshit and it hasn't been declared across compound yet," he continued pointedly. "It can still be taken back."

"I will do no such thing," Vivienne said without even the slightest hint of hesitation.

"Why not?" Boyd demanded, the frustration and irritation growing inside him despite the fact his expression became colder by the second. "Explain to me the fucking logic."

Vivienne's expression did not so much as flicker. "The purpose of the training was to appoint passing candidates into positions that needed to be filled. If you do not understand something that simplistic then I have no need to explain it further. Our conversation is finished."

"Bullshit," Boyd said immediately, glaring at her coldly. "Why don't you try again, explaining in the way you'll tell your superiors why your son, whose score was no higher than Agent Stevens and who royally fucked up in Annadale Beach, is getting promoted despite the Instructor determining that he doesn't deserve it."

Her eyes narrowed slightly, perhaps due to the fact that his words had come out like an order. "Despite your extreme lapse of professionalism and attention on that mission, you single-handedly stopped the target."

"I single-handedly almost got us both killed," Boyd corrected, scrutinizing her. "If Cade hadn't appeared--"

"I am quite aware of the details and I am uninterested in your opinion," Vivienne cut him off coolly. Her posture was perfectly straight, her hands completely still on the desk, and her eyes were slightly narrowed as she watched him in disinterest. "This is not a negotiation, Agent Beaulieu. You accepted the possibility of promotion the moment you accepted the nomination."

"What I accepted was being treated like anyone else," Boyd protested in a low voice lost between derision and incredulity. "Do you even care what this looks like? What the hell worse time is there for you to pull the mommy strings than when you're God of the Agency?"

"I don't see--"

"You do; that's the problem," Boyd cut her off firmly and dropped his hands on the desk, leaning forward to stare at her with intense brown eyes. The strength of his expression drilled into her, his eyebrows drawn down just enough to shadow his near-glare. "You see everything, think everything through; you just consider people to be numbers in columns and words on paper. You decide what's ideal for you and forget the inconvenience, pain, devastation of everyone else. You've been that way for as long as I can remember and I'm not going to stand here arguing against that because there's no point."

Boyd's expression grew a little darker. "But this," and it was clear he meant the promotion, "this is hurting us both. So I really think I have the right to fucking know why you're using me like this. Is it because you think you can control me? Do you think you have me figured out, especially after R2I? Or are you simply under the impression that you can trust me because I'm your child and somewhere along the line I got that same ridiculous notion as you: job first, everything else second." He said the last part as a flat statement.

Vivienne watched him closely and without emotion for a long moment before she dismissed him by looking down at her papers again. "Your minute is up."

"Listen to me," Boyd commanded, and when she picked up her pen to start writing, Boyd's anger overcame him. Without thinking, he reached out, yanking the pen from her hand and throwing it across the room. She looked up with a narrowed stare and started to reach for her intercom but Boyd slammed his hand down on that, too, and leaned forward over the desk with his glare becoming ice cold and furious. "Fucking listen to me!" he practically yelled.

"What do you think you're doing," Vivienne demanded. Her cool, collected expression was finally starting to shift a little, eyes narrowing in something akin to irritation rather than the typical disappointment, and even her lips tightened slightly.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Boyd retorted angrily. He glared at her fully now, eyebrows drawn down and shoulders tense. "I'm trying to be logical about this and it's getting us nowhere. If you don't want to answer why you're doing this, fine. But I honestly want to know what you'll be telling your superiors, what shit I should be telling other people. Because this is bullshit-- you know it, I know it, probably all the trainees will know it."

Vivienne scrutinized him but didn't immediately answer so Boyd continued in frustration.

"It's already difficult enough being your son; everyone automatically assumes I'm using your connections. And in some ways it's happened that way, without me meaning to. I'm sure Connors wanted to punish me after I got Sin out, I'm sure he wanted to take Sin back. I'm sure I would've been terminated after Monterrey if it had been up to Connors. As far as that goes, maybe I would've been after Annadale, too."

She raised her eyebrows slightly and her eyes were no longer narrowed, but her posture was stiff. "You certainly seem convinced that I care about your life."

"If you didn't care if I died, you would've let me bleed to death after Lou," Boyd said dismissively, uninterested in debate. "I'm under no delusion that you love me or particularly care about me as a person and I'm sure a large part of the reason back then was to avoid any embarrassment. But I think it's more than that, even if it's just that I'm the only living connection you have anymore to Dad."

Vivienne looked unimpressed. "Your theories are meaningless. If you do not leave immediately, I can assure you there will be worse consequences than there already are."

Boyd ignored her warning, fingers tightening on the intercom and shoulders growing even more tense. "The point is, I'm not going to sit here denying that you've probably helped me for whatever skewed reason you have in your head, but it's different when it's internal workings. Level 10 is too high profile. No one will ever believe I deserved it, not this young and with so few years of experience. It's going to make people look down on you, too; all that hard work to be taken seriously will disappear." His eyes narrowed into slits and his jaw set, giving him at once a stubborn and determined demeanor. "So tell me what the hell is going on."

Vivienne reached for the intercom buzzer again but Boyd grabbed her wrist. This time when she looked up, there was no mercy in her intense glare; nothing but cold, unrelenting displeasure.

"You will release me immediately."

Despite the fact that Boyd was stronger than her and her voice was quiet, and that Boyd was standing while she was sitting, at that moment she was far more intimidating than Boyd could ever hope to be. It was in her voice, her body language; that frozen quality of her expression and narrowed, ice blue eyes.

Her gaze drilled into him as though she could see right through him, as if she were privy to every thought running through his mind and she knew exactly how to exploit it; like she knew exactly why each thought was imbecilic and laughably incorrect. Like she knew how to turn that all against him if he didn't do exactly as she said.

She could have commanded an army to stop and at that moment, Boyd almost thought that they would have listened.

He hesitated, fingers loosening despite himself, but he didn't fully let go. "Just tell me," he said, less demanding although still determined. Some of the tension left his shoulders but he still didn't move. "The longer you avoid it, the more I think I'm right."

"You are misinterpreting disinterest in catering to the whims of a self-important child as avoidance," Vivienne said coldly. Her fingers curled slightly in the hand he still held captive and her back stiffened even further, her head held high, giving her the air of looking down on him even though she was seated while he stood. She pulled her wrist out of his grasp but didn't move toward the intercom. "I have nothing to avoid with you. You are unimportant to me as a whole; the few times I find myself interested in your life quickly fade when I recall how difficult you make life for those around you. I am utterly uninterested in your opinion regarding the promotion."

She raised her eyebrows imperiously. "But if you must know, because the world revolves around you and you have the right to interrupt others' lives for answers you feel you are entitled to, then I will explain something. Despite your faults, you are a good agent. When you are not letting whatever childish emotion you happen to feel at the time interfere with the mission, you are dependable. There are certain skills that make you of use even more to the Agency and in this case, your repertoire as a whole warrants a promotion."

He stared at her for a long moment before releasing the intercom and straightening his back. His expression became blank, honey brown eyes a little duller. "Valentine," he said tonelessly.

She stared at him evenly then pressed the buzzer. "Aisha. Call the guards. I require two at my location and another to ready cell 415."

Boyd's expression didn't so much as twitch at her words; he recognized the cell number as one of them in the isolation wing of Fourth. Even knowing he would be sent there, it did nothing to deter him from needing to finish this conversation.

Aisha's voice came over the intercom in acknowledgment before Vivienne released the button and folded her hands in front of her again, watching Boyd without any sense of emotion or sympathy. "I have told you before that your actions have consequences."

"You were so angry about it, though," Boyd said, eyes narrowing as he tried to understand. "Now that you're in power, why wouldn't you just make it go away? Why would you utilize it even more?"

Vivienne quirked an eyebrow, and the look in her eyes made it clear she felt that to be an imbecilic question. "You wish to be treated no differently yet you expect me to pass up a viable skill for negotiation?"

"Negotiation?" Boyd echoed incredulously. "You just want me to go fuck random people so they'll give up their friends. That's not negotiation."

"You seemed to believe it was in France," Vivienne said evenly and Boyd was struck silent, looking away with a dark expression.

He couldn't believe that one of the reasons he was being promoted was because he'd slept with Thierry; because the Agency was interested in using him for that again in the future. He knew it was more than that, though; even being a valentine operative wasn't enough to promote him considering his apparent mediocrity in nearly everything else. If anything, he could have just received valentine missions as a Level 9.

This was still a promotion that Vivienne was pushing because she had an ulterior motive; probably because she felt certain she could trust him to be loyal to the Agency or her despite everything else. Or maybe there was something else Boyd didn't know about going on in the background.

Whatever the case, none of it made Boyd feel any better.

"I don't always make the best decisions," Boyd said quietly, then returned his intense gaze to her as his voice strengthened stubbornly. "That's the point. Doug doesn't believe I'm ready for promotion and it's his job to know. It doesn't make me happy to be told I'm not good enough but I'll accept it if that's the truth, if that's the extent of my abilities so far. Promoting me just because you can, because it fits whatever scenario you have where you can use me further-- isn't that just dangerous? What if something happens, what if I'm in a situation where I can't handle it? What if I die? You'd not only be losing a 10 but the 9 that I was, too."

Her expression did not so much as twitch as she said calmly, "That is a risk I am willing to take."

Boyd stared at her at length, feeling unsurprised and disappointed and still somehow hurt, then shook his head. He started to look away from her when his attention was caught by a small, beat-up book amidst larger, newer-looking books on the shelf behind her.

The small book had handwriting along the spine and although Boyd had seen it in her office before, he only now recognized it as being similar to his father's journals he'd found in the attic. It made him think of the journals he'd been reading; of his father's optimistic and adventurous spirit; of the man who felt so much love for his wife and child that he'd seemed incapable of going an entry without mentioning them. Boyd was learning a lot about his parents through the journals, about Cedrick's beliefs and the topics he'd written articles on, as well as the aspirations he'd had.

For Cedrick, his idealism had sometimes not quite been tempered by his realism. He'd seemed optimistic that life could get better, that everything would improve, despite the fallibility of the human race and the problems in the government. Yet he'd also been determined to find the truth and he'd written more than once that it was important that all sides were honest, be it in war or daily life; even if the words were difficult to say or hear. And especially if it was admitting a grievous mistake.

Cedrick talked a lot about his family; first it was how much he wanted one and the acknowledgment that Vivienne seemed less enthused, and how he was hoping she would change her mind. Then it was how happy and humbled he was by the birth of his child. Even the times when Cedrick had mentioned a disagreement with Vivienne or exasperation with something Boyd had done, there was always an undercurrent of pride.

As if Cedrick had been saying, "This is my family. We aren't perfect by definition but we are for me. I love them, I never want anyone else."

"Was it worth it?" Boyd asked quietly.

"The guards are here, Marshal," Aisha's voice suddenly said over the intercom. "Would you like them to enter now?"

But Vivienne didn't immediately press the button; instead, her eyes were narrowed slightly as she studied Boyd's face. Despite the fact that normally she would have ignored the question, for some reason she didn't.

"Was what worth it?" she asked evenly.

"The decisions you made in your life," Boyd clarified, watching her closely. "Leaving France to be with my dad, having a child you didn't want just to get closer to him, just because he wanted it. Throwing yourself into a job I'm not even convinced you initially loved; letting Dad's death make you even colder than before. Working for an organization he would have hated; using and hurting anyone you want around you because you were hurt yourself. All that to get to this point, to be sitting there at that desk with the ability to make decisions like telling your son to go exchange sex for information that will probably be used to get people killed, all because one time he made a stupid mistake. Telling your son to maybe get killed or maimed on a mission because something about his promotion is convenient for you."

His honey brown eyes were narrowed and intense on her, scrutinizing every minute shift of her face and body language. "Was it worth it?"

Her expression remained resolute, unreadable, and although there was the briefest flicker in her ice cold eyes, it was gone too quickly for him to know what it was. It could have been irritation that he was still talking or it could have been something else, something deeper; something that maybe meant she was actually thinking about what he said or she felt it wasn't worth it after all. Despite that, her posture didn't change; her back was still stiff, her fingers not even twitching as they rested on the desk in front of her.

He would probably never know what she truly thought.

She didn't break eye contact with Boyd as she pressed the button. "Send them in."

Mother and son continued to stare at each other, neither expression giving anything away even as the guards came on either side of Boyd, even as they grabbed his arms. The intense stare was only broken when the guards turned Boyd around.

"I hope it is for you," Boyd said evenly over his shoulder as they started to lead him out of the office. He didn't look behind him; he didn't want to see her face. "I don't think he would've been proud."

The only answer was the door shutting firmly behind them.

Boyd let the guards lead him to Fourth Floor; he didn't speak or resist-- he simply stared forward with a resolute expression.

He wasn't too surprised by the fact that he was being put into isolation-- he knew of agents who had been put into temporary isolation for various infractions that warranted discipline but not an extreme visit with Shane. Although Boyd had never been put in isolation before, with how angry he was about the promotion he wouldn't have been able to rein in his temper even if the consequences had resulted in torture.

Even when they shoved him into a tiny cell with no windows and a single door that shut resoundingly behind him, he didn't say anything. There was a hole in the corner of the room for him to go to the bathroom and that was it; no cot, no sink, no chair, no window on the door to the hallway-- nothing. The light seemed to come from everywhere at once yet no fixture was readily visible.

He stood in the middle of the room for a long moment, eyes narrowed and frigid as he glared at a point on the opposite wall, tension building steadily in his frame until his shoulders nearly ached from it, before he finally walked across the room. It wasn't until his jaw started to ache that he even realized that he was gritting his teeth. Tension flooded his body and the agitation, the anger-- it all grew within him steadily, with nothing to distract it in that tiny, silent room.

He felt an overwhelming, frustrating sense of impotence at the irony of his situation. So many choices in his life had become utterly unattainable since he'd joined the Agency; whether he lived or died, whether he did things he didn't want to, even who he could love or befriend. Yet of the few choices he'd made, it seemed like the only ones permanently taken into account were so resoundingly negative that they set him back further in his life.

He slammed his fist abruptly against the wall, hissing angrily, "Shit!"

He grit his teeth so hard it nearly hurt and dropped his forehead against the wall, his forearm resting rough cement even as he partially hunched forward. His hand twinged in pain but he didn't care; at that moment, he would have tried to break the wall apart with his bare hands if it would have made him feel better, even if it would have broken every bone in his limbs.

He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to control the quaking in his limbs, the frustration that made him want to scream. Tension made his body taut and uncomfortable, made his shoulders ache with the pressure of trying to stop himself from doing anything other than what he was doing-- standing still when he felt like everything inside him wanted to rip out.

He suddenly hit the wall again, less hard this time, and made a low, angry noise that twisted out of his throat but didn't become words.

He concentrated on trying to control his breathing, on reining the frustration in, and slowly he was able to come back to himself enough that he could unlock the frozen muscles in his back and push himself away. He turned and slid down until he was sitting against the wall, his legs and arms draped over his knees. His eyes were narrowed in an ice cold glare before he abruptly slammed his head back against the wall.

The wound on the back of his head screamed at the movement and the pain of that combined with his hand was welcome as a way to distract him from the anger coursing through his veins.

He couldn't believe his life had become this.

As he sat there in the completely silent, tiny room, he felt so overwhelmed that he realized his breath was starting to quicken, his heart and throat felt twisted and heavy.

Part of him wanted to explode with anger-- he wanted to punch and kick the walls more, to throw his body against the door and try to rip it off its hinges, to scream until his throat was raw and voice was lost. As if that would make this better; as if it would change anything. As if it would do anything but give the guards something to laugh about.

Another part almost wanted to cry from sheer frustration-- to let the feeling of being completely overwhelmed and without any sense of control in his life eclipse everything else, to just give in to the feeling of pained sorrow he tried so hard to deny but couldn't every time he remembered his mother saying so seriously, "That is a risk I am willing to take."

He didn't want this.

He didn't want to be stuck as Level 10, a mockery of all his hard work shoved in his face, to be forced into missions or situations he didn't feel comfortable with-- not if it wasn't all for a purpose, not if it wasn't all at least proving he was strong enough on his own.

He felt disgusted and used; he felt like a sham. Comparing himself to Jon, Kassian and Sin, there was no question that Boyd wasn't their equal and this was just going to make that even clearer. Sin had tried to warn him against going for Level 10 and now Boyd wished he'd just listened; he wished he'd never trusted his mother to treat him like any other trainee.

He sat there for a long time, going over the argument with his mother, coming to grips with the new turn his life had taken; trying to deal with the anger and resentment that seeped into every facet of him at the idea of everything he'd been working so hard to get away from becoming precisely the reason he was being promoted.

Knowing now what he did-- that valentine operatives existed and, in the process of becoming one, he'd in effect given his mother that extra bit of leverage needed to force him exactly into the position he'd been trying so hard to escape--

Now there was no longer any question in Boyd's mind: It didn't matter anymore whether Thierry would have given him the information or not; with these consequences, fucking Thierry in France had been a mistake. He couldn't really blame anyone for the situation he was in now since it was all his own fault, yet he couldn't help feeling frustrated and angry despite that.

That night of sex for information had changed everything for Boyd, had gathered momentum and rolled into his future and fucked everything up for him so completely that now, sitting there with his eyes narrowed in anger and shoulders tense against the rough cement wall behind him in isolation, it made him wonder how the hell he'd ever been so naive.

How could he have believed that he had been doing the right thing, that no one would take note of it and use it against him? How could he have trusted the Agency or his mother not to twist his mistakes around until they became snares that caught him in their web? How could he have thought it wouldn't fuck everything up between he and Sin?

At the thought of his partner, Boyd's eyes slid shut and he pressed his head back against the wall a little harder, the ache in his head a reminder of what had happened on New Year's Eve.

Sin's expression was burned into his memory from the psych room; that vulnerable hopefulness buried amidst regret, pain, and the guardedness that had made it all disappear. Carhart's words moved through his mind, 'he loves you,' and a dull pain twisted Boyd's stomach.

Something didn't sit right with him and he didn't understand why for the longest time until Doug's words caught in his head; the reasons they each hadn't been promoted. Doug had said Patrick was too devoted to his loved ones and suddenly Boyd realized why that had bothered him.

He wanted to believe he was devoted to his loved ones, too. He wanted to believe he'd do anything for the person he loved-- but he realized with a sinking feeling that he wouldn't. When he put himself in Patrick's place in Australia, when he tried to imagine what he would've done had he found out that Sin was ill back in the States-- would he have left?

He probably would have only if he'd thought his presence would have made a significant difference-- if it was a life or death situation and if he wasn't there, then Sin would die or be seriously hurt. Otherwise, he would have thought that it was better to continue with training, to not lose sight of his own goals.

He wouldn't have thought twice about that decision, either.

It wouldn't have mattered if Sin would have just appreciated or wanted Boyd by his side-- Boyd still would have looked at the situation with ice cold logic and determined that Sin's feelings of gratefulness for his presence in a non-life-threatening situation wouldn't have outweighed what Boyd would have gained by staying in training; wouldn't have been more important than Boyd advancing in his skills.

Yet when he remembered Sin's expression-- when he imagined how it must have felt for Sin to feel himself falling apart at the seams, to literally be going crazy, and to still think of Boyd in the midst of that-- Boyd almost felt ashamed in comparison.

He'd been telling Sin for a year that he loved him; he'd used it as a reason he'd felt so angry and resentful about Jessica, about Ann. And there was no doubt in Boyd's mind that he did feel love for Sin.

He couldn't not feel it; he couldn't not be affected by Sin's presence, or not think of him when he wasn't around, or not want him to be happy. He couldn't not want to touch him, to run his fingers through that silky hair. He couldn't not appreciate those quiet smiles, that startled laugh. He couldn't not feel emotions when he thought of Sin, and he couldn't not want to be with him.

Yet Boyd's love wasn't unconditional.

He would sacrifice himself for Sin-- he had literally been willing to die when Chingón had held a gun to his head back in Monterrey-- yet it was clear that the feeling wasn't universal for Boyd. He would still choose his training over Sin if he deemed Sin's issues to be insignificant enough or his training to be important enough.

What the hell was that saying about Boyd, when he knew he didn't even care about the Agency's goals? Was his pride so strong that the idea of failing in training or a personal goal outweighed the support he could give to someone he loved?

And even when Boyd did think of Sin first, it tended to be self-destructive and based on what he perceived Sin to want. After Monterrey, there had been no question in Boyd's mind that he'd deserved to suffer for the rest of his life for what he'd done to his partner; he'd been willing to sacrifice any sense of future freedom and happiness in atonement for his mistakes with Sin. He would have stayed in that house forever, killing himself slowly with regret in the name of the person he loved.

But Sin hadn't asked for that, hadn't even wanted that, and it had been guilt that had formed the solution in Boyd's mind.

Boyd knew he would die for Sin when it came down to it; he would still protect his partner with his life. Would he put himself through hell for fear of losing Sin? Yes, in many ways he would and he had. Yet would he give everything up for Sin-- even if it was inconvenient for him, even if it interfered with his goals, even if it interrupted work?

He wanted to believe he would but now he wasn't certain. Now, he realized the answer was probably 'not yet.'

It wasn't anything malicious or purposeful on Boyd's part; it was just that something seemed ingrained in him, something that led him automatically down paths that put his wants above others' needs. He wanted to be different that this, he wanted to have no doubts he could be there for someone like Sin as much as Sin needed it, yet if Boyd was being bluntly honest with himself, it was clear he still had a ways to go. It was obvious that in some ways he still needed to grow a lot stronger as an individual.

If Boyd compared his own outlook to Sin's, there was no doubt that Sin was more devoted. If Sin had been in Patrick's place-- if he'd been on assignment and had heard that Boyd was ill, would Sin have returned?

Boyd thought it was likely he would have. Sin would've probably said fuck it to whatever mission he was on and he would have returned to Boyd.

Because he loved Boyd.

He loved him enough to want to die for hurting him, loved him enough to kill himself slowly for fear of losing him, loved him enough to suffer silently if he thought it was in Boyd's interest. Sin loved Boyd enough to make difficult decisions easily, as if there were no contest; he went toward Boyd as if he hadn't even considered any other choices.

Yet, as much as Boyd hadn't been lying when he'd said he loved Sin, he looked at Sin as more of part of an equation. A very large, important part; but a part nonetheless.

The realization, combined with the sham of the promotion and the fact it had somehow caught him so off guard, made him feel discouraged enough in general to find it difficult to deny or disbelieve anything bad that he thought about himself.

Boyd's mind moved at times sluggishly and at times too quickly for his thoughts to properly form. He didn't know how long he was stuck in the cell although it felt like several days to him. It was consistently light in the room and he had no way of gauging time; they'd taken his watch and personal effects from him so he was in there without anything to distract himself.

It gave him too much time too think, too much time to obsess over what had been said. The time only heightened his feeling of impotence and although the frustration faded somewhat, the disgust over his current situation did not.

He felt tired and didn't sleep well, and the food they gave him did little to make him feel stronger. The constant light was almost worse and more disorienting than the darkness and loud music from R2I; here, he had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and even that hated interaction with the man who had interrogated him wasn't there as a distraction. He was utterly, completely alone, in a completely silent cell; even the food they slid through a small flap didn't give him a chance to see anyone, talk to anyone-- to just be in the presence of another human being.

The room seemed to grow steadily smaller by the day until the point that even without being claustrophobic he began to feel like the walls were moving in on him. He tried to distract himself with moving around, with exercising or counting steps around the room, but each time the second dragged out and it all inexorably came back to the knowledge that he was completely isolated in a tiny cell.

And maybe they would never let him out again.

By the time the guard finally opened the door to let him out, it felt like he'd been in there forever. The relief he felt when he finally looked into that open hallway was startling and off-putting. He wouldn't have realized how stressful and agitating isolation could be, but for someone like him, being forced to live in his mind for an extended period of time was not a good thing. He'd expected to be unaffected by it compared to the interrogation in R2I or the torture with Shane, but he found that isolation bothered more than he cared to admit.

Despite that and the disconnected, off-balanced way he felt, Boyd's expression shuttered completely the second he was in view of another human being. His body language was blank, his eyes emotionless; he wouldn't give the guards or anyone the satisfaction of knowing that isolation had disturbed him at all.

Much of the control in his life may have been taken away but the Agency had yet to rid him of his stubbornness.

The guard stood in the hallway, giving Boyd an expectant look, who stood wearily and silently walked out to the hallway. The guard grabbed Boyd's arm and shut the door behind him, then looked down the hallway toward two other guards standing outside another cell's door.

The guards were laughing and at first Boyd was too uninterested in his surroundings to even understand why the guards were amused until he realized there was someone in that cell who was talking to them through a small window that had been opened. Not all the cells were the same in this hallway and apparently that prisoner wasn't in complete isolation. Boyd could only hear the barest hint of a man's voice, which sounded faintly familiar to him but he didn't care enough to figure out how. Considering the floor he was on, it was probably a rebel he'd run into in the past who was now in Agency custody.

One of the two guards glanced toward Boyd distractedly before, with a wide grin and a shake of his head, he strode over and joined them. Boyd didn't react and kept his gaze steadily focused in front of him.

"That guy's fucking crazy," the guard said, seeming truly amused.

The first guard glanced longingly back down the hallway. "You always get the good ones," he lamented before giving Boyd a look as if he was resentful that his prisoner hadn't been more entertaining.

As they turned the corner, a man's booming laugh echoed faintly in the hallway behind them.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Thirty-One...