A Matter of Time: Part I

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

The story contains..

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.

Interludes list

Book Three: Fade
See Fade chapter list.


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A Matter of Time - Part I

Interlude 3.18

Uploaded on 9/12/2009

Boyd stepped out of the car and briefly looked around. It was odd being back in Luoyang, where he and Emma had been paired up to scour the city for a fake bomb during training. Although Doug had told them that they'd been brought to areas of the world that they could potentially be sent to on missions, Boyd was still surprised to find himself there again less than a year later.

When he'd been in the city before, he'd never guessed that it housed Dǐ Zhì's headquarters.

He glanced at Sin, who had been growing slightly tenser as they'd approached China. Yet he hadn't said anything and Boyd didn't speak as their Dǐ Zhì escorts led them toward the building.

The building was not very impressive to behold. It was squat, four stories and had a stained grey color but it was nondescript and blended completely into the rest of the block. In fact, Boyd thought he may have even passed it by during training and hadn't looked twice. There was nothing about it that stood out as intriguing. It certainly didn't appear as though it was the chosen meeting place, and apparently unofficial safe house, for Dǐ Zhì's leader and core members.

The two men with Boyd and Sin led them inside without any fanfare, probably to keep up the cover from the outside. The main door led to an open lobby area that looked old and worse for the wear. The official cover for the building was that it was a storage facility of some sort.

A woman stood near a reception area with an intrigued look on her face as she watched Boyd and Sin enter the space. The men who had escorted them from the airport did a thorough frisk and removed Boyd and Sin's weapons. The woman whisked the items away in a black lock box with promises in heavily-accented English that Dǐ Zhì would take care of them.

From there they passed through a plain grey door that required a code to enter. A series of hallways awaited them, leading to another password-protected door that led to yet another open space. This one looked well-used and gave the appearance of some kind of sitting area. There were tables and chairs and several doors that led into unknown areas but the guards bypassed the space and led the two agents to the staircase.

They walked past the second and third floor, going directly to the fourth which required another security checkpoint before entering the door. This one required an iris scan.

From the outside Boyd would have never expected such a complex maze of hallways and entrances, let alone the high security. Boyd suspected that Dǐ Zhì had either purposefully looked for a place that was misleading inside so a layperson wouldn't be able to stumble onto their main rooms, or Dǐ Zhì had renovated the inside of the building so it would fit their needs.

When they finally entered the fourth floor, it immediately led into yet another hallway with closed doors lining it. A few more turns and another sitting area later, the guards finally reached what appeared to be the destination point.

The room they entered appeared to be a large office. There were file cabinets, multiple computers, maps on bulletin boards, and a wall that consisted entirely of security screens.

There were nearly a dozen people in the room performing a variety of tasks. Two men were looking diligently at the screens and discussing something in undertones while other Dǐ Zhì operatives sat near the computers, obviously working on something of import although quite a few were huddled to the side and looked more overtly dangerous. Boyd figured out why when he spotted Ton, the bodyguard from their mission in Hong Kong, standing in the midst of the group.

He'd thought Ton had been one of Jianjuo's men but apparently not.

Ton immediately zeroed in on Sin and his eyes narrowed slightly as he barked something at one of their escorts in Mandarin.

The man replied calmly and jerked his head towards a door in the back.

Boyd watched the exchange and kept an expectant eye on the back door as Ton said something in a far more polite tone into his comm unit.

The door opened and a woman and man filed into the main room. They both approached although the woman was speaking loudly into a cell phone in fluent Mandarin. At their sudden appearance, the Dǐ Zhì agents in the room stopped what they were doing and stood up, turning to face the newcomers as if their leader's appearance officially started the correspondence with the Agency representatives.

Boyd recognized Xu Xiaolian instantly despite the fact that the Agency's most recent photograph of her was obviously a good ten years out of date. Her black hair now fell nearly below her waist in a long pony tail and a considerable amount of silver could be seen throughout the mane despite the fact that she was only in her mid to early thirties.

She had an attractive face with a dainty nose and high cheekbones, but years of stress could also be seen in the faint lines around her mouth. One of her eyes was greyish, milky, and obviously at least half blind; a jagged scar near the outer corner of it implied a knife wound was the reason for the damage.

She was dressed casually in tan pants and a black long-sleeved shirt. She leaned heavily on a mahogany cane and had a severe limp.

Xiaolian seemed to ignore them at first and continued her conversation as the man at her side looked on silently, clearly waiting for the phone call to end, but Xiaolian's almond-shaped eyes slid over to Sin and focused on him even as she continued to speak. A tight smile lifted the corners of her thin lips but Sin just stared back impassively.

When the cell phone finally snapped shut, Xiaolian tossed it onto a desk across the room. "I see our representatives from America have arrived," she said in English, her eyes still on Sin.

"Thank you for allowing us a portion of your time and entrance to your headquarters," Boyd said smoothly, starting with the usual pleasantries for negotiation.

Xiaolian looked at Boyd finally and observed him for a moment, her gaze intent as she took in everything from his body language to his clothing. "I hope it is understood that I have never needed help from the Americans," she said plainly, her low pitched voice strong and direct, carrying over the large room. "Your invitation was extended out of curiosity more than anything else."

Boyd nodded easily. "We understand. Still, even if Dǐ Zhì does not require our assistance, we may have skills or use you desire. We simply hope to explore that possibility for mutual gain."

"It's possible you may prove useful," she said mildly although from her tone and expression she didn't seem very convinced of the idea. "I have known this for a time. That an alliance with your agency could be beneficial since we have a very common enemy."

She flashed a mouth full of straight teeth that looked stained from either incessant smoking or coffee drinking. "But I probably wouldn't have extended the invitation if you hadn't dropped Hsin's name."

Her eyes returned to Sin again, mouth tightening as she tapped the skin near her bad eye. "Thanks for the souvenir."

Sin shrugged uncaringly. "Be glad I left you with one eye."

Xiaolian's expression didn't change but the side of her mouth lifted slightly. "Be glad I didn't slice your throat open."

In barely a blink, her arm had extended and she was abruptly reaching for the collar of Sin's jacket, likely to expose the thick scar tissue that lined his throat. Before her fingers even brushed him, Sin knocked her hand aside and narrowed his eyes.

"If you want to avoid turning this into a bloodbath, I'd keep my fucking hands to myself."

Xiaolian stared at Sin evenly, her expression unchanged, and she said nothing.

Boyd looked at Sin sidelong before returning his steady gaze to Xiaolian. He wasn't particularly pleased to see the interaction and wondered if Sin's typical responses, combined with his history with Xiaolian, would make this even more difficult than it otherwise would be. Xiaolian looked unsurprised by Sin's reaction but negotiations could be touch and go at best and if interrupted pleasantries led to her dismissing or killing them then that would be a rather obvious problem.

"If there's anything you would like from us during our stay, please let us know," Boyd said in the same calm, smooth tone, as if the exchange with Sin hadn't just occurred.

Xiaolian's eyebrows rose slightly. "There is something that I would require before allowing you to go any further into my base."

She looked around at her men and spoke in a clear, loud voice. "This man you see before me is Hsin Vega. He is very dangerous and should be watched at all times. He has betrayed me once before, betrayed this organization once before, and cannot be trusted. The only reason he has not been killed in the first moment of his arrival is because if I deem his current motives to be truthful, he is a formidable ally."

Sin raised an eyebrow at her and Xiaolian smiled before adding. "But the first time he is cast under suspicion, he is to be executed on the spot and without delay."

"Oh dear," Sin said dryly. "How intimidated I am."

Xiaolian ignored him and glared at her men once again as if to ensure they were paying attention. "He is to have no weapons at any time."

Two of the guards who'd escorted them upstairs stepped forward and Xiaolian nodded at them before grinning at Sin. "I would like you to strip now, please. So that a full and more thorough search can occur."

"You've got to be kidding." Sin didn't look amused anymore. His eyes narrowed at the Dǐ Zhì leader and she smiled back serenely as he continued, "Your scanners would have picked up any weapons or did you forget what their purposes are?"

She shrugged, unconcerned, and seemed thoroughly pleased by his irritation. "No further negotiation will occur until you comply."

Sin scoffed but unzipped his black jacket. "I thought perhaps your childish sense of humor would have changed with all of your new responsibilities but apparently not."

Xiaolian's eyes twinkled in amusement and as she watched Sin yank off his shirt, she nodded towards Boyd. "Agent Beaulieu, Hsin, meet my husband. Tan Bo-Qin."

The man who stood at her side nodded shortly at Boyd before going back to glaring darkly at Sin. His otherwise calm expression had shifted to one of hostility as soon as Xiaolian had mentioned Sin's past betrayal.

Bo-Qin was tall and lithely muscular with such a short buzz-cut that he looked nearly bald. He had a long hooked nose and beady black eyes that gave him a constant look of suspicion. "Good to meet you," he said gruffly to Boyd.

"Pleased to meet you as well," Boyd replied, taking in the man's demeanor before he returned his attention to Xiaolian.

He could see Sin continuing to undress from the corner of his eye and he didn't look over, not wanting to get distracted by Sin's naked body.

He wasn't surprised by the way Xiaolian was dealing with Sin, yet it did make Boyd a little nervous. If Sin couldn't have weapons, if the Dǐ Zhì agents were going to be watching Sin like a hawk, then Sin would have to be especially careful.

Although Boyd had no doubts that Sin could handle the situation without a problem even if it blew up in their faces, it still worried Boyd a little to wonder whether anyone would take issue with Sin and claim he'd done something wrong when he hadn't. He couldn't help wondering whether this invitation was a trap for Sin in a way, and whether Xiaolian planned to take her revenge under the guise of Sin attacking first.

Once he was completely naked, Sin threaded his fingers loosely behind his head as the guards clinically inspected every part of his body.

Xiaolian ogled him in an obviously exaggerated fashion and smirked as she indicated his crotch. She said something in rapid Mandarin to Sin, who rolled his eyes at her.

Bo-Qin just stiffened slightly and his expression was distinctly uncomfortable, although his gaze strayed to Sin anyway.

Boyd looked toward Sin but forced himself not to allow his eyes to drop to Sin's cock; instead, he kept his eyes at head level as he focused on the guards. Unsurprisingly they didn't find anything and when that much was evident, Boyd turned his attention to Xiaolian again.

"Do you require the same of me?" he asked her.

"No." She shrugged and adopted a business-like expression again now that she'd finished with her display of power over Sin. Her black eyes swept across the room briskly and focused on a thin man with bleached blond spiky hair and enough piercings in his face to likely set off any civilian metal detector. "Shaoqing!"

The man, Shaoqing, quickly hurried over to them and up close it was obvious that he was in his mid to late twenties. He answered Xiaolian in Mandarin and she gave him a disparaging look.

"You will be their guide and this one speaks no Chinese. Use your head."

"Oh." Shaoqing looked at Boyd and gave him an apologetic smile. "I apologize."

"Not a problem," Boyd replied with a small smile in return.

Xiaolian stared at Shaoqing flatly before moving her onyx eyes over to the two agents again. "Shaoqing will serve as the liaison between you and me during your stay. I operate out of this building but I do not reside here and I will not always be here. I have business tonight that will lead into tomorrow."

Boyd nodded and saw in his peripheral vision that Sin had finished putting on the rest of his clothing and was just adjusting his shirt. "When should we ensure we're available to speak with you further?"

Xiaolian exchanged a brief look with Bo-Qin before shrugging her lean shoulders. "We will meet for dinner tomorrow night to begin initial talk. Shaoqing will contact you with the location when the time comes. For now, please allow him to show you to your room and explain how this location operates. He will serve as your guide to the city as well. Since you will be with us for some weeks, it is only sensible to introduce you to Luoyang."

"You are guests here," Bo-Qin added, although his gaze hadn't warmed any since the exchange between Xiaolian and Sin. "So feel free to explore the city at your leisure. But be aware of our security protocol and know that if you draw attention to this location, you will be killed decisively."

"Of course," Boyd said seriously with a nod, looking over at Bo-Qin. "We understand that completely and will be certain that we use as much, if not more, caution in your city as we would use in ours. It's the least we can do to return your hospitality."

Bo-Qin nodded curtly and abruptly headed for the door. Xiaolian lingered behind, her steady gaze flicking between Sin, Boyd and Shaoqing in a thoughtful but unreadable manner. After a moment she stepped to the side and limped to the door saying nothing more than, "Tomorrow."

Shaoqing watched Xiaolian leave before he turned to the two field agents and smiled. "Come; let me show you around." He gestured for them to follow and headed toward a back door.

Boyd fell in line behind Shaoqing and briefly looked sidelong at Sin, who had a bland expression and looked almost bored with his hands in his pockets. Boyd wondered if Sin had ever been in the safe house before but he didn't spend much time thinking about it because Shaoqing started talking.

"Most of this floor is reserved for Xiaolian and her operations," Shaoqing was saying as he held the door open for them; Boyd placed his hand on the door and held it open for Sin as they passed through, letting it fall shut behind them. "But as guests you are welcome up here as long as you do not interfere."

Boyd nodded again and Shaoqing led them down a set of stairs. "What you're probably wondering is where are your things."

"It's not my major concern but the thought had occurred to me," Boyd allowed with a faint nod.

"In your room," Shaoqing explained, turning down a hallway and walking deeper into the building. The safe house wasn't terribly large, squished as it was rather like a row house with all the other buildings that looked just like it on either side.

"We don't have many rooms, as you see," Shaoqing said, gesturing briefly to the hallway before he stopped at the last door on the left and looked between them. "So you will have to share. I hope that's okay?"

"It's fine," Sin said tonelessly although he glanced at Boyd briefly.

Boyd casually glanced over at Sin but didn't meet his eyes for long. That arrangement may end up becoming a little awkward but there was nothing to do about it and he wasn't about to say they should have separate rooms. He nodded at Shaoqing. "That's not a problem."

"Good," Shaoqing said, satisfied, and then opened the door so they could look in. Boyd glanced past Shaoqing's shoulder and saw a room that wasn't particularly large, with two twin-sized beds and very little furniture. Their bags were visible, one on each bed. "Your bags are in here. There aren't locks on the doors but you should not need to worry about anything stolen. Few people in Dǐ Zhì even know of this location and all of them can be trusted."

"Is that because of Xiaolian's presence?" Boyd asked curiously, returning his attention to Shaoqing.

"Yes," Shaoqing said, glancing between the two agents and then shutting the door when he saw that neither of them seemed particularly interested in checking out the room. Shaoqing tilted his head down the hallway, gesturing for them to follow again.

"She is the leader and there's always the possibility there will be attempts on the leader's life." Shaoqing's gaze drifted briefly toward Sin before he looked at Boyd. "Not just from other groups. From the government too."

Boyd nodded. "So these core people would stop in here to update Xiaolian?"

"Sometimes," Shaoqing agreed with an idle shrug, glancing distractedly into an open room where two men seemed to be in the midst of a quiet argument. His deep brown eyes slid back over to Boyd thoughtfully. "Anyone who knows of this safe house can stop in here to stay as long as they need. Many times they're here on business, they want to speak with Xiaolian, and they need updates on what is happening... But sometimes they are simply in the area and need a place to sleep."

Shaoqing opened a door at the end of the hall and jogged down a flight of stairs with Boyd and Sin following behind. Once they reached the second floor, Shaoqing once again held the door open for them before he started walking through the maze of hallways. The area he led them through was designed very similarly to what they'd seen before.

"Because they may stay here for awhile, we have a kitchen." Shaoqing led them to an open doorway where they could see a decent-sized kitchen. "You're welcome to use it during your stay."

Boyd nodded and Shaoqing looked between the two of them. "Is there anything else in the building you want to see?"

"If there's nothing else of import, I think that's everything we need to know," Boyd replied with a shrug.

"Good." Shaoqing moved past Sin and started walking more quickly back in the direction they'd come. "Then we can get to the more interesting tour." He made a slight face, his piercings glinting in the light as he looked back at them. "The building is boring."

They had to follow the same winding path to get through the building and once they stepped outside, Shaoqing turned to look between them. "What do you want? General tour or something specific?"

Boyd looked over at Sin questioningly. "General?"

"I don't care either way."

Boyd just shrugged at Shaoqing, who nodded.

"Alright. We will go to the most important areas first," Shaoqing said, frowning before he started walking again.

Shaoqing spent more than an hour showing them the city.

He explained to them the basic layout of the city, advised them of which areas were best to avoid and which they should keep in mind for various uses. The public transportation was impressive in the city and he showed them where the rail stations were, where to catch the public buses, where was the best place to flag down a taxi, and advised them to haggle with the taxi drivers especially if they were going to be leaving the city.

He told them where they could find different black market items for the best prices and pointed out a few locations of citizens who were rumored to be low key protestors of the communist government and had beliefs aligned with that of Dǐ Zhì. If there was ever a raid by the police, apparently the dissidents could be relied on for a quick hiding place if Dǐ Zhì agents were ever desperate.

Shaoqing casually pointed out the areas that had higher enforcement by local police and even where the government occasionally sent in factions of the People's Liberation Army. The People's Armed Police and People's Liberation Army Ground Force had each been deployed to Luoyang and other major cities in the past, especially after larger Dǐ Zhì attacks. But, Shaoqing assured Boyd and Sin, the government didn't know where Dǐ Zhì was headquartered and they wanted to keep it that way.

As they walked along, Shaoqing pointed out other, less dire aspects of the city as well. He brought them to streets that were off the beaten path that he thought may interest them, and pointed out what was in some of the skyscrapers they could see towering against the sky.

He threw in other tidbits, mentioning local attractions that, he admitted, they may not have the chance to see but he recommended anyway.

He briefly talked about the White Horse Temple, the Museum of Ancient Tombs, the Guanlin Temple... But Boyd's favorite simply from the description was the Longmen Grottoes, a collection of caves and ancient sculptures dating all the way back to 316 AD that had managed to escape the ravages of the war.

It sounded fascinating to Boyd and he found he actually wanted to see it-- he even asked several questions about it and didn't bother to hide the genuine intrigue in his expression. But although it was only about eight miles away, their primary function really wasn't for sightseeing so he doubted they would end up going there.

They had fallen into mutual silence as Shaoqing led them through an area that apparently had nothing of note.

"You know," Shaoqing said as they crossed a wide open crosswalk, his hands in his pockets as he looked over at Sin with his eyebrows raised. "We never knew what happened to Xiaolian's eye except that the injury occurred in a fight." He frowned, but it was more thoughtful than anything and he looked at Sin as if assessing him. "It was you?"

"Yes," Sin replied, his green eyes moving over the surrounding buildings and streets. "She was trying to kill me."

"Hmm." Shaoqing studied Sin in contemplation. "You must be very strong. Xiaolian is a formidable opponent."

"Apparently, considering she fought me and survived."

Shaoqing nodded casually and was quiet a moment, his gaze straying along the buildings around them. "Your interaction was interesting," he said mildly, something akin to intrigue passing across his face before it returned to his customary indifference. "Most men are too afraid to push her."

Sin's eyes slid back to Shaoqing and he observed the other man briefly. "I'm not most men. If she pushes her luck I'll kill her just as quickly as any other insurgent I've dealt with."

Shaoqing raised his eyebrows slightly, his dark gaze strengthening on Sin before he shrugged and looked away. "You may think that would be the outcome but one never knows," he said with an idle shrug. He searched the buildings, eyes narrowing thoughtfully, and then led them across the street.

"Ah. Here is what I want you to see." Shaoqing gestured subtly to a red store stuck in amidst other similar stores, bright flags angled up along the side. "You can get any weapon you want for very cheap there. They do not ask questions and they are fast. They get the weapons within a day, no matter what you want."

Boyd nodded, watching Shaoqing briefly and raising his eyebrows slightly. "That could be very convenient," he said in interest.

Shaoqing nodded but his attention appeared to be caught on something else. He was looking down the street with slightly narrowed eyes, but it was difficult to tell what or who exactly he was looking at because the street was crowded with people roaming around. Shaoqing glanced toward Sin and Boyd distractedly then smiled.

"That's the end of the tour," Shaoqing said, already taking a few steps backward. "You should walk around while you have the chance. You remember the way back?"

Boyd nodded and before they could say more, Shaoqing turned and headed down the street. Boyd watched until Shaoqing disappeared into the crowd before he turned to Sin with a significant look, making sure he was facing away from the direction Shaoqing went just in case their guide looked back.

"That was interesting," Boyd said in an undertone.

"I thought all Dǐ Zhì worshiped their leader," Sin commented idly as they started walking in an aimless direction. His eyes returned to the weapons shop as they passed but he didn't suggest they go in.

Boyd shrugged in agreement. "Me too but apparently not." He casually glanced down the street, gaze passing by where Shaoqing had disappeared to but he still couldn't see where the man had gone or what he'd seen that had caused him to leave so abruptly.

"An interesting choice for our guide," Sin continued, "but then again anyone else in that room likely would have been hostile towards me the entire time and made the process difficult."

Boyd nodded then narrowed his eyes slightly and frowned. "Why did you antagonize her like that when we're trying to negotiate, especially in her territory and in front of her people?"

"How should I have behaved?" Sin asked, raising an eyebrow slightly.

"I don't know exactly but you could have been more neutral or polite, especially in front of everyone where her pride would feel challenged," Boyd replied, a shadow crossing his face as he drew his eyebrows down. "Honestly, I'm not even certain we'll be able to pull this off even if she isn't in a bad mood from the start and if we fail this you know they won't be pleased back home."

He looked at Sin pointedly, because Sin of anyone knew how harsh the Agency's measures could be for failure. He didn't want to say the Agency's name aloud even though no one around them was likely to overhear or even know what it meant if they did.

"You don't know Xiaolian. I do."

Boyd studied Sin for a long moment, his eyes narrowing further although it was more contemplative than anything. It was true that Sin knew Xiaolian and as such, it was possible Sin was doing that on purpose rather than just reacting his default way. "You think it will help more in the end by acting that way than not?"

Sin stopped walking and stepped to the side, out of the throng of pedestrians and into the corner of the street. His eyes skimmed their surroundings briefly before he focused on Boyd again. "She isn't the type of person to work with someone just because they kiss her ass. She's more inclined to trust someone who is genuine. If I behaved any other way than how I would normally treat her, she'd know I was putting on an act and think I was hiding something."

Boyd watched Sin thoughtfully then frowned to himself, looking away.

His attention was briefly caught by a woman struggling to carry five overfilled bags of what looked like fresh food and other items. She was looking around furtively and for a second he wondered if there was something more to her presence. He tracked her absently until her expression suddenly brightened and she said something in rapid Mandarin to a man who was heading toward her with a grin; when they met, he took three of the bags and the two of them walked off smiling and chatting.

Boyd felt completely out of his element in China. He didn't understand the language; he couldn't read any of the signs; with everything written in characters, he couldn't even sound anything out. He had to rely on what he could tell from body language and what was said or written in English. Even then, they could be saying one thing in English to him then something else entirely in Mandarin to each other, and if they didn't let it get to their faces or tones Boyd would never know.

That alone would have been reason enough for Boyd to follow Sin's lead despite it being a negotiation mission but Sin's history with Xiaolian, his understanding of how she really worked, made it make even more sense.

"Alright," Boyd said finally with a decisive nod as he looked at Sin seriously. "I can handle the negotiation but given your knowledge of all this, you'll know better than anyone what needs to be done. So I can follow your lead and if you think something would work better with her than I've been doing, let me know."

Sin just shrugged, although a flicker of surprise crossed his expression briefly. "Just don't be especially phony with her. If you think something is bullshit, tell her it's bullshit. If you think her husband is a dick, treat him like you think he's a dick. If you're upfront, she'll know you're not trying to put on an act. She won't trust you if she thinks you're holding back your true thoughts. As far as I remember, the big deal with her is whether or not she can trust someone and whether they're being real with her."

Boyd took that into consideration and nodded again. Each mission was different and he'd worked with some other people like Xiaolian who preferred that type of interaction before. "Okay."

Mutual silence fell between them as they began to walk again, looking at the shops and people. As they passed onto another street, Boyd slid his hands into his pockets and asked Sin idly, "So... what do you want to do now? We may as well stay in the city for awhile since there won't be anything happening back there."

"Not for our eyes to see," Sin agreed. "By the way, I'm sure our movements will be monitored and reported in some way. Xiaolian is too distrustful for her not to have someone watching and she likely has eyes and ears all over the city."

"I suspected as much," Boyd said with a casual shrug. "If I were her, I'd do the same. We shouldn't do anything suspicious because of that, so..." He looked over at Sin curiously. "I guess we can just wander?"

"That's fine." Sin sidestepped a young woman who was sitting on a bicycle and talking animatedly to a woman in the doorway of a nearby building. "There isn't anything else to do since she brushed us off for the night."

They walked for awhile, idly looking around and in general just passing the time. Some of the streets were dingy, with crowded sidewalks and shops that were colorful and old but looked like they were falling apart in some places. Boyd didn't know how much of that was due to the wars and how much was simply the city itself. Other streets were well-kept and had what seemed like more modern buildings.

They passed several gardens of flowers and other landscaping as well as a structure that at first glance from the corner of Boyd's eye vaguely resembled a small version of the Eiffel Tower and, he learned, was an old, broken down television tower.

They ended up taking Mudan Bridge across the Yi River and Boyd was temporarily distracted by old art installations or sculptures of some sort he could see. They were rundown and covered in graffiti in some areas but he could see that someone had recently been trying to restore them. Boyd saw a recurring theme of shrines and older architecture that seemed to be mixed in with the new.

It was very interesting to him and he enjoyed the idea of how much history the city had, even though it seemed in many places the true extent of history had been wiped away in all the times the city had been rebuilt.

More than once, Boyd found himself wishing he had his sketchbook with him; wishing he had the time to just wander around for days.

They were there on business so unfortunately there was a lot he didn't feel comfortable doing, but he did have to admit that he was enjoying the chance to be around Sin without anything major interrupting the relatively relaxing time. Although he knew they were being watched by Dǐ Zhì, it didn't bother Boyd in the least; it was less intrusive than the way the Agency watched anyone on compound and sometimes within the city proper as well.

Several vendors were selling food from stalls and carts along the street and Boyd looked over distractedly then glanced at Sin. They hadn't really been saying much but the silence had been comfortable and mutual. It had lulled Boyd into a relaxed state and without thinking he put a hand out toward Sin's lower arm, grabbing him to get his attention so he wouldn't keep walking.

"Are you hungry?" Boyd asked as he tilted his head toward the vendors, casually dropping his hand and trying to ignore the way he'd wanted to slide his fingers along Sin's skin.

"I could eat," Sin said with a nod and they stopped in front of one of the food carts.

Sin spoke to the vendor in Mandarin, the words moving fluidly in his low, deep voice. The vendor looked faintly surprised by the fluency, likely because of Sin's appearance, but said very little as he handed over whatever Sin had ordered.

He exchanged yuan for the waxen packages of food and Sin handed one over to Boyd with a raised eyebrow. "I suppose I should have asked what you wanted."

Boyd couldn't help an amused smile as he accepted the package and started to open it. "It's fine," he said lightly, quirking an eyebrow as a flash of teasing passed through his eyes. "I think three years is enough time for me to trust you with my food choices. Any earlier and we may have been pushing it, though."

"Well I didn't get you the fried cicadas so I suppose that's right." Sin smirked and unwrapped his food as well. He'd gotten them some kind of biscuit-like pastry stuffed with potatoes and herbs.

"Good thing, too," Boyd said idly as he took a bite. The pastry was delicious, whatever it was. "If you had, I may've had to tie you up and ship you back home out of protest."

"I wouldn't complain. I don't really want to be here." Sin glanced over at Boyd and added as he started walking, "With them."

Boyd smiled faintly and then took another bite of the pastry, chewing as he looked around. "It's actually pretty nice here," he said thoughtfully, holding the package loosely in his hands as he looked over at Sin again. "When I was here before, I was too stressed to look at the city. But some of the areas have interesting architecture."

They ended up heading down Guanlin Avenue, idly turning eastbound away from the river. They walked more or less leisurely, not in a hurry because they didn't have anywhere they particularly needed to be.

A warm breeze blew and Sin's hair rustled against his face, longer than it had been since they first met. "You should do some drawing while you're here."

A large expanse of water, apparently some sort of long fountain, dominated the area ahead of them as they walked. Boyd glanced at the fountain and the slowly gathering crowd, wondering briefly what it was about before he realized this must be the musical fountain Shaoqing had mentioned earlier. Without having to speak aloud, the two of them ended up heading toward an area where there weren't many people but they could still see the fountain.

"I don't think we'll have time and I didn't bring any sketchbooks." Boyd pulled some hair behind his ear as he sat down on a small wall and leaned back with his free hand, his fingers curling over the edge while his other hand held his food. He looked over at Sin with a small frown as he admitted regretfully, "I wish we did, though. I really wanted to see the grottoes..."

"I doubt we'll have time to go after tonight but we could always come back on downtime."

Boyd was caught off-guard by the casualness of the comment and he watched Sin before he turned toward the fountain. He couldn't help a warm wave of happiness at the idea that Sin would actually consider taking time to go halfway across the world just to spend time with him.

All the doubts and uncertainties Boyd had been harboring about whether Sin was interested in hanging around with him vanished in the face of that. He couldn't stop a genuine smile that grew across his lips and softened his features.

"We could." Boyd leaned back and tilted his head toward the sky. "We could go to the grottoes and wherever you want to go. There are a lot of interesting places in this country..."

Sin nodded and finished eating, crumbling the wax paper in his hands and set it beside him on the short wall. "It will be easier to request simultaneous downtime since my father is around now."

"Yeah," Boyd agreed almost wistfully. "Maybe they'll even say yes."

Sin nodded slightly and his eyes drifted off to focus on the fountain.

Silence briefly fell between them as Boyd finished eating the pastry and then balled up the wax paper. He was quiet a moment as he watched the fountain, wondering how exactly a musical fountain even worked. It reminded him about how there were a lot of little things about Sin he didn't know; stupid things that didn't really matter yet Boyd found he wondered about.

He kicked his feet idly against the wall, the soles of his shoes scuffing the ground, and Boyd tilted his head curiously as he watched Sin, taking in those beautiful features. He would probably never get over how gorgeous Sin was and he had to admit that he did like the length of that silky black hair. Although he'd joked to Ryan about it, watching the wind shift through it now made Boyd's fingers twitch against the edge of the wall; made him want to reach out and run his hands through it.

Instead, he asked curiously, "What sort of music do you like?"

Sin looked at him, surprised, and drew his dark eyebrows together slightly. "I've never really thought about it before. The only music I've ever really listened to is when someone else is playing it."

"Hmm." Boyd watched Sin thoughtfully. "Are you ever interested in finding out?"

"I don't know. I've just never really been interested in it. I tend to like silence. But I suppose it couldn't hurt. Why do you ask?"

Boyd shrugged and tilted his head. The wind lightly blew hair into his eyes and he pushed the blond strands out of the way, pulling some behind his ear. "I didn't have any grand plans in mind. It just occurred to me that I still have Lou's old CDs and he had a wide range of music. So I guess I thought if you wanted to know, maybe we could listen to different kinds and see what appeals to you. It could be fun."

Boyd hesitated and then added, "Once you know that, if it ever comes up, maybe if there's ever a band playing you might like we could check it out. If you want."

"It could be interesting. Although, I know in advance that I won't enjoy loud screaming music."

Boyd nodded easily and a slight smile pulled at one edge of his lips. "We just won't try those then. I have a lot that isn't like that."

The commotion seemed to increase as a crowd gathered. Boyd glanced at his watch and saw that it was time for the fountain spectacle to start. The government buildings were lit up impressively in the background, making them white-blue against the black backdrop of the sky, and the lights reflected in the larger, flat area of the fountain.

The speakers weren't fantastic but they were very loud and a man's voice came across, talking swiftly in Mandarin. The fountain was so large and expansive that Boyd couldn't see the man across the way; he wasn't even certain that the man was standing anywhere in sight.

Boyd stared blankly at the fountain and when he asked Sin what was happening, it turned out the man was basically saying that history and progression had taken a lot of the original structure of the city away, and the wars and subsequent issues had taken a lot of peoples' happiness, but some things remained beautiful and for enjoyment. He called the fountain a modern tribute to the culture, history, and accomplishments of their proud country.

Boyd raised his eyebrows, curiosity piqued about what exactly this was going to be like.

There was a moment of stillness as people whispered and moved around nearby, and suddenly music blasted across the speakers, nearly making Boyd jump.

A woman's reedy voice trilled in Mandarin with intense vibrato that almost made her sound like she was singing underwater. At the same time, water sprayed up from jets while hidden lights of varying colors shone brightly against the streams. The jets and lights seemed to span the entire length of the fountain in several layers, far enough back from where they were all sitting that the spectators didn't get wet.

The water streams and lights changed with the music, some streams short and others long, some thick and some thin, some straight into the air and some angled. The lights shifted between blues and purples to blinding white, coinciding with the rise and fall of the song.

In a way, the sight was somewhat impressive but Boyd couldn't get over the woman's voice, which sounded piercing to his ears. And the amount of things happening at once-- lights, water, blasting music-- was almost overwhelming to him, perhaps also because it was on such a grand scale that he couldn't really look away. He found himself leaning back slightly as if to distance himself from the fountain and the sensory overload.

"This is horrifying," Sin commented idly, staring blankly at the lights and water. "You can leave this out of the list of potential music genres."

Boyd looked over and burst out laughing. "I don't have anything like this anyway."

Sin smirked and shook his head. "Well, your mother could have one secreted away somewhere on the property. Who knows what her idea of relaxation is."

That just made Boyd chuckle more and he shook his head with a grin. "Unless her idea of relaxation is torture, which I guess you never know with her, I think I'm probably safe."

Sin nodded slightly and his eyes drifted away as he stared seemingly blankly into the colorful display before them. The lights danced across his face, highlighting his eyes and the bridge of his straight nose before gliding over his mouth. He narrowed his eyes against the strobes and shifted slightly before saying seemingly randomly, "I wanted to talk to you about something."

Boyd's smile faded and he became more serious, although his expression remained casual. He looked at Sin thoughtfully, wondering if this was a continuation of whatever Sin had wanted to say when they were cut off in the pool. "Alright."

There was a long pause as Sin's eyes followed children running along beside the fountain. After a moment he sat up straighter and turned to Boyd entirely, raising his eyebrows. "I'm not stupid enough to believe that your actions regarding me in the past couple of months have left you unscathed. If your mother hasn't already punished you, I'm sure she will soon and I'm sure it won't be pleasant."

He stopped talking for a moment as if waiting to see if Boyd would deny it.

Boyd's shoulders tensed slightly and he looked away, staying silent. Following that night in the pool with Sin he'd been sent on a mission that had been difficult to complete. It seemed to Boyd that the Marshal had purposefully chosen the mission for him, knowing it would test his morals, and that through it she was making it clear she expected him to stay in line. That she would not give him easy outs anymore.

But what was slightly worrisome was she hadn't mentioned again his promise not to question anything, and Vivienne Beaulieu did not forget promises extracted. What he didn't know was whether she considered him having fulfilled that promise or whether there was still something else waiting for him in the future.

Sin didn't seem surprised by the unspoken admission and he went on. "Even if your mother won't terminate you, when the new Marshal comes I have no doubts that she would have. She would have terminated me, you, and everyone involved with what happened after the Investigator was killed. It wouldn't even have mattered that I was innocent."

He shrugged slightly, shaking his head. "It's just-- I just want you to try to accept the fact that when it comes to me and the Agency and what they want to do with me, it's not in your control and when they come in, you trying to involve yourself will be nothing but suicide. And there's no point in you throwing your life away if they make a decision regarding me. It won't change it."

Boyd studied the dancing lights in the water for a moment, his eyes narrowed and expression pensive, before he sighed and ran a hand back through his hair. "Honestly, it's not even about it being in my control." He looked over at Sin. "I know that if they make a decision, most likely it won't matter what I or anyone else thinks, and I know that Marshal Seong is going to be even stricter. But..."

He drew his eyebrows down and he frowned, gaze tracking Sin's face. "It's not really about winning; it's about doing what's right. So many times in my life I didn't really fight for something I should have. I don't intend to be obvious about anything or unnecessarily endanger anyone but if a situation comes up where I think I could affect it, I'm going to do it. I'm not trying to be suicidal but I don't see the point in playing it safe just to prolong my life. And if I try and fail and even if I live beyond that, at least I won't have to second-guess and regret."

"Boyd, this is not--" Sin broke off, frustrated and he grabbed Boyd's sleeve, jerking him closer. "There's no 'right' there. There's what they want and what they don't want. You can't change what they decide. It doesn't matter how much you try or fight. Maybe that has worked in the past and I'm not saying I'm not grateful but things are going to change and disobedience means termination, especially when it comes to serious shit like we've been pulling off in the past couple of years. I need you to accept that and understand that. If they decide to kill me-- you can't change that."

Boyd met Sin's eyes evenly. "I know. If it's something where they issue a termination notice, if it's something completely inevitable--"

Boyd's eyes narrowed and his hand twitched into a loose fist but he didn't look away. "You're probably right; if it happens it'll just happen and I won't be able to do anything or even have enough warning to try. I won't do anything stupid. But if it's a case where the decision isn't finalized and there's somehow, realistically a chance of affecting the outcome, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I'll let that pass me by."

Sin looked back to the fountain and released Boyd's arm. The tension bled out of his shoulders as he nodded. "I hope you remember that if the time comes."

Boyd drew his feet in closer and leaned forward with his fingers curling over the edge of the wall as he looked away pensively. "Well, I hope it doesn't. Because even if it happens and it's inevitable, I'm still going to have a hard time not getting involved."

Sin released a low breath and leaned forward slightly to put his head in his hands. He stayed that way for a moment before turning his head to the side and looking at Boyd through his fingers. "Just forget it for now, Boyd."

There was a moment of silence before Boyd sighed. His eyes darkened and he looked down at his hands. "I'm not trying to be difficult," he said with a faint frown, his voice subdued.

He looked over at Sin again, honey brown eyes intense and serious as he studied his partner. "I just want you to know that it wouldn't be an easy decision for me. I wouldn't stop caring about helping you just because it'd be inconvenient for me. The consequences wouldn't matter if I truly thought I could help-- I promised I'd be there for you and I meant it. It's hard for me to even try to be realistic about that, to realize in some cases I have to accept the way things are. Even knowing I should and may have to make myself, it doesn't mean I want to. That's all."

"I understand and I'm not saying I wouldn't try to take down the entire Tower full of guards if I thought they were going to terminate you but it's just more... likely, that this scenario will come up in my near future." Sin gazed into Boyd's eyes silently for a stretch and he added, "And I don't want that to happen knowing you're going to be killed because of me."

Boyd searched Sin's expression, wishing not for the first time that things could be different. He wished he could be with Sin and he wished they weren't beholden to the Agency, that they had some measure of choice or control in their own lives. He wished it wasn't such a real possibility that one day Sin would just suddenly be dead.

A sad look crossed Boyd's face and he shook his head. "I won't do anything that'll make you have to worry."

There was a brief, strained silence between them before Sin cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I brought this up. I've ruined the evening."

"No you didn't," Boyd replied, shaking his head and watching Sin sincerely. "It's not a pleasant topic but it's still something we needed to talk about. And anyway, it's not like the evening's over." He smirked faintly and tilted his head toward the fountain, where the music was still blasting. "I'm pretty sure they have a few more songs to grace us with."

Sin made a face and pushed himself off the wall. "How about we just go elsewhere? This is the first time we've spent a substantial amount of time together in several months and I don't feel like having a fountain sing at me the entire time."

Boyd smiled, undeniably pleased by the implication of Sin's words. "I won't argue with that," he said in agreement, standing up and grabbing their crumpled wrappers.

They walked away from the fountain to continue idly exploring Luoyang together.

Continue to A Matter of Time: Part II