A Matter of Time: Part II

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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
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A Matter of Time - Part II

Interlude 3.18

Uploaded on 9/12/2009

From the outside, the restaurant had been unremarkable. It seemed like just another storefront that was clustered with the other shops in the center of Luoyang's old city. The interior was just as unassuming and it could only be assumed that this was Xiaolian's 'most loved restaurant,' according to Shaoqing, because of the dim lights, private corners and the wait staff's discretion.

As Sin and Boyd sat opposite Bo-Qin and Xiaolian, they shared a meal that apparently would consist of twenty-four courses. Xiaolian gave a lazy background of the banquet, saying it was a millennia-old tradition in Luoyang and had something to do with an emperor in the Tang Dynasty. The story didn't go much further because she seemed more interested in the food than the history, at least as far as the impression she gave.

They ate the initial eight cold appetizers in silence and it wasn't until the waitresses began serving the first trio of courses that the American agents and Chinese insurgents began to speak. At that time the wait staff disappeared from the restaurant floor entirely, although they seemed to miraculously sense when something needed to be replenished or when it was time to replace the empty bowls with the next set of dishes.

The wait staff wouldn't get any points for politeness amongst tourists but their silence and quick departures was obviously preferred by their current clientele.

Xiaolian held a wide ceramic spoon in her hand as she scooped a generous amount of the main dish of the first trio, a soup of shredded meat and turnips.

"I know what you have told Jianjuo but I want to hear it from your mouth. Why do the Americans want an alliance?"

Ton, who was standing behind Xiaolian at a respectful distance, turned his head slightly towards the table although Boyd couldn't tell who he was looking at through the black opaque lenses of the man's sunglasses.

"We have mutual enemies that have caused issues and loss for both our organizations," Boyd said calmly. "And the intel we could share between us could be beneficial on both our parts."

Bo-Qin, who was staring at the two of them coldly rather than eating his soup, gave Boyd a skeptical look. "Why should we need your intelligence? Xiaolian has led our organization for many years without needing the help of any other group let alone another nation."

Xiaolian raised one slim eyebrow and chewed a mouthful of shredded pork as her eyes flicked from Boyd to Sin and back again.

"True," Boyd allowed, tilting his head forward in acknowledgment and taking a sip of soup. He watched Bo-Qin for a moment before shifting his gaze to Xiaolian. "But if your intelligence was flawless, you would not have lost five people outside Shashi two months ago and the seven civilians caught in the crossfire would most likely still be alive. We received word of Nouvelle Ligue's involvement a day before the attack and, had we been allies, we would have been happy to share it with you."

Bo-Qin frowned but Xiaolian's mouth just turned upwards as she twirled an empty teacup in one hand. One of the waiters, a diminutive young man with long black hair and delicate features, appeared instantly to refill her cup.

His hair slid forward slightly and his dark eyes remained downcast as though he knew better than to look too closely at the people who surrounded the table. After refilling Xiaolian and Boyd's cups, the waiter slid backwards to disappear into the depths of the dim restaurant. Bo-Qin's narrowed eyes tracked him for a moment before returning to his wife.

"Your agency is not as invisible as it would like to believe," she said with a humorless smile. "We know who you watch and I know you likely have intelligence on a number of our enemies due to the fact that you are technically a part of the government of the USA even if that secret is a dirty and hidden one."

She set the cup down. "However even if your information could have saved the lives of my countrymen and my comrades, I do not know if it is worth it to risk the safety of scores more by inviting such an untrustworthy organization into my bed."

"Untrustworthy?" Boyd repeated lightly, curling one hand around his cup and raising his eyebrows. "What leads you to say that?"

"Americans are notoriously untrustworthy," Bo-Qin replied with an edge in his tone. "How is it that you believe the war started?"

Sin rolled his eyes and Xiaolian patted her husband's hand lightly as if she were hushing a child. "While Bo-Qin is quite right about governments, yours especially, being capable of betrayal-- your organization in particular has stuck its nose in my affairs on more than one occasion."

Xiaolian's eyes briefly met Sin's and she smiled grimly. "But Hsin's intrusion upon our bases wasn't the only attempt. We know your agency has made others."

Boyd watched Xiaolian and Bo-Qin. "The only times the Agency has infiltrated Dǐ Zhì bases have been to gather intelligence," he said, dipping the spoon into the soup before he rested it against the side; the spoon made a muffled noise as it touched the bowl. He shifted his hand toward his cup. "We were determining whose side Dǐ Zhì was on and it is based on the information we gathered, that the location was in part to keep a closer eye on Janus and to break up their stronghold, that we determined your organization could be a powerful ally."

Boyd raised the cup to his lips and paused, adding mildly, "Unless there was another reason Dǐ Zhì chose to create several bases on American soil when the Agency has yet to return the favor in China?"

Xiaolian stared at him for a moment before looking at Sin directly. She asked him something in Mandarin to which he replied with a shrug and a brief response of his own.

Xiaolian's eyes returned to Boyd and she pushed her empty bowl away. "If you have a suspicion about Dǐ Zhì I recommend you ask directly. Clever word play and sarcasm makes you appear smug. A very unattractive attribute."

"I have no suspicion," Boyd replied, shaking his head minutely and setting the cup down.

He watched her seriously, taking into account her reproach and adjusting his plans accordingly. "Everything we have so far seen of Dǐ Zhì shows that your organization does not waver from its professed goals, that although Dǐ Zhì is a formidable group it has not fallen to the ruthless ploys, empty propaganda and scare tactics as have many other groups, Janus especially. It has thus far seemed that Dǐ Zhì does not need to do any of this in order to grow its numbers or fight its battles and that is one reason Dǐ Zhì is of interest to the Agency."

Xiaolian studied him for a long moment before inclining her head. The effeminate waiter reappeared with two waitresses and they quickly removed the first group of meals before replacing it with a main course of braised meats with accompanying side dishes.

She picked up her chopsticks and it was Bo-Qin who said, "Because you say you never had hostile intention towards us does not mean you can be trusted. You could use us to help rid Asia and Eastern Europe of the spread of Janus and decide to dispose of us afterward. What guarantee do we have that we will not be betrayed?"

"I have no guarantee but our word," Boyd said honestly, looking over at Bo-Qin. "There is no way to prove it short of that not happening in the future so it ultimately comes down to trust."

Bo-Qin scoffed and Xiaolian arched an eyebrow. "I think quite more will be required than your word. Loyalty is something that must be proven."

Sin finally dragged his bored looking green-eyed gaze from the idle staring match he'd been having with Ton. "I'm sure you'll find plenty of ways to test our loyalty while we're here. Won't you?"

Sarcasm oozed from his voice as he likely recalled her forcing him to disrobe in front of her men and Xiaolian smiled at him prettily. "Of course."

Sin shook his head and went back to keeping an eye on their surroundings. It was unlikely that they would be attacked there in the middle of a bustling part of the old city but they'd decided early on to try to figure out who Xiaolian had shadowing them. They'd been tailed by an unknown person on the entire commute to the restaurant but they could never spot the person or pinpoint who it was.

Xiaolian leaned half across the table and picked a piece of chicken off one of the serving plates that held the side dishes. "You say you have information on our French enemies but what of Janus? If it turns out that we share intelligence, collaboration would be a pointless expenditure of my valuable energy."

Boyd nodded as he put some braised meat and vegetables from the main dish onto his plate and took a bite, chewing while he considered how to answer that.

Although the Agency had a lot of intelligence gathered on Janus, much of it was related to American soil or Janus' efforts worldwide, but Dǐ Zhì was likely only interested in information related to China and maybe Asia. He had to give Xiaolian pertinent information but even the Agency didn't know Janus' goals in Asia yet or where exactly they were stationed in China.

However, he did have some information that he'd been cleared to share.

Boyd studied Xiaolian as he rested his chopsticks against the side of his plate. "Two weeks ago, a Janus spy was intercepted by agents stationed in Mongolia. He was brought back to our facility where, after extensive interrogation, it was determined that he had discovered the location of Dǐ Zhì's Beijing base. We caught him before the information he had could be transmitted to Janus and, according to him, he was a solitary scout. However, we think it's quite likely that more of Janus' feelers will be sent into China, primarily centered on the major metropolitan areas and spreading outward from there."

One of Xiaolian's eyebrows twitched upwards but her husband leaned forward abruptly, slamming his fist down on the table. "That is not possible," he hissed coldly, suspiciously. "If you have a spy it is probably the same man who acted as your informant. No one knows the location of our bases. None of our people would betray us."

"Maybe you're just not quite as invisible as you think you are," Sin suggested blandly.

"You have no idea what you are talking about," Bo-Qin growled at Sin, looking highly insulted by the claim.

"Oh?" Sin looked at the other man skeptically, his dark eyebrows drawing down. "Just because no one has come busting down your door doesn't mean other people don't notice things. People who live in the city, around the surrounding blocks-- civilians are not quite as oblivious as you would think. They're usually so bored with their lives that any possibility of intrigue gets their interest sparked and their tongues wagging. And talk goes a long way."

Xiaolian gave Sin a skeptical look of her own. "You are suggesting to me that a civilian alerted a Janus spy--"

Sin rolled his eyes. "No. I'm saying Janus thinks the way my employers think and if a tidbit of gossip, urban legends, rumors-- if it's prevalent enough and interesting enough, they'd send an operative to check it out. And if that operative hears enough of the same story-- about certain people exiting and entering some certain place in Beijing that people think is shady or not what it seems-- he'd go investigate. It's not rocket science but most people think civilians are blind and stupid and couldn't possibly pose a threat even in such an accidental way."

Bo-Qin and Xiaolian stared at Sin, and Boyd wondered if they were marveling at the fact that he'd spoken so much at one time or if they were actually considering the truth behind his words-- wondering if he was giving them criticism or advice.

"You have experience with unexpectedly clever civilians, I gather," Xiaolian said knowingly, her lips twisting up into a strange smile.

Sin glanced at Boyd briefly and shrugged his broad shoulders.

Xiaolian stared at him curiously for a moment longer before focusing on Boyd again. "Who is this spy and what else did he say?"

"Joseph Huang," Boyd replied, leaning back in his chair. "Twenty-seven years old, a member of Janus for ten years. As is typical of Janus insurgents, much of what he had to say centered around why Janus was the answer to the world's dilemma and how Janus was going to take down all competitors, including Dǐ Zhì."

Xiaolian studied Boyd, chopsticks held loosely in one hand. "I am sure there is a great deal more that could be acquired from the man."

Boyd tilted his head down in agreement. "Perhaps there are topics you would prefer to ask him about yourself." He picked up a piece of mushroom with his chopsticks, gaze flicking down briefly before returning to her. "Transferring his custody can be arranged."

"As it should be," she replied, not giving away any of her thoughts in her tone or expression.

"You believe using this man as a bargaining chip will gain Xiaolian's favor?" Bo-Qin looked at them with barely concealed irritation. "She is not so easily bought."

"It must be nice having someone to defend your honor so vehemently," Sin commented dryly, not looking at either Bo-Qin or Xiaolian.

She smirked and said nothing.

Boyd shrugged idly, chewing the mushroom and watching Bo-Qin with an unaffected expression. "Joseph is not a bargaining chip," he replied. "Whether Xiaolian decides to work with us is irrelevant to whether Joseph will be turned over to Dǐ Zhì's custody. Of course, we would greatly prefer if the gesture was understood to be one of good will between our organizations. But such a simple bargaining tactic as you mentioned wouldn't work with Dǐ Zhì. If Dǐ Zhì were to be interested in joining us in further endeavors, we understand that it would be for larger, more over-arching reasons than the promise of speaking with a single, insignificant man."

Bo-Qin just shook his head, not appearing mollified by this explanation and Xiaolian twirled her chopsticks in her hands and she watched the two American agents in front of her. Something about her expression seemed calculating, intense, but then her lips curled up and she raised her eyebrows slightly.

"I wonder-- how is it that your partnership is arranged?"

Boyd watched Xiaolian, resting the chopsticks against his plate and tilting his head slightly. "It's basically as you see. Typically, I would function in the role of negotiator while Agent Vega excels in combat conditions. That isn't to say either of us is incapable of the other's function but simply that the partnership is arranged according to our individual fortes."

"I see." Xiaolian turned her gaze to Sin and stared at him although he looked uninterested in returning the gaze. "And do you associate outside of missions?"

Boyd shrugged, unconcerned. "Occasionally."

"Are you friends?" Xiaolian pressed, arching a slim black eyebrow. This time her husband gave her a curious look but he didn't comment.

Boyd glanced idly toward Sin, wondering what this was about although he didn't let it get to his face. He couldn't read anything from Sin's expression and since the two of them had been tailed around the city and the comfortable interaction between them had probably been reported back, he saw no reason to lie and make himself seem untrustworthy.

He looked at Xiaolian again. "Yes, I guess we are."

"Interesting," Xiaolian observed. "Hsin had always told me that he saw no need for friendship and that requiring interpersonal relations was a weakness."

Sin smirked. "I could see myself saying that."

"Are you saying you have changed?" Xiaolian seemed skeptical of this possibility. "You seem very much the same in all other regards. Cold, a tendency towards sarcasm, lacking in empathy or compassion..."

Sin finally looked at the woman and gave her a flat stare. "You seem to be holding more of a grudge about me not being your friend than me partially blinding you."

Xiaolian laughed at that, a loud and rich sound that attracted the discreet stares of a few other patrons before they quickly looked away. The Dǐ Zhì leader smiled and shook her head, a wicked gleam sparkling in her uninjured eye. "Perhaps I lament the fact that you followed in your father's footsteps and never joined us."

"Because I'd be such a good asset to your cause," Sin said doubtfully.

She shrugged, still smirking. "Or maybe your cock size made an impression on me and now I lament that we never got the chance to become teenaged lovers."

Bo-Qin didn't even blink at the comment although he shifted and turned his attention elsewhere.

Sin just shook his head and Xiaolian turned to Boyd. "Which do you think it is? My reasoning for bitterness towards your partner."

Boyd shrugged. "I don't know you well enough to say. Maybe it's a bit of both. But feelings of betrayal can go a long way regardless of the origin so I would suspect it's that more than anything."

"Perhaps," Xiaolian said agreeably. She leaned back in her chair and swept her gaze over the restaurant. "But perhaps I am honestly curious about Hsin and also the way the personnel in your organization work together. In Dǐ Zhì we are allies but there is also closeness, a bond that is accompanied with loyalty."

"We are family," Bo-Qin added.

She nodded. "Yes. We are not like Janus, who recruits and brainwashes vast numbers of young people to join their cause. I know every one of my soldiers. I wonder if your agency is similar or if it is more like Janus. A machine that recruits cogs and wheels to keep it running but considers the pieces replaceable if they fail."

Boyd's gaze turned a little more serious. "Due to our situation, we do recruit but our agents are chosen specifically for who they are and what they can do. As such, they are individually important to the organization."

Boyd leaned back in his chair as he continued, "As for the rest, I know many of the people in our agency, whether they are my direct colleagues or not. I care about the other people I work with and would be upset if something happened to them. There are people there who I consider to be good friends and others who I feel are closer to siblings."

"And which are the two of you?" Xiaolian asked with seemingly genuine interest, leaning forward slightly.

"More like friends," Boyd answered with a small shrug. He glanced down to pick up his glass and took a drink.

"What makes the difference? You do not care for him as much as you do the agents you consider a sibling?"

Boyd glanced toward Sin, who was giving Xiaolian an odd look. At least Boyd wasn't the only one wondering why she was taking such interest in this. "I don't know if I would say that," Boyd said with another shrug. "Hsin is my partner so it's different."

"Why?" she asked shrewdly. "If you work with a man it is impossible to feel familial towards him?"

Boyd shook his head. "No, I wouldn't say that. I feel very strong friendship toward him that rivals a brotherly relationship but isn't. This is why I don't exactly consider him to be a sibling."

Xiaolian chortled. "That answer sounds like a load of shit," she said crudely.

Boyd didn't reply.

She slid her hand into her pocket to extract her phone and pushed away from the table. "I must depart."

Bo-Qin stood as well, not showing whether or not he was surprised by the abrupt change.

Boyd nodded, standing as well out of courtesy. He couldn't tell whether Xiaolian was cutting it short because of his reply or if something had come up on her phone. Given the timing, he suspected it was the latter but he wasn't going to push it immediately.

"Thank you for your time," he said calmly. "Let us know if you need anything further from us in the coming days and I will start the process for Joseph Huang to be transferred to one of your bases here if you so wish."

"I hope it will not be a timely process," she replied coolly, her demeanor more detached than it had been before. "Please finish your meal-- I will pay the bill on our way out."

Xiaolian gave Boyd a long, appraising stare before turning around. Bo-Qin looked from Boyd to Sin with slightly narrowed eyes and followed his wife.

Boyd watched Xiaolian and Bo-Qin leave with Ton right behind them before he sat down and looked over at Sin.

"That went nowhere," Sin commented blandly.

Boyd sighed and nodded, pushing hair out of his face as he looked down at the spread of food before them. "It was pretty unlikely we'd get very far in the first talk anyway."

"I think she knew you were holding something back about our relationship," Sin said, looking over at Boyd.

Boyd frowned to himself and reached out to pick up some seasoned beef with his chopsticks. "I think you're right." He paused with the food in front of his lips then glanced over at Sin. "I don't really see why it's any of her business or what it has to do with Dǐ Zhì but obviously avoiding mentioning it didn't go over very well."

"She's testing you to see how truthful you will be. She thinks along the lines of, if you'll lie or withhold something minor, you will do the same for something big."

Boyd sighed in mild annoyance and dropped the chopsticks onto his plate. He looked over at Sin, his eyebrows drawing down seriously. "Is this the sort of thing where she won't trust me until I tell her that specific answer or will she no longer care about that topic and I just need to make especially sure I'm entirely honest with anything else from now on?"

"Can't be sure." Sin crossed his arms over his chest and raised his dark eyebrows. "Just follow her lead, I guess. But I suggest just telling her if she starts hinting at it again. It's ridiculous, I know, but this is the same woman who had me strip just for her amusement and talks about my dick over dinner. Are you really surprised that she is using your sex life or former sex life as a test?"

"I'm not really surprised; it's just annoying," Boyd said, looking away and absently tracking the movements of one of the waiters. His eyes narrowed briefly before he glanced at Sin. "But I'll listen to your advice."

Sin looked around briefly and sat up. "You're not really planning to stay here and eat the next eight thousand courses, are you?"

"No," Boyd replied, a faint smile pulling at his lips despite himself. He pushed away from the table and stood, sliding his hands into his pockets and tilting his head toward the door. "We may as well head back."

Sin stood and they left the restaurant together, the waiters' eyes following them curiously as they disappeared out the door.

Nothing significant happened for the next several days.

Although Shaoqing remained easily accessible and they were able to compare notes on Janus and discuss minor issues, Xiaolian did not have any contact with them at all. Boyd didn't see her in passing and she didn't send further notices to meet with them, not even after he received confirmation from the Agency that Huang had been successfully delivered to Dǐ Zhì's custody.

They weren't getting kicked out, which was promising in a way, but the lack of any other progress was starting to make Boyd nervous. He began wondering if perhaps Xiaolian wasn't planning to give them another chance.

Boyd wasn't about to wait around indefinitely for contact that may or may not happen and since he basically knew what had caused the stall in negotiation, it was a simple solution to try to fix that. He headed up to the top floor one night and paused at the door.

Two guards stared at him impassively and Boyd realized that it may have been stupid to run off without either of his two Mandarin-speaking companions. He'd only learned the odd word here or there and he was still fairly certain he wasn't pronouncing any of it correctly; the nuances of the exact rise and fall of the Chinese language were difficult for him to mimic.

"I would like to see Xiaolian," he said, looking between them and hoping at least the fact they would recognize her name would get across his intent. Although some of the people in Dǐ Zhì spoke English, others did not and he didn't know whether these guards did.

The two guards exchanged a look and spoke briefly between each other in Mandarin. One of them gestured then looked toward Boyd in assessment. He opened the door but the other guard stood resolutely in front of it, obviously not allowing Boyd to gain entrance.

The first guard disappeared inside the room and Boyd stood there for several minutes with only the unimpressed silence of the guard for company.

Finally, the door opened and Boyd was mildly surprised to see that Xiaolian had come out. Boyd stepped back to give her more room and nodded at her in greeting.

"I hope I didn't interrupt anything imperative."

"What do you need?" Xiaolian asked, crossing her muscular arms over her chest. She wore a sleeveless shirt that showcased powerfully cut arms and strong shoulders.

"I'm wondering why we're getting nowhere," he said bluntly, meeting her eyes evenly. "You have Huang so you know I didn't lie about that and as busy as I'm sure you are, each day we spend messing around doing nothing and not even connecting seems like wasted time for all of us."

Her eyebrows shot up and Xiaolian appraised him silently for a moment before speaking. "It was never guaranteed that this process would be brief. I believe you said you were given a three week completion window for this assignment, were you not?"

Boyd nodded. "Yes, I did. I never expected this to be over with within a handful of days. But even slow negotiation has more happening than this and given the way our last meeting ended, it makes me wonder if the only reason for the delay is because you felt my answer regarding Hsin was less than satisfactory. And because of that, you don't trust me enough to meet to continue the discussions."

Xiaolian shrugged casually and turned to the guard at the door. She said something to him curtly in Mandarin, turned, and jogged down the stairs without saying anything more to Boyd. He followed her and she took the hallway on the fourth floor to a room with a narrow door. They entered the door and Boyd saw that it led to a decent-sized room that was completely empty of everything but a set of double doors and a balcony.

Xiaolian glanced at him and arched a brow before inputting a long series of codes into the balcony doors and nudging them open. "I do not talk negotiation in front of my guards, Agent."

Boyd nodded in understanding. "I won't bring up issues of business in front of the guards again."

She leaned against the wall near the open doors and a muggy breeze billowed in. She pulled a red pack of cigarettes from her pocket and extracted one, saying as she lit it, "You are correct, though. We are wasting time. But you must know that no negotiation will begin until I have full understanding of the organization I am negotiating with. You and your partner represent them and it is your duty to ensure that this commences. However, I will speak no more of those specifics until Bo-Qin arrives."

Xiaolian took a drag of her cigarette and pulled out her palm computer, typing something into it dexterously. The window blew again and her long black hair flew backwards against the off white wall.

Boyd walked over to lean against the wall on the other side of the open doors, crossing his arms and watching her thoughtfully. He was silent for a moment until he asked curiously, "Why do you or anyone in Dǐ Zhì hate Janus? What caused them to be your enemy rather than an ally?"

Xiaolian looked at him, seeming surprised by the question, and exhaled a puff of smoke. "Why do you ask this now?"

"It's something I've wondered about for awhile," he said honestly with a shrug. "Dǐ Zhì and Janus have more in common as far as being against your native governments. Janus has even been spreading worldwide, inciting people to question their own governments." He tilted his head. "Yet even though I represent an organization tied to the American government, I stand here and a representative from Janus does not. It made me curious."

She smirked, showing off her yellowed teeth, and walked out onto the balcony while Boyd followed her. She sat on the edge of the short wall, blowing smoke out into the darkness of the humid night.

"Just because two organizations are anti-government does not mean that we have the same goal. My government was against the Americans during the war while my father and Dǐ Zhì supported the American's alleged intentions because they are the same as ours, although our intent is much more pure. To end the oppression of my country."

Boyd nodded, looking out at what they could see of Luoyang spread out before them in lights and muffled sound. The buildings crowded on either side meant there were other balconies within view and, in some cases, easily within speaking distance. But all the other buildings seemed empty or at least no one was outside on their balconies, and Boyd knew Dǐ Zhì had to have taken precautions to make sure any conversations out here would not be overheard.

"Janus' ruthless tactics disguised by claims of truth and freedom probably don't help your like of them either," he observed.

"I will not say that I cannot be ruthless," Xiaolian said calmly, flicking her cigarette and looking out into the darkness. "But I do not claim to be anything else. I believe at one time Janus had similar ideals to my father. To reform the American government so that it no longer harmed its own citizens for its own power gain. However, Janus became nothing more than a clone of the American government as it gained power and if they succeed they will be doing nothing more than replacing one despot with another."

She tilted her head to the side; her features softer in the gloom of the night, the lack of severity making her appear quite pretty. "But Janus is dangerous. They have strongholds in many nations in every continent. If their coup succeeds in the future, they will control much of the world. I believe they have not struck yet because they have not finished gathering resources. They are wise to do this. They will be most strong when they have an army in each country that played a major role in the war. They will then have the advantage and a collective force of nations whose governments will not be able to withstand the attack because they will not help each other."

Boyd watched her for a moment and then sat on the short wall of the balcony as well, resting his hands on the edge. "It's true," he said, searching her face and finding that he liked her more like this, when she seemed more serious and less caustic. "That's one large reason our agency is so interested in seeing them finished, although perhaps there's also a sense of responsibility since they started in our country. But I think aside from their obvious talent at strategy, the most dangerous part of them is the way they get people to believe."

His eyes narrowed and he shook his head, his honey brown eyes darkening slightly in pensiveness. "If they were honest about who they are and what they represent, many people wouldn't join. But they twist the desperation and fear people have, especially those still feeling loss from the war or who feel overlooked by the current state of affairs. They promise all these things and turn terrified people into true believers, who will do anything to further the cause; who may not even be capable anymore of understanding that Janus stole their aspirations and replaced them with their own. And an army of people who are blinded by a promised future they don't realize they'll never receive can be far more dangerous than even an army of trained soldiers."

"Fanatics typically are the most dangerous," she agreed. "Especially when they're actually intelligent."

Xiaolian pulled one leg up to the wall and continued to stare out over the city. Her thin lips pursed together, hair continuously whipping back, and she shook her head. "To answer your question, I am at war with Janus because they are a threat. They will ally themselves with the China Reform Society because they know they will not find an alliance with me. They will attempt to wipe Dǐ Zhì off the map or weaken us and proceed to perform an international coup that will leave them in control of the United States, Western Europe and much of Asia. They have the power to do this. Their numbers are astounding and their reach is far. When everything goes down, the former enemies of the war will be too hesitant to ally with each other in order to fend Janus off and Janus will control everything."

Boyd nodded. "It's fortunate there are strong groups out there like yours that recognize that fact and aren't taken in by Janus' propaganda."

Xiaolian smiled bitterly. "There should be more. When the time comes, the people will side with Janus and their numbers will build. They are good at brainwashing and as your partner said, people in power often underestimate the importance of the civilian response but Janus does not. If there were more civilian-led groups like Dǐ Zhì in other nations, perhaps the people would have more options as to which side to choose."

"Have you ever considered expanding like Janus?" Boyd asked curiously. "Or at least spreading the idea to other countries or civilian-led groups that are not tied to Janus?"

"Hmm." Xiaolian looked at him finally. "At times. But my interest lies with my country first. Until things are resolved here I cannot dream of dividing my attention."

Boyd inclined his head. "Understandable. You wouldn't want to spread too thin here and get set back on all your hard work."

He paused and a thoughtful frown crossed his face. "Are there any other groups you can ally yourself with who are civilian-led? Many I've run into seem to be sympathetic to Janus but especially some of the smaller groups who are just being formed may be more open to advice from a well-established group such as Dǐ Zhì."

Xiaolian shrugged her well-built shoulders and finished her cigarette. "The only other civilian-led group here that holds weight is the China Reform Society and they are a hostile force. They share my father's ideals but their methods are like that of Janus. They want to be the sole rebellious force in China and want Dǐ Zhì gone. It will not happen, of course. At the present time, they are far too young and weak, but in time Janus will get hold of them."

Boyd considered that. She was right and when that happened, it was going to probably become a serious threat for Dǐ Zhì, which was one more reason for Dǐ Zhì to form an alliance with the Agency to gain additional support. Still, it made him wonder about some of the surrounding countries and whether any of them had small groups.

For some reason, that reminded him of something Jorge had once told him about the Snakes; that they had no official alliance with any country or group but that they worked with who they were interested in. He knew that Tayla and Liani traveled for much of their time and they had quite a few contacts from around the world.

He had the feeling from his dealings so far with Xiaolian as well as the Snakes that it was possible they may find mutual interest in each others' goals and the way they conducted business. He wondered if Tayla and Liani knew of Xiaolian or if they stayed away from Dǐ Zhì because of their alliance with 4FF. It also made him wonder if Tayla or Liani knew of other, smaller groups or if they would be interested in connecting with Xiaolian on any of her goals.

Warm wind blew past them, pushing some of Boyd's hair into his face. He pulled it behind his ear and tilted his head slightly as he studied Xiaolian. "Not to talk business without Bo-Qin present, but I was wondering if you've heard of the Snakes."

"I have heard the name." Xiaolian looked at him once again in the same thoughtful manner. "Smugglers doubling as pirates. Very private, very secretive, but I have not done business with them. I do business in black market goods with a particular group."

Boyd nodded; he knew she was referring to 4FF but he had to pretend he didn't know since Chingón wasn't supposed to have dealings with the Agency. "As far as I understand, they don't have any particular alliance and they don't deal in mass quantities of anything. But if you ever need harder to get items and depending on what your current resource can get you, it's possible they could help."

He leaned back a little, his hands resting over the back of the small wall as the wind ruffled their clothing and the sounds of Luoyang echoed from the streets below. "I wasn't bringing them up for black market connections, though; they've helped me before with acquiring items but that's as far as I can vouch for them. I mentioned them mostly because I believe they are well connected internationally and I wonder if they would be of use on more of a revolutionary movement level, perhaps knowing of other people Dǐ Zhì may be able to align themselves with in the future. Especially as Janus grows stronger, the stronger the opposition is the better."

He shrugged. "I don't have a strong connection with them and I don't know if there's interest on either side but if you'd like for whatever reason, I could try to put you in contact sometime."

Xiaolian seemed to consider the offer and shrugged slightly. "I will think on it if our own alliance proves successful." She glanced at her watch briefly. "Your partner and my husband should be arriving momentarily."

Boyd nodded and looked out at Luoyang as he waited.

She observed him silently for a moment. "Bo-Qin does not like me to come out here. He thinks it is dangerous. He thinks the city is dangerous. That I am constantly at threat and should be surrounded at all times by guards."

"The city doesn't seem as dangerous to me as others I've been to, honestly," Boyd replied, looking over at her. "And as far as having guards with you everywhere, I would think that would just draw more attention to you. I'm sure the government already knows you're the leader since your father founded Dǐ Zhì but I can only assume they haven't figured out yet exactly where you are. If you start walking around with guards all the time that could change; unless they're very well-versed in remaining covert while still accessible."

He shrugged. "Of course, that doesn't mean you couldn't be under threat by anyone or shouldn't be on alert."

Xiaolian gave him a small, private smile. "So very true."

The door to the empty room opened and Bo-Qin and Sin walked in. Bo-Qin looked irritated by something which seemed to be the usual state of affairs and Sin appeared relatively unaffected by the other man's bad temperament.

Bo-Qin said something harshly to Xiaolian in Mandarin and she chortled quietly, winking at Boyd and giving him an 'I told you so' look.

"I had wondered where my second American agent had got off to," she commented, her eyes sweeping over Sin's snug-fitting black t-shirt and worn jeans. "I thought perhaps you were off wooing some of my female operatives with those intoxicating green eyes, Hsin."

Sin scoffed and Bo-Qin looked even more irritated by the idea of Dǐ Zhì agents falling for what he seemed to consider the American spies. "He was with Shaoqing."

"Ahh." Xiaolian smiled again. "And I had thought the only man you had eyes for was your partner."

Sin said nothing this time and his expression didn't change, although Bo-Qin's face reddened and he looked from Sin to Boyd sharply.

Boyd looked over at Xiaolian, unsurprised. "Well, I see you've already deduced what I was going to tell you."

"That the two of you are fucking?"

Bo-Qin stared at his wife incredulously. "Xiao--"

"We aren't anymore," Sin corrected her flatly. "And have not been for some time. I'd appreciate it if you'd mind your fucking business about it from here on out. Our personal lives have nothing to do with the business we do here and I'm tired of your silly games."

Xiaolian stared at Sin serenely while her husband looked distinctly disturbed by the entire conversation. His eyes were slightly wide and his gaze switched between the two agents but he didn't seem revolted by the idea of their homosexuality. He just appeared startled and almost intrigued.

Boyd let his gaze pass by Bo-Qin before he focused on Xiaolian. "If there's nothing else, I'm wondering if we could get back to the main reason for Hsin's and my stay here."

"In due time," Xiaolian said calmly. "But I do not think you understand what is meant to happen here. There is nothing more you can say about your resources and power that will convince me to ally with your agency. There is nothing more to discuss. Your commanders knew this-- they gave you three weeks to be here, to prove yourself to me, to make yourself impressive. You can not do this with words."

She raised her eyebrows at Boyd. "Live as a member of Dǐ Zhì for these remaining days and in the end I will decide whether or not I will truly consider your offer."

Boyd met her eyes and nodded. He was not surprised by the comment; he'd known from the start that he wouldn't be able to convince her with words alone. "We can do that."

"Of course, there will be restrictions," Bo-Qin added, his tone once again curt and face unfriendly. "You may be required to go out on assignment with members of our organization. But while on this base, you will be accompanied by Shaoqing or another operative at all times if access is granted to the top level. You will continue to be monitored at all times."

"Speaking of Shaoqing," Xiaolian said, her voice curious. "How do you find your liaison?"

Sin shrugged, saying nothing, his expression implying that he didn't find Shaoqing to be very interesting.

"He's been amenable," Boyd said. And a little odd, but he didn't mention that aloud because he didn't have specific reasons to explain. It was mostly a feeling at this point.

"Very good." The Dǐ Zhì leader stared at the two of them for a stretch before turning away. "I will see you both when it becomes necessary."

She walked out of the room without further comment and after another odd stare at Sin and Boyd, Bo-Qin followed her.

Sin looked at Boyd. "Anything yet?"

Boyd watched the door briefly before turning to Sin with a shrug. "I'm not sure. She did take better to a blunter attitude but it's hard to say. We'll still end up nowhere if she doesn't think we pass her tests."

Sin looked at the balcony briefly before starting toward the door. "We need to talk. I think our quarters may be better than here."

Boyd nodded and followed Sin through the building back to their room. Once the door shut behind them, Boyd glanced briefly around the room.

Nothing appeared to have changed since he'd last been in it and although it was possible they were being monitored, they had yet to find anything in the sweeps they'd been doing for monitoring devices. Even if any existed, neither of them cared. Xiaolian was not the type to let someone else monitor any such devices if they existed and neither Boyd nor Sin had anything to hide while on the mission.

Walking over to the far bed which he'd ended up claiming as his own, Boyd sat down on the edge and looked over at Sin. "Did something happen?"

"Nothing big." Sin crossed his arms over his chest and continued to stand in the middle of the room. The lamp in the corner was the only light in the room and it cast a dim golden glow throughout the space. "But Shaoqing behaves increasingly oddly."

Boyd quirked an eyebrow and leaned back on his hands. "What did he do?"

"He found me in the common room after you went to talk to Xiaolian. I was conversing with another Dǐ Zhì operative about the police presence in the city when Shaoqing arrived. He ordered the woman to leave and began questioning me about your meeting with Xiaolian."

"What was he saying?" Boyd asked, mildly intrigued.

Sin paused and frowned slightly, green eyes narrowed. After a moment he shook his head and let his arms drop to his sides. "I can't explain it. He didn't say anything overt. It's just his tone-- he appeared worried about you and Xiaolian being alone. It was odd and falls in line with the fact that he didn't appear quite as enthralled with her as the others but I can't figure out if it's because he knows something we don't about her of if there's something we don't know about him."

"Hmm." Boyd considered that. "I don't know but something about him just seems off to me. You know Xiaolian better than I do but she seems to be pretty upfront and I don't get the feeling that she's hiding anything from us per se. But Shaoqing... even though he never really says it in so many words, he's been unusually interested in you from the start, especially your history with her and your strength. It's as if he's trying to determine whether you'd still be able to win in a fight against her and sometimes it seems like he's trying to feel out whether it's something you'd even be interested in."

Sin nodded in agreement and turned towards his own side of the room, picking up his duffel bag and sorting through it. He took out a fresh shirt, dropped it on the bed and stripped off the one he was wearing as he said finally, "Maybe I'll arrange to spend some time with Shaoqing on my own."

"Good idea," Boyd said a hint distractedly. He unconsciously dropped his gaze along Sin's strong back, admiring the lines of his body while Sin was turned away.

Sin tossed the shirt to the end of the bed and began undoing his jeans. "I don't believe that she's unaware of his attitude. He's not exactly brilliant at hiding it."

"You're probably right," Boyd said, trying to keep his mind on the conversation. Even though he knew he should look away, his gaze was fixed on the way those jeans lowered slightly on Sin's waist, on the skin that showed. It had been too long since he'd had the chance to look at Sin like this and his feelings for his partner had become too intense and undeniable in the past few months.

"She mentioned how Bo-Qin thinks she's constantly at threat..." Boyd intended to say more but Sin let his jeans fall to the floor, making it obvious that as usual he wore no underwear, and Boyd was struck silent as he found himself staring.

Even turned away, Sin's body was as sculpted and gorgeous as he remembered. Even the distant voice saying he should look away wasn't loud enough. He couldn't help running his eyes along those hard muscles, couldn't help admiring Sin's ass. Boyd's fingers twitched briefly as he remembered what it was like to run his hands along that smooth skin, what those muscles had felt like against him.

Boyd tried to look away but his gaze only shifted a little before it was drawn back of its own accord. He distantly felt himself start to respond as he stared at Sin's ass and his mind was overrun with the desire to pound into it.

"Threat from Shaoqing, though?" Sin sounded mildly skeptical as he kicked the jeans to the side, apparently abandoning his near obsessive neatness for the time being as he grabbed a towel that was sitting on the nightstand.

He turned to face Boyd as he spoke. "He seems more like a pawn than someone who would be singularly dangerous."

Boyd wasn't expecting Sin to turn and as a result, his gaze was still centered right where he suddenly got a great view of Sin's cock. Thought briefly left Boyd's mind and he could feel himself hardening even more from the sight. His lips parted unconsciously; he wanted to drop to his knees and suck Sin off so thoroughly that Sin's body would shudder from pleasure, or maybe more than that he just wanted to fuck Sin so hard they both screamed.

A slightly shaky breath left Boyd and for a moment he couldn't even think to look away; the memories and desire were too strong and even his stubborn self-control wasn't enough to convince his body to listen.

Whatever Sin had been about to say died on his lips as he caught sight of Boyd's expression. His eyes narrowed, long lashes lowering over them, and he didn't move an inch as his gaze zeroed in on Boyd's face before straying along the length of his body and briefly focusing on the crotch of Boyd's straight-legged pants.

Sin's fingers clenched slightly and he abruptly turned away, tying the towel around his waist.

With Sin's body partially covered, Boyd's mind started working again and he was able to wrench his gaze away. He narrowed his eyes and stared at the floor, realizing belatedly how incredibly obvious he'd just been.

What the hell was wrong with him? Sin hadn't even been doing anything purposeful; he'd just been getting undressed. Boyd had been so careful lately too. But then, this was one reason he'd been trying to avoid Sin. Between Xiaolian bringing up their past, Sin stripping down to nothing, and how much Boyd missed and wanted Sin--

None of those excuses mattered. He was doing exactly what Ivan had pointed out not to do and it was his own lack of self-control that was allowing it to happen.

Frustration with himself flared up and he pressed his hands against his face, thinking intently about something unpleasant to make his obvious erection go away. Still, that didn't make it any easier to deny his feelings for Sin, even if he could ignore the desire.

The silence between them was thick with tension, the only sound in the room was fabric against itself as Sin began folding the discarded clothing with near obsessive precision. His movements were stiff and he stacked the shirt and jeans on the table before standing there for a long stretch of time.

After a moment he asked without turning back to Boyd, "Do you ever think about Monterrey?"

Boyd was silent at first, not knowing which part of the Monterrey mission Sin was referring to-- although given the fact Boyd had just been caught with a hard on, he automatically wondered if Sin meant the sex. Regardless, Boyd had thought about that time more than once-- the freedom, how comfortable it had been in so many ways, how close he'd been with Sin, and the amazing sex they'd had.

He dropped his hands to the bed, his head tilted toward the floor with his hair falling around his face. He nodded even though Sin couldn't see. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I do."

Sin remained facing his bed but after a moment he said, his voice low and deep and slightly strained, "Me too."

He turned and walked out of the room before Boyd could say anything more, and shut the door quietly behind him.

Boyd stared after him, wondering what exactly that meant.

Continue to A Matter of Time: Part III