Afterimage Prologue

This site is..

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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Afterimage Prologue

Uploaded on 9/15/2008

The Willowbrook Park area was one of those rare nooks just outside the city that had managed to retain its charm, even after the various attacks that had decimated much of the surrounding areas. There was something very old world about the willow trees that lined the roads, sleepy-looking and beautiful as the long graceful limbs and leaves drifted to the streets and sidewalks below.

But it wasn't just the hauntingly beautiful willows that brought a sense of peacefulness to the park; massive oak and birch trees crowded the walkways, leaves turning brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange as autumn set in. Driving in from the concrete grayness of the inner city, the explosions of life and color combined with the sounds of birds calling and insects buzzing were too drastic of a difference to ignore. Even the most world-weary of city-goers couldn't help but admire the beauty, pausing to gaze at the park with a bittersweet sort of longing for days long past, wishing it could be like this everywhere.

There weren't many residential houses in the area. The neighborhood of Willowbrook was mostly dominated by the park, expansive and beautiful, with a large goose pond in the center as if it was the centerpiece of nature's banquet. But the few homes that surrounded the park were massive and sprawling, reminiscent of a time before the war when the economy was far stabler and it was still common for people in the city to be prosperous. With such magnificent homes huddled nearby, the entire area felt blessed and untouched by a world otherwise gone mad. It lent an additional sense of beauty and nostalgia to a park that was comforting enough on its own.

For some, those homes represented the ideal location; nestled beside the flourishing park, surrounded by the brilliant shades and sounds of nature and it felt like stepping back in time. The homes seemed to add to the significance of the area and due to that, they were that much more expensive.

The lucky few residents who remained there most likely had no plans to sell or move any time soon and even if they did, there was an unspoken rule that if any of those homes were to go on the market, the presence of the area must not be changed; the homes must remain as magnificent as the glimpse of the past they seemed immersed in. It was not unsurprising that the prices of the houses were far above anything an average city dweller would be able to afford; above, even, what some of the upper class would be willing to spend.

It seemed surreal, almost impossible, that such a neighborhood could still remain considering the times that they lived in. It was almost as though it existed in a bubble that protected it from the violence that had destroyed so much of the city. To the people who lived there and the people who frequented the park, Willowbrook was a safe haven, somewhere unaffected by violence and radiation, looting and danger, and that was exactly why Ann had put her sister there.

Her silver 2021 Bentley sped along the winding roads as she quickly approached the steep hill that caused the Willowbrook Home to loom over the park. It was a beautiful building with a steeple, tall columns, and an impressively well-manicured lawn but all it did was mask the reality of the situation.

On first assumption many people thought that it was a rest home for the elderly but it was actually a home for the mentally incompetent. Or more specifically, the mentally incompetent who had family wealthy enough to spend thousands a month on such a reputable and expensive facility.

Ann pulled into the parking lot and shut the car off but did not immediately get out. She sat in the soft leather seat for a full five minutes, just resting her hands on the steering wheel and staring blankly out the windshield as she debated whether or not she truly wanted to go inside.

It had been nearly a year since the last time she'd visited her sister, even if she paid the bill every month without delay. There had been a time when she'd made weekly journeys to the Home but then it had turned monthly and after awhile it was longer than that.

It bothered her to feel like she was ignoring her twin, yet at the same time she knew that Lydia didn't know, didn't care and frankly did not look forward to her visits. How could she? Catatonics didn't notice much. But the idea of Lydia being completely alone... of spending day after day sitting in a chair as she stared blankly out the window with no one to even attempt to engage her was a painful thought.

Slender fingers tightened around the steering wheel and Ann let her head rest against the seat as she closed her eyes.

It was so hard to understand everything sometimes. It was so hard to understand why things had turned out the way they had, why they'd come to the places they were at. She couldn't help but wonder which paths would have led to different, happier futures for them both.

What would have happened if they would have agreed to go with their mother all of those years ago? If they'd supported her decision to leave their oppressive and tyrannical father, a man who ran his family much like he ran the organization that had torn them all apart?

Would they have been happy and safe in the sleepy Midwestern town Jenny Myer Connors had migrated from as a teen? It could have been so much different had it turned out that way... had they taken the time to truly understand that sometimes divorce was necessary for a parent's happiness, a parent's sanity, and that the selfish whims of preteen girls were nothing but that.

But they hadn't and their mother had stayed, for them, had sacrificed herself, for them, and in the end the decision had cost her dearly when the attacks started.

It could have all been so different...

They would have never gotten caught up in the Agency, they would have never become immersed in an organization that thrived on violence and lies. They would have never started a whirlwind ride of alcohol, drugs and wild sex with different agents as they spun out of control, trying so hard to move past the impossibly painful stain of guilt that never seemed to wash off no matter how hard they scrubbed.

They would have never met Emilio.

Charming, sexy, impossibly beautiful Emilio. The bad boy of the Agency, the heart breaker with the deadly skills and killer smile, who wound them up around his little finger just for the satisfaction of letting Marshal Fucking Connors know that he was banging his precious little twin girls and playing them off each other in a cruel game that almost destroyed a bond between twins that had once seemed so impenetrable.

It shouldn't have happened the way it did. She felt that it was her own fault for letting him do the things he'd done. For not being strong enough to see what was happening because she'd been too blinded... too blinded by this charismatic man who could have anyone he wanted but for some reason was focusing on her, on them, two sixteen-year-old girls who'd barely just begun to fill out, even if for some reason a lot of the younger agents found them incredibly attractive.

It was so silly... so incredibly silly.

She thought she'd fallen hard for him but it was after his death that she'd realized it had been nothing more than foolish infatuation and that it was her twin who'd been truly in love. The kind of ruthlessly intense love that only a young girl was capable of. The kind of obsession that someone with more life experience would have been able to move past, to handle. The kind of desperation to fill the void left by this man that had caused her to truly lose her senses, her morals, and eventually her mind.

All for one man.

And Ann couldn't help but think that really, it was all her fault.

She was always the stronger of the two, the smarter one, the one with the backbone, the one who set Lydia straight when she was doing something impossibly foolish.

But when medical school and the experience of living life off the compound didn't have the same effect on Lydia as it had for her... Ann couldn't deny that she'd grown disgusted. Why couldn't Lydia forget him? Why couldn't she move on? Why did she have to dwell on someone who had been so incredibly bad for her, for them? Why did she have to stew in her misery and cry herself to sleep every night? Why did she need him so much?

And why, why God why did she have to gravitate towards his tragically fucked-up son?

Hazel eyes slid open and Ann gazed out the window once again, delicate lips turning down into a morose frown as she watched a squirrel scamper up the massive trunk of an ancient birch tree. He was holding something in his mouth and seemed fiercely protective of it; beady eyes moving around suspiciously and freezing every time he heard the slightest sound. She wanted to smile, to be amused by his tenacity, but she couldn't bring herself to find joy in anything at the moment. But that honestly wasn't anything new and it hadn't been for the past year.

Ann shook her head, locks of dark hair tumbling down from her loose ponytail, and finally pulled the keys out of the ignition as she stepped out of the car. She slid them into her clutch and began to walk towards the entrance rather glumly, heels clicking over the pavement as she made her way slowly, very slowly.

She wasn't looking forward, almost above anything, to the judgmental expressions on the staff's faces when they realized that she was Lydia's first visitor in over a year. Their father had never gone and she'd never expected Ryan to; it was too depressing for him and honestly he and Lydia had never been close. Lydia had always been more interested in using him as an excuse or a pawn in one of her plans to get her own way; the idea of spending time with some ersatz brother when she could be out having fun was an outrageous suggestion in her mind and one she'd never taken into consideration.

But for Ann it was different; for Ann, Ryan was a blessing and even if they weren't really related by blood, even if he didn't believe it, she loved him more than anything in the world. And just the thought of him at the moment hurt too much to bear... It almost made this excursion seem like a traipse in the woods by comparison.

A dark cloud of depression settled over her head, the humidity of an impending storm of sadness and tears weighed down on her shoulders heavily and for a moment it was difficult to look up. She approached the main door with eyes dropped to the ground and just as she reached for the handle, someone on the opposite side of the door pulled it open before she could, causing her to nearly collide with them.

Irritation cracked the gloomy mask on her face and she looked up to see a tall, lanky man striding quickly away. She started to snap something at his retreating back but something about his posture gave her pause. His hands were shoved in his pockets, shoulders slumped and a hood was pulled so far over his face that she couldn't make out any features. An intense aura of misery practically radiated off him and she shook her head with a sigh, not willing to further upset someone who appeared to be in a similar situation as herself. Apparently, visiting patients at the Willowbrook Home was a depressing event for anyone, no matter their circumstance.

Ann slipped her hands into the pockets of her pinstriped pants and entered the building, heading directly to the receptionist's desk so that she could check in. Thankfully, there was a new girl at the desk and not the insufferable woman who appeared to have been working at the Home since the beginning of time and always gave her a stern look of disapproval every time she arrived.

"Good afternoon," the girl said politely, lips going up into an automatic smile even if there was nothing genuine behind it. "Are you here to see a patient?"

"Yes, but I'd like to settle the bill first. I'm just going to pay for the year in advance this time around." Ann opened her clutch and removed her wallet, trying to decide whether she would put it on credit or a personal check.

The girl, Beth according to her name tag, blinked at her in surprise. "But that's nearly sixty grand," she blurted out rather ridiculously, immediately looking embarrassed after the words left her mouth.

Ann hadn't previously known just how green the girl was but she was apparently new enough to not have grasped the immense amount of wealth the Home's clientele typically possessed. It was probably shocking to someone who was obviously in some kind of lower middle or working class lifestyle, making less in a year than she was about to drop in one payment, but contrary to popular belief... there were still a percentage of Americans who had managed to retain their wealth and status after the downfall of their economy. Not a large percentage, but enough of one to matter.

"Yes. Yes it is," Ann replied calmly, feeling mildly embarrassed for the girl. She wondered how much they paid her.

"Well, I have to get Maggie. I've never done that kind of transaction before," Beth said apologetically. She picked up the phone and paged Maggie to the front.

"Is Maggie that insufferable old cow who always looks at everyone like they've done something distasteful even before they've done anything at all?" Ann queried with a slight frown.

Beth giggled quietly and shrugged. "That's the one."

"Wonderful," Ann muttered dryly, rolling her eyes as she tapped her fingernails against the desk. Just what she needed; someone else to remind her of just how bad of a sibling she was.

Mood slipping even lower, Ann studied the young receptionist critically, for no other reason other than the fact that Beth was about ten years younger and female. She didn't know why she did it, she had never been particularly obsessed with looks or people's perception of her, but for some reason lately she couldn't help but compare her own attributes to the women around her and she always found herself falling short.

The girl in question was shorter, but that wasn't anything new since Ann was rather tall for a woman at 5'9", and seemed about twenty pounds overweight but the extra pounds only served to give her a voluptuous figure that Ann envied. She straightened her jacket self-consciously over her rather lilliputian breasts and folded her arms across them as her eyes moved to study Beth's facial features. She was a striking girl with gorgeous blue eyes, a petite delicate nose and bee-stung lips. She wasn't wearing very much makeup and that only emphasized how naturally beautiful she was.

Ann turned her eyes away quickly and instead focused on the items on the girl's desk, feeling sorry for herself and what she perceived as her own Plain Jane face; she felt rather pitiful for playing this game in the first place. There was nothing but a photograph of Beth and a handsome young man staring at each other adoringly, a small cup of non-fat yogurt and a huge bottle of water. Ann ignored the picture and the familiar way it stung her to see such an incredibly happy couple and focused on the yogurt. "Please don't tell me you're trying to lose weight," she said abruptly, turning a disapproving gaze on Beth.

Beth's eyebrows drew together. "Uh, yes, why not?"

"Because you're beautiful the way you are and if you don't see that, it shows that you are weak-minded and prone to conform to tabloids and magazines and television and there is nothing more deplorable than that," Ann responded flatly.

The girl looked surprised and a little irritated but just shrugged silently.

"I'm not attempting to sabotage you or something hideous like that, if that's what you're thinking," Ann continued in the same tone, which left no room for argument because it was clear that she would not see anything any other way but her own. "What would I gain by that? I don't even know you."

Beth shrugged again, this time in bemusement more than anything else, but before she could properly respond the sound of footsteps striding down the hall caught their attention.

Magdalene Porter, or Maggie, seemed more like a prison warden than the manager of a mental health facility; not for the first time did Ann wonder if this woman had become so hardened serving as a field medic during the war. As soon as Maggie came close enough, her eyes zeroed in on Ann and that familiar look of distaste settled on her toughened features. "Ah, Annabelle Connors, it's been quite some time since you were here. Typically I only see your signature on a check."

Ann grit her teeth and forced herself to remain civilized, knowing that she had to depend on these people to care for Lydia and knowing it wasn't worth the risk of making them enemies. "Ah, well you'll be seeing Annabelle Connors Scott on those checks from now on," she said tonelessly.

"How lovely." Maggie's tone didn't imply that she thought anything of the sort. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Scott?"

It irritated her to be called that but she supposed that was ridiculous since she'd been the one to correct Maggie in the first place. "I'd like to pay a year in advance and to hear about my sister's progress."

"I see." Maggie stared at her in a manner that Ann felt was almost invasive and looked as though she wanted to say something else; instead, she went about showing the new girl how to set up such a transaction.

The whole process shouldn't have taken longer than a minute but Maggie took the time to explain to Beth, in painstaking detail, every step, every thing that could possibly go wrong, what to do if that happened, and how frequently certain clients did this sort of thing and why.

It irritated Ann to no end and not for the first time did she wonder why she was always the one who somehow became the guinea pig for someone in training whenever she was simply attempting to pay for something and move on. After the ordeal was finally through and her bank account was 63K smaller, she and Maggie left the ignorant beautiful girl to her non-fat yogurt and walked to the wing that Lydia resided in.

On the way, Maggie retrieved Lydia's chart from the nurses station of that area and allowed Ann to flip through the pages. In most cases, Maggie would have explained the file thoroughly to the client as the language was incomprehensible to the typical person, but Ann wasn't typical in that regard. She had a medical doctorate in psychiatry and in the past six months had returned to the practice, rejoining the ranks of the psychiatrists who worked with Agency staff and particularly the field agents. She and Lydia had both gone to school together for their degrees, had both worked as Agency doctors before, but after she'd failed to help her own sister she'd retired from the field.

Her lips pursed slightly as she briefly scanned each page. It wasn't as thick as she'd imagined it'd been before but she supposed that there wasn't really much to record, much to report.

Although she typically referred to Lydia as suffering from Catatonia, that wasn't exactly the case; it was just that the word Catatonic was something the average person could identify with minimal explanation. However, people who suffered from Catatonia typically had specific psychological problems previous to the onset of the disorder and often suffered from repetitive motions, speech patterns and sometimes even lost the ability to move one's limbs unless someone did it for them.

While the blank staring, loss of speech and general unresponsiveness were also things stereotypically associated with Catatonia, in Lydia's case it would be a misdiagnosis, especially because she didn't respond at all to treatment for it and did not have many of the other symptoms or previous conditions that would have led to it.

The two general theories in Lydia's case were that she either suffered from Akinetic Mutism or had Conversion Disorder, or some kind of combination of the two. During the attack, she'd been strangled viciously and because of that, had temporarily lost the ability for oxygen to reach her brain. As a result she suffered damage to the left frontal lobe of her brain, a common cause of Akinetic Mutism, and had several symptoms which pointed to that illness. She had even positively responded to certain treatments for it, although they hadn't had as strong of a response as they'd hoped.

Lydia appeared awake, sometimes even alert when her eyes tracked people or moving objects, but she was generally unresponsive and seemed unaware of the presence of others and their voices for the most part. She seemed incapable of speaking or making spontaneous movement and expressions. A typical day for her was sitting by the window and staring blankly outside while her nurses groomed her and fed her. They'd tried experimental treatments and while they had provided some increase in brain activity, it hadn't done more than allowed her to eat or walk when guided by someone else.

However the fact that she'd shown similar symptoms after particularly traumatizing events in the past caused them to believe that this could also be a psychiatric condition and not just a neurological syndrome.

After both the death of their mother and the death of Emilio, Lydia had simply shut herself off from the outside world for weeks at a time. Her inability, or unwillingness, to cope with these events had caused her to simply cut off the outside world as she retreated into the depths of her mind in an attempt to escape the consequences of their absence in her life. The fact that her symptoms had remained consistent had proved that there was no malingering or, in layman's terms, that she hadn't been faking it. Both times she'd recovered but the fact that it was something of a trend is why they suspected a possible connection to Conversion. But once again, she didn't respond to the typical treatment for it and once again, they were at a loss.

"Does her EEG remain normal?" Ann asked, shutting the file without reading its entirety and trying to ignore the frustration that welled up inside of her.

"Other than the focal slowing near the site of the infarction, her EEG is fine," Maggie replied coolly, giving Ann another disapproving glance. "You would have been informed if it wasn't."

Ann nodded calmly and tucked the loose strands of dark hair behind one ear, ignoring the ridiculous fact that she almost felt nervous about seeing her twin. "Is there anything else I should be aware of?"

They paused in front of Lydia's door and Maggie stood to the side, staring at Ann and waiting for her to go inside. "She still has the tremors from time to time but nothing to be worked up over."

Ann nodded again, for lack of anything better to say and reached for the doorknob. It was surprisingly warm, as if someone had just recently gripped it, and she looked at Maggie again just before going inside. "Has the nurse been in recently?"

"Not since lunch about two hours ago," The woman replied in the same tone.

Ann felt relieved that she wouldn't have to walk in on someone bathing her twin as they moved her around forcibly like a rag doll, but something nagged at her as she finally pushed the door open.

She remembered the previous time she'd visited Lydia, the telling chill of the doorknob as she'd turned it, a blatant indication of just how rarely anyone entered the room; she remembered the feeling of emptiness as she'd entered, as if the room was devoid of all life even though her sister was sitting there, staring, as she always was.

It was strange, but the normal sensation one felt when in a space occupied by others, that feeling that someone else was there, was always absent from Lydia's room. It was almost like she was soulless, a corpse, and it was part of the reason why she'd begun distancing herself over time. It was a difficult thing to encounter; a hard thing to take home and dream of at night.

She moved across the room slowly, the click of her high heels muffled by the colorful rug, as she went to her twin and gazed down at her silently.

The scars that had once snaked across her face and body like angry pink skinned snakes had faded even more in the past year. Immediately after the attack they'd been angry and swollen, black stitches lining them hideously but now... Now the faded lines seemed somewhat like a funky tribal tattoo and her face, Ann's face, could be seen clearly beneath. But the scars weren't the main difference in their appearance; the empty expression on Lydia's face was what disturbed Ann the most.

It was strange to see someone who looked so much like herself in such a state... And she couldn't help but wonder if someday this would happen to her too. They were twins, they used to share everything, every toy, every emotion, every illness... Perhaps this was just another gene they shared.

She cleared her throat and looked at Maggie. "Please leave me to my sister," she said flatly, no longer interested in the pretense of politeness.

Maggie nodded once and left the room, shutting the door softly behind her.

Ann sat down in the armchair that sat opposite to the one Lydia was in and couldn't help but notice that it also seemed warm. But she ignored the fleeting thought and set her purse down on the side table, folding her hands nearly in her lap as she studied Lydia. "I'm sorry I haven't been here in so long."

Her words echoed strangely in the empty room but she didn't feel silly for speaking. If there was still a chance that somewhere, somehow, Lydia could understand even if she couldn't react, Ann would talk herself hoarse. And if she could understand, Lydia deserved to know what was going on.

Ann had known this for awhile but after their father died... she'd made the decision to finally come and do it. It'd taken longer than she'd thought it would to get up the courage, to find the words and prepare what she would say, but finally she was here. "I know you don't believe me, if I were you I certainly wouldn't believe me, but it's true. And it wasn't deliberate. A lot has been going on... Everything is a mess. Everything is different."

She paused and dragged her eyes away from Lydia's still face and followed the vacant gaze out the wide bay window. She appeared to be staring down at the entrance of the facility, even though there was no longer anyone there.

"Daddy's organization," she began, speaking in a slightly coded way because who knew if someone was listening somehow, "--was in shambles for a time. The pressure was on him from the higher-ups, they wanted results, he couldn't give them what they wanted and certain... assignments ended in colossal failure." Her mouth twitched slightly as she remembered turning on CNN and watching the mangled reports of a terrorist attack in Monterrey and the way her father had exploded when he'd found out that not only had it all been a waste, but that the suspicion of an American organization's involvement was likely going to cost him his career. "He became harder than ever and everyone suffered."

Ann frowned and toyed with the thin platinum band that hugged her finger. "In his desperation to save himself from a mistake that he blamed on everyone else, he began pushing my relationship, that foolish engagement that I'd never intended to go through with, even more. You know, the one with Philip Scott." Her lips curled down in disgust and her eyes narrowed slightly. "That spineless, drunken, useless, cowardly son of someone important somewhere," she went on, once again vaguely. "Within six months of the threat of losing his place in the organization, he struck up a deal with Philip's daddy dearest, and basically promised Philip a prominent rank doing something easy and important in exchange for solidarity when Daddy was called on his errors by the big guys."

A soft scoff and she fought the urge to take the ring off and chuck it across the room. Even now it made her angry to think about how her father had used her as a pawn, and it made her even angrier that she'd done very little to go against it and that she did nothing even now that it had all gone to hell. "I'm sure you'd be disappointed in the way I allowed him to push me along. I'm supposed to be the backbone of our little duo and I let him marry me off because I was lonely. Because I foolishly thought that eventually I would fall in love with him and we could possibly be happy together. It sounds so ridiculous now... but so much has happened and I just wanted someone to..." She trailed off with an embarrassed sigh. "Anyway, we were married and then... then Daddy died. And so did his promises to Philip."

A bitter smile briefly flitted across Ann's mouth. "The disappointment was evident immediately. You'd think it was my fault. So much for any pathetic idea about love on either of our parts. Seems Mr. Scott isn't so spineless when it comes to women."

A cool breeze floated in through the window, cooler than it should have been for this time of autumn and stirred Lydia's hair sligtly, brushing long strands of dark hair across her face. Ann leaned forward and pushed the hair away, frowning slightly when her fingers caught in a knot in the delicate strands. Lips pressing together in displeasure, Ann stood up and scanned the room for a comb.

"Anyway, I've gone back into therapy," she informed her twin, going to the bedside table and opening the drawer. "I decided that I was wasting my education working as an assistant and that I would be much more useful doing what I was trained for. It sounds ridiculously egotistical but I hope some day to be able to figure out how to help you. I've been researching a lot and there are new things popping up very frequently now that the industry has recovered from the disruptions from the war but a lot of things were lost... Doctors, their research, so much was wiped out. It's as though the medical field was set back ten years because of it."

Ann removed a wide toothed comb from the drawer and went back to Lydia, standing behind her as she begun slowly pulling the comb through her hair. "I want to help you. You and Ryan. He's going through so much now... And he's changing, right before my very eyes, he's turning into someone entirely different. It's painful to see and he doesn't want my help at all..."

It was the first time she'd ever said it out loud and the idea struck her painfully. Her chest constricted and her lips trembled dangerously as tears formed in her eyes. "It hurts so much to be so alone," she confessed in a small, pained voice. "Daddy was never much of a father but he was still... there. But now that's gone. And I'm losing Ryan. And you... you've been gone for so long and honestly Lydia, I'm so angry with you for it."

The words were out of her mouth before she could rein them in but it was something that she'd been thinking of for a few months now. Ever since that evening when she'd run into that wretched man in the hall.

Ann took a deep breath and tried to calm herself down as she began to comb Lydia's hair again. "You were always so emotionally weak, Liddie-- You were always so desperate for love in any way you could get it... but I never imagined... I never imagined until I saw it with my own eyes, that you would go so far with someone like that, someone in that condition... Jesus, Lydia, you were worth so much more... you could have had anyone, done anything, but you just..."

She was getting worked up now, breath coming faster as she struggled to get the words out that she'd been thinking ever since she'd watched that horrible tape. "You provoked things, Lydia. You took advantage of a situation that you couldn't possibly, and should have known, that you could not control."

There. She'd said it.

And she knew it was horrible, she knew that she shouldn't be saying these things when it was too late to change

anything, but it made her so fucking angry to know that was once again she was out of a family member and this time it could have been avoided.

The tears wanted to stream down her face but she fought them, tried to suffocate the anger that was building in her chest, but it was too late. All of the frustration and anger and depression had come to a head and needed to be let loose. On someone. Anyone. And when the comb snagged in another tangle, this one much larger than the first, all of those feelings exploded out of her.

Ann hurled the comb across the room and stormed out, seething, as she marched over to the nurses station and glared daggers at Maggie and the other woman who was there. "I pay you fucking people five thousand a month and you can't even comb my sister's goddamn hair!"

Maggie and the young nurse stared in astonishment. "Pardon?" Maggie asked in a slightly indignant tone.

Ann stood there, shaking, with her hands balled into white knuckled fists. She wanted to attack the old bitch; she really, really did. How dare she stand there with that judgmental look on her face when she couldn't even be bothered to make sure people were doing their jobs? "What part of my accusation was difficult to comprehend?"

Maggie stared at her for a long moment before sighing softly, in what sounded like annoyed exasperation, and looking down at the young woman behind the desk. "Judy, who was the nurse on duty this morning for Ms. Connors?"

The nurse, Judy apparently, glanced at Ann in fear before admitting meekly, "Well, I was..."

The disappointment was clearly evident on Maggie's face and she responded before Ann had a chance to verbally abuse the girl. "Did you completely finish your morning duties for Ms. Connors?" She spoke as if she were dealing with a child.

"Well, no..."

"And why the hell not?" Ann demanded, hazel eyes focused on the girl dangerously. "Too impatient to get back to surfing the 'net?" She gestured towards the computer screen which clearly showed some kind of music website.

Judy clicked the site off immediately and shrank away from the pair of them, looking guilty and frightened all at once. Ann almost felt bad for her but right now the poor fool was the only scapegoat she had to take her aggression out on. And she did have a point. "No!" Judy objected hurriedly. "I... there was a disturbance down the hall and they paged for everyone to go to help. Lacy Daniels had another fit and was holding Tina hostage if we didn't give her coffee! But it's been specifically stated by her doctor that she can't have caffeine!"

The explanation was so ridiculous that the fire began to ooze out of Ann's anger and she stared at Judy and then Maggie, before shaking her head. So much for Willowbrook being a safe haven.

"And what happened after that?" Maggie demanded coldly, not seeming too pleased with her young employee now that accusations of inappropriate Internet usage had been thrown into the fray.

"Well, the whole thing took about two hours to resolve and then by the time I could get back to my duties, it was visiting hours and Jason showed up. I'm really sorry, Ms. Connors, and Maggie, but after all of that I just completely forgot! And Jason stayed practically the whole day-- I stopped in to bring food and everything but--"

Ann stared at the girl blankly for a moment before she figured out what the girl was saying. "What? What are you talking about? Who in the hell is Jason?"

Judy and Maggie both turned to her in something akin to surprise before glancing at each other briefly. It was very obvious that they knew something she didn't and that they found it very odd that she was unaware. "Jason Alvarez, he is a regular visitor of Lydia's," Maggie informed her with a hint of reproach in her tone, as if she somehow failed even more as a sister for not being aware of this.

Ann ignored the implication and she crossed her arms over her chest, staring at them doubtfully. "Since when?"

"Since... A few weeks ago maybe, ummm," Judy trailed off thoughtfully and counted on her fingers. "At least two months, I guess. He started coming late in the summer. I remember because the first time I saw him I commented on how warm it was and he said that it was nothing. He always wears this hooded sweatshirt, even when it was really really warm," she added unnecessarily.

Ann wracked her brain trying to remember a 'Jason' that either of them would know well enough for him to suddenly strike up the desire to begin visiting Lydia seven years after she became a blinking vegetable, but she came up short. "You must have it wrong. Are you sure it's this Lydia he's visiting?"

"Oh, yes," Judy said, nodding enthusiastically. "I'm positive. Beth was here the first time he came. She checked him in and everything. He specifically asked for Lydia Connors and since there were no visitation restrictions, he went in and has come every so often ever since." She seemed very pleased with herself for being privy to this information, as if sharing it would get her off the hook about her Internet dilemma.

"This is baffling to me," Ann said, shaking her head as her eyebrows drew together. "Why did no one inform me?"

This time it was Maggie who spoke, and she did so with the same air of annoyance and displeasure as she did everything else when it came to Ann. "What purpose would that have served? We don't typically alert clients to the patient's visitors unless there are restrictions or alerts set. Lydia had none and honestly I found no reason to report to you about it. You should be thankful that someone has interest enough in your sister to come see her so regularly."

The anger flared up again and Ann glared at Maggie venomously. "You seem to forget who pays you, Magdalene. Whenever anything happens to my sister, I want to be informed. This place is supposed to supply her comfort, security, and so far all I see is people who don't even know how to properly groom her or back check random men who come to see her. This 'Jason' person could be anybody! Do you forget the times we live in? My family is very wealthy and people are very desperate. He could be planning to kidnap and ransom her for all we know!"

Maggie licked her lips, finally beginning to look slightly uncomfortable. "Surely that's not the case..."

"You old fool," Ann snapped contemptuously. "You have no idea what kinds of enemies my father had." There were any number of people who would like to wipe his family tree clean even though he was already dead-- who would like to get their hands on his money, money that she and Lydia now possessed. He had so many people against him, both in and outside of the Agency, that she trusted very few people, especially strangers. The fact that his murderer was still unidentified made her all the more paranoid.

"Jason's nice," Judy objected suddenly, looking upset at the idea of him being a psychopathic kidnapper; she was obviously quite taken with this person. "We all think he's just an old love of hers, maybe someone who just found out about her condition recently."

"Oh is that so," Ann mocked. "And why is Jason so nice, pray tell? Does he feed her and brush her hair?"

"No," Judy admitted. "Mostly he just sits there and stares at her. I can tell he's trying not to show it, but usually his eyes seem very sad."

Ann blinked, surprised by this information, and stared down at the girl doubtfully. It made her all the more confused and she rubbed her forehead, once again trying to place the name with a face but finding none. Lydia didn't have any 'old loves'. She had a long list of previous fucks who'd went after her for one thing and had unsurprisingly lost interest after getting it. She was well known for her sexual exploits but as far as Ann knew, and she knew everything, Lydia had no old boyfriends who would care enough to come calling. "What does this person look like?"

Judy leaned forward, as if she had been hoping for this question. "He's very tall and slender, but you can tell he has a nice toned body," she once again said unnecessarily and this time it was obvious that she had a crush.

"And?" Ann demanded impatiently. "What's his ethnicity? Is he White? Hispanic? Asian? What color is his hair? His eyes? Can you tell me anything useful at all or were you too busy trying to figure out how toned his body is beneath the hooded sweatshirt?"

Blushing, Judy shook her head and seemed embarrassed. She couldn't be more than eighteen or nineteen years old and with the way she was acting, it was obvious that she'd never had a boyfriend or a lover; that she wasn't used to being around men. "He definitely isn't White, but I'm not sure exactly what he is... He has tanned skin like a Spanish person but... but his features are very exotic. His eyes kind of have an Asian tilt but they're very bright green."

It felt as though all of the air had been sucked out of her lungs and Ann felt herself go cold as the world went still around her. She reached out and held on to the edge of the desk, suddenly feeling very off balance as she stared down at the stupid young girl with the idiotic crush.

"My God Annabelle, you've gone as white as a ghost," Maggie exclaimed, looking truly concerned as she took a step forward.

Ann held up a hand to ward her off and shook her head, trying to regain her bearings. There was no way... It had to be a coincidence. It had to be... "Are you sure about this, Judy? I need you to be very positive about what you're telling me." Her voice came out slightly strained but with an air of authority that a silly little girl like Judy would never dare to disobey.

"I--I'm positive," Judy said, finally looking just as concerned as Maggie. "He was just here. He left only a minute or two before you came in."

Her fingers tightened around the edge of the desk and suddenly Ann saw a very clear flash of herself nearly colliding with a tall lanky man who seemed to be hiding under his hood.

And recognition set in immediately.

The height, the broad shoulders and deceptively thin physique, that purposeful stride and the almost intimidating presence even if it had been clouded over by depression...

"Jesus," Ann murmured softly and pressed a hand to her forehead, eyebrows drawing together as she tried to figure out what this could possibly mean.

"Tell me, Annabelle. If there's something the matter, if he's dangerous, we have surveillance tapes, his fingerprints from the sign in sheet... We will do anything we can to ensure that he does not harm your sister," Maggie said in a firm voice, appearing very alarmed at the prospect of this happening and at the potential scandal that it would cause for her boss and the other wealthy clients if it should reach the media. If it came out that a dangerous individual had been allowed on the premises, it was almost certain that the other clients would remove their family members...

"No," Ann said, clearing her throat and regaining her bearings. She stared out the window and tried to calm her racing thoughts, the way her heart was beating fast enough to thunder out of her chest as she forced herself to think rationally about the situation.

Her first instinct had been fear; had he hurt Lydia? Did he have some ulterior motive for coming here? What was the reasoning behind the timing; why had he waited until after her father died? All of those disturbing thoughts had flown through her mind rapidly but as she took a couple of deep breaths, she told herself that each scenario that played out mentally was highly unlikely.

What would he gain by hurting Lydia? He hadn't even set out to hurt her before. And Ann couldn't quite forget that strange look on his face all of those months ago in the hallway; the way he'd turned ashen at the sight of her and the uttered apology as if he were sorry that she'd had to be in his presence at all.

Ann pursed her lips together, mind going from frantic to analytical in a fragment of a moment, even if the heated anger and indignation remained. Even if he wasn't hurting her, even if his intentions weren't bad, how dare he...

"Next time he arrives, do not mention what has happened here this evening. And as soon as he signs in... you call me immediately."

She finally looked at them again, staring hard at the older woman and the silly young girl, and with that warning glare, a glare that let them know what would happen if they didn't do as she said, Ann stormed away. As she strode quickly down the hallway, heels once again clicking loudly in the now completely silent wing, she couldn't help but try to figure out what this could possibly bring in the months to come.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter One...