Afterimage Chapter Eleven

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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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Afterimage Chapter Eleven

Uploaded on 1/18/2009

The sound of something sizzling on the stove-top dominated the otherwise silent kitchen; the aroma of cooking sausages accompanying the sound pleasantly. Every now and then there was a sharp pop as grease crackled in the pan, causing little splatters of oil to assault the nearby pots and surface areas.

The kitchen wasn't large but it was a good size and gave an almost overwhelming sense of neatness and order. There was a well organized spice rack, although it looked barely used, and it was very obvious that every dish and every utensil had a place and was currently sitting in it.

Carhart leaned against the wall opposite the stove, barefoot and wearing faded jeans with a beer in one hand and a dish towel thrown over his right shoulder. He didn't look as wearied as he had lately and for the first time in what seemed like months, worry lines didn't crease his forehead. He looked more relaxed than he had in a long time but it was too bad the same couldn't be said for the younger agent sitting slumped at the kitchen table.

Sin looked like someone who was getting very close to his wit's end.

He had his face half buried in one hand while the other had a death-grip on his too-long black hair. Sin didn't look nearly as exhausted as he had that day on the rooftop but he also didn't appear to be too far off from it.

But his obvious sleep deprivation wasn't the only problem; an aura of unhappiness surrounded him and that, combined with the usual air of danger and intimidation that followed him, was a toxic mix. Just standing across the kitchen from Sin at the moment was enough to put the General in a state of anxiety; it wasn't possible for anything good to come of his agent's current state.

But more than that, it was nearly impossible to hang onto his previously good mood with such a miserable creature in close proximity. The black cloud that was following Sin seemed to infect the people around him as well.

Carhart swilled the beer idly, glancing at the stove briefly before refocusing on Sin. "Do you want a beer?"

Sin shrugged, not taking his face out of his hand. "Have any whiskey?"

The General raised an eyebrow at that. "No."

"You're useless to me then."

Carhart shook his head slightly and set his beer down on the counter, walking across the tiled floor to check on his food. The sausages looked just about done, the edges darkened and slightly crispy just like he liked them. He turned off the burner and opened the lid of another pot, eyeballing the rich red sauce for a moment before closing it again.

"What are you, some secret master chef or something?" Sin asked finally, not really sounding too interested in the answer. "This is the second time I've been here that you had some grand meal all ready to go."

Carhart opened his freezer door to reveal an assortment of microwave meals. "I don't actually cook very often."

Sin snorted and looked up finally, although he just dug both hands in his hair this time, massaging his scalp. "So it's just when I'm around. Fattening me up for Thanksgiving?"

"It'd take a lot more than spaghetti and spicy Italian sausage for that, Sin," Carhart said dryly. "For awhile you weren't more than skin and bones. I'm surprised Boyd likes that kind of thing." He took another sip of beer, eyes not leaving Sin's face.

Green eyes narrowed and Sin scowled darkly. "Who said he likes anything?"

"Your internal tracker did," Carhart said simply.

Sin just shook his head. "What are you talking about?" His voice was tired, as if he couldn't be bothered to put it together on his own.

"It tracks your vitals, Agent. So every time your heartbeat speeds up, decreases... whoever is currently watching can see. That's how we knew something went wrong in Monterrey; the people monitoring your heartbeat saw it rapidly accelerating before decreasing." Carhart finished the beer and tossed it in the trash can.

"That's a nice story." Sin closed his eyes again, the smell of food causing his empty stomach to protest violently even though the idea of eating made him feel nauseated.

"You used to be such a bright boy," Carhart commented idly. "What happened?"

"I woke up from a coma with an open pandora's box for a brain and now all of the crazy has been let loose," Sin replied tonelessly. "Kind of hard to concentrate on your little riddles at the moment when my mind is racing nonstop about things I'd rather not think about."

Carhart thought back to that moment in the box and what Sin had confessed to in a delirious stupor before quickly banishing it to the back of his brain. He couldn't think about that right now; it had likely been nothing more than incoherent ranting anyway.

"Every time your heartbeat accelerated for an extended period of time, there was an alert," Carhart said casually. "The analysts who monitor it then report to me and, back then, Connors. But they're well trained and can usually deduce what scenarios would cause momentary or extended accelerations like that. So after the first dozen incidences of a specific pattern, they stopped reporting in, but they keep a record."

Sin shook his head again, opening his mouth to denounce the General as insane, but he froze.

Every time his heart sped up...

Sin opened one eye and stared up at the General. "I see."

"So unless you found a steady sexual partner in Monterrey who then followed you back here," Carhart went on with an amused expression. "I'd say Boyd is rather fond of your physique."

Sin scoffed slightly, not really impressed by Carhart's skills of detection. "Good job."

Carhart shrugged. "I thought it would amuse you. Maybe not."

"It's kind of difficult to be amused at the moment," was the wan reply.

Carhart frowned down at him for a moment before turning back to the stove and turning off burners before he knelt down and pulled another large pot from a cabinet. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. It's not like you."

"What do you know what I'm like?" Sin retorted, but there was no real bite in his tone.

"I've known you for fifteen years, kid. And I've spent every single one of them trying to do right by you-- I think it gives me a slight bit of authority on what is typical Sin behavior."

Carhart stood up and rinsed the pot thoroughly before filling it halfway and setting it on the stove. He looked over his shoulder at the way Sin was practically slumped face first into the table and frowned slightly, flicking on the burner and waiting for the water to boil.

"You've been through hard times before and you always did it with a shit-eating, smart-assed smirk on your face. It was probably fake-- probably just to show everyone that you didn't give a damn about what they did to you, but I've never seen you feeling as sorry for yourself as you do now. Not this blatantly anyway. It's not a good thing to see."

Sin waved his hand vaguely. "Sorry I'm letting you down," he muttered sarcastically.

Carhart sighed and ran a hand through his hair, feeling very unsure of what to do. He wanted to ask Sin what was really wrong with him, what was so bad that it could put him in this sorry state, but at the same time he had a feeling what the answer would be and he really didn't want to go down that road.

So he changed the subject entirely. "Is this therapy thing with Annabelle not helping at all?"

Sin shrugged but the motion was so weak that it was barely noticeable. "I don't know yet. It helps and it doesn't help. Some things just can't be helped, I suppose."

"Nice answer," Carhart replied dryly, turning the heat up under the water as he watched it impatiently.

Sin sighed and pushed himself up slightly, turning to look at the General. "I don't know if it's helping. Sometimes it's.... good to just have someone to talk to who won't, or is not supposed, to judge me for what I say. So it's easier, I guess. Just... to talk. It surprised me at first; I didn't expect that whining about my troubles would take some of the weight off my shoulders but sometimes it does. And she already thinks poorly of me so I don't have to worry about maintaining some kind of standard like I do for you and Boyd."

Carhart raised an eyebrow at him. "I understand Boyd, but me? My opinion of you hasn't changed and I've seen you at your worst."

Sin looked at him evenly. "No, you haven't."

There was a brief, tense silence and Carhart cleared his throat, feeling mildly uneasy by the response. "So, you trust her?"

"Of course not. How could I?" Sin leaned against the wall behind his chair, thudding the back of his head against it as he closed his eyes. "But that isn't really important anymore. She doesn't seem duplicitous so far and for some bizarre reason seems very keen on curing me, if that's at all possible."

Carhart frowned slightly, never having really understood the business of psychiatry. "It isn't possible? Then what the hell are you there for?"

Sin made a sound at the back of his throat as if to say, 'you tell me' but actually said, "She gave me medication but it takes some time to kick in, so... I've been sleeping slightly better but the other stuff is still the same. Maybe not as extreme, but it's still going on."

"The hallucinations?"



Carhart opened another cabinet and pulled out a box of vermicelli noodles as he seemed to consider that. "What do you see when you hallucinate? Or hear?"

Sin paused briefly. "People I've hurt. Killed."

There was another stretch of silence as Carhart broke the long straws of noodle in half and dumped them in the boiling water. "That must be hard," he said quietly.

There was a low, humorless laugh across the kitchen. "Out of everything I've been through in my entire life, I think this is the hardest thing yet."

Carhart watched the noodles soften in the boiling water, eyebrows drawn together slightly as he listened to Sin. Very rarely did the younger man open up to him-- in fact he couldn't think of a time when he really had. Not like this anyway.

"When you were a field agent," Sin began slowly. "Did you ever... did you ever regret killing someone? I'm sure you regretted killing in general, especially if you were ever in my line of work, but did you ever regret killing a specific person?"

Carhart answered without hesitation. "Yes. And I'll regret it to this day."

Sin stared at Carhart intently, eyes narrowed. "Did it ever haunt you? Afterwards?"

A chill went down Carhart's spine and he had to resist the urge to shiver. Just the question, just the fact that he was remembering, it haunted him even now. "Yes. I had dreams-- nightmares, for a very long time afterwards. I had a lot of guilt over that person. I still do, although it's easier to forget about it now."

Sin nodded, not looking away, still pinning Carhart in place with that intense stare. "Imagine being haunted by not just one person that you regret killing-- Imagine being haunted by about thirty, or more. Imagine hearing their voices whispering in your ears, seeing them in front of you bleeding, dead, but still talking to you, accusing you. Imagine... dreaming of them every night and reliving what happened in vivid detail."

Carhart had to look away; it was hard, especially with those extraordinary green eyes trained on him, but he managed. He swallowed briefly, feeling very strange, almost guilty, for ever having made light of Sin's situation. "I don't think I would be able to live with myself."

"Sometimes I don't want to. Most of the time, at least these days, I really don't want to."

Carhart finally looked at Sin again, this time in concern. "You can't--"

"I need to tell you something," Sin interrupted suddenly, one hand gripping the side of the table. "I really need to tell someone. I think I'm fucking losing my mind here and it's all because of this one thing, Carhart. And I need someone to put it in perspective for me or, to tell me it's all in my head or maybe I'm wrong or--"

Before he could finish the sentence, there was a loud knock at the door. Carhart hesitated, eyes trained on Sin, but then there was another knock and he took the opportunity to interrupt the direction of the conversation.

"Just a second," Carhart said, clearing his throat. He'd already told Sin that Morgan would be arriving shortly but he'd hoped, after telling Sin to come over to discuss his progress with Ann, that the two wouldn't be there at the same time.

Sin's eyebrows drew together, frustration obvious on his face, and he sighed inaudibly as Carhart opened the door.

Anyone who looked at Morgan Chase would not expect her to be the Captain in charge of field agent training. If anything, with her sleek black bob, clear blue eyes and almost delicately slender looking frame, most people would probably assume she was an agent in Intel or a possibly even a valentine operative. But people who did know her also knew that she was more deadly in hand to hand combat than most people were with an actual weapon and that she was a complete hardass when it came to how training was handled.

She slipped into the apartment past Carhart, standing only a couple of inches shorter than the General, and removed her damp jacket as she shook rain out of an umbrella. "Smells good," she commented with a smile, but before Carhart could reply, the smile froze on her face when she noticed Sin.

He was already getting up to leave, zipping his hoody all the way up and shoving his hands in his pockets, movements stiff and tense. "I'm going," he muttered quietly, starting for the door.

"Wait," Carhart said, holding out a hand. "Just a second."

Morgan looked from Sin to Carhart, not appearing very pleased in the slightest but despite that she turned her attention to Sin. "Hello, Agent Vega."

Sin shrugged, glancing at her. "Hi."

"We were in the middle of a discussion," Carhart explained. "And--"

"Can I speak to you for a moment in the other room?" Morgan asked, her tone giving nothing away although the way her slightly narrowed blue eyes did.

Carhart frowned and looked at Sin again. "Just give me a minute."

The other man said nothing, opting instead to just stare at the carpet, and Carhart followed Morgan to his bedroom. She closed the door behind them and folded her arms across her chest, shaking her head at him disapprovingly. "Why is he here?"

"I asked him to come," he replied, exasperated already with the conversation.

Morgan looked away briefly, blue eyes focusing briefly on the storm raging on the other side of the window before she looked at the General again. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I wanted to see how things were progressing," Carhart replied shortly. "I don't see how this is relevant to you."

Morgan put her hands on her hips, face indignant and annoyed. "Are we not in a relationship?"

Carhart shrugged, sighing. "Some kind, yeah, sure."

"Some kind," she repeated, making a face but not seeming surprised. "It's relevant, because you're important to me, regardless of what kind of relationship we have. And what's best for you, and your safety, are my concerns. And you bringing him to your home is a bad idea."

"Okay, I'm done with this," he said flatly, starting for the door.

Morgan grabbed his arm, fingers digging in tight. "If you wanted to discuss his progress, you should have met him in your office. You're too goddamned personally involved with that man and it's not good for you. It's not good for you to always be so stressed out over him, it's certainly not good for your career and it's not good for your safety. He's dangerous."

Carhart shook her off, a frown etched onto his handsome features. "He's not dangerous to me."

"He's dangerous to everyone around him," Morgan corrected him sternly. Carhart opened his mouth to speak but she cut him off again, this time with a sharp shake of her head. "I'm not trying to villainize him like everyone else does, Zachary. I know the deal-- I know his story, I know why he's so messed up, but that doesn't change the fact that he is really messed up! When he snaps, he's a danger to everyone around him and by bringing him to your home, you're putting yourself in a position you don't need to be in."

There was a long stretch of silence and for several moments, the only sounds were a branch slamming against the window as the wind howled outside.

The tension in the room was thick, almost tangible, as Morgan and Carhart stared at each other and finally the General gave a long suffering sigh and opened his mouth to reluctantly agree that she may have a slight point. But before he could even get the words out, there was the distinct sound of a door shutting firmly and he looked over his shoulder, eyebrows furrowed.

Morgan blinked in surprise and glanced at Carhart in concern. "You don't think he heard me, do you?"

Carhart frowned again, his good mood all but gone, and shrugged. "He shouldn't have been able to but I wouldn't be surprised if he did."

They looked at each other again, neither of them appearing very happy with the idea of their conversation having been overheard, but all Carhart could do was shake his head and leave the bedroom in annoyance.

Although the idea of Sin hearing Morgan's comments bothered him, Carhart couldn't deny that a part of him was selfishly relieved that he'd been given an out. He'd known where the conversation was going and he didn't want to deal with it just yet.

So all he could do was hope that Sin would follow his orders, take the medication, and move past the issues that were plaguing him.

Becoming emotionally attached to people, trusting people; all of it was a scam.

Sin had allowed himself to become dependent on Boyd as a friend, as a confidant, as someone who could make him feel good when he was at his worst, and now they were all but estranged. The Agency was the priority; something that was both ironic and almost inconceivable considering Boyd's past claims that he was loyal to individuals and not the organization.

And now Carhart; Carhart had always wanted Sin to trust him and now that he did, now that he was willing to confide in him and wanted to, it was impossible. He got the strong impression that Carhart didn't really want to hear what he had to say, that he wasn't comfortable knowing whatever Sin wanted him to know.

And then there was Morgan; it was hard to be offended by her complaints when he knew she had a valid point.

He wasn't really angry at any of them but at the same time, he couldn't help but feel as though they were disaffecting from him after going through great lengths to earn his trust. Sin couldn't help feeling more alienated than ever.

People, he decided, were deceptive and very unreliable. He didn't know if they meant to be that way or if it was just inherent in humanity, but that was the way it was. He'd gone well over twenty-seven years being self-sufficient, living a solitary life where he kept everything inside, but then these people came along and convinced him to open up, to let them in.

And where was he now?

In need of the companionship he'd been offered and more alone than ever. It wouldn't have bothered him if he'd never had the chance to feel friendship, trust, to know that someone gave a damn about him; that there was someone who didn't fear him, even if that fear was felt rightfully.

It was oddly dehumanizing but Sin wasn't sure if he didn't deserve it all. After all he'd done, after all of the lives he'd ruined or ended, why should he get to live life normally or have people close to him?

But even knowing that didn't make it any better. It was a paradox, because even though he knew he didn't deserve those things, he wanted them badly. He needed them and the fact that he was being denied made everything seem ten times worse.

So he walked through the rain with his head down, hands stuffed in his pockets, and didn't look at anyone around him. By the time he reached his building he had an aching headache, a chill straight to the bone, and he was pretty sure that the flicker in the corner of his vision wasn't entirely real.

At first it'd seemed to be something blowing in the wind, maybe a discarded umbrella or a jacket that had fallen from someone's bag. But one direct glance at the object exposed it for what it was; a scrawny excuse for a corpse, practically torn apart and bleeding on the ground. The man's limbs seemed to be completely dislocated or ravaged from his body, but one hand still clutched a thin golden chain, an offering to his murderer, a plea for his life.

The chain was battered and blood stained, the symbol a well known family crest that anyone who'd followed politics back in the day would recognize; likely the reason no pawn broker would accept it and involve themselves in the murder of the Krauszer boy.

And a part of Sin, as he stopped in his tracks and stared at the ghastly image, could only wonder why his subconscious was showing him this. Jared had deserved to die. To pay for what he'd done.

But then again... he'd been a weak man, sickly, a junky in withdrawal. He'd been no match for Sin and his killing had been nothing more than cold-blooded, thoroughly savage murder.

Sin turned his head and quickly sped by, ignoring the fact that the image seemed to follow him home.

Officer Daniels didn't make eye contact with him as Sin jogged up the stairs but that was typical lately. Sin didn't give him a second look, accustomed to the behavior now, but as he disappeared inside the building Daniels finally looked at his retreating back with a slight, almost guilty frown.

But Sin didn't notice; he was already going up the stairs. The trek was a lot easier now that he was getting more sleep; he supposed the medication was at least good as a sedative even if they hadn't done much else so far.

Distracted by his thoughts and the image of Jared, Sin strode down the hallway without even glancing up at his guards. It was only when he swiped his card and stepped into his apartment that he realized something was wrong.

Eyes narrowing slightly as he finally looked up, Sin allowed the door to shut behind him as his gaze swept over the apartment.

He wasn't alone.

Sin looked at the four men calmly, his posture loose and unassuming as he automatically put names with faces. Agents Lester and Dupuis, Level 7 field operatives who he'd seen around the compound with Agent Carson. The other two were mildly familiar but less important; both guards, only one of which he recognized as Officer Thomas, a guy in Lt. Gerant's squad.

It was obviously somehow related to revenge; they probably thought he deserved a real punishment other than playing doctor with Annebelle since he'd inflicted grievous injuries on their friends.

Sin didn't really blame them.

So when the second guard came up behind him, wrenching his arms behind his back and forcing him to the floor, Sin didn't even resist. He didn't know if it was his depression, or the fact that he was currently very apathetic and uncaring about his own well-being; maybe it was even because he really felt that this was well deserved. Whatever the case, there was no anger inside him, no helplessness or fear.

They didn't speak at first and neither did he; Sin simply let them take their frustrations out on his body and felt oddly calm through the entire ordeal.

Sin was aware of the sharp, impatient knocks but he had no desire to go open the door. He had no desire to drag himself off the bed where he was sprawled and limp his sorry self into the living room.

He was in more pain than he'd intended to be in but he'd let the fun go on for a little too long. His four friends had really gotten into the act of it, beating on him zealously, and the fact that he hadn't done a single thing to defend himself hadn't derailed them.

And now, after the fact, he realized that the only thing the game had gotten him was a few fractures and a mess of bruises, with no lack of guilt to show for it. What was the use of repenting and atoning if it didn't make him feel any better?

Fun stuff. But mostly he just felt pathetic. His father's shade had dropped in repeatedly to inform him that he was just that. That his poor attempt at squaring things with the agency staff was idiotic, in vain, and that they would never accept or forgive him.

Sin wasn't too surprised by this information and he hadn't needed a hallucination to tell him about it.

The knocking continued and he closed his eyes, intending to drown it out, but before he could even make an attempt there was the distinct sound of his door opening. It came as a surprise but he couldn't bring himself to care, and for a brief moment his spirits lifted as the possibility of his visitor being Boyd crossed his mind.

But then he heard that familiar click-clack of heels and his spirits sank again, mouth pressing into a firm frown.

He didn't open his eyes, even when he felt her presence in the room, and she stood there at the foot of his bed for a full minute before speaking.

"What the hell were you thinking?"

Well, that got his attention.

Sin cracked open one green eye and stared at her for a moment. "Pardon?"

Ann had her arms crossed over a black and pink tuxedo blouse as she glowered at him ferociously, mouth pressed into a tight line. "Just look at yourself," she complained, shaking her head. "Lying there all beat up and defeated."

Sin closed his eyes again and briefly debated flipping his pillow to the cold side. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," he muttered.

"What?" Her tone was sharp, impatient, and she was clearly in no mood for random quotes.

"Hemingway," he replied flatly. "You know," Sin went on, tone almost condescending. "The writer?"

He could practically feel her glare. "Yes, I know who Hemingway is," she snapped. "But frankly I'm not too interested in him and what he has to say at the moment. I'm interested in finding out why you let those four idiots wail on you. Just look at yourself!"

Sin frowned again and opened both eyes this time, sitting up partially to stare at her. "How do you know about that?"

Ann took a deep breath and dropped her briefcase down on to the floor, moving closer to his side of the bed as she eyed the bruises on his bare chest in disapproval. Although at the same time, she couldn't help but absently note the hard lines of his body, the lean muscle and the way his caramel complexion poured over it temptingly.

It was a distracting thought but it didn't surprise her as it had previously. She was now very well-aware of her attraction to him; that night in the car made it impossible not to be. And even though she'd found it startling after the fact, it didn't disgust her at all. He was beautiful, sexy, dangerous, intense... What woman, especially an emotionally and physically unfulfilled woman, wouldn't be intrigued and attracted?

Returning her gaze to his eyes, Ann gestured vaguely. "An 'anonymous' person informed General Carhart that there was some kind of plot to ambush you in your apartment. Of course, they informed him after the fact but I suppose if it wasn't for him, you wouldn't have told anyone."

Sin raised an eyebrow skeptically. "An anonymous caller."

"Yes, well he tried to be anonymous at least but then he called from the security phone in this building so it was likely one of the guards stationed here during the attack," she said, not seeming very impressed with this individual.

"Ah." Sin wondered idly if it'd been Daniels. "Don't call it 'the attack,'" he muttered, sitting up entirely, not showing any visible signs of pain even though it seemed as though he should be in some. "I'm not exactly a traumatized victim."

"Yes, whatever," Ann said, impatient with his attempts at wit. "Why would you let them do that to you?"

He shrugged. "First of all, why 'let?' I was outnumbered."

It was her who was condescending this time. "Spare me. You took out twice that number during your episode in the medical unit."

Sin sighed wearily and rubbed a hand across his face. "Annabelle, what exactly do you want? Why are you here?"

"I'm here because you skipped a session," she replied with an arched brow. "And you were about to miss another today but instead of sitting in my office for another hour of waiting, I called General Carhart and asked him what was going on."

Sin hadn't even been aware that he'd missed any sessions; he'd completely lost track of the last handful of days. Although, he supposed, he had no idea how long he'd been unconscious after his four visitors were through.

"It was only a coincidence that I called him just as he was receiving information on the att-- the incident. He was due for a meeting with Vivienne and asked me to check on you, so here I am."

Ann shook her head again as she stared at the angry bruises on his chest and torso. Although now that she was closer, she could tell that they looked a lot worse than they actually were. The most serious injury they appeared to have inflicted seemed to be a sprained or fractured ankle, if she went solely by the way fact that it was swollen. "And I suppose you don't want to start an investigation about this."

Sin scoffed at her, eyes moving over the room as he tried to locate a cigarette. "Why should I? It's not as though I didn't deserve it. Why should they get punished-- I didn't when I flipped out on their friends."

"But you're sick! There's a difference between being sick and planning an attack like some bloodthirsty vigilante!" Ann protested loudly, looking really indignant now. She frowned at him but in the back of her mind, the professional part of her brain was noting that his excessive and misplaced guilt was just another huge part of his PMD.

"Sick," he muttered. "Yeah. Right. Honestly, the only reason this charade is going on is because I'm too good a killer to give up on and they're grasping at straws trying to find a way to not get rid of me. If this were the real world--"

"If this were the real world," Ann cut him off sharply, "you would not be in jail, or executed, or whatever nonsense you were about to say. If this were the real world, you'd be sitting in a mental institution as you recovered and rehabilitated, because believe it or not-- you have severe issues and shouldn't be punished because no one in your entire childhood or adult life ever cared enough to understand them. In fact, in the real world, the fact that they lock you up like a dog in a cage whenever your instability flares up would have them in the hot seat."

Sin faltered, looking at her uncertainly, before shrugging and looking at the carpet. "It doesn't make me feel any less guilty. Or any less like... I don't deserve to be around people."

Ann sighed and finally moved next to him, kneeling in front of him on the carpet. Her gaze moved over him, taking in his vulnerability, his intense sadness, and she couldn't help but want to reach out to him. Even if she'd gone on hating him until this very day, even if she'd never been his doctor, just seeing him in this state would have been enough to make her stop and pause.

Seeing just a glimmer that day near the elevator bank had been enough to make her want to know more, to understand more. And she wished everyone had the opportunity to see this side of him; to see just how painfully human he was.

She also wished he would stop himself from closing up around others, stop playing the part of the tough guy and giving them what they wanted. But none of those things were going to happen any time in the future so for now... For now Ann felt as though she was the one who could try to make the difference. "How do you see yourself, Sin? How do you think others see you?"

Sin didn't look up, staring at her shoes, and this time he didn't hesitate to answer. Expressing himself, discussing this, it'd started coming a lot easier in the past few weeks. "They think I'm subhuman, a monster, someone who destroys lives. I'm starting to agree."  

Ann shook her head, hesitantly reaching out to touch his chin, forcing him to look up at her. His eyes looked hollow, empty, and despite what he'd said about not being defeated, it seemed as though Sin had already given up the fight. It was almost disappointing; he was always so unflappable, never changing, never backing down or allowing himself to be taken out and now it seemed as thought he just wanted to stop making an effort to even go on. But, Ann supposed, she could understand even if her situation was entirely different.

After the death of her father, after her marriage had proved to be a complete disaster, she'd felt almost the same. It didn't seem as though anything would ever improve, ever go right, and that was why for so long she'd given up and simply allowed herself to become completely submissive to an abusive ogre.

"You shouldn't," she said firmly, finally. "I know this sounds hypocritical coming from me. I used to think you were the same way to an extent, I thought you should be locked up as well."

She frowned. "But now as a doctor, and as a rational person, I understand. I understand why and I want to help you. I want you to get better. I want them to see that you're not just a killer, some crazy guy who should be locked away. For goodness sake, they should respect you. You've lived your life for this Agency and all they've done is abuse you and make your situation worse, never once making a real effort to help you until now."

"Respect me," he repeated with a humorless smile.

"Yes. You're not just some rank and file agent, Vega. These people should look up to you, just like they look up to Kassian Trovosky," Ann said firmly, really believing what she was saying.

"Heh. Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?" Sin shook his head and backed away from her but she  gripped his chin tighter. "Just go."

"I don't understand this attitude. You seemed to be doing better-- what happened?" Ann stared directly into his eyes unflinchingly, searching for a clue.

"I'm just..." Sin trailed off, returning her gaze moodily. "I've never been accustomed to having people be kind to me, be close to me. And when I got that... that concern, friendship, I suppose I became dependent on it. I felt real, I felt... like maybe I was normal, because I had at least two people who believed in me. And now I suppose, it's difficult to believe that I could be when those people who made me want to try at all, aren't around anymore. It seems pointless."

The depression and misery that rolled off him was almost overwhelming, suffocating, and for a moment Ann wondered what would have happened if Carhart had never sent her here. How long could someone go on in this intense despondency before giving up entirely? After all, he'd admitted that he often had thoughts of suicide.

The idea disturbed her and for a moment she had to look away. But then Ann returned her gaze to him and she sighed quietly. On one hand she wanted to appeal to his common sense, make him understand that he wasn't alone, that he wasn't abandoned, that she really could help him or at least she believed she could. But there was also a part of her that just enjoyed their proximity, the feel of his face against her hand, the way his long eyelashes framed his eyes as she remembered the way he'd looked in her fantasy.

Ann swallowed slightly, conflicted with her own motivations and actions. Was she here as his doctor or was she here because defying Philip by embracing her attraction for Sin made her feel more alive? She couldn't be sure.

"I believe in you," she offered quietly after awhile.

"You have to say that," he replied tonelessly.

Ann's mouth turned down into a frown of frustration and she brushed her thumb along his surprisingly soft cheek. His eyes narrowed briefly in suspicion but she extended her fingers, turning her grip into a light caress.

His hand automatically came up to grip her wrist, stopping her from touching him any more, but she just raised an eyebrow. "I just want you to see that..." Ann trailed off for a moment, gathering her words. "I'm not afraid of you, to talk to you, to touch you. I think you're just as human as I am. Flawed, but human, just like everyone."

Sin didn't respond and continued to watch her skeptically but his fingers loosened almost of their own accord and she continued to lightly stroke his face.

He didn't seem to understand why he was letting her touch him-- but he also seemed almost   desperate to feel something, anything, other than the burn of guilt and self-hatred that had plagued him for weeks. The gentleness of Ann's touch, the careful way her fingers slithered along his cheek, it caused him to lean into the touch unconsciously.

Ann knew she should stop; she knew that this was inappropriate, but she couldn't make her hand drop away. Because touching Sin was almost like an addiction-- once she touched his cheek, she couldn't help but let her fingers sift through his silky hair and Ann's heart began to pound. It'd been a long time since she'd actually wanted someone and the fact that it was Sin made her all the more unsure of the outcome.

She paused for a moment, simply staring at him and completely unsure of herself and what she was doing, but then she looked into his intense gaze and was once again completely floored by the sheer vulnerability she saw there. It was guarded but unmistakable and if she ever told anyone that showing Hsin Liu Vega gentleness could evoke such an expression, such obvious insecurity and something that even looked like fear, Ann had no doubts that anyone would ever believe her.

She leaned forward and pulled him into an embrace, hugging him and trying to understand why she felt inclined to do such a thing.

She wanted him to realize that Boyd and Carhart weren't complete anomalies to a standard system. They cared for him because they understood him and if other people saw his true self, they would see that he was anything but a remorseless monster.

They would see him as someone beautiful and damaged and almost fragile despite the unbelievable strength that he possessed and she had no doubts that there would be other people who would want to save him like she and Carhart and maybe even Boyd, did.

So she slid her arms around him and squeezed, unsurprised by his lack of response, of the obvious awkwardness in his posture. She tried to keep herself in a platonic mindset, to tell herself that even though this wasn't professional, it wasn't for her own purposes. But then his shoulders relaxed and he put a hesitant hand on her back and the feel of his hand on her seared through the fabric of her shirt and nearly made Ann shudder.

She stroked the back of his neck slowly but without hesitation and after a moment he pulled back and stared at her with slightly narrowed eyes. It was just like Sin to be a study in contradiction; he seemed suspicious and grateful at the same time.

He searched her face, her eyes, for something but she wasn't sure what. After a moment he just shook his head slightly, looking confused, and Ann couldn't help but mirror the emotion. She truly had no idea what was going on but she knew that she wanted to touch him again, to hug him, to feel strong hands on her and feel a thrill at the fact that those same hands were capable of such strength and danger but were so hesitantly gentle on her.

So she did hug him again but she turned her face to the side, her nose brushing against his neck. His hands balled into fists and he grew tense again but she nuzzled her face lightly against him and Sin's long black eyelashes lowered.

She unconsciously leaned closer, liking the fact that her touch could make him look that relaxed, could put a halt on the black cloud that followed him. The fact that she could have such a positive effect on him made Ann feel slightly empowered and the fact that she was currently initiating this contact and controlling the situation exalted it even more.

She reveled in the sensation, in the way his skin felt, the open expression on his face, in the genuine awe she felt at how intense her attraction really was. After a moment, Ann mindlessly leaned forward and brushed her lips against his neck.

It was impulsive, reckless, and probably a bad idea, but the rebellious devil on her shoulder that encouraged her to finally do something she wanted, to do something that obviously defied Philip and her father, that showed that she could get some control back in her life-- that devil cheered.

Sin turned his head, eyes snapping open, and gave her an expression of sheer incredulity. But the fact that he didn't actually recoil encouraged Ann and she placed another hesitant kiss against his full lips.

Sin just stared at her, not responding, not moving, even as she covered his face with light and chaste kisses. It was only when she slid her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck and pressed a slightly more intimate open mouthed kiss to his lips, did he have a reaction.

He shuddered slightly, eyelids sliding nearly closed, and he didn't stop her when she deepened the kiss. He responsed hesitantly but after a moment, his reaction became stronger as he lost himself in the feeling of someone's touch, of someone's kiss, of the feel of hands on him, to the fact that someone wanted him.

Ann couldn't help but tremble and the realization that she was kissing him floored her. Doubt plagued the back of her mind as his hands tightened on her and pulled her closer but it was easy to ignore when all she wanted was to feel alive, to embrace the fact that she was doing something she wanted no matter how uncharacteristic or unexpected it was. All she wanted was to feel something other than the heavy weight of unhappy compromise, failure, and regret and Ann had no doubts that Sin wanted the same.

As they fell backwards on the bed, Ann couldn't help but thinking idly that sex always helped to chase the demons away.

NOTE: This is not going to become a het story. Plx hold the hate mail.

Continue to Afterimage Chapter Twelve...